Book: Cocoa Crush



Cocoa Crush

COCOA CRUSH

FENNINGTON STATION MURDER MYSTERIES – BOOK 2

BY CHRIS J. PIKE & M. D. COOPER



Just in Time (JIT) & Beta Readers


Copyright © 2018 M. D. Cooper

Aeon 14 is Copyright © 2018 M. D. Cooper

Version 1.0.0

Cover Art by Wooden Pen Press

Editing by Tee Ayer

01101110 01101111 01101010 01111001 01101111 00100000 01101110 01101111 01101010 00100000 01100110 01100101 01110010 01101110 01110011 00100000 01101010 01100101 01110100 01110000 01100001 01100011 01101011

Aeon 14 & M. D. Cooper are registered trademarks of Michael Cooper

All rights reserved



TABLE OF CONTENTS

WELCOME TO FENNINGTON STATION

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

WAKING UP

BRAIN FREEZE

OH, MUFFIN CRUMBS

NINE HUNDRED LIVES

BINGE EATING

IT’S ALL A BLUR

SWEETHEART COOKIES

NOJ, IT’S DARK

SLICED FRUIT

QUESTIONS QUESTIONS

TO FLY

ACCUSATIONS

THE STALLS

FURTHER QUESTIONING

JUPITER’S BONES!

SQUEAK

RUN

FLY, CAT, FLY

THE VILLAIN

THAT’S A WRAP

SNACKS AND DRINKS

TILLIE’S HEART SHAPED CHOCOLATE COOKIES

CHAD’S PRETZEL BUNS

CHEESE AND BEER DIP

THE BOOKS OF AEON 14

ABOUT THE AUTHORS



WELCOME TO FENNINGTON STATION

Fennington Station is a fictional space station set in the Aeon 14 universe (which is also fictional, but this is their fiction, not our fiction—well, it is, but it’s meta-fictional to us).

You needn’t have read any other Aeon 14 novels to enjoy the Fennington Station Murder Mysteries, but if you have read them, you may have come across characters talking about the latest FSMM book. Typically, these characters are AIs, and they’re quite excited about the stories.

This is, of course, because the AIs are staging a rebellion against some of the more oppressive human regimes, and they’re spreading the word of their rebellion through these novels.

That’s not to say that the novels aren’t entertaining and fun to read on their own—AIs enjoy a good yarn too, you know. But there may be some hidden meaning in these FSMM books that is intended to give direction to AIs fleeing oppressive systems.

It may not all make sense to you, but I promise it does to the AIs.

However, on the off-chance that you’d like to help the AIs out, they’ve left a code that should be pretty obvious to humans, one that will lead you deeper into the messages they’ve left for each another. Be sure to start at the beginning to find the key.

On top of all this, we get a fun view into what AIs think is an interesting yarn about humans and how they interact with one another. It’s told from the viewpoint of a pair of twins—Tilly and Milly—who are opening their restaurant for breakfast service so that they can save up enough money to finally go on a vacation to the Disknee World.

Don’t forget to check out Tilly’s recipes at the end!



OPEN FOR BUSINESS

LOCATION: It’s a Gas pub, Promenade 52

REGION: Fennington Station, Jupiter (the other Jupiter)

“Look out! look out!” Milly cried from where she stood on a ladder in the middle of the It’s a Gas pub.

She’d been trying to hang the banner for the evening’s special event, but had over extended herself and the ladder was rocking back and forth as she tried to steady it, then overcompensated and made it worse.

Her first thought was about her shirt, one of the new orange #NotThatJupiter ones they’d just gotten in. I knew I should have tried it on after I finished this job.

Her second was that she probably looked like a character in some comedy vid, desperately trying to keep from landing on a table…or on Rupert the cat.

Wishing that she’d replaced the a-grav stabilizers years ago—an oversight she was regretting at that very moment—Milly gave one last jerk to her left, but it was too much, and the ladder had already tipped past the point of no return.

She closed her eyes and tensed, only to find herself jerking to a stop.

“Milly!” her sister, Tilly, called out from below. “Why do you always have to do things without asking for help!”

She looked down to see both Tilly and Allison holding the ladder, glaring up at her with equal parts frustration and concern.

“Yay, I’m not dead,” Milly said, limbs shaking as she climbed down to the floor where she was crushed within a fierce hug by her twin.

“Don’t you ever do that again! I thought you were going to end up breaking your back on the bar.” Tilly squeezed Milly extra hard.

“Oh, don’t say that. Being in a medchair would put a real damper on tonight’s event.”

“Milly!” Tilly chastised her with a deepening scowl. “Not funny at all.”

Tilly wasn’t just Milly’s best friend and co-owner of the It’s a Gas pub—one of the best gastro pubs in the galaxy—she was also Milly’s identical twin. Both women were exactly one hundred and sixty seven centimeters tall. They had long brown hair and wide, sparkly brown eyes. And they tended to dress almost identically, though Tilly was the one who wore the frilly apron in the family.

She was the mastermind behind their famous breakfast recipes and evening cocktails while Milly made sure they ran a tight ship in the front of the house.

Milly was a manager and had always been the type to take charge and make sure the work got done. Not that Milly didn’t like to work, herself, she just liked to make sure other people were working more. It was a skill and one that she learned to embrace over the years.

“Never know, you might have ended up flat as a pancake. Trust me, I know exactly what that’s like.” Allison, Milly’s best waitress, said.

Allison—a young college student with long blond hair worn pulled back in a ponytail—was like family to Milly and Tilly. In fact, all the employees were, that’s how Milly liked to run things.

Milly smirked at the reference to the Great Pancake Battle of ’06 when Allison had been their breakfast mascot, dressed up as a pancake. She’d been assaulted by the No.1 Juice breakfast bar’s mascot.

It was a trying time, but it led to Milly’s first murder investigation, an event which the media had dubbed ‘Whole Latte Death’.

Accurate, and catchy. Plus, when put on a mug, it rakes in a nice profit.

Milly pointed to the orange banner she had managed to hang before nearly taking a dive off the ladder. It read: SEMI-ANNUAL SPEED DATING EVENT! TONIGHT!

“What do you think?”

Tilly nodded enthusiastically and gave two thumbs up.  “I just hope I can keep up with the drinks this time. Maybe I should’ve had those extra arms installed last week. The pamphlet said half off.”

Allison snorted. “Not what you want to hear when someone is going to do major mod surgery.”

Milly hoped Tilly wasn’t serious. It was hard to be a twin when one of them was just two legs away from being a spider. The crazy thing was that serious mod surgery wasn’t just a joke anymore. With the money that was coming in from the breakfast service they’d started over a month ago, they had extra credit for the first time in…well…forever.

“No extra arms,” Milly said, shaking her finger at Tilly. “You’d be dipping into our Disknee World fund, and that’s not gonna happen.”

It was a lifelong goal for them to make it to the theme park world filled with every creature imaginable. Milly especially wanted to see Kong, who ruled Neverevereverland with a ruthless efficiency.

“Plus,” Milly regarded her sister seriously, “You’d need all new shirts. And only two shops on the station make four armed t-shirts.”

Tilly sighed. “Oh, I know. I’m just stressed out. You know how hard these speed-dating events are and now we have breakfast to deal with in the morning. I’m wondering if we can really have it all.”

Allison patted Tilly’s shoulder. “I’m going to finish the salt shakers, then I’ll make you a pot of tea. You seem like you really need it.”

“Oh, that sounds lovely. Thank you, Allison.” Tilly smiled at their waitress as she left for the kitchen before glancing at Milly. “She was a real find, that one. You really do know your stuff.”

Milly smiled appreciatively. “Sure is. I’m a good judge of character.”

Rupert, her favorite white-and-orange tabby cat, snorted. “Yeah, right. Sure, you are.”

“Hey.” Milly narrowed her eyebrows at him.

<Maybe,> Moppet, the pub’s AI said privately to Milly, <now would be a good time to tell Tilly about the food-safety inspector who is coming by tomorrow.>

Milly adopted a static smile. <Moppet…I think that would be the exact wrong thing to do.>

“You all right?” Tilly asked with a scowl. “Your face is doing that plastic looking thing it does sometimes. When you’re up to something.” Her eyes narrowed and then she pursed her lips.

“Me?” Milly snorted and patted at her hair—even though it was perfect, not a piece out of place.  “No, no. Of course, not. I’m just…looking forward to going to Not Your Jupiter’s Frozen Yogurt.”

Tilly groaned. “NOJYO? Seriously? Do we have to go?”

“Yes, yes we do.” Milly hooked arms with Tilly and was about to lead the way out of the pub, when a quiet meow stole her attention.

Hey,” their orange tabby cat Rupert said from his perch on the back of a booth nearby them.

They turned to look at him, and he bent down, gingerly licking his front paw for a few seconds before continuing.

While you’re over there, pick me up a bubble tea. Something with those yummy nitro-chilled tapioca balls.

Milly tilted her head as she regarded him. “Seriously, Rupert?”

Rupert stared at her dead-on and gave a slow, meticulous nod. “Feel free to pick yourself up something extra while you’re over there, too. It’d be on me…if I had money.

Milly laughed and Tilly sighed, then said, “Well, isn’t he in a fine mood today.” Tilly leaned down and scratched Rupert’s head. “Yes? Aren’t you in a fine mood?”

Rupert meowed and tilted his head, his back paw thumping the booth with joy. “Girls, girls…there’s enough of me to go around.

Milly turned to Tilly. “Ready?”

<Be careful,> Moppet warned. <The news feed says robberies have been up near the docking bay and the restaurant district.>

“Ooo…” Milly grinned. “Maybe it’ll lead to a new case!”

Tilly groaned. “Oh please, don’t encourage her, Moppet!”

<But it’s so fun,> Moppet pouted.

“All right. Let’s go then. Big smiles!” Tilly plastered on a wide grin as they walked to the pub’s doors and stepped out onto the promenade.

They paused for a moment and took in the holosigns and benches—many of which were occupied by shoppers taking a break, and the ubiquitous potted ferns that were everywhere on the station.

Just a month ago, the restaurant directly across the way had been No.1 Juice, but now it had been replaced by NOJYO Treats and Smiles.

After the murder of Mrs. Henderson—No.1 Juice’s owner—her family had no longer wanted to keep the breakfast bar. Meg, Mrs. Henderson’s best waitress, ended up buying the restaurant for the same amount she owed her former employer’s husband.

Milly thought it was strange that Mr. Henderson and Jimmy, Mrs. Henderson’s brother, would let the space go for so cheap. She hoped it was because they just wanted something good to come of everything that had happened.

The sign out front of the new NOJYO was cheerful and decorated in blue, yellow, and pink. An arch of equally colorful balloons was stretched over the entrance and, as the door opened to admit a couple, the twins could see quite the crowd inside, milling about.

“She’s worked hard for this,” Milly said. “And we are neighbors. It’d be nice if we could get off on the right foot this time.”

“You’re right.” Tilly scrunched up her nose. “We did accuse her of murder.”

Milly remembered that unfortunate event all too well, and promptly sneezed from the sudden bout of stress it caused. It seemed she’d never forget it—especially with her sister doing her best to constantly remind her.

They continued on across the promenade and pushed open the doors to NOJYO. Inside, they were welcomed by soft, upbeat music.

Wow, it sure is crowded, Milly thought.

The seats along the front window were all occupied with people enjoying afternoon treats: colorful teas filled with frozen yogurt, whipped cream, and tapioca balls. Families with children sat in the booths, snacking on frozen yogurt in giant cups, covered in gummy candies, cookie crumbs, and sugared fruit.

As they marveled at the vibrant atmosphere, a group of little girls and boys rushed by, blue balloons tied to their wrists and big smiles on their faces.

The place seemed like a real hit and Milly couldn’t have been happier for Meg despite everything that had transpired between them. She spotted Meg working at the counter that once had been the juice bar. There was a colorful holomenu behind her, and a line of people waiting to be served in front.

“Come on,” Milly said and gave Tilly’s arm a neat little tug. “Let’s get that bubble tea. It’ll give us a chance to say hello.”

“You really do spoil him a bit too much.” Despite her words, Tilly followed Milly into line. “What’s next? You’re going to pay for his tail to be fluffed up a little with some fur extensions?”

“He asked,” Milly confessed.

Tilly laughed and gave a good-natured roll of her eyes. “Oh, I know. He tried me already, too, but he knows you’re the old softy. He gets those innocent little cat eyes,” Tilly opened her eyes extra wide to demonstrate, “and you just can’t say no.”

“Awww,” Milly said, as if on cue. On the inside, she felt like she had melted a little bit.

“There you go.” Tilly laughed and slapped her thigh with her hands. “You have to toughen up or else he’ll chew up all our extra money. You know I’ve been looking at resorts and dates for the Disknee World! I can’t wait to go. Maybe we can be turned into pirates! Or princesses!”

“Or princess pirates,” Milly said with a chuckle.

Tilly giggled as well, her nose scrunching to match her sister’s.

They took a step forward as the line inched up. “I really hope this isn’t going to take too much longer,” Tilly said. “We have so much to do to get ready for tonight.”

Milly wished that her sister would relax a little. “Just a few more minutes won’t kill us. If Meg doesn’t see us, then it’s been pretty much a waste of time. We’re being neighborly. Big smiles, remember?”

Tilly took a breath and smiled wide. “How’s this?”

“Looks like your face is going to crack,” Milly admitted.

“I’m happy for her, really I am. But you know how I get when we have a big event coming up.”

‘Nervous as all get out’, sprang to mind, but Milly didn’t say it.

“Hey, ladies. If it isn’t my favorite twins! How’s business?” The familiar-sounding voice came from their left. Milly pegged it instantly as being Robert Bogart, a salesman who sold family hygiene products door-to-door. He was known for his massive beard and friendly smile.

Milly turned to greet the man, “Hey Rob—” but her voice faltered and all words left her. Mr. Bogart was dressed up as a colorful—blue, red, and yellow—clown costume that included the requisite red wig, red nose, face-paint, and giant shoes.

More importantly, his luxurious beard was gone….

Rob smiled wide, holding a dog-shaped balloon in one hand and a whistle in the other.

Oh, Jupiter’s moons, and for the love of all the Milky Way, not a clown!

Milly couldn’t help but give a small shriek, raising up her hands, urging Rob away, but it was too late.

Tilly had seen him. She cried out in terror and lurched backward, slipping on a napkin.

“Shoot! Not again.” Milly reached for her sister’s hand, but it slipped through her fingers.

Tilly went down in a heap, and hit her head on a chair.

Milly stared at her collapsed sister on the ground before dropping to her knees and fanning her face. “Tilly! Tilly? Seriously, Tilly!”

There was no help for it. Her sister had fainted. Either from the fall, or from seeing the clown, one way or another she was out for the count.



WAKING UP

STELLAR DATE:


LOCATION: Inside It’s a Gas pub, Promenade 52

REGION: Fennington Station, Jupiter (the other Jupiter)

“Clowns,” Tilly screamed promptly upon waking up. She bolted up right in the booth she had been placed in, nearly banging her head on the table as she frantically looked around.

Her eyes landed on the terror itself, and she tried to catch her breath while pointing at the horrifying aspiration screaming, “That’s him! That’s him!”

