Dead and Breakfast
Visions & Victims: Book One
Chapter 1 Preview
Another day, another endless string of pumpkin spice lattes.
Though I knew better, after I sprayed a tooth-rotting pile of whipped cream on my latest coffee creation, I glanced up and found a line of customers waiting impatiently to order their fall fix. The queue wound out the front door of Insight Café’s small boutique interior, and the sight of it forced a sigh out of me. Would business ever let up?
“You doing okay, Selena?” Morgan, my co-worker and one of three roommates, shouted over the cacophony of cell phone chimes and conversations filling the store. She marked yet another customer’s cup and clapped it down behind the twenty others already waiting for me on the counter.
I shrugged. “Yeah, all things considered.”
“Do you need help with the drinks?” she asked and reached for the next cup to squirt flavored syrup in it.
“I’ve got it,” I barked, though that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I’d only been working at the café for a few months, and while it wasn’t the worst job in the world, it wasn’t the best either — especially on busy days. It didn’t help that, as the newbie, I almost always got stuck making the drinks, which I still hadn’t mastered.
Morgan raised her eyebrows at me, tucked a strand of her fiery hair behind one ear, and put the cup back on the counter. “Suit yourself,” she said and spun around to take the next customer’s order.
Annoyed at myself for snapping at one of the few friends I had, I reached for a nearly full gallon of milk resting on the opposite counter to make yet another PSL — only to knock it to the floor, splashing cold milk all over my pants and everything within a twenty-foot radius.
Morgan’s eyes met mine, and she must’ve read the defeat coursing through me on my face because she rushed over to help me clean it up. “Oh, my God. Don’t worry about this, I’ve got it,” she said as she sprung into action. “Why don’t you take a break for a few minutes? We can handle everything.”
I didn’t think twice about accepting her offer. Instead, I stormed around her and into the storeroom before all the customers waiting in line saw me burst into tears.
“What was I thinking?” I sobbed as I went to the small sink in the back to get a rag and dab as much of the milk off me as possible, but by the time I got there, I’d realized how futile it was; the milk had already soaked through, meaning I’d probably spend the rest of the day smelling like a dumpster. With my hands gripping the edge of the stainless-steel sink, I dissolved.
“Selena, are you okay?” Jane, my manager, asked cautiously from behind me. She must’ve been doing something on the computer wedged between the series of refrigerators that lined the storeroom.
When I turned to face her and she got a look at the giant wet spots covering my entire body, her expression fell. “Oh no, honey. I’m so sorry,” she groaned and stepped around me to pull a wet cloth from the sanitizer water in the sink. She wrung it out and set about dabbing the milk spots. “I know it’s humiliating, but if it makes you feel any better, it’s happened to all of us at some point.”
“It doesn’t, but thanks anyway,” I said with a sad smile and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. Thankfully, I’d woken up late and didn’t have time to put on makeup. If I had, it would surely have run down my face with my tears. “Anyway, it’s crazy busy out there, so I should probably get back on the line.”
Jane rested a hand on my shoulder. “Why don’t I take over on drinks for a bit? Take as long as you need to get yourself together,” she said and left me there to help the others. I leaned against the sink and watched through the doorframe as she breezed through the line of drinks I’d left behind in a matter of minutes like it was nothing at all.
Jane had worked in the café for years, so her skill shouldn’t have surprised me, but it still made me self-conscious. If I couldn’t even hack making cookie cutter coffees, what made me think I stood a chance in nursing school?
Remembering my failure still stung. I’d dropped out of school a year ago, which was how I’d ended up in Denver working as a barista at twenty-one and sharing a rundown town house in the RiNo district with three other girls struggling to make ends meet. Offended that I’d flushed their hard-earned money down the toilet, my rich doctor parents cut me off and told me I was on my own, so I had to do what I had to do — which meant I had to pull myself together. I literally couldn’t afford to lose my job, no matter how much I hated it.
