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Uncommon Grounds
by Sandra Balzo
Book Excerpt:

Chapter One
I was late the Monday we were scheduled to open Uncommon Grounds. Patricia would be steamed, I’d thought as I pulled open our front door. Who would have guessed?
Patricia Harper lay in a pool of milk on the floor in front of the espresso machine—face up, blue eyes staring at every¬thing and absolutely nothing. On the floor next to her was the stainless steel frothing pitcher from whence I assumed the spilt milk had come.
I knew I should do something—I just wasn’t sure what.
I touched Patricia’s arm gingerly. Still warm. So what did that mean? Barely dead? Barely alive? Could you stare like that and still be alive? My other partner, Caron Egan, made a whimpering noise behind me.
Okay, okay, do something, Maggy I told myself, slipping my hand under Patricia’s blond hair and repositioning her head to open up the airway. Then I turned toward Caron, who had closed her mouth but hadn’t moved much of any¬thing else. “Call 911, dammit.”
No response. From either of them.
Now I was getting a little ticked. After all, Caron had been there first. She should be the one on the floor, kneeling in milk and something very much worse. The least she could do was contact the EMTs.
“Call 911, dammit,” I tried again.
The little “dammit” seemed to do it. Slowly Caron came to, like a mime playing at waking up. First, her mouth moved. Then her head waggled from side to side. Then her hands waved. Finally, her feet began to move and walked the rest of
her body back into the office to the phone.
Now if only Patricia would get up and do the same.
Fat chance. I leaned down and put my ear next to her mouth to listen for breath sounds.
“Maggy?”
I jumped. The voice calling my name came from the office, though, not from the woman in front of me. Caron’s hands were shaking as she came out into the store carrying the phone. “They want to know the address.” She put one hand to her forehead. “I can’t remember...”
I hated to admit it, but I couldn’t remember the number myself right now. “Brookhills is a town of six thousand people,” I told her. “They should be able to find us. Tell the county dispatcher we’re on Brookhill Road.”
But Caron just raised the phone high above her head and gave it one hard shake.
I wasn’t sure what that meant. “Why don’t you go outside and look above the door for the number,” I suggested. Maybe the fresh air would do her some good.
Speaking of fresh air...Ipinched Patricia’s nose closed, took a deep breath and blew into her mouth three times. Then I sat back on my heels. No go. Okay, so maybe I should try chest compressions.
I thought back to the CPR classes I’d taken fifteen years ago, the year Ted and I bought our Brookhills house. With a three-year-old son, an inground pool was the last thing I’d wanted at the time. But Ted, my about-to-be ex-husband, had assured me everything would be “just fine.” Then he patted my hand.
I promptly added a million-dollar umbrella to our home¬owners’ policy and bought the most expensive pool alarm I could find. Then I enrolled Eric in swimming classes and myself in CPR. I believe in preparing for the worst, and now—just fifteen years later—it was paying off.
Okay, so what was it again? Five chest compressions to one breath? Three to one? Or was that for two-person CPR? Through the window I could see Caron still dancing around outside with the cell phone, trying to read the numbers above the door in the dawn light. I was on my own, I guessed.
I settled for three to one, figuring more was always prefer¬able to less, and got to work, stopping every once in a while to check for a pulse. The muscles in my arms were already starting to burn when I heard the bell on the door tinkle. Caron at last—I’d make her help.
But she wasn’t alone. Although I couldn’t see who it was from my position on the floor behind the counter, I could hear a male voice rumbling. The police, I assumed, and in record time.
“Congratulations, ladies!”
I sat back on my heels.
“I wanted to be your first customer, and I come bearing gifts. Where’s Patricia?” The voice was getting nearer now, just on the other side of the counter. “Do you have a vase for these? Let me put them in water for you.”
Too late, I identified the speaker: David Harper, Patricia’s husband, and from the sound of it, he was rounding the corner and Caron wasn’t doing a thing to stop him. I dropped Patricia’s head unceremoniously and jumped to my feet to block his view. “Wait—”
He stopped, seeming to realize something was wrong.
