Prawn of The Dead

A Lemon Layne Mystery, Book 1

Dakota Cassidy

Chapter 1

Jessica Fletcher, any idea why the door to the men’s bathroom is ajar, young lady?” I asked my monkey suspiciously as I tucked the keys to my convenience store’s lavatory back inside the pocket of my hoodie.

She, of course, looked at me as though I’d up and lost my mind on the way to do morning rounds. As though it were unseemly I’d even consider she’d tampered with the keys.

Jess is what’s known as a spider monkey. Six years old with the attention span of an American two-year-old after a date with Grandma and too much sugar.

Plainly speaking, my little rescue monkey is a mischievous, quick-footed, tiny troublemaker who’s alternately one of the great loves of my life and the bane of my very existence.

Her name is a ridiculously obvious nod in honor of Angela Lansbury, and a tip of my ball cap to my father, the late great biker, Chains Forney Layne. As a kid, after we’d set some catfish or brisket to smoke overnight for the following day, we religiously watched reruns of Murder, She Wrote over bags of salty cheese popcorn and cans of ice cold grape soda from our coolers at our family-run gas station, convenience store and, as crazy as this sounds, barbecue pit.

It was our father-and-daughter jam, and one of the countless little things I missed most about him. I know he’d laugh that hearty, deep chuckle I was sure came from his very soul if he knew about Jessica. He’d loved Angela Lansbury and a good mystery as much as I did, and still do.

Chucking her under the chin, I pointed to the bathroom door and asked her again, “Is this the work of a certain primate?”

JF repositioned herself on my shoulder, bracketing my face with her tiny hands and looked deep into my eyes. This was her way of sincerely assuring me she was absolutely not the guilty party.

But I know my Jess, and she’d more than once snatched the keys off the hook above the cash register the second I was even a little distracted. Despite the fact that spider monkeys have very short thumbs and long, hook-like fingers, she’s quite adept with them and uses them to her full advantage. Not to mention that prehensile tail of hers. She’s always yanking items off shelves and scooping up shiny things that catch her fancy.

So I narrowed my gaze at her and warned, “I’m just saying, if I find out it was you…”

JF made a dramatic plunge backward and fell along the length of my shoulders, curling her tiny head in toward my face. In typical theatrical Jess fashion, she threw her hand across her eyes and stuttered a weak chirp.

Nodding my head, I muttered a somber, “That’s absolutely right. You’ll be dead meat for one hundred, JF.”

Then I grinned at her. I couldn’t help it, even though she was likely the culprit, she was too darn cute to resist.

My phone rang to the tune of Beethoven, indicating my best friend, Coco Belinksi, calling for our usual early morning chat. Monday through Friday, it was a ritual for us to start our day off with a good gab. Our way of keeping in touch when I’d moved away to Seattle. A promise we kept so we’d never lose touch, and one we continued with the utmost reverence since I’d moved back.

I dug my phone out of the pocket of my sweats and clicked the “accept” button and leaned against the cool brick wall right beside the bathroom while Jessica fussed with her new T-shirt. Distractedly, I wrapped one of my annoying curls around my index finger and shoved it out of my face.

“Morning, Coco!”

Facing the thicket of tall trees across the street lining our country road, I smiled and inhaled the chilly breeze rolling in from the ocean. January was here, and it was evident in the salty tang of the air. Harbor bells rang to signify incoming fishing boats, the early morning echo music to my ears.

While the phone connection crackled, I scuffed my foot on the wide curb leading from the entry of the storefront all the way around to our connecting bathrooms on the right side of the building.

“How’s Lemon Layne’s world today?” Coco finally asked, coming through surprisingly loud and clear, her liquid-smooth voice far too cheerful for seven a.m.

I pictured my friend since preschool, her dark hair cut at a fashionable angle along her jaw, straight and gleaming, her right hand latched on to her left biceps as she paced the length of her office at the coroner’s in a trendy outfit complemented by a bright scarf. There was almost nothing she loved more than a scarf.

We, as a pair, are quite the opposite. While Coco’s hair and clothes are fashionable and chic, my hair is unruly and brown with highlights of auburn streaked throughout. Not intentionally, mind you. They’re just there naturally, tucked amongst a massive mess of curls I’m forever trying to tame. And as far as fashion goes? I don’t think Cosmo’s calling. But I might have a shot at Field & Stream.

“Lemon? You still there?”

“Lemon Layne’s world is exactly the same as it was last night, when she sat up way too late yakking on the phone with her best friend about who the new boat in the harbor belongs to while they watched mindless TV.”

Coco giggled, soft and melodic. “That’s what I love most about you, Lemon. You’re steadfast and true. Speaking of steadfast, or dog with a bone, however you want to label it, found any new mysteries to solve today? Like who’s been stealing all the Ho Ho’s from the center aisle of the station? If anyone can figure it out, it’s you.”

Coco was referring to the Smoke and Petrol which I mentioned earlier. My family-owned combination gas station/convenience store/best smoked catfish barbecue pit in Fig Harbor, Washington, that I run with my mother. Smoking meat, especially catfish, was another passion my dad handed down to me.

Every time I rubbed down a catfish with our secret recipe of spices, or when I made a batch of our sweet-and-spicy homemade barbecue sauce for our brisket, I felt my dad right there next to me, showing me the tricks of the trade he’d learned in his extensive biker travels.

I chuckled into the phone. My best friend of thirty-some odd years knew me so well. A mystery—any mystery, really, big or small—was rather like my nemesis of sorts. I couldn’t keep my nose out of it until I figured it out.

But my sleuthing also made me feel closer to my dad. It kept the memory of the twinkle in his eye alive whenever I set my mind to figuring out whodunit. Everything I’ve learned about being a nosy, amateur puzzle solver came from him.

We’d had a rash of recent petty thefts by someone who appeared to really enjoy the edgy coup of heisting a chocolate-covered spongy treat. Whoever it was, he was slicker than a vat of fry oil, because I still hadn’t caught the culprit.

“Nope. Still haven’t figured out who’s desperate enough to steal Ho Ho’s in bulk. But I’m on it,” I assured her with a grin, waving to one of my favorite locals, Nita Burns, as she drove by on her way to open up her floral shop.

“So, how’s the new fish doing this morning?”

Coco meant my new white koi fish I’d just integrated into the pond in the backyard of the house my mother and I shared. The pond and my exotic fish tank are my Zen, my monk chants, if you will. Rain or shine, when I’m overwhelmed or just need to think, that’s usually where you can find me.

“I’m tickled all sorts of pink to announce Koi George is still alive and swimming.”

“Yay! You’ve had some tough luck with the pond fish lately. Glad to hear George is adjusting to his new environment.”

The cold winter rain began to pelt my face, forcing me to take off my glasses, tuck them in my sweat’s pocket and acknowledge the task at hand. Cleaning the station’s bathroom. We didn’t just make the best barbecue catfish in town; we had the cleanest gas station bathrooms, too.

“Lemon? You still there?”

“Still here,” I said, and waited for her response. Instead, I only heard the crackle of our intermittent connection. “Coco?”

Dang, lost her again. Phone reception here in our small town of Fig Harbor is spotty from time to time. Surrounded by ocean and tall trees and backed by a mountain, our slice of heaven sometimes makes for a cell phone nightmare.

As I waited for Coco to call back, which as always, she’d undoubtedly do, I pushed off the wall with my foot, tucked my phone back into my pocket and used my elbow to shove the door to the bathroom open.

When the gloomy light of a typical rainy Pacific Northwest day fell across the bathroom’s tile floor, I gasped in horror. A gasp so sharp, Jessica clung to my head and buried her face in the neck of my hoodie.

I blinked my eyes—then blinked again as my throat constricted. My heart began to crash in my chest and my ears pounded with the throb of my rushing pulse.

Was there a… Was he…?

Oh for sure he was. There was no way…

Dead.

Spit and fire, there was a dead man on the floor.

“Holy sweet-and-spicy catfish…” I muttered.

Not that something as trivial as tender catfish and fall-off-the-bone ribs are at all important at a sensitive time like this. But in times of distress, my brain deviates to familiar comforts like barbecue and cars.

Barbecue just happens to be one of my go-tos—that, and a good wheel alignment, always sooth my unsettled inner beast.

The man’s torso was sprawled at an awkward angle just outside the stall where he lay on his belly, with his left cheek pressed to the tile floor and a dead prawn by his right shoulder. His long legs were still half inside the stall at the front of the toilet as though someone had launched him from their shoulder like a sack of potatoes. The newly painted white stall door stood wide open, hanging crookedly on its hinges.

I knelt down to see if he was breathing. Though rationally, I knew that couldn’t be possible.

And that’s when I realized who it was. I’d know that silver high school football ring with the sapphire square in it almost anywhere. He’d bragged about it at nearly every dinner I’d ever shared with him.

It was Myron Fairbanks. My mother’s ex-boyfriend.

Rising, I reached for the top of the stall door. I needed something to anchor me in order to stay upright as I stared down at him.

Blood… You would think there would be more, but Myron’s light blue Member’s Only jacket was covered in mere crimson spatters, a mesmerizing Rorschach of patterns. Somehow, in his condition, I would have expected a coppery pool surrounding his body.

Only one dark brown orthopedic shoe remained on his right foot, and the shoelace was untied, the left I thought was missing entirely until I spotted it by the corner of the wall. Yet, it wasn’t his clothes that troubled me as much as the dark splotch in his hair at the back of his head.

I clenched my eyes shut and forced them open again, unable to look away from the spot on his skull.

For a man Myron’s age, he had amazing snowy-white hair. But those luscious locks were now merely the resting place for what had likely killed him.

A hole in his skull, approximately four inches in diameter with what looked like a piece of his brain missing, was the likely culprit.

My throat tightened momentarily in a gag-reflex, and my heart picked up its pace as I forced myself to breathe and focus. I’ve been described as almost eerily calm in times of crisis. This was definitely a crisis, and I definitely needed to be calm.

I looked to Jessica Fletcher perched on my shoulder, her sharp eyes watching mine while I reached into the pocket of my sweats and dug out a pair of sterile gloves and slipped them on.

