Fans of Rita Mae Brown and Miranda James will delight in this four-book cozy mystery series perfect for cat lovers and mystery devotees.
Opening Furry Godmother, pet boutique and organic treat bakery, is Lacy Marie Crocker’s dream come true, but her life and business in the opulent New Orleans Garden District turns out to be more tumultuous than tame. Caught in one cat-and-mouse murder investigation after another, Lacy adds sleuthing to her list of qualifications—right after Shih Tzu tutu making.
Including all four books in the Kitty Couture mysteries:
Book 1 — Cat Got Your Diamonds
Armed with a glitter gun, Lacy Marie Crocker finds her new business under threat when she becomes the top suspect in a murder.
With Lacy’s name at the top of the suspect list, Detective Jack Oliver is hounding her, and her Furry Godmother investor wants out before his name is tarnished by association. To make matters worse, a string of jewel heists with suspicious ties to the murder case has New Orleans residents on edge. To save her dream, Lacy must take a stand, put her keen eyes to work, and unravel what really happened at her shop the night of the murder. But can Lacy sniff out the killer cat burglar in time to get her tail-raising designs on the catwalk?
Book 2 — Cat Got Your Cash
When top fashion designer Annie Lane is found dead and her adored Siamese cats are stolen, it’s up to Lacy to catch the killer and recover the cats.
When Lacy learns that the two cats stolen from a murder victim are set to inherit the dead designer’s fortune, she begins to wonder if the killer was after Annie Lane’s kittens all along. Lacy will stop at nothing to save the Siameses and find justice for Annie—if the killer doesn't sink his claws into her first. Luckily, Lacy has the help of handsome NOLA PD homicide detective Jack Oliver to help her catch the cat-napper before it’s too late.
Book 3 — Cat Got Your Secrets
Lacy’s own father is the prime suspect in a Valentine Day’s death, and her father isn’t the only one whose reputation is under threat.
The last person to see the victim alive was her own father, so it’s up to Lacy to clear her dad’s name from the suspect list before Detective Jack Oliver has to cage him for good. But just when she starts pawing at the truth, she receives a threatening letter from a mysterious blackmailer bent on silencing her with her own secrets. And Lacy’s not the only one with bones in her closet.
Book 4 — Cat Got Your Crown
With a pet pageant around the corner and a killer unleashed, Lacy will have to collar the culprit before the claws come out.
The entire Garden District seems to be counting the minutes until opening night of the pet pageant and everything is going spectacularly until Viktor Petrov, the pageant emcee takes a spill from the balcony during dress rehearsal. When it comes out that Viktor was notoriously rude, the doors blow wide open with potential suspects who could’ve wanted him dead. Lacy’s determined to find the killer and exonerate her accused friend Eva, but when Lacy receives a mysterious warning—a plush kitty from Lacy’s shop with its mouth crudely stitched over—it’s clear that she’s been found first.
Release date: September 7, 2021
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Print pages: 1312
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Kitty Couture Mysteries
Furry Godmother’s secret to stunning Shih Tzu tutus: More glitter.
I squinted through my freshly cleaned shop window at a lively group of women snapping selfies with the Magazine Street sign in front of a New Orleans police car and broken-in storefront. Humidity had twisted their hair to Albert Einstein proportions. An officer, standing several feet away, looked as confused as the jewelry shop owner sweeping broken glass. Crime wasn’t usually a problem in the Garden District, but this was the second jewelry heist in a week. The whole conundrum made me extra glad I owned a pet boutique. There wasn’t much of a black market for animal couture, and my baked goods had an expiration date.
Thieves aside, it was a beautiful New Orleans day. Ninety-seven, with a real feel of one hundred thirteen. Home sweet home. Hard to believe I’d ever left. Even harder to believe that somewhere beyond the sprawling mansions and Mighty Mississippi was my cheating ex-fiancé and our tabby, Penelope.
Pearl Neidermeyer was in front of me yammering away. “Lacy? Hello? Lacy Crocker, are you listening to me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I smiled at the woman who’d taught me ballet for three months as a child. “Every word.” My mother had put me in every form of dance and pageantry for years before she accepted the painful truth. I was my father’s daughter, made more for observation than participation.
I also shared Dad’s love of animals and art, which had led me to opening Furry Godmother, a custom pet boutique and organic, animal-friendly bakery. My degree in fashion design was finally paying off. My favorite ensembles were captured on film and hung around the room in collages of antique, gilded frames. Animals had been my life’s passion for as long as I could remember. Who knew that one day I’d be making custom creations for a literal catwalk?
Below the photographs, white oak shelves lined three walls, heavy laden with products, mixes, and baking supplies. The turtles and aquarium took residence on the fourth, a nice touch for atmosphere and entertaining children. Wide shop windows welcomed ample light from Magazine Street and invited shoppers inside for a peek or sample. A row of white minichandeliers hung from the ceiling, classing up the joint. My pink-and-green color scheme was adorable with punches of yellow for zip.
Mrs. Neidermeyer’s bangle bracelets jangled as she paced. “Those Fat Cats are making a big entrance at the gala. They’re building custom carriages. I can’t compete with custom carriages, so our costumes need to pack a punch.”
I rubbed my palms together and pulled myself away from the window. “Your dancers need something spectacular.”
Images exploded in my mind like movie theatre popcorn. Shiny, dazzling popcorn. I lifted a finger. “I have an idea.” I opened the drawer behind the counter where I kept notepads, cardstock, and a rainbow of sticky notes. I snagged my favorite pink sketchpad and smiled. “The costumes I create for your Shih Tzus will be so stunning, every dance coach on the East Coast will want your name.” I grabbed a pencil and scribbled notes. “I’ll start with silver sequin jackets.”
Mrs. Neidermeyer shook her head and pressed her lips tight. “No jackets. The darlings can’t perform properly with their legs all wrapped in sequins. Remember practicality. It’s not a photo shoot, darling. This is the Jazz Festival we’re talking about. We need to make a real impression at the Animal Elegance gala. The judges must be awed.”
I snickered, dancing my pencil over the paper, sketching lines and curves where crinoline and glitter would meet in sheer pageant perfection. “People do think I’m a little odd.”
She moved closer and set her stupendously bedazzled flip phone on the counter. “I said awed. Not odd.” Her frown said she didn’t necessarily disagree with my being odd.
Sometimes I forgot I was the only one who thought wordplay was hilarious.
I inhaled deeply and leaned my elbows onto the counter. My long, pale-blonde ringlets swung around my arms. “What do you think of something like this?”
She scrutinized my work. Her lips twitched, but she shut the smile down quick and tight. “I need seven. Make them spectacular. No jackets. Don’t forget this is your time to shine, too, dear. A few media mentions from an event of this caliber and you can put your name on the map as a designer.”
The upcoming French Quarter Jazz Festival had Garden District residents in a tizzy, planning the finest fundraisers and galas for their favorite organizations and charities, including Animal Elegance, the swankest gig of them all. I’d already secured a contract for Furry Godmother to provide refreshments for the pets. Still, dressing Mrs. Neidermeyer’s Shih Tzus was the biggest opportunity of my career so far.
“Okay. I’ll get to work on these and give you a call when they’re ready.” I turned the paper in her direction. “Seven sparkly Shih Tzu tutus. No jackets. Must dazzle. No problem.”
She nodded, attention riveted to the pad where I’d doodled the quick mock-up. “Excellent. Can we get four dozen peanut butter pupcakes delivered to the gala as well? Make a sign so they’ll know they’re from me.”
“Sure.” I scratched a note on the paper. “Good choice. The venue contracted me for bottled waters, dish rentals, and a mix of tuna tarts and turkey tots. Pupcakes will make the perfect dessert.”
“Bag the pupcakes individually and tie them with purple and green ribbons. Satin, not that cheap curling nonsense.”
“Got it.” I suppressed an eye roll. As if she needed to clarify. Only the best was practically this district’s motto. Plus, I took accessorizing seriously.
Returning home to New Orleans four months ago hadn’t been easy, but an ugly breakup with my ex-fiancé, Pete, had helped the process along. It probably wasn’t even a coincidence his name rhymed with cheat. Though two-timing creep was more accurate. Cheat implied a certain level of “Whoopsie. Did I do that?” Pete had maintained two full-time relationships, using his complicated schedule at the busy DC hospital to keep us both in the dark. One more reason I preferred pets to people. Pets never lied.
Mrs. Neidermeyer perused the bakery display while I drew up her work order. The oversized rings on her hands glittered under florescent studio lighting, casting rainbows over the display case and floor. “Everything is riding on this gala. We need costumes that will make the audience gasp, check their programs, and remember our names. We must enchant them.”
“No problem.” A win for her would be an enormous victory for Furry Godmother. “I will do my best to impress.”
She cast a suspicious look my way. “When can I expect the finished costumes?”
I checked my emaciated calendar. Three little notes dotted an expanse of blank white paper. The Himalayan Rescue Foundation needed six dozen tuna tarts. Happy Tails Day Spa needed twelve dozen canine carrot cakes. A local equestrian event had requested custom sashes for all participating thoroughbreds. I had time to make fifty tutus and still brainstorm the new line of Paris-inspired designs I hoped to launch next spring. “When do you need them?”
“The dancers need time for a proper dress rehearsal and the gala is in a month. Sooner is better. We’re planning group photos before the gala.”
I twirled a length of hair around my finger. “Two weeks?”
She nodded stiffly. “That will do.”
Making tutus would be fun, but I couldn’t wait to get to those poodle skirts. I’d dreamed about them all through the spring. I sighed. There was nothing like Paris in the spring. I scratched the date onto the work order and handed Mrs. Neidermeyer a copy.
Her eyes glazed over, gaze lost somewhere else in the room.
“Hmmm?” She patted the counter between us, unseeing.
“Your order slip.”
