Camilla stared at yet another lump of freshly turned earth. Flowers would have looked nice there. They were innocent and cheerful, the sort of things that should be planted at the garden center. Camilla loved flowers, and she loved Mrs. Martin, who had hired her through a program that helped mentally handicapped people find jobs.
Yet, there were no flower bulbs under this rich Alabama loam. Something disquieting lay beneath this plot that lay behind the concrete loading zone. Camilla had noticed freshly spaded soil several weeks ago. Upon excavating, she found a hand beneath the soil. Feeling sure it didn’t belong there, she kept digging. When she uncovered the shoulders and head, she understood the stranger must be deceased. She decided not to tell Mrs. Martin, what she had discovered, for she felt sure it would upset her. That seemed a poor way to thank someone, who had been kind enough to hire her. She covered the dead man carefully and left him in peace, as one should do for the departed.
She didn’t dig beneath the new protrusion of dirt. She didn’t want to see another face.
She didn’t like dead faces. They were too still, too cold.
Fortunately, Camilla was the only one who ever went to the back lot to fetch trees and large shrubs. Consequently, she was the only one who saw the disturbed earth.
She thought now, if she were smarter, she might be able to figure out why two bodies lay buried. Not having this gift, she doubted she would ever know. So, she shook her head and set about watering.
Mrs. Martin called to her. “Camilla, could you bring the small Magnolias? I’ve got a spot where I want to set them out.”
“Sure.” Forgetting the burial plot, she wheeled the shiny metal cart to the trees and set them onto the flatbed. When she got all six trees to the front of the store, she lifted them out and displayed them under Mrs. Martin's direction. The short, thin woman had the nervous manner of a hummingbird. Her shirtwaist dresses and short curly hair made her a throwback to the fifties.
When the job was finished, Camilla dusted her hands on her dirty jeans and gazed at her employer. “Thanks for hiring me, Mrs. Martin.”
“You’re welcome, Camilla. You don’t have to keep thanking me. You’re a hard worker. We’re glad to have you.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Martin.”
Mrs. Martin sighed. “I just got in an order of bulbs. Open the boxes and set the packages up for display.”
Camilla knelt on the floor and opened the boxes. Inside, were packages of tulips, lacy daffodils, and gladiolas. Camilla loved flowers. Now and then, Mrs. Martin would give her damaged flowers to take home. Camilla nursed them back to health and planted them in her garden.
She had a very pretty garden in the yard of the house she’d shared with Mama. She wished Mama was alive to see it. Mama had loved flowers, too. Fortunately, there were no bodies buried in the flowerbeds at home. Camilla surely would have noticed them.
She pushed the disquieting images from her mind. There was nothing she could do for the dead men and shouldn’t be staring into space when she had work to do. She began sorting the bulbs onto the metal rack, setting apart a package of Pink Cloud daffodils and re-blooming iris to buy for herself.
She had a small sum left over from her last paycheck. Even though Mrs. Martin gave her a discount, she always spent a hefty portion of it on flowers. Not that it mattered. She lived alone and had few expenses.
She was happy with what little cash she put away in her secret hiding place in a box under the bed. Sometimes when she found unexpected cash around the house, she figured Mama came from the grave to leave it. Mama had always been good to her.
A customer glanced through the bulbs. When Camilla looked up, he smiled at her. He had a tanned face like the cowboys on television. She stood to assist him, to find she was a head shorter. She dusted off her hands and smiled at him.
“Can I help you find something?” “I’m sure you can.”
He watched her in a way that made her feel self-conscious. It seemed like he was admiring her. It couldn’t be true. She had buck teeth, bad skin, and short stringy hair. And she was at least fifteen pounds overweight. More likely, he felt sorry for her.
He gestured to the outdoor, canopied greenhouse. “I just had my first house built and I want to do some landscaping. I thought a few rose bushes and plants for the flower beds would be a good start. What do you think would look nice?”
Camilla felt uncertain. She wanted to be careful advising him, as this was a big decision. Gardens were important.
