Murder She Cooked:
Soup as a Murder Weapon
(e-SoupSong 17: September 1, 2001)
ONCE UPON A TIME...
Michelle Horacek wasn't surprised that Sunday morning to see her neighbor's front door yawning open at such an early hour. Shaking her head, she walked back in the house and handed the paper to her husband with a sigh.
"What?" Paul said. "What now?"
"Oh, it's Pat again--why she can't remember to CLOSE her door at night is beyond me. I mean, okay, locking would be good too. But why can't she just remember to CLOSE it? One of these nights something bad is going to happen and she'll have no one to blame but herself."
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"Hey Paul! Have you seen Pat today?" Leah leaned over her rake and shouted across the street when Paul came around the side of the house.
"Uh uh. Why?"
"Her cats are acting weird. They keep climbing up the screen doors. They never do that. And all her doors are open, but I haven't seen her all day."
"Aah, she's probably sleeping. Michelle saw her at her kitchen window late last night after her company left--cooking again. Probably more soup." He rolled his eyes.
"Oh right. Soup."
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"Pat! Pat! Hey, Pat--wake up! Are you in there?" Leah and Eddie peered in through the back door, where they could see straight through into the living room and dining room. "Nothing! Eddie, go around to the side door and see if you can see anything in the kitchen."
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Inspector Hess was not happy. It was one of the sloppiest crime scenes he'd ever seen. How could one woman make such a mess? He exhaled noisily. The stink was terrific.
He was standing in the dining room, looking straight down the length of the tiny galley kitchen. The chalk outline of the body sprawled out over the entire expanse of terra cotta tiles. Head at the far end, sketched right up to the side door where the neighbor had gotten such a shock. Arm outlines splayed across the kitchen, from the refrigerator on one side to the dishwasher on the other. One foot twisted under the butcher block; the other puddled in the cat food just shy of his own two feet. Christ, she must have gone down kicking from the look of the catfood sprayed into the dining room. No blood that he could see. Clear signs and smells that she’d been horribly sick, though. And food all over the place.
Squatting down with tweezers, napkin over his nose, he picked at some of the bits. Potato peelings already pink from oxidation. Chunks of what looked like onions or garlic. Egg shells. Feathery green things. Squeezed out lemons. Spongy brown chunks. And cherries. Lots of them.
"Ahh for crying out loud!"
Leave it to those clowns in forensics, he thought. There was no missing their brand of humor: right inside the chalked head, 2 garlic eyes with parsley eyebrows, a mushroom nose, a widely grinning cherrystone mouth.
Straightening up, he looked closely at the clutter on the stove top. Dried splashes of goop all over everything. Big soup pots on all four burners. Gross looking stuff. Good thing they'd gotten there before all the soup had simmered away. Dollar to a doughnut it was a poisoning from the look on the victim's face. God, if there was one thing he hated, it was soup.
"You done in there, Inspector?" a voice called.
"You bet I am."
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Hess sat at his desk looking at his notes. Autopsy confirmed it was a poisoning, time of death between midnight and 2 a.m., but the lab would be another couple days.
Victim: Pat Solley. Seemed like a nice enough woman, but with some serious quirks. Moved in 9 years ago with her kids. They grew up and and moved away, so now she lived alone. Two cats. House as neat as a pin except for the kitchen. Probably a couple thou books in the downstairs study--and family pictures on all the walls. Cute kids. Kept her yard nice, though that half-dead boxwood in front was odd. Never seen a shrub half orange and half green before. Regular working hours, but long--metro in and out of her job in downtown DC, usually home by 8 or 9. Always seemed to be dragging in bags of groceries. Didn't mix much with the neighbors. Lights on at all odd hours of the night--mostly in the kitchen and the basement. Neighbors said they were relieved when they found out she was writing a book on soup. Up to then they thought she was on the nutty side...and he got the impression they still had their doubts.
