You should probably know one thing about me right up front: I’m not a morning person. Never have been, never will be. If it’s too early for traffic jams, tequila, and at least fifty percent of the taxi drivers in any given metropolis to be plying their trade, then it’s too early for me. End of story. But sometimes I have to make exceptions. Doesn’t everyone?
The fact of the matter is, I don’t always set my own hours. Sometimes, my clients do that for me. That’s because I’m a freelancer—a freelance chocolate whisperer. You might not have heard of me. I’m the first of my kind. My clients would probably prefer you don’t know I exist. But I definitely do.
My work takes me around the world, where I use my expertise with Theobroma cacao to solve problems (on the QT) for my influential clients. Usually, they find me by referral. I’m not exactly a household name; I don’t want to be. But the downside of working on an on-demand basis is that I don’t always work when I want to.
For instance, consulting for bakeries means getting up with the roosters (because bakers are lunatics). Consulting for multinational corporations means crossing multiple time zones (because CEOs are relentless). Consulting for mega chocolatiers (some of the biggest in the biz) who are desperate for me to troubleshoot their gloopy ganaches and freaky frappés means working around the clock. But that’s okay, because chocolatiers are wonderful—truly some of my favorite people in the world.
So sometimes I’m up at dawn. While I’m working, at least.
For the most part, though, the whole early-bird routine isn’t for me. Neither is planning too far ahead, taking on clients who won’t reveal who referred them to me, or passing up any chance I get to taste a new single-origin varietal chocolate (preferably around 72 percent dark). But after the consultation-gone-wrong that I’d just had, all bets were off.
After everything that had gone down with Lemaître Chocolates in San Francisco, I was ready for a change of pace.
Ordinarily, after finishing one hush-hush assignment for a client, I’m off and running to the next. Partly because it suits me—I grew up rough-traveling the world with a pair of globe-trotting parents who wore out passports the way other parents wore out their suburban SUVs’ tires, so gridskipping feels like walking around the block to me—and partly because if I don’t . . .
Well, my financial advisor—steady, sexy-voiced Travis Turner—could fill you in on the consequences of what happens if I don’t keep my duffel bag and always-packed wheelie suitcase at the ready. Suffice it to say, it’s in my best interest to keep moving, which I do by fixing problems with my clients’ cocoa-butter-filled cookies, cakes, and confections. I like chocolate. It likes me. Together we make magic. For money.
Don’t tell anyone, but I’d do it for free. In a heartbeat.
I’d just rather not do it before noon, if possible.
That’s why, if I’d been a celebrity, there would have been paparazzi present to document my arrival at PDX in Portland, Oregon (since my plane touched down at the earlyish hour of 8:00 a.m.). If I’d been an endangered monkey (instead of a woman with a rampant monkey mind), there would have been a Sir David Attenborough-style voice-over to narrate my transfer from the terminal to the car-rental counter to the highway leading into the city. That’s just how unusual it was to find me, mobile and agile, drinking excellent cappuccino while squinting into the sunshine before eleven o’clock or so. But since I was just me, ordinary Hayden Mundy Moore—thirty, single, possessed of an unusually talented set of taste buds and an admittedly oversize collection of Moleskine notebooks (home of my omnipresent to-do lists)—there wasn’t anyone around to remark upon the fact that I was voluntarily up early. On purpose. Playing hooky.
After leaving Maison Lemaître and its disastrous consultation-turned-murder behind (don’t ask), I’d planned to visit Seattle to meet Travis. In person. For the first time ever. Because I’d (technically) risked my life while bayside, and that kind of thing had a way of reordering a girl’s priorities. I wanted to see the man who (along with my security expert, Danny Jamieson) had helped me sidestep disaster. So I’d booked a ticket online, headed for SFO . . . and gotten a call from Travis just as I’d climbed into a taxi to leave for the airport.
“Seattle, huh?” he’d asked in that memorably husky murmur of his, sounding almost as though he’d set down his calculator and spreadsheets for the occasion. “What’s in Seattle, Hayden?”
“Well, he’s tall, dark, handsome, planephobic—”
“If you’re talking about me, I’m blond.”
How would I know? I’d never so much as seen a photo of him. Travis was notoriously private. On the other hand . . . I had him.
“Who says I mean you?” Of course I meant him. I’d been angling to meet Travis for a long time now—practically from the day he’d taken over for his less enigmatic (and less intriguing) predecessor. A meeting had never worked out for us, though. I was always on the run. Travis was the ultimate homebody.
Danny had met him. In fact, they were archenemies.
I didn’t know why they didn’t get along. They wouldn’t say.
“You can’t come to Seattle,” Travis said. “Not today.”
“Sure, I can.” Stubbornness is my middle name. Except I like to call it persistence. “I already have a ticket. I’m coming.”
That’s why Travis had called, of course. To stop me. He must have seen the airfare purchase show up in my bank account.
See, that was the trouble with my otherwise workable setup with Travis. Stealthiness was tricky to pull off when the person you were trying to surprise could—and did—track your every move.
For the first time, it occurred to me to wonder if Travis had thwarted me this way before. Maybe he wasn’t really gripped by an intense (and, to me, inexplicable) fear of flying. Maybe he was simply determined to keep our relationship professional.
Boringly, frustratingly, professional.
Where was the fun in that?
“No, I mean you can’t come to Seattle today because you’re supposed to be in Portland.” Travis could have been consulting a complex FBI database instead of a simple shared online calendar. That’s how focused he sounded. Which was what I got for having someone as detail-oriented as a CPA keeping my schedule for me. “For your friend’s engagement party. You can’t have forgotten.”
“I . . . might have forgotten.” Rats. Foiled again.
“Hayden.” Travis sounded disappointed. “You forgot?”
“Hey, I was just almost murdered via hot-cocoa mud bath at Maison Lemaître, remember?” Thinking about it, I couldn’t help shuddering. Of all the ways to die, biting it via chocolate-themed spa service would have lacked a certain dignity. On the other hand, my complexion would have looked fabulous. “Cut me a little slack.”
Instead, Travis had gotten back down to business. Even as I’d watched the busy streets of Nob Hill sliding past the taxi’s window, my financial advisor had squashed my plans.
“I’ll send you the Evite again with the details,” he’d said, typing in the background. “And book you another flight.”
I’d remembered that hot-pink electronic party invitation and made a face. “I can book my own flight, Travis.”
“It’s already done. I’m texting you the details.”
Now, several hours and roughly 550 air miles later, I was on my way to my friend Carissa Jenkins’s engagement party weekend. I was happy for Carissa—and her fiancé, Declan Murphy—who’d shared a whirlwind romance the likes of which usually only happened in the movies. But I wasn’t thrilled about being rerouted through an early-bird flight, and despite wanting to support my friend, I wasn’t over the moon about the prospect of a few days spent in hypergirly mode, oohing and aahing over diamond rings and flower arrangements.
I’m not the girly-girl type, prone to all things foofy, fussy, or bejeweled. I spend my days with burly, chain-smoking line cooks and tattooed back-of-house staff. That kind of thing tends to crush a person’s girlier tendencies. I was about as likely to willingly wear pink as I was to leave my chopsticks upright in my rice during a dinner in Osaka (a serious no-no).
On the bright side, though, I’d probably make it out of Carissa’s party weekend alive, I figured as I crested I-5 and caught sight of the city’s iconic White Stag portland oregon sign perched over the cloud-gray skyline. That was more than I (almost) could say about my stay at chichi Maison Lemaître.
The chances of something dangerously deadly happening in the Pacific Northwest were slim. Portland was known for its roses and bridges, brewpubs and bicycles, tattooed baristas and cutting-edge indie restaurateurs. (And rain.) Not for murder.
As it was, a getaway to someplace scenic and safe sounded pretty good to me. I’d had enough of threats and surprises, of sneaking around and of suspecting strangers, of playing amateur Sherlock Holmes, minus one deerstalker hat and/or one Benedict Cumberbatch and/or one Jonny Lee Miller and/or one Robert Downey, Jr. (take your pick). For one weekend, at least, I wanted to forget about my foray into catching a killer. If Travis wouldn’t help me accomplish that goal (and he obviously wouldn’t), then Carissa, her fiancé, and her friends would have to.
This weekend, I didn’t want to spend any time thinking about criminal behavior. Or even chocolate, for that matter.
Danny Jamieson, my oldest friend and newly hired protection expert, would have said I was dodging the facts. He would have said that my plan to visit Travis and my trip to PDX were both procrastinatory detours from what really needed to be done: deal with what had happened to me at Maison Lemaître.
He might have had a point. Because even though justice had been served and things had ended well, I was still shaken up. I still felt unsettled. Vulnerable, even. But who wouldn’t? It wasn’t every day that a person showed up to troubleshoot some nutraceutical truffles for one of San Francisco’s most venerable chocolatiering families and wound up dealing with a killer.
I was proud of the way I’d handled my inexpert sleuthing. But I didn’t want to repeat the experience. Not even for the sake of cozying up to Danny again—and we had gotten cozy.
Nothing serious had happened. Just a night of brainstorming in a dive bar in the Tenderloin. Just drinking, joking around, and being reminded of good times past. Just sharing a few saucy remarks. That’s it. We both knew better than to take it further. But I’d been tempted. If you met Danny—all muscular, macho, and ready to get down to business—you would have been, too. The thing was, I was supposed to know better.
I did know better. But some nonnegotiable time apart—while Danny stayed in California and I partied down with Carissa’s bridal party in the Rose City—sounded like a sensible idea.
I was being so responsible, it was downright saintly.
Travis would have been thrilled. But my financial advisor didn’t know everything about Danny and me, and I wanted to keep it that way. For now, Travis’s objections to Danny were limited to opposing paying his salary as my bodyguard-on-retainer. That, and balking at Danny’s light-fingered way of getting evidence, of course. Travis wasn’t thrilled with Danny’s shady past.
But I believed in giving people second chances, which was part of the reason I was in Stumptown in the first place. And before you get confused, let me clue you in: Portland has a number of nicknames—Bridgetown, Stumptown, the Rose City, PDX, and (because of its many brewpubs) Beervana. The rallying cry of the city’s residents is “Keep Portland Weird!” and it works.
