“I’d like you to tell me everything that happened at the table before Mr. Terhune collapsed.” Janacek didn’t seem to be going for Mr. Good Cop. He kept his voice neutral, very “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Liza described all the ritual byplay, piping in the haggis, the Selkirk Grace, and then the conversation about Scottish cuisine leading up to Scottie’s disastrous attempt at chowing down the unappetizing delicacy.
“So none of you had eaten haggis before?” Janacek asked.
“Except for Mr. Fleming, of course,” Liza replied. “Nobody else mentioned it. I have to admit I wasn’t quite sure what haggis was until Fergus explained.”
Young Holmes suddenly spoke up. “Mr. Terhune was sitting right beside you at dinner. And Mr. Quirk had been seated right behind you at the competition.”
Liza shot him a look over her shoulder. “Yes, if someone saw me shoving peanuts down one guy’s mouth and oysters down the other’s, this whole thing would be solved.”
She turned her attention back to Janacek. “I had something strange happen to me this afternoon. A friend took me for a ride in the hills, and the car suddenly went crazy.”
Janacek leaned forward. “What exactly happened?”
Liza explained about the car’s strange shimmying. “It put us in the wrong lane several times. If another car had been coming our way . . .”
“You didn’t report this to the police, though?” Young Holmes interrupted.
“I have to admit, I was more concerned about getting back here for the competition,” Liza confessed. “Until Scottie keeled over at the table, I hadn’t really thought about it. Now I’d have to wonder if someone is going after the better-known sudoku people at the tournament.”
The older detective pursed his lips and stared at her in silence as the moment stretched out. But if Janacek thought this was going to crack a veteran of the Michelle Markson wars, he was way too optimistic.
Finally, Janacek spoke. “My friend Mr. Roche told me that you had a certain reputation in the media for solving crimes, that you’d gotten a lot of publicity—”
“You think I was hoping to get famous from any of those? I had friends in trouble—or worse.”
“And what friend was in trouble today when Mr. Roche reported you bringing a private investigator onto the property?” Janacek asked.
“Will Singleton is a friend who put a lot of work into setting up this tournament,” Liza shot back angrily. “And Scottie Terhune . . . I hope he comes through. He’s a friend, too.”
She took a deep breath. “There’s a lot more going on here than puzzles. Will managed a nationwide TV reach with SINN, but both Babs Basset and Quirk were trying to cut him out.”
“That doesn’t seem to have worked out for Mr. Quirk.” Was that a snide tone creeping into the young detective’s voice?
“But it worked once for Babs with a local rival,” Liza shot back. “She drove him right out of San Francisco—and she wasn’t pleased to find that he’d turned up here for the weekend.”
She decided not to mention Scottie and his financial motive—not with him hovering between life and death.
Janacek’s cell phone rang and he opened it. “Yes, Doctor . . . ah.”
It sounded as if Scottie wasn’t hovering anymore.
Clicking his phone shut, Janacek said, “I’m very sorry to tell you that your friend—”
Liza squeezed her eyes shut, afraid tears would start leaking out. “Why would anyone do this to Scottie? He could be a bit much sometimes, but I don’t think he had an enemy in the world.”
“Perhaps, but you’ve raised some other interesting questions,” the detective said.
Liza took a deep breath.
“I haven’t even raised the bad blood between Babs and Mr. Fleming—they were married,” she said.
“You seem to have a great interest in Ms. Basset. But at the time of this incident, she was in Ms. Ormond’s room for a business dinner—room service. And for your information, Professor Conklin was in his room, preparing a lecture for tomorrow morning. Room service delivered an order of sandwiches just as the main course was being served downstairs.”
“So they obviously weren’t around when Scottie ate whatever disagreed with him.” Liza frowned. “On the other hand, Fergus Fleming told us the haggis had to boil in those bags for three hours. Do you think it was under somebody’s watchful eye the whole time?”
Janacek made some marks in his notebook. “Something else to ask that Angus character.” He gave Liza a look—not exactly threatening, but not friendly, either. “It would seem we’re done for the time being, Ms. Kelly. I hope you won’t be going far.”