As near as he could figure out from the neighbors, Solley had gone out twice on the Saturday that she'd died. Once at dawn, when she'd brought back a basket of something. Second time also morning. Neighbor on the right saw her at the local farmers' market around 11; neighbor across the street saw her at the grocery around noon. They also i.d.'d three people who'd been in the house with the victim that day. He smiled wryly. This Falls Church might be "inside the beltway" of metropolitan Washington, DC, but it seemed an awful lot like Miss Marple's St. Mary Mead, where everybody knew every body's business.
First id: Solley's daughter, Meg Solley. Lived in Seattle, home for a long weekend. Friend picked her up in a blue car on Saturday morning. They were packing out full camping backpacks. Then a woman showed up around 2 with a package--dark hair, medium build. Stayed a very short time. Maybe someone from work since magazine proofs from the office were found on the coffee table. Last, a tall man dressed in black arrived around 6, left around 9. He was picked up by a local taxi. He and Solley had been heard exchanging loud words on the front porch.
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"Mr. Connolly, thanks for agreeing to see me on such short notice."
"Inspector, I'll obviously do everything I can to help. I'm shattered, just shattered by your news."
"Mr. Connolly, according to the records of the Falls Church Yellow Cab, you were picked up at Ms. Solley's house at 9:04 pm on the evening of Saturday, September 29th.
"That's right, Inspector."
"Could you start by telling me about your association with her?
"Well, I've known Pat--knew her, I guess I have to say--for over ten years. She seemed like a normal person when I first met her--a true "99 percenter." That was when she came to work for me. She was a speechwriter, you know--putting words in other people's mouths, that sort of thing. Always seemed a bit unsanitary to me, speechwriting. But she was a hard worker--a little on the dull side, raising a family, full of everyday cares, trying to make a living. We were all happy for her when she got a better job and left. But it didn't turn out to be that good, did it?"
"Why, what do you mean?"
"Well of course it was when her new boss sent her back to school that she got involved in that insane website business of hers."
"You don't know?"
"Her deadly obsession, of course: www.soupsong.com.
"Sorry, I don't understand."
"Well, I hardly know where to start. It's painful, really, remembering how cheerful and easygoing she was back in those days--that would be late 1997, I think. Yes, just as we were beginning to gear up for midterm congressional elections; right before Clinton’s infamous denial of an affair with "that woman." Pat was taking a couple courses at the time, but this particular one was on Internet research. She had to create a small website as a final project, and it was really very sweet the way she agonized over what she was going to do it on. All her friends, all of us, agree that it was a black day when she remembered about that cookbook she'd started years before--a cookbook on soup.
"Suddenly she was possessed--up all night for weeks programming those old recipes and stories, staggering in to work looking like hell, not returning calls, forgetting dinner dates, that sort of thing. In the end, she finished the project--she always did pull those things out at the last minute--and posted it on the Web.
"But then she just couldn't leave it alone. It was as if someone had turned a key in her. Like an illness, really. You'd go out for drinks and be discussing the Lewinsky affair. Suddenly she'd lean across the table and say, ‘Know what Monica's favorite soup is?’ Frightening, really--she'd know Monica's favorite soup, Bill Clinton's, Hillary's...and she could cite chapter and verse of the Starr report on Lewinsky and Linda Tripp discussing soup recipes on the telephone tapes. Imagine! Then, she was always, always looking for new material. You'd go to see a new film and she'd say, 'don't forget to watch for soup'--as if anyone but she would care. Totally embarrassing. I remember her scribbling in the dark during Buena Vista Social Club--something about black coquetero soup for hangovers. It was sad. Sickening, really. Watching her slip into clinical obsession and not being able to do anything about it, I mean.
"It sounds like you were in an abusive relationship with her, Mr. Connolly. Did you ever quarrel?"
"No, no," he quickly protested. "She didn't mean anything by it. What's a little soup abuse between friends?"
"Why were you at her house that Saturday night, Mr. Connolly?"
A look of annoyance crossed his features. "It turned out to be a pretext, Inspector. She told me she'd found a videotape I'd lent her over a year ago and wanted back--but instead I got a long story about her new project and a couple bowls of last week’s soup. Typical."
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"Mrs. Grenke, thank you for seeing me at such sudden notice."
