Authors: Vicki Vass
Murder by the Spoonful
(An Antique Hunters Mystery)
To my dear friends––Anne, CC, and Betsy. Thank you for inspiring me every day. A special thank you to “the pants” for making this story possible. And to my husband, Brian, for sharing the journey with me.
This book is dedicated to June Tedeschi.
Copyright 2015 by Vicki Vass
“Sybil!” Anne called out, feeling the crunch of breaking glass under her feet. Family photos lay silent on the entryway tile floor looking back up at her. “Sybil!” she called again, with increasing urgency. There was no reply. Faded imprints of where the images had hung lined the narrow hallway walls. With every step Anne took, the ghostly remnants dabbed at the painting that was forming in her mind.
When she reached the living room, the painting was complete. Screaming, she took a step back, stumbled and fell to the floor, landing face to face with Great-Aunt Sybil.
Later, waiting for the police to arrive, Anne paced up and down the front porch. She wanted to run but she didn’t want to leave Sybil alone. She scanned the front yard to see if she’d missed anything. There was nothing, other than the broken leaded glass window on the front door. After seeing her aunt’s body, Anne hadn’t had the courage to walk around the rest of the home. Her first inclination had been to bolt. That wasn’t right. She owed it to Aunt Sybil to find out what had happened. She sat down in the Victorian rocking chair and nervously chewed her fingernails. Aunt Sybil would smack her on the back of her head if she saw her biting her nails. It was a childhood habit that she’d long outgrown. She didn’t care much for manicures or spending money on frivolous pampering. Twenty-five dollars could buy more important things like vintage hatboxes, antique perfume bottles or heirloom postcards.
It had been a while since she’d visited her Great-Aunt Sybil.
was a title not an adjective used to describe her aunt Sybil. Her age and her wealth entitled her to speak her mind, which estranged her from the rest of the Hillstrom family. Like most of the Hillstroms, Sybil had emigrated from Sweden when she was a little girl. Sybil was the keeper of the Hillstrom family archive. That was the purpose of Anne’s visit today––the Hillstrom family bible.
Anne remembered playing on this porch as a child, and it hadn’t changed since then. Two white wicker Victorian rocking chairs graced the front porch––one empty. She admired the Chinese jardinière pot on the bronze stand in the corner. She hadn’t seen it before. She wondered if Aunt Sybil would mind if she took it with her. She had just the spot. . .
What am I thinking? Sybil’s dead.
A handsome young man walked up the stairs and stood in front of Anne, breaking her trance. “I’m Detective Charlie Johnson of the Glencoe Police Department. You’re Anne Hillstrom?” He looked down at the small notebook in his hand.
Anne stood up and nodded.
“Your aunt is inside?” the detective asked.
“Yes, in the living room.”
A pair of EMTs ran past the detective into the house. Anne watched, knowing their attempts would be futile. She’d seen enough CSI to know that Sybil was gone.
The detective returned shortly and sat in the rocker next to Anne. Seeing that she was noticeably upset, he placed a hand on hers as he spoke. “Do you need us to call someone for you? Are you okay?” he asked in a calming voice.
Anne thought for a moment. Her list of go-to I-C-E (in case of emergency) contacts was short. It made her sad to think about it. She looked up at the detective, teary eyed. “What happened? Why did this happen?”
The detective asked, “Did you notice if anything was missing?”
Anne looked back at the Chinese jardinière pot. She was relieved that it was still there. “I can make a list of what I believe is missing.”
“Do you know anyone who would want to harm your aunt?”
This list in Anne’s head was much longer than her list of friends. Sybil was not well loved. “Do you think it was intentional?”
“We’re not ruling anything out,” Detective Johnson said.
A deluge of mourners poured in from around the Midwest. Grieving third cousins from Minnesota, distraught sisters in-law from Milwaukee, Hillstroms, Holmes, Hellfrims––all manner of kin gathered to pay their final respects to their much beloved, although seldom visited, Sybil Hillstrom. Anne didn’t recognize most of them.