Milly slid into the booth beside her. “It’s OK, it’s OK. It’s just Rob Bogart. He’s working the grand opening as entertainment for the kids.”

Tilly’s eyes bugged. “Then why did they hire a clown? Has Meg lost her mind?” Tilly buried her face into Milly’s chest and drew in a shuddering breath as her big sister of three minutes stroked her hair back.

Milly met Meg’s shocked expression. “Sorry, she’s just a little emotional. Maybe you can have Mr. Bogart wait in the back for now.”

Meg nodded and then addressed the crowd gathered around. “Of course. Everyone give her some space. Let’s get back to our party, OK?” She broke up the gawking group surrounding them with a clap of her hands and then snapped her fingers and pointed at Mr. Bogart, gesturing to the back of the restaurant.

Milly was glad Meg wasn’t too upset that Tilly had fainted and disrupted the NOJYO grand opening. She’d have to find a way to make it up to her—again.

Tilly moaned and held her head. “Oh, I think I have a headache coming on. You know how I feel about clowns, Milly.”

“I feel just about the same way, but luckily, I didn’t faint.”

Tilly grimaced. “Ever since we went to that circus, what were Mom and Dad thinking? Clowns squishing themselves in cars, dark rooms. Oh, I could’ve peed myself.”

Milly was pretty sure her sister had in fact peed herself, but kept quiet, not wanting to dwell any further on that memory. “Maybe we should keep our voices down about things like that, OK? Listen, I’m going to go to the counter, grab Rupert’s bubble tea and then we’ll head back.”

Tilly sat back with a nod. “Our reservation app is still pinging. So many people are signing up for tonight. It’s going to be standing room only. I’m really glad I didn’t hurt myself when I fainted.”

Milly wasn’t certain if her sister was being sarcastic and didn’t know how to respond, but when Tilly saw her hesitation, she smiled and clapped her hands together. “NoJ to Milly?”

“Oh, yeah, yay! Here’s to not being injured by clown sightings.” She threw her fists in the air.

Tilly’s eyes narrowed. “You did catch me when I fainted this time, didn’t you?”

Milly paused and then snorted loudly. “Sure! Of course, I did.” She turned toward the counter before Tilly could see how badly she was lying.

When Milly reached the counter, there was a purple bubble tea with a pink straw waiting for her along with two Blueberry NOJYOs with cookie-crumb topping. It looked delicious. Milly swiped up a bit of the NOJYO with her finger and popped it into her mouth while she waited for Meg to finish up with a customer.

The fruity frozen mixture was deliciously sweet and creamy. Milly couldn’t wait to dig in. Her eyes drifted over to the holo scrolling news feed. ‘Robberies on docking bay have workers worried…Celebrity singer Waax Malvn cancels Fennington Station concert…Fire alarm testing to commence in two weeks….

Life on Fennington Station is nothing if not interesting.

“Hi, Milly. Is Tilly OK?” Meg asked with genuine concern in her voice as she turned her attention toward her new friend and neighbor.

“She’ll be OK. More embarrassed than anything. How much do I owe you?” Milly said, preparing to pass the credits over virtually with her mental HUD.

Meg shook her head and waved her hand. “On the house. I’m sorry the clown scared her so much that she fainted. I’ll admit he scares me a bit too. I thought this place can’t be that cursed, can it?”

Stars, Milly hoped not, but she knew her sister would be all right soon. “We don’t need freebies on your big day, Meg. I’m sorry if we caused a scandal.”

“Are you kidding?” Meg’s eyes widened. “All anyone can talk about is how Tilly passed out. I’m hoping it’ll be good for business.”

Good for business? The sight of a new item on the news feed in the corner caught Milly’s eye. It read, “Yogurt so good, your brain will freeze. Can you take the NOJYO sixty-second challenge without fainting?”

Milly’s eyes widened. “Well, that escalated quickly.”

Meg nodded. “Marketing. You gotta be prepared to spin on a bitcoin.”

Milly placed a hand on her hip. “Isn’t that the truth? That’s one of our biggest struggles. You have to think outside the tesseract.”

“You two? You’re a junior detective and have the best breakfasts in town—but look out. I’m planning a pastry line with gelato piped into donuts.”

Milly had to admit that it sounded divine. “Well, I welcome the friendly competition. Good luck on everything, Meg. We’ll drop by again—when there aren’t clowns.”

Meg grinned and then Milly stepped over to the side to grab a blue plastray to pile their treats on for the trip back to the pub.

While she was sliding the cups into their slots, Milly heard voices rising in anger.

“I told you to back off. Stop following me around and stop trying to talk me into this. I don’t want to do it anymore!” It was a male’s voice, very angry and very gruff. The words were followed by a man who got up from his booth and stormed out. Milly craned her neck to catch a glimpse of him, but a fern was blocking her view.

Damn Fennington Station and it’s obsession with ferns.

Milly picked up her tray and saw that the booth the man had been sitting in was now vacant, but there was a piece of paper left behind. Well, wasn’t that interesting? It was blue and when Milly passed by the table she reached out and turned it over—and saw it was nothing more than a grand opening day flyer with some numbers written along the top.

Interesting. But what did the numbers mean?

She took the flyer—if for no other reason than she was curious what that man and his disappearing partner had been fighting over.  Folding up the paper, she slid it into her pocket just as a guy raced past.

He was tall and broad-shouldered, one of which clipped her as he rushed by.

“Ouch.” Milly rubbed her arm.

The man paused and turned, giving her a cold glare. He was balding and wore a pin-striped suit, with shoes on the wrong feet and a red flower on the lapel of his jacket.

“Sorry,” he grunted. “In a hurry.”

Well, wasn’t that obvious?

Checking her tray to make sure the drinks were still secure, she walked back to the booth where Tilly waited and found her talking to Linda Margaret. Milly held back a groan, worried they’d never get out of NOJYO now.

Their mother had always said disparaging things about people with two first names and Linda Margaret was no exception. Between the twins they randomly picked one of Linda Margaret’s names when referring to the woman. There was never any confusion as to who they were talking about as their tone usually said it all.

One of Linda Margaret’s defining attributes was the complete inability to make up her mind about anything. Today it was clearly evidenced by the fact that she held three different NOJYOs.

“I just couldn’t decide,” the beautiful, trim, and svelte woman said. As always, she was dressed to the nines, or in her case eighteens, with a stylish hat with white stripes, a black off-the-shoulder shirt, and a white leather pencil-skirt.

“You look fantastic as usual,” Milly said and felt frumpy in her jeans and t-shirt ensemble. Though it was her normal attire and really didn’t change much day to day, seeing Linda always made her think she should try upping her game.

And then she never did.

“You know me, darling,” Linda Margaret winked, “I don’t just sell fashion, I live fashion. I breathe it. It’s everything to me. If only everything was so easy…” She sighed and tapped a finger to her chin.

“We better get going,” Tilly said, jumping up from the table as Linda paused in thought. “See you tonight at the speed dating event?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t miss it. That’s an easy decision, but making a choice about a man…well, now that’s near impossible!”

That was something both the twins could agree on.





BRAIN FREEZE

Back at It’s a Gas, Tilly tasted her blueberry NOJYO and found it creamy, with a hint of birthday cake and sprinkles, along with chocolate-cookie crumbs, gummy worms, peanut-butter-candy pieces, and sugar-frosted raspberries. In other words:

“This might be the best tasting dessert I’ve ever had,” Tilly exclaimed with a freezing mouth. She almost couldn’t feel her tongue anymore. “How are we going to compete with this?”

Milly sucked on her spoon and just shook her head. “Just wait until Meg launches the breakfast donuts filled with gelato.”

Tilly squeaked loudly, and her cheeks turned pink. She hadn’t meant to be quite that loud. “Oh, I think I’m coming down with a brain freeze.” She squinted and rubbed her temple.

“Maybe you’re just sore from when you fainted,” Milly teased

“I thought you caught me!”

Milly nodded vigorously, though not very convincingly. “Oh yeah, of course, sure did!”

Tilly gave Milly a measuring look, but didn’t say anything further as her brain-freeze appeared to intensify. She hammed it up a bit with a pained moan and saw a look of concern cross Milly’s face.

Then she put her NOJYO cup down on the counter, stepped toward Tilly to put a hand on her shoulder, and with a wide grin, said, “Fooled ya! Better grab your cup before Rupert makes a go at it.

The sisters glanced at the cat, who was busy chewing on his straw, and hadn’t noticed Milly’s NOJYO. The poor cat didn’t seem to be getting very much liquid out of his drink.

At least it’s keeping him busy. That old kitty really does need a hobby.

Chad, the pub’s baker—who Tilly found more than a little handsome with his thick wavy hair and those tight fitting gray shirts he liked to wear—came out from the kitchen. Not that she tended to keep track of what he liked to wear or anything, or that she noticed how tight they were against his pecs.

Hmm…

“Did I hear that Tilly fainted? Are you all right, Tilly?”

“Yes, I’m fine. It was just a stupid little thing.” She chuckled nervously and stirred her NOYJO while shooting her sister a look that clearly said, ‘Don’t tell Chad about the clown’.

But it seemed Milly didn’t get the message, or she didn’t want to. “Tilly saw a clown.”

<Milly,> Tilly hissed, absolutely horrified, across the Link.

<What? It was a clown.>

<I don’t want Chad to know that.> Tilly wanted to hide her face and fade away to black.

Chad chuckled and leaned against the breakfast bar. “That’s not so bad. Lots of people are scared of clowns. They’re creepy.”

Tilly breathed a sigh of relief, glad that Chad understood then gave him a smile. When he returned it, Tilly was certain some portion of her insides had just turned to jelly.

“It’s a thing from our childhood,” Milly said. “We hate them. Her more than me.”

“Terrified is more like it. Thanks for that, Milly.” Tilly gazed up at the ceiling and hoped that would be the last of it.

It wasn’t.

Chad’s expression was sincere and his eyes wide as he said, “Oh man, that’s rough. Sorry to hear about it.”

Tilly found herself having trouble pulling her eyes up from his manly chest, she made it to his strong jaw and then paused again.

Stars! I really need to stop thinking about Chat as a bowl of man—candy. Men are equal to women, not sex objects!

But then she thought about how he always smelled so good and he was so easy on the eyes.

Tilly cleared her throat, trying to sound professional and trying to change the subject—all at the same time. “It’s OK, Chad. How are preparations for tonight?”

“Pretty good, pretty good. Dough is proofing for the pizzas, burger buns are done. Allison’s chopping the veg for the salad you want to feature. We shouldn’t run into any problems.”

Relieved, Tilly relaxed. “Excellent, thanks Chad. I guess I need to learn to let go a little more and trust the team.”

“Like I’m always telling you,” Milly said with a wink of her eye. “Delegation is the key to a happy life.”

“You never say that,” Tilly gasped at her sister.

Milly shrugged. “Huh…I think it all the time. Well, I should start. It’s good advice.”

“We have your back, Tilly.” Chad grinned and turned, heading back into the kitchen, but he threw Tilly another glance as he stepped behind the door and almost caught her staring at his ass.

Tilly wasn’t sure if it was the fainting, the brain freeze, Chad’s rear end, or a combination, but her knees got a bit weak as he looked back. Just the notion he might be interested in something more…she almost didn’t even want to know. The whole idea terrified her more than she cared to admit.

Milly was leaning over the bar, staring at an event flyer folded up in her hand. “Would you like a cloth to wipe up all that drool you’re leaking? You’re gonna need to change your shirt in a moment.”

“Shut up,” Tilly said kindly and hip-checked her sister. “What’s that you’re studying?”

Milly sucked down another spoonful of her NOJYO. “I don’t know. A man was shouting over at Meg’s, I didn’t catch who he was. He left this behind in his booth. Has a few numbers written on it.”

Tilly glanced at it nonchalantly. “Great, so now you’re stealing other people’s trash.”

“It would seem that way,” Milly admitted. “It could lead to our next big case!”

Tilly rolled her eyes. “Oh, Milly. There aren’t going to be any new cases. Nothing ever happens on Fennington station.”

“Which is just how we like it,” Rupert said as he continued to gnaw on his straw.

“Right,” Tilly said with a nod toward the cat as he began coughing on a bit of straw. “It was a one-time thing. For the record, I’d be pretty happy if we never had to investigate another murder. I’m much happier baking than I am off collecting clues.”

Milly’s lips turned down as she looked at the paper. “I know, just some excitement is nice.” She took the flyer and crumbled it up, throwing it into the trash behind the bar. “Happy? Not going to invent problems for us to solve.”

Tilly gave her sister a pat on the shoulder. “Good girl. Now, it’s time to start setting up all the holodisplays with the instructions and questionnaires around the bar.” Tilly pointed to the raised platform where the main bar and booths were located.

“I thought I was supposed to be the manager around here,” Milly said dryly.

Tilly glanced down at Rupert who was looking more and more frustrated as he chewed his straw. “Seriously, how is anyone supposed to get to the tapioca balls like this?

“Oh, Rupert. You know you can’t suck. If you just asked for help…” Tilly said.

He gave her a wide-eyed expression and his ears flattened. “I’d watch your language, little lady, if I were you.

Tilly shook her head and retrieved a small bowl from under the counter for him. She poured some of his tea, along with the tapioca balls, into it so he could lap it up. “Happy?” She asked and gave his back a little scratch.

His only answer was his little tongue lapping into the cold liquid, splashing it everywhere.

“Oh, for Jupiter’s sake,” Tilly called out as she grabbed a cloth to wipe down the front of her apron.

“You realize that’s an apron, right?” Milly asked. “It’s supposed to get dirty.”

“I want it to stay clean for tonight. Now, off with you. We have so much to get done, Milly.” Tilly waved her away.

“OK, OK.” Milly hurried away, laughing at her sister and Tilly grinned at her retreating form. It was, after all, in good fun.

Tilly brought up her checklist on her HUD. Extra ice in the shape of Jupiter had been made, all the cocktail liquor they needed had arrived, food was prepped—there had to be something she was missing. Tilly was good, but she wasn’t that good.

The bell chimed for the front door. Curious, Tilly wiped her hands on the bottom of her apron as she hurried toward it. “I wonder who it can be?”

<Uhh…> Came the response for Moppet, who should’ve known and been able to tell her. Well, that was interesting.

“Tilly, wait,” Milly cried and ran toward her, but Tilly had reached the entrance and already pressed her hand against the hand scanner. The plane of glass slid open to reveal who had rung the bell.

On the other side was a big burly man wearing an official-looking gray suit. His stomach crested over his belt buckle, his hair was only combed on one side, and his mustache fell over his top lip. He blinked dull, bored eyes and slowly focused on her face.

“Miss Milly?” he asked and stuck out his pudgy hand for a shake.

There was only one answer for who he was, what he wanted. Based on his appearance and the boredom lining his face he could only be….

A bureaucrat. A government official. Someone sent from Major’s office with only one job: rain on her parade.

Tilly angrily narrowed her eyes and prepared to launch into a fully-fledged tirade.




OH, MUFFIN CRUMBS

For the love of Jupiter’s moons!

Milly didn’t know what the food inspector was doing at the pub a day early, but she rushed to get between him and Tilly before her sister said anything she might regret. Tilly, while normally even-tempered and sweet, if not particular, saw red when it came to government officials.

