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Authors: Ann Ripley

Summer Garden Murder (23 page)

BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
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Louise slumped against the granite counter and stared across at her grimy tiles. “Please, not tonight, Bill.”
“You're not safe in this house anymore.”
“You're here tonight, so I'm safe. Let's have a good night's sleep. Then we'll call the police first thing in the morning.” She gave him a pleading look. “I suppose I can't—”
“No, you can't clean up your tiles. Leave the dirt there so Geraghty and the skeptical Mr. Morton can see just what the hell some pervert is up to.”
She said softly, “What else do you think this person has done in our house?”
He came over and put his arm around her, switched off the kitchen light and guided her down the hall to their bedroom. “There'll be plenty of time tomorrow to find out.”
 
 
Lee Downing pulled his Lincoln town car into the curve of Dogwood Court directly in front of Mike Cunningham's house. He parked the Lincoln with the exaggerated care of one who had recently been drinking a lot of booze. Despite his best efforts, and for the umpteenth time, he scraped the tires against the goddamned curb. After emitting a few choice swearwords, he grabbed a suitcase he had packed with papers, slid out of the car, locked it and strode toward the house.
He could see through the garage windows the bulk of Cunningham's car. That was a signal to all that he was home. Downing glanced at his Rolex watch. It was almost one o'clock. It had been a long day, including the shuttle flight home, three hours with the Fairfax sheriff's office, a good long session with his attorney regarding the SEC investigation, followed by a dinner paid for by the attorney—who would still net plenty off him—and a few hours of unaccounted-for time at the conclusion of which he'd had a few belts of scotch.
It was supposed to be the moment for a showdown with Cunningham, a man whom he'd started out liking almost as a friend, but whom he now despised. They were to sit in Cunningham's glitzy living room and get down to brass tacks, instead of playing the old game of accuse and deny. He intended to give the lawyer an ultimatum, an offer he couldn't refuse, because there was no way in hell that he was going to be screwed the way Peter Hoffman and Mike Cunningham had planned for him to be screwed, even if it meant airing his dirty linen in public. Especially when Downing had an inkling that Mike Cunningham had a secret. He was fairly sure that Cunningham was the one who'd conveniently removed Hoffman from the planet.
He tried the front door and found it open. Entering, he called, “Mike, I'm home. Late, I know, but better late than never.”
Silence. Mike could be asleep, though the man normally stayed up late. Downing did what seemed normal under the circumstances, went to the master bedroom door, which was ajar, and noted the bed was empty and neatly made. He called in a loud voice. There weren't many rooms in this house where he wouldn't have been heard, except downstairs in Mike's exercise room. He went to the stairs, opened the door and called again. Again he was greeted with silence. He went down the stairs and walked through the luxurious little panoply of exercise equipment. That would be a logical thing to do, just to be sure that Mike hadn't keeled over in some freak accident.
Mike wasn't here. He might be nearby, messing around with that young Swiss woman, Hilde, although Mike would have more logically brought the girl to his house, because Hilde, to his knowledge, didn't have a car. And it would be a little obvious for an attorney of his stature to trundle through the neighborhood to that studio apartment of hers to get laid. Or maybe not. Sex drove even important people to do very dumb things.
Even if he was down the street doing Hilde, would a paranoid guy like Mike Cunningham leave the front door open? A normal person wouldn't.
Downing went into the front hall, picked up the stack of mail that lay near the front door and tried to determine how many days it represented. One, maybe two days, maybe three. Downing had been in New York since Sunday night, arriving back in Washington early this morning. It would be hard to know when the man went missing, unless the neighbors noticed something.
Would he be thought foolish calling the police? He tried to put it in perspective. This was a neighborhood where one man already had been found dead in the past seven days. What the hell was he waiting for?
He started to call information, then cancelled that call and dialed 9-1-1.
28
Thursday, August 23
 
