The woman in the coffin was lovely, Sugar Daddy thought. He knew he was biased; the opinion came from somewhere deep within him, and seemed to fit, even in this situation.
The viewing room was empty for the moment—empty of anyone but himself and the body. The lush décor hinted at refined taste, albeit impersonal for the most part; heavy dark blue drapes hung along the back wall behind the coffin, thick grey carpeting to muffle footsteps, plenty of cushiony tapestry armchairs along with a sofa or two and on every little table, tissues in discreet, elegant access.
Sugar Daddy gazed around once, and turned his melancholy attention back to the still form in the coffin, his focus on her pale, sweet features. Even in death, Miss Lollipop looked exotic, her long dark lashes against the curve of her high cheekbones, her mouth slightly pursed and highlighted in a subtle shade of rose lipstick. Against the ruffled white sateen lining of the coffin, she seemed like a gift doll, her glossy hair spread over the prop pillow, her curvy torso in a simple blue dress, her hands folded over her flat stomach.
“Ah, Mr. Morris . . . I’m sorry to intrude on your moment of reflection with your dearly departed,” came a smooth urbane voice. Sugar Daddy looked up to see the rounded figure of a man in a dark suit and tie stepping into the room, adjusting the carnation in his buttonhole. He was short, with wavy hair streaked with grey, and his cologne was nearly heavy enough to form a cloud around him.
“Mr. Pertonelli,” Sugar Daddy nodded, his guard up. The funeral director came forward, his gaze on the coffin. He gave a small, proud smile.
lovely, doesn’t she? It’s always a terrible tragedy
to lose a loved one, but I
daresay our cosmeticians here at
“Yeah, she looks . . . great,” Sugar Daddy grudgingly agreed, not willing to pander to the other man’s slightly creepy words. Mr. Pertonelli nodded, and after letting his gaze linger a moment longer on Miss Lollipop, he turned to Sugar Daddy and cleared his throat.
“I wanted to let you know that your late wife’s sister and brother are here, to share this hour of grief with you—they’re waiting in the foyer, and I would be happy to usher them here.”
Sugar Daddy nodded. “Yeah, I’ve been waiting for those two—bring them on in.”
Nodding, Mr. Pertonelli turned and left; Sugar Daddy took a swift moment to reach down into the coffin and brush a hand against Miss Lollipop’s cold cheek, feeling a wave of genuine despair at the chill there. For a moment his self-control wavered, but before he could do more than grip the edge of the coffin, the sound of the viewing room door opening once more alerted him.
Sugar Daddy looked over to see Miss Chocolate and Jelly Bean in somber clothing, looking pale-faced and still in the doorway.
“We just got here,” came her low and shaky voice. Sugar Daddy nodded tightly, and that seemed to break the moment of disbelief. Both she and Jelly Bean came forward; she into Sugar Daddy’s arms. He hugged her tightly, and she wrapped herself around him as well, pulling him close.
It was a good hug, with a degree of genuine warmth and for a moment, Sugar Daddy clung to her, taking a little comfort in it. Then he gently loosened his grip and looked into her face intently. Miss Chocolate’s gaze flicked to the ceiling, and the tiny camera mounted among the chandelier bulbs. Sugar Daddy nodded and gave a deep sigh.
“I didn’t think I’d see you two again . . . this way.”
Jelly Bean was staring towards the coffin, his Adam’s apple moving up and down as he swallowed hard. “Me either. She was . . . looking fine when I left.”
“Yeah, well these things can happen pretty fast—“ Sugar Daddy looked bleak. Miss Chocolate patted his shoulder and stayed close.
“At least, it was quick,” she muttered, letting a helpless note echo in her voice. Sugar Daddy nodded, and moved to the coffin, letting his big hands rest on the open edge of it as he looked down on Miss Lollipop once more.
He sighed once more. “Swear to God, one minute she was fine, and the next . . . gone.”
“You should sit down,” Miss Chocolate urged gently. Jelly Bean had stepped closer with great reluctance and was looking into the coffin, his eyes wide and sorrowful.
“They gave her a pillow?”
“Sshhhh—“ Miss Chocolate whispered, frowning. Jelly Bean didn’t seem to hear her, and spoke again.