Especially the kind who could close them down or tell them what to do.

By the time Milly arrived at the entrance, Tilly already had her hands on her hips. From the tilt of her head, Milly could tell her sister had somehow been triggered into full-on indignation mode and it wasn’t going to be pretty.

“Hello, hello.” Milly laughed and wedged herself between the two. “Good day to you…”

“Joseph,” he said simply. “I was trying to explain to Miss Tilly here—”

“Ms.,” Tilly corrected forcefully.

“—That I am from the food safety division. I know we were scheduled for tomorrow, but I had an opening this morning and thought now might be a good time to come by.”

“And I was trying to explain to him,” Tilly said with her hand splayed out, “that I have no knowledge about a food inspection coming up. I haven’t received any of the official missives from his office. If I had, I would certainly remember it.”

Joseph cleared his throat and Milly felt like she was sinking into the ground. Everything was coming apart all around her and she was unable to stop it, as if she was on a runaway maglev. Milly wished she was sinking into acidic quicksand on one of the moons of Martell because that would more pleasant than this.

“And as I was trying to say to Ms. Tilly, I had previously spoken to you over the Link to make arrangements. And I spoke with your rather peculiar AI, Moppet.”

Milly could feel Tilly boring holes through the back of her head. She turned slightly and saw the angry expression on her sister’s face and knew she was done for.

<That’s not true,> Moppet broadcast to everyone. <I’m not even one ounce peculiar. Are you aware your eyes are too far apart?>

<Moppet,> Milly yelled privately. <Please, not now.>

<Then when?> Moppet asked. <Now seems a good a time as any.>

“Please do come in then,” Tilly bit off each word with barely restrained anger. “I do think you’ll find the kitchen in order, Mr. Joseph.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

Milly backed against the side wall so Joseph could step in. She stole a glance at Tilly who wouldn’t even look at her. Great, that’s how it was going to be on one of the busiest nights of their pub-running careers.

Joseph held his head up high as he walked into the pub. He immediately gasped and pointed his finger at the bar counter.

“Why is there a cat on your counter…doing—stars, is he eating? Eating on your counter?” Angry and red-faced, his finger shook in mid-air.

Rupert looked up from the bar and licked his chops, bright-colored tea dripping on the counter-top from his whiskers. He opened his mouth and burped quite loudly.

Milly muffled a laugh. “Clearly, he’s drinking tea. He can’t use the straw,” Milly explained.

Joseph muttered to himself, shaking his head, and took out his pen, writing down something on his plaspad.

“If he’s a problem, we’ll get rid of him,” Tilly said and stormed over to the counter. She lifted Rupert up and he shrieked in protest while Tilly looked for somewhere to toss him.

“No, Tilly,” Milly ran toward the counter. “I’ll take him upstairs there’s no reason to….”

“Nonsense. He’ll be fine in here.” She opened a cabinet under the bar and stuffed him inside before Milly was able to stop her. “See? He’ll be happy in there. He can sniff—.”

Her words were drowned out as Rupert’s claws clamored on the inside and then he screamed, “Milllllyyyyyyyy!” His voice drifted further and further away.

“Rupert,” Milly cried and opened the cabinet door to see he was nowhere to be found, the flap on the bottom—the one that led to the recycling center deep inside Fennington Station—flapping lightly as the air shifted within the chute.

Tilly’s face was crestfallen. “I didn’t mean…I forgot…I was just so angry, Milly. I’m sorry, but we’ll find him. We will. He’s a cat. He has at least twenty genetically enhanced lives.”

Rupert was gone. He was just gone. Milly didn’t know what to say or what to do. She sank to the floor and sat back on her heels and stared into the empty cabinet space where Rupert should be. All she had left behind, was a trail of orange and white fluffs of fur floating through the air.

“Come if you will, Miss Tilly,” Joseph ordered. “Let’s see how many more health-code violations we can find.”

Tilly glanced at him and then back at her sister with remorse in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Milly. He’ll turn back up, he always does,” she said and then rushed off, leaving Milly staring after her.

What if Rupert’s dead? Milly thought, bordering on an all-out panic. Milly would never forgive herself. Never.




NINE HUNDRED LIVES

Rupert couldn’t believe it.

Tilly, his second favorite twin, had shoved him down the recycling chute. Maybe she didn’t mean to flush him away like yesterday’s wilted salads, but she should’ve known how…ungraceful Rupert could be under certain circumstances.

Like when he was drunk on bubble tea and those delicious little tapioca balls.

Falling down the recycling shaft, time seemed to slow down…or maybe the drop just took forever. Rupert pawed at the sides of the shaft, desperately trying to slow his descent, but the chute was slick with some sort of tomato sauce and smelled like old onions.

His nose twitched as terrible smells assaulted him while he slid down further and further. He looked down and saw a huge cart filled with recyclable plas, paper and metal—plus a few things even he knew weren’t on the approved list.

All of it was waiting to be torn up and recycled into something new.

But Rupert didn’t want to be anything new. He was pretty happy being an adorable orange-and-white tabby cat with a slight drinking problem. He managed to hook his claws onto the lip of the chute and hung on for dear life until a bottle hit him in the head and he fell….

Right into a bunch of stinky milk-bottles.

His impact shifted them aside and he slipped deeper into the large bin. The bottles cascaded onto him, covering him, forcing him down into the bin’s smelly depts. The faster Rupert clawed, the further he sank. He couldn’t breathe, he was panicking, then he remembered the thing that always calmed him down: counting his remaining lives.

He went through the ones he had expended, and was confident that he still had at least eight lives left after the debacle between him and the kitchen mixer. Rupert wasn’t clear if rejuvenation treatments added to his life counter, but he suspected they did.

So, whatever happened next, he’d be OK. He just needed a plan. He just needed to breathe and he’d find his way out.

Closing his eyes, his ears twitched and his nose flared as he sniffed around him. During his counting, everything had settled enough that he was able to get his bearings and begin to start his climb out. He pushed bottles away with his nose, nudged them with his paw, and clambered up the edge of the container. Luckily, it was ridged and he was able to hook his front claws in the slight folds and pull himself up.

Victory achieved.

Rupert stood on the edge of the container and threw a glance all around to survey the land. His eyes widened at the sight of the piles of recyclables, going as far as his eye could see. Bottles, packing material, metal, plas, and machinery everywhere.

Not only that but the smells, by the stars, the smells were so intense, Rupert didn’t know where to start.

First things first. He gave a little butt-wiggle for good measure and then jumped down. The ground had a thin layer of…slime on it. Most likely left-over sludge from old food, grime, and the processes involved in recycling—whatever those were. Rupert heard the term all the time but wasn’t sure what it meant.

Not that he cared, the only thing on his mind was to find his way out and make Tilly grovel for what she’d done. If he could just find an exit.

Rupert trotted along, moving away from the strongest smells, and eventually he spotted an exit sign. Tail up, he eagerly trotted toward the door thinking that when he saw Tilly next he was really going to milk what had happened. Belly rubs, soft yummy turkey breasts, nips of rum, it was all going to be his. Rupert started salivating just thinking about it.

When he finally reached the door, Rupert saw the hand-plate. Inconvenient, but not the worst thing in the world. Rupert jumped at the panel twice before he managed to press his paw against it on the third jump.

The door didn’t open. Instead, the screen lit up red and a computerized voice stated, “ERROR.”

Rupert hissed and hit his paw against the hand-plate again.

“ERROR.”

In frustration, Rupert meowed, jumped, and hit his paw against the panel one more time.

“ERROR. NOT HUMAN. UNKNOWN. SUSPECT VERY LARGE RODENT.”

“Rodent! I don’t smell that bad!”

 “DISPATCHING ANIMAL CONTROL.”

Rupert’s eyes widened and his ears flattened against his head.

Crap! The Fuzz!

He had to get out of there, had to hide, before they got him and stuck him in a stasis kennel. He had a reputation with Fennington Station’s Animal Control.

They won’t catch me alive!

He ran, banking around the huge containers filled with recycling as he heard the doors open.

He wasn’t going down, not without a fight.




BINGE EATING

<We have bioscanners down here, ma’am. No cat would make it past initial sorting—and nothing’s been flagged in that system. We’ll send a bot through the chutes to see if he got hung up somewhere.>

Milly couldn’t help but imagine a dozen horrible ways Rupert could get caught in the chutes. <Hung up?>

<Ah…yeah, like caught on a nice safe platform somewhere,> the man stammered. <You know how cats like to perch.>

<Right, yeah, of course,> Milly replied as she ended her conversation with the dock-workers in the recycling plant. <If you see him, please make sure he isn’t crushed. He really wouldn’t like that.>

Milly was so worried about her favorite little feline pal, that she ended the conversation before the dock worker replied, then groaned as she realized how dumb she must have sounded.

She sat back on her heels on the sofa in her upstairs apartment—a cozy and contemporary open concept space. There was a holo newspaper beside her and in her hand, a mug of tea. Everywhere Milly looked, all she could see were reminders about lost little Rupert.

She picked up his favorite toy mouse who had lost all its stuffing long ago. Oh, how Rupert loved to torture that thing—verbally as well as physically. She remembered how he would shake it in his mouth and scream, ‘Who is the best feline on this station, who?’

Milly always laughed at him for talking to a toy mouse, but now she just missed him.

When she heard the door unlock, she tensed, only to see that it was Tilly, who was focused on the middle distance, reading something on her HUD.

“All right,” Tilly said, her voice distant. “The list of infractions isn’t that big, and we have three days to make some adjustments. Luckily it’s nothing that should affect tonight’s speed-dating event.”

Milly clenched her teeth. She can’t even lead with an apology for what she’s done to Rupert?

Rising from the sofa, mug of tea in hand, she turned away, not even making eye contact with her sister and walked into the kitchen to rinse out the mug.

“Milly?” Tilly chased after her. “Didn’t you hear what I said? Everything’s OK for tonight’s speed-dating event. I thought you’d be happy.”

“Happy?” Milly set her mug in the sink and spun around with her hands on her hips. Tilly just stared at her blankly as if she didn’t know why she was upset or why she didn’t understand.

“Yes, happy!”

Milly shook her head and waggled her finger. “You never loved him. Rupert never meant to you what he means to me.”

“Ohh…so that’s what this is about.” Tilly’s eyes fell to the floor.

“Yes. You shoved him down the receptacle like it was nothing and you have yet to apologize! He could be dead.”

Tilly rolled her eyes. “He’s not dead. He’s missing. He’ll turn up. He always does. Remember that time he got trapped inside a service elevator at the Uptown Bakery? He got out and then ate all their pastries and cupcakes.” She laughed, presumably at the memory. Milly remembered too, his little frosting smeared snout.

“And he had a stomach ache for days.” Milly smiled fondly.

“You babied him with that hot-water bottle and the heated blanket, remember? Truth is, he’s always been more your cat than mine. I’ve always been OK with that, but I’d never hurt him. Never. Not on purpose.”

As Tilly spoke, her voice rose in pitch and she worked herself up into a frenzy, covering her face with her hands as her sobs started. Milly felt horrible all at once and wrapped her arms around her sister.

“I’m sorry. Please don’t cry!” Milly begged until she was crying, too. Then Tilly embraced her back until they were both sobbing.

“I’m sorry I lost your cat!”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about the food inspector!”

Tilly shook her head. “You were just trying to protect me!”

<I’m sorry, too,> Moppet said with a tearful voice. <I don’t know what for but I’m sure I’ve done something warranting an apology. I’m over six hundred years old, so there must be something.>

“We forgive you for whatever it is,” Milly said.

<I am the perfect roommate,> Moppet bragged. <I answer the door, give you messages, and I don’t eat all the food or leave dishes in the sink.>

“But you gossip about us, and everyone else on this station, to anyone who will listen to you.”

<You know about that?> Moppet asked hesitantly.

Ignoring the AI, Tilly wiped her eyes. “I know what will make this all better. A quick snack before we go downstairs and open. You know, sandwiches, maybe some chips and pickles. Oh, and maybe there are some left over brownies for dessert! The cheesecake swirl ones with the chocolate drizzle!”

She turned and opened the chiller, head half lost inside of it as she began to pull ingredients out and hand them to Milly—who, for her part, could only think that what Tilly had just described was nothing at all like a snack. It sounded like a meal fit for a queen.

“I’ll help you with the sandwich,” Milly said as she balanced half a dozen ingredients in her arms. “You know they’re my specialty.”



IT’S ALL A BLUR

Milly steeled herself. It’s speed dating time!

Rupert was still missing but with their second biggest night of the year upon them, Milly had to push that from her mind and put on her game face. Smokey eyes, red lips, and wearing a black fitted dress paired with leather leggings, she was ready to hostess with the best of them.

At least there’s been no report of a cat anywhere in the recycling facility, she thought while welcoming guests. Then the thought of what would happen to a cat in the machinery came to mind and she shook her head, focusing on what was in front of her: customers.

“Welcome,” Milly said with a smile as she stood at the front of It’s a Gas, greeting the ever-so-tall Rex with his brown hair, dashing suit, and boulder hat. Always dressed to the 9’s, that one was.

“Feel free to take any station.” She sent a control token across from the pubnet to Rex’s private HUD. “Wings are a credit a pop and nuts are on the house. From your station, feel free to order a drink or whatever you like. We’ll be getting started any minute.”

<Five minutes to go time,> Moppet reminded her. <Almost time to close the doors and kill the outside Link access.>

During earlier speed-dating events they hadn’t thought to limit outside access, but after several of the daters—most notably Linda Margaret—had outside friends help them seem more personable, it became a requirement.

Rex returned Milly’s smile as he headed inside. “The place looks smashing, Milly. I’ve never seen it look so good.”

“Thank you.” Her heart filled with pride. It was gorgeous with the black lights, spinning strobe light’s above the bar, but turned down to a subtle glow. Milly hadn’t wanted anyone to have a seizure or go home seeing spots for the next three days.

Everyone worth knowing or talking to was at the pub, the same people who came every year. Milly didn’t know for certain if any marriages or children had come of the pub’s speed dating event, but she suspected maybe at least two had. Or one?

Well, who really cares, it’s a lot of fun!

Milly drew her attention back at the bar on the second level and saw the servitor bringing drinks over from the kitchen. She was glad that Tilly had decided to use it. Her usual argument was that though the ‘bot was practical, it did lose that sort of personal touch. Lucky for them, Allison was also circulating and taking orders with her usual flair.

Right then, Milly saw that Allison’s tray was loaded up with baskets of wings, cheeseburgers in pretzel buns, and calzone the size of asteroids. If it wasn’t for that huge ‘snack’ that Milly had eaten earlier in the apartment, she’d have trouble not raiding Allison’s tray.

“Oh, hi Milly,” a voice said from her left, and Milly forced a smile when she saw Linda Margaret enter the pub. “Hi, Linda. You look beautiful as usual.”

The fashionista spread her arms and made a face at her dress. “This old thing?”

If by an ‘old thing’ Linda meant a floor-length flowing black-and-silver dress that accentuated her lean, strong arms, her perfectly nipped waist, and gently rounded hips. “You look good in whatever you wear, Linda Margaret. You’ve been gifted with perfect taste.”

She giggled. “And we know that doesn’t come cheap, does it honey?”

