“One caramel latte,” I said, setting the drink on the counter. I smiled brightly at the older woman who’d ordered it. She glanced at the cup, gave me a solid glare, and then snatched it off the counter with a grunt. She carried the cup to the corner table by the window, sat down, and sniffed her coffee like she fully expected it to smell awful.
I watched her show with my smile somehow still in place. When she’d ordered the drink, the woman had acted like she was being forced into it, which was stupid. Who would force someone to drink coffee?
She shot me a withering glare from her seat, as if she could hear the thoughts passing through my head, and then took a tentative sip out of the cup. Her eyebrows rose in surprise before she scowled at her cup and took another, longer sip. The more she drank, the angrier she looked.
“All righty then,” I said, turning away.
When my best friend, Vicki Patterson, had called me up out of the blue and asked if I wanted to move to Pine Hills and start up a combination bookstore and coffee shop, I’d been ecstatic. I’d been working at a retail job I hated, selling clothes to women as big around as my leg. Her call was my way out. We loved books. We loved coffee. What could possibly go wrong?
Vicki had moved to Pine Hills a few months before her call. We’d grown up in California together, where celebrities walked the sidewalk, where you couldn’t take two steps without tripping over someone’s runt of a dog, so her move to a small town in the Midwest caught me completely by surprise. We’d spent nearly every second of our lives together before she left. We’d gone to the same high school, attended the same college. Losing her had felt like losing a part of myself. When she’d called, I’d just started to get used to life without her.
“There’s absolutely no bookstore or coffeehouse in town!” she’d all but squealed into the phone. “It’ll be perfect, Krissy! We can live close together again!”
How could I say no to that?
Before I knew what I was doing, I was talking to my dad about the investment and looking for a house in Pine Hills. It would be good for the both of us. Vicki had moved away from home in order to get away from her parents, who loved her, sure, but were intent on making her follow in their footsteps. They were both actors and they didn’t understand why she wouldn’t jump at the chance to be a star. But show business wasn’t the life she wanted. She hated being in front of cameras, hated comparing herself to the other girls, who would do just about anything to land an acting job. No matter how many times she told her folks, they just didn’t get it. So she just up and moved away. It was the only way she could escape the pressure.
I glanced up the two steps that led to the bookstore portion of our store. Vicki was talking with a woman near the mystery rack, who was listening to her with rapt attention. Vicki had the requisite long legs and the perfect blond hair to get most any job—acting or otherwise, yet this was what she wanted to do. Her bright blue eyes, trim figure, and bubbly personality would have been a hit on the big screen, and I often wondered if I was somehow holding her back. I mean, who was I, really? If I tried out for a movie, I’d end up being cast as the creature from the swamp or the unattractive best friend, if I was cast at all.
Vicki saw me looking, gave me one of her winning smiles, and then turned back to the woman. She held out a book to her and I noted it was one of my dad’s first.
I heaved a sigh. Vicki wasn’t the only one who had a somewhat-famous parent. My dad used to be a mystery writer before he retired, and it was on his minor success that we were able to open our little store. I don’t think we would have gotten a big-enough loan, otherwise.
The bell above the door tinkled and I turned to our newest customer. A middle-aged woman stepped inside and looked around the little space in wide-eyed wonder. She was short, a little on the dumpy side, and was graying at the temples. Her gaze fell on me, causing her entire face to light up. She rushed over to where I stood behind the counter; her purse was clutched so tight to her chest, I was worried it would explode.
“Welcome to Death by Coffee,” I said, cringing just a little. I abhorred the name, but Vicki had insisted on it.
“Kristina Hancock?” the woman asked. She leaned forward, giving me a look that made me worried that she was looking for a bit more than just a cup of coffee. She appeared ready to devour me, clothes and all.
“Yes?” I answered hesitantly. I was pretty sure I’d never seen this woman in my life. My name wasn’t any big secret or anything; but being new in town, I found it unsettling to have someone already know who I was when I didn’t have the slightest clue as to her identity.
“Daughter of James Hancock?”
I groaned inwardly. Of course. That was how she knew me. I should have known. “Yes,” I said, somehow managing a smile.
