Death of a Crabby Cook: A Food Festival Mystery

Death of a Crabby Cook: A Food Festival Mystery

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by Penny Pike
     
 

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First in a new series!

At the San Francisco Seafood Festival, someone is steamed enough to kill a cook....

When restaurant reviewer Darcy Burnett gets served a pink slip from the San Francisco Chronicle, she needs to come up with an alternative recipe for success quickly. Her feisty aunt Abby owns a tricked-out school bus, which sheSee more details below

Overview

First in a new series!

At the San Francisco Seafood Festival, someone is steamed enough to kill a cook....

When restaurant reviewer Darcy Burnett gets served a pink slip from the San Francisco Chronicle, she needs to come up with an alternative recipe for success quickly. Her feisty aunt Abby owns a tricked-out school bus, which she’s converted into a hip and happening food truck, and Darcy comes aboard as a part-timer while she develops a cookbook project based on recipes from food fests in the Bay Area.

But she soon finds someone’s been trafficking in character assassination—literally—when a local chef turns up dead and her aunt is framed for the murder. The restaurant chef was an outspoken enemy of food trucks, and now Darcy wonders if one of the other vendors did him in. With her aunt’s business—and freedom—on the line, it’s up to Darcy to steer the murder investigation in the right direction and put the brakes on an out-of-control killer….

RECIPES INCLUDED!

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
08/01/2014
Consoling herself with a cream puff after being let go as a restaurant reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle, Darcy Burnett decides to join her Aunt Abby on the Big Yellow School Bus, one of the local food trucks, and start writing a cookbook based on the San Francisco Bay Area food festivals. Not everyone is happy about the food trucks, including one outspoken local chef who clashes with Abby and ends up dead the next day. Hoping to save her aunt—and her book dreams—Darcy investigates and realizes that the chef's hatred of food trucks put him on the hit list of a large number of people. As the case heats up, Darcy realizes that she may have just found a new recipe—for murder. VERDICT Pike's series debut starts off with a bang: a feisty family sets the tone and all the usual suspects are in place. Food truck recipes are included.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780698143340
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/05/2014
Series:
A Food Festival Mystery , #1
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
58,408
File size:
1 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

PRAISE FOR THE PARTY-PLANNING MYSTERY SERIES BY PENNY PIKE (Writing as Penny Warner)

ALSO BY PENNY PIKE (Writing as Penny Warner)

Acknowledgments

Chapter 1

Life sucked.

Forget counting calories. I needed this cream puff.

It would have been the perfect spring day in San Francisco—no fog, sunshine, with a light, salty breeze coming off the bay—if it weren’t for the news I’d just received from my editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Darcy, I’m afraid we have to let you go,” Patrick Craig had told me moments after I’d arrived at my soon-to-be-former desk. “As you know, times are tough in the newspaper business.”

As a parting gift, he’d promised to give me some freelance assignments from time to time, the first being a review of the San Francisco Crab and Seafood Festival, which was being held for the next two days at Fort Mason. My assignment: write up a critique of the festival and an article about the Oyster Shuck-and-Suck Contest. I hated oysters. The slimy things made me gag. But as a now-unemployed restaurant critic, what choice did I have? If I didn’t take this gig, I’d soon be living on Top Ramen.

I sat on a bench near the daily food truck gathering at Fort Mason, trying to figure out tomorrow’s story angle as I watched the prelunch crowd gather. Hungry gourmands were queuing up at the dozen colorful food trucks that were parked each day in the prime spots. The names were almost as entertaining as the decorated trucks themselves. Road Grill, a bright red truck with giant grill marks painted across the front, served “exotic meats” and was by far the biggest crowd-pleaser with the longest line. The Yankee Doodle Noodle Truck, yellow, with images of noodles the size of octopus tentacles, had its fair share of fans, as did Kama Sushi, blue and covered with tropical fish, and the Coffee Witch, featuring a sexy cartoon witch stirring a cauldron of steaming brew. No food truck stop was complete without a bacon truck—this one called itself Porky’s.

But my favorite was a truck called Dream Puff, featuring a giant chocolate-laden cream puff painted on a vanilla background. The cream puffs, everything from strawberry mocha to pralines and cream to lemon meringue, were to die for—not to mention the “Dream Puff Guy” who served them.

But it was the Big Yellow School Bus, a former school bus converted into a food truck, that got most of my business on my lunch breaks. I was a frequent diner there, mainly because it was owned and operated by my eccentric aunt Abby, and she gave me free food.

