Flowerbed of State
A White House Gardener Mystery
By Dorothy St. James
Casey, child, I swear some days ain't good for nothing but spreading out on a lawn like fertilizer, Aunt Willow was known to sputter when everything but everything seemed to go wrong. And I don't mean annoyances like when the car gets a flat tire, or the bank misplaces your deposit. No, she had to be really upset. It was the closest I'd ever heard my pearl-wearing, julep-sipping Southern Belle relative come to swearing.
She had thousands of odd sayings like that. So I had to wonder why that especially dire one kept worming its way through my head.
Lately, everything in my life was coming up roses. Or perhaps I should say pink ruffled tulips since I was apparently lying facedown in a bed of them.
I carefully lifted my head. A blob of mud slid down the side of my nose and trailed across my cheek. A few inches away a shiny black ground beetle tipped its antenna in my direction. I watched as it traveled across the rim of a tulip bloom. Despite the dim morning light, I was able to take this all in without any trouble at all. But when I probed deeper, I couldn't figure out why the devil I was napping in a bed of flowers.
I wasn't in any obvious pain. Not yet, a frightened little voice in my head warned. I'd been here before, a long, long time ago. Not in a bed of flowers, but semiconscious and confused. And hurt.
Ancient history, I reminded myself.
But was it? Waking up in a flowerbed was by no means normal for anyone, right? And why couldn't I remember anything about how I got here? While I knew I should have stayed put until I could thoroughly assess what kind of trouble I'd gotten myself into, I wasn't in the mood to lay about waiting for anything else to happen to me. It took some effort to push up onto my wobbly hands and knees. Oh, what a mistake! Sitting up set off a firestorm of agony that radiated out from behind my eyes and shot down my neck.
I groaned and cradled my sore head in my hands. When my fingers brushed my left temple I felt something warm and sticky. It took several seconds to realize what I was touching.
Blood. My blood. And under that film of hot, sticky blood a lump was forming. Not good. Not good at all. I had just enough wits to know that landing in a soft bed of flowers shouldn't have done this kind of damage. Something else must have happened. Something bad.
My hands shook as they skimmed the muddy soil in search of my backpack. It was half-submerged in a mud puddle a few feet away. A couple of years ago I'd started growing habaneras in my kitchen window. It's amazing how potent a concoction one could make with a little extracted pepper oil. I always carried my own special blend of homemade pepper spray in my backpack.
I pulled off my gardening gloves and dug around in the soggy bag. The bottle of pepper spray was at the bottom, the worst possible location if this had been an actual emergency. Not an emergency? If you're thinking you're out of danger, honey, you're deluding yourself, chided my pesky inner voice, which sounded eerily like Aunt Willow this morning.
I shook my head, sending the world spinning out of focus. Odd images tumbled through my mind. A silver briefcase. A man's black and white leather shoe. Just one shoe, mind you, not a pair. A plain coffee mug. My yellow rain slicker, which I was still wearing. The White House. And the First Lady of the United States, or FLOTUS as the press called her.
Did I know the First Lady?
My knees sank into the cool wet earth as I sat back on my heels to take in my surroundings. I recognized the pale pink flowers hanging down from the saucer magnolias and the line of elm trees to the right of me. I'd personally assisted in planting the profusion of tulip and grape hyacinth bulbs I had-I cringed to notice-crushed.
"It's murder, you know," I'd told someone just that morning as I'd slipped on my bright yellow slicker raincoat. What a time to remember that and very little else!
As I sat there, staring at the soggy landscape around me, details from that morning slowly trickled back into my throbbing head. I remembered Gordon Sims' windowless office. The cinder block walls plastered with landscape plans and schedules. The most recent addition was the cheerful pink and yellow sketch for the upcoming Easter Egg Roll. The oldest, a plan for the grounds drawn up by Fredrick Law Olmsted Jr., dated back to 1935. Gordon, the White House Chief Horticulturalist, hadn't been around quite that long. But he had an uncanny ability to remember every single day of his nearly thirty years on the job with precise detail. I, on the other hand, had only three month's experience as his assistant.
