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Death of a Bean Counter
by Sandra Balzo
Book Excerpt:

One

‘You’re not serious.’
‘Deadly,’ my partner Sarah Kingston said. ‘Don’t you think you’re overreacting? The thing can’t bite you.’
‘But it’s just not our kind.’ I eyed the two-foot-high, shiny, black espresso machine on the counter of our coffeehouse, Uncommon Grounds. ‘It’s . . . automatic.’
‘You’re such a snob.’ Sarah doesn’t hold much back. I fact, I can’t think of anything she’s ever held back.
Ignoring her, I glanced lovingly toward our shop-worn, not-so-shiny espresso machine. The twin, black-handled porta-filters, the knobs you twist to control the amount of steam coming from the jutting wands, the grinder to pulverize the beans to just the right consistency, the tamping tool to – you guessed it – tamp the ground espresso in the porta-filter. Not to mention our beloved and battered stainless-steel milk pitchers.
I turned to our barista Amy Caprese for support. ‘You can’t possibly want your job to be reduced to pushing a button. A kindergartner could do it.’
Amy, she of the striped hair, multiple piercings and henna tattoos, was our cross between a punk rocker and an earth mother. She was not only a champion barista, but a wizard of latte art, personalizing the espresso drinks with hearts or unicorns or whatever a customer requested. The thought of her being satisfied sitting behind a counter and pushing buttons was unfathomable to me.
But now our wild-child barista said, ‘I think Sarah might be onto something.’
Sarah gave me a superior look, which scarcely registered since it was pretty much the natural order of things around here.
But this . . . this machine was not natural. And I couldn’t believe neither my partner nor our star barista agreed with me. ‘The reason people come to Uncommon Grounds is the care that we take with their drinks. The ritual. We grind each shot of espresso and tamp it just before we twist the porta-filter onto the machine and push the button to pull the shot. We froth ice cold milk to just the right consistency and texture for their particular espresso drink. We layer the components in a cup or mug and top the drink with an exquisite bit of art before presenting it to the customer.
‘And now you want to just . . . just . . . push a button?’
‘You make is sound dirty, Maggy,’ Sarah said. ‘Personally, I—’
‘Wait, Sarah,’ Amy said, holding up her hand. ‘I think we have a misunderstanding here. Maggy thinks we want to replace our espresso machine with the JavaDo.’
Too cutesy for words. JavaDo. ‘And you don’t?’
‘I do,’ Sarah said. ‘Personally, I’ve ground and pulled and tamped and frothed enough in the last year for two full lifetimes. Time to punch buttons, like everybody else does.’
‘In gas stations and fast food joints,’ I protested.
‘You’re a snob, Maggy Thorsen,’ Sarah said. ‘I didn’t know that about you.’
‘Maybe I am about coffee,’ I admitted. ‘But so are the people who come here.’
‘The JavaDo espresso machine wouldn’t be for us to use here in the shop, Maggy,’ Amy said. ‘We would sell them.’
Oh. Although that didn’t make a whole lot more sense to me. ‘Why would we sell espresso machines?’
‘Profits,’ Sarah said, eyebrows elevated. ‘I hear they’re all the rage.’
‘Profit, singular,’ I told her. ‘If we sell a customer his or her very own JavaDon’t, we’ll never see that customer again. They’ll make their espresso drinks at home.’
‘Of course they’ll come back,’ Amy said. ‘For exactly the reason you’ve been talking about. The ritual of the individual hand-pulled shot, the latte art, the human interaction.’
I hate having my own argument used against me. Especially when it’s a damn good one. ‘But JavaDon’t—’
‘Stop being juvenile,’ Sarah snapped. ‘It’s JavaDo.’
I might not always be the adult in the room, but I usually had a few grade levels on Sarah, at least. ‘Don’t you think the company is asking for it?’ I pointed to the logotype on the box. ‘When you call something JavaDo and suddenly it d—’
‘Don’t!’
