Marla Phillips here, barista and private eye. I manage the Java Hut, a roomful of tables near the university. By the door in the front there’s a place for performers. In one back corner there’s a bookcase with used books people could buy, a rundown sofa, a trunk table, and two squashy armchairs. Then there’s a back hallway, and, on the other side of that, a marble counter with chrome and red vinyl stools. The wall behind the counter has a blackboard with our coffee, tea, and smoothie menu chalked above the machines that make them. The other walls exhibit artworks by university students. These give the place atmosphere, and occasionally somebody buys one. But mostly we’re about coffee.
That Friday I poured my first shot of the day and made it a double espresso. I had a hunch I’d be needing it, and I wasn’t wrong.
Just after the morning rush, a tall drink of water in a white ten-gallon hat flowed into the room. The blue eyes in his weathered face had a faraway look I liked. Ignoring the five hundred choices on the blackboard, he ordered coffee, black. When I asked what blend, he just gaped, so I got him the house.
He sat at the counter poring over a book while I poured his coffee. “Good stuff?” I asked, when he came up for air.
I’d had him pegged all wrong. Tall, but not silent. He told me more about Harmon Wells, best-selling author, than I’d ever wanted to know.
Dean Craven had made sure I’d already heard of Wells. A rangy, raw-boned woman who might have been handsome before she took to wearing mannish suits and climbing the administrative ladder at the university, Craven used to come in every Thursday at eleven o’clock and order a lavender white chocolate cappuccino, which surprised me, since I’d put her down as a frozen espresso.
But a few months back Craven began darkening the Java Hut door more often. Wells was coming to do a reading, and out of all the coffee houses in town, it had to be at ours. Craven wanted everything perfect.
So now I had a clue while the cowboy waxed lyrical about his man crush. I knew Wells had been an MFA student at the university. I remembered about his struggles during his “Coffee Period,” before the triumph of his novel, Western Chai. With prompting, I recalled Wells’ rare first chapbook, French Press. The cowboy’s hero worship was over the top, but something about his haunted blue eyes and square jaw kept me playing along. I even liked his bushy mustache. It suited him.
When I’d had all I could stand I broke it to him that Wells’ reading wasn’t till four-thirty that afternoon, and it was sold out. “Oh, I got my ticket,” he drawled. Don’t you fret,” He’d been in town all week, attending Wells’ creative writing workshop, doing odd jobs to get by, and soaking in the atmosphere of the great man’s past.
Now he downed his second refill and wiped the mustache. Then he put his hand on mine, looked into my eyes, and said, “I’m Clint Owens, by the way. Sure hope I see you later, miss.”
I have that effect on dudes. Not because I’m supermodel gorgeous at five feet four and a hundred and thirty pounds, with brown hair hacked off at the shoulder, but because I can take care of myself, and I’m a good listener. For a lot of dudes, that’s all it takes. If I’m not beating them off with a stick, it’s only because I’m too polite.
This time, though, the attraction was mutual. I passed Owens my card. Maybe my lips parted.
He trickled out, and I enjoyed watching him go, though I wanted him to stay. He’d used my card as a bookmark, and I noticed he’d left his old bookmark behind. It was a receipt for mole poison—one of his odder jobs, I guessed. Out of sentiment, or presentiment, I put it in my pocket. Then I caught sight of my assistant, Wendell, who’d been pretending to wipe off the tables. He was grinning.
Before I could tell him to wipe off the smirk, Craven came in, smiling and firing out orders like a drill sergeant crossed with a crocodile. Now that Western Chai was a hit web series, she explained, Wells was a minor celebrity, and his marriage to socialite poet and performance artist Melisma Rivers had further upped his Twitter following. I was to keep the rear exit paparazzi-free while Wells and wife made their getaway at the end of the evening. There’d be campus cops helping.
By the time Craven had put us straight about all the security arrangements, seating and the sound system, it was well into my lunch hour, and I needed a pick-me-up. Leaving the Hut in Wendell’s capable hands, I exited by our back door into the alley, used a key I had to enter the door next to ours, and headed up the steep stairs.
Roberto Ramos was trouble of the tall, dark and brooding kind that draws me like a fly to honey. Since he’d rented the apartment where he grew up for a pied-à-terre, he and I had been good friends with benefits, which was OK, since neither of us was the warm fuzzy type. But it was a strictly don’t ask, don’t tell relationship, and I had a feeling there was a lot Roberto wasn’t telling.
“You’re late,” he said, opening the door. He was wearing a sleek silver bathrobe, a damp, man-soap smell, and a frown.
“Believe me,” I said, “I’m sorry.” I looked an appeal into his eyes. They were set far back under his thick brows and close to his Roman nose. Their onyx glitter was cold and acquisitive, but I didn’t mind.
He drew me inside and steered me toward the bedroom. His apartment was clean as a G-rated movie and full of modern glass tables and black leather Italian furniture. How he afforded it all was in the “don’t ask” category, and most of the time I forgot to care. When I closed my eyes it felt like he had about eight hands, and all of them knew how to soothe my troubles.
