Bernadette Simmons wasn't sure what to expect when she left L.A.—and her no-good, cheating boyfriend—to move back in with her family in New York. And her sister Libby had no idea what she was in for when she hired Bernie to work for her catering business. But in between cutting up canapés and dishing up desserts, the two find themselves in the midst of a mystery they can sink their teeth into…
Right now they’re baking cookies and slicing rare beef tenderloin to serve at a high school reunion. The dinner has a Dracula theme and a very strange guest of honor: Laird Wrenn, a New York Times-bestselling author of vampire novels. Libby and Bernie know this will be an evening unlike any other. And they're proven right when Laird pours a glass of water, takes a long sip—and drops stone-cold dead.
Now, with murder on the menu and Libby under suspicion, the sisters must put their heads together to figure out whodunit, in a mystery that promises to be deadly to the very last bite.
Includes 7 delectable recipes for you to try!
“A naturally flowing narrative, lively and likeable characters, and plenty of clever word play amid the foul play set this first novel above the common run of cozies.”—Publishers Weekly
“Fans who love culinary mysteries are going to gain pounds after reading this delicious who-done-it.”—I Love a Mystery
Release date: November 30, 2012
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 320
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
A Catered Murder
She tried not to think of that whole You Can’t Go Home Again thing as she took a sip of her coffee and looked out the window. At five forty-five in the morning, the shops on Oak Street were shuttered. A calico cat trotted towards an alleyway. It was the only thing moving.
“Works for me,” Bernie muttered to herself.
As far as she was concerned, the fewer people around to witness her less than triumphal return, the better. Bad enough to have to explain to her sister without repeating the explanation to friends and acquaintances. That would come soon enough.
“Stop,” she told the driver, pointing to a store on her right. “No. A little farther up. Yes. Here. In front of the place with the green-and-white-striped awning.”
As the driver pulled up to the curb, Bernie peered at the shop through her sunglasses. It looked perfect. As always. She drained her coffee cup and crushed it in her hand. The geraniums in the planters on either side of the shop door provided just the right splash of color against the dark green storefront. The display windows gleamed.
There was even a robin perching on the arm of the wrought iron and wood park bench outside the store. It was all so . . . so . . . Bernie rubbed the cluster of stars she had tattooed on her forearm while she searched for the correct word. So quaint. So early 1900’s, she decided as watched the driver adjust his turban.
“You will be giving me $213.35 now,” he announced, turning towards her.
“I have to get it,” Bernie told him.
“You don’t have this money?”
“I will,” Bernie told him.
The driver scowled.
“Where I come from, people do not hire someone if they do not have the means to pay,” he huffed.
Bernie leaned over and patted the man on the shoulder.
“You see. That’s what makes America so great. We borrow.”
The driver threw his hands up. He was still muttering when Bernie opened the door and stepped out onto the pavement. The sweet smell of the early June morning mingled with the faint odor of the river a mile away, but Bernie didn’t notice as she marched—with a slight wobble since her wedges were four inches high—towards the store. She didn’t even flinch the way she usually did when she saw the gold letters spelling out A Little Taste of Heaven on the shop door. She was too busy thinking about what she was going to say to her sister.
She took a deep breath and knocked. It would just be her luck that Libby had slept in. That she wasn’t baking in the kitchen. Which meant she’d have to go around to the side entrance and chance waking up her father.
She should have kept the store and house keys on her key chain, not put them in a drawer so she could fit all her stuff in that evening bag. She knocked again. A moment later she heard footsteps. A few seconds after that she saw the outline of her sister through the door shade and listened to the sound of the lock clicking.
As Libby opened up, Bernie couldn’t help noticing that her sister was looking decidedly matronly. She’d gained at least fifteen pounds and stopped streaking her hair since Bernie had seen her at Christmas. There were smudges of flour on her cheeks and along the front of her T-shirt.
“Oh, my God,” Libby cried, putting her hands up to her mouth when she saw who it was. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m paying you a surprise visit.”
Bernie grimaced. “I’ll tell you later. I need two fifty-five for the car.”
“That car.” Bernie gestured towards the Lincoln Town Car parked outside.
Libby’s eyes widened. “You took a limo from Kennedy?”
“It’s not really a limo. Strictly speaking.”
“It’s close enough.” Libby rubbed the corner of one of her eyes with her knuckle. “You could have taken Metro North. Or called me. I could have gotten someone to pick you up and saved that money. I mean two hundred fifty-five dollars . . .”
“Look, Libby,” Bernie said, cutting her off. “I’m tired. I’ve slept about two hours in the last twenty-four. Can we not discuss this now?”
“But . . .”
“Really. The driver’s waiting for his money.”