“I could get Mrs. Martin. She knows more than I do.”
The man’s deep blue eyes captivated her. “I didn’t ask for Mrs. Martin. I want you to help me.”
Camilla scratched her head, trying to decide where to start. “You’ll want roses. Those are out on the patio.”
She led the way through the side door out of the store. On a stone patio, the pots of rose bushes were arranged in rows. Feeding and tending the roses was one of Camilla’s favorite jobs.
“I can show you which ones I have in my yard,” Camilla said. “I’d like that. I bet you have great taste in landscaping.”
“I love caring for gardens.”
Camilla was in her element now and feeling enthusiastic. “I have a mix of white, red, and pink roses. I planted mine in the back of my yard along the fence. I have two yellow bushes in my front yard, one on either side of the door.”
He reached into his pocket and withdrew photos. “This is the front of my house. And this is the back yard.”
Camilla caught her lip between her teeth. It was a very plain yard. The only pretty spot was where a pecan tree was planted. Other than that, the ground was bare. She didn’t like the house much, either. It was too modern for her taste.
“I would make a flower bed with a brick border around the tree in the front yard. Ferns would be pretty along the front of the house. And you could do a climbing rose on a trellis in between the windows.”
Camilla pointed a dirt-soiled finger at the spot. “I like that. What about the backyard?”
Camilla studied the photo. A concrete patio stood in front of a sliding glass door. The rest of the yard was dirt. “I would do a flower garden against the back of the house and all along the fence. A garden around the tree would look nice, too.”
“What kind of flowers?” “Mixed, I think.”
“Pick them out for me, would you? Price is no problem.”
“Really?” This would be fun. Camilla had never gotten to design a yard from scratch.
They pushed a wheeled cart down the rows of flowers. Camilla popped in pots of daffodils, ferns, verbena, phlox, petunias, pansies, inpatients, and daisies. In the right combination, they’d look fantastic.
After half a morning of choosing, they parked the cart by the check-out and collected the roses. When Camilla finished his order, she wheeled the rose bushes to the check-out counter.
The man said, “Could you sketch how you think I should plant these?” Camilla scratched her nose. She did have a mental picture in mind.
“Okay, I’ll try.” She got a pen and paper and began to draw in the flowers, labeling them as she went while Mrs. Martin rang up the purchase.
Camilla showed him the sketch. “I think this will look good.”
He studied it. “Perfect. How about coming to my house to see it when I’m finished? If I’ve made any mistakes, you can tell me.”
Was he flirting? Alarm made her pulse jump. She wasn’t the kind of girl men noticed. “I don’t go out much.”
“You’re kidding, a pretty girl like you?”
Now she knew he must be joking. Perhaps, he was teasing her, for she was not pretty. She felt herself flushing. She wished he would pay for the flowers and go away.
“I’ll be at the Renaissance Club on Congress Ave. if you do feel like getting out tonight.
About eight o’clock.”
“Like I said, I don’t go out.”
He shook his head. “Pity. My name’s Charles, in case you change your mind.”
She nodded, avoiding his eyes, wondering how he could be so cruel as to keep pressing her. He wouldn’t want to be seen with her if she really did show up.”
“I better get back to work.” She returned to the task of sorting the bulbs while Charles rolled his cart of flowers to the parking lot.
Mrs. Martin paused beside her. “That young man was certainly interested in you.” She looked up. “Why?”
“I don’t know, Camilla. I guess he thought you were nice. Maybe you should think about meeting him.”
“I’m not smart like him. He wouldn’t like me.”
“Smart isn’t everything, dear. Some people are drawn to your sweet disposition.”
Camilla flushed again. This time it was with pleasure. Mrs. Martin thought she was sweet. It was a much better compliment than Charles’ teasing.
She was in a good mood for the rest of the day.
When she got home, she parked her old Dodge Dart in the garage and began taking out her flowers. She had already decided where to plant them. It was nearly all she’d had on her mind all afternoon.
