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Then a phone call summoned me back into my workday. I been up since three. I completely forgot. But no prob. She had once lived on the streets, but now she worked a day job at a bakery downtown and did wedding cakes—her true love—on the side. I could hear her slurping a spoonful of gumbo, and suddenly I could smell it, too. The Bayou served up divinely incendiary food all day long, eat in or take out. And I really love gumbo.

And I really hate feeling guilty. Not that Juice is hard to spot anyway, between her chartreuse buzz cut and her Gay Pride buttons. She sat in a booth bedecked with Mardi Gras posters, chowing down and drinking Anchor Steam out of the bottle. They were alligator today, in a shade of pink that no gator has ever aspired to. I ordered, and we hunkered down to talk serious Christmas cake.

The groom, Brian Frost, was still out of the country on business; Bonnie had assured me that her Brian adored Christmas just as much as she did. Joe Solveto had dreamed up a hot chocolate bar, with colorful mugs and candy-cane stir sticks and generous shots of Kahlua. The party favors would be snow globes with Santa Claus inside, and instead of numbering the guest tables, I was naming them after reindeer.

But the cake—or rather cakes—would be the showstopper. Juice, an absolute wizard with blown sugar, was creating a series of gift-shaped confections, one minicake per table, each one unique and each exquisitely adorned with sweet, glistening ribbons and edible tree ornaments. The bride and groom would cut into a special, larger cake, with a fudgefrosted Yule log on top to freeze for their first anniversary. All we needed to settle now was the total number of cakes and the delivery arrangements. This was the kind of work I loved: being creative and yet efficient, enjoying the enthusiasm of other entrepreneurs, getting paid, in effect, to throw a fabulous party.

But this af- May the Best Man Die 59 ternoon I was depressed and inattentive, and my efforts to hide the fact were futile. I told it to shut up. You did the right thing. And thanks a lot. I sat brooding, crumbling a sourdough roll and watching the fragments drift into the remains of my gumbo. What are you doing here? I really, really needed to be asleep. No, just his face. Besides, we think Kraye passed out before he was knifed. Damn near half his blood was pooled in the grass.

Pardon my French. Probably out in the Sound by now. Mike had surely seen worse. Public, potential source of evidence. We get lies, we get misinformation, we get people holding back the one piece of the puzzle that could break the case open. If you know, saw, heard, or even guessed anything that might be relevant, you need to tell me.

Mike pulled out his phone while I was still speaking, and when I finished he strode to the counter, grabbed his order, and left the Bayou at a run. Man on a mission. So I settled for asking her to call me as soon as she could, and made my dejected, slow-motion way back to Vanna. My best friend loomed above me like an avenging angel. They suspected you, so you accused Darwin instead. I had to hear it on the phone from some desk sergeant!

And then I called Mike and he said it was you. I sat up in bed—my little island refuge in this sea of turmoil—and tried to frame a rational reply. I tried to call you. But I know Mike is an honest man! My heart ached for her. His handsome young face was haggard and grave, and he wore new-looking khakis and a pristine red sweater.

My stomach turned over. Just one. You believe me? I want you to stay home with my nephews. To stop lying, to yourself or anybody else. I understand, and I forgive you. Lily watched them drive away, and stared down the empty street for a few minutes more. The strip offers, among other delights, an abundance of fast food, used cars, and cheap motel rooms. On the night of that dreary Monday, I sat in one of those rooms and had myself a good cry.

Then, double-teamed by a marshmallow mattress and a troubled mind, I had myself some bad sleep. I could always check into a real hotel, and charge it, but my credit card balances were astronomical already. After Darwin left, she just stalked into her bedroom and shut the door.

But I got the message. We would sort this out eventually, once Lily was ready, but she was a long way from being ready. Maybe when Darwin is cleared. I set aside that grim idea and tried to think about my May the Best Man Die 67 workday. Just horrible. The police are interviewing him right now in our conference room. Frank must be a suspect, too.

Dammit, Carnegie, I sound like one of my own PR people. Can you come downtown to my apartment, before you go see Kevin Bauer? Sally and Frank can meet us there. Oh, right. Sure, give me about an hour. Maybe I should just live in Vanna. But I ran out of steam when I heard the recording of her cultured, quavering voice. Frederick Castle, and I am not here to speak with you. You may leave a message if you wish, but please speak slowly and distinctly.

