Chapter One of Penny’s Second Case

 THE BODY IN THE BRANTLEIGH GLEN — Chap­ter One

Strolling through a well-planned gar­den always bright­ens my day. And I occa­sion­al­ly pick up an idea or two. As my Grand­pa Jack used to say, Pene­lope, if you don’t learn  some­thing every day you’re not pay­ing atten­tion.

A year ago I’d become a Mas­ter Gar­den­er and when I real­ized that I enjoyed just about every aspect of gar­den­ing, I enrolled in the spring semes­ter of Madi­son Lerrimore’s Res­i­den­tial Design course at Annapo­lis Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege. A week after the last class, we’d come to North Car­oli­na to vis­it one of the most inter­est­ing land­scapes we’d stud­ied.

Madi­son and I were ram­bling through hem­locks, sparkling hol­lies, and groves of flow­er­ing fruit trees and col­or­ful shrubs at Brantleigh Manor, the finest exam­ple of Ital­ian Renais­sance gar­den design in Amer­i­ca. Over­head, an icon­ic Car­oli­na blue sky reigned supreme. Not a cloud in sight.

Our guide was the land­scape archi­tect who had laid out the gar­dens in 1905. Actu­al­ly, he wasn’t the design­er, Fred­er­ick Law Olm­st­ed, but his twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry dop­pel­gänger.

Here in the Glen—” he har­rumphed to ensure our atten­tion “—I tran­si­tioned to a more nat­u­ral­is­tic style—like my first design … ”

I acknowl­edged his smug smile. Every stu­dent of gar­den design knows the sto­ry of Olm­st­ed and Vaux win­ning the design com­pe­ti­tion for New York’s Cen­tral Park in the 1850s.

Between his obser­va­tions, we fol­lowed a wind­ing path through patch­works of flow­er­ing trees and shrubs punc­tu­at­ed with sweeps of cray­on-bright tulips and sun-dap­pled daf­fodils. With pho­to oppor­tu­ni­ties beck­on­ing at every bend, I couldn’t resist tak­ing shots that I would assem­ble into a Pow­er­Point that Madi­son could use in next spring’s intro course. I includ­ed Madi­son in one shot, her short dark hair and lack of make-up con­trast­ing with the lus­cious pink blooms of the flow­er­ing almonds where our Olm­st­ed had once again halt­ed us.

I designed this entire Glen,” he said with a hint of exas­per­a­tion as he swept his walk­ing stick in a com­plete cir­cle, “as an arbore­tum of ever­greens … a win­ter gar­den if you will. We plant­ed every kind of fir, pine, spruce, and hem­lock and sev­er­al kinds of hol­lies.”

His rud­dy cheeks, bald­ing fore­head, long gray whiskers, great­coat and walk­ing stick made him a dead ringer for his por­trait on the estate’s brochure.

So much of Brantleigh Manor’s land­scape has been changed over the years,” he con­tin­ued. “Regret­tably, here in the Glen, in my opin­ion, the alter­ations have not been improve­ments.”

As his tone shift­ed into resent­ment, my ears perked up.

After Gov­er­nor Brantley’s death,” he said, “wouldn’t you know, his wid­ow decid­ed she’d pre­fer a more col­or­ful plant palette. She had the major­i­ty of my ever­greens yanked out and replaced with what you see today.” He stomped his cane, nar­row­ly miss­ing a buck­led shoe. “With­out so much as a by your leave!”

It was inge­nious, I thought, for Brantleigh to employ docents in the guise of America’s first land­scape archi­tect. For vis­i­tors who might imag­ine that gar­dens mate­ri­al­ize spon­ta­neous­ly, their pres­ence under­scored the real­i­ty that all gar­dens are real­ly col­lab­o­ra­tions with nature that were birthed in a designer’s imag­i­na­tion.

Real­ly,” he said. “How tedious!” His eye­brows fur­rowed. “By then my Glen was near­ly forty years of age … and grow­ing apace.” He huffed impa­tient­ly. “She should have asked my opin­ion.”

