Authors: Peg Cochran
The front doorbell rang at ten minutes after seven. Monica pulled it open and gasped. Gina was wearing a skintight miniskirt, a fitted angora sweater cut down to
and thigh-high faun-colored suede boots. Her hair was piled on
top of her head with a studied casualness that probably took three hours to achieve, and her eyelashes were thick, dark and an inch long.
“You're not going to wear that!” they both said at the same time.
Gina sniffed. “What's wrong with my outfit? We want to get these men talking, don't we? There's nothing like a big dose of sex appeal to loosen a man's tongue.”
“But Flynn's is more tavern than nightclub.”
Gina pursed her glossy lips. “And what do you think you're going to get out of them dressed like aÂ .Â .Â . a,” she swept a hand toward Monica, “a nun.”
“What?” Monica looked down at herself. She was perfectly presentableâpants nicely ironed with a sharp crease, clean sweater, polished brown loafers. She'd even put in a pair of gold earring studs Jeff had given her for Christmas back when he was in high school.
“We're going to Flynn's to get information, not a date,” Monica protested.
Gina put a hand on her cocked hip. “It wouldn't hurt you to have a date once in a while, would it? Not that you're going to find one at Flynn's, but don't you thinkTed has been gone long enough? Time for you to get on with your life.”
“I don't know.Â .Â .Â .”
“Look, Monica. You and Ted weren't exactly a match made in heaven, you know. You like to read, and the only thing he ever read was the sports page. Your idea of a good time is an evening in watching an old movie on television, and he was a party animal. He was a daredevil and you'reÂ .Â .Â . not.”
That last part was true, Monica thought. Ted liked taking chances. They were on vacation when he ignored the red
warning signs on the beach and insisted on going swimming. He was caught in a riptide and never made it back to shore.
“You're a beautiful woman. I can't understand why you don't make more use of it.”
Monica ducked her head. “I was never any good at flirting. Besides, I was taller than all the boys in middle school, and by the time they were at least my height, they were used to ignoring me.”
“We're going to change that and make sure no one ignores you tonight.” Gina put down her purse, slipped out of her black leather jacket and pushed up her sleeves. “Let's go see what's in that closet of yours.”
Monica meekly followed Gina as they climbed the steep stairs to the second floor. Gina glanced around the bedroom, and Monica was glad she'd taken the time to pull up the comforter and fluff the pillows.
Gina made a beeline for the closet and pulled open the door. “Oh,” she cried in dismay when she saw the contents.
“I didn't need a lot of clothes when I was running Monica's,” Monica said defensively. “I wore an apron all day long.”
“Still,” Gina hissed. “You should have at least one
outfit. You never know when you'll need it.”
Gina clicked through the hangers in Monica's closet and heaved a giant sigh. She ruffled through the garments on the shelves and finally pulled out a V-neck sweater. She shook it out and regarded it thoughtfully.
“I guess this will have to do.”
“I have the blouse that I wear with itâ”
“No, no.” Gina shook her head vigorously. “Just the sweater.”
“But it's rather low-cut.” Monica pointed to a spot on her chest.
“That's the point. You need to show a little skin.”
“I don't think I'm comfortableâ”
“Do you want to get this information or not?”
Monica wordlessly took the sweater, turned her back and pulled off her turtleneck. She slipped the V-neck over her head and turned around to show Gina.
“Much better. Now how about something to fill in the neckline a little?”
“A scarf?” Monica asked hopefully.
“No, absolutely not. I'm thinking a necklace of some sort. Something to catch the eye.”
Monica dug through the drawer where she kept her jewelryâthe bits and pieces Ted had given her and some costume stuff she'd bought at a jewelry party hosted by a good friend.
“What's this?” Gina pounced and pulled out a multi-strand necklace of iridescent crystal beads.
Monica wrinkled her nose. “That was my grandmother's. You don't thinkâ”
“I do. Turn around and let me put it on you.”
Gina fastened the clasp, spun Monica around and stood back to admire the effect.
“It's perfect. Now to do something with your hair and makeup.”
Monica groaned. She didn't wear much makeupâa bit of powder, some lipstick and a touch of mascara, and she was done. If it weren't for JeffÂ .Â .Â .
Gina whipped a number of cosmetics from her Coach bag and set to work. Fifteen minutes later she stood back to admire the effect.
