With the promise of a hefty commission and some valuable word-of-mouth for their catering business, A Little Taste of Heaven, sisters Bernadette and Libby Simmons agree to cater the charity haunted house being staged at the old Peabody School. But when wealthy socialite Amethyst Applegate is found dead in the haunted house, Bernie and Libby wonder if a murderer might also be lurking about Peabody’s gloomy halls…
While almost everyone Amethyst ever met might have a motive for killing her, not everyone had access to the Peabody School. All Bernie and Libby know is if they don’t solve this mystery soon, they might become the next stars in a real-life horror flick…
“Fans of culinary cozies by Joanne Fluke and Diane Mott Davidson will enjoy discovering Crawford.”—Library Journal
Release date: February 8, 2013
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 352
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A Catered Halloween
“It’s dark out,” Bernie observed as she muscled the van around a turn.
Libby grunted. The wind had picked up. Leaves skittered across the road. “A storm’s coming in.”
“So you’re saying it’s a dark and stormy night?”
Libby looked at her sister and shook her head. “That was bad.”
Bernie grinned. “But irresistible.”
Libby smiled despite herself. Her sister could always make her smile. That was one of the things she loved about her. After a moment, Libby went back to looking out. The road they were on twisted its way through the woods as it went up the hill. Every once in a while, she caught sight of their destination floating above the trees. The view was not reassuring.
“You should have taken the main road,” Libby said. Their van wasn’t really equipped for driving on dirt and gravel.
Bernie shrugged. “It’ll be fine. Nervous?” she asked.
“About the job?” The truth was Libby always got a little nervous before a catering job. It was just the way she was constituted.
“No. About working at the Peabody School.”
“Why should I be?” Libby asked. It was not that she didn’t know the answer to Bernie’s question; she did. She just didn’t want to admit it.
“After all, the place is haunted.”
“People have seen them,” said Bernie.
“The ghosts, Libby. The Peabody School even has a blurb in the book Haunted Houses in New York.”
Since Libby didn’t believe that everything that was in print was true, she felt no need to comment. She wished Bernie would slow down. The van wasn’t that stable to begin with, and when it was fully loaded, well. She closed her eyes and tried not to think about the consequences of going off the road. They’d packed the van well, but there was only so much one could do.
Bernie took her eyes off the road for a second and looked at her sister. “Well, I think that having a Halloween Haunted House in a real haunted house is a neat idea.”
“I never said it wasn’t,” Libby replied as she did a quick mental recap of the menu they’d be serving.
She and Bernie had decided to design the menu around the theme of waffles. Somehow they’d seemed right. Then she’d seen a recipe for them in the food pages of the New York Times, and she knew that she and Bernie were on track.
Given everything that was happening in the world these days, people wanted comfort food, and waffles certainly fit the bill. In addition, you could dress them up or down. They appealed to everyone. And because they would be served in the evening, instead of during the morning, you had that whole fish out of water thing going on. Not only that, but from a business point of view, waffles were cheap to make. The ingredients cost next to nothing, and it took about five minutes to mix up the batter.
Libby was particularly proud of the chocolate brownie batter waffles she’d dreamed up. The finely ground black pepper gave them a particularly nice kick by balancing the sweet and the hot. Of course, the other waffles weren’t bad, either. They would serve four kinds: regular, Belgian, the aforementioned chocolate brownie, and pumpkin. The waffles would be garnished with appropriate homemade ice creams and sauces: whipped cream and strawberries for the Belgian waffles, vanilla ice cream and hot fudge sauce for the chocolate brownie waffles, maple sauce and vanilla ice cream for the regular waffles, and a poached apple compote with cinnamon ice cream for the pumpkin ones. Naturally, they were providing maple syrup, apple butter, and homemade apricot and strawberry jam as well. Just thinking about the waffles quieted the butterflies in Libby’s stomach.
As they rounded another turn in the road, flocks of crows in the treetops swirled up in the air; they came down again as the van passed by. The birds’ disapproving cawing followed the vehicle around the next bend.
