Kept in the Dark (from Blood Moon, Level Best Books)
2013 Agatha Award Nominee
2013 Anthony Nominee
By Sheila Connolly
"Ah, Juliette, what have you brought me today?" Jean-Jacques Smith, owner and master chef of the world-famous Pennsylvania restaurant Champignon, rubbed his hands with glee.
I shifted the crate heavy with fresh mushrooms to my other hip. "The usual Shitake and Crimini, and there are a few Hericium too, but you'll have to wait a bit for more. And the first new batch of morels." I set the crate down and carefully pulled out one of my prized morels, its elongated cap crinkled yet firm, and offered it to JJ. Jean-Jacques' mother had been French, but he was American through and through. "Sniff."
He took the mushroom from me as though it was a flower, and inhaled deeply. "Heavenly," he sighed. "How many you got?"
"Five pounds, for now. There'll be more for the weekend."
"Great. I'll start thinking about how to use them. I've got some fresh thyme..." His eyes glazed over as he stared into nothingness, mentally matching flavors and colors. I knew better than to interrupt him: his skill and talent had made Champignon one of the "must see" restaurants in this part of the world, and he had a three-month waiting list for tables.
"I'll just take these to the kitchen," I said. I doubt that he heard me, but I knew the way.
If the front of the house was an oasis of calm and dignity, the kitchen area was ordinary restaurant chaos, with steam issuing from the industrial dishwashers, pots and pans stacked wherever there was room, and a row of employees diligently chopping whatever was needed for the evening dinner service. I'd deliberately waited until late in the afternoon to make my delivery, so that my mushrooms would be as fresh as possible, and the high-strung JJ couldn't accuse me of sabotaging his exquisite culinary creations.
"Hey, Manuel," I called out to the sous chef in charge of the chaos.
"Hola, Juliette. Just in time. You can put those down here. Has the genius decided what he wants to do with them tonight?"
I laid the crate down carefullyBI didn't want to bruise the little darlings. "I told him I had some fresh morels, so now he's thinking. Oh, before I forget..." I fished another bag of mushrooms out of one of my coat pockets. "Here. Just picked."
Manuel beamed. "Ah, muchas gracias. I will use them well."
"Good. I'd better get out of your hair and let you get to cooking. I'll be back Friday with the crop for the weekend."
"BuenoBsee you then."
I sneaked out the back door, rather than face JJ and his mushroom rhapsodies. The cool air felt good after the steamy warmth of the kitchen. Time to get back to work.
I raise mushrooms. My father raised mushrooms before me, in southeastern Pennsylvania, arguably the mushroom capital of the world. But where he had raised the dependable Agaricus button mushrooms by the millions, and sold them commercially, I was trying to develop some of the more finicky exotic varieties for the upscale restaurant market, which was booming even in a poor economy. Dad had been happily surprised when I told him I was going to Penn State to learn the business, and I'd majored in biology and organic chemistry, both of which had proved useful. He and Mom had retired to Florida a few years earlier, but he still demanded regular reports from me. Since I'd inherited a working operation in prime condition, I thought that he deserved at least that much.
I was not prepared for the sight of several police cars, lights flashing, blocking the entrance to my mushroom farm. Maybe "farm" is the wrong term, because the actual growing part took place in a vast series of underground caves. I parked as close as I could behind the police vehicles and hurried up to the nearest officer.
"What's the problem, officer?"
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"I'm Juliette Adamson, and I own this place. Has there been an accident?"
"Better talk to the lieutenantBshe's inside, uh, somewhere."
"In the caves, you mean. I'll do that, officer."
I threaded my way through the vehicles until I came to the entrance, wincing at the fact that the door was wide open. Mushrooms are sensitive to temperature, and I was paying a lot of money to maintain a steady heat in the caves. I closed the door carefully behind me before going in search of the person in charge. I found her standing in the spawn production area. She was a tallish, no-nonsense woman, maybe ten years older than I am, and she looked alert and wary, bordering on jittery. Caves affect a lot of people like that.
"Hi, I'm Juliette Adamson, the owner. What's wrong?"
"Marianne Morrisey. Lieutenant." She thrust out her hand and we shook. She had a determined grip, but let go quickly. "One of your employees reported a dead body in here."
I looked quickly around. "Where?"
"Further back. Before we go in, can you explain what goes on here?"
"Of course. How much do you know about raising mushrooms?"
"Assume I don't know anything, but keep it simple."
"Right. I run a complete operation raising exotic varieties of mushrooms for restaurants, both local and in the adjoining states. The composting area it outside, so you probably didn't notice it. You might have smelled it, because there's a strong ammonia smell from the horse manure."
Lieutenant Morrisey gave a short bark of a laugh. "So that's what stinks!"
