Background to A Murder at the Flower Show
I am far more familiar with flower shows than any author ought to be. For three years, I served as Chairman of Blooms! at the Boston Flower & Garden Show, organizing the activities of the venerable Massachusetts Horticultural Society at that event. As a consequence of my work on behalf of that organization, I can vouch that almost everything contained in the pages of this book related to the operation of the fictional Northeast Garden and Flower Show is drawn from personal experience. I will hasten to add that the plot of this book is entirely a product of my imagination.
I wanted to put down on paper what goes on in one of the ‘big’ flower shows while wrapping it all in a mystery with lots of interesting characters (and suspects). I also wanted a sleuth that readers would find compelling. The “mystery” part was the easiest. I first got involved with flower shows a decade ago when my wife, Betty, became a Master Gardener. She, in turn, designed and oversaw the building of a Master Gardener landscape exhibit at the old New England Spring Flower Show. One year, we went to the show’s Preview Party and, at the end of the Preview Party, I found myself sitting among the landscape exhibits with Mass Hort’s grounds crew. They were annoyed with an executive of the Society and talked jokingly about how they might use the flower show as a means of ‘doing in’ the executive. Over the course of an hour, they hatched a very convincing plan which I am proud to say I borrowed lock, stock and barrel for this book.
I also borrowed from experience for my sleuth. Back in my corporate career, I managed a financial transaction for my employer than involved a lengthy ‘road show’. The lead investment banker on the project was a woman whose background, age, intelligence, and demeanor closely paralleled that of Victoria Lee. When you are cooped up in a car or on an airplane for lengthy periods with business travelers, there are no private moments. She, too, had a ‘Matt’ to contend with as well as parents who used the, “which part of ‘medical school’ didn’t you understand?” line. I hope readers find Vicki as compelling a character as I do.
For the rest of the investigative staff, I found myself in an quandary. As I began to write A Murder at the Flower Show, I realized that many of the specialized qualities required for my new story already existed in earlier books. Moreover, they all lived in and around Boston. While Vicki Lee is new, I already had a terrific amateur horticulturalist in Liz Phillips and a wisecracking, small-town detective in Martin Hoffman. Readers of my other mysteries will recognize certain familiar names and faces from other stories. Detective John Flynn will, in a few months’ time, come out of a too-brief retirement to take up the position of town detective in Hardington where he and Liz Phillips will solve several murders. In both A Murder in the Garden Club and Murder for a Worthy Cause, Flynn makes many references about (and even speaks to) his former partner. Careful readers will note that Liz and Flynn never cross paths in this story and neither Lee nor Jason Alvarez reference Flynn in Liz’s presence or vice-versa.
Brookfield Detective Martin Hoffman is the same character who figures in both The Garden Club Gang and Deadly Deeds. This story predates the ones told in those two mysteries. And, very careful readers will recognize that District Attorney Sean O’Connell was also Kat’s nemesis in Murder Imperfect, together with Detectives Roy Halliday and Sharon Tucci. Readers who were rooting for Kat will note that O’Connell is still smarting from his humiliating loss in that prosecution.
I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I enjoyed writing it. This one was a labor of love. Here are the opening chapters:
It was the quacking of the ducks in the darkness that first caught the night watchman’s attention. The yellow glow from his flashlight played across the treetops and onto the lush plantings below. The trees were heavy with blossoms, the shrubs and perennial borders dense with colorful blooms. Everywhere there was the scent of lilac, jasmine, honeysuckle and other, more subtle perfumes. His torch passed across the pond from which the noise emanated, its rim edged with iris and moss.
A hell of a sight better than last month, he thought as he walked slowly across a gracefully arched wooden bridge to get a better view of the pond. Auto parts, he mused. Can’t make ‘em pretty no matter what they do. Acres and acres of damn auto parts. He heard a rustling sound over his head and turned his flashlight upward. In the steel trusses of the roof, thirty feet above him, sparrows caught inside the cavernous exhibition hall fluttered at the unexpected interruption of their nocturnal privacy. Below him on the pond, ducks continued to make noise.
He turned the flashlight back to the pond below. Two ducks paddled away from the light, giving an un-landscaped white island in the middle of the pond an especially wide berth.
The night watchman studied the island more closely. White, yes, but seemingly covered in fabric while everything else in the exhibit was draped with plant material. Also, the island bobbed slightly as the ducks paddled. It appeared to float rather than being anchored.
He retraced his steps across the bridge and walked thirty feet around the perimeter of the exhibit, then stepped up on the wooden risers three feet above the concrete floor. The thing – whatever it was – was now about ten feet away. The flashlight revealed no further details beyond what he had seen from the bridge. Whatever it was, though, it didn’t belong. It had likely been thrown into the pond in the past hour or so because the cleaning staff had done a thorough job of picking up the area after the party, and he hadn’t seen it on his first or second pass through the area.
