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The Cactus Club Killings (A Joe Portugal Mystery Series)

The Cactus Club Killings (A Joe Portugal Mystery Series)

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by Nathan Walpow

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In a city of fast cars and movie stars, these folks are crazy about cacti. Until a killer joins the club . . .

Joe Portugal likes people. But he likes plants better. That's why the former theater actor turned small-time L.A. commercial star is a prominent member of the Culver City Cactus Club. Unfortunately, so is a killer.

The club's president is dead—a


In a city of fast cars and movie stars, these folks are crazy about cacti. Until a killer joins the club . . .

Joe Portugal likes people. But he likes plants better. That's why the former theater actor turned small-time L.A. commercial star is a prominent member of the Culver City Cactus Club. Unfortunately, so is a killer.

The club's president is dead—a poison succulent lodged into her mouth. With a father who knows a thing or two about murder, and police breathing down his neck, Joe can recognize a jam when he sees one. But when he begins searching through a colorful cast of plant lovers, plant dealers, and even international plant smugglers, he doesn't find the answers he needs. Meanwhile, the killer has struck again, working his way through the Cactus Club with a garden variety motive—and a very green thumb—for murder. . . .

Includes The Joe Portugal Guide to Botanical Nomenclature

Editorial Reviews

Andy Plonka
What is most interesting about the plot of The Cactus Club Killings is the murder weapon and the motive....In this case the plant is the murder weapon all by itself....Mr. Walpow writes well – clearly, concisely, and with a wonderful subtle sense of humor....The Cactus Club Killings is quite a polished effort for a first time author. I look forward to the further adventures of Joe Portugal.
The Mystery Reader.com

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
A Joe Portugal Mystery Series
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Ultimately, it was the wasp's fault that I plunged Gina into the pool of insecticide. But maybe I shared the responsibility. I could have waited a couple of days, until it was time to go over to Brenda's anyway to feed the canaries, to find out just which variety of Euphorbia viguieri I had. Gina would have been at work, helping people with too much disposable income decide which overpriced furniture to dispose of it on. The Cygon would have soaked into the ground, rendered relatively harmless.

I could have waited, but I didn't.

The sequence of events culminating in Gina's toxic bath began Memorial Day afternoon, around four-thirty, the end of the beginning of another sunshiny Los Angeles summer. An out-of-season deluge the night before had rendered the air smog-free and the ground swampy. I was out back, nosing around my collection of cacti and other succulent plants, killing time until Gina arrived with the Jackie Chan videos essential to our planned evening of comedic mayhem and take-out Thai.

I cruised by the winter-growers on the bench outside the greenhouse. Old Sam Oliver kept telling me that, since I lived on the relatively cool Westside, if I kept watering the pelargoniums and sarcocaulons—the so-called succulent geraniums—they'd stay green all year round. But they weren't having any of it, dropping waves of leaves between the slats of the bench and onto the redwood bark below. As if to mock both Sam and me, the rain had accelerated the defoliation rate.

I entered the greenhouse and noticed my Euphorbia viguieri was loaded with spiderwebs. I had no problem with a living room that hadn't been vacuumed in weeks, and my pickup truck resembled the aftermath of a hurricane, but anything in the greenhouse was a different story. I started at the crown of big oval leaves and worked my way down the two-foot stem, removing webs and sucked-dry insects from the profusion of gray spines that would make you think the plant was a cactus if you didn't know better. When I got down to soil level, I realized the label was missing. A quick search failed to turn it up.

One might wonder why I couldn't just make another, since I knew which species it was. But I didn't remember the variety. There were four, all impossible to spell or pronounce, and for the life of me I couldn't recall which one I had. I could look in Rauh's Madagascar book, but experience had shown me no matter how many photos they put in the books, none of them would match my plant. No, this would require a trip to Brenda's. My viguieri was originally a piece she'd accidentally knocked off her gigantic specimen; I just had to bring it over and match it up.

