The Queen of Staves by Anne R. Allen by Anne R. Allen - Read Online

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The Queen of Staves - Anne R. Allen

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Allen

Why does everyone think Camilla has the lost Portuguese crown jewels? Will homicidal Mack Rattlebag discover Camilla's boyfriend Ronzo only faked his own death? And what has turned polite little Buckingham into an attack cat?

It's one surprise after another in this warp-speed comedy-mystery. Ronzo helps Camilla keep her struggling Morro Bay bookstore afloat with his unexpected tarot reading skills...until the lover of one of his tarot clients turns up dead on the beach. It's up to Camilla and Ronzo—and the tarot cards—to solve the mystery.

Meanwhile, Camilla's ex-husband Jonathan Kahn resurfaces, sparking old feelings, and Ronzo has a new rival: a too-perfect doctor who may or may not be in cahoots with a bunch of murderous New-Agers who have wandered into the orbit of mayhem-magnet Camilla Randall.

I REALLY ENJOYED THE book from start to finish. Wonderful characters and a ripping story which never lets up right up to that fabulous showdown ! ...Irish humorist Tara Sparling

A PERFECT BLEND OF wild and wacky characters spouting hilarious dialogue while finding themselves in unpredictable and unexpected situations. ...Paul Alan Fahey, author of The Mother I Imagined, The Mom I Knew.

THERE IS A DEPTH AND freshness about Anne Allen's work that makes for a pleasing surprise when compared to some of the other mysteries out there today. ...Poet Janice Konstantinidis

HER WRITING GAVE ME complete confidence that I would be in good hands, even way out of my normal genre. ...William L. Hahn author of The Lands of Hope fantasy series.

TREMENDOUS FUN, WITTILY satiric and highly recommended"...Nigel J. Robinson 

1—The Fool

Camilla

I CRINGED WHEN I SAW him lumbering down the sidewalk toward my bookstore that Friday afternoon and begged whatever deities might be in prayer range to keep him walking right on by.

But a moment later, he shoved a meaty palm against the door and stomped toward the counter where I was tallying up the week's meager receipts.

My boyfriend Ronzo had nicknamed him the Hulk. Not that the man was green. More of a sick yellow. His lumpy bald head looked like a boiled rutabaga. He also suffered from a tragic case of acne, but seemed to imagine himself attractive to women. He flaunted his body-builder physique in a skin-tight tank top and shorts—perhaps not totally inappropriate for a California beach town like Morro Bay.

But not in late October, with a chilly fog rolling in. 

I know who you are. You're Camilla Randall. The Hulk spoke in a belligerent tone, as if he expected me to deny it.

You're absolutely right, sir. I have been Camilla Randall for thirty-nine years, eleven months and nineteen days. My looming big 4-0 birthday dominated my thoughts that week. Can I help you find a book today?

You used to be married to that Fox News guy—Jonathan Kahn—right? That means you're really Camilla Kahn. His squinty eyes glowered at me from under his Neanderthal brow.

Actually, no. I never took Jonathan's name. The man obviously had issues, which were probably very sad, but I wished he'd take them somewhere else.

You're lying. He pulled a phone from his pocket and shoved it in my face. I found this picture of you on the Internet. See. It says Camilla Kahn, right there.

Good Lord. Had the man been stalking me? His phone showed a picture of me at a party in the Hamptons circa 1998—wearing a nearly see-through slip dress in champagne beige silk. What had I been thinking?

I have no control over what journalists call me. I cleared my throat. What was that book you were looking for? Maybe my assistant can help you find it. He's working on repairing the back room right now. We had a fire here a few months ago...

Ronzo didn't know much about books, but I needed to let the Hulk know I was not alone and vulnerable. On his last visit, this creep got me to bend over to look for a book on a low shelf so he could make a rude comment about my derriere.

As if on cue, hammering commenced in the back room, where Ronzo had been working miracles repairing my office after the fire that nearly put me out of business.

That dude don't know crap. I asked him when I was here before. He's just some homeless guy. You're probably not even paying him minimum wage. You rich society bitches never want to pay full price.

I kept my face stony and pretended to be preoccupied with my computer. I had to fight the urge to spring to Ronzo's defense. But I shouldn't even be thinking of him as Ronzo. I had to call him Vince because he was playing dead, using his cousin Vinko's driver's license for identification.

