Death and relaxation, p.4
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       Death and Relaxation, p.4

           Devon Monk
 

  “Where did you even find that silly thing?”

  “Craigslist.”

  “They sell whales?”

  Ryder barked out a laugh. “I thought you meant Spud. The whale I picked up in Seattle. He only drags it out when he wants to really impress a girl with his hunting skills. So what is this about?”

  “The whale?”

  “The third degree. What happened?”

  “There was an explosion.”

  He was no longer sitting. He flowed up onto his feet and stepped out so neither the coffee table nor the whale-hauling dog were in his way. “Explosion?”

  “You didn’t hear it?”

  “I was sleeping really hard. Might have been a little drunk. What exploded? Where? When?”

  I wanted to ask him why he had been drinking. Maybe he had just wanted to blow off some steam and have some fun. But I’d heard through the grapevine—namely my youngest sister, Jean—that Ryder’s last ex-girlfriend, Char, had tried to hook up with him. She had made a messy scene in his office that ended with her crying and flipping him off before she drove away.

  “Rhubarb exploded,” I said, answering his first question.

  “You don’t often see that in the heritage strains,” he said.

  I fought back a smile. “At Dan Perkin’s place. Early this morning.”

  “Oh. Hell. Is he okay?”

  “He’s fine. So are his neighbors and his house. It looked like a small blast. Intended to wipe out his rhubarb.”

  “You really think Chris is the kind of guy who would blow up another man’s garden patch?”

  “I really think I’m going to consider all the angles and get to the bottom of it before something worse happens.”

  Spud shook his head and successfully dropped the whale on my boots. His tail was pounding a million miles a minute and his mouth was open in a happy dog smile.

  I gave him an extra-long rub on the head and he flopped down, content to prop his head on the tail fin.

  “I wouldn’t expect anything less of you, Delaney,” Ryder said. “But you should know that if I’m asked to be a character witness for Chris or for Dan, I’m throwing in with Chris.”

  “You and everyone else in Ordinary,” I said. “But I’ll note your bias in my official write-up.”

  I gave Spud one last scratch behind his ear and then pocketed my notebook.

  “Sure you won’t stay for a cup of coffee?” Ryder had crossed the space to stand right in front of me. He’d done it silently on a hardwood floor. Nice trick, that. “Won’t take but a minute to brew.”

  “No, thanks.”

  Why was my heart pounding so hard? Why was he standing so close? I took a step back in the hope my brain would have room to join me again. “I need to get to the station. It’s about time I relieve Jean. We’re still short-handed. Haven’t found anyone to hire yet and no one’s dumb enough to volunteer.”

  He made a humming sound. “You look like you haven’t gotten any sleep for a while.”

  “I’ve slept.” Not well. Not often.

  “Maybe another time?” he suggested. His eyebrows were knitted, like maybe he was worried about us seeing each other.

  It was a small town. There was no way we could avoid seeing each other.

  “Sure,” I said. He still didn’t look convinced.

  “Are you sure you’re okay?”

  “I just… It’s been a year. Since Dad…” I shut my mouth. Why was I talking to Ryder Bailey about the anniversary of my dad’s death? It wasn’t like Ryder and I were in elementary school. I’d shared everything with him when I was little. Even my ridiculously pink marshmallow Sno Ball desserts.

  But not now. I was the one who kept the secrets of this town secret. And that meant I’d never really be able to share my life—my real life—with anyone like Ryder.

  On bad days, I was pretty sure that was a big part of why Cooper had left me. There were too many things in my life I couldn’t tell him about, too much of me I couldn’t share.

  “Hey,” he said softly, the word formed out of gentle acceptance and comfort.

  I forgot how tall he was. At six-two, he was a good five inches taller than me. And even though he’d just rolled out of bed, he smelled nice: warm with a deep honey note—maybe the fabric softener or laundry soap from his clothes.

  Images of him—naked him—flashed through my mind again in high-definition detail, and everything in me stirred.

  “It’s only been a year,” he said. “If you ever need to talk about it. About your dad…about anything…” He reached over.

