Authors: Alyse Carlson
The Azalea Assault
“A very good first cozy mystery with an interesting cast of characters and a lovely setting. The Patricks’ gardens are described in such a way as to inspire gardeners and non-gardeners alike . . . The mystery is well laid out with plenty of clues and hidden secrets revealed along the way.”
The Mystery Reader
“With a nod to the English Garden Mystery series by Anthony Eglin, the alpha Garden Society Mystery is a fun amateur sleuth starring a likable, caring heroine who relates in the third person her investigation while also providing a delightful tour of the city . . . Cozy fans and garden aficionados will enjoy Alyse Carlson’s entertaining opening act.”
The Mystery Gazette
“Carlson has given her fledgling series a great start, with strong characters, good story sense, and sense of place, as well as a sly sense of humor that I hope will come even more to the forefront as the series progresses. The gardening is a great bonus, but as a reader, you’ll stay tuned for the mystery.”
“Fans of garden-variety, engaging amateur-sleuth cozies will want to read the alpha tale of what looks to be an entertaining series as Alyse Carlson plants an opening winner.”
Berkley Prime Crime titles by Alyse Carlson
THE AZALEA ASSAULT
THE BEGONIA BRIBE
Published by the Penguin Group
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THE BEGONIA BRIBE
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2013 by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / May 2013
Cover illustration by Catherine Deeter.
Cover design by Lesley Worrell.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
For Leanne Rabesa.
With hedgehogs and otters.
This book was my first second, if you will. And as such, held some special challenges. Where to draw the line so readers starting here would still follow easily, but readers who began with
The Azalea Assault
won’t get too much repetition. It took me several iterations, and much patience from my editor at the time, Emily Rapoport—so thank you. I’d also like to thank my ever-reliable critique partners, Leanne Rabesa and Stacy Gail; my agent, Ellen Pepus; my new editor, Michelle Vega; and the amazing art team at Berkley Prime Crime for my fabulous covers.
The Little Miss Begonia Pageant
State Little Miss Begonia Pageant Finals to be held in Roanoke
The Virginia State Committee Advancing “Miss Pageants” has chosen Roanoke for the state finals of the Little Miss Begonia Pageant this year. The pageant, a tradition since 1973, will be hosted by the Roanoke Garden Society and held at Elmwood Park. Facilities at the Roanoke Library and the Roanoke Arts Commission have been reserved for staging, rehearsals, and inclement weather backup. During the last week of July, thirty finalists between the ages of seven and ten, representing the ninety-five counties and forty independent cities in Virginia will compete. Local teen favorite, singer Kyle Lance, will broaden audience appeal and thrill participants. The winner of the Little Miss Begonia Pageant will participate in the Little Miss Cherry Blossom national competition in Denver, Colorado, in November.
Television coverage for the pageant will be provided by WONK television, and the competition will be judged by TV talk show host Telly Stevens, local columnist Barbara Mackay, and radio personality Clancy Huggins. The Mistress of Ceremonies this year will be none other than Roanoke’s own Former Miss Virginia, Evangeline Patrick.
am Harris slammed the phone down and spun. “Just shoot me now!”
“Bang.” Annie, her best friend for the last twenty years, obliged her in spirit.
“How do I get sucked into these things?”
“Indiscriminate taste in friends?” Annie offered.
Cam launched herself at Annie, hugging her tight. “My taste is fine. I just happen to love some troublemakers.”
Annie extricated herself from the bear hug. “Okay, I’ll give you that. So what are these
, more troublemaking friends doing now?”
Cam snorted. Annie had been her best friend since seventh grade, but it was rich of Annie to call other people “troublemakers.” Annie’s relationship with rules tended to include a lot of sneers and mocking.
Cam didn’t mention that, though. “You know that pageant the Roanoke Garden Society is setting up for?”
“Yeah?” Annie’s face looked pained.
“Well, Evangeline is on the pageant board and offered me a moonlighting gig while things with RGS are slow. In addition to coordinating and publicizing the RGS side, she asked me to do pageant publicity and coordination.”
“Just tell her you can’t,” Annie offered.
“That’s the thing. She sweetened the pot and I can’t refuse.”
“Seriously?” Cam watched the corners of Annie’s nose rise and took a breath.
“You know I’ve been saving for that Mustang. She offered twenty-five hundred for this gig, which is above my regular salary, so I could finally afford payments. I could really use your help, though—that last week in July, I mean.”
“Are you forgetting the last time I worked with these nuts they accused me of murder?”
“That was Jake, who you seem to have forgiven fine.”
Jake was the police officer who’d investigated a pair of spring murders that the Garden Society had been entangled with. He was now Annie’s boyfriend, so “forgiven” was an understatement.
“That wouldn’t have happened if your nuts hadn’t framed me.”
“Not nuts. Nut. And that’s done with.”
