Authors: Gloria Ferris
A Cornwall and Redfern Mystery
For my special loves:
Olyvia, Talia, Dante, Aimee, Rowyn, and Lennon
From noon Saturday until he was found late that night, Julian Barnfeather lay toes up in the Good Shepherd Cemetery. The ideal place for a corpse, except he was sans casket in the tool shed.
When Chief Redfern learned that I, Bliss Moonbeam Cornwall, spent the day not fifty metres away, he zeroed in on me like a shark eyeing up a sun-baked tourist. How was I supposed to know Julian was dead? I assumed he was in the shed, because he rarely went anywhere else. I thought he was drinking booze-laced coffee and thumbing through his stack of hard-core magazines.
Except for Julian, I liked my Saturday job well enough. There are worse ways to make a buck than raking pinecones and pruning bushes in a quiet cemetery. But, Julian was a four-hundred-pound disgusting pig. A greasy mullet thatched his moon-sized head and his features disappeared into folds of flesh. Between his breath, his sweat-stained shirts, and the odours of whatever else he did in there, my stomach flipped every Saturday morning when I gathered my tools.
That morning was no different. I held my breath and squeezed past his chair. He looked and smelled no worse than usual, certainly no better. He made a few suggestive remarks, as always, his satisfied mirth rumbling out the door behind me. I threw a “fuck you” over my shoulder, and he laughed even harder.
I had to put up with him. If I charged Julian with sexual harassment, the Cemetery Board would find a reason to terminate me. I was a seasonal worker, contracted from April to November, while Julian was a long-time, permanent employee of the Town of Lockport. He was not required to show up on Saturdays, but he always did.
Suing Julian wouldn't help, either. Even if I had the money, there wasn't an ambulance-chaser in town who would represent me. All were colleagues of my ex-husband, Mike Bains â or “the Weasel,” as I had come to think of him.
I carried my rake, hoe, and clippers to the newer plots close to the wrought-iron fence surrounding the cemetery. Rows of pines and maples hid the shed from view. I tried to forget about Julian, and relaxed in the tranquillity of the grove, my emotional balance temporarily restored. Julian was really the least of my problems.
The wet southwestern Ontario spring had finally given way to the sunny, mild temperatures perfect for early June. As I worked, I amused myself by reading the words on the epitaphs. “He Loved Too Well” adorned one grave. One had to wonder how he died. Another gravestone read “Another Place, Another Time.” Was that a threat, or a promise?
Around four, my BlackBerry chirped, drowning out the birds in the overhead branches. I had been ignoring it all day, but now I pulled it out of the bib pocket of my overalls. I swiped my dripping hairline and checked the display.
Yes, it was Dougal wanting something. What a pain. There was no point putting him off any longer, so I settled myself on Alistair Parks's flat, raised gravestone, 1902 to 1989, and leaned back. The chill from the granite helped to lower my body temperature.
“Bliss? Finally! I've been calling all day. Why didn't you answer?”
I sighed as I squirmed to relieve the knots in my back muscles. “Can I do something for you, Dougal?”
“We can do something for each other, dear cousin. Just wait till you hear my proposition.”
Dougal was sounding way too cheerful and calm for someone with his condition. Just last week he had called in a panic, saying a rat was chasing the songbirds in his backyard. I didn't find any rat, but a possum was hanging from the feeder outside his kitchen windows, scooping up the sunflower seeds and smirking at us through the glass. It was more than enough to shake a tightly wrapped thirty-four-year-old ex-high-school teacher who was the centre of his own fast-spinning universe.
“How's the therapy going?” I picked a twig off Alistair's stone and dropped it into the pyramid of pinecones on the ground.
“Really good. Today, Melanie and I went into the backyard. We only stayed a few minutes, but it's the first time I've been outside in months. The sun felt great.”
“Wonderful. You'll be taking a vacation in Costa Rica before you know it.” Melanie was a therapist who made house calls, which was fortunate since Dougal insisted he couldn't go to her office. But, hey, that's agoraphobia for you.
“Yes, but that's not why I called. I have a job for you. Thor is going to blossom, within days, and I need you to help pollinate him.”
I had never heard of a Thor, and I knew it would be next to impossible for me to pollinate anything. And, as a plant expert, Dougal should know how to do it himself.
