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But the pizzeria wasn't open yet and wouldn't be for hours.
A closer look revealed the chef's knife stuck all the way to its handle through the victim's chest, pinning the patron upright in place to the back of the chair, like a butterfly in a collector's case.
The murder weapon, taken straight from the kitchen but never before used in such a grim and dreadful fashion, was one all too familiar to the owner of A Slice of Delight.
There was no movement, no sound, no life surrounding the victim.
Murder had come back to the sleepy little town of Timber Ridge, North Carolina, and despite the warmth of the day, its cold breath was having its way with the citizens there.
One Week Earlier
"How's the lunch crowd doing out there now? Are we going to be able to take our break anytime soon?" I impatiently asked my sister, Maddy Spencer, who also happened to be one of my employees. I'm Eleanor Swift, and I normally work the kitchen while she handles the dining room of my pizzeria, A Slice of Delight, located on the square in the heart of Timber Ridge, North Carolina. My younger sister is tall, thin, and blond, three things that with all certainty could never be used to describe me. Maddy had come to help out when my late husband, Joe, had been killed, and she had kept everything going until I'd been ready to face the world again, and much to my delight, she'd decided to stay.
"We're all good. Greg is the only one out there besides me, Eleanor," Maddy answered. Greg Hatcher, along with Josh Hurley, were our only other two employees at the time, and though we were pressed on occasion with such a small staff, it allowed me to run the pizzeria on a tight budget, keeping my expenses pared to the bone. We didn't deliver pizzas or sandwiches anymore as a general rule, but if the occasion merited it, and the income it generated was large enough, I'd been known to make an exception from time to time. We'd had some bad experiences in the past with our deliveries, and it was something I wasn't willing to take a chance on these days without a proportionally sized payoff on the other end.
I glanced at the clock and saw that we still had seven minutes until we were officially due to close for our one-hour break, but that was just too bad. For some reason I needed a break, and after all, if I couldn't change our hours whenever I wanted to as the boss, what good were all the headaches I got that also came with the territory? "Go ahead and tell Greg to flip the sign and lock up," I said.
Maddy didn't wait around for me to second-guess myself as she bolted for the front with a grin on her face. She knew enough to take a golden opportunity like that when she saw it. Greg was a student at the local college, and Josh would be going even farther away himself soon. It meant that I'd be losing my connection to the nearby high school, and I always tried to keep at least one high schooler on the payroll all of the time, but for the two of them, I'd make an exception. I knew this "family" of employees wouldn't last forever, but I wasn't about to hurry the end of this particular era. That was the sad truth of it. Whether they were good, bad, or indifferent, no staff ever stayed the same. At least I had Maddy, a constant in my life since she'd first come to work for me.
Greg came into the back whistling and put his apron on the hook by the door. He was a big guy and could look fierce when he wanted to, but I knew that under that tough exterior was a gentle soul. "Thanks for the break, boss. You don't even have to pay me for the time I'm missing," he said with a smile.
The funny thing was, Greg had more money than I did. He'd come into an inheritance from his grandparents a while back, and I had worried that he'd leave me once he didn't need his job at the Slice anymore, but to my great delight, he'd decided to stay. The only thing that was really different about him was that he didn't have to scrounge food in my kitchen anymore, though that never stopped him from trying. Old habits died hard, I knew.
"Is there anything in this joint to eat?" Greg asked, reinforcing my last thought about him.
I looked around and said, "This is your lucky day. We've got a large cheese pizza nobody picked up, but I doubt it's any good now. It's been sitting there on the warming rack for awhile."
"How long has it been?" Greg asked, standing close to me. Sometimes I forgot just how tall and broad-shouldered he was, but it was pretty obvious when I had to look up to see into his eyes.
"I'd have to say at least forty minutes. Let me make you a new one before Maddy and I take off."
"No, it's fine," he said, grabbing up the box. "I like a pizza that's room temperature now and then. Good thing Josh is in class, or I'd be fighting him for it. I might grab a soda on the way out though, if you don't mind."
"Be my guest," I said.
Maddy came back just as I finished washing the last of the lunch dishes. Most days we made something at the Slice and ate right there, but today we were treating ourselves to a lunch out on the town. Well, Brian's Diner wasn't exactly high-class dining; it was actually more like a greasy spoon café, but at least it wasn't a pizza or a sub. As much as I loved what we offered at the Slice, sometimes I just had to get away, and Maddy was all for it, especially since I'd offered to treat.
