Opening Chapter of Boston Scream Pie,,, A Paco and Molly Murder Mystery by Larry and Rosemary Mild
Chapter 1
BREATHTAKING
Day One, Thursday, Sept 10, 1981

Gregg Upshaw couldn't move his legs. His chest heaved. Instinctively, he reached for his throat, but normal breath refused to come. At first, he didn't realize what had transformed his perfectly peaceful dream into this frightening pit of wee-hour pain. His sight strained to focus on the cause. Delylah's wretched cats lay sprawled across his calves as if they owned the whole bed. Or owned him—which the two cats did, of course. Their dander assaulted his asthmatic lungs, polluting the air, the comforter, the sheets, drapes, rugs, and clothes in the closets. At every hour of the day and night in this house, the airborne irritants invaded his body, traveling down his trachea, taking up residence in every millimeter of the bronchi, the bronchioles, the alveoli.

He managed to draw in a shallow breath, but the air in his chest felt trapped. He tried to force a cough and then began coughing in spasms. Finally, his chest heaved. He exhaled, and a painful, rasping breath came forth.

"Delylaaah!"

A muffled "What?" His wife flung one exquisitely shaped leg over the other as she sank back onto the floral sheets.

"Delylah, wake up!"

"What's the matter, darlin'?" She lifted her black satin night mask to make sure morning hadn't sneaked in early, then let it snap back over her eyes. He'd always disliked that thing. It made her look like a fugitive from a Halloween party.

"I'm having an attack, I can't breathe."

"It's the middle of the night. Use your inhaler and stop making such a fuss." Gregg struggled to a sitting position, his seventy-year arthritic joints crackling as he fumbled for the switch on the bedside lamp. The sudden brightness jarred the cats awake. Two pairs of glowing eyes stared at him with almond-shaped vertical pupils. Gregg wheezed again and swatted with the palm of his hand. "Get out of here, you miserable animals."

One after the other, the felines dropped off the bed, headed straight for the sitting room, and leaped into their personal plan B—a velvet chaise lounge.

         On the nightstand lay a small box labeled "Bronchodilator." Gregg grabbed it and dumped the contents out on the bed. With trembling hands, he inserted the small canister into its plastic actuator case, then shook the apparatus hard for fifteen seconds. The drill was second nature to him, even in his frightened state. This miracle med would relax the muscles constricting his airways. He turned the mouthpiece away from him and depressed the canister four times into the air, test-spraying to make sure it functioned properly. He blinked in alarm, waited almost half a minute, shook the inhaler again, and repeated the routine. Nothing. He hurled the inhaler across the king-sized bed. It bounced against the dresser and landed on the carpet.

"Delylah! For God's sake, this inhaler's empty! Where's the new one? I asked you to refill my prescription. You were supposed to pick it up yesterday."

His wife rolled her creamy nude body toward him and replied in a sleep-drugged drawl, "What're you talking about, darlin'? I did pick it up, right after I had my nails done. I put it right there next to the lamp."

"Delylah, you don't understand. This inhaler's empty, it's used up. I can't breathe. I have to get to the hospital."

"So go already, hon!"

"So I need you to drive me."

"Call 911."

"I can't call 911. I already had them here once this month. They'll think I'm crazy."

"Then, for heaven's sake, call Ellen. She adores you."

"And you don't any more? You don't care what happens to me?"

"Of course, I do, darlin'. You know I'd do anything for you. Just not at this ungodly hour. Ellen will be glad to take you." Delylah pulled the sheet over her tight little bottom and fell back asleep.

Gregg felt cold, yet perspiration oozed from his pores. With rasping, labored breaths, he shifted his legs to the floor, reached for the phone, and pressed the speed dial button assigned to his stepdaughter's number. He heard the string of tones and then listened. Eight rings. Is she even home? Where could she be at this hour? And no answering machine?

Ellen picked up and blurted out, "Whoever you are, do you know what time it is? It's three ay-em."

"Wait, it's me! Gregg! Sorry I woke you. I'm having an asthma attack, and I need to be driven to the hospital, sweetie."

"Where's Mom?"

She's here, but I can't seem to rouse her."

"Is she sick?"

"No, it's the usual. Disinterest. Anyway, can you drive me?"

"Gregg, I'm going to go you one better. I'll call an ambulance for you. Stay put, and I'll meet you at the hospital."

"But... but..."

His stepdaughter had already hung up.

The tension in Gregg's chest slowly eased. He was able to exhale now, even without the inhaler. But he couldn't suppress his feelings of despair and resignation as he studied his wife's slumbering body, languorous and feline. Ironic, he thought. It was this very trait that had attracted him to her when they first met five years ago. But now he finally understood why, despite his asthma, she'd refused to get rid of her cats. She looked like one, identified with them.

Wiping his clammy brow with the back of his hand, Gregg realized he'd better get dressed. His trousers found their way over the sleeping shorts. Socks and shoes somehow slid onto his feet. But anxiety took over, and he misbuttoned his Oxford shirt. Beyond caring about his appearance, he shuffled through the living room. As he unlocked the front door, intending to leave it open for the emergency medical technicians, a coughing fit overtook him. When the EMT's arrived twelve minutes later, they found Gregg Upshaw collapsed in a heap on the floor.