We couldn't let anybody know we were a couple—or even that Ronzo was alive. Somebody might trace him through me, since he'd mentioned me and the store on his now-defunct blog. I didn't think anybody would recognize him, with his Clairol-red cropped hair and scruffy beard, but he insisted on absolute secrecy. He wouldn't even stay in my cottage overnight.

Instead he stayed off the grid in a nearby homeless camp as he hunted for evidence against the Internet trolls who had destroyed his career and threatened to kill his grandmother.

The Hulk grabbed the phone back and glared at my picture.

You used to be super-hot. You let yourself go. You should work out.

I said nothing. I wish I could say I felt nothing as well, but that birthday was coming up fast and I could no longer fit in a lot of my designer clothes. Middle-aged spread was no myth. Plus I was on a ramen noodle budget these days, and the carbs were doing me no favors.

"I want that book I asked you for last week. That Arnold Schwarzenegger Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding."

I told you it's out of print. It was published in 1987. You'll have to try a used bookstore. Or I'm sure you can find it online.

I want you to order it for me.

I don't sell used books. I didn't tell him how little I'd make off the sale of a second-hand book. I'm sure he thought I should work for free. So many people confused bookstores with libraries. Here I was barely making ends meet and people would come into the store, thumb through a book, then order it from Amazon with their phones, not even trying to hide their rude behavior.

I'm afraid it's closing time. I looked pointedly at my watch, grabbed the keys from the register and opened the door to show him out. I didn't usually close until 5:00, but I didn't mind losing a few sales to get rid of this creep.

He banged his ham-like bicep against my left breast as he walked out.

You need to go to the gym, he said. You're all flab.

Maybe all the women he'd been with had implants, and he didn't know what a real breast felt like.

I slammed the door and started to lock it, but the Hulk didn't seem to be done for the day. As he trudged down the sidewalk, he knocked that wayward bicep against an elderly lady making her way toward the store with the help of a cane.

Henrietta Wilcox, one of my sweetest customers.

I heard Henrietta shriek as she lost her balance and had to steady herself against a tree.

I pushed on the door to run to her aid, but realized I had already locked it. My hands were all thumbs as I tried to turn the key back.

Henrietta's cane fell to the ground. It had an ivory duck's head handle—probably rather valuable. She called to the Hulk to help her. 

He stomped back. I took a breath and tried the key again. At least the guy had a bit of humanity in him.

No. He didn't.

I watched in horror as he kicked the cane into the street and told Henrietta she was fat and needed to work out.

I finally got the door open and ran toward Henrietta as a tall blonde woman swathed in scarves and jingling with bracelets emerged from the bead shop next door. She ran into the street and rescued the cane.

With a swift movement, she thwacked the back of the Hulk's noggin with the duck's head. He turned around with a shriek and she hit him full in the face. His nose ran with blood.

Fool! she said. Get out of here before I do some real damage. She made a fist with a hand graced with a huge jewel-encrusted ring that looked as if it could put out an eye. Did your mama bring you up to beat on old ladies?

The Hulk cursed and ran down the street toward a battered old Chevy.

People streamed from the surrounding shops clapping and hooting with admiration for the bejeweled Valkyrie.

I put my arm around Henrietta and helped her into the store. I asked if she needed me to call an ambulance, but she smiled sweetly and said she was fine now.

Her rescuer followed, still waving the cane, swooping in with scarves flying.

The woman was not young, and her features were the kind my mother would have called coarse, but she had a well-maintained figure and the sort of striking look that males generally find attractive.

Unfortunately, my cat Buckingham didn't seem to be one of those males. He usually warmed to customers, with the friendly good manners typical of a tuxedo cat, but he took one look at the scarf woman and scampered away to hide under the remainder table. 

I rang up the book on arthritis Henrietta had ordered and asked if she needed help walking back to her car. She shook her head, eyeing the blond woman equal parts admiration and fear.

Thanks to your friend, that lout has run off. I should be safe. I do go to an exercise class you know, at my mobile home park. My doctor says I'm in excellent shape for eighty-eight.

