Authors: Linda O. Johnston
Tags: #mystery, #mystery novel, #mystery fiction, #soft-boiled, #cozy, #pets, #dog, #luck, #superstition, #fate, #destiny, #linda johnson, #linda johnston, #linda o. johnson, #lost under a ladder
“Yes,” I said. “She decided to come a day early. I hopeâ”
“That I just happen to have a room available?” Serina's grin seemed rather sly, so I waited for the answer. She didn't disappoint me. “In fact, I doâbut it'll cost you.”
“Cost me what?” I asked suspiciously.
“I've got a couple of other guests who got here unexpectedly, both with dogs, and I hadn't made reservations for them for your talk tonight.”
Happily, my discussions of pet-related superstitions had been growing in popularity. In fact, the first time I gave it, the crowd overflowed the backroom of the Lucky Dog, so I had to move the discussion to the theater, with the approval of the local mayor and others in charge. And already, the growing crowd sometimes meant a lack of seats.
But I always had some reserved in case I needed them for customers who had made especially generous purchases at the Lucky Dog.
“I'll find room for them,” I said, “if you find room for Gemma.”
Pluckie and I hung around only a little longer. I spoke briefly with Gemma and her new friend Stuart. “I've got to head back to the shop now to pick up my notes and paraphernalia for my talk,” I said. “I hope to see you later at the theater.”
“Can you join me for a quick dinner first?” Gemma asked. She looked first at me, then glanced at Stuart as if she was inviting him too.
“Unfotunately, no,” I said.
“But I'd be glad to,” Stuart said.
“That's great.” The beaten, worried expression on Gemma's face had been replaced by her usual devil-may-care, librarians-know-all look, and I was glad.
I just hoped she wasn't setting herself up to double her hurt. But, of course, I didn't know what had caused her breakup with Frank in the first place.
I'd make sure we had time to talk about it while she was in Destiny.
I said my farewells and Pluckie and I headed back onto the relatively empty sidewalks of Fate Street, home of the B&B, till we reached busy Destiny Boulevard again.
We crossed the major street at the intersection, again passing by the Broken Mirror Bookstore. I was aware that family members of both deceased owners were on a protracted stay in town deciding how best to handle the store's â¦ well, fate. I wondered how new arrival Stuart Chanick would fit into the equation.
That wasn't really my concern. I saw a couple of customers exit the Lucky Dog with bags in their hands and I smiled. More sales. And even more to come. The days after my talks always seemed to be particularly busy at the store.
Once the customers had gotten onto the sidewalk, I approached the front door, careful to avoid cracks on that sidewalk and giving Pluckie one more chance on this outing to relieve herself.
Then we went inside. And I stopped. And stared at the person near the display of superstition dog toys who was staring right at me.
I felt my breathing stop, my mind race for what I should do next.
He made it simple for me. He approached Pluckie and me, his expression grave and pleading.
“Hi, Rory,” he said. “Please, I need to know where Gemma is.”
Of course I couldn't tell him. Not without thinking, and holding a conversation first.
The man coming toward me was Frank Shorester, Gemma's newly ex-boyfriend.
Frank looked like the
epitome of a male librarian. I'd met him before in L.A. and had thought him cute with his dark, curly hair pushed forward over a receding hairline, a short, somewhat squat body, and glasses. He worked at the same library branch as Gemma, in Westwood.
They had been dating for about a year, and it didn't appear to become more serious. Not like it had been between Warren and me â¦ before I'd lost him. In some ways, Frank seemed more of a convenient date to Gemma than a potential long-time lover or husband.
Yet she'd left L.A. after breaking up with him, or so she'd said.
And here he was, following her.
That seemed somewhat ominous to me, but it might just mean the guy was a lot more committed to the relationship than my friend was. I'd have to find out.
But not now.
“No, sorry,” I said after he asked me for maybe the tenth time if I knew where Gemma was. I'd put my hands behind my back to cross my fingersâa good thing to do when lying, if you happened to be superstitious. It helped the fates forgive you.
I hadn't yet fully decided whether I was superstitious, but enough things had happened that made me lean toward believing. Somewhat, at least. In any event, my agnosticism hadn't removed my tendency these days to follow what rules I knew, just in case.
By then, I stood behind the sales counter, Pluckie lying on the floor beside me. Frank faced me over the glass case. The store was crowded, and though Jeri had left, Millie was still there helping customers. If I hadn't been tied up in this difficult conversation, I'd have joined her briefly, although it was almost time for me to leave.
“Look,” I said to Frank. “I'm not sure what's going on, but I have to keep on the move right now. I've got plans for this evening.” He could think I was going on a date or whatever he wanted. I wasn't about to tell him about my program on animal superstitions in case he decided to come.
Since Gemma would be there, that would be a bad idea in many ways.
“Butâ” His eyes locked on mine, then dipped to look at the floor. He looked so sad that I almost felt sorry for him. No matter what was going on between them, though, Gemma was my friend and he wasn't. I'd be supportive of herâas she had been in helping me move on after Warren's death.
