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Young Emerson Cod was seven years, one hour, and five minutes old when he learned never to turn his back on the prize.

It was his birthday, and like most boys, he was having a party. Unlike most boys, no playmates his own age attended, because Calista Cod had not invited any. She had invited only current and former clients and a few other P.I.s with which to network.

She was using this party as a tax write-off.

One might assume young Emerson Cod would be upset by this, but he was not—for it was his idea. In return, he would get a small portion of his mother’s tax return when the time came—enough for the cherry red Schwinn bicycle he had been eying for several months now.

Apart from any of that, Emerson Cod did not like to share. Particularly not the beautiful, large red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting made by Calista Cod herself. Calista Cod baked only once a year, on her beloved son’s birthday, and her red velvet cake was so indisputably delicious you could almost hear the angels above sigh when the first slice was cut.

This year, surrounded by adults with no sweet tooth, Emerson Cod would not have to share any of that delightful cake at all.

He adjusted the cuffs on his melon-green silk shirt, eyeing the rainbow of candy sprinkles atop the cake as they beckoned him ever closer.

The only other child at the entire gathering was a three-year-old girl, an adorable blonde child with bouncy curls who was currently being ignored by her parents. She stood on a small chair, looked at Emerson’s cake, and clapped her pudgy little hands with all appearance of innocent delight.

Emerson gave her his hardest, most intimidating glare, but the young girl merely smiled a winning smile, melting even Emerson’s avaricious young heart just a little bit.

“Emerson? Come over here! Come help spin Mrs. Finch around so she can try pinning the tail on the donkey!”

Emerson knew his mother had set the game up in an attempt to get Mrs. Finch, suspected adulteress, blindfolded long enough so that Emerson could go through the woman’s purse for possible evidence. Emerson smiled. His mother was both a saint and a cunning private investigator whom he admired deeply. “Coming, mother,” he replied in the respectful tone he reserved only for her.

He was gone moments. He found, in Mrs. Finch’s purse, the very evidence they had needed; a steamy note from her lover. Her husband would pay good money for such a thing, and perhaps Emerson would get his Schwinn even earlier than anticipated. He tucked the scented note into the breast of his well-tailored, pinstriped suit. “Heh, heh, heh,” he chuckled. It was turning out to be a very good seventh birthday indeed.

Then his head swiveled to assess his prize—the cake, which had yet to be cut and served, the candles not yet blown out. From across the room, he saw the young toddler raise her fists.

Oh, hell no!” young Emerson cried, the first time he'd cursed in front of his mother, which would surely earn a punishment. But it didn’t matter; Emerson would accept any punishment if someone could only reach the little blonde in time.

They did not.

The toddler, thoroughly unattended and wanting to get into some mischief, as well as play with the delightful confection before her all lovingly decorated by vibrant candles and colorful sprinkles, brought her hands swiftly down, destroying the heavenly cake. She pounded, she squeezed, she played pat-a-cake to her little heart’s content until the sugary perfection was reduced to a sad pile of cake-rubble, its few remaining candles drooping listlessly from various angles.

The girl’s mother finally noticed. “Olive!” she shrieked. She rushed over to scoop up the girl, and apologized profusely to Calista and Emerson.

Emerson Cod did not, could not respond. The damage was done, and there were simply no words to be found.

Because he could not speak, his mother decided he was in shock, and had him go for a lie down. Even as he went, with heavy heart and empty stomach, he glanced over his shoulder to see young Olive being carried out by her own mother, her smile beaming angelically, her blue eyes twinkling merrily, her whole countenance the picture of a clear conscience.

And that’s when Emerson realized something that would serve him well all his days as a private investigator.

There was no such thing as innocence.

 

oOoOoOo

 

At this moment, the pie maker put the finishing touch on his masterpiece, then set it atop the counter.

“Don’t touch that,” the pie maker said hastily, just before Olive Snook cut the first slice.

“Why not? We can’t serve it like this.”

“That’s Emerson’s pie. That’s Emerson’s birthday pie. You know how picky he is about his birthday pie.” Ned lifted it very carefully and put it on the counter behind Olive, where it would not be mistaken again for just another pie for sale.

“I don’t know why you make such a big deal out of it every year,” Olive replied. Her tone turned slightly petulant. “You never make me a birthday pie.”

“I offered you pie for your birthday five years ago. You said you didn’t want pie. You said you wanted . . . something else. I told you I appreciated the sentiment but I’d rather stick to pie. And we’ve studiously and awkwardly ignored the subject since then.”

“That was five years ago, Ned. I’m over it! I’m over you. Bake me a pie!”

Ned smiled. “I will, then. On your birthday.”

Olive smiled as well, then turned her attention back to Emerson’s pie. “What flavor is it this year?”

Ned bent, resting his chin on the counter, staring at his creation, observing the perfectly-pinched edges, all golden-brown, the berries piled high, taking in the wafting scent of fruit. “It’s honey-cream huckleberry,” he said softly. “With fresh mint.”

He sighed. All the ingredients were fresh—even the honey taken from Chuck’s bees. The huckleberries were plump and flavorful. The cream added a touch of richness and roundness. The mint added an unexpected fresh zippiness. Would it finally be the year?

Emerson Cod hastened into the Pie Hole, sought Ned out, and nodded to a booth.

The pie maker smiled. “I have your pie.”

“Good. Great. Damn, why don’t you say that every time I walk in?” Emerson seemed a little distracted. “Come over here; I got a business proposition to discuss while we eating.”

“We?”

Emerson wrapped a protective arm around his pie. “We talking. I’m eating.”

“Ah.” They both slid into the booth and Ned watched avidly, waiting for Emerson to take that first bite. “What’s up?”

“We have a c—”

“You have a case?” Olive Snook asked, joining them.

Ned wasn’t totally sure, but he thought Emerson looked a little stricken.

“We have a conundrum is what I was about to say. Not a case! A conundrum. Now make like a bee and buzz off.” Emerson gave Olive a look that was even grouchier than usual, and Olive buzzed off.

“What’s wrong?” Ned asked, wishing Emerson would just take a bite of the pie already.

“Did you touch me?”

Ned blinked. “Like, you mean recently?”

“No, I mean did you touch me?” Emerson wiggled his finger menacingly at Ned.

“Oh! No. No. Why would you think I had?” Ned tilted his head. They hadn’t done anything remotely dangerous for almost a month, so why would Emerson think he’d died? He watched as Emerson stuck his fork in the pie, then brought it up to his lips. Then he set it back on his plate.

Emerson grabbed a napkin and dabbed at his face with it. For the first time, Ned noticed the man was sweating. “Do I look dead to you?” Emerson queried.

“No. As far as I know, dead people can’t sweat.”

“Very funny. Look, do you believe . . .” Emerson paused and looked around the Pie Hole. The customers were not paying attention, and Olive and Chuck were staring at them, but they were behind the counter, where they wouldn’t be able to overhear. Emerson lowered his voice anyway. “Do you believe in ghosts?” he mouthed.

Ned labored to read Emerson’s lips. “What about goats?” he asked.

“GHOSTS!” Emerson shouted, thumping a fist on the table and startling the pie maker. He let out a long, shaky breath. “I mean, obviously you’re down with zombies, because zombies are,” he jabbed a thumb in Chuck’s direction, “clearly real, but—”

“You know I don’t like it when you call Chuck a zombie,” Ned said stiffly. “Look, are you going to eat your pie or not?” The suspense was killing him.

