Back to the Garden
Bookshop Santa Cruz
Poisoned Pen Books
Barnes & Noble
Series: Raquel Laing
Published by: Bantam Books
Release Date: 2022
A fifty-year-old cold case involving California royalty comes back to life—with potentially fatal consequences…
The Gardener Estate is one of the most storied and beloved places on the West Coast: a magnificent house in vast formal grounds, home to a family that shaped California—and fought hard to conceal the turmoil and eccentricities within their walls.
And now, just as the turmoil seems buried and the Estate prepares to move into a new future, construction work unearths a grim relic of the estate’s history: a skull, hidden away some fifty years ago.
Inspector Raquel Laing of the SFPD Cold Case Unit has her work cut out for her. Back in the '70s, the Estate was a commune, when its young heir, Rob Gardener, turned the palatial setting into a counterculture Eden of peace, love, and equality. But the '70s were also a time when serial killers preyed on such innocents—monsters like The Highwayman, whose case has just assumed a whole new urgency.
Could these bones belong to one of his victims?
For Raquel Laing—a woman who knows all about hidden turmoil and eccentricities—the Gardener bones seem clearly linked to The Highwayman. But as she dives into the Estate’s archives for evidence of his presence, what she finds there begins to take on a dark reality of its own.
Everything brings her back to Rob Gardener himself—now a gray-haired recluse, then a troubled young Vietnam vet whose girlfriend vanished after a midsummer festival at the Estate, fifty years ago.
But a lot of people seem to have disappeared from the Gardener Estate that summer, when the commune fell apart and its residents scattered: a young woman, her child, Rob’s brother Fort…
The pressure is on, and Raquel needs to solve this case—before The Highwayman slips away, or another Gardener vanishes.
The man in the dripping Army poncho paused to shove back his hood and stand, head cocked, trying to make out the half-heard sound. A minute later, a car came into view, half a mile or so down the hill—big white Pontiac, struggling to keep on the road. The man leaned on his shovel, judging the contest between the treacherous surface—the way up to the commune was unpaved, rutted, steep, and slick with the endless rain—and the determined car, which obviously had good tires.
The car slithered and flirted with disaster, but managed to avoid going off the edge or getting bogged down in the section where the culvert had washed out last month. When it came to the end of the clear section and vanished behind the trees, the man bent over to shake the rain from his long hair and beard, like a dog coming out of a river, then slopped the last shovelfuls of mud from the blocked ditch before walking down to see what the invader wanted.
The mud-spattered Pontiac eased into the farmyard, hesitating over the choice of targets: ancient woodshed or shiny new greenhouse? Psychedelic school bus up on blocks or geodesic dome layered in tarpaulins? In the end, the driver chose the aging farmhouse in the middle, pulling up close to the steps. The engine shut off, the music died—had to be a tape player, a radio would get nothing but static this far out. The person inside leaned over to roll up the passenger-side window, then sat, staring through the smeared windshield at the house as if expecting someone to come out.
The man in the poncho stayed where he was.
Eventually, the car door cracked open, emitting a figure who might have beamed in from another planet: a man in his early thirties with a carefully styled mop of red-blond hair, his mustache and sideburns trimmed just the safe side of emphatic. A large black umbrella poked into the air and opened, shelter for the wide lapels of his suit and the bright silk of his tie. The whole picture suggested a salesman who’d become disastrously lost—but when the salesman’s other hand came into view, holding a sleek attaché case, the bearded man recognized what this man had to be: a lawyer.
Junior partner, early thirties, who hadn’t really thought out the whole hippie-commune-in-Oregon thing. He made a noise of disgust as he noticed the muck swallowing the inch-high heels of his gleaming shoes. One foot came up, driving the other farther down, but as he looked desperately toward the farmhouse steps, his glance caught on the figure in the poncho.
“Afternoon,” he shouted, his good cheer sounding a bit forced. “I’m looking for Rob Gardener? Robert John Gardener?”
For long seconds, the only sounds in all the world were the hiss of rain and the tick of an overworked engine. Junior partner on one side of the lonely farmyard, large bearded man with a heavy implement on the other. Representative of The Establishment, the law, the benefits of right behavior on one side, and across from him . . .
The newcomer cleared his throat. “Your cousin David—David Kirkup? Gave me this address, and—”
The voice that interrupted was gravelly, deep, and so rough it might not have spoken in days. “So,” Rob said. “Has the Old Bastard finally died?”
The day had been going so well, until the bones turned up.
