Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Death Caps in the Beef Stroganoff by Sandy Semerad


When a film crew discovered magic mushrooms at Buckingham Palace, I remembered when I found mushrooms in my yard. They were light brown, not red and white like the hallucinogenic mushrooms popping up in the Queen’s garden. 

I chose not to eat the mushrooms I found. But what if I’d eaten them or put them in a dish that called for mushrooms? This “what if” question, led me to write the following short story:
                                          
~~~~~~

It hurts like a bullet in the chest to see Rosy, scared and fragile, on trial for her life. She looks much too thin in a grey suit, her long blonde hair pulled back in a French twist. 

I’d give my life to free her from this nightmare. So far, I’ve used every legal resource as sheriff of this county to try to help her beat this bum rap.

I cashed in my savings for her bail money. Rosy has no idea I did this. Only Father Windford knows. He’s the priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Father Windford and his congregation have contributed also. Their show of support made the front page of The Daily Sun, where Rosy used to work as news editor.

Most everyone in the community believes she’s innocent, except the friends and family of Michael Hofstadter and Prosecutor Sammy Prescott.

“Rosy could never kill anyone and you know it,” I told Sammy.

“Love has made you blind, Sheriff,” Sammy said. “Rosemary not only poisoned her husband with mushrooms grown in her back yard, but she killed her first husband and made it look like an accident.”

“You know damn well she didn’t kill Hofstadter, nor Canter. John Canter was an alcoholic. No surprise he passed out in a Jacuzzi and drowned. This whole case is a farse. And Judge Biggs shouldn’t be allowed to sit in judgment at Rosy’s trial due to his association with Hofstadter.”

Biggs was featured in Hofstadter’s last documentary: My Fat is not who I am. His Honor weighs four hundred pounds.

I’m shaking with anger as I watch Mary Lee Hofstadter being sworn in. She's Hofstadter's daughter from his first marriage and his only offspring. Mary Lee acts like a child, but she’s almost thirty. Sammy hasn’t even opened his month to ask her a question when she blurts out, “Daddy was a loving and generous man, and she killed him.” Mary Lee stabs a finger at Rosy.

Rosy’s attorney, Darrell Lincoln, shoots up out of his chair and shouts. “Objection, your Honor. Not evidentiary.”

I’m hoping to hell the jury understands the significance of “not evidentiary.” Lincoln likes to spout ten-dollar words when a five-cent one would serve better. He has a reputation for being the best lawyer in Florida, but he’s pretentious as hell, doesn’t want anyone to call him by his first name, including his wife and mama.

Prior to taking Rosy’s case, Lincoln represented an elderly man who fell on a banana peel in a grocery store and broke his hip. A jury awarded Lincoln and his client a ten-million-dollar settlement.

 Judge Biggs hammers his gavel and yells, “Sustained.”

Sammy gives a sobbing Mary Lee a tissue. She looks like an orphan in her faded jeans and yellowing white t-shirt. Her hair is greasy and uncombed. I’d feel sorry for her if I didn’t know she’s the biggest kleptomaniac in this county.

I’m hoping the jurors are privy to Mary Lee’s background, but regardless, her accusation against Rosy can never be erased from the jury’s memory.

As Hofstadter’s only offspring, Mary Lee is in line, after Rosy, to inherit everything: the million-dollar life insurance payout and all of Hofstadter’s property and film residuals, which knowing Rosy, she would have gladly shared with Mary Lee.

After Sammy asks Mary Lee a few more questions, he gives Lincoln the floor. Lincoln approaches the witness stand, smiling sympathetically, probably thinking Mary Lee can’t help but smile back, and she does.

Lincoln runs a hand through his thick blonde hair. “Ms. Hofstadter, the night your daddy died, he and Rosemary had a luncheon at their home, is that right?”

“Yes, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“Ms. Hofstadter, to make this as painless for you as possible, you need only answer yes or no.” Lincoln flashes a smile, showing off his white teeth.

Mary Lee pouts. “I did.”

Lincoln nods at Mary Lee and then faces the jury. “Those who attended the luncheon were asked to bring food or a dish, because it was a pot luck lunch, isn’t that right?”

