Good Witch Hunting

Witchless in Seattle, Book #7

Dakota Cassidy

Chapter 1

Isn’t it beautiful, Win?” I breathed out with a dreamy sigh, folding my fists under my chin.

’Tis indeed beautiful, Dove. Like white frosting on a cake,” he whispered back in his raspy-sexy British accent. His words so close to my ear, I shivered.

Arkady sighed with me in obvious longing. “Is like home. Sometimes, I miss home, malutka.”

My smile was one of understanding and sympathy. I knew what it was to miss home. “I know, my Russian spy. Someday, when the time is right, we’ll pay a visit to your great country and you can show me all the greatness. Except for the cabbage soup greatness. No cabbage soup. Twinkie soup? Maybe. But no borscht for your malutka,” I teased.

Arkady’s laughter rumbled deep and hearty. “Nyet! No soup. But I think my little artichoke dip would be pretty as picture in babushka. Don’t you agree, Zero?”

Win barked a laugh, obviously at the image he’d called up in his mind of me in a babushka. “Without doubt, bloke.”

Again, I smiled into the darkness of the kitchen as we sat at the table by our big bay window and watched the heavy snowfall. We didn’t get the white stuff by the tons here in Ebenezer Falls, a small suburb of Seattle. Usually it was just a dusting and then it melted away. Rain was our bread and butter, in the way of bucketsful during the winter months.

But on this fine evening in mid-March, snow had been falling for hours; thick and crystalline, shimmering on our backyard lawn like sparkling fairy dust as it wisped over the water rolling by in choppy froths. We’d stopped everything to appreciate the beauty of the snowflakes after a long day of thorough inventory at our shop, Madam Zoltar’s.

The winter months were slow in our tourist town, and my readings for those seeking confirmation of their loved ones from the other side were sporadic until at least May.

Belfry hummed his approval, snuggling deeper into the thick hair on our dog Whiskey’s back. “Never thought I’d say this—I’m a southern climate boy through and through for obvious reasons—but it’s really beautiful to look at. As long as we don’t have to go out in it again. Last time my little buddy here almost suffocated me, rolling around in that stuff like our lawn was covered in steaks and sprinkled with jerky.”

I chuckled at my tiny familiar and ran my hand over our extra-large St. Bernard’s head with affection, loving the velvety feel of his ears. “Well, he’s a cold-weather dog. They used to carry around those barrels of booze and save people in the mountains—isn’t that what you told me? His breed lives for weather like this. He also loves you. It only stands to reason he’d want to share his joy with you.”

Whiskey harrumphed his pleasure. Almost as if he knew we were talking about him. Strike, our most exotic and unexpected pet turkey, nudged his way between my leg and Whiskey’s big body, looking for love.

Turkeys are surprisingly sweet and gentle, and we’d found our Strike, who’d become ours quite by accident, was a hugger. He loved nothing more than to snuggle up against a warm body. In fact, he and Whiskey often slept cuddled together on the rug by our fireplace while we watched television.

“I haven’t seen snow like this since I was in Siberia in 2012,” Win recalled.

Belfry shivered, his tiny body shuddering in fluffy white ripples. “Was that the mission you told me about involving a beautiful princess from Uzbekistan and a vial full of anthrax?”

“’Twas, good man,” Win confirmed.

As the men in my life rehashed the mission Win referred to, I fought an outward cringe at the mention of a beautiful princess. Since last summer, when Win had finally told me the details of his death—and Miranda, his ex-lover’s alleged involvement—I still felt a little raw.

Now, every time he mentioned another woman, whether he’d legitimately been intimately involved with her or not, I experienced pangs of ridiculous jealousy. These annoying pangs had increased in frequency and grown in size. In fact, maybe it was fair to say they threatened to turn into a tsunami of green-eyed monsters, raining down from the sky in a crashing swell of water, moments before metaphorically drowning me.

Win’s love for Miranda (his spy ex-lover) has always been clear, her alleged betrayal and how deeply it hurt, clearer still. But after this past summer, when he’d revealed all, when every emotion connected to Miranda had been stripped naked, I saw how deep his feelings truly were.

And I was jealous. And I hated it. Nowadays, all he had to do was mention any woman at all, and it was like a pile on of jealousy. Rather like when you’re irritated by someone’s mere existence, and everything they do, no matter what it is, makes you insane? That’s how I’ve been feeling.

I know why, too. There was no more mystery to Win. Not in the realm of his love life, anyway. We’d laid it bare, and I couldn’t see a way he’d ever be able to love or trust anyone in quite the way he’d done with Miranda.

He’d never put himself out there like that again, and who could blame him? He believed she’d betrayed him. His feelings were fair even though I had my suspicions about what happened that day.

So where did that leave me?

Unrequited. That’s where. And it had begun to eat at my insides like a Pac-Man game. Sometimes I swear I hear the actual sound the video game used to make on my TV when it chewed up the ghosts.

Yet, I’m not sure what difference it would make if I told Win how I felt about him anyway. We can’t ever be together. Yes, sure, he’d possessed a couple of bodies since we’d met, but he’d never lasted very long in them. That aside, I didn’t want him to possess someone else’s body.

I liked him exactly the way I’d seen him in the picture with Miranda in Paris. It was the picture of the man I’d fallen so deeply in—

“It is good night for snuggling on couch, yes? Warm and cozy by fire with hot toddy to keep insides warm, too? Maybe we watch marathon? I see Psych is on. You know how much I love the crazy Guster and his Blueberry.” Arkady’s deep laugh resonated in my ears.

I winked up at the ceiling. “I’ll get the Twinkies and the Pepsi.”

“Bah, Stephania!” Win chastised, the way he always did whenever I mentioned my beloved junk food. “Must you eat like you’re a twelve-year-old boy? Have I taught you nothing about proper snacking? Surely we have some cheese and crackers. Maybe some prosciutto?”

I let the darkness of the kitchen hide my smile. “I have Cheez Whiz. Oooo! Now that sounds good, don’t you think, Mr. Pretentious? Cheez Whiz and some of those fancy stone wheat crackers you’re so fond of. C’mon, boys. Shall we adjourn to the living room by the fire?”

Win scoffed in my ear as I took one last look outside at our lawn furniture, now totally covered by glistening snow. “Cheez Whiz,” he admonished with a cluck of his disapproving tongue. “If it can’t be sliced with a sharp knife, it should not be consumed. Otherwise, it’s unseemly, Stephania. What sort of monster thinks to put cheese in a spray can anyway?”

I went to the fridge, my trail of pets and assorted ethereal beings right behind me. “The same monsters who named a sponge cake spotted dick?”

Win’s laughter followed me as I grabbed my unseemly spray cheese and some crackers and headed toward the living room to settle in for some deep couch sitting.

Hopefully, watching some mindless television would take my mind off my woes about Win.

* * * *

“Stephania!”

I rubbed my eyes with my knuckles and fought to open them, briefly wondering what the heck was going on with Win. He never woke me up unless it was an emergency.

