Hostage to Fortune: A Tea and Tarot Cozy Mystery
Tea and Tarot room owner Abigail Beanblossom is used to running interference for her socially-awkward former boss, tech billionaire Razzzor. So when he invites her on a stakeout to investigate the sale of counterfeit wine from his latest venture – an upscale winery – she barrels on in. But the two stumble across the corpse of a wine merchant, and new wine in old bottles is now the least of their problems.
Good thing amateur detectives Abigail and her partner, tarot reader Hyperion Night, have a nose for murder. Their investigation takes them from elegant wine cellars to chic tea parties on the California coast. But just as the investigation starts to get its legs, Abigail discovers there's more than wine at the bottom of this crime...
Hostage to Fortune is book 2 in the Tea and Tarot cozy mystery series. Start reading this hilariously cozy caper today!
Tearoom recipes in the back of the book.
Release date: May 21, 2020
Publisher: misterio press
Print pages: 196
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Hostage to Fortune: A Tea and Tarot Cozy Mystery
I was also, possibly, going to kill him.
“Is the Tesla too obvious?” Razzzor crumpled the bag of organic dried cherries. Before I could object–because you don’t steal a woman’s stakeout snacks–he reached into my bag of tortilla chips. Razzzor jammed a fistful into his mouth.
My ex-boss choked, sputtering. “Augh. Abigail! What are these?”
“This is why I partitioned our food. They’re chemical-coated, lime-flavored tortilla chips. And no, a Tesla is not too obvious.” God help us all. We’d already spotted three of the luxury sports cars zipping past the high-end wine store we were watching.
Across the street, the shop’s windows glowed. Its interior overhead lights sparkled off the wine bottles. Twilight cast purple shades across its white stucco front.
The shadows seemed to shift, and I forced myself to relax. Nothing was going to happen. This was just for fun. A way to reconnect with an old friend outside of an online gaming platform. A way to repay a debt I never really could repay.
“Not organic?” Razzzor wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “How can you eat this garbage?” He motioned at the bags littering the front of the sleek car.
“It’s easy. I don't want to go through life thinking about all the good food I missed.”
“You make organic tea and scones and you eat this?”
“You’re not thinking this through.” He patted his abs through the front of his hoodie. “You've only got one body. Gotta take care of it.”
My gaze traversed his lanky frame, his pale face. “You’re one to talk. The only parts you exercise are your fingers.”
Razzzor shot me his cheerful, boy-next-door grin. “Untrue. I have a personal trainer now.”
“Meh. Flat abs are nice, but have you tried these donuts?” I raised a pink box. “They put candy bar pieces on top.”
I sighed and set the box on the burled wood dash. After nearly a decade working as his executive assistant, I knew how far I could push.
As if reading my mind, he said, “You should come back to work for me. I’ve got a great new project—”
“It’s world-changing tech—”
One corner of his mouth quirked upward, his expression softening. “We haven’t done so badly together, have we?”
I didn’t respond. When he'd sold his tech firm, I'd done well. Without him, I wouldn't have been able to open Beanblossom’s Tea and Tarot.
But I owed him for a lot more than that.
Hence the stakeout.
Also, I hadn’t exactly had any better offers this evening.
Tourists in board shorts and tank tops wandered east, away from the beach. Whirligigs and windsocks fluttered beneath a nearby awning. Lights twinkled on the hillside, cascading down to the Pacific.
San Borromeo was tiny but had a to-die-for location, just south of Santa Cruz. The tourists crowded in. As a new small business owner, I said huzzah to that. Tourists meant afternoon teas and Tarot readings. But it was starting to feel a little crowded.
“How did you know the bottle was counterfeit?” I asked, changing the subject.
Razzzor, in addition to being my best friend, ex-employer, and favorite gaming partner, was now a proud winery owner. In Silicon Valley, a vineyard was the ultimate accessory. Aside from the latest Tesla.
“Because I tasted it.” He adjusted his wire-frame glasses. “It wasn't my pinot.” The twilight deepened, setting his handsome face in shadow, but I could see the angry set to his mouth.
“Huh.” He'd sent me a bottle once, as a gift. (There was no way I could afford his wine.) The bottle had been near-black, elegantly mysterious, and damned heavy. “Explain again why you haven't gone to the police?”
“I just want to check things out a bit first,” he said vaguely.
I shifted in the Tesla to get a better look at him. There wasn't a whole lot of room for moving around, and I banged my elbow on the window. “Ow.” I winced.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to figure out what you're hiding.” Because he was definitely hiding something. His reluctance to talk to the cops was about more than his libertarian tendencies. And when my ex-boss got sneaky, all sorts of bad things happened.
He straightened, then abruptly slumped lower, his knees jamming beneath the wheel, his hoodie riding up over his neck. Another weird fact about Silicon Valley rich dudes? Being able to dress down is a sign of success.
“Someone's going inside,” he said.
