Ice cream and incidents, p.12

Ice Cream and Incidents, page 12

 part  #13 of  Peridale Cafe Cozy Mystery Series

 

Ice Cream and Incidents
 


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  “You’ve got a lot going on at the moment,” Julia said as he scooped up the final fish. “Can we talk?”

  Russell started the draining process for the tank before they walked into his drag den. Julia closed the door behind her, not wanting to risk their conversation being overheard.

  She sat on the glittery, fabric-covered crates she had sat on while watching Russell transform into Lulu on her first night in the B&B. Things had been so carefree and exactly how she had imagined a holiday in Blackpool would be. She could not believe how much had changed in that short time.

  “I think by now you might have noticed that I’m somewhat invested in figuring out this mystery,” Julia started, looping her fingers together and resting them on her knees. “I respect you enough to be honest with you, and I’ve grown to like this funny little place, so it breaks my heart to tell you that I do think one of the queens caused Simon to be hospitalised.”

  “And you don’t think it was me?” Russell asked, his eyes locking with Julia’s. “I could easily have done it too.”

  “Did you?”

  Russell paused before shaking his head.

  “Part of me wishes I did because knowing that it was one of the other queens is torturing me,” Russell said, sighing and sinking into his chair. “I’ve asked them all to their faces, but nobody is admitting to it, which hurts even more. I thought we were a family. Family doesn’t lie to each other.”

  “You’d be surprised,” Julia replied, resting a hand on his knee. “I’ve been lied to, and I’ve lied to my family when I’ve thought I was protecting them. It always came back to bite me, but it doesn’t mean my intentions weren’t good.”

  “And the intention behind hospitalising my star performer and the only chance we had to save this place?” Russell asked, his jaw tensing. “Our fate was sealed the moment that rig fell. I have surveyors coming tomorrow to make sure I’m going to get a fair price for this place. I’ll need every penny I can get for when Simon sues the pants off me.”

  “Would he do that?”

  “In a heartbeat.”

  It hurt Julia to know that someone Russell considered to be a friend could also be his downfall. Simon had not asked for the rig to hit him, but he had demanded money from Russell.

  “What if we can prove it was one of your queens?” Julia asked, the question uneasy in her throat. “If someone is prosecuted, the blame will shift from you as a business.”

  “And throw one of my queens under the bus? They’re my –”

  “Family,” Julia cut in. “I know. But you didn’t ask for this.” Julia paused, remembering her reason for talking to him. “I’ve been gathering alibis from the queens, and I have everyone else’s. For the sake of being complete, where were you when the rig fell?”

  “I was in the bathroom,” Russell answered immediately. “I was with Barker. He can vouch for –”

  The ringing of the doorbell cut him off. Russell forced himself up and opened the door. As he passed the draining fish tank, the bell rang again, and loud knocks followed it.

  “Alright!” he cried. “I’m coming, dear. Unless this is the end of the world, is there any need for –”

  He opened the door and the three officers from yesterday filled the doorway.

  “Russell Braithwaite?” one of them asked. “We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

  Russell sighed and turned around, motioning for them to follow him.

  “Don’t expect me to offer you tea,” Russell said. “I don’t see what else I can tell you that I didn’t say yesterday.”

  “Not here,” one of them called flatly. “We’d like you to accompany us down to the station.”

  Russell stopped in his tracks and stared at Julia with wide eyes before turning to the officers.

  “Are you arresting me?”

  “We’d appreciate your cooperation,” one of them said, resting his hands on the handcuffs on his belt. “You can come willingly, or we can do this the hard way.”

  Russell turned back to Julia, the shock clear on his face. Julia wanted to intervene, but she knew anything she said would make the situation worse.

  “Don’t tell the queens,” Russell mouthed as tears filled his eyes. “Please, Julia. Don’t tell them.”

  Julia nodded that she would not as she watched Russell leave the B&B with the police. Barker appeared in the diner doorway, his journal tucked under his arm.