It was a Monday, for one thing. Jen liked Mondays. The Gardener Estate was closed to the public, which always made it feel more like a family home than a place to work. The staff could park where they wanted, dress for comfort, and dive into their tasks without having to dodge the cameras and the clueless. Some of them even came in early, to work up an appetite for the morning break, and at noon they sat down together for an only slightly ironic communal lunch.
This Monday was also a perfect April morning on California’s Central Coast: warm sun, blue sky, the formal gardens a mosaic of glorious color, the Great Field a sweep of brilliant seasonal green, thanks to the series of winter storms. The kind of day that tempted Jen to spurn office work and spend the morning in old jeans, taking orders from the real gardeners.
Except that those winter storms had created a problem.
Yes, it was great not to worry about drought for a change, to see the trees leaf out so generously and the nearby reservoir fill. Not so great was how the long months of sodden ground had toppled over three of the estate’s oldest trees, collapsed a stretch of century-old stone retaining wall, and—this being the matter that was keeping Jen from a day of nice, mindless weeding—lent a Pisa-like tilt to the biggest and most idiosyncratic of the Estate’s outdoor statues.
Rafi, the head groundsman, had noticed the tilt back in February. It wasn’t an immediate hazard, since the statue was outside the formal gardens and easy enough to fence off, but with good weather coming on, picnickers would soon arrive, and small children whose parents ignored the No Climbing signs. Normally, a repair order would have gone through, a simple matter of choosing a contractor and having the Estate’s art conservator there to supervise. But for this statue?
Manager, groundsman, and conservator, along with the hard-hatted driver of the big crane idling behind them, stood to survey the job.
“I could just finish tipping it over, so it’s not a hazard,” the driver suggested.
“Let the blackberries grow over it,” Rafi agreed. “Call it environmental art or something.”
“It is the weirdest thing on the place,” Jen admitted. Jen Bachus had been the Estate’s manager since the Trust took over, and before that, a neighbor and regular trespasser. Jen had definite opinions on the weirdnesses of the Gardener Estate—and a sixteen-foot high, tilecovered figure with long skirts, an odd torso, and a trio of conjoined heads was a thing most visitors found unforgettable. And that was before they got to the expression on its face.
But the conservator was shaking her head. “You can’t do that. It’s a Gaddo.” Although even her voice suggested a tiny bit of agreement: Midsummer Eves was kind of creepy.
Mrs. Dalhousie was only here because of the Estate’s Gaddoes. She’d retired from New York’s MOMA, moved west, and come with a ladies’ group to visit the gardens—where she was astonished to find three (possibly four) sculptures by the artist known as Gaddo, a woman famous in the seventies, notorious in the eighties, and out of fashion by the end of the nineties, when her feminist outrage was superseded by Damian Hirst’s masculine irony of rotting cows and formaldehyde sharks. There were signs that she was now, twelve years after her death, about to be rediscovered as the gynocentric precursor of badboy shock art.
Mrs. Dalhousie had instantly volunteered—rather, she walked in and took over. And once she’d sorted out the Gaddoes (which might include the Minoan snake-goddess figure they’d found gathering dust in the attic) she moved on to transforming the archives from a room full of memorabilia into a properly cataloged, scanned, and referenced archive of the Gardener Estate’s century-long history. Mrs. Dalhousie approached every project, be it sculpture restoration or newspaper storage, with a computer’s tireless energy, a monk’s passionate dedication, and precisely nil sense of humor.
But not even Mrs. Dalhousie could claim that Midsummer Eves was the ideal ornament for a part of the estate given over to picnicking families and long views over rolling hills. The Eves might have two other faces, but the massive laurel hedge made it impossible to tell. For decades, this face had loomed at the top of Great Field like an avenging goddess, baring her sharpened teeth at passersby and frightening the more sensitive children.
Were it not for the inescapable fact that its creator later became famous enough to be known by a single name, the Eves might already have been allowed to quietly deteriorate, just one more piece of pretentious hippie junk from the Estate’s commune era.
“At least it’s an early Gaddo,” Jen commented. “From her Menacing Feminist phase rather than full-on gross-out. Unless you think the grout contains pureed placentas or ground-up human bones.”
The two men looked alarmed. Mrs. Dalhousie looked thoughtful as she corrected Jen’s terminology. “It’s known as her ‘Sisterhood’ phase, and the dates for this would place it early on, which makes it all the more important. As for the bones in that piece you’re referring to, they were from a monkey, not a human child. At any rate, I shall be quite interested to see the other faces. Gaddo’s sketches for the piece are surprisingly fragmentary.”