I took a series of deep breaths, made sure I’d left no tears behind on my face, and stepped back out onto the floor. Morgan had already cleaned up most of the milk mess, and the crowd of customers had mostly cleared out, so I couldn’t help wondering if that was because they had someone fast and competent like Jane making all their drinks. Was I the problem all along?
Jane smiled at me and shook her head, apparently not approving of my quick recovery. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. I promise. I just had a little moment, but I’m good now.”
“All right, if you insist,” Jane said and stepped aside to head back into the storeroom.
To avoid giving any of my coworkers room for doubt, I started working on the next drink right away but stopped when I read the label. Beneath the customer’s name, Blair, ran a list of ingredients that when combined easily made one of the weirdest drinks I’d ever seen: a large pumpkin spice latte with eight shots of espresso, one pump of maple pecan syrup, seven pumps of pumpkin spice, almond milk, light foam, caramel drizzle, cinnamon sprinkle toppings, and extra pumpkin sprinkles.
Curious what kind of sociopath would order something so bizarre, I glanced up and scanned the café. Immediately, I spotted a woman in her late forties standing at the end of the bar who looked as eccentric as the drink I held. She stared off into space holding the straps to a huge black purse in one hand and clacked her sparkling purple nails against the counter with the other while she waited.
She’d wrapped a galaxy-print scarf around her buzzed brown hair, and a matching dress draped from her wiry frame, accented by an oversized black lace shawl that hung from her shoulders. A pendant of what looked like a cat’s eye dangled from a loose-fitting gold chain around her neck, and I followed it up to her face where I found the same shade of sparkling purple that coated her nails on her lips and eyelids, too.
She looked like she could be one of those late-night TV psychics or palm readers, but then again, the RiNo attracted all kinds of offbeat people.
“Um, excuse me, ma’am? Are you Blair?”
She smiled warmly at me and gestured dramatically at herself, making the various golden bands and bangles she wore on both wrists jingle. “In the flesh, love. Don’t you recognize me?”
“Uh, no? Anyway, I was just about to make your drink, but I wanted to be sure it’s right. Did you order it this way?”
Blair’s smile widened. “I did, and it has to be correct because your poor colleague had me repeat the order several times. Look, I know it sounds disgusting, but trust me, it’s magical.”
“Oh, okay. Just checking,” I said and crouched to pull the almond milk out of the small refrigerator under the espresso machine. I filled a carafe with the milk and got it steaming before moving on to the various syrups Blair wanted in her gross drink. I couldn’t fathom how or why anyone would want to choke down something like that, but who was I to judge?
“You’re very good at that, you know,” Blair said.
“I couldn’t help watching you. You’ve got an eye for artistry. I can tell just from the way you pumped the syrup. It was precise but had a flourish to it.”
“Thanks, I guess?”
Blair chuckled. “You really don’t recognize me, do you, love?”
My brows instinctively furrowed while I searched her face to jog my memory. I shrugged. “Can’t say I do. Have we met somewhere around town before?” I asked, though that was highly unlikely given that I never left my place except for work anymore. I didn’t have the money to go out; unfortunately, dropping out of college didn’t save me from having to pay back the student loans I’d already taken out.
“It’s me, Aunt Blair.”
I laughed and shook my head at her while I got the espresso shots going for her drink. “You must have mistaken me for someone else, then. I’ve never had an aunt named Blair.”
“Well, I suppose that’s true to a certain extent…”
Blair coughed and waved me away. “Nothing. I am your aunt, though, love. Your mother, Lacy, is my sister.”
My hands froze as they reached for the carafe of now perfectly steamed milk. I knew, without a doubt, that my mother only had an older brother, my Uncle Bob, who died when I was a toddler, so how the heck did this weird woman know her name? And why was she claiming to be her sister?
“I’m sorry, you really must have me confused with someone else,” I said, though it didn’t sound remotely convincing.
