Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery (4 page)

BOOK: Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery
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“Shabby? I’m cutting you off. Pete, no more taste testing for Paula,” she yelled.

Moments later, Eyebrow Girl pushed through the door, butt first, muttering, with two trays of cups and small plates, one of them precariously balanced on her forearm. Something on her sleeve, or maybe her studded leather cuff, snagged on the door handle and one of the trays flew out of her hands like an oversized Frisbee. The other one fell with a clatter, splashing beverages up in the air like minigeysers.

“Holy shit!” she said, laughing and only half covering her mouth, in deference to the father sitting at the counter, who gave her a disapproving look and covered his toddler’s ears as if the kid could recognize a naughty word at that tender age.

No one was hurt and just a few were splattered by the mug puddles; someone applauded. I’ve never quite understood that. Is that supposed to make the person feel better?
Yes, I am a klutz and a loser, thank you for acknowledging. I feel so much better.

The bearded trucker who’d spoken to Caroline was closest to the door, and he got up to help the girl who was crab walking in a circle collecting the items she’d dropped. He said something to her, and it was the first time I’d ever seen the kid crack a smile, although she went to some pains to hide it.

Babe came around from behind the counter and picked up the cups and plates that had traveled farthest. “All right, Mr. Nice Guy, you’ve redeemed yourself for your formerly boorish behavior. Go eat your food before it gets cold. I’ll get this.”

“Don’t worry, Terry, it’s no big deal,” she whispered, bending down to help the girl. “Doesn’t really count unless you send one of them to the emergency room.” She handed the girl a soggy five-dollar bill. “Take
your tip and go wash your hands.” Babe brought the mess back to the counter near where I was sitting with my coffee and waiting for my order.

“Look at this. Pete makes these phenomenal, food orgasm muffins and the Moms barely touch them. They don’t need utensils, they need scalpels.”

The cranberries had been picked off and a thin layer of crust was almost surgically shaved off the tops. I remembered that calorie reduction tip well.

used to be like that,” she said. “A damn picky eater. Before you got some sense.”

Sense. To Babe that meant ordering the waffles. Or the cake or the sundae or whatever it was you really wanted. Whether it was food, men, or adventures, Babe did not believe in living a life of denial.

“These women,” she said, motioning to the group outside. “I still don’t get some of them.” She cleared off the tray and put the cups and dishes in a rubber basin underneath the counter.

“So what is it the queen of the cul-de-sacs wants you to do now? Plant marigolds in the shape of clinking martini glasses?” Babe was referring to my first fall in Springfield when Caroline had asked for tulips planted in the shape of giant crossed tennis rackets. Which worked out well until, inevitably, they flopped over and resembled nothing more than an enormous handlebar mustache.

“That’s very creative,” I said. “I may offer that next year. I could do martini glasses. Champagne flutes should go over well during bridal season.” I was semiserious.

“You remember last spring when Caroline was calling me three times a day,” I said, “and practically stalking me here at the diner?” Babe nodded.

“She’s got some notion to buy Guido Chiaramonte’s old nursery. And she’s written a business plan, which I have foolishly agreed to take a look
at. She’d have a garden gift shop and I’d offer design services. We’d collaborate on special projects.”

“Sounds good. What’s wrong with that?”

“They want two million dollars for the property, and it probably needs another five hundred thousand just to open the doors. She wants to front the money and put it all in my name.”

That raised an eyebrow. She looked around as if to appraise her own lot with its charming waterfront view. What was her lakeside property worth? One million? More? “Okay. Unusual but, I repeat, what’s wrong with that?”

I couldn’t put my finger on it, but in my gut there was something about Caroline’s plan that didn’t sit right with me. It was too good to be true, like those Nigerian e-mail scams—
just send me the postage, my friend, and we will split a fortune.
My knee-jerk reaction was to say no. But that was generally my knee-jerk reaction to things—not unlike the overcautious lawyer who says, “We could have a problem there….” There is no problem, but there could be one.

That was also the reason I owned a ten-year-old car, a fifteen-year-old television, and a four-year-old cell phone that the company’s Web site refers to as a “legendary” model. It took me awhile to say yes to new things.

“C’mon, what’s the downside?” Babe said. “I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but she’s loaded and you’ve got two, maybe three nickels to rub together.”

