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One

'A mime is a terrible thing to waste,' Sarah Kingston snarled. 'But damned if we shouldn't take a machine gun to this one, Maggy.'

She gestured toward the white-gloved performer not three feet in front of us.
'Be nice,' I said, shushing my friend and business partner. 'Mimes probably have a very tough time of it.'

Ignoring us, a lanky guy who looked as improbable a mime as Will Ferrell did an 'Elf', outlined an invisible door in the air, then rapped on it.

I cleared my throat. 'Socially, I mean.'

And no small wonder.

'Then why hire . . . it?'

'Him,' I corrected. After all, mimes must have feelings, too. Even this string bean, wearing a green beret, white face paint, red-and-white striped gondolier shirt, black short pants and puce suspenders.

No taste, apparently, but feelings. 'And I didn't hire the man, Sarah. JoLynne Penn-Williams must have, because she's responsible for our Brookhills end of the Milwaukee commuter-train dedication.'

'Oh, yeah?' My partner looked around. 'Then where is she? You can't unleash a mime on an unsuspecting populace and just walk away. There should be consequences.'

Sarah had a point. If not about the 'entertainment', at least about the event manager not being present to manage her own event.

After all, this was a big deal for Brookhills. As of today, September 1st, a regular train would connect downtown Milwaukee on the shores of Lake Michigan to our Brookhills Junction depot fifteen miles west. I say 'our' because – also, as of today – the depot was the new location of Uncommon Grounds, the gourmet coffeehouse Sarah and I co-owned.

The first train had departed quietly around dawn on a special run to carry our Brookhills County dignitaries – JoLynne presumably included – to the Milwaukee dedication. Following that, the 'big city' hotshots would climb aboard for the trip back to our celebration.

Since Milwaukee was far larger than our little suburb, I grudgingly had to admit their event should have priority. Besides, despite Jo Penn-Williams's temporary absence, everything for the combination commuter-train dedication and grand reopening of Uncommon Grounds had been in place when Sarah and I arrived.

The piece de resistance of the celebration, at least in my mind, was the giant, inflatable Uncommon Grounds cup and saucer situated atop the wooden framework – or 'gallows' – above us.

I had commissioned the 'advertising balloon' from JoLynne's husband, staging and props professional Kevin Williams. Balloon, inflatable, blow-up – whatever you chose to call it, the thing was magnificent, with just the right dash of kitchen kitsch.

Fifteen feet in diameter by five feet high and capable of holding nearly 5,000 gallons of coffee, should someone, not mentioning names, have considered filling it. A continual, varying flow of air made the cup and streamers of 'steam' shimmy and beckon like an animated snowman on a Christmas-tree lot.

In fact, the cup was odds-on favorite to be the most animated part of the ceremony, which would feature the requisite dry as dust speeches by our own Brookhills' County Executive Brewster Hampton and his counterpart from Milwaukee County, Wynona Counsel. Brewster was a long-time acquaintance and I knew Wynona through WoPro, a group of high-profile women in the metropolitan area.

Nice people, you understand, but not exactly lightning rods.

Nonetheless, the metro newspapers and television stations had sent teams to cover our event and they were spread out interviewing anyone they could find.

In the distance I could see Mary, our town's head librarian, talking to a dark-haired female reporter and her camera operator, while a passing dog-walker held court for a print reporter.

I was itching to get down there and revel in my own fifteen seconds of fame now that I was satisfied our cup – elevated ten feet above the boarding platform on the aforementioned gallows – was high enough to be seen by the crowd, but not so high it would be outside a camera's frame.

'So,' said Sarah, head tilted toward the mime, tone laced with impatience and uneasiness, 'can't we just make it leave?'

'For the last time, it's a he.' The mime had abandoned his knocking on the make-believe door and instead opened it and stepped through. Once his second foot landed, he nearly collided with Kevin Williams as the props and staging guru came out a real door from the depot and on to the porch.

'Sorry,' Kevin said, seemingly instinctively, then looked the other guy up and down.

Obligingly, the mime began a clockwise pirouette.

'You sure that's a guy?' Sarah asked. 'It's got a braid of hair sticking out the back of its beret.'

'And a lump pushing out the front of his pants.' Emphasis on 'his'.

