A black butterfly. I hadn’t seen one of those in fifteen years. It hovered in front of my face for several seconds, taunting me before circling my head.
I swatted at it, eager to feel it turn to mush between my fingers, its wings dissolve into individual shiny black threads. It managed to evade my temper tantrum, meandering through the air in a zigzag pattern until it floated gently down to rest on a poppy on the other side of the garden. Would it do any good to kill a bad omen? I wasn't sure. I'd have to ask Kat later. But it couldn’t hurt, right?
The cobblestone was rough and cold on my bare feet as I padded over to it. May in Montana was still too cold for bare feet and the thin, ankle-length slip dress I was wearing. I'd only meant to be out in the little flower shop garden for a second, long enough to cut a few poppies for Steve’s custom order. It was a strange flower for a birthday bouquet. Even before I’d had them added to Mama’s casket spray, they’d reminded me of death. I grew them in memory of her, but that was the only reason.
I threw myself down to the ground next to the little cluster of bright red flowers where the butterfly had landed, a sea of scarlet against the cheery blues and purples around it. My knees sunk into the silky soil as I brought both my hands up on either side of the winged menace, intending to crush it between my palms with one swift clap.
The creature dipped its fuzzy legs into the center of the flower, unaware of my intentions. Its wings were velvety black against the blood-red petals. Any sort of bright red anything filled me with unease, sending chills down my spine, and this time was no different. The creature froze, suddenly sensing me. After a second, it hopped from the flower and fluttered over to my hand, completely trusting me like we were long-lost friends. We’d met before, but we were not friends. His little legs were like gentle pinpricks on my finger as he stared back at me. He was too beautiful to be a bad omen, so why was my chest so tight and my breaths coming in small, quick gasps? My lungs burned as I pulled in another frosty breath and my arms erupted in goosebumps. Not from the cold. A sign. Something bad was on the horizon.
"Is that a black butterfly?"
I jumped up, whirling around at the sound of Eli’s voice, and the butterfly startled from his perch, bolting away on its shiny delicate wings. I watched as it glided out the arched gate that separated the garden from the main street of Black Creek, Montana. Hopefully, never to be seen again. I should've murdered it before it had a chance to cause any more mayhem.
"Yeah." I turned toward Eli, picking a spot on the ground to look at instead of meeting his eyes as I wiped my sweaty palms on the side of my apron. One of the biggest disadvantages of living above the shop was that I was never very far away from the Sheriff's office or Eli Manser. "What's up, Deputy Manser? A little early for domestic disputes and vandalism, isn't it?"
There was no reason for the bitter edge to my words. Eli had never been anything but wonderful toward me. My face heated up under his gaze, threatening to betray my real feelings toward him. What I’d had with Eli was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of love that had already spanned fifteen years. The Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, Jack and Rose kind of stuff and probably just as tragic as are such once-in-a-lifetime loves that never quite work out. The woman that Eli loved was one that no longer existed.
"Wow," he said, looping his thumbs in his belt loops. "Good morning to you too."
I gulped down the guilt that tugged at my conscience. It was better this way. Discord was better than falling for him again. Not that I'd ever completely climbed out of the all-consuming, fiery pit that was our relationship. More like I'd spent fifteen years clawing my way halfway out, only to slip blissfully back in a couple of months ago. "Well, I suspect you're not here for a good morning.”
He sighed with a nod. "Where's your sister?”
I wrapped my arms around myself, the initial heat from his close proximity wearing off, leaving me colder than I’d been before. I met his gaze this time, refusing to falter at his intense bright blue eyes. "Sadie’s upstairs. Why do you want her?"
"Since when? What time did she get in last night?" he asked, his eyebrows drawing together in concern.
I shrugged. “She was still gone when I went to bed at 11:00, but when I woke up at 5:00, I found her on the couch.” I’d spent most of the night pacing the apartment waiting for her. When I’d finally managed to settle myself down, after two whole cups of Sleepytime tea, my sleep had been so black and deep, a sinkhole could’ve ripped a hole in the earth and swallowed the entire town and I would’ve slept through it all. Waking at 5:00 had been a slow, groggy experience that had left me in the mood I was in now and it was only getting worse as the morning went on.
