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Thinking back, I'd expected to hear about petunias and peonies when Tizzy asked me to go with her to a meeting about a garden tour. Certainly not that it would lead to a gig that would once again put me in the middle of a death investigation. Now, I wondered, if I'd known what would happen, would I have done anything differently? After just a momentary pause, I knew the answer was no.

It was a Monday evening, and I'd joined Tizzy Baxter for her evening ritual of a glass of sherry at the end of her work day. Even a few drops of anything alcoholic gave me an unpleasant feeling, so I stuck to sparkling water with a twist of lemon. We toasted the end of another day, and she mentioned having to go to a meeting.

'Come with me,' Tizzy said. 'They're a friendly group, and it's better than going home and hovering over your computer.'

I had to agree with her about that. I'd managed to fix a glaring hole in the plot of the second Derek Streeter book, and I was close to the end . . . again. But it seemed my fingers still froze when I sat down at the keyboard. The first book had been a nice success, and I worried the second one would fall flat. If I never finished it, I would never have to know. It was always a trauma when I worked on my own writing. Luckily, my fingers were a lot more active when it came to the writing I did for others. As a writer for hire, I could find the right words for any situation. I wrote whatever anybody needed, from copy for websites to celebrations of life for funerals. Even with all the emails and texts, there was still a need for love letters, which it seemed people couldn't write for themselves. I always said I would write anything, as long as it was legal.

Tizzy had started out as just a member of the writing group that met once a week in my dining room. Then we'd become friends and more. Not only had she helped me with some investigations I'd become involved with, but she was always looking for ways to help me get work as a writer for hire. Unlike me, she was a social butterfly and had lots of contacts in the neighborhood. Did I really say that? Clearly a cliche, and it had come to mind so easily. But wasn't that the point of cliches?

'Which organization is this?' I asked. Tizzy seemed to be part of every committee and group in our neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.

'This one is called Friends of Hyde Park, and I'm just a fringe member, but I think there might be something that interests you.'

When she put it like that, how could I refuse? We finished our drinks and got ready to go. 'I'll tell Theo we're leaving,' she said.

Her husband, Theo, usually joined her for the evening sherry, though he had moved on to something a little stronger and had a martini. He'd recently joined the writing group, which I'd decided to call a workshop instead of a class, and he was in his study, working on his pages for the following night.

The sky still had some hints of pink from the sunset as we walked the few blocks. It was May, and the weather was still arguing with itself about the season. One day would have sultry heat, then the wind would change and the temperature would drop twenty degrees with an icy feel to the breeze. The barometric pressure went up and down abruptly. All those changes played havoc with people who had health issues. For the moment, though, the weather seemed to be taking a break from all the changes, and it was calm with a touch of cool.

Being so close to the campus of the University of Chicago meant there was always foot traffic and usually some student joggers. 'The meeting is in the ladies' parlor of the Unitarian Church,' Tizzy said and then chuckled. 'That's what I've always known it as, though I think the actual name is something else now. It would probably be considered sexist to call it a ladies' something.'

The church took up a whole corner with its imposing structure. The Perpendicular Gothic style of it fitted right into the Victorian Gothic of the university structures. It made for a lot of gray stone buildings heavy with decorative touches. Even though Unitarians were accepting of all beliefs, it looked very much like a traditional Christian church.

We followed the sound of voices and went into a meeting room that seemed steeped in a long-gone time. There were leaded glass windows, and the walls were paneled in dark wood. I was eyeing the moss-green carpet; being a writer made me notice details like that. I was always thinking about how I would describe something. It made life a lot more interesting.

A dozen seats were set up facing away from the window, and about the same number of people were wandering through them, finding a place to sit. I recognized some of the people, at least by appearance. Because of the university, a lot of people thought Hyde Park was like a small town within the city where people knew each other and sometimes too much of other people's business. Tizzy was busy introducing me to everyone as she led me to a pair of chairs.

I was eyeing the refreshment table off to the side. There were usually snacks with the sherry, but it turned out that those were all Theo's doing. Since he hadn't joined us, it had just been sherry for her and the lemon-flavored sparkling water for me. I'd been expecting to go home to dinner, and there was a definite gnawing in my stomach. I was considering checking out the table, hoping to nab something to quiet my hunger. But a woman went to the front and urged everyone to sit down. Some of them had little plates with piles of something covered in corn meal that smelled of cumin.

'That's Serena Lawrence,' Tizzy whispered. 'She's the president.'

I nodded with recognition as I had seen her around the neighborhood. I only hoped I would age as gracefully as the tall, slender woman. She had the advantage of a certain presence about her that captured my attention, and I forgot about the refreshment table.

'For any of you who missed it, we have decided to have a house and garden tour this year. It's all thanks to the efforts of our new member, Nicole Wentworth, who single-handedly has put together the plan.' She started to say something else, but instead introduced Nicole and said she would explain it all.

Nicole stood up and went to the front. She was much younger than Serena - I guessed she wasn't even thirty - but she seemed confident and in charge as she took over. Her walnut-brown hair and clothes were all in perfect order, and she didn't have the end-of-the-day rumpled look the rest of us seemed to have.

'I am so excited that you've agreed to add some houses to the garden tour,' she said. 'I have a fondness for this neighborhood, having lived here for a while when I was a kid. I really longed to see the inside of houses I knew.' She seemed very comfortable talking in front of a group and being in charge. 'I wanted to let you all know where we're at. I have the houses lined up. We'll include the Malins' townhouse, the Fellowses' house, R.L. Lincoln's place, the distinctive structure that belongs to our sponsors, Roman and Ruth Scrivner, and the house of our local literary lion, Landon Dante. I talked it over with the other members, and we decided to put together a booklet with information about each house and something about the inhabitants. There will be photographs of the interior as well.'

Tizzy raised her hand and then stood up, sending a ripple through her yellow-and-blue kimono top. 'If you need someone to craft the copy, I have someone for you.' She pointed at me, and I felt an embarrassed flush as everyone turned to stare. 'Stand up,' my friend said, waving her hands.

I followed her orders, trying to will myself to stay calm and talk slowly. The two parts of my work I found hard to deal with were moments like this when I had to pitch my talents and when it came to discussing money. This was even more uncomfortable because I was interrupting. The only choice seemed to be to seize the moment. 'Of course, I'd be glad to be considered,' I said, before bringing up that I was local and reeling off some of my experience. I hesitated to mention the love letters since I had no intention of being specific about the content or who they'd been written for. I saw people nod and make acknowledging sounds when I listed several menu items at LaPorte's that I'd written descriptions of and an artist memoir I was quite proud of.

'We'll have to talk,' Nicole said, taking back control of the floor. Tizzy and I sat down, and I felt another flush of embarrassment.

Sentenced to Death
by Betty Hechtman

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