Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery (10 page)

BOOK: Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery
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“I know I’ve been flip-flopping with Caroline on this business deal—because of my own financial situation. I’m sorry if I misled her and I’m flattered that you both have such faith in me, but I don’t think this is the right time for me. I can’t start another business, especially such a risky one, when the one I have is on such shaky ground.”

He shook his head in resignation, as if he knew my answer before he’d even asked. I made a move to get up but stopped short when I heard the sound of tires crunching on the gravel outside. And then a muffled voice.

“Kill the lantern,” I whispered.

Eleven

I prayed it wasn’t a tabloid reporter out to snag an unflattering photo of the Fugitive Mom’s Philandering Husband! Because that would make me the Mistress and Two-Timing Floozy who betrayed her friend!

We sat still, barely breathing for what felt like twenty minutes but was probably only five. A spider crawled over my forearm and, not wanting to make a sound, I let it despite the fact that I really wanted to scream. I tried to blow it away.

The angled beam from a flashlight moved slowly and methodically over the outside of the building. Grant and I hunkered down trying to appear smaller and less human to anyone who might be peering through the filthy panes. Another vehicle pulled up fast and stopped, spraying gravel on the nursery’s glass doors. Great, the cameraman was arriving; if the reporter was a fast writer, we could be on the eleven o’clock news.

The front door creaked open as it had when I’d arrived. Someone stepped on the same debris I’d stepped on, sending a field mouse scurrying,
filling the air with the scent of oregano and getting closer to the back of the building. Then, a young and nervous-sounding voice called out to us. “Springfield Police! Springfield Police! Who’s back there?”

The tension broke like it does on a close, humid day when it finally rains. Grant and I breathed easier. He even choked out a laugh, and he fumbled to turn the lantern back on, knocking it over in the process. The flashlight stopped moving.

“It’s Paula Holliday and Grant Sturgis,” I yelled. “We didn’t break in. Grant has the combination.” I blurted it all out in about five seconds, not wanting to get shot accidentally by one of Springfield’s newest cops.

The boy ranger, who’d stumbled upon me and Caroline Sturgis’s distraught husband, managed not to shoot either of us, although we did have a scary moment when one of Guido’s old wicker baskets fell on his head and he swung around, ready to pounce, as if he’d been attacked from behind.

After six months of classes and the same amount of time spent in field training, the rookie had wisely called for backup before entering the building. That was the second car, which had been on a routine patrol not far away. The two cops made another call once the four of us were assembled outside Guido’s nursery. Now that we were outside Guido Chiaramonte’s derelict nursery, I could read the name on the young cop’s badge, Officer J. Berry, the same cop I’d seen at Babe’s.

“My sergeant says there have been a number of break-ins in the area recently, and we should bring you down to the station house
just in case
.”

“Just in case
what,
Officer Berry?” I said. “There are some bulbs missing from Guido’s?”

“No need to get belligerent, ma’am.”

Oh, brother.
Belligerent
? There was that training manual word again. Humor was pointless. Sarcasm was pointless. We were dealing with RoboCop. Was there anything more disgustingly earnest than the
newbie—in any field—who had all the rules and regulations freshly imprinted on his brain but none of the logic, experience, or common sense?

Berry and the other officer, a female named Carson, herded us into the backs of the two patrol cars. They had to be kidding. It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so annoying.

Carson drove Grant. I sat in silence, while Officer Berry, who I’d now started to think of as Juniper Berry, drove me through town to the courthouse/police station complex behind the hospital. The cops pulled into two of the reserved parking spots alongside the building and walked us around through the front entrance, swaggering as if they had just apprehended Bonnie and Clyde.

Grant and I were parked on a bench near a very large soda machine that managed to throw off quite a lot of cold air. Berry and Carson checked us in with a few words to the desk sergeant, then they exited through a back door. We sat there, freezing, for over an hour. I paced and read every flyer on the slatted bulletin board. I learned about National Lock Up Your Meds Day and what ingredients might be purchased if the buyer was planning to manufacture meth, which struck me as a mini-tutorial that you might not want to post in a public place that had a steady stream of criminal types—but, hey, what did I know?

