‘Let me flatten her now. Please?’
My business partner Sarah Kingston was watching Christy Wrigley shimmy under the condiment cart at our Brookhills, Wisconsin coffeehouse.
‘Absolutely not,’ I said, as Christy’s top half disappeared, leaving cable-knit knees visible. ‘We need her.’
I could have appealed to Sarah’s common decency. You know, ‘It’s not nice to squish people’ – yada, yada, yada. But there were some days when Sarah was all about Sarah.
‘I’ll just kick out one of the casters,’ she pleaded. ‘It won’t hurt her. Much.’
This was one of those days.
‘Our neighbor very kindly volunteered to fill in at Uncommon Grounds while Amy is in Europe,’ I reminded her. ‘Can you show a little more gratitude?’ And a lot less bloodlust.
‘Fill in as a barista, but have you seen the woman make a drink?’
‘Christy is a piano teacher,’ I reminded Sarah. ‘If you want her to make an espresso drink, you’ll need to show her how to use the espresso machine. It’s called training. Which is what I thought you were doing with her this morning.’
‘I assumed she knew what she was doing when she started to dismantle the machine. So sue me.’
‘If only I could,’ I muttered, ‘but I’d be suing myself.’
‘Wah, wah, wah. It’s not like you were here to put the thing back together. I did that.’ She pulled a black rubber gasket from her apron pocket and looked at it absent-mindedly. ‘Mostly.’
The missing gasket probably explained the rivulet of water trailing from the tip of the steam wand down our service counter.
‘The espresso machine was filthy.’ A yellow rubber-gloved palm appeared from under the cart. ‘Brush.’
I leaned down to pluck a scrub brush from the pile of cleaning implements on the floor and slap it into the extended hand like I was a surgical nurse. Though if Christy were a surgeon, she’d never make it out of the scrub room.
‘I don’t know why you’re encouraging her,’ said the same woman who allowed our neighbor to dismantle our $25,000 espresso machine three hours earlier.
‘At least she’s just cleaning the cart’s wheels.’ I shrugged. ‘What can she hurt?’
The brush shot back out and hit the front door, making the sleigh bells on the back of it jangle against the plate glass window.
‘Hurt besides me, you mean?’ Sarah asked, neatly sidestepping the ricocheting brush.
‘If I had wanted to hit you, I would have hit you,’ Christy’s disembodied voice flatly stated.
‘See?’ Sarah asked. ‘The woman is clearly unhinged and now to make matters worse, she’s marrying my jailbird step-cousin, who is as crazy as she is,’ Sarah continued. ‘They’ll have litters of little lunatics.’
Oy vey, Sarah was on a roll. Though I did applaud the alliteration.
‘You do know that I can hear you,’ came from down under. ‘Ronny and I will not be procreating together.’
‘Oh,’ seemed my safest response at this point.
Sarah, of course, couldn’t leave this potential scab unpicked. ‘What turns you off most, Christy? Ronny’s murderous past or the fact you’d actually have to have sex to procreate?’
‘I’ll have you know I have no problem with sex,’ Christy said. ‘In fact, I can be quite racy.’
I tried not to imagine the pale redhead in her yellow rubber gloves and little else.
‘The fact is,’ she continued, ‘Ronny and I aren’t seeing each other anymore.’
‘Seeing each other’ had been restricted to four hours per month anyway. Christy had only become interested in Ronny Eisvogel after he had been arrested and subsequently sentenced to state prison. My theory was that the little germaphobe needed to be needed and Ronny was safe, if only for the next twenty to life. If Christy ever had to live with the man and wash his socks, it would be all over.
Still, I felt badly for her. ‘I’m sorry, Christy.’
‘I’m not.’ Her glove palm flashed back out again. ‘Toothbrush.’
If Christy didn’t want to talk about something, she simply . . . didn’t.
Sarah glanced at me, then asked, ‘Ronny dumped you?’
I grinned at Sarah and then went to scan the other assorted items Christy had gathered from our utility room before she slid under the condiment cart. Sponge, pile of rags, a bent table knife, used bar of soap, rusted razor blade. ‘I don’t see a toothbrush.’
I picked through the rags. Nothing. ‘Are you sure you saw a toothbrush amongst this stuff when you brought it out?’
‘No. But I assumed you both kept one here.’
‘To brush my teeth,’ Sarah said. ‘Why in the hell would I give you my toothbrush to clean the condiment cart’s wheels with?’
‘You have a toothbrush here?’ I asked her.
‘Of course not. It was a rhetorical question.’
I sighed. ‘No toothbrush, Christy.’
Of course, she’d keep one in her purse. She probably had two toothbrushes, in fact. One for cleaning teeth and the other for the odd job. ‘Where’s your purse?’
‘Under my coat on the rack by the door.’
I went to the coatrack, removing first a stocking cap and then a plaid wool scarf from the hook before getting to the bulky full-length wool coat. ‘My God, this is heavy,’ I said, hefting it.
‘It’s January in Wisconsin and there are two feet of snow on the ground.’
Which was why Christy had also worn rubber hip-waders in this morning. I had made her leave the tall boots outside on the porch, the pair of them forming a yellow lean-to next to the door.
‘You live directly across the street,’ Sarah pointed out. ‘That’s what? A twenty-five-foot journey door to door?’
‘Sooo?’ Christy’s voice had gone up an octave. ‘What if I got hit by a car as I crossed?’
‘You honestly care whether your corpse is nice and toasty or not while it’s waiting for the meat wagon to arrive?’ Sarah asked.
‘You can’t be sure that I would die instantly,’ Christy rebutted. ‘I might linger.’
‘You should be so—’
‘Will you two stop?’ I draped the heavy coat over the nearest chair and slipped an enormous robin’s egg blue tote off the hook. Everything about Christy was oversized, except the woman herself.
Undoing the bag’s drawstring, I peered inside. A mobile phone was peeking out of a pocket, but the contents below were a jumble. I could make out the handle of a pair of scissors, a can of something – likely spray disinfectant, knowing Christy – a single torn yellow rubber glove, an unlabeled bottle of brown liquid and, yes, a toothbrush.
I went to retrieve it and pulled my hand back quickly. ‘Ouch!’
‘What?’ Sarah asked. ‘Something in that rat’s nest bite you?’
‘No, something stabbed me.’ I grasped the toothbrush by the brush end this time and held it up. ‘Christy, why do you have a shiv in your purse?’
Sarah took it and ran her finger over the end that had been filed to a point.
Christy stuck her head out from under the cart to see. ‘Oh, that was for Ronny. Give it here.’
‘You planned on smuggling a weapon into the prison?’ I asked. ‘Have you lost your mind?’
Now that was a rhetorical question.
‘Oh, I wasn’t going to actually give it to him,’ she said, still holding out her hand. ‘It was just a craft project. You know, something to show him I cared.’
‘Until you didn’t,’ Sarah said, slapping the weaponized toothbrush into Christy’s hand a little harder than necessary.
‘Exactly right.’ Christy took the brush and slid back under. ‘Dammit.’
‘This is the soft-bristled brush. I need the other one.’
I was not about to stick my hand back in that bag. Next, I’d likely come up with a file just waiting to be baked into a cake. ‘Come out and get it.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake.’ The hand shot back out. ‘Give me my purse.’
