The SS cafe was clean, cozy, and very nearly empty. Vaulted bay windows spilled sunlight onto dozens of high-backed chairs tucked into rustic wood tables. Two plush armchairs sat in the far corner, underneath a crowded community bulletin board. Henry approached the counter, behind which a bored-looking woman with the name ‘Patty’ on her name tag was flipping through a tattered paperback. “Slow morning?”
Patty glanced up, took a moment to dog-ear a page, then gave him a smile. “I call it the AM Bazaar,” she said, nodding at the large group of people still milling about the street outside the windows. “Nobody wants to be trapped inside, so they grab their stuff to go.”
“Not very exciting for the barista.”
She shrugged. “It all comes around in the winter.”
“Well, I’ll be sitting in, assuming that won’t mark me as some sort of social pariah.”
“It can be a lot to get used to,” she said, sparing another glance for the window.
“There’s a lot of… friendliness. Can I just have a coffee, please?” he asked, regretting the number of sausages he’d so recently consumed. The front of the counter was a glass display case stuffed with fresh blueberry muffins, orange scones, and glazed fritters. All courtesy of one Niles Homer, no doubt.
She turned to rummage through a drawer of mugs. “So what’s on the schedule for today?”
“You mean beyond shaking the hand of every single person in the village? I’m not sure. Start looking into the help wanteds, maybe.”
Patty selected a wide, ruby-red mug with ‘SS: Sip and Serve’ emblazoned in silver cursive on the side, and began pouring steaming coffee from a battered carafe. “You should check out the Anderson.”
“Old warehouse down on Hyacinth and Fifth. Got converted into art space when our Target went belly-up. If you stop in, ask for Kara. She might have a job hookup for you, and I know for sure that she has a lead on an apartment. That is, if you’re trying to get away from the Tortoise Shell.”
“I am,” he said. That made it official: literally everyone in the village knew about his business, without having to ask. “Thank you.”
She set the mug on the counter with care. “That’s exciting. You must be liking what you’ve seen of Tortus Bay.”
He thought about that. Fewer than twenty-four hours had passed since that uncomfortable taxi ride, but so much seemed to have already happened. “It’s been great. I got sort of kidnapped, for lack of a better word, by a woman named Clair last night.”
“Wild curls? Boxy face?” Patty rolled her eyes. “Wouldn’t be my first choice for village liaison. I’ve heard she can be fun, but it’s embarrassing.” She lowered her voice a bit, though they were still the only two people in the cafe. “It’s one thing for the sheriff to chase drunk teenagers around the village, but Leia Thao spends most of her time nowadays trying to corral an adult woman. It’s a waste of time for everybody concerned, and honestly people are starting to get sick of it.”
Henry sunk into one of the armchairs with the intention of giving his brain a second to unspool. Perhaps he was simply unused to the intensity of local gossip, or perhaps everything was truly happening as fast as he felt it was. From his vantage in the corner, he had a clear view of patrons as they trickled into the cafe. They often said hello, or shot him a wave, which he dutifully returned, but it was as Patty said—they grabbed a coffee or a bagel and were right back out of the door, often enough with a second cheerful wave.
The card that Niles gave him bore only one hand-written line: ‘27 Glosspool Ln, 3:00 PM.’ Had Niles written that specifically for him, or did the man often advertise his Hiking Club on the backs of blank business cards? More importantly, why would he invite a complete stranger to such a club in the first place? And even more importantly than that: why did he seem to think that they had something to talk about? Henry tried to stuff all of those questions into a box in his mind, beside that buried briefcase of historical curiosities and the proclivities of a recently deceased man. It didn’t work very well.
He watched an older gentleman with a cane order a box full of muffins, then twisted in his chair so that he could see the community board. There were a pair of fliers announcing various openings at the orchards and the fishery; a banner for the upcoming PRIDE parade; an invitation for art submissions to some sort of exhibition; a poster of a missing cat offering a hundred dollar reward for information; and a single entry at the end of the monthly calendar for something called the ‘Golden Goose Fest.’
“What’s the Golden Goose Fest?” Henry asked, loudly enough for it to carry across the room.
Patty’s eyebrows shot up, for a split second, behind her book. “Who told you about that?”
“It’s on the calendar.”
“Community event,” she said. Her voice sounded carefully uninterested. “Another excuse for everyone to get together and gab. You know how they need another one of those.”
Their conversation was cut off by the sound of the door. Patty moved to stand, ready for another rapid takeout order, but the woman who entered made a beeline for Henry’s corner without a spare glance at the counter. She was short, and her pallid skin gleamed in contrast with the heavy black jacket she wore despite the heat of the day. Without preamble this woman perched on the arm of the unoccupied armchair, leaned in close, and spoke in a sort of high-pitched, rushed whisper. “You’re Henry Cauville?”
Patty stared at them curiously, but didn’t move from her spot. He returned the whisper. “I am.”
“Jamal told me all about you,” the woman said.
“Then I’m sure he mentioned that -”
She cut him off with the wave of a many-ringed hand. “Only good things. You met with the sheriff?”
“We ran into each other.”
She exhaled. Up close, the lines on her face were deep and drawn. “Then you know the story of how Mathas died.”
“He had a heart attack,” Henry said, trying to remember from the previous night. “While out in the lawn. Couldn’t make it to the phone.”
“While gardening. Late at night.”
She looked him in the eyes, and held the stare for a beat or two longer than was comfortable. “A man who paid a professional to maintain his yard, and was famously frightened of the dark, died while gardening at night.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“That’s information that I think you ought to have,” the woman said, prim and crisp, and then she was gone as quickly as she had come. She stalked back across the room and out of the door with only a curt nod for goodbye.
Patty, still standing behind the counter, was left agape. Her book lay forgotten beside the register. “What did she want?”
“Mistaken identity, I think,” Henry said. He hoped. “Who is she?”
“Beth Brihte,” she said, then shook her head as she remembered herself. “That’s right, you wouldn’t know. She was Mathas Bernard’s wife.”