It was pretty clear the body wasn’t going to go in the back of Roma’s SUV. The legs were hanging out, almost touching the driveway.
“Can’t we just push him in?” she asked, kicking dirty snow away from the back tires.
“No, we can’t just push him in,” Maggie said. “That would break his legs.” She walked to the other side of the SUV. “Maybe if we put him in feet first.” She looked at me. “What do you think, Kathleen?”
What did I think? I thought it was freezing. “He still won’t fit,” I pointed out. “Could we take his legs off?”
Maggie looked at me, aghast. “Take Eddie’s legs off? How?”
“I have a hacksaw under the front seat,” Roma added oh-so-not-helpfully. Because she was a veterinarian she had a number of things in her vehicle that other people didn’t.
I gave her a look. “No, I don’t mean saw off his legs,” I said. “But don’t they detach somehow?”
Wrong thing to say. Maggie laid a protective hand on Eddie’s thigh. “Do your legs detach?” she asked.
I exhaled slowly, watching my breath hover in the air. “No,” I said, “my legs don’t detach, but I’m a human being and Eddie’s a mannequin.”
“He’s a mixed-media assemblage piece,” Maggie said huffily.
The real Eddie Sweeney—“Crazy” Eddie Sweeney—was number 22, a six-foot-four forward for the Minnesota Wild hockey team and the pride of the state—born and bred. Maggie had been commissioned to create a display featuring Eddie for this year’s Winterfest. I was pretty sure the Winterfest committee had been expecting Maggie’s collage panels, not a life-sized recreation of Eddie in pads and skates. He looked so real, truthfully, that he had given me the creeps the first time I saw him dressed, sitting in a chair in Maggie’s art studio.
“Could we wrap him in plastic and tie him to the roof racks?” Roma asked. All I could see were Roma’s eyes and nose buried in the hood of her heavy coat.
“Realistically, how far do you think we’d get before someone called the police?” I said.
“Good point, Kathleen,” she said.
“We can’t leave him like this.” Maggie looked skyward. “I think it’s going to snow.”
“There’s a surprise,” I muttered.
Winter in Mayville Heights, Minnesota, came in three varieties: About to Snow, Snowing, and Get Out the Shovel. On the other hand, I had to concede that the town looked like something out of an old Currier & Ives greeting card. Snow decorated the tree branches, frost sparkled on windowpanes, and there was a complete snowman in every second yard.
It was my first real winter in town. I’d arrived last year at the tail end of the season to be the new librarian and supervise the renovations to the library building for its upcoming centennial.
I look at Eddie’s backside sticking out of the rear of the SUV. “I have an idea,” I said. “Roma, can you grab Eddie’s left thigh?”
She pushed back her hood. “With pleasure,” she said with a grin. She gave Faux Eddie a pat on the behind and caught him by the leg and the waist. I took the other side and we lifted him out of the back of the SUV. Though he wasn’t a real body, he was still heavy.
“Now what?” Roma asked.
“Be careful,” Maggie said, hovering behind us.
“Open the passenger’s door,” I told her.
“You can’t put his feet in the front and his head in the back,” she warned. “Once Roma starts driving he’ll slide backward and break.”
“That’s not what I’m doing,” I said. “Trust me.”
Maggie was my closest friend in Mayville. We’d met when I’d joined the tai chi class she taught, and bonded over our mutual love of the cheesy reality show Gotta Dance. She was a talented collage artist, but I’d never seen her so worked up about a commission.
She chewed her lip for a second, then caught herself. Putting both hands on her stomach, she took several slow, deep breaths. “Sorry,” she said. “This whole project is making me crazy. Do whatever you were going to do.” She reached over and opened the passenger’s door.
“What are we doing?” Roma whispered.
“We’re putting him in the front seat. You take the shoulders and I’ll take his legs,” I said. We set Eddie on the front passenger’s seat, legs out to the side.
“Turn him around,” I said to Roma. She shifted Eddie to face the windshield, while I moved his legs, resting his skates on the floor mat. Then I leaned in and fastened the seat belt. “Ta da,” I said, backing out of the SUV.
