When a local prize-winning farmer is murdered at the state fair, Charlie Cook gets called in to help investigate, but she’s shocked to learn the victim is a friend in this latest installment in the Alaskan Diner Mysteries.
Charlie Cooke loves many things, like the Bear Claw Diner, the heated steering wheel of her car, and her orange tabby cat Eggs Benedict. Something she has never loved is the state fair. So when her best friend Annie Jensen begs her for a fair day, she’s reluctant. But Annie isn’t the only one who wants her to spend a day among farm animals and deep fried food. A vendor has been murdered, and Trooper Graham needs his favorite part-time sleuth to dig up the truth, and Charlie is happy to oblige.
The case grows personal when Charlie learns the victim is Kelly Carson, whom she and Annie were friends with in high school. If Charlie wants to find justice for Kelly, she and Annie will have to work together to weed out the killer.
Release date: June 1, 2021
Print pages: 304
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My BFF, Annie Jensen, and I seized the moment, relaxing on the patio of her inn with fruity summer drinks. One of those long, hot August days in Elkview, Alaska, was before us. We were reveling in the six a.m. sunlight that would persist for nearly twenty hours-and even better, sharing stories about our cats.
Benny, an orange tabby, was the hero of my stories. I imagined him curled up on the top level of his plush cat condo in my home, a short drive away. Yulie was Annie's main character, a flame-point Siamese, now perched in front of a window, apparently eyeing us from inside the air-conditioned comfort of the inn's lobby. More likely, though, he was eyeing the red squirrel just out of reach on a tree branch close to the grand main building of the inn Annie's family had left her.
Annie and I had just waved goodbye to the tail end of two blue and gold "See Alaska" tour buses. Theirs was an ambitious tour, starting in Anchorage and making its way through Elkview and north to Fairbanks to see the northern lights. If the rest of the trip went well, the timing would be just right for the tourists to enjoy a view of the amazing green sweep of the aurora borealis.
Our waves and smiles had been accompanied by big sighs of relief as the two twenty-four-passenger buses pulled out of the inn's driveway. The lively and generous passengers had added significantly to the coffers of Annie's Inn and my Bear Claw Diner, but the work had taken its toll on us and our respective staffs.
I was lucky that many of my staff had been hired by the diner's previous owner, my mom, Evelyn Cooke, who'd passed both the diner and her precious cat on to me.
"It's great that our little town of Elkview is a stop on so many tours," Annie said. "My cabins have been pretty much at capacity all summer. Thanks for making the Bear Claw the perfect dining spot."
I nodded, indicating how pleased I was that my diner was the go-to place for meals for Annie's tourists.
"I agree. It's been a boon to be on the tour schedule. But it's also great that we have a break before the next buses," I added. "My suppliers could barely keep up. I had to request double orders of everything from almonds for the bear claws to cabbage for the coleslaw."
"They loved your slaw," Annie said. "I wouldn't have thought it could be so good without mayo."
"And your new afghans on the beds were a huge hit. It's great that you've taken up knitting again."
She smiled. "So what if I used size fifteen needles," said the returning knitter.
A passerby could always count on overhearing these post-tour reviews, during which Annie and I complimented each other on our work. Somebody had to do it. We'd practiced this supportive banter all through school, and even though we went to different colleges in the lower forty-eight, we maintained the tradition across the miles and picked it up again when we'd both made our way back to our hometown.
This week our guests had arrived in Alaska in time to enjoy two days at the state fair, about an hour and a half south of where Annie and I sat chatting. By the time they'd arrived in Elkview, they'd accumulated enough souvenirs to take up an extra seat each on their bus. We were treated to displays of hoodies, T-shirts, baby bibs, tumblers, even flash drives with multicolored moose or bear visages.
"I have a good one, Charlotte," Annie said, getting back to our cat stories and using my full name to emphasize the seriousness of the joke, if that could be a thing. "It's not exactly a joke, but kind of a saying that I saw on Twitter."
"I mean, it doesn't have a punch line or anything, but it's hilarious."
As usual, it would be a while before Annie got to the point. Especially when she thought something was hilarious.
"Okay, here I go," she said, and cleared her throat. "If the world was flat, cats would have knocked everything off it by now."
