Mimi Lee is on top of the world. She has a thriving pet grooming business, the sweetest boyfriend, and a talking cat to boot. When she arrives at the elementary school where her sister Alice works, she's expecting a fun girls' night out—but instead finds a teacher slumped over in her car, dead.
Alice was the last one to see Helen Reed, which instantly marks her as the prime suspect. Unable to sit quietly and let the authorities walk all over her sister, Mimi starts snooping and talks to Helen’s closest contacts, including one jumpy principal, a two-faced fiancé, and three sketchy teachers. With the help of her sassy but savvy cat, Marshmallow, and a cute kitten named Nimbus, the clock’s ticking for Mimi to get to the bottom of yet another case before her sister gets schooled.
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I took an Uber to see Alice, because let's face it, the countdown to Valentine's Day sucked for singles. I knew so from experience. Cupid had kept on missing the mark all throughout my last twenty-five birthdays . . . until I'd bumped into Josh at my apartment complex's laundry room last fall. For tomorrow's February fourteenth outing, he'd planned a special surprise for us. And I couldn't wait to cuddle up with my favorite Los Angeles lawyer.
But today would be about my younger, single sister, Alice. I'd had to close up my pet grooming store early, and the Uber driver dropped me off around four at Roosevelt Elementary with its storybook red brick construction. Despite the conservative look, it still had the usual Californian exterior hallways with interconnected classrooms, the better to appreciate the good weather in the area. I saluted both the state flag and the Star-Spangled Banner, which waved at me from their respective steel poles as I marched up the stone steps into the school office.
I didn't see anyone behind the desk piled high with colorful flyers for after-school activities. The receptionist must have already left for the day. Maybe she'd had pre-Valentine's plans.
Alice and I had a tradition of doing a sister date to protest the annual lovers' holiday. However, since I actually had plans this year, I'd moved our usual outing a day ahead. She'd probably been reminded of the occasion after seeing all those paper hearts and sweet candies being exchanged between her students. And in kindergarten, everyone was required to participate, which meant reminders of V-Day multiplied by twenty-five. Maybe Alice had gotten a few misshapen candy hearts and superhero cards, but I bet she wanted treats from someone else besides five- and six-year-olds.
I heard someone clear their throat from the principal's office. The door was open a few inches, and I could see a flash of blue from within. I wondered what the new head of Roosevelt Elementary was like.
Alice seemed to have a much better working relationship with him than his predecessor. The previous principal had suffered from an icy attitude that had matched her cold steel furniture. As prickly as her pet hedgehog, she'd basically bullied Alice and threatened her with a layoff last year. She'd gone so far as to give my sister a pink slip. The principal had even bypassed the newest member of the staff to do so-until I'd stepped in and defended Alice.
Where was my sister? She'd had a good time estimate of when I'd arrive at her workplace. After all, I'd texted her when I left the apartment, where my cat, Marshmallow, had grumbled at me. He'd given me a piece of his mind: "Have fun deserting me tonight."
I knew exactly what he'd been thinking because we had some sort of telepathic owner-pet connection. The whole mental communication thing had scared me at first. I thought I'd been experiencing some sort of psychotic break; I'd studied such things in college as a psych major. Despite not understanding the science behind it, I'd come to embrace our connection, snark and all.
My phone dinged.
Alice: Are you here already?
Me: Yep. Waiting in the office.
Alice: Sorry. Writing up a petition to fund the kinder playground. See you in five.
I heard loud steps coming my way and looked up to find a Black man in his sixties wearing a navy blue dress shirt, striped tie, and tailored slacks. He appeared about twice my size, though that wasn't too difficult, given my petite stature.
Gesturing at my phone, he said, "I heard it ring and figured I should introduce myself." He peered at me through thick-framed bifocals. "Are you related to Alice?"
I nodded. "I'm her older sister. Mimi."
He grinned at me. "You two are practically twins."
"We get that a lot." My sister and I did look alike. We both had the same five-foot frame and shared features such as oval faces, elfin ears, and small button noses. However, I tried and failed to tame my shoulder-length hair while Alice managed a sleek bob.
"I'm Principal Lewis," the man said.
I extended my hand to him at the same time as he stepped forward and gave me a half hug.
A surprising gesture from someone I'd just met, but he seemed genuinely happy to see me. "You're definitely friendlier than Principal Hallis was." I'd nicknamed the old administrator "Principal Hellish" in private.
