Big trouble in little greektown
Saturday, 10 a.m.
“Popcorn. Get your caramel-coated popcorn right here.”
“Let’s stop,” I said to Case, pushing up the strap of my sundress. “It smells delicious.”
“Athena, fifteen minutes ago you told me not to let you ruin your lunch.”
“I forgot about the popcorn.” I gave him a sheepish smile. “Just one bag and I’ll behave. It’ll be my treat.”
We stopped at the popcorn stand, bought a bag of the sweet/salty stuff, and took stock of our surroundings: arts and craft booths, food booths, a lovely woodland area, sand dunes, a view of Lake Michigan, and happy people enjoying a perfectly sunny Saturday morning. It had been so long since I’d taken a Saturday off, I’d almost forgotten how enjoyable my little tourist town could be.
The June sun was streaming down in beams through the voluminous puffy clouds, raising the temperature above 80 degrees, making sundresses and shorts a necessity. I had my long brown hair up in a ponytail and had on an aqua-colored sundress, a flowy style just perfect for a warm day. Case was wearing sandals, khaki shorts, and a dark green T-shirt that brought out the green flecks in his light brown eyes. He’d met me at the pier where his houseboat was docked, and even though I’d promised he’d find the art festival interesting, I’d had to practically drag him there.
Sequoia, Michigan was well-known for its weekend festivities, drawing people from all over the western side of the state as well as from northern Indiana and Chicago. I was glad to see the festival had already attracted a huge number of locals as well as tourists.
Entitled Art for the Park, the festival was well underway by the time we arrived.
The rambling, old Victorian mansion that hosted the event sat at the southern end of Greene Street, a corner lot on a wide expanse of land that had been all but forgotten until the historic home had been repurposed. From the porch hung a large sign that read The Studios of Sequoia and listed the services they offered: painting lessons, private art rooms, art sales, and studios for rent. This was the first time the Studios of Sequoia had sponsored a festival, and so far, it looked like a huge success.
A woman was standing on the wraparound porch giving a tour to a small group. Case and I passed by the house and wandered through the crowd into the backyard, a magnificent expanse of land with a perfect view of Lake Michigan. The back of the house had a large cement patio big enough to host painting classes or entertain guests.
“Shall we look around?” I asked Case as he munched on a handful of the sweet-smelling caramel corn.
Behind the mansion’s property was a large tract of dune fronting Lake Michigan, as well as a forested area with hiking trails. The land had once been a beautiful public park, but time and lack of funds had turned it into an eyesore.
Case pointed to one of the banners strung across the yard. “Save Our Dunes,” he read. “Save them from what?”
“The dunes have been off-limits because of erosion.” I picked up a pamphlet sitting on a nearby booth. “‘Art for the Park’,” I read aloud. “’All profits will go to help save our dunes from destruction.’ Save Our Dunes—we call it SOD—was started to raise awareness and education about Sequoia’s treasured strip of natural dune land.”
Case grabbed a second handful of popcorn. With his dark, handsome good looks and athletic build, I wasn’t sure which looked yummier, him or the popcorn. “Looks like they have a lot of support.”
We passed more booths and tables set up in a wide square on the expansive back lawn, people selling jewelry, hooked rugs, brightly colored pottery, drawings, even sculptures. Anything considered art was fair game at this festival.
I flipped through a selection of vintage movie posters as Case continued to eat the popcorn. “So, this is what you call interesting?” he asked.
I snatched the bag from him. “You just lost popcorn privileges.”
A deep voice to my left caught my attention. “Hello, Goddess of Greene Street.”
I swung around and came face-to-face with Hugo Lukan, the photographer who’d taken my picture with the now-famous Treasure of Athena statue that graced the entrance to my father’s business, Spencer’s Garden Center. The Treasure of Athena and I had made quite a splash in the newspaper after I’d helped solve a double homicide that centered around the six-foot-tall statue of the goddess Athena. That investigation had earned me the title the Goddess of Greene Street.
Hugo was a lean, nervous, forty-something man who was always on the move. With prematurely white hair, he took photographs for the daily newspaper and also sold his photos to magazines and advertisers. Now on his third divorce, Hugo was known around town for his penchant for flirting and his scandalous lack of scruples.
He shook my hand and then Case’s. “You’re a hard man to reach, Donnelly.”
