When murder mars the grand opening for Lila Macapagal’s aunties’ new laundromat, she will have to air out all the dirty laundry in Shady Palms to catch a killer…
Lila Macapagal's godmothers April, Mae, and June—AKA the Calendar Crew—are celebrating the opening of their latest joint business venture, a new laundromat, to much fanfare (and controversy). However, what should’ve been a joyous occasion quickly turns into a tragedy when they discover the building has been vandalized—and the body of Ninang April’s niece, recently arrived from the Philippines, next to a chilling message painted on the floor. The question is, was the message aimed at the victim or Lila's gossipy godmothers, who have not-so-squeaky-clean reputations?
With Ninang April falling apart from grief and little progress from the Shady Palms Police Department in this slippery case, it’s up to Lila and her network to find justice for the young woman.
The Calendar Crew have stuck their noses into everybody’s business for years, but now the tables are turned as Lila must pry into the Calendar Crew’s lives to figure out who has a vendetta against the (extremely opinionated yet loving) aunties and stop them before they strike again.
Release date: September 19, 2023
Print pages: 288
Content advisory: infidelity, physical violence, mentions of attempted suicide, bullying, slut shaming, gambling addiction, substance abuse, parental incarceration, parental death, parental chronic illness
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Murder and Mamon
Mia P. Manansala
You do realize we’re a cafe, not a plant shop, right?”
I stared at the array of blooms and greenery filling the front of the Brew-ha Cafe, all lovingly grown and arranged by Elena Torres, the cafe’s resident green witch. Her plants, dried herbs, and teas had always been an important part of our business, but they usually had their own corner, which she carefully tended.
Today, they spilled out over almost every surface in the shop: Our floating shelves held potted spring flowers, adding a riot of color that popped against our brick accent wall. Long tendrils of lush greenery trailed down our pastry cases. And the invigorating aroma of fresh herbs wafted around the cafe from their places at each table, the fragrance of basil, rosemary, mint, and lavender providing a wonderful antidote for those getting over the winter blahs. You’d think it’d be overwhelming combined with the cafe scents of coffee, tea, and pastries, but they somehow worked in harmony and created our own version of Brew-ha Cafe aromatherapy.
Elena just grinned at me. “We are a business that likes to make money, and I guarantee you that all the plant parents and aspiring plant parents who come here will snatch these up in no time. Besides, spring is so beautiful and fleeting, we should really take advantage of it. Our customers love our seasonal offerings.”
Spring had most definitely sprung in my little hometown of Shady Palms, Illinois, and all the residents were preparing for the Big Spring Clean taking place in about two weeks, an annual monthlong event where local business owners offered discounts to entice customers out after a long winter. It was also the perfect time to clear out old stock and start advertising our new seasonal offerings.
My best friend and other business partner, Adeena Awan, was embracing spring’s floral vibes by pushing her signature lavender chai latte as well as her new seasonal creations, including a lavender honey latte (the honey sourced from Elena’s uncle’s local apiary), lavender calamansi-ade, and a sampaguita matcha latte (I didn’t really like floral flavors, but even I had to admit the matcha drink was stunning).
As for me, I was leaning into “spring means green” and had prepared pandan-pistachio shortbread and brownies with a pandan cheesecake swirl. I also came up with a red bean brownie recipe, which wasn’t particularly spring-like, but hey, I was in a brownie mood. And for a quick no-bake option, I developed buko pandan mochi Rice Krispie treats, which would be sure to delight our younger customers (or anyone, really; I had to keep smacking Adeena’s hands away from the tray when I was testing it because she kept snatching bits of it while it cooled). I finished stocking the pastry case and moved to prop open the cafe door—we weren’t due to open for another fifteen minutes, but on a sunny day like today, the gentle breeze and fresh air were more than welcome in the shop.
I stood in front of the cafe for a moment, my face lifted to the sun. My preference for cold weather and dark color palettes aside, there was something about me that absolutely craved a good bit of sunshine. Maybe it was my Filipino heritage, and the love of sunlight ran deep in my islander blood. Or it could just be a vitamin D deficiency, I don’t know. Either way, I appreciated this moment of zen before the morning rush began.