“There seem to be more and more of them every year,” Libby said.
“There are. Someplace in upstate New York has a crow hunt to get rid of them.”
“We should try that.”
Bernie laughed, “In Longley? The PC capital of the world? I don’t think so.”
Libby didn’t answer.
Bernie looked at her. Something was bothering her sister. Had been for the past couple of weeks. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” said Libby.
“Positive,” Libby repeated.
“You and Marvin are okay, aren’t you?”
“I said everything is okay,” snapped Libby.
Bernie resisted the impulse to make a smarty-pants comment. Her sister was clearly lying, and things weren’t all right, but now obviously wasn’t the time to push. Libby would tell her when she was ready. She always did. Instead, Bernie changed the subject.
“There it is,” Bernie said as the roof of the Peabody School came back into view. “Our home away from home for the next week. Well, just the evenings really.”
“Personally,” Libby said, “I’ve always thought that whoever designed this place had a severe case of indigestion.” She sighed. Boy, did she wish they weren’t doing this. Halloween was one of A Little Taste of Heaven’s busier times, and being out of the shop during the evening meant that they’d be staying up till two and three in the morning prepping the next day’s food.
“Lots of work,” Bernie said, echoing her sister’s thoughts.
“But,” Libby continued, “the money—”
Bernie finished the sentence for her. “The money is too good to pass up.”
“It certainly is.” Libby took another gander at her younger sister’s outfit. “I don’t see how you can work in that. Isn’t it a little . . . snug?”
Bernie looked down at the skintight black dress she was wearing, took one of her hands off the wheel, and waggled her long bloodred fingernails in front of Libby. “Don’t worry. I’ll manage. I always do.”
And even though Libby wouldn’t say it to anyone, for reasons she couldn’t understand, that fact annoyed the hell out of her. By the end of the evening, she would be sweaty, and her clothes would be covered in stuff, but Bernie would look as if she’d just stepped out of the shower. If she were wearing the shoes Bernie was wearing, she’d trip and go right into the food. It wasn’t fair. She looked down at her sneakers and sighed, then gazed at the school again.
“The place does look like a haunted house,” she conceded.
“That’s what I just said, Libby.”
“No. You said it was a haunted house. There’s a difference.”
Libby frowned as the van slid on the wet leaves. They went around another turn. A sign that read WELCOME TO THE LONGELY VOLUNTEER FIREMEN’S HALLOWEEN HAUNTED HOUSE sprang into view.
“I’ll say one thing for Mark Kane,” Libby said. “He did a good job remodeling the place.
“Bree told me he spent almost a million dollars.”
“He could toss some our way.” Libby began digging around in her bag. “Why is there never any chocolate when you need it?” she asked as she dumped the contents of her bag on her lap.
“Because you probably ate it already.”
“If that’s what you want to believe, fine with me.”
Libby continued rummaging through the contents of her bag. She had her wallet, her tissues, her appointment book, business-card holder, Swiss Army knife, cell phone, and a bag of glazed cashew nuts, but no chocolate bar. She didn’t remember eating it. Could she have left it on the counter of their shop, A Little Taste of Heaven? Libby began throwing everything back in her bag.
“I’ll tell you one thing, though,” Libby said to her sister. “I sure wouldn’t have wanted to go to boarding school here.”
“Me either,” Bernie agreed. “Way too isolated. And Bessie Osgood going out the window . . .”
“The place may not be haunted,” Libby mused, “but lots of bad things have happened here.”
“Probably bad feng shui.”
Libby rolled her eyes.
“Mock me if you want, but if I were Mark Kane, I would have had this building cleansed before I took it over,” said Bernie.
“What is The James Foundation for Scientific Reasoning, anyway?”
“It’s a scientific think tank. . . .”
“Whatever that is,” replied Libby.
“I think it’s a conservative think tank.”
“I’m just telling you what Bree told me,” said Bernie.
