About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Chapter One ||||||||||||||||||||
“Oh, pu-leeze, Rowena, Anya Seton never measured up to Daphne du Maurier’s elegance. I’m shocked you would say such a thing.” Jocelyn Kendall, pastor’s wife and book club gadfly, crossed and recrossed her legs in perfect tempo with the ever-increasing meter of her rant. Our discussion of Green Darkness was deteriorating rapidly.
“For example, in Rebecca . . .”
Recalling last year’s “Battle of the Brontë Sisters” completely ruining one meeting of the Books Before Breakfast Club, followed by minor skirmishes flaring up during the next two or three, I interrupted with a feigned look at my watch and as much cheer as I could muster.
“I’d no idea it was so late. We need to select this month’s book.” I tried for a smile bright enough to encourage participation. “Does anyone have a suggestion?”
Jocelyn pushed a hank of hair, the color and texture of straw, off her forehead and glared at the other four women sitting in a semicircle, as if daring anyone to answer me. She certainly didn’t intimidate the oldest member of the book club, Miss Augusta Maddox, who glared back, shoved her own copy of Green Darkness into a faded denim tote and zipped it shut. Then, tilting to her left, Miss Augusta nudged my favorite club member, Miss Delia Batson, who leaned in and handed me a piece of paper, edged by two sharp creases where it had been doubled and doubled again. As always, Delia avoided eye contact, gazing instead at her veined and mottled hands, now primly resting in her generous lap, fingers tightly interlocked.
“Well, thank you, Miss Delia”—I flipped opened her note and was relieved she was moving us in a completely different direction—“for suggesting the lighthearted Sheriff Dan Rhodes series by Bill Crider. Has anyone a particular favorite we might try?”
From the far side of the café, my BFF and business partner, Bridgy Mayfield, shot me a wink and a thumbs-up.
Irritated by our conversation, Judge Harcroft harrumphed and rattled his copy of our local broadsheet, the Fort Myers Beach News. He was sitting at the Dashiell Hammett table, right next to the café’s book nook, not exactly a haven of peace and quiet during book club meetings, but he refused to sit anywhere else. His erect posture, immaculate white collared shirt and impeccably groomed, albeit thinning, gray hair gave the impression that he was merely on a short break from presiding over a momentous, legally significant trial, instead of being retired from traffic court for less than a year. The judge’s ongoing routine drove everyone crazy. “I’ll have just a Dash of milk, thank you.” Or, when he finally folded up his newspaper, getting ready to leave, “Enjoy your day. I must Dash.” His strident chuckle left everyone in hearing distance gritting their teeth.
Ignoring me, Jocelyn hammered her point. “You can hear the lyricism in Rebecca’s opening line.” She rolled her hand in figure eights while reciting, “‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ How does that compare to”—she opened her copy of Green Darkness—“‘Celia Marsdon, young, rich and unhappy, sat huddled in a lounge chair . . .’?” Jocelyn slammed the book shut. “Not even a hint of cadence.”
Rowena Gustavsen’s head snapped high. Shoulders ramrod straight, she jutted her chin directly at Jocelyn. Before she could toss a rejoinder that would no doubt launch a full-fledged melee, Miss Augusta Maddox boomed, “Delia’s got a fine idea. I like Sheriff Dan. He had me chuckling all through The Wild Hog Murders. Sassy, can you find out if there’s a new book and get us copies right quick?”
At my swift nod, Miss Augusta stood. “Thank you kindly. Delia and I are going to have our breakfast.” And she walked to the Emily Dickinson table, with Miss Delia at her heels.
I jumped up and so did our newest member, Lisette Ortiz, who waved a halfhearted “so long” and practically ran for the door. I wondered if we’d ever see her again. Jocelyn stayed in her seat, determined to continue the argument, but Rowena gathered her things, ignored Jocelyn and looked directly at me.
“I have a new client from San Carlos Island coming to the Emporium in a few minutes. Got to run. Money to be made.” And she hustled away with an evil backward glance clearly meant to tell Jocelyn the dispute would be settled another day.
Relieved as I was that the meeting ended without fisticuffs, I took pity on Jocelyn, whose frustration was evident in her grim expression, so I offered her a cup of tea.
She accepted with a stiff nod. “Make it green, decaffeinated.”
A tinny thump followed by the jangle of metal on metal signaled that we had customers hitching up to one of the bicycle racks on either side of the double doors. Bridgy tucked a golden tendril behind her ear and, menus in hand, walked to the front of the café to greet the two helmeted, backpack-toting cyclists tugging the screen door handle. An energizing morning breeze was drifting in from the Gulf of Mexico. Still, it was barely the beginning of November, so we’d probably need to turn on the AC before noon.
