River City, Missouri, florist Bretta Solomon is happy to spend an occasional day off with her helper, Toby, a slow-witted young man whose mother died from a terminal illness, leaving him on his own. Everyone in town, including Bretta, takes extra care to make sure Toby is doing okay.
However, today, before Bretta can relax, she must fulfill another promise: her father's new - and younger - girlfriend wants to redecorate Bretta's home. Bretta is less than thrilled about the task ahead. But the unexpected news that Toby has been killed by a swarm of killer bees deliberately planted in his home puts decorating on the back burner. Determined to find out the truth behind Toby's murder, Bretta is once again in the thick of things in this charming, delightful cozy mystery series from Janis Harrison.
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JANIS HARRISON owns and operates a greenhouse in Windsor, Missouri.
Chapter One"Death house is scary," said Toby. "People go in on a little bed and come out in a locked box." He eyed the sympathy bouquet on my worktable before turning his anxious gaze on me. "Bretta, are you taking those flowers over there?"I shook my head. "Not this time. Lew will make the delivery to the funeral home."Toby heaved a sign of relief. "I wouldn't want nothing to happen to you. You're my bud." His cheeks reddened as he touched the velvety petals of a yellow rose. "Get it, Bretta?" he said, casting me a shy look. "Bud. Buddy. Flower lady.""Very clever. You're my bud, too." I gave Toby a wink, but kept poking flower stems into the bouquet I was working on. This was the last sympathy order. Once it was finished, I could turn my attention to the final details of a local banker's sixtieth birthday celebration. The man, a bass and crappie pro, fished in tournaments all over the Lake of the Ozarks.I'd suggested to his wife a party theme that featured brightly colored lures, rods and reels, nets, and inexpensive tackle boxes used as fresh-flower containers. For a dramatic touch, and one that would boost the honoree's ego, we would artistically place his trophies among arrangements of cattails, driftwood, sunflowers, and native foliage. She had loved my ideas as long as I incorporated her collection of lighthouses in the decorations.I glanced around the room and grimaced. Lighthouses in every color and size dominated the flower bouquets. The wife had turned a deaf ear when I'd pointed out that the structures might not strike an identifying chord with her River City, Missouri, guests.River City is located about twenty miles from the interstate that links St. Louis to Springfield. The Osage River flows below the rugged limestone bluffs where our fair city was settled. We have our share of lakes and streams, but mostly we're a farming community with barns and silos dotting our landscape--not lighthouses.Since the wife had a generous check in hand, I'd bowed to her wishes, but I wasn't happy. The subject of lighthouses had been exhausted. My staff was sick and tired of hearing me vent. So even on this hectic day, Toby was a welcome diversion.He nodded to Lois, who was arranging bronze and yellow mums in an antique wicker creel, then to Lew, who was making a list of the afternoon deliveries. "You guys treat me good. I'd wash your windows for free, but I like money."This honest comment made us laugh. Toby's childlike innocence was in sharp contrast to his appearance. He was six feet tall with curly brown hair and hazel eyes. He looked like any other robust, twenty-eight-year-old young man, but oxygen deprivation at birth had damaged a portion of his brain.Lois walked around Toby to pick up a container of bear grass. She had joined a gym a few weeks ago and looked better than ever. Lois never divulged her age. I wasn't sure how old she was, but from different things she'd said, I had her pegged at fifty-nine. Now that she was exercising, she'd tossed away her cache of chocolates and replaced it with a bowl of grapes, apples, and oranges. She'd also taken to reading books on cholesterol,fiber, elimination, and other titillating, healthful subjects."You're looking mighty fine today," she said to Toby, eyeing his tanned, muscular legs. "Have you been working out?""Nah. Just pedaling my bike." Toby stuck out a leg. "It's as strong as a spider's web."Lois grinned. "It would sound more impressive if you said you had muscles of steel."Toby shook his head. "You're talking about Superman, but I like Spiderman best."Lew cleared his throat, which was his way of letting us know he had something profound to add to the conversation. I didn't bother to look up. I knew what I'd see. In his late thirties, Lew was losing his hair. The bright ceiling lights would make his chrome-dome shine. His tie would be straight, his shirt collar still starched and fresh even though it was midafternoon.He was a pompous man, but I could trust him to deliver my flowers with care. Plus, he had personal contact with some of River City's more affluent families. When it came right down to it, Lew was good for my business, if not for my nerves.Lew said, "Actually, Lois, Toby's comparison is quite correct. A spider's web is Mother Nature's marvel. Engineers have calculated that a web woven of spider silk the thickness of a pencil could stop a jumbo jet