She’d honed her pale-green eyes on Mr. Tater, my store’s investor. I hadn’t heard him come in. Remembering to replace the bell inside my door after cleaning the windows had proven impossible. Half the time, I only remembered the bell was missing when I made plans to clean the windows again. She wetted her lips, and I dropped the slip on the counter where she’d eventually find it with her roving hand.
Mr. Tater made his usual circuit around my store’s interior, touching random items on shelves and exploring the pet treats inside my displays. His thinning gel-spiked hair went well with the gold rope necklace and pinstriped dress shirt tucked neatly into jeans worn around his navel. Unfortunate wardrobe aside, Mr. Tater was catnip for the over forty and single crowd. He’d amassed a fortune with his savvy business investments and liked to flaunt his money more than most, a trait this town appreciated. He was also a shrewd and generous businessman. He’d signed on as my investor when I couldn’t secure a proper loan and had refused my parents’ help.
Mrs. Neidermeyer’s hand landed on the slip. She stuffed it into her oversized designer bag and strode toward Mr. Tater with purpose in her eyes.
Then an olive-skinned man with the profile of a prizefighter sauntered through the door, drawing my attention away from Mrs. Neidermeyer and Mr. Tater. The man cast his glance around before heading my way. His stride was as predatory as his gaze.
I skittered back a step. “Can I help you?”
He lifted his eyebrows and appraised me thoroughly. He brushed long, calloused fingers over a stack of brightly colored head wraps beside my register. “Interesting shop you work in.”
“It’s my shop, actually. I make all the organic pet treats, custom clothing, and accessories.”
He chuckled, toying with the stack of accessories. “What are these supposed to be?”
I bit the insides of my cheeks. He was antagonizing me. “Those are headscarves for small dogs or cats, possibly a large guinea pig or teacup pig.”
His gaze moved from the material between his fingers to Mr. Tater, and he stepped back among the racks, feigning rapt interest in the turtle tank and neighboring aquarium along the far wall.
“Lacy.” Mr. Tater peeled my attention from the rude man and greeted me with a handshake. “How’s business?”
“Great.” I hoped it sounded believable. I couldn’t afford for him to give up on me yet.
Mr. Tater rocked back on his heels. “Excellent. May I have four pawlines for Priscilla?”
He moseyed back to the bakery display case. “She can’t get enough of the new recipe. What did you change?”
I slid a pair of plastic gloves over clean hands and opened the case. “Trade secret, Mr. Tater, but I’ll throw in an extra pawline to make up for not telling you. How’s that?” I smiled at him and the store I loved.
“Five pawlines? She’s going to love me today.”
My pawlines were a pet-friendly version of famous New Orleans pralines. The pawlines were made with bacon fat and wheat flour instead of pecans and brown sugar, but dogs couldn’t get enough, especially Priscilla, Mr. Tater’s Pug-Beagle mix. Breeders called the combination a Puggle. I called her downright adorable.
I stacked his pawlines in a logoed bakery box lined with pink paper.
Mr. Tater turned his attention to me and lowered his voice. “I’ve contacted a security firm about installing a system here. A sales representative will be in contact.”
I sealed the little box with a golden fleur-de-lis sticker and handed it to Mr. Tater. “Is everything okay?”
His forehead creased. “Don’t you want an alarm?”
“Oh, I do.” Assuming I could run it once it was installed. “Is this because of the jewelry store break-ins?”
Mr. Tater leaned against the counter, his brows raised in surprise. “Have you heard anything?”
“No. Only what I’ve seen or read in the news.” I tipped my chin toward the front window. “Maybe you could talk to the officer across the street before he leaves. Get the inside scoop.”
He shook his head. “There were a few petty thefts at the restaurant. Last night there was an issue at the Gallery.”
Goose bumps ran down my arms. He had good reason to worry. His restaurant, the Barrel Room, was the busiest in the city. A bad reputation could ruin business. And the Gallery was Mr. Tater’s jewelry store, positioned at the district’s edge. “Wow. Did you make a report?”
“Of course. It took all morning to sort it out.” He watched the scene outside. “I can’t believe there were two hits in one night.”
“Scary,” I said.
Mrs. Neidermeyer pressed a palm to her heart. “Is there anything I can do?”
“Oh, no. Forgive me.” He placed a set of air kisses on each side of Mrs. Neidermeyer’s face and smiled. “There’s no need to concern yourself. I’ll get a security system installed here right away and nip this thing in the bud.”
Mrs. Neidermeyer nodded solemnly.
Tater excused himself and disappeared onto the crowded sidewalk beyond the windows.
I followed him as far as the door and flipped the “Closed” sign before tugging my gloves off.
The dark-eyed man lingered near a rack of tiny top hats.
I made a show of looking at my watch. “Can I help you choose a treat for your pet?”
He licked his lips and smiled. “How about something for my big dog?”
I wrapped frustrated arms around my middle. I’d survived the DC area long enough to know a hooligan when I saw one. Several colorful suggestions came to mind for his “big dog,” but Mrs. Neidermeyer’s presence restrained me. I couldn’t afford to lose her business by behaving less than ladylike. I formed my most threatening smile. “I think it’s time for you to go.”
Mrs. Neidermeyer cleared her throat and joined me at the door.
The man laughed. “Look at that. Time to go.” He winked at Mrs. Neidermeyer and slunk into the sunshine.
She dabbed a handkerchief against her forehead. “Well, I never.” She fussed with her clothes and hair, looking utterly disgusted.
I pulled the shades on my windows for good measure. “Are you okay?” I had half a mind to report the jerk for upsetting Mrs. Neidermeyer, but unfortunately that wasn’t a crime. Not even in this neighborhood.
“I’m fine. You don’t get to be my age without meeting your share of perverts and derelicts.” She dropped her hands to her sides and straightened her spine. “I’ll be expecting a detailed mock-up of those tutus for my approval.”
She left with her chin high and a pageant-worthy wave over one shoulder.
I flipped the dead bolt and straightened the welcome mat with my shoe, admiring the deep-cherry stain I’d used on the knotted oak floor. The planks were easily a century old and worn smooth from decades of foot traffic.
Every shop on Magazine Street seemed the perfect mix of history and art. Both quirky and timeless. I’d hit the jackpot finding an available rental space and an investor the same month I came home. The crew at All-American Construction had turned the empty space into a cozy studio with built-in shelves and a bakery display in a matter of days. They even hung my chandeliers. Everything was perfect, and it was great to be home.
Speaking of home, I had dinner plans across town.
* * *
My little black Volkswagen bounced up the rear driveway at my parents’ house. I pressed the accelerator with feather-light pressure and prayed I wouldn’t need a whiplash collar. The windows in my first car, a white convertible, had stayed down year-round thanks to this driveway. Too many fast trips up the lane had rattled something loose inside the door panels. As a veterinarian in a pet-centric community, my father never had time to fix the windows. Plus, it was his policy that I attempt everything myself first. If I failed or got stuck, I could call for help, but not until I’d tried. I never did get the windows fixed, but I could do an unfathomable amount of other things thanks to his infuriating policy. Ingenuity was a Crocker family virtue.
I parked beside Mom’s new Mercedes and pulled in a deep breath of thick Louisiana air. Telltale scents of earth and ozone lingered around me, enticing me to sit in the swing and watch clouds flutter past. Leaves on the old oak tree overhead turned their veins skyward in anticipation of the brewing storm. Their mossy beards floated on the breeze.
Mom met me on the back porch of our family’s century-old Victorian. She thought cars parked out front looked tacky. Her honey-blonde hair was pinned up on one side, showing a shock of gray. A lifetime of smiling had left marks at the corners of her mouth and eyes, as if her face anticipated the next round and waited in position. “Well, you look ready for a trip to the library. All that outfit needs is glasses and a bun with a pencil shoved through it.”
“Pencil skirts are classic, Mother.”
“I agree. They’re quite popular with my girlfriends.”
I sighed. This was a story I’d heard before. “They’re all grandmothers.”
“Well, it’s true.” She tugged the door open and held it as I passed.
Our cozy family home was a five-thousand-square-foot Victorian dollhouse, complete with scrolling gingerbread woodwork and muted mauve-and-olive color scheme. Mom’s great-grandfather commissioned it in the late nineteenth century after selling his plantation. At that time, wealthy Americans found it distasteful to live in the French Quarter. Personally, I loved the Quarter. What I didn’t like were the debutante balls and cotillions.
Mom passed me on the way to the kitchen. “Dinner’s nearly done.” Her vibrant floral wrap dress and matching red pumps were stunning together. I’d gotten my passion for fashion—and unfortunately my ski-slope nose—from her, but little else. Even our opinions on design trends were night and day. Where I saw geeky chic, for example, Mom saw a schoolmarm.
I followed her on a whiff of something wonderful. She stopped to examine an array of steaming pots on the stovetop. “I don’t know what’s happening here.” She turned in a circle, flummoxed. “Imogene,” she called, “where are you and what can I do to help?”
Imogene was my nanny until high school when she switched to tending house. She’d been in the family since my grandmother hired her as a home health aide late in life. She and Mom had become fast friends. She kept the estate going while Mom grieved the loss of her mother. After that, she never really left. Imogene became like an aunt or surrogate mother to me, filling in as caretaker, chef, and tutor whenever Mom’s community engagements had taken her away.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Imogene’s voice thundered through the first floor, accompanied by the rhythm of highly motivated size-six sneakers. “I’ve got an eye on everything.” She rolled into view, arms open, and pulled me against her. “Miss Lacy.” She stepped back for a better look at me. “You’re too skinny.”
She always said that. “You know that’s a compliment, right?”
“Not where I come from.”
I hugged her again. “You come from Marigny, not Mars. I think you look perfect.”
Marigny was once a plantation seated down river from the French Quarter. Today it was shabby chic and considered a local secret. Great clubs and food. A short walk from the Quarter, funky and eclectic. It suited Imogene perfectly, much like her beliefs in local lore and mysticism.