"I need to talk to her," he said.
I took a deep breath. "No, you're not upsetting her just because some town gossip got bored and decided to remember we exist."
"It’s not like that." Normally he'd argue, tell me that our status as the town outcasts was just my imagination, but today he just sighed heavily again. "An altercation behind Second Shift Bar was called in last night. No one was there by the time a deputy responded, but there was some blood. Parker Jones didn't show up for work this morning, and he’s not at home either. I checked.”
"Little soon for a missing person's report, isn't it? Even if Parker was missing, you have no proof Sadie had anything to do with it."
"Actually, witness descriptions match the both of them and Parker’s truck," he said. Parker’s grey truck was unmistakable with its oversized tires, even in Montana, where everyone drove a truck of some sort. " Look, with their history . . . and ours, I just thought I should be the one to handle this. I just want to make sure that everyone is okay and nothing major happened."
"Someone saw her in the dark, fighting with Parker. That seems pretty weak to me. You don’t even know for sure if it was her. . . or him," I said. "And you know that incident with Parker a couple of years ago was self-defense. He admitted to hitting her, and Sadie has problems, Eli. She doesn't like to be touched. Hardly ever. Even when they were at their best.”
Even I had to admit that Sadie had overreacted then. The story that had come out, in the end, was that Parker had slapped her—one hard slap across the face. Luckily, she’d still had the imprint when the police had arrived. It had helped in the self-defense plea since she’d responded by sticking a paring knife in his gut. Even that hadn’t lessened his infatuation with her, though he was sure to keep his distance when she was drinking.
She’d definitely been drinking last night. The rancid smell of cigarettes mingling with vodka had filled the entire apartment by the time I’d left this morning. Maybe Parker had been desperate enough to approach her last night. If that was true, then she might be implicated in Parker’s disappearance, but she’d had no blood on her when I’d covered her with her favorite, floral comforter this morning. They were all probably overreacting. If Parker had been at the bar last night, he was probably just home. having fallen asleep with his head in the toilet, too drunk to answer the door when Eli had come knocking. The blood was probably from your run-of-the-mill bar fight. Second Shift had more than its share of them.
I’d been silent for too long. Long enough that Eli’s scrutinizing glare had softened and he was looking at me in that way now, his eyes glassy and soft with emotion. The way that made me painfully aware of the dirt gluing my dress to my knees and my short dark hair that I hadn't bothered to run a brush through and was unruly on a good day. The way that had landed me in his bed a month ago after a fifteen-year hiatus.
"That's one trait you guys share," he said, softly running his thumb down my cheek. My brain searched for what he was even referring to as butterflies bounced crazily around inside my gut— the black, bad-omen kind like the one I'd just chased around my garden. Ones I was just as desperate to obliterate. As much as I wished it were true, I definitely did not hate Eli's touch. Our affair had lasted barely a month before I'd broken things off again. Our chances at fairytale love had died fifteen years ago with my parents. I couldn’t go back in time. I couldn’t be that person again. Things were finally okay for Sadie and me, and I didn’t want to risk agitating the already tremulous balance we'd managed to achieve.
Grinding my teeth, I pushed his hand away. "Stop it, Eli. We shouldn’t have started this again. You need to move on. And so do I." Find a nice girl, settle down, have babies. All the things we’d talked about as teenagers. I ignored the way my heart lurched at the thought of him doing it all with someone else. Even after all this time, after seeing him with various other girlfriends, one who he'd almost married, I really had to wonder if I’d survive it when he did move on. For real.
"Move on!" he scoffed. "You don't move, on, Clara. You stay the same. You made your choices fifteen years ago, and that's where you stayed."
I nodded, the prick of his words almost reaching my heart. "Unfortunately, my choices are none of your business."
"Have it your way," he said, turning toward the back exit of the garden, the one that led to the back parking lot. "I give it a day before Sheriff Townsend shows up."
"Let him try," I said, crouching back down to the flower that the black butterfly had just been on. I pulled the little pocket knife from my apron and held it to the stem, but my shaking hand only succeeded in shaving pieces off the side. I snapped the knife shut, tossing it aside before pulling the plant free of the soil, roots, and all. I snatched another just as savagely before marching toward the backdoor of the shop. Eli's department-issued truck still rumbled like a jet engine from the parking lot near the backdoor, and I stopped short, not wanting any further interaction with him. The less the better.