"Well, I do like to put the 'pal' in 'principal.' " He gave a small chuckle.
"I see that." No wonder he and Alice got along. They both exuded warm vibes.
"I want my staff to feel connected to me." He twisted the gold band on his left ring finger. "As if they were part of my extended family."
What an intense statement. At least he wasn't a horrific boss. I'd rather have a manager landing on the extreme side of nice.
However, I definitely liked being my own boss and running my pet grooming salon, where I made up my own easy work schedule of ten a.m. to six p.m. I had no one else to answer to-except maybe Pixie St. James, who had gifted me the investment money. It'd been a very willing donation on her part, after I'd rescued her poor shih tzu from the churning waves near Catalina Island.
The side door to the school office opened, and Alice rushed in. "Sorry to keep you waiting," she said.
A heavy book bag, no doubt stuffed with student projects, weighed down her left shoulder. Every teacher I knew had homework, just like their kids.
She did a double-take on seeing my company. "Principal Lewis," she said. "Did you meet my sister, Mimi?"
"Yes, and she's wonderful, just like you." He turned to Alice and gave her a brief hug. Alice didn't seem fazed by the quick embrace. Maybe because Dad also loved giving us giant bear hugs, even now, after we'd grown up.
Alice smiled at him. Then she checked her wristwatch. "We'd better get going," she said. "Shouldn't you leave, too, Principal Lewis? Don't you need to get things ready for your Valentine's date with your wife tomorrow?"
He hazarded a glance at the wall clock. "You're right. I need to go over my plan for the all-day extravaganza." Touching his close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, he said, "We can do that now that our kids are all adults with cute cuddly babies of their own. I'm starting the day with a scavenger hunt on the beach."
Alice gave him a thumbs-up. We said goodbye to the principal and headed to the staff parking lot.
Once there, Alice said, "That's odd. Helen's car is still around."
"Who's Helen?" I didn't remember my sister mentioning her before.
"She's the newest member of the staff . . . and that's her car." Alice pointed to a white Prius C (unfortunately marked with bird droppings) a few paces away. A car woman after my own heart, I thought. Although I'd opted for a larger size of the popular hybrid.
"Wait. Is that the same teacher Principal Hallis kept on, while threatening you with the pink slip last year?"
Alice closed her eyes for a moment. "That's right."
"You're actually friends with her?"
"I'm trying, but Helen's really reserved."
No doubt my sister would be able to get chummy with someone aloof. Alice's temperament was pure sunshine.
She frowned. "I thought she already left campus."
I gestured to Alice's heavy bag. "Maybe she's doing some paperwork in her classroom."
As we crossed behind Helen's car, a poof of fluff caught my eye from below the undercarriage of the Prius C. I paused, but Alice kept on walking.
I crouched down to peek underneath the car but couldn't see anything in the shadows. Huh. Had I imagined an animal?
Straightening back up, I noticed something else looked off. The vehicle was occupied, but the figure in the driver's seat was slouched in a weird position.
Alice finally noticed that I wasn't beside her and turned around. "Everything okay?"
"Odd," I said, peering through the window. The driver's head lolled at an uncomfortable angle. My breath left me.
My sister backtracked to my side and said, "What? Is something in there?" She moved around me and took a closer look.
Principal Lewis hurtled through the school doors into the parking lot. He goggled at us shocked Lee sisters standing there. Then he noticed the slumped body in the car, and his jaw dropped. Whipping out his phone, he dialed 911.
Minutes later, the first responders came with their sirens blaring. We watched as the paramedics attempted to revive Helen. The glassy stare of her eyes and her unmoving chest, though, told me that they were too late.
After we gave our statements and provided our contact information for the requisite recordkeeping, my sister started shaking. I hugged Alice tight as the sirens continued to flash and officers inspected Helen's car.
Eventually, I said, "Let's go. I think it's better if you didn't watch anymore."
The principal nodded at us, a grim look on his face, as we left the tragic scene.
Although I still drove us to TitoÕs Tacos, we didn't stay to sit down and eat together like weÕd planned on doing. Instead, I ordered their signature crunchy tacos to go, and we headed back to my complex.
Seaview Apartments didn't live up to its name and had no ocean view. Instead, I got an eyeful of the nearby 405 traffic.
