Murder Among Friends
I dashed over, hoping to catch her before she hit the curb, but I didn’t make it. She fell almost gracefully, folding in on herself before landing in a heap.
I squatted down beside her, gently grasping her shoulders and praying she wasn’t having a seizure or something equally serious. I didn’t think it was weather-related—while it was definitely warm and humid, which was typical of a Wisconsin summer, it wasn’t overly hot. “Are you okay? Do you need me to call an ambulance?”
Her eyelids were fluttering, and I started to worry she was having a seizure when her eyes popped open. She blinked confusedly at me. “What the … what happened?”
“I’m not entirely sure. You just collapsed. Here, take it easy.” I helped her sit up, propping her against the silver car she had fallen next to. “Do you need me to call someone? A doctor?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m sure I’ll be fine.” She was probably in her mid-twenties, with straight, long, nut-brown hair and bangs. Her eyes were also a deep brown, framed with thick lashes that made them seem even more huge than they actually were, although they may have appeared so because the rest of her features were more petite. She was dressed simply, in a white V-neck tee shirt and jeans, and she smelled like tangerines and cherry-flavored lip balm.
I gave her a skeptical look. “Are you sure? It might not be a bad idea to get yourself checked out.”
“I’m positive.” She shot me a weak smile. “It’s probably because I haven’t eaten today.”
“You definitely need to eat. There’s a diner right down the street. I can walk you there, if you’d like,” I offered.
She made a face. “Ugh. You’re right. I should eat, but I also get horrible motion sickness, so right now, I don’t think I can.”
“Motion sickness? I have a tea that can help,” I said. “I’ll need to run home and get it, but I don’t live that far away. Less than fifteen minutes.”
“Oh, you don’t have to go through all that trouble,” she said. “I’m sure it will pass. Eventually.” She made a slight face and rubbed her stomach.
“It’s no trouble,” I assured her. “I’ve had bouts of nausea and motion sickness myself. I know how miserable it can be. I’m happy to do it.”
“Honestly, I’m sure I’ll be fine. Now that we’re here and I’m out of the car, I should recover quickly.”
“It still might take a little while … especially without the tea.” I thought about taking off right then to fetch it for her, but I didn’t feel right leaving her there on the street, either. It was still troubling me that she’d fainted. Someone her age shouldn’t be collapsing the way she did, even if she had skipped breakfast and lunch. I wondered if there was something else going on. “Where are you from?”
“Riverview,” she said before rolling her eyes. “I know … it’s less than an hour away. I would have been fine, if we had driven straight from there to here. But no. We of course had to make a million stops.”
“Yeah, I’m here with my friends. They’re all in there.” She tilted her head toward the Psychic Readings by Madame Rowena sign, and it was all I could do not to roll my eyes. Of course it would be a fake psychic’s shop that lured her friends away. Not that I knew for sure she was fake, as my best friend Pat was quick to remind me, but I knew something was off with her.
“You didn’t want to see if Madame Rowena could cure your motion sickness?” I asked, raising my eyebrow.
She laughed. “Actually, it was more because of the overwhelming smell those shops usually have. Like way too much incense burning. I figured that was the last thing I needed, as I was already feeling so sick. I didn’t want to end up losing it on one of the crystal displays.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. “No, I don’t think Madame Rowena would appreciate that very much. It was probably better you stayed out here.” Although I did find myself wondering what kind of friends would leave someone who clearly wasn’t feeling well outside by herself while they poked around a psychic shop. “Do you often see psychics?”
Her face was bemused. “Not by choice. Lynette loves them.”
“My best friend. We’re practically sisters. We grew up together.”
“Oh, that’s nice to still be so close with one of your childhood friends.”
She nodded. “Yeah, we basically lived together.”
“Really? Were you neighbors?”
She laughed a little. “Not quite. We lived in a house on her property.”
“Property?” I glanced up at the silver car the girl was leaning against. I hadn’t paid much attention to it before. I wasn’t all that into cars, but even if I was, my focus was on the girl and making sure she was okay. But in taking a second look, I realized it was a Mercedes Benz.
The girl noticed. “Yeah, that’s Lynette’s car. Brand new. Just got it this year. Her parents are loaded. I mean, really loaded. Her mom is related to the Duckworths.”
The Duckworths were one of the richest families in Riverview. Along with owning and managing a number of businesses, a couple of family members were also heavily involved in local and state politics. Pretty much everyone in southern Wisconsin had heard of them. “How did you end up living on their property? Does one of your parents work for them?”
