“Nope,” Charlie said rolling away from the ringing phone.
Whoever was calling could wait another ten, fifteen, okay maybe thirty minutes. She just couldn’t bare thinking about being the Charlie Daniels thing right now. Totally unlike her, but she wanted to hold onto the memories of Trace and last night for a little bit longer. Sue, Romeo, hell even Tink could take care of whatever the Honeybee needed for at least one more hour.
The old Charlie would be appalled by her lackadaisical attitude, but the Honeybee was for the first time in her life not number one on her agenda. Trace had done the impossible, taken her mind off of her one true love. Then the house phone rang.
Charlie’s eyes popped open. She grabbed her cell phone looking at the screen.
“Oh shit,” there were like ten texts and an honest to god voice mail. Who left voice mail? Charlie scrambled to the side of the bed snatching the phone off its cradle.
“Hello,” Charlie said.
“Finally! Where have you been Charlie? You don’t answer your phone anymore,” Tink yelled which was totally unlike her. The girl never spoke above a whisper even when she had to work front at the Honeybee by herself.
“Hold up Tink,” Charlie said. “What happened? Where’s Sue?” Charlie was already out of bed pulling on pants. Something must have gone left at the store, and she knew lounging in bed was no longer an option. Whatever it was she’d take care of it but Tink yelling at her? Not today. “Put Sue on the phone.”
“She’s talking to the police,” Tink said before her voice broke into sobs.
“Police? Why are the police there? Tink what happened?” There were several whimpers before Tink was able to get herself together.
“They said someone tried breaking in, but” she said between hiccups. “But why would someone hurt him. Why would they do that to him?”
“To who, Tink? What happened. Put Sue on the phone.” Tink start crying so loud Charlie’s nerves broke. “Put Sue on the phone, Tink!” She shouted.
“He’s dead, Charlie. Someone killed him,” Tink said between hiccups. “I…I’ve got to go, the police want to talk to me,” Tink sounded scared and even younger than her eighteen years.
“Someone killed him? Who? Who’s dead,” She wanted to hang the phone up, but she needed to hear the answer. “Whose dead, Tink? Tink!”
“Romeo,” the girl whispered. “Someone killed Romeo.”
Charlies knees gave out on her and she dropped to the floor. Her chest felt like it was trying to cave in. For the first time in her life she was at a loss as to what to do. Romeo? Who would want to hurt Romeo?
Her mind raced over the past few days. The last time she’d seen him to the last words she said to him? This just didn’t make any sense.
She felt the vibration before she heard the buzz of her cell phone still clutched in her hand. “Yes.”
“Charlie, you have to get down here, now,” Sue whispered. “Do you hear me? Now, I need you here,” Sue said again.
“Is Romeo really dead?”
“Yes,” Sue said, “Get down here now!”
Charlie couldn’t let go of the phone. If she just held onto the phone then it couldn’t be real. But of course, she knew the truth. Tink said it and Sue just confirmed it. Romeo was dead. Sweet, crazy, and totally inappropriate Romeo was dead.
How? And who would want to hurt him? The questions kept multiplying in her head until she had to get up. She needed answers.
The sun was shining but her world had gone dark.
Romeo gone? It couldn’t be. Charlie kept telling herself to finally get herself up and moving. She would get to the Honeybee and someone would jump out and say it was all some kind of sick twisted joke. She’d threaten to fire them all and then they’d go about their day. That’s what Charlie hoped, but when she turned the corner leading to the Honeybee she saw a sea of blue and red lights flashing.
Charlie pulled up to the Honeybee and the parking lot was surrounded on all sides of onlookers trying to see what they could. There was police tape strung up and as soon as she crossed she saw what looked like a sheet covering a body lying near the staff entrance. Charlie nearly dropped to the ground. She felt like she’d been punched in the gut.
“Ms. Daniels,” a woman in uniform said approaching her. She sounded concerned, but Charlie couldn’t take her eyes from the sheet.
“Is that him?” Charlie said blinking back tears, “Is that Romeo? Is that him.” She could hear her voice in her ears but she couldn’t stop herself from saying the words over and over. She didn’t know how she could be aware of the fact that she was hysterical and still not being able to stop herself.
