I used to like Monday mornings. They were the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, revving up my enthusiasm for the challenges of the week ahead, or the starting pistol at the horse races, sending me out of the gate with a burst of energy, ready to run the course no matter how much mud was on the track.
Sadly, those days were over, a fading vision in my rearview mirror, a reminder that life is ever changing—and not always for the better. And it wasn’t only the beginning of the week that fate had fumbled. It was every morning of every day. Every. Day.
This morning was a prime example. I’d risen at seven o’clock, showered, put on mascara, a little blush, skipped the concealer—nothing covered my freckles—and tamed the red beast that many called my hair. Marco had already walked our rescue dog, Seedy, and brought me a cup of coffee laced with half-and-half, just the way I liked it. After seven months of marriage, this small token of love still amazed me.
Then we’d proceeded to the kitchen for breakfast.
The Olympic torch had barely been lit when its bright flame began to flicker.
* * *
The previous September I had become Abigail Knight Salvare, wife of Marco Salvare, the former Army Ranger/current owner of Down the Hatch Bar and Grill and the sexiest man in town. He had dark hair, soulful brown eyes, a strong jaw, an olive complexion with a faint five-o’clock shadow, muscular arms, and trim hips—honestly, he could have been a cover model for GQ. What he saw in a busty, five-foot-two, Irish-tempered redhead was a mystery to me.
In addition to being Marco’s wife, I was the owner of Bloomers Flower Shop, located on the square in New Chapel, Indiana. I had also recently become Marco’s partner in the Salvare Detective Agency, and together we had helped solve sixteen murder cases. There was a lot on my plate, but I loved it all.
Then, after several long months of being crammed into Marco’s bachelor pad, and with his lease up for renewal, we’d embarked on a laborious and tangled house hunt. By “laborious” I mean that my cousin Jillian went into false labor three times while assisting us with the hunt, and by “tangled” I mean that we got ourselves into quite a knot of a murder investigation.
Thanks to my budding sleuthing skills, the murder case had been resolved, but not the house hunt. So we’d decided to build. Because of that decision, we needed to save money and find a temporary place to live, so—deep breath, Abby—we’d moved in with my parents.
To be honest, I wasn’t in favor of it, but they’d insisted, and Marco had accepted for both of us, something I believed he had come to regret. In any case, we were now ensconced in my childhood bedroom, still painted screaming yellow with purple accents and decorated with plaster of paris handprints I made in kindergarten, a silhouette of my ten-year-old head, framed awards for perfect attendance (the only awards I’d ever received), and posters of my favorite childhood movies. Basically, I was living in a flashback.
Now the room that had once been my punishment—as in, “Go to your room, young lady—you are grounded!”—had become my sanctuary. It was the only place in the house where Marco and I had any privacy, and even then, we had our little Seedy packed in with us.
In my parents’ kitchen, which was spacious enough for a long, farm-style table and eight chairs, Marco made oatmeal for himself and I had a second cup of coffee. I never ate at home on Mondays because my assistant, Lottie, always served up her famous skillet breakfast at Bloomers that day. We were joined in short order by my mom, Maureen “Mad Mo” Knight, a kindergarten teacher and weekend artist who managed her household with the same firm hand with which she ran her classroom.
This morning, Mom had made a new dish involving eggs, tomatoes, something, and something for herself and Dad, and now she insisted I eat it. I told her up front I didn’t want any, and she knew very well why. Even so, a battle of wills ensued, with my mother maintaining that I was not getting out of the house without trying her omelet. The stalemate was broken by my dad, who had rolled his wheelchair into the kitchen to eat breakfast and instead found himself initiating what amounted to hostage negotiations, one of Dad’s areas of expertise.
“Take a seat, Maureen,” he began, scooting out a chair for her. “Right here, across from your daughter.”
My father, Sergeant Jeffrey Knight, had been a cop for twenty years before a drug dealer’s bullet blew a hole through his leg and landed him in the hospital. Then surgery to remove the bullet caused a partial paralysis of his legs that confined him mostly to the wheelchair. He’d retired from the force soon after, but he would always and forever be a cop. Thus the negotiations.
“Now, Mo,” Dad said, one hand on her shoulder, “you know Abracadabra has breakfast at Bloomers on Mondays, right?”
This got a reluctant yes from my mother. I suspected he had used my childhood nickname to remind Mom of the adorable cherub I had once been. I think she and I would have agreed that was a debatable point.
“And, Ab, you know that all you have to do is eat a few forkfuls to make Mom happy, right?”
I shrugged, indicating ambivalence. Bad move on my part. Dad was looking for total capitulation.
“Come on, Abby,” he said. “You know your mother is only acting in your best interests.”
“Yes, Dad, I know that.” I glanced at Marco, seated across the table from me, and rolled my eyes. He shook his head as though to say, Nope. I’m out of it.
“Now, who is willing to compromise here so we can move on to a pleasant topic of conversation?” Dad asked.
Not me. I wasn’t about to give in. That was just what Mom wanted.