The White House rose above the elm trees like a gleaming beacon of hope on the far side of Pennsylvania Avenue, and here I was slumped on the ground like an overwatered houseplant. One had to wonder how I'd managed to land such a prestigious position when I apparently didn't have sense enough to keep away from situations that ended with me waking up in flowerbeds in the middle of Lafayette Square.
Earlier that morning Gordon had been at his desk reviewing a stack of purchase orders while complaining about the sorry state of his 401(K).
"It's murder you know," I'd said as I breezed into the room.
"That sounds awfully melodramatic, Casey," he'd said, straightening his hunched shoulders. He swiveled his chair toward me and fingered his plain white coffee mug. His strong hands were timeworn, but his face looked boyish despite his fifty-five years. Only his silver hair gave his age away. "You've been reading those murder mysteries again," he accused, waggling his coffee mug at me. But I'd made him smile.
"Perhaps..." I narrowed my eyes and shifted my gaze back and forth across the room, trying out the mysterious look I'd been practicing in the mirror. I always had at least one crime novel tucked into my backpack and liked to imagine myself a modern-day, hipper, and much younger Miss Marple. Not that I'd ever had a chance to solve a real mystery.
I leaned toward Gordon and lowered my voice to a whisper. "Perhaps a bit of melodrama is needed. Those spiny devils are strangling our ruffled tulips. I won't be a minute."
"Won't be a-?" He half rose from his burnt orange desk chair, its ancient springs screeching. "Casey Calhoun, you can't be seriously considering pulling weeds now."
"Have to." I hurried into the room next to Gordon's office and straight to the partitioned space that served as my work area. The windowless workspace was tucked away underneath the White House's North Portico and North Lawn. The carpenter's shop was just next door. The low whirr of a power saw vibrated through the thick wall.
Down here, underneath the ground, was where the real work in the White House got done. We were the earthworms whose tireless efforts made it possible for the mighty oak to grow. I'd joined the ranks of the most dedicated bunch of workers I'd ever met. With a shared sense of pride, we all worked behind-the-scenes to keep the nation's most famous household running seamlessly.
My office area wasn't as dreary as one might expect in a basement setting. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the hallway just outside the door opened up into a sunken courtyard that doubled as a delivery area. If I needed a dose of natural light, I would prop open the office door and let the sun shine in. That is, when I wasn't in such a hurry.
I kicked off the brand new black pumps my roommate, Alyssa, had picked out for me and slipped on the pair of worn loafers I kept in a caddy beneath my desk. Alyssa had also picked out the dark gray Ann Taylor suit complete with pencil skirt I was wearing. Without her, I'd happily wear a comfortable old pair of khakis or jeans every day of my life. A fate worse than death to Alyssa's way of thinking.
"You're serious about this? You're going to Lafayette Square? Now?" Gordon's voice carried through the wall. I seemed to be the only one who could alarm him just as easily as I could make him laugh.
"There are just a few of them in the flowerbed, but you know how quickly the mile-a-minute weed spreads. A mile a minute." Naturally that was an exaggeration. But not by much. "I noticed them when I came in this morning. They weren't there when I left yesterday. I'm sure of it."
Gordon stepped into my small partitioned office, crossed his arms over his chest, and watched as I scurried about, his silver eyebrows furrowed. "Send someone from the crew. Sal usually gets in early. And you know he's got a soft spot for you. I doubt he'll even grumble when you tell him to pull weeds in the dark and in the rain."
Granted, it was early. With the recent change to daylight savings time, sunrise was still a solid hour away. And it had been raining all night. The windows in the hallway outside my office looked as if they'd been shrouded with a heavy black cloth. Gordon was right. I shouldn't be doing this. But I had to do something. Sitting at my desk, waiting for the meeting to start was going to make me lose my mind.
I pushed aside one of the large display boards I'd made for this morning's presentation and grabbed my backpack. The display was ready. I was ready. There was really nothing left for me to do before the meeting. In three hours I would give my first presentation to the First Lady, which was the reason I'd been struck by this sudden manic need to make Lafayette Square perfect. When I got nervous, I gardened.