And where does
expression come from? Why would anyone want to rub two nickels together? Are they supposed to make babies if you rub them together? From anyone else, I would have been offended, but Babe was close to the truth. I was fantasizing about an island trip, but I was treading water financially. It happened every year at this time. I sucked it up, ate big breakfasts—the least expensive and most filling meal of the
day and frequently free, if Pete had gotten a new cookbook or watched a new cooking program. I had soup for dinner and generally lost my three or four donut pounds by the time garden season rolled around. Not the end of the world, lots of mammals put on a layer of fat and hibernated for the winter.

I nursed my third cup of coffee and picked at Pete’s all-American waffle—strawberries, blueberries, and heaps of powdered sugar—when the truckers finished and came to the counter to settle up. The bearded guy was last to pay. He lingered at the register to talk to Babe after his pals left. He motioned outside to where Caroline had been sitting.

“I don’t suppose you’d like to tell me that pretty lady’s name?”

“Who’s that?” Babe said.

“He means Caroline,” Eyebrow Girl said, trying to be helpful.

“Caroline? That was the woman I was talking to?”

The young girl nodded. She didn’t understand Babe’s hesitation. Who else could he have meant?

“Sure,” Babe said. “She’s Mrs. Caroline I’ve-got-a-big-dog-an-even-bigger-husband-and-a-security-system-the-Pentagon-would-be-proud-of. Who wants to know?”

The trucker held up his hands in mock supplication. “Wow. What are you, her bodyguard? Forget it. No biggie. I’ll catch up with
next time.”

He held up two fingers in a peace sign and backed out of the diner with a smile. Once outside, he zipped his jacket, took a last look around, and then strolled past the last of the Main Saint Moms now reloading their kids into their cars. He tipped his hat theatrically and made his way over to his truck, where his buddy was waiting for him.

“I must be slipping,” Babe said, inspecting her reflection in the small fridge behind the counter. “Not to be conceited, but usually they want
number. Maybe it was a mistake sucking up to the velvet headband crowd. Too much competition.”

“Like you’ve ever been worried about competition. You think he was hitting on Caroline?”

“Who knows? If the Paradise can bring two people together, my work is done. I’m not one to stand in the way of either true love or unbridled lust. No judgments here. I was just looking out for her. He could have been a serial killer.”

I’d heard Babe say that a hundred times. As friendly as she was, the first time she met anyone, he was a potential mass murderer until she had evidence to the contrary. Coming from a large city, I tended to agree with her.

“I don’t know,” she said, “baseball hat, long hair, even the peace sign. Sometimes there’s a thin line between cool and creepy. And who wants to be responsible for giving a friend’s name and address to the next Hannibal Lecter? Am I right?”

“You’re getting dangerously close to profiling. What would the Maharishi say?”

“He was before my time, wise guy. I’m just saying the guy looked like he should be on his way to a Grateful Dead reunion, not sniffing around a white-gloved suburban lady, who, by the way, is still happily married as far as I know. If I’m wrong and either of them is interested, it’s their business to pursue, not mine to facilitate. He may be back anyway. I think he was driving for the same company as Retro Joe.”

Retro Joe was hard to miss. Despite the fact that he was over sixty years old and 100 percent gray, he sported an oiled pompadour with a big curl on his forehead that swirled like the inside of a nautilus shell or the top of a soft ice cream cone. In the summer he wore his sleeves rolled up tight on his biceps. Mercifully, it was fall and we were spared the peculiar sight of his ashen skin stretched over surprisingly cut muscles.

“Joe’s here a few times a month. Works for two or three different companies depending on where he feels like driving and where the next
Elvis tribute concert was being held. I’ll ask him about his new colleague the next time he’s in.”

I teased her again about betraying her Woodstockian peace, love, and music roots, but Babe was right to be cautious. One town over, an elderly woman brought in her luxury car for a tune-up and wound up dead at the hands of the mechanic’s greedy girlfriend, who bludgeoned her with a tire iron after the older woman thoughtlessly failed to have any jewelry or money to steal.

So much for things being quieter in the suburbs.


The next day, I was home packing for the marathon wedding trip when Gretchen Kennedy called. Gretchen was one of the real estate agents I was counting on to keep me in big breakfasts and soup throughout the long Connecticut winter.