At the moment, I was grateful I always kept gloves on me. With a gas station frequented mostly by fishermen and touristy teenage boys who buy two bucks worth of gas to fill their jet skis just to use the facilities, they come in handy.

Squatting on my haunches again, I double-checked Myron’s pulse to be sure I wasn’t wrong. Logically, I knew there was no way I could be wrong after seeing what was right in front of me.

But a sudden irrational fear he would rise from the floor like the living dead and witness the condition he was in via the long mirror on the back of the entrance door made me recheck—because he was in quite a state.

Still, there was nothing.

How had this happened? When had it happened? Had Jessica somehow nabbed the keys and opened the bathroom door this morning? That was impossible. She’d been in her cage when I’d left to grab some coffee in town and remained there until I’d arrived back at the station to do my morning bathroom checks.

I scanned the small area, my eyes roaming over every inch of the crisp white tile floors, the porcelain sink, the pale blue walls my mother and I had chosen the paint color for together. The sink was dry, the mirror mostly free of the speckles of water I spent so much time cleaning.

Almost nothing aside from the crooked stall door was disturbed, which I found incredibly disturbing.

I ran the back of my wrist over my forehead as I rose with caution, careful not to upset anything more than I’d already disturbed just by nature of finding the body, then clenched my eyes shut to block out the vision of Myron.

I backed away and walked to the front door’s entryway, gulping in the damp outside air of the new day, as I prepared to call 9-1-1. I wanted to compose myself, so I didn’t scream out in haste, “There’s been a murder!”

The shrill sound of Coco calling again made me jump. In that bizarre moment of pulsing, broken silence, I lost all sense of reason. When I should be calling 9-1-1, I was, instead, accepting Coco’s call. I needed to tell someone. I needed to purge what I saw by way of words. Cleanse it from my palette; lift the enormous weight pressing on my chest.

“He’s dead!” I shouted into the phone like an exploding champagne cork before I thought to temper my words with a statement she’d find less jarring.

“Koi George? The new white fish? Jeez o’ Pete. In the five minutes since we—”

The phone began that erratic crackle once more, making me want to shake it. “You’re cutting in and out again. Stop pacing! You know what that does to our reception. The fish isn’t dead, Coco. The man is!”

“Wait. You lost me. I only heard man. Oh, wait! Koi George is a man? You know, I’ve always wondered how you know if the fishy is a boy or a girl. Do they have tender bits you can see for gender identification?”

“Koi George isn’t dead, Coco!”

She breathed an impatient breath of air into the phone. Right now, I’d bet dollars to donuts she had a hand on her hip, with one of her perfectly plucked eyebrows arched in haughty indignation.

“Then why are you yelling at me?”

I fought my rising frustration about our shoddy connection by pressing my knuckles to my forehead right over my very imperfectly plucked eyebrow. “Because I just found Myron Fairbanks on the floor of the men’s bathroom here at the station, and I’m a little freaked out.”

“He’s on the floor? Aw, dang. Is he hurt?”

I fought not to throw my phone across the vast parking lot of the station. But do insert a really bad word here, because I wanted to use the baddest word I could find to vent my frustration.

“No! I mean, yes! He’s on the floor, Coco, but he’s also—”

“Well then, help him the heck up, Lemon!” Quite suddenly, her voice boomed loudly, an indicator the line had cleared. At least for the moment. “Holy spitballs, Myron’s a hundred if he’s a day. His bones are well past the supple stage and deep into as brittle as the ends of my hair. You can’t just leave him there. You think it was a heart attack? Or maybe a stroke?”

I shook my head as though Coco could see me, my lips sticking to my teeth. “Um, no. It wasn’t a heart attack or a stroke.”

“So you’re Dr. Layne now? Did you get your medical license when I wasn’t looking? How do you know what’s wrong with him?”

I groaned, my stomach in a tight knot. “Coco!

“Uh-huh?”

“Stand still and listen carefully. Koi George is fine. Myron Fairbanks isn’t on the floor because he fell. He’s on the floor because he’s dead.”

So dead. I winced and shuddered.

Coco gasped. Finally, I’d elicited a reaction worthy of this horrible news. I pictured her now, settling in at her desk at the local coroner’s office, her long, graceful fingers tugging at her lower lip. A telltale sign she was nervous and fretting.

“How awful, Lemon. Oh, this is so tragic,” she moaned, her tone syrupy sweet with sympathy.

Now that I’d vented, I remembered what needed to be done. “Coco, I really have to go. I have to call 9—”

Noise from behind me sent shivers up my spine.

Jessica. Oh, crud. She’d somehow managed to climb down off my shoulder while I was testing out the validity of Myron’s mortality, and I hadn’t even noticed. But in my defense, I’d just found a man with a chunk of his skull and brains missing. That would distract even the most focused.

I whipped back around toward the bathroom door, moving the phone from my mouth. A rustling sound from the left side of the stall beside the toilet, and just beyond where Myron’s body lay, grew stronger.

Horror stricken, I sputtered, “Nooo! Put that down! Please don’t!”

“Lemon?” Coco belted out, alarm clear in her tone as she tapped the phone with her fingernail. “Hey! What’s wrong? What happened? Lemon, you answer me this second! You’re freaking me out with all this talk of dead people.” Then she gasped again, a wheezing intake of breath as she wound up. “Hold on. Dead plus not a heart attack or stroke equals… Sweet petunias! Did someone kill Myron? Oh, my giddy aunt! Is the killer there? Is he holding you hostage and forcing you to hang up? Is that why you have to go? Lemon Layne, you know our code word, the one we promised to use if we were ever taken hostage with no way out and we wanted to say one last goodbye. If there’s a murderer with a gun to your head, you’d better use it so I can save you!”

Our code word was Twizzlers. We loved them. Cherry and cherry only. We made it up when we were eight after we snuck in to see Friday the 13th at the old Cineplex in the middle of downtown Fig. We were convinced Jason was going to snatch us up in our sleep for years after that.

Plus, we thought if we used an odd, out-of-context word, it would throw a killer off long enough for us to possibly attempt escape and/or at least puzzle our captor so one of us could get help.

“Lemon! Answer me!”

Before I had the chance to respond to her properly, I looked at Myron’s body and promptly forgot Coco and our Twizzler farewells.

“Leeeemon!”

“Nooo! Twizzlers! Stop!” I managed to spout a jumble of words as they came to mind before I let the hand holding my phone fall to my side and looked down at the floor.

A mound of toilet paper had begun to magically rise on the tiled floor beside Myron’s body.

Courtesy of none other than my mischievous Jessica Fletcher.

I’d been so caught off guard when I found Myron lying on his face, I’d been remiss about the warning I always repeated when we cleaned the bathrooms at the beginning of each day.

No toilet paper, young lady.

I was paying for that right now by way of an almost empty roll of Charmin she’d extracted from the dispenser. Toilet paper was JF’s crack—an addiction she’d been in Lemon’s Rehab for on more than one occasion. And my little beast of burden was quick and light of foot. The moment I became distracted was the moment she became a tiny maniacal terrorist of two-ply with ridges.

“Leeemon! Are you still there? You keep fading in and out! What’s happening? Talk to me!” Coco paused briefly while I squeezed into the stall between the wall and the toilet like I was auditioning for Cirque De Soleil, in an effort to avoid touching Myron. That is of course before I remembered I was still contaminating the crime scene.

But there was no going back now. As I reached for my ill-behaved precious, Coco yelped, “That’s it. I’m calling 9-1-1! The Coast Guard! Whoever! Just hang tight and stay on the line with me!”

I ignored Coco and chastised, “Jessica Fletcher, don’t you dare make another move! Drop that now!”

“Who has what? Does he have Jessica Fletcher, too?” Coco’s hysteria-riddled question was muffled against my thigh. “Aw, jeez! You’re cutting in and out again, Lemon, but if you can hear this, tell Jessica to bite that smarmy murderer’s face off! Get him, JF! Go all Planet of the Apes!” she bellowed, the frenzy in her voice growing.

“No, Coco! There’s no murderer!” I yelled as loud as my lungs would allow in an attempt to reassure her.

I didn’t have the chance to explain further. I was too busy trying to corner Jessica in the back of the stall behind the toilet like a sumo wrestler stalks his opponent, my knees bent with my arms and hands at three and nine o’clock.

If I didn’t catch her, she’d royally screw up any possible evidence I hadn’t already screwed up.

But JF happily danced beside the back of the toilet, squeaking and chirping her delight.

So I stopped all motion and gave her the evil eye, the one that said I meant dire business. I held out my hand to encourage her to climb up my arm, trying not to touch Myron’s now thoroughly TP’d body because he looked like a tree on senior night at one of the high school cheerleaders’ houses.

Jessica… Come to Mama. Light of my life, center of my universe, please, please, pleeease come to Mama,” I cooed again good-naturedly, if not a bit desperately, hoping the tone of my voice would reassure her she wasn’t in too much trouble.

I saw her toy with the idea of obeying me. It was in the quick cock of her tiny head and the dart of her eyes. And then she decided in favor of more shenanigans. So I opted to change tactics and glared at her—hard.

My petite primate squealed her pleasure with high-pitched chirps and her customary hop from one foot to the other. I had to get her away from Myron’s body soon before she soiled something that could turn out to be important. Sometimes she has accidents if she’s too worked up, and on top of everything else, we didn’t need monkey excrement in the mix.

Jessica draped a length of the toilet paper around her neck, fashioning it into a feather boa and holding it up proudly for me to see. JF loved to dress up, and today was no exception. Also, she was no stranger to improv. She could make a boa out of dental floss and a Popsicle stick, given some time.

Jessica that is not one of your boas. Put it down now,” I warned, letting my voice go low with authority.

She finally stopped for a moment and looked up at me, all heart-meltingly adorable monkey eyes and brown, twitchy ears. As though I had an overdeveloped sense of chutzpa to even consider she not investigate this unusual turn of events in our morning routine with as much toilet paper as she could manage to unwind around poor Myron’s legs.

