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Authors: Ann Ripley

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BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
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Morton spread his hands and said, “It's a simple request. Gives us permission to go out there and dig a while. If we don't find anything, then you'll be off the hook, and we'll be outta your lives.”
Louise thought of her wild azaleas, how they'd had a bad year, and how they wouldn't like being dug up. Not only that, she was hurt, and Geraghty knew it. He looked over at her with remorseful eyes. This had not been his idea.
Bill looked at her. “Louise, what do you think? Maybe we should let them.”
Her hurt turned to anger. “I don't want them digging in my garden, Bill. This is pure nonsense.” She got to her feet and made a broad gesture with her hand toward the front door, an unmistakable hint that the policemen should leave. “Gentlemen, come back when you have a court order. Without one, you're not messing with my azaleas.”
9
H
er family clustered around her, as if, like a tender plant, she might fall without their support. “I'm all right. Really, I am,” she assured her husband and her daughters.
Martha was standing at the living room windows looking out. “I think we ought to go do a reality check on that garden,” she said. “Those guys are coming back with a warrant, or an excavation permit, whatever it takes.”
Louise blew out an exasperated breath. “You're right. Let's go out and prove them wrong.” She led the way out the patio door and down the timber stairs into the backyard. “I didn't spend more than a minute or two fussing around with that garden last Sunday night. How could anyone possibly think ...” She hurried over to the azalea bed. Looking down, she pressed a hand to her mouth.
“What's wrong?” asked Bill, standing at her side.
“They don't look right.”
Bill cocked his head and stared at the plants as Martha and Janie caught up. “They look fine to me,” he said. “What do you think, girls? Maybe they're a little wilted, but not bad. Give 'em a shot of water, and they'll perk right up.”
Martha got down on her hands and knees. “Someone could have been digging in these azaleas, Ma. Maybe it was Sam doing a little work with the hoe.”
Louise crouched beside her daughter. The edges of the garden, obscured by the loose, leafy mulch on the forest floor, appeared to have been altered recently, though it was hard to detect until she'd scraped away the mulch. The conscientious Sam, knowing she'd been especially concerned about her azaleas, undoubtedly had gotten out here with his spade.
“Those detectives are making me crazy,” she said, shaking her head, as if to shake away the whole subject. “I'm sure it was Sam. I'll give him a call to be sure.”
Bill put an arm around her shoulder, and they sauntered back to the house. Then Martha's cell phone rang. It was Jim Daley. The girls settled on the patio to have a three-way discussion with him of where and when the union of Martha and Jim would take place.
“I'm feeling frustrated,” she told Bill as they returned to the house.
“I know you are,” he said. “So am I, for that matter.”
“Our daughter announces that she's getting married. Instead of spending our time enjoying the good news, we have to worry about the police coming by to uproot my plants. And that's all because some snoop is telling stories. And I bet I know who that snoop is.”
“Louise, please. You're not sure.”
“Oh, yes, I am, Bill. Greg Archer is the one who lied about me riding that cart and digging in the garden. I tell you, it will be a cold day in hell before I ever cooperate with the police again.”
 
 
It was almost midnight. Bill was gently snoring. Louise didn't know which side was the most uncomfortable to lie on, the right, her favorite, or the left. Usually she just cuddled against Bill and went to sleep, but tonight her neck ached and she couldn't get comfortable. She was afraid the ache would soon spread down her back. Then she'd get up in the morning and have to greet the unwelcome police with a throbbing headache. She could just picture an angry-faced George Morton at the door, smugly waving a paper at her that demanded she comply with their order to dig.
The thought made the neck-ache worse. There was no way she was going to let policemen rummage in her azalea bed. She'd rather do it herself. And in her heart of hearts, she knew something was wrong with the azaleas. There was a certain droop to the leathery leaves that was different from a simple lack of water. And this time it wasn't the deer to blame, though those cute-looking animals caused a great deal of damage each time they breached her defensive fences. If only she'd been able to get through to Sam, she could have discovered whether or not he inadvertently did something to set them back. But Sam had not answered the phone.
Slipping out of bed, she groped on the apricot chair near her bed until she felt her bathrobe and shrugged into it. She'd go in the living room and try to think this problem out. By the time she'd crossed the room, she'd changed her mind. She took off the robe and went to the closet. As quietly as possible, she collected a pair of gardening pants, cotton T-shirt and sneakers, forgoing socks.
She dressed in the dark living room, then turned on the small lamp in the interior of the room. Going out the patio doors from the air-conditioned house, she was hit by the steamy night air. She went straight to her toolshed and closed its door behind her, smelling the good earthy odor for a moment before flicking on the overhead light.
