A long time ago, I worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden. you may not know it, but it’s one of the top three botanical research institutions in the world and has the third-largest herbarium on the planet. It’s been around since 1859, when it was opened by a retired English businessman named Henry Shaw. In addition to being a global leader in the preservation of plant biodiversity, it’s a beautiful place, with 79 acres of display gardens, including a magnificent Japanese Garden, Seiwa-en, “garden of pure, clear harmony and peace,” the largest of its kind in North America.
It’s also haunted, according to many people. Why? Because in addition to being a botanical garden, it’s the final resting place of its founder, whose mausoleum is located on the grounds. It’s actually a beautiful part of the Garden that I enjoyed walking through, especially in the middle of summer, since it was always shady and a little cooler than the rest of the grounds.
All of this made the Garden the perfect setting for this month’s Flash Fiction Draw, which needed to be a ghost story, set in a field of tulips, including a key.
As always, I took liberties. I also brought back a couple of characters from previous Flash Fiction Draw submissions, because they fit both the place and the time.
The Haunting of Shaw’s Garden
Miss Vida stepped out of Herbert’s time cabinet into a field of tulips.
At least, she thought it was a field at first. In reality, it turned out to be a garden, orderly beds of tulips in a profusion of pinks, purples, yellows with flame-tipped petals. She grasped Herbert’s wrist as he was about to turn the key in the cabinet door behind them.
“Darling, are we home? Is this Mister Shaw’s Garden?”
Herbert pocketed the key. “It is indeed, but I fear we are not quite home yet.”
He pointed over her shoulder. She turned to take in the view—and gasped. At the other end of a plaza dominated by a trio of reflecting pools rose a giant dome of metal and glass, looking for all the world like a cross between a bombe and a spider’s web.
Miss Vida clutched Herbert’s arm as if she might be overtaken by vertigo. “What is it?”
Herbert laughed and put an arm around her reassuringly. “Now now, it’s nothing to get in a fright over. But I must say it’s a remarkable example of a geodesic polyhedron. They must be using it as a sort of hothouse for growing tropical plants, if I had to guess.”
She tilted her head and considered the structure. “Do you think we could go inside?”
“I don’t see why not, but it’s not really why we’re here.”
Miss Vida leaned away and turned a haughty look on him. “I thought we were going home. Were you planning this little detour?”
“My dear, of course we were heading home,” he stammered. He adjusted his tie as if it had become a snake constricting his throat. “But I had hoped we might take this small… temporal excursion to investigate a most fascinating phenomenon that you would surely find engaging.” He leaned closer, dropping his voice. “They say that Mister Shaw haunts his Garden!”
Frowning in an almost patronizing way, she tilted her head at him. “Darling, really? Phantasms and ghosts? Do you really think that—“
“Excuse me, can I help you?”
Miss Vida and Herbert turned in unison to find themselves facing a beautiful blonde woman with a contraption in her hands that looked like it might have been a weapon. Also—and scandalously, in Miss Vida’s opinion—she wore a skirt that was much too short, practically above her knees!
Before Herbert could utter a word, Vida stepped forward, angling herself between him and the newcomer. She put on her best smile. “My dear, you could do me a great favor by telling my companion that this Garden is not haunted by Mister Shaw.”
The woman looked momentarily taken aback. “Oh, you know about that?”
Miss Vida’s smile faltered. “I’m sorry?”
The woman waved toward their left. “It’s becoming a more common story, that people have seen things in the Victorian District that convince them Shaw is haunting the Garden.”
“Um, excuse me,” Herbert said. “Victorian District?”
“That’s the area where the mausoleum and Tower Grove House are located. And the Museum Building, but that’s closed to the public.”
“Perhaps we should head in that direction, dearest,” Herbert said, taking Miss Vida’s arm. Vida, however, held her ground, and with her height advantage, Herbert couldn’t shift her.
“Just a moment more, light of my life,” she said, which was a diminutive she brought out only when she was not in a position to say cross me at your peril, Herbert. To the other woman, she said, “Is such a thing really possible? Surely, spirits and phantasms are simply fancies cultivated by the impressionable mind, are they not?”
The woman smiled. “Well, there are more than a few Garden staff members who would say otherwise. I’ve never encountered the ghost of Henry Shaw myself, but maybe he’s just not chosen to reveal himself to me.”
Miss Vida gave her an appraising glance. “I suspect any spirit of the other world would find you a formidable adversary.”
The woman laughed. “I don’t know about that, but you’re welcome to explore the Victorian District and see if you encounter him yourselves. Tower Grove House isn’t open yet, but you’ll be able to walk around it and through the mausoleum grounds.” Pausing, she glanced down at her wristwatch. “Actually, the Garden doesn’t open for another hour. Shaw’s birthday isn’t for another month or so. We usually don’t have the cosplayers on site until then. Did someone let you in early?”
Miss Vida wasn’t sure what “cosplayers” meant, but she grasped the situation quickly enough. They were interlopers but of the kind who would be expected sometime in the future. She took Herbert’s arm gently.
“We’re… new. We just wanted to get into the spirit of things as much in advance as possible.”
The woman smiled. “In that case, with few people around it should seem suitably ghostly.” She held up the contraption. “Do you mind if I take your picture first?”
A camera, of course. Much smaller than the ones Miss Vida was accustomed to, but if she knew anything, she knew how to pose.