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Mom, Apple Pie and Murder
By Nancy Pickard
Prime CrimeCopyright © 2000 Nancy Pickard
All right reserved.
A Worm in the Winesap
"Whopper Rooter: We shoot your wad. Good morning."
"It's afternoon, and hardly good."
"What's your problem, clogged pipe?" There was a sudden pause, then the dispatcher asked, "Is this Eve again?"
Eve groaned into the phone. It's never good, she knew, to be on a first-name basis with sewer rooter men. "Yes, it's Eve. The whole system's clogged. Send out the big truck."
"Eve in Eden Township, right?"
"Right. Your guys know the way. Hurry."
"We'll get someone out as soon as possible. At least now"--the dispatcher paused, and before he could control his snicker sufficiently to go on, she guessed what was coming--"at least you don't have to worry about a flood!"
She hung up. She would have slumped down on the couch if she hadn't already been sprawled there. She gazed at her Whopper Rooter Club card--all ten holes punched. Who would have thought she'd be eligible for her free root so soon?
Anyone who knew her sons, that's who.
This was a fine way to spendMother's Day. All she'd ever wanted was to be respectable. With a sigh, she pushed herself up, stepped over a shepherd pup gnawing on the carpet, grabbed her eight-year-old son by the scruff of his decidedly scruffy neck, and shoved him into his bedroom. "You can stay there till you're ready to apologize to your older brother. If I were you, young man, I'd apologize sincerely enough to make him forgive you. You know your brother's temper." She shut the door with restraint--not, she knew, that that would make a difference. Both her sons could think till Christmas and the concept of personal responsibility wouldn't enter their cerebrums. They each had their own obsessions. They were, after all, their father's sons.
Their father, of course, was all too aware it was Mother's Day. He was presiding in the kitchen of his beloved restaurant, Adam's House of Ribs. From all over the state families came to claim their much-coveted reservations, and were now lining up in the lobby under the Adam's, the Original Rib House sign, eager to cram into the dining room and chow down in honor of Mom.
Adam's was always crowded. His ribs were known all over. He easily could have franchised, opened second, third, and fourth Houses of Ribs. His operation could have spread out like ribs from a breastbone, but, alas, he lacked the foresight. "Branch out, Adam," she had urged him time and again, "include pie, or cobbler, or pandowdy--we've got the apples." That, of course, was before one of the boys denuded the tree, flushed the apples, and the Whopper Rooter man punched hole number three. Still, with one phone call she could have bought apples--Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Red Junes, Red Melbas, or Red Spies. A couple of E-mails would have scored her Jonathans, Kings, Pippins, even Newtown Pippins. For Cortlands or Arkansas Blacks ... but it didn't matter. Adam had no head for apples. Adam was obsessed with ribs.
How had her life come to this--married to a man whose life was in ribs. Adam, alas, was the personification of stodgy. Chances were not items Adam took. To Adam, chances were slippery slopes. Twenty years ago when she stepped down off the bus in Eden Township she was too young to understand what stodgy meant. Twenty years ago when she stopped in the restaurant for takeout, she had been awed at Adam's renown, impressed by his status. And just about flattered out of her mind when Adam himself offered her one of his ribs.
Adam was looking for a hostess at the restaurant and she had beaten out nine other girls for the job. Then, she'd figured her victory was due to her chipper smile, her long blonde hair, her A in Algebra. It was only after she'd started at Adam's House of Ribs that the other waitresses kidded her about being chosen for her name. "Oh no," she'd assured them. "How silly. Adam is a businessman; he's tight with the guys in power--the mayor, the governor, and all. No way would he be so superficial as to pick a stranger off a Greyhound and install her as his hostess just because her name is Eve. He's a chef of renown, a force in the rib world. All over town, lips lick at the very thought of his barbecue sauce. No, no. He chose me because I'm a great hostess, not because I'm Eve."
