Authors: Gail Oust
“Meat? You’re asking me for meat?”
“It’s not like Mario will have further use for it since he’s—incapacitated.” Incapacitated sounded ever so much nicer than “deader than a mackerel.”
He shook his head as though he couldn’t believe his ears. “Lady, are you for real?”
I huffed out a breath. “My name isn’t lady, it’s Piper, and I’m dead serious.” Oops, poor choice of words, but I was sure he got my drift.
“You just can’t waltz into a crime scene and abscond with what could be a vital piece of evidence.”
“Evidence?” I snorted. “For crying out loud, I’m simply asking for a chunk of mutton. How could that possibly be construed as evidence?”
McBride gave me his cold-eyed stare. “Not an Alfred Hitchcock fan, are you?”
I glared back. “
Rear Window. To Catch a Thief. North by Northwest.
I happen to
Alfred Hitchcock.” Then the connection slowly became obvious to me. I’d recently watched a Hitchcock marathon on a cable channel. Apparently, McBride had viewed it as well. In one of the episodes, a classic, a woman used a leg of lamb to murder her husband, popped it into the oven, and later served it to the investigators. When the meal was nearly finished, one of the officers remarked that the murder weapon was probably right under their noses. Ah, sweet irony.
McBride read my dawning comprehension. “Then you realize why I can’t hand over a hunk of possible evidence.”
“Bludgeoned? Are you telling me Mario was bludgeoned to death with a leg of lamb?” I asked, aghast at the notion.
“I’m not implying Barrone was bludgeoned. Cause of death is up to the coroner to determine. And yes, you’re free to go about your business. Just don’t leave town in case you’re wanted for further questioning.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Where did he think I was going to take off to, anyway? The south of France? A tempting thought. But, I had a spice shop to launch. “Fine,” I said, borrowing the same put-upon tone Lindsey often used. Too bad it was wasted on his broad back.
* * *
The show must go on. Mario might be dead, but Spice It Up! was still alive and set to open in less than two hours’ time. I tried to tamp down the burst of panic.
being the verb of choice. People would arrive, expecting to learn Mario’s secret for roasting lamb.
do the cooking demo, I reminded myself. I could bring home the bacon—in this instance the leg of lamb—and roast it up in a pan. I was woman, hear me roar. I’d do the darn demo myself. What I didn’t know, I’d improvise.
Piece of cake, right? In a rare fit of generosity, and confident his recipe would soon be published in a popular cooking magazine, Mario had granted me permission to have copies made. The ingredients were easily obtainable—especially since I owned a spice shop. But lamb was key.
Turning on my heel, I headed toward Main Street.
Pete Barker looked up from behind the counter of Meat on Main and greeted me with a smile. “Hey, Piper. All set for your big day?”
“Hey, yourself.” I’d known Pete since I arrived in Brandywine Creek years ago, pregnant with my son and optimistic about the future. I guessed Pete to be somewhere in his sixties. He’d lost most of his hair, gained some pounds, but remained as good-natured as ever. “Don’t suppose you could come to the aid of a damsel in distress?”
“Not sure these old bones of mine are up to slaying any dragons, but if it’s a prime cut of meat you want, I’m your guy.”
“By any chance, do you happen to have a leg of lamb in that meat locker of yours?”
“Sure thing.” He gave the tray of boneless pork chops he’d just placed in the meat case a final glance. “Got a couple extra in case that cooking demo of Barrone’s sparked a run. Didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.”
“Great. Could you butterfly it for me, too?” I asked, shifting into Plan B.
“No problem.” Pete lumbered into the back and returned with the prettiest piece of meat I’d ever laid eyes on. Squinting through a pair of bifocals, he announced, “Three pounds right on the nose. Will this do?”
Pete produced a blade suitable for a samurai and proceeded to dissect the lamb with the precision of a neurosurgeon. “Lord knows I’ve had plenty of practice lately thanks to a certain hotheaded chef who will remain nameless. Listenin’ to him, a person would think I’ve never butterflied a piece of meat in my entire life instead of bein’ a third-generation butcher.”
“Well, you’ll never hear me complain,” I said, salving his injured pride. “Everyone for miles around knows your meat’s the best.”
