Death at a beauty pageant turns Tita Rosie's Kitchen upside down in the latest entry of this witty and humorous cozy mystery series by Mia P. Manansala.
Things are heating up for Lila Macapagal. Not in her love life, which she insists on keeping nonexistent despite the attention of two very eligible bachelors. Or her professional life, since she can't bring herself to open her new café after the unpleasantness that occurred a few months ago at her aunt's Filipino restaurant, Tita Rosie's Kitchen. No, things are heating up quite literally, since summer, her least favorite season, has just started.
To add to her feelings of sticky unease, Lila's little town of Shady Palms has resurrected the Miss Teen Shady Palms Beauty Pageant, which she won many years ago—a fact that serves as a wedge between Lila and her cousin slash rival, Bernadette. But when the head judge of the pageant is murdered and Bernadette becomes the main suspect, the two must put aside their differences and solve the case—because it looks like one of them might be next.
Release date: February 8, 2022
Print pages: 304
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Homicide and Halo-Halo
Mia P. Manansala
Curls of smoke drifted around the Brew-ha Cafe, a pleasant floral aroma filling the space while hints of an unknown herb tickled my nose, making me sneeze.
"Salud," said Elena Torres, the pierced-and-tattooed woman holding the smoldering bouquet, as she wafted a bit more smoke toward me. Adeena Awan, Elena's girlfriend and my best friend, stood next to her, breathing the mixture in, bathing in the smoke.
I held back a cough. "Didn't we already cleanse the place?"
Elena nodded, circling me with the smoke cleansing stick in her hand. "Yes, but I did some research and saw that guava leaves were used in ancient Filipino practices the same way the indigenous people here use sage. Thought it would bring some good energy into the shop and be something nice for your ancestors, without us having to appropriate white sage. This is a special blend of guava leaves, rosemary, and lavender my mom and I grew in our greenhouse."
Ah, so that explained the floral scent my trusty nose detected. I wasn't as into the woo-woo stuff as Adeena and Elena, but I appreciated how thoughtful Elena was being. Besides, the place could use a good cleanse after what happened here back in March.
She continued, "I'm really liking the vibes this blend is bringing. I'll need to make more for the altar."
We all glanced toward the employees-only corner of the shop. It used to be the back room of the cafe, but after the events that happened a few months ago, neither Adeena nor I could stand to look at it, so we had the walls knocked down and converted it to a semiprivate alcove. Elena wanted to use the space to set up an altar, to both pay homage to those who came before us and to have them bless our business venture. She'd been bugging me to give her something to add to it, but I kept putting it off. I knew what she really wanted were photos of my dead parents, but I refused to put them on display, even if the only other people who'd see them were Adeena and Elena. They weren't for public consumption, even in a way that was meant to honor them. Besides, I wouldn't even look at the photos of them inside my own home-what made her think I'd be comfortable seeing them in my place of business?
"It's getting way too hot in here. I'm gonna close the door now. Can you turn on the AC and make sure it's not acting wonky anymore?"
Adeena had propped open the door earlier to "let out the negative energy" and the sweltering summer heat rolled in, the temperature having already reached a stifling eighty-six degrees at seven in the morning. Any of the bad juju Elena had managed to cleanse would be replaced with my dark mood if it got any hotter.
The air conditioning kicked in, and I breathed a sigh of relief as the cool air washed over me. Summer had just started and the cafe had been closed since the . . . unpleasantness, but we were finally ready for our soft opening in a few days.
I looked around the room, once a monochrome minimalist space, now full of color and life. We'd outfitted the area with Adeena's artwork, Elena's plants, and my . . . well, OK, so I hadn't added any personal touches to the cafe yet, but I was more of a back-of-the-house person. I handled anything involving organizational skills, such as ordering, sourcing suppliers, bookkeeping, etc. I was also the baker, so my contribution would be more evident once we opened.
If we opened.
I couldn't shake the feeling that we were missing something, that we were rushing into opening too soon. This was my dream, after all. It needed to be perfect. It needed to be a success. It needed to be right.
Before I could voice these doubts, Adeena said, "Stop it. We're not pushing back the opening."
I struggled to keep my facial expression neutral. Had I been thinking out loud or had Adeena finally progressed to full-on mind reader? "What are you talking about? I didn't even say anything."
