Nipped in the Bud

NIPPED IN THE BUD

Mystery – Print and Ebook

Garden Gate Mysteries – Book 1 – October/2010

ISBN-10: 1602605734
ISBN-13: 978-1602605732

Description

WHEN YOU FIND YOUR BOSS PUSHING UP DAISIES. . .
Life in full bloom, landscape designer, Paige Turner, scores her first landscaping contract to spruce up the park, her radio talk show shoots to number one, and her retail shop is simply blossoming. Yes, her life is a bed of roses. Until she finds City Manager, Bud Picklemann served up on the blade of her favorite shovel mere hours after she’s threatened to have his head on a platter, then the thorns come out. And there is none thornier than the local police chief declaring Paige the one and only suspect and threatening to plow her under.

YOU’VE GOT TO FORMULATE A PLANT OF ATTACK . . .
Paige teams up with dashing attorney, Adam Hayes to weed through the list of suspects, and clear her soiled reputation. A bigmouthed Parrot who often spouts Mr. T-isms, and a giant pickle mascot join in quirky Paige’s quest to once again cultivate control of her life.

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Series

GARDEN GATE MYSTERIES

Digging Up Clues Turns Deadly

Garden Gate Mysteries
1 Nipped in the Bud
October/2010

2 Read Between the Tines – February/2013

 

 

 

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Excerpt

Chapter One

“This is Harly Davison, your host of KALM’s exciting new show, Wacky World of Motorcycles, hoping you’ll join us every Wednesday morning at ten and reminding you that Hogs, not dogs, are man’s best friend. Now we return to the locally acclaimed show, Through the Garden Gate, with host Paige Turner.”

“Weed Whacker! You can’t possibly want to kill your husband!” I yelled into the boom microphone and looked for advice from my producer and best friend Lisa Winkle.

Tucked safely in her little booth adjoining mine, Lisa shrugged and twirled her finger in our signal that meant I should say something before dead air killed the show.

I shook my head. Her finger picked up speed as if she possessed the power to spin me around and force words from my mouth. But what could I say? What could an unmarried gardening expert know about killing a husband?

“Paige, are you there?” Weed Whacker’s tone bordered on desperation, elevating my concern.

I gave up on Lisa offering any assistance and punched the mute button then searched through the middle drawer of the ancient metal desk. If I could locate the station’s talk show schedule, I could refer Weed Whacker to the self-help program.

“Paige,” Lisa said through my headset. “What are you doing? We can’t have dead air like this.”

“You’re not helping,” I said. Words from my mother with her many years of advice, my pastor’s weekly sermons, and God, already fought for space in my head. I had no room for anything Lisa was saying. I punched the button again and adjusted the mike. “Perhaps you would like to call into our self-help show. If you hold on, my producer will give you the broadcast time.”

“Please, Paige. I can’t wait. I need your advice.”

“Don’t do anything drastic,” I blurted before she changed her mind, disconnected, and did something crazy. Eyes on the drawer, my fingers fumbled around for the laminated schedule. If I gave the wrong advice, how would I recover from being implicated in a murder? “There has to be an amiable solution to your problem.”

She sighed. “We’re way past working things out. It’s bad enough I have to do all the yard work myself, but to face the same thing inside the house? I’m losing it, Paige. I tell you, I’m losing it. I’m so tired of my husband sprouting up every Sunday in the same place, just like the weeds you described.”

I gave up on the search for the schedule and closed my eyes to think. Weed Whacker needed a counselor, not someone like me who only knew how to handle a plant’s 911. Wait. . .counselor. I was a peer counselor in college. If I remembered right, I should repeat what I heard the distraught person saying so she’d know I was listening.

I cleared my throat, a no-no on radio, and charged ahead. “I can certainly empathize with your concerns, Weed Whacker. I understand that your husband pops up in the recliner every Sunday and watches football games. And yes, technically, this type of sprouting in an unwanted place week after week, no matter the effort you put in to stop it, sounds like most weeds.” I raised my fist in the air and shook it in victory over my professional counselor speak.

“Paige, please. I called for advice, not to hear you repeat everything I say.”

I slowly lowered my arm and gave in. If my suggestions ended with my incarceration, so be it. “If you need my advice, then I must caution you. This morning we’ve discussed two successful methods of removing weeds. The first is digging a hole the width of the crown and pulling roots and all from the soil. The second is applying one of the many available herbicides on the market. We both agree your husband might be exhibiting weed like tendencies. Still, I must ask you to think long and hard about removing this particular species. If you have no other choice but to act, I recommend the plucking method, as the use of herbicides in this particular application could be misconstrued as murder.”

As my words aged on the airwaves like a pile of compost, I cut my gaze to Lisa. She slashed her hand across her throat, either telling me I was dead or to wrap it up. I chose to believe the second one. Barely able to contain my joy over the end of this Monday morning disaster of a show, I nearly shot up like a daffodil on a warm spring day. Weed Whacker was our last caller, and if another show tanked like this one had, she could be the last caller—ever. I needed to stick with plants. They didn’t conspire to kill each other. Sure, some of them were more aggressive than others, choking out their neighbors, but unlike Weed Whacker, their wayward tendencies were never premeditated.