Portland is one of my favorite places. It has greenery, mild weather, friendly residents, the winding Willamette River, and one of the most up-and-coming food scenes anywhere. Sure, it has its gritty side. And its stodgy side. And yes, it sometimes trends too hard toward hipster haven. But the thing about Portland is that it’s earnest. In my life, there’s too little earnestness. Wandering the world can make you cynical.
I can be cynical. Which was probably (along with the aforementioned murder) why I’d forgotten Carissa’s engagement party weekend. We’d known each other in college, during my parents’ brief fling with academia at a New England university. We’d gotten close. Then Carissa had pledged to a sorority, I’d (strenuously) objected in the way that only a self-styled emo kid could do (don’t laugh—you’ve probably got a few embarrassing memories from college yourself), and that had been that. Not long after, I’d left for a sojourn in Belgium.
Surprisingly, distance had only brought us closer—probably because living on separate continents had a way of shrinking our differences. It had been tricky to stay in touch, but Carissa and I had been devoted. We’d emailed and shared, Instagrammed and video chatted. We’d managed. I was grateful to hang on to a friend who connected me to my onetime Ivy League past, and Carissa . . .
Well, now Carissa lived someplace that hadn’t been touched since Norman Rockwell dabbled with Crayolas. Driving toward the food-cart pod where Carissa and Declan both worked—where I’d arranged to meet Carissa for “a surprise” (her words, not mine)—I passed Tudor-style cottages and Craftsman bungalows, California ranch homes and modern post-and-beam Rummers, foursquares with dormer windows and well-kept Colonials. I was Airbnb-ing it in the surrounding neighborhood, but rather than check in to my accommodations, I decided to go straight to Cartorama instead.
That was the name of Carissa’s cart pod: Cartorama. I had to say, its kitschy moniker suited the neighborhood. I passed a few corners where construction crews appeared to have torn down an old gas station or a block of careworn houses and were turning one plot or another into apartment buildings. Aside from that, the whole place looked as though it could have doubled as a set from an old Technicolor movie. It was downright charming.
It was also going away quickly. Gentrification was de rigueur in Portland. Thanks to the city’s “no-sprawl” edict—which limited development to a designated urban growth boundary—anyone who wanted to live or conduct business in the area had to squeeze into older houses or remodel dated business sites or, in the case of the cart pod, pay rents to park their foodservice trailers on an otherwise unused (for now) parking lot.
Demand was high. Availability wasn’t. My own Airbnb hosts had cashed in on the demand themselves. They no longer lived in their once-affordable 1920s foursquare, instead using the fees they earned to finance their larger house in a nearby suburb.
I was glad, for once, that I didn’t have a home base of my own to worry about. I could afford a mortgage, a husband, 2.2 kids, and a golden retriever (for instance), but I wasn’t in the market for domesticity. I couldn’t be. Thanks to my eccentric uncle Ross and the trust fund he left me (to be administered by Travis, my hyperintelligent keeper), I had no choice except to . . .
. . . snag the handy street-side parking space that suddenly became free and swerve my rental Honda Civic into it. Score!
My parking job was haphazard at best. I cut the engine and grabbed my gear anyway—my excuse being that I don’t drive much.
I prefer to walk, take the Metro, Tube, or U-Bahn, or grab a cab during my worldwide travels. That means I’m fairly rusty when it comes to expertise behind the wheel. If catching that killer in San Francisco (technically, the Marin Headlands, but who’s quibbling?) had depended upon me making sharp U-turns and navigating the Bay Area’s notoriously hilly streets . . . Well, let’s just say I’m glad it didn’t and leave it at that.
Clambering out of the car, dressed in my go-to uniform of jeans, a slim gray T-shirt, and Converse sneakers (plus a jacket, my concession to the brisk prenoon weather), I headed toward Cartorama. The cart pod was easy to spot. It occupied what appeared to be the very last empty-corner parking lot in the area. Directly across the street from me stood a freshly built high-rise apartment building. Its banner outside boasted about its über-high-speed Internet, eco-friendly construction materials, and tricked-out “community gathering place,” aka fancified rec room. Next to that, a row of buildings hunkered down straight out of the Eisenhower era, sporting a variety of indie store fronts and looking especially geriatric (but charming, in a funky way) next to their sleek new neighbor.
The whole thing was a lesson in new supplanting old, but I didn’t have time to wax philosophical about time marching on. I’d agreed to meet Carissa for her “surprise,” but between my scheduled and rescheduled flights (and my usual a.m. fogginess), our plans had gotten jumbled. I wasn’t sure how long it would take for Carissa to arrive, but I wanted to look around before she did.
Up close, the unopened cart pod reminded me of an after-hours amusement park. Or a deserted carnival, cut loose from its clowns and barkers. All of the food carts were different—one was housed in a cheerfully painted lumber shack, one in a repurposed metal storage container, one in a vintage VW bus, one in an Airstream trailer—and most were closed for the morning. Since Cartorama specialized in everything chocolate (or so Carissa had told me), the pod wouldn’t see much business until lunchtime.
The chocolate whisperer in me knew that someone ought to bring in a chocolate-themed donut cart or a mobile boulangerie specializing in pain au chocolat—something to lure in customers during the morning hours. But I wasn’t here to work, I reminded myself. I was here to reconnect with my long-lost friend.
Despite Cartorama’s momentary lack of customers, though, the place had definite appeal. The gimmick of offering all chocolate, all the time, was working on me. I was hungry already.
If you’re not familiar with the food truck phenomenon, let me explain: We’re not talking ho-hum spinner dogs and dodgy kebabs served on the sidewalk in Anytown, USA. We’re talking delicious, locally sourced fare from innovative restaurateurs, served up without pretension but with plenty of imagination and verve. Everyone from the New York Times to Anthony Bourdain has raved about Portland’s food cart scene, and with good reason.
At Cartorama, the kitschy carts were parked facing an inner courtyard of sorts, which featured scrubbed wooden picnic tables beneath a sheltering awning. The awning’s canopy cover was tied back—probably on account of the clear weather—but the whole getup looked as though it could be covered quickly if diners needed protection from the elements. Overhead, strings of festival lights were hung with industrial-chic Edison bulbs, all of them dark for now. At the edges of the pod, tall oaks and graceful Japanese maples swayed in the breeze, playing host to what sounded like a whole Hitchcock movie’s worth of birds.
Birds. I shivered and kept moving.
Birds and I don’t get along. Maybe because of that aforementioned (terrifying) Hitchcock film. (Speaking of which . . . do you know what creepy old Hitch used as a stand-in for blood in Psycho? Chocolate sauce. Yep. What a waste, right?)
Anyway, I don’t like birds. Maybe that’s because I’m a city dweller at heart, used to seeing pigeons and seagulls for what they are: rats with wings. Either way, those birds put a crimp in the whole sunshiny springtime vibe I’d been enjoying.
I could feel their beady little eyes on me as I wandered toward the cart pod’s inner courtyard. Their avian shrieks sounded like warnings. But that was probably just me, feeling easily (and unreasonably) spooked after Maison Lemaître.
I was fine. Everything was fine. It was fine.
Hoping to assure myself of that, I texted Carissa that I’d arrived, then distracted myself by exploring the pod further. I watched as a few vendors began setting up for the day. I was interested to see how their various carts unfolded and opened, “Transformers” style, into mobile kitchens and service areas. One byproduct of my vocation is that I’m curious. Just then, I was curious about Carissa’s work at Cartorama with Declan.
She’d been playing it coy so far. But if I’d guessed right, my old friend’s new career likely involved something social, uncomplicated, and fairly frivolous. Something like advising the cart entrepreneurs on installing fab new décor. Or writing a gossip column for a local blog. Or doing PR. Carissa would have been good at any (or all) of those things. She’d always been outgoing. Popular. Able to talk anyone into anything.
Even me. I was there in Portland instead of cornering Travis in Seattle for some one-on-one time, wasn’t I?
“Hayden!” someone yelled from nearby. “Woooo!”
I recognized that unmistakable feminine squeal. Carissa. I turned to see my old friend bustling toward me, all toothy grin and long auburn hair, dressed in ankle boots and a boho-cool, direct-from-Etsy ensemble with her arms outstretched. A few dainty footsteps later, she engulfed me in a hug. “Hiiii!”
Simultaneously, the scents of her hair products and perfume engulfed me. So did a jolt of girlish exuberance. My friend was nothing if not excitable. And strong. Freakishly strong, for a woman so thin. I hugged Carissa warmly, complimented her cute boots (girlspeak for hello—I could do it, I just didn’t indulge often), then extricated myself long enough to catch my breath.
Seeing her hurtled me back to my college days. Not that it was that long ago, but a lot’s happened to me since then.
“Omigod! Look at you!” Carissa marveled at me, her face pretty and pale behind her geek-chic tortoiseshell glasses. “I love your hair! And your jacket! And your Chucks! I’m all about that nouveau retro look. Hey, you cut back on the eyeliner!”
I grinned and shook my head at her reference to my short-lived emo past. “When you’re backpacking through Kazakhstan, a face full of L’Oréal doesn’t cut it.” These days, I tended toward lip gloss and (maybe) mascara. Combined with my shoulder-length brown hair and (aforementioned) Converse sneakers, it made for a low-key look—one that traveled as well to Beijing as it did to Thessaloniki. “Congratulations on your engagement!”
That incited a fresh squeal. Carissa thrust her left hand forward, then waggled her fingers. “Thanks! See? Isn’t it fab?”
I dutifully examined her engagement ring. But when you’ve gotten up close and personal with the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, ordinary baubles have a tough time competing.
I couldn’t think of much to say about it. Sometimes my globe-trotting upbringing leaves gaps. “Pretty!” I gushed.
Carissa sighed, then hugged her ring finger, obviously disappointed . . . but willing to wait for me to rally. I sensed a long weekend ahead of me. What else was I supposed to say?
“It’s so big!” I tried. Hey, it worked on men, didn’t it?
My friend brightened with pleasure. “I know, right? Declan is so generous with me. He’s a sweetheart. Really, he is.”
I couldn’t help thinking that, generally, people who temper their statements with really or honestly or actually (or similar qualifiers) are hiding something. Which only made me wonder . . .
“Do you think he’s ‘the one,’ Carissa?” I asked. “This has all happened so fast. You haven’t been dating all that long—”
“Declan is totally the one,” Carissa interrupted with certainty, literally waving away my question. “He’s sweet and caring and super handsome! And, okay, so sometimes when I text him an ‘I love you’ and he texts back ‘U2,’ I get a little stabby”—here she broke into a wider grin—”but overall, Declan is fantastic!” Carissa inhaled. “What about you? Seeing anyone?”