Emerson glared at him. “When I’m good and ready. And even if you don’t call them zombies and despite the fact that they don’t eat brains, or have brains, for that matter,” Emerson added darkly, thinking of how Chuck had decided to play God and wake her father, “Nevertheless. They real. So it’s not too big a stretch to say ghosts might be real too.”

Ned leaned in. “Emerson, have you seen a ghost?”

Emerson looked at him for a long moment. “I don’t know what I saw.” Finally, he took a bite of his birthday pie. His eyes fell shut, and for just a moment all thoughts of zombies and ghosts and unfortunate complications fled his mind as he indulged in the tart zing of the berry, the sweet tang of the honey, the buttery sweetness of the cream, all finished with the cool pep of the mint. “Mmmm,” he said.

“You like it?” Ned said. He held his breath.

“It’s good, but it ain’t my mama’s red velvet cake,” Emerson answered.

Ned slumped. No matter what he did, he could not compete with the heavenly cake, and the memory of the year it went uneaten.

“Come on,” Emerson said. He scooted out of the booth, taking his pie with him, determined to have his pie and eat it, too. “I got someone I want you to meet.”

 

oOoOoOo

 

A short time later Ned, Emerson and Chuck faced the coroner, who looked at them evenly, without expression.

“Hi,” Ned said. He swallowed. “We’re the experts on . . . whatever it is the dead guy . . . died from.”

The coroner arched a brow. “Strangulation? You the strangulation experts now?”

Ned’s desperate smile froze. “That’s right. We’re the, uh . . . strangulation . . . experts.”

“Mmm-hmm.” The coroner held out his hand.

“What’s that?” Ned said. Emerson was already rooting around in his pocket for cash.

“Well,” the coroner replied, “seems to me most experts are paid on an hourly basis. Must be good money in being an expert on so many things. So I’m sure you won’t mind making a donation to my humble little fund.”

“What fund?” Chuck asked.

“The I-don’t-call-the-police-and-tell-them-those-weirdoes-who-mess-around-with-corpses-are-here-messing-about-with-this-corpse fund,” the coroner told her dryly.

“Sounds like a good cause,” Emerson replied with just as much sarcasm. He peeled a few bills from his wad of cash and stuck them in the coroner’s hand.

“Mmm-hmm,” the man replied, satisfied.

 

oOoOoOo

 

“You do it.”

Ned gave Emerson a funny look, but obeyed, drawing back the sheet and uncovering the body. Ned gasped.

Chuck clutched her water bottle tighter. “Wow, Emerson, that is so weird. He looks just like you.

“I know that! You think I don’t know that?” Emerson passed a hand over his head. “Now, how we gonna do this?”

Ned looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“Ned touches him and brings him back to life, he tells us who killed him, Ned touches him again, he goes back to being dead, then we collect the reward,” Chuck said. “Remember?”

“Well—well—what if he don’t know anything? Could be a waste of time,” Emerson pointed out. He was obviously getting cold feet.

“He might have seen the killer.” Ned looked at Emerson expectantly.

“Okay, okay. It’s just . . . he looks just like me.”

Chuck shook her head in amazement. “I know, isn’t it uncanny? Maybe you two were twin brothers. Separated at birth or something?”

“Nope.”

“How do you know that for sure?”

“Because my mother took one of them videos. You know, of the birth? She must have known I’d grow up to be just as nosy and skeptical as her,” Emerson said fondly. Then his face changed as he remembered the content of the video. “It wasn’t pretty. I was a big baby. Trust me, I only watched it once, and once was enough to know I ain’t got no twin brother.”

Chuck shrugged.

Ned just looked at Emerson. “What are you looking at me like that for?”

“I’m just being patient. I realize you’re awash in a sea of emotions right now, grappling with a sort of existential crisis. I’m just being a good friend.” The pie maker gave Emerson a sympathetic smile.

Emerson rolled his eyes. “Existential my ass,” he muttered. “Go ahead and poke that dead guy and let’s get this over with.”

Ned held up the stopwatch. At the appropriate time, he respectfully tapped the corpse’s hand, and the dead man sat up. “Hi,” Ned said.

“Hey,” the man mouthed.  He doffed an invisible hat and winked at Chuck.

“Hey,” she said, and gave a giggle. And then she twirled her hair around her finger. Ned watched this unbecoming display, appalled.

“What are you doing?” he hissed.

“Well—I’m—being polite.” Chuck smiled at the man. “You know for a person who is . . . formerly alive, you’re surprisingly attractive.”

The Emerson Who Was Not flipped Chuck’s hand over and delicately pressed his lips to her knuckles. “Nice to meet you,” he mouthed smoothly.

“This is Huge Hugh McGrew, owner of the most successful business in all of Papen County,” Emerson said. “He leaves behind one widow and a whole heaping lot of cash.” Emerson gave Ned a significant look.

Ned, however, frowned. He didn’t like the way the corpse was schmoozing Chuck, corpse though he was. “Why don’t you tell us who killed you?” he interrupted.

The dead man who looked like Emerson looked surprised. He pointed at his neck.

“Yes, you’ve been strangled with . . . some kind of clear wire or something,” Ned noted. “Well, do you know who killed you?”

The man regretfully shook his head.

“Can you tell us anything about what happened?” Chuck inquired.

The man thought a moment. Then he held up a hand. Four fingers.

“Four fingers . . .” said Chuck. “Oh! Four words!”

The man nodded, then pointed an index finger upward.

“First word,” Chuck put in.

The man pointed to his eye.

“I!” Ned shouted.

The man nodded again. He pointed to his eye again, then unfolded his hands like he was opening a book.

“Oh, you were reading,” Ned said.

The man grinned and nodded again.

“This is fun!” Chuck said.

“Oh, for pete’s sake,” Emerson grumbled. “Waste of goddamn time.” He reached into the breast pocket of his suit and pulled out a pen and paper. “Here you go. Hurry up; chop chop. We ain’t got all day.”

The man scribbled as fast as he could. Chuck leaned over his shoulder. “He didn’t see who did it,” she said. “He was working late with . . . his assistant . . . Daisy.”

“Were you working late or were you ‘working late?’” Ned interrupted.

Emerson’s look-alike looked offended. I am a happily married man, sir, despite Daisy's attempts at seduction, McGrew wrote haughtily.

“He’s got his heart on his sleeve,” Emerson put in.

Exactly, the dead man agreed in a quick scribble.

“No. You’ve got some heart. On your sleeve?” Emerson nodded to the man’s wrist. Ned wrinkled his nose.

Chuck looked closely. “There’s a hole in his shirt. Three of them! And some shards of glass. It looks like he was shot.”

“He was strangled and shot?” Ned said.

“Boy, somebody really wanted you dead,” Emerson remarked.

The man looked at Emerson. Who the hell are you? he wrote. We could be twins!

“I’m just—I ain’t nobody.”

The man looked skeptical. Apparently he, too, was surprised to find someone who looked so like himself.

“He’s your guardian angel,” Ned put in smoothly. “They, uh, always look like that.” They were almost out of time. “Can you remember anything else about the night you were killed?” He looked at the stopwatch frantically.