Oops, right. Weed Whacker. I needed to close the show.

“Thank you for calling, Weed Whacker. I hope my advice has been helpful. Unfortunately we’re out of time.” I dug deep for my cheery broadcaster’s voice. “Thank you for listening. Join me again tomorrow at nine as we take another trip Through the Garden Gate. Be sure to stay tuned for Success Serendipity Style, where host Tim Needlemeyer brings you up to date on all the exciting activities planned for this weekend’s Pickle Fest. But first, Ollie Grayson and the Farm to Market Report.”

I flipped the switch that kicked off the prerecorded agriculture show and tossed my headset onto the desk.

“And we’re clear,” Lisa shouted, like some big-time producer, though it was just the two of us in a closet-sized studio.

On my feet, I charged toward her and kicked open the door separating our work spaces. “Where are all these wackos coming from, and why aren’t you screening them out?”

“Maybe it takes a wacko host to attract wacko callers,” Lisa said with a slight shrug of her perfectly postured shoulders. She turned away and shoved a manila folder titled Liability into one of the many file cabinets lining the walls.

Mouth hanging open, I watched her work. She’d effectively called me a nut job but seemed oblivious to my rage. The space was so small she had to stand to the side of the open file drawer to wedge another folder into the back. Perspiration sprinkled her face from an hour spent in the airless room. Her mouth wasn’t puckered in a sneer or flopping open in a big goofy laugh.

Lisa was serious. She really did think I was as wacky as my callers. I sighed much like Weed Whacker had. Lisa looked up.

“What?” She laughed and slammed the drawer. “All I’m saying is if you didn’t give such flaky advice, we might attract a different kind of listener.”

We? I’m the one who has to come up with something to say on the spur of the moment when these nut-jobs phone in. All you do is sit back and make gestures with your hands.” I yanked my backpack from the shelf behind her and pulled out my lip balm. Between the hours I spent gardening and licking my lips in nervousness for the last thirty minutes, they were as rough as my show had been.

“I do my job the best I can, and if you don’t like it, fire me.” Lisa pulled her crisply ironed jacket off the back of her chair and flicked me an irate look before exiting. My five-foot-three dynamo of a friend rushed down the long hall to the front entrance as fast as her fuchsia colored flip-flops allowed. I tromped behind, wondering how the two of us were going to get through the next three hours working on my landscaping job if all we could do was bicker.

I’d decline her free labor and send her home, but this was my first big project since I included landscape design in the services offered by my shop, The Garden Gate. I’d just landed a big fat juicy contract with the city of Serendipity, Oregon, to renovate the play area and otherwise spruce up the park. Once the Pickle Fest visitors saw my professional work, they were sure to sign up at my booth for a little renovation of their own yards.

No. No way I’d let one of our many little tiffs blow my big opportunity.

I caught up to Lisa, who studied a chipped fingernail as she tapped her flip-flops in a snapping sound on the asphalt beside my Ford 150. I unlocked the passenger door and waited for Her Highness to slide onto the seat before slamming the door. From a Frendi, Schmendi, or whatever they called those designer purses with the squiggly little marks etched into the material, she pulled out a bag of sunflower seeds and attacked the tiny morsels.

I climbed behind the wheel and nudged her elbow. Eyes downcast, she ignored me and chewed a seed. Maybe I really had hurt her feelings. I’d been a bit testy since signing on to do this job with such a short deadline. The park renovation had to be completed by sundown on Thursday to set up for the opening of Pickle Fest. The whole community was counting on me.

So, testy or not, I needed my friend more than ever right now. That meant I needed to apologize. “Sorry for getting so mad at you. It’s not your fault these people end up on the air.”

“Don’t you know it!” She snapped her fingers near my face then popped another seed into her mouth and grinned like the Cheshire cat.

“You weren’t really mad, were you?”

Her grin widened, giving her the impish look that her twins had when they were up to no good. “So, did I tell you about the problem at the girls’ preschool?”

“What problem?” I shifted into drive and hoped Lisa’s kids weren’t implicated in the current disaster. Last week her daughter Lori sneaked into the bathroom with the class hamster to see if he could swim. Fortunately, he could, but the teacher wasn’t too happy about returning a toilet-bowl-swimming hamster to the classroom.

“Well, don’t tell anyone, but they’ve got lice. A big ole breakout of lice.” She graphically described the painstaking process of shampooing then using a fine-toothed comb to remove the little nits from her daughters’ lovely blond hair.

I stifled a groan and said, “uh-huh” in all the right spots as she talked, but really, her fixation with these gross childhood stories was getting to be too much. The entire drive to the studio she’d yammered on about potty training mishaps and ear infections. A single, thirty-four–year-old woman like myself should never be subjected to these gruesome topics. Not if there was any hope that I would aid in the future population of the human race.

“Once you have the little buggers free,” Lisa said in a tone she usually reserved for BOGO sales, “the rest is simple. You just drop them in the liquid medicine and flush it all down the toilet.”

“Aw, c’mon. Please tell me they’re dead by then? Or do they live on and on, waiting to pounce on some unsuspecting person?” I stabbed my ragged fingernails into the spot right below my ponytail and scratched away.