"Oh, that's okay, Inspector, we're used to being interviewed around here," she said, straightening up her desk at Headquarters.
"I see. Well, now, I wonder if you could tell me why you stopped by Ms. Solley's house on Saturday afternoon. Was that something you often did?"
"No, not at all. It was unusual, in fact. But we had a tight deadline for our magazine on Monday, and Pat asked me on Friday if I'd drop off the proofs this past weekend so she'd have time to approve them in advance."
"I see. How many years had you worked with Ms. Solley?"
"I can hardly believe it; it's been a long time. We first worked together back in 1988. Then she left for a couple years--wrote speeches for an association here in town-- then came back in 93 with a promotion. So we've worked together since then."
"Tell me about her."
"There's not much to tell, really. We got on very well--very comfortably. Of course she was a bit strange--very focused on things. Some people in the unit thought she was a bit of a slave driver, but I always got along fine with her."
"Would you be next in line for her job?"
"Let me rephrase that. Anyone angry with her, that you know of? Anyone wish they had another boss?"
"Oh, I wouldn't go that far. But there was quite a lot of talk about "The Soup Business," as everyone called it."
"Well, Inspector, Pat experimented with a lot of recipes for her website. A LOT of them. And she lived alone. So she ended up with pots and pots of leftover soup. She hated to waste it, so she'd bring it in for us. You know, there's no way to handle that kind of situation gracefully. We didn't want to eat her soup; we didn't want to eat any soup at all, for that matter. But she was the boss. So it put some strain in the unit. I don't think she realized it, but we felt like guinea pigs.
"Don't get me started. And don't ask about the time she brought in eight--EIGHT!--jars full of different soups. One was purple. Not likely we'll forget that one any time soon. I had to work very hard to keep people here from complaining to the Ombudsman about harrassment."
"Yes, Inspector Hess, soup harrassment."
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"Please sit down, Ms. Solley. I know this is a tough time for you."
"Thank you, Inspector Hess.
"I understand you were very close to your mother."
"Do you know what your mother was working on when she died--the soups, I mean?"
"Oh yes. This month's theme was SOUP ON THE WILD SIDE. She was totally into it, reading books on how plants got domesticated, on wild plants that were edible, foraging everywhere. It was embarrassing to take a walk with her. There she'd be, face to the ground, tripping over everything, raking every spot of earth with her eyes, books in hand--hoping to find just the right plant or mushroom. She told me she'd spent one whole weekend looking for spicebush and lamb’s quarter so she could make traditional Native American soup recipes. No luck, though--she never did find them."
"Do you know what recipes she planned to make on Saturday night?"
"No. Well, not really. I tend to tune out when she's on the soup thing."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Sorry, too many years of being her lab rat. You can't imagine what it was like, Inspector, coming home from school hoping for a peanut butter sandwich--and there she'd be, all happy, giving me a choice of six very weird soups to try. The worst was the fruit soup phase. God, I wanted to die."
"Yes, well, I've always hated soup myself."
Meg shot him a grateful look. "Anyway, I know wild mushroom soup was on the menu because she got up at some ungodly hour, long before I left to go camping, to look for wood mushrooms in Greenbelt park."
"That explains it, then."
"She was seen leaving very early in the morning, then returning with a wicker basket."
"That would be Mrs. Horacek."
"Mrs. Horacek. The neighbor. Doing the ‘seeing.’ She doesn't miss much."
"Right. Anything else? About the soups, I mean?"
"Wild onion, I think. And wild garlic. Something with cherries, too. She wanted wild ground cherries, but they're out of season, so she was making do with cherries."
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"Thank you all for coming." Inspector Hess took his time looking into the eyes of his three suspects. Mrs. Grenke looked straight back at him, defiant but noticeably upset. Ms. Solley dropped her eyes and covered them with her hands. Connolly, clearly edgy, shifted his sideways and nervously tapped his fingers on the edge of his chair arm.
"It’s a poisoning, as I think you all know," he began. "Not a pleasant way to go."
