Tabor? No way. She squashed the idea before it could take form. Daniel couldn’t stop himself from being nice. It was who he was. A parade of women from girl scouts to grandmothers congregated around the rare creature, a pleasant man with a devastating smile. Maria, since marrying her brother, often referred to him as too nice and cautioned him against letting people take advantage of him. The same advice she used to give her brother before she realized he enjoyed playing the hero. “See you at the restaurant,” she shouted over the noise of squad cars leaving the scene.
She watched one police sedan make a leisurely turn at the corner before opening her own car door. No rush, no urgent matter to attend to, just time to move on. Apparently the entire force wasn’t need for the issue of an unknown dead man. A quarter of a mile later, the sight of a smiling, oversized egg perched on the edge of the restaurant roof confirmed her destination. As a kid, she used to confuse The Good Egg with Humpty Dumpty.
Daniel stood by the entrance holding the front door open for two blue-haired ladies. One even patted his cheek. Donna chuckled at the action, knowing it would annoy her brother. She turned off the ignition, cutting the singer off in the middle of a word. Weird, she didn’t even remember turning the radio on. Her chaotic thoughts, including a mysteriously murdered man and the possibility Tabor found her interesting, made enough mental noise to drown out anything else.
“C’mon slowpoke.” Her brother gestured in her direction. “I’m not going to hold this door open forever.”
Actually he probably would, but the diners inside wouldn’t appreciate the inflow of frosty air. Donna jogged to where her brother stood, but pointed the key fob back in the direction of her car. The horn beeped indicating the doors had locked. Good. She didn’t need any more surprises today.
They grabbed a table in the back that had an empty table between them and the next diners. A young family battled with three youngsters under three. Their primary goal consisted of keeping the children seated as opposed to being under the table. No worries about the parents eavesdropping, the harried parents would be lucky to eat.
A bored teenage girl brought them water and laminated menus. She muttered something about a breakfast special before pivoting away. Didn’t quite catch the special, but she did notice Daniel’s expression. Oh yeah, a female he didn’t impress. That happened now and then. The menu hid her amusement. Could be her handsome brother had reached an age cut off where he no longer appealed to current tastes.
“Lesbian.” Her low-voiced comment reached her brother as she had intended. He nodded once, concurring.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too.” Daniel worked his chin to one side, then to the other side. “I’ve noticed there are more and more of them.”
Faded color photographs of huge breakfasts complete with hash browns and pancakes absorbed her attention. Usually, she told them to hold the pancakes, not feeling the need for such a substantial meal, but the unexpected murder had a way of working up an appetite. Probably would go with the pancakes, then. Sure, she was feeding her anxiety, but it was hers. Made sense that she’d feed it. Her brother grumbled about something. “Un-huh,” Donna acknowledged, without listening.
“Yeah, you see it too. I wonder what the numbers are.” Daniel squirmed in his chair craning his neck to view all the diner’s occupants. “What do you think the statistics are?”
“What statistics?” She didn’t have a clue what Daniel was yammering about. “Dead men in vacant houses?”
He held out his flat palm next to his face shielding his words from the nearby lively children. “Lesbians. There’s a lot more than there used to be.”
Her eyebrows lifted as she realized she lost the conversational thread somewhere. “Daniel, I don’t think there are any more or any less than previously. People are just more open.” What did this have to do with anything? If she were a cartoon character, a lightbulb would materialize over her head and flicker to life. Her casual comment meant to save his ego started it all, but she was unwilling to admit it.
Her brother would be forty-three in two months, not old, especially to someone who just turned fifty. His job and a gym membership kept him in shape. As a natural blonde, the gray wouldn’t show as much. As for his skin, a little weathered, probably didn’t use sunscreen as much as he should have. Still, he carried it well and it gave him some rugged appeal. He had a good five to seven years before most women saw him too old to be interesting. Would it devastate him when his good looks no longer merited superior service or enhanced opinions? The halo effect, where people assumed attractive people were smarter, kinder, just better people than the average looker. She remembered reading about it. At the time, she wondered if ugly people were meaner, more stupid, and more vicious. Didn’t seem fair considering that neither group could determine their parentage.
