Parlour-type mystery short story influenced by Agatha Christie novels
A stray beam of late-afternoon sunlight stretched across the conservatory floor toward the side table, hunched like a cowered troll in the deep archway dividing Mimi's conservatory from Edmond's study. Although Edmond had passed on three decades earlier, the room in which the gathered group sat was still considered his. Mimi, conversely, had passed away only last week.
A sprightly one-hundred-and-one, Mimi's departure from this life had not occurred due to lingering illness or debilitating health conditions-not even to a car wreck or household fall. Her maid Ella had found Mimi at 7 AM on a Tuesday morning, just last week. Ella had spoken to Mimi on her way out the evening before. As usual, the older lady puttered in her conservatory, checking for leaf mites, and spoke with her usual abstracted but kindly disinterest.
When Ella arrived to start her day, she called out to Mimi and received no answer. Checking the master suite first, she then went immediately to the conservatory, where she found her employer deceased. Her expression and posture indicated she had died in convulsions. The autopsy ruled cause of death to be belladonna-deadly nightshade-a plant Mimi refused to keep in the conservatory because of its potential danger.
Attorney Jackson Willmont shuffled the files he had removed from his briefcase. The five gathered in a rough semicircle in the study looked occasionally at him, and frequently out of the corner of their eyes toward the crouching side table. Never did anyone turn toward the conservatory, scene of Mimi's ugly and painful demise.
"I realize how painful this is for all of you as family members and friends; but the terms of Mrs. Oveltree's will specified that the funeral could not take place until after the formal reading of her will and codicils. Now, as you must realize, the actual interment occurred following the release of the deceased by the Medical Examiner's Office. It was a private event, unattended except for the required legal witnesses-again due to the terms of the will." Attorney Willmont's eyes roved over the assembled, smirking slightly as he said "how painful," as he knew very well that at least one of the group had been responsible for the need to gather here today.
Clearing his throat once more, he shuffled the stack of papers he held above his crossed knee, then looked up and around at the group. "Mrs. Oveltree wrote her will for the penultimate time seven years ago," he told them. "I was the Attorney of Record for that will, as had my father been for Mr. Oveltree's final will, and Mrs. Oveltree's earlier wills."
Mimi's great-niece Maizee Oveltree Whitaker interrupted, spinning in her cushioned Victorian armchair, pointing toward the former maid Ella, sitting in solitude in the back of the room, almost in the shadows, out of sight of the table. "What's she doing here? I want to know!" demanded the granddaughter of Mimi's younger sister Marsha by a distant Oveltree cousin. A trim and still svelte fashionable 41-year-old, Maizee had descended from some money and had married into a substantial fortune. Intelligence and grace, however, had declined to be part of the package.
Ella apparently ignored Maizee's discourteous outburst, but shifted slightly in her straight chair as Attorney Willmont's steady gaze fell on her. "Miss LaRue's presence is required here today, Mrs. Whitaker, just as is yours." Maizee's complexion enflamed and she looked away from the maid toward the attorney, then at her husband on her left. He shrugged slightly and looked away, the first of the group to gaze directly at the side table. Willmont followed Ervin Whitaker's glance, then his gaze returned to his papers, which he shuffled once more and finally cleared his throat.
"Are there any other questions before we begin?" The term "or complaints" remained unspoken, yet it was clear in Willmont's demeanor. When no one responded, he continued. "Mr. Oveltree?" He addressed the older man slumped in the armchair to the far right, gazing out the picture window onto the lush grounds.
"Hmm..what? What is it?" Grantham Oveltree, Mimi's far younger brother, straightened in his chair and peered myopically toward the attorney. Often known in familial circles as The Afterthought, Grantham was only seventy-six, a generation younger than Mimi and Marsha, born only a year apart. Some relatives often speculated that perhaps Grantham did not really belong in the family at all. Nonetheless, in his younger years, he had made a career for himself as a playboy in the classic sense: a gambler, rabble-rouser, and generally useless spendthrift. Had he been born early enough to be an adult in the 192o's, he would have fit in excellently.
In his later years, Grantham had settled down somewhat; or more accurately had calmed down. No longer did he frequent sleazy pubs and low-rent dives, but he still held neither useful employment, nor any charitable volunteer position. Indeed, in the last two decades he had become a rather reclusive individual, seldom even appearing at family functions; rather he remained secluded at his estate, attended by his houseman Manfred, who had accompanied him today, and was also present for the reading of the will.
Attorney Willmont visibly controlled the involuntary eye-roll, cleared his throat, and continued. "Under the terms of Mimi Oveltree's will of 7 years ago, the bulk of the estate is divided between the surviving relatives, as Mimi and Edmond had no surviving offspring. At that time, that included Mrs. Oveltree Whitaker, Mr. Grantham Oveltree, and Mrs. Oveltree Whitaker's brother Janson. Of course, with Mr. Janson Oveltree's sudden disappearance 7 years ago in the Peruvian jungles and the legal declaration of his death just last month, the estate for the most part now devolves to Mr. Grantham and Mrs. Oveltree Whitaker.
Maisee had straightened at the beginning of this peroration and now visibly slumped, once again looking to her husband for confirmation or affirmation. He still refused to glance in her direction, instead continuing to stare at the side table. Willmont continued, shuffling more papers.
"That is, the bulk of the estate is to divide between Maize Oveltree Whitaker and Grantham Whitaker. From the initial estate, a bequest of $100,000 is made to Ella Mary LaRue." A gasp of disagreement issued from Maisee. Willmont held up a cautionary hand.
"In addition, the recent codicil, composed immediately following the legal declaration of death of Janson Oveltree, adds one additional bequest."
"The furniture piece popularly known in the family as Captain Findlay's Table is hereby bequeathed to-"
"No! It is mine! It's mine!" A scream erupted from Grantham as his manservant Manfred leaped to attention and bent over the old man now clutching desperately at his chest.
"Mine!" he gurgled. "I did it all for the treasure in Findlay's table..." The final words were gasped as Grantham collapsed to the floor, foam dribbling from his lower lip and eyes rolled up in his head.