  For a moment, from the way he was looking at me, I wondered if he was going to tip my face so he could kiss me. But instead, he pushed a strand of my hair that had escaped the hastily tied ponytail away from the edge of my cheek. The back of his fingers grazed my skin and my heart started beating harder.

  His gaze followed his fingers in my hair, like it was some kind of rarity, to touch a simple lock of hair, then his eyes shifted back to me.

  “…I’m right here,” he finished.

  He waited, his hand warm, cupping my shoulder while still putting very little weight on it, his other hand in his back pocket, as if he was unsure he should even be touching. He was stepping over that invisible line of friendship between us, reaching over it for something more.

  He was trying to help me, just like he always helped people.

  I looked away from his eyes—looked anywhere but his eyes. He was just concerned for me, like he was concerned for anyone he thought was struggling.

  But I wasn’t struggling. If he knew what I handled on a daily basis, not just the police work, but everything else that came along with keeping tabs on creatures and deities, he wouldn’t be giving me that look of concern. He’d be giving me a look of respect.

  And I needed that much more than sympathy.

  We were friends. I didn’t want to mess up our friendship just because I’d had a couple hard days—weeks, the whole last year—and he felt sorry for me.

  I leaned back, my shoulder slipping out from under his hand, breaking the connection.

  He put his hand in his other back pocket so that both his elbows jutted out. Looked a little curious at my reaction.

  “Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate that, Ryder. I haven’t really had…” I inhaled, exhaled. He was right about one thing: I was bone-tired. “I haven’t really had time to think about it too much lately. Think about Dad. Sorry, it just sort of fell out of my mouth. I need to—”

  “Have dinner with me tonight.”

  “What?” That was so not the subject I thought we were on.

  “Let’s have dinner tonight. I’d like to take you out.”

  “For dinner?”

  “Yes.” A smile heated all the way up into his gold-green eyes. “It’s the meal that happens after lunch, which is the meal after you buy something out of the vending machine because you forgot to pick up donuts at the bakery before it closed again.”

  “I assume Jean has been talking to you?”

  “You’ve defaulted on three pastry promises last week. She thinks you’re not sleeping enough. I’m beginning to wonder if you’re trying to set her up with Hogan at the shop.”

  “Hogan? Why would I— Hold on. She likes Hogan?”

  “I don’t think she doesn’t like Hogan.”

  “And she tells you this, not me? Not her sister?”

  His eyebrows went up and he took a step back, one hand twitching upward. “She didn’t tell me directly.”

  “Then how do you know she likes him?”

  “I, uh, ran into her at the grocery store. We chatted, one thing led to another, Hogan walked by with a fifty-pound bag of flour on his shoulder and her gaze glued to his ass until he was out of sight.”

  “She was that obvious?”

  “I have amazing observation skills when it comes to women.”

  “Oh?”

  “It’s true. Family curse.”

  “You have a family curse.


  “Doesn’t everyone in town?”

  He was joking, fighting back a grin. He didn’t have a curse. He didn’t even know about the creatures and deities in town. Rule #5 of my job: no spilling the beans to the mortals about the supernatural contingency.

  “Sure,” I said. “Everyone in town is cursed or worse.”

  He tipped his head for a second, the smile still not lifting, but the laughter in his eyes turning to that sharp curiosity again. “All right,” he said, “go out with me. Take an evening off. I’ll buy you one of Chris’s rhubarb beers.”

  “If you promise to not buy me one of Chris’s rhubarb beers, I’ll think about it.”

  “Can I upgrade that to a yes if I throw in burgers and fries?”

  “I don’t know. How’s the new cook he hired?”

  “She’s amazing. If Chris gets tired of brewing, her cooking would keep him afloat for years.”

  Yes, it would. Chris’s cook happened to be a goddess—Nortia, the Etruscan goddess who nailed down fate for people once a year. And like most deities on vacation in this town, she had settled into a mundane job that had nothing to do with her actual power.

  She cooked.