Ugh. It was the question dreaded by singles everywhere.
I’d been seeing several people, actually, across a couple of continents. But that made me sound flighty at best and promiscuous at worst—neither of which was accurate (and that’s before you add in my three ex-fiancés). It’s just that I’m a people person. That tends to lead to a lot of dates.
“We can get to that later.” It was my turn to wave off a query. I gazed around at Cartorama. “So, what’s your surprise?”
“You’ll never guess.”
That’s what people said when they wanted you to guess. It was a tendency that traveled to the far corners. So I did my best. “You’re doing interior decorating at one of the carts?”
Carissa gawked at me, disappointed again. “That’s what you think of me? That I’m good for nothing but decorating?”
Hastily, I backpedalled. “You’re writing a blog?”
Wisely, I omitted “gossip” blog. I learn quickly.
“I’m running a cart!” Carissa shook her head, then grabbed my arm. Again, I was reminded of her surprising strength. “An ice-cream cart. It’s called Churn PDX. It’s a budding chain. You know, as in Churn PDX, Churn LA, Churn Las Vegas, Churn Tokyo . . . ”
I bumped along in her wake, letting myself be towed toward the vintage Airstream trailer I’d noticed earlier, while Carissa described the food cart she’d founded and hoped to expand to the aforementioned cities. She was dreaming big. But why not?
I’ve known other food entrepreneurs who’ve succeeded fantastically, even with admittedly niche products. Ice cream sounded like a slam dunk to me. Who doesn’t like ice cream?
“Who doesn’t like ice cream?” Carissa echoed my thoughts as she set up an awning at the business side of the trailer, then pushed out a locked rolling service counter. “My ice cream is even better than most, though. It’s scientifically better.”
The sorority girl I’d known at university had joked about “paying a nerd” to take Chemistry 101 for her while she pursued a degree in design. “Tell me another one, Einstein,” I joked.
To my surprise, she did. “My ice cream is frozen with liquid nitrogen,” Carissa explained as she went on setting up.
Her cart had all sorts of cleverly designed features designed to be stowed away for the night, then set up the next morning. In no time flat, she’d established a workspace without even needing to go inside the trailer. I envisioned a Punk’d-style camera crew hiding in there, stifling guffaws as they waited to see if Carissa’s old college friend bought the idea of her as an ice-cream impresario who rattled off details like the freezing point of liquid nitrogen (-346 degrees Fahrenheit) and its dielectric constant (1.43) as easily as she’d once nailed the names of fashion designers and reality-TV celebs.
Formerly ditzy Carissa wound up her spiel with a slightly more down-to-earth reference to British culinary wunderkind Heston Blumenthal, but by then I was already agog.
“So, what flavor would you like?” she asked. “We only serve chocolate—of course—but we’ve got bittersweet chocolate, white chocolate, malted chocolate, mocha swirl, chocolate caramel—”
“Bittersweet.” It’s my once-and-forever amore. I like my chocolate dark—dangerously dark. The darker, the better.
Not that there isn’t room in my heart for a mellow milk chocolate. Of course there is. But if we’re talking favorites . . . .
“Coming right up!” Carissa grabbed an aluminum container, then busied herself adding chocolaty liquid ice cream base to it. “I designed the churning machine myself,” she went on as she fixed the container beneath a spiroid paddle. The whole outfit was reminiscent of the KitchenAid stand mixer you might have at home—with an important difference: one wrong move, and this one could give its user irreversible frostbite. “I designed and patented custom software to precisely calibrate how much liquid nitrogen to use for each batch. Faster freezing means fewer—”
“Ice crystals!” I blurted, eager to atone for my gaffe with her ring. This subject I could ace, unlike engagement-ring etiquette. “Which means smoother ice cream and fresher flavor.”
With ice cream, as with chocolate, it’s all about details.
Carissa brightened. “That’s right! Most people zone out when I talk about the technical stuff. Or they laugh. I don’t know why people insist on thinking I’m dumb! It’s infuriating!”
She pouted over the idea. I gave an inward wince, knowing I’d doubted her intelligence myself just minutes ago. Bygones.
“I’m a culinary professional,” I reminded her, sidestepping the issue of her newfound aptitude for science for the time being. “I can connect the dots. I’m impressed, Carissa.”
I was. I’ve known a lot of people who’ve followed their dreams—and a lot more people who’ve wanted to but never tried. Carissa was part of the first group. My hat was off to her.
She tossed me a grateful smile, then turned back to the churning machine. “Get ready for this to knock your socks off!”
Dramatically, she flipped a switch. Nothing happened.
She frowned. “I said, ‘Get ready for this to—”
Another flip. Again, nothing. Carissa muttered a swearword.
With forced brightness, she regrouped. “Okay. Something must be wrong with the tanks inside. Pretend this never happened. I’ll be back in a sec, then you’ll really be amazed!”
Carissa unzipped her messenger bag to search for her keys. I waited, mouth watering in anticipation of tasting chocolate. (I’m predictable that way.) Even early in the morning, bittersweet chocolate ice cream sounded très délicieuse to me.
Come on . . . you can’t tell me you wouldn’t eat ice cream at 10:00 a.m. It’s made from milk and eggs, right? Practically breakfast.
I scanned Cartorama, then wandered a short distance away to watch anther vendor begin setting up for the day. That whole “go-go-gadget” thing the food carts had going on was fascinating. Behind me, Carissa unearthed her keys. They jangled as she used them to unlock her trailer’s door, step inside . . .
. . . and scream. Her shriek made all the birds take flight.
An instant later, I heard a sickening thud. Carissa.
I wheeled around and headed for her trailer, hoping I wasn’t too late to deal with whatever had just happened to my friend.
You would think that once you’ve stumbled upon an honest-to-God murder, you’d be prepared for anything, right? No matter how ghastly or unlikely. But I wasn’t prepared for what greeted me inside Carissa’s Airstream trailer. I wasn’t prepared at all.
I vaulted inside, heart pounding, and glimpsed Carissa collapsed on the floor. She seemed to have fallen on top of . . . something. Something bulky and long. Bags of sugar, maybe?
Trying to see what it was, I edged closer. I couldn’t see clearly, though; a ghostly vapor filled the space where Carissa kept her equipment and inventory, partly obscuring my vision.
Plus, I felt downright woozy. Short of breath, too. Spots swam before my eyes. I was terrified a homicidal maniac might burst from a dark corner at any moment. After all, someone must have gotten in here. On the alert for a potential attacker, I blinked and moved closer, shivering from the chill. It was as if the Airstream was refrigerated—and now so was I. Shakily veering from side to side, I tried not to think of haunted houses and horror movies, dead bodies and killers lurking in the shadows.
It didn’t work. Murder was all I could think of.
“Carissa!” I crouched beside my unmoving friend. I touched her limp arm. I peered at her face. Her stillness scared me.
A faint hissing sound filled the trailer. My raspy breath overrode it. I was freaked out and not afraid to admit it. At least now the mist was subsiding. That meant I could see.
In that moment, I almost wished I couldn’t.
“Carissa?” Gently, I tried to jostle her, feeling on the verge of tears. I’m not a crybaby, but these were extraordinary circumstances. I swallowed hard. “Carissa, are you okay?”
Clearly, she wasn’t. Confused about what might have happened in here, I grabbed her arm, hoping I could drag her outside the same way she’d good-naturedly lugged me to Churn PDX. Or maybe just hoping I could make her wake up. Wake up!
That’s when I caught sight of what Carissa had fallen on top of: a body. Startled, I tottered backward, almost tripping on the metal Dewars scattered on the floor. Then I gawked at the man sprawled beneath my friend. His face was squished into the industrial rubber kitchen mat underfoot in an awkward way that definitely suggested he wasn’t here innocently napping.
Surely he wasn’t dead, though, my jumbled thoughts insisted. I mean, he couldn’t be, could he? For one thing, what were the odds I’d stumble upon two dead bodies inside of one week? They had to be infinitesimal. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe he was a tanked-up, nicely dressed homeless man who’d startled Carissa and made her faint from shock, that’s all. Sure. Okay.
Yes. He looks too handsome to be dead, I couldn’t help trying to reassure myself. But I wasn’t having it. I rebutted. Nobody who’s livin’ la vida loca lies facedown that way.
I was about to scream for help—the way Carissa had done—when the whole trailer swayed. Someone clomped inside behind me.
I surged upright, high on adrenaline, and confronted the man who stood there. I’m roughly average size for a woman, about five-six sans my sneakers. But I’ve got my share of tricks. If the new arrival wanted a taste of my go-to self-defense moves (hey, they’d thwarted a would-be mugger in Barcelona), then all he had to do was take another step.
He seemed to realize it, because he put up both hands.
“Whoa! I’m here to help.” He eyed my ready stance, then boldly came closer. But now I could see that he was hardly threatening. Husky, flannel-shirted, and bearded? Yes. Capable of murder? Probably not. I relaxed a fraction—but only that.
I recognized him as the vendor I’d seen setting up earlier.
“We’ve got to call for help,” I said, taking charge.
“We’ve got to get her out of here,” he disagreed. “Now.”
The whole incident—from hearing Carissa scream to entering the trailer to meeting Beardy—probably took twenty seconds, tops. But it seemed to be happening in super slo-mo.
At least to me, it did. Beardy was another story. He didn’t have any problem operating in real time. He knelt beside Carissa with evident concern, then hoisted her in his massive arms. He turned, looked around, then galumphed down the steps with an involuntary grunt. The trailer shuddered again. I followed him outside just in time to watch him lay Carissa on the ground.
Beardy stripped off his flannel shirt, heedless of the onlookers who’d begun gathering (other vendors, I surmised). Dressed only in his undershirt and baggy jeans, he bundled up his flannel button-down, then tenderly placed it beneath Carissa’s head for a pillow. She moaned, then began to stir.
Thank God. She wasn’t dead. Shaking and feeling faint with what I assumed was leftover adrenaline, I hurried to her while digging for my cell phone. We still needed help. We needed an ambulance, paramedics, someone knowledgeable about killer vapor . . .