I held up the bag and squinted at it and the space between cart and floor, trying to gauge. ‘I don’t think it will fit under there. I guess I could dump it out and—’
‘Just give it to me!’
‘With pleasure.’ Sarah pulled the bag from my grasp and dropped it unceremoniously on the outstretched hand. Clunk.
‘Ouch.’ Christy scrabbled for the drawstring and used it to reel the bag in. Or at least she tried to reel it in. ‘Damn. It’s stuck.’
‘No shit, Sherlock,’ Sarah said. ‘If you want your toothbrush, crawl out from under your rock and find it yourself.’
‘Honestly!’ The legs bent at the knee as she scrambled for purchase and the little redhead slid out, one hand still holding the drawstring.
Pushing herself up to sit cross-legged on the tile floor, back against the condiment cart, Christy opened the bag and started to remove items one by one and set them on the floor next to her. The disinfectant, the scissors, a sponge, a wrapper from—
‘You carry your own disposable . . .’ Sarah picked up the wrapper and read, ‘“Prophylactic toilet seat cover”?’
‘Of course,’ Christy said. ‘I certainly hope you don’t sit on public toilet seats unprotected.’
‘Of course not. I hover.’
‘Oh.’ Christy’s lips had twisted in distaste. ‘You’re one of those.’
‘I’m one of whats?’ Sarah asked.
‘Toilet hoverers.’ Christy’s phone vibrated in the depths of the bag, but she ignored it. ‘I’m just saying that people like you who—’
I held up my hands. ‘Could we please focus? The first afternoon train from downtown Milwaukee will be here in a little over an hour and, not only is the espresso machine leaking, but cleaning supplies and half the contents of Christy’s bag are all over the—’ I interrupted myself. ‘Do you need to get that, Christy?’
Her phone had stopped ringing and then started up again, either with another call or the original caller trying again.
‘Excuse me?’ She acted like she hadn’t noticed.
‘Your phone.’ I nudged Christy’s bag with my toe and the mobile in question slipped out. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ I said, leaning down to pick it up. ‘I—’
‘Give me that!’ Christy jumped up.
But Sarah was quicker. She had the phone in her hand before Christy could make a grab for it. ‘Something you don’t want us to see?’
But my partner was dancing away with the cell phone. So far, Sarah had been hazing Christy for fun, but now my partner seemed intent on turning up the heat. ‘Whoever do you think is calling? Must be an emergency if they are so persistent that—’
‘Give me my iphone.’ Christy seemed to be trying to hide her irritation, but her foot was tapping, her arms crossed. ‘Please.’
‘Barry Margraves,’ Sarah read and then held the phone out for me to see. The photo of a good-looking man beamed back at us. ‘Now who could that be?’
‘None of your business.’ Christy reached out and snatched the phone away, holding Barry Margraves to her bosom. ‘That’s who he is.’
‘He’s none of my business?’ Sarah was grinning, like a gleeful lion circling the wounded wildebeest. ‘You dumped my poor incarcerated cousin for this guy and it’s none of my business?’
But then Christy wasn’t all that wounded. ‘I did not dump Ronny for Barry. In fact, I went on the dating site because I had already ended things with Ronny, and I was lonely. Rebecca suggested it.’
‘Rebecca Penn?’ I asked, a little surprised.
‘Yes, of course,’ Christy said. ‘You know she’s moved back, right? She’s living above the studio.’
Rebecca Penn and Michael Inkel had owned Penn and Ink, a graphic arts studio and marketing company two doors down from Christy. Michael handled the writing and marketing side, while Rebecca had been the artist. When the two called off their engagement, Rebecca had moved to New York. Michael, on the other hand, had returned to Brookhills after a short trip back to his native Toronto to lick his emotional wounds. ‘No, I didn’t know. When was this?’
‘Like a month ago,’ Sarah said. ‘You should try to keep up.’
The Penn and Ink building was a converted one-and-a-half-story bungalow with a small apartment above the retail studio space on the ground floor. The studio had been rented out since Penn and Ink had closed, its retail tenants seeming to change every few months. I tried to keep up, as Sarah said, but it was hard. ‘That Rowena, the one with the stationery store, she moved out?’
‘Rochelle,’ Christy corrected. ‘And it was a fabric store. She’s been gone for six months.’
You see why I don’t bother. ‘Rebecca and Michael aren’t back together again, are they?’
‘On and off, still,’ Christy said. ‘I told Rebecca that she’d be far better off making a clean break with him, like I did with Ronny.’
But then Christy was not going to run into Ronny on the street. Or in the building.
As I recalled, Rebecca and Michael had purchased the bungalow together, and I thought Michael still kept a workspace at the back of the studio. And now, according to Christy, Rebecca was living on the floor above.
‘Damn shame Penn and Ink busted up,’ Sarah said, pulling a chair out from a table and flipping it around so she could sit facing us over the chair back.
‘Damn shame for the people or for the business?’ I asked.
Sarah rolled her eyes. ‘Like I care about their personal lives. But Michael was a damned good writer and Rebecca, a passable designer. Did I ever tell you they did our ads and website?’
I assumed she meant for Kingston Realty, which Sarah had recently shelved after unsuccessfully trying to split her time between it and Uncommon Grounds. And by ‘shelved’, I mean sold the agency for a good sum.
‘ . . . says Michael is driving ride-share to supplement his freelance writing,’ Christy was saying with a pout. ‘Serves him right for trying to make Rebecca into something she wasn’t.’
‘A nice person?’ I guessed.
‘That’s a little uncharitable of you, Maggy.’ Christy had leaned down to retrieve items from the floor to return to her purse and now swiveled her head toward me. ‘Just because Rebecca accused Sheriff Pavlik of having an affair with her sister.’
‘It was an honest mistake on Rebecca’s part,’ Sarah said. ‘She knew JoLynne had been having a fling with somebody. She was just wrong about who that person was.’
The ‘who’ being Michael, not Pavlik. But Rebecca had forgiven him. And then, not. ‘I’m just surprised she’d move back after all the drama. And that I haven’t seen her here at the shop.’
‘Rebecca’s sister died in a giant coffee cup on our porch,’ Sarah reminded me.
Drama, like I said. But Rebecca did not strike me as a very sentimental person. Especially if she were looking for a good cup of joe.
‘Now that I’m working here, I’m sure she’ll come by regularly,’ Christy assured us, straightening. ‘We’re like this.’ She crossed two of her rubber-gloved fingers.
That surprised me, too, considering how different the women were, but not as much as the ‘now that I’m working here’ part of Christy’s statement.
Surprised Sarah, too, apparently. ‘You know you’re just filling in while Amy is gone, right?’
Christy looked hurt. ‘Well, yes. But who knows what could happen down the road?’
Hell freezing over came to mind. ‘Anyway,’ I said, changing the subject, ‘you met this new guy online?’
‘Yes.’ Christy’s feelings already hurt, she jutted out her chin defiantly. ‘You have a problem with that?’
‘Not at all.’ I had been lucky enough to find love without an app, but not everybody can count on their potential soulmate suspecting them of murder.
The redhead squinted suspiciously at Sarah. ‘How about you?’
‘Me? How else can you meet people these days? In fact, I applaud you for getting out there again, especially at the expense of my cousin.’