Currently soothing the news of my job loss with a Caramel Espresso Dream Puff, I was interrupted by the sound of shouting coming from the middle of the circular food truck court. I recognized the fortysomething, balding man as Oliver Jameson, the owner and chef at Bones ’n’ Brew, a brick-and-mortar restaurant across from Fort Mason. The seasoned place had once been a popular dining spot in the city, but business had fallen off over the past couple of years, and the quality had gone downhill too. I’d written a review last year about how the restaurant hadn’t changed much since Jameson’s father, Nigel, ran the place thirty years ago. In his many letters to the newspaper’s editor, Oliver Jameson had blamed the “inundation of rat-infested roach coaches that had set up shop across the street from my distinguished dining establishment” for his business losses. But as a restaurant critic—or former restaurant critic—I had a hunch it was because Jameson hadn’t updated his menu or decor in decades.

“Get outta here, you old bag, or I’ll call the police!” Jameson yelled at the petite sixtysomething woman opposite him. The big balding man gestured threateningly at her with a meat tenderizer as he bellowed, “Take your botulism-riddled bus and go park it in the Tenderloin where it belongs!”

As for the “old bag” in question, well, that would be my aunt Abigail Warner. After retiring from her job as a high school cafeteria cook last year, she’d bought an old school bus and converted it into a portable eatery featuring her specialty—classic American comfort foods with a gourmet twist. I was a big fan of her Crabby Cheerleader Mac and Cheese, filled with local crabmeat.

“It’s a free country, you hash-slinging fry cook,” my aunt yelled back at the towering man. “You’re losing business because your fat-saturated menu is out-of-date, and your fried food is overpriced. Don’t blame me for your bleeding cash problems.”

Aunt Abby waved a knife at him. In her small hand it looked like a deadly Samurai sword.

“And if you plant one more dead rat anywhere near my truck, I’ll take my Ginsu knife to your dangling—”

“Aunt Abby!” I yelped, rising from the bench. I hurried over to the battle site, hoping to run interference before my aunt was arrested for assault, battery, or improper language in public.

Aunt Abby lowered her menacing weapon when she saw me approach. I knew she was feisty—she had to be in order to survive serving “meat surprise” to a bunch of surly teenagers for all those years—but I didn’t know she had a murderous streak. Still, I didn’t blame her. Ever since she’d started her food truck business six months ago, she’d encountered nothing but problems, everything from permit red tape to parking tickets to jealously competitive restaurant owners.

“Come on, Aunt Abby,” I said, prying the knife from her tight grip. The growing number of gawkers slowly went back to their handheld meals as I dragged my aunt to her neon yellow bus a few feet away. Nothing like a little drama to whip up an appetite, I thought.

Among the creatively decorated circle of trucks, Aunt Abby’s bus stood out. Not only was it big and blindingly yellow, but she’d hung schoolroom chalkboard signs on the outside offering her famous fare: Teacher Tuna Casserole, Principal Potpie, Science Experiment Spaghetti, and other old-school comfort foods.

I followed my aunt through the accordion doors and up the steps, listening to her curse under her breath—words she’d no doubt learned from her high school students. “Dillon!” I called out to her six-foot, twenty-five-year-old son, who was working the service window. “Keep an eye on your mom, will you?”

“I don’t need to be watched,” Aunt Abby snapped, scowling as she retied her food-smeared apron in a complicated double fold. “What I need is rat removal—from Bones ’n’ Brew.”

“What happened?” I asked.

She took a loaf of bread and began slicing it with the knife she’d been waving.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.

I shot Dillon a look and mouthed, “Watch her!” Then I stepped out of the bus in search of Oliver Jameson to see if I could find out what all the fuss was about. Unfortunately, he’d disappeared, no doubt back to his restaurant across the street. I thought about going after him but didn’t have the energy. What I needed was another sugar boost to help my job-loss morale, so I wandered over to the Dream Puff truck for another medicinal cream puff, this time cappuccino cream.

Jake Miller, the Dream Puff Guy, as I called him, was just about as delicious-looking as his cream puffs. I couldn’t help but notice him when he stepped out of the truck to refill the napkin dispenser or the sprinkle shakers in his formfitting blue jeans and muscle-hugging white T-shirt. I’d heard from my aunt that he’d once been a successful attorney, but for some reason he’d given up the Italian suits and lawsuits to whip up heaven in a puff pastry. Luckily for me.

Unfortunately, I’d gained five pounds just trying to get to know him.

When I reached the window, I saw the small sign: BE BACK IN 5 MINUTES. Bummer. The cream puff—and eye candy—would have to wait.

Glancing around at the circle of wagons, including the latest ones that had set up temporary shop—the India Jones truck (Masala Nachos), the Conehead truck (Garlic Ice Cream), the Humpty Dumpling truck (Great Balls of Fire!)—I suddenly realized an idea was staring me in the mouth. Now that I’d been laid off, I could write that cookbook I’d always wanted to pen.

