Authors: Rosemary Harris
THE BIG DIRT NAP
Also by Rosemary Harris
Pushing Up Daisies
BIG DIRT NAP
A Dirty Business
For Bruce and Paula
who continue to inspire me
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
A THOMAS DUNNE BOOK FOR MINOTAUR BOOKS.
An imprint of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
THE BIG DIRT NAP. Copyright © 2009 by Rosemary Harris. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The big dirt nap : a dirty business mystery / Rosemary Harris. — 1st ed.
1. Women gardeners—Fiction. 2. Casinos—Connecticut—Fiction. 3. Connecticut—Fiction. I. Title.
First Edition: February 2009
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To all the booksellers who welcomed me and made a newcomer feel like an old pro, especially Barbara Peters, Mary Alice Gorman, Maggie Topkis, Roberta Rubin, Mitch Kaplan, Dianne Defonce, and Sharon Roth. To the dedicated librarians—one of whom was kind enough to say that I must have been a librarian in a previous life—especially to my friends in Stamford, Fairfield, New Canaan, Darien, Westport, Newington, Forestville, Easton, and Milford, Connecticut, and to my friends in Princeton and Hunterdon, New Jersey, and in Cary, North Carolina.
Special thanks to Suzanne Wickham, Kim Hicks, Hector De-Jean, Monica Katz, and Talia Ross for looking after me.
death, as in
taking the big dirt nap
Maybe I’d have had a drink with the guy if I had known the next time I saw him he’d be sprawled out in a Dumpster enclosure, with a greasy newspaper tented over his face. Then again, maybe not.
Nick Vigoriti had unsuccessfully hit on me as I sipped club soda at the bar. There were two or three likelier candidates in skimpier outfits who weren’t working on a laptop, but he zeroed in on me.
I knew him, sort of. Earlier in the day, Vigoriti had been on line behind me checking into the Titans Hotel in Connecticut’s wine country. We’d spent what seemed like twenty minutes listening to a statuesque redhead spitting out demands and fidgeting almost as much as the white Maltese she carried in her plastic designer bag.
“That is not friendly.”
The pimply kid behind the reception desk nodded furiously. That, combined with the oversize jacket that hopefully fit his night-shift counterpart better, gave him the appearance of a life-size bobble-head doll.
“April does not need a sitter. I only came to this establishment because it’s supposed to be pet-friendly. I could have gotten comped at Hunting Ridge.” She towered over the poor kid, the pile of hair on her head giving her an extra four inches, as if she needed it.
Vigoriti and I exchanged brief “whaddya gonna do” glances, until the dog’s owner finished tormenting the desk clerk, then teetered off accompanied by a full luggage cart and the only bellman in sight.
When it was my turn, I set my backpack on the counter, leaned over, and told the clerk my name.
“I don’t see you,” he said, scrolling down the computer screen. He forced himself to say the words, anticipating another pain-in-the-neck customer. Beads of sweat popped up on his forehead like condensation on a glass. I felt for the guy; he was getting a crash course in Difficult Guests 101 on what I was guessing was his first week on the job. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice cracking. “Did you make the reservation online, by any chance?”
Great. I’d sat through rush-hour traffic on the highway and now there was no room at the inn. “It has to be there,” I said, trying not to betray my real feelings. “Will you please look again?”
He continued to scan the screen; then it occurred to me that my friend Lucy had made the reservation. Maybe it was under her name or her company’s.
“Can you check under KCPS-TV? Or Cavanaugh. Check
” I repeated, louder, in that stupid way people do when they’re talking to foreigners, as if saying something louder is going to make it easier to understand.
“Okay, okay, I got it. Here it is. ‘Two adults, two doubles, no pets,’ ” he read off the screen. Relief washed over the kid’s face; he didn’t need another guest with problems. This job was already an interruption of his real life—which was probably football, getting good grades, and procuring the perfect fake ID, not standing in a gold-braided uniform two sizes too big and catching verbal abuse. I didn’t blame him; I was in a service business myself and sometimes it wore thin.
I gave him my credit card for the “incidentals” and watched as he mindlessly swiped it and handed it back without even checking my name or the photo on the front.
“I’ll just need one key. My friend will be joining me later.” I plucked the paper folder from the counter and slid one plastic key back to him.
“Thank you, Ms. Cavanaugh.”
I started to correct him, then thought,
What’s the point?
“You’re welcome.” I snatched my bag from the counter and turned to leave. Asking him where the elevators were would only have extended the experience, so I went off in the same direction as the woman with the dog. I was hardly going to get lost in a suburban Connecticut hotel.
