Read 1 Catered to Death Online
Authors: Marlo Hollinger
CATERED TO DEATH
A Midlife Crisis Mystery
To my husband Mark, who will always be my Steve Lawrence and I’ll always be his Eydie Gorme.
There wasn’t a hit of murder in the air that Friday afternoon. If anything, the entire outdoors had the cool, crisp scrubbed feeling that only days in mid-October seem to have, before all the leaves have fallen and after summer has started to fade into a treasured memory.
Murder was the very last thing on my mind when I put on my favorite red jacket, applied one last dab of Blushing Berry lipstick and smiled just a wee bit nervously at my reflection in the small mirror that hangs in the front hallway of the brick bungalow I share with the love of my life, my husband Steve. For several long seconds, I squinted at the woman looking back at me before deciding that I looked all right. Not stunning but I’d left stunning behind a few years back so I was more than OK with all right. One of the biggest blessings of hitting middle age, in my opinion anyway, is no longer being quite so obsessed with the size of my thighs or the way my bangs made me look as I’d once been. I’ve heard that with age comes wisdom but I also think that with age comes a healthy wallop of reality.
I was a semi-bundle of nerves that afternoon because in about two minutes it was going to be time to leave for Eden Academy, the site of the inaugural catering job of my brand new business, Classy Catering, and my first step toward a new career, a new lease on life and hopefully-maybe-please-God-please a touch of financial breathing room before retirement reared its ugly head and I’d be too old to do anything but sit on the front porch in a rocking chair trying to remember the names of the celebrities in the
Feeling like I was floating, I locked the front door and headed for my mini-van that I’d already loaded with supplies.
First thing on my list once I make some real money: buy a new car.
The van served me well back when Jane and Tyler needed to be carted from activity to activity but now it just seemed as big and as bulky as those shoulder pads that Joan Collins used to wear on
I wanted to drive something fun and cute but with a lot of trunk room. Most of all, I wanted to drive something new because I felt like I was starting a new chapter in my life. A brand new, wonderful chapter that was going to read like a best-seller.
Being my own boss already felt so much better than working at the book store at the mall with all those pretentious intellectuals who talked about Faulkner in the break room and looked down on me because I preferred mysteries, or my playground supervisor job where I’d frozen to death from ten until noon every day helping kindergarteners get their boots on and off, or the nightmarish direct sales position I’d attempted before that, the one where I tried to sell free trade candles to every neighbor and relative in our phone book. It had taken all of one party for me to realize that Willie Loman had nothing to worry about from me when it came to selling.
“DeeDee!” Helen Sirott, our next door neighbor, called to me from her porch just as I was getting into the van. “Where are you going?”
“I’ve got a catering job!” I called back.
“My very first one!”
Helen looked surprised. “Already? You just started your business a week ago.”
“Isn’t it wonderful?” I asked. “I never thought it would happen so fast. It must be the flyers I put up everywhere.”
“Where is it?” Helen asked.
Helen made a face like she’d just smelled a skunk in her petunia bed. “You’re cooking for those snobs? I hope you came up with a fancy-pants menu. Those people think they’re better than everyone else in town.”
“I’ll cook for anyone as long as they hire me,” I responded, meaning it. I knew that Eden Academy had a reputation for being elitist and I’d heard a few horror tales about how rude and snooty the staff could be. But that didn’t scare me. Well, not too much. The fact that a school as prestigious as Eden Academy would hire me, DeeDee Pearson, former stay-at-home mom and brand new caterer, was extremely flattering. I didn’t care if they were such snobs that they made Queen Elizabeth look as warm and fuzzy as Big Bird. They could have had any caterer in the whole town of Kemper and they’d called
. “I’ll drop off some of the leftovers later tonight,” I promised Helen.
“Thanks, DeeDee! Good luck!”