'There is that,' Sarah said admiringly as we watched the spinning mime reverse direction.

Kevin, though, had apparently had his fill of the whirling dervish. Keeping the door partially open with his foot, he gestured toward the narrow makeshift stairs leading up to the cup. 'For safety reasons, this part of the porch and boarding platform are closed.'

The mime stopped and stared deadpan, a jolly red, white and green giant.
Kevin folded his arms, biceps the girth of tree trunks.

'If a mime falls in the forest . . .' Sarah speculated.

I'd already been cheated – by a homicide – out of one grand opening. Damned if I was going to let it happen again. 'Knock it off,' I told the mime.

Sarah cocked her head. 'I think that's exactly what Kevin plans to do.'
Evidently coming to the same conclusion, the mime held up both hands in what could be interpreted as either surrender or surprise, depending on whether you were French or not.

Kevin and his massive arms stayed where they were.

One white-gloved hand dropped, the other slid down to shake.

The props man turned a gimlet eye to the offer, then reluctantly took it. 'Apology accepted. Now beat it.'

A salute by index finger to the rim of his beret, and the mime was gone.

Kevin turned to us. 'Just to let you know, the saucer part is fully inflated and sealed, so it'll provide a stable base. The air compressor for your cup – to keep it a-movin' and a-shakin' – is behind this depot wall, so the engine noise shouldn't override the dedication speeches.'

Pity.

'I ran the air supply hose –' he pointed toward a thick, blue snake '–up the gallows steps.'

My eyes followed the hose to the plywood decking the cup and saucer rested on. The more you heard the word, the more like a man-made 'hanging tree' our framework looked.

'Gallows?' Sarah had a foot on the first step of its staircase. 'Do we have a trapdoor thingy, too? You know, like in the movies?'

'Nah.' Kevin shrugged. 'We don't want uneven spots supporting the cup and saucer. Sorry.'

'I'm not.' This from me. Trapdoors undoubtedly cost extra. And think of the liability. 'However, we do need to keep people away somehow so they don't trip over the hose or try to climb up to the balloon.'

'Not to mention walk off with my equipment,' said Kevin.

'Equipment?' Sarah was looking at the sun-faded, ratty hose, then tracked it through our depot door to a grubby, oil-blotched air compressor. 'You're telling me there are lamebrains who actually steal this stuff?'

'Equipment and decorations, lights and even batteries. That's why we don't set up anything but the scaffolding and stage itself until the day of the event. My crew and I have been here since four a.m. erecting everything else. It's either schedule that way or post, and pay, a security guard.'

I looked up at our oversized tea service. 'I'd dare them to get that out of here.'

'You'd be surprised. I was telling someone last night about an event I did in a corporate boardroom. Picture this: two guys get off the elevator, broad daylight. They roll up a twelve-foot by fifteen-foot Oriental rug and just walk off with it.'

'Count your blessings,' Sarah said. 'If Maggy was running that show, there would've been a corpse wrapped up in—'

I dug an elbow into my 'friend's' side. 'Just ignore her,' I said to Kevin who seemed a little taken aback. 'She has a macabre sense of humor.'

Sarah tipped her head toward the high framework. 'You might even say "gallows humor".'

Before our conversation could degenerate any further, I pulled out my cellphone and checked the time. 7:40 a.m. 'Kevin, do you have somebody to put here?

Sarah and I need to be onstage for the ceremony, and Amy and Tien are busy.'

Barista Amy Caprese and Chef Tien Romano were providing complimentary food and coffee for the attendees at a table under our big 'Now Open!' banner facing the street.

'Yeah,' Sarah said. 'We'd better get over there. Hate to keep any . . . body . . . hanging.'

Oh, boy. 'You don't intend to let this "gallows" thing go, do you?'

'Not on your . . . life.' A giggle.

'Why don't you two head out?' Kevin wisely suggested. 'I'll get some yellow caution tape from my truck to rope off this whole side of the porch.' He ducked back inside the depot.

'It's too late.'

Startled, I turned toward the direction of the new voice.

Kate McNamara, editor and publisher of the Brookhills Observer, and now – God help us – occasional on-air reporter for a regional cable news operation, dug her three-inch heels into the gravel slope to the track side of our stage. Apparently it was Kate I'd seen interviewing Mary the Librarian.

