Lizzie stammered a response. She and Nick accepted champagne flutes from a passing waiter. “How nice that you could join Christina,” Lizzie said, as she raised her glass to the guests.
“The party was their idea, to welcome me back to my family home,” Christina said.
Lizzie found her place card between Judge Harbison and George Slezak. Seated for a three-course meal, Lizzie scanned her menu. Lobster bisque and beef fillets with mushrooms, followed by apple pie, cheeses and fruit for dessert. She fingered the heavy Georgian silverware and looked for Nick, who sat near Christina at the head of the table. Candles flickered in tall candelabra and small arrangements of white roses and blue spruce lined the center of the heavy white linen tablecloth.
Sipping her water, Lizzie remembered something Christina had told her. As a twelve-year-old orphan, Christina had requested permission to live with her grandmother in the Cooper family home. Judge Harbison had ruled that Brendan Reilly, the guardian designated by her parents, would be responsible for her. Under the supervision of the estate executor and trustee, George Slezak, the farmhouse and its contents were sold. Brendan Reilly soon separated Christina from her grandmother and packed her off to boarding school. When she turned eighteen, Christina learned that nothing was left of her parents’ estate. She remained bitter and resentful, suspecting that the three men had appropriated her inheritance. Thirty years later and now a widow, she had purchased her family home, determined to establish a new life for herself.
Judge Harbison turned to Lizzie. “Christina told me your shop supervised the renovations and designed the interiors for this place.”
“Yes,” she replied. “We drew inspiration from her beautiful collection.”
“Her parents always threw a New Year’s Eve party with an oyster bar. My colleagues and I insisted that she continue the tradition.”
Two waiters served lobster bisque, followed by a third waiter with a platter of raw oysters in their half-shells. Lizzie recoiled when she saw vivid green and red snake tattoos on the waiter’s wrists. Smiling in anticipation, the judge filled his plate with oysters. He squeezed lemon juice over each one before lifting it to his mouth and slurping it down.
Lizzie turned to George Slezak, who sat on her left. He, too, enjoyed a plate of oysters, as did Brendan Reilly, seated at the foot of the table. Perplexed, Lizzie wondered why none of the other guests had been offered oysters.
Her sinuses throbbing with the onset of a headache, Lizzie stirred her bisque without eating it. Scraping the mushrooms off her beef fillet, she ate a few small bites and picked at the accompanying roasted potatoes, green beans and carrots. The judge ate and drank with gusto, while George Slezak consumed everything on his plate and talked investment opportunities. Lizzie stifled a yawn and waited for dinner to end.
Declining apple pie for dessert, Lizzie fingered a bunch of red grapes. Christina raised her glass to toast the new year, and announced that coffee and brandy would be served in the living room.
Lizzie dabbed her mouth with her napkin and pushed back her chair. Thirsty, she grabbed her empty glass and worked her way through the milling guests to the kitchen, curious about the catering arrangements. Why had only the three men—the lawyer, guardian, and judge—been offered oysters? Were oysters in short supply or had the three men ordered for themselves?
Nick followed her into the kitchen. “What’s up, Lizzie? Feeling okay?”
She drank a glass of water. “A headache. And curious about the oysters served to the three men.”
“Christina was also offered oysters, though she declined,” Nick said. “One of the waiters brought her a sealed bottle of water. I don’t think she ate anything on her plate.”
“She’s unusually tense tonight, probably remembering how the three men controlled every aspect of her life.”
Lizzie walked around the kitchen, filled with dirty dishes and empty serving platters. “It looks like the catering crew is gone.” She frowned. “That’s strange.” She looked up at Nick. “This whole evening’s been odd. Can we can slip out?”
“Shouldn’t we stay to give Christina emotional support?”
“I don’t feel well. Will you find our coats? I’ll thank Christina and join you at the back door.”
As jazz pianist played in the living room, she slipped through the throng of guests and murmured her apologies. Alarmed, Christina asked if the food had made her ill. Relieved to learn otherwise, she squeezed Lizzie’s hand and wished her well.
Nick helped her pull on her heavy winter coat. Leaning against the wall, she kicked off her heels, and thrust her feet into sheepskin-lined boots. “Let’s go home and celebrate the new year by ourselves.”
“Peaceful and quiet,” Lizzie said. “A good omen for the new year.”
A Jericho police cruiser passed them and stopped. Lizzie sighed. “What now?”
Officer Bethany Schmidt ran down her window. “Lizzie and Nick, we need to talk. How soon can you get down to the station?”
“What’s up?” Lizzie asked. “We left the teenagers asleep at home.”
Bethany’s face was grim. “We’ve got multiple deaths, all guests at Christina Cooper’s party. We’re questioning everyone who was there.”
Lizzie took off her dark glasses and stared at her, open-mouthed.
Bethany spoke into her shoulder radio. “I’ve alerted the dispatcher that you’re on your way.”
Lizzie and Nick headed for home to drop off the dogs.
“So I was right,” Lizzie said. “Something was off about that party. I wonder who died last night.”
“We’ll find out,” Nick said. “Try to remember everything you noticed.”
Lizzie left a note for their teens, and assembled sandwiches to take with them. She suspected that they would be with the police for hours.
Bethany opened her notebook. “Three men—Brendan Reilly, George Slezak, and Charles Harbison. They were all found dead in their cars, two in front of Christina’s house and one at his home down in the city.”
Lizzie leaned back. “Of natural causes? That’s a remarkable coincidence.”
“The medical examiner suspects poison or contaminated food,” Bethany said. “We’ve talked to the other guests at the party, and, other than hangovers, no one suffered ill effects from the dinner.” She checked her notes. “Several people noticed that the three men were the only ones to be served raw oysters at the meal.” Bethany looked at Lizzie. “Any idea why those three and not the rest of the guests?”
“The judge mentioned New Year’s Eve parties Christina’s parents used to host, with an oyster bar,” Lizzie said.
“Did the judge or the others seem surprised that they were the only ones served oysters?” Bethany asked.
Lizzie shook her head. “From my perspective, they considered themselves more important than the rest of the guests. Christina told me that the party was their idea.”
“What did the third waiter wear?” Bethany asked.
“Did you ask all the party guests these questions?” Lizzie asked.
The following week, Bethany dropped by after dinner.
“There were no toasts or affectionate speeches during the event,” Lizzie said. “When we arrived, Christina told me she was uneasy about the three men. Do you remember that she suspected that they stole from her parents’ estate?”
“Would the three men have had access to the poisonous foods? That’s a real stretch.”
“Ms. Cooper didn’t want any, so I served hers to one of the other men. Not the judge, though. I thought he’d be angry at Ms. Cooper for not taking any.”
“After I finished serving, I wiped off the platter and serving spoon and left them on the kitchen counter. I found a hundred bucks under the seat of my truck, like I was promised. I tore out of there, stopped to throw the white jacket in a dumpster, and headed for home.”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Lizzie asked. “Harbison, Slezak, and Reilly each planned to kill Christina, but instead, succeeded in poisoning each other.”