Even to my own ears, I sounded like an enabler, but Pete appeared mollified. A little praise can go a long way sometimes. Or as the eternal optimist, Mary Poppins, might say, “A spoonful of sugar…”
“Heard a bunch of sirens earlier,” Pete commented as he neatly wrapped the lamb in heavy brown paper. “Next thing I knew, a bunch of police cars flew past, hell-bent for leather.”
“Umm … they were headed for the Tratory.”
“Barrone, eh? Always told folks the man’s temper was going to land him in a heap of trouble. What’s the guy gone and done this time?” He didn’t wait for my reply, but continued. “Heard once he got so mad he threw a knife at his sous chef.”
“Well, his temper won’t be getting him into any more trouble.”
Pete moved to the register to ring up my purchase. “How’s that?”
“Because he’s dead,” I muttered. It was then I realized I’d gone off this morning without my purse.
“Dead, eh?” Pete scratched his bald head. “Ain’t that something.”
“Sorry, Pete, it seems like I left my money at home. Okay if I pay you later?”
“Sure, I trust you.”
Trust. That’s one of the reasons I loved Brandywine Creek. People trusted each other to keep their word and, most of the time, they weren’t disappointed. Safety was another thing I treasured in small towns. Then I remembered Mario lying in a pool of his own blood. As I exited Meat on Main, I crossed “safety” off the list.
phone ringing off the hook as I unlocked the door of Spice It Up! I ran to answer, hoping it was the vet calling to tell me the condition of the poor little pup I’d rescued the night before. With all the commotion about finding Mario’s body, then obsessing over my cooking debut, I’d nearly forgotten the pooch. Dropping the lamb next to the cash register, I picked up the cordless.
“Piper…? That you? You sound out of breath.”
I immediately recognized the voice on the other end of the line as belonging to Marcy Magruder, the young woman who’d agreed to assist in the shop from time to time. Waiting on customers, restocking shelves, assisting with inventory, that sort of thing. Marcy happened to be engaged to Danny Boyd, Mario’s former sous chef. It wasn’t until just recently that Danny had found employment at the Pizza Palace after leaving his job at the Tratory. To make matters worse, Marcy had been laid off from her job at the popcorn factory just outside the town limits, a small family-run enterprise that sold their product exclusively to specialty stores. Since the recent drought had affected the corn crop, she had no clue when she might be called back to her job as popcorn packer. I knew the two planned on getting married soon and were strapped for cash. I couldn’t offer Marcy full-time employment, but a few hours here or there would benefit both of us.
And if I ever needed help, it was today.
“Hey, Marcy, what’s up?”
“Umm, ah, I don’t know how to tell you this. I feel just awful callin’ this way after you’ve been so nice to me and Danny, but…”
I braced myself for the blow I sensed was coming. I didn’t have long to wait.
“Mmm, Piper? I’m real sorry, but I won’t be able to come in today.”
“B-but Marcy,” I sputtered, panic gripping me by the throat. “I’m depending on you. I have to do the cooking demo myself, and there’s no one else I can call at the last minute to help with customers.”
“I’ve been heavin’ my guts out all mornin’.”
I sighed when I really wanted to cry. “Don’t worry, Marcy. I’ll manage … somehow. After all, I wouldn’t want you spreading germs all over town. If you’re sick, stay home, and take it easy. Go back to bed.”
“Sorry to let you down, but … gotta run.” The call ended abruptly.
I gave myself a pep talk as I retrieved the lamb and headed for the rear of the shop. Think of the money I’d be saving by not having to pay a clerk, I told myself. Clerk? Salesperson sounded better. Or was sales associate more politically correct? I was obsessing again. Everything would be fine, just fine. I kept repeating the words like a mantra.
I didn’t know why I was making this into such a big deal. I happened to be a darn good cook, if I did say so myself. CJ certainly never lodged any complaints—at least not in the food department. He managed to find plenty other things to criticize, though. My hair was too red, too curly. I was too short. And my backhand was why we always lost at doubles.
The most difficult part of the demo would be addressing a store full of people. The thought of everyone staring back at me was enough to make me want to book a flight to Fiji. Public speaking had never been my forte. The mere thought of it made my palms damp. While I’m perfectly okay meeting people one on one, or even one on four, speaking in front of a large audience was just not my cup of tea.
