Ice cream and incidents, p.10

Ice Cream and Incidents, page 10

 part  #13 of  Peridale Cafe Cozy Mystery Series

 

Ice Cream and Incidents
 


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“Before Simon came, we were struggling to fill up to even half capacity, and the bar was quiet most nights,” Arthur continued, setting the cup down again. “The winter season was tough. Fewer and fewer people come every year, which means the debt piles up. Russell is all about quality, and I admire that, but quality is expensive. That American diner cost a small fortune. He thought it would entice people in, but it rarely serves people who aren’t already guests. When Simon agreed to work here for the summer, the plan was to use the extra income to pay off the most urgent debts, and then pay Simon a lump sum at the end. It was a good plan, and it would have worked, but Simon recently started to demand his money up front, as well as more on top. He’s not stupid. He saw how full the bar was every night. He knew that was because of him. He wanted what he thought was a fair salary. I’d call it extortion. I don’t know if Simon knows or even cares about the stress Russell has been under recently. He’s a good man and he doesn’t deserve anything less than the world. He just wants to make people happy, but I don’t know how long that can continue. The chains have been trying to buy him out for years because of the size and location, but he’s always resisted. One of the big hitters doubled their offer last month, and I know he’s been agonising over it.”

  “Do you think he’d sell Sparkles?”

  “I hope not,” Arthur said solemnly. “It’s my home, and I don’t mean it’s where I lay my head. It’s where my heart is. Those silly queens are my family. Russell has said he’d look after me if he did sell, but I wouldn’t want to burden him. If Sparkles closed, it would be the end of something bigger than me.”

  “Do the other queens know?”

  “Not explicitly, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they sensed something.” Arthur locked his eyes on Julia. “I’d appreciate you not telling them.”

  “I won’t breathe a word.”

  “Thank you.”

  “Is there nothing you can do to save it?”

  “There’s always something, poppet,” Arthur exclaimed with a smile. “The show must go on, after all. Simone Phoenix isn’t our saviour. There’s always another way. If we can sue the company who fitted that rig, that would be a nice start. They took it away this morning to investigate further, which means we’re back in the bar tonight. Can I count on you being front and centre for the show?”

  “Absolutely.”

  “Then I shall see you tonight.” Arthur stood up and picked up his book. “I need to go and pick out my costume. Russell has finally bumped me up from opening act to headline, so I need to make sure every sequin is sparkling.”

  Arthur tipped his head, tucked the book under his arm, and walked out of the café.

  “Who was that?” Jessie asked when Julia joined them.

  “Feather Duster,” Julia said. “Or rather, Arthur. We were just talking about tonight’s show. It sounds like it’s going to be a good one.”

  “Did he have a copy of my book?” Barker asked, craning his neck to watch the old man shuffle down the pier. “You should have said. I would have signed it.”

  “He thought it was a little far-fetched,” Julia said with a smile and a twinkle in her eye as she poured herself a cup of tea from the large pot in the middle of the table. “You can’t win them all.”

  As had become routine, they bought ice cream cones on the walk back to the B&B. Through the windows of the cabaret bar, Julia spotted Russell mopping the floor. She considered offering her help, but she decided against it. After their silent journey back from the hospital, she sensed her enquiring was starting to draw his attention.

  Jessie and Alfie were not in the mood to rest in their rooms, so they headed in the direction of Houndshill Shopping Centre behind the tower. Julia considered heading up to have an afternoon nap, but as they walked past the B&B next door and she spotted someone biting into a slice of cake, the urge to bake took over.

  Leaving Barker to go up to the room to work on his book idea, she continued walking along the promenade to a small corner shop. Once there, she bought all the ingredients for her double chocolate fudge cake and headed back to the B&B.

  As suspected, the kitchen was empty, so she gathered the equipment and got to work on her cake. She measured out the ingredients, the familiar comfort washing over her. Baking had always been her safe place where she went when she needed to take stock. Being away from her café had meant she had been forced into a baking exile and it would take more than baking one jam sponge to ease her.