Frederick Castle had been dead for decades; his widow was an old lady of the old school. Sighing, I settled for leaving a ladylike request that she call me back at her convenience. He keeps changing the numbers for the pewbacks and the tabletops. Last time I called him, he hung up on me! I forgot you had a nasty shock yesterday.

You need some Christmas cheer, sister. How about stopping in at the library, maybe take Lily out for a nice lunch? She always perks you up. Maybe another day. And it wore even thinner when I arrived downtown to find the Bon Marche parking garage already jammed with early-rising Christmas shoppers. I wound my way to a spot at the very top level, open to the icy wind off the Sound, and trotted down the hill on Stewart Street to the Pike Place Market, past the ubiquitous Salvation Army Santas and the inescapable Yuletide Muzak. Comfort and joy, my foot. Ivy Tyler had a large and secluded house in the country somewhere, but for business entertaining or late nights at the office, she kept an apartment in one of the Pike Place Market buildings.

Today, though, there was no time to do anything but duck and cover. The bride was going ballistic. When did Jason Kraye ever respect anybody else? Put it off till next December? Postponing would ruin everything. Tell me, Frank, would it be important to you to delay the wedding? And for how long? I mean, jeez, murder? No way did this guy kill anyone.

May the Best Man Die 71 He looked at me in appeal. What do you think we should do? Maybe you should take some time to think it over. I assumed it was MFC business until I heard her first words. Did you sleep at all? I hated to leave you this morning, but Dr. Lawrence said. Of course. She sat up straight to take the call from her stepfather, and spoke with a deferential solicitude quite unlike her usual snap and snarl. Frank and I feel just terrible. In fact, Frank thinks we should delay the wedding.

Could you tell him that? Ivy smiled at them indulgently, and not for the first time I marveled at how a brass-tacks businesswoman could turn so quickly to mush. I would have slapped the girl silly by now. Well, not everyone cares about tradition. My own phone chirped, and the display showed Mrs. I understand, Mrs. That felt good. Or all of the drummers. I stopped at an MFC, where a table full of preschoolers was crayoning Christmas cards, and treated myself to a piping hot latte with a shot of chocolate syrup.

Sipping as I walked, I positively beamed good will at the passersby. Today Irina was surrounded by her usual tubs of single irises and ready-to-go roses, but also by gift-wrapped pots of scarlet poinsettia and gaily beribboned mistletoe balls. I was admiring them when her nephew blew into the room like a gust of wind off the steppes of Mother Russia.

The Mad Russian did nothing by halves. I have outdone even myself. Which only I could be the one to do, no? Do you really need six dozen amaryllis? Boris signed the estimate impatiently, then drew me into his studio. This was a high, brick-walled space, banked with flower coolers and ranked with shelves of wire, ribbon, foam, and other necessaries for making floral magic.

I closed my eyes and breathed in the heady scent that floated above the smoky vapor from the grand gilt samovar in the corner. I could happily have stayed for hours. They would gather at six P. All very discreet and intimate. The reception to follow would be quite another kettle of martinis: an all-night party at Neurolux, a trendy new Belltown club that we planned to decorate in high, not to say startling, style. Other brides chose soft, girlish color themes for their weddings: dusty rose and powder blue, or peaches and cream. But not Sally Tyler. Sally had opted for black and silver.

As Eddie would put it, va-vavoom. I planned to drape the interior of the Neurolux with black velvet hangings, and set the tables with silver candelabras holding ebony tapers. At midnight of the old year, the guests would be showered with glittering confetti, dazzled by a laser light show, and serenaded by an African percussion ensemble.

The buff bride would have the limelight all to herself. Very Deco, very decadent. It was our little ritual, and Boris and I both enjoyed it. But then came a less-enjoyable interrogation. Why is this? Russians must have asbestos stomachs. First her eyes light up like candle when she speaks of him, and now she says not serious. Did he break your heart, my Kharnegie? I will break his head! Someone more straightforward, not such a smooth talker. Someone solid. There is no one more solid than Boris Nevsky! I pulled it away, more roughly than I meant to, and took a few paces back.

