Then There Were Nun

 

Nun of Your Business Mysteries, Book 1

Dakota Cassidy

Chapter 1

So, Sister Trixie Lavender, how do we feel about this space? Open concept, with plenty of sprawling views of the crumbling sidewalk from the leaky picture window and easily room for eight tat chairs.

“Also, one half bathroom for customers, one full for us—which means we’d have to share, but there are worse things. A bedroom right up those sketchy stairs with a small loft, which BTW, I’m calling as mine now. I like to be up high for the best possible views when I survey our pending tattoo empire. A tiny kitchenette, but no big deal. I don’t cook anyway, and you sure don’t, if that horse pucky you called oatmeal is any indication of your culinary skills. Lots of peeling paint and crappy plumbing. All for the low-low price of…er, what was that price again, Fergus McDuff?”

Short and chubby, a balding Fergus McDuff, the landlord of the current dive I was assessing as a candidate for our tattoo parlor, cringed and visibly shuddered beneath his limp blue suit.

Maybe because Coop had him up against a wall, holding him by the front of his shirt in white-knuckled fists as she waited for him to rethink the price he’d quoted us the moment he realized we were women.

Which was not only an outrageous amount of money for this dank, pile-of-rubble hole in the wall, but not at all the amount quoted to us over the phone. It also looked nothing like the picture from his Facebook page. I know that shouldn’t surprise me. He’d probably used some Snapchat filter to brighten it up. But here we were.

A bead of perspiration popped out just above Fergus’s thin upper lip.

Coop’s dusky auburn hair curtained his face, but his stance remained firm. “Like I said, lady, it’s three grand a month—”

Cutting his words off, Coop tightened her grip with a grunt and hauled Fergus higher. His pleading gray eyes darted from her to me and back again in unadulterated fear, but to his credit, he tried really hard not to show it.

Coop licked her lips, a low hum of a growl coming from her throat, her gaze intently focused on poor Fergus. “Can I kill him, Sister Trixie Lavender? Please, please, pleeease?”

Coop,” I warned. She knew better than to ask such a question. “She’s just joking, Fergus. Promise.”

“But I’m not. Though, I promise I’ll clean up afterward. It’ll be like it never happened—”

“Two thousand!” Fergus shouted quite jarringly, as though the effort to push the words out pained him. “Wait, wait, wait! I meant to say two thousand a month with all utilities!”

That’s my demon. Overbearing and intimidating as the day is long. Still, I frowned at her, pulling my knit cap down over my ears. While this behavior worked in our favor, it was still unacceptable.

We’d had a run-in with the law a few months ago back in Ebenezer Falls, Washington, where we’d first tried to set up a tattoo shop. Coop’s edgy streak had almost landed her with a murder charge.

Since then (and before we landed in Eb Falls, by the by), we’d been traveling through the Pacific Northwest, making ends meet by selling my portrait sketches to people along the way, waiting until Coop’s instincts choose the right place for us to call home.

Cobbler Cove struck just the right chord with her. And that’s how we ended up here, with her breathing fire down Fergus McDuff’s throat.

Coop, who’d caught on to my displeasure, smirked her beautiful smirk and set Fergus down with a gentle drop, brushing his trembling shoulder with a careful hand to smooth his wrinkled suit.

“That’s nice. You’re being nice, Fergus McDuff. I like you. Do you like me?”

“Coop?” I called from the other end of the room, going over some rough measurements for a countertop in my mind. “Playtime’s over, young lady. Let Mr. McDuff be, please.”

She rolled her bright green eyes at me in petulance and wiped her hands down her burgundy leather pants, disappointment written all over her face that there’d be no killing today.

Coop huffed. “Fine.”

I looked at her with my stern ex-nun’s expression as a clear reminder to remember her manners. “Coop…”

She pouted before holding out her hand to Fergus, even though he outwardly cringed at the gesture. “It was nice to meet you, Fergus McDuff. I hope I’ll see you again sometime soon,” she said almost coquettishly, mostly following the guidelines I’d set forth for polite conversation with new acquaintances.

Fergus brushed her hand away, fear still on his face, and that was when I knew it was time for me to step in.

“You do realize she’s just joking—about killing you and all, don’t you? I would never let her do that,” I joked, hoping he’d come along for the ride.

But he only nodded as Coop picked up his tie clip and handed it to him in a gesture of apology.

I smiled at her and nodded my head in approval, dropping my hands into the pockets of my puffy vest. “Okay, Fergus. Sold. Two grand a month and utilities it is. A year lease, right? Have a contract handy?”

Fergus nodded and scurried toward the front of the store to get his briefcase. It was then Coop leaned toward me and sniffed the air, her delicate nostrils flaring.

“This place smells right, Trixie Lavender. Yes, it does. Also, I like the name Peach Street. That sounds like a nice place to live.”

I looked into her beautiful eyes—eyes so green and perfectly almond-shaped they made other women sick with jealousy—and smiled, feeling a sense of relief. “Ya think? You’ve got a good vibe about it then? Like the one you had in Ebenezer Falls before the bottom fell out?”

And you were accused of murder and our store was left in shambles?

I bit the inside of my cheek to keep from bringing up our last escapade in a suburb of Seattle, with an ex-witch turned medium named Stevie Cartwright and her dead spy turned ghost cohort, Winterbottom. It was still too fresh.

Coop rolled her tongue along the inside of her cheek and scanned the dark, mostly barren space with critical eyes. Any mention of Eb Falls, and Coop grew instantly sullen. “I miss Stevie Cartwright. She said she’d be my friend. Always-always.”

My face softened into a smile. I missed Stevie and her ghost compatriot, too. Even though I couldn’t actually hear Winterbottom—or Win, as she’d called him—Coop could, and from what she’d relayed to me, he sounded delightfully British and madly in love with Stevie.

Certainly an unrequited love, due to their circumstances—him being all the way up there on what they called Plane Limbo (where souls wait to decide if they wish to cross over)—and Stevie here on Earth, but they fit one another like gloves.

Stevie had been one of the best things to ever happen to me; Coop, too. She’d helped us in more ways than just solving a murder and keeping Coop from going to jail. She’d helped heal our hearts. She’d shown us what it meant to be part of a community. She’d helped us learn to trust not just our instincts, but to let the right people into our lives and openly enjoy their presence.

“Trixie? Do you think Stevie meant we’d always be friends?”

I winked at Coop. “She meant what she said, for sure. She always means what she says. If she said she’ll always be your friend, you can count on it. And I miss Stevie, too, Coop. Bet she comes to visit us soon.”