“Amazing in a good way?” Monica asked. Her face felt stiff from the powder and foundation.
“A very good way. Go look.”
Monica stood in front of the mirror over the dresser and slowly opened her eyes. She stifled the gasp that was her first reaction.
She actually lookedÂ .Â .Â . good. Her green eyes really stood out, and the smattering of freckles across her nose were gone. Her cheeks looked almost as hollow as a supermodel's. Her hair was piled on top of her head with some artfully arranged strands framing her face. Gina had truly worked magic. She felt like Cinderella ready for the ball. She had to remind herself they weren't headed to the ball, they were going to Flynn'sâfrom what she'd been told, it was a rather seedy bar down by the harbor that was frequented by hardcore drinkers.
Gina glanced at her watch. “Come on, let's get going. Flynn's should be in full swing by now.”
In something of a trance, Monica followed Gina out to her Mercedes and slid into the passenger seat.
The drive through town seemed shorter than usual, although it could have been because of Gina's complete and total disregard for the posted speed limits. Monica clung to her seat as they rounded corners on two wheels and shot down hills with the velocity of a roller coaster. They crested the drawbridge that spanned the inlet into the harbor, turned down a street that was little more than an alley and just as dark, and pulled up in front of the bar.
Flynn's gave the term
new meaning, Monica thought as she got out. The only window was a small one set in the door, but the glass was so yellowed by decades of grime and cigarette smoke that it was impossible to see through it.
Monica closed her eyes and held her breath as Gina pulled open the door.
The room was dimly lit, but Monica could easily see that every single head in the place had swiveled in their direction. The customers stared openmouthed as Monica and Gina walked inside and made their way to the bar.
Flynn's smelled of stale beer, decades-old cigarette smoke that had seeped into the walls, and industrial strength cleaner. A handful of men lounged at the bar while others were scattered among the battered and scarred wooden tables and chairs. A dartboard hung on one wall and a Playboy calendar and an old poster for Marlboro cigarettes on the other. There was no other decor.
Monica and Gina were the only women in the place. The men were nursing either beers or shot glasses of whiskey or, in some cases, both. The bartender was a big guy with a belly that nearly obscured his belt. He was leaning on the bar and watched as Monica and Gina approached.
Several men began drifting in Gina's direction, and a few even looked Monica over, as if she were a prize piece of livestock at the county fair. It wasn't something she was accustomed
to, and she wasn't sure she liked it. She signaled for the bartender. The sooner they got out of here the better.
By now men were clustered around Gina, offering to buy her a drink and vying for her attention. The bartender ambled over to where Monica was waiting impatiently.
“Help you?” he said economically, taking a swipe at the counter with a dingy gray rag.
Monica shuddered at the thought of touching anything in this place let alone actually having a drink. Besides, she doubted chardonnay was on the menu.
“I wanted to ask you about someone who says he was in here drinking all night last night. His name is Mauricio. Dark hair, about so tall.” Monica held her hand slightly above her head.
The bartender sensed excitement and his eyes lit up. “You gals undercover cops or something?” He leaned his elbows on the counter, the edge of the bar pressing into his ample abdomen.
Monica shook her head, desperately trying to think of a good reason why she was asking these questions. “I'm his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor,” she said finally, blushing at the implication.
The bartender whistled. “I didn't know he had a drinking problem. Comes in here pretty regularly and rarely has more than one beer. Although last night he was really knocking them back. Three shots of whiskey followed by a couple of Buds.”
He swished the gray rag around in front of Monica again, and she got a whiff of disinfectant mixed with alcohol.
“He seemedÂ .Â .Â . I don't knowÂ .Â .Â . kind of upset I guess you'd say.”
“Yeah. Spooked almost. Of course he was always looking over his shoulder, expecting to see immigration hot on his heels.”
“I suspect it was because of his papersÂ .Â .Â . or lack of papers. He worked for Sam Culbert. Culbert paid him under the table, and whenever Mauricio complained about the pay, the hours, the conditionsÂ .Â .Â . I don't know, whateverÂ .Â .Â . Culbert would threaten to turn him in to the authorities. Kept him running scared, that's for sure.”
Someone at the other end of the bar called for a refill, and the bartender ambled over to where the man was sitting.