She had been a great hostess, the best, Adam said. She had loved figuring out which table suited the mayor's party, and how to handle things when the governor came and the mayor was already ensconced at the best table. She knew what to do when the governor's wife and ex-wife arrived in separate parties and the governor was already there, eating with his girlfriend. She knew good and evil, and how to seat them at opposite ends of the room. Adam kept saying he didn't understand how she managed it. Of course he didn't--forethought and discrimination were not Adam's focus. Ribs were.
Adam may not have known how she managed to charm the customers, but her skill at it certainly charmed him. She was the only woman for him, he vowed; their's would be a marriage made in heaven. A rootless eighteen-year-old, she had been awed at the prospect of becoming the wife of such an important man, such an upstanding family man who would never humiliate her in public. She had had a father who philandered and a boyfriend who strayed; she knew all too well what it was like to have the neighbors uncover humiliating secrets and the whole family be disgraced. Never again would she hide behind closed doors while the neighbors smirked. But with a man like Adam such an abhorrent possibility was out of the question. Adam was everything good, trustworthy, and oh so respectable. For all that, stodgy was a small price to pay. And after the whirlwind trip to Reno and the Paradise Wedding Chapel (gown and tux provided) she had loved driving home into her garden in Eden and standing proudly at the gate with Adam. She loved walking through Eden with Adam; she loved it when Edenites greeted her smilingly because she was Adam's wife. The ridiculous idea that he might have been attracted by her name, she dismissed as easily as she brushed her blond hair away from her big blue eyes.
She had been wrong. How wrong, she didn't understand until the birth of their first child, Cain.
"Cain?" she had shrieked. "I thought we were going to call him Dwayne, or Derek, or Kyle. What about Cain for a middle name?"
But Adam would have none of it. Cain, just Cain, the boy was. Adam adored him, adored his own status as a father and even more firmly settled pillar of the community. "We'll be having us another," he took to saying; "like with ribs from Adam's House of Ribs, you can't stop after just one."
Eve could have stopped. Cain was a fractious child. Eve's blond hair and blue eyes and experience at seating the governor's wives at opposite ends of the restaurant were not great preparation for child-rearing. She knew better than to repeat her mistake.
But Adam was adamant. "Little Cain needs a brother to roughhouse with," he said night after night--Monday night after Monday night, when the House of Ribs was closed.
"Little Cain needs a brother," he insisted while the boy was battering at the sides of his ant farm.
"Little Cain needs a brother," he said as Cain pushed a playmate off the jungle gym.
"Cain needs a brother," he intoned as they headed to Eden Acres Elementary School to get the boy reinstated after he backed up the plumbing and flooded the school.
"Cain is a natural-born farmer. What he needs is a little brother to help him out," he said as the boy worked off the debt to the school board cultivating Adam's oregano plants.
"Cain needs a little brother," Adam insisted as they got him from Juvenile Hall after the sheriff found Cain's own "oregano" patch.
How many times had she dreamed of leaving Adam? Lots more than she considered producing a second son. But leave him she could not. There was Cain. Cain was not an appealing child, an endearing adolescent, or an attractive teenager. Still, she was his mother and she couldn't abandon the boy. And she certainly wasn't about to leave and take the little ruffian with her.
Then, too, there was the restaurant, where she'd hostessed away her best years. After Cain's birth, she did all the ordering, threatening, permit-getting, inspector-bribing, and anything else not directly rib-connected. So there would be no danger of Adam's important friends wondering why he couldn't afford to hire an administrative assistant, she created that identity for herself. No supplier suspected that it was Eve ordering vinegar; no Health Department inspector guessed Eve was sending his payoff. As far as the neighbors, the mayor, the governor, and their wives knew, Eve was lounging in the garden with Cain. Between Cain and the restaurant work, however, she'd barely ever gotten out of the garden. If she left Adam, she'd never be recompensed for all her work. But she was Adam's wife, and she wanted her half.
Even so, she might have waited till Cain was collared again, then cut her losses and filed for divorce, but she had nowhere to go, and no friends in town to help her. "Family first," Adam always insisted. "When you've got a family you don't need friends coming by, filling your ears with gossip." With a respected man like Adam, what kind of case could she make for divorce? Inadequate, that's what. She could hardly protest that Adam was stodgy, boring, totally without imagination. Adultery was grounds for divorce; stodgy was not. And she had to admit, though it didn't make her think better of herself, that she did love being the respected wife of a pillar. She wasn't about to humiliate him, and herself, in public.
