Theodore—Teddy to nearly everyone not related by blood—Tonica was king of his domain. Or maybe ringleader was a better description, he thought with a grin, snapping the bar towel in his hand at a patron who tried to reach over the bar and change the music. “Hands off the dial, Joel.” The radio was set to a local jazz station, and it didn’t get turned up any higher than could be heard at the bar itself. Those were the rules, and everyone knew it.
The joint was jumping—well, jumping for a relatively quiet part of Seattle early on a Thursday evening, anyway. The eleven bar stools were in use, and most of the chairs were taken, too, people settling in to stay for a while. It wasn’t the crazed rush of a weekend, but there was enough work to keep both hands busy. Teddy set up two beers and pushed them across the bar with a professional flourish, then paused to check on his waitress.
Stacy was working the floor, moving around the tables with economy, unloading her tray, taking orders, and swiping empties. He’d been worried that once she was boosted up to off-shift bartender she’d not want to waitress anymore, but Stacy seemed to slip between the two roles
without hesitation or ego. He suspected that she made more money in tips as a waitress, anyway. The regulars here weren’t stingy. You couldn’t be, if you wanted to keep coming back week after week. And people did.
The phone in his pocket vibrated slightly, and instinct moved his hand toward it, even though he knew better. The motion was checked when the guy leaning against the bar held up a hand with several bills folded between his fingers. Teddy nodded in the guy’s direction, holding up his index finger to say he’d be right there. He fished the phone out of his pocket and checked the number, even though he was pretty sure who was calling. “Not now, people, not now,” he muttered, tapping the button to refuse the call, and shoving the phone back into his pocket. His sisters and cousins seemed to think that he needed to be dragged into the latest family flap. He disagreed, vehemently.
This was why he’d left the East Coast.
“What can I do for ya?” he asked, finally turning to the new customer. The guy ordered a winter ale and a Pink Squirrel. Because Teddy was a professional, he didn’t roll his eyes at the order, even though he wanted to. It embarrassed him that he actually knew how to make a Pink Squirrel. Mary’s was a respectable neighborhood bar, a place for draft beers and classy drinks, not foofy sugar-bombs. But the customer was always right, so long as they were sober.
He supposed it could have been worse. After a local newspaper did a puff piece on the “crime-solving bartender”
and the exotic cat smuggling case they’d worked last year, Patrick, the owner of the bar, had suggested that they create a specialty drink, something cat-related. Teddy had managed to avoid doing it long enough that he hoped that idea had died a natural death. He was a bartender, not a mixologist, or whatever the trendy title was these days. Patrick could run specials like that at his new place when it opened, not here.
“Besides,” Teddy said now, lifting his head to look at the top of the shelves behind him, “you’re the only cat that this bar needs.”
Only the tip of her tail and the edge of one white-dipped paw were visible, but he was pretty sure Penny’s whiskers twitched in agreement. Not that an animal could understand the words, but the fact that the little tabby considered Mary’s her domain—and Teddy her human—was a fact among the regulars of the bar. Even he’d come to accept it. He laughed at himself now. Who knew letting a bedraggled kitten come in out of the rain would turn him into . . . well, a pet person was overstating the matter, but a specific animal person, anyway.
The front door opened, a burst of wet air rushing in, and someone yelled out a complaint before the door was quickly shut again. Even without looking up, Teddy knew who had come in, because Penny leaped down from her perch, landing gracefully on the back counter. She only ever reacted like that for one visitor.
“One gimlet, just like the lady likes,” he said, pulling up the ingredients even as Ginny slid up to the bar. As
crowded as it had been, a stool suddenly opened for her, and she took it like a queen accepting her throne.
“One of these days,” the blonde said, “I’m going to come in here and order a beer, just to mess with you.”
“No you won’t.”
Ginny laughed. “No, I probably won’t. But I might.”
She might, he thought, especially if she thought she could catch him out. Ginny Mallard had a streak of mischief a mile wide for all that she looked like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth just then. Either she’d had a good day at the office, or he was about to get hit with the worst joke he’d ever heard. Or, possibly, both.