“Oh, my.” She fanned herself with her purse. The skin under her arm flapped alarmingly as she did. “I’m such a big fan of your father’s. I mean, when I saw the name on the door, I was positive it had to have something to do with him. And then when I saw you . . . Oh! You look just like him!”
Sure, if I had a beard and was bald and was sixty pounds heavier, maybe.
The woman blinked her eyes rapidly as she continued to fan herself. I didn’t know what to say to her. I never wanted to name the store after my dad’s most popular book, but Vicki had insisted. He’d supplied us with most of the money we needed to get started with the store. He’d even donated over half of the books we were selling. He hadn’t written a book in at least five years, yet people still treated him like royalty.
It was part of the reason why I wanted to get away so badly. Like Vicki, I didn’t want to live on my dad’s reputation. I wanted to be my own person, find my own way.
Vicki, unfortunately, didn’t quite see it my way.
“Just think of it,” she’d said, trying to convince me it was for the best. “His fans will surely love the name and will come flocking in because of it. Can we really risk losing such easy advertising?”
I, on the other hand, wasn’t so sure. I could handle using my dad’s reputation to at least get us started, but the name? I mean, Death by Coffee? Really?
Of course, she wouldn’t listen to reason. She insisted it would be for the best. My dad was the only real celebrity we had. Her dad’s only claim to fame was a cameo on
The Walking Dead.
He was zombie #12, I believe.
“Do you have any of your father’s books for sale here, hon?” the woman asked after she’d sufficiently fanned herself off.
“We do,” I said. “And they’re signed. If you’ll talk to Vicki, I’m sure she can—”
“Oh no, I don’t need them,” the woman said with a wave of her hand. “I already have his complete works, all signed, of course. I met him in Austin a few years back. That’s Texas, you know?” She leaned in closer. Her impressive bosom rose up beneath her chin and threatened to spill out over the counter. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Do you know if he’s working on anything new?”
I kept my smile plastered on as I answered. “I don’t think so. I’ll ask him the next time I talk to him.”
“Do that.” She leaned back, allowing her breasts to jiggle back into place. “My name’s Rita Jablonski, by the way.” She held out a dumpy little hand.
“Krissy Hancock,” I said automatically, taking her hand. It was damp and oddly squishy.
She gave my hand a single weak pump before scanning the menu. “I suppose I should have some coffee,” she said. “Yes, just plain black coffee. I can’t abide that flavored stuff. It’s bad for my digestion.”
My face was starting to hurt from all of the smiling, but I refused to stop. I was afraid of offending Rita somehow. We weren’t getting many people stopping by, despite the fact we’d just opened Death by Coffee that very morning. I would have thought the people of Pine Hills would have been thrilled to have a place to buy a book or two or get a morning coffee and a cookie, but it appeared I was wrong. A part of me was certain it had something to do with the name.
I poured Rita her coffee and carried it back to the counter. She hadn’t clarified whether she wanted it for here or to go, so I put it in a to-go cup in the hopes she’d take the hint and would go away. I handed it to her with a polite “Thank you for stopping by.”
Rita took off the cap and sniffed the coffee. She didn’t turn to leave.
“You know, I’ve always wondered why we never had a bookstore in Pine Hills,” she said, glancing toward where Vicki was ringing up a sale. “It’s a shame, I tell you. The library is a mess these days. No one seems to want to read real books anymore. They have their newfangled electronic devices and call that reading.” She snorted before taking a sip of her coffee. “This is good.”
The door opened and an older couple stepped inside. I perked up, hoping they would distract me long enough that Rita would leave, but one look at them told me I’d have no such luck. The woman was dressed in what I could only describe as schoolmarm. Her dress sagged on her roundish frame. Even the flowers looked sad. Her hair was pulled tight to her head in a steel gray bun. The lines on her face gave her a severe look that warned that she wasn’t someone to be messed with.