“Hey, Lila, get back in here! I made you another iced sampaguita matcha!” Adeena yelled.
Forget zen, caffeine was calling.
As I picked up my drink from the front counter, the money plant next to the register caught my eye and I remembered that I had plant-based business with Elena to take care of. I joined my partners at the table, a tray of my pastries and several dishes of honey waiting for us.
“What’s with all the
honey?” I asked as I split open a fresh-baked scone. A curl of steam escaped, and I hummed to myself as I dolloped a bit of clotted cream on top and added a drizzle of honey.
Elena studied my face as I took a huge bite. “The honey I’ve been sourcing from my tio’s apiary has been selling really well here, so I thought it’d be fun to play with an infused honey recipe. Something exclusive to the Brew-ha Cafe. What we’ve got here is—”
Elena pointed at the dish of honey I’d just used, but before she could tell me what was in it, Adeena interrupted her. “Wait, don’t tell her! We wanted to test her, remember? See if she can guess what you used to infuse each honey.”
I had a pretty good, though untrained, palate and sense of smell, and Adeena was forever coming up with little tests to see if I could determine what was in certain food and drinks. I didn’t mind—these tastings had fast become a ritual with us, a fun way to start the day and keep my senses sharp. Plus, I did enjoy showing off a bit.
I was pretty sure I knew what spices were in the honey I’d just sampled, but just in case, I took another healthy bite of the honey-topped scone and chewed slowly, letting the contrasting textures and flavors permeate my mouth. The crisp crust of the scone yielded to a soft, fluffy interior that melted in the mouth. The clotted cream added body and richness and perfectly complemented the sweetly spiced honey.
“Star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, and just a touch of ginger,” I pronounced. “Did you take inspiration from Adeena’s chai spice mix?”
Adeena applauded and Elena laughed and said, “There’s fennel, too, but that’s exactly what I was basing it on. I wish I could get a better ginger flavor in there. Fresh ginger doesn’t impart enough flavor unless it steeps for a while, and ground ginger gets close but just isn’t the same. Which is the problem I’m having with my next infused honey. I’m working on a salabat honey for you, but it’s going to take some time to get that ginger right.”
“Yay, looking forward to it. I’m guessing the chai honey represents Adeena and you’re working on the salabat for me, so one of the dishes here is your signature honey?” I asked.
She pointed at the dish
in front of her and I broke off a piece of scone to sample this new flavor. One bite and my tongue flared with a powerful, exciting heat. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to gulp down an iced latte to cool my mouth or guzzle down the rest of the honey straight—it was a sweet, delicious pain.
“Oh my gulay, is this red chile?” I asked, trying to play it cool as if my nose wasn’t running and I didn’t have tears threatening to spill over. The heat finally got to me, and I gulped down my sampaguita matcha, letting the milk in the tea latte sit on my tongue to stop the burning.
Adeena and Elena cracked up at my reaction, the latter handing me a napkin to dab at my runny nose and watery eyes.
“I’m so sorry, but Adeena insisted that I not tell you, to better test your powers. And that’s the spicy variation, for people like me and Adeena. I also have a mild variety for people who only want a hint of heat,” Elena said, a contrite smile on her face.
Adeena, that jerk, just laughed harder. “She’ll be fine. You should’ve seen her the first time she ate at my house. She started crying after her first few bites, but she wouldn’t stop eating. My parents were so weirded out, watching this kid shoveling biryani in her mouth with tears running down her face.”
My face was already flushed from the spiciness of the honey, and I turned an even deeper shade of red as Adeena relayed that embarrassing childhood story. “I’d never had spicy food before that! Tita Rosie’s food is usually on the milder side since Lola Flor’s stomach can’t tolerate too much spice. I wasn’t expecting my food to hurt me.”
“So then why did you keep eating it even after it made you cry?”
