(previously released as The Big Dirt Nap)
Maybe I’d have had a drink with the guy if I had known the next time I saw him he’d be sprawled out in a Dumpster enclosure, with a greasy newspaper tented over his face. Then again, maybe not.
Nick Vigoriti had unsuccessfully hit on me as I sipped club soda at the bar. There were two or three likelier candidates in skimpier outfits who weren’t working on a laptop, but he zeroed in on me.
I knew him, sort of. Earlier in the day, Vigoriti had been on line behind me checking into the Titans Hotel in Connecticut’s wine country. We’d spent what seemed like twenty minutes listening to a statuesque redhead spitting out demands and fidgeting almost as much as the white Maltese she carried in her plastic designer bag.
"That is not friendly."
The pimply kid behind the reception desk nodded furiously. That, combined with the oversize jacket that hopefully fit his night-shift counterpart better, gave him the appearance of a lifesize bobble-head doll.
"April does not need a sitter. I only came to this establishment because it’s supposed to be pet-friendly. I could have gotten comped at Hunting Ridge." She towered over the poor kid, the pile of hair on her head giving her an extra four inches, as if she needed it.
Vigoriti and I exchanged brief "whaddya gonna do" glances, until the dog’s owner finished tormenting the desk clerk, then teetered off accompanied by a full luggage cart and the only bellman in sight.
When it was my turn, I set my backpack on the counter, leaned over, and told the clerk my name.
"I don’t see you," he said, scrolling down the computer screen. He forced himself to say the words, anticipating another pain-in-the-neck customer. Beads of sweat popped up on his forehead like condensation on a glass. I felt for the guy; he was getting a crash course in Difficult Guests 101 on what I was guessing was his first week on the job. "I’m sorry," he said, his voice cracking.
"Did you make the reservation online, by any chance?"
Great. I’d sat through rush-hour traffic on the highway and now there was no room at the inn. "It has to be there," I said, trying not to betray my real feelings. "Will you please look again?"
He continued to scan the screen; then it occurred to me that my friend Lucy had made the reservation. Maybe it was under her name or her company’s.
"Can you check under KCPS-TV? Or Cavanaugh. Check Cavanaugh," I repeated, louder, in that stupid way people do when they’re talking to foreigners, as if saying something louder is going to make it easier to understand.
"Okay, okay, I got it. Here it is. ‘Two adults, two doubles, no pets,’ " he read off the screen. Relief washed over the kid’s face; he didn’t need another guest with problems.
This job was already an interruption of his real life—which was probably football, getting good grades, and procuring the perfect fake ID, not standing in a gold-braided uniform two sizes too big and catching verbal abuse. I didn’t blame him; I was in a service business myself and sometimes it wore thin.
I gave him my credit card for the "incidentals" and watched as he mindlessly swiped it and handed it back without even checking my name or the photo on the front.
"I’ll just need one key. My friend will be joining me later." I plucked the paper folder from the counter and slid one plastic key back to him.
"Thank you, Ms. Cavanaugh."
I started to correct him, then thought, What’s the point?
"You’re welcome." I snatched my bag from the counter and turned to leave. Asking him where the elevators were would only have extended the experience, so I went off in the same direction as the woman with the dog. I was hardly going to get lost in a suburban Connecticut hotel.
On the way, smack in the middle of the lobby, was an octagonal enclosure about twenty feet wide. Inside it, in a huge terracotta pot, was the reason I was there. Well, one of them anyway. Inside the glass enclosure was a corpse flower. I moved in for a closer look, setting my things down briefly on one of the laminated benches that circled the glass gazebo.
The pot itself was about four feet in diameter, and shooting straight up from the center was a light green veined shaft tinged with purplish pink. I hadn’t seen one in a few years and there was no getting around it—with that color and that shape . . .
"Pretty sexy if you ask me," Vigoriti had said, over my shoulder.