Afterwards he lit a Turkish cigarette. I knew it wasn’t good for him, but that bit of advice was on the “don’t tell” list. So I just said, “There’s going to be an event downstairs this afternoon. Big crowd. You might want to miss it.”
He looked off toward the full-length mirror opposite the bed and blew three perfect smoke rings. “That’s OK,” he said. “Mr.—Wells and I have some unfinished beezness.” With a stab of his cigarette he shattered the rings and my peace of mind. His connection to Wells was clearly a “don’t ask.”
All I could do was hurry down to help Wendell set up. Wendell is short and spindly, with thinning brown hair and big glasses that fall down his nose. Normally he is just there, like the espresso machine. I don’t even think of him as a dude. But today he was knocking over things and swearing. He couldn’t seem to stop. I thought he’d had one coffee too many, so I kept him away from the crockery and hoped he’d work it off.
We were closed, but I must have forgotten to lock up because just when we’d got everything ready, Cowboy Owens moseyed in. He had his nose in a book and didn’t notice Wendell until he came chest-to-face with him.
“Sorry, little fella,” Owens said. With his free hand he swept his hat off in a respectful gesture I felt I could get used to. “Mr. Owens is a friend of mine,” I told Wendell. “He’ll have a house coffee, black, and I’ll take a cappuccino.”
“Beg pardon, miss, but make mine a cappu—whadaya call ’em, too, please.”
I looked at him doubtfully “It’ll be frothy,” I warned.
He looked hurt. “You think because I’m a dude I can’t handle it. Well lookee who’s readin’ poetry.” He waved the book under my nose.
He had me. “You heard the dude,” I told Wendell. “Serve him his cappuccino.”
While Wendell got two cappuccinos, with a lot of unnecessary clattering, Owens strolled around, looking at the paintings and pulling his mustache. Eventually he settled on the rundown sofa. I sat opposite. When Wendell brought the coffees, Owens raised his pinky, lifted his steaming cup to his mustachioed lips, sipped, and made a face.
“Take it easy, cowboy,” I said, smiling. “You’ve made your point. But tell me, what brings you here so early? Not that I mind.”
He set his cup down and leaned forward, suddenly serious. “Miss Phillips.”
“Call me Marla,” I said, leaning forward too.
“Miss Marla then.” He reached a paw across the table and took my hand. I didn’t mind. “I had to talk to you before the reading.” He looked up at Wendell, who was hovering.
“Take five, Wendell,” I said. “I’ll call you when I need you.”
He shot Owens a look and went off. The little guy seemed to have it bad for me.
Clint leaned in closer. I flicked some orange cat hair off his shirt.
“Marla,” he said, ignoring the flick. “You gotta get out of here. Those women Harmon’s mixed up with—Craven and Melisma Rivers—they’re dangerous. No telling how far they might go to get what they want.”
His concern was touching. I set my cup down and wiped cappuccino off my upper lip to hide my smile. “Hold up,” I said. “If Craven has an extracurricular relationship with Wells, this is the first I’ve heard of it. As for Ms. Rivers-Wells, if I stay away from her poetry, I should be OK.”
He set his cup down and tightened his grip on my hand. “Believe me, Marla. They’re dangerous, and they both want you out of the way.”
I could see the big lug was serious, so I took my hand away and waited for the newsfeed.
Leaning forward again, he spoke in a low voice. “Craven hired me to take care of her mole problem, and I was puttin’ out poison at her place today when I found this, laying on top of a box of stuff in the garage.” He held the book out for me to examine. It looked like that French Press he’d been hurting his eyes with in the morning, and I told him so.
“Wells’ first chapbook, sure as shootin’,” he agreed. “But see, there’s fewer’n five of these in existence, and she had one. Not any old copy, either. This here’s personally dedicated an’ annotated by Wells hisself!”
He showed me the title page. “To my Coffee Girl, with all my love” was scrawled over it. The signature underneath was hasty and smudged by some liquid. Not coffee. Maybe tears. I figured it used to read, “Harmon Wells.”
“Not too imaginative for a wizard of wordcraft, is he?” I observed.
Owens slapped his thigh in exasperation. “You’re missin’ the point! Wells dedicated Western Chai to his Coffee Girl. All us Wells fans have been speculatin’ as to who she was, and Wells has been hinting on Twitter about how he might ID her at the reading. Sure looks like it’s Craven, don’t it?
“Anyways, I asked her about it. Maybe I even sweet-talked her a little, so’s I could borrow this and have a look-see.”
He blushed. It was pretty, but I wasn’t buying. Craven wasn’t likely to be so careless about her belongings. I let this ride for the moment, but I didn’t like Owens as much as I used to.