  At least she was good at what she’d chosen. Unlike most of the other deities, who disastrously overestimated their mundane skill set.

  “I can’t. Tonight’s not good. With all the prep for the Rhubarb Rally, and no extra hands, I’m pulling some crazy hours.”

  His shoulders relaxed, even if his eyes didn’t. “Right. Bad time of year.”

  “Maybe later?” I suggested. “After?”

  “Sure,” he said. “After. When things aren’t so busy.” He gave me a small smile. “Or if you hire someone.”

  I chuckled quietly. “Between now and the Rhubarb Rally? That would be a miracle.”

  “Miracles happen.”

  “Not to me.”

  “Then it’s long overdue, don’t you think?”

  “Optimist.”

  “Oh, so not. Realist on my best days.”

  “This must be a great day.”

  “It started out pretty good so far. Naked. With a beautiful woman.”

  “Only one of us was naked.”

  “Statement stands.” The intense look he gave me was going to make me blush, so I reached down and patted Spud’s head one more time. He nosed at my hand and opened his mouth in a big doggy smile.

  “I should head out now.” I glanced back up. Ryder was still smiling, like he knew what that smile did to me. “Bye, Ryder.”

  “Bye, Laney. Don’t forget the donuts.”

  “I’m not going to forget the donuts.” I already had, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.

  Chapter 4

  I STOPPED by the Puffin Muffin Bakery on the south end of town. Hogan wasn’t manning the counter, which meant he was somewhere in the back working the ovens in a cloud of flour and heat and rock and roll.

  The girl handling the breakfast rush was young, chipper, and the daughter of the high school principal.

  I ordered a dozen donuts, a couple popovers, and a loaf of rosemary sourdough. My mouth watered as I inhaled the sweet, buttery smells of the shop, and my stomach grumbled.

  When had I last eaten? Dinner? Lunch? Vending machine?

  I made a mental note to catch at least one solid meal a day. The rally would keep me running, but that was no excuse not to eat.

  I devoured an apple fritter and a cinnamon cruller on the way to the station and was in a much better mood. If I could land a hot cup of coffee, I’d count this day as a win.

  Dawn crept over the Coastal Range, the heavy wing shadow of the hills pulling slowly away from the ocean and shoreline like a curtain revealing the stage.

  The station was still in shadow, a one-story building on the south side of Easy River, tucked back off the main road and surrounded on two sides by an empty lot that had gone to forest.

  Three cars were in the parking lot, one of them Jean’s truck, but Myra’s cruiser wasn’t among them. I wondered if she was getting photos of the crime scene, or more likely, still trying to get Dan Perkin to cool down.

  I strolled through the front door and dropped the two boxes of pastries on Jean’s desk, right between her Snape bobblehead doll and Dr. Orpheus figurine.

  “Donuts,” I announced. “Stop telling everyone in town I don’t feed you.”

  Jean was the youngest of the Reed girls, and arguably the most cheerful.

  While my hair was brown, and Myra kept her hair black, Jean’s hair was whatever color she wanted that morning. Current preference? Purple and blue with a streak of red in the front, all of it braided down behind both ears. She’d somehow inherited our grandmother’s blonde hair naturally—which, according to her, made it perfect for dying—and her blue eyes were deep and dark, like Mom’s.

  “Holy crap! You finally brought me donuts!”

  “Among other things.”

  Jean stood and opened the box lids, grinning. “Aw…you remembered the maple cayenne sea-salt bars. You’re my hero.”

  “Oh?” I stopped by the table with the coffee pot and poured a cup of overcooked coffee. “I heard Hogan was your hero.”

  I watched her out of the corner of my eye.

  She was stuffing the maple cayenne abomination in her mouth and paused, her thin body still as she stared at me.

  The only thing that could freeze my sister like that was the truth.

  Wow. So she did like him.

  I turned, stirring the sugar cubes with a plastic spoon.