The night watchman remembered a long pole in the maintenance area. He retrieved it, returned and poked at whatever was floating. It was heavy but not solid. Pushing at the object, he slowly guided it to the edge of the exhibit, about ten feet down the artificial shoreline from where he now stood.
He walked the few feet, playing the flashlight across the object and the adjacent water. When he was five feet away, he began to see what the light refraction had previously hidden, and he involuntarily drew in a gulp of air and felt the resulting sourness rising in his throat.
Arms and legs, also clad in white, extended away from the body in a loose ‘X’ formation, the hands and feet sinking toward the bottom of the two-foot-deep, man-made pond.
He did not turn over the body, even to make certain the person was dead. Sixty years of watching television told him you never disturbed a crime scene.
The night watchman reached for his cell phone and dialed 911.
* * * * *
The cell phone chirped in the dark, a tinny fragment of the William Tell Overture that served as the theme to The Lone Ranger.
Victoria Lee opened an eye, looking for the blinking red LED that would betray the phone’s location. Once she spotted it, she would try to remember where she left her shoes, and then, regardless of how many months remained on the service contract, she would smash the phone into oblivion with a heel.
But the red light did not blink from anywhere in the room even though, by its volume, the phone was probably within ten feet of her. She looked at the clock beside her bed.
She reached out and bumped her hand into the lamp on the table beside the bed. She placed one hand over her eyes, closed her lids tightly and turned on the switch.
Muttering a slow, steady stream of random obscenities, she got out of bed and walked in the direction of the telephone’s music. It was in her jacket pocket, the jacket, in turn, thrown haphazardly across a chair tucked neatly under a dressing table that collected books and files rather than cosmetics.
Adjusting to the bright light, she looked for the incoming number, though she knew by the idiotic, distinctive ring that it was one of her detectives. She stabbed at the ‘answer call’ icon.
“This had had better be good,” she said.
“We’re at the Harborfront Expo Center,” a male voice said. “A guard found a floater in a pond at the flower show.”
“Who is this?” Lee asked, simultaneously and unsuccessfully trying to absorb the words and identify the caller. “Mazilli?”
“It’s Alvarez. Jason Alvarez, Ma’am. The night watchman found him. The guy has probably been in the water less than an hour…”
“And you’re calling me because… why?”
“I thought you’d want to know. The last time I didn’t call a higher-up on something like this, I got reamed…”
“You did the right thing…. Jason.” The fog in Lee’s head began to lift, ever so slightly. “Jason, it’s three-thirty. The middle of the night. Isn’t this something that can keep until morning?”
“Mazilli said I shouldn’t bother you. In fact, he was fairly adamant about it. But the guy…” Alvarez trailed off.
“The guy…” Lee prompted.
She heard Alvarez exhale. “It’s the head guy for the flower show. He’s in a white tux. They say he’s also the head of the society that puts on the show. Maybe it’s an accidental drowning but, from my initial look at the body, I’d say we need the full team.”
Lee sighed. “Call the M.E…. And give me twenty minutes.”
* * * * *
The towering illuminated sign blinked its message in the nighttime sky: 127th ANNUAL…NORTHEAST GARDEN AND FLOWER SHOW… FEBRUARY 15-23…DOORS OPEN 10 A.M…
Lee pulled into the Harborfront Exposition Center’s vast parking lot and drove across the macadam toward the flashing lights. Red and blue lights from one ambulance, two police cruisers, and a detective’s car all rotated pointlessly, wearing down batteries. Three other vehicles were parked haphazardly in front of the entrance. Lee parked her Honda Accord carefully within the lines of a parking space.
The Harborfront Exposition Center was a sprawling structure that, despite remodeling over the decades, betrayed its roots as a failed cargo port and warehouse. Once a premier site for trade shows and conventions, its exterior now looked dowdy, the façade dated. Three of the ten floodlights that illuminated the building were not working, and the balance were mismatched in color, leaving the face of the building a patchwork of yellow, blue, white and gray.
Inside, all lights were on, the building interior as bright as midday. Masses of flowers were everywhere, spilling out of containers and bordering pedestrian walkways. To the left was a cavernous area of vendor booths. To the right were display gardens. Lee walked toward the voices in the gardens, all the time sniffing hopefully for the aroma of coffee. She ought to have put on her dark blue jacket and skirt to show deference to whatever grieving family members might show up later. Instead, she had slipped into jeans, a sweater, sneakers and her ski parka.
Fine, she thought. It’s my third day on the job, and it’s four o’clock in the morning. Let them think anything they want to. Just get in, evaluate, get out, and be on the train at eight.