I pressed the binoculars to my eyes. A willowy blonde with long, coiling hair and a leather portfolio strode into the wine store. She looked a lot like me, but taller. And her fashionable but no-nonsense red pantsuit looked expensive.
I glanced down at my own outfit–a rose-colored split skirt and loose white cotton tank. Mine looked more comfy.
She stepped outside a few minutes later, still carrying the portfolio. The woman strode down the street.
“Suspicious,” I teased. “She didn't buy any wine.”
“And what was in that portfolio?” I asked in a deeper, TV-announcer voice.
He stared after the blonde, his mouth compressing.
I threw a handful of organic popcorn at him. “Earth to Razzzor.”
A bike messenger skidded to a halt in front of the store. He ducked inside. The man emerged even faster than the blonde, hopped on his bike, and cycled off.
Frowning, I leaned across Razzzor and watched the messenger disappear down the narrow street. “That's weird.”
His head whipped toward me. “What?”
“He didn't take anything into the store, did he?”
“I don't know,” Razzzor said. “I wasn't watching that closely.”
“Because he didn't take anything out either.”
“Do you think–”
“That I’ve figured out the flaw in this stakeout? Yes. There’s nothing odd or unusual about people going into a wine store. What exactly are we watching for here?”
“Fine,” Razzzor huffed. “I can see you're not taking this seriously.” He opened the Tesla's door and stepped out.
“Where are you going?”
“Wait.” I scrambled to escape the sports car. This was harder than it sounded. Tesla’s don’t have handles. They have buttons. But it’s hard to remember that when you’re not used to riding in one. My hands fumbled, gliding across the door’s smooth surface. Finally, I found a button.
The window glided down.
“Oh, come on.”
Razzzor strode across the street. His long shadow vanished beneath a streetlight. An unreasoning panic flashed through me.
Grabbing a lamp post for balance, I scrambled out the window and bolted after him.
“I'm sorry.” I panted. “I am taking this seriously. But if you really think someone’s counterfeiting your wine, you should call the police.”
He grabbed the wine shop's door handle and pulled it open. A bell jangled overhead. We stepped inside.
Long aisles lined with wooden shelves stretched toward the back of the narrow store.
“The pinots are over there.” Razzzor turned a corner and vanished down an aisle.
An oversized, black paper tag dangled from a bottle, pulled slightly out of one of the shelves. Since it looked like something out of Harry Potter, I glanced at the tag. In neat, silvery script, it read: “This inky Cot pairs well with barbecued pork and burgers with blue cheese.”
“Not with my burgers.” I shoved the bottle deeper onto the shelf. Razzzor had disappeared, and I suddenly felt very alone. “Razzzor?”
I turned a corner.
Razzzor rotated a black wine bottle in his hand. “It’s one of mine.”
“Is it fake?” I asked.
“I don’t think so, but I’d have to taste it to be sure. It's a different year than the counterfeit bottle I found last week.”
“Does that matter?”
“Maybe. I don't know.” He started to put the bottle back onto the shelf.
I laid a hand on his. “Hold on. Why don't we ask the owner where he bought this one?”
“You know I hate direct confrontations.”
Boy, did I. I’d spent the better part of my twenties helping him evade them. “Who said anything about a confrontation? You’re a vintner. He’s a wine seller. It’s just a friendly chat.”
We walked to the rear of the shop, where an old-fashioned cash register stood on a glass-topped wooden counter. A bell sat beside the register. I tapped it, and it pealed through the wine store.
“So,” Razzzor said in a low voice. “Who should we be?”
“Our stakeout personas. Should we be boyfriend and girlfriend?”
“Maybe we should stick with something closer to reality,” I whispered. “I can be your admin assistant.”
His head dipped, his shoulders hunching. “Whatever you say.”
Razzzor frowned and dinged the bell again.
We waited some more.
Razzzor rubbed the back of his neck.
“Something could be wrong.” I grinned. Even though I was just a lowly tearoom co-owner, I kind of liked playing detective. “As good citizens, we should check.” Good citizens and totally not two gaming geeks.
He canted his head. “Maybe we should wait some more.”
“I’m your fake assistant, remember? It’s my job to make sure your time isn’t wasted.” I strode around the counter. “Hello?” I called.
A door behind the counter stood open. I peered inside. Cases of wine made unsteady towers on the floor and blocked a simple wooden desk.
I stepped into the doorway and stopped short, sucking in a harsh breath.
Razzzor bumped into me. “What? What’s wrong?”
A man lay prone on the wood floor. Blood pooled around his head, turned toward the desk.
I gaped like a koi fish, my heart knocking against my chest. “Oh my God.” I hurried forward, cursing guiltily. Dammit. I hadn't really thought someone was hurt.
“Call an ambulance,” I said.
I stepped around the odd arrangement of boxes to the fallen man’s side. “Sir?” I asked loudly and pressed two fingers to the side of his neck. I didn't feel a pulse, but I wasn’t exactly a pulse-taking expert.
I glanced at Razzzor, standing behind the wooden desk. His fists clenched at his sides.
