“Let me tell you how I got this flower." I rubbed my lapel with the white rose boutonniere and stared across the hard wood surface at the man in the bowtie, his gaze stern and expressionless.
"OK, Let me start at the beginning-"
I smelled her outside the door before she ever knocked, aromas of spring flowers, lavender, and crisp $100 dollar bills.
It was 11 AM and the sun was streaming through the dust floating in my cramped office. Coffee thick as tar slowly steamed next to me. I was wearing my powder blue suit, dark blue tie over a white shirt. I was clean, shaved and hungover. The day loomed long and heavy over me like a gravestone.
Waiting on the phone to ring, I fingered my Father’s whisky flask, dented and nicked from long use. What is the value of a thing, how do you count something as intangible as sentimentality? The flask wouldn't be worth more than a few dollars at a flea market, but I wouldn't let it go for a few thousand. It was the only thing I had left to remind me of my Father, no matter how much of a drunk he was. And it still served its original purpose. I began twisting the cap off when I heard the soft knock.
It was just a brush of the knuckles, nothing to it all, except the door opened and a woman entered, that scent of lavender following her in. The woman was tall and wore a man’s dress shirt, the neck opened down to her cleavage, and the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. Her tight jeans followed every one of her curves. Her blonde hair was pulled back loosely in a low bun. She had a good mouth, and a strong chin. She stepped in the small office and looked around, a sulky droop to her full lower lip as her gaze circled around to me, still in my chair.
“Are you Johnny Diamond, the private detective?” She said. I could have dove into that deep voice and never come out.
I only nodded, not trusting my mouth to follow my directions.
“I don’t know if you could even help but…” She stopped and dropped her head to give me a sorrowful look that has gotten her every thing she has wanted, from every man she has ever met.
“Why don't you have a seat,” I half rose to gesture to the wooden chairs set aside for the clients. “Ms.?”
“Ms. Luscious.” She said. “You can call me Lucy.” She sat down.
“I have a florist shop, you might have heard of it, it is the best in the city, if I say so myself.” She began, looking me dead in the eye. “Lucious Stems. We do the weddings, and funerals for the City’s finest. I am here because a man is stealing from me, and the police wont do anything! You have to help me Mr. Diamond!”
Lucy put her face in her hands and her shoulders shook with sobs. After a moment she wiped her eyes with her fingers and sat up, shards of blue ice looked back at me.
“You have to stop him Mr. Diamond. You just have to!”
“The police won't help you?” I asked.
“They say there is no proof, but- he is so blatant, I mean, you should see him!” Lucy said, anger crept up her neck and turned her face red.
“How much are we talking?” I asked.
“What he takes is - I can't even value it. But you have to stop him Mr. Diamond. I need you.” Her full lower lip called to me-
I could not turn down a damsel in distress, especially a damsel like Ms. Luscious. I put on my fedora and followed her to her shop.
Luscious Stems was in an old building tucked between a dive bar, The Victors, and a bookstore I had been to before on another case, Geiger’s Books.
The entrance was set far back, with copper trims on the windows, showcasing the large bouquets inside. I stepped inside after Lucy to the ding of the bell and a thick fog of humidity. The floral scent was sweet and cloying, it hung in the air like a blanket.
Lucy walked behind a counter and put on a dark green apron with the outline of Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate, her dress blowing up around her bare ‘stems’.
On the counter was an antique cash register, ornate bronze with intricate designs etched into its sides, rows of buttons curling around its fat belly, and a metal platform stretching out to each side.
“Thank you for coming.” Lucy said, as she picked up red roses one by one to add them to a vase. “He usually comes in after noon, and then you can stop him.”
“Ok.” I looked around the small shop and saw a wicker chair and table in the corner by the glass front bay window, tucked behind the door.
“Do you think he will still rob you if he sees me here?”
Her face screwed up in rage.
“That bastard has no shame! He doesn’t care- he knows he can get away with it!”
“OK, if you get me some coffee, I can sit over here out of the way.”
Lucy set me up with a cup and saucer, and I moved over to the wicker chair to begin my surveillance. It was a busy shop, witha constant flow of customers. Women buying elaborate floral arrangements, men with downcast eyes searching for bouquets of roses to atone for some sin, even teenagers buying boutonnieres and corsages.
With each purchase I heard the ring of the cash register buttons, the cha-ching of the drawer opening and the jingle of the coins hitting the metal drawer.
It was close to 1 PM and I was on my third cup of coffee. I had just decided that my need to go to the bathroom had moved past urgent to Right Now, when I saw Lucy waving at me, trying to get my attention. As soon as I caught her eyes, she nodded quickly and looked away. I turned to look at the man who had just walked in. He was short and olive-skinned. He wore a faded tan suit with strings hanging off the cuffs, and shiny from wear.