That thought made me sit straight up in my bed.

As my eyes adjusted and a glance at my bedside clock told me it was three in the morning, I frowned. “Are you okay? What’s wrong, Win?” I asked, my hand instantly reaching for the warmth of Whiskey’s fur where he was snuggled beside me.

“Oh, Dove. My deepest apologies. Your name burst from my lips before I thought to remember it’s three a.m. Go back to sleep. We’ll talk in the morning,” he soothed in gentle tones.

I pulled my comforter tighter around my chest and cocked an ear. There was something in Win’s voice. Something distracted, something faraway, something stricken that made me pay attention. “Spill, Win. Everything you do or say has a reason. That you called out my name in the middle of the night means something urgent is going on with you. Talk to me.”

“Not now, Dove.”

He was brushing me off, and I didn’t like it. I’d had enough with his secrets and his flat-out avoidance of all things Win the Spy Guy.

So I threw my legs over the side of the bed and instructed Alexa, our home device, to turn on the lights, crossing my arms over my chest with a shake of my head.

“Nope. Don’t tell me not now. I’ve had it up to my eyeballs with your secrets—”

“Secrets?” he gasped his outrage at my response, his voice filling my bedroom. “We have no secrets, Stephania.”

“Oh, suuure,” I drawled with a little more sarcasm than intended. “We have none now, after a year of mostly nothing but secrecy.”

His aggravated sigh grated a rasp of air in my ear. “I’ve explained that, Stephania.”

I hopped off the bed and slid my feet into my fuzzy slippers, reaching for my bathrobe and slipping it on, giving a glance to Strike, who was sound asleep on his heated dog bed. Yes. Our turkey has a heated dog bed to rest his head upon, and yes, he sleeps in the house.

Would you expect anything less from the crazy lady who talks to ghosts?

“Yep. You’ve explained it, and that’s all well and good, but here’s the thing. You never wake me up in the middle of the night—”

“I was simply deep in thought, Dove. Your name fell from my lips unintentionally as I pondered. You’re just the first person who comes…to my mind when…” Then he scoffed. “This is nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow morning over coffee. It’s certainly not worthy of your rapt attention at this late hour.”

The first person who came to Win’s mind, eh? Not Arkady. Not even Belfry, whom Win had become quite close with. It was me. I was the first person who came to mind when he had something important to share.

My heart warmed around the edges just a smidge—before I reminded myself there was nothing to be pleased or warm about. Sure, I was Win’s confidant. His friend confidant. His earthly friend confidant.

“Which tells me it’s important, and if it’s important, I want to know what made you call out my name at three in the morning. So spill.”

“I remembered something,” he muttered quietly.

A slither of ominous chills slipped along my spine at his tone, making me tuck my clenched fists to my sides. “Okay. What did you remember?”

“A tattoo.”

I tilted my head in question. “Of?”

“It’s more like on. What the tattoo was on.”

I scratched my head and sighed. “Don’t make me pull teeth, Win.”

He chuckled his teasing gurgle of a laugh. “If this is pulling teeth, I’ll take it. Once, deep in the Andes, I lost my bicuspid to a group of—”

“Win! It’s three in the morning.” I narrowed my eyes at the ceiling. “I don’t want to hear a spy story tonight. I think I have a Cheez Whiz hangover, and I’m just not up to your avoidance tactics. Now tell me what the heck you mean by a tattoo and stop going off topic with tales from the MI6 Crypt!”

“All right then. Fine. I had a memory of the night I was killed.”

Then there was a long silence.

Like, really long.

As per usual, he stopped just when things were getting juicy. I shook my fist at the ceiling. “You are the most frustrating man!” I growled as I began to pace. There was no way I was going back to sleep now. Not a chance. “So the memory involved a tattoo? Explain. Please. Without wading into your spy-capades or stopping just shy of telling me the whole story. Now, let’s start over. What does a tattoo have to do with the night you were killed?”

“Do you recall my mentioning the shadow I thought I saw just before Miranda allegedly killed me?”

I did. I also noted he was now using the word “allegedly” when linked to his death and Miranda. Interesting.

So I answered him, driving my hands into the pockets of my flannel pajama bottoms. “I do remember. What about it?”

“There was a hand attached to that shadow, Stephania. I just recalled it clear as day.”

My heart jumped in my chest. For as long as I’d known Win, he’d been pretty sure Miranda had been the one who’d killed him. And this past summer, he’d finally confessed why he thought she was his murderer. To have this type of recollection was enormous.

Thus, I treaded carefully. I strolled to my bedroom windows overlooking the driveway, pretending interest in the still falling snow, and cocked my head as though I were paused for thought.

“Any thoughts on who the hand belonged to?”

“Not a one.”

“Male hand? Female hand?”

“Definitely male, if the hairy knuckles are any indication.”

Pushing my hands behind me, I wove them together and stretched my arms upward before letting them swing at my sides. “And the tattoo? Was it on the hand?”

“’Twas…” he offered. But that was all he offered.

I fought the roll of my eyes. “And what did the tattoo look like? Do you remember it clearly?”

“I do…”

I whipped around, forcing myself to stay calm even though I wanted to scream at him—shake him—make him part with this new information before, oh, I dunno, sunrise.

“And what do you remember about the tattoo, Win?” I said from teeth clenched so hard, I was destined to need a visit to my dentist when they crumbled from the pressure of clamping them together with such force.

“It’s very specific. Very detailed in its finery.”

My shoulders sagged as I made my way back to the bed and hopped up into it again, careful not to disturb Whiskey and Belfry. Maybe he was right. Maybe this could wait until morning coffee—or a fishbowl full of tequila—because that’s how frustrating having a conversation about the night Win died can be. It drives me to consider drinking—a lot.

Resettling myself under my toasty comforter, I cuddled into my delightful bed specifically designed for me by Win himself. He’d created a nook in the wall of my bedroom in almost the shape of a hexagon, rather like a place for me to nest. My gorgeous bed nook featured a fluffy mattress and tons of pillows, with a stained-glass window overlooking our side yard, and it had shelves above my head for my books. I plumped those very pillows Win endlessly complained about and yawned.

Maybe if I pretended this revelation was no big deal, much the way Win had, he’d cough up the information. But I really had overdone the Cheez Whiz, and I needed some sleep to wash away my carb frenzy.

Tucking my hand under my chin, I muttered, “Okay. Well, when you want to talk with more than three-or four-word sentences, lemme know. Until then. Sweet dreams, International Man of Mystery.”

Closing my eyes, I feigned the beginnings of sleep—which wasn’t a difficult task, considering the hour and my processed cheese hangover.

“It was a snake. The tattoo was of a coiled snake, with a very detailed collar around its neck. Who puts a collar on a snake, I ask you? Regardless, the snake had a collar—a vividly royal-blue collar with a diamond in the center, and upon the jewel, the initial R.”