She took down her most efficient spade from its roost on the wall, grabbed her flashlight and turned to go, but then glanced back at the contents of the shed. She needed something to hold the plants after she dug them up. Pursing her lips, she considered a stack of large black plastic pots, but instead grabbed a package of heavy-duty yard bags and went outside.
Looking up, she saw the moon. It was almost full now, providing lacy light shadows between the tall trees in the woods. Too bad that she was on this bothersome mission and couldn't enjoy it. Maybe the moon was too bright, and she'd rouse more nosy neighbors to further tattle on her to the cops. Realizing there was nothing to be done about excessive moonlight, she descended the timber stairs of the patio. Using the flashlight only sparingly to guide her way through the forest detritus, she covered the twenty feet to the azalea bed.
Now would come the moment of truth.
Starting with the azalea on the end, she took up the first spadeful of soil. “Oh, no,” she groaned. It dismayed her to find how easy it was to dig around the plant. Picking up speed, she laid aside the soil on either edge of the shrub until she was sure she'd caught all the roots. With a grunt, she prodded the loosened plant until it was ready to be moved. Opening one of the big polyethylene bags, she wrestled the azalea into it and pulled it aside. Pausing only briefly to catch her breath in the close air, she went on to the next shrub, quickly prying it from the loose soil. With the second azalea bagged, she had uncovered an area thirty inches wide and five feet long. She quickly dug down, continuing to pile the dirt neatly so she would have an easier time of replanting the disturbed shrubs.
The deeper she dug, the better she felt. With each spadeful, she became more disgusted with the police and their suspicions. Her lip curled as she thought of George Morton, that stiff, robot-like man. Right now, she felt a great satisfaction knowing Morton was wrong. Exhaling a big breath, she stood in the hole and leaned on her spade handle and relaxed. She'd now made a hole more than two feet deep and was about ready to quit. She certainly was sweaty and dirty enough to deserve a shower and bed. On the other hand, it might be prudent to remove a third azalea and one more layer of soil from the existing hole.
Confident now, she was determined to finish the job quickly. Standing at one end of her excavation, she dug straight down and promptly hit something. The pressure from this action sent a tremor of pain coursing all the way up through her arms. “Oh, shit!” she cried, not caring now if anyone heard. She took a step back and felt something embrace her. For a moment she panicked, then realized it was the branches of the undisturbed third azalea bush. She steadied herself and looked down.
It wasn't a rock she'd struck. There were no rocks in this woodsy northern Virginia soil. Something solid but soft was buried down there, like a body. Now that she'd admitted that to herself, Louise fought the desire to vomit. Instead, she took a deep breath and carefully scraped away the layer of soil. She encountered that same sickening soft resistance wherever she dug.
“No,” she cried, “this can't be!” She picked up the flashlight lying sideways on the edge of her excavation, aimed it at the bottom of the hole and saw what looked like patches of clear plastic. She dropped to her hands and knees and frantically smoothed the remaining soil away from the rounded object buried beneath it. Then she pointed the flashlight at the cleared area. She saw the outline of an arm, ending with a big hand. There was no more doubt about it. A body was buried under her azaleas.
She set down the flashlight, and like an animal, clawed more soil away from the plastic-wrapped bundle. Grabbing the light once again, she directed it down. Through the plastic, she could now see the man in the white shirt, his face with eyes still open but without the glasses, the gray-blond hair plastered against his forehead, and the horrible movement on his bloodied face that she knew was worms at work.
Dropping the flashlight in horror, she clambered out of the hole and rushed pell-mell through the woods, stumbling and nearly falling as she tripped over fallen forest debris. She sprinted up the patio steps and into the house, not even remembering to close the living room door. Running into the bedroom, she knelt down next to Bill's side of the bed and frantically pulled at his sleeping form. “Oh, God, Bill, wake up. I've found a body in the garden. It's Peter Hoffman.” She dropped her head and sobbed in his arms.
10
Friday, August 17
 
S
he was walking on that dark, wet street once more—was it Bonn? It was cold, and she stumbled on the cobblestones. Someone was following her, and her fear was palpable, causing her hands to tremble as she clutched her trench coat close to her throat. She began to run and, turning the corner, saw a telephone booth with its door hanging open. The telephone rang and she reached in to answer it. But someone else got to it before she did, and the ringing stopped—
Louise was jolted out of her George Smiley dream by someone knocking on the bedroom door. A voice beside her, Bill's, called, “Come in.” Seeping slowly back into her mind were the dreadful events of the night before: digging far down under her precious azaleas and finding that body wrapped in plastic. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes on a gray world.