Christy and I exchanged looks, not sure what to say to that.
‘Thank you,’ Christy settled on.
‘Tell us about this guy,’ I said, then hesitated as she glanced down at the phone in her hand. ‘Or do you need to call him back first?’
Christy was reading a text message. ‘He’s about to board a plane, so he says he’ll call me when he lands.’
‘Then he’s free to travel.’ The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
‘You just assume Barry is in jail, too?’ She had this way of extending her neck when she was irritated, like a cartoon chicken.
‘It did cross my mind,’ I admitted.
‘You can’t blame Maggy,’ Sarah said to her. ‘You have a type.’
‘Had.’ Christy was stuffing the last of the junk back into her purse. ‘I’ll have you know I specifically steered clear of dating sites for inmates.’
‘There are dating apps for inmates?’ Swipe left for homicide, right for minor crimes.
‘Maybe not apps so much,’ Christy said. ‘Prisoners wouldn’t necessarily have cellphones, of course.’
‘There are websites though.’ Christy’s face had reddened. ‘Not that I’d know anything about them. I’m done with prisoners.’
‘You sure?’ Sarah asked. ‘There are advantages. You always know where they are, for one.’
Christy nodded in agreement. ‘That’s true. But fidelity isn’t everything.’
Sheesh. I cleared my throat. ‘But tell us about Barry. Is he from around here?’
I guessed a long-distance relationship was a step up from a life-sentence one.
‘He’s moving here,’ Christy assured me.
‘That will be nice for you.'
But apparently, I hadn’t been quick or enthusiastic enough in my reaction for Christy’s liking. ‘What?’ she demanded with a sniff. ‘You think this is just another arm’s length relationship?’
‘It’s not,’ she said like she had read my thoughts.
Sarah was wagging her head at me. ‘I don’t know why you’re being so negative, Maggy.’
That made us even. I didn’t know why Sarah was being so positive. Positivity and supportiveness were not her thing.
‘I’ve just never had any experience with dating apps,’ I said, rubbing the small of my back. Long days standing on hard tile floors were taking a toll. ‘Why? Have you?’
‘Maybe.’ Was that a touch of crimson on the tip of Sarah’s nose?
Christy had noticed it. ‘You have! Tell us.’
I wanted to hear, too. Sarah had pulled a gun on the last guy she had dated, but that was a few years back. And she had saved my life in the process, so I couldn’t be judgmental.
Now my friend held up her hands, uncomfortable but maybe a little pleased, too, that we were interested. ‘I just put up my profile to get the kids off my back. I have to admit, though, that it’s kind of fun.’
Sarah had adopted Sam and Courtney Harper after their mother Patricia – one of our original threesome who started Uncommon Grounds – was killed. In fact, it was Patricia’s death that had brought Sarah and me together in the first place.
The third of our trio, Caron Egan, had stepped away after one year in the coffee business – albeit a year filled with three or four murders, a couple of betrayals and one coffeehouse destroyed by a freak May snowstorm.
Wuss. But then she and her lawyer husband Bernie had just purchased Brookhills’ historic Hotel Morrison to renovate it, so perhaps she was a glutton who decided she missed the punishment of the hospitality industry.
Meanwhile, Caron’s defection left only me to resurrect the coffeehouse until Sarah raised the possibility of a partnership and offered the historic train depot at Brookhills Junction as our site. The rest is recent history.
‘Why Courtney and Sam’s sudden interest in your dating?’ I asked Sarah now. ‘Are you getting on their nerves?’
‘More Courtney’s,’ Sarah said, crossing the store to straighten the espresso cups and latte mugs on our retail sale shelves. ‘Sam just blocks my messages when I get annoying.’
Sam was away at his first year in college, but Courtney was still in high school. Having to hit the ground running with two teenagers when Patricia died four years ago had not been easy for Sarah and she’d done a damned good job from what I had seen.
Still, I empathized with Courtney. Being Sarah’s sole focus could be exhausting, as I’d found out since she sold Kingston Realty. Every day, it seemed, my partner came in with a new idea for growing Uncommon Grounds and I had been relegated to stick-in-the-mud status in her mind, because I hadn’t jumped on each and every one of them.
Even Amy was getting worn out. Or maybe she was just tired of being stuck in the middle of the push and pull between Sarah and me. Her vacation had come at an opportune time for Amy to get a respite from us. And, for whatever reason, Sarah’s stream of schemes had slowed to a trickle since Amy had been gone.
Or maybe she had been focusing all her energy on the dating site.
‘By the way,’ Sarah said, turning with one of our colonial blue teapots in her hand. ‘I was thinking we should expand our line of teas. Maybe host a high tea once a week or something to promote them.’
‘Not a bad idea,’ I said, automatically. ‘But back to your dating profile. Are you getting likes or swipes or whatever they are?’
‘Of course I am,’ Sarah said, setting the teapot back on the shelf. ‘I have a kick-ass profile and––’
An unseen hand pulled open the door and a cold blast of January air whooshed through, threatening the stack of napkins on the condiment cart. I made a grab for them and missed.
‘What the hell is that?’ Sarah snapped. The door had gotten away from whoever it was, slamming open against the outside of the building.
‘A customer,’ I said as I chased down the last of the napkins. ‘You don’t recognize one because the shop has been empty all day. Be nice.’
‘Come on in and get out of the cold,’ I said, raising my voice so I could be heard over the gust.
‘I’m so sorry,’ a petite woman in a puffer jacket said, managing to pull the door closed the behind her. ‘The wind just took it out of my hands.’
‘There’s an Alberta Clipper moving through,’ I said with a smile. ‘We’re supposed to get snow overnight.’
Again. But, as I said, it was January. And this was Wisconsin.
‘An Alberta Clipper?’
Tourist. ‘Yes, it’s a fast-moving low-pressure system from Canada. We get them a lot here. Like nor’easters out east.’
‘Oh, yes,’ the woman said, slipping off her gloves. ‘Of course.’
‘But hopefully with less snow.’ Having recovered from the shock of seeing a customer between commuter trains, Sarah had manned the service window. ‘What can I get you?
‘Oh, um . . .’ The woman was looking around, seeming surprised to find herself in a coffeehouse. ‘Yes, yes. I should have something.’
‘A latte, maybe? Or a cappuccino? Flat white?’ I suggested.
‘Please.’ She was still glancing around at our empty tables, taking in me, then Christy on the other side of the condiment cart and then Sarah behind the counter.
‘Sorry.’ The woman pushed her hood off dark hair, revealing bangs. ‘You must think me a flake – no lame snow joke intended. I’ll have a latte.’
‘I’m Maggy Thorsen,’ I said, as Sarah got the drink started. I was warming to the woman, since I do love me a pun. Lame or otherwise. ‘Is this your first time in Uncommon Grounds?’
‘Yes, yes, it is. I’ve never been . . . I mean, I’m new to the area. I’m looking for a piano teacher and stopped across the street. The sign tacked to the door said she was here? A Christy Wrigley?’
‘That’s me.’ Christy, who did not like to shake hands au naturel, realized she still had on her gloves and circumvented the cart to stick one out.
‘You?’ The woman looked hesitant.
Christy cleared her throat. ‘Yes.’
