The Nine of Pentacles is one of my favorite Tarot cards. A well-dressed woman with a falcon on her arm strolls through her garden. She’s successful, relaxed, and happy. It’s the type of life I want to create. And as I braced her life-size plywood cutout against the wooden garden background, I wanted to crack her over my business partner’s head.
“A little higher.” Hyperion brushed back the shock of near-black hair falling toward his eyes. “She’s stepping on the snail.” He looked cool and elegant in his gray skinny slacks and black turtleneck. But he always managed to look like a model.
I looked like something his cat had dragged in, tendrils of brown hair plastered to my neck. My jaw squeezed tighter. I raised the cutout another inch.
I’d long since reached the “good enough” stage of Tarot maze construction. It was a simple but clever set up. Giant Tarot cards were screwed together at right angles to create walls.
The high-ceilinged room wasn’t big enough for all seventy-eight cards, thank goodness. Hyperion and Brik had created the twenty-two cards in the Major Arcana plus a random assortment of Minors. We were only about halfway through their truncated deck.
I glanced past a corner at the conference room’s picture windows, overlooking cliffs and the Pacific. Sunlight gilded the blond-wood floor. The room smelled faintly of palo santo, but so did most of the resort.
And it was a beautiful resort, a new-age haven for the Holistic Tarot Workshop Hyperion had finagled us into. All I had to do was deliver a Tea and Tarot workshop, and I got a ten-day vacation. It would be my first in over a year—well worth sharing a suite with Hyperion.
I suspected he’d originally had another roommate in mind. But his boyfriend, Detective Tony Chase, was in Texas helping his aunt with an intriguingly vague legal problem. Which is how I’d gotten stuck hefting giant Tarot cards. How I got stuck doing all the heavy lifting is another story.
“What’s with the snail anyway?” I asked with forced cheerfulness. After all, I’d agreed to help out. There was no sense acting grumpy. “What does it mean?”
Hyperion grunted. “Every garden has snails. Nothing is perfect. You just need to enjoy what you have. And a scootch to the left.”
“It’s fine,” I ground out, my arms shaking. The plywood wasn’t that heavy, but I’d been doing a lot of lifting today. And I hadn’t exactly dressed for it in my knit top and jeans.
Hyperion narrowed his brown eyes and tapped his well-formed jaw. “The lady’s supposed to be perfectly positioned between the pentacles. But she’s not.”
“Sure thing,” I said tightly and edged her a little to the left. “Though I don’t see why you had to add such a tiny bit of three-dimensionality to the cards.”
“Because 3-D’s more fun. And now she’s gone too far. You’ve stuck her in the bushes.”
I moved her a little to the right. The lady was as big as I was. I couldn’t see where I was sticking her, but I had to be close to the right spot by now.
“Hold still,” Brik rumbled behind me. A pair of bronzed, muscular arms reached over my shoulders, and my mouth went dry. I didn’t move while he swiftly zip-screwed the plywood together.
Brik brushed against my back. We stood close enough for me to smell his faint, musky odor, and my chest constricted.
But we were only friends, and that was just fine. There was nothing wrong with noticing a friend. He was kind and strong and competent. He also smelled good, which was preferable to the alternative.
Brik dropped to one knee and placed a screw by my hip. I swallowed. Just fine.
I could be happy on my own. It’s not like I needed a six-foot-two muscleman who knew his way around power tools.
Besides, I’d recently broken up with someone and was enjoying being footloose and fancy free. And Brik had made it clear he didn’t want to get involved with someone whose hobby was solving murders.
Brik stood and backed away. “You can let it go now.” He shook his head, his dirty-blond ponytail playing across the fabric of his white tee. It stretched taut across his back.
I released the cutout and stepped aside. Brik zipped a few more screws into the wood. Grasping the lady’s red-robed side, he gave it a tug, making sure the card was stable. He wiped one hand on his jeans.
I checked my watch.
“Stop it,” Hyperion said absently. “You don’t have to get back to Beanblossom’s.”
I clawed my hands through my long, curling hair. “I told the staff I’d check in today.” True, our tea and Tarot room was in the capable hands of my assistant manager, Maricel. But leaving her to do all the work didn’t feel right.
A fit, forty-something man strode into the room. He was tall, but I’m only five-four, so pretty much everyone seems tall to me. He wore the resort uniform of linen shirt and khakis. Unlike the other resort minions, his outfit looked casually expensive, the fabric finer.
The man glanced around the room. “Looking good.” The newcomer stopped in front of The Emperor card and studied the join. “Are they stable?”
“Yeah,” Brik said. “You’d have to work hard to knock them over.” He launched into an explanation of the join. Since I only understood every other word, I won’t relay it here. But the newcomer seemed impressed.
“Brik,” Hyperion said, “this is Fraser Curtis, the owner of Zen.”
Fraser grinned, his teeth blazing against his tanned skin. He stuck out his hand. He and Brik traded grips.
“Sorry,” Fraser said. “I should have introduced myself. And you obviously know what you’re doing.” His hair was so blond it was nearly white. There was something unnatural about the smoothness of his tanned skin, something uncanny. I caught myself backing a bit away.
