Sometimes in this life, you have to fish or cut bait. After walking away from a miserable job and an even worse boyfriend, Talia Marby has no regrets. She’s returned to her hometown and is happy to help her dear friend Bea Lambert by working at Lambert’s Fish & Chips, a cornerstone of a charming shopping plaza designed to resemble an old English village.
But not all the shop owners are charming. Phil Turnbull has been pestering Bea to sign a petition against a new store opening up, and his constant badgering is enough to make her want to boil him in oil. When Talia and Bea stumble upon Turnbull murdered in his shop, the police suspect Bea. Now it’s up to Talia to fish around for clues and hook the real killer before her friend has to trade serving food for serving time...
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“Don’t do it, Bea. He’s not worth it.” Talia Marby clamped her hand firmly around her employer’s wrist, preventing Bea from pitching a chunk of fresh haddock at the man on the opposite side of the counter.
“But that wanker won’t leave us alone, Talia!” Bea spoke as if the man weren’t standing six feet away, glowering at them. “He comes in here nearly every day to harangue me, and he’s gone to the hospital twice to bother Howie. I won’t have it!”
“I know, and I agree,” Talia soothed, her fingers still locked around Bea’s slender wrist. Bea was in such a state that she was afraid to let go. Afraid that the man with the reddish-gold hair and ice-cool glare brandishing a clipboard at them would end up with a fish in the face. “But you know we can’t solve anything this way, right?”
Cheeks flushed, raven-tinted curls springing out from her petite head, Bea Lambert let out a noisy sigh. “Right,” she grumbled. She lowered her hand and yielded to Talia’s grasp, letting the haddock dangle from her fingers.
Talia rescued the fish with one hand and squeezed Bea’s shoulder with the other. “Let me handle this,” she said, propelling Bea toward the opening next to the counter that separated the dining area from the kitchen of Lambert’s Fish & Chips. “Whitnee should be here any minute. She can help you get the mushy peas ready. It’s after eleven, so the lunch orders are going to start coming in.”
Bea turned and cast one last look at the man, her leaf green eyes shooting darts at him. “Bother Howie again and you’ll be sorry, Turnbull.” She paused for effect and then tromped into the kitchen, vanishing into the small alcove that was hidden from view from the dining area.
Phil Turnbull, the man with the clipboard, pointed a finger at Talia. “You tell her I’m not finished with her. I just got in some new information about that comic book store and she needs to hear it whether she likes it or not!”
Standing as tall as her five-foot-two frame would allow, Talia speared Turnbull with the most threatening look she could muster. With her blond, pixie-style hair and small-boned physique—and wearing a blue apron with a grinning fish emblazoned across the front—she probably looked about as intimidating as her mom’s cairn terrier. She was fed up, however, with Turnbull popping in almost daily to harass Bea, and would do whatever was necessary to defend her.
“You have nothing more to say, Mr. Turnbull. Bea and Howie have no objection to the comic book store coming to the arcade. Either you stop hounding them or they’ll have to get a restraining order against you.” Talia was fairly sure Bea would never go for such a thing, but it was all she could think of at the moment to get rid of the pest.
Turnbull’s demeanor did an abrupt one-eighty. He flashed a toothy grin that put Talia in mind of a hammerhead shark, and then spoke his next words in a lilting tone, as if trying to pacify a crazy person. “Ms. Marby—Talia—legal action will surely not be necessary. I’m simply trying to remind Bea and Howie of the original concept of the Wrensdale Arcade, and why a comic book store would be totally out of place in this charming, old-world environment. If we all apply pressure by signing this petition, the landlord will be forced to give in. He can’t fight us all, can he?” The smile stayed pasted on, but his gaze took on a predatory gleam.
Talia stopped short of rolling her eyes at his sudden change in attitude. The man was such a phony!
Turnbull was the proprietor of Classic Radiance, the vintage lighting store that sat at the far end of the shopping plaza known as the Wrensdale Arcade, in the Berkshires. Designed to resemble an old English village, the arcade boasted six other shops, three on each side, with Lambert’s Fish & Chips located on the southern side, between Sage & Seaweed and Jepson’s Pottery.
The aroma of hot oil wafting from the kitchen reminded Talia that the eatery would soon be bustling with customers. Standing here, having this argument with Turnbull, was a nuisance she didn’t have time for.
“Look, Mr. Turnbull—Phil,” Talia said, mimicking the familiar manner in which he’d addressed her, “Bea and Howie opened this restaurant in 1992. They’re fully aware of the original concept, as you call it, but times have changed. This is the twenty-first century. We all have to grow—evolve, you might say.” She tilted her chin slightly to one side, a habit she’d adopted as a stubborn toddler.
Turnbull’s smile faded. For a man who’d been blessed with stunning good looks—wide-set blue eyes, perfectly sculpted nose, full lips—he had all the natural charm of a scorpion. “Are you implying, Ms. Marby, that I’m some sort of Neanderthal?”