"I didn’t ask you," I said, firmly enough to let him know I wasn’t about to engage in a junior-high-school-level conversation regarding a certain part of the male anatomy. Not with a stranger anyway.
I picked up my bags, headed back toward the bank of elevators, around the corner from reception, and made a beeline for the first white triangle pointing up. Once inside, I pushed the button for my floor and crumpled, exhausted, against the side of the car.
Just as the doors were closing, a hand slapped them apart.
The hand was an unlikely combination of manicured and rough, as if a boxer had buffed his nails. A black leather strap was twisted around the thick wrist and the large tanned hand held, of all things, a man bag, almost lost in its owner’s large palm. The shirtsleeve was rolled up, thin gray stripes on black silk. Expensive, but not top of the line. And it half covered the muscular forearm of Nick Vigoriti.
"Hello, again." He smiled, pushed the doors open, and settled politely into the opposite corner of the car. I could tell he was looking at me, but I pretended not to notice.
Vigoriti gave off the very appealing scent of whiskey, sweat, and, if I remembered correctly from two boyfriends ago, a dash of Armani—ordinarily a winning trifecta and one I’d succumbed to in the past. But I was tired from the long drive and wasn’t feeling particularly friendly. Besides, this was an all-girls weekend. Lucy and I each had work to do, but it was really about two old friends catching up. I flashed him the fake one-second, toothless smile you use to acknowledge someone’s existence, then fixed my gaze straight ahead at the diamond pattern on the wall of the elevator until six pings told me I’d reached my floor. Vigoriti got out, too.
For an instant, my antenna went up, but he turned left before I’d committed to either direction. Happily, my room was on the right and I rushed down the hall, shifting my bags to one side and trying to remember which pocket I’d stuck the room key in.
I fished the plastic card out of its sheath and slipped it into the lock. Nothing. I tried it stripe up, stripe down, toward me, and away from me. Five minutes later, after repeated wipes against my sweatshirt, the uncooperative sliver of plastic still refused to admit me to my room. I sank my forehead against the door and let out a low groan like a wounded animal.
"They’re a pain, aren’t they?" Vigoriti said, standing over my shoulder.
I hadn’t heard him approach, and was so startled I bumped my head looking up.
Assessing the damage with one hand, I gave him the key with the other. "I’m not proud. You try."
He dipped the key once and the light flashed green.
"How did you do that?"
"Magnetism. You have to have a magnetic personality."
He had spared me a return match with the sweet but dopey desk clerk, so I resisted the urge to snort at his lame come-on.
"I’m kidding," he said. "Sometimes technology just likes to . . . mess with you." He held on to the key a few seconds longer than necessary, slapping it against his palm. Then he blew on it—as if to blow imaginary cooties away—and handed it back to me.
I picked up my bags, held the door open just a crack with my hip, and waited for him to leave. "Thanks," I said, hoping he’d take the hint.
He shrugged and strode down the hall to the elevators. Trailing him, in the air with his pheromones, was the word he almost said, but didn’t. Fuggedaboudit.
I wouldn’t have been at Titans at all if Lucy Cavanaugh hadn’t lured me there at the last minute with the offer of a free room, a spa weekend, and the promise of a corpse flower just about to bloom. Any one of those might have done the trick, but all three were irresistible. And I needed to believe I still did things spontaneously.
I’d gotten freebies all the time in my old television job, but they were few and far between since I’d started Dirty Business a couple of years back. Dirty Business was going through the terrible twos—sometimes wonderful and sometimes not. This was one of the not periods—before the season started, when I was planning my year but some of my clients still had holiday wreaths on their front doors. I had jumped at the chance for a few days of rest and relaxation on someone else’s dime. Once I knew we were going to Titans, I managed to squeeze a few bucks and a byline out of my local paper to let me write a piece on the rare corpse flower on display at the hotel. If nothing else it would get my name out in front of potential clients.
