Read an Excerpt
Garden of Death
Favorite Medicinal Plants
Botanical name: Aloe barbadensis
Medicinal uses: Aloe is a handy plant that no household should be without. This juicy, succulent plant features spiky leaves that contain a thick gel that you can use topically to soothe and heal minor burns, sunburns, and blisters and prevents scarring. You can also use it for insect bites, rashes, acne, and other skin conditions like eczema, poison ivy, and poison oak. Place this hardy plant on your kitchen windowsill or plant in your garden. Just make sure your aloe plant has sunshine, well-drained soil, and moderate water, and then watch it grow and reap the many benefits it provides!
Gardening is one of my favorite natural remedies. I can think of no better pursuit than plunging a trowel into the moist, brown earth, removing enough dirt to create a space for a beautiful, health-giving plant, and watching it grow.
It was the third Friday in June, and I was up to my knees in dirt and loving it. The last few weeks had brought pastel-blue skies, billowy clouds, and the delicious summery scent of sea air drifting in from the bay. In the tree above me, cardinals and catbirds twittered and cawed. It was a perfect day for gardening.
I finished digging, picked up a chamomile plant, gently placed it into the hole, shoveled in some earth, and patted the ground around it. Then I pulled off my gloves, sat back on my heels, and reviewed what I’d done so far that afternoon. I’d planted over a dozen plants in the garden’s Medicinal Herbs for Heart Health section. The leaves and flowers fluttered in the sea breeze, but the roots of the plants were secure.
I dispense natural remedies, both as a naturopathic doctor and as the owner of Nature’s Way Market & Café. The store originally belonged to my aunt Claire. But when Claire was murdered, I left Los Angeles for good and moved back to my hometown of Greenport, on the East End of Long Island. I knew I had to find Claire’s murderer, which—to the local cops’ surprise—I did. Almost as difficult was taking over Nature’s Way. I couldn’t let everything that Claire had worked so hard to build disappear. Now, a little more than a year later, I felt like an actual business owner. Nature’s Way was operating in the black, and I was ready for a new project.
Last June I took a trip to London to visit a cousin, and while I was there I visited the Chelsea Physic Garden. Claire had often raved about it, but I had never had the chance to see it for myself. I was both enchanted and educated by the section with medicinal plants for various conditions.
Three months later, in October, I learned that the empty plot of land next door to Nature’s Way, a little over two acres in size, had become available. The lot was completely overgrown with scrub and weeds and needed a lot of TLC, but I had the soil tested for pH and nutrient content and it was top-notch. So I jumped at the opportunity to re-create what I’d seen in London. I had my next project.
My garden, like the one in London, would showcase various types of plants and use them to educate the local community about the many health benefits of herbs that people can grow at home, such as aloe for burns, turmeric for arthritis, and fennel for indigestion. I planned to hold workshops in the garden and store to show people how to grow and use these herbs. Now, all of the classes were almost full and I planned to add more.
Tomorrow, on the first day of the annual Maritime Festival, all of Claire’s friends would gather, and I would officially open the Claire Hagen Memorial Physic Garden. Since the festival first began in 1990, so many events had been added that we locals could barely keep track. But my favorites were the opening day parade, visits from tall ships, boat races, the clam chowder and best pie contests, and the annual pirate invasion, complete with treasure hunts and mermaids. The whole week would be given over to festivities, the town filled with visitors. It seemed the perfect time to open the new garden to the public.
Qigong (pronounced chee-gung), my scruffy, black, gray, and white terrier, ran up and put his nose in the dirt next to me. He sniffed, decided something was hidden there, and started digging with his chunky little paws. I patted his head. “Thanks, buddy. I appreciate the help.”
“Need help, hon?” Jackson Spade glanced over at me from the north end of the garden, where he’d been working with our new gardening assistant, Nate Marshall. They were putting down paver stones as a patio for our new outdoor teahouse. Nate, a recent graduate of Stony Brook’s horticulture program, was tall and lanky, with owlish glasses that gave him a scholarly look. He also had a remarkable green thumb. Jackson said all Nate had to do was look at a plant and it would thrive, which was a bit of an exaggeration—but not by much. Fortunately, Nate had signed on to care for the garden throughout the summer.