Martha leaned into the room, so that her wavy brown hair hung down by her face. “Sorry to bother you, folks. It's the police again. They called once before. I guess after keeping you up half the night, they think you've slept long enough. They want to come over. They have something new to talk about.”
Louise turned her head and looked at her husband, who'd propped himself up on an elbow. He hadn't shaved in two days, and his blond beard was scraggly, his light hair tousled on his forehead, his pale blue eyes kind and full of concern. He told her, “Even when he's dead, Peter Hoffman's trouble.” Then he said to Martha, “Tell them to give us an hour, would you please?”
“Sure, Dad.” Martha closed the door.
He looked down at Louise with twinkling eyes. “At least they're coming here and we don't have to go to that godforsaken police station again.” The Mount Vernon substation on nearby Route One was familiar territory to Louise, but to those not familiar with it, like Bill, it appeared as it was—drab, tan and depressing, and all the more so at three in the morning.
He slumped down and flung an arm over Louise, who was still prone in bed. His fingers gently played with her upper arm, sending her a message she didn't intend to respond to. Though she admired her husband's enthusiasm for life, who wanted to make love the morning after finding a dead man in the garden?
Bill noted her lack of interest, and his hand became still. “As I said before, that Peter Hoffman sure is trouble.”
Louise's eyes were finally wide open and she stared at the skylight in their bedroom ceiling. Through it, she could see a patch of silvery morning light, and the outlines of a serenely swaying Chinese elm tree. “Look at that patch of sky, honey,” she said. “It's so peaceful. Would that our lives were that peaceful. But no. We have the police to deal with again while they ask questions, crawl all over the place, paw through my gardens—Oh my God!”
She slipped from under his arm and sprang out of bed.
“What's the matter?”
“I've got to get out there before they do. What do cops know about gardens?”
“Don't get too excited,” warned Bill. “They've searched our house, and they've already taken what they want out of your garden.”
“Not necessarily. They're liable to dig up everything, just to be sure nothing else is hidden around the place.”
Hurriedly washing her face and brushing her teeth, Louise pulled out a set of fresh pants and shirt. She had them on before Bill had left the bed. “Honey, let's not overdo this,” said her husband. He swung his legs onto the floor and headed for the bathroom.
“How can I not?” she said. She shoved her feet into her tennis shoes. “I'm going out there right now.”
“Hope they don't kick you right out of the crime scene,” he called to her.
“Let them try,” she growled. She moved the slats in the blinds on the front bedroom window to see if police had arrived yet, then hurried into the living room and checked the woods. No activity, not yet. The French clock struck seven. Her nose told her that the Chemex coffee pot was on the warmer.
Thank heavens for Martha, she thought. Old enough now not to sleep in, even though she and Janie were up half the night just like Louise and Bill. And mature enough to know her mother's drug of choice.
On hearing the sound of the toaster lever being pressed down in the kitchen, Louise salivated like Pavlov's dog. She hadn't realized how hungry and caffeine-deprived she was. “Martha, I smell coffee. I love you.”
“I'm fixing you something to eat,” said her older daughter, as Louise entered the kitchen. Clad in a sleeveless white tennis dress, Martha was rummaging in the refrigerator.
“I should wait for your father,” said Louise.
“I know you like to do everything with Dad, but you can't always, Ma. The cops are coming, and you'd better start. Your bagel's in the toaster. Where are the lox and cream cheese?” She pulled out two packages, along with a tomato and a big white onion, and clasping them to her bosom, came over and gave her mother a brief kiss. “Go on, sit down. You don't look so well, though I hate to tell you that.”
“Morton said they might dig more today. Do you realize what that means, Martha? They could ruin my yard.”
“I know,” said her daughter comfortingly. “Who'd want cops diggin' in their prize gardens? But one thing at a time. First, you have to eat.”
Louise went to the dining room and sank into a chair at the old pine table and stared out the windows into the woods. Except for the yellow police tape, one would never suspect what she'd found out there last night.
Martha brought Louise's breakfast on a round tray.
Louise took a few sips of the strong coffee and sighed. She spread her bagel with cream cheese, layered it with lox, tomato and onion slices, and took a bite. “Yummy,” she said. “But you know what's so bad about all this?”
Her older daughter shrugged her bare brown shoulders. “You mean something worse than finding Peter Hoffman buried in our backyard?”
“Almost. I want to talk about weddings instead of talking to police.”