Lucy was venturing outside of New York City to chase down a story for Sin in Suburbia, a cable series I’d inadvertently helped her start a year ago. The series had seemed like a good idea at the time and the network had ordered more episodes, but it hadn’t initially registered with Lucy that she’d actually have to spend time in the suburbs, and that was tough duty for a woman who got vertigo anytime she went farther north.
If we hadn’t planned to meet at the bar I’d have been in bed with room service and the remote, and I’d have saved my picture taking until the morning. As it was, I swapped my sneakers for short cowboy boots and my T-shirt for a plain white shirt, which I tucked into my jeans. With a not-too-out-of-style dark blazer and a little bronzer I convinced myself I looked professional, French—simple and elegant. Not that Titans had anything remotely like a dress code—the few people I had seen when I checked in could have been going to a kids’ soccer game. But I spent most of my days in gardening gear—pants tucked into socks to avoid ticks, baggy long-sleeved tops to avoid scratches, and when necessary a white mesh bug suit that covered me from head to toe and made me look like something out of a 1950s horror movie about the aftereffects of the hydrogen bomb. I welcomed any occasion to clean up my act.
An hour later, after taking more than two dozen pictures of the corpse flower, I was at the bar nursing my third club soda, feeling bloated and losing patience. There was a grand piano in the bar but judging by the amount of dust on it I didn’t think I was in for any live music. I tried to ignore the third Muzak goround of that weepy song from Titanic and passed the time by filling in the details for the corpse flower story. I Googled the hotel’s history and checked out the clientele. No one was paying any attention to the plant. The seven-foot object in the glass box might have been a priceless sculpture or a giant turd for all anyone at Titans seemed to care. I scoured the room for someone to interview but the pickings were slim: a few Asian guys, a skinny blonde reading a romance novel, and a twitchy guy who looked like he desperately needed a drink. Then I saw him again.
Vigoriti entered the raised bar area and surveyed the place as if he owned it. He unwrapped a candy and popped it in his mouth, tossing the wrapper at a nearby ashtray and missing. I hoped he wouldn’t notice me or would have the good sense to realize I wasn’t interested, but my limited experience with him already told me what to expect. Uninvited, he slid onto the bar stool right next to me.
"You going gambling? If you’re calculating the odds on that computer I can tell you they always favor the house," he said, his breath first-date minty. He must have been joking with that line.
This time I took a better look at him. He was handsome in a banged-up, been-around-the-block way. Built like a quarterback, or at least what they look like with all the padding—big shoulders, small hips. And he had great hair. Long, but intellectual long, not aging-record-business-skinny-ponytail what are you thinking? long. Then there was that intoxicating scent. There was no denying it, Nick Vigoriti smelled like trouble, or at the very least, an adventure. And I hadn’t had one lately.
"No kidding," I said, snapping out of his thrall. "And is that your finding after years of careful research?" I flipped the computer screen halfway down.
"I just got back from Vegas," he said. "Thought I’d save you some dough."
"I’m waiting for a friend," I said, hoping to head him off before the pass.
"Could be I’m that friend."
He was losing points rapidly. Good looks got you so far with me, but a guy needed to have some gray matter. "Do you get many takers with these lines?" I asked.
"Depends. On how young they are, how smart they are," he said, smiling and eyeing the other women at the bar. He turned back to me. "Now, those girls are girls. I’m looking for a woman, about thirty to thirty-five, long dark hair, athletic build," he said, giving a pretty good description of me.
I held up my hands to stop him. "I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. This may not even be where you’re going, but I’m not looking for a good time. Not that kind of good time. I’m waiting for a friend. A real one, not one who’s in town for the widget convention. And she’s late. Other than her, the only reason I’m here is the titan arum," I said, attempting to scare him off with a little Latin. "The corpse flower." I motioned in its direction.
"Corpse flower? Is that what they call that stinkweed in the glass box?"
