A Horticultural Mystery (With A Macintosh Twist)

I gave the new office iMac a quick pat on its sleek blueberry top and sat back with a sigh. Done. Grandmother’s newest cultivar was neatly cataloged in our handy database. Click on Lilium, for example, and check your preference for such things as color, height, hardiness, season of bloom… and voilà! Up would come all the pertinent information plus price, availability and a luscious full-color illustration for each plant that matched your request. Ditto for Hemerocallis.

Now all that was left was dinner for twelve. Dinner, death and divine retribution. With me dressed as Nemesis. If only the Mac and I could bring it off.

“Kate stop! You’ve walked us halfway around the gardens already. I’m dying!” We were passing the only shade for acres, an old apple tree left standing at the edge of a bed of lilies. Celia came to a halt beneath the tree. I was pretty well parched myself, but this was no time to stop. We were putting the final touches on my first important dinner party and Celia was the guest of honor. The sweat trickling down my back was due more to tension than to temperature.

“This heat is making a dishrag of my hair,” Celia fussed, tossing a thick gold mass over one shoulder. “Just pick something green and get on with it!”

Even in a temper Celia made a perfect picture among the lilies. The garden, actually a working nursery, was in early summer bloom. Begun some forty years ago by my Grandmother, Lillian Grover, today LilyGrove carried a large variety of hybrid lilies. Her pride, however, was in developing the luscious, long blooming daylilies that bore her name.

At the moment we were nearing a forbidden spot, one of the few places even I wasn’t allowed. It was plainly marked ‘Private! Hemerocallis Hybrids Under Construction! By Invitation Only!’

“Well, come on then,” I said, edging Celia around Grandmother’s private plot. If we want to have the flowers done before the others arrive, we’d better hurry. What do you think about those?” I pointed across the way to a mixed border of American and Asiatic lilies.

It was a lovely June afternoon. The daylilies were coming into their own while the first true lilies still held their glory. Perfect timing for our last get together as we went separate ways after four years at Hawthorne Hall. The ostensible reason for tonight’s dinner was to celebrate Celia’s brilliant showing on the final exam. Before this year no one had ever managed a perfect score. Coupled with her outstanding academic record, Celia was not only our Valedictorian, she would also receive the Jane Hawthorne Award, good for any school of her choice. Not that she needed it. The Soderquils were one of the wealthiest families in the area.

To tell the truth, I was simply glad of an excuse to bring us back together while the lilies were in bloom. Although Hawthorne required all students to board, most of us lived within an hour or two of the campus. With Mother’s encouragement, I had invited the girls for dinner and a night’s sleep-over in the Guest Cottage. We were a very small class, only twelve this year. And, except for Tai, everyone would be here. Even Tai would be with us in spirit.

As I moved toward the bright rainbow of blossoms, Celia slipped back to the forbidden fruits of Grandmother’s private garden. “Not that way,” I said quickly. “Grandmother has a group of visitors coming any time now. Besides, this area is strictly Do Not Disturb.” Celia, as usual, ignored me.

“What strange names!” she said, lagging behind to read the stakes by some scarlet beauties. “I mean Mon Despair. Early to Bed. And this one: Dead Come Dinner ? Who in the world would buy a flower with such a dispiriting name? Your grandmother is so very old school as a rule.”

True. Grandmother is elegantly aristocratic and, though we love her dearly, we are all a little in awe of her. Certainly no one would accuse her of a low sense of humor. “In this business,” I grinned, “you’ve got to kiss a lot of toads before you find your prince. And Grandmother does enjoy naming her genetically-challenged offspring with a bit of descriptive malice. Let’s go. If she sees us here, we’ll be what’s Dead Come Dinner.” Grandmother was known for her formidable temper where her gardens were concerned. But Celia didn’t budge.

“If they’re no good,” she said, continuing to finger the flowers, “why keep them off limits? They’re much better looking than that dreary bunch over there.” That dreary bunch was worth gold on the open market.

