“JOE! YOU’RE killing me!”
The low growl melted into a moan of satisfaction, bringing a hearty laugh from Joe. “It’s just apple pie, Mr. Richardson.” He refilled the wily old man’s coffee mug and received a bushy-browed scowl in return.
“The hell it is, son. If it was any old apple pie, you think I’d bother walking eight city blocks to get here? You’re too damned modest, Joe. Everyone knows you make the best damn pies in the city, probably all of New York State!”
Joe didn’t know about the entirety of New York, but seeing how happy his pies made Mr. Richardson was more than enough for him. Apple’n Pies wasn’t big or fancy, by any means. It was a cozy little hole-in-the-wall six blocks from Times Square, free of all the fancy coffee machines, exotic flavors, or overpriced merchandise. It was all his, and it was home.
Wiping his hands on his apron, Joe took a moment to survey his little kingdom of baked goods and java. The wooden floorboards and medium-sized counter were scuffed, the old oak frames of the booths just as worn, but solid and polished, the red upholstery always clean and without tears. What little chrome there was came from the stools at the counter, which had been installed a couple of years ago after one of his regulars had gone straight through one of the old ones. He could hardly have customers falling through the furniture now, could he?
The silver of the stools matched the shelving units of the back counter, which housed the tableware, and in the far corner was Rusty—a cash register that looked like it belonged back in the Civil War days. Bea was always telling him to get rid of it, but Joe didn’t have the heart. Besides, Rusty was still as sturdy and reliable as ever, even if the drawer did stick sometimes and Bea had taken a baseball bat to it on more than one occasion. Of course, the dinged-up baseball bat always came out of the scuffle worse off than Rusty.
The place was reminiscent of one of those old vintage cafés. It was old-school, but it was spotless, tidy, and most importantly, filled with happy customers treating themselves to his pies. In the corner, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face with Sunshine” floated up from the old radio.
Some men wanted to be doctors, lawyers, movie stars, or millionaires. Joe was happy baking pies, and when his customers were happy, he was happy, and they were happy with a little help from him. What more could a guy ask for?
The little brass bell above the glass-paned door jingled, and Joe cheerfully went to meet his new customers. Outside, the world was moving at rocket speed, with no time to spare for those who hadn’t the means or the heart to keep up. Apple’n Pies provided a quiet, safe haven for anyone who needed it, from Hollywood movie stars to youngsters down from the local Y. Everyone was welcome at Joe’s.
Joe greeted a young couple with a cheery “Good morning” before showing the couple to an empty booth.
The handsome pair looked like they’d stepped out of a fashion magazine. Their gazes darted around the place with noticeable uncertainty. It was pretty obvious it wasn’t their typical coffee stop. Joe never took offense. Instead, he smiled warmly and got busy making them feel at home.
“I’m Joe Applin. Welcome to my little corner of pie paradise. I’ll be happy to get you anything you like. While you’re under my roof, you’re in good hands.”
The young woman’s face lit up as her companion helped her out of her long expensive coat. “Oh! Applin, as in Apple’n! That’s you!” She giggled, and Joe felt his dopey grin get dopier. He never tired of people’s fascination with his name and how it suited his profession. Of course, it had been his family name long before he’d ever learned what a pie was.
“I hope apple is your favorite,” she chirped, clapping her hands joyously when he nodded. It was actually cherry, but who was he to burst her bubble? The pair slid into the booth and didn’t bother with the menu. “Father says your coffee’s almost as good as your pies. He comes in here all the time. Works just down the road at Jameson and Rotherford’s. It’s a law firm.” The young man at her side simply smiled fondly while his sweetheart held the reins on the conversation. “His name’s Allan Rotherford. My father, that is. Do you know him?”
“Of course, miss.” Mr. Rotherford came in every afternoon to take a slice of pie back to the office with him. After the fifth time, half the firm was in during various parts of the day, sneaking confectionary goodies back to their desks. “He’s particularly fond of the apple and cinnamon.”