“What?” Daniel swept a hand over his face. “Is there something stuck to my face? Toothpaste, a bit of shaving cream?”
Shaving cream? The man actually shaved before he came. No wonder he was late. “No. I was just admiring how handsome you are.” Good thing she wasn’t Catholic. That whopper would be a confessable sin.
A huge smile stretched his lips and reached his eyes. Her off-handed comment made him happy. Maybe she should lie more often. This might be the secret to getting along with people. Besides, it wasn’t a real lie. The server came back while Daniel was still beaming, but she kept scowling down at her pad. “Whaddya have?”
Another flunkie from charm school, at least she wasn’t the only one. Her brother gave his order while inserting an inquiry about the server’s well-being. She ignored it. Daniel’s smile slipped a little. The waitress turned to her.
“I want the lumberjack breakfast. Want my eggs over easy. Sausage, wheat toast, grits, and pancakes. Bring hot sauce too. And a coffee pot, while your at it.”
The server scribbled down the order and turned without a comment. Daniel watched her go with a perplexed expression. “She must not be feeling good or she’s still asleep.”
Was he still stuck on why he didn’t get his usual response? Seriously. “Dead man in my upstairs room, remember?”
He shook his head vigorously as if shaking off his funk. “Of course, I remember. Difficult to overlook the police cars and the medics wheeling out a body bag.”
“Wish you would have got there earlier.”
“Me too. “ He reached for her hand covering it with his warm one. “It must have been hard for you seeing the body.”
She kept her hand under his, which reminded her of their connection. Often as the older child, she thought of her brother as a guest, an interloper, not part of who she was. Her role was to look out for him, not terrorize him. Still, she managed a few practical jokes, but that was the extent of it, especially when all he did in return was idolize her. Geesh, no wonder people liked him.
“The body wasn’t the problem. I see dead bodies all the time.” The mother who had wrestled her toddler back in his high chair gave her a startled look that had her amending her statement. “I mean, occasionally people don’t survive the surgery. A few stroke out in recovery.” She sure didn’t sound like a stellar endorsement of the hospital.
Chair legs screeching and childish laughter heralded the departure of the nearby family. One child escaped his parents and ran around their table screaming in the process. The curly headed boy smiled as he lapped their table. Cute, probably another Daniel, who’d already discoverd the power of good bone structure and great hair.
The mother with one child planted on her hip managed to snag speed racer about the same time Donna replied. “It’s not the dead body that’s the issue. It’s the location of it.”
A small gasp drew their attention to the mother who held the toddler against her body with wide eyes as if she and her brother would turn into brain-hungry zombies. Daniel, always faster on people skills, remarked, “She’s a mystery writer.”
“Oh.” The woman’s arm banding her son against her lower body relaxed as the hunted look left her eyes, replaced by interest. “What have you written? Maybe I’ve read something of yours. I’m a big mystery fan.”
Yeah brother, what have I written? Daniel recovered well, never letting his distress being caught in an out and out lie. “Oh, nothing’s published yet. Still, I’m sure an agent will pick up her latest book.”
“Oh.” The minor excitement at meeting an author fizzled out of her as quickly as air escapes an untied balloon. Her husband called, giving her the excuse to leave without any more conversation.
Donna watched the little family leave and head for a minivan; she’d be willing to bet it had a stick family on the back window complete with a dog or cat. “Couldn’t you have made me a successful author?”
The server returned with two thick white stoneware cups and an insulated coffee carafe. She placed them on the table without pouring as she headed off toward an arm-waving patron.
Daniel angled his head in the direction of the server. “I love it when waitress fuss over me.”
“Yeah, you probably do, but I’m more concerned about the dead man in my inn.” It was hard to solve issues if you couldn’t stay on topic. She picked up the coffee pot and filled both cups, leaving about a half inch from the top for the insertion of sugar and cream. Some sweetener packets laid on the table, but no cream was to be found. A saucer of creamer pods sat on the table the family had abandoned. Using a bent index finger, she pointed to the creamers without speaking. Daniel retrieved them, proving their connection.
Daniel stirred the cream into his coffee. “Did you get a good look at the man?”