It was early summer in Mobile, Alabama. Glancing up, she saw gray towering thunderheads that promised the rain that was a common occurrence of life here. A warm, bay breeze stirred, ruffling the leaves on the peonies that grew on each side of the gate. Her flowers thrived in the humid climate. Once she planted them, rains kept them watered.
She carried the rest of the plants to the back yard and closed the gate. She loved the controlled overgrowth of the backyard, a place where the chain link fence was hidden behind a thick hedge of ligustrum that afforded complete privacy. Not that she ever did anything requiring privacy. Still, it was nice to sit out on a plastic lawn chair on a warm summer evening and enjoy the garden, without anyone disturbing her.
The only visitors she ever had were her twin cousins, Evie and Tamara She’d been glad when they moved to town and attended her grade in high school. No one at school liked Camilla and Evie and Tamara had become her only friends. They’d spent hours up in Camilla’s room talking and laughing. They didn’t seem to mind that she was slow. In fact, they didn’t seem to notice.
Though they didn’t live with her, they left clothes and make-up at her house. She didn’t mind. Those two liked to get dressed up, as well they should, for they were as beautiful as she was homely.
Occasionally, they all went out for fast food or a movie. The only place Camilla went without them was to work or a quick trip the grocery store. She didn’t like to be in public alone.
She often wondered what it would be like to go to concerts and bars as they did, to be admired, and to meet men. Tamara, the most social, said it wasn’t that great. She thought men were jerks. Still, Camilla was curious.
She remembered the man at the garden store. Tamara would have known how to handle him. She would have easily put him in his place, leaving him eating out of her hand. Camilla would tell Tamara about him when she saw her.
Now, her new plants needed attention. She focused her energy on the spots already picked out for them. The fern would go into the garden along the fence, and the zinnias would look bright and cheerful in the bed beneath the trees. The alyssum would go along the bricks to make a round border and the periwinkle would be pretty in the wooden planter that sat along the side of the flat concrete patio.
Camilla worked intently. By the time the first fat drops of rain fell, she had everything in the ground.
Mama would be proud of the way she kept up the yard. Mama had always kept the gardens neat. They’d spent many glorious hours working together, mowing the lush lawn of St. Augustine grass, weeding the flower beds, and digging more gardens.
She missed Mama dreadfully. It had been a year since she had died. Camilla remembered that day clearly. Just after Camilla had started working at the nursery, her father had come home. He’d had been popping in and out of their lives for years. Mama said he was sick in the head.
But she still loved him. He’d told Mama he had a job and money. He’d said she wouldn’t have to work at the bakery anymore. Then, he’d taken her out on a drive and they’d never come back.
The police told Camilla he had killed Mama in the forest. They’d found him wandering in the trees, tearing his clothes and talking to himself. Afterward, they’d locked him up in a safe place so he’d never come back to hurt her the way he had hurt Mama. But that didn’t bring Mama back.
Nonetheless, Camilla was reasonably happy. She had her cousins and her job and a place of her own. Maybe someday, she’d get a cat. Camilla liked cats. They weren’t noisy like dogs. They were graceful and neat. They didn’t chase cars or try to bite the paperboy.
A cat would be just the thing someday. Her cousins would approve of a cat. A cat would never bark at them when they came over for a visit.
She became so engrossed by the idea of a cat that she spent the rest of the afternoon, on the patio chair, trying to think of a name for the unknown pet. Finally, it was between Midnight, if it was a black cat, and Goldie if it was a yellow cat.
She sat in her trance until her cousins arrived carrying what was left of a pepperoni pizza. “Here: Tamara said. “You can have this for supper.”
They stayed to chat for a while. Camilla told the story about the stranger and how he’d made fun of her.
The girls didn’t stay long after that. This was fine with Camilla since she was sleepy.
They’d come on the bus. Now they borrowed Camilla’s car for an outing.
