Upon receiving a phone call from our good friend David Spenser, the head of homicide of the Lake of the Ozarks, Hastings and I rushed to the Eager Beaver restaurant to meet him. Hastings, the former chief inspector of Scotland Yard, is somewhat a celebrity in Eldon, Missouri, having solved a number of local cases and the Eager Beaver has been like a second home for some time.
David looked edgy. “An urgent situation,” he said. “A mister Francier died this morning of cyanide poisoning. The preliminary report suggests that it was ingested by way of eating chocolate candy, only I have just learned, the candy was opened in his presence .”
“Suicide then,” I suggested.
“No,” said David. “I feel it was done deliberately, but I don't know if he was the intended victim.”
“You mean it may have been placed in the candy at the place of manufacture,” said Hastings.
“Precisely,” said David. “It is extremely urgent that we make this determination immediately. Our office is making preliminary calls at this time, just in case a recall must be made.”
“Hurry then,” said Hasting. Take us to the place where mister Francier met his demise.”
We arrived at the address and pulled into the drive of a modular in a modest neighborhood. Spenser unlocked the door and motioned us in. The living room was modest with a small square table set up on the east side of the room and a still smaller round table sitting beside it. A chess board was set up on the square table with two chairs and a small trash receptacle against the wall. A built in counter separated the dining room and the kitchen. The only visible furnishings were a medium sized table with four chairs and a rocker that faced an older television. A small table sat between the front window and television and held a very expensive looking vase and fresh flowers.
“The candy has been removed,” said Hastings.
“No sir,” said David. “It should be in the kitchen. We just got the report of cyanide and the probable method of ingestion.
“I don't suppose you have any possible suspects yet?” asked Hastings.
“Actually there are three. Mollie Shambaugh, Horace Simon and Helen Horton. Horace Simon plays chess with Francier and the two women are apparently love rivals who were both after Francier's affections. Horton and Simon were both present when Francier became ill and Shambaugh had just left shortly beforehand. I have their addresses,” he said, pulling a paper from the clipboard he carried.
Hastings took the paper as he walked toward the kitchen. “I would like to see the candy before we leave.”
“I believe It's by the sink,” I said.
I followed him into the kitchen. He stood staring with his left hand perched upon his chin.
“The top is missing,” he said.
“Here it is, in the trash. It's been torn down the middle to fit in.”
“Anything else in the trash?” asked Hastings.
“No, nothing at all. It must have been emptied shortly beforehand.”
Hastings continued to ponder the candy. “Only a large piece that had been in the center of the box is missing. The other pieces don't appear to have been tampered with. How unlucky to have chosen maybe the only bad piece in the box.”
“It doesn't matter much whether he ate the chocolate on the first piece or the fifth,” I said.
“True,” said Hastings with a nod. He glanced at the paper he held. “Let's go see Mollie Shambaugh.
“I will take the box of chocolates to have them examined,” said David. “They should have been removed beforehand, however the box had been placed in the kitchen before the officer arrived and we were not aware of the cause of death till just before I contacted you.”
David placed the candy in a large evidence bag. We departed in Hastings Chevelle, as David headed back to the police station. Mollie's house was exactly four doors down and on the opposite side of the street. We were in luck as she had returned home upon learning of Francier's death. I knocked on the door of the small ranch house and she opened it gently holding a handkerchief in her right hand. She was short, standing no more than an inch or two over five feet with equally short light brown hair. The red eyes showed that she had been crying for some time.
“I'm sorry to trouble you,” said Hastings. “We are working with the police. May we come in. I just have a couple of questions."
She motioned us in without speaking and closed the door.
“I understand that you brought the box of candy to Frank Francier's place this morning, is that correct?” asked Hastings.
“Yes,” she sniffed. “I always bring him chocolates. They're his favorites.”
“The lab believes that the center piece contained cyanide.”
Mollie gasped. “That bit...I'm sorry.” She looked down at the floor. “It's just that I can't believe she would poison him using my chocolates.”
“Are you referring to Helen Horton?” asked Hastings.
“Why do you believe she laced the chocolates with cyanide.”
“He was going to tell her not to come around anymore. He has wanted to rid himself of her for a long time and today was the day.”
“I see, tell me does Francier eat the candy in any particular order.
“I wouldn't know. I bring him gifts. I don't stand around and fawn over him while he eats or admires them.”
She stood dabbing at her eyes as we excused ourselves.
“I guess we can eliminate her from our list of suspects,” I said.
“Why?” inquired Hastings.
“Well,she obviously didn't do it. After all, you could tell by the way she was acting.”
“Acting,” Hastings said thoughtfully. “Which acting was she doing I wonder. Was she acting as a result of Francier's death or was she acting to deflect suspicion away from herself. Yes, I wonder indeed. Come, let's see if Helen Horton is home and how she may be...acting.”
