Authors: Maggie Barbieri
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Literary, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Culinary, #Women Sleuths, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Literary Fiction, #Crime Fiction
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For Jim, Dea, and Patrick. Thank you for your love and support.
Thank you, as always, to the people at Minotaur, friends and colleagues I have come to think of as family: Elizabeth Lacks, Andy Martin, Sarah Melnyk, Paul Hockman, and my fantastic and ever-supportive editor, Kelley Ragland. Thank you, too, to agent extraordinaire Deborah Schneider and her team at Gelfman Schneider, Cathy Gleason and Victoria Marini, for whom no question is too big or small, not to mention stupid.
Alison Hendrie has been an invaluable sounding board to me over the last decade or so and without her help, my “outlines” of stories would never develop into anything more. Thanks also to Marian Borden and Laura Bradford, fantastic writers and treasured friends, who always have good advice and respond to queries with an alacrity I can only hope to embrace myself one day.
My family is always there and always supportive, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.
Maeve knew a guy who knew a guy, well, who knew this guy.
What a gorgeous day for a ride, she thought, heading up the Taconic in her sensible Prius. She pulled into a rest stop about forty-five minutes after she left her house, spying her contact immediately. Handsome, with waist-long dreadlocks, he looked exactly as he had been described to her, standing out among the elderly leaf-peepers who stopped to eat their bag lunches, the families on their way to the apple orchard off the highway that Maeve had once taken her girls to a long time ago.
Plus the state trooper idling in his car in the parking lot.
No one looked twice at the petite woman in a hybrid stopping by a rest stop on a beautiful day, one made for the people touring the Hudson Valley. She sat in the car and waited until the trooper drove off, his lights turning lazily as he hit the highway, trolling for speeders on a scenic, twisty road.
The guy she was about to meet had been given a wide berth by the other people there, the area surrounding his shiny sports car devoid of other vehicles. He was young, and if he didn’t have the hair, would have looked like any other college kid she knew. Dark-washed jeans, a nice designer polo shirt. Clean shaven. Bright, white smile. If she didn’t know what he did for a living—or maybe it was just a sideline—she would have picked him out for Rebecca, at college and unhappily single. She pulled up two spaces away and looked over at him. He gave her a warm smile and a quick wave.
“Hello,” he said when she emerged from the car. In the sunlight, she noticed a wide streak of caked icing on the right thigh of her jeans. What must he think of her, this rumpled little woman with a very particular, peculiar, need?
“Nice to meet you,” she said, offering her hand, sliding an envelope into his palm with a polite shake. He didn’t look scared to meet her, this guy who was young enough to be her son—or maybe her nephew if she was feeling generous. Why should he?
Maybe he didn’t know she was likely more dangerous than he was.
“A beautiful fall day,” he said. “Warm.” The bag he handed her, the one that he reached into the front seat of his car to get, was a recycled gift bag. He had gone so far as to stuff the top of it with brown tissue paper, tying the handles with some jaunty raffia. It looked as if he were giving her a birthday present.
“A gift?” she said. “For me?”
“A gift,” he said, with fake solemnity. “For you.” His laughter shook his dreadlocks.
It wasn’t really a gift; that’s what the envelope stuffed with cash had been for. It was more of a transaction. She held the bag; it was heavy, just like she expected it would be. “So, what are your plans for the rest of the day?”
He pointed to the backseat of the tiny car, where his little boy sat in a booster seat, drowsing peacefully, his thumb hanging from a slack mouth; Maeve hadn’t noticed him up until this point. “I’m taking the little guy to the haunted house at a farm up the road. He loves to be scared.”
“Don’t forget to get some apples,” she said. “The Macouns are particularly tasty this time of year.” The talk of apples jogged her memory and she opened the back of the Prius. “That reminds me,” she said. She pulled out a plain brown box; in it was a freshly baked apple pie. “Named ‘Best of Westchester’ by a local magazine,” she said.
“Is that a pie?” he asked, a little surprised by the gesture.
“Our mutual friend told me about your pies. And your cupcakes. He loves those. My granny will be so happy.”
She was finding out more than she needed to know, wanted to know. She had to end the conversation. “Have a safe trip home.”
Good. He didn’t seem to know her name. And she didn’t know his. Better that way.
“I’ll be off,” she said.
He reached into his pocket. “Here’s my card. In case you need anything else,” he said.
But she wouldn’t. One was enough for now and probably ever, if she took good care of her purchase. The card had only a number on it, no name. She put it in her jeans pocket, making a mental note to throw it out the window as soon as was acceptable and he was out of sight. She didn’t want to offend him on the off chance she needed him again. Her friend would be able to find him again; the card was unnecessary. “Have fun at the haunted house,” she said, walking around to her side of the car. He was still standing there as she drove off, heading south on the Taconic, marveling at the beautiful colors of the changing leaves.