Wait, what had I just said? A shiver raced up my spine. Dear God, it’s like I never moved away from home. It was as though the years after high school graduation, through college, through my failed attempt at law school, through two years of owning Bloomers, had vanished once I’d stepped back into my old bedroom.
I had to get that new house built fast.
“This is my last word on the subject, Abigail,” Mom said. “A little protein will make you feel better until you can have breakfast at Bloomers. You know how you crash and burn when you’re overly hungry.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, then sipped my coffee. Marco finished his oatmeal silently, his gaze seeking out the clock on the wall.
At that point Dad began his new ritual wherein he read aloud articles from the morning newspaper.
“Here’s something for you, Abracadabra,” he said, and began reading. I rolled my eyes at Marco again and pulled out my cell phone, ostensibly to check messages but actually to play a game so I could tune Dad out.
My phone rang in the middle of my losing the game, so I paused to check the screen and noticed that Mom and Dad were both waiting to hear who my caller was.
“Just Jillian,” I said, then left the room to take the call. My cousin Jillian was the unbearably proud mother of a one-month-old baby girl named Harper Abigail Lynne Osborne, whose initials by no coincidence spelled HALO. The child was Jillian’s little angel and even had a “halo” of white seed pearls that Jillian put on her tiny head like a sweatband every time a photo op presented itself.
I couldn’t very well complain, however, since Jillian had chosen Harper’s middle name as a tribute to me, the loyal cousin who’d stuck by crazy Jillian through thick and thin. And while I appreciated her having a healthy, adorable baby, it seemed a little too early in the game to declare presidential aspirations for Harper.
“Abs, you won’t believe what Harper did,” Jillian said.
This was her daily mantra, and I was tired of it. “Let me guess. She woke up, nursed, pooped, and went back to sleep.”
Seriously, what else did month-old babies do? I tuned Jillian out, too.
Fifteen minutes later, Marco and I broke free and headed for the town square in my refurbished banana yellow 1960 Corvette. I’d gotten the car for a steal after it had been found languishing in a barn under a huge collection of junk. When the farmer who owned the property died, the family had wanted to get rid of everything, making the sporty little car totally affordable for an impoverished law school flunk-out. The poor ’Vette had been horribly mistreated, but a good paint job had fixed most of that.
Had it been my choice, I would have been the one driving, something I loved passionately. But Marco always got behind the wheel first, so I had to let it go because I loved him more passionately. I also would have cranked up the volume on the radio and sung along, ragtop down, wind blowing my hair, feeling as free as a cloud in the sky, but I felt self-conscious with Marco there.
I decided to stay mum about it, however, since his green Prius had been totaled just a month earlier while he was trying to save me from a killer. He hadn’t bought another vehicle yet because he was certain we could save money by carpooling.
He parked in a public lot a block off the square and we walked to Franklin Street, where both of us had businesses. Seedy hobbled happily along with us, pausing as we stopped midway between our shops for a kiss.
“Dinner at the bar after work?” Marco asked, brushing a strand of hair off my face.
“You bet. And maybe we should start having breakfast out, too.”
“Your parents aren’t that bad, Sunshine.”
“Marco, do you really like having someone read the paper to you? Or insist you eat their food when you’re not even hungry?”
“You’re always hungry when you wake up. And we’re not going to live with them forever.”
“It just feels that way,” I said with an exasperated sigh.
Marco looked deep into my eyes. “Be grateful you have them.”
I couldn’t argue. Marco’s father had died when he was a teenager, and he still felt the loss. Besides, I was starving and just wanted to get to Bloomers so I could eat. I kissed him again, then headed down the block while he headed up.
Franklin was one of four streets that made up New Chapel’s courthouse square. The five-story white limestone county seat was situated in the middle of a large expanse of green lawn, with cement planters at all four corners and cedar benches placed along the sidewalks. The courthouse was the heart of the town, making it a bustling place.
Normally at that time of the morning not much was happening, however, as most shops wouldn’t open for another hour and the courthouse staff wouldn’t roll in until eight thirty. But something was about to happen this morning, and by the looks of it, I was guessing a press conference. Workers were setting up microphones at the top of the wide courthouse steps, hanging banners from the portico, and cordoning off an area with thick burgundy ropes for whatever VIPs were going to be there.
Other than the workers and a few men in dark suits huddled near the mics, the only other person out that early was Jingles, the old window washer, who was squeegeeing off the windows of the business next to mine.
Jingles, so named for the coins in his pocket that he rattled when he talked, had been washing windows for as long as I’d been coming down to the square. With his old tin pail and trusty squeegee, his worn jeans, gray sweatshirt jacket, and scuffed black work boots, the seventy-five-year-old senior was as much a fixture as the courthouse.
But as we approached Bloomers, Seedy saw Jingles and scurried behind me, causing the leash to wind around my ankles, nearly bringing me down. Her reaction wasn’t unusual. The abuse she’d suffered from her previous owner had left her with a fear of most people, especially men.
“Seedy, stop. Hold still.” As I untangled my legs, my phone beeped, so before I scooped her up I pulled out my cell and saw a text from Jillian: Call me.
“Not going to happen,” I muttered, then nearly stepped into a bucket of sudsy water that Jingles had set on the sidewalk.