“No, not at all.” Although, now that she thought about it—Talia blew out an exasperated breath. “Honestly, Mr. Turnbull, I don’t understand your objection to the comic book store. They’re all the rage these days. Think of it this way—it could bring a lot of new business to the arcade.”
“Business for this place, maybe.” His lips twisted in contempt. “But do you really think the kinds of people who shop at a comic book store are going to be interested in vintage lighting?”
Talia’s patience had reached the end of its tether. “I don’t know the answer to that, but right now Bea has a business to run, and it’s my job to help her. So unless you’re going to order some fish and chips, I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
Turnbull shook his clipboard at her. “This is not over, Ms. Marby, not by a long shot. I’m not going to abandon this fight, not when I’m so close. A comic book store will ruin the arcade, and I don’t intend to let that happen. That hippie at the pottery shop is the only other holdout, and he’s about to cave. Your precious Lamberts will, too. Mark my words.” He pointed a manicured finger at her nose.
“Is that a threat, Mr. Turnbull?” Talia felt her temper rising, even as she kept her tone mild.
Turnbull’s face reddened. “No, I didn’t mean it that way. I just—”
“You’d best leave now,” Talia told him. Feeling a bit like the Ghost of Christmas Future, she raised her arm and pointed ominously at the door. “Today is Wednesday, and on Wednesdays, at approximately ten to twelve, the chief of police picks up his order of fish and chips. I’m sure he’ll be quite interested to hear about your campaign of harassment against Bea and Howie.”
“Fine,” he said, in a low growl, “but you tell your boss she hasn’t heard the last of me.” Turning on his heel, he stomped toward the door and whipped it open. Before he could step out onto the cobblestone plaza, Bea’s young employee, Whitnee Parker, rushed past him at only slightly under the speed of sound. The force sent Turnbull tottering backward. He managed to keep his balance, but his clipboard clattered to the blue-and-white tile floor.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry! Are you all right?” Whitnee bent down to retrieve the clipboard. As she did so, two of the textbooks jammed into her shoulder tote slipped out and tumbled to the floor. Turnbull kicked one of the books aside and snatched up his clipboard before she could get to it.
“What’s the matter with you?” His upper lip curled into a snarl. “Don’t you ever look where you’re going?”
“I . . . I’m so sorry. I was running late and I didn’t—”
“Why are you always such a ditz, anyway?”
Whitnee’s face crumpled. Her pale brown eyes grew watery as she stood there, frozen, unable to respond.
Talia plunked down the haddock she’d been holding and moved quickly around the side of the counter into the dining area. She snagged Whitnee’s books off the floor and said to Turnbull, “Get out.”
Red-faced, Turnbull turned and stormed out onto the plaza, slamming the door behind him.
“Are you okay, Whitnee?” Talia slid a comforting arm around the young woman’s shoulders.
Squashing away a tear with the heel of her hand, Whitnee gave a jerky nod. “Yeah, it’s just . . . why did he have to be so mean? It wasn’t like I was trying to knock him over!”
“I know. Of course you weren’t.” Talia tucked the two textbooks back into Whitnee’s tote. “He’s not a nice man, so don’t let him get to you, okay? He’s not even a customer. I don’t think he’s ever bought so much as a cup of coffee here.” Talia knew that every person should be treated as a potential customer, but in Turnbull’s case she made an exception.
Whitnee snuffled, and another tear fell onto her cheek. “Yeah, you’re right. Jerks like that don’t deserve the time of day, do they?” She forced her thin lips into a tepid smile. “I guess I better get into the kitchen, or Bea’ll tan my hide. I’m already ten minutes late!”
Talia knew that Whitnee had recently turned twenty, but she found her to be a bit immature at times. Still, she couldn’t help chuckling at the “tan my hide” comment. The tender-hearted Bea could barely bring herself to swat the occasional fly that found its way inside the eatery during the warmer months. She once spent the better part of an hour trying to persuade a persistent housefly to vacate the premises, a campaign that ended in a stalemate. Bea had just thrown up her arms in resignation when a customer strode in and out went the fly.
Talia stepped back around to the other side of the speckled aquamarine counter. With a groan, she stared at the poor haddock Bea had nearly lobbed at Turnbull. In retrospect, she almost wished she hadn’t stopped her.
• • •
Talia swiped a napkin over the last traces of grease on her fingers, savoring the final mouthful of batter-coated, deep-fried haddock. Bea made her batter with a hint of lemon juice and a splash of malt vinegar, using a special recipe she’d brought with her from the UK. The result was—to use a tired cliché—to die for.
“You know, of course, luvvy,” Bea said helpfully, “that the chief of police picks up his fish and chips on Fridays, not on Wednesdays.” The kindly twinkle was back in her eyes, and her voice had regained that darling lilt she’d carried across the Atlantic from Edenbridge, in the county of Kent in England.
“Okay, it was a tiny fib.” Talia grinned. “I couldn’t think of any other way to get rid of that nuisance.” She tossed the napkin, along with her empty plate, into the waste can.