Waving good-bye to Helen, I carefully backed out of the driveway and headed for Eden Academy. Anticipation filled me as I drove through the quiet streets toward the private school. This was how Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart had to feel every single day. This was how it felt to be in charge of my existence completely. For the first in a long time, I had the thrill of being at one with the universe.
At a stop light, I glanced down at the outfit I’d chosen to wear that afternoon. I wanted to look professional but also needed something that I could feel comfortable in so I settled on a navy blue cashmere cardigan over a clean white T-shirt and freshly washed and pressed blue jeans plus brand new sneakers. The sneakers seemed a touch casual but my feet have been killing me lately. Besides, I knew I’d never be able to set everything up, dish out the food and then do the cleaning afterwards in heels.
Before he left for work, Steve had assured me that I looked not only professional but gorgeous to boot. “Have fun and knock ‘em dead,” Steve instructed after kissing me.
“I don’t know if that’s what you’re supposed to tell a caterer,” I told him with a laugh.
“Break a leg?”
“That’s for actors.”
“Then how about have fun and I’ll see you tonight. I can’t wait to hear how it goes.”
Steve has to be the best husband ever, I thought as I pulled into the Eden Academy parking lot. He’s always supported me in whatever I wanted to do, always made me feel like the choices I made were the right ones and always made me feel loved. When it would have killed me to leave the kids in daycare, Steve encouraged me to stay home with them until I got over my separation anxiety. When I was finally ready to go back to work, Steve was my rock, no matter what kind of crappy job situation I found myself in—and there had been plenty of those over the years. That’s why I started Classy Catering. More than anything, I want to be able to contribute to our retirement fund more than I have in the past so that maybe we can both quit the rat race when we turn sixty-five and enjoy whatever time we have left together, ideally in a little house on a big lake where the kids and grandkids can visit us. This job at Eden Academy was the first step in making my plan happen.
After parking near the school’s back door, I turned off the ignition and tried to make my hands stop shaking. My nerves were pulled as tautly as strings on a banjo and I knew that I really needed to calm down before I unloaded the van because I sure didn’t want to drop my seafood casserole all over the asphalt pavement.
“I can do this,” I said loudly. “This is what I want to do and I can do this.”
Feeling better, I drew a deep breath and looked out the car window at the school as I slowly exhaled. I had been there years before, back when it was in a transitional period between its former tenant, a Catholic grade school, and Eden Academy. It had been an arts center then and I’d taken a class on glazing. I remembered that the school had been dark and gloomy on the inside with stained glass windows at the end of every hallway that looked beautiful but let in very little light.
Looking out at the imposing building, I was glad that I’d brought along the sterling silver flatware that my grandmother left me. It wouldn’t have done at all to serve the staff at Eden Academy with cheap plastic forks from the Everything’s a Buck Store that had too short tines that would most likely break the moment they hit my seafood casserole. I was up until two in the morning polishing the silver but the end result had been worth it. The old pieces had the gleam of good taste that I hoped my very first clients would quickly associate with Classy Catering.
I pulled the key out of the ignition, a flutter of apprehension washing over me like a light spring rain. Truth be told, I was a little worried about that seafood casserole and I was also afraid that the brownies I’d made for dessert might be a tad dry, but everything else had turned out perfectly. Now if only the teachers agreed with me.
Climbing out of the van, I smoothed some strands of hair off my face before I began unloading, willing myself to remember that I was a grown up woman and didn’t need to be intimidated by anyone, not even the people who worked at Eden Academy. For a second, I wished I had a partner with me. It wouldn’t be nearly so daunting to walk in and start setting up for lunch if I wasn’t alone. Maybe when the business got rolling I’d be able to hire someone to help. Maybe even Tyler. Of course, he’d have to take out his lip ring and I’d insist on long sleeve shirts so no one could see the band tattoos on his arms but it might be a nice way to get him interested in my new business and also in working for a living. After all, Paula Deen’s sons helped her out and just look how successful they’d become.