“Fine,” I said, “I’ll call an ambulance.” I rummaged in my purse for my phone.
“No.” Greenish, Razzzor steadied himself on a stack of wine boxes.
I paused, phone gripped between my hands. “No? What are you talking about?”
He gulped, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “His eyes…” He pointed. “Call the police. He's dead.”
“Ms. Beanblossom, fancy meeting you here,” Detective Tony Chase drawled. The Texan transplant wore his usual California cop casual: jeans, massive belt buckle, button-up shirt, and navy blazer. “Where's your business partner?” he asked. “Don’t you two usually find trouble together?”
“Hyperion couldn't come,” I muttered. The night air smelled of suntan oil and suspicion—mine.
Detective Chase and I had met before. So far, I had no evidence to suggest he was anything but a good cop. But I don't like authority figures, and that includes handsome detectives. That was why I'd photographed the office and everything else I could before the cops had arrived. I didn't want anyone complaining I'd messed with the crime scene.
Red and blue lights flashed weirdly over the narrow, curving street lined with pastel, stucco buildings. Tourists stared from restaurant windows and beneath awnings. Razzzor stood a bit away, talking to a policewoman.
Tall, lean, and blond, the detective watched me, his expression bland. “And how did you come to stumble across another body?”
I jammed my hands into my skirt pockets. Had I imagined he'd emphasized another?
I cleared my throat. “My friend, Razzzor–”
“That can't be his real name.”
“It’s with three z’s.”
“That makes it perfectly common then.”
“It came from his gaming handle, but he legally changed it.”
The detective didn’t respond.
“Check the business pages,” I said stubbornly. “He's in them.”
“Right.” I smoothed the front of my split-skirt. “Um. He owns a winery–”
The detective snorted.
“And he discovered someone's selling wine that isn't his in bottles that look like his,” I finished.
“Wine fraud? How much do this Razzzor’s bottles go for?”
“Over a thousand bucks.” Most wineries were money sucks. Not Razzzor’s. But everything he touched turned to gold.
Maybe I should have asked him to invest in Beanblossom’s Tea and Tarot.
“Who buys thousand-dollar wine?” the detective asked. “That seems plain ridiculous.”
“In Silicon Valley?”
“So, you thought the fake wine was being sold from this shop?”
“Razzzor did. We sat outside for a while, watching–”
My cheeks warmed. “We saw a tall, blond woman in a red suit go in and come out a few minutes later without any wine. And right after her, a bike messenger went inside. I noticed he didn't have anything to deliver, and he came out empty-handed too.”
“Recognize the uniform?”
I shook my head. “He was wearing a neon-yellow top with a blue logo on the back.”
“And the blonde?”
“She had long, curling hair, like mine, but I didn't get a good look at her.”
“See anything else?”
I opened my mouth, then bit my bottom lip. “Something seemed... wrong about the office.”
“Aside from the dead body?”
My face heated again. “Aside from that.”
“What exactly was wrong?”
My skin grew hotter. “Um, I'm not sure.”
“I don't know,” I admitted. But something had been off. I'd noticed it as soon as I'd walked inside the room. But what was it?
He snapped shut his old-fashioned notepad. “Thank you, Ms. Beanblossom. I'll be in touch.” He sauntered off.
The muscles between my shoulders unclenched. Chase wasn't a bad guy. He'd saved me once from a killer.
Okay, twice. He'd saved me twice.
It was getting embarrassing.
But it did seem kind of weird that I'd found another dead body.
What was going on with our small town's crime rate?
I walked to Razzzor's Tesla.
Scowling, he joined me a few minutes later. “Let's get out of here.”
We drove from the tiny downtown, up the hill into residential areas, thick with eucalyptus trees.
“Did you notice anything odd about that office?” I asked.
“Yeah. A dead guy.”
I rolled my eyes. “I meant, besides that.”
“No. Why, what did you see?”
“I'm not sure. It's just... Never mind.” It was probably “just” the body.
“There's, uh, something I should tell you,” Razzzor said.
“I know you didn't kill that man and then set us up to find the body.”
“No, of course not. But, um, that blond woman we saw go inside, I, uh, know her.”
“Good,” I said. “That will make it easier for the police to find her.”
He didn't respond.
“You did tell the police.” I swiveled in the leather seat to look at his angular profile. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Didn't you?”
My heart dropped to my sandals. “Not exactly or not at all?”
“Oh, for heaven’s… Razzzor, that's withholding evidence. You have to call them.” I fumbled in my slouchy purse for my phone.
“Deva and I used to date.”
I groaned. “The blonde is your ex?” And then I realized what that meant. Razzzor didn’t date much. He was private, introverted. His relationship with her must have meant something. And… “Hold on, you think your ex is faking your wines to get back at you?”