“Ms. Daniels,” the officer said repeatedly, but Charlie couldn’t stop. She felt hands on her, but she pushed them away.
“Is that him?” she repeated until Sue was there.
“Charlie,” she said grabbing her shoulders. She shook them gently then grabbed Charlie by the face. With both hands she forced Charlie to look at her. “Charlie, yes that’s him. It’s him. It’s Romeo.”
“It’s him,” Charlie said through tears. It was Sue’s confirmation that finally stopped her words until she was just sobbing holding onto Sue for dear life.
“It’s him, Charlie, they’re taking care of him. Let them do their job,” she said. “It’s okay officer I’ve got her.”
Charlie knew they were moving but she was still surprised when they walked into the Honeybee.
“Give me your keys Charlie.” Sue pried open Charlie’s hand to take her car keys. “Go move her car to the back-parking lock, make sure it’s locked up.” Charlie didn’t see who Sue was talking to and she didn’t bother to look.
“Drink,” Sue said pouring something into a glass sitting it on the desk in front of her. They were in their shared office, but it could have been on the moon far as she was concerned because it no longer felt familiar. For once the Honeybee didn’t feel like home. It felt alien to her and she wanted to leave. The place that had given her the most peace now felt like a curse. First Cyndi, now Romeo.
What the hell was happening?
“The police said he was opening up when it happened. Sometime this morning. Drink, Charlie,” Sue waited until Charlie took a full sip watching her wince before taking another. “I told them he usually gets in like six a.m. when he’s opening. You know how he,”
“Likes to get a jump on things,” she and Sue said in unison. Charlie inhaled deeply focusing on the burn of the liquor in her stomach. Romeo always was an early bird whenever he was assigned to open. She never had to worry about anything on those days.
He always said he didn’t like to get there right when the morning crew were walking in. He always wanted to make sure that things were ready to go before he got in. He said that everything ran smoother when he did that. There was always something the night crew forgot; he’d say. Not with judgement but he understood how hectic closing could be.
Either the ingredients weren’t sitting out, or some bowls weren’t clean enough. Or the mixer wasn’t set for them to get started.
“Anything could happen. It’s like they just be trying to test me, Charlie,” he’d say but it was always with a smile. He wasn’t mad just took it in stride. That was Romeo, always taking everything in stride.
“How did it happen, Sue,” Charlie whispered finally looking at her friend for the first time. “He wasn’t even scheduled this morning. He was taking over for me.” Sue’s short hair was pulled back with a hairband as usual. She was in her typical uniform of black blazer, white t-shirt and black pants. Her consistency was the only thing keeping her from going completely insane in that moment.
“Finish it,” Sue said pushing the glass of brown liquid towards her. Charlie hadn’t paid any attention before, but now she looked at the brown bottle recognizing it from their stash of cognac.
She, Cyndi and Sue had always kept a bottle in their office for celebrations. The last time it had been opened was when they’d gotten the call from Oprah’s people. It felt like that was a million years ago. But it wasn’t. Charlie’s head dropped and she could feel the tears come.
“Drink,” Sue said her voice firmer. She picked the glass up and forced Charlie to take it. Charlie finished it in one gulp feeling the burn.
“Good girl,” Sue said sitting back watching Charlie closely waiting for something. Charlie took a deep breath, exhaled. When she looked back at Sue her eyes were still teary but her gaze was steady.
“Julio and Jake found him shortly after 7 this morning. They said his clothes were wet so he’d been out there the whole time. He never even made it inside.”
“Who did it?”
“They don’t know,” Sue said.
“They don’t know? How could they not know,” Charlie said realizing it wouldn’t be that hard. No one was down here at that time of the morning. Only people who were there, had to be there. She’d opened plenty of times to know that by herself, but not until this morning did she ever think of it as being dangerous. Who would want to kill Romeo? And why?
“They can’t say right now, but he had his wallet, and there was no attempt to get in the Honeybee. So, they’re thinking it was personal.”
“But Romeo?” Charlie asked. Sue looked away. “Why? Who would want him dead?”
