Authors: Miranda Bliss
"Then you didn't have anything to do with him dying?"
Beyla's eye's snapped. This was too much, even for Eve. I had to stop her before she made the situation even worse.
"We're sorry for your loss," I interjected, jerking Eve's arm. For a moment, I thought she wasn't going to budge. But then, after one last cold stare, she turned and stalked back to our station.
I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, and wished the floor would swallow me.
Eve was back at it the moment I rejoined her. "Well that proves it, doesn't it," she hissed. "If Beyla's not guilty, why is she acting so innocent?"
Did I mention that Eve isn't the most logical person in the world?
I shook my head, certain that there was a morsel of reasoning somewhere in her theory. Maybe I just didn't get it. Or maybe Tyler had been right all along.
"Of course she looks innocent," I shot back. "She is innocent. She said she didn't know Drago."
"But we saw them arguing."
"Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe it wasn't her."
"Maybe she's lying to us."
"Maybe she is. Maybe because it's none of our business."
"Maybe because she killed him."
"Maybe she's just innocent."
"Or she's guilty, and she doesn't want us to know."
"Or she didn't have anything to do with it. She
have had anything to do with it, because it was a heart attack, remember?"
"Or she knew he had a heart condition, and that's why she picked a fight in the first place."
"Don't forget, we saw Monsieur Lavoie having words with Drago, too."
"Yeah, but that was long before ol' Drago kicked the bucket. Beyla was right there minutes before. I'll bet she said something she knew would get him all upset and then he'd have a heart attack and it would kill him and she wouldn't be anywhere near when it happened so nobody would ever suspect her."
The moment I heard Jim's voice, I realized that both Eve and I had gotten so carried away we weren't paying attention to what was going on around us. Class had started.
My cheeks caught fire. I groaned and made an oh-my-gosh-I-can't-believe-how-stupid-we-look face at Eve before I turned toward the front of the room.
"Now that I've got everyone's attention . . ." Jim smiled our way, and that dimple showed up in his left cheek.
Not that I was looking or anything. Even before my blood started a warm thrum through my veins, I'd come to terms with the reality of the situation, which was as plain as the expression on Jim's face when he looked toward our cooking station.
His smile was meant for Eve.
I could stop worrying about looking like a dope. Chances were, Jim didn't even notice I was in the room. Or on the planet, for that matter.
I told myself not to forget it and prepared to get down to business.
"Appetizers." Jim swept a look around the classroom. "How many of you depend on chips and dips and maybe the occasional bag of pretzels?"
Honest to a fault, I raised my hand. Everyone laughed.
"Dump the grease and the fat grams," Jim said. I suddenly wished I could hide all the evidence of the fat grams I'd been consuming lately inside jeans and a baggy sweat-shirt instead of the green capris and orange summer top I'd chosen in honor of the on-again, off-again warm weather.
"It's easy to make excellent appetizers that don't involve saturated fats and don't come straight out of the bag," Jim said. "Tonight, we're going to learn how."
That didn't sound so hard. I breathed a little easier and reached for the bacon that was still tucked in my grocery bag.
"Except . . ."
The single word from Jim froze each and every one of us in place.
"We're going to mix things up a little," he said.
I was all for that. Maybe I'd be so busy mixing, I'd forget Eve's crazy accusations as well as how mortified I'd been to be part of her confrontation with Beyla.
"I want you out of your comfort zone," Jim continued, and I snickered under my breath. If he thought comfort had anything to do with me in the kitchen, he had a lot to learn.
"Tonight," he said, "we're going to change cooking partners."
A murmur went through the classroom.
"Oh, come on!" Jim laughed. "It's not the end of the world. If you can cook with your friends, you can cook with anyone. So let's get to it." He moved closer to our cooking stations. "You . . ." He pointed to the Incredible Hulk. "With you." He took the mother from the station in front of ours by the hand and moved her into place. "You . . ." He pointed to another student. "With you. You--" He turned toward Eve, but he was already too late. Before he could assign her a partner, John, the accountant, had already staked his claim. As if by magic, John's groceries had already displaced mine. He and Eve were chatting like old buddies.
Which pretty much left me out in the cold.
"You . . ." When Jim pointed my way, he grinned. I felt a little warmer. "Let's put you . . ." He glanced around the room. "Let's put you over there with Beyla."
"Maybe that's not such a good idea." It slipped out before I could stop myself. Beyla kept staring straight ahead, and I could only imagine the thoughts going through her head.
It was bad enough that Jim had paired her with the woman who'd set off the smoke alarms in the classroom the night before. But also the woman who had been party to practically accusing her of murder?
Maybe I could make it up to her.