Libby sniffed. Her mouth pursed in that expression of disapproval Bernie knew so well.
“I hope I have it.”
“This is why God invented ATMs. And don’t worry, I’ll pay it back.”
“Right,” Libby muttered just loud enough for her sister to hear.
“I will,” Bernie insisted.
As her sister went back inside the store, Bernie turned and waved at the driver. One more minute, she mouthed. The driver didn’t wave back. Libby returned a moment later with a fistful of one, fives, and tens in her hand. All of the store’s petty cash, Bernie presumed as she took the bills and paid off the driver.
“No luggage?” Libby asked when Bernie returned.
“The airline lost it,” Bernie lied.
She nodded. She was too tired to go into it now.
“I’ve got my mascara,” Bernie quipped. “What else does a girl need?”
“A little common sense.”
“That was a joke,” Bernie said as her sister put her hands on her hips.
“I know what is was, but what I really want to know is when are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
“Can we go inside first?”
Libby gave a half bow and put out her hand.
“Be my guest.”
“How’s Dad?” Bernie asked as she stepped into the store.
Libby closed the door behind her.
“He’d probably do better if he went out.”
Libby made a face.
“You try and convince him of that,” she told Bernie. “I’ve given up.”
Bernie sighed. “And how are you doing?” she asked.
“Good. Of course, it would be easier if I had some reliable help, someone who had a stake in the shop,” Libby said, staring straight at Bernie, who got busy studying the sink. “My God,” she said, noticing the tattoo. “When did you get that?”
“Two months ago.”
Libby shook her head.
“Because I felt like it.”
“I just don’t get it,” Libby said.
“I know you don’t.” Bernie laughed and changed the subject. “Everything looks great. As always.” And she indicated the cooler by the counter and all the shelves stocked with high-end goods with a wave of her hand. “How’s the catering coming?”
“I have a big job this evening.”
“I can help if you’d like.”
Libby put her hand over her chest. “Be still, my heart.”
Bernie could feel herself flush. “Do you think we could maybe not fight?”
Libby looked chagrined. “I’m sorry.” She gave Bernie a hug. “This catering job is driving me crazy.” Then she put her hands on Bernie’s shoulders and held her at arm’s length while she studied her face.
“What?” Bernie said. “What’s the matter?”
“Joe’s the reason you’re here, isn’t it?” Libby said.
“Can I get a cup of coffee before we get into this?”
Bernie followed Libby into the kitchen. It had always been her favorite room. Her mother had set it up when she’d opened the store. Bernie fingered the kitchen witch hanging from the window. It had been there for as long as she could remember. So were the pictures of her mother’s mother and father on the far wall. When Bernie was little, she’d thought they watched over her.
The kitchen was compact, without an inch of wasted space, yet two or more people in here could turn out a picnic for two hundred without stepping on each other’s toes. A kitchen designer who’d come in had offered her mother a job with his firm, but she’d refused, telling him she preferred to be available to her family.
Now, all the counters were piled high with food in various stages of preparation. “So what’s the event?” Bernie asked as she poured herself a cup of coffee out of the carafe sitting in the corner and took a sip. Whatever else you could say about Libby, she made a good cup of coffee. Fresh ground beans. Water at the proper temperature. Unlike the coffee Joe made, which despite his name, was barely drinkable.
“Ethiopian?” she asked appreciatively.
“Nice, isn’t it? My supplier gave me a sample. I’m going to serve it at the reunion tonight and see what people think.”
“The Seventeenth Annual Clarington High School Reunion.”
Bernie grimaced. “God, is it that long ago?”
“It is for me. Depressing, isn’t it?”
“Scary. The Breakfast Club was on TV the other night.” Bernie sang a few of bars of “Don’t You Forget About Me.” “Remember? That was my prom theme.”
“How could I forget? You went around singing it for three months straight.”
“Let’s not exaggerate. So how come you got this job anyway? Usually you do smaller stuff.”
“Working with her must be fun.”
“Oh, it is.” Libby folded her arms across her chest. “It’s just wonderful. Like taking a field trip to the ninth circle of hell. And it gets even better. The guest of honor is Lionel Wrenkoski, aka the great Laird Wrenn.”
Bernie groaned. “He’s such a . . .”
“Believe me, I know, but what I really want to know is why you’re showing up here at five forty-five in the morning with no money and no luggage.”
“I told you the airline lost it.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“It happens all the time.”
“Not to someone who makes a fetish of never checking her bags through.”
Bernie took another sip of her coffee.
“Can’t a person change her mind?”
“All right then. How about because I wanted to see my dad and my sister?”
