By Eva Glynn Stephens


The body of 25-year-old Misty Ann Murphy was discovered in her Cottonwood apartment complex late Tuesday evening, according to the Addison County Police Department.

Murphy, a graduate student who worked part-time at Highland Scot's Tavern, was reported missing by a fellow employee of the popular hot spot when she did not show up for work on July 5.

An investigation is being conducted by the Addison County Police Department.

I glanced up from the newspaper clipping, which had grown limp and wrinkled from being handled so much, to find Ted Murphy watching me through hooded eyes that had grown bleary and flat.

Under other circumstances, the blaring headline, and the story that followed would have been just the thing to pique my natural curiosity, which is often mistaken for blatant nosiness. As a private investigator in a small town, I am rarely given the opportunity to crack a really good case, so I invented a philosophy that seems to drive the local PD, where I spent five years of my life as a glorified traffic cop, to distraction: if the crime doesn't come to me, I go to the criminal. This, of course, has made me highly unpopular with my fellow law enforcement officers. I have been referred to in various unflattering terms, the most recent being "corpse chaser."

However, this was not a routine case. I had known the victim's father, a retired homicide dick, since my days on the force.

Ted sat across from me, shifting in his chair to find a more comfortable position. His haggard face was ashen, his snow-white hair thin and brittle, and his clothes hung from his gaunt frame, as if he had shrunk inside of them. In spite of his calm façade, his hands trembled as he reached for the newspaper clipping.

"I'm sorry about Misty Ann, Ted."

"Thank you, Frances. It was a terrible shock. For the past few days I've been wandering around the house, trying to make sense of this. I'm a realist. I know things like this happen every day — I've seen them firsthand — but I always thought they happened to other people. I've been in touch with the homicide team many times since I found out my daughter was killed, but I'm not getting any answers. As a cop, I know investigations take time, but, as a parent, I want answers now. The thought of this dragging on for years, without finding the person who killed my daughter..." Ted shook his head. "I don't have a great deal of time."

"Ted —"

"Frances, I have terminal cancer. I don't want to die without knowing who took my child from me." The words were spoken matter-of-factly, and before I could reply, he reached into the sports coat he was wearing despite the warm day, and pulled a photograph from an inside pocket. "Misty Ann."

The candid snapshot showed a strikingly pretty brunette standing before a cluster of trees, the leaves ablaze with fall colors. She was laughing, her silhouette backlit by a golden-orange autumn sun.

"She was lovely."

As Ted took the picture from me, his eyes flicked over the image of his daughter. "And very smart. She was a graduate student of psychology at the University of Washington. Given the opportunity, I'm sure she would have made a difference in many lives."

"What happened, Ted?"

He sighed, the sound heavy and choked. "When Misty Ann didn't show up for work, or answer her cell phone, her friend, Tara Cummings, got worried and called the police. After her shift at the tavern ended, Tara stopped by Misty Ann's apartment, and that's when she found my daughter, lying just inside the front door. There was a pink rose and a note on the floor next to her. All of the reports are in the folder I gave you when I came in."

I began to make notes on a yellow legal pad. "What can you tell me about her job? Were there ever any problems? Did she mention her customers? Anyone in particular that sticks out in your mind?"

"We didn't discuss her job often. She preferred to talk about her graduate studies, and everything seemed to be going well."

"She never mentioned her co-workers?"


"Boyfriends? Friends? Any names you can give me will be helpful when I start conducting interviews."

For the next forty-five minutes, Ted answered questions, and I took notes. Once the appropriate papers had been signed and I'd received my retainer, I walked Ted to the door. "I'm going to do everything I can for you."

"I appreciate that, Frances."

"I'll start working this afternoon, and be in touch in a couple of days. You can expect my first report by the middle of next week. In the meantime, if you need anything, contact me. All of my info's on my card."

Ted left, and I set to work digging through the police reports.

* * *

"Well, if it isn't Frances Miller!" Dr. Gary Gellar, who had been appointed Addison County's coroner two years before, rose to his full, round-shouldered height of six feet four inches, and stepped from behind his desk when I walked into his small, wood-paneled office just before eleven o'clock.

"Thanks for seeing me on such short notice."

As Gary rounded the corner of his desk once more, he motioned me into the chair standing across from it. "And to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"

"I'm working the Misty Ann Murphy case, and I was hoping you could answer a few questions for me."

For a moment, Gary, who was known for his photographic memory and the morbid love he had for his profession, didn't say anything, but I could practically hear his mind whirring as he processed my words.

"I know the case well. Very unfortunate situation. I received a call from Officer Norton around two a.m. on July 6, and arrived on the scene 45 minutes later. That's when I found Miss Murphy lying just inside the front door of her apartment."

"Time of death?" I asked, pen poised above my legal pad.

"Approximately 6:45 p.m. July 5."