She swatted at my arm. “You’re not taking this seriously. You can’t imagine the trauma of discovering your child has lice.”

“I can’t even imagine the trauma of discovering I have a child.” I gave one last scratch then turned left at First Avenue and pulled the truck into the empty lot at the park. The lot rarely held many cars, as most businesses, including The Garden Gate and the radio station, were within five blocks of the town center, where the park was located. Lisa and I would have walked to the park if the job hadn’t required a ton of tools. Tools we needed to move to the job site if I was going to meet the deadline. “How about forgetting your Lice Capades for a while and helping me unload the tools?”

Without a word, but with copious sighs, Lisa changed into beat-up sneakers then trudged alongside me, hauling shovels, rakes, and clippers to the play area. Whenever my hand was free, I pawed at the back of my head for imaginary lice. I needed to get the creepy crawlies out of my mind and get to work.

Today we would remove the old mulch from under the play structure. Tomorrow I would enlarge and deepen the fall zone. Despite my rush to get started, I could still appreciate the typical Northwest setting as we entered the playground section of the park. Tall swaying pines dotted garden beds that lined three sides of the area, hiding it from the traffic on Oak, one of the main retail streets in town, and home to my apartment located above the pharmacy.

After I applied my loving touch, the neglected garden beds filled with native Oregon plants would be more in keeping with the healthy lawn adjoining the play area. A quaint old refreshment stand and picnic tables sat in the center of the clearing. Of course, Serendipity, home of the annual Pickle Fest, couldn’t resist sprinkling bright green trash cans in the shape of dill pickles across the park. They were stamped with the slogan, Listen to Briny. Keep our park shiny. Briny, the town’s mascot, showed up not only at the annual celebration, but at other events as well. I found it rather odd to see a child snuggle up to a giant pickle, but my fellow residents loved him.

“Hey,” I said as we made our final trip. “Did you do that?”

“Do what?”

I pointed at the heavy zip ties I’d used to secure the temporary fence after I installed it around the play area yesterday. They were scattered on the ground in tiny neon fragments. “Did you cut those?”

“Don’t look at me.”

With fingers once again wiggling over the back of my head, I stared at the gaping hole as if looking at it would clear up the mystery.

“Are we here to work, or are you just gonna stand there scratching?” Lisa pulled on her gloves and walked through the hole I was gaping at, grabbed my short blue-handled shovel, and started tossing mulch onto a tarp.

Normally, I would have rushed into the enclosure and hefted my shovel before she did, but I couldn’t get past the cut ties. I glanced around the park as if I would find the scissors-wielding culprit. I found a culprit, all right, but probably not the one who cut the ties.

“Check that out.” I pointed through the trees toward the Main Street entrance. “Today’s topic on weeds was right on target. Here comes the two-legged variety.” I said weed, but technically, I’d dubbed our city manager, Bud Picklemann, a globe thistle.

Not that he was special or anything. I gave everyone I knew a plant name. Case in point, Lisa, my perfect little Shasta daisy, rested her shovel and swiveled around to watch Bud storm across the lush green grass. If divided regularly, Shastas could be counted on to flower season after season. Plus their creamy white color complements most flowers around them. Like the Shasta, Lisa’s personality is a perfect complement to mine, and I counted on her for the support I lost when my mother passed away.

Lisa looked up and rolled her eyes. “Great. Wonder what our fearless leader wants?”

“If his body language is any indication, I’m in for it.” To me, Bud’s clenched fists and red face were just outward signs that he was living up to his globe thistle name—a prickly, troublesome weed, whose painful barbs kept people at a distance. But I hadn’t a clue what set him off today. “He can’t be mad about this project yet. All I’ve done is put up a fence. That’s not enough to cause this kind of reaction.”

“If you’d listened to me, for once,” Lisa’s face grew smug, a look I’d learned to fear yet rarely reacted appropriately to, “you’d have expected this. I told you it’s never a good idea to work with a man whose wife would do anything to get back at you.”

“And if you’d listened to me, you’d know that I think Rachel has forgotten all about our little misunderstanding.”

“Hah!” Lisa pointed a gloved finger at me. “You don’t steal Rachel’s prom date and not live to regret it.”

“I did not steal Todd from her. He didn’t even ask her to prom. She just thought he was going to take her.”

“As did the whole school.”

“So what? That was seventeen years ago. Water under the bridge.” I glanced at Bud. Wearing a short-sleeved white shirt cinched at the neck with a narrow black tie, he surged toward me like a bamboo shoot on a garden-conquering rampage. Was Lisa right? Was Bud planning on taking revenge for his still-embarrassed wife? Nah. No way.

I turned back to her. “Even if Rachel wants Bud to fire me, he can’t. The city council signed my contract.”

“He can make things difficult for you.”

“How? I could do this job in my sleep.” After twelve years in the landscaping business in Portland, I’d hoped my first job in Serendipity would be more challenging, but I believed this was only the first step. I pointed at the playground. “This project is cut and dried. How can Bud mess with that?”

“Okay, Miss Know It All. If everything’s so simple, why’s he glaring at you?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m doing this job no matter what. It’s going to get me the public exposure I need.” Bud picked up speed, and I hoped I’d be able to stand behind my words when he arrived.