Mary Lee glances at the judge as if he’d asked the question. “I’m not sure what kind of a thing it was.”

Lincoln walks to the jury box. “Your Honor, please instruct the witness to answer the question yes or no.”

“I’m trying, your Honor.” Mary Lee gives Biggs a wide-eyed stare. Her big, blue eyes are her best feature. She uses them to appear guileless and dumb.

“She’s trying,” Biggs says. Two members of the jury--Owen Taylor, a teacher at the high school and Faye Nell Krause, a nurse at the hospital—laugh, along with several in the courtroom.

Biggs hammers the gavel. “Try harder. Okay, Mary Lee? Repeat the question, Counsel.”

“Isn’t it true that everyone invited to the luncheon at your daddy and Rosemary’s house the day your daddy died was asked to bring a dish or something?”

“I wasn’t asked to bring anything.”

Lincoln sighs. “Your Honor, please, instruct the witness to answer the question yes or no.”

Biggs glares at Mary Lee. “Can you answer that question ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”

“I’m not sure, your honor.”

“You heard her, Counsel.” Biggs pounds the gavel. “She’s not sure. Can we move on or can you rephrase the question?”

“Yes, your Honor. Okay, Ms. Hofstadter, did you see guests bring in food to the luncheon that was held the day your daddy died?”

“I suppose so.”

“Answer yes or no, please.”

“Yes.”

“And would you agree that when guests bring a dish to a get together this is traditionally known as pot luck?”

“I guess.”

“Yes or no.”

“Okay, yes, but I don’t see…”

“And wouldn’t you also agree that someone at the luncheon, and that includes you, might have brought into the house the mushrooms that the prosecution claims killed your daddy?”

“Objection,” Sammy shouts.

“I’ll answer that your Honor,” Mary Lee says, while glaring at Rosy. “Rosemary was the one who cooked the beef stroganoff.”

Mary Lee turns around to face the jury. “Daddy was hungry. He hadn’t eaten much that day. You see, he was forced to eat small portions, because of his stomach stapling surgery. He’d lost close to a hundred pounds in just a few months.”

Lincoln leans toward Mary Lee, his white-knuckled hands gripping the sides of the witness stand. “Ms. Hofstadter, please stick to the question. Now, I’m going to try again, and I would appreciate it if you would answer yes or no.”

Mary Lee nods in agreement.

“Your daddy and Rosemary had a pot luck luncheon and guests brought in food. That we have agreed upon. Isn’t it possible that anyone attending the luncheon could have brought those mushrooms into that house?”

Mary Lee shrugs her shoulders while shaking her head, no.

“Even you, Mary Lee Hofstadter, could have brought the mushrooms into the house, which makes me wonder why you didn’t eat any of the beef stroganoff. Is it because you’ll gain financially from your daddy’s death if Rosemary is found guilty?”

Sammy stands. “Objection, your Honor.”

Lincoln points at Rosy. “Rosemary Hofstadter is a vegetarian, but you are not. So, why didn’t you eat the beef stroganoff, Mary Lee?”

Sammy hops up and down, as if he’s on a trampoline. “Objection, Counsel is badgering this young woman. He’s persecuting her, which is unconscionable. She’s not the one on trial here.”

Bigg's face turns red, almost as red as Lincoln’s tie. He hammers his gavel with such force his jowls shake. “Lincoln, one more outburst before I’ve had a chance to rule, and I’ll hold you in contempt.”

“Sorry, your honor,” Lincoln says. “I have no further questions for this witness.”

“I hate beef stroganoff,” Mary Lee says, storming off.

Next up is Michael Hofstadter’s former mistress, a budding actress who reminds me of a blonde model I’d seen in one of those Victoria’s Secret catalogues. Only this gal, Ginger Pandino, doesn’t appear to have any secrets. She’s has on a black slip that looks like a nighty. No bra.

As if on cue, Ginger Pandino dabs at her eyes and swears to tell the “whole truth and nothing but.”

Sammy walks up, looking sympathetic as if Ginger is the real widow here. I’m surprised Sammy didn’t ask Ginger to dress more conservatively. “How long have you known the deceased Michael Hofstadter?”