“She probably doesn’t know, either,” Libby grumbled. “No reason she should,” she added as she picked a piece of lint off her denim jacket. “She just sold him the property and got a nice fat commission.”
“We’re definitely in the wrong business,” Bernie observed.
“You really think that?” Libby asked.
“No. I love what we do,” Bernie said as she swerved to avoid a rock lying in the middle of the road.
“Me too,” Libby replied. If she thought about it, she couldn’t imagine her life without the shop.
“So what do you think happened to the Reverend Peabody and his wife, Esmeralda?”
“I think he killed her and threw her body in the Hudson and died of a heart attack a year later,” replied Libby.
“They both died on Halloween night, one year apart. Don’t you find that a little strange?”
“Not really. Can we change the subject?” Libby asked.
Bernie shrugged. “If you want. Okay. What do you want to talk about?”
“I’m just wondering if we brought enough waffle machines with us?”
“Of course, we brought enough. We did the math, remember?”
“We could have miscalculated.” Libby bit at her cuticle again.
“You always say that, and we never do. You worry too much,” said Bernie.
Which Libby knew was true. After all, waffles weren’t the only things they were serving. The van was packed with apple squares, lemon squares, pumpkin bars, brownies, chocolate chip cookies, sticky buns, pear crumb cake, banana bread, pumpkin pie, and apple walnut cake, among other things, as well as gallons of spiced cider and chai. In addition, they had containers for coffee and for hot water for tea in the van, as well as fifteen large jack-o’-lanterns, which they were planning on using for decoration. They should really be fine.
“We’re here,” Bernie said as she rounded the last turn.
She put the van in park. It shuddered. Not a good sign. The last time she’d taken it in for an oil change, Sully had told her the transmission was going.
Libby frowned. “I would never have picked this place to do business out of.”
“Me either,” Bernie agreed as she yanked up her panty hose. “But Bree said he fell in love with the place. Said it would suit his needs perfectly.”
A moment later the door to the back entrance swung open, and Mark Kane came bounding out.
“And here’s the man of the hour,” Libby said to Bernie out of the corner of her mouth as he came closer.
Bernie nodded. He looked exactly like he did when he’d first come into their shop: like the successful entrepreneur, the go-to guy.
“Glad to have you two on board,” he said. “I can’t wait to have a piece of your apple pie. I went in yesterday, and I had to settle for a slice of cranberry-apple. Not that that was bad. It was amazingly good. I’ve gained about ten pounds since I’ve been here, and I put it all down to your shop.”
Libby laughed. The guy could be charming, she’d give him that, although she never quite trusted men who were like that.
Mark gestured toward the mansion. “You like what we’ve done decoration-wise?”
“Love it,” Bernie said.
“You don’t think the heads on the spikes and the severed limbs dangling from the window are too much?” asked Mark.
“Maybe a tad,” Bernie allowed.
“In the ads I stated that no one under twelve would be admitted,” said Mark. “There are plenty of other places for young kids to go, and I wanted to do something over the top without having to worry about the little ones’ sensibilities.”
“Good thinking,” Libby said. She couldn’t imagine the nightmares a kid would have after seeing something like this.
“And we’re having everyone sign a liability waiver,” Mark said.
Bernie giggled. “Like they did for some of the horror movies in the fifties.”
Mark grinned. It made his face look slightly lopsided. He snapped his fingers. “I knew I forgot something. A doctor and an ambulance.”
“And the nurse,” said Bernie. “Don’t forget the nurse.”
Mark’s grin grew wider. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“So it’s going to be a good show?” Bernie asked.
Mark rubbed his hands together. “A good show? It’s going to be a great show. The best this town has ever seen. Forget the guy in the sheet jumping out at you and yelling boo and the dime-store skeletons hanging from the door frames. We’re going to do much better than that. Come on. Let me show you what we’ve done since you were here last.”
“We’d love to,” Libby told him, “but we have to get the batter in the fridge.” She consulted her watch. “Plus, we need setup time. We’re behind schedule as it is.”