* * * *

Delylah's clock radio annoyed her awake at eight-thirty the next morning with a raucous Beatles tune, "It's a Hard Day's Night." She indulged in a leisurely shower, stretching as she lathered. Then she dressed, brushed her hair, and sat down for a breakfast of raspberry jam on a rice cake and two cups of hazelnut-flavored coffee. All before having any thoughts of her husband. Oh, yes, poor Gregg didn't feel well last night. I should give Ellen a call and see how my lover is doing.

At fifty-one, Delylah still looked no more than forty. The world's most expensive retinol creams had freed her rose-petal skin from the lines of aging. The high, rounded cheekbones came alive whenever she smiled or pouted, and she pouted now as she realized Ellen was not home. She clicked off the portable phone.

Trying the hospitals seemed the next logical step. But after twenty minutes of calling, she found that none of the major Baltimore medical centers nor any of the smaller surrounding county hospitals had admitted anyone by the name of Upshaw. Irritated, she was about to give up when another thought struck her. Her fingers tapped out the number of the first hospital once more.

"Do you admit dead persons?" Delylah asked.

"What?" said the operator. "Is this some kind of a practical joke?"

"No, no! What I mean is: I called earlier to find out if my husband had been admitted there, and you told me he hadn't. What I really want to find out is: if he arrived deceased—you know, DOA, like in the movies. Would you have his name on your list?"

"Hold please, ma'am."

After being transferred twice and repeating her story to incredulous staff members three times, Delylah heard the rustling of paper and another voice: "We have no information on a Mr. Greggory H. Upshaw. Sorry, ma'am." Delylah hung up and called her son.

Chester Trotter hadn't heard from Ellen or Gregg either. "Too bad," he said. "The old boy probably kicked the bucket."

"For heaven's sake, Chester, you don't have to sound so flippant about it. Now if you'll excuse me, this unpleasant situation calls for a number of urgent errands for me to do. Like my hair. And I don't have anything suitable in black to wear."

Chester chuckled. "Sure, Mom, but aren't you the one being a little premature? Maybe he's okay. Gregg's had asthma attacks before. Or is it wishful thinking, Mom?"

"Chester, dear, don't be so insolent. Bye now."

Delylah paused for a few minutes, drumming her manicured nails on the granite kitchen counter while gathering her thoughts. Ah, the mantle. She strode into the living room directly to the fireplace and reached behind the Meissen china clock for two sealed, stamped white envelopes: a notarized copy of Gregg's will for the executor and an obituary for the local paper. How considerate of her darling husband to do this. She blew away the dust and reflectively tapped the envelopes against the mantle while she made her decision. Yes! She threw on a sweat jacket, slid her hands into leather gloves, and locked the oak door with its etched glass panels. The harsh February air nipped her face, but its bite merely served to invigorate her as she broke into a trot. Jogging past other stately Roland Park houses, she reached the mailbox two blocks away. The first pickup would be 11 a.m. Perfect. She dropped the letters in and jogged home. Not in the least bit out of breath, Delylah called her salon for a color and cut appointment, and had barely hung up when her phone rang.

"Hello, Mother."

"Ellen! Where are you, dear? I tried you at home, but you were gone."

"I'm at the hospital—just outside Gregg's room."

"Which hospital? I called them all."

"Mom, don't give me that. You couldn't have called them all. And like you care." She paused to let this barb sink in. "Anyway, all the beds at Charm City General were full, so the ambulance took him to Baltimore Regional. He's doing fine. He's asking for you."

"That's so nice to hear, dear. Why don't you put him on?"

"I can't. They won't allow a phone in his room. The doctors don't want him getting too excited. When can you get here? I'd like to go home, shower, and grab a few hours' sleep. I've been here since four-thirty this morning."

"I can't right now. Tell Gregg love and kisses, and I'll see him this evening. You go on ahead home. I'm sure he's in good hands now. I'll be there about seven."

"Not till seven? But Mom! He wants to see you sooner."

"He'll just have to wait, won't he? Now never you mind. Kiss, kiss." Delylah hung up.

* * * *

At 7:15 that evening, Delylah swept into Gregg's hospital room in a cashmere coat, stretch pants, and high-heeled boots. Her platinum blond bangs were cut straight across her forehead. Thick curls fell to her shoulders—yielding an exceptionally youthful hairstyle. Her azure blue eyes, encircled in black eyeliner, gleamed as she stood just inside the door, poised for compliments. None were forthcoming.

Ellen, seated beside Gregg's bed, had just returned after a hasty trip home to shower and change. She looked up from her Agatha Christie novel. "Mom, where the hell have you been all day?"

"Ellen, you stay out of this." Tossing her coat over the back of Ellen's chair, Delylah glided to the other side of the bed, where Gregg's gray head bent over his Wall Street Journal. She leaned down to kiss him, but he turned his face away.

"Oh, so we're going to be grumpy, are we?" his wife cooed.

"Well, excuuuuuse me." He laid down the paper. "I could have died waiting for you."

