I carried the roses back to my car. Once on the blacktop, I stamped my boots, shaking the snow free. I brought the flowers to my nose, but, of course, there was no scent.

“What in the hell are fifteen roses doing here?” I asked the deserted road. “Is it a tribute to Elizabeth?”

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Maybe, my inner voice replied. Either that or a message.

7

T. S. Eliot called April “the cruelest month.” T. S. Eliot never spent a January in Minnesota. If he had, he would have known that to us April is the light at the end of the tunnel. It is the promise of warmth; it is the bright and shiny future (not to mention the beginning of the baseball season). It is also a long way off. Which is why I took great pleasure from stepping into Fleur de Lis on Main, the only florist shop in Victoria. It smelled warm and damp and made me think of spring.

The woman behind the counter had enormous eyes that seemed to be in mourning. She spoke softly and for a moment I wondered if she was conducting a wake in the back room.

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“May I help you?”

“Do you sell long-stemmed red roses?”

“We certainly do.”

“How many in a bouquet?”

“Usually a dozen, but we can make up a bouquet of any size.”

“Have you recently sold a bouquet of fifteen roses? Long-stemmed roses?”

“Fifteen?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think so—No, I’m sure I haven’t. Why do you ask?”

“I recently came across a bouquet of fifteen red roses, and I wondered if they came from here.”

“No. No, I’m sure they haven’t. I would have remembered an order of fifteen. It’s an odd number.”

“In what way is it odd?”

“There is a traditional meaning attached to the number of roses you give someone. For example, a single rose means ‘Love at first sight,’ or ‘I still love you.’ ”

“Still love you? I thought it meant simply, ‘I love you.’ ”

“No, that’s three roses. Nine roses means ‘We’ll be together forever.’ A dozen means ‘Please be mine?’ Two dozen means ‘I’m forever yours.’ Fifty roses professes ‘Unconditional love.’ Nine dozen means ‘Will you marry me?’ and nine hundred ninety-nine roses means ‘I will love you till the end of time.’ ”

“What does fifteen mean?

“ ‘Please forgive me.’ ”

A short time later I was again parked on the shoulder of County Road 13 opposite Milepost Three. I left the Audi, went to the edge of the road, and tossed the bouquet of fifteen red roses back where I found it.

“Who is it, Elizabeth?” I asked. “Who’s apologizing to you? Or are the roses meant for me?”

If the flowers hadn’t been purchased in Victoria, then they must have come from outside. As I had.

“I’m being played, sweetie,” I said aloud. “I can feel it. I don’t suppose you could tell me who’s plucking the strings?”

Elizabeth didn’t answer.

I stood alongside the ditch, not moving, not really thinking much, either. Someone driving by could have mistaken me for a cow in a pasture. After a few minutes I dropped a single white chrysanthemum next to the roses. The woman at the flower shop told me it meant “truth.”

“It would be nice, Elizabeth,” I said, “if we could find some.”

The huge, overstuffed chair had been upholstered in blue mohair and the large sofa against the wall was covered in the same material. Both had ornately carved woodwork on the arms and along the backs. The large rug was a faded Persian. A coffee table made of ancient wood stood on the rug in front of the sofa and a matching end table had been placed at the elbow of the chair. There was a lace doily in the center of the end table and a crystal lamp in the center of that. Mounted on the wall in front of the sofa was a series of photographs. Mrs. Rogers identified the subjects—Elizabeth, her daughter, murdered by assailant or assailants unknown, Michael, her son, killed in a car accident, Thomas, her husband, dead of a heart attack.

“It has been very difficult,” Mrs. Rogers said.

Her eyes had known anguish, yet suffering had not made them hard. Instead, they somehow had remained soft, even kindly and I wondered how Mrs. Rogers had managed it.

“After Beth was killed, my anger was powerful,” she explained. “I hated. Since the Lord didn’t show me whom to hate, I hated the world, I hated Him. I hid that anger, that hate, buried it deep inside because there were so many others who were hurting as I was, so many others who needed help. My husband, I needed to help him deal with our loss. My son—my son was so young at the time, only ten years old when his beloved sister was taken from him, and like the rest of us, he did not know why. So many others. Relatives. Friends. Neighbors who did not know Beth except as a cheerleader at the high school. They were all suffering, all desperate for comfort. I needed to be strong for them. When they no longer needed my strength, I tried to regain my anger, my hate; I went searching for it in the lowest part of my heart and discovered that it was gone.”

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