Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery (9 page)

BOOK: Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery
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Early on, nearby residents worried the nursery would be sold to a developer who’d raze it and put up a multiple-dwelling housing unit, but sewage issues and zoning restrictions put the brakes on that idea. For the last two years nothing much had happened except that a few windows had been broken, some graffiti had appeared, and Guido’s remaining stock had either died; been stolen; or, the way plants sometimes do, burst through their burlap sacks and thin plastic nursery pots and put down roots right where they had been displayed for sale.

About a year earlier, the bank posted a
for sale
sign, fueling rumors that the IRS was selling Guido’s assets to claim back taxes—no real surprise—but there were few nibbles. Except from Caroline Sturgis.

The price tag was two million dollars for a house, the greenhouse, and a shop on two acres. That was where Caroline had seen our new partnership taking root. And that was where Grant Sturgis thought he and I should meet, since his house was still being staked out by the media and mine was out of the question.

Springfield had a flinty and very savvy real estate broker named Roxy Rhodes. A tiny woman, she powered around town behind the wheel of a cream-colored Bentley with vanity plates and wore tight suits and lots of jewelry, including a ring with the initials RR in diamonds, which would have looked like brass knuckles on anyone else her size, but somehow she pulled it off.

Unlike Gretchen Kennedy’s real estate office, Roxy never needed my quickie curbside face-lifts for her listings. They all had sticker prices of well over a million dollars and they were staged as carefully as movie sets. And Roxy could smell interest in a property the way a dog could smell a slice of pizza. Caroline had reeked of serious interest, so Roxy had given her the combination to the locked box on the door of Guido’s main building. She let Caroline go in as often as she liked, to measure things and fantasize, until Roxy knew Caroline was so emotionally invested in the place that she couldn’t live without it. I’d passed the place a number of times and seen Caroline’s car in the small lot near the main building.

Caroline had written the combination on the massive whiteboard in her kitchen, and that must have given her husband the idea that we could meet there and not be seen.

I’d agreed to meet him that night—less vehicular traffic than in the daytime and less of a chance the neighborhood kids roughhousing on their way from their school bus stop would be nosing around the nursery
as they sometimes did. In the meantime I went home to eat, change, and figure out what I was going to say to a man who’d just been told that his wife wasn’t the person he thought.

My house wasn’t a Roxy Rhodes home. It was a small bungalow well beneath her customary price range and probably unsalable to anyone with serious money or a family because of its small size and quirky layout. But it served a single woman well, especially one who had few pieces of furniture and few friends in the area. And it had a lovely garden that bordered a bird sanctuary on one side and a protected wetlands on another.

At about 8:30 I grabbed an old leather bomber jacket from the closet and headed back out. My place was only fifteen minutes from Guido’s, but I parked four blocks away and walked the rest to escape anyone’s notice. There was one car in the lot of the deli, diagonally across from the nursery. Probably the deli clerk’s. Now that I was one of them, I didn’t know how any of these small businessmen stayed alive.

The last time I’d been to Guido’s, I’d found the proprietor with a garden tool stuck in his back. It hadn’t been pleasant. I took a deep breath and tried the door. It creaked open, the locked box from the real estate office hanging, opened, on a rusty hinge.

The front of the store, about twenty by twenty, held an unplugged refrigerated unit and a small cash and wrap area I remembered well. I flashed back to the way it had looked when Guido Chiaramonte was still alive, with dozens of Styrofoam crosses and funeral wreaths hanging from the ceiling. In color, instead of the black and white created by time, dust, and death.

A few wicker baskets and metal cemetery pots, now covered with cobwebs, still hung on the pegboard walls. The store was dark and smelled faintly of something familiar that I couldn’t put my finger on. Sixty feet away at the far end of the barracks-like building, I saw a quivering blue light.

My cell phone rang and I fished it out of my backpack; I didn’t recognize the number.

“Hello?”

“I hope that’s you out there.”

