never imagined that one of my pizzas might ever actually kill someone, even if it had been tainted by someone else’s hand. But that’s what happened when my sister, Maddy, and I tried to win twenty-five-thousand dollars in a competition that quickly turned into a deadly struggle to learn who our allies were, and exactly who the enemy was trying to ruin our lives forever.
“Eleanor Swift, it’s so good to see you again,” the man known as Laughing Luigi said as he walked into my pizzeria, A Slice of Delight, one winter day in Timber Ridge, North Carolina. Funny, I wasn’t happy at all to see the middle-aged, heavyset man with bushy black eyebrows and thinning hair visiting me. We had a history, and it wasn’t a good one. At least it was a slow time for us, just before our afternoon break, so thankfully the restaurant was deserted. Maddy was in back working in the kitchen, and I was out front. It wasn’t our usual arrangement, but I thought that it was good for us to shake things up every now and then.
I studied the man with the dark complexion and wondered what he was up to. The buoyancy he was portraying was certainly against his nature. Despite his name, I’d never heard him chuckle once, let alone laugh out loud. The feeling of joy in seeing him again was most emphatically not mutual, given the fact that the last time our paths had crossed, I’d been doing my best to break his nose with a green pepper. Of course, I hadn’t been trying to inflict any real damage on the man; I’d just been trying to tell him what I thought of his offer for my pizzeria. He’d been trying to buy me out for months, wanting everything from my conveyor oven to the tables out front, and I was tired of him not taking no for an answer. One day he pushed me too far, and that explained the impromptu attack of the killer green pepper.
“Luigi, did you come here all the way from Charlotte just to order one of my pizzas? I make my own dough by hand every day, you know.”
His face tightened slightly at my dig, if only for a flickering moment, but I knew that I’d scored a direct hit. Luigi, well-known throughout the South these days for his frozen pizza dough, tried his best to ignore the fact that I refused to use his product, Laughing Luigi’s Pizza Dough, in my pizzeria. Funny, but he wasn’t laughing at all when I’d reminded him that I still made my dough the old-fashioned way, from scratch.
He did his best to let it go. “As delicious as that sounds, Eleanor, I’m here for another reason entirely.”
I shook my head. “Some people just don’t get it, do they? No means no, Luigi. I wouldn’t sell A Slice of Delight to you years ago, and I’m not going to do it now. What’s it going to take to get my point across? Do I have to upgrade my weapon choice and use a metal napkin holder this time?” I picked one up from a nearby table, and pretended to test the heft of it in my hand. I probably wouldn’t throw it, but it felt good being armed nonetheless.
“No violence is necessary, Eleanor,” he said as he held his hands up, his palms extended outward. “I’m here for another reason altogether, and one that shouldn’t necessitate violence.”
I couldn’t imagine what that might be. “If you’re not here to order a pizza, and you’re not trying to buy my restaurant, I can’t imagine what the two of us have to talk about.”
A smile blossomed on his lips, and for the first time ever, I believed that I heard a faint chuckle coming from him as he asked, “How would you like the chance to win twenty-five-thousand dollars? Would that interest you, or should I go on my way?”
“Go on. I’m listening,” I said. I had to give him credit; he sure knew how to get a girl’s attention. As I waited for him to explain himself, Maddy Spencer, my sister and number one employee, came out of the kitchen. She stayed back there as little as she could get away with, and was always eager for any excuse to cut her shift as our chef in back. I couldn’t really blame her, though. My rightful place was in the kitchen, and my sister thrived on her contact with our customers, but every now and then, it was good for folks to see the owner out front.
My sister started to say, “Eleanor, we’re getting low on—” but her voice faded when she saw Luigi standing there. “What do you want, Luigi?”
“Maddy, I see that you are as delightfully refreshing and direct as ever,” Luigi said.
“Yeah, I’m a real breath of fresh air. I asked you a question. What are you doing in our pizzeria?”
