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An Ice-Cold Seven-Up

An excerpt from The Trailer Park Murder, Book 3 in The Woodhead & Becker Mysteries

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Bernadette Becker walked briskly off the plane, exiting the security checkpoint into the General Mitchell
Airport’s main terminal. The dimly-lit Starbucks, just beyond the Summerfest store, called its siren song, but the line of people snaked all the way to the information booth—not surprising for nine in the morning.

She looked around and tried to casually wipe a bead of sweat from her temple. Bernadette welcomed the chill of the air conditioning in this part of the terminal; three months had made a huge difference from the snowy, chilly March days of her first investigation here—when she’d been introduced to Lamar.

Two weeks after her investigation concluded, she’d come back to Milwaukee for a weekend in April. Lamar had been waiting at the top of the escalator that led down to baggage claim, a mixed bouquet of flowers in his hand and an offer to take her overnight case.

Now, Bernadette took a few steps tothe side of the terminal—in front of a Spanx store, she noticed—propped up her roll-aboard, and dug for her phone in her purse. There was a text.

Meet you outside door 2

She hadn’t had a long-distance relationship since college, and the sting of her recent separation put her on uncertain footing anyway. Yes, two weeks ago, they’d had a romantic week in Miami, but left things a little weird when Bernadette had to leave a day early to fly off to another investigation. They’d texted and had a couple of video calls, but Bernadette had been swamped with other investigations. She’d thought
that since Lamar was a cop, he’d understand the demands of her job more than a civilian might—but maybe she was wrong.

Bernadette grabbed the handle of her roll-aboard, strode to the escalator, past the spot where Lamar had been standing only two months before, then down to baggage claim and out Door 2.
The day was muggy and warm, not much different than D.C. had been, but the heat surprised her. She scanned the line of cars for Lamar’s black sedan. A brief tap of a horn behind her and Bernadette spun around; Lamar waved at her from behind the wheel of his car, waiting for her on the outside lane.

She hurried over, the trunk popping open, and put her case in. She shut the trunk, walked to the passenger side, and took a deep breath before opening the door.

“Hey, Lamar,” she said, a purr in her voice as she slid into the car.

“Good to see you, babe,” he said, leaning over and kissing her, soft but short, on the lips. Babe. No one had called her that since college, either.

“Sorry it’s only for a couple of hours,” she said. “But since I was flying in, I’m glad I get to see you.”

“Absolutely,” Lamar said, smiling widely. “You hungry?”

“Starving. A granola bar at National didn’t do much this morning.”

“Good, because I made reservations.”

“As long as I’m back here to pick my car up by noon.”

He reached for her hand and squeezed lightly. “I wish your investigation was closer.”

“I could’ve flown into one of those tiny airports in the U.P.,” she replied, then tried softening the edge that had crept into her voice. “But I wanted to see you. The five-hour drive is worth it.”

Lamar looked over his shoulder and pulled out into the through lane, then got on the on-ramp to the freeway.

Bernadette cocked her head. “I thought you said on the phone that we’d go somewhere close for breakfast.”

“It’s not far. Besides, I don’t think you have anything like this in D.C.,” Lamar said cryptically.

“I’ve got a long drive ahead of me, so none of those places with the towering Bloody Marys.” Bernadette turned and looked out the window. It wasn’t really a lie; yes, her investigation was in Ontanagon, but Lamar didn’t know that she was making a stop at the prison in Fond du Lac. No one knew about her visit besides her and her lieutenant, and she planned to keep it that way.

“You’ll see.” Lamar took the exit onto Lapham Street, and a few minutes later he parked on the street next to a building with a neon GE Appliances & Television sign.

“We’re here.”

Bernadette looked up at the sign.“You took me to a TV repair shop?”

Lamar glanced over at Bernadette, playfulness dancing in his eyes. “Only the best television repair shop in the Greater Milwaukee area.”

Bernadette knitted her brow.

“Come on.” Lamar opened the doorand got out.

Bernadette glanced out the passenger-side window at the neon sign, then set her mouth into a line and
opened the door. “I’ve got to get on the road in just a couple of hours, Lamar. And I’m hungry.”

“Trust me,” he said.

Bernadette sighed and got out of the car. Lamar crossed the sidewalk and pulled the thin wooden door open. Bernadette stepped in.

The shop was tiny, with small old CRT televisions in the corner, most with dials to change the channel. One of the tiny screens showed a movie from what looked like the 1980s. The other televisions had snow on the screens. The wall to Bernadette’s left was covered with green-and-white wallpaper with the 7Up logo plastered dozens of times all over it.