Ms. Solley gasped, her eyes filling with tears; the other two shifted uncomfortably.
Without compelling evidence, Hess was taking a chance by bringing them all together in his office. He knew they all had opportunity--and only them, since the victim had been completely alone except for their visits. And all had motive--the same one. All, in their own way, had been driven nearly to madness by one too many soup ministrations.
"Poisoning is an interesting way to kill someone," he began. "While we're waiting for the lab report, let me give you a little background." Inspector Hess leaned back in his chair, eyes on the ceiling, fingers tented in front of him. "Poisoning happens to be a specialty of mine.
He drew a deep breath and exhaled luxuriously. "Before there were guns," he said, "there were poisons. That's important to remember. Mother Nature made poisonous plants and animals--and humankind, being what it is, harvested them for its own poisonous ends. Maybe hunting big game with poisoned arrows; maybe getting rid of the competition; maybe killing a king.
"In fact, motivations have always varied--you can forget the old saw about poison being 'a woman's weapon.' It's a man's game too--and has been for millennia.
The two women exchanged glances.
"In the old days, it was all about power. To get it or keep it, you'd lay deep plans, stop at the local witch or sorcerer's shop for just the right poison, then slip the goods into a drink, a dish of food, or onto a dart point. We all know about Socrates, the Borgias, and the Medicis. But all the best--and worst--civilizations had their own special recipes--starring aconite, hemlock, opium, metals, and alkaloids. I'm talking about ancient Egypt, here, and China, Greece, Rome, you name it. King Mithridates of Pontus, in fact, made a cult of poisons.
"The modern age, of course, is more venal. We go for money, spite, or just trying to get rid of someone who's annoying."
Inspector Hess stopped and looked briefly at the three over the top of his glasses.
"I'm particularly interested in the subset of soup poisonings," he continued. "Talk about diabolical. It's not like Uncle Claudius desperately tossing a quick shot of poison into Hamlet's wine glass. Soup poisonings are coldblooded, calculated down to a gnat's ass, lots of bribed cooks in the mix, and they target--here's the big thing--they target the one course of dinner that is universally associated with comfort and nourishment. I don’t like soup myself, but it was Auguste Escoffier who said ‘Soup puts the heart at ease’--and who would know better than him?
"So, you don't get much meaner than poisoned soup, folks. The victim sits down after a long day. Hungry; maybe chilled to the bone. In comes the soup and, boy, does it ever hit the spot. Then, moments later, dead as a door nail."
Ms. Solley broke down in tears again.
"Come, come, Ms. Solley. Please stay with me here.
"Think of poor Britannicus, for example. He was a threat to his half brother Nero’s hold on the Roman Empire back in 54 AD. Nero wanted him dead and he knew it. So he brought his food taster along to Nero's big bash. First course was soup, and the food taster survived. Britannicus ordered up a big bowl for himself. Too hot, old boy? Here, dilute it with some cool water--cool poisoned water, that is. The guy was dead in ten minutes.
"Then there was King Eric XIV of Sweden back in 1550. His brother Johan wanted the crown, so he fed the king "specially prepared" yellow pea soup, well dosed with poison. As the folksong goes, ‘Oh Johan spent that tragic night/In evil, so they say./"My brother must not live," he said,/To see the coming day!"’
"Inspector, where is all this leading?" Ms. Grenke snapped. "I don't think this kind of tirade is standard law enforcement practice."
"Ms. Grenke, we are merely passing time, waiting for the lab report." Leaning back in his chair again, he continued: "There was an interesting case in 17th century Japan, where a maid poisoned the miso soup of a daimyo’s favored mistress. Later, in Austria, a Jewish assassin crept into the house of a reformist rabbi and poisoned the family chicken soup. Lots of young Victorian lovers poisoned the soups of lots of wealthy, disapproving fathers. Then, during the Indian Mutiny, British General Nicholson hung native chefs from a nearby tree when he discovered they’d laced soup in the officers’ mess with aconite. Palace chefs in Bulgaria put typhoid germs in King Boris III’s soup in 1925." He took a quick breath. "Then the Aiello’s plot to poison Al Capone’s minestrone with prussic acid at the Bella Napoli Cafe backfired when the chef ratted out on his $35,000 bribe. And how about the CIA giving botulinum toxin capsules to a Chicago mobster to stir into Castro's bowl of soup?