"You get used to it," I said. "When the compost reaches the right stage, we bring it into the caves, which is where we grow the mushrooms on stacked bedsByou came through that area to get here."
"More ammonia, huh?" the lieutenant said.
"Right. Then we pasteurize the compost and cool it down slowly. In this area we make spawn." When Lieutenant Morrisey quirked an eyebrow at me, I explained, "That when we start the mushroom culture. You do know it's a fungus?"
"Got it. Can we speed this up, maybe? The forensic guys need to get in here, but I wanted to do a walk-through first."
"Sure, no problem. After the spawn grows, we have to encourage it to produce what you recognize as mushrooms. We add treated peat moss and keep it moist, and in two or three weeks, voilaBmushrooms. Then we harvest them by hand. Is that where the, uh, body is? Near the mushrooms?"
"Follow me." The lieutenant turned abruptly and led the way back deeper into the caves. I saw a cluster of people further back, mostly looking down at the floor, and I had to assume that was where the body was. I shuddered to think what nasty contaminants all these outsiders might be bringing into the clean environment I had created, but I knew it couldn't be helped.
When we reached the group, the lieutenant pointed. "Here he is. You know him?"
There was a man lying on the ground, his face bluish. Mid-thirties, dark hair that curled over his ears, and he hadn't shaved lately. He was wearing a rumpled jacket over a t-shirt and jeans. I had never seen him before in my life.
"No, I don't think I've ever seen him. Who is he?"
She ignored the question. "He doesn't work for you?"
"No, I know all my workers. Most have been with me for years."
"You keep this place locked up?" the lieutenant asked.
"Shut but not locked. It's mostly to maintain the right temperature and humidity for growing the mushrooms. If they get to dry or too cold, they don't grow, and I lose that crop. And in some sections it's necessary to keep outside bacteria out. What do you think this guy was looking for? There's really nothing to steal in here."
"Maybe he's eaten at Champignon"Bshe pronounced it "Sham-pinyon"B"and thought these things were worth their weight in gold."
"Not really. Oh, sure, there are some kinds that are more valuable than others, or maybe the guy was thinking of truffles, but I don't know anyone who's managed to cultivate them, or not with good results, and not around here. It doesn't make much sense to find him here."
"Huh." The lieutenant looked down at the very dead guy at her feet, then addressed the others around her. "Okay, guys, I guess he's all yours. Don't move him until Forensics has done their thing. You, Ms. Adamson, you can give me a list of all your employees? Past employees? Anybody who might have access to this cave set-up?"
"Of course. Anything I can do to help," I replied.
Lieutenant Morrisey looked past me. "About time you crime scene people showed up. Sheppard, isn't it?"
I turned to see the new arrival: tall, dark haired, and gorgeous enough that I wished I was wearing something better than my mushroom picking clothes. His outfit couldn't be off-the-rack, could it? This guy looked an order of magnitude smarter than the lieutenant, and I could almost see his brain processing every detail that his darting eyes took in.
"Jack Sheppard. We worked together on that double homicide last year. And this is?"
He turned to me.
"I'm Juliette Adamson, the owner of this place. I didn't know the dead guy."
The lieutenant struggled to regain control of the situation. "Sheppard, you go ahead and do what you do. Where's the rest of your crew?"
"I'm it, today. Looks like I can handle it."
"Well, don't miss anything. Ms. Adamson, let's leave my people to do their jobs, and you can get me that information."
"Sure." I tore my gaze away from the hunky CSI guy and followed her out of the caves.
Outside I guided her past the sheds where we managed the compost, and on to the ramshackle building that housed my office. "Office" might be a generous description: it was a room only because it had four walls, carved out of a large space littered with various pieces of machinery, packaging materials, and who knows what. Some of it dated back to my father's day, and nobody had had the heart or the time to do anything about it. In my office I had a desk, a phone, and a computer too old to tempt anyone to steal it. There were a few battered filing cabinets that I knew were filled with a couple of decades of contracts, invoices, pay slips and other business detritus, and a couple of rickety chairs for guests or clients. I pointed to one of the chairs.
"Please, sit down while I call up the employee list." She sat, after eying the chair reluctantly, and I booted up the computer. It may look like a mess, but I did know how to keep records for the business, and no oneBvendor, client or IRSBhad ever complained. I found the file I wanted, printed it out, and handed it to her.
"This the current staff?" she asked.
"Yes, as of last week. In case you're wondering, this isn't a seasonal business, it's year-round. We produce mushrooms regularly in a controlled environment in the caves. As I mentioned, a lot of the employees have been working here for years. Do you know, I don't think we've ever had a break-in before? It's not like we keep a lot of money around, and I can't see anybody stealing a used compost-turner, which is our major piece of machinery. I have no idea what this guy was thinking, or what he could have been looking for."
