BY: SANDRA GARDNER
When Marabella Vinegar’s favorite neighbor, Sam Lipschitz, dies, everyone, including the NYPD, thinks it was natural causes. After all, Sam was pushing eighty, with a heart condition. But Marabella knows Sam’s heart problem was mild and under control with medication—and she’s already acquainted with Sam’s greedy relatives—so she doesn’t think there was anything natural about it. Neither does her sleuthing sidekick, her mother-the-ghost-detective, who has recently dropped back into Marabella’s life, happy to interfere again. Not only that, but Rose, another elderly neighbor, tells Marabella she overheard Sam arguing with someone in his apartment about money, and was threatening to change his will. Rose caught a shadowy glimpse of the person fleeing Sam’s apartment and is worried the person saw her. The next day, Marabella finds Rose, severely injured, on the floor of the building’s laundry room, saying she was pushed. Marabella can’t convince her old nemesis, NYPD Detective, now Lieutenant, Rivera, that people are being murdered. So she vows to track the killer down with her mother’s help, by investigating the heirs to Sam’s considerable estate. Can she and her mother find the killer and get enough evidence to convince Rivera? Or is Marabella doomed to become the next victim?
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Grave Expectations by Sandra Gardner, Marabella Vinegar is back, investigating the murder of her neighbor and friend, Sam. Her mother-the-ghost-detective is also back, determined to help her daughter, and of course, interfere in her life again. Marabella would love to leave the matter to the police, but they don’t seem to think Sam was murdered, or care if he was. Marabella also has to find a way to tell her boyfriend John why he can’t come to her apartment anymore, unless she wants him to meet her mother. And she has no idea how to explain that.
Cute, clever, and full of wonderfully eccentric characters, this is a cozy mystery that fans of all ages should love.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Grave Expectations by Sandra Gardner is the second book in her Mother and Me mystery series. In this story, our intrepid heroine, Marabella Vinegar, is devastated at the death of her favorite neighbor, Sam. It seems to be natural causes, or so Marabella thinks—until another neighbor, Rose, tells her of the argument she overheard between Sam and a relative. When Rose dies too, Marabella is sure that Sam was murdered. But the police don’t believe her and won’t investigate, so Marabella decides to do it on her own—with the help of her mother the ghost, of course.
Gardner’s character development is superb and her plot full of surprises, making Grave Expectations a worthy addition to the series. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
She was back again, landing on the needlepoint rug on my living room floor with a familiar clunk.
I gasped. Then I bent down to help my mother up. “You could give a person a little warning,” I said. Then I flashed on why she’d come back the last time. “Am I in trouble again?”
My mother, who was supposed to be resting wherever it was that seventy-year-old women who’d died rested, shook her head. “No, it’s Sam. Go check on Sam.”
“Why couldn’t you–” I started to ask why on earth she couldn’t go herself, through the walls or floors, or something.
“A lady doesn’t go into a man’s apartment alone, Marabella,” said my-mother-the-mind-reader, a talent she seemed to have perfected since–
She drew herself up, still in the satin-and-lace dress she’d been buried in, which now looked a bit worse for wear.
“Don’t they let you have new clothes up there?” I said.
“Please, I’m lucky I still have this old thing. You should see what some of them are wearing.” She shuddered. “No taste.”
I wasn’t going to try to process that one. From the time I was a little kid, I’d wondered about ghosts. Sometimes, I thought I heard my dead grandmother whispering to me, but I never saw her. As for my mother, when I asked her how it worked, how she got here, she threw up her hands.
“It’s complicated,” she said, as if that was that.
Knowing she’d recently developed certain special instincts, along with other abilities, I hurried out the door into the dimly lit hall of my apartment building and rang Sam’s doorbell. No answer. Then I knocked, very loud, since he was hard of hearing. Nothing.
“Sam! It’s Marabella. Are you okay?” Dead silence. Now I was really worried. He hardly ever went out, and never at night. “Going out at night is not for old people,” Sam would say. And I’d say back, “You’ll never be old, Sam,” which made him smile.
