Free Fiction Monday: The Flower Man
Talia and Max seldom work together at a crime scene, but on this one they must, not just because of the lives lost or the way they died, but because of the memories the crime brings up.
Now, Talia must employ her best forensics skills to solve the murder—and salvage her own memories in the process.
“The Flower Man” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available in ebook here.
The Flower Man
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Talia smelled the crime scene before she saw it: the copper stench of fresh blood, a whiff of cordite still in the air, and the pungent flowers, mingling like perfume. People crowded around the police barricades set up on the sidewalk. Most were gawkers, but a few seemed to be survivors of the attack. They were shaking, crying or just staring, sure signs of shock and the remains of sheer terror.
Broken glass littered the sidewalk. The restaurant’s window had been shot out from the inside. No blood mingled with the glass, only the remains of flowerpots that had been placed on the window’s sill for ambience. A single menu floated along the curb, caught in a breeze.
Talia shifted her bag to one hand, snagged the menu with her gloved fingers, saw the name—Morrie’s—and a long streak of blood. She would bag it when she opened her kit inside. She never knew what might be important later.
She slipped through the barricades and went through the open front door. The restaurant still smelled of garlic and fresh fish, almost covering the scent of lilies. A dessert cart leaned on three wheels, abandoned to the chaos. The cash register was closed and untouched. A jar of mints stood nearby, along with a toothpick dispenser. A phone swung off the hook, the receiver so dead that it no longer bleated in protest.
A group of cops stood front and center, her husband Max nearly lost in the sea of uniforms. He was a detective, shorter than the rest, his leather bomber jacket so well worn that it looked cracked. He had his hands in his pockets despite the warmth of the room, a very bad sign.
As she approached the cops parted, leaving only Max standing before a body sprawled on the floor. Max didn’t turn toward her, another bad sign. He had to know she was there—they had a connection that was so strong they could always sense each other’s presence—but for whatever reason, he didn’t want to acknowledge her yet.
Then she took a good look at the body and felt her heart twist.
She sat alone at the iron table, the sidewalk an arm’s reach away. A cup of coffee, a bagel, and a book. Studying for finals. The air had a chill, but the sun had filtered through the city’s canyons, reminding everyone it was spring.
“Hey, pretty lady, you need a flower.” He stood outside the waist-high wall the restaurant had built to keep people from entering the little patio from the street.
It took her a moment to realize that “pretty lady” meant her. She looked up, saw a man of indeterminate age standing beside the wall. He wore containers of flowers around his neck like a vendor who had lost his cart.
The flowers were spectacular: roses, carnations, lilacs, and more.
“How much?” she asked.
“For you, nothing.” His gnarled hand was poised over the containers while he waited for her to make a choice. “Just tell me what you like.”
The man at the next table—short, dark-haired, chiseled features—looked up from his newspaper. He had a readiness about him. She had the odd feeling that he would pounce if the flower man so much as touched her.
“I’d like that one,” she said, pointing to a large white Easter lily, hidden toward the back.
The flower man’s hand closed into a fist and fell at his side. He shook his head. “Lilies are for death.”
The man at the next table sat even straighter. His chocolate brown eyes glinted with a protective intelligence.
She didn’t need anyone’s help, particularly that of a man she didn’t know. “I thought Easter Lilies signified the resurrection.”
The flower man continued to shake his head. “Please, lady, something else.”
She wanted the lily, but she knew better than to argue. She’d only upset him farther. He was a crazy—New York was full of them—and she had engaged. Now it was up to her to get out of it.
She gave him her best smile. “The peach rose. I’ve never seen one that color.”
The flower man smiled back. It made him seem younger and she revised his age downward.
He plucked the peach rose from the center container, bowed, and set the flower on her table beside her coffee cup.
“Pretty lady,” he said, and then he was gone.
“That was one of the stranger things I’ve seen in this city,” said the man at the next table. He rested his chin on his hand, and in that moment, she realized just how handsome he was.
She picked up the rose. It had a soft fragrance, rich enough to suggest that it had not come from a hothouse. “I think it was sweet.”
“That too,” the man at the next table said. He glanced at the sidewalk. “I wonder what his story is.”
Talia shrugged. “I guess we’ll never know.”
The corpse was covered in flowers and water. The containers he wore around his neck like baby carriers had spilled all over him. In his right hand, he held a single sprig of lily of the valley, the tiny white bells falling across his fingers like a caress.
It took her a moment to realize one of the containers had exploded. Fragments of it were scattered around the worn carpet, near the overturned tables and the broken platters.
She couldn’t see what killed him, but she assumed he had been shot.
When she reached Max’s side, he extended a hand, like he sometimes did when he was driving upstate and had to break suddenly. He didn’t want her any closer.
She pressed her body against him, smelled the familiar scents of leather, soap, and Max. He felt good against her, a barrier against death.
Over his shoulder, she examined the rest of the destruction. The overturned tables and chairs suggested flight, not barricades. Several tables in the back still stood, half-eaten meals on top of them. One still held an unopened bottle of wine and a corkscrew.
