Dead To The Last Drop
Book 8 in the Killer Coffee Cozy Mystery Series
Maxine Bloom has always wanted to try her hand at acting and when Loretta Bebe is desperate for someone to fill a role in the local play she’s directing for the Honey Springs Theater Company, she asks Maxi to fill in and Roxy knows Aunt Maxi’s head will grow like the gossip.
Aunt Maxi leaps at the chance for big theatrical debut in the charming play.
When the producer of the play turns up dead the play comes to a complete halt until Sheriff Spencer Shepard lets Loretta reopen after the crime scene is fully swept.
In the meantime rumors are swirling like the snowflakes in Honey Springs and Roxy finds that she just can’t stop from hearing the gossip and trying to figure out who killed the amateur actress..after all the show must go on!
Dead To The Last Drop
Book 8 in the Killer Coffee Cozy Mystery Series
Dead To The Last Drop
I liked nothing better than the smell of the freshly made coffees that brewed in the industrial coffee makers. The rich scent of my very own Peruvian roast curled around me like a warm blanket, and Pepper lay at my feet, warming them with his body heat.
Who knew how much a sweet Schnauzer could warm not only my feet but my heart? I reached down and patted him on his sleepy head, but he didn’t move. The fireplace glowed with an orange flame and heated the Bean Hive to a perfect temperature for the customers who would arrive when we opened.
The coffee makers beeped to let me know the coffee had been fully brewed, sounding like a wonderful melody. The sound was music to my ears and a signal to get up off the couch and put the breakfast treats in the oven so they’d be hot, fresh, and ready for anyone who needed a little sweet with their morning coffee.
Pepper lifted his head to see what I was doing. “I better get those in the oven,” I told him. “It’s still coming down pretty good out there.”
The entire front of the Bean Hive consisted of windows with a long counter-type bar in front of them. Behind the long bar stood stools for the customers who wanted to enjoy their coffee while taking in the magnificent view of Lake Honey Springs, the actual reason why Honey Springs, Kentucky, was a tourist town. Even in the winter.
“So pretty,” I said with a sigh as I looked out at the freshly fallen snow down the pier and across the boardwalk. Then I turned to head back toward the kitchen of my coffee shop.
Bunny Bowowski, my only full-time employee, would be here soon. We took turns opening, and today was my day, which I didn’t mind. I’d left my husband, Patrick, and our poodle, Sassy, at home and fast asleep, tucked into the warm bed.
After I went to Pet Palace, our local no-kill shelter version of the SPCA, Pepper had adopted me as his human, and Sassy and Patrick came along later. That reminded me to keep my ears peeled for Louise Carlton, owner of Pet Palace. She said she had a new cat for me to showcase at the Bean Hive this week.
I had gone through a lot of hoops to get the health department to even agree to let me showcase an animal from Pet Palace. Everyone deserved a loving home, and having an animal that needed a home here during the week was a perfect way for people to see how the animal acted and how they might fit together with that animal. I was proud to have been able to help all the animals I’d had in the coffee shop. They were all adopted out and living their best lives.
Louise had already told me a little about the sweet feline, so I was excited to get her into the shop to give her some good loving. It was still a little too early for Louise to show up, but you never knew whether someone was going to be early or not. I certainly didn’t want her waiting outside in the snow with the cat.
I dragged the coat rack sitting next to the counter and used the rack to prop open the swinging door connected to the coffee shop and the kitchen just so I could hear if anyone was knocking.
The Bean Hive opened at six a.m. during the week and a little later on the weekends. There wasn’t an exact time I opened, but six a.m. was when we got up and moved around. During the winter months I didn’t open on Sundays, but I did come in to order and prepare the food for the upcoming week.
We were technically a coffee shop, but I liked to make everyone feel welcome and at home. Coffee was great for that, but a little something for the belly was also good. Each week on the menu I had a breakfast item outside of the usual donuts, scones, and muffins. I provided something like a quiche or breakfast-type casserole with a little more oomph for the hungrier customers. I offered a light lunch as well. These food items were the exact same for a week, so I made them in bulk on Sunday.
The kitchen had a big workstation in the middle where I could mix, stir, add, cut, or do whatever I needed to do to get all the recipes made. Someone might look at it and call it a big kitchen island, but it was where all the magic happened. There was a huge walk-in freezer as well as a big refrigerator. I had several shelving units that held all the dry ingredients and a big pantry that stored many of the bags of coffee beans I’d ordered from all over the world. I liked to roast my own beans and make my own combinations, but the coffee shop had pretty much reached its capacity of what I could roast, and the small roaster was in much need of a bigger upgrade. However, I rented the space from my aunt Maxine Bloom, and there was no room to expand on the boardwalk where we were located. On my right was the Queen for the Day spa, and to the left of me was Knick Knacks, a little boutique store with a variety of items. Aunt Maxi didn’t own those, so expanding was pretty much out of the question because they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Quickly I put the muffin tins in the oven to get them heated up and ready to put in the glass display counter. Then I grabbed the dry ingredients I needed to make the coffee soufflé, which would sell out so fast. Every time I made it, it was a hit. Of course it was amazing. Who didn’t like sugar, vanilla, and coffee?
“One envelope unflavored gelatin, sugar, salt and vanilla,” I said to myself, plucking the items off the shelf as I found them. “Now for a little brewed coffee.” I grabbed the carafe out of the small pot of coffee I kept in the kitchen for me and put it on the workstation with the dry ingredients. Then I went to the refrigerator to grab the milk and eggs.
Eggs didn’t really need to be refrigerated, but for some reason I refrigerated them. Everything in the coffee shop was prepared with the freshest of ingredients. If I could get it locally, I did. My honey came from the honey farm across the lake from the boardwalk. The vegetables and eggs came from Hill’s Orchard, and the coffee beans came from all over the world.
“Hi do!” From the coffee shop, I heard the familiar greeting from my Aunt Maxi. “It’s me! Maxi!” she called out like I didn’t recognize her voice.
But I knew she did it to let me know she wasn’t some random burglar. Aunt Maxi owned the building where my coffee shop was located, and she had a key. She showed up whenever she wanted.