Even as I had that ludicrous thought (killer vapor?), a siren cut through the springtime air. Help was already coming for Carissa, probably thanks to one of the other Cartorama vendors. She’ll be fine, she’ll be fine ran through my head like a comforting litany—then hit an awful, unsettling speed bump.
“The man! Inside!” I gestured wildly toward the trailer. “We’ve got to go back and get him. He’s still in there.”
Beardy pursed his lips and very faintly shook his head. His pale face and drawn expression were trying to tell me something. In my fraught state, I didn’t know what. I looked around at the onlookers, then singled out one person who appeared capable—a stocky, thirtyish blond woman wearing a T-shirt featuring a screen-printed piglet and the scripted words bacon had a mom.
Hey, if she was compassionate toward animals, she’d help.
“You.” I pointed. “Help me carry him out of there.”
“No!” Beardy heaved himself to his feet. He wiped his hands on his jeans-covered backside, then cast an apprehensive glance at Carissa. “I haven’t turned off the safety valve yet.”
He was wasting time. I peeled off toward the Airstream trailer anyway, trusting my designated helper to follow me.
She didn’t. I only made it a few steps before realizing as much. I glanced backward. Her face was as pale as Beardy’s.
“Is it . . . ” She faltered and knit her brow. “Who’s in there?”
This was no time for discussion. Yet everyone around me seemed to be frozen in shock. The piglet T-shirt woman. Another vendor nearby, who was headed our way wearing a va-va-voom skintight vintage dress and an armful of tattoos. Even a tall, hipster-y man who’d wandered out of a nearby building, frowning at us with his arms crossed over his deep-V-necked T-shirt.
What was wrong with all of them? Couldn’t they see this was an emergency? Ordinarily, people listen to me. When I’m on a consultation job, I’m the expert. Clients pay for my opinion, so they tend to comply with it. But here, I might as well have been invisible. I was no match for the stunned inertia around me.
Whatever. I didn’t care if these people wanted to stand idly by in a crisis. I didn’t. I’d drag out that man myself, one inch at a time, if I had to. There was no time to waste.
But just as I took another step, Carissa’s voice pierced the sounds of distant traffic. “Declan?” she asked brokenly.
Oh no. Beardy turned to her. I couldn’t see his face.
Carissa could. The sight made her burst into tears.
“Declan!” Muzzily, she lurched to her feet. With an awful wail, Carissa ran back to her trailer. She staggered inside.
My gaze met Beardy’s. He looked dazed, sad . . . and guilty?
What the . . . ? Before I could pursue that line of thought, I realized the awful truth. Carissa had just stumbled upon her fiancé’s dead body. Declan Murphy was dead. I had to go to her.
Part of me didn’t want to. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. It had been one thing when I’d thought the man merely needed to be helped out for some first aid. It was another now that I knew he was beyond first aid. Permanently.
Poor Carissa. I heard her keening from inside her trailer and was in motion before I could think up any reason not to be.
“Carissa?” I stepped into the tiny Airstream trailer through the open door, squinting to see in the gloom. It was still so cold in there.
Declan Murphy was still so unmoving. Handsome and lifeless.
I couldn’t believe it. I suppose I was in shock. So was Carissa. She lay over Declan, her arms wrapped around him, sobbing against his big, broad, completely immobile chest.
“No, no, no,” she murmured in a shattered voice. “Please—”
Whatever she was about to plead for was drowned out by the sound of Beardy lurching into the trailer behind me. I turned to him, annoyed that he’d intrude on Carissa’s heartbreak.
The look on his face stopped me. He appeared devastated.
Humbled, I watched as he moved across the trailer, past bags of sugar, containers of cocoa, and ten-pound blocks of chocolate arranged in tidy stacks. Comically, he appeared to be tiptoeing across the space, but he wasn’t built for stealth. The whole place rumbled vaguely beneath his ungainly footsteps.
He hunched his undershirt-covered shoulders, looking embarrassed. But Carissa seemed to neither notice nor care.
Poor Carissa. I went to her, then laid my hand on her shoulder. Comfortingly, I patted her. “I’m so sorry, Carissa.”
She sniffled, her thin shoulders shuddering. She looked up at me. When her gaze met mine, it was damp with tears, yet oddly bright with hope. “He’ll be okay. Really, Declan is tough.”
It was the really that broke my heart. Carissa’s hopefulness couldn’t have been more obvious—or more agonizing.
I could see actual frost on Declan’s waxy, slightly yellowed face. The situation was grim.
“We should all get out of here,” Beardy broke in, standing over both of us with a helpless mien. “Carissa, you know how dangerous the nitro is. I’ve got the safety valve shut now—”
He looked younger than me—probably in his midtwenties—but he seemed knowledgeable about the science involved. I couldn’t forget his guilty expression earlier, though. What did it mean?
“—but it was totally hashed, and I don’t know how stable my fix is.” Beardy spoke faster now as he gestured for us both to move. “It’s better with the door open, but until all the nitro has dissipated, there’s still a serious risk of displacement.”
It was all Greek to me. I’d majored in . . . well, a little of everything, really. You won’t be surprised to learn that I wasn’t the most decisive college student. Unlike Carissa, who’d seemed to have found her métier early on in art and design, I’d dabbled in all kinds of things. Eventually, chocolate found me.
But that’s a story for another, less tragic day.
“I’m not leaving him.” Carissa nudged aside her glasses to wipe her teary eyes. The gesture made her look like a toddler—one who wanted no part of the nap that would help her feel better. “It’s our engagement weekend! How can I leave him?”
Sobered by that, I went still. But Beardy didn’t.
He came to Carissa, then took her arm. “Come on. Please.”
Outside, the siren I’d heard drew closer. I could hear what had to be an ambulance’s doors banging shut. Footsteps neared.
“Just come outside for some fresh air,” Beardy insisted.
His stalwart stance reminded me of Danny. He and Carissa’s friend couldn’t have been more different, but this was exactly the way Danny had reacted when Adrienne Dowling had been found dead, only steps away from me, at Maison Lemaître. His strong and protective presence had helped me enormously that night.
There was never a good time to encounter your first dead body. It helped to have someone less emotionally invested on hand. Taking Beardy’s lead, I patted Carissa’s shoulder again.
“Come outside with us,” I urged. “There’s help coming for Declan. We’ll need to be out of the way of the paramedics.”
That seemed to get Carissa’s attention. Her desperate gaze swerved to mine. Held. I thought I was getting through to her.
Then, “They can’t help with Chocolate After Dark.”
I frowned. “Chocolate After Dark?”
Carissa nodded. Her hair shielded her face. “Declan’s—”
She wept, unable to continue. I looked to Beardy.
“Declan’s culinary tour,” he explained, sotto voce, casting Carissa a fretful look. He clenched and unclenched his hands, shaking his head. “It was supposed to launch on Monday.”
“Not ‘was.’ Is!” Carissa exclaimed heatedly. She jerked up her chin, even as voices outside penetrated the trailer. The Cartorama vendors, I assumed, directing the paramedics to the emergency. “It is launching on Monday! Declan’s worked so hard for it! Chocolate After Dark has to go forward. It has to.”
Gloom fell over the trailer’s interior as one of the EMTs stopped in the doorway. It was time to get serious.
“Yes,” I told Carissa. “Yes, of course it will go forward!”
“It can’t without Declan!” Her scattered gaze flashed to the paramedics. She gulped. “You do it, Hayden. You do the tour. Just until things are . . . settled with Declan. Okay?” She focused in on me. “Promise me you will. Please do it.”
I wasn’t sure what doing “it” involved. But under the circumstances, there was only one thing to say. I squeezed Carissa’s hand. “I’ll do whatever you need me to,” I promised.
Like magic, my words got Carissa upright. She took in the waiting paramedics, glanced at anxious Beardy, then returned her attention to me. Like a frail ghost of her formerly cheerful self, she tried to smile. All she could muster was a lip wobble.
Carissa was being so brave. I teared up all over again.
If my would-be fiancé turned up dead during my engagement party weekend, I would have hoped to have behaved just as admirably as Carissa was, I decided as I helped her outside—me with one arm, and Beardy with the other. Carissa was remarkable.
And okay, so her fixation with making sure Declan’s culinary tour launched on time was a little odd. But there was no telling how people would react to trauma. I knew that. Sometimes people focused on random details during a catastrophe, as a way of momentarily escaping whatever ordeal was at hand. By this time tomorrow, probably, Carissa would have forgotten all about the way she’d talked about the Chocolate After Dark tour.
She’d have forgotten about my promise to launch it, too, more than likely. Not that that’s what I was thinking about over the next half hour or so, as we all—vendors, visitors, and neighborhood residents alike—waited for the EMTs’ pronouncement.
The paramedics checked out Carissa, then released her to us. The Portland police arrived and took statements—from me, from Beardy, and from Carissa. A local TV-news satellite van parked across the street behind my rented Civic, disgorged its crew, then grabbed footage of the goings-on, even as Deep V-Neck—the wiry, frowning man I’d noticed earlier—crossed the street and berated them for it. He scowled, dark and intense.
I couldn’t hear what he was saying. But body language didn’t lie. Whoever he was, he wasn’t pleased with Oregon’s news media invading Cartorama during its moment of misfortune.
All too soon, Declan’s body was carried out of the trailer on a scoop stretcher, hideously zipped into a large plastic bag. By then, I think we were all becoming numbed to the proceedings. Hugging Carissa tightly, I watched as the EMTs loaded Declan’s body into their waiting ambulance. The controlled, purposeful activity of the past thirty minutes felt like a dream.
Well, technically, it felt like a nightmare. Especially for Carissa. She couldn’t stop crying. Everyone had rallied around her, exchanging worried, teary-eyed glances and helpless words of sympathy. None of us knew what to do or how to do it.
The surprising thing about tragedy is, life goes on—and so do you, one moment at a time. Maybe by numbing out. Maybe by clinging to a routine. Maybe by becoming cynical or angry—or by engaging in some unprecedented sleuthing. I’d learned that after seeing someone close to me die unexpectedly in San Francisco.
Then, I’d helped bring some justice to the situation. Now, I just wanted to be there for Carissa, in any way I could.
Not that my sentiments were shared by everyone, I couldn’t help observing. The vivacious-looking brunette I’d noticed earlier had vanished shortly after the EMTs had arrived. I’d last glimpsed the short (but not especially petite) piglet T-shirt wearer at about the same time. Not everyone was good in a crisis. Me? I’m usually on the move myself. But not this time.