“Why? It’s stupid, she’s not going to get up, she doesn’t need to be comfortable . . . “ he choked. “I mean Jesus, she’s dead; dead people don’t need pillows!”
“Horace!” Miss Chocolate hissed very softly, reaching out to shake his thin shoulder. The contact seemed to help; the younger man crumpled a little, hanging his head. Miss Chocolate shifted to slide her arm around him, and he fought a shuddering sob very quietly.
“She’s beautiful. She always was—“ Sugar Daddy murmured in a monotone. Miss Chocolate nodded, and for a while, the three of them went silent, standing near the coffin. Finally, Sugar Daddy shifted, moving to one of the sofas and dropping heavily on it. He waited until Miss Chocolate joined him there, then spoke in a low whisper when he handed her some tissue. “Who’s going to talk to Petronelli?”
“I am,” Miss Chocolate replied as softly, dabbing her eyes. “After all, you were only her husband--I’m her kid sister. Makes more sense that I’d know her dirty little secret, right?”
“Right, right,” Sugar Daddy murmured. “When?”
“Tomorrow. Ready to fight?”
Sugar Daddy nodded. Next to him, Miss Chocolate shot to her feet, glaring at him with reddened eyes.
“You son of a bitch! She’s not even COLD and you’re asking about MONEY! My God, Delores was right about you after all these years!”
“Chloris?” Jelly Bean looked over at her, startled, “You okay?”
“Oh FINE, Horace, just FINE. You know what this bastard of a brother-in-law just asked? He wanted to know if the life insurance people had called yet!” Miss Chocolate rasped out in a low, vicious tone. She pulled away from Sugar Daddy’s outstretched hand and gritted her teeth.
Sugar Daddy rose to his feet, his expression bleak. “Chloris, I didn’t mean it that way . . . aw hell—“
Miss Chocolate shot him a glare full of venom; a glance so intense that he actually stepped back. Jelly Bean wavered, then finally moved towards Miss Chocolate.
“Guys, don’t fight, okay? This is a terrible enough day without . . . this,” he pleaded thickly. Miss Chocolate blinked, and glanced over at the coffin.
“Damn right it is. First Delores kills herself and now this . . . this . . . bloodsucker wants to know if he’s getting any MONEY over it! I hope you rot in HELL, Boris!” With that, Miss Chocolate swept out of the viewing room, leaving behind a cold chill and silence. Weakly Sugar Daddy dropped to the sofa again, lowering his face into his hands.
Jelly Bean passed by him and walked out the door without a word.
Grissom stared across the table at Miss Lollipop, feeling tightness in his gut. He fought to keep his expression neutral; a battle he wasn’t sure he was winning. “I’m sorry; what?”
good of the Shop, it’s time you went back to solo missions,
Mr. Peppermint. I’m
grateful that you were able to mentor Miss Chocolate after her
“Yes, I’m aware of that. I helped establish that policy,” Grissom pointed out, trying not to let any irritation show in his voice. Miss Lollipop nodded slightly, and stirred her tea, not looking at him now. Around them, the dull gray of early morning hung low in the air, with the smell of rain close.
“You did,” she acknowledged, “And that makes it all the more imperative that you model it for our newer recruits. We’re not a big organization, and our risks are high enough as it is. Therefore I think it would be wise to shuffle our ranks a bit at this time.”
time by sipping his
“You’re needed in D.C. again to follow up on the unpleasantness with the Senator. I promised his daughter that someone highly skilled would look into the death of her husband, and that means you. Nobody is as good at slipping in and out of situations as you are, and you’ve got a head start on the mission already.”
“I’m due for time off,” he pointed out mildly. “Three missions in a row were YOUR established limit.”
Miss Lollipop’s small smile deepened, but her eyes were sharp. “Very true, but you ARE the lead on this, and I have an ulterior motive.”
Alert, Grissom stared at her. A soft click of toenails, and at that moment Grenadine trotted in, his silky fur ruffling over his small, muscled form. He paused, then shifted direction, coming to sit next to Grissom’s shoe. Miss Lollipop sighed as Grissom leaned down to pet the dog.