“Back here!” I hollered back just as I finished pouring the soufflé into a serving dish and putting it into the chiller to set. I had already made some earlier this morning, so I took those out of the chiller and was pleased with how they turned out.
“Oh, coffee soufflé today?” Aunt Maxi walked into the kitchen. She wore a bright-red wool coat with big purple buttons.
“Yes.” I couldn’t stop from smiling when I saw her.
She also wore a pair of snow boots with her polyester brown pants tucked in. She tugged off the purple knit cap that matched the color of her hair.
“What?” She used the tips of her fingers to lift her already-high hair in place.
“Your hair. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it that purple.” I walked over and kissed her.
“Honey, it’s a new year. New me.” She unbuttoned her coat and hung it up on the coat rack that continued to prop the kitchen door open. Her patchwork hobo bag hung across her body. She dug down deep in it to retrieve a big can of hair spray.
“Seriously?” I asked. “My food,” I reminded her, but it didn’t stop her from spraying.
“I’ve got an image to keep up now that I’m in the new play.” And that was why she was here.
“Play?” I took the bait to hear all about her new adventure.
Aunt Maxi was always getting into something. I always enjoyed hearing about them even if not all of them had come to be. She was the reason I moved to Honey Springs after my divorce.
Aunt Maxi had always lived here, and when I was a little girl, my father would come to visit, bringing me with him. I loved being here so much I even started to spend my summers here. It wasn’t until I’d gone off to college, earned my law degree, gotten married to another lawyer, and opened a law firm with my spouse that I realized our client policy was to help all our clients in more than just law.
Well… that was when I found my now-ex-husband, Kirk, doing counseling than was more than verbal, if you knew what I meant. It was then that I ran off into the arms of my aunt, who just so happened to have this space open while Honey Springs was in desperate need of a coffee shop.
I was still a lawyer and kept my license up. Good thing, too, because I give out so much advice around here that I find it soothes my lawyer side. But coffee was my passion. I loved all things surrounding coffee, and gathering with friends for a little gossip just might be my favorite thing of all. Gossip happened all day long at the Bean Hive. So technically, working here didn’t feel like work to me.
“Mmmhhhh. Didn’t you notice the new dowel rod flags on the lights around town?” she asked.
Aunt Maxi was referring to the dowel rods on the carriage lights that were all over Honey Springs and the boardwalk. Every season or occasion, the beautification committee had special flags to hang on the rods. It was a special touch to add to our small southern lake town.
“Well, I want you to know that Bunny Bowowski didn’t vote for them, and neither did Mae Belle Donovan.” She shrugged and curled her nose in disgust. “Low-retta Bebe is the producer of this year’s local theater.”
Aunt Maxi didn’t have to say any more than that. I knew this conversation would need a cup of coffee.
“Grab those muffins and the stack of cookies,” I told her. I grabbed the soufflés and the serving tray of mini breakfast quiches I’d made. The pastries were all ready to go in the display case “While we fill the display case, you can tell me all about it.”
When both of us were through the door, I put down the items in my hand and moved the coat tree back. Turning back around to look at the inside of the coffee shop, I gasped at the beauty of the coffee shop.
“I’ll tell you after I go to the bathroom.” Aunt Maxi headed there.
Even though Aunt Maxi owned the building, she didn’t give me a cut on the rent. I didn’t expect her to since it was part of her income. Rent was a little steep, but I’d watched a few DIY videos on YouTube to figure out how to make the necessary repairs for inspection when I first decided to open the coffee shop. I couldn’t’ve been more pleased with the shiplap wall, which I’d created myself out of plywood and painted white so it would look like real shiplap.
Instead of investing in a fancy menu or even menu boards that attached to the wall, I’d bought four large chalkboards that hung down from the ceiling over the L-shaped glass countertop.
The first chalkboard menu hung over the pie counter and listed the pies and cookies with their prices. The second menu hung over the tortes and quiches. The third menu over the L-shaped counter curved listed the breakfast casseroles and drinks. Above the other counter, the chalkboard listed lunch options, including soups, as well as catering information.
On each side of the counter was a drink stand. One was a coffee bar with six industrial thermoses containing different blends of my specialty coffees as well as one filled with a decaffeinated blend, even though I never clearly understood the concept of that. But Aunt Maxi made sure I understood some people drank only the unleaded stuff. The coffee bar had everything you needed to take a coffee with you, even an honor system that let you pay and go.
The drink bar on the opposite end of the counter was a tea bar. Hot tea, cold tea. There was a nice selection of gourmet teas and loose-leaf teas along with cold teas. I’d even gotten a few antique tea pots from the Wild and Whimsy Antique Shop, which happened to be the first shop on the boardwalk. If a customer came in and wanted a pot of hot tea, I could fix it for them, or they could fix their own to their taste.
A few café tables dotted the inside, as did two long window tables that had stools butted up to them on each side of the front door. It was a perfect spot to sit, enjoy the beautiful Lake Honey Springs, and sip on your favorite beverage. It was actually my favorite spot, and today would be a gorgeous view of the frozen lake with all the fresh snow lying on top.
“Burrrrr. It’s cold.” Bunny Bowowski walked through the door, flipping the sign to Open. “Me and Floyd enjoyed your soufflé so much last night.” She loved talking about her new relationship with Floyd.
Bunny’s little brown coat had great big buttons up the front, and her pillbox hat matched it perfectly. The brown pocketbook hung from the crease of her arm and swung back and forth as she made her way back to the coffee bar. There, she’d grab a coffee before she hung up her coat and put on her apron.
“Did you notice the new lamppost flags?” she asked and waddled back over to the coat tree. Slowly she unbuttoned her coat and hung her purse and her coat on the coat tree. The sound of the water running in the bathroom caught her attention. “What was that?”
“Aunt Maxi is here, so maybe you shouldn’t talk about the flags,” I suggested, since they were probably talking about the same thing and clearly on opposite sides of whatever it was they spoke of. If it was no big deal to either of them, neither would’ve brought it up.
“Good thing she’s here. I’m gonna give her a piece of my mind.” Bunny brought the mug up to take a sip.