“I was just about to explain everything to your sister,” he said. “You might as well hear what I have to say as well. After all, it affects you just as much as it does her.”
It was clear that Maddy wasn’t all that interested in hearing what he had to say. “Yeah, well whatever it is, let me save you some trouble. We’re not interested.”
I put my hand on my sister’s shoulder. “Hang on a second, Maddy. Let’s at least hear him out.”
Maddy looked at me as though I’d lost my mind, so I quickly added, “Luigi just told me that we could have a chance at winning twenty-five grand.”
Maddy looked at me for a moment to see if I was kidding, and then she turned to Luigi for a second or two. Without saying a word to him, she looked back in my direction and asked, “And you actually believe him?”
“The jury’s still out on that,” I answered. “But we should at least give him a chance to explain, don’t you think? He was just about to give me the details when you walked into the dining room.”
“Go on then,” she said as she turned back to Luigi. “Explain it to us both.” She glanced at her watch, and then added, “You have exactly three minutes.”
I glanced at my watch and saw that in three minutes we’d be set to close, but I wasn’t going to throw him out, not if what he was saying was true.
If Luigi was put off by Maddy’s open rudeness, he didn’t show it. “In all honesty, I don’t need that much of your time. To honor the fifth anniversary of my pizza dough company, I’m holding a competition among the top four independently owned pizzerias in North Carolina. Since we’re holding the competition here in town, I thought it would be quite fitting to invite you ladies to join my little contest.”
“What’s the catch?” Maddy asked as I started imagining what I could do to the pizzeria with that kind of money. The dreams were alluring, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to put my pizza up against such stiff competition. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in the food I offered my customers, but I had no delusions of grandeur. I wasn’t classically trained in any aspect of pizza making. As a matter of fact, my late husband, Joe, and I had pretty much learned how to make pizzas in the restored Craftsman-style cottage we’d rehabbed together. Did I stand a chance against other pizza makers, and was I willing to find out just where I stood when my pizza was compared to theirs?
Luigi did his best to smile as he said, “First of all, I can assure you both that there’s no hidden agenda here. The competition will take place over two action-packed days. Each of the competitors will present pizzas that use my regular crust, my thin crust, and my new deep dish pizza crust dough. For the final stage of the judging, you will each present a pizza of your own choosing, both in crust and toppings. For all intents and purposes, it will be a level playing field. You’ll each be working in identical kitchenettes on stage, so that only your knowledge and skill will determine who is the very best and wins the grand prize.”
“Why are you having it here in our town?” I asked, suddenly wondering why Luigi had settled on Timber Ridge when he could have just as easily picked one of our state’s large cities instead. I knew that the publicity and media coverage would be much better in Charlotte or Raleigh. Even Asheville or Greensboro would offer more access to television cameras and newspaper reporters.
“Why not? I can assure you that it has nothing to do with you being here,” he said. “That’s just a happy coincidence. So, what do you say? Are you interested? Believe me, I understand completely if you choose to decline.”
“Why would we do that?” I asked. “Is there something that you’re not telling us, Luigi?”
He shrugged. “I thought it would be obvious. I shouldn’t have to remind you that it would place a great deal of pressure on you both if you’re competing in your own town.”
I hadn’t even thought about that, but now that I had a chance to consider it, I realized that I had a real decision to make here. It would be prudent to balance out the odds of winning against the risk of public humiliation if I lost. Timber Ridge was a small town, and if I made a poor showing of it, I knew that I’d be hearing about it for the rest of my life. Still, when it came right down to it, it was a small stick and a pretty wonderful carrot. Was it really that tough a decision to make? “We’ll do it,” I said quickly.
My sister, almost always the bolder of the two of us, said to me gently, “Maybe we should find out more about who the competition is going to be before we just jump into this.”
“Does it really matter? We know that they must be good, or Luigi wouldn’t have invited them.” I looked at him and asked, “Am I right?”
“I’ve personally sampled pizzas from each restaurant, and I can vouch for their quality down to the last pizza chef.”