I dabbed at my watery eyes, careful to only touch them with the napkin in case there was chile residue on my fingers. “It would be rude to not eat the food your family served me. Plus it was super delicious, so the pain was worth it.”
There were two other infused honeys on the tray, floral ones if my trusty nose was correct, but I’d have to wait and taste them later—the chile pepper had overwhelmed my taste buds and I would need some time before I could properly taste anything with a more delicate flavor. Once I’d gotten my runny nose under control, I brought up the topic I’d forgotten to ask Elena about earlier.
“Is the money tree for the Calendar Crew ready yet? I want to give it to them before their grand opening.”
My godmothers, Ninang April, Ninang Mae, and Ninang June (or the Calendar Crew, as I privately referred to them), had recently gone into business together, opening a laundromat next door to the dry-cleaning service Ninang June had taken over from her deceased husband. Their grand opening was timed to start the same day as the Big Spring Clean, which was rather genius on their part since Shady Palms residents likely had tons of heavy winter bedding and clothing that needed professional cleaning. To congratulate them on their
new business, I’d commissioned Elena to grow the biggest, most eye-catching money tree possible. These lovely trees with their ornate braided trunks were symbols of good fortune, and I wanted to show my appreciation to the aunties who’d provided so much help (and stress and judgment, but that’s neither here nor there) this past year.
Elena handed me her phone to show me a picture of the plant. “I know you said you wanted the biggest tree possible, but these things can reach eight feet tall, and that seemed a bit much. This one is closer to six feet and really lovely.”
After I gave her (and the money tree) my nod of approval, she swiped to the next picture. “I also have a potted orchid I was thinking of giving them. At first, I was going to gift them these gorgeously scented jasmine flowers since you said it was the flower of the Philippines, but I figured the aunties would want something brighter and more eye-catching.”
I laughed. “Your instincts were spot-on. Orchids give off a more luxurious feel and the aunties are all about appearances. Thanks for handling this for me, Elena.”
As I gave her back her phone, the chimes above the door signaled our first customers of the day. When I saw who they were, I shot out of my chair. “Oh, good morning, ninangs! What brings you here so early?”
All three of my godmothers stood near the register, completely ignoring me as they continued their conversation, talking over each other in rapid-fire Tagalog.
“Honestly, April, this is too much—”
“I know, but it’s so last minute—”
“We need more help anyway—”
“Exactly, and we don’t have the time—”
“We’ll figure it out—”
“But does she even know what she’s—”
“Of course she knows what she’s doing—”
“Yes yes, she’s very smart, you keep on saying that, but—”
The three women volleyed these half-finished statements back and forth so quickly, I was getting whiplash trying to keep up with their conversation.
I waved my hand to get their attention. “Um, can I get you all anything? We’ve just released our seasonal offerings, and—”
“Lila!” Ninang April interrupted me. “Just the person I wanted to see. You’re close to her age, you’ll be the perfect guide.”
Ninang Mae and Ninang June, both wearing grim expressions, brightened up as they studied me. “You might be right, April,” Ninang Mae said. “We don’t have time for this distraction, so it’s better for the young people to welcome her.”
“Welcome who?” I still had no idea who or what they were talking about, but now that their plan involved me, a sense of dread pooled in my stomach.
“My niece just arrived from the Philippines, and she’ll be staying with me for a while. She recently graduated from college, so she’s only a few years younger than you. I thought we could have a welcome dinner for her at your restaurant, and you and your friends can play tour guide,” Ninang April said, smiling first at me, then at Adeena and Elena.
Behind her back, Ninang Mae and Ninang June shook their heads vigorously at me but stopped as soon as Ninang April turned to look at them. That definitely didn’t bode well for me, but I couldn’t think of a way to turn down Ninang April without upsetting her and incurring her wrath.
“Why don’t we see if Tita Rosie and Lola Flor are available for that welcome dinner first and we can go from there?” I suggested.
