The Bakery Lady
From the moment Leo Blue meets the local tattoo artist ‘s sister Christina, he’s drawn into a web of bread dough and lies. Christina Davidson has returned to Packham with a duffle bag full of secrets. Leo soon discovers her biggest secret is Christina’s alter ego and her husband who stands accused of murdering an up-and-coming artist. He promises to help set things straight and plans to bring husband and wife together for Christmas—even if it costs him his sanity and the love of his life.
After taking a lukewarm shower then rummaging for clothes that would pass for clean, Leo Blue opened the curtains and groaned. More snow. The fir trees along Main Street blossomed with colored lights and lamp posts stood adorned by wreaths. Christmas had taken the small town of Packham by storm overnight, but in his opinion the holiday ranked right up there with root canals and broken ribs. He should have fled to Tibet right after Halloween.
None of the glitz and glamour put him in a festive mood, nor had the phone call from his partner in the Wild Blue Detective Agency to meet at the local coffee shop at seven in the morning. Who in their right mind set up a meeting for so early on a miserable, snowy day?
Leo tossed his cell phone onto the sagging green couch that doubled as his bed by night and sighed. A detective by trade, he wasn’t in a big hurry to take on a new case, not since his nightmares had returned. He blew out a long, bracing breath and reached up to work his hair into a braid. Instead of a foot and a half of red locks, he scrubbed his fingers though the inch-long do he now had to endure after Lucy’s daughter Gina cut his braid off.
Someone fighting cancer somewhere, would get a soft, manageable wig. In return, Leo got a brief bout of the warm fuzzies and cold ears.
On the plus side, his landlord had kindly extended his lease on the small apartment above Main Street so he didn’t have far to walk to get anywhere. At least the place seemed more like home than his frugal apartment in Newville even though the small bachelor pad held nothing of him but his clothes.
He pulled on his leather jacket and winced. Certain he’d developed hives from staying in any place for so long, all he wanted was to hop on a plane and soar to distant lands. Tibet was his first pick, maybe even Ireland, since tropical beaches didn’t exactly top his list. The hot sun didn’t go well with red hair and pale skin.
He sauntered down the stairs to the street and sucked in a lungful of frost. The scent of gingerbread and sugar cookies already wafted from the bakery. Tempting, but since the bakery was closed for another couple hours, he’d settle for Java Jo’s, one of his favorite haunts in Packham. The table near the front window was already occupied. Leo grinned and ordered a large cup of green tea then sat across the small table from Danny Walker.
“Don’t you ever answer your phone?” Danny snapped before Leo could even open his mouth to say hello. His cheeks glowed red beneath his dark-hair and chilly stare. Even after warming up his car, scraping his windows and driving fifteen minutes, he’d still beat Leo to the coffee shop. “Where were you last night?”
“Home.” Automatic reflex. Why had he said home? In reality, he was still in Packham, the little town he hated more than ever. After dealing with one criminal after another for the past six months, he’d rather swim in the Amazon with barracudas than spend Christmas in Crazyville. “Bro, you still fighting off raccoons in your Victorian mansion?”
“Of course I am. Now they’ve discovered they can open the bloody root cellar so I need a new lock on it.” Danny snorted. “Were you asleep when I called? You sound rough.”
Leo raised both eyebrows. He always sounded rough, the scarring on his voice box a side effect of a road bomb that nearly killed him in Afghanistan. “Of course I was asleep. You called me at six a.m. After you called, I contemplated going to Tibet for the rest of my life.”
“You can’t.” Danny hesitated. “We have a case.”
He sighed. “Hence the wake-up call. I thought you wanted to shut down the agency, quit detective work and go back to the police force.”
More hesitation. Leo raised one eyebrow. Somebody must have Danny over a proverbial barrel. The Chief of police? His co-workers?
“I did,” Danny finally said. “This one’s at Hannah’s request.”
A-ha. Danny’s older sister had him by the gonads. Good to know Leo hadn’t lost touch with his gut intuition. “Hannah? Who’s in trouble now?”
“Stop looking at me like that. You said you’d help,” Danny said.
“Oh, no, no.” Leo held up his index finger. “What I said was—”
Danny wrapped his hands around a large mug of coffee. “An artist named D.J. Gage was murdered yesterday.”
Leo tugged the teabag out of his cup and raised his eyebrows. “Who?”
“Some flaky artist my sister went to school with.” Danny, founder of Wild Blue Detective Agency, tossed a file folder onto the table. “She says he was an up-and-comer in the art world and was about to have a breakthrough show at a prestigious gallery that would have made him a big star.”
Art. Another one of Leo’s least favorite subjects, right after Math, Science and English. “How’d he die?”
Danny pulled out a picture of a man’s body. “Apparently, one of his models shot him.”