“Sorry, Jingles,” I called as my thumbs flew over the buttons on my phone: Busy now. Maybe later. With a huff of annoyance, I dropped the phone into my purse and picked up my dog. I had no time for Jillian’s nonsense.
I opened the yellow frame door and stepped inside the loveliest shop on the square. Did it matter that I had mortgaged Bloomers to the hilt? My name, not the bank’s, was on the sign above the door. But just to be certain bank gremlins hadn’t repossessed it overnight, I put Seedy down, then peeked through the glass pane for a quick look up.
BLOOMERS FLOWER SHOP
Abby Knight, Proprietor
Oops. I had to remember to order a sign with my new name on it.
“Morning, love,” Grace called, coming out of the coffee-and-tea parlor, a charming Victorian-themed café I’d added to lure more people into Bloomers. Grace Bingham, an elegant sixtysomething expat from Great Britain, not only ran the parlor, but also baked fresh scones daily and made the best gourmet coffee in town. “Shall I pour your coffee now or wait until Lottie calls us to the kitchen for breakfast?”
I crouched down to detach the leash from Seedy’s collar. “Now, please.”
“You did remember to buy the eggs, didn’t you?”
“Was I supposed to buy eggs?”
“Lottie mentioned we were out last Friday, and you said you’d take care of it.”
I really needed to start paying more attention when people were talking to me. Make that certain people.
“I’ll run to the grocery store right now.” I let Seedy off her leash, and she hobbled to the big bay window and jumped up—an amazing feat for a three-legged dog. She loved to watch the comings and goings on the courthouse square across the street.
“There won’t be enough time for a grocery run, dear,” Grace said. “You’ve got an appointment at eight forty-five—another wedding consultation. And we have flower orders for two funerals today, so it’s all hands on deck. We’ll have to skip breakfast today.”
A wave of nausea rolled through my empty stomach. Skipping breakfast was not an option. My body required two things to operate efficiently: regular meals and seven hours of sleep. Deprived of either or both, Abigail Christine Knight Salvare turned into an actual redheaded beast.
At once, my mom’s words resounded in my head: You know how you crash and burn when you’re hungry.
Well, I would just prove her wrong. There would be no crashing or burning.
“The Old World Deli has breakfast sandwiches,” I said, pulling out my cell phone. “I’ll order egg and sausages for all of us, then dash over and pick them up.”
That was one of the benefits of working on the town square. Everything one needed was only five minutes away.
While I was on the phone, Seedy began to whine and paw the window. Then she jumped down and hobbled to the front door, putting her paw on it and looking over at me.
“It appears you’ll have company on your walk to the deli,” Grace said.
I snapped Seedy’s leash on, picked her up, and headed back outside. As soon as we’d crossed Franklin Street, I set her down again so we could head right, circling around the front of the courthouse to reach the deli on the opposite side. Seedy had other ideas, however, and pulled me toward the left, aiming for the budding lilac bushes that nearly obliterated the courthouse’s rarely used side entrance.
In the days before videoconferencing, inmates were bused over from the jail five blocks away and hustled in through the side door, where they could be taken straight to the courtroom. Nowadays, the side entrance was used only when a VIP came to town and wanted to slip into the courthouse unnoticed. Since New Chapel was a small college town in northwest Indiana, this was a rare event, which was why the shrubs were overgrown.
I pulled her back. “Not now, Seedy. We need to keep moving.”
My phone beeped again, so I checked the screen and saw that my fourteen-year-old niece had sent me a text: Need your advice. After school OK?
Seedy had stopped to sniff a piece of material lying in the grass, so I took a second to text back: Sure. Afternoons were busy at Bloomers, especially because Rosa Marin, my part-time help, wasn’t around then. But how could I say no? What was an aunt for if not to give advice? I’d just have to squeeze in five minutes to talk to her.
“Come on, Seedy,” I said, giving her leash a gentle tug. “We don’t have time to play this morning.” Especially not with someone’s cast-off necktie. Rather, a piece of a necktie, as it appeared to be just the knot. Someone was obviously in a hurry to disrobe.
The flurry of activity was increasing as workers set up folding chairs and more men in suits gathered at the top of the stairs. I spotted the mayor and paused. What was going on?
A worker passed by with a push broom, so I called, “Hey, what’s up?”
“Press conference at nine.”
“Big announcement about the New Chapel Savings Bank partnering with the city to build an entertainment venue downtown. It was the lead story in the newspaper this morning.”
Well, that explained a lot. I watched the activity for a few minutes, then looked around, trying to guess where the venue might go. But at a menacing growl from my stomach, I remembered my mission and set off, the two of us dodging the people now drifting in. We finally made it to the other side and, after letting several cars pass, crossed the side street. We were nearly at the deli when pounding footsteps sounded behind me.
I turned to see a woman in a black trench coat and tall black boots, her thick auburn hair sprayed so stiffly that it stood four inches above her head, running across the street heading straight for me. She was stuffing something into her purse, not looking where she was going, and it was only my shout of “Hey!” that kept us from colliding.
