Also, never drink and shop. And especially never panic, drink, and shop.
I’d done all of the above.
The tearoom’s oven had broken last month while I was baking quiches. The estimate for its repair had been nearly as much as a new oven. In a fit of panic and piña coladas, I’d bought a new one.
The thought still made my insides curdle like over-whipped cream. Industrial ovens ain’t cheap.
I hated budget pandemonium, especially when I was its cause. There was a certain joy in watching numbers fall into place, especially on the profit side of the ledger. And I’d just messed with my carefully balanced tearoom universe.
So I was more than a little anxious as I studied the room. Miniature pumpkins lined its broad windows. Paper bats dangled from hanging lamps and sprouted from tiered tea trays.
Even the costumed Tarot readers had gotten into the Halloween groove. The scent of baking sugar and pumpkin hung in the air. Women chatted at their tables, teacups clinking.
It was October first, day one of the Halloween season, and San Borromeo (saint of heartburn) was becoming a Halloween town. This was a good thing for those of us dependent on tourism. Tourists don’t flock to the Pacific beach quite as often in October, despite the occasional day of spectacular weather. The Halloween festivities meant more customers.
Beanblossom’s Tea and Tarot needed those customers, especially after that new oven.
It was a really awesome oven, though.
A waitress hurried to the counter. “One pot of apple-blossom green.”
I poured a pot of tea and handed it across the counter to her. She bustled to a table.
My business partner, Hyperion, slouched into the tearoom. In his black turtleneck and slacks, he looked like a depressed Dracula – the modern, sexy kind.
I tensed. Though he ran the Tarot side of the tearoom and left the rest to me, I hadn’t actually told him how much I’d paid for the new oven yet. Or that I’d used my share of this month’s marketing budget, and I was still in the hole.
Hyperion set an enormous plastic tube-like thing on the white-quartz counter.
“What’s that?” I adjusted the monkey hanging from my belt. I’d dressed like a zookeeper, in a pith helmet and khakis. Little had I known the costume would be prophetic.
“A t-shirt cannon.”
I puzzled over why a Tarot reader would need a t-shirt cannon. “Okay,” I said slowly. “And the—”
My partner groaned. “I hate October.” Hyperion rested his elbows on the counter and scraped his hands through his thick, dark hair. His handsome face twisted with despair, and he buried his head in his hands.
“Just because we can’t serve Death tea for the season—”
“It’s not the tea that’s the problem.”
“Then what?” We’d been creating a new Tarot-themed tea every month. For October, I’d gone with the Justice card, because it corresponded to Libra, an October sign. So did Scorpio, associated with the Death card. But Death tea was a no-go. I didn’t want people to think we were poisoning them.
“October is cursed.” Hyperion motioned vaguely around the tearoom. “It’s even worse than Mercury retrograde. My readings are always off around Halloween. Nothing goes right.” He cocked his dark head. “Though the costumes are amazing.”
“What’s your beef with October? Did something happen?”
“Something always happens,” he said. “That’s the point of a Halloween curse.”
“I meant recently.”
“No.” His shoulders caved inward, and he dropped his chin, a picture of misery.
An elderly lady rose from her table. Leaning heavily on her walker, she made her way toward the door.
“Hold that thought.” I hurried to open the door for her.
“Thank you,” she said. “There’s my ride share.” She nodded toward a blue Hyundai.
“Let me get that.” I opened the passenger door and glanced at the driver.
“Mrs. Sterling?” the driver asked.
“She’ll be just a minute.” I helped Mrs. Sterling inside the car and folded her walker. The driver stepped out and put it in the trunk.
“Getting old is chaos,” the old lady said. “Everything you expect to work, doesn’t. Take my advice, it’s best to lower expectations.” She chuckled.
I smiled and waved and watched them drive away, then returned inside the tearoom.
Hyperion was still drooping over the counter and bringing down the tearoom’s cheerful Halloween tone.
“Okay,” I said. “What’s up?”
He sighed. “Nothing.”
“Then there’s something I need to tell you. About the new oven—”
“Forget your prize oven.” He flicked the idea away with one hand. “Everyone knows what a spectacular oven it is. It’s the prince of darkness of ovens, okay? What do I care about ovens when my humiliation is probably all over town by now?”
With a supreme effort of will, I did not roll my eyes. “Humiliation?”