'What's too late?' I asked.

'The train,' supplied Kate's camera operator, trudging up the loose rocks to join her. 'I know they're not on a regular schedule until tomorrow, but if the locomotive and cars don't get here soon, our live coverage'll be bumped into the eight o'clock hour.'

Nobody wanted that, especially me. Commuters heading downtown – our coffee and cream, if not our bread and butter – would already have left home by eight.
Then I did a double-take. 'Jerome, is that you?'

The camera operator had the same freckled face and glasses I remembered from his college internship, but now the short blonde hair had matured into a longish man-shag, and the head it was attached to stood a good deal higher than the last time he and I were together.

'Great to see you again, Maggy.' Jerome set down his camera and extended his hand. 'It's been awhile.'

We shook. 'About a year. And six inches of height, by my guesstimation. I barely recognized you.'

'A real job and a growth spurt at twenty-two,' Jerome said, flashing a grin. 'Crazy, huh?'

'Hey, you're not such a shrimp anymore,' Sarah said, leaning over the porch railing. 'In fact, you've jumped enough rungs on the studly ladder to be entering its "hot" zone.'

I wanted to smack her for embarrassing Jerome, but . . . despite a peculiar way of expressing herself, Sarah was right. The nerdish Brookhills Community College kid who operated a camera at last year's coffee convention (don't ask: the gathering didn't end well) was now a handsome young man.

Jerome pushed a hank of hair out of his eyes, looking more pleased than embarrassed. His boss, on the other hand, seemed downright annoyed.
'Leave him alone,' Kate snapped.

'Whoa.' Sarah held up her hands theatrically like the mime had earlier. 'No offense meant.'

The news team moved away, Kate throwing us a dirty look that Jerome tried to dilute with an apologetic smile. Sarah leaned into me. 'So, Maggy, what do you think? Mama Bear or Katie Cougar?'

'Katie what?' I was scanning the eastern horizon for a sign of smoke. On the other hand, did locomotives still produce skyward plumes? I really should Google that, given our business was now located in a train station.

'Cougar,' repeated Sarah.

Still not tumbling to it, I swiveled back to my partner. 'Her name is not . . . ohhh.'

'"Ohhh" indeed. Tell me you didn't have the same dirty thought.'

We both turned to watch Kate and Jerome, heads close together as the on-air talent gave the off-air technician an earful. Of something.

'Honestly?' I felt a convulsive shiver. 'I did not.'

No need to see the eye-roll. 'They're both adults. You are so naive, Maggy.'
Naive?

I'd been married for twenty years to the same man and, on the day our son Eric went off to college, my dentist husband said he was leaving me for a twenty-I-forget-how-old.

Ted had been screwing his hygienist, and, eventually, she screwed him right back in an entirely different and – at least from my standpoint – infinitely more satisfying way.

Meanwhile, I'd quit my well-paying public relations job at First National Bank in a fit of pique and started a coffeehouse with two friends, one of whom was found dead in a pool of skim milk the morning we opened. The other abandoned me after we'd been forcibly closed by, euphemistically put, an 'act of God'.

Currently, I was reopening Uncommon Grounds in a century-and-a-half-old train station with Sarah Kingston, my insufficiently medicated, bipolar friend, with whom I had stumbled on not one, not two, but at least four (give or take) dead bodies in the prior eleven months. Oh, and I was dating our county sheriff, who, understandably perhaps, was beginning to fear he, as a law-enforcement officer, was wooing the female equivalent of a Jonah.

So, naive? I think not. Certifiable? Perhaps.

'C'mon,' Sarah continued. 'You just don't want to accept the "cougar concept" because when you look at Jerome, you really see Eric.'

My son was only – what, three years younger than the camera operator? The thought of someone Kate's age hitting on him . . . ugh. No, beyond ugh.
A change of subjects seemed best. 'Look, there's Rebecca.' I pointed out into the crowd. 'Maybe she knows where JoLynne is.'

Rebecca Penn, JoLynne Penn-William's younger sister, was one of our business neighbors in Brookhills Junction. Rebecca and her significant other, Michael Inkel, owned Penn and Ink, a graphics and marketing firm across the street from the depot.