It was thanks to her, in fact, that I'd come to Destiny to seek closure by learning all I could about the validity of superstitions.
“Sorry,” I said. “If I happen to see Gemma, I'll let her know you were here.”
Would I ever.
Would she be surprised? Whether she expected Frank to show up here or not, she might want to avoid him. That meant it would be a good idea for her to know if he was staying here and, if so, where.
I hoped it wasn't the Rainbow B&B.
“I assume she's got your phone number in case she wants to call you,” I said. A geeky-looking guy like him surely had a smartphone.
He nodded without meeting my eyes. “But she's not answering when I call her.”
“If I happen to hear from her, should I tell her you're on your way back to L.A.?”
He shook his head slowly. “I think she's here, or coming here, at least. I've booked a room for tonight and maybe longer, at that place down the street, the Black Cat Inn.”
I already knew where most businesses in small Destiny were located, and the inn wasn't far from here. Plus, I'd eaten at its restaurant a few times.
“Okay,” I said. “So maybe I'll see you around.” With a wave, I picked up Pluckie's leash and headed first toward Millie. She smiled at her customers and took a step in my direction. “I'm going upstairs to see Martha,” I told her quietly. “I need to make sure she's got someone helping her to the theater tonight. If she feels like it I'll want her to say hi and talk about the Lucky Dog.”
I gestured around. This shop was the reason I gave the presentations, to help increase its business while teaching people superstitions about animals.
Martha, who'd owned this shop for quite a while, was a great addition to the talks when she was able to attend, say hi, and add to what I said. But she was aging, and with her health issues, she was too frail to get there on her own.
“That would be me,” Millie said. “I'll bring Martha to the theater.”
“Great!” I said. I appreciated Millie, and I believed she appreciated me. When I'd been ambivalent about staying to help Martha, her encouragement, although annoying at first, had been one of many reasons my decision had been positive. “See you later, then.”
“Sure.” She looked over my shoulder, then whispered, “Who's that guy? He's giving me the creeps.”
“He's a former friend of a friend.” I hesitated. “If he doesn't take the hint and leave now, I'll call Chief Halbertson.”
My insides warmed at the idea. I didn't really need an excuse to call Justin Halbertson, head of the Destiny Police Department. He'd made that clear for a while.
I'd probably see him tonight at the theater, too. And siccing the local police chief on Frank, even if he had followed Gemma here, seemed premature to me.
Although if it turned out he was stalking her or otherwise doing anything besides giving himself one final try to win her back, I'd pull out all the stops I could to protect her.
“It's okay.” Millie nodded toward my left side. “He's on his way out the door.”
I watched as he did, indeed, exit. “Great,” I said. “I'll go up to check on Martha and confirm to her that you're on for the night. Then I've got to leave too.”
Not long after that, Pluckie and I were at the theater.
It was a charming place like many other structures in this town, with its golden Art Deco faÃ§ade that had rounded arches outside and what appeared to be a newly restored auditorium inside. I used my phone to call a staff member to let me in since the building wasn't officially open yet for the night's festivities.
Pluckie and I had gone slightly out of our way before heading here. I stopped at the
-Eleven store for a take-out sandwich for me, and I'd brought treats from my pet boutique for my pup. The
-Eleven was the only convenience store in downtown Destiny, but with a potentially lucky name like that it fit right in.
I was getting tired of mostly eating prepared foods, or jockeying for position in the Rainbow B&B's kitchen with its owner and other guests if I wanted to cookâanother reason to consider getting a place of my own.
Now, I put some signs I'd made on a few front-row seats I was saving for Serina's guests as I'd promised. Then Pluckie and I walked toward the stage of the auditorium with the employee who'd let me in, a young guy named Phil who was still in high school. I'd seen him before during the other times I'd given presentations here. It was probably a good thing he was so young. I needed help with some technical matters so I could show slides on a screen on the stage, and he knew just how to set it up.
Pluckie settled down immediately at my feet as I fiddled around for a few minutes, making sure I had everything organized just right. There was no platform on the stage as there had been the first couple of times I had come here to the Destiny Welcome programs. Tourists and everyone else were encouraged to attend the first Welcome given after their arrival, since it was good luck.
It had turned out not to be such good luck for Kenneth Tarzal, who had been the primary presenter at the Welcomes at the time. He was the guy who'd written the premier book
The Destiny of Superstitions
, and the first time I'd come here someone had left a container of milk at the edge of the platform so, when he strode down its steps, he knocked it over, spilling milk, falling, and causing himself bad luck.
He had been murdered shortly thereafter.
But I didn't want to think about Tarzal now, even though it was hard not to in this location. Instead, I went over my notes about the superstitions I'd researched and would be talking about tonightâmost involved dogs and cats. In my earlier talks I used most of the same superstitions but always added others.