He pointed to the plant we’d been looking at earlier, the titan arum, the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world. In simple terms, the biggest flower that isn’t on a tree. Spectacular and rare, but unsettling, since the corpse flower looks like a giant phallus, and smells, well, like rotting meat; hence the name, and the need for an enclosure. I was guessing some dumb schmuck who didn’t know any better thought the titan arum would be a clever promotion for Titans. I was also guessing same dumb schmuck was currently looking for another job.
"I heard the Mishkins had to fork over five grand for that box," he said, "to keep the stench away from the paying customers. And they’re probably going to trash it once the damn thing blooms and it’s shipped back to the jungle."
"I doubt they’ll do that. Smarter to donate it and get the tax deduction. The University of Wisconsin has a few corpse flowers. I’m sure UConn would love to have it; theirs bloomed a few years ago." He eyed me as if I’d just spoken in tongues or cracked the human genome. Okay, he wasn’t into plants . . . or big words. But the longer I looked at him, the less I cared. Brains weren’t everything, and anyway, we were just talking.
If I stuck to club soda and we stayed in safe territory conversationwise, he could stay. Besides, I’d enjoy the look on Lucy’s face when she rushed in breathlessly with stories and apologies and saw me sitting with a sexy beast like Nick Vigoriti. She and the rest of my friends had been after me to start dating again ever since I left New York City, and this little encounter might shut them up for a while. He might even contribute something interesting about the hotel that I could use for the article. Who knew?
"Who are the Mishkins?" I asked, surreptitiously keying that info into the laptop.
"Bernie Mishkin and his sister," he said, watching me use the computer. "Are you writing this down now?"
"Yeah. Is that a problem?"
Vigoriti shrugged. "Same difference. The Mishkins own the place," he said, waving the sad-eyed bartender over. "They and their numerous partners."
The bartender had a heart-shaped face and lank hair that hung in a skinny braid halfway down her back.
"What’re you having, Nicky?" she asked, in an accent I couldn’t initially place, then decided was Russian. She wiped nonexistent spills from the bar and slipped a coaster in front of him, grazing his fingers.
"Dirty martini," he said, pulling back his hand. "You?" he asked me.
Every stupid thing I’d done in my adult life had come after a few drinks, and I could imagine getting very stupid with Nick Vigoriti, so I stuck with club soda.
"Can you introduce me to them?" I asked. "The Mishkins?"
"You think that’s a good idea?"
"Why not?" I said. "I may have a lucrative proposition for them."
"They’re always interested in money." He laughed. "I haven’t talked to Bernie for a while, but that may change. His wife died a few months back. I haven’t seen much of him since then. . . . I was really friendlier with her."
Why was I not surprised? What woman wouldn’t want to be friends with a handsome stud who hung on your every word and made you feel as if you were the only woman in the room worth talking to?
The bartender brought our drinks. Nick’s had six green olives on two plastic toothpicks. The bartender moved off to another customer but not before giving me a look that suggested she wouldn’t mind seeing my head on a sharpened stick.
"What did I do?"
"Oksana’s a good kid," he said, swallowing hard and nodding in her direction.
"I used to work here," Vigoriti continued. "Before Mishkin brought in the Malaysians, the Ukranians, let’s see . . ." He rattled off a laundry list of ethnic groups, then took a long pull on his drink. "Who is it now, Oksana?" he called out to the bartender.
"Chinese, I think," she said, over her shoulder, already fixing him a second drink.
"Their board meetings must look like a Benetton ad," I muttered.
"Most of them cut bait."
"It doesn’t look like business is too bad; there are people here," I said.
"We could go somewhere private to discuss this," he said, signaling Oksana that he was ready for round two. He polished off his drink and slid all the olives into his mouth in a surprisingly suggestive move that made me rethink how friendly I wanted to appear.