I stepped into the garden. “This is prime breeding stock. Each one has the genetic potential, if we can only find the proper frog, to be a future prince. A real show stopper. Come on. We’d better hustle.” But, the more I pushed, the slower our progress.

“Oh, no.” Celia was adamant. “Pick whatever you want for the others, but I want one of these at my place. I am the guest of honor, after all.” ‘These’ were some of Grandmother’s most brilliant experimentals. I wasn’t really surprised. Our Celia always goes first class and never takes ‘no’ for an answer. Spurs her on, actually.

“Well, all right,” I said doubtfully, carefully clipping the most radiant bloom. I didn’t blame Celia for choosing it. The flower was a huge blood-red velvet with thick ruffled petals. “But I think we’ll settle on the ordinary lilies across the way for the rest of us. How about some American hybrids and maybe a few Asiatics?”

“Whatever.” Horticulture was not her thing.

If I seem to be making Celia out to be a bit of a spoiled brat, I am. I’ve known her forever, always with an air of condescension on her part and a lot of envy on my own. If I were tall, blond, rich, and brilliant, no doubt I’d be bursting with self-assurance myself. But, if like Celia, I’d always had things my own way, never having had to struggle, never having had to fail, would I be an arrogant, self-possessed snob? I hate to think.

And, in Celia’s defense, given her many advantages, much was expected. Maybe too much. The Soderquils were achievers. Losing was not an option.

By seven that evening we were all assembled around the table in the dining room, extended its full length to seat twelve. As we were now just eleven, Tai’s absence was only too obvious. We tried to look elsewhere, but the empty place kept calling us back.

Tai was new to Hawthorne last year, coming from a school in the East. Not Back East. Far East. Like Celia, she was brilliant. Unlike Celia, she was on a special scholarship to increase our minority enrollment. From zero to one. Even in her second language, Tai was at the top of every subject. She gave Celia the first real competition she’d ever faced. In fact, most of us thought that Tai would receive the Jane Hawthorne Award. But that was before the audit.

Only a few of weeks ago, life seemed very different. No time for fun. Certainly no time for flowers. If we were more innocent then, we had no time to appreciate it now that the Fourth Year Examination, always referred to as ‘The Beast’, was almost upon us.

This was no ordinary test. We worried for months and sweat blood for weeks just thinking about it. Anything and everything we had studied over the past four years could be included. I felt fairly adequate in Latin, Literature, French, and maybe Biology. At least, I wouldn’t go down in shame when the scores were posted. But Math! Not to mention Chemistry and Physics! Even my midnight oil wasn’t likely to save my honor there.

My weak points were Celia’s strengths. She had a man’s brain in a model’s body. She not only whipped through the hard stuff, she was a computer whiz as well. While the rest of us diddled in Windows and dreamed of a Mac, Celia played DOS and UNIX like a pro. No one who knew Celia would dare to use the word ‘nerd’ but, when the school network crashed over Christmas, it was Celia who helped get things back on line for the rest of us. Now though, even she had competition. And the extra pressure was beginning to show.

“How about a study break?” I called to Tai as several of us headed down the hall to the Snack Center. “My brain’s broke and needs a chocolate fix.”

“Thank you, but no,” Tai called back, struggling with something on her computer. “I am so sorry, but I must complete my studies.” Tai was at a definite disadvantage in not having been at Hawthorne for the first two years. No doubt Celia was counting on it. It was a great honor to receive the J. H. Award, even if the money were only an extra and not a necessity. “Thank you so very much for asking me.”

“What a little sweetheart she is,” said Celia, as we turned the corner. “If she were any more polite, she’d ooze!” Celia made a mock bow. “So solly. So solly. Tank you velly much.” It was first rate mockery with a fourth rate accent. Any of us could have done better.

Kathryn and Kendall looked shocked. “I always understood that it was impossible to be too rich, too thin or too polite,” said Kathryn pointedly.