“And the rules are the same for all the contestants, right?” I asked Luigi.
“They are. I can assure you of that,” he answered.
I turned to Maddy. “Then I really don’t see how we can expect anything more, can you? What do you say, Sis? Are you with me on this? We could give the pizzeria the sprucing up we’ve been wanting to do for years.”
“With that amount of money, you could gut the entire place and start over,” Luigi said.
“We happen to love our pizzeria just the way it is,” Maddy told him.
Luigi looked around and said, “Of course. I completely see it. There’s a certain charm here that is irresistible. Leave the dining area as it is, and replace that conveyor oven of yours with a wood-burning or gas-fired oven. The possibilities are endless, and you’d be amazed by how far you’ll be able to make twenty-five grand go.”
I looked at Maddy. “If you’re not behind this one hundred percent, we’ll walk away from the offer right now. Are you with me or not?”
“You don’t even have to ask. Of course I am,” she said. “If this is something you want, then let’s do it.”
Maybe I should have listened a little closer to the hesitation in my sister’s voice at that moment, but the chance of winning the competition, not to mention the money, was enough to blind me to all but the most obvious signs. “We’ll do it.”
“Excellent,” Luigi said as he pulled a sheaf of papers from his briefcase. “Just sign your name at the places marked on this contract, and you’ll be my final contestants.”
I accepted the papers as Luigi magically produced a pen. Before I could take it from him though, my sister snatched it from his hand and looked hard at me. “Eleanor, Bob needs to look this over before you agree to anything in writing,” Maddy said. Bob Lemon was the town’s best attorney, and he also happened to be Maddy’s fiancé.
She glanced at Luigi and asked, “You don’t mind if she has a lawyer look this over, do you? I’m sure that you’ve got nothing to hide.”
Luigi shrugged. “I don’t mind a bit. I’m staying at Tree-Line tonight, so you can find me there. It’s a lovely new resort, isn’t it? That’s where we’ll be holding the competition, so I’m here to make all of the arrangements. If you decide to sign the contract, have it back to me by nine
tomorrow, or I’ll just have to assume that you’ve changed your mind and decided not to participate after all.”
I couldn’t believe that after what had happened between us in the past, Luigi was actually offering us a wonderful opportunity to compete for the title and the cash. I knew that I should at least make a gesture to show my thanks. “I’ve got a fresh pie coming out of the oven just for us. Would you like to join us for a slice?”
“Sure, why not?” Luigi said as he patted his pockets. What he was looking for I had no idea, but when he came up empty, he added, “On second thought, I’ll have to pass. Thanks for the offer, but I’m afraid I’ve left my medication back at the complex, and I can’t eat without it. I’ll leave you both to enjoy it, and to start making plans for what you’ll do with the money if you win. Until tomorrow, ladies,” he said with a smile as he left the pizzeria.
Maddy looked at me the second he was gone and frowned. “Dear sweet sister, have you totally lost your mind? Were you really going to sign that thing without having Bob look it over first? That’s not like you, to just throw caution into the wind like that.”
I just shrugged, since we both knew the answer to her question. I’d been blinded by the lure of the prize, and I was very glad that Maddy had been there to step in.
I leafed through the extensive document, and then asked her, “Do you think Bob will mind going over this for me on such short notice? Will he even have time to vet it for me?”
Maddy grinned. “He will if I ask him to do it myself. There has to be some advantage to being engaged to the best legal mind in the county.”
“I would hope that you have more reasons for your engagement than just the odd free bit of legal work.” My sister was getting married again, something that wasn’t all that foreign to her, given her previous trips down the aisle in the past, but I knew that she was a firm believer in the institution. Why else would she have participated in it so many times, given the ultimate results? I hadn’t cared for several of the men she’d married before, but I was a huge fan of Bob’s. Though they hadn’t even discussed a date for the wedding yet, the two of them had already fallen into a state of premarital comfort with each other that suited them.