“How did you–?” He grimaced. “She's a wine distributor. And it did seem a little weird that one of her clients is the wine shop where my fake wine was sold. I mean, not my fake wine. I didn’t fake it, but–”
“I get it.” Too well. Growing up in foster care had left Razzzor with an extreme distrust of government authorities. He'd want to be certain he was right before accusing anyone to the authorities. The idiot.
“You have to tell them,” I said.
“She was dating the wine shop owner.”
“How do you–?” I tasted something sour, the puzzle pieces tumbling into place. “Oh, no. This wasn't your first stakeout, was it? Were you stalking her?”
“No. You know I wouldn’t do that. Not after— I was watching Whitmore.”
I slumped back in the leather seat. “Who's Whitmore?”
“Whitmore Carson. The dead guy.”
I swore. “You were stalking the guy who was dating your ex?”
“Watching, not stalking. I didn't know they were dating until after I started my stakeouts. But what was I supposed to do? He was selling counterfeit wine. It could ruin my brand.”
“The police are going to think you're a suspect.”
“Yeah,” he said glumly and turned onto my street. “Now you see why I couldn’t tell them. They’ll just go after the easiest target, the simplest explanation—me.”
“This is not the time for your libertarian tendencies to kick in.”
“Someday, I’m buying an island,” he muttered. “Forget wineries.”
“The police are going to find out, and you’ll look worse.”
He slowed at a speedbump. “After everything you’ve been through—we’ve been through—do you really trust the cops?”
I opened my mouth to tell him, yes. Tony Chase was smart and honest. Besides, this was the San Borromeo PD, not some corrupt, big city police force. We had no reason not to put our faith in the justice system. But something—honesty, I guess—stopped me.
He shot me a sideways glance. “I didn’t think so,” he said quietly and slowed again in front of my yellow bungalow.
“It’s not the same.”
But my response was lost in a wall of sound. The ongoing party that is my Saturday night hell rattled the Tesla's windows. My neighbor’s parties were also my Sunday night hell. And my Friday night. And...
“Whoa,” he said. “You weren’t kidding about the parties. Is that–?”
I growled. “My neighbor.” Brik.
He squeezed the Tesla into my driveway.
I fumbled for the button. He leaned across me and opened the door.
I stepped from the car. “You need to talk to the police.” I shouted over the roar of the heavy metal.
“I said, you need to talk to the police!”
“Okay,” Razzzor said. “We'll talk tomorrow.”
Giving up, I shut the door. Razzzor waited while I climbed the wooden steps to the cheerful yellow bungalow I rented. I let myself inside and waved from the open door.
He reversed from the driveway, and the Tesla glided down the street.
I shut the door, muffling the sound from the party. Leaning against the wall, I surveyed my domain.
The bungalow’s soothing blue walls failed to soothe. The inviting soft couches failed to invite.
I kicked off my sandals and walked across the bamboo floor to my kitchen. Gray granite counters. Glass-fronted cupboards. A butcher block work island. It was my favorite room in the house. And still my stomach jittered.
Detective Chase was no dummy. He'd figure out Razzzor at best knew more than he was telling and at worst was a suspect. And if I knew Razzzor, he'd flee the country before colluding with cops. His lone-wolf passion for creating was what made him great, but it was also a flaw.
I just hoped it wouldn’t be a fatal flaw.
And who was this Deva woman?
Blowing out my breath, I scraped my hands through my hair. I needed to chill.
I glanced at the white, bi-fold doors to the pantry, filled with tea canisters and drying herbs, and shook my head. Tea wasn’t going to fix this headache.
I needed peace. I needed Zen. I needed quiet.
My life used to be simple. Selling tea on the pier. Online gaming with Razzzor. Dinners with my grandfather and his best friend, my honorary uncle Tomas.
I walked through my living room toward the deck’s French doors and froze.
A man lounged on one of the patio chairs.
I yanked open the glass-paned door, and the music from next door roared. “Hyperion, what are you doing here?”
Hyperion Night was my business partner and the Tarot half of Beanblossom’s Tea and Tarot. He wore elegant gray skinny pants and a lightweight turtleneck that flattered his dark skin. But everything flattered him. He had a face made for the cover of a magazine—high cheekbones and startlingly light-colored eyes.
He yawned. “Hey, girl.”
A muscle in my left eyelid twitched. “Why are you in my yard?”
“Brik's got a weird crowd tonight.” He motioned negligently to the redwood fence, and my neighbor's house behind it. “I thought I'd stop by.”
In other words, he'd gotten bored at my neighbor’s party. And why was it so annoying that he’d been there at all?
“What are you doing out so late?” he asked.
“You wouldn't believe me if I told you.” I dropped into the cushioned deck chair across from him.
“Ooh, have you been up to no good? Tell me everything.”
“Howdy, Hyperion.” My grandfather ambled down the path beside my house, his duck, Peking, waddling beside him. His best friend, Tomas, followed.
I hurried down the steps and hugged the two men. Tomas climbed the porch steps, but Gramps hesitated.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
The mallard quacked.
“I got a postcard from your mother,” my grandfather said in a low voice.