Ginger wipes her eyes. “We had been dating off and on for…oh…ten years.”

Sammy turns on his heels to stare at Rosy. “Are you saying you started dating him before he met and married the defendant?”

“Yes. I was in the first documentary Michael did. It was on date rape, filmed at UCLA. I was a freshman at the time.”

“Did you love Michael Hofstadter?”

“Yes,” she sobs. “Very much.”

“Did the two of you ever talk about getting married?”

“He wanted to back then, but I was only eighteen, younger than his daughter, and my folks didn’t approve. I later married a guy they approved of, but it didn’t work out.”

A large woman in front of me says, “Hussy,” loud enough to be heard.

Biggs glares in her direction and hammers his gavel. “Be quiet or remove yourself.”

Sammy continues. “So you’re saying your first marriage ended in divorce, is that right?”

“Yes, and I needed a job to support myself, so I asked Michael if he had any work for me to do.”

Sammy points to Rosy. “Was he married to the defendant at that time?”

“Yes.”

“And did Michael Hofstadter give you a job?”

“Yes, I became his assistant.”

“How would you describe your relationship with Michael Hofstadter?”

“I fought my feelings as he did, but our love was too strong, and he eventually told me he would ask his wife for a divorce.”

Rosy whispers something to Lincoln. He whispers back. Rosy shakes her head, no.

“And did Michael Hofstadter ask his wife for a divorce?”

Lincoln jumps up. “Hearsay, your Honor.”

Biggs hammers his gavel. “I’ll allow it as to what Mr. Hofstadter told this witness.”

“I’ll rephrase your honor. Ms. Pandino, did Michael Hofstadter tell you he asked his wife, the defendant, for a divorce?”

“Yes. Michael said she was furious and told him that the prenuptial she signed wasn’t worth the weeds in his garden.”

“Objection,” Lincoln shouts. “Hearsay.”

“No further questions, your Honor,” Sammy says, smiling.

Lincoln acts fidgety. His hands shake as he approaches the witness stand. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’s attracted to this Barbie femme fatale. He flashes his toothy smile.

“Ms. Pandino, what if I told you that Michael Hofstadter’s wife, Rosemary, honestly believed her husband was true to her? She believed him when he told her he was intimate with only her. She believed him when he said he loved only her. And she is prepared to testify to that in this courtroom.”

Sammy stood. “Conjecture and improper questioning of this witness, your Honor.”

“Sustained.” Biggs hammers the gavel. “If the defendant is prepared to testify, then let her.”

Lincoln tries again. “Ms. Pandino, you have admitted you entered into an adulterous affair with Mr. Hofstadter, is that correct?”

“He was married and I knew it and I dated him anyway. That is true. I let my heart rule my head, but I eventually told Michael if he loved me the way I loved him, he should get a divorce, and until Michael actually took that step, I told him I wasn’t going to see him anymore. So, I broke it off until the night Michael assured me he had asked his wife for a divorce.”

“How many months did you have an affair with Michael Hofstadter before you broke it off?”

Ginger sighs and closes her eyes. “I don’t know. As I said, I dated him way back when I was at UCLA.”

“Ms. Pandino, I need you to tell this court how many months you had an affair with Michael Hofstadter while he was married to his wife, Rosemary?”

“Six months maybe.”

“It took you six months to realize you were doing the wrong thing by entering into an adulterous affair with a married man, six months before you, all of a sudden, decided to break off your relationship with him unless he got a divorce. Come now, Ms. Pandino, do you expect this court to believe you?”

Sammy raises his arms above his head like a winning fighter. “Objection, your Honor. Counsel is badgering the witness. She has already testified as to her relationship with the victim, Michael Hoftstader.”

Biggs hammers the gavel. “Sustained, move on, Lincoln. If you don’t have anything new to offer, please conclude with this witness.”

“One last question, your Honor. Ms. Pandino, did you actually hear Michael Hofstadter ask his wife Rosemary for a divorce?”

“No, Mr. Lincoln, but he recounted the conversation to me, and knowing him as well as I did, I knew he was telling me the truth.”