Tamara drove while Evie brushed out her thick copper curls. They were on the way to the Renaissance Club on Congress Ave. They hadn’t told Camilla they were going. She wouldn’t want them to go. Camilla was peaceable. And she was sweet. She would never stick up for
herself. Nonetheless, she was their cousin and they weren’t about to let anyone abuse her without hearing from them.
“Camilla wouldn’t have to work at that boring job if she didn’t want to,” Evie said. “We could support her.”
Evie made good money as a hacker. She’d hacked into international business accounts as well as several American companies. She never signed in as using her laptop, always a remote computer to complete the transactions. And she never took too much. Just a little here and there to add to their Swiss account. They would retire in luxury someday. And they’d take Camilla along.
“She’s happy now, though,” Tamara said.
“I know. I can’t understand what she likes about working at that dirty place, but if it makes her happy, I’m glad.”
“Me, too. The lady’s nice to her.” “What about the husband?” Evie asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think she knows what to make of him.” Tamara shook her head. “As long as she’s happy…”
“Yeah, as long as she’s happy…”
They drove to the Renaissance Club and parked. Though it was a Monday night, there was a decent crowd. Tamara whispered to Evie, “That has to be Charles over at the bar. He looks just like Camilla described him.
They took a table in the corner where they could keep an eye on him. Evie ordered their drinks.
“What’s the plan?” she asked.
“We wait until he leaves and follow him to his car. Then we tell him off.” “Good plan. He can’t treat our Camilla like that.”
They sipped their drinks and watched Charles. It amused them to see him fail twice to pick up a girl. No doubt he told them all about his new house and the gorgeous job he was doing on landscaping.
When he left, they followed him outside. Evie hung back, while Tamara, the more aggressive, followed close behind him. He didn’t notice her until he reached his car. He’d just pressed his key to unlock the door when he turned to see her behind him.
“Yeah? You came after all,” he said.
Tamara smiled. She knew that, in the dark, he saw only the vague family resemblance. “Nope. My name’s Tamara. And this is the last time you’ll make fun of my cousin.” She pulled a small-caliber handgun from her purse.
Charles pressed himself against the car, holding up his hands in a plea. “I didn’t make fun…”
Before he could finish, Tamara pulled the trigger, placing a bullet neatly into his heart.
He slid down the car, to leave a dark puddle on the already darkened asphalt.
Evie walked up beside Tamara. “You promised,” she hissed.
“Did not. Besides, he deserved it.” “You’re going to get us in trouble.”
“Nobody will ever know. Help me get his wallet. We’ll keep the cash and toss the identification.”
Evie glanced about the deserted lot. “Okay, but let’s hurry.”
They extracted his wallet and took it with them.
Tamara grinned as they drove away from the club. She enjoyed killing. Since the urge had come over her six months ago, she tried to limit herself to one killing a month. Yet, like any other addiction, it was hard not to give in more often. She blamed it on the fact that there were no support groups to help her. Overeaters had Overeaters Anonymous and alcoholics had Alcoholics Anonymous. Nowhere did she know of a Killers Anonymous. Who would help her stop, without putting her in jail?
She would simply have to do her best to control it. Although she’d already had her quota for the last two months, this one couldn’t be helped. Someone had to avenge Camilla’s feelings. Who better than her cousin?
Evie pulled off the road onto a darkened parking lot. “What are you doing?” Tamara asked.
“There’s a dumpster at the back of this school. We can get rid of the wallet.” “Okay. I’ve already gone through it. He had almost a hundred in cash.” “Hey, that’s pretty good. Did you wipe off your prints?”
“Yep. I’m holding it by the edge of my shirt.”
“Hurry up and get rid of it. I don’t like having evidence in the car.”
Tamara jumped out and scurried to the dumpster. She scattered the contents of the wallet before securing it beneath some discarded cardboard. If they were lucky, it would never be found. Even if it was, there was nothing to link them to the crime.
They wouldn’t tell Camilla. There was no reason for her to know this, or that Tamara buried bodies in the garden center where Camilla worked. Until she ran out of room, it was the perfect hiding spot. No one ever went back there except for Camilla.
