To the Last Drop
by Sandra Balzo
Book Excerpt:


‘. . . didn’t expect to inherit anything. I was just relieved he wasn't a terrorist.’ I shivered, pulling the sleeves of my Uncommon Grounds T-shirt over my hands for the two-block walk. I should have grabbed my jacket – it was the second Friday in November, after all. And Wisconsin.

My partner in the coffeehouse, the normally unflappable Sarah Kingston, stopped dead on the sidewalk. ‘You—’

A horn interrupted her. A silver BMW was trying to pull out of the parking lot that served both Uncommon Grounds and the historic Brookhills, Wisconsin train depot it was housed in.

Sarah stayed put. ‘You thought your brother was a terrorist?’

‘Not international. The home-grown kind that live in the woods.’ I tugged my partner past the driveway so the car could turn onto Junction Road. ‘You’re going to get us killed, you know.’

Sarah shook me off. ‘Yeah, I can see the headline now: “Coffeehouse owners mowed down by overly caffeinated Brookhills Barbie.”’

I waved for the BMW to bump up and over the railroad tracks before we started across on foot. ‘Keep your voice down – she might hear you.’

Sarah stopped again, one sensibly-shod foot on the wooden tie of the track, the other balanced on the metal rail. In her usual uniform of trousers and long baggy jacket, she didn’t seem to be affected by the cold wind. ‘Who, the Barbie? You’re the one who called them that in the first place. ‘Plastic, perfectly coifed and legs attached at their unnatural waists, remember?’

‘I do, but they’re also our customers, which Amy continues to pound into me.’ Amy Caprese was our sole barista, who – despite henna tats, multiple piercings and rainbow-striped hair – had proven herself to be the most socially well-adjusted and level-headed of the group.

Which didn’t take much, given that Sarah was an irascible manic depressive and I just didn’t give a shit.

‘C’mon,’ I said as a train whistle sounded from the east. ‘That’s the four p.m. from Milwaukee. Which, coincidentally, is the time of my appointment with Mary's sister.’

Mary Callahan was Brookhills’ head librarian and my favorite gossipmonger. She also prepared taxes on the side and, when I'd asked Mary about the tax implications of my inheritance, she'd suggested talking to her sister, Lynne Swope. Lynne was a financial planner who had recently moved to Brookhills.
‘And you know how I hate to be late,’ I continued, waving my partner onward.

‘I do,’ Sarah said, considering that. ‘Never quite made sense to me. You're cynical and occasionally uncaring, but always prompt.’

‘I . . . well, thank you.’ Take a compliment where you can get one, I figure. Even if it's riding the rump of an insult.

‘So Mary has a sister,’ Sarah said, starting out again. ‘I don't think she's ever mentioned—’

‘Stop!’ I flung my arm out just in time to keep her from stepping in front of a Lincoln Navigator. ‘You have to look before you cross.’

Sarah shook her head. Or maybe she was looking both ways. ‘What's with all this traffic lately?’

‘Traffic’ was a relative term, but by our town's standards it was true the number of cars using Junction Road, an angled street just off Brookhill Road, the main east/west drag, had picked up. ‘People are avoiding that damned roundabout.’

A traffic circle, or roundabout, had recently been installed to slow down drivers using Brookhill Road through town to access Interstate 94 into Milwaukee.

‘You have a problem with roundabouts?’ Sarah asked, allowing me to lead the way.

‘They confuse people. Never a good thing, especially when they're driving two-ton SUVs like the one that just nearly flattened you.’

‘Except when it makes those SUVs use Junction Road as a detour, bringing them right past our shop.’


Halfway down the block between an upscale resale shop and a designer shoe store was a plain plate-glass door stenciled Swope Financial Planning. I stopped in front of it. ‘This is the place.’

‘Not very impressive,’ Sarah said, pulling the door open. ‘You sure you want to trust this woman with your money?’

My partner stepped into a small dark hallway but I remained on the sidewalk. ‘Where are you going?’

‘To your appointment. Why else would I have walked here with you?’

‘Honestly?’ I said, following her in. ‘I figured you wanted to avoid helping Amy serve the commuters from the four o'clock train.’

