Authors: Lynn Cahoon
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Private Investigators, #Cozy
Mission to Murder
Guidebook to Murder
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
To Alex—for always believing his mother could rule the world.
How do you judge how good a book is in your family? For my son, it was the “Mom” rule—how many times he had to call my name and at what volume before I’d acknowledge him. Raising a child teaches you a lot about yourself and the child you’ve brought into your life. Husbands may come and go, but children are there, forever. His faith in me makes me stronger.
Of course, good books are made better by great editors. Thanks, Esi Sogah, for pushing me out of my comfort level.
ome people like to hear their own voice. That jewel of wisdom hit me as I filled the coffee carafes for the third time. As chamber liaison, I’d volunteered my shop, Coffee, Books, and More, to serve as semi-permanent host site for South Cove’s Business to Business meeting. The early morning meeting was scheduled to run from seven to nine but the clock over the coffee bar showed it was already twenty minutes past. With more items to cover on the agenda, we’d be ordering lunch, maybe dinner, before the end.
All because the newest committee member, Josh Thomas, owner of the new antiques store down the street, had issues. He didn’t like the agenda, the city’s promotion plan, and he especially didn’t like the fact the city didn’t have a formal animal control office. These subjects were not part of the regular list of discussion topics for the eclectic mix of owners of gift shops, art galleries, inns, and restaurants. I usually loved feeling the creative energy and listening to wacky ideas members brought to the table. Today, the meeting droned on and I couldn’t wait for it to end.
“I wonder why he even moved here,” Aunt Jackie fake-whispered to me as she sliced a second cheesecake. “He hates everything.”
“Hush.” I elbowed my aunt, trying to quiet her.
“Jill Gardner, don’t tell me you weren’t thinking the same thing.” She started plating out the cheesecake.
A couple of the council members snickered, and Josh’s face turned a deeper red than normal. His wide girth barely fit into the black suit he wore. From what I could tell, he wore the same threadbare suit every day. Watching the buttons on his off-white shirt, I worried one would pop off each time he took a labored breath.
“As I was saying, we must press the police department to deal with felonious teenagers running the streets.” Josh didn’t acknowledge he’d heard Jackie, a tactic I’ve often used with my aunt. She’s overbearing, opinionated, speaks her mind, and I love her to death.
“There’s no problem.” Sadie Michaels replied, the words harsh and clipped. “There’s not a lot for kids to do around here, so they hang out at the park. They don’t cause problems for local businesses. We’ve raised them better than that.”
“I beg to differ. Craig Morgan, the manager over at The Castle, has caught kids breaking in after-hours. They’ve been having drinking parties, swimming in the pools, and he’s even caught a few couples in the mansion’s bedrooms, doing heavens knows what.” Snickers from the rest of the members floated around the room as Josh wheezed in another breath. “We must stop these criminals before there’s real trouble. The antiques housed at The Castle are priceless.”
“My son, Nick, is one of these hooligans you want arrested. I’ve never heard him or any of his friends talk about breaking into The Castle. They know better.” The red on Sadie’s face rivaled Josh’s. She stood and pointed her finger at Josh sitting across from her. “You like causing trouble.”
After setting the full carafes on the table, I put my hand on Sadie’s shoulder, easing her back into her chair. “This topic needs to be tabled until next meeting. We’ll invite Detective King to attend to address Mr. Thomas’s concerns about property safety. Bill, do you want to get us back on track with the agenda?” I threw a lifeline to Bill Simmons, our council chair and owner of South Cove Bed and Breakfast on Main Street.
Bill shot me a grateful smile. “I’m sure Jill is anxious to get the meeting over and get back to business. As a side note, the mayor has reappointed Ms. Gardner as the chamber’s liaison for next year. Mr. Thomas, if you have questions about our procedures, she will be happy to work with you.”
Okay, now I officially hated Bill Simmons. Taking a deep breath, I pasted on a flight attendant smile and nodded. “Of course, I’ll stop by and visit with Josh this week.”
Josh didn’t seem pleased with the idea of spending quality time with me, either. Cool, I could plan on the visit being quick.
Bill’s relief at regaining control swept across the room, calming everyone, except me and Josh. “Let’s move on. The Annual Summer Festival starts up next month. Can we get a report from the committee on how the preparations are going? Darla?”
As the owner of the local winery explained the committee’s goals, I took a seat next to Sadie. “Thanks,” she whispered.