“David.” I looked at his pleasant face, at the tissue-wrapped bouquet in his hands, and then, miserable coward that I am, I fell back on cop show cliché. “David, there’s been an accident. Patricia...”Ilet it drop there.
David was no fool. He knew his part. “Patricia? Where is she?” He pushed past me and looked down. “Oh Lord, no. How...how?” He dropped the flowers and pulled her to him, sobbing.
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I picked up the bouquet and took it over to the sink. I was moving carefully now, feeling like time had slowed to a crawl the moment David had ar¬rived. The bright green of the tissue paper, and the purple and yellow of the flowers inside it, seemed intrusive, like an element of color introduced in a black-and-white film.
It was a spring bouquet—daffodils, irises and tulips—that must have come from a florist. It was only April first, and our bulbs were still trying to push their way through the frozen ground. Spring flowers, like the first robin, were a sign of hope in Wisconsin. But not this year. Not for David, and not for Patricia’s two kids.
The bell on the door tinkled again, and time re-asserted itself. Though I hadn’t heard the sirens, Gary Donovan, the Brookhills police chief, had arrived with one of his officers. They looked like they had been rousted out of bed.
Right behind Gary were two EMTs loaded down with red metal boxes. They pushed past the rest of us to get to Patricia. One of them, a sturdy, dark-haired woman, knelt down next to David and asked him to let them examine his wife. Gary pulled out his notebook and turned to me.
“What happened, Maggy?” Gary stands about six-foot-two, has a chest like a bull and a jaw like Jay Leno.
“It’s Patricia Harper.” I kept my voice low, not wanting David to overhear for some reason. Like he didn’t know it was his wife on the floor.
The female paramedic was shining a penlight in Patricia’s open eyes. It made my own hurt just watching.
“Non-responsive,” I heard her say.
Gary was waiting. No more explanation of the “who” was necessary, since everyone in Brookhills knew the Harpers. David’s father had been a town founder. I turned to the “what”: “She’s dead. I mean, I think she is. I couldn’t find a pulse. I did CPR, but...”
Gary moved past me to look at the scene behind the counter. “David just arrived,” I explained. “He brought flowers for our . . .” I gestured toward the bouquet in the sink, and my voice broke, “grand opening.”
Gary grabbed a stack of napkins from the condiment cart behind him and handed them to me. I, in turn, handed some to Caron who was quietly sniffling at a small table to my left.
The EMTs were already packing up their equipment when I turned back, and Gary left me to talk briefly with them. David was next to Patricia again, mumbling something that might have been a prayer. I watched as Gary waited for David to finish and then gently moved him away.
Gary is about the calmest, most reassuring, man I know. He headed security for the events I coordinated when I was special events manager at First National Bank, a large finan¬cial organization in the city. Gary liked kids and dogs. He talked to plants. But even Gary couldn’t make this right.
David’s face was stark white under the freckles. “Why? Why?” Gary just shook his head helplessly.
I touched David on the sleeve of what once had been an impeccable Armani suit. “David, come over here and sit down.”
I led him to another table and handed him one of my nap¬kins. I almost offered him a cup of coffee, but that would have meant stepping over Patricia’s body to reach the pot. I glanced out the window instead.
On the other side of the glass, our papergirl was straining to see in. When our eyes met, she stepped back, dropped the paper on the mat and ran like hell. I would have given any¬thing to follow. I checked my watch—almost 6:30 a.m. Any minute now our first customers might come through that door, expecting a latte or a road cup and find... this.
I moved over to the lanky young cop who had come in with Gary. “Matt, it’s almost opening time. Should we lock the door or what?”
Matt glanced at Gary, who was still at Patricia’s side. “I’ll go out front and keep people out. Let me know if the chief needs me.”
I nodded and approached Gary and Patricia, or what used to be Patricia. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking at a life-sized mannequin instead. Her color seemed to be fading, the powdered blush on her cheekbones standing out as her face paled.