“So, what you’re saying is, Michael Hofstadter told you he asked his wife for a divorce. You didn’t actually hear him ask her, and he didn’t actually swear on a Bible that he asked his wife for a divorce, isn’t that right?”

Sammy huffs like a quack less duck. “Objection, your Honor, the defendant has already answered that question.”

Biggs hammers his gavel. “Sustained.”

Lincoln props his hands on his hips. “Who knows? Maybe you did believe Michael Hofstadter was telling you the truth, Ms. Pandino. His wife Rosemary certainly believed him when he told her he was faithful to her.”

Sammy stood and approached the bench. “Ojection and should be stricken from the record.”

“Sustained.” Biggs hammers the gavel. “Have you finished with this witness, Counsel.”

“Yes, your Honor.”

All eyes seem to follow Ginger as she steps down and sashays up the aisle and out through the double doors behind me.

“Prosecution rests,” Sammy says.

Biggs hammers his gavel, and we break for lunch.

When Rosy’s trial resumes, Lincoln calls Dr. Jason Franken to the stand.

Franken is a medical doctor, a horticulturist and expert witness. His last case involved a six-year-old boy who almost died from eating “Amanita Phalloides mushrooms also known as Death Caps,” he says.

Lincoln puts a photo of Death Caps on an easel for the jury to see. To my eyes, they look like normal mushrooms, except they have white ridges on their undersides.

“One mushroom can contain enough poison to kill an adult,” Franken says. “And cooking them doesn’t neutralize the toxins.”

Lincoln offers a zip bag filled with these mushrooms into exhibition for the jury to examine. “Would you say, Dr. Franken, that someone could easily mistake these Death Cap mushrooms with those purchased in a grocery store?”

“Yes.”

“In your experience, have other adults made this mistake?”

“Yes.”

“How many adults would you say have mistaken these poisonous mushrooms from eatable ones?”

“There’s really no way of accurately estimating how many deaths and accidental poisonings occur each year from eating these things. Often the symptoms mimic the flu.”

On cross examination, Sammy tries to confuse the expert witness, but Dr. Franken appears unflappable.

After Franken steps down, Lincoln calls Towsend Wallace, the owner of Towsend’s Garden Spot. Towsend has transformed many a brown thumb into a green one with his guidance and his own brand of potting soil. More importantly, Michael Hofstadter was one of Towsend’s customers.

Lincoln asks Towsend about Hofstadter’s love of gardening.

“Michael used to say, ‘Getting my hands in dirt is therapy,’” Towsend testifies.

“Did Rosemary Hofstadter share her husband’s gift of gardening?”

“No, Rosy never seemed interested. Michael once joked she didn’t know a tomato plant from a corn stalk.”

Lincoln smiles and turns Towsend over to Sammy, who asks only one question. “With your vast knowledge of plants, wouldn’t you agree most intelligent adults would be afraid to eat a wild mushroom from their yard?”

“I eat wild mushrooms all the time,” Towsend says. “But I know the difference between one that is good for me and one that might kill me.”

As soon as Towsend leaves the witness stand, Lincoln calls Rosy’s daughter Candy to testify. Candy is Rosy’s daughter from her first marriage to John Canter. Candy was supposed to arrive earlier, but she was in the middle of her college finals.

“Thank God I made it,” she whispers to me on her way to being sworn in. Candy is wearing a simple black dress, no makeup on her face. She could be Rosy’s twin. Today she looks more fragile than her mother, if that’s possible.

As she is being sworn in, I zone out and daydream about the day I first met Rosy. I’d stopped in to say hello to Bob Messer. Bob and his wife Gladys own a dry cleaners and repair shop.

Rosy rushed in. The heel of her shoe had popped off. She handed Bob both pieces of it. The shoe looked like a glass slipper.

“I should be able to glue it and screw it,” Bob said.

“You want to screw my shoe?” Rosy asks.

To make matters worse, Gladys said, “I’m afraid you won’t be able to walk after he screws it.”

I snap back to the courtroom scene when I hear Candy sobbing. “Mother is the kindest, sweetest woman in the whole world, everyone who knows her, loves her. She wouldn’t kill a fly.” She turns to the jury. “Please, stop this persecution of my mother.”