It was after two, and the midday lull had taken hold. As much as Talia enjoyed the frenzy and bustle of the lunch rush, she relished this time of the day, when she and Bea and Whitnee could take a much-needed break. More than anything, Talia loved reconnecting with Bea, who’d been like a second mother to her since she was a teenager.
Talia still had to give herself an occasional pinch to remember where she was. A mere two months ago, she was occupying a plush cube in the offices of Scobey & Haight, one of Boston’s up-and-coming commercial real estate firms. She’d endured the job for the better part of a year when she finally gave her notice to the manager. Adam Scobey, a thin-lipped man with a greasy comb-over, had found the swell of Talia’s chest more gratifying than the commissions she’d been contributing to the company coffers. Shortly after Labor Day, she e-mailed him a polite resignation. She suffered through the two-week notice period, and on the last day skipped out of her cube and never looked back.
Chet Matthews, her almost-fiancé at the time, was furious when she left the job she’d worked so hard to snag. It was at Chet’s urging that Talia had studied for the exam to become licensed as a commercial real estate broker. Prior to that, she’d been perfectly content working as a property manager for one of Boston’s premier commercial landlords. But after acing the exam and jumping through all the necessary hoops, she’d landed the job Chet had pushed her to apply for. She knew within two months that she hated it, but she stuck it out for almost a year. Chet’s refusal to support her decision to resign led her to a second, life-altering one: she ended their relationship.
“You’re someplace else,” Bea said, breaking into her thoughts. She waved a hand in front of Talia’s face.
Talia laughed. “You’re right. I was someplace else. Someplace I don’t want to be ever again.”
Bea nodded. “Then don’t think about it anymore, luv.” She reached over and squeezed Talia’s hand. “Listen, Tal, I know this job is just a stopover for you until you find your niche again. But these last five weeks . . . well, I don’t know what I’d have done without you. It’s been such a joy, such a relief, having you here again. Howie’s been out of commission for so long now . . .” Bea shook her head and reached for a napkin to dab at her leaky eyes.
Talia felt herself welling up, too. Bea was so special, such a treasure. Howie Lambert, Bea’s husband of thirty-seven years, was recovering from a knee operation that hadn’t gone well. He was still in the hospital, fighting an infection, and Bea’s stomach was in a constant knot from worry.
“I’m just glad I could help, Bea.”
Talia didn’t want to tell her that she’d been posting her résumé online, hoping desperately to land a position as a property manager. Prior to working as a commercial real estate broker, she’d loved managing the rentals for one of the gorgeously restored office buildings on Summer Street in Boston. Negotiating with tenants and fulfilling their rental needs was so much more rewarding than the sales grind. For Bea, the timing of Talia leaving her job in Boston had been a godsend.
Talia was sixteen—nearly half her lifetime ago—when she’d gotten her first job at the fish and chips shop. A senior in high school, she’d squeeze in hours after school and work nearly every weekend. At the time, her folks had been going through a rough patch. Lambert’s became her haven, her second home of sorts. It didn’t matter if she was frying fish, mashing peas, or scrubbing tables—she’d loved every moment she was there.
Shaking away the memories, she glanced over at Whitnee. The girl had been unusually quiet through lunch. Normally she polished off a boatload of vinegar-spritzed fries, and at least two helpings of Bea’s scrumptious mushy peas. Today she ate only a couple of fries and barely a spoonful of the peas.
“Whitnee, are you okay?” Talia said. “You seem a little down today.”
Whitnee tugged on a lock of her straight, carrot-colored hair. “Yeah, I guess so. It’s just . . . I got a lot going on at school, and there’s this one class I’m really sucking at—precalculus. Next week is the midterm, and I’m afraid I’m gonna flunk it.” She shrugged her thin shoulders. “If I don’t get a degree, it’ll kill my mom. I’m really scared of disappointing her. I’m like, the only kid in our family who ever got into college!”
Whitnee was taking evening classes in business administration at Berkshire Community College. It was her first semester, and Talia had the feeling that the workload was overwhelming her.
Talia reached over and touched Whitnee’s hand. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Not really.” Whitnee’s eyes were glassy with unshed tears. “I . . . just have to figure out how to study more efficiently. That’s what my advisor at the school said.”
Talia and Bea exchanged glances, and then Bea leaned forward toward Whitnee. “Listen, luv, I know your shift doesn’t end till seven, but why don’t you leave a little early today? You can use the extra time to study, or even take a walk and clear your head.”
“That’s real nice of you, Bea, but I . . . I actually need the money.”
Bea sighed, chewing her lip. “Then how about you make up the time, in dribs and drabs? An hour here, an hour there. Maybe when midterms are over?”
Whitnee sniffled, and then gave Bea a thin smile. “Sure, I guess I could do that. Thanks, Bea.” She emptied her plate into the waste can, collected her school tote, and scuttled out the door.
Bea turned to Talia with a sheepish look. “Poor girl, she looked so miserable. What could I do?”
