The Pink Flamingo Murders

BOOK: The Pink Flamingo Murders
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THE CRITICS LOVE ELAINE VIETS AND THE FRANCESCA VIERLING MYSTERY SERIES

“Nobody knows St. Louis better than Elaine Viets…. I’m looking forward to reading more about Francesca Vierling. Her creator has the touch.”

—John Lutz, author of
Death by Jury

“Viets employs good local research, great dialogue, colorful repeat characters who seem to grow on the reader—and a deft hand at surprise endings.”

—Gannett News Service

“Lots of local color and characters.”

—The St. Louis Journalism Review

 

Dell Books by Elaine Viets

Backstab
Rubout
The Pink Flamingo Murders

To Lee the Rehabber
,
and all the other rehabbers who
saved St. Louis one house at a time

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Willetta L. Heising, author of
Detecting Women
, who gave this fledgling flamingo its name.

To my husband, Don Crinklaw, who listened even at three
A.M
. when I asked, “Do you think it would work better if …” Discussing plots is grounds for murder, or at least divorce, with ordinary sleepy spouses.

To my agent, David Hendin, who’s the best.

To the staff of the St. Louis Public Library, who answered a zillion nitpicky questions, and to Anne Watts, who knows that writing is murder.

Many other people in St. Louis and around the country helped me with this book. I hope I’ve acknowledged them all. I certainly appreciate their help.

They include Ira Bergman with Bergman, Schrairer & Co. PC; Elizabeth Braznell; the Broward County Library; Susan Carlson; pink plastic flamingo inventor Don Featherstone and his St. Louis wife, Nancy Featherstone; Jinny Gender; Jay “the Stark Raving Rehabber” Gibbs; Jane Gilbert; Kay Gordy; Karen Grace; Gerald Greiman; Esley Hamilton; Debbie Henson; George W. Johannes; Pam Klein; Marilyn Koehr; St. Louis Police Officer Barry Lalumandier; Cindy Lane; Edward Lulie; Betty Mattli; Paul Mattli; Tracy McCreery; Kathy McDaniel; the ever-hip Alan Portman and Molly Portman; Charles E. Raiken, Division Chief/ Fire Marshal, Broward County Fire Rescue; Dick Richmond; Janet Smith; Martin Walsh; and Linda Williams with Mary King and Associates Realtors.

Finally, thanks to all those sources who must remain anonymous, including my deadly accurate pathologist, who explained it is indeed possible to commit murder by pink plastic flamingo.

1

We approved of the first murder.

We applauded the second.

By the third murder, I think we would have given the killer a ticker-tape parade.

But the fourth death, that was different. Now the killer was going after one of our own. People like us.

By the fifth death, everyone was so frightened, they asked me to solve the crimes. I told them the police would do a better job. I said I’d never solved a murder. I told the truth, but no one believed me. Maybe if they had . . . well, it’s too late for maybes now.

My name is Francesca Vierling, and I’m a columnist for the
St. Louis City Gazette
. I’m six feet tall, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a smart mouth. Or maybe not so smart, since it’s always getting me in trouble. Today was one more example. If I’d just kept it shut and not answered the phone. There was no reason to answer it at seven-thirty at night. I should have left the office hours ago.

I was at the
Gazette
at the end of a steamy St. Louis summer day. Even with the air conditioner running full blast, there were heat pockets in the corners. My hair was flat and frizzed. My face felt like it was coated with vegetable oil. My summer suit was damp and crumpled. It was definitely time to go home. But as I was heading for the door, I picked up my ringing phone. My life began to unravel with one question:

“Hi, wanna go forking?” It was a woman’s voice, with a smoky whiskey-and-cigarettes sound.

“Who
is
this?” I said. Did she say forking? Was that something obscene?

“You don’t know me,” she said.

“Certainly not well enough for what you proposed.”

“It’s not what you think,” she said. Her laugh sounded like it had been rubbed with sandpaper, but it was oddly pleasant. “My name’s Margie and I live in your neighborhood.”

Forking, she swore, was the latest city fad. “You have to see it to believe it,” Margie said. She wanted to show me. Margie sounded harmless. I’d have an easy column if I could be at her house on North Dakota Place, which was only two blocks from where I lived, by eight o’clock. I called Lyle, the man I almost live with, and canceled dinner for the second time this week. He didn’t seem too unhappy. That should have made me suspicious, but I was eager to get to Margie’s.

The heat hit me in the face when I walked out of the
Gazette
, but considering the rundown area, I was lucky that’s all that hit me. The drive was so short, the car barely cooled off before I got home. I parked Ralph, my blue Jaguar, and walked over to Margie’s street.

North Dakota Place was an almost grand boulevard, off not-so-Grand Avenue. A hundred years ago it had been one of the city’s handsomest streets, on a par with Flora Place or Utah Place. The South Side of St. Louis was the blue-collar part of town, the old German section, the home of the Anheuser-Busch brewery. South Side places were not as extravagant as the West End private streets. They featured large homes rather than mansions. But they had been beautifully built by German craftsmen. Margie’s house on North Dakota Place was typical. It was sturdy red brick and white stone with a gray slate roof. The stone porch was as
big as a bungalow. I climbed Margie’s stone steps, and pressed the old-fashioned brass doorbell. Margie answered on the first ring. Inside, the foyer was flooded with fiery golden light from a red-and-gold stained-glass window. It was twenty feet tall with a surreal tulip-and-peacock design, a turn-of the-century opium dream. The wide oak staircase had mellowed to a rich honey gold. Margie had piled the parson’s seat with green velvet pillows that I’d seen on sale at Pier 1 Imports. In the large room off the foyer, I caught a glimpse of a dark fireplace mantel with hunter green tile, green paisley wallpaper, and a coffered ceiling.

