The Diva Sweetens the Pie
In New York Times bestselling author Krista Davis's new Domestic Diva mystery, Old Town's annual Pie Festival crumbles into chaos after a celebrity judge is murdered, leaving it up to entertaining maven and sometime-sleuth Sophie Winston to dole out justice . . .
Nothing heats up Old Town quite like the annual Pie Festival, and this year is no exception, especially since Sophie's professional rival, Natasha Smith, is barred from participating. Sophie, meanwhile, has been asked to oversee the pie eating contest. But the drama really rolls out when celebrity judge, Patsy Lee Presley, host of television's most popular cooking show, bites the crust during the competition, and Sophie's friends are suspected of the crime.
As the folks of Old Town dish, the tough truth about Patsy's meteoric rise to domestic stardom begins to leak. It turns out that Patsy's sweet exterior hid a secret sour side, which alienated many of her closest allies, including a jilted ex-husband, a bitter ex-mentor, and a jaded ex-best friend. With the festival falling apart, and her friends in danger of being boxed up for murder, Sophie must cobble together the clues and stop a flakey fiend from serving up any more deadly desserts.
Release date: April 30, 2019
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 318
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The Diva Sweetens the Pie
Wide-eyed, as though she were horrified, Patsy Lee took off running like a woman in her fifties who didn’t get much exercise.
My heart still pounding, I sucked in a deep breath. It wasn’t long ago that someone had meant to harm me. I guessed I was still wary and a little jittery. The truth was that the streets of Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia, were safe at night. I often walked Daisy after dark, enjoying the lights glowing in the windows of the historical homes that lined the streets.
Now that the momentary shock was over, I wasn’t certain it had been Patsy Lee. I had never met her before, but I had seen her on TV many times. Patsy Lee Presley was the current darling of the TV cooking world with the number one show. Sweet as the pies she baked, she was slightly chubby, and watching her show was like a visit from a favorite doting aunt. Patsy Lee was due to be in Old Town on Friday for the pie festival, so it could have been her. But what was she doing hiding in bushes and running around like she was afraid?
I looked back in the direction she had gone, but she had disappeared. Whoever that woman was, I hoped she had the good sense to call the police if she was in trouble.
The next morning I told Nina Reid Norwood and Officer Wong about it while we rolled out dough in Tommy Earl Felts’s class on pie baking. Nina, my best friend and across-the-street neighbor, unwisely added too many drops of water to her dough. I watched as it became sticky and unmanageable, but decided it wasn’t my place to say anything. After all, Tommy was teaching the class.
Nina frowned at me. “Why isn’t your dough sticking to your hands like mine?”
Wong glanced at her. “Mercy, Nina! Dip your hands in the flour, honey.”
Wong focused on her own dough, which looked perfect to me.
“I’ll check the log to see if anyone called in last night,” she said. “It was probably some married woman sneaking home after a rendezvous with a boyfriend. Not to put Patsy Lee down, but a lot of women still wear their hair real big like she does. It could have been someone else.”
Tommy Earl approached our group. “Bless your sorry little heart, Nina.” Tommy gazed at the sticky lump in front of her, and patted her on the back. “Why don’t you go to the mixer and try again? I don’t think that’s salvageable.”
Tommy nodded approvingly at my pie dough. “Did I hear you talking about Patsy Lee?”
“I thought I saw her in Old Town last night. Do you know her?” I asked.
He snorted. “I taught her everything she knows.”
“You did not,” Wong scolded him. “On the show Patsy Lee is always talking about her grandmother, from whom she learned how to cook and bake. She was just a tiny thing when she started cooking. So young that she had to stand on a chair to reach the countertop to work next to her meemaw.”
Tommy laughed aloud. “Is that the story she spins? Have you ever seen this meemaw on her show?”
“Good grief, Tommy,” said Wong. “Patsy Lee is in her forties. Meemaw would probably be in her eighties.”
