Hair Raiser (Bad Hair Day Series #2)by Nancy J. Cohen
Not just your average South Florida beachcomber, Marla's now a volunteer for Ocean Guard, a coastal preservation group. She's even in charge of their upcoming Taste of the World fundraiser. But when chef Pierre Chevalier's flaming Bananas Foster results in a three-alarm fire, she can't help wondering: too much rum in the recipe-or sabotage?
Something is beginning to smell fishy in sunny Palm Haven, and it isn't just the polluted shoreline. But even Marla is stunned when Ocean Guard's attorney, Benjamin Kline, is murdered. Not that she was crazy about the guy-in fact, nobody was. The victim had his share of enemies, though Marla's old friend, the irritatingly appealing Detective Dalton Vail, is convinced the culprit was one of Ocean Guard's esteemed board members. Now he's counting on Marla to untangle the clues.
The suspects couldn't be more varied-or less likely-from likable businesswoman Babs Winrow to quiet, respectable banker Darren Shapiro. Even Digby Raines, the smarmy mayoral candidate himself, and creepy funeral director Stefano Barletti are on the ever-growing list. One of them snipped Ben Kline's life short, and Marla's determined to get to the root of a case that's anything but cut and dried. And with her own brush with death serving as a blunt reminder that a killer's still on the loose, Marla realizes that if she isn't careful, the next thing to wash up on the sand might not be mere medical waste... With her sassy style and flair for local color, Nancy J. Cohen has created another sleek page-turner that will leave readers eagerly awaiting their next appointment with the pert and plucky Marla.
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"You must treat her like a lover. Stroke her tenderly, undress her, and zen unleash your desire when you devour her. I guarantee you will be satisfied."
Chef Pierre Chevalier fixed his class of fifteen wannabe cooks with a stern glare. Holding up an unblemished banana, he waved it in the air like a giant phallic symbol. "Observe ze proper technique. To make Bananas Foster, first begin by peeling ze skin with a gentle hand to avoid bruising."
With infinite care, he pared one piece after another as though stripping off his lover's garments. His gaze deepened as he stared longingly at the naked fruit glistening in his hand. "You see? Look at ze velvety smoothness of zis shaft. Ze moist tip and firm inner core remind you of something, no?" A chuckle rumbled from his throat. "Zis we can put in ze mouth, too, but only after it is properly prepared."
Marla watched his movements, amazed that such a stout man with a round face could be so sexy. Perhaps that accounted for the popularity of Pierre's culinary classes. "Never mind the innuendoes, I'm gaining five pounds just by sitting here," she commented to her friend Tally Riggs beside her.
The chef finished slicing the banana into a bowl. Several more fruits met the same fate before Pierre melted a chunk of butter in a skillet. He added the banana slices, sprinkling cinnamon on top until a delicious fragrance filled the air.
Tally's blue eyes twinkled. "I could never get brown sugar to melt that way without scorching the pan."
"Wait until he adds the rum. Did you ever think food could inspire such passion? No wonder people flock to his restaurant. Pierre will be a big draw atTaste of the World."
"Ken and I bought tickets already. He feels it's important to support Ocean Guard's fund-raiser. You know how he gets a kick out of joining their beach cleanups." Tally laughed. "It makes me think Ken is a beachcomber at heart. Your cousin is hosting the affair at her estate again, isn't she?"
"Yeah, and she's getting nervous. We have less than two months to get everything ready. I can't believe I let her con me into working as chef liaison for the event. At least I've met most of the major participants, including Pierre."
As Marla watched, he removed the skillet from the heat. His fingers flew through the practiced motions of warming a measure of rum gently in a separate saucepan. "Zis is le grand finale, ze moment of ecstasy," he cooed, pursing his lips in an air kiss. "All zat foreplay was just building up to zis eruption of heat. You are hungry, no?"
"Yeah, but not for what you have in mind," Marla muttered. Lifting the smaller pot, he poured liquor over the bubbling bananas. A sugary fragrance wafted into her nostrils, making her stomach growl. Nine o'clock on Wednesday evening, and she hadn't eaten dinner yet. Everyone was waiting to sample the dishes after Pierre finished his demos. Let's wrap it up, pal, she thought, folding her packet of recipes and stuffing them in her purse.
Pierre's tall white toque bobbed on his head as he lit a match and tilted it toward the warmed rum in the skillet. The flame had barely touched the liquid when an explosion rocked the room, sending a wall of fire shooting into the air. "Mon Dieu!" Pierre cried, tumbling backward to disappear behind the roaring flames.
