Hothouse Flowers, Part II

This is the second half of a short story featuring characters from my new mystery novel, A BOX OF PANDORAS. If you enjoy the story, try the novel, which is available on Kindle-only for now. Click here to see more.

The front door opened without a knock, and Nannette blew inside, scrawny and brittle, a scarecrow in a pantsuit. Her puckered face flushed when she saw us standing by the orchid.
"We were just admiring this beautiful plant," I said. "Mitzi said someone gave it to you?"
Nannette glanced outside before she closed the door. Sounded like other cars were arriving, but I couldn't see the long driveway from where I stood. Just endless plains out every window.
"I can't talk about that," Nannette said as she crossed the cluttered living room.
"Why not?"
"It's a church thing."
Nannette attends Wildweed Community Church, one of those strict evangelical outfits where you're guilty until proven innocent and it's perfectly acceptable to shout during Sunday services. They're a busy congregation, knocking on doors at dinnertime all over Pandora. We Presbyterians do not approve of such fervent intrusion. A shameful number of us refer to Nannette's bunch as the "Wild-Eyed Community Church."
"You a priest now?" I said. "You hold people's confessions secret?"
Nannette flushed redder, and there was venom in her narrow eyes.
"I wouldn't expect you to understand," she said. "You've never kept a secret in your life."
I couldn't have been more shocked if she'd slapped my face. I'm perfectly capable of keeping a secret. If anyone in this room had a big mouth, it was Mitzi Tyner, which she proved at that moment by speaking up.
"What secret? What are you going on about?"
Nannette didn't get a chance to answer. I'd recovered from the insult enough to sputter, "That orchid is stolen!"
"What?" Mitzi acted surprised. "What is she talking about, Nannette?"
"I can't discuss it!"
Voices rose outside, the buoyant sound of joshing men. I recognized the booming baritone of Hugh Lindenpool, the banker who sings in our church choir. I was running out of time.
"Tell us now," I said, "or tell us in front of the entire committee. I won't sit still while you try to--"
"Somebody at church asked me to get rid of that orchid." Nannette addressed her comments to Mitzi, but I mentally recorded every word for future courtroom and/or Garden Society testimony. "This person felt guilty about how it had been acquired. And that's all I will say about it. Now or ever."
The door burst open, and Hugh Lindenpool flooded in with a couple of his loud golfing buddies. Before I could even get my thoughts straight, the meeting was under way.
Well. Let's say I didn't do my usual thorough job keeping the minutes. The yellow orchid was right there in the room with us! But nobody else around the dining table recognized it. Of course, most of them were men, and they wouldn't know an orchid from okra, but still. You'd think one of these geniuses could put two and two together.
Mitzi chaired the meeting in her usual haphazard fashion, idiot smile pasted in place the whole time, and I'm sure they couldn't tell she'd just been accused of receiving stolen property. She wouldn't look at me, though.
Nannette sneaked out midway through the meeting. I resisted the urge to chase after her. Grilling Nannette Hoch was a job for the Llano County sheriff.
From the sound of it, Nannette was just a conduit anyway. The real thief was the person who gave her the orchid. The church member who'd stolen it from Betty Sue Lybrand.
I remembered with a jolt that Betty Sue, too, attended Wildweed Community Church. She's always such a friendly, levelheaded person, I forget she's a holy roller. Betty Sue undoubtedly knew everyone in that congregation. She'd certainly know which fellow believers visited her home around the time the orchid went missing.
As soon as the committee meeting clattered to its usual uneventful conclusion, I high-tailed it for Betty Sue's house.
She was out in the rose garden when I drove up her dusty road. Betty Sue grows beautiful roses in the unforgiving New Mexico sunshine, and an amazing variety of exotics in a greenhouse Archie slapped together behind their garage.
She waved me toward the house. Her ginger hair was the usual frazzled mess as she met me at the front door, and perspiration dotted her round face. I practically chewed my tongue off, waiting for her to finish inviting me into her cool kitchen and offering iced tea and asking after Harley and the kids. When I could finally get a word in edgewise, I blurted out everything I knew about her missing orchid and Nannette and Mitzi and the mysterious Wildweed connection.
Betty Sue flushed and fidgeted through my hurried narrative, and I mistakenly assumed she was thrilled by my sleuthing. When I paused for breath, she said, "You need to drop this, Loretta."
"Drop it. That orchid already caused enough friction. I don't want Archie to get riled up again."
"Don't you want to call the sheriff?"
She shook her head, but she wouldn't look at me, too busy watching her freckled hands fretting with each other on the tabletop. Silence filled the tidy kitchen.
And then I got it.
No wonder Betty Sue didn't want the sheriff involved. She'd known the thief's identity all along
I don't know why I hadn't seen it sooner. Betty Sue never would've dared to spend hundreds of Archie Lybrand's hard-earned dollars on a single houseplant. She'd stolen the orchid from that flower show in Albuquerque.
Once people like me started gushing over her new acquisition, how wonderful and rare it was, Archie would've asked questions she couldn't answer. The orchid had to disappear.
Betty Sue couldn't bring herself to throw away such a beautiful flower, so she gave it to Nannette. She probably hoped that would be the end of it, but Archie blabbed her fib all over town.
I glanced around her kitchen, at the faded wallpaper and the aged appliances. The only joy in the drab house came from the pots of colorful flowers at every window. We need such things of beauty in our lives, little gifts to ourselves, what Mama always called "orchids for the soul."
Betty Sue got so carried away by beauty that she made a terrible mistake. I could sympathize. I myself am sometimes afflicted by enthusiasms.
"If that's the way you want it," I said softly, "we can let it go."
"That would be best, Loretta."
I got to my feet. Betty Sue teetered over her nervous hands, and I got the impression she was waiting for me to leave so she could put her head on the table and have a good cry.
"Despite what some people say, I can keep a secret," I said. "You can trust me, Betty Sue."
She nodded, but still couldn't look at me. I cast about for a parting kindness.
"Mitzi will take excellent care of that orchid." It pained me to say so. "She'll smile at it all the livelong day. That's got to make for a healthy flower."
Betty Sue looked up at me then, her eyes red and wet.
"I'm glad it found a good home."

1 comment:

patriciasmithwood said...

I love this little town of Pandora. I'm anxious to learn more about it. Good job!