Willing myself to look away, I studied the counter where Patricia had been standing. She evidently had started to make herself a latte, hence the pitcher on the floor and the gallon of milk sitting on the stainless steel counter next to the sink. The heavy glass mug containing Patricia’s double shot of espresso stood next to the milk.
Patricia adored her lattes. I could hear her saying it now, in that slightly Southern accent she’d retained from her child¬hood. “I ahhdore my lah-tays,” she’d drawl before taking her first sip.
When Caron and I had decided that Brookhills needed its own coffee house, she had introduced me to Patricia over lattes in hopes she would be the third partner we needed to make the project viable. Patricia had agreed—also over lattes—and now here we were again. Over lattes. But this time it was an ending, not a beginning.
I imagined Patricia coming into the store this morning and making her “lah-tay,” probably planning to drink it as she waited for us to arrive. The store would have been quiet and dimly lit by the backlights as she brewed the shots and poured them into the mug for what she called her “plain brown latte”: just skim milk and espresso—no sugar, no cinnamon, no nutmeg, no flavoring, no nothing. Not even foam on top.
Pouring the milk into the pitcher, she would have begun to steam it and then... then what? Had she had a heart attack? A stroke? Patricia seemed way too young for either, but maybe I felt that way because she and I were the same age.
Forty-two was young, right? Not that I wasn’t getting older by the minute. Unlike poor Patricia. When people die, we always look for reasons it happened to them and won’t happen to us. He smoked and got lung cancer. She drank and drove. But Patricia? What did she do to deserve this, besides being a royal pain in the butt sometimes?
And God knows if that were justification enough, all three of us would be lying there on the floor.
I looked back down at my former partner. Then I looked again. On the palm of her left hand was a bull’s-eye, but re¬versed. White in the center with the outer ring a fiery red. I moved in closer for a better look.
“What’s that on her hand?” I asked quietly in Gary’s ear.
He jumped—he’s not used to me breathing in his ear, it’s not that kind of relationship—and stood up. Then he steered me toward the sink and away from Caron and David. “I think it’s a burn.” He kept his voice low, too.
A burn? From the milk? It was one heck of a burn to get from steamed milk, which is heated to only about 160 degrees for lattes. I told Gary so.
“I’m no expert on burns,” I went on, reaching out for the frothing wand, “but I wouldn’t think that—”
Gary grabbed my arm. “Don’t touch anything, Maggy. Something’s wrong.” He pointed to a dark spot on the other¬wise spotless counter. “Was that here before?”
I leaned over to look at the fine black powder. “No, what is it?”
He shook his head. “I can’t be sure, but it looks like a scorch mark.”
I looked sideways at him as he continued. “I have the med¬ical examiner on the way. We’ll know more when he gets here.”
I opened my mouth, but Gary kept right on going. “I’ll need to talk to you and Caron, but I’d like to do that without David. You go, and I’ll call you later.”
“Should we drive David home?”
“No,” he said firmly. “I need to get some information from him now.”
“Gary, what do you think—”
“I don’t know what I think yet, Maggy. When I do, I’ll let you know.”
Right. I tossed my last napkin, which I’d twisted into a frayed rope, into the wastebasket. Only two torn sugar packets sullied the spanking new navy blue basket that Pa¬tricia had chosen because of how nicely it tucked below the counter.
On the shelves above the basket stood five cream-colored bud vases waiting to be filled with fresh flowers and placed on five perfectly-positioned navy tables. The cream pitcher was there, too, where we wouldn’t forget to fill it and put it on the condiment cart. Which was also navy.
Cinnamon, nutmeg and cocoa shakers were in their place on the cart, next to small baskets of napkins, stir sticks and in¬dividual packets of raw sugar and artificial sweeteners.
We had planned carefully for this first day, so everything would be perfect. So there wouldn’t be any surprises.
I sighed, gathered up Caron and headed out the door.
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