Had Culbert, unlike Jeff, used Mauricio's illegal alien status against him? Maybe Culbert had threatened to turn Mauricio in one time too many and Mauricio had killed him. Thoughts were swirling around and around in Monica's head. But if Mauricio had been at the bar all nightÂ .Â .Â . She glanced over at Gina, but Gina was engrossed in a conversation with a man who barely looked older than Jeff.
Monica called out to the bartender as he passed her. “Was Mauricio here all night?”
The bartender shrugged. “Good part of it. Left around ten o'clock. Not quite steady on his pins, if you know what I mean.”
“Do you know where he went after leaving here?”
“Probably to see his girlfriend. That was his usual routine.” He jerked a thumb in the direction of the door. “She runs the bed-and-breakfast on the other side of the inlet. Primrose Cottage.”
“Yeah.” He leaned his elbows on the bar again. “Sure I can't get you anything?”
Monica noticed his gaze drop to her chest, and she had to will herself not to tug her sweater up higher. Instead she shook her head and signaled to Gina that she was ready to go.
Gina disengaged herself from the group of men surrounding her and headed toward the entrance where Monica was now waiting.
They were about to leave when the door swung open and a man stumbled in. He looked to be in his late thirties. His thinning hair was slicked back with gel, and one too many buttons were open on his rumpled shirt.
He whistled when he saw Monica and Gina.
“I hope you lovely ladies aren't going? I'd like to buy you a drink.” He pulled a wad of bills from his back pocket and signaled for the bartender.
“Actually, we are leaving,” Monica said.
“Come on. Just one drink.” He swayed slightly and grabbed for the back of a chair to steady himself.
“I really don't think so.” Monica backed away.
“Hey, I bet I can guess how old you are,” he said with a flourish of his right hand, like a magician conjuring a rabbit out of a hat.
He lurched toward Monica, and she took another step backward.
“And,” he paused dramatically, glancing from Monica to Gina, “I bet I can guess how much you weigh.” He ended the sentence with a burp.
“And I bet,” Gina said, sticking her face inches from his, “I can guess why you're here alone.” She grabbed Monica's arm. “Come on, let's go.”
Monica needed no further encouragement. She pushed open the door and they burst outside.
“Scumbag,” Gina called over her shoulder as the door swung shut.
Monica took a deep gulping breath of fresh air as they dashed toward Gina's car. “I feel like I need a shower now.”
“I know what you mean. And I'm willing to bet Lothario there has a wife and kids waiting for him at home,” Gina said.
They got into the car, and Gina put the key in the ignition.
“Did you find out anything?” Gina asked as she turned the key. “Any luck with the bartender? He was obviously quite taken with you.”
“No, he wasn't,” Monica insisted.
“Honey, if there's one thing I know, it's when a man's interested,” Gina said as she put her key in the ignition. “And he was interested.”
Monica shuddered. “Well, I wasn't.”
“No, but it does go to show that you can get a man's attention if you try.”
Monica's mind flashed to Greg Harper at the bookstore. Had he been interested in her and not merely polite because she was a potential customer? It was certainly food for thought.
“So is this Mauricio still our prime suspect or does he have an alibi?”
“Both,” Monica said and Gina looked at her curiously. “The bartender says he was at Flynn's until ten o'clock, when he left for his girlfriend's.”
“Any idea who that is?” Gina hesitated with her hand on the gearshift.
“She runs Primrose Cottage. It's a bed-and-breakfast on the other side of the inlet.”
“Well, let's go then,” Gina said as she peeled away from the curb with a roar.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
Primrose Cottage was white with mauve trim that was only slightly weathered on the west side, where the sun hit it. It was dark when they pulled up in front except for a light spilling out one of the side windows.
Gina's heels made a clacking sound against the slate walk as they approached the large, screened, wraparound porch that enveloped the front of the Victorian cottage.
“Do you think anyone is here?” Monica asked doubtfully. “It's awfully dark.”
“There's only one way to find out.” Gina stepped up to the porch door and knocked on the frame. She frowned. “I don't think anyone is going to hear that. Maybe we should go around back?”
“Wait. There's a bell.” Monica reached out and pushed it. They heard it peal inside the house.
Monica shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. She should have brought a jacket. September nights in Michigan could be quite chilly, especially near the lake.
A light came on just beyond the screened porch and a door opened. A woman stuck her head out and looked around.
“Yoo-hoo,” Gina called from where they were standing.