  When the cake was in the oven, and she had whipped up the chocolate buttercream icing, she filled up the sink and started washing the utensils and mixing bowl. With her hands in the soapy water, her thoughts turned away from the cake and to her visit with Simon. The stepladder revelation had been playing on her mind, and she was certain that if the falling rig had not been an accident, the person behind it had almost certainly put the ladder there as part of their plan.

  She imagined one of the queens standing on the ladder to somehow break the wire. The frayed edges had been too messy to have simply been cut, so she imagined it would have taken something like a saw to hack through it. The visual in her mind was so vivid, she could hear the metallic grinding of metal on metal echoing around her ears. When she realised it was not in her imagination and was coming from outside, she pulled her hands out of the water and grabbed a tea towel.

  She pulled back the curtain in the back door, surprised to see Honey sawing through a piece of metal pipe. The saw made its way through the piece and the two halves clattered to the ground. After assessing the pieces, Honey selected one and walked over to what appeared to be a metal sculpture of a one-armed man. Honey pulled on a metal mask and welded the pipe to his shoulder.

  “What do you think I should do?” a voice called from behind the bin out of Julia’s view. “I can’t live like this anymore.”

  “Are we still talking about this?” Honey cried, pulling up the mask as he stepped back to assess his work. “I’m trying to create art here. Just tell him! Everyone knows you’re in love with Russell except Russell. What’s the worst that can happen?”

  Marvin stood up and came into view. He tossed a half-finished cigarette to the ground and walked towards the kitchen. Julia let go of the curtain and pressed against the wall. To her relief, Marvin walked right past her and through the kitchen without noticing the cake in the oven.

  Julia pulled back the curtain again and watched as Honey picked up the leftover cigarette. He smoked it to the filter before picking up the saw to slice the remaining pipe in half again. Julia let the curtain fall down, her mind assembling the pieces of the jigsaw. It was far too easy to imagine Honey standing on a stepladder to cut through the lighting rig’s wire.

  11

  Julia pulled her notepad out of her bag and scribbled ‘From Julia’ on a page. She tore it out and tucked it under the finished chocolate cake, which looked like it might have been one of her best. With the kitchen clean and the only evidence that she had been there was the cake, she left, stopping in her tracks when she saw Marvin writing something at one of the diner tables. Julia turned back and cut a small slice of the cake and put it on a plate.

  “Hungry?” Julia asked softly as she set the plate on the edge of the table. “I baked it myself.”

  “Huh?” Marvin grunted as he looked up from the letter he was writing. “Oh. Thank you. You made that?”

  “I ambushed the kitchen.” Julia hooked her thumb over her shoulder. “I hope Russell doesn’t mind.”

  Marvin turned the letter over when Julia’s eyes wandered down to it. She pushed the plate towards him, prompting him to take a bite. His lids fluttered the second the chocolate buttercream touched his lips.

  “I’ve not met a man who can resist that cake,” Julia said, pleased with the outcome. “Writing anything interesting?”

  Marvin looked down at the letter as he licked the cream from his lips. He sighed and placed the cake back on the plate. Julia thought he might turn it around to let her see it, but he placed his hand on it.


  “I have some things I need to get off my chest,” he said, his eyes distant. “Some things can’t be put off forever.”

  Julia tried not to smile, but she could not help it. Marvin’s brows tensed as he looked at her, so she suppressed it, not wanting him to know that she had seen his attempted kiss or overheard his confession of love.

  “The heart knows what it wants,” she whispered as she patted him on the shoulder. “I’m sure that whatever you’re writing will -”

  Julia was cut off by the stomping of boots. She turned to see Jessie running across the diner to the lift, her hood over her face. She prodded the call button over and over before kicking the lift doors.

  “Jessie?” Julia called, running across the diner to her. “What’s wrong?”

  Jessie looked up from under her hood. Tears were streaked down her red cheeks. Another set of footsteps appeared in the diner, this time belonging to Alfie. He looked out of breath as though he had been sprinting. When he spotted Julia, he took a step back.

