Authors: Diane Bator
Tags: #Cozy, #Detective and Mystery Fiction
She changed clothes, grabbed a sandwich, then headed out into the rapidly cooling evening. While she'd hoped not to see anyone she knew on her way to the school, much to her chagrin, she spied Gary parked near Happy Harvey's Hangover Hut. Sure he hadn't spotted her, she turned to dart across the street.
"Hello, Gilda." Gary dropped his cigarette butt onto the sidewalk and ground it out with the toe of his shoe. "I see the police have wrapped up things at the school. How did everything go? Did they get any answers?"
"I'm not sure." She walked toward him reluctantly. "Mick sent me home hours ago, right after I got them coffee."
His thick eyebrows twitched. "He sent you home? Didn't the police need to interrogate you?"
Gilda sighed. "I thought they would, especially after everything that happened at the party last night, but no one's called me so far."
"Odd." Gary frowned. "Do you think you know anything that can help them?"
"I'm not sure." She shrugged. "I really didn't know many people there, except the ones from our school. Now that Mick has it in his head he wants to offer more programs at the new school, I imagine I'll get to know more of the fighters."
"Huh." He pulled a pack of gum from his pocket and offered her a stick. "I'm trying to quit smoking. So all of this MMA stuff is new to the school? What arts did he teach before?"
"Just karate and jiu jitsu," she said. "Mick and Razi opened the Phoenix school together with the intention of offering more options. Now we have MMA, yoga, and weapons classes too. Between them they know a lot of people who are qualified to teach the classes they want to offer."
Gary unwrapped a stick of gum and popped it into his mouth. "Which is why Kane Garrick is hanging around town again."
"Yeah. Kane and his girlfriend Mena." Gilda nodded. "Kane said she plans to open a new shop in town. A New Age kind of place he calls a voodoo shop."
He glanced up and down the street. "Really? What's it called?"
"I don't know. I—" She stopped. "Wait. Did you say he's hanging around town
? When did you see him before?" And how had she missed meeting him then?
"Hello, Miss Gilda." Happy strolled out of his store, his girth filling the doorway. "I hear there was a problem at the big fight today." He shook a thick finger at her. "I told you to stay away from your Sensei Mick and come work for me, did I not?"
Gilda's face burned. "Yes, you did."
"I told her that too," Gary said. "She'd be far safer working here with you than at that crazy karate school."
Happy nodded. "Too much
, this one. You see, Miss Gilda, we both agree. You tell Sensei Mick you work for me now. I take care of you.
. You be safe here."
Gilda glanced to Gary.
"In danger." He patted her arm. "Danger seems to follow you around like a lost puppy. Your friend here is trying to protect you."
She sighed. "Look, I know you guys are trying to help, and I do appreciate it, but I'm fine. No danger."
"Uh-huh." Gary leaned against his dark blue Buick. "The Phoenix may be a new school, but there's still another body. Both Happy and I would be thrilled to see you work in a safer place, with safer people."
Gilda scowled. "Don't you think that's a little hypocritical considering you're a bookie?"
"And you are a lovely young lady." Happy pulled Gilda into a bear hug. "You come work for me and find a lovely young man who will take care of you and give you babies. Not a
like Sensei Mick, who works with
She needed no translations that time. Her jaw twitched. "Mick isn't a troublemaker and he hasn't gotten me into any trouble so far. In fact, he's helped make me a far stronger person than I was when I left Thayer." She couldn't speak to his comment about the lunatics Mick trained with, however.
"Eh." Happy shrugged.
Gilda snorted. "Well, I am."
"Yes." Gary patted the top of her head. "Yes, yes, you are. Why don't I walk you home? It's a nice evening and I—"
"Actually, I'm on my way to the school to check on things," she said. "I have a feeling nobody cleaned up after the police left or turned all the lights off properly."
Happy and Gary exchanged glances. After a long moment, Gary took Gilda by the arm. "Come on, I think you're better off just leaving the mess until tomorrow. I'm sure Mick took care of things. He knows you'll give him what for if he didn't."
Gilda had her doubts. She imagined the entire school was even messier than when she left. She pictured water bottles and litter on the floor. Maybe Gary was right.