Startled, she jerked to a stop, muttered an apology, and hurried around us. I stooped down to calm my trembling pet, heard a bang, and looked up to see that the lady had smacked into the deli’s glass door and stumbled backward. Rubbing her forehead, she glanced around to see whether anyone had witnessed her accident, gave me a weak smile, then entered the shop.
“That’s what happens when you don’t pay attention, Seedy,” I said, rising. “Let’s go get our sandwiches. I’m starv—a little hungry.”
“Morning, Abby,” called Jennifer, the friendly woman behind the counter, when I walked into the deli. “Sandwiches will be ready in a few minutes.”
I caught sight of the lady with the big hair standing in front of the meat case near the back of the shop. She kept glancing around, trying to see out the front window as though looking for someone, her fingers in tight fists at her sides.
When a clerk handed her a white bag, the woman glanced inside, then snapped, “Where’s the receipt? I need a receipt.”
“I’m getting it for you now.”
The impatient woman jerked it from the clerk’s hand, stuffed it in her bag, then hurried past me and out the door just as Jennifer came out from behind the counter with my order. “Wow. She was certainly in a hurry. Sorry for the delay, Abby. We’ve had quite a crowd this morning. Of course it helps that we’re the only ones open this early. And look what I have for you, Seedy.” She held out her hand to reveal a piece of ham in her palm. Seedy wagged her tail and yipped, happy to take the gift.
Most of the shop owners around the square had come to know and love Seedy in the short time I’d had her, even though all agreed she was the ugliest mutt anyone had ever seen. She had a small body covered with long, patchy white, brown, and tan fur, big butterfly wing ears with tufts of hair sticking out of the tops, a pointed, bristly muzzle, an underbite, and only three legs.
I’d first noticed Seedy at the animal shelter, where she was next in line to be euthanized because no one would adopt her. I’d tried to find her a home, never intending to take her myself. But when she’d looked at me with big brown eyes brimming with love—and more than that, trust—my heart had melted.
I settled up at the cash register, then, with the white bag in hand, led Seedy out the door. As we crossed the street and started across the wide expanse of lawn, I could see people heading toward something on the other side of the courthouse. As we drew nearer, two squad cars raced up Franklin Street and stopped in front of Bloomers, their lights flashing and sirens blaring. Right behind them was an emergency medical vehicle.
My heart began to pound. Had something happened to Grace or Lottie? But all the uniformed men were racing toward the far side of the courthouse. Seeing the men, Seedy stopped and tried to get behind me, so I crouched down to stroke her fur. “It’s okay, baby. Look—there’s our friend Reilly.”
I tried to point out Marco’s buddy on the force, but Seedy was too frightened, so I picked her up and hurried on. Marco came out of the bar then and headed toward the crowd. I finally got close enough to see that the EMTs and cops were on either side of a man in a dark suit sitting on the cement steps holding his hands over his ears.
“Hey,” Marco said, giving Seedy’s head a rub. She peered out from under my arm long enough to lick his hand, then tucked her head again.
“Abby,” Reilly said with a nod of greeting.
Sergeant Sean Reilly was a good-looking, six-foot, forty-two-year-old with brown hair, light brown eyes that crinkled at the corners, and a good heart. He was a cop to be trusted and had helped Marco and me on many investigations, bending rules only when our safety was at stake. The sole issue I had with him was that he referred to me as the town’s trouble magnet. I didn’t attract trouble. It was more like I bumped into it.
“What happened to the man?” I asked. “Stroke? Seizure?”
“I wish,” Reilly said.
“That’s not nice,” I said with a scowl. I couldn’t help it. My stomach was angry.
“The man’s been strangled, Abby,” Marco said.
“Oh, my God! And he survived?” I asked.
Reilly shook his head, surveying the people gathering around with a critical eye. “This guy’s been dead a while.”
“What?” I tried to get another look, but there were too many people crowding around the steps. “But he’s sitting up.”
“Rigor mortis,” Marco said. “That’s the position he was left in after he died.”
The thought of what that poor man must have suffered made me shudder. “That body has been sitting on the courthouse steps for an entire day, and no one noticed?”
“No one noticed because he wasn’t there,” Reilly said. “Someone placed him there this morning sometime after five a.m. That was the last time one of my men patrolled the area. We received an emergency call about it ten minutes ago.”
“What possible motive would a person have to kill someone and then carry the body to a public location?” I asked.
“That’s a problem for the detectives to work out,” Reilly said, glancing around again. “My problem is that we’ve got a murderer in town.”
“I wonder if that’s what Seedy wanted to investigate,” I said. “She tried to lead me toward the side steps, but I was in a hurry to get to the deli and didn’t stop.”
“Why were you on your way to the deli?” Marco asked.
I held up the bag. “I had to buy breakfast sandwiches. I forgot to bring eggs this morning.”
“Bet you wish you’d eaten that forkful of omelet now,” Marco said.
“I’m not hungry. Grace and Lottie are. Here, take her.” I handed Seedy over so I could move in for a closer view. But the gruesome sight told me that was not the smartest thing I’d ever done, especially considering my empty stomach.