A large white man with a bushy red beard and a Don’s TV & Repair trucker hat eyed them from behind the
counter. “Can I help you?”

“I’d like an ice-cold 7Up,” Lamar said, grabbing Bernadette’s hand gently.

“Name?”

“Lamar for two.”

The man checked a screen on the counter and nodded. “Right this way.” He stepped to his right, into the back corner of the store, and pulled on a section of the wall. To Bernadette’s surprise, the wall opened, revealing a dimly lit room with 1980s dance music playing.

“What—” Bernadette started, but Lamar stepped ahead of her, pulling her along through the doorway.

Rows of booths lined the rows in the dark room, with a large-screen television playing an old music video from the late 1970s. Old televisions and VHS tapes were stacked all around the booths.

“It’s a diner,” Lamar said. “Supposed to be like a speakeasy. They’ve got great burgers. Milkshakes with
booze, too.”

Bernadette looked around, her eyes growing wide. “This is a little crazy.”

“I know. It’s too bad we’re both working later. The ‘Game Boy’ shake has pineapple rum in it.”

They sat in a booth, two paper menus placed in the center of the table.

“Certainly isn’t like it seems.” Bernadette grabbed a menu and stared at the cartoon worker at the top, holding a small CRT television in one hand and a bottle of 7Up in the other. “Fruity Pebble Pancakes?”

“7Up is actually in the batter, see? That’s why it’s in the password to get in.”

She read the description. “Wow. These choices are all—well, kind of over-the-top.”

“If you need a recommendation, the Breakfast Melt is awesome.”

Bernadette found it in the middle of the all-day breakfast list: a sausage, egg, and cheese sandwich on brioche French toast with a side of maple syrup. She looked up at Lamar. “That’s a lot.”

“So delicious.” Lamar’s eyes sparkled. “It’s to die for.”

“After my arteries harden, it will definitely be to die for.”

“Aw, don’t be like that.”

Bernadette flinched and looked down at the menu.

“This is a cool place,” Lamar continued. “You’re in Milwaukee for all of two hours. Figured it was this or
the place with the Bloody Mary with cheeseburgers on top, and like you said, you’re driving.”

She flipped the menu over—lunch and dinner—then back. Plastering a smile on her face, Bernadette raised her head. “You’re right—I haven’t been to any place like this before.”

The server appeared and introduced herself. Lamar bantered with her a moment—no, he said with a grin, the lovely lady across from him had never been here before. Bernadette ordered coffee and the breakfast sandwich with the French toast—not because she particularly wanted it, but because Lamar seemed so smitten with the idea. Besides, between the steak benedict, the fully loaded taco fries with two eggs on top, or the bourbon donut holes, there were no healthy breakfast options.

After the server took the menus, Bernadette folded her arms and leaned forward. “So, how have you been?”

“Things have been all right. Taking a lot of shifts right now.” He twirled a fork on the tabletop. “Did you think
about coming here for Summerfest? Did you get my email with the list of the bands?”

“There were hundreds. I didn’t get through them all.” She smiled wistfully. “Maybe Sophie would know more of those artists than I do.”

“You should bring her.”

Bernadette’s eyes widened.

“I didn’t mean—” Lamar’s face fell. “I mean, I know how close the two of you are, and since it would be her summer vacation, I thought she’d like to tell her friends she went to the biggest music festival on the planet.”

Bernadette opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

“Sorry,” he said quickly.

“It’s not—” Bernadette cleared her throat and found her voice. “It’s a lovely gesture. But introducing you to
Sophie—I mean, my divorce isn’t even final yet.”

The music changed from a pop song to an electronic one—was this New Order? The male lead singer’s falsetto went into distracting “ooooh” sounds, over and over. This might have been a diner, but they were really playing up the modern speakeasy aspect, like this was a dance club.

Lamar cocked his head. “Isn’t your ex already living with his new girlfriend?”

“Even more reason to keep things steady, at least as far as Sophie’s concerned. She’s had enough disruption in her life. Her grades slipped last semester. I don’t want her to think even more things are getting upended.”

“It’s not like I’m asking you to move to Milwaukee.”

“Well, that’s out of the question.”

Lamar’s kind eyes glazed over a moment.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Bernadette said quietly.

“What?”

Her voice hadn’t been audible over New Order’s thumping bass and the vocalist—singing about heartbreak, the color of his lover’s eyes, an apology for hurting those he loved.

Bernadette shook her head to clear out the music. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she repeated, louder this time.