“And what’s that glass you got stickin’ out all over your chest?”

The man hastily scribbled. I went to check the books and I found this vial—it’s our latest product. Our new product—one sniff and love will be yours forever. Could I interest you in a bottle? It’s a steal at only $50 a—

“Mr. McGrew, you are dead,” Emerson pointed out. “Any idea who killed you?”

I didn’t see who did it. I was bent over the books when I felt something slip round my neck and pull tight. But I suspect it was— but Huge Hugh’s minute was up, and they did not have time to hear what he suspected.

Ned quickly tapped the man on the nose and watched him fall back. “You’ve been a great help,” he said to the body.

“Yeah, that was a big help,” Emerson said with disgust. “We don’t know who killed him or why or anything useful.”

“That’s not true.” Chuck smiled at him. “We do know that he was working late with his assistant Daisy who made a romantic pass in the past and we know he wasn’t interested.”

Ned and Emerson nodded.

“It’s a start, anyway,” Ned said. Surreptitiously, he plucked a shard of glass from the dead man’s chest and slipped it in his pocket. “Let’s go talk to this Daisy and see what she knows.”

oOoOoOo

 

The carpeting was a deep red, and even the computers were shades of pink. The walls were lined with shelves covered with little glass bottles full of pink liquid. “It’s like living in a Pepto Bismol bottle,” Ned remarked.

“I could use a Pepto Bismol bottle,” Emerson grumbled.

“Hi, there! I’m Daisy Darling, salesperson of the month! Welcome to the Love-a-Dove-Dove store; selling homeopathic aphrodisiacs to put the motion back in your ocean.” When she saw Emerson, she went completely white. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “Are you really alive?”

“Yes.” Emerson staggered back as Daisy threw himself on him. “But I ain’t your boss!” he choked out. He managed to disentangle himself and push Daisy away.

“You’re not!? But—but, you look just like him!” a distressed Daisy cried, wringing her hands. “You’re just—you’re the spitting image!”

Ned, Chuck and Emerson stared at Daisy.

“I ain’t the only one who looks like someone they ain’t,” Emerson grumbled.

“It really is uncanny,” Chuck whispered.

“I know,” Ned whispered back.

“She looks just like Olive!” Chuck whispered.

“I know!” Ned said out of the side of his mouth. “What are the odds we’d have two dopplegangers in one case?”

Daisy Darling, Olive Snook look-alike, looked from Ned to Chuck. “You two do know I can hear you despite the fact that you’re whispering, right?” she whispered.

Ned cleared his throat.

Emerson stepped in. “Miss Darling, my name is Emerson Cod. I’m a private detective looking into the death of Hugh McGrew. Would you answer a few questions? Such as how long have you known him, what was your relationship, and did you kill him? You don’t have to answer in that order.”

Daisy Darling burst into tears.

The facts were these; Huge Hugh McGrew and Daisy Darling had been students at the M.I.T., where Daisy had developed a debilitating desire to make the large Cajun chemical engineer her own. Unfortunately, Huge Hugh’s lab partner was the buxom and beautiful Rustie LaRue, and after only knowing her for a short time, Hugh gave his heart to Rustie. Upon graduating, Huge Hugh and his equally plus-sized wife founded Love-a-Dove-Dove, L.L.C., which manufactured love potions said to be so strong that once dosed, love would never stray.

“Is it true that you made a pass at your boss?” Emerson asked.

“No! Well . . . no.” Daisy sniffed. “I didn’t make any secret of my feelings for him, if that’s what you mean. I loved that man for more than fifteen years.”

“Uh-huh. Fifteen years is a long time to wait,” Emerson pointed out. “Maybe you got tired of waiting.”

“What?”

“I said, maybe you got tired of waiting. Maybe you got a little forward and he rejected you. Then you realized he wasn’t gonna leave his wife, and you got mad. You realized how much time you wasted on this guy and you settled the score. That how it was?” Emerson arched a brow.

Daisy looked horrified. “No, that’s not how it was at all!”

“Then tell us what happened,” Chuck suggested.

“I don’t know!” Daisy wailed. “We have a new product coming out in just a few weeks and we were all working overtime to get ready. Hugh and I were working late and he was acting out of sorts.”

“What sort of out of sorts?” Ned questioned.

“Just . . . funny-like. Like he was worried about something.” Daisy sighed. “I thought maybe he and Rustie were having problems, so I offered him a shoulder to cry on.”

“Um-hmm,” Emerson replied knowingly. “You offer him more than a shoulder?”

Daisy looked abashed. “Maybe.”

“He reject that offer for more than a shoulder?”

“Well, yes. But I didn’t kill him over it! I loved Huge Hugh! I’d never do anything to hurt him!” Daisy looked from Emerson to Ned to Chuck, her eyes big and pleading. “He just told me he loved Rustie, and then asked me to wait there while he went to check on something. The next thing I knew, he was dead!”

“Did you hear the shots?”

“Well, I heard something, but I thought it was one of the machines down in the basement. We do all our own bottling on the premises,” Daisy explained. “Sometimes the machines make a lot of noise.”

“And then?”

“Well, when he’d been gone awhile, I got sort of creeped out, you know? Sitting in that big office of his without him, listening to the clock tick? So eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. After Hugh left me alone for a good half hour I went looking for him—and I found him!” she added, beginning to cry. “Oh, that poor, masculine body, all the life snuffed right out, laying over that desk and dripping blood all over the company’s taxes . . . It was awful.” She blew her nose hard. “It was just unreal!”

“Uh-huh. Any idea who did it?” Emerson asked.

Daisy shook her head, her eyes round and innocent. “We all loved Huge Hugh.”

“His wife still love him?”

“Well . . . as far as I know…”

“Why the hesitation?” Ned jumped into the conversation, eager to contribute.

“She just wasn’t around much. She had other interests. It just wasn’t fair, you know?” Daisy’s shoulders slumped sadly. “He worshiped the ground she walked on. He deserved someone who loved him just as much. She didn’t appreciate him. I was in love with him!”

Emerson snorted. “Love ain’t nothing but hormones.”

Daisy sighed. “But why should my heart hurt from hostile hormones when his didn’t?”

The investigators looked at each other.

“Well, thank you for your time,” Chuck said.

“We’ll get back to you if we have more questions or if we figure out you done it and we need to incarcerate you,” Emerson added.

Daisy only looked at him dreamily, seeing a ghost. “You can come around anytime,” she said.

Emerson grabbed Ned’s elbow. “So what you make of that, pie boy? Rustie couldn’t have done it—she paid me to find the murderer. She ain’t about to give me money to put her in jail.”

Chuck gasped. The men looked at her with raised eyebrows. “She might not have given you money to put her in jail—but she might have taken a chance on offering you money if you took the wrong trail and zeroed in on a another suspect, right?”

Ned nodded slowly, but Emerson didn’t agree right away.

Finally he sighed, dropping his head. “Okay, maybe she tried to pull a fast one. But if she did, she’s gonna be sorry.”

Chuck ran to ask a salesperson where to find Rustie McGrew.

Emerson adjusted his vest a little. “Better not be her, or we ain’t getting paid,” he grumbled.

“Nope. Just played,” Ned said grimly.