“I’ve been busy,” Case said. He eyed the professional camera hanging around Hugo’s neck. “Are you here on official business?”
Hugo did a quick sweep of the crowd. “I guess you could say that. Let’s have you two stand closer and smile for me.”
We did as he suggested, and he took our photograph. “It’s always nice to see a celebrity mingling with the common folk,” he teased.
“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood,” I teased back.
“You get your private eye business up and running yet?” he asked Case.
“Still working on it,” Case replied.
Hugo glanced around again as though checking for someone. “You’d better hurry,” he said, suddenly serious. “You and I have a lot to discuss.”
“What do you two have to discuss?” I asked, feeling suspiciously left out of the loop.
He lowered his voice. “I can’t talk about it here, but I do need Case’s expertise. Watch your mail.”
“Are you selling any of your photography today?” Case asked, changing the subject.
“Are you kidding?” Hugo rolled his eyes. “This festival is a waste of time. The Save Our Dunes group wanted me to donate some of my photos for the park renovation project, but what I’m working on now will help their cause more than any donation could. Just wait and see.”
“Wait for what?” I asked.
As though he hadn’t heard me, Hugo glanced around again. “There’s Pearson Reed. If you’ll excuse me, I need to speak with him, so I’ll let you get on with your day. Enjoy the festival.” Hugo turned and practically trotted away.
“A celebrity, are you?” Case asked, putting an arm around my shoulders.
“No autographs, please. This celebrity is officially off-duty. Now, if you’ll do me the honor of filling me in.”
“Don’t mind Hugo,” Case said. “I met him last week at a bar. He was going on about some conspiracy within the city council and asked for my help. I told him it’d have to wait until I got my private investigator’s license. He wasn’t too happy about that.”
“I don’t trust him, Case. He does exceptional photography, but otherwise doesn’t have a very good reputation.”
“That’s why I’ve been avoiding him.”
“He sounded very serious.”
“He said wait and see. I guess that’s all we can do.”
We kept walking down the aisles of booths, my eyes focused on Hugo as he followed Pearson through the crowd. “Pearson Reed is on the city council,” I told Case. “His wife is a friend of mine. Maybe we should look into this conspiracy Hugo mentioned.”
“Not until I get my P.I. license. I don’t want to jeopardize my career before it starts.”
We passed by a beverage booth sponsored by Sequoia Savings and Loan, where I waved to my friend Darlene, a senior vice president at the bank. We saw a face-painting booth for kids, a booth selling artisan cheeses, and another selling goat milk soaps and lotions. We stopped at one called Jewel’s Jewels, explored a booth selling watercolor art, and browsed a long table of homemade desserts sponsored by the Women of St. Jacob’s Greek Orthodox Church. They had baklava, kourabiedes, and my favorite, galaktobourekos, among others. To go with it they were offering Greek coffee, a sweet, strong, pressed coffee that was dessert in itself.
“We have to stop here,” I said. “I want you to try the glacktobourekos.”
“I can’t even pronounce it. Why would I want to try it?”
“Do you like custard? Because these are heavenly little squares of custard pie with honey drizzled on top.”
Case motioned toward the empty bag of popcorn in my hand. “I promised to keep you from ruining your lunch.”
“And I promised you this art fair would be interesting.”
“Buy one for me!” I heard and glanced down to the next booth to see my youngest sister, Delphi, sitting behind the table. With her dark, curly hair pulled back in a ponytail, she had on a deep teal T-shirt and tie-dyed harem pants in teal and gold with her ever-present flip-flops, those also in gold.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, moving down to stand in front of her.
“Raising money.” She smiled up at me. “Check out our sign.”
I glanced up and saw a sign that read: Mind, Body, Spirit. And in smaller letters underneath: Reiki Healer, Psychic Medium, Massage Therapist, Tea Leaf Reader.
“Delphi, you don’t do tea leaf readings.” And her coffee ground readings were iffy at best.
“Go away, then,” she said with a pout. “You’ll ruin business.”
“Athena, are you causing trouble?” I heard and turned to my left to see my mother standing inside the Greek church’s booth, arms crossed, shaking her head, an amused look on her face. Next to her stood my older sister Selene, my younger sister Maia, and my ten-year-old son, Nicholas.
“Look at that,” Case whispered in my ear. “It’s a family affair.”