"Just don't show up with mud on your skirt," Gordon called after me as I rushed down the passageway, past the chocolate shop shrouded in rich, dark cocoa scents, and into the basement hallway that led away from the workshops and offices buried beneath the North Portico of the White House. I hurried, not toward the main building, but to the double doors on my right that opened into the sunken courtyard and the North Lawn.
It was still drizzling. A freezing wind rushed in from the north pelting my face with the cold rain from one of winter's last gasps. Fresh green buds had already set on the trees. Cherry blossoms were just starting to brighten the capitol city with their festive shades of pinks. I smiled and waved at Fredrick, the bulky guard on duty at the northwest gate.
"Keep an eye out for the new batch of crazies," Fredrick stuck his head out of the guard hut to warn me. He had a head of bright red hair and cute round cheeks that were in conflict with his massive arms and broad chest. "They showed up last night and started harassing anyone they could find. We broke it up, but we expect they'll be back."
"What are they protesting now?" I liked to be prepared in case one of them started lecturing me while my hands were half-buried in a flowerbed. Some protesters viewed any member of the White House staff as part of the problem. That's free speech for you. I'm all for it as long as no one tramples my flowers.
"Apparently they're against the President's meeting with the bankers this week." He scratched his chin and shrugged. "Didn't read their literature."
I spotted about a dozen protesters setting up at the edge of Lafayette Square, the seven-acre public park situated across the street from the White House's iron gates. The protesters had arrived dressed in drab rags and burlap sacks. Several placards were scattered on the ground around them as they stood under streetlamps chatting and sipping their Starbucks coffees.
I made my way through the security gate and crossed Pennsylvania Avenue, passing by the group without incident. At this early hour, most of Lafayette Square was still empty and shrouded in deep shadows and fog.
Beyond the banking protesters, a sleeping woman hunched down in her makeshift tent. That was Connie, a nuclear arms protester who for the past three decades lived in front of the White House among her large handmade poster board signs.
In no time, I arrived at the far side of the park and the flowerbed where the mile-a-minute weeds with their distinctive triangular leaves had taken root. They'd wrapped their tentacles and curved barbs around the long ribbon leaves of the newly planted pink ruffled tulips. Like tiny hands, the weeds were slowly but surely choking the life out of the showy flowers.
I'd unzipped my backpack and placed it on the ground so I could rummage through it. After pulling on my work gloves, I unwound the vines from the tulip leaves and teased their spider-vein roots from the soft, black earth. Ever mindful of my upcoming meeting, I took extra care to keep from splashing mud on my suit or pantyhose.
The steady motion of my hands, along with the sounds of the city slowly coming awake soothed my nerves. Soon, I was one with the flowers, trees, and chilly rain still falling from the ebbing storm. I was so totally lost in my work that I barely noticed the man dashing in the direction of Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House.
Everyone in Washington, D.C. always seems to be in a hurry, running here or there. I think he glanced my way. His suit may have been black. He wore a dark colored baseball cap low on his head. But come to think about it, there had been something odd about him. He'd been carrying a silver briefcase.
I shuddered. Just thinking about that shiny briefcase made my heart thump against my chest. A large, icy raindrop slapped my cheek, jolting me back to my present predicament. I rubbed the sting as I struggled to piece together the puzzle.
I didn't end up facedown in a flowerbed by accident. Which meant someone must have either hit me or pushed me there. And if that was the case, my attacker might be lurking somewhere nearby. What if he saw me moving and was coming back to finish me off? That's what usually happened in the crime novels I read, the killer sticks around the scene of the crime to make sure he did the job right.
My insides clenched. I held my breath and prayed Gordon had been right in thinking I'd been reading too many murder mysteries lately. Though I didn't want to, I turned my head and peered over my shoulder to see if anyone was sneaking up behind me.
Despite the deep shadows cast by the elm trees and the stormy fog, I spotted a blurry black blob jogging toward me, splashing through the puddles. The killer!
I shouldn't have ignored that sloshing sound I'd been hearing. But to be fair, with my thoughts jangling about in my head like loose change, I was having trouble figuring anything out, much less paying attention to odd noises. But everything suddenly turned crystal clear.