“Were you flapping your lips about me?” Aunt Maxi stood, glaring at Bunny with her fists on her hips. Her purple hair glistened in the light of the coffee shop.
“What are you doing here so early?” Bunny gave Aunt Maxi the once-over. “You trying to get to Roxy before me, huh?”
“Listen, we are open, and I don’t have time for all of this.” I looked between the two of them.
“Did you not see that snow out there?” Bunny asked. “It took Floyd almost an hour to get me here.”
“It takes Floyd an hour to get anywhere without snow,” Aunt Maxi muttered under her breath but knew Bunny could hear her.
“Ladies,” I said in my warning tone, though I knew it wasn’t going to work. “Everyone grab a cup of coffee, and let’s talk about what is going on.”
Bunny already had her cup and sat down at the café table nearest her. Aunt Maxi sat down at a different table near her. Instead of trying to get them to compromise at a neutral table, I simply let them stay, grabbed Aunt Maxi and myself a cup of coffee each, and stood so I could address them both.
“What are the flags about?” I asked Aunt Maxi, who was busy doctoring up her coffee with creamer and sugar. My eyebrow lifted as I wondered why she even bothered having coffee in the cup.
“They are about the play.” She lifted her chin in the air and looked down her nose at Bunny. “Bunny and Mae Belle are mad because they didn’t get an offer to be in the play, as I did.”
“We don’t care one iota about that, Maxine,” Bunny chimed in. “We want to use the flags we had last year to promote all of Honey Springs for the winter instead of spending money on new flags when we could use that money somewhere else.”
Bunny had a good point, but I didn’t dare tell Aunt Maxi. She’d have a conniption right then and there. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight.
“What good is doing a play for the tourists if they don’t know about it?” Aunt Maxi snapped back. “We could put it in the paper, but tourists don’t buy our local paper. We could put it on flyers in the shops, but look at that snow. Who is going to come out in the snow right now?”
Then I could see Aunt Maxi’s point.
“Roxanne.” When Aunt Maxi said my full name, I knew she truly believed what she was about to say. “I’m telling you, when Bunny thought she had a shot at the lead of Vi Beauregard, she was all over using whatever funds to promote it. Even had the boys at the Moose talking about what a good Vi she’d be.”
“Why,” Bunny said with a gasp, “I can’t help it if the boys at the Moose like me over you, Maxine Bloom. I guess my niceness trumps your gaudiness.” Bunny’s eyes drew up and down Aunt Maxi until they fixed right up on Aunt Maxi’s purple hair.
Aunt Maxi looked like one of those pressure cookers. I could feel her anger curling up from her toes and straight up to her hair. I swear, I thought I saw her hair stand up even more on its own.
“Why, Bunny Bowowski!” Aunt Maxi smacked the table so hard that when she got up, it almost tumbled over. “How dare you talk to me like that!”
Just as I was about to make sure Aunt Maxi wouldn’t leap across her table to try to get to Bunny’s throat, the bell over the door dinged.
“Welcome to the Bean Hive.” Bunny’s disposition turned on a dime. She planted a big smile on her face and stood up. Just as pleased as a peach, which I was sure was because she’d gotten the last word in.
She and Aunt Maxi knew I wouldn’t stand for their bickering while there was a customer.
The morning rush came and went, and so did Aunt Maxi’s rant. I assumed she got tired of waiting for Bunny to make a comeback at her, so she sat at one of the café tables sipping her coffee and talking to everyone coming in and out the coffee shop door. That didn’t mean she was finished with Bunny. It meant she would be able to get her wits about her and come back for seconds.
Bunny knew it too.
Bunny was good at talking to the customers, though she was a tad bit slow on getting them their orders ready. They didn’t seem to mind. In fact, I think customers liked Bunny waiting on them. She was sort of the grandmother type that gave advice when you didn’t want it. Well meaning, she was, but still, she’d tell a customer they needed to get two muffins instead of one because they were too skinny… those types of comments.
I’d just gotten finished cleaning up the coffee station when Louise Carlton walked through the door with a cat carrier in hand and a folder underneath her arm. She looked so well put together with her silver bob hair nicely curled under. Her bangs were perfectly cut above her brows. She was such a beautiful middle-aged woman.
“I can’t wait to meet our new friend.” My eyes focused on the carrier that was a little too small to hold a dog, and Louise didn’t seem to be having any trouble holding it until Pepper came running up to get a good whiff of the new furry friend she had brought.
“A beautiful cat.” Louise lifted the carrier for me to peer inside. The bracelets on her wrists jingled. The big jeweled ring on her finger twinkled under the coffee shop lights.
“Hey there.” The poor baby was as huddled in the back as far as it could be. The eyes’ black pupils were the size of marbles. I slowly blinked a few times like Louise had taught me to do with the cats when I became a volunteer at the Pet Palace a long time ago.
Louise claimed it was a way for the cats to get a hug from you and to tell them you are nice or safe.
“What’s the story?” I asked Louise. I motioned for her to follow me back to the counter where I’d display all of the cat’s information and Louise’s business card to attract potential fur-ever homes for the cat.
“A stray. A hunter found her and brought her into Pet Palace. She’s been looked over by the vet and given the shots and has been cleared for adoption.” Louise set the carrier on the floor of the coffee shop.
While she opened the folder, I made her a cup of coffee she could take with her and slipped a couple of coffee soufflés in a to-go bag. I knew she loved them, and I knew they’d be gone before we turned around. They were already selling like hotcakes.
“Mornin’,” Perry Zella said, waving from the front of the coffee shop. A couple of his mystery club members had followed him inside. They had started meeting at the Bean Hive once a month for the past four months to discuss different unsolved mysteries and various mystery books they were reading.
I really enjoyed having them there because they loved to question me about the legality of everything, since I was a lawyer by trade and a coffee shop owner by heart.
“Good morning! I’ll bring y’all a carafe in a second.” I placed Louise’s to-go items on the counter in exchange for the paperwork. “What is the cat’s name?” I asked Louise.
“There is no name.” She frowned. I could tell her heart was hurting as much as mine at the thought that this little baby had been outside in the woods, cold, hungry, and probably scared. “Why don’t you name her?” Louise’s eyes lit up at her idea.