Emerson huffed. “You kill any person you damn please,” he said. “But don’t you think about trying to pull the wool over my eyes.” The salesperson gestured, and Emerson was off, not like a bloodhound on the scent or an arrow from the quiver, but with a sort of building inertia, like a large steam train put into motion—and heaven forbid something should get in his path.

oOoOoOo

The large brass sign on the door read Rustie LaRue-McGrew, Vice President.

“Very liberated of her,” Ned noted.

“I like it,” Chuck said approvingly. “Say, Ned, do you think if we ever get married, you’ll take my name?”

Ned smiled dreamily. “If we ever get married I’ll call myself whatever you want. I’ll call myself chopped liver so long as I can call myself yours.”

Emerson rolled his eyes. “Love potion,” he grumbled. “I’d rather have the Pepto Bismol.” He knocked on the door.

“Come in,” a whiskey voice commanded. They opened the door to find themselves in a rather surprising office environment.

There was a large, deadly-looking marlin mounted above the desk. There were trout on the mantel. There were sailfish and snapper, swordfish and salmon. And behind the desk sat Rustie, magnificent in a light pink fishing vest and holding a diamond-encrusted rod. “Can I help you?”

“Wow, did you catch all these yourself?” Chuck asked.

“Yep. Had to cut my deep-sea trawling trip short to come back and make funeral arrangements,” Rustie said sadly. Despite her attire, she was an undeniably attractive woman, with shining red tresses tumbling over her shoulders, a sprinkling of sun-made freckles arranged fetchingly across the bridge of her nose, and magnificent green eyes.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Chuck told her.

Rustie smiled. “Huge Hugh was a once-in-a-lifetime catch,” she said. She winked at Chuck. “And big enough to keep.”

Chuck giggled while Ned and Emerson shifted uncomfortably.

“I like your rainbow trout,” Chuck said. “May I?” She lifted one down from the mantle to admire it. “This is really good work. I know a great taxidermist, but he doesn’t do fish.”

“Fish are tough.”

“What did you use to catch these beautiful trout?”

“Flies. Tie ‘em myself,” Rustie said proudly.

“Tying flies is an art,” Chuck said. “There’s something almost meditative about tying flies, isn’t there?”

The pie maker looked at Chuck in awe. He had never even imagined that one of her pre-Ned hobbies was tying flies.

“You said it. Fishing is all about reaching a state of Zen. It’s almost religious. You can’t help losing all your troubles when you’re tying a fly—it takes a steady hand and a quiet mind if you want it done right. By the time I’ve done five or six of them, my mental waters are calm. Then there’s the fishing itself—standing out in the river at dawn, watching the sun rise up out of the water like a brand new creation of God . . . you can’t help but be humbled. You tie your own flies, missy?”

“Yep, but I’ve never been fishing.”

“What!? Flies are meant to be used!”

“I know. I sold them to raise money for the Coeur d'Coeurs Friends Without Fuzz League. They knitted sweaters for local dogs with alopecia who had lost their fur due to diseases like mange. I couldn’t go fishing myself, though,” Chuck added. “I was busy caring for my aunts who couldn’t leave the house.”

“Bedridden?”

“No, just suffering from debilitating social phobias.”

“Oh. Sorry to hear that.”

“But they’re doing much better now.”

“That’s good. Say, I ought to take you fishing one of these days. It’s a real life-changing experience,” Rustie offered.

“I’d like that very much!” Chuck chirped.

Emerson cleared his throat. “If you two are done babbling about bigmouth bass, I’d say we have bigger fish to fry.” He turned a hard eye on Rustie. “What about you? Where were you the night your husband was murdered?”

“Mr. Cod, I hired you because you remind me of my husband. I wouldn’t have bothered if I’d known you were going to suspect me. But if you must know, I was off the coast of Florida looking to bag me a kingfish. Got my tickets for the plane and the charter boat, the hotel and receipts for lunch and dinner, if you want to see them.”

“That’s quite an alibi.”

Rustie shrugged.

“Who do you think killed your husband?” Chuck asked.

Again, the buxom redhead shrugged. “I can’t imagine. Everybody loved Hugh. Some more than others,” she added dryly.

“Like Daisy?”

“She’s been mooning over him for years, now,” Rustie agreed. “But I never paid her any mind, because Hugh wasn’t the cheatin’ type. I wouldn’t have thought she had it in her, but I guess you never know.”

A knock came on the door. “Mrs. LaRue-McGrew, I do need those signatures.” A short man in tweed stood in the doorframe, his expression irritable behind thick glasses. “I can’t make payroll until you sign off.”

“Damn it Bill, I have guests,” Rustie told him.

The little man drew himself up to his full height and puffed out his chest. “It’s William, madam,” he said, and left.

Rustie rolled her eyes. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without Hugh. He was the one who handled all the figures and created the potions.” She shook her head. “I can’t deal with this today.” She scooped up the paperwork and got up. She grabbed the Marlin’s nose like a handle and part of the wall swung forward, revealing a safe. She quickly dialed the combination and tossed all the paperwork in before closing it. “I’m sure the employees will understand,” she said. “Paychecks will go out after the funeral.”

“Did Hugh buy you all your fishing gear?” Ned asked.

“Yup.” She held up a lure made of pure silver. “I told him it was a waste; he said he wanted nothing but the best for his baby.” She looked like she might cry. “If you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to go tie myself a whole mess of flies.”

They exited and shut the door behind them.

“She was nice,” Chuck said, already ahead of the others.

Emerson held back and put a hand on Ned’s shoulder. “What did it look like Huge Hugh was strangled with to you?”

Ned’s lips were thin. “Fishing line.”

“Bingo,” Emerson replied. He looked determined. “Something’s fishy at the Love-a-Dove-Dove shop, that’s for sure.”

 

oOoOoOo

 

“Why would Rustie kill Hugh? That would be like killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” Chuck pointed out. They were back at the Pie Hole, comparing notes. “Look at all the things he bought her!”

Emerson sipped his coffee. “Love is stupid. People in love are even more stupid,” he added with a sardonic glance at Ned. “No telling what she’d do if Huge Hugh cheated on her and she found out about it. She don’t strike me as the type who’d take that lying down.”

“Yeah, but she had all those receipts,” Ned pointed out.

“Yeah, and wasn’t that funny how she had ‘em all ready, practically wrapped in a bow?” Emerson gave his partners a significant look. “Almost like she did ‘em up beforehand. Receipts can be faked, you know, and tickets can be used by other people. But I still say the blonde did him in.”

“I just don’t think she’d do something like that,” Chuck told him. “She seemed so sweet.”

“Hmph.” Emerson was unimpressed. “You just think she’s innocent because she’s a Snook-alike, and you don’t want to think about Olive offing pie maker ‘cause he won’t let her stick a finger in his pie.”

Ned’s jaw dropped.

“I do not think she’s innocent just because she’s a Snook-alike,” Chuck insisted. “I mean, Huge Hugh was basically garroted. You saw how tiny Daisy was. How could she possibly have the strength to do something like that?”

“Rustie, on the other hand, is a big girl,” Ned noted. “And she does have plenty of fishing line on hand.”

“I don’t think it was her, either,” Chuck said with a sigh.

“Anything else I can get you guys? More coffee? A slice of rhubarb? A willing ear eager to have the scoop?” Olive looked at them hopefully.

“Yeah, there is something,” Emerson said.