‘Which is exactly what you're doing.’ Sarah started up the steps. ‘Are you telling me you don't you want my advice?’

‘Isn’t that what I’m going to an advisor for?’ I called up after her. ‘Advice?’

‘You’re welcome,’ Sarah said, not looking back.

‘Thank you.’ If you stick your tongue out at somebody in a stairwell and they don’t see it, is it still passive aggressive?

‘How much are we talking about anyway?’ Sarah asked as I joined her on the upper landing.

‘A little under fifty thousand dollars.’

My partner whistled as she swung open the door in front of her, drawing a curious glance from the dark-haired woman at the front desk.

The woman set down her cell phone hastily, like we'd caught her playing games or sexting on company time. ‘Can I help you?’

I slid around Sarah. ‘I’m Maggy Thorsen, to see Lynne Swope?’

‘Well, you’re seeing her.’ The brunette stood up, gaining about ten inches on me.

‘Whoa,’ Sarah said.

‘I think she means you’re tall,’ I automatically translated.

‘Especially compared to that shrimp of a sister,’ Sarah said. ‘Mary might be what? Five foot nothing?’

‘Five two.’ Swope's shoulders almost imperceptibly rounded. ‘Dad said I must have inherited his height to compensate for the fact Mary got his brains.’

‘Ouch,’ I said.

‘Oh, he was right, as it turns out.’ Swope smiled and pulled her shoulders back where they belonged. ‘But like my husband says, hard work trumps pure horsepower any day. And I would add “having a plan” to the hard work. Which is why I love this job.’ She turned the smile on Sarah. ‘And you are?’

‘Sarah Kingston.’

‘My partner,’ I explained.

‘Oh, how nice,’ Lynne said, gaze swinging back and forth between the two of us.

‘Not that kind of partner,’ Sarah growled.

‘We’re business partners,’ I said. ‘In—’

‘Uncommon Grounds. Of course.’ Swope beckoned for us to follow her and opened a door to a sparsely furnished conference room. A box of tissues sat in the middle of the round wooden table, presumably for the recipients of the unhappy financial tidings that would be outlined on the yellow legal pads next to it. On one beige wall of the room a schoolroom clock ticked off the seconds audibly and, on another, leaned a stack of metal folding chairs.

Lynne gestured for us to take our choice of the four chairs already set up at the table, as she did the same. ‘Are you planning on investing part of the inheritance in the business, Maggy?’

‘God, no,’ was out of my mouth before I could stop it. I glanced over at Sarah. ‘Sorry.’

Sarah had already slipped into the chair diagonally across from our host. ‘Maggy sank her life’s savings into Uncommon Grounds' first location. Now it’s my turn, apparently.’

‘All my divorce settlement and most of my life’s savings,’ I corrected, taking the seat next to her. ‘Sarah inherited the train depot, so when my first partner pulled out after the collapse of our first coffeehouse, I—’

‘Wait, wait,’ Swope interrupted, pulling a yellow pad from the stack. ‘Did you and this partner file for bankruptcy?’

‘No,’ I said, a little confused. ‘We had insurance. And, besides, we were leasing the space.’

Lynne had started scribbling; now she glanced up. ‘Is there a reason you think this new location in the depot will work out better?’

‘It has walls and a ceiling?’ Sarah ventured.

Lynne Swope’s turn to look baffled. ‘I know this isn’t what you came here to talk about, but in order to advise you, I need to know if there’s debt from the failed business.’

‘Ohhhhh,’ Sarah and I both said, tumbling in unison to what she meant.
I shook my head. ‘Sorry, Lynne, we didn’t make ourselves clear. It wasn’t the business that collapsed.’

‘It was the entire strip mall.’ Sarah held one hand horizontally above the other, palms facing, and slapped the two together. ‘Flat as a pancake.’

‘Ahh.’ Lynne leaned back in her chair. ‘That strip mall. The roof caved in just after we moved here. Benson Plaza, wasn't it? You were there. Not personally, of course, but your store—’

‘No, we were there,’ I said.

‘About as personally as you can get without being dead,’ Sarah agreed.
Lynne looked like she wanted to ask more, and who could blame her? But I was paying by the hour. ‘You’ll have to stop by the shop sometime and we’ll tell you all about it.’