We stared at each other, wordless, uncertain. The Sergeis, I realized, had made themselves scarce. Boris wears his heart on his face. He glowered, but only for a moment, and then I saw a flicker of regret, which gave way in turn to a crafty grin that gleamed through his thicket of black beard. Besides, Nevsky Brothers was one of my best vendors. We ended the encounter with smiles that were only slightly forced, back on the safe shore of friendship. Good old Boris. I gave him a quick bear hug of my own, then I fetched Vanna and headed north out of Seattle, to what I blithely expected would be a routine appointment at Habitat Coffee.

Not bacon, not lilacs, not even new bread. Now that I had a bed for the night, my trip out of town was feeling like a mini-holiday. The roasting plant was nestled in a forested area near the little town of Snohomish. The Snohomish River is fed by the Skykomish and the Snoqualmie, not to be confused with the Skagit, or for that matter, the Klickitat or the Dosewallips. I love Washington State. I got off the freeway early, just for the change, and drove north through the odd jumble of development along Highway 9. The maples were bare this time of year, of course, but in spring the Habitat property would be positively sylvan.

A grassy field surrounded the series of low, interconnected buildings, and a towering Doug fir made a backdrop for a massive steel silo. Inside, I was greeted by a smiling woman in her early forties, wearing long handmade earrings and her brown hair in braids. She took my name, offered me a candy cane from the little decorated tree on her desk, and asked me to wait just a moment. A row of fine old cabinets in glass-fronted oak held displays of coffee cans and bags going back decades, like a general store for caffeine fanatics.

Above them hung a long row of framed burlap coffee sacks from Costa Rica, Panama, Indonesia, all with exotic names and eye-catching folk-art logos. On the opposite wall, a series of lively posters illustrated the whole shade-grown issue. Indigenous shade trees, if left in place over the coffee bushes, will fix nitrogen in the soil, discourage weeds and erosion, and provide shelter for the billions of warblers, orioles, and other songbirds that funnel through Mexico and Central America every winter.

Who can say no to a homeless warbler? The far end of the room was a sort of coffee-roasting museum, with antique scales, grinders, and roasters bearing neatly-typed cards explaining their use and history. Also a small pen knife, nicked and dirty. I was bending closer, curious, when I heard a gruff voice behind me.

He was a redhead, though not a copper-top like me. His short, straight hair was the color of chili powder, the dark smoky kind, and it continued down into a matching, neatlytrimmed beard. Crisp corduroys and a pressed flannel shirt completed the effect: casual, but controlled. All that debris was found among the beans, sometime in the last few years. We sieve stuff out or snag it with a heavy-duty magnet along the line from the warehouse to the final package.

So can we get on with it? First he handed me a sample bag of Habitat coffee beans; apparently, even unwelcome visitors got one. Then he pulled out a small paper envelope and tossed it to me. Are you wearing any rings? You see what I mean about a bad idea? Fair enough? It was fascinating, really, even with my ill-tempered companion—and Bauer warmed up as we went, his pride in the operation gradually overcoming his annoyance at my errand. We began by going outdoors and entering the Habitat May the Best Man Die 83 warehouse from the gravel parking lot, the way that party guests would arrive.

The units rose in lofty tiers that stretched up from the concrete floor at our feet to the shadows of the girdered roof above our heads. But most of the space around and above us was filled with rough burlap sacks, fat with coffee beans. Thousands of sacks, billions of beans. Just looking up at them made me feel caffeinated. The aisles between the tiers were barely wide enough for a single one-man forklift. Three or four of the toylike, bright green machines were grunting and whining their way around the area, busy as ants, bearing unwieldy-looking pallets of coffee sacks that looked far too top-heavy for their little electric motors.

As we walked, Bauer reeled off more facts and way too many figures: pounds of beans in a sack , A. I made the appropriate interested noises, but statistics bore me. I was thinking party. A red-and-white color scheme, of course, with some of those nice bright posters, and maybe stacks of Habitat boxes. That ought to satisfy the dour Mr.

The forklift operators, like the rest of the workers, just nodded nonchalantly as we went by. No putting on a show of extra effort for Mr. In fact, the atmosphere throughout the plant was brisk and upbeat, a happy, hard-working family, with good-humored chatter and lots of personal snapshots and funny clippings taped here and there. Not my problem, thank goodness. Sometimes managing Eddie was all I could handle.