Sam, who was pushing eighty, was a favorite of mine. And my mother’s, too, in life. And afterward. I’d introduced them before my mother became seriously ill with congestive heart failure, and they’d enjoyed each other’s company.
Since moving into the rent-stabilized building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side…was it almost twenty years ago?…I’d learned to appreciate older people, like Sam. Like other old folks I’d come to know, Sam had more than his share of compassion and was genuinely interested in others. Spending time with him warmed my heart.
Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen or heard Sam since yesterday. Which was unusual, since he lived in the next apartment and I always heard him after I got home from work, emptying his trash in the trash room across the hall.
I ran back to my apartment. My mother was standing in the middle of the living room where I’d left her. “I’m calling nine-one-one. He’s not answering.” I picked up my cell phone.
She nodded. “Hurry! There may still be time.”
Time for what? I wanted to ask, but I already had the dispatcher on the line. “It’s my elderly neighbor. I’m worried about him. He doesn’t answer his door, and I haven’t seen him today.”
“Name and address?” the nasal voice said. Then, “Lady, maybe he’s out. Or taking a nap.”
“No, I banged on the door very loud, for a long time. And he never goes out this late in the day. Please, hurry, I think there’s something wrong.”
Finally, the voice agreed to send the EMS. I hung up and started pacing the floor.
I whirled around. Zilla, a ball of furry orange fury, was growling at my mother, who’d usurped his place on my maroon Victorian sofa.
“Zilla, down, boy!” I said.
My mother sank back against the lacy sofa cushions. “Go away, cat, I don’t like you,” she sniffed.
This produced another growl. “That’s not helpful, Ma,” I said.
I bent down and scratched behind his ears. That was all the human contact he’d put up with most of the time. I gave up trying to pick him up to cuddle months ago. Not only was he much too big, but I didn’t look forward to more scratches on my arms.
“Zilla? What kind of a name is that for a cat?” My mother glared at Zilla, who hissed at her.
“I’ll explain later, Ma,” I said. Hearing noises and voices in the hall, I told them both to behave and ran out the door. Two EMS workers and two cops were standing in front of Sam’s apartment, towering over Tony, the super. “I just hope he’s okay, that everything’s okay,” I babbled, while Tony opened the door. I trailed in after them, saying a silent prayer that this sweet old man was all right.
I looked in. “Oh, no!” Sam was slumped in a chair at the desk in the corner of his living room. His mouth was wide open, his glasses dangled from one hand, and his eyes were fixed in a frightened stare. I felt tears welling up.
After taking his pulse, the taller EMS worker shook his head. The shorter one gave me a handkerchief, and I wiped my eyes. “Why?” I choked out, sinking into Sam’s overstuffed armchair. “He was fine when I saw him the other day.”
“Looks like a heart attack, miss,” the tall one said. “He probably couldn’t get help in time, dying alone like that.”
The idea that Sam spent his last moments alone made me even sadder. “But he had family. And he had me, and–” I stopped myself before I mentioned my mother. Who was dead.
“And who?” the shorter EMS worker asked.
“Um, friends. He had other friends,” I said, blowing my nose into the handkerchief.
The heavier of the cops came out of Sam’s bathroom. “Nothing much here except aspirin, bandages, antacids.” He headed into the kitchen. “There’s a half bottle of nitro on the kitchen counter,” he said. Then he asked me about Sam’s medical history.
I told him what I knew, that Sam had a mild case of angina, which was under control with medication. And that seemed to be it, other than failing eyesight and hearing.
“Doesn’t look like any sign of foul play,” the heavier cop said. “Miss, he needs to go to a funeral home. Can you get in touch with the family and find out where?”
I nodded. The taller EMS guy gave me his card and asked me to let him know the name and location of the funeral home. I pushed myself out of the chair on wobbly legs and thrust the sodden handkerchief at its owner, who winced and told me to keep it. I thanked them for their kindness and made my way back to my apartment.