Granted, I wasn’t much of a cook, but I was a total foodie and had tasted thousands of gourmet meals and written hundreds of restaurant reviews for the paper. As a reporter, I knew a hot trend when I saw one. Nothing was hotter than the food truck/food festival phenom currently sweeping the country. All I had to do was go to a bunch of food festivals, interview the food truck chefs, gather some recipes, and type them up in a breezy style, and I’d find myself on one of those cooking shows hawking my bestselling book!

I saw only one stumbling block. How was I supposed to support myself until the book royalties poured in? Not even a dreamy cream puff could fix that.

“Darcy!” Aunt Abby called from the service window of her bus.

I headed over, hoping to substitute one of Aunt Abby’s freshly baked chocolate-pecan-caramel bars—aka Bus Driver Brownies—for the cream puff. But as soon as I stepped inside, she handed me an order.

“Dillon had to go do something, and I need a BLT, stat,” she commanded, meaning I was to make one of her most popular menu items right this minute! In spite of my lack of culinary skills, I figured I could manage a sandwich assembly. Heck, I could even do a microwave reheat in an emergency. But that was about it.

“He left you during lunch rush?” I asked as I dutifully washed my hands, then slipped on a fresh cafeteria-lady apron. I struggled with the fancy double fold, gave up, and simply tied it around my waist. “What was so important he had to run off?”

Aunt Abby shrugged and tossed me a bag of multigrain bread. “He said it was something urgent. I swear, that boy will be the death of me. Good thing I caught you on your lunch hour. When do you have to get back to the paper?”

“I’m in no hurry,” I said, not ready to tell her the truth. But the fact that Dillon had just left her on her own really bothered me. Ever since he’d dropped out of college to “find himself,” he’d been living at home and working part-time at his mother’s food truck. When he wasn’t at the truck, he was holed up in his bedroom, playing on his computers. It seemed as if sudden disappearances were becoming typical of the boomerang computer whiz. What could be so important that he had to leave in the middle of the lunch rush? An urgent update on his Facebook page? A lifesaving tweet? I almost said something snarky but stopped myself. After all, he was Aunt Abby’s son—my cousin—and if it weren’t for my aunt, I’d probably be homeless.

I opened the bread package and removed two soft slices; they smelled both sweet and savory. As I assembled the sandwich—thick, apple-smoked bacon, vine-ripened tomato slices, leafy green lettuce, ripe avocado, and aioli spread on multigrain bread—I half listened to my aunt complain about the war between the food truckers and the brick-and-mortar chefs. She’d had more than one run-in with Oliver Jameson, as had several other truckers at Fort Mason. But in the past year, Aunt Abby had also butted heads with the health department, the chamber of commerce, and what she called the “parking enforcement goons.” My aunt wasn’t the easiest person to get along with, but I admired her sassy attitude and endless energy. I think it’s what kept her going after her husband, Edward, died last year.

As long as I didn’t have to work with her for longer than a few hours. Then I’d be a nut case.

I wrapped the sandwich in butcher paper and handed it to my aunt. She shot me a look, rewrapped it, then called a name out the window and passed the sandwich to a guy talking on his cell phone. “Here,” she said, handing me three more orders. “You make them; I’ll wrap them.”

Two hours later the line finally thinned out. “Thanks for your help,” Aunt Abby said. “I don’t know where Dillon’s got to, but you saved me.” She glanced at her Minnie Mouse watch. “Uh-oh. I hope I didn’t make you late for work. You’d better get back to the newspaper before you lose your job.”

I started to tell her what had happened—that I was now on a permanent “lunch break” from the paper—but I decided to wait until a more convenient time. Like never.

I sighed. “Okay, well, I guess I’ll see you at home.”

Aunt Abby frowned at me suspiciously, as if I’d just eaten all of her prized brownies. “Everything all right?” she asked, her pencil-thin eyebrow arched in question.

I nodded and stepped out of the bus. Okay, so I’d explain everything tonight, after I’d had a glass of wine. Or two. I knew I’d feel better after eating the chocolatey brownie I’d just tucked into my purse. Free food was one of the perks of being related to Aunt Abby. Through the open window of the bus, I heard her break into a rousing rendition of Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World.” The earworm would no doubt haunt me the rest of the day.

•   •   •

I stopped by the Coffee Witch and grabbed a Love Potion Number 9—a latte made with a melted 3 Musketeers bar—then enjoyed my sugary treats as I drove “home”: that being my aunt’s thirty-five-foot Airstream currently parked in the side yard of her Russian Hill home. It was the perfect location, close to the Marina District, Ghirardelli Square, and Fisherman’s Wharf. In desperate need of shelter after my breakup with Tool-Head Trevor, a reporter at the Chron, I’d moved into her rig “temporarily.” That was six months ago. Now, with no more money coming in, my plans to eventually move out would have to be put on hold.