Beyond the warehouse, but connected to it, was the large, windowless roasting area. It felt like a submarine movie, if the sub had high ceilings: steel walls and bare light fixtures, hoppers and catwalks, pneumatic ducts and tubes snaking everywhere, moving the beans from one stage of processing to another. It had a square transparent panel in it, and behind the panel a swarm of dark brown coffee beans raced in blurring, ricocheting flight upward, like furious bees from a shaken hive. The handle drew forth a steel cylinder, open along the top, with a cluster of dark beans nestled inside.

The warm, intense fragrance rising up from them was nearly erotic. This batch needs a few seconds more. It had become an imaginary wedding reception, to tell the truth, a mental habit I have whenever I find an intriguing venue. We could put huge tubs of champagne on the forklifts, and dress the tables in those cool burlap sacks, and serve espresso mousse cake studded with coffee beans. The glass walls were hung with venetian blinds, swiveled open at present, and the single large desk in the middle was surrounded by panels of dials, lights and switches, and three different computer monitors.

He wore a dingy sweatshirt, a Habitat baseball cap on backward, and, once he saw me, an expression of intense surprise. Well, well, well. I took in the lantern jaw, the beady eyes, and the thick-fingered hands that lay slack on his keyboard. Garlic from the bachelor party. The network mastermind rose from his rolling desk chair in a clumsy fluster.

Apparently, all the leering bravado of Sunday night had come out of a retsina bottle.

In the daylight, he looked older than I had thought—thirty at least, maybe more. Lou began to fidget with the coiled cord of his telephone, not meeting my eyes. Instinctively, I reached down to try and break the fall. Too late. Instead of the mug, my fingers met the spray of broken fragments that ricocheted from the concrete floor. When I stood up again, I had a deep gash on my left hand, and blood gushing all over my best dove-gray suit. My father was in the merchant marine, after all. Both men reacted instantly. Lou gave a horrified shout of alarm and shrank back from the gore.

Kevin Bauer, in contrast, whipped out a folded handkerchief, pressed it to my palm, and raised my arm above shoulder level, to stem the blood flow. I just stood there and let him, while continuing to express my displeasure in the language of the sea. Bauer let go of me and rummaged in a nearby locker for a first-aid kit. Some gawking workers appeared in the office doorway but he waved them off, and let the blue plastic kit clatter to the floor as he grabbed out a roll of sterile gauze.

Can you hold it there while we drive? I had a rendezvous with some needle and thread. Fiona, the pleasant post-hippie from the office, did the May the Best Man Die 89 actual driving, while her boss sat in back with me and held my hand. I had stopped swearing by then and gone into stiff-upper-lip mode as I stared unseeing at the woods and the ticky-tacky houses rushing by.

Once inside, Fiona sat with me in the examination room while her boss filled out paperwork at the front counter. He would have thrown me out on my ear. Did he tell you how he got into the business? When he got back, he wanted to do something practical to help, something beyond research. But I needed information about a less appealing man. Kind of crude, in fact.

And he felt terrible about your accident. One tetanus shot and a fancy bandage later, with the throbbing in my hand nicely blunted by a stiff dose of painkillers, I was ready to go home. May the Best Man Die 91 Fiona went out to warm up her car—it was almost dark already, and quite cold—while Kevin paid the clinic bill and helped me on with my coat. No, no arguments. And not exiled from my houseboat.

Author Donnelly's Book Reviews

And not on the outs with my best friend. As it was, I had no objection to someone else taking charge, at least for the next hour. My chauffeur drove skillfully and kept a companionable silence—a skill in itself—until we exited the freeway. We even made some small talk, admiring the Christmas lights that twinkled all around.

Kevin and I stood facing each other on the sidewalk, suddenly awkward. Thank you for being so reasonable. And do I want it to happen? Then he slid the forgotten hair net off my head, and slipped it into his pocket. I laughed myself, a little nervously, and shook my hair loose. I could sue you for dangerous factory conditions. Can I bribe my way out of it? See you at six. Ivy drew me inside with a warm but careful hug, the mentor giving way to the mother. Does it hurt? Let me get you a drink, you poor thing.

Sitting there in the midst of the them, shutting off a tape recorder and tapping rapidly away on a laptop, was Aaron Gold. I was just telling her that we have some friends in common. Sorry about your hand. She seemed quite pleased about it. Excuse me. It held a plate piled with sandwiches, a bottle of expensive-looking Scotch, and three generous glasses of ice.