“And hello to you, too, Mistress Penny,” she said to the cat, who gave her a delicate sniff and then leaped down to the floor to visit with the newcomer she was actually interested in, Ginny’s shar-pei, Georgie, who was happily settling at her mistress’s feet.
Until recently, Georgie, like all other canines whose owners frequented Mary’s, had been relegated to the sidewalk outside. There was an unofficial tie-up next to the bike rack where dogs could rest in the shade, out of the way of foot traffic. Since Teddy had become manager, those rules had been loosened, until Georgie now took it as much her right to come inside as it was Ginny’s.
One cat and one dog. That was as far as he’d let himself slip.
“Try not to get stepped on,” Ginny said to both animals, and then turned her attention back to the human across the
bar. “Busy, for a Thursday. Did every other bar in town close?”
“Hah. And actually, yeah. The Fish is having renovations done, so their space is about half the usual.” Teddy made a face. “I think we’re getting the overflow, based on the level of hipster tonight.”
Like most neighborhoods in Seattle, Ballard had an assortment of drinking establishments, each with its own atmosphere and clientele. The nearest competitor, Fish, was upscale, while Nickles, across the avenue, attracted college students. Mary’s had intentionally cultivated a “neighborhood joint” feel. It was the place you went to talk your best friend out of a bad idea, or took a date when you were finally ready to introduce her to your friends. There was no jukebox or band, no pool table or dance floor, and only a small bar menu with just enough choices to soak up your beer, not to replace dinner. The only time outsiders showed up in any number was for Trivia Night, which had the reputation as being one of the toughest, most fiercely contested competitions in all of Seattle. The rest of the time, Teddy could identify 90 percent of his customers by name.
He’d worked flavor-of-the-month clubs before. He much preferred this.
He’d met Ginny the first week he’d started here. The curvy blonde had walked in that first Trivia Night, sat down with her team, and helped dismember every opponent—including his own newly joined team—with a combination of razor-sharp mind and good-natured snark.
The two of them hadn’t clicked so much as clacked, and it had taken another year for that to ease into a comfortable rivalry.
In fact, it was only in the past year that he could really say that they had become friends, and most of that probably had to do with Georgie. Penny had taken to the shar-pei puppy the very first time they’d met, which gave the two humans more reason to converse. That friendship had only deepened, much to both their surprise, when she’d talked him into working with her. Ginny had taken her real job—personal concierge services—and used it to start a sideline of private investigations, or what she called “researchtigations.” It had been against his better judgment, helping her out, and he was still amazed that he had agreed.
Still, he admitted that the challenge of these side jobs had intrigued him enough that he’d said yes not just once, but four times.
And that challenge had also gotten him shot at, attacked by a big cat, padlocked to a walk-in freezer, and his family name bandied about. That last had probably bothered him more than anything else, he admitted.
Teddy squinted at her suspiciously now. If she had a new gig, she was on her own. He wasn’t going to let her talk him into anything more. But saying that up front would only challenge her.
“You here to drink away your cares, or celebrate your brilliance?” he asked instead, setting a napkin down and placing her drink on top of it with a flourish.
“Neither. Or both. To celebrate my brilliant cares?” She shrugged, and took a sip of her drink. “I made one client deliriously happy with me today, and have two new clients waiting for me to send them contracts, so Georgie gets to keep in kibble for another few months. Life is good.” She picked up the wedge of lime and sucked at it delicately.
Every time he saw her do that, he cringed. “Jesus, what’re you, at risk for scurvy? At least have the decency to drink tequila if you’re going to do that.”
“Wuss.” She left the rind in her mouth, pressed up against her teeth, and gave him a green smile, making him roll his eyes. Ginny Mallard looked like a classy dame, but some days she had the sophistication of a fifth grader.
“If I can interrupt this group hug?” Stacy came up behind Ginny, sliding her tray onto the bar and ducking quickly to make her greetings to Georgie, who responded with an enthusiastic face-licking, if Stacy’s giggle was any guide. The waitress resurfaced, grinning. “Boss, I need three Black and Tans with back, and a glass of the Cabernet. Hi, Ginny. Still up for bowling next weekend?”
