Authors: Shelley Freydont
“Hmmph.” Edna wiped her mouth with a napkin decorated with an embroidered turkey in the corner. “He generally does, but he takes his own good time about it. Corinne won’t be happy if she has to put them up until he finishes with whatever he’s looking for. Her rooms are reserved through New Year’s and beyond.”
“Then let’s hope things are wrapped up quickly.”
“I don’t know what this town’s coming to.” Ida leaned over and patted Liv’s knee. “Not that it has anything to do with you.”
“Of course not,” Edna said. “Once you start things in motion like becoming a successful tourist town, you can’t stop it. And the bigger you get, the bigger the problems. Next thing you know, we’ll be having to get our own police department.”
“Perish the thought,” Ida said. “Bill Gunnison is good enough for us.”
“But he has to take care of the whole county.”
“I’m working on hiring an outside security team,” Liv said.
“That will be good,” said Miss Ida. “Oh, before I forget. I told Corinne if she had any more trouble to call you.”
“Me?” Liv said so loudly that Whiskey jumped up from where he was lying on the floor and came to stand beside her.
“Well, not for legal things, but for suggestions on how to handle unruly guests.”
“Um . . .”
“Because you have experience with people getting out of line and acting out,” Edna interjected. “I believe that’s what Ida meant.”
“I’m always glad to help, but I think she would be better off calling the sheriff’s department.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Edna said. “Now, you don’t give it another thought. I think we’ve bothered you enough. You just go get a good night’s sleep and don’t worry about a thing.”
“I think I will. It’s been a busy day.” Liv put her cup down and stood. Whiskey headed for the door. He had been perfectly behaved during tea, no begging, no pitiful looks—at least none that Liv had noticed. But he was ready for his dinner. And Liv was ready for bed.
As soon as they were outside, Whiskey headed for a pile of leaves that covered the curb, waiting to be picked up and composted by the town. He burrowed through until all Liv could see was a volcano of dried leaves and a wagging white tail. He came out the other end covered with twigs and leaves, shook violently, and trotted up the driveway to their rented carriage house.
Liv followed more slowly, already stiff from the race and her jog to the cannery. Which reminded her of the importance of stretching and warming up—though really, she didn’t go chasing developers every day.
A hot bath was in order, then supper and bed. It was already getting dark, though it was still late afternoon. That didn’t matter; early to bed, early to rise, and she had a feeling she’d need all her energy and brainpower in the next few days.
• • •
It was eight o’clock when she pulled the covers up and settled down for a long sleep. It was eight twenty-five when her cell phone rang.
“No-o-o-o,” she cried and put the pillow over her head. Took it off. She’d just look. It might be an emergency. If she didn’t recognize the number she would let it go to voice mail.
Caller ID read Lakeside Inn.
Liv bolted upright and grabbed her phone. “Hello?”
“Liv, is that you? It’s Corrine Anderson over at the Inn. Miss Ida said it would be okay if I called you if I needed help. But I think there’s something you should know.”
“I’m listening, Corrine. What is it?”
“They’re in the bar, the three of them. Bill just left after telling them the news. They got really mad. Said they were going to sue the town and the Events Office.”
“That’s what they’re saying. I thought you’d want to know.”
“They look like they’ve settled in for the night. If you just happened to come over for dinner, you could learn something.”
“Not a bad idea.” They didn’t know she was the event coordinator. She might pick up on something that would help the town or Bill.
“And they reserved a room for the wife of the dead man. Mrs. . . . Bonhoff. She’s coming in tonight. Oh, Liv, this is just a mess. What should I say to her? What if she blames us all for her husband’s death?”
Liv was out of bed. “Save me a table. I’m on my way.” She hit speed dial.
“Buttercup Coffee Exchange.”
“BeBe, it’s Liv. I need you to have dinner with me at the Inn.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“It is, kind of. Can you close early? We need to do some spying.”
“I’m turning off the steamer now. Pick me up in ten. I’ll be waiting out front.”
Liv hung up, threw off the covers. Whiskey looked up from his doggie bed, started to get to his feet. “At ease, troops. I have to go out, but you can sleep. Lucky dog.”
She pulled on jeans and a hand-knit sweater and stuffed her tired feet into clogs. When she pulled up outside the Coffee Exchange, the Closed sign was on the door and BeBe was already outside.