“Not to worry,” said Mark. He removed his phone from the clip on his belt, called someone, and spoke for a few seconds. “I just told Carl to come out,” he explained after he ended the call. “He’ll unload the van for you.”
“I think I’d rather do it myself,” Libby said. She really didn’t like the idea of someone else handling their stuff. Actually, didn’t like was putting it mildly. Hated would be a more accurate term. Who knew what they would do to it.
“Come on,” Bernie said to her. “It’ll be fine.”
Libby could feel herself start to flush. No. It wouldn’t be all right. The rule was no one touched their stuff. And Bernie knew it, too.
Mark jumped in. “Carl’s worked in restaurants all his life. Anyway, there’s no reason why ladies as lovely as yourselves should have to carry heavy things.” Before Libby could answer, Carl appeared. “Tell him what to do,” Mark ordered.
Libby took a deep breath and told herself not to say anything now. She would talk to Bernie later. She forced a smile. “Let’s go,” she told Mark.
He rubbed his hands together. “Good. I’m going to scare you to death.”
“I can hardly wait,” Libby muttered as they went inside.
Libby looked around the hallway they’d just stepped into. It had been totally transformed since she’d been there two weeks ago. The walls were now painted a dull gray and festooned with cobwebs.
Meat hooks hanging from the ceiling rattled menacingly. The floor looked old and dusty, except for the splatters of what, Libby decided, was supposed to be blood. The overhead fluorescent lights flickered on and off, painting shadows on the walls and floor. Libby sniffed. The place even smelled musty. The only things that looked modern were the EXIT signs over two doors down the hall.
Mark jerked his head in their direction. “The fire marshall insisted on those. I tried to talk him out of it—I think it spoils the mood—but it was a no go.”
“I would think so,” Libby said as she took a couple of steps forward.
No doubt about it. Mark was definitely getting on her nerves. She stopped for a moment in front of a sign on one of the walls, which said, THIS WAY TO THE EXECUTION. A black arrow pointed to the door on Libby’s right. Then she moved over to the square wooden table pushed against the wall. On it sat a cash box, a bunch of forms, and a black cup filled with pens.
“The releases I was telling you about,” Mark said, pointing to the pile of paper.
Bernie nodded. A notice on the table stated that the price of admission was thirty dollars.
“A little high, isn’t it?” Libby commented.
Mark shrugged. “High tech always is.”
Libby was about to tell him that was why she liked low tech better, but before she could, Bernie was pointing down the hall.
“I’m a little confused. The kitchen is the last door on the left, isn’t it?” asked Bernie.
Mark nodded. “Correct. The corridor we’re using for the Haunted House loops around and ends up in the kitchen and the dining room. This is the back part of the mansion. The oldest part. The part where they say Esmeralda is buried.”
“Who says?” Libby asked. She wished she could have found her chocolate. That way she wouldn’t be so grumpy.
Mark waved his hands in the air. “People say.”
“Well, then I guess that’s okay. I mean, if dogs said it, then it wouldn’t be so good,” replied Libby.
Mark shot Libby a puzzled look. Obviously, he hadn’t gotten what she was saying. He took a step away from her as he glanced around. Even better. He probably thought she was nutty.
“God, you wouldn’t believe how many rooms this place has,” Mark said. “And they all connect with one another in weird ways. Tracing the wiring was a nightmare, and I thought the guy that put in the fiber optics was going to quit on me. Let me tell you, we had a hell of a time getting this place up to code.”
“That I believe,” Bernie said.
Mark nodded toward the door that was marked ENTRANCE. Below it was written, ONCE YOU COME IN HERE, THERE’S NO TURNING BACK.
“Shall we?” he asked.
“You know,” Libby said, thinking of everything they had to do, “we really are running out of time. Why don’t you and Bernie go ahead, and I’ll start in the kitchen.”
“Nonsense,” Mark replied. “This will only take a few minutes. No more than five, I promise. We’ll just do a quick walk-through.”