My widowed aunt had lived in her small Victorian home for most of her adult life, ever since she’d inherited it from her parents. Today the house would be worth a fortune, but she had no intention of selling it. Although she was my mother’s sister, I’d hardly known her when I’d asked to rent the RV. She was considered the black sheep of the family, but no one had ever told me why. As I’d gotten to know her better, I found her charming, clever, and creative—and so different from my discerning mother and hippie father. My parents had divorced soon after I went away to the University of Oregon to study journalism, claiming they each wanted “new beginnings.” My dad moved to New Mexico to live in the desert and smoke dope, while my mom headed for New York in pursuit of culture and romance.

And Aunt Abby was supposed to be the crazy one?

I parked my recently purchased convertible VW Bug in her driveway and headed around to the side yard, where she kept the Airstream. A Disneyana fanatic, Aunt Abby had decorated the interior of the rig with friends of Walt. I wiped my feet on the Grumpy doormat, checked the Cheshire Cat clock on the wall inside, and dropped my purse on the sofa bed, which was covered with a Minnie Mouse throw.

Still depressed from the job news, I changed out of my black slacks and red blouse into khaki pants and an ironic “Life Is Good” T-shirt and lay down on the Tinker Bell comforter in the bedroom for a quick nap. As I dozed off, I hoped to dream up some ideas for extra cash until my fab book deal came through. With pending unemployment benefits meager and short-lived—and car payments coming due—I had a feeling food truck leftovers would be my staple for the next few months.

•   •   •

The theme song from “It’s a Small World” woke me from my nightmare—something about eating a poisoned apple. Probably heartburn from overdosing on sweets and coffees. I knew the call was from Aunt Abby. Dillon had programmed personalized ringtones to alert me to some of my callers’ identities. That way I could ignore my ex-boyfriend, who hadn’t given up on getting back together. His tune was appropriately “Creep” by Radiohead. I fumbled for the phone, saw Aunt Abby’s dimpled, smiling face on the small screen, and answered the call.

“Come in the house,” she commanded. “I want you to taste something.”

I checked the Cheshire Cat clock on the wall: four p.m. I’d slept for more than two hours! Craving another brownie, I fluffed my bed hair, then stepped out of the Airstream and walked across the patio to the back of the house. I entered the dining area through the sliding glass door and called out to her.

“I’m in the kitchen,” she yelled back. Passing through her cozy family room, I headed for her favorite place in the house and found her busily rolling small balls of dough in her hands. Basil, Aunt Abby’s long-haired Doxie, wagged her tail at my aunt’s Crocs-covered feet, no doubt hoping for a dropped morsel.

“I saw your car. You got off work early?” Aunt Abby asked. She’d changed out of her cafeteria-lady apron, khaki pants, and white T-shirt into a pink athletic suit that clashed with her curly red hair but matched her pink lipstick perfectly. The ensemble was covered by a “Cereal Killer”–emblazoned apron.

I nodded and glanced around for something to eat.

“Everything all right?” As a former cafeteria worker—she preferred the term “food service chef,” never “lunch lady”—she often bragged she could make sloppy joes for five hundred. Only problem was, she had trouble cooking for fewer than that. At the moment, it looked like she was preparing enough dough balls to feed the San Francisco Giants and all of their fans. I leaned over and inhaled a whiff of her current experiment.

“What is that—a cheesy cake pop?” I asked. I spotted a rigid foam block filled with round balls held aloft by lollipop sticks. Before she could stop me, I popped one into my mouth.

It took only one bite to realize this was not the cake pop I’d been expecting.

“Blech!” I said, spitting the contents of my mouth into the sink. “What was that?”

“A Crab Pop,” she said, grinning at my reaction. “My specialty for tomorrow’s festival. They’re tiny cheese biscuits filled with crab and dipped in white cheddar cheese.”

“Good grief!” I fanned my mouth as if it were on fire. “I need an antidote!”

“For goodness’ sakes, Darcy, it’s not that bad. I thought you liked crab.”

“I do, but not as a surprise when I’m expecting something sweet!”

“Have a brownie. They’re over there.” She nodded toward a foil-covered plate on the counter.

I picked up a square and stuffed it in my mouth as if it were chocolate crack. “That’s more like it,” I said as soon as I’d swallowed the delicious, chewy mass.

“So, now, tell me,” Aunt Abby said as she continued inserting lollipop sticks into the newly formed balls. I tried not to watch. “Why were you home early? Rough day of restaurant reviews?”

I decided to get it over with and tell her the truth. “You could say that. The Chron laid me off today. I’ve been reduced to a stringer.” Another wave of anxiety swept over me as the reality of the statement set in.

Aunt Abby stopped what she was doing and looked at me sympathetically. “Oh, Darcy. I’m so sorry.” An instant later she perked up again. “But you know what they say: ‘When your soufflé falls, turn it into a pancake.’”

My aunt was full of these crazy food sayings. Maybe that was one of the things that had driven my family members crazy.

