Most people didn’t think of warm and fuzzy things when it came to a medical examiner’s office. What usually came to mind was cold steel, beakers, maybe a little fridge with vials filled with fluid samples. And death, of course. Lots and lots of death.
Addy certainly wasn’t expecting the amount of bright colors splashed all over the walls as though an unsupervised child had been let loose. Nor was she expecting to hear the twangy sounds of Mumford and Sons blaring throughout the room or Chopper rocking out on air-banjo behind his desk.
“Wha-a-at?” Addy gaped at her childhood friend. He was actually pretty cute in a gangly, geeky kind of way.
“It’s part of his process.” Kayla shrugged, using a small black remote to turn the music down. Chopper spun around when the music’s volume dropped. “Got somethin’ for ya.”
He tilted his head at Addy as the ladies strode forward. He looked like a curious puppy as he spoke, “Is it food?”
“No, ya dingus.” She held up the plastic wrapped laptop, but his eyes were still on Addy.
“Why’re ya here den?” He sounded genuinely curious through his Yooper dialect and not insulting as he would have come off to anyone else who didn’t know him as well. “Not that your presence isn’t a welcome addition.”
“Always a charmer, huh, Chopper?” She flashed a grin at him, nudging him on the shoulder. “How in the world are you still single?” He straightened up.
“And who’s sayin’ dat?” If he had been wearing suspenders, he would have hooked his thumbs in the straps with pride. But he wasn’t, and instead he was wearing an olive green button up and dark brown pants that matched his derby lace-up shoes and belt.
Addy quirked an eyebrow up at him before flashing the visitor’s badge at him. “Just wanted to pop in and say hello to my favorite coroner, doctor, whatever else you are.”
“There yeh go, makin’ me blush.” His lips spread out into a sweet smile as his shoulders slumped. Kayla made a noise of displeasure before walking to Chopper’s desk and setting the laptop down.
“What were you doing with that loud noise anyway?”
“Eh, easy on.” He replied with a warning tone. “That was art in da form of folk rock.” He spoke with such a seriousness, it warmed Addy’s heart. He walked around to his desk, sat down in his chair and wheeled to the marble counter behind him for the latex gloves. After snapping them on, he rolled back around to his desk and peeled the tape from the evidence bag, sliding the laptop out.
Addy sat in the seat across from him while Kayla stood behind him, her arms crossed and her eyes focused. “I didn’t realize you did the computer stuff too, Chopper.”
“He’s a real jack of all trades.” Kayla grunted, impatiently.
Ignoring her, Chopper replied, “In addition to autopsies, I also perform…” he looked at Addy with a clever smile, “laptopsies.” He chuckled to himself, looking over his shoulder to see if Kayla would laugh along. She wasn’t laughing, but she did look as though she were drilling holes in Chopper’s head with her own eyes.
“Right.” He turned around and started typing away at the laptop. After a few moments of near silence (aside from the clacking of keys), Addy’s phone buzzed against her stomach. She pulled it out and saw a new message on her Instagram.
I’m free Friday morning.
She tucked her phone back into her pocket without responding. If Jay was engaged, why in the heck was he going out of his way to meet up with her, knowing full well that even when they were teenagers they had to sneak around unless there was a group function. Even if he was single, she wasn’t sure she would have wanted to meet up with him. He stirred a lot of old feelings inside of her that she wasn’t prepared to deal with.
Addy looked up and psst-ed at Kayla for her attention, who just shrugged back at her. Addy pointed to the laptop and held up her hands as though confused. Kayla mouthed a response, “I have no idea.”
“Good news is Ms. Altschul kept a very tidy desktop, organized her files, emptied her trash regularly…” Chopper’s eyes were locked on the screen as he spoke. Addy and Kayla exchanged a glance.
“Bad news?” Kayla asked, leaning forward on his desk.
“Every one of her folders is encrypted with password protection. I managed to get into one of the files by typing in her date of birth, but this will take some time to sift through.”
“How much time we talkin’?” Kayla stood up straight.