“I’m positive I don’t. You’re Selena Smith, the daughter of doctors Lacy and Michael Smith of Seattle, aren’t you?”
My heart lurched into my throat. Was this woman stalking me or something? How did she know both my parents’ names? And what did she want with me? Still, there wouldn’t be any point in lying — Blair had flustered me so much that I knew I couldn’t pull it off convincingly — so I nodded.
“I’m here to fetch you, love. I know you’ve been going through a rough period, and I’d like to help.”
“Well, I heard through the grapevine about you quitting school. As terrible as that is, I assumed you must’ve had a good reason — until I later heard you’d moved here and started working as a barista. What a tragic waste of potential.”
“How do you know all this about me? Do I need to call security?”
Blair laughed, deep and hearty, and shook her head. “No, love, don’t be so dramatic. I know a flair for it runs in our family, but let’s not be impulsive.”
“Our family? I don’t even know who you are and you’re scaring me,” I said and glanced at my coworkers. All of them were watching my inexplicable interaction with Blair with confused looks on their faces; they weren’t the ones confused.
“Just hear me out. Your mother and I, well, we haven’t been on speaking terms for many years. We stopped talking shortly after you were born, actually. I’m offended but not at all surprised she hasn’t told you about me,” Blair said, but all I could do was gawk at her while my mind reeled. “Anyway, I own and run a little bed-and-breakfast called the Kindred Spirits Inn. It’s up in the mountains not far from here, and I thought you might like to come and work with me there for the season. Now that snow’s falling again, more paranor—excuse me, people—are heading up the mountain to ski and business at my little bed-and-breakfast is booming. I could use the help.”
I could hardly believe my ears. Here was a woman I’d never met, dressed like someone out of a bad Halloween movie, claiming to be my aunt and offering me a job in her bed-and-breakfast in the mountains. It was so weird that, had someone else told me a similar story, I never would’ve believed them.
“If you’d rather stay here and keep making coffees for eccentrics at minimum wage, I can’t stop you,” Blair said after a few moments in which I didn’t respond. “Though I think you’ll find life in the mountains with me at Kindred Spirits much more, shall we say, enchanting.”
Thankfully, I’d just finished making her drink, so I popped a lid on the cup and handed it to her. “I appreciate the offer, but I think I’m gonna pass.”
Blair took a deep swig of the coffee and, with her eyes squeezed shut, savored it for a moment. She swallowed and sighed. “Ah, perfect. Simply perfect. Anyway, I knew you’d need time to think it over, so I came prepared,” she said and, with her free hand, rummaged around in her massive purse. “Oh, come on, I know it’s in here somewhere,” she groaned, and I could’ve sworn I heard the squeal of a mouse from inside.
“A-ha!” she shouted after what felt like an eternity and pulled a business card from her purse. She handed it to me, and I looked it over out of raw curiosity. In a thin, gold, modern font, the words “Kindred Spirits Inn” blazed back at me. A little ghost floated behind the text with its tongue sticking out, and below it, the address listed the building as being in a place called Starfall Valley, Colorado. I’d never heard of it, but I wasn’t super familiar with the area. A phone number in a weird six-digit format and Blair’s “p-mail” address — which had to be a typo — accompanied it. My heart skipped a beat when I realized Blair’s last name, which was in the e-mail address, was the same as my mom’s maiden name: Williams. It had to be a coincidence.
“I’m staying in town at a friend’s place for the weekend, so sleep on it for a night or two. Just let me know before Sunday morning if you decide you want to come back to Starfall with me, okay, love?” Blair asked and smiled. When I didn’t answer, she took another swig of her coffee. “Have a good rest of your day,” she said and spun around in a whirl of clothes and bangles to head for the door.
I stood staring after her, still clutching her card and unable to process any of what’d just happened. When the door swished closed behind Blair, the whole café burst into laughter. Morgan came flying up to me and snatched the card out of my hand. “What the heck was that all about? Was that lady on something?”