He was too excited to notice. “I found somethin’ else,” he said, flipping through the pages. An old photo fell out and lay on the table between us. It showed a gaggle of university students at the Java Hut, circa 1995. Next to a tall, bony girl was a hole where someone’s head should have been. The girl was turned toward the hole, but her rigid posture told me it was Craven.
I pointed at the hole. “Let me guess—Wells.”
Owens nodded, pointing to the writer’s unclean shirt. “I done some research. Belinda Craven was in a poetry class Wells taught while he was gettin’ his MFA. And that’s definitely him. I’d recognize those coffee stains anywhere. Matter of fact, I purchased that very shirt last year at one of Wells’ celebrity auctions.”
“One?” I asked. “He’s held a few?”
“A good few, lucky for me.”
I was wondering why a best-selling Wells with a trust-fund wife needed to raise money when something else caught my eye. “Look—there. The joker talking to the little boy.”
Owens held the picture up to his eyes. “He’s the spittin’ image of that Wendell fella, all right.”
“Must be his father,” I said. “Wendell told me he was a failed scribbler. Died young, too poor to support the family. Wendell never got over it.”
“Shame,” Owens said.
He allowed a moment of silence before taking another dainty drink, still pretending to like it. Then he started up again. “With all due respect, I didn’t come here to talk about Wendell. I come to warn you. Craven’s the Coffee Girl, all right, and I couldn’t help but notice that she was hitting the espresso pretty hard today, talking out loud to her cats and crying and such. Seems she’d thought Wells might be wantin’ to start things up with her again, but she had it all out with him, and nothin’ doing. She kept sayin’ he’d pay.”
It was an interesting anecdote, but I didn’t see what it had to do with me. I said as much.
Owens gave up on the cappuccino and took his hat on his lap. “She asked me to get you outa the way,” he said softly, to the hat.
I laughed out loud. “I’m not some untenured adjunct,” I told him. “I don’t have to do what she tells me.”
“Please. Miss Marla,” he said, as I was getting up. “It’s not just Craven.”
I sat down. Owens put his hat to the side again and tried to sit up straight, but the sofa wouldn’t let him. “I just happen to be staying in the room next door to the Wells’ suite at the University Hotel,” he confided. “It’s not all sweetness and light between him and that Melisma, either. Seems he’s been dippin’ into her daddy’s money to finance his lavish lifestyle. She’s also the jealous type and had him followed. When she found out about his meeting with Craven, she went ballistic. Kept screaming, ‘I’ll kill you, and her too! Don’t you dare go to that reading!’ I tell you, we’re talkin’ two angry women who don’t want a PI hanging around. I‘m worried for you.”
I don’t like liars, and I’d heard enough to be certain he was one, but I didn’t get into it with him. I just went around to the sofa and held out my hand. He gave me his. It smelled like old books when I kissed it. “You’re sweet,” I said. “I’ll text a couple of my police buddies and get them to do me a solid.” I was walking back toward my office while I was talking. There were some piles of Western Chai’s in there, waiting to be put out on the book table at the front. I bent over to pick up a stack and called back, “Thanks for the warn—“ but I never finished my sentence. Someone hit me from behind, and everything went black.
Whoever it was hadn’t put much muscle into it, because I wasn’t out long. When I woke up, Roberto was lifting me out of the dumpster in the alley behind the shop, calling my name. He was dressed casually in black slacks and a black leather jacket over a white shirt “Good thing for you I take out the trash on a regular basis,” he said, helping me up. “You o. k.?”
I nodded, heaving a leg over the edge of the bin and letting him lift me over and down. He kept me at arm’s length, but I couldn’t blame him. I didn’t smell too good. My head was full of malware, too. “Hey,” I said, remembering, “The reading hasn’t started yet, has it?”
He showed me the time on his phone. Four ten. “I’m grateful,” I said, “but shouldn’t you go on in there and get a good seat?”
“I’ll sneak in later, to check you are OK” He smiled, showing a lot of big white teeth. I wanted to kiss him, but I wanted to clean up more. I also wanted to know how he planned to transact his “beezness” with Wells, but I didn’t feel up to sleuthing yet.
Roberto wanted information, too. “Any idea who deed this?” he asked, waving at my sore head and the dumpster. “I can mess them up for you.”
“A tempting offer, but I’m clueless,” I said. “Besides, you’ve already gone above and beyond. I owe you.”
“De nada,” he said, brushing imaginary dumpster crap off his jacket. “You be careful.” With a flattering show of reluctance, he turned and disappeared into his separate back entrance. He’d left his trash bag next to the dumpster, and I when I picked it up I realized it wasn’t his at all. It was full of Java Hut cups. In his distracted state, Wendell must have forgotten it out there before. Why had Roberto claimed it? I didn’t know, so I put it in the dumpster and went inside.
In my office I poured a cup of black coffee to clear my head and took the spare clothes I kept for emergencies out of the bottom right drawer of my desk. Just a pair of black slacks and an off-white Java Hut polo, but they’d do. In the powder room I rinsed and swabbed off as much dumpster stink as I could and put the fresh clothes on. I dried my hair under the hand dryer, returned to the office, stuffed my old clothes into a garbage bag, and stuffed the bag into the drawer in my desk where the clean clothes had been. On the left side of the desk was the drawer where I kept my purse. I got it out and checked for my cell.
