It always seems that when you want to avoid someone the most, that’s the one person you end up running into all the time. And I mean, all the time. For the past three weeks, I’ve been actively trying to ditch Victor Marino, yet everywhere I turn, there he is. No matter how hard I try I can’t seem to escape him. It’s like I’ve been chipped and he’s tracking me with a radar gun.
For example, last Thursday at nine-thirty pm I was at the Piggly Wiggly. When I went up to the front register to pay for my groceries, there he was in the cash-only line. Never, in all my years of living in Whispering Bay have I ever seen Victor at the grocery store that late in the evening. Aren’t senior citizens supposed to go to the grocery in the morning when the rest of the world is working? I think that should be made into a law.
“Lucy!” he cried, trying to wave me down with a bag of chips in his hand. That’s another thing. What is Victor doing buying potato chips when he can’t get his cholesterol under control? I went to all the trouble of creating a low-fat muffin just for him and this is how he repays me?
“Victor! Great seeing you, but I gotta run!” I yelled right before skedaddling it out of there as fast as I could, which really bummed me out because I was craving chocolate ice cream and I had to leave my carton of Ben & Jerrys next to the magazine rack. I went back the next day and offered to pay for any melting ice cream that the staff might have found, but Louise, the manager, who’s a big fan of my muffins, told me not to worry about it. Of course, I paid for it anyway because if I hadn’t, I would have had to confess it at my next reconciliation. We Catholics are big into guilt.
Then there was the time a couple of days ago when I was pulling into the bank parking lot and there was Victor coming out the door, so I had to slam on the accelerator and get the heck out of Dodge before he spotted me. I was so rattled I missed making a deposit which normally wouldn’t be a big deal except my checking account was down to three dollars and the next day I bounced a check (thanks a lot, Victor).
I could go on. Whispering Bay isn’t the smallest town in the Florida panhandle. We boast a population of about ten thousand in the winter when the snowbirds are here, but still, you’d think I could avoid one seventy-year-old man. I’m exhausted. I just can’t run away from him anymore, which is how I’ve come to find myself in my current predicament—staring at Victor across the counter of The Bistro by the Beach, the café I co-own with my friend, Sarah Powers.
“Lucy!” says Victor. “Boy, you sure are hard to get ahold of.” He’s accompanied by his sidekick, Phoebe Van Cleave. The two of them are prominent members of the Sunshine Ghost Society, a local group that claims to commune with the dead. “Every time I come into The Bistro you’re either in the kitchen baking, or you’ve just run out on some emergency.”
Phoebe decides to add her two cents worth, only with Phoebe it’s more like three cents. “It’s almost as if you’ve been avoiding us. Either that, or you sure have a lot of emergencies pop up.”
Victor frowns. “Lucy, is it true? Are you purposely avoiding me?”
“Don’t be silly! Of course I’m not avoiding you.” Good thing that Victor isn’t a human lie detector like I am, or he’d know that I’ve just fed him a whopper. I have no idea how I was chosen to receive this “gift.” I just know that ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been able to tell when someone is lying. The revelation comes with a set of physical reactions, the most common one centering around my neck. The bigger the lie, the bigger the reaction.
“So, what can I get you two this morning? The usual? Or would you like to try my latest take on the low sugar mango coconut muffin? I’ve got it down pat now. I know you loved version six but you’re going to love version seven even more.” Whenever I create a new recipe, I try out at least a dozen variations until I’m satisfied that it’s the best it can be.
Victor beams. “I’ll have one of those. And a coffee.” Phoebe nudges him in the side with her elbow. “All this talk of muffins almost made me forget. Lucy, we need to schedule that séance. The society is very excited about it, you know.”
I’m literally saved from responding when Betty Jean comes out of the kitchen with an order. Betty Jean Collins used to be a regular customer here but now she works for Sarah and me part-time. She’s eighty but she looks seventy, has the stamina of someone’s who’s forty, and the libido of a sixteen-year-old boy. She’s also a member of the Gray Flamingos, a senior citizens activist group, as well as running a local book club. I just hope when I’m her age I have half her energy.