“I’m old.” She poked her puffy salt-and-pepper hair. “I’m starting to look like the Bride of Frankenstein.”
“You look like home to me.” She’d advised me on everything from boys to outfits. She understood how out of place I felt at Mom’s parties, at my school, in my skin. The only things that helped me sleep as a child were her stories and a sprinkling of invisible dust from her fingertips to ward off the weary dreams. Imogene came from a long line of shamans and had a whole bunch of beliefs and practices I didn’t understand. All that had mattered to me was that I loved her and she loved me and we were family.
“What’s for dinner? It smells amazing.”
“Oh.” Mom returned from ferrying pitchers of ice water and sweet tea to the dining room. “We’re supposed to be trying a new recipe, but Imogene won’t let me help. I made beans and rice for dinner. There’s a big salad in the fridge. I visited the French Market this morning and picked everything myself. Purely organic. The only additive used on those beautiful veggies was love.” Her obsession with whole foods was contagious, eventually leading to my first experiment in healthy pet treats.
I pulled the salad from the fridge and unwrapped the plastic covering: bright-green lettuce leaves, tossed with sliced carrots, onions, and every shade of bell pepper known to man. “This is beautiful.” I carried it to the dining room and laid it on the table built for twelve. Then I grabbed a stack of plates from the cupboard and set places for my parents, Imogene, and me.
Voodoo, the family cat, sauntered into the dining room and rolled in a shaft of sunlight. She was an ageless, sheer-black rescue, the third in my lifetime, and one of many Voodoos before her. Adopting adult black cats was a kooky tradition started by Dad’s grandpa, the first veterinarian in our family, when he replaced their aged cat with a new one of a similar size. The intent was to avoid the discussion of death with his very young son, but the unanticipated result came years later, when neighborhood whispers of voodoo and witchcraft began. How else could Dr. Crocker keep the family pet going for decade upon decade? One day, the cat had a graying muzzle, and the next day it was inky black again. Proof of voodoo had never seemed so sound to the profoundly superstitious citizens of the most haunted city in America. Great-Grandpa enjoyed the misunderstanding so much, he started calling the new cat Voodoo, and the tradition kept going strong for seventy-five years.
I straightened the final plate and smiled.
Dad arrived a moment later and lathered up at the sink like he was prepping for surgery. “Good evening, ladies.”
“Hey, Daddy.” I ran my hand over Voodoo’s soft coat before taking my place at the table.
Dad had kept local pets healthy for as long as I could remember. We’d celebrated his fifty-fifth birthday shortly after my return in March. Dad was contagious, always animated with purpose and buzzing with energy. He sat at the head of the table, white shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows, surprising me with a nudge on the knee.
“I heard you’re making the tutus for Mrs. Neidermeyer’s Shih Tzus this year. Mable Feller must be mad as a cat in a mailbox.”
I smiled. Mable had made all the gala costumes for decades. Designing the tutus for Mrs. Neidermeyer was an honor and a bit of validation in local circles. “I hope she likes what I make. There’s a lot riding on this job.”
Dad dug into his red beans and rice with gusto. “You’ll have business coming in from every pet lover in America soon. If New Orleans is chosen for the next National Pet Pageant, the line outside your store will reach all the way to the river.”
“Only you would make the leap from designer of seven tutus to national kingpin.” I poured a glass of ice water. “I think Furry Godmother might finally be taking off. I have some baked goods on order, and I think the sashes for Pegasus Farms will put my work on the equestrian lovers’ radar.”
Mom sighed, bored with our conversation and continually unimpressed by my life goals. “Come sit with us, Imogene,” she called into the kitchen. “You make me nervous bustling around in there.”
Imogene pressed the door open with one hand and peeked out. “I can’t. This is serious business. You talk. I’ll listen.”
Dad dotted his mouth with a crisp linen napkin. “She makes me tired just watching her. I don’t think she ever stops.”
“I’ll stop when I’m dead.” Her voice carried over the clanging of lids and pans. “Plenty of time for rest up ahead.”
Dad stuffed his smiling face with rice and chuckled.
I forked a wedge of lettuce. “The jewelry store across the street from my shop was broken into last night and so was Mr. Tater’s jewelry store. He’s having a security system installed at Furry Godmother.”
Dad chewed slowly. “I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.” The confidence in his tone didn’t reach his eyes.
The strange, dark-eyed man who visited the store earlier came to mind. His presence had made the hairs on my arms stand at attention. Men like him didn’t make appearances at Furry Godmother. Too bad I couldn’t keep it that way.
I paddled the ice in my glass with a spoon and turned my eyes on Dad. “Do you think my shop could be of interest to thieves?”
“I don’t see why. You empty the register every night.” He raised his brows, questioning.
“Yes.” I shook off the creeping feeling. A sensible jewel thief wouldn’t look twice at my store. I was jaded from my time in Arlington. I shuddered and pushed the thought away.
Mom sensed the lull in conversation and got busy catching us up on local gossip and hearsay. She rattled off a list of events on her agenda and lamented over invitations she’d yet to receive. Overall, the meal was fraught with personal questions and poorly concealed suggestions that I find a husband. In other words, the usual.
I left an hour later with two lidded containers of whatever Imogene had concocted on the stove and a gut full of indignation. Mom’s dinner references to “proper career paths” and the “quick passage of a woman’s childbearing years” propelled my Volkswagen toward Furry Godmother. In keeping with my life’s pattern, I’d lay awake all night rehashing and dissecting her every word and tallying the ways I disappointed her until dawn. If I were destined for insomnia, better to use the time productively.
I unlocked the front door at Furry Godmother and made a beeline for the storeroom. Ideas bubbled through my mind as I loaded my arms with everything I needed to mock up a knock-’em-dead tutu for Mrs. Neidermeyer. Airbrush gun, glitter spray, tulle, ribbon. Check, check, check, and check. I wedged my tackle box of craft supplies between my elbow and ribs and caught the store keys in my fingertips. I’d show Mrs. Neidermeyer a tutu she’d never forget and give my mother a reason to appreciate my career.
The familiar sound of my front door sucking open startled me. I’d locked the door—hadn’t I? Heavy footfalls moved across the sales floor on the other side of the supply room wall. I tiptoed closer to the doorway, listening for a clue as to who’d followed me inside. Jewel thieves crashed into mind. I pressed my back to the wall and hid in the shadows, holding my breath and formulating a plan. Was I being robbed? Would a thief harm me if he found me?
Images of an earlier mugging flashed in my memory. I’d been young and naïve then. Fresh from the bubble of my family’s upscale lifestyle and a few years on quiet college campuses, I’d chosen to walk home alone from work at night in Arlington.
I pinched my eyes shut and gave myself a pep talk. You want to live, Lacy?
Yes, I did.
I’d make a run for the back door. I opened my eyes and scooted to the rear shop entrance. I’d have a better chance if my hands were free, but the odds of unloading my arms without alerting the intruder to my presence were zero. I carefully pushed the key into the lock, balancing a tackle box of craft supplies and pressing thirty yards of tulle between my cheek and shoulder. The tumbler rolled, and I silently counted to three.
I jerked the door wide, dropping most of my burden with a crash, and dove into the rear lot armed with monstrous fear and an airbrush gun. A cat dashed through the shadows, and I dropped my keys onto the pavement near my feet. Panic seized my limbs. I needed those for my escape vehicle! I crouched to scoop the keys up.
My shop’s back door burst open, and the dark-eyed man from earlier rushed across the threshold with a grimace.
I screamed, jumped to my feet, and froze.
He took long, quick strides in my direction.
My fight instinct fought with my flight instinct. The shriek that left my lips was worth a dozen horror movie deaths. Faced with an attacker and no one to hear my cry, I used the only weapon at my disposal. Gold glitter paint sprayed from the airbrush nozzle in my hands, covering his eyes and thick black hair in fairy dust.
“Gah!” he growled and swiped his face, letting loose a slew of ugly swears. He stumbled, and I bolted, dialing 9-1-1 as I moved. I’d come back with the police to get my keys and car.
Forget diamonds. Glitter was a girl’s best friend.
Furry Godmother’s accessories quick tip: Without rhinestones, they’re just handcuffs.
Ten minutes later, I sat on a bench outside my store again while a carousel of red-and-blue lights lit the evening sky. I’d waved down a squad car on Magazine Street. The cops inside had insisted I return with them. The door was ajar when we got there. I followed the officers inside, rehashing the terrifying details as quickly as I could. “You know what? I’ll write it down.”
The officers exchanged a pointed look while moving methodically across my spotless floorboards.
I rifled through my desk drawer for a proper writing pad and pen. “It’s best to list every detail as soon as possible after a crime. I went through something similar once. Well, not really. The last time was much worse.” I bit my lip to staunch the flood of words. Emotion stung my eyes.
The officers headed for the stock room.
“Check the rear lot,” I called. I settled my pen on the paper, but details didn’t come as clearly as I’d hoped, not in the form of words for a list. Instead, I sketched the crazed look on the man’s face as he chased me into the lot. I’d thought he was angry when I saw him, but there was something more in his expression.
“Ms. Crocker.” An officer returned to my side. He looked at my sketch. “I’m going to need to ask you to wait outside.”
“Oh.” I handed him the sketch. “This is the burglar. I don’t usually draw faces, but that’s close. Maybe I can work with a sketch artist at the station.”
He ushered me forward, nudging me out the front door. “Don’t go anywhere.” He stood a few feet away, watching until another cruiser, a crime scene van, and an ambulance pulled onto the curb.
A shiny black pickup barreled into the mix with a short bark of a siren, as if announcing itself was an afterthought. The truck now partially obstructed my view of the fire truck that had also arrived in response to my emergency call. Why were they still here? Obviously, there was no fire. The paramedics had gone inside and stayed. I glared at the truck. How many more people did it take to cover a break-in?