It had been too infuriating to think about, and so she hadn't.
She had no decent explanation why after ten years she'd let herself get pregnant again--maybe just the wish for a daughter. Adam was ecstatic. He created a new tomatoless sauce in honor of "Cain's impending brother." No amount of suggestion would convince him that babies come in two sexes, and by the time her due date arrived Eve knew within herself that he was right: Cain would have a brother. She did the only thing she could--bribed the birth certificate clerk, and named the baby Dominick. Adam, of course, was furious.
"You won't be happy till his brother kills him, will you, Adam?" she said.
But Adam's life was complete and he was happy. He built a gazebo and now on Monday evenings he sat there with Cain and Dominick watching Monday Night Football.
The rest of the time he was cooking ribs. Cain occupied himself by growing marijuana and picking on his brother; he didn't share his father's belief that he needed a little brother. Eve felt so guilty about poor little Dominick that when he asked for a dog she could not refuse him.
Not quickly enough did she realize the danger in giving the boy twenty dollars and sending him to the pound. By the time she remembered the pound's motto--"It is more blessed to give than to receive"--little Dominick's German shepherd had a litter of ten. Little Dominick petted them lovingly. Cain fingered them suspiciously. When Adam put his hands beneath the pup's ribs ... well, it didn't make her think better of her husband.
How had her life gotten to this state? she asked herself as a brindle pup teethed on her hand. She would have washed off the slobber if she'd had more ambition, and if she'd had water. Where was the Whopper Rooter man? He knew the way here as clearly as to his own house. She thought longingly--
The knock on the door was so soft she almost missed it. The Whopper Rooter man? But no. Wayne, the Whopper Rooter man, used the front door. This knock was on the back door, the favored entry of Cain's "clients."
Only this morning she had walked in on Cain as he was packaging leaves and seeds and said, "One of these days, you're going to get yourself sent away for good."
"Nah, I won't." Cain twirled the pigtail left after he'd shaved his head. "Dad's got friends in high places."
"That's your father, not you. You don't make yourself likeable, Cain."
Cain had shrugged, and then spotting one of his brother's dogs, he'd kicked at it as he had a dozen times before.
"Hey, Crutch, lay off!" little Dominick had whined, knowing that the hated nickname would set his brother off as it always had. Then, as usual, Cain lunged, Dominick sidestepped and ran, furniture suffered.
But this morning when the scene replayed itself little Dominick had said nothing, just stalked out of the house. And it wasn't till the toilet backed up that Cain had realized his crop had gone downriver. Cain had screamed: "I'm going to kill you, you little bastard!" He'd uttered this same threat time and again without the interruption of originality--he was, after all, his father's son. But this time was different. This time Eve believed him.
Now Eve cocked an ear to hear what Cain was telling this disappointed customer. But before she could distinguish a word, the front doorbell rang. She pushed herself up, threaded through shepherds, and pulled the door open. Dog hair flew. The Whopper Rooter man would be a relief in more ways than one.
But when she opened the door there was no familiar brown-uniformed man holding a snake. On the stoop was a tall redhead wearing a boa, a feather boa.
"Adam here?" The woman was years older than she, but beautiful, voluptuous, and dressed like no one Eve had ever seen in the burg of Eden. Her flowing beige ensemble looked cool, comfortable, and likely to drive men wild. And her snakeskin boots were made for stomping. There was a jiggle to this woman, like she was an engine idling, an engine too busy to take time to stop and start again. This was a press-the-gas-and-go gal. "Adam? Is he here or what?"
"No, of course Adam's not here. It's Mother's Day. He's been at his ribs since four A.M."
"Oh, the rib thing," the woman said with a laugh. "You know, if we were talking anyone but Adam I'd give you my friend's card. My friend is a shrink in Vegas; deals with fetishes. But Adam--"
"Adam's cooking ribs, at his restaurant Adam's House of Ribs. You must not be from around here if you don't know about Adam's House of Ribs. Who are you, anyway? And what do you want?"