Some women’s purses are a combination art studio, office, pharmacy, and candy dispenser. Mine’s as streamlined as an operating room. Just a credit card, cash for tips, mace, cell phone, and car keys, each thing snug in its own pocket. So I spotted the love letter right away. “Stay away from the Java Hut if you know what’s good for you—a friend,” was block printed on a Java Hut napkin. The writing was obviously disguised. Anyone might have put it in there any time that day.
I tossed it into the trash and texted my cop friends for backup. Then I climbed up on a folding metal chair to look out my tiny window into the alley. If Roberto hadn’t been dumping garbage, he’d had some other reason for being in that alley just at that time, and I was going to find out what it was. I pushed the window open an inch to hear as well as see.
In a minute, I heard a car pull up. There was a slam and an ear-splitting shriek. “Ha-a-armon! The red carpet’s at the front!” I guessed this was Melisma Rivers-Wells, the self-styled Nightingale of Brooklyn.
The great man came shambling into view, wearing a moth-eaten olive green sweater. If he’d been living high on the hog, he didn’t show it. He was round-shouldered and average height, but he had a massive, distinguished-looking head, crowned with curls just starting to go gray, the kind some women like to tousle. Some might have wondered how he had snared his nightingale, but with the right amount of money and influence, a more confident stride, and a knack for flattery, he might once have had what it took.
Now she seemed quick to give up on him. I heard the car purring around to the front as Roberto stepped out of the shadows behind the dumpster. There was no screen on the little window. I put my phone on video and stuck it a little ways into the alley.
“You got it?” Roberto said. He didn’t sound anxious. Probably he’d milked this cow before.
Wells dug in his pocket and passed him a crumpled envelope. “It’s all there,” he said, while Roberto counted. “But there’s only so much blood you can get out of this stone. If I have to keep dipping into Melisma’s money . . . ”
Roberto held up his cell. “You wanna call it off? Ready to see these on Instagram?”
“No!” Wells put a hand out to cover the screen. “I know I did wrong. Haven’t I paid for it, for years? Not just with money. My career, my marriage—that lie’s been eating away at me every minute.” He churned his hand through his curls, which were churned enough already. “The irony is, I am talented. When the world sees the stuff I’ve been writing lately—”
“Yeah, sure.” Roberto patted his shoulder. “Save it for the Twitter feed. You got a show to do.”
Wells shrugged off the pat. “OK. Patronize me. Suck me dry. I’m gonna show you! I’m gonna show the world.” Brave words, but already his conviction was draining like bath water. He gave Roberto a hunted look and scurried off up the alleyway.
Putting his money in his jacket pocket, Roberto entered the Java Hut through the back. I gave him time to get comfy in the audience, wondering where Craven’s campus cops were. Then I headed back up the hallway to the counter, so as not to miss the fun.
Wendell and I had taken out all the tables except the trunk by the sofa and set up rows of the Java Hut’s secondhand wooden chairs and extra folding chairs facing the front door. Next to the door, at our spot for performers, Craven had ordered us to install a miniature stage, and onto that stage, just as I reached the counter, Melisma Rivers-Wells was clambering.
She was a sweet-looking gamin, from the tip of the gray hipster beanie over her black, asymmetrical hair to the toes of her distressed combat boots. But my research pegged her as a certified and probably certifiable phony. Sure, she played the Bohemian. She kept a tiny apartment in Brooklyn where she could scribble. She had even achieved a certain notoriety for her “performance pieces.” As seen on YouTube, these were the sort of amalgam of Dadaistic nonsense and liberal vitriol favored by those who felt cheated because they were born too late to go to Woodstock and protest the war in Nam.
But behind Melisma’s hipster cool were the cooler millions of her conservative daddy and Rivers Corp. When she had met Wells, in the first flush of his Hollywood success and before his belly had achieved its current rotundity, he would have had the kind of cachet necessary to promote Melisma’s career and give her the street cred she needed. Indeed, the Nightingale of Brooklyn had just inked a deal for her first collection with a major publisher. I doubted he was much use to her anymore, though.
My reflections were interrupted as Melisma cued the AV guys to start the sound and began her performance before the audience, mostly university students and junior faculty, knew what hit them. A sinister gut rumble emanated from the speakers on the stage as Melisma inflated a white balloon with black words on it. Every now and then Satan’s indigestion relented, and Melisma tortured the balloon to produce a long-drawn, ear-splitting “Eeee.”
“Inflation,” she intoned after she blew the balloon up again. Then “Deflation” after she let the air out. Good stuff. Indescribably good.
