For all her big talk, an hour later Charlie felt like pulling someone else’s hair out. She didn’t have to worry about Trace’s Treats if the Southern Fried Honeybee didn’t have any more customers.
“I heard that people are scared of the Honeybee,” Tink said, “they said you have to be a fool to work here. Bad luck, a curse even.”
“I heard folks are calling it a deathtrap,” Rashawna said before going back to chewing on one of her rainbow-colored nails. Charlie wanted to snap the long talons off one by one, but she forced herself to listen. This was the chance for her staff to say their peace. They were scared, hell so was she. But she knew in order to move everyone forward they had to get it all out. Besides, although she wasn’t a psychiatrist, even she knew a lot of it was just part of the grieving process, but it didn’t make it any easier.
“I heard the cops know who killed Romeo, they just ain’t doing nothing,” Julio said.
“Now why would the cops do that?” Sue jumped in from the back of the group.
“Because he black,” Julio said. “They don’t care about no black or browns. Just another dead….”
“Don’t say it,” Charlie stopped him. She’d had enough. “Look, whatever you’re thinking this is it ain’t that. We don’t do defeatist talk here. And we don’t allow people to do us and ours any kind of way, you hear. I don’t care what color of skin anyone is, those police work for us, and none of us are going to let Romeo’s death go unanswered. Do you hear me?” There wasn’t much of a response. Charlie took two steps forward. “I said do you hear me?”
“Yes ma’am,” the entire crew said. Even Julio sat up straighter.
“Look, I understand that we,” Charlie said rubbing two fingers on the back of her hand, “haven’t always gotten the best end of the deal, but I refuse to let that stop us from getting justice now. Romeo was a good man, but you know what, regardless of who he was, his murder was just that murder. It ain’t right. And I will personally make sure it is made right. I’d do the same for any of y’all. Now if Julio is right, if the cops don’t do right by Romeo, then I will hire my own investigator. We will find out who killed him, and bring him or her, or whoever to justice. And that you can bank on.”
“But, Ms. Charlie, even if we find out who did it, it don’t mean our customers gonna come back. I mean Cyndi, then the brick through the window, and then Romeo,” Rashawna shuddered. “He died right there in the parking lot. For God’s sake, I didn’t want to come back today.”
“I know, I know,” Charlie said. “Honestly, I didn’t either. I understand. Hell, I don’t know what to tell you,” Charlie sighed. “This has been the hardest month of our lives I do believe. I wish I knew what to say to make it better. I want Romeo here so bad, and Cyndi, but I can’t have that, none of us can. All I can say is what I do know. I know Romeo would want us to go on. He’d want us to reopen and make Honeybee even better than it was before. He loved this place. You know it, and I know it,” Charlie added and was happy to see a few head nod in agreement.
“But,” Charlie paused, “I also know that my heart can’t allow that to happen right now. That’s why I brought y’all all in here today. I wanted to let you know that the Honeybee Too is on a brief hiatus. And the Honeybee is going to take a little break as well. But don’t worry we’re going to pay you for the next month and then when we come back we’ll all be rested and ready to take our rightful place as the best restaurant on the coast.”
“We’re going to do what?” Sue stood up from her chair in the back of the room.
“I said,” Charlie began.
“I know what you said, but it can’t be what I just heard,” Sue snapped back as she moved closer to the front. “Because what I heard sounded like a bunch of BS. What do you mean closing the Honeybee, not when we were just about to hit nationally? What is wrong with you? What are you thinking?” Sue said her arms stretched out in front of her.
Shocked by her friend’s outburst, Charlie was too stunned to speak. Sue had never behaved this way with her, but looking around the room she didn’t see the same level of surprise that she felt. As a matter of fact the young staff looked more scared than shocked.
“Sue, look I know we didn’t discuss this, but we can talk about it later,” Charlie said.
“Later? You think I want to talk with you later,” Sue mocked. “No, we’re going to talk about this now!”
“Okay everyone, the meeting is over,” Charlie said wanting to save her staff from seeing Sue like this. She was more scared for Sue than anything else. “So, I don’t want to hear of any of you doing anything other than resting for the next thirty days and then we will start back up. The Honeybee will be as good as ever, but let everyone know we are still here.”
“Yes ma’am,” Tink said her eyes darting to Sue who had turned her back on the group.
“Y’all call me if you need anything, okay? Remember my door is always open.” Charlie waited until the last of the staff had left before turning to Sue.
“What the hell was that?”