When I got inside, I sagged against the door. Sam had been so kind, so good to me. I remembered how frantic he’d been when my life had been in danger from the killer I’d been tracking down. I’d thought of Sam as a surrogate father.
My father died when I was only twelve. My mother’s parents, Marvin and Bella, whom I was named for, were long dead, as were my father’s parents. I was an only child, so no older brothers to protect me from evildoers on the playground and elsewhere. Not even a doting uncle around. We were the type of family that stayed away from each other as much as possible, to avoid the hostilities that were sure to break out.
My mother shook her head, saying, “He’s gone.”
Unfortunately, the sound woke Zilla up from his new perch on my royal blue velvet-covered armchair. After a stretch, he let out a couple of loud “Mmrowws,” before going into the kitchen.
“Is that what they call ‘caterwauling’?” My mother put her hands over her ears.
“Never mind that. First, please tell me why you’re here.”
She took her hands from her ears and sighed. “I came back to try to save Sam’s life. I guess my sense of timing was a little off.”
I knew she came back when there was trouble. And that there were certain things she knew and was able to do, and others that she couldn’t. Which ones and why, she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell me.
“It’s all the way it should be, sweetheart,” she’d answer, not answering anything.
Okay, whatever. I’d deal with my-mother-the-apparition later. Right now, I had to think. “I have to let Sam’s family know what happened. I know he has…” I couldn’t bring myself to say had. “…much-younger half-brothers and a sister and their families, and another niece.”
“Do you know where they live? How to reach them?” she said, diving right in. My mother was a devoted mystery lover who’d harbored a desire to be Jessica Fletcher. Or Miss Marple. Well, better late than never. If there was even any mystery here.
“Of course there is, sweetheart.”
I shook my head. “Damn. I should have looked for his address book.”
“Don’t swear. But no problem, sweetheart. Back in a few minutes.” And she took off.
“Are you sure it’s not too much for you? You just got here.”
But she was already gone, into whatever ether she operated in. She had acquired the ability to appear and disappear, wafting through walls and doors.
I should mention that for some reason, which I had yet to find out, my mother’s present incarnation had only been visible and audible to me. That must have been torture for her since there were few things she loved more than voicing her opinions to everyone within earshot.
It seemed that my mother’s emanation was also available to Zilla. Maybe animals had a sixth sense about spirits, who knew? My boyfriend John, a veterinarian, might know, but asking him could cause major problems in our relationship. I didn’t have the courage to broach the subject of my mother’s materialization with him, yet. I was afraid he’d think I was certifiable.
Anyway, having an invisible mother-ghost around had already proven to be an asset in scoping out bad guys and situations. It also created situations where the people around me thought I was nuts: talking to myself and gesturing. And made John’s and my sleeping arrangements more complicated.
I went into the kitchen to feed Zilla, who was emitting kinder, gentler sounds, since he knew food was coming. Before I could open the can of Fancy Feast Chicken in Gravy on the counter, I heard my mother land with a groan in the living room. “Just a minute,” I said, not wanting to face the temper tantrum if the food didn’t make it into the bowl right away.
Zilla was my concession to the sensibilities of my boyfriend, John Adriance, DVM. Even though I was finally becoming less terrified of the Marx Brothers, John’s three huge St. Bernards, I still approached most large animals with fear and trembling. So I figured a cat would be a kind of starter pet, in a small, soft, and kittenish, way, right? Wrong. By the time he was six months old, the tiny, cuddly orange sprite, who I’d named Puck, had grown into Catzilla. He was humongous, and I’m talking muscle, not fat. That and his curmudgeonly personality accounted for his name, Zilla, for short.
“Why is he so big? Does he bite?” my mother asked.
“Don’t know. As for biting, only if I don’t feed him on time,” I said.
While Zilla was wolfing down his pricey dinner, I got a marker and a legal pad from my desk in the bedroom, trotted back to the living room and sat down next to my mother on the sofa. She fished her bifocals from her bosom.
