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Just then, a flash of red caught Nora’s eye and she groaned inwardly as a tall, shapely woman passed in front of the bookshop window. The woman yanked the door open, ignoring the riotous clanging of the sleigh bells, and settled into the closest chair like a queen awaiting the adulation of her subjects. Her pouty lips curved into a cat-with-the-cream grin. “Consider your next bibliotherapy session canceled.”
“Hello to you too, Estella.” Nora picked up the stray paperbacks a customer had left on the table next to Estella’s chair. “I assume you’re referring to the man I met on the park bench. Why isn’t he coming? Did you scare him off?”
“Me?” Estella pretended to be affronted, but Nora wasn’t falling for the act. “I didn’t even get a chance to meet him. I was up at the lodge wasting my time on a man I thought had some potential, but he’s already making payments to an ex-wife and needs to send three kids to college. There’d be nothing left for me.” She waved a manicured hand in dismissal.
Nora was itching to reshelve the books and check on the coffee. Though she didn’t dislike Estella, she was rarely at ease in her company.
Recalling the strange sensation she’d experienced as the second train whistle blew, Nora felt an inexplicable prickle of dread. She jerked a thumb toward the window. “Where is everyone?”
Estella’s grin returned. “At the train station. They’ve been drawn there like flies to sugar. The sheriff rolled in a few seconds ago, and since he and I have never gotten along, I made myself scarce.”
Nora, who made it a point not to look people directly in the eye, forgot her rule and gave Estella an impatient stare. “What happened? Just spit it out.”
Crossing her arms in disappointment, Estella murmured something about no one being any fun, but eventually complied with Nora’s request. “When your man on the bench placed an order for one of Hester’s comfort scones, he asked her to box it because he was heading over here to see you. He left the bakery, box in hand, but he never made it to Miracle Books.” Estella leaned back in the chair and smoothed the skirt of her white sundress. “I’m sure he’d rather be sitting in this comfy chair than where he is now.”
Nora knew she wasn’t going to like the answer to her question, but it had to be asked. “Which is?”
“On the tracks,” Estella declared breathlessly. “Someone pushed him in front of the three o’clock train.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I raced after him. “Charlie!”
The leash clenched between his teeth prevented Charlie from barking, so I needed to keep close behind him. But he not only was the size of a small horse, he could run as fast as one, too. Five minutes later, he disappeared. This was ridiculous. Needing to catch my breath, I stopped and fished my cell phone from the messenger bag slung across my chest. I didn’t care if Piper was wearing designer stilts. Charlemagne was her dog, and she was going to come in here and track down her monster puppy.
Before I could call her, loud barks broke out to my left. This time I was the one to burst through the bushes. He wasn’t getting away again. But Charlie stopped barking as soon as he saw me. I knew now why he had been quiet for the past few minutes. He’d been digging away in the dirt, which he resumed upon my arrival. I looked for his leash and spotted it a few yards away, half buried by the dirt he flung to all sides. I picked up the leash before Charlie could get to it
first. As soon as I did, I also spied what appeared to be an animal bone. Most likely a deer.
But when I turned to see what Charlie was digging up now, my heart sank. It was another bone, but not one belonging to a deer. In fact, it was far more than a bone.
It was a human skull . . .
“You’d better get that.” Charlene jerked her thumb toward the office door. “Petronella is on her smoke break.”
Eager to escape, I bolted out of my chair. It skidded backward and hit the wall. I didn’t hang around to inspect for damage, hustling to the counter.
A blond in a smooth-fitting, green workout suit strode through the dining area. Her ponytail bobbed, her long, lean dancer’s muscles moving smoothly, and I had to crane my neck to look up at her. On her jacket, Heidi’s Health and Fitness was emblazoned over her heart. She halted in front of the register.
Joe looked up from his bar stool, grinning, but his smile seemed a little pained.
“Hi.” Smiling, I laid a hand on the counter. “You must be from the new gym. I’m Val.”
“I’m looking for the owner.” The corners of her lips quirked, quick, professional, cool.
“That would be me. Welcome to the street. I was about to go to your grand opening.”
“I’m Heidi Gladstone.”
We shook hands, my knuckles grinding within her grip. Dropping my hand to my side, I flexed my fingers, restoring the circulation. “Thanks for stopping by. I baked a welcome gift for your grand opening,” I said, taking the quiche from beneath the counter.
“No thanks.” She shook her head. “I don’t do dairy.”
“I used almond milk.”
“Is there any cheese in it?”
“Only goat cheese.”
