Death and relaxation, p.20
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       Death and Relaxation, p.20

           Devon Monk
 

  “Something wrong?” Ryder asked.

  “Nope. I plan to deal with that cheese like I would any other perpetrator under interrogation.”

  “Cheese interrogation. That a special course they teach you in the academy?”

  “Maintaining professionalism in unfriendly environments.”

  “You think this is unfriendly? People have gathered just to cheer you on as you eat. You couldn’t have stronger support.”

  “It’s a hostile work environment. Hostile cheese too.”

  “You don’t know that. You haven’t tasted it yet.”

  “Yeah.” I had been staring at the cheese the entire time, the fork poised in my hand. I couldn’t bring myself to actually make my arm and hand move down to touch the gelatinous mass. The air shifted a bit and I got a strong whiff of cooked rhubarb.

  And goat cheese.

  “You might want to get on with stabbing it,” he suggested. “You’re falling behind.”

  I glanced down the table. All the judges had already moved on to new plates. One that looked suspiciously like macaroni and cheese. Pink macaroni and cheese.

  I fought back my gag reflex. “Switch places?”

  “I think they’d notice. Take a bite.”

  “It’s rhubarb.”

  “Only some of it is rhubarb. Some of it is cheese.”

  “Don’t be reasonable with me.”

  “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

  His hand under the table pressed down on my knee and rubbed a gentle circle, fingertips dragging softly down the inside. Even through the heavy denim of my jeans, I could feel the heat, the pressure of his hand.

  “One bite and I’ll make it worth it,” he murmured.

  I might have been holding my breath. I didn’t look over at him, but from the corner of my eye, I could see his polite and interested expression as he stared down at the plate, and my fork hovering over it.

  He was surprisingly good at hiding the truth behind that polite expression. Now where had he learned to do that?

  “That’s a dirty move,” I said.

  “Not yet it isn’t.”

  He gently stroked my knee again, slowly letting his fingers drift upward along the inside of my thigh. It was only a couple of inches, but his hand drew my attention away from this room, these people, and that insult to the dairy aisle in front of me.

  “You think that’s going to help?”

  “I’m enjoying myself.”

  “Delaney?” Bertie called out.

  I swallowed a yelp of surprise. She stood in front of the stage, her back to the crowd.

  “Problem?” I asked.

  “Not with me, dear.” Her words were sharp as knives. “Is there something wrong with the entry?”

  “No. I was just…admiring the…”

  “Presentation,” Ryder provided. “High scores for presentation on this one.”

  “Love the mangled chunks of rhubarb that doesn’t resemble raw hamburger mixed with curdled milk at all,” I said. “High points for that.”

  “Delaney,” Bertie said through her teeth. “I hope you’re not thinking of disappointing me and all the good people of Ordinary with complete disregard to Heim’s memory by making light of your duties.”

  I raised my eyebrows. Impressive. Bertie knew how to lay on the guilt trip.

  “Not at all.” I forked up the tip of the cheese and popped it in my mouth.

  “Mmm.” I tried to make it sound good while an explosion of soft, salty but slightly sweet cheese held battle with tart, bitter, disgusting rhubarb.

  Bertie was all smiles.

  I held in my gag reflex.

  “Well done.” She moved along.

  Ryder stroked my knee again, then gave me a gentle pat. “So. On a scale of swill to crap, where does this rate?”

  I choked back a laugh and pressed my fingers over my mouth, then took a drink of water.

  “Um…seven?”

  “We’ll go with that.” He was busy writing on the small white card.

  “Doesn’t take that long to write seven.” The cheese plate was lifted away and the next was placed on my table with a clean fork and napkin.

  Bread the color of a flamingo.

  “I’m allowed to note your comments. The contestants like a personal touch. Did you mean raw hamburger and curdled milk, or would you say rotten hamburger and cottage cheese more accurately describes the dish?”

  “Do. Not.” I leaned toward him and peered down over the card.

  His handwriting was bold, clear, and neat, each letter squared.