Roma walked around to the front of the vehicle and looked through the windshield. “He looks so real,” she said.
I nodded. “Yeah, he does.”
Maggie couldn’t help checking the seat belt herself. Roma closed the tailgate, then came around and got in behind the wheel. I climbed in the backseat, sliding over to make room for Maggie.
Roma backed out of the alley and headed down the street. I’d met her at tai chi, too, but the friendship between the three of us had really been cemented last summer when Mags and I had coerced Roma into helping us follow someone, à la Charlie’s Angels.
“Thanks for doing this, Roma,” Maggie said.
She smiled at us in the rearview mirror. “I don’t mind. How often do I get the chance to drive around with a celebrity?” She reached over and patted Eddie’s shoulder. “Well, sort of a celebrity.”
“Eddie’s having the best season of his career,” Maggie said. “Forty goals and thirty-five assists so far.”
“Really?” I said, working not to let her see me smile.
“And he’s probably in the best shape of his career, as well. Did you know he does extra skating drills on his own after practice?”
“I did not know that,” Roma said solemnly.
Maggie pulled off a mitten and reached forward to fix the back of Eddie’s jersey. “Every single Wild home game has been sold out this season and it’s because of Eddie.”
I pulled off my own mittens and fished in my pocket for lip balm. “You know, Roma,” I said. “I never thought it would happen, but I think Matt Lauer has some competition for Maggie’s heart.” I saw Roma’s face widen into a grin.
“Do you think he can dance?” Roma asked, referring to Matt Lauer’s improbable win on the previous season of Gotta Dance.
“Gee, I don’t know. He does have some smooth moves.”
“Ha, ha, ha,” Maggie said. “I don’t have a thing for Eddie Sweeney.”
“Of course not,” Roma said. “He’s only tall, strong, and gorgeous.”
Maggie squared her shoulders. “I’m just a fan of Eddie’s athletic abilities—that’s all.”
“Oh, me, too,” Roma retorted. “If I were just a little bit younger . . .” She let the end of the sentence trail away, and grinned.
We turned left at the corner and drove down Main Street under the huge Winterfest banner stretched across the road in front of the James Hotel.
“So, how long has Winterfest been going on?” I asked.
“Since I was a kid,” Maggie said. “And before that.”
Roma nodded. “It started out as an ice-fishing competition back in the forties.”
“I didn’t know that,” Maggie said.
“Oh yeah. People came from all over the state.” Roma put on her blinker to turn into the community center parking lot. She shot a quick glance back over her shoulder at Maggie. “Which door?”
“The side one, please,” Maggie said, shifting to peer through the windshield. “Tell me there’s a perfectly good reason it looks like no one else is here.”
Except for one light I’d noticed at the front entrance, the building seemed to be closed.
“Sam’s been on energy-saving kick,” Roma said. “He can go overboard pretty easily.”
Sam was the mayor of Mayville Heights, and Roma was right. His efforts to save energy had gone a little bit too far for some people.
She pulled into a parking spot close to the door and shut off the SUV. “Let’s get Eddie inside,” she said.
We reversed the process of putting Eddie in the passenger’s seat. Maggie went ahead to hold the door for us.
It was locked. “No,” she groaned, kicking the door with her heavy boot. “Hey, anybody in there?” she called.
“Seven o’clock, Thorsten said. Seven. O’. Clock. Where is he?”
I looked around. Thorsten was the building caretaker. There were maybe half a dozen vehicles in the parking lot. None of them were Thorsten’s.
“Can you hold on to Eddie while I try to find out what’s going on?” Maggie asked, pulling out her cell phone.
“Sure,” I said. I tucked Eddie’s knees against my sides. Roma pulled his body a little closer, wrapping her arms around his chest. I couldn’t help wondering what this would look like to anyone walking by.
Maggie punched a number into the phone and took a couple of slow, deep breaths while she waited for it to ring on the other end. She made a face. “Voice mail.” She waited another moment. “Thorsten, it’s Maggie Adams. I’m at the community center and the building is locked. Where are you?” She rattled off her cell number and pressed the end button. “Who else is on the Winterfest committee?” she asked.