L
ouise was still in bed, and Bill was in the bathroom, shaving, when there was a simultaneous ringing of the front doorbell and a loud knocking on the door itself.
With shaving cream on the side of his face, Bill peered around the bathroom door and said, “Who the devil is that?”
Louise slid out of bed and into her robe lying on the apricot bedside chair. “I'll see.”
Bill raised a finger and warned her, “Look first, honey. Don't open the door if you see someone suspicious out there.”
Without pausing to find her slippers, she hurried to the front door. Peeking through the vertical side window, her heart gave a thump. Looking in at her with wide, intent eyes were Dan Trace, George Morton and Mike Geraghty. She opened the door, though she didn't want to. The presence of these three men could mean nothing but trouble.
She set aside formalities such as “hello.” “What on earth are you doing here?” she asked. “My husband and I were just about to phone you people.”
Lieutenant Trace said, “Ma'am, we're pursuing a tip we received a short while ago. Uh, what was the nature of your call? Is it an emergency?”
Yes, Lieutenant, it is: dirt splashed on my kitchen tiles, indicating an intruder has been in our home
. She could tell by Trace's expression that her intruder problem would pale in comparison to whatever matter it was that had brought three officers to their house at seven-thirty.
“Why don't you tell me first, Lieutenant Trace, just why you're here.”
“Is your husband at home, Mrs. Eldridge? I'd hoped we could talk to both of you at the same time.”
Bill, who was still tying his robe, came up behind her. He said, “Hello, Lieutenant. Good morning, detectives. What can we do for you?”
“We have a serious situation, I'm afraid, Mr. Eldridge,” said the lieutenant. “I don't know if you noticed police activity in the neighborhood late last evening.”
“Nope,” said Bill. “We were both too tired. What happened?”
“Mr. Mike Cunningham, your neighbor, is missing.”
“He is?” said Bill. “What does that have to do with us?”
“Just a few minutes ago, the sheriff's office got a tip as to where he was located.”
“And where was that?”
Louise gave a gasp, then prayed that what she feared wasn't true.
Lieutenant Trace looked calmly down at her from his great height. “We were told by this anonymous tipster that a person was digging in your vegetable garden late last night.”
“No, no,” Louise said, and took a step backward until she felt Bill's strong presence right behind her. She felt as if her body were melting. Bill kept her upright by putting his arms around her waist.
“This is ridiculous,” snapped Bill.
The lieutenant shrugged. “Well, let's just see, shall we? It could be a prankster. But in view of the fact that Mr. Cunningham's missing, we have to follow this up.” He gave Louise a smile. “Now, do you want us to get a court order or could we just, uh, go ahead?”
“What do you think, Louise?” asked Bill. “I say just let them dig up the vegetable garden. They'll get permission anyway, if they go to a judge.”
Louise felt numb and cold. “Go ahead. How could we stop you?”
“But first,” said Bill, “did this person say anything else?”
The lieutenant bowed his head. Louise could see George Morton itching to interrupt, but he didn't dare. Trace said, “Our tipster said the person was wearing a gardening-type hat, so we'll want to investigate that shed of yours again. And the person was using your garden cart.”
“Oh, my God,” she said, trembling, “the same tip you received before I dug up Peter Hoffman. Greg Archer, I bet that's who called you.”
Bill's arms tightened around her.
The lieutenant shook his head. “I have no idea, Mrs. Eldridge. We couldn't determine who it was, man or woman. Let's just put first things first, okay, and see what we find in that garden. Now we'll give you and Mr. Eldridge time to get dressed and maybe have some coffee.”
Louise and Bill dressed hurriedly and went first to the kitchen, where like an automaton Louise went through the machinations necessary to make Chemex coffee. Putting on the kettle, grinding the Kona beans, setting the coffee filter in the beaker-shaped pot, letting the water cool to just a few degrees below boiling, wetting the grounds first, then continuing to pour the water through the grounds until the glorious brown liquid rested in the pot. While she did this, Bill made toast.
When they'd settled at the table, he said, “Let's try to relax and enjoy a bite. Let them dig up your garden and not worry about it.
I
know you didn't bury a body in with the onion sets. I was with you all evening.”
“I might have tucked in a murder and a body burying after you fell asleep at eleven.” They clung together and laughed. But her body was still trembling.
 