Bridgy seated the cyclists at Agatha Christie. They looked at the tabletop with the Christie quotes, stories and photos protected by layers of heavy-duty lamination. The bearded cyclist, wearing a shirt in the red and blue stripes of the Barcelona soccer team, with Lionel Messi’s name in shiny gold letters across the back, asked, “Who else you got?” They picked up their gear and moved to Robert Frost. Bridgy pointed out the specials board and left them with their menus. The chubby blond wearing a faded black tee shirt said, “Hey, look at all the bookshelves. Like a bookstore.”
Exactly. The Read ’Em and Eat Café and Book Corner. Breakfast. Lunch. And all you can read. Anything from Wuthering Heights to the newest graphic novel by Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman was readily available on natural rattan shelves lining two walls. The subdued color of the bookcases complemented the glossy white and yellow café décor. All of our gleaming white tables were decorated with pictures of famous writers along with snippets of their work, melding the café and the book corner perfectly.
Three years ago Bridgy caught her ex-husband—the Bonehead—fulfilling his Mrs. Robinson fantasy with a Botox babe from his mother’s mahjong group, and the very next day my bosses Gordon and Nina Howard announced that they were moving Howard Accounting from Manhattan to Connecticut. We were barely twenty-five and life had dealt us death blows. Ever since ninth grade, whenever the sky fell in on one of us, we had a sleepover, cried it out, talked it out and put it behind us. “It” being anything from Bridgy’s squad losing the soccer championship to a team from Staten Island to that creep Marjory Haskins stealing my worthless boyfriend in tenth grade. Over the years we’d graduated from cola and chips to mojitos and whole grain crackers, likely served with gorgonzola cheese or hummus. It may have been mojito courage, but during the Bonehead sleepover we made a pact to head south and follow our dreams. It turned out that Bridgy’s dream was to own a breakfast/lunch café while my dream was to own a bookstore. Can you say fusion?
We loved putting together book-related events, such as the Potluck Book Club, which focused on cookbooks and foodie novels like Julie and Julia. The tea and mystery afternoons featuring novels by twentieth-century greats like Josephine Tey and Dorothy L. Sayers were a major hit. We were constantly experimenting with various combinations of food and books. Our clientele, comprised of both year-round residents and returning snowbirds who came south every autumn, increased month by month.
As I served Jocelyn’s tea, she barely grunted her thanks, so I was grateful Lionel Messi waved me over and ordered Miss Marple Scones with strawberry jam and two Robert Frost Apple and Blueberry Tartlets. I finger-tapped the table beside the copies of Frost’s fruit poems and went to get their food. I was behind the counter, putting jam in a dark green leaf-shaped bowl, when their conversation got animated.
“It’s an omen, bro.” The blond was rubbing his hands together, his voice tingling with anticipation. He bent over the tabletop, reading. “‘I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.’ That’s us, dude. How many wreckers do you know? We’re gonna be the big dawgs, oh yeah.” He slammed his fist on the table.
His buddy flapped both hands to quiet him, but it was far too late. Miss Augusta blasted across the room. “Wreckers! What do you know about wreckers?”
Tiny as she was, with a face that was all sharp beak nose and skin shriveled from a lifetime in the Gulf Coast sun, you’d expect Augusta Maddox to chirp like a parakeet. But, no. Her thunderous baritone bounced off every surface in the room, shaking the tops of the sugar bowls. She was the direct opposite of her lumpy, cuddly cousin Delia Batson, who rarely spoke and never above a whisper.
Lionel Messi glared at his pal as if to say, “Now look what you’ve done.” Then he turned to the Emily Dickinson table with an apologetic smile. “Sorry, ma’am. We’re on vacation. A friend is taking us out on the water. Said he’d show us some places where the Spanish galleons are rumored to have been sunk by hurricanes.”
“Been sunk by pirates, more likely. We been here more’n a hundred years.” She pointed to Miss Delia and let her index finger snap back and forth between them. “Our families come when the Florida Everglades and Islands was the only frontier left in these United States. And we still own the family land. As to wreckers, we got salvage maps older than me. Didn’t need no wrecker permit to hunt treasure years ago. Grampas did what they did.” Now she waggled the finger in their direction. “You boys have a nice time on the water, but don’t go looking for treasure what don’t belong to you anyway.”
Trying to avert calamity, I pulled the calendar off the wall and stood directly in the firing line between the two tables. “Miss Augusta, Miss Delia, the end of hurricane season is coming up fast. Could you help me pick a date? Plan the End of Hurricane Season party?”
