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Authors: Julia Buckley

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BOOK: Cheddar Off Dead
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I opened my mouth, shocked at her comment, and for the second time I was surrounded by women, this time firing questions at me, some in Italian, some in English. The gist of it was that they wanted to know what I had witnessed.

Serafina seemed to realize for herself that she had said
too much. She called the women to her and spoke in soft Italian, apparently trying to downplay her comment. Enrico Donato, the very man that Parker had told me to avoid, was looking at me with shrewd eyes. Moments earlier I had seen him as a cuddly grandfather. Now all I saw was the intelligence in his face, the largeness of his hands.

He spoke to me, so low that no one else could hear. “You are from Pine Haven, and Serafina says you saw something. I think I can guess what you witnessed. I have seen the local news. Something that happened yesterday, right in the open, right in that town. A shooting, was it not?”

I was trapped; my only defense was offense. “What would you know about it?”

He shrugged. “Nothing, I am afraid.”

“I just realized who you are. So I may as well say this: from what I understand, the dead man owed you money. Perhaps a great deal.”

He sat up straighter in his seat, his face weirdly interested—almost pleased. “I am sorry? Did you not just meet me? I am curious to hear how you would know this.”

“I didn't know you until Balbina said your name. I was told that you were a gambler and that Brad Whitefield owed you money.” I looked into his gray eyes and saw significant surprise, with a tinge of respect.

“And who might have told you that? And why would they have told you, a pretty young lady who was, what—in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

“Never mind. How did you happen to think about the shooting just now? Is it because you were there?”

Now he looked extremely amused. “My dear, calm yourself. Your little hands are shaking.”

I slid my hands under my legs. “Answer my question.”

He feigned seriousness. “I'm not sure what you heard about me, but I assure you that I was not near young Brad yesterday. I was most sorry to hear of his death. Certainly it had nothing to do with me.”

“Did he owe you money?”

“I suppose that is between him and me.”

I nodded. “Well, just so you know, I didn't see anything yesterday. Only the aftermath.”

Now he really was serious. “You are so convinced that I was in this place, doing this terrible thing. Why? Who has convinced you?”

Now it was my turn to shrug. “I suppose that is between him and me.”

Enrico Donato laughed. “You are a spirited woman, like my granddaughter there. But perhaps you will pass on a message to your informant—I do not involve myself in these things, not anymore. I am an old man now, no? I live in quiet retirement. I leave gambling and quibbling over debts to the young.” A brief shadow passed across his face.

“Do you have a son, Mr. Donato?”

He stood up and put out his hand. I shook it, mainly out of politeness. “This has been a most interesting conversation, Miss Drake.”

“Yes, it has.”

Giovanna appeared in front of us, her hair a glorious red halo around her curious face. “I'm finished, Nonno. What are you guys talking about? Are you boring her with your war stories?”

“I am not boring her, no.”

His face was placid as he took out his wallet, apparently
in preparation for paying at the front counter. “Miss Drake, I assure you that you have nothing to fear from me, nor do I know what happened to our friend. I hope that you have a lovely Christmas.”

I nodded, and he moved away with Giovanna, who was whispering something in his ear. I kept my eye on him until he was gone, then whipped out my phone and texted Parker:
I just met Enrico Donato.

About thirty seconds later I got one back that said,
What? There in half an hour.

Then Serafina was standing and fluffing her even-more-gorgeous hair, and the two of us moved to the front to pay, as Donato had done minutes earlier.

I promised Rosalie that I would, indeed, be returning, and then we left Rosalie's and traveled back toward the elevator, at which point I began hissing at Serafina, asking why she had mentioned my traumatic day, and had she known that Nonno was Enrico Donato?

“Oh! I suppose I have heard his first name before, but I didn't know he was the man Parker spoke of. I'm sorry, Lilah! But old Nonno is harmless as a fly. He's very sweet—and he dotes so much on Giovanna, his youngest grandchild.”

“I don't even know what to say. Parker is going to kill both you and me, assuming that the mob doesn't kill me first,” I huffed.

We had reached the door of her apartment; she turned to me now and said, “Did you get the impression that he would harm you?”