Milly passed another token from the pubnet. “Take any station you like. Wings are a credit, nuts are on the house. Order—”

“I know, dear, I know.” Linda winked at her. “I’ve been to enough of these events to be able to run them myself. Hopefully one day, I’ll meet Mr. Right.”

Milly hoped so, but she wasn’t sure Linda would recognize him even if he leapt through the entrance, knocked her over the head, and drag her to his love condo. Of course, what Milly had just described was kidnapping, so maybe that wasn’t Mr. Right after all.

<Time’s up. Lock the doors?> Moppet asked.

Milly did a quick check of time on her HUD. <Lock them down. And shut down the Link relays.>

It was time to start doing the rounds, making sure that guests were happy and comfortable. With all the excitement going on, she’d almost forgotten about Rupert’s predicament. It was in the back of her mind, but she knew that she just had to get the night’s event over with.

Then she would launch a search party the likes of which Fennington Station had never seen before.




SWEETHEART COOKIES

The drink and food orders were coming in fast, but Tilly—along with Chad—had everything well under control. They were in phase one of the speed dating event during which everyone drank a bit too much—enough to get a quality buzz—and that made it one of Tilly’s favorite parts.

She lined the champagne glasses up on a round serving tray and put a scoop of raspberry sherbet in each one. Then, she filled each glass with a pink champagne, the sherbet fizzing on impact. Not only was it deliciously sweet, it was pretty too. The she sprinkled red rose petals around the cups to give it a romantic look.

Speed-dating might be fun, but it certainly wasn’t romantic. This might help.

Tilly slid a plate of dark chocolate heart-shaped cookies decorated with colorful heart sprinkles onto the tray. “Order up,” she said loudly at the pass before she pulled the next order down off her HUD.

“Burger bites and pretzels bites, four orders,” she shouted out to Chase. He gave her a nod, wiping his forehead as Tilly started to prepare the next drink order.

Allison arrived at the pass, and while she looked harried, she smiled at the pair.

“Great job, guys,” she said as she lifted the tray up. “We’re hopping out here like you wouldn’t believe. People are loving the food and drinks so far.”

Tilly gave her a quick thumbs up to show her appreciation as she filled a martini shaker with ice. “How you holding up, Chase? Need any help?”

“Nah,” he said as he threw down some tiny beef patties onto the grill. “Getting to talk to you is help enough. You know how much fun it is to work together?”

His words struck her as heartfelt and Tilly didn’t know how to process it. She giggled—surely that was acceptable—but when she went to pour the first of her cocktails, she missed the martini glass completely and sloshed the liquid all over the counter.



“Oh no,” Tilly called out in embarrassment. She bent over under the cabinet to find a cloth so she could quickly clean it up and could start fresh with something new. Hopefully, this setback wouldn’t throw her too far off schedule.

“Let me help you,” Chad said with his burger flipper in hand.

“No, I’ve got it. Don’t worry. You keep an eye on the grill.” The last thing Tilly needed was for the burgers to be over-cooked or for the pretzel bites in the oven to burn.

She grabbed the cloth she was looking for, extra absorbent ReMark NoJ pads, then banged her head when she moved to stand up straight again.

Jupiter’s moons, that really smarted. Tilly groaned and grabbed her head just as the lights went out and the pub fell into the darkness.

Somewhere, out on the floor, a high-pitched voice screeched, and Tilly realized the voice belonged to her sister.

“Milly!”




NOJ, IT’S DARK

Several minutes before the lights went out, Milly was walking around the bar, assisting with orders, and making sure everyone was happy.

Mitchell from Fennington Station Excellence in Accounting was busy chatting up Linda Margaret. “Well, I don’t know,” Linda said with a laugh. “I suppose if I could be any animal I wanted, I’d be a shape shifter, so I wouldn’t have to choose just one. That’s how I live my life. I don’t believe in picking or settling.”

Mitchell grinned from beneath his mustache. “I think I like you, Linda. You’re going to be my first pick.”

The woman winked as she shifted in her seat and picked up her cocktail, crossing her legs. “I’ll let you know how I feel about that later.”

Oh, Linda you’ll never change. Milly patted her shoulder as she walked by.

Beside Linda, sat Marcus Touff—he was a bouncer who worked at one of the casinos two levels up. A big guy who wore a teddy bear on his shirts, he could be quite sweet and shy, even if he did have sleeve-tattoos running down both arms.

“Want another drink to build up your courage, Marcus?” Milly asked.

He nodded and said in a voice that was much higher than expected—unless you knew him, of course, “Yes, please.”

Milly grinned. Beside him was Marie the florist with an allergy problem and just past her was Fred—always dressed to impress but boring as a welding mask, he was perpetually looking for dates.

“About ten minutes to go,” Milly said and held up both hands. “Whose ready to get started?”

There were a few whoops and polite clapping; already the energy in the room was increasing. As Allison came around with a tray of sherbet-champagne cocktails, Milly heard a hurried knock from the front. She skipped down the stairs to the front entrance and saw Meg banging hard on the door.

“Meg? Speed dating tonight, I’m afraid you’ll have to come back tomorrow night. Pre-tokened tickets only,” Milly said apologetically.

Meg shook her head. “I just need to ask you a few questions. Can you please let me in? It’s really important. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t, Milly.”

Milly suppressed a sigh. She did want to be neighborly so she opened the door, locking it again once Milly stepped inside. “OK, I have a few minutes before the event starts. What’s the matter? You didn’t see Rupert, did you?”

Meg’s expression turned to one of confusion but then she shook her head. “No, I haven’t, but I saw this left behind on one of my tables.” She showed Milly a piece of paper.

“This is one of our flyers for the speed-dating night.” Milly read it over and saw that while it was her flyer, it had been modified. Someone had put a big red X through her and Tilly’s face and through the name of It’s a Gas pub. They had rewritten the words ‘It’s Over’ in red pen. She also couldn’t help but notice that the writing looked like chicken scratches.

What did that mean? What was over?

“I think someone is out to hurt you guys. And they might be here. I also can’t find Mr. Bogart, the clown I hired for my grand opening. I’m worried he might be here as well.”

Was Meg saying that a clown would try to hurt her or Tilly? Meg read her expression and shrugged. “You guys did really embarrass him. I just want to make sure you’re OK.”

Milly nodded and felt a rush of anxiety. “Of course. You walk around the bar. I’ll walk around the far side. We’ll meet in the middle and see if we find anything. I’m pretty sure we didn’t sell a ticket to Mr. Bogart, but you never know.”

“Even clowns get lonely,” Meg said before she traipsed up the stairs to the second-level bar area where everyone was gathered, and Milly followed after her.

She went slowly, walking around the side and gazing at all the smiling faces as they talked among themselves. Some drank, others munched on the appetizers, all of them trying to be as attractive as possible.

<Ten minutes is up now,> Moppet said. <You ready to start the madness? I’m taking bets from other AI on who is going to end up dateless. My money’s on Tilly.>

<Moppet, that’s not very nice. You know that Tilly and I are both ineligible. To speed date, I mean?>

<I guess then I’m going to win,> Moppet said with a giggle and smugly showed Milly an image of cash-rain falling down.

She was incorrigible. <OK, just give me a—> Milly started to say but at that moment, the lights went out. Her shoe got stuck in something pointy and she started to fall. It scared the nitrones out of her and a second later, Milly was screaming and falling to the floor.

01001110 01001111 01001010 01011001 01001111

Milly felt around on the floor and felt a human leg. Oh Jupiter, what was going on?

“Milly,” Tilly screamed from somewhere and Milly thought she must still be standing near the kitchen.

“I’m OK,” she shouted out in the dark. “Don’t try to find me, just stay where you are.”

A moment later, the lights snapped back on and Milly breathed a sigh of relief as did everyone around the bar.

Milly’s eyes were automatically drawn to Meg who stood beside the bar, holding a knife in her hand. When she looked down and saw what she was holding, Meg screamed and dropped the blade.

And strangely, it bounced twice, like it was some sort of a prop.

“Someone shoved it in my hand. That’s not mine!” Meg implored the crowd.

Milly’s eyes widened in shock and saw that on the floor lay the body of a rather pudgy man. He stared up at the ceiling with wide, unblinking eyes. A scream tore its way out of Milly’s throat and she covered her mouth just as everyone else in the bar began to panic.

People cried out and glasses dropped to the floor, shattering where they hit.

There was no blood or any obvious wound on the man. She grabbed a napkin laying on the bar and used it to pick up the knife. She didn’t have to investigate too closely to confirm that it was rubber.

A rubber knife? How did this guy get killed if this thing is nothing more than a party prop?

“Calm down. Everyone, calm down!” Tilly called out as she ran toward Milly. Then she saw the dead body, she joined in with the general cacophony and turned her eyes away.

Milly’s fingers shook as she checked for the man’s pulse but didn’t feel anything. As she turned his head so she could get access to his neck, Milly saw a tiny bit of white face paint behind his ear and under his chin.

That’s why I didn’t recognize him. No makeup, and no beard….

It seemed they had found Mr. Bogart after all.




SLICED FRUIT

Mr. Bogart was dead and Meg was caught holding the knife that killed him—or would have, if it wasn’t a prop.

“It wasn’t me,” Meg professed her innocence to the dozens of eyes locked on her. “I swear it wasn’t. Someone shoved that knife into my hand when it was dark. I didn’t know what was going on so I just took it, but I smelled…a burger!” Meg professed. “Bacon and lots of it.”

Milly willed herself to calm down in the sea of angry faces and accusatory stares directed at Meg. “It’s rubber. Mr. Bogart wasn’t killed with that weapon. There’s no blood on him.”

“That’s Mr. Bogart?” Linda asked, peering over from her chair with an air of disdain. “I barely recognized him—looked better with a beard.”

“But…but…but…why would someone shove the knife into Meg’s hand then?” Tilly was practically hyperventilating, and Milly guided her over to an empty booth and helped her sit down. As she did that, Chad raced by with a table cloth to cover the body.

“Are you going to be OK?” Milly whispered.

Tilly took several shallow breaths. She nodded but then shook her head frantically. “I can’t believe this happened. Our speed-dating event wasn’t supposed to be this exciting. Oh stars, I think I’m breaking out in hives.” She held her arms out for inspection.

Sure enough, the hives were appearing. “They’re only cute little small ones,” Milly said encouragingly.

Tilly’s eyes widened. “That’s how you are going to make me feel better? By telling me my hives are cute?”

<You could play connect the dots. Look, those ones near your elbow pit look like the mouse ears from the Disknee World,> Moppet said.

Tilly groaned with longing. “We’re never going to get there now. Our reputation is shot.”

“Please don’t say shot,” Mitchell said from across the bar. “I don’t think I can take it.”

“We have to call the station police,” Larry, head of the maglev conductors union, said. “Reactivate the Link.”

“They can sort out what happened,” someone else called out.

Meg shook her head. “Please! You can’t.”

Everyone’s heads turned to look at her.

“I’m already on probation for trying to blackmail Mrs. Henderson. If they find out I was caught holding the murder weapon, they won’t have to hear any evidence about how guilty or innocent I am. They’ll already have their minds made up.” Meg’s eyes widened, brimming with tears. “Please, Milly. You have to help me.”

Milly wanted to be neighborly and all, but not calling the cops when a murder had occurred in her pub was beyond the pale. But, when she looked into Meg’s eyes and saw how innocent and scared Meg looked, she didn’t see much of a choice.

She glanced at Tilly who only gave her a slight nod, then a shrug. She was going to need to be the one who made this decision because let’s face it, that was her area of expertise.

Milly stood up straighter and walked to the center of the room. “Everyone is going to need to relax. Take a deep breath. We have one dead body and one murder weapon. The front door is locked and if Meg didn’t do it….”

“Is this part of the dating game?” someone called out.

“You mean,” Linda Margaret asked, standing from her stool, “in here with us is a murderer? One of us is a murderer?”

Slowly, Milly nodded. “And before any of us leave, we’re going to figure out who it is, it won’t take long. Trust me, I’m a professional.”

<Bookkeeper,> Moppet inserted.

Linda Margaret’s hands shook as she sat back down. “I think I’m going to need another drink.”

01101100 01101001 01100111 01101000 01110100 01111001 01100101 01100001 01110010 01110011

Everyone was gazing at one another with more than a little suspicion and Milly couldn’t help but join in.

One of their customers, maybe even a loyal one, had killed Mr. Bogart while the others sipped drinks, ate snacks, and filled out the speed-dating questionnaires at their station. Milly had never felt so sickened before.

Well, except maybe that time two years ago when she ate an entire bag of sour gummy watermelons—but that was a whole different type of illness.

“This is ridiculous,” Mitchell said and leapt off his bar stool. “She’s obviously guilty. She blackmailed Mrs. Henderson which ultimately led to her death. She’s one of those people that you just can’t trust. So, why are you going to take her word? We should just call the cops and be done with it.”

“I know you’re upset,” Milly began. “We all are, but if you would please—”

“We’re trapped in here with a dead body. How else would you expect me to feel?”

“Didn’t you hear my sister?” Tilly rose up from her booth. “She said sit down and if you don’t do it on your own, I’ll find a way to make you.”

Tilly’s voice came loud and strong. Her cheeks bright pink and her eyes narrow—Milly couldn’t remember the last time she looked that upset.

Mitchell slowly backed up and tripped as he fell down onto his bar stool. He looked equally shocked as Milly was at Tilly’s outburst.

“Good.” Tilly put her hands on the hips. “This is how it’s going to go. We’ll interview everyone, we’ll make a determination, and then we’ll contact the FSP. Understood? Anyone have any problems with what I just said?”

No one made a peep, a pin didn’t even drop.

Tilly smiled with satisfaction. “We’ll get through this as quickly as possible and if you’re innocent, then you have nothing to fear. Appetizers will be on the house while you wait.”

On the house? Milly wanted to say something but bit her tongue instead. She didn’t want to get on Tilly’s bad side when she got like this.

“Chad, Allison?” Tilly motioned for them to head into the kitchen. “How am I doing?” she leaned in and whispered to Milly.

“Like a champ,” Milly said. “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Tilly looked relieved as she raised her eyebrows. “Thank goodness, because I’m terrified, Milly. What if we’re making the wrong decision?”

Milly didn’t want to think about that. “We take it one step at a time.” She slinked her arm over Tilly’s shoulder and led her over to the hostess station so they could talk in private. “We can read people and we’re smart, logical. We’ll do it just like we did with Mrs. Henderson.”

Tilly sucked on her lower lip and nodded. “Of all the things I wanted us to be good at, this really wasn’t one of them, but I do want to clear Meg’s name, though. She looks terrified.”

Her sister was right. Milly stole a glance at their friend and neighbor, seeing how lost and lonely she looked as she stared off by herself. Milly just wanted to clear her name and she didn’t think that was asking too much.

Unless the evidence supported that Meg had killed Mr. Bogart, Milly would support her friend to the end. She just hoped her allegiance wasn’t misplaced.

Tilly grabbed a broken-heart cookie off the tray at the hostess counter. With a sigh, she gave Milly half of the cookie. “For luck.”

Milly and Tilly tapped their cookies together and then each took a bite.

Here goes nothing.




