Smoke on the Water Episode 18

Smoke on the water header

Chapter 18: Caroline

“I swear, we’re trapped in some kind of time warp.” Willa laid her head on the bar top I’d just wiped clean.

I glanced at the clock. “Only another forty-five minutes ’til closing.”

“Can’t come soon enough.”

Gently, I tipped her chin up so I could look at her face. Her skin was pale beneath the tan she’d acquired since coming back to Hatterwick, and her eyes were hugely dilated. “Girl, you look awful. What’s going on?”

“Been fighting a migraine for the last hour or so.”

“Shit, Willa. Why didn’t you say something? You should’ve gone home.”

“I didn’t want to leave you handling everything by yourself, since Ed didn’t make it back from the mainland.”

Our boss had gone over for his second doctor’s appointment in as many months to get the results of some kind of tests. I didn’t know for what, but given he’d been over there hours longer than expected and had missed the last ferry back, I was starting to worry it was something serious.

“You’re a sweetie. Thank you.”


I turned toward the slurred voice at the end of the bar to find its owner pointing to his empty glass, asking for another refill. The guy had been parked on that stool for the past two hours, with one brief break to go out and take a smoke on the patio. Not a local, which I would’ve known even if he hadn’t shared his girlfriend woes with me in great detail over the course of way too many drinks. They’d had a fight, and she’d stormed off, taking the car. He’d wandered in to soothe his bruised ego. I’d been keeping an eye on him, and it was clear he’d had enough. I knew what he was going to ask, and I knew how he was going to react when I said no.

Bracing myself for confrontation, I filled a glass with water and moved on down the bar to set it in front of him.

The guy stared at the water with bleary, unfocused eyes before lifting his gaze to mine. “That’sssss not what I ordered.”

“Nope, but you’ve had enough for tonight.”

“What? No, I’m good. Just one more.”

“We’re just one more’d out. I can’t serve you any more alcohol, for your safety and everybody else’s.” I nudged the water closer to his hand. “Time to sober up a bit so you can get safely back to your rental.”

His face reddened, and he banged his fist on the bar hard enough that the utensils on an uncleared plate further down the bar rattled. “This is bullshit! I know when I’ve had enough. Give me another bourbon!”

The remaining handful of patrons went so silent, I could hear my own quickened breathing.


I felt the scream of it in my head as adrenaline dumped into my system, but I knew I had to stay calm. Dealing with intoxicated customers was always a dicey proposition, and I really freaking wished Ed were here or that Jasper weighed more than a buck fifty.

“I’m sorry, sir. I really can’t. It’s our policy. Why don’t you work on that water while I cash out your tab?”

His anger simmered just below the surface, his glare fixed on me. I kept my gaze on his, aware of every minute movement in my peripheral vision. This kind of situation could turn in an instant, and the last thing I wanted was trouble, especially as I was the thing keeping everyone in the bar safe right now.

“I. Said. Another. Bourbon,” he repeated, his voice rising with every syllable.

This was not going to go well.

Shifting to the balls of my feet in case I had to move fast, I kept my own voice steady. “I’m really sorry, but I can’t do that. And if you don’t calm down, I’ll have no choice but to call the police.”

He stood up so fast, his stool clattered to the floor. “You can’t tell me what to do!”

In an ideal world, Hoyt would’ve chosen this moment to come through the door. But I wasn’t expecting him for another half hour or more. I was in this on my own. My hand inched down the bar toward the phone.

“You need to leave. Now.” Despite how shaky I felt, my tone was firm.

His hands balled into fists, and he took a step closer. “You’re just a little girl playing bartender. What are you gonna do about it, huh?”

I didn’t have a choice. This was likely to get ugly. Grabbing the phone, I held it up so he could see. “You have a choice. You can take yourself out of here on your own under your own steam. Or you can continue to act like a jackass until the police arrive and they escort you off the property. You don’t have to go back to your rental, but you can’t stay here.”

The air crackled with tension. I had no idea what he would do, and my finger hovered over the keypad, ready to dial 911, even as my muscles tensed, ready to move if he lunged at me.

At last, he spat out a curse and staggered toward the exit, pushing open the door so hard it slammed against the outer wall. I flinched at the crash.

Silence reigned for a few more moments, but the asshole didn’t come barreling back in. I exhaled a slow sigh of relief, setting down the phone with shaking hands. I glanced at the last table of customers, offering a weak smile to reassure them and myself that all was well. But my heart still thundered in my chest.

Look at that. A shit situation and you handled it. You didn’t need Hoyt.

But damn, I’d wanted him. It had been nice having a big, strong man step in a few times, so I didn’t have to.

“That could have gone very badly,” Willa murmured.


“What about his tab?”