She studied my face. "You didn't have to. I know you and I know the way you think. Plus, you had that look on your face."
I crossed my arms. "What look?"
"The one where you don't know whether to run away or puke. You really need to start dealing with your anxiety and stop sticking your head in the sand over every little thing."
"What Adeena is trying to say," Elena cut in, giving her girlfriend a warning look, "is that we're worried about you. You've seemed really stressed out and-"
"Of course I'm stressed out! We're opening on Monday and we're so not ready. We haven't even-"
"Haven't what? We've done everything possible." Adeena ticked off the list on her fingers. "We've replaced all the furniture because neither of us could stand to look at it anymore. We hired industrial cleaners to go over the entire place," here her eyes flicked over to a particular spot near the door, "and the space is sparkling. It's even cleaner than your family's restaurant, which is really saying something. We've registered the business with Illinois, had my brother draw up all the legal papers, gotten every freakin' license possible. We could've opened even sooner if it hadn't taken the county so long to replace Mr. Nelson."
Mr. Nelson was the previous health inspector, currently in jail after I'd exposed his shady dealings with the help of Adeena, Elena, and some of the other Shady Palms restaurant owners.
She continued, "And it's not even our official opening on Monday, just the soft opening. Which you conveniently won't be present for since you decided to take that judging position without consulting us." She put her hands on her hips. "You know. Us? Your business partners? Who have just as much riding on this as you do?"
I sighed and toyed with my necklace, already tired of the conversation. I'd agreed to judge the Miss Teen Shady Palms Pageant yesterday, after one of the judges had to drop out at the last minute. The pageant committee had wanted me, a former winner, to be part of the original lineup, but I'd turned them down. I'd already had my hands full preparing for the cafe opening and didn't need to be reminded of my pageant past, especially with Elena harping on about remembering those we'd lost.
However, with the pageant down a judge and the first event happening later tonight, the committee had decided to play dirty. They not only offered the Brew-ha Cafe the catering contract for all the pageant events plus a free booth and advertising at the Founder's Day Festival, our town's biggest celebration, but they also brought in the big guns: the Calendar Crew, aka my godmothers-Ninang April, Ninang Mae, and Ninang June.
Nobody, but nobody, wielded guilt and tsismis the way these three women did. Once those aunties got involved, it was all over. How could I have possibly said no when Ninang June, my mother's best friend, said things like "Ay, Lila, it would mean so much to Cecilia, God rest her soul. You know how much she loved the pageant and believed in helping the community. Paying it forward, diba?"
Nothing like conjuring up the name of my dead beauty queen mother to convince me to do something that I absolutely did not want to do.
Which was what made Adeena's comment so unfair. If anyone knew my complicated feelings about the pageant and my mom, it would be her.
"You act as if me taking on the position is a huge inconvenience for you. May I remind you that I'm the one stuck dealing with this for the next three weeks? And that my sacrifice ensures a strong opening since we'd never have been able to afford a booth or the kind of advertising that they're providing? Not to mention the catering contract, and that I was able to convince them to hire Terrence to design everything!"
Terrence Howell was one of our closest friends, and a freelance graphic designer. He'd finally quit his construction job to do his design work full-time and I wanted to support him as much as possible. He'd already designed the Brew-ha Cafe logo, website, and social media banners, and did the same for my aunt's restaurant, but it wasn't enough. I knew he was hurting, both emotionally and financially, after the mess his fiancŽe, Janet, got him into a few months ago.
Elena, ever the peacemaker, stepped in. "She's right, Adeena. Besides, it was my idea to do the soft open, remember? We agreed it was the best way to work out the kinks in the system before officially opening since we could test what our customers are drawn to. Plus, I'm still trying to figure out the shop's energy. Without it, I won't know what other plants to bring in."
The three of us brought very different skills to the table. Adeena was our potion brewer/barista and had come up with an impressive menu that offered the usual cafe staples as well as more creative drinks, drawing from our collective Pakistani, Filipino, and Mexican backgrounds. Elena was our green witch, providing not just the decor, but also ingredients from her family's greenhouse and garden. The herbal remedies, teas, and natural bath and beauty products that she and her mom made lined the shelves, scenting Elena's corner of the shop with a lovely, subtle aroma. And I crafted the baked goods, putting a Filipino spin on coffee shop classics.
