Iona startled awake. Eyes wide open, she scanned the darkness before focusing on the blood-red readout of her portable alarm clock. 6:35 AM. Great, that fifteen-minute stretch of sleep had been her longest all night. She sagged into her pillow and mattress, willing her heart to slow. That verbal threat could not have been directed against her. It didn’t make sense. No one knew she would be watching little Mia that night, let alone would be at the park.
The little girl’s jailbird dad was a violent jerk. No doubt, he’d beaten the crap out of the wrong guy and racked up a few more enemies while incarcerated. Iona seriously doubted prison time would’ve improved his disposition or his ability to make friends. The guy who’d momentarily held Mia in the park last night had to be sending a message to Mia’s mother.
Iona nodded. Her logic was sound. It had to be true. So why wasn’t she sleeping? She scrubbed at the grit filling her eyes and reached across the bed for Mia.
She encountered a warm spot but no Mia.
Iona’s heart hammered in the chest, and she sat up. “Mia!”
Her shout echoed around her studio apartment. A toilet flushed. The pitter-patter of soft feet thudded across the vinyl wood-looking floor in the bathroom.
Light burned the back of Iona’s retinas when the door opened.
“You’re up?” The little girl asked before she clicked off the light. Darkness filled the studio apartment again.
“Yeah. I’m awake.” Iona waited for the bed to dip, signaling the little girl had climbed back in.
Instead, a short silhouette appeared in the glow of the alarm clock. “Can I watch cartoons?”
“Of course.” Iona didn’t have cable, but she knew the little girl could connect to any program on her iPad.
Mia skipped into the living area and groped in the darkness for the portal to cartoon world.
Pushing the hair out of her eyes, Iona swung her legs over the side of the bed. Once her feet reached the floor, her toes dug into the plush carpet. She stretched as a bluish light filled the apartment, then she reached for her cell. Pressing the home button, she sighed — two messages both from Beta, Mia’s mother. The time stamp on the green bubbles indicated they were sent five minutes ago.
Maybe the notification had woken them both.
Iona opened the bubbles. The letters blurred into nonsense. Great. As if lack of sleep wasn’t enough, someone had been smoking in the park. She sniffed then reached for a handkerchief. Her allergies were out of control. But if she took an allergy pill, her fatigue would tip into exhaustion.
She screwed her eyes shut then opened them again.
The letters formed words.
<Picked up the cleaning shift. More $$ for kiddos summer program. Thank you for taking Mia to school.>
Clean-up shift, Iona’s Aunt Fanny. Beta spent more time looking for someone to hook up with than she did looking after her kids. Iona’s attention darted across the room. Did Mia know her mother had deserted her again?
Mia sprawled under the coffee table. Cartoons sent rainbows of light flickering around the darkened room and painted the girl’s set features. Yeah, she knew.
Iona stretched as she rose. “Looks like I get to drop you off at school today.”
Mia’s attention remained glued to the screen. “Is my mom coming back?”
Iona caught the wobble of fear. Hadn’t her voice broken over the same words asking the same question? “I’m sure she’ll be there to pick you up after school. She is working another shift to pay for your summer school program and must be really tired.”
After wiping her nose on her sleeve, Mia shrugged. Her hair stood up at angles around her head. “The cafeteria starts handing out breakfast at seven. I get meals for free, so you don’t have to give me money. Just drop me off before the sausage on a stick is gone.”
Iona’s stomach did a slow roll. Sausage on a stick sounded ghastly. She checked the clock as she selected her outfit for the day. “How about I make us some scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast after my shower?”
Mia glanced over her shoulder. Her brow furrowed as if she couldn’t make sense of the words.
Yeah, Iona knew offerings weren’t to be trusted. “Then, when I pack my lunch, we’ll tuck away some carrots and celery sticks for your lunch, too.”
“None of that hiccough-em stuff, though, okay?”
