Importance of being urne.., p.1

Importance of Being Urnest, page 1


Importance of Being Urnest

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Importance of Being Urnest



  Further Titles from Sandra Balzo

  Title Page



  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-One

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  Chapter Twenty-Three

  Chapter Twenty-Four

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Further Titles from Sandra Balzo

  The Maggy Thorsen Mysteries










  The Main Street Mystery Series




  * available from Severn House


  Sandra Balzo

  This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

  First published in Great Britain and the USA 2017 by


  19 Cedar Road, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM2 5DA.

  This eBook edition first published in 2017 by Severn House Digital

  an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited

  Trade paperback edition first published

  in Great Britain and the USA 2018 by


  Copyright © 2017 by Sandra Balzo.

  The right of Sandra Balzo to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

  British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

  A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.

  ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8737-5 (cased)

  ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-850-7 (trade paper)

  ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-910-7 (e-book)

  Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

  This ebook produced by

  Palimpsest Book Production Limited,

  Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland

  To Jim and Shilow,

  for welcoming me home.


  ‘You can’t keep a man dangling – and I do mean dangling,’ Sarah Kingston crooked her little finger and then let it go limp, ‘forever. What are you so afraid of?’

  My partner and I were alone on the front porch of our coffeehouse, or so I’d presumed until a nice-looking older gentleman rounded the corner and hesitated. He was holding a to-go cup and must have exited through the trackside door of the historic Brookhills Junction train station that housed Uncommon Grounds.

  And, judging by the red tinge of his unlined face, had been just in time to witness both Sarah’s dangling pinkie and preposition.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘My partner meant—’

  ‘I’m sure whatever it is, it’s none of my business.’ With a grin, he hurried past us and down the porch steps, keys jingling in his pocket.

  ‘Please watch what you say,’ I said, watching him continue down the sidewalk. ‘You’re chasing away customers.’

  ‘Chasing away, how? He’d already bought the coffee.’

  ‘And probably will never buy another.’

  ‘Not everybody is as touchy as you are, you little weenie.’ She waggled the finger at me.

  ‘Enough.’ I nodded toward a well-coiffed blonde woman approaching from the other direction with a young boy in tow.

  ‘Morning, Monica,’ Sarah called, apparently deciding to censor herself for the kid’s sake, at least.

  ‘Good morning.’ Holding up a hand, the woman took the steps up toward our coffeehouse two at a time, the kid flapping behind her like a kite that couldn’t quite get airborne.

  ‘She’s in a hurry,’ I said as the door closed behind her. ‘Regular customer?’

  In the early days of owning Uncommon Grounds, I’d beaten myself up for not remembering names and faces. Then Sarah pointed out that it wasn’t so much that my memory was failing me as I just didn’t give a shit. A fact that would have bothered me, if … well, I gave a shit.

  ‘You know Monica,’ Sarah said. ‘Always in a hurry, comes in about this time and orders “just my black coffee, please” and a juice for her son.’

  ‘Oh, yeah.’ It was all coming back. ‘If the kid looks at a cookie or something else in the pastry case, she says, “No, darling. You know we don’t eat sweets,” in the same tone people use when they say they don’t watch TV. Or read fiction.’

  Sarah was nodding. ‘Plays holier than the rest of us but never leaves without a sticky bun.’

  That, in itself, wasn’t unusual. Chef and baker Tien Romano was gaining an almost cult-like following for her gooey pecan breakfast rolls, produced hot out of the oven early each morning.

  But while I hadn’t recognized this bun-lover’s face, her shtick was coming back to me. ‘She remembers the bun just as you’re ringing up, right? Always an apparent after-thought.’

  ‘More transparent than apparent,’ Sarah said. ‘Sends the kid off to the condiment cart to get a straw for his juice, then buys the bun and stashes it in her purse. Probably stashes herself in the bathroom later while she gags it back up.’

  ‘She does look trim,’ I admitted.

  ‘Too trim for a sticky-bun-a-day habit, in my opinion.’

  Mainlining breakfast pastry.

  ‘Not sure there’s a bun left for her to slurp and urp today, though,’ Sarah continued. ‘The gang from Goddard’s has pretty much cleaned us out of pastry this morning.’

  Until last year, Goddard’s Pharmacy anchored the opposite end of the strip mall that had also housed the original Uncommon Grounds. We all were sad the pharmacy was gone, and not just because the same freak snowstorm that took down Goddard’s had also leveled the rest of the mall, including Uncommon Grounds. Goddard’s Pharmacy had been a slice of Brookhills history. A reminder of when drug stores had lunch counters and comic-book stands instead of grocery sections and computer supplies. The old pharmacy was sorely missed.