“I tell you, Joe—may I call you Joe?” she asked hopefully. He nodded and she squealed with delight. “Well, Joe. Father’s been going on and on about your pies for weeks! I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. He was driving me and my poor mother absolutely crazy. So,” she said with a decisive nod, “two apple and cinnamon pies, and two coffees.”
“Right away, miss. And when you’re finished, I’d love to hear if you enjoyed it as much as your father.” That seemed to make her even happier, and she nodded enthusiastically.
As he walked away, she chatted to her boyfriend at full speed, bringing a smile to Joe’s face. The guy was obviously smitten, seeing as how he wasn’t the least bit concerned about getting a word in edgewise. Removing the heavy glass dome over the apple and cinnamon pie dish, Joe cut out two generous slices and moved them onto two immaculate, white ceramic dishes. He dropped them off at the table along with their coffee, exchanged a few more pleasantries, then excused himself so the pair could enjoy their food. He barely made it to the counter when a loud crash echoed from the kitchen out back.
Here we go.
The door slammed open and Donnie scrambled out, nearly tripping over his own feet before he made a dive behind Joe. There were a few curious glances from some of the newer patrons, but the regulars were used to the daily disturbances brought about by the terrible trio Joe called family. Soon everyone’s attention returned to their newspapers and coffee.
“Joe, she’s trying to kill me!” Donnie’s voice went higher in pitch with every word uttered, and he clutched Joe’s forearms in what Joe assumed was meant to be some kind of death grip. In reality it was about as deadly as a kitten swatting at a ball of yarn.
Looking at the kid, it was hard to believe he was eighteen years old. Donnie stilled, most likely knowing Joe’s broader, six-foot frame would eclipse him. When Joe felt Donnie remove his hands, he knew the eclipsing was complete, and none too soon either. The kitchen door swung open, and Bea stomped out in all her gray-haired glory. Joe couldn’t blame the kid for hiding. He wanted to hide too.
“Where is he,” Bea demanded, folding her arms over her heaving bosom. She peered at him with her sharp green eyes. Joe knew better than to risk his life by incurring the old woman’s wrath, but he just couldn’t find it in him to turn the kid over. Bea was in her sixties, stout, hair pulled back tight in a bun, and had the power to command more fear than a military general. Not to mention, her batting average was probably better than any major league player’s.
“Bea, angel, what can I do for you?” Joe moved slowly in the opposite direction, and with every step she took, Donnie moved with him.
“Don’t you angel me, Joe Applin. I know you’re hiding him. If you’re not looking to get a good butt whooping yourself, you’ll hand him over.”
Joe knew full well she’d do just that. He’d been on the receiving end of her flaring temper more than once. Bea would chew Donnie up and spit him out like a piece of gum. “What’s he done now?”
“He’s been dissecting the pumpkins again,” she huffed, narrowing her eyes as she craned her neck to peer around him. Every time she moved, Joe moved. He desperately wanted to laugh, but Bea’s menacing glare kept him from giving in to the urge.
“He’s just curious, Bea. You know how excited he is about learning medicine. He wants to be a doctor, so he can help people.” Joe gave her what he hoped was his most charming smile. Her scowl deepened. Apparently, his most charming wasn’t charming enough.
“If he thinks that’s helping, he’s got another think coming. And you! You really think those puppy eyes are gonna work on me after all these years?”
Joe smiled hopefully. “Yes?” No. With a sigh, he let his head hang low. “You’re right. It’s my fault. I’m too soft on him.” He heard a few chuckles from around the room and knew everyone was waiting to see whether Bea would give in or Joe would end up flat on his face.
Mumbling a few unintelligible words under her breath, Bea stalked back into the kitchen. A light round of applause broke out in celebration of his victory, and Joe bowed with all the grace and grandeur of a Shakespearian actor.
“Thank you, thank you. You are too kind, my lords and ladies.” He straightened and spun around to the cowering young man, donning his best Groucho impression. “I got a good mind to join a club and beat you over the head with it.”