‘Exactly.’ I folded my arms. ‘When JavaDo suddenly Don’t you have to answer for it.’
‘I meant don’t be so small-minded. You haven’t even tried the machine out.’
‘Fine.’ My arms were still folded. ‘Show me.’
‘You wanted fresh, Maggy?’ Amy had gone into Vanna White spokesmodel mode. She waved her hand in front of the touch screen and it lighted. Then she tapped a picture of a latte and grinding commenced. ‘Each shot is ground fresh to order just before brewing.’
I had to admit that was kind of cool. I stepped back and watched as the soulless thing kicked out a shot of espresso with a gorgeous crema. ‘Nice. But what about the frothing? It—’
The gurgle of the machine as it sucked milk from the carton next to it interrupted me.
‘Commences automatically.’ Amy smiled at me. ‘Don’t worry, Maggy. This isn’t like the machines you find in lunchrooms.’
‘Untrue.’ Sarah reached past Amy to reposition the cup as the steamed milk poured out. ‘This espresso machine is perfect for offices, big or small. You can change the number or strength of shots, how much steamed milk and froth you’d like. JavaDo gives the discriminating coffee-consumer exactly what he or she wants, when he or she wants it. And it’s a boon for productivity because nobody has to run out for their espresso drinks.’
‘Espresso drinks they’d presumably buy from us,’ I pointed out, even though I could see where this was going. My partner was in sales mode, gearing up to sell coffeemakers rather than lattes or real estate. ‘Your idea is that we’d stock these machines in the store?’
‘Not only that,’ Amy said, ‘but we’d be an exclusive JavaDo dealer. The only one in Brookhills.’
Not exactly the feat she made it out to be. ‘Brookhills is a tiny market area.’
‘Small, but affluent,’ Sarah said. ‘There are more espresso drinkers per capita in Brookhills than Milwaukee or Chicago.’
Somehow, I doubted the espresso question had been asked on the last census. And if it was, our large neighbor fifteen minutes to the east and even larger neighbor ninety minutes to the south would probably beg to differ.
But then Sarah had years of experience presenting Brookhills – and the Brookhills homes she had sold – in the best light possible in comparison to the surrounding areas. Brookhills had better schools or lower taxes or higher average incomes, swifter trash collection, whatever.
But now my formerly part-time partner was full-time, having just sold her company, Kingston Realty, in order to devote her full attention to Uncommon Grounds.
And here we were a month later, the targets of Sarah’s full attention, which was kind of liking getting a foghorn in the ear. Hard to ignore, as much as you pray you could. JavaDo was the fourth new idea my partner had hatched in the month, the last being turning Uncommon Grounds into an after-hours wine bar.
Not that there was anything wrong with new ideas. If they were mine. Or even Amy’s, since our young barista had a better – or at least more current – marketing mind than I did these days.
Amy blessedly had pointed out to Sarah that the depot neighborhood was relatively deserted at night after the last commuter train from Milwaukee came through. And that even if the place started hopping, getting a liquor license would mean a long, drawn-out battle with the city.
But now even Amy seemed to be buying into this new brainstorm of Sarah’s.
‘I don’t get it,’ I said. ‘We would be competing with ourselves. We need to draw people into Uncommon Grounds, not encourage them to stay at home.’
‘And that’s exactly what we’d be doing,’ Sarah said. ‘Amy and I have been researching this, and we already have the top two things that bring people into a coffeehouse.’ Sarah held up two fingers and ticked them off. ‘Loyalty cards and free Wi-Fi.’
‘Magazines and newspapers are third on the list,’ Amy said. ‘We should beef up our selection.’
‘And where is selling do-it-yourself espresso makers on this list?’ I asked.
‘It isn’t,’ Amy said. ‘But studies show that people want to own home machines, regardless. It doesn’t mean they’ll stop coming here. They do that for the experience, the socialization—’
‘And the pecan rolls.’ Our baker Tien Romano had emerged from the kitchen, a resealable plastic tray of said rolls in her hand. ‘I’m taking these last ones to Dad, unless anybody else wants to take them home.’