"You know, I was just trying to be polite. Always dangerous at a bar. I’m sorry if I misled you, but I really am waiting for someone, and it isn’t you." As if on cue, my phone beeped with a text message. Lucy was running late. Typical. She’d gotten a late start to begin with and one of the cheap Chinese New York-to-Boston shuttle buses had collided with a construction-materials truck. Gravel was spread all over I-95. The result was the same as if a load of ball bearings had spilled out on the highway; cars were drifting side to side as if they were in a Japanese video game. Lucy was stuck on the road, near Stamford, and wrote that she’d call when she got closer.
Locals were trickling into the bar for after-dinner drinks, working guys with puffy baseball caps. And businessmen who might have heard about the mess on 95 and preferred to sit here instead of in traffic. I debated the pros and cons of staying at the bar with Nick and possibly moving on to the harder stuff but decided against it. Life was complicated enough.
I chugged my drink and shut down the computer. "I’m gonna cut bait, to use your expression. I have to go. I was serious about meeting the Mishkins, though. I may have a buyer." I whipped out my business card and handed it to Nick as I got up to leave.
He looked puzzled and studied the card for longer than it took to read the six or eight words on it. Was it possible the guy couldn’t read? "For the greenhouse," I said, "the glass enclosure?"
A smile crept over Nick’s handsome face.
"What’s so funny?"
"My mistake," he said, flicking the card with his index finger. "Not the kind of dirt I thought you dug up."
That’s how my business card came to be in the breast pocket of his shirt, and that’s why the cops called on me hours later to identify his body.
I’m a gardener. Paula Holliday, sole proprietor of Dirty Business, garden design, container maintenance, and the occasional exhumation. Not really, although that was the way my last major landscaping job turned out, in Springfield, Connecticut, where I live, about seventy miles south of the Titans Hotel.
Titans had been built in the twenties, a place where businessmen parked their families for the summer and raced up to on Friday afternoons. Third-tier comics and wedding and bar mitzvah bands played there on the weekends. The men would bake themselves with sun reflectors, drink heavily, and have their conjugal visits. Then they’d wake up at the crack of dawn on Mondays, speeding back to Boston or New York and clocking themselves so they could compare travel times over drinks the following Friday.
By the sixties and seventies, kids didn’t want to vacation with their parents anymore, Mom was just as likely to be working as Dad, and lots of hotels like Titans fell to the wrecking ball. Somehow Titans had survived. That was as far as my online research had gotten me before Nick joined me at the bar.
I got to the elevator just as April, the white Maltese, and her redheaded owner were exiting, the larger of the two in a skintight tangerine outfit with hot-pink trim that accentuated her big frame. The woman looked away quickly, and I watched her make her way to the taxi line in front of the hotel, the scrawny dog hurrying to keep up.
Maybe some of Nick’s magnetism had rubbed off because, upstairs, this time my key card worked perfectly. The suite Lucy had reserved for us was large and benignly ugly.
Nothing atrocious, just endless swathes of beige and dusty pink, from the synthetic bedspread and carpet, harboring god-knew-what kind of microorganisms, to the particleboard furniture. The only good news was that the furniture was from the sixties or seventies, so old there was an excellent chance that all of the formaldehyde had already been thrown off.
I hung the do not disturb sign on the doorknob and automatically turned on the television, something I always do in hotel rooms, but rarely do at home. A hotel channel reminiscent of the cheap ads at movie theaters showed slides of the lobby and a kidney-shaped pool that must have been another vestige from Titans’s good old days. The local news featured repeated helicopter shots of the collision on 95 from the same two angles. I kept the news on to get an update as to when Lucy might arrive and unpacked the rest of my things.
After years of traveling for work, I was an expert at packing light. Now that I rarely needed to look like a grown-up, I was even better at it. The white shirt went everywhere with me, and black jeans and a black jacket could pass for business attire if I needed to look reasonably professional. That was my uniform. I’d thrown a pair of low-rise yoga pants and a thin hoodie into the bag and that was what I climbed into.