 
The next person at the front door knocked first and then opened the door. “Louise, Bill, it's Sam Rosen. Can I come in?”
Louise and Bill were still at the dining room table, drinking a second cup of coffee.
Their neighbor's eyes were wide with concern. “The cul-de-sac is filled with TV trucks again. Meantime, the cops out back are ruining our onions!”
“Sit down,” she said. “I'll get you coffee. Black, right?”
“Right. They told me they got the tip early this morning. Just like the last one about Peter Hoffman.”
Bill said, “You mean the press people are here already?” His eyes narrowed. “That's interesting—they must have been tipped, too.”
Sam accepted his cup of coffee from Louise with a smile and a nod. “Look, we can fix the garden, maybe even get some fresh onion sets. But what bothers me is that someone's out to get you, Louise. It's damned puzzling.”
She sighed. “I tell you, Sam, I don't know what to think. I'm at the end of my rope. I'm just going to hole up in my house and hope that the police can solve this thing. And before I forget, have you seen any strangers around our house? We've had a few funny incidents, as if someone may have broken in.”
Sam laughed. “You mean strangers other than the constant stream of cops and press that hang around? Seriously, though, you know I'd tell you if I saw anything suspicious.”
They heard a knock, and Lieutenant Trace came in. “Folks, I think you'd better come out and have a look.”
Louise felt like a sleepwalker. She walked slowly out the front door with Bill and Sam trailing behind her. She turned around and exchanged a despairing glance at her husband when she saw the press people milling in Dogwood Court. They followed Lieutenant Trace the thirty feet to the yard's boundary. Even now, at eight-thirty, the sun shone down on half a dozen police technicians and a deep excavation that once was a growing onion patch. The carefully stacked timbers that supported both ends of the little garden had been dismantled and set in a neat pile. Black dirt was scattered in a wide circle. Because the soil was tilled for planting, it had been a quick job to dig it out. No one had bothered to save the onion sets as they dug, and they were strewn aimlessly about, like bent green pencils. “Oh,” she moaned, an involuntary sound that came out when she saw all her and Sam's gardening work destroyed.
“Steady, honey,” said Bill.
“Step closer so you can see,” said Lieutenant Trace. Visible at the bottom of what once was their garden was a long, plastic-wrapped package. She could see clearly that there was a body inside.
“Oh, my God, no,” she cried as she saw the face far down at the end of the hole, a big, handsome face. The body was garbed in white shirt and tan slacks, the feet much closer to the surface, in stylish sneakers. Cunningham. Faintness overcame her, and she would have fallen had Bill not stood in back of her and supported her weight.
“Easy does it,” said her husband. Then she realized this was as hard on him as it was on her, and she willed her feet to hold her own weight.
“Is it Mike Cunningham?” Bill asked.
“We don't know for sure,” said the lieutenant.
She stood teetering, looking steadfastly away from the body. “It's him, you know it is.”
Trace's voice was stern. “You're really convinced of that, are you?”
Bill snapped at the policeman. “Of course, and so am I.”
Trace raised both hands, as if quieting a crowd. “Okay, okay, don't get upset. We just wanted you to see the ... situation as it now exists. Uh, Mrs. Eldridge, can you pull yourself together long enough to tell us if you see anything strange, anything foreign-looking, in the hole?”
Louise looked back down and tried not to shudder. Dully, she said, “The body's wrapped just like Hoffman's body was wrapped. This one is inclined, with the head lower than the feet. Now can I go somewhere and sit down?”
But Sam caught her arm and said in an excited voice, “Just so, Louise, just so! The head is down, and the feet are up. ‘
Zolstu voksn vi a di tsibele, mitn kap in elrerd un di fis aroyf
!' ”
Lieutenant Trace gave him a polite look, the kind one gave to a person who was acting crazy. Perhaps he feared that their wide-eyed neighbor was having a breakdown. Louise knew he was wrong about that, for Sam was as well-adjusted a person as she'd ever met, composed and logical. He'd just come across something of extraordinary interest.
“Are you all right, Mr. Rosen?” said the lieutenant. “What is it you're trying to tell us?”
Sam said, “The person who did this was fulfilling an ancient Yiddish curse. ‘
Zolstu voksn vi a di tsibele, mitn kap in elrerd un di fis aroyf
.' ”
“Which means?” asked Trace.
“ ‘May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground and your feet in the air!' Actually, that's the mild translation. Literally, it's ‘May you grow like an onion, with your head in
hell
and your feet in the air.' ”
“Holy shit!” muttered Morton.
Mike Geraghty asked Sam, “So we think that's why this guy ended up in your onion patch, to fulfill a curse? You wouldn't know anyone who's familiar with that curse, would you?”
“Besides me, you mean?” Sam grinned widely. “Maybe you ought to add me to your list of suspects.”
Still staring down at this extraordinary scene, Sam turned his attention to Louise. “Do you realize this is the literal carrying out of a curse that is centuries old? Now why the devil would someone do that?”
Morton's remark was barely audible, for he'd directed it at his colleague, Mike Geraghty. Unfortunately, the rest of them heard it too. “Maybe it's to throw us off the scent. Maybe it was someone who didn't like a guy who sued them for minor neighborhood offenses.”
Lieutenant Trace came over to Morton and quietly said, “George, that remark wasn't called for.” He turned back to Louise and Bill and Sam. “We want to search your house and also question your family, Mr. Eldridge. You, too, Mr. Rosen. Is it convenient for you all to come to the station?”
Bill retorted, “Not convenient at all, Lieutenant. I'm needed downtown. I'll have to make it fast if at all.”
The lieutenant blinked his eyes, as if Bill had slapped him. Louise supposed he was rethinking the kind and compassionate manner he'd taken so much trouble to exhibit since he'd arrived at their house at the crack of dawn. The officer cleared his throat, then said, “I know your work is important, Mr. Eldridge. But so is mine. A murder has been committed here and, whether you like it or not, there's lots of
in situ
evidence tying your wife, or maybe even you, to the crime. Now we aren't going to be able to come up with better solutions if we don't have cooperation with people such as yourself. Get me?”
Bill looked over at him. Louise could tell her husband was completely frustrated, wanting to cooperate, on the one hand, because he wanted her off the suspect list, but being torn by the unusual demands from the State Department on the other. His response was silence. He didn't use words to answer the lieutenant, just curtly nodded his head in agreement.
BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
10.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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