As siblings, JoLynne and Rebecca were eerily identical, except for their respective sizes. If they were pure-bred dogs, JoLynne would be the miniature poodle, Rebecca the standard. Both impeccably groomed, but in different classes.

And with vastly different . . . temperaments.

'You really think Rebecca is keeping tabs on Jo?' Sarah asked. 'I mean, except to keep her away from Michael?'

Rebecca (tall, gorgeous and brunette) was walking next to Michael (taller, more gorgeous and blonde). She was wearing an electric-blue wrap-dress, he a black suit. As usual, Rebecca appeared to be giving Michael hell for something as the two made their way to the stage.

I said, 'Our Rebecca sees red any time Michael so much as talks to another woman. Including her own sister.'

'And you.' Sarah slewed her eyes toward mine. 'Grrrrrrowl.'

'Now, I'm a cougar?' I shook my head. 'Sorry, but no. Nor a puma or mountain lion, either. And I'm certainly not interested in Michael. He just likes to occasionally talk to a woman who doesn't give him shit.'

'So where is the man you're interested in?' Sarah asked, looking around. 'No Brookhills County Sheriff Jake Pavlik at his own jurisdiction's celebration?'

I checked my cell again for the nth time. 7:51. 'He should be here soon. Pavlik's driving back from a two-day conference in Chicago. He's been gone since Sunday afternoon.'

'Chicago? But that's just a ninety-minute cruise on the Interstate. I'm surprised your Romeo didn't come back last night. You two could have had a sleepover.'

I shrugged. 'Pavlik planned to, but called early evening to say he was beat. He'd checked in with his office and found nothing pressing, so decided to stay for one more night and start back early this morning. You know, to avoid the Tuesday afternoon rush hour?'

'Right. And good luck avoiding rush hour – morning or afternoon. It's round-the-clock for that city.'

Couldn't argue with Sarah's traffic logic, but I wasn't liking the greater implication 'What do you mean by "right"?'

'I just figured you might be skeptical, what with your ex having used his fake "dental conferences" to shack-up with Rachel.'

Rachel. Once Ted's illicit lover and now, for better or worse – mostly worse – his wife. Leave it to Sarah to pinch where she thought it might hurt.

'Pavlik is not Ted,' I said.

'Right,' she repeated.

Damn right, I was right.

Glancing around restlessly, I caught sight of the mime scuttling after Rebecca and Michael. The poor guy didn't know what he was getting himself into.

'Why are you so antsy?' Sarah asked. 'There's nothing for us to do before the train arrives. And, speaking of which, your old friend Anita Hampton will be on it with her husband and the rest of the "dignitaries".'

'I'll notify Reuters.'

Anita Hampton, married to Brookhills County Executive Brewster Hampton, was coordinating the Milwaukee celebration at the east end of the fifteen-mile route. Both counties employed event managers – JoLynne for Brookhills, Anita for Milwaukee.

I'd introduced Anita to her husband Brewster when she took over First National's public relations department. Very quickly I'd learned to ignore most of my new boss's hyperactive kibitzing and extract the ten per cent of criticism that made a positive difference.

I could picture Anita now, fashionably slim, tapping one manicured finger on a pursed lip as she contemplated our depot. 'Are you truly satisfied with this, Maggy? Wouldn't moving the entire building just a foot to the southwest make a world of difference?'

'Maggy, shouldn't our lettering have been bigger?'

I jumped thanks to reflexive memory, but the words had come from Sarah. Taking a deep breath, I looked up at the navy-blue stenciling against our signature white cup.

'I'd have preferred bigger,' I admitted. 'Problem is, "Uncommon" and "Grounds" are both fairly long words. Any larger and, even stacked one above the other, they'd wrap around the entire circumference of the cup. All the cameras would see in one frame is "omm ound".'

'Gotcha.' Now, however, Sarah was looking around uneasily. 'Do you see Kevin with his tape? That mime is heading toward us again.'

'Is this a phobia of some kind?' I asked. 'Do clowns scare you, too?' I traced an exaggerated smile on my lips and leered. 'Or maybe the evil doll from those Chucky movies?'