Liza’s stomach complained—loudly. “Just far enough to get something to eat,” she told the detective. “I hear the restaurant here is closed for the night.”
Michael stood waiting for her outside in the hallway. “One of Janacek’s underlings took a quick statement,” he said. “I began to wonder if you were in for the third degree.”
“Not arrested, just hungry,” Liza told him.
“I was thinking the same thing.” Michael led her outside to the lot where his car was parked. “You know, the next town over is Costa Mesa . . .”
“That taco place!” Liza exclaimed.
“One of the hidden jewels of Orange County,” Michael said with a smile. “It’s still there, you know—I passed the joint while I was driving around, looking for a place to stay.”
It had been years since Liza had been to the taqueria
It had been in the early days of their marriage, when they had to stretch every nickel, that a friend of Michael’s had put him on to the place. Great food, inexpensive prices, and a fair-sized drive from Westwood, it had made for a nice, budget-conscious day trip.
As finances became better, the taco pilgrimage had become a sentimental journey, and then . . . then they never had time for it anymore. Well, Liza hadn’t. She’d become ever more embroiled with her partnership at Markson Associates. And then Michael had left and Liza had been forced to reassess priorities.
“Hey,” Michael said, interrupting her rueful musings, “We’re here.” He turned the old Honda through a driveway and into a parking lot, and Liza smiled. The taco place looked as if it had never changed. It was a typical brick roadside stand, painted orange and royal blue. A faded awning stretched over an outdoor seating area.
They went inside to the odors of grilling meat, spices—and yes, a bit of grease. Liza’s stomach made its interest known with some embarrassingly loud noises.
“Hush,” Liza quietly told it. “You’ll get something soon.”
They ordered three burritos, chicken for her, carne as ada for him, and a black bean to share.
“It’s nice enough out. What do you say we sit in the open?” Michael suggested.
The folding chairs had slatted seats, just as she remembered—and about as comfortable as she remembered, too. But then, the genius of this place lay in the food, not the dining experience.
Getting the large, overstuffed soft taco to her mouth was a two-handed job. Each burrito was really a meal in itself—seasoned meat, shredded lettuce, chunked tomato, cheese, salsa, guacamole—all of the ingredients ready to burst forth and trickle down her chin. Liza always joked that eating here had been her earliest training in publicity. You needed the highest level of confidence to deal with those huge burritos without disaster.
She forced herself to take human bites and not wolf her food down. Finally, she sat back, replete, taking a sip of soda and trying not to burp too loudly.
“You know in some parts of the world, that’s an indication of appreciation for a meal,” Michael told her.
“Yeah, well, we don’t have any Arabian sheikhs for clients—or Chinese industrialists,” Liza replied, stifling another outburst. She shifted uncomfortably on her seat. “What next?”
Michael rose from the little table, gathering up their trash for deposit. “I thought we could go for a little drive.”
“Not into the hills, please. I had enough excitement there for one day.”
Michael’s eyes sharpened as they headed for the car. “What happened? Kevin mentioned technical difficulties.”
While getting in and snapping her seat belt in place, Liza told him the story of their record-setting skid.
“So we’ve got two sudoku whizzes poisoned and one nearly crunched.” Michael leaned through the open car window toward her. Liza noticed that in spite of the barber’s best efforts to neaten things, Michael’s hair had gotten tousled again, his curls reasserting themselves. It made for a strange juxtaposition with the grim expression on his face. “I don’t suppose you could suddenly find urgent business in someplace like Outer Mongolia, could you?”
“What?” She stared at him. “Give up the tournament, run out on Will, disappoint Mrs. H.—”
“And probably break Kevin’s heart,” Michael finished for her in a treacly voice.
In more normal tones, he went on, ignoring her dirty look. “Face it, Liza. This isn’t exactly a normal sudoku tournament. The odds-on favorite hits the floor before he finishes the first puzzle. The number two seed—that’s you—has interesting car trouble. And number three gets very sick at supper—”
“He’s dead,” Liza interrupted. “Detective Janacek got the call before he dismissed me.”