Without missing a beat, she continued. “So why don’t you come work for me part-time? The food truck business is getting busier every day, what with all the local festivals popping up. There’s practically one every weekend.” She counted them off. “The Ghirardelli Chocolate Festival is right around the corner. Then the Gilroy Garlic Festival, the Santa Cruz Fungus Festival, Isleton’s Spam Festival, Oakdale’s Testicle Festival—there must be over two dozen of these fests every year. And I could really use the help. Especially since Dillon has been leaving me in the lurch so often. I’ll definitely need you tomorrow at the Crab and Seafood Festival. They’re expecting a hundred thousand hungry people at the two-day event.”

“As long as you’re not serving any oysters,” I said.

“Oysters are actually good for you,” Aunt Abby said, shaking her head at my resistance to all things mollusk related. “They’re full of zinc, iron, calcium, vitamins. They boost your energy. And your sex drive.” She raised an eyebrow at me.

That’s all I needed, a boost to my sex drive, after being boyfriendless for months.

“Just the thought of eating something that slimy is disgusting.”

“You don’t have to eat them raw,” Aunt Abby said, shaking her head. “You can eat them smoked, boiled, baked, fried, steamed, or stewed.”

“No, thanks. I will not eat them baked or fried. I will not eat them stewed or dried. I do not like oysters or clams. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.”

“Chicken,” my aunt said.

“I’ll eat chicken,” I replied, “but I refuse to swallow anything from the mollusk family. Besides, I heard oysters can contain bacteria.” I pulled out my cell phone and asked Siri to call up “death by oysters,” then read aloud an excerpt from the site. “‘In the past two years, thirty-six people have died after consuming oysters.’”

“You’re talking about Gulf Coast oysters that get warm and spoil quickly,” Aunt Abby said. “We don’t have that problem here in the cold San Francisco Bay. But don’t worry. I’m not making anything with oysters. Just crab.”

“You know I’m not much of a cook, Aunt Abby,” I said. “Besides, I’m planning to write a cookbook using recipes from food trucks and festivals. That should keep me busy for a while.”

Aunt Abby raised that damn questioning eyebrow again. It was her signature look. “Darcy, you just admitted you don’t cook and you’re planning to write a cookbook?”

“I’ll admit the art of cooking eludes me. Eating, on the other hand, is one of my passions.” It was true. I read food magazines and cookbooks as if they were romance novels. “And writing a book filled with popular food festival recipes doesn’t take any culinary talent.”

“Maybe not, but what are you going to do for money until your book is published?”

I slumped down onto a kitchen stool, feeling the lump of chocolate in my stomach turn to raw dough. She was right. I needed money. Now. I shrugged. “Work for you, I guess.”

“Work for who?” rumbled a low voice from behind me.

I turned around to see Aunt Abby’s son, Dillon, looming in the doorway. He towered over his five-foot-two mother. He was dressed in a threadbare “Zombies Ate My Sister” T-shirt and ridiculous Captain America flannel pajama bottoms. His curly dark red hair was in desperate need of a comb and some gel and scissors, and the two-day growth of stubble on his face looked more like an oversight than a fashion statement. He pulled a box of Trix from a cabinet and poured some directly into his mouth, dropping several colorful balls on the tile floor. They were quickly lapped up by Basil, who always acted as if he were starved.

“I asked Darcy to help us out in the food truck,” Aunt Abby said.

“Wait. What?” Dillon said, his open mouth full of fruity colors.

I didn’t relish the idea of working with a slacker like Dillon either, but I didn’t see much choice.

“Well, you keep disappearing,” Aunt Abby said to Dillon. “And with Darcy’s help, maybe we can get ourselves on that TV show The Great Food Truck Race and win fifty thousand dollars.” Her bright eyes twinkled.

Yeah, right.

“Seriously,” she continued, after seeing my disbelieving reaction. “My business is booming, thanks to all the work Dillon has done promoting us on Twitter and Facebook and those other sites. Right, son?”

“Yeah, but—” Dillon began, but before he could finish, the doorbell rang.

“I’ll get it,” Dillon said; then he lumbered out of the kitchen for the front door, still holding the cereal box.

Seconds later, he yelled out, “Mooooom!”

“I’m coming!” she yelled back. “That boy. Can’t he even sign for a delivery?” She wiped her hands on a towel, untied her apron, primped her curly hair, checked her lipstick in the microwave oven reflection, and headed for the door.

Moments later Aunt Abby returned to the kitchen. Her Betty Boop smile drooped, the color had left her Kewpie-doll face, and even her pink lipstick seemed to have faded. Dillon appeared behind her, frowning.

“Aunt Abby?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

“That was the police,” Aunt Abby said, sounding dazed and staring at her clasped hands.

“The police?” I repeated. “What did they want?”

She shook her head. “I’m not sure. They want me to come down to the station with them.”