Donnie snickered, the tension seeming to ease from his boney shoulders. The kid always did like his Groucho impressions.
Being an only child, Joe learned from an early age to rely on his overactive imagination to keep him company on the days his parents were out working hard to earn a decent living—which meant Joe had been pretty much alone most of the time, but he’d been too busy to let the loneliness settle in, what with all the castles to conquer, jungles to explore, and cattle to round up. While most of his school friends were throwing pixelated barrels at big pixelated monkeys, Joe was building forts and labyrinths with the couch cushions and bedsheets.
Living in his own head had been such a part of his existence, when Joe grew up, he had trouble keeping his thoughts in there. Most people figured he had a few screws loose, but he didn’t mind. Sure, sometimes he felt a little embarrassed after getting caught having a rather animated conversation with himself, but never ashamed. It was just the way he was.
“I’m sorry, Joe. I didn’t mean to cause any trouble,” Donnie muttered. His bottom lip jutted out as he stared at the floor, kicking up imaginary dust. Wow, the kid was good.
“Say, that’s my bit. Go on, get back to work. And stop dissecting our groceries or you’re gonna be getting an early lesson on broken bones from Bea. Elsie will be here soon, anyway.”
At the mere mention of the young woman’s name, Donnie’s cheeks went pink and he shot back into the kitchen. Elsie was part of their motley trio, also eighteen and just as lanky as Donnie. She was a sweetheart and loved to fuss over Joe as much as Bea did. Donnie was goofy over her and everyone knew it; they were just waiting for Donnie to finish locating his backbone.
Someone called Joe’s name in a singsong voice, and he turned to Miss Rotherford, bowing politely at her table. Before he could open his mouth, she sprang out of her seat and flung her arms around him, squeezing the air out of his lungs.
“That was the best pie I’ve ever tasted! And your shop is amazing! I’m having a little shindig in a few weeks, and I was hoping I could pay you to make some of your delicious pies. Everyone will just die!”
“I hope not,” Joe gasped in mock horror. “I’d never get any return customers.”
She giggled and slapped his arm playfully. “Oh, I knew you could bake, but I had no idea you were so charming.” Her boyfriend paid the bill before he helped her into her coat, still smiling brightly. “So, do you think you could whip up five of each pie for me?”
“Five of—” Joe choked. “That’s ninety pies!” He had expected a dozen or so, maybe even two dozen. His mind quickly went through the practicalities of it, thinking about how long he’d have to get the extra ingredients, the added expense, and how he would have to ask Elsie and Donnie to put in some extra hours. Sensing his hesitation, she opened her tiny purse and took out bill after bill, shoving them into his hand. It was more money than what twice that number of pies would cost, and he quickly attempted to give some of it back. The more he put back into her little purse, the more she shoved into his hand.
“Oh, no, please, Miss Rotherford, that’s not necessary…,” he began when Bea materialized like a ghoul from the mist. While his heart slowed to a more nonapoplectic pace, Bea took the money from his hands and stuffed it into her apron pocket, smiling brightly at the couple—which was more frightening than her ghostly reappearing act.
“Don’t you worry, Miss Rotherford. Joe’s just a little shy. Of course we’ll make those pies for you. Your party will be the talk of the town.”
“Fantastic! I can’t wait. I’ll have my assistant call with all the details. I’m going to have to keep everything locked up. If Father finds out, there won’t be anything left by the time the guests arrive! Thank you so much.” She squeezed Joe’s hands, and before a single word could escape his gaping mouth, they were gone. Elsie skipped in just as the couple left. His expression must have said it all, because she looked about ready to turn and make a run for it.
“Is everything all right?” She looked from him to Bea with big brown eyes.
“Fine,” Joe replied through his wide grin and gritted teeth. “Would you mind helping Donnie see to the shop? I need a word with Bea.” He turned to the iron maiden and bowed regally, motioning toward the kitchen. “After you, your majesty.”
Bea said nothing as she marched into the kitchen with Joe following quietly behind. Once they reached the back storage room, like a gunslinger from the Old West, Bea drew first.