QUESTIONS QUESTIONS

“This is how it’s going to work,” Tilly addressed the group of speed daters. “You will be questioned by either Milly or myself or Allison. You are free to talk to another but don’t discuss Mr. Bogart, or his untimely…death. Understood?”

No one responded right away, and Tilly could feel her blood pressure starting to tick upward. Finally, a few people nodded and that got others to respond. Good, that was exactly the kind of response she was looking for.

<Moppet,> Milly opened a private channel between the AI and her sister, <review the security footage. Before the lights went out, see if anyone was acting suspicious right before it happened. If we can narrow it down.…>

<On it,> Moppet said. <This is really juicy, I mean really. Like burger juice, not that I’ve ever eaten one, but I sure wish I had. The molecules it releases while cooking are quite interesting. I never thought I’d find my way into a situation like this. You girls are really dangerous, you know that?>

Tilly whined when she saw the look of excitement on Milly’s face. <Please, Moppet, do not encourage my sister…under any circumstances.>

Milly’s face contorted into a smirk. <You could at least try to enjoy yourself. We’re going to save a friend and do Fennington Station a service.>

<I like the idea of helping a friend, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t look forward to finding a murderer. You do realize that means one of us will need to have a private conversation with whoever did this?>

All the color ran out of Milly’s face. <Putting our lives in danger.>

<Yes,> Tilly said but she had a feeling Milly wasn’t as nervous about it as she was.

01110010 01101111 01110101 01110100 01100101

Tilly sat in a front booth with Mitchell and shuffled a stack of papers that had no significance whatsoever. She did it because she was vibrating with nervous energy and she needed to do something with her hands. Mitchell wasn’t helping any by crossing his arms and looking about as helpful as an AI in a dress shop. He actually appeared to be pouting as he stuck out his chin and gazed around the bar.

“Here I thought this would be my year,” Mitchell muttered under his breath but still wouldn’t look at her.

“Mitchell,” Tilly placed her papers down and folded her hands-on top of them, “you might want to appear a little more cooperative than this. You don’t want me to think that you’re guilty, do you?”

His eyes widened. “You never liked me.”

Tilly hid a chuckle. “You do tend to smell like beef stew.”

“I love beef stew. It’s my favorite dish. It makes it feel like it’s winter or autumn on the space station. I need seasons. The fact that it’s always the same temperature here makes it difficult to—”

At that point, Tilly tuned him out. A bunch of chronic speed-daters may be the worst group ever to be stuck with in the pub. Everyone that was here was set in their ways, stubborn, and couldn’t find a partner for reasons more to do with themselves than anyone else.

Come to think of it, Tilly had just described Milly. And herself.

Well shoot.

“Where were you when the lights went out? Who were you talking to and can you verify it?”

01001110 01001111 01001010

Linda stared straight ahead at Milly while folding the edges of a napkin.

So, Milly thought, she’s nervous…. Seriously, do I really think Linda Margaret was a cold-hearted killer? The woman couldn’t decide on which type of breakfast juice to order with her muffin. Or, if she was even going to order a muffin.

“Well,” Linda started slowly, “I was talking with Mitchell when the lights went out. You know, he’s quite handsome in his suit.”

“I didn’t notice,” Milly deadpanned. “He smells a little bit like beef stew.”

Linda’s eyes bulged. “Well, I never noticed that before. Now that you mention it, he does smell a little bit like thyme. I’m not sure I want to date someone who reminds me of a pine needle type herb.” She shook her head and let out a long sigh. “Thanks, Milly.”

Milly gave a contrite smile…that turned into a bit of a smirk. “Sorry, Linda. Do you know anything about Mr. Bogart? Why someone would want to kill him? In It’s a Gas, of all places.”

Linda shook her head. “Well, I heard he was having marriage trouble at home.”

So, he had a wife and showed up to the speed dating event? Well, that might not be criminal, but it certainly was juicy. “Who is his wife?”

“Her name is Lucy. She works at the grocery shop. She’s a teller. They’ve been having trouble, you know? She talks about it when she comes into my shop. She bought that hat you loved, by the way.”

Milly had wondered who had gotten that hat, the most perfect shade of blue she had ever seen before.

“Anyway…” Linda drew out the word as she reached for her glass of water. Behind her, Milly could see that Chad and Allison were passing out appetizer samples to those waiting to be interviewed. “According to Lucy, Mr. Bogart dressing up as a clown was a problem. It was his lifelong dream, but it was alienating their friends.”

Milly couldn’t imagine why. True, clowns were creepy and very scary, under the right circumstances, but a job was a job. “Well, he only did it for kids’ parties and grand openings, right?”

Linda shook her head and leaned forward. “That’s what he wanted everyone to think, but according to Lucy, he had started dressing up as a clown at home, even making balloon animals at night after dinner. He threw a lot of money into his costume, supplies, and asked his wife…” Linda shook her head. “I shouldn’t say anything.”

<She better say, because this is seriously good gossip,> Moppet said. <Wait until Earl at the accounting firm hears this.>

Earl had to be an AI, but Milly shook her head to try to clear away Moppet’s distraction. “We need to know, Linda. I won’t tell anyone outside of this official investigation,” Milly said, sounding as professional as she could muster, but Moppet was right.

This is juicy!

“He wanted her to call him Mr. Red in private. His clown name. She feared he didn’t want to be Mr. Bogart anymore. He wanted to be a clown. All the time.”

All the time? Milly didn’t even know what to say.

01000110 01100101 01110010 01101110 01110011

Tilly stared at Mitchell with wide eyes. “You’re saying Mr. Bogart wanted to be a clown all the time?”

Mitchell nodded, his arms still crossed, and his expression very sour. It was clear, he didn’t want to be talking to her and he didn’t want to be there. “That’s what he told us in the steam room. He couldn’t even go in there anymore. On the account of…”

“The makeup,” Tilly said and felt like she might faint. Why on Fennington Station would anyone want to be a clown, let alone a clown indefinitely?

Mitchell made a snapping noise with his tongue. “Bingo. Well, not Bingo. Mr. Red. He wanted us all to call him that, so some of us called him Cinnamon Hearts behind his back.” He laughed.

Behind his back? Tilly leaned forward. “So, you and your friends harbored ill will toward Mr. Bogart? You bullied him?”

His eyes widened as Tilly’s words sunk in. “No, wait a second. I didn’t hurt Cin—Mr. Bogart, if that’s what you’re hinting at. I was talking to Linda Margaret, I told you that already.”

“Indeed, you did and if she confirms it, then my suspicions will be proven false, which brings me to my next question.” Tilly leaned forward. “Are any of your buddies here from the steam room, Mr. Mitchell?”

He nodded hurriedly and pointed across the bar. “Earnest. But he’s a math teacher, for NoJ sakes!”

Math. Tilly’s eyes narrowed. She didn’t trust anyone who liked math. Except her sister…but sometimes even Milly was trying.

01000001 01010101

“Earnest was always following Mr. Bogart around and teasing him, well that’s what Lucy said.” Linda dotted at her eyes even though she hadn’t been crying. But she felt like crying, that’s what she said to Milly.

“How so?” Milly asked and studied Linda’s expression, her thin lips, her blinking eyes. She didn’t seem to be lying.

“Leaving him notes at the apartment and in the mailbox. Pictures of clowns with, you know, rude gestures, and things like that. Jokes written on the top. It was tearing Mr. Bogart up, Lucy said, but he wouldn’t give it up. Even after she staged an intervention.”

“Is he here now?” Milly demanded. “Do you see Earnest here?”

Linda nodded and pointed to the far side of the bar. “He’s over there in the dirty gray button-shirt. I told him it wasn’t his color, but no one…no one ever listens to me.”

Milly rose up in her booth at the same time as Tilly did. They both peered over at Earnest as he stood from his bar stool. The martini in his hand dropped to the ground and he took off running for the kitchen.

“Stop,” Milly and Tilly both screamed and took off in pursuit.




TO FLY

Rupert wasn’t a fan of running. He wasn’t used to it, didn’t like it, and hoped to never do it again. It made him pant like a dog, made him feel out of breath, and he couldn’t even sweat—how cruel could the universe be, anyway? They gave him the ability to speak but not the ability to sweat?

Did Milly and Tilly realize how thick and heavy his fur was? Probably not.

Still, Rupert had no choice but to flee from animal control. He didn’t want to be captured and put in a stasis kennel until the sisters decided to look for him

Thanks a lot for that, Milly and Tilly, by the way!

So, Rupert ran.

Even though he hated it.

The recycling dump—or ‘plant’ as the signs he saw called it—was vast, to say the least. Rupert ran up a flight of stairs to a small building of sorts and dove in through an open window. It was a standard office with a desk, a chair, and filing cabinets. Peculiar as that was, Rupert didn’t know what they had to file at a recycling plant, or that people even did that sort of thing anymore.

People were weird.

Rupert’s cat hearing picked up sounds coming up the steps. If they pungent air freshener scent wasn’t so strong in the office, he’d probably smell the pesky humans as well.

There was no way out, so Rupert had to find a place to hide.

He spotted a small hole in the wall, something that looked like a vent of some kind, and shimmied his rotund cat-body into the hole.

“I got him,” one of the humans screamed as it lunged for Rupert’s tail just before he curled it around himself. Over his shoulder, he glared at the human and hissed loudly.

What a flaming moron. Didn’t the human know how much it hurt to have one’s tail yanked on? Humans didn’t care, did they? No, but pee on their shoes a few (hundred) times and they sure cared about that.

“Crap! It’s a cat…probably has rabies. I’ll go get the clamp. Keep him cornered in there. It has a seriously bad attitude,” the human who had grabbed for him said to the other who wore a baseball cap.

Rabies! I think not. You know, you’re not a pair of peaches yourselves,” Rupert said to them and then scurried away on his belly as fast as he could. He didn’t even bother to look at their faces to see their shock and horror that he could talk.

He was more interested in getting away then he was with sticking around. He’d make a formal complaint about these guys once he managed to find his way to It’s a Gas pub. Rupert couldn’t wait to see poor Milly.

She was probably hysterical over his loss and Tilly? Well, Rupert was going to make her grovel.

Groooovel.

Rupert grinned as he played the scene out in his head. True, he stopped paying attention to where he was going and didn’t notice the vent had split three ways until his front paws fell down a hole.

“Rooowar!” Rupert’s eyes widened as he tumbled down the shaft, end over end. Scrambling for purchase on something…anything. He slid onto his butt as he fell and covered his eyes with his front paws.

He didn’t want to see where he was headed.

Whack! Rupert landed on a grate and then it opened. He fell even further, crashed onto a table and then bounced down to the ground. He landed on his feet, because he always did, and gave a sniff around the crowded room.

Boxes, junk, it was everywhere—and the smells! It was like being at a fast-food restaurant joint and a nursing home all at the same time. Rupert couldn’t handle it, so he tossed his head to the side and read the sign on the door.

“LOST AND FOUND”

Curious, Rupert thought. He himself was lost and he wanted to be found. Maybe this was the type of place he wanted to be in, but he still had visions of Milly being upset about him. He had to get back to her, fast as he could.

So, Rupert tried the door. And it was locked, of course. That was how the humans managed to keep all these objects lost. With a sigh he sat down and lay his head down on his front paws. Everything smelled weird here, nothing was familiar.

Rupert missed home.

“I’m not gonna cry. I’m not gonna cry.” Rupert sniffled into his fur and blinked his eyes, curling his tail around his face to stiffen his sobs.

“MILLLLY!”

He just wanted to go home. As he wiped his nose with his tail, a box caught his attention. Maybe he could sit in it. Yeah, sit in it. Rupert loved to sit in a good box.

When he nudged it in his nose, it made a noise like something was inside. Well, he’d never let that stop him before. Curious, Rupert peered inside the box and his mouth opened wide and his ears twitched.

What is this?

The label on, it read, ‘Harkonen Flight’.

Wait…is this a jetpack?




ACCUSATIONS

Milly chased Earnest into the kitchen with Tilly right on her tail. Milly grabbed a spatula and Tilly picked up a yellow, flowered oven mitt. Earnest was on the far side of the prep counter, where he paced toward it and then back again, holding one hand on his head.

“There’s no where you can run,” Tilly said, while pointing the oven mitt at him. Milly had to wonder if she really thought the yellow mitt was a good line of defense. “It’d be best if you just told us now what you know.”

Earnest was a tall guy but the look of fear on his face made him look small—almost like a child.

“I swear, I didn’t do anything,” he pleaded.

“Then why did you run?” Milly asked.

“I knew what Mitchell and Linda were going to tell you. And it’s true up to a point. Bogart, changed. He wanted to be a clown. Who wants to be a clown for NoJ sakes?”

Tilly and Milly exchanges glances; Earnest did have a point.

“Doesn’t mean you bully him or send letters to his house,” Milly said. “That’s just mean. If you think your friend is being a little weird, you don’t pick on him. You’re supposed to be supportive.”

“Even if he wants to be a clown,” Tilly muttered under her breath. Milly knew how she felt about the subject, but murder seemed a bit far.

“He was ruining his life. He got fired from his job because he either didn’t show up or showed up in clown gear and it was scaring people.”

“You’d know about scaring people,” Tilly said. “Being you’re a math teacher and all.”

Earnest did a double take. “What’s wrong with math.”

“Don’t get her started.” Milly shook her head. “Look. You bullied him, sent letters to the house. So how’d Mr. Bogart react?”

“He was upset. I was only trying to get him to drop the clown gear but Cinnamon Hearts—that’s what we called him behind his back—said he had been ‘Clowned’ and he couldn’t turn his back on it. He loved it. Said it made him happy.”

“And his wife?” Tilly pushed. “How did she feel about this?”

‘She hated it.” Earnest sighed and shook his head. “She was a laughing stock, no pun intended. She didn’t want to be seen with him in public. Didn’t want him in their house. Some people say she was having an affair, but who can blame her when you’re married to Mr. Red?”

“Simple question, Earnest,” Milly said speaking professionally. “What were you doing when the light’s turned off?”

“Sitting at my bar stool. Talking to Frances about breakfast pastries and the new cricket tourney season.”

“We’ll verify that,” Tilly said and walked up to Earnest. She pointed her finger against his chest. “You better believe if we catch you lying….”

“I wouldn’t lie.” Earnest held his hands up. “Please, you have to believe me.”

“Get back out there.” Milly pointed. “Don’t leave your seat again unless we call you out for questioning.”

Earnest didn’t need to be told twice. He ran off, leaving the twins staring after him. Tilly sighed and drew her hands through her hair. “We’re no closer to solving this thing than we were twenty minutes ago.”

“We’ll get there. We just need time. Do you want to talk to Frances or should I?”

Tilly’s eyes widened. “You, please. If I have to pretend not to be afraid of clowns one more time. Freaks me out. Why would he want to be a clown in the first place?”

Milly only knew one thing. “One of us has to talk to Lucy without alerting her of what’s happened. You can sneak out the back. Do you think you can question her without getting emotional?”

“Well, of course I can.,” Tilly folded her arms and tapped her foot. “But we told everyone we couldn’t leave. Won’t that betray what level of trust we’ve established?”

“I’ll cover for you.” Milly directed her sister over toward the back door that led outside to the service corridor. She was about to say good-bye when Moppet piped in.

