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Authors: Ann Ripley

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BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
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Nora added, “And especially with all the information that Bill has dug up for them.” Nora had always admired Bill, sometimes to the point where it was uncomfortable for Louise, back before she knew Nora's loyalty as a friend superseded any predatory thoughts she might have about her husband. “He's so smart,” she told the others. “Louise tells me it's he who led the police to uncover the murky business deals of Lee Downing.”
Louise filled them in on the details, after which Richard said, “Everything points to Downing. No question.”
“Martha played tennis with him,” recalled Louise. “She thought he was awfully tough. Do you remember him saying anything that might be useful?”
Her friends shook their heads. Ron leaned back in his chair. “I read him as a fairly ruthless entrepreneur, not much into talk, just into making those quarterly results meet market expectations.” He cocked an eyebrow. “I conclude from what you said that he has plenty of trouble now with the SEC.”
“How about Mike Cunningham?” persisted Louise. “Did he leave us with any hints? Personally, I can't remember one meaningful thing he ever said to me, though he did divulge a few details about the Hoffman Arms sale.”
Nora sniffed and said, “I remember nothing but sexual innuendos.”
Mary lowered her eyes. “I don't like to speak ill of the dead, but the man was horrible.”
The silence that followed her statement indicated the others' agreement.
A few raindrops fell on them. Louise saw her guests worriedly looking at the lowering sky. “You need to go home before the storm breaks,” she told them.
Ron frowned and looked at her. “But Louise, have we helped you at all?”
“I honestly don't know,” she replied.
By the time they'd cleared the table and cleaned up the few dishes, the winds had risen and the tall windows of the house hummed with the vibration. “Let me help you close the drapes,” said Nora, stepping over and pulling one of the cords. “This is the kind of storm that breaks double-paned windows.”
Louise bade her friends good-bye and said she might come over later. “I have new locks, though, and they make me feel quite safe. Maybe I'll stay home and read Billy Collins.” They hurried away, and Louise threw the bolt on the front door and went to the family room and closed the drapes. She told herself that now she should settle down with the poetry book. But she was too unsettled. She wondered if she would ever relax again.
Realizing she'd forgotten to lock the outside garden toolshed, she opened the curtains and the door and hastened across the patio to do so, then hurried back into the house.
Again her thoughts went back to the murders. She and her friends had gone over that infamous August fourth party. What had they forgotten?
One thing was obvious: almost everything Peter Hoffman did and said while he was at the party was calculated ahead of time. It was theater. The only unprogrammed moment now stood out clearly in Louise's mind. He'd expressed amazement at the sight of Hilde Brunner, almost as if he recognized her.
Why would he recognize Hilde?
She wished Martha and Janie were still here so that they could talk this over. Taking a glance at her watch, she decided to phone her daughters. She was doubtful she'd catch them, since it was eight o'clock in the Windy City, and Louise couldn't picture the young people staying home in Martha's apartment at eight o'clock on a nice summer night.
32
L
ouise felt as if she'd caught a lifeline when her call was answered.
“We're eating a pizza from Old Chicago and watching a reality show,” said Janie. “Last night, Ma, we went to Andy's Lounge. I loved it. A jazz place, you know—really old Chicago at its best with Billy Goat Lounge just down the street. I tripped over a rip in the carpeting at the club, so my ankle's in an Ace bandage. But the music was worth it.”
“You sound wonderful, Janie. Um, have you found Martha a wedding dress?”
“I think so, Ma,” said Janie. “I've certainly tried. I've been out shopping by myself every day since we got here. Today, I limped out and shopped and put another dress on hold. I think it's the one. The busy bride-to-be has to get herself over to the store and try it on. But you're the person we're worrying about. How are you? Have the cops found the killer?”
Should she tell her daughter the truth, that her hands were shaking again, that she was losing weight and being criticized for it by her producer, that she was essentially falling apart? “They haven't found the killer. But I'm doing pretty well in spite of that. So you're having fun.”
“Actually, Ma, it's the first time I've been treated like a grown-up by Martha in my whole life. She's always been a grown-up, while I have always been the kid. And Jim Daley, why, you'd think I was just a friend instead of Martha's little sister.”
“That's wonderful. Janie, I need to talk to your sister for a minute to get some information about ... well, about Elsebeth.”
“Elsebeth?” said Janie in surprise. “Sure. I'll put her on in a minute, but first, I can only warn you—take a gun.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I know you, Ma. I can tell by your tone of voice that you'll be out in the neighborhood poking around again. And we're not there to stop you. Just take a weapon if you go somewhere, because I have a feeling in my gut that the murderer lives in the neighborhood. Do you promise?”
“I promise.”
“Now I'll put Martha on.”
“Ma, how's it going?” asked Martha.