“I mean,” Sue said taking a long breath before finishing, “but we know his history. It could be anyone.”
“Sue,” Charlie said shocked. Anger quickly replaced the shock, “he left all that behind. Romeo was on the straight and narrow, you know that.”
“I know, I know, but old friends can come up.” Charlie shook her head in disbelief but before she could speak there was a knock on the door.
“Romeo is our friend, remember that,” Charlie whispered. “That was his past. He’s a different person now. I don’t care who it was. Whoever did this will be brought to justice. Romeo deserves justice just like anyone else.”
“Of course,” Sue said standing with Charlie. “We’re going to make sure he gets it.” Sue took off her blazer. “Put this on,” she said holding it for Charlie to slip into. Charlie looked down for the first time, realizing she was in her pajamas. She caught herself in the mirror. Her hair was matted to her head. No makeup, of course. She’d rolled out of bed and that’s exactly what she looked like.
“It’s okay,” Sue said. Charlie slipped the blazer on her shoulders buttoning it up to hide the fact that she didn’t have a bra on. Sue pulled her hair back into a bun. Squeezing her hand once she opened the door.
She’d done nothing, but her stomach dropped at the sight of the two officers staring back at her. She’d done nothing but she felt guilty. There was no reason for it but she felt like somehow she had to both protect herself, her staff and Romeo. She didn’t know what Romeo had gotten himself into, but that didn’t matter right now. She didn’t know what was going on at all, but she would not let her friend be painted as some thug or worse responsible for his own death.
The day had started so promising. She should have known better. She’d spent the last twenty-four hours in relative bliss and now this was her punishment. The Honeybee had always been a safe space not just for her but her staff and customers. Now, she couldn’t imagine reopening let alone continuing on without Romeo. She didn’t know how the Honeybee was ever going to recover from this.
“Ms. Daniels, we know this is the worst possible time, but we need to try to get as much information as possible. The sooner we can, the sooner we can start looking for who did this to Romeo.” Charlie flinched at the mention of his name. It somehow hit different hearing the officer say it. It was real- this was real.
“Please, come in,” Charlie said. Sue stood at the door. There had been a massive desk in the office but they’d gotten rid of it soon after they’d bought it. That had been Romeo’s suggestion.
“C’mon now, there’s barely enough room to move as is. How you gonna have a business without a break room? Huh? When them crazy ass customers come in moaning about not getting the donut they want, we have to have some where to commis- commish- comis?”
“Yeah, you know what I mean,” Romeo said. He was always trying to expand his vocabulary wanting to learn as much as he could even though he hadn’t graduated from high school. He’d gotten his GED after a stint in jail that kept him from completing his senior year. He’d been working his courage up to try the local community college. That was his dream, and Charlie had done all she could to encourage it. Now, that was all over.
“I’m sorry to have to do this now,” the officer said.
“No, I’m sorry,” Charlie said wiping a tear away before it could fall. “Please go ahead. Whatever, I can do. I want to help catch whoever did this. I can’t imagine- who would want to,” Charlie said her voice fading. “But I want whoever did it to be caught.” The officer nodded then looked to Sue.
“Would you like to give us a moment,” the officer said, but Charlie interrupted.
“No, she stays. I don’t think I’m going to be able to get through this otherwise. Believe me you want her to be here,” Charlie said her voice stronger than before. “I’m barely hanging in here as is, Sue come sit.” Sue looked to the officer, who nodded. She pulled up a chair to sit next to Charlie who immediately grabbed hold of Sue’s hand as if needing strength.
“I understand this isn’t the first incident here in the past week,” the officer said. Charlie didn’t answer distracted by her thoughts.
“No, it’s been a pretty hectic week,” Sue said.
“Between your coworker,” the officer flipped a page on her phone, “Cyndi,”
“Cyndi is more than just a coworker,” Charlie interrupted. “She’s family.”
“Yes, of course,” the officer said clearing her throat. “Then a vandalization and now murder. It seems mighty strange for all of this activity in such a short period of time. You’ve been here for ten years, why now? Has there been any changes? Any new hires? Fires?”
“Do you think someone is targeting the Honeybee?”