"What exactly did you notice when you arrived on the scene, Gary?"

"I noticed several things, Frances, but the two that stood out to me were that Miss Murphy was fully clothed, and that there didn't seem to be any evidence of foul play. The crime scene was exceptionally clean — no blood, no fluids. Upon my initial inspection I thought the cause of death might be natural, possibly an aneurysm or a cardiac event of some sort."

"But you don't think so now that the gross examination has been done?"

"Actually, the initial examination proved inconclusive," said Gary. "There were no bruises, no lacerations, nothing. It was when I performed Miss Murphy's autopsy that I discovered she had suffered a cardiovascular collapse."


"It's a rapid and unexpected collapse of the circulatory system, which causes the body to go into severe shock that leads to cardiac arrest — and very sudden death. Because Miss Murphy was young and healthy with no history of heart problems, I began to suspect that she had been poisoned, and because the contents of her stomach were normal, I knew that the poison would have been either inhaled or absorbed through the skin."

"Is toxicology back?" I asked.

"As of 9:00 this morning. Miss Murphy was poisoned. With nicotine."


"In its purest form, nicotine is highly toxic; it is actually the deadliest of all poisons known. A smoker — especially a heavy smoker — will build up an immunity to nicotine, which prevents lethal poisoning. If a smoker were to be introduced to liquid nicotine, it would take quite some time for it to take effect. There is even a slim chance he could survive. However, Miss Murphy was a non-smoker with no tolerance for the drug. On average, in a non-smoking adult, two drops of nicotine on the skin will cause death within 30 seconds."

"Any connection between the rose that was found in the apartment and the nicotine?"

"I believe the rose was poisoned. It was probably soaked in the toxin. The rose is being analyzed at the forensics lab, but those results aren't in yet. Liquid nicotine isn't easily obtained, and it's difficult to pinpoint its exact properties and formulas. It seems to be a well-guarded secret among ancient alchemists, herbalists, and assassins."

I grinned. "I don't think we're dealing with any of those." I made a couple of notes on my legal pad. "What about a scientist? A chemist, maybe? Would someone in that field know anything about nicotine? Maybe even how to get it?"

"I imagine it would be possible, yes."

I consulted my watch, and decided to wrap things up. As I slung my bag over my shoulder, I said, "Thanks for your help, Gary. I really appreciate it. You're a prince, you know that, right?"

He laughed. "And you're a very apt pupil, Detective Miller." He walked me to the door. "Good luck with your case."

* * *

Tara Cummings sat in my office sipping coffee from a paper cup as summer rain beat a steady rhythm overhead.

"I've never been involved in anything like this before. I still can't believe I'm here, talking about this. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, all I can see is Misty Ann...and what she looked like when I found her. When I got to her apartment, her door wasn't completely closed. The lights were on, and I could hear the TV, so I went in, and I almost tripped over her. She was on the floor, just lying there, not moving. She was so pale. She sort of looked like she was sleeping, but you could tell there was something really wrong."

"And then you called 911?"

Tara nodded. "I think I was screaming when I called. I don't remember that part. I just remember standing against the wall when the police came."

"Would you say that you knew Misty Ann well?"

"I think I knew her as well as anyone did. She sort of kept to herself. She was really busy with school, but when she had the time she liked to walk through the Cottonwood Green. She loved the museums and the antique shops."

"How long did you work together?"

"A little over a year. We always worked the same shift, and sometimes after the tavern closed we'd have coffee together. And just talk."

"Did she have a boyfriend?"

Tara set her cup on the edge of my desk and said, "No. About six months ago she met someone at the tavern. His name was Jonathan. He was a regular, always came in around the same time every night. He seemed so nice. Misty Ann really liked him, and they dated for a while until she found out he was married. He really hurt her, and after she ended the relationship, I never saw him again."

"Last name?"

"I don't know." Tara shrugged. "I remember the night Misty Ann told me that he was married. I didn't think she would ever stop crying, but when she finally did, she said she'd decided to write her final thesis on why married men commit adultery."

"And she never mentioned any problems between them?"

"No. After they broke up, she spent all of her free time writing. She did hours of research, even went to some weird local websites and chat rooms — you know, the kinds that are created specifically for married but looking people."

As I began to make notes on my legal pad, Tara leaned forward in her chair, her blue eyes straining to see what I writing down.

"She was only going to those sites for research reasons. She wasn't going there to meet anyone."

"Did she discuss the interviews with you?"

"She didn't use names. She talked a lot about the paper, and how the men were really willing to be interviewed. I think that sort of surprised her." Tara shrugged. "That's all I really know."

It was enough. I set my legal pad aside and handed her my business card. "Thanks a lot for your time. If I need anything else, I'll be in touch."

* * *

Twilight had fallen and the rain had slowed to a mist by the time I got home. I went inside, and settled down to finish up the day's work. After going over my notes, I took the stack of police reports from my bag and shuffled through it until I found what I was looking for.