After taking all the cartons and containers that I dared to lift in one trip out of the van, I slowly walked to the back door of Eden Academy. By holding the boxes in with my left arm and pressing down on them with my chin so they wouldn’t fall, I managed to try the door handle with my right hand. It turned a quarter of the way and then stopped. I tried it again but it still wouldn’t budge. Quickly, I reviewed the instructions Claudine Markham, the woman from Eden Academy who had hired me, had given me over the telephone.
Use the back door off the parking lot. Don’t park in the first slot even if it’s empty because that’s reserved for our director. Be at the school by 12:15. Please don’t be late. We are very big on punctuality at Eden Academy.
Claudine Markham had an accent that wasn’t quite British but had a definite foreign flair that made her sound both imperious and scary. After thanking her for the job, I assured her that I wouldn’t be late, that I’d park where I was supposed to and that I’d use the proper door. I even used that word—‘proper’—a word I seldom use in my everyday life. There was something about Claudine that made me want to sound posh too. But now, as I looked around the parking lot, I felt a little helpless and slightly impatient. If Miss Punctuality Claudine Markham had told me to use the back door, then she should have made sure that it would be open when I got to the school so that I, and all my canapés, wouldn’t be late.
“Need some help?”
I turned toward the sound of a male voice. A short man wearing a blue down vest, a maroon sweater, a black beret and saggy grey pants grinned at me from a few feet away. He was totally bald in a shiny Mr. Clean way and was apparently making up for the lack of hair on the top of his head by growing it in abundance on his face because in addition to a long, flowing beard he also had the biggest moustache I’d ever seen other than on a walrus. At that moment though, I didn’t care if he was in fact a talking walrus. Maybe he could get the back door open. “Oh, yes, I sure could use some help,” I said gratefully. “I’m DeeDee Pearson and I’m here to cater lunch today.”
The man stepped forward quickly. “Let me get the door for you and then I can take some of those containers if you’d like.”
“That would be great,” I told him as I wondered just where’d he’d come from. I hadn’t seen him when I parked the van.
He had sort of appeared in the parking lot, like a genie or an optical illusion
“Do you work here?”
“Sure do. I’m Jack Mulholland. I teach art at Eden Academy or as I’ve been told to put it by the powers that be, I’m the ‘artist in residence.’”
Jack leaned past me to unlock the door. As he bent over, I got a faint whiff of marijuana emanating from Jack’s down vest, a smell I recalled from long ago rock concerts and also an odor I occasionally detected coming from my son Tyler’s room. That didn’t bode well—a teacher who smelled like pot. I forced myself to turn the judgmental switch in my brain to the off position. Jack had just told me that he taught art. Everyone knew that artists always have and always will walk on the wild side. Still—on the school grounds?
It’s none of my business.
I stopped sniffing the air and waited until Jack got the door open. I didn’t care if Jack smelled like the interior of a sold-out stadium during an Eagles reunion concert. Once he had the door unlocked, Jack turned around and reached out for a stack of containers. I handed them over to him with a smile. “Thank you so much.”
“No problem. I live to serve attractive women.” Jack winked at me from behind tinted round glasses. It had been a long time since anyone other than Steve had winked at me. No one had ever winked at me in the bookstore or on the playground.
We walked into a poorly lit hallway and I squinted as my eyes adjusted to the dim light. The school was still as gloomy as it had been when it was an arts center and the stained glass windows were still at the end of the hallway. “Claudine told me that the lunch would be served in the faculty lounge. Would you mind showing me where that is?”
Jack snorted and laughed at the same time. ‘“The faculty lounge,’” he repeated. “Claudine would call that dump ‘the faculty lounge.’ It sounds like some place with a roaring fire where you’d be served high tea, doesn’t it? I swear, that broad thinks she’s teaching at Oxford. It must be a major let down for her to haul her royal ass out of bed and come to work with us peons every morning.”