'Stop that,' my friend said, swatting my hand away. 'Go take care of your mime.'
'For the last time, he's not my mime. Besides, the guy's harmless. He collects a paycheck for pretending he's doing something. Just like a politician.'

'You call that harmless?' Sarah muttered as we watched the red-and-white striped torso approach.

Apparently he'd been sent packing by Rebecca and Michael, who now stood on the stage with Art Jenada. Art ran the catering business next to their Penn and Ink shop. JoLynne must have asked them to participate in the dedication. Or maybe they'd just invited themselves, like Sarah and I had.

'You're not supposed to be back here,' I reminded the pesky performer when he reached us. 'Remember the guy with the muscles?'

The mime nodded solemnly.

'You don't want him to come back, do you?' Yes, I was talking as though he were a two-year-old, but it's hard to take seriously someone in a braid, white face-paint and puce suspenders. Even if he is six-feet tall with a schlong in his short pants.

An 'uh-unh' motion of the head on the issue of Kevin's return.

'Good.' Sarah was standing behind me, like I was a human shield against the big, bad mime. 'Now, depart, foul spirit!'

Ignoring her, the performer put the tips of his right index finger and thumb together, raised them to his mouth and let out an air-splitting, nerve-curdling whistle.

'Isn't that against mime union rules?' Sarah demanded from the far end of the porch's corner, to which she'd bolted at the sound. 'You know: No noise is good noise?'

The mime shrugged, hands palm up, as the media whose attention he had just commanded, converged on us. Apparently satisfied, the mime waved to them and then oh-so theatrically tipped his head waaay back, toward the cup on the gallows above us.

'Don't even think about it.' I started toward him. 'You keep your mitts off my cup.'

Sarah restrained me. 'Relax, Maggy. He's "harmless", remember?'

Do not mock me. Never mock me.

The camera operators – including Jerome – had their lenses focused on our wannabe Marcel Marceau, I guessed for want of anything else to film before the train arrived. Maybe I was being short-sighted: Uncommon Grounds could use the publicity.

Arms stretched wide and knees bent, the mime made like he was hefting our coffee cup balloon. Then, crooking his right little finger, he turned toward the media and pretended to take a sip for the cameras.

'Yes!' I called to Sarah, pumping my fist. 'We'll be on every TV newscast in southeastern Wisconsin.'

My last word was still echoing off the depot wall when the wretched mime spit out our make-believe coffee.

'Damn that rat-bastard.' I started for him again.

A train whistle sounded. Everyone turned toward the noise. Everyone, that is, except Mr Mime and me.

I shook my finger at him.
He shook his.
I dropped my hand.
Ditto.
'Stop that.' I stamped my foot.
Guess what?

Sarah sing-songed from the corner, 'He's rubber, you're glue, whatever you say bounces off him and sticks to . . . you.'

'Yeah? Well, let's see how he likes being pasted.'

The mime edged away as the train slid to a halt. Since Sarah was on one end of the porch and I the other, he was trapped like a rat at the foot of the gallows framework that held the cup and saucer.

I advanced on him as he made for the depot door Kevin had used.
'Not that way,' I said, catching up with him.

The mime turned back, or at least his head did. One hand held the beret steady so both it and his body were facing away from me.

'Cool trick,' Sarah said, apparently feeling braver now that we had him boxed. 'How'd you pull that off?'

The mime winked one very blue eye at Sarah, looked down at his bulging short pants, and then held his hand to his heart, mirroring the beating with his hand.

Thud-thud. Thud-thud.

Sarah giggled, albeit uneasily.

The mime batted his eyes and did a coy finger-flutter, even as the doors of the first train car slid back and dignitaries began pouring out on to the platform.
Mime romance. Sweet. But Sarah and I needed to be on stage to bask in the commuter-rail's reflected glory.

Anita Hampton stepped off the train. She was even thinner and more fashionable than the last time I'd seen her. Her eyes darted around imperiously and then she seemed to catch sight of someone. She gave a little, beckoning head gesture.

Following her gaze, I saw Kevin Williams at ground level, but sans our caution tape. The props guy abruptly detoured to Anita's edge of the stage, where she crouched down to speak to him.