A short, unhappy-looking woman came in and quietly asked for her thirteen-year-old daughter’s police report. Good grief, thirteen-year-olds with police reports? Whatever happened to the good old days when they just shoplifted?

Behind the Plexiglas barrier, another woman, who didn’t appear to be a cop but wore an SPD T-shirt, asked what the kid had done.

“She trashed my house.”

Tough love or mom from hell? Who can say? I silently thanked my own mother for never having had me arrested.

Just then a young guy barreled through the heavy front doors. He
had dirty blond hair flattened over one eye in a style made popular by lead singers from bands I never listened to and only knew about from meanderings on YouTube. He wore a tan hooded jacket with lots of pockets, and his massive book bag bore the logo from the
Springfield Bulletin
. Grant instinctively looked down, and I pretended to be mesmerized by the age-progressive images of some kids missing since 1994.

“Hey, Sarge. Got anything for me?” the guy said. He looked at us briefly and must have dismissed us as “marital dispute.” Not interesting unless one spouse was dead or maimed, hopefully in a colorful way. He ignored us.

Behind the civilian employee, a man I took to be the desk sergeant shook his head and the young man spun on his heel and left before the heavy doors had fully closed. That was a break.

In the space of thirty minutes I’d eaten a very stale package of peanut butter and cheese crackers and downed three bottles of water from the station’s soda machine. If they didn’t see us soon I’d be moving on to the corn chips. I’d had enough. I approached the desk sergeant.

“Excuse me, Officer.”

He pretended I wasn’t there for at least two minutes, something I remembered from snooty hostesses in restaurants who sometimes mistook rudeness for exclusivity. But the Springfield police department headquarters was not a velvet-rope joint. There, the tactic might have been used intentionally to make people feel powerless. Which it did.

Not famous for my patience, I tapped my toes, I jiggled the keys in my pocket, I sighed heavily, I turned around to look at Sturgis and made a twisted, eyes-crossed face. Finally the cop acknowledged my presence.

“It’s sergeant,” he said, tapping the nameplate on the counter with his pencil. “Sergeant Frank Stamos.”

“Right. Sergeant Stamos. We’ve been here for a pretty long time.
Are we being charged with something? Because, if not, I’d like to go home. And I’m sure my friend here feels the same way.” I waited for Grant to back me up, but he just sat there, forearms on his knees, staring at his shoes.

Stamos looked at me as if everyone he met when he was behind that glass said the same thing: I want to go home. And he answered the same way. “Just be patient, ma’am. Have a seat and the investigating officer should be here any minute.”

“Investigating what? Two people talking? A business deal?” I was getting worked up. Not a good thing under the circumstances. I’d already been borderline
belligerent
with the first cop.

Grant rescued me. He came to the desk and without saying a word, clamped a hand on my elbow, and led me back to the wooden bench like a child who’d strayed too far in the playground. The only thing missing was one of those kid leashes that have come back into fashion. Stamos left the counter and went back to shuffling the papers on his desk.

“Word to the wise,” Grant said softly. “Don’t protest anything in a police station or in an airport. You should have seen me here last week. I pulled a Howard Dean. Everything I said was true, but I came off looking and sounding like a crazy man.”

“C’mon,” I whispered. “This is Connecticut, not Iraq.” Then I realized that to Grant, it probably did feel like Iraq.
Or hell
. His wife had been arrested, his children sent away for their own good, and he couldn’t get anyone to help him. Even me, who was supposed to be his wife’s friend.

From the back of the station house, two hospital-style doors swung open and Juniper Berry entered the waiting area with Mike O’Malley.

“I might have known,” I said, jumping up. “What’s going on here? Are you guys having a slow night at the office, or is this the quaint local way of asking for a date?”

O’Malley appeared puzzled and bemused at the same time.

“If I ever do ask you for a date, Ms. Holliday, I don’t think I’ll send a patrol car to pick you up. I have my own wheels.”

Crap, had I really said that out loud? I felt like a prize idiot.

“Mr. Sturgis, you’re free to go with our apologies,” he said. “Officer Berry was acting appropriately and entirely within the law bringing you both in until someone from Rhodes Realty could confirm that you were authorized to be on the Chiaramonte property. Which they just did.”

