Beach Blanket Homicide
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that everyone lies.
I don’t say this to be judgmental. Lying is part of the human psyche. Even my perfect, older brother Sebastian, a priest and the pastor at St. Perpetua’s Catholic Church here in Whispering Bay resorts to the occasional fib.
“I left the rectory ten minutes ago. The traffic is murder,” Sebastian said just the other day when he was late meeting me for dinner.
“You’re not even in the car, are you?” I shot back.
Sebastian let out the sort of long-suffering sigh he’d mastered long before he’d thought of becoming a priest. “Cut me some slack, Lucy, I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Most people can see through those kinds of lies. Those are the easy ones. The thing is, I can also see through the trickier, more deceptive lies as well, which sounds like a good thing, right?
When I was five, a brand-new set of paintbrushes went missing in my kindergarten class. Our teacher, Mrs. Jackson, tore apart our small classroom looking for them. Eventually, she asked us kids if we knew where they were. No one admitted to anything, but there was something odd in Brittany Kelly’s demeanor. Some small tell that went unnoticed by everyone. Except me.
After class, I went to Mrs. Jackson and told her that I thought Brittany had taken the brushes.
“How do you know this?” she asked.
My naïve five-year-old self shrugged. “I don’t know. I just do.”
“Lucille McGuffin,” she said, using my full name like she meant business, “It’s not nice to accuse someone without proof.” She narrowed her eyes at me. “Are you sure you didn’t take them?”
A week later, Brittany admitted to taking the brushes.
Now, did Mrs. Jackson ever give me credit for exposing the culprit, or apologize for accusing me? Nope. All I got for my honesty was a letter sent home to my parents telling them that I was a tattletale, and even worse, Brittany Kelly as a lifelong enemy (and believe me, over the years she’s made me suffer).
By high school, I’d pretty much concluded that despite what people said, no one really wanted to know if their boyfriend was cheating on them or if the real reason they’d been excluded from the math club was because they had bad breath.
How I was chosen to receive this “gift” is a mystery. If someone up there wanted to give me special powers, why couldn’t I have been born with the ability to pick winning lottery numbers? Or a perfect nose? I’d kill for a cute little button nose. Or better yet, a metabolism that allows me to eat all the muffins I want without gaining weight.
Lies are a daily occurrence in everyone’s life, and I just have to live with them as best I can, which for me, means to smile and ignore them.
Take right now. I’m currently being lied to by Abby Delgado.
“Lucy, you know I didn’t order this.” She looks with disgust at the sandwich I’ve just delivered to her table. “When have you known me to like tuna?”
Abby is kind of a character. She’s a member of the Sunshine Ghost Society, an organization that communes with the dead. Or so they say. She’s a regular customer here at The Bistro by the Beach, the café I own along with my partner, Sarah Powers.
Sarah and I are the perfect team. She makes incredible comfort food and I make the best muffins in town, which might sound like I’m bragging, but everyone says so, so who am I to question them?
A couple of weeks ago I sent an audition tape to the Cooking Channel for a chance to appear on Muffin Wars. Think Cupcake Wars, but with muffins. I still haven’t heard from them, but if they pick me, it would be excellent for business.
But back to Abby. Claiming that I’ve mistaken her order is a trick she plays once a month, and it always gets her a free lunch. Not that Abby can’t afford to pay for her sandwich. Secretly, I think she gets her kicks by thinking she’s pulled the wool over my eyes.
“I’m pretty certain you ordered the tuna,” I say with as much tact as I can muster.
Abby’s blue eyes widen. It’s the first time I’ve ever challenged her, and I think she’s shocked.
I’m shocked too. I have a rep for always being upbeat and avoiding confrontation. Typically, on any other day of any other month, I’d apologize and offer to get her the right sandwich. But tomorrow is the grand opening of the town’s new rec center. Sarah and I are providing muffins for the event. It’s a big job for us so we stayed up all night baking. I’m tired, my feet hurt, and frankly, enough is enough.
“Maybe Abby is getting dementia,” says Betty Jean Collins from the next table.
Betty Jean is a regular here too. She comes in most mornings with the other members of the Gray Flamingos, a local citizens activist group for the retired bunch. Betty Jean is originally from Boston and came to north Florida a few years ago to escape the cold. She’s been divorced a bunch of times and is a rabid Red Sox fan, as well as a prepper. She lives for disaster and is not-so-secretly bummed that we haven’t had to evacuate for a hurricane this year.
Sitting beside her is the president of the Gray Flamingos, Viola Pantini, and her boyfriend, Gus Pappas. Viola and Gus are two of my favorite customers. Viola is a retired school teacher who now runs a yoga class for the active and mature adult (she hates the word seniors), and Gus owns a plumbing company. He’s also a member of the city council. They’re both widowed and have been dating for a couple of years. The whole town is hoping they’ll get married because not only would that mean a party and free cake, everyone agrees that they’re perfect for one another.
“Dementia?” sputters Abby. “My mind is as clear as day, Betty Jean Collins!”
Before Betty Jean says something back that might cause a rumble, Viola intervenes to make peace. “Abby, will you be going to the big grand opening of the rec center tomorrow?” she asks sweetly.