My entire body stiffened at this new batch of information, but I fought for a literate, composed response. “And it was on this shadow person’s hand? Like the back of his hand? Or his palm?”

“Yes, Stephania. It was on the back of his hand just below his hairy knuckles. I saw it very clearly.” His tone held that rigidness I’d come to know so well because despite the fact that we were openly talking about the night he’d died, that never happened without stiffness in his words and the underlying anger I was sure he must still feel.

“And you’re certain the hand and this tattoo were present on the night you were…” I couldn’t say it out loud. I could never say it out loud.

But Win could. “Murdered. Yes. I’m quite positive.”

“Does the initial R mean anything to you? Could it have something to do with Inga Von Krause?”

Inga was one of the last people Win had spent time with before he’d died. Granted, he’d been undercover and she was the daughter of a horrible man she ended up escaping, so there’d been no romantic involvement between the two.

But I’d had a taste of what his life had been like, after meeting Inga and falling wildly in love with her son Hardy…er, Sebastian. In fact, they’d visited us just this past Christmas for a long, wonderful weekend, where I was able to collect gooey baby kisses to my heart’s content.

But I digress. Suffice it to say, Win’s life had been chaotic during that time. Maybe Inga knew something about this shadow and a tattooed hand?

“No. It had nothing to do with Inga,” Win confirmed with an air of surety.

“Did you have any R people in your life at that point in time? Is it like a gang thing, this initial? You know, like a representation of gang membership—an initiation or whatever. Because gravy knows you’ve been mixed up with all manner of mafia, drug lords and the like in your time as a spy. Could that be what the R represents? A group of some sort? Or does it represent someone’s name?”

Clearing his throat, his voice invaded my ears. “I’ve racked my brain about just that, Stephania, and come up with nothing. I don’t know anyone with a tattoo like that. Certainly not a fellow spy from MI6. We do our best to hide any blatant identifiers such as tattoos and piercings for fear of being recognized when in deep cover. A tattoo that obvious would never be allowed simply due to its in-your-face nature. As spies, we were very careful to keep our true identities hidden.”

So wouldn’t that lead one to believe this wasn’t a good-guy shadow but a bad one?”

“Quite possibly.”

“Know any bad guys with the initial R?”

“Maybe it wasn’t the tattoo owner’s initial, Stephania. Maybe it represented someone in his life. In memorandum of someone who’d died. Someone he loved.”

“Maybe. Or maybe he just has a thing for the letter R. Who can say for sure? All I know is, this is huge, Win. You’ve remembered something crucial and maybe you’ve exonerated Miranda,” I offered around the lump in my throat.

I often wondered if I wanted Miranda to have been the one who killed Win. It’s an awful guilt I carry around. At least if she really were the one who’d killed him, he’d only continue to suffer her betrayal. He’d still be angry with her.

But if she wasn’t his killer, then he could go on loving her from way on high, and that was a hard pill for me to swallow. She’d return to reverent status in his heart, and he’d never let go.

Then I berated myself for even considering such a thing. What difference did it make in the end? He was there and I was here and never the twain shall meet and all.

Period.

“I don’t know that I’ve done that just yet,” Win said, his voice cutting into my dreadful, ugly thoughts, but I heard the hope in his words. “I do know we need to go to that tattoo shop in town and further look into this.”

Running a hand over my eyes, I gave them a good scrub to keep them open. “You mean the one that just opened? Inkerbelle’s, is it? Such a cleverly cute name. I’ve been meaning to go welcome them to our quaint ’hood.”

“That’s the one.”

“And why do we need to go there?”

“Because while the letter R implies the tattoo is personalized, maybe the design isn’t. Maybe it’s a standard universal design one can find anywhere. I’d like to know one way or the other.”

That was fair, and he was right to want to look deeper. It’s exactly what I’d do. Maybe we could solve this once and for all. If nothing else, despite my feelings on the subject, Win might finally find some peace. I wanted that for him more than I wanted to forget Miranda had ever existed.

“Then it’s a date,” I replied sleepily. “Tomorrow we storm the castle.”

Win’s chuckle, light in comparison to his tension-filled, evasive tone earlier, made me smile. “Tell me, Stephania, have you any tattoos?”

Giggling, I burrowed under the warmth of my comforter, pressing the tops of my thighs to Whiskey’s bulk. “I’ll never tell.” I don’t have any tattoos, but he doesn’t need to know that. “Do you?”

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, as they say. So never you mind, Mini-Spy. Rest well, Dove. See you in the morning,” he whispered on another laugh, leaving me to wonder about tattoos and very personal things I had no business wondering.

Chapter 2

Is this what you’re thinking?” I held up my doodling pad to the ceiling (even though I know he’s not hovering above me. It’s a habit I can’t seem to break) to show Win my sketch of the tattoo he’d described in great detail over coffee this morning.

He gasped with exaggerated flair. “The likeness is so distinct, it’s almost uncanny. Who knew you were a regular twenty-first century Picasso? Right here in modern day, as we live and breathe. Surely, it’s as though you’re in my head, Stephania.”

Scrunching my nose, I sipped my coffee, tilting my head to the right. “Really?”

“Erm, no, Stephania. Not at all. I’m using sarcasm as a means to deflect from how truly horrible that sketch is.”

I frowned and toyed with my scarf, throwing down my colored pencil. “Not even close?”

“Not unless kindergartners have taken to drawing tattoos these days,” he teased in his dry British way.

Looking at my sketch, I kind of had to agree with him. It was pretty bad. My coiled snake looked akin to a big green blob of goo.

Okay. It was really bad.

In my defense, I stuck my tongue out at him. “I’m just trying to help, Fussy Pants.”

“And a splendid job of that you’re doing, Stephania. How will I ever repay your diligence?”

I batted a hand at him. “Just you hush. So I’m not going to win any art scholarships. I was only trying to get an image in my mind’s eye to work with, is all. Next time, I’ll keep my doodling to myself.” I took a long gulp of my coffee while he and Arkady laughed.

“The roads look pretty good, Boss. I think it’s safe enough to go out now that they’ve plowed. You guys about ready?” Belfry asked on a violent shiver as he flew into the kitchen.

We’d sent him to scout the condition of the roads after so much snowfall. We lived on the edge of a cliff a few minutes out of town, and we were always the last to see any clearing of the roads. I didn’t want to risk losing yet another car to an accident should they be dangerous.

I was 2 for 0 in the car department, in case you’re wondering. I’m still trying to put the last incident out of my mind.

I patted my shoulder, signaling Bel should settle there and cuddle up against my neck to warm himself. When he landed, I tucked my new scarf (a vintage, lavender Hermes, and heck of a find) around him and asked, “Would you rather stay here with Whiskey and Strike, pal? I know you hate this weather, and we won’t be gone long. Promise. We’re just going to ask a couple of questions, and I might grab a coffee before heading back here to spend the afternoon by the fireplace.”

Belfry’s breed—a cotton ball bat, for those wondering—are warm-weather lovers. To say his tiny body wasn’t used to this weather is to say the least.