  Jean was all grin around a mouthful of pastry. She swallowed and dropped back into her chair, waving her hand in front of her lips. Those bars were spicy. “Do not know what you’re talking about. He has a great ass though, and the arms on him? Big, thick. Rock solid. Sexy. Gives a girl unclean thoughts.”

  “Ryder said you drooled when baker boy sauntered by you.”

  “Damn right I did. Have you seen that man?”

  “Once or twice.”

  “Then you know I’m not the only girl in town who drools over him.” She shoved the rest of the pastry in her mouth and chewed, watching me. “So, Ryder, huh? I thought you were avoiding him.”

  I stifled a groan. Why had I even brought him into the conversation? “Not avoiding. Just giving him space.”

  “He’s been in town a year, Delaney. That’s plenty of space.”

  I walked over to my desk, around the corner in a recess where I was out of direct line of sight but could still see the front door and most of the rest of the small office.

  Unlike Jean’s desk, mine was clean and spare, with a computer, a document filer, and two phones taking up the surface. One phone was part of the switchboard and emergency call system. The other—old-style black brick of a thing with a rotary dial—was a direct line from a special room at the casino.

  “And now we’re going to forget I mentioned him,” I said.

  “Why would we do that?” Jean followed me to my desk. “Anything you’re avoiding that hard is like catnip to me. You know that.”

  I did know that. I leaned forward, rubbed one hand over my eyes.

  “What did Ryder have to do with Dan’s rhubarb? Please tell me Ryder was naked during at least part of your thorough examination.”

  I held very still and took a deep breath. I was glad most of my face was covered by my hand, otherwise she’d see my expression and know that, yes, Ryder had been naked.

  “Ryder was one of Chris Lagon’s alibis. That’s all.”

  “That is so not all.”

  “It really is. All. Any luck finding a new hire?”

  She made a rude noise. “Changing the subject won’t work.”

  “If that won’t, then maybe you should.”

  “Should what?”

  “Work.”

  “I am working. Getting details on this alibi situation. What did Ryder say?”

  “He saw Chris and Dan talking. Was there late enough to see Chris close the place.”
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  “All right. He’s an alibi. He didn’t…say anything about anything?”

  I dropped my hand and studied her. “What are you getting at?”

  “He told you I was staring at Hogan. How did that come up in the alibi conversation?”

  “It was mentioned in passing.”

  “Ask him out.”

  I paused with my coffee cup halfway to my mouth. Ryder had said he’d run into Jean at the store. I was beginning to wonder if she’d orchestrated that chance meeting. She’d wanted Ryder and I to date since middle school. Had some sort of fairytale idea of a happily ever after between us. Plus, my little sister was sneaky. “How long have you been talking to Ryder behind my back?”

  She ignored me. “If he’s not going to ask you, ask him. He likes you.”

  “I know he likes me. I like him too. We’re friends. Friendly.”

  “Be more than friends,” she said. “Take a chance. I know he’s been gone awhile, but he’s great. It will be great.”

  “How about you stay out of my personal business?”

  “Oh, like that will ever happen.” She leaned on the edge of my desk and polished off the rest of her donut. “You know he’s not dating,” she said around a mouthful.

  “Not talking about this.” I put down my coffee and logged in to the computer.

  She snagged my cup, took a gulp. “Ow. Hot.” She pressed her lips together and her eyes watered.

  I just shook my head. Officer of the law couldn’t figure out that hot coffee wasn’t a good idea with spicy food. Brilliant.

  “He’s not dating,” she continued, “ever since he’s gotten back. He’s had a few ex-girlfriends try. Remember Char?”

  Char had been a gymnast in high school. Tiny, bendy. Popular and rich. She’d just missed out on qualifying for the Olympic team. She and I hadn’t ever been in the same circles. I was more of a softball, swim team, and volleyball girl.

  She was more the kind of girl all the boys wanted to date. Including Ryder.

  Jean kept talking as if I’d answered her. “Well, she tried to get back with him. He wouldn’t even give her the time of day. And you haven’t dated since Mr. Find-Myself—what an ass—bailed town.”

  “So?”

  “So why not go out with Ryder?”

 
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