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Murder a la Mocha
by Sandra Balzo
Book Excerpt:

Chapter One

‘But how are you going to get back? I have your car and . . . hey!’ I punched my brakes and hit the horn simultaneously to avoid the pickup truck that was swerving toward me.

The driver wrenched the truck back into his own lane with one hand, while raising the other in apology for not noticing the Toyota Corolla I was driving in the lane next to him.

Since simultaneous seemed the order of things, I nodded my acceptance of his apology while muttering, ‘Idiot.’

‘Who?’ Sheriff Jake Pavlik’s voice asked from the dashboard speaker.

‘The truck driver next to me. Honest to God, it’s like I’m invisible in this thing. Not that the rain helps.’ I checked to make sure my headlights were on and turned up the windshield wipers a notch.

‘Invisible in what thing?’

‘Your Corolla. I mean, my Escape is fairly cookie-cutter, but I’ve been cut off half a dozen times by people who don’t seem to see me. You have a cloak of invisibility on this thing?’

‘I wish you’d stop calling my car a thing. All I want from my Toyota is dependability. For fun, I have the Harley. Besides,’ he continued, ‘there are so many on the road that they don’t attract attention.’

‘Which I’m sure is lovely if you’re on the job, stalking criminals. But not being seen by other drivers doesn’t seem to be a good thing.’

A Volvo zipped past on the right and cut back in a little too close for comfort. I slowed my roll. ‘Maybe it’s the color. This gray is just too nondescript—’

‘Silver.’

Which is really just metallic gray, when you think about it. But we had more important things to worry about. Pavlik’s mom had fallen ill at our dinner in Chicago – something I hoped had nothing to do with our announcing our engagement at that same dinner.

Pavlik and I had driven the ninety miles south from Brookhills, Wisconsin, on Wednesday to spend Thursday with his parents in Chicago and had planned to drive back after our dinner together tonight. It would have been nice to stay another night, but duty called at my coffeehouse on Friday morning with our barista Amy away and just me and my partner, Sarah Kingston, to cover . . .

OK, that’s all a lie. Or the start of a lie.

Truth was that Amy had offered to come in and cover for me. I’d turned her down. Meeting Pavlik’s folks for the first time was a big step, and even though we didn’t stay with them, I thought it best to keep the visit short and, hopefully, sweet. And if it wasn’t, I had an excuse for us to leave early. Sophomoric? Maybe. But the introduction to my now ex-in-laws hadn’t gone well twenty-some years ago, and I didn’t have any higher hopes for meeting my new beau’s folks. But I did have an escape plan.

Which I hadn’t needed. As it turned out, Peggy and Len Pavlik were perfectly nice people, and I would have been pleased to stay another night as they suggested and have breakfast at their Lakeshore Drive condo before heading back to Brookhills.

But now Amy really was unavailable and here I was at nearly one in the morning driving myself home in the rain, leaving Peggy in the emergency room and Pavlik car-less in the Windy City. All when I really should be there with him. ‘Are you and your dad going to stay at the hospital tonight?’

‘Until the docs can tell us what’s going on, at least. Dad is a wreck.’

I imagined so. From what I could tell, Peggy and Len Pavlik had the kind of relationship that’s the stuff of romance novels and country songs. The happy ones. The two had arrived at the restaurant giggling and holding hands. After nearly fifty years of marriage.

In a heartbreaking echo, Len had taken Peggy’s hand again as the paramedics wheeled her unconscious out of the restaurant on a gurney. ‘Do they think it was a heart attack?’

‘Nobody is saying. But Mom said she felt nauseated, remember?’

I did. And then Peggy slipped to the ground as she was getting up from her chair to go to the restroom. ‘Nausea can be one of the signs of a heart attack for women. We’re different.’

‘You decidedly are.’ I could hear the smile in his voice. Along with the worry.

‘Listen, you go be with your mom and dad. I’ll be home in less than half an hour and hopefully Sarah is long gone so I won’t have to listen to her complaining.’

‘Until you get into work tomorrow morning.’

‘I’ll have coffee to sustain me. She wasn’t thrilled to stay with Frank in the first place and then she had trouble getting online.’

Frank is not my son. Frank is my son’s Old English sheepdog. When Eric left for college, Frank and I had eyed each other uneasily and – if I may speak for the both of us – hoped for the best. Now, three years and countless gallons of drool and cubic yards of dog hair later, Frank and I had come to terms. In fact, we were buds.