“Hi, Mom,” said Nicholas, or Niko, as he preferred to be called now. “Can I have a piece of custard, too?”
“Not now, honey,” I said. “You’ll ruin your lunch.”
“There’s the pot calling the kettle black,” Case said quietly, earning him another poke in the shoulder.
I came from a big, zany, half-Greek, half-English family of two parents, four sisters, a Greek grandmother and grandfather, and lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Like my sisters Maia and Selene, I was named after a Greek goddess. Delphi was named after the Oracle of Delphi, which she assumed made her an oracle, too. Unlike my sisters, however, I took after my father in looks, while my three sisters took after my mother, with long, dark, curly hair, rounder faces, olive complexions, and sturdier bodies than our willowy, fair-haired, English relatives.
“Athena,” my mom said, snapping her fingers beneath my chin, causing the gold bracelets on her arm to clatter.
“Sorry, I was just thinking.”
“Leave Delphi alone,” Mom said. “She’s making money for SOD.”
In lieu of sticking out her tongue, Delphi wrinkled her nose at me. I wrinkled my nose back and turned away. I usually tried to monitor her coffee ground readings when she did them for customers at Spencer’s. Amazingly, although she often put her foot in her mouth, now and then she actually got her readings right. She claimed a 75 percent success rate, which I highly doubted.
“Nice to see you, Case,” my mom said. “Athena, let your son have a small square. He’s been good all morning.”
“I think Athena wants some Greek custard, too,” Case said, pulling out his wallet. He eyed the luscious custard squares and added, “Make that three.”
“Coming right up.” Selene turned to dish three squares onto heavy cardboard plates.
Case picked up our desserts, passed one to Nicholas with a wink, and we moved on to the booth after Delphi’s, where the sign said: Save Our Dunes Nature Walk.
“Today we’re giving a short lecture on the native plants as we hike a portion of the trail,” a man in matching khaki shirt and pants told the crowd. “If you enjoy nature, you’ll enjoy this. Our first walk starts in half an hour.”
“Let’s sign up,” I said to Case.
He looked dubious. “It’s hot today. Are you sure you want to hike?”
He was looking for a way out. “Come on, this will actually be interesting,” I said, writing our names on the list. “And we’ll have time to eat our dessert beforehand. Let’s go find a place to sit.”
“Interesting?” Case muttered. “Right.”
“Tables are right over there.” Case pointed across the wide lawn to a grouping of bright green wooden picnic tables.
As we sat down at an empty table facing the water, Case held his hand up to shield his eyes from the bright late-morning sun and glanced around. “This is beautiful land.”
“You should have seen it twenty years ago. My family used to come down here with a picnic lunch on Sunday afternoons. I have fond memories of playing in the sand and swimming in the lake with my sisters. I’d really hate to see it destroyed.”
As Case took a bite of the soft custard dessert, I asked, “How is the galacktobourekos, by the way?”
“You were right. It’s delicious. But I’m not even going to try to pronounce that.”
“Just say Gah-lacto-burekos.” I finished my dessert and sat back with a sigh. “The Greek language is a challenge, which is why I skipped a lot of Greek school.”
“I have an idea,” Case said, sliding his arm around my waist. “Why don’t we skip the nature hike and take the boat out? Just you and me. Out on the water. Alone.”
The idea was tempting. It seemed as though Case and I hadn’t been able to spend any quality time together in weeks. Ever since he’d started working toward his P.I. license, all of his free time was spent studying, researching, and taking classes. Not only that, but the summer rush was in full swing at the garden center. Between that and spending time with my son and family, there wasn’t much room for romance.
“Athena!” someone called. I looked around and saw Elissa Petros Reed, a talented artist and wife of city councilman Pearson Reed, walking toward us.
“Hold that thought,” I said to Case.
A full-blooded Greek, Elissa was a petite woman with thick, short dark hair, an olive complexion, dark brown eyes, and a generous mouth. After inheriting the Victorian house and property from her father, Elissa and her husband were responsible for renovating the mansion and turning it into a well-regarded art studio and tourist attraction.
I’d known Elissa since we were both gawky preteens. We’d become friends through summer camp and had stayed friends until college, when our paths took us in different directions. Now that our sons had become friends, we looked forward to seeing each other regularly. “It’s good to see you,” I said.
