"Whoa!" He grabbed me by the upper arms to steady me. "Are you alright, Miss…" He drew back to get a better look at me. "Miss Hudson?"
I bit off a groan, unsure which of us had the worst timing. He had a knack for catching me at my worst, and I had a knack for being caught. But I didn't have time to worry about that when I was being run down by a homicidal maniac dressed like Johnny Cash.
"Dr. Watson." I ran a casual hand over my hair. I could practically feel the frizz. That's what I got for rolling out of Irene's nice comfy king-sized guest bed and doing wind sprints. "Sorry to run into you like that."
"Literally," he said. "What's wrong?"
I shook my head. "Nothing. Why would you think there's something wrong?"
He gave me a disbelieving stare. "Are you running away from someone?"
"Of course not." My grin was shaky and unconvincing even to me.
He crossed his arms. "What exactly are you up to, Miss Hudson?"
"Up to?" I made my eyes wide and innocent.
Irene appeared beside us, unflappable as always. "Don't mind her. Someone told us there was a designer handbag sale up this way. Hello, Dr. Watson."
He nodded in greeting. "A handbag sale," he repeated. "That's why you were racing up the street like a crazy person?"
"I love a good handbag sale," I said.
His lips pressed together for a moment. "There are only restaurants on this street."
I shrugged. "That's what I get for listening to tourists. I should go give them a piece of my mind." I looked at Irene. "Are those tourists still back there?"
She shook her head. "Only the old woman who saw you drop these." She held up my key ring.
Relief swept over me, nearly making me weak. "I dropped my keys?"
"She tried to tap you on the shoulder to return them to you, but…" She glanced at Watson. "You heard about the handbag sale, and off you went."
I did a mental sigh of relief. The hand I'd felt had been a helpful old lady and not a pair of goons intent on helping me to that big handbag sale in the sky.
"Ladies." Watson moved aside to let someone pass, which brought him a step closer to me. Close enough to smell a very nice aftershave. "I don't believe for a minute that you were chasing after a sale." He looked at me. "Does this have something to do with the break-in? Were your keys stolen?"
I bit my lip. Well, now I felt guilty. His concern was obvious. He'd run off an intruder for me. He'd followed me home and endured a conversation with 2B for me. And here I was, not exactly lying, but not being truthful either. I wanted to tell him about Heckle and Jeckle, but I was afraid he'd go all alpha male again and try to confront them. I didn't want that. I liked Watson's body parts exactly where they were.
"You caught us," Irene told him. "I guess we might as well tell you."
I frowned at her. "I don't think we should."
"Sherlock Holmes sent us here," she said. "But we're undercover, so keep it to yourself."
I rolled my eyes.
"Undercover," Watson repeated. He had a way of doing that that implied disbelief. Not that I blamed him. I couldn't believe it myself. Well, of course, I knew Sherlock Holmes wasn't real, so if I did believe it, I had worse problems than Heckle and Jeckle.
Irene nodded. "We were meeting with an informant."
"And what kind of case would this be?" he asked. "Generally speaking, of course. Client confidentiality and all that." He said the words as if he didn't believe there were any clients at all. Smart man.
Irene didn't hesitate. "Money laundering."
No, he didn't. He couldn't, because there was nothing to see.
Watson glanced at me. "And your Mr. Holmes sent you?"
He wasn't my Mr. Holmes; he was Irene's. Only now I was stuck with him.
"Yes," Irene answered for me. "He'd have come himself, but he was unexpectedly called out of town."
"I know. I got his email." The way he looked pointedly at me had a flush creeping up my neck.
"Yes, well, unavoidable," Irene said as breezily as if she were still talking about nonexistent handbag sales.
"He seems to do that a lot."
No kidding. Sherlock Holmes seemed to go out of town more often than the US mail.
"Yes, he does," she answered easily.
"I'd still like to talk to him."
"I can set up an online chat, if you'd like," Irene offered.
I shot her a look. She could?
"Like a Skype call?" Watson asked.
Irene shook her head. "Sorry, he doesn't do cameras. You know—has to keep a low profile in his business."
Watson sent her a deadpanned look like he definitely didn't know.
"Anyway, we can use the private messaging on his website and chat in real time. Just as good, right?" She sent him a big toothy smile.
I shot Irene a look. Website, really? This was getting way out of hand.
"Right," he said, still not sounding totally convinced. "Can you have him email me to set up a time? The sooner, the better."
"Consider it done." Irene beamed at him.