Sturgis nodded but wisely stuck to his game plan and said nothing. He folded his coat over his arm and asked if someone was available to take him back to his car, which was still at Guido’s. O’Malley said of course, and chucked his chin at Berry.

“I’ll meet you out front,” Berry said, and went out through the back, closer to where he’d parked his vehicle.

Grant’s red-rimmed eyes bored into my skull. “I’m driving over to see Caroline now. They’re sending her back to Michigan tomorrow. Can I tell her you’ll do that off-season job for us?” His hand was on the doorknob, but he was rooted to the spot, waiting for my answer. “Just until she comes home?”

I turned to O’Malley. “Do I get to go home, too, or did you want to put me in a lineup?”

“Did anyone say you were being arrested? Were you given a Breathalyzer test? Were you handcuffed? Did we take you around to the back of the station house and beat you with a rubber hose? I just thought you might want to stick around, get a cup of coffee, and tell me your side of the story,” O’Malley said. “Why are you so testy? Anyone would think you hadn’t—” He didn’t finish the thought. He didn’t have to. And anyone listening would have known where that crack was going. Stamos coughed to stifle a laugh.

“If I’m testy,
Officer
, it’s because I’m hungry—no other reason. I had half a piece of cake and some partially hydrogenated cheese and crackers for dinner. And there is no story, my side or otherwise. Mr. Sturgis was
simply hoping to surprise Caroline when she gets home and he asked me to work on a project for her. To do some digging.”

“It’s
sergeant,
but I think you know that,” O’Malley said. “I didn’t think gardeners planted at this time of year.”

“Well, that’s where you’re wrong. There’s plenty of digging in the fall—bulbs, shrubs.” I prattled on, looking from one man to the other—one joking and flirting, the other having the worst week of his life.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Berry pull up outside in the patrol car. He flashed his lights to let Grant know he was waiting. Grant stared at me, silently begging me to help him.

“There’s another kind of digging. And I’ve decided to do it.”

Twelve

Now that we were no longer deemed a threat to society, Officer Berry drove both of us to the nursery in one patrol car. We rode in the backseat, Grant lost in his thoughts and me lost in mine.

I’d said I’d “do some digging” to spite Mike, to suggest that, once again, I would do his job better than he could; but now I wished the words had never left my lips. Grant Sturgis seemed relieved that I’d agreed to help him, but he didn’t need me; he needed a lawyer, a private investigator. Damn it,
a psychic
would be more useful than a freaking gardener.

Once Berry had dropped us off, we were able to talk freely.

“Grant, I’ll do what I can, but I can’t make any promises. This is really out of my league. I’ll give it some thought and be in touch. What’s better for you, e-mail or phone?”

“Phone.”

I plugged his cell number into my phone and he thanked me profusely.
I hadn’t done anything, except perhaps given him an ally and some hope, but maybe that was all he needed.

By then, I really was ravenous. I drove to the Paradise, slowing down to check out the parking lot first. No news trucks was good news for me, so I pulled in. Babe was alone behind the counter reading the
Bulletin
. A handful of familiar faces were scattered around the diner, but none bothered to look up as I entered.

“Where have
you
been?” Babe asked.

“For the last two hours…downtown at the Springfield police station.”

“Let me guess. You’re not really Paula Holliday. You’re Princess Diana and you’ve been in hiding all these years.”

“That’s hilarious,” I said, faking the cupped royal wave. “When are you getting your own HBO special?” I climbed onto one of the stools at the counter and reached my arms over my head in a long catlike move. I pushed down on each elbow for a deeper stretch.

“That’s a good one. Neil stretches me like that.” Babe offered me coffee, but it was too late for caffeine.

“Got any herb tea?”

“Sure, indoor plumbing and everything.” She swept aside the newspapers and laid out a setup for me—place mat, paper napkin origami-ed around the utensils, and a mug.

“Any of that cake left?” I asked, really wanting food but needing a treat.

“Dream on.”

It was after 11
P.M.
but I ordered a turkey wrap and looked at the headlines on the
Springfield Bulletin
while I waited for Pete to create his latest culinary masterpiece, Instant Thanksgiving—turkey, cranberry sauce, and a sliver of sweet potato wrapped in a piece of flatbread. One bite and you could almost hear a football game and bickering relatives in the background.

BOOK: Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery
5.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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