‘Oh, well, yes. I’m pleased to meet you.’ The woman gingerly shook the rubber-gloved hand.
‘Christy is helping us out while our barista is on vacation.’ I was trying to make our neighborhood clean-freak/piano teacher seem normal.
‘She was about to scrub our condiment cart’s wheels with a shiv,’ Sarah explained helpfully. ‘Skim, whole or two percent?’
‘What?’ The woman could not seem to take her eyes off Christy as she stripped her rubber gloves off.
‘Milk,’ Sarah explained. ‘Or we have soy, almond or oatmeal. Which are also milks. Kind of.’
‘Skim, please. That’s a beautiful bracelet.’ This last was directed to Christy.
‘Oh, this?’ Christy held up a skinny wrist.
‘This’ was a diamond tennis bracelet.
‘Shit.’ Sarah had stopped midway to frothing to look. ‘My cousin didn’t give you that. Unless it’s fake.’
‘Or stolen,’ I suggested.
Christy was frowning. ‘Don’t be silly. It’s Tiffany’s.’
‘A gift from Barry?’ I guessed.
Christy’s head ducked and she just smiled.
‘Geez.’ Sarah placed the pitcher under the wand and turned up the steam. ‘Maybe I’d better take this online dating stuff more seriously.’
Our customer was standing uncomfortably, seeming to have stumbled into an episode of The Bachelor, minus the bachelor.
‘Don’t mind us,’ I said over the noise of Sarah’s frothing. ‘Christy has a new beau. Can I get you something besides the latte?’
‘The sticky buns are wonderful.’ Christy was gesturing toward the pastry case ala Vanna White, probably to show off the bracelet.
‘Yes, they are.’ And sold out. I moved to peer into the pastry case and offer an alternative. ‘But even better for a cold day, we have some nice crusty rolls to go with a bowl of chili or––’
A frigid wind cut through the shop, and I whirled to see the door slam shut. The woman – our only customer of the afternoon – was gone.
‘You chased the woman out, annoyed her with your chattering,’ I said crossly, sitting down at a table with the unclaimed – and unpaid for – latte. ‘The two of you.’
‘No such thing,’ Sarah said. ‘She obviously didn’t want coffee in the first place. She came here looking for Christy and felt obligated to order once I’d greeted her with my signature smile.’ She bared her teeth in what was more snarl than grin.
‘So she took the opportunity to bail out when I turned my back? Maybe.’
She’d probably been plotting her escape ever since she had shaken Christy’s rubber-gloved hand. Nobody needs piano lessons that badly.
‘I don’t teach piano with my gloves on,’ Christy said, as if I’d said it out loud. Then she added in a mumble, ‘Usually.’
I didn’t want to know. But we had twenty minutes to kill before the first afternoon commuter train returned from Milwaukee, hopefully filled with customers. ‘You’ve honestly taught piano in those gloves?’
‘Of course not,’ she said indignantly, folding her arms against her chest. ‘I have a pair of white cotton ones I can use for playing, if need be. ‘You have to be able to feel the keys, after all.’
Best to wade back to the shore of sanity. ‘So, Christy – Barry. Was he your first? Online date, I mean.’
‘It probably depends on what you mean by date,’ Christy said, taking the seat across from me. ‘I’ve communicated with a few other guys through the site, but Barry was the first one I felt comfortable giving my phone number to. He said it was the same for him.’
‘And you have arranged to meet?’
‘As I told you, Maggy, Barry doesn’t live here,’ Christy said primly. ‘How could we meet?’
Get on an airplane perhaps? The guy was sitting on one – probably in first class – as we spoke, after all. ‘I thought since he’d given you the bracelet and all, that—’
Her lips were pursed. ‘We talk on the phone every day.’
‘That’s it?’ Sarah leaned back against the counter. ‘Talk?’
‘A telephone call can be very intimate,’ Christy said. ‘In fact—’
I held up a hand to stop her before I heard something I couldn’t unhear. Or unsee, every time I closed my eyes. ‘I think we can stipulate that point, right, Sarah?’
‘Phone sex? God, yes.’ Sarah seemed to be trying to figure out where she was going wrong Internet dating-wise. ‘I haven’t gotten up the nerve to talk on the phone, much less meet one of these guys in person. I could text, I think, or s—’
‘We’re not having phone sex,’ Christy said. ‘Or sexting, before you ask.’
‘Hmm.’ Sarah was still thinking. ‘Are you withholding sext? Maybe that’s why he sent you that bracelet. Why buy the cow diamonds when you can get the milk at current data rates?’
‘We have talked – sometimes for hours – nearly every day for more than three months.’ Christy said, exasperated. ‘That’s a kind of intimacy some people can’t understand.’
Some people came over to examine the bracelet. ‘Can’t argue with the results,’ Sarah admitted.
Christy pushed up her sleeve and, resting her elbow on the table, flexed her wrist so Sarah could get a better look. The bracelet slid down the skinny forearm to be stopped only by her elbow on the table.
‘Should you have it sized?’ I asked, as she slipped the bracelet back up to her wrist. ‘You could lose it.’
‘What?’ Sarah asked, ‘and remove a diamond or four?’
‘I wouldn’t want to change a thing,’ Christy said. ‘Besides, I have big hands, luckily, so it’s unlikely to fall off.’
She waggled the fingers of her right hand and I felt myself involuntarily pull back. Christy did have unusually large hands for such a small woman. With the gloves and all, I guess I had never really noticed. Now I was hard put to see anything but.
Must be good for playing the piano though.
‘. . . barely stand the excitement when he said he had a surprise for me for our three-month anniversary,’ Christy was saying. ‘It arrived just last week because it was caught up in customs. Barry had to pay extra tax or something to get it released.’
‘Customs?’ I asked. ‘Where did he buy it?’
‘Paris. That was on his last trip.’ She did a little wiggle in her chair. ‘Champs-Elysées.’ She pronounced it ‘champs-elsies’.
‘Very nice,’ Sarah said, stepping back. ‘Looks real.’
‘Of course, it’s real,’ Christy said indignantly.
‘Hey,’ Sarah said, holding up a hand. ‘Just looking out for you.’
‘That’s very kind of you,’ Christy said, rotating the bracelet so it shimmered in the overhead compact fluorescents. ‘Especially given that you’re jealous, and I dumped your cousin for Barry.’
‘I’m not jealous, I’m just trying to up my online dating game,’ Sarah protested. ‘As for dumping Ronny, no big deal. He did try to kill Maggy after all.’
‘While wearing an Elvis costume.’ Ronny, not me.
‘Very true.’ Christy suddenly looked earnest. ‘But I don’t want you two to worry about me. I was not born yesterday. I’ve researched Barry. Even Google-earthed his house in Denver.’
‘I’d expect nothing less,’ Sarah said. ‘How else can you know a guy is legit?’
‘Right?’ Christy’s head was bobbing up and down. ‘And it’s wonderful. So much easier than sitting outside his house in your car for days on end. That can land you a restraining order.’
Something about the way she said it made me think she’d had experience. ‘What was it like?’
They both looked at me, identically cocked heads.
‘The house in Denver?’ I elucidated.
‘Oooh, it’s just beautiful,’ Christy said. ‘Lots of land, in-ground swimming pool, Mercedes in the driveway.’
