CHAI ANOTHER DAY, Seventh St. Books, June 11, 2019
By Leslie Budewitz
Author’s Note: The heart of a cozy, in my view, is community. The amateur sleuth, usually a woman like my Pepper Reece, owner of the Spice Shop in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, with a business to run and a full life, is drawn into investigating because she is driven to seek justice. Because it’s the right thing to do.
Murder disrupts the social order of the community, whether it’s a small town or a community-within-a-community, like the Market. The cozy protagonist’s role in the community gives her perspective and access to information that the professional investigators—law enforcement—don’t have. She works with or alongside them, using her head, her heart, and her knowledge of people. Her expertise may give her critical information or enable her to see key connections. While the professionals’ goal is to restore external order by making an arrest and prosecuting, she is usually the one who finds the final clue or puts the pieces of the puzzle together. But she plays an even more important role: Through her personal knowledge and her connections within the community, she restores its internal order.
In Chai Another Day, Pepper fails to intervene when she overhears an argument. It ends in murder, leaving her wracked by guilt. Solving the mystery requires Pepper to use skills and knowledge from disparate parts of her life—as a friend, a daughter, a lover, a spice merchant, and even her former employment in a law firm. And it forces her to explore how far she’s willing, and able, to go to protect the communities that mean so much to her.
“Food is a conversation.”
Only a certified nut case would take a yoga class at noon then head for a massage on a day hotter than a freshly pulled shot of espresso. That goes double in Seattle, where only the newest and grooviest of buildings boast A/C. Used to be, a hot August day meant seventy-five degrees, maybe eighty, with visitors smiling and natives melting. Walking down Eastlake Avenue, I should have felt a cool breeze rolling up from Lake Union, a few blocks away. But no. The day was so still the only waft of air I caught was tinged with exhaust from the delivery van idling on the side street.
Welcome to the new Seattle, where climate is the only thing changing faster than the city’s skyline.
Between running my spice shop in the Pike Place Market during the height of tourist season and keeping up with my mother, who’d returned to the city for the summer, life was full. Throw a new relationship into the mix and I was happier than the clams at the fish counter in the Market. Though they were on ice, which at the moment, gave them the advantage.
Happy, but tired. I’d probably fall asleep on Seetha’s massage table.
The light changed and I stepped into the street. On Eastlake, a bus pulled into the stop with an electric swish, and passengers streamed off. A white guy in olive cargo pants sprinted up the hill and jumped on board moments before the bus drove off. I passed the corner café, a restaurant called Speziato—Italian for spicy, and a handful of other shops and businesses.
Halfway down the block stood my destination, a two-story red brick building with the year 1928 carved into a sandstone block beside the front door. The building sat back from the sidewalk about ten feet, creating a delightful space—half alcove, half courtyard—bounded by the neighboring structures on the north and south, and a low stone wall streetside. Rainy Day Vintage, one of my favorite places, occupied the first floor. Seetha lived and worked her massage magic upstairs.
I felt a fairy godmother’s pride, having suggested the vacant retail space when Aimee McGillvray said she was on the hunt. We’d met when she worked in a sprawling treasure trove of international antiques and imports, where I’d found some of the furniture for my loft. She’d become a Spice Shop customer and occasional yoga classmate, and opened this place last spring. A great fit, if I do say so myself.
Aimee had converted the courtyard into a peaceful city retreat that invited lingering. Teak and iron chairs surrounded a mosaic-topped table, shaded by a striped beach umbrella. A colorful stack of ceramic planters filled the corner. Basil, parsley, and elegantly clownish nasturtiums in orange, red, and yellow thrived in window boxes. The neon sign in the window was off. Aimee’s neon collection is to die for.
A dog welded from discarded car parts and tools stood guard, his ears the business ends of well-aged trowels. I gave him a quick pat on the sprinkler head and pushed open the outer door. Inside the tiny vestibule, the door on the left led to the shop while a locked door on the right led to the apartments above. I punched the intercom for the apartments and grabbed the knob. Voices snared my attention, and I cocked my head, listening.
A handful of words seeped through the closed shop door. “Don’t you tell me—”
The buzzer sounded before I could find out what the speaker didn’t want to hear, and I jerked the door open. The reply was equally angry, but undecipherable. Aimee? I honestly couldn’t recognize the speaker, or tell if the other person was male or female.
But it was none of my business, and my left shoulder ached for the ministrations of my waiting friend, so I closed the door behind me and trotted up the stairs.
Seetha waved me in to her sanctuary with a graceful sweep of the arm. Her royal purple tank top and cotton drawstring shorts were perfect for the day, much better than my sticky T-shirt and knee-length yoga pants. The earthy tang of Nag Champa incense hung in the air.