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “Why?”

Aunt Abby looked up at me but her eyes were unfocused. “Oliver Jameson is dead.”

Chapter 2

“What?!” I blurted when I heard the news.

Aunt Abby shook her head woefully, her perky curls barely bouncing. “I don’t know why they want to talk to me, but there are two cops waiting outside to take me to the station.”

I flashed back tp the scene I’d witnessed earlier—and the knife my aunt had been wielding in her hand.

Uh-oh.

“Mom?” Dillon said, staring at his mother.

Aunt Abby shifted her glance out the kitchen window. “Oh, I . . . may have said something to Oliver Jameson that could be taken as a threat.”

“Like what?” Dillon asked, his mouth hanging open.

She shook her head. “I don’t know. Something about a knife . . .”

She’d been so furious with the chef from Bones ’n’ Brew that she’d actually threatened him with that ginormous kitchen knife.

“Mo-om!” Dillon whined, his face looking whiter than his usual indoor pallor. “A knife? Seriously? You didn’t hurt him . . . did you?”

“Of course she didn’t!” I answered for her.

Another impatient rap at the door interrupted me from defending her further.

Aunt Abby shook her head. “I told the two officers to give me a few minutes so I could change clothes. I can’t wear this loungewear to the police station. And my hair’s a mess. I need to freshen up.”

I could tell she was trying to keep her tone light, but her voice cracked, giving away the stress that lay beneath the surface.

“I’ll need my purse . . . and a sweater . . . maybe a bottle of water . . . and a snack. . . .”

My aunt was rambling. She was probably in shock. I wrapped an arm around her.

“Don’t worry, Aunt Abby. Dillon and I will go with you.”

“Darcy, they’re not going to let us ride in the cop car with her,” Dillon said, the voice of doom.

“We’ll take my car and follow her,” I said, then asked Aunt Abby, “Did the police say when Jameson was killed?” I wondered if she had an alibi for the murder. Hopefully she was in her School Bus serving comfort food to the city’s starving citizens.

“I don’t know. . . . He must have been killed sometime after I . . .” She hesitated.

“After that fight you had with him?” I said, finishing her thought. “But I took you back to your bus and you stayed there the rest of the day, right?” I turned to Dillon for confirmation, hoping he’d shown up after I left.

Dillon shot a look at his mother that told me all was not well in food truck land.

“Dillon! You did come back, didn’t you?”

He nodded, but there was something he wasn’t telling me. And then it dawned on me.

“No!” I said, glancing back and forth between Aunt Abby and Dillon. “Aunt Abby! Tell me you didn’t leave the bus after Dillon returned.” I could feel the adrenaline rushing through my body and grew more alarmed.

Aunt Abby pressed her lips together, then shrugged. “After Dillon came back, the lunch crowd had died down, so I told him to hold the fort while I . . . did a few errands.”

“What errands?” I heard myself sounding more and more like a police interrogator. Why didn’t I just throw in “Do you have an alibi for the time of the murder?”

“Just stuff I had to take care of,” she said simply.

“Mo-o-om?” Dillon said. His concern for his mother was evident in his rising voice and furrowed brow. “You went over there and saw him again, didn’t you!”

“No! . . . I mean, well, not exactly. . . .” Aunt Abby looked away.

“Who? What are you talking about?” I asked, confused.

“What do you mean, ‘not exactly’?” Dillon continued, ignoring me.

“Well, I might have gone to the restaurant, just for a minute. . . .” Aunt Abby said.

The restaurant? Uh-oh. “You went to Bones ’n’ Brew?” Had my aunt gone over there to confront Oliver Jameson again? Not good. “Why? What were you thinking?”

“I was . . . looking for something,” she said evasively.

“What could you possibly have wanted from Bones ’n’ Brew?” I asked.

“Something,” Aunt Abby said. “Anything to shut him up and get him to leave me alone. I was tired of him hassling the food truckers, especially me. I figured if I could find something to hold over his head, maybe I could get him to back off.”

I dropped my head in my hands, stunned at this possibly incriminating news.

Dillon frowned. “Like what?”

“Like some health or safety violation . . . or rat poop. Bones ’n’ Brew has been around practically since the 1906 earthquake. It’s got to be riddled with violations. I figured Jameson was probably paying some government official to look the other way so he could stay in business all these years. I thought he might even have hired someone to help him pester the food trucks. So I went to his place to look for something I could take to the authorities.”

I shook my head at how naive she’d been. The police could arrest her for any number of reasons—illegal trespassing, corporate spying, theft. Who knew what the SFPD would throw at her?

In addition to possibly murder.

A question flashed through my mind: Where had Oliver Jameson been killed?

This time there was a pounding, not a knocking, on the door. A voice called out, “Mrs. Warner?”

“I’ll be right there,” she called back in a singsongy voice. “I’d better get my things.”