The Grand Inquisitor. Oh, Kevin, wouldn't this be better, wouldn't that be better? And, true to form, she didn't seem happy with any of his answers, sweeping her hand disdainfully toward the spare set-up of our Brookhills' celebration.

Surveying it myself, I didn't see what she was complaining about. The stage-decorations might consist only of a couple clusters of Mylar balloons, tethering ribbons anchored in pots filled with stones, but the true centerpiece of the event was meant to be the commuter-line. The train itself would provide the backdrop for the television cameras.

With our giant, strikingly photogenic coffee cup and saucer at stage right.

Whatever Anita's problem might be, it better not have anything to do with my cup. The conversation between the two ended with a prolonged handshake, Anita holding Kevin's hand hostage as she spouted further instructions or criticisms. Finally released, the props man loped off in the direction of his truck.

'He'd better be getting that tape for us,' I grumbled to Sarah. 'And before he does Her Majesty's bidding. That woman always has to be first. And where is JoLynne?

She's the one who's supposed to be in charge here.'

'Chillax. She'll show,' Sarah said, uncharacteristically mellow all of a sudden.

Unfortunately for Sarah, Anita never failed to put me in a bad mood. '"Chillax"?

What the hell is "chillax"?'

'The kids use it. It means chill and relax. Chillax, you know?'

No, I didn't know. Eric was my one lifeline to things current and he now lived three hundred long and, in my case, suffering miles away. So when Sarah exchanged a 'what a dinosaur' look with the mime, it set a match to my already shortened fuse.

'You!' I said, wheeling on him, 'I don't want to see you here again, is that understood?'

At my tone, the mime convulsively stepped back, then back again. Because his face was still toward me, he couldn't see where his body was going.
Whoosh went Kevin's air hose. Down went JoLynne's mime.

And my giant cup? It shuddered more than shimmied, the jet stream of escaping air itching to topple the balloon off its perch and onto the boarding platform and adjacent stage beneath it.

I began scrambling up the stairs to the gallows. Halfway there, I made a grab for the edge of the saucer. It seemed to be weighted at the bottom and maybe adding my poundage (no wisecracks) could keep the thing in place.

'Are you crazy?' Sarah yelled from two steps behind me. 'That Paul Bunyan-size mug will take you with it.' She grabbed the back of my Uncommon Grounds T-shirt to hold me stable, but even as she did, the overall load of the inflatable shifted, sending the top of the imploding cup tipping over the edge like the leading coil of a Slinky.

Sarah was right. I let go of the saucer.

The two county execs – Brewster Hampton of Brookhills in a neat dark suit, Wynona Counsel of Milwaukee, a conservative slate-gray dress – came off the train and on to the platform as Anita Hampton moved to meet them.
'Look out below,' Sarah bellowed.

Both execs obeyed her immediately and saw the huge, white balloon sliding over the edge of the gallows like an avalanche down the wintry slope of a mountain.
Not so, Anita. 'No, no,' she was saying to them. 'Better you pose facing each—'
Brewster dove to the right, Wynona the left.

Anita glanced one way, then the other, before finally looking up herself.
The deflating inflatable missed her nose by maybe eight inches, landing saucer-first with a thud at her feet.

Anita stared down at the now collapsed coffee cup, seeming dazed. 'Joe?'
Talk about dinosaurs.

I might not know what 'chillax' meant, but I was damned if I was going to let my old boss brand my new endeavor a Depression era 'joe-joint.'

'LaMinita ,' I corrected as I climbed to the top of the newly vacated gallows. 'A delicious brew of hand-roasted beans from Costa Rica.'

A hundred faces were tilted up as Sarah joined me on the plywood platform and peered over the edge. 'Wow. Shriveled like that, it looks less like Paul Bunyan's coffee cup and more like his used condom.'

God, what a public relations nightmare. Lynched on our own gallows.

'Sorry,' I said weakly to the crowd below. 'But –' gesturing toward the fallen cup – 'it's not just "joe".'

'Oh, but it is.' Anita Hampton ignored the solicitous hand Brewster laid on her shoulder. Delicately, she nudged aside a wall of our collapsed cup with the toes of one impeccably-shod foot.

A tangle of dark hair was exposed.
Not joe.
Jo.

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