After a moment, I responded, “I don't know what medication you're on now, but you better look up the side effects. Have you tried some deep breathing exercises? Do you want me to call Melanie?”
“This is Saturday, isn't it? It's past four o'clock now, so come over when you're done work and I'll explain. I'll pay you a thousand dollars. That should boost your Indict the Weasel Fund.”
I bolted upright. “Who do you want me to kill?”
“You're hilarious, Bliss, but that's not the smartest thing to say on a cellphone. I'll tell you exactly what I want you to do when you get here. At the rate Thor is growing, sexual maturity will occur any day.”
“I'll be right over.” The reference to sexual maturity worried me a bit, but still, a thousand dollars? Despite Dougal's tendency to dramatize every mundane event, I was intrigued by his offer to pay me mega bucks to pollinate something â how hard could it be, really?
At quitting time, I dropped my armful of tools outside the shed door to avoid another confrontation with Julian and sprinted to my red Savage. The 1996 650 single-cylinder Suzuki Savage motorcycle was my gift to myself, purchased after I pawned my engagement and wedding rings. It was the best exchange I ever made. From mid-April until late November I was able to ride to my assorted jobs around town, and I could afford to fill up the tank once a week.
Lockport, population 7,021, has the usual mix of well-to-do and poverty-line citizens. Dougal belongs to the former, and so did I until my divorce two years ago. That situation flung me quickly into the latter category. I didn't like it, and I wasn't going to stay there.
Yes, I learned the hard way. Never marry a lawyer while in university, support him through law school, then expect him to be faithful until death. Unless death comes early â during the honeymoon, for instance â it won't happen.
I zipped through the town's one traffic light, keeping an eye out for police cruisers. The red Savage was built for speed, but two recent warnings convinced me to lay off the throttle, since I could barely afford breakfast cereal, let alone a speeding ticket.
Pulling up at Dougal's curb, I enjoyed the sight of the pale yellow bricks of the sprawling ranch-style house gleaming in the late afternoon sun. Immaculate lawns, compliments of my back-breaking labour, spread across a triple-sized lot. The stone drive and path to the front door were bordered by flowering shrubs and beds of early perennials in deep shades of purple and pink. I couldn't help comparing this scene of suburban prosperity to the view from the window of my trailer. Not that I was complaining â okay, I guess I was, but I tried not to be pessimistic about my altered social status. Action yes, whining no, that was the credo I tried to follow.
Dougal was waiting in his arena-sized foyer. “It's about time. Why do you always wear those overalls? You look like a skinny twelve-year-old street waif. I hope you keep your eye out for child molesters in the cemetery.”
I resisted the temptation to tell him about Julian's aspirations of molesting his favourite cousin. He wouldn't be interested.
“I'm kind of hungry,” I said to him when he started pushing me toward the back of the house. “Is there anything to eat?”
“Later. I want to introduce you to Thor. He's in the solarium.” He made it sound like a blind date.
Dougal had the solarium built after his parents died within months of each other three years ago. They left him a great deal of old family money, which afforded him the freedom to quit his position as a high-school science teacher and move back home. Shortly afterward, he announced that he was going to write a mystery novel with a botanical setting, but so far I hadn't seen a single chapter. Then, about eight months ago, he developed agoraphobia and had refused to leave the house since. And guess who became his errand girl, gardener, barber, and junk food delivery slave? Every minute I wasn't working elsewhere, I was doing Dougal's bidding for a pittance. At least he let me do my laundry sometimes and take home the food he didn't want.
“What's the big deal?” I glanced around the ceramic-
tiled solarium. An orchid collection bloomed in multi-hued abundance along the perimeter of the room, but nothing else looked ready to flower.
“What's a Thor, and where is it?” I preferred not to hang out in humid places like solariums. They made me sweat like a roofer on a hot summer day, and already my shoulder-length brown hair was frizzing up around my ears.
Orchids aside, Dougal owned a sorry display of horticultural specimens. At the far end of the room, a dozen fern-like plants four to five feet high grew in plastic pots. Groups of buds drooped from the plants, but they didn't look like flower buds. Seed pods?