Jackson told Nate he’d be right back and came over to me. Dressed in his old jeans, a Green Day T-shirt, and boots, he was covered with dirt from working all day in the garden, but it didn’t matter. With his short cropped hair, just enough stubble to be sexy, and dreamy blue eyes, he made me melt.
Jackson and I met last year when he had come to Nature’s Way looking for more natural remedies for his bad back. Aunt Claire had helped him feel better with the cures she’d recommended, and he was hoping for further improvement. Jackson was grateful for Claire’s help and kindness and so he agreed to help me in my quest to find her murderer. The fact that he was an ex-cop, now on disability because of his back, had worked in our favor. We nabbed the killers and along the way, fell in love. Now, it felt as if we had been together forever.
“I’m okay,” I said. “Qigong is doing a great job digging holes.”
“I’ll bet,” he said. “I think he’s a little jealous of Nate. Qigong wants to be your chief gardening assistant.”
“No one digs a hole like you do,” I assured the dog. Then I got up and pulled Jackson into a hug. “But you’re the best. I couldn’t have done all this without you.” I gave him a kiss.
“Now you have dirt on your nose,” he said, smiling. He pulled a bandana from his back pocket, gently wiped the dirt off, and kissed my nose. “Okay, you’re all set.”
I glanced at the sky that was suddenly full of clouds, blocking out the late-afternoon sun. “What time is it?” I asked.
Jackson checked his watch. “It’s almost five. Time flies when you’re having fun in the garden.”
I pulled off my gardening gloves. “It sure does. But we need to get ready. Tonight’s the big night. I get to see you in a tux.” Jackson’s wardrobe usually consisted of jeans, a T-shirt, and boots, but tonight we were going to the Land and Sea Ball, the opening event of the festival, and Jackson had promised to wear a tux. He looked good in anything, but I was certain he was going to be a knock-out all dressed up.
“And I get to see you in that gown that makes you look like Cinderella.” He gave me a quick kiss. “I just need to clean up over there.”
He turned to start back to Nate and the open-air teahouse. But before he could take a step, Qigong, done digging, dropped something at his feet. It was a rectangular object wrapped in what looked like an old dish towel.
Jackson bent and unwrapped the towel, revealing a small cardboard box. Or at least it had been. It was nearly flattened now, the cardboard thin with age and barely holding its rectangular shape. “Hmm . . . no wording on the box,” Jackson observed. He lifted what was left of its lid, and I saw a glint of metal inside. “Why would anyone bury one earring?” he muttered.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He brushed off some dirt, then held it out to me—a delicate gold earring with an exquisite heart-shaped setting. “There’s only one in here,” he said. “I wonder why.”
“It looks really old,” I said. “It’s probably an antique.”
“What kind of stone is that?”
I squinted at the colorless stone in the middle. Even under the cloudy skies, it had a sparkle to it. “There’s so much dirt around the edges, it’s hard to be sure. But I think . . . it might be a diamond.”
“We should find the other one,” Jackson said. He took my spade and dug into the ground, but even with Qigong helping him, he didn’t find the other earring. “Nothing here, but I could get that one appraised.”
“Go for it,” I said. “If it’s valuable, you can use the money for your animal refuge.” A year ago, after Jackson adopted two abused dachshunds, he decided to open a haven for animals at his place in East Marion, which was five minutes from Greenport. He had plenty of space, enough for a garden and room for the animals to run free. So far, he had acquired a horse, two donkeys, a goat, five dogs, six cats, two rabbits, and a turtle—and three dedicated volunteers to help him run things.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “This could really be worth something.”
“You know I’m not into jewelry,” I said with a shrug. “But I do like helping your refuge. So keep it.”
I handed him the earring, and he dropped it into his pocket. “Thanks, McQuade. That’s very nice of you.”
“No problem.” I began to put my tools back into the gardening basket. “I think we’re in good shape for tomorrow, don’t you?”
“Well, the patio isn’t done yet, but I think the garden is really impressive. You’re ready.”
I blew out a breath. “Good, so we can just relax and have fun tonight.”
“Sounds like a plan. I just have to do some cleanup with Nate.”
I picked up the basket and gave him another quick kiss. Even when he was covered with dirt, Jackson was ridiculously kissable. “If you hurry, we can shower together. It’s really much more environmentally friendly.”
“Sounds good to me. As you know, I can be very friendly,” Jackson said, smiling.
“That’s what I’m counting on,” I said, smiling back at him.
