Family Jewels:Rose Gardner Investigations #1

By: Denise Grover Swank

Chapter 1

The dark clouds on the horizon were my first clue it was going to be a bad day.

June thunderstorms were a common occurrence in southern Arkansas, and truth be told, we needed the rain. But I also needed to get six azalea bushes into the ground by five p.m., or I was not only going to lose the cost of the bushes, but the labor too.

“You think we’re gonna get it done?” Neely Kate, my best friend, roommate, and co-worker, asked as she cast a nervous glance to the west.

“If we don’t, Mr. Henderson is gonna throw a conniption.”

“Thank you, Marci,” Neely Kate grumbled as she dug her shovel deeper into the dirt.

Business was booming at RBW Landscaping, enough so that my business partner, Bruce Wayne Decker, and I had been forced to hire several new employees. One of them, Neely Kate’s cousin Marci, had been tasked with staying in the office to talk to the clients. Her first—and last—day had been yesterday, and the amount of damage she’d done was impressive. Without any prompting, she’d told Mr. Henderson he’d get a one hundred percent refund if we didn’t have his bushes planted before five today. Apparently Marci was obsessed with Plant or Die, a new reality TV show in which landscapers had twenty-four hours to complete their project or be eliminated. She’d hoped to get on the show by making a series of outrageous self-imposed gardening challenges on camera. Or so she’d explained to us.

“What in tarnation are you talkin’ about?” Neely Kate had asked her cousin in horror.

“I really need that five thousand dollars prize money,” Marci had said. “I want to go to beauty school.”

“Five thousand dollars?” I’d asked, suddenly wondering how we could get an audition for real.

Marci’s eyes had widened as she turned to her cousin. “Of course I was gonna share the money with you and Rowena.”

“Rose,” Neely Kate said.

Shaking her head, Marci said, “No. Azalea bushes. Not roses.”

Neely Kate looked like she was about to say something, then closed her mouth.

Marci took that as encouragement. “I only need thirty-five hundred dollars. You two can split the leftover three thousand.”

“Fifteen hundred,” Neely Kate said, looking like she wanted to strangle her cousin.

Marci’s eyes squinted in concentration. “No … I’m pretty sure the lady said the tuition was thirty-five hundred.”

“Marci,” Neely Kate groaned. “Five thousand minus thirty-five hundred is only fifteen hundred. Not three thousand.”

Marci looked confused. “Are you sure?” Then she waved her hand. “What am I askin’? You were the math genius in the family, with your D-minus in algebra and all.”

Neely Kate ignored the compliment on her math skills. “And you think it’s fair that you should get the majority of the money from the show? On your first day?”

Marci blinked, the expression on her face showing just how ridiculous she considered Neely Kate’s question. “Well, yeah … I really need it. And besides, I’m the one who’s auditioning.”

“How on earth do you figure that?” Neely Kate shouted. “Where are the cameras, for Pete’s sake?”

Marci pointed up at the ceiling. “Up there.”

I glanced up just as Neely Kate groaned.

“Marci,” Neely Kate forced through gritted teeth. “That’s a sprinkler head.”

“Oh.” She laughed. “Silly me.”

The very next thing Neely Kate had done was fire her.

In the end, it didn’t matter why the promise to plant the azaleas had been made; all that mattered was that we were going to live up to it. Bruce Wayne had his own planting crew of two men, and they were working on a tight deadline at a commercial office site. He couldn’t afford to send anyone over to help, so Neely Kate and I had put our design and estimate jobs on hold to get this project done up close and personal.

And now Mother Nature was conspiring against us.

“We can do it, Rose,” Neely Kate said, with her characteristic optimism and perkiness. “Besides, what’s a little rain? We won’t melt.”

As if to taunt us, a large bolt of lightning filled the sky and thunder shook the ground just as rain started to fall in fat drops.

Resisting the urge to groan, I moved the bushes closer to the fifty-year-old house and dragged a bag of our premixed fertilizer/potting soil in front of the containers to keep them from blowing away. Neely Kate quickly began to help. We finished arranging them just as another bolt of lightning struck, the thunderous boom following sooner this time than it had the last.

“That was too close,” I said. “Let’s go.”