The rumbling gradually rose in speed and pitch until the repeated phrase, “the one percent” could be distinguished. By now the university AV techs had put down their coffee and turned on the camera. Gradually the audience’s puzzled murmurings died away, and they accepted Melisma as the opening act. A few got out their cell phones to immortalize the event.
Dean Craven took a different line. She had been seated as the performance began, but now she rose magnificently. She looked a little paler than usual and was dressed in a striking orange pants suit, probably camouflage for cat hair, but this only added to her presence.
Bearing down on me where I stood behind the counter, she spoke against the din like a foghorn warning ships over a troubled sea. “Where is he?”
“I’ll just go check. He was out back a minute ago.”
Wendell was coming in as I was going out. He jumped a couple of feet in the air and gripped my arm hard enough to take my blood pressure.
“Watch it, dude. I need my arms for work.”
He backed off. “Sorry. It’s just—did you happen to see a white trash bag, out by the dumpster?”
I patted his toothpick arm. “Chillax. I put it in there for you. Now get back to work. I have to dig up the man of the hour.”
He went in, reluctantly. For a nanosecond I toyed with the idea of retrieving whatever treasure Wendell had buried in the trash bag, but I’d smelled enough of that dumpster for one day.
I went around the corner and across the street to a seedy Irish pub, where I ran Wells to earth at the bar. I didn’t bother him right away. He needed some down time, and I had some texting to do. I had a lot of confidence in Melisma’s stamina, so I wasn’t too worried about being late.
When I had all the information I needed, I collared the poor hack and brought him round to the back. After a brief standoff with the university cops, who were finally guarding the door between sips of complimentary coffee, we were allowed to enter.
Just as we did, there was a sharp report. Wells froze and turned to me, as if I could save him. I hustled him into my office, but when I got up to the counter again everything was peaceful. The audience had already resettled themselves. The “one percent” chant had stopped. Melisma Rivers-Wells was curled on the stage in a fetal position, surrounded by scraps of white latex with black writing on them.
Slowly she rose to her feet, holding one of the scraps. “Banks,” she read, and then gathered up a few more. “Bundled Brothers Street recession,” she proclaimed. Between each word, she writhed around in what looked like agony. Her beanie fell off, and her hair curtained her face. Finally she gasped out the single word, “Wachovia,” cast her balloon scraps at the audience, and collapsed.
I turned to get Wells and found him at my elbow, watching the proceedings with the kind of uncomprehending suffering you see in animals. When the audience was unsure, he dutifully led the applause, but an early frost from Craven nipped it in the bud. Looking distastefully at the balloon debris, she advanced to the stage, thanked “Ms. Rivers-Wells,” and announced there would be a short intermission while the stage was cleared.
Wendell had disappeared again. I thought I knew where, but there wasn’t time to get him. Roberto pitched in at the counter. Maybe to salve his guilty conscience, but I was grateful. He could recite our menu in his sleep, and he knew his coffee, too.
While the university sheep were still milling around, shaking off the effects of the performance, Melisma strode to the counter and challenged Roberto to produce two “organic, fair-trade, shade-grown, Costa Rican coffees, black.” When he did so right away, with one of his smiles for sweetener, the Nightingale seemed surprised that such a provincial hellhole had managed to meet her standards in men and coffee.
Craven, meanwhile, processed up in a more stately manner, bestowing frigid nods on the multitude. Baring her teeth at me in her winsome way, she ordered a white chocolate lavender latte “for the guest of honor.” When I pointed to the sugar cart, where the Nightingale was already in charge of the great man’s refreshment, the dean laughed like a girlish cyborg and declared it didn’t matter.
Owens was over at the book table with Wells, getting his autograph on first editions, by the looks of things. When Craven commandeered the coffees from Melisma, I tried to keep an eye on the action, but there was a non-stop flow of customers. Fortunately, those four were a regular Peaceable Kingdom. Owens must have been feeling sorry for Craven. I even saw him lend her his phone when hers didn’t work. Despite his dire heads-up just before he let someone club me, no one tried to start any trouble.
Soon the AV crew got into position again, and Craven introduced Wells, who took his place behind the lectern.
I haven’t read Western Chai and don’t intend to. I’m not seeing the web series, either. The Wiki summary gave me enough of an idea of the sort of drivel it was—a kind of Eat, Pray, Love for hipster youth, only smuttier. Wells read in a deep, rich voice more appropriate to the Gettysburg Address than the story of a dude struggling to learn manly ways out West while fantasizing about the Indian woman with whom he mislaid his virginity.
As things turned out, I didn’t have to feign attention for long. Melisma had been fidgeting in her chair by the book table almost since the first word Wells read. Suddenly she got up. While Wells, inured to her peculiarities, continued to hold forth in language just north of pornography, Melisma began a strange dance. She stretched, opened and closed her mouth, and pointed with mute eloquence at Dean Craven.
The bibliophiles murmured excitedly. Clearly they thought Melisma’s dance was an orchestrated hint that Belinda Craven was the Coffee Girl.