My eyes locked on Lisa’s. We stared at each other as we often did when we hit an impasse. She was shorter by a good seven inches but made up for her height impairment in attitude. We frequently found ourselves nearly duking it out until something happened to make us laugh it off.

Bud wouldn’t be the source of our humor today. His huffing and puffing arrival, as if he intended to blow my house down, guaranteed that. “Take a hike, Lisa,” he grumbled. “I need to talk to Paige. Alone.”

Lisa wrinkled her nose at him and stabbed her shovel into the soil. The bright blue handle wobbled back and forth as she came over to me and leaned close. “Watch your back,” she whispered. “Or you might be exposed in ways you never dreamed.” In full voice, and with a glare for Bud, she said, “I’ll head over to your shop and get a cup of coffee. Call me when he’s through.”

“Thanks for the help.” I glanced at my watch. Ten thirty. If I was lucky, Bud would only snipe at me for a few minutes, and Lisa and I could get back to work.

As if he’d read my mind, Bud didn’t wait for Lisa to get far before he turned on me. “Well, you’ve done it, Paige, just like I predicted you would. I knew you’d mess up. Just didn’t think you’d mess up this fast.”

Caught off guard by the vehemence in his tone, I mouthed, “Huh?”

“Yesterday, someone saw kids playing inside this poor excuse for a safety fence.” He grabbed the top slat of the orange plastic and shook it until his face turned red from the exertion. Unfortunately for him, all he succeeded in doing was making his long comb-over flap up and down. “We can’t have kids on a construction site.”

I took a few deep breaths and thought. Not about Bud’s unique hairdo, as that took few brain waves. I was more interested in his notoriety for jumping to conclusions. And I wasn’t about to take the fall for something he couldn’t prove. “Are you sure whoever told you about the kids isn’t making it up?”

He ripped his hands from the fence and crossed spindly arms. “Don’t try to squirm out of this, Paige. You chose this flimsy fence instead of chain link. You’d best upgrade it if you hope to keep this job.”

I stared at him, his puckered lips, his closed stance. He wasn’t going to listen to me at all. I could say almost anything. He’d have the same comeback and we’d have the same result—I’d be shelling out big bucks for a chain link fence.

Bud came close and clapped his hands in front of my face. “Don’t just stand there staring at me. What’re you gonna do? If a kid got hurt on your job, the liability’d kill us.”

“You know, Bud,” I said, stepping back from his barbs and trying to infuse a level of calm into my tone that I didn’t feel, “I think you’re overreacting. I’d like some proof before making any changes.”

“I have pictures.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. “Mind if I look at them?”

He yanked a photo from his back pocket and waved it like a decorative garden flag blowing in the breeze. “Here. See? Kids inside the fence.”

“I’d like a closer look.”

He shook his head, settling the last of his wayward hair back into place. “You know all you need to know. Now, what are you gonna do about it?”

“Picklemann, you big old scammer,” a husky male voice called from behind us. “I want to talk to you.”

We both turned and watched pharmacist Charlie Sweeny stomp our way. He wore a white lab coat over black pants that looked as old and fashionable as men’s double knits of the eighties. His reading glasses hung around his neck on a frayed red cord, dangling below a crimson face and eyes filled with rage.

Bud, dense as usual, must not have noticed the threat I saw in Charlie’s eyes as he glared back. “I have nothing to say to you, old man. I’m busy. Take a hike.”

Charlie sneered. “Oh, you’ll talk to me all right, or I’ll blab your secret to everyone in town.”

I stood in the war zone, wondering if I should risk hanging around as they hurled bombs at each other just so I could learn Bud’s big secret. If a fight broke out, exposure to their fallout could be deadly. I saw Charlie as a foxglove, and that meant you didn’t cross him. The genus name for foxglove was Digitalis, the medicine still used today to treat heart problems. The plant was pretty, but deadly, and as the local pharmacist, Charlie could end someone’s life with one simple mistake.

Since I leased one of the few apartments in town from Charlie, I didn’t want to make him mad. I smiled at him with so much syrup dripping from the corners of my mouth that I had a sudden craving for pancakes. “We’re almost done here, Charlie,” I said, followed by a quick lick of my lips. “Do you mind if I finish with Bud, first?”

Charlie kept his heated gaze fixed on Bud. “I’ll be back, Picklemann, when a little bit of a girl isn’t protecting you.” He turned and marched away in a gimpy cadence.

I glanced at Bud to gauge his reaction to the turn of events. It seemed his full attention rested on Charlie’s animated departure.

What’s that saying about opportunity knocking? I inched toward Bud and snatched the photo.

“Hey, give that back,” he shouted.

I studied the picture on my way to the other side of the fence. “You sly old dog.” I flicked the picture back and forth. “These are your kids. You cut the zip ties and let them into the play area to get me in trouble.”

“Doesn’t matter whose kids they are. The council agreed with me. You’ve got to put up a more secure fence, or we’ll pull the contract.”

I resisted the urge to stomp my foot like Lisa’s preschoolers and decided to beg or maybe even whine. “Renting a chain link fence will take time I can’t afford to lose. Then I’ll have to hire laborers to do the work I planned to do by myself just to catch up and meet the deadline. I might get done on time, but I’m sure to lose money.”