Her scowl practically burned when she glanced at me before she scanned the rest of the store. The man at her side—her husband, I presumed—looked like a rabbit surrounded by savage wolves. His sweater looked old and worn, like it was the only article of clothing he wore. He was balding in a way that made me wonder if he spent time pulling his own hair out, or if his wife did it for him. He didn’t look anywhere but at the woman in front of him, as if waiting for her to give him some command or another.
“That’s Judith and Eddie Banyon,” Rita said. “They own the diner down on Pine, J and E’s Banyon Tree.” She glanced at me. “It’s like a play on words, you know.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Their diner was the only place in town where you could get a good cup of coffee—at least until now.”
Judith continued to scan the room, not budging from the front of the store. Her fists were clenched, as were her teeth. I was afraid she might have a stroke or something if she didn’t relax.
Finally she gave an exaggerated huff, turned, and stormed back out the way she’d come. Her husband looked up long enough to give me a quick apologetic shrug before following her out.
I watched it all with a feeling of dread. One day open and I’d already alienated the local diner owner. I guess I’d better learn to cook for myself if I wanted anything other than fast food. Speaking of which, I didn’t recall even
a fast-food restaurant in town on my way in. They’d probably all been scared away by Judith’s scowl.
The older woman in the corner heaved herself up the moment the couple was out the door. She gave me a dirty look before she took off after the couple, leaving the remains of her coffee behind. I could hear her calling out Judith’s name as the door swung closed.
“And that was Eleanor Winthrow,” Rita said. She took a slow sip of her coffee and sighed in contentment. “She’s Judith’s best friend.”
“Is she now?”
“Oh yes,” Rita said, turning to me. “She often checks out new places for Judith and reports back to her. Her husband died ten years ago—an aneurism, if you can believe that. Ever since he died, Eleanor has followed Judith and Eddie around like a lost puppy.”
My smile grew strained. I really didn’t need the play-by-play of all my customers, though I did have to admit it was nice to learn a little about the people in town. I didn’t know anyone.
“Excuse me,” I said, extracting myself from behind the counter, rag in hand. I headed to the table Eleanor had so recently vacated and took my time in wiping it down. I hoped Rita would wander off to bother someone else. However, when I was done, she was still standing there, watching me. With a sigh I returned to my spot behind the counter.
“Brendon Lawyer,” she said with a nod of her head.
I followed her gaze and found myself looking at a man across the street. He’d apparently just come out of the building behind him—the door was just swinging closed. I couldn’t read the lettering on the windows, thanks to the sun reflecting off them, so I wasn’t sure what the building was exactly. He looked both ways before crossing the street, with briefcase in hand.
“A lawyer?” I asked as he approached the door. The man was dressed like one, in a three-piece suit magnificently pressed. You could cut yourself on those lines. A giant class ring on his right hand caught the sun, nearly blinding me, as he reached for the door.
“Of course not,” Rita said with a flippant wave of her hand. “That’s just his name. He thinks he’s a bigger fish than he really is.” She snorted as if she found it preposterous.
Brendon entered Death by Coffee and strode to the counter. He glanced disapprovingly at Rita before scanning the menu board. He was clean-shaven, though he’d nicked himself below the right ear, leaving a tiny cut. His hair was black and slicked back to shiny perfection. His jawline was as severe as his clothes, and if the lines on his face were any indication, he spent quite a lot of time scowling.
“Coffee. Black. Two sugars. To go.” He looked away.
I went to get his coffee, slightly miffed at his abrupt manner. Whatever the guy did for a living, I hoped it didn’t involve dealing with live people. He’d spoken all of six words to me—well, barked them more like—and I already disliked him.
When I returned with his coffee, he snatched the cup off the counter, tossed down some money, and then walked away without waiting for his change—all of two cents. Even though he’d asked for his coffee to go, he took it to the corner table I’d just cleaned.
“You should come to our writers’ group meeting!” Rita clasped her hands together.
“Uh, what?” The abrupt change in subject caught me off guard. “I don’t write.”
“Sure you do.” Rita playfully smacked me on the back of the hand with a giggle. “We meet Tuesday nights at the local church.” She pointed out the window. I looked at where she was pointing, but all I saw were the stores on the main drag. She gave me another giggle. “You can’t see it from here.”