Miss Delia offered me an uncommonly direct look. I’d swear her rheumy gray eyes twinkled a bit. Then she lowered her eyes, folded her hands neatly and buried them in the fabric of her palm frond and bird of paradise muumuu. Clearly she was waiting for Augusta to answer.
Miss Augusta looked thoughtful for a while. Absently, she twirled the fragment of rope tied at her waist to keep her sun-faded jeans from sliding off her frail hips when she stood. Then a near smile broke through her face, shifting her wrinkles from vertical to horizontal. “I suppose if you need the help, we’re obliged to help you. Give it here.” And she snatched the calendar out of my hands.
I glanced at the Robert Frost table. The cyclists were long gone. My practiced eye spotted two ten-dollar bills crossed over each other, clamped down by the salt shaker. They hadn’t even waited for their food. Still, the money they left would more than cover what they’d ordered and a generous tip besides.
“Need to get past Thanksgiving. Give some of them snowbirds a chance to land.” Augusta’s skinny finger couldn’t quite cover the single digit of the date she chose. “First Saturday in December should do.”
Of course we’d held our End of Hurricane Season party on the first Saturday of December each year since Bridgy and I opened the Read ’Em and Eat. Still, I beamed.
“Perfect, absolutely perfect.” I slid the calendar from under her bony finger and made a huge production of writing in the date. Then I circled it for good measure.
Miss Delia stretched out her hands on the table, a sure sign that she was working up the enthusiasm to speak. I waited, patiently counting, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, in my head. I was at twenty-nine (and halfway through Mississippi) when she opened her mouth. I leaned in to hear her whisper. “When do you want us to meet, dearie? You know, to plan?”
Well, I’d set myself up for that one, hadn’t I? Before I could answer, an enormous crash echoed from the kitchen, along with a bloodcurdling scream. Then, dead silence.
Bridgy and I both ran, bottlenecking at the kitchen door like a Saturday Night Live skit channeling Lucy and Ethel. With a little adjusting, we pushed through the doorway.
Miguel, our chef, was lying on the white tile floor, with a large metal tray covering his stomach, broken crockery scattered everywhere.
As always when excited, he spoke Spanish.
“Chicas, me rompí la pierna.”
Pierna—leg. My eyes darted south of the tray and sure enough, Miguel’s khakis couldn’t hide the fact that his left leg was bent at an odd angle. He had indeed broken his leg.
Bridgy was hyperventilating into her cell phone, urging the 911 dispatcher to send help. I picked up the tray and was moving the broken dishes away from Miguel when I heard a strange voice from the counter behind us.
“I’d like to pay for this.” A wiry man held the current issue of TIME magazine up in the air while he dug in one pocket of his fisherman’s vest for some cash. I rushed to give him change, anxious to get back to Miguel. As I turned away he spoke again.
“In your parking lot, two ladies were getting into an ancient, beat-up Chevy. One looked a lot like a friend of my mother’s from years back. Do you know their names?”
I swiveled my head and took a hard look. Not much to see. Graying stubble on a narrow chin and gaunt cheeks. Under a faded green bucket hat, his aviator sunglasses revealed nothing but the reflection of my own brown eyes, puzzled by his question.
“I’m sorry, but as you can see . . .” I indicated Miguel, lying on the floor, clearly visible through the kitchen doorway.
He took the hint and left.
I looked around. The café was empty. Miss Augusta, Miss Delia and one or two other regulars, although neighborly enough, had packed up and gone home, deciding to stay out of our way while we tended to the mayhem in the kitchen. I walked to the front door and was flipping the sign from “open” to “closed” when a green and white Lee County Sheriff’s car pulled in.
Smokey Bear hat in hand, Ryan Mantoni waved as he was getting out of the driver’s seat. A native Floridian, born on Pine Island, he was always bragging that he’d been conceived while his parents were fishing on Lovers Key. His mother denies it, but that doesn’t stop him from spinning the tale.
Ryan pushed his hat down over his sun-streaked brown hair and said something to the new deputy climbing out of the passenger side of the cruiser. Even at this distance I suspected the deputy had washboard abs. He took off his sunglasses and seemed to inspect me intently. I felt myself flush even as my hand rose to twirl a lock of my always unruly auburn hair. Good Lord, with Miguel writhing in pain on the kitchen floor, please don’t let me get all flirty.
They walked toward me in military lockstep, and, judging by the way the short sleeves of his uniform shirt hugged his well-developed biceps, I became more convinced that my suspicion regarding his physique was spot-on. Even from half a parking lot away, I could see he would tower over my five feet seven inches. Not many men can make me feel petite.
I was hoping for a quick introduction, but Ryan asked, “What happened?”
I told them about Miguel’s fall.