"Quick! Everyone out!" shouted his assistant, grabbing a fire extinguisher mounted on a wall unit.
Marla hustled away with the others, hovering in an anteroom of the restaurant while someone called for help on a cell phone.
Smoke billowed from the classroom, forcing her and the others to fall back. As time ticked by, sirens wailed in the distance, becoming progressively louder. Coughing and choking, the chef surged from the doorway, leaning heavily on his assistant. His face, reddened and dry, appeared as though it might blister. He cradled his hands against his chest, and she could see that his forearms had been singed. Rushing forward to come to his aid, she halted when his wild-eyed gaze captured her.
"Forget my taking part in Taste of the World. I should have listened to ze warning. Now see what has happened!" His voice cracked, and he ended in a fit of wheezing coughs.
"You should've listened to what?" Marla stared in confusion until the smell of burning plastic coming from the classroom reached her lungs. Gasping for a breath of fresh air, she staggered toward the exit. Outside, fire engines screeched to a stop at the curb. Within seconds, uniformed firefighters charged into the restaurant. Several of them headed for the classroom, from which smoke swirled in acrid increments.
"Tell me what you meant," she called desperately as the chef was positioned on a stretcher by paramedics. Herded outside with her classmates, she followed him to the rescue truck.
A raspy breath rattled in his chest as he shook a finger at her. "You'll see, Miss Shore. Ocean Guard is cursed. You had better quit working for zem before something happens to you."
"What's he talking about?" Tally said, trailing after her.
"I have no idea." Marla's opportunity to question him evaporated when the police took charge and began interviewing witnesses. "Come on, let's get out of here," she urged when they were free to depart. Leading the way, Marla strode along the cracked sidewalk toward the parking lot in the rear. Dimly lit streetlamps cast flickering shadows into the surrounding foliage. Pierre's restaurant, Chez Moi, held a venerable place in downtown Fort Lauderdale behind Las Olas Boulevard. Established five years ago, it drew in a young crowd with its trendy menu and lack of early-bird specials. Marla sniffed gratefully at the sweet scent from a Hong Kong orchid tree, eager to clear her nose of the pungent smell of smoke.
"I hope Pierre will be okay," she said, when they were heading west to Palm Haven in her white Toyota Camry. "Thank goodness no one else was hurt." Her appetite had dissipated with the smoke, even though neither of them had eaten anything substantial since lunch. "Want to stop for a quick meal?" she offered halfheartedly.
Tally pushed back a strand of wavy blond hair and gave her an apologetic glance. "I'd better go home, or Ken will wonder what's happened to me. Rats, I was really looking forward to tasting that food. Can you believe the rum was that volatile?"
Marla shook her head, eyes focused on the road. "Something else must have been added to the liquor. It wouldn't normally react that way. Didn't you hear what Pierre said about a warning? Bless my bones, I'm really getting concerned."
"I didn't quite catch your conversation."
"He said he should've heeded the warning, and if I didn't withdraw from helping Ocean Guard, I'd be sorry. This isn't the first incident. I'm beginning to wonder if someone is sabotaging my efforts."
Tally raised a penciled eyebrow. "What is it you haven't been telling me, Marla?"
Marla swallowed guiltily. She usually told her best friend everything, but she'd discounted each problem as being separate. Now she began to get a glimmer that these weren't random acts at all. "Including Pierre, three of the chefs have resigned from Taste of the World. Three of the Big Ten. This can't be mere coincidence. Someone is out to get me."
A black sedan shot in front of her car, and she jammed on the brakes. Tally grabbed hold of her seat cushion. "You, or Ocean Guard?" she squeaked.
"Well, not me really." Marla's racing heart calmed as she changed lanes and sped away from the erratic driver. "Although I don't see why anyone would be out to get Ocean Guard either. I'll have to talk to Cynthia about this."
"You've been seeing your cousin a lot more than me lately."
It wasn't like Tally to sound petulant. Marla glanced at her, feeling a twinge of remorse. Maybe she had become neglectful since she began working on this project. Her grip tightened on the steering wheel. "Sorry, but ever since Cynthia roped me into working with her, I haven't had any spare time. As if I don't have enough to do working in my salon all day!"
Tally's face softened. "If I recall, you were happy to accept Cynthia's offer since you had to cut back your hours in the salon after your hands were injured. It's not as if she forced you into taking the job. It gave you a chance to recover from your struggle with Bertha Kravitz's killer."