No point asking her how she managed to transport them. Did she stash the glasses somewhere up…wherever she came from?
“It’s no problem. Everything’s taken care of,” said my-mother-the-mind-reader.” She pointed to the ceiling.
Let sleeping bifocals lie. Her bosom was still substantial, much more so than the rest of her now, which looked almost transparent. I hoped she didn’t still feel the terrible pain she’d undergone during the last stages of congestive heart failure. “Are you all right?” I asked.
She smiled. “Yes, sweetheart. I’m just a little tired, that’s all. It was a long trip.”
“Now let’s get to work.” She handed me Sam’s old leather address book.
I inputted the names and phone numbers into my Droid. I read the names to her while she wrote them down.
“Jeremy Lipson, brother, Riverdale, Bronx, wife, Tamar.”
“Lipson?” my mother asked.
“Sam told me Jeremy’s wife insisted on him changing his name to Lipson, before they got married.”
“Tch, tch,” my mother clucked.
“David Lipschitz, brother, Glen Cove, Long Island, wife, Cheryl; Abby Goldfarb, sister, Tarrytown, husband, Larry; Jennifer Lipschitz, niece, Park Slope, Brooklyn.” Then I read off the street addresses.
“Email addresses, too,” my mother said. “You never know.”
Fine. I never could figure out her reasoning when she was alive, so why now?
I seemed to recall that Jeremy and Abby had children and David didn’t. But I didn’t know the children’s names or anything about them. Jennifer was an only child. I flipped through Sam’s address book, to see if there were other people and phone numbers I might need. “Oh, his doctor, Dr. Allan Bornstein, and his pharmacy, the one down the block.” I inputted those and gave my mother the particulars. I already had Sam’s lawyer’s numbers, office and home.
“The niece, Jennifer, what about her parents?” she said, chewing on the marker.
“Jennifer’s parents were killed in a plane crash a year ago.” I remembered how hard Sam had taken the news.
My mother shook her head. “Sad.”
“Jennifer is, was, Sam’s favorite, maybe because her mother, Sam’s other sister, the baby of the family, was, too.” I got up and paced the floor, working myself up to making the dreaded phone calls: first, because I was afraid I’d break down and second, because I didn’t know Sam’s family well and wasn’t eager to expand our acquaintance.
I’d already had the displeasure of meeting some of them on occasion at Sam’s. And when Sam, terribly distraught, had begged me to go with him to Jennifer’s parents’ funeral and the shiva at Jennifer’s apartment, I went. Only my fondness and concern for Sam made me do it. The sisters-in-law seemed to be shallow social climbers. Abby, Sam’s sister, was nice enough but over-the-top materialistic, and her husband drank too much. The brothers appeared totally cowed by their wives. Only Jennifer seemed to be a real human being, who’d genuinely cared about her parents and her Uncle Sam.
In fact, Sam hadn’t trusted his siblings enough to make them executors of his will, except for his deceased youngest sister. After she’d died, he’d asked me to step in, making me the executor. I couldn’t say no. As for Jennifer, he thought she was a little young and busy with her own affairs. He didn’t want to burden her with the responsibility.
At the service and the shiva, poor Jennifer had been in a state of shock and had to be medicated. Sam was in even worse shape, given his age and the fact that he’d been so close to Jennifer’s mother. Fortunately, the sisters-in-law, Tamar and Cheryl, stepped up to the plate. Abby and the brothers were either in no condition to do anything, or pretending.
I stopped pacing, sat down next to my mother and my cell, and groaned.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I hate having to deal with that crew. They’re pretty miserable people, except for Jennifer.”
“Well, at least they’re somebody else’s family. Not nice, like ours,” my mother said smugly.
I stared at her. “What planet have you been living on?”
“That’s no way to talk to your mother.”
“Sorry, sorry,” I mumbled. “But what about all our relatives who never spoke to each other except through interpreters, even the ones married to each other? Or the ones we never mentioned?”
