Flower Power Trip
A postcard with an image of lush sprawling foliage and a rust-covered antique carriage taunted me from the cushy passenger seat of my SUV. I almost veered off the road twice on the drive to campus because I couldn’t peel my eyes away from its persistent glare and blatant reminder of Mendoza. It had to be from Francesca. No one else knew about the remote South American vineyard we’d visited on our honeymoon many years earlier. I shook my clenched fist at the spooky vision of her vanishing in the rearview window. Was she following me everywhere now?
It was Francesca’s seventh message since leaving town and failing to inform anyone she wasn’t returning to Los Angeles. A torturous weekly mystery highlighting her whereabouts but leaving no way to contact her. At first, I thought she’d accepted my decision to remain in Pennsylvania and would wait until her parents, the heads of the Castigliano mob family, discovered a way to bring her back from the dead. Let me clarify—she wasn’t truly dead, but everyone thought she was. Upon getting caught in a vicious war with Las Vargas, a rival crime family, Francesca’s parents had faked her death as the only way to keep her safe. No one else besides Francesca’s parents and my sister knew Francesca was alive.
My wife just needed space to adjust to the changes. For two-and-a-half years, she’d been sequestered in a Los Angeles mansion watching from a distance as I raised our seven-year-old daughter on my own. Emma stayed with her nonni a couple of nights a week which made Francesca feel like her daughter was never too far away, but she couldn’t actually talk to Emma. Once I moved back home, Francesca lost her ability to see Emma and materialized from seclusion hoping to reconcile. Based on the postcards, she was visiting all the places we’d once traveled to together. Perhaps she needed to feel close to me since I’d refused to participate in whatever game her family was embroiled in with Las Vargas. Unfortunately, now that the Castiglianos blamed me for Francesca’s inexplicable disappearance, I anticipated their goons lurking around the corner and following me all the time. Dramatic stuff, huh?
I drove along Braxton’s main street cutting through the center of our charming, remote town and parked in the South Campus cable car station’s lot near Cambridge Lawn, a large open field filled with colorful flowerbeds, bright green blades of thick grass, and moss-covered stone walkways. It was Saturday, which meant graduation day at Braxton College—also my first one as a professor at the renowned institution. Although I’d only been back for a few months, it felt like I’d never left given my mother, Violet Ayrwick, was still its director of admissions and my father, Wesley Ayrwick, had just retired from its presidency. He would co-lead the ceremony with the new president to complete his responsibilities, thus allowing him to concentrate on converting the college into a university.
Although I’d been apprehensive in accepting my professorship, I grew excited about the opportunity to reconnect with family and friends whom I’d hardly seen since originally leaving town a decade ago. When my cell phone vibrated, I clicked a steering wheel button to display the text message on the SUV’s dashboard screen. The previous owner, a family friend who’d been murdered earlier that year, had added all the bells and whistles making it easy to remain hands-free. Was I the only one slightly unnerved by driving a dead woman’s car?
Nana D: Are you still coming by after the graduation? I’ve got sticky buns and a broccoli and Gouda quiche for a late brunch… and I’m getting nervous about the race.
My grandmother, known as Seraphina Danby to everyone else, had finished the third and final debate in her surprise quest to become the next mayor of Wharton County, the larger geographical area encompassing Braxton and three other villages in north-central Pennsylvania. She was neck and neck with Councilman Marcus Stanton, her dreaded enemy for reasons she refused to share with anyone. I secretly suspected she was angry with him because of a bad date or his failure to flirt with her once Grandpop had left us for the great big afterlife in the sky.
Me: You’ll be the new mayor. I’m confident. Focus on the numbers. Emma doing okay?
Nana D: Yep. She’s in the stable talking to the horse groomer about finding her a puppy.
Me: Never committed to it! You told her she could have one if we moved into Danby Landing. Not me.
I’d been living with my parents in the Royal Chic-Shack, a huge modernized log cabin they’d built before I was born thirty-two years ago. When it became clear I needed my own space, Nana D thoughtfully suggested a move to her farm’s guesthouse to provide Emma and me some privacy. We’d agreed to give it a chance for the summer, but if it didn’t pan out, I’d look for our own place posthaste.
Nana D: Emma loves it here. She keeps me out of trouble. You and your mother should be grateful.