* * *
he meeting where RGS’s involvement in the pageant had been decided had been held a month earlier on the covered back porch of La Fontaine, Neil and Evangeline Patrick’s grand home. The gorgeous hibiscus that lined the sunny edge of the deck in big pots were tickling Cam’s nose with their fragrance. From this angle she couldn’t see the flower mural the Patricks’ garden created, but the colors had changed from the white, red, and pink of spring to purples with a bit of gold and white. She thought from the balcony above them, it probably looked like some variety of iris, or perhaps a clematis. From Cam’s position in a patio chair, she could see a border layer of lobelia in lighter and darker shades of purple. Cam was a little surprised because normally lobelia liked shade, but it must have been close enough to the taller plants that it was shaded for much of the day. Behind them stood Virginia Blue, larkspur, iris, and finally hollyhocks. She knew there was a lot she was missing from this angle, though, as the garden was designed with the balcony view in mind.
When Mr. Patrick called them all to order, he sputtered a little but then seemed to find his resolve.
“You know why we’ve had a break. But the Roanoke Garden Society means something to all of us. I don’t want to see it dissolve because of the bad behavior of a few people.”
Mrs. Pemberly, a crabby older woman who had never participated but always wanted to give her opinion, started to speak, but Cam saw her husband pinch her.
The first item on the agenda was the election of an interim president, as the leadership that had been in place during the spring events had felt it best to step back while the scandal settled. Mr. Pemberly had to poke his wife several more times, but finally, one of the founding members gave her a look that silenced her and asked the key question.
“Did you have someone in mind?” Holden Hobbes was the oldest man present. Cam thought he had to be at least eighty, though he was healthy and spry.
“Actually, Holden,” Evangeline Patrick said, “We hoped as a past president, y’all might be willing to act as president until proper elections can be held. We take a break in August, so you could take your normal holiday, and we could hold elections in fall like we always do.”
Holden Hobbes was a beloved local figure; in fact, he’d once held the state senate seat that Annie’s father had eventually assumed. But Holden was a soft-touch politician—speaking quietly and seeking consensus and cooperation—a gentleman’s gentleman.
“What’s that? Six months?” Holden asked.
“Yes,” Evangeline said.
“Well, I suppose I might live that long,” he answered with an eye twinkle.
“Then you’ll do it?”
“There needs to be a vote,” Holden said.
“All in favor?” Evangeline said.
All the hands except Madeline Leclerc’s and Cam’s own went up. Madeline was her boss, the fund-raiser and manager for RGS. As hired staff, they didn’t have voting privileges.
“My first act as president,” Hobbes said, “is to ask Neil and his lovely wife to kindly carry on, as they have a much better idea what’s going on than I do.” Everyone laughed. “I trust they will bring me up to speed after the meeting.”
“You know we will.” Evangeline winked.
“Darling, the next up is you,” Neil said to Evangeline.
“Well, then.” Evangeline stood. She was a former Miss Virginia and was every bit the presence she’d been twenty years earlier, tall, curvy, and very pretty. “We’ve had a request for assistance.”
Evangeline described a call from an old friend regarding the state finals for the Little Miss Begonia pageant. They would be held in Elmwood Park in Roanoke in July, and the committee had requested assistance in beautifying the space.
“Now, Elmwood Park
spectacular in spring, but in late July they could use a little help. I hoped maybe we could, either formally as a group or some of you as individuals, act as gardening experts to make the park look gorgeous. I think it would be a nice boost to our image.”
“Well, we obviously need to get proper publicity,” Mrs. Pemberly said. “Otherwise it’s a lot of work for nothing.”
Neil Patrick laughed uncomfortably. “Well, of course we will. Cammi is very good at making sure we get our due.”
Cam smiled. He was a sweet little man about her father’s age, but his trim white mustache and formal demeanor made him seem like he’d stepped out of another decade. She wished he wouldn’t call her “Cammi,” but at least he thought highly of her. When she looked back to her notes, Madeline had made an exclamation point, letting Cam know her supervisor agreed strongly with the annoying Mrs. Pemberly. It was true, though, that if they were going to the effort, they might as well let everyone know what amazing things their expertise could do with gardens, and Elmwood Park would be a wonderful canvas.
July was obviously a challenge because of the heat, but the park was watered at least daily, so they decided the biggest issue was the suspect soil quality of a location that gardened for the short term. They wanted to ensure their work had a lasting impact. Much of the park border was also shaded by large dogwood trees, so flowers that were shade friendly would need to be chosen.
As much discussion as had been needed for the plan, in the end, the group bought into formally helping for the goodwill it would create. Though Cam understood she was to give that goodwill publicity a giant boost.
* * *
n June, Cam helped Evangeline collect sponsors, as pageants cost money to put on. Their early conversations revolved around contacts made at
, a Sunday morning public radio feature RGS contributed to regularly, both financially and in terms of content. The host, Clancy Huggins, had made friends with several Garden Society members. But in addition, RGS members had also met some of the other regular guests, including Nell Norton.
Nell owned a chain of nearly forty nurseries in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, but Roanoke boasted her original store and corporate headquarters.
