Name Your Poison, page 1part #3 of Top Shelf Mystery Series
Copyright 2019 Laurel Heidtman
This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
All characters and locations in this work are fictional. Any resemblance to living persons or places is purely coincidental.
A special thanks to those who read advance copies of my book. Your time and input helped tremendously.
Cover from: Bill Wilkinson at format-your-book-4u.com
Table of Contents
About the Author
Books by the Author
You know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men often going awry? As I watched the EMTs working on the supine man on the floor, I was pretty sure that saying applied to the plans for Logan Parker’s book launch party.
For those of you who haven’t met me before, my name is Erica Fontaine, but I go by “Ricki.” A little over a year ago, I inherited my black sheep uncle’s bar, The Top Shelf, in the quaint little town of Waterton, Ohio. Since then a lot has happened—too much to go into here—and The Top Shelf now resides in a recently remodeled warehouse a couple hundred or so yards from the Ohio River. I tend bar, wait tables, cook a little, keep the books, and sort the wheat from the chaff to find good employees.
The aforementioned Logan Parker is the owner of the local paper, The Waterton Chronicle. Not long after my ex-husband, Michael, was murdered in the old Shelf—and that’s a whole other story—Logan informed me that my uncle, Lymon Fontaine, had been involved in an armored car heist that took place in Cleveland back in the nineties. Logan’s father had been a guard on that armored car and had almost been killed. Like any good journalist, Logan did some investigating and wrote a book. Which brings us back to the book launch party and those plans I was talking about before I got sidetracked. I tend to get sidetracked a lot when faced with unpleasant things, and EMTs working on an unconscious man on the floor of my bar qualifies as unpleasant, don’t you think? But back to those plans...
The schedule for today had included a private afternoon party for the Hollywood and New York people and the town luminaries, i.e. the mayor, police chief, county sheriff, a few bankers and lawyers, and my landlord, Ray Bendel. It was to be followed by an evening event open to the public and to reporters from the Cincinnati and Columbus papers and a few of the regional weeklies. Logan, the staff of the Top Shelf, and yours truly had been busy for weeks getting ready for the big day. My cook, Victor, and I had spent hours deciding on a menu for both parties. My cleaning company had polished the Shelf from top to bottom, I ordered in bottles of good champagne, and Adam, my best friend, bartender and sometime entertainer, had worked out a repertoire of songs to play at the public event—after all the speeches and applause were over, of course. It isn’t often that a big New York publishing house and a Hollywood studio send representatives to little Waterton, Ohio.
Well, actually they never do, but as they say, there’s a first time for everything. Logan’s book was predicted to be a bestseller, which gave him some clout. When he suggested holding the launch party in the Shelf, his publisher agreed, although there would be a bigger launch party in New York when the book was released to the general public. There had been some talk of filming on location in Waterton, so when the movie studio heard about the launch party, they decided to get in on the action. Hence, the location scout, Miles Balton, a fit-looking man who wasn’t looking so fit anymore.
“It doesn’t make sense.” Adam’s face was pale as he stared at the man on the floor. “Miles is a runner. Runners don’t have heart attacks.”
Adam is a runner, so it’s understandable that he was worried. I decided not to mention Jim Fixx.
“We don’t know it’s a heart attack.”
I said the words, but in truth, I couldn’t think what else it could be. One minute Miles Balton was chowing down on the finger foods prepared by Victor and enjoying an energy drink he’d brought with him, and the next he was laid out on the floor. I checked for a pulse while my waitress, Ginny, called 9-1-1. Miles’s heart was beating so slowly I nearly dozed off while trying to count the beats, and his lips seemed to be turning a weird shade of blue. Adam and I knelt on the floor next to him, pressing our fingers to the arteries in his neck every few seconds. It seemed like forever till the ambulance arrived, but it couldn’t have been more than two or three minutes.
As the EMTs took over, I heard one say, “Overdose.” The other one nodded and squirted something up Miles’s nose, while the first one stuck an IV in the back of Miles’s hand, looked at his pupils, examined him for broken bones he might have gotten when he hit the floor, and attached one of those support things—a cervical collar, I think they’re called—around his neck. Adam and I got the heck out of the way. I don’t know about Adam, but I breathed a big sigh of relief. I mix an amazing Mai Tai, but I know nada about saving a life. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.
Within minutes, the EMTs slid Miles onto a stretcher, rolled out the door, and the show was over. Because we hadn’t yet opened the doors for the invited guests, the audience consisted only of Susie Carmichael, Logan’s agent; Janelle Davis, the publisher’s publicity woman; a lighting guy from the studio whose name I couldn’t remember; a skinny kid—Kyle something—who held the title of assistant to the director and got upset when I asked him for ID when he ordered rum and Coke; and a tall, blonde actress with big boobs. Logan had told me she was going to play Ginny, my waitress and Uncle Lymon’s long-suffering girlfriend. When I’d asked who was going to play me, Logan changed the subject. I guess Ginny, Victor, and me, along with Mark and Jonathan, my part-time waiters, were part of the audience, too. Or were we cast members? I didn’t know, but I did know this show wasn’t likely to garner rave reviews.