“She is brown and tan.” I couldn’t help but notice she was probably a mix of different breeds because she didn’t resemble any sort of breed I’d ever seen. “What about Mocha?”
“Perfect.” Louise clapped her hands together and bent down. “Now, Mocha, you be a very good girl, and Pepper will love you so much,” Louise told Mocha while I turned to the coffee pots behind me to start a carafe for Perry and his mystery friends.
“I’m sure we will be great.” I wiped my hands down my apron and walked around the counter to get Mocha’s cage so Louise could leave with peace of mind. “Why don’t we put her on the cat tree and see how she does.”
It wasn’t really a question. Patrick had built a cat tree for the cats because when Sassy was around, she knew no boundaries with other animals and wanted to play with them all, so his solution was to make a nice tall cat tree that let them hide from Sassy. It worked pretty well too.
“Since Sassy isn’t here yet”—I picked up Mocha’s cage—“I’ll let you know how she adjusts,” I said to Louise and walked her toward the door on my way to the cat tree.
Louise had stopped to talk to Aunt Maxi on the way out. I heard Aunt Maxi telling Louise how Loretta Bebe had given her the lead part in the winter theater production put on by the community theater. Bunny let out a few huffs from across the room, showing her disapproval of how Aunt Maxi’s already-inflated ego had gotten bigger. Or at least that was how I read Bunny’s body language.
“Now.” I lifted the cat carrier to the very top of the cat tree shelf and peered in at Mocha. “You are going to be so happy when you realize that you’re going to have a magnificent family home here in Honey Springs.”
I put the cage on the top and bent down to open the small door, a little box Patrick had built into the cat tree where I could store various cat toys and treats.
I grabbed a couple of the treats and opened the cage door, and I placed the treats right outside of it.
“You can come out whenever you want.” I gave Mocha a couple of slower blinks and resisted putting my hand into the cage to try to pat her. She still had that scared look, and her pupils appeared to have gotten bigger. “Let’s go, Pepper. You need to give her time.”
Pepper was so good. He acted like he understood exactly what I was saying, and we headed back to the counter to get Perry’s coffee for the group. Pepper followed me all over the coffee shop, but I noticed him stopping a few times to look at the cat tree in anticipation of running over and doing his usual greeting of smelling, sniffing, and licking. He might be surprised and get a claw.
“What are y’all discussing this week?” I asked Perry and set down the tray of mugs along with the sugars, creamers, and honey for the guests to use as they pleased.
“It’s been quiet in the Kentucky mystery scene, and it’s pretty slow right after the holiday, but we are sure it’s going to pick up sometime soon. So we are having a little coffee and company this fine snowy morning.” Perry smiled. The lines around his eyes deepened. His grey brows matched his short grey hair. “Maxine…” His smile grew bigger when he said her name. “I couldn’t help but overhear you got the lead in the town theater production. Congratulations.”
Aunt Maxi did something that I’d never heard her do before. A giggle. She giggled like a little girl.
“Oh, Perry.” She blushed.
I looked at her with wide eyes and tried to wrap my head around the fact I was standing there, living and breathing, watching her flirt with Perry Zella.
“I honestly can’t believe it. When Loretta called me to ask me to go through the formalities of auditioning but knew I was going to get the part, I was so honored.” Aunt Maxi had put a hand on Perry’s shoulder as she stood next to him.
“Well, I don’t know anyone who could play a better dramatical part than you, Maxine Bloom.” Perry Zella actually winked at Aunt Maxi while he patted her hand.
“Oh, Perry. You sure do know how to make a girl blush.” She giggled again, patted him one more time, and then walked away with a big grin on her face.
“And what was that?” I asked her and looked under my brows toward Perry and his friends.
“She was making a fool of herself. That’s what that was,” Bunny said in a sarcastic tone and pointed at Aunt Maxi. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, teasing Perry like that. He’s a new widower and…”
“New widower, my foot. Carolyn has been dead for over two years now.” Aunt Maxi gave Bunny the side-eye. “He’s just ripe for the pickin’.” She sighed. “And I’m going to ask him to come to see me at the play.”
“Of course you are,” Bunny snarled before she put a big fake smile on her face. “How can I help you today?” she asked the two women who walked up to the counter.
“Yes. I’m looking for a Loretta Bebe. I’m to have met her here about ten minutes ago.” The older woman of the two wore a long fur coat that looked real and long beige leather gloves that appeared to go all the way to her elbows. She picked at the tips of each finger and then pulled the gloves off her hands before smacking them into the hands of the younger-looking woman.
“This is Gretchen Cannon.” The young girl acted as though we knew who Gretchen Cannon was. The girl wore a simple black puff jacket, her hair pulled back into a ponytail, and glasses that were too big for her face.
Gretchen Cannon had short flaming-red hair, an orange coat, and the brightest orange-red lipstick I’d ever seen. The wrinkles around her eyes and her lips were caked in makeup where she’d tried to cover them. The red-rimmed glasses were so large on her face that they were hard not to stare at. It appeared she was much more of a larger-than-life person than Aunt Maxi. And that was saying something.
“Hi. This is Roxanne Bloom, the owner of the coffee shop.” Bunny didn’t let the two women intimidate her. I chuckled on the inside. “We want to know what you’d like to drink.”
“I don’t think you understand,” The young girl pulled her shoulders back.
“Thar you arrr,” Loretta Bebe said, drawing her words out in her southern accent. “I’m Low-retta Bebe, and you must be the actress Gretchen Cannon sent.” She looked between the two ladies.
“Gretchen. Gretchen Cannon.” The young girl pointed at Gretchen, as though Gretchen couldn’t speak for herself.
I lifted my coffee mug to take a sip.
“Oh dear,” Gretchen gasped in some sort of accent that told me she wasn’t even from the United States, but it was lovely. Maybe England? Ireland? I wasn’t good at placing dialect or tones.
Gretchen looked Loretta up and down. “Honey, you’ve got to stop going to the tanning bed.”
I tried, I really tried to stop myself from laughing at Gretchen’s observation of Loretta, but I couldn’t. I exploded. The coffee sprang out of my mouth and watered Gretchen’s face like a sprinkler.