“Sassy Cabot, meet Lieutenant Anthony. He’s a new boss in the district, learning the islands.”
The lieutenant’s smile lit up the parking lot no matter it was broad daylight. “Make it Frank. They really call you Sassy or is that Ryan being Ryan?”
I sighed. “My parents have a sense of humor. My given name is plain old Mary, but my middle name is—”
“Sassafras!” Ryan shouted gleefully, as he opened the café door.
“Hmm.” The lieutenant was still eyeing me. “Time will tell if you live up to your name.” And he followed Ryan into the café kitchen. I hurried after them, willing myself not to start the hair twirl thing again.
Chapter Two ||||||||||||||||||||
Sirens blaring, the ambulance rushed toward the mainland. I tried to follow, my rusty, trusty Heap-a-Jeep bobbing and weaving through the traffic on Estero Boulevard. When the ambulance turned onto San Carlos, heading for our antiquated one-lane-in-each-direction bridge to Fort Myers, cars pulled onto the embankment to let the ambulance pass but immediately filled in behind it like the Gulf washing over the sand at high tide. I fell hopelessly behind.
By the time I got to Health Park Medical Center and found the emergency room, Miguel was on a gurney in a curtained alcove, wired to an IV drip. As soon as he saw me, he clawed at my arm and pleaded, “Take me to Miami, mama. I wan’ go home.”
The attendant assigned to take Miguel up to the OR must have been used to dealing with the power of pain meds. He pulled the gurney away from the wall and said in a soothing voice, “Little Havana, here we come. Vamos a Miami.”
Miguel let go of my arm, gave a cheerful wave and went off with his new friend. His heart was bound for home and family; no matter that his leg was going to the operating suite.
Hours dragged by. I alternated between thumbing through old magazines and pacing around the visitors lounge until a surgical intern came to tell me Miguel was out of surgery and doing nicely in the recovery room. And no, I couldn’t see him.
I finally got back to the Read ’Em and Eat right after closing. When I opened the door, Bridgy jumped up, planting her hands on her hips. “I’ve called you a half dozen times. No answer, voice mail, voice mail.”
“I turned off my cell at the hospital. I guess I forgot to turn it on again.”
“And you never thought to call me? I’ve been worried sick about Miguel. How do you think I felt when Ryan stopped back after work to ask about Miguel and I had no information?”
She and Ryan were eating Miguel’s mega-aromatic Old Man and the Sea Chowder. Think red pepper flakes, onion and tarragon slathered on the planks of a fishing pier. Ignoring us, Ryan reached for the plate of crackers set mid-table and crumbled a few into his bowl. He wore his off-duty uniform, baggy shorts and a Fort Myers Beach tee shirt. This one read: “Deputies Do It Safely.”
“The hospital called Miguel’s sister in Miami, and during one of his more lucid moments, Miguel gave me his cousin Rey’s cell number. Remember him? Last Fourth of July? Anyway, he’s driving down from Lake Butler.”
“Can he cook?” Ryan asked, raising a spoon brimming with bits of grouper and carrots.
“Cook? I don’t know.” Then I understood. Who was going to make breakfast when we opened in the morning? “Oh. The kitchen.”
I folded my arms and looked straight at Bridgy. The café part of Read ’Em and Eat was her idea, and she did fancy herself quite the gourmet cook.
“I can manage for a few days, but with snowbird season right around the corner . . .” She hesitated. “We’ll be awfully busy. And I don’t know most of Miguel’s specials.”
I sighed, knowing what was coming.
In her tiniest indoor voice, Bridgy said, “Aunt Ophie.”
“Who?” Ryan’s eyes swung from Bridgy to me and back again, slightly alarmed by the dread mixed with resignation crossing both our faces.
“My Aunt Ophelia is the best cook on planet Earth, but, well, she’s a little different.”
“What kind of different?” Ryan rested his spoon on the table.
“Let me,” I said. “Three years ago when we first opened, Bridgy’s aunt Ophelia offered to come down from Pinetta to help with the cooking until we found a chef. You know how folks round here say that north Florida thinks it is really south Georgia with that y’all southern charm mind-set? Living barely south of the Georgia border, Aunt Ophie takes her role as Antebellum Grande Dame to heart.”
Ryan gave a “no big deal” shrug.
Bridgy took over. “Get ready to have your cheek patted and be called ‘honey chile,’ and I wouldn’t wear that shirt unless you’re willing to sit through a thirty-minute lecture about gentlemanly appearance and behavior. The happy news is you can bring your appetite for southern. We’ll have grits and hush puppies aplenty on the menu.” She turned to me. “As I recall, you had one of your cutesy book names for the hush puppies. To Kill a Mockingbird?”