“I did.” The man’s pale face with open bloodshot eyes transposed over her brother’s, making her shudder. “Even attempted CPR. Yeah, I got a good look at him.” The stranger’s face faded leaving behind her brother’s contemplative one as he sipped coffee.
“Was it anyone you recognized?”
He sounded like the police. “Of course, it wasn’t anyone I knew. I could have ID’ed the man if I knew him. No one I knew.”
Just as well, too. If I had known him then I’d have a possible motive. Her brother glanced over her shoulder causing her to turn as the server arrived with their breakfast.
Daniel’s plate landed with a clatter. Luckily, the eggs had congealed enough not to slide off the plate. Her plate received equally rough treatment along with the added benefit of a glare for each additional side dish. Bowl of grits, stare, pancakes, even more put out, and the bottle of hot sauce, which came with a I hope you choke on it look.
No stranger to snarky attitudes, Donna smiled sweetly. “It all looks so good. Thank you so much for your excellent service. It was a delight being served by you.”
The waitress slowly backed away, picked up her round tray and headed for the kitchen. She threw a backward glance as she went.
“Donna, that was mean. You messed with her head.”
“Yep.” She started at her hash browns, then the table. “No ketchup.”
Daniel reached over to the other table and retrieved a bottle. “Doubt that the server will come back now. She’ll probably have someone else bring us our bills.”
“I wasn’t scary.” She chewed on the mouthful of sausage savoring the spicy pork patty since she had lost the conversational thread once she started eating. Fixing, eating, even analyzing food numbered among her favorite activities. Lucky for her a fast metabolism and being on her feet all day counteracted her hearty appetite. Lately, she’d noticed a tightness in her uniforms that hadn’t existed previously.
“Un-huh.” Her brother took a bite of his eggs before continuing. “Even though you were smiling, you had that don’t mess with me look in your eyes. The one that lets people know you’ll rip their arms off if you cross them.”
She gave the ketchup bottle a vigorous shake without any result. “I think you got me a dud bottle.” Continual shaking didn’t help.
“Use your knife.” Her brother waved his knife as if she couldn’t figure out what a knife was.
Her hand grasped the knife as if it belonged to a chimpanzee in some nature video about apes using tools. The knife served as tool, but not in the usual fashion. After several scrapes against the glass, ketchup trickled out in red splotches. It was almost as if the bottle exhaled, spitting out a bit with each breath. She looked at the red dots coating her potatoes. “No blood.”
A couple of patrons turned their heads and Daniel kicked her under the table. “Lower your voice.”
A spark of anger flared. She had a strong desire to tell Daniel what he could do with his foot and advice; she tamped it down once she realized a diner was not the place to shout her murder observations. In a sotto voice, she leaned across the table. “There was no blood. Nothing to indicate homicide, but they still put it down as a homicide. The body was still warm when I touched it.”
The fork dropped from her brother’s hand. “I lost my appetite.”
She hadn’t. Picking up the syrup dispenser that the server actually brought, she doused her hotcakes. Something was missing. Apparently, the medics had come in and noticed it was a murder immediately. Open bloodshot eyes, pale skin. That could just be the blood leaving his skin. “Poisoning.”
Their server who had been almost at their table, stopped, and headed back to the kitchen. Daniel picked up the coffee pot and swished it demonstrating its almost empty state. “I think you scared the server away again. I could do with more coffee.”
“Me too.” She took the coffee pot from her brother and held it in the air as she counted under her breath. An older server showed up with a fresh pot when she’d hit thirty-one, placed it on the table, and then scurried away.
“Nifty trick. Got service without saying a word.” He reached for the new pot, refreshed his cup, then hers.
The stench of burnt toast drifted on the air causing her to flip over her toast. Nope, not burned, someone else was the unlucky one for a change. Just as well, she didn’t feel like dealing with Miss Sullen right now. Her mother probably owns the place and routed the teen out of bed when short a waitress.
“It’s attitude. People give you what you expect to get. You are the absolute king of this method.” Did he even realize he got different treatment or did he just assume everyone was treated the same?
“Okay. I agree.” He waved his bare fork for emphasis. ”I usually get good service, but not today. Can you explain that?”