She was right. Without a chaperone or extensive supervision, Nana D often found herself skirting too close to disaster. I parked the car and told my seventy-four-year-old cross to bear—I mean that as lovingly as possible—to expect a two o’clock arrival. The graduation ceremony would last longer, but I was only making a brief presentation to declare this year’s cable car redesign winner.
Between North and South Campus ran a one-mile electrical track transporting students and faculty back and forth to dorms, academic halls, administrative offices, and other student buildings. The old-fashioned cable car was the only one of its kind in the area and often brought in visitors—and much-needed surplus income—from all over the country. Braxton’s graduating class voted each year to redesign the interior as its outgoing gift to the college. There was a surprise victor this year which would make my friend and colleague, Dean Fern Terry, quite relieved. At one point, she worried an apocalyptic dystopian world of aliens would litter the inside of the two-car transportation system she used daily. It was not happening under my watch. I checked the time, stole one last glance at the ominous postcard, and walked across Cambridge Lawn.
As I approached the last stone pathway, I heard my name being called in the distance. I turned to see Ed Mulligan talking with an unknown bald man in his mid-to-late forties. Dean Mulligan, the head of all academics at Braxton, wore an impeccably tailored three-piece suit—his normal highbrow approach to dressing—and scuttled toward me as if he were in a desperate rush to the finish line.
“Kellan, I’d like you to meet George Braun, a visiting professor who arrived in town a few weeks ago to teach a summer course,” Dean Mulligan said. When the sunlight landed on George’s face, it highlighted the rippled, leathery texture of his skin. Perhaps he suffered from the effects of a recent sunburn or battled a case of rosacea.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Kellan. Dean Mulligan tells me you recently joined Braxton and might lend a new guy some pointers about how to survive on this exquisite campus,” George replied with an unusual accent. Although I was adept at picking up common enunciations, his was a mixture of too many unbalanced inflections to be certain of its origin. There were hints of a gruff Midwest tone with drawn-out vowels, yet I sensed a cultured European style as he finished each of his words.
When Dean Mulligan nodded to confirm George’s statement, his jowls jiggled like Santa’s belly. “I can think of no one else more qualified,” he added with an exaggerated wink.
“Certainly, happy to play tour guide. I’m late at the moment, or I’d stay and chat. I have ceremonial duties for this morning’s graduation.” Upon shaking George’s hand, I noticed he wore a pair of thin leather gloves despite the warm temperatures making it unnecessary. Germaphobe?
I wanted to ask what area he’d be working on given my boss, the indomitable Dr. Myriam Castle, head of the communications department, had brought in a new professor for curriculum redesign and expansion. It was supposed to be a chunk of my role at the college, but she’d quickly made a play for additional money to hire someone other than me to prepare the future vision. Now that my father was no longer the president, but Myriam’s wife Ursula Power was in that role, things were changing.
“Perhaps we could have breakfast on Monday morning? I’m due on campus at ten o’clock to meet with Dr. Anita Singh about the courses,” George explained. A dark gray sportscoat covered broad shoulders and attempted to slim his stocky figure. Given he was noticeably several inches taller and wider than me, it didn’t appear to help.
“That sounds like a plan. Let’s meet at eight thirty at the Pick-Me-Up Diner?” I proposed, knowing it’d lend me an excuse to judge the eatery’s latest renovations.
Dean Mulligan haughtily teased,” Ah, George, you’ll soon come to learn the Ayrwick family has a long-standing establishment in and around Braxton. Eleanor, Kellan’s sister, owns the diner, a favored restaurant by most employed at or attending our fine institution.”
As Dean Mulligan provided directions to George, I caught a puzzled expression on the visiting professor’s face. He muttered something unintelligible before his gaze narrowed and highlighted two ultra-thin blond eyebrows. “Pardon?” I inquired.
“Ayrwick, you said?” he added, cocking his head to the left and focusing on the pastoral landscape behind me. He wouldn’t look me in the face without glancing away. Was he sensitive about his skin condition or his funny way of speaking? I hoped I hadn’t offended the man with my transitory stare and state of confusion.
“Yes, Dean Mulligan’s correct. My family’s been in Wharton County for close to three centuries. I look forward to speaking with you on Monday,” I replied, excusing myself and dashing toward the backstage area to locate Dean Fern Terry. Since she oversaw the graduation as head of student affairs, Fern could tell me when I was needed for the ceremony.