“My stars!” Loretta gasped. “Get me a towel!”
Bunny sprang into action and got them a towel, while I profusely apologized for my actions.
Gretchen tried to bat Bunny’s hand away because Bunny was going to town so hard I was afraid she would wipe off Gretchen’s skin.
“Oh my.” Bunny gasped and looked down as a set of Gretchen’s false lashes fell on the ground like a limp spider.
“Oh.” Loretta whimpered and wrung her hands.
“Here.” Aunt Maxi chimed in and ripped the towel from Bunny. “I’m sorry. They are babbling buffoons. I’m Maxine Bloom.” Aunt Maxi gingerly patted Gretchen’s face with the towel before she handed it to the young woman with Gretchen.
“I’m Gretchen Cannon, the star of the local play.” The woman’s voice dripped with pride.
Aunt Maxi’s face went through a few different emotions as she bit her lip, then turned to stare at Loretta.
“I… um…” Loretta bit her own lip. “I’ll get right back with you, Maxine.”
Me, Bunny and Aunt Maxi watched Low-retta nervously shuffle the two women to one of the café tables near the fireplace.
I tried not to laugh, but it started all over again.
“Did you hear what she said about Loretta’s tanning?” I asked Bunny.
“I did. Wait until she finds out Low-retta is one hundred percent Cherokee,” Bunny said sarcastically in her best Loretta accent, sounding the way Loretta did when she claimed she didn’t go tanning and it was natural.
Naturally fake down to her short hair, which was dyed midnight black, and her long acrylic fingernails. In fact, when Loretta was at Lisa Stalh’s house, using the tanning bed Lisa kept in her garage, Lisa was in the house getting her manicure set together. She did Loretta’s nails, though she’d take all this to the grave. But knowing this was part of owning the only coffee shop in town.
People gossiped. I loved to joke that the gossip at the coffee shop was as hot as the coffee. Truly, no one was above the gossip, and something about everyone in Honey Springs had been gossiped about around here.
“Seriously. What was that?” Bunny asked. “I thought you got the lead part.”
“I’m not sure, but I’m about to find out.” Aunt Maxi grabbed a couple of mugs and a pot of coffee like she owned or even worked at the joint, hippity-hopping her way over to the women.
Bunny and I watched as the four women conversed, and then it happened. Aunt Maxi’s face turned all sorts of colors before it landed on red. I mean bright red. And all the way down to her neck, which I knew had fallen on her chest, and eventually making it to her hands, where it’d leave blotches.
“She’s gonna blow,” I warned Bunny right before Aunt Maxi started to let out a giant-size hissy fit.
“Now, Maxine. You wount the best for our town, don’t youuu?” No amount of southern charm Low-retta tried to throw on Aunt Maxi would stick. No amount. “Now, be a doll and listen to me.” She patted Aunt Maxi on the arm, trying to steer her away from the woman Gretchen and the young girl.
While Loretta walked Aunt Maxi towards me, I noticed none of this bothered Gretchen. The girl was a bit flustered and trying to talk to Gretchen, who was sitting calmly with her hands perfectly folded in her lap.
“You said this was your production. You said this was local, and now you’ve got some big producer coming here to do our town play. Where are you getting the funds?” Aunt Maxi drew her arms around the room. “Look around, Low-retta! It’s winter, and we have very few tourists this time of the year.”
“You aren’t listening, Maxine Bloom,” Loretta tried to whisper and eyeball me at the same time.
I shrugged and let her deal with the mess she’d created.
“You are still in the play, but don’t you want to be a big star?” Loretta’s dark brows rose dramatically, as did the southern tone in her voice, making it appear as if what she was saying was more important than the actual demotion. “I’ve called in a favor from Alan Bogart.”
“Who the dag-burn is Alan Bogart?” Aunt Maxi questioned and crossed her arms.
This little exchange was particularly interesting to me. First off, Aunt Maxi didn’t shut down or fall for Loretta’s obvious attempt to get her not to throw the giant-size hissy fit and see things clearly. Secondly, someone owed Loretta a favor.
Now that alone was something extraordinary. Loretta never let a favor go owed for any long period of time since I’d known her. Trust me when I said that Loretta had a lot of pull in Honey Springs, though we didn’t let her know that directly.
Oh, she knew it. She had the big head to prove it, but we’d never let her know that we knew. Regardless, I was all sorts of turned upside down to hear just exactly the favor this Alan Bogart owed her and who he was to our little local theater play.
“Why, Maxine Bloom,” Loretta gushed. “A so-phist-i-cated woman like yourself doesn’t know who Alan Bogart is?” The syllables in her words dragged out.
“Well, I know the name, but I’m so riled up I can’t place it right now.” Oh my, Aunt Maxi was so good at trying to lie her way through not accepting that she had no idea who this Alan Bogart was, and her idea was to blame it on being southern.
Something she was really good at.
“Of course,” Loretta said with a pinched tone. A few beads of sweat formed on her upper lip. Loretta was a jumble of nerves inside but would never let it show on the outside. “I’m sorry seeing Gretchen Cannon, one of the best off-Broadway actresses, here to act alongside of you.”
My eyes lowered as I looked at Loretta, knowing her game. Did she forget I had practiced law and could see right through her manipulation?
Ahem, Aunt Maxi cleared her throat when she heard the word “Broadway.” I was certain she put the “off” part in the back of her memory.
“Max-een.” Loretta’s drawl was really strung out. “You are a star,” she said with a widened mouth, ending in a smile. “You know Alan.”
I could tell she was teasing Aunt Maxi because Aunt Maxi had no idea who Alan was, but Aunt Maxi would milk it for all she could.
“Yes. Alan is very… um… what is the word?” Aunt Maxi rolled her wrist as if she were trying to find the right words, but I knew better. It was her way of getting Loretta to finish the sentence without appearing she had no idea what Loretta was talking about.
“Motivated to make the best play possible, since he is a famous producer.” Loretta’s words caused Aunt Maxi to stiffen up.
Aunt Maxi drew her shoulders back and chin up, cocking her right brow.