Inspector Hess’ eyes goggled; his delivery was picking up speed. "Modern times: lots of stories, mostly about life insurance policies or lovers, but how about that Algerian night watchman during the Civil War who poisoned 1,600 bowls of soup served up to police academy students in Algiers? Or the poisoned pumpkin soup murder of Colonel Jean-Claude Paul in Haiti? And terrorist rituals! And cup-a-soup tamperings! And Stalin joking with his dinner guests that their soup had been laced with poison! And..."
The rapt and disbelieving silence of the three suspects was suddenly interrupted by a knock at the door. Hess swiveled in his chair, breathless from his hortatory exertions. "What? Yes? Come in!"
Dr. Gladis of forensics poked his head through the door. "Hess," he said, "we’ve got the results."
The Inspector pushed himself off the chair, walked over, and reached for the piece of paper. He read it. Read it over several times. Sitting back down, he smoothed the paper out in front of him on the desk. He read it again, shaking his head from side to side.
"Ladies, Mr. Connolly," he said, "I owe you an apology."
He picked up the report and waved it at them. "Because of the symptoms, I was expecting to find substantial traces of arsenic in one of the soups--easy enough, of course, for anyone to buy as a pesticide and stir into a soup pot. You three alone had opportunity and motive to commit the crime. You three alone were in the house during the critical hours. You three alone--and I sympathize here--were victimized in some way by Ms. Solley’s unstoppable obsession with soup."
He put the paper down again, hit it with his fist, then picked it back up. "However, the evidence is now clear and exculpatory," he said, speaking in his most official voice. "Let me summarize the report:
"Ms. Solley’s wild mushroom soup did not contain arsenic. Neither did the other soups. But all were poisoned with massive doses of toxins.
"First, her sherried mushroom mustard soup was made from Amanita phalloides mushrooms--known as Death Cup--not the harmless Agaricus silvicola wood mushrooms she thought she’d put in her basket on that fateful day. And you know what they say: ‘There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are few old, bold mushroom hunters.
"Second, her L’Aigo Boulido soup was not made with wild garlic at all. Ms. Solley had mistakenly dug up the bulbs of Lily of the Valley. These are dead ringers for wild garlic...but there's not much in the plant kingdom more deadly than Convallaria majalis.
"Third, that French Onion Soup from wild onions she’d pulled up in her yard? Zygadenus venenosus--the Death Camus or "Fool’s parsley." The lab says she could have cured all the hangovers in Paris’ Les Halles on any Saturday night--permanently--with this recipe."
He looked up with a pained expression. "And then those cherries. Her recipe for cold wild cherry soup would have been just fine if she hadn’t gone overboard with the Hungarian tradition of cooking cracked cherry stones in with the soup. Cyanide, you know. Absolutely deadly."
"Then you mean..." The three suspects reacted instantly--Ms. Solley as white as a bowl of vichyssoise; Mrs. Grenke and Mr. Connolly’s complexions rising from the pink of sour cherry soup to scarlet gazpacho and on up to a brilliant borscht red.
"That is correct," Inspector Hess said. Clearing his throat carefully, he pronounced the final verdict: "I regret to say that Pat Solley was a victim of her own obsession. Accidental death by soup."
NEXT MONTH: Uh Oh...SOUP ON THE WILD SIDE
Sources: Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs' Spirit of the Harvest; John Doull and Margaret C. Bruce's Toxicology: the Basic Science of Poisons; Laurence Gadd's Deadly Beautiful: the World's Most Poisonous Animals and Plants; Richard Glyn Jones' Poison! The World's Greatest True Murder Stories; Serita Deborah Stevens with Anne Klarner's Deadly Doses: A writer's guide to poisons; Colin Wilson's The History of Murder; and a couple dozen magazine/newspaper articles, on file.