Read the Never Say Chai Excerpt: Chapters 1-3



CHAPTER ONE


Never panic-shop.

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.”

Hyperion glared.

“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?”

“No.”

“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.”



CHAPTER TWO


“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.

“Does Tony?”

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?”