“Don’t even think about it. I know why you were trying to turn down that job.” She pinned him with a stare that could quake Hades itself, but Joe wasn’t about to back down. Of course, Bea had no intention of letting him get a word in edgewise until she said her piece.
“And don’t you give me any baloney about not enough ovens or ingredients or whatnot. You were gonna say no ’cause that’s the biggest order we’ve had yet, and you’re afraid it won’t be up to snuff for all them rich folks. That’s a load of nonsense and you know it. You saw that girl’s face. She loves your pie. Her daddy loves your pie. What’s more, his whole office loves your pies. So, you’re gonna make those pies, same as you always do, everyone’ll love them, and soon you’ll need to hire more help because you don’t pay me enough to look after the place, cook, clean, babysit you and them two kids, and I swear if that boy keeps dissecting my pumpkins, I’m gonna knock him into next week!” She took a deep breath and released it slowly. “I’m done.”
Damn. “Apparently, so am I,” he muttered. Once again, she’d fired first and hit him dead between the eyes. He never stood a chance.
“That’s what I thought.” Bea’s expression softened, and she brought Joe into a hearty embrace that left him struggling for breath. Sometimes—most of the time—it drove him nuts. But he knew everything she did was out of concern for him, so he couldn’t be too hard on her.
“Joe, you’re a good man. What’s wrong with letting anyone else besides me and the kids know it too, huh? How else are you gonna find yourself a nice man?”
“Oh no,” Joe groaned, shaking his head and gently pushing away from her. “We are not having the ‘you need a good man to take care of you’ conversation again, and we’re certainly not going to have it in the kitchen. I’m a grown man, Bea. I can take care of myself just fine. You don’t see me trying to fix you up with every old codger that walks in here.”
“Well, maybe you should.” An unsavory twinkle came into her lively eyes, making Joe take an instinctive step back. “I could use a good man to keep me warm at night, rubbing my feet, getting cozy….”
“Oh, dear God. Stop, please.” Joe shuddered at the images that stampeded into his head. Thankfully, they fled when Bea whacked him in the arm.
“Don’t be such a prude. That’s probably why you ain’t got no man keeping you warm. Lord knows enough of them try.”
Unfortunately, that was also true. On a daily basis there were plenty of guys dropping subtle hints, and some not so subtle. He supposed it had something to do with that age-old expression about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach. As much as he wouldn’t mind having someone to keep him warm—as Bea put it—he just couldn’t find it in him to accept any offers, or even flirt back. The fear of losing what had taken him so long to rebuild was too great. He’d tried once. Thought he’d found his happily ever after. It had cost him dearly. He wouldn’t take that chance again. His heart couldn’t take it.
“Joe, you’re a good-looking man, what with all that pretty blond hair and those gorgeous eyes. Like the ocean, that one man said, remember? Not to mention strong and strapping. Plus, you have a mighty fine ass.”
Joe’s eyes widened, and he scrambled to cover his ass with his apron. “Please tell me you don’t go around looking at my butt, because I think I just might be sick. And don’t call my hair pretty. Men don’t have pretty hair. You wouldn’t tell Russell Crowe he’s got pretty hair.” Then again, this was Bea they were talking about. Her eyes lit up, and Joe backed away slowly.
“Oh, now there’s some meat you can sink your teeth into.”
Joe studied the apron in his hands, and nodded absently as Bea prattled on about the handsome actor. Wrapping the two sashes around his neck, he slowly pulled on the ends.
“He’s about your age, isn’t he? Thirty-three or somethin’?”
“I don’t know how old he is,” Joe replied casually, still pulling on the sashes. “I’m thirty-eight. Thank you for remembering.” Then again, she had written “Congratulations on turning 40!” on his birthday cake a few months ago. He’d initially believed she meant it as a cruel joke. Now he wasn’t so sure.
Bea laughed and patted his back so heartily it almost sent him staggering. “I’m just pullin’ your leg, Joe. Of course I know how old you are. If you start thinking I’m going senile, I’m gonna whack you one.”