The man who climbed out of the truck looked more like trouble than a cop. Charcoal T-shirt and dark jeans. Brown cowboy boots and a frown. He gave me a once over and strode inside.
Indignant and out of patience, I followed him.
The uniformed cop followed me.
Furry Godmother was tidy. Nothing damaged or out of place, though my skin prickled just standing where a robber had lurked.
I slowed my steps when the stock room came into view. The officers and the man in cowboy boots were spread out, mumbling and nodding at the open rear door. A pile of tulle and assorted items I’d dropped littered the ground at their feet.
I rubbed the chill off my arms. Unease pooled in my tummy. There were too many officials here. None was leaving. Something else was at play.
As if he sensed my presence, the cowboy turned and lifted his gaze to mine. “Mrs. Crocker?”
He made strides down the hall and into my personal space. He flashed a badge I couldn’t read through my scrambled thoughts and searched me with hard, emotionless eyes. “I’m Detective Jack Oliver.” He extended his hand.
I pulled back instinctively. A bad vibe weighed the air around me.
Detective Oliver sucked his teeth. He had a scar through his left eyebrow and a number of similar white hash marks beneath a dusting of facial hair. The same marks dashed his neck and disappeared under the line of his collar. “I’m going to need you to accompany me to the police station.”
The cops dropped my discarded supplies into evidence baggies.
“What’s wrong? What’s happening?”
He cocked his head and scrutinized my face. “Why don’t you tell me?”
“I came back for supplies. I heard an intruder, so I escaped through the rear door. A man followed me, but I got away. I called nine-one-one, and I told the officers everything on our ride back here. Would you like a description of the intruder? I’ve made a sketch.”
Detective Oliver stepped aside, giving me a clear view of the space outside the open door. Paramedics squatted near something large and eerily familiar. Under their careful watch, the brown-eyed man lay facedown in a mess of tulle and glitter-speckled blood. An officer dropped my airbrush gun into an evidence baggie.
The detective shifted his weight and braced his broad hands on his narrow hips. “Did he look anything like that?”
Well, yes. Yes, he did.
* * *
The police station smelled like stale coffee and body odor. Too many men in a confined space. My visit to their sanctuary had interrupted mealtime, by the looks of things. An array of po’ boy wrappers and throwaway containers cluttered the table in the small interrogation room where Detective Oliver had asked me to wait. As it turned out, the stink wasn’t body odor. It was their dinner.
A colorful collection of costumed tourists and citizens filled the lobby, sprinkled with a few prostitutes cuffed to benches and a loudly snoring drunk sleeping it off.
I pulled a bleach wipe from the stash in my purse and wiped down the seat and tabletop. Gross as the little interrogation room was, it looked like the Hyatt next to the Petri dish in the lobby. I doused my palms in antibacterial lotion and opted to keep my purse on my lap.
“So, Mrs. Crocker.” Detective Oliver reappeared with a pad of paper, manila folder, and pen. He took the seat across from me. “You called nine-one-one to report the intruder.”
“Miss Crocker,” I corrected. “Yes.” Memories of the man’s lifeless, sparkly face sent heat through my cheeks and chest. I refocused on breathing to avoid fainting. After the night I’d had, rolling onto the police station floor was something I wouldn’t come back from emotionally.
“Did you make the call before or after you hit Miguel Sanchez over the head with your paint gun?”
I exhaled. “I didn’t hit anyone. I sprayed the intruder with the glitter paint and ran.” He should have looked fabulous, not bloody. Or dead.
Detective Oliver trained cool blue eyes on me. “You don’t seem shaken. In fact, you’re extremely calm after what you’ve been through tonight. Any particular reason a dead body outside your shop doesn’t bother you?”
I nodded, recalling the strange, bodiless sensation from the hours following my mugging in Arlington. The horrific events rushed back with a jolt. The scents of street garbage and images of sleeping homeless people were instantly as real and vivid as they were that night. I’d never seen my attacker coming. He was big, wielding a gun, and clearly agitated, probably on drugs. The cold metal of his gun had seared an invisible line into my chin. I touched it, to remind myself it wasn’t real. “I may be experiencing shock.”
He stretched long legs beneath the table, bumping his feet into mine and readjusting for the error. “Shock, huh? Most people would be outright distraught after the night you’ve had.”
“I am.” I folded my hands. “If someone hit him, then there was a second intruder. Are you certain the fatal wound was a blow to the head?”
Detective Oliver narrowed his eyes. “Yes.”
“Were there any other injuries? Defensive wounds, maybe? Has the medical examiner determined the time of death by body temperature compared to the time frame between my emergency call and when the squad car picked me up?”
He poised a pen over the notepad. His careful expression wavered. For the briefest moment, he looked like I’d sprouted a second head instead of proposed a line of insightful questions. “I don’t know what you’re up to, Mrs. Crocker, but I’ll ask the questions.”
“My name is Miss Crocker.” I inhaled deeply to settle my nerves but was assaulted with the collective stench of deep-fried sandwiches. “I’m exploring the possibility of a struggle. A struggle would have left evidence on the victim, like DNA or microfibers, which could prove my innocence.” I’d helped Pete study for his medical examiner’s national certificate. These questions mattered. A detective should know that.
Maybe I had gained something from our train-wreck relationship besides feelings of general mistrust and anxiety.
“Why don’t you stick to sewing mittens for kittens and stop playing cop. Sanchez died from blunt force trauma. The handle of your paint gun cracked his head from behind like a coconut. Remember?”
I hugged my purse, unsure if he simply meant to remind me of the cause of death or prompted me to recall my doing the murdering. “It’s an airbrush gun.”
Detective Oliver lifted a finger. “I have the murder weapon in evidence with your prints—and only your prints—all over it.” He raised a second finger like bunny ears. “I can place you at the scene moments before time of death.” Third finger. “We have an emergency call from you reporting an intruder whom you admit to attacking. Is there anything else you want to share with me now, rather than later?” He removed a paper from his notebook and slid it toward me.
“He looks wild. Surprised. Maybe frightened. Any idea why?”
My shoulders tensed. “No.” Humiliation burned my cheeks and panic tightened my chest. “I don’t like what you’re insinuating. If you knew anything about me . . .” I squeezed my purse tighter. I didn’t want him to know anything about me. I wanted to go home and take a shower hot enough to wash away the heebie-jeebies.
Detective Oliver slid his notebook off the manila file folder and flipped the folder open. “Lacy Marie Crocker. Thirty years old. Five foot three. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. One hundred twenty pounds.” He lifted his eyes to mine. “Born and raised in New Orleans. Daughter to Dr. and Mrs. Crocker. Undergraduate degree in molecular, cell, and developmental biology. Graduate degree in fashion. That’s quite a jump in career paths.”
“It happens.” By the time I’d finished my first degree, I realized premed was Mom’s plan, not mine. I’d always dreamed of outfitting women who walked red carpets, not pulling all-nighters where the sick and injured bled, urinated, and vomited on me.
“You left Arlington four months ago, then came back and opened a pet store. How am I doing?”
“Furry Godmother is a pet boutique and organic bakery.” Emotion cracked the words as well as my tough-girl façade. Sitting across an interrogation table from an obnoxious, kind-of-mean detective was the lowest moment of my life. Worse than being mugged. My character hadn’t been called into question then.
Somewhere outside the interrogation room, a woman screamed for her go cup and a bathroom. It was legal to take alcoholic drinks with you when you left a restaurant or bar in New Orleans. Establishments offered disposable cups for the road. I doubted the policemen planned to return hers.
I inhaled long and slow, recalling my endless childhood hours of debutante training. I sat taller and breathed deeper. “Mr. Oliver, I am now, and have always been, an upstanding member of our society. Would you like my written statement, or can I go?” I itched to cross my legs and kick him under the table.
“It’s Detective Oliver, and I know who you are, Mrs. Crocker. But being a Crocker doesn’t exempt you from the tough questions. There’s been a murder. You had the means and opportunity.”
“I’m not married and you know it. Doesn’t it have my marital status in that file of yours?”
He hitched his lips into a crooked grin. He dropped the file open against the table. Empty. He turned his cell phone to face me, previously masked behind the file.
“That’s your big insight into who I am? My résumé and a copy of my driver’s license?”
“Online résumés are quick references these days. Social media profiles are better, but you seem to avoid those. So why’d you leave Arlington, Crocker?”
I inhaled deeply. “That’s irrelevant to your investigation and also none of your business.”
“I’ll decide what’s relevant.” He lifted his pen.
“I don’t think you can hold me here, so I suggest you change your line of questioning or I’ll leave.” My voice quivered on every word, though he didn’t seem to notice.
“Fine. Describe the night’s events again, slowly.”
I twisted the straps of my purse around my hands. The stench of police sandwiches had dissipated to a dull afterthought. The spicy scent of cinnamon and cologne drifted across the table. “Mr. Sanchez came into my studio earlier today. He looked around for a few minutes and left at closing. He didn’t buy anything, and he wasn’t very nice. When he burst through the door tonight, I sprayed him with the glitter sprayer and ran.”
The detective’s eyebrows knitted together. “Did Miguel Sanchez threaten you?”
“Not verbally.” My fingertips whitened. I unraveled the straps and massaged my fingers, reviving circulation.
Detective Oliver shut the file and swiveled a pad of blank paper in my direction. He wedged his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers. His sharp blue eyes were cold and clear as glass. Almost surreal. A girl could get lost in those eyes if they weren’t accusing her of murder. I drew the spicy cinnamon scent in through my nose. It took a moment for me to realize his lips were moving.
“Sorry that you felt threatened today. Was there anyone in the store who can corroborate your statement?”
He nodded. “I’ll check into it. Write your account of the events here, and you’re free to go.”
I fought back tears of relief and frustration. “I have to call for a ride. My car’s at work.” I liberated my phone from the jumbled contents of my purse. My instinct was to call Scarlet, my lifelong best friend, but she had enough going on. Better to call Dad now and Scarlet later when I had time for a proper breakdown.