“I’ve got his credit card. No doubt, he’ll realize that tomorrow and come back to get it, but for now, we’re going to close it out and call it done.” Taking another calming breath, I turned to the girl. “You go on back to your place. Take some headache meds. Curl up in the dark.”

“I don’t want to leave you here by yourself.”

“I’m not going to be by myself. Jasper is here, and Hoyt is coming by any minute now to escort me home. It’ll be fine. In fact, as soon as this table is ready, I’ll close them out, too, and lock the doors. Ed will understand if we close a little early tonight.”

Willa bit her lip. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.” I gave her a gentle squeeze. “Go rest and feel better.”

As she disappeared through the back to clock out, I picked up the pitcher of tea and went out to the last table of patrons, a group of four forty-something women who were on their annual girl’s trip. The redhead, who seemed to be their appointed leader, just lifted her hand in a staying gesture. “No, we’re good. I think you have the right idea closing early. You handled yourself really well there.”

I offered a tired smile. “Unfortunately, it comes with the territory. Let me get y’all your checks.”

Willa was gone by the time I’d closed out their table and escorted them all to the door.

“Y’all have a good rest of your vacation!” As soon as they were out, I turned the lock and felt about a hundred times better. Raising my voice so Jasper could hear, I announced, “We’re closing early!”

The cook stuck his head in the window between the bar and the kitchen. “Thank God. I have a date tonight.”

That reminded me of the plans I had with Hoyt later. God, I hoped I actually had the energy. At this rate, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stay awake, no matter how magic his mouth was.

Heading to my locker, I pulled out my cell and sent him a quick text.

Me: Closing early. Come around back when you get here.

I didn’t get an immediate reply. Maybe he was tied up with something. I knew he and his dad had been hard at work tackling a lot of projects around the house. By this point, he might’ve been in the shower cleaning up from his long day. He’d be here by the time I was through.

Smiling to myself, I slid the phone back into my purse and went to start the closing routine. Before anything else, I closed out Mr. Belligerent’s tab. David Foley was probably going to have a minor fit at how big a tab he’d run up. But that was what happened when you numbed your issues with top shelf alcohol. I ran the credit card he’d left, then placed the card itself in the cash drawer, locking it safely away until he returned for it.

After dealing with Mr. Belligerent, the quiet stillness of the bar was welcome. Wiping away the remnants of spilled drinks and scattered bits of food was almost meditative. As I worked, the sharp scent of cleaner gradually cut through the lingering odors of alcohol and grease that permeated the air. From the kitchen, I could hear Jasper shutting down the grill and oven, the clanging of pots and pans providing a staccato rhythm for my own work. Gathering up the final empties, I loaded glasses into the dishwasher and started the cycle. I’d still need to restock the beer fridges and wipe down the bottles lining the shelves, but that could wait a bit. I wanted to finish with the dining room first.

Moving methodically around the space, I turned chairs up and onto the tops of tables, clearing the floor for a sweep and mop. We’d been busy tonight, and there’d been spills. Best not to leave that for Bree tomorrow when she opened.

Jasper was hauling the garbage out when I walked into the back hall and opened the closet to retrieve the mop and broom. Whoever had last used the rolling mop bucket had just shoved it in here. Multiple brooms and other detritus had fallen over. I took half a step inside to begin untangling the mess when something hit me hard between the shoulder blades.

I cried out, crashing into the mess of handles. Pain lanced through me as I hit the floor at an awkward angle and something else banged into my head. The door swung shut behind me, leaving me in sudden darkness.

“What the actual hell, Jasper?”

I upended the mop bucket as I scrambled to my feet, shins throbbing where I’d landed. If this was his idea of a practical joke, I had a foot that was just ready to shove up his ass. I reached for the handle to open the door, but it didn’t turn. “What the fuck? This is not funny! What the hell are you thinking?” I jiggled it harder, throwing my shoulder against the door to pop the lock. It wasn’t a fancy one. It should’ve given way. But even when I hurled my full weight against it, the door stayed shut tight. Something was wedged against it on the other side.

The first true hint of worry began to leech through the anger. “Jasper?”

There was no answer.

I might not have been Jasper’s favorite person, but he wouldn’t have done this. Which meant… what? Had someone attacked him when he went outside with the garbage? Were we being robbed? Had David Foley come back?

Shouting Jasper’s name, I began to kick at the door, trying to open it. But I got no further than I had with my shoulder. This looked so much easier in the movies.

Okay, calm down and listen. The police will want to know what I observed.

I went still and strained to hear anything going on outside the closet. But there was nothing. No sound of voices or footsteps. No sound of anything.

Please let Jasper be okay.

Maybe I could see something through the crack under the door. Shoving cleaning supplies aside, I got down on hands and knees and attempted to peer out into the hall. I didn’t see anything.

But I smelled the acrid tang of smoke.