“Yes, that’s the word. Motivated.” Aunt Maxi’s gaze drifted ever so slightly to Gretchen Cannon. “I guess I could share the stage with Gretchen.”
“You are so professional.” Loretta let out a deep, gratified sigh.
The stress of Aunt Maxi had made Loretta sweat a little, which made her makeup slide off a smidgen and expose the white lines she desperately tried to cover that were created by the tanning goggles.
Loretta gave one last nervous smile before she turned and headed back to Gretchen and the young woman.
“She’s on Broadway. Think of it.” Aunt Maxi drew her hands in front of her like she saw her name on the marquee underneath the Broadway lights. “Maxine Bloom starring in the lead with Gretchen…” She snapped her fingers.
“Cannon.” I helped her recall the actress’s last name.
“Yes. With Gretchen Cannon as a supporting actress.” Aunt Maxi’s face softened as she looked out to the horizon. “I’ve got to make sure it says that at the theater,” she commented as though visualizing exactly how the chalkboard outside of the local theater would look as well.
I’d like to say Aunt Maxi had continued with her dignified southern attitude, but the longer she sat at the counter and watched Loretta Bebe cater to Gretchen Cannon, the more her face twisted and turned like she’d been sucking on a dill pickle.
It wasn’t until a peculiar-looking fellow walked into the shop that I saw Aunt Maxi’s attitude shift from angry to curious.
“Who’s that?” she muttered, watching his every move. “He looks like those artsy people. Another one of Low-retta’s twists?”
I ignored her and greeted the gentleman when he walked up.
“Good morning.” I smiled. “Can I help you?”
He had on one of those go to hell hats, or at least that was what we called them in the south. The kind that almost lay flat on the head with a little bill out in front. I think I’d seen actors from Ireland wear them. And he wore a nice brown canvas coat with shiny brown buttons and a corduroy collar.
“Yeah.” He was too busy scanning the chalkboard menus above his head to notice me checking out his shoes.
Penny loafers. Shiny as the buttons on his coat.
“Get the chocolate souffle.” Aunt Maxi took it as her in to get into a conversation with the man. “Roxy’s special roast too. She has a small roaster in the back. She gets a big ol’ bag of beans imported right from the grower. I don’t mean any beans. High-dollar ones.”
“Is that right?” The man smiled, his eyes dancing. The amusement of Aunt Maxi intrigued him. “You look like someone I ought to introduce myself to.”
“I guess you ought,” Aunt Maxi mocked, “if you want to know anything around Honey Springs because I know you ain’t from here.”
He laughed as Aunt Maxi kept on flapping her jaws.
“I’m Maxine Bloom. That there is my niece Roxanne Bloom.” She pointed at me. “Now, she was a lawyer, but now she is making coffee like I told you, and she’s married.” Aunt Maxi rolled her eyes. “Get him a cup of coffee,” she instructed me when I started to interrupt her about telling strangers my life.
His eyes shifted to me, and we both smiled.
“She should take her husband’s last name, but she did that once, and well, she ain’t married to him no more.” I heard her telling my life story as I got him a cup of coffee.
“The condiments are over on the coffee bar if you need anything to doctor up the coffee.” I gestured.
“Doctor up?” he questioned, giving me the same goofy grin he’d given Aunt Maxi.
“Creamer. Sugar. Things that don’t make coffee coffee.” I tried to cover my accent, but I wasn’t an actress like Aunt Maxi was trying to be, and being myself was the only way I knew how to be.
“I gotcha.” He gave a hard nod. “Just like it black.”
That made me happy.
“Then you’re going to love my special roast. How long are you visiting?” I asked and also took a vested interest in why he was here because he didn’t look like our usual winter tourists who were here to do ice fishing and cold hiking through the woods.
“As long as the play has its run.”
That made Aunt Maxi jump off the stool with joy.
“I’m the lead,” she cried out. “Are you someone famous?”
“I’m a reviewer for the Times.” The curious smile faded. His eyes held a question. “What do you mean you’re the lead?”
“As in the New York Times?” The question gushed out of Aunt Maxi.
“Yes, ma’am.” He picked up the coffee cup. “What do you mean lead? I thought Gretchen Cannon was the lead Alan Bogart had cast.”
“Gretchen Cannon. Alan Bogart.” Aunt Maxi snarled. “I’ve got to call Low-retta right now.”
Aunt Maxi must’ve forgotten all about Mark and his New York Times gig, but I hadn’t. Serving him up a piece of the chocolate soufflé would definitely get his palate moving and jaw flapping.
“Follow me.” I moved around the counter and took him straight over to the table next to Perry Zella and his group of mystery club folks. “Perry, this is Mark Redding. He’s here for the Times.” I’d totally realized I never knew what he did, but I assumed he was here to do a piece on Honey Springs.
“I’m a theater reviewer and have covered many plays by Alan Bogart.” Mark had a funny look on his face, one that told me he wasn’t a big fan of Alan’s. “I’m curious to see this small-town play when Alan is used to a little bigger.”
“Oh. I know.” I shrugged, giving a little bit of the gossip I’d heard earlier. “He owes Loretta Bebe a favor.”
Perry laughed, as did the rest of his group.
“Oh boy, he must’ve really had Loretta do something to owe her a favor.” Perry’s brows lifted.
“Trust me when I say Alan Bogart doesn’t do favors for just anyone, so I must meet Loretta Bebe.” Mark sat down.
“Let me introduce you to my mystery club.” Perry did exactly what I had planned when I’d picked the spot for Mark to sit. He’d taken Mark into the fold of the warm hospitality Honey Springs had to offer, now more important than ever.
Loretta wasn’t the most welcoming citizen we had, but Perry and his friends would intrigue Mark.
“He does play reviews for the New York Times,” I told Bunny Bowowski when she moseyed up to me to get the particulars on him.
“New York Times?” She drew her hand up to her chest. “That seems big time. Especially for our small theater.”
“Mmmhmmm.” I plated his soufflé and handed it to her. “You can find out all about it. I’ve got to get the lunch items started.”
