Apprentice baker Ivy Culpepper sees art cars everywhere she turns. Besides helping prepare the bread and pastry for Santa Sofia’s annual spring event, she’s the official photographer, documenting the elaborate cars, outspoken artists, and riotous celebrations. Even her family’s in on the act: her brother Billy has been runner-up in the competition more times than she can count — but this is going to be the year he celebrates his win in the victory lane.
But after Billy’s rival, Max Litman, revs up his bombastic showmanship, Billy is once again set to cruise into second place...until Max is found dead, positioned as a prop in his own art car. The whole town knows there’s no love lost between the two men, and Billy is the prime suspect. Now Ivy will have to sift through collusion, deception, gossip, and lies to find out what really happened. But with the help of her octogenarian Watson, her restaurateur beau, and her adopted aunts at Yeast of Eden, she knows she can take the heat.
Release date: September 25, 2018
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 304
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The Walking Bread
The Art Car Planning Committee had hung vertical flags on every stoplight promoting the event; they strung banners across major intersections, they updated the Upcoming Events page of the town’s website, and the event had its own dedicated website sponsored by local businesses. To Santa Sofia residents, the Art Car Show was akin to Mardi Gras in New Orleans—minus the beads, bar crawls, and raunchy Bourbon Street shops and paraphernalia.
It had always been one of my favorite events when I was a teenager. Of course I felt that way about each town celebration when we were in the midst of it. But the Art Car Show was truly one of a kind. Other cities had similar events, of course, so ours wasn’t literally one of a kind, but it was unique in that we had the ball on the last day of the event, our car parade ran on a street parallel to the Pacific Coast Highway, the backdrop of the cars being the Pacific Ocean, and, well, it was just ours. Santa Sofia has just a few celebrations like this, but the few we have are spectacular.
On top of all that, my brother, Billy, had been entering cars in the competition since he was seventeen years old. He worked on them all year long, breathing life into them with a passion unrivaled by anything else—except, perhaps, the love of his life, Emmaline Davis. The efforts of his first few years were rough. He hadn’t come into his own yet in terms of understanding design and having a big-picture vision, but by the third year, his former art teacher at the high school had offered to help him. The two of them worked nonstop for months, and the end result had been incredible. The junker he’d bought at auction had been transformed into an underwater kaleidoscope of color and design. The entire car had become a three-dimensional representation of coral reefs, seaweed, saltwater fish, and octopi. The hood had become an expanse of whitecaps, and from the “water,” an openmouthed shark emerged in all its glory. Steven Spielberg would have been proud. Billy had paid attention to every detail, from the rows of teeth to the nuanced menace in the shark’s eyes; it was lifelike and magnificent.
He’d come in second place.
The winner, Maxwell Litman, had also used an ocean theme, but his had been a single mandarin fish. Just like Billy, he’d paid attention to every detail. From the color patterning to the bulging red eyes, black pupils, and the odd dorsal-like fin, it looked like something an imperial empress from an ancient Chinese dynasty might have worn. Max Litman’s mandarin fish was vivid and bright. Orange swirls overlaid the brilliant blue background. The sides of the car sported pelvic fins, which were what the actual fish used to walk along the ocean floor. The roof of the car was the top of the fish, its striped dorsal fin moving in the breeze as it would gracefully sway in the water. It was a sight to behold, and even Billy admitted that Max’s car had deserved first place.
But the next several years sparked a troubling suspicion. Whatever theme Billy chose for his car was the exact theme on which Max Litman also based his design. If Billy created a landscape from Star Wars, Max transformed his car into Yoda. When Billy had created a giant Easter bunny carrying a basket of colorfully dyed Easter eggs, Max had used the same idea, but had taken it in a different direction. He’d crafted an enormous bluebird flying above the car, a giant twig in its mouth. The car itself was a nest, and spilling from it was an array of speckled eggs in muted hues. It was Easter representing rebirth rather than the whimsical child-centered direction Billy had gone.