Coop almost smirked, which was her version of a smile—something we worked on every day. Facial expressions and body language humans most commonly use.

“Will she eat spaghetti with us?” she asked, referring to the last meal we’d shared with Stevie, when she’d invited her friends over and made us a part of not just her community, but her family.

“I bet she’ll eat whatever we make. So anyway… We were talking the vibe here? It feels good to you?”

“Yep. I can tattoo here.”

“Gosh, I hope so. We need to plant some roots, Coop. We need to begin again Finnegan.”

We needed to find a sense of purpose after Washington, and this felt right. This suburb of Portland called the Cobbler Cove District felt right.

Tucking her waist-length hair behind her ear, Coop nodded her agreement with a vague pop of her lips, the wheels in her mind so obviously turning. “So we can grow and be a part of the community. So we can blend.”

“Yes, blending is important. Now, about threatening Fergus…”

Her eyes narrowed on Fergus, who’d taken a phone call and busily paced the length of the front of the store. “He was lying, Trixie Lavender. Three grand wasn’t what he said on the phone at all. No, it was not. I know what I heard. You said it’s bad to lie. I was only following the rules, just like you told me I should if I wanted to stay here with you and other humans.”

Bobbing my head to agree, I pinched her lean cheek with affection and smiled. “That’s exactly what I said, Coop. Exactly. Good on you for finally listening to me after our millionth conversation about manners.”

“Do I win a prize?”

I frowned as I leaned against the peeling yellow wall. I never knew where Coop was going in her head sometimes. She took many encounters, words, people, whatever, at face value. Almost the way a small child would—except this sometime-child had an incredible figure and a savage lust for blood if not carefully monitored.

“A prize, Coop?” I asked curiously, tucking my hands in the pockets of my jeans. “Explain your thinking, please.”

She gazed at me in all seriousness as she quite visibly concentrated on her words. I watched her sweet, uncluttered mind put her thoughts together.

“Yep. A prize. I saw it the other day on a sign at the grocery store. The millionth shopper wins free groceries for a year. Do I get something for free after our millionth conversation?”

Laughter bubbled from my throat. Coop didn’t just bring me endlessly sticky situations, she brought me endless laughter and, yes, even endless joy. She’s simple, and I don’t mean she’s unintelligent.

I mean, sometimes she’s so black and white, I find it hard to explain to her the many levels and nuances of appropriate reactions or emotions for any given situation, and that can tax me on occasion. But she’s mine, and she’d saved my life, and I wasn’t ever going to forget that.

And I do mean ever.

She’d tell you I’d saved hers, but that’s just her innocent take on a situation that had been almost impossible until she’d shown up with her trusty sword.

I gazed up at the water-stained ceiling and thought about how to explain the complexities of mankind. I decided simple was best.

“Trixie? Do I get a prize?” she inquired again, her tone more insistent this time.

“No free groceries. Just my love and eternal gratitude that you restrained yourself and didn’t kill Fergus. He’s not a bad man, Coop. And when I say bad, I mean the kind of bad who kicks puppies and pulls the wings off moths for sport. He’s just trying to make his way in the world and get ahead. Just like everybody else. It might not be nice, but you can’t kill him over it. Them’s the rules, Demon.”

“But he wasn’t being fair, Sister Trixie Lavender.”

“Remember what we discussed about my name?”

Now she frowned, the lines in her perfectly shaped forehead deepening. “Yes. I forgot—again. You’re not a nun anymore and it isn’t necessary to call you by your last name. You’re just plain Trixie.”

Plain Trixie was an understatement. Compared to Coop, Angelina Jolie was plain. My mousy, stick-straight reddish brown (all right, mostly brown) hair and plump thighs were no match for the sleek Coopster. But you couldn’t be jealous of her for long because she had no idea how stunning she was, and that was because she didn’t care.

“Right. I’m just Trixie. Just like Fergus isn’t Fergus McDuff. He’s just plain old Fergus, if he allows you to call him by his first name, or Mr. McDuff if he prefers the more formal way to address someone. And I’m not a nun anymore. That’s also absolutely right.”

My heart shivered with a pang of sadness at that, but I’m finally able to say that out loud now and actually feel comfortable doing so.

I wasn’t a nun anymore, and I’m truly, deeply at peace with the notion. My faith had become a bone of contention for me long before I’d exited the convent, so it was probably better I’d ended up being kicked out on my ear any ol’ way.

In fact, I often wonder if it hadn’t always been a bone of contention for the entire fifteen years I’d lived there. I’d always questioned some of the rules.

I’d never wanted to enter the convent to begin with—my parents put me there when they could no longer handle my teenage substance abuse. They’d left me in the capable, nurturing hands of my mother’s dear friend, Sister Alice Catherine.

But after I’d kicked my drug habit and decided to take my vows in gratitude for all the nuns of Saint Aloysius By The Sea had done for me, I came to love the thick stone walls, the soft hum and tinkle of wind chimes, and the structure of timely prayer.

They’d saved me from my addiction. In their esteemed honor, I wanted to save people, too. What better way to do so than becoming a nun in dedicated service to the man upstairs?

Though, I can promise you, I didn’t want to leave the convent the way I did. A graceful exit would have been my preferred avenue of departure.

Instead, I left by way of possession. Yes. I said possession. An ugly, fiery, gaping-black-mouthed, demonic possession. I know that’s a lot of adjectives, but it best describes what wormed its way inside me on that awful, horrible night.

“Are you sad now, Trixie? Did I make you sad because you aren’t a nun anymore?” Coop asked, very clearly worried she’d displeased me—which did happen from time to time.

For instance, when she threatened to kill anyone who even looked cross-eyed at me—sometimes if they just breathed the wrong way.

I had to remind myself often, it was out of the goodness of her heart she’d nearly severed a careless driver’s head when he’d encroached on our pedestrian right of way (the pedestrian always has the right of way in Portland, in case you were wondering). Or lopped off a man’s fingers with a nearby butter knife for grazing my backside by accident while we were in a questionable bar.

Still, even while Coop’s emotions ruled her actions without any tempered, well-thought-out responses, she was a sparkling diamond in the rough, a veritable sponge, waiting to soak up all available knowledge.

I tugged at a lock of her silky hair, shaking off the memory of that night. “How can I be sad if I have you, Coop DeVille?”

She grimaced—my feisty, compulsive, loveable demon grimaced—which is her second version of a smile (again, she’s still practicing smiling. There’s not much to smile about in Hell, I suppose) and patted my cheek—just like I’d taught her. “Good.”