“A model, huh? I guess the case has some promise then.” He studied the bloody crime scene photo. While the gore was sickening, the setting was far more interesting. D.J. Gage was killed in a silver room with silver furniture and a shiny silver floor. Gage himself wasn’t much to look at. In a photo taken at a gallery before his death, he was thin and gaunt, almost vampire-like with a shock of white hair and wide, dark eyes. He seemed so familiar.
A chill ran down the back of Leo’s neck. “I take it the police have a suspect in mind.”
“That’s a long story. Yes and no.” Danny sipped his coffee. “They have the model in custody, but he’s not talking.”
Leo sat back, eyebrows raised. “The model’s a dude?”
“Yup. Gage was an equal opportunity lover. Boys, girls, horses, goats, whatever got attention from the people who mattered most.” Danny pointed to the folder. “There’s all sorts of interesting things in there. From what Hannah said, Gage thought he was the reincarnation of Andy Warhol.”
Which explained the silver apartment and the prickles of familiarity. Leo’s pot-smoking mom was once fascinated with Warhol as well and had even bleached her hair as white as possible until she’d suffered chemical burns and every strand fell out.
He brushed the past aside and sipped his tea, burning his tongue. “Good job, sounds like everything’s already wrapped up. What do you want me to do?”
“What you do best, Bro. Research.” Danny nodded as the counter girl set a plate on the table in front of him. “Find out what you can about Gage and this model who shot him. The guy lawyered up as soon as he woke up and realized the police found him with the smoking gun.”
Leo chuckled. “Woke up? The guy shot someone then fell asleep? Was he stoned?”
He shrugged and picked up his cream cheese coated bagel. “The guy says he was drugged, but refused to give a blood sample until the nurses tied him to a hospital bed. We found a list of names in his apartment and started conducting interviews, but we’re missing one person who could be a key player in the whole case.”
“Oh yeah? Who’s that?” When Leo’s stomach growled, he had half a mind to jump up and order a bagel as well.
“The model’s wife.” Danny’s words stopped him in his seat.
Leo let out a low whistle and sat back. Things suddenly got a bit more interesting. “He’s married? Do you think his wife found out he was cheating and split?”
“Actually, she’s apparently been missing for a couple months, but no one’s bothered to file a report. Gage was only seeing the model for about a month before he died.” Danny sipped his coffee. “As far as the missing wife goes, the shooter either killed and buried her before he shot Gage, or she escaped the weirdness and went on the run. A couple other officers interrogated the model a few times and said he doesn’t seem like a psychopathic killer. More clueless than crazy.”
“Yeah, well I guess you never know what’ll make people snap.” Leo scanned through the information. “So what gives? No photos of either the suspect or his wife. How do you expect me to find her?”
Danny shifted in his seat and glanced around the coffee shop. “There were only a couple of pictures, which I thought seemed weird. Either her husband erased her from their apartment after she left or…”
Leo leaned forward when Danny didn’t offer an alternative. “Or?”
“I have the model’s portfolio and more crime scene photos. I’ll send you copies later.”
“Why would someone get rid of all traces of their spouse? Unless he’d done something to her as well. Interesting.” Leo shuffled through the paperwork once more until he returned to the photo of Gage. “So aside from that, all I have to go on for now is a name, a location, and a newspaper clipping?”
“For now.” Danny nodded. “I’ll be sure to forward everything as soon as I can. I have faith in you. You’ve found people before with less.”
“Yeah, but that was—”
“Leo, this is for Hannah.” He ran a hand through his hair. “She and Gage were friends in college and she thinks the whole case sounds weird. I didn’t want to take this one, but I told her we’d look into things just to make her feel better.”
Leo narrowed his eyes. “So you’re keeping the agency open on Hannah’s hunch.”
“And because fixing cars isn’t as exciting as being threatened, kidnapped, and shot at and harder to do when I’m back on the force.” His frown turned sheepish. “Mostly, I want to see justice carried out. Hannah says this Gage guy was weird, but had lots of potential. I’ve met the model who shot him. The guy’s a few bricks short of a retaining wall, but I just don’t buy the whole set up. I don’t think the model killed anyone.”
Leo laughed. “Face it, you’re an adrenalin junkie. Go back to Newville and deal with the case there. Make sure the job gets done right. Frankly, it’s a bit too bizarre for me.”
Danny shook his head. “I promised my sister the agency would look into Gage’s murder from outside of what I can do as a cop.”
“You did. We have.” Leo stood. “Now we’re done and the cops are on it. I’m not interested in finding a killer who’s already behind bars. I’d rather catch a plane.”
“What about the model’s wife?” He tapped the folder
Leo scowled. “That’s why they have cadaver dogs. After breakfast, I’m going home to pack then hopping the next flight to Tibet.”
“Like hell.” Danny leaned forward, his eyebrows lowered. “I need you, Leo.”
A woman in a blue parka stopped next to the table. Katie Mullins, the red-head who ran the nearby bookstore and had dated Danny since summer began. “Excuse me? Do you gentlemen need a little privacy?”