“I ought to,” Brik said. “It’s why they gave me a contractor’s license.”
Fraser cocked his head. “And you’re putting together Tarot cards?”
“I owed him a favor.” Brik nodded to my partner.
A favor? My eyes narrowed. Hyperion hadn’t mentioned any favors. What had he and my neighbor been up to?
“I’m still establishing my business in San Borromeo,” Brik continued. “I recently moved here from Eureka.”
Fraser brightened. “But I grew up in Eureka. This is amazing.” He looked Brik’s brawny form up and down then nodded, seeming to come to a decision. “I want to restore an old nineteen-twenties beach bungalow at the base of the cliffs. But I can’t get a contractor out here to do the work. Is that something you could do? Are you by any chance available?”
“Maybe.” Brik crossed his arms, his biceps bulging beneath his t-shirt.
“Have you got any references?” Fraser asked. “A portfolio?”
“He renovated our tearoom,” I said. And he’d done a damn good job. I was happy to give him a reference. Brik deserved more work—better work than we could afford.
“Tea and Tarot room,” Hyperion corrected.
“I’ve got references,” Brik said.
“Perfect.” The resort owner reached into the back pocket of his khakis and pulled out a sleek, leather wallet. He extracted a business card. “Email them to me, and we’ll talk.”
Brik handed him a card of his own. Fraser clapped Brik on the shoulder. Nodding to Hyperion and me, he strode from the room.
Faint voices drifted through the open door. Brik studied the business card. “Fraser Curtis. Where’ve I heard that name?”
“He’s loaded, and Eureka’s not that big,” Hyperion said in a low voice. “Is it really that surprising you’ve sort of heard of him?”
A crease appeared on Brik’s tanned brow. “I guess not.”
A smiling woman about my height but with more curves strode into the room. She wore the resort uniform, though her top and slacks looked several degrees less luxe than Fraser’s. Her longish brown hair obscured the tag on her shirt. “Is there someone here from Eureka?”
She met Brik’s gaze and whitened. “You,” she croaked and stepped backward. The woman touched her throat then turned and practically ran from the room.
Brik’s handsome face hardened. He ripped the card in half. Its pieces fluttered to the hardwood floor. Muscles bunching, he strode through the other exit.
A dull gray mass settled in my chest. Brik had been suspected in a murder once before—of his girlfriend at the time. That dark cloud had ruined his life and business.
It was also why he’d moved from Eureka to next door to me in San Borromeo. And it was why he wasn’t exactly thrilled when I investigated murders with Hyperion.
I glanced worriedly at my partner. Hyperion nodded. I trotted after Brik.
Brik opened a glass door and walked outside. I hurried after him, my sandals crunching on the gravel path. “Brik, wait.”
He paced past a low, seventies-era bungalow with dark-stained wood and a sloped roof. A pebble rolled into my sandal, and I skipped a step, hopping to shake it free. “Brik. Brik!”
He stopped and turned, the skin screwing up around his arctic-blue eyes. “I can’t stay.”
Nausea spun in my gut. “She knew Lyssa, didn’t she?” I asked. The woman from the resort had to have known Brik’s girlfriend, Lyssa. Lyssa, whose murder had never been solved.
The news is filled with the images of people accused of crimes. I could pass several such people on the street and never recognize them. But the woman from the resort had recognized Brik immediately. She’d had a personal connection.
He nodded, curt. “They worked together at a hotel in Eureka. They were... not really friends, but they knew each other. And Lace knew me.”
“Lace? The woman who just...?” I shook myself. Her name didn’t matter. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said in a low voice. He had to see that. “You have every right to be here. Hyperion hired you.”
Brik raised a blond brow, and my face warmed. Duh. Hyperion wasn’t paying Brik. He was helping us as a favor, and it wasn’t the first time.
“I’ll leave my tools,” he said. “You two can finish up.”
“We can’t finish the maze without you. Bad things happen when I’m around power tools.”
Seriously. I’d once nail-gunned Hyperion. He’d kind of deserved it, but the memory still smarted. Our incompetence wasn’t why I wanted Brik to stay. But I didn’t want to think too much about my real motivations.
“Hyperion can manage it,” he said less certainly.
“So someone here knows about... She doesn’t know anything,” I said hotly. Brik was innocent, and people like Lace had basically run him out of Eureka. It wasn’t fair. “She just thinks she knows, and that’s her problem, not yours.” My heart pinched. Don’t let her chase you away.
A crow alighted on the bungalow’s roof. It flapped its ebony wings and cawed.
He shook his head. “The truth doesn’t matter. What matters is what people think the truth is.”
“That’s BS. The truth does matter. It has to.”
Brik looked past the small, shingled cabins toward the Pacific. Late morning fog hovered off the coast.
At this angle, with the sun lowering, the faint beginnings of a five o’clock shadow glimmered gold along Brik’s jaw. My gaze dropped. There was a tiny hole in the sleeve of his white t-shirt. It was a simple shirt, no-nonsense. But something about that hole made my heart ache.
Brik’s craggy expression shifted.