On the way, smack in the middle of the lobby, was an octagonal enclosure about twenty feet wide. Inside it, in a huge terracotta pot, was the reason I was there. Well, one of them anyway. Inside the glass enclosure was a corpse flower. I moved in for a closer look, setting my things down briefly on one of the laminated benches that circled the glass gazebo.
The pot itself was about four feet in diameter, and shooting straight up from the center was a light green veined shaft tinged with purplish pink. I hadn’t seen one in a few years and there was no getting around it—with that color and that shape . . .
“Pretty sexy if you ask me,” Vigoriti had said, over my shoulder.
“I didn’t ask you,” I said, firmly enough to let him know I wasn’t about to engage in a junior-high-school-level conversation regarding a certain part of the male anatomy. Not with a stranger anyway.
I picked up my bags, headed back toward the bank of elevators, around the corner from reception, and made a beeline for the first white triangle pointing up. Once inside, I pushed the button for my floor and crumpled, exhausted, against the side of the car. Just as the doors were closing, a hand slapped them apart.
The hand was an unlikely combination of manicured and rough, as if a boxer had buffed his nails. A black leather strap was twisted around the thick wrist and the large tanned hand held, of all things, a man bag, almost lost in its owner’s large palm. The shirtsleeve was rolled up, thin gray stripes on black silk. Expensive, but not top of the line. And it half covered the muscular forearm of Nick Vigoriti.
“Hello, again.” He smiled, pushed the doors open, and settled politely into the opposite corner of the car. I could tell he was looking at me, but I pretended not to notice.
Vigoriti gave off the very appealing scent of whiskey, sweat, and, if I remembered correctly from two boyfriends ago, a dash of Armani—ordinarily a winning trifecta and one I’d succumbed to in the past. But I was tired from the long drive and wasn’t feeling particularly friendly. Besides, this was an all-girls weekend. Lucy and I each had work to do, but it was really about two old friends catching up. I flashed him the fake one-second, toothless smile you use to acknowledge someone’s existence, then fixed my gaze straight ahead at the diamond pattern on the wall of the elevator until six pings told me I’d reached my floor. Vigoriti got out, too.
For an instant, my antenna went up, but he turned left before I’d committed to either direction. Happily, my room was on the right and I rushed down the hall, shifting my bags to one side and trying to remember which pocket I’d stuck the room key in.
I fished the plastic card out of its sheath and slipped it into the lock. Nothing. I tried it stripe up, stripe down, toward me, and away from me. Five minutes later, after repeated wipes against my sweatshirt, the uncooperative sliver of plastic still refused to admit me to my room. I sank my forehead against the door and let out a low groan like a wounded animal.
“They’re a pain, aren’t they?” Vigoriti said, standing over my shoulder.
I hadn’t heard him approach, and was so startled I bumped my head looking up. Assessing the damage with one hand, I gave him the key with the other. “I’m not proud. You try.”
He dipped the key once and the light flashed green.
“How did you do that?”
“Magnetism. You have to have a magnetic personality.”
He had spared me a return match with the sweet but dopey desk clerk, so I resisted the urge to snort at his lame come-on.
“I’m kidding,” he said. “Sometimes technology just likes to . . .
with you.” He held on to the key a few seconds longer than necessary, slapping it against his palm. Then he blew on it—as if to blow imaginary cooties away—and handed it back to me.
I picked up my bags, held the door open just a crack with my hip, and waited for him to leave. “Thanks,” I said, hoping he’d take the hint.
He shrugged and strode down the hall to the elevators. Trailing him, in the air with his pheromones, was the word he almost said, but didn’t.
I wouldn’t have been at Titans at all if Lucy Cavanaugh hadn’t lured me there at the last minute with the offer of a free room, a spa weekend, and the promise of a corpse flower just about to bloom. Any one of those might have done the trick, but all three were irresistible. And I needed to believe I still did things spontaneously.
I’d gotten freebies all the time in my old television job, but they were few and far between since I’d started Dirty Business a couple of years back. Dirty Business was going through the terrible twos—sometimes wonderful and sometimes not. This was one of the
periods—before the season started, when I was planning my year but some of my clients still had holiday wreaths on their front doors. I had jumped at the chance for a few days of rest and relaxation on someone else’s dime. Once I knew we were going to Titans, I managed to squeeze a few bucks and a byline out of my local paper to let me write a piece on the rare corpse flower on display at the hotel. If nothing else it would get my name out in front of potential clients.