“You did the right thing, Bea,” Talia said. She grabbed a clean sponge and a bottle of lime-scented spray cleaner and began to wipe down the stainless-steel work counter.
With the exception of Mr. Ruggles, the retired lawyer who dined at Lambert’s faithfully every Wednesday, the eatery was empty. Today he’d asked for a single order of mushy peas instead of his usual double, a sign that he was feeling especially low. His wife, Martha, had passed away three years ago, and according to Bea, he was lost without her.
Holding up a steaming pot of French-roast coffee, Talia headed out to the dining area. “I’ll bet you’d like a refill,” she said to him with a bright smile.
“Oh, I surely would, young lady.” He stabbed his fork through the last chunk of fried fish in his cone-shaped serving dish. “I’ll take Bea’s coffee any day over that sludge they serve at those chain stores!” He smiled at Talia, but the sadness in his faded brown eyes belied his good cheer. Having lost her grandmother six months earlier, Talia could understand the pain he must be feeling.
“I agree,” Talia said, refilling his mug. “Can I get you anything else?”
“No, I’m fine, dear. But thank you.”
From the kitchen, Talia could hear sputtering sounds coming from Bea. Before she had a chance to excuse herself to see what was troubling her boss, Bea burst into the dining area, gripping her smartphone as if it were a deadly weapon.
“Can you believe this?” Bea fumed, shaking the phone at her. “Now the bloody boob is badgering me by e-mail! How did he even get my e-mail address?”
Talia winced. She assumed Bea was talking about Turnbull, but with Mr. Ruggles sitting four feet away, a bit of discretion was in order. “Probably from the website,” Talia said quietly. “Maybe we should—”
“Well, he’s not going to get away with this,” Bea said darkly. “Fire up the deep fry, Talia. I’m going to boil Phil Turnbull in oil!”
Talia had managed to get Bea calmed down, and the rest of the afternoon passed without any further distractions. The eatery had gotten busy again around four thirty, and by seven—closing time—they were both weary. Bea planned to head directly to the hospital to sit with Howie for an hour or so. Talia had paid him a visit the evening before, so tonight she was looking forward to relaxing with a light snack and a glass of wine.
She swung her Fiat into the stubby driveway of her nana’s darling little bungalow. On the front lawn, a FOR SALE sign sat somewhat crookedly, the name and number of the realty company emblazoned across the bottom.
After Talia had left both her job and Chet, her mom had suggested that she move into the bungalow, at least until she figured out where her life—and her career—were headed. Her mom’s twin sisters, Aunt Josie and Aunt Jennie, were completely on board with the idea, so Talia had moved her things in right away. At best it was a temporary solution, but she didn’t want to think about a permanent place to live until she landed a new job . . . somewhere.
Or until someone made an offer on Nana’s house.
The sight of the Realtor’s lock box hanging over the doorknob sent a fresh wave of the blues washing over Talia. Nana’s death this past spring had been shattering. Not a day passed that Talia didn’t miss her. Now that the house was on the market, it wouldn’t be long before it attracted a buyer. For its age, it was in decent shape, and it fit the category of homes brokers liked to dub “starters.”
Inside, Talia dumped her purse onto the dilapidated tweed chair that her grandpop had been so attached to. After he died eleven years ago, Nana couldn’t bring herself to get rid of the eyesore, in spite of the fact that she loathed it while he was living. “I know he’s still sitting there,” she would tell Talia with a catch in her throat. “How can I send it to the dump?”
By the time Talia had showered and thrown on a pair of jeans, along with her favorite UMass sweatshirt, it was after seven thirty. She hadn’t given much thought to dinner, but since she’d had a filling lunch she opted for her default meal—a bowl of Rice Krispies with bananas. She was pouring a heap of cereal into one of Nana’s pink-flowered soup bowls when her cell phone jangled.
“Hope you haven’t eaten, because I’m on my way over with a pizza and a bottle of wine!”
“Rachel! I thought you had an open house at the school.” Rachel Ostroski was Talia’s BFF going back to their early school days. They’d kept in touch throughout their college years and still remained close. An elementary school teacher, Rachel was currently single and looking for love on one of the online dating sites.
“Yeah, but I was able to bail early. Only five parents showed up for my class,” she said with a snort, “and even fewer for some of the others. So, are you in the mood for a slab or two of deep-dish pepperoni and mushroom? You can’t say no because I’m already in your driveway, parked behind that strange little car of yours.”
Talia laughed. “Then I won’t say no. Give me a sec to flick on the porch light so you won’t break your neck on the steps.”
Talia dumped the dry cereal back into the box, and then scooted into the living room and flipped on the outside light. Seconds later, Rachel strode through the front door, pizza box in one hand and a brown bag in the other. Talia relieved her of the pizza and wine while Rachel stripped off her Burberry raincoat with its matching scarf. As usual, her friend looked as if she’d just stepped out of a page in Vogue.