I hadn't yet opened the shop, or I could use the front door. I patted my apron, looking for the shop keys. Feeling their comforting bulge, I spun back around, bolting for the street instead. The garden for La Fleur's flower shop was nestled between our building and the bank next door, where another building should've stood. However, the silver mine that had sparked the surge of settlers to Black Creek in the late 1800s had run dry earlier than expected and many half-finished buildings dotted the town, rotting away and slowly being reclaimed by nature. This one had only gotten as far as a two-foot wall of cement around the perimeter and chipped steps leading up a couple of feet to the sidewalk. The garden was mostly for show and for Sadie, who had a special interest in flowers. Though we used some from there in our arrangements, the weather only allowed outdoor gardens for a fraction of the year, so most of our flowers came from the original owner who still operated a greenhouse outside of town.
My feet were heavy and numb from the prolonged cold as I climbed the steps. Despite the inability of the town to keep up with the increasingly rundown, ancient buildings, Black Creek was beautiful. They’d had money in the beginning and had been quick to erect many of the buildings downtown, frosting them with intricately carved trims and unique parapets that gave the tall buildings a castle-like quality. The worn paint and cracks just added to the charm.
I paused halfway up the steps; something glittery catching my eye among the irises there. I crouched down, reading the side of the key chain as I picked it up: Mountview Rentals #6. It was one of the extended-stay lodgings a couple of miles down the highway that rented out by the week instead of by the day like a normal hotel. The sign just before the pass that lead to Silverlake boasted the same logo as the scuffed, plastic key chain. The edges of the little copper key that hung from it were worn smooth from overuse. I’d never actually been there, but it felt almost familiar. I rolled it around in my hands thoughtfully. It really was fairly standard-looking. Probably like all the other cabin hotels in Montana. I pushed the thought aside, not wanting to remember Mama and Daddy just now and the many summer adventures we’d taken together.
I hadn’t spent much time in the garden yet this spring. Who knows how long it’d been there. No one really walked through the garden anymore, except Sadie and me. If the shop was closed, it was easier to cut through the garden to the backdoor of the building than bothering with the rusty lock on the shop’s main door and the alarm we always kept armed when we weren’t there. Maybe Sadie knew something about it. If not, I’d drop it off at the Mountview Rentals when I had a spare second. I slipped it in my apron and started back down the sidewalk.
Main street was completely deserted except for me. The whole town was still asleep and even though it was nearly nine o’clock, only the growl of Eli's truck broke the peaceful mountain silence. . . and the banging of the guy at my shop door, squinting to peer into the little foggy window. Thump, thump.
"I'm here!" I called, racing towards him before he had a chance to knock a third time. People always knocked three times. It was like they were purposely tempting the fates.
The skinny middle-aged man stepped away from the door, giving me room to unlock it. It was his mom's birthday, I guessed. They were meeting for breakfast and he forgot a present. Every mom likes flowers from her son.
I fumbled with the lock, dropping my keys to the ground once with his silent stare drilling me in the back. I’d grown used to people staring long ago, but this guy was making me nervous. Finally, I pushed the door open and stumbled inside, warm air greeting me as I blindly flipped on the lights. My frozen feet stung as I stepped onto the tepid linoleum floor. It was at least thirty degrees warmer in here, but the goosebumps lining my arms refused to let up.
"Not really dressed for the weather, are ya?" the man asked, studying my shop instead of looking directly at me.
"I'm more of a summer girl," I said, stuffing my keys in my apron. "What can I help you with?"
“You must be Clara,” he said. "Clara Froyd?" It sounded more like an accusation, immediately putting me on the defensive.
"Um yeah," I said, suddenly a lot more interested. He was fairly average-looking, a couple of inches taller than me with a hairline that had receded prematurely, extending to the back of his head and giving me a clear view of his pale scalp. Flat, brown eyes studied me from behind thick-rimmed glasses. I was pretty good with faces, but this was one I didn't recognize.
His bushy eyebrows drew together as he raised his chin to look down at me, studying me for several more seconds before responding. "Do you know who murdered your parents?"