“At your father's suggestion, I've been doing a lot of thinking. God knows I don't dare do anything else or the police will descend on me. But I recalled some odd remarks made by Peter Hoffman the night of that party. There was one in particular. It was about Hilde.”
“About Hilde? I thought Hoffman didn't know her.”
“He didn't.”
“What did he say to her?”
“It wasn't what he said so much as the fact that he seemed to recognize her. And then I remember another incident about Hilde. She and Elsebeth argued over language.”
“Ma, it didn't amount to anything.”
“Elsebeth is the most amiable woman in the world. If she was annoyed, there must have been a reason.”
“Believe me,” said Martha, “it was trivial. The Swiss and the Germans and the Austrians all have their own way of using the Germanic language. This was just a little argument, not even an argument, about the word for ‘salad greens.' I didn't think it was important.”
“You didn't?”
“Not then. But why don't you call Elsebeth? We never had a chance to talk about Hilde. She probably could tell you more about why she disapproved of her. You're not thinking—”
“I'm not thinking anything yet, Martha. As a matter of fact, I'm just sitting here alone as a storm breaks overhead, grasping at straws.”
 
 
“Elsebeth, it's Louise Eldridge.”
“Oh, Louise. I'm sorry to hear about this latest horrible discovery in your yard. It was all over the news. Are you all right? Do you need my help there?”
“Not right now, but thanks for the offer. I've called about a small thing that's bothering me. I just talked with Martha, and she suggested I phone you and see if you could straighten it out. It's about that young woman you met last Monday when she came over for lunch.”
“Yes. Hilde. The Swiss girl who's Martha's friend.”
“Hilde's not really her friend,” said Louise. “She'd just barely met her. She's here for the summer and lives in the neighborhood.”
“Oh. If I'd known they weren't close, I might have said something to your daughter that day.”
“Did you think there was anything strange about Hilde? Martha told me you didn't seem to like her.”
“Oh, I didn't dislike her, but I certainly disapproved of her. She isn't who she says she is.”
“She's not?”
“She's certainly not Swiss.”
“Are you sure?”
Elsebeth made some chuckling noises. “I could tell at once. She doesn't have that singsongy way of talking that the Swiss have. And the salad. She insisted on using the German word ‘
Vogerlsalat
,' when any Swiss would have called it ‘
Nüsslisalat.
' But I didn't quarrel with that. It was when I said ‘
Servus.
' That's a German greeting for both ‘hello' and ‘good-bye.' A Swiss would have answered me with ‘
Ciao
.' Most people know that as an Italian greeting, but the Swiss use it too. Sometimes they spell it the German way—T, s, c, h, a, u—‘
Tschau
.' ”
“So she's German.”
“Well, no. I would say with her accent that she's Austrian.”
Louise felt as if someone had hit her in the solar plexus. Kristina Weeren was also Austrian.
Now she knew why Peter Hoffman had thought Hilde was “like a dream.”
Hilde was not like a dream but more like a nightmare.
“Elsebeth, thank you.”

Tschau
, Louise.”

Tschau
.”
It was impossible to wait, impossible to stay home when she thought she now knew the truth. If only she had someone to go with her she would feel much better. Where was Charlie Hurd, for instance, when she could use him? She looked at the reporter's number posted on the refrigerator. His phone rang, but Charlie didn't answer. It was useless to leave a message.
She thought about her husband's warnings and Janie's. She knew that if she were to go out, she needed a weapon in case the strange scenario she suspected turned out to be true. Standing arms akimbo in the living room, she considered getting Bill's Beretta out of its locked box in the bedroom closet. But guns had always repelled her, and she doubted she'd shoot very straight. She had other perfectly good modes of defense.
Unlocking the series of locked doors as she went, she retrieved her secateurs from the toolshed, noting that the rain was now beginning to fall in large sheets. Ducking back into the house, she thrust the sharp tool and her telephone into the pocket of her Japanese gardening pants. She was now ready for anything.
33
L
ouise got out of her car just as a huge lightning bolt tore the sky, followed by a thunderclap that made her step back in fright. Only a fool, she thought, would go out in a storm like this one unless she had a mission. And she did. She pulled the hood of her rain poncho closer around her face and tied the string fastening under her chin. The top half of her was dry, though the bottoms of her old gardening pants were soaked the minute she left the car. She ran up the driveway.
Then she saw the fire. She'd heard of it, but had never seen it before. Saint Elmo's fire was so spectacular that she had to stop and watch, even though rain streamed down her face and lightning threatened to bolt her to the ground. Like a light show, flame-like pulses of static electricity danced back and forth along the wide roof of the Swanson house.
The thunder and rain masked the sound of the door opening, but suddenly she saw Hilde standing in the studio entrance. She glanced quickly at Louise and then at the atmospheric marvel occurring above them on the rim of the roof.