“You cut your hair,” I said. “It looks great.”
“I went to your stylist.” She raked her fingers through the black chin-length bob. “She said she’d lost track of how many women with long hair had come in saying ‘Cut it all off.’ I thought Seattle summers were supposed to be cool. But at least they’re not humid, like Boston.”
“Oh, I forgot—this is your first full summer here.” I dropped my tote and yoga mat on the floor, and toed off my flip-flops. “I wish I could say it’s never like this, but the times, they are a changin’.”
Seetha rents two of the three second-floor apartments, the one-bedroom in back where she lives and the studio up front where she works. Aimee had recently taken over the two-bedroom on the other side.
“Sing out when you’re ready.” She stepped behind the rice paper screen and I heard her washing her hands in the kitchen sink. A striking photo of a birch grove in full leaf hung on one dove gray wall, a poster of the seven chakras on another. I nodded toward the Kuan Yin statue in the corner and paused to inhale the tranquility of the space. Then I peeled off my sweaty yoga togs and slipped between the silky-soft bamboo sheets on the massage table. Either the argument downstairs had ended or the floors of the old brick building were thick enough to muffle the sound. I called to Seetha, closed my eyes, and let my breath begin to slow.
Seetha padded into the room and switched on soft music. I’m not big on soft music, except in certain circumstances, but this was one of them. Tuneless, drumless, meant to mellow the mind without engaging it.
My pal Laurel met Seetha shortly after she moved here, when one of her catering clients suggested Seetha for a massage. They hit it off and Laurel invited her to join our Tuesday night Flick Chicks confab for movies and girl-time. Both the yoga and bodywork were part of my mother’s self-care recommendations, now that I was closer to forty-five than forty.
“Tell me what’s going on with your body,” Seetha said now.
I described the ache in my shoulder, the result of catching a box of spice jars when one of my employees stumbled, and a few twinges from busy days and too much time on my feet. She folded back the sheet and laid one oiled hand between my shoulder blades.
Simple magic. With each stroke of her hands across my upper back, I drifted deeper and deeper into an other-worldly state, half awake, half asleep, and completely content.
She’d just started on my left trapezius when heavy steps pounding up the stairs broke my trance. A loud knock on the studio door followed, long and insistent.
“Back in a sec,” Seetha said. I heard her cross the room and step into the hall. As earlier, the words were indistinct, but the urgency was clear. And the visitor was definitely female.
Then Seetha was back. “Pepper, there’s a medical emergency downstairs. I’m going down to help until the EMTs arrive.” She sounded anxious, though I could tell she didn’t want to worry me.
“Aimee?” I said, sitting up in alarm. Her shop had been dark when I arrived—unlike me, she closed on Mondays. The clock across the room read twenty minutes after one.
“She’s fine. You rest. I’ll be back before you know it.” The door snicked shut behind her. Lying quietly was not my specialty, but it would do me good.
I woke with a start and that realization that you’ve fallen asleep without intending to. A sleep so deep I’d only vaguely heard sirens, and thought them distant, not right outside. The clock read one fifty. No sign of Seetha. A sense of dread snaked across my skin and into my brain. Clearly, the problem was serious after all.
I sat up slowly and swung my legs off the table, giving blood and brain a moment to adjust. The sole window faced the street, so I pulled on my top and yoga pants and parted the blinds to peer out. A red-and-white ambulance blocked the near lane of traffic, its flashers off.
My elbow struck a wind chime hanging from the window frame, and the sudden ringing startled me.
Tote and mat in hand, I tiptoed downstairs. I’ve dealt with customer emergencies myself—fainting spells from the heat or low blood sugar, and in one terrifying instance, a heart attack. Thank goodness Market security and Medic One responded in no time and the man survived. I didn’t want to get in the way—I just wanted to let Seetha know I was leaving and would see her tomorrow at movie night.
A box of medical gear propped open the door to the vintage shop. I heard none of the usual beep and clatter of industrious EMTs intent on their jobs. The silence scared me.
Out in the courtyard, Aimee sat with her elbows on the table, hands clutching the top of her head. Seetha sat beside her, one hand on Aimee’s back. Despite the shadow from the beach umbrella, I could see the horror on Seetha’s face.
And the blood.
About the author:
Leslie Budewitz blends her passion for food, great mysteries, and the Northwest in two light-hearted mystery series: the Spice Shop Mysteries, set in Seattle, and the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in northwest Montana. Her books focus on strong women who share her passions, and have a talent for finding trouble! Leslie is the first author to win Agatha Awards for both fiction and nonfiction. Death al Dente, first in the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, won the 2013 Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her guide for writers, Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law and Courtroom Procedure, won the 2011 Agatha Award for Best Nonfiction.
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