"Sweetheart, I just knew you wouldn't do such a horrid thing before I got here. You wouldn't want me visiting if I didn't look my best, would you?"

"And that took ten hours?" Gregg's face reddened and his voice grated as if it had been sandpapered.

The vital signs monitor took up a quicker "Beep-Beep, beep-beep, beep-beep."

Ellen dropped her book and leaped up.

Delylah waved her off and laid her graceful hands on Gregg's shoulders. "Now take it easy, darlin'. That's it, lie back and relax." She stroked his forehead for a few moments until his breathing slowed visibly. Then, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, she continued her litany of excuses. "There was the community association meeting. You know how those things go on forever, all the arguments and nothing ever gets decided. And then there was my salon appointment, and another meeting, plus a few errands. You big bozo, don't you know by now that I love you? The important thing is, you're getting better."

His chest heaved. "If I'm getting better, it's no thanks to you. They've assigned me a pulmonary specialist. He's coming in to talk to you too, my darling wife. He told me we have to make some changes in the house. We need to get heavy-duty air filters for every room. And that's not all. We have to get rid of the drapes and upholstered furniture and carpeting in our bedroom."

She pursed her lips into a coquettish pout. "Stop! You're not going to go on about the cats again."

"The specialist said it's not just the cats. The fabrics and all the other stuff are making my condition worse, too."

Delylah's rounded cheekbones twitched. "But I just redecorated. And our room would look so bare and prison-like."

Gregg scowled. "The pulmonary chap said that, ideally, we should redo the whole house that way." Then, gritting his teeth in anticipation of his wife's reaction, he laid one more bit of news on her. "The doctor also told me there's a new medication for cats." Cautiously, Gregg explained that the medicine would change the chemical nature of cats' saliva so that, when they licked their fur to wash themselves, their dander would get depressed instead of flying around and invading the lungs of asthma and allergy sufferers.

Delylah's back arched. He could almost hear her meow her disapproval.

"One good thing, though," he said, "they're going to discharge me the day after tomorrow, that is, if I'm fully stabilized by then."

"That's wonderful, darlin'. I can hardly wait. Is there anything I can do for you? Maybe bring you something special, like your favorite chunky chocolate Ben & Jerry's?"

"No, no, for God's sake, I'm on regulation swill here. Wait, there is something you can do for me. Something special. I want to ride home from the hospital in a white Rolls Royce. Since I was a kid, I've always wanted to ride in one. But remember, it's got to be lily white." His face had now returned to its normal complexion. A grin broke through his parched lips.

"Sure, darlin'. I'll talk to Chester about it tomorrow morning. His friend works for a limousine service."

"Why Chester?" Gregg whined.

"Beep-beep, beep-beep-beep." The monitor also protested.

Gregg's face turned stormy. "The doctor told me not to let myself get aggravated. In our family that's easier said than done."

"That's right, Mom," interrupted Ellen. "He doesn't need any more excitement."

Gregg changed the subject. "Was there any mail today?"

"Mail!" Delylah exclaimed. "I forgot all about the mail."

"You didn't have to bring it," he assured her. "I was only curious—what came."

"It's not what came that's important, dear," she confessed. "It's what went out. I made a terribly big mistake."

"It can't be as bad as all that, my dear."

"Oh, but it is. You remember those two white envelopes you kept on the mantle in the living room. Behind the clock?"

"What about them?" His chest tightened.

"Beep-beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep-beep-beep," stuttered the monitor.

"I mailed them today."

A violent coughing spell overtook Gregg. "The copy of my will? And my obituary went to the papers?"

"I'm so sorry, dear, I truly screwed up," Delylah murmured, her voice awash in contrition. She looked at her watch.

"It's too late to do anything about it now, I'm afraid. The paper's already gone to press. You'll be reading your own obituary in the morning."

Ellen squealed, "Mom, how could you?"

"Beeeeeeeeep......eeeeeeeep"

A nurse rushed into the room. "You'll both have to leave now." She pressed one of the buttons over Gregg's head and it started to blink in blue flashes.

In the lounge at the end of the hall, Delylah arranged herself on a vinyl couch next to the skinny frame of her daughter, who was working hard to reassemble her contorted face.

"By the way, Mom, what was that other meeting you attended this afternoon? What was so important about it that you couldn't visit Gregg sooner?"

"It was Parents Without Partners, dear. I met this lovely gentleman, a widower with two girls nearly your age."

"But Mom, you have a partner. You shouldn't do that to Gregg. It's like cheating."

"It is cheating, dear. Gregg is wonderful but he's not going to be around much longer. We both know that. Actually, it was at PWP that I found Gregg in the first place."

"But Mom, he's not dead yet. He doesn't deserve this."

"Yet! That's the operative word." Delylah lightly fingered the heart-shaped diamond pendant that graced her swan neck. "You have to meet Newton."

"Newton?"

"Yes, Newton Boston. He's a prince of a catch, a real gentleman. Owns his own home and business and knows how to treat a lady, too."

Ellen bent one stork leg under her and turned away in disgust.

End of Chapter
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