  “A festive confetti of colors and textures?”

  He grinned. “Too much?”

  I smiled back. “Oh, I think it’s just exactly enough.”

  “Good. Now eat your crayon bread.”

  Chapter 20

  I CHOKED my way through twenty-three entries. Two entries were tied for first place. One: a rhubarb-pineapple salsa had made me gasp in surprise because it was actually good, and the other, a rhubarb-chicken salad wrap that Ryder teased me about when I went back for a third bite.

  To solve the tie, the judges all gathered behind a standing curtain to re-taste the top entries and decide which was the best.

  To my delight, and maybe because I made a lot of loud noises and reminded people I had a gun, the rhubarb-pineapple salsa took first place.

  “You look pleased with yourself,” Ryder said as we waited on the sidelines for Bertie to announce the first, second, and third prize winners.

  I took another swig out of my water bottle, scanning the crowd. Everyone seemed happy enough. Maybe a few nervous faces—probably contestants waiting for the verdict. No one looked like they would shoot the winners. “I just survived the seven-layer dips from hell. I am beyond pleased.”

  He stuffed both his hands in his front pockets. “Then you should be downright giddy after the drink round.”

  I groaned. I’d forgotten about the drink round.

  “I hate my life.”

  Ryder grinned. “Some of them are alcoholic.”

  “Let’s get to those first so I can forget this night.”

  “My offer still stands,” he said as Bertie took the stage.

  “Offer?”

  “Get through this, and I’ll make this worth your while.”

  “Did Bertie pay you to say that?”

  “She’s good. But not that good.”

  “Well, well, Mr. Bailey. I do believe you’re coming on to me.”

  “Is that going to get me arrested this time, officer?”

  “Play your cards right and it just might get you something.”

  “It’s not too late for dessert,” he murmured.

  Bertie made a grand show of announcing the winners from fifth to first. The salsa took first, and in a surprise that got the entire room applauding louder, the salsa recipe had been entered by fourteen-year-old Jimmy Stanton.

  “Ready?” Ryder asked as the crowd shifted and milled, some people leaving while others were still arriving. The drink round would start in five minutes.

  “Can’t wait.”

  A phone rang, and Ryder frowned as he pulled his out of his pocket. He glanced at the screen and I saw surprise, then anger fly quickly across his eyes before he pushed those both away and turned to take the call.

  I strolled to the front of the room, and several people stopped me to shake my hand or offer up a little idle chat. Jimmy waved his blue ribbon over his head at me like he’d just stolen the flag from the top of the world, and I gave him a thumbs-up and a nod.

  Trillium from the newspaper was walking his way, her phone cupped in her palm as she spoke into it. Looked like Jimmy was going to get a picture in the paper.

  I gathered with the other judges and assistants who hadn’t just ducked out on their duties, at one side of the stage.

  The judges and assistants were all in a good mood. Gazes flicked over the crowd and lingered a little longer on Jimmy. He hadn’t won the prize because of his age, but t
here was something wonderful in rewarding someone who was practically vibrating with excitement over a blue ribbon.

  It gave the entire event a buoyant sort of lift, and my mood couldn’t help but rise right along with it.

  Frigg cracked her knuckles one at a time and frowned. “Where’s Ryder?”

  “Deserted me.”

  “Couldn’t hack it, huh?”

  “Phone call.”

  “Will he be back?”

  “I have no idea.”

  I took a little more time studying the faces in the room. Chris and Herri were still in the back. They’d found two chairs and had placed them near the quilts, about midway across the hall. Close enough they could hear and see what was going on, but still be separate from the audience.

  I thought they must have done that out of deference to Chris, who was still reeling from the death of his friend.

  The rest of the crowd were already in their seats, about forty people scattered across the chairs, most of them staring at their phones or sending messages. In this modern day, the newspaper would not be the first place to break the news on the winners. Probably half of Ordinary already knew how the savory round had gone down.