Helen Horton lived just a couple of streets over. As I drove, Hastings called David and filled him in on the interview and they compared notes. I pulled into the Horton driveway. It was a modern two story house that suggested she had money. As we walked toward the house, a curtain moved. I glanced at Hastings and he nodded that he had noticed also. I reached for the doorknob, and the door suddenly opened, startling me.
“Yes, may I ask who you are, and what do you want?”
I was taken aback by the abruptness. “I am Arthur Hollings and this is Robert Hastings, and you must be Helen Horton.”
“No, I a Cecelia Winthrop, Helen is in the bathroom with her medicine. She will be out in a moment.”
Soon the bathroom door opened and Ms. Cecelia Winthrop introduced us to Helen Horton. Helen was busy rolling down her shirtsleeve. She wore a flowered dress and her house was immaculate and expensively furnished with antiques and heirlooms probably handed down for generations.
“You wish to ask me questions concerning Franklin,” she said.
“Yes, could you tell me what happened this morning?”
“Well, Molly Shambaugh poisoned him with her chocolates,of course.”
“How did you know that he was poisoned with the chocolates.”
“Well because...it was the only thing he ate.”
“Could you tell me if he generally ate the chocolates in any particular order.”
“Always the center one first. It was his favorite.”
“Just a couple more questions then we will take our leave. Did either you or Horace Simon generally eat from the candy boxes?”
“Mister Simon would have certain pieces, but I can't eat chocolates.”
“Is Mollie Shambaugh ever in attendance while the chocolates are consumed.”
“Heavens no, I would not allow that tramp in this house while I am here. That is why she killed him. He was set to dismiss her forever. He took me back to the back room and we had a little talk this morning and he told me that everything would be all right and not to worry as I could come over as long as I wanted. He must have let her know also. You do know, she works in the local pharmacy, don't you.”
“The chocolates were still sealed?” asked Hastings.
“Oh yes, with cellophane.”
“Your meeting, it was a short one.”
“No more than five minutes and maybe not that long. He was very sharp in his disapproval of that Shambaugh lady.”
“Who among you opened the chocolates.”
“I was setting up a new vase of flowers that I brought over and didn't notice, but shortly afterward, Mister Francier became quite ill and I called 911 right away. I told them on the phone that it appeared to me, that he had been poisoned.”
“And what did mister Simon do?”
“Why he rushed to the bathroom and got a glass of water. By the time he got back though, I'm afraid poor mister Francier had went from convulsions to a coma. It was simply awful.”
We excused ourselves and walked briskly to the car. Hastings was still writing like a mad man in his little notebook.
“You know, you always say that the guilty often tell you more than you need to know and she certainly was talkative.”
“Yes, but she didn't implicate herself and while she may be absolutely correct in her suspicions, she provided no proof as to how the poison was put inside the chocolate piece. Come let's hurry to the house of Horace Simon and see his side of the story. Maybe he can give us the last piece of the puzzle.”
“I am still working on the first piece,” I said. we climbed inside the car for the short drive to Simon's house. It was just down from Mollie Shambaugh's home. Horace Simon's house was as modest as Mollie's, a single level white house with no outstanding appearances to set it off from the others. We parked in the drive and walked casually to the door. Hastings reviewed his notes as I knocked.
An older gentleman with a receding hairline that was graying stood eying us carefully. He was slightly overweight and wore a large mustache and oversize sweater and baggy pants.
“Well, who are you and what do you want.”
I made our introductions and we stepped forward. He grudgingly stepped aside and then closed the door.
“I all ready gave my statement to that Spenser fellow. How many more of you people are going to bother me.”
“Let's see if we can conclude this quickly,” said Hastings politely.
As Hastings prepared to ask his questions, I glanced around the room. He had a larger living room, then Francier, but the rest of the house seemed to pay the price as the hall only had two doors, probably a bathroom and the other a bedroom. There was a stack of boxes on the floor of the kitchen by a trash receptacle. They were candy boxes like the one at Fancier’s home. The top box was missing the center chocolate piece. I was unable to tell if any candy was missing from the others as they were stacked neatly, one upon the other.
“I understand that Helen Horton and Francier had a private meeting this morning before mister Francier became ill. Is that correct?” asked Hastings.
“Nothing special about their private conversations. She was always dragging him back there for one thing or another."
Hasting made a couple of notes in his little book then looked up and smiled.
“Did Francier give you any indication as to which lady he planned to um, dump?”
“He didn't like either of them. He just wanted their presents. The Shambaugh lady brought candy and the other one brought expensive stuff. Between the two of them it's a wonder we got any playing done at all. Hell, who knows, maybe they worked together, lock them both up I say. I told that Spenser the same thing.”
“You must have played chess a lot, did you not?”
“We played everyday. Now I have had to find me another chess player. One with less annoyances.”
“I see that you have the same chocolates as mister Francier, did Miss Shambaugh give them to you.”
“Of course not, I bought them myself.”
“I would like to thank you. We will take our leave now.”