And a single malt, much deserved after all this talking. Pain meds or no, a drink suddenly seemed like a good idea. I sipped some Scotch and attempted some ESP. Go away, Aaron. Finish your drink and go home. Or think about us.

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Go away. Like the one I just told you about the governor. No dice. The man was rooted to the sofa— as I seemed to be myself. Finally they were done eating, and Aaron pulled a pack of cigarettes and his trusty stainless-steel lighter from a shirt pocket.

I hated his smoking, and he knew it, but I was surprised at his discourtesy to Ivy. Then Ivy surprised me by holding up two fingers in a V. Aaron lit a cigarette and gave it to her, then lit one for himself. Ivy caught me watching them. What a good memory you have. The moment she left the room, Aaron set down his glass and spoke to me urgently. She nodded, and a look of understanding passed between them.

I shook my head, but the room whirled around me, so I stopped. A long week, for that matter. Now would you listen to me? She called me this afternoon, half out of her mind. Not much, but enough to hold him on. She asked me to find him a lawyer. Now the police want to know where his clothes went, and whether he owns a knife. He also says he stuffed his clothes in a trash can because he threw up on them while he was driving around in a stupor. And he put on some new clothes that he just happened to buy the day before and leave in his trunk. It was difficult to open them again. And Lily probably does, too.

It showed a luminous twilight sky in shades of violet over a rocky headland. Did they give you pain pills when they fixed up your hand? Come on, up you go. Go to sleep. In my altered state, it seemed important to be accurate. He was silhouetted by the hall light, his face unreadable, his voice cold. But waking up Wednesday morning still in my clothes, with a sore hand, a worse head, and a vague memory of having said something stupid to Aaron, was considerably disorienting.

My office was full of Buckmeisters. Buck, who made his pile as the hot-tub king of El Paso, was the kind of man who never met a stranger; to know him was to be embraced by him, as he embraced me now. Along with the suit, he wore a gaudy bandanna tied pirate-style around his high red forehead. What can I do for you folks today? I tried not to whimper.

So what do you say? There were three dozen roses, at least, in the tenderest shades of pink and ivory and coral. Even the vase was extravagant: a huge and ornate urn in vintage milk glass. The Buckmeisters gave forth glad cries; Kelli set the bouquet on my desk, and I held my breath and reached for the enclosure card. Kevin Bauer? But we just met. The card was from Beautiful Beau. Even his handwriting was beautiful. Shall we talk? I swallowed my disappointment. Or would they? Meanwhile, the Buckmeisters were reading the card over my shoulder.

As he launched into his introduction, and extended his invitation, I smiled weakly and subsided behind the roses. We have so much to talk about, you and I. I made a vague reply, thanked him for the flowers, and rang off. As the Buckmeisters made their way to the elevator, noisily thrilled about their date with destiny, I slumped back in my chair, and Joe poked his head in my door. They might hear you. Nice people, but they need a mute button. Who are these from? Why is the fabulous Frenchman sending you roses?

A lock of his sandy hair fell fetchingly across his forehead. Where shall we set them up, the buffet table or the hot chocolate bar? No cognac smoothness from Aaron. More like black coffee. But they served four-egg omelets and pepper-cured bacon, so what the hell. What if I pushed the wrong button and injected hot milk into the drywall?

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I had taken one look and fled the scene. So I was eagerly dosing myself with caffeine when Aaron arrived, notebook at hand, in a navy-blue pea coat and white scarf. He looked gallingly wide-awake, the eager newshound hot on the trail. I decided to get the hard part over with right away. In fact, I needed to be, to remind myself to stick to my guns.

Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow. Just drop the whole subject. Case closed. But it cleared the air, at least for me, and soon we were diving into breakfast. It was—it used to be—one of the fun things about being with him. Some of my friends liked haute cuisine, but Aaron and I liked to eat.

He swallowed a mouthful of salmon hash and flipped to a page of scribbled notes. No criminal background on Jason Kraye, no obvious motive for his murder. So the working theory is that Kraye was slashed in a drunken fight, maybe even unintentionally, and that the killer was one of the men at the bachelor party. Or cracks up. The best way to help Darwin is to find out what really happened. Bless those ancient Ethiopians, anyway. You first. I saw that from inside.

