Yarrow House

Roots and All

Raine called me at nine in the morning and told me to meet her out in front of my apartment building. “Urgent job. Have to act fast.” I shrugged into my slicker and headed out the door. Clients were always urgent when it came to finding something they’d lost, especially on a weekend.

I’d been looking forward to a Saturday TV binge of Game of Thrones. If the weather stayed damp, I might have even thought about a little housecleaning, although once you started tidying up the stacks of stuff, it was usually impossible to find anything ever after. Which was one good reason to skip the house cleaning. Let sleeping mail lie is my motto. After crashing in our office for far too long, having a place of my own where I could leave my stuff where it landed felt like a total luxury.

But oh, well, GTM, as the taxi drivers’ motto goes—get the money.

Raine’s old beater pulled up, and I climbed in. The wipers flapped across the windshield, making half-hearted swipes at the drenching mist that passed for a Seattle rainstorm. I don’t understand how Raine can drive a car with such a souped-up engine and such lousy wipers. I’ve never pried a decent explanation from her about it, either. “So what’s the job?”

“Missing plants.”

“Plants?” I had a sudden image of a bunch of shrubs pulling up their roots and crawling down the street in the middle of the night. Raine brought me back to reality.

“Duwamish River replanting project. Someone stole the plants they were going to put in today.”

“In the river?”

She’d have glared at me if she hadn’t been dodging an SUV that suddenly decided to make a left without signaling. “They’re planting them along the shore. Ferns and stuff. Someone stole a hundred of them.”

We sloshed over Beacon Hill and across the tide flats, on the overpass above a couple miles of one- and two-story warehouses and wholesale outlets until we came to the Duwamish, Seattle’s sorry excuse for a river. Lined with industries that had polluted it for a hundred years, the river somehow still tempted salmon looking for a way up into the mountains.

We crossed the high-rise bridge over the river and headed south to a gravel parking area of what looked like an overgrown vacant lot running down to the muddy river shore between a cement factory and an anonymous warehouse. We made our way through a motley crew of volunteers milling around a white event tent and approached the most likely person in charge, a woman with a clipboard.

She gave us a rambling rundown on the missing plants, the history of their project, and her opinion of plant thieves, while fending off questions and suggestions from the idled volunteers. About 500 plants had been stored at the edge of the parking lot overnight, ready for planting. The thieves had taken 110 of them—ferns, shrubs, and ground covers. I got a copy of the plant list from one of Ms. Clipboard’s helpers and started checking off the ones that were missing. Around me everyone had an opinion about where the plants had gone.

Raine prowled the parking lots of the cement plant and warehouse while I did what I do best, snooping in garbage. The garbage can chained to a post in the parking lot held the remains of a six pack of tall Colt 45s and some take out containers that once held barbecued ribs.

I strolled among the parked cars, thinking maybe the thief hadn’t left the area. But no telltale trail of dirt and leaves led to any of the cars. That would have been far too easy.

“Doesn’t look like those businesses have any cameras,” Raine said when she’d completed her prowl and circled back to me. “Probably no reason for a night watchman, either.” She eyed the volunteers, assessing their theft potential. She’s suspicious of volunteers. Of everyone, actually.

I proposed my current theory, a couple of guys, low-rent landscapers probably, had stopped at the park last evening to polish off some beers and take out. After a while, taking the plants started looking like a good idea. Raine didn’t say anything one way or the other, which probably meant she liked the idea, but didn’t see it taking us anywhere.

Ms. Clipboard had finished sending teams of volunteers off along the shore with shovels and some of the remaining plants. “Are you going to get these all planted today?” I asked.

She shook her head with a worried frown. “We scheduled two days for planting, today and tomorrow. I don’t know what we’ll do. Maybe hide the plants in the bushes, in case they come back for the rest of them.”

“How about if we keep watch tonight?” Raine suggested.

“Yeah, then if they do come back, we can catch them in the act. Maybe follow them and find out where they took the other plants.” I added. Always the helpful partner when it comes to finding work.

We completed our negotiations over the fee for night-time surveillance and then sat in the car and considered our next move. Between our wet coats and the heater, the car was turning into a steam room. Raine tapped a rhythm on the steering wheel. “Hard to say where they took the plants.”