We followed her into the bedroom, where she picked out a pair of yellow slacks and a ruffly yellow blouse covered in a floral print. Completely inappropriate for a visit to the San Francisco Police Station.

“Did you see him?” I asked my aunt as she stepped into her bathroom to change.

“Who?” she called out.

“Oliver Jameson!” Dillon and I said together.

“Oh no. He wasn’t around. At least, not at first. That’s why I went when I did. I saw him leave, so I sneaked in the back door, through the kitchen.”

Great. There would be witnesses in the kitchen who could confirm she’d been on the premises.

Aunt Abby appeared in the bathroom doorway, dressed, her hair fluffed, her lipstick fresh.

“Did you steal anything?” Dillon asked.

“No! Of course not!” She picked out a sweater from her closet.

“Did you touch anything?” I asked.

“I don’t think so. . . . Maybe . . .”

“Mom, think! Did you go anywhere else besides the kitchen?” Dillon demanded.

“Just his office . . .” Aunt Abby headed down the hall.

I rolled my eyes and pictured my aunt in an orange jumpsuit. No doubt it would clash with her red hair. I steadied my panicked voice. When we reached the foyer, I whispered, “What did you do in his office, Aunt Abby?” I didn’t want the cops on the other side of the door to hear.

She shrugged again. “I just looked through a few of his desk drawers and some of the papers on the desk, that sort of thing. I didn’t steal anything, honestly.”

Stealing something was the least of my worries. Her fresh fingerprints would be all over Oliver Jameson’s office.

“So did you find anything?” Dillon asked.

Aunt Abby grinned. The sparkle returned to her eyes. “Well, as a matter of fact, I found a folder hidden under his leather ink blotter, but I didn’t get a chance to look inside because I heard a commotion coming from the hallway, so I hightailed it outta there.”

“Did anyone see you?” Dillon asked.

“I went through the office window. It opens onto the back alley.”

I tried to shake away a vision of my aunt Abby crawling through a window like a common burglar.

“That’s it?” I asked.

“I think so,” she said.

“Mrs. Warner,” a megaphoned voice announced on the other side of the front door.

Aunt Abby unlocked the door and swung it open. She smiled sweetly at the two uniformed officers.

“Dillon and I will follow you to the station,” I said to her.

She turned to me and whispered, “You’ll take care of Basil if anything happens?”

“You’ll be fine,” I said, trying to reassure her. “You’ll be seeing Basil in just a little while.”

She blinked a couple of times, then headed out the door.

I eyed Dillon’s sleepwear and he got the message. He ran to his room to change.

I stood watching as the two officers escorted my aunt to their waiting car. At least they hadn’t handcuffed her. I thought about calling a lawyer, then told myself the police would quickly realize my aunt couldn’t have committed any real crime—like murder—and would let her get back to preparing for tomorrow’s Crab and Seafood Festival.

Now who was the naive one?

•   •   •

The San Francisco Police Department is located in one of the seamier parts of the city. Luckily the area is crawling with cops, so I didn’t feel particularly threatened by the alcoholic, homeless, and mentally deranged characters passing by. Since cutbacks had closed many of the rehabilitation centers, homeless shelters, and mental hospitals, the streets and parks seemed to be the only places left for those who weren’t in the mainstream. Once again I felt lucky to live in Aunt Abby’s RV, or I might have found myself in a similar situation.

Dillon and I pulled up behind the police car and waited for Aunt Abby to get out of the backseat. In her yellow outfit, right down to the matching Crocs, she stood out among the people who frequented the police station. With her eyebrows neatly redrawn, her eyelids coated with a shiny yellow shadow, and her lips painted bright red, she was more suited to a clown party than a police visit.

To my surprise, Dillon had managed to find a pair of semiclean jeans, ripped only at the knees, an old, once-white T-shirt that read “Occupy Wall Street,” and rubber flip-flops. It was actually an improvement on his usual fashion statements. His dark curly hair sprung out from his head and hung over his eyebrows, obscuring his dark green eyes.

As for me, I’d changed into something simple, subtle, and professionally casual—black jeans and a tan shirt. Someone had to look normal in this family.

We were escorted through the metal detector, which we passed with flying colors, after dropping off our cell phones, loose coins, and other metal accessories.

So far, so good.

Next we were shown into a waiting room, while the uniformed officer who had driven Abby asked the desk sergeant to call someone named Detective Wellesley Shelton.

“Know any good lawyers?” Dillon whispered to me. Without his cell phone to hold, he kneaded his fingers and fidgeted nervously. I rarely saw him without some kind of electronic gizmo, even when he was eating.

I glanced at Aunt Abby. Dillon’s question was valid. Aunt Abby was about to be questioned in a murder investigation, and as far as I knew, she didn’t have an alibi or an attorney.