Grenadine’s plume tail waved enthusiastically.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks—“ Miss Lollipop quoted, then smiled. “Or perhaps you can . . . providing the dog is willing to learn.”
Grissom shot a dry look at Miss Lollipop. Blandly, she set her cup down as he straightened up and prompted her, “Ulterior motive?”
“Oh yes. You’re going to work with Mrs. Willows herself. She’ll be crucial in getting you access to some of the places and people you’ll need to deal with.”
“She’s an amateur,” Grissom pointed out sharply. “And she’s personally involved.”
“She’s a client; she has a mentally unbalanced father who’s an accessory to at least one murder, Gil.” After a delicate pause Miss Lollipop added, “She has a child.”
Grissom fell silent, and Miss Lollipop took the moment to pick up the teapot and glance at him. He shook his head. Grenadine stretched out, his warmth seeping through the side of Grissom’s shoe.
After a long resigned moment, he sighed. “All right. When?”
“Your flight leaves in two hours,” Miss Lollipop informed him, handing over a paper pocket with a boarding pass and luggage labels in it. “You’ll rendezvous this evening with Mrs. Willows on the Potomac Princess—table reservations for the Tea Room are at five.”
Grissom stared at Miss Lollipop’s outstretched hand, his jaw working for a moment. When he finally could speak, his voice was tight. “Nothing left to chance, I see.”
“Chance favors the prepared,” she shot back.
“I thought that was luck.”
you’ll need every advantage in any case. And once this whole
behind, you can vacation to your heart’s content. Another
He kept his expression neutral.
Carefully, politely, neutral.
“A cup more before you go?” Miss Lollipop purred, holding out the china teapot.
Sara checked her watch again, feeling the small creep of doubt deep in her stomach. Mr. Peppermint was never late . . . at least not to this degree. She forced herself to keep still and not fidget as she sat on the upholstered bench of the lobby, suitcase at her feet.
“Miss Frango?” came a soft voice. Startled, Sara looked up into the bright eyes of the UPS delivery woman, who held out a package to her.
“Package for you—sign here?” the delivery woman handed over an electronic clipboard and light pen. Numbly Sara took it, remembering in time to scrawl out ‘S. Frango’ instead of her real name. She took the proffered package, which was more of a padded envelope, and set it down on the seat beside her. The delivery woman strode off and out the lobby doors, and Sara waited until she’d left to pick up the package once again.
The neat printing was familiar, and the return address was the Book Hive. Curious, and worried, Sara rose up and made her way to the front desk.
“Yes, I’d like a room for tonight please—“ she murmured to the clerk.
Fifteen minutes later, Sara let herself into 1818 of the Sphere. She flicked on the light and tossed her coat on the chair up at the table. Carefully she sat cross-legged on the bed and looked at the padded envelope, studying the outside intently. Mailed in Vegas, top dollar for same day delivery . . .
Unnerved now, she carefully opened it, using the blade of the tiny Swiss Army knife on her keychain to slice the top of the package.
Sara glanced into it, and her confusion deepened. Carefully she tipped the contents out onto the bedspread and smoothed them out, looking at the collection of items.
Three pieces glued together—a chocolate kiss on one side of a sucker, with a round disk mint on the other side. Sara picked it up and looked at it carefully, then let comprehension sink in. Easy enough to interpret. That explained why he wasn’t here.
Sara sighed. She’d known that Candy Shop policy discouraged any regular or personal contact between agents outside of shop missions. It made sense to a certain degree: Agents needed their own lives, and over familiarity could easily lead to emotionality that in turn could lead to mistakes and poor judgment.
But they’d been careful. They’d been patient and careful, and damn it, it just didn’t seem fair that now that the two of them were about to . . . scratch some serious itches, that THIS--
Sara looked at the rest of the items on the bedspread. A tiny plastic yacht with a googly eye glued to it; a miniature book with a googly eye on it; assorted candies with black Xs on them and a glossy picture postcard of the Lincoln Memorial with a crossed out phone number and an Internet address on the message side of it. Sara laid all of the items out in a line on the bedspread and concentrated.