She looked at the window again. Shattered, glass exploding outward. The window had been large. A bullet would have probably gone right through it, leaving spider fragments, a hole, and nothing more.
“You get anyone?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Witnesses. This. That’s all.”
“Looks like there was a lunch crowd. How’d the shooter escape?”
“He dove through the plate glass.” He still hadn’t looked at her. He was staring down as if the corpse could talk to him.
Corpses usually didn’t talk to Max. They talked to her. She was forensics, not him. But they made a good team when they worked together. And they only worked together when he requested her. On tough cases. He knew she liked tough cases.
This one didn’t look that tough.
“He’d be covered in glass,” she said.
Max nodded. “Some beat patrolmen saw him catch a cab. They got the medallion number, but too late. He’d been let off a few blocks away.”
“Clothes in the backseat, covered with blood, water, and glass.”
“Cab’s a crime scene.”
“I’ve been doing this my whole adult life, babe.”
Max usually didn’t snap at her like that. He usually appreciated the reminders, the give and take between them. He was disturbed, and it wasn’t because he was standing over a corpse.
It was because he was standing over the Flower Man.
Max and his partner interview the witnesses, canvassed the neighborhood, learned the sequence of events. Talia and her team remained in the restaurant and assembled the evidence.
The story was the same:
The Flower Man, a regular at Morrie’s Restaurant, finished his late breakfast at noon, like he always did. Then he strapped on his containers and made his rounds, starting with Morrie’s customers. The Flower Man always followed the same pattern—clockwise with the door as twelve o’clock.
He was halfway done—table 6 right by the kitchen door—when a single man wearing a canvas duster and a hat pulled low over his face entered the restaurant. The waitresses were busy, but someone signaled him toward the counter.
Instead, the man walked deeper into the restaurant. When he reached the center of the room, he shouted. No one was sure what he said.
The Flower Man, a smile on his face, turned at the sound of the other man’s voice. His smile faded and he reached into the container at his left.
Then, all in one movement, the man pulled a shotgun from under his coat and fired. The Flower Man’s container exploded. He fell backwards, spraying water and flowers all over the restaurant. People screamed and ducked, but they didn’t have to. The gunman was already running toward the door.
Morrie himself blocked the exit, holding a tray before him like a shield, while his wife dialed 911 from behind the counter. I thought for sure we was dead, Morrie said later to Max, but I couldn’t let this—animal—escape. I figured if we could hold him even for a few seconds someone would come, someone would catch him.
But no one came. The gunman proved too smart. He took one look at the door, then at the counter, Morrie’s wife crouched beside it, speaking frantically into the phone, and leapt onto the nearest booth, using it as a launching pad through the plate glass.
The gunman landed on his knees in the street, startling several passersby. Morrie ran toward the window, followed by some of his customers, but the gunman was already getting up. He ran down the block, no one stopping him—Morrie and his customers too far behind—hailed a cab, and drove off.
The evidence, the witnesses, all told the same story.
Until Talia investigated the cab.
The hotel room was filled with peach-colored roses, dozens of them, in vases on the tables, in the bathroom, against the mirror, and petals strewn all over the bed. Their scent was faint, almost spicy, not a rose scent at all.
The only rose with a smell was the battered single blossom Talia held in her hand.
She was naked and covered with petals. Max lay beside her, petals littering his strong, square body like leaves. Sweat had curled his normally straight dark hair and his cheeks were still flushed.
When they’d first gotten to the room, they’d stripped off their clothes—her wedding dress, his tuxedo—and attacked each other hungrily. Even though they were sated now, Max’s hand stroked her breast, teasing her nipple, sending pleasant shivers through her.
She had taken the single bud off the nightstand where she had thrown it, and now she was caressing its stem between her thumb and forefinger, teasing Max as much as he was teasing her.
“A hundred roses in this room and you pick that one,” he said, still sounding a little winded.
“I didn’t expect to see the Flower Man today.” She leaned her head on the pillow. “It was kind of prophetic. He was there at the beginning.”
“He was the beginning,” Max said. “I probably wouldn’t have looked up if he hadn’t talked to you that day.”
She smiled, having heard the story before. No Flower Man, no conversation. No conversation, no shared cups of coffee. No cups of coffee, no hands brushing. No hands brushing, no spark. No spark, no wedding.
Max’s fingers had found a magic place on her breast. She caught his hand in her own, then rolled over, pressing her sweaty, petal-covered body against his. She traced the rose along his face, the ragged petals catching on the beginnings of his evening stubble.
Then she kissed him, and as he kissed her back, she set the tattered rose, with its good wishes from a man whose name she didn’t even know, on the nightstand, hoping to save it, like the memory, forever.
The cab told its own story.
It smelled, as all cabs did, of unwashed bodies and spilled alcohol mixed with some ineffective cleaning fluid. A beaded seat cover held the driver’s place, and fake sheepskin covered the steering wheel.