“Not a chance, Petunia,” Bel chirped, tucking himself against my skin with a ripple of fur. “You don’t think I’d miss this, do you? We’re finally onto something about our man of mystery, right, old chap?”

“Indeed, this could very well be a lead to something bigger, old friend,” Win agreed, but again, he had that distracted hint to his tone. His voice held a forced cheerfulness I couldn’t miss.

If I knew Win, he was thinking ahead rather than staying in the moment—something he always told me was imperative to solving any good mystery. Yet, I couldn’t blame him. He’d waited a long time for even a small clue that could lead to some answers.

“Well, I’m ready if you guys are.” I rose, taking one last gulp of Enzo’s special brew of coffee before dropping my mug in the sink and heading toward the coatrack at our entryway to grab my coat and boots. “Are you ready, too, Arkady?”

Dah, my crunchy granola bar. On with this, I say! I, too, am wondering about this tattoo and the mystery hand.”

I chuckled as I headed out our stained-glass front door and down the steps Enzo’s sons had so kindly shoveled and salted for me while I was in the shower. “Then buckle up, Buttercups. Let’s go meet the new people and do some digging.”

“Dare I say that lilt I hear in your tone is giddy joy, Stephania?” Win asked, laughter lacing his words.

Beeping my car, I popped the driver’s side door open with a shiver before sliding in. Dang, it was cold. “Joy? Explain.”

“Well, we haven’t had a mystery to solve since this past summer, when Inga brought baby Sebastian here and had you believing he was mine.”

I nodded my head, started the engine, and turned the heat in the car to high. “You have to admit, her note was pretty convincing, and truth be told, he could have passed for your son.”

“Fair enough,” Win acquiesced. “But still, you sound positively capricious despite the early hour and the frigid temps. You don’t even make appointments at the shop before ten a.m., Dove. Yet, here you are at nine sharp, showered, dressed—in a lovely frock, I might add—and ready to take on the world with only one cup of coffee and a store-bought cream puff to your name. Whatever am I to think other than you’re excited at the prospect of solving the mystery of the shadow and his tattoo?”

Win knew me well. Too well.

Yep. It was true. It had been exceptionally quiet here in Eb Falls for quite some time now. Maybe too quiet for someone like me who, when faced with too much idle time, filled up that time with broody thoughts and projections about Win.

Absolutely nothing of interest had gone down since the summer and my brush with death via Heinrich Von Krause, an arms dealer, and the man Win had spent a good deal of time in deep cover with before his untimely death.

My heart still stung just a little over baby Sebastian, but Inga, his mother and Heinrich’s rebel daughter, made a point of keeping in close contact with me, due to the nature of the attachment I’d formed with her son—who really didn’t turn out to be Win’s child, by the by.

Since then, there hadn’t been a murder or even a burglary in Eb Falls—a place we were beginning to think was the Hellmouth for murder central. Since I’d moved back here from Paris, Texas, we’d solved six mysteries and murders in as much as two years.

But lately? Nothing. Not unless you counted the heated argument between two soccer moms at a hot yoga class, and even that was nothing to write home about.

Preparing to back out, I took a moment to enjoy the beauty of our house wreathed in freshly fallen snow and reflect on Win’s statement. Was I one of those murder hounds? Like Aurora Teagarden on The Hallmark Channel?

Did I salivate at the mere suggestion of a mystery while rubbing my hands in glee?

“To answer the question I see behind your lovely green eyes, yes. You do enjoy a good mystery—be it murder or otherwise. Surely you recall Gladys Pepperton’s hunt for her brooch at bingo a month ago?”

As I backed out of the driveway, taking my time—even after a good salting, it was still slick—I thought back to bingo night at the VFW. I love bingo, and in a town this small, sometimes that’s all a girl has to look forward to—Tuesday night bingo.

Clearing my throat, I replied, “I remember finding her brooch for her…” It was easy to find, too. A little too easy. I needed more of a challenge.

Belfry snorted. “Do you remember yelling at the top of your lungs about finding her brooch in the middle of the VFW hall like you’d just found Jimmy Hoffa’s skeletal remains?”

Rolling my eyes, now I snorted, mostly in discomfort. “I did not. Don’t exaggerate.”

“Oh yes, my little sunflower seed. You did,” Arkady assured.

“And you drooled a bit, Dove. Right at the corner of your mouth for all to see. ’Tis just the truth.”

“Then you declared yourself the winner of this made-up game in your mind right to Officer Nelson’s face, like he even knew he was playing,” Belfry added with a chuckle at the memory.

Dana Nelson is one of the police officers I frequently deal with when one of these murders occurs. We’ve become friends of sorts—sharing a cup of coffee from time to time, and sometimes even a burger. There’s no physical attraction between us. In fact, he’s so far my polar opposite, I’m surprised we’re even friends. At first, when I returned to Eb Falls, we weren’t. But we’d come a long way. Which is why I knew it was okay to tease him about finding the brooch before he did.

And listen, January is always a sad month for me. Christmas and the New Year were over, my mother and father had gone home, all the fun parties had ended, everyone had gone back to their lives, we’d taken down the decorations I love so much, and my endless cookie/eggnog binge came to a screeching halt because Win makes me exercise. Finding Mrs. Pepperton’s brooch made me feel better, okay?

Taking off along the road to town, I shrugged. “Officer By The Book should have stepped up his game is all I’m saying. There was a lost brooch on the loose. It needed to be found. I found it. He’s an officer of the law. Finding a brooch should have been easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. My coup deserved some crowing.”

“Did it?” Win teased.

“Oh, all right. I like a good mystery, and it’s been months since we’ve been able to sink our teeth into something worthy. Not that I’d wish murder on anyone. I’d be just as happy to find buried treasure as I would a murderer, BTW. Maybe even happier.”

Win cleared his throat. “As I said—”

“So, about this tattoo,” I deflected away from my alleged fixation on solving mysteries. “Anything specific you want me to ask?”

“I’m simply curious about its origins. Maybe it’s a common design.”

“I know next to nothing about tattoos, but the only common design I see usually has to do with cartoon characters. The one you’re describing seems pretty specific, Win.”

“Thus, we must ask. Who knows if it’s a universal tattoo with the artist’s personal flair thrown in for good measure? Also, tattoo artists sometimes know one another’s work merely by sight. ’Twould be helpful if they knew the tattoo artist, would it not? Not to mention, we haven’t properly welcomed them to the neighborhood. They’re just four doors down from you and they’ve been lodged there for almost three weeks. It will do you good to get to know your neighbors and fellow friends in commerce.”

Nodding, I took my time around the sharp bend in the road leading to town, slowing to take into account possible icy patches. “You’re right, Spy Guy. It’s not like we’ve been busy with much else but inventory anyway. Maybe I should stop and grab some pastries for them? I feel so rude for not extending a hand sooner, but I guess I’ve just been preoccupied.”

Which is the truth. I just couldn’t tell Win what kept me so preoccupied.