Ginny flinched, dropping the lime wedge onto her napkin. “I really agreed to that?”
“You did. And bring the man. I can’t believe you’ve been dating for months and we haven’t met him yet.”
They hadn’t even learned the guy’s name yet, for that matter. “She’s afraid to bring him here,” Teddy said, pulling the first of the beers. “That’s assuming he even exists, anyway.”
“Don’t start,” Ginny warned them. “I adhere to the
six-month rule for relationships. Let them get comfortable before you throw them to your friends.”
“Yeah, but we’re not friends, we’re Mary’s,” Stacy protested.
“Yeah, well I don’t live here like some people . . .”
“Ginny, you’re in four days a week,” Teddy said, finishing with the beers and pouring the wine. “If you actually drank worth a damn, we’d engrave your name on one of the stools.”
“And on that note, I’m gone.” Stacy loaded her tray and disappeared back into the crowd.
“So,” he said, leaning forward and waggling his eyebrows like a cut-rate Groucho Marx. “It’s almost been six months. . . .”
“Don’t start,” she repeated, her eyes narrowing in clear warning, and he backed off. He could tease her about Georgie, about her endless love of her technology, of her impatience and her lack of schmoozing skills, but not about her personal life. Fair enough. He had no desire to open up about his, either. That thought made him look guiltily at his phone, then he went back to work, leaving her to her drink.
“G’night, Gin,” someone called out, and she raised a hand in farewell, even though she hadn’t actually talked to him tonight. It had been pretty crackling when she walked in at seven thirty, but the bar was starting to clear out by ten—apparently the overflow from Fish were early-to-bed
types. Ginny had switched to ginger ale about an hour ago, as usual, but sitting at the bar people-watching was preferable to going home and trying to do more work, or staring at the television. Rob—the boyfriend of speculation—was heading out on a business trip first thing tomorrow, so she was on her own for the weekend.
Georgie clearly didn’t mind hanging out here: the dog was snoring happily at Ginny’s feet, Penny curled up between oversized canine paws, also asleep. Ginny looked at the two of them, and shook her head fondly, then pulled out her tablet and snapped a picture and posted it to the bar’s Facebook page. Then, unable to help herself, she checked her email. One message was from her mother, which she ignored. The other . . . “Oh, are you kidding me?” She sighed. So much for not working anymore tonight, but if she left it until the morning the client would work himself into a frenzy—and she wouldn’t be able to sleep well for worrying.
Grumbling, she started pulling up the information she’d need to put out this particular fire. Fortunately, she’d developed the ability to shut out the ambient noise and movement of the bar around her, and lose herself in the work.
Sometime around ten thirty, an older man wearing cargo pants and a gray sweatshirt under a mostly clean apron came out from the back and sat down next to her, glaring at the thirtysomething couple who had been leaning against the bar waiting for service, until they made room for him. Ginny turned her head and gave him a curious look. A
former boxer, Seth was in his sixties, balding and wrinkled, but his body was still strong enough to give would-be troublemakers pause. The older man ran Mary’s kitchen, if you could call the galley space behind the bar anything that grand, and he wasn’t a fan of Ginny, or Georgie, or Penny, for that matter. In fact, Ginny wasn’t sure he was a fan of anything, although Tonica said that he was actually a good guy. For a professional grouch.
When he sat there and didn’t say anything, Ginny decided to return the favor. It seemed only polite. After a while, though, it got to be weird, of the creepy-weird variety, and she swiveled around on her stool to look directly at him.
“Stacy knows where to find me, anyone wants to put an order in.” He was staring at the mug of coffee in his hands—at least, she thought it was coffee. She’d never actually seen Seth drink alcohol. Not that she spent much time watching him, or anything.
“Uh-huh.” She might not have Tonica’s people-sense, but something was definitely weird. She looked up, trying to find Tonica, catching his eye and tilting her head to let him know that he was needed down here. Whatever was up, she didn’t want to get hit with it alone.
The bartender worked his way back down the bar to the two of them, taking the situation in with a brief glance and absolutely no change of expression. “Top that off for you?” he offered, reaching for the coffeepot, but Seth covered the mug with one hand. “I’m good.”