The sisters had a night on the town, spending the money at an upscale bar and dancing until early morning. And though they met no one sufficiently interesting to invite to a motel, they had a pleasant time.
Detective Marie Alvarez sat at the breakfast table, feeling drowsy. Her husband, Rick, patted her hand as he handed her a cup of coffee.
“You look beat. Tough night?” “Yep.”
Marie hadn’t gotten home until nearly three o’clock that morning.
“There’s some weird stuff going down. We have a body with no ID in the parking lot of the Renaissance Club and we have a guy reporting his roommate missing, and no body.”
“Sure it’s not the same guy?”
Marie shook her head. “It’s not. We had the roommate take a look.” “So, no leads at all?”
“Not so far.”
Rick leaned over the narrow breakfast table and kissed her forehead. “They’re lucky to have you. You’ll get to the bottom of it.”
“I better. I’m the new girl on the block. Gotta prove myself.”
Marie had made detective two months ago, just in time for the missing person. Now, they had a new case, one with an unidentified body. At least, she knew what she’d be spending the day doing.
Rick unfolded the Press-Register. “The story’s in the paper,” he said.
“What does it say?”
She stood and leaned over his shoulder.
“It’s about the dead guy at the Renaissance Club. It says nobody saw what happened.” “We think the motive was robbery since his wallet was missing.”
“Those clubs can be dangerous. I guess I should quit going there when you’re not home.” Marie wrinkled her nose. “You were watching sci-fi movies. I saw them sitting out when
I turned out the light.”
Rick grinned at her. “You can’t fool a good detective. Still, how do you know I wasn’t clubbing before I watched the movies?”
“You hate clubs. I can’t even drag you out dancing.” “Good point.”
Marie stretched. “I’m going to shower and then head back to work. Maybe there’s been a breakthrough in the case.”
Rick scanned his petite wife and decided she wouldn’t eat unless he got her a bowl of cereal. It sometimes seemed like she ran on sheer energy. So, in little ways, he tried to take care of her.
He still found it hard to believe he’d stolen her heart. He’d been a short, stocky catcher on the Jr. College baseball team when they met. She had green-eyes and curly, golden hair that tended to frizz. He could hardly stop watching her from the first moment they met in their freshman English class.
It took him three months to get up the courage to ask her for a date. When she agreed, he’d been in denial for the rest of the day. Had she really said, “yes”?
They’d hit it off, sharing interests in sci-fi and crime, guns and sports. He wasn’t surprised to find out she’d been a gymnast as a kid and she’d played softball on the high school team.
Maybe they’d have a team of their own someday, he’d thought, even when the idea was premature. Little Alvarez children to play outfield and bases. He’d come from a family of seven children. Only one was a girl.
She got onto the police force after two years of college. He went on to a state university for his accounting degree. And they had worked it out. Married for over a year now, Rick had never been happier. Marie was his life.
He glanced up to see her smiling at him.
“Are you always going to spoil me like this? You know I would have left with a cup of coffee if you hadn’t made me this bowl of cereal.”
“You’ll probably skip lunch.”
She took a bite. “Possibly. I’ll try to be home in time to cook you a fabulous dinner to tell you how much I love you.”
“You do that every day, just by being you.”
“You’re a good guy, Rick Alvarez. I’m lucky to have caught you.”
Rick kissed her before grabbing his briefcase to head for work, thinking all the while that it was he who had caught her.
Marie ate the cereal, hardly tasting it as she mused about her day. She loved the challenge of detective work. Yet being new, she felt the pressure to prove herself. She’d set a goal of finding the identity of the Renaissance man today and she’d do all she could to reach it. She only hoped she’d manage it by five o’clock. It had been days since she’d cooked a real meal for Rick. He never complained.
Still, he must miss his mama’s cooking. She’d stayed home to cook and clean for a family of nine. She made the best enchiladas Marie had ever tasted. Maybe Rick would be happy with stewed chicken and dumplings, something he’d never tasted until he married Marie.