“Nothing is 100%. Trust me, I didn’t expect a dead man in my house, but I got one anyhow. Not sure how long that will keep us out of the house or even if I’m a suspect.” Her fork cut into fluffy pancakes as her brother choked on coffee when she mentioned being a suspect. She knew he would. Predictable.
“You. A suspect!”
“Technically, yes.” The mix of buckwheat and maple syrup satisfied her need for comfort food. She chewed slowly and swallowed before answering. Her mother made have despaired of teaching her social skills, but table manners she got. It didn’t stop her from talking about medical procedures while dining, but she kept her mouth shut while chewing, which is more than some people. “Anyone who is at a crime scene must be investigated. I don’t think Tabor believes I’m a killer. I called, volunteered too much information, even let him take my handheld recorder. Then there’s the fact I didn’t know the man, tried to save him with CPR. It doesn’t sound very killer like.”
“Hmm.” Her brother nodded as he chewed, demonstrating similar good manners. Most people didn’t mind his construction talk while chowing down either. “You could be an incredibly smart criminal. If doing all those things would throw someone off the scent. Still.” His eyes narrowed as he paused. “I think you’re right about Tabor not taking you seriously as a suspect, but not for the listed reasons.”
“Okay. Why?” This should be interesting. She moved the empty pancake plate to the center of the table while eyeing the grits and eggs. Neither one tasted that good while cold.
“Tabor’s a seasoned veteran cop. Couldn’t get where he was without experience. He has an instinct about when someone is telling the truth. Also knows when someone is holding something back. He felt that with you.”
“All good. It makes sense.” She had a similar instinct. Knew when people were lying to her. Especially when she confronted the spouse of a patient who denied sleeping beside her husband when the impression of her body remained on the sheets. Despite it being against hospital policy, she didn’t make a big deal out of it. The sense of the familiar calmed the patient. Occasionally, she felt a twinge, especially with an older couple when one of them confessed they’d never spent a night apart since they were married. “Thank goodness, you didn’t bring up any of that nonsense about Tabor wanting me.”
“He does.” Daniel shoved in a mouthful of hash browns as his eyes twinkled at her.
She shook her head, unwilling to entertain the topic. “It couldn’t be poisoning. I thought it was at first, but there was no vomit near the body.”
“Donna.” Daniel’s forehead furrowed with his complaint. “Usually I can take your medical, small talk, but I am eating here.”
“Me too. I’m trying to figure this out. The sooner the killer is caught, the sooner the suspicious shadow hanging over my inn disappears.” At least that is how she hoped it works. There’d still be people in the neighborhood willing to rehash it, but they weren’t her future customers.
The ping from the fork hitting the platter drew her attention. Her brother regarded her with a resigned expression and folded arms. “Go ahead. Tell me why it couldn’t be poisoning. I’m done eating anyhow.”
“I bent over him to administer CPR. As you may know, it’s CPR only as opposed to mouth to mouth when you’re unaware of what caused the person to be unconscious.”
“No, I wasn’t aware.” He circled his hand for her to continue.
“As I leaned over him. There was no smell of poison.” Her brother’s eyebrows shot up. She continued before he could ask. “Arsenic smells rather like garlic. Cyanide has the aroma of bitter almonds. Diethyl glycol smells like maple syrup, even though it’s in everything from cough syrup to toothpaste. Enough of it can kill you.”
“He didn’t smell like any of these?”
“No.” Her eyes rolled upward as she gathered her impressions from the unknown stranger. No splotching on the faces or sallowness that would be indicative of various poisons. “At first, I thought he was some homeless guy sleeping off a drunk, but then I noticed the quality of his clothes, the expensive haircut, the Rolex. When I rolled him over, I caught the scent of a high-end cologne, a complex one with notes of musk and citrus in it. At the time, I thought he was the type I wanted to visit my inn, preferably while not inebriated. I didn’t know he was dead then. When I put my head near his face to see if he was breathing, he smelt fresh like mouthwash or toothpaste, not like alcohol at all. Instead of being a drunk, he was more like a man on his way to a secret tryst. Hadn’t thought about it before, but what if he were there to meet someone, a romantic rendezvous?”