The relatives hadn’t been much help over the past few days. Anne had made all the arrangements not only for Sybil’s service but also for her out-of-town visitors. Per her final request, Sybil was laid to rest in an open casket to display her beautiful jewelry. Sybil was dressed in the height of 1940s fashion, wearing her satin ivory wedding dress and adorned with the most precious jewel of her collection––a diamond and emerald brooch once owned by a Swedish Viking queen. She’d never had the chance to wear the wedding dress in life but now she would wear it in death. The brooch and any hope that the Hillstroms held of owning it, was being buried with Sybil. It was her last chance to thumb her nose at her greedy relatives. Anne managed a small smile as she watched the cavalcade parade past, shedding their crocodile tears. One by one they filed out of the small chapel heading to the adjacent gravesite.
After the room had cleared, Anne was left with one final moment alone to say a private goodbye to Sybil. Then the funeral director closed the casket with a click. As Sybil was carried to the gravesite, a choir sang, “How Great Thou Art.” After the pallbearers had gone, Anne sank down on one of the folding chairs in front of where the casket had been and took her shoes off.
Around her, Anne could hear a relative whisper, “I heard she hid a fortune somewhere in the house.”
“I can’t believe she let Sybil be buried in that brooch,” Anne heard her cousin Suzanne’s husband, Jack, whisper behind her.
“Ssh,” Suzanne murmured, clutching the hand of one fidgeting child while holding the other on her lap.
Anne hadn’t seen her cousin in a few years and couldn’t believe how much she’d aged. Born three months apart, Suzanne had been her constant companion growing up. Now she looked ten years older, thanks to two kids and Jack.
Hearing similar whispers swirling around her, Anne strained hard to hear something nice, anything nice, about Great-Aunt Sybil.
Anne had loved Sybil in spite of her ornery disposition or maybe because of it. Although they hadn’t seen each other in years, she knew that Sybil loved her as much as Sybil could feel love. They’d shared a passion for collecting old things, treasured trophies, needful things, or as Sybil would put it “orphaned artifacts.”
That probably explained why Sybil had named Anne executor––a role that Anne had been glad to fill.
The coffin began its descent into the freshly dug grave. Its passenger, Sybil Hillstrom, had spent a lifetime collecting other people’s memories. Now she was a memory herself, a part of the collection of memories buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, along with others with names like McCormick, Armour, Pinkerton and Burnham.
Anne dropped the single white rose onto her great aunt’s coffin. Behind her, CC put her hand on Anne’s shoulder.
Great-Aunt Sybil disappeared into the dirt and along with her the identity of her killer.
CC Muller sat on the Chicago commuter train heading back to the western suburbs. It had been a long day full of late-breaking news, deadlines and interviews. She looked up from her iPad and caught a good-looking man giving her a quick glance and a smile. He was dressed in blue jeans and a sports jacket. She looked him over with her journalistic eye. His salt and pepper hair was a little too long for a business executive and, with his dark tan, he obviously worked outside most days. He looked comfortable in the jeans but not the sports jacket as he pulled and tugged at it. He probably didn’t wear a jacket on a daily basis.
she thought. Here she was turning 40, and she was still turning heads. The time she put in at the gym seemed to pay off. It wasn’t like she was training for the Olympics, but she was in good shape. Kickboxing, spinning, yoga––she did them all. It was the divorcee work-out plan.
After fifteen years of taking care of someone else, she had finally made time to take care of herself. Fine cooking, excellent wines, extensive traveling, good books and good friends. She was comfortable with living on her own and who she was becoming. She took a second glance at the man on the train as she flipped her short brown hair over her shoulder.
The train stopped with a jerk at the Glen Ellyn station. She put away her iPad. Standing up, she brushed against the man who smiled at her. Her way of thanking him for the attention. As she walked out the train doors, she promised herself she wouldn’t turn around but she didn’t keep her promise. For a split second, their eyes locked, and she felt sixteen again. And then the man on the train was gone.
Anne pulled up in front of her two-car detached garage. Her 1992 Mercury Mystique was filled with everything she could rescue from Aunt Sybil’s house before the estate sale.
Pat Irwin, known to the neighborhood as Grandma Pat, was waiting for her in the driveway. She’d just brought Anne’s garbage cans up from the curb. Anne had forgotten it was garbage day. At 72-years-old and 90 pounds, Grandma Pat had more energy than Anne could muster. She was the neighborhood watch dog and advocate for Cedar Avenue. If it happened on Cedar Avenue, Pat knew about it.