  I noted the newlyweds Hallie and Joe Wolfe were there. Joe was full werewolf, whereas Hallie was a shifter who took feline form. Funny how the two of them, cat and dog, were more easily accepted in the Wolfe family than Ben and Jame.

  But then, the Rossi and Wolfe truce was an uneasy one.

  Other creatures in the audience included the linebacker Nash, who was big for a man, but small for an ispolin, and the three black-clad, perpetually moody Dryads: Basil, Coleson, and Delta.

  Dan Perkin perched once again in the front row. Two empty seats were open beside him. Since the only person I could think of who spoke moderately kindly of Dan was his neighbor Pearl, and she spoke kindly of everyone, I wasn’t surprised that he was sitting there in his own little bubble.

  He was fidgety and angry. So: normal.

  Ryder was still nowhere to be seen.

  Bertie took up the microphone again, introduced us as judges, and we all took our previous places.

  After a smattering of applause, the handlers stepped up with small, clear plastic cups and placed one in front of each of us.

  A stack of new white scoring cards were positioned in front of Ryder’s noticeably empty chair. If he didn’t show up soon, I’d have to do this solo.

  I pulled one card and the pen closer just as a figure folded down into the empty chair next to me.

  “Delaney Reed,” a soft baritone drawled. “What have you done to your assistant?”

  I turned to my companion.

  Old Rossi, patriarch, ruler, lord of the vampires in Ordinary, looked to be about fifty years of age, with a short shock of black hair that tended to curl above ears that stuck out just a bit. One curl over his right eye was a thick streak of silver and a salting of silver touched both temples. His face was long, lips very full beneath a thin black mustache and goatee that only drew attention to his hard cheekbones and the crook in his strong nose.

  But it was his eyes, a shocking ice blue, that seemed to have the power to peel their observer right down to the bone and, once caught, refuse to release.

  Luckily, those eyes were bright with humor. A lazy smile without any teeth pulled at his full lips.

  I knew he had a good body—everyone in town knew he had a good body, since he also had a streaking habit.

  “I didn’t do anything to my assistant. Why are you here?”

  “Replacing him.” He picked up the pen and tapped it on the edge of the table while he slouched back and stared at the ceiling. I noticed he was wearing a string of beads centered with a peace symbol over his tie-dyed T-shirt and another string of what looked like crystals of various sizes and colors wrapped in hemp circling his wrist three times. This close, I could smell the slight sour-sweet of marijuana on his clothes.

  Was he stoned?

  “I am here to assist with the judging. That”—he tapped the table with the pen—“is tea. Rhubarb raspberry.”

  I picked up the plastic cup and took a tentative sniff.

  “What did you do to Ryder?” I lifted the cup. Held my breath.

  He rolled his head sideways, still tapping the pen, blue eyes bright beneath his close, dark eyebrows. “I haven’t done a thing to our new reserve officer. Bertie asked for volunteers. When I realized he was gone, I volunteered. For karma. Balance. Peace.” His voice slipped into a sonorous drone. “You will drink the tea…”

  “Oh, please. I’m immune.”

  He smiled again—still no teeth, but plenty of glee. “Reeds have always been particularly resistant to such things. I find it…refreshing. Have I ever told you of the time your great-great-aunt begged me to have my way with her?”

  “Graygray Gertie? Begged?” The image of my great-great-aunt, a tiny ninety-three-year-old white-haired dry-apple of a woman, flashed through my mind. And so did an image of naked Rossi and Graygray in bed.

  I so didn’t need to be imagining that.

  “Beautiful young thing at the time. Ripe with that Reed bravado. That incredible fairness and empathy that even the gods can’t deny. Reminds me of you.”

  “I’d never want you to have your way with me.”

  He chuckled and settled his shoulders against the back of the chair. “Not that I would. Our auras are not at all compatible. Drink the tea. People are watching.”

  “Don’t tell me what to do.”

  “Free will is my groove.”

  I swallowed the drink. I wanted to tell him to go away. But he basically had me pinned down in front of all these eyes.