After breakfast, she showered, taking longer than she should have to let the warm fingers of water massage her spine. Five hours of sleep had left her groggy and she longed to crawl back under the covers. That wasn’t smart thinking for a professional.
“Pull yourself together, Alvarez. You’re going to lick this.”
She toweled off and dressed in her uniform. She put in contacts and added a touch of eye make-up. She frowned, studying her hair. In the humidity of the Alabama coast, she could never hope to have a sleek style. She combed in gel and pulled it back in a ponytail. At least it was out of her way.
She drove to work with her mind completely on the murder case. No fingerprints at the scene. No evidence on the body. Could it have been pre-meditated? If so, the first step was to identify the victim and find out if he had any enemies.
She pulled into the station lot and parked in one of the three detective spots. She was gratified to see that she was the first to arrive.
She let herself in the back door and grabbed a cup of coffee from the table in front of the secretary’s desk. The other officers insisted Miss Kent had been there a hundred years. Since she appeared to be in her early sixties, Marie doubted it had been quite that long.
“Any messages?” she asked.
“Dental records are ready on the new case.”
“Good. I’ll start checking with dentists and hope I get a fast match.”
She unlocked her office. She wasn’t used to seeing her name on the glass panel.
Detective Alvarez. She would never get tired of seeing it.
She set the coffee on the worn, wooden desk and sank into her chair. Firing up her computer, she retrieved the dental records. The next step was to get into the Automated Dental Identification Center and search files of males. The only other thing she could do was to pray he’d been to a dentist.
She thought about the two recent cases while she waited for feedback. The first could simply be a man who’d moved without warning. Yet her gut feeling was that it was murder and that they were tied somehow, though she had no proof, as yet.
In less than ten minutes, she had a match. Charles Taylor. She called his dentist, who promised to fax over Taylor’s file.
In a before-lunch meeting with the chief of police, she and another detective went over the evidence. They decided Marie would go to the club in the afternoon and show Taylor’s picture around. An earlier interview revealed the bartender didn’t know the man. But maybe one of the other employees or customers would know something about him. It was worth a try.
The other case proved frustrating. She’d hoped it would have been solved quickly, neatly wrapped, and delivered to the boss. Instead, it was going to take time and hard thinking. She’d checked motels and his last known residence. His mother lived in Birmingham, yet hadn’t seen him in over six months. Friends his roommate named hadn’t seen him since before he disappeared. So far, it was a dead end. If they found his car, it would be a start. So far, even that hadn’t turned up. When she’d made detective, she’d said she liked a challenge. She’d definitely gotten her wish.
On impulse, she decided to check a few street contacts on the way to the club. The best information sometimes came from the shadow people, as she called them. They were the homeless and bored, criminals just out of jail, and druggies that hung out on the streets.
No one knew anything, had seen anything or recognized the men. Since they liked her, she felt sure they would have told if they’d had any information. They offered sips from their bottles to make up for her disappointment. She declined with thanks.
Back in the car, she headed for the club. It was nearly four o’clock, the time when it opened. She’d hang around for a half-hour and talk to a few folks before heading back to work.
She showed her ID and entered. On this cloudy afternoon, it was dim inside. Only a handful of early customers lined the barstools and the staff was lean. The place reminded her of a flower blooming in slow motion. Its draw wasn’t evident until it was completely open. Though it was dull now, she knew this place had a reputation of hopping when it got closer to midnight.
She showed Taylor’s photo around the bar. No one knew the man or recalled him making any enemies the night before. A waitress giggled. “I was off last night, but I would have remembered if I’d seen him. That’s quite a hairdo. Who’s he supposed to be? Elvis?”
“He’s dead,” Marie replied matter of factly.”
The girl’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
After no luck at the club, Marie decided to ask Mark, another detective on the case, to come back that evening when the bar was busier. Perhaps someone who came later might know him.
She arrived back in the office, ready to pack up and go home. Even though she hadn’t any new clues, she knew a hundred percent more about Taylor than she’d known earlier in the day. At least now, she had a name.