He straightened and met my gaze. “Tony. He stood me up last night.”
Oh. Ow. “I’m sure he had a good reason.”
“Like a police emergency,” I said hastily. Detective Tony Chase was nothing if not dedicated to his job.
“Well if he did, he didn’t tell me.”
“You mean, not even a phone call?” I asked. Tony was also reliable. He’d never leave Hyperion hanging.
“Not a peep. And yes, I tried calling him, even if it did make me look like a desperate tween. And no, he hasn’t returned my calls—my call,” he amended.
Hyperion really had it bad if he’d phoned more than once. “That doesn’t sound like Tony.”
“I didn’t think so either.” He kicked the base of the bar the way a child would, aimlessly and repetitively. A teacup atop it rattled. “Seems we were both wrong.”
I rested my hand on the empty cup, stilling it. “Maybe—”
The front door swung open hard enough to bang against the wall behind it, and we jumped.
Tony Chase strode into the tearoom, his navy suit jacket and jeans wrinkled, as if he’d slept in them. Beneath his cowboy hat, his hair looked more rumpled than usual. His normally smooth face was unshaven.
“There.” I motioned toward Tony. “He’s come to explain.”
Hyperion grabbed the t-shirt cannon and aimed it at the detective.
Ignoring the hostess and Hyperion, Tony hurried to the counter and loomed. That’s actually not much of a feat. He’s well over six-feet-tall. I’m only five-four, with long, curling blond hair. When people call me a doll, it isn’t a compliment. Years ago I cut my hair short. People started calling me a pixie. I let my hair grow back out.
“What happened at the tearoom yesterday?” he asked in his Texas drawl.
Hyperion raised the cannon higher. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I edged farther behind the counter, blinking. The detective’s eyes were so red my own itched in a sympathy response.
“Not now, Hyperion.” The detective’s tone took on a sharp edge. “I was talking to Abigail.”
I started. “Me?”
“I bought a cup of chai.” Tony pressed his hands on the white quartz, leaning closer. “Like I do every Saturday.”
I nodded. The detective was a creature of habit. Even the Tarot readers joked about his Saturday chai. They mainly did it to try to get Hyperion to blush. It never worked. My partner was blush proof.
“Then what happened?” the detective demanded.
“Seriously?” Hyperion’s finger twitched on the trigger. “This is what we’re talking about? Chai?”
“Um.” My gaze darted between the two men. “Next I... gave you the chai.” Chai had always seemed like an odd choice for a man like Tony. I’d figured him for black coffee. But I guess the Texan liked things spicy.
“And then what?” Tony asked.
“And then you left,” I said.
“How did I leave?”
“The usual way,” I said. “On foot, out the back.” I pointed to the hallway that led to the rear parking lot.
“Did I drink the chai?”
“I... guess?” I said, baffled. “Why? What’s going on?”
He turned toward Hyperion. “Did you see me leave?”
“Forget yesterday afternoon,” my partner said. “Where were you last night?”
“I don’t know,” Tony said.
Hyperion’s skin turned a darker hue. “You didn’t answer my calls. I got worried and went to your house.”
“Was I there?” Tony asked.
My partner’s brown eyes bulged. “Don’t you know?”
Tony fisted his hands. He closed his eyes, sighed, and dropped his hands to his sides. “No. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I don’t remember anything since buying a cup of chai from Abigail.”
Hyperion’s brows slashed downward. “So you’re telling me that the reason you stood me up last night was… amnesia? I’ve never heard that one before.”
“I’m telling you that I don’t remember anything since I was here, in this tearoom.” The detective’s voice rose. “And when I woke up, I was in a ditch beside a dead man.”
The tearoom fell silent. Heads turned toward the counter.
Hyperion lowered the cannon.
I swallowed. “Maybe we should have this conversation in Hyperion’s office,” I said in a low voice.
“I told you, there’s no time.” Tony reached across the white counter and gripped my shoulders. “What the hell happened to me? Was there anyone unusual in the tearoom? Did anything strange happen while I was here?”
“N-no,” I stammered.
“Nothing?” He released me, and I staggered back a little.
“No, nothing.” Had there been? I wracked my brain. “Well, there was this witch, I mean a woman in a witch costume. It seemed a little early for costumes, but only by a day.”
“What did she look like? Did she come near me?”