“You should have built a contingency into your bid.”

I snorted. “Right, and come in as the highest bidder. Even as the lowest bidder, the council had to force you to give me the job.”

“You want to stand here all day arguing or get to work before time runs out?” His snide smile dissolved the last of my manners.

I picked the first thing that came to mind to use as a weapon. “This is about Rachel, isn’t it?”

“What? What could my sweet Rachel have to do with this?”

Sweet? Hah! “Seriously, Bud Picklemann, you were the densest boy I knew in school. If it’s possible, you’ve gotten worse. Your wife has you doing her dirty work. Man up and admit it.”

His mouth fell open and flapped about. I guess no one had ever confronted him with his puppet status before. I snapped my own mouth shut before more offending words flew out, and offered a quick prayer for guidance. I wasn’t known for my subtlety, and I was close to losing it. Only God could help me keep a lid on it when my inner child took over.

“C’mon, Paige,” I mumbled under my breath. “Stop. There will be other jobs.”

“You say something?” Bud snapped.

I had no other jobs lined up. Still, the wisdom of giving in before this became more personal seeped into my brain. “Fine. I’ll get the fence.”

“About time. Remember, no more work until it’s up.” He turned and charged toward the parking lot.

His dismissal grated on me as if a real globe thistle had brushed against my skin, and the little bit of wisdom I had found took a hike. “You do anything else to interfere with this project, Bud Picklemann,” I yelled at his back, “and so help me, you’ll wish you hadn’t.”

“Ohh, I’m shaking in my boots.” He laughed in a tone that fully released my wrath.

“I mean it, Bud. You do anything, and I mean anything else, and I’ll have your. . .your job. . .and your. . .your head on a plate.”

I cringed as the last words passed my lips. The morning had come full circle. If I had a spray bottle of pesticide with me, I’d be as tempted as Weed Whacker to douse the human weed in my life.

Chapter Two

“And now, enjoy the best of Through the Garden Gate with your beloved host, Paige Turner.”

“Hi, Paige. This is Edna in Portland. I heard Friday’s show when you shared the list of essential clothing to wear in the garden. I’ve ruined more clothes while gardening than I care to admit, so I took your advice and ran right out to the store. I bought a cute pair of green gardening clogs, a big white floppy hat, and even found a pair of the SunGrips gloves that you like so much.”

“Wonderful, Edna. I love it when I can be helpful. Would you care to share with our listeners how these items are working for you?”

“I have to say it took me a little while to get used to the feeling of freedom, but now—”

“Edna, being married to you is gonna kill me.”

“Sorry, just ignore my husband yelling in the background.”

“Edna, I mean it, get back in the house and put some clothes on. What are the neighbors gonna say if they see you like that?”

Hoping physical labor would help still my fuming soul and shut my big mouth, I turned my back on prickly old Bud and tossed equipment into the enclosure with a little more force than necessary. Normally when I left a job site, I took my tools with me, but after I located a fence, I’d need these tools when I came back to replace the plastic one.

Gate secured again with more zip ties, I set off for my shop on foot with the hope that exercise would calm my residual anger. At the far end of the park, I spotted Charlie Sweeny, red-faced and gesturing wildly, this time talking with Uma Heffner, the local beautician. I was too far away to hear their conversation, but Uma’s hands were clamped on her ample hips and her legs planted wide, radiating tension.

I picked up my pace, glancing back at the duo as I went. Charlie’s screaming was old news. Still, this argument seemed more intense than usual. Charlie argued with everyone after his son died in Vietnam. Most people had tried to understand the change in his personality and cut him some slack. A few thought he shouldn’t continue to take his grief out on others and gave back as good as they got.

Uma was one of them. Although she claimed twin status with Uma Thurman, our Uma had little in common with the actress other than her name. Our Uma had a personality as big as the beehive hairdo she wore and was as likely to erupt as the thighs she had packed into her spandex pants. I’d dubbed her the showy shrub rose named “Betty Boop”. Enough said.

The sound of squealing brakes ripped through the streets. I whipped around. A city refuse truck screeched to an angled stop seconds before nailing Rachel Picklemann. She must have darted out of one of the stores and tried to cross Oak without looking.

“What are you trying to do, kill me?” she screamed at the driver. Her normally tidy blond hair hung in her face as she skirted the truck and ran into the park.

Her frantic behavior seemed odd for the usually cool and calculating Rachel. In fact, everyone was acting extra weird today. We locals had our share of quirks, and I wasn’t one to say anything, what with my habit of assigning plant names to people, but today their behavior was a little too bizarre. Maybe there was a full moon or something.

The truck took off. I remained locked in position, allowing my gaze to follow Rachel’s movements. My cell chirped in text message mode.

From Lisa, it said, “P. forgot lunch. Taking it to him. CUL8R.”

I turned my focus back to Rachel, who, sans Uma’s awful spandex pants, took over where Uma left off shouting at Charlie. She inched forward and stabbed her index finger at his chest. He backed up, but I could have told him it was useless to try to get away from Rachel Picklemann.