"Joe? You in there?" I poked my head out of the greenhouse. Gina stood just outside the back door with tapes in hand. She'd let herself into the house, just like she always did. She had on a sleeveless yellow blouse and denim shorts and sandals, and her hair was carelessly pinned up. She looked gorgeous—just like she always did—and, just like always, I wouldn't tell her so unless she needed to hear it, which was typically about once a month.

"What'd you get?" I asked.

"Crime Story and Rumble in the Bronx."

"Crime Story?" I shut the greenhouse door and headed for the house. "Didn't we hate that one?"

"Yeah. The one with no comedy and all the gratuitous violence."

"As opposed to the essential violence in the others. Remind me, why did we want to see it again?"

"I thought we'd give it another chance. Maybe we're missing something. Maybe there's some inscrutable Oriental way of viewing it we haven't figured out yet. If we still hate it we can skip right to Rumble." A slight pause. "When was the last time you shaved?"

I rubbed my hand along my chin. It did feel a little furry. "Last Thursday, I think. For the Subaru audition. I planned on doing it again Wednesday, for the Olsen's shoot. Why? Are you ashamed to be seen with me?"

"I wonder how you'd look with a beard."

"Just like I did sixteen years ago. You hated it, remember? Among other things, you said it tickled your—"

"Of course I remember. But tickling me isn't an issue anymore, and with the way your face has filled out I think you'd look good with one now."

"I think I'd look like a rabbi with one now. Besides, people with beards don't get commercials."

We went inside and into the living room. Gina slid Crime Story into the VCR and moved toward the couch. "Don't sit down yet," I said.

She gave me a dirty look. She has this sixth sense about when I'm about to propose something stupid. "Why not?"

"We have to go over to Brenda's first."

"What for?"

"To check on the canaries."

The look got dirtier. "She just left for Madagascar, what, a couple of hours ago?"

"Actually, I'm not sure her flight's even taken off yet."

"So why would the canaries need checking on?"

"Maybe she forgot to feed them before she left."

"She loves those damned birds. We can assume they've been fed." She pointedly sat down on the couch. "Therefore, there's no reason to go over there now." She cocked her head. "This has something to do with plants, doesn't it?"

"No. I'm just worried the birds might be freaking out because she's not there and—"

She jumped up and wagged a finger at me. "You want to wander around her greenhouse, don't you? You want to prowl around in there without her breathing down your neck. She's not gone an hour and—"

"It's the canaries, I swear."

"Your nose is growing."

"Okay, it's not the canaries."

"It's the plants, isn't it?"

"Yeah. But it's not some prurient wandering mania. I have a very specific need." I told her about the missing label.

"And this can't wait a day or two?"

"If I don't figure it out now, it'll bug me constantly and I won't fully enjoy Jackie. I'll sit and sulk and make you miserable too."

"I will never understand plant freaks."

"No one else does either. Come on, she's only ten minutes away; we'll be back in half an hour."

She gave in. She always does, like I always do when she wants to go for ice cream at one in the morning. We piled into my Datsun pickup and drove over to Brenda's. We walked around back and carefully picked our way over the soggy ground toward the greenhouse.

This brings us to the wasp. It came out of nowhere and dive-bombed my head. I reacted like I usually do when a wasp shows up. I took a flying leap.

If one were to list the adjectives most often applied to me over the preceding ten years, since I gave up the theater world, lazy would probably rank number one. Lacking direction would be way up there. But one that I'd never heard, in all my forty-four years, was well-coordinated. Which helps explain why the space I took my flying leap into was the one Gina already occupied, why my feet slipped on the muddy turf, and why, when I grabbed for whatever was handy, it was Gina's arm. Three death-defying seconds later she toppled backward and dropped hind-end-first into a big puddle reeking of Cygon.

She unleashed a stream of Spanish invective. I knew it was invective because Gina speaks the tongue of her forebears only when she's cursing.

