Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery (3 page)

BOOK: Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery
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It was just cool enough to turn up your collar without looking too affected, so Caroline and the Moms settled in at a table outside—one farthest from the road, mostly out of the sun, and at an appropriate distance from another table of women whom they acknowledged but didn’t join. Their kids commandeered a picnic table nearby.

These were the well-heeled ladies of Springfield and its neighboring towns. They traveled in packs to book groups and charity events, prep school fund-raisers and the occasional local art show or dramatic performance. They were attractive, polite, and just standoffish enough to make you feel justified in not feeling all warm and fuzzy toward them. If there was a Junior League in Connecticut I wasn’t aware of it, but I imagined that the Main Street Moms—as Babe had christened them—were the unofficial New England equivalent. I had a love-hate relationship with them. Two or three more on my client list and I could stop worrying about the rising cost of mulch and start packing for the Virgin Islands, but with a last shred of independence, self-respect, or city slicker stupidity—I didn’t know which—I couldn’t bring myself to suck up to them the way any other small businesswoman would have.

Babe motioned for one of her young waitresses to go outside and take their orders.

“Why me?” the girl said, her expression changing from sullen to stricken. “They always look at me as if I have two heads.” She didn’t. She had one head, but she did have more than the requisite seven holes in it. Thank goodness my generation was satisfied with a few extra holes in our earlobes.

“Hey, Terry, you don’t wanna be looked at, lose the nose ring and the eyebrow bolts. Otherwise wear your freak flag proudly,” Babe said, sympathetic but firm. She swished a handful of menus under the girl’s pierced nose.

“Great. Now I’m going to have to google
freak flag
. I don’t know what that means, but I’m going,” the girl said, shaking her head. She snatched the menus and let the screen door slam as she went out, but her chin was the tiniest bit higher than it been earlier, getting the spirit of the advice if not the actual reference.

“Good girl!” Babe said.

“What
does
that mean?” I asked quietly.

“Et tu, Paula? You girls are sadly lacking in a basic cultural education,” Babe said. “I told them to write down everything they heard in the diner that they didn’t understand and then look it up. Freak flag? Woodstock? The Dead? Frank Zappa? Crosby, Stills and Nash? What are you girls going to listen to when you get old, sitting in that rocking chair on the nursing home porch? The Spice Girls? Salt-N-Pepa?”

Outside, shielding her eyes, Caroline Sturgis twisted in her seat and peered through the miniblinds until she located me at the counter. She wiggled her fingers in my direction, said something to her friends, then excused herself and headed for the front door. I knew I should have parked the Jeep farther in the rear, she might not have known I was there.

“Hello, partner,” she sang, accompanied by the screen door’s bells. She walked in my direction with just the hint of a cowboy swagger.

“That’s premature,” I said. “I haven’t agreed to anything.”

For months Caroline had been pursuing me. She wanted us to start a business together, but I wasn’t sold on the idea. I worried there would be lots of celebrating and not a lot of working.
She
might be able to write off a failed business as this year’s uncompleted pet project, like a quilt or an exercise program, but I couldn’t. Besides, I didn’t like partners and hadn’t had one for a while. Professional or otherwise. Having been thrown recently, I was finding it hard to get back on the horse.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” Caroline said, wagging a finger at me. “I know it.”

Of course she knew it. I was the worst liar on the planet. That’s how my mother always knew when I stayed out too late or sneaked beers and cigarettes with my girlfriends and then tried to mask the smell with Altoids. That’s why I’d had a string of two-date relationships. What’s the point? If it’s not happening, it’s not happening. And that was why it was a good thing I was no longer in the television business, where lying was practically a job requirement.

“This is not just a bored housewife’s fantasy,” Caroline said. She’d read my mind.

“I’ve written a business plan. I have spreadsheets and everything, and I’m going to sit here until you agree to meet with me to discuss it.”

That last line was delivered with all the certainty of a three-year-old who announces that he’s going to hold his breath until you do something, knowing full well that you’re not going to let him turn himself blue, even if he could.

Caroline had unwittingly just listed everything I hated. I came to Springfield to get away from spreadsheets and business plans. I was hardly going to be lured back into harness by a pie chart. And I’d gotten used to being the boss. Okay, my full-time staff was sitting on this counter stool, but at least I didn’t think my boss was an idiot, as most people do.