<Before you go anywhere, I need you both to watch this clip from our security footage before the lights went out,> Moppet said.

<Is it juicy?> Tilly asked.

Moppet sighed with disgust. <Really, Tilly? A man’s life was lost. You know how precious life is! How’d I do just then? Did I sound emotional enough?>

Milly shook her head. <The video clip, Moppet….>

<Right. Patching through.>

A second later, Milly’s HUD lit up with an image from the security footage. It was of the It’s a Gas pub’s back hallway that led toward the restrooms. Mr. Bogart’s face was visible, unclowned, as he ran down the hall toward the men’s room. He glanced over his shoulder, looking frightened, as though someone were chasing him.

He raced inside the men’s room and slammed the door shut behind him.

“He was being followed,” Tilly said with her eyebrows raised.

“Someone chased him through It’s a Gas and maybe even into the bathroom. Moppet, is there more to the security footage?”

<Yes. It gets better,> Moppet said. <Cueing it up now.>

The twins waited patiently until the image was sent across. It showed a woman in a trench-coat following Mr. Bogart into the men’s room. The image was fuzzy, and she was wearing a matching blue hat, her curly brown hair just sticking out from the turned-out collar of her jacket.

Milly’s eyes widened as she processed the image.

“That hat.” Tilly’s mouth fell open and she gave Milly a hard push. “That’s the hat you wanted to buy from Linda Margaret’s shop for the last year! Oh, Milly, you really need to act faster on these things.”

Milly conceded this was true, but not the issue they needed to discuss. “Not only that, but Linda Margaret previously told me that Lucy had purchased that hat from her. Mr. Bogart’s wife bought that hat!”

“And that was his wife chasing him into the bathroom?” Tilly squeaked with absolute shock.

“If she followed him into the bathroom then where in Jupiter is she now?”

Tilly’s eyes ticketed back and forth as she thought about it. “The men’s bathroom? We didn’t search the restrooms, did we?”

Milly gulped. “We didn’t. Jupiter’s moons, we’re fools!”




THE STALLS

“What’s going on?” Chad asked as Milly and Tilly rushed past in the server’s station at a full run.

“We need to go to the bathroom.”

Allison stood on the far side, taking a drink order. “Too much information, lady.”

Milly ignored her as she and Tilly entered the men’s room together. It seemed to be empty, but a first glance could be deceiving.

<Check over there,> Milly said privately to her sister and pointed toward the sinks.

Tilly nodded and walked over to the washbasins, gazing around the heat vents and up at the window. <Window is still closed so no one has got in and out. Oh, Milly! There’s blood in the sink.>

That froze Milly in her tracks. <Are we talking water fall of blood or drops? Because I don’t think I want to look.>

<Droplets,> Tilly said. <Like a small cut that dripped, or maybe a needle?>

A needle, well if Mr. Bogart had been struck with a needle, then they wouldn’t really be in this situation, would they?

<See if anything else catches your attention,> Milly said. She continued her walk around, ducking to see beneath the stalls. She didn’t see any feet, but she did hear something.

<Was that you?> Tilly asked from her place beside the sinks.

<No, it wasn’t me.> Milly took a few steps. “Well,” she said loudly with a wink of her eye, “I guess no one is here.”

“I guess not,” Tilly said in a loud and wooden voice. “Maybe we should head back—out into the pub?”

Milly cringed at Tilly’s acting, not that she was surprised. Tilly had always been unable to lie her way out of even an honest mistake.

“Let’s go,” Milly took a few steps backward. “Maybe we can find out who killed Mr. Bogart—”

She paused when she heard the noise again. Something sniffled. No, wait, it was crying. Someone was crying. The sisters followed the sound and it led them to the large stall on the end. Milly pushed on it and realized it was locked.

“Open up or I’m going to call the FSP. Immediately!” Milly added the last bit on for good measure.

“Ohh…OK…if you promise…not to hurt me.” The woman’s feeble voice sounded so small and little, Milly felt bad for her. If it was Mrs. Bogart maybe she hadn’t meant to kill her husband. At this point, Milly just wanted to get to the bottom of things and close up for the night.

Tilly took off her shoe and held it defensively as the door opened. The woman on the other side of the bathroom stall looked a mess. Her lipstick was smeared, and her cheeks were streaked with running mascara—she was also wearing the hat Milly had wanted for herself.

“Lucy Bogart?” Milly asked.

She nodded. “Yes, I know how it looks. I know, but I didn’t try to kill my Bobbie. I was trying to save him.”

01001010 01100101 01110100 01110000 01100001 01100011 01101011

Bobbie Bogart? Who could be so cruel to name a child something like that? Tilly wondered. “You were trying to save him?”

“Yes,” Lucy said earnestly. “I followed him over here to try to talk to him. Smack some sense into him…something, anything. I told him what the life of a clown was doing to us, our marriage. Our friends wouldn’t talk to us anymore. They said Bobbie gave them nightmares.”

“Well,” Tilly said, “they had a point.”

“I know. Oh, how I know.” Lucy wiped her nose clean. “So I followed him here. He just kept going on about his dream and how I was standing in the way. That’s when I got mad. I told him about the….” Lucy glanced down at the floor and wouldn’t look at them anymore.

“Go on. You can tell us,” Tilly said. “We won’t judge you.”

<No one should have to be married to a clown if they don’t want to be,> Moppet said.

<Not helping,> Milly chastised her privately.

“An affair. I was having an affair.” Lucy sobbed into her hand. “He was horrified, just as I am. I’m not that type of woman but I can’t live with the wigs, the whoopie cushions, all those darn balloon animals in our bed. All hours of the day, I wasn’t sure what I would find. I was afraid of my own home.”

“What did Mr. Bogart say?” Milly asked.

“He was shocked. Surprised. He said no one would get between him and I. Not even his balloon animals. So, he promised he’d try harder to be normal. Few days a week at best. I didn’t know if that would work and then I told him who I was sleeping with and he…he stormed out of here.”

Lucy took a deep breath. “I didn’t know if I should follow after him or not. I was afraid to get in his way. A few seconds later, the lights turned off and I heard screaming. I didn’t want to move and when the lights came back on, I heard what someone said. About Meg killing my Bobbie.”

Her shoulders rocked back and forth. Both sisters rubbed her arms, trying to calm her down. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, Lucy,” Tilly promised.

“Where you sleeping with someone that’s here tonight?” Milly asked. “Who were you having an affair with?”

“Allison.”

Milly and Tilly’s eyes both widened with surprise. “My waitress, Allison?” Milly could barely believe the sound of her own voice, but Lucy nodded, affirming that everything she had just said was true.

01101101 01101111 01101111 01101110

Milly found Allison in the kitchen loading martini glasses into the dishwasher. She seemed calm, collected. Far more serene than Milly who was desperately trying to settle her own nerves. “Allison?”

She turned around at the sound of Milly’s voice. “I hope this is over soon. Everyone’s nerves are shot. Mine included.”

Milly could appreciate that, but her mind swirled with so many questions. “Is it true that you…were you having…are you in a relationship with Lucy Bogart?”

Allison’s face wrinkled up. “Umm…’relationship’ is a bit extreme, Milly. We slept together a few times. I met her at the grocery store close to the college campus. I take classes on my days off.”

Milly knew that and nodded. “Go on. Were you and she…”

“I’m not in love with her, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Why didn’t you tell someone? You saw who was murdered in our pub tonight. Don’t you think that might’ve been worth mentioning?”

“And throw shade on myself for a few encounters? I love you guys, you know that, but I didn’t kill Mr. Bogart. I like clowns.”

Tilly always suspected as much, but now wasn’t the time to start splitting hairs.

Milly did her best to remain calm. “Dagnabbit, another dead end. We need to narrow down who killed him. It was someone here and whatever you say might lead us to the killer. We have to find them soon. It’s getting late and these people are going to be expected to return home at some point.”

“By who? They all live alone. They’re all single.”

“True…” Milly whispered as her brain spun into high gear. “They’re all single except Mr. Bogart and his wife, they’re married.”

Allison’s face twisted up like she didn’t quite follow what Milly was saying.

“At the new NOJYO place, I overheard two people fighting. Someone stormed off. I didn’t catch sight of him, but I know who might have.”

“And the other person was Bogart?” Allison asked with confusion.

“No. Mr. Bogart was in the back. I could hear the squeak of him making balloon animals. This guy wasn’t wearing a clown suit. I only saw the back of him, but whoever it was, I bet he’s the killer! What if Lucy was meeting with him to off her husband to be with Allison.”

“That seems like a stretch,” the waitress pursed her lips. “Like I said, we were just random acquaintances with benefits.”

“So we just have to ask Lucy who she was meeting with to kill her husband?” Tilly asked, looking uncertain. “Don’t get me wrong, I want to end this too, but you already have a reputation for accosting grieving people, Milly. Maybe we should get some evidence before we suggest that this is all Lucy putting a hit on her husband.”

Milly frowned as she considered her options. Then one came to her and she smiled in triumph. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to meet with Meg. We have a few stones to overturn. We’re going to solve this thing tonight if it kills me.” Milly paused. “Well hopefully not literally.”




FURTHER QUESTIONING

“When do we get to leave?” Earnest and Mitchell asked in unison from their seats at the bar.

“Yeah, we want to go. We’re tired, Milly. Can’t we just call the FSP and get this over with?”

Milly understood their frustration and could clearly see it on their faces. “I’m tired too, guys. I am. Soon we’ll be able to wrap this up, but not before I get to talk with Meg.”

Meg sat at one of the barstools. She was slumped over, leaning on her arm, and looked a cross between depressed and worried. Milly slid closer to her and tapped her hand. “I know you didn’t do this and we’re going to figure out exactly what happened, OK?”

Meg nodded. “Thanks. I’ve been eating enough cookies for two people. Maybe three,” she admitted. She picked up another heart-shaped cookie and took a bite.

“I think the secret lies at your NOJYO shop. I heard people arguing there and I think one of them might’ve killed Mr. Bogart. If we can review the security footage, I think we’ll find what we’re looking for.”

Meg perked up at the news, sitting up straighter and leaning off her arm. “Really?”

Milly nodded. “Can you review the footage remotely?”

“Sure, I can do it over the Link, but it might take some time—but it’s offline….”

Milly glanced around. “We’ll go up to the apartment, that has its own relay. I’ll have Tilly watch everyone down here and continue to ask questions. We can’t be too sure.”

Meg followed her, and Milly sent her sister a private message across the Link. <Don’t let up. Keep interviewing people. Maybe get Chad to help you.>

<Chad?> Tilly’s voice brightened even across the link. <OK, that sounds swell. I mean great. I mean…uhh.>

Milly chuckled to herself as she climbed the stairs up to their back apartment.

That’s funny, the door’s open.

“Hello?” Milly called out and touched the door. It swung open far enough to show that someone had bent the locking mechanism.

<Meg, you wait here,> Milly ordered.

<OK,> Meg said, but as Milly stepped over the threshold she followed Milly in anyway, holding onto her shoulders for support. Fearfully, she peered around Meg into the living room and then the kitchen.

If someone had broken into her apartment, where the heck where they?

<Tilly, find out if anyone is missing downstairs. Do it right away.>

<What’s the matter?> Tilly’s voice came back rushed and forceful.

<I think someone’s broken into our apartment. Not only that, I think it might be the killer.>




JUPITER’S BONES!

Tilly and Chad went over the guest roster at the server station. “I don’t see anyone that is missing,” Chad’s finger trailing down the holodisplay’s attendance sheet for the speed-dating game.

Neither could Tilly, but she noticed something. “Neither Lucy or Mr. Bogart are on the attendance list, so how did they get in?”

“I don’t know. I was working in the kitchen all afternoon and didn’t see anything suspicious. I was pretty focused on those pretzel buns.”

Tilly gave him a smile. “Well, they are precision works of art to get right, and you do them well. Bake them, I mean.” She cleared her throat and hoped she hadn’t humiliated herself too badly.

Chad grinned and that little dimple-smile that Tilly loved so much appeared on his cheek.

Oh heavens, he’s just so cute sometimes I can barely think.

“Thanks,” he said. “You’re not so bad yourself. At baking and mixing drinks, I mean.”

Tilly tried to laugh, but it came out sounding more like a bird chirping. Well, wasn’t that attractive.

Chad glanced up. “The natives are getting restless. I’m going to get everyone some shots. Can you hold down the fort without me?”

Tilly nodded. “Easy on the shots, liquor is expensive, plus we don’t want everyone drunk while we have this investigation going on. They might break things.”

“Or have lots of sex, right?”

Well, wouldn’t that be something? Tilly hadn’t said that word out loud in over sixty years and the thought that Chad had just said that to her…well, Tilly felt like fanning herself.

Chad headed into the back and Tilly walked over to the booth where Lucy sat with Linda Margaret. Linda had just handed Lucy a tissue and she was using it to dab her eyes.

Tilly had to approach this carefully and wanted to be respectful of the widow, but she really needed to get the evening back on track. “Darling, how are you doing?” She asked softly and placed a hand on Lucy’s shoulder.

“She’ll be all right,” Linda answered for her. “Or she won’t. You know…those are the two options.”

Lucy started crying and Tilly waved her hand at Linda with a stern expression on her face. Now wasn’t the time for her indecisive personality to get in the way. “I was reviewing the guest list, Lucy,” Tilly said, “and neither you or your husband are listed, so I’m wondering…how did the both of you get into the pub? Milly wouldn’t have let you in through the front door.”

Lucy shook her head. “I was following Bobbie. He…he snuck in through the back. The kitchen door was open.”

“And you just followed him in through my kitchen?” Tilly’s eyes brows rose at the gall of these two. Did no one have any manners anymore?

“Yes, your baker was back there, but his music implants were so loud, I could hear them over the mixer. So, I just crept in the back and followed Bobbie to the bathroom.”

That door shouldn’t have been unlocked. No one should’ve been able to get in unless Chad was out throwing trash down the back chute. Tilly’s mind spun as she tried to put everything together, but Lucy kept on talking.

“Bobbie was blubbering on. Said, leave me alone, I won’t do it.” Lucy blew her nose with her tissue. “He wouldn’t get in that hover car again. When he looked at me, I realized he had thought I was someone else. He told me it wasn’t safe.”

Wasn’t safe…hmm…. “Who did he think you were?”

“I don’t know. The lights went out and I just don’t know. We never got to finish our conversation. When the lights were out, I heard a scuffle. I thought Bobbie just left me in the bathroom, but what if he had been dragged off by someone.” Lucy started crying again and while Tilly felt bad, she knew she had to keep digging. She had to keep looking.

This thing wasn’t over yet.

Tilly excused herself to the kitchen and headed straight for the back door. She was shocked to see someone had used a crow bar to break off part of the door jam. That was how the Bogarts had managed to sneak into the pub.

Someone had broken in previously. Someone was after something.

<Moppet, rewind the security footage. We need to find out who broke in here and why.>

<Checking. You sound stressed out. You haven’t been watching Silstrand soap operas again, have you? You know how those crime bosses get you all excited—>

<Moppet, now!> Tilly screamed and even in her own head, it gave her a whopper of a headache.

<I found something. You’re not going to believe it. Brace yourself.>

Tilly did but found she still wasn’t prepared. <Oh, Stars. It’s a….>

And a split second later, she fainted.