Dougal's African grey parrot, Simon, perched on top of his multi-level cage, lifting one leg and then the other, as though his feet hurt. The bird eyed me hopefully, but I stayed out of beak range. “Pretty baby,” he coaxed, “I love you.” He waggled his red tail feathers at me.
“Not a chance,” I told him. I knew for a fact that beak was sharp, and as for his love, well, he was probably fickle like most males.
Dougal gazed lovingly at the only other object in the room â a massive concrete pot. It sat in the middle of the tiled floor, shaded by overhead screens that cast filtered shadows on the centre portion of the space while leaving the perimeters of the room in sunlight. A thick stake about six feet high rose from the pot. It was yellowish-grey and looked like a cactus, but smoother.
Dougal gestured dramatically at the container. I stepped closer to the rim. The stake had one continuous pale green petal with frilled edges curling around the base. I backed away.
“That's obscene! What is it?”
“That, darling Bliss, is an
, better known as a Titan Arum. The largest flower in the world! My Thor.”
“You named your flower? All I see is a huge phallic spike in a skirt. If it gets any bigger, I wouldn't want to be in the same room.”
“Well, stand back, because it will probably grow another foot or more in the next few days, then burst into flower. And that's where you come in.”
“I've changed my mind. I don't even want to ask what part you expect me to play in this fertilizing business.”
“Pollinating, not fertilizing, you ignoramus. Let's go into the kitchen and get some supper, and I'll explain what little you need to do for a thousand dollars.”
Dougal hauled a vegetable lasagna and salad out of the refrigerator and deposited them on his antique pine table with a flourish. While waiting for the lasagna to heat, I forked up the wilted salad.
“Where's the garlic bread?” I asked between swallows.
Dougal stopped crunching barbecue potato chips long enough to take a swig of Coke. He stifled a belch and replied, “I ate it for lunch. Want some of my chips?”
He ate nothing but junk food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, even though the wonderful Mrs. Boudreau, who came in each weekday morning to clean and cook, left him delicious, nutritious meals. I did my best to liberate them, but too many ended up in his garbage bin.
Simon waddled into the kitchen and glared at Dougal.
“Simon wants a chip,” he said in what I assumed was Melanie's voice. The voice impersonation was a nice change since the bird's repertoire usually consisted of mimicking the sound of the ringing phone and the chiming doorbell. Occasionally, he bayed like the hound next door or made grunting noises similar to a yeti in heat.
Dougal handed the parrot a potato chip. Simon held his treat in one scaly claw and nibbled at it until it was gone. Then he turned and shuffled out of the room, leaving a gelatinous puddle behind on the oak floor.
I looked pointedly at the mess, but Dougal only shrugged and said, “Mrs. Boudreau will clean that tomorrow.”
I got a paper towel and wiped up the slimy deposit. Dougal was finicky about everything except parrot poop. Go figure.
“Can I take the rest of this lasagna home if you're not going to eat it?”
“Go ahead; it's too high in fat and carbohydrates anyway.” He opened the wrapper on a Mr. Big chocolate bar and bit it in half.
Chewing noisily, he watched me clear the table and put my plate and cutlery in the dishwasher. “Are you ready to listen now? There isn't much time. Focus on the money.”
He settled down on his spine and rested his bare feet on another chair. His long fingers dipped in and out of a second chip bag, the chocolate bar already just a memory, and began to lecture.
“The Titan Arum is indigenous to the rainforests of Sumatra. As far as I know, only a few large botanical gardens and universities have specimens, and maybe there are one or two others in private collections like mine.” His almond-shaped blue eyes glittered in his narrow face with the fervour of a fanatic. He scratched at his dark buzz cut, leaving a few potato chip crumbs behind.
I suppressed a yawn, partly from boredom and partly from plain fatigue. Wielding a rake for eight hours was hard work, and, at thirty-two, my muscles took longer to recover than they used to.
“Are you listening, Bliss? Now, I've owned my Titan for about eight years. Every year or so it has produced one huge compound leaf that grows about ten feet tall and then the leaf dies and the tuber lies dormant again.”
“Really?” I gave in to the yawn. “I never saw it in your apartment before you moved back to this house. The pot itself would have taken up half your living room. And your ceiling wasn't even eight feet high, so â¦”
“Button it, will you? A friend was keeping it for me, okay? Now then, the last month or so, when I was expecting the leaf to start growing again, it didn't.”