George Braun not only seemed familiar with the name Ayrwick, but I was certain that was concern or alarm etched on his face. After a quick catch-up with Fern, I found a spot on the east side of the stage as the ceremony began. I could stand there until it was time to declare the winner of the contest. Although I knew a few students in the graduating class, I hadn’t been at the institution long enough to serve as an announcer of graduate names nor to deliver any inspirational departing speeches.
Fern initiated the ceremony by reminiscing about the school’s history and highlighting the graduating class’s accomplishments. She introduced Ursula who took the stage to congratulate the outgoing students, then turned it over to my father for his last opportunity to say goodbye to the future alumni. As he spoke, Ursula navigated the stage’s steps like they were a catwalk and headed toward the back of the seating area.
Once my father finished boorishly riffing about something in Latin, Fern commandeered the stage and announced my name. I walked to the center and stood behind the lectern looking out at a mostly unfamiliar sea of people. With over two hundred graduates, the audience teetered around a thousand guests including their families and nearly all the college’s administrative and academic staff. I talked about the process to nominate and vote for different cable car designs, then explained how it was an awfully close race. Only two people had been told the final winner. Ursula and I agreed to surprise Fern with the results given how disappointed she’d be if the apocalypse had won. She’d tried to bribe me with a homemade coconut cream cake at Easter, but I stood firm. Where desserts were my weakness, keeping secrets was my strength.
“It gives me immense pleasure to reveal today’s winner,” I said, pointing and clicking the button on a tiny remote toward the digital screen. “I’ve been a huge fan of these two larger-than-life characters since I was a small boy, and I often find myself involved in solving a few mysteries of my own.” A series of conversations between Agatha Christie’s famed detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, materialized on the large screen behind me. Various quotes and images from the books, movies, and PBS shows would appear inside the cable car to share different interpretations of the characters.
“It’s because you’re our inspiration for solving those two murder investigations,” Jordan Ballantine shouted followed by a bunch of cheers. “We wanted to honor your service to the campus!” Jordan was one of the graduates who’d be leaving Braxton to attend an MBA program in New Orleans.
In my three months at Braxton, I’d solved a couple of murders and been deemed a campus hero. I looked at Fern, Jordan’s aunt, and smiled with humility. We’d come a long way from her disciplining me when I’d been the president of my fraternity pleading forgiveness after various mischievous activities. Fern beamed back at me and lifted her hands in the air as if to say ‘holla’ like the bellowing students. Somehow the image of a sixtyish woman built like a quarterback in a gray pixie-style haircut performing such a move was frightening beyond any comfort.
As I thanked everyone for their votes, I noticed one of the graduates, Sam Taft, speaking with my brother, Gabriel. I’d caught the two of them in a cozy embrace last March shortly after someone had killed Gwendolyn Paddington to ensure an inheritance of the family fortune. I’d been shocked to see my brother after eight years but even more astonished to learn he might be gay. If you’d seen that kiss, there wouldn’t have been any question of might be, but until I spoke with him, I didn’t want to assume. Neither one had realized I’d seen them that day, and for the last seven weeks, I’d kept the information to myself. I didn’t know whether to ask Sam about it or hire a private investigator to track Gabriel.
Once I finished my speech, I sprinted down the steps to interrogate or to hug my brother—still hadn’t decided which one. I tried to reach him, but Gabriel winked and escaped in the opposite direction. Before I could rush off to beg Sam for help, Ursula stepped in the way. “Kellan, I’m glad we ran into one another. I was curious if you found out anything new?” she said with a gleam of hope.
By now, Sam had lined up on stage to receive his diploma, and Gabriel was long gone. I breathed a gulp of warm air and felt my body begin to wane. For the third week of May, the heat had come from nowhere and grown inordinately stagnant. All the comforting breezes were blocked by tall fir trees surrounding one side of Cambridge Lawn and the massive church holding firm on its southern border. I liked the hot weather, but this was intense.
Ursula had recently pleaded for help with a problem involving the past finally catching up to her. I’d learned a lot about my new boss during our conversations, some of which explained the reason she was taciturn about her history and some of which shocked me to the core. Not even Myriam knew about her wife’s tragedy or the years she’d been running and hiding from the truth about her real identity. While I felt the palpitating fear emanate off Ursula’s normally serene exterior, I tried not to judge her for the damage her prior actions had caused.