The bones in his wrists are delicate and seem almost to protrude through pale skin. His fingers are long and stained with pollen and ink.
It is not that Bucky is infatuated, no matter what his friends say. It’s just that he’s interested. He’s a Brooklyn cop. He’s supposed to be interested in local businesses and Super Flower is a local business. It’s not entirely his fault that the proprietor is slender and rosy-cheeked and sneezing - oh, okay.
“Let me help you with that,” Bucky says, reaching out to take a crate from the proprietor’s hands as he lets out another almighty sneeze that rattles Bucky’s bones, nevermind the proprietor’s.
“Oh,” says the proprietor. “Oh - achoo! - Thank you, Officer-?”
“Barnes,” says Bucky, shifting the crate to hold out his hand. “James Barnes. Bucky, really.”
The proprietor blinks and holds open the door to his shop and Bucky steps through, automatically.
“Steve,” he says, after a moment of contemplation. He reaches into his jeans pocket and pulls out a handkerchief. Having blown his nose noisily, he gestures towards the counter. “Put it there,” he says. “Steve Rogers, sorry.”
“Yes,” says Bucky. “I know.”
Steve blinks at him, tucking his handkerchief away.
“Well,” says Bucky. “I am one of the best cops in Brooklyn. My powers of deduction are worthy of Sherlock Ho-”
“Oh,” says Steve and the corners of his eyes crinkle. “It’s on the address label on that crate, isn’t it?”
Bucky grins. “Still pretty great though, huh?”
“Yes, Officer Barnes,” says Steve and he takes out a Stanley knife to open the crate, wielding it with the sort of dexterity that would inspire jealousy in Bucky’s favourite local teenage delinquents. “I’m deeply impressed with the literacy of our boys in blue.”
He sneezes again.
“You got a cold?”
“No,” says Steve. “Hayfever.”
“And you own a flower shop?” asks Bucky. “Buddy, I got some bad news for you-”
Steve snorts, a little moistly, and Bucky is both charmed and disgusted. “Hey, what’re these?”
“Chrysanthemums,” says Steve. “Good for air quality. Tutankhamun was buried with a whole deck of ‘em.”
“Huh,” says Bucky, tracing a flower with a fingertip. “They’re pretty.”
“They suit you,” says Steve. He’s smiling, now. “They mean ‘cheerfulness’.”
“I’ll take ‘em,” says Bucky. He frowns. “What’s the, like, collective noun for flowers? Punnet? Murder?” (“Murder” is his favourite collective noun.)
“Idiot,” says Steve, softly.
“Then I’ll take an idiot,” says Bucky, knowing that his grin is bordering on manic.
“Maybe I will too.”
“He said he’d take an idiot, too,” says Bucky.
Sam has to stand up to see him over the flowers bedecking their adjoining desks. “Seriously, Barnes, what the-”
“My thoughts entirely,” says Fury, striding into the room. He wrinkles up his nose. “Taking up flower-arranging, Barnes?”
“Maybe,” says Bucky. Fury drops a file on his desk. “Look into this. Old lady keeled over in a care home and her neighbour’s saying it was murder.”
“This just in,” says Bucky, under his breath. “Old people sometimes die.”
“Have some respect,” says Fury, clipping his ear.
“I didn’t mean you, sir,” says Bucky and he rubs the side of his ear.
The scene is pretty tame in comparison to some of the usual. The deceased is lying in bed, fingers curled around a small bunch of pink flowers on her breast. Parker’s snapping pictures like he’s the next goddamned Annie Leibowitz or whatever.
“Did someone move the body?” asks Sam, a little irritate.
“No, Officer,” says the director of St Jude's Home for the Elderly. He looks a little grey in the face.
“What can you tell us about Mrs Murphy?”
“Well, she’s lived with us for about two years. One of our more active residents. She just loved to play Scrabble. She was so looking forward to next month’s tournament.”
Bucky glances from the zimmer-frame in the corner to the rheumatoid hands of the deceased and supposes it must all be relative.
Sam asks a few more questions before the ME’s crew move Mrs Murphy’s body and it’s only when they’re outside that Bucky glances at him.
“Kinda odd that she looked-”
“-laid out like that?”
“Exactly.” Sam pinches the bridge of his nose. “Who arranges themselves that way, flowers and all?”
“Maybe she knew?”
“Yeah, but Bucky-”
“There was no vase in the room and those flower stems were damp.”
Bucky goes for his run, bright and early, same as every morning.
“Hi, Officer Barnes.”
“Steve,” says Bucky. He’s not expecting to see the proprietor of Super Flower in a singlet and shorts, all bony and determined and falling into step with Bucky. “Didn’t know you ran.”