The victim appeared to be middle aged, with dark hair that had gone silver at the temples. He wore a black suit, white button-down shirt, and polished black dress shoes. He was hunched over with his head tipped back as though he were gazing at the sky, revealing a ring of dark bruises on his throat. His elbows were pressed into his ribs and his hands were flat against his ears, almost as if he’d been squeezed into a box. His skin was bloated, with a waxy blue tint to it.
Officers were moving the crowd back so they could cordon off the area, and a police photographer was taking photos of the body, so I returned to Marco and Reilly just as a young policeman wearing disposable gloves brought over a wallet he’d removed from the man’s suit coat pocket.
“The victim’s name is Dallas Stone,” the cop said, reading off the driver’s license. “Age fifty-one. Not an organ donor. He has a local address.”
“Are the detectives here yet?” Reilly asked him, glancing around.
“Not yet,” the cop answered.
“Oh, my God,” I heard a woman cry. “I know him.”
“Bring that woman over here, Kane,” Reilly said to the young cop. “And did you locate the person who made the nine-one-one call yet?”
The young officer returned with a stumpy little woman in her late forties. She had a round face and short brown hair, and wore a brown tweed coat. Reilly introduced himself, then asked for her name.
“June Griffin,” the woman said. She kept looking back at the scene in horror.
“Mrs. Griffin, do you know the man on the steps?” Reilly asked her.
“Yes, I work with Mr. Stone at the savings and loan. What happened to him?”
“We haven’t determined the exact cause of his death,” Reilly said. “Are you on your way to work?”
June tapped the face of her watch. “Yes, and I have to be there at eight thirty.”
“I’ll need to ask you a few questions first,” Reilly said. “It shouldn’t take long.”
“I hope not,” she said. “My supervisor gets upset when someone is late. I’m always on time, though, so she’d better not complain. Thirty years of being on time, to be exact. Of course, when she’s late—”
Reilly cut into her monologue. “Is that what time Mr. Stone usually gets to work?”
“Yes, but all the upper management was supposed to be here at eight for the press conference.” June gave a hard shudder and rubbed her arms. “I can’t believe he’s dead.”
Reilly had his notepad out and was writing. “Any family that you know of?”
“He’s not married. I know that much. But Mr. Stone didn’t talk about his personal life—well, except to brag when he had a new suit. He loved his fancy suits.” As though something clicked in her head, she glanced at the body again. “He doesn’t have his tie on. Mr. Stone always wears a tie. He buys those hand-painted ones from David’s Men’s Store and pays a lot of money for them. He’s such a sharp dresser—I mean, he was.”
Remembering the material Seedy had sniffed, I said quietly, “Seedy found part of a tie on the other side of the lilac bushes, Reilly, about twenty minutes ago.”
Reilly said to the young officer, “See if you can find a necktie anywhere around here.” To June he said, “Did Mr. Stone have any close friends at the bank?”
“Not that I ever noticed,” she said. “Now, he was seeing someone, although I think they broke up. I saw them together at Rosie’s Diner on two occasions, but it didn’t seem like they were getting along all that well. Sometimes I run into the lady at lunchtime, so I’m going to say she works at one of the businesses on the square.”
I had a feeling we’d found the bank’s busybody.
“Do you know the woman’s name?” Reilly asked.
“No, I’m afraid not. Oh, wait. I have overheard him on the phone with a Livvy on a number of occasions, and just between us, he wasn’t very nice to her, which is why I said earlier that I think they broke up. So I’m going to go out on a limb and say Livvy is his girlfriend’s name.”
I had a sudden image of June as a plump brown squirrel sitting on a limb watching everything going on below.
“Can you give me her description?” Reilly asked.
“Well,” June said, tapping her chin thoughtfully, “she’s a tall woman, thin boned, with high cheekbones, kind of sunken cheeks, and bouffant brown hair. Not very attractive, if you ask me. Not the sort I’d expect Mr. Stone to go for at all. At. All.” She raised her eyebrows to make sure we got the message.
Reilly paused. “Bouffant hair?”
“You know,” June said, drawing an outline around her own head. “Out to here, eighties style.”
The description fit the woman who’d almost collided with me at the deli. “Does she wear a black trench coat?” I asked.
“Yes,” June said. “Have you seen her?”
“Just a little while ago,” I said.
“You’ve got company,” Marco said to Reilly, nodding toward the street where a news van had just pulled up.
“Terrific,” Reilly said under his breath. “Okay, Ms. Griffin, thanks for your help. If you will go with this officer here, he’ll take down your contact information.”
“I don’t have much time,” June said to the other officer as they walked away. “My supervisor hates it when anyone’s late. Not that she has any reason to complain about me.”
“No sign of the tie, Sarge,” the young cop reported.
“Then check to see if the lawn service was out this morning, and if so, if they found any clothing.” Reilly turned to me. “What did the tie look like?”
“Well,” I said, and paused. All I truly remembered was that Tara had texted me and I had been in a hurry to get the food. “It was just the knot part of the tie, but I think it was a dark color.”
“That’s helpful,” Reilly said dryly. “Dark as in black? Navy? Brown?”
I rubbed my temples. I really had to start paying more attention. “Maybe navy—or black.”