Libby rolled her eyes. “Spare me. Oh, my God.” A look of panic crossed her face. “You didn’t kill Joe, did you? You didn’t kill him and run away?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Bernie snapped, although she’d certainly felt like it. “It’s nothing that dramatic. We just had a fight, that’s all.”
“It must have been one hell of a fight.”
“Why don’t you like him?”
“I already told you. He’s a sleaze.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I do.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Sure it is. I felt that way about the last guy you were dating too, and I was right. You know, the one that went around yelling Olé and clicking his heels.”
“Of course he yelled Olé and clicked his heels. He was a flamenco dancer.”
“He was a bigamist from Boise, Idaho.”
Bernie started to giggle. “So he was a little absentminded.”
Libby giggled too.
“When the police arrested him he tried to climb over the stone wall in back of my apartment—in those tight pants of his.” Bernie laughed. “They ripped down the middle. And then my neighbor’s Maltese ran out and started pulling at the cuff. And Frank was trying to shake him off and the Maltese just stayed on.” Bernie wiped a tear from her eye. “The police had to pry the dog off.”
“I wish I’d seen it.”
“I wish you had too. His first wife came down and bailed him out. Go figure.” Bernie stopped laughing and picked up a sprig of coriander that was lying on the counter and sniffed it. “It’s amazing how you either love this stuff or hate it. In Mexico . . .”
Libby held up her hand. “Bernie, tell me what happened.”
Bernie shrugged. “It’s not a big deal really. I just walked into the apartment and found Joe in bed with Tanya.”
Libby put her hands to her mouth.
“But you know the worst? You know who Tanya is?” Bernie asked and then went ahead before Libby could answer.
“My supposed friend. The woman I’ve been working with on the shoot for Pillsbury. The one who was doing me the favor”—Bernie made a quote sign with her fingers around the word—“of letting me work late when all the time she was in Joe’s apartment getting her rocks off . . .” Bernie took a deep breath. “I will be calm. I will be calm. I will be calm. That’s better.
“No. I’m sorry. Let me correct that. That wasn’t the worst. The worst was that I gave up a perfectly good apartment with a walk-in closet to move in with Joe. I don’t get it. Tanya’s got a lousy body. A big ass and no boobs. And on top of everything else, she’s dumb. She thinks pâté is a sauce, for God’s sake.” Bernie slid a thin silver and onyx ring up and down her finger. “So I took a taxi to LAX and here I am.”
“And you know the next worst thing? On top of everything else, I just loaned that no good sonofabitch three thousand dollars. So I have no money. Maybe I should have gone back and stabbed him. Or her.”
“You faint at the sight of blood, remember?”
Bernie made a face. “I think I could get over that.” Then she pointed to a pan of skinny white cookies. “They look like fingers.”
Libby smiled. “They’re supposed to. I made them with cooked egg yolks, raw egg yolks, butter, sugar, flour, and powdered sugar.”
“Like the Christmas cookies Mom used to make.”
Libby nodded. “Exactly. What about your jobs?”
“What jobs?” Bernie bit at her cuticle. “They’re cutting my column from the paper. A cost-saving measure. They’re getting rid of all the freelancers because advertising is down by a third.”
“And the food styling thing?”
Bernie shrugged. “One company I do stuff for is filing Chapter Eleven on Wednesday, and as for the other one . . . If I see Tanya, I’m going to stab her with her carving knife. Listen,” she said. “Don’t tell Dad what I told you. It’ll just get him upset.”
“So what do you want me to say?”
Bernie chewed on her lower lip for a second while she thought. “I don’t know. How about that I had some time off and I decided to come home for a visit. Which is true.”
“Without your clothes?”
“I’ll tell him what I told you. The airline lost my suitcase.”
“And after a couple of days?”
“It shouldn’t be a problem because I’m going to tell Emily to pack my closet up and send everything to me.”
Libby looked dubious.
“Will Joe let her in?”
“He’d better,” Bernie growled. “Or else I’ll . . .” She stopped. Or else she’d what? Good question. Then she brightened. “What the hell. I can use a new wardrobe anyway, and speaking of which, I figured that as long as I’m here we can do a little redecorating. Spruce the place up a bit. Maybe paint the rooms upstairs. Heaven knows, they need it.”
“They haven’t been painted since Mother died.”
“It’ll make all the difference in your and Dad’s attitude. You’ll see. There’s this great blue-gray slate color called Innuendo. We could paint your bedroom in it.” And Bernie wagged her eyebrows up and down. “Is that a name for a bedroom or what?”
Libby couldn’t help laughing. As annoying as Bernie could be, she couldn’t deny missing her.
“And I found this great red called Ruby Lips. It’s a deep, dark red. Almost crimson. We could use that for the sitting room.”