  I had one job to do, and that was to sit here and drink my way through the next hour or so with a smile on my face. I could do that even with the bloodsucking Woodstock dropout over there.

  “Four,” I said, tapping the plastic cup. “Too bitter. Too much pulp.”

  He straightened and wrote on the card, then flipped it over with his long, almost delicate fingers.

  The cup was withdrawn and a new cup was set in its place. I sniffed the frighteningly pink milky liquid, hoping it might be a cocktail, but got a nose full of bitter rhubarb. I stifled a groan.

  “Since you have brought up the subject of Ryder Bailey,” he said, “I’d like to know why you hired him.”

  The casual tone layered on top of something that sounded like anger stopped me. I looked over at him. “Why I hired him?”

  The air around us thickened in that wavy way I knew meant he was exerting his powers. The sounds of the room around us quieted, as if someone had just closed a window between us and the rest of the people in the building.

  We would not be overheard. We might not even be remembered, if Rossi was going full out and making people avert their eyes, but since I was a judge and most of the town knew it, I assumed he was just keeping our public conversation private.

  “Were you bribed, coerced, threatened?”

  “Threatened? By Ryder?”

  “Be calm. Take a drink.” His smile was in place but held no warmth. “It’s strawberry rhubarb milk.”

  “Why would he threaten me?” I said through teeth clenched in a smile.

  “Not what I asked. Not what you need to know. I’d like to know if you were threatened.”

  I sipped the pink milk. “Seven.” I picked up the glass of water and took a drink, swishing away the thick coating on my tongue. “It’s like a popover in milk form. Kids would like it.”

  “Huh.” Rossi dutifully jotted that down, his handwriting small and slanted with curly bits at the top and bottom. “It looks disgusting. What you people enjoy.” He shook his head.

  “I wasn’t threatened. Now you’re going to tell me why you think I might have been.”

  The next drink was dark and carbonated. I could hear it popping in the cup before I even got my hands on it. Soda of some kind. I swigged down a gulp without sniffing it first or really knowing what it was.


  “I do not trust Ryder Bailey.”

  It went down wrong, and I choked, sputtered, and coughed against my palm. Every eye in the audience turned to me. Including Dan Perkin, who had gone lava red.

  Old Rossi had dropped the dampening barrier around us and patted my back gently.

  “Rhubarb root beer,” he informed me.

  I could tell. I wasn’t going to get that smell out of my sinuses for days.

  I got my coughing fit under control and wiped the tears away from my eyes. “Sorry,” I said to the audience, probably breaking protocol. “User malfunction. The entry is fine, I just forgot how to swallow for a second.”

  I raised the glass in a toast and took another sip of bitter, bubbling rhubarb swimming in the caramel-sweet wetness. I suppressed a shudder and nodded and smiled for the crowd.

  “One,” I said quietly. “No, let’s do two. It’s terrible. But don’t write that. Um…say something like: robust flavor. And what is your problem with Ryder?”

  “I wouldn’t say it’s a problem. I don’t trust him.”

  “Why?”

  “He’s been out of town on weekends.”

  Last time I looked, that wasn’t against the law. “Why are you paying attention to his schedule?”

  “Peach rhubarb apple smoothie,” he said.

  I decided caution was going to be a strength if I was going to get through all the entries, and picked up the cup. I sniffed the fruity drink before taking a small mouthful. “You’re avoiding answering me.” I took a second sip.

  “We are in the middle of something very public here,” he said.

  “You started this while we were right in the middle of this very public something. It must be important if it’s dragged you away from your ice yoga or Tibetan throat-clearing or whatever it is you do on Thursday nights. What’s going on? Nine, by the way. Milkshake goodness. Sweet and tart.”

  “You’ve answered my question. There’s no more for me to say.”

  “Travail.”

  He raised his eyebrows at my use of his first name. No one used his first name.

  “If you know something about Ryder or this town, I need you to tell me. We had a man murdered on Monday. I do not need any other grim surprises.”

 
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