I narrowed my gaze in her direction and shook my finger before I made a jerky, uncoordinated attempt to snatch her roll of booty away by bending at the knees and bracing myself on the toilet seat with the heel of the hand I held my phone in.

But instead of nabbing Jess, I slipped on some of the flimsy paper she’d decorated the body with and pitched sideways, hitting the side of my forehead on the edge of the metal dispenser.

My head popped back up like a Whack-A-Mole at the sharp contact, and then a stream of blood began to drip down the side of my face, hot and wet, landing on the leg of my sweats in perfect crimson droplets.

I saw a few stars before I was able to refocus enough to tsk my disapproval at Jessica Fletcher. “Blood! Perfect. Dang it, Jess! These were new sweats, and now I have blood on me—”

Blood?

Coco. Shoot, I’d forgotten she was still on the line. Naturally, now when chaos ensued, our connection was crystal clear.

“Why am I hearing that noun? Did he hurt you, Lemon? If I get my hands on him… Just you hang on! Help is on the way!” I heard Coco scream—half a second before I lost the grip on my phone and dropped it in the toilet. The water splashed up and outward in a splooshy wave of blue, disinfected wetness.

I leaned forward, bracing my elbows on the toilet seat, and let my head hang down in defeat.

And that’s when the sensor to the toilet went off, successfully sucking my phone down the vortex of swirling blue water.

With a groan, I lifted my head and shot Jessica a glare so hard, I thought for sure my eyes would fall out of my skull. “What would Angela Lansbury say if she could see how we’ve defiled this crime scene, miss?”

Jessica squeaked a protest at me, throwing her makeshift paper boa over her tiny shoulder seconds before Justice Carver barreled his way through the bathroom’s door and pointed a gun into the stall right at me.

His name really is Justice, and as Coco and I always joke, he really does do “justice” to such a big, rather imposing name.

“Police! Don’t move! Put your hands where I can see them!” His handsome face, sharply angled, defined by high cheekbones, deep grooves on either side of his mouth and brown eyes the color of nutmeg, was a mask of fierce, hawk-like intensity. The frigid January wind blew his thick, dark hair around his face and made his cheeks ruddy with color.

I threw my hands up as ordered. Jessica backed away and dropped the toilet paper roll in obvious guilt, putting her hands up, too. The little traitor.

My breath came in panicked gasps for air. But I wasn’t one hundred percent sure whether it was because the barrel of a gun was pointed at my face or because of Justice himself.

“Where is he?” Justice whispered, his eyes scanning the small interior of the bathroom with one sweep of a glance.

My thighs were killing me, hunched down like I was. “Who? Myron?” I squeaked.

“No, the murderer, Lemon!”

What murderer?”

Justice sighed and rolled his eyes, his wide shoulders slouching to a more relaxed position. He sounded almost disappointed when he said, “There’s no murderer, is there?”

Of that, I wasn’t quite sure. Myron certainly hadn’t cut a hole in his own head.

My mind began to race, as it typically does when something needs solving, and Myron was definitely in need of a good solving. Instantly, I wondered if maybe a murderer really was on the loose and Justice knew something I didn’t know. I could conclusion hop just as well as Coco and her imaginary murderer. The difference being, I kept my outlandish theories on the inside.

“Well, there’s no murderer here in the bathroom. What murderer are you talking about?” I hedged, hoping he’d offer up some secret police information the public at large wasn’t privy to just yet.

“The one Coco called me about in hysterics. The one she said was holding you hostage, for Pete’s sake! She said something about Twizzlers and code words. I dunno. She was a wreck. Most of it was hard to make out except the part about a murderer holding you hostage here at the gas station.”

I really, really love Coco, but sometimes her vivid imagination and penchant for taking a molehill and turning it into Mt. Rainer made me want to put duct tape over her mouth.

“Can I put my hands down now?” Because I felt dizzy. Again, not entirely sure if that was because I’d hit my head or because the barrel of a gun was pointed at my face.

He held out a strong, sun-browned hand to help me up. “’Course you can, Lemon. Coco made it sound like the guy had a gun to your head. The second she called, I raced right over here. I think I might have knocked over Dodie’s Donut Shop sandwich board, pulling out of her parking lot when I got the call. I know for sure I left a couple of stray surfers soaked from the puddles. I sped along the back road beside the beach like some maniac.” Justice holstered his gun, almost looking disappointed there was no rabid killer on the loose. “Backup should be here any second.”

Jessica scooted past me and gripped the leg of Justice’s trousers, scurrying her way up along his body until she sat on his shoulder.

She promptly began to groom him, using her long fingers to comb through his wet hair as he pumped some paper towels from the wall dispenser and handed them to me for my wound.

JF especially loved Justice. Well, mostly all men, if I’m honest. She’s quite the Flirty-McFlirt. But whenever he came into the station’s store to order a chopped brisket sandwich for lunch, Jessica somehow finagled her way into his lap while he waited.

“I flushed my phone down the toilet.”

I’m not sure why I said that. Maybe because I always felt awkward and clumsy around Justice, who was like a gazelle, and I didn’t know what else to say.

His lips lifted in a half-smile while he compliantly tilted his head to allow Jess to check his ears. “That could be why Coco thinks you’re dead. Though you are bleeding, Lemon. What happened?” Justice lifted a hand to move the hair from my face and examine my toilet paper dispenser mishap.

“I’d like to tell you it was because I fought off a diabolical, senior-killing ninja like some kind of gladiator. Alas, not so much. I hit my head on the dispenser trying to get Jess out of the stall before she did any more damage.”

Justice leaned in close to me, enough that I smelled his spicy cologne and his minty breath, and lifted the paper towels I compressed to my head. “Looks kinda deep, Lemon. I think you might need stitches.”

I made myself as small as possible against the front of the stall and diverted his attention to Myron’s body. “Not as badly as Myron needs them.”

Justice squatted beside Myron, using a pen from his pocket to shift some of the toilet paper around until he saw the very thing that had me puzzled from the moment I’d checked Myron for a pulse.

I knew he’d seen it when he looked up at me because his brown eyes were perplexed. “What the blazes?”

I shivered in response, clenching my hands together in my hoodie’s center pocket. “Yeah. That’s what I wondered, too.”

“There’s a piece of…” He swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing above the collar of his navy-blue uniform. “I mean, somebody…”

“Cut a chunk of his skull out and took a piece of his brain when they murdered him?”

Justice nodded, his face grim. “Yeah. That. Hey, didn’t your mom and Myron break up not long ago?”

“About four months ago. Why?”

He looked up at me then, one eyebrow raised. “Because as I recall, she threatened to kill him for cheating on her.”

I swallowed hard.

Yeah, that.

Chapter 2

As I stood outside the bathroom with Justice and Chief Ainsley Burrows, Coco pulled up in her little red Golf, screeching to a gravel-spitting halt. She flew at me the second her high-heeled feet hit the ground after exiting her car.

“Lemon!” she cried, throwing her arms around my neck and burying me in a cloud of warm vanilla-sugar perfume and gray-and-pink scarf. “Oh, thank the stars you’re okay!” She lifted my chin, her green eyes widening when she caught sight of the cut on my forehead. “He hit you, didn’t he? That son of a dirty, rotten, Dumpster-diving slimeball! Where is he? Is he in handcuffs? He’d better be! Ohhh, you can bet I’m going to let him have a good look at my fist just before I—”

“Coco!” I gripped her shoulders and looked at her through the film of light rain that had begun to fall. “Easy, Holyfield. There is no murderer.”

Or more accurately, there wasn’t one yet. No one scooped a decent enough man’s brains out of his head if murder wasn’t involved.

Her pretty face fell when she let me out of her python-like grip. “What? But all that scuffling and blood…and you used code word Twizzlers, Lemon. You scared the ever-lovin’ stuffing out of me. Why would you let me get all worked up like that?”

Coco never realized until much later that the working up she was talking about was almost always a solo effort. I admit, sometimes I can go along for one of her Mad Hatter rides, but today wasn’t one of them.

“Coco, listen carefully. There was never a murderer. Not in the bathroom with me, anyway. All that scuffling was just me chasing after Jessica Fletcher because she was throwing toilet paper around like confetti,” I said, and explained what happened. “Anyway, I’m fine. But Myron? He’s not so fine.”

My stomach lurched again, thinking about poor Myron. Okay, sure, he was a lying, cheating cheat, if you listened to one May Layne—a.k.a. my mother, by the by. And I’d agree, he’d done her so wrong. But he’d been a nice enough cheat, and he certainly didn’t deserve to end up dead.

Coco gave a quick glance at the doorway of the bathroom and visibly gulped, wrapping her arm around my shoulders and turning me away. Soggy toilet paper was strewn from one end of the sidewalk to the other as the police combed the area where Myron still lay.

Some of the officers had moved to the thickly wooded area hugging either side of our station, searching for evidence in Myron’s car parked just at the end of the station’s driveway, their voices muffled. I couldn’t believe I’d missed seeing his car, but I guess I wasn’t paying much attention so early in the morning.

I looked over to the front of the station’s store, a rundown shack my dad had converted into a charming, almost shop-like façade, complete with brick on the upper half of the building and white siding on the lower portion.

Add in a matching white picket fence under the quaint window by the cash register, where tulips and daffodils would bloom in the spring and mums with heads the size of a newborn baby’s fists would sprout in the fall, and you had my mother’s version of what essentially is a gas station with some sundries and such and awesome brisket and smoked catfish.

But Mom, a gardener at heart, insisted that small bit of flowers below the window gave the place a charming accent, making it look less like a convenience store and more like a place someone truly cared about.

I took a deep breath as more of the local PD poked about the pumps in the middle of the parking lot, sitting between the station and the road. Some had even ventured as far back as our completely renovated Victorian house, located four or five hundred feet behind the store.

The smoke from the smokers under the portico at the back of the store wafted upward in thin tendrils into the darkening skies, making me long to be inside mixing spices together, just doing something menial and normal.

I hoped the police didn’t disturb the koi pond—the pond I’d give my eyeteeth to be sitting by, mulling over this morning’s tragic events.