“Close. Harper Lee Hush Puppies. And don’t forget True Grits.”
“Like the movie?” Ryan knew his westerns.
“Like the book.”
Bridgy laughed at my response. “Sassy doesn’t know movies. She only knows books.”
“Do so know movies,” I retorted. “Both movies. The forty-some-odd-years-ago True Grit with John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and the recent one starring Jeff Bridges. That one revived interest in the ‘based on’ novel, True Grit, by Charles Portis. The movie tie-in edition of the book hit the best seller lists.”
Bridgy wrinkled her forehead, gave me her “whatever” look and moved on. “Your boyfriend was here. He heard about Miguel and wanted the 411.”
“Boyfriend?” I panicked, afraid Ryan had noticed my getting lost in the dreamy blue eyes of the new lieutenant.
“You know. The reporter with the feminist name. Cady.”
Cady Stanton. Irritated as I am by having Sassafras as a middle name, his mother named him after nineteenth-century women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I’d often wondered if she’d married Cady’s father for the sole purpose of having that last name for her children, Cady and his sister, Elizabeth.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I protested automatically.
“You spent a weekend with him in Key West. If he’s not your boyfriend, what does that make you?” Bridgy was doing the hands on her hips thing again.
“It was a literary seminar.” I waved my arm at the bookshelves. “Books, authors, readings. Anyway, we only traveled together. We had separate rooms.”
Ryan guffawed. “You were right, Bridgy. She’s all about the books.”
There was a loud bang on the door, and as we turned toward it, the face pressed up against the glass window pane screeched.
“I can see you’re in there. Open this door.”
“Sounds like that lady with the poufy lilac-colored hair. The one who runs the consignment shop.”
Ryan nailed it. Rowena Gustavsen. Remembering this morning’s book club, I thought, This can’t be good.
I opened the door and Rowena barged past me, her face nearly as purple as her hair. She dropped a huge lemon-colored purse on the Hemingway table and growled, “Which one of you sent that derelict to me? I demand to know.” Chunky plastic bracelets clattered on her wrist as she flung one arm high in the air and dropped it to a dramatic rest on her forehead. “I cannot have such riffraff in my shop. What will my clients think?”
She finally stopped for a breath, followed by a deep sigh.
“Rowena, sit down. Have a cup of tea.”
She pulled out a chair, crumpled heavily onto the seat and propped her elbows on the table. I scurried to put on the kettle, hoping to keep her calm at all costs.
I was reaching for the tea canister when she bellowed, “Sweet tea, if you have it.”
I brought a tall glass of sweet tea, with a couple of sugar cookies on a doilied plate. From the moment Rowena came through the door, Bridgy and Ryan were frozen in place. I signaled as discreetly as I could for them to join her, but Bridgy gave an infinitesimal shake of her head, confirming my suspicion that she was at the bottom of Rowena’s dilemma, be it real or imagined.
I sat opposite Rowena. After watching her drain the glass dry, I went back to the kitchen and brought out a pitcher of sweet tea and a tray of empty glasses. This could take a while.
I was pouring her refill when Rowena sprang to life again. “I almost called the sheriff.” She turned to Ryan. “You know how you’re always saying to call if I think something is wrong.” She swung back to me. “But he said you sent him, so I decided to ask you first. Glad Ryan is here nonetheless.” Her head bobbed an emphatic nod.
“Rowena, who are we talking about?”
“Who did you send to my shop?”
Round and round we go.
“We all support one another’s businesses. Could have been anyone.”
“Not anyone. That old man. Smells like seaweed. The one who carried the human head around all last year. You sent him to me.” The accusation was forceful.
Skully. What would he be doing in the Sand and Shell Emporium?
Bridgy stood up and cleared her throat. “Actually, Rowena, I sent him.” She was fidgeting, the fingers on her right hand tugging on her left. “I ordered some earring posts and jeweler’s wire from a website and encouraged him to stop using fishing line for the things he makes. I’m convinced his lovely shell and fish bone jewelry will be top sellers. I thought you’d want to market such exquisite items, but if you don’t . . .”
“We’ll sell them here,” I finished.
Bridgy’s eyes widened in surprise, but I was not about to waste my night on Rowena’s histrionics, so I called her bluff.
“Not so fast.” Rowena must have had a vision of dollar bills flying out of her cash register and into ours. “I need time to decide.”
“Well, what did you tell Skully?”
“He said his name was Thomas. Thomas Smallwood. I told him I’d think things over and he should come back tomorrow. That way I could have Ryan around if needed.”
“And what did you think of his jewelry?”