I didn't pay a lot of attention to the time, nor to the songs that played in background, including “Knock On Wood” and “Superstition,” but I soon heard voices. I sat on a chair at stage right, and a couple of men approached me from stage left. One was Mayor Bevin Dermot, who always resembled a leprechaun to me, and probably everyone else, thanks to his plumpness and the way he wore suits, often with green jackets, and he even had a leprechaun pin attached to the lapel. His hair, including his beard, was silver and short.
I didn't know the other one.
“Hi, Rory,” Bevin said in so hearty a tone that I expected something awful to happen next. “I want to introduce you to someone.”
Presumably the guy with him, who didn't seem particularly evil or otherwise unpleasant. He was younger than Bevin, maybe around my age, mid-thirties, and had thinning blondish hair. He wore a suit too. His nose was prominent, and his toothy smile even more so.
“Sure.” I smiled back at the other man. I felt a little underdressed beside them in my Lucky Dog T-shirt and jeans, but it was the appropriate outfit for me to give my talk on pet superstitions so I didn't worry about it.
“This is Public Affairs Director Lou Landorf. Lou's in charge of Destiny's public relations and has been on a goodwill tour across the U.S. on behalf of our tourism for the past couple of months. He probably left around the time you arrived, Rory. But he's back now.”
“And I hope the contacts I've made will bring a whole flood of new tourists here to Destiny.” Lou knelt down and knocked on the floor, which was clearly well cared-for wood. That stirred Pluckie, who sat up and went over to sniff his hand. “This must be the lucky dog I've heard so much about.” He stroked Pluckie's head. Then, when he rose, he held out his hand for me to shake.
“I see you're a great resident of Destiny, Lou,” I said. “I'm Rory Chasen, and I'm running the Lucky Dog Boutique for Martha Jallopia right now.” And maybe for a long time to come, since, at least at the moment, that appeared to be my own destiny.
“I know, Rory,” he said. “Bevin's been keeping me informed about everything that's gone on in town since I left.” His smile disappeared into an expression much more grave. “Of course it's bad luck to talk about some of it, so I won't. But I've also heard about how your great little dog here helped to save Martha's life. Sounds like it's a really lucky thing that you're staying here to help her.”
“I hope so.” I wasn't about to get into a discussion about luck or anything else relating to superstitions with this man, or anyone else, right now. Fortunately, he and the mayor left the stage. I heard voices and looked down toward the seating area. People were starting to arrive.
Most were strangers, as they should be. Tourists, I figured. But among them was Martha, brought in her wheelchair by Millie to sit at the front, as we'd discussed. Gemma walked in, too, with that guy Stuart.
I'd also talked to Gemma briefly on the phone before, told her about Frank. She'd gone quiet, then said, “He wanted a lot more from the relationship than I did, so I had to break it off. And heâwell, this isn't the time to talk about it.” She'd paused, then continued, “I shouldn't be surprised that he followed me, but I'm definitely not happy about it. I've made myself a vow to look around and see what other, smarter, nicer men are out there. Frank won't like it.”
I was sure he wouldn't. I was also still curious about Gemma's attitude, but that had filled up all the time we'd had to talk then. More to come, I hoped.
I had placed an ad in the
, the small local newspaper, for my first program and had distributed flyers. I hadn't had to since then. Word of mouth, plus a mention with other events on the town of Destiny's website, had been all the publicity I'd needed.
Now, a lot of people were pouring into the theater. Among them I saw three I recognized after meeting them recently: the heirs to the Broken Mirror Bookstore. One was Kenneth Tarzal's sister, and the other two were his also-deceased business partner Preston Kunningham's mom and stepfather. Preston had died as an apparent result of superstition, but we didn't dare talk about that.
The couple of times I'd spoken with those relations, I had the impression that one thing the two factions had in common was mourning their losses, but they were not coming together on a solution for how best to keep the store in operation, at least not yet.
But surely they would succeed. It was one of the most successful businesses in Destiny, thanks to the popularity of Tarzal's book on superstitions. It wouldn't make sense for them to shut it down, or even to try running it themselves unless they had retail experience, although perhaps they could each sell their interests to someone elseâpreferably the same person or companyâso whatever disagreements there might be now would disappear.
I wondered, then, about why Tarzal's editor Stuart Chanick had come to town. Had Tarzal's sister invited him? Preston's family? Both?
Or neither. Maybe he was here to see what was going on, and to find out if anything was necessary for the publisher to do to maintain the book's success.
Unless â¦ well, maybe that publisher, or Stuart himself, had aspirations of buying the store.
I had to stop this speculation. The plush red seats of the theater were filling. It still seemed strange to me, after being in the audience a few times for Welcomes, to be up here with everyone waiting for me to say something.
If I'd been a shy and retiring person, I'd have felt very uncomfortable.
Even having gotten a business degree in school, being an assistant manager at a very successful chain pet store, and now managing a store myself, didn't exactly prepare me for this.