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Dark Tort
by Diane Mott Davidson
HarperCollins, 2006


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Chapter One

I tripped over the body of my friend Dusty Routt at half past ten on the night of October 19.

At first I thought it was a joke. Loaded down with bread-making supplies, I had just pushed through the heavy wooden door of Hanrahan & Jule, the boutique law firm in Aspen Meadow where I'd been catering breakfasts for several months. My foot caught and I stumbled forward. I thought, Those H&J clowns are up to something. Again.

The bag of flour I was carrying slid from my hands and exploded on the carpet. Two jars of yeast plummeted onto the coffee table, where they burst into shards and powder. My last bottle of molasses sailed in a wide arc and cracked open on the receptionist's cherrywood desk. A thick wave of sweet, dark liquid began a gluey descent across the phone console. My steel bowl of bread sponge catapulted out of my arms and hit the wall.

I wasn't sure I'd be able to change my own trajectory toward an end table. It was one of two rough-hewn, cabin-style monstrosities that the decorator had thought necessary to make Hanrahan & Jule look like what it claimed to be: "your Rocky Mountain neighborhood law firm!"

I hit the end table, ricocheted over to the desk, cried out, and finally landed on my stomach. I had tripped over I-knew-not-what in a spectacular manner, and now I was prone on an imitation Native American rug. I shrieked, "Very funny, fellas!" But the lawyers who pulled these pranks didn't appear.

I wiped flour out of my eyes and waited for the guys to reveal themselves. When they didn't, I tried to focus on what I could see of the small lobby space. Lamps made of elk horns sat on the clunky tables. The bentwood couches, which were placed beneath homey paintings of food, were empty. I was lying on a sponge-soaked picture of a tepee. The pain assaulting my tailbone was excruciating.

Gritting my teeth, I figured I was about as upset as any caterer could be, when the bread for the following morning's breakfast has been wrecked the night before. I still hadn't seen what had caused my fall. Nor was there any telltale noise. In fact, the law firm of Hanrahan & Jule was completely quiet.

I'd ended up on the far side of the massive coffee table, a thick column of wood carved, I'd been told, from the trunk of an ancient blue spruce tree. I rubbed my behind and stared at the dark lacquered bark. Had I just stumbled over my own feet? No, I was sure the small cadre of lawyers who were not in Maui this week, ostensibly engaging in continuing education, was responsible for this mishap. I heaved myself onto my back, wondering if the guys -- and that's what all ten H&J lawyers were, guys -- would think this was more funny than when they'd put green food coloring into the cheddar omelettes. Or how about the live moths that had fluttered out of one of my folded tablecloths? And then, oh Lord, then -- there was the gin-switched-for-water in my espresso machine. Soon after that trick, I'd seen one of the partners pouring vodka into the very same machine's water well. I'd used my tray to whack him from behind -- accidentally, of course -- and spewed forty dollars' worth of Stolichnaya across the firm's huge kitchen.

Staring at the ceiling, I sighed. Now that my flour, yeast, molasses, and sponge were kaput, was the partner who'd ordered the breakfast going to run out and buy freshly baked loaves for his Friday-morning meeting with clients? I doubted it very much. I wrenched my body around to survey the damage.

And there, sprawled on the far side of the coffee table, was Dusty Routt.

In addition to being a friend, Dusty was our neighbor. She was also in training to become the firm's second paralegal, and she often got drafted into playing a part in these high jinks. At the very least, she was sometimes pressed into trying to cover them up, as I'd discovered after the spiked-coffee affair, when I'd caught her disposing of a plastic bag holding two empty gin bottles. "Orders from King Richard," Dusty had whispered conspiratorially. "He says I have to get rid of the evidence. Without you catching me, that is," she'd added with a characteristic giggle as she slammed the Dumpster lid shut. Since King Richard was Dusty's uncle, Richard Chenault, the same partner whose Stoly I later disposed of, I knew a confrontation was out of the question. Just this past August, Richard's secretary had been summarily fired when she'd had the audacity -- or stupidity -- to send a locket engraved for Richard's mistress to his, uh, wife. Richard's wife, a doctor named K.D., had promptly filed for divorce.

I stared at Dusty's back, waiting. I couldn't see her face. Still, I knew it was Dusty. There was her highlighted-at-home hair; there was the like-new beige Calvin Klein suit she was wearing. I'd actually found the suit for her at Aspen Meadow's secondhand store. Now I wanted to hear her high, joyful voice as she jumped up to cry, "Surprise!" I anticipated a trio of attorneys leaping out from behind the receptionist's desk and squealing, "Gotcha!"

But I still couldn't hear anything at all.

"Dusty!" I whispered hoarsely. "Get up. Gag's over."

She didn't move. I did finally hear something, but it was only the steady plink plop of beaten egg dripping onto one of the end tables. My gaze shifted from Dusty to where the sponge liquid had first landed, on Charlie Baker's painting of peach pie, one of three of his famous pictures of food that adorned the lobby walls. The frame was broken. Had I done that to dear, departed Charlie Baker's artwork?

Charlie Baker. I swallowed. Don't go there, I ordered myself. But then I squinted at some splotches and drips that had stained the painted pie, with its list of ingredients meticulously penned underneath . . .

Excerpted from Dark Tort by Diane Mott Davidson. Copyright © 2006 by Diane Mott Davidson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.











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