She followed the meme with an over-the-top laugh. I granted Annie the pleasure of a reasonably loud guffaw myself and admitted it was a line worthy to be shared with my mom when we FaceTimed.
We sat quietly for a while, the only sounds being those of a finch in a nearby tree and the corresponding scratching from Yulie, who apparently had dreams of making contact.
While telling our feline stories and sipping our drinks, we'd both been flipping through local newspapers and flyers that had piled up during our double-booked tour groups. I was checking out a promotional postcard from the Alaska Veterans Museum in Anchorage, featuring a new navy exhibit I knew my dad would like. I thought of the two of them, Mom and Dad, currently spending a week in Oregon, attending a wedding anniversary party for friends who used to live in Elkview. Mom had been her friend's maid of honor. One thing was certain: my mom was keeping her resolution to travel during retirement. Dad still did some management consulting work but would drop it with little notice to join in the fun.
Annie gave out a sudden little squeal. "It's tomorrow," she said, waving a colorful postcard at me. "I forgot all about it. Good thing we're still free tomorrow."
I gave her a quizzical look. "What are we talking about?"
"The knitting workshop at the fair. It's new this year. I know we haven't gone to the fair in ages, but this year there's a special group teaching knitting techniques, and then all the items go to shelters, or the military, or some other charity." She screwed up her face into a familiar annoyed expression. "This postcard is so late. What if I'd missed this?"
I felt a tightness in my jaw. And what if we did miss it?
I let out an almost-audible growl. I'd worked the fair one summer at a small cotton-candy booth. My whole job had been about the monstrous pink stuff. When I wasn't making cones from flimsy paper, I was twirling one of them around the giant tub of flying sugar. As I remembered the gig, it was well into the school year before I got all the sugar out of my hair. If it had been up to me, I'd have tossed out every shirt I'd worn as hopelessly sticky no matter how many wash cycles I put them through. I'd begged my parents to never again force me to work outside the diner during school breaks. Only later did it occur to me that this might have been their plan all along.
As an adult, my experience of the fair was mostly negative for other reasons. Increased traffic on the George Parks Highway, crowds around the otherwise peaceful Eklutna Lake, roadblocks for the accompanying parade. Add to those twelve days of questionable music and entertainment, loud noise from every booth, and unpleasant odors from the countless animal pens.
And one other reason, if I was being honest. There was that year that I took my now ex-fiancŽ to the fair. Ryan Jamison, attorney-at-law. I'd been more or less successful in pushing him out of my mind, but now and then, he popped in.
Annie took her turn with her view of the events, as if she'd been privy to my thoughts. "I love all the noise and the music, the animals. And the parade, especially. Let's go. We missed it the last couple of years."
"We didn't miss it. We skipped it."
Not really. "I thought you told me you didn't even have time for a movie this week. You said you'd be busy cleaning up after this last tour." I pointed to the now-invisible trail left by the buses. "Remaking the beds in all the cottages, catching up on the bookkeeping, arranging the scheduling for your staff . . ." I trailed off, figuring she got my point and not wanting to spoil our break.
"You're right. I'm barely going to have everything cleaned before the next tour shows up. Or is it 'barely going to be cleaned up after the tour groups'? I know how much you love the right grammar. Not ending a sentence with a preposition and all." This was one observation she did not mean as a compliment.
Since it was only a small grammatical error, I was willing to let it pass. Besides, the preposition rule was pretty much passŽ. "More or less correct, Annie."
"But I want to go anyway."
"Anyway what?" I asked to possibly throw her off track.
No such luck.
"It's only an hour or so down there, and we can leave early, be there when it opens, and be back before the Bear Claw's dinner crowd."
I couldn't continue to push the "We're busy" thread, since we both had staffs who were perfectly competent and always willing to give us the occasional day off. "It's more like an hour and a half."
Now she wasn't being fair, making me feel like a wicked mommy.
"I don't know, Annie. I have so much to do."
But I wasn't fooling her.
"I'll get my things together," she said.
"We're going early and leaving there right after lunch," I said. "I am not driving back here at the height of Parks Highway traffic."
On that I was firm.