‘The Mercedes may have been visiting,’ I pointed out. ‘The Google shot of the house where Ted and I lived still shows my mini-van in the driveway and it’s going on four years now since our divorce.’
‘I know. But I was able to find it more than once,’ she said a little smugly.
‘Well then Mercedes Man can afford the bracelet,’ Sarah said.
‘And whatever he’s sending for month four –’ Christy’s voice had gone up half an octave in excitement, but she lowered it now – ‘I think it might be a diamond.’
‘Just one?’ Sarah asked. ‘Have you noticed how many you have around your wrist?’
‘But this is a special one.’ Christy was glowing. ‘It—’
The double blast of a whistle interrupted her as the sounds of a train pulling in reverberated through the shop. The building where Uncommon Grounds was housed was a historic train depot and our service windows were the original ticket counters. The three clocks above the counters were labeled ‘Seattle’, ‘Brookhills’ and ‘New York City’ for the Pacific, Central and Eastern time zones the original trains had traveled through. Nowadays, the commuter line just bounced back and forth between the western suburbs and downtown Milwaukee, where it connected to the airport spur.
‘Five-fifteen train,’ I said, getting to my feet.
But Sarah was more interested in Christy’s prospects – love and financial – than the customers about to descend on us. ‘You were saying, Christy? The diamond?’
‘Oh, never mind,’ Christy said, waving her off. ‘I’m not supposed to talk about it. Besides, I don’t want to jinx it.’
Enough. ‘Showtime, ladies,’ I called as the platform door opened.
It was just touching seven on the Brookhills clock as Sarah and I finished closing the shop. We had sent Christy home, telling her it was because she was opening with me the next morning. In truth, if we handed the woman a vacuum cleaner, she would not put it down until midnight.
I didn’t have that problem. ‘Good enough,’ I said, hanging up the vacuum hose in the storeroom. A coffee bean fell out of one end.
I kicked the bean into the corner.
Sarah was sitting in the adjacent office, balancing the day’s books. ‘Damn.’
‘Here.’ I gave her a quarter. ‘Balanced.’
‘We have twenty-two cents too much, not too little.’
I took back my quarter and pulled two dimes and two pennies from the stack of coins. ‘Problem solved.’
‘You’re pretty casual about our receipts, all of a sudden,’ she said, leaning back in the desk chair so hard it squealed.
‘Twenty-two cents one way or the other won’t get me a diamond tennis bracelet,’ I said, settling into the chair next to the desk.
‘Tennis bracelets always have diamonds,’ Sarah said. ‘You’re being redundant.’
‘And why is that?’ I asked. ‘Who wears diamonds to play tennis? Except for engagement rings, of course.’
‘Chris Evert,’ Sarah said. ‘The story is that the clasp of her diamond bracelet broke during a match at the US Open and she stopped to find it. From then on, people called them tennis bracelets.’
‘That’s pretty impressive for one broken clasp.’ As was the breadth of Sarah’s tennis knowledge since so far as I knew, she had played for all of four months. As for her jewelry knowledge, I had never seen her wear any.
‘Guess so.’ Sarah was still messing with the numbers. ‘I’ve always wondered if they’d have stopped play if it had happened at Wimbledon. They take their tennis pretty seriously at the All England Club. Have to wear white, you know. But then look at the fifth set tiebreak – you have to admit the UK was groundbreaking with that.’
‘They were,’ I said, not having the faintest idea what she was talking about.
Sarah put down her pen. ‘Sometimes don’t you wonder if this is all worth it?’
‘Owning a coffee shop?’ I asked, surprised. It was a little early in our partnership for her to burn out.
‘I mean working hard. Christy goes to an online dating site for the first time and meets a rich guy.’
‘Who gives her a tennis bracelet.’
I must have said it a little wistfully because Sarah glanced at me. ‘You don’t like diamonds.’
‘That’s just what I told Pavlik so he wouldn’t feel like he had to buy me an engagement ring.’
Jake Pavlik was Brookhills’ sheriff and my man. I loved him enough to share my house, my bed and my sheepdog, Frank. We even had a chihuahua together, which was kind of an accident.
Now I leaned forward. ‘Christy is such an enigma to me. She has no visible means of support other than teaching piano.’
‘That’s not true, Maggy. She did have that promising stint at the crematorium.’
‘But that’s what I mean. She’s just the oddest little person, but she just keeps on keeping on.’ I sat back in my chair. ‘She has a good heart though. I’m glad she’s found somebody.’
‘Who isn’t in jail.’
‘Exactly. Though they haven’t actually met.’
‘That worries you?’
‘Of course. Maybe on the phone she comes across as . . .’
‘Yes.’ I sighed and stood up. ‘Tomorrow I’m sure I’ll hear about Barry Margraves ad nauseum.’
‘Sure you don’t want to change shifts with me?’
I hesitated. ‘You would do that?’
‘Nope.’ She shrugged. ‘Just messing with you. See you Wednesday.’
By the time the door was unlocked and the ‘closed’ sign flipped to ‘open’ the next morning, I had been treated to an array of Barry emails, Barry texts and Barry photos. Happily, the man wasn’t into weenie-pics or, if he was, Christy wasn’t sharing.
Still, when Sarah snagged Christy’s phone and outed her relationship with Barry, she had opened the floodgates, leaving me and our baker Tien Romano to be overtaken by the buoyant detritus of Christy’s love life.
‘She’s certainly head over heels, isn’t she?’ Tien said, as she exchanged her chef’s coat for a winter one.
Tien and her father Luc had run An’s Market a few doors down from our original Uncommon Grounds location. Luc was largely retired, but Tien had turned her talents to baking and catering. Our new shop had a full commercial kitchen that Tien used for her business in exchange for providing us with our exclusive signature sticky buns and other treats she baked up for us.
Most of Tien’s baking and prep was done overnight or in the wee hours, but the companionable hour of overlap as Tien wrapped up her workday and we started ours was usually spent catching up with each other’s lives. Sometimes Tien even hung on a bit and helped with the morning rush.
Today, though, our baker could not seem to get out fast enough.
‘Oh, Maggy, Tien.’ Christy burst into the office, mobile in hand. ‘Barry is on speaker. He wants to say hi.’
She thrust the phone at me. I had to admit the guy appeared nice enough from Christy's description. And, from his pictures, cute even. Maybe thirty-five, with sandy-colored hair and just enough stubble to give his round face character.
Didn’t mean I wanted to talk to him.
‘Umm, hi Barry,’ I said into the phone, waving to Tien that she had better not leave me. ‘It’s good to meet you telephonically.’
A chuckle. ‘Hopefully it’ll be more than telephonic soon,’ a pleasant baritone voice said. ‘I’m in the UK at the moment, but I told Christy as soon I wrap up this project—’
‘Prō-ject.’ Christy was literally dancing a happy dance next to the dishwasher. ‘Like a Brit, because Barry spends so much time abroad. He even says kilometers instead of miles sometimes.’
A little pretentious, but whatever.
‘—to visit,’ the man was wrapping up.
‘That’s wonderful,’ I said, waving Christy down. ‘I know Christy will be thrilled. Let me give the phone back to her.’
But Christy was gesturing for me to pass the cell on to Tien, who was holding up her hands and shaking her head no.