"Let's roll, Eleanor. Aren't you ready yet?" she asked. "We don't want to miss our reservation."
I looked at her and smiled. "Since when did Mark Deacon require lunchtime reservations at Brian's?"
Maddy grinned at me. "He doesn't, but I'm hungry, and I didn't want to sound like a pig. Are you coming, or what?"
I had to laugh. "I'm right behind you. Do you want to drive, or should I?"
"I will," she said as she shucked off her apron and grabbed her purse. "No offense, but sometimes you drive like an old woman."
"How could I possibly take offense to that? It doesn't even apply to me, since I'm not all that old," I said.
"You're older than me," she said with a laugh. "That's really all that counts when it comes down to it, isn't it?"
I fought to hide my own grin as I double-checked everything. The conveyor oven was turned off, and the toppings were wrapped and stored in the refrigerator. "Did you grab the till from the cash register?"
She snapped her fingers in the air. "I knew I forgot something. I'll be right back."
We'd been robbed once before, which had given me an incentive to install a safe from Slick's Hardware Store in our storeroom. Even with the generous discount my friend, Slick, had given me, it had still cost more money than I'd been comfortable spending, but in the end, I suppose that it was better than losing everything. "The money has to actually be in the safe for it to be protected, you know that, right?" I called out to her, not able to hide my laughter.
Maddy came back thirty seconds later, long enough for me to open the safe's door and make room for the cash till. As she slid it into place, I waited, then shut the door, spinning the dial twice for good luck.
"Now, who's ready to eat?" I asked. "I thought you were as ready as I was to get away for an hour." I glanced at my watch, and then amended, "Well, fifty-seven minutes, anyway."
Maddy arched an eyebrow. "Just for that, I'm going to order two specials. Especially since you're paying."
"Order whatever you'd like," I said with a grin, and then quickly added, "as long as our total bill isn't over twelve bucks."
"Is that with tip, or without?" she asked.
I grinned at her. "No, I'll cover the tip, too."
"Gee, Sis, you are all heart," she said.
"Come on, let's go before something comes up."
"Are you expecting anything to?" Maddy asked as we walked through the Slice, turning off lights as we went.
"I never expect it. That's why I'm always so surprised when something does," I admitted.
As I let us out the front door and locked it behind us, I nearly ran Cary Wilkes over. Cary owned a multi-state cleaning agency, but my ties to her were more personal than that. Her son, Rick, was away at college now, but he'd worked at the Slice before leaving home, and we'd become friends during his time at the pizzeria. Cary had been working on loosening her apron strings since he'd gone away, with admittedly marginal success so far, but clearly still not enough for Rick's taste.
"I'm sorry, Cary. I'd love to stay and chat, but we're closed for lunch, and Maddy and I have someplace we need to be," I said. There was no way I was going to work through our lunchtime, not even for a friend. My sister and I hadn't had a real break for the past several days, but I'd grown too used to the time off in the middle of the day since we'd implemented it to ever go back to our old hours. Most days it gave us all a nice hour away from the pizzeria, but sometimes we had to use it for sleuthing. Maddy and I were crackerjack amateur investigators, but only when the crimes involved us. The rest of the time, we did our best not to poke our noses into other people's problems. We managed to have enough on our own.
"Don't worry, I already ate," she said as she pulled a large envelope from her purse. "Rick wanted me to give this to you. I didn't even realize that it was your birthday, Eleanor."
"It's not for another two weeks," I said, taking the card from her. I slid it into my back pocket, something that clearly disappointed Cary. From the intent look on her face, it was clear that she was curious about what it said inside.
"Aren't you going to open it?" she asked eagerly.
"I will, but not until my birthday," I said with a smile.
"That's the way the Spencers do it," Maddy said. "No cards opened early, and no presents enjoyed until the thank-you notes have been written."
"The Swifts feel that way, too," I said, since I'd implemented the rule right after marrying Joe. He'd thought I'd been joking at first, but it didn't take him long to realize that I hadn't been kidding, and he quickly indulged me.
Cary grinned despite her disappointment. "You two are a real pair, aren't you?"
"Jokers, maybe," Maddy said as she glanced over at me. "I'd say that's a good fit, wouldn't you?"