My aunt and grandmother ran Tita Rosie’s Kitchen, the small Filipino restaurant next to my shop. Considering my aunt was the kindest, most welcoming person ever—and her nurturing nature meant she was determined to feed the world—I knew this was just me delaying the inevitable. Of course Tita Rosie would host the dinner. But I needed time to talk it over with my crew and figure out what the heck was going on and why my godmothers were so divided over this.
“You’re right, I need to go over the menu with them anyway. Divina is rather picky, I have to make sure the food meets her standards,” Ninang April said, almost to herself, as she turned away and headed toward the door. Ninang Mae and Ninang June just shook their heads and followed her out.
“Yo, what was that all about?” Adeena asked as she cleared the table we’d been sitting at.
Elena took the tray of dirty dishes from her girlfriend and started back toward the kitchen. “Sorry to say this, Lila, but this is your family we’re talking about, so you know what this all means.”
I groaned, as the truth of her words sank in. There was no doubting it. A lifetime of dealing with my aunties and all their drama told me one thing:
Ninang April’s niece was going to be trouble.
When I pictured what a relative of Ninang April’s would look like—the strictest, harshest, least appearance-obsessed of my trio of godmothers—Divina de los Santos absolutely was not it.
Divina had been too jet-lagged for a welcome dinner the night before, so the ninangs had convinced me and the Brew-ha crew to head to Tita Rosie’s Kitchen for a quick breakfast and introduction the next day.
As we all greeted each other politely, I studied this newcomer. I wouldn’t call her beautiful, exactly, but there was something about her that drew you in anyway. She held court in the middle of my family’s restaurant and she gave off the aura of . . . I wasn’t even sure how to describe it. Poise, maybe?
She was a few inches taller than me, putting her at around five foot five, which was tall for a Filipina. I peeked down to see if those extra inches were due to heels, but nope. She was rocking rust-colored d’orsay flats, so gorgeous (and clearly expensive) it was hard for me to tear my eyes away. Her hair, makeup, and outfit were immaculate, a level of perfection that I couldn’t handle at seven in the morning. Her biological clock was thirteen hours ahead of mine, so maybe that was why? Doubtful though. And to pull the look together was the most gorgeous scarf I’d ever seen: sheer, gauzy, and covered with woven peonies and butterflies. I had to fight the urge to reach out and touch it. I appreciated a great fit as much as the next person, but Shady Palms had dulled my fashionista tendencies and I found myself putting less and less effort into my appearance. Looking at Divina made me think I had to step my game up.
“Lila, this is my niece, Divina. She just graduated from the top art school in the Philippines and wanted to experience life in the U.S. before settling down,” Ninang April said. “Divina, this is Lila Macapagal. Her aunt and grandmother run this restaurant and Lila and her friends own the cafe next door.”
“Welcome to Shady Palms, Divina,” I said, shaking her hand, and my friends echoed my words and actions. A little formal considering we were all in our twenties, but better I seem overly polite than have the aunties on my back about not having any manners.
“Lovely to meet you all,” Divina said, a smile lighting up her face. “Tita April has told me so much about everyone here. Sometimes I think she must be exaggerating some of her stories, but she insists they’re all true.”
“Ninang April, what have you been telling her?” There’s no way she’d told her about all the murders that happened last year, right? Not if she wanted her niece to feel safe and comfortable here. But as always, I underestimated her.
Divina laughed. “She said you’re secretly a detective! And that she’s helped you solve a bunch of cases.”
“That’s . . . not quite right.”
“But it’s not wrong either, diba?” Ninang April shot back.
I had no answer to that, so Divina continued. “Well, it sounds really cool. Way more interesting than I thought it would be in this town. I hope I can help you with a case while I’m here.”
I hoped I never had to get involved with another case again, but I bit my tongue to stop my sharp retort. Ninang April had made my amateur sleuthing seem like a fun hobby, not the devastating and life-threatening experiences I’d been forced into. I couldn’t be mad at Divina for her aunt’s thoughtlessness.