‘Barry asked for you,’ I told Christy as Tien threw me a grateful look.
Our fill-in barista took the mobile. ‘I took care of that transfer yesterday just like you asked,’ she said into it, switching off speaker.
I exchanged looks with Tien. Mine felt concerned, hers just seemed curious.
Christy was listening. Then: ‘Really? No, I will not open it until you’re here and we can do it together. I promise.’ A giggle. ‘I’ll just keep it safe until then. In my lingerie drawer.’
Ugh. Happily, we were not subjected to more of the one-sided intimate conversation as the little lovebird had disappeared around the corner.
‘Sweet,’ Tien said.
‘I guess.’ I was frowning. ‘Did I hear right? Christy said she’d transferred something?’
‘Took care of a transfer, I think, were her words.’ Tien picked up snow boots. ‘Maybe I’ll leave these here. I don’t know why I brought them – it was just flurrying.’
‘She wouldn’t be stupid enough to send this Barry money, would she? She hardly knows him. He could be a con artist.’
Tien stopped. ‘Didn't he sound on the level? And thank you, by the way, for not putting me on the line with him.’
Now I wished I had, if for no other reason than to get Tien’s opinion of the man. ‘He sounded normal. Nice, even. But that’s kind of the definition of a gigolo, isn’t it?’
Tien snorted. ‘Gigolo? You’ve been watching old movies again.’
Sunset Boulevard last night, but that wasn’t the point. ‘I just don’t want Christy taken advantage of. She hardly knows the man.’
‘We hardly know the man,’ Tien said, setting the boots back down again. ‘Because she didn’t tell us about him. She probably was afraid we’d be judgy.’
Not a word. But a valid point.
‘Besides,’ Tien continued, ‘Christy teaches piano for a living and picks up the occasional odd job. She’s hardly a mark.’
‘We don’t know what she put in her profile,’ I argued. ‘For all we know, she told him she’s a concert pianist.’
‘Which doesn’t pay zillions either,’ Tien said. ‘And don’t you have it the wrong way around? He’s the one who sent her a diamond bracelet.’
‘Probably cubic zirconium.’ I was grouchy, and I wasn’t going to let it go. ‘The man sends her a hundred-dollar bracelet and she reciprocates by wiring him her life’s savings.’
Tien eyed me. ‘Binge-watching old Datelines?’
‘Am not,’ I said a little indignantly. I had plenty of true crime in my life already, thank you very much.
‘Anyway, if you’re worried about Christy, ask her.’ Amy went to the door with the sign ‘To All Trains’ over it and shoved it open. ‘Oh, my God. What happened? There’s a foot of snow on the platform.’
What happened was winter. I went to help her push the door open against the drifted snow, but she pulled back, shutting the door again.
‘I hate snow.’ Tien shook flakes out of her dark hair and pulled a cap from her coat pocket. ‘I mean like pathologically.’
Most people would laugh and say then she was living in the wrong place, but Tien and I had braved the same freak May snowstorm together. Not only had we been stranded without heat and electricity in a strip mall, but the storm had ultimately destroyed both the market named for Tien’s mother and the original Uncommon Grounds.
So I got it. ‘I feel you. Now put on your boots.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’ She retrieved them and sat on a bench in the boarding corridor to pull them on. ‘I must have missed the forecast. How much snow are we supposed to get?’
‘Ten to twelve inches,’ Christy said, passing through the corridor. ‘I just heard they’re canceling a lot of flights.’
‘Ugh. Hope I make it home.’ Standing, Tien donned her cap and then added mittens before she shoved the door open again and stepped out. ‘You two ladies stay warm . . . Hey, Caron.’
I caught the door and stuck my head out to see my former partner Caron Egan passing Tien as she waded down the drifted steps from the platform toward the parking lot.
‘What are you doing out in the snow, missy?’ I asked, bracing myself and the door against the wind.
Caron stomped the snow from her boots before stepping in. ‘Just finishing the night shift at the hotel, if you can believe it.’
‘Sounds worse than getting up to open a coffeehouse.’
‘It is.’ She pulled out a tissue and blew her pert nose. ‘But nobody has died yet.’
‘Always a bonus.’ I pulled the door tight closed behind her. ‘Don’t tell me you’re on foot?’
Hotel Morrison was just five or six blocks east of us, but the Egan house was probably twice that due south. Not a bad walk, in good weather, but . . .
‘Only on foot this far,’ she said. ‘Bernie left the car in your lot to take the train to the airport yesterday. I’ll drive home and then come back to pick him up when he gets in tonight.’
‘If he gets in. Christy just said they’re canceling flights.’
‘Damn.’ Caron swiped the stocking cap off her head, sending a spray of snowflakes onto the floor. ‘Oops, sorry.’ My former partner was familiar with my need for orderliness. She had once accused me of trying to assign seats in the coffeehouse.
I waved her off. ‘Not to worry. I’ve survived a year and counting of Sarah.’
‘Don’t tell me she’s wearing down your OCD-ness.’ Caron ducked into the utility closet for a tattered towel.
I took it from her to drop on the floor, pushing the thing with my foot to mop up the melting snow. ‘Let’s just say I’ve had to choose my battles.’
‘I didn’t know that was an option,’ Caron said with a smile. ‘When you’re done cleaning up after me, can I get a latte?’
‘Sure. For here or to go?’ I tossed the towel back in the closet and beckoned for her to follow me through the door marked ‘Employees Only’ which led to our office, storeroom, kitchen and the serving area behind the counters. ‘If you stay, Christy can tell you all about her new love.’
‘Christy?’ Caron asked, following me to the order window and craning her neck to see the front of house.
‘Uh-huh. Filling in for Amy.’
‘Oh.’ Caron was an ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’ kind of person. Sarah was her bi-polar opposite.
Which was sometimes refreshing and most times not.
‘We’re getting a lot of cleaning done,’ I told my former partner.
‘Gotcha,’ she said.
‘She’s in the storeroom, I think,’ I told Caron, picking up the frothing pitcher. ‘You can speak freely.’
‘I’d rather not,’ Caron said.
Stick in the mud. I opened the fridge and pulled out the skim milk.
‘Two percent,’ she told me. ‘Frothed to just one-hundred-and-forty-five degrees Fahrenheit, please?’
I suppressed a sigh and switched out the milks. Pouring the two percent into the stainless-steel pitcher, I put it under the steam wand to start the frothing before I went to dispense espresso from the grinder into the long-handled portafilter.
Right. I took the lid off the can of decaf French roast I had ground earlier and spooned it into the portafilter before tamping and twisting it onto the espresso machine.
Hearing no objections, I pushed the button to brew a double shot and selected a clear glass latte mug.
‘To go, please.’
I stood back. ‘Want to make it yourself?’
‘Sure,’ she said, moving forward to commandeer the frothing pitcher and check the thermometer. ‘You over-heated the milk.’
‘It’s a cold day,’ I said, sullenly. ‘It’ll cool down.’
She glanced over at me with a grin, as she dumped out the milk and started over. ‘I’ve gotten picky since we bought the hotel.’
‘Not true,’ I said, standing back and folding my arms. ‘You’ve always been a pain in the butt.’