"Yeah, but now I'm back to a full work week. I should've just signed up for Cynthia's volunteer committee instead of agreeing to be coordinator for the chefs. Anyway, Jonathan Doherty from The Backyard Bistro and Emilio Gastroni resigned. Jon's place had a fire break out two weeks ago, and Emilio got a citation for hiring illegal immigrants."
Tally looked out a side window while they passed the Salvation Army thrift store and crossed an overpass for I-95. When they reached an unsavory section of deserted storefronts, she turned her face back toward Marla.
"So why do you think something is wrong? Taste of the World is such a popular event."
"I wish I knew. It's just a gut feeling. But even you have to admit that three instances must be more than coincidence." Hadn't her instincts in the past proved reliable? Witness the two new staff members in her salon. She hadn't been willing to believe anyone close to her would do her harm, but she'd learned differently. Now she was more attuned to listening to her inner voice.
"Cynthia has been in charge of the fund-raiser each year because the gala event is held at her estate," she explained. "I've gotten the impression that this year is especially significant, but I'm not sure why. I'll have to let Cynthia know what's been happening. So far I've been able to get substitutes for the two chefs who've resigned, but if this keeps on, we'll run into trouble. It's nearly time for us to send out press releases regarding the program."
"Why don't you consult Detective Vail for his opinion?"
"This isn't a homicide case, so I doubt Dalton would be interested. Anyway, I don't see him so often."
Tally snorted. "I thought he came around rather regularly."
"The man stops in for a haircut every month." She caught Tally's look. "All right, I've grabbed a bite to eat with him a few times. What's the megillah in that? We're just friends."
"Lieutenant Vail is not the sort of man for casual friendships." Tally flicked a polished fingernail at a speck of dust on her loosely styled pantsuit. Marla admired the silky material, which shimmered in tints of gold and red. Her own black skirt and forest green sweater seemed bland in comparison, but earth tones suited her bobbed brown hair and matching eyes.
She didn't answer Tally at once, her mind focused on passing through an intersection and continuing west. Derelict street corners and older homes in need of maintenance gave way to lushly landscaped shopping centers and upscale residences. Was this symbolic of her relationship to Dalton? Had she graduated from a prime murder suspect in his view, after Bertha Kravitz's killer was found, to a personal friend? It was hard to tell where she stood on his list, not that Marla was sure how she felt about him herself. She liked the enigmatic detective, but feared their attraction to each other might fall apart if they got closer. The old adage, familiarity breeds contempt, rang in her mind. Hadn't she worshiped Stanley, her hateful ex-spouse, until married life exposed his controlling nature? Why ruin a good thing with the widowed detective by getting more involved? At thirty-four years old, she was happy with her life.
Tally snickered, her dark crimson lips turning up. "You don't have to say anything else, Marla. I know you like him. Why don't you get his opinion about the chefs?"
"I'll see," she said in a noncommittal tone. "First I'm going to pay some of them a visit. I'd like to know if anyone else has been issued a warning."
She'd only been to Dmitri Sarvik's restaurant once, and that was to introduce herself as chef coordinator for Taste of the World. Marla decided to start with him since it had been a while since she'd contacted the Greek restaurant owner. Maybe he'd have some new developments to report. Actually, it was strange that she hadn't heard from him lately. This was November, meaning soon they'd get into the holiday crunch. She needed everything to be finalized by Thanksgiving since the big event was scheduled for December 18. So little time, too much to do.
Greek food was okay by her standards, but it wasn't one of her favorites. Nicole enjoyed it, though, so Marla decided to invite her fellow stylist along. She'd noticed Nicole entering the storeroom during a break in their busy Saturday afternoon schedule. As soon as she was free, Marla strode toward the room at the rear of the salon. Preparing for her next customer, she selected a tube of color from a shelf lined with supplies and took it to a sink.
"Hey, Nicole, can I treat you to dinner tonight?" she asked, pouring two ounces of developer into a plastic applicator bottle, then adding an equal amount from the tube.
"What, don't you have a hot date later?" The dark-skinned stylist grinned, glancing up from the mystery novel she'd been reading. She wore a white, collared shirt under a beige vest with khaki pants. The outfit added to her sleek look, augmented by ebony hair pulled into a high ponytail; a tall, lithe figure; and a graceful columned neck.