The sloshing I'd heard had been from his boots.
I could feel it in my bones. He was coming back to make sure I stayed planted in the mud.
Why would anyone want to kill me? I'm a gardener. An assistant gardener, at that! Never mind, he'd already hit me once. With his silver briefcase, I think. I tightened my grip on my bottle of homegrown pepper spray, which suddenly felt inadequate. It was in a travel hairspray bottle that didn't have much of a range.
I should have bought a better bottle. I should have called for help right away. I dug around in my backpack for my cell phone. I found my garden shears, a small spade, the novel I'd been reading. Where was my phone? I should have stayed put. I should have kept my head down in the mud until I understood exactly what was happening. And now it was too late...
He was directly behind me. His presence loomed like a heavy hand pressing down on me. I turned just as he grabbed my arm.
What transpired next happened so fast perhaps I should skip over it. It's not really that interesting. And, well, I didn't exactly live up to Miss Marple's standards.
I screamed like a girl. Who wouldn't? Adrenaline surged through me. Throwing my arms out, I leapt to my feet and pressed the plunger on my pepper spray bottle. Who could blame me? I kept squirting the man with my fiery concoction until he grabbed my wrist and twisted it with such force my hand went numb and the bottle dropped to the ground.
He was dressed from head to toe in villainous black. Black military boots, black combat pants, black flak jacket, even his hair was the color of the midnight sky. Not only that, a large assault rifle was slung over his shoulder and a menacing pistol jutted out from a black leather leg holster.
I tried to twist away from him to break his crushing hold on my wrist. I'd learned in the self-defense course I'd taken in college that the purpose of pepper spray is to blind your assailant long enough to escape him. I'd even perfected my quick dodge technique during the class's mock attacks. I should have been able to sprint several blocks away by now. But I couldn't go anywhere because this gun-toting bully stubbornly refused to play by the rules and let go of me.
Why wouldn't he let go? In a blind panic, I let loose a Xena Warrior Princess battle yell and landed a bruising kick to his shin.
"Ow!" he shouted, but his grip held firm. I kicked him again.
With a disgusted grunt, he twirled me around until my backside was pressed against his muscular legs and chest. He cinched his arm around my waist, pinning me so close to him I had no hope of using any kind of leverage against his brute strength.
"Let go," I wheezed.
"Not until you stop attacking me." He swore under his breath while I twisted and turned and wore myself out. "This is what I get for playing the Good Samaritan, a hellcat with claws. If you don't stop scratching me, I swear I will-"
"Wait a minute." He thought I was attacking him? I'm the good guy here. What would make him think I would willingly attack anyone? "Wait a minute."
As soon as I stopped kicking and punching and, yes, scratching him, he released his crushing hold. I stumbled forward a few steps before regaining my balance. Breathing hard, I grabbed my knees and tried to sort out what had just happened. Was it possible I'd overreacted? He hadn't actually attacked me. He'd only touched my arm. I was the one who'd-
"Let-let me get this straight," I huffed, still unable to fully catch my breath. "You're not trying to kill me?"
He didn't seem to be listening. With his shoulders hunched forward, he clamped his straight white teeth tightly together. Hopping on one foot, he cursed his existence and mine. I winced. His bloodshot, unfocused eyes were watering like a faucet because of me. He was blinking wildly, clearly suffering because I'd reacted too quickly and had thoroughly doused him with the potent, red-hot pepper oil.
Despite his arsenal, he didn't look that much like a killer, not really. His muscular yet trim physique was much more reminiscent of a heroic roman warrior. His square jaw spoke of strength. His brows, though creased with intense pain, suggested a man of compassion and, I hoped, forgiveness. Because he wasn't a killer. His distinctive black uniform identified him as a member of the Counter Assault Team, which was no ordinary branch of the Secret Service, but its most elite military arm.
"You-you're Secret Service?" I asked, suddenly hoping I was hallucinating. Assaulting a Secret Service agent was most likely a felony.
"Yes," he hissed through gritted teeth.