Dad answered on the first ring.
“Hey.” I twisted away from Detective Oliver, wishing he’d had the decency to give me a little privacy. “Are you busy?”
“What’s wrong?” Dad went on alert. “Lacy? I hear it in your voice. Let me help.”
I chewed my bottom lip, struggling to maintain my composure in front of the detective. “There was a break-in at my shop, and I’m at the police station filing a report.”
“Are you okay?”
Mom whispered frantically in the background. Probably demanding the details to a story he didn’t yet know.
“I’m fine. Can you give me a ride home? My car’s still on Magazine Street.”
Detective Oliver pretended to write in his notebook. His eye movement suggested he was eavesdropping.
I wrapped up the call quickly. “My parents are coming.”
I glared. “Nosy much?”
“Very much. Comes with the job.”
I rolled my eyes and dug for a breath mint to busy my tongue before I said something I’d regret. “I didn’t kill Miguel Sanchez.”
“You keep saying that. You want to know what I think?”
“There’s no sign of a break-in. I think you knew Miguel, and you let him in, but something went wrong. What was it?”
I twisted the mint in my mouth to keep from screaming. “First of all, no. Second, if you thought I killed him, you’d arrest me. You need to get back to the crime scene while it’s fresh. Miguel Sanchez was a creep, but he didn’t deserve to die, and I didn’t kill him.”
Detective Oliver shook his arrogant head. “You want to know what I think?” he asked again.
I held my breath to keep from saying that he obviously didn’t think.
“Occam’s razor.” He shoved a stick of gum in his mouth and left the room.
My jaw dropped.
Occam’s razor was a theory that said the simplest answer was usually the right one. In other words, my prints were on the weapon and I admitted to attacking the victim with it, so I must be the killer.
I curled my hands into tight fists on my lap, unsure if I could leave the room before my parents signed me out. “That theory is stupid.”
* * *
Mom and Dad took their sweet time coming for me, probably deciding how to manage the gossip. As if dropping out of medical school wasn’t enough. Now I was associated, however loosely, with a murder. Mom shuffled into the room where I waited while Dad signed some paperwork at the front desk.
She rubbed her forehead. “I can’t believe I’m picking up my only child at the police station.”
I forced back a wave of nausea. “They think I killed someone.”
“Nonsense. Jack’s an excellent detective. He’ll figure this out.” Her gaze danced over my face and along my torso, either scouting for injuries or checking for suitable attire.
I still had on the old librarian ensemble from dinner. What was suitable attire for a trip to the police department?
Mom was in all black. “I called our attorney before we left home. He’ll get ahead of this.”
I nodded. I was in jail, and she had made time to change clothes and talk with legal representation. “Can we go home?”
She marched into the lobby, and I followed.
Detective Oliver lounged against the big wooden desk, smiling at Dad. They shook hands. Unbelievable. Detective Oliver lifted his chin to me as I passed. A little white business card stuck between two long fingers. “If you think of anything else you want to tell me.”
“My statement’s on the table.”
He tapped the card against the desk and nodded, dismissing us. “Have a nice evening, Dr. Crocker, Mrs. Conti-Crocker.”
My head snapped around as my parents hauled me away from the station. How had he known Mom’s last name was hyphenated? I turned my eyes to her. She’d called him Jack. Not Detective Oliver. Jack. “Do you two know him?”
Mom patted my arm. “Of course.”
My jaw dropped. “What do you mean, ‘Of course’? Why do you know a homicide detective?”
Dad opened the passenger doors for Mom and me. I dropped into the back seat and leaned forward between their headrests.
Mom adjusted the mirror until her eyes came into view. “Your father treats Jezebel, his cat.”
Detective Oliver was a cat person. I considered that for a moment. “Is he always such a pain in the ass?”
Mom clucked her tongue. “Language, Lacy, really.” She checked her lipstick in the lighted visor mirror as Dad pulled onto the road. “Jack’s one of the good ones. He’s from the area and he’s a veteran. He moved home to take the detective position a few years ago. He’s a bit of a recluse, but I suppose in his line of work, it’s hard to get close to someone you might have to arrest later.”
“I’ve never heard of any Olivers in this area. Isn’t he a little young to be ex-military and a detective?” I pulled up a mental snapshot. “He can’t be older than me.”
Dad turned onto my street. “He joined the army after high school. Did a few tours overseas. Lots of our military men and women get degrees while they’re enlisted. He is young, though. I’d guess him at about thirty-five.”
A few tours overseas. That explained his people skills. “He doesn’t look thirty-five.”
Dad’s eyes caught mine in the rearview mirror. He slid the Mercedes into the driveway of my fixer-upper shotgun home near the river.
“What about my car?”
Dad twisted in his seat to face me. “I’ll swing by and drive you to work tomorrow.”
I swung the door open. “’Kay.”
He waited until I went inside and flipped on my porch light before pulling away.
Tears welled and rolled freely over both cheeks as I watched their car disappear around the corner. Panic sprouted anew in their absence, lining beads of sweat across my brow. Someone had been killed outside my shop. Why?
I collapsed onto the couch and pulled a pillow onto my lap. I’d abandoned my tutu supplies in the getaway. That left me twelve empty hours to imagine scenarios of how Miguel was murdered in the ten minutes I was gone. I wasn’t sure if that was better or worse than dwelling on the list of ways I disappointed my mom or what I’d like to say to that obnoxious detective.
It was going to be a long night.
Furry Godmother’s Safety Tip: Don’t cross your mama.
Dad drove me to work after breakfast. He shifted the car into park. “Do you want me to walk you inside? Take a look around?”
“No.” I sighed. From where we sat on the empty street, there was no indication a murder had taken place beyond the hand-painted boutique windows. Summer sunlight glistened across the beautiful gold script spelling “Furry Godmother,” erasing the touch of dew left behind by the night. Tiny animals with silver wings and wands flew around the curly golden words. The success of my store depended on me. Whatever had happened the night before was over, and I had to get back in the saddle before people got the wrong idea. I had nothing to hide, and I needed the district to see that.
I shoved the passenger door open and stepped into the day. Fresh-cut grass peppered the air, and I crinkled my nose against a sneeze. My arms and legs warmed instantly. The white eyelet of my sundress grazed my thighs when I turned to look back at Dad.
He leaned across the seat toward my door. “I could bring you lunch later.”
“No. Paige works today. I planned to buy her lunch and catch up.” Paige was once a regular on my babysitting circuit. These days she was a Brown University co-ed on summer vacation.
“Tell her I said hello. I’ll wait here until you get inside and turn the lights on.”
The dead bolt’s tumbler rolled smoothly. No sign anyone had tampered with the lock, but Miguel had gotten inside somehow, and there weren’t any indications of forced entry. I flipped all the switches on the wall plate beside the door and waved at Dad. His car didn’t move. I walked through the store and held my breath when the back door came into view. A dagger of emotion stabbed my chest and stole my breath. I slapped the line of switches on the back wall, illuminating every inch of the storeroom. I nudged the bathroom door open with my boot.
My heart hammered as I opened the front door and waved to Dad again. This time he waved back and edged onto the road.
I turned on shaky legs and marched into the storeroom to clean up my mess.
At nine, I put my chin up and unlocked the front door.
Everything in my southern upbringing said that opening the store was inconsiderate and that I should locate the victim’s next of kin and bring them a casserole, but I didn’t know Miguel or his family. I did, however, own a fledgling business in need of constant attention.
That was the hardest thing about death, in my opinion. Life went on. People who stopped moving forward started fixating and that never ended well.
I flipped the sign on the window from “Closed” to “Open.” A handful of strangers climbed from waiting cars and headed my way. I peeked down the sidewalk. Nothing going on down there. The little cluster of shoppers stopped before me.
A pair of brunettes smiled. The taller one raised her eyebrows. “You’re open?”
The half-dozen people on the sidewalk were waiting in their cars at nine in the morning for my store to open. It took a moment to process. They didn’t have pets with them, and I didn’t have any orders scheduled for pickup. My store was lucky to see a dozen customers before ten most days.
A man with wire rim glasses cleared his throat. “You said you’re open?”
“Oh. Oh!” I stepped aside, bracing the door with my hip. “Pardon me. I’m . . .” The words drifted, incomplete. I’m what? I was shaken from the intrusion last night, from being accused of murder, from cleaning a crime scene five minutes ago. None of those thoughts were ones I cared to share.
No one waited for me to finish.
I followed them inside and gave my spiel. “Furry Godmother is a pet boutique and catering company. I think everyone should feel like Cinderella at the ball, so I try to make that happen here. I make custom clothing designs and bake fresh, organic, pet-friendly treats every morning with ingredients that are safe and healthy. The chalkboard has a full menu and pricing on treats. Design prices vary.” I pointed to the adorable white framed chalkboard beside the display case. “I take custom orders if your pet has a special event coming up, and I make house calls for fittings and delivery. Royal Packages include both catering and an ensemble of your decree.”
A portly man squinted at the bakery sign. “Pet catering? What kind of party needs a pet caterer?”
I smiled. “All kinds, really. Birthdays, weddings, holidays, Bar Mitzvahs. Any event where your pet is the star or where your loved ones will have their pets with them.”
He shook his head. “That’s crazy.” Clearly, he wasn’t from around here.
I smiled as sweetly as I could manage on three hours’ sleep. “You’re welcome to sample anything you’d like. My products are made from ingredients found in most kitchens. Some are pretty tasty. The peanut butter and banana pupcakes, for example, are made with all-natural peanut butter, bananas, water, oats, and eggs. No additives or preservatives, just real foods.”
The little crowd hung on every word, oddly. Probably to see if I’d kill him.
No one opted to try the pupcakes. I unloaded a fresh box of cookies and muffins into the display case, changing out the shelf signs and wax paper liners and then arranging the pretty pieces aesthetically in neat rows. Thank heavens for mindless paranoia-blocking activities.