Coco shivered, tucking her scarf under her chin. “Do they know what happened to him yet? Why the heck was Myron in the gas station in the first place? Oh! You don’t think he was,” she wiggled her eyebrows, “visiting your mom behind Fabritzia’s back, do you? You know, maybe he found out his svelte, super-young Latvian bride wasn’t all she claimed to be? The grass wasn’t really greener and so on?”

Fabritzia was Myron’s new wife, Latvian born and bred, and almost forty-five years younger than Myron.

“Are you kidding me? Do you remember what she did when she found out Myron was cheating on her with Fabritzia? She launched his DVDs out the window of the house like flying saucers and shot them with my dad’s shotgun like shooting skeet. She threatened to—” I stopped short when Chief Burrows looked up and stopped writing on his pad of paper.

His tiny eyes set deeply in his head and almost swallowed whole by his plump red cheeks, devoured me. Or they sure felt like they were devouring me, but then he went back to his pad of paper and the local coroner, Vern Scheffler who was also Coco’s boss.

Dang. You’d better remember to shut up, Lemon. You know how easy it would be for anyone who didn’t know her to misconstrue Mom’s words.

My mother really had threatened to kill Myron four months ago when she’d found out he’d been two-timing her.

“He’s been all over the interweb highway like some stray dog in need of a bone, Lemon. I’m going to kill him, and then I’m going to hire a voodoo priestess to raise him from the dead and kill him again!”

Those had been her exact words. But she didn’t mean them. She threatens to kill me on a regular basis when I forget to make the barbecue sauce for the smoked meats we offer, and I still have my brains.

I instantly clamped my mouth shut and shook my head when I looked at Coco. “No. I’m pretty sure Mom wouldn’t even consider taking him back. I don’t know why Myron was in our bathroom. But I know I locked that bathroom door last night on my final round at about nine thirty. I’m as sure of it as I’m sure I’m standing right in front of you.”

Fig Harbor, its shops with thatched roofs and colorful boats lining the docks peeked out at me from the clearing in the woods across the street from the station. Justice handed something gold and shiny in an evidence bag to the chief. Then he strolled over to me, JF still happily perched on his shoulders, still running her fingers through his thick hair.

“So a couple of questions, if you don’t mind?”

I don’t know why JF on Justice’s shoulder irritated me so. Likely because she didn’t give him any guff, but more likely it was due to the fact that he’d brought up my mother and Myron’s ugly breakup and I felt a little petty.

He’d known my mother all his life. She’d fed him grilled cheese sandwiches after we all played football in my backyard. She’d picked us up from school and more basketball games than the two of us had fingers and toes, and even one night when Justice got too drunk to drive.

May Layne was as likely a suspected killer as a deaf, blind mute.

So, I crossed my arms over my chest and gave Jess a pointed glance to the place on my shoulder where she knew she should be sitting. Then I shot her the ultimate death glare. The one that said, “ignore me and lose your pineapple sauté for dinner.”

Of course, she happily ignored me, twirling her tail around Justice’s head and covering his eyes with the bushy end, chirping her love noises at him.

Pointing to my shoulder, I reiterated, “Now, Jess.

She must have sensed my distress because she actually listened this time. She slipped off Justice’s shoulder and scurried her way up over the length of my body until she was perched on my shoulder.

“So some questions, Lemon,” Justice prompted again, sucking in his cheeks.

Coco, always ready to defend me, clucked her tongue as she positioned her purse in front of her and folded her hands over it. “Shouldn’t she have an attorney present?”

Justice widened his stance as the rain began to fall harder. “I’m not interrogating her, Coco. I’m just asking her what she found and when.”

My heart began to pound in that harsh throbbing way again. I didn’t want to relive out loud what I’d just seen, but I put a hand on pit bull Coco’s arm and squeezed. “It’s okay, Coco. This is just procedure.”

Her plucked eyebrows knitted together as she magically made an umbrella appear, popped it open, and held it over our heads. “You know what procedure is how, Lemon? Just because you watch a bunch of crime shows doesn’t mean it’s all real—”

“No. She’s right, Coco. It is procedure,” Justice assured her. Then he turned to me and hitched his jaw. “You okay?”

I nodded back, stroking Jessica’s tail for comfort. Justice, Coco, and I had all gone to school together. We’d known each other almost since birth. We’d hung out, we all had our first taste of his father’s whiskey under the bleachers of our high school together, we boated, swam and caught fish from the docks as far back as I can remember.

Justice and his questions didn’t intimidate me, but I’ll admit, I was a little put off by Policeman Justice—so stoic and in charge, as opposed to Good Time Charlie Justice, who used to chugalug an entire gallon of milk without taking a breath while we pounded the dining room table with our fists and cheered him on.

To be fair to him, I’d never been on this end of anything more serious than reporting the occasional shoplifter or poking at him about police procedure.

Justice pulled out a pad and a pen, poised to write my statement. “Start from the beginning, Lemon, and tell me what happened when you came outside this morning to do rounds.”

As I relayed everything exactly as I remembered it, our very small local police force continued to gather and bag evidence, trudging through the rain in their plastic-covered hats and shoes.

“What are the latex gloves about?” He used his pen to point to my hands.

“I clean up after stinky boys, that’s what they’re about. I always have them on me because I serve food and clean the bathrooms. But you know that, Justice.”

He ignored my reminder that we hadn’t just met. “So you said you didn’t hear anything last night or this morning? Nothing suspicious. Nothing out of the ordinary? No strange noises?” he probed.

Okay, now I could identify what was bothering me. It was his tone I wasn’t skipping through fields of buttercups about. He sounded very skeptical, almost cynical, and it was rubbing me the wrong way.

I couldn’t help but wonder if he was asking these questions in that manner of authority just to impress his boss. He knew me well enough to know I would have told him if I’d heard or seen anything the first time he’d asked, while we waited for Chief Burrows to show up.

Obviously, his tone was rubbing Coco wrong, too. “She was on the phone with me when she found Myron, RoboCop. So if you’re going where I think you’re going, I’m here to tell you, Lemon’s not that good an actress. Or don’t you remember our eighth-grade play? So just take that notion right out of your head and get your questions over with.”

I’d prefer not to relive the horror of my thespian debut as a grapefruit in the eighth grade, so I tugged Coco’s arm as a signal to relax. “Not a lot goes on out here at night, Justice. I would have called you if I’d seen or heard anything. You know that, too.”

We’re just on the outskirts of a busy but small beach town, with plenty to do during the tourist season.

In season, the Smoke and Petrol closes at eight p.m. sharp Monday through Saturday and at six on Sundays. Most of the locals know to give the tourists who’ve come to try our made-semi-famous-by-a-YouTuber barbecue a head’s up about our sort-of banker’s hours—hours that are the exact opposite of your average 7-Eleven.

But it was early January now, meaning we’re closed earlier during the week and on Sundays. So, there wasn’t much to report.

“I understand that,” he said in an almost whisper-yell, glancing over his shoulder at Chief Burrows. “But I have to ask these questions so it’s official and on the record. So help a dude out, would you, Lemon?”

Coco rolled her eyes and sighed, but I actually got it. No special treatment because we’d seen each other naked as babies and had the pictures to prove it.

I looked up at Justice and shook my head, spitting a curl from my mouth and putting my glasses back on. “I didn’t hear a single thing. Like I said, last night I was on the phone with Coco until about ten-thirty. I did my last rounds at nine thirty like I always do and hit the sack about ten forty-five. This morning, I already explained.”

Justice cocked his head as though I’d dropped some sort of crime spree hint. “So you went for coffee this morning. Can that be verified?”

“Yep. I got coffee from Gabby herself at Gabby’s Grind, and crazy Cappie was out and about. He saw me, but we didn’t talk.”

“So before you left for coffee, you didn’t notice the bathroom door was open or Myron’s car?”

Suddenly, I felt defensive again. The hairs on the back of my neck were actually standing up. I wanted him to get these facts down with some amount of accuracy.

I did, indeed, watch a lot of crime shows. Not just of the fictional variety, but of the real, reenacted variety, and I’ve witnessed a statement go askew because of some small glitch—like an overzealous cop gauging my reactions on paper with the wrong adjective.

So I set him straight as I wiped my face free of the rain. “I didn’t say it was open, Justice. I said it was ajar. Lou-Lou’s parked around the other side of the station, as you can see.” I pointed over my shoulder to our dirt parking lot just to the left of the store, where my yellow Volkswagen was parked by the Rose of Sharon tree. “There was no reason why I’d see it ajar if I went straight to my car from the house out back. I didn’t walk around the curb that lines the pathway to the bathrooms.”

He cleared his throat. “Right. And that didn’t seem suspicious to you? I mean, when you did see it?”

“What are you getting at here, Columbo?” Coco asked, fishing her phone out of her pink-and-gray purse. “Because I’m this close to forgetting you were once my date to the eighth-grade dance and calling an attorney.”

Justice straightened, his mouth pinched. “I’m just doing my job, Coco. And it wasn’t the eighth-grade dance, it was the sixth.”

Waving my hand between the two of them like a white flag, I answered Justice’s question. “Not suspicious. No. You know how Jessica Fletcher is, always stealing stuff and hiding it. Though now I know that wasn’t possible, at first I figured she’d nabbed the keys and opened it. She does make the best of her crazy long fingers, and she’s been opening doors since she was with Sissy. You also know that.”

JF once belonged to our closest neighbor, an aging circus performer named Sissy Feldman. She housed and rehabilitated primate circus performers who were no longer up to the grueling schedule of the circuit.

Sissy also took in many a monkey from families who’d mistakenly thought they made good pets, and that’s the circumstance under which Jessica came to her sanctuary. She’d taken JF, who, by the way, is a product of improper breeding and happens to be a runt in the spider monkey community, weighing in at just under thirteen pounds, because her mother had abandoned her and Sissy couldn’t bear that.

When she arrived, I fell in love—hard. Sissy was so convinced Jess and I had a special bond; she’d even let me rename her. When Sissy moved to Seattle two years ago to be with her children due to her diabetes worsening, Jess was the last of her rescues she was unsuccessful in rehoming, so she asked me to take her.