BeBe was all curves, thirtysomething, half country girl and half urban entrepreneur, and Liv’s best friend in town. She was always ready for fun or adventure. She jumped in and Liv took off.
“Okay, bring me up to speed.”
In the five minutes it took to drive to the Inn, BeBe went from openmouthed astonishment, to sympathy, to outrage. “They can’t sue Celebration Bay. I’ve never heard of anything so absurd. Ooh. That makes me fighting mad.”
“No fighting,” Liv said. “Act nonchalant. We’re just two girls out for a burger.”
“And if they happen to want to buy us a drink . . .” BeBe smiled broadly and shrugged.
“We’ll be very careful not to tip our hand.”
Liv pulled into an empty parking space near the entrance and they went inside. Then Inn not only had a three-star restaurant but a bar that served the best burgers in town.
As soon as they stepped into the softly lit lobby, they were greeted by Corinne Anderson, who owned the Lakeside Inn with her husband, Walter. She was fashion-model thin, dressed in a twin set and tweed skirt, and wore sensible shoes as befitted the hostess of a country inn. Her hair was pulled back in a neat twist, though a few stray strands flew around her face as she hurried to greet Liv and BeBe.
“Thank goodness you came.” She motioned them to the back of the lobby. “I put them in a booth halfway down the room and saved you a table close by where you could hear what they’re saying without them seeing you.”
Liv didn’t try to dissuade her from thinking that they were here to spy on the three remaining partners. Liv was curious, yes, and she might be able to overhear something that they wouldn’t tell Bill, but she was purely on a fact-finding mission. She needed to keep tabs on what was happening and how it impacted the town and its festivals.
If Max Bonhoff’s death really led to a lawsuit, she wanted to be prepared.
“They don’t even seem sad about his death,” Corinne continued. “They’re so busy talking about what they can get out of it. At the town’s expense. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t kill the man themselves, the way they’re carrying on.”
Raucous laughter erupted from the bar, punctuating her statement.
Liv hadn’t even thought about the motives the partners might have for wanting Max out of the picture. He was obviously a gambler and unreliable. What had Pudge said?
. If Max was really the weak link, they might have wanted to get rid of him, though murder seemed a bit extreme. On the other hand, who else would be able to lure him into the woods?
Liv took a calming breath. She didn’t know why she was nervous. She’d stood behind many a door or potted palm while clients talked about things they shouldn’t talk about even in front of the help. It was all in a day’s work for a successful event planner.
Trying to trap a killer wasn’t that far from running an event when you thought about it. Only this event had already occurred; now it was time to go after payment.
She turned to BeBe. “Ready?”
BeBe’s eyes were bright with anticipation. She nodded vigorously. “This is so exciting.”
Liv smiled through gritted teeth. “This is just a fact-finding dinner. Do not engage.”
BeBe looked mildly disappointed. “Okay.”
“Good luck.” Corinne led them through a door on the left of the entrance and into the dark wainscoted bar.
Corinne led them to a table close to the booth where the three men sat, Joe and Eric on one side, Pudge on the other. Joe was slouched in the corner, either extremely relaxed or a bit drunk. “Yeah, but what’s in it for us?”
Eric was sitting bolt upright. “We can’t do anything until Eileen gets here.”
Corinne set two menus on a table close to but mostly out of sight of the men in the booth. She pulled out a seat facing the men and motioned Liv to sit down.
Liv smiled reassuringly and sat. Liv had easily heard Eric’s statement about Eileen, who Liv surmised was Max’s wife, now widow.
They had just ordered two pinot noirs when Eric called out, “Hey, miss, three more of the same over here.”
Corinne jumped. “I can’t wait until they’re out of here,” she whispered. “I’ll be back in a minute to take your order,” Corinne said stiffly and hurried over to replenish the men’s order.
BeBe leaned across the table. “She sure seems upset.”
Liv nodded. She would be too if she had to put up with those three. The only thing that could be worse was having to put up with Max, too, and now his wife. She changed the subject. “So how was work today?”
BeBe looked confused for a second, then dawning awareness took over. She winked. “Oh, you know, about the usual. Well, there was this one lady who wanted . . .” She started on a convoluted story while Liv checked out the other patrons.
There were a few occupied tables and booths, though most of the Inn diners would be in the main dining room. Several young couples sat at one end of the long wooden bar that ran parallel to the booths. Two men sat with a bar stool between them, talking with the bartender.
At the far end one man sat alone, staring at the bottles lined up against the wall behind the bar. Liv stopped. Squinted in the low light. Groaned inwardly.