“Carissa, I’m going to be in town awhile,” I told her as gently as I could, deciding in that moment to stay as long as was necessary. “If there’s anything I can do to help—”
“Just get Chocolate After Dark off the ground,” she said in a desperate tone. “For me. For Declan. For all of us. Okay?”
Her teary gaze swept Cartorama and its vendors. Everyone around me seemed to shift uneasily. Then Carissa pushed away, hauled in a deep breath, and followed the EMTs to the ambulance.
Her slender shoulders trembled as she peeked inside it. Then she climbed in beside Declan Murphy’s lifeless body, the ambulance doors closed behind her, and Carissa was gone.
~ ~ ~
As soon as the ambulance pulled away—moving with an awful slowness that told everyone at Cartorama there was no help for Declan Murphy now—I wished I’d gotten into it with Carissa.
“One of us should have gone with her.” Beardy stood nearby me, clenching his cast-off flannel shirt in his fist as he watched the ambulance disappear down the tree-lined street. “Carissa shouldn’t be alone right now. Not after all this.”
His emotional tone was heartbreaking. He was obviously upset by the events of the morning—and I’d callously thought he’d seemed guilty earlier. What was the matter with me?
I couldn’t let what had happened at Maison Lemaître color my whole life in shades of gray. That was no way to go forward.
There weren’t killers around every corner, I reminded myself. The paramedics had told us Declan’s death had seemed to be an accident. The police had agreed. It helped. A little.
“She won’t be alone,” I told Beardy, taking refuge in that fact. One of the vendors had already called Carissa’s parents. They’d be meeting her soon. “You were really amazing,” I added, meaning it. “Thanks for all you did this morning. I don’t know how I’d have gotten Carissa out without you.” I held out my hand to him. “I’m Carissa’s friend from college, Hayden Mundy Moore.”
I’m here for Carissa’s engagement party, I was about to say. But he cut me off before I could explain my presence there.
“You’re the chocolate expert. Yeah, Carissa told us about you.” Warmly, he clasped my hand. “I’m Austin Martin.”
Austin stopped, seeming to wait for something. I didn’t know what. He gave a fleeting, puzzled frown, then went on.
“I run The Chocolate Bar cart next door.” He angled his burly shoulder toward the small, brightly painted building I’d noticed earlier. It stood partly open with its counter bare. “I specialize in imported, nostalgia, and hard-to-find candy bars.”
“Do you stock Kit Kat Chunkyy?” I couldn’t help asking, taking refuge in normalcy. I needed the comfort just then. “Cadbury Double Decker? Flakes?” I inhaled, then, “Maltesers?”
Those were among my international favorites. Austin’s eyes brightened. “Of course. Plus, Terry’s Chocolate Orange. Kinder Bueno. Mars bars. Aero bars. Every kind of Kit Kat. The works.”
My eyes widened at the possibilities. You might not know this, but Nestlé makes Kit-Kat bars in all kinds of flavors, all over the world. Strawberry in Japan. Cookie dough in Australia. Banana in Canada. I don’t know why those flavors don’t play in the States. They just don’t. They’re not exactly artisanal chocolates made of extra-spendy, ultra-rare Criollo cocoa beans and handmade praline, but they’re pretty tasty, all the same.
“Sometimes I get a wicked craving for a nice Matcha Kit Kat,” I confessed. “I’ll have to hit up your cart sometime.”
We both smiled, momentarily connecting over something less traumatic than Declan’s death. The other vendors and neighborhood residents still milled around, murmuring in groups of two or three. It was awkward but also consoling. I guess none of us wanted to be alone just then. It felt heartless to go back to ordinary life while Carissa was facing such a crisis. Maybe that’s why I lingered. Even though I didn’t know anyone there, I didn’t want to be alone. Not then. Not after . . . everything.
“So you really were great with Carissa,” I told Austin, feeling inexorably drawn back to those events. “Without you—”
“Carissa would have been asphyxiated. Just like Declan.”
I didn’t understand. “Asphyxiated? In her trailer?” That’s what one of the EMTs had alluded to earlier, but it still didn’t make sense to me. “But Carissa was alone. I checked.”
Foolishly, I recalled. A wave of nausea rolled over me at the memory. I still felt overwhelmed. Light-headed, too. You know that feeling you get when you’ve mainlined six espressos standing at the counter in a Naples caffe? No? Well, it involves a lot of shakiness, buzzy thoughts, dry mouth, and queasiness.
Overall, it’s not pleasant. But at least I was alive.
Poor Declan. How could he have been asphyxiated? Aside from the frost on his face, he’d seemed to be the picture of health.
I wished I could have met him earlier. Seen him and Carissa together. Helped them embark on their married life together.
Now that would never happen. Poor Carissa.
“It’s not who attacked Carissa. It’s what,” Austin told me. “The air in that trailer was dangerously low on oxygen. Carissa must have rushed in there and been overcome almost instantly.”
I remembered her haste to impress me. I nodded. “She did.”
“It’s a good thing you followed her. Another minute or two without sufficient oxygen, and she would have been in serious trouble. I’m guessing that the open trailer door let in enough air to keep you upright and Carissa okay—once she was outside.”
But not Declan. I frowned. “Whatever got to Declan is the same thing that made Carissa pass out? Like a poison?”
I wasn’t sure how that meshed with the asphyxiation theory.
“Sort of. Do you know much about liquid nitrogen?”
I shook my head. “My oeuvre is chocolate. That’s it.”
“Well, liquid nitrogen is a cryogenic liquefied gas.” Austin gave me a watchful look. “That means it gets—”
“Really cold. I don’t need the kindergarten version.”
He almost smiled at that. I was starting to like him—flannel shirt, shaggy hair, Portland-style beard, and all.
“Right. Well, aside from being cold, liquid nitrogen is also colorless, odorless, tasteless, noncorrosive, and nonflammable. Ordinarily, it’s nontoxic and inert—”
“Which is why it’s used for freezing ice cream,” I surmised, “and in molecular gastronomy.” In certain Michelin-starred restaurants, I knew, fancy foams and flavored orbs were all the rage. I still didn’t get how it led to suffocation.
“Yes.” Austin nodded. “But in certain circumstances, it can also produce tissue damage, cause cold contact burns—”
I remembered the frost on Declan’s face and shivered.
“—or act as a simple asphyxiant. One with no early-warning system.” Austin’s tone suggested I should be following along.
I appreciated the vote of confidence, but . . . “You lost me.”
“Okay. Let’s put it this way: Atmospheric air—the air we breathe—is a mixture of oxygen and inert nitrogen, plus small amounts of other gases and water vapor. Make sense so far?”
I was getting antsy. It had been a long day already.
Plus, after hearing Carissa ramble on about science while she’d been describing Churn PDX, I was beginning to feel like the mental midget in the crowd. Did everyone around here kick it Mr. Wizard style? Since when did making food require a PhD.?
Austin was a slacker type, but he seemed brilliant.
“If allowed into the air we breathe, liquid nitrogen expands rapidly,” he explained, seemingly deciding to skip a few steps to get to the point. “One liter of liquid nitrogen becomes 24.6 cubic feet of nitrogen gas. So if it’s released without adequate ventilation—say, in a small, enclosed trailer—”
My gaze shot to Carissa’s Airstream. I shivered again.
“—it can displace oxygen in the air and cause suffocation.”
Aha. Yikes. “How do you know all this?”
Modestly, Austin shrugged off my question.
“If that’s true,” I pushed, “why would anyone use it?”
“With the proper protective gear and safety devices, it’s fine. Laboratories across the country use it with no problem. Even beginner medical students use it to work with tissue samples and things.”
“Yeah,” someone said. “Bars use it with no problem, too.”
Startled, I looked to the side. The dark-haired man I’d noticed berating the news crew earlier stood there, evidently having listened to Austin’s scientific spiel without comment.
Until now. “Which is where I suggest we go,” the newcomer suggested with a compassionate look. “The drinks are on me. Let’s all hash this over in private at Muddle + Spade.”
His emphasis on in private couldn’t be missed. Neither could his distinctive cadence (an Eastern European flatness to his vowels) or his overall aura of charisma. Just being around him made me feel a little better somehow. I’d been too busy reacting to the events of the day to notice before (and I was slightly appalled to be noticing now), but he was gorgeous.
You know, in a “sexy starving artist” kind of way. If he was a guitarist in an indie band that played at Cartorama, or a sculptor who showed his pieces at a nearby gallery, I wouldn’t have been surprised. He had that bedraggled-but-sensitive look about him. Tall, broad-shouldered, and sinewy. Dressed in a deep-V-necked T-shirt, jeans rolled up at the hems, and vintage oxfords. A few tattoos, some silvery chains in his chest hair, and icy blue eyes. Not to mention, cheekbones to die for.
Whoops. Scratch that. “To die for” is a terrible idiom.
Austin wasn’t impressed. Not by the new guy’s modelesque good looks or by his magnetism. My new friend kept talking.
“The first signs that displacement is happening are dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and nausea,” Austin lectured on.
He went on to describe something called the Leidenfrost effect, but I was busy immediately experiencing all of the symptoms he’d mentioned—just as I had, I remembered, when I’d stepped into Carissa’s trailer. I felt unsteady and lost, sorry I hadn’t done more to help. Probably, Austin did, too. It was clear that he dealt with trauma by taking refuge in facts. We had that in common. I hadn’t been able to stop cataloguing Cartorama and its residents since hearing Carissa’s scream.
My gaze wandered back to Deep V-Neck. Held.
He’d somehow persuaded the local TV-news crew to leave earlier than they otherwise would have, I recalled. He’d started out enraged—as evidenced by his waving arms and forbidding expression—but by the end of his encounter with the reporters, everyone had been on friendly terms. Now I understood why.
As far as protectors went, Cartorama could have done worse. It was sweet that he’d come charging to the pod’s rescue, hoping to spare Cartorama and its vendors further upset.
” . . . but for some people, the first sign of trouble is unconsciousness.” Austin broke into my reverie. “That’s all. Death isn’t necessarily painful or traumatic. It just is.”
This whole conversation was macabre. I couldn’t help being interested, though. I wanted answers. Austin seemed to have them.
“Not painful or traumatic? Speak for yourself, dude,” someone blurted from nearby. “I’m plenty traumatized.”