“Oh, it’s magnificent. His wire and shell pendants are elegant; the handiwork is extremely intricate. They are guaranteed to jump off the shelves. He can’t possibly make pieces as fast as my clients will buy them.”
Ryan spoke for the first time. “Ms. Gustavsen, believe me, Skully is a decent man, just a little out of touch with this century. A few decades after the Civil War, lots of folks began traveling up and down the Gulf, stopping their boats at this island or that, plying their skills. Fishermen. Toolmakers. Tradesmen. It was how they earned a living, and passed down father to son for generations. Times have changed. Skully prefers the old ways. Nothing wrong with that.”
Rowena knew the history of the islands better than most. It was part of the sales pitch for her merchandise. I could see she was 95 percent convinced.
“Why do you call him Skully? He said his name is Thomas.”
Ryan touched each side of his head with his index fingers and rocked from side to side. Before Rowena realized Skully got the nickname when Lee County deputies found the fifty-year-old skull he’d dug up on Mound Key and stashed in his duffel bag for a few months last winter, Bridgy tapped Ryan on the nose with a rolled-up magazine as if correcting a naughty puppy.
Rowena reached over and poured another glass of sweet tea and began muttering, almost to herself, “Now if only Delia would part with some of the old bric-a-brac cluttering up her house, I could have a banner year; make a nice commission. Stubborn as a mule, she is. Why, she won’t even sell her island. Not like she ever spends any time there.”
“Island?” I was mystified.
“Down in Ten Thousand Islands. Did you think all that ‘we been here forever’ talk was blather? Delia’s and Augusta’s families came here, claimed and settled land forever ago. Long before the E.J. Watson brouhaha, and that happened right after the hurricane of 1910. Between Delia and Augusta, they probably own at least a hundred islands. Most not more than patches of mangroves. Maybe a shell mound or two. Anyway, some resort company took a fancy to one of Delia’s islands. She won’t even talk to them.” Rowena shook her head at the folly of Delia’s decision and reached for the last cookie.
“Except for Chokoloskee, those islands are all in one state or national park or another,” Ryan countered. “No one can own them.”
Rowena placed her palms on the table and pushed herself to standing. “That might be what you think. Might even be what the government thinks, but I guarantee that Augusta and Delia have papers that say different. And they aren’t the only ones. Say, maybe my new jewelry supplier has a deed or two tucked away in that scruffy bag he carries.”
At long last we shut the door firmly behind Ryan and Rowena, who were still chattering about the islands and the Everglades. After we wiped down the tables and chairs, I ran the electric broom over the floor while Bridgy did the end-of-the-day kitchen checklist. Stove burners off? Check. Freezer door shut? Check.
I put the broom away and was wiping a barely visible speck off the countertop when I decided to put on my happy face. We’d talked Rowena into consigning jewelry from Skully. Miguel’s cousin Rey would be at his bedside tomorrow morning. The worst was behind us.
Bridgy was quick to erase my imaginary smile when she poked her head in the kitchen pass-through and said, “I guess I’ll call Aunt Ophie first thing in the morning.”
Chapter Three ||||||||||||||||||||
Thunder rat-tat-tatted like gunfire. I opened one bleary eye. Not thunder. Bridgy banging on my bedroom door.
“We have kitchen duty. The café opens at seven sharp. We’ve got to go. Put on the coffee. Fire up the grill.”
I reached for my night table and smacked the button on my projection clock. Like the Bat Signal in Gotham City, a circle of light beamed on the ceiling, but instead of the shadow of the Caped Crusader my light circled three numbers. 4:45. In. The. Morning.
I threw a pillow at the door. It bounced once and floated silently to the floor. I should’ve thrown the clock.
“Come on, Sas. Get out of bed.”
I grumbled, nothing intelligible, but Bridgy took any sign of life as acquiescence.
“Glad you’re up. We going to ride our bikes or are you too tired, poor thing?”
I buried my head in my one remaining pillow. I so wanted to close my eyes for another hour or two, but I accepted my fate and flung back the covers.
“I’m up,” I announced to the door. “And I seriously wish we’d bought two tiny but very separate condos instead of sharing this palace you swore would be a growth investment. If I had my own place, you couldn’t come wakin’ me whenever you feel like it.”
“But then you wouldn’t have that mind-blowing view. Look out the window. That’ll chipper you right up.” And I heard her trot away from my door, feeling pleased, I’m sure, that she’d got me to my feet.