Probably still in shock, Alice didn't compliment the interior courtyard like she usually did. Somehow she always managed to find the rectangular patch of artificial grass with its scattered potted ferns charming.
We trudged over to my ground unit, one of fourteen (unlucky, according to Ma, who'd said, "Number like meaning for sure die"). She always spoke to me in her own version of Manglish, Malaysian English, a kind of pidgin she used with close family.
As I unlocked the door, I said, "Feel free to stay the night, Alice."
My one-bedroom unit didn't really have space for visitors, but I continued, "You can take the bed. I'll sleep on the couch."
Alice let out a shaky breath. "I think I just need some time to calm my nerves. I'll be okay."
When we walked inside, Marshmallow pounced at us. "Back early, huh? Must have missed me too much."
I shook my head, and Alice greeted my cat with a half-hearted pat on his head.
Marshmallow swished his tail and looked back and forth between my sister and me. "What happened?"
Plopping down our dinner on my particleboard IKEA dining table, I sighed. I made sure to settle my sister gently in a chair.
"We don't have to talk about what happened at the school," I said, sitting down by her side. "We could just eat."
Marshmallow's blue eyes glimmered, and he made himself comfortable under the table . . . the better to eavesdrop, I suspected.
Alice grabbed a chip. She dipped it into the salsa and tried to eat it, but she couldn't even finish a bite. "Maybe I should talk about it. Get things off my chest."
"I'm really sorry about your loss, Alice-" Here, Marshmallow hissed, but I ignored him.
"I can't believe it," my sister said. "I'd talked to Helen less than an hour before."
"The paramedics did the best they could."
Her mouth flattened into a thin line. "We found her too late."
"I'm glad we were at least together when we saw her. I don't know what I would've done if I were alone." I shivered. "Who would have imagined she'd be slumped over in her car like that?"
"If I hadn't tried to finish up my paperwork, we'd have gotten to the parking lot earlier . . ."
I put my hand on top of hers. "Alice, you couldn't have known."
She started tearing up. "But I did."
"What? How?" I almost knocked over the salsa in my surprise.
"I ran into Helen in the restroom after lunch. She told me her stomach was hurting and she wasn't feeling very well."
I shook my head. "Not your fault. I get stomachaches at times, and they always go away."
Alice fidgeted with her fingers. "I keep some ginger chews in my desk and dropped some off to her after the last bell rang."
I scrunched my nose and stuck out my tongue. The spicy tang made those my least favorite candies in the world.
"Don't give me that look, Mimi. Ma always says they work great on nausea."
I shrugged. To each their own. I often felt nauseated after eating them.
I stared at the tastier food before us. "You should eat, Alice. Food helps settle nerves." I snatched up a taco and bit into it. The tender shredded beef made my taste buds dance with joy, and I motioned to the spread on the table.
Alice gave a tiny nod and picked up a taco. She held it in her hand.
"By the way," I said, "Happy early Valentine's Day."
"Don't remind me. What's so happy about being couple-less while everyone else celebrates with cute dates and gifts?"
I thought about something that might lighten her mood. "Well, you'll get extra bonding time with Ma."
I gave her a genuine grin. "Valentine's will be sure to inspire her. And now that she's off my case, you'll be the single Lee daughter she'll work her matchmaking magic on."
"Oh no," she said. "Tell me it won't be like that time she created an online dating profile for you on that sketchy site."
"Maybe it'll be more along the lines of when she ordered Chinese takeout to my shop to set up a lunch date with the delivery guy." I hid my smile.
Alice made a mock face of horror, but she started eating her taco.
Thank goodness Alice had cheered up for the time being. I knew she didn't have anything to do with her coworker's death. Maybe Helen had struggled with some hidden fatal medical condition. Tragic because she'd been young like us, but perhaps inevitable.
I shuddered, remembering the last time I'd been around a sudden death. I'd been shocked to find that the police had considered me a murder suspect. It had taken a lot of sleuthing for me to get my life back on track. I felt grateful that Alice wouldn't need to share the same grueling experience of Detective Brown breathing down her neck.
I like to sleep in on Saturdays, but when I received a call early the next morning and checked the ID, I jolted upright in bed. "Alice, what's wrong?"
My sister's voice shook as she said, "Somebody's at my door, but I don't recognize him. I know it's dumb to be scared just because of what happened yesterday, but what do I do? I never get visitors!"