“Anyway,” added Kendall, “I think she’s a darling. And Miss Poole says she’ll be a real beauty some day.”

“Only if you like them short and dark,” was Celia’s retort. Hardly fair. Compared to Celia, we were all short and dark.

I grabbed a couple of chocolate bars and headed back to Tai’s room. She was frowning down at her screen with a puzzled look. I tapped softly in case she was in deep concentration. “Oh hello.” She looked up and smiled uncertainly. “I am glad you are alone. I seem to have a problem with my computer and I have no idea how to proceed.”

“Can I take a look?” I said, as Tai’s eyes lit up at the chocolate. “Microsoft may not be my thing, but I’ve made most of the mistakes that can be made which makes me an expert of sorts.” Considering that Tai had had no real technology in her life until last year, she had become remarkably adept. I wondered how I could help. Normally, I would be asking her for help.

“It is this monitor,” she said. “It is all lines and squiggles.” It sure was. Dimly, through the lines and squiggles, we could make out just enough to fiddle hopelessly around the desktop. We right clicked and left clicked. We opened up Control Panels and Settings and tried to call up assorted drivers to no avail. It was getting late and the monitor, if anything, was getting worse.

“Okay,” I yawned. “I give up. This guy’s headed for repair.” The stricken look on Tai’s face stopped me. Her whole world was tied up in reviewing the four years of academics stored on the school network. Each of us was assigned a computer as a part of our tuition and it had become a necessity, like it or not. But without a monitor, the computer might just as well be dead. And as it was a Friday night, only one week until ‘The Beast’, Tai was right to look stricken. I couldn’t simply walk away.

“So,” I said, suddenly energized. “There’s only one thing to do. Here, help me unscrew these gizmos. We are going to trade monitors.”

“But Kate, I do not understand,” Tai protested. “Then you will have no access yourself. It is not right. You must study too. This exam is very important.”

True, but my future did not depend on this test. Tai’s did. Anyway, I could always read the book.

It was just as well that we traded monitors as mine wasn’t working again until Wednesday. While it was being repaired, I asked what had gone wrong. The man said, very seriously, that someone or something had jiggled the jaggle or wobbled the widget, but he had tuned up the cosmos and replaced the ectoplasm and it should work fine now. Well, maybe that isn’t exactly what he said, but close enough.

It seemed to be all for the best. Tai had access to the network and I had an excellent excuse for my dismal showing in Physics. Only Celia seemed surprised. She kept asking what on earth was wrong with my computer. I never said a word.

The Day of the Beast was a grueling eight hours of agony, but there was no agony of waiting. Thanks to modern technology, the exams were quickly graded and posted–far too quickly for most of us.

At Sunday lunch it was announced that, remarkably, both Celia and Tai had made Hawthorne history. We had not one, but two, perfect scores on the Fourth Year Examination! Surely Tai would win the Jane Hawthorne Award now. It would make all the difference in her future. And, we supposed, Celia would be Valedictorian to even things out. We supposed wrong.

The Board decided that Tai should not only be given the J.H. Award, she and Celia would share the stage as co-valedictorians. There was a certain amount of cynical supposition that this was due to Hawthorne’s belated entry into the world of multicultural integration. It would surely annoy some of the staunch Old Girls, but would look good on the grant applications that the Technology Committee was preparing.

Tai was given leave for a couple of days to visit her family with the good news. Before she left we held a bang up coke and pizza party in my room. Gentle and serious, Tai was a favorite and we were all delighted with her good fortune. Well, almost all. Celia did not attend the party. She did show up in my room first thing the next morning.

“That little Asian upstart!” Celia was stomping up and down between the bed and the dresser. “Tai Chon! What a name! Sounds like a Chinese chow mein. She’s not even a citizen!”

Actually she was. Tai had been born here and was sent back to live with relatives when her mother died . Her father, who ran Chon’s Bakery, had saved until he could afford to bring the whole family over last year. Tai was as American as we were. Maybe more so. I said as much.

