Excerpt from Unsettled Spirits
January 1, 1924, fell on a Tuesday. The week following that colorful parade day progressed at a slow, dignified, Pasadena-like pace. I had no séances to perform for anyone, probably because most of my clients were recovering from their Christmas and New Year's celebrations.
As for my family, my mother and aunt resumed their duties at their different workplaces, and I went to the library and picked up books for everyone to read. My favorite librarian, Miss Petrie, had taken some time off, so I had to search the shelves for reading material on my own—Miss Petrie liked to put aside books for my family and me to enjoy. Pa and I walked Spike every day, and Sam came to dinner most evenings. In other words, our lives were as normal as normal could be.
Then came Sunday, January sixth, when the elderly widow, Mrs. Theodore Franbold, dropped dead right after taking communion at our church. My family attended the First Methodist-Episcopal Church on the corner of Marengo and Colorado, and Mrs. Franbold's demise provided a whole lot more excitement than most of our Sunday services could offer. Not that I wanted people dropping dead in church; I only mention the matter as interesting.
At our church, we take communion once monthly, on the first Sunday of each month. I sang alto in the choir, and we choir members sat in a space reserved for us on the chancel. We were served communion separately from the rest of the congregation, so I couldn't rush to see what had happened when I saw Mrs. Franbold keel over right in front of Mr. Grover Underhill. Rather than trying to help her or catch her, Mr. Underhill jumped out of the way, bumping into several other people. I frowned, thinking this behavior was typical of him. He was a certified meany, as far as I was concerned. Not that I knew him well, but what I did know of him, I didn't like.
Squinting, I saw the folks around Mrs. Franbold steady themselves after being bumped by Mr. Underhill and gasp when they saw the reason for his ungentlemanly behavior. A few seconds later, I saw several people, including Sam Rotondo, who had taken going to church with us even though he'd grown up in the Roman Catholic Church, gather around the fallen woman. I lost Sam in the crowd when he knelt, probably to organize things and see what he could do for the Mrs. Franbold.
A general buzzing ensued. Mr. Underhill looked irritated, as if he didn't approve of people collapsing in church. Lucy Spinks, a soprano who was engaged to marry an older gentleman named Albert Zollinger, whispered in my ear, "What do you think is happening?"
As much as I squinted, I couldn't see much because there were so many people in the way, so I said, "I'm not sure. It looks as though Mrs. Franbold fell down."
"Oh, dear. Poor sweet thing. I hope she didn't break anything."
A scream erupted, and I winced, as I'm sure the rest of the choir did, also. This time, I decided to heck with convention and stood in an effort to discover who'd screamed. It was then I noticed Miss Betsy Powell, who had been assisting with communion, cover her face with her hands and give out short, sharp, piercing shrieks. At that point our minister, Merle Negley Smith, decided to abandon his position behind the communion cups and assist the afflicted, because he hurried down the chancel steps and rushed over to Miss Powell. She had by this time broken into noisy sobs, and Pastor Smith gently guided her out of the church via a side door.
"What's the matter with whoever that is?" whispered Lucy.
On tiptoes, trying to see around the podium used by our lay speakers, I said, "I'm not sure. Maybe Mrs. Franbold is dead or having a fit or something. It was Miss Powell who was screaming. Now it looks as if she's crying hysterically. Pastor Smith is leading her away from the mess." Darn, but I wished people would get out of my line of vision!
"Why would she scream?"
"Maybe she's not used to seeing people fall down in front of her?" I shrugged.
Mr. Floy Hostetter, our choir director, abandoned the chancel then, and rushed over to the crowd clustered around Mrs. Franbold. Lucy and I exchanged a speaking glance, but I guess we both decided not to add our presence to what was already a chaotic scene.
Suddenly Sam Rotondo stood up. His voice rose over those of the masses. He didn't holler. He didn't have to. "Everyone, please take your seats. I'll handle this."
"Take your seats," said Sam in a voice I doubt anyone could ignore. He sounded like a general giving instructions to a firing squad.
The well-behaved congregants of the First Methodist-Episcopal Church on the corner of Marengo and Colorado in Pasadena seemed inclined to obey him, because everyone straggled back to their seats. This was probably a good thing, although communion hadn't ended yet, so many of the sittees were as of that moment un-sanctified. Or something like that.
After a brief conference with Sam, Mr. Hostetter trotted back to the chancel, climbed the steps, and walked to the preacher's podium. He held up his hands, and all murmuring stopped. I sat down. Darn it, I wanted to know what had happened!