‘Maggy’s right,’ Sarah said. ‘This is about her and the check that’s burning a hole in her pocketbook.’

The financial advisor bowed her head. ‘Of course. There’s one thing I do need to mention before we go any further, Maggy, and I hope it’s not a problem. Your ex-husband is Ted Thorsen.’

‘Correct,’ I said, though it hadn't been a question.

‘I don't know if you're aware that my husband joined Thorsen Dental in May,’ Lynne said. ‘I'm hoping you don't see that as a conflict of interest on my part.’

I let out the breath I'd been holding, relieved there wasn't some sort of financial complication resulting from my divorce. Like I had to give my cheating ex half of my inheritance. ‘Your husband is a dentist?’

‘Oral surgeon. He had a four-person office in Louisville with an upmarket clientele.’

I wasn't sure what ‘upmarket’ meant in dentistry. They flossed more often? Rinsed but didn't spit?

‘When our daughter Ginny received her acceptance letter from Quorum School of Business and Management,’ Lynne Swope continued, ‘it almost felt like a sign.’

‘A sign?’ I asked.

‘You know – that we should be closer to her school.’ She held up her hands. ‘Oh, don't get me wrong. William felt awful leaving his partner in the lurch – down an oral surgeon and an office manager – but sometimes you need to do what's best for you and your family, right?’

She looked at me expectantly so I nodded. In truth, Ted would have committed hari-kari with a dental pick if he'd been left in a similar situation. In fact, when Michaela, his longtime office manager, had retired in April, Ted had been nearly inconsolable and largely incompetent. I'd helped find a replacement if only to make the whining stop.

Sarah was frowning. ‘Isn't Quorum in Minneapolis?’

‘I'm sure Lynne knows that.’ I was hoping it was true. Though it wasn’t unusual for people to make that geographical mistake regarding what they considered ‘fly-over states.’ Minnesota, Wisconsin. Minneapolis, Milwaukee. Potato, potahto.

You’d like to think, though, that a ‘planner’ would have gotten out a map of the upper Midwest before making the move. Especially a planner I was about to entrust with my entire inheritance. ‘Is your daughter in the MBA program at Quorum?’

‘Oh, we expect that Ginny will go for both her masters and PhD in Business, eventually, but for now she’s in the undergraduate school. Since she’ll be in Minneapolis for quite a while, we went ahead and bought a house here a couple miles east on Brookhill Road.’

‘But why not Minneapolis or St Paul?’ Sarah asked, still not understanding.

Which made two of us. The ‘Twin Cities’ were adjacent to each other, as the nickname implies, but a good five hours from Brookhills, even at the frightening speed I feared my son drove to make the trek in ‘record time.’

‘William had talked about that,’ Lynne said. ‘But when he and I met your ex-husband at a dental conference in Scottsdale, Ted said he was looking a partner here in Brookhills.’

‘And, of course, your sister already lived here,’ I said, starting to get it.

‘Oh, yes.’ The color rose in Lynne's cheeks. ‘It's good to be near family. But, more importantly, Brookhills is halfway between Louisville and Minneapolis, so it cut the drive to and from Ginny's school in half. That seemed about right, lest anybody mistake us for helicopter parents.’

‘Parent who hover,’ I told Sarah.

‘I'm not dense, you know.’ And then, under her breath, ‘Though it sounds like that whirlybird has already sailed.’

‘What about your work?’ I asked the financial planner to cover Sarah's rudeness. ‘Did you have your own firm in Louisville, as well?’

‘I was William's office manager originally, but started Swope Financial about twelve years ago.’

‘And moving the business hasn't been a problem?’ I asked.

‘Not really,’ Lynne said. ‘Where there's money, taxes and people there's always the need for advisors like me. I have to admit it's been a challenge to get up to speed on the different state laws, and I must say Wisconsin has its quirks. It's one of only a handful of community property states, for example, and—’

‘But you are?’ I interrupted a little uneasily. ‘Up to speed, I mean?’