Leo met her gaze and winked. “Yeah, probably for the rest of the day.”
“For a case, Katie.” Danny flashed a wry smile at his girlfriend. “I need him to help me with a case.”
“A new case? Really? I thought you said you were going to shut down the detective agency.” She paused then smiled. “What can I do to help?”
“Go back to your bookstore and keep your nose out.” Leo groaned. “The last time you tried to help, Danny got kidnapped and nearly killed.”
She huffed. “That wasn’t my fault. I never took you for the dramatic type. If you’re jealous of me and Danny, I totally get it but—”
“Hell, no.” Leo flinched. “No offense, babe, but you’re not my type.”
Katie fell silent for several seconds. “What exactly is your type?”
“I’ll let you know when I meet her.”
Danny groaned then stood between Katie and Leo to give Katie a quick kiss. “Good. Then go back to the store, stop being nosy, and behave. I have to get Leo up to speed. We’ll talk later.”
“You’re trying to get Leo up to speed? Good luck with that, you’ll probably need a jackhammer for that skull.” Katie groaned, then pushed open the coffee shop door and walked out into the cold.
Leo picked up his cup. “On that note, I’m done here. See you in a few months.”
“She didn’t mean that. Don’t leave.” Danny grabbed his sleeve. “Please. Sit down so we can go over the files. I need your help on this one. I’d love to check out the crime scene and the suspect’s apartment, but I know you’d see things I’d miss. Besides, I’m booked for an interview in Buffalo at the gallery Gage tried to get his paintings hung in. I could really use another set of eyes and ears.”
“Divide and conquer?” Leo sat and folded his arms across his broad chest.
“If we split the work, the case will be solved by Christmas.” Danny settled back in his chair. “Hannah can sleep at night and I can get her off my back then I can spend at least part of the holidays with Katie in peace.”
Leo was doubtful. “Then can I go to Tibet?”
“Buddy, I will drive you to the airport myself.”
“You wear a chauffeur’s uniform and we’ve got a deal.” He sipped his tea and pulled out the photo of Gage’s body. “Whoever shot him was mad enough to empty a handgun into him. Maybe the missing wife caught Gage and hubby doing some after hours posing?”
“Jealousy?” Danny shook his head. “No, the suspect would have as many holes in him as the victim does, probably even more. Maybe the model was upset either over the upcoming sale of Gage’s paintings or another affair. I haven’t seen the paintings yet. Maybe there’s something the model was trying to hide. Like his identity.”
“Or maybe Gage was just a world class jerk. Artists are known to be temperamental.” Is that why Leo had a hard time taking this case seriously or was it simple burn out? “You said according to the blood work the model was drugged. If he’d actually passed out, how could he shoot Gage?”
Danny narrowed his eyes. “You think there was a second shooter?”
“That would explain a few things.” He sat back, his gaze still on the photo. “Where do you want to start looking?”
Danny rubbed his jaw. “I’m off to Buffalo to check out the paintings Gage sent to the art gallery. Where do you want to start?”
Leo raised his cup. “For now? At Needlez. I have an appointment with Clancy to finish the tattoo he started this summer before all hell broke out.” When he’d been called on to track a serial killer in July and help with a drug bust in August. “I’ve got research to do and your model’s not going anywhere for a while anyway. Neither is the vic.” He finished his tea. “As for the wife, while I sit, I’ll have time to think about where to start looking.”
He left the warmth of the coffee shop and wandered across the street to his apartment. Despite the early hour, the homey smell of fresh bread wafted from the bakery a few doors down. Leo’s stomach growled. He should have grabbed a bagel on his way out. He might have to pop into the bakery later.
By ten o’clock that morning, Leo shut his laptop and rubbed his dry eyes. Why hadn’t he fled the country again before things got crazy? He blinked, but the room around him remained a blur. He hoped he didn’t need glasses after all the research he’d been doing. All he’d found in two hours of web surfing was a whole lot of nothing. Gage had a website with a couple photos of abstract paintings posted, nothing Leo would ever throw money at. Dozens of pictures showed Gage at gallery openings, sitting cross-legged on silver floors, and painting even uglier abstracts on huge canvases.
Leo followed every link and checked out every gallery associated with Gage’s name. Nothing panned out electronically, but the more he searched, the more he became fascinated with Gage’s Warhol obsession. The whole silver studio concept came from Andy Warhol’s Silver Factory in New York City. In Gage’s case, the brick walls were painted silver, the floors laid with stainless steel tiles and the furniture was either chrome or foil-covered. He even owned a replica of the red couch Warhol was photographed on years earlier.
Finding Gage’s whole Warhol obsession creepy, Leo turned off the computer and stretched. What he needed was to do a little leg work and maybe some interrogation. Danny would be his first target. He’d shake him by the shoulders and question number one would be “What the hell are you thinking taking this case?”