A tiny flame of anger sparked in my heart, and I wasn’t proud of it. When I’d gone to work for Razzzor, we’d discovered we shared a darkness. We’d both been abandoned by our parents. But unlike Razzzor, I’d had loving grandparents who’d stepped up to fill the void.
I’d been lucky. But I still hadn’t gotten past it. It’s not something you get past easily.
I shook my head. “I don’t need to know what it said.”
My grandfather’s face spasmed.
“Unless… I do need to know?” I asked slowly.
He hesitated, then patted my arm. “No. It can wait.”
We joined Tomas and Hyperion on the porch, and Gramps flopped into a chair. Peking fluttered into his lap and eyed Hyperion.
“Sorry,” I said. “No cat today.” Peking and Hyperion’s cat, Bastet, had one of those weird animal-kingdom friendships you see on internet videos. Since Bastet’s initial instinct had been to try to eat him, Peking was clearly more forgiving than I.
“What are you doing here?” Tomas asked Hyperion.
“Brik's got a strange crowd tonight. The vibe felt off. I wanted a change of scene.”
“Really?” Gramps fiddled with the zipper on his khaki jacket. A stain marred its collar, and an ache stirred in my heart. But I didn’t say anything about the stain. Gramps would feel like he was being treated like a child, and neither of us wanted that.
“What's wrong with it?” my grandfather continued.
“Crowd too rough for you?” Tomas's leathery face curved into a grin. “Bet none of them ever killed a man with a bottlecap.”
I rubbed my head. Not that war story again.
“Abigail was just telling me about her latest adventure,” Hyperion said. “Go on, Abs.”
“Razzzor asked me on a stakeout,” I said, “and–”
Hyperion raised one hand. “Hold on. Razzzor exists?”
“Of course he exists,” I said.
Gramps rubbed his chin. “Come to think of it, I haven't met him either.”
“Does Razzzor exist IRL?” Hyperion arched a brow. “That means in real life.”
“I know what it means,” I said, waspish.
“I didn't,” Gramps said.
“Yes,” I said, “he's real. He bought a winery a couple years back, and it's doing really well, except–”
“Now I know this is a gag,” Hyperion said. “Who ever heard of a profitable winery?”
I plowed onward. “And he found a bottle of counterfeit wine with his label on it in the Wine Merchants–”
“Have you ever met him?” Hyperion asked Tomas.
My uncle shook his head.
“This is a little too convenient,” Hyperion said, “don't you think?”
The older men nodded. Peking quacked.
“The fake wine's probably being sold in other stores too,” I said. “Razzzor just happened to be here...”
Brik climbed the steps and leaned against the porch railing. My neighbor crossed his arms, his biceps bulging. Which I totally didn't notice. Or I wouldn't have, if he didn't insist on wearing tight white t-shirts and jeans that...
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “Aren't you hosting a party?”
“Crowd's a little off tonight.” Brik ran a hand through his mane of thick, blond hair.
“That's what I said,” Hyperion said.
“Can I finish my story?” I asked.
Hyperion rolled his eyes. “So, you and your imaginary friend went on a stakeout, and...?”
“And the owner of the wine store was dead.”
“Oh. My. God.” Hyperion pointed an accusing finger. “You saw Tony, didn’t you?”
“He might have been there,” I admitted. Hyperion had a thing for the detective.
Hyperion leapt to his feet. “You were sleuthing without me. I thought we were partners?”
I sucked in my cheeks. “I didn't know I was going to find a body.”
Hyperion paced. “Did he ask about me?”
“Um,” I said, “he did ask where you were.”
“I knew it,” Hyperion said. “He's totally into me. And we both drive Jeeps. It’s a sign.”
“Okay,” I said, “but the body—”
“You should have brought me along,” Hyperion said, “but no, you had to go it alone.”
“I wasn't alone. I was with–”
“Your imaginary best friend.” Hyperion folded his arms over his gray turtleneck. “Really, Abs, clinging to this illusion is getting a little sad.”
“You can look him up–”
“Oh, I will.” He rose. “I'll look up this dead wine merchant. But we’ll have to keep my involvement in our investigation on the QT.”
“I, uh…” I’d meant he should look up Razzzor. “Our investigation?”
The men looked at my partner. The duck did too.
Hyperion studied his manicure. “The last time I got involved in an investigation, I was practically arrested. It's been impossible for Tony to ask me out as long as I'm a suspect, or a witness, or whatever. We need to be smart about solving this crime.”
In spite of everything, I couldn't help but admire Hyperion's boundless confidence. But I was already feeling guilty about playing detective. There was no reason Razzzor and I needed to dig ourselves in deeper.
Gramps frowned. “Abigail, you found the body.”
“And it’s not the first time you’ve done something like that either,” Tomas said.
“Well, no,” I said.
“Doesn't that make you a prime suspect?” Gramps asked.
“I'm not a...” Oh, s^%$.
It was also a given Hyperion would get involved. Not only had he just finished binge watching a TV psychic show, but we’d solved murders before. We’d been pretty good at it.