Betty Jean spots Victor and Phoebe. “Have you asked her yet?” she says laying a batch of fresh bagels down on the counter.
“We were in the process of doing just that,” snaps Phoebe. “Maybe you should ask her since it’s obvious she’s not going to keep her promise.”
“Now, Phoebe,” says Victor soothingly. “Lucy would never break a promise.”
Poor sweet gullible Victor. Of course I’m trying to break my promise. He’s just too nice to think otherwise which makes me feel even more guilty over what I’m about to do but I have no choice here. “Promise?” I say, trying to act confused.
“It’s about the séance,” says Betty Jean. “We want to know when Paco is available so we can schedule one.”
I turn to Betty Jean. “We?”
“I just joined the Sunshine Ghost Society, so yeah, we.” Betty Jean leans over and whispers, “Not that I believe in that ghost malarkey, but you should see some of the men in the group. Yowza. Fresh batch of meat,” she says, wagging her brows up and down.
As if he knows we’re talking about him, Paco comes trotting down the stairs to join us. I live in the apartment above the café and my dog spends the day going up and down the stairs, alternating between napping on my living room couch and mingling with the customers in the dining room. He’s a tan-colored chihuahua terrier mix and the regulars here love him. He’s also a ghost whisperer. Which is why Victor and his crew are so hot to have him participate in a séance.
I inherited Paco by default a few months ago when I solved the murder of Abby Delgado, another member of the Sunshine Ghost Society. Paco, whose name used to be Cornelius, belonged to Susan Van Dyke (also now deceased), an eccentric millionaire who ran weekly séances in her home in nearby Destin. Apparently, “Cornelius” was used as a medium at the seances and they were all the rage.
I don’t know anything about Paco’s abilities to “talk” to the dead and I don’t want to know either. To me, he’s just a sweet little lap dog, who, yes, happens to find a lot of dead bodies. I’m also pretty sure he’s either psychic or can understand what the humans around him are saying. In the short time we’ve been together the two of us have managed to get involved in more than just a few murder cases. We’ve also exposed a notorious mob assassin and helped the FBI put away a career con man.
Paco and I make a great team, but to be honest? I’m tired. I’d like nothing more than for the two of us to go back to being a regular girl who bakes muffins and her cute little dog. Well, make that a regular girl who makes the best muffins in town and her fabulously cute little dog.
“If it isn’t the little fellow himself!” says Victor, bending down to scratch Paco in his favorite spot behind the ears. Paco wags his tail and raises his jowls to show his teeth, in what looks like the human equivalent of a smile.
“Yeah, about that séance. I said you could use Paco as a medium in exchange for information to help me figure out who killed the guy impersonating J.W. Quicksilver, but the list you gave me was worthless.”
J.W. Quicksilver is the pen name for a big New York Times bestselling author of espionage thrillers. Last month a con man impersonating him came through town trying to swindle the people of Whispering Bay, but he got himself murdered in the process. Luckily, I was able to solve the murder and keep the real J.W.’s identity under wraps. But it wasn’t due to any help I got from Victor.
“Nevertheless,” says Victor, “a promise is a promise. Or is Phoebe right? Is your word worth nothing?”
“My word is good … it’s just, I don’t want to do anything to hurt Paco. He’s been sneezing a lot lately and I can’t have him exposed to any drafts.”
Paco looks up at me as if to say Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.
“We would never do anything to harm a hair on that precious dog’s head,” Victor says adamantly. “The séance will be conducted in a safe environment with adequate temperature control. As a matter of fact, we can have it at my house.”
“Good idea,” says Phoebe. “We can do it in your living room.”
They want to hold the séance in Victor’s living room? I was imagining a spooky cemetery at the stroke of midnight. I’m trying to come up with any excuse I can when the door to the café opens and in walks Whispering Bay’s new chief of police, also known as Travis Fontaine. My boyfriend.
