We got the B team out of the door an hour later. Basically they asked us to keep all this quiet. I rolled my eyes and walked away. Lena called them idiots and Gavin promised to do horrible things to them if the identity of Alex Kane ever came out because it “sure as shit wouldn’t be from our end.”
And that was that. Drama over and done. I decided to go back to bed. It was Sunday. Still early and I’d been shot, but my bed was already occupied.
“Oh fuck me.”
“What?” Lena poked her head in, “Oh, yeah, Damn, you should fumigate.”
“You think? Chirsty!”
My youngest sister skittered up and popped between us, “Oh, that’s so sweet. She feels safe in your bed.”
She must. Trudy was sprawled out in the middle of it, dead to the world and leaving who knows what kind of fetid stink-stench on my sheets. “I’m not sharing my bed with the hell-hound.”
“Okay. But it’s too late now. You can take a nap in my bed and I’ll change the sheets and everything.”
We were behind on laundry so Trudy and Christy spent the night in my bed. I stayed in Christy’s room with the promise of clean sheets and a possible fumigation on the morrow.
Being a row house we did not have a lot of options. The word a realtor would use to describe our house is charming. Translation: old house, dinky kitchen, small rooms, and teeny-tiny closets. The exception is the third-floor attic. It ran the length of the house and was converted into two bedrooms with its own Jack and Jill bath when the four of us crossed an ocean and came to live with Aunt Heather who wasn’t so much an aunt as a cousin 22 times removed and our Mother’s best friend. Allie and Lena shared that space now. The two could bicker like biddies, but they stuck together like glue.
The second-floor Christy and I shared had only two bedrooms, a small hall bath, and an open loft space at the top of the stairs that served as everything from an office to an emergency triage for various furry and feathered creatures.
I lay in bed listening, a ritual of mine. Another characteristic of old houses – noise. The soft squeaks and gentle groans sang me to sleep every night of my childhood. I knew them well. The narrow hallways creaking. The water running through groaning pipes. Allie’s click of heel on wood floors, the whine of the door leading to the attic and the creaking floors over my head. The sounds of home and family. I drifted off to the familiar rhythm.
Then the screaming started.
I jumped out of bed, grabbed the dagger from the nightstand, and raced to the screams. Screaming made stealth moot.
In the time it took me to run smack into the wall, the screaming stopped. In the time it took the pain to ebb, I figured out my door wasn’t missing. I was in Christy’s room. I slid to the right and found her door was right where it should be. Dashing through it, I slammed into my second hard surface. Wiry muscle and the feel of cold metal on my leg told me it was Lena and her gun. A soft oompff and a cloud of fragrance told me Allie’d hit her from behind, scrunching her between us like cream filling. Okay, so maybe a little stealth. Lena slipped out and took lead. I could barely make out her shape, a smudge of black against the near dark as she raced ahead, tripped, and went flying.
The case for stealth was getting stronger.
Somebody turned the hall light on. I blinked, adjusting to the brightness in time to see Lena at the end of a tuck and roll, coming up on her feet at the end of the hall. She never dropped the gun.
Super Stealth. I would have slow clapped, but taking into account what she tripped over that struck me as inappropriate.
“Oh shit.” Lena said.
Understatement, thy name is Lena.
Allie peeked over my shoulder, “Oh dear. Oh Goddess.” She swayed.
I caught her before she hit the floor, lowering her to it instead and propping her against the door leading to the third floor, as far away from the blood as possible. There was a lot of blood. What there was not a lot of, was the man’s throat. It was just a ragged, bloody hole.
Lena tapped the mess with her foot, “No doubt about this one. He’s dead.”
“Do you think that blood will stain the hard wood?” That sounds heartless, but – old house. Lots of repairs, lots. We’d put off refinishing the floors until next spring, going for the new roof first, but that was an awful lot of blood.
Lena shrugged me.
“EW! Trudy, drop it!”
Lena and I streaked into my room to find Christy crouched down on the floor in front of Trudy one hand on the back of her neck and scolding, “No no no, That is not a toy.”
Trudy whined around the mass in her mouth.
“No.” Christy said, “You don’t know where it’s been. Drop it. Drop it, young lady.”
Trudy couldn’t have understood the words, but the authority got through. I kinda wish it hadn’t. With one last whine, Trudy released her prize. It landed on the hard wood with a gooshy splat.
“Oh, that’s… ah hell.” Lena stumbled back, covering her mouth.
Christy crooned a bunch of, “Good dogs.”