“Hurry! Come in!” Hilde cried.
Louise was happy to get away from this alarming display of nature. She hurried into the studio, but immediately was on guard, knowing that it could be as perilous inside as it was outside in the storm. Suddenly, her protective rain poncho became like a prison, and she felt the sweat forming in her armpits.
Looking over at Hilde, she saw that the young woman appeared off-balance, and Louise knew why. The time was right to knock her further off her composed center.

Servus
, Hilde.”

Servus
,” repeated the young woman reflexively. She gave Louise a startled look. “What are you doing, practicing your German?”
“No, my Swiss-German. Except you don't necessarily know the difference, do you, not being Swiss, or you would have been more apt to respond with ‘
Tschau
.' ”
Hilde stood near to her, looking strong and unyielding. Only her eyes betrayed her nerves. “How clever you must think you are.”
“Elsebeth assured me you were definitely not Swiss,” said Louise. “Your accent and your usage indicate you're Austrian.”
Hilde sighed in aggravation. “It's what I would expect of a woman like that.”
“How did you manage this change in identification?” asked Louise, meanwhile looking furtively about for avenues of escape.
“It was so easy,” exclaimed Hilde. “A kind friend who asked few questions lent me her passport and identification. That is why only the annoying Charlie Hurd found out. He searched through all the records of the trial and didn't find anything. But when he talked to a court employee, he discovered that Margit
Hilde
Weeren represented Kristina Weeren's family at Hoffman's trial. To make sure, he ransacked my purse and saw the passport photo. He realized it wasn't me. And then you—you and your trifling concerns about how I was using the language.”
“You're Kristina's sister. That's what I finally guessed. I didn't know Charlie suspected you, too.” Louise wished Charlie was with her right now. As she spoke, she continued to measure her situation. She wanted to put some distance between herself and Hilde, but she didn't want to be trapped in this big room. Hilde blocked the nearby exit door. Louise sauntered a few steps down the studio aisle, noting tables full of eight-inch-high clay cat figures. She tried to remember how many exits there were in this workshop. She could see only two—the one she'd entered through, and a connecting door to the main house thirty feet from where she stood.
But she was safe, wasn't she, with her cell phone and her secateurs in her pocket?
Louise turned back and confronted the young woman. “So what's to be done now, Hilde? Did you suspect I was coming over here tonight?”
Hilde smiled and looked down at something in the aisle behind her. Louise's breath caught in her throat when she heard a long moan of pain. “Charlie came before you,” she said.
The reporter sounded awful, as if he were dying. Louise said to Hilde, “It would be best for you if we could help Charlie. I've told people I was coming here, and they'll be looking for me.” She could have kicked herself for not doing exactly that.
“Why would I help Charlie?” said the Austrian woman, her voice calm and cold. “As you said, I'm out for vengeance. Peter Hoffman killed and dismembered my sister. Since then, both of my parents have died, my father by his own hand, my mother from grief and depression. And nothing much was done to that
Ungeheuer
, Hoffman. So I came to the States to set things right. Once I was here, it was easy to arrange a job and to meet him, almost the minute he was freed from the mental hospital.”
“Why did you bury him in my garden?”
“I wanted to get revenge on everyone who caused or benefited from my sister's suffering.” Tears flowed down the young woman's cheeks. Louise now knew Kristina's pain was as fresh to Hilde as when she'd first heard of it. “I was outraged at the way you testified at Peter's trial. Everything you said helped the lawyers justify that he was crazy.”
“No,” cried Louise, “you couldn't think that.”
Hilde's face reddened with anger. “But I do think that. I remember your words. You told how he broke into your writing place and attacked you: ‘He was wearing a white parka. He was totally out of control, and looked like a huge enraged animal as he came after me.' What did you think the jury would do once you'd said that?”
“But Peter Hoffman was acting quite mad when he attacked me in my own house. Oh, God, Hilde, I only tried to tell the truth.”
“You told it too well,” said Hilde. “And you profited from Kristina's death. You wouldn't be a TV personality today if you hadn't been involved with Peter Hoffman.”
Louise realized that Hilde was right. She'd endured her share of guilt feelings over that matter in the past. The brief celebrity she'd experienced at the time of Kristina's murder was the primary reason a TV producer had plucked her out of her housewifely anonymity and made her into a garden show host. “But you should also remember that I'm the one who identified Peter Hoffman as the killer.”
“But you profited. I was going to get you one way or another, with the pickax”—she smiled coldly—“or the planted clues. If I didn't succeed in getting you arrested as the killer, I was going to make you my next victim.”
“Kill me, too?” This bald admission somehow made Louise feel calmer. Now she knew just how cold-blooded this young woman was.