“So, do you think you’re up to the task of some remodeling? This place is kind of a mess.”

Actually, it was a disaster. Everything was crumbling. From the bathroom that looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned since the last century, to the peeling walls and yellowed linoleum with holes all throughout the store.

Her expression went thoughtful as she cracked her knuckles. “That means painting and using a hammer, right?”

I brushed my hands together and adjusted my scarf. “Yep. That’s what that means, Coop.”

“Then no. I don’t want to do that.”

I barked a laugh, scaring Fergus, who was busily rifling through his briefcase, looking for the contract I’m now positive changes with the applicant’s gender.

“Tough petunias. We’re in this together, Demon-San. That means the good, the bad, and the renovation of this place. If you want to start tattooing again, we can’t have customers subjected to this chaos, can we? Who’d feel comfortable getting a tattoo in a mess like this?”

I pointed to the pile of old pizza boxes and crushed beer cans in the corner where I hoped we’d be able to build a cashier’s counter.

Coop’s sigh was loud enough to ensure I’d hear it as she let her shoulders slump. “You’re right, Sis…um, Trixie. We have to have a sterile environment to make tattoos. The Oregon laws say so. I read them, you know. On the laptop. I read them all.

As I said, Coop’s a veritable sponge, which almost makes up for her lack of emotional control.

Almost.

I patted her shoulder as it poked out of her off-the-shoulder T-shirt, the shoulder with a tattoo of an angel in all its magnificently winged glory. A tattoo she’d drawn and inked herself while deep in the bowels of Hell.

“I’m proud of you. I’m going to need all the help I can get so we can get our license to open ASAP. We need to start making some money, Coop. We don’t have much left of the money Sister Mary Ignatius gave us, and we definitely can’t live on our charm alone.”

So I’ve been useful?”

“You’re more than useful, Coop. You’re my right-hand man. Er, woman.”

She grinned, and it was when she grinned like this, when her gorgeously crafted face lit up, I grew more certain she understood how dear a friend she was to me. “Good.”

“Okay, so let’s go sign our lives away—”

“No!” she whisper-yelled, gripping my wrist with the strength of ten men, her face twisted in fear. “Don’t do that, Trixie Lavender! You know what happens when you do that. Nothing is as it seems when you do that!”

I forced myself not to wince when I pried her fingers from my wrist. Sometimes, Coop didn’t know her own demonic strength. “Easy, Coop. I need my skin,” I teased.

In an instant, she dropped her hands to her sides and shoved them into the pockets of her pants, her expression contrite. “My apologies. But you know I have triggers. That’s what you called them, right? When I get upset and anxious, that’s a trigger. Signing your life away is one of them. We have to be careful with our words. You said so yourself.”

She was right. I’d poorly worded my intent, forgetting her fears about the devil and Hell’s shoddy bargains for your soul.

As the rain pounded the roof, I measured my words and tried to make light of the situation. “It’s just a saying we use here, Coop. It means we’re giving everything we have to Fergus McDuff on a wing and a prayer at this point. But it doesn’t mean I’m giving up my soul to the devil. I promise. My soul’s staying put.”

At least I thought it was. I could be wrong after my showdown with an evil spirit, but it felt like it was still there. I still had empathy for others. I still knew right from wrong—even if all those morals went directly out the window when the evil spirit took over.

Coop inhaled and exhaled before she squared her perfectly proportioned shoulders. “Okay. Then let’s go,” she paused, frowning, “sign our lives away to Fergus McDuff.” Then she smirked, clearly meaning she understood what I’d said.

Our path to Fergus slowed when Coop paused and put a hand on my arm, setting me behind her. There was a commotion of some kind occurring just outside our door on the sidewalk, between Fergus and another man.

A dark-haired man with olive skin stretched tightly over his jaw and sleeve tattoos on both arms yelled down at Fergus, who, after Coop, had probably had enough of being under fire for today. But holy crow, this guy was angry.

He waved those muscular arms—attached to lean hands with long fingers—around in the air as the rain pelted his sleek head. His T-shirt stretched over his muscles as he gestured over his shoulder, and his voice, even muffled, boomed along our tiny street.

I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it didn’t look like a very friendly exchange—not judging by the man’s face, which, when it wasn’t screwed up in anger, was quite handsome.

Yet, Fergus, clearly at his breaking point after his encounter with Coop, reared up in the gentleman’s face and yelled right back. But then a taller, leaner, sandy-haired man approached and put a hand on the handsome man’s shoulder, encouraging him to turn around.

That gave Fergus the opportunity to push his way past the big man and grab the handle of our door, stepping back inside the store with a bluster of huffs and grunts.

Coop sniffed the air. She can sometimes smell things the rest of us can’t. It’s hard to explain, but as an example, she smelled that our friend Stevie isn’t entirely human. She’s a witch. Or she was. Now, since her accident, she only has some residual powers left.

But Coop had smelled her paranormal nature somehow—which, by definition, is crazy incredible and something I can’t dwell on for long, for fear I’ll get lost in the madness that demons and Hell and witches and other assorted ghouls are quite real.

“The man outside is not paranormal. He’s just normal, as is the other man, and Fergus, too. If you were wondering.”

I popped my lips in Coop’s direction. “Good to know. I mean, what if he was some crazy hybrid of a vampire who can run around in daylight? Then what? We’d have to keep our veins covered or he might suck us dry.”

Coop gave me her most serious expression and sucked in her cheeks. “I already told you, you don’t ever have to worry anyone will hurt you. I’ll kill them and then they’ll be dead.”

Ba-dump-bump.

“And I told you, no killing.” Then I giggled and wrapped an arm around her shoulder, steering her past the debris on the floor and toward a grumpy Fergus, feeling better than I had in weeks. We had a purpose. We had a mission. Above all, we had hope.

We were going to open Inkerbelle’s Tattoos and Piercings. I’d pierce and design tattoos, and Coop would handle the rest. We’d hopefully hire a staff of more artists as gifted as Coop. If the universe saw fit, that is.

And then maybe we’d finally have a place to call home. Where I could nest, and Coop could ink to her heart’s desire in her tireless effort to protect every single future client from demonic harm with her special brand of magic ink.

During her life under Satan’s rule, Coop had tattooed all new entries into Hell. She’d been so good at it, the devil left her in charge of every incoming sinner. But it was a job she’d despised, and she eventually escaped the night she’d saved me.

Lastly, I’d also try to come to terms with my new status in this world—my new freedom to openly share my views on how to get through this life with a solid code of ethics. Oh, and by the way, it has more to do with being the best person you can, rather than putting the fear of scripture quotes and fire and brimstone into non-believers.