“Naturally. Isn’t the whole town?”
A few years ago, the town’s old senior center was demolished to make way for a new state of the art twenty-first-century community rec center, making Whispering Bay the envy of every small town in the Florida panhandle. Add to that the beautiful beaches, top-notch schools, and almost non-existent crime rate and Whispering Bay isn’t just the Safest City in America (the town’s PR slogan), we’re just the best place to live. Period.
The big grand opening celebration will include free food, games, tours, and a much-anticipated costume contest. The costume theme is sixties beach movies, which is perfect for Whispering Bay since we’re a beach community and the sixties is the decade that half our population considers their heyday.
“Are you going in costume?” I ask Abby.
“Naturally,” she sniffs. “I’m going as Annette Funicello.”
Rats. “Me too.”
Going as the most famous actress from the sixties beach movies era probably isn’t the most original idea, but to hear that Abby is also going as Annette is a little depressing. Although to be honest, I can’t wait to see how she plans to pull that off because I’ve never seen her wear anything but tweed skirts and pearls. It’s like she dresses as if she lives in the Scottish Highlands instead of a laid-back beach community.
“How about you, Betty Jean?” I ask. “Are you dressing up?”
Before Betty Jean can respond, the door to the café opens and her face lights up faster than a flea on steroids. Since we’re not in the throes of a natural disaster, this can only mean one thing. A man has just walked into The Bistro.
Betty Jean is eighty but to call her a cougar would be underwhelming. She’s more like a T-Rex, or a raptor. To her, anything male, still breathing, and under the age of sixty is fair game.
I glance over to see who’s come in. It’s my brother Sebastian and his best friend, Will Cunningham. Sebastian is wearing his collar, but even if he weren’t, he’d still give off the priest vibe.
Will, on the other hand, is…
Honestly, I really can’t be objective when it comes to Will because I’ve been in love with him ever since I was seven and he saved me from a pack of ravenous squirrels.
He’s handsome in a quiet, smart kind of way (think Henry Cavill playing Clark Kent), loves to read (he’s a librarian), and has a great sense of humor. Plus, he always smells delicious. Like the freshly printed pages in a brand new book you want to put up to your face and inhale.
He’s also the only person I’ve never caught in a lie.
Which isn’t to say that Will doesn’t lie, because I’m sure he does. But I absolutely cannot tell. Which can only mean one thing.
He must be my soul mate.
Too bad he’s never gotten on board with that. To Will, I’m nothing more than Sebastian’s geeky little sister with the frizzy dark hair and glasses. He wears glasses too, but on him, they look sexy.
Technically, Will is Sebastian’s best friend but when Sebastian went away to seminary Will and I started hanging out, and over the years, he’s become my best friend too.
Three months ago, Will loaned me the money for my share of the down payment to buy this place. Which was awfully nice of him, but it also means I’m in his debt and I won’t feel like things are square between us until I’ve paid him back every single penny. He’s the head librarian at the Whispering Bay Public Library, so he makes a decent living, but he’s not rich.
When I asked him where he got the money, he told me a relative left it to him, but the whole thing felt fuzzy. Was it a lie? Maybe. Maybe not. Like I said, I can’t tell.
They order their lunch from Sarah, who’s working the counter, and I turn my attention back to Abby. “If you don’t like the tuna, I’ll be happy to get you something else. But I’m pretty sure you did order it. Just sayin’.”
She’s about to protest when I hear a squeaking sound. I look down at the large tote laying on the seat next to her and I swear, it moves.
She notices my reaction. “The tuna sandwich is fine. No problem. Just move along.” To emphasize her point, she shoos me away with her hand.
Apparently, hiding whatever is in the bag is more important to her than the chance for a free sandwich.
I continue staring at the bag and, yes, there is definitely something alive in there. You didn’t need any special skills here to figure out that she’s lying.
“Hey, Lucy Goosey.” Will plunks his tall frame down at the table adjacent from Abby’s.
My brother kisses me on the cheek in greeting, and as usual, a solemn hush descends upon the café as the rest of the patrons murmur their hellos. He makes a sweeping gesture to the crowd (I think he’s practicing in case he’s Pope one day) then spies Abby and nods curtly. “Miss Delgado, how are you?”
“Father McGuffin,” Abby replies coldly. “I’d be perfectly fine. If a certain person would only do his job.”
Sebastian stiffens. “We’ve been through this before. I’m not the kind of priest who performs exorcisms.”
A vision of Linda Blair and all that disgusting pea soup flashes through my brain. Ugh.
“Then maybe St. Perpetua’s needs a real priest,” she says. “Maybe I should contact the Bishop. I’m sure he’d have a thing or two to say about your behavior.”
“I didn’t know you were Catholic,” I say to Abby.
“Well, there you go. You don’t know everything, do you?”
I’m about to give in and ask Abby why on earth she needs an exorcism performed when I hear a yipping sound. Will hears it too because he points to her tote and asks, “You got a dog in there?”
Abby picks up the tote as if to move it, but a little tan head pushes its way out.