Just thinking the word puts a smile on my face. It’s like I’m back in grade school but instead of writing it all over my notebook, I’m letting it float around in my brain.
Travis Fontaine, my boyfriend.
Oh, have you met my boyfriend? Travis?
Mrs. Travis Fontaine.
Travis McGuffin. Hey, why not? Who says it always has to be the woman who takes the man’s last name?
But of course, I’m getting way ahead of myself here. It’s just that I’ve never had a boyfriend before. Unless you count Jed Hollings back in junior high, but that romance only lasted four days. I’ve spent most of my life in love with my best friend Will Cunningham, but after baring our souls to one another Will and I discovered that what we really feel is a deeply bonded friendship. It’s Travis who makes my blood tingle and my … well, never mind. That part is private.
“McGuffin,” Travis says, calling me by my last name. Which is kind of cute, actually. He dropped it on me a couple of weeks ago in the middle of asking if I wanted Chinese or Italian for dinner. We never got to dinner because Travis was called into police headquarters on an emergency (it turned out to be a lost cat) but the nickname stuck, and he’s been calling me that ever since.
“Travis!” I say with a bit too much enthusiasm but boy am I glad to see him. “Excuse me,” I say to Victor, “but it’s an emergency. I need to speak to my boyfriend. Betty Jean can take your order. Good-bye! See you later! I won’t be back!”
They squall in protest, but I ignore them, shoving Travis into the pantry so that we can be alone. Or almost alone, because Paco follows us inside. I grab Travis by the shirt and pull him down for a kiss, startling both of us, because I’ve never been this aggressive before. He kisses me back with so much enthusiasm that eventually I’m forced to break if off. “Not in front of the dog,” I say.
“Well good morning to you too,” he says huskily before reaching down to adjust my upended glasses. “You look adorable by the way.”
I wait for a sign that tells me Travis has just lied. But I don’t get one.
No tingling in the neck.
No little hairs standing up straight.
Which means he’s telling the truth. He really does find me adorable.
After being up for nearly six hours, three of those working in an overly warm kitchen and the rest spent on my feet waiting on customers, I know that I look far from “adorable.” My brown hair is pulled up in a messy bun, I’m not wearing any makeup, and my tee-shirt that reads MUFFINS ARE THE BOMB has a jelly stain right over my left boob. The fact that Travis still finds me attractive, even at my worse, makes me like him even more.
Travis, on the other hand, looks yummier than the best batch of my apple walnut cream cheese muffins. He’s six foot three with dark blond hair and the prettiest green eyes you’ve ever seen. He’s funny, loyal, and definitely the person you want to text if you’re ever being held hostage by a crazed killer.
Before moving to Whispering Bay to be closer to his father, Travis was a Dallas city cop for eight years, so he has lots of experience. But this chief thing is new to him, so between all the orientation, and the meetings, and the added responsibilities, it’s been hard for the two of us to find time together. As a matter of fact, in the three weeks since we’ve been “official” Travis and I haven’t had a proper date of any kind. And it’s getting frustrating.
I peek out the pantry door to check out the situation at the front counter. There’s no sign of either Victor or Phoebe. “Good. They’re gone.”
He narrows his eyes at me. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” I say. “I just don’t want to talk to Victor Marino right now.”
“What was all that back there about an emergency? Are you still trying to get out of that séance?”
“What do you think?”
He shrugs. “So let Victor and Phoebe have a little fun. You sit around with a crystal ball in the middle of a table and let Paco sniff around. What harm can it do?”
What harm can it do?
This is where Travis and I butt heads. Sure, he’s a great guy, but he’s also a bit egotistical and as pig headed as they come. Despite evidence staring him right in the face, he refuses to believe that I’m a human lie detector or that Paco is a ghost whisperer. He thinks I’m just really intuitive and that my dog has had some sort of previous training. Ha! How many chihuahuas do you know that have been trained as cadaver dogs?