It was the blond woman in the piglet T-shirt. She was back.
So was the sultry brunette in the tight vintage dress. While I’d been listening to Austin’s explanation, they’d both appeared out of nowhere. I wondered where they’d gone. And why.
“As far as Declan knew, he just fell asleep.” Austin shrugged, seeming heartened by that fact. I wanted to be, too. But I wasn’t. “In fact, death by critical hypoxia is sometimes recommended as a more humane means of capital punishment. When arterial oxygen saturation falls below sixty percent, it—”
“Dude!” The blond piglet T-shirt girl looked aghast. “Shut up!”
“That’s enough science for now.” Deep V-Neck put his hand on Austin’s shoulder, steadying him—and silencing him, too. He gave a reassuring glance to the gathering vendors. By now, I saw, the area’s residents had left, doubtless to get on with their days, leaving only the Cartorama sellers. Jokingly, he jostled Austin’s shoulder before letting go. “And here we all thought you were only interested in finding obscure candy bars and becoming head goblin in that MMORPG you play, Austin.”
I knew what “obscure candy bars” were (delicious) and what MMORPG were (massively multiplayer online role-playing games—think Dungeons & Dragons played as a video game in an online virtual world: nirvana for nerds), but I didn’t know why Deep V-Neck was (subtly) making fun of Austin for playing them.
Maybe it was just the handiest means of distraction—a way to help the T-shirt woman in the same way he’d protected Cartorama and its vendors. Because he had to want to dissect what had gone on this morning, just the way I did.
Searching for understanding was human nature. It was why we were all still there, talking about what had happened to Declan Murphy. Searching for meaning in what felt like catastrophe.
I faced him, momentarily distracted from his dreaminess by my own curiosity—and my (inexplicable) urge to defend Austin.
“Almost seven million people play World of Warcraft,” I pointed out with a private hat tip to my friend Eduardo in Sao Paulo. He’d used the voice-acted version of the Mists of Pandaria expansion to teach me Portuguese. Let’s just say I had a pretty unusual grasp of the language at this point. (Obrigado, Eduardo!) “There’s nothing wrong with MMORPGs.”
Beside me, Austin stood straighter. Good. All the same . . .
“Don’t you want to find out what happened?” I asked.
“Yeah, don’t you want to know?” Austin prodded, defensively squaring his shoulders in a way that reminded me how young he seemed, despite his grasp of science. “Plus, I’m a goblin engineer, Berk. I deal with explosives, not leadership.”
I didn’t think the most important task here was reaching an understanding of Austin’s MMORPG role, but Berk only smiled.
“You’re right. Sorry, Austin.” He turned to me. “That reminds me that you haven’t met any of the rest of us.”
He took it upon himself to perform the introductions. I couldn’t help noticing how smoothly and likably he did so—starting with himself. He put his hand on his chest and bowed.
Yes, it was a little cheesy. But it worked. You had to be there to understand the effect that an Old World/New World man—especially one with a searching smile—could have on a person.
“I’m Tomasz Berk.” He clasped my hand. “You’re Hayden?”
“Hayden Mundy Moore.” I omitted my usual chocolate whisperer label. It wasn’t relevant here. “Didn’t I hear you say something about drinks?”
“You did.” His smile broadened, but his eyes stayed sad. “I guess you’re one of us now, Hayden. Why don’t you come on over to my place?”
I followed his head tilt toward a nearby building, right alongside everyone else. And that’s how I became an honorary member of the Cartorama cart pod, melded into the family like a Venezuelan dark chocolate into a bitter soufflé of trauma, confusion, and the vagaries of a technology I didn’t understand.
I did know one thing for sure, though. After today, it was going to be a very long time before I wanted another ice cream.
If you’ve worked in the foodservice industry, then I don’t need to tell you that the staff quickly tend to become a family. If you haven’t slung hash or waited tables, picture the most mismatched, dysfunctional, fiercely loyal crowd of egomaniacs and malcontents you can imagine, then add fire and sharp knives.
Voilà! That’s a restaurant kitchen, patisserie, or confectioner for you. Tempers flare. Egos run amok. Differences of opinion become bitter rivalries, stoked by day-to-day demands and the need to make money in a low-margin, high-risk business.
At Cartorama, I learned that afternoon while sampling chocolate porter at Muddle + Spade, things were much the same.
There were still temperamental head chefs, sulky servers, demanding line cooks, and grumbling cleanup crews at the cart pod—but they all tended to be the same person, filling each of those roles at once. Each food cart was a microcosm of a typical restaurant, usually with a stressed-out entrepreneur at its helm. There was Austin Martin and The Chocolate Bar. Carissa and Churn PDX. Tomasz Berk and his bar adjacent to Cartorama.
Muddle + Spade was the epitome of a Bridgetown watering hole. Decked out in modern-meets-steampunk style (with a dash of lumberjack thrown in), it occupied a renovated warehouse next door to Cartorama. There were antlers on the walls, antique penny farthings in the rafters, and ironwork on the bar. Scraped maple flooring lay underfoot. Mullioned windows were draped with white Christmas lights, but for now we enjoyed the afternoon sunshine. It was cozy, quirky, and edgy, all at the same time.
True to his word, Tomasz served us all drinks on the house. That’s how I came to be savoring my creamy chocolate porter at lunchtime without a single qualm. (Hey, it had been a hard morning.)
As the hand-written A-stand outside had boasted, Tomasz’s bar featured artisanal cocktails made with muddled herbs, homemade simple syrups, tangy vinegar-based shrubs, and cacao essences (along with food, of course). My needs were simple. I needed to steady my nerves. I needed to know if Carissa was okay (or at least as okay as she could be, given the circumstances). I needed to know who else was part of the Cartorama family.
They were all my suspects, I decided as I gripped my condensation-beaded bar glass, giving everyone a wary eye. I had to be on my guard. Now more than ever (after Maison Lemaître), I understood that sometimes appearances could be deceiving.
Take the dishy temptress in the body-hugging dress, for instance, I thought as I watched her chat with Austin. She seemed to be a burlesque performer transported from the fifties to present-day Muddle + Spade—one who’d stopped downtown for some tattoos on the way. But, in fact, she was probably a murderous, scheming . . .
. . . friend of Declan’s, who was devastated to have lost him, I relented as I watched her blow her nose into a tissue. Her mascara ran. Her scarlet lipstick was smudged. She looked utterly lost and alone, and I just couldn’t remain suspicious of her. The contrast between her almost costumey appearance and her genuine air of distress was too jarring. I felt sorry for her, instead.
Hearing her husky voice rise over the bar’s murmur, I leaned closer, hoping to break into the conversation. Tomasz had introduced her to me as Lauren Greene—proprietress of Sweet Seductions, a food cart featuring treats with risqué names and an over-the-top, indulgent slant—but we hadn’t spoken at length.
Looking at her now, I didn’t doubt Lauren knew how to stir up a craving—for chocolate or herself. Her knee-length dress showcased plenty of cleavage but left the rest of her assets to the imagination. I would have been envious of her bodacious look, but the fact is, that kind of over-the-top femininity is so far outside my wheelhouse that I could only marvel at it.
Would I have liked to make men drool over me the way Austin currently was salivating over Lauren? Sure. Some of the time. But I have my own charms. Plus (usually) a cache of chocolate samples from grateful clients to sweeten my allure. I do okay.
Sniffling, Lauren wadded up her tissue. She nodded blankly. Beside her, Austin patted her hand in a comforting fashion.
At that, Lauren seemed to notice him for the first time. She stared at his hand on hers, then recoiled violently.
“No. I can’t do this.” She slid off her barstool and left.
I watched her make her way across the bar, wiggling past other vendors as they quaffed cocktails and craft beers. Her walk was a spectacle, equal parts promise and tease. Men stared, including Tomasz. So did the girl in the piglet T-shirt.
Janel White, I reminded myself. That was her name.
She wasn’t one of the Cartorama vendors. Unlike the other people at Muddle + Spade, Janel hadn’t sold smoked salt pretzel bark or gianduia-stuffed beignets at one of the pod’s carts. She was (as I understood it) strictly a customer—and an outsider?
I could relate, actually. Now that the immediate crisis was past (and the cocktails had begun flowing in earnest), everyone had assembled into what appeared to be their usual cliques. Chocolate candy people gathered near the bar’s vintage coin-operated video games. Chocolate bakers held court near the pool tables. Chocolate “artisans” (who created fusion goods combining chocolate with bacon, chiles, herbs, or other ingredients) perched at tables near Muddle + Spade’s kitchens, where they could glimpse what came from the ovens and critique it.
I didn’t see how anyone could find fault with the spread Tomasz had provided. There were grilled brioche sandwiches filled with melted chocolate and sea salt (surgically quartered for easy noshing), delectable cocoa crumb tartlets with sweet mascarpone filling and marionberry jam (all locally sourced), and a plate offering cinnamon-spiked churros with chocolate and caramelized cajeta dipping sauce (house made, naturally).
The only thing there wasn’t was any camaraderie being extended to Janel White. Maybe the foodies resented her T-shirt? Portland’s culinary scene was a meat-centric one, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of room for veggie lovers who eschewed everything pork-filled, beef-stuffed, and/or garnished with a duck’s, quail’s, or chicken’s egg. Why was she alone?
The newfound crime-solving side of me piped up to suggest that Janel was being shunned because she was a murderer. I told my suspicions to take a hike and went to talk with her, instead.
I started with my never-fail opener.
“Hi! Do you mind if I sit here?”
(I never said it was fancy. Just effective.)
Looking frazzled, Janel frowned more intensely at her laptop. Surrounding it were books and notebooks, scattered pens, and an open backpack. On the laptop itself was one of those peel-and-stick decorative “skins” depicting a burst of red and pink hearts and fireworks. Janel White was a romantic, then.
My mission to make her feel included ought to be easy.
“I don’t really know anybody here,” I persisted with a winning smile. “It’s getting kind of awkward, to be honest.”
She finally looked up. “Why don’t you leave, then?”
So much for friendliness. “I want to pay my respects.”
“You didn’t even know Declan.” Upon saying his name, Janel choked up. Her eyes swam with tears. She rapidly blinked them back, then cleared her throat. Her gaze wandered to the people clumped at the bar. “But then nobody here did. Not really.”
At the oddly smug half smile she gave, I was hooked. Janel White was a little weird, but that didn’t mean she was wrong.