Fortunately, the Shelf was closed for the private party or the place would have been packed with Waterton residents anxious to rub elbows with the rich and infamous. Since word got out that the studio was considering filming on location in Waterton, the town had been abuzz. Waterton residents either work for low wages in the town’s government or the craft shops that pull in the tourists three-quarters of the year, or they make long commutes to better paying jobs in Columbus or Athens. The chance to make some money as movie extras, along with the hope that they might be discovered á la Lana Turner and on their way to fame and fortune, had them emoting in front of their mirrors and purchasing copious amounts of face cream and makeup.
“I need to call Trevor,” the skinny director’s assistant said.
Trevor Landow was the director. He had traveled from Hollywood for the launch, but he was running late. Not surprising since he had to come from Cincinnati. Waterton motels weren’t up to his exacting standards.
“I need to sit down,” Ginny and the big-boobed blonde said simultaneously. I wondered if some sort of Hollywood mind meld was taking place.
“I need a drink,” someone said.
Oh, wait, that was me.
I was trying to decide between Bailey’s and something stronger when someone pounded on the front door. Adam opened it, and two uniformed Waterton officers pushed in. I knew one of them, Brian Jenkins, but the other one was new to me. Behind them were Ginny’s and my two favorite detectives, Gabriel Russell and Lenny Passwater.
“It’s about time you got here.”
I glared at Gabe as I tried to pour myself a healthy dose of Southern Comfort on the rocks. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do since my hands were still shaking. I’d decided on something stronger than Bailey’s, and it was obvious I needed it.
“It’s been a busy day.” He glanced from the bottle rat-a-tatting on the bar as I tried to sit it down back to my face. “You okay?”
“Oh, sure, except for the fact that a man just keeled over in my bar and not from drinking too much.”
I felt tears stinging my eyes, so I closed them before anyone could see. Crying in public is a deadly sin as far as I’m concerned. Gabe knew all about my hang-up, so he was kind enough to look away. I’d have to remember to do something really nice for him later as a thank you.
“Based on what the EMTs called in, it looks like an overdose,” Gabe said. “Did you see him take anything?”
“No, but then I was busy getting things ready—”
That was as much as I got out before Adam, who was standing two barstools away, interrupted.
“Miles? A drug overdose? No way!” He shook his head emphatically. “He was a health nut, one of those guys who thinks his body’s a temple.”
The way he said it made me wonder if Adam had been worshipping at that temple.
“You just met him, Adam. You really don’t know anything about him.”
“Ricki, he doesn’t even drink alcohol. Do you really think that someone who won’t take a drink—or even a Tylenol, for that matter—would overdose on a street drug?”
He had a point, but I wasn’t ready to concede it yet. After all, Miles was from Hollywood. Okay, so I’m profiling, but still…
“I don’t feel so good.”
The big-boobed blonde (what was her name anyway?) had seated herself at the bar three stools down from where Gabe was standing. She spoke in a husky sexpot voice, and I wondered how long it had taken her to perfect that tone. As soon as I thought that, I chastised myself for being so catty. Maybe she was getting laryngitis. But when she looked at Gabe with that “help little-ole-me” look that some women perfect by the time they’re old enough for braces, I figured I’d been right the first time.
“Well, something like this can be upsetting—” Gabe started, but the blonde stood up, swayed and nearly fell. Gabe made it to her just in time to keep her from falling. He guided her back to the stool. I had to admit she did look pale, and her hand was trembling as she reached for Gabe’s arm to steady herself. I started to feel sorry for her, but when she gave Gabe a dazzling smile and batted the longest and fakest lashes I’d ever seen, I put my sympathy back in its box.
“Oooohhh, thank you! You’re so strong.”
Gabe stood a little taller, his chest puffing out. Then he caught my expression and deflated faster than a balloon in a room full of porcupines.
“Well—uh—guess I’d better get a statement from everyone. Officer Jenkins, get this lady’s statement.” He nodded at the big-boobed blonde, sneaked a sideways glance at me, and hurried off to talk to the skinny assistant. Gabe is good-looking and very sexy, but intelligence is his best quality.
“I still don’t believe Miles did drugs.” Adam’s mouth was set in a firm line. “I just don’t.”
“I know, Adam.” I patted his arm in what I hoped was a reassuring manner. “We’ll just have to wait and see what the doctors say. We really don’t have an answer yet.”
Unfortunately, the publisher’s publicity woman did. Janelle Davis was a short, extremely thin brunette with a tiny nose and beady brown eyes. She kind of reminded me of a mouse, but I’d never heard a mouse make as much noise as she did now.