Never mind that. Remember the scuffle. I closed my eyes and it all came back: the flailing shadows, the two men struggling, the third man kneeling in the frozen grass. Height, build? No glint of a knife? They were shoving at each other, and then punching in a sort of half-hearted way. I told Mike that. I just hope he told Lily. Conflict of interest. I hate to think of her dealing with all this alone.

I should go see her. I wondered if he was yearning for an after-meal cigarette. Not that bad, anyway. Kraye was being a macho jerk, as I gather was normal for him. After you left, he goaded Darwin into drinking some retsina, and then some more. But Dar seemed like a sloppy drunk, not a dangerous one. Same goes for Frank and the other guys. Maybe someone else at the party got a different impression.

We could start by asking them. Though of course, the police already have.

- Amateur Sleuths

What makes you think that? Besides, I had to finish my pool game. I was winning. What makes you single out Lou? Cream, no sugar. What does he do at Habitat? Can you get me a guest list? Something about Jason Kraye, good or bad, past or present, made somebody at that party want him dead. We have to find out what it was and who it was.

She ended up pumping me. Her nameplate said Nora, but her eyes said Wicked Witch of the West. She sighed, in the perpetually put-upon tone of the chronic complainer. Madison Jaffee was about my age, with short black hair and a taut, coiled energy in her stride. Her angled green eyes were shrewd and skillfully made up, and a short upper lip gave her mouth a curious look—of surprise or anticipation.

We were forty stories up in a glass tower downtown, far from the MFC roasting plant in South Seattle. Unlike the heady atmosphere at Habitat, the only coffee aroma in this room came from the paper cups we brought with us. Have a seat. The conference room, in contrast, was crammed with the bright and blatant signs of summer.

There were sunshiny travel posters taped to the walls, a display of picnic baskets and beach paraphernalia, and a couple of easels pinned with ink and watercolor sketches of tropical shorelines and tall, cool drinks. The way Beau Paliere used Beauty and perfection in every detail, I would use Fairytale weddings for real-world brides.

Or something like that, anyway. Still, by the time Madison was done, my brain was hurting, but I was thoroughly impressed. And grateful; you can pay a lot for this kind of advice. But then her poise seemed to waver, and she gathered up our scattered paperwork with inordinate care, not meeting my eyes. I was at the Hot Spot that night, but only briefly. And then the next day I identified the body. Like Ivy, she wore no nail polish, and like me, no wedding ring. She frowned abruptly. This was moving a little too fast. She crossed the room to an easel and began straightening the sketches on it, her back to me.

I waited. I had the sense that she was assessing factors unknown to me, with the mental swiftness she had shown in setting out my marketing plan. When she turned back to face me, it was clear she had come to a decision. A difficult one. In confidence? Everyone here does. He puts on a show of being tough, but you can tell what a gentle person he really is. Someone else was the killer, and I have to find out who. I mean, why you in particular? Do you understand? I just want to help you find out who killed him. You trust him? Trust Aaron with my heart? No, never again, much as I might want to.

That was different. Tell me everything. Did he have, well, enemies? The green eyes were preoccupied, miles away. Some people keep different parts of their life walled off from each other. You know how that is. Did you ever hear any details? She wore a skirted suit in dark gray—a gesture of mourning? No, make that ruby. Easy to forget that my down-to-earth mentor was a multimillionaire. Hi, Carnegie. Getting some good ideas? What a tightrope she was walking. As I moved into the hallway, Ivy stopped me with a hand on my arm. She wore a subtle, expensive perfume, and more makeup than usual.

I wondered if a murdered employee also made for photo ops; there had been a lot of press about the Canal Killer. But her next words put my cynicism to shame. And MFC is going to cover his legal fees. Is that how you met him? I recognized the thick, prematurely gray hair and the craggy features, irregular but quite appealing. As we reviewed my plans for the reception, he made some sensible suggestions about running in power for the food prep and the band, and even an idea or two about decorations.

But mostly Simon answered my questions, approved of what I had in mind, and showed a real appreciation for my work. I badly needed some quiet time at my desk. I would have gotten it, too, back on the houseboat.