in midair."Lois asked a question, and Lew had the answer. He gave an impromptu lecture on the wonders of the strength, toughness, and elasticity of a spider's web. How it could stop a bee in flight. How legend had it that Genghis Khan conquered Asia because his soldiers were protected from enemy arrows by wearing clothing that had been interwoven with spider silk.Lois listened to Lew, then said, "I'm hungry. That salad for lunch didn't stick with me. While you're out making deliveries,pick me up an order of onion rings. That should hold me until I get home."I was used to this hop-skipping from one topic to another, and picked up on it without missing a beat. "What about your vow to eat healthy?" I asked, wondering if I should get something, too."I'll have a salad for dinner," Lois said, digging in her purse for money.Lew shook his head. "I'm not stopping. The invention of 'takeout,' 'the drive-through window,' and the concept of 'supersized' has put a curse on the human race. Back in my grandmother's day, families worked hard. They ate nutritious meals. They met their obligations without government handouts. It was a matter of pride that kept their noses to the grindstone."Lew continued in this vein, but I shut him out. I had other, more exciting things on my mind. I smiled to myself. I'd been doing a lot of smiling lately--when I wasn't obsessing about lighthouses. I was in love with a man who loved me, too.I glanced at the clock. Three hours until I could lock the flower shop door and head for home. Bailey Monroe was coming for dinner, but before he arrived, I wanted to freshen up.At forty-six, it took more than a dusting of face powder to make me feel desirable. My hair was more gray than brown. My blue eyes had circles under them. Physically, I was showing my age. Mentally, I was twenty again--at least where Bailey was concerned.I came out of my daydreams when Toby jiggled my arm. Leaning close, he whispered, "Bretta, I don't want to listen to Lew." He pointed to a lighthouse that had been painted to resemble red brick. "I don't like that either."I agreed with Toby in both instances. Hearing Lew's views on any subject was always irritating. As for the lighthouse, thatparticular one was especially offensive to me. It towered over my arrangement, reducing the flowers to insignificant spots of color. My artistic sensibilities were insulted by my own work, but I'd had no choice if I wanted to please my customer. However, Toby wasn't under my same restrictions. I wondered why he disliked the arrangement.When I asked him, he pressed his lips tightly together and shook his head. Thinking he didn't want to criticize the bouquet, I said, "You won't hurt my feelings, Toby, if you don't like that arrangement of flowers."His eyes opened wide with surprise. "All flowers are beautiful." He turned his back to the lighthouse and sighed. "Mostly, I'd like to get paid."I chuckled. "That can be arranged."Toby pulled a sales book from his shirt pocket. Directing a quick glance at Lew, he said, "I need quiet so I don't make a mistake on this bill."There wasn't much chance of that. The amount never varied. I paid Toby eight dollars to wash my flower shop windows, adding a two-buck tip. I went to the cash register and waited for Toby to finish writing up the bill. After he'd handed me the receipt, I counted ten singles into his hand because he only accepted ones as payment.After he'd carefully tucked the money into his billfold, he said, "Mr. Barker has a new lady at the bakery. I don't like her. She says funny things.""Funny how?" I asked.Toby's face scrunched into a frown as he thought hard. "Like I couldn't track an elephant in four feet of snow." He shrugged. "It's September, Bretta. There ain't no snow, and we ain't got no elephants here in River City, so why would I try to track one?"Lois scowled. "Well, it's clear we've got a baboon."Toby turned to Lois. "You mean like the three monkeys. 'Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil.'""Words to live by," said Lew piously."But what is evil?" asked Toby, staring at me with trusting eyes. "Tell me how I'd know evil."Lois ran a hand down the slender curve of her hip. "If it looks good, feels good, and tastes good, then it's probably--"Not to confuse the issue, or Toby, I spoke quickly, "Evil is anything that causes others pain or harm.""Oh," said Toby with obvious relief. "Then I'm okay. I wouldn't hurt nobody."I touched his arm. "We know that. Ignore this new woman when she makes her comments.""Hear no evil, right?" asked Toby."Exactly.""But it's evil to steal, ain't it?""Of course.""Then there's an evil person coming onto my land. I told Sheriff Sid about this stealing, and he said I needed to hire you." Toby frowned. "Is it because my mother's flowers are being cut down?"I went back to my workstation and picked up another yellow rose. It was easy to visualize Sid's mocking expression when he'd steered Toby in my direction. Before my husband, Carl, passed away, he'd been one of Sid's deputies. Sid had never liked the idea that Carl shared the facts of his cases with me, but then, Sid had never been married. He didn't understand the bond between a husband and wife. Carl and I had discussed everything--my work at t...
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