“Deal.” Iona didn’t think she had any jicama left.
The little girl turned her attention back to her cartoons.
Iona headed for the shower. Fifteen minutes later, she emerged then gathered their dirty clothes. The fabric reeked of smoke. Holding her breath, she stuffed everything in the washing machine, added soap, and turned it on just as the lid clanged shut. She paused by the laundry closet.
Mia had made the bed.
The quilt was crooked, the pillows not properly underneath, but Iona wouldn’t correct it for the world. She picked the hairbrush off the vanity then opened her closet door. A golden chocolate box, holding her mementos, sat on the shelf. Flipping the lid open, she selected a gauzy, gold ribbon she’d saved. “Let’s see if we can jazz up your ponytail. Do you think this would make a nice bow?”
The little girl’s eyes lit up, and she nodded.
“I think so, too.” Sliding behind her, Iona carefully eased the hair tie from the lopsided ponytail, then untangled the knots.
“Where did you get the ribbon?”
“Belgium.” Mia’s coarse hair was easy to work with. Soon, Iona, had the locks smoothed and gathered at the crown of her head. “It was a rainy day, and I had taken refuge inside a chocolate shop, thinking I could get some hot cocoa to warm me up.”
“Is the chocolate good in Belgium?”
“Some of the best I’ve ever had.” After securing the ponytail with the hair tie, Iona wound the ribbon around it once, tied it, then repeated the wrapping once more before finishing it off with a double bow. “There. Tell me what you think?”
Mia scrambled to her feet and checked the mirrored panel on the closet door. She turned her head left then right. “I like it. Can I go check on the plants?”
“Sure.” Not that Iona believed they would be any different than the empty pots last night. She stowed the brush in its spot then left the bathroom.
Waiting on the threshold to the back balcony, Mia bounced on the balls of her feet. “The seeds have spouted.”
Iona didn’t correct the little girl’s English. The seeds couldn’t have sprouted so soon, could they? She stepped on the back porch. The view of the parking lot and park beyond shimmered in the soft morning light. She filled her lungs with fresh air then looked down. Green shoots covered the bottom of the pots. The seeds had sprouted. All of them. She ran her fingers over the tender leaves, felt the dew cling to her skin. “I guess we didn’t have to plant them so many seeds after all.”
“I can’t wait to show my brothers when we get home from school.”
“Speaking of school, we still need to pack our lunches.” Twenty-five minutes later, Iona locked the door behind them.
Mia’s ponytail swung as she bounced down the stairs.
At least, the ribbon was securely in place. Hoisting her bike, Iona descended the three flights at a more sedate piece. She reached the bottom step and set her bicycle on the walkway.
Mia gripped the railing and shifted behind it.
Hazel Fields skidded to a halt in front of them. Eyes fogged with Alzheimer’s, housecoat buttoned askew, and missing one powder blue slipper, the old woman pointed at them. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
Mia gave up the safety of the banister to hide behind Iona’s legs and bicycle. Iona had read once that memory patients hated being reminded they couldn’t remember stuff. Iona held out her hand. “I’m Iona Edwards and—”
Libby Fields, one side of her head in hot curlers, rushed out of their basement apartment and appeared at her mother’s side. “Mama, these are our new neighbors. They moved in not too long ago.”
Hazel jabbed the air again. “These foreigners are making the place different. They’re changing it.”
Iona blinked. Did she have an accent from her years living abroad? No one had ever mentioned it before. Perhaps, it was the cafe-au-lait color of Mia’s skin that deemed them unAmerican.
“They’re not foreigners, Mama.” Libby guided her mother around then mouthed the word ‘sorry’ over her shoulder. “Come now. Your shows are about to start.”
Hazel shoved at her daughter’s hold. “Where is Marsha? I want Marsha, not you. Marsha will investigate the changes while you just get high and pretend nothing is wrong.”
Embarrassment colored the other woman’s cheeks.