“Is okay, malutka. Yesterday when we were in town at Madam Z’s, Arkady see they are still moving into their shop. Boxes and more boxes. They looked too busy for pleasantries.”

“Pastries would be a brilliant welcome gift, Stephania.”

“Pastries it is then,” I agreed, parallel parking without much fuss two stores down from the bakery.

I sat in the car for a moment and enjoyed the stillness of Ebenezer Falls after an unexpected snowfall. It was nestled in a suburb of Seattle, and I loved my quaint town—the town I’d grown up in and left for a job as a 9-1-1 operator in Paris, Texas, so many years ago. It was bright and cheerful with colorful awnings on each shop, and it sat in the arms of Puget Sound with the mountains for its backdrop.

Blanketed in snow, it was idyllic.

The enormous pine trees were covered in heavy tufts of white on green and icicles hung from the big maples’ winter-bare branches like icy fingers.

It was abnormally quiet today due to the unexpected snow—which was what made parking such a breeze. Clearly, everyone had hunkered down for the snowstorm and decided to sleep in. Pushing my car door open, I took a deep breath of the tangy air, raw and damp from the heavy precipitation. I loved the scent of Puget Sound—I loved the seagulls flying above on this overcast day.

I even loved the gray sky with its swollen clouds, and for the first time since the holidays had ended, I felt a little better. Scooping Bel from my neck, I dropped him into my latest vintage purse find, where a microwaved hand warmer awaited him.

I heard his low moan of gratitude and smiled as I scooted into the bakery to grab some welcome-to-the-neighborhood pastries, so I could well and truly extend my hand to the people who owned Inkerbelle’s.

* * * *

The bright neon sign with the words Inkerbelle’s Tattoos, with a picture of a skull’s head—made even brighter by the gloomy skies—blinked cheerfully at me. As I peeked inside, I saw movement.

Gorgeous movement, as a by the by. A beautiful dusky redhead, long and lean in a bulky off-white sweater and leather pants, moved boxes, her hair cascading down her back to her waist in rippling waves. As she bent and picked things up, I noted her sculpted features were near perfect in every way.

Arkady wolf-whistled his appreciation at that movement, seconds before Win chastised him.

“Good man, behave yourself! Have you no impulse control? Especially in this day and age, where women have finally risen up against such blatant philandering. For shame, Spy!”

Arkady let out an embarrassed chuckle. “I slip. Old habits die hard. My apologies, my malutka.”

I flapped a hand at him as I balanced the box of yummy pastries in the crook of my elbow. “No worries. Just don’t let it happen again. And I admit, she’s certainly not hard to look at. If I were a misogynistic cad, I’d whistle, too.”

My admission made Arkady laugh. “Then I am forgiven for being dirty, lowdown pig?”

I nodded, catching a glimpse of myself in the store’s glass door and feeling very inadequate when up against this ethereal creature. “You’re forgiven. Now let’s go make friends.”

I tried to push the door open, but it was locked. So I wiped the condensation collecting on the glass and knocked, catching the stunning tall woman’s gaze.

Or should I say glare.

Yes. Glare was the right adjective when aligned with this beautiful woman. She was sleek and supple, like oil on water, as her face turned to a mask of clear suspicion when she slinked toward the door.

But I smiled reassuringly and waved, holding up the box of pastries, hoping to abolish that “you owe me money” look from her face.

And then another woman appeared—a curvier woman than the one who looked like she belonged on a billboard in Times Square in a pair of Victoria’s Secret angel wings. She was shorter than the glamazon, and wore a holey red sweatshirt with fashionably ripped jeans, and a black knit beanie covering her straight reddish-brown hair.

She, too, was pretty in an understated way, as though she didn’t want anyone to know she was attractive—or rather, she didn’t know how attractive her clear porcelain skin and bright eyes were.

I pointed to the box of pastries again and smiled, and she paused for only a moment before she put a hand to the other woman’s shoulder and squeezed, then nodded with a smile of her own, coming toward the door.

She flipped the lock and opened it, her eyes bright with curiosity. “Hi there! How can I help you?”

Her voice struck me in the strangest way. A right-in-the-gut way. It was so warm and comforting, sort of one part Mary Poppins-ish without the accent and two parts Disney princess. Instantly, I felt soothed and comfortable with her. How odd.

I stuck my hand out, the smile still on my face even as my teeth chattered. “I’m Stevie Cartwright—your neighbor in commerce. I own Madam Zoltar’s just down the block. I’m sorry it took me so long to drop by, but I wanted to personally welcome you to Eb Falls. We’re thrilled you’re here.”

“Are you?” the sleek woman asked, hovering behind the lady who’d opened the door. Her nostrils flared momentarily, like a cat smelling a stranger who wasn’t supposed to be in her kitty condo.

But the curvier woman nudged her in the ribs and said, “Coop, this is our neighbor, Miss Cartwright. She owns Madam Zoltar’s—you know, the psychic reading place just down the block? I’m Sist—Er, Trixie Lavender, by the way. And this is Coop.”

I waved a hand at her as she took a step back, her body language inviting me into their shop. “Just call me Stevie, please, and I’m not a psychic. I’m more of a medium. We just never changed the sign out of respect for the old Madam Zoltar. Pleasure to meet you both.”

Coop swung her lustrous hair over her shoulder and looked me up and down with critical green eyes, her finely boned hands on her slender hips. “You’re a medium?”

I fought a sigh. I was used to this kind of skepticism, but sometimes it rankled me. Tucking my purse under my arm, I handed the pastries over and forced a smile. “I talk to dead people.”

Coop’s jaw, sharp and well defined, pulsed before she sniffed the air again and finally stuck out her hand—or more like jammed it under my nose, but whatever. The move was aggressive, which I found odd, but who am I to judge? I talk to ghosts and have a pet turkey.

As though she hadn’t heard my answer, Coop waved her fingers under my nose again to indicate I’d better shake it or die. At least that’s what it felt like—the threat of death. And I took her slender fingers in mine because I didn’t want to die. No, sir.

She gave my hand a good, hard pump and sort of wince-smiled. “Nice to meet you, Stevie Cartwright.”

“Just Stevie is fine, Coop. Remember what I told you?” Trixie whispered to her friend with a pat on her arm then plastered another smile on her pretty face before looking me directly in the eyes. “How lovely you’ve brought us pastries. Are they from the local bakery?” She motioned for me to follow her, and I did, stepping over boxes and such to walk to the back of the store with Coop hot on my heels.

“They are! Are you familiar?”

Trixie threw her head back and laughed as she led me to a small table and chairs in their makeshift kitchen by a small white Formica countertop with a coffeepot. “I’m convinced I’ve gained at least ten pounds in a week from her bear claws. Oh, and those honey-almond muffins they mix with her angel’s wings and the tears of the goddess of baked goods? I’ll never be the same! I think we’ve had breakfast there at least every other day since we moved here.”