“She did come to the counter,” I said. “She was wearing a mask. You know, green face, hooked nose, warts. A witch,” I finished weakly. “She was about my height.”
Tony looked down at his cowboy boots. “So it could have been anyone. What did she say?”
“Nothing.” And that had been a little weird. “She just pointed to the menu to order.”
“How’d she eat through the mask?” Tony asked.
I grimaced. “She didn’t. She took her order to go.” I should have known something was off.
“How’d she pay?” Tony demanded.
“Cash,” I said. “She left a twenty on the bar.” And who pays cash in Silicon Valley? Why hadn’t I been more suspicious?
“Did you see her leave?”
“Dammit.” He turned, scanning the tearoom. “Who else was working that day?”
“Sierra, Janet, Maricel—”
The front door opened, and three men walked inside. Two were in police uniforms. One beefy man wore a business suit that screamed underpaid detective.
My shoulders caved inward. Paper bats aside, the tearoom was supposed to be calm and genteel. Police interrogations were neither, and this seemed like a lot of cops to grill my staff.
“I need to talk to the staff who were here yesterday,” Tony said to me.
“Sure,” I said. “Maricel and Janet are here now.”
“Sierra’s not working today,” Hyperion said.
“Detective Chase,” the man in the brown suit said. “You need to come with us.”
“I’m a little busy,” Tony said, terse.
“Not anymore,” the big man said. “You’re under arrest.”
“Arrest?” I blurted. “But he’s the police.”
The detective in the brown suit glanced at me. “You’re under arrest,” he repeated. “For the murder of Cassius Santori.”
There was a collective gasp and a whomp. The t-shirt cannon jerked in Hyperion’s arms. A t-shirt bulleted into the air, hit a chandelier, and dropped onto the beefy detective’s shoulder.
Paper bats fluttered to the floor. The chandelier swayed, tinkling. Hyperion turned three shades paler.
The detective pulled the t-shirt free and let it drop to the laminate floor. From the chandelier, bats jerked spastically, hanged men in their death throes.
Tony gripped Hyperion’s shoulder. “Sorry about last night.” He nodded to the three cops. “Let’s go.”
I stared. This isn’t happening. But it was happening. Tony walked toward the other policemen, his movements sure and inevitable.
Helpless anger sparked inside me, and my jaw tightened. This wasn’t right. “But—”
The men strode from the tearoom. The blue door closed behind them, its bell jingling.
An elderly customer in a pearl necklace adjusted her cardigan. “And my husband thinks tearooms are staid and stuffy. You can never say this place is dull.”
Hyperion swayed, still clutching the t-shirt cannon.
“Come on.” I gripped his arm and steered Hyperion down the hallway and to his private office. Orange and purple twinkle lights flashed erratically around the door. I led him inside and shut the door behind us.
Bastet, Hyperion’s cat, looked up from the makeshift altar against the wall. Hyperion had littered it with crystals, candles, and driftwood, so it was a squeeze for the massive tabby. The cat’s golden eyes narrowed, its tail coiling around a length of driftwood.
Hyperion dropped into a high-backed, red velvet chair. He wasn’t a small man, a good five-eleven, thin, but muscled. But today, in that tall chair, he appeared shrunken. “Murder?” he whispered.
“It’s a mistake,” I said, brisk. It had to be, because the alternative was unthinkable. Tony was one of the white hats.
But what if he wasn’t? A wave of guilt buffeted me. Tony had saved my life. Twice. He’d saved us all. How could I doubt him?
Short answer: I couldn’t. He deserved my faith.
Hyperion gripped his forehead with one slender hand. “How could I have been so stupid?”
Bastet sneezed and dropped lightly from the altar and prowled to his master. He rubbed against Hyperion’s leg, depositing orange and white hairs on his elegant black slacks.
“You’re not,” I said. “Because Tony didn’t kill anyone.”
His head dropped back against the thronelike chair. His gaze lifted to the ceiling. “Of course he wouldn’t have stood me up.”
I pressed my lips together. That was what Hyperion was worried about?
“Or murder anyone,” he added hastily. He sunk, unspeaking, in his chair.
Since I’d known Hyperion, his relationship with Tony was the first I’d classify as serious. No wonder this was hitting him hard.
Finally, Hyperion straightened in the chair. “Yes,” he said, as if to himself, and met my gaze. “Yes. I’m going to help him.”