Detective Chase probably wouldn’t agree with that last bit.
The next evening, I sat on my heels and surveyed the tearoom’s reach-in fridge. It was clean enough. Glancing over my shoulder, I made sure I was alone in the wide, industrial kitchen. I pulled my phone from my apron pocket and flipped to the photos I'd taken yesterday.
Acid rose in my throat.
Whitmore’s body, sprawled on the tile floor. His desk, incredibly neat. Maybe that was what I'd thought so odd. Who kept their desk that tidy?
I studied a formation of boxes crowding the desk. There were three tiers stacked four boxes high and spread in a rough semi-circle. Winery logos decorated their cardboard sides.
A yawn cracked my jaw. I’d been up late last night researching Deva and the Wine Merchants. I hadn’t learned much. But everybody blabbed to everyone about what they were doing online. Thanks to the internet, I’d learned Deva was going to be at a wine and cheese thing tonight.
I was going to be there too.
A soft noise at the open kitchen door made me turn. Hyperion lounged in the doorway. He looked like a male model in his button-up white shirt, open at the collar, and his skinny khaki slacks and loafers.
“When you're done,” he said, “let's talk.”
Hastily, I jammed my phone into my pocket. “How'd your class go?”
“I'm leaning a lot.”
“Learning? I thought you were teaching the class.”
“One needs to keep up,” he said airily. “Continuing education keeps the brain sharp.”
Hyperion was a true Tarot master. I wasn’t sure what he had to learn at this point, but I stayed out of the Tarot side of the business.
“I’m done here.” Glancing at the wall clock, I shut the door. I dropped my cleaning supplies in the plastic bucket. “Want some tea?” There was always time for a quick cup.
“Whatever you're having.” He wandered into the hall.
Pulling off my apron, I walked into the front of the now-empty tearoom. Brushed-nickel canisters of tea lined the wooden shelves behind the counter.
Elderberry. I pulled down a canister—an elderberry and hawthorn berry blend.
Prying free the lid, I reached in for the spoon. A hot slash of pain bit my hand.
I jerked my hand from the canister. “Ow!” Puzzled, I peered inside.
A hawthorn twig stuck up from the mix of dried berries and rosehips.
I retrieved the thorny twig and laid it on the counter. “How did you get in there?” I was the one who mixed our tea blends. But I guess I hadn't been paying attention when I'd mixed this one. Weird.
I brewed the tea, arranged a white ceramic teapot and cups on a tray, and strolled into Hyperion's office.
If our tearoom’s décor said “modern elegance,” Hyperion's office was a gypsy caravan. Sheer, ivory fabric swagged the ceiling, obscuring the industrial pipes. On a low table, against one wall stood a makeshift altar of driftwood, crystals, and candles. Hyperion relaxed in a high-backed red velvet chair, a king awaiting his subject.
His massive tabby, Bastet, peered from his perch on an antique desk.
Negligently, Hyperion waved me to the matching chair opposite. A deck of Tarot cards sat neatly stacked on the round table.
I set down the tray, sat and poured my tea, adding the honey I'd brought. “Elderberry and hawthorn berries, with dried rose hips.”
“We could both use the extra protection, I suppose.”
He glanced at the computer on his desk and shut the laptop. “Elderberry and hawthorn both correspond to protection. Magically, I mean.”
I scowled and rubbed my hand. “It didn't protect me.” That thorn had been sharp.
I poured him a cup.
“So… a postcard from your mother?” he asked. “I couldn’t help overhearing, since I was totally eavesdropping.”
I gave him a look.
“It’s one of my superpowers,” he said. “What do you expect? Well? Aren’t you even the least bit curious what she said?”
“I know what she said. The only thing that changes on the postcards is the picture. Here’s where I am now, spiritual growth amazing, wish you were here.” They’d been coming since I was roughly three. I knew the drill.
Bastet dropped from his perch and rubbed against my leg.
“I’m sorry,” Hyperion said quietly.
I wasn’t. Postcards saved me from having to respond, since there was never a return address.
“So, each postcard is basically a kick in the gut,” he said.
“Yeah. Thanks mom and dad.”
“All right,” he said briskly. “I suppose you've researched our victim, Whitmore Carson, too?”
I nodded, grateful for the change of subject. “I found articles about the wine shop in the local business pages. The Wine Merchants opened two years ago. I also found some social media stuff on Deva, who I saw go into the wine shop before us. Nothing on them pointed to murder. There was a bike messenger at the Wine Merchants that night too, but I haven’t had time to figure out the messenger company yet. Anyway, Whitmore Carson had a business partner, Madge Badger.”
“With a name like that she has to be the killer. Is the shop all hers now?”
“Or was she the one who introduced counterfeit wines to the shop?” I asked.
“If there are counterfeit wines. We have no proof of that.”
“Razzzor has proof.” At least, I hoped he'd kept the wine bottle he’d found last week. We hadn't really had a chance to discuss that.