"Fine. I'll go home." She turned to walk with him, back toward her house, with plans to ask about the last time he'd seen Kane and Mena. "Maybe I just need to take the evening off and start fresh in the morning."
"Wait." Happy held up a meaty hand. "Gary, I have the Scotch you asked for. I give to you—then you take her home."
Gary held up a finger to Gilda. "You wait here. I'll be right back."
As the front door of the store closed behind the two men, Gilda darted up the street toward Phoenix Martial Arts. The instant she opened the door, she regretted being stubborn enough to come back so soon. The stench of stale sweat and coffee gagged her. Water bottles, coffee cups, and food wrappers lay strewn on the floor.
"You just don't listen, do you?" Gary ran up behind her, panting. "Gilda, I told you not to come here."
She glanced around at the debris and winced. "Yes, you were right. I should have gone home and not worried about things. I really didn't think… Actually, I knew it would be bad. This goes beyond bad."
She strolled around to her computer. Since someone had turned it off, she'd be too obvious if she turned the system on to do any searches with Gary standing in the lobby waiting. Any sleuthing would have to wait until after he'd gone home.
With a soft sigh, she picked up the laptop, stuck it in an attaché case, and followed him to the front door. "That's it. Let's go."
He thrust a paper bag at her. "Happy thought you could use this."
"What is it?" Gilda peered inside at a small bottle of wine and chuckled. As she closed the bag, her cell phone buzzed. She answered, careful to step a few feet away from Gary.
"Where are you, babe?" Mick asked, sounding a little panicked.
She swallowed hard, her plans suddenly even further derailed. "I came back to the school to see how much of a mess was left behind."
"Yeah, it's not pretty, is it? Sorry about that. I'll be there early tomorrow to help clean up." He hesitated. "Just so you know, Thayer and Fabio took Kane in for interrogation. I'm not sure what evidence they found, but Thayer slapped handcuffs on him."
"Wow, Thayer's wish came true already." She blew out a long breath. "I thought you guys were going out to dinner?"
Mick sighed. "Yeah, we did. They nabbed him while we were leaving the restaurant. This could be a really long night. I just called to say not to expect me."
Gilda glanced at Gary and cringed. "Are you at the police station?"
"For now, we all are," he said. "You might as well get some rest. We'll start fresh on cleaning up the school tomorrow, once things settle down. I'll call you later."
When he hung up, her shoulders sagged. The day had already been one to remember. She doubted she'd be able to get to sleep that night without seeing visions of Charlie Hunt's battered body in her sleep.
When Gilda still hadn't heard from Mick by eight the next morning, she didn't bother to rush off to the school and the mess that waited. She could at least learn some gossip at the local coffee shop, especially since Marion had worked until late and was probably now asleep. The police still had part of the beach cordoned off, and the school was closed for classes until further notice, or until she gathered the energy to face the massive mess inside.
The entire town seemed charged with an odd hum of electricity as media vans prowled the streets, seeking anyone with a story to tell about Charlie Hunt. She ducked her head as one van passed by. So far, they seemed to be seeking out the fighters, not the school's receptionist.
She strolled into Café Beanz, ordered a breakfast sandwich and coffee, then pulled out a trashy romance novel Marion had loaned her. While she didn't really want to talk to anyone, she didn't exactly want to be alone either. The anonymity of the coffee shop struck the perfect balance for a short time.
"Hey." Thayer slid onto the bench across the table just as she'd taken her first bite.
She met his gaze then took her time chewing, trying not to scowl or choke. He still wore a badge, still had a high opinion of himself, and, despite her indifference toward him, he was still her ex-boyfriend.
Thayer drummed his fingers on the wooden tabletop and waited.
Gilda contemplated ignoring him and taking another bite but wasn't sure how long she could stand the displeasure of his company. "Are you here to question me or watch me eat?"
"Neither," he said.
She set her sandwich on the plate and took a sip of water before her mouth could dry out completely. "What do you want?"
A thin smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth as the waitress set a paper coffee cup in front of him. "I've come to the conclusion you really don't know anything."
"Gee, thanks. What's that supposed to mean?"
