"Arrest the Alibi" - Chapter 7 Sneak Peek (Cedar Woods Mystery #1)

Chapter 7 - Chanel Was Nuts

The woman who opened the door was medium height, but busty with thick chestnut hair and blue eyes. She wore an oversized sweater and yoga pants. Her skin glistened like she’d just worked out, and her eyes seemed overly bright. Even though she wasn’t in the kitchen, Chrissy Lane smelled of flour, sugar, and vanilla extract, like a pie fresh out of the oven.

“Coco, this isn’t a good time,” Chrissy said, leaning against the doorframe. “I have a stomach bug.”

Aunt Coco grabbed Chrissy’s hand, patting it. “Oh, sweetie. Do you need me to make you a cup of tea?”

And the next thing I knew, all three of us were in the kitchen with Aunt Coco bustling around with the kettle and mugs. General sat on the floor next to me, his eyes closed. My aunt introduced me, but I didn’t offer to shake hands because I didn’t want the stomach bug. The last thing I needed was to get sick on top of everything.

Chrissy settled back into her chair, resigned. A few minutes later, all three of us were sitting around the kitchen table with steaming mugs of tea. Maybe this was how things were done in a small town, but I would have shut the door on my aunt’s face.

“Have you seen the doctor, Chrissy?” Aunt Coco said. “Do you need anything else?”

Chrissy clutched her stomach. “Fiona’s going to fire me. This is the second time I’ve called in sick this week.”

Aunt Coco and I shared a look. My aunt raised an eyebrow, telling me to deliver the news. So, I had to play the bad cop.

I cleared my throat. “Were you sick yesterday morning too?”

Chrissy nodded. “There was no baking yesterday, and no baking today. It’s the only thing keeping the coffee shop afloat.” She lowered her voice even though there were just the three of us in the kitchen. “Sometimes folks even skip the coffee and just buy the pastry.” There was a hint of pride in her voice.

This explained why there were no customers yesterday morning at the coffee shop. And it also explained Fiona’s over-the-top anger when she thought Aunt Coco was trying to steal her baker.

“Were you with anyone yesterday morning?” I asked.

Chrissy frowned. “No. I didn’t feel well, so I slept in. And then I went to get something for my stomach at the drugstore. Your questions are starting to weird me out.”

Not that I suspected the baker, but someone from the drugstore should be able to give her an alibi. “I’m sorry, but Fiona’s dead.”

Chrissy’s face turned ashen. She jerked up from the chair, ran to the sink, and vomited. Aunt Coco rushed over and handed her some paper towels. Chrissy rinsed her mouth, and Aunt Coco helped the baker back into her chair.

“Sorry about that.” Chrissy wiped her mouth. “Did you say Fiona’s dead? What happened?”

I told her that Duncan found the body but kept out the detail about the hammer. After all, this might be something only the real killer would know.

Chrissy shook her head. “I don’t believe this. There must be some kind of mistake.”

“When was the last time you spoke to Fiona?” Aunt Coco asked.

“I don’t remember,” Chrissy said. “I left her a voicemail yesterday, and I got her voicemail again this morning.”

“Do you have any idea who might want to kill Fiona?” I asked.

Chrissy shook her head. “She’s not a bad boss. As long as I did the baking, she let me run the kitchen.”

“Who would benefit from Fiona’s death?” I asked.

Chrissy started to shake her head again and paused.

I leaned forward in my seat. “What about the husband? Do you know if there is a life insurance policy?”

“No insurance. Fiona gets money from a trust fund. The coffee shop is more of a hobby.”

“If it’s just a hobby, why is she harassing my aunt?” I asked.

“I never said she wasn’t competitive,” Chrissy said.

“Will Fiona’s husband inherit the trust?”

“No, her son will.”

“But the husband is probably the custodian, right?”

Chrissy chewed her lower lip for a long moment. “Now that Fiona is gone, this will become public knowledge soon enough. Duncan Spencer is the custodian.”

My eyes widened. Fiona didn’t trust her husband to manage the money for her son. And the money would go through her nephew instead—the nephew who was the first person at the crime scene. Now, this was interesting. Could he have killed his aunt and then cried wolf? “How was the marriage—”

Chrissy got up on shaky feet. “I’m sorry, but I’m not fit for company.”

I felt horrible for intruding, but my curiosity was now piqued. I might never get another opportunity to get the inside scoop on Fiona. “One more ques— ”

Chrissy made a barfing sound like she was about to throw up again.

I jumped to my feet, afraid I might get covered with vomit. “I hope you feel better soon.”

At the door, Chrissy said, “What happens after this? Do I go to work tomorrow? Or am I unemployed?”

Aunt Coco patted Chrissy’s shoulder. “Just get better first, sweetie. If you need a job, you can come work at my tea shop.”