Poor Henrietta. It was amazing how an insult could sting, even when delivered by somebody as obviously disturbed as the Hulk. I admit I'd been sucking in my tummy since he'd made his nasty remarks about flab.

If that fool comes back, give him another whack with this. The scarf woman handed Henrietta her cane with ceremony. A bit of red glop stuck to the duck's head. Uh-oh. I think he bled on it.

Henrietta gave a broad smile. She shuffled toward the door brandishing the bloody cane.

First blood, she said. If I see him again, I'll finish him off!

The scarf woman turned back to me.

I'm Leona Von Schmidt. Her voice had the deep-throated power of a person who grew up in the sort of family where one had to be loud to be noticed. Now where do I sit? I'm here for a reading.

Reading? I wanted to be gracious to Henrietta's rescuer, but I simply didn't have the room. I'm afraid we don't host author readings. The place is too small, especially with the back room still under construction from our fire damage.

I stepped back. The woman must have bathed in Dior "J'Adore".

Oh, I'm not a damned author, Leona said. I want a card reading. Tarot. You gotta read my cards. Here. She tossed two twenty-dollar bills on the counter. Use that deck over there. She pointed to a deck of tarot cards that had been sitting in a dusty corner since long before I bought the bookstore.

I didn't have a clue how to read a tarot card, but I found myself obeying. I hated to admit it, but I could really have used the forty dollars. The fire had pretty much wiped me out and the insurance hadn't come through yet. I'd been living off the ever-shrinking royalties from my etiquette books, which didn't come close to covering my mortgage.  After dusting off the box, I studied it, as if I could somehow will the cards inside to yield their secrets. I'd heard there had been a New Age-y bookstore down the street until a few years ago. Leona must have confused the stores.

She beckoned me to the remainder table, slipped a scarf from her neck and spread it over the books.

Right here will do fine. She took a chair from the corner and plunked herself down.

But I... 

Buckingham darted from under the table, hissed—my cat never hissed—then sauntered to the door the back room where he meowed loudly for Ronzo to let him in.

A reading. Now. Let me see those cards.

2—The Queen of Staves

Ronzo

RONZO HEARD AN UNFAMILIAR voice coming from the store as he let Buckingham into the back office. A woman's voice, pushy and loud. He wondered if he'd heard right.

What's up, Bucky? Some lady wants a tarot reading? From Camilla? 

The cat jumped up on Camilla's desk, turned his butt toward the shop and lifted his tail. He was definitely not crazy about this new customer. 

Ronzo thought the whole thing was pretty funny. Camilla grew up in fancy New York society and was an expert on lots of stuff, like what kind of fork to use to eat an oyster and how to talk to duchesses, but he was willing to bet she knew diddly-squat about fortune telling.

She probably needed rescuing.

Since she'd been rescuing him a lot lately, he figured he owed her the favor.

He took off his tool belt, tucked his shirt into his jeans, and went into the shop. Camilla had moved a couple of chairs to the remainder table, which had some orange cloth draped over the books and she and the tarot woman sat on either side.

The woman looked like she sounded. Big hair. Big boobs. Flashy jewelry. Too much perfume. Ronzo saw lots of her type back in Jersey. They were usually trouble.

You're offering tarot readings now, Camilla? he said. You know, that's kind of my specialty. How about I do the honors? You probably need to close up. It's nearly 5 PM.

You can read tarot cards? Camilla looked up at him like he'd claimed to be able to fly the space shuttle.

He gave her shoulder a squeeze. My Great-Aunt Dinka taught me the cards when I was a kid. She always said I had the gift. You don't mind, do you?

Camilla jumped up and gave him a hug that was a little too tight, considering they were pretending not to be a couple. He could feel her body shaking. Funny. She didn't usually scare that easy.

Thank you, she whispered in his ear. It's been a tough afternoon.

What's up? He tried to sound casual.

This is where Camilla normally would have made introductions. She was the Manners Doctor, after all. But she just stood there, awkward and tongue-tied. She must have been rattled by something.

This is, um...she saved Henrietta Wilcox from the Hulk. He knocked Henrietta down. And kicked her cane in the street. It was terrible. He hit my breast and said I was flabby. She wants a reading...

That slime-bag sexually assaulted you? That's a crime.

Ronzo clenched a fist. That Hulk guy was way out of line.

