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Something was off. Cara Kryzik was no psychic, but the minute her bare feet hit the floor that morning, she sensed it.
She sniffed the air apprehensively and was met with the sweet perfume from the tiny nosegay of gardenias—her favorites—that she'd placed in a sterling bud vase on her dresser the night before.
Had she overslept? No. The big bells of St. John the Baptist cathedral were ringing the eight-o'clock hour as she descended the stairs from her apartment to her shop one floor below.
Cara shuffled down the narrow hallway to the front of the darkened flower shop. She flicked on the wall switch, and the multitude of thrift-shop chandeliers she'd hung at varying heights from the tall-ceilinged room twinkled to light, their images reflecting from all the mirrors staged around the space. It was a small room, but she thought the chandeliers and mirrors expanded the space visually.
See? She scoffed at her own foolish sense of foreboding. All was well.
She pulled up the shades over the front windows and smiled. It was a bright, sunny Friday morning, and within seconds, her puppy, Poppy, had her nose pressed against the glass-paneled front door, watching a pair of squirrels scamper past on the sidewalk outside on Jones Street.
The message-waiting light was blinking on the shop's answering machine. She gave the machine a fond pat. Business had been slow. But it was May. Mother's Day was next Sunday, it was prom season, and wedding season, too. Things were already picking up.
And then? She felt a single bead of perspiration trickle down her back. She frowned. Why was it so hot in the shop? Even for Savannah the room seemed stuffy and overheated. Cara went to the thermostat on the wall and squinted, trying to see the reading.
She'd turned the thermostat up before bed last night, just to 81, hoping to save a little on her always spiraling electricity bill. The air-conditioning unit was temperamental at best, and her landlord was never prompt when it came to making repairs. She had a string of appointments in the shop today, and it wouldn't do to have brides and their mamas stewing in their own juices.
She fiddled with the control for a moment, holding her breath, waiting to hear the compressor click to life. When it did, she exhaled. See? All is well.
Before she could sit down to check her emails, the shop phone rang.
She'd known who the caller would be. "Good morning, Lillian," Cara chirped. "How's our bride today? Is she getting jittery?"
"She's still asleep, thank God," Lillian Fanning said. Never one to waste time on pleasantries, Lillian got right down to business. "Listen, Cara, I've been thinking. I know we said white candles for the altar, but with an early-evening wedding, I really believe ivory or ecru would be much more effective."
Cara crossed her eyes in exasperation. She'd already special-ordered two dozen hand-dipped organic soy white candles for Torie Fanning's wedding tomorrow. But it was useless to tell the mother of the bride that it was impossible to get the candles in a different color at this late date.
She heard the bell on the front door jingle and looked up to see her assistant, Bert, let himself in, a large coffee in one hand and his bicycle helmet in the other.
"Lillian Fanning?" He mouthed the words, and Cara nodded. For the past two weeks, Lillian had called Bloom at least twice a day, every day.
"I'll see what I can do," Cara said, being deliberately vague.
"Ecru or ivory, not white," Lillian repeated.
Cara sighed. "Of course."
"What about the flowers? Did everything get delivered? And you've got Torie's grandmother's epergne polished for the bride's table?"
"Everything is absolutely under control," Cara assured Lillian. "I've got all the bridesmaids' bouquets finished, and I'll start on Torie's this afternoon, so it will be absolutely the freshest possible. And Lillian? I have to say the two of you have made the most exquisite flower choices I've ever seen in this town."
"I should hope so, for what this wedding is costing us," Lillian Fanning said. "I'll see you at the church tomorrow."
Cara hung up and stuck out her tongue at the phone.
"Is it hot in here, or is it just me?" Bert asked, standing in front of the thermostat and fanning himself with an envelope he grabbed off a stack of bills on her desk.
"I turned it up last night before I went to bed, but I think it's starting to cool down now," Cara said.
"Well, I'm roasting," Bert declared. He looked at her closely. "You're not having chills again, are you?"
"No! I'm fine. I took the last of those darned antibiotics on Tuesday. I can't afford to get sick ever again."
Cara took Bert's hand and placed it on her own forehead. "See? Cool as a cucumber. No fever, no temp, no problem."
But Bert wasn't paying attention. He was staring at the glass door of their flower cooler. Even through the door, beaded as it was with condensation, it was a grim sight.
Cara flung the door of the cooler open. "Oh, God."
She couldn't believe her eyes. All the flowers in all the buckets in the cooler were limp, dead, dying. Torie Fanning's bridesmaids' bouquets, so carefully wrapped in their silk-satin binding, were toast. She glanced at the thermometer hanging from the top shelf and felt like weeping. It had been at 35 degrees last night, before she'd gone upstairs. But now it was at 86.