"Dear ladies and gentlemen, please remain seated for a moment or two more. Mrs. Franbold has been taken ill, and some kind fellows are assisting her out of the sanctuary."
What he meant was that Sam and Dr. Benjamin were picking the woman up off the floor and aimed to take her somewhere else. My guess was that they would aim for Mr. Smith's office, where there was a convenient couch. Lying on a couch must be more comfortable than lying on the floor of a church sanctuary. Of course, at that point in time, no one knew for sure that the dear woman was dead. Well, I kind of did, but that's only because stuff like that seems to happen in my vicinity. Not necessarily people dropping dead but, as my father once told me, "Strange things happen around you." I'd resented his words at the time, but he was right, whether I resented his saying them or not.
After another few minutes, during which Sam and Dr. Benjamin, each with one of Mrs. Franbold's arms around their shoulders, escorted the woman from the sanctuary, Mr. Hostetter said, "Er... We shall resume communion at this time." He glanced frantically around the church. "Um, may we have a couple of volunteers, since our minister and Miss Powell are indisposed?" He then turned, gestured to Lucy and me and said, "Miss Spinks and Mrs. Majesty, perhaps you might be of service now."
Lucy and I looked at each other, shrugged, and went to take over the giving of communion in place of Mr. Smith and Miss Powell. Communion isn't difficult to assist with, since all you have to do is hold out a plate with communion wafers on it, and then offer each congregant a little glass cup filled about halfway with grape juice. Folks eat the wafer, drink the juice in the cup, and then—if they're doing it right—kneel prayerfully at the front altar or go to their seats. I regret to say my mind often wandered when it was supposed to be contemplating the state of my soul.
It sure wandered that day. I could hardly wait for the service to end so I could ask Sam what was wrong with Mrs. Franbold. If she was dead, how'd she die? If she was merely sick, what had made her sick? Had she suffered an apoplectic stroke? Heart attack? Perhaps she'd been ill and had come to church with walking pneumonia, although that sounded far-fetched. If a person is that sick, he or she should stay home, sleep and drink lots of hot tea with lemon and honey. At least that's what my mother always made me do when I was sick. Oh, and she'd give me cod-liver oil, too.
The mere thought of cod-liver oil made me shudder.
Lucy asked, "Are you all right, Daisy?"
"Fine, thanks." I decided she didn't need to know my thoughts.
After communion was over, the congregation, led by Mr. Hostetter, began singing our final hymn of the day, "O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing," which is a nice hymn. It's also the first hymn in every Methodist hymnal I've ever seen, although I'm not sure why. It was written by Charles Wesley, so maybe that's the reason, the Wesley brothers having begun Methodism in the 1700s.
Because Pastor Smith hadn't returned by the time the hymn was finished, Mr. Hostetter gave the final benediction and bade the congregants God speed.
Fortunately for us, Lucy and I didn't have to pick up the leftover communion stuff. Ladies from the Communion Committee did that. So we both hightailed it to the choir room, removed our choir robes, hung them up, and hurried to Fellowship Hall, where tea and cookies would be served.
We never stayed long at fellowship because Aunt Vi always had a delicious meal cooking for us at home. Therefore, I rushed around asking people if they knew what had happened to Mrs. Franbold. Nobody knew. And Sam, darn him, didn't show up at fellowship.
"We'd best be getting on home," Ma said not ten minutes after I'd appeared in Fellowship Hall. "Do you suppose Sam is still busy with Mrs. Franbold?"
"Don't know," said Pa.
"Probably," said Aunt Vi. "That poor woman. How old is she, anyway?"
"I don't know," I said. "Old. Well, elderly," I amended when I saw my mother's black look aimed at me. She expected her daughter to be polite and courteous all the time, even though her daughter—me—was all grown up and earning a living. I sighed. "Maybe he's in Pastor Smith's office. I'll go look."
"I'd like Sam to come to dinner," said Aunt Vi. She loved anyone who loved her cooking, and Sam lavished praise upon her every time he dined with us. Not that she didn't deserve his accolades, but I suspected him sometimes of going overboard just so she'd ask him to dinner more often.
"Right. I'll be back directly." And before anyone could stop me, I hurried out of the fellowship hall and to the pastor's office, which was just up the hall a few feet. I knocked softly on the closed door and wished curtains hadn't been drawn across the window.
A few seconds elapsed, and then I nearly leaped out of my skin when the door suddenly opened, and a scowling Sam glared down at me. He took up most of the doorway, so I couldn't see past him.