Miss Lollipop is keeping us apart/Your place and my place are being watched/Don’t trust Gum Drop, Jelly Bean, Jaw Breaker or Licorice/I’m in DC/Don’t call; go online.
A sense of relief flooded Sara; a giddy sense of delight along with alarm at the decoded warnings. She blinked a little, feeling a prickle of tears. On impulse, she looked into the padded envelope again, and one more item slid out, dropping into her lap.
Sara picked it up and her smile twisted as her glance lingered over the Kiss of Mint condom with the big red heart and exclamation point emphatically drawn on the wrapper.
No interpretation needed for that—she laughed aloud, staring at it for a long, loving moment.
Carefully she swept all the items back into the padded envelope; all of them except the postcard. A quick phone call to room service, and within half an hour she had a laptop hooked up, and a veggie platter waiting.
Sara typed in the address:
She read the note swiftly and smiled, relieved for the moment; touched and frustrated in equal measure by Mr. Peppermint’s cleverness. Clearly he’d had time to read all those spy novels in his shop, and incorporate some of their devices—a fact Sara definitely appreciated now.
hard. If the Candy Shop was keeping the two of them under watch, then
be wise to limit her time on anything that could be tapped or traced;
it would be smart to make sure any use would be considered innocuous.
she began moving from site to site, choosing places that reflected her
interests: a boat repair forum; a handbag sale at her favorite store in
Her cell phone rang; cautiously Sara flipped it open after recognizing the number. Immediately the happy sound of Jelly Bean’s voice filled her ear. “Hey Sara, I just got back and I’m standing on your dock, but you’re not home—what’s up?”
“Hey Greg—The Bohemian’s heater’s on the fritz, so I booked myself a room in town for tonight. The repair guys are supposed to come between eight and four tomorrow, but I didn’t want to freeze waiting for them.”
Jelly Bean agreed. “Yeah, I heard it can get cold on the
water, especially at
night. You coming in tomorrow? Because I have a whole BAG of goodies to
from my fun times around the
As he spoke, Greg stripped the wires in his hands and twisted the ends, capping them together carefully. He kept the cell phone clamped between his ear and shoulder, but only half of his conversation was there; the rest was scanning the dark docks of Grace Marina. No one seemed to be around, and only the light came from the pier gate mounting and a lamp on at the Dock master’s house further up on the hill.
The voice in his ear spoke again, laughing. “You brought me corn?”
“I signed up for the corn of the month club,” Greg told her solemnly as he wrapped electrician’s tape around the splice he’d made in the camera feed. “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Hey, don’t come running to me when you’re a few ears short on your next barbeque--And speaking of barbeques, I tried grilling two certain compadres about that last project the three of you did, but they clammed up tight. What do you HAVE on them?”
Miss Chocolate’s husky laugh echoed in his ear, and the sound of it sent a hot pang of desire and guilt through Greg. “Not so much what I have on them, as off them?”
“Oh HO, this is a story I have to hear. Coming in tomorrow?”
“Yep, bright and early—see you there?”
“With bright eyes and bushy tail,” Jelly Bean promised, and hung up after exchanging goodbyes. He folded the phone and tucked it in his jacket pocket, then looked again at the splice in the wire, priding himself on a professional job.
Jelly Bean reached up and tilted the camera, adjusting the angle. He reached in the other pocket of his jacket and pulled out a tiny remote. With a click of the power button, the tiny light under the lens flared, and the camera began to make a slow sweep, moving on its axis. For a moment the young agent watched it, then looked guiltily around the yacht at anchor.
He sighed, and climbed back onto the wharf, pulling his baseball cap down more tightly, and let the light reflect off the Pizza and Pipes delivery jacket he wore. Once Jelly Bean was out past the range of the camera, he pulled out his cell phone and hit a speed dial number.
“It’s up, good job. I SAW you a moment ago, dude,” came Bubble Gum’s chatty tone. “Anyone spot you?”
Jelly Bean felt a knot of self-loathing in the pit of his stomach. “No. She wasn’t there, and I don’t think anyone else was at home up on the hill, either.”
“That’s good. We’ll catch them later anyway—daylight’s better for this sort of thing. Done for the night?”
Jelly Bean sighed heavily. “Yeah. I’m finished here.”