I nodded. And I would help Hyperion. And yes, I know that’s a weird thing for a tearoom owner to decide. But Hyperion and I had done this sort of thing before. More importantly, Tony was a friend, and I owed him.
I owed Hyperion too. I couldn’t imagine a better business partner. Even if last Independence Day he had “accidentally” shot off a firework in the back hallway. And last Columbus Day he’d volunteered me as a prize in one of those bid-on-a-date charity events. (He’d told me they’d be bidding on one of our Royal Teas, not on me.)
But in this moment, he was the serious, thoughtful, best-person-to-have-at-your-side Hyperion. I loved the devil-may-care Hyperion, but it was this Hyperion that suddenly made my vision blur.
“They didn’t handcuff him,” I said. “Even the police must have doubts. He’s one of their own. They’ll be careful.”
He shook his head, a brief, sharp motion. “It doesn’t matter what the police think. Whether he’s charged or not will come down to the new DA. And he hates cops.”
The new district attorney had been elected by the simple expedients of running unopposed and public indifference. Now he was refusing to prosecute a raft of crimes that he deemed petty, although I doubted the victims would agree.
And I’d heard grumbling that maybe the new guy might be anti-police. While I don’t think cops are perfect—they’re human—Tony was on the job to protect and serve. “It… does seem that he’s not always on their side,” I admitted, troubled.
Bastet’s striped tail swished.
My partner dragged his hands down his face. “In spite of my cool demeanor, I confess I’m having a hard time concentrating on what to do next.”
“Then why don’t we start by keeping it simple—for now—and assume everything Tony told us was true.”
“Of course it’s true,” he said sharply.
“Right. He doesn’t remember anything since I handed him a cup of chai yesterday. How does that happen?”
“He didn’t say anything about having a headache.” Hyperion drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. “So he probably wasn’t bashed over the skull. If he’d gotten hit that hard, he’d still be feeling it.”
I thought about those reddened eyes. “Could Tony have been drugged?”
Hyperion nodded slowly. “That seems to be what Tony thinks, or he wouldn’t have been going on about that chai.”
“The police will have to do a drug test. That will give us a better idea of what happened.”
“I suppose that witch you mentioned could have done it, slipped something into his tea?”
“We can’t be sure the chai was tampered with. But if something was slipped into his chai, then either she did it or I did it. And I didn’t do it. Though I guess the police will have to consider me a suspect too.” But I wasn’t worried. I had no motive. They’d look at me, make things uncomfortable, and move on. I’d survive.
“Don’t be absurd. You don’t have any connection to Cassius Santori.” He shifted in his high-backed chair.
Hyperion drew his dark brows downward. “Not that I know of. And if he had, he would have mentioned something to us, right?”
“Maybe. He didn’t have much time to say anything.”
“It doesn’t matter if Tony had a connection to—” He shook his head. “Okay. Logic. Tony was drugged, and then what?”
“We’ll have to learn more about the actual crime. But what are we saying?” I scooted my chair closer to the round table, catching the tablecloth and dragging it closer. “That Tony was framed? That the killer had a grudge against him?”
“He must have been. Tony was drugged—obvs. A man was killed and his body was put beside Tony’s. We both know Tony didn’t kill anyone. Lately. So it’s got to be a frameup.”
“Okay, but the killer would have to be a total psycho to kill an innocent person just to frame Tony. So—”
“So the killer had a grudge against Tony and Cassius.” Hyperion nodded and rubbed his long hands together. “All we have to do is find out what that connection is, who hated them both. Easy peasy.”
Sure, it was so easy, the cops had to be on that track. But that didn’t mean that we couldn’t be on it too.
“Let’s start with the victim.” I nodded toward the laptop on the table. “Has the news reported on the murder?”
Hyperion opened the computer and tapped the keyboard. He squinted at the screen, reading, and nodded. “Here’s something, but it’s not very informative.” He turned the computer to face me and shoved it toward me, rumpling the tablecloth.
I pulled the laptop closer and read.
Local businessman, Cassius Santori, was found dead last night on Avila Road in what appears to have been a road rage incident. Anyone with information should contact the San Borromeo Police Department.
I grunted, disappointed. The article was so brief it was nearly useless. But road rage? Where had they gotten that idea?