Thayer toyed with his cup. "As far as witnesses go, you're useless in this case."
Gilda narrowed her eyes. She knew him too well. "But?"
He lowered his voice. "But you have great connections and could get me in to train with some of your instructors. Maybe I could learn some dirt from some of your students if I become one of them."
She met his gaze, raising her eyebrows. "You want to go undercover to work with people you've just interrogated in a murder investigation? Are you for real? Some of our students might get knocked around a lot, but none of them are that stupid."
Thayer's shoulders sagged. "I guess."
"Didn't get around to doing background checks yet, huh? Or are you just trying to get close to me again." She sipped her coffee. "You know you could have asked Mick. He knows all of them personally."
He glanced out the window. "I could have, but he was busy consoling the new girl."
"Mena did seem awfully upset about the murder."
"Upset?" Thayer snorted. "Cripes, she cried all over him. She couldn't have gotten Mick's shirt any wetter if she'd pushed him into Lake Erie." He hesitated. "I told you Mick Williams was bad news, Gilda. You know it's only a matter of time before he cheats on you, especially with someone like her around. The guy's way worse than me."
Her mouth dropped open as she picked up her sandwich. "Worse than you? How many times did you cheat on me while we were engaged?"
"A guy can change, Gilda." His face reddened. "I never said I was perfect. I just don't want to see you to get hurt again."
"The way you hurt me, you mean?" She slammed her sandwich onto the plate. Bits of egg and cheese flew onto the table. "It took me two years to get over you enough to trust another man. Now that I have, you seem determined to wreck everything. You might as well give up, Thayer. I'll never take you back again. Ever!"
Fabio chuckled then slid onto the bench next to her. "Well, I see
idea worked like a charm. Shall we try things my way now?"
Thayer flared his nostrils and growled. "Go for it. She won't listen to me anyway."
"Look, honey." Fabio placed his coffee cup on the table and turned to Gilda. "You did such a good job helping us before that we've decided to ask for your help to get some information."
She frowned. "You want me to be a snitch."
"No." He wiped the small grin off his face. "I'd simply like you to find out all you can about Charlie from the guys who knew him best. We searched Charlie Hunt's hotel room and came up empty. No luggage, nothing. I can't imagine a guy like him traveling without a few changes of clothes and some cash."
"That does seem strange. Did you check out his car?" Gilda picked up the sandwich and took another bite.
Fabio nodded. "With the proverbial fine-toothed comb. We found a lot of odd things, but nothing incriminating. Not in
While she chewed, she thought then asked, "How do you want me to help?"
Thayer groaned. "Ask questions. Eavesdrop. Whatever."
She met Fabio's gaze. "Be a snitch."
"Fine." He threw up his hands. "Be a snitch. Whatever works for you."
"What ever happened to you guys interrogating everyone?" Gilda shoved a slice of tomato that had fallen from her sandwich into her mouth. "You are the police after all."
Fabio sighed. "The fighters have closed rank. Whoever killed Charlie has a lot of friends and supporters. Everyone's protecting him, and no one's willing to talk."
She sat back. "Who do you think they're all covering for?"
"That's none of your concern." Thayer folded his arms.
"I thought you were past the teenage hormonal stage." Fabio grimaced. "Grow up, Thayer. We're supposed to be asking for her help. We have to be honest if we want the same from her." He turned to Gilda. "We're focusing on Kane Garrick."
"Why Kane?" she asked. "Why not Charlie's bodyguard?"
Her question was met with blank looks.
"Because no one even mentioned Charlie had a bodyguard until now." Thayer picked up his coffee cup. "Kane Garrick has a blatant disregard for the law. For one, the sword incident on the beach, plus he's gotten a couple traffic tickets since he got here. He also has more than a few priors that I can't talk about with you. Besides that, he's new in town."
Fabio didn't bother to comment. He'd taken out his notebook and scribbled a few quick notes. Gilda peered over her sandwich at his notes, not surprised when the word bodyguard and the name Kane jumped out at her.
"I see, but, for that matter, so is Mena." She took another bite of her sandwich, not sure she wanted to know anyway. "I thought you just told me a guy can change, and here you are judging someone else by the things he's done in his past."