Lamar put his hands flat on the table, then leaned back in the booth. “No,” he said, “you’re right.”

“I’m sorry,” Bernadette said quickly.

“It’s my fault. You’re gearing up for a case, you’ve got a long drive ahead of you, and here I am talking about planning for the summer when you’re in the middle of a divorce and you’re trying to make sure your kid is okay.”

Bernadette was quiet, the song’s lyrics repeating how this was the last time, how the singer had nowhere to go.

She thought of Annika—the prisoner she’d put away in March, now serving a twenty-year sentence in Fond du Lac. She’d hurt people, but had she really done all those things because her sister had been in danger? Was her sister involved with the same people who hired Annika? And did Annika know, the last time she saw her sister, that she’d never see her again?

Does anyone ever realize when it’s the last time you ever see someone?

She remembered a meme she’d seen on social media: one day you will pick up your child to give them a hug, and it will be the last time you will ever pick up your child.

For Bernadette, the last time she picked up Sophie was years ago, now, and she didn’t remember it. She hadn’t recognized it at the time, but it had happened, and the moment was gone, lost forever.

“Hey,” Lamar said, “are you okay?”

“It’s—it’s nothing.” Bernadette took a deep breath, feeling her lungs try to shudder, but finally calming down. “You’re right, I’m not in a great place. I’m trying to get in the headspace for my case, and that’s just not very—very compatible with summer plans.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Lamar said. “We’ve got time.”

Bernadette smiled up at Lamar just as the server appeared and set down their food. She looked down at her plate: the breakfast melt was enormous, and the brioche French toast slices were thick.

“I’m not sure I can even fit that in my mouth,” Bernadette said, then glanced at Lamar’s plate: four large
pancakes with rainbow crispies all over the top. She arched an eyebrow at him.

“What can I say?” Lamar picked up his fork. “I’m a kid at heart.”

# # #
 

Lamar drove Bernadette back to the airport, an awkward silence stretching between them. Lamar attempted to start the conversation a few times, but Bernadette stared out the window, lost in
thought. Finally, Lamar turned on the music, tapping on his phone, and “La Luna de Martes” began playing quietly through the car speakers.

“Angelina Zaragosa?” Bernadette asked.

Lamar nodded.

Bernadette looked out the window at the Victorian houses as they drove through the neighborhood on the way to the freeway. She closed her eyes as they got on the onramp. The last time she’d heard Angelina Zaragosa, she was in the convertible they’d rented in Miami, coming from another breakfast restaurant, driving through another city neighborhood. But she’d been happier then. She hadn’t been gearing up for
another murder investigation. She and Lamar had spent whole days together, relaxing, bonding, making love—not trying to shoehorn quality time into a two-hour window.

They got off the exit for Route 119 and a moment later, Lamar pulled his sedan up at the curb next to the parking garage.

Bernadette looked up. “Oh—we’re already here.”

“Yep,” Lamar said. “In plenty of time to make your drive.” He leaned over and kissed her quickly on the lips.
“Have a safe trip. Don’t forget your suitcase in the trunk.”

“I’m sorry,” Bernadette said. “I was so distracted.”

“Call me when you get there,” Lamar said. “Just so I know you made it safely.”

“Sure.”

She got out and walked behind the car. The mechanism of the trunk clicked, and Bernadette pulled out her bag.

She was halfway to the rental car counter when she realized the two hours she’d worked so hard to schedule at the beginning of this business trip had been a waste. She’d been standoffish. She’d
shot down all of Lamar’s suggestions, dumped cold water on all his enthusiastic plans.

Bernadette stood in line at the rental car counter and gritted her teeth. She’d been right, though. It was too early to introduce Sophie to Lamar. They’d only been dating for three months, and it was a long-distance relationship besides. They’d only seen each other a handful of times, and while they got along well and had plenty—well, enough, anyway—in common, she had to think about creating as stable of a
situation as possible for Sophie. It was Barlow who had left; it was Barlow who had moved in with his girlfriend—Bernadette’s co-worker, for crying out loud. And, as usual, it was Bernadette who was stuck trying to smooth things out after Barlow was the agent of chaos.

Maybe she would want to come to Summerfest. Maybe she would want Sophie to meet Lamar. But she couldn’t because it would probably disrupt Sophie’s world even more than Barlow had disrupted it
already.

She got to the front of the counter, gave the clerk her driver’s license and credit card, and five minutes
later she was walking into the rental car lot, ready to spend another week on yet another murder investigation. Without Sophie, without Lamar.

Sometimes she hated being the responsible one.