The Titans room-service menu was almost as limited as my wardrobe and my viewing options, but I settled on a turkey club, hoping that the tryptophan would counteract the caffeine in the diet sodas I’d guzzled on the drive to Titans. Then I curled up on the scratchy synthetic love seat and waited for food and Lucy.
I should have been at home fine-tuning this year’s plan for Caroline Sturgis’s garden. Dirty Business had a few customers in the high-rent district, and a handful of retailers whose seasonal planters I serviced, but Caroline was my biggest and favorite individual client. Four and a half rolling acres bordering the arboretum, money to burn, and always happy to see me. And she had so much lawn that her property was like a blank slate, like that chunky brick of loose-leaf paper the first week of school. Filled with possibilities.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t entirely quash her enthusiasm for a green carpet and mass plantings of monochromatic annuals and bulbs. But I was chipping away at her, and her lawn, and had arranged to see her later that week. I wanted to be armed with sketches and some innovative ideas for her garden. That’s what I should have been doing, instead of sitting in a monastic room with mediocre food and no cable.
I must have dozed off on the love seat around nine p.m. and the knock came not long after. Still in my flip-flops, yoga pants, and hoodie, I opened my door and was then led downstairs and through the lobby by two uniformed cops and a hotel security guard who had introduced himself as Hector Ruiz. Hector was as short and wide as my first car, a vintage Volkswagen Rabbit. Remarkably, the shiny suit he wore was almost the same shade of Spanish olive green, not beautiful but very easy to spot in parking lots.
The cops marched, he waddled, and I followed, through a narrow service corridor, past a number of doors marked employees only, the laundry room, and the kitchen, until we emerged at the back of the hotel onto the outside loading dock.
Off to one side was a tall, bearded guy in a stained down jacket. His Big Y shopping cart was crammed with bottles, bags, an American flag, and a padded moving blanket that, like him, had seen better days. Glassy eyes shone out of his dirty face and matted hair; was it drugs, psychosis, or fright?
On the ground, to the homeless guy’s right, surrounded by a knot of people, was a muscular body in black jeans and a gray-and-black-striped shirt, legs askew, face covered by an opened and now bloodied copy of yesterday’s Connecticut Post. Not far from us two men donned paper jumpsuits and prepared to climb into a giant Dumpster.
"Why do we always have to do the wet work?" I heard the younger one mutter. "Because we’re the new guys," the other one said.
I followed my escorts down the few sticky steps at the right of the dock to where the body was. From the center of the crowd someone barked, "She the one?" The men stepped aside. Hidden behind a cluster of uniformed cops, plainclothesmen, and hotel security was a slight woman who appeared to be in charge.
"I’m Detective Winters. This you?" she asked, holding up my business card. Not too cute, not too boring, tasteful colors. I recognized it immediately, having agonized over it for weeks. I nodded yes.
"Dirty Business. You wanna explain that?"
"It’s a gardening business. Dirt. It’s a joke," I said lamely. "Get it?" Obviously the woman had no sense of humor.
"You know this guy?"
I’d seen dead bodies before, and steeled myself for the shock. Winters used two gloved fingers to lift the tented newspaper. She kept her eyes glued to my face as she peeled back the paper and showed me Nick Vigoriti’s rugged face, which now had a gaping two-inch hole in the forehead.
I fought the urge to puke . . . then quickly lost the fight, turning and narrowly missing my own bare toes and the dead guy’s Italian shoes.
"Whoa, that’s what we call contaminating the crime scene." She snickered, stepping aside to avoid any backsplash. I swung around, unsteady on my feet, bumping into Hector and bouncing off his barrel chest. He grabbed me with both hands so I wouldn’t fall back onto the body or slip on the remains of my club sandwich.
"What’s the problem?" Winters said. "This should be right up your alley. You’re in a dirty business and he’s taking the big dirt nap."
I was retching again, bent over, hands on knees, and couldn’t answer.
"It’s a joke," she said. "Get it?"