‘I thought you said you were going to ask that Little Mermaid relative of hers. The dog-sitter?’

The ‘Little Mermaid relative’ was Sarah’s niece. ‘Her name is Ariel. Ariel Kingston.’

‘You’d think I could remember that. Tracey made me watch the movie a hundred times when she was little.’

‘Which is probably why you’ve blocked it. Anyway, I tried Ariel, but she was already booked. Courtney volunteered, but Sarah wouldn’t let her stay alone overnight, even at my house.’

Sarah had adopted Courtney Harper and her brother Sam when their mother Patricia – Sarah’s best friend and my first business partner in Uncommon Grounds – had died. Ariel was grooming (forgive the pun) Courtney as a dog-sitter-in-waiting.

‘Can’t say I blame her. Courtney’s maybe twelve? And petite. If Frank jumps on to the bed with her when she’s sleeping like he does with us, he’ll crush her.’

‘She’s fifteen, though I see your point. Not that Frank necessarily sleeps with just anybody.’ God help us if he tried it with Sarah. ‘He likes you.’

‘He worshipped me,’ Pavlik said, ‘until I moved in with you.’

‘He’s maybe a teensy bit jealous.’ Pavlik had come to my place to recover from a gunshot wound in March and here it was July and he hadn’t left. To my surprise, I found I liked sharing my abode. Frank was less enthusiastic.

‘Frank’s not a teensy anything. But it’s normal for him to want to mark his territory.’

‘That territory being me?’ There had been that unfortunate incident with my shoe. I’d assumed it was just inattentive peeing, but—

‘Or your bed.’

To my knowledge there had been no lifting-of-leg on my Tempur-Pedic, but it was true that somewhere around midnight each night Frank would launch himself on to it, and us, to shoehorn his hairy self between Pavlik and me. By morning we’d be clinging to opposite edges of the mattress while the sheepdog would be sprawled out, snoring away.

‘I suppose it’s just pack mentality,’ the sheriff was saying. ‘He is a dog, after all. Eventually, he’ll realize I’m alpha.’

I was about to change lanes and hesitated. ‘Wait, you’re alpha?’

‘Bad connection. I said that I’m an alpha. Along with you, of course.’ The smile was back in his voice.

‘Nice recovery.’ I moved into the lane at the last second to merge on to the Interstate 894 southern loop around Milwaukee toward Brookhills.

‘Thank you. I’ll leave you to your inattentive drivers, for now. Be safe.’

‘I will. Let me know about your mom, OK?’

‘I’ll call you as soon as we know something. Or probably text, so I don’t wake you up once you get home and to bed.’

‘Wake me,’ I said.

‘If there’s something significant, I will.’

‘Promise. And we’ll also talk about when I should come back to get you.’

‘I promise. But I might as well just take the train home rather than have you come all the way back to get me. You can pick me up at the Milwaukee train station, or I can take the commuter spur out to Brookhills.’

Uncommon Grounds was at the west suburban end of that commuter spur. ‘I’m happy to—’

‘Hang on.’ Muffled conversation and then Pavlik was back. ‘Doctor’s here so I have to go now, but text me and let me know you got home safe?’

‘I will. Love you.’ It still felt strange to say.

‘Did that hurt?’ The man knew me.

‘A little,’ I admitted. ‘But I’m working at getting used to it.’

I’d just punched the ‘hang up’ button on the steering wheel when another call rang through. ‘Sarah?’

‘I’m leaving.’ More snap than greeting.

‘I thought you’d left hours ago. I told you I’d be late and there was no reason to stay. Frank will be fine.’

‘Frank’s barely conscious. Courtney had the bright idea to take him to the new dog park today and he’s exhausted. Has the fat hairball ever even seen another dog before?’

‘He’s not fat,’ I protested. ‘Just kind of . . . puffy. And of course he’s seen another dog. I mean, in passing.’ Like the other dog was being walked past the front window while Frank watched from the couch. ‘Why?’

‘Because he seems to think anything smaller than him is a squirrel.’

I cringed. ‘He chased them?’

‘Sat on them.’

Better than eating them, in my opinion. ‘You’re right that he’s not used to playing with other dogs. Especially in an open environment like a dog park.’

‘You’re telling me. A guy from the park had to pull his big butt off a Pekingese. I don’t think Frank even knew the thing was there.’