“Yes. It was annoying when the police didn't charge you. I smeared Peter's blood on that sweatshirt and that garden tool for nothing. Then I was sure they would act once they found Mike's gold ring in your house. But they didn't even do it then. What is the matter with those police?”
Louise fleetingly pictured Mike Geraghty. Had he pleaded with Dan Trace to delay action on Louise? “If they'd jailed me, you'd have been home free. How did you get in the house?”
“So easy,” mocked Hilde. “A woman who is so childish that she keeps her spare door keys in an artificial rock shouldn't feel secure from burglars. It was so enjoyable to see the effect my little tricks had on you.”
“The sympathetic, helpful young neighbor.”
“Indeed. The observant young neighbor. I knew your family's every move.”
“But there's no way you could have gotten away with a third killing.” Hilde tossed her head in an arrogant gesture. Louise realized the young woman still felt she had control over the situation and wondered how she could use this overconfidence to her own advantage.
“Don't be so sure. I'd planned for you to commit suicide.” She gave Louise a malicious smile. “Everybody agrees you're a ‘wreck,' so why wouldn't they believe you'd take your own life? I even have the pills for it. It's an assortment of codeine products that you left in your medicine cabinet. I would have combined them with others I had on hand, and that would have been the perfect ending. But your unexpected arrival has ruined that plan. Now I will have to leave both you and Charlie behind.”
Louise looked around in desperation, knowing this woman meant what she said. Without batting an eye, she would kill them both. Louise needed to buy time. Maybe the Swansons would arrive back home and interrupt this grim standoff, though she hated the thought of drawing friends into the web of this killer.
A little flattery was in order. “You're very clever, Hilde. Tell me more about how you did all this.”
“When I was told by authorities that Peter Hoffman had concluded his hospital stay after four short years, I applied through the Foreign Artists' Association for an internship as Sarah's apprentice. I spent my leisure time learning about the neighborhood and watching your frenzied gardening habits. Finding out from Sam about your electric ‘cartita' to carry plants around. Discovering from him that you never locked your toolshed. While the Eldridge family was away, I had no trouble tempting Peter into the common woods in back of your house. I placed your edging tool conveniently near where I wanted to attack him. When I'd hit him once, he fell down but was not unconscious, and I told him how good it felt to attack him the way he'd attacked my sister. Then I beat his head until he died.”
“You found the cart at Sam's house.”
“I knew it was there. Nothing was by chance. I brought his body onto your property and buried it. The first body required a great deal of digging.”
Louise heard another moan. Poor Charlie. He could be dying there on the concrete floor while Hilde went through this recital of her crimes. The young woman turned to the noise, but didn't move. “I'll take care of him soon enough.”
“Why did you kill Mike Cunningham?”
“Hah! Another
Ungeheuer
, or what you call ‘monster. ' That creature also was profiting from my dear sister's death by millions. Do you realize he bargained with that pig Hoffman for a large part of his fortune?”
“Was that provided he succeeded in getting Peter into a hospital and not a prison?”
“And also because he brokered the sale of Hoffman Arms. That was a crooked deal, you know. He told me a little about it, not everything, but enough for me to understand what an advantage it was to him, like an Enron deal. And then of course he wanted to sleep with me.” Her eyes glistened with the excitement of telling the tale. “Most men want to sleep with me as soon as they meet me.”
“Like Charlie.”
“Yes, Charlie, too, though Charlie was nicer than Mike. I had great satisfaction burying that crooked lawyer in your vegetable garden. The digging was so much easier there.” She smiled again. “You and Sam did such a good job there.”
“Thanks,” replied Louise in a sarcastic tone. She was dripping with perspiration under her plastic poncho, and any moment now she looked for the heart palpitations to start. It was something that happened to her in desperate situations, but something she could ill afford right now, with both Charlie's and her life at stake.
The fact was that Louise was cornered, and the woman's story nearly told. But she had her cell phone just inches away, so she should be safe. She didn't want to take out the phone until she'd heard one last detail of Hilde's murderous ventures.
“Tell me about the Yiddish curse.”
“Oh, that. Mike Cunningham was
verflucht
—cursed, that is—from the moment I met him. The charming vegetable garden was not done, of course, when I struck down Peter Hoffman. I had to find him another grave. Then I saw you and Sam planting onions. I immediately thought of the beauty of humiliating my enemy by burying him with his ‘head in hell and his feet in the air.' ”
“The literal translation. You're a real student of history, Margit Hilde Weeren, a believer in Old Testament justice. But now you'll have to come to terms with what you've done, because the Fairfax County sheriff's department doesn't operate on Old Testament justice.” The time had come to alert the authorities. But when Louise plunged her hand in her pocket for her phone, she heard the horrifying sound of her pants pocket ripping apart.
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