“Not a problem.” I liked Sadie. She and I had become friends in the last year, mostly over coffee after the business-to-business meetings. In her forties, the woman was a single mom, led the women’s group at her church, and ran a small business. She got more done in two hours than I accomplished in eight. She’d been a rock for me when I’d been put in charge of Miss Emily’s funeral earlier this year. Without Sadie’s help, my friend would have been sent to the afterlife without a proper good-bye.
My coffee shop/bookstore was the best customer for her business, Pies on the Fly. She was easygoing and would give you her left arm if you needed it. But no one messed with her kid.
Nick Michaels chaired the school debate team, served as youth leader for his church’s Boy Scout troop, and led the high school football team as an all-star quarterback. Calling him a hooligan was like saying the pope ran around throwing rocks through windows. Trouble wasn’t in the boy’s DNA.
Somehow Bill pushed the last two items off until the next meeting, and before I knew it, the meeting adjourned. Sadie stayed around to help clean up after the others refilled their cups with a last free coffee and said their good-byes. I started wiping down the hodgepodge of tables we’d shoved together for the meeting. Sadie shoved paper plates and used napkins into a sack with a gale wind force.
“I can’t believe that man.” Sadie crumpled a leftover paper cup and shoved it into a trash sack. “He doesn’t like kids. That’s all. He’s so used to working with the past, he can’t see the future right in front of him.”
“He’s a character, I’ll agree with you on that point.” I wiped a table clean and returned it to a spot near the window. Pulling chairs around the table, I watched my friend’s face as I said the words she didn’t want to hear. “Listen, Craig’s been complaining to everyone the town kids are sneaking in after-hours. Greg’s been out on calls there three times this month.”
Detective Greg King had returned to town after his divorce to serve as the town’s lead police officer. Greg also was my boyfriend. The word still rankled when I thought it, let alone said,
. Seriously, wasn’t there a grown-up word a thirty-two-year-old could call the hunk of boy toy she dated?
“You don’t think my Nick would be part of anything like that, do you? He knows better.” Sadie’s eyes filled with tears. She’d raised Nick alone after her husband was killed on an off-shore oil rig when their son was five. His mom’s eagle eye kept the boy in line, but sometimes I wondered if he wasn’t too controlled. Boys needed a wild side and breaking in to swim in the most expensive pool in town could be Nick’s way of getting his freak on. So to speak.
“Wouldn’t be the worst thing for the boy,” Aunt Jackie called from behind the counter, where she stood making a pot of coffee and eavesdropping. “Maybe he’s getting lucky with some girl.”
“Aunt Jackie!” I glanced over at Sadie, whose face had turned whiter than the wash towel in her hand. I tried to console her. “I’m sure it’s not Nick.”
“Now, Jill Gardner, you know as well as I do boys will be boys.” My aunt huffed and left for the back of the store.
After making sure Jackie had left, I glanced at my friend. Her face now appeared mottled gray. “Sorry, you know how she is. Talk first. Think later.”
“That’s the thing. I’m not sure Nick’s innocent.” Sadie slumped down into a chair.
“Problems?” I sat at the table with her.
“There’s a new girl at church. Her folks moved the family here from LA. The girl got kicked out of the last prep school she attended.” Sadie scanned the room to see if anyone had remained and paused from wiping the same spot on the table for the tenth time. She whispered, “Drugs.”
“I’m sure that’s a rumor.” I gently took the rag from her hand. There’d be no varnish left on the tabletop if I didn’t intervene.
She shook her head. “It’s not a rumor. Cindy told me and she heard it from Gladys, the church secretary. She’d overheard the girl’s folks telling Pastor Bill.” Sadie reached out for my hand. “She works at The Castle giving tours.” She uttered the words she must have thought hammered the nails into Nick’s prison cell.
I watched Sadie leave the coffee shop a few minutes later, a pie order for next week in her hand and her heart on her sleeve. Sighing, I sat down with the book catalogue and made a list for Jackie to order later that night.
Nearly two hours later, glancing around the still-empty dining room, I picked up the phone and called Amy, South Cove’s city planner, secretary to Mayor Baylor, and my best friend—roles that got her kidnapped and stranded on a remote Mexican island a few months ago. But true to Amy’s character, she’d been too excited by the mondo waves she’d ridden to worry about rescue.
“South Cove City Hall.” Amy’s perky voice came over the speakerphone.