I thought differently. I went to my office, where I dialed 911 and texted my plainclothes police friends, who were loitering around outside so as not to tangle with the campus security Craven had guarding the doors. Pretty soon they all came in at the same time, front and back. The campus cops from the back had their meat hooks full of Wendell.
“Officer Sanchez,” the bigger one explained, tapping her badge tag. “We found this guy in your dumpster, Ms. Phillips. Says he works for you?” She shook Wendell like the rat he was.
“He used to,” I said, shooting Wendell a look. “Hang on to him for me.” Campus cops don’t get much excitement. I was happy for Sanchez, but I had other problems.
Melisma now climbed up on stage and pawed at her husband, who gave her a bemused smile and began another torrid evocation of adolescent coupling. By the time the characters were in flagrante delicto again, she was writhing and arching her back right along with them.
I left Sanchez in charge of Wendell and hurried over to my plainclothes friend, Sergeant Murphy, who had EMT training. As per my text, Murphy was already joining the literary couple on the platform and pouring a charcoal solution between Melisma’s foam-flecked lips.
It was all too late. Even before the truth hit the room like a ton of hardcovers, Murphy gave me a look to let me know I’d failed. Melisma Rivers-Wells had given her last performance.
It was my turn at the mike. I announced that Ms. Rivers-Wells was no more and that the Java Hut was now a crime scene. I introduced myself as manager and detective, and I asked the audience and my police officer friends to indulge me while I shed what light I could on the situation. My plainclothes friends and I go way back, and at a nod from Craven the campus cops fell into line. The audience exclaimed some, naturally, but they finally sat back down, ready for more entertainment.
None of the principals in the action challenged me. Roberto, I noticed, had slipped out at the back during the reading. Dean Craven’s frozen smile looked slightly more immobile than usual, but that could have been Botox. Harmon Wells was collapsed on a chair near his wife’s body with his fashionably grizzled face in his hands. Every now and then he’d look over at her, just to check that she was still dead. Then he’d cover up again, as if he couldn’t bear the sight.
Cowboy Clint was concerned, helpful, and generally at his most gallant. As soon as I made my announcement, he started quieting the crowd, using his hat and expertise to herd alarmed audience members back to their seats like dogies. I gave him a grateful smile, which he soaked up like a cold brew on a dusty trail.
When it was quiet, I got up on my hind legs again. “Ladies and gentlemen,” I said. “My friends in law enforcement have confirmed that Ms. Rivers-Wells appears to have died of strychnine poisoning, and the evidence suggests she poisoned herself.”
There was renewed murmuring. Craven switched off her smile and shook her head in a brief nod to decency before rising to face me like an iceberg ambushing a ship. “Thank you, Ms. Phillips, for clarifying this tragic situation. On behalf of our entire university community, I wish to offer our condolences to Ms. Rivers-Wells’ family and express our sadness at the loss of such a—“ Craven seemed momentarily unable to characterize Melisma’s effusions. In the next beat she got it—“a promising talent.”
She heaved a deep sigh. “At the same time, I feel it is my responsibility to prevent any idle speculation regarding this poor young woman. In hindsight, I believe I myself witnessed her placing the poison in her coffee. When she was sweetening it at the sugar table, I observed her produce a packet from her purse rather than using the Java Hut’s sweeteners. Naturally, at the time I assumed the packet was some innocuous additive. I feel compelled to speak about it now not only because I personally deeply regret that I failed to investigate this odd occurrence—”
Here Craven’s voice wavered. She produced a tissue and dabbed her eyes convincingly before going on in her customary military tone, with an even broader smile than usual. “I’m also speaking out in the hopes of assisting with any legal complications that may arise in the wake of Ms. Rivers-Wells’ passing. Despite my personal sense of guilt, I believe what I witnessed confirms that this unhappy individual caused her own death, and neither the Java Hut nor the university can in any way be held responsible.”
The audience was getting their money’s worth. While Craven sat down, blew her nose and did some more unnecessary eye dabbing, they mulled over her words in hushed tones.
It was nice of her to exonerate the Java Hut, but she had her duties, I had mine. “Thank you, Dean Craven,” I said. “But I’m afraid you’re too modest. You didn’t sit on your hands when you saw Melisma put something in her coffee. You went over to the sugar table to help with the coffee, didn’t you?”
Craven didn’t even get up. “In my capacity as hostess—“ she began.
“Of course,” I said. “You conveyed the coffees to the table where Wells and the deceased drank them.”
“Yes,” she said, staring at me like the gorgon she was.
“And then you sent Ms. Rivers-Wells a text.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You texted the deceased at five thirty-nine.” I dug in my pocket and pulled out a napkin. “I made a note of it.” I was going out on a limb here, but I thought it could hold my weight.
Craven’s face was like a gorgon who’s seen her reflection. “I’m sure you mean well, Ms. Phillips, but if you check Ms. Rivers-Wells’ phone, I think you’ll find—“
“I’ll find that you borrowed Clint Owens’ phone to send the text, as if it came from him.”