"We'll be talking to your staff. How come there was nobody around to see him sneak in?"
"Well, it's not like a production line. Mushrooms are ready when they're ready. It's possible that the work for today is doneBI don't use a time clock because I trust my employees, and they know which mushrooms are ready and which ones aren't. They park wherever there's room around the buildings, and I wouldn't recognize an unfamiliar car parked somewhere. Do you think the dead guy came in a car?"
"Probably. We'll check registrations for all of <em."
"You have any idea how the guy died?"
"I don't make guesses. I'll wait for Sheppard to figure that out."
"Listen, am I be liable for anything, since they guy seems to have dropped dead under my roof? He was definitely trespassing."
"I can't tell youBmaybe you should ask a lawyer." She stood up, then handed me a business card. "Let me know if you think of anything else I should know. "
"I will, I promise. Uh, can I supervise when you people take the body away? Because I don't want a whole lot of people bumbling around in there, knocking things down."
"Yeah, okay. Just don't get in their way."
"I'll be careful."
I escorted her out of the building and watched as she pulled away. The medical examiner's van was already thereBwaiting for the forensic guy to finish? What was he looking for, and what was he going to find? I wasn't sure which worried me more: what the dead man was doing in my mushroom cave or what killed him. Since a couple of generations of employees had been in and out of those caves for years, I knew there wasn't anything toxic in there. I hadn't seen any obvious wounds. Heart attack? Stroke? He had looked kind of young for either of those.
I hung around until Mr. CSI-GQ had emerged, given me an ironic salute, and departed, and then I watched as the ME's staff loaded up the body and carried him away. Then I closed up shop and went home.
I was back at work early the next morningBnot hard, since I lived in the farmhouse that I had grown up in, right down the road. My foreman Gus Hart came out to greet me. He'd been with my father for years, and I'd kind of inherited himBand he was indispensible. He knew everything there was to know about rearing mushrooms. I was trying to absorb everything he knew so that I wouldn't be lost when he retired, not that he had shown any signs of slowing down.
"What's the damage?" I asked when I was near enough.
"Could have been worse," he said. "A couple of beds got shoved around, so we may lose a cycle or two, but nothing that won't recover."
"The police cleared the site? No yellow tape or anything?" I asked anxiously. Messing with our mushroom cycles could throw the whole sequence of production off.
"Yeah. I got the idea that they didn't know what they were looking for anyway. Didn't see any other signs of the dead guyBno carry bags or boxes, nothing he might have brought in."
"I wonder if he had a camera? Maybe he wanted pictures of the operation."
"I didn't check his pockets. I watch them shows on TV: you disturb a body, you'll end up the cops' favorite suspect for the next half hour."
"So it's business as usual. Check the morels, will you? And see how the chanterelles are doingBJJ's been pestering me about those."
I went to my office to review the unpaid bills and the incoming orders. Thanks goodness I dealt mainly with chefs, because they understood that mushrooms could be finicky. Chefs—or at least the good ones—were willing to wait if the crop was taking its own sweet time, and they were happy to go wild with creative dishes when all the mushrooms popped at once and I had an abundance of the things. A commercial market wouldn't have been quite as forgiving, and I left those to the big commercial growers. I liked to specialize.
An hour later I looked up to see Mr. CSI Gorgeous, uh, Sheppard, standing in my doorway.
"May I come in?" he said, walking in even as he spoke.
"Please. Have a seat." I made a conscious effort to avoid looking down at my shirt to see if it was clean. "What brings you here so early? You can't have finished all your analyses, can you? I've heard they take weeks, even months."
"It depends. Besides, I'm good at my job." He stopped, waiting, his eyes watchful.
Okay, so he was playing games with me. I was pretty sure I knew what my next line was. "Can you tell me what killed the man?"
"I can." He stopped again.
What was this, Twenty Questions? "Do you know who he is?"
"Yes. His prints were in the system. One Frank Genuardi, low level muscle for a crime family working out of Chester."
That was odd. Why would a thug from Chester be snooping around my mushrooms? Maybe that was my next question, according to Jack Sheppard's story line. "Okay, what was he doing in my mushroom cave?"
Sheppard stood up abruptly. "Let's take a walk. I want to see your caves again."
Bewildered, I stood up too. "You like caves? Or is it the mushrooms?"
"A little of each. Come on." He turned and went out the door, leaving me no choice but to follow him.
When we reached the outer door to the caves, he stopped. "Locked?"
"No, but I keep it closed to maintain temperature and humidity."
"Right." He opened the door and held it while I walked in, then shut it behind me.
"Where now?" I asked.