“Really?”

“Another slice of rhubarb.”

Olive deflated. “Be that way.” She turned to Ned. “By the way, I was wanting to ask; could I possibly have the day off tomorrow? Randy Mann wants to take me on a picnic.”

“Ooooh, a picnic! That sounds so romantic!” Chuck exclaimed. “You two seem to be getting serious. You’re seeing him a lot. You really like him, don’t you, Olive?”

“Yes. Sort of. Maybe.” Olive smiled. “I’m having him over for dinner tomorrow night.”

“Sure, Olive, you can have the day off. I can mind the Pie Hole by myself for one day,” Ned said.

“Thanks!” Olive told him brightly. “One slice of rhubarb, coming up.” She went to get Emerson’s pie.

“Well, we’re nowhere closer to getting this murder solved than we were before we knew it happened,” he complained.

“While Ned’s here tomorrow, why don’t we go back to the potions shop?” Chuck suggested. “I’ll chat with Daisy and keep her distracted and you can do some snooping around.”

Emerson sighed. “All right. It ain’t a great plan, but it’s the only one we’ve got.”

 

oOoOoOo

 

That night when Chuck slid into bed and felt the pie maker’s arm around her, she sighed. She wished his arm did not have to be encased in plastic in order to touch her. She rolled to face Ned, who smiled at her.

“You know, supposedly everybody has a double,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“I mean, just think of it—there are doubles of us out there somewhere. What if you found a Chuck double and I found a Ned double? Do you think we’d be happy? Or do you think they’d just look like us, and not act like us?”

Ned touched her cheek, the plastic cool against her face. “I think I’d always be able to tell the difference between imitation Chuck and the real thing.”

Chuck laughed. After a moment, she sobered. “What do you think would happen if Olive found her own Ned doppelganger? It would solve a lot of problems,” she pointed out. “I could have you and you could have me and Olive could have a different version of you who looked like you and—”

“I think I’d be uncomfortable with a second Ned around,” Ned told her.

Chuck grinned. “Are you sure? You never know. Maybe two Neds are better than one.”

The pie maker shuddered. He did not like the thought of a second Ned, one who was perhaps more outgoing, more charming—one able to take Chuck in his arms without repercussion. “No. No, I think one Ned is definitely all the world needs,” he said. “And anyway, Olive doesn’t need a reproduction Ned when she has an original Randy.”

“Maybe,” Chuck said. “But I think she’ll always carry a bit of a torch around for you.”

 

oOoOoOo

 

The next day Chuck and Emerson arrived at the shop late in the morning. “Look, there’s Daisy,” Chuck said, nodding. Daisy was wearing large, dark glasses and a hooded sweatshirt instead of her usual pink and white polka-dot sales smock, but as she looked identical to Olive, she was easy to spot. “I’ll go talk to her. You slip upstairs and poke around.”

Emerson frowned at her.

Chuck nudged him. “What’s wrong?”

“Seein’ as how I’m the P.I. around here, I think I should give the orders and you should follow them.”

“Okay, so give the orders.”

“Right.” Emerson adjusted his mustard yellow tie. “You go distract Daisy and I’ll slip up stairs and poke around,” he said.

Chuck hid a smile. “Good idea.” Emerson made for the offices and Chuck cornered Daisy. “Hey, I need to talk to you,” she said.

Daisy noticeably paled. “I—I—”

“Why don’t you tell me all about these love potions and how they’re made, because I really am curious about them,” Chuck suggested.

“Love potions? Oh, ha ha. Is that what these are? I don’t know anything about love potions, really. I was just, um, in the neighborhood.” The accent was sweet, mellifluous, and decidedly nothing like Daisy’s.

“Olive?” Chuck clapped a mittened hand to her mouth. “Oh my God, Olive! What are you doing here?”

Olive stiffened. “I might ask the same thing! Accosting me about love potions!”

Chuck was suitably chagrined. “I’m really sorry, Olive, it’s just that there’s this case, and—”

“Miss? Your order’s ready.” The attendant approached them with a tentative air and a bag in hand. Olive snatched said bag and scampered to the door. “Thanks,” she grunted.

Chuck gasped and followed as quickly as she could. Her heels were a little too high, throwing off her balance. She didn’t manage to catch up and grab Olive by the elbow until they were halfway down the block.

“What was that? What did you buy?”

Olive sighed and turned to face her. “It’s just—stuff, all right? It’s got nothing to do with you—Miss Noseypants!”

Chuck grabbed her again. “Really? You went to a love potion shop and I happen to know your emotions point due Ned, and I’m supposed to just turn my head and not ask any questions?”

Olive hung her head.

“Oh, my God. You really were—going to do something to Ned, weren’t you? What were you going to do?” Chuck demanded. “Stick it in his pie?”

Olive turned on her with a fury Chuck had never seen her exhibit. “No. I wasn’t going to do anything to Ned. Even if it worked, it’d be more bitter than sweet.”

Charlotte sort of deflated a little in relief. “You weren’t going to—you know—Ned?”

Olive rolled her eyes. “I assure you I’m not putting my fingers in Ned’s pie, and anyway, I’m not the one with a history of spiking pies, am I?”

Chuck blushed.

“Anyway, no, I wasn’t planning on slipping any to Ned. I’m having Randy over for dinner and I thought this might help, you know, spice things up.”

“Olive! Why are you giving Randy Mann a love potion? You know he’s crazy about you already.”

Olive sighed. “I wasn’t giving any to Randy. If you must know, I was thinking I might take some myself. You know, to wipe away any traces of Ned that might be clinging in my fragile heart.”

Chuck looked at her friend helplessly. “Oh, Olive,” she said. She hugged her and pulled away. “Look, I’ve got something very important I’m supposed to be doing that I’m not doing because I’m here talking to you so I should go. But just so you know, I think Randy would prefer to earn your heart the old fashioned way. I don’t think he’d want you dosing yourself with this crazy stuff to force yourself to like him. He’s willing to wait for you, Olive.”

“You think?”

“I know it.”

Olive shrugged. “Well, I’ll think it over, anyway,” she said.

“All right.” Chuck hugged her again.

“Can you tell me about the case?”

“Later,” Chuck promised. “Right now, I’m late and Emerson may be in trouble because of me.”

 

oOoOoOo

 

Emerson Cod was, indeed, in trouble, but it was not the diminutive Daisy Darling who had caught him snooping, but someone else entirely.

Emerson had made his stealthy way upstairs where he observed Huge Hugh’s office, where he found the man’s schedule and confirmed he had been working late the night of his death, and Rustie LaRue-McGrew’s office, where the safe was safely locked, a reel of fishing line tucked into her desk drawer, and the office of one Mr. William Ledger, Esquire, where he had found . . .

“Bullet holes,” Emerson muttered.

“Who the hell are you?” a voice behind him demanded.

Emerson spun, whipping his gun out. “Emerson Cod, private investigator,” he said in a steely voice. “And who the hell are you?”

“William Ledger, Esquire, and this is my office.” He hurried in and inserted himself between Emerson and the desk. “And I’ll kindly thank you to leave right now.”

“I’ll leave when I have all the information I need. This the crime scene?”

Mr. Ledger took out a handkerchief and blew his nose. “Yes, someone shot Mr. McGrew in my office,” he said. “He bled out on my desk. It was disgusting.”