Clint rose to his feet now. “You vindictive bitch,” he said. “You murdered Melisma and tried to frame me!” He might have attacked her, but there were too many knees in his way.
“Simmer down, cowboy,” I advised. “Sergeant Murphy, can we check the deceased’s purse for her phone?”
A petite, redheaded fireball, Colleen Murphy instantly commanded the audience’s attention. Flashing me a grin, she cleared a space on the book table, took Melisma’s purse from her chair, where it was hanging, and carefully laid its contents out on a couple of napkins she spread out. Clearly Melisma’s purse was the all-purpose variety.
“Before we get to the phone, is there an empty paper packet with white powder clinging to it somewhere in the debris?”
Murphy picked it out and held it up between her gloved thumb and forefinger. It was one of our sugar packets, but I didn’t need the lab rats to tell me the white powder was strychnine. The audience gaped. They were having the time of their lives.
“There’s some tape on it,” Murphy said, examining the packet.
“From when it was emptied, filled with strychnine, and resealed,” I supplied. “But the interesting question is, why did Melisma keep the packet? Why did she spike her coffee and then squirrel away the package instead of throwing it in the trash? Suicides don’t worry about being caught. But murderers do.”
“Stop! How dare you speak ill of the dead?” Wells had gotten his face out of his hands. He rose unsteadily and turned to the dean. “Belinda. I know we have our differences, but I’m asking you, as my Coffee Girl, please put a stop to this—desecration.” His rich voice cracked with genuine emotion. I felt sorry for the old fraud.
The audience hashed over his revelation while Dean Craven stood and bowed stiffly. Before she could open her tightly clamped lips, though, I explained some more. “Your Coffee Girl is in no position to give orders, Wells. You see, although Melisma and her cowboy friend, Clint Owens, planned to murder you, the dean herself murdered your wife.”
Wells opened and closed his mouth. Not for the first time in his life, he was at a loss for words.
Owens just looked hurt. “Marla, if this is about what happened earlier—when you got hit—that was Wendell.” He pointed to my assistant, slouching sullenly between Sanchez and the other campus cop. “I wanted to warn you, but he had a gun. And he said he’d kill me if I talked. My only crime is bein’ too good-natured.”
Wendell writhed fiercely, struggling to break free of the officers, who restrained him. “Marla! He’s lying. He put me up to it. Said he wanted you out of the way, but wouldn’t say why. You gotta believe me.”
“All right, Wendell, enough,” I said, and he went quiet. I’d miss that obedience when he was gone.
“Owens, you can cut the cornball act. I’m not buying,” I said. “I have here a receipt for mole poison,” I went on, taking it out of my purse and holding it up for the audience, who stopped craning their necks to see Wendell and faced front again. “Owens left this behind this morning—”
“I told you—Dean Craven had me get it!” Clint was all fired up.
“I bought that at first, but when I wasn’t distracted by your bowlegged walk anymore, I realized a cat-lover like Craven doesn’t risk putting poison out, no matter how infested her garden is.”
“Certainly not!” Craven chimed in.
“Then again, a cowboy doing odd jobs to get close to his hero doesn’t book a room in the most expensive hotel in town. By the way, I checked your story, and a lot of it was a lie. Management are friends of mine. They reported no disturbances at the Wells’ suite.”
“But I saw her go out crying,” Owens insisted, pointing at Craven.
“I told Belinda I was sorry, but I’ve moved on,” Wells put in, half rising. Everybody wanted to get in on the act. The audience didn’t know where to look.
“Sure,” I told Wells. “You didn’t know Melisma and Owens were having an affair.”
He collapsed back in his chair. All the fight went out of him. He wasn’t so much a man as a sad-faced emoji.
“Management told me all about the door between your room and Wells’ suite, Clint, and they have some security footage from the elevator that would make the Western Chai characters blush.”
Owens laid it on thick. “OK, little lady, you got me. Melisma asked me to buy the poison, and I did. But you gotta understand, I had no earthly idea why she wanted it. I had no reason to kill Mr. Wells. It’s no lie that I admire his work and collect everything of his I can lay my hands on. Maybe, in a strange kind of way, I even wanted to collect Melisma. But she was fixin’ to get a divorce, far as I know.”
“Oh she wanted to be rid of him, all right,” I agreed. “But Wells and Melisma eloped to avoid the wrath of Daddy Rivers. No prenup. As the injured party in a nasty divorce, Wells would have been entitled to a chunk of Melisma’s assets.
“Besides, you stood to gain more from Wells’ death, didn’t you, cowboy? Your Wells collection would have skyrocketed in value. Suffice to say, that packet from Melisma’s purse will be tested, and we’ll find it contains mole poison—active ingredient, strychnine.”
Owens twisted every which way trying to throw me off. “I tell you, I dropped that poison off at Craven’s. I don’t know how Melisma got it.”