Tien and her father Luc had owned the food market in the same strip mall that housed Uncommon Grounds for the first two years. When the mall had collapsed, literally, Luc retired, and Tien had come onboard with us to do our baking. In exchange, we gave her the use of our kitchen at night to prepare food for her catering business.
‘Get thee behind me, Satan.’ Amy was holding her index fingers in the sign of the cross to ward off the calories of Tien’s buns. ‘I’ve just lost the five pounds I put on because of those buggers.’
Personally, I was fine with maintaining and even nurturing my five-pound pecan roll around the middle. But: ‘We still have some from yesterday, Tien. Though I’d love to have you stay for a minute.’
‘Oh,’ Tien said, setting down the tray. ‘Do you need help?’
‘Only talking some sense into these two. They want to stock home espresso machines.’
She reclaimed the rolls and flashed me a pained smile. ‘I’m afraid I would only tip the scales further against you. I don’t think it’s such a bad idea. Try to keep an open mind.’
‘Expand Maggy’s mind?’ Sarah groused. ‘Got a pry bar on you?’
‘Afraid I don’t have one of those,’ Tien said. ‘But if there’s anything else you need, let me know.’ Flashing Amy the peace sign, she ducked out the side door to the parking lot.
‘She is so damned nice.’ Only Sarah could make ‘nice’ a fault.
For my part, I was feeling ganged up on, and for good reason. I’d been ganged up on. ‘I can’t believe you are all so enthusiastic. This is full-on retail sales we’re talking about.’
‘What do you call this crap?’ Sarah swept her arm toward the shelves of gifts and cups of various sizes, shapes and slogans.
‘Coffee paraphernalia,’ I said. ‘To go along with what we do, not take its place.’
‘Speaking of that, Maggy,’ Amy said. ‘Now that we’re up and running in our new location, I think it’s time to do some more branded items using the line-drawing of the depot. Maybe an Uncommon Grounds coffee mug and T-shirt – long-sleeved, of course, since this is Wisconsin.’
‘Wearables?’ Sarah said. ‘Sizes mean inventory.’
‘You’re worried about a few T-shirts and you want to stock those?’ I pointed at the giant espresso maker. ‘Think of the space and cost of inventory. I’d bet just one of these JavaDos cost more than the total of all this “crap”, as you put it.’
‘But that’s the beauty of JavaDo,’ Amy said. ‘We’d have the demonstrator here, but when we sell a machine it’s shipped directly to the customer’s home. No inventory. No investment.’
‘And no risk,’ Sarah said.
‘There’s always risk,’ I grumbled. ‘What happens if something goes wrong with a machine we sell? We hire a computer programmer and go into the JavaDo repair business? Bet there’s money in that, too.’
‘JavaDo picks them up from the customer and leaves them a loaner.’ Amy had her arms folded across her chest like a mom tired of dealing with a whiny child.
‘Seems a little too good to be true,’ I muttered.
Amy glared at me.
Change was not my thing, necessarily. And right now, I had enough change going on in my home life, thank you very much, what with Sheriff Jake Pavlik moving in and our getting engaged. Not to mention adding a new dog to the family and—
‘Twenty percent on each machine we sell,’ Sarah was saying. ‘But the real benefit to us is increased bean sales.’
I came out of my reverie. ‘You mean the little pods? The ones that cost so much?’ And maybe had a huge mark-up/profit margin?
‘Uh-uh,’ Sarah said, taking the stainless-steel cover off one of two bowl-shaped bins on top of the machine to reveal whole beans. ‘Not that we couldn’t get into the pod machines if we wanted to. But this particular model of espresso machine holds two different kinds of whole beans. So, say regular for mornings, decaf for late afternoon and evening, when you don’t want caffeine.’
‘Or flavored beans.’ Amy lifted the other bin lid, and I got a whiff of hazelnut cinnamon. ‘And we all know that the most profitable thing we sell in this store are whole beans.’