Iona winced. Maybe second best daughter wasn’t better than not being wanted at all.
The door slammed shut. The theme song of the Price is Right rolled out of the open window.
Iona released a shaky breath then glanced down at Mia. “Ready?”
Mia nodded and fell into step. “Why is Mizz Fields so mean?”
Removing the bicycle helmet from her handlebars, Iona handed it to Mia. “Mrs. Fields is losing her memory. She thinks she knows things, but when she sees them, it’s not the way she remembers and it makes her mad. Did you ever think you knew the answer to a question then been told you were wrong?”
“Uh-huh.” Mia adjusted the straps then balanced the helmet on her head and secured it under her chin.”But I get more questions righter than Javier. And he thinks he knows everything.”
Cartoon backpack bulging with her belongings, Mia wiggled it along her shoulders then opened the wrought iron gate.
Iona wheeled the bicycle off the apartment property, then lowered the tires into the gutter. “Do you remember how this works?”
“I remember.” Mia scampered onto the seat, gripping the saddle to maintain her balance.
Iona stepped into the opening and waited until tiny hands closed around her waist. “Okay. Here we go.”
Pushing away from the curb, she pressed at the left pedal. The bike shot forward.
Mia giggled. “I love takeoffs.”
Iona smiled, pedaled faster, and crossed to the correct side of the street. The school was only half a mile away. Balancing on the pedals, she coasted along the bike path in the park. Water glistened on the green grass. A hiss sounded to her right as the sprinklers kicked on.
She puffed for breath as she neared the park’s exit. Her thighs burned, but she couldn’t sit down, the seat was occupied. A tune slipped past her lips. She didn’t recognize it, but given its jaunty nature, it probably came from Mia’s cartoons.
“My mom says I could have a bike for my birthday.”
Iona steered down the curb and turned onto the street. Traffic slowed up ahead. Brake lights appeared. A crossing guard held up a stop sign in the crosswalk as tiny heads appeared through the windows of the cars. “When is your birthday?”
“May Twelfth.” Mia hummed the same song Iona did. “This time, I won’t let my brothers ride it. They left my last one in the driveway where Daddy Tom ran it over when he came home.”
“That sounds like a very good plan.” Iona swung her leg over, balancing on one pedal as she approached the idling cars waiting to turn into the school parking lot. She hopped off the pedal before reaching the next vehicle to turn, then pulled up alongside the curb and helped Mia off the seat. Iona braced herself for a brief dismissal.
“You have to walk me to the teachers.” Mia hooked her thumbs through the backpack straps as they walked up the wide sidewalk with the bicycle, following behind a few older children who’d used the crosswalk.
Iona quickly stepped to keep up. “What are you learning about today?”
“Egypt. We have to do a project on it.” Mia unbuckled the helmet and handed it to Iona. “Have you ever been to Egypt?”
“It was one of the very first places I went. Would you like to see pictures of it later?”
Mia bit her lip then stared at her shoes. “I don’t know when Mom will pick me up.”
Setting the kickstand, Iona knelt and tied the shoelace. “I’ll be home after five. You can stop by before your bedtime.”
Mia nodded then glanced up.
A young teacher waved children through the gate and guarded the entrance against outsiders. Mia ran to her. She waved at Iona before catching Mia in a hug. “Ms. Edwards, it is nice to see you again. The children still talk about your visit during STEM week. I think you’ve inspired quite a few young scientists.”
“Thank you.” Iona’s cheeks heated. Drat. She’d forgotten the woman’s name. She checked her watch. Nope. Still nothing. “Well, I need to go, or else I’ll be late for work.”
Mia waved goodbye then disappeared in the crowd of students.
Iona steered her bike through the organized chaos then followed a parent back across the street. Heading upstream, she turned at the next block and wound a path through the side streets to the main road. Pumping hard on the pedals, she stayed on the sidewalk as she turned onto the busy road. Cars honked. A bus belched biodiesel. Someone’s radio blared into the morning commute.