  “Was that the police?” he asked, looking at the closed front door. “I just saw the car pull up.”

  “They’ve taken Russell,” she said quickly, her mind whirring with information. “I’m running out of time. I need to…”

  Julia’s voice trailed off, something shiny and silver catching her attention in the bright pink stones at the bottom of the fish tank as the last of the water bubbled away. She picked up the net and scraped back the stones to reveal the jagged blade of a saw. More digging uncovered the handle.

  “We need to call the police back,” Barker said, his eyes widening when he noticed what Julia had found. “This proves –”

  “Nothing,” Julia said. “It only confirms what I already knew. It will make things worse for Russell if the police find this. Give me your shirt.”

  Barker reluctantly shrugged off his shirt, leaving him in a T-shirt. Julia wrapped it around her hand and pulled out the large saw that had been cleverly concealed in plain sight. Once out of the water, she wrapped the shirt around it and passed it to Barker.

  “Take that up to our room,” Julia ordered. “We’re going to need it later.”

  “Later?” Barker replied with a confused laugh. “Have you lost your mind? What’s happening later?”

  Julia blinked hard as a plan formed in her mind. She knew there was only one way she was going to unravel the case once and for all.

  “The show,” Julia said as she looked down into the mop bucket full of fish. “We’re going to confront the queens and get the truth out of them. Until then, we carry on as normal. The show must go on. We don’t tell anyone where Russell is or about what we found. Promise, Barker?”

  13

  Rain drizzled down the window as Julia put in her diamond earrings in front of the dressing table mirror. A crack of purple lightning cut across the dark sky, lighting up the dark waves below. The following rumble of thunder made Julia jump and drop the back of her earring.

  “I have a bad feeling about this,” Barker muttered as he tweaked the curtains. “Are you sure you want to get involved in this mess?”

  Julia dropped to her knees and felt under the bed for the fallen piece. Her eyes levelled with the shirt bundle on the bed.

  “I’m sure,” Julia replied, her fingers closing around the earring back. “It’s the only way.”

  Barker huffed as he closed the curtains. He had been trying to convince her it was not the only way, but Julia’s mind was made up. She secured the earring and brushed down the creases in her flared black dress; the colour felt fitting for the situation.

  They met Jessie and Alfie in the hallway at the agreed time and made their way down to the bar. Julia wanted to be right at the front, not that they had much competition for getting a table. When Feather Duster shuffled out with a microphone and climbed into the DJ booth, the bar was the emptiest she had seen it.

  Feather’s opening monologue proved that she was as good a comedienne as she was a singer, even if the laughter was scattered. Honey opened the show with an energetic dance routine, followed by Tuna, who had chosen to repeat her Shania Twain routine for her last performance. After quickly dressing another uncomfortable man in drag, she left the stage without as much of a bow. When it came time for Feather to get up and sing, Julia was glad of the change of mood. As usual, Feather’s singing was faultless as she worked her way through the Wicked soundtrack, finishing with a rousing rendition of Defying Gravity. When she reached the final note, Feather’s eyes filled with tears, as did Julia’s. Julia saw through the drag and sensed Arthur’s heartbreak at the end
of an era coming quickly.

  When the show ended, Julia looked down at the shirt-covered saw poking out of her handbag; she knew the time had come.

  “What’re we doing now?” Jessie asked. “Why don’t we go to a club? Honey told me there were loads further into town.”

  “You’re still seventeen for two more days,” Alfie reminded her before pinching her cheek. “Tough luck.”

  “One more day,” Jessie said after checking her watch. “It’s past midnight, so the joke’s on you. Nobody is even going to notice.”

  Julia looked at the curtain, knowing time was slipping away from her. Barker caught her eye and shrugged as though asking what she was going to do.

  “I need the loo,” Julia said, picking up her bag as she stood up. “Decide what we’re going to do before I get back.”

  Julia left the table and walked towards the door. When Jessie and Alfie reignited their squabble, she detoured towards the stage, glad that Feather had turned the lights off. Taking a deep breath, Julia slipped through the curtain.