Tommy lowered his voice and said, “Patsy Lee is so far into her forties that she has rolled over into her fifties. And Meemaw doesn’t come on the show because she has a receding hairline, a five o’clock shadow, and her legs are too fat to wear a skirt.”
Tommy had done a fairly good job of describing himself. I couldn’t help grinning.
Wong’s eyes narrowed. “Are you saying there is no Meemaw?”
“I guess she had a couple of grannies, most people do.” He shrugged. “But when I met Patsy Lee, she couldn’t crack an egg without breaking the yolk.”
Tommy moved on, pausing to talk to Nina about the dough she was carrying back to our workstation. She sidled in next to me and plunked her dough on the table.
“The secret to a perfect piecrust”—Tommy paused to build up suspense—“is vodka. I find drinking it helps me, but a splash in your dough will prevent too much gluten formation. There are other important factors, like keeping the ingredients as cold as possible, but the vodka is helpful because it makes the crust flaky.”
Nina licked the spoon she had been dipping into the lemon filling for her lemon meringue pie.
“You won’t have any filling left for your pie,” I whispered.
“That’s okay. You didn’t think I was actually going to bake anything, did you?” she whispered back to me.
Officer Wong shot us a dirty look. “Shh!”
Nina had made fun of me for participating in the class. I had baked plenty of pies in my life, but piecrusts could be tricky. Tommy was a pro, and I figured I would pick up some tips. He baked pies for a living and sold them at Sweet as Pie on King Street in Old Town, Alexandria. Rumor had it that people drove an hour across greater metropolitan Washington, DC, just to buy Tommy’s pies. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, they had to be pre-ordered because he couldn’t fill all the requests.
He roamed the room as he spoke. The buttons on his short-sleeved white chef’s jacket strained a bit against the pressure of his stomach. I could relate. I had my own difficulties maintaining the weight I would like to be.
Wong giggled when he stopped to praise her dough. “I’m so thrilled to be in your class. My grandmother was an expert pie baker. I wish I had paid attention to her techniques.”
Was she flirting with him?
Just as he had described, his hair had begun to recede, but he was taking it in stride and wore it brushed back off his face. He smiled at her and the little crinkles at the outer edges of his brown eyes deepened.
African-American Wong, who attributed her name to the wrong husband by a long shot, wasn’t wearing her police uniform today. Her hair waved to just below her ears in a cut that was shorter in the back and longer in the front. One sassy curl dropped on her forehead.
I looked a little closer. She had taken a lot of care with her makeup today. The buttons on her shirt strained a bit, not unlike those on Tommy’s jacket. The two of them could be cute together. Nina nudged me, and I suspected she was thinking the same thing.
While the pies baked, Tommy drifted through the room, engaging all his students. When he reached Nina, he asked, “Is it true that you’re judging the pie-baking contest?”
Nina turned as red as the cherry filling I had cooked for my pie. “That’s why I’m here. I thought I should have a feel for all the work that goes into baking a pie.”
Tommy stared at her and appeared confused.
“She has an amazing palate,” I offered.
Wong looked over at us. “What’s that supposed to mean? I like food, too, but nobody asked me to judge anything.”
“I mean that Nina has the ability to taste flavors that the rest of us miss entirely or barely notice. If someone in this class sliced her fruit on a cutting board that was used to mince garlic last night and wasn’t thoroughly washed afterward, Nina would still taste the garlic when she ate the fruit.”
“I’ve seen contests like that. They blindfold people to see who can recognize the flavors or textures,” said Tommy. “Well, Ms. Nina Reid Norwood, I apologize for doubting you. I guess there’s more than one way to judge a pie.”
“I hope you entered in the professional category,” I said.
“You bet. I can’t talk about it in front of a judge, though.” Tommy winked at us.
“You’re so cute. But it’s not a problem,” Nina assured him. “The pies won’t have any names on them. It will be a blind tasting.”
Tommy smiled. “Good to hear. I wouldn’t want to be disqualified.” He moved on to the next group.