To me, Rachel was a petunia, pretty and innocent on the outside. When you got close and nipped off the dead flowers, your fingers came away sticky and hard to clean. When you came away from beautiful Rachel, no matter how hard you tried to get rid of the painful things she often said, they stuck to you for the rest of the day. As much as I wanted to find out what was going on, I didn’t want dirt from another Picklemann to wash off. Besides, the new fence was my priority. I turned left and headed down Poplar, a street with fewer distractions. As I entered the alley behind The Garden Gate, I saw torn black garbage bags, soggy paper scraps, Styrofoam coffee cups, and various other items I could no longer identify courtesy of last night’s rain.

“Yuk, yuk, yuk. Why’d I come this way?” I mumbled and picked my way down the alley.

Velma Meyer, owner of the Scrapbook Emporium, had done it again. Put her trash cans out for pickup and failed to set the lids on tight. Argh. I so wanted to scream over the interruption when I needed to focus on getting a fence, but Velma needed my help. I called Velma an Oriental poppy for her similarity to the flower’s flamboyant color and messy self-sowing habit. Velma was one of the flashiest seventy-five–year-olds I knew, and messy? Well, look around.

She did the best she could with her arthritis. No way she’d be able to clean this up. I would have to do it, and do it now to keep from attracting varmints to my city gardens. The trash wasn’t scheduled to be picked up for several days.

“Why today, of all days?” I punched my code into the electronic lock of the rear entrance to The Garden Gate.

In the hallway, I listened to Hazel Grimes, my full-time employee, as she explained the difference between sun and shade gardening to a customer up front. I’d scheduled the staff to free up my time for a full day of work at the park, so I didn’t bother letting her know I’d come in but went straight to my office, flipping on the light as I entered.

“First name Mister, middle name Period, last name T,” Mr. T, my inherited Amazon parrot, squawked from his cage in the corner.

“Shh, you silly bird.” I was always surprised by my affection for the mostly green feathered bigmouth, whose full name was Thunderbird. His bright blue head tilted to the side, portraying a simple innocence coupled with a haughty superiority. He was nearly thirty years old, but I’d had the dubious pleasure of Mr. T’s company only for the year I’d owned this building.

My shop had lived its first life as a service garage. The previous owner kept Mr. T to entertain the clients as they waited for their cars. The television, always on in the waiting area, had expanded Mr. T’s vocabulary. He randomly spouted bits from commercials, songs, and shows, especially his favorites like The A Team and Jeopardy. When his owner died, Mr. T went into a deep depression. I bought the shop and agreed to let him stay in his familiar surroundings to see if he would perk up. He didn’t just perk; he boiled over with enthusiasm.

“I gotta be free, I gotta be free,” he said in a singsong tone, his way of telling me he wanted out. We let him out of his cage daily for exercise. This required vigilance, as many plants are poisonous to parrots.

I didn’t have time to watch him, so I did my best to ignore his continual talking and surfed to Portland Construction Rentals’ Web site. With specifications listed on the screen, I sketched a quick layout of the fence sections my job required and tallied the cost.

“Three thousand bucks,” I grumbled then leaned back and threaded my fingers into my hair, loosening my ponytail. Maybe if I pulled it out from frustration, I could sell it to help pay for the fence.

“I’ll take Fun Facts for five hundred, Alex,” Mr. T said.

“Nothing fun about this, old buddy.” I tapped out a quick message to Ned Binski, owner of Portland Construction Rentals, with my detailed fence needs, as Mr. T watched in silence.

Where was I going to come up with the three thousand dollars to pay Ned? Easy answer. I wasn’t. I’d need to convince him to bring the price down to free. He owed me for my part in getting the largest landscape design firm in Portland to sign an exclusive rental contract with his company, and it was time to call in a return favor. I never wanted to use his business as a bargaining chip, but I had no choice. Failing on this highly visible job was not an option. What was I saying? Failing at anything was never an option in my book.

“See you later, buddy,” I said to Mr. T and seated my wireless headset on my ear.

“Y’all come back now, ya hear?”

Laughing at his departing phrase, I went to the workroom and grabbed some large black garbage bags and rubber gloves. I dialed Ned’s number, sent up my second prayer of the morning, and rushed outside.

“That you, Paige Turner?” Ned asked after the third ring.

I cringed as he read my full name off his caller ID. Thanks, Mom. A librarian, of all people, should have known better. She didn’t realize her mistake until after she signed the birth certificate, or so she claimed.

“Paige, you there?” Ned asked.

“Hey, yeah, hi, Ned.” I forced a smile in my voice as I tugged the form-fitting gloves over my fingers then took out my frustrations with my crazy morning on a mound of soggy paper.

“So how’s business in the boonies?”

“Booming. At least the store is. I bought an old gas station with three service bays. Turned them into greenhouses and planted gardens all around the place. The weekend tourists can’t seem to get enough of it.”

“That sounds. . .ah. . .what do you chicks say? Quaint. . .yeah, quaint, that’s it. I never thought you’d go all girlie on me like that and give up landscaping.”

Girlie, right. If he could only see me now. “I didn’t. That’s why I’m calling.”

“So, what do you need?”

Play it cool. Warm him up first. “Who says I need anything?”