Not that she heard me.
I left Annie's sunny patio and headed back to my Bear Claw Diner in a less than great mood. I informed my staff that I'd be out the next day. They responded with a flurry of positive words.
"I'll make some extra snack packs." That was Victor Fiore, my head chef, who made a mean elk jerky for those packs. "I know there's a ton of food at the fair, but you might need some for the road."
Victor had added significantly to our menu without losing what we liked to call the "classic" diner fare: open-faced sandwiches, grilled cheese, burgers, fries, malts. I was getting hungry thinking of the choices, though my early breakfast wasn't that long ago. Victor's younger sister, Nina, our head waitress, liked to play with desserts, specifically my favorite, silky chocolate pie. Again, adding to, but not replacing, the traditional strawberry shortcake and apple and rhubarb pies that were more than just decoration for our refrigerated shelves and tiered cake holders.
"I'll be able to take an extra shift tomorrow afternoon," Rachel said.
"There's not another tour bus coming through here until next week, so you don't have to worry about a thing," Nina added.
And so it went, encouragement from even the part-timers who were tying their aprons on for the lunch rush. My dedicated and generous staff seemed a little too eager to have me absent for a day.
"I'll be back before dinner prep," I said. "We're not going to stay all day."
"It doesn't hurt to be prepared," said Ginny, a new girl, a high schooler eager to learn restaurant work.
"Would you all like to go in my place? I'll spring for the tickets."
"Well-" Nina began.
"No, no. You need to go, boss." Victor's face, his dark curls hiding under a red bandana, appeared in the through-window. "Try to connect with that farmer who grew a one-hundred-fifty-pound cabbage. I need it for that new slaw recipe I want to try."
Victor always went for a laugh, something I needed today.
"That's a joke, right?" Rachel, who'd only recently moved to Alaska from Los Angeles, looked confused. "You don't really mean one hundred and fifty pounds? One cabbage?"
"You're telling us you haven't noticed the nearly twenty hours of daylight since May?" Nina asked.
Rachel looked sheepish. "I guess I didn't put two and two together. About how things would grow bigger, I mean."
Nina turned to me. "Check on our suppliers while you're there. If they're just hanging around doing nothing or riding the Ferris wheel, tell them we need lettuce!"
"You might have a really fun time," Ginny said. The newbie who didn't know me that well.
"A fun time? Not likely," I said.
Were they that eager to get rid of me? Should I worry about what they did when they were in charge? I trusted them completely with the cash register and the inventory, and more than once they'd bailed me out when I was called away. If they happened to be holding a dance contest as soon as I left the parking lot, so what? As long as customers were well taken care of-and I had every reason to believe they would be-I shouldn't care.
I knew that Tammy and Bert, two college students who had the graveyard shift, starting at one in the morning, used most of the time to do their homework, unless I left them a long to-do list. I was only too happy for that win-win situation.
I took a breath. I really needed to lose the attitude. My staff should not have to suffer my foul mood just because I'd caved to Annie and was not looking forward to walking on uneven surfaces, some gravelly, some grassy, and suffering the host of unpleasant odors, whether from food or animals.
I managed a smile. "At least I can visit the cooking booths. Who knows? I might find some recipes we can adopt for our menu."
"Now you're talking," Victor said.
"Okay, then," I said. "I'll bring you back some souvenirs."
Since IÕd be skipping my more or less standard dinner shift, I thought it only right that I help my staff with lunch. I smiled and tied on my Bear Claw apron. Big of me. After serving a couple of dozen grilled cheese sandwiches, some with tomato and some without, and about the same number of ice teas, I packed up and made my way home to my cat.
I found Benny sleeping on the chair by my bed. So much for the pricey multistory tower I'd bought him, with scratching posts, hanging toys, and plush sleeping areas on every level. I wanted to wake Benny to complain to him that I'd be going to the Alaska State Fair the next day, to garner some real sympathy. He'd hate the commotion; he was happy to stay home. He knew he wouldn't have to worry, since there was always a neighbor or a friend or an employee to check on him in case his automatic feeder didn't work or some other calamity befell him. Of course, I had Benny apps on my phone and could communicate with him throughout the day, no matter where I was.
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