Thrown Off: A Cozy Mystery (Brenna Battle Book 3) (5 page)

BOOK: Thrown Off: A Cozy Mystery (Brenna Battle Book 3)
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Roberta, the deli lady, saw me and came out from behind the counter. Her apron swished over ample hips. “Brenna,” she said quietly, “you saw that picture the tourist took, right?” There was anxiousness, hopefulness in her dark gray eyes.

“Well, yes. But it was a terrible picture. I couldn’t tell who it was, or even if it had anything to do with what happened to Millie.”

“The police were here,” Amy said. “They questioned everyone who works at the Cherry Bowl. Every single one of us.” She twisted her slender hands as she spoke.

Yes! I knew it. “What did they want to know?”

“Whether we were outside. Whether anyone went near the ladder around the time she fell.”

“We aren’t supposed to talk about it to each other. We aren’t supposed to talk about it to anyone,” Roberta said.

“Oh, come on. Everyone’s already been talking about it. That’s how we know.”

“That’s how you know what?” I asked.

“That it wasn’t an accident!” Amy declared.

8

Amy’s blue eyes were big and wide. I could see they were still red from crying.

“We don’t know that,” Roberta admonished her gently.
 

Roberta was probably over thirty, too young to be Amy’s mother, but old enough to mother the younger woman. Not the way Millie had, though. Those two had been quite a pair.

Amy shook her head and her fine red hair swished on her shoulders. “Everyone denies being there. Everyone denies being outside, even. Look, that picture was really bad, but Officer Riggins said it was someone wearing a lime green apron.” She tugged at her own apron. “One of us was out there, and whoever it was is lying. They
must
be guilty.”

My heart pounded in my chest. So, Will really was investigating this, and my hunch was unfortunately right. Glenda did see something suspicious. She witnessed a murder—or at the very least she witnessed a witness of a murder, who was refusing to admit he was there. Very suspicious.

“No one here would hurt Millie, would they?” I said.
Please, tell me who, girls
.

“I know. That’s what has me stumped.” Amy crossed her arms and seemed to be deep in thought.

“Maybe it wasn’t one of you. It could be anyone with access to one of those aprons. Someone who lives with an employee, a former employee—”

“Oh, my!” Roberta turned wide-eyed now. She and Amy exchanged looks. “No!” Roberta said.

Amy nodded
yes
.

“What?” I said.

“Hayley Radiguet!” they both said at once.

“Who’s Hayley Radiguet?”

“Millie got her fired,” Amy said.

Roberta crossed her arms. “Hayley got
herself
fired, the time-stealer.”

Amy explained, “Millie caught Hayley stealing time. She reported her.”

“What do you mean, ‘stealing time?’” I asked.

“She would take breaks and not clock out. One time she actually told Millie she had to leave early, and asked her to clock out for her at the scheduled time,” Roberta said.

I nodded, understanding. “So she could still get paid for the full day.”

“Right. But Millie just couldn’t do it. She had to turn her in.”

“Who wouldn’t?” I said. Stealing was stealing.

“Lots of people,” Amy said. “Hayley could be really…”

“Persuasive,” Roberta finished for her. She put an arm around Amy.

“Did she scare you?” I asked Amy.
And what did she scare you into doing?
I wanted to ask.

“Well, yeah. She always got what she wanted when we were in school. No one crossed Hayley.”

“You two went to school together?”

“All the way from kindergarten to graduation. We both grew up here. I know we’re supposed to be adults now, but Hayley always made me feel like I was back in school again. T.A.-ing for Mr. Holtz. With her eyeing the grade book over my shoulder.”

I didn’t bother to ask Amy what she thought Hayley would’ve done if she didn’t go along with what she wanted. I knew it didn’t always work that way with bullies—not with the “popular” variety like Hayley seemed to be. No one knew why people like that were powerful. They just were. And their classmates just had this awful knowledge that something terrible would happen if they violated those rules of superiority. I didn’t ask Amy if she’d helped Hayley steal time. I was pretty sure the answer was yes. The way she talked, I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t the only one. I wasn’t here to get these people fired. I was here to find out who killed Millie.

Maybe this Hayley Radiguet woman was angry enough about Millie busting her for stealing time that she stole the rest of Millie’s time on this earth in retaliation.

“How long ago was Hayley fired?”