"Nope, not this evening." Marla shook the bottle to blend its contents, then squeezed out a few drops to make sure the tip was clean. She spared a moment to glimpse the title of Nicole's latest addiction. Her friend was a book junkie, devouring mysteries and medical thrillers. Marla suspected she was a frustrated medical student who couldn't stand the sight of real blood. "So tell me, what is Off the Cuff about?"
Nicole's coffee eyes twinkled. "It's about a patient strangled by a sphygmomanometer, otherwise known as a blood pressure device. Naturally one of the doctors is a prime suspect in the story, but I think it's the respiratory therapy man."
"Oh. So are you free tonight? I didn't make any plans. Ralph is busy, Dalton went out of town, and I thought tonight would be a good time to visit some of the chefs on my list."
"Why don't you ask Arnie? He'd jump at the chance to escort you anywhere."
Marla rolled her eyes. The owner of Bagel Busters persisted in asking her out despite her kind refusals. Although she was fond of Arnie, and found the widowed father of two rather attractive, she had no desire to get involved with him in any way other than friendship.
"Dmitri's place is Greek. I know how much you like moussaka. Want to go or not?"
"Heck, I suppose. Besides, Eddie promised to take his aunt to Jai Alai tonight, and I hate that game. So sure, I'll go."
Dmitri insisted on giving them a tour of the kitchen when Marla mentioned to the waiter that she needed to speak to him. She and Nicole finished their Greek salads before following the man toward the rear of the restaurant where several cooks sweated over a smoky grill. Hickory smoke rose rich and pungent in the air, and the smell of cooking onions stung her eyes. Dmitri strode out of a rear doorway through which she could just spot prep workers chopping and dicing vegetables.
"Marla Shore!" Dmitri cried, widening his arms to embrace her in a bear hug. She caught a whiff of garlic as his large torso crushed her slender frame. "You honor me by your visit."
When he released her, Marla studied him with a grin. A walrus black mustache drooped over his upper lip. His florid face beamed with a welcoming smile reflected in the warmth of his obsidian eyes. "This is my friend Nicole," she said. "I wanted to ask you how things were going regarding Taste of the World."
"Ah, yes. I was just reviewing my menu the other day. It should work out well as long as my suppliers come through. Did you receive the copy I sent you?"
She nodded, stepping out of the way while a waiter rushed past carrying a breadbasket filled with fragrant rolls. "So, uh, does this mean you still can participate in Taste of the World?"
Dmitri threw her a look of puzzlement. "Of course, why would I not? I am flattered to have been invited."
"That's great. Well, let me know if you need anything." Obviously, he hadn't received any threats. Marla wasn't about to clue him in regarding the warning Pierre had mentioned. Thank God Dmitri was unaffected. Now who should she check on next?
"Let's go have dessert over at the Seafood Emporium," Marla suggested after she and Nicole had both finished a generous portion of moussaka. When their attentive waiter approached holding out a platter with a delectable array of sweets, she shook her head, declining the temptation of a syrupy slice of baklava. "We're not far from the other restaurant, so we might as well stop in there to talk to Max. He's next on my list."
"Hey, girl, I'm going to get fat going out with you!" Nicole complained.
Marla pretended to scrutinize her friend's narrow waistline. "I don't think so, pal. You're one of those disgusting people who never gain weight."
Max was preparing a sauce to go with grilled trout when they entered his kitchen. "Hey, gals," the tall blond young man said while he whisked cream into a boiling mixture of dry white wine, balsamic vinegar, and minced shallots. When the cream had blended in, he added diced tomatoes. Marla recognized the ingredients from her gourmet cooking days when she was married to Stan. Now she had little time to cook, let alone follow recipes.
"This is Nicole. We stopped in for some dessert," Marla explained. "I just wanted to confirm your arrangements for Taste of the World."
Max cut a chunk of butter into the sauce, his wrist rotating with rapid, deft movements. "Everything is fine." A curl of hair fell forward onto his forehead as he bent over to sniff the aroma emanating from the pan.
"You haven't heard from anyone else about the event?"
"Nope. Been too busy." He cast a furtive glance about the room. "You ladies got to excuse me, but I don't have time to chat. We're a cook short tonight, and I've got to do some of my own prep work. Y'all go on out and enjoy your dessert."
He stalked away from them, ostensibly to get some ingredients to add to his dish, but Marla had the distinct impression they were being dismissed. Was he being less talkative than usual because others were in the room? Maybe she'd corner him another time when they could be alone.