‘Oh, yes – not to worry,’ the head of Swope Financial Planning assured me. ‘We moved just after tax time this spring, so I've had plenty of time to bone up.’

‘I don’t know if Ted told you,’ I said, ‘but our son Eric goes to the University of Minnesota, which, like Quorum, is in Minneapolis. The distance is perfect – far enough away that Eric feels independent but he can also come home for a weekend when he wants to.’

‘Precisely.’ Lynne was nodding. ‘In fact, I got a text from Ginny just before you came in. She and Eric are en route as we speak.’

‘Here? Together?’ I'd known Eric was driving back for the weekend but he hadn't so much as mentioned his father's new partner. Nor that the man had a daughter who went to school nearby. Not that I pumped my son for information. Much. ‘What a coincidence that the kids already knew each other.’

‘They didn't, but since this is Ginny's first year in Minneapolis, Ted offered to put them in touch. She's still feeling a little lost, I'm afraid.’

‘I wouldn't worry,’ I said. ‘Once Ginny makes a few friends at school she'll come to love the Twin Cities. Did she say what time they'll arrive? Eric drives—’ I swallowed the ‘too fast,’ given the Swopes' daughter was along for the ride.

‘Oh, it's Ginny who's driving. Eric had car trouble and she offered to bring him down.’

Odd to be hearing all this second-hand from a woman I'd just met. But then Eric was coming home for the christening of his half-sister, Mia – Ted and his current wife's new baby. It made sense that father and son had been in touch about the trouble with my old Dodge Caravan. Maybe that even meant Ted was going to pony up for the repairs.

Heartened by the thought, I said, ‘What luck that Ginny was coming home, too.’

‘It was spur of the moment, I think. But a nice surprise, of course.’ Lynne didn't look all that happy, though.

‘I hope she's not making a five-hour drive just to give Eric a ride.’

‘Honestly, Ginny seemed to be looking for an excuse to come home anyway. And a long drive is always more fun with company.’ She flashed a smile. ‘Wouldn’t it be something if they became a couple?’

‘It certainly would.’ Especially since Eric was gay.

‘You didn't mention that Eric was coming home this weekend.’ Sarah was looking grumpy.

Sheesh, my business partner might as well be my partner-partner. ‘I did, too, remember? I told you I could work tomorrow morning but needed Sunday off because Eric was coming home for Mia's baptism.’

‘Oh, yeah.’ No apology, but she did make a conversational lane change from accusation to pleasantry. ‘You going?’

‘To the christening? Sure,’ I said. ‘The baby is Eric’s half-sister. Divorce or not, we're still family.’

‘More's the pity,’ was Sarah's opinion. ‘Is the lovely Rachel being sprung for the soiree?’

Rachel Slattery Thorsen was the hygienist who had stolen Ted’s heart right out from under my nose. Using assorted body parts of her own, no doubt.

‘No.’ Unsure how much Lynne knew about Ted and the melodrama surrounding his wife, I said, by way of partial explanation: ‘Rachel is Ted's wife and she's . . . away.’

Twenty to life, as it turned out.

‘Ted told us all about it,’ Lynne said sympathetically. ‘In fact, it’s why he said he's decided to take on a partner. Solo practice is tough enough without being a single parent, for all intents and purposes.’

Though having money – even if it was courtesy of the Slatterys, his uppity in-laws and Southeastern Wisconsin's answer to the Hiltons – should help.

But speaking of money, the ticking of the clock on the conference room wall reminded me that twenty minutes of God-knew-how-expensive time had elapsed. ‘I can't imagine how Ted and William being in business together could be a conflict, Lynne. I assume you wouldn’t share information about a client with anybody, including your husband.’

‘Of course not,’ Lynne said solemnly and then cracked a grin. ‘Even financial planners aren’t hard up enough to use profit-and-loss statements as pillow talk.’

I smiled back and opened my bag, pulling out an envelope. ‘Sarah and I need to get back to work, but I should give you this before I forget.’

‘I understand. I need to send off an email myself before it's too late.’ Lynne Swope took the envelope and slipped out a cashier's check. ‘Forty-nine thousand, seven hundred thirty-five dollars.’ She looked up. ‘Any ideas on what you’d like to do with it?’