“He’s stealing my ideas,” Billy told me after he lost to Max yet again. This time, Billy had turned his car into Medusa’s head, the snakes writhing realistically. And Max Litman had created the god’s majestic castle atop Mount Olympus, Zeus himself standing in front, arms raised, a crackling lightning bolt in hand.
“There’s a spy,” I said. It seemed ridiculous that Max would go to such lengths to undermine Billy’s chance of winning, but like I said, the people in Santa Sofia took their events very seriously.
Billy had nodded gravely. “I think so, too. There’s only one possibility,” he said.
I knew exactly where he was going with his theory. The art teacher who’d been helping Billy for years. “Mr. Zavila,” I said.
Billy’s shoulders sagged. He was my brother and I knew him better than anyone. He felt betrayed by a teacher he’d trusted. “It has to be.”
So we’d set up a sting. Four months later, which was eight months before the Art Car Show—because it took that long to design and bring that vision to life—Billy had invited Mr. Zavila over to help him brainstorm. While they’d met in the garage, I’d waited down the street in my car. Now that I thought back about it, I realized that that had actually been my first stakeout, not the one I’d done with Penelope Branford not so long ago. I guess I’d been harboring investigative tendencies for longer than I’d thought.
When Mr. Zavila had left our house that day, I let him get to the stop sign at the end of the street before I pulled out and followed him. Billy and I hadn’t been sure Mr. Zavila would go straight to Max Litman, but since Billy’s ideas and his plan for his next art car were fresh in the art teacher’s mind, it made sense that he would.
He drove through Santa Sofia, traveling inland, skirting around the downtown area and heading for one of the more upscale neighborhoods, Malibu Hills Estates. It was, I remembered, an area that Max Litman’s company had developed. He built high-end houses in and around Santa Sofia, and this had been the first gated community in town. People had been up in arms about the name. If towns could have rivalries, ours was with Malibu. We were a cross between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. We were hipster and low-key, whereas Malibu was pretentious and elite. Apparently Max Litman felt Santa Sofia needed to get a little ritzy, but people did not want to have anything remotely related to Malibu in their town. There had been quite a few proposals: Emerald Acres; Sea Blue Manor; The Woods of Santa Sofia. But in the end, Max Litman had won the battle of the names.
I stopped half a block down, watching as Mr. Zavila turned into Malibu Hills Estates Surely he didn’t live here. On a teacher’s salary? No, I reasoned. This had to be where Max Litman lived. But Mr. Zavila’s arm emerged from the driver’s window and he entered a code on the keypad outside the gate. Either he actually did live here, or he and whomever he was here to see—presumably Max Litman, but I couldn’t make any assumptions yet—were such good friends that he had the entrance code.
Then again, if Mr. Zavila was a spy for the developer, then it stood to reason that he would be privy to such information.
As the gate slowly swung open, I pulled up right behind him. He drove through before the gate had fully opened, leaving me plenty of time to drive right on through as if I belonged there.
I kept a safe distance from Mr. Zavila, wending my way around the curves and trying not to appear as if I was following him. Which wasn’t particularly easy given I was in a car, in plain sight, in a neighborhood where nobody else was out and about.
I slowed a bit more, putting even more distance between Mr. Zavila and me, and looked at the houses. They were sprawling Mediterranean estates with velvety green lawns, elaborate fountains, pillars, and cascading trees. So this was how the other half lived. I could see the appeal, but me? I preferred the Tudor I’d recently bought in the historic part of Santa Sofia. It had character and charm, both of which came with age. All the houses on Maple Street told the tales of all who’d lived there, who’d experienced joy and pain, success and loss, love and heartache. My street told the stories of the past, and I was a part of that.