“Oh!” I automatically reach out to pull the dog out of the tote, but Abby snatches up the little pup and presses it against her bosom. He licks her chin and she smiles down at him, which is kind of a miracle because Abby isn’t a smiley kind of person.
“He’s my…service animal.” The dog is maybe fifteen pounds. He looks like a Chihuahua, only bigger.
“Okay, but you know, Abby, we allow dogs here at The Bistro. There’s no reason to hide him.” I scratch his ears and he licks the back of my hand. He’s looking at me with soulful brown eyes that smack of intelligence. I nearly melt into the floor, he’s so dang cute.
I’ve always wanted a dog, but I’m allergic to fur, so, there you go.
I notice he’s not wearing a collar. “What’s his name?”
“His name?” Her eyes get a wild look in them. “His name is…Paco. Yes, that’s it. Paco.”
“Hey, Paco,” I croon, knowing full well that’s a lie, but what can I say? “You are one adorable baby.”
Paco’s tail wags furiously. Abby stuffs him back in her tote.
“I didn’t know you had a dog,” says Viola. “When did you get him?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, Viola,” says Abby, “But Taco belongs to my brother. I’m watching him while Derrick’s away on vacation.”
“I thought you said he was your service animal and that his name was Paco,” says Will.
“Paco… Taco… What does it matter?” She gets up, clutching the tote protectively against her chest like she’s afraid someone is going to snatch it from her. “I need to find a new place to eat lunch. One where they get your order right,” she says, glaring at me. “And where the other customers aren’t so dang nosy!”
We all watch as Abby stomps out of the café. The last thing I see is Paco’s little face with the shiny bright eyes sticking out of the tote.
Sarah brings Will and Sebastian their food. “What’s gotten into her?”
“It’s the dementia,” Betty Jean says with a sigh. “It’ll get us all eventually.”
On that happy note, Will starts eating his turkey sandwich, but Sebastian just stares down at his plate.
“What was all that about an exorcism?” I ask.
His dark eyes look troubled. “Nothing.”
Betty Jean, who must have the best hearing aids in town, because neither Sebastian nor I are speaking that loudly, says, “I bet it has something to do with her challenging Phoebe Van Cleave as head of the Sunshine Ghost Society. Abby is still convinced that there’s a ghost haunting the land that the rec center was built on. Maybe she wants to drive the devil out of it.”
Everyone within hearing distance moans.
A few years back there was a rumor circulating town that a spirit was haunting the old senior center. The Sunshine Ghost Society held a séance in hopes of flushing out the ghost, but of course, nothing happened, and the building was torn down to make way for the city’s new rec center.
“Let’s not talk about ghosts or exorcisms or Abby Delgado anymore,” says Viola, “Let’s talk about something happy.”
Sarah breaks out in a grin. “Then that would include my new niece and nephew.” Sarah is a newlywed and her sister-in-law, Whispering Bay’s mayor, Mimi Grant, delivered twins a few days ago. Sarah is just a few years older than me. She’s blonde and beautiful, and she and her husband Luke make the perfect couple. Sarah also makes the best macaroni and cheese I’ve ever tasted. She passes around her cell phone so that Viola and Betty Jean can gush over the pictures of the babies. The men all smile politely.
“How are the new parents doing?” Viola asks.
“This isn’t their first rodeo,” Sarah says, referring to the fact that Mimi and her husband, Zeke Grant, the town’s police chief, already have a college-age daughter and a son in middle school, “but it’s a bit of a shocker having two at once.”
“I’ll say.” Gus sets down his coffee. “Good thing we voted to let Zeke hire extra help.” By we, I can only assume Gus is referring to himself and the rest of the city council.
“Wait,” says Betty Jean. “Are you telling me there’s a new cop in town?”
“Yep. Officer Travis Fontaine. Good guy. Comes to us from Texas. He started this morning.”
Betty Jean smirks, and since we all know the way her mind works, we cringe. “Texas, huh?”
Gus nods. “Dallas area. Lots of big city experience. We’re lucky to get him. His dad retired here a few months ago. Travis is his only kin.”
“James Fontaine,” Sebastian adds. “New parishioner.”
“Good for Zeke,” Viola says, “That’ll give him more time to spend with Mimi and the babies.” She smiles at me. “Lucy, who will you be dressing up as tomorrow?”
Viola is too polite to say you too? Instead, she says, “I can’t wait to see your costume.”
“How about you?” I ask my brother, “Are you going to enter the contest?”
“I hadn’t thought about it. Probably not.”
The little hairs on the back of my neck start to tingle.
Sebastian has the worst tell in the world. He does this funny thing with his right eye that he’s not aware of. But there it is. He’s absolutely going in costume. Why he’s trying to hide it from me, I have no idea.
I smirk. “You should. The prize is a hundred bucks.”
He gauges my reaction and sighs because he knows he’s gotten caught.
Sebastian knows all about my little “gift,” but he has no idea just how talented I am. It’s something I try not to talk about. Even with him.
Everyone begins talking about the big grand opening of the rec center tomorrow, and what they’re wearing for the costume contest, but I can’t help but be distracted by the pensive look on my brother’s face.
Something isn’t right.
And that something has to do with Abby Delgado.