After dropping Nicole off at home, she decided to make one more stop before turning in for the night. Saturday was too good an opportunity to miss since all the chefs were at work. Robbie from the Cajun Cookpot hadn't responded to her latest inquiry. It was worth driving to Davie to ask why he hadn't contacted her.
Too stuffed to order any more meals, she skirted the front door and headed for an employee entrance down a side alley. As she approached, the smell of garbage overwhelmed her. An open trash bin stood outside the kitchen door, its contents loaded beyond the rim. Insects buzzed around, flying in and out the open door to the kitchen from where the sounds of banging pots and pans reached her ears. Yuck, Marla thought. I wonder what else is crawling around inside there.
Squaring her shoulders, Marla marched inside. A mixture of tantalizing aromas met her nostrils, and she sniffed in a spicy scent that made her eyes water. Several workers looked up, their swarthy faces startled. She braced herself to meet Robbie, who was bound to be displeased by her actions.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he thundered when he caught sight of her. He was stirring the contents of a giant pot, his thick neck veins bulging, biceps straining under his soiled white jacket. Dipping a spoon into the pot, he raised it to his lips and slurped the hot, steamy liquid. Grimacing, he grabbed a fistful of cayenne pepper that he tossed into the pot, stirring vigorously as he regarded Marla with a glower.
She smiled with a bravado she didn't feel, uneasy at the looks she was getting from his employees. "I'm wondering why you didn't return my form about Taste of the World. Have you selected your menu items? It's getting near time when we have to send out new press releases."
"Get me some more tomatoes, will ya?" he hollered to an assistant. The man glanced up but didn't respond. "Whatsamatta, you no speaky English? Grab me a bunch of those red tomatoes," he shouted as though the guy were deaf. "Christ, this help ain't worth shit." He got up and grabbed the items himself. Reaching for a long knife, he began slicing the plump tomatoes on a wooden cutting board.
"Well? What about the form?" Marla said, tapping her foot impatiently. Frustration made her breath come short, or maybe it was the lack of air-conditioning. A fan blew moist air around the kitchen, but it didn't do much to pull in a breeze from the alley. The garbage-scented breeze, she remembered, wrinkling her nose. Her sweater stuck to her back, and she longed for a refreshing shower.
"I'll get to it one of these days." Robbie spied a roach scurrying away on the counter and he leapt at it, knife blade slashing through the air. After he'd reduced the creature to pieces, he brushed the remains onto the floor and continued slicing the tomatoes.
Marla stifled an impulse to gag. Her eyes fixed on the pot of bubbling stew, circled by a duo of buzzing insects. "Maybe you should take your time. I might want to mention these conditions to the restaurant inspectors."
Straightening his back, Robbie glared at her. "You do and you're dead."
If your restaurant weren't so popular, pal, I'd take you off my list right now. Dirty scumbag. Maybe she'd eliminate him anyway. He was never in a pleasant mood and ran his kitchen like a sewer. She'd have to be careful how she justified herself to Ocean Guard's board of directors, though. Robbie wasn't the type of person you wanted to cross.
"Time for you to leave," he ordered.
He brandished his knife, stalking toward her with a menacing light in his eyes. "Get out!"
Marla stumbled into the alley just as he slammed the door after her. It didn't even shut properly; the warped wood prevented closure. Her limbs trembling, she recovered her wits enough to scramble to her car. Just like that roach scampering away, and it had ended up getting diced to death.
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Beauty Salon where she also works as a stylist. Currently, Marla is preoccupied with the Taste of the World fundraiser sponsored by Ocean Guard, a preservation group concerned with the coastal environment. She serves as the liaison between the participating chefs in the event and the leaders of the sponsoring group. If this occasion succeeds, Ocean Guard will obtain ownership of the property next door to her friend's property. If the property is to remain a nature preserve, Ocean Guard must also donate $20,000 to a designated political lobby, hence the fundraiser. Obtaining the property appears to be a snap until many of the chefs withdraw from the event. Marla thinks someone is trying to prevent the transfer of the property. Two organization members are murdered and biological waste washes ashore onto the property whose ownership appears in doubt. Marla begins making inquiries that will make her a key target of a determined killer. HAIR RAISER is a delightfully funny yet stylized murder mystery that shows the talent of author Nancy J. Cohen to entertain her audience. The characters are easy to identify with, likable and realistic next-door neighbors. The brilliantly crafted mystery makes it extremely difficult to identify the villain until Ms. Cohen reveals whom the individual is. The second installment in the 'Bad Hair Day' series is a near perfect perm. Harriet Klausner