Jess was pretty well trained by the time I inherited her, thanks to Sissy, but she was still a monkey who really belonged in the jungle somewhere with those of her ilk. It was only by poor choices on her ex-owner’s part that she’d never survive in her natural habitat now. She’d bonded with humans, considered me her mother, and loved a good toothbrush massage.

There was an awkward silence as Justice scribbled on his pad, and Coco glared daggers at him.

Justice then went about examining my forehead with a critical eye before handing me a couple more wadded-up paper towels. “So you didn’t get into a fight with anyone? Because that sure is some cut.”

Seriously? Was he seriously considering me a suspect? I pressed the towels to my forehead to thwart any residual bleeding. “If you’re wondering if I got into an argument with a seventy-something-year-old man and it came to blows, then the answer is no. We weren’t out here cage fighting. Promise,” I said, trying really hard to keep the sarcasm from my voice. “Check the toilet paper dispenser yourself. I’m pretty sure a patch of my skin’s still on it.”

Coco snickered before she reminded me, “Seventy. He just turned seventy. Don’t you remember? We stumbled into his birthday party a month ago at Shrimp Cocktails when we went for drinks.”

Oh, yes. I remembered. “I do.”

“Best German chocolate cake I’ve ever had. Layer after layer of caloric suicide. Remember the layers, Lemon?”

“I remember the layers, Coco.”

“Ah.” Her voice suddenly went low with regret. “But then do you remember your mom, too? She was pretty mad at us. I knew we should have burned those party favors.”

I rolled my eyes. You bet I remembered that, too. “It wasn’t our fault we stumbled into her ex-boyfriend’s surprise birthday party hosted by his brand-new Latvian mail-order bride.”

“Which is the Dollar Store version of a Russian mail-order bride, according to your mom,” Coco said with a giggle.

“So your mom was pretty angry about Myron marrying Fabritzia? Where is she, anyway?” Justice interjected the question, his eyes as sharp as beacons from the lighthouse on the peninsula.

Darn. Shut up, Lemon.

I gave Coco the girlfriend warning sign with my eyes—meaning, say as little as possible about the things my mom had spouted. We knew each other well, so I knew she’d get the message.

Yet, Justice daggone well knew my mom had been angry. The whole town knew she’d been angry. Who wouldn’t be angry if you invested six months in a relationship, only to find out you were being left for someone your lover had never actually met? Someone with a sexy accent and no foreseeable need for Botox?

And all because mom didn’t want to get married. Sometimes even I couldn’t believe how far Myron had gone to spite her after she’d turned down his proposal on at least three separate occasions.

And then it hit me.

My mother!

I’d been so shaken over finding Myron like that and chasing after Jessica, I’d forgotten she was just inside the station.

She’d been fast asleep in the recliner at the back of the store when I’d left. It’s where she always waited for the Today Show to come on and for Leon, one of our part-time employees, to come open the store. I made sure she was up and ready to go before I left because I had to take her to the doctor’s appointment she so despises to have her blood pressure check, but I’m guessing like always she fell back to sleep.

What if this had happened to Myron while I was out getting coffee and she’d heard something? What if she’d come outside to investigate the noise—the kind of noise that must surely occur when you break into a gas station bathroom and dump a body as big as Myron’s?

Had whoever killed Myron encountered my mother first? What would he have done with her?

In just those ten seconds, I thought of a million scenarios where Myron’s killer could have also killed my mother and disposed of her elsewhere.

I realize it doesn’t make a lot of sense from a murderer’s perspective. Why not just dump my mother on top of Myron and make it a two-fer? But all rational thought left my head where my mom is concerned. She’s all I have left since my dad died.

Fear rushed like a wave of clammy fingers along my spine, blocking all else out.

Everything stopped for me at that moment. I didn’t bat an eye when Justice attempted to keep me from running toward the station by shouting at me. I didn’t care that Coco’s mouth was saying the word “no.” Her words sounded warbled and under water.

I barked an order to Jessica to hang on and made a break for the front of the store, leaping up over the curb, dropping the key in the lock faster than I ever thought possible and bursting through the glass door, pushing it open to the tune of far more incoming customer warning bells than even a deaf cashier needed.

That was Mom for you. Her suspicious nature was legendary. She always worried we’d be robbed due to my penchant for getting lost in a daydream or a new barbecue recipe and forgetting my immediate surroundings.

If there were a way to ward off danger—be it bells or whistles, sage burning or séances—she’d found it on the Internet and made good use of it after I’d moved back from Seattle and we’d taken over running the station together as two single women.

After what I’d seen today, all sorts of gruesome thoughts flitted through my brain. Panic rose and fell in my stomach like a swift tide of terror as I ran down the row of chips and candies with Jessica Fletcher clinging to my head.

I skidded to a halt—to find Mom in her favorite recliner, positioned just left of the long counter filled with lollipops and treats from the local bakery. The slight rise and fall of her chest had me reaching out for the scarred countertop in blessed relief.

Straightening my wobbly legs, I heard the pound of Justice’s feet, followed by the clack of Coco’s heels as they raced right behind me just as I reached down and squeezed her shoulder.

I composed myself, or tried to enough not to frighten her. Inhaling the distinct smell of the brisket in our smoker, I was glad to replace the damp, coppery smell of death.

“Mom? Wake up.” I nudged her again before giving her shortly cropped hair a gentle run through with my fingers, smiling fondly at the electric-blue fuzz she’d dyed to match the color of her eyes.

Mom, or May to the rest of the world, is eccentric, to say the least. To say the most would need way more time than I had to spare.

She popped upright, her bright blue eyes wide open just as I exhaled a whoosh of air in relief. I love my mom something fierce. She’s seventy, but she has the spirit of a fifteen-year-old, and the hairstyle to match. Sometimes I wonder if some Freaky Friday-like thing happened to us when I was born.

I’ve always been practical and cautious, and some would say I act more my mother’s age than my own thirty-three. May, on the other hand? Totally throw caution to the wind and watch it whizz by you as you jump out of a plane.

Which she had, by the way. Jumped right out of that airborne piece of metal and wings like she was “Free Bird,” and from the headcam footage, giggled like a teenager with a schoolgirl crush the whole way down.

Mom grabbed my hand, looking up at me. “What happened to your head, Sugarbuns?”

I waved off my head wound. “I tripped and hit my head. No big deal.”

Her sleepy eyes darted toward the flat screen TV I’d had installed in the far corner just so she wouldn’t miss her shows. “Did I miss it?”

I closed my eyes and swallowed the lump of undeniable love in my throat for this whacky woman who was nothing like me, but everything to me. “Well, define missed, Mom. You definitely missed something this morning. If you’re wondering if it’s your doctor’s appointment, then no. You didn’t miss that.”

“Damnation,” she said with a pout of her neon-pink lips and genuine disappointment in her reply.

“What is this I hear in your voice?”

Like I mentioned, my mother hates the doctor, but if it kept her blood pressure down and her life expectancy up, by golly, she wasn’t going to miss a single appointment. Not on my watch.

“Duh, Lemon. Look at the time.” She pointed to the big rooster clock on the wall above the TV. “It’s almost eight, which means, I missed The Rock on The Today Show. He’s so muscly, and he makes me melty. I tried keeping my eyes open, but that damn Ambien always leaves me woozy the day after I take it. I figured I’d just nap until Leon got here.”

“You missed something way bigger than The Rock.”

“What’s bigger than The Rock?”

“Mrs. Layne?” Justice stepped around me, putting his body in Mom’s line of sight.

A grin spread across my mother’s heart-shaped face. “Well, if it isn’t my boy, Justice Carver. What brings you here before lunch, handsome? And Coco? Shouldn’t you be at that persnickety, dark overlord’s office by now, getting him coffee and washing his delicate socks in the sink or something? Honestly, that Vern thinks he’s the cat’s PJs since he became coroner, doesn’t he? When we all know all it takes to become King of the Dead is a course online.”

My mom loved Justice, and I was going to try really hard to keep him from ruining that with his official line of questioning. I wanted to be the one to tell her Myron was dead.

“It takes more than that, Mom. Vern’s just—”

“Fanatical? Radical?” she asked with a chuckle. “He’s plain old power crazy. That’s what he is.”

I set Jessica Fletcher on her lap and gave Justice a dirty look that said ease off the NYPD Blue routine, while steadfast Coco followed up with a pinch to his arm.

“Vern and his heavy hand aside, I have something to tell you, Mom. But I want you to promise to stay calm, deal?”

Her eyes, covered in silver and green glitter eye shadow, still heavy from sleep, assessed me. “Did you forget to set the timer on the smoker, Lemon? Do you have any idea what it’s like when the boys from the fire station come in here, looking for a rack of ribs, and all I have to offer them is Cheetos and Boston peanuts?”

Okay, guilty. Sometimes I get wrapped up fixing a car or poring over an old Corvette manual and forget to set the timer before I go to bed. “No, Mom. It has nothing to do with the ribs. So I need you to promise you’ll stay calm.”

She stroked Jessica’s back, straightening the newborn T-shirt around JF’s legs in a motherly fashion, and nodded. “You got it, Sugarsnap. I’m like a cucumber.”

“Myron’s dead, Mom.” I held my breath along with her hand, smoothing my fingers over the wrinkled softness of her skin.

For a brief moment, her sharp blue eyes registered sadness, and then her self-defense snark kicked in. She looked right at me and scoffed, “Was he cheating on Febreze, too?”

Oh, my mother. Such a funny lady. She’d thought she was all shades of hysterical when she created that nickname for Myron’s wife.

I sighed and sat on my haunches alongside the chair. She was, of course, implying maybe he’d done Fabritzia wrong like he’d done her, and the Latvian beauty had taken it upon herself to kill him. But I really wanted her to can the mention of any kind of killing while Justice was in cop mode.

“No, Mom. Rather, I don’t know if he was or not. That’s beside the point. I found him in our men’s bathroom this morning.”

Her eyes widened as she pushed the recliner down and slid to the edge of the tan leather seat. “Why, of all places on earth to die, would he choose our bathroom? Oh, that man! It wasn’t bad enough he was sticking his gordita where it didn’t belong, but he had to come back here and ratchet up my humiliation a notch by making our bathroom his final resting place?”