Sunlight moved across the front window as I wiped the shelves and boxed products one by one. Rubberneckers and lookie-loos came and went in unprecedented numbers. Very few people made purchases. Most wanted a recount of the night’s events. Some were brazen enough to ask but left unsatisfied when I changed the topic.
I cleaned the shelves and replenished stock until the shop was immaculate.
The door sprung open, and Mom’s silhouette burst inside. She glanced at the startled shoppers loitering along the walls, then rolled her eyes. “Busy morning?”
I puffed air into my cheeks. “I’ve had plenty of traffic.”
“I figured as much. There was a report on the news after breakfast.”
I’d intentionally avoided the morning news and mentally prepared for the worst. “Well, there’s nothing to see here. I’m not sure what they’re waiting on.”
Mom clucked her tongue. Her silk Versace dress dashed her calves as she walked. “You shouldn’t be here today. You should be at home resting.”
“It’s my store. My responsibility.”
“Have you called Scarlet? She’ll be beside herself, if she isn’t already. I assume she gets the paper.”
“I don’t want to upset her.”
“Good plan. Why would a childhood friend be upset that you were nearly killed and couldn’t be bothered to call?” She heaved a sigh, unwilling to argue in public. “I don’t know why you insist on the hard path through life. You’re still a Conti-Crocker. The sooner you embrace it, the easier life will be again.”
Easy for her. Not easy for me.
Mom was a Conti. Contis were old money and near-royalty in society’s upper crust. Dad was a Crocker. Crockers were new money. Dad’s family thought old money was a joke. How could people appreciate something they didn’t earn? Mom’s family called families like Dad’s faux riche. They thought real money came from a lineage of power and influence, not from generations of hard work and a few good investment choices in the twentieth century. I’d been caught in the middle of the Conti-Crocker cold war for years, and I hated it.
I softened my smile. “I don’t see two paths, Mom. I see this one.” I’d never fit in to her world, and I’d beaten myself up about it for twenty years. Finally, the proverbial lightbulb flickered on during my junior year at an overpriced Ivy League college, and I quit. Temporarily. I pulled up roots and applied to Louisiana State. No one at LSU knew or cared about my grandparents’ money. I was free to choose what I wanted to study and who I wanted to be without the burden of Conti-Crocker expectations. I’d proudly signed a long line of student loan papers and moved into a dingy little dorm room that smelled like stale beer, burnt popcorn, and sometimes sweat and dirty clothes. I wanted to see what I could do on my own. What kind of life could I craft? Mom had declared the whole thing a phase and expected me to move home after graduation, but I went to Arlington instead. I studied fashion at the Art Institute of Washington, met Pete, and shacked up after our engagement. We had more bills and aspirations than income, but I didn’t care. Whatever happened was in my control, and the power was intoxicating. Until Pete ruined it.
As it turned out, Mom was right. I couldn’t run from my legacy. Pete had somehow known all about the Contis and the Crockers before he’d ever asked me out. The truth about his scheming for my family’s money came out during our explosive break up.
Mom gave the store a cursory glance, then refocused on me. “I saw Paige getting a frozen coffee. She’ll be here soon so you can get some lunch.”
She tapped her nails against my counter. “I’d ask you to talk about it, but I suppose this isn’t the time.”
Every ear in the store turned our way. I tugged the neckline of my dress. The “shoppers” had stealthily made their ways to displays within feet of the register. The room was smaller. The air was thinner. My eyes crossed.
My gaze snapped up.
Mom smiled patiently. “Have you heard from the Llama Mamas?” She pressed her lips together and widened her eyes. “You can tell me the truth.” She whispered the last sentence, careful of prying ears.
That explained her impromptu visit.
The Llama Mamas were a group of local plantation owners raising llamas and alpacas for charity. They carted their animals all around the county, educating, entertaining, and selling llama wool and weanlings. All the proceeds went to a children’s research hospital in Baton Rouge. The Llama Mamas were Mom’s biggest competitors for the “good gigs.” She was incited to fund the Jazzy Chicks several years ago after attending an event at a plantation and receiving her share of dirty looks. The Llama Mamas called her a city dweller and accused her, politely, of not being true to her heritage because our family had sold the plantation and moved to the Garden District. That was in 1890, but as far as Llama Mamas were concerned, the Contis were sellouts.
Now the Llama Mamas and Jazzy Chicks basically tried to out-kind one another by volunteering everywhere they could to raise money for the hospital.
Dad said this was why he’d never retire. Staying busy kept him at a safe distance from the deranged competitions of socialites.
I shook my head. “Nope, I haven’t heard anything.”
She blew out a frustrated breath. “Well, if you do, call me. They’re up to something, and I need to know what it is. I wouldn’t put it past them to knock on your door for costumes.” She leveled me with a parental stare.
“Got it. Hey, Mom?”
She tilted her head.
“Have you heard from your lawyer? I need to find Miguel Sanchez’s killer before my reputation’s ruined. If I’m not cleared soon, people will assume the worst.” Even if the police solved the crime later, the damage would be done. “If people think I’m dangerous, my store will fail, and it won’t stop there. Dad’s business will suffer by association. No one wants a murderer’s dad caring for their pet.” I couldn’t let my problems ruin a business he’d spent my whole life establishing. “Not to mention, the Crocker name will be sullied.”
“Sweetie, you’re fixating.”
“I’m not. I’m . . .” Jumping to huge assumptions. Very different.
“Listen to me. Keep your chin up and let Jack do his job. He didn’t survive the military by being a dummy.” She tapped a finger to her temple. “Meanwhile, you need a fresh window display. That one’s two weeks old, boring as one of those sad two-hour walking tours and faded by the sun.” She frowned at my Alice in Wonderland display. “That Hatter looks like hell.”
“Did you talk with the lawyer?”
She scoffed. “Don’t worry, darling. You’ll get wrinkles. Jack will figure this out.”
“That guy practically declared me guilty. He’s the enemy right now. Maybe you should stop calling him Jack. It makes him seem like a friend. It’s like when you named the vacuum.”
She rolled her eyes. “You were terrified. I had to give Vinnie a name so you’d let Imogene do her work. The name made him less intimidating. Names humanize us. You know that.”
I shook a finger at her. “That’s my point. Vinnie isn’t a ‘him,’ he’s a vacuum. We don’t want to humanize Jack either. Names confuse things. Jack’s out to get me, and Vinnie ate my blanket.” I swung a palm into the air. No need to rehash this. I took a breath. “Detective Oliver isn’t a friend. He doesn’t get a name. One day you’re calling him Jack, and the next thing you know, he’ll have you on the witness stand saying you saw me kill Miguel Sanchez.”
Mom set her handbag on the counter and pulled out a drawing. “Well, that escalated quickly. Let’s just say calling him Detective Oliver, after I’ve called him Jack for two years’ worth of Jezebel’s checkups with your father, seems unfriendly to me. It’s the opposite of southern hospitality, and you know I’m from the school of catching bees with honey.”
I counted silently to ten. “Who names a cat Jezebel?”
She made a sour face and fanned the wrinkled paper from her purse. “Jezebel’s a lovely Snowshoe Siamese. Here.”
She smoothed the paper on my countertop, carefully uncurling the corners. “I made a sketch of what the Chicks need for the costumes.”
A large yellow-and-orange chicken wearing a black top hat was centered on the page. Beside him sat a rectangle with black lines.
I pointed at the rectangle. “What’s that?”
Mom slumped. “It’s a piano. We’re teaching the hens to play. We’ve ordered four pianos, but I’ll need you to take over after assembly. The pianos need to dazzle.”
“Mmm-kay. Paint, glitter. Got it.” I squinted at the little drawing. “Are those chickens in tuxedos? How do you want to keep the top hats on?”
She shrugged. “Bobby pins?”
“No.” Tiny elastic chin straps came to mind, but I’d have to research that. Designing top hats for piano-playing hens was new to me.
“You’ll figure out the top hats.” Mom’s eyes sparkled as the door opened. “Look who’s here.” She met Paige with a hug. “Paige, I’m tickled to death to see you. Your grandmother’s been talking the Chicks’ ears off all month about your homecoming. How’s college?”
“Good, Mrs. Crocker. It’s nice to be home.”
“Well, you come by anytime for a visit, okay? Tell your mother and grandmother to do the same. Anytime at all,” Mom cooed.
I giggled. I could almost see Mom’s mind scrambling through a list of things to do in case one of those ladies took her up on the offer to drop by unannounced. Good old-fashioned hospitality came at a price. Mom would have to keep the house spotless at all times. Just in case. There’d be a standby pie on the counter and fresh pitcher of sweet tea on hand until Labor Day.
Mom waved good-bye to me and gave the lingering shoppers a scowl.
Paige tossed a mile of thick brunette curls over her shoulder and looked down at me from her model-sized frame. “Can you be cool or do I need a bodyguard?”
I narrowed my eyes. “Ha ha.”
She dropped her bag on a shelf behind the register and leaned her elbows on the counter. “You want to talk about it?”
I shook my head. I’d babysat Paige when she wore diapers but hadn’t seen her outside of Christmas and Fourth of July in years. I didn’t make it home often when I was away. “Thanks for agreeing to work here part time this summer. Exactly how long are you my slave?”
She smiled. “I’m home for eight weeks.” Her pretty coral blouse emphasized her youthful tan.
I kneaded my hands in mock mischief. “Excellent.”
Paige laughed. “What can I do first?”
I scrunched my face. “Do you know anything about Miguel Sanchez? Any guess who’d want to kill him?”
“You mean besides you?”
I frowned. “I didn’t want to kill him.”
“Is that why you airbrushed his face with gold glitter and hit him over the head?”