“Victim is wearing a black suit,” Marco said. “If he was a sharp dresser, the tie would have black in it.”
“Was there any design on it,” Reilly asked, “like stripes, diamonds, polka dots, little pink bunnies?”
For some reason diamonds triggered a vision of the bouffant hair woman stuffing something into her purse, but I couldn’t get a clear image in my head. Two strikes against my memory in one morning. Oops. I’d forgotten the eggs, too. Make that three.
“I’m not sure, Reilly. Let’s just go with a small pattern.”
“I’m a florist, Reilly, not a seamstress.”
Reilly pushed the bill of his hat back and gave me a disgruntled look.
“Lots of excitement on the square today, eh, Sergeant?” someone called.
I looked around as the New Chapel News’s crime reporter Connor MacKay joined our little group. Connor, who was Marco’s age, was a handsome man with big blue eyes, light brown hair that he wore to his collar, a lanky build, and a flirtatious nature. He always dressed in cargo pants and a safari jacket with pockets that bulged with the tools of his trade.
“Looks like we have ourselves a gruesome scene, ligature marks and all,” Connor said, practically salivating at the scoop he thought he’d get. “Are we calling it murder?”
“I don’t have any information for you, MacKay,” Reilly said. “You’ll have to wait until the detectives and coroner get here.”
“I’m assuming they are on their way?” Connor asked.
“Yeah, let’s assume that together,” Reilly said, then walked away.
“Gotcha, Sergeant,” Connor called. He nodded at Marco and said with extreme politeness, “Mr. Salvare.”
“MacKay,” Marco said in a bored voice. He hadn’t forgotten how Connor had played me to get information for several of the murder investigations we’d worked on before we were married, and for that reason, he was not a fan. And Connor knew it.
“Mrs. Salvare,” Connor said with a devilish grin. “You’re looking stupendous today. Any reason the two of you are here? Sniffing out a potential case perhaps?”
“I’m just taking breakfast to the shop,” I said.
Ignoring Connor, Marco said to me, “You’d better get to Bloomers. Your bag is soaking up the butter.”
More than that, my stomach was starting to eat itself, but I wasn’t about to admit it. “Good call. And I have a client coming soon.”
Marco put Seedy down and handed me the leash, and Seedy immediately began pulling me toward Franklin Street. “Keep me posted on what they find out,” I said as I backed away. I turned toward the shop just as Grace opened the door to admit my new client.
And there went my breakfast time. Good thing I was not about to crash and burn.
Not that I needed to, but I pulled out a sandwich on the spot and took a big bite, chewing hungrily as I crossed the street. Seedy hobbled ahead, straining on her leash in her eagerness to get to the shop, which surprised me since Jingles was nearby.
My next surprise was that it wasn’t Bloomers she was aiming for. It was the window washer, who was now balanced on a ladder in front of the bay window on the far side of my yellow door. When Seedy paused to sniff the bucket, I scooped her up, fearing she might topple the ladder. Then, juggling the dog and the bag, which was about to disintegrate from the butter, I glanced up. “Good morning again, Jingles.”
It wasn’t Jingles. Though he was wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and jeans similar to Jingles’s, this man was young, maybe twenty, with a boyish face, fair complexion, and short brown hair.
“Sorry, I thought you were someone else. I’m Abby. I own Bloomers. And you are?”
“Robert.” He returned to his work, apparently not interested in conversing. Seedy responded by wagging her tail and yipping as though trying to get his attention.
“Where’s Jingles?” I asked.
Without missing a stroke, he replied, “I don’t know. He didn’t tell me where he was going.”
“So he did go somewhere?”
“Since I’m here and he’s not, that’s rather obvious, isn’t it?”
Well, that was rude. And there was Seedy wagging her tail as though she’d found a new playmate. “Do you know when Jingles will be back?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me. I’m just filling in for him.”
“So earlier when I said, ‘Sorry, Jingles’ . . .”
Apparently my bigger error was in trying to be polite.
“Abby, I don’t mean to interrupt,” Grace said, standing inside the door, “but your client is here and she’s in a bit of a time crunch.”
“I’m right behind you,” I said, and followed her into the shop.
Grace took the white bag and handed me a cup of coffee to wash down the food. I had no clue how she knew to have it ready, but that was the mystery of Grace. “I put Miss Dugger in the parlor with a plate of blueberry scones and a pot of tea,” she said.
“Thanks, Grace.” I gave the cup and saucer back for her to hold while I let Seedy off her leash.
“What happened at the courthouse?”
So my client wouldn’t hear, I said softly, “A banker was murdered and left on the side steps.”
“Oh, good heavens,” Grace whispered. “How dreadful.”
“I’ll tell you more later,” I whispered back.
Laughter erupted from the coffee-and-tea parlor, a counterpoint to the drama I’d just witnessed across the street.
“Is Rosa in there?” I asked.
“Yes,” Grace said. “She wanted to keep Miss Dugger company.”
I started toward the parlor, then paused. “Did you see the young guy I was talking to outside? He’s taking Jingles’s place.”
“Yes, I noticed him earlier.”