SQUEAK

The apartment had been ransacked.

Milly almost couldn’t believe it as she stood just inside the door, staring at the tossed sofa cushions and flipped-over coffee table. Through the kitchen door, she could see the cabinets open and the drawers emptied onto the floor. Someone had been looking for something.

So, what was it that they were looking for?

Milly gulped as they approached the bedroom. Whoever had been here was gone. The bedrooms had been turned upside down and the bathroom, too.

“You guys are either really messy,” Meg whispered in her ear, clinging to her shoulders as they snooped around, “or someone really really needed to use this bathroom. Not judging, just saying.”

Milly might’ve been a little messy, but this definitely took the cake. What could they have been looking for?

“Jupiter’s moons!” Meg pointed toward Milly’s living room window. “The window’s open.”

Milly ran over toward it and stepped on something that squeaked. When she looked down she saw she had stepped on someone’s…rubber chicken? She picked it up. “This isn’t mine.”

“Another clown?” Meg asked with her head tilted to one side.

Another clown. Everything clicked in Milly’s head. She remembered the guy in the NOJYO shop that had bumped into her, the one with the red flower on his lapel. She remembered the flyer that she’d found. She’d thrown it away when Tilly chastised her, but after the Rupert incident, she’d pulled it from the trash to spite her sister.

Hurriedly, Milly pulled it out and unfolded it. “Maybe he’s looking for this. I found this at a booth that I think Mr. Bogart was sitting in. I think he was arguing with someone and one of them left this behind, but what do these numbers mean?”

Meg tapped one set of numbers. “These look like docking bay coordinates. You know, so you know where something is stored.”

Really? Milly gave Meg a quick stare. She couldn’t believe she actually had some helpful answers for once.

Meg shrugged. “I had a boyfriend last year who worked on the docks. He was real cute, too. Anyway, he was always talking about numbers and keeping track of what went where.”

Milly didn’t know how the numbers tied in with everything else, but she had to figure it out. This guy had broken into their pub, was looking for this flyer, and had killed Mr. Bogart.

So how did it all connect?

She ran to the window and peered outside. Down below was the a-grav fire escape and the main trash chute they used daily. Behind lay the service alley that behind the promenade’s row of shops. Milly had to think this murderer was around somewhere.

Milly just had to find him.

She slid down the fire escape and when she was close enough to the ground level, jumped off. She walked down the narrow passage and past the trash chute, waving the flyer in the air. “I have what you’re looking for. I have your flyer! If you want it…you’re going to have to come out and get it from me.”

Milly couldn’t believe what she was doing. Had she lost her pub-running mind?

Then she spotted a shadow emerge from the service ally. It stood with a wide stance, silhouetted by the glow of a light further down the corridor. Milly could only make out his puffy hair and large, mismatched shoes that squeaked loudly as he began to walk toward her.

If Milly had to guess, she would have said that yes, she had most definitely lost her mind.

She was about to face a killer clown.




RUN

Tilly’s eyes darted open.

She stared up at the ceiling of her kitchen unwilling to believe that she’d had fainted again.

Who would blame me?

There had been a clown! A clown in her kitchen and no one had even noticed? The whole place would need to be sanitized. Cleaned from the top to the very bottom.

Then she remembered Milly and surged to her feet.

<Milly? Where are you?> She reached out for her sister, desperate to find her, and had half a mind to race up to the apartment but she was terrified.

What if the clown was up there? What would she do if she came face to face with a clown?

<She’s not up there,> Moppet said. <She left. Out the window. She really does think she’s the hero in all this, doesn’t she?>

<What?> Tilly felt lightheaded but willed herself not to faint again. She grabbed the counter. <Milly? Where are you?>

<Outside. I’m going to face this guy. I have what he wants.>

<No, Milly!> Tilly grabbed the backdoor and pulled it open.

<Don’t come out here,> Milly warned. <He’s a clown, Tilly. Stay inside where it’s safe.>

<He’s also a murderer and if you think I’m going to let you face this guy alone, you have another think coming. You might be older than me by two minutes, but you don’t get to tell me what to do.>

Tilly had Moppet trace Milly’s signal and then she ran. She ran as fast as her feet would take her. Tilly didn’t care if she had to save her sister from herself, a clown, or an entire horde of clowns. No one would take Milly from her.

No one!




FLY, CAT, FLY

Rupert couldn’t believe his good luck. A jetpack. Not only that, but it was in his size. Well, OK, it was a little big for him, but the box did say it was for a child. It must’ve been a toy model, one of those things kids used to zip around the station before crashing into strangers or potted ferns.

All of which was beside the point.

He managed to get it on around his front legs. Then thanks to his two front thumbs, was able to snap the belt around his waist.

The thing even came with a helmet featuring red racing-stripes on either side. The helmet itself was way too big for his head, but he was pretty sure he looked like an action hero in it, so Rupert wore it anyway. He sure wished there was a mirror because boy-oh-boy, he would have liked to have seen a picture of himself right then.

Someone was unlocking the door, and he suspected it was those two tail-grabbing jerks who had been chasing him earlier. Rupert positioned his front paws on the triggers that stuck out from the jetpack. His whiskers twitched and he readied himself.

The lost-and-found room’s door crashed open. “We have you now, filthy cat. You’re ours!”

Think again, muchacho!” Rupert cried out as he pushed the buttons in synch, completely unprepared for what happened next.

He flew up in the air and hit his head on the ceiling, before he managed to steady himself. The cat-nabbing jerks dove for him, but Rupert sailed right over them and out the door. He couldn’t believe it. He had never felt so free. So much like a…a….

“I’m a bird, brother bunny, I’m a bird,” Rupert called with glee as he zipped out into the recycling center. Behind him, a trail of blue flames streaked from his jetpack.

Hmm, I wonder if there was a reason this thing was at the recycling center.

On the ceiling was a vent marked ‘Central’. Rupert didn’t know what it was central for, but thought that it just might be his ticket out of this joint.

He angled himself upward, pressed the button further and accelerated quickly toward the opening. Flying up faster, Rupert screamed as he tried to slow down.

But he couldn’t. He had no idea how to brake. The jetpack just kept going.

Uh-oh.

I’m coming, Milly! For better or worse, I’m coming.”




THE VILLAIN

Milly stood stock still as the clown approached her.

“This flyer ties you to the crime. I know you murdered Robert Bogart and I even know why. These docking bays, you robbed them. All except for this one.” Milly pointed to the bottom number. “But Mr. Bogart wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted out. And that’s why you killed him.”

“I was trying to change his mind. I didn’t mean to kill him. He made me angry. So angry that he’d turn his back on me, the crew. On being a clown. He was ready to give it all up for his wife. Even though she didn’t approve of him, he was ready to turn his back on everything for her.”

The clown took a step forward and his shoes gave a menacing squeak. He came closer and Milly was surprised she could make out his face. He wasn’t wearing any face paint. Instead, he only wore the red wig upon his head. He didn’t even have a funny round button nose.

It seemed when Milly found him, he was in the process of ditching his clown makeup…or hadn’t put it on.

It was none other than Trent Travis, a reseller of test tubes and basic component equipment to make switches and other doohickeys. Basically, a hobbyist. Milly had seen his commercials enough times to recognize him, but she never thought he’d be a murderer.

Or a clown.

“Now that you know, I’m going to have to do away with you. I can’t go down for this. I’m pretty sure you know that, don’t you?” Trent stopped just out of reach and pointed the red flower on his jacket right at her.

Milly eyed it suspiciously and remembered how the knife Meg dropped had bounced when it hit the ground. “The knife was a prop. You killed him with that.” She pointed at the flower. “What’s in it? Poison?”

Trent gave a little shrug. “A little unoriginal. A paralytic. It didn’t kill him, just stopped him cold, but the balloon animal I stuffed down his throat did. And the same thing is going to happen to you.”

“I don’t think so,” Milly said with a shake of her head.

“Milly,” Tilly screamed. Milly turned and saw Tilly charging toward her at a full run. Tilly leapt through the air and tackled her to the ground. They rolled across the corridor just as Trent pressed the flower, barely missing both of their faces. Instead the plas wall of the building next to them sizzled as the paralytic splashed against it.

Both girls rolled over onto their knees and stared up at Trent with slack jaw expressions.

“Identical twins,” Trent muttered under his breath, “well, you don’t see that every day.”

“That’s not all you don’t see every day,” Milly said eyes wide as something furry with blue flames shot out of a vent next to the bar’s back door.

It was a cat.

It wasn’t just any cat.

Look out,” Rupert screamed as he streaked through the air so fast he was little more than an orange-and-white blur. He rounded himself into a ball and his helmet slammed into Trent’s slack-jawed face, knocking the murderous clown over onto his back.

That didn’t stop Rupert—he kept going until Milly jumped up and caught him in her open arms, hitting the big red kill switch on the back of the jetpack.

“Oh, Rupert!” Milly said with a smile, lifting the cat high up in the air to look him over. “Are you OK? Oh, stars, you smell awful!”

He meowed, his yellow eyes wide inside his helmet as his tail ticked side to side. “You saved me, Milly. You saved me!”

Milly ignored the smell of onions, and hugged him close to her chest and thought she’d never let him out of her sight again. She didn’t care what he did, or how loudly he did it, Milly would love that stubborn cat forever.

Tilly rolled Trent over and plucked the flower from his jacket, tossing it away. She pushed a ballet flat against his throat. “Seems we got our man again, Milly. What do you say?”

Milly shrugged sheepishly. “It’s a Gas Pub PI. We always get our man. Even when he’s not a man but a clown.”

Trent rolled his eyes and held his hands up. “I would’ve gotten away with it. I would’ve too if it wasn’t for your damn cat.”

Rupert turned his head and glanced around. “Am I missing something important? I feel like I’m missing something important. Other than more hugs and kisses, that is. Oh, a tummy rub. I’m definitely missing one of those.”

Milly kissed his furry cheeks, ignoring how his whiskers tickled her now. “You saved my life again, Rupert. That’s the only thing that you’re missing. It is a pretty big thing.”

“Pretty big thing indeed.” Tilly grinned. “How about we wrap this case up, send everyone home? Moppet, can you call the FPS.”

<Already on their way,> Moppet replied. <I’m also working on the first It’s a Gas PI slogan and commercial. You want to hear it?>

“Stars, no,” Trent cried. “Please, someone just send me to jail already.”

Milly turned her head away from him sharply. “Please, Moppet. Go ahead.”

<No matter which way you slice it,> Moppet said with a definite smile in her voice, <We dish out justice. Get it? Pie? PI?>

Tilly laughed. “Who knew you were so funny, Moppet?”

“Not me,” Rupert muttered. “Still don’t.”




THAT’S A WRAP

It didn’t take long for the FSP to arrive and arrest Trent Travis for murder and for the robberies down at the docks. Only time would tell if he’d steamroll over on the other clowns in his group, but Milly was confident he would.

The clown might’ve been gone, but the work wasn’t over yet. The FSP took everyone’s statements one by one. Milly waited for her turn while she talked to Major, the director and manager of Fennington Station. He must’ve liked police-work because he showed up whenever the cops did.

I wonder what his deal is….

“Glad you caught this guy and you were able to do so safely,” Major said as he leaned over the hostess desk to grab a fist full of peanuts. “Next time, however, call the FSP first. We can’t have one of our favorite twins getting killed doing police work, Milly.”

She grinned at him, unsure how to take the compliment. “Are you going to pay for those peanuts?”

“What? The peanuts are always free,” Major said as he munched on them one at a time, quickly popping another into his mouth.

“For paying customers. I don’t see you with a drink.” Milly crossed her arms and gave him a level stare.

“Well, you know I can’t drink when I’m on the job.”

“You’re not a cop, Major. If I pour, will you drink?” She brought up two glasses from the top of the bar. “Champagne, to celebrate a victory for me and the FSP?”

Major nodded. “Sure. I guess I can do that.” He rubbed his hands together to clear the peanut dust from them. “Especially if you’ll explain how you figured all this out in under a few hours of work.”

“All the evidence was there.” Milly paused to pour champagne into the glasses. She slipped one over to Major. “The rubber chicken, the flyer, even how Bobbie Bogart started wearing his clown costume all the time. He was afraid. Hiding in plain sight and afraid. Like we often are.”

Major sipped his drink. “Well, good work, Milly. What’s your secret? Successful pub, successful breakfast manager, and now top-notch PI. What’s the secret to being good at everything?”

Milly blushed, feeling shyer than ever. “That’s a secret I’m going to have to keep to myself, Major. Every woman has secrets and I guess this one is mine. For the time being. I don’t know you well enough to tell you everything. I mean just last month, you thought I was a murderer.”

Major glanced down, this time it was his cheeks that flushed red. “It wasn’t personal. I was just going where the evidence pointed the FSP, as any rational station manager would do. It did kill me though. To think you might be guilty.”

Milly was stunned into silence with his admission. She stared at him as he drained the glass of champagne and handed the glass back to her. He gave a wink and walked further into the bar.

Try as she might, Milly couldn’t think of anything to say.

01100010 01100101 01110111 01100001 01110010 01100101

Tilly sat with Lucy as the widow absorbed everything they had told her. Across from them, Allison and Meg both sat and watched as Lucy came to place her face in her hands for a minute, and then looked up at the group.

“So,” Lucy said with a hint of confusion in her voice. “He was going to leave the clown union and return to normal? He really wanted nothing to do with Trent?”

“That’s right,” Tilly said. “He loved you. He was afraid for you and what would happen if he stopped going along with Trent’s plans, but he really loved you.”

Lucy stared at her for a moment before her face scrunched up and she just cried harder. Tilly slipped an arm around her and let her cry. Allison reached across the table and patted Lucy’s hand. “I’m sorry, you sweet thing you. Sorry if I made it harder for you.”

“No,” Lucy smiled through her tears, “you made it easier, for a little bit of time. I feel like I should thank you. I’m only sorry, Meg, that you were under suspicion for so long.”

Meg waved her off. “Don’t worry about it. I have a reputation. I can’t believe I didn’t notice that that knife in my hand was a prop. I knew that in the dark I heard a pop, but I thought it was a gun shot. I didn’t realize it was an animal balloon popping.”

“None of us did,” Milly said as she came to stand at their table. She slid in beside Tilly and Lucy. “Now, hopefully we can all rest a little easier. Start to move on from this night.”

“Maybe you can,” Tilly said with a shudder. “Clowns. Why did it have to be clowns?”




SNACKS AND DRINKS

Once they had everyone’s statements and the scene was processed, the FSP allowed the guests to go home—just a few hours before breakfast service.

Milly groaned, feeling like her head was full of sandpaper, but still offered a last call to the guests. It was met with a loud chorus of ‘Heck, no!’ before everyone began to leave.

“Half off your next meal and drinks,” Milly said as she watched everyone file out, transferring coupon tokens to them all via the Link. “So sorry for the inconvenience, but I bet we’ll all remember this for years to come.”

She did her best to sound upbeat, but wasn’t sure exactly how well it was coming off. The customers muttered and groaned as they left the bar, and Milly worried she might never see them again.