Or at least, that was what I was supposed to do. One of the biggest reasons I was hesitant to open was something I could never admit to Adeena, something that pained me to even think about. Something that proved the timing wasn't right. Because I wasn't right.
And as if on cue, Adeena asked about it. "OK, fine, I'm sorry. I do appreciate all the publicity you're drumming up for us. But we still haven't seen your part of the menu. When do you plan on getting it to us?"
The tinkling of the door chimes interrupted us, announcing the arrival of an unexpected savior, my not-related-by-blood cousin, Bernadette. The sight of her got my adrenaline going, as if my body were gearing up for a fight, but I tamped it down. A year older than me, we'd been rivals almost our entire lives, but had formed a truce a few months ago back when things were bad and I needed her help.
"Hey, Ate Bernie. What's up? Do you need me to let you into the restaurant?"
My family's restaurant, Tita Rosie's Kitchen, was conveniently located next door to the cafe. I technically still worked there since the cafe hadn't opened yet, but my aunt and grandmother only called me in on the weekends and the occasional lunchtime rush. They'd even hired a new server, which was the first time a non-Macapagal worked at the restaurant. She was the sister of one of Bernadette's old college friends and also Filipino, which in the eyes of my aunt made her family, so it was close enough.
Bernadette shook her head. "This isn't a social visit. You're needed next door."
I'd barely succeeded in calming myself down and those words got my blood pumping again. "What happened? Are Tita Rosie and Lola Flor OK?"
A look I couldn't read crossed her face. "Detective Park is there and he wants to speak to you. He needs your help on a case."
Tita Rosie's Kitchen was most famous for our breakfast platters and Sunday lunch specials, and usually at this time of day, Tita Rosie and Lola Flor would be busy preparing for the Saturday-morning breakfast rush.
Instead, they were setting platters of garlic fried rice, sunny-side up eggs, and Filipino breakfast meats on the large table where Detective Park and the Calendar Crew sat waiting for me and Bernadette.
"Took you long enough." Ninang April looked me up and down, then gestured toward her eyes. "You look tired. Staying up late is bad for your skin, diba? And you're getting too much sun."
I sighed. "Good morning, everyone."
Tita Rosie waved me over to the seat between her and Detective Park, who'd quickly become part of the family. Shocking, considering a few months ago he got me locked up for murder and tried to convince everyone I was a small-town drug queenpin (it's a long story). Anyway, I caught the real killer-at no small risk to my own life, I might add-and as if to make up for his mistake (and possibly to get back into my aunt's good graces), the detective had been nothing but kind and solicitous ever since, which I appreciated. He also insisted on referring me to a therapist and talking about feelings, which was not appreciated.
My aunt shoved a piece of pandesal that she'd thickly coated with my grandmother's special coconut jam, minatamis na bao, into my hands. "You look hungry, anak. Kain tayo!"
She gestured to the plates on the table, urging everyone to help themselves to the do-it-yourself silog platters. I dished up a big plate of longsilog-longganisa (the delicious sausages I loved so much I'd named my adorable dachshund after them), sinangag (garlic fried rice), and itlog (fried egg). Traditional Filipino breakfasts typically included sinangag and itlog, as well as some form of protein, and the name of the dish changed depending on which protein you chose-tocilog, tapsilog, spamsilog, bangsilog, etc. It sounded intense, but this hearty meal was the only real way to start the day. No bowls of cereal or skipping meals in the Macapagal household. We worked long, hard hours and needed the delicious fuel to get us through the day.
Once plates were full, everyone except for Detective Park crossed themselves, which I copied belatedly, before tucking into the food. Joy Munroe, the teenager my family hired to help out at the restaurant since I was busy with the cafe, came out with a tray of drinks, her willowy arms straining as she tried to place the carafes of coffee and tsokolate on the table without spilling anything.
I offered to help her, but she demurred politely. "Thanks, Ate Lila, but I've got it. This is good training for me."
Bernadette smiled at her as she accepted a mug of tsokolate, our version of hot chocolate. "Love your positive thinking, Joy. Remind me to work more strength training into your routine in addition to your lessons on grace."
Joy beamed at her. "Great idea, Ate Bernie. Does anyone need anything else?" We all shook our heads at her. "Then, Tita Rosie, I'm going to do my homework in your office. I ate before coming here and want to make sure my work's done before the first pageant meeting tonight."
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