“I’d say about four weeks,” Roberta replied.

“I heard she hasn’t found another job yet,” Amy put in.

“Yeah, I guess it would be hard to find work in Bonney Bay once something like that gets around.”

Roberta said, “We should call Officer Riggins and tell him about Hayley.”

“Takashi probably did already. But yeah, we should let him know, just in case. If this was murder, Hayley needs looking into.”

“Thanks, Brenna,” Amy said. “You’re the one who got us thinking about that.”

I shrugged. “No big deal. Well, I’d better let you two get back to work. And Blythe’s expecting me to be back with ice cream any minute.” I had some of my own investigating to do, too.

We said good-bye, and I made a beeline for the frozen desserts aisle. I filled my basket with chocolate dipped cones, mocha almond fudge, and mint chocolate chip ice cream. Then I meandered over to the meat counter. I didn’t really know the meat cutter, but his name tag said
Ed
.

“Hi, Ed.” I gave him a big smile. “Is Carlos working today? I want to say hi.”

And maybe ask him a few questions. He might not be a part of the gossip circle Amy and Roberta contributed to. He was a guy, after all. But he might know something. And if, as I suspected, he was more closed-mouthed than these two, they wouldn’t know about whatever information he had.

Carlos and his sister, Lourdes, were our neighbors. Miss Ruth, the lady who used to run a ballet school out of the building that now housed our apartment and judo dojo, had been like a mother to Lourdes and Carlos. She’d asked them to look out for me and Blythe when she retired and moved out of town and we took over the building.

“Yeah, he’s probably in the back room,” Ed said.

“Thanks!” I headed toward the back. I knew my way well enough after shopping here for a couple of months. The Cherry Bowl was an old building, and the only restrooms were still in the back room. I’d made plenty of trips back there.

“Check the freezer!” Ed yelled after me.

“Okay,” I called back.

I pushed through the black doors with their rubbery flaps, into the back room. A stack of shrink-wrapped pallet boards was piled just inside the doors. Next to it was a power jack, the forklift-like machine they used to move loads of product around the store. I eyed it, then glanced around to see if anyone was watching. What would it be like to drive this thing? Not quite as fun as a four-wheeler, but how fast did these things go?
Get a grip, Brenna. You’re on a mission.

I couldn’t afford to get caught playing around with—and possibly breaking—very expensive and hard-to-replace toys. The Cherry Bowl would probably come to a grinding halt without that thing. Maybe if I found Carlos, he’d show me how to use it sometime. Okay, so I’ve always loved the idea of operating heavy machinery. Don’t judge.

It wasn’t hard to find the cooler. The metal doors were clearly labeled
cooler
. The doors were shut. I hesitated, then rapped on them. “Carlos? Are you in there?”

No answer. Wait, Ed had said, “Freezer.” I found it, right across from the cooler. I looked around again and didn’t see anyone, so I turned the handle and opened the door. “Carlos?” It was dark in there. I found a light switch on the wall right outside the door and flipped it on. There was a pile of boxes in the middle of the freezer, and I couldn’t see around it. I stepped inside, and the door swung shut behind me.

“Carlos?” I looked around some more, and then—

The light went out.
 

“Hey!” I said. “Turn the light back on!”

I dropped my shopping basket and jumped toward the door and turned the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. I banged on the door. “Hey! There’s someone in here!”

The only sound was the low hum of the freezer. And then it hit me. Carlos wasn’t in here, or he’d be yelling, too. I was in the cooler alone, and someone was holding that door shut or blocking it somehow. Someone who was either incredibly strong, or very, very heavy.
 

9

“Help!” I cried.

“You should learn to mind your own business,” a muffled voice told me through the door. Young, female. Maybe Amy?

“Amy?” I demanded. “Amy, open the door!” But there was no answer. Why would Amy say that to me, after everything she’d just told me? My heart pounded. My breath came out in puffs of steam. I kicked at the doors. “I’m stuck in here! Help!”

It was so dark. My phone! I fished it out of my pocket and turned it on. At least I wasn’t in complete darkness now. Who should I call? Blythe? Will? No way. I didn’t want either of them to know I was stuck in a freezer because I’d been snooping around, trying to solve Millie’s probable murder. But what choice did I have? The store! I could call the store.