“What’s he doing here?” She lifted her chin to the far end of the bar.
“Who?” BeBe turned around in her chair. Her head swiveled back and forth, then landed on the last person Liv wanted to see here or anywhere.
BeBe snapped back around in her seat. “Chaz Bristow. Do you think he’s on a case?”
“A case of beer, maybe,” Liv said. Surely it was a coincidence that he was here at the same time as the developers. He ate here often. Liv knew this because he’d brought her to the bar for dinner once. All the waitresses and barmaids knew him—and made it clear they were glad to see him. He was probably just having dinner tonight. But what rotten luck.
“I wonder if he gets bored running a local paper.”
“I don’t think he can stay awake long enough to get bored.”
BeBe frowned. “I think he’s smarter than you give him credit for.”
“Oh, I think he’s brilliant, just lazy.”
As Liv finished her statement, which she hadn’t spoken loud enough to be heard beyond the table, Chaz slowly turned his head, zeroed in on her, sighed in slow motion, and even more slowly raised his eyes toward the ceiling in his version of exasperation.
“What?” BeBe turned to look.
Chaz’s mouth lifted in a predatory smile and BeBe whipped back around.
“Yikes. He saw us.”
Chaz turned back to the bar and continued his vigil of the wall. Liv looked more closely. Not the wall. A mirror. It ran the length of the bar.
A waitress brought their wine. BeBe raised her glass. “Here’s to success.”
“Absolutely,” Liv said and clinked glasses.
“Absolutely not,” Pudge echoed from the booth.
Liv and BeBe both froze.
“All that will do is spread ill will. We want people to like us, trust us, invest in the club.”
Of course he hadn’t overheard them. Another coincidence. BeBe and Liv both relaxed with sighs of relief. They were so not cut out for detecting.
Pudge’s voice dropped. BeBe leaned back in her chair so far trying to hear that Liv was afraid it might tip over. Liv leaned toward her. She had no doubt they looked ridiculous. Fortunately no one in the booth could see them, unless Eric was looking across the room and into the mirror. But Liv didn’t think he was that smart.
“But, Pudge,” Joe said, “we hit them with a suit. Settle out of court. Make a bit on the side.”
“And piss them off,” Pudge said. “Not smart, Joe.”
Eric sat up. “You better wait until Eileen gets here before you make any decisions. She’ll own Max’s shares now. And she’ll have Max’s vote.”
The couples at the bar took this moment to leave, and amidst talking and laughing and gathering of coats and bags, they drowned out any conversation from the three men.
“I hope they’re not driving home,” BeBe said as the group wove en masse to the door.
“They’re not,” the waitress said as she placed their burgers on the table. “Corinne called them a cab. Will there be anything else?”
“No thanks,” Liv said, momentarily distracted by the aroma of fire-grilled burger. “This looks delicious.” Her stomach growled as she brought the burger to her mouth and took a large bite.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Chaz stand up and toss a few bills on the bar.
Oh great, Chaz was headed their way and Liv had a mouth full of hamburger.
Chaz moved laconically toward them. Liv chewed and swallowed and quickly wiped her mouth, desperately preparing for whatever caustic remark he was about to make and hoping that she would have a fitting comeback.
Damn the man, he was always catching her off guard.
BeBe screwed up her face, her meaning clear:
Now what do we do
Liv smiled back at her. “She really did that? That is so funny.”
“Huh?” BeBe looked blank. Then she caught on. “She really did.”
They needn’t have bothered.
Instead of continuing to their table, Chaz angled off and stopped at the developers’ booth.
Liv leaned forward until her sweater brushed her burger.
Chaz caught her eye for the briefest second before he stuck out his hand to Pudge. “Hear you fellas are looking for investors.”
Liv’s mouth dropped. Investors? How had Chaz learned this? And what was he up to?
She was so shocked that she almost missed Pudge’s answer.
“Well, we’re pretty much funded, but we left some stock open to give the local populace a chance to make some real money. You know you only get out of a community what you put into it.
“I like your attitude. And it’s about time someone started thinking big about this town. Lot of potential here.”
“Why, that no good skunk,” BeBe said.
Liv brushed her aside as she watched Chaz shake hands with Pudge, then shake hands with Joe. He nodded to Eric, who didn’t seem to want to shake hands. Maybe he thought Chaz was horning in where he didn’t belong.