“Mom!” I chastised, frowning at her. Sometimes she has no filter. Most times it’s a laugh-riot. Today? No bueno. “First, you promised you’d be calm. Second, be nice. You know you don’t really mean that. Third, it doesn’t look like Myron chose our bathroom to die in just to spite you post-mortem. It doesn’t look like he chose death at all.”

She harrumphed me in only the way my mother can. “I hear you, but you’re not making any sense t’all, Lemon.”

I grimaced. “Okay, straight shooting here. I found Myron this morning on my bathroom rounds. It looks like someone killed him. We don’t know if it happened in the bathroom or if it happened before and he was just dumped there.”

Now her eyes went wide, and she gripped Jess to her chest. “Killed?”

There was a commotion at the front door as it opened and shut, the chilly wind whispering its way across the store, with the scent of more rain to come in the air. The bells on the door clanged like church chimes, but it felt like they were warning me of something much bigger than a customer.

Chief Burrows plowed his way down the aisle with that evidence bag in his hand and Leon, one of our cashiers, hot on his heels.

Coco rushed over then, kneeling down in front of my mother and squeezing her hands. “Mama Layne, Justice and Chief Burrows might have some questions for you, but say nothing. Hear me?” she whispered, her eyes intense and bright.

Mom looked astonished. “Questions about what, Coco?”

Chief Burrows plodded toward us. The hard look on his face made my heart begin to race all over again.

Mom hopped up from her chair and pointed to the evidence bag. “You found my earring! I’ve been looking for that everywhere. Give it here, Ainsley,” she ordered, handing JF back to me.

My stomach did a backflip. The vibe was all wrong as the chief stared my mother down, his small eyes roaming her face. “This is yours, Mrs. Layne?”

Mom rolled her eyes. “I just said that, didn’t I? Now give it here, please.”

Coco gripped Mom’s arm as a warning, but Mom wasn’t catching on.

Chief Burrows popped his lips and rocked back on his heels. “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Mrs. Layne. I need you to come with me to the station, please.”

I stepped in front of my mother to shield her, reaching behind me to find her hand, entwining it with mine. Her fingers shook, and that made me angry. “For what? What’s going on, Chief Burrows?”

He pointed to the evidence bag with a flourish, his thick lips forming a grim line. “We found this on the floor under Myron. If you look closely, it has blood on it. Your mother just admitted it was her earring. Not to mention, we have an eyewitness who says they heard her threaten to kill Myron. Now Myron’s dead in your bathroom, Lemon. I think that’s cause enough to bring May down to the station for questioning, don’t you?”

Mom gasped behind me and yelled, “You think I knocked off Myron? You bloomin’ idiot! I’m not going anywhere. You hear me, Ainsley Burrows?”

A flash of the chief’s handcuffs, gleaming under the store’s lights, sent my stomach into a nosedive.

He postured, letting the handcuffs swing on his forefinger. “We can do this nice and easy and you come willingly, or I can cuff you and put you in the cruiser. Up to you, May.”

Pushing me out of the way, Mom narrowed her gaze and approached Chief Burrows, hands on her hips—never a good sign where Mom’s concerned. “You’d better make sure you make ’em nice and tight, buddy!”

Before I could stop him or my tiny terror of a mother, the chief was reading Mom her rights. “May Layne, you have the right to remain silent…”

Now, I don’t know if I mentioned this, but JF is very good at reading emotions. Spider monkeys have a pack mentality. They don’t like when they or any members of their pack are threatened. They’re very possessive and territorial, and because Mom and I we’re essentially her parents.

And one of her parents was being threatened.

JF lunged from my shoulder to Chief Burrow’s face with a long yowl. She landed on him in a crab-like clutch, clinging to his face and adhering to it like a jellyfish, looking to suck his soul from him by way of his nose.

Digging her claws into his balding head, she gripped the fringe of hair surrounding his skull like a three-quarter bowl and screeched her displeasure.

And Chief Burrows wailed an ear-piercing scream in return as he tried to knock JF away. “Get it off! Get it off!” he bellowed, waving his arms, blinded by Jessica’s body clinging to his face.

Jessica, no!” I hollered as I dove for her, but I crossed streams with Coco, who was doing the same, and we collided, stumbling and falling into Justice.

We crumbled like dominoes, toppling to the ground in grunts and limbs clashing together, knocking over a stand of postcards with a loud clatter.

As we all rolled around like some kind of human bowling ball, attempting to untangle ourselves, a flutter of paper fell from Jessica Fletcher’s T-shirt.

I caught it out of the corner of my eye just before Coco stuck one of her pointy high heels in my thigh, making me yelp in pain.

But that wasn’t going to stop me from getting whatever Jessica had.

I rolled to my side and scooped the paper up with quicker fingers than I’d have given myself credit for.

A swift glance showed it was from Lester’s Pawnshop in town.

And it had Myron’s name listed as the customer.

I hastily stuffed it inside my sweats for further investigation and began the tedious process of peeling Jessica Fletcher from Chief Burrow’s face.

“Jessica Fletcher! You let go of Chief Burrows right now, or there’ll be no NCIS for you!”

Chapter 3

The ride from our gas station to the precinct takes all of five minutes from start to finish. Though it seems as though we’re pretty isolated, that’s only due to the dense trees between our property and the harbor.

As Mom and I entered town, passing the horseshoe of ice-cream colored shops nestled around the rim of ocean and docks, each decorated with strings of fun, colorful lantern lights, I clenched the steering wheel.

Not even Rainier, with its glacial white tips and sprawling peaks, was soothing me the way it normally did.

I didn’t experience the usual peace overtaking me when I saw the enormous, almost black rocks out at the point amidst the beige sand and purple-tipped waves. They often reminded me of Avalon, especially when the mist rolls in and the tide is low enough to walk out to them.

I looked wistfully out to the pier, where the water was currently dancing up in frothy sloshes between the rows of boats and thought again about my koi pond.

I needed some quiet time to think. I needed to consider what my dad would do if he were here and he knew his beloved May was a possible suspect in a murder.

Begin at the beginning, Lemonade, he’d say with a chuckle and a ruffle of my hair, using one of his many nicknames for me. Use those sharp ears and eyes, stay in the background, observe, observe, observe.

I shivered, determined to keep it together, not just for my mother, but my dad. He’d do whatever it took to protect my mother from being wrongfully accused.

As we made a left into the parking lot, I fought the vision of Myron, his lifeless body in the stall of the bathroom. And then I also remembered the prawn next to his body—odd for sure. So odd it made me shake my head.

That part of this whole mess made no sense. How did a nearly pristine crime scene with little to no visible evidence house a prawn, and if this was murder, who would leave something like that behind? But I had to set all of it on the back burner for now.

When we arrived at the station, pulling up to its weather-beaten red and white brick front, sandwiched between the courthouse and, strangely enough, a place to rent jet skis and book boat tours, Mom was in fine May form.

After literally peeling JF from the chief’s face—where thankfully, she’d done little damage to anything but his ego—I’d caged her and offered to drive Mom to the station peacefully.

Chief Burrows was too busy regaining his composure to protest, so Justice gave us the go-ahead. Plus, seriously, Mom’s a handful, but she’s not exactly a flight risk.

My cut wasn’t nearly as bad as all that blood led one to believe, so I butterflied it with a Band-Aid, ran a brush through my wet hair, put it in its customary braid to tame my mass of curls, and took a couple of aspirin to thwart the onslaught of a headache.

I was all the better for those aspirin, too, because Mom was currently frothing at the mouth and on the hunt for her prey.

Inside the police station, Mom stomped past the wall, featuring pictures drawn by the local elementary students, and up to the front counter, her colorful sneakers squeaking on the white floor.

Mom pounded the flat of her hand on the long front desk, taking Officer Thurman Wheeler by surprise. He pushed back from the desk, knocked over his steaming cup of coffee, and yelped.

When he saw it was my mom, he cleared his throat and smiled at her. His watery blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he mopped up the mess of coffee with a plaid napkin his wife Lainie had likely packed with his lunch.

“Mornin’, Mrs. Layne. How can I help? Another shoplifting incident?”

Mom shook her head and stuck her wrists out, palms up. “Nope. I’m here to be booked, Dano.”

Thurman blustered, looking around his brightly lit desk. “Who’s Dano? I’m Thurman, Mrs. Layne. You remember me, right? The guy who used to deliver your newspaper when I was in high school,” he said gently, as though Mom had finally gotten to the age where she’d up and caught a whopping case of dementia. “Do you need to sit down, maybe?” Then he looked to me with a sympathetic gaze.

Mom rolled her eyes. “Forget it. Just put the cuffs on me, and if you’re gonna do a cavity check, I’m puttin’ you on notice. I haven’t showered yet this morning.”

Fighting a snicker, I looped my arm through hers, directing her to one of the black plastic seats lining the front entry. “We’re just waiting on the chief, Thurman.”

“And I don’t have on any underwear either!” Mom chirped as she sat down.

Patience, be my guide.

“You know that’s not how it works, Mom. They haven’t arrested you for anything. They just want to ask you questions.”

She snorted, tucking her patchwork purse under her breasts and crossing her feet at the ankles, the multicolored laces of her high-top sneakers flopping to the floor.

“This is a waste of time, and they know it. If I was gonna kill the two-timer, I’d have done it when he told me about Febreze!”

Understand, our police department is pretty small. There are maybe a hundred employees total, working the various shifts. So when everyone turned from their desks located in the pit of the station and stared at Mom as the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights beat down on us, more than seventy-five percent of the officers there knew May Layne and her unfiltered responses. And at least half of them had been to our house at one point or another when we were kids.

But suddenly, all these people had become the enemy. Everyone had their law enforcement ears on. And I had to make Mom understand no one was looking at her like May Layne, the gregarious if not outlandish mother of Lemon Layne and the widow of an ex-biker beloved by the town he’d loved right back.

They were looking at her as if she were a suspect in Myron’s murder.