“I’ve never seen anyone fill in for Jingles before. I don’t think he’s ever missed a day of work. I hope he’s not ill.”
“Didn’t you see the article about Jingles in last Thursday’s newspaper?”
“I don’t get to read the newspaper anymore, Grace. Is Jingles okay?”
More laughter broke out in the adjacent room.
“You’d better get in there,” Grace said. “I’ll tell you about our poor window washer later.”
* * *
Rosa Marisol Katarina Marin, my new employee, was a voluptuous thirtysomething Latina beauty with long legs, long, wavy dark brown hair, prominent cheekbones, pouty lips, and sparkling brown eyes. She wore clothing that hugged her curves and drew every male eye, and she liked it that way. She worked from eight o’clock until noon five days a week but always arrived by seven thirty right after she dropped off her eight-year-old son, Peter, at school.
A month and a half before, Rosa had come to Marco and me to find out who had killed her husband and had ended up lending a hand at the flower shop during a time when business was coming in faster than Lottie, Grace, and I could handle it. We’d soon discovered that Rosa was a natural at floral design and wonderful with people, but we never knew what was going to come out of her mouth; she didn’t seem to have any discretion. And forget about a volume button.
I had balked at hiring her because of that, and because everything she did seemed to turn out beautifully with minimal effort on her part, whereas I’d always had to work hard to succeed. Even with extreme effort, I’d had two major failures, once when I was booted from law school, and the other when I was dumped by my fiancé because I’d been given the boot. Double whammy.
Eventually, however, I’d discovered that Rosa and I were a lot alike, so most of our issues had resolved themselves. But she still had no discretion.
Carrying my coffee cup, I went through the doorway into the parlor and headed for the white wrought-iron ice cream table in front of the bay window where the two women were looking through my floral wedding planner.
Rosa was wearing a bright pink V-necked silk blouse, with her trademark silver pendant in the shape of a lightning bolt, large hoop earrings, and a tight black skirt with high-heeled black boots, while my client, a thirty-five-year-old woman, was dressed modestly in a lime green jewel-necked sweater, gray slacks, and black flats.
“Hola,” Rosa cried, beaming, as I pulled a chair up to the table. “Abby Knight Salvare, meet your new customer—Daffy Duck.”
I glanced at Rosa in shock. “It’s Taffi Dugger.”
Rosa let out a tinkling laugh as she got up. “Sometimes I don’t say things so well. I am so sorry for the mistake, Taffi. Have fun choosing your flowers.”
“Thank you,” Taffi said happily, smiling at Rosa as though she was the reason for her happiness.
As Rosa passed behind me, she leaned down to whisper, “I was close.”
While Rosa swayed from the parlor on her very high heels, I gave my client an embarrassed smile. “I apologize about the name mix-up.”
“No, that’s okay, really,” Taffi said. “I’ve never met anyone as lively and fun as Rosa. And she had some truly inspirational ideas for my wedding.”
“Great,” I said, forcing a smile. “Let’s see what she came up with.”
* * *
Half an hour later, I finished with Taffi and headed through the shop to the workroom to eat the rest of my sandwich. The appointment had gone well, even though Rosa had steered Taffi in a completely different direction than what she’d originally had in mind. Thinking Taffi might regret those choices later, I’d tried to guide her back, but she’d been adamant that Rosa’s ideas were much better than hers.
In spite of my hunger, I paused outside the parlor to absorb the beauty of my shop. Bloomers had the original wood floors and tin ceiling of the three-story redbrick building circa 1900, with two big bay windows, one on the retail side and one in the parlor. A cash counter sat near the front door, an oak claw-footed table was the focal point in the center, and a glass-fronted refrigerated display case filled the back wall.
A wicker settee with a large dieffenbachia behind it occupied a back corner, and colorful wreaths filled the brick walls. A huge oak armoire on the inside wall displayed silk floral arrangements, ceramic décor, candlesticks, and other small items, and pots stocked with various kinds of green plants filled vacant spaces all around the shop. It was a wholly gratifying sight.
“Morning, sweetie,” Lottie Dombowski said over her shoulder. She was filling the display case with fresh blossoms from the giant walk-in coolers in the back room. “I put your sandwich in the fridge.”
“Sorry I forgot to buy eggs,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “It all worked out.”
Nothing fazed Lottie. She claimed it came from having raised her teenage quadruplet sons. Hailing from Kentucky, the tall, large-boned forty-seven-year-old had a proclivity for pink clothing, including pink barrettes to hold back her short, brassy curls. Lottie had owned Bloomers before I did, and in fact, I had worked as her delivery girl when I was home for summers between my college semesters.
But her husband’s heart surgery and high insurance premiums had nearly bankrupted them, so Lottie had been forced to sell. Providence stepped in, because I had just been booted out of law school and had no future prospects at all. But I did have a small amount of trust money left from my grandpa’s college fund, so Lottie and I traded places. I bought Bloomers, and she taught me everything she knew while working as my assistant and delivery person.