It had been a wet end to the summer. That’s why the leaves were so brilliant. At least that’s what they had said on the news the night before. She drove along the highway, enjoying the time alone, the respite from her busy store. For the first time in a while, she felt free.
And her hands—her palms really—had finally stopped itching. It took her a moment to figure out what felt different.
It was all she could do not to pull over and caress the gun that lay in the bag beside her.
Why did she need a gun? She wasn’t sure. But she needed it; she was sure of that and that was all that mattered. Security, a feeling of safety, of never being afraid, had been robbed from her years ago and while she had no immediate—or even future—plans to use this item in the bag, she felt safer having it. No one really would understand that, ever; after all, she was a suburban mom, a business owner. A nice lady, as one of her clients called her. It made sense, but only to her.
She would keep it hidden; no one would ever know.
“Thanks, Rodney Poole,” she said, the utterance of his name bringing a smile to her face.
“Two hundred dollars.”
The words hung in the air between Maeve and her landlord, an unsavory character who she tolerated, but only because she had to. Given the least bit of provocation—provocation that went beyond raising her rent—she would feel no guilt in blowing his head off; his proclivity for standing just a little too close to her, laying a hand on her arm or shoulder in a way that made her uncomfortable just two reasons for her dislike of him.
Then, there was the garlic.
Sebastian DuClos seemed to bathe in it, his odor making its way into the store before his physical presence. Maeve could smell him coming a mile away even if he didn’t always pick up the rent on the same day, the first of the month, twelve times a year.
“Two hundred dollars?” Maeve repeated. “A month?”
“A month,” he said, smiling slightly. “Do you have a problem with that?” he asked, leaning forward, his ample belly grazing the edge of the butcher-block island that ran almost the whole length of the kitchen. From a bag, he took out a ripe tomato, something she didn’t expect to see in December. “And a little peace offering, Maeve. Something to take the sting out of our conversation,” he said.
She took the tomato. “Thank you?” Maeve said. She wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, so she placed it on the counter between them.
He usually came alone, but today, he had brought along a helper, a kid he introduced as a local named Billy, who grunted a greeting while pocketing Maeve’s envelope of cash. Billy’s lack of conversational aptitude aside, he was well dressed in a blue oxford shirt and khakis, low Doc Martens on his feet. He had that well-tended look of a Farringville teen, one who always got a trophy for showing up and whose parents fed him the best locally sourced vegetables, those that looked like DuClos’s beautiful tomato. If nothing else, he was polite, addressing Maeve as “ma’am” and keeping his mouth shut while DuClos spoke.
DuClos looked around the kitchen. “Looks clean.”
“It has to be. Board of Health and all,” Maeve said.
Billy walked over to the pantry door and jiggled the handle.
“Can I help you with something?” Maeve asked, donning a clean apron in the hopes that she would send the message that she had work to do. “That’s a pantry.” As she did every month, she handed DuClos a loaf of bread, fresh from the oven, and a box of cupcakes. “Are we done here?”
DuClos seemed in no hurry to leave, leaning against the counter, settling in for a chat. “You’ve been here a while, Maeve. Right?” he asked.
She knew where this conversation was going and she didn’t like it. She checked her watch, hoping that whatever he had to say would be said quickly and she could get over to Buena del Sol to see her father before it was too late. The longer Jack Conlon was awake, the less cogent he was, and she feared this might be the day she would walk in and he wouldn’t know who she was or why she was there.
“Well,” DuClos said, clutching the loaf of bread that Maeve had given him between his hands, exhaling a breath that filled the kitchen with the pungent odor of garlic previously consumed. “Time to raise the rent then,” he said. “Don’t you think?”
She was glad that he wasn’t evicting her. She had too much on her plate: an ailing father with Alzheimer’s, two teenaged daughters, one college tuition, another one on the way, and a mortgage. The business was finally firmly in the black and she wanted to keep it that way; a move to another location would have been a problem she didn’t have the energy to solve.
Two hundred dollars. Ten more loaf breads a month or two big cakes. No sweat.
“You’re successful,” DuClos said. “I hear things. ‘Best of Westchester’?”
“Yes,” Maeve said. The accolades hadn’t done all that much to increase business.
“Then two hundred a month should be a piece of cake for you,” he said. “No pun intended.”
Next to him, Billy looked around the kitchen, staring an inordinately long time at the ceiling tiles, the keypad for the security system by the back door, looking anywhere but at her forlorn face. When he caught her looking at him, he smiled in an approximation of sympathy.
“Fine,” she said, opening the refrigerator. “When does this begin? First of the year?”
“First of the year,” DuClos said, fingering a button right over his ample belly that had come undone during their conversation. “New year. New rent. I hope it won’t be a problem.”
She shook her head. She didn’t want to give him the impression she was happy with just two hundred dollars, nor did she want him to think it was out of her reach. “Fine. First of the month.”