“That’s what I’m asking,” the officer said even as Charlie shook her head. “Do you know of anyone who has a grudge or some other interest in ruining your business?”
“No, no one,” Charlie said but the officer wasn’t looking at her. She was looking at Sue.
“I’m just,” the woman said clearly conflicted about her thoughts and words. “It’s so strange, Charlie. Why is this happening now? We were expanding. We were growing. Everything was about to change. Oprah was here for God’s sake.”
“Oprah?” the other officer spoke for the first time, his eyes growing big. “Was here?”
“No, not physically here, but she sent her camera crew here. We were set to be a part of a special she has coming out,” Sue said explaining. “But then Cyndi gets hurt. Then our front window gets broke in broad daylight. Now this. Does someone have it out for us?”
“Has there been any problems with your neighbors?”
“Of course not.”
“What about your employees? Have you had to let go of anyone?” Both Sue and Charlie looked at each other. Sue raised an eyebrow.
“If you know of someone that would be a start.”
“It couldn’t be,” Charlie shook her head. “He’s dumb, but not that dumb.”
“What did Rome always say,” Sue said. Charlie still couldn’t believe it, refusing to believe the young man with the baby face could have masterminded all of this.
“What about Romeo?” the officer asked as both women sat quietly.
“He said you never know a person truly until their back is against the wall,” Charlie frowned. “But I just can’t believe….” her voice trailed off.
“He just got out of jail, but he wasn’t a good fit here. Charlie had to kick him out the day all of this started- when Cyndi got burned.”
“Sounds like a start to me,” the officer said. “What’s the name.” Sue looked to Charlie who still refused to accept that one of her former employees could have done all of this.
“Jimmy Valentine,” Charlie said finally. She felt like she was about to vomit but she couldn’t take it back.
“Thank you, Ms. Daniels,” the officers stood after they finished their questioning. “We’ll be in touch as soon as we have a read on this. If you have any more information that might be pertinent please call me- anytime.” The officer handed Sue their card then left shortly after.
Charlie didn’t feel any better, in fact she felt worse. They had a suspect now, but she had a really bad feeling that it wasn’t over.
Charlie heard the door open.
“Not now Tink,” Sue said stepping outside the door. “Yes, we’re closed for the day. As a matter of fact can you make sure everything’s locked up?” A second later the door closed and the two women were alone.
“I can’t do this,” Charlie said. “Jimmy?”
“Shhh,” Sue said walking to sit next to her friend. “We don’t know anything yet. We have to let the cops do their job, hear?” Charlie knew Sue was right, but something just wasn’t sitting right with her and she couldn’t put her finger on it. All she knew was that she felt like her whole world was spinning like a top and she couldn’t seem to get a hold on what was happening. It was just going so fast, and so wrong. How could she have just seen her friend yesterday and today he’s dead.
“Oh my god,” Charlie said suddenly remembering the last time she saw Romeo. “How could I have forgotten. Oh my god. It couldn’t,” Charlie said her hand over her mouth.
“Charlie, what,” Sue pulled back, “you’re scaring me. What is it?” Charlie reached for her friend’s hand feeling the woman relax instantly.
“Yesterday I went to the Honeybee Too, you know to just check it out. Rome was there,” Charlie said. “With the realtor. Yeah, they were having sex.”
“What?” Sue exploded.
“They were having sex in the middle of the kitchen. Do you think that could have something to do with this? Maybe a spurned lover or something. Oh my God how could I have forgotten?”
“No, don’t you do that. Don’t beat yourself up,” Sue said reaching for the officer’s card. “This is too much for any person to take in.”
“What are you doing?”
“We have to call the officers, and tell them.”
“No, it could hurt Betty’s business,” Charlie said, “Sue she’s married.”
“I don’t care what she is,” Sue said indignant. “Betty should have thought about that before screwing Romeo in our kitchen,” Sue said cringing at the mental image. “In our kitchen?” Charlie nodded. Sue held the phone in her hand but she didn’t move to dial.
“I just don’t believe that her husband is capable,” Charlie thought about the man she’d seen in all the pictures in Betty’s office. He was slight of frame and almost a foot shorter than Romeo. From what she knew about the man he just didn’t seem like the type, but she thought of Romeo’s words again. ‘you never know what someone is capable of until their back is against the wall.”