  As had been its owner, until this morning. Gloria Goddard had suffered a stroke in January and been confined first to the hospital and then the rehabilitation facility at Brookhills Manor senior home. ‘It’s good to see Mrs G.

  ‘Ornery though she might be. Oliver has his hands full.’

  For years, Gloria Goddard had been a sort of surrogate mom to Oliver Benson, whose father had owned the strip mall. When both Oliver’s mom and dad were killed, the two had formed an impromptu family. Oliver went to school at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse but was home for semester break.

  ‘I don’t think she likes Oliver seeing her like this.’

  ‘Or the gang seeing it, either,’ Sarah said. ‘She’s known some of these people for a long time.’

  It was true that the group had frequented the pharmacy on Sunday mornings for the better part of the last two decades. The lunch counter had featured good diner-type food and bottomless cups of coffee, meaning free refills for as long as people stayed. We had a one-refill policy, but bent that rule to breaking each Sunday morning for what had become known as the Goddard Gang.

  The front door flew open with a jangle of bells and a woman – maybe forty – with long brown hair just starting to streak with gray burst out with two older women. One had a fresh-scrubbed face and was wearing a long, bohemian-style skirt and loose cotton jacket. The other was in full-on Sunday finery – silk dress, hat and heels – all topped by blonde hair, a more than generous spackling of makeup and a dousing of flowery perfume.

  ‘I’m so sorry,’ the brunette said when she saw us.

  ‘Sorry for what?’ My hand had flown reflexively to cover my nose and mouth against the assault of the perfume and I forced myself to bring it down.

  ‘I’m afraid Nancy,’ she nodded toward the woman in the skirt, ‘had a bit of an accident.’

  Sarah sneezed from the perfume.

  ‘Bless you,’ I said, then tried again. ‘What kind of accident?’

  ‘I just couldn’t control it,’ the old woman said hoarsely.

  That gave me a hint of what we were talking about, at least. We’d pretty much had every type of accident in the shop, including a car landing on the porch where we were now standing. ‘Don’t worry about a thing. We’ll take care of it.’ Or, with luck, our barista, Amy, would have by the time we got inside.

  ‘Thank you,’ the younger woman said, helping the ladies down the steps and toward a Porsche Cayenne parked on the street. ‘I’ll settle them at home and then come back and pay the bill. And any damages, of course.’

  ‘No need to—’

  Sarah elbowed me in the ribs. ‘You don’t know there’s no need,’ she hissed. ‘Maybe the old coot flooded the place.’

  Happily, the threesome was out of ear range of the coot comment, though a couple coming up the steps didn’t miss it. Not being coots they didn’t seem offended, though they did open the door and peer in cautiously before stepping through it.

  So far as I could see, there was no common denominator among the Goddard Gang members other than a love of coffee and the fact they’d all shown up on Sunday mornings long enough to form a bond. Gloria told me that one of the things she found most interesting was that she’d never heard anybody ask what somebody did for a living, a normal conversational starting point. Instead, they talked about whatever was the news of the day and then parted to go about their business. People came. People went. And came again. There were marriages and divorces. And remarriages – sometimes to the same person.

  With Goddard’s no more, the group had been like bees without a Sunday-morning hive. Buzzing from place to place, they’d finally alighted on our new location in the train station.

  One of the challenges for the gang had been finding a restaurant or coffee shop with enough space so they didn’t have to fight for tables every Sunday morning and enough tolerance to let them hang out for hours. The chosen venue’s parallel challenge was not ticking off their regular customers when the gang descended on the shop en masse.

  No problem on either front for Uncommon Grounds.

  Riders of the new commuter train in and out of Milwaukee were our bread and butter – or coffee and cream – during the week, with seniors, soccer moms, students and the occasional business meeting filling in the middle hours. Saturday mornings were also busy, with people heading to the shops or the farmers’ market or whatever organized sport they were ferrying their kids to.

  But Sundays?

  Let’s just say coffee can’t compete with God. Or Green Bay Packer football.

  We’d considered closing on Sundays, but the arrival of the Goddard Gang had made it profitable enough for us to open from eight to three. And now even some of our weekday regulars had started to pop in to join them.

  ‘I suppose we should go in and see what the “accident” was,’ Sarah said, glancing at the door with trepidation.

  ‘We have to finish this.’ My hair-trigger gag reflex had barely made it through Eric’s childhood.

  A BMW convertible – top down – pulled up in front as I turned the key in the padlock and slipped the chain from around the leg of a wrought-iron patio table. The temperature the last few days had been so unseasonably mild for March in Wisconsin that iced-drink sales had picked up and the occasional customer even asked to sit outside on the wraparound porch.