A hundred feet in front of her were a clutch of people. A young detective she assumed to be Jason Alvarez moved briskly from point to point, indicating places a police photographer should record. Nearby, Alvarez’s partner, Vito Mazilli, leaned against a column, taking notes on something being told to him by one of the crime scene technicians. Neither saw Lee enter the building. But a white-haired security guard, seventy years old if he was a day, spotted her and ambled over.
“You can’t come in here yet, Miss,” he said. “No vendor set-up until six o’clock.” He said the words in a kindly, grandfatherly way, as though shooing away errant vendors without annoying them was one of the main bullet points of his position description.
“Actually, I’m with the police,” Lee said, fumbling in her purse for the leather case that held her badge.
“You’re Lieutenant Lee?” he asked, squinting and his brow furrowing with doubt.
“Surprise,” Lee said and smiled.
“Sorry, I expected…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. You expected petticoats and mint juleps,” Lee said. “I get that a lot. My parents should have changed our names to something really oriental like ‘Ming’ before we emigrated. It would have cleared up a lot of awkward moments like this. I see Detectives Alvarez and Mazilli and a couple of techs. And, what’s your name?”
The guard recovered sufficiently to nod. “Walter O’Brien.”
“How long you worked here, Mr. O’Brien? I’m guessing a long time.”
He nodded and pushed back his cap an inch or so with the fingers of one hand. “Thirty-two years.”
“Seen a lot of flower shows, I guess.”
He nodded again. “And boat shows and car shows and everything else.”
“Anybody ever turn up dead at one of them on your watch?”
“Found a vendor dead of a heart attack once. Home Show. Nineteen…. eighty-eight. Yeah. The year Dukakis ran for president. Died back in his holding area and nobody noticed. Never had a chance.”
“They say the same thing about Dukakis,” Lee grinned. “You found the body this morning?”
O’Brien nodded. From the look on his face, it hadn’t been a pleasant experience.
“You had met the victim?”
“Oh, yeah,” O’Brien said. “I remember him from last year, too. He’s been around here all week, and I saw him tonight. Ought to have figured out it was him right away. He was strutting around in that white suit…”
“What time did you come on?”
“Midnight,” O’Brien said. “Same as every night, show or no show.”
“And there was a party? The sign outside says the show opens today… this morning.”
“Oh, they’ve been in here for a week, setting up. The ‘load in’ they call it. Last night was their big party for all the money people. The ‘Gala’. Everyone in tuxes. All the ladies in gowns and fancy jewelry. But St. John was the only one…”
“I’m sorry,” Lee said. “Sin Jin?”
“His name is spelled ‘Saint John’, but everyone pronounced it Sin-Jin. His full name is something long. Two last names with a hyphen between them.”
“Sounds like a mouth full,” Lee said.
“That’s why everyone called him St. John,” O’Brien said, nodding. “Saved a lot of words.”
“English was he? Spoke with an accent?”
“I suppose so. Sounded like that guy who used to be on Masterpiece Theater.”
“Alistair Cooke,” Lee offered.
“If you say so.”
“So, St. John-two-last-names-with-a-hyphen was the only man in white tie and tails last night as far as you were aware.”
“And what time did the party break up?”
“One-thirty, quarter to two.”
“Lot of people?”
“Place was full. Close to fifteen hundred, I heard.”
“And everybody drinking, I imagine,” Lee said. “Liquor and Champagne free for the asking. Any chance he got drunk and fell in?”
O’Brien shook his head. “I walked the same area at two and two-thirty. Didn’t see him then.”
“So, after the party, everybody went home and you had the place to yourself?”
“Then the cleaning crew went to work,” O’Brien said. “‘Bout a dozen of them. Picked out all the glasses from the bushes, cleaned up the spilled food. They worked fast. They were out of here by a quarter past two.”
“And what were you doing during the party and the clean-up?”
“Same as I always do,” O’Brien said, a hint of a smile creeping across his face. “Stopping people from going into the vendor area. Even rich people get light fingers in a place like this.”
Lee looked past O’Brien at the vast expanse of vendor space. Then, from the corner of her eye she saw Vito Mazilli lumbering toward her. Five minutes of talking with a useful witness was all she was going to get. Twelve hours from now, O’Brien’s recollections would be tainted by his conversations with other people. He would begin repeating what he had heard others say, believing it was what he had seen.
“Just a minute, Mazilli,” Lee said, waving him off.
“I’ve got a couple of people lined up for you, Lieutenant” Mazilli said, oblivious to the tone of Lee’s voice. “Plus, we’re about to fish the guy out of the pond.” Mazilli had drooping eyelids, as though he were about to nod off.
“Give me another minute,” Lee said, firmly.