‘Not a clue. I was hoping you’d tell me.’

‘How are you set for retirement?’ Lynne leaned back in her folding chair and it creaked ominously.

‘I have an Individual Retirement Account from my job at First Financial,’ I said. ‘But since I left there to start Uncommon Grounds, I haven't been able to contribute to it.’

‘Just how much of that,’ Sarah chin-gestured to the check in Swope’s hand, ‘is going to be left after taxes anyway?

I swallowed my annoyance at my partner's interference. It was a good question, even if I thought I knew the answer. ‘Mary said there are no estate or inheritance taxes here, right?’

‘Correct,’ Lynne said. ‘Wisconsin is different in that way, too, to some other states. And you’d have to have a lot more than this,’ she smoothed the check out on the table, ‘for federal estate tax to kick in. But income tax could come into play. Do you know the source of the money?’

I used my fingernail to pick at an imaginary spot on the table. ‘Not really.’

The financial planner seemed to sense my discomfort and tried to ease it. ‘I only ask because if this was a distribution of pre-tax money, like from a retirement account, you’d be required to pay ordinary income tax on it.’

Ugh. But before I could respond, Lynne continued, ‘On the plus side, though, if the funds are from the sale of securities or real estate after your brother's death, there might be a tax benefit to you.’

‘Why is that?’ Sarah nosed back into the conversation.

‘For inherited stock or property, the cost basis is stepped up to its value at the time of death. That can mean a huge saving when Maggy goes to sell it because she'll be taxed on the increase in value since she inherited it, not since her brother bought it. Of course, if the money is the proceeds of either stock or real estate your brother sold, himself, then—’

‘It was cash,’ I burst out. ‘I found it in the chest freezer in the garage. Under a dressed-out deer carcass.’

Unlike the financial adviser, Sarah seemed to delight in my discomfort. ‘Oh, perfect. Please tell me it was a male deer. You know, your brother hid his bucks under a buck?’

Lynne Swope acknowledged the pun with a pained smile and turned to me. ‘It's not so unusual for folks to hide their money in a freezer or refrigerator, Maggy, thinking it'll be safe from fire. In reality, it's not much better than the proverbial mattress.’

But Sarah was squinting at me. ‘Are you telling me you found nearly fifty grand in cash? Was Pavlik with you?’

Jake Pavlik was Brookhills County sheriff and my main squeeze, for want of another expression that didn’t make us sound like horny sixteen-year-olds. Though since our return from a trip together to Fort Lauderdale a week ago, I’d seen very little of Pavlik—horny or otherwise. I assumed he was catching up on business, as I was. Or should be. Or intended to.

‘I drove up there alone that July weekend, remember? You were ticked because you had to deal with the contractor here on your own.’

Sarah was usually irritated about something, though this time she'd probably had cause. We’d been just weeks away from the grand opening of Uncommon Grounds in its new location when our contractor had run into legal trouble. The new one had barely been in place before I made my unplanned trip north to deal with my brother’s property in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The U.P., as it’s called, crouches on the northern border of Wisconsin, like a hat discarded by Michigan proper.

But my partner’s problem at the moment didn’t seem to be with my leaving. She held up one hand like a student waiting to be called on in class. ‘So you're in this backwoods cabin, probably with no toilet or running water—’

‘To be fair, it had both,’ I said, remembering the chemical commode I'd used to get rid of the marijuana I'd also found in the freezer. ‘Just not quite . . . up to code.’

‘—and found this stash of cash?’ Sarah continued unabated.

‘Correct,’ I said. ‘So I called the estate lawyer—’

‘Why in the world would you do that?’ Sarah demanded. ‘It’s cash. You were alone with no witnesses. You could have taken it and nobody would have been the wiser. No probate, no income ta—’ She seemed to remember Lynne Swope was there. ‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t be,’ said Lynne. ‘I’m sure it’s been done before. Once Maggy brought the attorney in, though, he’d have a fiduciary duty to include it—’

‘Duty, schmoody,’ I muttered. ‘I was just glad the carcass it was hidden under was a deer.’

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Coming soon!


French Roast, Maggy Thorsen #15,

will be available later this year.