“Rebecca,” Roma said.
Maggie made a face. “I don’t want to bring her down here in the cold.”
Eddie was heavy for a guy that was mostly cotton padding. My arms were starting to cramp. “What about Mary?” I said. Mary worked for me at the library.
“Do you know her number?” Maggie asked.
I recited it to her.
“Thanks,” she said, putting the phone up to her ear. We waited, then Maggie let out a breath. She watched it slowly dissipate in the frigid air. “Does anyone answer the phone?”
Eddie’s back end was hanging dangerously close to a pile of dirty snow. I tightened my grip on his legs.
“Call Oren,” Roma said. “He did some work on the ceiling this week, fixing that leak from the ice buildup. He’ll have a key.” Oren Kenyon was a jack-of-all trades. He’d worked on the library renovation last summer as well as getting the Stratton Theater ready for the Wild Rose Summer Music Festival.
“Roma, you’re a genius,” Maggie said, pushing buttons on the phone.
The cold was seeping up through the heavy soles and fuzzy lining of my boots, and the long underwear I was wearing underneath my jeans.
“Oren,” Maggie said. “It’s Maggie.” Quickly she explained the problem. Then she listened, nodding even though Oren couldn’t see her. “Thank you so much,” she said. “We’ll see you then.” She snapped the phone shut. “Oren will be here in about half an hour. Do you guys mind waiting?”
Roma shook her head.
“Why don’t we go down to Eric’s and have hot chocolate while we wait?” I said.
“Excellent idea,” Roma said, her voice partly muffled because her face was pressed against Eddie’s side. “But what are we going to do with Eddie?”
“Stick him back in the SUV,” I said.
Maggie held the passenger’s door opened and we managed to get Eddie back in the front seat without dumping him in the snow. We piled into the car, and Roma backed out of the parking spot.
“I know it probably looks like I’m being a little obsessive,” Maggie said.
I raised an eyebrow in my best Mr. Spock impersonation.
“I just don’t want anything to happen to Eddie. He’s the biggest piece ever I’ve done.”
Roma looked both ways and pulled out of the lot. “Hey, I don’t want anything to happen to Eddie, either. He’s the only man in my life right now.”
“Oh, sure, Kathleen. Go ahead and laugh. You have two guys in your life.”
“I do?” I said. Then I realized she was talking about my cats. “You mean Owen and Hercules? They shed, they don’t pay any attention to anything I say to them and their breath smells like sardines.”
“And that would be different from a real man how?” Roma asked.
Maggie and I both laughed.
Eric’s Place was just up ahead. It was one of the best places to eat in town and was run, perhaps unsurprisingly, by Eric Cullen. His wife, Susan, worked for me at the library.
“Look for somewhere to park,” Roma said.
I scanned the street, wondering why there were so many cars on a Wednesday night in February.
Maggie must have read my mind. “Wait a sec. There’s an auction going on tonight over at Fischer’s Warehouse, isn’t there? The stuff from Cormac Henry’s place.”
I remembered reading about that in the paper. “That’s where Mary is,” I said.
“Probably Thorsten, too,” Roma added.
“There,” Maggie suddenly squealed, pointing across the street. Amazingly, there was an empty parking spot in front of Eric’s.
Roma scanned the pavement in front of us. “You didn’t see this,” she muttered. She made a tight U-turn in the mouth of the alley two buildings down from the café, then drove ahead and backed smoothly into the empty space in front of the restaurant. “There,” she said to Maggie. “You can keep an eye on Eddie and he won’t miss all the fun.”
We piled on to the sidewalk and went into the restaurant. It was almost empty. Peter Lundgren was at a table by the end wall, his head bent over a book, probably something to do with World War II history; that was where his reading interests lay. I also knew he liked heavy-metal music, which wasn’t what I would have expected of a lawyer.
Claire, my favorite waitress, smiled at us. “Sit anywhere,” she called, making a sweeping gesture with one hand.