“And then there were…” I recalled some of the really bad situations, the ones nobody thought I knew about. Amazing what listening at doors and peeping through keyholes can do. That was how I’d managed to blackmail my obnoxious cousin, Sybil, about stealing her mother’s cigarettes, among other things, when we were eleven. It kept me in comic books for months. That was the beginning of my fascination with detecting, okay, snooping, which I’d recently fine-tuned trying to solve two murders and almost becoming the third victim.
My mother just folded her arms across her chest.
The rest of her had gotten a lot thinner. I was afraid she’d really disappear one of these days. “Why are you so thin?” I asked her.
She laughed. “I used to ask you that all the time when you were little. You were never a good eater.”
“I’m asking about you. What does it mean? Are you going to disappear one of these days?”
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” was the answer.
Grrr. I checked the time, not too late to call, picked up my phone, and scrolled to the first names on my list: Jeremy and Tamar. I got their voice mail. I left my name, phone number, and email, saying I was Sam’s neighbor and would they please contact me as soon as they could. Then I thought, they’ll be afraid it was an emergency. Well, it was, dammit. Next were David and Cheryl. After two rings, a woman answered. “Is this Cheryl Lipschitz?”
“Yes. Just who is this, please?” a wary voice said.
“This is your brother-in-law, Sam’s, neighbor, Marabella Vinegar.”
A snicker. Then another snicker. “S–s–sorry. Something–” Snicker. “–went down the wrong way.”
I waited for her to stop choking on my last name, the result of a mistranslation of my Vinnaucyers’ ancestors from Poland, at Ellis Island. Besides the name department, I’d inherited a few other family blights: too-generous hips and hair that tended to frizz at the least opportunity. My generous bosom, I guess, was one…two?…of the only family assets. Even so, my mother’s chest still beat mine by at least a cup size.
Some nerve, you with the last name Lipschitz. “Ms. Lip…schit…z…” I said, drawing out the name to its fullest. “I need to tell you that Sam has just passed away.”
“Ohhhh, nooo! Don’t tell me!” Sniff.
“From what appears to have been a heart attack.”
“Ohh! David will be absolutely heartbroken.” Sniff.
“The EMS workers need to know what funeral arrangements have been made.”
“Oh.” The “ohs” were getting shorter by the minute. “Let me check in David’s desk. Hold on.” When she came back on the line, she said, “Stein’s Funeral Parlor, Sixty-Ninth Street near Madison. I’ll let the director know. David and the others made special arrangements for…” Sniff. Then a quick switch to business mode: “Should I assume that you’ll contact the others about Sam?”
“Thank you sooo much for your help.”
We hung up on her last sniff.
“One and a half down, two to go,” I said. As I picked up the phone again, it rang.
“Hello, this is Tamar Lipson. I believe you left me a message.”
“Yes. I’m Sam’s neighbor.”
“We’ve met,” she said dismissively. “What is this about?”
I gritted my teeth and repeated my message. Any more conversations with these people, I’d wear my teeth down to nubs.
There was silence on the other end of the phone. Then: “Sam died? How did you know? Why weren’t we called?”
Grrr. “It just happened. I called the EMS because I hadn’t seen or heard him around today. They found him, um, in his living room.” I cleared my throat. “David’s wife is contacting the funeral home.”
Silence again. After a brusque goodbye, she hung up. I didn’t know which was more revolting, phoniness or rudeness. After gritting my teeth again, I reminded myself that I was doing this nasty chore out of fondness for Sam.
“God, these people,” I said to my mother.
She and Zilla were both stretched out full length–my mother on the sofa, Zilla on the chair. I called the EMS worker and gave him the funeral information and David’s phone number.
Before I could make any more calls, the doorbell rang. It was Rose Adelman, another elderly neighbor, leaning on her cane, wearing one of her trademark flowery dresses, tears running down her chubby face.
“I just heard about Sam,” she said. Then she whispered, “I’m so afraid.”
© 2018 by Sandra Gardner