I don’t care if you believe. I know that sounds crazy coming from an ex-nun once deeply immersed in a convent and yards and yards of scripture. But I don’t. You don’t have to believe in an unseen entity if you so choose.

But I do care deeply about the world as a whole, and showing, not telling people you can live your life richly, fully, without ever stepping inside the hallowed halls of a church if you decide that’s what works for you.

I want anyone who’ll listen to know you can indeed have a life worth living—even as a low-level demon escaped from Hell and an ex-communicated nun who suffers from what Coop and I jokingly call demoni-phrenia.

Also known as, the occasional possession of an ex-nun cursed by a random evil spirit.

And I was determined to prove that—not only to myself, but to this spirit who had me in its greasy black clutches.

Chapter 2

Sister Trixie Lavender?”

I sighed, wiping the sweat from my brow. It was a rainy early June day in Cobbler Cove. And the shop was stuffy and damp, a climate you’d think I’d be used to coming from a convent on the Oregon coast made primarily of stone.

But instead, I was annoyed, and I didn’t even try to hide it.

I threw my hands up, my aggravation at DEFCON proportions. Since we’d signed this lease yesterday, anything and everything had gone kaplooey.

I mean gone to utter and total garbage. The stairs to our living quarters had decided to give way, leaving us without a path to the upper landing—which put you right in the kitchen as you entered. Because of the damage, we had to jump from the top stair into the kitchen, which could be funny if you hadn’t been a very athletic nun, choosing to read and ponder introspectively rather than run laps.

The bathroom sink—a disgusting mess of rust with some kind of gunk in every corner I don’t have enough descriptive words for—had fallen off the wall from the pressure of a water pipe bursting. Spots in the floor were rotting right down to the plywood beneath, and it didn’t help that the ceiling was leaking in not two, but four different locations.

We’d spent the night in a cheap motel, plotting and planning our new venture after signing the lease yesterday. Today, we’d come to assess what we were faced with—and what we were faced with was an “as is” situation. Apparently, even as much of a disaster as this place was, it was considered prime real estate, and Fergus McDuff had made it abundantly clear we were renting at our own risk.

Counting to ten, I prayed for patience. I didn’t want to snap at Coop, but I’ll admit, I had to clench my teeth to keep from doing so. It wasn’t her fault everything about this place we were convinced we could turn into a tattoo parlor was beyond a fixer-upper. It made me long for the cute shop we’d had so briefly in Washington, and for our friends Stevie, Belfry, Arkady, and Winterbottom.

“Um, Trixie?” Coop said again.

I looked up to find her with a bucket hooked at her elbow, sponge in hand, and a frown on her exquisitely proportioned face.

“What’s up now, Coop?”

“Where did Mr. Knuckles go?”

I almost burst out laughing. Knuckles—or Donald P. Ledbetter, according to his application—was a burly man of, were I to guess, six foot three, easily three hundred portly pounds, and a gentleman of very few words.

When he’d seen us from our grimy picture window, wobbling in our attempt to hang up our new sign, he’d strode into the store, his sleeve tattoos brilliant and intricate, and immediately stuck out a beefy hand to introduce himself.

As he approached me, I remember thinking he looked typically Oregonian, with his ratty but clean T-shirt, three silver studs above his left eyebrow, a nose ring fit for a bull, with graying chestnut-brown hair buzzed at the sides and the longish top brushed casually to the side. His face was round, his eyes wide and clear blue and, above all, friendly.

He reminded me of what a Portland version of Santa Claus would look like. All beards and laid-back T-shirts with peace signs on them.

He’d stomped toward me as though I owed him money and introduced himself as Knuckles, the best tattooist in the Pacific Northwest. Then he’d just stared at me, seemingly unmoved by Coop or her ethereal beauty when she’d come to stand next to me in protective mode. Because you know, he was a stranger, and Coop was ultra wary of all strangers.

I’d stuck my hand out and introduced myself, and after he’d swallowed my fingers in his wide grip, he’d pulled a photo album of his portfolio from under his arm and opened it without speaking a word.

I wasn’t ready to hire anyone just yet or even consider renting the spaces. I wasn’t even ready to trust we could walk across the floor without falling in, but I found myself popping open the black vinyl album anyway and perusing while Coop looked over my shoulder.

She’d pointed a slender finger at one particular tat of a fully opened rose sprouting from a woman’s belly button, so multi-faceted and layered, it had taken my breath away.

Coop’s, too, because she’d muttered, “Well done.” Which was indeed high praise coming from the Coopster. Then she’d paused in thought for a moment. “Do you think that thing on his face requires a lot of conditioner?” she whispered.

I laughed at her, tugging my T-shirt down over my hips. “You mean his beard? I don’t know, but he has enough hair on his chin to make a bald man weep,” I whispered back.

“I love conditioner. We didn’t have that in Hell,” she’d informed me in her matter-of-fact way before returning to her work, leaving me alone with Knuckles.

He looked at me with his intense blue eyes and said, “Bathroom? May I?”

“If you could call it that—in the back to the right. But I warn you, it’s worse than a Porta Potty at a toxic waste site on a hot July day.”

He nodded and waved a meaty hand dismissively at me as though smelly Porta Potties were no sweat and went off to the back to use the bathroom. And that was the last I’d heard from him as I went back to pulling up more flooring.

Now, when I looked at Coop, her hair up in a messy bun, her cheeks heightened by a splotch of crimson, I had to wonder. Where had Knuckles gone? And why was he called Knuckles, anyway? Donald was a nice enough name. Did tattoo artists go by pseudonyms? Oh, dear. I had so much to learn…

Pushing the bandana I wore up on my forehead, I frowned. “He asked to use the bathroom. I don’t know where he went. Maybe I’d better check.”

As I rose, pulling my gloves off, Coop grabbed a hammer and held it up—which meant look out; she’d clobber first, ask questions later. At least it wasn’t her sword. I’d managed to convince her the fine people of Cobbler Cove wouldn’t appreciate that weapon of shiny menace waved under their noses.

I shook my finger at her. “Coop, I don’t think we’re going to need a hammer for this. Simmer down, Terminator.”

“I’m not a Terminator. That’s a specific breed of demon. I only terminated when threatened,” she said, letting the hammer swing at her side.

I shook my head. “That’s not what I meant. It was a movie…” Then I flapped a hand in the air. “Never mind. Regardless, we don’t know if he’s a threat yet, Coop.”