But this was not the time to bemoan my inadequacies. It was time to get to work. After spreading a linen cloth over a long folding table, I set out the ingredients and equipment I’d need. To my immense relief, I’d discovered a lone jar of juniper berries hiding among the baking spices. When finished, I stood back to admire my handiwork, but had the nagging suspicion I was forgetting something. A pounding on the front door startled me out of my reverie. Hurrying over, I twisted open the lock and found Reba Mae grinning at me.
“I’m between perms,” she announced. “Thought I’d drop by and see how you’re holdin’ up.”
“If being a nervous wreck is holding up, then I’m holding up great.”
Reba Mae pulled a tortoise shell case out of her teal blue smock. “Here, hon, let me fix you up. You’re looking a mite washed out.” She proceeded to dab blush on my cheeks, then stepped back to inspect the results. “There, that’s better. The Klassy Kut’s been buzzin’ worse than a hornet’s nest about Mario Barrone. I told the girls I’d run over and get the skinny firsthand.”
“There’s not much to tell.” I took a feather duster from beneath the counter and started dusting shelves that didn’t need dusting. “I went over to the Tratory to get the rest of the juniper berries and found Mario on the floor. Called nine-one-one. That’s about it. Now you know as much as I do.”
Reba Mae shook her head in frustration. “Must be more to it than that, girlfriend. What was it like, findin’ a dead body? Anythin’ like the movies?”
“I didn’t stick around long enough to take in the details.”
“Lotta blood and guts?”
“No guts, lots of blood,” I retorted.
“Who do you think did him in?”
“I’ve no idea. Your guess is as good as mine.”
Reba Mae folded her arms across her chest and cocked her head to one side. “Outside the fact folks liked his cookin’, no one has much good to say about him. Pinky Alexander thinks Mario most likely was shot by a jealous husband. Claims she got it from a reliable source that Mario’s had affairs with more ’n a half dozen women who frequent the Tratory.”
“Pinky likes to exaggerate.”
Satisfied the free-standing shelves were spick-and-span, I turned my attention to the Hoosier cabinet. Reba Mae trailed after me. “So was he … you know … shot?”
“I didn’t examine the body for bullet holes,” I replied tartly.
“More ’n likely he was shot. Did I ever mention most of my customers brag about havin’ concealed-weapons permits? You oughta hear ’em. They talk about handguns like brides talk about silver patterns. Glocks, Berettas, Rugers. One even admitted ownin’ an Uzi.”
“The cause of death is up to the coroner to determine,” I told her, mimicking Wyatt McBride. “And that’s a direct quote from our brand-new chief of police.”
“What’s McBride like?” Reba Mae asked with a sly smile. “Vicki Lamont claims he’s a hottie.”
“More like a ‘coldie,’ if you want my opinion.” I returned the duster to its proper place and studied a clipboard with today’s agenda. A quick look told me Ned Feeney, The Eternal Rest’s number one gofer, was due to arrive momentarily with the chairs that I was borrowing from the funeral home. “Don’t think McBride would crack a smile if he won the Powerball in the Georgia lottery.”
“Ruby Phillips heard he was a hotshot detective down in Miami. Got his name in the papers a lot. Swears she saw his picture in
once or twice with some celebrity at a premiere in South Beach.”
“Doubt he’ll last long,” I said, shrugging off Ruby’s idle talk. “McBride’s manner strikes me as too heavy-handed. Abrasive, even arrogant. It’s only a matter of time before he has a run-in with the town council. Folks are used to our former chief’s laid-back ways.”
“Yeah, Uncle Joe’s a good guy, all right. He went easy on my boys a couple times when they pulled a few pranks back in high school.”
“Didn’t hurt any that Joe Johnson was Butch’s uncle.”
“You know how it is in these small Southern towns.” Reba Mae shrugged. “The Johnsons are kin to half the folks in Brandywine County, the Abernathys the other half.”
I nodded my agreement. When compared with the Abernathy family, who arrived with the Mayflower, the Johnsons were the new kids on the block. “Well, McBride’s a total opposite of Joe—a real hard-ass. Mark my words, he’ll antagonize people in droves. Before long, the mayor will be clamoring for his resignation.”
“Mmm, I take it you don’t like the guy.”
“Subject closed, okay?”
Reba Mae smiled, but thankfully let the matter drop. “So,” she said, waving a hand toward the table at the rear, “who’s gonna give the cookin’ demo with Mario dead?”
“You’re looking at her.” My stomach lurched at the thought. I wondered for a second whether I might be coming down with the same flu bug that had laid Marcy low.