"Arrest the Alibi" - Chapter 5 Sneak Peek (Cedar Woods Mystery #1)

Chapter 5 - A Good Dog

For the next two hours, we were left to cool our heels. Luckily, Luke had convinced the police chief to let him get sandwiches for everyone. And he was smart enough to get one for Chief Blunt before she questioned us individually.

We gave our statements in the front room of the bookshop. Duncan went first, then my aunt, and followed by me. Evil Bun tried to bait me, but I stuck to the facts as I knew them. She asked a handful of questions in several creative ways, but she got the same answers from me over and over again.

Finally, Chief Blunt closed her notebook in disgust. “Please don’t leave town.”

We stepped back onto the boardwalk, and Chief Blunt gestured for Luke to follow her inside to give his statement.

Aunt Coco handed the chief a spare key. “Can you lock up once you’re done here? I don’t want any Tom, Dick, and Harry traipsing through. The contractor would be mighty angry if his tools disappeared.”

Chief Blunt took the key, but she didn’t look happy with the responsibility. She closed the shop door on us.

“What’s next?” I said.

Aunt Coco looked as baffled as me. “I have a feeling Duncan might pressure Everly to arrest someone, probably me. And since his dad is the mayor, I’m going to jail.”

“We need to look for a lawyer,” I said.

“I got that part covered,” Aunt Coco said. “I have Perry Goodwin on speed dial.”

I gave my aunt a sideways glance, disturbed that she needed regular access to a lawyer. Since her husband’s death, she had been unpredictable. Aunt Coco had always been big on routines and schedules. She had to be—raising three boys on her own while her husband went off to save the world, and then later adding Josh and me to the mix.

I was one of those lucky women who had many mothers in my life—my biological mother who I never knew, my adopted mother who died when I was young, and Aunt Coco who raised me like I was her favorite child. 

I didn’t know if the change in her personality was a cry for attention or if something else was going on. Could it be Alzheimer’s? Was something off on her medication? I knew she took a pill for her blood pressure, but she never had a problem with it before.

“Do we need to stick around and wait for Luke to move the lumber?” I asked.

Aunt Coco glanced at the lumber pile. “With all the excitement, I forgot all about that. I think it’s fine to leave it here for now. Duncan is probably too preoccupied to give me a citation.”

“What if somebody takes it?” I asked.

Aunt Coco pulled a Sharpie marker from her pocket and wrote “Coco Woods” on the top piece of lumber. “Let’s go home. We should talk this through with General. Maybe he’ll have some ideas about what we need to do next.”

“Who’s General?”

“My new corgi. He’s my husband’s reincarnated spirit.”

I blinked, not quite sure I had heard correctly. “Can you repeat that?”

“He’s your Uncle Gabriel.”

“Who is Uncle Gabriel?”

“My new dog.”

“And how do you know this?”

“He told me.”

I didn’t know how to react. A load of bricks landed on my shoulders. If this wasn’t a cry for attention, I didn’t know what was. I sighed. I didn’t have the bandwidth for this at the moment. I would have to noodle on this later. I glanced at the tea shop windows. “Do we need to wait for Luke?”

“He’s a big boy. He can get home by himself.”

“I was thinking along the line that three heads were better than two.”

“I don’t know about that,” Aunt Coco said. “Luke can be a bit of a nag. When your brother is out of town, Luke takes his role as my babysitter very seriously.”

We hopped into my pickup truck and drove the short distance to Aunt Coco’s house. During the drive, we rehashed the facts but didn’t come to any new conclusion. I parked on the curb in front of the Second Empire two-story home with a finished attic. A brick chimney reached up to the overcast sky. The house was sea foam green with white trim. The tall and narrow windows were framed in by a cinnamon red color that almost matched the burgundy slate roof. The house looked as if it belonged in Alice and Wonderland and was perfect for my aunt.

Uncle Gabriel and Aunt Coco had spent most of their adult lives living on one military base or another. They’d never owned a house of their own, and the grand plan was to buy a fixer-upper and spend the first few years of retirement fixing it up. They had moved back to his hometown, bought a house, and started the remodeling.

Unfortunately, my uncle had passed away during the second year of his retirement, leaving my aunt with a fixer-upper that she couldn’t sell in the current housing market. And to make it worse, she spent the other half of the retirement money on a tea shop. What was she thinking?

I rubbed my temples. “Do you have any Tylenol? I’m getting a headache.”

Aunt Coco patted my shoulder. “Cedar Bear, I’m sorry. This wasn’t the homecoming I had planned for you.”

I squeezed my aunt’s hand. “Let’s get inside the house.”

Aunt Coco opened the mahogany front door with the stained-glass panels. The cold brass handle gleamed like it had recently been polished. While my aunt was a wonderful mother figure, she’d always thought a little dirt improved a person’s constitution. The idea probably came from raising kids on military bases around the world that weren’t in the best conditions.

“Did you hire a cleaning person?” I said.

“No, a little dirt doesn’t bother me,” Aunt Coco said.

I glanced at the brass handle again. It was far too clean. “I’m surprised there aren’t more fingerprints on the door handle.”

Aunt Coco waved dismissively. “Oh, that’s Molly’s doing. She was the former maid for this house. I guess she gets bored and still cleans the house once in a while.”

The arrangement sounded strange to me. I couldn’t imagine wanting to continue to clean my former employer’s house without payment.