Still, her eyes narrowed, glittering and brilliant green. “What if he’s stealing our things?”

Sighing, I asked, “Like what? Our Hibachi grill and my underwear? Don’t be silly, Coop. We don’t have much to steal. We haven’t even unloaded the car yet, and the rest of the stuff Stevie so kindly sent via UPS won’t be here until tomorrow. And you can’t hit him in the head with a hammer for it, anyway. You must always ask before you rush to judgment, Coop, unless catching someone in the act, of course. And even then, violence isn’t always the answer.”

She looked at me pensively, twisting a stray lock of hair around her finger. “Gosh. All these rules. I was only going to hit him in the knees.”

As the rain pummeled the roof and slid through the holes in the ceiling, I grimaced. “Put the hammer away, Coop. We’ll be fine.” Brushing past her, I went down the long, narrow hallway leading to our dink of a filthy bathroom and knocked on the warped door. “Knuckles?”

When no sound came from the bathroom, my heart skipped a beat. “Um, Mr. Ledbetter? Are you okay?”

“I’m here.” Knuckles’s hoarse whisper came from near the dark exit door at the very end of the hall, his gravelly voice sounding odd.

Coop was behind me in an instant, a protective hand on my shoulder, her steady breathing in my ear and, as seen from the corner of my eye, the hammer held high in the air.

I hated thinking about why Coop was so quick to assume the worst. To always be on guard the way she was had to be exhausting.

But I suppose she’d been in Hell for a very long time. Likely, she’d seen things. Horrible things—things I hoped one day she’d talk to me about. Horrible things I prayed hadn’t happened to her personally. But I never asked. Not yet. Not until she was ready.

“Coop,” I soothed, feeling slightly hesitant now myself. “Slow that roll. No violence. Remember?”

“I’m just keeping my options open. Stevie said always be prepared. I’m only preparing.”

I patted the hand she’d placed on my shoulder and tried to remain calm. “Knuckles, what are you doing back there?”

I still couldn’t see him clearly, which reminded me we needed to replace that dangling light bulb above the exit door tout de suite.

I heard him clear his throat, and then I finally saw the outline of his bear-like body just before I heard Coop take a whiff of air.

“I smell something familiar,” she whispered in my ear, her voice laced with what I had to guess was fear. A rarity, as Coop is so emotionless—even when she’s ecstatic.

I froze and sniffed, too, but I didn’t smell anything except for damp air and possibly some mold. Yet, Coop’s sense of smell, be it chicken and waffles or an emotion like fear, was fierce, and that scared me.

“Familiar? Familiar from where?”

“Hell.” She offered the answer with the kind of nonchalance one offers when asked if they’d like ketchup with their fries.

Yikes.

But I couldn’t dillydally with what Hell smelled like right now.

“Knuckles?” I called again, though this time my voice sounded shaky to my ears.

So, here’s the score. I’m no chickety-chicken, as Coop sometimes calls me when referring to my trepidation about bridges (and parallel parking, if you must know), but I also don’t have the strength of ten linebackers on steroids the way Coop does.

Well, not unless I’m in the height of possession, that is. If you listen to my demon tell the story, then I’m like an entire pro football team gone rabid and on steroids.

Either way, Knuckles is a big guy. Enormous. He outweighs me by at least a hundred and fifty pounds.

Yes. I weigh a hundred and fifty pounds, okay? Portland is a Mecca for delicious food. From food trucks to gourmet dining, and sometimes I stress eat, as I did last night at this insanely amazing place called Pine State Biscuits. Oh, angel wings and the Pearly Gates, it had to be one of the most scrumptious meals I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. Crispy fried chicken breast smothered in cheese on a soft, doughy biscuit, slathered in sausage gravy…

Anyway, back to Knuckles. Maybe he wasn’t so much a teddy bear as a grizzly and Coop was right to be suspicious. Though, he was older than me by at least twenty years. Maybe I could take him if I was spry enough.

“Knuckles?” Coop called out.

“Don’t come back here!” Knuckles suddenly shouted, his voice gruff and commanding. “This isn’t something nice girls like you two should see.”

Aw, grapes of wrath. I wasn’t sure how to process that warning. I haven’t experienced life outside the convent the way most thirty-two-year-olds have, if you know what I mean. So who the frick-frack knew what he was seeing?

A shiver skittered up my spine, much like the one I get just before the evil spirit who shall not be named possesses me.

Hellfire and cabbage. What was Knuckles seeing that ladies like us shouldn’t see?

I inched a bit closer with Coop hot on my heels. “Is someone in a state of undress, Knuckles?” I squeaked.

Coop clucked her tongue in aggravation. “What sort of question is that, Sister Trixie Lavender?” Then she scratched her head. “Um, I mean Trixie. Just plain Trixie.”

I turned around to face her, flustered, my total calm gone the way of hair scrunchies and Beanie Babies. “I don’t know, Coop! He said ladies shouldn’t see whatever it is he’s seeing. It was the first thing that came to mind as un-seeable goes.”

She made a face at me, sucking in her supermodel cheeks before letting the hammer dangle at her side again. “There are a million things that come to mind, and they have nothing to do with your born day suit.”

“Birthday,” I corrected. “It’s birthday suit.”

Coop cocked her head, nodding in concession. “That does sound much better.”

We must have moved forward while we debated nudity because Knuckles shouted again, “Ladies! Please stay where you are! I insist!”

“Is Knuckle’s mansplaining, Trixie? That word’s definition always confuses me. But I like it so much. My tongue likes it, too.”

“Not quite. It’s more like he’s trying to protect us, Coop,” I said, patting her on the arm.

And I’d had enough protection. We had work to do—heaven above, so much work. So, I rushed forward toward the sound of his voice, just as Coop grabbed at my arm to prevent me from going any farther.

Which was fortunate.

If she hadn’t, I would have tripped over the body—possibly slipped in the wide pool of crimson blood seeping along the floor—and landed square on my rear end.

We both gasped as our eyes adjusted to the dark hallway, where Knuckles stood over the lifeless body of none other than Fergus McDuff.

“Blood,” Coop muttered as she pulled me away from Fergus’s body. “Yup.”

Swallowing hard, I clenched my fists together and asked a question to keep from screaming my horror. “Yup, what?”

“Yup. I told you I smelled Hell.”

Chapter 3

Knuckles held a thick hand up as he pulled his cell phone from his pocket. His expression remained as flat and unblinking as it had been when he’d introduced himself.

“We need to call the police,” he stated, his deep voice somber.