“I didn’t even know they were thinking of selling the company,” she said. I could hear the long, deep exhale of her cigarette smoke. “Two offices are merging, that’s the official story. I’ll still have my properties, but you know how it is. There’s a glut in the market right now. Sellers aren’t selling and buyers aren’t buying. People keep waiting for things to bottom out.”

Hadn’t they bottomed out yet? I tried hard to share her pain but wanted her to get to the point. How would it affect our arrangement? Would there be more work? Finally she blurted it out. “The curb appeal trick won’t work for the new listings I’ve inherited. These are distress sales—condos and townhouses without a Chia Pet, much less a garden. They’re less expensive and I’ve a better chance of moving them before the
junior exec minimansions you’ve been helping me with. In this economy…” She took a long drag on her cigarette and babbled on, but I’d stopped listening. I was getting tired of hearing sentences starting with that phrase. And I was tired of delivering them, too.
In this economy
, landscaping was one of the first things cut when people economized. A lot of people thought they could handle it themselves—and they
do it themselves—if they lived in an apartment with two hanging plants and an air fern. Otherwise it was as lunatic as trying to cut your own hair. Suburban homeowners needed me or someone like me, but it wasn’t always easy to make the case. The women got it, but the men were harder to convince. They thought ten minutes with a flashy power mower was all any home needed until they tried it and gave up halfway through to watch the big game, even if the big game that day was a Norwegian curling competition.

“You’ve had two or three jobs a week for me for the last two months. Are you saying that’s dried up?” She didn’t have to say any more. It was as if a lover had told me he needed his space. I got the message: she’d call me if and when business picked up.

I stopped packing and went online to check my bank account. In the spring and summer, Anna Jurado looked after me. She kept the books, made sure I got paid, made sure I ate, and generally took over the role of older sister and
from March until October, when she and Hugo went back to Mexico for the winter. It would be four months, maybe five with next to no money coming in, just a few upcoming jobs and outstanding invoices—and they wouldn’t cover one large heating oil delivery. Maybe I should have gone to Mexico and worked for them.

I wasn’t anyone’s idea of a spendthrift but I could economize. I’d turn down the thermostat and wear a sweater in the house, like Mr. Rogers. I’d get a dog to keep me warm at night, one that didn’t eat much. Or three, like the Eskimos. Wasn’t that how the band Three Dog Night got its name? Three dogs would keep you warm on a really cold
night. (I’d have to ask Babe.) I’d run my car on waste vegetable oil from the diner…once I learned how to do that.

No I wouldn’t. And I wouldn’t get three dogs either. One, tops.

Grimly, I tallied up what the wedding trip was going to cost. Perhaps I could take home a very large doggie bag for my not yet acquired dog. Why didn’t people elope anymore? It was so colorful and romantic. And so much cheaper for one’s friends. I barely remembered this woman. How had I allowed myself to be roped into going to her wedding?

Caroline Sturgis’s business proposition was starting to sound better. I dialed her home number but the phone rang off the wall.

The next morning before I left I tried again. “At the request of the customer, this number has been temporarily disconnected.”


The wedding was a gaudy, over-the-top affair that was desperate to be featured in the Vows section of the Sunday
New York Times.
It wasn’t. I was happy to escape early on Sunday before the last round of ostentatious celebrating, which over the course of the weekend had me alternating between feeling pathetically single, righteously indignant about all the waste, and shockingly poor. I hadn’t shared my financial concerns with Lucy, but that five-year-old black sleeveless sheath I wore told the tale.

I dropped Lucy at her apartment, not intending to stay, but she dragged me upstairs and forced three glossy shopping bags into my hands. Recent acquisitions or retail therapy gone awry, many of the items still had tags on them.

“It’s too late to return these, but they’ll look better on you than they do on me anyway.” I peeked in one of the bags—a sequined jumpsuit, a velvet miniskirt, and a huge red patent-leather handbag with so many grommets on it I’d be surprised if they’d let me through airport security
with it. Not that I was going anywhere. What did she think my life was like these days? Could I weed in a sequined jumpsuit? The next bag was more promising—a few sweaters and a huge white fur hat, which would come in handy if I happened to get the lead in the local theater group’s production of
Dr. Zhivago
, but would otherwise just collect dust in my closet. I thanked her.

BOOK: Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery
12.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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