“Honestly, is that cashmere?” Talia asked in mock disgust, gazing at Rachel’s ensemble.
Rachel plucked at the stunning rose-colored sweater she was wearing over a black pencil skirt. With her thick mane of dark wavy hair, ocean blue eyes, and cheekbones that could slice a melon, she looked more like a runway model than a fourth-grade teacher. “Yeah, but only because I had to dress up for parents’ night.” She rubbed her hands together as she followed Talia into the kitchen. “Let’s open up that pizza box. After the evening I’ve had, I’m starving. By the way, did you get a cat?”
“A cat? No, why?”
Rachel shrugged. “I thought I saw a little feline face peeking out from the side of the house. When I shut my car door, it took off.”
“Must belong to a neighbor,” Talia said.
Rachel sat down at Nana’s scratched wooden table while Talia set two places with her grandmother’s pink-flowered dinnerware. As Rachel opened the bottle of pinot noir and poured each of them a glass, Talia began filling her in on the events of her day, including Bea’s meltdown over the e-mail.
“Ah, that’s good wine,” Talia said after sampling hers. “A nice change from chardonnay.” She opened the pizza box, releasing the intoxicating aroma of spicy meat, basil, and mozzarella. They each grabbed a slice of the gooey pie, and for a few moments they munched and drank in silence.
“So, this Turnbull you were telling me about,” Rachel said finally, a flush coloring her cheeks. “You said he’s the guy who owns Classic Radiance?”
“Yes, he’s the— Oh no, do you know him?”
Rachel took a bracing sip of her wine. “I dated him—once,” she confessed, “a little over a year ago. Believe me, once was enough. What a consummate fool he was—a real piece of work.” She gave Talia a wry smile. “I suppose I deserved it for letting myself be taken in by a pretty face. You’d think I’d be old enough to know better.”
Talia gave her a flat smile. “We’ve all been there, fallen for that. I imagine he came off as quite the charmer at first, but that it wore off very quickly.”
“You got that right.” Rachel shoved the end of a second slice into her mouth. After she swallowed, she said, “He drives this big Caddy and brags about it, like it’s the only car on the planet anyone with a brain would ever think of owning. And, get this—he keeps this big white towel draped over the back of the passenger seat so that—I kid you not—whoever sits there won’t sully his precious leather seats with the oils from their hair.”
Talia almost choked on a mouthful of pizza. She coughed and then washed it down with a hefty slug of wine. “Oh geez, he really is intense. Do you know if he was ever married?”
“Oh, he sure was.” Rachel grimaced. “I had to listen to him rail on about the K-witch, as he called her, for half the evening. Apparently the two did not have an amicable divorce.”
“Gee, what a surprise,” Talia said. “I’ve come to a decision, though. I thought about it while I was driving home tonight. I’m going to confront Turnbull in the morning, this time without Bea. I’m not going to put up with him upsetting her every day. She’s a wreck from all his pestering.”
Rachel looked dubiously at her. “Better practice what you’re going to say to him. He’s got this way of twisting your words, especially when it comes to . . . well, anyway, just be careful. Not to change the subject, but have you heard anything from Chet?”
Talia shook her head. “I told you, Rach, he’s not going to call. He has too big of an ego. Besides, I don’t want to hear from him. I don’t have anything left to say to him.”
“So, it’s really over then? No chance of you getting back together?”
Talia smiled at her friend over the burgeoning lump in her throat. “No, but I’m fine with it, honestly I am. We’d been going in different directions for longer than I wanted to admit. When he didn’t support me after I left that horrid job, I realized that our lives, our goals, had drifted too far apart.” She picked at a stray wedge of pepperoni that had stuck to the bottom of the pizza box. “Besides, he was going horseback riding nearly every weekend. I felt like I hardly ever saw him anymore. We were never going to find our way back to where we were in the beginning. I miss him, a lot, but I did the right thing.”
And it was the right thing, Talia reflected, as they polished off the remaining two slices of pizza. Chet’s anger over her leaving a job she detested had forced her to reassess the relationship. In doing so, she saw how vastly different they were. An investment counselor, Chet loved parties and socializing with clients, while Talia savored cozy evenings at home with comfort food, a good book, and her sweetheart at her side.
About a year ago, Chet had accepted a client’s offer to go horseback riding at his sprawling home in northeastern Massachusetts. Chet had taken to the pastime like a frog to a lily pad, and before long it was all he wanted to do. Talia tried, she really did, to latch onto the sport, but she could barely lift herself onto the horse, let alone control it with two skinny strips of leather. The saddle felt like it was made of granite, and every time she dismounted the animal, all she could think of was getting home and taking a long soak in the tub. After three separate tries, she gave up. Life was too short to spend on something she truly hated.
“What about you,” she prodded Rachel, anxious to change the subject. “Didn’t you have a date last weekend?”