I took comfort in that thought as I stepped around John to repack my chives and my bacon and my goat cheese. I sidestepped my fellow students who were busy playing musical cooking stations. I'm not very tall, and it was hard to see across the room, and the next time I caught sight of Beyla, she was reaching into her purse, apparently putting something away. As I approached, she tossed the purse aside and stepped away from the cook station.
She greeted me with, "We will use your stove."
It was better than I deserved, which, as far as I could tell, was more along the lines of
Get out of here; I don't want to work with a woman who has crazy ideas about me murdering a man I didn't know.
"Can't." I shrugged and set down my bag. "Eve and John have already started to work over there."
"We will tell them to move."
Why is it that beautiful women think they own the world?
I bit my tongue and got out the pan we'd be using to boil water and cook the collards. There was a small sink between each of the two-stove stations, and I filled the pan with water and set it on the stove.
"Let's just get to work," I suggested.
Beyla took another step back. She ran her tongue over her lips. "We will find another place."
"There is no other place. In case you haven't noticed, all the other places are taken."
"Then we will say we cannot--"
I wasn't listening. I didn't blame Beyla for not wanting to cook with me, but we didn't have any choice. Better to get this over with than to stand here and argue.
I turned my back on her, vaguely aware that when I reached to turn on the stove, she moved away.
I flicked on the burner.
And the stove blew up in my face.
WHEN I CAME TO MY SENSES, I WAS ON MY BUTT
with my back against the wall. I had a vague recollection of a noise that sounded like the base line of a Metallica song, and of a wall of fire bursting out of the stove. Fortunately, it came at me with enough force to knock me off my feet. I was stunned but not burned.
My ears were blocked, though, and my head pounded. I think the funny aroma that tickled my nose had something to do with my singed eyebrows. It all must have happened pretty fast, because for a nanosecond, I was alone, and everything around me was perfectly quiet.
Then all hell broke lose.
My fellow students ran to surround me, their words a jumble of noises I couldn't decipher. I saw Eve fight her way through the crowd. She knelt at my side.
"Annie? Are you OK?"
At least that's what I thought she said. It was hard to tell, considering that her words sounded like they came from underneath a thick feather pillow.
I shook my head, hoping to clear it. All the motion did was make it pound harder.
"Annie?" This time it wasn't Eve's voice--it was lower and richer. I turned to find Jim kneeling on my other side. "What the hell--" He glanced up toward the stove, where Beyla was standing just outside the ring of soot around the cooking station where I was supposed to be working. She shrugged, and the simple gesture made it clear that she had no idea what had happened or what I'd done to cause the conflagration.
"I turned on the stove." OK, so that much was obvious. I wasn't exactly thinking straight. My voice sounded like it came from far, far away, and I spoke a little louder. "All I did was turn on the stove."
"I know. I saw it." Jim offered me a hand and helped me to my feet. The room wobbled a little, and I guess I did, too. He put an arm around my shoulders.
"I swear," he grumbled, the burr in his voice more pronounced than ever, "if that no good son of a bitch Lavoie isn't taking care of the equipment the way he should be--" He remembered where he was and swallowed the rest of his words. "Are you all right?"
I was when he was holding me like this.
"I'm fine," I told him and reminded myself not to get carried away. "My ears are just a little . . ." I shook my head again and the rushing noise inside them settled down a bit. "The stove . . ." I looked that way and cringed at the mess. "I blew it up."
"It wasn't your fault."
Jim was being kind. He patted my shoulder. "I don't want you to get discouraged."
Now he was being delusional.
"I almost destroyed the entire school."
"There's no real damage." He shooed everyone back to their places. When I tried to take a couple steps, he stood at my side just to be sure I made it. "As long as you're all right . . ."
"I am." I tried another couple steps. "Nothing broken," I assured him. "Nothing burned. Nothing--" I glanced down at my capris, which were covered with black soot. "Almost nothing ruined."
"Don't you worry about that. What's important is that you're not hurt. All right," he raised his voice so he could be heard above the hubbub. "Annie's fine, and we'll get the stove fixed. She and Beyla can work up front here with me tonight. Before any of the rest of you get started, I'm going to come around from station to station and test the stoves to make sure we don't have any more surprises."
I smiled at Eve to assure her that I was all right. Knees still shaking, I headed to the front of the room. It wasn't until the last second that I realized I'd left my ingredients back at Beyla's stove.
My grocery bag was crisp around the edges, but nothing inside sustained any damage. Rather than leave a trail of ash, I took out the ingredients one by one and piled them in my arms. I was all set to return to the front of the room when I dropped my collards. I stooped to retrieve the bundle of greens, and stopped cold.
There was a fragment of a piece of paper on the floor just in front of the stove. It was partially burned, which told me that it had been somewhere in the vicinity of the stove when it blew. The top line had gone up in flames but I could read the block letters of the second line well enough. And what I read didn't exacly make me feel warm and fuzzy.
"You are next."