This time, Lee’s words got through. Mazilli sighed and turned around. He shuffled off to a spot twenty feet away where he roosted, his face showing annoyance, impatiently waiting for the allotted minute to be up.
“When the cleaning crew was finished, it was just you in the building, is that right?” Lee asked.
O’Brien nodded. “Just me. I walk the entire center every half hour.”
“You understand that if this was a murder, someone had to kill St. John, dump his body in the pond, and get out without being seen,” Lee said.
O’Brien rubbed his chin with his hand. “Wouldn’t be that hard. I can only be in one place at a time.”
“But the outside doors are all locked?”
“They’re locked,” he agreed.
O’Brien paused. He started to say something different, then stopped himself. He shook his head. “Not really. Not anymore. Maintenance is part of it. Owners have been wanting to tear this place down for a couple of years and, at this point, they’re not doing anything except plugging holes in the roof. All the big shows are over at the Convention Center now; the mid-sized ones at Seaport. Back when the alarms worked, if there was a malfunction and somebody responded, it used to be two, three hundred bucks as a fine. Got to the point where there were four, five false alarms a week. The owners got tired of paying. So, now the alarm signs are just for show.”
O’Brien made a chuckling noise. “Not for a long time. They got me. They got three people on days and more when shows come in.”
Lee had a dozen other questions, but Mazilli had wandered back. “Lieutenant, there are some people I really think you’re going to want to talk to.”
Lee grimaced. She plunged her hand into her shoulder bag and came up with what she hoped was a card. “Please stay close by, Mr. O’Brien, and don’t talk to the media. You’re the guy who saw the crime scene first. Your recollections are very important.”
Mazilli walked Lee back into the heart of the exhibit area. It was a series of islands of greenery, some more than a thousand square feet in size, others just a few hundred. All were lush, imagined landscapes, with everything in bloom simultaneously. Outside, it was mid-February and massive piles of ugly, brown snow were everywhere. Inside, it was a balmy, late spring day.
“What have we got?” Lee asked.
“St. John Grainger-Elliot, age forty-two,” Mazilli said. “Executive Director of the New England Botanical Society, which sponsors the Northeast Garden and Flower Show. We’re about to take him out of the pond. Thanks to young Alvarez, the ME is on her way, with some choice words about being dragged out of bed at four in the morning.”
“I know just how she feels,” Lee said. “And our little group up there?” Lee indicated three people talking with Alvarez, thirty or forty feet away.
Mazilli took out his notebook and read. “The tall one is Linda Cooke. She runs the flower show.” Mazilli indicated a thin woman, probably six-one in flats. She looked to be in her mid- to late thirties, with black hair pulled back in a ponytail. “To her left is Winona Stone. She’s Cooke’s assistant.” Stone was of medium height, slender with long, red hair. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties. “The big guy is Tony Wilson. He runs the physical plant at Botanical Hall – that’s the society’s headquarters – and he’s more or less in charge of making everything go smoothly at the show.” Wilson was an African-American in his fifties who looked as though he might have played tackle for the New England Patriots. His neck was as large around as his head.
“Who called them?” Lee asked. “And how did they get here so quickly?”
“After the security guard called 911, he called building management,” Mazilli said, referring to his notes. “Building management called Cooke, which Cooke says is policy. Cooke called the others. They’re all staying at that hotel across the parking lot.”
“Any of them look guilty?”
“They look tired,” Mazilli said. “They were here until around two. They thought they’d get at least four hours of sleep.”
“So did I,” Lee said, yawning involuntarily.
“The lieutenant had a social obligation?” Mazilli asked.
“The lieutenant had classes until ten o’clock and then a study group until one in the morning. The lieutenant needs a cup of coffee. Strong and black.”
They reached the crime scene. Grainger-Elliot still floated face down in the pond. Four technicians were removing their shoes and rolling up their pants legs in preparation for retrieving the body.
“The floors were all washed as part of the clean-up after the party,” Mazilli said. “Crews went through the exhibits looking for cigarette butts and glasses. The brown stuff in the exhibits is mulch, not dirt, so it doesn’t hold shoeprints very well.”
Mazilli indicated a spot a few feet down a three-foot-high timbered retaining wall. “The security guard said he climbed that wall to get a better look at something floating in the pond. Otherwise, he left the scene alone.”
“Good man,” Lee said. “I knew there was a reason I liked him.”
Lee saw Jason Alvarez meticulously bagging and tagging mulch fragments from the floor. Mazilli and Alvarez comprised two of her four night-shift detectives. Mazilli, she knew primarily by reputation; Alvarez, only a few months on the detectives’ squad, was a name she knew only because she had read his personnel jacket her first day on the job. While Vito Mazilli was heavy-set and in his late fifties, Alvarez was probably about thirty; her own age give or take a year. He was good looking, lean with a dark complexion and short, black hair and sideburns just below the middle of his ears. Mutt and Jeff, Lee thought.