Steve shrugs and his cheeks are pink with exertion. “I try,” he says. “Trying to increase my exercise tolerance. Asthma, you know?”
“How are you alive?” asks Bucky. To be fair, his knowledge of asthma dates back to middle school and the kids who always sat out gym class, clutching their inhalers.
Steve tosses his head with annoyance. “I’m not incapable,” he says, between deep breaths. “Just my lungs don’t always cooperate.”
“Then it’s just as well I’m here,” says Bucky. “In case someone needs to carry your ass to a hospital.”
And, okay, Steve’s pace is kinda slower than Bucky’s and maybe Bucky slows to a walk more often than usual but there are a lot of flowers ‘round these parts and it’s only polite to ask Steve about them.
“Hey,” says Bucky, pointing. “What’re those?” They look familiar; flowers like pink and purple bells on a stiff stalk.
“Foxgloves,” says Steve, promptly. He shoots Bucky a reproachful look because this might be the sixth time they’ve come to a stop and maybe Steve should think about one of those couch to 5k apps but he doesn’t really strike Bucky as the kind of guy to pace himself. “Digitalis. They’re sometimes known as deadman’s bells.” He frowns. “They’re pretty toxic, actually. I’m not sure they should be in a public park. I mean, what about the children?”
Bucky nods and then shakes his head. “Wait, no. What?”
“Digitalis,” says Steve. “It’s a poison but it’s a medicine too, for irregular heartbeats. Digoxin?”
Bucky squints at Steve. “You’ve an irregular heartbeat, don’t you?” This man is a goddamned marvel.
“I do not,” says Steve and he sounds delightfully indignant. “I mean. I did but they, uh, fixed it. With cardioversion.”
Bucky stares at him blankly.
Steve gestures in the air. “Electric shock therapy.”
“This fixation with flowers is adorable, Barnes, seriously, but is this necessary?” Sam points at the desk area.
“I didn’t order them,” says Bucky, bewildered.
“No, wait, there’s a card.”
Bucky pucks the envelope from Sam’s hand before he can open it.
Dear Officer Barnes,
Hyacinth was one of Apollo’s lovers but that was an uncomfortable place to be. After his accidental death, Apollo turned him into this flower. Morbid but beautiful.
“Bro, that is fucking weird,” says Sam because of course he was reading over Bucky’s shoulder. “Who the fuck is sending you anonymous flowers?”
Bucky turns the card over and the generic Interflora sticker is no help.
“Really, Barnes,” says Fury, sounding unimpressed. “More flowers?” He drops a file on Bucky’s desk. “Another death at St Jude's.”
The scene is startlingly similar. The late Father Riviera lies in repose, his hands on his breast, holding a sprig of delicate-looking flowers. These ones are pale and Bucky gestures at Parker to make sure he photographs them.
The director looks a little less grey this time but no less shocked. He’s worrying a handkerchief in his hands, twisting it around and around.
“The Father was a great man,” he says. “A great man. He used to help out at the local parish church.”
“How was his health?” asks Sam.
“Good,” says the director. “Relatively speaking. He had some heart trouble but who doesn’t, these days?”
Sam nods. “Thanks, Dr Zola,” he says. “We’ll be in touch.”
“The flowers,” says Bucky, outside. “They mean something.” He lights a cigarette.
“Thought you’d quit,” says Sam.
Bucky shrugs. “Just trying to level the playing field.”
Sam shakes his head. “You know what? I ain’t even gonna ask.”
When they get back to the precinct, Bucky calls Parker. “Hey, pal. Buddy. Hey, fella.”
“What do you want, Barnes?” asks Parker. “I swear, if this is another attempt to get me to film your escapades-”
“That was one time, Parker,” says Bucky and, okay, he’s whining a little. “One time and he was really hot.”
“I don’t want to know,” says Parker.
“Seriously, though. I need you to send me over photographs of the flowers found at the Murphy and Riviera scenes, pronto, okay?”
“You think you have a lead?” asks Parker.
“You keep taking the snaps, Parker. Leave the detective work to the grown-ups.”
“Yeah, fuck you, Barnes.”
The bell over the door of Super Flower jangles harshly when Bucky walks in and a voice carries through from the back. “I’ll be right there.”
A moment later, Steve emerges, flushed and wiping his hands on a towel.
“You’ve got a little-” Bucky touches his own cheek.
Steve swipes at his face with the back of his hand and mostly succeeds in smearing the dirt some more. “Better?”
Bucky shrugs helplessly.
“So, what brings you by, Officer Barnes?”
“Business, I’m afraid,” says Bucky.
“Good,” says Steve, warmly. “Let’s respect each other’s professional boundaries. It’ll be a first. Would you like coffee?”
Bucky pats his stomach. “Naw, the swill down at the precinct gives me life. I’m not sure I’d know a decent cup of coffee and my goddamned ulcer definitely wouldn’t.”