“It’s probably too soon for much of an article about the death,” I said. “The papers will have more tomorrow.” I returned to the search results. “Here’s Santori’s website. He’s a financial consultant, whatever that is.”
Hyperion sank back in his chair.
I opened the site. “Retirement, wealth management, holistic planning, insurance... He’s got a partner, Johnson Warszowski.” And from his smiling photo, Johnson was a devastatingly handsome guy. But this wasn’t the time to mention that to Hyperion.
“Excellent,” Hyperion said. “We have our first suspect. I’m thinking, business relationship gone south? Someone cheating on someone else’s spouse? If they work with money, there have got to be all sorts of motives for murder.”
I studied the site. “Cool, there’s an address...” I lifted my head and studied Hyperion.
He examined his nails.
“It’s in your old office building,” I said.
“That will give us an excuse to pay our condolences.” He sucked in his breath. “What if Tony doesn’t have a lawyer?”
“There’s a police union. I’m sure he’s got representation. And Cassius worked in your old office building.”
“So we shared a building. It’s not that big of a coincidence. This is a small town. Everyone knows everyone. And what if Tony’s union lawyer is no good? I need to talk to Tomas.” Lifting his hip, Hyperion pulled his cellphone from the rear pocket of his slacks. He dialed, waited, and blew out his breath. “He’s not answering.”
“I know where he is.” Tomas Salazar was a semi-retired lawyer and my grandfather’s best friend. I’d grown up calling him uncle and attending raucous picnics with his ginormous family.
“Don’t keep me in suspense,” he said. “Where is he?”
“At my grandfather’s. It’s October first. They’re putting up the Halloween decorations today.”
Hyperion leapt from the chair. It wobbled, nearly falling. “Let’s go.” Ignoring the cat’s irate meows, he hurried from his office.
I made a quick stop in the kitchen. I’d planned to take a frozen lasagna over to my grandfather tonight anyway, and had kept it in the tearoom freezer. I grabbed the lasagna then followed him down the hallway and out into Beanblossom’s rear parking lot.
We climbed into his green Jeep, and Hyperion and I blasted onto the narrow street.
I clutched the door arm and squeezed shut my eyes. At the best of times, Hyperion’s driving is enthusiastic. His speed today made me crave valium. And I’ve never had valium in my life.
But we made it to my grandfather’s cul-de-sac intact. Hyperion screeched to a halt in front of the driveway to the storybook house. I pried my hand from the grab bar.
Tomas sat in a lawn chair in the front yard, my grandfather’s mallard, Peking, nestled in his lap. A familiar blond-haired figure stood on a ladder and strung orange lights beneath the turret’s sloping eaves, covered in the wavy shingles so typical of the style.
I pointed. “What’s Brik doing here?” My grandfather’s house was supposed to be a protected, happy space, with ducks and lasagna. Now I was as tense as the cables on the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Do the math. It looks like Brik’s helping with the decorating.” Hyperion opened the Jeep door and hopped out. “Tomas!” He trotted toward the elderly man in the lawn chair.
The arched front door to my grandfather’s house opened. Gramps toddled out carrying a plastic box.
I hurried to help before my grandfather tripped over one of the pumpkins lining the steps. “Let me take that.” Casserole dish braced on my hip, I reached for the box with my free hand.
“I’ve got it, but thanks, Abigail.” Gramps set the box down on the flagstone pathway, and we hugged, his cheek scratchy against mine. “This is a nice surprise. Is that lasagna? And shouldn’t you be at the tearoom?”
I glanced at Brik, still on the ladder, his back to me like that night he’d walked away. Whatever's between us has to end.
And it had ended. Though it would feel a lot more ended if he wasn’t always popping into my life.
But maybe that wasn’t the issue. Maybe I was hanging on. Maybe I just didn’t want to be alone anymore. The thought flooded me with shame.
“It is lasagna,” I said. “Um, what’s my neighbor doing here?”
“I was at Brik’s party the other night—”
“What?” My grandfather had gone to a party next door and hadn’t stopped by? Hurt, I tugged down my zookeeper’s vest.
“You weren’t home, or I would have come in.”
“Wait, aren’t you still on medication for that infection? Can you drink?”
“Not alcohol, no. So I had a beer.”
My mouth puckered. “That’s—” Never mind. Gramps was an adult. He made his own choices. I wouldn’t insult him by scolding him like a child.