  Sarah stopped folding the tarp we’d used to cover the tables and chairs to look up as the driver of the BMW hopped out of the car. ‘Morning, Mort.’

  Now this one I knew. Mort was the unofficial ringleader of the Goddard Gang. Late fifties, he had a thick head of springy white hair you wanted to tug on to see if it was real.

  ‘Morning, Mort,’ I parroted as he mounted the steps toward us. When I actually tipped to a name, I tried to use it. Supposedly the repetition helped you to remember the person. The jury was still out on that one, at least for me.

  ‘Good morning. Spring has sprung early, hasn’t it?’

  ‘It certainly has,’ I agreed.

  ‘May I hope the gang’s all here?’ Mort smiled at the small joke, which he made – and smiled at – every Sunday.

  ‘Sophie and Henry are inside, along with six or seven of your regular group,’ whose names, of course, I didn’t know. ‘Oh, and Gloria, of course!’

  ‘Oliver did convince Gloria, after all?’ Mort asked, pausing at the door. ‘She seemed to think it would be too much trouble leaving the manor just for coffee.’

  After being released from the hospital, Gloria had gone to the manor for rehabilitation and physical therapy and hadn’t left since, as far as I knew. Until now.

  ‘The kid seems to be managing fine,’ Sarah said. ‘His SUV was too high, so they’re using Gloria’s Chrysler. I guess somebody in the manor parking lot helped him with the transfer into the car, but he managed to get her out and into wheelchair here by himself. I just helped guide them up the ramp to the train platform door and into the shop.’

  ‘I’m sure Gloria was grateful.’

  ‘Actually, she told me I stank,’ Sarah said.

  Mort cracked a small smile. ‘Language confusion, or so we might hope.’

  ‘Language confusion from the stroke?’ I asked.

  ‘Yes, I noticed it when I visited. She seems to swap words. For example, Gloria might very well have meant to say “thank you” but it came out “you stank.”’

  ‘How frustrating for her,’ I said.

  Sarah was looking sheepish. ‘I answered her, “You’re welcome,” though I wish now that I’d taken some of the attitude out of it.’ The attitude most likely being sarcasm. It was Sarah’s thing and she did it well.

  ‘It was probably a safe answer, since Gloria could just as easily have meant the insult.’ Mort grinned full-on now. ‘I’m certain she’s frustrated. The woman is not one to sit still, especially in a wheelchair.’

  ‘No, she’s not.’ I returned the smile. ‘Why don’t you go in and say hi. Amy is behind the counter.’

  ‘Ah, our multihued barista.’ Mort pulled open the door. ‘Wonderful.’

  As the door closed behind him, I got a whiff of coconut butter. ‘Sixty degrees and Mort’s pulling out the sunscreen. And this is just March. You’d think people
would remember what happened on May first last year.’

  Over a foot of snow was what happened. Not to mention a death or two.

  ‘That freakishly long winter is exactly why everybody’s enjoying the warmth.’ Sarah took the end of the chain from me to unwrap it from around the next chair’s legs. ‘You know, carpe diem or … what’s that other expression?’

  ‘Make hay while the sun shines?’

  ‘I was thinking more “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Which brings me back to Pavlik. Aren’t you afraid that if you wait too long to answer him he’ll change his mind?’ She straightened with a handful of chain and a smirk. ‘Again?’

  I ignored the smirk and took the chain from her to unwrap the next chair in the rotation. It was kind of like taking the lights off the Christmas tree.

  And about as festive, given the company.

  But Sarah was right that Brookhills County Sheriff Jake Pavlik had broken up with me shortly before he’d reversed course and unexpectedly asked me to marry him. Taken by surprise, I’d yet to give him an answer. ‘Better that he changes his mind now, I guess.’

  ‘Rather than after you’re married, you mean?’ My partner cocked her head, studying me. ‘If you’re having flashbacks of your cheating ex-husband, don’t. I have a feeling that Dr T would never have strayed if he hadn’t hired that bimbo Rachel as his hygienist.’

  ‘That’s kind of the definition of cheating, isn’t it? Having somebody to cheat with?’ A link snagged on the foot of the chair and I yanked.

  The chain caught and then swung up, but Sarah one-handed it neatly before it could take out her eye. ‘I was trying to be nice, Maggy. Supportive, even, of both you and Ted. And you wonder why I don’t do it more often.’

  I felt ashamed, which was exactly Sarah’s aim. Now she could put ‘nice’ on the backburner for another year. ‘I do appreciate the support. And I truly don’t worry about Pavlik being another Ted. I just don’t know if I …’ I let it drift off.

  ‘Want to marry Pavlik? You’re crazy about him. Do you remember what kind of hell you put us through when he broke it off? The whining, the sniffling, the howling?’

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