“No matter!” Celia fumed. “She’ll never be a real American. She’s an Oriental Interloper. A Chonni-Come-Lately. A … a velly solly sweetypants!” Either Celia ran out of epithets or out of breath, because at that point, she stormed from the room.

What a shame to waste all that eloquence on bigotry and bitterness. I can’t see why a Swede is inherently more American than an Asian, but I didn’t have a chance to say so. I’m mostly Welsh myself, thus the short and dark. While it would have been nice to be a long-legged blond, I can’t think it would make me a better citizen.

But, I understood a little of how Celia was feeling. All her life she’d been queen of the hop and now she was a merely a maid in waiting. Possibly, even, a victim of reverse discrimination. And the Soderquils always went first class. Celia had never learned how to cope with second best.

None of us saw her the rest of the day. Knowing how she would respond to any sympathy, we kept our distance until she appeared next morning for breakfast. “Over here,” Kathryn called a little nervously. But Celia joined us, though she scarcely nibbled at her toast.

As the rest of us nibbled along in a show of support, a limousine pulled up and stopped at the main entrance. Everyone, except Celia, turned to stare. Several men in suits headed up the walk to be met by the Hawthorne staff. We don’t see many men here, so they made rather a stir in the cafeteria. Even at a distance they seemed to be moving with a purpose.

The breakfast buzz suddenly hushed as the loud speaker broke in with the morning announcements. Today’s announcement left us silent, not to mention a little shaky. Instead of the usual ‘Good Mornings’ and special plans for the day, we were told to report immediately to our first class, and, under no circumstance, to return to our rooms until further notice.

Kendall broke the silence with a nervous giggle. “Go straight to jail,” she whispered. “Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.”

“What do you think is going on?” I asked Celia on the way upstairs. But Celia’s face was set and she didn’t answer.

As fourth year students, our classes were now over and this last week was dedicated to graduation and good-byes. Today we were to meet in the Library to make plans for pre-graduation activities. It’s hard to make plans while someone is frisking your room.

“But what are they looking for?”

“Who says they’re looking?

“Miss Poole said they had permission to search all the rooms.”

“Yeah! Even the computers. It’s an audit or something.”

“Oh my #?$*!” This last, a mixed chorus of expletives from the lot of us.

“I wish I’d remembered to fold my underwear.”
“I wish I’d remembered to wash my underwear.”
“I wish I’d remembered to toss my underwear. And burn my letters to boot!”

We all had regrets.

It wasn’t really an audit, of course, though we continued to call it that. It seems that a rumor had reached the Scholastic Committee that there might have been more than simple brainpower involved in the unprecedented perfect scores for not one, but two, Hawthorne students. In a word: cheating.

The Board had a warrant or something to have our rooms searched.The computer company even sent along a couple of their best operatives to frisk the computers for evidence of dishonesty. Evidence, for example, like the copy of ‘The Beast’ found hidden among the DOS files in Tai’s room.

“Please, may we see Tai for just a minute.” Kathryn, Kendall and I were at the entry of the small apartment over Chon’s Bakery. Mr. Chon held the door open just enough to say, “Go away. Please girls. Go away now. Tai can see no one.”

“But we’re her friends,” we pleaded. “She needs us. We know she could never do anything wrong.” But did we, really? Tai was at a crossroads in her life and the J.H. Award could the pave the way. It would have been a great honor for the whole family. And now. Could they ever recover from this disgrace? Could Tai?

“You must go, girls. Tai can see no one. Tai will see no one.” Mr. Chon looked grim. And frightened. Was he frightened for Tai?

“Surely,” said Kathryn, as we headed for the bus, “surely Tai wouldn’t do anything foolish.”

“Didn’t people used to fall on their swords or something when they dishonored their family? Or maybe throw themselves from a turret?” Kendall’s fears were a little melodramatic, but that didn’t mean Tai wasn’t in danger. Whether she fell on her sword or just died inside, the bright promise would be gone.