“Don’t make it easy for them,” I said quietly. “They’re wrong. Don’t let them win. You belong here.”
He flashed a lightning smile. It didn’t quite reach his eyes. “And if I leave now, you two will end up dropping a Tarot card on an innocent guest.”
“That...” Was highly likely. “Will you stay?” I kicked my opposite sandal, dislodging the pebble.
He nodded. “Until they tell me to go.”
We returned to the Tarot room. Though Brik had agreed to stay, I could feel the tension vibrating off him. Or maybe I was projecting the tension, because I caught myself frequently looking at the door. But no one came through it to tell him to leave.
I helped Hyperion haul props from his Jeep to the Tarot room. We took a break for a late lunch on the ocean cliffs. I resisted the urge to drive into town and check on the tearoom. Tea and scones didn’t feel all that important anymore. I was more concerned about Brik.
Moving oversized Tarot cards kept us busy the rest of the afternoon. Brik and Hyperion were perfectionists. I didn’t mind it so much in Brik. He had to get things right so a card didn’t collapse on a conference goer. Hyperion was just persnickety.
I swiveled a fountain in front of the Star card. “There’s no fountain in the card,” I said, panting. The electric drill whirred on the opposite side of the plywood card. “Why do we need this?”
“The point is the sound of running water,” Hyperion said. “And that fountain’s not centered. Move it a little to the left. Do you have the Ace’s sword?”
My hands clenched on the sides of the concrete bowl. “No.” I shifted the fountain left.
“Too far. An inch to the right. Where’d you put the sword?”
Augh. “I didn’t put it anywhere.” I shifted the fountain right.
Hyperion pivoted, casting about. “I thought I propped it up against the box, but it’s not here now. Brik, did you move my sword?”
He grunted. “Why would I move your sword?”
I walked around the corner of the Star card. Brik screwed an outstretched white plastic hand into the Ace of Swords. It reached from a cloud as if grasping for someone’s throat.
“Oh, no,” I said, “that’s not weird at all.”
“It won’t be weird once it’s holding my sword,” Hyperion said tartly. “Where is it?”
“Are you sure you brought it inside?” I asked.
“I thought it was by that box.” Hyperion pointed at an open cardboard box on the floor. “But it’s not, and it didn’t walk away on its own. It must still be in the Jeep. Would you mind...?”
Anything to escape the Tarot maze. I held out my hand.
Hyperion dropped the keys to his Jeep into it. “It’s sitting on the back seat,” he said. “You can’t miss it. BTW, the sword’s old and valuable. Be careful with it.”
“Really?” I asked. I’d thought it was a Halloween prop.
“OMG you’re so gullible,” he said. “Your trusting nature may be fun and charming, but that’s how you got ripped off by a crooked real estate agent.”
“You were ripped off too,” I said, annoyed. Though that awful adventure was how we’d met last year, I didn’t like having the memory rubbed in.
“You need me to do anything else?” Brik interrupted.
“Did you screw the horns into the Devil’s head?” my partner asked.
“And the ram’s heads into the Emperor’s throne?”
“What about the Hermit’s lantern?”
“Bolted onto the card.”
“Then your duty is done,” Hyperion said. “Shmanks.”
Brik’s eyes narrowed.
“That means thank you,” I said. At least I was thought it did.
Brik picked up his blue toolbox. “Then we’re even.” He glanced at me. “I’ll walk you back to your car.”
“Thanks.” The resort was on its own massive piece of coast-side property. So I wasn’t really worried about getting jumped on the way to the lot. But I didn’t mind the company.
I waited while Brik packed a second toolchest. We walked outside.
The temperature had dropped, and I shivered. It was probably in the low sixties, but the damp made it feel colder. Mist twined between the dark branches above us and drifted down the path between the cypresses. We walked without speaking, our footsteps crunching on the gravel.
It was only four o’clock. But the fog bank had drifted in, creating an early twilight. There was something eerie about the brooding cypress trees, clutching each other’s branches above the twisting paths.
As we neared the lot, the muscles bunching in Brik’s shoulders relaxed. It wasn’t hard to imagine what he was thinking. He was almost clear of the resort. No one else had come to confront him about Eureka.
“Hyperion’s parked beneath that big tree.” I nodded across the employee lot. The manager had suggested we park there, because it was closest to the Tarot room. A good number of cars filled its white-painted spaces. Fewer would be in the guest lot. That would fill tomorrow, Friday, when the Tarot conference began.
We wound through the cars. Brik had to turn sideways in a few cases, his toolboxes raised to shoulder height.
I’d gone a half dozen steps before I realized he wasn’t moving behind me. I turned. He stood, toolboxes held high to miss the red Miata he stood beside.
He edged from between the two cars. Slowly, he set the toolboxes down. Something in the bend of his neck, the twist of his torso, made my stomach lurch.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Abigail, go to your car.”
I tracked his gaze and didn’t see anything but more vehicles. He moved purposely toward the north end of the lot. And since I don’t like being ordered around, I followed.
It’s the principle of the thing.
Which is why I was right behind him when he discovered the body.