Story Excerpt

Death Makes a Dinner Date

by Joslyn Chase

Art by Kelly Denato

The secret burned inside her like the flickering candle at the center of the cloth-covered dining table, warming her from within. She watched the tiny flame as it guttered and glowed inside the crimson glass which held it, a small, licking tongue so benign when contained and so utterly dangerous if let loose.

The smell of hot wax enveloped the intimate table for two, but Serena scowled across at an empty seat. Gavin was late. She had no doubt, however, that he would show. She’d caught him looking at her with that intrigued expression in his eyes just as often as he’d caught her stealing glances at him. No mistake—there was something between them.

There always had been.

Serena buttered a slice of dark brown bread and bit into the tang of caraway and rye, chewing slowly, letting the flavors play over her tongue. She blessed her love for good literature. It had been the Bay Ladies’ Book Club that brought them together. Or at least it had brought her and Daphne together and the rest fell into place like destiny. Serena had been so pleased when Daphne volunteered to host the meetings. All the ladies had a good excuse for not doing it themselves—apartment too small, rowdy children at home, pets people are allergic to—but Serena wondered how many of the others, like she, harbored a hidden passion for Daphne’s sexy husband.

The hostess returned, a touch of smirk showing behind her solicitous smile.

“Would you like to order a drink while you’re waiting?”

“I would, thank you. Dubonnet, with a twist.”

She watched the hostess retreat to the bar, her hips swaying a little to the bossa nova beat. A faint stab of envy over the girl’s well-defined calf muscles troubled her briefly and she took another bite of bread. Glancing at her watch, she saw Gavin was now ten minutes late. Another five, without a call or explanation, would verge on rude, and Serena could not envision Gavin being rude.

Daphne always loved having him around, showing off her househusband. Serena—and the whole book club with her—rejoiced that his job allowed him to work from home. How else could he have been there to help serve up the refreshments when their literary discussions were concluded?

Over the weeks and months, Serena had found an increasing number of excuses for dropping by between meetings. She and Daphne became friends, dragging yoga mats into the living room or scrapbooking at the kitchen table. And Gavin remained ever in the background, offering his opinions, exchanging those surreptitious looks, until they’d practically become a threesome.

In fact, the three of them had been together the day the police discovered the first body.

*   *   *

Gavin dreaded this dinner appointment. He parked his car as far back in the lot as he could manage, under a drooping pine that looked like something from Dr. Seuss, and glowered down at the steering wheel. The ticking of the cooling engine reminded him of the warning a rattlesnake gives, just before it lunges with fangs outstretched.

His secret was becoming harder to keep. Some days he felt as if it was etched on his forehead and anyone who looked hard enough might read it there. He wondered if Daphne’s friend, Serena, had done just that. Is that why she suggested they have dinner?

If he’d known, really understood, how dark and twisted this path would become, could he have refrained from starting down it? He remembered the story about the frog who was persuaded to carry a scorpion on its back across a wide river. Halfway into the crossing, the scorpion sunk its stinger into the frog, dooming them both. With his dying breath, the frog asked the scorpion why he’d done it.

Because it’s my nature.

No, he could not have turned from this course, however challenging. It was his nature, and the truth was he relished it, every twist and turn. Except for maybe this one.

He cracked open the car door and threw out a leg, letting it stretch a moment before heaving the rest of himself onto the pavement. He was thirteen minutes late already and it wouldn’t pay to be rude. He crossed the rutted surface of the parking lot in loping strides, his boots setting up a rhythmic clatter on the asphalt. At the door to the restaurant, he took a deep breath and pushed inside, letting his eyes adjust after the burning glare of the streetlamps.

Careful to arrange his face into a suitably neutral expression, he located Serena and made his way to her table as the hostess arrived and took his order for a pint of Blue Ribbon.

“Sorry I’m late,” he apologized. “Traffic.”

“I figured you’d have a good reason.”

She smiled at him, revealing an almost flawless set of teeth, marred only by one front incisor appearing longer than its neighbors. He met her gaze and they locked eyes briefly before she swept her lashes down and looked away, a blush of pink coming up on her cheeks.

He was aware the moment had been somehow significant, but was less certain about what it meant. Was the woman merely attracted to him, or was she trolling him for something deeper? Something darker?

“Have you ordered already?”

“No, I was waiting for you.” She paused, and when she spoke again, her voice had taken on a throaty undertone. “I wondered if we might try the platter for two.”

Gavin froze, a mild shock running through him, rocking him a little in its wake. What was her game? He looked around at the other tables, wondering if anyone was watching, noting the woman’s brazen behavior. He knew the police were still interested in him and they’d attach more importance to this meeting than Gavin could afford. He’d have been smarter to avoid this date.

But had that been a veiled threat he’d seen in her eyes when she extended the invitation? Did she intend to hold some kind of power over him? If she suspected something and was willing to use it to manipulate him, he needed to understand her terms. Still, she was shaving awfully close to the carotid here, playing as if they were a couple.

After all, Daphne had been dead for less than two months.

*   *   *

The bossa nova faded out and a moody jazz piece dominated by a mournful saxophone took its place. Gavin had been right to decline the dinner platter for two. It was far wiser to be more circumspect. She could take it slow, building the anticipation, if he could. There might be a few good reasons for rushing it, but she’d put them aside for now and just enjoy this dinner.

Her mouth watered, triggered by the aromas of garlic and cooking meat. She ordered a grilled chicken salad and waited while Gavin explained how he wanted his steak cooked. Or rather, uncooked, as he demanded a mere ninety seconds on each side and a bloody, red middle.

The hostess brought another round of drinks and Serena saw Gavin’s eyes follow her legs. Ah, well, men couldn’t help it. Like metal to a magnet. She watched him fidget, toying with his fork, and realized he was nervous. Because he wanted to make a good impression on her?

Or because he was afraid of being seen in public with another woman so soon after his wife’s murder?

It would be a tender subject, but Serena thought it might help him to talk about it. They’d spoken of sensitive things before, delicate subjects lingering in the air after the book club discussions. She reached out a hand and placed it over his, giving a gentle squeeze, trying to ignore the sting when he pulled away.

“Did you hear there’s been another victim?” she asked. “I caught it on the news in the car on the way over. A couple of early morning skateboarders found a woman’s body dumped in a half-pipe. Nine knife wounds, like the others.”

Like Daphne.

She shuddered. It must have been awful for those young kids, such a shocking way to start the day. Of course, Gavin had been the one to find Daphne. Her heart plunged a little at the thought. She wished he might have been spared such a horror.

“I heard.” His voice was dry, just short of sarcastic. “The police are keeping me well informed. They still think I might be the guy.”

Serena almost choked on her drink and swallowed quickly, clearing her throat. “I thought they crossed you off their list of suspects when they confirmed your alibi.”

“They might have scratched me off, but if they did, they used a damn skinny pencil. Until they get someone else in their sights they’ll never stop looking at me.”

“Well, that’s just silly. Even the dimmest of them must realize this is the work of a crazed maniac, not a scheming husband. Are they questioning the husbands of the other victims?”

“None of the others were married.”

“Oh.” That did cast a slightly different light on the matter, but she had no doubt he was innocent of his wife’s murder. . . .



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