Rachel scowled. “I was hoping you wouldn’t remember. It was an absolute disaster!” In typical Rachel style, she regaled Talia with a comical account of how she’d arranged to meet her date—a man she’d found on the online dating site—at a Thai restaurant in downtown Pittsfield. Every three minutes or so, and all through dinner, he’d whipped his comb out of his shirt pocket and scraped it over his balding head. The evening had gone south from there, ending with him trying to pull Rachel into a lip lock as they were heading into the parking lot toward their cars. By the time Rachel had finished telling the story, Talia was wiping the tears from her face.
Feeling thoroughly stuffed, Talia removed the dishes from the table and stacked them in the sink. “Well, I regret to say that I have nothing to offer you for dessert. If I’d known you were coming, I’d have stopped at the bakery for some brownies.”
Rachel gulped back the last of her wine. “Yeah, well, don’t let it happen again. Hey, did your mom tell you? My class is putting on a play for the residents at the Pines this Sunday. Can you believe I agreed to direct a bunch of fourth-graders in ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’? I must’ve had a mental lapse the day I told the principal I’d do it.”
The Pines, actually the Wrensdale Pines, was the assisted living facility where Natalie Marby—Talia’s mom—worked as the assistant director.
Talia grinned. “That sounds like fun! I wonder why Mom forgot to tell me about it.”
Rachel wiggled a hand in the air. “Well, first it was on, then it was off. As of this morning it’s on again, this time for good. I had a few parents who were afraid the play would be too scary for their kids, but when they finally sat down and read the script, they ended up changing their minds. We’ve already had three rehearsals, so the kids pretty much have their parts down pat.”
“I read it so long ago I don’t remember it,” Talia said, “but it sounds like a blast to me.”
“Oh yeah, it’ll be a real trip.” Rachel rolled her blue eyes at the ceiling. “Can you imagine getting twenty-three fourth graders into their respective costumes? I just pray to God one of them doesn’t get stage fright and panic when they have to say their lines. Hey, you want to come? It starts at one, but we’ll start setting up around eleven. I could really use your help.”
Talia cocked a finger at her. “I’ll be there. Maybe I should be the costume director or something.”
“No, I’ve got a better idea.” Rachel waggled her perfectly shaped eyebrows at Talia.
“Uh-oh. You’re scaring me with that evil look.”
Rachel laughed. “You, my friend, are now in charge of bringing the desserts. It’ll be one more thing I can cross off my list. Cookies, coffee cake, whatever floats your dinghy.”
Talia gawked at her friend. “Hey, now wait a minute. I didn’t—”
“No, you didn’t, so I did it for you.” Rachel winked at her, and Talia knew she had been had.
Rachel stayed another hour or so. As she was leaving, she hugged Talia and quietly said, “I miss her, too.”
Talia’s throat tightened. “I know you do.”
“I think I loved her as much as my own grandmother.”
Her lashes damp, Rachel hugged Talia again and left. Talia locked the door behind her friend, feeling her spirits lift. Rachel had always had a way of dragging her out of a funk. She was compassionate and funny and supremely grounded—especially for someone whose family was Dysfunction Central. And, thanks to her friend, Talia was feeling considerably better about facing Turnbull in the morning.
Still, she had to think about what she was going to say to him. She couldn’t just barge in there unprepared.
After washing the dishes, she fished around in the “junk” drawer in the kitchen until she found a small notepad, and then sat cross-legged on Nana’s old green sofa. One by one, she listed the high points of the speech she intended to deliver. Her plan was to approach him early, even before his store opened, assuming she could get his attention by knocking on the store’s front entry door. She would be polite, but firm. When she was through, he would be left with no other choice than to stay away from Bea and Howie.
At least that was the plan.
By the time she was through scribbling out her notes, her mind was frazzled. She stuck the pad into her purse so she wouldn’t forget it in the morning, and then changed into a flannel nightshirt. After that, she watched a few of her favorite sitcoms. Finally, she snuggled under the covers in Nana’s bed and picked up the romantic suspense novel she’d started reading the night before. It had gotten off to a roaring start, so she was anxious to get further into it.
At eleven, Talia closed the book and watched the highlights of the late news. When her eyelids began to droop, she turned on the nightlight and flicked off her bedside lamp. As she lay in her grandmother’s bed, she spied a shaft of moonlight beaming around the edge of the shade. “Oh, Nana, I wish you were here,” she murmured, feeling her eyes grow moist. “Or at least . . . I wish I knew you were okay, that you were at peace.”
With a sigh, she floated her gaze over the darkened bedroom, smiling automatically at all the familiar shapes. She saw her grandmother’s mirrored dresser with the lacy bureau scarf draped over it. Nana’s favorite felt hat—the mauve one that she always wore to church on Sundays—hanging on the post of the dresser. The reading lamp resting beside Nana’s puffy pink chair, where she always took care of her sewing repairs.
After a while Talia yawned, and her eyes closed. She was teetering on the edge of sleep when an odd scent tickled her nose. It smelled like . . . lilies of the valley. Nana’s favorite dusting powder.
She opened her eyes. Something was different. Slowly, she sat up. She looked around, shifting her eyes from one object to the other until she realized what it was.