Okay, she was right about the view. From here on the fifth floor, my not-quite-floor-to-ceiling bedroom window faced north, showing off the whole of the Gulf of Mexico. Brooklyn girl that I am, I never quite got used to the Matlacha Preserve, with its foliage, green and dense from January through December. Dead ahead, the fishermen on Pine Island already had their lamps lit and were probably filling their thermoses about now. Across Pine Island Sound, other barrier islands—Sanibel, North Captiva, Cayo Costa—jutted into the Gulf with far less electric sparkle. Past those familiar islands, land masses were mere dots to the naked eye, but I knew they led a path straight to the Florida panhandle. I opened the window and stretched my arms high, bent to touch my toes, all the while taking deep breaths of that salty/sweet Gulf air.
* * *
It had been a long time since Bridgy and I did the morning setup at the café, but we fell into the old rhythm, Bridgy as the chef, with me as scullery maid.
Fortunately, the breakfast rush was steady but not heavy. Not until January would we have folks waiting in line for tables. Right before eight o’clock someone pulled the chain on the old bronze ship’s bell hanging beside our door. It clanged loud enough to wake half of Fort Myers Beach. At a table for four, the two ladies gave a yelp but one of the men laughed. “Don’t know a ship’s bell when you hear it? Reminds me of my days in the Navy.”
The door flew open and Aunt Ophie breezed in, tottering on bright pink heels so high and stylishly strappy that I’m sure I’d know the brand if only I paid attention to such things.
She patted my face with a white gloved hand. “Y’all must be so relieved to see me.” She swung a pink patent leather purse right at my stomach. It took a second for me to realize it was my job to take custody. Well-mannered ladies didn’t carry purses indoors. It had been a while, so I’d forgotten the “well-mannered ladies” conventions. Bet I’d be reminded of all of them within two, three hours, tops.
“I would have been here sooner, but the Publix on San Carlos don’t open ’til seven. I didn’t ’spect y’all to have the ingredients for my buttermilk pie.” She looked around, pleased that she had the attention of the entire room. “No one makes it good as I can.” She winked at the retired sailor. “My dear departed and most sainted husband always said it tastes like kisses from heaven.”
I was so busy wondering which husband, the one who departed for the great beyond, or the one who departed for Mobile with his manicurist, that I almost missed her hand fluttering in the direction of the door.
“Sassy, my things are in the car. Bring in the supermarket bags first. Freshness, you know. And where—there she is!”
Bridgy came out of the kitchen, plopped a couple of hot breakfasts on the counter and practically sang. “Did I hear my dazzling Aunt Ophie? How did you know? How did you know we need your help? Do you have a crystal ball? Tarot cards?”
Ophie blushed and opened her arms wide. While they were doing the big ole bear hug thing, Bridgy pointed to the plates and mouthed, Christie. Pancakes for the lady.
There’s a strong family resemblance in the way they order me around. I stashed the pink purse under the counter. While I was serving the food at the Christie table, I heard Ophie say, “Facebook, you darlin’ girl. I saw your status last night about Miguel’s broken leg. I knew you’d need me to come a’running. I packed up my things and left Pinetta not long after midnight. I-75 was empty. Only me and a string of long-distance truckers. Would have been here earlier, if that sorry excuse for a Publix had been open. And of course that bridge. One lane on, one lane off the island. Need a new bridge is all I’m saying.” She primped her oat-colored shoulder-length hair, confident that one word from her and the town council would widen the bridge in a week or two.
When I struggled through the door lugging the bounty of Ophie’s shopping, she was seated at Emily Dickinson, sipping a glass of sweet tea. Taking no notice that my arms were filled with her grocery bags, she smiled. “Sassy, honey, could you get me a sprig o’ mint?”
Without so much as a “hey,” a gray-haired man with bronze leathery skin wearing torn cutoffs and a rumpled camouflage tee shirt followed me in and placed his thermos on the counter. He dropped his duffel bag next to his feet. The duffel gave me the creeps. He’d carried that human skull around for months, and when he finally gave it up, I never understood why he didn’t trash the bag. I headed to the kitchen to unpack the groceries but gave him a cheery “Be right with you.” Skully shook his head and pointed to Bridgy coming through the door carrying mint sprigs on a dish.
After I put away Aunt Ophie’s groceries (did she really think we needed twelve quarts of buttermilk?), I crossed back into the dining room and roamed from table to table with an orange-topped pot of decaf in one hand and a brown-topped pot of regular in the other. Standing at the counter, Skully and Bridgy were deep in conversation, while, from her seat at Emily Dickinson, Aunt Ophie was watching them intently. Hopefully, she was admiring her niece; Skully didn’t strike me as husband material if she was looking for number three.
I was distracted when Judge Harcroft came in. Even though each and every morning he ate the Hammett Ham ’n Eggs over hard, I still had to wait, order pad in hand, while he pretended to decide. The day may come when he asks for the Agatha Christie Soft-Boiled Eggs over Catcher in the Rye Toast, but it won’t be in this century.