As Aunt Coco swung open the door, the pitter-patter of footsteps approached us. Then a joyful yelp. I had expected a puppy, but the corgi that bounded down the staircase was a full-grown adult. And from his stiff movements, it was a much older dog. My aunt had clipped a tiny crocheted green beret, similar to the one my uncle had worn with pride, on the dog’s head.

“This is General, huh?” I said, holding out my hand for the dog to sniff.

General ducked under my hand, so that I petted him on the head. Strange. I thought corgis distrusted strangers and were avid barkers. This dog was greeting me like we were old friends.

“How did you find this sweetheart?” I said.

Aunt Coco handed me a pair of indoor slippers. Most Chinese families didn’t wear their outdoor shoes inside the house and had extra slippers at hand for guests. I changed out of my shoes.

“General found me,” Aunt Coco said. “He showed up on my back door steps on your uncle’s death anniversary.” A sad look crossed her face, and my heart ached with her. She glanced at the corgi and the look was replaced with a smile. “I’ve asked around, but no one claimed him. He’s mine now.”

My gaze flickered between my aunt and her pet. “Does he talk to anyone else? Or is it just you?”

Aunt Coco scratched General’s chin. “Just me. I’m the special one.”

“How old is General?”

Aunt Coco tapped on the screen of her phone. “Want tea?” At my nod, she tapped on the screen again. At my quizzical look, she said, “Smart kettle. I can turn it on with the app on my phone. It’s from your brother.”

This explained everything. As much as I loved Josh, I had to admit that he was a bit of a nerd, and socially awkward. He was always gifting us smart devices that, quite frankly, were more trouble than they were worth. At least for me anyway.

It was an interest Josh had in common with my ex-husband, and why my brother took it so hard when he’d found out about my failed marriage. I had seen the writing on the wall for years, but didn’t want to deal with the fallout of disappointing my family. I had buried my head in the sand, keeping busy and doing nothing, hoping my failing marriage would miraculously resolve itself.

“The vet doesn’t know how old he is,” Aunt Coco said.

I blinked and returned to the foyer in my aunt’s house. “Who?”

“General. You asked about his age.”

“Sorry. I was gathering wool,” I said, following my aunt into the kitchen.

“I’m lucky he’s not a puppy because I trained your uncle once, and I’m not up for training him again,” Aunt Coco said. “That man always left his wet towels on the floor, and it took two decades to break him of the habit. He told me to invest in the tea shop. Didn’t you, sweetie?” She rubbed the dog’s head and gave him air kisses.

And here I thought this couldn’t get any worse. I knew the elderly were targets for foreign lotteries or a desperate call from a mythical grandchild needing money. I had warned my aunt against all these scams, but I never thought to warn her against taking financial advice from her talking pet.

General padded beside Aunt Coco, his tongue hanging out. He was so cute. I could see why my aunt wanted to think her husband came back in the form of a corgi.

As I stepped into the kitchen, my jaw dropped. It was a complete disaster. My uncle had started removing the countertops but then fell ill. Someone had come in afterwards to remove the rest, exposing the warped wood and mud layer underneath. How come my aunt didn’t hire someone to come finish the job? Several cabinet doors were off and stacked in one corner of the room. The refrigerator looked like the only functioning appliance. There was a hot plate on the countertop.

Please don’t tell me my aunt has been using the hot plate to heat up her food, I thought to myself.

I winced as the headache came crashing down. A flash of anger rose from my chest. This was what happened when I left it to the boys to take care of my aunt for a year while I dealt with my divorce. My cousins and my brother were intelligent men and did important work in their chosen professions, but they were unreliable when it came to taking care of family.

Aunt Coco pulled a bottle of Tylenol from a drawer and handed it and a glass of water to me. She pulled two mugs from a drawer and said, “Black or green?”

I swallowed two pills with the water. “Do you have any of the lavender cream black tea?”

Aunt Coco turned to prepare the tea. “It’s your favorite, so I always keep some at hand.”

I took several deep breaths to calm down. It wasn’t my aunt’s fault her kitchen looked like this. “Didn’t my cousins make plans last Christmas to finish up the kitchen when they were all in town?” 

“They did, but it’s rare for them to be together. They had to catch up with their friends, and then the hardware store was closed for the holidays.” Aunt Coco shrugged. “And then it was time for them to get back to their work. And Josh can’t do any of this. You know how he is. He can’t even use a screwdriver without scraping up his fingers.”

I sipped my tea to keep from cursing. The Strike Force were going to hear it from me. My aunt wasn’t the only one in the family with a tendency to rant once in a while.

I spent the rest of the day bringing in my stuff and putting it in a bedroom on the second floor. Thank goodness I didn’t get a room in the finished attic. This house was far too big for the two of us. Maybe I could talk my aunt into renting out a room or two for some extra income. But who would want to rent a room in a house without a functioning kitchen? Like the tea shop, the house also had to be fixed up before we could get any income from it.

Aunt Coco’s Social Security and my teacher’s pension weren’t going to get us very far. I had cashed out my pension early and with all the penalties, it was tiny. Like the house cleaning jobs, it was supposed to be a stop gap measure for the next year or so. But at the rate my ex-husband was dragging his feet, it could be months before I would see any money from him. It had fed his ego that he could afford to have a housewife in the Bay Area. But why did I stupidly listen to him and quit a paying job for volunteer work?

We had a safety net in that the boys would never let us starve, but my pride didn’t like the idea of accepting money from them. And I was sure my aunt wouldn’t want the strings that came with the money.


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