I cringe when it's Sammy's turn to cross examine. “My condolences for the loss of your step father Candy," Sammy says. "I know you’ve suffered a great deal in your young life. You lost your own father to a tragic unexplained accident, didn’t you? Was your father’s death happenstance or something more sinister?”

Lincoln jumps up. “Objection, irrelevant and cruel, your Honor.”

Biggs hammers the gavel. “Sustained.”

“I’ll withdraw the question.”

I exhale a relieved sign when Sammy finally releases Candy. Before she leaves the courtroom, she whispers to me, "I wish I could stay. But I have to hurry back and take another test."

 Andrea Quiller, Rosy’s next-door neighbor, is called to the stand. Andrea plays the piano at Saint Paul’s Episcopal. She testifies about the luncheon at the Hofstadter home the day in question.

“There must have been at least fifty guests. Most everybody brought a dish or something. I remember thinking Michael didn’t look well. Rosy told me she thought he was losing weight too fast. She was worried about his health after he had that stomach surgery.”

On cross, Sammy asks, “Did you actually see any of the guests at the party bring in Death Cap mushrooms?”

“No, but I arrived at Rosy and Michael’s late. I brought a bean casserole.”

“Ms. Quiller, have you ever been to a pot luck lunch or supper where one of the guests brought in strange-looking mushrooms?”

“I can’t say that I have.”

“Ms. Quiller, did Rosemary Hofstadter tell you her husband, Michael Hofstadter abused her and she was miserable in that relationship?”

Andrea bites her bottom lip, but doesn’t respond.

“Ms. Quiller, do I need to repeat the question?”

Again, she hesitates and glances at Rosy. “Rosy once said Michael slapped her when he was drunk, but I think she set him straight after that.”

“What do you mean by ‘set him straight’?”

Andrea bites her lip again and turned toward the jury. “Rosy said she threatened to leave Michael if he ever hit her a second time.”

“Was Rosemary Hofstadter unhappy in her marriage?”

“No more than any of us.”

The courtroom erupts in laughter.

Biggs hammers the gavel. “Silence.”

After Andrea steps down from the stand, Lincoln calls Rosy to be sworn in. My heart hammers faster than a woodpecker in a hurry.

Tears stream down her lovely face as she clutches the oak banister in front of the witness chair. Lincoln puts his hands over hers in a touching display of compassion. “Rosemary, did you intentionally hurt Michael Hofstadter?”

“No, no, no.” Rosy swipes her tears with the backs of her hands. “I almost can’t live with myself knowing I might have cooked something for him that could have….” Rosy’s body convulses in sobs.

Lincoln hands her a box of Kleenex and says, “Do you need to take a break, Rosemary.”

Rosy shakes her head, no.

Lincoln continues. “Rosemary, I know this is difficult for you, but I need to ask you how you came to prepare the beef Stroganoff with those mushrooms that the prosecution alleges killed your husband.”

“Michael loved Beef Stroganoff. He’d been craving it. He actually stopped and picked up the sirloin the day before. I had not fixed Beef Stroganoff for him in, oh, I can’t remember when. It had been a long time. I had to refer to an old cookbook and check to see if I had all of the ingredients. I didn’t know if I had mushrooms or not, and then I happened to see them on the counter in a plastic grocery bag.”

“What time was this?”

“About six-thirty, seven.”

“Did the mushrooms look strange to you?”

“No.”

“Tell us what happened after you fixed the Stroganoff.”

Rosy covers her mouth with her trembling hands and looks down at the floor, as if gathering her thoughts. “After the luncheon, Michael went up to his study to catch up on work. I didn’t want to disturb him by calling him downstairs to eat. So, I took him a plate.”

“Did you eat with your husband while he ate?”

“I don’t eat meat, but we did have a glass of merlot together. And afterwards, I went downstairs to clean up the mess from our luncheon.”

“Did your husband complain about being sick after he ate the Stroganoff?”

“After I cleaned up the kitchen, I went back upstairs. I had a terrible headache and wanted to go to bed. I called out to Michael. He didn’t answer, but I heard the commode flush in the bathroom next to his study. The bathroom door was closed. So I knocked on the door and told him I was going to bed. I asked him if he was okay. He said he didn’t feel well. He thought he might have a bug. I asked him if he wanted me to call the doctor. He said no. I asked him if I could do anything or get him anything. He said no.”

