By Cathy Hinkle
Gossip shouldn’t feel like a responsibility.
I didn’t want to be the one to tell Stephen, but duty came in odd packages, and he needed to know. So, I squared my shoulders and pushed open the touristy saloon-style doors.
Pausing just inside, I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. The scents of sugar and flavorings were so strong that I could almost taste them, but I clenched my hand around the straps of my Coach knockoff and passed barrels of saltwater taffy in white paper twists and displays of candy sticks and licorice without touching anything.
Stephen glanced up as I approached the counter. He looked tired, and he’d lost weight—an admirable accomplishment for someone who spent his days working with sugar.
While the sight of chocolate had lost its appeal to me lately, the desire for the contrary sweetness of a lemon drop would have been my undoing. But that wasn’t the point of this visit, not this time. I figured I needed to tell him before the gossip mill finished its grist.
Or the police showed up.
Whichever came first.
“Clarise!” He grinned and nodded to the samples on the counter. “Got a fresh batch of Swedish fish.”
“Not gummy bears?” But I couldn’t help it. I took one. Darn it—lingonberry. Shoulda known. I swallowed it almost whole and grabbed an orange one to get the vile taste out of my mouth.
Stephen chuckled. “Not a lingonberry fan?”
“No.” After a few chomps, the orange fish joined the red one. I rubbed my fingertips over my chest. “Stephen… They ID’d the body from the river.”
He glanced up from the candy mold he was filling then tapped it a few times on the counter. Cradling the bag of melted chocolate in one hand, he piped more into the next handmade silicon mold. “Oh?”
“It’s that guy… the one who was stalking your sister-in-law.”
Melissa and I had been friends for ages, and with her husband overseas, Stephen and I had been keeping an eye on her. We were relieved when the creep disappeared.
Stephen froze, and the chocolate oozed like mud as he overfilled the last shape. He humphed and carefully wiped off the top, then moved both molds into a metal and glass cabinet.
An uncharacteristic frown flitted across his gentle features. “Serves him right.”
I wasn’t going to argue. While he washed his hands in the sink, I studied the display case. Even the truffles looked unappealing.
“I’m guessing they’ll say he drowned. He had mud in his lungs—” I stopped, grabbed another orange fish. Ate it. “But…”
“But?” he prompted.
“Oh, I don’t know.” I held a translucent yellow fish up to the light, then popped it into my mouth. Lemon. I closed my eyes to savor it. Lemon was cleansing, somehow. “But it’s been a while. Maybe they won’t be able to figure out how he died. Catfish probably got him. Or crawdads.”
“They can on TV.” After a quick glance in my direction, he wiped down the counter, scrubbing assiduously at an invisible spot. “Probably drowned. Do they know when he died?”
“I guess.” I shrugged. “Chances are they’ll be questioning anyone who knew him. Figured you’d want to know. Be prepared.”
Stephen wrung out the rag and tossed it into the tub of soapy water behind him. He drenched a clean one under steaming water and wiped the countertop again.
I fiddled with my purse strap’s buckle and thought about eating another Swedish fish. Maybe a green one. I liked lime almost as much as lemon. “How’s Melissa? Haven’t seen her since last week. She was flying back to Fort Bragg soon…”
“She’s all right,” he said. “Saw her off the day before yesterday. My brother’s tour is over next week. She wanted to be at the base before then.”
“Right before they hauled the guy out of the river, huh?”
He hummed a noncommittal answer.
I popped a green fish into my mouth and grimaced. “Really, Stephen? Apple? Not lime? That’s just wrong. Even worse than lingonberry.”
I laughed, though the sound fell like bricks through the sugar-laden air.
He chuckled as he dried his hands, but the smile faded into uneasiness. “Melissa was pretty scared. Even after that… guy… disappeared. She had me worried, but I think she’s doing okay.”
“She’s safe now.” I hoped he heard it as a statement, not a question. I picked out another fish.
“Yeah. She’s safe.” He threw me a sideways glance. “You just gonna eat all my Swedish fish, or are you gonna get some chocolate, too?”
“I don’t think I like chocolate anymore.” I forced a smile onto my face. “I’ll take some lemon drops, though. I’m… I’m thinking of going out of town for a bit. Need a vacation.”
Stephen rolled his shoulders back and slowly straightened. I hadn’t realized before that his brown eyes were the color of river mud. I shuddered.
He wiped his hands on his apron, more like he was scrubbing them clean than dusting them off, and used one of those big, metal scoops to fill a white paper bag. He passed it to me over the counter.
“Thanks for letting me know.” He measured his words as carefully as he measured sugar. “I’ll tell Melissa.”
I cleared my throat. “You didn’t weigh the candy, Stephen.”
He edged back from the counter. “No,” he said even more slowly. “Take it out of what I owe you.”
It’s not gossip if it’s true…
“Ah.” I tucked the bag into my purse and threw it over my shoulder. To banish the bitter aftertaste of green apple, I grabbed another orange fish and let it dissolve on my tongue. I licked my lips, then turned to go, but at the swing doors, I glanced back over my shoulder. “Stephen?”
His Adam’s apple jumped. “Yeah?”
I hoped my grin wasn’t shark-like. “I’m glad we talked. Stay safe.”