The Story So Far...
I crept around the back of the building, gripping the box in both hands, my heart racing about a mile a minute. I glanced over my shoulder, freezing at the gentle whisper of a leaf chasing along the tarmac.
Nothing. The coast was clear. For now.
What if she caught me? Worse, what if she made me go back inside?
I couldn’t stand another second in the kitchen, surrounded by the sumptuous scents of cooking—the grilling of savory, juicy burger patties, the rich, salty crackle of bacon in a pan, and then there was the sweet of the pumpkin-spiced pie Grizzy had made to accent it, as well.
How was a woman meant to cope with all of that without eating any of it?
I hurried toward the back door of the Burger Bar, my best friend’s restaurant in Sleepy Creek, and took a breath. The nip of fall was in the air, tugging on my sweater, and the apron I’d donned for today’s event.
The cook-off—hosted by Griselda to drum up enthusiasm for Sleepy Creek’s Halloween Festival—had started a half an hour ago, and I was so not cut out for it. She expected me to cook! To cook of all things, and if she found me back here, she’d chase me back in to try my hand at making the delicious Bacon Cheeseburger Supreme.
I’d rather have been eating them and had stolen myself one from the kitchen. A prepared sample the chef, Jarvis, had made.
“That’s the stuff,” I murmured, sinking down onto the top step at the back of the restaurant’s kitchen. No one would find me here, they were all far too busy cooking, laughing, and admiring the Halloween decorations inside.
The chatter drifted down from the open windows above me, but I was hidden from view. I faced the brick wall that separated the restaurant from the neighboring butcher’s place—closed on a Sunday afternoon, of course, and prepared myself for the treat that was to come.
I grinned, opened my burger box and wiggled my eyebrows.
Within the box sat a soft, sesame speckled bun, toasted on the insides, two thick beefy patties, crispy layers of bacon, melted cheese, fresh sliced tomato and—
A yell rang out from the other side of that high brick wall. A shout. From the butchery?
What on earth?
I froze, grasping the box, caught between drooling over the burger and curiosity.
Get it together, Christie.
Finally, my investigative brain kicked in—a side-effect of having been a homicide detective in Boston. I shut the takeout box, placed it on the step beside me, and rose from my seat.
“—away from me, you freak!” A woman’s voice and she was furious.
My curiosity definitely got the better of me. I hurried to the brick wall, searched around for something to stand on, and found a batter old crate that had probably carried fresh vegetables at one point. I turned it upside down, stepped onto it and wormed my fingers over the top of the bricks and lifted myself onto the toes of my sneakers.
“Let go of me! Let go!” The shouts had come from a blonde woman in the alley that separated the butchery from the general store next to it.
Her back was to me, but I recognized the bright orange hair and the leopard skin tote bag she carried. It was Megan Creeley, a stout member of the Gossip Circle. And she wasn’t alone.
In front of her stood…
Well, to be fair, it was a Jack-O-Lantern. Or someone wearing one on their head, and a long flowing black robe beneath it, complete with black gloves. Odd, since Halloween was a few days away.
“Do you think I’m stupid? I know what you did. I know exactly why you were at Donald’s house this morning. Don’t think I don’t know. Don’t think that I’m going to let you get away with this for a second.” Megan asked, backing down the alley toward me.
They were still relatively far away—Mr. or Mrs. Jack-O Lantern wouldn’t be able to see me, not through those haphazardly cut triangle eyes. And Megan was preoccupied.
It’s wrong to spy, Watson. You should know better.
But I didn’t budge. It was like watching some type of Halloween Soap Opera unfold in front of my eyes. Would the Jack-O-Lantern call Megan stupid? Would he turn and flee? Would she shove him and then declare her undying love for—?
“What are you doing?” Megan hissed. “Put that down, or I’ll scream. I swear I’ll—”
A sharp pop rang out. And Megan jerked then swayed on the spot.
Hot and cold flushes traveled over my skin.
I’d heard the noise enough times to identify it. My fingers dug into the brickwork.
Megan Creeley keeled over, her tote bag dropping alongside her with a terrific thump. The Jack-O-Lantern figure held a pistol in their right hand, and, as I watched, they stowed it beneath their robe.
“Hey!” I yelled and lifted myself onto the wall. “Hey, you! Stop right there. Stop in the name of the—” Well, I couldn’t very well say police, could I. I wasn’t technically a detective.
The pumpkin head froze. The eye-holes were directed at me, though I couldn’t see the color of the eyes behind them.
“Yeah, I saw that. You’re under arrest!” Citizen’s arrest, but still.
The pumpkin turned and fled back down the alleyway.
“Christie?” Grizzy’s voice sounded from the back door of the Burger Bar behind me. “Why are you on the—?”
I tumbled into the alleyway, adrenaline rushing through my limbs, and both my sneakers splooshed into a puddle of muddy water. I slipped and slid, nearly lost my balance, my arms pin-wheeling at my sides, but quickly regained my foothold.
Pumpkin head had already reached the end of the alley.
“Get back here,” I cried, and darted after them, leaping over Megan in my haste. I rushed to the corner and out onto the sidewalk.
I slammed into the culprit and grabbed hold of them tight, spun them toward me.
But no, it wasn’t the pumpkin head at all. It was a middle-aged woman with sun-yellow hair and an expression that would’ve soured a cup of fresh cream.
Mona Jonah. The Queen of the Gossip Circle herself. She’d probably come here in search of Megan. The poor woman who’d been attacked in the alley, whom I’d rushed right past in pursuit of the shooter.
“No, I’m Mona. Mona,” the woman said, pointing at herself. “You really are a shocking specimen of woman, Christie Watson.”
I ignored her and spun on the spot, scanning the streets for the getaway pumpkin head, but there was no sign of them, no flash of orange, no indignant squawk from a pedestrian knocked over by their hasty retreat.
Megan. She would need medical attention, right away.
“Stay there,” I said, “and call 911. There’s been an accident.” I rushed back into the alley toward the fallen woman, hoping against hope that this wasn’t what I thought it was. Not again. Not in my town.
Megan lay face down on the cold concrete. I bent and pressed my fingers to her throat, but it was already too late.
She was gone.