“You know what Mr. McGrew was doing in your office the night he was murdered?”

“I assume he was looking for me. I’m the company’s accountant and general counsel, and I take care of all the inventory.” The little man gestured around impatiently. “I’m practically the only one who does any real work around here. Nothing gets done without my say so.”

“Why would he be looking for you?”

“I can’t imagine, other than wanting the quarterly reports.”

“I see. You like working for a company that makes love potions?”

“I don’t believe in love. I believe in numbers. Numbers don’t lie, and love doesn’t balance the books. Every namby-pamby company like this needs someone practical like me, or they go under. And thanks to my brilliant number crunching, we’ve had record profits the last several months. And our latest potion, which just went on the market today, is going to make us even more. It’s our strongest potion yet. Mr. McGrew was very excited. The money’s already rolling in.”

“Uh-huh,” Emerson said. He sidled around the accountant, looking around the crime scene. On the desk was a large ledger book. The page it was opened to was splattered with blood. “Any idea who’d want to kill your boss?”

“I assume it was that blonde from sales. She’s been after him for years,” the accountant replied bitterly.

“I don’t know about that. Takes some force to strangle a man to death. I don’t think she had the upper body strength,” Emerson commented.

“Then I’m afraid I’m out of ideas,” Mr. Ledger said coldly. He shut the book in front of Emerson. “I’ll just put this away.”

“That’s evidence,” Emerson said, trying to snatch the thing.

Mr. Ledger held the book behind his back. “Do you have a warrant?” he questioned. When Emerson opened and shut his mouth but could make nothing come out, the accountant-cum-lawyer smiled. “Then it’s not. It’s private property and contains our potions’ secret ingredients as well as our billing records, and I’m sure Mr. McGrew wouldn’t like me sharing it.” Mr. Ledger turned and stepped smartly away.

Emerson followed. “Where you think you’re going with that?”

Mr. Ledger went straight to Rustie LaRue-McGrew’s office and swung open her fish-safe. “Putting this where it belongs,” he answered, spinning the dial.

Emerson watched helplessly as the book was stuffed in with the payroll paperwork. He hoped Dead Girl was having better luck.

 

oOoOoOo

 

Meanwhile, Chuck was not having better luck. “Walk me through it again?”

Daisy, wrapping a potion for a customer, sighed. “It was about seven. Huge Hugh had me clear his calendar for the next week. He cancelled the big promotional event for the new potion. Then he said he would be right back. Only he didn’t come back.”

“Right, right. So he went to do something, and someone shot him. And strangled him.”

Daisy shuddered.

“And you were the only ones in the building?”

“We sure were. It was creepy as heck. Then I went and found him, dead, and called the police.”

Chuck sighed. She remembered the glass embedded in Huge Hugh’s chest. “Were you working on the potion at the time?”

“No, only the schedule. We don’t keep product lying around—it could be dangerous. It’s kept in the factory.”

“You know, the idea of homeopathic aphrodisiacs really has me intrigued. What went into them?”

Daisy grinned. “I’m afraid I don’t know. That was Hugh’s area of expertise. He said we all played our part; me in sales, him and Rustie brewing the potions, Bill Ledger keeping the books.”

Chuck sighed. This was getting them nowhere.

“Miss Darling, how many times have I told you that you need to keep a better eye on the sales floor?” Chuck and Daisy turned to find the accountant leading Emerson Cod downstairs. “I found this man in my office! Why did you allow him to nose around?”

“Gosh, I’m sorry, Bill. He must have slipped past me.” Daisy gave Chuck a wounded look. “You know, things like this wouldn’t happen if you would consider getting a security guard like I asked.”

Mr. Ledger pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know that’s an expense we just can’t afford. Now, I want the two of you out of this shop. I don’t care what Rustie says!”

“Well, Mr. Ledger, we’re only trying to find who murdered your—” Chuck said.

The accountant pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose. When he pulled the handkerchief away, Chuck could see it was crimson with blood.

“Now look what you’ve done!” the man shrieked. “This is due—to—stress . . .” William Ledger trailed off. His knees buckled and Emerson grabbed him before he hit the floor.

“Oh, Bill, not again,” Daisy sighed. “I’ll get a cold washcloth to put on the back of your neck.”

William Ledger put his head between his knees. “I’m sorry. I just can’t . . . stand the sight . . . of blood.”

Emerson looked at Chuck and said in an undertone, “Well, that’s a big help. All we’ve got now are some bullet holes in a desk, a ledger I can’t get to, and a bloodless accountant.”

“I didn’t do much better,” Chuck sighed. “Let’s go back to the Pie Hole and regroup.”

 

oOoOoOo

 

“So Daisy says she really doesn’t know anything,” Chuck concluded. “And I believe her.”

“Against my better instincts, so do I,” Emerson replied. “And we still ain’t got nothing to go on.”

“You know what helps me think? Pecan praline pie. With butterscotch ice cream,” Ned offered.

“Yum,” said Chuck.

“Sounds like thinking food to me,” Emerson agreed.

Ned grinned and got up to fetch the pie.

“You know, I’ve gained ten pounds since I died and met Ned. I used to wonder why you weren’t slimmer, considering how much time we spend chasing suspects, but now I know,” Chuck told Emerson.

Emerson scowled. “I ain’t fat, I’m just big boned,” he said haughtily. “Pie boy is good at what he does,” he admitted after a moment.

Chuck watched Ned slice the pie. “You know, I know he worries about me, but I have to admit, after this case I kind of worry about him too. I can’t help thinking how scary it must have been for Daisy, all alone in that building with the dead body of the man she loved.”

Emerson shrugged. Ned brought the pie over and everyone dug in. “I still think Daisy might be our killer,” Ned said. “After all, who else would want to dose Huge Hugh with a love potion?”

Emerson stared at him, fork inches from his mouth. “What did you just say?”

“I said who else would want to slip him a love potion?”

“That’s right,” Emerson murmured. “That was the glass embedded in his chest—one of them bottles.”

“But Daisy said they weren’t working on potions that night,” Chuck protested. “They were just working out Hugh’s schedule.”

Emerson’s eyes narrowed. “And that means either Daisy is lying, or Hugh found that potion elsewhere. Like in the accountant’s office, where he was killed.”

“But what would an accountant be doing with a love potion anyway?” Chuck asked. “Daisy told me only Rustie and Hugh were interested in chemicals. And William Ledger, Equire did not strike me as the romantic type.”

“Which once again means either Daisy is lying . . . or that accountant was juggling more than numbers.” Emerson and Ned locked eyes. “What do you two say to a little after-hours snooping?” he asked.

Chuck grinned. “I’ll get my black balaclava,” she said.

Ned groaned. “If we have to,” he said.

“Good.” Emerson popped the forkful of pie in his mouth. “Mmmm-hmmm,” he said. “Tastes like victory. You know, this here pie is as good as my mama’s red velvet cake.”

Ned’s face went from worried to delighted in an instant. “Really? It is?” He beamed at Chuck. “I’ll get the flashlight,” he said.

 

oOoOoOo

 

The first thing they encountered when they reached Love-a-Dove-Dove was a distraught Daisy Darling, who opened the door for them before they had even knocked.

“Emerson Cod,” she said, “I’m so glad you came back!”