It was possible Janel knew something no one else did.
I took a swig of my second porter. (But who’s counting on a day like today?) “What do you mean, nobody here knew Declan?”
Janel shook her head. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Sure, it does. Declan matters to everyone here.”
Her frown returned. Deepened. “Not to you.”
She had a point. Carissa’s fiancé and I hadn’t even met. But now that Janel was being so resistant, I was digging in my heels. I don’t excel at my chocolate-consulting business for nothing. My work demands talent, intuition, and a thick skin for criticism. Plus persistence. Lots and lots of persistence.
I can be tenacious, is what I’m saying.
“Unless you’re another one.” Janel groaned, then rolled her eyes. Distractedly, she looked past me. “Does Carissa know? I know she knew about Lauren, no matter what she said, but—”
Now I was really mystified. “Know what?”
“That you were hooking up with Declan too.” Candidly, Janel eyed me up and down. The endeavor seemed to cheer her up. “We should come up with a name, a logo, and a theme song.”
I didn’t follow. “A theme song?”
“For our club.” Janel frowned. “Declan’s Dates?” She made a face. “No, that sounds like fruit. Maybe Declan’s Dozen?”
Was she saying there were a dozen women who’d slept with Carissa’s dearly departed fiancé? “Declan was getting married.”
Janel shrugged. “Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t.”
“Carissa’s engagement party weekend says he was.”
“I’ll admit, he seemed pretty close to going through with it,” Janel grudgingly allowed. She sipped her rhubarb shrub. “The thing is, Declan had a hard time saying no to people.”
“Unlike you.” I slid into the booth and sat opposite her without waiting for permission. Her reaction to my intrusion was a knowing glance at my chocolate porter as I took another drink. That’s it. I was in. “How did you know him so well?”
She gave me a look that said three guesses. I only needed one. But I didn’t believe it. Janel had slept with Declan?
If the telltale glimmer in her eyes could be believed, yes.
Janel wasn’t unattractive, per se. I believe there’s beauty in everyone. (Thank God, Danny wasn’t there to hear me think that—he’d have died laughing over my supposed naïveté.) But it was true. Janel had wavy blond hair in a loose bob. Intelligent blue eyes. Even features and a slightly turned-up nose. All the requisite curves, packaged in a slightly stout, doughty form.
To the right man, Janel would have been perfectly appealing. But to Declan Murphy? Who supposedly loved picture-perfect Carissa to distraction? Somehow, I think he’d be immune.
Not that I didn’t get it. I was starting to like Janel myself. She was spunky. After being pals with Danny for so long, I have a soft spot for anyone who’s outspoken. I have to.
Janel chuckled—probably at my incredulous expression.
“Declan was kind of a slut,” she told me. “It’s better you find out now, believe me. I learned the hard way. At first, he was so sweet. So attentive. He liked all the same things I did. Anime, farmers markets, vegan ice cream, Wes Anderson movies—even cycling. We biked all the way up Mount Tabor once.”
No wonder she was distraught over losing him. They’d really bonded. I nodded, commiserating. “Then he met Carissa?”
“Then he realized I couldn’t teach him anything about chocolate.” She glanced at her stack of notebooks. “That was my bad, though. Declan asked me what I was working on so hard all the time. I told him chocolate, because I knew he was into it.”
I shook my head. “You can’t learn about chocolate from a book.” With cacao, it’s all about being there. Experiencing the rich, chocolaty flavor. The lush, complex aromas. The soft, sensual mouthfeel as the chocolate melts in your mouth precisely at body temperature. There’s nothing like it. Nothing better.
“You know that. I know that. Declan? Not so bright. He was always looking for a shortcut. I wasn’t the only one he hit up for help. At one time or another, he cozied up to everybody.”
“For chocolate help?” That was forgivable. Technically, everyone was a beginner once. But most beginners didn’t launch their own chocolate-themed culinary tours, the way Declan had apparently been about to do with Chocolate After Dark.
I hoped I hadn’t signed on to help launch a substandard tour. Word travels fast in the culinary world—in the chocolate world. I didn’t want to dent my reputation. I relied on it.
Janel nodded. “Yeah. Or for a fast Humpty Dumpty in one of the carts. Those things really shake if you get after it.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Then I reconsidered the fact that she was describing sex in a place where food prep happened.
“Ew.” I grimaced. “Tell me that never happened.”
“It’s not even the grossest thing that ever happened.” Janel leaned nearer. I think she liked me, too. “Not long after Declan dumped me, I saw him chowing down on a double burger with porkstrami and dirty fries at Lardo on the west side.” Her grimace matched mine. “Have you heard of it? They put ‘pork scraps’ on those fries, dude. It’s a major Meatpocalypse.”
I nodded at her piglet T-shirt. I assumed it meant Janel was vegan or vegetarian. “That must have been a deal breaker.”
She only looked away, shuddering at the memory. “I’ll tell you one thing: Declan was way more into that porkfest than he ever was into me. That’s not a euphemism, either.”
I laughed again. Janel was blunt, busty, and bawdy. Danny would have loved her. I almost wished he was there with me.
Almost, but not quite. Danny would have said suspecting someone as straightforward as Janel was a waste of time. I didn’t want to hear it. I needed a security blanket, especially after what I’d been through in San Francisco. Conducting a minor investigation—as I was doing by talking with Janel—was it.
If you think I was overreacting, well . . . maybe you’re right. But you weren’t there when Adrienne Dowling died. I was.
I still couldn’t quit seeing Declan Murphy’s yellow, frost-tinged face. It haunted me. I wanted to know more about him.
“If that’s true”—and Declan wanted bacon more than he wanted you—“then maybe being ‘dumped’ by Declan was the best thing that ever happened to you.” I raised my chocolate porter in a toast. “Good for you for rallying. That’s not always easy.”
Janel’s expression turned sardonic. “It’s easier when the guy you’re into turns out not to be who you thought he was.”
“Better to know sooner than later, though, right?” I have my share of exes. We’re on friendly terms, but I’ve never had to deal with one of them being dead. I sobered. “I’m sorry, Janel. I don’t mean to be flip. Sometimes I go glib under pressure.”
“Me too.” She clinked glasses with me, then drank.
I guessed we were all good. So . . . “It probably wouldn’t have lasted between you and Declan anyway,” I surmised with a nod at her telling tee. “Him with the Meatpocalypse, you at the PETA rally—” I paused, searching for an appropriate analogy.
But Janel was having none of it. “There’s more to veganism than PETA, dude. It’s about avoiding suffering, not ending fun.”
As evidence, she lifted her (animal-free) rhubarb shrub. Most liquor was vegan, I realized, however accidentally. More importantly, so was chocolate. Especially dark chocolate.
I felt a sudden craving to do something nice for the animal kingdom—such as snack on a scrumptious peppermint truffle.
“Okay, point made,” I said. “You must be a real rebel.”
Janel cocked her head at me, looking puzzled.
“Your Midwestern accent,” I clarified. “Wisconsin?”
“The land of cheese,” she confirmed with a laugh. “A lot of Portlanders are transplants to the area. My cheesehead parents still think not scarfing dairy is responsible for stunting my growth.” She caught my glance at her small stature and shook her head. “My mom is five-two, at most. My dad, five-eight. My short-but-deadly ways are all natural, dude. Believe me.”
“And Declan? Where was he from?” I asked casually, fishing for more. “Was he a transplant, too?”
Janel wasn’t biting. “You were never with him, were you?” She studied me. “Why all the questions?”
I’m concerned there might be a killer on the loose. Again.
No. That only made me sound paranoid, however true it was.
“Carissa is one of my oldest friends,” I said instead. Honestly. “I’m curious about the man she was going to marry.”
I stumbled over the sentence, remembering only too late that the wedding was now off. After Declan’s tragic death, there wouldn’t be any engagement party weekend. It would be canceled, starting with the gala engagement brunch that was supposed to take place—privately—at Muddle + Spade tomorrow morning.
Janel seemed taken aback. “Carissa didn’t fill you in on Declan? I’m surprised she didn’t tell you everything about him, right down to his preferred underwear style and size.”
I raised my eyebrows. Questioningly.
Janel played along. “Boxer briefs. Medium.”
I wasn’t surprised she remembered. She seemed smart.
Shouldn’t she have been more rancorous about her breakup with Declan, though? It was obvious she still had feelings for him. Her tears when she’d first said his name told me so.
“Carissa told me about Declan.” But online isn’t real life, and emails aren’t heart-to-heart chats. “But I was looking forward to meeting him in person.” I explained to Janel about my past with Carissa and our long-distance friendship. “I was looking forward to spending time with Carissa in person, too.”
I fell silent, realizing that might never happen now. At least not for a while. Carissa would doubtless be too upset to reminisce with me about our university days.
“That’s handy,” Janel observed. “You being here just when Declan could use some advice from a veteran chocolate expert.”
To launch Chocolate After Dark, I realized, catching her drift. As a transplant to the area, Janel was probably more cynical than the average earnest Oregonian. But I disagreed.
“I wasn’t here for that. This was strictly a fun weekend for me. I’m here to support Carissa, not consult with anyone.”
“Hmm.” Janel seemed unconvinced. “Too bad for Declan.”
“You’re not really suggesting that Carissa contacted me just to line up a free consultation for Declan, are you?”
I would have done Carissa that favor if she’d asked.
I figured there was no point beating around the bush with Janel. She and Danny weren’t the only ones who could be forthright. I could be, too, given the right circumstances.
“Maybe. Did you know that you’re the only one of Carissa’s friends from college to be invited this weekend?” Janel studied me. “Don’t you think that’s weird? No childhood friends, no work colleagues—aside from us Cartoramians, of course—no cousins, no sorority sisters . . . No one else from Carissa’s past was invited.”
“Well, she and Declan did get engaged in a hurry. They had a whirlwind romance.” I had to defend Carissa. I’m loyal to a fault. Just ask Danny. Or his former parole officer. Frankly, I wouldn’t have invited Carissa’s daffy sorority sisters, either. “Maybe Carissa didn’t have time to organize anything bigger.”
Janel disagreed. “Carissa had time for everything that really mattered to her. Some of the time, it was Declan.”
Some of the time. Her resentful tone could not be missed.
On a ten-second delay, the obvious answer hit me.