Nana’s mauve hat was no longer hanging on the post.
It had fallen to the floor.
Talia felt refreshed the next morning, ready to take on whatever the day had to offer—even a confrontation with one Phil Turnbull. The sense that Nana had been with her the night before still clung to her. Had she only imagined the scent of Nana’s dusting powder? At the time, it had seemed so real. Either way, the memory helped strengthen her resolve. And while she didn’t relish the idea of paying Turnbull a visit, it had to be done. His days of badgering Bea and Howie were about to die a very quick death.
She’d already decided she wouldn’t let Bea in on her plan until it was over. She wanted to accomplish her goal quickly, quietly, and without fanfare. Bea would only fret, and that was the last thing either of them needed. Talia had already rehearsed what she would say to Turnbull. She only hoped her preplanned speech wouldn’t devolve into a nervous babble.
Avoiding the main drag, Talia maneuvered her Fiat along the tree-lined residential streets of Wrensdale—a circuitous route that would bring her to the rear of the arcade. So familiar she could navigate it with blinders on, the route brought her past the town’s older, well-tended homes, many with pumpkins, cornstalks, and other Halloween accoutrements staking claim to the front yards. One homeowner had created a graveyard of sorts, with “headstones” poking out from the lawn at odd angles, their skeletal occupants clinging to the slabs as if trying to escape their fate. Although she’d driven past this display nearly every day for the past month, it never failed to give her a giggle.
When she reached Birch Street, which ran parallel to Main behind the arcade, she spied a diagonal parking space that few vehicles other than her own would’ve been able to squeeze into—mainly because of the big car hogging the adjacent space. It was a Cadillac CTS, she noted, its wheels plunked carelessly over the painted line. Yet another reason Talia was grateful she drove a Fiat—it made parking easy breezy.
Talia slid her car into the vacant slot and shut off her engine. She scowled at the Caddy parked beside her, wondering briefly if it belonged to Turnbull. She grabbed her purse off the front seat and hopped out of her car. She leaned closer to the big car and peeked through the tinted window on the passenger side. Sure enough, a white towel was draped over the front seat—this had to be Turnbull’s Caddy.
From where she parked, Talia could see the rear entrance to Turnbull’s shop. To the right of the shop was the cobblestone walkway that led to the front of the store and to the plaza that formed the heart of the arcade. Now that she was so close, the prospect of facing Turnbull was beginning to unnerve her.
Drawing in a fortifying breath, she hoisted her purse onto her shoulder and strode toward the cobblestone walkway. As she made her way toward the arcade, a cool October breeze rustled the trees, sending a flurry of dried leaves skittering across the plaza. When she reached the corner of the lighting shop, she stopped short and gazed across the expanse of cobblestone. All at once five centuries fell away, leaving her in sixteenth-century England.
The storefronts were Tudor in style, with herringbone brickwork painted white and the upper sections graced with cross timberwork. Above the door of each of the shops, a sign proclaiming the name of the establishment dangled from a scrolled iron bar. She grinned when she saw the sign jutting out from the entrance to Lambert’s Fish & Chips. The eatery’s name had been engraved in a whimsical script, below which was the image of a toothy blue fish popping a crispy fry into its mouth.
She smiled and continued over the cobblestone. Today she’d worn her lilac sweater under her maroon, 1950s-style flared jacket, along with a polka-dot scarf. Thick and woolly, the sweater protected her from the morning chill. By lunchtime, when slabs of battered haddock and chunky, hand-cut fries would be sizzling in the deep fryers, she’d probably be rolling up the sleeves. For now she was glad to have something warm to shield her from the stiff wind.
A sudden gust blew across the plaza, sending the tails of her scarf flying into her face. She pushed them back with her fingers, her heartbeat kicking up a notch. She wasn’t sure why, but the feeling that her practiced sermon was going to backfire ripped through her like the stomach flu she’d endured this past winter. She hated to admit it, but Turnbull frightened her.
Which was ridiculous, when she thought about it. Turnbull was a bully, and bullies were cowards in disguise. Besides, even if her ultimatum bombed, what could he do? Scream? Wave his arms? Toss her out?
Oh, for pity’s sake, get it over with. You’ll feel so much better after it’s done.
Talia hitched her purse straps securely onto her shoulder and, with her head high, marched up to the front entrance of Classic Radiance. Her legs felt shaky, as if her kneecaps had been suddenly removed and replaced with dollops of Bea’s mushy peas. Cupping her hand over her eyes, she peered through the diamond-patterned glass ensconced within the top half of the wooden door. The store was dark, but she could see the myriad outlines of the lamps and chandeliers that populated the showroom. A faint glow emanated from somewhere in the rear of the store. If a light was on in one of the back rooms, then Turnbull must be there.
Talia swallowed back the knob of dread that was forming in her throat. She was about to bang on the door when she decided to try the handle. To her surprise, the curved iron bar that served as the doorknob turned easily. She pushed open the door and stepped inside to a musical, tinkling sound. “Mr. Turnbull?” she called out. “Are you here?”