As we walked to the car I remarked that we didn't seem to be getting any closer to solving the case. To my surprise Hastings had just the opposite opinion.
“I believe that everything is going very well, very well indeed. I only hope the evidence we need is still intact. Contact Spenser and set up a meeting at Francier's for eight tonight. If they will allow it, have him bring the chocolates with him. Have an officer guard the house from this moment on. I may be wrong, but if I am not, the evidence we seek is in a location that has yet to be searched."
“I just have one question, why was the box of chocolates at Simon's missing only the center piece of chocolate?”
Hastings smiled, then replied. “Francier always ate the center piece first, so I guess,it was the only piece that Simon never had a chance to enjoy.”
At seven-thirty we departed. Hastings had been on the phone with Spenser. I myself had cleared the dinner dishes and prepared to leave and had not heard the conversation. We drove the Aston Martin at Hastings direction. He always feels that it helps to unnerve the guilty party when we pull up in such a car. As for me, I am petrified that I may leave so much as a smudge on the paint. Upon our arrival, I could see a number of faces peering though the drapes of Franklin Francier's house. I walked a step back and watched Hastings through the corner of my eye. He held his head high and walked with a confident step. David pulled the door open as we approached.
Mollie stood close to the door and Helen was no more than two feet from the chess table. Horace leaned against the counter and had his back to the kitchen.
“I asked everyone to wear the same outfits that they wore this morning,” said David. “You have all met Robert Hastings and Arthur Hollings. We are in agreement that Franklin Francier was murdered by someone in this room."
There was a slight shuffling of feet. Mollie glanced nervously to her left, then seemed to stare at my shoes, while Helen gave a hateful look at Mollie. Horace merely folded his arms in a show of boredom.
David paused for a few moments, then continued. “Mister Hastings, do you have any questions to ask?”
“Just a few,” said Hastings. “Helen Horton, am I correct in my assumption that you are diabetic?”
“Um, yes, but how did you know and why does it matter?"
“That is a fair question, first I witnessed you emerging from your bathroom rolling down your sleeve and your friend said you were taking your medicine, secondly, you said you were unable to eat candy. Now the reason as to why it matters, I believe a diabetic needle was used to inject poison into the chocolate piece that killed Franklin Francier.”
Mollie Shambaugh let out a gasp. “And you accused me of murder, why you...you.”
Hastings held up his hand for silence. “When the police arrived, everyone was searched were they not and if so had anyone left the room.”
“Both Helen Horton and Horace Simon agree that no one left from the time that Horace brought the water back. They were either in the living room or the kitchen. From the very beginning, we were fairly certain that foul play had occurred, so a female officer search Ms. Horton and a male officer searched Mister Simon,” said David.
“There was no syringe or any other item on the person of either person that could have been used. You miss Horten did not have any diabetic supplies on your person either.”
“As I told you before, I keep a supply here. They are in the bathroom.”
“Officer, would you please don a pair of medical gloves and bring all medical supplies to us.”
The officer put on the gloves and soon returned with the supplies. He laid them out on the table that had held the chocolates.
“Three syringes, still encased in plastic. One syringe, not encased in plastic and two small vials of insulin,” said Hastings. “Is that correct?”
“No, I never leave a used needle, and there should only be one vial of insulin.”
“Here is what I believe happened. Of the four people involved, only the women were telling the truth. Francier was leading both of you on. I get this assumption from your stories, each saying he said he would get rid of the other one. When Horace Simon could not convince him to rid himself of both of you, he took matters into his own hands. He waited till Helen Horton and Francier were having a private meeting in the back room, and he removed a syringe from his baggy pants and filled it with cyanide. His practice at home had made him an expert at sticking the needle in just far enough to inject the poison into the candy. Once you two returned, he opened the candy box and may have even handed to poisoned piece to Franklin Francier himself. Everything went according to plan till Ms. Horton noticed the redden face and convulsions, which are the trade mark of cyanide and mentioned the possibility of poison. Abruptly leaving would have sent up a red flag, so Simon rushed to the bathroom, where he deposited the syringe and cyanide with Helen Horton's supply. He was never given the chance to remove them. I became suspicious when it was reported that he went to the bathroom for water. The kitchen would have been the obvious place to draw the water from."
“This is a nice theory, but where is your proof,” said Simon. “You can't tie me to any of this and there is no proof that the needle or vial contained any cyanide.”
“I'm quite sure that you rinsed both the needle and vial, but there may still be remnants of the cyanide. Also, you made one more mistake. You were thoroughly searched and there were no gloves found. Therefore, I am sure you were not wearing any.”
Hastings nodded to the officer. He walked to the wastebasket that sat between the table and wall. He reached inside and pulled out the crumpled cellophane from the box of chocolates. When they analyze the fingerprints, they will find four fingerprints, a thumb print, as well as your palm print. You would have had to hold the box firmly. Your prints will match up perfectly with the hole in the center of the cellophane wrap."