“Why don’t you have a seat?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” He pulled up a chair from a nearby table and sat down.
“What’s he doing?” BeBe mouthed.
Liv shrugged. She didn’t have a clue. Chaz was adamant about keeping things in Celebration Bay quiet. He detested tourism, or anything else that interfered with his quiet lifestyle of fishing, sleeping, and occasionally putting out a newspaper.
But she recognized that “good old boy” persona. He used it on her whenever he wanted to irritate her or get her to do something. She wasn’t sure, but it looked like maybe Chaz Bristow was finally coming to the party. Not to invest, but to investigate.
It had to be that. The man was actually investigating.
But why? He’d sworn off real reporting when he’d left L.A., and now he just concentrated on local and fishing news. No one knew why and he didn’t say. He’d refused to get involved when Liv had asked him to help find the truth about a murder just a few months before. He turned her down and yet he couldn’t stay away. And when Liv had asked him why, he said it was like a compulsion, the need to get to the truth. He didn’t want to, but sometimes he couldn’t help himself.
That was okay with Liv. She wondered what truth he was looking for tonight.
“Eat up,” she told BeBe. “We might have to make a quick exit.”
While BeBe ate, Liv strained her ears to hear what the men were talking about. But their voices had become so low and intense, she could only grasp snatches of conversation. She’d have to find out from Chaz later, not that she expected him to willingly share. She’d have to badger it out of him.
A few minutes later Chaz stood. There was handshaking all around except for Eric, who seemed to be sulking. Chaz handed Pudge his business card.
He had a business card? Surely it didn’t say investigative reporter. And surely not Chaz Bristow, fishing guide—not if he expected them to believe he was an investor. Liv herself didn’t believe it for a second. He was the least likely person in town to want development, other than possibly Henny Higgins.
He nodded to the men and strode toward the exit, not slowing down or even acknowledging Liv’s presence as he passed their table.
BeBe widened her eyes at Liv. “Is he really—?”
“No,” Liv whispered. “He’s up to something.” In a louder voice, she said, “I have to go to the powder room.” She cut her eyes toward the developers’ table.
BeBe nodded; she’d keep tabs on them while Liv was gone.
“I’ll be right back.” Liv put her napkin neatly on the table and, willing herself not to run out of the room, walked slowly and deliberately toward the exit.
She stepped into the brighter lights of the lobby and saw Chaz leaning against the registration desk.
“Not too obvious,” he said drily.
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m going to powder my nose.”
He guffawed. A classic sound right out of a cartoon.
Liv saw red. She stormed over to him. “What are you doing here?”
“I was having a beer. What are you doing here?”
“Having a hamburger.”
“I mean it, Chaz, what are you doing?”
Chaz looked past her toward the entrance to the bar.
Liv couldn’t help herself: She looked over her shoulder. No one was coming out of the bar. Of course they weren’t.
When she turned back to Chaz, he was grinning at her.
“Cute. Where is your little dog tonight?”
“At home. And he may be little but he knows how to ferret out a rat.”
Chaz laughed. “Okay, cease-fire. Just stay out of this. Though I don’t know why I bother. You never listen to good advice.”
“I do too. I just came because Corinne called and said they were making threats about suing the Events Office. Forewarned is forearmed.”
“Yeah right, but if you ask me—”
She didn’t have time to ask anything, because the door to the parking lot opened and a tall blond woman swept in wearing an expensive—a really expensive—fur coat. A coat to rival some of Liv’s richest Manhattan clients.
She blew past Liv and Chaz without a look, though Chaz was doing enough looking for everybody.
She slammed a perfectly manicured hand down on the bell. “Concierge. Concierge!” she called.
The young man who was manning the desk came out of the back office, rapidly wiping his hands on a paper napkin.
He swallowed his dinner in one large gulp. “Yes, ma’am. Good evening. How may I help you?”
“I have a reservation.” She fumbled in what looked like a Chloé satchel purse and brought out an unused Kleenex. She dabbed her eyes. “Mrs. . . . Mrs. . . .” She ended in a sob.
The concierge turned pale. “Mrs. Bonhoff?” he guessed in a quiet voice.
She sniffed and nodded from behind her tissue.
Liv was unmoved. She’d seen this scene played out in the ballrooms of Manhattan. She could spot a fake from down the hall. Chaz, however, was enthralled. Any minute he’d be throwing his tattered army jacket on the floor for her to walk across.
