The Great Diamond Caper
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It’s been six months since I found my last dead body. Maybe things in Whispering Bay are finally getting back to normal. Or as normal as things can be for someone who’s a human lie detector and has a dog that sees ghosts.
Other than that, my life is so boring it would put most people to sleep. I get up at four each morning to bake the muffins that will be sold in the café I own along with my friend Sarah Powers. The Bistro by the Beach, located in Whispering Bay, Florida, is known for the best muffins in town. We also serve a mean cup of coffee, the tastiest mac and cheese you’ll ever eat, and have a great view of the Gulf of Mexico. We get our fair share of tourists, but lots of the natives hang out here as well. Like Gus Pappas, who’s just raised his empty coffee cup in the air, indicating that he’s in need of a refill.
I grab a pot of java and head over to his usual table overlooking the water, where he’s surrounded by some of his fellow Gray Flamingos, or the GFs (as they like to call themselves lately).
The GFs are a local senior citizens activist group. Mainly, they stay pretty low-key, but heaven help us if something happens to stir one of them up. No one at our local congressman’s office or the AARP will get a second’s rest until the matter is resolved. Personally, I think it’s pretty cool how they stand up for themselves and refuse to take crap from anyone. They’re also terrific customers. Don’t let anyone tell you that the over-sixty-five crowd doesn’t tip well.
I weave through the dining room with a carafe of coffee in one hand and my little dog Paco at my side. In case I need help. Which I won’t, of course, but Paco prides himself on being an important member of the team. He’s a chihuahua terrier mix who became mine by default after I solved my first murder case. Soon after that, I solved another murder and then another and then another. For a while there, things were looking pretty bleak for a town whose slogan is “The Safest City in America.” But like I said, lately it’s been blissfully quiet, and I’d like to keep it that way.
I refill Gus’s coffee. He takes a sip, then smiles at me. “Thanks, Lucy.”
“You betcha.” I offer the rest of the table refills. Gus’s girlfriend, Viola Pantini, takes me up on my offer. Viola manages to keep just as busy in retirement as she did when she taught at the local high school. Besides her role as president of the GFs, she also teaches yoga for “active and mature” adults (code word: seniors). Only don’t let that fool you. I took the class once and could barely walk for two days.
When I grow up, I want to be just like Viola. She’s in her late sixties, but she’s one of those women who exudes beauty, confidence, and grace. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not completely unattractive, but I could use a little help in that last department.
Sitting next to Viola is Betty Jean Collins, one of the GFs’ feistier members, who also works here part time at The Bistro. I hired Betty Jean six months ago when Sarah went back to school part-time to finish her college degree and we found ourselves needing extra help. Betty Jean might be eighty, but she can run circles around most forty-year-olds. She’s been divorced four times, and each time she married “up,” as she likes to say, so she’s not hurting for money, but her job here helps keep her out of trouble.
“Hey, boss. Fill me up. Only not all the way up because you know I like space for my cream.” She eyes the coffeepot. “I hope that’s freshly brewed or I might have to complain to the management.” She laughs at her own joke. If it wasn’t Betty Jean’s day off, I’d tell her to get her own coffee. She reaches under the table to slyly give Paco a chunk of her banana walnut muffin. My dog gobbles it down gratefully because, let’s face it, who wouldn’t want a bite of one of my muffins?
“I saw that. Betty Jean, you know Paco is on a strict diet. The vet says he needs to lose two more pounds to get down to his ideal weight.”
“Oh, pooh, a little bit of muffin isn’t going to hurt him.”
Paco looks up at me as if to say, Yeah. Vet, shmet. What does she know about my ideal weight?
“Cut the attitude, okay?” I say to my dog, who puts his nose up in the air in response. It’s like I’m dealing with a teenager here.
“I think it’s cute how you talk to him as if he can understand you,” says Gus.