"Aunt Vi wants to know if you're coming to dinner with us," I said, deciding not to bellow at him for his rudeness. We were, after all, in a church.
"I don't know yet."
Well, wasn't he just a load of joy and helpfulness? "Sam, what happened to Mrs. Franbold?"
Before Sam could tell me it was none of my business, I saw a hand descend upon Sam's shoulder, and Pastor Smith said, "Perhaps Mrs. Majesty can help console Miss Powell, Detective."
So. Miss Powell needed consolation, did she? I wondered why. Rather than ask, I said, "I'll be happy to help." It wasn't even a fib. If I could get into the pastor's office, maybe I could finally learn what had happened to the poor old woman. And why it had so upset Betsy Powell.
Sam, who knew me very well, scowled even harder and said, "She only wants to nose around."
"I do not!" Very well, that was a little fib. I also wanted to be helpful.
"I do wish you'd step aside and let her in, Detective Rotondo. Miss Powell is having hysterics." Pastor Smith sounded rattled.
After heaving a sigh about the size of Mount Wilson, Sam said, "Very well. Come in. But sit with Miss Powell and don't get in the way."
"I won't get in the way," I told him in a voice that clearly conveyed my annoyance with him. Get in the way, my foot.
"Right," said Sam, unconvinced.
Nevertheless, he stepped aside, and I entered the pastor's office. I was surprised to see a couple of uniformed police officers standing at the sofa that held Mrs. Franbold. I shot a quick look at Sam and whispered, "Is she..."
"Yes. She is. Now go comfort that other lady."
Oh, my. Poor Mrs. Franbold! What could have happened to her?
Betsy Powell sat sobbing on an overstuffed chair not far from the minister's desk. I walked over to her and knelt beside her. "Miss Powell? Betsy, please tell me what's wrong. Is there anything I can do for you?"
She lifted her head, and I saw that she, too, failed to look good when she cried. Her eyes were swollen almost shut, her face was red, and she was gasping and sobbing and generally looking like a mess. I feared she might faint if she kept that up.
Putting an arm on her shoulder, I said, "That's enough now. You needn't cry. Poor Mrs. Franbold was an elderly woman, and she's now in a better place. If God decided to call her during communion... Well, what better time to do it?" I thought that was kind of a nice way of putting it, but Betsy only gasped loudly and sobbed harder.
"No!" she cried, her words thickened with tears. "No! It wasn't her time! Oh, oh, oh!"
Great. Now what was I supposed to do? I'd heard that one could cure a hysterical person by slapping the person's face, but I didn't think church would be a good place to do that. Therefore, I shook Betsy's shoulder rather hard.
"That's enough now, Betsy Powell. Get hold of yourself. This is no time and no place to get the galloping glooms." Don't ask me why I used those words. I think I'd read them in a book or something. "This is Pastor Smith's office, and I'm sure he has better things to do than listen to you have fits while he's trying to deal with the death of a long-time congregant. Now buck up." I spoke sternly, for me. I generally try to convey a gentle waftiness, but I was dealing with hysterics here, so I believed firmness was called for.
Evidently Betsy Powell wasn't so sure, because she stared at me for about thirty seconds, and then crumpled into a faint. Oh, goody. Just what everyone needed: another body to contend with.
But no one else seemed to mind. In fact, Pastor Smith actually said, "Thank God."
Sam said, "Thanks, Daisy. She was driving us nertz."
Dr. Benjamin said, "She fainted? Good."
Well, there you go. I'd been mean, and everyone appreciated me for it.
"What happened to Mrs. Franbold," I asked after making sure Betsy still breathed. She did.
"Don't know," said Sam. "That's why the uniforms are here."
"Oh. I wondered why you'd called the cops."
Sam gave me a frown I don't believe I deserved. "Any time there's a sudden, unexpected death, it's a good idea to get medical opinion. Dr. Benjamin is the one who suggested we call the uniforms."
"Really?" Still kneeling, although my knees were beginning to object, I turned to Doc Benjamin. "Why's that, Doc?"
He didn't answer me for quite a few seconds, and his lips pursed in and pooched out, as if he were determine whether or not to answer my question. I held my breath and slowly got to my feet, making sure Betsy Powell was firmly attached to her chair and wouldn't fall out of it.
At last, the doctor looked at me and said, "From the signs, it looks to me as if Mrs. Franbold has taken or been given some kind of poison."
As luck would have it, Betsy Powell opened her eyes in time to hear Dr. Benjamin's words. She let out a screech that could probably have been heard in Illinois. Fortunately, she fainted again instantly.