The insistent woman shifted her weight on her stiletto heels and tossed her boa over her left shoulder. She was tapping her toe, ready to move on. "I used to live here. Just passing through on my way back to Vegas. Haven't heard from Adam in thirty years, not since I left. Just figured I'd stop in and see how the old bird was doing, you know?" She lifted her weight back, blinked her mascaraed eyes, and stared at Eve. "Who are you?"
"Me? I'm Adam's wife." She would have demanded an explanation from the woman but the woman was laughing too hard, her whole body shaking, her boa fluttering like a flock of flamingos. She was laughing so loud it set the dog barking, the pups whining.
"Adam scored another wife?" the woman managed to squeeze out between paroxysms.
"Another wife? What do you mean another wife? We've been married for twenty years. We've been together since the day I arrived in Eden. I've hostessed in his House of Ribs, I've borne his sons.... I am Adam's wife, his only wife. Adam and Eve. Our son is Cain," she added defensively. For the first time, she felt a pang of regret at not having named her younger son Abel, as if that would have clinched her argument and cemented her status as Adam's wife, a pillar-ette of the community. She glared up at the beautifully coiffed stranger. "Who the hell are you?"
The redhead swallowed hard. It took her three swallows and one more toss of the boa to get herself under control. Still she didn't answer.
"Who are you?"
"I'm Lilith, of course, Adam's first wife."
First wife! Eve stumbled back against the door. There were a hundred questions she could have asked, but she knew none of them would change anything. She wanted to scream at the woman, "Liar!" but she knew as sure as God made little green apples that this woman, this Lilith, was telling the truth. Lilith had been married to Adam.
Eve squeaked out the most pressing question: "Did you live here?"
Lilith shrugged, the kind of careless, offhand response more suited to a question like, "Do you want more peanuts?"
"Oh, yeah, I lived here, in this house, which I gotta say was in better shape back then. 'Course the town wasn't called Eden Township then, wasn't incorporated. I'll tell ya, hon, the burg was so dead back then that Adam looked good. The only time I wasn't bored was when I was pissed off."
"And so you got a divorce?" Eve asked hopefully.
"Divorce? Hell, no. One night I took a good look at Adam and what I saw was--well, you've put up with the guy for twenty years, you gotta know what he's like. Stodgy; everyone in town knew that. I'd had it, hon! Enough; you know what I mean? You don't live forever--just seems like it when you're in Eden and bored outta your skull. So, I up and lit out of here. Never looked back."
The damn woman was missing the point. "So Adam divorced you, then?"
"Never served me with papers. Coulda. I'm in the book in Vegas. Lilith's Realty." For the first time she stopped moving. Her alligator purse bounced against her hip and settled; the boa hung limp. She put an exquisitely manicured hand on Eve's shoulder. "Listen, kid, I'm sorry if I upset you. I'm sure your life is fine here in Eden. Excitement, independence, they're probably overrated anyway. A life of your own isn't for every woman. You got a nice house and garden, all those lovely apple trees. So what if Adam is stodgy--you hadda know that when you moved in with him, right? I mean everyone in town knows that. What do you care if all those dullards are laughing every time you're introduced as Adam's wife. But, listen, sweetie, forget all that. You just put me out of your mind. Here," she added, "for you."
Before Eve could open her drooping mouth, the boa was around her neck and the woman was climbing back into a white stretch limo Eve hadn't noticed before.
"First wife!" Eve stormed out of the house, jumped in the Adam's House of Ribs delivery truck, and headed for the restaurant, muttering as she went. "Damn you, Adam. I knew you were stodgy, but at least with stodgy you expect honest. But you, damn you, are stodgy and dishonest. Damn you."
Adam's House was built to resemble ribs: curved, red plaster cascading to the ground. She entered through the breastbone and stalked back to the heart of the operation. Adam was standing beside a huge stew pot he could almost have drowned in. Years ago he had succumbed to the occupational hazard of the chef and now for all Eve knew he might have given away all his own ribs. Certainly none of them showed. He was an apple of a man--red, round, and, with his clothes off, dead white underneath. Now he looked up at her furious face, smiled, and said, "I'm trying a new recipe, want to tas--"
"You were married before?" she demanded.