I turned my face away from Watson and mouthed Seriously?
Irene smiled angelically. She was enjoying herself. Easy for her. She didn't have to come up with an endless array of excuses for why Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes couldn't get together for a simple conversation when everyone older than an embryo carried a cell phone with them everywhere.
"So what brings you to Chinatown?" I asked him, strategically changing the subject.
Now he had my attention. "The tox screen came back?"
He hesitated before nodding slowly.
"And?" I pressed.
"And I'd rather discuss this with Mr. Holmes directly."
I stuck my hands on my hips. I cocked my head to the side. I gave him my best steely eyes. "Are you really saying you don't trust me?" I challenged him.
He cleared his throat and looked at the ground as if he'd rather not answer that question.
"Look, this is my aunt we're talking about here, my house that was broken into, and my case!"
Yes, I was using my nonexistent case from my nonexistent job working for the nonexistent Sherlock Holmes to guilt poor Dr. Watson into sharing. I was a horrible person.
But I still kinda hoped it would work.
Dr. Watson cleared his throat again before saying, "You're right."
"I am?" I gave myself a mental shake. "I mean, you're darn right I am!"
"So what did the report say?" Irene jumped in.
"The substance found in your aunt's system was aconite."
Irene scrunched her nose up. "What's that?"
"It's an alkaloid toxin derived from the aconitum plant," I said absently, my mind kicking into overdrive at the mention.
Both Irene and Watson stared at me.
"I sat in on a botany class once," I mumbled.
"Anyway, she's right," Watson said. "It's also known as monkshood, is highly toxic, and can cause cardiac arrest, often mimicking the symptoms of a heart attack."
"So Kate was killed." I had thought finally getting confirmation might give me some satisfaction, but instead I just felt sad for her. "Does that mean Lestrade is reopening the investigation?"
Watson paused. "I wouldn't go that far. It's possible she accidently ingested the toxin. It's not often used in doses high enough to kill in the US, mostly only in homeopathic remedies, but it is sometimes used in eastern medicine as an analgesic."
"A painkiller." I thought back to the prescription that my aunt had for migraines. I suppose it was possible, but…" But we didn't find any monkshood among her pill bottles."
"No," Watson agreed. "And as I said, it's not very commonly sold in US, so I thought if it was available anywhere, it would be here in Chinatown."
Where Albert Fong had his tea shop. I hadn't specifically seen a jar labeled monkshood in his shop, but it wouldn't be that hard for him to get his hands on it. Especially if he was mobbed up. I flirted with the idea of returning to the tea shop to check, but the memory of Heckle and Jeckle was still too fresh. I was intrepid, not stupid.
Okay, I wasn't even that intrepid.
Watson was watching me closely. "There's something you're not telling me."
And I'd thought I was the master of inscrutability. Maybe I should fill him in on Albert Fong and his mob connections. It wouldn't hurt to get a third opinion. He was an intelligent man. He might be able to offer something we hadn't thought of. Some pearl of wisdom such as, "Don't go back to Albert Fong's tea shop again."
I glanced at Irene. Her expression was blank. She was following my lead.
I took a breath. "As a matter of fact…" I told him about meeting Albert Fong in the park, and his evasiveness, his tea shop, and his goons for hire. And the fact that his shop sold ginger lily tea. I handed him the baggie Irene had just purchased. "This could be what was under Kate's fingernails."
He took the baggie, the look on his face still harboring heavy doubt. "I can have it tested against the substance we found." He paused. "But what reason would Albert Fong have to kill your aunt?"
"Kate wrote some complaint letters," I went on.
Irene snorted. "A lot of complaint letters."
I ignored that. "She mentioned criminals being in the park," I said. "We think she was talking about Albert Fong. We think he might have killed her to keep her quiet."
He nodded. "So you were running away from these goons, as you call them."
"Wouldn't you?" Irene cut in.
"Do you think that was a good idea?" he asked. "Deliberately provoking them?"
"How did we provoke them?" Irene asked. "By wanting to buy tea in a tea shop? How unreasonable."
"And it wasn't deliberate," I said. "It just sort of happened."
"You're lucky they didn't just sort of hurt you," he said.
I couldn't argue with that. Heckle and Jeckle had caught me off guard. In my defense, though, I didn't have a lot of experience with mobsters. The next time I invaded their habitat, I'd be sure to bring a bazooka.
"And what if this Albert Fong isn't a mobster?" he asked.