She raced past the Do-It-Yourself store, swerved around a car waiting to turn out of the gas station, then caught the last light and zoomed along the sidewalk into the entryway of her work. Applying slight pressure to the brakes, she zig-zagged behind a red Mazda 5, maintaining just enough speed to keep from stopping. The three cars ahead of her inched along while the guard ticked off everyone’s entrance on his clipboard. A blue Subaru rode her bumper. She turned to wave at Quentin.
At least, Chatty Chippy wasn’t at the gate. His incessant conversation made everyone late.
She held out her badge when it was her turn.
The guard nodded. Sweat created rivulets in his crown of black hair. “Your trailer arrived. Had to take the power down to wire her up. The Doc and the little girl are already ogling it.”
Iona nearly fell off her bicycle. Those three sentences were the most he’d spoken to her since she started. “Thanks.”
The engine behind her revved.
She stomped on the pedal, propelling the bike forward. A cool breeze tugged at her exposed hair as she rounded the corner. A long white trailer occupied seven parking spaces near the area where the food trucks parked. Not the best planning on someone’s part.
Tires squealed as the blue Subaru zoomed past. Quentin flashed her a thumbs-up.
She parked in the bicycle rack near the lunchroom gate then crossed the street.
Two men in black overalls and thick construction gloves connected the trailer to the electricity at the light pole.
Marcus stroked the white metal. His eyes crinkled when he smiled. “They are performing a few more safety checks then it is all ours.”
Mae tapped her fingertips together. “When does the fungus arrive?”
“Apparently, it’s already inside. Safely stowed in an XT-98 cryocontainer.” Marcus nodded to Quentin. “We have to wait an extra 15 minutes for a preliminary decontamination.”
“Won’t that kill the fungus?” Iona removed her helmet then fluffed her hair.
Quentin snorted. “Not even. Anything in an XT-98 and cockroaches can survive an atomic blast.”
He always had to go to a worst-case scenario. Iona wondered if it was genetic. “That’s comforting.”
Mae smiled. Her brown eyes snapped with excitement. “I can’t believe this is really happening. How long do you think it’ll be before we get the money?”
Marcus shrugged. “It depends on how fast my formula can get the fungus growing. I’m pretty sure with the new tweaks we’ll have a batch in a couple of weeks.”
“Alright.” Quentin rocked back on his heels. “I’ve already picked out my new motorcycle.”
Mae hooked her arm through Iona’s. She practically vibrated. “Instead of just paying off my student loans, maybe I’ll have a little vacay. Will you tell me the best things to see in Paris?”
“Of course. It’s always fun to travel with someone.” Iona winced as she dug in. “I may even show you myself.”
Marcus opened his mouth, then closed it. “Uh-oh. We must be late. The boss man is coming.”
Iona turned with the others, but none made an effort to move. A thirty-something Ryan Reynold’s lookalike strutted next to their supervisor. His scruffy beard contrasted with the sharp creases of his designer suit and the gleam in his mirrored sunglasses. Her mouth dried as she eyed the bulge of his shoulder holster.
Their dumpling of a supervisor drew up short in front of them. Despite the cool breeze, he mopped the sweat off his forehead with a damp tissue. “Good, you’re all here. Everyone this is Detective Enrique Padmoore of the Phoenix Police Department. He has some questions for you.”
Quentin squinted at the man but for once held his tongue. Mae shifted a little behind him.
Police. Great. Even American police could cause trouble. Iona squared her shoulders and offered her hand. “Detective Padmoore. I’m Iona Edwards. Can you tell us what your questions are regarding?”
The detective ignored her hand to skim his notebook. “Kim Garcia’s body was found beside the rooftop pool of her hotel. According to her calendar, you four were up for a substantial cash prize from her company, a prize apparently already claimed by your competition. That makes you all suspects in her murder.”