Her brother’s lips turned down, but his gaze went past her shoulder as he spoke. “If it were romantic, then it ended badly. Makes you wonder why the secret meeting place? Better yet, how did he get in?”
How did he get in? With everything going on, she hadn’t even considered this. When she opened the locked back door this morning, no sign of tampering had existed. He could have come through the side or front door. Before she could relate this information, a red-faced, middle-aged woman appeared at their table. The hairnet along with the oversized apron indicated she might be the cook or owner, or possibly both. The woman pursed her lips, fisted her hands on her hips, before giving them each a baleful glare.
“I don’t appreciate all this talk about poisoning and dead bodies in my restaurant.”
Donna rather admired the show of indignation. Couldn’t have done better herself. Her brother smiled up at the woman, expecting the woman to soften toward him. She didn’t. He hurried to explain, “We weren’t talking about you personally poisoning people.”
The woman’s lips grew into an even tighter line that Donna would have sworn five seconds ago wasn’t possible. Waving a chipped nail index finger in Daniel’s face, she announced with venom dripping from her words. “I know your type, pretty boy. Think a smile and a wink will get you out of trouble. Not here. Probably think it's funny ruining the appetites of my customers. Get out. Don’t worry about paying. Your money isn’t welcome here. Take your floozy with you.”
The woman’s face reddened as she held a rigid arm in the direction of the door rather like the angel with the flaming sword barring the entrance to Eden. Yep, not hard to read that message.
Donna unhooked her purse from the back of the chair and favored the grits with a longing look before she stood. No one had to tell her twice. Daniel got up slower, probably not sure what happened. Definitely his first ejection from anywhere, especially by a woman. Not as if she were expert on getting the bum’s rush, but she had more of a tendency to rile people up.
They both walked out without comment under the silent scrutiny of the handful of diners who remained. No doubt, they’d burst into conversation as soon as the door shut. Outside in the cool air, she winked at her brother. “First time I’ve ever been a floozy. I think I like it.”
“I don’t.” His grumpy tone and woe be gone expression made her laugh.
“C’mon Dano, get in my car and we can finish our conversation, which was so rudely interrupted.” Instead of answering, he went to the passenger door of her SUV and waited for the unlock click before trying the door.
Once in the car, she debated turning on the engine, but decided only to fire it up when it became too cold. “I guess what I want to know is how they knew it was murder. I saw no visible signs of poison. Most of the time, they have to do a toxicology report to find that out anyhow. “
“Do you think they may have said that to cover all the bases before they determine the cause of death?”
Weird. Normally it would be the opposite. “It wouldn’t make sense. Not sure, who the guy was, but obviously he had money. Possibly someone important. Would the police call it murder if he weren’t?“
Daniel’s phone chirped. He palmed it and read the text before replying. Donna knew who it was without asking. Sunday morning, probably the only day off he had to spend with his wife and she was hogging it all. Maria would be demanding details on when he’d be home.
“That was Maria.”
Pretend surprise. Her hand landed on her chest as she made an O with her mouth. “Really?”
“No wonder you never got the lead in any of the school plays. You’re a lousy actor. She wants to know when I’ll be home. “
Reasonable question. “Nothing more you can do here. Maybe you can make it home in time for a second breakfast.”
“Very funny. I’m not a hobbit.” His hand was on the door handle as a familiar sedan pulled in the empty space between her car and Daniel’s truck.
Tabor unfolded himself from the car, threw a wry smile seeing the occupants of the SUV, then walked over to the driver side. Donna motored the window down.
“Hello. Imagine seeing you here. How can I help you?”
“A call came in from the owner of the diner.” He angled his head back in the direction of the building where the apron wrapped woman stood, legs apart, arms akimbo, itching for a fight. “Suspicious characters in the parking lot. Same two she’d thrown out for making remarks about killing people and poison and frightening her customers. She was afraid they might be concocting some type of revenge, even robbery. Typically a squad car would handle it, but I was in the area and thought the description fitted you.”
Description, huh? Had the bitter server describe her as a tall woman with a commanding presence? A handsome woman on the upside of fifty? “What did she say?”
“Pink work boots and an attitude.” His demeanor remained sober while the corner of his eyes crinkled a tiny bit.