Irene and I glanced at each other.
"What if he's just some guy in the park who doesn't want to talk to strangers and happens to own a tea shop in Chinatown?"
"He's more than that," I said. "You had to be there." I looked at Irene. "Right?"
"She's right," Irene agreed. "There's something off about that shop. And his minions are off-the-charts weird."
"Weird isn't criminal," Watson said. "Black socks with sandals is weird. Playing chess in the park? Not so much."
"How about chasing two innocent female tourists through Chinatown?" Irene snapped. "Is that weird?"
His lips quirked up into the crooked grin. "Who are the innocent female tourists in this scenario?"
"Hello?" Irene said. "Undercover?"
I managed not to roll my eyes again.
"I'll give you that we don't know if Albert Fong definitely killed my aunt, but he's into something shady."
Watson shook his head. "I'd be careful about saying something like that. You might find yourself in a courtroom being sued for slander."
Another snort from Irene. "It's not slander if it's true."
"You can't prove that it's true," he said. "That's an assumption on your part."
My hands went to my hips. "What about Heckle and Jeckle?"
"Heckle and Jeckle?" he repeated.
Oops. That had just kind of slipped out.
"She means the minions on steroids who chased us out of the shop," Irene said. "Obviously they have something to hide there."
"Obviously," Watson said. He sighed. "I know you two think you've got the second iteration of the Godfather on your hands, but I'm just saying be careful." His blue eyes settled squarely on me. "Please."
Irene's eyes flitted my way, and I could practically read her mind: He's got it bad.
I watched him walk away, thinking she was wrong. What Watson had was a protective streak. Alpha males had those. They tended not to want to see innocent people in their morgues. It was as natural to them as breathing. I thought it was a nice character trait, like honesty and a sense of humor and a job.
And the killer rear view didn't hurt either.
* * *
"I wish you wouldn't be so quick to use that name," I said an hour later. We were back at the house, and I was making grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch while Irene puttered around on her computer.
She didn't bother to look up. "What name?"
"Sherlock Holmes." I dropped two slices of bread into a hot buttered frying pan. "I'm not comfortable with it."
Her fingers stilled. "Marty. Do you realize that without Sherlock Holmes's help, we wouldn't have ever known that your aunt was murdered? Not to mention you wouldn't have had that dinner date with Dr. Watson."
I turned away from the stove. "It wasn't a date."
"Two people plus a restaurant equals a date," she said firmly. "Trust me. I know these things."
I flipped the bread over. "How do you know these things? Because you go out on so many dates yourself?"
"Why date a man when I can create one?" She turned her computer around so I could see the results of her puttering. Sherlock Holmes, Private Investigations in a bold forest green banner across the top of the page above a photo gallery pulled straight from the scrapbook of a homicidal maniac. There were pictures of dark alleys, pictures of seedy-looking houses and motels, pictures of bundles of cash hidden in a drawer's false bottom, and pictures of guns. Lots of pictures of guns—some long guns, some handguns, and way down at the bottom, a picture of a garrote.
I recoiled. "Geez. Could you maybe go a little lighter on the psycho factor?"
"Too much?" She considered it for a moment. "Maybe you're right." She tapped a few keys. "How's this?"
She'd replaced the garrote with a noose.
I rolled my eyes. "Much better. Now tell me what it is."
"Isn't it obvious? It's a website. I included a link to his email account, so he's easy to contact."
"He doesn't have an email account," I said. "There is no he."
"There is now," she said. "Look, he's got a website and everything." She looked past me to the stove. "Is my sandwich ready yet? I'm starving."
I plated her sandwich and handed it over with a bag of chips and a bottle of water. "I think we're getting in too deep with this Sherlock Holmes thing."
"There's no such thing as too deep." She took a bite of her sandwich. "Besides, how is Watson supposed to have a cyber chat with him if Holmes isn't online?"
I couldn't argue with that logic.
"When you think about it," Irene said, "it's a miracle he hasn't searched online for Holmes already."
"Don't I know it." I added more butter to the pan along with two more slices of bread. "Thankfully he's a busy man."
"Not too busy to go to Chinatown to look for monkshood," she pointed out. "For you."
"It wasn't for me." I was pretty sure he'd gone to satisfy his own curiosity and assuage his guilt about having overlooked it in the first place. He probably did that sort of thing all the time. If I hadn't run into him, I wouldn't have even known he'd done it. Which was another nice character trait: he wasn't a braggart.