“No,” I said.

Serafina nodded, turning the key and letting us in. “He
is just a nice man. The police, they—what is it called? Jump to ideas.”

“Jump to conclusions.”

“Yes. Parker is too busy, anyway, to—”

“He said he'll be here in half an hour.”

“Oh.” She set down her purse and took off her coat, which she slung carelessly on the couch. If I knew my neat brother, he would hang it up when he got home. “Lilah, before he gets here, could you do me a favor?”

I was still feeling upset with her. Mick loped up to me with his usual friendly greeting, and I petted his ears. “I suppose,” I said.

“I have a couple of dresses that I don't want anymore. I will give them to someone at work, or to Goodwill, unless you want them. Would you try them on for me?”

I sighed. I wanted to call work, find out what was happening, and get in touch with some of my secret clients. “Um—okay, really quickly.”

She clapped her hands and disappeared down a hallway where, apparently, they had a clothing closet. Then she returned with the dresses. She handed me the first one—a winter-white pullover made of soft mohair. I eyed it dubiously. “I don't think this would look so great on me,” I said. “And I'd have to pull it over my nice new hair.”

She was already pushing me toward the bathroom. “I think it will look amazing on you. Just try it on.”

With a loud sigh I went into their large white-walled loo and stripped out of my jeans and sweater, then pulled on the dress and fluffed my hair back into place. The shade of white looked surprisingly good against my blonde locks. “I can't really see it,” I said.

“Come out here; I have a full-length mirror in the hallway.”

I emerged, and Serafina gasped. “Oh, I love it! It is so perfect on you, Lilah!”

I moved to the mirror she pointed out, and my mouth dropped open. Never had I realized how many curves I possessed until I slipped on the white dress. I turned this way and that, admiring my form and the lovely softness of the material. “Wow. Where do you shop? Sexy Women R Us?”

Serafina tinkled out another happy laugh. “I like feminine things. Wait, don't take it off. I have a necklace that is so perfect.” She jogged away. She needn't have worried; I had no intention of removing the dress, perhaps ever. Between my new hairstyle and this amazing clothing, I was feeling like a new woman.

A knock sounded on the door; I knew it was probably Parker. “I'll get it,” I called, and I jogged to the door, peeking first through the peephole to see Parker's somber face. I would have thought the man never smiled if it hadn't been for that one evening in the distant past. . . .

I opened the door, and Parker blinked at me. “Lolla,” he gurgled.

“What?”

He cleared his throat. “Lilah. Are you going out?”

“What?”

“I said you need to stay in, Lilah. I wasn't joking—”

“I am staying in. Do you mean this?” I pointed at the dress. “Serafina just asked me to try it on. And I got a new hairdo.”

He was glaring now. “I told you not to leave; where did you go?”

“We didn't leave the building. The salon is on the first floor. What do you think of my new look?”

Parker's eyes flicked away from me, but not before I'd seen some admiration. “Very nice. Tell Serafina you want to keep—that dress.”

“Thank you, I will. Come in. It's just Fina and me for the time being.” I led the way into the little living room.

Serafina emerged, smiling, and I said, “Do you two remember each other?”

Parker nodded, giving Serafina a brief wave, then taking off his coat and hanging it over a chair. He looked from her to his little laptop bag, from which he took his ubiquitous computer. He did not glance my way again.

His face had gone back to its scowling norm, and he said, as he opened up his computer file, “Now would you two like to explain to me how you ended up talking to the very man I suggested might be dangerous?”

Serafina and I both rushed to explain, taking turns, how we had merely wanted our hair done, and how Fina had not realized that old Nonno, whom she knew only as a customer's grandfather, was the man of whom Parker had spoken.

Parker typed and glared. “It seems like more than a coincidence.”

Fina shook her head. “He owns the salon; it is one of his many businesses. He has a home here in this building. He sits down in his place of business every two weeks, watching his granddaughter get her hair done. And some other times he goes down there, as well. He likes being around all the ladies, I think.”

I leaned toward him. “I thought you said you were going to talk to some FBI guy. What did he say?”