  “Selling?” Honey cried. “What do you mean Russell is selling the B&B? Where is he anyway? That man doesn’t take nights off.”

  “He’s selling to one of the chains,” Marvin said as he peeled off his Tuna Turner wig in the mirror. “It’s probably for the best. I don’t see how he’s going to come back from this, especially now that Simon’s awake.”

  “Ladies,” Arthur said, his wig in his lap as he removed his makeup with a wipe on one of the couches. “We have company.”

  Julia hid the bag behind her back and took a step into the room. Marvin glared at her through the mirror as he wiped away Tuna Turner for the last time. She could tell she was not forgiven for her comments to him that afternoon. Honey pulled off his wig and leaned against the couch behind Arthur before scrolling through his phone.

  “You know you’re not allowed back here,” Marvin said quietly as he assessed his clean face in the mirror. “But, something tells me you don’t care about that.”

  “She’s alright,” Honey said with a shrug. “She bought me ice cream.”

  “You’re too easily bought.” Marvin screwed up his makeup wipes before strutting off to the changing area behind the racks at the back of the room.

  Julia stood in the awkward silence as Arthur and Honey watched and waited for her to speak. She stepped forward and cleared her throat, but the words would not come. Instead, she pulled the shirt bundle out of her bag and unwrapped it. With the fabric still around the handle, she held it up.

  “Does this look familiar to -”

  “What’s going on?” a voice from behind cut her off. “Julia? What are you doing?”

  Julia turned, surprised to see Russell, his hair and clothes thoroughly soaked. Thunder rumbled in the distance, sending a shiver down Julia’s spine.

  “Where’ve you been?” Honey asked, pushing his phone into his costume before jumping over the couch to sit next to Arthur. “Is it true you’re selling this place? Is that one of my saws? Where did you get that?”

  Julia looked at the saw, its presence not having the impact she had expected. Marvin returned from the changing area out of his costume and heels and into a simple black shirt with jeans. His eyes widened when he saw Russell, but they did not react when they noticed the saw.

  “Julia?” Russell asked again, searching her eyes for an explanation. “Where did you get that?”

  “I found it in your fish tank,” Julia said, another deep growl of thunder rumbling the building. “How did you get out?”

  “Get out?” Arthur echoed as he wiped off the last of his lipstick. “I thought you were having the night off?”

  “I thought you were avoiding me,” Marvin said as he perched on the edge of the couch next to Arthur.

  “The police wanted to talk to me,” Russell explained carefully, his eyes still on Julia. “I asked her not to say anything because I didn’t want to ruin Marvin’s last show. With the lighting company calling the police, they are suddenly taking Simon’s accusations seriously. He seems convinced I was the one who caused it.”

  “Oh, get real!” Honey cried with a roll of his eyes that reminded Julia of Jessie. “I thought it was an accident? Did you say you found that saw in the fish tank? I thought I’d lost it. I haven’t seen it since –”

  “Friday?” Julia cut in. “That’s my guess.”

  “Well, yeah,” Honey replied. “What of it?”

  “Considering that someone buried this in the stones in the tank tells me they didn’t want anyone to find it,” Julia continued, her voice strengthening. “It was a good place to hide it, if only temporarily. If it weren’t for the filter jamming up, I would never have noticed it shining through. Of course, this doesn’t really matter, does it? One of you knows you’re lying about your alibi.”

  “Is this woman for real?” Marvin laughed as he looked around the room. “You’re not taking this seriously, are you?”

  Julia tossed the saw onto the coffee table. It broke free of the shirt and clattered against the wood. The trio on the couches stared at it before looking up at Julia.

  “Russell spent the day at the police station,” Julia continued. “I lied for him earlier because I wanted to make sure you were all here tonight. This isn’t going away. If one of you doesn’t admit to it, then -”

  Before Julia could finish her sentence, Russell pulled her back through the curtains to the shadowy side of the stage. The bar had almost emptied with her table the only one with people still sitting. She looked up at the cut wire above their heads.