An hour later everyone except Nina went home with a pie. The class was a small part of the Old Town Pie Festival, which was scheduled to commence in earnest the following day.
Nina offered to carry my pie as we neared my house. She took deep breaths. “Do you think there are calories in what a person sniffs?”
“I’m almost positive there are. I know I weigh more every time I leave a bakery.”
As we approached my house, we saw a man peering in the window of my kitchen door. He cupped his hands around his eyes and leaned against the glass to see better. I could hear Daisy barking inside the house.
“I’ve got your back,” muttered Nina. “I’m dialing 911 now, just in case.”
The man must have heard us approaching. He pulled away from the door and flushed with embarrassment at being caught.
“Put your phone away, Nina. I know him.”
“Which one?” she asked.
She pointed at a man who sprinted around the corner and disappeared.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“I didn’t get a good look at him.”
We walked toward my kitchen door.
Roger MacKenzie was wearing his trademark bow tie with a seersucker suit and looked completely comfortable in spite of the sweltering summer temperature.
“Roger, did you see a guy hanging around here?”
“Have you got yourself an admirer, Sophie?” he teased.
“Seriously. You didn’t see anyone?”
“Darlin’, I have got a lot on my mind. I can’t say I saw a soul. But I’m sure glad that you’re home. Disaster has befallen me.” He clasped his hands over his chest as though our mere appearance had solved all his problems.
I had a hunch I knew what they concerned. Roger was a pastry chef who was sponsoring a weeklong PiePalooza event for home cooks and pie fans. But Roger wasn’t an event planner, and while he had done a lot of things right, he had also been overwhelmed by the amount of work and planning that went into an event. Pie fans from around the country had signed up for the baking classes he offered. Over the last six months Roger had called me to ask questions. In the beginning I heard from him once a week. The number of calls increased with his level of anxiety as the date of his event grew closer. For the last month, he had phoned me daily.
He sucked in a deep breath, and touched the spots just over his eyebrows with three fingers of each hand as though he was doing some kind of relaxation technique. “Amy Wellington Smith has shingles.” He lowered his hands and reached out to Nina. “Roger MacKenzie, pleased to make your acquaintance. Do you think shingles is a reasonable excuse? Twenty-four people have signed up for her class, Taming Beastly Berries. I think she should slap on some thick foundation and fulfill her obligation to her students.”
He ran out of breath and stared at the two of us. I had a very bad feeling that he wanted me to agree with him.
I unlocked the door and invited him into my kitchen, where Daisy pranced with glee at our return, her long ears flapping. “From what I hear, shingles can be very painful. We have some excellent pie bakers in Old Town. Maybe one of them could fill in for her,” I suggested, watching Nina set the pie on top of the island in my kitchen. She glanced at me and pulled a knife out of the drawer.
“It needs to set up first,” I said. “Otherwise the filling will run all over.”
Nina frowned at me, but she promptly refrigerated the pie.
“Have any of them written a book on pie baking?” Roger asked rather haughtily.
He had high expectations. “Patsy Lee Presley is in town—”
He cut me off. “She’s already scheduled to teach Avoiding the Shame of a Shrinking Crust, on Tuesday, and Blackbottom Pie Doesn’t Mean Burned, on Thursday. Amy Wellington Smith’s class was also on Tuesday, at the same time as Patsy Lee’s.”
“What about Tommy Earl?” asked Nina. “I can vouch for him. He’s an excellent teacher.”
Roger’s lips pulled tight. “Ohhh, I don’t think so. His pies are delicious, I’ll grant you that. But Tommy Earl is notoriously unreliable. Such a pity. He’s so talented, but I know better than to hire him. I wish Nellie Stokes were available. That woman knows how to bake!”
“What’s wrong with Tommy Earl?” asked Nina.
Roger didn’t say a word, but he cupped his hand as though he were holding a glass and tipped it toward his mouth.