Sue turned on her heel to face Charlie, “That’s what I should be asking you? So, we don’t discuss business anymore? Thirty days off with pay? How the hell can you make a decision like that without consulting me?”
“Because this is my business, and I make those kinds of decisions,” Charlie said.
“Your business? Your business?” Sue said. “And who helped you build this business? Who helped you every single step of the way? Your face may be on the merch Ms. Daniels but this is not just you. You need to remember that.”
“Wait, just wait, Sue. What is this, really,” Charlie shook her head. “What is going on? This isn’t you.”
“No, this is all me. I’m sick and tired of you coming up in here to sweep up all the accolades and the attention. I helped build this, you know.”
“Yes, Sue I know. You know I know. But why are you acting like this. You’re yelling during the staff meeting, and Romeo’s girlfriend said.”
“His girlfriend? Which one, Charlie?” Sue screamed. “What, you’re listening to his little chickenhead girlfriends.”
“Sue, listen to yourself,” Charlie said her voice raising for the first time. “Listen to yourself! This is Romeo. This is me. Look, we’ve all been under stress. Cyndi, Romeo- it’s a lot but…what happened at the hospital.” For the first time Sue didn’t have a comeback. “Look at me, what is going on with you?”
“I need to get out of here,” Sue whispered her hands covering her face.
“What?” Charlie said, but Sue had started rocking back and forth. “Sue? What’s wrong? Stop that.” Sue had started hitting her hand against her forehead mumbling to herself. “Sue, stop that you’re scaring me,” Charlie backed away, but Sue wouldn’t stop. “I’m calling Stan,” Charlie said reaching for her phone.
“No,” Sue yelled. “I said no,” Sue flew across the room and grabbed Charlie’s phone from her hands.
“What the hell,” Charlie said. She was worried about her friend but Sue’s erratic behavior was becoming more of a concern. “Give me my phone back, Sue, now!”
“Not to call Stan,” Sue said. “You can’t call Stan, Charlie.”
“We broke up,” Sue said quietly holding the phone.
“Since when,” Charlie said with disbelief.
“A month ago.” Charlie shook her head. Sue was lying, but for the life of her, Charlie couldn’t understand why. Changing tactics, she stopped trying to get her phone back. She didn’t know what was going on with her friend, but she was truly concerned about her state of mind. However, she was even more concerned about what Sue was capable of.
“When?” Charlie said walking to the other side of the counter. She was trying to put some distance between them, but Sue was right behind her.
“About a month ago,” Sue said. “I didn’t tell you because I know what was going to happen. It was such a crazy time. He’s been going through some things lately and he’s just not the same.”
“What’s changed,” Charlie asked.
“He lost his job a few months back, and he just hasn’t been the same,” Sue said. “We both thought it was temporary but he couldn’t get a job anywhere. It was okay at first because he’s good with the kids, and they liked having him at home, but the last couple of months he’s gotten so angry.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner? Or Cyndi?”
“I did,” Sue said her head dropping. “I told Cyndi a couple of days before the accident. We both decided not to tell you because of the Oprah thing. You were so happy, and I’d already decided to divorce him.”
“Divorce,” Charlie said stunned. She was still reeling over the fact that her two best friends had kept something so big from her, but divorce? “Stan didn’t say anything about divorce today to me.”
“What did you say?”
“I said I saw Stan today. He stopped by my house, and he didn’t say anything about divorce. In fact, he implied that you were the one having some problem.”
“Me? Me?” Sue said. She dropped her head in her hands again. This time she dug the heels of both of hands into her eyes pressing hard as if she was trying to erase some memory away. It looked painful and for the first time Charlie lost some of her fear at her friend’s obvious distress.
“Sue, stop that, stop that,” Charlie said, but before she could get too close, Sue pushed her away and started ripping at her collar.
“Does this look like a problem?” Sue said exposing a healing bruise on her collarbone. “Or this,” she said lifting her blouse to expose a dark bruise on her back that reached down her entire left side.
“Oh my God,” Charlie gasped at the painful looking marks on Sue’s body. “Did Stan do that?”
“Yes,” Sue said through clenched teeth. “That bastard.”
“How long has this been going on?” Charlie asked unable to believe she could have been so blind for so long.
“Just once, but it was enough.” Sue said tucking her shirt back in. “Like I said he’s been different since he lost his job, but one night he just…lost it. I left him that night. I stopped taking his calls. I sent the girls away.”
“And you didn’t say anything? To me?”
“So much has happened, it just didn’t seem like…” Sue began then stopped. “You said Stan was at your house today? What did he want?”