Still, I liked Caroline. What started as a business relationship had developed into something more—a friendship not based on history and “remember when.” And it wasn’t as if I had any burning plans for the next few months other than keeping this counter seat warm and keeping Babe company. I’d briefly considered an off-season job but didn’t really see myself plowing people’s driveways, which was what most of the other gardeners did during winter.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad getting toasted before noon during those long, cold months between November and February when business was slow or, let’s face it, nonexistent. Caroline drank the good stuff, too, no screw-top bottles for her. I could resurrect my fondness for Veuve Clicquot and premium vodka on her dime, instead of indulging in the Two Buck Chuck I’d been sipping and pretending to like on those chilly evenings alone by the fire.

I was driving into the city the next day, picking up my pal Lucy, and heading to Bucks County for an old colleague’s wedding. Now that nuptials lasted five days and required interstate, if not intercontinental, travel I wasn’t likely to be back in Connecticut for almost a week, especially if I tacked on a few days visit with Lucy.

“When were you thinking of getting together?” I asked, taking out my phone and scrolling through the calendar.

“I knew it! I knew you’d say yes!” Caroline said. “We’re going to buy Chiaramonte’s!”

“I
haven’t
said yes. I agree to talk about it when I get back and perhaps advise you, that’s all.”

Caroline nodded, not hearing me. Why are blond women always so sure we’re going to do what they want? And why do we do it? I was sure it had something to do with the vestigial scars from high school. We’re still hoping the cool kids will want to have lunch with us. How pathetic is that?

She pulled out an old-style planner, blood-red leather, with her initials stamped in gold on the front. All the pages still had hard edges, and there were no stray papers or business cards sticking out. Brand-new for her brand-new venture. It was endearing. She flipped through a few pages with a fat ceramic pen.

“I can’t do next week, either—college visits. Jason’s only fourteen, but that’s when you have to start looking. He’s had a wish list since he was nine. How about the following week? I told Sarah I’d go with her to the doctor’s, but I don’t know which day yet. She’ll need my support,” she said, almost to herself. “She’s getting Brandon’s DNA results back to see which sports he’ll be good at.”

I wracked my brain trying to think which of the little blond urchins was Brandon. “Isn’t he just a toddler?”

“That’s when you’re supposed to do it, or else Sarah might waste a lot of time taking him to the wrong classes.”

That’s right, heaven forbid Brandon spends time at an activity for which he is not genetically predisposed.

“How about meeting on the twelfth, nine
A.M.
at my place unless I let you know otherwise? Does that work for you?” Caroline asked. “I’ll come straight home from my morning ride.”

It did indeed. In the fall, almost everything worked for me, especially when someone asked that far in advance. It was the time of year when I remembered the concept of weekends, too. And exercise that involved colorful weights instead of forty-pound bags of topsoil or manure.

In any event, our scheduled appointment gave me enough time to figure out how to let Caroline down gently when I eventually said no. It was a hundred to one I’d actually want to go in to business with her, but why blow her off completely; no point in totally burning bridges or alienating my biggest customer.

Mission accomplished, Caroline left to rejoin her pals outside, chirping to Babe on her way out to think of a good name for our new gardening venture.

Babe and I answered at the same time, “What’s wrong with Dirty Business?”

Caroline laughed like a teenager. “
Dirty Business
—that
is
a good name, better than Chiaramonte’s. Done!” She snaked through a knot of recent arrivals and tried unsuccessfully to ignore the comments of a handful of truckers waiting to be seated. She smiled but sidestepped them, backing up against the Snapple fridge, as if coming too close would somehow contaminate her or rough up the nap of her tan suede jacket. It was all very faux friendly.

In the group was one long-haired, bearded guy, not bad looking if you liked that slightly grungy Johnny-Damon-when-he-was-a-Red-Sox look. He wore Oakley sunglasses, a dark green windbreaker, and a baseball cap with an ornate letter D on the crown.