While my eyes, I’m sure, rolled at his bla­tant the­atri­cal­i­ty, it was also true that if Madi­son weren’t wear­ing her jean jack­et embroi­dered with Grate­ful Dead bears, I could have eas­i­ly imag­ined we were with America’s first land­scape archi­tect, the gen­uine Fred­er­ick Law Olm­st­ed, more than a hun­dred years before.

By then, unfor­tu­nate­ly,” he said, his face relax­ing, “I was in my gra—”

Mo-om! There’s a man down there!”

The kid’s scream ratch­eted up my pulse in an instant. Until that moment, I hadn’t noticed either the boy or his moth­er a hun­dred feet or so ahead of us. The mom looked up from her phone and glanced at him, think­ing per­haps it was a stunt to get her atten­tion.

Okay, young man,” she said, “that’s enough.”

As they hus­tled past us she grum­bled, “This kid and his over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tion … ”

But Mo-om … ”

Do not ever dis­count the tes­ti­mo­ny of a child, whis­pered my late lament­ed Grand­pa Jack who occa­sion­al­ly offers obser­va­tions from beyond the grave.

 

I dashed to where they had been. Madi­son and Olm­st­ed hur­ried to catch up. Noth­ing appeared amiss.

Tar­ry! Grand­pa Jack whis­pered. The boy said the man was down there.

Down there? Where? Then I real­ized that the moun­tain lau­rel on both sides of the path obscured a minus­cule creek that crossed under it. I snagged a branch laden with pink posies and pushed it aside. Then anoth­er. And a third. OhMy­God—

The kid was right,” I said, my breath catch­ing as my adren­a­lin bub­bled, “it’s anoth­er Olm­st­ed.”

Pene­lope,” Madi­son croaked, “you’re kid­ding … right?”

Unfor­tu­nate­ly—” I said, but couldn’t say more.

Our docent’s dou­ble was down there, lit­er­al­ly under our noses, in the tiny rivulet.

Déjà vu all over again, whis­pered Grand­pa Jack, who’d always enjoyed quot­ing Yogi Berra.

Olmsted’s eye­brows arched into the shape of vio­lin f-holes as he pulled a phone from his great­coat and gave up chan­nel­ing America’s first land­scape archi­tect.

Mike. Ned here.”

Ned? I’d assumed he was Way­land some­body, Madison’s step­fa­ther, who she’d told me would be our guide. She hadn’t seen him since high school and a key rea­son for plan­ning the trip was her eager­ness to rec­on­cile with him.

We’ve got a prob­lem,” Ned said to his phone. “We’ve found Way­land. He’s either drunk or sick or—”

Dead’s what I think, whis­pered Grand­pa Jack.

Madi­son screamed and quick­ly looked away.

When we’d met our guide this morn­ing, Madi­son had hes­i­tat­ed slight­ly but said noth­ing. I nev­er guessed that he wasn’t her step­fa­ther.

Just shut up a sec­ond,” Ned screamed at the phone. “We’re in the Glen. And FYI — the kid who found him and his freaked-out mom are on their way back to the Manor.”

Ned tapped off his phone and scanned the path. The boy and his mom were long gone. Two elder­ly women were admir­ing an enor­mous Yoshi­no cher­ry in full pink regalia a cou­ple of hun­dred feet behind us. One car­ried a cane and the oth­er used a walk­er. Beyond us, an elder­ly gray-haired guy dressed in black was either uncon­cerned or unaware of our predica­ment. He turned his back and with a slight limp con­tin­ued toward the Water­fall Gar­den.

Let’s get him up,” Ned said.

Madison’s hand jumped to her mouth.

I scrab­bled down to the lit­tle creek and felt the man’s wrist for a pulse. I’m no expert but I couldn’t detect one. Grand­pa Jack, who cham­pi­oned the Great Books pro­gram at St. John’s Col­lege, used to tease me about wast­ing my time read­ing mys­ter­ies. I’d told him I occa­sion­al­ly come across a tid­bit I file away and trust that I’ll nev­er need in real life. Which is why I quick­ly checked Way­land for signs of vio­lence. His clothes appeared free of blood and I could see no holes of the bul­let vari­ety or oth­er­wise.