“You, too. And who is this handsome gentleman?”
I introduced her to Case and told her we had signed up for the nature walk. “Case is really excited about it.”
He stared at me as though to say, I am?
“Good,” she said. “You’ll understand why we love this land so much. In fact, my husband and I are the ones who started the Save Our Dunes group. I hope you two will join. We need more members.”
“I’d love to join,” I said. “I’m all for turning the lakeside back into a park.”
As Case ate the last bite of the soft custard dessert, he glanced past the dunes to where the trees started. “What about the forested area?”
“If a business bought the land,” Elissa explained, “it could be razed or ignored. Either way it’d be a shame to see it go to waste, and it would completely ruin the view from our studios. That’s why Save Our Dunes was created, to convince the city council this land should be rehabbed as a public park again.”
“What’s the latest word from the city council?” I asked.
“According to my husband,” she said, “there’s a company that wants to build on the land, with a parking lot on the southern end and an industrial driveway that would run alongside the property here. Supposedly it would bring in a good chunk of money in tax revenue for the city. Unfortunately, it would also devastate the dunes and more than likely put my studios out of business.”
“That’d be awful,” I said. “This is such a beautiful property and a great old house.”
“Yes, it would be awful,” she said. “This is one of the oldest homes in Sequoia. Have you taken Case inside?”
“Actually, we have time to do that now. The nature walk doesn’t start for another twenty minutes.”
“Then I’ll leave you to it,” she said with a smile. “Let’s meet for lunch soon and catch up.” Then she turned to talk to someone else.
“Let’s go,” I said, dragging Case from the bench. “We’ll have just enough time to take a fast tour.”
“Am I excited about that, too?”
We walked around to the front of the huge Victorian mansion and went up the stairs to the spacious front porch. Inside the foyer we found a list of artists who rented space in the building to create and sell their artwork. We took the staircase to the second floor and toured the former bedrooms that were now studios. Just as we were about to start down the curving staircase, Elissa’s eleven-year-old son, Denis, came trotting up, out of breath, his bookbag bouncing heavily on his shoulders.
“Hello, Denis,” I said.
He seemed surprised to see me and muttered a quick, red-faced hi.
“Niko’s at the Saint Jacob’s booth. If you’re looking for something to do, why don’t you go find him?”
“Thanks. I will,” he said, and kept going up the staircase to the third floor.
Case and I did a fast sweep-through of the main floor and exited just in time to walk back to the nature trail booth and join the group. Our guide was a tall, solemn-faced man in his forties who introduced himself as a professor at the local community college. “Does anyone know why native plants are so important to a region?” he asked as we hiked over the dunes toward the woodland area.
“Because they’re more resistant to disease?” I answered.
“Very good. That’s one reason. Actually, native plants require less water, less fertilizer, less pesticide, and less care and maintenance. They also provide a habitat and food for many birds, insects, mammals, and other wildlife. This is why we’re so dedicated to preserving this land. We don’t want to lose all the benefits of this beautiful sanctuary.”
He paused to point out some thorny shrubs. “Please be mindful of these barberry bushes. You’ll find them all over the woodland. They can cut into your clothing and your skin very easily.”
As we walked along, he pointed out flowers, shrubs, and trees that were native to west Michigan. We also saw perennials such as butterfly weed, black-eyed Susans, showy goldenrod, and blue coneflower, as well as an assortment of ferns.
“This is more than I wanted to know,” Case said quietly as we walked along.
“I think it’s interesting.”
“That makes one of us.”
“Over here we have a perfect specimen of a black cherry tree,” our guide said. “And on your right a type of bush called the—” He stopped suddenly and then gasped. As everyone crowded forward to see why, he pulled out his phone, putting out one arm to hold us back.
I craned my neck to see what everyone was staring at and saw a pair of a man’s legs sticking out of the underbrush.
“Yes, hello,” the guide said. “I have an emergency.”
“Oh my God,” someone cried.
Case pushed through the crowd to get a closer look, and I followed. “It’s Hugo,” Case said, “and it looks like he’s dead.”
While everyone stood around gawking, I took out my cell phone and quickly snapped some photos.
“We’ll have to stay here until the police arrive,” our guide said after ending the call. “Let’s move back to the dune area to wait.”
As we followed the guide back up the trail, Case said, “Now it’s getting interesting.”