Coop instantly stiffened, and I can’t say as I blame her. This wasn’t the first, but the second landlord who’d ended up dead in a store we’d rented. Like I said earlier, Coop had been this close to landing in jail for the murder of our last landlord, Hank Morrison. There but for the grace of Stevie Cartwright, who’d doggedly pursued justice for Coop and had almost gotten herself killed in the process, she’d have been charged with murder.

But I’d learned a thing or two about solving a murder from our friends Stevie and Win during that mess. Stevie especially loved a good mystery, and because that drama involved us directly, when we were a safe distance from it, I found I loved a good mystery, too.

Since we’d left Stevie and Ebenezer Falls, I’d read more than a dozen of them at night under my covers so as not to bother Livingston (our yappy, opinionated but beloved owl. I’ll get to him later), with my flashlight as my guide.

Anyway, I’d learned the police weren’t always on your side, and I’m sure that’s what Coop’s afraid of at this very moment. They’d hauled her off to the police station and questioned her for six solid hours that horrible day.

That alone had been terrifying for someone who’d only been here on Earth a short time and had no last name until Winterbottom’s connection had concocted an ID and life history for her. Add a fight to the death with an angry couple of killers then top that with almost seeing our newfound friend killed, too, and Coop had every right to be tense.

Now I put her protectively behind my back as I paid close attention to not just Knuckles, but the scene of the crime. During the week we’d spent with Stevie, her assortment of otherworldly friends and eclectic pets, she’d taught me some of the things she looks for when a mystery needed solving.

One of them is to always look at everything—every detail of the crime scene—and take pictures if you can get away with it before the police come.

As Knuckles dialed 9-1-1, I turned to Coop. “Listen to me, Coop,” I whispered, my tone urgent. “Have you been studying the birth certificate and ID Win had made for you? You’ll need them for the police.”

She nodded solemnly, her green eyes flitting from Fergus’s body to my face. When given a task, Coop was on it, and she didn’t get off it until she’d mastered said task. I expected this task would be handled with nothing less than her ardent studiousness.

“My name is Cooper O’Shea, Coop for short. I come from a small town in Michigan called Sturgis. I’m thirty-two years old and five-feet-ten-inches tall. I weigh one hundred and thirty-five pounds and Stevie says that’s why people are jealous of me. I don’t understand jealousy unless it pertains to coveting an item. I’m not an item. But I love Stevie, and I believe she speaks the truth always. I live with my best friend, Trixie Lavender, and we own a tattoo shop called Inkerbelle’s. My social security number is—”

My hand flipped upward to stop her. “Good girl. I’m so proud of you. Remember that when the police ask you, okay? But only answer the questions they ask. Don’t volunteer any information. None.”

But Coop, normally unruffled, was ruffled. I saw it all over her face as her eyes skittered about the hall, even if outwardly, she appeared emotionless. “I don’t like the police, Trixie. They don’t like me, either.”

This was a fine line I was walking when it came to Coop and authority. I didn’t want her to be fearful of every police officer, but I did want her to know her rights and be cautious because she was indeed innocent and easily led.

“That’s not true, Coop. The police just didn’t know you yet. Remember Stevie’s friend Dana Nelson? He liked you just fine, didn’t he? He sat right next to you on spaghetti night at her house before we left.”

She did that weird smirk of a smile that left her eyes squinting and her lips in an awkward tilt upward so she showed some teeth, and nodded. “Yes. He was very nice. He gave me his last meatball. I love, love, love meatballs,” she crooned in her odd, almost detached way.

“Right!” I agreed. “Well, he’s a police officer, and he was just doing his job, Coop. Sometimes that’s just the way the cookie crumbles for guys like him. He didn’t believe you were guilty, but he had to do what his boss at the police station told him to do.”

She frowned, the lines in her gorgeous face wrinkling. “He didn’t give me cookies. I like cookies, too. Did he have cookies?”

“No. It’s just an—”

“Expression,” she finished for me. “Humans are stupid with their words. Except Stevie. She’s not stupid. And you. You’re not stupid, either. But Livingston definitely is sometimes.”

Blowing out a breath, I forced myself to stay focused. These next minutes were crucial, according to Stevie. As Knuckles began to wander while he was on the phone with 9-1-1, I eyeballed Fergus McDuff’s body, splayed out on the floor at my feet, and remembered the last time we’d done this. I didn’t want to get so lost in the chaos this time.

And speaking of Livingston… “Coop, while Knuckles calls the police, would you go check on Livingston for me, please? We don’t want another disaster like the last one, where he was left for hours without food, do we?”

Livingston is a demon just like Coop, but he didn’t leave Hell unscathed. He’s also her dearest friend from Hell. Except, when he escaped with her, because he didn’t have a body to inhabit the way Coop did, he needed a vessel. And unlike Coop, he was forced to inhabit the first body he came upon in order to remain here on Earth.

Which happened to be a dead owl on the side of the road.

When he complains, we remind him his fate could have been plenty worse, as far as roadkill goes. He could have landed in the body of an opossum or a skunk or worse, a snake.

Coop’s expression was one of distaste when she wrinkled her nose. “Aye, lass,” she said, mimicking Livingston’s Irish accent to perfection. “We can’t have the wee bairn goin’ on and on about how we starve him to death and the only ting standin’ ’tween him and death’s door was the last cupcake he stole right out from under my nose, can we?”

I almost laughed at her accurate description of Livingston’s very dramatic take on just about everything—especially food—but then I remembered there was a dead man on our store’s floor and, even if he wasn’t the nicest man on the planet, he didn’t deserve to die because he was surly. Respect was owed.

“Yes, that. So please go check and see if he’s still sleeping in his cage, would you?”

Coop saluted me like she’d seen a character on Hogan’s Heroes do, one of her favorite new earthly addictions. “I’m on it.”

Left alone with Fergus’s body, I sighed and sent up a small prayer for his soul.

Habit? Maybe, no pun intended. But mostly, I liked believing there was someone out there looking out for all of us. Real or imagined, I needed that image in my mind to console me in my darkest hours. Hell certainly exists. I can attest to that. Coop can, too. So why not Heaven?

Someday, I wanted to sit and have a long chat with Coop about its existence. I know she’d be open to answering my questions. I simply wasn’t ready for the hardcore truth, and my deep-rooted fear it would vary greatly from the solace I took in what I’d always believed—still mostly believed.

Either way, the dead body didn’t frighten me. I’d seen plenty of them in my time as a nun when families sought aid and counseling from the convent. What frightened me was how this had happened—again. I was beginning to feel as though we were a real pox on surly landlords.