I peered into the darkness, realizing I’d lost sight of Mr. Zavila. Refocusing on the road—and cursing under my breath—I drove another half mile, heaving a sigh of relief when I spotted his car. It was parked in front of a house that looked like it belonged in Bel Air or, well, Malibu Hills. Even though I preferred a different kind of neighborhood, the place had a certain appeal. Like so many of the others homes, a huge fountain adorned the front entrance. This one had an enormous stone base and a three-tiered centerpiece, each piece resembling a nineteenth-century washbasin, the largest bowl at the bottom and the smallest at the top. Water cascaded gracefully over each stone vessel, the effect of which was both calming and majestic. An abundance of colorful impatiens circled the base, completing the grand front-yard centerpiece. The house was the biggest on the street. Its façade was a rich terra-cotta-colored stucco, intentionally distressed to make it look classically old. Wrought-iron half-circle faux balconies framed each of the upper windows. They looked as if they had come straight out of the French Quarter in New Orleans. I marveled at how willingly people paid good money to make something new look old.
I drove past the mansion, because that’s what it was, slowly making a U-turn at the end of the block and coming back down the street. To anyone watching, it would look like I was searching, but not finding, a particular residence. Once again, I rolled past Mr. Zavila’s car, catching my breath when I caught sight of two men. They hadn’t been there when I’d driven by the first time, but they’d materialized, walking around the fountain, heading down the cobbled driveway. The fancy streetlights illuminated the men enough for me to instantly recognize them both. Mr. Zavila, of course, and as suspected, Max Litman.
In that moment, I knew that Billy and I had been right; Mr. Zavila was a spy, and Max Litman’s Art Car victories over my brother year after year were not due to his own ingenuity. No, they were the direct result of insider information.
It was Santa Sofia subterfuge at its finest.
After I’d told him, Billy had, of course, changed his entire plan for his art car that year. He’d set Max Litman up, telling Mr. Zavila that the theme for the year was the Teletubbies. And then he’d let the art teacher down gently, confessing to him that things were rough at work, and he just couldn’t afford to pay for his assistance anymore. It wasn’t a lie. Billy had started his own construction company and the early years had been rough going. He’d almost thrown in the towel several times, but he persevered.
The art car battle with Max Litman was proof of his tenacity. While his nemesis created life-sized Teletubbies to sit atop his car, Billy created an amazing Lego façade for his. Despite the tight business budget, he scoured Craigslist and eBay for any and everybody selling Legos. In the end, he’d barely had enough, but he’d done it. His car looked straight out of Legoland. The townspeople had been awed by it. Kids wanted to touch it, to ride in it, to add to it with their own Legos. Poor Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa, and Po. Nobody cared about the Teletubbies. All they wanted was to touch the Lego car.
I smiled at the memory. Billy had grinned giddily. In that moment, he didn’t care whether he won or lost. He’d captured the imagination of every Santa Sofian, and that was his reward.
His giddiness, however, was short-lived because as much as his car had deserved the blue ribbon, he hadn’t actually won. It was a travesty, but for some reason it seemed as if my brother, Billy Culpepper, would never have a fair chance. That had been five or six years ago.
He’d taken a hiatus for a few years, purely out of frustration, but after our mom’s death, Billy had picked up where he’d left off. Now the event was around the corner and he was more determined than ever. Our mother had loved the Art Car Show and Ball more than any other Santa Sofia event, and no one had rooted for Billy more than she had. Now, he was determined to win first place in her honor. “This is my year,” he said as I crouched in front of his creation and snapped a picture. “I can feel it.”
Emmaline Davis, the love of his life—and the town’s deputy sheriff—folded her arms and lowered her chin, shaking her head. “You’re a glutton for punishment.”
But Billy just shrugged. “Maybe, but seriously, look at it.” He swept his arm wide so she would direct her attention to the car. “There is no way Max Litman’s car is better than mine. No. Freaking. Way.”
I had to agree. All of Billy’s cars had been incredible, but this one . . . this one was far and away the most artistic creation he’d ever built. And, on top of that, it truly did honor our mother.
But Emmaline had always had both feet firmly on the ground. Where Billy saw situations in varying shades of gray, Em tended to interpret things as black or white. “His cars have never been better than yours,” she said. “That is not the issue. You know my theory. He’s got a judge in his pocket.”
Neither Billy nor I could disagree with her. It made sense. But it also meant there was nothing left to say. If Em was right, then for as long as Max Litman entered a car in the Santa Sofia Art Car exhibition, Billy was destined to come in second place.