“Give me the phone.” Charlie said.
After relaying the new information about Betty being the last one with Romeo, Charlie didn’t feel better but she felt relieved to have done something. The rest of the staff cleared out and with Sue’s help she locked up the restaurant. She didn’t want to go home alone so Sue followed her promising to stay for one quick drink.
“Did you repaint that living room?”
“No,” Charlie said rolling her eyes.
“Something’s different,” Sue said looking around Charlie’s beautifully decorated home.
“You say that every time.”
“No, I don’t,” Sue laughed. “It’s just been such a long time since I’ve been here. I’d forgotten how gorgeous it was.”
“Shut up,” Charlie poured them both a glass of red wine.
“I’d almost forgotten how to get here,” Sue laughed, “seriously I almost got loss a couple of times. But then I saw that white Mercedes zipping away.”
“Shut up. Here,” Charlie handed the glass to her friend before taking a long sip herself. “Drink up.”
“What is this?”
“Cabernet Sauvignon,” savoring the taste.
“Of course,” Sue said. “Expensive tastes for the one and only Southern Fried Honeybee.”
“Southern fried, for sure,” Charlie said sipping again. “Never have I ever wanted to be more southern fried. C’mon drink up! There’s more where that comes from.”
“You know I don’t like, cabern-, how ever you say it. I’m more of a beer girl.”
“Check the fridge.”
Sue set her glass on the sink and grabbed a beer from the fridge.
“Jesus, when do you have time to cook,” she said admiring the contents of the overstuffed refrigerator.
“I don’t. That’s why it’s stuffed full. The only time I eat is at work. Who has the time? You know?”
“Yeah, time,” Sue said laughing. “What is that? I mean between work and three kids who can’t seem to let me have an unaccounted minute of the day.”
“Sure, it’s just,” Sue took a swig from her bottle. “no one told me how long ten years was when you’re a mom.”
“Well, let me tell you. Ten years is just as long when you’re child free and single too.”
“Girl, you’re single because you want to be.”
“Yes, you are. You’re beautiful, successful, smart, you’re a catch. The only reason you don’t have a rock on that finger is because you can’t let a man take the lead.”
“Don’t you start,” Charlie said. “You sound like my parents and all of their old-fashioned friends. “
“Don’t you want to get married?” Charlie looked at her friend. There was something with her tone that reached through the wine and burrowed uncomfortably in her brain.
“Again, why would I want to do that?”
“I don’t know, someone to grow old with?” Sue asked. “Kids? Don’t you want kids?”
“You mean have a bunch of rug rats crawling around. Isn’t that what you call them. Where did that word even come from? Rugrats?”
“I don’t know, but my kids aren’t rugrats,” Sue said.
“No, they’re perfect, right?” Charlie laughed. Sue laughed, but there was a harsh sound to it. She got quiet, and wouldn’t look at Charlie.
She had to know she was just kidding, right?
“Sue? Look I’m sorry, it was a joke. I didn’t mean nothing.”
“Yeah, I know. It was funny. You know what’s else is funny?” Sue said. “The word old maid, isn’t that what they call women who sit on the shelf for too long. Old maid, now that’s funny.” Sue said giggling.
Charlie stared at her friend, confused and then angry. She wasn’t angry because the woman called her an old maid. She could care less about being unmarried. She was angry because she knew Sue saw it as an insult, something a woman should be ashamed of being called. That was her intention for saying it. She wanted to hurt her. That’s what pissed Charlie off.
Sue tossed her empty bottle in the trash then went to the fridge for another.
“I think you’ve had enough,” Charlie said watching Sue grab a beer, twist off the top then take a long swig.
“I’ve never been a lightweight,” Sue said, “remember that was always you and Cyndi.”
“Yeah,” Charlie said, “you’re right about that. Still, take it easy.” Charlie carried her glass over to the sink. She poured it out. She didn’t feel much like drinking anymore. The buzz she was hoping for to help her take the edge off was not going to happen.
“I always do. That’s what good mothers do,” Sue smiled but the smile didn’t reach her eyes.