When Cam called, Nell was rather short with her, but Cam had heard enough about her not to be discouraged. She was a sharp businesswoman, used to getting her way, but she wasn’t a person to say no to an opportunity without weighing the facts. Cam summarized their goals, and Nell agreed to meet her and Evangeline for lunch the next day.
* * *
n person, Nell was an odd contrast of gardener and businesswoman. Her suit and hairdo were impeccable, the former in cornflower blue and the latter carefully highlighted in copper, gold, and bronze. Her fingernails, however, were short and, in spite of evidence of scrubbing, had soil under them, and she appeared to have forgotten more formal shoes. On her feet was a lilac pair of Crocs. Cam smiled. A true gardener was someone she and Evangeline could really talk to, no matter how many millions she had made being shrewd.
“Mrs. Norton, it’s such an honor to meet you,” Cam said. “This is Evangeline Patrick . . .”
“I know who Evangeline is.” The voice wasn’t impatient exactly, but neither was it warm. She scrutinized Evangeline by holding her head at a strange angle so she could look the much taller woman in the face through the reading portion of her bifocals. She shook Evangeline’s hand but made no effort to hide her curiosity. “So you’re the one who married Neil?”
“Well . . . yes . . . Do you know Neil?”
“Oh, not directly. I went to high school with him but was younger, so it was more . . . I knew
him. He was considered quite the catch . . .”
“Well, yes, he is . . . a catch, I mean.”
“Back then none of us had the confidence. We thought we were too young . . . clearly we weren’t young enough . . .”
Cam held her breath, worried Nell had provoked Evangeline. Evangeline was some thirty years younger than her husband, and here was Nell Norton suggesting three years had been too many. But Evangeline handled it with her usual grace.
She laughed. “When I was sixteen, my daddy grounded me for a month because he found out I went on a date with a boy who was eighteen. Oh, how things change once we become adults!”
Cam was relieved that Nell laughed in response. “I like you! You’ve got spunk!” Then she turned her gaze on Cam. “Now who are you?”
“Camellia Harris. I’m the . . .”
“Vi and Nelson’s daughter.”
“I knew your mother; she was skilled with roses. Small town, isn’t it? And I know your daddy a little bit. More than that, though, I’ve seen some of the beautiful garden structures he’s built. Does he still do that?”
“Only for close friends. He’s retired. But thank you.”
“We have a trellis he built at our house,” Evangeline said.
“I saw that in
magazine earlier this month. It’s lovely! I’d sure like to run into him again.” Cam smiled, glad she knew Nell Norton was married, which eliminated her normal worries where her dad was concerned. He just seemed to draw a fan club way too easily.
The three ordered lunch and chatted about their gardens until their food arrived, and then Evangeline smoothly segued into the pageant, the flower theme, and the need for a local sponsor.
“Well, I suppose I support it in premise. What media coverage would we get?”
Cam took over with the preliminary support they’d received from WONK, a local television affiliate with a producer who knew Evangeline.
“Does this support have to all be cash, or can some of it be in-kind?”
Cam and Evangeline looked at each other. Evangeline nodded.
“Actually, the event is to be held at Elmwood Park, which has some beautiful plants but at the end of July could use a bit of help. We would love it if a significant portion was seasonal plants. Summer is so much prettier with some nice annuals. Plus, we’d really like to include some lasting plants,” Cam said, “as a legacy to the park.”
“And I can trust your group to get it planted right?”
“Of course you can,” Evangeline said. “We’d really like the background to display the floral glory Virginia is capable of, even in late July.” Cam hoped she wasn’t meant to be part of the planting team. It was a huge park, and July could be miserable to work in, but they did know a lot of experts.
“Any chance if I do all this, I might run into that daddy of yours?” Nell asked.
“Well . . . I think so,” Cam said.
“I’d like that. He always could make me laugh. So now your group . . . I suspect they have some specific ideas of what they’d like to display then?”
“You know we do,” Evangeline said. “But we also understand you are donating, so we can compromise if necessary. Here is our wish list.”
Evangeline pulled out a list from her purse and unfolded it onto the table. It included a handful of low bushes, hydrangea, and azalea. There were a variety of lilies, too, as they were a dramatic centerpiece flower that liked shade. And then the list was rounded off with annuals that were more colorful.
“Well, the bushes and lilies are on the expensive side, though they will make nice focal points. Gladiolus is too unpredictable as to how long the blooms will last. Impatiens probably need watering more often than the park does it, at least when newly planted. And I’ve had trouble keeping enough dahlias in stock for my stores, so those might be a problem. Petunias and geraniums are great for color splashes. Maybe salvia at the sunny edges?”
“That’s so generous,” Cam said. She liked to see that the woman talked herself through these things very much like Cam did when she was trying to make initial gardening decisions.
They hammered out the other details in dollars and cents and then toasted the upcoming pageant with sweet tea. Cam figured they needed a half-dozen more sponsors, but none as big as this, so she was sure between her and Evangeline they’d have their list by the weekend.
* * *
few days later, Cam received a call from Evangeline. “Cam? I have two pieces of good news and one bad.”
Cam sighed. She didn’t have the patience for kid gloves. “Sandwich them.”