He laughed, a big Santa Claus booming chortle, which is why I’d always thought of him as a thick Scotch pine, deeply rooted, sturdy, and towering over me. “I know you, Paige. You don’t call for a year, then out of the blue I hear from you. You need something.”

“Actually, I have a huge favor to ask. I just e-mailed an order for a chain link fence. I need to rent it for next to free.”

“For you Paigey-girl, I’ll give you my friends’ discount, 50 percent off.”

I stood up straight like a staked dahlia, taking strength from my posture while explaining my dilemma. “I’d never ask, Ned, but I just started the landscaping part of my business, and the city manager’s trying to kill it before it gets off the ground. I know I’m asking a lot. Is there any way you can let me have it for nothing and get it here by the end of the day?”

“Hold on,” he said reluctantly. “Let me pull up your e-mail to see what you need.”

I resumed trash picking while listening to his fingers click on a keyboard. I felt as trashy as the hunk of dripping paper I scraped off the concrete. Why was I doing this? Using Ned this way? Was a little business worth it? True, my back was against a wall, and I had no choice. All my profits from The Garden Gate were reinvested in equipment and supplies for this first job. I didn’t have any liquid assets, other than the small stream of water with scrapbook rejects floating merrily into a puddle at the end of the alley.

I shoved a large coffee filter into the bag. The tiny grounds clinging to the paper reminded me of Lisa’s lice situation. My fingers crept toward my head. I forced them down. No more scratching. My hands were filthy, and I had to focus on my own problem. I could pay Ned back. Yes, that was it. Once the landscaping business was up and running, I’d send him a check for the full amount.

“You’re in luck,” Ned said. “One of my drivers just came in. Give me a chance to load the truck, and I’ll drive out while he takes an early lunch break. Does that work for you, princess?”

“Yes, thank you,” I squeaked out, my voice wavering from his willingness to make the hour-long drive from Portland, not to mention forgiving the huge price tag associated with a rental fence.

“Ah, c’mon now, Paige. You really are going all girlie on me.”

“Sorry, this just means so much to me.”

“Still no need to act like that, if you ask me. Next thing I know, you’ll be wearing dresses and all that other girlie stuff.” He chuckled, perhaps at the vision of me dressed in anything that slightly identified me as a female. “Look, I gotta run if I’m gonna get the fencing out there. I’ll call you when I’m a few miles out.”

“Use my cell number. I’ll be at the park waiting for you, and I can give you directions.”

We said good-bye, and I looked up at the startling blue sky to thank God for the break. Okay, so my methods for getting the fence were creative and manipulative perhaps, but God still came through. I didn’t deserve the fence. Face it, I didn’t deserve anything, but God still provided and put joy in my heart.

Enough joy to make the rest of my cleaning seem to speed by even though it took nearly ninety minutes to scrape up every tiny piece of soggy paper. There. The last can was righted with the lid firmly settled. I took off my gloves and sighed over a big blue blotch right in the center of my uniform top. I couldn’t let the stain set in, or it’d ruin the fabric. At the cost of these custom-embroidered polos, I had to go home and toss it in the wash.

For the first time that morning, I easily succeeded in my plan. I rushed down the alley that ran behind the main businesses on Oak Street. Fortunately, none of the employees at either of the antique stores, the Bakery, or the Crazy Curl were outside to spot my disheveled condition. I cut left at the pharmacy and charged up the outside stairs to my apartment, where I kept a spare key under a variegated hosta on the back landing. The jade and lime colored leaves should still be rolled and barely above ground this early in the season, but the height of the staircase, coupled with the warmth of container gardening, had the plant’s giant leaves open, completely concealing the container.

Once inside, I tossed a frozen sandwich into the microwave for lunch and set off for the bedroom. I ripped off my shirt as I walked over the aged oak floors and then pulled a fresh polo from the closet. After slipping into the soft yellow cotton garment, I dialed Little Susie Homemaker on my cell and pushed my headset back onto my ear.

“Hey, Lisa,” I said and snatched up my dirty top. “How do you get a dark stain out of clothing?”

She sighed, her usual reaction to a question that she thought I should know the answer to by this point in my life. “Depends on what caused the stain and the fabric it’s on.”

“Blue dye from scrapbook paper I spent the last ninety minutes cleaning up. It’s on my work shirt.” I set out for my stacked washer and dryer in the kitchen.

“Velma strikes again, huh?” Her tone lacked any real sympathy for my plight with my absentminded neighbor.

“She had that big scrapbooking party last week, and there was a huge mess. This is happening too often. I think I’ll start going by on Sunday when she puts out the garbage to make sure the cans are closed.” At the large picture window in my living room, I stopped walking and peered through the tall swaying pines into the park. Something. . .something white was moving through the bushes. “Are you at the park waiting for me?”

“No, I’m at Mom’s house, why?”

Wishing I had binoculars, I squinted and searched through the thick foliage. “I can see someone inside my fence. Looks like they’re wearing something white.”

“How can you see them? Where are you?”

“At home. Washing my shirt.”

“Well, I’d use a basic stain spray,” she said, as if the stain were more important than another break-in on my project. “Then soak it and wash like usual.”