I giggled. No one knew those heavenly creations better than I did. “Where did you guys come from, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Trixie grabbed a worn chair with a spindle back and motioned for me to sit against the backdrop of some posters with famous celebrities and their tattoos. “Oregon. Deep in the backwoods of Oregon. Coffee?” she asked before she was at the small counter, reaching for a mug from a worn cardboard box.

Nodding with gratitude, I pulled my scarf off and set my purse on the tiny table, all while Coop’s eyes followed my every move. “I’d love some, please. So what made you choose Eb Falls?”

She shrugged, her hair swishing across the tops of her shoulders in a silk curtain. “We needed a change of scenery, didn’t we, Coop?”

A change of scenery—in Eb Falls? Sure, the tourist season was great, but it might not pay the rent come winter.

Maybe tattoos were a better financial bet than mediums. Surely the business was brisker. Still, I was curious at her short, almost dismissive explanation—I couldn’t help but get the feeling she was skirting the subject.

Or maybe I’m just itching to create a mystery where there is none. I’m mystery-starved, people—seeing shadows in dark corners that don’t exist. Don’t judge.

Coop pulled up a box and plopped down on top of it, her long legs sprawling out before her when, out of nowhere, she agreed with Trixie. “Yep. New scenery.”

I couldn’t tell if it was just me, but I felt as though Coop were vetting me. And I don’t mean what I look like or my hair or even what I was wearing—I mean, digging around in my soul. Her gaze was frightfully intense until Trixie put her hand on Coop’s shoulder and patted, almost like one would do when they were attempting to soothe an anxious pet.

“My, this Coop’s quite edgy, eh, Dove?” Win asked, something he usually doesn’t do when I’m interacting with other people so as not to distract me. For him to have noticed it as well meant I was right in my assessment. And then he added, “I vote we tread lightly.”

And I hummed my agreement before I spoke. “Well, either way, whatever the reason, welcome to the neighborhood. If you need anything, anything at all, here’s my card. Call me anytime. I’m happy to help.” I dug in my purse, nudging a sleepy Belfry around before finding the ivory vellum business cards I’d recently had made for the store.

Coop snatched it from me with such force, the air whizzed with the snap of the printed card, making me blink, until Trixie once more put her hand on Coop’s shoulder and squeezed without saying a single word.

Coop seemed to respond best to that, as though it were a secret signal between the two of them. She leaned back, looking at my card before tucking it into the back pocket of her leather pants, her almond-shaped green eyes never leaving my face.

I licked my suddenly dry lips. The vibe between us had gone all wonky and I wasn’t sure where to take the conversation without this strange, beautiful creature named Coop chewing my face off. So I tied knots in my scarf and floundered awkwardly. Very unusual for me…I can make conversation with almost anyone.

“The tattoo, Stephania. Lest you forget why we’re really here,” Win prompted with a whisper.

And as he spoke again, Coop cocked her head, scanning the store’s orange and yellow walls like she’d heard Win speak. But that was impossible, right?

She’d thrown me off my game is all. Everything appeared suspicious now.

It was time for a diversion. I wanted to get this conversation back on track to Pleasantville. We were to be neighbors. I wanted to keep it neighborly. “Anyway, would you mind if I asked you a quick question?”

Coop pushed off the cardboard box, using her hands for leverage on her thighs as she rose. “Yes. I would mind. I have work to do. I can’t get work done if you’re asking questions.”

I blinked again. Er… I was at a loss for words, but Trixie passed a stern look to Coop before she said, “Why don’t you go empty the boxes in the storeroom, Coop, and I’ll help Stevie. Okay?”

Coop appeared to think about that for a moment before she turned on a booted heel and headed toward the back of the store, her hair swaying about her trim waist.

Instantly, Trixie’s pretty face and sparkling brown eyes went apologetic. “I’m sorry. Coop spent a lot of her time isolated. She still does with the exception of the time she spends with me. Nuances to a conversation, even polite responses, elude her sometimes. She means no harm. She’s just very direct and honest to a fault. Creative geniuses, you know?” was the explanation she gave for Coop’s short demeanor. “I hope she didn’t offend you.”

I wondered how that was going to work out with a customer-oriented business. I also wondered why Trixie’s explanation sounded so down pat. As though she’d rehearsed it in a mirror. Or again, maybe I was digging around for something that wasn’t there.

Although, maybe Coop was autistic. That certainly could explain her odd behavior and her stilted social skills. And if that were the case, I’d make an extra effort to pay closer attention to her needs from this point forward. In fact, that I hadn’t considered the notion beforehand left me disappointed in myself.

But I truly didn’t think that was the case. I think she’s just surly.

Still, I shrugged off Trixie’s explanation and sipped at my coffee with a vague smile, still processing Coop in all her Coopness. “That’s totally fine. Not a worry in the world.”

Trixie tilted her head, her sweetly soft voice easing my agitated state. “So that question?”

“Oh, yes! Forgive me if I go about this the wrong way. I know nothing about tattoos. Anyway, I have a…friend who has a memory of a tattoo he once saw. I can only describe it, but I was wondering if you maybe had a book of designs I could look through—for reference. I’ve had no luck on the Internet so far. Or maybe if I describe it, it’ll ring a bell? I wondered if it could be a universal tattoo. You know, like a beloved cartoon character that’s popular? One you can personalize with an initial.”

Trixie was up and moving toward a particularly large box labeled with Coop’s name. She pulled out a big black binder and hauled it over to the small table while I glanced at my surroundings.

I’d been so caught up in figuring out Coop, I hadn’t really given the place a good once over.

It needed work, no doubt. The walls were a bit off-putting in their orange and yellow, and the real wood floors, a light oak in color, needed a pass with a sander and a coat of gloss, but when the sun shone through the enormous picture window once summer came, it would be fantastic.

The space was large, with plenty of room for tattoo stations or whatever you called them.

Trixie dropped the binder on the table and told me to take a peek while she dug up more design books. “Some of those are Coop’s personal designs, and some of the sketches are mine. Some are tattoos every artist in any shop from here to Hoboken can ink. They’re called flash art—the ones that are, as you called them, universal.”

Good to know…

As I flipped through the hundreds of pages in the book, I mused, “Ever seen a tattoo of a snake with a collar around his neck and a diamond in the center of it? I might be able to eliminate some of this hunt if you’ve seen something similar—”

Coop’s guttural howl from the back room cut into my words, stopping all sound and motion from either of us. I was up on my feet in an instant, my heart thrashing in my chest, but Trixie put a hand to my arm and called out, “Coop? You okay back there?”

Yes, I prayed. Please be okay back there. Please don’t let that agonizing howl be the one you let out after a fresh kill.

Stephania Cartwright! You take that back. Coop’s shown no signs of violence.

But no sooner had I chastised myself for being an awful person than Coop was calling out to Trixie.

“You better come back here right now, Sister Trixie Lavender!” she bellowed.

Sister?

Yet, I had no time to ruminate over that strange title before I was following Trixie, who was power walking to the back room.