“That sounds as if it’s going to be really dark.”
“You’d think so, but it isn’t,” Bernie was saying when the intercom over by the door squawked and spluttered. A second later her father’s voice floated out.
“Libby, do you think you could bring me something to drink?”
She went over and yelled into it. “Be right up, Dad.” She looked at her watch. “He’s early.”
“Let me go up,” Bernie said. “I might as well get it over with.”
“Be my guest.”
Ten minutes later Bernie was climbing the stairs to her father’s bedroom carrying a tole tray containing a pot of coffee, a pitcher of cream, fresh-squeezed orange juice, two scrambled eggs, a side of toasted walnut-raisin bread, pots of butter and strawberry preserves, and a vase with a daisy in it.
“Look, Dad,” she said as she opened the door. “It’s your little girl home from Sin City.”
“So what mess did you get yourself in this time?” Sean Simmons asked from his wheelchair, trying to sound gruff and failing miserably.
“Why do you say something like that?” Bernie protested as she put the tray down and gave her father a big hug. “I’m not in a mess.”
“Sure you’re not, and I was never the chief of police.”
Libby parked the van as close to the rear entrance of the Clarington High School cafeteria as she could get. This was the part she hated most about catering—loading and unloading.
“Okay,” she said to Bernie as she swung open the van doors. “Let’s get to work.”
Her sister glanced at the nicked windowsills and dented garbage cans. “I don’t remember the place looking this bad.”
“That’s because when we went here we came in the front entrance.” Libby plunked two cartons filled with produce in Bernie’s arms. “Put these on the counter next to the sink.” Libby was turning to get another two when she heard, “Miss Simmons. Miss Simmons.”
She turned around. A thin lady with frizzy red hair wearing a suit and high heels came running towards her followed by a man strung with cameras.
“Are you Libby Simmons?” the woman asked in a breathy voice.
“Yes,” Libby said cautiously.
“The Libby Simmons that’s catering the reunion dinner for Laird Wrenn?”
“Good.” She turned to the man in back of her. “Fred. Take the shot.”
Fred stepped forward and raised his camera.
“Wait,” Libby cried.
“Don’t worry. It’s for a story we’re doing for Laird Wrenn’s fanzine,” the woman said as Bernie came out. “Are you helping her?” the woman asked, gesturing to Libby.
“Great. Both of you scootch together in front of the van. Closer,” she said, herding them like a sheepdog.
“But we’re not dressed for this,” Libby protested, looking down at her shorts and stretched-out T-shirt.
“You look terrific,” the woman said. “Now smile.”
The camera clicked. A few seconds later the woman pressed a business card in Libby’s hand.
“I’ll send you a copy. Do you know where Lime Street is?”
“Three blocks and take a right,” Bernie answered.
“Thanks. Come on, Fred,” the woman cried. “Try keeping up. We’ve got places to go.”
Libby looked at the card. “Ms. Griselda Plotkin. Reporter at large.”
Bernie whistled. “Can you imagine what life must have been like for her in grade school?”
“Fanzine?” Libby asked her sister. “What the hell is a fanzine?”
“A magazine for fans.”
“I’ve never seen one.”
“They’re one step above the tabloids.”
Libby grunted and glanced at her watch. “Whatever.”
At this point she didn’t have time to care about Griselda or fanzines. The clock was ticking. All she cared about was getting into the kitchen and getting to work.
Libby nervously regarded the small mold sitting on the counter in front of her.
“Can we change the music to something other than Depeche Mode?” Bernie asked. “Don’t you think it’s time you got out of the eighties?”
“Nope.” Libby went to the sink, wet the towel over her shoulder with hot water, wrung it out, and draped it over the mold. “My job. My choice of music.” She tapped the mold with the bottom of a spoon. “And don’t touch that box,” she warned.
“I wasn’t going to,” Bernie replied even though she had been. “The least you can do is get a decent system. They have much better stuff on the market these days.”
“I like this one.”
In Libby’s view there was a lot to be said for things that just kept going. She put the towel on the counter, took a deep breath, and lifted the mold up. It was perfect. Thank goodness. Sometimes the aspic stuck for reasons she had yet to ascertain.
“What do you think?” she asked her sister.
Bernie stopped chopping parsley long enough to glance over at the shimmering tomato aspic heart in the center of the white plate.
“We’ve already discussed this.”
Libby’s mouth tightened.
“Leaving the historical dimension aside . . .”
I might as well be suggesting child sacrifice, Libby thought, looking at the shocked expression on Bernie’s face.
“Accuracy is important,” her sister pontificated. “Especially in a themed dinner. For openers, to. . .
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