Rooting around in the back pocket of my jeans, I pulled out my cell, turned on the flashlight app, and began to take pictures as discreetly as I could so as not to catch Knuckles’s attention. I didn’t want him to think me some sort of murder groupie.

As I snapped away, sometimes quite haphazardly, and I listened to the low hum of Knuckles’s voice on the phone, I gave a critical look to Fergus and the surrounding area near his body.

He’d clearly been hit on the head, judging by the size of the blood pooled underneath his skull. In fact, what little hair he possessed had begun to dry and mat in spots from the blood, meaning this had happened before we’d arrived at the store. But how long before?

Which begged the question, why had he been at the store when we weren’t, in the first place? We’d tied up everything yesterday and he’d left us with this mess. Had it happened while we were at the motel last night? While we had dinner? Early this morning while we were showering and preparing for our day?

I didn’t know how to judge times of death, but I’d certainly text Stevie and ask. Though, I was betting it had happened last night. He was still wearing the same blue suit he had on when we’d met him here at the store, and to be frank, he looked rather stiff.

I took as many pictures as I could, just the way Stevie had when Hank Morrison had been killed, all the while wondering who would want Fergus McDuff dead?

That’s when I noticed the angry red scratch marks on Fergus’s neck, right under his second chin and along the column of his throat.

Leaning in a bit closer, I realized they weren’t scratch marks at all. They looked intentional. He certainly hadn’t had those marks on his neck yesterday. I’m positive of that much.

Still, how odd. Was this some kind of serial killer’s work? Didn’t serial killers all have some kind of calling card? Could that be what the marks represented? And what the fiddle-faddle was that mark? But I didn’t have time to examine further. The police were going to be here any second, and it wouldn’t do to be caught hovering around a corpse.

I shivered at that word, not as curious now as I was frightened.

Then, in a rush of recollection, I remembered the good-looking man Fergus had argued with yesterday just outside the store and made a mental note to tell the police about him. Who was he, and was he the man responsible for this? He’d sure been angry yesterday—so angry, that other man had pulled him away from his conversation.

As Knuckles’s voice grew closer again, I pushed my phone into my back pocket. I had no business getting involved in this. Stevie had Win, and he was an ex-spy. He knew what he was doing. I was an ex-nun, for pity’s sake, and about as far away from a spy as one can get. I truly needed to stop playing Nancy Drew and pay closer attention to this pickle we were in.

And were we ever in a pickle. How could we hope to renovate a store if it had turned into a crime scene? When this happened back in Ebenezer Falls, they’d locked us out of our freshly rented space. We couldn’t afford to have this happen again.

Then guilt washed over me in a tidal wave of remorse. I shouldn’t be thinking of anything other than this poor man’s death, and shame on me for doing everything but.

Knuckles came into view, taking my mind off my worries, his enormous body lumbering its way to the back of the store with the phone pressed to his ear.

In the distance, I heard official voices and took a deep breath, bracing myself for what was to come.

And all the while, as I braced, I tried to think about anything but Fergus’s body, and the fifty bafrillion questions I had about how it had gotten there.

* * * *

“And you are, love?” the woman, maybe in her early forties, with tousled graying-at-the-roots blonde hair and very round glasses, asked in a clear British accent, reminding me distinctly of the ladies from Absolutely Fabulous and my dearly departed Nanna, who was British born and raised and loved that show.

Also reminding me, at this very inopportune moment, how much I missed having Nanna in my life.

The woman been one of the first officials on the scene; standing against the backdrop of the amazing mountains Portland had to offer as she leaned on one of the police cars parked at the crumbling curb.

We stood outside the store on the cracked sidewalk while the police and forensics guys crawled all over the inside like ants on a hill, putting things in bags and swishing big brushes over tiny surfaces.

The weather had turned from rainy to sunny, and now the breeze was warm and inviting, making me wish I was walking along the Hawthorne Bridge instead of answering questions about my dead landlord.

I hated that I felt that way, but that’s just my truth. We’d had a lot of murder in our lives lately, and it wasn’t a bellyful of laughs by a long shot.

They’d separated Coop and me, and as hard as I tried to keep one eye and an ear on what the other detectives were asking my far-too-honest demon, I had trouble doing as much because the police lady kept blocking my view of her.

“Um, miss. Your name, if you would please?”

“My name’s Trixie Lavender.” I tried not to squirm as I said it, but gosh my hands were clammy and my mouth was dry.

She peered down at me over her owl-like glasses, her sparkling blue eyes a complete contradiction to the tired lines forming around her mouth. “Is that your stripper name, pet? You know, like the memes my mates post all over my Facebook page? The month you were born and the road you lived on when you were a lass equals your stripper name?”

All I could do was stare blankly at her. I’m new to this social media thing. Sure, the convent had a Facebook page, but they definitely didn’t let me loose on it. I’m certain due to fear I’d spew some of my misgivings about the Bible.

Also, I do know what a meme is. Stevie showed me a bunch on social media, and I’m really getting the hang of having an online presence, for both the store and my own personal page. I don’t remember anything about strippers, but I promise you, that won’t be for long. I intend to find out what my stripper name is posthaste.

So I thought about what the lady said, and answered, “That would make me November Convent.”

“You lived on Convent Road?”

“No. I lived in a convent. Sorry, I must have misunderstood you. I thought it was my birth month and the place I lived.”

Her penciled-in eyebrow rose. “You lived in a convent did you say, love?”

“I did. I was a nun.” And that was all I said. Hopefully, the part about my being a nun would make her think twice about the possibility I’d lie.

Stevie had said to always lead with that whenever I felt like someone doubted me—it was what she called my holy ammunition.

The lady snickered a little, tapping her pen on her small notepad. “So I guess it’s Sister Trixie then?”

“Nope. It’s just Trixie. As I said, I’m not a nun anymore.”

She waved a hand in the soft breeze and smiled. “Neither here nor there. I was only having a laugh about your stripper name, of course.”

So I laughed, because it seemed like the right thing to do. “Then it was very funny.”

Then she cast apologetic eyes my way. “Apologies. It’s just your name is quite unusual. Is Trixie your real name?”

I cupped my hands over my eyes to block out the bright sun that had decided to make an appearance. “That’s my real name.”

She stuck out her hand. Her nails, though short, were polished in a bright red. “Detective Tansy Primrose.”

“Is that your stripper name?”