It was true there was a good profit margin on beans and almost no labor involved in dumping the whole beans into a bag and handing it to a customer.
I still felt like I was being maneuvered. And, therefore, whiny. ‘So, what did you do? Meet with the rep behind my back?’
‘Yup.’ Sarah put the bin lid back on and picked up the clear latte cup. ‘Have you ever seen such great crema?’
‘And the layering,’ Amy took it from her and held it up to the sunlight coming in through the front window. ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’
Yes, again. And also again: ‘But you met with a rep without telling me?’
‘It’s my fault.’ Amy’s pink cheeks matched the second stripe from the left in her multi-hued do. ‘Kip made the suggestion and Catherine was available that very night. You’ve been so busy, I—’
‘We,’ Sarah interrupted, ‘we went ahead because we knew you’d lift your leg on the idea and ruin a perfectly good dinner.’
Now I really was ticked. ‘JavaDo sprang for dinner and you two didn’t invite me? Nice.’ By which I mean it wasn’t. ‘Where is this all coming from? Are you planning to set me adrift and take over the ship?’
‘Let me guess: Mutiny on the Bounty,’ Sarah said dryly. ‘Last night’s classic movie?’
I nodded. ‘Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando. 1962.’
‘Fascinating,’ Sarah said. ‘Now back to your question, Captain Bligh. Where this is coming from is an effort to be profitable. Doesn’t that sound like a good thing?’
‘We are profitable,’ I said stubbornly.
‘There are some months that you and I don’t even take a paycheck, Maggy.’
It was true. Late summers could be tough, but here we were in October, so all was good. Or at least I could pay my mortgage. ‘I don’t know what you’re complaining about. Your house is paid for and you must have gotten a gazillion dollars for Kingston Realty.’
‘I received a fair price for Kingston Realty, which I’ve invested,’ Sarah said, primly. ‘Kip says—’
Kip again? First Amy and now Sarah. ‘Are you both talking about Kip Fargo?’
‘Just how many Kips could there be in Brookhills?’ Sarah asked.
Kip was chief counsel at First Financial, where I’d managed public relations before opening Uncommon Grounds nearly four years ago. A couple years after that, the corporate attorney had left First Financial also, going out on his own. ‘Not only are you meeting with reps without me, but you’ve hired a corporate attorney? We’re not even a corporation.’
‘Not for Uncommon Grounds, you ninny. Kip is doing tax law and investments now and handled the sale of my company.’
Oh.
‘He did a damn good job,’ Sarah continued. ‘I cleared a good sum and with his investment advice, I’m on my way to doubling it. He advises Mary Callahan, you know, and has made her a ton.’
Mary was my CPA and also Brookhills head librarian.
‘I’ve never been much into the stock market,’ Amy said, ‘but when Kip explains financial strategy it just makes sense.’
‘You invest with him, too?’ Apparently, everybody had money to invest but me.
‘Not yet, but who knows? I may.’
‘He has you hooked in more ways than one – huh, Amy?’ Sarah asked.
The color of Amy’s flush moved one stripe to the right. ‘We’ll see.’
I thought I understood now. Except . . . I didn’t. ‘What about Jacque?’
Jacque Oui owned the local market and considered himself fishmonger to the stars and an expert on all things culinary. I’d never been fond of him, but Amy was. Or at least had been, the last time we’d talked about him.
Which must have been a while back.
‘If you weren’t totally self-absorbed,’ Sarah said, ‘you’d know Amy and Jacque broke up nearly three months ago.’
‘I’m not—’ OK, I was. ‘Three months?’
‘Yup,’ Sarah confirmed. ‘Long enough for Jacque to go oui, oui, oui all the way home.’
Our rainbow barista was usually more tolerant of my partner than I was, but now she rolled her eyes. ‘For the last time, Sarah. Jacque flew to France on family business. It had nothing to do with our break-up and, besides, he’s back now. I’d appreciate it if you’d drop the stupid joke.’
‘Well.’ Sarah sniffled. ‘That’s kind of hurtful.’