I sat up in my seat and looked Mom directly in the eye. Keeping my voice low, I gave her a dose of reality. “Mom? For the love of pulled pork, if you don’t stop flapping your gums, I’m going to have to take extreme measures here and use the Gorilla Glue on your lips. Stop talking about, mentioning, voicing, whatever, anything about killing Myron, okay? He. Is. Dead. It looks bad for you as his ex-DVD-shooting girlfriend. Get it?”

She clamped her mouth into a tight line of neon-pink lipstick.

“And by the way, how did Myron get your earring?” That earring troubled me to no end. She’d admitted it was hers in front of everyone. She might as well have handed Chief Burrows the key to her cell.

Mom smiled like a Cheshire cat, before sucking in her cheeks. “Do you really want to know that, Lemon?”

I blanched. I kind of didn’t want to know that. Mom was quite the looker back in the day, and even now she was no slacker in the date department, unabashedly sharing her adventures with me at every opportunity.

May Layne had been a real field player until my dad came onto the scene.

Which brings me to my Harley-loving biker father again. Somehow, the ultimate bachelor had managed to capture the fickle-pickle ultimate bachelorette’s heart and held on to it until the day he died of a heart attack five years ago at seventy-two. I was a late-in-life baby for them, Mom being on the cusp of her forties when she had me.

So nope. I didn’t want to know the details of her escapades with Myron. But I was going full steam ahead with this line of questioning anyway.

“I know regret will haunt me for days afterward, but yep. I do want to know, Mom.”

“I spent the night at his house when you and Coco went to Seattle for that exotic fish show. Candlelight, the ocean in our ears, a nice prime rib.” She paused and sighed, dreamy and soft. Then she sobered. “I must have left it there. I hate when they get caught up in the sheets. I thought I took them both off. You know how that goes in the heat of passion—”

I whipped up a hand. “I know all about it. ’Nuff said.”

If her earring was at the crime scene, that meant either Myron had planned to return it at some point, or maybe he’d simply forgotten he had it. Or maybe it fell from the pocket of his jacket or his trousers when he’d been dumped in the bathroom?

But was he even killed in the bathroom or somewhere else and dumped there afterward? And when had he been killed? In the early hours of the morning while we slept in our beds?

“Don’t forget to tell them that when they question you. That you think you lost it at Myron’s house. But skip the gory details about what happened at the house. Please. I beg of you.”

Her eyes penetrated mine, scanning my face, and suddenly she looked horrified. I imagine this was all sinking in now because her expression went from angry to astonished.

“They really think I killed Myron?” she hissed from between her clenched dentures and slapped her thigh.

I was trying so hard not to panic at this point, knowing this line of questioning made complete sense and was routine at best, but it didn’t make me feel any more comfortable.

“I don’t know what they think. I think they’re just investigating every avenue right now, and it makes sense they’d investigate you because you dated Myron for six months. It’s normal procedure.”

“That’s ridiculous, Lemon. You know better than that, and they should, too! Almost every single one of these cotton-pickin’ kids in here knows me. May Layne’s no killer!”

That was it for me. I planted a hand over her mouth and leaned in close, her eyes following my face as I whispered, “I said, stop saying the word ‘kill’ out loud. That means any variation thereof, Mom. Murder, whacked, knocked off, take out, kill with an ‘ing’ tacked onto the end of it, past, present or future tense! Yes, these people know you, but they’re no longer looking at you like the cute little old May Layne with the foul mouth. They’re trained police officers, Mom, and they’re doing their job, which is to get you to give them information and/or confess to a crime. You’re not helping me here. Now can it!”

Mom wrapped her fingers around my wrist and yanked my hand from her mouth, putting it back in my lap, and gave me a look of pure indignation. “I will not be accused of murder in front of all these people. They’re my neighbors, and some are even my friends. Except for that Ainsley Burrows. He’ll never see another free brisket sandwich from the likes o’ me.”

I rasped a sigh—one that was a familiar sound escaping my throat where my mother was concerned. “That’s right, Mom. You put your foot down and put it down hard. A line has to be drawn, and brisket’s where it starts.”

She harrumphed. “And I do not have a foul mouth.”

“Wasn’t it you who referred to Myron’s gentlemanly parts as a gordita?”

“That’s hardly foul. It’s an analogy to food, Lemon.”

This time, I gripped her hand and made big Thumper eyes, the surest way to get what I wanted from her. “I’m begging you, Mom—behave. Please. Whatever you say can get you into trouble if you’re not careful. Do you remember the last time you were spouting off? You know, when we had that doctor’s appointment you didn’t want to go to?”

Picture a seventy-year-old with blue hair, neon-colored lipstick in whatever shade happens to strike her fancy, black leggings, a denim vest and multicolored high-tops, clinging to the doorway of our store, yelling, “No, Lemon! No! No more wire hangers!”

Mom’s hysterical. I totally admit I’m the first to laugh at her inappropriate jokes, but the humor drains right out of me when an unfamiliar-with-her-hijinks tourist getting gas shoots me all manner of dirty looks for senior abuse.

Her eyes went guilty and apologetic. “I was just teasing you.”

“Yeah, yeah. But if that tourist with the stick up his butt and absolutely no sense of humor had taken it upon himself to really call social services, I could have been in a lot of hot water. There’s a time and a place for your joking and your unfiltered comments. We’ve talked about this. Now, I’m not sure how serious this inquiry is, but Coco’s got one of her lawyer friends coming in to help us out. So stop talking until she gets here. Pretty please.”

She rolled her eyes at me and sighed. “Fine. But when I get out of here, you can bet not a one of these boy howdees is gonna get the time of day from May Layne ever again.”

I held up my fist to her for a bump. “You show ’em how to hold a grudge.”

Coco breezed in the double doors, and whether I’d realized it or not, I must have been tense, because seeing my BFF with a gentleman in a fancy-looking suit brought me enormous relief. So much so, I think my legs wobbled when I rose to meet the nice-looking older man with my friend.

He was tall with an athletic build in that T-shape we women like so much. He had a nice mixture of dark and silver to his thick hair, but more importantly, his suit was crisp and clean, and his face had that trustworthy look to it, versus the smarmy, slick grin on the face of the kind of lawyers you see on TV.

Coco squeezed my shoulder and looked at my mother with a reassuring smile. “Mama Layne, Lemon—this is Ansell Williams, attorney at law. He’ll be present when they question you.”

Ansell held out his hand to Mom, and suddenly, she was no longer Caged Tiger Layne, she was Hidden Demure Dragon May. Her eyelashes swept her cheeks, and she propped her chin on her shoulder when she smiled up at him flirtatiously.

He smiled back, pleasant and open. “Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Layne. Has anyone questioned you yet?”

Mom planted her hand in Ansell’s and shook her head. “The pleasure’s all mine, good-lookin’, and no one’s said boo to me.”

Ansell’s handsome face relaxed, his dark brown eyes turning upward in a smile. “Good to know. So if you ladies don’t mind, I’m going to take my client somewhere private where we can talk.”

Mom slung her bag over her shoulder and fairly skipped off after her lawyer, leaving Coco and me to shake our heads.

“So did she say anything else? Or hear something this morning?” Coco asked, pulling me to sit next to her on the plastic chairs.

I closed my eyes and told myself everything was going to be all right. “You mean aside from the hundred and one times she mentioned killing Myron? No. I made sure she clammed up and waited for the attorney. But I’m worried. You know Mom and her habit of saying whatever she thinks out loud.”

Coco patted my hand in sympathy. “Ansell will make sure she’s protected. Now, how are you? You found a dead body today, Lemon. I’m worried about you.”

I shrugged. “I’m fine.”

That surely sounds like I viewed Myron’s death as cavalier—as though it was no big deal I’d found one of my fellow Fig Harborians sprawled out on the hard tile of a gas station bathroom.

Not true at all. I’m just not particularly vocal about my feelings. It wasn’t even the dead body I was especially freaked out by. I’ve seen a couple in my thirty-three years.

In fact, my mother often jokes with all the crime TV I watch, I’ve seen more lifeless corpses than dates. To which I often roll my eyes and mutter something indistinct.

It was that the body was Myron’s—someone I’d rather liked, even if he had cheated on my mother.

“I heard some of the officers talking about how he was…” Coco bit her bottom lip. “Killed. I’m sorry you had to see that. It’s awful. I don’t understand who’d do something so…so crazy.”

“But I’ve moved on from seeing the actual body to wondering how it got there without either of us hearing it happen, Coco. I know Mom and I are pretty heavy sleepers, and she did take an Ambien, but if he was killed last night and dumped there, I need to consider a security system bigger than a lock. I also need to pin down the time of death.”

The lock on the bathroom door wasn’t exactly fashioned after Fort Knox, but there had to have been some kind of struggle to get inside.

No way someone could have dumped Myron in the time it took for me to leave the station, hop in my beloved Volkswagen Beetle, circa 1976, run and grab a coffee (because frankly speaking, ours at the station is an unholy blend of toxic waste and Satan’s spit) and return. Not without waking my mother or being seen.

It took me fifteen minutes tops to hit Gabby’s Grind in her pastel-blue shop at the center of town, grab a plain black coffee—no frilly foam or double shots with tears of a Dutch Maiden, thank you—entirely avoid socializing with the shop’s patrons, and get back to the station in time to take my mother to her doctor’s appointment.

And like I’d told Justice, I’d even managed to narrowly miss Waylan Caprice, a.k.a. Cappie, our town’s doomsday prepper. He was coming in the front door, and I was all but running out the back door of the kitchen to take the beach path right around to the front and to my car in order to take a pass on his latest story about his newest alien-proofing technique.

Cappie was a hoot most times. I usually listened and hid my utterly inappropriate laughter when he shared his theory on keeping Big Brother out by wrapping his roof in tinfoil and reflective glass.

So, however, Myron had been dumped, I was convinced it had to have happened during the wee hours of the morning.

“What’s going on in that head of yours, Lemon?” Coco peered at me from beneath her soggy bangs. “No investigating—got that? You let the police handle this. I know what you’re like, but this isn’t a stolen purse in high school or a minor car accident where charts and graphs are needed to prove who’s telling the truth. It’s your mother. No sleuthing.”