“Any evidence?” she asked him.
“Good morning, Lieutenant,” Alvarez said. “We’ve tagged everything we can find. What we especially don’t have are any shoe prints on the floor, so there isn’t much to go on. I’m getting one of the techs to sift the mulch around the edge of the pond. We might get something. I’ve had the filter for the pond turned off, and we’ll comb the bottom and check the filter cage as soon as the victim has been pulled out.”
Well, at least he’s organized, Lee thought. Bright, and attentive to detail.
O’Brien, the night watchman, approached Lee gingerly. “Lieutenant Lee, there’s a TV news truck that just pulled up at the door and a reporter who says he wants to talk to the person in charge.”
Lee, distracted, asked O’Brien to wait a minute. There was a splashing sound behind them as the crime scene techs waded into the pond, unfurled a plastic tarpaulin underneath Grainger-Elliot and carefully lifted the body out of the water. Mazilli directed four EMTs, who took the body from the techs and laid it on the concrete floor, still on its plastic sheet. Lee noted that Mazilli carefully avoided getting himself wet.
“Let’s roll him over,” Lee said. “Gently.”
Grainger-Elliot now lay face up. He might have been handsome if he weren’t dead. Slender build, perhaps five-ten in height. Blonde hair, blue eyes, a fair complexion and a small moustache.
Three things were immediately evident. First, the telltale broken capillaries around the nose and cheeks were missing. Grainger-Elliot had not drowned. Second, there was a four-inch-long, oval-shaped red mark on the right-hand side of his forehead, indicating he had been struck with something. Third, there were ligature marks above the collar indicating something had been tied around the man’s neck before he died.
Lee donned latex gloves and, from the pocket of Grainger-Elliot’s tuxedo jacket, she extracted a wallet. It held half a dozen credit cards and a hundred dollars or more in cash. From another pocket she pulled an iPhone. From the wrist of his left arm, she took a Piaget watch worth, probably, twenty thousand. She handed those items to Alvarez to be bagged.
“Mazilli,” she said, “call headquarters and tell them to wake up someone in public affairs. Tell them to get their ass down here in ten minutes. This area is sealed until further notice, and tell that P.A. person that if I see one reporter or a camera in this building, I’m going to hand them their head in an evidence bag.”
Lee took a long breath. “Gentlemen, this is now officially a homicide.”
Linda Cooke poured the coffee. They were in the Expo Center’s VIP lounge, a twelve-by-twelve room with muted lighting where the New England Botanical Society – ‘The Society’, she kept calling it – brought wealthy, would-be contributors to relax away from the hustle and bustle of the show. Here, prospective donors could rest up in comfortable chairs and admire the antique, hand-tinted botanical prints adorning the walls. They could hear, first-hand in one-on-one sessions, from earnest experts from the fields of horticulture and botany. Depending upon the time of day, they could sip coffee or wine or something harder. And here, they could be encouraged to show their appreciation for the hand-holding by writing large checks to the Society.
At 4:30 a.m., the beverage was coffee, hot and caffeine-laden. Lee was on her third cup, consumed from an ivory-colored mug bearing a Botanical Society logo.
On closer inspection, Lee judged Cooke to be in her forties. Her hair was pulled back to minimize facial lines, and her makeup was carefully applied. She was not an especially attractive woman; her mouth was too small and her nose too prominent. But Cooke used cosmetics to minimize those flaws and to pare years from her appearance. Lee noted that even coming on a few moments’ notice with the news of her employer’s death, Cooke had taken the time to add eyeliner, blush and lipstick. There was also a rigid quality to Cooke’s brow and chin. Lee wondered if Botox might be part of Cooke’s regimen and, if so, how far along in her forties Cooke was.
“St. John was the savior of the Society,” Cooke said for possibly the fourth time. “He appreciated talent. He understood marketing. He understood botany. He talked about a two-hundred-year plan for the Society and what it could accomplish. He was a man of vision.”
“Who would want to kill him?” Lee asked.
“Nobody,” Cooke said emphatically. “That’s just it. Everybody liked St. John. Everybody respected him. We would do anything for him and vice versa. He had breathed life into a moribund organization.”
“Nevertheless, somebody killed him,” Lee said. “Strangled him, carried him to one of the exhibits and dumped him into a pond.”
“I can’t imagine who would do something like that,” Cooke said, shivering. “It strains credulity.”
Lee wondered how, two hours before sunrise and on one or two hours of sleep, someone could work words like ‘moribund’ and ‘credulity’ into a sentence.
“He was married?”
“Cynthia. Beautiful woman. Very supportive,” Cooke said, emphasizing ‘beautiful’.