It wasn't exactly...I don't know if he meant it that way.

If he did, you should call the cops.

Camilla gave him a warning look, reminding him cops would be a problem, since the only ID Ronzo had was borrowed from his cousin Vinko and it wouldn't pass muster if anybody looked at it too close. Camilla was protecting him. Rescuing him one more time.

The big blonde stood up.

I'm Leona Von Schmidt. The woman toned her voice down a little. And don't worry. I took care of that idiot...and you are? 

This...this is Mr., um, Vincent. Camilla's voice kind of squeaked. He's the handyman who's fixing the back office. We had a fire...

Poor Camilla had trouble remembering to call him the right name even on good days. Now Ronzo was afraid she might blurt it out and totally blow his cover.

Call me Vince. He offered Leona a firm handshake. I had an aunt from Zagreb who was half Romany—what people call a 'gypsy'—although she always said that word was insulting. Let me read your cards. Sounds like you've got an important question.

He smoothed the scarf, slid the deck out of the dusty box of Rider-Waite cards and unwrapped it from the yellowed cellophane.

Some of the local children call him Van Gough. Camilla still sounded nervous. Because of the red hair and beard. And he's been doing such a great job painting the bookstore. I really love the green trim with the red brick, don't you? Kind of like Christmas all year round.

Now it was Ronzo's turn to signal a warning to Camilla. Unfortunately, she was the world's worst liar. She always ended up over-explaining, which could give things away. They couldn't afford a slip-up. It had only been three months since Ronzo's blog had been hacked and he'd been savaged in the media with bogus accusations of animal abuse. He'd had to stage a fake suicide to escape the death threats. And until he found a way to stop the creeps who planted the bogus story—and a way to clear his name—he was a whole lot safer staying dead.

You're Vincent Van Gough? Leona gave him a skeptical look.

Vince is good. My full name is Vinko Crtomir Alojzuje Zolek. My family really is from Zagreb. He gave her a smile he hoped wasn't too cocky.

Vin-ko Crtmmaaa...., she laughed as she tried to get her mouth around all those consonants. Okay. I call you Mr. Vincent. Good name for a tarot reader."

Good enough. He put on a serious face as he positioned the deck in the middle of the scarf with the kind of ceremony that would have made Aunt Dinka proud.

You must cut the cards while you keep your question firm inside your mind. Clear your brain of all other thoughts. He realized a tad of his Aunt's Croatian speech patterns had slipped in with his North Jersey accent.

It worked. Leona obeyed while Camilla escaped to the front of the store to help a customer at the new arrivals table.

Had Camilla given him an eye-roll along with that smile? This whole thing was off-the-wall, even for a touristy beach town. Or maybe all bookstores in California provided tarot readings. There was a whole lot of New Age-y stuff out here that people would laugh at back in Newark.

He tried to keep his face serious as he shuffled the cards. He hoped he could remember all the steps. And what each of the cards meant. He'd always been a little shaky on the numbered ones.

He steepled his hands and leaned in.

So what do you want to ask the cards today, Leona?

I gotta know. Is he cheating? I'm pretty sure he's cheating. I need to know for sure.

Your husband?

Conor. Conor MacDara, the Irish poet. He's my lover.

She said lover with a belligerent chin-jut worthy of a girl from the Jersey Shore.

Do you want a full Romany spread, or a simple yes-or-no reading? He really hoped for the yes-or-no. He hadn't done a full Romany for years.

I never had a Romany spread. Does it cost more? Leona's bracelets jingled.

Behind her, Camilla waved two twenty dollar bills and nodded energetically. Money was real tight for her these days. This morning her kitchen cupboard didn't have much in it but ramen noodles, saltines and generic corn flakes. Sometimes the homeless guys he hung out with ate better than she did.

Yeah. That'll be eighty bucks. Ronzo sent a silent plea to Aunt Dinka to guide him from wherever she was on the Other Side.

Leona reached into her handbag and tossed two more twenties on the table.

You better be worth it, Mr. Vincent.

3—The Star

Camilla

I WATCHED IN AWE AS Ronzo handled the tarot cards like an expert. He laid them out in a neat rectangular pattern as if he actually knew what he was doing. He had Leona mesmerized.