"Speaking of which," Irene added, "I've been thinking."
That was never a good sign. "About?"
"About the ginger lily under your aunt's fingernails. Didn't you say it was also used as incense?"
I shrugged. "And?"
"And, well, let's just suppose for a minute that maybe Watson is right and maybe Albert Fong might not have killed Kate."
I shot her a look.
"You know, for argument's sake," she added.
"Okay, I'll play along. What if Albert didn't murder my aunt?"
"Well, what if the ginger lily found under her nails wasn't from tea but incense. Maybe used during yoga and in meditation? Possibly by elderly but unnaturally strong yogis who practice in parks."
I forgot all about my sandwich. "Sunshine Moonbeam."
"If there's another elderly yogi in the park," she said, "I haven't seen her."
I thought about it. "She was awfully quick to point the finger at Albert Fong, don't you think?"
"And he makes a great scapegoat," Irene agreed.
"The thing is, what reason could she have had to want Kate dead? I can't see Kate complaining about noise from a yoga class, unless they breathed too loudly."
Irene shrugged. "It could have been just about anything, given Kate's knack for finding problems." She hesitated. "Sorry."
I waved off the apology. She wasn't wrong.
"Let's see if we can find out a little more about Ms. Moonbeam." Irene went back to work on the computer while I went back to the stove to rescue my sandwich from being incinerated. It was a little too late, but I scraped off the charred parts and took it to the table anyway. Then I decided it was more than a little too late, so I pushed it aside in favor of the potato chips, which were what I'd really wanted in the first place.
"Huh," Irene said a few minutes later.
I looked up. "Did you find something?"
"No. That's the problem." She tapped away for another minute or so. "There's next to nothing about her, beyond the fact that she owns a yoga studio. We already knew that."
"Well, she's a senior citizen," I pointed out. "Some of them aren't comfortable using computers." I thought about Sunshine wiggling her toes into the dirt. She certainly seemed like the type who could have an aversion to technology.
"Maybe that's it," Irene said, but I could hear doubt in her voice.
We sat there eating potato chips for a few minutes.
Then I had an idea. "There's one way to find out if Sunshine has ginger lily incense. But I don't think you're going to like it."
Her eyes brightened. "Get out of my head, Mar. If it's what I think, you're wrong. I like it a lot."
* * *
"I don't like this," Irene's disembodied voice said. "I can't see a thing." She had her arms out in front of her zombie-style and was shuffling along inch by inch without actually lifting her feet off the floor. I knew that because I could hear the soles of her shoes dragging along and because she'd poked me in the back three times already.
I switched on my flashlight just long enough to get a sense of the layout. It wasn't complicated. The yoga studio was mostly narrow, open space with pendant lighting above and hardwood flooring below. Ceiling fans with blades shaped like giant leaves. A doorway off to the left that I guessed was office space. Along the wall to the right, a half dozen low, square ottoman-type seats covered in pale green upholstery.
I shut off the light. No sense advertising our presence, even though I'd had the forethought to rubber band a piece of gauze to the lens to diffuse the glare. I had to admit, I was feeling pretty genuine PI about that.
"Thanks a lot," Irene snapped. "Now all I can see are flashes of color."
"Would you rather walk into something in the dark?" I asked her. "Stay in the center, away from the wall."
She snorted. "Don't worry. I'm not going to walk into any—ow!"
I heard the sound of a low, square ottoman-type seat rolling across the floor.
"I warned you," I said.
"I think I broke my toe," Irene said. "And my pancreas hasn't even healed yet."
I put my finger to my lips to shush her, only she couldn't see me either. I could barely see me, and I knew where I was. We were both wearing head-to-toe black, down to matching black ski caps and thin black gloves. My heart was beating in triple time in the vicinity of my throat.
"Not so loud," I whispered. "Someone might be here."
"It's midnight," Irene said. "The witching hour. And it's pitch black. Who's going to be here besides Dracula? Oh." I heard her gulp. "I wish I hadn't just said that."
So did I. It was spooky enough stumbling around in the dark in an unfamiliar place at the witching hour. I didn't need to be thinking about vampires and other things that might be stumbling around in the dark with us. Very little to no ambient light filtered in through the studio's smallish front window. Still, I was afraid to keep using the flashlight, for fear it might draw someone's attention. Like the police.
Or Sunshine Moonbeam. The midnight hour wouldn't bother her. According to Sunshine, time was irrelevant. I wondered where she lived and hoped it was on the other side of the city. And that she was a heavy sleeper.