You have bewitched me from afar. Beauty such as yours can only be compared to the perfection of this rose, which I give to you in admiration.

As far as I was concerned, it was not poetry in motion, but as I studied the note that had been found in Misty Ann Murphy's apartment, inspiration struck.

According to the magic of the internet, there were approximately 300 florists spread throughout the city of Seattle. By narrowing my search, I found three in Addison County. I printed out the information, filed it away, and then began my second search of the evening.

Fourteen underground sites devoted to adulterous marrieds were located in Addison County, and just as I was preparing to print several files for Misty Ann Murphy's dossier, my cell phone rang.

It was Ted. His voice was trembling. For a minute, I couldn't understand him, and I thought maybe his health had taken a turn for the worse, but then the line grew clear and I heard every word he said.

"Two more women have been found dead."

* * *

After talking to Ted Murphy, I'd phoned Detective Nick Otto, who I'd once worked with when he'd been a beat cop, and arranged a lunch meeting with him. While I waited for the noon hour, I did some foot work. Although I'd struck out at the first two florists in the city, I hit pay dirt at the final shop on my list — Amanda's Avant Garden.

The shop was small and compact, brightly-lit and scented with the mingled aromas of wet leaves and flower petals. Behind the counter, there was a long wall-mounted table littered with stems, bits of green floral tape, and a coil of yellow satin ribbon. When she heard the cluster of silver bells announce my arrival, the woman sorting through a bunch of flowers turned with a smile.

"Can I help you with something?"

I showed her my badge. "Detective Frances Miller. Could I ask you a few questions?"

"Of course." The woman wiped her hands on the wine-colored apron she wore over her clothing, and offered me one of them over the counter. "I'm Amanda Price, proprietor. What can I help you with?"

"I'm looking for information on a particular flower."

"You're in luck. Flowers just happen to be my specialty." She smiled. "Which flower?"

"A Bewitched rose."

"One of the most beautiful hybrid tea roses in existence. When someone asks for a true pink rose, the Bewitched is what I suggest. It is created by breeding the Queen Elizabeth and the Tawny Gold. Florists refer to the Bewitched as an exhibit form because it shows so beautifully, and is good for cutting. Not only is it a large double flower with approximately 40 petals, it's extremely fragrant, and even the leaves are a beautiful shade of light green once they reach maturity."

"Would you consider this a rare hybrid?"

"Not at all. It's fairly common. Unfortunately, it doesn't thrive well in this climate — it needs a lot of sun and shelter from inclement weather."

"So, you'd know if someone ordered this particular rose? You wouldn't just happen to have it here in the shop?"

"I actually do keep some in stock. They're used quite frequently in wedding arrangements. They work into lovely bridesmaids' bouquets."

Just then the overhead door bells jingled, and Amanda Price and I turned at the same moment.

"Nathan, this is Detective Frances Miller." As he wound his way behind the counter, Amanda said, "Nathan is my delivery boy. I'll hate to lose him when he's finally worked his way through college."

"I'm a biochemistry major at U-Dub," he explained as he lifted a short stack of cardboard boxes. "I'm in serious debt. Pretty sure I'll be working here for years." And with those parting words he disappeared from sight.

"Is he your only employee?"

"Yes. I had an assistant, but she was terminated just before my divorce." Amanda clapped her hands, and said, "All right, now what was that question you had about the Bewitched rose?"

"Would it be possible for you to see if any of them were sold within the last two weeks?"

"Sure. Let's have a look at the computer." While I waited, Amanda clicked around on her laptop, gazing at the glowing screen. "No, I'm afraid I'm not showing any record of Bewitched sales, and I update my records frequently. I did, however, place an order from my distributor on...let me see...July 7."

"Great. Would it be possible for me to get a printout of that, please?"

"Of course. Do you have a fax, or...?"

"If it's not too much trouble, I'll jut wait while you print it, and take the copy with me."

* * *

By the time Otto, who was fifteen minutes late, joined me at McGregor's, I'd already ordered our lunch. He was red-faced and sweating, the bristles of his crew cut standing at attention.

"Hey, pal. I thought you'd started dressing better ever since you hooked up with that underwear model."

"Just came from the gym. I don't have much time, Miller, so why don't we cut to the chase? What do you want?"

"So, now I can't just invite an old friend to buy me lunch?"

He grinned. "Not you. So, what sort of information are you snooping for? And how much trouble is this going to cause me?"

"For your information, I happen to be privy to all information regarding the Murphy case. I'm working for Ted." I ignored Otto's snort. "So, let's talk about it, and how it's related to the other murders that just took place within a ten-day time span. We could be dealing with a serial killer."

"It's too early to presume that, Frances, so don't get any big ideas. We don't know if these murders are related."