Stopping short of the room’s door, I heard Trixie gasp on a sharp, wheezing breath.

Coop?” Trixie whispered in what definitely sounded like horror, her hand over her mouth.

When I peered over her shoulder, I gasped, too.

“That’s Abe Levigne’s stepson, Hank Morrison!” I blurted out, taking in the scene before me. My mouth fell open as I attempted to parse what to do next. And then I sprang into action, setting Trixie aside and kneeling down amongst the boxes and clutter to see if I could help him in some way.

But Coop grabbed my wrist before I could check for his pulse, her glittering eyes pinning me to the point of discomfort.

I pulled up my big girl britches and took control, because control needed taking. I looked up at her flawless face and managed to squeak, “Is he…?”

“Dead,” Coop answered without so much as a bat of her luscious eyelashes. “He’s definitely dead.”

And just like that, this mystery lover finally had another puzzle to solve.

Chapter 3

I gulped as I rose to my feet and continued to lock eyes with Coop, who stood over Hank’s crumpled body as though he were just another box she needed to unpack.

I glanced away only briefly and noted there were specks of blood on the front of her tan boot, but then I didn’t see much blood around Hank at all. Maybe it wasn’t blood? Maybe it was some sort of tattoo ink. There was a box labeled ink just behind her, after all. Could tattoo ink kill you if injected and how much did you need to do the job?

And why was I asking myself that question when I didn’t even know what the murder weapon was yet?

Slow your roll, Stevie.

Trying to focus, I quickly glanced at Hank’s immobile form. He was on his back, his expensive but casual tan suit jacket without so much as a wrinkle. Yet, his legs were positioned as though they’d crumpled beneath him, still bent at the knees. And the fake brown leather loafers he wore sported the white, chalky residue of the salt used to keep the sidewalks outside free of ice.

His sandy-blond hair had nary a strand out of place, still slicked back in that outdated pompadour he was so fond of, but that was all I was able to process before things got sticky.

Suddenly, Trixie was all sound and motion, reaching for her friend and taking her hand. “Coop! What happened?”

What happened? I couldn’t believe she was asking what happened. Here’s what happened: Glamazon went rogue and snuffed a guy out. That’s what happened, coo-coo pants.

Admittedly, Hank wasn’t the nicest guy and most of Eb Falls wasn’t too fond of him, myself included. But we’d all loved Abe, who’d only just died a couple of months back. So we tried to be pleasant toward his stepson in honor of him—sort of a goodwill gesture. Yet, no matter how disagreeable he had been, he certainly didn’t deserve to end up dead.

“We need to call 9-1-1,” I urged, digging in my purse for my phone.

“No!” Trixie cried out, pushing Coop behind her in a protective gesture I found odd as all get out. Coop didn’t need protecting. She’d cut your heart out and serve it on those snobby tasteless crackers Win was so fond of. I didn’t doubt that for a second.

But Trixie’s face, stricken with fear, spoke volumes. Which I suppose I could understand if your BFF is a cold-blooded killer and she was caught in the act. But why would she want to protect a murderer? Unless…

“Stephania!” Win’s harsh tone cut off my thoughts. “I see the wheels in your head turning. What’s the first rule of Spy Club?”

I wanted to answer him with my typical snarky reply, which was, “What happens in Spy Club stays in Spy Club, except when dead spies refuse to share their secrets with their earthly contacts and let new members join their stupid club.” But I refrained because I didn’t want Trixie to think I was crazy as a bedbug.

“You must not jump to conclusions,” he reminded with authority. “You must take in all the information around you before you simply assume this woman is guilty, and while she’s quite antagonistic, you have no facts to place Hank’s death at her doorstep. That’s what the first rule of Spy Club is.”

Blah-blah-blah. But he was right. So as I held my phone close to my chest, I eyed a terrified Trixie and an utterly unrepentant Coop. “We have to call the police, Trixie.”

But she held up her shaking hands in a frantic gesture. “Wait! Please. Just wait a minute and let me find out what happened before we involve the police. Please. I’m begging you.”

Okey-doke then. I know I openly gaped at her. Yet, there was something so raw about her plea. So desperate, and when she made the request sounding like the American version of Mary Poppins, I had trouble denying her. How could such a warm, sweet-spoken woman be knee-deep in this abrasive Coop? Talk about opposites attracting.

On a deep, steadying breath, I looked her right in the eye. “Okay. I’ll wait. But I want to know what happened, and I want to know right now. I knew Hank. I knew his stepfather, Abe. How did this happen, Coop?” I waved my hand in the direction of Hank’s body and took a step back out into the hall.

But Coop just shrugged her slim shoulders, as unaffected as ever, and said, “I dunno. I came back to empty the boxes just like Sister… Um, just like Trixie asked, and when I moved that pile over there,” she pointed to a stack to her left, next to a shelving unit, “I found him all crumpled up like a piece of paper. I almost tripped on him.”

Why did Coop keep calling Trixie sister? Maybe they were sisters? I hadn’t thought of that, though they looked nothing alike. But then maybe they were adopted?

That puzzle was for a much later conversation. For now, we needed to establish what had happened to Hank.

My eyes darted from Hank’s body to Coop and back again. “Does that explain the blood on your boot? You tripped on his body?” I asked, forcing my terror to the furthest recesses of my mind.

I realize it’s not like I haven’t encountered a killer, but there was something about Coop that truly frightened me on a deeper level than some murderer with a gun.

“Probably,” she said casually, daring me to say otherwise with those amazing eyes of hers.

“Probably?” I squawked, waving my phone around like a samurai sword. “Probably?”

Okay. The waiting game was over. I was going to call the police. Hopefully, Officer Foreign Object Stuffed Up His Butt was on duty and he’d handle this. I began to dial a very familiar number.

But Trixie took a leap toward me, grabbing my wrist, her face red, her eyes full of unshed tears. “Please wait, Stevie. Please. I need you to listen to me. If Coop says she found him like this, I know she’s telling the truth. It’s not in her to lie.”

Now that was rich. I fought barking a laugh as I yanked my arm away and took another step backward. “That’s insane. No one ever really knows anyone, and there’s no way you can possibly convince me it’s not in her to lie. I’m sure Jeffrey Dahmer’s parents thought he didn’t lie either, and look how that turned out.” Speaking of Dahmer… “And wait one minute,” I hissed. “How do I know the two of you weren’t in cahoots?”

Now, that was the dumbest question ever uttered by an amateur sleuth. Why would they murder Hank and wait until I showed up to announce his death? It was about as likely as the notion Vogue was going to call and ask me to be on their cover.

But what can I say? I was a little rattled. Not just by Hank’s death, but by Coop’s nonchalance about a dead man in their storage room.

Trixie took in a ragged breath, her chest heaving up and down, her neck a mottle red. “I’m begging you, Stevie. Please listen. Coop isn’t… She’s not like most people. She—”

“And that’s her alibi? She isn’t like most people? Most people aren’t like the Zodiac Killer either, but lookie there—a serial killer! A killer’s a killer. Period.” I backed away until I was almost pressed up against the orange and yellow wall of the hallway.