Me? I whirled and ran. That’s right. I’m not too proud to admit it. Thanks to our house’s “charming” aspect I didn’t have far to go. Good thing. I barely made it. I didn’t even have time to put my dagger down, just lifted the lid and lost my dinner. There wasn’t much. I’d eaten light. I was rinsing my mouth out when Lena joined me, a can of coke in each hand. Our standard for any type of gross-induced nausea. I lay the dagger on the vanity, took the can, and popped the top. We both sucked down a healthy amount before speaking.
Lena recovered first. “That’s not something you see every day.”
“No, no it is not.” A hell hound spitting out the remains of a human throat was not a common occurrence. I could go the rest of my life without seeing it again and be all kinds of happy.
We were still guzzling when Christy bounced into the bathroom, beaming. “See, I told you she was a good dog.” She placed a gun on the vanity beside my dagger, “He dropped this when Trudy got him.”
“Uh-huh.” Lena did no more than glance at it, “Standard issue. Military silencer.” She looked at me, “It’s a good bet the Empire knows you’re here.”
“Nifty.” I closed the lid on the toilet and plopped down.
Lena loved her Star Wars quotes, most of the time they were too oblique for me to follow, but this time I knew where she was going. Someone was trying to tie up Alex Kane. We hadn’t even made it twenty-four hours. I’d care more about that at some point in the future, when I didn’t have a messy dead guy in the hall.
Christy opened the medicine cabinet above the sink and grabbed the toothpaste, waving the giant tooth-brush in her hand. “I’m going to brush Trudy’s teeth.”
“Yeah, that’s…” Lena swallowed, clutching the sink, “Yeah… good idea.”
Guttural growling came from the hall. I leaned past Lena and looked. I shouldn’t have.
“Trudy! No no no.” Christy dropped the toothpaste and brush and bolted back to Trudy who had our messy dead guy by the throat, shaking him like a giant chew toy.
“Oh, sweet hell.” Lena had the presence of mind to push the door closed. She then grabbed a couple washcloths and held them under cold water, not bothering to squeeze them out before handing me one and slapping the other to the back of her neck. “Is it disturbing that she’s so perky about her hell-hound going around ripping out throats?”
“Little bit.” I said, wiping my face, and then I remembered, “Shit, I left Allie in the hall.”
“Do you think the dog will mistake her for another chew toy?”
“Wow, not a question I thought I’d be answering at three in the morning, but no, I think Trudy’s a more discriminate type of hell-hound. She didn’t go for my throat and I scared the dog-pee out of her.”
“Then gimme a couple minutes” Lena slid to the floor, “I’ll drag her back into Christy’s room. I can’t be carrying Miss fluffy-butt up the stairs. If you have time, you can catch some sleep in her bed.
As it turned out, there was no time.
It was five a.m. before Ice Blue, the secret service dude, and his three-man crew got the body and all trace evidence out of the house.
He paused on his way out to say, “We’ll run his prints, but I doubt we’ll get anything.”
That was utter horseshit. I did not point this out. “We know this is about someone cleaning up loose ends. It shouldn’t be difficult to figure out.” Oops, I guess I did, “Give me a list of everyone who knows about me.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You can and you will.”
“Is that a threat?”
I did not roll my eyes. It would only exacerbate the headache pulsing behind them, “You have a rogue agent near the President of the United States. You need all the help you can get.”
Ice Blue’s eyes narrowed like he was thinking it over, then said, “You’re right.”
I did not say a word. I’m a mature business owner. I’m on the local merchant board and everything.
Lena may have muttered something like “Damn right, she’s right, dumb-ass.”
I’m in the bakery biz. I have to be there by six every morning. I barely had time to shower and gulp coffee. Fortunately, the bakery is a short walk. Literally behind my house. Granny Rose owned the entire block. The bakery was Aunt Heather’s. Granny Rose owned the bookshop attached to it. After she passed the bookshop sort of blended with the bakery. I inherited the business when Aunt Heather passed. I was the only one who showed an interest in baking.
Lena was too busy collecting guns. Allie didn’t care for early mornings and Christy didn’t like the health department’s take on animals in food prep areas. So the business fell to me and I’m grateful. My brain and most working environments don’t mix well. Baking is soothing. The steps are logical, restful. No huge mysteries, no ingredients pretending to be something they’re not. A lemon’s a lemon. Chocolate is chocolate. Flour sugar and salt are straight forward. Predictable.
“I specifically requested four dozen.”
Ah, wait that’s almost perfect.