Leave it up to Bunny to sit down with Mark, where I knew she would pump him for all the information that would keep us in gossip until the end of the play’s run, which I believed was two weeks. Or did I read that wrong in the Honey Springs newspaper? Either way, there was a story behind Loretta and this producer that I couldn’t put in the back of my head.
Quickly I rushed through the coffee shop to clean up any dishes lying around, fluff the pillows on the couch, stoke the fire, and check on Mocha.
Her head was out of the cage, but her body was half in. Pepper was still in the bed up near the register where he took his morning nap. It was almost time for me to take him out to go potty and for our morning walk, so I made sure the tea and coffee stations were cleaned up and stocked before I took my apron off and slipped on my coat.
Pepper hopped to his feet when he heard me take the leash off the coat tree. He waited patiently while I put on his little coat and harness.
“We will be right back to start lunch,” I told Bunny on my way past her.
Bunny was too busy talking, so she simply waved her hand in the air to let me know she heard me.
The boardwalk held fond memories for me, since I used to spend my summers here with my Aunt Maxi.
Pepper loved heading down the boardwalk and greeted people as he went. He knew he had to get to the grassy area in order to do his business.
All the shops were locally owned and pretty much boutique style. Wild and Whimsy was the first shop on the boardwalk. It was an eclectic shop of antiques and repurposed furniture. Beverly and Dan Teagarden were the owners. Their two grown children, Savannah and Melanie, helped them run it. Instead of installing a regular shingled roof, Dan had paid extra to put on a rusty tin roof to go with the store’s theme. They’d kept the awning a red color but without the name. The Wild and Whimsy sign dangled down from the awning.
Honey Comb Salon & Spa was located next, and it was a fancy salon—for Honey Springs. Alice Dee Spicer was the owner, and from what I’d overheard through the gossip line, Alice had really gotten some new techniques from a fancy school.
Next to Honey Comb Salon & Spa was the Buzz In and Out Diner owned by James Farley. Bees Knees Bakery was next to the diner and owned by Emily Rich. All About the Details, an event center, was next to the bakery. A bridal shop, Queen for the Day, was right next to my shop, The Bean Hive.
The snow was still coming down, and it didn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon. It was fine as long as the roads didn’t get icy. The snow sure made for a pretty scene. The banners dangling from the lampposts had to have been the ones Bunny and Aunt Maxi couldn’t agree on, but I’d bet it was safe to say it was the last thing on Aunt Maxi’s mind.
Pepper did his usual sniffing around when we made it to the grassy area between the Cocoon Inn and the boat dock.
“Excuse me.” I looked up when I heard someone walk up.
“Hi.” I smiled when I noticed the young woman who’d been with Gretchen Cannon at the Bean Hive. “I’m sorry. I was just looking at all the boats in the slips with their covers on them. All tucked in for winter.”
It fascinated me how Big Bib, the owner of the boat dock, was able to winterize so many boats. Though it didn’t seem like a boat dock would be open during the winter months, Big Bib claimed this season was his busiest time of the year. He said repairing boats and slips was completed during the winter months because he didn’t have anyone bothering him. I could see his point.
“Yeah, I don’t know anything about those.” She pushed her glasses up on her nose. “I’m Sydney O’Neil, Miss Cannon’s personal assistant,” she said in a stern voice.
Oh, so formal, I thought when she stuck her hand out for me to shake. An umbrella was attached at her wrist. A black bag hung from her shoulder.
“And Miss Cannon really enjoyed the coffee you gave her and would like to hire you to do the food service stand at the theater while she’s in town.”
Sydney put up the umbrella and handed it to me.
“Please hold this while I get out the schedule.” She shoved it toward me, and out of reaction, I took it. She pulled the black bag around to her chest, stepped under the umbrella, and took out a piece of paper. “Miss Cannon doesn’t like anything to be out of order, and if a single snowflake gets on this paper, she will not like it.”
“That explains the umbrella,” I said and wondered if Gretchen was hard to work for, since Sydney sure did make it seem that way.
“Among other things.” Sydney relaxed a smidgen when she looked at me. “I guess I don’t have to be buttoned up with you.”
It was nice to see her jawline soften and a smile cross her lips.
“Why hello there,” she said to Pepper when he ran up to us and sat next to her feet. “I saw you sleeping in the coffee shop.”
“Sydney, this is Pepper.” I always took pride in how good he was. He never jumped on people, though he did bark occasionally. He was a really good dog. “He is my constant companion.”
“Gretchen is my constant companion,” she said in a sarcastic tone. “Or maybe I’m hers.”
“Sydney, I think you just made a joke.” I laughed, and she smiled again.
“If you do decide to take the job to supply the coffee, I do have to warn you because you seem so nice.” Her brows pinched. “She is very particular on how she likes things run, and coffee is one of those things.” She handed me the piece of paper.
“I’m flattered she’s asking for it.” I wondered how hard it could be and then looked at the paper. “Oh dear. She wants me to be there early and a hot cup be brought to her dressing room.” I bit my lip. “I don’t think there are dressing rooms in the local theater.”
I tried to think back to the last time I was in there and really couldn’t recall.
“That’s an issue.” She took a pen from her bag and a notebook. “Call Loretta about the dressing room,” she talked and wrote the reminder.
“Still, if there’s no dressing room, I’m more than happy to supply the coffee but not sure if I can be there every day to hand her a hot cup.” I didn’t bother going into details on how I opened up, took the coffee to the Cocoon, then returned to the coffee shop to work the morning shift with Bunny. “I’m more than happy to give her a personal carafe for her room that’ll keep warm all day even.”
“I guess that’ll be fine. She’s just so used to getting what she wants.” She pointed at another paragraph on this paper. “She’d like you to also bring over the maple pecan breakfast ring daily to have with the coffee.”
“Maple pecan…” My mind drifted to what on earth we had in the glass counter that made her think it was a breakfast ring.
“She stopped at the Bees Knees Bakery on our way to check in at the Cocoon Hotel. That was where she had gotten it.” She pointed at the paragraph underneath the demand for the breakfast ring. “It states here that you are to bring it with you daily.”
“I’ll have to check with Emily Rich on that.” When I saw her frown, I knew she was confused. “Emily is the owner of the bakery, and she’d have to agree to make one of these daily for Gretchen.”