Oh dear. ‘Was he or she hurt?’

‘Eyes were bugging out and it looked like a flattened dust mop, but Doug said that’s how she always looks.’

‘Nice.’ Sheesh.

‘I know,’ she said, misunderstanding the tenor of my ‘nice.’ ‘She tried to take a chunk out of Frank’s leg, once she got out from under. I’m not sure he noticed that either.’

‘The owner isn’t going to call the police, I hope?’

‘Nah. No blood was spilled.’

Sometimes Sarah’s bar for acceptable behavior was so low that you could stumble over it. ‘Was he banished for life?’

‘From the dog park? Doug let him off with a warning this time; said Frank would learn. I told him, “Not with me, he won’t.”’

I decided to leave the subject where it lay. Sat. Stayed. ‘Well, thank you again for dog-sitting. I’m just approaching the Brookhills exit, so you go home. Frank will be fine until I get there.’ I went to press the ‘end call’ button.

‘You don’t think I stayed for him, do you?’

I sat back. ‘I have no idea why you stayed.’

‘When we got back and Courtney left, Frank and I ate dinner and watched a movie.’

‘And fell asleep,’ I guessed. ‘Did you just wake up?’

‘One of us woke up. Like I said, the incredible mound of hair and drool is still snoring away. When I saw what time it was, I wondered where the hell you were. You couldn’t have called?’

Her tone was meant to be grudging, but I knew there was real concern there. ‘I thought you’d be gone, so I was going to tell you tomorrow. Pavlik’s mom was taken ill at dinner.’

‘He told her you’re getting married?’

There’s a reason Sarah and I are friends. I’m just not sure what it is. ‘No, I mean rushed-to-the-hospital sick.’

‘Sorry,’ Sarah muttered.

It was about as hard to get a ‘sorry’ from my partner as it was a ‘please’ or ‘thank you,’ so I appreciated it. ‘I know.’

‘Is Pavlik with you?’

And therefore listening. ‘He stayed down there – at least until they know more.’

‘Was it a heart attack or stroke?’

‘We still don’t know. Pavlik is going to call as soon as the doctors can tell them something. You go home now, unless at this point it’s easier to just stay.’

I loved my partner, but I was really hoping she’d say no.

‘No.’ What I assumed were her car keys – already out of her purse – jangled. ‘Your cable package sucks, by the way.’

‘I just have basic, because I watch mostly movies on DVD or Blu-ray,’ I said. ‘I have Netflix, though. Did you watch that?’

‘It kept asking for your password and I didn’t have it. I was relegated to watching network TV.’

Wah, wah, wah. ‘You should have texted me. I would have told you there’s a folder in my top desk drawer marked “Passwords.” Netflix is alphabetized as a sub-category under “Television.”’

‘Miss Obsessive Compulsive. I didn’t want to go pawing through your desk. Especially once I saw what was in your bottom left drawer. What do you alphabetize that little beauty under?’

I felt my face flame. ‘You got all the way to bottom left drawer and you don’t consider that pawing?’

She ignored that. ‘At your desk, Maggy? Really? You don’t have a nightstand?’
Actually no, I didn’t. ‘It’s USB.’

‘What?’

I cleared my throat. ‘It just has a USB charger. And I really don’t use it—’

‘USB?’ Sarah repeated. ‘Why would that be? Big market in horny office workers?’

‘I . . . well, I don’t know. Maybe because it’s universal?’

‘For travel? Could be, I suppose. God forbid you plug the thing into the wrong voltage and blow off something.’

If I could take both hands off the wheel, I’d put them over my face. ‘Can we please change the subject?’

‘Fine. Your WiFi sucks, too. Did I tell you that?’

‘Yes, in fact, you did.’

‘And I couldn’t even get into my own Netflix account on my phone because Sam and Courtney were signed in on four devices, which is the most you can use simultaneously on one account.’

‘Well, that’s not the fault of my Wi—’

But patience and reason went out the window when Sarah was ornery, which was most of the time. ‘Four screens? How can two kids watch four screens?’

‘Maybe they had friends over,’ I said, pulling on to the Brookhills exit ramp.

‘More than likely. But why bother if you’re each going to be sitting there doing your own thing?’

I felt the need to defend the younger generation. ‘But think about it: women used to get together in sewing circles a hundred and fifty years ago and you could have said the same thing about them. Why travel miles only to sit in the same room and sew?’