Steve smiles and leans forward on the counter. “How can I help you?”
“What do you know about hyacinths?” asks Bucky. It’s not what he meant to ask.
“They mean constancy of love,” says Steve, immediately.
“Oh,” says Bucky, dumbly. “So not, like, dead boys and gods or whatever.”
“Well, there’s that association too, I guess.”
Bucky nods, thoughtfully. “Anyway,” he says, putting an A4 envelope in front of Steve. “I was wondering if you could look at a couple of photographs and tell me about the flowers?”
Steve frowns. “Uhm. Okay? I mean, if you’re looking to get a bouquet for a special someone, there are easier ways-”
Bucky slides the photographs out of the envelope. They’re close-ups but it’s hard to miss the pale hands, clutching the stems of both sets of flowers.
Steve makes a choking sound and when Bucky looks up at him, he looks every bit as white as the late Mrs Murphy and Father Riviera.
“Two suspicious deaths,” says Bucky. “Both were found with flowers. I figured I could spend all day on Google or just ask you, you know?”
Steve’s fingers are trembling and Bucky feels a bit bad.
“Well,” says Steve and his voice is surprisingly steady. “You’ve seen these ones before. Foxgloves? The poisonous flowers we saw in the park. And these are Lily-of-the-Valley. They mean ‘sweetness’ and they’re pretty toxic, too. They can make a heart stop.” He takes a deep breath. “They’ve got happy associations but they’ve been known as ‘Our Lady’s Tears’ for the weeping of Mary when Christ was crucified.”
Bucky feels suddenly very cold. “Are you a Christian, Mr Rogers?”
“Lapsed,” says Steve. “But not too far.”
“I think we need to pay the care home a visit,” says Bucky. “And someone, get a goddamned rush on those toxicology results.”
“You got a lead?” asks Sam.
“A hunch, I guess,” says Bucky. He hopes he’s wrong.
When they reach St Jude's, they go straight to Dr Zola’s office.
“Gentlemen,” says Zola, looking surprised. “How can I help you? Do you have news for me?”
“Just more questions, I’m afraid,” says Bucky, ruefully. He slides a photograph across the table. “Do you know this man?”
Zola puts on his glasses and scrutinises the photograph. “Why, yes,” he says. “He’s one of our volunteers. He even runs a flower-arranging class. Steve Rogers.” Zola looks up at Bucky. “You don’t think he’s-”
Bucky can barely swallow. It hurts. It hurts. “And how often does Mr Rogers visit?”
“Every weekend,” says Zola. “He’s a favourite with our residents.”
“And did Mr Rogers know the deceased residents?”
Zola just nods.
When they get back to the car, Bucky reaches in and calls it through. “I need a squad car at Super Flower on Metropolitan. Bring in Steve Rogers.”
Steve looks even smaller on the other side of the interrogation table.
“Really?” asks Fury. “This guy?”
“We need those wills,” says Bucky. “We’ve got to find out who the beneficiaries are. If it’s Rogers-”
“We’ve got a motive,” says Sam.
Morse arrives in and drops some paperwork on Bucky’s desk. “Your toxicology, sir,” she says, voice dripping with disdain.
Bucky grabs them and his heart sinks even further; it’s subterranean now, and a little cracked and dusty. “Shit.”
“Let me see.” Sam grabs the reports. Lethal levels of digoxin in Mrs Murphy’s blood. Multiple cardiac glycosides in Father Riviera’s blood.
“Really?” asks Sharon. “This guy? I get the feeling that if he said ‘boo’ to a goose, the goose would come off better.”
“That’s what he wants us to think,” says Bucky, morosely. He wishes Steve would just confess. The evidence is mounting up; access to the flowers and in-depth knowledge.
“Why did you send the hyacinths?” asks Bucky.
Steve blinks at him slowly. “The hyacinths?”
“To me,” he says. “Were they a threat? Were you warning me off? Telling me that getting close to you was an uncomfortable place to be?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Officer Barnes,” says Steve.
Bucky hands him the card that came with the hyacinths.
“That’s not my writing,” says Steve.
“So you ordered them online or whatever.”
“Bucky,” says Steve, with exasperation. “I own a flower shop. Why would I order flowers online?”
“He’s not talking,” says Sam.
“I had noticed,” says Bucky. It’s weird. He thought Steve would talk to him. He thought they had a rapport. Well. He thought they could have had so much more than that but it turns out that Steve’s a murderer and Bucky’s taste in men has gone from bad to worse.
“Barnes!” Fury’s voice is strident bark. “Wilson! Get the fuck down to the care home, now!”
“Has there been another death?” asks Sam.
“I only wish there’d been one,” says Fury.