My sentiments exactly. Grant Sturgis was calling from the back of the nursery. I tiptoed over broken pots, weeds that had cropped up through the pea gravel, and the occasional lump of something that felt like a squished pinecone but might have been a dead mouse. My boots crushed some vegetation that blanketed the floor. Then I recognized the smell. It was oregano, covering the ground like a thick carpet and releasing its fragrance every time I stepped on a clump. In the back of the building, Grant Sturgis sat huddled at an old potting table, clutching his phone. He flicked on a Coleman lantern he must have brought from home. The shadows it threw on his face made him look only more haggard.

“Thanks for coming,” he said, pointing to a chair.

“I’m not sure how long I can stay. I’m not really the nervous type, but this place is a little creepy.” I pulled out the desk chair and used an old seed catalog I found on the table to brush off the dust as best as I could. Then I sat down.

Sturgis looked as if he hadn’t slept since the last time I saw him, rocking back and forth on his family room sofa. I thought of asking how he was, but even in the dark I could see he looked like crap, so it was pointless to ask.

“Why am I here?”

Grant blew out deeply as if emptying his lungs of all air like a leaking balloon. He cleared his throat and began to speak.

“Two weeks ago I had a wonderful life,” he said, shaking his head. “People kept telling me I had the best of both worlds. I must have heard that dozens of times over the years.”

I bet he had. He had his own successful consulting business, which
seemed impervious to the economic downturn; he traveled as much as he wanted, whenever he wanted; and he had a wonderful family to come home to. A year or so ago Caroline had suspected he was having an affair, but happily it turned out to be a misunderstanding. Their marriage seemed to be a good one. Until this.

He composed himself. “And then something happens that you’d never expect in a million years. You think if something is going to happen, it’ll be to one of your kids—heaven forbid, an accident, drugs, some weird Internet business. You never think it’s going to be something—” He broke down a little, then shook it off.

I felt for him, I really did. I also felt the dust in the room resettling on my face and in my eyes. I hated being there and ached to get away, but there was no tactful way to do it while the poor man was spilling his guts. And in a perverse way, like the drivers who couldn’t help but look at the aforementioned roadkill, I wanted to hear what he had to say. What did he want from me?

“You know how Caroline and I met?” he asked. “We were in South Beach. She was one of those sun-kissed girls in a bikini top and shorts having coffee and reading the paper at a hip café on Ocean Drive.”

He told me that she was on her own in Florida, and so was Grant. After three days of furtive smiles and shy waves, he worked up the courage to talk to her and was in heaven when she didn’t shoot him down. She told him she’d recently graduated from Bloedell University in Oregon and that she was an orphan, raised by her maternal grandmother who’d just died. The grandmother had left her a little money and she was in Florida trying to decide what to do next—go to graduate school or travel around.

Pretty clever, in retrospect. Oregon was as far away from Florida as you could get, and she claimed to have gone to a small school where not many people were likely to say, “Oh, you must know so-and-so.”

And she had her own money.

“She even said something about the Oregon Beavers and I believed her. It was all a lie. She’s not an orphan. Her mother is dead but her father and brother still live in Michigan. A town called Okemos.”

Half of him was angry and the other half shattered. What must it be like to learn that everything you thought you knew about your spouse was untrue? That you didn’t really know her at all? If the rest of Springfield was in shock, what was Grant Sturgis feeling?

“Her father’s an alcoholic. God knows what her brother does, but what kind of guy in his forties still lives with his father?”

“Maybe her father is sick and the brother is looking after him.” It was weak, but I wasn’t ready to join the chorus of Caroline bashers just yet. “I don’t know, Grant, this is personal stuff. I probably shouldn’t be hearing it.”

“Personal? I may never have anything personal again. My life’s been splattered all over the newspapers. Total strangers are
blogging
about me, for God’s sake. Morons on AOL are posting comments about my life. Do you know the names they’re calling the mother of my children?”

I didn’t know, but I could guess. The few times I was dumb enough to read anyone’s comments on AOL, I was convinced there must be Internet cafés in every prison and mental institution in the country—the remarks were that irrational, uninformed, and frequently violent and hateful. I tried to calm him down. I slung my bag around to the back of the seat, leaned over, and took both his hands in mine.

“The Caroline we know is a good woman. She’s raised two beautiful kids and she’s been a good wife to you. Whatever she did in the past, she did when she was young and stupid. Surely a judge will see that.”