“It’s just my mom and my younger brother,” she answered. Her smile was a little sheepish. “It’s kind of a complicated story. My mom and Janice, that’s Lynette’s mom, have been friends forever. My mom hasn’t had … well, the best of luck with men, shall we say. Or life. My father bailed on her while she was pregnant with me. I have no idea who he even is. Then, after my stepdad died when I was nine, my mother wasn’t able to function, so Janice moved us onto her property. It was supposed to be temporary, until my mother was able to get back on her feet. But then Janice had some issues with one of her staff, so my mother stepped in to help, and she’s been working for her ever since.”
“I guess it was a good thing your mother had a friend like Janice,” I said.
The girl started twisting a ring around one of her fingers. “Yes. It was a blessing. Janice has been helping my mother for as long as I can remember. She helped her get a job as a secretary after my father bailed, and she’d have Lynette’s nanny watch both of us. My mother didn’t have to pay a dime, which was also a blessing. My mom’s an orphan—both of her parents died when she was a teenager—so there was no one for her to turn to. Honestly, I don’t know what would have happened to us without Janice.”
“That’s horrible,” I said. “Your mother really did have it rough.”
The girl nodded, her hair swinging in front of her face. “Yeah, she did.”
“So, is that why Janice was so generous? Because of your mother’s circumstances?”
“That’s probably some of it. But apparently, my mother saved Janice’s life when they were kids, too. So, I guess she also felt like she owed her.”
“Naomi!” A female voice called out behind us, and I turned to look. Another young woman was standing there, who appeared to be the same age as Naomi. Her white-blonde hair was cut in a short pixie cut, and she wore stone-washed jeans, an oversized pale-pink shirt over a white tank top, and several clunky necklaces. A large, white tote bag was slung over one of her shoulders. She was with a second girl, who couldn’t look more different—long, very straight, dark hair and dressed all in black. White-Blonde hurried over to us, pulling off her expensive sunglasses and revealing shockingly green eyes. “What happened? Why are you on the ground?”
“Are you hurt?” the second girl asked, trailing just behind White-Blonde.
“I’m fine,” Naomi said, struggling to her feet. I grabbed one of her arms to help her up as the newcomer took the other. “I just … I guess I just fainted.”
“Fainted?” White-Blonde’s eyes widened. “I told you that you should have eaten breakfast today. This is exactly why you should have listened to me.”
“You were right,” Naomi said resignedly before turning to me. “This is Lynette, by the way.” She waved toward White-Blonde. “And this is Sloane.” The dark-haired girl nodded at me. “And I’m Naomi, although you probably figured that out. But I don’t know your name.”
“Charlie,” I said. “Nice to meet you all.”
“Nice to meet you,” Lynette said, cocking her head as she studied me. The sun glinted on what looked like diamond studs in her ears. “Did you see her faint?”
“I did. I don’t think she hit her head or anything like that,” I answered.
“I’m so glad you were here,” Lynette said before turning back to Naomi. “We need to get some food in you.”
“Ugh,” Naomi uttered, making a face.
“There’s a diner just down the street,” I said. “It’s called Aunt May’s. They have pretty good food.”
“Perfect. We’ll all go there. The boys are probably hungry anyway,” Lynette announced, putting her sunglasses back on as she turned around, presumably looking for “the boys.”
“Honestly, I’m not all that hungry,” Naomi said.
“Still, you should try and eat something,” Sloane interjected. She had sharp features and a pointed chin, reminding me of a fox.
“Let’s do this,” I offered. “You go to Aunt May’s, and I’ll run home and get you some of that tea I was telling you about. I promise you it will help calm your stomach, so you can eat a little something.”
“Really, you don’t have to go through all that trouble,” Naomi protested again.
“It’s no trouble,” I said. “I’m happy to help. And I agree with your friends. You need to eat.”
“You sell tea?” Lynette asked, her focus back on me.
“Yes, I sell teas and tinctures out of my home,” I said.
“You make them yourself?” Lynette asked.
“Yes. I grow a lot of the herbs and flowers that I use, as well.”
“Wow. That’s really cool,” Lynette said. “I’d love to try some.”
“I’d be happy to bring you some samples,” I said. “Just tell the waitress Charlie is bringing tea, and she’ll set you up.”
“Perfect,” Lynette said with a smile.
Naomi held up her hands in mock surrender. “Okay, then. I guess I’m outnumbered.”
“Great. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes … twenty tops,” I said.
“We’ll be there,” Lynette called out as I turned to hurry back to my car.
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