Rosy breaks into sobs again and Lincoln waits a moment. When Rosy regains her composure, he asks, “And can you tell us what else you remember?”

“I took two Excedrin PM as I sometimes do when I have a headache and can’t sleep. I didn’t wake up until seven the next morning.”

“Where was your husband then?”

“He wasn’t in bed with me, and I thought maybe he’d fallen asleep in his lounger. When he’s working on a project at home, he often falls asleep in his study in the lounge chair.” Rosy covers her face with her hands. “But I didn’t find him in the lounger. I found him on the bathroom floor. His body felt like stone. I immediately called 911."

The faces of the jurors look sad, as if afflicted with grief. Juror Faye Nell Krause is wiping her tears.

In an effort to appear compassionate, Sammy whispers his first question to Rosy. “Isn’t it true, Rosemary, that you were angry with you husband, Michael Hofstadter? And who could blame you? He asked you for a divorce after you were forced to put up with his unacceptable behavior?”

Rosy's baby blues, swollen from crying, widen. “Michael never asked me for a divorce.”

“Do you expect this court to believe that you did not know or suspect your husband was having an affair?”

Rosy wipes her eyes. “I wanted to believe he was true to me, and I guess I believed what I wanted to believe.”

“What about those strange looking mushrooms? Do you expect this court to believe that an intelligent woman, such as yourself, would not know, or at least suspect, those Death Caps were poisonous and profoundly lethal, and especially to someone like your husband who'd had stomach surgery?”

“If I had known I never would have given them to Michael or to anyone.” Rosy’s body trembles, and she starts sobbing again.

I ball up my fists. They’re itching to punch Sammy.

To keep from hitting him, I walk outside. The cool air feels good. I take deep breaths and try to meditate. I’m out longer than I intended. By the time I make it back inside, the summations and charges to the jury have concluded.

I expect a long and tortuous wait for a judgment, but in forty-five minutes, we get word there’s a verdict. Rosy is trembling as she stands to receive it.

The bailiff hands Judge Biggs the paper with Rosy’s fate. Biggs shows no expression as he glances at it and hands the verdict to foreman Owen Taylor to read aloud.

“Not guilty on all counts,” Owen announces.

The courtroom erupts in cheers. One woman yells, "Oh, my God."

I run over, grab Rosy and swing her around.

She says, "Don't squeeze me to death, Phil," and laughs.

Lincoln makes a victory sign with his fingers.

Rosy says she needs to go to the Ladies room. Lincoln and I wait for her.

After a few moments, she walks out, looking renewed and happy. She’s put on fresh pink lipstick and her eyes look clearer.  

“The media circus is waiting,” she says. “Let get this over with.”

As we walk out to face the mob of flashing cameras and reporters, Rosy’s cell phone rings. She grabs the phone from her purse. Caller I.D. says, “Candy.”

"Hi Sweetie, the jury found me innocent," Rosy answers. "I know...but right now I have to feed the media."

A cameraman bumps Rosy. The cell phone flies from her hand. I catch it before it hits the concrete steps.

I hear Candy, still talking on the other end. Obviously, she’s unaware her Mom dropped the phone.

“I’m glad you killed that son of a bitch, Mama,” Candy says.



Sandy Semerad has worked as a newspaper reporter, broadcaster, columnist and editor, mostly in Atlanta, where she lived for many years. Since moving to Florida, she has written three novels, SEX, LOVE, AND MURDER (previously titled MARDI GRAVESTONE), HURRICANE HOUSE and her latest, A MESSAGE IN THE ROSES--loosely based on a murder trial she covered as a reporter. All of Sandy’s books have received rave reviews. Alabama born, she now lives in Santa Rosa Beach with husband Larry, their spoiled Shih Tzu P-Nut and wayward cat Miss Kitty. Sandy has two daughters and a granddaughter. 


To find out more, visit her website: www.sandysemerad.com and blog: 
Facebook fan page link: https://www.facebook.com/SandySemerad

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