“What are you doing here?” Emerson asked suspiciously.

“After Bill threw you out I thought you’d given up. But I couldn’t let the killer of Huge Hugh get away just like that! So I decided to stay late and look for clues myself and . . . I think I found something,” Daisy whispered. She was pale.

“What’s that?”

“It’s the potions themselves, Mr. Cod. You have to come down and see!”

Emerson drew Ned and Chuck aside. “You thinking this is as phony-phony as I think it is?”

“Daisy seems genuinely distressed to me,” Chuck told him.

“Maybe I should check it out. But you two won’t be able to get into the safe without—” Emerson broke off as Chuck held up a set of lock picks identical to his own.

“I’ve been practicing,” she said, eyes glittering with excitement.

“Well, all right,” Emerson said reluctantly. “Let’s split up. I’ll go downstairs with Daisy and you two check out the safe.”

“Right,” Ned agreed. He shone his flashlight up the steps to the second floor. He and Chuck hurried upstairs, holding each other’s gloved hands.

“This is exciting,” Chuck whispered.

“This is trespassing,” Ned responded. “It’s probably a felony.”

Chuck led the way to the safe, which she put all her effort into cracking.

“And that’s burglary,” Ned whispered nervously. “Trespassing, breaking and entering, probably a count of corporate espionage for looking at the books . . .”

“Speaking of books,” Chuck said, opening the safe and pulling out the ledger. “Have a look at this.” She handed Ned the leather-bound book and continued rooting around in the safe. “Do you think Daisy is telling the truth? Do you think Mr. Ledger’s been messing with the potions?” She turned to see Ned, his mouth open, reading the book. “What is it?” she asked.

“I don’t know about love potions,” Ned said, “but someone’s been cooking the books! Look at this! There’s duplicate entries, but the amounts are different! What do you think it means?”

The doorknob rattled. “Emerson?” Ned queried.

But no response from Emerson was forthcoming. Instead it was the accountant’s voice that said, “Open this door!”

Ned paled. He turned to Chuck and mouthed, “Hide!” Chuck ducked behind the desk just as the lock turned and the door opened.

“Caught you red-handed,” Bill Ledger said triumphantly.

Ned held up the book of accounts. “You’re not the only one.”

 

oOoOoOo

 

Emerson looked into the box of potions suspiciously. “What the hell am I supposed to be looking at?”

“The love potions, dummy!” Daisy told him. “Just look at them! They’re all wrong!”

“How would you know? Chuck told me you ain’t no expert in potions—you’re only part of the sales end of things.”

“That’s true! But I sell hundreds of these a day and I can tell you this for sure—every last potion we’ve ever sold has been pink. Huge Hugh made sure of it. It was our trademark. He never would have sold a green potion. And guess what else?” Daisy said. “I’ve been getting phone calls all day about our latest product—released just today.”

“What about it?”

“Customers are all complaining that their potions turned green and—get this! Those potions aren’t making anyone fall in love!”

“They’re not?”

“No!” said Daisy. “They’re making people ill.

Emerson blinked. “If you ain’t the killer, then it’s got to be the accountant.”

“Bill? Bill could never hurt anybody! He faints at the sight of blood. He has to be innocent.”

Emerson arched a brow and pulled his gun. “Ain’t no such thing as innocent,” he opined.  The private investigator looked grim. “Maybe he just thought of it as a matter of subtraction.”

 

oOoOoOo

 

“You killed Hugh McGrew!”

“You won’t be alive long enough to prove it.” William Ledger, Esquire, held a gun leveled at the pie maker’s head.

Ned raised his hands. “Why’d you do it?” At least Chuck was safely under the desk, her presence concealed.

“You really want to know?”

Ned nodded eagerly, hoping to buy time before he had enough lead in him to become a Ned pencil.

The small, tweed-laden man blew his nose. “He didn’t know what he had, you know,” he said. “He could have had any of them. All the girls were gaga for him—God knows why. Even pretty little Daisy.”

“You—er—liked Daisy?” Ned asked.

William Ledger’s eyes narrowed. “Not that it matters, now. I tried to show her. I tried to tell her she was wasting her time on that—that big oaf! But she just wouldn’t listen. So I hatched a plan.”

“A plan to kill Huge Hugh McGrew,” Ned guessed.

“Noooo,” Ledger corrected. “A plan to bankrupt him. It’s so much cleaner. So much nastier. How much would she have loved her ‘big daddy’ if he was broke? Ahahah. I didn't want him dead, I just wanted to screw McGrew over. And I almost realized my dream, too.”

“But the shop had record profits,” Ned interrupted, puzzled. “You said so yourself.”

“Only for a little while,” Ledger explained. “You see, my brilliant scheme wasn’t just to bankrupt him—though that would have been elegant enough. First I had to collect my pension.”

“What did you do?”

“That fool—Huge Hugh and his phony-baloney love potions. They didn’t work, you know. I tried. I slipped some in Daisy’s sandwich and it didn’t make a lick of difference. So if it’s already phony, what would it hurt to put some cheaper ingredients in and pocket the difference?”

Ned was shocked. “You were skimming off the top, weren’t you?”

“I was going to make a fortune off the latest product, which was a total fraud. But then Hugh figured out the potions weren’t making people fall in love—they were making them sick. And he looked at the books! He discovered I was embezzling! What could I do?”

“You killed him.”

“Naturally. When I saw he was in my office snooping around I grabbed some fishing line out of Mrs. LaRue-McGrew’s office. And I strangled him. But when that didn’t work . . .”

“You shot him,” Ned said.

“I wasn’t strong enough. After several minutes he passed out, but then I could see he was still breathing.” William Ledger shook his head. “So I went back into Rustie’s office and I got her gun. And I took care of the problem.”

“Why didn’t you run afterward?” Ned asked. “You got what you wanted.”

“She wouldn’t sign the damn checks!” Ledger yelled. “I had another hundred thousand just waiting for me, but I couldn’t get her to sign off on it. But now, I don’t care. Discretion is the better part of value, so they say. I have a million stashed away—I’ll just make for Mexico and forget this little problem.”

Ned faked a laugh. “So . . . what, you’re going to shoot me?” He swallowed hard. “We all know you faint at the sight of blood, Bill. You’re not going to shoot me.”

“It’s William. And I faint at my own blood,” he added. “As Mr. McGrew can attest, I have no problem with other people’s blood.” He looked at Ned’s white face and grinned. “But you’re right. My only mistake last time was using such an obvious method of murder. If I’d been more subtle, no one would have taken an interest.” He raised the gun. “I won’t make the same mistake twice.”

“Uh, but if you shoot me, won’t that still be a pretty obvious murder?” Ned asked.

“Oh, but I’m not going to shoot you. I’m going to poison you.” He drew a vial from his pocket and held it up. It was emerald green in the faint glow of the streetlight. He tossed it to Ned. “Drink this,” he ordered. “Or I will shoot you.”

Ned stared at the vial. If he drank it, he might live just long enough for Emerson to find him. If William Ledger shot him, he could die immediately. Ned made his choice. He raised the vial to his lips, and drank.

His stomach churned. He felt a sweat break out on his brow. Ned stumbled backward, his back slamming against the marlin. He felt the fish flop. Oh, dear. “Whoops,” he mumbled.