Joe let out an indelicate snort. “Like you need an excuse.”
Taking the sashes from him, she unwound them from his neck, shaking her head in amusement. “I’m just saying, honey. You’re quite a catch, and they know it. It’s about time you knew it too. Not everyone’s gonna be like that jackass, Blake. Hell, his name alone should have been enough to warn you off.”
Joe cringed. “I thought we decided never to speak of him again?” He was not going to think about Blake. Goddammit, now he was thinking about Blake. Bea wrapped him back up in her embrace, petting his hair, and he let out a resigned sigh. Arguing with Bea was like stepping in quicksand. The more you struggled, the quicker you sank.
“You can’t let him ruin your chances of being happy, Joe. Don’t spend your life alone because of that ass. He didn’t deserve you.”
“I’m not alone,” Joe said with a smile. He rubbed his face against Bea’s shoulder, purring like a cat. “I got you, and I already know how you feel about my butt.” He pulled away and dodged another smack, laughing as he ran back out into the safety of his shop.
“Everything okay?” Donnie asked, his brows drawn together in concern.
“Yeah.” Joe grinned and leaned over, whispering loud enough for most of the place to hear. “Keep an eye on your butt. Bea’s on the prowl.”
The look of sheer terror that crossed Donnie’s face was too much, and Joe doubled over with laughter. Bea came out to see what all the fuss was about, and when Joe couldn’t answer on account of being too busy guffawing, she looked over at Donnie. The kid flew from the room like it was on fire, and Joe ended up leaning on the counter for support. The rest of the place erupted into laughter, and Bea looked around as if everyone had just lost their marbles. Maybe they had. Joe had that sort of effect on people.
“WELL, THAT was some mighty fine work, partners.” Joe waved good-bye to the last customer before turning the shop’s sign around to declare the end of another good day. “Donnie, bring the garbage around, will you?”
Joe headed to the front door beyond the counter, and a few minutes later, Donnie returned dragging two large black bags behind him. He really needed to start feeding the kid some more meat and potatoes. The squirt couldn’t lift a dust bunny. Joe grabbed the bags from him and carried them the rest of the way to the front door and outside onto the sidewalk. Once inside, he locked the front door and headed for the side door to check on the garden between his shop and the fancy shoe boutique next door. It was a strange spot for a memorial garden. Decades ago, before the boutique was a boutique, it was a fancy hat shop owned by Mrs. Lowe. Although the shop had been sold long ago, Mrs. Lowe still owned the building, along with the garden she had made in honor of her late father, who’d died during World War II. Although there was an iron gate at the front that remained closed, as well as one at the back, sometimes kids would sneak in to make out or get up to things they shouldn’t be getting up to, so Mrs. Lowe asked Joe to keep an eye on it for her since getting around had become difficult after her hip replacement. Joe didn’t mind. When he needed a little break he would sit out here on the stone bench and just enjoy the trees and flowers. It was also where his fire escape was.
They had been busy from open until close, and thanks to Bea, they’d gotten the Rotherford order. The more he thought about it, the more excited he became. He’d never catered a party before. If it was a success, he might have to listen to Bea and think about hiring more help. If things went really well, there was plenty of room in the back kitchen for an extra oven or two, and if he sacrificed some of his savings, he’d be able to manage without too much damage to his finances. It wouldn’t be anything fancy, but a bit more space, new furniture, more staff….
The question was, could he do it? He’d thought about having a bigger place once, with a bakery inside. That had been before everything had fallen apart, including him. His business had been steadily growing over the years, and with the economy being what it was, more people than ever needed somewhere affordable to eat, and Joe’s shop fit the bill.
Jesus, what the hell was he thinking? His shop had barely changed in fifteen years. He was nearly forty. Was he really going to start taking such risks now?
Outside in the garden he noticed the place was a whole lot darker than usual. The black iron stairs leading up to his apartment were shrouded in shadows thanks to the burned-out bulb underneath it. Great.