What game was this guy playing? I walked further and further into the caves, hesitating at each new section to see if he wanted to stop there. He didn't, and we kept going until we were deep in the heart of the main mushroom section. I'd said hi to a few harvesters along the way, but the beds back this far weren't ready for picking at the moment so there was no one around. Finally he stopped and leaned against a bed. I imitated his stance, leaning on the bed across from his, and said, "Okay, what are we doing here?"
"Just making sure nobody can hear us. The late Mr. Genuardi died from a severe asthma attack."
"He's not mine," I said absently, trying to think what that could mean. "Did he bring anything with him, like an epi pen?"
"Sure did. It looked to me like he had it pretty well under control, until he walked into your caves here."
"You're saying he was allergic to mushrooms? And he didn't know?"
"Maybe. Or maybe an unknown allergy coupled with the stress of breaking in and sneaking around"
"So that's what you're going to report to the police? Asthma-induced suffocation?"
"Probably. But there's a detail I might leave out."
"And what's that?" I was getting rather annoyed at this guy, who obviously had a game plan I knew nothing about.
He kept his very blue eyes on me as he said, "I can report that Mr. Genuardi died as a result of inhalation of mushroom spores in high concentrations, that precipitated a severe allergic reaction, constricting his bronchii and causing suffocation."
"Great, wonderful." Well, maybe not for Genuardi, but good for me and my business. "What's the problem, then?"
"I found plenty of spores in his lungs. The thing is, they didn't all come from the mushrooms you're growing. The ones out here."
I straightened up and faced him. "And what do you think that means?" Ball's back in your court, pal. Time to show your hand.
Apparently Mr. Gorgeous was going to take the indirect route. "I know a lot about mushrooms. I was born and raised around here. My mother was a pretty well-known biologist at Penn State, and she was an amateur mycologist. We did a lot of foraging in the woods, and she kept some flats growing in our basementBmuch like your operation here, but on a smaller scale." He paused, glancing at me to see how I was reacting. I clenched my jaw, met his look squarely, and said nothing, although I thought I could guess where he was going with this.
"The spores I identified in Genuardi's lungs included a high percentage from a couple of varieties of Psilocybes."
Oh, crap. Why did I have to hit on the one CSI in the universe who knew too much about mushrooms? Should I play dumb? Somehow I didn't think that would work.
"And your point is?"
"I infer from what I found that your operation here extends beyond the cultivation of edible mushrooms for the gourmet trade. Let me guess: if we go back a bit further, we'll find something more interesting?"
"Another growing section, behind a locked door."
"The inferred presence of <magic mushrooms' or <shrooms' or whatever you choose to call them, plus the presence of a dead man connected to drug dealing, is rather suggestive."
I wasn't going to give him anything. "Just to be clear, you suspect that I'm growing hallucinogenic mushrooms here?"
"I am. And they are, regrettably, illegal in most states. Perhaps Mr. Genuardi was on a fishing expedition for his employer, to assess the scope of your production. Perhaps someone was a bit indiscreet and the guys in Chester got wind of your other crop. And who knows how far back your caves go? It could be miles. Conveniently you already have a legitimate operation up front, and you can account for your energy use, and you have a workforce in place. Are they in on this?"
"Most of my workers have been here for a long time," I said neutrally. Let him make his own deductions.
"I assume you also have a distribution network. Let me hazard a guess: when you make your mushroom deliveries, there's an extra special delivery for someone in the back of the house?"
He knew too damned much. I didn't volunteer anything.
"How many other people are involved?" he asked.
I was faced with a dilemma. Obviously this guy knew what he was talking about, and he had proof, or at least enough to get a warrant to look for more proof, which he would find pretty easily. So why was he here, showing off his knowledge? If he had wanted to turn me in, he would have done it already.
Instead of answering his question, I jumped straight to the point. "What do you want?"
He smiled. "Good, no beating around the bush. I like that. I want a piece of the action, of course. I know the market is small, but I'm betting that consumers, now more attuned to green and local products, will swing back to the earth-friendly, all natural Psylocibes. You have the perfect set-up here."
"Let me see if I've got this right. You want me to take you on as a partner, in return for which you won't turn me in?"
"More or less. I might even be able to sweeten the pot a bit. My mother carried out some very interesting experiments in that old basement of oursBlet's say I had a colorful high school experience. She identified a couple of varieties that pack quite a punch." He paused, and his expression sharpening. "I want a twenty-five percent share in your net profits from the, uh, secondary crop, in exchange for my carefully crafted forensic report on Mr. Genuardi. I'll throw in Mom's mushrooms for free, which should boost your profits more than enough to cover my share. What do you say?"
I smiled. "Jack, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful partnership."