‘You’re kind of hurtful,’ I told her and turned to Amy. ‘Are you doing all right?’
She waved her hand. ‘Oh, sure. It’s probably for the best.’
‘There was the age difference,’ I said.
Nearly twenty years between her and Jacque.
‘Honestly, that was never a problem,’ Amy said. ‘In fact, Jacque and I used to laugh about the fact that when he finished college, I was barely potty-trained.’
Amy’s tone must have been too nostalgic for Sarah, because she snorted. ‘Wouldn’t have been so funny when he was the one in diapers.’
‘What do you mean?’ Amy asked.
‘You know. Incontinence?’
‘I think that what Sarah means –’ if only I had a dollar for every time I’d said that – ‘is that the age difference didn’t mean much now, but it might have when you were both a few years older. Think about it: when you are just turning sixty, Jacque will be eighty.’
‘And incontinent?’ Amy’s voice had gone up a half octave.
‘Not necessarily,’ Sarah said. ‘Though with male plumbing, it’s kind of a crap—’
‘Stop!’
My partner grinned. ‘Anyway, you’re with Kip now.’
‘Who is my age,’ I couldn’t help but point out. ‘His son went to school with Eric and the daughter is just a little younger.’
‘So, what does that make Kip?’ Sarah said. ‘Eighteen years older than Amy, instead of twenty? That’s progress. Besides changing Kip’s nappies down the road might be worth it. The guy’s got dough.’
‘That’s very sensitive of you,’ Amy said, ‘but I’m not interested in Kip’s money. In fact—’
‘You’re welcome.’ Sarah turned to me. ‘You both should be thanking me, in fact.’
‘I’m supposed to thank you?’ I asked. ‘For what?’
‘My matchmaking. I introduced Kip to Amy, just like I did you to Pavlik.’
Sheriff Jake Pavlik, now my fiancé. ‘You didn’t introduce us. I met Pavlik when Patricia was killed. I was the prime suspect in her murder, if you’ll recall. He was the investigating officer.’
‘Meet-cute.’
Only in books. ‘How can you say that? The victim was your best friend.’
‘Are you talking about Patricia Harper?’ Amy asked. 'Your former partner in Uncommon Grounds?'
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Before Patricia died, I’d never met Sarah or Pavlik.’
‘Then you have Patricia to thank as well,’ Sarah said.
For being murdered, apparently. I would have asked Sarah if she was off her meds, but we’d beaten that bi-polar horse to death.
So instead I picked up the brochure on the counter. ‘Back to Java . . . wait.’ I looked up. ‘Two thousand dollars?’
‘And we get twenty percent of each sale,’ Sarah said. ‘Four hundred bucks.’
‘Just for demonstrating a really top-drawer coffee machine and making it available to our customers,’ Amy said. ‘And it will expose us to new markets, Maggy. We’d be the only JavaDo dealer in southeastern Wisconsin.’
I glanced over at Sarah, who shrugged. ‘We need to consider this, Maggy. Change is not always bad.’ She cocked her head. ‘And I’m not always wrong.’
Now I felt ashamed. Which is probably what she intended. ‘I don’t think you’re always wrong. I just—’
I was saved from finishing the sentence by the door chime tinkling.
I looked up to see Pavlik push in. ‘This is a nice surprise.’
County Sheriff Jake Pavlik was medium height, with dark hair that curls as it touches the collar of his leather jacket. His eyes are blue-gray and tend to shift from the light to the dark end of that spectrum along with his mood.
‘Is something wrong?’ The eyes were dark, muddy gray and, even more telling, Pavlik was accompanied by a young sheriff’s deputy, who didn’t look like he was just stopping in for a cup of joe.
‘What did you do now?’ Sarah whispered into my ear.
I moved toward Pavlik, as the deputy turned to close the door behind him. ‘Eric?’ My voice came out in a croak.