Pat waved as Anne climbed out of the car. “Anne, how are you?”
“I’m good, Pat. I was cleaning out Aunt Sybil’s house.”
Grandma Pat walked over to the overfilled car and took a peek inside. “Can I help you carry this in?”
Anne paused. She was exhausted but couldn’t bring herself to let Pat see her garage because she knew Pat would want to clean it. “No, I’m good. I want to take my time and go through things.”
“I’ve made some Italian wedding cookies for you. I usually wait until spring to make them because the oil stinks up the house. I left a plate by your front door,” Pat said.
Anne had told her a thousand times that she was on a low carb diet, but Pat was old school Italian. Low carb meant only two helpings of pasta. “Thanks, Pat.”
“We’re having a meeting next week about the streetlights. I talked to the Alderman and as long as we get enough signatures they’re going to put in new streetlights. I’m heading to the meeting after Bunco tonight.” Bunco was Grandma Pat’s only vice. It was the geriatric equivalent of craps. Pat touched Anne’s arm. “Listen, dear, I know you’ve been through a lot. I want to let you know I’m here if you need me. I’ll keep an eye on things if you need to spend more time at your aunt’s.”
“Thanks, Pat,” Anne said, giving her a congenial smile. She waited for Pat to walk away before reaching into her car and pulling the trunk lever. Opening the trunk, Anne reached in and shifted the overflowing contents. She pulled out a moving carton filled to the brim with a copper kettle, a Longaberger basket and a collection of ten ruby-colored sherbet glasses wrapped in newspaper. The burglars had no clue as to the value of these antiques––not monetary value, but of the sentimental value they had to Anne.
Sybil had left her most precious possessions to Anne. The copper kettle had been owned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who’d made his tea in the pot while writing Sherlock Holmes. In the backseat was the stoneware pickle crock that Sybil’s father, Booty Hillstrom, had brought with him from Sweden. She pulled both the crock and the box it was in out of the car and set them to one side.
Anne removed a four foot by six foot section of wood from the trunk. She admired the varnished maple planks inlaid with ebony darts. Of all of Sybil’s possessions, this was her most cherished. Built in the 1930s, the Belmont Avenue bowling alley was a Chicago landmark. When the bowling alley closed in the 1970s, Sybil was able to buy this section of one lane. It was the place of their last date before her fiancé shipped out in 1944. He never came home, and Sybil never loved again.
Struggling with its weight, Anne dragged it behind her, scraping up the blacktop driveway leading to the garage, which was her staging area. Inside was an accumulation of years of hunting and gathering. She stopped to wipe her brow. Anne caught her breath.
Maybe she should move the treadmill into the house,
she thought. Then she continued on. Laying the wood down at the entrance of her warehouse, she looked for a safe spot for Sybil’s items.
In one corner was the baby buggy from her childhood, in another corner was an abandoned pedestal sink. Holding center stage was the waterfall bureau, dresser, and bed frame from her grandparents. Pots and pails. Ladders and lanterns. Basically anything that didn’t fit in her rented storage units wound up in the garage before making its way to the big house.
She placed the wood floor section in the garage and then added the box and the crock. Closing the overhead door, she carried the copper teakettle into the house. Her white Persian Sassy was waiting by the door. Following Anne into the kitchen, Sassy sprung onto the table, touching down lightly, then catapulting up onto the shelf above. The cat wound her way around the heavy antique coffee grinders like a slalom racer. She perched on the edge of the shelf, the best vantage point to watch the opening of the can. Anne felt the eyes of the furry gargoyle piercing through her. Sassy sat perfectly still waiting for the right moment to pounce. At the sound of the electric can opener, Sassy leaped from her perch, nearly knocking over a solid brass Peruvian grinder.
After she ate, Sassy thanked Anne for dinner by rubbing her soft freshly cleaned fur against her leg. Anne filled the copper kettle with water and placed it on the stove. She opened the refrigerator and stared at the cottage cheese, but grabbed an oversized chocolate muffin. The kettle made a mournful cry as steam rose from its spout.
Its previous owner was dead
, Anne thought, now the kettle was an orphaned artifact. “Orphaned artifact,” she said out loud, “that’s what Aunt Sybil called them.”