Pick Of The Bunch

An illustration of an attractive lady Pic: Rex/Shutterstock


Gladys has some special talents, but one day she meets her match – or does she…?

I like to change jobs more often than most people. It stops me getting bored. Five years is my record, in a bank. The shortest I’ve lasted? Five hours. That was in a restaurant. Horrible people. I’ve never been back since.

“What do you want to be when you’re grown up?” I remember my mother asking. Even then I knew. All I had to do was find a way of doing it.

Now I’ve succeeded. I’m in my dream job! The proud owner of the prettiest flower shop in town. It’s taken a long time to save up for my own business, but it’s worth every penny. Every drop of blood, sweat and tears.

There’s something about flowers, isn’t there? There aren’t many things that are beautiful to look at and also smell wonderful. One of my favourite things to do on a Sunday is to find the nearest patch of countryside and walk with a copy of my old children’s Book of Wild Flowers in my hand. I like to identify them, see if I can remember their names. Old Man’s Beard. Queen Charlotte’s Lace. Red Campion.

It always surprises me how much people will pay for flowers, considering they could pick them for free. Still, that job in the bank taught me that people are often careless about their money.

I like to think my prices are very reasonable. “Only £1.50 a stem?” remarked one of my customers only this morning. “They’re twice that much in London. Thank you for wrapping them up so beautifully,” she gushed after I tied them up with a neat silver and blue bow.

“It’s a pleasure,” I told her. And it was. Tying things up has always been a particular skill of mine. I’ve got quite nimble fingers. In fact I once had a job in a dress alteration shop, but then the manageress left and I didn’t care much for her replacement.

Not that I want to think about that now. I’m too busy enjoying what I have. I’m certainly rushed off my feet here. Up at 5am to get to the nearest market to buy fresh flowers, then back to the shop to arrange them in containers and make a pretty window display to draw in the customers. Some of my trade comes off the street. I also have lots of regulars. I get a lot of orders on the phone too. Like now.

“A mixed bouquet?” I repeat down the line. There are a lot of old people in this town and sometimes they’re not very clear. I don’t want to get things wrong. “Of course. Would you like me to choose the flowers for you? And would you care for a message to go with it?”

You come across all kinds of situations here. Sometimes it breaks your heart…

It’s the notes that are the best part of my job. You come across all kinds of situations here. Sometimes it breaks your heart. Sometimes it fills you with a lovely warmth because people can be so kind and thoughtful.

For example, the lady ordering the mixed bouquet wants a Get Better Soon message for her friend who broke her arm when she was gardening. Isn’t that nice? Yesterday, I had a Thank You note to write for a gentleman who wanted to thank his friend for watering his plants while he was away last week.

I’ve got so busy that I’m thinking of hiring an assistant. Of course there’s only one place to find someone. The local paper. Everyone reads it here.

I was quite surprised when I moved in to see how much crime there is in a small town. Nothing really big, mainly burglaries and the odd mugging. It doesn’t compare with London, of course, but even so, it’s made me very careful about locking up the shop at night before going upstairs to the flat above.

It took a while, I have to say, to get used to living on my own after Mum went. I found it helped to create my own habits instead of following hers. I took to eating dinner off a tray in front of the television. How rebellious! I could also, I told myself, find a boyfriend now. Mum had never been keen on my “gentlemen friends” as she put it. None of them were good enough for me.

So imagine my surprise when Alfred turned up at the shop the day after my advertisement in the Jobs Vacant column of the local paper.

“You’re a man,” I said, realising as I said it that this was probably a very silly and politically incorrect thing to say.

Luckily, Alfred had a sense of humour. “I believe I am,” he said. His blue eyes twinkled and he brushed a hand through a loose strand of jet black hair as he spoke. “Is that a problem?”

Not with looks like that! I’d never seen anyone who set my heart fluttering like it was doing right now. As for his voice – well, I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for an Irish accent ever since my restaurant job. The manager there came from Ireland too and if circumstances had been different, I might still be there.

“Is the job already filled?”