“Yeah,” Charlie said uneasily. There was a knock at the door followed by the ring of the doorbell.
“You’ve got company coming,” Sue frowned, setting her bottle down.
“No, wasn’t expecting anyone but,” she walked to the door and looked out the peephole. Her heart turned in her chest as she opened the door. For the first time that day she felt like she could breathe a little easier.
“Charlie,” Trace said concerned. “I just heard about Romeo. What the hell happened? Are you okay?” Before Charlie could speak, Trace embraced her tightly and for the first time she felt at peace. It was as if everything was normal again. Everything was going to be alright, but that moment passed.
“What is he doing here?” Sue said looking at the couple. Charlie had moved out of Trace’s embrace, but continued to hold his hand.
“I just came by to check on Charlie,” Trace said. He looked to Charlie like, ‘what’s her problem.’ Charlie shook her head.
“C’mon in Trace. We were just talking. It’s been, to say the least. a rough day.” Trace sat down, but Sue continued standing looking back and forth between Charlie and Trace.
“I’m sorry,” she said finally. “I didn’t realize y’all were- talking.”
“Yeah, Charlie finally came around. She realized I’m not such a bad guy.” Charlie smiled. She’d realized a lot more than that in the past twenty-four hours but she was glad to be able to say Trace was being a gentleman about it. The fact that he’d stopped by to see her after hearing about Romeo made her heart melt even more. It felt good to have someone look after her. Well, not just anyone. Trace was proving himself to be different. Not that she was looking to tie herself down, but it felt…good.
“Bad guy? I’m badder than you,” Charlie scoffed.
“True,” Trace laughed.
“Okay,” Sue said suddenly, “it looks like you’re in good hands.” Clearing her throat, she put her bottle on the counter. “Stan, I’m sure is about to lose his mind with the three live crew back home.” Sue grabbed her purse and was walking to the door with Charlie following.
“Sue, wait,” Charlie said closing the front door behind her. Sue was standing at the top of the stairs on the front porch when she finally stopped. “You don’t have to rush out. Are you sure you don’t want to eat something? I know you’re no lightweight but are you okay to drive?”
“Girl, please,” Sue said waving her hand at her friend. “I’m fine. Look, I’m sorry about what I said, you know.”
“It’s okay, no worries,” Charlie said hugging her friend. Sue was out of line earlier but she wasn’t going to be an even worse friend when it was obvious they were both hurting. They’d both said some foul things they were sorry for.
Now wasn’t the time to be fighting. They were going to need each other to get the Honeybee back on track after both Cyndi and then Romeo. She didn’t know how they were going to recover, but the last thing they needed was a rift between the two of them.
“No, I was out of line. I’m sorry,” Sue said releasing Charlie but not before one final tight embrace. “So, you and Trace, huh? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Charlie shrugged, but Sue stopped her. “Never mind, never mind. You right, none of my business. None. You’re a big girl, and big girls handle their business,” Sue said rolling her neck with each syllable.
“You nasty,” Charlie laughed.
“No, you nasty,” Sue said backing down the stairs. “Try to take your mind off of… everything. We’ll get on it tomorrow, okay? Enjoy yourself, you hear.” Sue winked at her then got in her car. Charlie watched her friend back out the drive way, waving at Sue before she sped away. She stood on the porch for a few minutes before she went back inside.
She’d been so happy to see Trace on her doorstep- like really happy. What did that mean? Did it mean anything? Did it mean too much?
She wasn’t interested in starting something new- not now. There was too much going on. Too much that she now had to do to make sure no one else got hurt.
The officer was right, one incident was bad luck, two incidents a troublesome coincidence, but three- it felt like someone was out to get them. Was there someone trying to get rid of them?
Until she found out if the Honeybee was being targeted, she didn’t have the time or energy to start a relationship.
Charlie walked in to see Trace standing in her kitchen he had a frying pan on the stove and was stirring something that smelled heavenly.
Everything in her brain told Charlie to run and don’t stop running. Now was not the time to fall in love.
Charlie felt something in her abdomen clench then release. Unfortunately, her ovaries hadn’t gotten the memo.