I looked at the shirt then back at the park one last time. Seeing no further movement, I went into the kitchen. “I wonder if someone is over there messing with my things.”

“It was probably just a plastic garbage bag blowing around. You know how those things show up everywhere. Hold on a sec, Lacy is giving Mom a hard time.” It sounded like she placed her hand over the phone to cover a muffled conversation in the background.

I located the right bottle in the cabinet and sprayed the stain before tossing the top into the washer to soak. At the microwave, I pulled out the ham and cheese sandwich and waited for Lisa to get back to me.

“Sorry about that.” Lisa let a long sigh escape. “The girls are always so tired after preschool on Mondays for some reason. I need to get them down for a nap. Oh, but before I let you go, you’ve got to tell me what happened with Bud.”

As I wrapped up the sandwich to eat on the run, I replayed the meeting in great detail. “Even though I got a few good licks in, he was clearly the winner.”

Lisa snickered. “I wonder if he ran right home to report to his wife.”

“Nah, I think she was shopping or something.” I stepped into the front stairwell and told Lisa about the dump truck nearly running over Rachel.

“Do you think she was at the park to check up on you and Bud?” Her voice held the first excitement of the day. Nothing like some nice juicy gossip to perk her interest.

“I think Rachel checking on me is kind of a stretch, but much as I hate to admit this, I think you were right about Bud and Rachel holding a grudge against me.”

“What? Wait. . .let me get some paper.” She laughed. “Mom! Mom!” she shouted. “Can you hand me that notepad and a pen? Paige just said I was right about something, and I have to document it.”

“Funny, Lisa. Very funny.” I ran down the steps.

“So what are you going to do about the fence?”

“My friend Ned is giving it to me for free. Soon as he gets the truck loaded, he’ll be on his way. Don’t s’pose your mom would keep the girls longer so you could come back?”

“Seriously, Paige, you need to hire somebody.”

“I don’t have enough time to find someone now. C’mon, Lisa, you’re always whining about still having excess baby weight. Think of the great exercise you’ll be getting.”

She groaned but in a tone that said she’d caved. “Okay. But this is the last time. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

I exited the front of my building and stepped onto the sidewalk. Hazel came out of the Bakery, her head down, hands digging into a tote bag emblazoned with Led Zepplin in faded letters. I employed a part-timer to fill in at the shop during our lunch breaks, so Hazel never missed her daily gossip fest at the Bakery.

“Hey, Hazel,” I called out. Her head snapped up, exposing her wrinkled face and cracked skin. My hardworking employee was a native Oregonian through and through. She loved the outdoors, no matter the climate, and to me that spelled the sedum plant. Rugged, durable, rock-hardy, often described as tough as nails, sedum fit Hazel perfectly.

We strolled toward each other and met in front of the Crazy Curl.

She pulled a toothpick from her mouth and stabbed it in my direction. “Well, haven’t you been a busy girl this morning. I heard all about your big blowup with Bud. Everyone in the Bakery was yakkin’ about it. Especially about the end, when you threatened him. You didn’t really, did you?”

“Maybe. . .a little, but I didn’t mean it. I was just mad.” My face got hot. I thought about the whole town gossiping about my weak moment and took a bite of my sandwich. “Hey,” I said with my mouth full, “how’d those people know about it, anyway? Bud and I were alone.”

“Ernie Hansen was lookin’ for pop cans in the park, like he always does on Monday morning. Said he heard you givin’ Bud what for.”

“Of course he has to go and blab it all over town.” I ran a hand around the back of my neck, stopping to massage a muscle that had tightened. “Just what I need. No one is going to want to hire me to do their yards when they hear this.”

She tossed the toothpick into a nearby trash can. “Relax. No one pays much attention to Ernie. He’s always telling stories.”

“Then let’s hope people think this is another one of his stories.” We chatted about her morning at the shop while we walked toward the park. At the corner of Main and Oak, Hazel kept walking toward The Garden Gate to return to work, and I entered the park by the front entrance.

While traveling the distance to the play area, I ate the last of my oozing sandwich and plotted out my afternoon. I didn’t like surprises when it came to my schedule or my life. Control of my day was priority to me, and I didn’t react well when things didn’t go as planned. Case in point, the sight before me. I was right. Someone had been here. The zip ties once again peeked from resting spots in tall blades of grass. And someone had shoveled Lisa’s mulch into a mound on the vinyl tarp.

“Bud,” I said under my breath. Probably let his kids pile up the chips so they could add to my work. “No matter.” His trick would not ruin my day. I’d recovered from his fencing demands, I could recover from this with some fast work.

I picked up my favorite shovel and threw my frustrations with Bud into digging. The spade penetrated the mound and stopped short on something. The reverberations of the wooden handle sent a tingle up my arm.

“What did that prickly old globe thistle do now?” Exasperated, I moved to the other end of the mound and tried again. This time, my shovel went deep but came up holding something heavy. Like roots clinging to a tree stump, whatever I’d found was connected to something that wouldn’t budge.

I strained the muscles in my arms and shook the shovel, sending bark flying.

“What in the world?”

I sucked in a breath. The air seemed to swirl around me like a vortex.

I was mistaken. There was no way Bud made this mound because. . .Bud was this mound.

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