It was coffee, then, or Tonica was hiding something high-test in the pot. That wasn’t in character for either one of them, though.
Tonica waited, and Ginny waited, and Seth stared into his coffee mug, his face set in stone. The silence was starting to get to really awkward when he grunted, and finally spoke.
“I gotta talk to you two.”
Them, not her. Even in Ginny’s relief, she was amused at how those words seemed to move Tonica into “sympathetic bartender” mode without his even noticing. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the bar top, left hand folding into his right, his expression open and attentive. It worked wonders on the drunks who unburdened themselves to him on a regular basis, but Seth didn’t seem to notice.
“Me, too?” Ginny asked, just to make sure.
“Yeah, you, too, Blondie,” Seth growled. Whatever it was he wanted to talk about, he wasn’t happy about it. “I want to hire you.”
It took a lot, at this point in his life, to leave Theodore Johan Tonica dumbfounded. Seth had just managed it. “You want to what?”
The old man growled slightly. “You heard what I said.”
“I heard, I just wanted to make sure I heard right. I might have been hallucinating.” Teddy realized, even as the words came out of his mouth, that joking wasn’t the
way to go. The old man looked as unhappy—and as uncomfortable—as he’d ever seen him, and that was saying something. Even Ginny had picked up on it, her professional “I’m trained, I can help you” expression firmly in place, but her hazel eyes widened with shock.
“You mean, as investigators?”
“No, as a bartender. Of course as an investigator.” Seth might be uncomfortable, but he wasn’t at a loss for snark. “I need the two of you to look into something for me.”
“Ah. Um.” Bartenders learned to roll with the punches, verbal or otherwise, but this had caught him off guard. Seth, asking for their help? “You know we’re not licensed, or anything like that, right? I mean, maybe . . .”
“If I wanted to go to someone else—if I could go to someone else—I would’ve. You in, or not?”
“Tell us what this is about, and we can tell you if we can help you.”
Teddy noted with relief that Ginny had learned that much at least: she no longer leaped in with a promise to make everything better before she learned what “everything” was. That was good, because while every instinct Teddy had was telling him to say yes, that anything that made Seth ask a favor had to be serious, the reality was that anything that drove Seth to ask a favor had to be serious. He’d already said—several times—that he wasn’t interested in continuing this “researchtigations” thing Ginny had dragged him into, much less get involved in a friend’s problems that required such help. . . .
“I’m asking for a friend,” Seth started, and then shot them both a glare. “Shut it. I am.”
Both of them kept their expressions serious and intent, although Ginny’s lips twitched slightly with repressed laughter, her shock fading to interest.
“And?” she asked.
“A friend of mine, old friend from my boxing days. He’s getting screwed over by his landlord. Bastard’s throwing him out of the house he was renting, claims he’s doing something illegal and that invalidates the lease. Bullshit accusations, but he’s . . . Deke’s a good guy but he took a few too many hits and not enough mat, if you know what I mean.”
“Whatever they’re calling it now. He’s a little slow, but he’s a good guy, good heart, probably doesn’t even jaywalk ’cause he knows it’s wrong. But you don’t want to put him up against some suit of a lawyer, someone’d make him look like a fool. Deke’d come out badly. And the thing is,” Seth hesitated a moment. “Deke needs to stay in this house. He’s been there for years, it’s familiar, and he needs that familiarity. You understand?”
Teddy thought maybe he did. An older man, not entirely there, suddenly homeless? That was a recipe for a fast decline and a bad ending.
“What do you want us to do?” he asked, resigning himself to the inevitable.
“Hell if I know, whatever it is you do. I just want proof the landlord’s a lying sack of scum, so we can make him back down.”
“What are they accusing him of?” Ginny asked. “The illegal part, I mean.”
“Bein’ part of a dogfighting ring.” Seth blew out a heavy gust of air, smelling slightly of pickles and cigarettes, and his shoulders slumped, just a little. “Of all the hare-assed ideas ever. Deke might’ve hit a few guys in his time, but he wouldn’t ever do that to an animal. And dogfighting? He’s not a brainiac, but even he’s not that dumb, and he sure as hell isn’t that mean.”