Out of nowhere, Coop suddenly straightened, her spine stiff, her face no longer aggressive but quite passive and, dare I say, confused.

She shook her head with a vehement motion, making her hair swing. “Kill Hank H. Morrison? Oh, no, Stevie Cartwright the medium. I would never kill someone who didn’t deserve to be killed.”

Coop!” Trixie hissed, her eyes flashing all manner of signals to her friend who, hand to heart, looked about as confused as a mouse in a maze.

“Something is amok here, Dove. Something deep below the surface of this woman. I almost smell it. I know you’ll think me bananapants, as you so crassly point out when I make an observation you don’t like, but I find I believe her.”

Ooooo! I hated when Win had a point to make, and he made it at a time when I couldn’t defend my own point of view. Which was, this was nuts and I could be in danger.

“Coop,” Trixie pleaded, turning back to face her friend. “Stop talking. Please. Just let me handle this.”

Coop snapped her mouth shut, turning her lips into a thin line and crossing her arms over her chest.

My gaze narrowed in her direction and it took everything I had not to turn tail and run.

So what made me stay? Win and his stupid spy gut. Sure, I could chalk up his notion to the idea that maybe he was on Coop’s side because she was flat out a stone-cold fox. And yes, I’m going there because that’s always where I go these days. I can’t help but take the jealous route. It’s pathetic, but in the interest of honesty, I’m not playing games with myself.

However, Win wouldn’t put me in danger no matter how appealing Coop is.

So, taking into account Win’s gut, I decided to fish around a bit. I only knew a little about Hank, but one thing was for sure. He owned a lot of real estate via his stepfather Abe’s passing.

“Do you know Hank? Isn’t he your landlord? Didn’t he inherit this place after his stepfather passed?”

If that were true, it would explain why he’d been in the tattoo parlor. Hank wasn’t the kind of guy who had tattoos, or at least not any visible ones. But he was the kind of guy who liked money.

Just ask the Thursday night poker crowd of middle-aged men in Eb Falls. Hank liked to win, and he was a notorious sore loser, but tattoos? Not his thing.

Trixie inhaled a gulp of air and bounced her head. “Yes. He owns this building and several others on this block, I think.”

“He was mean,” Coop added for good measure, rocking from foot to foot, two bright spots of red on her cheeks.

“Coop!” Trixie fairly screamed before she appeared to gather herself and shake off her panic.

I cocked my head, eyeballing the front door and trying to remember if Trixie had locked it behind me in case I needed to make a quick escape.

Yet, I couldn’t resist asking, “Mean how, Coop?”

But Trixie intervened before Coop had the chance to open her mouth. “When we originally rented the store, the price was much more manageable. But we rented it from Abe, and by the time we got here, Abe had died and Hank was in charge. He upped our rent. It’s no big deal. We’ll make it work.”

“You’re not telling the truth, Sister Trixie,” Coop crowed like a child who catches their parent fibbing. “He lied and said he couldn’t find any paperwork on our lease and that must mean it didn’t really exist. Then he charged us more money.”

“Didn’t you have a copy of the lease Abe signed?” I asked, avoiding looking down at Hank’s body, though I knew I’d have to if I intended to figure out his murder.

Trixie’s shoulders slumped in defeat as she jammed her hands into the pockets of her jeans. “I looked everywhere and couldn’t find it when the time came to defend our position and prove he wasn’t being truthful. I’m usually so careful about things like this, but I have no idea where it went. I had a copy of it on my laptop, but then my laptop crashed and, well…it was just easier to let things be.”

Coop’s perfectly arched eyebrow rose. “You said we shouldn’t make a fuss because we didn’t need any more troub—”

“Coop! Honest to gracious, I’m going to put a dirty sock in your mouth if you don’t can it!”

I watched the silent warning conversation between Trixie and Coop play out via their eyes, and I was left feeling uneasy. If Hank was going to raise their rent, and it made Coop angry, she had motive to kill him. So did Trixie for that matter. But would they be so careless as to do it here in their own store while I’m here?

How long had Hank been dead, anyway?

But none of that made a difference. The police still had to be called. And I said as much.

“You do realize there’s no escaping calling the police, don’t you, Trixie?” I kept my voice as sympathetic as possible. Trixie’s panic was truly troubling me.

“Stevie Cartwright is correct,” Coop offered without so much as a pause. “The police must be called. It’s the rules. I saw it on the television. I think the show was called Snapped. And we can’t wait too long or they’ll become suspicious.”

Trixie let her head fall back on her shoulders in clear frustration. “Coop! No more!” she growled.

I didn’t know what to say to Coops assessment, but I was calling the police anyway. Looking to Trixie, I sighed in resignation. “I have to call the police, Trixie. I have to. But most of the Eb Falls Police Department is pretty decent. If Coop just explains—”

Trixie’s breath shuddered in and out, fear written all over her face, cutting off my words. “But they’ll have no choice but to question Coop ,and she’s, as you can see, very direct in nature. They’ll twist her words and—”

“It’s going to be all right,” Coop reassured her friend, grabbing her by the shoulders and forcing her to focus. “I’m going to tell the truth, and you always say the truth will set you free. They won’t have a choice but to set me free because I didn’t do anything wrong.”

I couldn’t get a clear read on the dynamic of their relationship, but I knew the ride home with Win and Arkady was going to be filled with speculative conversation. Sometimes it came off as though Trixie were the moral compass helping Coop understand the world around her, and at moments, Coop didn’t appear as though she needed anyone to guide her. Yet, she always deferred to Trixie.

And why was Trixie so worried about Coop being misinterpreted? She appeared pretty straightforward to me.

Trixie hugged Coop and patted her cheek. “You’re right, friend. I know you are, but…”

I looked to Trixie, my eyes sympathetic. I saw how torn she was, and I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I had to call the police. It was my duty to justice for all.

Plus, when I didn’t call the police, I ended up with the sour disapproval of Officer Stodgy and an angry, very vocal Detective Sean Moore who still wasn’t over the fact that his partner had been a cold-blooded murderer who’d almost killed me. Sometimes, I almost thought he blamed me for Detective Montgomery’s criminal shenanigans.

I put a hand on her arm. “Trixie?”

A tear slipped from her eye, but she nodded in resignation, using her thumb to swipe at the salty drop. “I know you mean well, Stevie. I just wish I could…” Then she paused and sighed. “Never mind. Go ahead, Stevie. Call them.”

I hated the defeated tone in her voice. I hated that I was the reason she was defeated.

“I think you guys should step out of the room. Just in case of contamination,” I advised.

As I dialed 9-1-1, Trixie drove her hand under Coop’s arm and pulled her away from Hank and out into the hallway, while I explained to the operator the scene that lay before me.

And as I spoke to the operator, my heart grew heavy and my stomach turned.