Ned,” I called up, “give me a hand?”

Madi­son, wide-eyed, stepped back fur­ther.

With an arm around his chest, I heaved him like a store-win­dow manikin until Ned, on his knees, could get a grip on his waist­coat. Already stiff­en­ing, the poor guy was the lit­er­al def­i­n­i­tion of dead weight. By the time we tugged him up onto the path and turned him over, I was out of breath.

Holy—” Madi­son stam­mered, gasped for air, threw her hand to her face and began to wail.

I knew the hor­ror of find­ing a fam­i­ly mem­ber dead, famil­iar with the anguish that nev­er com­plete­ly fades. But, right here and now, what? Call 9–1-1? The F.B.I.? The State Police? Flum­moxed, I stared at the dead man. I was like an uncer­tain zom­bie. One moment a stu­dent of land­scape archi­tec­ture, and the next, an unwill­ing par­tic­i­pant in a gris­ly sce­nario. Tomorrow’s local head­line formed in my mind’s eye: EX-NAVY PUBLIC AFFAIRS OFFICER FALTERS IN CRISIS. The day had turned upside down, left me in pan­ic mode, a cap­tive in a ter­ri­fy­ing new real­i­ty.

Madison’s step­fa­ther wasn’t as tall or as gaunt as Ned, but was out­fit­ted iden­ti­cal­ly. Mud streaked his great­coat, his waist­coat was unbut­toned, his shoes scuffed. A moun­tain lau­rel twig served as a hook for the straw boater he’d lost when he fell. His wig was gone, leav­ing a crop of thin­ning buzz-cut hair that made him look like a long-retired Marine. Worst of all was his mouth stretched awk­ward­ly, his face a spasm. I lift­ed an eye­lid. A fog­gy eye stared sky­ward.

He’s beyond help,” I pro­nounced.

My s … step … father,” Madi­son stam­mered. Her tear­ful face crum­pled into an equal­ly crum­pled blue ban­dana.

My heart went out to my men­tor. She and I had become friends almost as soon as her design course began. The week­end before we came to North Car­oli­na she and her part­ner and their daugh­ter Kalea had helped cel­e­brate my thir­ty-third birth­day at O’Leary’s, a few blocks from my East­port con­do.

Ned took charge, ges­tur­ing toward a grove of native rhodo­den­drons a cou­ple of yards uphill from the path. “We have to get him out of sight.” Madison’s wail­ing inten­si­fied.

You’re not sup­posed to move a body,” I said.

You’ve read too many mur­der mys­ter­ies, Grand­pa Jack whis­pered.

He’s already been moved,” Ned coun­tered.

The dead man’s shoes plowed lit­tle fur­rows in the mulch as Ned and I schlepped him toward the rhodo­den­drons. In spite of the pleas­ant morn­ing, by then I was per­spir­ing pro­fuse­ly, far more than what my Great-Aunt Zel­ma would call glis­ten­ing. Madi­son walked along­side us to block the view from the two women who were clos­ing on us, hav­ing fin­ished mar­veling at the big Yoshi­no cher­ry. When we laid him down, she stum­bled a few yards fur­ther up the hill­side and upchucked.

Ned clicked his phone. “Michael, update. Wayland’s dead.”

Grand­pa Jack had been right. Again.

When I was grow­ing up in Annapo­lis, my Grand­pa Jack was the dean of St. John’s Col­lege, and expect­ed me to apply there after high school. Instead I opt­ed for the Naval Acad­e­my. In so many ways, espe­cial­ly after mom desert­ed us, he was like a dot­ing par­ent and when he died, I was half a world away, a pub­lic affairs offi­cer on the USS Enter­prise dur­ing the Iraq war. In the pri­va­cy of my state­room, I wept, dev­as­tat­ed, unable to attend his funer­al.

But his death didn’t end his car­ing for me. I still hear his occa­sion­al whis­pers. At first it was unnerv­ing, but these days I’m grate­ful for his sug­ges­tions although some­times he comes across as a know-it-all.


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