“Depends on how complicated the code is.” He looked at his watch. “I’ll get to crackin’ but a huge motivator in my potential success is a nice, juicy-” Addy’s eyes grew wide as he held his hands in front of him, “Big Mac.” She laughed inwardly at where her mind decided to rocket off to.
“Got it.” Kayla nodded her head at Addy and the two left Chopper to work his decoding magic. “Drop you at home?”
“Actually, could you take me to The Sweet Rack?” Kayla’s eyes perked up at once and Addy laughed at her friend. Any mention of baked goods was enough to pep her right up.
To Addy’s surprise and mild annoyance, Alex really did have a hang of things at the shop. He was running the front by himself while Maggie was restocking the coffee bar full of sweeteners, stirring sticks, napkins, and creamers.
“I thought you were exaggerating.” Addy watched as a gaggle of teenagers gathered around the display case, fawning over The Sweet Rack’s newest employee. He flashed them his signature smile and the giggles erupted. Kayla rolled her eyes before stepping in line right behind the group.
Addy stifled a smile as the group of girls quickly made their purchases and scooted out of the door, a few waving goodbyes to Alex. She couldn’t blame them, he looked good in their white aprons. He probably looked good in just about anything. And nothing, she thought, remembering him shirtless. Addy shook her head and turned back to her mother.
“I have a short shift at Miller’s tomorrow.” She said, her eyes flickering back and forth to Alex.
“He really is doing an excellent job, Addison.” Maggie assured her daughter. She bit her lip and nodded. “Can you do some prep for tomorrow’s orders?” Of course, she obliged her mom, saying goodbye to Kayla and heading to the back of the shop.
She hung up her blazer in the office and was about to turn around when the email on her mother’s monitor caught her eye. If it weren’t for Miller’s logo, she might not have cared to take notice, but what could the grocery store have to say to her mother?
The last message was open and said, That problem we discussed a few nights ago won’t be an issue much longer. Speak soon, Josh
“What the fresh hell?” She felt her blood freeze beneath her skin. Her mother had been with Josh Miller a few nights ago. Was that before or after the murder? Why had they met up in the first place? Was Maggie an accessory to a crime?
A clatter shook her from her racing thoughts and she sped for the baker’s table where Alex had dropped a stack of metal sheets. “Sorry, sorry. Butter fingers.” Alex started to restack the sheets and Addy bent down to pick up the ones that had fallen on the ground.
“I’d consider slowing down if I were you.” She said over her shoulder as she carried the sheets to the sink. She washed them and turned back to the baker’s table, glancing toward the register where Alex was standing. He turned his head to her before she could look away and gave her a small smile. She felt her heart thump harder in her chest before shaking her head and putting on her apron.
Getting to work was hard when Alex insisted on walking behind her every few minutes to ask her questions she was pretty sure he already knew the answers to since, by her mother’s own admission, he was doing a stellar job.
“Closing duties…” He stood at the end of the table.
“There’s a list under the register.” She replied, measuring some flour for a smash cake.
“You ok? You seem agitated.” He stepped closer to her as she poured the flour into a plastic bowl next to the table mixer.
“Fine.” She replied, reaching along the rack above the table for the small cake pans that she could just barely graze her fingers across. She huffed, looking sideways at Alex. “Can you… please?” Alex gazed back at her with his sparkling eyes.
“What’s really going on?” His voice lowered, taking a more serious tone as he stepped closer. So he was going to make her answer or not help her.
“What are you doing? You don’t need help with the closing duties. You don’t really need help at all.” Addy blurted out before she could stop herself. His eyes penetrated hers and a small smile stretched across his face.
“I’ve missed you, Addy.” She furrowed her eyebrows. What kind of answer was that? “Everyone needs help every once in awhile.” He reached for the small cake pan and set it directly in front of her, before walking away. “Stop staring at my butt.”
Addy jumped. She could feel her cheeks turning red as she finished mixing the ingredients for the smash cake’s batter. He still didn’t answer her question, but then again, maybe this was the adult version of him being the best friend’s slightly annoying little brother.
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