Michael strode round to his side of the car, got in, and leaned across the seat toward her. “This. Is. Not. Good.” He spaced out each word for emphasis. “I thought maybe this was just hardball sudoku, stuff to throw off the competition. I mean, Quirk could have—should have—noticed the smell of peanuts in the air much earlier. Terhune inhaled too much of that haggis, trying to prove he wasn’t afraid of anything that came on a plate. If he’d just nibbled at it—”
“He wouldn’t have gotten as big a dose,” Liza said. “He might just have gotten sick.”
She grappled with the idea. “So you’re saying that what happened might have been aimed at throwing people off their game. Quirk wouldn’t have been able to finish the qualifying round. I was supposed to be too shaken to do well in the makeup. And Scottie would be under the weather for tomorrow’s rounds.”
But Michael objected to his own theory. “The problem is, somebody got killed during the first attempt. You’d think most people would pull back after that.”
“Most sane people,” Liza agreed. “Unless—maybe it was too late? Maybe the haggis and the car had already been tampered with?”
“There’s always such a thing as an anonymous warning,” Michael said. “To go ahead with such a plan—or even let it go ahead—suggests a stronger motive than we’ve figured out so far.”
“Or a double motive—and a psychopath,” Liza suggested.
“And I suppose you have a candidate in mind?”
She nodded. “Babs Basset. She wants to run the West Coast sudoku world and get a connection with SINN. That means she has to discredit Will Singleton by destroying his tournament. That would explain not only going after the contestants, but sabotaging the big promotional puzzle when it was unveiled.”
Liza took a deep breath. “And then you have two guests getting sick—or dying—at a very public event at Rancho Pacificano, the resort Babs’s former husband bought into with money from their divorce settlement. We’ve seen how crazy she gets, seeing him running things. And from the way she screwed over that Dunphy guy, we know she has absolutely no conscience when it comes to getting her own way.”
“I’m surprised you aren’t dragging up that other old chestnut,” Michael said. “You know, how poison is a woman’s weapon?”
The word left Liza fighting a shudder, suddenly remembering Fleming’s panicked inquiry tonight at dinner. What if someone else in the restaurant tonight had a fish allergy? What if they had a peanut allergy and were sitting near Quirk?
“On the other hand, I can’t imagine someone with Babs’s Lady of the Manor act fooling around with Kevin’s car,” Michael pointed out. “That would require an accomplice.”
“Somebody who didn’t—or hasn’t yet—connected that dirty trick with the poisonings,” Liza suggested.
Michael only shook his head at that one. “I think you have a lot more work to do on that theory. Also, I think you’ll have to wait, because I don’t like to argue when I drive—too distracting.”
Especially if somebody tried something with this car,
Liza thought mutinously.
Michael made his way south to the Pacific Coast Highway, crossing onto the Balboa Peninsula. “You remember the next step on our traditional agenda?”
“The Balboa Fun Zone,” Liza replied. Up ahead rose the neon-decorated Ferris wheel—a local landmark. In the old days, rides on the wheel and the merry-go-round were mandatory. Liza had always been fascinated when reaching the top of the arc on the Ferris wheel. Depending on which way you looked, you had a view of the lights of Newport on one side and the darkness of the Pacific on the other.
Tonight, though . . . she put a hand on Michael’s shoulder.
“I understand,” he said quietly. “Even though it’s Friday, for you it’s a school night.”
“I wish we could spend more time . . .” She wasn’t sure whether she meant time away from the pressure cooker of the tournament or time with Michael, picking up threads of their past.
“Well, we can still make the circuit of the bay,” Michael said, driving past the amusement area and pulling over to the landing for the Balboa Ferry. It wasn’t a big line, but then, these weren’t big boats. Each ferry only accommodated three cars.
Soon, though, they were aboard for the five-minute run to Balboa Island. Then it would just be a case of traversing the island, crossing the bridge to the mainland, and heading north to the Rancho Pacificano property. And then?
“Penny for your thoughts,” Michael said.
“I’m glad we’re riding with a navigator,” Liza said. “Because as things stand right now, I’m not sure where the heck we are.”
They drove off the ferry, completing the circuit around Newport Bay pretty much in silence. As Michael turned onto the drive leading to Rancho Pacificano, Liza managed a smile.