“It was a she, actually. And she said that in fact, despite their suspicions of Donato, he seems to have retired from active involvement, shall we say.”

“He said that, too. He said he leaves these matters of gambling and money to the younger generation. I asked if he had a son, and he looked sort of disturbed. It made me think that if someone related to him did this, he was not aware of it. But it bothered him that I already knew his name. That really threw him.”

“Did you tell him the police were investigating him?”

“No. I said I wasn't going to tell him my source because he wouldn't tell me his.”

Parker's lip twitched momentarily. Then he typed something.

“He told me I had nothing to fear from him,” I said. “I suppose I can believe that. He was just this little old grandfather. He was wearing slippers.”

Parker's expression said he wasn't convinced that Donato was harmless.

I was about to protest some more, but my cell phone rang. “Oh geez,” I said. “It's probably Esther calling. I was going to call this morning.” I grabbed my purse, retrieved the phone, and clicked it on.

“Hello?”

“Lilah,
la mia bella
!”

“Angelo?” I cried. My ex-boyfriend had not called me on the phone in more than a year. I wasn't sure how I felt about hearing his voice. We had spoken briefly a couple of months earlier, when he came to my house to discuss the murder, and the fact that he was seemingly under police suspicion. His visit had been almost pleasant, and we had
managed to be civil to one another, almost like friends. Perhaps that was why he had felt emboldened to send me the article about his new television show. Perhaps we
had
become friends.

Parker, upon hearing Angelo's name, stiffened next to me, but continued to type.

Angelo's voice was relatively urgent. “I need to talk to you. You have some time now?”

“Uh—not really. I have the police here; it's a long story.”

“Still about that lady who died at your church?”

“No, unfortunately. This is a new person who died. Anyway, I should probably call you back, unless you can give me the gist of why you're calling.” I tried to sound brisk, not wanting to encourage Angelo or anger Parker.

“Quick, then. I have an opportunity for you to expand your business. I want you to appear on my show tomorrow. Make one of your sweet little recipes—something for the holiday.”

“Tomorrow? I can't be ready tomorrow, Angelo!”

“But think what it would do for you. You can advertise for yourself, or for this new catering company. My show already has the high viewership, and good reviews. Don't pass it up!”

“This is crazy, Angelo. Let me think about it and call you back.”

“Call within the hour. Otherwise I have to book someone else.”

“Okay,” I said. “Talk to you soon.”

I hung up and felt Parker's blue gaze without turning. “Angelo wants me to appear on his cable cooking show tomorrow.”

Serafina clapped her hands. “Oh, how exciting! I'll have everyone I know watching. What time and what channel?”

“I don't even know. He's giving me no time to think or plan—but it's a great opportunity.” I finally turned to face Parker, who was now looking at his lap.

He cleared his throat. “Doesn't it seem like a bad idea to get involved with an old boyfriend? Especially one who treated you badly?”

I let his words float in the air for a while; arguably Parker himself had treated me rather badly. His face reddened as he seemed to hear the irony.

“I'm not ‘getting involved' with him; I would be working on building my business. And I don't even know if I'm going to do it. I have to call Esther and Jim and ask what they think.”

Parker shrugged and looked at his notes. “Let's get back to this,” he said.

The phone rang again. Serafina giggled as I clicked it on. She had clearly enjoyed Parker's reaction to Angelo's call; she loved drama. Perhaps she thought it was Angelo calling back, but this time it was Jenny. “How are you doing, Lilah?”

“I'm okay. I'm here with a policeman, though. Can I call you back?”

Parker was scowling again, perhaps because I had referred to him as a policeman instead of something else. But what else was I supposed to call him? My love interest? My onetime fling?

“Just let me ask something really fast. Dave Brent, one of the teachers at my school, was planning this Christmas party. And even though this terrible thing just happened,
Dave decided to have the party anyway. It's going to be most of the teachers and some of the staff and a bunch of other people. Anyway, I wondered if you'd like to go with me? It's on Monday, the twenty-first. Our first day of break.”

BOOK: Cheddar Off Dead
2.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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