Paco and I share a look because … yeah. Not only can my dog see ghosts, he can also understand human language. And if I concentrate really hard, he can even read my mind. Don’t ask me how that works. Psychic phenomena are way above my pay grade.
Rounding out the table is Jim Fontaine, the newest member of the GFs. Jim is a retired Dallas homicide detective who moved here to Whispering Bay last year. Like Gus and Viola, Jim is widowed. He has one son, Travis, who is pretty terrific. Of course, I’m a bit prejudiced where Travis is concerned since he also happens to be my boyfriend.
“So, what’s everyone up to?” It’s Tuesday, so this isn’t an official meeting of the Gray Flamingos Board of Directors. They do that every Wednesday morning here at The Bistro.
“I’m off to the community center to teach a yoga class,” says Viola.
“And I’ll be attending the class,” says Jim. “Viola’s yoga class is the best way to start the day.” Viola smiles at the compliment, and Jim positively beams in response. Poor Jim. I’ve suspected for a while now that he’s got a little crush on Viola, but she and Gus are a pretty solid couple. I wish there were someone I could fix him up with.
“It’s the usual day-off routine for me,” says Betty Jean. “I’m going to stalk some cute man meat on the internet. Followed by a well-deserved nap.”
“How about you, Gus?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go by the company and see how the kids are doing. Gotta keep my finger in the pie, you know?”
The back of my neck tingles the way it does whenever someone lies to me. Gus owns Pappas and Sons Plumbing, but he’s retired. His sons Joey and Max, both in their late thirties, now run the business. Every once in a while, though, Gus likes to pop in to make sure things are running smoothly. This seems like such an odd thing for him to be deceptive about.
“How are Max and Eileen and the kids? I haven’t seen them for a while.”
Gus’s other son, Joey, comes in frequently for coffee on his way to a job, and his wife, Theresa, belongs to the Mothers’ Day Out Breakfast Club that eats at The Bistro once a week, so I’m more up to date on them. They have two adorable but hyperactive twin girls, Caroline and Amelia, both of whom are huge fans of my double chocolate chip muffins. Not that I blame them. It’s my favorite muffin too.
Any mention of Gus’s family is a cue to whip out his cell phone. “Max and Eileen are doing great. They’ve been busy remodeling the house. It’s costing them a fortune, but hey, I’m not paying for it, so what do I care? Did I show you the latest picture of their kids?”
Both children have dark, curly hair and impish grins. “They look just like their grandpa. How old are all the kids now?”
“Louisa’s three, and Dom just turned six. And the twins are four—going on eighteen,” he jokes.
“Grandkids.” Betty Jean rolls her eyes. “Sure, they’re cute when they’re little, but then they become teenagers and all they want from you is cold hard cash.”
Viola leans over to gaze at the picture and smiles proudly. Viola and her late husband, Bob, never had children, so she dotes on Gus’s grandkids as if they were her own.
“Maybe one day I’ll be blessed with grandchildren,” Jim says meaningfully. As his son’s girlfriend, I’m certain that this is directed toward me. No one else says anything, but I get the feeling that the whole table is now staring at my childbearing hips and mentally taking wagers.
Gus puts away his phone and glances around the café. “Looks like business is booming. What time do you close again?”
The hair on the back of my neck does a little dance. This is the second time in less than a minute that Gus has lied to me. Well, not lied exactly because nothing he said in that last statement was untrue, but I’m picking up a strong sense of dishonesty on his part. This is just so odd. Maybe my Spidey sense needs a tune-up.
“We close at two,” I say.
He nods like he’s just remembered.
My cell phone pings. “Have a great rest of the day,” I say before scurrying into the kitchen to see a text from my boyfriend, Travis. Even thinking it, I still relish the sound of that word. Boyfriend.