‘Maybe,’ she said, raising and lowering the pitcher under the frothing wand to get just the right consistency of froth. ‘How’s business been? You’re a little more off the beaten track here than we were at the strip mall.’
‘It’s true there’s not as much walk-in traffic,’ I said, uncrossing my arms. ‘But the commuters are dependable. Not that you’d know that from this morning. The first train was practically empty.’
‘The snow’s coming off the lake, which means it’s worse downtown.’
Downtown Milwaukee was situated on the shores of Lake Michigan. Brookhills was fifteen miles inland, so less subject to lake-effect snow. This storm, though, was following a trough from Canada – a so-called Alberta Clipper – so eventually nobody would be spared. ‘Bet people will work from home rather than go in.’
‘If they can. Which neither you nor I is lucky enough to be able to.’
‘You could have stayed retired,’ I told her.
‘I know.’ She took a paper cup and poured the espresso in, before topping it with steamed milk and then a cap of froth. ‘I was bored.’
‘So Bernie bought you a hotel.’
‘We bought a hotel,’ Caron corrected me, putting a lid on both the conversation and her drink.
I held up my hands. ‘I know. Just messing with you.’
‘And I know that.’ She gave me a peck on the cheek. ‘Miss you.’
‘Miss you, too. See you later when you pick up Bernie.’
‘If his flight doesn’t get canceled. And the train is running tonight.’ She pulled on her stocking cap then picked up the cup. ‘Want me to pay for this?’
‘Nope. That was our agreement. You get coffee for life.’
‘But you probably thought that wouldn’t be long,’ Caron said, going to the door. ‘People were dropping like flies all around you.’
‘Still are,’ I said, pushing the door open for her. ‘You’re just not here to see them.’
‘Still miss you anyway.’ A smile and she was trudging down the steps to the parking lot.
‘Ooh!’ Christy’s voice came from the back as I was closing the door. ‘Was that Caron? I wanted to show her Barry’s picture. I caught her on the sidewalk the other day and was tempted to, but I didn’t have my phone with me.’
‘She said to say she was sorry she couldn’t stay,’ I fibbed, retrieving the same towel from the closet to mop up the snow that had blown in when I'd held the door open. ‘She just finished a night shift at the hotel.’
‘I think it’s so exciting, owning a hotel like that,’ she said. ‘Every day is new people, new adventures.’
‘Speaking of people, or lack thereof,’ I said, leaning over to pick up the towel. ‘We’re probably in for a slow morning, given the snow. If you want to lea—’
‘I could do some more cleaning,’ Christy interrupted brightly. ‘It always cheers me up.’
‘Why would you need cheering up?’ I tossed the towel into a pile in the office that I planned to take home to wash. ‘You just got off the phone with Barry.’
‘I’m sad because I’m no longer on the phone with Barry,’ she said, opening the utility closet to pull out a bucket. ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow, you know.’
It was. Pavlik had been in New York last week, but it did not make me want to clean. It made me want to sit on the sofa and binge movie classics, accompanied by red wine, spray cheese and Ritz Crackers. Sweet.
But that was just me. ‘Listen, I have to ask. When you were on the phone with Barry, you told him you made a transfer of some kind. I know it’s none of my business, but—’
‘But you want to know if I’m giving him money. Transferring it out of my account to his. Exactly how stupid do you think I am?’
Sarah would have had fun with the ‘exactly’ part, but I answered honestly. ‘You are not stupid, not at all. But maybe . . . naïve?’
‘Well, I’m not,’ she said folding her arms over her scrawny chest. ‘Not naïve and not giving him money.’
She could shame me for asking, but I was not about to give up without a direct answer to my question. ‘So the transfer?’
‘Barry’s money, Barry’s account, if it’s any of your business,’ she sniffed. ‘Which it’s not.’
‘He gave you his account information?’ I asked, curiosity piqued even more.
‘The man travels. All around the world,’ Christy said, waving her hand in a circle over her head. ‘You know how hard it is to manage your finances across different time zones?’
‘He’s never heard of internet banking?’
‘Shows what you know, Maggy. Trades have to be done when the market is open.’ She jutted out her jaw. ‘Nine to four eastern time.’
Not having money to invest in anything beyond my house and dog food, I didn’t know if that was true, but I was still worried. ‘Promise me you’re not giving him access to your money.’
‘Of course, I’m not. But I am honored he trusts me with his.’
And I was astonished. Though I had to admit I had never known Christy to be anything but straight-up honest despite how odd she could be.
So I dropped the subject against my better judgement. ‘I don’t suppose shoveling cheers you up?’
‘Shoveling? Like outside?’
I hesitated, not knowing what she would find inside to shovel. ‘Yes.’
‘I suppose so,’ she said, going to the front window. ‘I have my boots and all.’
In order to cross the road, as we knew. ‘It’s just the front sidewalk and steps up to the porch and the front door.’
‘But what about the parking lot? And the train platform? Do we have to clear that, too?’
‘The county is responsible for shoveling the train platform and plowing the parking lot, though I don’t know where they’ll go with the snow.’
The snow cleared from the parking lot and street so far this winter was piled against a light pole between the front of our building and the train tracks. If it got much higher, they’d have to bring in a front-loader to shovel it into trucks and dispose of it. Somewhere.
‘They used to dump it in Lake Michigan, I think.’ Christy was reading my thoughts again. ‘During bad snow years, I mean. But the salt and sand they use on the roads in the winter plus all the other pollutants from cars and trucks is bad for the lake.’
Which was, after all, where Milwaukee got its drinking water.
Christy was peering out at the heavily falling snow. ‘The steps are already drifted shut. And . . . oh, no. There goes my driveway.’
I joined her at the window to catch a garbage truck with a giant plow blade attached to its bumper blast past, sending plumes of snow up toward Christy’s studio on the opposite side of the street.
‘Ugh,’ I said as the roar of the snowplow receded into the distance. ‘I hate digging out the end of the driveway after the plows come through. If you want to go do it now, before it freezes—’
But Christy was craning her neck. ‘Bury?’
‘Bury what?’ I asked, trying to see past her. ‘Your car? Are you parked on the street? You should move it if you are. There’s a snow emergency, so they’ll tow anything—’
‘No, no.’ She was rolling up on and off of her tiptoes, like a toddler trying to see. ‘I could have sworn I just saw Barry getting out of a black SUV.’
Oh, that kind of Barry. ‘But he just called from . . . where exactly was he?’
‘Heathrow. That’s the airport in London.’ She turned, her face alight. ‘But what if he just said that? What if Barry was already in the States getting ready to surprise me.’
The States. Our little girl had grown so continental. ‘He called what? An hour or hour and a half ago? And in the middle of a blizzard with the airlines canceling flights. He’d have to—’
‘Mitchell International is still open for now,’ Christy said, not ready to give up her dream of a surprise visit from her long-distance lover-to-be. Maybe. ‘He could have flown in last night even.’
She cocked her head, her chin lifted. ‘That’s when flights from Europe arrive, you know. Afternoon or evening. Because of the time difference.’
The ‘International’ in Mitchell International pertained to flights from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, as far as I knew. ‘There are no direct flights from Europe to Milwaukee.’
‘Not to Milwaukee, of course. But to Chicago O’Hare. So, it makes even more sense that Barry flew into O’Hare yesterday and then either flew or drove up here this morning. He could even have taken a ride-share.’