The woman approached the screen door and opened it.
“I'm sorry, but we're closed.” She swept an arm behind her, indicating the shrouded porch furniture. “We're only open on weekends in the fall.”
Monica stepped forward. “We don't want to stay. We were hoping to talk to you.”
A wary look came over the woman's face. She had faded
blond hair pulled back in a messy ponytail and looked to be a few years younger than Monica.
The woman's right hand jerked. “What about Mauricio?”
“Listen, can we come in?” Gina asked, putting a hand on the screen door. “It's getting cold out here.”
“Sure.” The woman reluctantly opened the door wider. “I'm Charlotte Decker by the way, but everyone calls me Charlie.”
Monica and Gina introduced themselves as they followed her through the darkened porch and into the main part of the house.
“Why don't we go into the front parlor?”
Charlie led them into a room that looked as if it had been lifted straight from the nineteenth century.
Monica stopped and looked around. “How old is the house?”
Charlie smiled. “It's Victorian era. My great-great grandfather built it in 1863. Cranberry Cove barely existed at the time. But then Joshua Taylor built the first sawmill here, and the area began to boom. It was easy to ship lumber across Lake Michigan to bigger cities like Chicago and Milwaukee.” She motioned to a tufted, velvet-covered settee. “Please, have a seat. Can I get you something to drink? Tea or coffee?”
“I'd love a cup of tea,” Monica said as she perched on the edge of the sofa.
Charlie looked at Gina and raised her eyebrows. Monica devoutly prayed that Gina wouldn't ask to have hers spiked.
“Tea would be lovely,” she said, and Monica breathed a sigh of relief.
They were quiet as they waited for Charlie to return. An
ornate clock on the marble mantelpiece ticked loudly in the silence.
Suddenly Gina poked Monica. “I have the feeling she has something to hide,” she whispered.
“Really? I didn't think so,” Monica whispered back.
“Honey, everyone has something to hide. Even you.”
She leveled a glance at Monica, and Monica could feel her face getting warm. She didn't have anything to hide, did she? Then she remembered that time she had walked out of the grocery store with a package of steaks she hadn't paid for. They had been on the bottom of her cart, under her purse, and she hadn't noticed them as she went through the checkout line. She had vowed to go back and pay for the meat but never had.
Charlie came back at that moment with a tray holding a silver teapot and delicate china cups.
“You didn't have to go to so much trouble,” Monica said, feeling guilty that their real agenda was to quiz Charlie about the whereabouts of her boyfriend the night Sam Culbert's murder took place.
“It's no bother. I'm used to it. People who stay here want the whole Victorian experienceâtea in bone china cups, period furniture, plenty of porcelain figurines that have to be dusted almost daily, but a comfortable bed and a modern bathroom.”
Charlie put the tray down on a small, marble-topped table.
“Is the furniture authentic?” Monica accepted the cup Charlie handed her.
“Most of it.” Charlie pointed to the sofa Monica and Gina were sitting on. “That's a rosewood recamier that my great-great grandfather probably bought when he finished the house.” She indicated two filigree-carved armchairs upholstered in red
damask. “He probably bought those around the same time.” She sat down and poured herself a cup of tea in a large mug with
I Love Cats
written on it.
She must have noticed Monica looking at it. “I'm something of a klutz, I'm afraid, so I leave the good china for the tourists to break.” She took a sip of her tea. “Some of the furniture was my great-grandfather's. A couple of the pieces are from Baker and Kindle. They had factories in Grand Rapids, which is only about an hour from here.” She smiled. “Well, an hour in one of today's cars. It must have taken them considerably longer in those days.” She held out a plate toward Monica and Gina. “Would you like some?”
Monica helped herself to a piece of the pastry. “Mmmm, this is delicious,” she said. The crust was flaky and the filling tasted of almonds. “What is it?”
“It's called banket.” Charlie cradled her mug in her hands. “It's a traditional Dutch pastry. It's a must on any Dutch table at Christmastime, but the tourists enjoy it all year long.”
They were quiet for a moment, then Charlie broke the silence. “So what was it that you wanted to ask me?”
Monica cleared her throat. She felt awkward probing into people's private lives. But if Jeff was to be freed from suspicion in Culbert's murderÂ .Â .Â . She cleared her throat. “It isn't easy to explain.”