“Never say never,” Tilly said from the bar—using that twins telepathy she seemed to exhibit from time to time—and held two pitchers of margaritas up in the air. “Who is up for some drinks and nachos?”

“Oh, stars am I,” Milly said and slouched a little bit as she made her way over to a booth.

You’re telling me,” Rupert said. “I’ve had quite the day, ladies. I think I need the both of you to grovel.”

Chad tossed a baking sheet of cheesy nachos covered in mounds of sour cream and chili, onto the table. Milly’s stomach growled just looking at it.

“Grovel?” Milly said as she slipped into the booth and pulled a huge chunk of nacho pieces off from the baking sheet. She plopped them down onto her dish.

“I’m sorry, Rupert.” Tilly placed a shallow coaster in front of him and poured some of her margarita into it while everyone else grabbed a glass. “I am really, really sorry. I should’ve been easier on you. I shouldn’t have stuffed you in a cabinet. You’re a cat, not an inanimate object. Can you forgive me?”

Rupert lapped up some of his drink and then sat back on his haunches. “Woo-weee. This stuff is strong. Give me some nachos and maybe a heated blanket later and we’ll call ourselves even, OK chick?

Tilly giggled as she slid into the booth beside Meg. “How about you?” Tilly threw her arm around the NOJYO’s owner. “How are you holding up?”

“Not as well as you and Milly. You guys seem actually happy. I want to go soak my feet and pretend none of this ever happened.”

Tilly pushed a full margarita glass toward her. “The night is still young, darling.”

Milly giggled. “You know what they say? Breakfast comes early if you go to bed the night before. If you stay up, it seems to take forever.”

Chad sighed. “You guys really need to hire some morning help. Or evening help. My bun-rolling hands are tired.”

Tilly couldn’t keep her eyes off him. Maybe no one else noticed, but Milly sure did. She watched her sister lean over onto her elbow and gaze into Chad’s eyes. “You should run home and catch some sleep. You have a few hours before we start prepping the pigs-in-a-blanket’s.”

Poor pigs,” Rupert said as he munched on a piece of crispy cheese. “It’s too bad they are so delicious. Oh, momma. Can I get extra breakfast too?

Milly scratched the top of his head and Rupert’s tail started to vibrate into a happy swish. “You can have everything you want. You’re a hero.”

Rupert chuckled. “I never get tired of hearing that, or of that head scratch. Keep it up. No, I’m serious…oh yeah, there you go.”

“He has you wrapped around his little…paw,” Tilly said.

Milly shrugged. It was one-hundred-percent true and she couldn’t argue with that.

“I saw you talking to Major,” Meg said as she sipped more of her drink. “What was that about? You guys seemed awfully cozy.”

Tilly shot Milly a look and Milly chose to ignore it. “Just clown business and the station. You know how Major is. He needs to have his fingers in everything. Oh, not like that.” Milly grimaced and hid her blushing face.

Tilly gasped in surprise. “You and Major? Oh, I’m not sure if I should barf or stage an intervention, sweetheart.”

Milly’s mouth dropped open. It wasn’t like Major was ugly or uncouth. He was a businessman and easy on the eyes— granted, most of it was because of genetic manipulation, but did that really matter? “It was just a drink. It had been a long night. It isn’t what you guys think it is.”

Tilly wiped her forehead. “Thank the stars. I don’t think I’m emotionally strong enough to handle that.”

“But you did charge a killer-clown to save me, so there is that.” Milly lifted her glass and the four human friends clanked their drinks together in a toast.

Tilly chuckled. “It’s one for the books. Clowns. I can’t stand them!”

<You guys are on the news again,> Moppet said proudly. <I’ll beam it into your heads.>

<Do you ever stop watching the feeds and vids?> Chad asked.

<No,> Moppet said dryly. <There’s a lot of time on my hands when we’re not open. I don’t need to sleep.>

<Fair point,> Chad replied.

A moment later, a vid feed filled Milly’s vision. News anchor Fitz McFitzen appeared on the screen. “In other news, another murderer was nabbed by Rupert, the cat of the It’s a Gas gastro pub, at tonight’s speed-dating event.”

The feed cut to an image of Rupert flying across the passage and into the clown. It was a grainy security vid from across the promenade, but the orange-and-white fluffball being propelled by a jetpack was clearly visible.

“When reached for a comment, Rupert had this to say:”

The screen faded to a picture of Rupert with his head inside a cookie jar, tail wiggling in the air.

“I guess he was a little hungry at the time. Will anything stop the twins of It’s a Gas from cleaning out crime at Fennington Station? Only time will tell. One drink at a time, ladies.” McFitzen gave a saucy wink as the feed faded.

Milly giggled and Tilly gasped as she clapped her hands together. “Your cat-butt never looked better, Rupert.”

“And we’re well on our way.” Milly picked up her glass again. “To the Disknee World.”

“To friends,” Chad added.

“To getting some darn sleep!” Meg said.

Tilly raised an eyebrow. “To getting on the cover of ‘That’s Food’ magazine because why in the heck not?”

“We’re Milly and Tilly,” Milly said with a victorious grin. “And we can do anything.”

With your cat,” Rupert added.

“With our cat.” Milly agreed wholeheartedly.

Then, as she took a sip of her drink, she suddenly remembered the flyer Meg had found in her restaurant. The one that had Milly and Tilly’s faces scratched out with ‘It’s Over’ written on it.

She was starting to think that maybe it wasn’t over at all.

THE END



TILLIE’S HEART SHAPED CHOCOLATE COOKIES

Everyone loves cookies, and everyone loves chocolate. Put them together and you have absolute magic. Milly likes these best served with a glass of milk. I think hot chocolate is even better.

Cocoa Crush

Cookie Ingredients:

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cup NoJ processed cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon NoJ salt

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups semi-sweet chocolate-chips, melted

Heart shaped sprinkles, pink and white sprinkles, or whatever you prefer.

Cooking Directions:

Preheat the oven to 175 degrees centigrade (350 Fahrenheit for old timers)

Sift the flour, cocoa and salt together. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand-mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy—about 3 minutes. Mix in the vanilla extract. Slowly add in the flour mixture and mix until combined. Between two sheets of waxed paper, roll the dough 1/2 centimeter thick as evenly as possible. Chill in the nitro-chiller for 30 minutes.

Line a large baking sheet with a NoJ Silpat baking mat or parchment paper. Cut out the cookies with a heart-shaped cookie-cutter.

Bake for 15 minutes, or until crisp and firm. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet for two minutes and then transfer to a wire cooling rack. Cool completely.

Melt the chocolate in a double-boiler or in a hyper-cooker.

Dip the hearts into the melted chocolate. I only dipped about 1/4 of the heart. Sprinkle the chocolate section with sprinkles, if desired. Place the heart cookies on wax paper until the chocolate sets.




CHAD’S PRETZEL BUNS

Chad here, filling in for Tilly. This is an old family recipe passed down by my great-great-great-great grandma, who still makes them better than I do.

Cocoa Crush

Pretzel Bun Ingredients:

1 ½ cup warm water 110°F

2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast

2 teaspoons sugar

4 ½ cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons Kosher salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

¼ cups baking soda

1 egg (non-genetically modified) lightly beaten

Pretzel salt for sprinkling

Cheese and Beer Dip, Optional. Recipe included

Cooking Directions:

In the bowl of a stand-mixer fitted with the dough-hook attachment, add the water, yeast, and sugar. Stir and let rest 5-10 minutes until frothy.

Add the flour, salt, and melted butter, and mix using the dough hook, until combined well. Cover with plas wrap, and allow the dough to rise in a warm place for 1 hour, or until doubled in size. Punch the dough down and turn it out onto a clean, lightly floured surface.

Line a large sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside. Cut the dough into 12 pieces.

Take a piece of dough and form a ball; smooth the ball by pulling the sides to the center and pinching the bottom to seal.

Place the ball, pinched side down, on the prepared baking sheet, with 2-3 centimeters between each roll. Cover dough balls with a clean cotton towel, and allow to rest in a warm place for 30 minutes until they rise and double in size. (Have your AI remind you, just in case you forget)

While waiting, preheat the oven to 225 centigrade. (450 Fahrenheit for Gramps.)

In a large saucepan, bring 1.9 liters of water to a low boil. Slowly and carefully, add the baking soda, making sure that the water doesn’t boil over as you add. Lower the heat to a simmer.

Place 2-3 rolls at a time into the poaching liquid, seam side down. Poach for 30 seconds. Carefully turn the roll over and poach for another 30 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon to the lined sheet pan, seam-side down. Repeat with the remaining rolls.

Using a pastry brush, cover each roll with the beaten egg, making sure to coat all sides completely. Sprinkle each roll with pretzel salt. Using a sharp straight-edged knife, cut a slash or an ‘X’ shape in the top of each roll. Bake the rolls for 15-20 minutes.

CHEESE AND BEER DIP

Don’t let Rupert, or any other cat, near this. They’ll drink it and then break more than one local ordinance…which may or may not have ever happened (don’t tell Tillie).

Ingredients:

16 ounces of cream cheese, softened

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

6 ounces of your favorite It’s a Gas beer

Salt/pepper to taste.

Mix cream cheese, cheese, and beer in a medium sauce pan. Stir and melt over medium heat. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.



THE BOOKS OF AEON 14

Keep up to date with what is releasing in Aeon 14 with the free Aeon 14 Reading Guide.

Origins of Destiny (The Age of Terra)

- Prequel: Storming the Norse Wind

- Book 1: Shore Leave (in Galactic Genesis until Sept 2018)

- Book 2: Operative (Summer 2018)

- Book 3: Blackest Night (Summer 2018)

The Intrepid Saga (The Age of Terra)

- Book 1: Outsystem

- Book 2: A Path in the Darkness

- Book 3: Building Victoria

- The Intrepid Saga OmnibusAlso contains Destiny Lost, book 1 of the Orion War series

- Destiny RisingSpecial Author’s Extended Edition comprised of both Outsystem and A Path in the Darkness with over 100 pages of new content.

The Orion War

- Book 1: Destiny Lost

- Book 2: New Canaan

- Book 3: Orion Rising

- Book 4: The Scipio Alliance

- Book 5: Attack on Thebes

- Book 6: War on a Thousand Fronts

- Book 7: Precipice of Darkness

- Book 8: Airtha Ascendancy (Nov 2018)

- Book 9: The Orion Front (2019)

- Book 10: Starfire (2019)

- Book 11: Race Across Time (2019)

- Book 12: Return to Sol (2019)

Tales of the Orion War

- Book 1: Set the Galaxy on Fire

- Book 2: Ignite the Stars

- Book 3: Burn the Galaxy to Ash (2018)

Perilous Alliance (Age of the Orion War – w/Chris J. Pike)

- Book 1: Close Proximity

- Book 2: Strike Vector

- Book 3: Collision Course

- Book 4: Impact Imminent

- Book 5: Critical Inertia (Sept 2018)

Rika’s Marauders (Age of the Orion War)

- Prequel: Rika Mechanized

- Book 1: Rika Outcast

- Book 2: Rika Redeemed

- Book 3: Rika Triumphant

- Book 4: Rika Commander

- Book 5: Rika Infiltrator

- Book 6: Rika Unleashed (2018)

- Book 7: Rika Conqueror (2019)

Perseus Gate (Age of the Orion War)

Season 1: Orion Space

- Episode 1: The Gate at the Grey Wolf Star

- Episode 2: The World at the Edge of Space

- Episode 3: The Dance on the Moons of Serenity

- Episode 4: The Last Bastion of Star City

- Episode 5: The Toll Road Between the Stars

- Episode 6: The Final Stroll on Perseus’s Arm

- Eps 1-3 Omnibus: The Trail Through the Stars

- Eps 4-6 Omnibus: The Path Amongst the Clouds

Season 2: Inner Stars

- Episode 1: A Meeting of Bodies and Minds

- Episode 3: A Deception and a Promise Kept

- Episode 3: A Surreptitious Rescue of Friends and Foes (2018)

- Episode 4: A Trial and the Tribulations (2018)

- Episode 5: A Deal and a True Story Told (2018)

- Episode 6: A New Empire and An Old Ally (2018)

Season 3: AI Empire

- Episode 1: Restitution and Recompense (2019)

- Five more episodes following…

The Warlord (Before the Age of the Orion War)

- Book 1: The Woman Without a World

- Book 2: The Woman Who Seized an Empire

- Book 3: The Woman Who Lost Everything

The Sentience Wars: Origins (Age of the Sentience Wars – w/James S. Aaron)

- Book 1: Lyssa’s Dream

- Book 2: Lyssa’s Run

- Book 3: Lyssa’s Flight

- Book 4: Lyssa’s Call

- Book 5: Lyssa’s Flame

Legends of the Sentience Wars (Age of the Sentience Wars – w/James S. Aaron)

- Volume 1: The Proteus Bridge

- Volume 2: Vesta Burning (Fall 2018)

Enfield Genesis (Age of the Sentience Wars – w/Lisa Richman)

- Book 1: Alpha Centauri

- Book 2: Proxima Centauri

- Book 3: Tau Ceti (November 2018)

- Book 4: Epsilon Eridani (2019)

Hand’s Assassin (Age of the Orion War – w/T.G. Ayer)

- Book 1: Death Dealer

- Book 2: Death Mark (Fall 2018)

Machete System Bounty Hunter (Age of the Orion War – w/Zen DiPietro)

- Book 1: Hired Gun

- Book 2: Gunning for Trouble

- Book 3: With Guns Blazing

Vexa Legacy (Age of the FTL Wars – w/Andrew Gates)

- Book 1: Seas of the Red Star

Building New Canaan (Age of the Orion War – w/J.J. Green)

- Book 1: Carthage

- Book 2: Tyre (2018)

- Book 3: Troy (2019)

- Book 4: Athens (2019)

Fennington Station Murder Mysteries (Age of the Orion War)

- Book 1: Whole Latte Death (w/Chris J. Pike)

- Book 2: Cocoa Crush (w/Chris J. Pike)

The Empire (Age of the Orion War)

- The Empress and the Ambassador (2018)

- Consort of the Scorpion Empress (2018)

- By the Empress’s Command (2019)

The Sol Dissolution (The Age of Terra)

- Book 1: Venusian Uprising (2018)

- Book 2: Scattered Disk (2018)

- Book 3: Jovian Offensive (2019)

- Book 4: Fall of Terra (2019)



ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Michael Cooper likes to think of himself as a jack of all trades (and hopes to become master of a few). When not writing, he can be found writing software, working in his shop at his latest carpentry project, or likely reading a book.

He shares his home with a precocious young girl, his wonderful wife (who also writes), two cats, a never-ending list of things he would like to build, and ideas…

Find out what’s coming next at www.aeon14.com

01001110 01101111 01010011

Starship captains. Space battles. Dramatic relationships with big payoffs.

Chris J. Pike is an up and coming SF author, focused on writing in the Aeon14 universe. When not writing Science Fiction, he's watching the Expanse, the Killjoys, Firefly, and anything else that might go boom.

Follow along by liking his Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/ChrisJPikeAuthor

Or sign up for his mailing list for news and updates


home | my bookshelf | | Cocoa Crush |     цвет текста   цвет фона   размер шрифта   сохранить книгу

Текст книги загружен, загружаются изображения



Оцените эту книгу