She let the door close and pressed her face against the glass. The reassuring hum of the compressor motor was silent.
"The cooler is dead," she said. "And so are the flowers. The motor must have conked out sometime overnight."
Bert reached for the Rolodex on the desk. "I'll call the repairman. Didn't he just fix this thing like six weeks ago?"
Cara nodded glumly. "He did. To the tune of three hundred dollars. But he warned me then, he didn't know how long it would keep running. When I opened the shop I bought it off a guy whose pizza place had gone out of business. Turns out this thing is so old, you can't find new parts for it. My guy had to jerry-rig it with secondhand parts he had lying around his shop."
"What are we gonna do?"
Cara closed her eyes, hoping for inspiration. "I have no idea. All I know is, Lillian Fanning will shit a brick if she finds out about this. You heard me, I just promised her we had everything under control. The most demanding bride I've ever worked with—and this had to happen today."
She opened the cooler door again and grabbed the nearest bucket. Three dozen long-stemmed white iceberg roses were crammed into it, and their heads drooped like so many sleepy toddlers.
"Dead." She dropped a handful of roses into the trash and reached for the next bucket, and the next, repeating the diagnosis—and throwing them away.
When she was done, the big plastic trash bin was full and all that was left on the counter was one bucketful of leatherleaf ferns—"You can't kill these things, even if you tried," Cara noted—and a raggedy assortment of single blossoms that had somehow managed to survive.
Bert grabbed one of the pale blue mophead hydrangea blossoms and with his secateurs snipped off the end of the stem. He turned on the faucet in the worktable sink, let the water heat up, then filled an empty bucket with hot water. He plunged the first hydrangea in, and reached for another.
"We can save these," he said. "I'll reprocess all of them, strip the leaves, trim the stems. Put some Floralife in the water. They're not all a total loss. I bet they'll perk right back up."
Cara kicked at the trash can with the toe of her sandal, wincing in pain as soon as she'd done it. "That's twelve thousand dollars' worth of flowers, gone. Even if we save some of them, there's no way we can even put together a boutonniere out of this mess, let alone enough flowers for Torie, eight bridesmaids, and all the flowers for the church and the reception. And it's too late to get more flowers shipped from California in time for tomorrow."
Bert looked around the room, as though a new shipment of flowers might magically appear from thin air.
"What about the wholesale house? Can't you call them? Or we could run over there and see what they've got."
"Breitmueller's? On a Friday morning in May? With all the weddings and proms going on around town? They'll be picked clean by now. Anyway, they don't carry the kinds of flowers we promised Torie. Lilies of the valley? Ranunculus? Casablanca lilies? Peonies?"
"What about Lamar?" Bert asked. "I know we usually see him on Thursdays, but maybe, if you called and told him what happened…"
Cara blinked back tears. "Lamar's clear up in Atlanta, Bert. He's not gonna come all the way down here just to save my bacon.…"
Bert pointed at the phone. "C'mon, Cara. That old man loves you. He might make a special trip, if you explained what was at stake."
Cara shrugged and reached for her Rolodex. But before she could flip to Lamar's card, the shop phone rang.
She picked up the phone and looked at the caller ID, and her hand froze. The area code was one she knew by heart: 614 for Columbus, Ohio. And, of course, the caller was one she knew all too well, too.
She should let the call roll over to voicemail. Ignore it. He'd only call back, and keep calling until she picked up. Her day couldn't get much worse now. So why put off the inevitable?
Cara swallowed hard and tapped the receive button.
* * *
"Cara? Are you all right?" Her father's voice boomed so loudly she had to hold the phone several inches from her ear. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Kryzik's idea of a whisper was more like a shout to most people.
"Fine, Dad. How are you?"
Cara felt a knot forming in the pit of her stomach. She knew exactly why the Colonel was calling; had, in fact, been expecting this call for weeks now.
"Look, Dad, I know I'm kinda late with my payment…"
"I haven't had a phone call, much less a check from you, in three months now," he said. "What's going on down there?"
She swallowed hard. "We're just coming into my busiest season. Remember, I told you that? I've got a spring and summer full of weddings booked. But I've had all kinds of expenses. Buying the van, getting my website designed, finishing out the shop and buying equipment…"
"Our agreement was that you'd start making payments on the loan in February. You should have had plenty of money from Valentine's Day business, right?"
She felt a stabbing pain between her eyes. "We actually had a pretty good Valentine's Day. But all the profits went back into the shop. My computer died, and I had to buy a new one…"
"Not my problem," her father shot back. "If you'd prepared a detailed business plan, as I'd suggested, you could have anticipated that a five-year-old computer would need to be replaced. It's called a contingency plan. These things are a cost of doing business, Cara."