“Anyway,” he continued, “I was complaining to Brik about the decorating. Ladders aren’t so easy to manage when you’re getting up in years. He offered to help. You know how the kids love to visit this house on Halloween.”
“Yeah, because you give out full-sized candy bars.”
But it was a cool Halloween house, like something out of the Brothers Grimm. San Borromeo had many of these storybook homes, and even some businesses in the style. And I was sure Brik was only helping out of the goodness of his heart and not to get under my skin.
But Brik was totally getting under my skin. Also, my hands were starting to freeze.
“Tony Chase has been arrested for murder,” I said.
My grandfather blinked. “Detective Chase? Who’d he kill?”
“He didn’t. I mean, he couldn’t.” I set the lasagna on the edge of a raised stone bed and rubbed my hands together to warm them.
Gramps sighed. “We all have the potential for violence. Though Detective Chase doesn’t seem the type to lose his cool. What happened?”
Brik clambered down from the ladder. Squinting up at the peaked roof, my neighbor brushed off his broad hands.
I told my grandfather about the scene in the tearoom. “Hyperion wanted to ask Tomas’s advice.” I angled my head toward the two men in their lawn chairs.
Gramps shook his head. “Not sure it will do much good. Tomas doesn’t know that new DA like he did the last one.”
I lowered my head and studied the flagstones. “Oh.” I hadn’t even thought of that.
“What’s going on?” Brik asked.
I pasted on a smile and turned toward my neighbor/contractor/pain in my backside. Then I realized smiling was inappropriate under the murdery circumstances and smoothed my expression. “Tony Chase has been arrested for murder,” I said stiffly. Because I was over Brik.
But it bugged me that he was having a grand old time with my relatives. And yes, I knew that was unreasonable.
Brik’s face spasmed. “Oh.”
That was all he had to say? Oh? “He didn’t do it,” I said, annoyed. Because Tony had once saved Brik too.
How could Brik be so… casual? I grabbed the lasagna and took it into my grandfather’s kitchen. Then I returned to the front yard and stomped across the lawn to Tomas, Peking, and Hyperion.
The duck’s feathers stood up in angry tufts. The mallard glared at Hyperion.
I know. Weird.
Tomas petted the duck, smoothing his feathers. “Bastet will come to see you next time.”
“Honestly,” Hyperion told the duck. “Bastet has a cold. I couldn’t bring a sneezing cat. He needs his rest. That’s why I left him at the tearoom.”
I’d have preferred Hyperion didn’t leave his cat in the tearoom under any circumstances. But that was a battle I’d long ago given up on winning.
“So?” I asked Tomas. “What do you think?”
“I think your grandfather’s duck has a very strange relationship with Hyperion’s cat.”
“Not about Peking,” I said, “about Tony.”
“As I told Hyperion, he’ll have a union rep and a union lawyer, if he wants one. The police will be looking for a personal connection between Tony and the victim, for a motive.”
“The paper said it may have been road rage,” I said doubtfully.
Tomas snorted. “Road rage? Detective Chase? He’s one of the coolest customers I’ve met. That’s just speculation by reporters. Like I said, they’ll be looking for connections, and I’m sure Chase doesn’t have one.”
Hyperion gulped. “The thing is... I sort of do.”
“Just because you were once tenants in the same building doesn’t mean you’re connected,” I said.
“It’s, ah, more than that,” my partner said.
My eyes narrowed. “More than that, how?”
“Cassius and I might have... dated.”
I paced outside the doors of the squat, concrete building. Fog had turned the sky mercury, swaddling Hyperion’s old office building like a cold, damp blanket and chilling my skin. I adjusted the soft, olive-colored scarf around my neck.
It was Monday, my day off, and the tearoom was closed. I’d been too wired to sleep in, automatically awakening to greet the stupid sunrise. I wanted to be the kind of person who could lounge in bed. Instead, I was the kind of person who loitered in front of buildings at odd hours. We all have our crosses to bear.
A woman pushed a stroller past me and shot me a wary look. I leapt to open the glass doors for her, and she walked inside.
Insides jittering, I checked the clock on my phone.
Hyperion was late. And he usually wasn’t.
I pulled my bomber jacket tighter and inhaled to calm myself. The air still smelled like Pacific morning, though the sun had risen hours ago. The building stood in a depression, a swell of hill blocking the ocean view. I caught a whiff of what smelled like pizza.