Chrissy thanked my aunt and shut the door. We were back on the sidewalk. My aunt opened her mouth as if wanting to talk, but I shook my head. For all we knew, Chrissy could be behind the window watching us.

Once we were a block away, I turned to my aunt. “I can’t believe you tried to hire Chrissy.”

Aunt Coco shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I? She’s one of the best bakers in town.”

“Fiona accused you of stealing her baker,” I said. “Then Fiona died. And now you’re offering her baker a job. Doesn’t this sound suspicious to you?”

“That’s ridiculous. People don’t kill for an opportunity to hire an employee.”

“But it’ll still get you thrown in jail for a few days and have your neighbors pointing fingers at you.”

Aunt Coco grew silent. She gazed down at General, cocking her head as if listening to something. “He just called me a birdbrain.”

I glanced down at the corgi. His tongue was hanging out, and he regarded me with serene eyes. As long as we were on the same side, I guess it didn’t matter for now if he was actually talking to my aunt or if her imagination was filling in the blanks.

I glanced at my watch. It was a little past eight. The whole morning stretched out in front of me. “Can we go back to the house, or do we continue to evade the police? Once Chief Blunt puts out the word that she is looking for us, someone will turn us in.”

Aunt Coco cocked her head again, which appeared to be the sign that she was listening to her pet. General slowly blinked back at his owner. They were communicating with each other, but I didn’t hear a sound. Telepathy? My aunt wasn’t the woo-woo type who believed in spiritual energy. At least not the aunt I knew.

I shifted from foot to foot and yawned audibly. I needed coffee. A cup of tea in the morning wasn’t enough caffeine. I probably needed to pick up a coffee maker and some beans. I shuddered at the thought of facing another morning with just a cup of black tea.

And yes, I was aware of the irony with my aunt opening a tea shop. Maybe I could convince her to turn it into a coffee and tea shop. No, I probably shouldn’t even broach the idea until after Fiona’s murderer was caught. It wouldn’t look good for us otherwise.

“General thinks we should be in disguise,” Aunt Coco said, interrupting my thoughts.

I didn’t like the sound of this. “People would think we’re crazy for taking advice from a dog.”

Aunt Coco linked her arm through mine, tugging me towards Old Town. “It’s okay. They already think I’m nuts anyway. They call me ‘Coconut’ behind my back.” She rolled her eyes. “I was named after Chanel. People these days don’t have any fashion sense.”

My gaze swept up and down my aunt. The velour tracksuit with white orthopedic shoes wasn’t exactly the height of haute couture. I mumbled a sound that could be mistaken for agreement or anything else.

“I already ordered our Halloween costumes last month,” Aunt Coco continued. “We might as well put them to use.”

* * *

The costume shop was on a side street off of Main Street that the tourists usually didn’t venture into. It was a little seedy, mainly because it was between a bar and a twenty-four-hour convenience store. It was a place for the locals. The costume shop’s storefront windows were long and oval and the lettering on the glass read “Madden’s Costume Emporium and Taxidermy Shop” in gold and black letters.

“I’m not wearing anything from a taxidermy shop,” I said. “The chemicals can seep into the fabric.”

“Mary stuffs the animals out in her shed,” Aunt Coco said. “It’s just a business name.”

I couldn’t imagine why anyone thought a business name didn’t matter. “Is this the only costume shop in town?”

“The only one in the entire county. There’s always online shopping, but it would still take weeks to get here. And who wants to deal with returns if there is a sizing issue?”

“What do you mean? Isn’t there two-day free shipping? Sometimes I can order something and get it within a few hours.”

Aunt Coco stared at me like I was bonkers. “Not here. We don’t have enough people for anyone to offer that kind of service.”

I didn’t know what to say. I knew the northern part of California wasn’t as heavily populated as the southern part, but I didn’t expect it to lack amenities. I checked my cell phone. Holy macaroni. There was no signal bar. I went back in time to the dinosaur days with my useless brick.

When Aunt Coco opened the entrance door, a bell above us rang, announcing our arrival. Costumes on hangers lined the shop’s walls. Mannequins, each wearing a different costume, were scattered throughout the floor. The shop specialized in period costumes for women with more recent pop-culture costumes in the front for the Halloween crowd.

There was even a rack of evening and dinner gowns in the corner for the rare times someone needed to gussy up, although the styles were from the 80s. The air was heavy—a mixture of mothballs, dust, and rose paper. There was no sign of stuffed animals, which was a relief.

“Coco Chanel!” a woman called out from the cash register. She came over and gave my aunt a hug.

Aunt Coco introduced me to Mary Madden, the owner of the costume shop. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties and was a tall, slim woman with full cheeks and a button nose. She wore a high-neck nightgown with full sleeves. It was black and white with red lace trim. On top of the nightgown, she wore a red corset with black laces. Several golden chains draped around her neck. If this was her day wear, I wondered what she wore at night.