Travis Fontaine moved to town nine months ago to live close to his father, Jim. Like his dad, Travis is also a cop. I met him after I discovered my first dead body, and right away we knocked heads. Can you believe he had the audacity to tell me that he’d stay out of my kitchen if I stayed away from his crime scenes? Eventually, though, he got used to me. He got so used to me, in fact, that soon after that, he asked me out, and we’ve been dating ever since.
We get along pretty well with one exception. Travis refuses to believe that I’m a human lie detector or that Paco can see ghosts. He knows we’re “special,” as he likes to put it, but his overly left-side-thinking brain is always trying to find a logical reason for how I’m able to solve crime.
Lately we’ve had trouble just getting together for a simple movie date. Travis was promoted to chief of police six months ago. Whenever an officer calls out sick, Travis feels responsible for covering their shift. Like he did last night.
About to hit my bed, he texts. How’s it going, McGuffin?
I don’t know why I get such a kick out of Travis calling me by my last name. But I do. It’s when he calls me Lucy in that certain tone of his that I know something isn’t right.
Busy. You know, the usual weekday morning crowd.
You need a vacation.
Tell me about it!
You free for dinner tonight? I have a surprise.
Ooh. I love surprises. Of course, I’m free. What’s the surprise?
It’s not a surprise if I tell you.
So that’s how you’re going to play it.
No more questions. I’m already asleep.
Ack! I spend the rest of my day thinking about Travis’s surprise.
Could it be … no. That would be grossly premature. This surprise has nothing to do with engagement rings. We’ve only been dating six months, and while we’ve gotten pretty close, neither of us has said the L word yet. A fact that I mentioned to my second-best friend Brittany Kelly the other day.
We were having lunch on the patio at The Harbor House, Whispering Bay’s fanciest restaurant, which also happens to belong to Brittany’s family, when I casually asked, “How long do you think a couple should be together before one of them says I love you?”
Her fork, laden with ahi tuna, froze halfway to her mouth. “Travis hasn’t told you he loves you yet?”
“Should he have? I mean, I haven’t said it either.”
“Well, do you?” she asked.
“Love him? I guess so.”
“You guess so? You don’t know?” She set down her fork. “Lucy, have you and Travis slept together?”
That was last week, and I can still feel the heat in my cheeks. I could have told her that it was none of her business, but I needed some expert relationship advice, and Brittany is just the girl to give it. “Not yet.”
Brittany nodded. “I understand, Lucy. Sex is a big deal. Especially when you’re still a virgin.”
Something about the word sex makes me feel wiggy. It’s not that I’m a prude or anything, but I’m swimming in uncharted waters here. Even though I’m twenty-six, Travis is my first boyfriend, and my brother, Sebastian, is a Catholic priest, so … you get my drift. I’m not exactly saving myself for marriage. But I am saving myself for something. Something big. I’ll know it when the time is right. At least, I hope I’ll know it.
“You don’t think it’s strange that neither of us have used the L word?” I asked.
“Not at all. Every relationship proceeds at its own pace. In my experience, usually when a guy is about to tell me he loves me, he does something really special.”
“Yeah, like what?”
“Oh, you know. He’ll surprise me with a romantic dinner or a trip. My last boyfriend, Jason, took me to the Bahamas.”
“Wow. That is special.”
Brittany shrugged like it was nothing.
“Just how many guys have told you they loved you?” I ask.
“I don’t know. A dozen maybe?”
“I guess that does sound kind of low. We’re talking about guys who’ve told me they love me, not how many I’ve said it back to, so, I don’t know, going back to grade school, maybe two dozen?”
Two dozen? I was still reeling when Brittany said, “Speaking of love, I saw Will the other day.”
Will Cunningham is my first best friend, and for the longest time, I thought that I was in love with him. My infatuation with Will began when I was seven and he saved me from a pack of ravenous squirrels, so you could say I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for Will. We tell each other everything, and every Friday night, we get pizza and watch our favorite show, America’s Most Vicious Criminals.