“Whatever we find, this thing’s costing us a fortune, even before we look at the renovation costs and security measures. Do you think . . .” Jen fixed her eyes on the statue and tried to sound as if this was something that was just occurring to her. “I don’t suppose we’d be allowed to sell it? Like, to a museum? I suppose a private collector would pay more, but I’d rather see it in public hands. And if a museum—like MOMA—oversaw the renovations, they’d be done right. Do you think the Trust might consider letting it go?”
She could feel Mrs. Dalhousie’s gaze, drilling into the side of her face.
Mrs. D claimed that the Gaddo would generate income from art historians and selfie-seekers—eventually. Jen wasn’t sure the Estate’s bank balance would hold out long enough to see a return on expenditures. However, if they could sell the Eves, there were any number of projects that had been pending for some time . . .
But in fact, the ultimate fate of Midsummer Eves was not up to Jen, or even Mrs. Dalhousie.
“According to the Trust agreement,” Mrs. Dalhousie pointed out, “anything beyond maintenance and repairs requires Mr. Gardener’s approval.”
That reminder took some of the shine out of the morning.
Jen’s gaze slid over to Rafi, who had worked for the Estate longer than she had. “Do you know when anyone last saw Rob?”
“Oh, right—when he took a shot at those hikers.”
Mrs. Dalhousie blinked, the crane driver looked uneasy, and Jen gave them both an apologetic smile. “Mr. Gardener’s private corner of the Estate is clearly posted against trespassing. Though it was only a birdshot, and he wasn’t actually aiming at them.”
Still, the thought of setting off on a death-defying drive to speak with a famously irascible Gardener put a different shade across the job at hand.
“What about his cousin?” Mrs. Dalhousie suggested.
“David is still in Germany.”
An odd silence fell.
The crane driver waited. When no explanation came, he took off his hard hat to scratch his balding head. “Well, anyway. Your problem’s with the base. The thing is held together like crazy—forty years and not so much as a crack—but it doesn’t look like they stabilized the ground underneath it at all, just wove up a bunch of rebar, slapped some forms around it, and poured directly on the dirt. And that’s your problem. It’s so close to that hedge, nobody spotted the stream undermining the whole thing. Look, I’m going to have to pick it up base and all, anyway. If you like, I could just take it a little farther, to that place. It could sit there for months. You can even put up a scaffolding and do your repairs there.”
Jen nodded. “That’s probably for the best. In the meantime, Mrs. D, I’ll pencil in an item on next week’s board agenda. Maybe when David gets back, he can go up and talk to Rob, see if he’s fond of the thing. We might even be able to fit in a preliminary vote on Tuesday, if Rob doesn’t mind . . . retiring it.”
She could no longer avoid Mrs. Dalhousie’s eyes.
The older woman’s expression was clear. I am the veteran of a thousand art-world negotiations. I am not deceived by your act of innocence. At the same time, she was experienced enough to choose private conversation over public argument, so she added her permission for the crane’s driver to get on with the task of shifting the sculpture, base and all.
But as he began pulling out a series of straps and hooks, she spoke, for Jen’s ears alone. “You’ve been thinking about this for a while, haven’t you?”
“What, selling it? Not very long.”
“Ms. Bachus, behind that wide-eyed manner of yours lies one of the most relentless forces I’ve ever worked with. Why are you so determined to be rid of the Eves?”
“I don’t want to get rid of her. Honestly, I’d be happy to have her stand here and glare at the picnickers forever. But I looked up what a Gaddo is worth. And I have a dim idea of what restoring her is going to cost. If selling this statue means we don’t have to sell off some of the Estate itself, that’s a decision I could live with.”
“Selling some land? Has it reached that point?”
“Our operating costs don’t change much, whether we’re open or not. After the past couple years, our cushion is nearly into the red. Something has to give. Unless you like the proposal David’s bringing back from Germany.”
The archivist winced. “That’s going to be discussed Tuesday?”
“First thing on the agenda.”
“Well,” the older woman said.
“You think MOMA might be interested?”
“Let me know if there’s any way I can help.”
They watched the driver attach his cables and braces to the statue, wrapping it with the care of a Renaissance bronze, testing each strap before he climbed up into his cab. The great engine gave out a roar, preparing to rip the Eves from the earth. Lesser gardeners popped out to watch.
The driver was good, lifting slowly to let the weight settle into the cables, making his adjustments before they were needed, even giving the load a sharp little drop to shake off some of the heavily packed dirt—and, to Mrs. Dalhousie’s distress, some tiles from the figure’s skirts. The massive weight swung ponderously over the slope toward the chosen spot. There the three-faced Eves descended, touched gently down (dropping more tiles) to settle into its temporary home.