I’m inquisitive by nature, resulting in a sponge-like gathering of mostly useless information. Coco calls it just plain stickin’ my schnoz in where it doesn’t belong, but I kept my mouth firmly shut. I wasn’t ready to discuss any of it yet anyway. I needed time to think—to rehash everything I’d seen with my own eyes.

Which reminded me, the receipt from Lester’s Pawnshop. I jammed my hand into the pocket of my hoodie and fingered the slip of handwritten paper.

Coco nudged me, her sharp eyes narrowed. “Yoo-hoo? I know you like I know a good deal on Groupon. You’re spinning your wheels in that pretty head of yours. Talk to me so I can talk you out of whatever crazy idea you have,” she demanded.

“I was just thinking I need a better lock on the men’s bathroom door at S&P. I’d prefer we didn’t become the hip place to drop off a recent kill. Speaking of bathrooms, I need to hit one. If Mom comes back, do me a favor, impress upon her the value of silence and its golden properties?”

Coco laughed and nodded, waving me off in favor of scrolling her phone.

I rose and made my way toward the lavatories to the left of the front desk and pushed the door to the ladies’ room open, slipping inside a stall.

I didn’t really have to go to the bathroom. I just needed a minute to process this without Coco reminding me I’d gotten into trouble a time or two for snooping. Maybe say a prayer my mom and all her vim and vigor could be contained before she got herself into any more trouble. I also wanted to look at the receipt JF had grabbed.

I winced at the thought that Jessica and I definitely contaminated that crime scene. And I’m not using that official term because I watch a lot of TV detectives either. I use it due to the fact that I’d once really contaminated a crime scene. As in, I’d crushed it with my big size nines. I have crazy big feet for someone so short.

But I try not to dwell on that time in my life and keep plugging right along with the valuable knowledge I learned back then. Which is: Touch nothing, call 9-1-1, and keep your pokey nose out of it, Lemon Layne. I thought I was pretty good at the former, but not so much the latter, and now I realize, in a panic, I’m good at neither.

I sat on the edge of the toilet and pulled the pink receipt out of my pocket, scanning it. It was handwritten, likely by Lester, dated yesterday at three-thirty, in the amount of four hundred dollars, but the item listed as either sold or bought was almost illegible.

I needed to give this to the police, but it didn’t mean I couldn’t investigate all on my own. Which is typically where my trouble began—my brain told me I should let the police handle it, but my instincts told me to do something, anything, to ensure Mom didn’t end up a viable suspect.

It’s just my nature, and the puzzle could be something as simple as trying to figure out who’d stolen Liz Hancock’s purse from the locker room in my junior year, to where Mrs. Fastbender’s little cocker spaniel Lolita had wandered off to.

Or it could be as complex as who’d killed my late fiancé.

That was really what Coco was worried about. How obsessively involved I became in his death. So obsessively, she’d physically brought me back to Fig to keep me from losing not just my sanity, but all my worldly possessions.

I shook off the memory. It would do me no good to revisit that time in my life three years ago because it always ended up a dead end.

My focus was Mom and Mom alone.

Voices outside the door and the mention of Myron’s name had me climbing up on top of the toilet to hopefully keep from being noticed. If I was going to find out anything more about Myron’s murder, it wouldn’t be by simply asking around.

The police, even if they were our friends and neighbors, weren’t going to willingly share anything from this point on if this was officially a murder investigation.

“Did you hear what they did to him?”

I cocked my head. The voice sounded like it belonged to Valerie Miller, a second-year cop and newer to Fig. I didn’t know her very well, but she seemed nice enough the few times she’d come in to get gas for her lawnmower.

“Damn right, I did. Justice said the son of a gun cut a piece of his brain out.”

That was Lorraine Becker. I’d know Lorraine’s nasally voice anywhere. She had horrible allergies. I saw her all the time at the group of medical buildings where I took Mom to see her physician for blood pressure checks.

One of them turned the water on, making me lean closer to the stall door.

“His wife says he was just at the doctor’s—something about his head. I don’t know. Her English is rough. I feel like some of it was lost in translation, you know? We have to get someone in who speaks Latvian to explain to her what’s happened. She’s somehow got it in her head that Fairbanks had a headache and that’s how he died. I mean, how do you explain to a woman her husband’s skull was cut open and some of his brain’s missing if she doesn’t speak English?” Valerie asked.

“Were you the one to tell her?”

“Don’t they give all the crappy jobs to us second-years?”

Lorraine barked a husky laugh. “They do. Did you confirm the doctor’s appointment?”

“Yep. He really did have a doctor’s appointment. Some slick neurologist in Seattle, from the looks of his website.”

I pushed my ear against the stall door, as though that would help me hear them better. I needed the name of the doctor. My kingdom for a name.

“So what was the appointment for?” Lorraine asked.

Shoot. No name.

“Aw, c’mon, Lorraine. You know how it works. We have to subpoena the doc to get Myron’s records, but it definitely had something to do with his head hurting. The missus made that really clear.”

“I was just checking to see if you knew, Officer Miller,” she teased. “What a darn shame, huh? Seemed like a nice guy.”

There was a sigh, and then Valerie said, “They’ve got May Layne in there right now. She lawyered up, but if you ask me, they’re barking up the wrong tree. She’s a nice lady.”

I smiled to myself. One cop in Mom’s favor was good.

“Lots of nice ladies kill people, Miller.”

Now I frowned. This nice lady had not.

“I know that, but seriously, she’s seventy years old. So he cheated on her? Big deal. You can’t see that woman hacking into a guy’s skull and taking out a piece of his brain, can you? That takes not only strength but mad conviction. Not to mention, if he wasn’t killed at the scene, which Justice says is still unclear because May’s daughter Lemon says the lock wasn’t broken, how’d she drag a guy the size of Myron in there? She’s maybe ninety pounds to his two-twenty. Let’s be real.”

Yeah. Good point.

“Stranger things have been known to happen,” Lorraine replied as another faucet gushed water.

The conversation was suddenly interrupted by some sort of ruckus going on outside in the station.

“What the heck is happening now?” Valerie asked.

“Darned if I know, but we’d better get out there,” Lorraine replied.

Muffled voices coming from the direction of the bathroom door grew louder as the door opened then shut, muting them again.

Cautiously, I peered over the top of the stall to be sure both Valerie and Lorraine were gone. Coast clear, I slipped from the stall and stuffed the receipt back into my hoodie pocket, fully intending to hand it over to one of the investigating officers.

I shouldered the bathroom door and fell into a crowd gathered around the front desk as even more people piled into the station.

Coco was in the middle of it all, being pushed around, her purse swinging from the bend in her elbow as she tried to keep from teetering on her heels.

What in gravy’s name was going on?

“I’m tellin’ ya, sure as the day is long, the time has come!”

I tried to push my way through the throng of people who’d gathered at the station, but I didn’t need to look far to know who’d stirred up trouble.

Cappie.

He stood on top of Thurman’s desk, his hair—which I’m convinced hadn’t been cut since the seventies—in a thin, greasy topknot on his head, bouncing wildly as he hopped from bare foot to bare foot.

Cappie didn’t believe in shoes per se—he wore wooden clogs and for some strange reason, likely one of his many government-proof rituals, always kicked them off outside before entering a building.

He claimed the rubber on the soles was made from toxic something or other, and it would eat through his feet—or something like that. I’d zoned out on that particular rant against, as Cappie called them, the damn mutant robots running congress.

“May Layne ain’t responsible for old Myron’s murder! Listen up, Figgers, the po-po’s tryin’ to frame our girl and hide the truth from us!”

Oh, shoot. I didn’t know where Cappie was going with this, but I was in no mood to humor one of his conspiracy theories today. This was my mother he was dragging into another one of his nutty ideas.

Furthermore, how did he know thing one about Myron’s murder and my mom’s involvement? I loved Fig with the very depths of my soul—I didn’t love how quickly word spread, no matter how big or small the news. In a town this size, you couldn’t get a bunion without everyone knowing about it.

“Cappie!” Justice yelled. “Get down from there, or I’m gonna throw you in a cell!”

I wasn’t the only one who humored my pal Cappie—the entire town did. And what Justice means is, he’ll call Cappie’s daughter Noreen, and she’ll make him spend his nights at her cute bungalow where she can keep a close eye on him. The bungalow he declares is filled with listening devices ala the government. He’d moved out of her house and into a camper on a patch of her land because of it.

Cappie also hates Noreen’s house due to her very vocal pet cockatoos, which he’s convinced are also government informants. I don’t know how Noreen keeps her patience with Cappie, but so far, she hasn’t committed him or killed him, and in my mind, she deserves a medal for all the time she spends bailing him out of trouble.

“The devil I will, Copper!” he sang as he danced around the long granite countertop, his long, painfully thin legs, encased in thermal underwear, poking out of his frayed denim shorts with a sort of layered effect.

Justice pushed his way through the crowd and looked up. “Cappie, I’m gonna give you one last warning.”

“I’m not comin’ down until you let May go and tell the truth! We deserve to know the truth!”

What truth?

Thurman snuck up from behind Cappie and made an unsuccessful swipe for him, knocking into his chair, sending the contents of his desk and his person to the floor.

As pens and pencils scattered on the ground, someone from the crowd shouted, “What the heck are you goin’ on about, Cappie? You got us all worked up over poor May. Speak your piece!”

Cappie cackled and stuck his tongue out at Justice. “Listen up, Figgers! May Layne didn’t kill nobody. She’s an innocent woman bein’ framed by the corrupt system!”

Several people gasped, and then Davis Turner, a tried and true Walleye Fisherman’s Club Member, shouted, “So who killed him, Cap?”

“Zombies!” Cappie bellowed, waving a knobby, weathered finger. “We got us a case of the living dead right here, folks! He’s stealin’ brains and eatin’ ’em for dinner!” And then he began to chant and clap. “Free May Layne! Free May Layne!”

Everyone around me erupted, joining Cappie, stomping their feet, and demanding my mother’s release.

I covered my face with my hands and groaned.

Where was Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead when you needed him?