I’d talked to my son Eric just the night before. He was exploring his ancestry as part of a DNA project at college in Minneapolis and regularly peppering me with questions about my side of the family tree. Most of which I couldn’t answer, because . . . well, my folks were Norwegian, and nobody talked much. A hug meant somebody was dying. ‘Is he OK?
‘Eric?’ Pavlik repeated, and then his eyes changed yet again as he realized what I was asking. ‘God, yes. Eric’s fine.’
‘Then what—?’
The deputy interrupted, looking up from the notepad in his hand to scan the room like it was a lecture hall rather than a coffeehouse with three, count them, three people in it. ‘Amy Caprese?’
Eyes wide, Amy raised her hand.
Pavlik shook his head. ‘You don’t have to scare the wits out of the woman, Mason. I told you that I know her.’
‘But if she’s a—’
Pavlik waved him quiet and moved toward the counter where Amy still stood. I followed.
‘Amy,’ Pavlik said. ‘I understand you’re acquainted with Kip Fargo?’
‘Well . . .’ She glanced at me before she answered. ‘Yes. Yes, I am.’
‘Did you happen to see him last night?’
Her eyes got even bigger. ‘We went out to dinner.’
The deputy interrupted again. ‘Where?’
‘Alfonso’s.’
‘When?’
‘Seven o’clock reservation?’ Amy’s voice squeaked a bit when she said it.
‘And after dinner?’ Pavlik asked. ‘Did you go back to his place?’
Amy colored up again. ‘Well, yes. But we . . . I didn’t stay over.’
‘I’m sure the sheriff wasn’t asking that,’ I told her. ‘Were you?’
Apparently, he was. ‘What time did the two of you get to the house?’
‘Arrived about nine, maybe? And I left maybe a half hour later.’
‘Early evening,’ Pavlik observed, echoing my thoughts.
‘We had an argument and—’
‘Shoosh.’ Uneasy about where this might be going, I put my hand on her arm. ‘I don’t think you should say more, Amy.’
‘Ma’am,’ the deputy said tightly. ‘You need to stay out of this.’
‘Then you should have stayed out of our coffeehouse.’ Sarah was more a mother lion type than she appeared on first glance.
Holding up the same hand now to stop Sarah before she got herself into trouble, I turned to Pavlik. ‘What happened?’
He hesitated and swiveled to face Amy. ‘I’m sorry, Amy. Mr Fargo is dead.’
‘Dead?’ Amy’s face had gone ashen.
‘When? How?’ Worst fears confirmed, I was all about time of death. And cause.
But Pavlik didn’t quite answer either question. ‘Mr Fargo missed a meeting at his office this morning. When he didn’t answer his phone either, somebody went by the house and found him.’
Amy was standing stock-still, a slash of red across her cheeks like she’d been slapped. ‘Did he . . . I mean, oh God, he wouldn’t have. Just because I . . .’
‘You because you what, ma’am?’ The deputy and his notebook again.
‘I told Kip I wouldn’t marry him,’ Amy said, and turned to me, tears in her eyes. ‘It was just too soon, Maggy.’
‘Of course, it was.’ Three months of dating and the guy – the much older guy – pops the question. Maybe I should have put Kip in touch with my ex, Ted, about the wisdom of that. ‘I’m sure Kip understood that.’
Unless he’d offed himself as a result.
‘You didn’t tell me Kip proposed.’ Sarah sniffed. ‘But even so, I don’t see the guy committing suicide.’
Everything I knew about Kip made it seem unlikely, too. But isn’t that what everyone says in this kind of situation?
‘How did he die?’ I tried again.
‘Mr Fargo was shot,’ Pavlik said.
‘Was shot.’ Not ‘gunshot wound’, which might still have been self-inflicted. ‘Was shot’ indicated to me, at least, that another person had pulled the trigger. ‘Were there signs of a break-in?’
‘There was . . . disarray,’ Pavlik said. ‘Indicating a possible attempted robbery.’
The deputy couldn’t seem to help himself. ‘Or a quarrel. Lovers’ maybe.’
And with that, Amy hit the floor.

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