The younger audience members cheered, the engine coughed and died away. The driver let the cables go slack, then climbed down to begin freeing the Eves from their sling.
Mrs. Dalhousie set off briskly, stooping to retrieve bits of shed decoration, eager to assess the state of the sculpture’s long-hidden side. Jen, Rafi, and the lesser gardeners followed behind.
The conservator had eyes only for her Eves, but Jen glanced accusingly at the square of raw soil that had last seen open air half a century before—then cried out and staggered backward. Rafi grabbed her arm, the others gathered round. Even Mrs. Dalhousie turned.
In the center of the dirt square lay a clot of hair and what could only be a human jawbone.
In a hospital bed some twenty miles south of the Gardener Estate, an old man made of bones and skin and angry eyes drifted slowly toward his death.
He was having what the nurses would call a good day. Oxygen hissed faintly through the nasal cannula rather than using the full-on mask. He’d eaten his breakfast, complaining all the while. Afterward, his vitals were steady enough for a sponge bath—by a male nurse, rather than one of the young women, and one who knew to keep his earbuds in and music playing so he didn’t have to hear the old man’s words.
Afterward, the uniformed guard shackled the old man back to the bed and resumed his chair in the hall, closing the door in case the patient felt like calling insults at passersby. He was always worked up on the days the cops were coming. Especially the woman.
A good day, in the hospital, had a narrow and technically precise meaning based on oxygen, appetite, and wakefulness. Good had nothing to do with the man in the bed, or the staff’s relationship with their patient, or their feelings about caring for him.
Frankly, most of them would not have minded if Michael Johnston’s slow drift toward death speeded up, just a bit.
* * *
In a small windowless room some thirty miles north of the Gardener Estate, a woman walked an old quarter back and forth across her fingers as she studied the four photographs on her wall. Back and forth, went the coin. Back and forth.
Each photograph was 8 1/2 x 11 inches. Under each was another sheet of paper that protruded exactly one inch. On each protrusion was a neatly printed name: Polly Lacewood. Sandra Wilson. Demi Scott. Windy Jackson.
The woman’s eyes, a light amber color, seemed to be reading the photographs, shifting between one and another as if comparing a note on Polly Lacewood to something written on Demi, then back again.
It was the hidden lower sheets that had the writing on them: dates from the 1970s, place names from across the San Francisco Bay Area, enigmatic objects, personal names, arrows, question marks.
Back and forth, round and round.
When the cellphone on the desk in front of her flipped to 11:00, she set down the coin and opened the phone’s text function:
Good time to talk?
A few minutes later, the cell rang.
“Hi, Al. Finished yet?” She listened for a time. “Okay, so maybe I should go down and see Johnston on my own? Why not? Al, we can’t wait around for them to make up their minds. I’ll just say I assumed I was cleared to work it on my own whenever you weren’t available. And maybe not having a man in the room will tempt him into letting something slip. Yes, I know, but what can he do, anyway? He’s a hundred years old and chained to a bed.”
She listened, her eyes fixed on the photographs. The one on the left had been there long enough that the tape was starting to peel.
“Al,” she said finally, “you told me not to hand in my badge, and I said I wouldn’t, but if my presence is getting in the way of—”
Again, she went silent, but for the occasional monosyllable. At the end, she nodded. “Okay, I’ll wait till one of you is free. Just so they understand that we’re running out of time.”
She ended the call and stood, dropping her phone into her pocket. She retrieved a handgun from the locked safe in the corner, clipped it into her belt, and picked up the cane propped against the side of the desk. She then looked down at the occupant of the room’s other chair. “I’m not leaving you in here to mess up my notes.”
The cat yawned, stretched, and paced in all innocence out into the hall.
The woman paused before she followed, to consider the four photographs on the wall. Polly Lacewood, Sandra Wilson, Demi Scott, and Windy Jackson. Smiling, blond, unsolved.
She turned off the light and shut the office door.
Jen Bachus would have expected that uncovering human remains— even old ones—might feel a little more . . . urgent. Yes, she understood that last week’s triple homicide took precedence over some half-century-old bones, and she appreciated that the coroner’s people were still here, but considering how chaotic her own last forty-eight hours had been—chaotic and apprehensive and filled with jolts of memory (Are those human teeth?) that stopped her in her tracks—she had not expected her initial skin-crawling shock to give way to something shamefully close to exasperation.