"I don't think this was such a good idea," I whispered. "What were we thinking, breaking into someone's business like a couple of thieves?"
"We were thinking that Sunshine Moonbeam might have ginger lily stashed someplace," Irene said. "Remember? It's not like we could find out doing yoga in the park."
True. But we could have found out by visiting the studio in the daylight, like law-abiding citizens. Of course, then we'd have probably had to sign up for yoga class, and I didn't have the money for that. I didn't have the money for bail either, but I didn't plan to get caught.
Oh boy. I was already thinking like a criminal.
Irene sneezed. "This place stinks. What is that anyway?"
"Eucalyptus." From the smell of it, a lot of eucalyptus. It was almost cloying.
"That's a weird scent for incense."
I had to agree. Patchouli seemed more up Sunshine's alley. But what did I know?
"It's getting stronger," she said after a few seconds. I didn't know how she could tell. "We must be getting close to it."
"It's got to be at that counter on the back wall," I said.
She sneezed and poked me in the back.
I stumbled forward and crashed into a stack of yoga blocks. They went tumbling to the floor in every direction. Quietly, because they were yoga blocks.
"What was that?" Irene asked. "You walked into something, didn't you?"
"You pushed me into something," I told her. "Yoga blocks. And there are a lot of them. Watch your step."
Irene sneezed again.
I shot her a frown in the dark. "Will you quit that?"
"I can't help it. It's the eucalyptus." She sniffed. "I must be allergic to it."
The deeper we went into the studio, the less I could see. And I hadn't been able to see very much to begin with. I switched on the flashlight and swept its beam across the floor ahead of us toward a display case full of crystals, instructional DVDs, and New Age music CDs.
And incense. Lots of incense.
"See that?" I asked.
Irene sneezed and jabbed me in the back.
"Oh, for pete's sake, will you please stop doing that?"
"Fine." She sounded a little huffy. "I'll just walk over here, so I'll be sure not to—"
I heard a muffled sort of thump.
"Uh-oh," Irene said.
I switched on the flashlight to see her standing in the middle of a pool of yoga mats that had once been rolled up and stacked in a pile but were now unfurled on the floor like colorful rubber flags.
She looked over at me. "I didn't think it would be this hard."
I hadn't thought so either. It was only walking, after all. Well, breaking and entering, and then walking. It wasn't like we were stealing precious gems from a display case rigged with a security system or—
I froze. "A security system."
"Huh?" Irene waded through the sea of mats.
I had to tighten my grip on the flashlight to keep from dropping it. "Do you think Sunshine's got one of those silent alarms that goes straight to the police station?" It had been easy enough to pick the lock on the front door—thanks to my brief stint sitting in on a locksmith training seminar after accidentally locking myself out of my apartment for the third time. It had been a pretty basic model. Nothing terribly sophisticated. But that didn't mean she hadn't done some upgrades inside the studio.
"I doubt it. She hasn't got anything worth stealing." Irene sneezed and sniffled. "Besides, the universe will protect her."
"Be serious," I snapped. "I can't be arrested. I can't have a record."
"Calm down, Marty. Look around. Do you see any tiny little lights?"
I looked around. I didn't see anything but the edge of the abyss.
"No sensors, no alarm," Irene said. "Sunshine is old school. I bet she doesn't even lock her car door at night. She probably doesn't even have a car. She just flies around on her magic carpet."
"Don't underestimate her," I said. "She may be putting on a front."
"I don't think so," Irene said. "Working in the middle of this stench will kill brain cells. I feel dumber just setting foot in this place." She sneezed.
I didn't know about dumber, but I definitely felt a sense of urgency to finish our business and get out of there. If I did any investigating in the future, it would be from behind a computer. I wasn't built for this. I wasn't the type to pick locks and poke around in someone else's private space and worry about security systems and—
"Irene, look!" My flashlight's beam had been scanning the shelf in front of us. Jars of different incense were labeled. Cedarwood, jasmine, lotus. And the one my beam currently had cornered…ginger lily.
"What do you—" Irene held a finger under her nose to stave off a sneeze. "—know," she finished. "Take some."
I stared at her. "That's stealing."
"Okay, then take one."
I looked at the jar, uncertain.
Irene blew out a sigh. "Don't you want Watson to see it?"
Right. He should see it. He should analyze it along with the tea. I reached out to pull a stick from the jar.
And heard the jingle of keys at the door.