Even if it wasn't a felony, I was sure blinding a Secret Service agent wasn't something Gordon or Ambrose Jones, the White House's Chief Usher, would likely forgive. I rushed to my backpack and quickly found my environmentally friendly, BPA-free water bottle. Moving as fast as possible, I unscrewed the lid and tossed the water into his face.
He gave a startled yelp when the icy water hit him.
"Give me that." He grabbed the water bottle and dumped the remaining water on his mottled forehead and brow. The cold water caused him to shiver like the leaves on the saucer magnolia trees above us. Then he scrubbed his eyes with his coat sleeve. He still looked miserable. The skin around his eyes was puffy and turning an angry shade of red, but he didn't seem to be blinking as furiously anymore.
"Thanks." He dropped the water bottle and grabbed my shoulders. He squinted at me, his eyes unfocused. "Are you okay?" he demanded, his voice unnaturally calm considering the situation.
"Answer me. Are you okay?" he repeated. Apparently, he couldn't yet see well enough to make out my gesture. "Do I need to call EMS?"
"No," I croaked and quickly cleared my throat, which burned as if I'd been shouting at the top of my lungs for hours.
"Good." He released me and started to pace. Limp, step, limp, step. Turn. Limp, step, limp, step. He stomped with that awkward gait through the middle of my flowerbed. The helpless tulips and fragrant grape hyacinths were no match for his heavy boots.
I winced both for my plants and for him. He wouldn't be limping if I hadn't kicked him. He wouldn't be growling with every step if I hadn't blinded him with my pepper spray. He stumbled a couple of times, proving his eyesight wasn't even close to being back to normal. But I had enough experience with men's egos to know to keep my mouth shut. An apology right now would not be appreciated.
He stopped at the edge of the flowerbed. "Before I radio for backup..." he began before turning his gaze heavenward. Muttering a curse to the heavy clouds above, he dredged his fingers through his wavy black hair. "There's no way around it. I'm going to have to file a report about this...this..." he grumbled more to himself than to me.
In my three short months at the White House, I'd seen the Counter Assault Team or CAT team, as they liked to call themselves, only a few times. They were one of the least visible segments of the Secret Service. They traveled everywhere with the President like the Secret Service agents who dressed in neatly pressed suits. But unlike their suited counterparts, the CAT team members didn't make regular security sweeps of the President's Park.
"And look at this." He held up a lose wire that had once been attached to his earpiece. "You've broken my radio."
I'd always found the regular Secret Service agents easy to work with. They always had a smile and a polite manner. Not one of them had ever growled at me.
The CAT team, on the other hand, only ventured outside their tight protection circle when they were taking part in a training exercise or responding to a specific threat against the First Family. They were a very serious group.
I doubted I would fare well in his report. While mentally drafting my resume, I started to move away from him to gather my backpack and gardening tools. He snagged hold of my arm. "Let's start with you giving me some basic information, like your name."
"Casey-Casey Calhoun." My heart was really pounding now. I wished he'd just shoot me and put me out of my misery. His grip tightened on my arm. "I'm Gordon Sims' new assistant." Everyone knew Gordon. He was a fixture, a one-man institution. But the agent's pained expression remained unchanged, which only made me more nervous. Was it possible? Did he not know Gordon? "I-I'm a gardener."
My slightly eccentric but altogether loveable aunts, Willow and Alba, and Grandmother Faye back in Charleston, South Carolina had instilled in me a love of gardening as well as an absurd fondness for ice cream desserts. But I suspected he didn't care to hear about any of that.
I decided to take the initiative. "I'm kind of in a hurry. So if it's okay with you, I'd like to clear up this misunderstanding as quickly as possible. I have a meeting scheduled with the First Lady this morning to present my plans on how to transform the White House gardens into the White House organic gardens."
"We'll see about that." His red-rimmed gaze traveled up and down my mud-caked legs. I had a sinking feeling he was plotting to make my life at the White House a living hell. I bit the inside of my cheek. He couldn't really get me fired, could he?
He narrowed his bloodshot eyes and leaned toward me. "Now tell me, Ms. Calhoun, why did you attack me?"