He took off the glasses to get a better look at Caroline or perhaps to give her a better look at him—I couldn’t tell which. Neither Babe nor I heard the exchange, but from Caroline’s reaction something he said shook her up. She rushed out the door, and Babe shrugged as if to say, “what the hell?” Caroline must have made some excuse to her friends because without even touching her coffee she left a few dollars on the table and hurried to her car. “Johnny Damon” walked to the door and put his hand on the handle as if he was going to go after her.

“What did I tell you boys about scaring the locals?” Babe said it loudly enough to stop him in his tracks. He turned around and smiled. “Do you know what the markup is on coffee and a fat-free muffin versus the lumberjack specials and endless cups of coffee you animals are gonna suck down?” Babe might not have looked like much of a businesswoman, but she knew where every penny went and where it had come from. Anna and I could take a page from her book.

“I didn’t mean nothing, honest,” he said, walking back to the counter. “I just said she looked familiar. You look familiar, too, pretty lady,” he said. “Can I buy you a coffee?”

“That’s highly original. Are you, by any chance recently divorced? Because I don’t think I’ve heard that one since leg warmers were in style. Next time, you could try asking what her sign is. I hear that one’s making a comeback, too.”

She was busting his chops but in a gentle, flirty way, smiling and leaning over the counter. Few people left Babe’s without wanting to be either her friend or her lover. This one was a toss-up.

One of his pals chimed in. “Give him a break, Babe. It’s his first time here. JW don’t know the rules.”

What were the rules, anyway? Were they posted somewhere? Did I know them? The man looked sheepish and said nothing, rejoining his friends. His buddies laughed; then they all piled into a booth closest to the front door before the table was even bussed. One of Babe’s singing waitresses went to clean it up and take their orders.

“Not bad,” Babe whispered, advance scouting for me as usual.

I ignored her. One of
my
rules is not to think of someone as a potential mate or date until I’ve at least said a complete sentence to him and gotten a semi-intelligent answer.

“I’ve thrown back better. How’s the new help working out?” I asked, changing the subject. The help was three girls who had stumbled in, in tears, after a singing gig that hadn’t gone well. Of course Babe had hired them on the spot and promised to help them with their act. Now they worshipped her and copied her every move.

“That’s a very slick segue. They’re not so new anymore. But they’re doing okay, thanks for asking. They’ve got more physical presence onstage,” she said, holding the ketchup bottle like a mike and pretending to sing into it. “They’ll be at Ringwald’s in a coupla weeks. Alba’s singing lead.”

They all looked the same to me. Alba must have been the one inside—more confidence than the one with the multiple piercings. She was holding her own, sparring with a table full of burly guys; no mean feat for a ninety-pound teenager in heavy makeup and black Frankenstein shoes that looked like cinder blocks, spray painted and strapped to her heronlike legs. Her life flashed before my eyes. I saw her strutting her stuff, sucking on a ball microphone and posturing like Madonna or Mick or Avril or Amy, getting deliriously famous and then crashing and burning before she was twenty-one, rehab by twenty-two—video at eleven. Perhaps I took too dim a view of the music business.

The girl outside, with the eyebrow bolt, was more introspective. Probably the songwriter, writing a lot of angry chick, why-did-you-dump-me songs. Jeez, I was turning into a cranky broad. Was I really jealous of a couple of young girls?

“You should go,” Babe said, as if she were clairvoyant.

“Lots of guys at Ringwald’s.”

“Twenty-year-olds.”

“Nothing wrong with young stuff for whatever ails you.”

That was as aggressive as Babe got in her matchmaking efforts. A few times a week she remembered that I hadn’t had a date in a while and gave it a shot, but she never pressed.

Sometimes it seemed as if she and Lucy Cavanaugh, my friend the bridesmaid, were having a private contest to see who could hook me up first. Despite Lucy’s vehement denials, I knew there’d be a fix-up sometime over the course of the upcoming five-day wedding. That was the real reason she’d asked me to drive her. And while I wasn’t actively dreading it, I wasn’t looking forward to it either.

“I’m going to a wedding. There will be ample opportunity for me to listen to some boring guy’s whole life story before telling him I’m not interested. Besides, as you say, plenty of cute guys right here. No need
for me to pay a cover charge for some watered-down drinks at some shabby joint downtown. I can just stay in this shabby joint and watch the passing parade.”

BOOK: Dead Head: A Dirty Business Mystery
13.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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