“I don’t know,” Charlie said trying to remember the conversation. “I don’t know, because Trace drove up before we could go inside.”
“Oh my God,” Sue said. “I need to get to my girls.”
“Do you think he would do something to them,” Charlie asked.
“I don’t want to believe he would, but I don’t know. I just need to see my girls.” Sue gave Charlie her phone back.
“What do you need me to do?”
“Oh shoot,” Sue said. She started pacing, “I don’t have my car. I had to leave it at the shop. I need to get home and get some clothes.”
“I can take you,” Charlie grabbed her purse. They locked up and within minutes they were pulling out of the parking lot. Charlie dialed Trace’s phone number via blue tooth and the sound of dialing instantly came through the car’s speakers.
“Hey,” Trace said after two rings.
“Hey, I need you to listen. I’m with Sue and we’re headed to her place to get some clothes and things so she can go to her parent’s house. Stan is,” Charlie said but Trace interrupted.
“Charlie,” Trace said several times, but there was static.
“What a time for a bad connection,” Charlie said as she turned the car onto the highway. “Can you hear me, Trace?”
“Charlie, I’m at the hospital,” Trace said before the message got garbled again. “Cyndi is awake.” Both Charlie and Sue looked at each other until a horn sounded loudly. Charlie had swerved out of her lane nearly sideswiping another car.
“Watch the road, Charlie,” Sue screamed.
“Is that Sue with you,” Trace asked before the message got garbled again.
“Yes, I’m taking her to her place to pack some things,” Charlie said. “How’s Cyndi?”
“She’s awake….don’t go,” Trace said but the call disconnected after that. Charlie didn’t know what he meant, but her heart lifted at the news that Cyndi was awake.
“Do you want to go to the hospital?”
“No, her family’s there and Trace is there. We can go to your apartment get what you need to get and then head over to the hospital okay?” Sue nodded. It wasn’t until they pulled up to the apartment that Charlie wondered what Trace was doing at the hospital.
“Hey, I’m going to see if I can get Trace on the line again. Hopefully, there’ll be a better connection here. You good with going in?”
“Sure, Stan knows better than to come back here. I’ll be quick,” Sue jumped out and ran up the stairs to her front door. Charlie watched her disappear inside as she tried to call Trace again. She dialed, and phone was picked up on the first ring.
“Don’t go with Sue,” Trace said.
“What do you mean? I’m with Sue now, Stan was lying. Stan hurt her, Trace. Real bad,” Charlie didn’t go into all of the details. “We just had to stop by her place to get some things. She’s going to go stay with her folks for a little while until we can reopen the Honeybee.”
“I need you to leave there now,” Trace said. “Do you hear me, Charlie. Leave.”
“I can’t leave, Sue. She doesn’t have her car. She’s going to grab a few things and then we’re coming to the hospital to see Cyndi. Hey, what were you doing at the hospital?”
“That’s what I’m saying. I was brought into the emergency room. I got hit by a car.”
“And it was Stan driving,” Trace said. “He’s still out there somewhere, Charlie. I need you to get as far away from there as possible, now!” Charlie looked to the apartment door where her friend had just entered. Then she looked around the parking lot. There were a few cars, but since it was the middle of the day, most people were at work.
“Charlie, listen to me,” Trace said in her ear. “Cyndi woke up and she told her family what happened to her. It wasn’t an accident. She said,” Charlie heard a scream.
“Oh my God.” There was another scream.
“What happened, are you okay. Is Stan there,” Trace said then there was talking in the background as if he was talking to someone there. “What’s the address Charlie? What’s the address, baby so I can tell the police.”
“111 Courthouse Lane,” Charlie said then she heard another bloodcurdling scream. “I have to help her.”
“Don’t Charlie, don’t you go in there,” Trace yelled. “Cyndi said,” Trace began but the call cut off when Charlie turned off the ignition.
“Jesus, help me,” Charlie said as she ran up the stairs. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but she couldn’t leave Sue to fend for herself. By the time the police got there her friend could be dead.
The front door was open. When she walked in she saw the downstairs looked as orderly as usual. Upstairs, she heard a couple of bumps, but other than that complete quiet.
Slowly, Charlie walked halfway up the stairs, but she didn’t hear anything else. Then she heard some muffled voices. There were two of them, then there was another scream. Charlie ran up the few remaining steps until she reached the top.
There were only two rooms upstairs, a guestroom and the master bedroom. The guestroom was empty. She looked in master but was pushed down hard from the back. Her head swam for a moment before she could roll over, but when she did it was to see Sue standing over her.