The cook was still sitting with her aunt. I pulled the judge’s order off my pad and held it out to her.
“Here you go.”
“Duty calls. You sit here and rest, Aunt Ophie. I’ll be right back.”
I followed her, wondering aloud about her conversation with Skully.
“Poor guy. He wanted to tell me Rowena seemed a little distant when they spoke. I told him to go on over to the Emporium because we straightened it all out last night. He’s on his way to see her now. Here comes Miss Augusta. I wonder where Miss Delia is. I’d love to ask her about the island Rowena mentioned.”
Augusta stopped short when she saw Aunt Ophie sitting at Emily Dickinson. I ran over to do a quick introduction before Augusta could start booming about “her table.”
“Here you go, Miss Augusta. Have a seat. You remember Bridgy’s aunt Ophelia. She’s helping us while poor Miguel is recovering from his fall.”
“Don’t look like much help, sitting around drinking sweet tea.” Augusta’s baritone filled the room. The regulars paid no attention, but the vacationers were startled and turned to glare at the great hulk who was shouting querulously. The disbelief on their faces when they realized all that noise came from diminutive Augusta was comical.
“And where is Miss Delia, this morning?”
Augusta shook her head. “Delia knows what’s expected. If we’re going out in the morning, we decide the time the night before. I drive because her eyes are good for nothing but the big-screen TV.” She emphasized with her arms spread wider than a fisherman lying about the one that got away. “We give up our bikes the year she turned seventy-three and I turned seventy-six. Knees gone. Anyway, I expect she stands on the porch. I pull up. She gets in the car. If she ain’t on the porch, I tap the horn. Count to fifty and pull away. Used to count to twenty but we move slower now. Guess she changed her mind.” She pointed to me. “You know how Delia is—flighty.”
Aunt Ophie patted Augusta’s hand. “Honey chile, I understand. I have a friend like that back in Pinetta, that’s up in Madison County, you know. Few miles south of the Georgia border. Sassy, get my friend—Augusta, is it? Lovely name—get my friend Augusta a glass of sweet tea.”
I’d never seen Augusta drink sweet tea, but when she didn’t demur, I went to the kitchen. I placed the glass in front of her, and Ophie offered the plate of mint. “Have a sprig. Adds a little zing to the tea.” On my way back to the kitchen I heard a rap on the window. I looked over and Cady Stanton was waving frantically for me to come outside. I shook my head and signaled him to come in, but he was insistent that I come out. Cady is way too gentle to insist on anything, so I wondered what could be so earth-shattering. Still, I signaled I’d be right there. I pushed the kitchen door, told Bridgy I’d be in the parking lot and hurried away without listening to her questions and objections.
Cady was pacing back and forth with his hands behind his back, and his chin buried so deep in his chest that his hunched shoulders grazed the tips of his earlobes. A gust of wind tossed his sandy hair this way and that, but he didn’t reach up to slick his hair back in place, something he normally does a hundred times a day. He stopped in front of me. His face was so unnaturally pale that his freckles stood out like freshly painted dots on a Raggedy Andy doll. He threw his shoulders back and stretched to his full six feet. His thin frame looked a tad scrawny. Absently, I wondered why I suddenly thought him scrawny, and unbidden, the biceps of Ryan’s new lieutenant flitted through my mind.
“Sassy, Miss Delia is dead and Miss Augusta is missing.”
I actually laughed at his rude joke. “Sometimes that newspaper reporter’s humor of yours is a little too dark for me.” I pointed through the window. “Miss Augusta is sitting right there, talking to Bridgy’s aunt.”
Cady peered through the window, and a look of relief swept across his face just as the wind blew, and this time he did slide his hand over his hair to push it back in place.
“Don’t be coming around with your tall tales, Cady. I don’t like it.” I tucked a stray hair off his forehead, one he’d missed. I hoped my touch would soften my words.
Cady put his hands on my shoulders. “Sassy, you have to be strong. The sheriff notified the News about Delia’s death a few minutes ago and said they can’t find Augusta. I came here because I know how much you care about those two old ladies. Thank God Augusta is okay. But Delia is definitely dead.” He pulled me to his chest, and, as I noticed a time or two before, his shoulder was comforting, and not a bit scrawny. He kissed the top of my head and said, softly, “And now someone has to tell Augusta.”
Chapter Four ||||||||||||||||||||
I wiped my eyes on the hem of my apron and took a couple of deep breaths trying to compose myself. Cady was still talking about ways we could gently break the horrible news to Augusta, but I was grappling with the newly empty space in my heart and the agitation swirling in my stomach. I prayed I wouldn’t heave.