From Chicago – that would cost a fortune. But who was I to dash her dreams? ‘Do you really think it was him? Would you recognize him?’
‘Of course.’ She turned to me with her chin inching even higher. ‘You saw the photos and all—’
The sound of footsteps pounding up the stairs interrupted her and, as Christy turned breathlessly toward the door, it swung open sending the sleigh bells crashing.
‘Can I get a quick coffee? Whatever you got.’
Harold Byerly, one of our regular trash collectors, was standing on the rug, snow and slush clinging to his boots.
‘You’re melting,’ Christy snapped, disappointment on her face.
‘Oh, sorry,’ Harold said, lifting one and then the other of the boots, like he hadn’t noticed he had them on.
‘Not a problem. Stay there and we’ll bring it to you.’ I leaned over the counter to reach a newly brewed pot to fill a to-go cup. ‘Plow duty today?’
‘Yup, drew the short straw,’ he said, nodding gratefully. ‘What do I owe you?’
‘Coffee’s on the house,’ I said, handing it to him. ‘Just try not to block our parking lot entrance.’
‘Or my driveway,’ Christy added.
‘Deal,’ he said, now rocking back and forth on his boots. ‘Umm, could I use your restroom? I had—’
‘Of course,’ I said, waving him on before we had more than just snow on the floor.
Without another word, he shuffle-ran/sprinted around the corner with the coffee. Happily, the restrooms were just down the hall across from the train platform door.
‘He could at least have wiped his feet,’ Christy said, still pouting. ‘And he took his coffee in there. Eeeew.’
‘I’m sorry Harold wasn’t Barry,’ I said, retrieving my towel from the dirty pile and using it to wipe up the snow and slush trail. ‘But he is a customer.’
‘A non-paying one.’ Christy, sounding remarkably like Sarah, had returned to the window and now did a double take. ‘See? There!’
‘There where?’ Even without Harold’s plow adding to the white-out by throwing up the already fallen snow, it was nearly impossible to see.
‘Across the street,’ she said pointing. ‘I think, yes, he’s coming this way.’
A man emerged from the storm.
‘Barry, Barry!’ Christy was waving her arms in front of the window, trying to get the man’s attention.
‘And you’re sure it’s him?’ I was squinting, trying to see between gusts of wind that were taking the snow nearly horizontal.
‘Of course I am,’ she said, now balling her fist to pound the base of it against the window. ‘Who else would it be?’
Some random customer who is going to think you’re nuts, was my thought. It honestly seemed more likely than having the man we’d just spoken to in London appear on the doorstep.
‘Stop,’ I ordered as she raised her hand to hammer the glass again. ‘You’re going to break the window and he can’t hear you above the storm anyway.’
‘You’re right,’ she said, dropping the fist and craning her neck to see. ‘I think he’s coming this way.’
How she knew that, I had no idea. I could see nothing and nobody out there. ‘He has your address, right? Won’t he go up to your house?’
‘I suppose. Though I did tell him I was working, remember? On the phone?’
‘Did you tell him where?’ I asked. ‘Or explain that the coffeehouse was across the street?’
‘Of course.’ Comprehension flooded her face. ‘That’s why Barry called this morning. To find out where I was.’
‘And here you are.’ I don’t think I said it facetiously.
‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘I should go to him.’
‘Yes, you should.’ Whoever he was.
She stopped with her hand on the doorknob. ‘But look at me. I can’t meet the love of my life for the first time dressed like this.’
Christy was wearing a navy Uncommon Grounds apron over a cappuccino-colored Uncommon Grounds T-shirt which she had unwisely paired with black dress pants. The look, such as it was, worked best with jeans.
Not that I had ever seen Christy Wrigley in jeans.
‘You said yourself that he knows you’re working,’ I pointed out. ‘And, besides, you look fine.’
‘As long as you didn’t send him a picture of Sophia Loren or somebody and tell him it was you.’
‘Sophia?’ Christy asked, untying her apron and tossing it toward me. ‘Is that Ralph’s daughter?’
Not knowing the apron was coming, I missed it and had to bend to retrieve it from the floor. By the time I had straightened up, I’d worked out that Christy was talking about the designer. ‘No. Ralph Lauren’s daughter isn’t named Sophia.’
‘But same last name, right?’
‘Wrong.’ But I didn’t bother to literally spell it out, instead leaving it at, ‘Sophia Loren is a long-time actress. Incredibly famous, very beautiful.’
‘And I look like her?’
Sure, let’s go with that.
But Christy already had moved on. ‘He must have gone up to the house because he’s coming back down the driveway.’ Christy was nervously running a hand through her red hair.
When the hand balled in a fist again, dangerously close to my plate-glass window, I shoved the door open with a jangle. ‘Catch him now then.’
But the little redhead stepped back – distancing herself not only from the cold and snow blowing in, but the man standing across the street in it. ‘I’ll ruin the surprise.’
‘Not as much as if he doesn’t find you,’ I pointed out, letting the wind slam the door shut. ‘He’ll leave.’
Christy considered that for a moment before stepping up to the door and shoving it open again. ‘Barry!’
The man, who had hesitated on the sidewalk across the way to pull out his phone, now turned, slipping his phone back in his coat pocket. ‘Yes?’ he called.
‘It’s me!’ Christy stepped out onto the porch now, arms crossed against her chest in the cold. I followed.
Barry held a hand to his ear, bracing himself against the wind as he crossed the street to us. ‘Pardon?’
‘It’s me, Christy,’ she tried again.
‘Christy Wrigley?’ It seemed clear that whatever Barry had expected, she was not it.
And she wasn’t even wearing the creepy yellow rubber gloves.
Still, I felt horrible for her. ‘I’m Maggy,’ I said, trying for polite in the face of the man’s rudeness. ‘Why don’t you come in for a coffee? You must be freezing.’
‘Yes. Please.’ Christy was advancing down the steps. The snow was falling in giant flakes now.
‘No way.’ His voice was half an octave higher than I had heard it earlier and he was backing away even as Christy advanced. ‘I didn’t expect this.’ He waved his hand at Christy in her UG T-shirt, pants and sneakers. ‘Whatever this is.’
Ass. ‘That’s just plain rude,’ I said, coming to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Christy, a united front on the bottom step of our porch. ‘I suggest you leave before I call the police.’
Or freeze to death.
‘Maggy, no.’ Christy was sniffling next to me.
‘You’re going to call the police?’ He stumbled backwards down off the curb as he dug into his pocket and came up with the phone.
A gust of wind blew, carrying his words horizontally away from us along with the snow. We were in a near whiteout now.
‘Trust me,’ I said to Christy as the cacophony of howling wind blended with that of snow removal equipment. ‘You don’t want this man in your life.’
‘Shh,’ Christy said, though there was no way Barry could hear me as the din grew. Nor could we hear what he was saying into the phone as he was eerily illuminated.
‘Barry, come!’ I ordered, like the man was my sheepdog. ‘Come here now!’
I should have known that Barry would do exactly what Frank usually did. Ignore me. Even if Frank were equipped with opposable thumbs, though, I like to think he wouldn’t throw me the finger.
Which was exactly what Barry was doing as the snowplow mowed him down.