I had a week to finish documenting the various elements of the Art Car Show and Ball, including several of the planning meetings with the core planning committee, which included Penelope Branford, my favorite octogenarian, my neighbor, and my surrogate grandmother; Bernice Green, a local business owner who went by the name Bennie; Crystal Bozeman, a young mother of twins; Jesse Martinez, the most sought-after mason in the construction business—and one of the most eligible bachelors—in town; and Justin Griffin, a luxury car salesman at one of the few auto dealers in Santa Sofia. They were an amiable group, so the photographs of their meetings had been easy and, if I was being honest, mundane. But I documented them nonetheless, and the photos had gone up on the event website.
I’d taken pictures of the venue, the signs and banners posted all over town, and I had visited several of the entrants. But Billy, naturally, had a starring role in my photographic narrative. I’d taken shots of his unadorned car, an old Nova he’d gotten dirt cheap at auction, and then step by step as he painted a base coat and crafted the centerpiece, which this year was an enormous book. He’d chosen to replicate Through the Looking-Glass, which had been one of our mother’s favorites. The hood of the car served as a platform. He created a ramp, which allowed the book to lay at an angle, open to the page where Alice is asking Humpty Dumpty about the bit of the nonsensical poem “Jabber wocky.” I knew that Billy had specially crafted wooden frames for the open book cover, papier-mâché for the pages, vast amounts of modeling clay to create depth in the edges of the pages, and paint.
One of my favorite resulting pictures was of him crouched over the giant book, a high-quality, thin-bristled paintbrush in his hand. It took him too many hours to count, all of which were after work and into the wee hours of the morning, or on weekends, foregoing other activities in favor of the task at hand. He had penciled the words first; then letter by letter he copied the entire excerpt from chapter 6 in Through the Looking-Glass onto the two open pages. He started at the beginning of the scene with Alice asking Humpty Dumpty to explain the meaning behind the poem “Jabberwocky.” Letter by painstaking letter, Billy painted the entire scene, from “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/did gyre and gimble in the wabe;/all mimsy were the borogoves; /and the mome raths outgrave” to Humpty Dumpty’s explanation of the various portmanteaus and Alice’s declaration that she’d read the poem in a book.
I slipped into the memory of my mother reading those pages to Billy and me, her voice falling into a steady rhythm of those nonsensical words. They came alive for us, though. We didn’t need to know what they meant to understand the feeling behind them.
Now, looking down at the art-car version of those Through the Looking-Glass pages, and knowing that the portmanteaus had been one of my mother’s favorite things to teach, my eyes pooled. She’d been gone more than a year now, but she was never far from my thoughts. Or from Billy’s. Despite the passage of time, he still couldn’t express his emotions over losing our mom, but the concept behind and the execution of his art car showed just how deeply he felt the loss. He’d poured his feelings right into the words on the pages.
Billy had gone inside for a few minutes, so I pushed my own emotions aside, snapping pictures of the paint cans stacked precariously in one corner of the garage, the piles of newspaper scattered around, and the copy of Through the Looking-Glass that Billy had referred to. I flipped through the pages of the book, finally turning to the inside front cover. There, in a slightly left-slanted writing, which was half cursive, half printing, was my mother’s writing. The inscription was dated and written to Billy:
Once again, my eyes teared up. It hadn’t been prophetic, although in retrospect it certainly seemed to be so. I wanted to snatch up the book and hold it close, as if that would somehow make the inscription for me, as well as Billy. I racked my brain, trying to remember. She had given us both books over the years; it had been her thing. She wanted to share her love of reading with us, and she also wanted to let us experience her favorite books so that we could talk about them with her. Now, thinking back, I suddenly understood. The books she’d given us helped us to know her better, even now. If we pulled them all out, it would be like getting a glimpse into her soul. They would, I realized, help us rediscover parts of her long forgotten from our childhoods. And they would let us learn new things that she’d never revealed to us. We’d see her through the lens of the books that inspired her, that spoke to her, that moved her.
As I ran my fingers over her handwriting, committing the words to m. . .
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