But how could Tai have managed to get hold of the test? Each year a new one was devised by the current staff. Only the Headmistress had a copy of the entire exam, rumored to be kept on her computer, well passworded and behind locked doors. How could any of us …? I froze. No. I couldn’t be right? And even if I were, what could I do about it?

Dinner at LilyGrove was always something special, one of the perks of staying with a grandmother who kept a cook to help cater for the groups of growers and buyers who often visited. This dinner was a graduation gift. I put Celia in charge of the single corsage for each guest, a LilyGrove tradition. She set the flowers by the plates while I finished the centerpiece.

Celia looked beautiful in the white she always wore to set off her blond hair and deep tan. Tonight it was something silky and probably very expensive. “This thing won’t stain will it?” she asked, considering how to place the large scarlet bloom for best effect.

“Course not,” I said, crossing my fingers. “There, right above your heart. Yes! Perfect.” The others, as they arrived, were pleased with their pink and yellow flowers, but looked enviously at the rich, ruffled daylily pinned to Celia’s silk. It might well have been an orchid.

The dinner was far too delicious to waste and, Tai or no, we did it justice. The house salad was a LilyGrove specialty made of mixed fruits and buds, topped with a daylily in bloom. It was usually served first, but tonight we were having salad in lieu of dessert. “Do we eat the whole thing, flowers and all?” was the general murmur as the plates were handed around.

“C’est tres gourmet,” I said, biting into a sweet, yellow bud. “In the orient, daylilies are used as food as well as flowers. More Vitamin C than asparagus, more protein than a string bean.”

“So,” grinned Kendall. “Do I eat my corsage now or save it for a midnight snack? It looks delicious and I’ve been low on vitamins lately.”

“Sorry,” I said, “not the right sort. But, if you put it in water when you get home, it might bloom for several days. Lilies last a long time. And speaking of time, it’s time for the show.” I was reaching for the bell to have the plates removed, when the front door opened. Oh no. Not now.

I watched Grandmother coming down the main hall with Mother. The visitors must have left early. I could hear Grandmother’s voice raised in elegant complaint and Mother being soothing. Please, let them go straight on up. But no. They were turning toward the dining room, Grandmother in her most imperious mood. Oh dear, Grandmother in high dudgeon was unnerving at best. Possibly fatal.

Grandmother stopped dead in the doorway and stared at the table. Suddenly her face tightened and she stepped forward. “Death!” she cried, pointing her finger straight at Celia. “Death Before Darkfall!”

“Lillian, please,” said Mother, taking Grandmother’s arm and hurrying her through the hall. “Tonight is very important for Kate and her friends. We mustn’t intrude.” And she and Grandmother disappeared up the stairs, Grandmother fussing all the way.

“Has she gone senile or what?” Celia demanded. But she was obviously frightened. We all were. Especially me. Dark was falling fast.

Everyone else was too polite to comment, but I scrambled to shut the curtains and set up the VCR and the Mac. The class had been putting together a collage of pictures and video snips dating back to our arrival as raw First Year Girls. We planned to end the evening laughing at ourselves.

Tai was naturally not in the first half of the program. By the time she had arrived for our third year, I had installed a QuickCam at home, a neat little device that could take still or moving pictures right on the computer. It came in awfully handy for the mid-winter multimedia project. And it was just what was needed to finish off the evening. I had added a few homemade scenes from last year starring the twelve of us clowning before the camera. We were hard to see and harder to hear, but there we all were in fuzzy black and white.

“Hey, that’s Celia, someone said, as a swish of pale hair blocked the screen. The blurry on-screen Celia laughed and stuck out her tongue at us. The real Celia covered her eyes and groaned.

We all had our chance to groan as by ones and twos we swam into focus, a year younger and full of spirit. “Look, there’s Kate,” someone else said as a small, dark shape loomed into view. “Or is it Kendall?”