I should just accept defeat and close the Estate for a few days, she thought for the fiftieth time. Monday’s police responders followed by Tuesday’s reporters had brought today’s unticketed thrill-seekers and distraught loved ones (most of whom came looking for someone who had disappeared in the past five years, not five decades ago.)
At least the gates would shut at 1:00 today. Wednesday afternoons were reserved for private tours—although Jen had canceled both of today’s, then felt guilty at having hesitated over the loss of income. She also tried not to think of the cost of the extra guards, needed to keep the gawkers at bay, or of the psychologist they’d brought in to dispense comfort and advice to the grief-stricken, and counseling to any Estate workers disturbed by Monday’s events.
She’d discussed matters with her staff: should they close the Estate until it blew over, or simply deal with matters here and now? (She did not bring up any financial consideration: that was her problem, and she didn’t want to appear ghoulish.) In the end, they all decided to hold out. The weekend would be nuts, but hopefully after that, interest would die down.
Jen tried not to wish for some other spectacular disaster to titillate the masses away from her door.
However, the day’s endless stream of phone calls, text messages, and staff dropping by to consult did explain why, when the knock came at the half-open door of her office, the manager didn’t bother glancing up from the printout she’d just dug out of the desk drawer, and her response was a touch impatient.
“I’m looking for the manager, Jen Bachus.”
“I’m Jen, but I really can’t give you any information at this time, the Estate is closing for the afternoon. If you have questions, I’d suggest you talk to the police.”
“I am the police.”
Jen’s head came around, her attention shifting from the list of backup guides to the woman standing in her doorway. Small, tough-looking, but with the most extraordinary eyes, a sort of translucent amber color. Tinted contacts? Unlikely—the rest of her was the very opposite of showy: cropped hair, no makeup, a teal shirt with rolled-up sleeves, khaki pants, sturdy walking shoes . . . and a cane.
The woman didn’t look like a cop. Well, she did—of the granite wall school of cops rather than the swagger-and-brag school. And the cane wasn’t necessarily permanent.
Jen realized that she was staring. She straightened, pushing back her hair and trying not to be drawn in by those eyes. “Sorry, we’ve had an endless stream of people looking for—sorry,” she said again. “Yes, I’m Jen Bachus. How can I help you?” (The woman would have been striking even without the compelling eyes. Not beautiful, but vivid, with a sense of focus that would be memorable. Come to that, she did look vaguely familiar, though not someone Jen had ever spoken to. Perhaps a visitor, glimpsed across the gardens?)
The policewoman took the question as a welcome and stepped inside.
“Raquel Laing, SFPD.” She made no move to shake hands—but then, these days few people did.
“Oh, sorry, I figured you were here about the bones.” Stop apologizing, Jen ordered herself.
“Really? From San Francisco? Everyone else has been from San Mateo County.”
“I’m with the Cold Case Unit. Consulting for San Mateo. More or less.”
“Do you know who it is? The last I heard, nobody was even sure if it’s a man or a woman.”
“There’s no ID yet, no.”
“Okay, but I’m a little confused. I thought the police had to have a, well, a case before they could have a cold case?”
“It’s complicated. Is this—”
“And aren’t they usually murders? Have they decided that’s what it is?”
This, at last, managed to sidetrack the cop. “It is difficult to envision it as a suicide or accident.”
Jen gave her a crooked smile. “Yeah, but back in the seventies? The kind of people who lived here could have decided that this was the more ecological choice.”
“The family was big on environmental responsibility?”
Jen blinked. “You don’t know much about the Gardener Estate, do you, Ms. Laing?”
“It’s Inspector Laing, and no, that’s why I’m here. Is this a good time to talk?”
“Good? Well, I guess—oh Lord, is that the time? Look, there’s two things I have to do first, and I can feel my blood sugar going nuts. I’ll grab us some lunch and meet you in the garden. Go out the back of the house and make for the wisteria gazebo, I’ll be there in ten minutes. Um, unless . . .” She looked at the cane. “Perhaps you’d rather do it here?”
“I’m fine, just not fast. What’s a wisteria?”
Jen felt her jaw drop. “You don’t know what—Sorry. It’s that purple flower at the high end of the formal gardens. Oh, and here, you’ll need a VIP pass so nobody tries to toss you out. Just clip it on your lapel.”
Pass clipped, the policewoman stood back from the desk. “I’ll meet you at the . . . wisteria gazebo.”
She pronounced the phrase as if were an unfamiliar taste in her mouth. Jen hesitated, then shook her head and trotted away with the list of possible on-call guides to use for the weekend.