I shifted my weight, and a sense of claustrophobia—which I don’t usually have—settled on my chest.
A man exiting the building glanced at me and got into a sports car, backed out.
I tapped the screen to call my partner.
Hyperion’s green Jeep whipped into the spot the sports car had just vacated. The parking gods really did favor my partner.
He jogged toward me carrying a bouquet of flowers, the tails of his charcoal blazer flapping. He looked professional and somber in his matching turtleneck and slacks.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Fine,” he said shortly. “Let’s do this.” He held open the door.
I walked inside the low-ceilinged seventies-style entry. It had been updated since Hyperion had moved out. Its seventies vibe had turned chic. Along one wall stood aqua sofas accented with striped, white-and-gray pillows. An open stairway with a gardenlike area beneath it rose to the second floor.
I walked to a corrugated signboard and scanned the listings. “Warszowski and Santori are on the fourth floor.” I turned to Hyperion.
He was already jogging up the stairs. “Never trusted that elevator,” he called.
I followed Hyperion upstairs and inside a cheerful office in turquoises, greens, and yellows. A couch pressed against the wall opposite the reception desk. Its cushions were thin, rectangular, and uncomfortable looking.
A voluptuous redhead in her early thirties looked up from a modular, blond-wood desk and smiled wanly. She wore a black-and-white checked business suit and made it look like high fashion. “Hello, Hyperion.” She also had the high cheekbones of a supermodel.
And yes, I was a little jealous. I bet she was tall, too.
He handed her the flowers. “Verena, I’m so sorry for your loss. Please accept my condolences.”
“You two know each other?” I asked. Hyperion hadn’t mentioned if other people in Santori’s office had known about their relationship.
“We did share a building.” Hyperion motioned toward me. “This is my new business partner, Abigail Beanblossom.”
“Hello,” Verena said to me. “I’ve been meaning to stop by your tearoom, but we’ve been so busy.” She motioned toward a closed office door, the thick, gold bangle on her wrist catching the light.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said, “though the circumstances are terrible. I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s hard to believe something like this could happen in San Borromeo.”
“I know.” Verena sniffled and grabbed a tissue from a box on the desk. “I moved here because it was safe.”
“Have the police talked to you yet?” Hyperion asked.
“No.” Verena blotted the corners of her eyes. “And I doubt they will. Why would they? I don’t know anything. And Johnson told me they had someone in custody.”
I frowned, my insides tightening. Were the police so certain they had the right guy that they weren’t bothering to interview her? Or would the interviews come later?
“They talked to Johnson?” Hyperion asked.
“Yes.” She glanced again at the closed door. “He told me they came by last night, after I’d left.”
I shifted my weight. At least they’d talked to his business partner. That sounded like they considered the murder something more than road rage. Or that they were trying to find a connection between Tony and the victim.
“I suppose they wanted to know if there was any personal connection between the suspect and Mr. Santori. To determine motive,” I said. “I wonder if they’ll be looking at other people who had a grudge against Mr. Santori? Maybe clients?” I hinted.
“We didn’t get many of those.” Verena pushed a section of wayward red hair behind her ear. “Unhappy clients, I mean. And we never had any with Johnson. He’s excellent with people.”
“But it has happened with Cassius?” Hyperion asked.
She grimaced. “Once or twice.”
Hyperion sat against the edge of the blond-wood desk. “Tell me all the gory details.”
“I shouldn’t,” she said uncertainly.
“Cassius is dead,” Hyperion said in a gossipy tone. There was no one better at getting someone to dish than Hyperion.
“This is murder,” he continued. “Of course you should talk. The police may not be asking you about angry clients yet, but they will.” He lowered his voice. “We’ve heard they’ve got the wrong man.”
“But that’s terrible.” She flushed and pressed one hand to her cheek. “And it’s terrible that I thought it was terrible because the killer might still be running around, putting us in danger, not because of a poor man who’s been wrongly accused.”
“You’re only human,” Hyperion said. “At least you’re self-aware. Most people aren’t. Now what about those angry clients?”
She glanced toward a glass-walled meeting room. “Only last week, one of his clients, Mr. Grief, got a little shouty.”
“About what?” Hyperion asked, breathless.
She leaned closer. “I couldn’t hear the details. The glass is insulated.”