“Donnie, grab me a bulb and the ladder, please. Damn wiring’s blown out the lights again.” He heard Donnie’s “okay” and went to check the gate to make sure it was still secure. He picked up a few pieces of stray litter, grumbling to himself. This was the third time in two weeks he’d had to replace the damn bulbs.
Seconds later, Donnie scurried out and set the ladder in place for him. “I thought Pete fixed it?”
“Me too.” Seemed every time Pete fixed one thing, another broke. Joe handed the litter to Donnie and was about to climb up the ladder when he heard a low wheezing sound. He froze. “Did you hear that?”
Donnie listened, then shook his head, but Joe had definitely heard something. He stared down at the damp ground and listened. This time the sound was louder, coming from the shadows farther down the garden. He glanced over at Donnie, and the kid’s bulging eyes told him he’d heard it too. Making quick work of changing the bulb, Joe swore under his breath. The light didn’t quite extend to the far end, but there was enough illumination between it and the moon where he could just about make out various shapes through the shrubbery.
“What do you think it is?” Donnie whispered.
Joe rolled his eyes as Donnie’s breath tickled the back of his neck. “You get any closer and you’ll be piggyback riding.”
“Sorry,” Donnie said sheepishly, backing away.
“It’s probably just a cat.” Please let it be a cat and not a couple of horny teens getting it on. Joe slowly edged toward the darkness with Donnie once again breathing down his neck, though Joe imagined the kid’s bout of courage had more to do with Elsie watching from the doorway rather than any desire for derring-do. He listened closely for more sounds, but aside from those of the city and Donnie’s breathing, he heard nothing. Then he saw it: a big, dark lump on the ground, highlighted by the soft glow of the moon. Whatever it was, it was moving. Just about. “Jesus, it’s a person.”
“Maybe we should leave him, Joe. It’s probably just some homeless guy who’s had too much to drink.”
“That’s no better. We can’t just leave some passed-out drunk in Mrs. Lowe’s garden.” Joe carefully inched closer until he stood over the figure curled up into a tight ball. “Expensive-looking leather jacket for a homeless guy. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen a lot of homeless walking around in leather biker boots, either.” He crouched down and shifted one side of the man’s black jacket. “Designer too.”
“Joe, look!” Donnie pointed to the stained grass just under the man’s head.
“Damn, is that what I think it is?” Joe carefully turned the guy’s head, finding the black hair at the back matted with blood. “Looks like someone got him good. We need to call an ambulance.”
Donnie hesitated before his instincts kicked in, and then he checked for breathing and signs of a pulse. “His breathing’s shallow, but he’s alive. He’s probably got a concussion, so it’s not good for him to be out.”
“I don’t know anything about head wounds other than the kind Bea gives me, and luckily, they’re not enough to get me concussed. Not yet, anyway.”
“If he’s got a concussion and he’s out, it could damage his brain. Problem is, we don’t know how long he’s been out for. We should—”
The man shot out his hand and grabbed a hold of Joe’s wrist, causing Donnie to shriek and Joe to nearly jump out of his skin. “Sweet Jesus!” Joe was about to tell Donnie to run and call an ambulance when he realized the injured man was trying to talk. “It’s okay. We’re going to get you to a hospital, just hang on.”
The man made a noise that sounded an awful lot like “no,” but that couldn’t be right. Maybe the poor bastard was out of his head. Joe leaned in when the guy lifted his head. “No cops,” he slurred, tightening his grip on Joe’s arm, his voice so low and gravelly Joe wouldn’t have heard him if he hadn’t been so close. “No hospital.”
“What?” Joe shook his head and did his best to remain calm. “Listen, buddy, someone knocked you over the head. You need medical attention.”
“Please, no cops. Help me.”
“I’m trying to help, but the best I can do is get you to a hospital. I’m not a doctor.”
“They’ll… kill me. Cops… dead…. No hospital. Please.” With that, the guy collapsed back onto the ground.
Well, those were certainly words he didn’t care to hear in the same sentence.