  The lift doors slid open and Jessie hurried inside, the doors closing before Julia could do anything.

  “It felt like the right time to tell her,” Alfie said, his hands on his head as he stared at the doors. “I thought she’d understand. What do I do?”

  Julia pressed the call button and waited for the lift to travel back down to them.

  “Let me talk to her,” Julia said as she stepped inside. “You did the right thing.”

  When the lift made its way up to the third floor, Julia hurried down the hallway towards Jessie and Alfie’s room.

  “Leave me alone!” Jessie cried when Julia knocked. “Just go away!”

  “It’s Julia,” she called back, her heart pounding in her chest. “Open the door, Jessie.”

  There was a moment of silence before the lock twisted and the door opened. Julia waited a moment before stepping inside. Like her own room, there was a mural on the wall, this one a still from Madonna’s Vogue music video.

  Jessie leaned against the headboard, her arms wrapped around her knees and her face hidden under her hood.

  “Alfie just told me that this is where we’re from,” Jessie said, lifting her head up to look at Julia. “Or should I say he reminded me.”

  “You knew?” Julia asked, closing the door softly before perching on the edge of Jessie’s bed.

  “Sort of.” Jessie roughly wiped her tears away. “I’ve lived in so many places since then, but I vaguely knew this was where I was from. I heard the social workers mentioning this place a couple of times. I just – forgot. I was so busy living my life that I didn’t connect the dots.”

  “Don’t be angry with Alfie,” Julia whispered, reaching out and resting her hand on Jessie’s knee. “He’s been struggling with being here. He didn’t want to upset you.”

  “I’m not angry at him,” Jessie snapped as she wiped her nose with her sleeve. “I’m angry with myself. How could I forget, Julia? I got so sucked into this life with you and Barker that it’s just clouded everything else. My parents walked these streets and I didn’t care enough to remember.”

  Julia shuffled along the bed and pulled Jessie in for a hug. She wanted to tell Jessie it was healthy to move on and that it was a good thing to live in the present, but she knew the words would fall on deaf ears. The seventeen-year-old had been through so much in her short life, Julia was not surprised she had overlooked where it all started.

  There was a soft knock at the door, so Julia left Jessie to wipe the last of her tears to let Alfie in. He looked equally as devastated.

  “Sis, I’m –”

  “Don’t apologise, you melon,” Jessie cut in. “Is our house still here? I want to see it.”

  Julia offered to stay behind to give the siblings some space, but Jessie insisted that she and Barker go with them. Leaving the B&B behind, they rode the tram a mile down the promenade, getting off at a stop outside South Pier. After crossing the road, they made their way to the Pleasure Beach theme park, its rides and rollercoasters towering over the busy roads surrounding it.

  Nearly eighteen years might have passed since Alfie had last been there, but he led the way as though he walked the route every day. They walked past the theme park, crossed a bridge over a set of train tracks, and turned left down a path running along the tracks. They passed a couple of rows of houses before Alfie stopped behind a small metal fence. With the theme park directly behind them, they looked down the narrow street, fifteen or so houses on either side.

  “This is it,” Alfie said, exhaling heavily as he looked down the street. “Seaborne Avenue. It hasn’t changed one bit.”

  They walked along the metal fence and through an opening onto the street. Small red-brick walls fronted each house, fencing off tiny gardens no bigger than the size of an average car. Grey bins stood in front of each house, hinting that it was rubbish collection day. If it were not for the distant screaming of the people on the rollercoasters behind them, it could have been any terraced street in any town in the country.

  They followed Alfie down the middle of the road. He stopped halfway up and turned to number nine.

  “This is it,” he said, looking at Jessie. “This is where we lived.”