“Are you sure?” I asked. It wasn’t as though I spent a lot of time with Tommy Earl, but I had ordered plenty of pies from him for events and he had never let me down. “I’ve never had a problem with him.”
“Trust me on this,” grumbled Roger. “It’s well-known in baking circles. Ask anyone in the business. He must have some great employees who cover for him at his shop. Sophie”—Roger gazed at me with sad eyes—“can’t you help me out? Could you teach the classes?”
“Me? Good heavens. I just took one of Tommy Earl’s classes. I’m not a pie pro by any stretch of the imagination. Not even a little bit. And I haven’t published a cookbook.” Whew. That would get me off the hook for sure.
But Nina exclaimed, “You should! I would buy it.”
She wasn’t helping. “Why don’t you come to the Old Town Pie Festival tomorrow? A lot of professional pie bakers will be entering their pies in the contests there.”
“I would sleep better if I had someone scheduled in the slot for Tuesday.” He eyed me again.
Well, there was nothing I could do about that.
Nina said, “I find melatonin helps me.”
I bit my lip to keep from giggling. “I’ll keep an eye out for an appropriate baker tomorrow.”
Roger no longer looked quite so crisp. He thanked us before leaving and dragged away like a disappointed child. I let Daisy out in my fenced backyard.
When I returned, Nina asked, “Can we try your pie now?”
“Not unless you want to see the Horror of the Runny Filling play out right here in my kitchen.”
“Why do pies take so long?”
Her question was rhetorical. Nina knew that fillings had to set, although she probably wouldn’t have cared. She would have scooped up the oozing filling with a soupspoon and declared it delicious.
“Besides,” I said, “don’t you think we’d better check on Bernie? The pie festival is a big undertaking. He could probably use some extra hands.”
When Daisy returned, she was panting and headed straight to the water bowl. I added a couple of ice cubes to her water to make it super cold. Her nose wet, she sprawled on the floor as if she was trying to cool off. The August heat was brutal, but the weather was supposed to cool off dramatically for the weekend.
I didn’t feel guilty about leaving her at home when we stepped out into the humid heat again. We had only trudged one block when I asked, “How would you feel about an iced coffee or tea?”
Nina moaned. “Anything with ice in it would be welcome.”
We stopped at Moos & Brews, relieved to be in the air-conditioned café while we ordered.
Nina checked the time. “Ugh. I am officially over the hill. I’m too old to drink real coffee after noon. I’ll have a decaf iced caramel latte.”
I ordered a plain iced coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which I knew would melt into my coffee in less than a minute once we were outside.
We were slurping the remains through biodegradable paper straws as we approached the park, where banners for the Old Town Pie Festival already fluttered in the gentle breeze.
“Francie is going to be mad that she missed this.”
My elderly neighbor was a hoot, and had she been home, she would surely have attended the pie festival. “I don’t think she’ll be too upset. I’m sure she’s having fun with her sister. How many women their age go on an African safari to photograph animals?”
So many people surrounded Bernie that he was barely visible. He had been the best man at my wedding. Bernie’s sandy hair was perpetually mussed, and his nose had a kink in it where it had been broken, possibly twice. Footloose, Bernie had traveled the world before settling in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia, and taking on the management of a restaurant for an absentee owner. To our astonishment, he had a flair for the business and The Laughing Hound had become one of Old Town’s most popular eateries.
But today, mellow Bernie was being yelled at by one of our friends.
“For your information”—Natasha pulled her shoulders back and held her chin high—“I grew up in the country, and no one knows pies like country cooks. And why are you in charge of the festival, anyway? English people don’t know anything about pies.”
Bernie had listened politely right up until she said that part about the Brits.
In contrast to Bernie’s just-rolled-out-of-bed mussed hair, not a single hair on Natasha’s head dared stray out of place. She wore an admittedly elegant cream-colored suit in spite of the ninety-five-degree weather and unbearable humidity. Natasha fancied herself the Martha of the South—except she wasn’t. Knowing her penchant for wreaking havoc, and given the chaos she caused the previous year, Bernie, who was in charge of the pie festival this year, had pointedly omitted Natasha from the event arrangements.