“Lunch today?” I nodded at Toby Killian, who’d entered the shop for his afternoon shift. Toby worked for me during the day and for Greg most evenings as one of South Cove’s finest. I pulled off my apron and glanced into the mirror behind the coffee bar. My makeup had disappeared, leaving my face pale and blotchy, and the curl in my black hair rivaled Little Orphan Annie without the flame-red. I finger-combed my curls into a controlled chaos, the phone still cradled between my shoulder and my ear.
“Eleven-thirty. I’m finishing last night’s council notes.” Amy disconnected the call. No good-bye, and since we only had one restaurant in town, no need to plan any further.
“Hey, boss.” Toby came around the counter and put on an apron with
printed on the front. Aunt Jackie’s newest promotion for the coffee shop focused on the free Wi-Fi we offered our customers. From what I saw, after adding the service we gained a lot of the hooligan teenage crowd Josh had been complaining about. Our sales had doubled in the late afternoon hours, so I wasn’t complaining.
“Do we have problems with the after-school crowd? Anything I should know about?” I leaned against the counter, watching Toby start a fresh pot of decaf.
“Like what?” Toby pushed the button to brew and flipped a clean rag over his shoulder. He rocked the indie-barista look and knew it.
“With the teenagers. Josh Thomas said he’d had some run-ins.” I was pretty sure Josh had overreacted.
“Kids are kids. They don’t give me any guff. Probably afraid I’ll arrest them if I see them later.” Toby straightened the flyers for the next Mystery Book Club meeting on Friday. “I can talk to a few of them if you’d like. But as long as he keeps yelling because they walk by his shop, he’s going to get crap back.”
“Keep your ears open. Josh said some have been sneaking into The Castle grounds for after-closing swim parties.” I glanced at the clock, my shift was done. I’d been hesitant to hire anyone before Aunt Jackie had started working with me; now I had two employees and a lot of spare time.
South Cove sat inland on the central California coastline. Summer weather meant highs in the seventies, a lot like the weather forecast in spring, fall, and, thankfully, winter. Fog tended to disappear by noon and the day turned to shirtsleeve weather. Today was glorious. The flower boxes lining the sidewalks bloomed with bright colors, the flowers’ sweet smell filling the morning air.
Walking past Antiques by Thomas, I noticed Josh moving a walnut side table into his store display window. I waved, but he glared back. My lack of support during the meeting hadn’t gone unnoticed. I’d stop by the shop later this week with a box of cookies in an attempt to mend fences.
Cookies could fix anything and good fences make good neighbors. Or at least I hoped the old wisdom held true. Maybe I’d send Aunt Jackie over. She could charm a cobra, which she’d actually done on one of her senior hostel trips to India.
Having Aunt Jackie helping with the business had been hard to accept at times. But I had to admit, her ideas paid off. The local author readings she’d started tripled business in both the book side and the coffee shop on what used to be Dead Wednesday. Lille’s diner traffic increased, as well, with customers migrating there for a meal after the readings ended.
Next month, a famous mystery author was scheduled to speak at the bookstore. Partnering with Bill at South Cove Bed and Breakfast, our only cost so far amounted to half the author’s plane fare. Though I signed the checks, my aunt still kept the mystery author’s identity a secret.
This marketing tactic might be her first big failure. Who would come to hear someone they didn’t know? When I complained, she shooed me off.
“That’s part of the fun. It’s a mystery.”
“We do have an author scheduled, right?” My stomach turned at the thought.
“Of course. He or she’s already agreed to come and read. Their new book is arriving that week and we are hosting the book’s homecoming.”
“You mean launch.” Sometimes she scared me how much she didn’t know about the bookselling business.
“Yeah, that’s the word. I knew he said it had something to do with a cruise.”
“But what if no one comes?” I tried one more time. The author was a man. She’d let that slip. My mind raced through the upcoming new releases I’d ordered last week. Had I overstocked one book?
“Pish. You worry too much.” She’d walked away, the conversation over. The shadowed flyers told people the date, the time, and that they would love this author, but the rest remained as the sign said, “Cloaked in Mystery.”
Diamond Lille’s was a block down on Main Street and I was in front of it before I realized I’d arrived. I shook my head clear of the book launch worries and put on a receptionist smile before I entered the diner. Believe me, gossip travels fast in South Cove. If I’d walked in with a frown, people would be betting on hearing some bit of bad news within a day. I’d either be dying of cancer, had found Greg cheating with a stripper from Bakerstown, or my business was on the ropes. And even though none of those things were going to happen anytime soon, truth didn’t stop tongues from wagging.