Alfred was looking at me with such a mixture of hope and – dare I say it? – admiration, that I couldn’t help it…

“It is now,” I said. Can you believe it? I hadn’t even asked him for references.

My dad had been right. “When you meet the right person, it just hits you out of the blue,” he used to say. “That’s what happened to me and your old mum. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Alfred certainly knew his gypsophila from his geraniums. He had a wonderful manner with the customers, too, often persuading them to buy something that was just a bit over their budget because, “it’s so lovely to get a really special bunch, isn’t it?”

He also turned out to be a dab hand at tying the bunches – I’ve never seen anyone pare the ribbons with scissors like that before. And he’s a really careful driver, as I found out when I invited him to accompany me on a delivery in my van after work one day.

It seemed natural to ask him back to the flat for dinner later. After all, Alfred’s new to town like me. He doesn’t know many people either.

We began to fall into the habit of having dinner together. Always at my place, never at Alfred’s. I should have guessed perhaps but love makes you blind.

“Are you ready for me to stay the night, Gladys?” he whispered one evening after a particularly romantic meal which he had cooked, using my little stove.

I hesitated, remembering everything that mum had taught me.

“If you do find a man, make sure you get a ring on your finger first,” she had always said. But it was no good. Perhaps it was the yellow rose that Alfred had placed in the middle of the table. Or maybe it was the way he stroked my neck when he kissed me. Either way, I succumbed.

When I wake in the morning, Alfred is gone

“He’s just off on one of the deliveries,” I tell myself. Sure enough, my little van isn’t in its usual parking space. Clearly he’s decided to surprise me by going to the market. But when he still hasn’t returned by opening time, I begin to get worried. We were also low on stock.

“No pink roses?” asks one woman, disappointed. “I’ll have to go to the supermarket instead then.”

By lunchtime, I’m really beginning to think something must have happened to him. He’s had an accident. Maybe he’s lying in a gutter in some country lane, waiting for someone to find him. It’s no good. I’ll have to ring the police.

“How long has your partner been missing?” asks a voice at the other end.

“Since 5am this morning,” I say, trying to keep the panic out of my voice.

“I’m afraid we can’t report a missing person for twenty-four hours. Have you tried the local hospital?”

The local hospital? I can’t bear it. To think my Alfred might be lying there without me. I try to ring but there’s a long wait. Usually I’m a very patient person – a very important quality, Mum always said – but right now, I can’t wait. I’ll have to shut up shop and drive. Except – wait! – I don’t have my van any more.

As I go to the till to get some change for a taxi, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve been really stupid… because the till is empty.

“Rose Lily?”

There’s a policeman at the door

I whip round. There’s a policeman at the door. Next to him is a woman, also in uniform. There’s a strange look on their faces, but that’s nothing compared with the beating in my heart.

“Rose Lily?” I repeat. “I think you’ve got the wrong person. There’s no one of that name here.”

“Are you sure?”

The policewoman is stepping nearer me now. She has a pair of handcuffs in her hand.

“There’s been some mistake,” I stutter. “I rang you – or rather the police station – to report a missing person.”

“It’s not him we’re here for, Rose,” said the policeman. “It’s you. It’s taken me a long time to find you. Don’t you remember me?”

He’s older than when I first met him at the bank

That’s when I recognise him. The detective. He’s older than when I first met him at the bank. His hair is greyer, thinner, but those piercing blue grey eyes are the same as they were when they interviewed me about the missing cash in the accounts. Luckily he believed me at the time. Just as lucky, I had some holiday leave coming up.

I never went back. Instead, I moved to another part of the country and took a job as a waitress. But my previous experience had unsettled me. I forgot all Mum’s lessons like not doing anything too soon. It wasn’t long before I was accused of helping myself to the tips.

“I can’t prove anything,” said the furious manager, “but you can go. Now.”

So I did. Along with the contents of a customer’s handbag that happened to have a handy £300 inside. It helped with my first month’s rent in another part of the country. That’s where I got lucky. I’ve always been good with my hands, like I said. So I took a job at a clothes alteration shop. That’s where I really learned my craft.