“I have no clue,” I said and laughed. How else was I supposed to react to something like that?
“Oh my God, wait until Jadis hears about this when we get home tonight. She’s going to lose it,” Morgan said as she examined the card. She wasn’t wrong, but the comment reminded me that Jadis, another of our coworkers and roommates, and the best, closest friend I’d made in Denver, should’ve been working with us at the café.
“Speaking of, why isn’t she here today? I thought she was on the schedule?”
Morgan shrugged. “She asked me to switch shifts with her. Apparently, her band’s playing a show at some dive bar tonight and she has to be there early to help set up.”
“Right? Who would’ve thought an all-girl punk band called The Neoliberal Nukes screaming about the patriarchy would ever catch on?”
I hadn’t, but I was happy for Jadis, regardless. “We should support her. I’m sure she can get us in free,” I said, though I had ulterior motives. If anyone would know something about Kindred Spirits and Starfall Valley, it would be her.
Jadis loved all kinds of weird, occult stuff — she didn’t go anywhere without a tarot deck — and if the outfit Blair had been wearing was any sign, I figured it was safe to assume her bed-and-breakfast would be right up Jadis’ alley. More than that, though, I wanted to run all this by her to see what she thought. She had a strange, powerful way of seeing things, and she was fantastic at tracking people online from the time she’d spent teaching herself how to hack computers as a kid. With the info on the card as a starting point, I knew Jadis could help me figure out if Blair was telling the truth about who she said she was.
“I don’t think I can go; I ran out of earplugs,” Morgan said, and we shared a laugh. “Seriously, though, I don’t know how Jadis still has a voice after screaming her head off like that night after night.”
“Well, when you go all day without saying more than five words to people, maybe it’s not so surprising. She’s quiet because she’s saving herself for the stage.”
“Yeah, sure, something like that. But really, though, I’m not in the mood for another headache. Sorry, girl, you’re on your own,” she said and gave Blair’s card back to me.
I shrugged and tucked the card in my back pocket. “No worries. I have nothing better to do tonight anyway, so I’ll probably still go.”
“Have fun,” Morgan said sarcastically and went back to the register to ring up a young guy who’d just walked in. After she’d marked his cup and handed it to me, I tried to stay focused on making the drink, but I couldn’t stop thinking about Blair.
How on Earth did she know who I was, who my parents were, and that I’d dropped out of college and come to Denver? As crazy as it was, I couldn’t find any explanation for it other than she really knew someone in my family who’d been feeding her gossip about me — but who could that be? Grandma Carol, my mom’s mom, loved to talk about our entire family behind their backs, but I found it hard to believe a rumormonger like her could keep a disowned aunt a secret from me, unless Grandma hated her too.
I shook my head and queued up a couple espresso shots; I was being ridiculous… Wasn’t I? Could Blair really be my aunt? As far as I knew, there was no one named Blair in my entire family, but if there were, I surely would’ve heard something about her by now. Then again, after the way my mom and dad had ruthlessly cut me out of their life for disappointing them, maybe it wasn’t such a stretch to believe my mom could do the same thing to a sister who’d upset her somehow. But why?
As much as I didn’t want to believe what Blair told me, it nagged at me. While I waited for the shots to finish brewing, I pulled the business card out of my back pocket and stared at the name in the e-mail address. Blair Williams. She and my mom had the same last name, and now that I thought about it, in a certain light, Blair did kind of look like Mom.
If I believed even for a second that she’d pick up, I would’ve taken a break to call her and ask her about Blair, but I knew better. She’d probably assume I was calling begging for money and forgiveness again and let it go to voicemail, anyway. But even if she answered, if she’d really spent all these years pretending her sister didn’t exist, why would she suddenly be honest with me about her now?
Though I didn’t want to admit it, the more I thought about it, the less I believed Blair was lying.