“Miss Cannon,” she corrected me. “She doesn’t really like people she’s not friends with calling her by her given name.”
“I think I’ll stick with calling her Gretchen if she wants my coffee.” I wasn’t going to bow down to some lady who appeared to be more washed up in her career than thriving.
“That’s fine between me and you, but you’ve been forewarned if she bites you.” Sydney seemed a tad bit frightened at the fact.
“I’m a big girl. I can take it, or I can take my coffee back.” It wasn’t a threat. It was a fact. I wasn’t about to let Gretchen bully me. “In fact, I was a lawyer, and let me give you some free advice. If you don’t like working for her, there are several more people out there who are nice and kind.”
“I like working for her just fine.” The buttoned-up Sydney O’Neil was back. “So if you agree to bringing the coffee and the carafe, please sign this paragraph so I have something to take back to her. Then please let me know what Emily Rich has to say about the maple pecan breakfast roll.”
I signed the paper, and then she pulled a card from the pocket of her jacket and handed it to me.
“Can I ask you one thing?” I waited until I knew I had her attention. I handed her the umbrella back once the paper was safely back in her bag. Lord forbid the young girl get a tongue lashing from the old lady. “Exactly how did Gretchen Cannon get the role in the play?”
“Alan Bogart. She owed him a favor, and here we are.”
“Gosh.” I snorted. “Seems like everyone is collecting on favors.”
“Huh?” she asked.
“Nothing.” I tugged on Pepper’s leash for him to stand. “Pepper and I have to get back to the coffee shop. Business never stops.”
“Thank you, Roxanne.” Sydney tried to seem personal, but it didn’t appear to come naturally to her. Maybe it was too many years of putting up with someone as bossy as Gretchen Cannon.
“You’re welcome.” I almost told her to call me Roxy, but I only let my friends call me that, so I just let it be.
Besides, I couldn’t wait to stop at the Bees Knees Bakery to taste this maple pecan breakfast ring. My mouth was already watering.
“Good morning,” Emily Rich said in greeting when I walked into the bakery.
“Emily,” I gushed and dropped Pepper’s leash.
After she noticed he was with me, she grabbed one of the organic bakery treats she made for her fur customers and bent down to give it to Pepper.
“I’ve got to try this maple pecan breakfast ring.”
“Roxy, you’ll never believe it.” She stood up and handed me a treat that I knew she meant for me to take to Sassy. “I made it by accident when I realized I’d forgotten to put the raisins in the raisin loaf. So I slapped on some maple glaze, and it’s the best-selling thing I’ve ever made.”
“I can’t wait to try it.” I looked over her shoulder to try to see the breakfast ring.
“I’m out.” She shrugged. “When it slows down this afternoon, I’ll make several more and maybe into the night.”
“You’re going to have to if you want to fulfill Gretchen Cannon’s wishes.” I snorted.
“The actress lady with all the orange on?” Emily asked. “Really, she shouldn’t be wearing such a bright color. It ages her even more.”
Emily cracked me up. At times she seemed so adult and others still the young, freshly turned twenty-year-old she was. Emily had worked for me in high school and used the kitchen to perfect her pastries. She tried to go to college to please her parents but didn’t have the passion. It took a lot of coaxing on my end and talking to her parents to let them realize Emily had a dream that was very much in her grasp.
They ended up embracing their daughter’s dream and let her fly off into the world, where she went overseas to pastry school and became a pastry chef. She ended up buying Odd Ink Tattoo Parlor on the boardwalk after it became available and opened Bees Knees, making it very successful.
I was glad too because it allowed me to cut back on making pastries to go with my coffee.
“She loves your maple pecan breakfast ring.” I watched Emily rush around the bakery. “She’d like to have you bake her a fresh one daily while the play is in its run, and I’m more than happy to take it to the theater for you because I am going to take the contract to provide the coffee every morning.” I laughed. “You wouldn’t believe the demands she wanted, but I made sure we didn’t have to deal with the drama.”
“Yes. Orange is not good.” She sighed and grabbed some papers off the counter. Then she shuffled them together in a pile.
“Right,” I said in a bland tone when I realized she’d not heard a word I’d said.
She stopped and looked at me. She put the papers on the counter and held them down with her hand as if they were going to blow away.
“I’m sorry. I’m not with it today.” Her face softened, and she smiled. “Can you repeat that?”
“I was just saying the actress would like to order one of your maple pecan breakfast rings while she’s in town. And I’ll take it every morning along with the coffee,” I said.
Emily’s response really caught me off guard. Usually, Emily would be really happy to have a client, and she loved making the daily goodies for the Cocoon Hotel’s hospitality room where all the guest could hang out and grab snacks. The Bean Hive provided a lot of coffee contracts to area businesses, and I always tried to bring Emily’s bakery in on the deals if I could.
The bell over the bakery door dinged. We turned around. Pepper was so good that he stayed next to me even when the man smiled at him. Pepper knew eye contact and a smile as a visual cue to show off and get some pats out of it.
“Dwayne. You’re early.” Emily looked from me to the man, who looked very professional in his winter overcoat, black hat, and briefcase.
“Business is never early.” Hearing his words and seeing his eyes roaming around the shop made me pause. “It looks like the place has good bones.”
“Roxy, I’d love to provide whatever the actress needs. You said something about you taking it?” Emily was trying to distract my attention away from this Dwayne feller by talking fast and walking Pepper and me to the door.
“Yes… I …” I was going to finish my sentence, but she took a fur treat from her apron pocket and put it in Pepper’s mouth.
“I’ll have it ready for you in the morning.” She practically shoved us out the door.
Pepper didn’t seem to notice or mind how Emily had reacted. While he happily ate his treat, I lingered at the display window of the bakery and looked in at Emily and Dwayne, who was someone I’d never seen around these parts, which told me he wasn’t a citizen of Honey Springs.
The two of them were looking at the papers Emily had gathered up and placed on the counter. Something very odd was definitely going on with Emily.
“She might think she can satisfy you with a treat,” I told Pepper on our way back to the Bean Hive. “But it certainly doesn’t satisfy my curiosity about whatever it is she’s hiding.”