  There was a purple ‘FOR SALE’ board on a post in the small weed-filled garden. The windows were missing curtains, leaving a view through the small house to the overgrown garden behind it. Jessie approached the house, her fingers clasping around the metal garden gate. The woman next door at number eleven was taking her shopping bags from her car and into the house. She paused and eyed Jessie suspiciously. Julia joined her on the pavement and smiled at the woman.

  “It’s a nice street,” Julia said, nodding at the estate agent’s board. “Has it been empty for long?”

  “Couple of months,” the woman replied, her voice huskier than her appearance would suggest. “Polish couple lived there. They were alright. Quiet. Most people ‘round here are, but you get the odd few. Thinking of moving here?”

  Jessie unhooked the gate and walked across the weed-infested garden. She cupped her hands and stared through the window into the empty house.

  “Something like that,” Barker answered as he joined Julia on the pavement.

  The woman eyed them up again before entering her house.

  “I always wondered what it would be like,” Jessie said. “I wondered if we were rich, or poor. I never imagined it would be so normal.”

  “We were normal,” Alfie said, shielding his eyes from the sun to look at the rollercoasters at the bottom of the street. “We were a nice, normal family.”

  Jessie pulled herself away from the window and left the garden. She looked up at the small house, and then to the outlines of the rides in the distance.

  “I think I would have liked it here,” Jessie announced. “But not as much as I like Peridale.”

  “I’ll second that,” Alfie said, wrapping his arm around Jessie’s shoulder. “How do you feel?”

  Jessie considered her response for a moment before looking at the house again.

  “Like I’ve come full circle,” she said before looking at Julia and Barker. “And that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be in my life.”

  “You are,” Alfie said, squeezing her.

  “I don’t even know what they looked like,” Jessie said. “My parents, I mean. I know you told me, but I don’t know for sure.”

  “I don’t have any pictures either,” Alfie said with a sad smile. “I’ve tried looking online but it was before social media was even a thing, and we had no other family to ask.”

  “Let’s get out of here,” Jessie said, pulling away from Alfie. “I’m glad we came here, but –”

  Before Jessie could finish her sentence, the door to number eleven crashed open, and the woman from before reappeared holding a red-headed teenage boy by the neck. She threw him out before slamming the door behind her. The scene stunned Julia so much, it took her a moment to realise the teenager was Honey. She hurried f
orward and helped him up, but he brushed her off.

  “What are you doing here?” he asked as he dusted dirt from his white T-shirt. “Did you follow me?”

  “Don’t be wet,” Jessie cried. “I used to live here. What are you doing here?”

  “I used to live here too,” Honey said, looking back at the house. “Not that it counts for anything. I only came back to get the rest of my drag, but it looks like she’s thrown it away. If she didn’t want me in the house, she should lock the back door when she goes out.”

  Julia wanted to hug Honey, but she refrained. Honey did not know that Arthur had told her about his situation, and she did not want to reveal his story in the middle of the street.

  “Let’s get ice cream,” Jessie exclaimed as she stuffed her hands into her hoody pocket. “You coming, Honey?”

  “What?”

  “You coming to get some ice cream?” Jessie replied with a roll of her eyes. “We would have been neighbours, after all. I might have even liked you.”

  To Julia’s surprise, Honey opened up about his troubles with his mother as they ate ice cream in a parlour he recommended. When he finished telling his story in his own words, Julia felt embarrassed for thinking of him as the prime suspect for trying to kill Simon. Even though the evidence stacked up, she did not want to believe the vulnerable boy could do such a thing, even though she knew it was still a possibility.

  When they were finished, they walked back to the B&B, Jessie and Honey chatting like old friends ten steps ahead.

  “That girl’s resilience always surprises me,” Barker whispered to Julia. “She bounces back no matter what is thrown at her.”

  Julia was about to agree, but two police cars parked outside the B&B silenced her. Honey left Jessie and ran inside, but they were not far behind him. Julia walked into the B&B just as three officers left Russell’s drag den, one of them flipping a notepad shut.

  “We’ll be in touch,” one of them said to him flatly. “I don’t doubt we’ll have more questions for you as more information comes to light.”

 
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