He pulled a battered cigarette out of his pocket and lit it.
“When did you start smoking? And why? I don't understand you, Dougal. You're going to croak before you hit forty, between your appalling diet and now smoking.”
He ignored me and sucked in the smoke. “This time is different. The Titan is producing an inflorescence that consists of the spadix â the tall column you saw in the pot â and a spathe â the green, furrowed structure wrapped around the base. Soon, thousands of tiny flowers, both male and female, will form at the base of the spadix, and the spathe will unfurl around them. The spathe will be dark red on the inside â I saw one years ago when I was in England, at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, and it was spectacular. Now, I may have a chance to observe it right in my own house.” His eyes sparkled with excitement as he waved the crumpled cigarette in my direction.
“That's fascinating, but I still don't see where I come in. I don't know much about plants, but if this one has male and female flowers, why can't it pollinate itself?”
“That rarely happens, and I don't want to chance it. We need the pollen from another Titan. After a successful pollination, the plant then produces fruit, which, in turn, produces the seeds. The mature seeds are called tubers.”
“And that's what you want me to do? Find you another giant, ugly plant? I wouldn't know where to begin to look. I don't think this is a realistic plan, Dougal.”
“Will you listen? I know where another Titan is.”
“Where? And what makes you think this other one is going to flower at the same time as yours? You said they can go years without â¦”
“I don't know, not for sure. But the other Titan comes from the same mother plant. Our tubers are the same age, and there's a chance the other one will be at the same stage of sexual development.” He took another pull on his unfiltered cigarette.
My ears started to burn. I had the same feeling before when I was about to do something stupid, like the day I got married. I ignored it that time, and look how my life turned out.
“So, Dougal. If I understand the situation correctly, you have a plant that may or may not flower. Someone else, as yet unnamed, has another plant that may or may not flower. You are willing to pay me a thousand dollars to ensure a successful pollination. Sorry, but I think buying a lottery ticket would give me better odds.”
“This is a win-win situation for you, Bliss. I will pay you in full if the other Titan is also about to blossom and you talk the owner into pollinating both plants. You'll get the money even if the pollination doesn't work.”
“Is there some reason you can't contact the other owner and arrange this for yourself?”
“There's a pretty good reason.”
“What is it?”
“I used to be married to her, and she hates my guts.”
“Glory? Glory has one of these hideous plants?”
He said reproachfully, “Don't talk like that. They have names.”
“Okay. Before Glory and I were married, two tubers came into our possession, never mind how. When we split up, I took Thor and she took Sif. I moved into my own place and had a friend with a greenhouse keep Thor for me until I built the solarium here. There, that's the whole story. Once the spathe unfurls completely, the male and female flowers will ripen within a day of each other.”
Dougal leaned back and stretched his lanky legs farther out on the chair. He was still smoking and looking unusually relaxed for an agoraphobic whose Titan Arum was about to embark on sexual maturity with no nubile mate in sight. Although he was a foot taller and had at least sixty pounds on me, I sometimes felt like Dougal's mother. Not that I had any experience as a parent.
“What's a Sif? I know Thor was some mythical god, but â¦”
“Thor is a Germanic god of war, and Sif is his wife. At the time, Glory and I thought it was romantic. Are there any other questions before I continue?”
“I guess not.” Although, considering what happened between Glory and Dougal, naming the plants after a war god and his wife had turned out to be more prophetic than romantic.
“Right. Since you clean Glory's house, you have an excellent opportunity to find out if her Titan is ready to bloom. If it isn't, well, no harm done, and no point even mentioning it to her.”
“Dougal, I clean Glory's house on Wednesday mornings. This is only Saturday. I can't go over there uninvited. We aren't exactly social equals anymore.”
“You can't wait until Wednesday â Thor might bloom before then! And Sif could be even farther along in development, or behind. I need to know so I can plan. You'll have to find some excuse to go over there.”
“But I've never seen anything like your Titan in Glory's house. You can't miss something that resembles a gigantic â¦”
“Look in the greenhouse at the back of the house. That's where we used to keep the pair.”
“Glory never leaves me alone in her house. I've never been in the backyard, not even when you two were married.”
“Damnations, Bliss! I'm trying to pay you a thousand dollars. Can't you show a little initiative?”