  “What are you doing?” he whispered darkly. “I told you, I’m not throwing them under the bus. It’s not fair.”

  “And the police arresting you is?” Julia replied. “You can’t sacrifice yourself for them, no matter how much you care about them.”

  “Why can’t I?” Russell snapped, his eyes unblinking. “What do I have to live for, Julia? I’m a forty-two-year-old drag queen up to my eyeballs in debt. When this place is gone, I’ll have nothing left. If I ride this out, the police will give up eventually. They have no evidence, or they wouldn’t have released me.”

  “And what about Simon?” Julia asked after exhaling. “Do you think he’s going to give up? You might not like him – heck, I don’t even like him, and I barely know him – but someone tried to murder him. Do you think that’s fair?”

  Russell went to reply but he stopped himself. He sighed and rubbed the lines on his forehead before shaking his head.

  “I should never have offered those tickets for that damn fête,” Russell replied with a sad smile. “Some woman called Amy kept harassing me over email for them. I only agreed because we were two rooms away from being full for the first time in years. You’re not going to let this drop, are you?”

  “Do you want me to?” Julia asked as she searched his eyes for the answer. “I can go up to my room, pack my bag, and be home before the sun rises. If that’s what you want, say the word, but you and I both know that your problems aren’t going to go away just because I do.”

  Russell went to reply but the curtain opened, and Marvin walked through, headphones over his ears. He jumped off the stage and headed for the door.

  “He’s probably going to a club,” Russell explained. “He spends most nights there now. I don’t know what’s happened to him.”

  “He’s got a lot on his mind,” Julia said, the words leaving her mouth before she realised she was saying them. “It’s none of my business. None of this is.”

  “What’s on his mind?”

  “You’ll have to ask him,” Julia said, her eyes darting to the floor. “I can see I’m not getting anywhere here. I’m sorry for sticking my nose in. Some people back home say I can’t help myself, and they’re probably right. This time, I’m stepping away and throwing my hands up in defeat. I haven’t figured it out and no one is about to start telling the truth any time soon. The saw is in there. Do what you want with it.”

  “You’re not
going to call the police?”

  “Not this time,” Julia replied as she patted him on the shoulder. “I really wish it had been an accident.”

  Leaving Russell in the shadows, she climbed off the stage and walked over to the table. Jessie and Alfie were both on their phones, but Barker’s eyes were trained on her.

  “Well?” he asked. “What happened?”

  “She went to the bog,” Jessie cried with a roll of her eyes. “And she was gone for ten minutes. What do you think happened?”

  Julia could not help but smile. She looked around the empty and silent bar as the bartenders collected the last of the glasses; she had never felt further from home.

  “Should we go home?” Julia asked as she sat back down. “I miss Peridale.”

  “Me too,” Jessie said.

  “Me three,” Barker replied.

  “I’ll drink to that,” Alfie said, lifting his pint before finishing the rest of the lager. “Being here has made me realise where my home really is.”

  They left the bar and agreed to pack as quickly as they could. Julia thought she would feel disappointed at not reaching a solid conclusion, but as she sat next to her packed case and stared at the Liza mural, she felt strangely content.

  “Sometimes the dice rolls this way,” Barker said as he zipped up his case. “I never solved every case I worked on. You learn to live with it.”

  “Simon is alive,” Julia said, standing up and dragging her case off the bed. “That’s the most important thing, I suppose.”

  “I’m proud of you.” Barker kissed her and pulled her into a hug. “It’s not easy admitting defeat.”

  “We got a nice break out of it.”

  “We did,” Barker said as he pulled away. “Although, I’ll be glad not to have Liza Minelli gawking at me every night. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and almost had a heart attack.”

  They took their bags into the hallway where Jessie and Alfie were already waiting for them. Even though it felt strange to be leaving in the middle of the night, it felt like the right thing to do. As they walked to the lift, Julia and Barker agreed to split the driving between them, despite Jessie’s offer to drive.

 
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