“I won’t need this dress for three weeks,” one of the clients said to the manageress. “We’re going on a cruise.”

There was a spate of local robberies at that time, and believe it or not, this client’s home was robbed the following week. At first I thought it was a coincidence, but then another client announced she was at work during the day so could only pick up her dress at the weekend. Blow me down, but her house was done over too. That’s when I took the manageress to one side and told her my suspicions about her.

“How did you guess?” she’d gasped.

“It’s an old trick, isn’t it?” I pointed out. “My mum made a living out of it. She used to run a dress shop too… among other things. In fact, she did anything that allowed her an insight into other people’s lives. When they would be in. When they would be out. Always make friends with them, she used to say. That way they would trust you.”

“It sounds like you’ve got quite a lot to offer,” the manageress had said. “How about joining me and cutting the profits straight down the middle?”

It worked a treat until she got ill and left. Crime can do that to some people. It eats away at your conscience. When the new manageress came, it was clear she was a law-abiding citizen. So I had to leave and start again.

This was my chance to go straight…

Luckily, I’d saved up enough of my ill-earned gains to start my flower shop.

This, I told myself, was my chance to go straight. Finally, I would put the past behind me, but it wasn’t that easy. That burglary in the bungalow where the owner was in hospital after breaking her arm? I have to hold up my hand to that.

There were a few others too. Nothing big. It wasn’t even as if I needed the money. It was the thrill more than anything. But then Alfred turned up. Suddenly I didn’t need that extra buzz any more. I had him. Now – what irony! – it seems he’s done the dirty on me.

“Come on Rose,” says the detective. “Just come along quietly. People are beginning to stare.”

They are, too. As I’m led to the van outside, I see all my regulars. The mother who always bought her mum flowers every Friday, the elderly gentleman who’s courting a lady at the bridge club, and…

“Alfred,” I call out. “How could you do this to me?”

The woman policeman’s hand tightened on my arm

“Good, isn’t he? One of our latest recruits. Used to work in security for a big department store.”

That’s when the truth dawns. The quick application for the job. His willingness to go through my accounts. The questions he asked about my clients. That Irish charm… He’s looking at me now. I’m sorry, he seems to be saying. The worst thing is, I’m sorry too. But it’s too late now, isn’t it?

It takes a while for Alfred to visit me in prison. I had to go through a rather long trial and endure some upsetting headlines. But all the time, I was hoping and waiting. Eventually, he comes.

“I brought you some flowers,” he said. “But they wouldn’t let me take them through security.”

“Didn’t you feel guilty setting me up like that?” I ask.

He nods. “Sure I did, Gladys – I mean, Rose. It’s why I chucked in the job.”

I gasp. “You mean you’re not a policeman any more?”

“I decided to follow in your footsteps. Set up a flower shop.”

Now the tables have turned

“But where did you get the money?”

Even as I ask the question, I know the truth. The till had been full that morning. There had been a month’s takings in it. If I hadn’t been so distracted by love, I’d have gone to the bank and made sure it was safe. Now the tables have turned. He’s fleeced me. Just as I’d fleeced people all my life.

“That’s right,” he confessed when I asked him. “Got to go now, I’m afraid. Doubt if we’ll be seeing each other again, but I’ll always remember you. You’re my inspiration, you know that?”

I also know something else. My charming rogue won’t get very far. Because the police knew he was coming to see me. I’m wired up, you see. So guess who’s being caught right now?

As for me, when I get out of here I’m going straight. Honest. In fact, I’ve a little business idea already. I’m going to sell wild flowers. Something for nothing.

Mum’s going to help me. She’ll be released before me, of course, but she’ll wait. Like Dad always said before he got sent down too, there’s nothing quite like a traditional family business…

Don’t miss these other stories in our Crime Series… the next will appear on Thursday!

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Karen Byrom

My coffee mug says "professional bookworm" which sums me up really! As commissioning fiction editor on the magazine, I love sharing my reading experience of the latest books, debut authors and more with you all, and would like to hear from you about your favourite books and authors! Email me kbyrom@dctmedia.co.uk