“Ah yes, your peculiar, phantasmic vapor–”
“You're still reading that Lovecraft word-of-the day calendar.” I rose to leave. “Aren’t you?”
He shuffled the Tarot deck. “It's expanded my vocabulary in such tumultuous, unutterable ways. Anyhoo, since Whitmore’s social media sites were only about wine—the man was obsessed—I thought we'd do a Tarot reading.”
“On Whitmore Carson?” My gaze slid to the clock Hyperion used to make sure his clients didn’t overstay their readings. “I thought you said reading for people without their permission was unethical.”
“Not in a murder investigation. Not when he’s dead.” He laid a card on the red velvet tablecloth and flipped it over. A woman handed a sword to a knight on a horse. “Justice. See? Whitmore wants justice. He's down with this reading.”
“And now you're a medium too?” I sat again.
He shuddered. “Good Lord, no. I can't imagine anything creepier. Who wants to talk to the dead? They can’t have anything new to say.” He turned over another card.
In spite of myself, I shivered.
“Hm.” Hyperion turned over a third card. “The seven of swords. It's obvious.”
“Is it?” I asked, pretending cluelessness. Tarot was Hyperion's profession. I knew more about the cards’ meanings than I was willing to admit, but why steal his thunder?
“The devil represents being blind—or blinded—to something. And the seven of swords represents trickery and deceit. Obviously, Whitmore didn't know what was going on. He was tricked, blinded to the truth.”
It was possible. Plausible even. But did it get us anywhere? “Okay, let's say Whitmore didn't know what was going on. He was fooled by the fake wine too–”
“Or by something else. We don't know this deception, whatever it was, was about counterfeit wine.”
I checked my watch.
We both pushed back our chairs and stood.
I stared at my partner.
He stared back. “You're going to tonight’s wine meetup,” he said, accusingly.
“Well, yes. And before you say anything, I was going to tell you—”
“Too late. And I'm going too.” He snagged a navy blazer off the back of his chair and slithered into it.
It wasn’t like I could stop him. And wine socials weren’t exactly my scene. I shrugged. “Fine.”
“I know it's fine.”
“Fine,” I said.
“I'll drive. And don't say fine again.”
I grabbed up the tea things, hustled them into the kitchen sink, and we piled into Hyperion's green, Jeep Wrangler.
We drove north, to a chic wine bar in Santa Cruz.
A car pulled out in front of the shop, and Hyperion whipped the Jeep into the spot. “Told you,” he said, smug. “The parking gods love me.”
“Hm.” They hated me. Not that I believed any existed. I preferred to look at the magical world like an anthropologist. It was interesting. The natives performed curious ceremonies. I was willing to observe and occasionally participate. But my New Age parents had cured me of any real interest in the occult.
When the people you’re supposed to be able to count on come up short, you learn to treasure the people you can count on. I would never forget what my grandfather had done for me.
And I wouldn't forget Razzzor either. He’d once gotten me out of a very sticky and very unpleasant situation. My friend had also risked his own neck to do it. I wouldn’t let him down now.
We emerged from the Jeep, and Hyperion straightened his lapels. He looked me over. “Good thing Beanblossom’s is business casual. You don’t look awful for someone who's been cleaning.”
“Wow. Thank you for that heartfelt and totally backhanded compliment.” I smoothed the front of my white, linen shirt dress.
We strolled into the bar. Men's heads turned at Hyperion's passage. That was the trouble hanging out with Hyperion—he sucked up the male attention wherever we went. I’d basically resigned myself to being a wallflower in his presence.
Ignoring the looks, my partner sauntered to the bar. “We're here for the Crush on You tasting.”
The bartender looked him up and down and tugged on the collar of his white button-down. “You're early. Back room.” He jerked his head toward an open doorway at the far end of the room.
We walked past walls lined with corks to a dimly lit, modern room painted near-black. High, black quartz tables and matching black wooden chairs dotted the room. Brushed-nickel pendant lamps hung from the ceiling.
Deva and a blond man stood chatting behind the bar. A tortoise-shell clip restrained the golden hair spilling down Deva’s back. Her black cocktail dress skimmed her toned body. A sparkling gold pendant dangled around her throat. It was a bit like looking at a taller, slimmer, better dressed version of me.
It was also kind of unnerving.
The man she was speaking to turned toward us and his broad, Teutonic face split into a grin. “Our first guests! Getting in your tasting before the crowd? Smart.”
“Normally,” Hyperion said, “I prefer to make a later and more dramatic entrance. But I'll make an exception for good wine.”
“Hi,” I said, stretching my hand across the shiny black counter. “I'm Abigail.”
He shook my hand, his grip firm but not unpleasant. “Zimmer. James Zimmer.”
“And I'm Deva.” She shook my hand, and I managed not to wince. The woman had a grip.
My partner beamed. “I'm Hyperion.”
James blinked. “Hyperion? Wasn't he a sun god?”