She reared away as if I’d suggested cyanide. “I don’t do dairy.”
Joe’s smile broadened.
I took a deep breath, inhaling the calming scents of baking fruits and sugar. “What can I do for you?”
“You can change your sign.” She pointed at the neon above me. “Turn your frown upside down? It encourages emotional eating. Sugar kills, and though it does give a quick emotional high, the satisfaction is fleeting. My customers are trying to rebuild their health. It’s not good for them to constantly see that negative reinforcement.”
I laughed. She was kidding. Of course. “Right. Good one!”
She frowned, a faint line appearing between her blond brows. “I’m quite serious.”
“But . . . it’s my slogan. It’s on everything—my sign outside, the menus, my business cards.” This had to be a joke.
“Exactly,” she said. “It’s a problem. Do you have any sugar-free pies?”
“My potpies are sugar free. And so is this quiche.”
“I advocate a vegan diet. I couldn’t eat a potpie or a quiche. Do you sell any sugar-free fruit pies?”
“Um, no.” Sugar free? I’d heard of such things, and this was California, where people could be more thoughtful about eating. But a sugar-free pie? That was unnatural and possibly un-American. Besides, fruit was full of natural sugars.
“I’ll bring some recipes by tomorrow.” She whirled, her ponytail coming within inches of my face, and marched out of the store. The bell over the entrance tinkled in her wake.
Joe wedged himself free of the bar stool and waddled to the counter, arms extended. “I’ll take that breakfast pie. And a fork.”
Sighing, I handed him the quiche. “All right. You win. Do you want a plate to go with that?”
“No. Why get a plate dirty? I’ll eat it from the tin.”
“How did you know she wouldn’t take it?”
Joe winked. “She kicked off her grand opening this morning with a lecture on the evils of gluten, lactose, and anything that tastes good. I figured at least one of those things would be in that breakfast pie.”
I nodded. I had yet to meet a gluten-free piecrust that really sang. He rubbed his stomach. “And the spread was awful, all twigs and health food.”
“It is a gym.”
Petronella stomped toward me in her black motorcycle boots, her brows lowered in a slash, a pie in each hand. “Are you working the counter today or am I?”
“You are. Sorry. You can have it back.” I edged away.
“Because I need this job, and if you’ve decided you can do it for me—”
“Nope, you’re still chief pie wrangler. Have at it.” While I wasn’t exactly afraid of Petronella, both she and Charlene were protective of their duties. And since Charlene made the best piecrust in five counties, and Petronella could soothe the most ferocious customer, I’d learned to stay out of their way.
There was a choking sound, and we both snapped our heads toward the counter.
Joe’s fork clattered to the linoleum. Bowed over the quiche, he gripped his stomach.
I froze, brows squishing together, coldness piercing my core. Then Petronella and I raced around the counter, bumping into each other as we fought our way through the narrow passage beside the cash register.
Joe fell to the floor, writhing.
I fumbled in my apron pocket for my phone and called 9-1-1.
Petronella clasped one of Joe’s hands. “Joe! I’m here. Val’s calling an ambulance. What’s happening?”
Joe went limp, his eyes rolling back. He didn’t answer.
“Hellooo,” I said, walking in. “I come bearing wine and a lovable beast.”
I let Bardot loose and headed inside. It was awfully quiet. There were supposed to be something like six women in this club, but I couldn’t hear any voices. The drapes were closed and I was so busy trying to catch up to Bardot at the dark end of the hall that I didn’t see the telephone table until my waist hit it, forcing me to slump across the top. When I reached
the end, Bardot was scratching at the back door. It was locked from the inside with a deadbolt. I should know, every apartment door in NYC has at least three of them.
Strange. Did they all come in through the driveway? Then why is the front door open?
I turned the key and Bardot bolted out. When my eyes adjusted from the dark to the sunlight, I saw that she was anxiously circling a woman laying facedown on the grass . . .
But there was another perishable, one she wasn’t happy about discovering. Her beautifully decorated gingerbread Santa cookies were crumbled and scattered on the tiled kitchen floor. The cookies were labor intensive. It wasn’t the mixing and the baking. That was the easy part. It was Lisa’a hand decorating that took time and considerable talent.
Her glance shifted to the refrigerator and she got another shock. There was a foot sticking out behind the refrigerator door. The foot was wearing a dark blue tennis shoe with silver
laces, just like the ones Ernie Kusak had been wearing when he’d come into The Cookie Jar this afternoon.
This was bad.
This was very bad . . .
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