“Are the costumes ready?” Aunt Coco asked.

Mary grabbed two garment bags from the rack next to the dressing booth. “Do you want to try them on?”

“Yes, please.” Aunt Coco opened and closed her hands in front of her like a child wanting a toy. “I’ve been waiting all year for this.”

The two of them disappeared behind a dressing room. From the other side of the curtain, I heard the two women exclaiming over the costume. I didn’t know what kind of disguise Mary had put together for us, but I had a feeling we would have to wear a wig. There weren’t too many Asian women in town, and to blend in, we might have to go blonde. I wasn’t looking forward to the itchy experience.

I slowly took a tour around the shop. The Japanese sword, mounted on the wall behind the cash register, looked authentic, but probably wasn’t real. Wasn’t it a hazard to have a real katana within reach when the general public came in and out of the shop?

In the back, there was an iridescent beaded curtain separating the back room from the retail space. “Can I use your restroom?”

“Through the beaded curtain, on your right,” Mary called out from behind the dressing booth.

I followed Mary’s instructions and took care of business. My gaze swept through the storage space. The metal door in front of me was probably a back door. Next to it was a large whiteboard with numbers and dates on it. I took a step closer. It was some kind of inventory count. On the corner, Mary taped a photo—the instant-develop kind that was faded and blurry. I bent closer and peered at it. It was a younger Mary with a dark-haired Hispanic man. They were holding their hands out toward the camera lens so it focused on the glittering diamond ring on her hand.

I straightened and left the back room. I wasn’t jealous that Mary was in a happy marriage. I was once just as starry-eyed. I just couldn’t be around happily married couples at the moment.

When Aunt Coco came out of the dressing booth, my jaw dropped. My aunt had completely transformed her appearance with an orange wig, top hat with mini teacups on the brim, and royal blue velvet dinner jacket. She looked like an overweight Mad Hatter. 

Even General had swapped out his green beret for bunny ears and the rhinestone bowtie on his collar twinkled under the fluorescent light. What happened to going under the radar? Everyone would stare at us and think we were insane. Even though it was the first week of October, it was too early for dressing up.

My gaze swiveled to the costume in Mary’s hand. Holy macaroni. My aunt must be smoking something to think I would walk around as Alice. “I thought we were going undercover. How will these costumes help us to blend in?”

“Who said anything about blending in?” Aunt Coco said. “We will hide in plain sight. Besides, we want as many people to see us in costume as possible.”

“Why?” I asked. Did my aunt want to go to jail in style? Did she want us to be known as the Wonderland Murderers?

“The residents get to vote for the best costume at the annual Halloween block party in Old Town. And the more people who associate us with a tea party, the better.” Aunt Coco fluffed out her orange wig. “The tea shop is opening next month. This will help get the word out.”

Mary handed me the costume. The blue dress had puffy sleeves, a fitted waist, and a flared skirt. A clear plastic bag held the white apron, white tights, black Mary Jane shoes, and blonde wig. I knew there would be a wig.

“I’m not wearing this,” I said, crossing my arms.

“All you have to do is stand next to me,” Aunt Coco said. “We need an Alice to complete our family theme. You don’t even need to say any lines.”

I shook my head. Wasn’t there a pecking order in jail? I was willing to bet my rope soap that Alice was as low as one could go in that pecking order. I could imagine Evil Bun’s laughter as she slammed the door shut and threw away the key. “What about Josh? Doesn’t he have to dress up too?” If I had to make a fool of myself, my brother wasn’t getting out of it.

“Josh is going to be the dormouse,” Aunt Coco said.

I couldn’t believe my aunt said that with a straight face. How could my six-foot tall brother be a tiny mouse? Maybe that was part of the irony. “Forget about the costume contest or the family theme. We have bigger things to worry about—like staying out of jail.” 

“This is all part of the plan, Cedar Bear,” Aunt Coco said. “Now go change.”

I shook my head. “I still don’t get it.”

“People will stop and talk to us. And some people will want to take pictures with us, which is another opportunity to get them to talk.”

“You lost me. Why do I care if random people talk to me?”

“If people don’t talk to us, how are we going to investigate this murder case?”

Mary’s eyes widened, and she lowered her voice even though there was no one else in the shop. “I heard that Malcolm Spencer was looking for you, Coco.”

“Who is Malcolm? Fiona’s husband?” I asked.

I was curious about Fiona’s marriage and how her nephew ended up as the custodian of her son’s trust. 

“Her father,” Mary said and shuddered.

There was something about the tone that alerted my internal antenna. Mary didn’t want to talk about Malcolm, which made me want to talk about him.

“Why is he looking for me?” Aunt Coco said.

Mary shrugged. “Malcolm told Chief Blunt that if she doesn’t find the killer, then he’ll have to take care of it himself. He said someone would end up at the bottom of Trinity Lake.”


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