Before the whole scandal with the sports figure and dogfighting a few years back, Teddy had never given it a thought, never known that that was a thing people did. Once he’d seen the photos in the news, he’d been horrified and disgusted, if not terribly surprised: people did horrible and disgusting things, especially to creatures that couldn’t fight back. But it was ugly stuff. His first, instinctive reaction was to back away, fast, even as Seth insisted his friend was innocent.
“If you two are half as good as you say you are, should be a piece of cake, right?”
Ginny started to bristle, but Teddy lifted a hand, calming her—for the moment. Seth was even more wound up about this than he’d thought, at first. Whatever was going on, it was important.
“Is there any chance that your friend could be involved—even if by, I don’t know, accident?” Teddy held up a hand again when Seth glared at him. “We need to know. People stumble into all kinds of stupid things, especially if they’re . . . not the sharpest knives in the drawer.”
Seth glared at him some more, then shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know. But he swears he didn’t do anything wrong, didn’t do anything illegal. And I believe him.”
“Why?” Ginny asked. “Why do you believe him? I mean, you know people do dumb things if they need the money, and you said he wasn’t, well . . .”
Seth pushed his hands against the bar, but didn’t move away. “I can’t doubt him,” he said quietly, all the anger gone. “You let someone down once, it’s human nature. You let ’em down again . . .
“It’s not in him. Not that. You gotta trust me on that.” Seth normally looked young for his age, but just then, he was an old man.
Ginny looked at Teddy and shrugged, just the slightest lift of one shoulder.
“Is there anything else going on?” Teddy asked. “Maybe a score being settled, he got on the wrong side of his landlord, somehow?”
“Deke swears he didn’t do anything to piss the guy off, but, well, he wouldn’t mean to, but the guy’s got no filter, you know? He thinks it, he says it. Sometimes he says it before he thinks it.”
“So what do you want us to do, specifically?” Ginny asked, turning her drink an exact quarter turn, then looking directly at Seth. He’d given her enough shit in the past few years. Teddy couldn’t blame her for pushing him, now.
Seth met her gaze squarely. “I want you to prove he didn’t do anything wrong. Save his dumb ass, before he’s
homeless, before this breaks him so bad I can’t put the pieces back together again. He’s only got a couple more days before he has to get out. He sure as hell can’t stay with me, I barely got room to turn around myself, and who’d rent a place to him, in this market, without references? He was barely making ends meet in that piece of shit house, as it was.”
Ginny exhaled, a tiny breath through pursed lips. Unlike Teddy, she was a dog person. He could only imagine her reaction to the accusation. But—not for the first time—she surprised him. When she looked at Teddy, her gaze told him that this was his call; that she’d go with whatever he decided.
He’d said no to jobs before, especially after the walk-in freezer incident. He had a full-time job—hell, he had a more-than-full-time job. So did Ginny. Neither of them needed more stress, and it wasn’t as though Seth was going to be able to pay them much, considering he knew exactly how much the old man earned. . . . But Seth was a stand-up guy, for a grouch, and he’d asked them for help.
And it sounded like Deke needed somebody on his side.
“All right,” Teddy said, like there had ever been any doubt. “We’ll look into it for you. But”—he held up a finger when Seth started to mutter what might have been a thank-you—“if there’s even the slightest hint that your friend is guilty, we’re done and you drop it. All right?”
“He’s not guilty.”
“Finally!” At Ginny’s feet, Penny let out a satisfied grunt. Her eyes were half lidded as though she were still asleep, but she had been listening to the humans talking above them. Georgie’s wuffling snore rumbled underneath her, and there were other people talking, so she couldn’t hear all the words, but she knew the tone in her human’s voice, and Georgie’s human, too. They were sniffing something new out. Something that needed doing, or fixing. And that meant that things were about to get interesting again.
Penny yawned, her tongue curling against her teeth, and stretched her body out lazily, slowly waking all the way up. She wanted to wake Georgie up, too, but the dog would get too excited and distract the humans. For now, Penny would do what she did best: listen, watch, and learn.