I searched for the Cherry Bowl’s number. I dialed, and it rang and rang. The cold seemed to be squeezing in on me like an icy, black vise.
Come on, Brenna, you’re trapped in a freezer, but you’re in a grocery store. You’re not alone.

A store that was closing in fifteen minutes. Oh, crud. What if no one answered? How long after closing did the employees stay? Maybe someone would need to get into the freezer to do some restocking. Did frozen food get restocked every night? Surely they’d sold a bunch of popsicles or something and someone would come to fill the case. If they didn’t,
I
was going to turn into a giant popsicle. At least my ice cream wouldn’t melt.

“Hello, Cherry Bowl.”

Finally! Someone had picked up! “Hi, I know this is going to sound weird, but I’m stuck in your freezer.”

“What kind of stupid joke is this?” the employee said. It sounded like a young man. “No one could even fit in my freezer. Stop playing around with the phone, kid.”

“I’m not a kid. And not
your
freezer, the—”

He hung up on me.
Idiot!
I dialed again. While I waited, I took a deep breath and yelled, aiming my voice at the seam in the door. These walls were thick, insulated to keep the cold in. You know, probably the same kind of construction that made things sound-proof. Like a giant, icy coffin. But if I’d heard that voice through there, hopefully someone could hear me out there.
 

No one answered. Not the phone and not my yelling.

Who was I kidding? No one was going to answer the phone now that they thought some kid was pranking the store. And no one would hear me unless they came right by the freezer door. I’d only heard Amy or whoever that was because I had my ear to the door, listening. That’s what I needed to do! Listen, and save my voice for when I heard any signs of life. If I heard any signs of life while I was still showing signs of life, anyway.

I had Blythe’s number pulled up and was just about to resort to calling her and telling her to run as fast as she could over to the Cherry Bowl and tell Takashi her stupid sister was stuck in the back room freezer, when I heard a man yell, “Hey, where’s the power jack?”

Footsteps drew near. “What the…? Who parked the power jack right in front of the freezer door?”

I sprang into action, pounding on the door. “Help! I’m stuck in here!”

“What? Is someone in there?”

“Yes! Let me out!”

“Hold on.”

Was that stifled laughter I heard? This wasn’t an innocent prank, and it wasn’t funny. I heard some beeping and humming, and then the door flew open and the light flipped on. Blessedly warm air wafted around me. I ran out of the freezer.

An older man in Cherry Bowl attire stared at me. He scratched his graying five-o-clock shadow and looked like he was trying to decide whether to be amused, annoyed, or concerned. “Wow. How long were you in there?”

“I don’t know. I was looking for someone, and then somebody shut the door and turned off the light—”

“And parked the power jack in front of the door so you couldn’t get out?”

“Apparently.”

“I’m Max.”

I shook his hand. “Brenna Battle,” I managed through chattering teeth.

“Are you new here?” Max said skeptically.

“I moved to town a couple months ago.”

“Oh, I know that. I’ve heard about you. And I saw you on the news. I mean, did you just start working here?”

“No, I don’t work here. Look…”
Someone just tried to kill me
, I stopped myself from saying. I didn’t know Max. He must be a night stocker or something. Or night
stalker
. I shivered again. He could be the killer. Even if he wasn’t, I didn’t know who he was friends with. Maybe the killer. And now that I was thawing out, the warmth of embarrassment was helping to ease my chills just as much as the relative warm air outside the freezer. “Is Amy here?”
So I can maybe strangle her?
Well, after I interrogated her and figured out if she was the one who did this to me.

“She went home.”

“Carlos?”

“Gone.”

“Roberta?”

“Yeah, I think she’s still here. She’s probably clocking out right now.” He took a few steps away. “Hey, Roberta!”

I hugged myself and rubbed my hands over my arms, eying my basketful of ice cream, still sitting just inside the freezer. I wasn’t exactly in the mood for ice cream anymore, but Blythe was expecting it. Did I really want to have to explain why I didn’t bring any home? Did I really want to tell her what happened to me? No, definitely not. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to take even one step into that freezer again.

“Brenna?”

I turned around to see Roberta looking at me with concern.

“Someone shut me in the freezer,” I blurted out. And I wanted to know who it was, dang it, and I wanted them to pay.

BOOK: Thrown Off: A Cozy Mystery (Brenna Battle Book 3)
13.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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