I bit my lip. There was nothing wrong with the grapevine around here. “I wasn’t the one who hit him, but Detective Oliver claims my prints were the only ones on the sprayer.” Evidence wasn’t on my side. Though it was circumstantial. “Whoever killed him must’ve worn gloves.” My prints were on everything because I was the only one who worked here until now. I opened a search engine on my phone.
Paige squeezed against my side, craning her neck for a better view of my phone’s screen. “Since it’s about a hundred degrees out there, I suppose the gloves were justto cover his prints.”
“Yep.” I typed Miguel’s name in and got about a million hits. Apparently, Miguel Sanchez was a popular name. “If the killer wore gloves, he must’ve come here expecting to commit a crime.”
A little gasp rose from Paige’s lips. “Do you think someone came here to hurt you and had a run-in with Miguel? Maybe the intruder killed Miguel because Miguel could identify him later.”
My blood chilled and my voice squeaked. “You think someone came to hurt me?” I hadn’t considered that option. For good reason: I didn’t like it.
She turned her back to the register and looked me over. “What happened?”
Tears pricked my eyes. “I don’t know. He found me escaping out back, and I airbrushed him. I’m not sure what he did before that, but it looked like he trampled my Vive la France designs. He might’ve tripped over the box. I’d planned to launch the new line early next year, but I’ll never look at Eiffel Tower appliqués the same again. Spring in Paris is cancelled.”
“Doubt it.” Paige’s pink lips pulled down at the corners. Her structured silk blouse and polka dot swing skirt made her look exactly like the debutante she was. “I also doubt anyone could want to hurt you. I can’t believe anyone wanted to hurt Miguel either. Mack says everyone loved him.”
I set my phone on the counter. “Mack who?”
“I don’t know. She works at the Barrel Room. I stopped by her place last night for a drink. She filled me in.”
My tummy flipped with possibilities. This information could save my store, my name, and my future. I checked for obvious eavesdroppers and pulled Paige with me to the far corner of the checkout counter. “Tell me what you know.”
“Mack said Miguel hung out with her crowd. She said he was well liked, quiet, and smart. She seemed really into him.”
A more cynical woman might’ve translated those characteristics to womanizing, conniving, and shrewd. “Who’s her crowd?”
“Locals our age. Restaurant workers. Bartenders. Everyone’s home for the summer.”
“Some people called him Tony.”
I frowned and turned my phone over in my palm. “Is Tony a nickname for Miguel?”
Paige shrugged. She lifted a finger to the front door where a familiar silhouette appeared. “Here comes your boss. We’d better look busy.”
Mr. Tater welcomed shoppers on his way to meet us at the counter. Purple crescents lined the pale skin beneath each eye.
I bit back the explanation that he was not my boss.
“How are you doing, Lacy? I came to check on you as soon as I could get away from the office. It’s terrible. I didn’t know if you’d be open today. Are you sure you should be here?”
“I’m okay. I think opening the store was best. I don’t want to look any guiltier than I already do, and I have nothing to hide, so here I am.”
He looked over his shoulders. “Business seems good.”
“I think they all came for a look at the crime scene.” And the local villainess. “There wasn’t much to see and it happened out back, not in the shop.” I couldn’t blame people for their curiosity. Murder’s scary, and in a neighborhood this size, what happened to one person felt like it happened to everyone. Heck, local tour guides still pointed out the former homes of celebrities and a restaurant once frequented by Mark Twain. “Sorry I didn’t call you.” Should I have called him?
“You’re probably overwhelmed. I heard all about it on the morning news.”
Paige groaned. “I swear they run that clip every five minutes on Channel Six.”
Mr. Tater ducked his head. “Listen, that’s the other thing I came to talk with you about.” He slunk behind the counter to join us. “I’m negotiating the deal of a lifetime with management at Harrah’s Casino. If I get this contract, Harrah’s will serve Barrel Room wine at every bar in the house.”
“Wow.” I lifted my hands in celebration. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you. Although I’m afraid I need to pull funding for your store for a little while.”
He raised pleading eyes to mine. “Your lease is paid through the end of the month, but I can’t send the next check until this investigation is finished. I’ve got too much riding on this casino deal to have my name associated with a murder. The finance and legal departments at Harrah’s are looking for a way to gouge me. If they claim I bring any sort of risk to the table, I’ll be out more money than I care to think about. Please understand. This isn’t personal.” He forced a tight smile. “I’m sorry, Lacy. I’m sure you’ll be fine until the case is closed and my Harrah’s contract is signed. We’ll revisit this in a few months.”
Months? I set my phone on the counter. Stunned, I opened my lips but no sound came out.
Mr. Tater averted his gaze.
I tipped my chin to the ceiling, praying he was a terrible jokester who’d take back his words immediately.
Paige broke the silence. “What if the investigation is wrapped up by the end of the month? Then will you make the next lease payment?”
I blinked. Hope inflated my flattened lungs. I needed his backing. Mr. Tater had secured the space for Furry Godmother. He paid the monthly lease and the utilities in exchange for a portion of my profit. Sure, the contract between us said he’d forfeit his percentage of my profits if he stopped paying his part, but what was he losing? I wasn’t exactly raking in the profits yet. Furry Godmother was a new business. What could I do now? My credit had maxed out with my new home loan and start-up costs for the business. At the rate I was going, I’d still have outstanding student loans when I became an octogenarian. I couldn’t keep the business open without Mr. Tater’s help, and I couldn’t close up either. I’d invested in stock and small accessories, not to mention baking and studio equipment.
What would I do with all those turtle tiaras?
Paige elbowed me. “Did you hear that?”
“If.” He lifted a warning finger. “If you’re cleared of the charges before the next payment comes due, I’ll make the payments, but please understand, Lacy. It’s not personal. It’s business.”
I nodded. “I’ll figure it out. I promise.”
Paige released a whistle. “Hello, handsome.” She grew impossibly taller.
I followed her gaze across my studio.
Detective Oliver headed our way. A shiny silver detective badge hung around his neck on a beaded chain. “Mrs. Crocker.”
I gritted my teeth. I hadn’t seen him come inside. “Detective Oliver. Once again, it’s Miss Crocker.”
Mr. Tater nodded at the detective and saw himself out. No doubt distancing himself from the woman accused of murder.
“I’m Paige.” She shot a long, thin arm toward him. Energy zipped in the air around her.
He dipped his chin. “Nice to meet you.” His unusual blue eyes captivated and frightened me. The barely existent color of his irises fluctuated in the sunlight through my shop windows.
He rested a hip against the counter. “Anything you want to tell me today, Miss Crocker? Something you, perhaps, weren’t ready to share last night at the station?”
I glanced at my phone on the counter. “Yes.”
I squared my shoulders and tried to look bigger. An impossible goal when standing beside Paige. “I don’t think Miguel Sanchez was the victim’s real name.”
Paige dragged her gaze from Detective Handsome to me. “What?”
I peeked at the screen on my phone. “Some people addressed him as Tony. Tony isn’t an acceptable nickname for Miguel. In fact, Tony is only used to shorten the name Anthony. So Miguel wasn’t his real name.” Or Tony was the fake name. Either way, why would anyone need a fake name?
Detective Oliver crossed thick arms over a broad chest. “I know Miguel Sanchez was an alias. His real name was Anthony Caprioni. He’s from Jersey. What I don’t know yet is why he used a fake name or how you know this.”
“I asked around.” I should’ve expected the detective to know at least as much as I knew after three minutes online and one conversation with someone Miguel’s age.
“You know, I’ve been wondering, Miss Crocker. You moved home after nearly a decade away. Why was that?”
I dragged nerve-slicked palms down the fabric of my dress. “It’s like I told you last night: personal and none of your business. Besides, this isn’t about me.”
“Maybe it is. Humor me. Why’d you rush back to the place you’d left at your earliest opportunity? Your family’s not sick. No one died. You look healthy.” His eyes slid over my face and torso. “Why the sudden life change? You’re too young for a midlife crisis.”
Ha. He’d be surprised.
“Looks to me like an escape on your part. So what were you running from?”
Stress. Heartbreak. Disappointment. Betrayal. “I wasn’t running. I came back because New Orleans is my home. And I didn’t leave at my first opportunity. I went to college like everyone else.”
“Why’d Mr. Tater invest in you?”
“How do you . . . ?” I filled my chest with air and curbed my temper. Of course he’d researched me. His only suspect. “You should probably ask Mr. Tater. Unless you already know and are only here to provoke me again.”
“I know everything.” He tapped his temple. “Anything I don’t know, I will find out. Soon.”
“Since you’re here, can we focus on the actual investigation, please?”
Detective Oliver smiled. “Absolutely.” He widened his stance and circled a wrist, indicating I should enlighten him.
“If my prints were the only ones on the sprayer and the sprayer was the murder weapon, then the killer wore gloves to hide his prints. He must’ve come here to commit a crime. Could the killer have come for me? I don’t keep enough cash on hand to justify a break-in, and my inventory is mostly made of supplies waiting to become something fabulous. Beads and rickrack aren’t exactly in demand.”
The detective looked like I’d sucker punched him. “You think you were the intended target? Who would want to hurt you?” He pulled a pen from his pocket, flipped a business card face down, and shoved the pair across the counter to me. “Make a list.”
I guffawed and locked my hands behind my back. “I don’t have a list of people who want to hurt me.”
“Then give me one name.”
It was as if time had frozen, immobilizing all the fake shoppers. The store seemed to hold their collective breath and stare.
My cheeks burned. “No one wants to hurt me. This is the Garden District. We don’t have crime. We have fundraisers and parades. Whatever is going on here has nothing to do with me.”
“Yet you brought up the possibility.”
I pinched my lips together and shot Paige a look. She’d put the thought into my mind. Better to change the subject. “I’m trying to understand why there aren’t any other prints on the murder weapon. If the killer wore gloves, which he must have”—I eyeballed the detective—“then why? Why come here with gloves on? What was the plan?”
“You tell me.”
I dug my heels into the floorboards and locked my knees. “I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking. Are you always so impossible, or is this special for me?”