"Don't let it get in your eyes," I said, trying to help her up without getting the smelly liquid on myself.

"Goddamn it, Joe, that's about the only orifice it isn't in." She managed to get to her feet. Her eyes swept down, surveying the damage. "My shorts are ruined."

"I'll buy you some new ones."

She wrinkled her nose. "This stuff really stinks. What is it?"

"Cygon. Brenda must have done a drench right before she left."

"Sounds deadly."

"To mealybugs, scale, and the dreaded red spider mite."

"How about humans?"

"It's a systemic. It has to get inside you to do any damage."

"Have I mentioned my orifices?"

"Good point. You'd better use Brenda's shower. Come on."

We hustled around to the front door. I had some trouble with the lock. Gina jabbed me in the small of the back. "I'm dying of insecticide here."

We passed through Brenda's jumbled living room. She'd left one of the barred windows open and a fan going for the birds, but it was still stuffy. Scores of botanical texts, dozens of books on Madagascar, and an assortment of erotica competed for space on the mismatched bookshelves. Native artifacts, heavy on the zebu horn, filled the gaps. The curtains were a colorful print she'd brought back on one of her forays.

Canary cage number one stood on a brass stand in the corner. Muck and Mire chirped a greeting. "Hi, guys," I replied.

"Can you talk to the birds later?" Gina said. "This stuff is eating away at my skin."

We went down the hallway and into the bedroom. A brass bed with a gauzy blue canopy dominated it. In the far corner, next to the computer table, a vertical metal framework lined with chicken wire divided off the three-by-three area that was home to the rest of Brenda's canaries: Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo, Gummo, and Brillo. "Go on into the bathroom," I said. "I'll find you a robe or something."


I turned to the walk-in closet and pulled the door open. A hint of Brenda's perfume wafted out. Memories of evenings spent under that blue canopy flickered through my mind and brought a smile to my lips. I stepped in and searched for a bathrobe, but none turned up. "Hey, Gi," I said. "No robe. Is there one in there?"

She didn't answer. I exited the closet and yelled at the closed bathroom door. "Gi? Is her bathrobe in there?"

Still no response. I got concerned. Maybe she'd slipped and cracked her skull open. "Gina?"

Nothing. I rushed toward the bathroom. I'd nearly reached it when the door opened. Gina stood there wearing a stricken expression. She seemed smaller somehow. Shrunken.

"What?" I said.

She didn't reply, merely stared back over her shoulder toward the tub. For some reason I thought there was a dead animal in there. A squirrel had gotten in and starved to death, or a wild bird had come to visit its domestic buddies and bashed its head in on the sliding shower door. But then I, too, looked over Gina's shoulder, and that was when I saw my friend Brenda Belinski.

She wore one of the loose tank tops she favored, a green and purple stripe. Whatever else she had on lay hidden behind the sliding door's frosted glass. Her skin was waxy and her lips pale. Her auburn hair hung limply against the white fiberglass of the tub. Her eyes were closed tight, as if squeezing away some awful sight.

But it was her mouth that grabbed my attention. Rather, what was in her mouth. It might have been weirdly erotic under other circumstances, some Lewis Carroll rendition of fellatio, if she'd exhibited even the slightest hint of life. But she was deathly still. And the four inches of Euphorbia abdelkuri jutting out between her lips was merely obscene.

Meet the Author

Nathan Walpow has been collecting cacti and other succulent plants for over twenty years and has over 400 specimens in his collection. He is the president of the Sunset Succulent Society, located in Los Angeles. In 1997 his short story "This Bud's for You" was the first fiction ever to appear in the Cactus and Succulent Journal, the publication of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America.

Nathan has been writing since 1992. Before that, he had ten years of experience as an actor, working on the stage and on television shows such as Moonlighting, and he is a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion.

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The Cactus Club Killings (A Joe Portugal Mystery Series) 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could have focused more on the storyline if not constantly distracted by the misuse of possesives, missing possesives, and spelling errors.