Martha patted Louise's hand. “Not to worry, Ma. Janie and I worked some things out last night at the police station while you and Dad were being questioned. And I've cancelled my flight back to Chicago so I can hang around here for a while. We have everything under control, as long as you and Dad don't mind coming to Chicago for an October wedding.”
“That'll be fine with us. And it leaves only one set of grandparents to have to make the trip.” Louise's parents lived in a Chicago suburb, while Bill's were in Connecticut.
“Aunts and uncles will come, too, of course,” added Martha. “When Jim gets the final okay on the time of the ceremony from the church, I'll call the relatives. That gives them more than six weeks' notice.” She looked warily at Louise. “I sure hope everybody understands as well as you and Dad do. Jim and I know this isn't the ideal way to do a wedding, but we do have our reasons.”
“What about the gown? And the reception? Can you do all that in six weeks?”
Martha sat back and waved a casual hand. “Bridal clothes are no problem. I'm not wearing white. I want something I can use later.”
A piece of bagel caught in Louise's throat. She swallowed with difficulty and put her bagel down on her plate. “You're not wearing white.”
Martha glanced up at the ceiling. Louise knew she'd said the wrong thing; Martha had just informed her she wasn't wearing white. After a moment, Martha looked over at Louise and said, “It'll be all right, Ma, really it will. How would it be if I wore a tan knit suit, maybe one of those St. Jarvis or whatever numbers, provided it doesn't cost too much?”
“St. James.” How ironic, thought Louise. Maybe Martha could trot up to Saks Fifth Avenue where Peter Hoffman's now-wealthy widow sold those knits. She doubted that Phyllis Hoffman would work any longer than was necessary.
“That kind of thing I could wear for fifty years,” said Martha, “and it will look good when I go out on the campaign trail with Jim.” She leaned over to peek in her mother's face. “Don't you think so? Tell me you think so.”
“If that's what you want, darling, of course it's just fine.” Louise turned her attention back to her bagel. She had told herself she wouldn't be the controlling mother, and the first thing she did was to lay a guilt trip on her daughter over the topic of clothes. She had to remember clothes meant nothing to Martha, who was raised in jeans and wore clothes others would give to the Goodwill.
I have to come to grips with this,
she thought.
A girl raised in jeans doesn't want to prance down the aisle in a fancy white gown
.
This thought produced a little twist in Louise's gut. Or was it the bagel and lox?
Martha, who apparently believed she'd settled the wedding gown problem to their mutual satisfaction, was off on another subject. “For the church and the reception hall, I think Jim has a handle on all that. He has lots of ins with the church.” She flushed under her tan. “The major problem is to schedule three more pre-wedding sessions with the priest. We've had five already.”
“You're converting?”
Martha smiled expansively at her mother. “Yes. We thought it would be better for the children if we were both Catholic.”

Children
. Oh, my. You don't mean—”
“No,” said Martha. “I don't meant that: I'm not pregnant. Children of the future.”
“Well.” Louise straightened in her chair. “I guess congratulations are in order. It will be quite a change, I daresay, from being a Presbyterian.” Even to herself, she sounded like a prig.
Martha grinned, and Louise thought for one surprised moment that her daughter was going to break into a laugh. At what—Louise's brand of reserved Presbyterianism that she'd tried to introduce to her children?
“Ma, your church is great,” her daughter reassured her. “Always such terrific people there. I've loved going to the services with you and Dad and Janie. This isn't that big a step... .”
Not a big step? Louise felt a little empty, as if she'd somehow let the Presbyterians down. “It isn't?”
“Okay, I take that back. I guess it is a big decision. But we think unity is important in a family, and Jim's faith is a bit deeper than mine.”
Louise gave her a look.
Martha said, “Now wait, Ma, I don't mean anything disparaging by that. In spite of the troubles of the Catholic church, Jim's a devout Catholic, a socially conscious Catholic. Right out of the Dorothy Day school—you know, concern for the working man and woman. I guess you can figure that, since he's running for alderman.”
Louise reached out a hand somewhat tainted with remnants of cream cheese and fish and patted Martha's hand. This daughter had been into social change her whole life. She and Bill hadn't thought it unusual that Martha chose someone with the same inclinations.
On to a safer subject, thought Louise. She said, “So what about, oh, let's see, invitations?”
Before Martha could address that issue, the front doorbell rang. Simultaneously, Louise caught the movement of police technicians clad in navy-colored attire entering the backyard. Her pulse quickened. Two men carried shovels and poles and were headed up the steps to her patio garden, straight for her prize tree peonies. “Oh, no, they don't,” she said, and bolted straight up out of her chair and strode to the patio door.
BOOK: Summer Garden Murder
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