A glint of humor flashed in his eyes. The corner of his mouth twitched. “I have a few stops to make. I’ll decide whether or not I can make a case against you after I run the rest of my leads. Until then, stay out of my investigation. No more nosing around.” He set the business card on my register. “Remember who the detective is.”
My jaw dropped. “I’m not nosing.” I’d talked to my employee for five minutes about Miguel. Hardly the makings of an all-out investigation.
“I mean it, Crocker. I asked around about you. Folks say you’re obstinate to a fault, but obstruction is against the law. Do us both a favor and keep that in mind. Curiosity never did the cat any favors.”
My hands fell limply to my sides. I forced my jaw and eyebrows to relax. “I’m not obstinate or a cat, thank you very much.”
“I notice you didn’t deny the curiosity.”
“That part’s true, and it normally works to my advantage.” But if someone didn’t unearth the killer by the end of the month, I wouldn’t just lose Tater’s backing. I could be in an orange county jumpsuit. And Detective Oliver definitely wasn’t going to get the job done by badgering me.
He smirked. “Do yourself a favor, kitten, and let this one alone.” He breezed out the door looking arrogant and bossy.
Paige collapsed onto the counter with a theatrical sigh of collegiate proportions. “How do you keep it together around him? He talks and I want to circle him like a shark, but I have no idea where to begin with such a man-beast.”
“Good lord. Get up.” I pulled her arm. “He’s not nice. That’s how I keep it together. I think he wants to put me in jail. And he called me kitten. How misogynistic is that?”
Paige pressed a fingertip to her bottom lip. “I think it’s hot.”
A few shoppers nodded in agreement.
I groaned. “That’s it. No more of that. He’s the enemy. You can work on removing the window display while I get to the bottom of this mess. This is business. No hormones allowed.” Luckily, mine had dried up with my last relationship and barren bank account. Even those extraordinary blue eyes weren’t enough to sidetrack me from clearing my name.
Kitten my foot.
I was small and mighty. Like a fire ant, a bee, or something else I’d think of as soon as my temperature returned to normal. I plucked the neckline of my dress away from my piping-hot chest, then marched into the storeroom to turn down the thermostat.
Furry Godmother’s secret to a happy life: Keep your friends close. Sometimes they have wine.
Everything about Miguel Sanchez puzzled me. Why move so far from home? It wasn’t a grand business opportunity. Surely, restaurant work in New Orleans was no better than what could be found in New Jersey. Why did some of his local friends call him by his real name? What use was an alias if he didn’t fully embrace it?
I adjusted a stack of bunny bonnets on my Alice in Wonderland display as I pondered the same questions. The white rabbit looked smart, as always, in his little vest and monocle. He’d know the answers. I patted his soft head and traced his little golden chain with my fingers. I’d admired his pocket watch since preschool, when I discovered the book on Mom’s overcrowded shelves. We’d read fairy tales together until the gilded edging rubbed off the pages.
I had tried to emulate the anything-is-possible feeling at Furry Godmother with every addition to my collection. Each Royal Package featured a different fairy tale theme. All concepts were spun with love, sprinkled with glitter, and executed with the fervent attention to detail with which the good Lord had saddled me. Alice was my favorite, but the display was admittedly faded, and according to my mother, it was time for a change.
I hefted the book from the display and wiped it with a soft cloth. The best place to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was under the sprawling bearded oak tree in our backyard. The pages of my childhood copy were colored with evidence of my love—mainly water spots from sudden thunderstorms and a rainbow of fingerprints in shades from fruit popsicle to chocolate. Scarlet had her own copy, and we’d chased our share of rabbits under that tree.
I bit into the thick of my lip and rubbed a thumb across the screen of my phone. Scarlet was excellent at snooping and shenanigans, but I really should leave her out of my mess.
I dialed and pressed the phone against my ear.
“Hello?” The sound of her voice formed an immediate smile on my lips.
“Hi. It’s me. How are you?”
I pulled the phone from my cheek and peeked at the screen. I hadn’t lost the call. “Scarlet?”
“Okay.” The soft click of a closing door sounded through the phone. “I shut myself in the bathroom. That gives you about two minutes before they come for me. Skip the small talk.”
Ah. The joy of motherhood. I laughed.
She didn’t. “Ticktock.”
“How would you like to go out to dinner?”
“Are you kidding me? If I can leave Carter and the kids at home, I’ll go anywhere you want.”
“Excellent.” Mischief was always more fun with an accomplice. “How about the Barrel Room?”
“A winery. Is that a taunt? Do you need a designated driver or something?”
Ideas rolled over schemes and plots in my head. “Something.”
“Fine. I’m in. I hear amazing things about their chicken. Can I meet you there at six?”
“Six is perfect.”
A choir of small voices lodged complaints at her door ten seconds later, and we disconnected.
I locked up at five with a head full of questions and no more patience for faux shoppers. I flipped the “Closed” sign in the window and wiped my brow. The scorching southern sun burned through the studio’s interior, illuminating dust motes suspended in the air and fingerprints pressed on my freshly polished glass. I puffed into overgrown bangs. Time to clean up.
I went to the back for my spray bottle and cloth.
Something niggled in my mind. Fingerprints. Everyone left fingerprints unless that person planned ahead. What crime would a person plan ahead for in my store? Could someone want to heist my inventory of beads and swatches? Did they long to illegally acquire miniature stage props and custom pet designs? I had everything from guinea pig wedding gowns to wigs for rabbits in the stock room. Maybe I’d been too quick to discount the possibility. Competition in the world of pet shows was stiff, but was it deadly? Even if robbery was the intent, breaking in to steal or sabotage my critter couture was a long throw from murder. The other possibility wiggled back to the foreground. What if someone’d come to hurt me and Miguel got in the way? Did I have a mortal enemy? A nemesis? A stalker? And if that were the case, why had Miguel been there? Did his visit yesterday afternoon have anything to do with his return last night?
I collected my supply bucket and scrubbed the shop furiously, removing fingerprints from the windows, door, and bakery display. I wiped the shelves, counters, and doorknob. Dust carried in from the streets clung to my floors. I drove my Swiffer around the room on a mental grid, careful to reach every nook and cranny, then set my Roomba, Spot, to work for the night.
I made one last trip around the stockroom, skimming my gaze along box tops and fabric bolts, begging the inventory for clues. Frustration coiled in my chest. What had happened to Miguel after I left last night? My phone buzzed, and I turned it over in my hand. A text message from Scarlet.
Carter’s home. The kids are fed. I’m on my way.
Thank goodness. I hit the light switches and jumped over Roomba-Spot on my way to the front.
I stopped short at the sight of unusual pink light filtering through my front window. “What on earth?” I crept closer, confused by what had happened during the few moments I’d been in the back room. There was something on my window. Had someone vandalized my store in broad daylight? Surely not.
I stepped outside for a better look and confirmed the disgusting truth. Sticky chunks of strawberry smoothie clung to my freshly cleaned window, sliding over the glass like a plague. I could practically hear the ants lining up for a party. An empty go cup rolled on the ground where I’d accidentally whacked it with the door.
Shoppers and pedestrians stared but didn’t stop.
A fly landed in the muck, and I gagged.
I texted a picture to Scarlet, then hustled inside for a bucket of soapy water and a squeegee. I was going to be late for dinner.
Twenty minutes later, I left for the Barrel Room with renewed vigor and the scent of sunbaked smoothie in my nose. Scarlet’s time would be limited by little ones in need of baths and bedtime stories. I slid behind the wheel of my VW and cranked the air conditioning.
Traffic poked down Magazine Street, blissfully unaware of the dark turn my week had taken. It’d been twenty-four hours of craziness, and I was ready to go back to my previous life’s troubles. Gossiping neighbors and a disappointed mother beat the daylights out of wondering if someone nearby wanted to destroy me or my boutique.
At the pace of a lumbering hound, I made my way to St. Charles Avenue, where I motored alongside the proud and stately streetcar in companionable silence for several blocks. The Barrel Room bordered Uptown, and it was already packed. I slid into the last available space in the lot and scanned the area for my best friend’s Escalade.
Scarlet waved from the sidewalk. Her opposite hand pressed against the small of her back, amplifying her distended silhouette. Wild, red hair mounted into a sloppy bun on top of her head. Flyaway strands stuck to freckled cheeks. She looked runway ready in a perfect orange wrap dress and matching Pucci headscarf. I tugged my humidity-wrinkled sundress and made a mental note to up my game.
I met her with an awkward hug. “Wow. You’re not easy to get close to these days.”
She raised a perfect eyebrow above oversized sunglasses. “Keep it up and you’re buying.”
“I’m already buying.” I tugged the glass door open and icy air poured over my shoulders. “What kind of person invites a pregnant woman to dinner and expects her to pay?”
“Pretty much everyone I know, unfortunately.”
A young woman in a pressed white shirt and black skirt interrupted with a smile. “Two?”
Scarlet shuffled forward, tipped slightly back at the hips. “Yes, please.”
The hostess gave her a sidelong glance. “I guess you don’t want to sit at the bar.”
She sighed. “Oh, no. I want to. Trust me.”
The hostess led us to a table dressed in maroon linens and set for two. “Your waitress will be with you shortly.”
Scarlet wiggled into her seat and leaned across the table on both elbows. “What happened to your window? That picture looked like my kids had been there.”
My mouth dried with the memory of hot strawberry goop on my rubber gloves and giant southern bugs running into the rancid mess. “Someone threw a smoothie, but the window’s fine now.” I waved a dismissive hand.
Scarlet made a disgusted face. “This district is losing its mind.” She steepled her fingers on the tabletop. “What are we up to tonight?”
I mocked offense at her question. “Can’t a girl buy her best friend dinner without an agenda?”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
A fish-faced man in black slacks ferried two glasses of ice water to our table before winding his way through the dining room in the opposite direction.
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