“Could have gone anywhere.” I agreed. “Probably somewhere close, though.” Unfortunately, that narrowed the search radius to five miles, maybe, and covered a good section of south Seattle. “Might as well just wait and see how tonight shapes up,” I said, thinking about those Game of Thrones DVDs waiting for me in my warm, dry apartment. Raine was already pointing the car toward the bridge. She obviously had somewhere dry to go, too. We agreed to meet up again in the evening back at the Duwamish planting site.

When I got home, I’d planned to forget work but I couldn’t keep my mind off the plant theft and ended up spending all afternoon trolling through the internet looking for wholesale nurseries and landscaping permits. Both total long shots. It would take going to the nurseries to pry any info out of them about the kind of guys we were looking for, and their jobs probably weren’t the kind that bothered with permits.

I could also tell you a lot about the Duwamish valley, businesses along the Duwamish River—Boeing, of course, and a selection of marine construction, concrete, and chemical suppliers—the complicated history of the river itself —when Lake Washington was lowered, the Black River dried up and turned the Duwamish into an extension of the Green River— the Indians who used to have villages along it—all that’s left is the new Duwamish Tribal Center—the frustratingly slow EPA superfund cleanup, a bunch of art installations, and who to contact for a kayak river tour. But none of that was of any relevance. Once I start researching something, I easily go astray. And what did I care anyway about the state of the Duwamish? Especially on a cold drizzling night.

Our rendezvous time showed up and I shrugged into some extra thermal layers and my rain gear, grabbed a couple of energy bars, and headed back to our stakeout site.

I pulled my bike into the parking lot a little after 7. As I figured, Raine was already there, backed into the shadows at the far end of the lot. I climbed in beside her. She had a thermos of coffee and, as I'd hoped, some Chinese takeout. We settled in for a long night. I ran down some of the details of my afternoon’s search. She likes stuff like that.

We wandered sporadically over our usual conversational topics—rotten ethics of thieves, business, movies, the Mariners—all pitch, no hit—best all-night restaurants, business, best TV series, books, business. But after an hour or so we’d run through all the topics more than twice and finally just sat and stared off into the dark. I thought about playing a game on my phone but the light would have given us away.

Raine had drifted off to sleep and was quietly snoring when a pickup pulled into the lot. I nudged her awake. The pickup backed up to the river-side edge of the lot, and two guys climbed out. They started flashing a light around, looking for the plants, I assumed.

Raine had the local precinct on speed dial and called to alert them that the plant thieves were back. I’m always amazed at how calm she can be when she’s dealing with resistant officials. Her voice did start going into the dangerously quiet range, though, before she got through to her contact on the squad.

In the meantime I kept an eye on the duo with Raine’s nifty night binoculars. They’d found where the plants were stashed and had started lugging them back to the pickup. By the time they were into their fifth round trip, I was getting nervous about when they were going to decide to head out. “ The police are taking their time getting here,” I grumbled. “Maybe we should block them in.”

Raine waited until the duo went for another load of plants and started the car. I hopped out and climbed on my bike. Raine jammed her car up behind the truck and piled out just as the two guys came running up, dropping their armloads of pots on the way. The driver gave Raine a shove and tried to climb into the pickup cab. I could see her tussling with him, dragging him out of the cab.

I had my eye on the other guy who was heading for the passenger door. I revved my bike and skidded up to Mr. Passenger, slammed on the brakes, and winged the back of the bike around. I caught the guy just right and rammed him up against the side of the truck. He gave a scream that sounded like I’d broken something.

About then the blue lights showed up. It took some talking and flashing of PI licenses to keep them from taking us in, too. But finally they decided we were more trouble than it was worth and told us to shove off.

“Do you supposed those no-goodniks are going to tell where the rest of the plants are?” I asked.

“If they don’t confess, we’ll find the plants some other way,” Raine replied. “I have their license plate number.”

It was starting to drizzle again, and I pulled my helmet on. My stomach was suddenly growling. “Is it too early for breakfast?”

“See you at the usual place,” Raine said, and climbed into her car. I kicked the bike on and headed into town.

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2014