I’m also one of a few select people who know that Will is the real J.W. Quicksilver, the pseudonym for a New York Times bestselling author of spy novels. After meeting Travis, I realized that what I feel for Will isn’t romantic love. It’s more like BFFs forever. If I were to get married tomorrow, I’d want Will to be my maid of honor. Or my best man. Whichever.
Brittany, on the other hand, is certain that what she feels for Will is romantic. For a while there, I really thought the two of them were going to get together, but then suddenly, Will pulled back, and nothing has happened ever since.
“Where did you see Will?” I asked Brittany.
“At the library.” Which makes sense since Will is also the head librarian at The Whispering Bay Public Library.
“Checking out a book?”
Brittany wrinkled her nose. “Books are so … dusty, Lucy. And you don’t know how many people have touched them. All those germs.” She shuddered. “And they don’t wipe them down with disinfectant, do they? No, when I read, I use my Kindle. It’s way more sanitary.”
I wanted to tell Brittany that dissing books isn’t the best way to win over Will’s heart, but I vowed that I wasn’t going to get in the middle of their relationship.
“If you weren’t checking out a book, then what were you doing at the library?”
“Oh, I go in there a couple of times a week. Just to check things out. As the PR person for the chamber of commerce, it’s my duty to keep abreast of all the happenings around town.”
The conversation then segued into a local beauty pageant that Brittany was asked to judge, and we never got back to talking about Travis and me. Maybe this Friday, when Will comes over to watch America’s Most Vicious Criminals, I can ask him what he thinks about the situation.
It’s my turn to clean up for the day, so after our last customer leaves, Sarah dashes out to meet her husband, Luke, leaving me to finish closing up.
I wipe down all the tables and finish mopping the dining area, but my mind is still on Travis’s surprise. If it’s not an engagement ring (and I’ve pretty much surmised that it couldn’t possibly be that), then what is it? Maybe he has tickets to a concert. Or maybe … he’s planned a trip for us.
My heart starts thumping wildly as I review all the available clues. He told me in his text message that I needed to take a vacation, and just last week while we were watching TV, he was flipping through the channels and became engrossed in a documentary about vacation rentals.
Travis is going to take me somewhere special to tell me he loves me. Thank God I have a second-best friend like Brittany who knows so much more about men than I do, or I’d be caught completely unaware tonight.
If I’m going to take a vacation, I’ll have to make sure to give Sarah plenty of advance notice. Right now, the two of us only take off every Sunday when The Bistro is closed, but I could probably get Betty Jean and our other part-time helper, Jill, to fill in for me.
I wonder where Travis is taking me. Hawaii?
No, that’s too expensive.
No, that’s expensive as well, and it would only be worthwhile if we went for at least ten days. Or better yet, two weeks.
How on earth does Travis expect me to take two weeks off from work to traipse around Europe with him? I’ll have to get my passport updated …
My thoughts are cut off by a brisk knock on The Bistro’s kitchen back door. I glance at my watch. It’s two thirty. Now that The Bistro is closed for the day, Paco and I are the only ones here. We live in the apartment above the café. I never used to worry about opening doors when I was by myself or even checking to see if the doors were properly locked. Until I started finding dead bodies, that is. Travis would have a heart attack if he knew how many times I’ve just flung the door open without asking who is on the other side.
Paco looks at the door, then looks back at me and wags his tail. Without reservation, I trust my dog’s instincts. Besides, like I said, things have gotten back to normal around here. And what Travis doesn’t know won’t hurt him.
I open the door to find Gus Pappas. “Gus, what are you doing here? Did you forget something?”
He stealthily looks to the left and then to the right. “Are you alone?”
Paco barks as if to say, Does she look like she’s alone?
“It’s just me and Paco. What’s up?” I glance over his shoulder. “Did you park out front?”
“I parked a mile away and jogged here. I didn’t want anyone to see my car out front and wonder what I’m up to. Lucy,” he says, “can I trust you to keep a secret?”