“I’m not going to find out what harm it can do because I’m not going to let it happen,” I say knowing that I sound as stubborn as he does, but I don’t care. Paco is my dog. And I’m not about to let anyone from the Sunshine Ghost Society get their grubby paws on him.
Now that the coast is clear we emerge from the pantry and head into the kitchen where Sarah is whipping up some of her famous mac and cheese. “Hey, you two.” She grins like she knows what we were up to in the pantry. Sarah is married to Luke, who owns his own engineering firm. They’ve been married about a year now and besides co-owning the café with me she’s also getting her bachelor’s degree online.
A few weeks ago she came up with the idea to expand our business by distributing muffins to the local Piggly Wiggly, as well as to Heidi’s Bakery. At first, I was a bit resistant to the idea because Heidi’s Bakery specializes in donuts and let’s face it, when you compare donuts to muffins, muffins always get the short end of the stick. But so far, the idea has been profitable. A lot of work, yes, hence, the reason we needed to hire Betty Jean, but if things continue the way they are, we’re probably going to need to hire even more help.
“Where’s Betty Jean?” I ask Sarah. “Did she take care of Victor?”
Sarah glances down at Paco then back at me. She’s one of the few people that know about my gift and Paco’s special abilities. “Lucy, you can’t avoid Victor forever.”
“That’s what I told her,” says Travis.
“Yeah, well, watch me.”
Travis shakes his head like trying to convince me is a lost cause. Which it is. “I need to get back to work.”
“I have a meeting in fifteen minutes. I just came by to grab a cup of coffee and say hi. Plus, to tell you that there’s an officer out sick, so I need to work late tonight. Sorry, but we’ll have to postpone our date. I promise, though, I’ll make it up to you.”
Figures. It’s like we’re two ships that pass in the night. Like the good and patient girlfriend I’m trying hard to be, I put a couple of muffins and a tub of Sarah’s macaroni into a to-go bag. “In case you get hungry later.”
“Thanks.” He bends down to kiss me on the cheek, says goodbye to Sarah, and pats Paco on the head before slipping out the kitchen door.
“I think you got yourself a good one there, Lucy,” says Sarah.
“I agree, only don’t tell him I said that, or his head will get even bigger.”
Sarah grins and goes back to putting orders together.
Now that the coast is clear Paco and I return to manning the front counter. I’m just about to put on a fresh pot of coffee when Victor and Phoebe dash back through the front door. It’s as if they were just hiding, waiting for me to come back. I hate to admit it, but I’ve been outplayed.
“I knew it!” Phoebe crows. “There was no emergency, was there?”
“Lucy,” Victor scolds, “did you just lie to us?”
“Um, no … no, I did have an emergency, but it’s taken care of now.”
Victor gives me a look that makes me shrivel up inside. Maybe I should be honest with them. Or as honest as I can be. “Look, about this séance. I don’t want to do anything to put Paco in danger.”
“We don’t want that either,” Victor says soothingly. “Paco isn’t going to be ingesting anything or asked to do anything physical. All we want is his presence.” He and Phoebe share a look. “To be honest, we’re very concerned about Abby. It’s been several months since she’s crossed over to the other side and she hadn’t contacted any of us. Paco is our last hope. She loved that little dog. If anyone can coax her into talking to us, it’s him.”
I can see that Victor is never going to let this go. And today has proven that I can’t outrun him forever. “I’ll check my calendar,” I say wearily.
“Not good enough,” says Phoebe. “We’re not leaving until you give us a definite date.”
Visions of lacing Phoebe’s muffins with castor oil dance through my head. “Tuesday night. Take it or leave it.”
“Excellent!” Victor beams. “You won’t regret this, Lucy.”
A chill shoots up my spine. I wish I wasn’t so pessimistic about this, but my Spidey sense tells me that he’s wrong. I’m very much going to regret this.