“You weren’t invited either, were you?” I asked Janel in a gentle voice. I didn’t want to hurt her. All I wanted was to find the truth. “That’s why you’re over here, all on your own.”
I was right about her. She was an outsider.
Janel raised her chin. “I’m ‘over here’ because I’m busy.” She nodded at her laptop, books, and notebooks. “I have a lot to do and not nearly enough time to do it all in. Especially now.”
“You’re ‘over here’ because you spent the night here last night, and you know it,” Tomasz interrupted, showing up with another chocolate porter for me and an expertly made rhubarb shrub for Janel. “This place is practically your second home.”
He gave us both a genial smile, then slid into the booth beside me. At his arrival, Janel brightened. I guess I wasn’t the only one who found him attractive. But only one of us had actually spent the night here last night, and you know it.
I was too busy boggling over Tomasz’s casual statement to register anything else at first. Were he and Janel a twosome? Muddle + Spade was his place. If Janel had stayed at the bar last night, that definitely suggested they were an item.
And Janel had had the nerve to call Declan “a slut” a few minutes ago. It looked as though she got around herself.
A second later, Tomasz’s warmth touched me. So did his left thigh. My thoughts scattered like chocolate jimmies on an ice-cream sundae. Maybe I was tipsy, but I knew what had to be done.
Reluctantly but responsibly, I slid away, moving a fraction closer to the wall. This was practically an improvised wake for Declan. I had to show some respect. Now wasn’t the time to get all hot and bothered over a soulful bartender with perfectly groomed beard stubble and an excess of personal magnetism. No matter how much I wanted to. And I did want to. After all, I wasn’t in mourning for Declan. I was just sad that he’d been lost so tragically. And suspiciously. I was more than ripe for distraction in the form of one Tomasz Berk. Starting now.
Have I mentioned I have a knack for procrastination?
It’s possible that my ninja-level ability to stall on necessary tasks was working overtime just then. Because I was supposed to be getting ready to lead the Chocolate After Dark tour in a couple of days. It would have been sensible to leave Muddle + Spade and start preparing my tourguide patter. Or, given my concerns over encountering another potential crime scene, it might have been smart to investigate more diligently.
Say, by cornering Lauren Greene and questioning her.
Ogling Tomasz was a lot more fun, though. It was too bad he was (maybe) spoken for. I liked his shoulder-length bohemian hair. His oceanic blue eyes. And his knack for caretaking, too.
He must have noticed things were getting tense between me and Janel. So he’d whipped up some drinks and intervened.
Not that I minded. That chocolate porter was delicious.
He eyed us both with bonhomie. “What are we talking about?”
“Declan,” I said, loudly, to be heard over the crowd.
“You and your excellent timing,” Janel wisecracked at the same time. She raised her shrub (containing fruity drinking vinegar spiked with spirits, in case you’ve never tried one) and nodded. “You’re going to go broke spoiling us all, Berk.”
Aha. No wonder Tomasz was well-liked in the neighborhood, if today’s largesse was any indication of the kind of man he was. Everyone liked the guy who picked up the tab. I’d leaned on that shortcut myself a time or two, especially in the early days of my inheritance. I couldn’t fault Tomasz for treating us.
Or Janel for appreciating the gesture. I didn’t think she was wearing patched-up jeans with her piglet T-shirt as a fashion statement. I thought she was too thrifty to give up clothing that still (technically) functioned. I’ve been there.
Not recently, but still. I understood her position.
However (and more interestingly), Janel’s use of that man-to-man nickname (Berk, the same as Austin had used) didn’t sound romantic to me. It didn’t sound like a pet name lovers would use, for instance. I felt more uncertain about them than ever. Seeing Tomasz and Janel together didn’t enlighten me, either.
Her up-front demeanor didn’t change. She didn’t go all flirty and giggly, the way some women did when a man entered the picture. But maybe Janel was just too down-to-earth for that?
Tomasz nudged his knee almost imperceptibly closer to mine. That move was no accident. Neither was the way his gaze touched me. “It feels good to be generous,” he said with a shrug. “I like treating everyone. Here at Cartorama, we’re a family.”
I scooted another inch farther away and distracted myself by thinking that it was a good thing Travis wasn’t there. He would have pointed out to Tomasz that the members of a self-made “family” didn’t qualify as tax-deductible dependents.
Sometimes my financial advisor can be a little too literal. Travis is lovable anyway, though. He’s always got my back.
Especially if I need advice on derivative instruments.
“Have you always been close at Cartorama?” I asked, tuning back into the conversation with another tasty sip of porter.
“Sure. For the most part. We were almost split up last year, though,” Tomasz confided, pulling a sad face. “A group of real-estate developers tried to buy out the property that all our food carts are parked on. They wanted to build one of those huge apartment complexes on our corner.” He aimed a grateful smile at Janel. “Janel led the effort to save us all.”
She actually blushed. I couldn’t believe it. She got tongue-tied, too. “Well, maybe. I mean, okay, kind of,” Janel stammered. “I guess. But I couldn’t let our stupid landlord sell out and take away my only means to see Declan, could I?”
I swear, my eyebrows reached my hairline. Janel noticed.
“Settle down, dude. He’s on my mind today. Obviously, I meant my only means to get chocolate stuff at Cartorama.”
She gave a derisive snort, then gulped down some shrub.
I examined her a minute, then let it go. If she was obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, she wouldn’t be the only one. Oftentimes people have trouble letting go of lost relationships.
I wasn’t immune myself. I’d hung onto Carissa all these years, hadn’t I?.
I wondered how she was doing. If her parents were with her.
But we’d been apart for too long for me to be the one to lead the charge to her doorstep with a wreath of flowers and a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. We weren’t that close anymore.
“How did you stop the developers?” I asked instead.
“Petitions. Protests. Media pressure.” Tomasz ticked off those tactics on his fingertips—his evocative, skilled-looking fingertips. “The usual. Oregonians have a history of battling unwanted developments and winning—if properly led, of course.”
His affectionate glance at Janel was ambiguous at best. I still couldn’t tell if they were more than friends.
“Our landlord was hard to get to—they’re a consortium called Common Grounds, not really a single person we could target. The whole thing dragged on awhile,” Janel told me. “We were all pretty nervous. Vendors rely on cheap rents for spaces to park their food carts. If they had to pay the full costs of running traditional restaurants, most of them wouldn’t make it.”
Tomasz nodded, glancing somberly between the two of us.
I was glad for them, but . . . “The land must be worth a lot more now than it used to be, though,” I pointed out, remembering all the construction I’d seen earlier. “I can’t believe your landlord didn’t decide to cash in. This area is booming.”
“It is,” Tomasz agreed. “But in the end, Common Grounds decided against any more negative publicity. And that was that.”
I couldn’t let it go. “Are you sure that was that?”
They both frowned at me. Quizzically.
I thumbed my chocolate porter, turning it around on the table. I wiped away the condensation on the glass. “What if—”
I broke off, feeling ridiculous. Also, light-headed again.
“Yes?” Tomasz urged in a silky, sexy voice.
“Spit it out,” Janel commanded. “Sheesh. If you’re this tentative when ‘chocolate whispering,’ I don’t know how you ever get anything done. Is your reputation all smoke and mirrors?”
That did it. I couldn’t stand for having my reputation maligned. “What if Common Grounds—or the developers—didn’t give up?” I asked. “What if one of them killed Declan? To scare all the Cartorama vendors into abandoning their leases?”
A momentary silence fell between us. Faintly, I heard the pinging of video games. People talking at the pool tables. Music from somewhere. It all seemed very far away from me.
Then Tomasz and Janel burst out laughing. Guffawing, really.
I was offended. “It’s a reasonable theory! Undermine the cart pod. Dissolve it from within. Take over through fear.”
Danny had told me once that the best motive for murder was greed. At the time, I’d disagreed. But now I thought I might be onto something. It all made sense. Especially if, in a limited market, Cartorama’s land was worth as much as I thought it was.
Tomasz and Janel didn’t agree, to say the least.
“That’s it. You’re cut off.” Tomasz took my porter. Then he called me a cab, Janel grabbed my things, and they bundled me away to my Airbnb accommodations without even taking seriously the idea that someone could have deliberately murdered Declan.
“You are crazy,” Janel said, firing up my indignation.
“But cute crazy,” Tomasz added, firing up my . . . Never mind.
Maybe it was all the chocolate porter talking. Maybe it was the stressful day. Maybe it was the fact that I’d only just recently caught my first murderer. San Francisco was fresh on my mind, and so was everything that had happened there. I couldn’t let go of the idea that Declan may have been killed on purpose.
Janel and Tomasz’s denials only lent credence to my fears.
That’s why, later, snug in my Airbnb accommodations—a cute foursquare in the rapidly gentrifying Northeast neighborhood—I picked up my cell phone. I dialed. Woozily, I waited.
A familiar, sexy voice came over the line.
“Hey, Travis!” I shouted, feeling elated to hear him. Also, admittedly tipsy. I don’t usually drink much, especially on a nearly empty stomach. But after stumbling over another dead body today, sampling Tomasz’s excellent craft brew had seemed like a superb idea. “I’ve got a problem,” I told my financial advisor. “A big one. But first . . . what are you wearing right now?”
– end of excerpt –
p.s. – Colette London is a pseudonym for a best-selling novelist who’s published more than three dozen books worldwide. Want to use your Google Fu to find out her secret identity? Nah. Don’t spoil the surprise. Use your powers for good and order a Chocolate Whisperer mystery instead!
From the Author
Thank you for reading this book! If you enjoyed it, I hope you’ll share your enthusiasm by writing a review online, posting about this story on your Facebook page, Twitter account, or blog, or talking about it with your friends.
The complete Chocolate Whisperer series
Criminal Confections (2/2015)
Dangerously Dark (10/2015)
The Semisweet Hereafter (10/2016)
Dead and Ganache (10/2017)
The Peppermint Mocha Murder (10/2018)
Praise for the novels of Colette London
“Chocoholics and food cozy fans rejoice! With prose as smooth and delicious as its theme, this quality debut cozy by an anonymous best-selling novelist introduces a smart protagonist with an unusual and tasty profession.” —Library Journal (starred review!)
“This mystery, centered around yummy treats and high crime, was a spooky-cute lead up to Halloween. I was hooked from the start, and afterward I was craving a chocolate truffle!” —Lauren Gatcombe, assistant editor, FIRST For Women magazine