I could also see that plants and clever picture arrangements were trying to hide wallpaper that was faded and peeling. The white molding needed paint, and there wasn’t quite enough furniture to fill the vast room. Like most people on North Dakota Place, Margie had a little too much house and not quite enough money. I’d bet she was rehabbing the place one room at a time, and from the size of it, she had years of work ahead of her.

But Margie looked cheerful. She seemed to enjoy the challenge of being a rehabber. In St. Louis, that word meant more than someone who remodeled old homes. Most people associated rehabbing with saving someone from drugs or alcohol. St. Louis rehabbers saved houses. The city had some of the loveliest, and most unappreciated, architecture in the country. Few other cities let ordinary people live in such low-cost stately homes. Too bad the old homes were being torn down by the score in St. Louis. Each house saved became a small, personal victory. Rehabbers saved the city one home at a time. We needed more of them.

Margie was a big-boned, comfortable woman of forty or so, who looked at home in jeans and T-shirts. She combed her well-cut, shiny brown hair straight
back, which emphasized her wide green eyes. She looked attractive and easygoing.

Forking, she explained, in that raspy voice I thought was so intriguing, meant covering a lawn with hundreds of white plastic forks, tines up.

“Why would anyone want to do that?” I asked.

“You have to see it to understand,” she said. “That’s why I called you.”

She introduced me to her two helpers, Dina and Patricia. Patricia was tall and lean, with straight, smooth dark hair and serious eyes the color of new blue jeans. She sold what Margie called “earth-friendly products” out of her home, so I wasn’t surprised that her T-shirt said “Earth Day 1997.” She carried a beige canvas bag from a health food store filled with white plastic forks.

Dina was just the opposite: small, round, blond, and friendly. But I didn’t want to underestimate her. Under that soft manner was one smart woman. She ran a successful PR consulting company out of her home on North Dakota Place. Dina had the professional woman’s haircut, a soft wedge, that would have gone perfectly with a tailored suit. But she was wearing a “Love me, love my cat” T-shirt.

“How late are we going to be?” she said. “Stan likes to be fed at eight-thirty.”

“Is Stan your husband?” I asked, wondering why a woman with so much going for her would be married to such a tyrant.

Margie laughed, a brash barroom bray, and said, “Stan’s her cat. If Dina waited on men the way she waits on that hairy beast, she could have ten husbands.”

Dina didn’t seem offended by Margie’s remark. “One husband was enough for me,” she said. “I got rid of him for tomcatting, then got the real thing. My man Stan is handsome, affectionate, and intelligent. He
never comes home drunk and never leaves the lid up on the toilet seat. He likes his dinner on time, but all I do is open a can. Couldn’t serve meals like that to my ex.” Dina went to a round inlaid table in the foyer and examined an Art Nouveau vase in a glimmering sea green and silver. “This is lovely,” she said reverently. “How much?”

“Fifteen hundred, and it’s a steal at that,” said Margie.

“Is it now?” Dina said dryly. I stood there, puzzled, wondering why this Dina woman was asking the price of something in Margie’s home.

“I’m a picker,” Margie said to me. “I go to junk shops, estate sales, and garage sales and look for bargains to sell to antique shops. Sometimes I find things I especially love and keep them for a while, but they’re all for sale to my friends.”

As we walked to Kathy’s house, a few doors away, Margie explained their mission. “We’re going to fork Kathy’s house for her thirtieth birthday. Her husband Dale says he’ll keep Kathy out until eight-thirty tonight. Wait till you meet them. They’re rehabbing that whole house themselves and they’re adorable. Fortunately, they have a small lawn, and it rained yesterday, so the ground is soft. Plus I bought plastic forks with pointed ends. They’re easier to stick in the ground than flat-end forks. We can put two hundred forks in a lawn in ten minutes. We’ll do this job quick.”

“I like a quick fork,” Dina giggled.

Kathy’s lawn looked small, about the size of a living room carpet. But it seemed bigger when you were about to fill it with forks. Good thing a rose garden took up lots of room near the porch. Patricia opened the beige bag and gave the other two women a big bundle of white plastic forks. They each took a section of the yard. Margie got into a squat and systematically planted the forks about eight inches apart. Round,
fluffy Dina did an efficient duckwalk, leaving rows of forks in her wake. Tall, thin Patricia bent at an awkward angle that hurt my back to watch. If you asked me, the woman in the Earth Day T-shirt should get closer to the earth. But I had to admit her method worked. The yard was quickly filling with white forks. The effect was eerie. The forks looked naked and needy in the lush grass, their long sunset shadows reaching out for us.

BOOK: The Pink Flamingo Murders
2.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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