Mrs. Nadia Benson, a fellow Cary Towner. She owned a designer clothing boutique, Svelte. I always thought the name was kinda bitchy, just like its owner. She stood on the other side of my counter in her designer suit, french-twist, and perfectly made face and gave me her Alpha queen stare. That stare intimidated a lot of people. But those of us who get no sleep due to home invaders and their ripped-out throats, aren’t so easily cowed.
“And I specifically told you we don’t do special orders without two-day’s notice and that you would have to take your chances.”
“No, you did not tell me that.”
I could have sung a chorus of liar, liar pants on fire, I tapped the wall behind me instead, “I did. We also have the sign here.”
“I didn’t see it. I need those scones. You have them right there.” I was treated to a hand with blood red nails flung in my face, indicating the scones behind me, cooling in wire baskets attached to the wall. Right next to the sign you could not miss.
“Yes, and they are for customers who are coming in to eat them.” I flung my own hand out to indicate half dozen people in line behind her. All of them giving my fellow business owner dirty looks that pinged and bounced off her like pebbles off stone cold bitch. “You can take two dozen now or you can get out and get something somewhere else, but what you will not do is take all my product.”
“I am not leaving here without my scones.” Crossed arms, tapping foot.
Dear Goddess. “Yes, you are. Whether or not you go willingly or Officer James over there escorts you,” I took a moment to wave at the patrolman who had lunch here every day. James was a big guy, over six feet, broad. An African American, his golden-brown face was hiding behind his large coffee, but his shaking shoulders and mirth filled eyes gave him away. Oh yes, difficult customers were a laugh-riot.
Miss Btchy Britches gasped and huffed and demanded to talk to the manager. The manager? Officer James had already risen when Nigel breezed in and saved the day. “Nigel, Thank-God” Nadia threw her nails at me again, “This woman won’t give me my scones.”
Oh for fuck’s sake. “This woman is the owner.” Which she damn well knew.
Nigel’s white teeth gleamed against his dark skin as he gave the woman a million-watt smile, “Nadia, sweets, are those the new Jimmy Choos. They look fabulous.”
“Oh,” Nadia looked down, “Yes, they are.”
“I’m getting a picture and showing it around this week.” Nigel whipped his phone out, pointed and snapped, “How do you get all the good shoes?” He slid his phone away, grabbed a box and began loading it with scones, “I’m going to box up two dozen scones and two dozen of our St. Augustine mini-almond tortes. Everybody’s gluten-free these days. You’ll have plenty and they are sinfully delicious. We’re the only ones in the area making them.”
Nadia huffed in my direction, “Well, if someone had told me….”
Nigel interrupted what promised to be nauseating tirade to compliment Nadia’s hair, dress, and lipstick shade. Nadia went from huffing to preening.
I dismissed her from my mind and turned to the next customer, a young girl, probably a VCU student with multiple piercings and dreads tied back in a thick pony tail she gave me her order with a sympathetic smile. All the customers were especially nice to me. The last one, a man of about forty or so years in a wrinkled suit was downright grateful, “Thank you so much. Wife’s pregnant. She had a hankering for your scones. I’d be in big trouble if I didn’t get them.”
“Ah, you must be Bill.”
“That’s me.” He said, his surprise evident.
“Glenda is in here often. How is she feeling?” I asked, taking the tongs and bagging up a half-dozen.
“As well as can be expected at eight months I guess. Back hurts and her ankles are swollen. Has to pee every five seconds…uh..I mean.. “ Bill’s face glowed red, “Sorry, I uh, shouldn’t have said that.”
“Here,” I handed him the bag of half a dozen scones, “Give her these with my compliments and tell her to hang in there.”
When Bill protested, I told him to use the money to buy heavenly hash.
“It’s my next stop. How’d you know?”
“She came in here with a pint. Ordered half a dozen scones and dumped it on top.”
He walked out of the store right behind a happily smiling Nadia.
And that’s why Nigel gets the big bucks.
My business partner was five foot ten inches of miracle walking. He arrived five years ago from Nigeria, saying he’d seen the way the blades were flying and made his escape. He has a brilliant smile, ebony skin, amazing taste, and he is magic with the high maintenance ladies that flock to CaryTown in droves. He started as a part-time barista and within a month I’d offered him a partnership, signing over thirty-five percent of the business. He had no money. I didn’t care, if I didn’t lock him in, his skills would have gone elsewhere. That, I couldn’t have. I secured the loan for him to buy in and he’s paying me back interest free and damn, but I got the better end of the deal.
Because hey, no blood on the floor and no jail time. Win-win.
Nigel was still toodle-looing Nadia through the window when he whispered, “Her husband’s having an affair with Tommy’s ex.”
Full stop and what the hell? “Run that by me again.”