She rolled her eyes at him.
He tried not to smile, but whether because he’d been caught ogling the widow or because the widow was now looking at him, Liv couldn’t tell.
The concierge handed her a key. “Can I help you with your luggage?” he said apologetically. Then as an afterthought he said, “Sorry for your loss, ma’am.” Which set her off in a paroxysm of grief.
“How did this happen? How can a man be shot running a race to support the poor?”
A table of diners exited the restaurant just as she wailed, “What kind of town is this?”
“It’s a nice town, I assure you,” the young concierge said, looking around desperately. “I’ll get Mrs. Anderson.” He practically flew from behind the registration desk and rushed the bar entrance.
Corinne appeared seconds later, holding out both hands to the distracted widow. “Mrs. Bonhoff, I am so sorry for your loss. We will do everything we can to make this sad visit as comfortable as possible. Anything—anything that you need . . .”
“I need a drink.”
“Of course. Would you like for me to send it to your room? Or I believe your husband’s associates are in the bar.”
The Kleenex disappeared. “I’ll join them. The comfort of friends . . . their advice . . . I’m sure they’ve already started reckless endangerment proceedings.”
Chaz quelled her with a look.
Corinne cast an anxious look at Liv, then solicitously ushered the widow through the door.
“Amazing how some people can cry without their eyes getting red and puffy or their makeup smearing or their skin turning all blotchy,” Liv said under her breath.
“Isn’t it?” Chaz said. And put on his jacket.
“Wait. Where are you going?”
“Home. Where you should be.”
“Don’t you want to know what happens in there?”
“Nope. G’night.” He started toward the door.
Liv ran after him. “I don’t get you.”
He stopped. Gave her his smarmiest expression. “But I’m so easy. Try a little flirtation.” And he was gone.
“Grr,” she said to the closing door and stormed back toward the bar.
BeBe was beside herself by the time Liv sauntered through the room toward their table. The men had all stepped out of their booth and the widow flung herself at the closest one. Eric winced and staggered back. The woman was a force to be reckoned with. They all stood while she clung to Eric, crying her little crocodile heart out. Though as Liv started to sit down she saw the widow glance quickly at Pudge before starting a new round of tears.
Pudge’s back was to Liv so she couldn’t see his expression, but she didn’t have to. The widow wore the same satisfied expression Liv had seen a society matron give her husband at their daughter’s wedding, just as the unsuspecting groom said, “I do.”
“OMG,” BeBe mouthed as soon as Liv was seated again. “I paid the bill,” she whispered.
“Thanks, my treat next time.”
Liv shrugged. Eric, who had been holding the widow up in an awkward one-arm hug, finally deposited her in the booth and went to the bar to get her a drink. There was low talking coming from the booth but Liv couldn’t hear individual words. They might sit here all night and not learn another thing.
One thing she did know. The talk about suing continued; the partners seemed split on their opinion about what to do. The widow, however, was adamant that the town would pay. Hopefully, the others could talk her out of it. If not, then at least Liv knew what to expect and would figure out how to deflect the suit if it came to that.
But something else had entered her brain. It had been floating around all night but suddenly morphed into an idea the minute she saw that look pass between Pudge and the widow. What if Max hadn’t been killed by a misanthropic Henny, or a nearsighted hunter? What if there had been a falling-out among developers? Which still didn’t explain why Max was out in the woods when he should have been finishing up the race.
But he had been there, which meant someone else had been there too. Pudge, Joe, Eric? Was it possible there was a meeting, maybe to cut out the others? The killer would have had to plan it in advance. Hide the shotgun before the race. But what had happened to it? As far as she knew, Bill’s men hadn’t found it. But it wasn’t exactly something a man dressed in a running outfit could carry out of the woods without attracting attention. It must still be there, unless the killer had gone back for it later.
Of course, they could have left the way the EMTs came in, by the road that led to the county road. Had Bill widened his search that far?
Liv hadn’t seen the men at the award ceremony. Come to think of it, she hadn’t seen any of them since Pudge and Joe cut off to the 2K course. Could all of them have been in on it? But why?
And what about the wife? How did she fit into all of this?
Liv didn’t know where to begin, but she knew who would. And she’d badger him into helping her come up with a theory if it took all night.
“Let’s go, BeBe. I think it’s time to call it a night.” Liv had a date with a certain recalcitrant newspaper editor that she couldn’t put off a minute longer.