“That’s what we’re hoping,” he said. “I’m hoping to get Mickey Cameron’s firm to represent her. Us.”

I knew little about lawyers. I’d started my corporation with a form downloaded from the Internet, but I recognized the firm’s name from
Cameron’s guest appearances on Justice TV and his large white building on the corner of Peachtree and Cummings streets. From the quality of his landscaping, he probably charged his clients a bundle.

“So she’s in good hands,” I said. “I know it’s presumptuous of me to say this, but you have to try not to worry. Think about your kids. Where are they, anyway? Are they here in Springfield?”

He shook his head. “At my mother’s in Tucson. I sent them there this afternoon.”

“That’s good,” I said, patting his hands, then pulling mine back to flick away a spider that had dropped down theatrically right in front of my face.

“Okay, I’ll get to the point,” he said. “I want you to find out who did this. Who wrecked our lives.”

“Me? Can’t the police tell you?”

He shook his head. “They don’t know anything and they have no jurisdiction. All they’ll tell me is that it was an anonymous tip. I don’t know if they’d tell me even if they knew.”

My first thought was,
Who cares
?
Shouldn’t you be thinking of your wife now
? Then I realized he was thinking of her. And he wanted to crush whoever it was that had done this to her.

“I’d like to help, really, but I don’t think I’m what you need. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“You found that dead girl, didn’t you?”

That girl again. She just wouldn’t stay dead and buried. Maybe it was because her fate was unknown for so long that people keep remembering Yoly Rivera, the girl I’d finally sent home and put to rest, closing the books on a local mystery that had baffled members of the Springfield police department for more than thirty years. Two mysteries, really. A missing girl and a mummified baby. It had been in all the papers, even as far away as Boston and New York, and had gotten me a certain
amount of notoriety in Springfield. Might have even helped my business a bit. But it wasn’t what I did for a living. He needed a professional. And I told him so.

Grant choked his way through a laugh and shook his head. “Where do you think we live, L.A.? It’s not as if there are gumshoes on every corner in this town. Besides—you’re smart. I know you’re fond of Caroline, otherwise you wouldn’t have said what you just did. You’re the only new friend she’s made in ages and…and Caroline trusts you.”

So she
had
told him she’d confided in me about his alleged affair. He wasn’t wrong, I did like Caroline, but this was serious business, not something for a dilettante. If Grant Sturgis was really going to pursue his hunt for the tipster—and I wasn’t sure he should—he needed an experienced, licensed private investigator, not a gardener who knew how to do a Google search. Grant spoke before I could say another word.

“And I’ll pay you.
Very
well.”

Failing to appeal to my emotional or altruistic side, Grant rushed in with a sneaky move, one that must have served him well in business negotiations: he showed me the money. Dirty lucre—always a powerful motivator. I guess a flicker of interest crossed my face that he read as “How well?” Grant laid it out for me.

“I’ll buy this place, put five hundred thousand into the renovations of your choice—my contractor, of course—and rent it to you for a dollar a month, for as long as you like. But we’d need to get started soon. I understand a couple of other people are interested in the property.”

It was an insanely generous offer, the operative word being
insanely
.

“You’re obviously upset. I wouldn’t dream of taking advantage of you by agreeing to something you said under these circumstances. Besides, running a nursery is like being a farmer, weather, pests.” I tried to lighten the mood. “Didn’t you ever read
The Good Earth
? We could get locusts.”

He smiled and then it dawned on me: he didn’t care if we would ever make the business work. He wanted to give Caroline something to look forward to. I was almost embarrassed to be in the presence of that kind of love.

What a sweetheart. And what an optimist. She’d already been moved out of Springfield to the county jail and was awaiting extradition to Michigan. Her fate was in a judge’s hands. For all we knew, Caroline would remain incarcerated until she completed her original sentence. The authorities in Michigan were under close scrutiny for meting out such a harsh sentence, so they were scrambling to make the nineteen-year-old Caroline sound like the new Pablo Escobar. Why obsess about who snitched when your wife is facing decades in jail? I had the good sense not to mention that, but I didn’t have to: it hung in the air like the cobwebs.

BOOK: Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery
2.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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