Damn. She’d hope for something a little more elaborate or even flattering. “I can see how you thought it might be me.”
He nodded. “The yakking about a possible murder was a tip off too. Do the two of you even know what discreet means?”
Daniel looked down at his hands acting properly chastised. Donna wasn’t having any of it, wasn’t everything happening to her? Wasn’t she getting the sharp end of the stick? No one had it worse, well, except for the victim. “We weren’t talking all that loud. I know one diner had a recent hernia operation. Another one is checking her husband’s texts to see if he’s cheating on her. The family next to us had no control over their children and the husband was no real help either. The only difference between them and us was our conversation was more interesting. Besides Daniel told him I was a mystery writer.”
“Oh, what an inventive excuse.” He exaggerated his eye roll. “That one has never been done before. How many police dramas do the two of you watch?”
Daniel looked up suddenly recognizing an opening. “I need to go home. My wife needs me.” He held up his blinking cell phone as if that were evidence.
Tabor nodded, which was all Daniel needed to escape from the SUV, jump into his car and take off.
Thanks a lot, brother. “Coward,” she muttered the word as she watched her brother drive away, careful not to speed out of the parking lot, but wanting to all the same. The owner watched the car leave but switched back to stare at Donna.
Tabor’s hand passed through the open window and nudged her shoulder. “Don’t be so hard on your brother.” He glanced back at the diner. “What did you do to get the owner so riled?
“Who knows? I think this time it was actually Daniel. She had called my brother a pretty boy and me his floozie before she kicked us out. I’d say she’s a bitter divorcee who caught her handsome husband cheating. Now, she’s suspicious of all handsome men. The break is rather recent, which explains her attitude or she keeps the pain alive by reliving his betrayal.”
A long whistle punctuated the air. “You’re good at this. None of the new detectives would have summed up the woman so concisely, with her only uttering a few sentences. I’m betting you’re right. A regular Sherlock Holmes.”
An unaccustomed sense of pride swelled up in her chest. Most everything she did was right, professional, and to the letter, but people seldom praised her for it. Instead, they just expected it rather like the sun coming up every morning. They’d be upset when it didn’t happen. “I have a knack for observation that serves me in my work.”
His hand moved over his face, lingering on his beard stubble. “I can see that. Apparently, you’ve been talking the case to death. Remember anything else?”
“I did.” She volunteered quickly, sounding a bit like the girl detective from the Saturday morning children’s show that honed her observational skills. “Smells actually.”
“Smells?” His lips pursed, then relaxed. “Like what?”
“Not any obvious poisons.” He held up a hand, stopping her.
“How did you know so much about poison and should you be confessing it to me.”
“Seriously.” She wrinkled her nose and caught herself smiling. “I’m a nurse. It’s my job. I did two years in the trauma unit and we had our share of poisonings, accidental, and intentional. I realize some don’t leave a scent. I didn’t notice any of the obvious ones or skin mottling. A high-end cologne aroma hit me went I bent to check his airway. Still strong as if it had been applied recently. The scent of mouthwash or just brushed teeth, the smell of a fastidious man or one whose plans centered on more than conversation. Knife sharp crease lines remained in his khakis. He looked and smelt more like a man expecting a romantic assignation. He may have just showered too. Hard to say, since I was freaking out a little.”
Tabor had pulled out his pad. His pen poised over the tablet, he asked, “Could you name the cologne?”
“Not off hand, I could go to a department store and sniff what they had and maybe come up with a name. But if you know who he is, then it’s a moot point.”
“You’re right. Still call me impressed. Well, you’re free to go. Remember to call me if you think of anything else. Your observations are gold. I need to go talk to the owner. Lucky for me, I’m no handsome face.” He flipped his tablet shut and shoved it back into his inner jacket pocket.
The desire to correct his statement stalled before it could take shape in her mouth. Good thing too because he’d know it to be false and would consider it fictionalized flattery. She didn’t want that. The engine turned over with a slight cough. Didn’t need car problems when every dime she had in the bank had gone into purchasing the inn. A loan for rehabbing the property would be easy to obtain, but not as long as it was a crime scene. Supposedly, people’s memories for sensationalized stories were short. This factoid she needed to be true.