"Before what?" He gave the long wooden spoon a turn.
"Before me, that's what. You had a first wife!"
"That! Why didn't you tell me?"
"It was a long time ago. Before I met you. Before I even got the idea for Adam's House of Ribs." He stirred the pot twice around. "Lilith wasn't into ribs." He stirred a third time. "This sauce, I'm using flax powder and cardamon, see, and--"
She yanked the spoon out of his hand and slammed it to the floor. "So Lilith just left, right? Did she divorce you?"
Adam stopped the spoon. "I don't know."
"How can you not know?"
"I don't know. Gone is gone. I didn't have time to worry about her. I had ribs to cook, sauce to stir," he said, pulling himself up righteously to his full five and a half feet.
"I could go, too, just like she did."
Adam fished another ladle out of a drawer. Then he laughed. "You? You, Eve? Where would you go? You haven't spent a night out of Eden since we've been married. And how would you support yourself? The only work you ever did was hostessing here, and surely you don't expect a reference from me."
"I could get a different kind of job."
"What, Eve? As a housekeeper? Our house looks like a kennel. Or maybe you could apply as a governess. Tell them what a great job you did with Cain."
"Cain is your son, too." But she knew that this argument would change not one mind. For once Adam had thought more clearly than she. Of course, he'd had years to prepare for this moment, ever since he'd spotted a potential second wife.
Questions and accusations lined up in her brain, but she didn't bother to voice them. She was too depressed. She drove slowly home, suddenly seeing every corner as Lilith must have, as a spot with four roads leading out. This is what her life had come to--married to a stodge, laughed at all over town--and what was the best she could hope for? That the Whopper Rooter man had arrived at the house and cleared her pipes.
But he hadn't. When she pulled into the driveway she saw not the hoped-for rooter truck, but three motorcycles, and the front door ajar. In the house deep-voiced men were swearing, dogs barking, howling, and whining, and little Dominick screaming as if his life depended on it.
"Cain!" Eve yelled as she flew through the door. "Cain, don't you slay your brother!"
But Cain was nowhere to be found. The three hulking muscle-shirted men whom she recognized as Cain's customers were stalking from room to room. Little Dominick was howling. Three little shepherds had knocked over the cookie jar and one was regurgitating on the sofa, while the rest of the dogs ran in circles, kicking up fur. The only word she could make out in the melee was "kill."
"I'll kill him. Where is the bastard?" one of the men demanded.
"Out!" she commanded. "Out of ..." But it wasn't her house, was it? It wasn't her furniture. Outside, it wasn't her garden. The clothes she was wearing ... legally, were they even hers? She fingered the only thing that was unquestionably hers--the feather boa. Cain's three enormous and irate customers stalked toward the door. One of them was holding a Gravestein. Her apple? Without thinking she grabbed it out of the man's hand. The behemoth scowled, did a double take, and kept moving.
Eve held the Gravestein in her hand and stared at the light shining off its shiny red skin. Now, she realized the truth in Cain's customer's question: Where is the bastard? Cain was, indeed, a bastard, spiritually and genetically. Cain was a total bastard. Adam, whose interests spread no farther than the rib cage, had, of course, never bothered to divorce his first wife. Not his first wife; his wife, period. And she, Eve, what did that make her? She was not his wife at all. She was his concubine, his mistress, his woman of the night, his whore, and his dupe. She was astonished, furious, and most of all humiliated. How could she ever again stand at her garden gate and face the upright people of Eden? She felt totally exposed--in fact, naked. The Gravestein was still in her hand. Without thinking, she took a bite.
Before she could swallow, little Dominick raced up to her, squeaking, "Crummy Cain tried to poison my dogs. Mama Dog, she went after him and he ran. That way!"
Calming herself, she said, "Dominick dear, where is the poison?"
"In the dog food, Mother."