“Has anyone called her?” Lee asked.
A pained look passed across Cooke’s face. “No. It isn’t something I’m looking forward to… I thought the police…”
Lee nodded. “We’ll take care of it. Was Mr. Grainger-Elliot also staying at the hotel here?”
“Of course,” Cooke said. “The whole Garden and Flower Show staff – ten of us — have to be available around the clock.”
“What about Mrs. Grainger-Elliot?”
Cooke shook her head. “It isn’t really a lot of fun for spouses. We’re here up to eighteen hours a day. And, for whatever it’s worth, Cynthia uses her maiden name, Duncastle.”
“Not even for the big party last night?” Lee asked. “I would have thought that would have been fun… like a reward.”
“St. John worked the crowd,” Cooke said. “It was be nice to trustees, be nicer to prospective donors, be nicest to people who just wrote checks. Besides, St. John and Cynthia have three children, all under the age of ten.”
“Three children, “Lee said. “I take it they live out in the suburbs.”
“Oh, no,” Cooke replied. “The Society owns a townhouse adjacent to Botanical Hall. St. John and his family live there.”
Which would make the Grainger-Elliot/Duncastle residence just three and a half miles from where they now sat, Lee thought. Not exactly a hardship to get from Point ‘A’ to Point ‘B’ and back. And Mrs. Executive Director would pass up the opportunity to put on a fancy dress and pull out all the family baubles because it wasn’t ‘a lot of fun’? It didn’t sound right.
On the whole, Lee decided, Cooke’s answers were too perfunctory, too defensive of her boss and not especially forthcoming. But cases were built fact by fact. She would come back to Cooke when she knew more, and when she could ask better or more intelligent questions.
* * * * *
Tony Wilson blew on his coffee incessantly. Because only two of his huge fingers would fit through the mug’s handle, he also held out his pinkie finger when he finally deemed the mug’s contents to be the right temperature, though perhaps his un-masculine grip could be explained by the fact that his hand was several times the size of the cup. Unlike Cooke, who had arrived at the Expo Center in an impeccable camel-colored suit, Wilson was in a plaid shirt and mulch-smeared jeans. He also possessed an easy demeanor that invited trust in what he said.
“Enemies?” he said. “Hell, last night the man had a list of enemies as long as your arm. You got fifty-one exhibitors who dropped anywhere from a couple of thousand to nearly a hundred thousand bucks putting together a landscape for the show. Every one of them expects a board full of ribbons out in front of the exhibit to impress potential customers. Instead, one guy runs the table and gets forty-two awards while the other fifty exhibitors get to share thirty-nine. And a lot of those are made-up things that everyone gets, like the ‘Botanical Society Award of Merit’.” Wilson spoke with a slight trace of a southern accent. Lee decided his family must have moved to Boston when he was a child.
“Would that be enough for someone to commit a murder?” Lee asked.
“These guys here,” Wilson said, blowing on his coffee again. When he spoke again it was in a lower voice. “This is their lifeblood. They’ve got this and the Boston Flower and Garden Show next month to showcase what hot stuff they are. Every big nursery, every fancy landscaping service, every landscape architect is here. They’ve got nine days to write a year’s worth of business based on being able to showcase their skills in a twenty-by-forty-foot space. They plant themselves on stools, ready to waylay people who look like they’ve got a couple of hundred grand to spend on landscaping.”
“And the ribbons validate their skill and imagination?”
Wilson grinned and wagged a finger at Lee. “You understand. The more ribbons and trophies, the more prestige. The more prestige, the more business.”
“People come here looking for a landscaper?” Lee asked.
Wilson laughed. The sound was deep and hearty and filled the room. “They come here because it’s February and fourteen degrees outside and it’s the middle of May in here. Anyone with twenty bucks can come here and get a day-long dose of spring. They don’t come in expecting to have someone re-do their property, but they’re the right age, they linger by an exhibit, the wife is carrying an expensive purse, and all of a sudden some guy walks up to them and says, ‘I’m pleased you like my design’. Ten minutes later, the guy knows they live in Sherborn on three acres but nothing on their property looks like what they see in front of them. The guy starts sketching and, an hour later, the people from Sherborn are in love with an idea and well on their way to spending a hundred thousand bucks for a pond, a waterfall, and some new specimen trees.”
Lee nodded, absorbing the image.
“Now, everybody gets some kind of an award but, like I said, most of those are kind of like kindergarten sports,” Wilson continued. “You get a blue ribbon just for showing up. But there’s a world of difference between the ‘Mary Chase Wilson Award for Best Use of Dahlias’ – Mary Chase Wilson being my wife — and the ‘Award of Merit’ that’s on every single exhibit.” He finished his mug of coffee and poured another for each. “Now, when you get past the exhibitors who wanted to tear apart St. John…”
“Wait a second,” Lee said. “Who decides who gets the awards? Can’t the Botanical Society divvy them up equally?”