His thick black hair was combed straight back over a low forehead and he had deep set, dark eyes. But his most prominent feature, the reason I will never forget him, was his nose. It extended out like a hatchet from between his eyes, before it hooked down sharply, far out over his mustache, like the majestic beak of a toucan.
I sat up then, my eyes skipping back between the cash register and the man. My knee bounced without my control as I tried to focus on the thief and not my bursting bladder. He walked slowly around the room, his nose deep in the bouquets on display, and into each of the flowers in vases displayed around the store. He was not within six feet of the cash register, and I wished he would just hurry up and make his move so I could collar him and then go relieve myself.
He was in a corner with the collection of uncut roses, breathing in their aromas when my bouncing knee got too close to the table, hitting the the bottom. The saucer and coffee cup launched into the air spinning over the table. I expertly reached up and caught both the saucer and cup, spilling only a few drops, and placed them back on the table, proud I was able to save them from certain destruction.
“Stop him, he did it again!” Lucy cried out
Damn! The thief had made his move while I was distracted. The man, in a few quick strides, had already opened the door, blocking me from getting to him.
I jumped up, knocking the small table over, the cup and saucer falling to the floor in a clatter of broken pottery.
I spun around the door and jumped outside, looking to the right then left but not seeing the thief in the lunchtime traffic of pedestrians. Knowing I would never see his small frame in the crowd, I leapt up on top of a nearby post office box, balancing precariously on the curved top to look each way down the street.
I shouted once, loud- “Stop thief!”
Most of the pedestrians turned, and there! I saw that unmistakable curved beak profile of the man, one block down the street.
I jumped down and ran through the crowded street until I came up behind him. He was walking fast, but not running, probably trying to not look conspicuous. I grabbed his shoulder and pulled hard, stopping him and spinning him around.
“Excuse me!” The man said in a thick Turkish accent.
“Got you. Come with me.” Without discussion, I half dragged, half carried the man back to Lucious Stems and then inside, ignoring his protests.
Once we were back inside the florist shop, I set him in the middle of the shop. “Ok- cough it up."
Lucy stood with her arms crossed over her chest, a look of victory across her face.
“What are you talking about?” The man said. He looked to Lucy. “Is this you, again? First the police, and now this man!”
“Enough talking. Empty your pockets.” I patted down his jacket and pants. “Turn over what you stole."
“I didn't steal anything!”
I found only a handful of change. “Is this it?” I looked at Lucy.
“No, he didn't steal money.” She pointed at the man, her face bright red, her eyes shooting blue lighting bolts. “He stole the smells!”
I opened my mouth, and then closed my mouth, once then twice. I poured the change back into the man’s coat pocket.
“The smells?” I finally got out.
“He comes in here every day, smelling my flowers and never buying anything. He has to pay for the privilege!”
I looked at the man. “Could you buy one flower?”
He looked at me like I was the crazy one.
“I am a poor man, I have little money." He straightened up. "But, I have a refined palate, and this woman,” he pointed to Lucy, “is a terrible person, but she has the best flowers in the whole city. I come to visit, but I can not afford to buy her extravagantly priced flowers. What is the harm in that?”
“He is stealing from me- don’t you see! He comes in and smells without paying!” Lucy was enraged, her face bright red.
I looked down at the man. “What is your name?”
“Ok. Mr. Burun. I understand you do not have much money, but you gotta pay the woman.”
Mr. Burun looked at me with his hands up. “With what, I am a poor man.”
There was only one solution to this.
“Ok, take out your change.”
“My coins?” Mr. Burun said. "That is all the money I have."
“Pull them out.” I said. “Drop them on the metal next to the cash register.”
He looked at me confused, but I waved him on. He dropped them and the coins clinked, rang and jangled.
“Ok, you can pick them up.” I nodded, and gestured for Mr. Burun to put the coins back in his pocket.
“Well that is that.” I clapped my hands. “I think we are resolved here, do you agree?”
Lucy and Mr. Burun both tilted their heads ,and frowned.
“Mr. Burun bought the smell of your flowers Ms. Luscious, with the sound of his coins.”
Neither of them looked happy with this exchange.
“OK- I really have to go.” I said.
To keep Lucy happy, I bought a rose for my lapel, then I walked Mr. Burun out.
“I really suggest you find another flower shop.”
I saw Mr. Burun walk away, and then I stepped into the bar next door, to finally visit the men’s room, and well, hear I am.
I rubbed my lapel with the white rose boutonniere and stared across the hard wood surface at the man in the bowtie, his gaze still stern and expressionless.
“Well, did I pull it off? I asked the bartender.
“A pigovian payment-” The bartender said, shaking his head.
“Have you heard of Pigou?” The bartender asked. “He was an economist who wrote about the value of externalities… oh never mind.”
The bartender pulled down a glass and poured me a whisky.
“Yes," he said, "that story deserves a free drink.”
A good story is worth something, too.