“Her husband’s having an affair with Brian.”
“Well, he better hurry up and divorce her.”
Nigel stirred creamer into his cup, “That’s what I said.”
“If she finds out. She’ll get everything.” If she caught her husband cheating it wouldn’t’ matter if it was with a man, a woman, or a two-headed Amazonian Space Warrior, he could kiss life as he knew it goodbye.
“That poor man.” Nigel tskd-tskd, refilling his coffee, “Can’t blame him for wanting some companionship.”
“True that. So what’s on the menu this week?”
Nigel went through the special orders and event bookings. We will rent the garden room next door out for showers and the like on Sunday. Nigel’s idea. Granny rose’s bookshop got a facelift when he joined me. The old cobblestone floor and exposed brick walls lined with open shelves stuffed books brightened by the addition of plants and growing things. We partnered with a local greenhouse you can buy straight from the floor.
“Oh, and Friday Night lights…wait for it…” Nigel tapped his fingers in a little drumroll on the counter.
There was no telling. Nigel was singlehandedly upgrading CaryTown’s culture. On Friday night, we reopen, people bring wine and cheese, pay a minimal cover charge and experience the local talent. Musicians, poetry reading, original plays read by local actors. The third Friday in the month was what he called avant-garde.
“There’s a man who plays water glasses. He’s coming down from DC. Then we have a four-part singing group. They accompany themselves by playing a variety of kitchen tools. I know it sounds odd…”
“Nigel, I trust you. This is your baby.”
Did I mention he was the best investment I’ve ever made? I’ll say it again.
Best Investment ever.
Friday night rolled around quickly. It did not go as planned. The water glass guy was incredible, but the four-part singing group and their kitchen tools couldn’t make it.
Somebody offered a substitute.
“No.” I gave a strong single negative. No room for negotiation.
“Oh, come on.” Lena started tugging me towards the stage. You’d think I’d have the advantage being I’m bigger, but she was determined, “Don’t be chicken.”
“Mac, everybody’s been asking. I don’t want to do it either, but I’m getting tired of the requests. One song, two tops.
“Hell to the no.”
“Fuck your no and the hell it rode in on. You’re doing this.”
I was so distracted by Lena’s new take on fuck you, she got me halfway across my bakery before I dug my heels in. Christy and Allie were already on the stage and the bakery full of wine sippers and cheese nibblers were applauding and whistling and “Woo-hooing.” Lena yanked, pulled and poked me to the front of the Bakery that had been transformed into Friday Night Lights. Old fashioned gaslight bulbs strung around the ceiling, candles lit, mason jars stuffed with fairy lights decorated the stage.
“I’m not playing a kitchen tool.”
“Dammit. Come on.”
“Why are we doing this?”
“Miss Maddie asked.”
“Oh, all right then.”
Miss Maddie was the one who taught us to sing. Growing up, we attended choir practice with her. Ironic that my sisters and I knew just about every hymn and spiritual out there and nothing about the religion they were based on. It wasn’t until I looked around I realized Miss Maddie wasn’t even in the audience. Lena’s a right smooth liar.
“What are we singing?”
“Be Thou My Vision.” Nigel appeared.
8th century Irish hymn. I liked that one. “Okay.”
“All six verses.”
Nigel was pushing the luck. “Hell no. Two.
“Three that’s my final…”
Nigel’s white smile flashed, “Three it is.”
I’d just been played.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“Yeah,” Lena agreed, “He’s up to something.”
“Hey, isn’t that Mark and Geoff.” Christy waved at the couple sitting on the front row.
“Yeah, Hey Guys.” The two were at a small round table with a woman, and what a woman. Blond hair poofed out to there. Wrapped in pink and teal cotton you could see from space, “Is that Mark’s Mom?”
“Yes, that’s Sachet.”
“What the heck is she wearing?” Lena asked
“Lilly Pulitzer.” Allie said, “You know, she used to work at Svelte. I think she got it there.”
“Does it plug in?”Lena put her hand up like she was shielding her eyes, “If that thing starts buzzin like Neon, I’m outta here.”
Allie sent an elbow into her twin’s ribs and a scolding glance at me. “I can’t believe you’re not decorating their cake.”
“I don’t do rolled fondant. I’m baking the cake and Ox” Ox. I know. What a name for a baker. “Is decorating it…..Oh shit.”
“This is an audition.”
“The wedding. The wedding.” I hissed. Dammit I’ll bet there’d been no kitchen tool group. Mark and Geoff were getting married in a few months. This had been a set up.
“Oh shit.” Lena just got it.
“Sing flat.” I told her.