• • •
Nature’s Way Market & Café was located on Front Street, across from Mitchell Park. The building, a three-story yellow Victorian with red trim, had outdoor seating on the porch, which was ideal when you wanted to catch the sea breeze or the morning sun. A black wrought-iron fence surrounded the property, and brightly colored flowers accented the walkway.
The interior was whimsical and charming with chalkboard specials and aisles of natural cures and natural foods. Jackson had recently put up bookshelves, and I’d packed them with volumes on everything natural from yoga to meditation to superfoods.
Next to the bookshelves was an oversized bulletin board with postcards and photos from customers who had visited Nature’s Way from places as far away as Russia, Japan, India, and Australia.
The walls were painted a cheery lime green with lemon trim, so the place had a bright, sunny feel even on a cloudy day. As always, the air was redolent with the smells of healthy food, excellent coffee, and homemade baked breads and pastries.
At this late hour, there were few occupied tables and no one behind the counter where we sold sandwiches, pastas, smoothies, soups, and salads along with gluten-free chocolate brownies, carrot cake, and cupcakes. I went into the kitchen, where my genius baker and second-in-command, Merrily Scott, was taking freshly baked bread from the oven. Merrily, who was twenty-three, had the energy of the Energizer Bunny, helped along by the caffeine in our organic coffee. Cute and perky, she wore the Nature’s Way uniform of jeans, a white T-shirt, and a green apron, her short blond hair in tufts with tiny colored bands. The customers loved her food and her attitude. I couldn’t have asked for a better employee.
“That smells amazing,” I said.
Merrily gave a little start. “Oh, you scared me. I thought I was alone.”
“Just on my way through.” I held up the gardening basket. “I wanted to put this inside, and then I need to shower and get ready.”
“I can’t wait to see you two all dressed up.” She slid the loaf of bread onto the counter. “You’re both going to look great.”
“I know Jackson will,” I said, grinning. I walked over to the checkout counter and stashed the basket on a lower shelf. “I just wish you didn’t have to serve the desserts.” Nature’s Way had agreed to provide the desserts for the ball this year, and Merrily had outdone herself.
“Actually,” she said as she came over to me, “Nate invited me to go the ball with him, so Wallace is coming to handle the service. We’ll help, too, if we’re needed, don’t worry.”
I wasn’t worried at all. Wallace Byron was a pro who had owned his own health food store until he retired, but I was surprised that she and Nate had hooked up so quickly. He’d only been here for a few weeks, and he was already dating my manager. Still, he seemed like a nice guy. “Well, you’d better get ready, too.”
She took off her apron and slid it into a cubbyhole under the counter. “I was just waiting for the bread to come out of the oven. I’ll see you there.”
• • •
After Jackson and I took a nice, long soapy shower together with fantastic smelling organic lavender bathing gel, we got dressed. I’d chosen a little black dress. Actually, it was a classic silk and lace strapless evening gown from the 1950s that looked like something Audrey Hepburn would have had in her closet. The strapless bodice was boned and the skirt made of three layers, sheer lace, sheer silk organdy, and black taffeta.
When I looked at myself in the mirror, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how much I looked like my aunt when she was younger. Both of us were tall and blond, with blue eyes, high cheekbones, and good teeth, the teeth of the tiger, my aunt used to say. I felt a pang of sorrow over how much I missed her.
“Hurry up,” Jackson said, through the bathroom door. “I want to see you.”
I did a final check of my hair and makeup, opened the door, and stepped into the bedroom.
“Wow,” Jackson said. “Wow.” He came over to me. “You do look like Cinderella, that is, if Cinderella ever wore black.”
“You don’t look too shabby yourself,” I replied. “In fact, you look incredibly handsome. Just like James Bond.” He wore a classic black shawl-collar tuxedo jacket, shirt, and pants, along with suspenders and cuff links, topped off by a spiffy black bow tie that I bought at the same vintage store where I bought my dress.
I’d even managed to find black pointy toe winklepicker oxfords in his size to complete the look. The contrast between his rugged good looks and the formal ensemble made quite an impression.
He pulled me close and I felt his warmth. The smell of his coconut aftershave was sexy. “I want to take you to bed right now,” he said, his voice husky as his hand ran up my leg. “I mean, right now.”
“But we’ll be late,” I said, laughing. “And you know that Cinderella can’t be late for the ball.”