She threw her head back and laughed—like, really laughed, flashing white, not-quite-even teeth while producing lines around her mouth. “Touché, love. That’s my Welsh mother’s romantic nature rearing its flowery head. Do you have any idea how hard it ’tis to be taken seriously by a bunch of men at the station when your name is Tansy Primrose?”

“Probably the same as it is when your name is Trixie Lavender.”

“Touché again,” she said on a wink, and Detective Tansy, being so jovial, made me wonder if this was a technique Stevie had talked about. The one where you buddy up to a suspect in order to glean information from them. “So, this Fergus McDuff, he’s your landlord, correct?”

“Was.”

She jabbed a finger in the air, the motion batting away a fly. “Was. Right-o. Any ideas about what might have happened to our poor Fergus McDuff?”

In the effort to never give more than is asked, I peered up at her very pleasant face. “He was killed.”

Detective Primrose laughed again, the sound tinkling and light. “I don’t know if you’re pulling my leg or pulling my leg, but now who’s having a laugh, love? Though now,” she leaned down to me, her mouth half-tilted upward, “I must be very serious and play detective to keep my insurance benefits and my superiors content. I can’t cock this up or I’ll lose my job and be shipped right back to jolly old England with my tail ’tween my legs. Understood?”

I didn’t say anything, but I nodded vigorously.

“Righty then. First, I don’t see the immediate need to take you downtown, Trixie, because your alibi for last night checks out, and Mr. McDuff does appear plenty fermented. That’s good for your defense, innit? Plus, your wee stature makes you come off harmless and unassuming, but make no mistake, I will shuffle you right off to Buffalo if you give me the roundabout. So, if you feel like sitting in a putrid room vaguely smelling of a London trash bin with nothing but a table and a two-way mirror, say aye.”

My stomach lurched. It was all fun and games until the sassy British detective got serious. “I vote nay. I most certainly do not feel like sitting in a putrid room with a table and a two-way mirror.”

Her head bobbed up and down, a smile back on her face. “Indeedy. As long as you answer my questions and don’t give me a speck of trouble.”

“Deal.”

“So, did you see anything? Anyone suspicious?”

“Do you mean did I see someone kill Fergus?”

She eyed me for a moment, assessing me from head to toe with sharp eyes. “Aha. I see how this is. You’re a cut-to-the-chase kind of girl. I like that. Admire it even. And yes, that’s exactly what I mean. This is a murder investigation.”

“Has is already been ruled a homicide?” Was that a stupid question to ask?

“Well, love. I don’t know about you, but there’s a bloke in there with his head smashed six ways to Sunday. I think it’s safe to say he was murdered without too many repercussions from my higher-ups.”

“Primrose?” a gruff, deep voice shouted. Not an unpleasant sound in my ears, mind you.

Detective Primrose whipped around at the sound of the voice and broke into a smile—a wide smile, once more revealing her very white teeth surrounded by red lipstick that matched her fingernail polish.

Higgs? What in the name of all the king’s horses are you doing here in Cobbler Cove?” she asked, clearly pleased by his presence. Dare I say giddy, judging by the twinkle in her eyes.

The incredibly good-looking man swooped her up in a big hug and swung her around while I watched before setting her down and grinning at her, his generous smile revealing grooves on either side of his mouth. “I got tired of living like an Eskimo in Minneapolis, so I left. Great place, Portland, huh?”

Detective Primrose patted him on his broad shoulder and grinned even wider, then smoothed a hand over her navy-blue blazer. “You bet your daffodils. Anything’s better than homicide in Brooklyn, I can tell you true. Hades beats homicide in Brooklyn. That’s where I went when I left Minneapolis, by the way. Just transferred here a couple of months ago. But look at us now, bloke. Small world, init?”

He chuckled, low and husky, just like his voice. “No kidding. Good seeing you. We should grab dinner or something. If Marvin will allow it, of course.”

She laughed and made a face, her fair skin glowing under the buttery ball of sun. “Marvin Schmarvin. As if he has a say in whom I choose to dine with. Old coot.”

Higgs gave a light squeeze to her shoulder. “An old coot who’s the love of your crazy life. Who are you trying to kid?”

Pulling her notepad to her chest, she sighed, breathy and with longing. “You’re right. He’s my old coot, and now that I have my claws in him, I’m not letting him go.”

So you investigating this mess?” he asked, his dark eyes finally landing on me, very obvious curiosity in them.

“You betcha,” she said in a pretty good American accent. “I was just having a chin-wag with Miss Lavender about whether she saw anyone or heard anything that might have been suspicious, wasn’t I?”

Swallowing hard, I nodded and wiped my hands on my thighs, suddenly self-conscious about my ratty T-shirt and dirty sneakers.

“You betcha,” I responded, making her grin.

“So, where were we, Miss Lavender?”

I inched closer to the detective. I didn’t mean to, it just happened. Out of fear. Higgs’s stare made me uncomfortable. “You asked if I saw anyone who might have murdered Fergus, I believe.”

Riiight, right, right. Sorry, I let myself get distracted by this handsome sod. We used to work together ages ago, didn’t we, Higglesworth?”

Higglesworth? What an interesting name for such a manly-man. I’d have gone the opposite end of the spectrum and expected his name to be something along the lines of Spike or…or Lumberjack. But Higglesworth reminded me of a butler to a superhero. Like Batman’s Alfred.

“We did indeed, Detective Primrose. In the frozen tundra,” he joked. His words breaking my reverie as he folded his arms over his broad chest and stared down at me.

If my hands were sweaty before, now they were positively dripping.

“Now off with you, mate. You’re distracting me from doing my job.” The detective turned back toward me then, her pen at the ready once more. “So, Miss Lavender, did you see anyone who might have hurt Mr. McDuff?”

It was now or never. I summoned my inner Stevie in order to get through this. Stevie was a clever lady, and she’d never cower the way I wanted to cower. I wanted to go back to the cheap motel we were temporarily staying in, grab my favorite blanket, and hide under it until my stomach stopped jumping around like a cat on a hot tin roof.

But I asked myself, WWSD—what would Stevie do? She’d give the police as much real information as she had, and she wouldn’t bat an eye for doing so. She was no chicken, and in her honor, I wasn’t going to besmirch her good name and all she’d taught me by batting my eye, either.

I say that as though I ever dreamed I’d end up in a situation almost identical to the one we’d left behind us in Ebenezer Falls, but here I was once more.

Standing but a few hundred feet away from a dead body.

Squaring my shoulders, I looked Detective Tansy Primrose right in her cheerful eyes and said, “I did see something. I saw your friend—Higgs, I think you called him—arguing with Fergus McDuff yesterday afternoon.”