Of course it would have been bad manners for me to listen in on a private consultation, but I couldn't help glancing over from time to time. Standing at the counter, checking out the new James Patterson for my last straggling customer, I was only a few feet away.

And of course Leona's voice carried all over the store.

Oh, yes. You're right. That's him. Conor is exactly like that, Leona said. She and Ronzo focused intently on one card. I managed to get a glimpse of it—a man in medieval dress holding a cup with a fish in it. An odd image, more cartoony than mystical.

Creative and intuitive. Full of energy? Ronzo said. Kinda romantic?

Oh yeah...plus he drinks like a fish! Leona's laugh was as outsized as the rest of her. Well, he is Irish.

He's really from Ireland? Ronzo gave a knowing smile.  You have the World card over here. That can mean global travel.

Oh yes. He's here on a tourist visa, but he wants to stay in California. He's got some irons in the fire in Hollywood. One of his scripts is with Spielberg. Leona's tone got conspiratorial. I first hired him as a gardener after Manuel took off, but when I found out he was an award-winning poet...

Ronzo examined another card.

Well, he sure seems popular with the ladies. He's flanked by the Queen of Staves and the Empress. With the Star over his head. One of these is probably you.

Oh, that's me. The queen of what do you call 'em, staves? Fernanda calls them wands. I like wands better. They sound more magical. She was my regular reader, but she's gone back to Mexico to look for Manuel. She thinks maybe ICE deported him. Anyway, she said that was me—that Queen with the sunflower and the lion throne. I'm a Leo. Very generous. I'm generous to a fault. People always tell me that. Leona picked up the Star card. That's probably her. The bitch Conor ran off with.

You feel that the Star represents the other woman? You should always follow your intuition in a reading like this. Why do you see this card as his girl on the side?

Ronzo was amazingly good at this act.

Because the girl in the card is naked and this bitch is always half-dressed and throwing herself at Conor. Leona gave a snort. I think he's shacking up with her. He said he was going to some meeting with her and he hasn't been home for two days. Read the rest of the cards. I gotta know.

The Star is reversed, which means disappointment and the dashing of dreams. Maybe she didn't get what she wanted because Conor is faithful, Ronzo said. Now the next card is...

They went silent for a moment.

Death, Leona said in a low voice. The Death card. I know what that means.

Unfortunately, my watch said nearly 5:30. This was fascinating—a part of Ronzo I'd never seen before—but it was past time to lock up.

I grabbed the keys, but when I got to the front door, I heard Leona yell. I didn't know if I should keep pretending I didn't hear them.

Oh my god, she kept saying Dashing of dreams and Death? Oh, my god. Conor's dead! He's dead, isn't he? That's why he doesn't return my phone calls!

The Death card doesn't always mean somebody actually kicks the bucket. Ronzo spoke in the humorous tone he used when I got upset about another bill or the stonewalling from my infuriating insurance company.

But it's right there. In the near future. Didn't you say that's the near future?

It depends on what's around it. Ronzo flipped over another card. Like if this is...

The Nine of Swords? Shoot. That's never good. Leona's voice was rising to shriek level now.

Ronzo flipped the last card.

The Tower? Oh my god. That's it! Leona threw her hands in the air. Conor's dead. That's me crying in that bed with the swords. It's the nightmare card. That's what Fernanda always said. And that Tower—that's disaster. Total disaster. Everything crashing down around me.

I tiptoed closer and saw tension in Ronzo's face. Apparently Leona's interpretations weren't far from what he saw.

Leona sniffed and reached into her huge Prada bag for a handkerchief.

The Tower card could mean Conor's life is crashing down. Ronzo spoke with a little too much enthusiasm. See. It's next to the Star. You said that's his new squeeze. Maybe she dumped him. How long did you say he's been gone?

Two days. That is, he didn't come home last night. And he isn't answering his cell. I know he's with her. She's such a whiny bitch. Kensie. She thinks she's a writer. She invited him to talk to some writing group down in Nipomo. He said she wanted help with her poetry. Sure she did.

But what if she dumped him? Ronzo's voice was soothing. "That would mean he's the one with the nightmare. See where the Ten of Swords is? He might be afraid to come back to you because he's ashamed. Give him time. But he's not dead.