But it was neither. It was Tai. We watched in silence as a cheerful Tai paused in front of the camera. “Hello my friends,” she said. “I love you all. I will love you forever, my wonderful new friends.” Since the sound was even poorer than the picture, she wasn’t easy to understand. But we understood well enough.

Just then the picture went blank. “Is that all?” Celia sounded uneasy. “And you got an ‘A’ on your multimedia project. What a lame ending.”

But it wasn’t the end. The screen slowly came to life again and, though the picture was worse than ever, the sound was clear. Someone, someone small and dark, sat in a dim room crying. It was eerie.

“Turn on the lights!” demanded Celia, starting to rise. But as she rose, the figure on the screen looked up and spoke.

“Celia,” sighed the misty figure. “See what you have done?” We strained forward as Celia dropped back into her seat.

“I am so sorry.” The voice was fuzzier now, but sounded awfully like Tai. “So very, very sorry, Celia. It is too late for me, but not for you. Confess, Celia. Save your soul. Now. Before your heart shrivels up inside your breast. Feel it, Celia. Touch your guilty heart. Does it beat? Or does it bleed with shame?”

We tore ourselves away from the image to stare at Celia in the darkening room. Hypnotically her hands rose to her heart, eyes still fixed on the screen.

Suddenly, Celia shrieked in real terror. “My hands!” she cried. “My hands! They’re all covered with blood! Death by darkfall… Your grandmother said! Oh no! No! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”

“Sorry about what?” asked Mother, switching on the lights. But Celia didn’t answer. She sat staring at her stained hands as the rest of us stared at the rich red stain on her white silk dress.

“But Kate, how did you know?” We were having coffee in the parlor. Mother had taken Celia upstairs to wash and to wait for her father. “And where did all that blood come from?”

I should have been triumphant, but was shaking instead. My plan may have been a success, but, due to Grandmother catching Celia sporting her precious new hybrid, it worked almost too well. Celia had to be helped to bed, where she couldn’t stop crying. She sobbed on and on about ghosts and passwords and death by dark.

“It wasn’t blood,” I assured them. “It was just that fancy flower. Those rich ruffled daylilies make an awful mess when they wilt.

“And Tai,” they wanted to know. “Was that really her?”

“I thought she was in seclusion,” said Kathryn.

“I thought she was dead!” Kendall shuddered.

“Tai should be fine,” I said. “Now. But that wasn’t Tai. It was me.” There was a great outpouring of ‘But we all saw her.’

“You could scarcely see anything,” I reminded them. “The QuickCam and I made sure of that. And what did you hear? Only a faint voice with lilting accent.”

“It worked for Celia,” said Kathryn. “But how could you be certain that she’d really stolen the test?”

“Only Celia had both the skill and the opportunity to access the entire network. The exam had probably been hidden on her computer since Christmas. Plenty of time to guarantee her own scores. It must have been a terrible shock when Tai made an honest ‘A+’ and wound up with the award as well as the glory.”

“So, at that point,” said Kathryn, “I suppose she deleted her copy, parked it on Tai’s computer and made an anonymous call to the board. Ok. I see how Celia did it. But how did you do it? How did you work that bloody ‘heart in the hands’ business? Celia chose that flower herself. She said it was some special variety no one was allowed to touch. She seemed quite pleased about it.”

“Ah, that was the easy part. All I had to do was to ensure that Celia discovered that particular daylily. Once she’d seen it, nothing else could compare.”

“The easy part!” said Kendall. “I’ve never been able to get Celia to do anything. The harder I try, the less I succeed.”

“Exactly,” I said. “So all I had to do was to lead her to water and then warn her not to drink. It was like giving candy to a baby.”

Kendall was thoroughly confused by my mixed metaphors, but she did have one last burning question. “Ok, so you tricked her into wearing that flower. But how did you know it would shrivel up and die in the dark?”

I smiled. “Why do you think they call them Daylilies?”

Susan Howerter

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