I caught sight of Eric behind the counter.
“Why don’t we take a table by the window so we can keep an eye on Eddie?” Roma said.
“Good idea,” I said. “I’ll be right back. I just need to speak to Eric for a second.”
“Hi, Kathleen,” Eric said with a smile. He was wearing a long apron with splotches of chocolate all over it. That had to be good.
“Hi,” I said. “I just wanted to say thank you for the apple cake this morning.” Eric liked to experiment with new recipes for the café. Sometimes Susan brought his efforts to work.
“Oh, you’re welcome.” He pushed back the sleeves of his dark green sweater. “Did you think there was too much cinnamon?”
I shook my head. “No. But if you feel you need to experiment a little more . . .”
“You’ll all force yourself to be my taste testers.”
I put my hand over my heart. “We’ll make the sacrifice,” I said solemnly.
He laughed, and I headed back to Roma and Maggie, pulling off my old coat. It was warm, but it was an ugly shade of brown. I’d bought it to wear out to Wisteria Hill when it was my turn to help feed the cat colony that lived at the abandoned house. Since I’d only paid five dollars for the jacket at Goodwill I didn’t really care that it wasn’t very fashionable. I was pretty sure the cats didn’t, either.
Claire came over with an insulated carafe. “Hot chocolate?” she asked, holding it up.
“Please,” Roma said, pulling off her gloves and rubbing her hands together.
Maggie and I both nodded.
Claire poured three mugs of cocoa. “Marshmallows or cinnamon?”
“Marshmallows!” Maggie and I said in unison.
“Eric made chocolate pudding cake,” Claire said with a sly smile. Her red curls were caught in two pigtails and she looked like a mischievous little girl.
Roma was bent over, fixing her boot. “Yes,” she said, holding up one hand and waving it.
“That sounds good,” Maggie said.
“It does,” I agreed.
“It’ll just be a couple of minutes,” Claire promised, heading back to the counter.
Roma straightened and picked up her mug. “Here’s to chocolate and duct tape.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Chocolate and duct tape,” she repeated. “Between the two of them you can solve just about any problem.” She stuck out her left leg, pointing to her boot. “See?” There was a piece of gray duct tape stuck to the heel on the inside edge. “I caught that on a spike this afternoon. Couple of pieces of tape and it’s fine for now.”
I laughed. “Don’t tell me you carry a roll of duct tape in your bag.”
“I do. And a bag of M&M’s.” She held out her right hand, palm up. “Duct tape.” She did the same with her other hand. “M&M’s. If I can’t fix whatever’s wrong with those two things, I’m going home and getting back into bed.”
Claire was coming toward us, carrying a large oval tray. I could smell the warm chocolate. She set a dish of marshmallows in the middle of the table, then slid a bowl of pudding cake in front of each of us.
It tasted even better than it smelled, and it smelled wonderful. “Can I get you anything else?” she asked. All she got for an answer was three grunts. She smiled. “I’ll check back in a few minutes.”
We ate in silence except for the occasional sigh of pleasure. Maggie set down her spoon first and licked a drop of chocolate sauce from the side of her thumb. “That was so, so good,” she said. She pulled a small black notebook from her pocket. “What’s the rest of your week look like?” she asked Roma. “I need to take some more pictures of the cats.”
Roma wiped her hand with her napkin. “What works for you?” she asked. They leaned across the table, comparing schedules.
Maggie had done a collage of photos of the feral cat colony at Wisteria Hill, where I’d found Owen and Hercules. It hung in the waiting room of Roma’s veterinary clinic. Now an animal-rescue organization had commissioned Maggie to create a poster for their spay-neuter program. She was going to take pictures of three new strays that had been left on the doorstep of the clinic last week.
There was a rush of cold wind in my face as the door to the café opened. A tiny, elderly woman stepped inside. Something about her seemed familiar. She hesitated in the doorway, blinking in the light. Was she looking around for someone? I wasn’t sure. I touched Roma’s arm. “Roma, who’s that?” I asked.