I thought somebody had his undies in a bunch, but I refrained from saying so. "The heck we don't. Three identical deaths, three identical roses. I'll bet the notes were identical, too, weren't they?" When Otto said nothing, I shrugged. "Fine, hardball me. I'll just have Ted authorize the police to submit a report to me. No problem."

"Yeah, and nothing ties these women together. Not physical appearance, not age, not careers. There isn't one common thread."

I let Otto think that.

* * *

By 4:15 that afternoon I had the faxed reports on my desk, and as I'd suspected, Carolyn Graham, a 40-year-old school teacher, and Beth Lambert, a 33-year-old sales clerk, both from the Addison area, had been found dead in their homes, bewitching beauties who had been admired from afar by a psychopath who wrote mediocre poetry and gifted them with nicotine-laced roses.

As I studied the reports spread across my desk, comparing the cases, I suddenly realized what linked the three together. I glanced at my laptop, but feeling pressed for time, I reached for the telephone instead, and dialed the Addison County PD.

"Nick?" I said when he picked up his desk extension. "It's Frances. I just figured out who —"

"Take it easy, Miller. It's all over. Baines and Merino just brought our person of interest in. They have his prints. They match the ones taken at the crime scenes." I could hear the distant din of voices, and Otto said, "Gotta go. I'll call you later. We can hook up at Old Joe's, and I'll let you beat me at a game of pool."

I was left with the annoying buzz of a dial tone.

* * *

"Well, hello, again. Need some more flower advice?"

I closed the door behind me and stepped further into the flower shop where Amanda Price stood smiling behind the front counter. "Something like that. You're very calm for a woman whose irreplaceable employee has just been arrested on multiple murder charges."

The smile on her lips faltered briefly. "Pardon?"

"You aren't aware that Nathan Adkins was arrested an hour ago? For the murders of Misty Ann Murphy, Carolyn Graham, and Beth Lambert. All three died of nicotine poisoning, which was found within the stems and petals of three true pink roses. Bewitched roses."

"I don't understand..."

"I think you do." I took a step forward, comforted by the familiar weight of the lovely little .38 resting against my hip. "I studied the printout you gave me, Amanda. After I transposed three of the digits in your distributor's telephone number, I was able to contact the nursery. You didn't place an order with them on the seventh of July. You did that on July 1, and the roses were delivered on July 3."

"Then Nathan must have —"

"Authorized the shipment?" I shook my head. "No. The distributor faxed a copy of your C.O.D. to me. Your signature is on the receipt."

"Just what exactly are you implying, Detective Miller?"

"Was your husband unfaithful to you? Did you find out that he was using the internet to meet women in underground chat rooms? Women who preferred the company of married men, maybe?"

"Get out of here! I have no interest in anything you have to say. I didn't kill anyone!"

"I never said you did." I took another step forward, and Amanda Price took a step back, her eyes darting nervously around the small space she had cornered herself in. "Did you know that Misty Ann Murphy was a graduate student who was using the Golden Rings Underground as a way of collecting information for her thesis? What happened, Amanda? Did you catch your husband using the room's services? Did you see Misty Ann online one evening? Were you so consumed with anger that you decided to stalk her? Before you murdered her? And then you began to systematically choose women from the site. Isn't that right? How long were you planning to let this go on?" I pulled my .38 from its holster and leveled it at her. "You knew that Nathan could obtain the liquid nicotine. You murdered three people, and now, you're going to jail. Put your hands in the air, and don't make any sudden moves."

Amanda grabbed the first weapon she could find — a huge vase — and hurled it directly at my head. I ducked. It struck the cooler behind me and shattered, spraying the room with jagged shards of bottle-green glass.

She took off at a run, dodging boxes and crates, and I threw my upper body across the front counter, raised my .38, and fired.

At the sound of the blast, which left my ears ringing with the music of Christmas bells, Amanda Price fell to the floor in a crumpled heap, as if she'd been shot. I was over the counter before she could move. I cuffed her and called the police.

* * *

"Thank you for coming, Frances."

"I'm sorry about Ted, Marilyn. He was a good man, and he'll be missed."

She took my hands in hers and smiled. "He will be missed, but I can say good-bye because I know he's at peace. And you had so much to do with that. I'll never be able to thank you enough for what you did for us."

"I'm glad I could. For Ted. Are you going to be okay?"

Marilyn nodded, and somehow, she managed to keep smiling even through her tears. "I'll manage to get along somehow."

Sometimes, that's all anyone can do.

Eva Glynn Stephens' writing has appeared in a variety of short story collections. Most recently, her psychological thriller, "No Outlet," was published in Midwest Literary Magazine. She lives with her husband and their three children in a small northern Ohio village where she is currently at work on her novel, Death and Dishonor, featuring Detective Frances Miller.

Copyright © 2011 Eva Glynn Stephens. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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