‘Because they were isolated somewhere on the prairie. They were desperate for company besides cows, goats, pigs and their husbands and kids.’

‘And presumably they did talk, as they sewed. If . . . damn!’ I slammed on my brakes.

‘What?’

‘Sorry,’ I said, squinting off into the dark. ‘Something just darted across the exit ramp in front of me.’

‘Probably a possum. They’re nocturnal.’

‘It did have a tail, but it looked thicker than a possum’s.’ I pulled up to the end of the ramp and stopped at the sign.

‘So you saw a rat. And you will see me tomorrow.’ A woman of few words had apparently said her fill.

‘Rats don’t have bushy tails,’ I said to a dead line. Raccoons did, kind of, but this thing had moved more like a puppy or maybe a cat . . .

There it was again, crossing the grass median from the sidewalk into the parking lot of one of the industrial buildings. The area surrounding the off ramp was light industrial, all but deserted after hours and on weekends. I pulled the car around the corner and into the lot, trying to keep the small creature in sight, but it passed through the pool of light from the security lamp at the front of the building and disappeared into the shadow of the awning over the entrance.

I had the sense it was frightened, maybe approaching the door in hopes that some human there would let it into the warmth and the light. A raccoon wouldn’t do that, right?

Knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight if I’d left some poor lost puppy or kitten out in the chilly, wet night, I pulled the car to a stop in front of the building and reached for the long black flashlight Pavlik kept in the door pocket. Getting out, I was grateful the rain had let up. I checked the back seat. No bite-proof gloves, but I did see a blanket.

Gathering it up and tucking it under one arm, I held the flashlight at arm’s length and approached the deserted building. Away from the security lamp in the parking lot, everything was pitch-black, but I thought I could see a huddled mass in the corner by the door and directed my light that way. Dark fur, with two eyes reflecting the light.

Pavlik would say this was stupid. So would Sarah. And anybody else with sense.
‘Hey there,’ I called. ‘You OK?’

As if it was going to answer me. Whatever it was.

But then it did. A whimper that sounded canine to my ears, though that wouldn’t necessarily rule out something like an urban coyote or wolf pup. I moved closer, hoping there wasn’t a mom around bent on defending her young.

As I eased nearer, the thing darted sideways out of the corner and flattened itself up against the door. Tiny, furry and matted, with a ferret-like nose sticking out. ‘What are you?’

This time I got a bark.

‘A dog?’ And a terrified one, its eyes cartoon-wide before they closed against the brightness of the flashlight.

I switched off the light and considered my options as my eyes adjusted to what little light was filtering into the covered entranceway. I was afraid the little thing would bolt if I got too close. Leaving the blanket on the ground, I returned to the car and retrieved the grease-stained bag I had stuffed in the cupholder next to my now-empty to-go cup.

The bag was from the pretzel place at the Lake Forest Oasis, one of the travel plazas on Interstate 94 between Chicago and Milwaukee. I’d finished most of the soft pretzel sticks but had kept the last one for Frank. The things were covered with salt and butter. I’d never checked the calorie count, but I had to believe that something so good had to be very bad. For both people and dogs.

Which meant a hungry little pooch shouldn’t be able to resist it.

Dangling the pretzel in its butter-stained bag, I approached what I’d now determined (hoped, prayed) was a puppy. A tiny puppy, something I didn’t have much experience with, since Frank seemingly had emerged fully formed. He was bigger when Eric had adopted him at two months than this pup was at . . . whatever age it was. I didn’t have a leash but, given its size, I planned to coax it to me with the pretzel and then wrap it in the blanket.

The silhouette of the pup slid sideways again as I approached. It was back in the corner, so I stopped, too, and shook the treat bag, something that always brought Frank running. The pup’s head tilted in classic curious-dog pose.

Encouraged, I squatted down to seem less intimidating. ‘Puppy want a pretzel?’

Now I had his attention. I crept closer, crooning as I went. ‘That’s a good pup, yes, you are. Aren’t you a sweet baby? Where’s your mama, baby, huh? Huh?’

The poor thing was shaking violently, and as I got closer, I realized that it was not a puppy at all. It was something much, much worse.

A chihuahua.






Chapter Two

All right, all right, settle down. I don’t have anything against chihuahuas, except I have to check the spelling every time I use the word. Which could and will get onerous.

But I don’t hate even that. Or even the chihuahuas themselves. They hate me . . .





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