"How do you know it's poison, dear?"
"Because crummy Cain poured it from the bottle with the skull and crossbones," he said, nodding his little head sincerely. "I always watch over the dog's food. Sometimes I even taste it. Cain doesn't like my shepherds and he might--"
"But you're not sick, are you Dominick? If there was poison--"
"The black puppy got to the bowl before I could get there. I grabbed him around the middle and made him throw up."
She glanced at the small shaking dog and the mess around him. He was an empty dog, and she could tell he would survive, though the couch would not. She took a necessarily shallow breath to calm herself and asked little Dominick, "Does your brother know you taste the dog food?"
"Of course, Mother. I made sure of that. So he knows he can't kill my dogs, see?"
She grabbed the phone and dialed Adam.
"Adam's House of--"
"Put Adam on." The fury that filled her like extra hot sauce must have steamed out of her mouth. The present hostess at the House of Ribs didn't ask who she was or what she thought was important enough to interrupt the chef in the act of creation. She must have run for the kitchen. In less than a minute Adam was at the phone. "Eve? What do you--"
"Cain tried to kill Dominick."
"He put poison in the dog food he knew Dominick would eat."
She could hear the horror in Adam's thick intake of breath. She'd never heard such outrage from him. Perhaps she had misjudged him as a father. He took another labored breath before he could speak. "My son eats dog food?" Adam croaked out. "My son eats dog food? I'll be laughed out of the barbecue business. How could you let this happen? You have no responsibilities, Eve, except to maintain our place in Eden, and you can't even do that. Every chef in town is going to be laughing in his sauce. Eve, you've got to hush this up. You've got to--"
She slammed down the phone and turned to little Dominick. "Pack your dogs, dear." Grabbing the poisoned dog food, she herded little Dominick and the shepherds into the restaurant truck and drove to the House of Ribs, to the back door. She left the engine running.
For once the kitchen was empty. Adam was nowhere in sight. She looked at the great steel pots. She stared at the kitchen of this restaurant to which she had tied her security, for which she had endured two decades of boredom, with neighbors nodding knowingly behind her back, for which she had endangered the life of her younger son, not to mention his shepherds. This kitchen was not half hers. It would never be half hers. The new sauce boiled, sauce that was not hers. This sauce was Adam's alone, and when he died it would be the sauce of his legal wife and his sons, plural, if Dominick evaded his brother that long. Never would it be hers. Fans rattled, sauce boiled. She looked at the sauce. She looked down at the dog food in her hands. She poured.
Evelyn, as she is known now, sat on the veranda of her new home. It was a rental, but Lilith had gotten her a good deal on it. "Here, Spot. Here, Blackie. Here, Whitey, Here, Tan-o." (Dominick was a nice child, but not a whiz at names.) She smiled as the dogs dropped the Eden Township Sentinel, the Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post at her feet. Front page of all five. She picked up the Sentinel and smiled at the headline: "Local chef poisoned by own sauce. Scads of Edenites get the runs." The Tribune, after insisting it was not its policy to speculate, noted that Adam's wife--or more accurately, long-term mistress--and younger son were missing and that some of the ribs in Adam's House were of questionable origin. The Times, after insisting it was not its policy to speculate, alluded to Adam's notorious first wife, and to his infamous son Cain. The Wall Street Journal, after insisting it was not its policy to speculate, commented that while Adam had been beyond reproach, the same was not likely to be said of his beneficiary, his remaining son, Cain. And the Washington Post noted that Cain had fled the saucy scene of the crime and had been spotted in Nod, a sleepy village east of Eden, before vanishing. But authorities had distributed flyers with his picture and insisted they expected little difficulty in capturing him. Cain was, after all, marked.
The other dogs arrived, papers in mouths, but Evelyn had to put off reading them. She was in a new town, in a new state, and this was her first day as pastry chef down at the New Jerusalem Pie Shoppe.
She planned to make a name for herself with apples.
Excerpted from Mom, Apple Pie and Murder by Nancy Pickard Copyright © 2000 by Nancy Pickard. Excerpted by permission.
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