“Talk about inconvenient,” Hyperion said.
“Cassius was angry, too, though. After Mr. Grief left, Cassius stormed from the office. That was always his problem. Cassius had no patience. People get nervous about money. But it’s their money. You have to project confidence and be patient, like Johnson.”
“And the other client?” I prompted.
She blinked. “What?”
“You said it happened once or twice,” I said. “Who was the other person? Or people?”
“Just one other.” She bit her bottom lip.
“Do tell.” On the edge of the desk, Hyperion bent closer.
“You can’t blame Johnson,” she whispered. “He was supposed to be in the meeting, but he couldn’t, there was an emergency, and he had to leave Cassius on his own.”
“No way that was Johnson’s fault.” Hyperion folded his arms.
“Exactly,” she said. “Cassius should be able to handle client meetings on his own. He’s a partner in the business, but like I said, he had no patience. And Dr. Tarrach is a big client.”
“This Dr. Tarrach was upset about his, er, financial management?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I couldn’t hear the details, only the raised voices. But then Johnson called him later. He must have smoothed things over, because we’re still managing the funds. I haven’t heard of any problems since.”
“What kind of doctor is he?” I asked.
“When was this?” Hyperion asked.
“About a month ago,” she said, “or maybe six weeks.”
“Any other clients who lost their minds?” Hyperion asked.
“Not that I know of,” she said. “Are you sure the police have the wrong man?”
Hyperion drew breath to speak.
“Is Johnson in?” I asked quickly. “We’d like to give him our condolences.”
Her brows lowered. “I’m sorry. He’s not available.”
“We can wait,” Hyperion said, grim.
“But he’s not in right now.” She shook her head, her cheeks pinking.
“When will he be back?” he asked.
She lowered her chin. “I can leave a message for him, if you like,” she said firmly.
“When would be a good time for us to return?” I asked.
“He has a very busy schedule.” She laid her hand atop a leather planner. “Would you like me to leave a message?”
“No thanks,” I said. “We’ll catch up with him later.”
I drew Hyperion from the office and we stopped outside a closed door opposite. “I don’t think she knows when he’s coming in today.”
“That must be killing her,” he muttered. “What are you thinking?”
“I could really go for some pizza.”
“At this hour?”
“I know. Inappropriate. You wanted to talk about—”
The door opened beside us, and a man with the face of an Adonis and body of an Olympian swimmer looked blandly out. His hair was curling and thick and nearly as dark as his eyes.
I stared back, my heart thudding. He had to be gay. This was California, and men that good looking had to be gay. Also, I’d forgotten how much I’d liked the look of a man in a business suit. Brik never wore suits.
“Do you mind?” the man asked.
With a start, I realized I was staring—and probably drooling. I stepped aside.
The man strode past us and jogged down the stairs.
“Now there’s a tall drink of water,” Hyperion said.
I swallowed. “Yeah.”
He sighed. “Too bad he’s not my type.”
“Right,” I said, watching the empty stairs. “Because you’re taken.”
“That, and he’s straight as an arrow.”
“And likely married.”
“No, he’s single. Odds are he’s got a girlfriend though. Or dozens.”
“Yeah. Right.” This was dumb. A man that attractive couldn’t possibly be trustworthy. Plus, he’d looked at me like I was a bug.
I cleared my throat. “But since his office is so close to the victim’s, maybe he heard or saw something useful.”
Hyperion gave me a long look.
My face warmed.
Hyperion nodded, his expression calculating. “Perhaps we should find out. But you know what that means.”
“I’m guessing it doesn’t mean free pizza.”
“It’s going to be a long, pizza-free day.”
Click here to get your copy of Never Say Chai so you can keep reading this series today!
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It’s Halloween season in small town San Borromeo, and partners Abigail and Hyperion are determined to make their Tea & Tarot room spooktacular. But when their friend, Detective Chase, is arrested for murder, the duo is certain someone’s playing a nasty trick. And when the official investigation turns into a witch hunt, the stakes to unearth the truth are raised…
But a clever killer has plans to squash their investigation… and the two amateur detectives. If they don’t solve this puzzle—and fast—it will be out of the cauldron and into the fire for them both.
Never Say Chai is a fast-paced and funny cozy mystery, packed with quirky characters, pets, and murder. Buy the book and start this hilarious caper today!
Tearoom recipes in the back of the book!