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  • But a catering company has a kitchen, and kitchens have prep cooks, and prep cooks have tempers. Alonzo and Filipo were at it again, and they were at it in my office. I am spending twenty-five minutes to peel and to mince my shallots, and you stole them! What of my chopping knife? You steal my knives, and complain about shallots! The first few times I found it amusing, and consented to referee. But this was far from being the first time. I mean it! I have business with you, Carnegie. Private business. Or apparently, in this very one. My Venezuelan friend was holding up a recognizable plastic object of enormous size and specific sexual function.

    Grinning, he set the thing in front of me, and reached back into the bin to draw forth a lacy black garment with some very interesting cutouts. I knew that my beautiful redhead wants her toys back! Perhaps he really had believed that the bin held my personal belongings, but obviously Filipo did not.

    Aaron cocked his head, and with a wide-eyed, captivated gaze took in the cook, the negligee, the vibrator on my desk, and the great sheaf of roses on my credenza. Then he gave a long whistle of appreciation. I covered the stuff hastily with the packing paper, and set the whole ridiculous thing in a corner. Then I realized how brusque I was sounding.

    He was leaning back in my visitor chair, arms clasped behind his head, grinning broadly. I gave the young man a box of particularly nice cigars. Do you want to hear about my conversation with Madison Jaffee? Nice roses, by the way. Sparring with him was much more comfortable than yearning after him.

    A friend of mine sent them. But never mind that. Guess who Jason Kraye was having an affair with? Madison Jaffe. Well, it can only help us, and Darwin, to have an MFC insider like her looking for information. Besides, the CEO never hears all the good gossip. Have fun. The shock of the murder, and the strain of managing two big weddings within a week of each other, had me yearning for friendly company and wide open to the chance for romance. But setting all that aside, who could be difficult to please when the night was clear and frosty, the gentleman sincere and attentive, and dozens of good-hearted people in ridiculous costumes were caroling their hearts out on the street corners?

    As I drove past it, I had looked through my windshield at the old-fashioned carousel that appears downtown each December. The candy-colored wooden horses rose and fell and May the Best Man Die circled, bearing gleeful children and grinning adults. The store windows shone bright and vivid, and for blocks in every direction the filigree branches of the street trees sparkled with white lights like diamond stars against the falling dusk. Large hands, to go with his large, square frame and his rugged features.

    With his leather jacket, dark red beard, and breath puffing white in the cold air, he might have been an Alaskan bush pilot setting off for adventure. All right, so I was absurdly easy to please. The hot, spicy drink added just the right glow of internal warmth. We crossed Pike Place and headed up Pine, sipping cider and eyeing each other sideways, faintly but happily nervous.

    No wonder teenage girls talk funny. Every year, the Figgy Pudding Caroling Competition seems to attract more participation by downtown businesses, more spectators willing to donate to a good cause, and more hilariously elaborate song-and-dance numbers. This year there were rapping tax accountants, tap-dancing mortgage bankers in reindeer hats, and silver-haired lawyers waving cardboard palm trees in a conga line.

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    There were kids dressed as elves, men dressed as women, and one bunch of women dressed as giant cloves of garlic. Kevin and I drifted with the currents of people from one corner to the next, joining the little audience at each performance, dropping our dollar bills in the donation pails, singing along on the carols we knew. Kevin had a thin but true baritone, and he seemed to be having a wonderful time.

    I certainly was. All too soon, the carolers were packing up their props and making for the main stage, thronged now with spectators many dozens deep. But do you mind if we skip the final show? Where shall we eat? There we warmed ourselves with May the Best Man Die a glorious seafood chowder, and exchanged the obligatory first-date life stories. Doubts, triumphs, and obstinate bankers make for good stories, whatever the size of your enterprise.

    We talked about our other interests, too, theater and day-hiking on my part, classical music and bicycling on his. My childhood in Boise, his in Tacoma. You are cordially invited. When a client asks Carnegie to manage a pre-wedding blow-out—complete with a stripper—she tactfully refuses the job. So why is Carnegie peering through binoculars across the Seattle Ship Canal, watching a shapely Santa Claus turn naked inside a hip dockside bistro? Because her own significant other—with whom she is having some significant differences—is at the party too.

    And, so it turns out, is a killer. What did Carnegie really see through her binoculars? More important: What will she tell the police she saw? But while Carnegie is snooping around, word of a witness has gotten out—and now a killer is watching her.