"I know, but…"
"If you've got business coming into the shop, I'd think you'd be in a position to start repaying at least the interest on your loan," he went on.
"Dad, if you'd just let me explain," Cara started.
But the Colonel wasn't interested in explanations. Not from her.
"I should have known something like this would happen. It's never a good idea to loan money to family, especially since you didn't even have a sound business plan for this shop of yours."
"That's not true," Cara said sharply. "I drew up a business plan. I did cost projections, market studies, I researched rent and utilities, I did everything I could. But how could I anticipate something like having to replace a computer? Or a deadbeat innkeeper who refuses to pay me for three months' worth of arrangements? Just this morning, I came downstairs, and my flower cooler had died. Along with twelve thousand dollars' worth of inventory I need for a wedding tomorrow. Some things are just out of my control, Dad. You of all people know that."
"Water under the bridge," he said, interrupting. "The fact is, if you can't even begin repaying the interest on a loan, after six months, your business has no hope of success. Even you can see that, right?"
"No! I can't see it. My business is building every week. We've got new clients, a few new commercial accounts. I just need a little more time to get things up and running. This wedding tomorrow, Dad? It's a ten-thousand-dollar deal." Cara hated the pleading note she heard creeping into her voice.
"For which you just admitted you don't have any flowers," the Colonel shot back. "Look, Cara. This just proves my point. You're a smart girl, and a hard worker, I'll give you that. But somebody like you has no business running a business. Take that innkeeper. You think I would have given three months of credit to a new account? Not on your life!"
Cara felt her left eye twitching, and her headache was taking on a new life of its own. She opened the drawer of her desk, found the bottle of aspirin, popped three into her mouth, and choked them down with a swallow of now-cold coffee.
She had to end this call before her head exploded.
"Dad? I'm sorry, but I really need to go now. We've got to replace those flowers I lost, and I've got another bride coming in for an appointment. I'll send you a check by the end of next week. Swear to God. And after that, I'll catch up. Monthly payments, just like we agreed. Okay?"
"No. Not okay," he said. "I know this is painful for you, Cara, but admit it, this florist thing of yours hasn't worked out. Just like your marriage. And frankly, I'm out of patience with pretending everything is okay. I'm not some ATM machine, you know. Two years from now, I'm retiring from the community college. I have to start thinking about my own welfare. Twenty thousand dollars is a lot of money at my age. I'm sorry, but I'm pulling the plug on this little enterprise of yours."
Cara's eyes widened, and her jaw dropped. "Pull the plug? What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just what it sounds like. It's over, Cara. No more stalling, no more excuses. I'm calling your loan. It's still the first week of May. Close up the shop. Call your landlord, let her know you're breaking your lease. Maybe if you give her plenty of advance notice, she'll prorate your rent."
"Break the lease?" Cara's mouth went dry. Her hands clutched the phone so hard her fingertips turned white. "Close the shop?"
From across the room, Bert, who'd given up any pretense of not listening in, looked as shocked as she felt.
"There's no reason for you to stay down there in Savannah any longer," her father continued, as though everything were settled, just like that, because he said so. "You've no ties, there, really. Leo's not taking you back, and anyway…"
"Leo?" Cara screeched. "Dad, I left Leo, not the other way around."
"A technicality," the Colonel said calmly. "Let's not split hairs. I think it would be better if you got a little place of your own. I could probably talk to somebody here at the school about a job, but if you think you still want to fool around with flowers, you can probably find something around town.…"
"Dad!" Cara shouted into the phone. "Stop. Just stop!"
"There's no need to scream, young lady," the Colonel said sternly. "I'm not deaf."
You might as well be, Cara thought. You never hear a word I say. You never have. I'm thirty-six years old, as you dearly love to point out, and you've never really listened to me. Not in my whole life.
"I can't discuss this right now," she managed.
There was an extended silence on the other end of the phone. And then a dial tone. Even when he wasn't speaking to her, the Colonel always managed to get in the last word. Or nonword.
Cara flung the phone onto the counter. The shop was quiet, except for the slow drip of the faucet in the sink. Bert tiptoed over, stood behind her, and placed his long, strong fingertips on her shoulders. Wordlessly, he began methodically kneading the knotted-up muscles. Poppy crept over, from her hiding place under the worktable, and tentatively placed her front paws on Cara's knees.
At least, she thought wryly, she now knew what was off. Everything. Everything was off. "I'm screwed," she whispered.
Copyright © 2014 by Whodunnit, Inc.