“How long are you staying in Shady Palms?” Adeena asked, probably sensing my mood shift and looking to change the subject. “And are you visiting anywhere else in the States?”
Divina flicked her hand. “Oh, who knows? I’m supposed to be here helping at Tita April’s new business while planning my next career move. But maybe
I’ll stay longer, get my master’s in Chicago. Wouldn’t that be great, Tita?”
Ninang April did not return her niece’s grin. “We’ll see.”
There was a sense of finality in that short statement, and we stood around awkwardly until my aunt and grandmother came out from the kitchen with our massive breakfast.
As much as I loved my aunt’s food, Adeena, Elena, and I had to return to the cafe, so we only had time for quick bowls of porridge, Adeena and Elena enjoying the sweet, chocolaty champorado while I had arroz caldo.
“Sorry to eat and run, Tita Rosie, but we’ve got to open up the shop,” I said after scraping the last bit of ginger-laced, chicken-y goodness from my bowl.
“Hoy, what about Divina? I thought you were going to show her around?” Ninang Mae asked.
“We close at six today, so would you want to grab dinner later? We can introduce you to some of our friends,” I said.
“But what is she supposed to do until then?” Ninang Mae pressed.
“Mae, she can come with us to the laundromat. Maybe help with the paperwork. Why are you being so tactless? I mean, more so than usual,” Ninang April said.
“I don’t want to get in the way if you don’t want me there,” Divina said, keeping her eyes down at the table.
“Oh, no, of course not,” Ninang Mae said. “It’s, just, you know . . . you’re a guest here. We don’t want you to get bored on your very first day in town.”
“Why don’t you call Marcus? He’s around the same age and he works nights, so he should be free,” I said.
Marcus was Ninang Mae’s younger son, and he worked as a security guard at my cousin’s winery. Ninang Mae was constantly trying to hook us up even though I wasn’t interested and had a boyfriend, but she was nothing if not persistent. I thought she’d be thrilled to have a new woman to push her son on, but she narrowed her eyes at me.
“Like you said, he works nights, so he’s sleeping right now.”
“You told us he gets up around noon, so he can take her out for lunch,” Ninang April said.
Ninang Mae begrudgingly agreed and texted her son that he had a lunch date.
Elena, probably sensing her peacemaker skills were needed to smooth over the moment, said, “Divina, until Marcus is free, do you want to hang out at the cafe? Adeena can fix you up a nice drink and we’ve got free Wi-Fi, so you can just hang out on your phone or laptop, if you’ve got one.”
“Oh, that would be perfect. I really need some caffeine right now, and I’ve been meaning to update my online portfolio.”
She started to pack up her things, but I stopped her. “No rush, you’re still eating your breakfast. We’re right next door, so just come over when you’re done. Tita Rosie and Lola Flor’s food is too good to leave a half-full plate behind.”
She agreed, and my
partners and I returned to the cafe.
“What was with Auntie Mae getting super weird about having Divina around?” Adeena asked as she moved to her position behind the counter.
“I know she tends to just blurt out what’s on her mind, but it did seem rather strange,” Elena said as she grabbed a spray bottle to mist the plants in the window.
My baked goods and snacks were already neatly stacked in the glass cases, so I just poured a glass of water and sat down to watch them work. “I have no clue. The biggest red flag was that she didn’t jump at the opportunity to hook her up with Marcus.”
“Seriously. She’s even tried setting me up on a date with him, and she knows I’m not into men,” Adeena said.
Elena laughed. “That poor guy. He’s really quite cute. I bet he’d have more luck if his mom wasn’t so invested in his love life.”
Ninang Mae had managed to scare away just about every girlfriend Marcus had ever had. He needed to be more like his older brother, Joseph. Ninang Mae had also tried to hook me up with him, but we’d managed to dodge her. The only reason he was able to get married was because he’d avoided introducing his then-girlfriend to the family until after he’d proposed to her. Ninang Mae had referenced that fact three times during her wedding speech, which for her was holding back.
“She and Ninang June both seemed kind of upset yesterday. ...
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