Bill Ledger was laughing maniacally. Ned gripped the wriggling fish and threw it. He saw it glance off the man’s shoulder just as Bill Ledger slammed the door—and locked it.

 

oOoOoOo

 

Emerson Cod rounded the corner just in time to see a fleeing accountant—and a flopping fish on the floor. He held his gun steady on the man. Luckily, Daisy didn’t seem to have any interest in the mounted, but still living marlin.

“Bill’s the killer!” Daisy shrieked. “Bill Ledger, did you do this because I refused to have lunch with you!?”

Bill scowled. “You’d better run, Daisy, or I’ll shoot,” he threatened.

Emerson nodded to Bill’s sleeve, which was torn and bloody from the sharp nose of the marlin. “You cut yourself on something?” he asked.

“What?” Bill Ledger took one glance at his own arm and fainted.

 

oOoOoOo

 

Ned and Chuck looked into one another’s eyes as Chuck crawled out from under the desk. Ned felt an overwhelming desire to take her in his arms and kiss her. “The love potion,” Chuck whispered.

“I’m so sorry,” Ned said. “I’d give anything not to do what I can’t help but want to do right now. I really do love you, Chuck.”

Chuck’s face softened and she smiled. “I love you too, Ned,” she said. “And honestly? There couldn’t be a better way to go. I mean, think about it, think about how other people die. Shot, with a great hole in their chest. Drowned in a taffy machine. Exploded in a bomb, not to mention cancer and heart disease and car accidents and even old age. Those all stink, Ned.” She smiled at him. “What I want—what we all really want—is to be in the arms of the person we love, telling them we love them. So I’m just telling you, Ned—if you have to kill me, do it as romantically as you can.”

“I will,” Ned promised.

Charlotte Charles puckered her lips and closed her eyes.

Instead of a kiss, she heard the pie maker retching.

“Wow. I know it wasn’t Shakespeare, but isn’t that a little extreme?”

“Sorry,” Ned replied “I didn’t want you to see me like this.” He threw up again.

“I’m just going to . . . stand over here,” Chuck told him.

“You two all right in there?” Emerson called from the hallway.

Ned retched again. “Ugh,” he said. “I could use some Pepto Bismol!”

Emerson broke down the door. He pulled a face at the scene before him. “Here,” he said. “I think I got some Tums in my pocket. Let’s . . . get Ned to a hospital,” he offered.

“Yes, please,” Ned answered. He fell over, stomach still heaving.

 

oOoOoOo

 

“So,” Emerson explained, “the fishing line was just a red herring. Bill Ledger had been skimming profits for about a year and it finally caught up with him. He resented Hugh’s success and wanted Daisy for himself, so he devised the ultimate passive-aggressive plan. He didn’t count on Hugh figuring out his product had been tampered with before it had even been unveiled.”

“Wow,” Chuck said, shaking her head. “I’m glad we caught him.”

Ned was still pale and a little shaky. It would be awhile before he could look a pie full in the face again. “I’m just glad one of the side-effects of the ingredients he substituted was vomiting.” Ned looked queasy just saying the word. “Otherwise, the other ingredients might have killed me.”

“I’m glad about that, too,” Chuck said vehemently. “You weren’t the only person who got that potion. A small error might have saved a lot of lives.”

“Including mine,” Olive volunteered. She was glad they had chosen to share the closing of the case with her. “I bought a package of that manipulated mixture, and I could have died, too.”

The table looked at her. “But you didn’t take it?” Chuck said anxiously.

Olive sighed. “No. I was going to have some just before dessert when I looked at Randy and . . . I don’t know. I just didn’t need it. And I realized how silly I was being, so I poured the whole thing down the sink. Otherwise, I’d be as sick as Ned—or dead.”

“I’m glad you didn’t take it, Olive,” Chuck said.

“Me, too,” Ned added sincerely.

Emerson just looked at her. Olive raised her eyebrows in expectation. Emerson sighed. “And I guess I’m glad you’re not sick, too,” he said. “I’ve seen enough puke in the last few days to last me a lifetime.”

Olive grinned.

Ned turned green at the word ‘puke’. “Excuse me,” he said. “I need to go to the bathroom. Now.”

Chuck rose with alacrity, and Ned bolted.

Emerson smiled fondly after him. “Happily ever after,” he said, and pulled the wad of reward money from his pocket to count.

Chuck leaned over and snatched half the money, to Emerson’s dismay. “Happily ever after,” she affirmed.

 

oOoOoOo

 

That night Chuck and Ned had just gotten into their pajamas and crawled into bed when Chuck heaved a sigh.

“What’s wrong?” Ned asked. He was feeling much improved, and lucky to be alive.

“It’s just so sad. Bill loved Daisy and Daisy loved Hugh, and Hugh loves Rustie who loved Hugh who’s dead, and what’s the use of it? And no one gets their happily ever after,” Chuck sighed. “Maybe Emerson’s right. Maybe love isn’t real. It’s all just a distraction and a game and—and hormones.”

The pie maker looked at her from his side of the bed. “I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think Rustie will stop loving Hugh even though he’s dead. Frankly, I’m not sure Daisy will either. And I love you even though you’re . . . differently alive.”

Chuck laughed weakly. “I guess that’s true. We got our happily ever after even after I should have stopped being happy forever.”

“Yeah, see. Sometimes love doesn’t stop. Sometimes death is just the start of love. And we—we’re pretty happily ever after, don’t you think?”

The girl named Chuck smiled. “Really? Do you consider us happily ever after even though I can’t touch you and you can’t touch me?”

Ned returned her smile. “I think we’re more happily ever after than lots of people who can and do touch all they like,” he answered.

This satisfied Chuck. “That’s true,” she said. “It’s a happier happily ever after than most people get, isn’t it?”

Ned looked down, feeling inexplicably shy. “It’s . . .  actually sort of neat. In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, and at death you keep on going.” He looked at her hopefully.

He liked the soft way Chuck looked at him. “And I haven’t gotten sick since I’ve died. I feel like we should rework the whole thing for the after-death marriage vow. In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, above ground or below, do you vow to stand by this woman and fight by her side at the zombie apocalypse?”

“Very romantic,” Ned laughed. “But no zombies. You know I don’t like zombies.”

“All right. Do you vow to love and honor this woman unto death, at which time do you promise to keep on loving her and also get her a big box of bees?”

“I do,” Ned promised. He grinned. “This is the part where we, ah . . . where we’re supposed to . . . get the plastic wrap?” he suggested.

“Does it bother you to kiss through plastic wrap? I mean, does it cut down on the sensation? Chuck asked.

Ned smiled. “It doesn’t cut down on the sensation at all,” he replied honestly. “Besides, it’s, um, adventurous.”

Chuck’s eyes twinkled. “Then I'll get the plastic wrap. Along with a few other, um, tools. You know. Rubber gloves, tarp, other . . . rubber . . . things.” She gave him a questioning look. “Unless that sounds too kinky?”

Ned blushed. “That sounds . . . just kinky enough.”

Chuck laughed. “I’m going to get you so much plastic wrap,” she promised.

The pie maker and the girl named Chuck smiled at one another. They did not need a love potion, for they had each other. They also had their share of Emerson Cod’s reward money, which would buy them a very great deal of plastic wrap indeed.

It might not have been happily ever after, but it was certainly happy enough for now.