“You’re kidding, right?”
Lena had perfect pitch. Flat wasn’t likely.
“Oh, beautiful beautiful. I’m going to cry all my mascara off.”
“Not possible,” Lena whispered. I shoved her right before the forty something woman with piles of strawberry-blond hair, piles of mascara, and miles of pink and teal cotton grabbed me up in a Southern Belle hug. Thanking me and filling my head with Giorgio. Yes, that stuff from the eighties. Mark’s mother, Sachet Cabrolet That’s pronounced cab-bro-lay. No lie. That’s her name. So it was no surprise really, that she was a former Miss Arkansas. As Mark said more than once, it was either that or a stripper. Or possibly a drag queen, if not for her fair skin, she’d be a dead ringer for Ru Paul.
Mark extricated me from the Giorgio cloud, “Really, thank-you. Mom loves Celtic Women. Hopefully, you guys will make up for me not wearing a dress.”
That got a smile out of me. Unlike many in her generation, Sachet had been ecstatic when her son came out. In her mind, she had a built-in fashion consultant, stylist, chef, and interior decorator all rolled into one.
Mark couldn’t boil an egg. He had no interest in decorating. Didn’t know Cover-Girl from Adam Ant and his hair was so short he didn’t have to worry about products. Mark was a lawyer. He loved words, supreme court cases, Latin, and the classics. But as Sachet had told me once, it was okay because he had so many talented friends. But then Bruce Jenner pulled his Caitlyn, and Sachet got excited again. I’d been there when Mark had taken the wedding dress clippings carefully cut from dozens of bridal magazines from his mother’s hands and gently explained the difference between trans-gender and gay and that he would not be wearing a dress when he married Geoff. Sachet had indeed proved she could cry off all her mascara. She looked like she’d been making out with a chimney sweep.
As much as I hated singing in public, I couldn’t begrudge Mark his happiness. He’d earned it. Mark wasn’t just a lawyer he was my lawyer and a brilliant one at that. He’d gotten me out of messes more than once and was great at defending me against the Old Bitchy Biddie Committee. Another story for another time.
Allie had a date and Christy had to go check on Trudy, who got separation anxiety and had a tendency to pee on various surfaces if left alone too long. I sent Nigel home to rest his brilliant mind and Lena and I stayed late to clean up. We were wiping down the tables when the screaming started. Again. Yes, that’s twice in one week
“What the fuck?” Lena threw her rag down.
“Where’s that coming from?”
“Cross the street?”.
“Svelte. Damn, Nadia figured it out.”
“Do you think she castrated him or just bit his head off.” Lena headed for the window
“Don’t know. Don’t want to know.” I headed for the front door – to lock it.
“Well, you’re about to find out.”
Crap. Hell and Damn it all. There, tripping across the street as fast as her Jimmy Choos could carry her, was Nadia screaming bloody …..
“Murder?” Lena asked, staring down at the floor.
“I’d say so.” I answered from my perch, “That’s kind of hard to do to yourself. And accidental it’s not.”
“Yeah,” Lena raised her head, “By the time you got to stab wound twenty-nine, you’d figure out you were killing the guy.”
We were in the back room of Svelte. I’d call it a stock room, but it was the most organized stock room I’d ever seen. The stock, overpriced ladies clothing, shoes, and accessories lay on shelving in pristine order on one side of the room. The other side set up like an office, complete with the desk I perched on, a couple of chairs, and a day bed. Nadia’s husband, Lars was on the floor in front of the day bed and the blood, well the blood was everywhere. Thus my perch on the desk.
“That’s two dead guys in one week.” Lena said.
It wasn’t a question, but I answered anyway, “Looks like it.”
“Well, that sucks.”
“Don’t it though.”
“Dammit, I liked Lars.” Lena raked both hands threw her hair and spun away, pacing restlessly around the room, like she was looking for something to kick, or punch, or beat down, “Sold me a pair of shoes once. Didn’t look at me funny when I told him I needed a heel that could take out an eye.”
“He could whistle.” I said.
Lena looked back at me, “I didn’t know that.”
“He didn’t drink coffee,” I felt my lips tilt up, “But he loved his hot chocolate.”
“You do make a mean cup of cocoa.”
“He’d come into the bakery whistling, had no clue he was doing it. He could whistle the entire Star Wars overture.”
“No Frickin’ way. Seriously?”
“John Williams could not have done better. Nigel talked him into doing it once. He’s been trying to book him for Friday Night Lights ever since.” I rubbed my face, the adrenaline had worn off, leaving me tired and just plain sad, “Goddess, but he deserved better than this.”