I had also worked with Grace previously. She had been attorney Dave Hammond’s secretary when I clerked for him during my second semester of law school. About the time that Lottie was deciding whether to sell Bloomers and I was trying to find my path, Grace had retired, thinking she’d have time to do the things she’d always wanted to do. But two weeks into it, she was so bored that she accepted my meager offer of employment. For the past almost two years, the three of us had functioned like a well-oiled wheel.
“I just heard about the murder on the radio a few minutes ago,” Lottie said, “but there weren’t any details. Grace said you were at the scene. Do you know anything?”
“Only that the victim was a local banker,” I said. “According to Reilly, he was killed at least a day ago but not at the courthouse. Someone took him there.”
“Whatever would possess a person to do that?” Lottie asked.
“It would seem the murderer wanted to make a statement,” Grace said, joining us.
“Like what?” Lottie asked. “‘Look at me, I can kill and get away with it?’”
“One never knows what motive a mind will conjure,” Grace said. She straightened her shoulders, locked her fingers together, and cleared her throat. It was her lecture pose, which meant a quote was forthcoming. Good thing I’m not in a hurry to eat my egg sandwich, Mom.
“As the Bard put it in his magnificent play The Merchant of Venice,” Grace began, “‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.’”
“Good one, Gracie,” Lottie said as we both clapped.
Grace gave a regal nod. She was a walking Wikipedia of quotations.
“With a whole day to get away, the killer must be long gone,” Lottie said.
“Or is that certain he or she won’t be caught,” Grace added.
Normally the three of us would dissect an intriguing case for hours, but all I could think of now was the sandwich that would soon be moldering in its greasy bag, so I said, “I’ll be in the kitchen,” and stepped through the purple curtain into the workroom, where Rosa was putting together a floral arrangement, singing off-key to a song on the radio.
It hadn’t been easy to allow a newcomer into my sacred space, but because Rosa’s help was invaluable, I’d had to learn to share. The workroom was my personal paradise, a place of beauty and tranquillity, of floral scents and myriad colors. It had counters that ran around the room, with shelves above to hold our large assortment of vases and containers, and cabinets below to hold supplies. A built-in desk on the outside wall held my computer, printer, a calendar, framed photos, and the spindle for open orders. On the opposite wall sat two large walk-in coolers, one for fresh flowers and the other to hold completed arrangements waiting for delivery.
“What do you think of this?” Rosa asked as I passed the big, slate-covered table in the middle of the room. She turned her arrangement so I could see front and back.
“It’s coming along,” I said, and kept going.
“No, it’s finished,” she said.
“Then it looks great.”
“You don’t like it.”
I paused to take a good look. Rosa had created a design of blue hydrangea, green hypericum berries, white ranunculus, and yellow cymbidium orchids, a combination that worked wonderfully together.
Of course it would.
Lottie, who had followed me in, paused for a look, too.
“I like it, Rosa,” I said. “I’d just add a few more stems of ranunculus.”
“Lottie, do you think so, too?” Rosa asked.
“I’m gonna have to agree with Abby.”
“Then I will do it.” Rosa smiled. If Lottie said it was okay, then that was the end of the discussion.
I’d had to learn to share Lottie, too.
I passed our small bathroom and entered the kitchen, a small galley-style space that ran along the back of the building. At the right end of the kitchen was the heavy security door that opened onto the alley and a staircase that led to the basement, a deep, dark, damp place where we stored large pots and supplies that wouldn’t fit into the cabinets. It was also the graveyard for my mother’s unsold art projects.
I opened the refrigerator and took out my sandwich, then sat on a stool at the small strip of counter nailed to the back wall to eat it, sighing as I chewed a bite. It was my first peaceful moment of the day.
“Want me to zap it in the microwave for you?” Lottie asked. She seemed to be tailing me.
“Nope. It’s fine.”
Lottie pulled out a stool beside me. “What’s up, sweetie? You seem out of sorts today. Is it because of the murder?”
It was because of a lot of things, but I wasn’t in a mood to discuss them. “I just want to finish my sandwich so I can get started on orders.” I took another bite, hoping she’d take the hint.
“Here’s a fresh cup of coffee for you,” Grace said, gliding up behind me.
“Grace said you missed the article about Jingles last week,” Lottie said.
I swallowed the bite and picked up the coffee cup. “I don’t get to read the paper anymore. What happened to him?”
“He was in an altercation,” Grace said, “and arrested.”
I nearly spit out the coffee. “Jingles? Our Jingles?”
“Who is Jingles?” Rosa asked, squeezing into the small room with us.
“He cleans windows on the square,” Lottie said. “Been doing it for twenty-five years. I’ll pull the article up on the Internet and let you read it, Abby.”
Now? I stifled a heavy sigh. All I wanted was ten minutes alone with my food.
“Why don’t you see the newspaper anymore?” Grace asked, perching on the stool that Lottie had just vacated.
“My dad gets to it first,” I said, chewing. “Then he reads articles out loud that he thinks will interest us.”
“How sweet,” Rosa said.
“No, it isn’t,” I said. “It’s annoying.”
Rosa looked at me in horror. “But he is your father.”
“Can’t fathers be annoying?” I asked. Assistants certainly could. I crumbled the paper bag my sandwich had been in and tossed it into the garbage can.