Wilson held up a stubby finger. “That’s the problem. There’s a separate group of judges to keep the whole thing honest. Now, St. John names the people on the panels for the Society awards. It’s three people – usually one hot-shot designer who doesn’t have a display this year and two little old ladies with lot of money who are thrilled to be asked to judge. But the ‘real’ awards are picked by the groups that sponsor the trophies. And, believe me, those people take it seriously.”
“I got it,” Lee said, having heard enough to understand. “Did he have other enemies?”
“Well, then there are the vendors,” Wilson said. “More than three hundred of them spread over five halls, each an acre in size. Linda Cooke and St. John will promise every vendor who signs up for next year and puts down their deposit now that they’ll be right on the concourse outside of the exhibit hall – what we call the ‘gold coast’. Instead, they show up here on Thursday morning and find out they’re back in Siberia with the foot massage people. That tends to make them cranky.”
“But those people wouldn’t have been at the party last night?”
“The exhibitors get comped for the Gala because they’re the star attractions, but the vendors have to pay their own way in – two hundred bucks a head, so they don’t show up,” Wilson conceded. “But believe me, the exhibitors were here yesterday afternoon making plenty of noise, plus there were about three dozen vendors who were screaming for St. John’s or Linda’s head yesterday because they didn’t get the space they were promised.”
“The exhibitors,” Lee said. “They were angry just because they didn’t get enough awards?”
“Awards, plants missing from their displays, having an exhibit space away from the heavy traffic areas, being locked out of the exhibit hall on judging day and not having access to their exhibits until four hours before the Gala… you name it, they were bellyaching about it. But it’s the same old stuff every year.”
* * * * *
Winona Stone was a fresh-faced twenty-five. On a different morning, Lee decided Stone would have been judged beautiful by anyone who saw her. She had translucent skin and soft red hair that fell in waves like a pre-Raphaelite model. But at that moment she looked as though her world had fallen apart and could never be put back together. Her face was drawn and pale. She was horrified at Grainger-Elliot’s death. Far more than Cooke or Wilson, she was visibly shaken by the event. Her hands shook as she held a mug, the coffee in it offering both warmth and a distraction from the night’s events.
She said her official title was Assistant Garden and Flower Show Director. “But it’s, like, just a title. My job is to do whatever Linda tells me to do. I’m supposed to, like, watch her and learn. This is, like, my second show. Linda is, like, awesome.”
Lee was ready to strangle Stone after the tenth iteration of ‘like’ in the woman’s responses. Instead, she mentally screened the word out of the woman’s vocabulary.
“Did you see Mr. Grainger-Elliot spend a lot of time with anyone in particular at the party?”
“I think St. John talked with everyone there. He shook a million hands. I don’t believe he spent more than a minute or two with any one person.”
“Did he drink?”
“I suppose so. I mean, he had a glass in his hand most of the evening.”
To Lee, the answer sounded tenuous. But there would be a tox screen. If Grainger-Elliot was sloshed when he died, it would be quickly known.
“To your knowledge, did he have any enemies?”
Stone shook her head. An even sadder look came over her face. “He must have,” she said. “Someone killed him.” Stone put her head down and, when she raised it again a few moments later, her eyes were filled with tears.
“Tony Wilson told me some vendors and exhibitors were angry with Mr. Grainger-Elliot. Did you see him with any of those exhibitors last night?”
Stone thought for a moment. “No. In fact, I guess he was avoiding exhibitors. He told me they’d get over it after a day or two. He said they were like little children who didn’t get an A+ on their homework.”
“When did he tell you that?”
Stone started to speak but then closed her mouth. A few seconds later she said, “Um, yesterday evening sometime, I guess. St. John wasn’t there when the exhibitors were let back in. So it must have been after seven. I guess some exhibitors said something to him.”
A lie, Lee thought, and not a very good one. She wrote a note on her pad. Where was G-E between 3 and 7 p.m.?
“Whose exhibit was he found in?” Lee asked. “I didn’t really know each one was created by a different designer.”
“That’s Blue Hills Gardens’ exhibit. They’re the one that won more awards than anyone else.”
“Who runs Blue Hills Gardens?”
“He must have been all smiles last evening,” Lee said.
“He was getting a lot of congratulations. He was very happy.”
Lee wanted to follow up but was interrupted by Jason Alvarez. “Lieutenant, the M.E. wants to talk to you. It’s pretty interesting.”