The two of them didn’t get along at all. Natasha resented Bernie for not bowing to Her Highness’s whims, and Bernie was unimpressed by Natasha’s constant self-serving demands. A confrontation had been inevitable. I had expected kindhearted Bernie to relent, but then Natasha had to go and offend the Brits. I held my breath.
“Pies were well-known in England, as far back as the twelfth century,” said Bernie in the English accent that made him sound like an authority on every subject. “Who do you think brought pies to America?” His voice sounded softer and conciliatory when he said, “Natasha, we’ve already been through this.” He walked over to her and spoke in a low voice so as not to embarrass her, which I thought very kind.“We settled this weeks ago. We have already selected our judges. Do I really have to remind you that your entry last year sent the judges to the emergency room?” Smiling broadly and speaking louder again, Bernie pointed at me. “Sophie isn’t entering the pie-baking contests, either.”
Natasha glanced at me over her shoulder. “Well, I understand that. She’s a home cook, not a chef. It would only be an embarrassment to her.”
Nina whispered, “Are you going to let her get away with that?”
Actually, I was. She had just embarrassed herself by intimating that she was a chef, which she wasn’t. Neither one of us was professionally trained to cook or bake. We wrote competing columns about entertaining, cooking, and all things related to lifestyle, but we had different approaches. I kept things simple while Natasha loved complex projects and keeping up with the latest trends.
I had known Natasha since we were kids growing up in the same small town where we competed at everything except the beauty contests that she loved. She might have a local TV show and fans, but I knew that underneath that perfect figure and coif, Natasha was an insecure mess, still searching for the father who abandoned her when she was a kid. True, she might have been waiting in the wings to nab my ex-husband when we divorced, but they had since separated. While my ex appeared to be thriving, Natasha seemed lost, grasping at anything she thought would propel her to the stardom that she craved.
None of that justified her ugly remarks about me, but I had grown largely immune to them. Natasha always thought she knew best and imagined that it was noble of her to improve the rest of us by imparting her wisdom.
“You’re being completely unfair to ban me from the contest. Honey Armbruster is entering,” Natasha said with disdain. “And she can’t cook her way out of . . . out of a take-out bag.”
“Look, Natasha,” said Bernie. “You know the problem. I’m sorry, but your performance last year prohibits you from entering again.”
“How was I supposed to know that a ghost pepper would burn their tongues? People eat them all the time. Besides, I’m not cooking with peppers at all anymore. They’re passé. No one is interested in peppers. You should know that, Bernie. Everyone’s into activated charcoal now.”
I had a feeling the judges would be glad they didn’t have to eat a pie made with charcoal.
Bernie just stared at her. “No.”
“Then make me a judge. I know more about baking and flavor combinations than anyone else in Old Town.”
“I’ve had so many great people volunteer to help out that I don’t have any positions left to fill. Especially not judge slots.”
“Hey, y’all! Patsy Lee is here.” The singsong Southern voice rang out behind me. I turned to see Patsy Lee Presley, the woman with the number one cooking show in the country—and the woman who had been on the run in the street last night.
The sun gleamed on her light brown hair, which was blown out into a shoulder length fluff and sprayed into a helmet as immoveable as Natasha’s. She strode into our midst with an air of entitlement. She wore a turquoise shift-style dress with a V-neck that showed off her ample cleavage. A strand of giant pearls lay against her tanned skin and a chunky gold bracelet encircled her right wrist. The sun glinted off the diamond bezel on her watch, which sat prominently on her left arm.
To Natasha, she said, “Now, darlin’, who are you?”
I expected Natasha to wither into a fan girl moment when she realized who was addressing her, but she simply said, “Natasha.”
Patsy Lee waited a second longer, then ra. . .
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