Libby was about to say they didn’t have five minutes when she caught Bernie glaring at her. Even though her sister hadn’t said anything, Libby knew what she wanted to say: something along the lines that Mark was new in town, that he was wealthy, and that he could throw lots of business their way. Which he wouldn’t do if Libby pissed him off. So Libby just nodded her head and followed Mark through the door.
When she stepped through to the other side, Libby felt a puff of ice-cold air play up and down her spine. She jumped in spite of herself. Mark laughed.
“That’s the oldest trick in the book,” he said. “I connected a motion detector to a compressed-air tank.”
Libby looked around. The room was totally dark for a second; then a strobe light began flashing. She could hear a faint moan rising and falling. Then she heard another sound. It sounded like a chain saw. It was a chain saw. The chain saw got louder. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a woman over in the corner. Her arms were tied to a chain that was suspended from the ceiling. The woman started screaming. A man with a chain saw appeared from the far corner of the room. The woman’s screams got louder as the man got closer.
Libby wanted to look away, but she couldn’t as the man came nearer. She could feel her heart racing as the man lifted the saw. The flashes of light from the strobe bounced off the blade, making it dance in the light. This is all a trick, Libby told herself. It’s an optical illusion. But somehow it didn’t help.
There was a bloodcurdling shriek as the man raised the chain saw and brought it down on the woman’s shoulder. Rivulets of something warm and wet ran down the left side of Libby’s face. She couldn’t help herself. She screamed.
“It’s water,” Mark said. “Warm water. It was my idea. Everything is computer controlled. We also have a state-of-the-art sound system with volume controls and directional speakers.”
Libby jumped. She’d been so focused on the scene in the room that she’d forgotten that Mark was there.
“God, that looked real,” Bernie said. She gave a nervous giggle.
“Holograms,” Mark said. “We can adjust the images if we want. We can adjust the screams and the sound of the chain saw. I think the blood splatter is a nice touch, don’t you? It gets everyone involved.”
“Involved?” Libby could hear her voice rising. She took a deep breath and told herself to calm down, because what she wanted to do was throttle him. She took a second breath and a third before she regained control.
Bernie gestured around her. “This must have taken months to figure out.”
“Not really,” said Mark. “I hired a company, FX Productions, that specializes in this sort of thing. It took them a day and a half to set the show up.” Mark shrugged. “I’m not good with technical stuff,” he confessed.
“Just making money,” Bernie observed.
Mark’s grin flashed on and off. “Well, I’ve found that if you can do that, everything else falls into place. And this is only the beginning of the tour. Wait till you see what else FX has come up with.”
“I’d rather not,” Libby told him.
Mark reached over and took Libby’s hands in his. “But you have to.”
“She doesn’t like gory stuff,” her sister explained.
Mark patted Libby’s hands and then let go. “The rest of it is just scary. Promise.”
Libby was about to say that she didn’t think that was much better when Bernie interrupted.
“Is the whole thing movie themed?” Bernie asked.
Mark shook his head. “Not at all. We have vampires; we have ghosts; we have a little bit of everything.”
Libby realized she was still breathing hard. What ever happened to the days when going through a haunted house meant being blindfolded and having your hands forced into a bowl of oatmeal and spaghetti and being told that was someone’s guts?
“After you,” Libby said to Mark. She just wanted to get this over with.
He laughed. “My pleasure.”
“Enjoying yourself?” Bernie asked him.
“I have to confess that I am. I feel like I’m watching my baby take his first steps,” said Mark.
And with that, they opened a door and stepped out into a hallway. Smog rolled around their feet and drifted upwards. A fog machine, Libby thought. She jumped as a bony hand dropped down in front of her.
“That’s Bob,” Mark said.
Now that Libby looked closer, she could see the outlines of someone’s arm.
“He’s one of our actors,” added Mark.
“Actors. That’s a laugh,” came a disembodied voice out of the ceiling.
“Bob Small?” Bernie asked.
“How’d you guess?” came the voice from the ceiling.
“Your voice,” said. . .
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