“You may have planted the poison container at Craven’s when you stole her valuable copy of French Press.” I raised my hand to silence Craven’s outrage. “But if she’d really taken you in and confided in you, you would have had more than a little tuft of cat hair on your shirt, in my humble opinion.
“Ironically, the clincher that proves you were in on the plot to kill Wells is that text sent, not by you but by Craven, at 5:39, when I saw her borrow your phone. Can you find that text on Melisma’s phone, Colleen?”
This was an ugly business. Officer Murphy had to hold Melisma’s finger to the phone to access the goods. But the text was found: “Craven switched the coffees!”
“This purports to be a warning from you, but actually Craven sent it. Correct?”
He nodded as if I were pulling strings to make his head move.
“You and Melisma had planned for Wells to get the dose in his coffee. But when Craven sent her the text, Melisma thought you knew the coffees were mixed up, so she switched them and gave herself the dose you had both intended for her husband. Once he showed signs of illness, she planned to send him back to the hotel, dispose of the packet, and wait for his tragic demise.”
“But that’s what I don’t get,” Officer Sanchez put in, from the back of the room, where she was still guarding Wendell. “Strychnine doesn’t kill that fast. Why did Ms. Rivers-Wells die so quick?”
“My guess, painkillers,” Murphy answered, holding up a prescription vial. “Did you know your wife had a problem, Mr. Wells?”
Wells raised his big head, then dropped it again, like a lion at bay. “She—she said she was handling it,” he told his knees.
I waited a beat, out of respect, then summed up. “So that’s one conspiracy to commit murder, and I imagine Craven will be pressing theft charges from jail.”
Owens was still standing, but he couldn’t think of anything more to say. The dean was making gravelly noises in her throat, like a glacier in retreat. “Your text was less calculating, more opportunistic,” I told her, “but the charge is murder, and I think it’ll stick.”
While the officers did their duty, I texted Roberto, and the audience went out slowly, with dazed expressions. They mostly forgot about Western Chai, and Wells wasn’t up to signing anyway, but a lot of them took my card.
After they’d gone, Sanchez brought Wendell up. “What should I do with this pendejo?” she asked, shaking him a little.
“I’ll handle it,” I said. “Wendell, go clean up like a good boy.” I touched my head where he’d hit it, and he saw and did what I told him.
The cops left, and Roberto came back. The three of us worked it out.
I showed them into my office. Wendell went first, then Roberto, who was wearing the jeans that drove me crazy. That made me ache a little.
“First off,” I said, as we settled into chairs around my desk, “thanks for taking care of Wendell’s gun, Roberto. You can put it on the desk. I assume you unloaded it.”
“Sure,” Roberto said, producing the 22.
“You took it,” Wendell said, furious.
“Back off, Wendell,” I said. “If you and Cowboy hadn’t thrown me in the dumpster, Roberto never would have touched that bag of trash. He wanted a pretext for being out there so I didn’t get suspicious, and of course he noticed something heavy in a bag full of coffee cups once he picked it up. But Roberto did you a favor. Even if you’d had your gun, those cops would have busted you before you got anywhere near enough to Wells.”
“As for you, Roberto,” I said, pulling up a video on my phone. “I didn’t screen this for the cops. I thought I’d give Wells a decent interval before Wendell sued. All I ask is that you turn over your snapshots to the little dude so he’s got a case. Then maybe you’ll want to make yourself scarce, in case Wells starts crying blackmail once his house of cards collapses.”
Roberto pouted. It was a nice look on him, better than Wendell’s fish impression. “It was you!” he said, pointing at Roberto. “Dad always said the kid from upstairs photographed the whole thing, but he left with his mom, and Dad could never track them down.”
“Show him,” I told Roberto. “You have other gigs.”
“Sure,” he said again.
He got the pictures up on his phone. “Here’s your dad leaving with some girl.”
“My mother,” Wendell said, resentfully.
“There’s his man-purse by the table.”
Wendell objected, but I put a hand on his arm. Roberto continued. “There’s Wells scooping up the manuscript, and there he is spreading it out. I was a curious kid. When he went to take a leak I hopped up on the chair and took this.”
The last photo was the first page of Western Chai, scribbled in longhand. Tears ran down Wendell’s face. “With the notes Dad had, this should be enough to—“ He couldn’t go on. His white-knuckle grip on the phone said it for him.
“I’ll send them to you,” Roberto offered. “It’s time to move on. Like Wells said, not much more blood in that stone anyway.”
“Don’t make trouble with this,” I advised, pushing the 22 back to Wendell.
He shook his head.
“And no more anonymous letters.”
“No,” he said, looking embarrassed.
“And you’re fired.”
He grinned through his tears and pushed his glasses up. “I figured.”
We all shook hands. “I won’t be seeing you,” I said. “Will I?”
They promised. Wendell hugged me and took off his apron. When he was gone Roberto kissed me for a long time so I’d have something to remember him by. I watched him walk away in those jeans. It was the end of a beautiful friendship.