Lucy was venturing outside of New York City to chase down a story for
Sin in Suburbia,
a cable series I’d inadvertently helped her start a year ago. The series had seemed like a good idea at the time and the network had ordered more episodes, but it hadn’t initially registered with Lucy that she’d actually have to spend time in the suburbs, and that was tough duty for a woman who got vertigo anytime she went farther north.
If we hadn’t planned to meet at the bar I’d have been in bed with room service and the remote, and I’d have saved my picture taking until the morning. As it was, I swapped my sneakers for short cowboy boots and my T-shirt for a plain white shirt, which I tucked into my jeans. With a not-too-out-of-style dark blazer and a little bronzer I convinced myself I looked professional, French—simple and elegant.
Not that Titans had anything remotely like a dress code—the few people I had seen when I checked in could have been going to a kids’ soccer game. But I spent most of my days in gardening gear—pants tucked into socks to avoid ticks, baggy long-sleeved tops to avoid scratches, and when necessary a white mesh bug suit that covered me from head to toe and made me look like something out of a 1950s horror movie about the aftereffects of the hydrogen bomb. I welcomed any occasion to clean up my act.
An hour later, after taking more than two dozen pictures of the corpse flower, I was at the bar nursing my third club soda, feeling bloated and losing patience. There was a grand piano in the bar but judging by the amount of dust on it I didn’t think I was in for any live music. I tried to ignore the third Muzak go-round of that weepy song from
and passed the time by filling in the details for the corpse flower story. I Googled the hotel’s history and checked out the clientele. No one was paying any attention to the plant. The seven-foot object in the glass box might have been a priceless sculpture or a giant turd for all anyone at Titans seemed to care. I scoured the room for someone to interview but the pickings were slim: a few Asian guys, a skinny blonde reading a romance novel, and a twitchy guy who looked like he desperately needed a drink. Then I saw
Vigoriti entered the raised bar area and surveyed the place as if he owned it. He unwrapped a candy and popped it in his mouth, tossing the wrapper at a nearby ashtray and missing. I hoped he wouldn’t notice me or would have the good sense to realize I wasn’t interested, but my limited experience with him already told me what to expect. Uninvited, he slid onto the bar stool right next to me.
“You going gambling? If you’re calculating the odds on that computer I can tell you they always favor the house,” he said, his breath first-date minty. He must have been joking with that line.
This time I took a better look at him. He was handsome in a banged-up, been-around-the-block way. Built like a quarterback, or at least what they look like with all the padding—big shoulders, small hips. And he had great hair. Long, but intellectual long, not aging-record-business-skinny-ponytail
what are you thinking?
long. Then there was that intoxicating scent. There was no denying it, Nick Vigoriti smelled like trouble, or at the very least, an adventure. And I hadn’t had one lately.
“No kidding,” I said, snapping out of his thrall. “And is that your finding after years of careful research?” I flipped the computer screen halfway down.
“I just got back from Vegas,” he said. “Thought I’d save you some dough.”
“I’m waiting for a friend,” I said, hoping to head him off
“Could be I’m that friend.”
He was losing points rapidly. Good looks got you so far with me, but a guy needed to have some gray matter. “Do you get many takers with these lines?” I asked.
“Depends. On how young they are, how smart they are,” he said, smiling and eyeing the other women at the bar. He turned back to me. “Now, those girls are girls. I’m looking for a woman, about thirty to thirty-five, long dark hair, athletic build,” he said, giving a pretty good description of me.
I held up my hands to stop him. “I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. This may not even be where you’re going, but I’m not looking for a good time. Not that kind of good time. I’m waiting for a friend. A real one, not one who’s in town for the widget convention. And
late. Other than her, the only reason I’m here is the titan arum,” I said, attempting to scare him off with a little Latin. “The corpse flower.” I motioned in its direction.
“Corpse flower? Is that what they call that stinkweed in the glass box?”
He pointed to the plant we’d been looking at earlier, the titan arum, the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. In simple terms, the biggest flower that isn’t on a tree. Spectacular and rare, but unsettling, since the corpse flower looks like a giant phallus, and smells, well, like rotting meat; hence the name, and the need for an enclosure. I was guessing some dumb schmuck who didn’t know any better thought the titan arum would be a clever promotion for Titans. I was also guessing same dumb schmuck was currently looking for another job.
“I heard the Mishkins had to fork over five grand for that box,” he said, “to keep the stench away from the paying customers. And they’re probably going to trash it once the damn thing blooms and it’s shipped back to the jungle.”