Lee excused herself and walked with Alvarez to where the body was now on a gurney. The Medical Examiner, Lois Otting, waved as Lee approached. Otting was a bowling ball of a woman, not an inch over five feet and tipping the scales at over two hundred pounds. She was, despite her orders-of-magnitude variation in appearance from the doctors who inhabited network television shows, the best M.E. Lee had ever worked with.
“Hey, Vicki, you got a live one here,” Otting said.
“He didn’t look that way when we fished him out of the pond,” Lee responded.
“Well, this guy was a triple threat,” Otting said. “If I were looking for a sequence of events, I’d say first he was hit over the head. Didn’t break the skin but it was a good whack.”
“Like a pipe?” Lee asked.
“A pipe would be good. Or something wooden, like a baseball bat. Give me some time in the lab. One good hit intended to knock him out or at least incapacitate him. The fact that it was just one indicates your perp had something more in mind for the guest of honor.”
“Hit from the front?” Lee asked, tracking a circle around the bruise with her finger.
“More like from above,” Otting said. “The bottom of the bruise is deeper than the top. Someone could have been holding him from behind and whacked him to keep him from struggling. So, unless your boy had his eyes closed or was asleep, this started with an assault.”
“Did he put up a defense?” Lee asked, picking up one of Grainger-Elliot’s hands.”
“Smooth as a baby’s bottom, no evidence of a struggle. And the man liked his manicures. I’ll get under the fingernails, but an hour in the water may have washed off anything useful. If you look at the wrists, there’s evidence that his hands were bound with duct tape. There’s also tape residue over his mouth and his moustache. Both areas are still sticky. The tape was removed before he went in the water, though. Find the tape and you’ll find your murderer. That stuff collects DNA like there’s no tomorrow.”
Lee made a note to send the techs out to look for duct tape.
“The cause of death, however, was asphyxiation,” Otting said. She traced her finger along the ligature marks on the neck. “Judging from what I see here, I’d say nylon rope, wound around a couple of times. I’ll look for traces when I get him on the slab but, while you’re looking for that duct tape, keep an eye peeled for a length of nylon rope.”
“Time of death?” Lee asked.
Otting looked at her watch. “It’s 5:45 now, I’d say time of death was sometime between 1:45 and 2:15 a.m. based on body temperature and adjusting for having been in the water.”
“So, just about the time the party was breaking up,” Lee said.
“I don’t know,” Otting replied. “I wasn’t there. Nobody ever invites me to those kind of shindigs.”
“Can you tell when he went into the water?”
Otting scratched her chin. “After two. Maybe as late as three. But he was definitely dead. No water in the lungs as far as I can tell. I’ll be certain when I open him up.”
“So, somebody stashed a body for a while,” Lee said.
“Looking at it that way, yeah. Somebody stashed a body.”
“Do me a favor, Lois,” Lee said. “Give me a blood workup as soon as you can. I need to know if Grainger-Elliot was intoxicated when this happened.” As an afterthought she added, “Also, pay careful attention to his genital region. Give me a call when you’re done.”
“You think our boy was high and dipping his wick and got whacked for it?”
“I don’t know,” Lee said, shaking her head. “You’ve got the head of the New England Botanical Society on the biggest fund-raising night of the year. As the party’s breaking up, someone grabs him from behind, clobbers him with a pipe, then strangles him, hides his body and then tosses it in a pond where it’s sure to be found.”
“Not your average murder,” Otting said. “At least you got me out of bed for an interesting one.”
“Why the extra steps?” Lee asked. “Why not just smack him three or four times and cover him up with a sheet?”
“You’re thinking degradation,” Otting said. “Make the bastard suffer.”
“Or make him talk,” Lee replied. “That’s one reason I want a blood alcohol level. As for the sex part, I just want a more complete picture of the guy than I’m getting from his staff so far. I’m getting a lot of guarded responses.”
Lee called over Mazilli and Alvarez. “Mazilli, get more uniforms in here. Have them go over every square inch of every back room and every trash can. They’re looking for duct tape. Grainger-Elliot’s wrists were bound with the stuff. They may also find a length of nylon rope. We need to move fast. As soon as they’ve got their instructions, you’re going into Back Bay and break the news to Grainger-Elliot’s wife. I want to know if she got a good night’s sleep.”
“What are you going to do about the reporters?” Mazilli asked.
“Isn’t the public affairs person handling them?” Lee asked.
“Well, yeah,” Mazilli said. “But the gal said she’s got nothing to say. She sounds pretty upset.”
Lee chafed at the casual use of the word ‘gal’ by Mazilli but said nothing. “She’s going to keep on saying nothing until we’re finished in here. And don’t you talk to them on your way out.”
To Alvarez she said, “Get me the complete workup on Grainger-Elliot. Newspaper articles, profiles, résumés. Be prepared to educate me in an hour.”
Alvarez dashed off.
“Mazilli, why are you still standing there?”