Three. Three deaths.
Mr Robson’s clutching small white flowers, with lacy leaves. Mrs Rossi’s hands are folded around poppies. Sister Concepta’s holding green foliage.
“Get the photos, Parker,” says Bucky. He’s rubbing his forehead. “What the fuck’s going on here?”
“Hemlock,” says Steve. His voice is dull and weak. “It’s the poison that was used to put Socrates to death. Poppies. Morphine. Uh, obviously.” He stares at the photographs of Sister Concepta’s hands. Belladonna - deadly nightshade.”
“How do you know all this stuff?” asks Sharon. She seems faintly fascinated. “Seems kinda overkill for a florist, y’know?”
“Pun intended?” asks Steve, wearily. “I was a pharmacist, before.” He rubs at his eyes. “It wasn’t for me, though. Too corrupt.”
“Where did you study?” asks Sharon.
“You know we’re gonna have to check that, right?” says Sharon.
“Sure.” Steve tries to summon a smile. “Maybe you can get some character references or whatever.”
“Sure,” says Sharon. When she steps outside, she looks at Bucky. “I like him,” she says. “Think you fucked up, Barnes.”
“He’s still the likeliest suspect,” says Bucky.
“He’s our only suspect,” says Sam.
They go to NYU and talk to one of Steve’s old professors, Dr Abraham Erskine. He speaks about Steve like he’s speaking about a favoured child. Bucky’s restless and potters about Erskine’s office. It’s a bit dusty and musty-smelling. He picks up an old journal and flicks through it.
He frowns, pausing.
“Do you know this man?” he asks. The picture is old but it certainly looks like Dr Erskine has his arm around-
“Arnim Zola,” says Erskine and, for the first time, his voice is devoid of warmth. “We were classmates and then colleagues here, for a long time.”
“Teaching wasn’t for him?”
Erskine’s smile is thin. “He wasn’t for teaching. He was, ah, carrying out experiments on student volunteers. Questionable legality and then it emerged that he was being paid off by a pretty big pharmaceutical company.”
“How was it found out?” asks Sam.
“Why, it was Steve. He was uncomfortable with what Zola was doing and did a bit of, shall we say, amateur investigations? He uncovered enough evidence to close down Zola’s research.”
“Seems kind of strange that he’d have anything to do with Zola, after,” says Bucky, slowly.
“Ah, but that is Steve. He is the forgiving sort, Officer Barnes, and Zola made it clear that there were no hard feelings.”
Back at the precinct, Bucky’s pacing around his flower-free desk.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Do you really think-”
“That Zola’s been playing the long game?” asks Sam. He wrinkles his nose. “Honestly? It seems more likely than Rogers being a mass-murderer.”
“We don’t have enough, though,” says Bucky.
“We’ve enough to release Rogers,” says Sam.
“Yeah, but we do that and Zola’ll know that we know.”
“How do you know that Zola will know that we know he has any goddamned thing to do with it?” asks Sam.
“Heaven spare me from the logic of men,” says Romanov, walking into the pen. She’s Sharon’s partner and she scares Bucky, a little. She looks at him like she knows all his secrets, even the ones that he doesn’t know. “We got the wills from the first two vics. There’s only one beneficiary-”
Bucky’s heart sinks.
“Dr Arnim Zola, director of St Jude’s Home for the Elderly. Him, specifically, not the institution.”
Bucky looks at Sam. “We’ve got enough.”
Zola confesses, which is surprising.
Super Flower remains closed until further notice.
It’s misuse of police information but Bucky locates Steve’s home address. It takes months before he gathers up the courage but Steve’s shop is open again and better late than never.
He knocks on the door, shoving his hands into his pockets.
Steve opens the door and, somehow, doesn’t close it in Bucky’s face.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“I got the flowers,” says Steve, his expression wary. “They were, uhm-”
“Too much?” asks Bucky, wincing a little. “Look, I couldn’t find ones that said 'I’m really sorry for arresting you for murder'-”
“So you went with red roses instead?” Steve lips twitch.
“They’re a classic?” Bucky tries. “Anyway, they remind me of you.”
“Yeah, they’re all prickly and, you know, after a run, your face goes that kinda crimson?”
Steve shakes his head and he looks faintly appalled, possibly with himself.
“Remind me why I put up with you?”
“Because I don’t underestimate you.”
Steve snorts. “You’re gonna have to do better than roses and arrest warrants, pal. Just FYI.”
Bucky smiles. He smiles fit to hurt his face. “I can, I swear. I’ll do so much better.”
He walks into the precinct and his desk is bedecked with Christmas wreaths.
“There’s a card,” says Sam, helpful as ever.
Officer Barnes, reads the scrawl.
Holly and ivy. Look them up.