“It’s the food!” she screamed. “The food! Something’s wrong with the food!”
Well, there goes the launch party, I thought, and there goes the filming in Waterton. And maybe there goes the Shelf as well.
“Food poisoning! Oh, my God, it’s botulism!”
Janelle Davis staggered, her little eyes rolled back in her head, and she collapsed into the arms of the uniformed officer I didn’t know. He lowered her to the floor. As Brian Jenkins spoke into his radio, ordering another ambulance or two, I pulled my cell phone from my jeans pocket and called my attorney.
My work uniform is usually jeans, a comfortable top, and sneakers, but I was starting to feel like I needed to buy myself a black maxi-robe with a hood and trade my shoulder bag in for a scythe. I came to that conclusion after Gabe got off the phone and informed me that Miles Balton had died on the way to the Waterton Clinic emergency room. He was the third person to die since I took over the Shelf. My ex-husband, Michael, was stabbed to death with one of my steak knives in the old Shelf and one of my customers, Frank Bascomb, was clubbed to death in the city park bordering the new Shelf just after he left my fine establishment. Okay, those two were murders, and this one was probably an overdose but still…
Of course, to hear Janelle Davis tell it, Victor, Ginny, Mark, Jonathan, and I were direct descendants of Lucrezia Borgia and had served Miles Balton poison. I think I can be forgiven for wondering where I could buy a black maxi-robe cheap.
Janelle’s beady, little eyes were closed, but I knew she was breathing by the movement of her chest. Since I’d heard her in the restroom purging right after she’d sampled from the buffet, I doubted any foreign substances in the food caused the collapse.
In case you’re wondering why I’m standing around making catty observations about women with eating disorders, it’s a thing with me. When the you-know-what starts hitting the fan blades, my gray matter starts throwing out anything it can come up with to avoid facing unpleasant realities. But in my defense, I wasn’t just standing around while making catty observations. I also was drinking Southern Comfort. Multi-tasking has always been a talent of mine.
I relaxed a little as I heard the sound of a siren coming closer, then stopping in front of the Shelf. One dead guy was one too many. Hopefully the paramedics would give everyone else a clean bill of health. I had no illusions, however, that my troubles were over. They were just beginning.
“What are we going to do?”
Ginny was gripping Lenny Passwater’s arm like it was the only life jacket on a sinking raft. Ginny and Lenny had been an item for almost a year now. I’d had my doubts about the two of them at first. Ginny had been my uncle’s squeeze until he died, and he hadn’t treated her as well as he could have. I wasn’t expecting any better from Lenny, but he’d surprised me. With his pockmarked face, wiry build, and overgrown eyebrows, he might not be the best-looking man in Waterton and he had a terrible last name, but he was good to Ginny and that’s what counted. She looked lost now, and I was glad he was here to ground her. I certainly wasn’t going to be much help because I was feeling a little lost myself.
This was supposed to b
“How about I get you something else?”
I took the cup from his hand and dumped the contents back in the bowl. He looked from me to the punch bowl and back at me.
“The punch? Is there something wrong with the punch?”
“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “But I think it’s best none of us touch anything on the buffet for now, don’t you? Until it’s all checked out.”
I looked closely at him. I’d been introduced, but I didn’t remember his name. Probably late thirties, maybe early forties, brown hair, and brown eyes behind black-frame glasses. He wore jeans and a gray sweatshirt. His expression was one of mild curiosity rather than fear, as if he’d lived through a lot worse than co-workers dropping dead in front of him. Of course, Hollywood and the movie business could be cutthroat. I don’t just wait my turn in supermarket lines; I read the tabloids.
“Had you had any punch earlier?” I asked. “Or any food?”
He shook his head.
“I was checking lights and making adjustments,” he said. “I hadn’t had the chance.”
Dang, I thought. I had hoped he’d tell me he’d sampled everything on the buffet and in the punch bowl and was still feeling fine.
“What can I get you from the bar?” I said. “On the house, of course.”
“A whiskey and soda would be my first choice, but I’ll settle for a beer,” he said. “Any kind is fine.”
I guess he figured he was safer drinking from a bottle that had been sealed at the brewery, rather than one sitting open behind the bar. I couldn’t fault him for that and got him a bottle of LaBatt’s. He waved his hand at the offer of a mug, tipped the bottle up, and plopped down on the closest stool to watch the EMTs hovering over Janelle. Her eyes were open now, and she was sitting up. She waved away the suggestion of a stretcher but agreed to let them transport her to the emergency room. One of the EMTs helped her to the door, while the other made the rounds asking everyone else if they felt okay. The good news was they all did, even the big-boobed blonde. Judging from the look in Brian Jenkins’s eyes, he was hoping she’d pass out and require mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions.