Authors: Elise M. Stone
A GAME OF MURDER
Elise M. Stone
This book is a work of fiction. Characters, names, places, and incidents in this novel are either the products of the imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or people, either living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Game of Murder
Copyright © 2015 Elise M. Stone
Cover Photo Copyright Ed Mullins Photography
Cover design by Karen Phillips
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
World of Warcraft ©2004 Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved. World of Warcraft, Warcraft and Blizzard Entertainment are trademarks or registered trademarks of Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. in the U.S. and/or other countries.
Choose Your Own Adventure(R) is a registered trademark of Chooseco LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise—without permission in writing from the copyright owner, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
Published by Civano Press
“Hope? Lorna?” Faith Andersen called out when she entered the Prickly Pear Café and found it as vacant as her spirit.
She plucked her hat from her head, fingered the brim as she waited for an answer. With her blonde hair and fair skin, sunscreen and a hat were mandatory when venturing out into the desert sun of Tucson—even when it was almost October.
“In the kitchen, Faith.” Hope’s voice echoed down the hall from the back of the café, a bright spark promising the warmth of a cozy fire against the cold that had embraced Faith since Karl’s death from lung cancer.
Located in a strip mall, the Prickly Pear could have been a dry cleaner, hair salon, or Hallmark card store. Instead, her best friend Hope had turned the space into an intimate coffee shop and café featuring foods made with native ingredients. It also served as a venue for local acoustic musicians, with a stage in the corner to the left of the door where the performers could set up. On temperate Thursday and Saturday evenings, diners ate at outside tables while the musicians played to a larger audience.
Faith threaded her way through the large tables at the front of the restaurant, then past the counter until she reached the hallway. She’d only been beyond the restroom once or twice in all the months she’d been coming to Hope’s café. Today, determined to carry through with her commitment, she stepped into the hall and entered the doorway on the right.
Hope looked up from the prep table at the sound of her footsteps, a smile spread wide across her face. Her plastic-gloved hands were immersed in a gooey mixture in the stainless steel bowl in front of her. “Hey, girlfriend.”
“What do you need me to do?” Faith asked as she stashed her purse on the lower shelf of the pick-up table next to the door. An assemblage of the café’s tan and blue stoneware plates sat on top of the table, a square piece of dark brown cake on each one.
“If you would get the whipped cream out of the refrigerator and put a dollop on each of the cake slices, that would be great,” Hope said as she resumed tossing chunks of meat and sauce in the bowl.
“I think I can handle that.”
Maybe not much more, but certainly she could do one tiny task to help her friend.
Faith turned around, opened the refrigerator, a standard white model, and took out the stainless steel dispenser. Other than the refrigerator, the commercial kitchen was a sea of stainless steel: stainless steel tables, stainless steel sinks, stainless steel walk-in cooler at the rear of the room, and a large commercial stainless steel gas stove on the other side of the prep table.
Lorna emerged from the walk-in cooler, lugging a large plastic container. “Hi, Faith.” Lorna’s eyes searched Faith’s face.
“Hi, Lorna.” Quickly Faith cast her eyes downward, lowered her chin until it almost touched her chest, afraid to meet Lorna’s gaze, reluctant to expose her sorrow. She puzzled over the dispenser, her brow furrowed in concentration. Although she’d seen them used on the Food Network, at home she settled for Cool Whip. Or, on a very special occasion, Ready Whip.
Lorna hefted the container onto the prep table. “Need me to show you how the whipper works?”
Relieved, Faith raised her head and answered Lorna. “Yes. It looks complicated.”
Lorna laughed. “Not really, once you get the hang of it.”
After a couple of minutes of instruction, Faith took the dispenser from Lorna and deposited her first dollop on a piece of cake.
“Looks good to me,” Lorna said. “I have to get back to my French lentil and nopalito salad.” She headed back to the cooler.
“I appreciate you coming to help.” Hope blew at a strand of dark brunette hair that had fallen in front of her eye. Turquoise rickrack zigzagged along the edge of the collar of a brown shirt she wore under her white chef’s apron. “Not only do I rarely serve a group this large, it’s been a long time since I served a dinner.”
“No problem. I was coming for the meeting anyway.”
“And I appreciate that,” Lorna said as she carried another plastic tub from the cooler and set it beside the first one. “There aren’t enough women in the gamer group, and I thought it might be the kind of thing you’d be interested in.” She bent down and took a stainless steel bowl from the shelf underneath the prep table and started spooning the contents of the tubs into it.
“I’m not sure I have time to create games, but at least I can sit with you.” Faith felt a pang of regret as she said the words. She loved puzzles and, like any computer geek, had played her share of games over the years. Now her web design business took up most of her days and a good portion of her nights. She not only had ongoing programming projects, but had to do the marketing necessary to increase her customer base. Since she and Lorna had been laid off from their jobs at Wonderful Western Women’s Wear last year, she’d been fortunate enough to find enough clients to keep the lights on and the mortgage paid. Otherwise, she might have been the one waiting tables at Hope’s café.
She felt bad for Lorna, which was one of the reasons she’d agreed to come to the gamer club meeting, despite the grief which sucked the strength from her body. She could provide moral support even if she lacked the time and energy to participate.
“I think you should try,” Lorna said. “You’re such a good programmer, I’m sure you’d give the guys a run for their money. Although Mira seems to have the edge in the contest so far.”
“Contest?” Faith asked, the word latching on to her competitive streak like a puppy’s teeth on the end of an old sock.
Lorna put the tops back on the plastic tubs and stacked them one on top of the other. “Didn’t I tell you? Every year the Tucson Text Adventure Group awards a trophy for the best game of the year. The game that gets the most votes wins. People don’t have to be a member of the club to vote; they’re only required to play at least five of the games.” She put several sprigs of fresh parsley on a cutting board and started chopping them with a knife.
“I doubt I’d be able to learn how to program a game—especially a good game—in time for the contest. When does the voting take place?” Faith shifted the plates so the ones with whipped cream were farther away and the ones without, closer.
Lorna scooped chopped parsley into the bowl and took bottles of oil and vinegar off the shelf. “A month from now.”
“Definitely not enough time,” Faith said. “Are you working on a game?”
Lorna reddened. “I am. I’m not nearly as good as Derek or Paul or Rok, or even Mira, though.”
“I think you underrate yourself, Lorna.” Faith put the final dollop on the last piece of cake. She picked up the plate, held the cake under her nose, and breathed in cinnamon and apples. “Ummm. This smells delicious. What is it, Hope?”
“Mesquite-apple coffee cake.” Hope lifted her hands from her bowl and stripped off the plastic gloves. “If you could put the slices in the refrigerator so the whipped cream doesn’t fall, I’d appreciate it. I’ve got to put this chicken in the cooler to marinate.”
Faith nodded and opened the refrigerator. Most of the shelves were empty—except for a plate of salad greens. Even so, she ran out of room for the last three pieces of cake. “Can I take this salad out?”
“It should be okay until we eat,” Lorna said. “Just put it on the pick-up counter.”
Faith finished putting the cake slices in the refrigerator and turned to observe the plate of salad. “Looks a little small to share,” she said wryly.
Lorna smiled. “The salad is for Mira. Mira is allergic to
. She’s very picky about what she eats, so she asked for a plate of simple fresh greens with vinegar and olive oil on the side. I’m glad I don’t have those kinds of allergies.
I’d hate to miss Hope’s saguaro-merlot fried chicken.”
“Me, too,” Faith said. “What else can I do?”
“Could you get some plates from the shelf and help me put the French lentil and nopalito salad on them?” Lorna asked. “That can stay at room temperature until Hope puts the chicken on the plates later.”
* * *
The women had finished the meal preparation, and Lorna had gone to the restroom to wash up before the meeting, leaving Hope and Faith alone in the kitchen. Hope took a cloth from a rack near the sink and started wiping down the prep counter. Faith pulled out her cell phone and brought up a new app she’d downloaded this afternoon.
After rinsing out the cloth, Hope came over and stood beside Faith. “What’s that?”
Faith turned the screen so Hope could see it. “It’s called TheGathering. See, the app knows where you are so you can tell your friends. You can also leave reviews. I thought I’d check in and post a review about how great the Prickly Pear Café is.”
“You mean the… uh… ‘app’ knows you’re here?”
Faith nodded. “Yeah. It uses the phone’s built-in GPS and matches the coordinates to an address. Since your address is a business, the program finds that and shows the name.”
“Shows it to whom?” Hope looked puzzled.
“Me at first. But when you use the check in feature, it shows where you are to your friends. Well, technically, your friends who also use TheGathering, which isn’t many right now since I just installed the app. When I write a review”—Faith tapped in
Great food! Great music!
and hit ‘Send’—“the app also posts to my Facebook page so all my Facebook friends can see where I am. I have a lot more Facebook friends.”
“I don’t know.” Hope shook her head. “Sometimes I think all this technology is going to take over. The computers won’t need people any more.”
Faith laughed. “Don’t worry. We can still pull the plug.” Hope’s distrust of technology reminded her of Karl, who never did feel comfortable with computers. The memory drained the laughter from her heart, an invisible hand pulling the stopper, causing her emotions to swirl for a moment before being sucked into grief’s abyss.
“How are you doing?”
Hope must have noticed the change in the look on her face. In working on the food, Faith had almost forgotten Karl, but Hope’s question opened Pandora’s box, brought the feelings back to the surface, left her aching deep inside. “As well as can be expected, I suppose.”
“It’s hard losing a brother, especially one you recently found again.”
Tears flooded Faith’s eyes, and the breath she tried to take caught in her throat. Hope wrapped her arms around her as the catch turned into a sob.
Would she never stop crying?
Just when she thought she’d accepted Karl’s death, a word or a thought or a memory would remind her of him, and she’d be crying again. She got herself under control and stepped back, wiping a hand across her cheeks. “Sorry.”
“You don’t need to apologize.” Hope regarded her with concern. “Why don’t you go home? I’m sure Lorna will understand if you don’t stay for the meeting.”