“Thank you.” Hyperion turned to me. “At last, someone who knows their Greek mythology.”
“In my line of work,” James said, “one needs to know all sorts of facts, plus the latest wine news.”
“You're a...?” I asked.
“We're distributors,” James said. “The least romantic part of the business, but we're a necessary cog in the wine industry machine.”
“Distributors?” I said in my best “let’s gossip” tone. “Then you must have heard about Whitmore Carson. What a shock.”
“Whitmore?” Deva stilled. “What about him?”
“He was killed in his wine store,” I said.
Deva swayed. The color drained from her face.
James grasped her elbow. “Deva? Are you all right?”
“I don't... Excuse me.” Clutching her pendant between two fingers, she hurried from behind the bar and into a narrow hallway.
Guiltily, I scraped my teeth across my bottom lip. Tactless. But that was what I’d wanted, wasn’t it? Reactions?
“Killed?” James dark brows slashed downward. “Are you sure? I saw Whitmore a couple weeks ago.”
“Oh,” Hyperion said, “he’s definitely dead.”
“I'm sorry,” I said. “I didn't mean to upset her.” Deva’s distress had seemed genuine, genuine enough to twist my stomach. But was it real?
“She and Whitmore were... close.” James glanced toward the empty hallway. “I don't like to pry into my employee's personal lives, but… well. What happened? Was it a robbery?”
“I don't know,” I said, still looking toward the hallway where Deva had vanished. The local Sunday paper hadn't run the story, and I knew better than to call Detective Chase for the latest murder gossip.
“James, I brought that cheese you wanted.” A slender woman with long blue-black hair clattered into the room on five-inch heels. Her red flower print dress whispered about her knees. It contrasted artfully with her worn denim jacket. She leaned over the sleek bar and kissed James's cheek, handed him a paper bag.
“Thanks, Layla.” He motioned to us. “These are Hyperion and Abigail. This is my wife, Layla.”
“Wife. Errand girl. Jill of all trades.” She smiled and shook our hands. Her eyes widened in mock horror. “But where's the wine? You can't let people stand at a bar and not offer them wine.”
Layla turned to me. “So, Abigail. What's your story?”
Since I hadn’t prepped a fake story, I settled for an abbreviated version of the truth. “I grew up in San Borromeo, did some work in Silicon Valley, and then I came home to open Beanblossom’s Tea and Tarot.”
“I'm the Tarot,” Hyperion said modestly.
She pressed her hands together and raised them, prayerlike, to her lips. “Tea shop? Do you by any chance cater?”
Layla grasped my hands. “I know it's awfully short notice, but my caterers came down with pink eye.”
Yikes. “All of them?” I didn’t even want to imagine pink eye in our tearoom.
“You know how contagious it is,” she said. “And I've got an event on Saturday. Is there any chance you can step in? It's an outdoor event for fifty. Please, please, please?”
I didn’t want to look too eager, but it might be a perfect opportunity for snooping. “I don't–”
“Yes,” Hyperion said. “She means yes.”
I shot him a look. “I was going to say I don't think we have any events planned for that day,” I said. “But I'll check my calendar.”
She scavenged through her chic red purse and handed me a card. “Please let me know as soon as you can.”
“I'll call you tomorrow,” I said.
James handed me a glass, half full of deep, red wine.
“Thank you,” she said. “You’re a lifesaver.”
I hadn’t agreed yet. Clearly, Hyperion wasn’t the only one suffering an excess of confidence.
Layla looked around. “Where's Deva?”
“She, er, got some bad news,” James said. “One of our customers, a man she was seeing, was killed.”
Layla gasped. “Not Whitmore?”
“You knew him?” I asked.
“Barely. But poor Deva. And Beatrice—what must she be going through?”
“Beatrice?” I asked.
“Whitmore’s ex-wife, Beatrice Carson.” Layla touched her husband’s sleeve. “Did Deva go home?”
James angled his head toward the narrow hallway, and the restroom sign above it.
“I'd better see how she's doing,” Layla said. “Excuse me.” She hurried off.
People trickled into the wine tasting, and James moved along the bar to schmooze. Layla returned. Deva did not. James's wife whisked behind the bar. She got busy pouring and talking up the wines, and our chance for interrogations were lost.
“You know very well you’ve got nothing going on Saturday,” Hyperion hissed in my ear.
“It never pays to look easy.”
“What idiot told you that? And why are you looking like your imaginary dog died? We have successfully infiltrated a wine cabal and scored new business for Beanblossom’s.”
I lifted a brow. “Cabal?”
“It could be.” He winked over my left shoulder.
I turned to see a gorgeous red-haired man in an Armani suit leaning against the bar. “Go ahead.” I sighed. “You will anyway.”
“Hold this.” Hyperion handed me his empty glass and wound toward the bar.
I stared glumly after him. I couldn't pretend ignorance about the mysterious blonde at the wine shop. I’d have to tell the police.
Worse, I’d have to tell Razzzor I’d done it.
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