A sign above the rearview mirror listed Odell Guterman as the cab’s driver. Guterman’s picture was washed out and faded, but showed him to be a jowly brown-haired man with thin lips and bad skin. He liked jazz if the cab’s radio was any indication, and he ate Hershey’s Kisses by the hundreds, probably because New York laws had changed and cabbies could no longer smoke.
She concentrated on the backseat first—the tiny shards of window glass littering the rubber mats and caught in the rips on the seat itself. She took tracings, black-lighted for body fluids—finding blood and more semen than she wanted to think about—and dusted for prints.
Cabs, like hotel rooms, were nightmare evidence collection sites. A transient clientele, haphazard cleanings, and an untraceable history.
She didn’t expect much from her cab—and didn’t get it—until she turned her attention to the front seat.
Dozens of tiny glass shards, some coated with blood, lived beneath the beaded driver’s seat.
She picked up each shard with a tweezers, bagged it separately, and set it aside for study. Then she found hair and bits of plants under the floor mat. Flower petals, some old, but one fresh.
A tiny white bell-shaped flower. Lily of the valley.
She called Max.
The cab driver’s second interview didn’t go as well as the first. It ended with his arrest for first-degree murder.
Max told her what happened as he cooked her a spaghetti dinner, their first together in nearly a week.
She sipped the Chianti he’d brought and listened, even though the evidence had told her a similar story earlier.
It seemed so simple, really. People saw what they wanted to see, placed those sightings in a context, and then interpreted. Her evidence never did. It did not lie.
The gunman, running from the scene, had hailed a cab. He had slid into the backseat and the cab had driven off—or so the witnesses said. But they had missed the bit of finesse, the trick that had changed everything.
He had slid into the backseat, pulled off his duster in the same quick move that he had used in the restaurant, and climbed out the other door as the cab’s first driver climbed out of his side. The perp gave the rifle to the first driver, who got into a car double-parked beside them, and then the gunman got into the front seat of the cab and drove away.
So simple. He’d be the confused cab driver, tracked down by his medallion number, hours or weeks later.
It might have worked if he’d had time to clean his cab.
But he hadn’t, and the remaining evidence showed his entire action was premeditated.
Which meant he knew the Flower Man and had a reason to kill him. He knew the Flower Man’s habits, all the way down to his circle through the restaurant. He knew everything and timed it all to the moment. And he would have gotten away with it, if Morrie hadn’t blocked the door. Morrie, the 911 call, and the angry patrons.
All the people who cared about the Flower Man.
“His name,” Max said, as he put the water on, “was Prescott Hanvers, and he lived in Connecticut, on a converted barn just outside Kent.”
He had her attention now. Talia had thought the Flower Man homeless and destitute.
“He cut the flowers from his own property every morning, then took the train into the city. He carried flowers wrapped in wet newspapers to the train and gave them away, leaving the containers for the city proper.”
So everyone remembered him and, once they were used to him, liked him.
“He ate a late breakfast at Morrie’s because his train didn’t arrive until 10:30. Then he walked uptown and started his rounds.”
Max refilled her glass and sat across from her.
“Odell Guterman is his second cousin. His only living relative.”
“Did Guterman think no one would notice?”
“Why would anyone? By the time the estate would have been settled and Guterman would have been ‘surprised’ by his windfall, the city’s dailies would have moved onto other things. We would have been chasing a gunman who had fled the scene and managed to catch a cab. If anyone had noticed, they might write it up as a sad coincidence, nothing more. There was no one close enough to care.”
Talia twined her fingers through Max’s. “So this was about money?”
Max nodded. “Inheritance. A sizeable one at that. The will is deceptive. The money goes to a female cousin, Guterman’s mother, a Sophie Mason. If she predeceases, it goes to her family. No one else is named. She died six months ago.”
The water was boiling. Talia got up, stirred the sauce, and put the noodles in. Max slipped his arms around her.
“Aren’t you going to ask about the flowers?”
She leaned against him. “Let me guess,” she said. “He only gave them to women who reminded him of his dead wife.”
Max tightened his grip and pulled her close. “How did you know?”
“On that first day, all those years ago, he got upset when I wanted a lily.”
“So?” Max asked.
“You usually see lilies at funerals.” She turned in his arms so that she could see his dear, familiar face. A face she wanted to look at until her dying day.
“Do you think he knew he was going to die?” Max asked.
“He was reaching for the only lily he had when Odell shot him,” Talia said.
Max touched his forehead to hers and closed his eyes. “I wish we hadn’t learned his story.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Talia said. “I think it’s kind of sweet. I even like how it ends.”
Max opened his eyes and pulled back from her just a little. He was frowning. “What do you mean?”
“When he died, he took his flowers with him.” Talia smiled, filled with a sweet, bitter sadness. “He can finally give them to the woman who should have had them all along.”
The Flower Man
Copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Hardboiled, Number 35, Spring, 2006.
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2013 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Loraliu/Dreamstime