Talia closed the door behind her. She skimmed her gaze over the showroom. The room wasn’t pitch dark, but the low level of ambient lighting made everything look murky. For a few moments she stood there, motionless, fearful that if she moved in the wrong direction, she might knock over an expensive lamp. She hated to think of Turnbull’s reaction if she were to break something.
“Mr. Turnbull?” she called again, a bit louder this time. “It’s Talia. Talia Marby.”
Still no answer.
Frustrated, she blew out a breath. After mulling her choices, she decided she had two. She could slink out of the store and pretend she’d never been there. Or she could head on down to the back of the store, find Turnbull, and have a little confab with him. It suddenly occurred to her that he might be in the bathroom. Which meant that even if he’d heard her yelling his name, he might not be in a position to—
The musical sound of the door made Talia jump.
“Talia?” The loud whisper came from behind her.
Talia knew that voice. She whirled around. “Bea! What are you doing here? You scared the liver out of me!”
“A better question is, what are you doing here?” Bea stuck her hands on her hips and gawked at Talia. “I’d just poked my head out to see what the weather was doing when I saw you open the door and come in here! How did you know the door would be open?”
“I didn’t. It was sheer luck.” By now Talia’s eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkened showroom. With a sigh, she quickly laid out her plan for Bea. “I didn’t want to tell you because I knew you’d want to come with me, and you have enough on your plate as it is.”
Bea shook her black-tinted curls and grinned. “You crazy girl.” The last word came out gehhllll. “Well, now that I’m here, there’s no need for you to go in there alone. Let’s go find Turnbully and give him a piece of our collective mind. Or is it minds?”
“If he’s heard us,” Talia said wryly, “he’s probably already called nine-one-one.”
Bea peered toward the rear of the store. “Is that a light on in the back?”
“I’m not sure. It’s awfully faint. I called out Turnbull’s name a few times, but he obviously didn’t hear me.”
Talia now saw that they were standing in a central aisle, about four feet wide, covered with a plush oriental runner. The runner led from the front of the showroom all the way to the rear of the store. With any luck, if they kept their feet on it without straying over the edges, they could avoid knocking over a lamp or tripping over a table leg. “Wait a minute, I just remembered something,” Talia said. She slid open the zipper on her purse and dug out her keys. Her key ring had a mini-flashlight built into its ladybug design. She pressed the button that triggered the device, and a thin pinpoint of light flickered on.
“Hey, that’s cute,” Bea said.
Talia aimed the beam at the floor, hoping to illuminate their way to the back of the shop. “It doesn’t give out much light, but it’s better than nothing.” Talia sighed. “All right, it’s now or never. But stay behind me, okay? And for heaven’s sake, be careful!”
Talia called out Turnbull’s name again, feeling suddenly ridiculous. Regardless of their innocent intentions, she and Bea were intruding. Why didn’t they just wait until ten o’clock, when the store opened? Why skulk around like a pair of burglars? If Turnbull heard them, he’d have every right to call the police.
Or, maybe he’d cut out the middleman. Maybe he’d come blazing out of his office with guns blasting. Did Turnbull even own a gun? He seemed like the type who would enjoy packing heat, if for no other reason than to give the appearance that he was a tough guy. Talia rubbed away the shiver that was crawling up her arms. “Bea, I’m having second thoughts. Maybe we should leave and come back later, when the store’s open. I just got this eyeball-searing vision of the two of us in orange jumpsuits, strolling around the yard at the women’s prison in Framingham.”
Bea snickered. “Orange is definitely not my color. Still, we’re here now. Why don’t we just see if he’s back there? He’s probably not even in the store. I bet he went to Queenie’s for a latte and a jelly doughnut. Every time I go in there for the paper, he’s standing at the coffee station, chatting up that cute college girl who works behind the counter.”
“Eww,” Talia said.
“Eww, indeed. The poor girl always looks like she’s trying to make a mad escape while the fool just stands there with a stupid grin, blathering on about himself.” Bea pressed her fingers lightly to the small of Talia’s back. “Come on, let’s trot our bums back there and get this over with. If he’s not there, we’ll come back later.”
“All right,” Talia said glumly, “since it was my dopey idea in the first place.”
Excerpted from "Fillet of Murder"
Copyright © 2015 Linda Reilly.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
"Deep fried and deadly, Fillet of Murder is a perfectly seasoned mystery with quirky characters, a darling small town New England setting, and a plucky heroine. I thoroughly enjoyed this puzzler of a mystery. Reilly cooks up a perfect recipe of murder and mayhem in this charming cozy."—Jenn McKinlay, New York Times bestselling author of the Cupcake Bakery mystery series
"You had me at deep-fried haddock and malt vinegar. This is a terrific book—smart, sassy, and a little bit scary. Everything a good cozy should be!"—Laura Childs, New York Times bestselling author of the Teashop mystery series