The only lawyer I knew was an old guy who had handled my parents’ divorce. Before I could come up with other possibilities, a tall, stocky man in a dark suit opened the door. He was African American, around fifty or sixty, I guessed, judging by his curly salt-and-pepper hair and graying mustache. He wore glasses, an SFPD lapel pin, and several gold rings on his fingers, except on the ring finger of his left hand. For some reason, I just notice these things.

“Ms. Warner?” he said in a smooth, low voice.

We all stood up from the bench where we’d been asked to wait. The detective looked at my aunt, flanked by her makeshift bodyguards.

I reached out a hand and took the lead. “I’m Darcy, Abby’s niece. This is Dillon, her son. We’re here for support.”

He hesitated, looked us up and down, then shook my hand and said, “Fine by me. Ms. Warner?” He reached over for her hand; she smiled at the imposing detective and daintily shook his hand. “I’m Detective Shelton. Will you follow me, please?”

The detective held open a door to let us pass, then led the way to an office at the end of the hall. Three desks filled the small room, all empty. I noted the time on the wall clock—it was after five p.m. No doubt the other officers were done for the day. It looked like lucky Detective Shelton was in for some overtime.

“Have a seat.” He gestured for my aunt to sit in the sturdy wooden chair opposite his desk. Dillon and I scavenged a couple of folding chairs that leaned against a wall.

“Thanks for coming, Ms. Warner,” he continued. “As the officers told you, the owner of a restaurant across the street from the food trucks at Fort Mason was murdered this afternoon. A witness mentioned you had an encounter with the deceased chef earlier today, and I wondered if you might have seen or heard something that would help us. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

From his soothing tone, I felt like we were meeting with a family counselor rather than a police officer. His Barry White voice was gentle and relaxed, and it was obvious he was trying to put my aunt at ease. My first thought was that it was some kind of police trick. Where were the tough interrogators I’d seen on Criminal Minds and NCIS, or even that chick on The Mentalist?

“So, Ms. Warner—”

“Please, call me Abby,” my aunt said sweetly, batting her heavily mascaraed eyelashes. “Everybody does. Being called Ms. Warner reminds me of my high school cafeteria days, and believe me, I’d like to forget about those years.” She flashed him a toothy, candy apple red smile. The woman couldn’t help herself!

“All right, then. Abby.” He flipped open a notebook and held a pen at the ready. “How well did you know Oliver Jameson, the owner of Bones ’n’ Brew?”

“Not that well,” Abby said, sounding sincere as she shook her headful of curls. “I mean, we were both in the food service business, but he owned that aging dive across the street and I operate a nice clean food truck, a school bus, actually. Converted. I call it the Big Yellow School Bus—a kind of play on words. The name Bones ’n’ Brew is just crass, don’t you think?”

My aunt was rambling again. I had to stop her before she incriminated herself and was led off to jail in chains.

“Officer,” I said, interrupting her, “what my aunt wants to tell you is that a lot of the food truck owners have had encounters with this guy because he objected to them being so close to his restaurant. I understand he wasn’t the most pleasant man to deal with. I have a feeling he’d made a number of enemies, no doubt some in his own kitchen. . . .”

Detective Shelton held up a hand to stop my own rambling. “Well, Ms. . . .”

“Darcy.”

“Well, Darcy, my job is to collect information. We don’t operate on feelings here at SFPD. According to a number of witnesses, your aunt was seen having a heated argument with the victim shortly before he died, and”—he checked his notes—“wielding a knife—”

Aunt Abby leaned forward and slammed her hand on the detective’s desk. “That jerk put a rat under my stove!”

The room was silent at my aunt’s sudden outburst. Realizing she’d overreacted, she sat back and folded her hands in her lap as if she were in church.

Well, great, I thought, cringing. She’d just given herself a motive for killing Oliver Jameson: revenge. And now it appeared she couldn’t control her temper. All we needed was the weapon—the knife she’d been waving at him earlier—and she’d be wearing orange pajamas for the rest of her life.

“Ms. Warner . . .”

“Abby,” she said, her tone soft again, her sweet smile back on her face.

“Abby,” the detective said, enunciating her name. “Where were you between the hours of one and four this afternoon?”

“Wait a minute!” Dillon said, finally coming to life. “I thought you just wanted to ask her some routine questions about this guy. You don’t think she had anything to do with this, do you?”

“Oh, I couldn’t kill anyone, Detective,” Aunt Abby added. “Not even someone I hated as much as Oliver Jameson. I mean, look at me. I couldn’t hurt a fly. I don’t even like killing rats.”

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Praise for Penny Pike writing as Penny Warner and her Party-Planning Mystery Series:

 “A party you don’t want to miss.”—New York Times Bestselling Author Denise Swanson

“The books dish up a banquet of mayhem.”—The Oakland Tribune

“Delightful!”—Meritorious Mysteries

 

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