I decided her question really didn't need an answer, so I turned to Cary and asked, "How's Rick doing these days?"
"I'm not sure he's eating enough, or getting enough sleep," she admitted, the worry showing in her face instantly.
"I'm sure that he's fine, Cary," I said, patting her hand. "I'm just curious, but why didn't Rick send my card directly here to the Slice instead of sending it through you? He knows my address."
Cary looked uncomfortable with the question, and I had a suspicion I knew why. I asked a little strongly, "You're still giving him space, aren't you?"
"Hey, I'm working on it," she said as her cell phone rang. As if arranged by providence, she started to answer it as she said to me, "Sorry, I've got to take this."
Cary was deep in conversation as she left us, and I had to wonder if some of it was so that she wouldn't have to address my question.
After she was out of sight, Maddy said, "I'm amazed Rick stayed close enough to Timber Ridge for his mom to drop in on him whenever she wants to. I figured he'd go to school in Hawaii or Alaska."
"We should cut her some slack, Maddy. She doesn't have anyone else, and Rick knows it. He wouldn't go very far away; that would be too cruel. He loves her, even if she does have a tendency to smother him."
"Well, she should give Rick his space and get someone of her own," Maddy said. "After all, even we've both managed to do that."
I wasn't sure I liked the assumption in Maddy's statement. "Slow down there, Sister. I never said I had anyone in my life."
Maddy arched one eyebrow toward me as we walked down the promenade toward the shortcut to our parking area in back. "Really? What would David Quinton think if he heard you say that?"
David had courted me for years, to no avail, and then he'd left Timber Ridge to try to make a fresh start. When he'd come back later, he was a changed man, and if I were being honest about it, maybe I'd changed some, too, in the time that he was gone. I'd been so in love with my late husband, Joe, that I couldn't imagine anyone else in my life, but David had somehow managed to find his way in. We were taking it slow, though—glacially, in Maddy's opinion—but I was letting him into my heart a little bit at a time, and it was honestly the best that I could do. "He'd understand. He knows how I feel about him." I turned to look at her and asked, "Speaking of men in our lives, how are you and Bob getting along these days?" Bob Lemon was an excellent local attorney and the current object of my sister's affections. The question was fair game, since Maddy had been the one to bring our love lives into the conversation. After all, I figured that the more I could distract Maddy from asking questions about my private life, the better.
My sister didn't answer as quickly as I expected her to. "I'm not sure, to be honest with you."
That was an odd reply, even for her. "What do you mean?"
Maddy frowned, and then said, "I thought we were in a good place, but he's been acting kind of odd lately. Eleanor, we both know that I've been married more than a few times before, but I still can't figure that man out. You'd think I'd getter better with practice being around them."
"More than a few times? Did you just say that?" I asked with a grin.
"Okay, so it's four times, but who's counting?" Maddy asked.
"Not me," I said. "All I can think about right now is lunch."
"I'm right behind you."
As we walked down the promenade toward the shortcut together, I glanced back at A Slice of Delight. The previous occupant had painted the building mostly blue, and Joe and I had learned early on that it would have been prohibitively expensive to get rid of, so we'd kept it as is. I'd grown fond of it over the years, and doubted I would change it even if I could afford to now. We stood out among a cluster of shops and businesses, and really, what more could I ask for? The other buildings, normally sharing sidewalls and standing shoulder to shoulder, allowed a single break from the walls that otherwise touched on either side. Maddy and I used the bricked shortcut every time we came or left the pizzeria. In order to get there from the Slice, though, we had to pass several other shops along the way. One of buildings, a now-defunct exclusive wine and cheese shop that had lasted just six months, had lost its previous sign of The Winey Husband and was now going to reopen as a bookstore, something the square sorely needed, in my opinion. Adding even more to our excitement, the new owner was a friend of ours named Cindy Rankin. Her husband had died unexpectedly, and she'd come into some money from an insurance policy that she hadn't even known he had. After a year spent mostly in mourning, Cindy had decided it was time to get on with her life. It had been her dream to own a bookstore someday, and despite a generally gloomy financial outlook, Cindy had gone for it.
I was about to comment on how brave she was to Maddy when the door of the bookshop opened, and Cindy herself came out.
"I'm so glad I ran into you two," she said. "I was just coming down to the Slice. I'm in trouble, and I desperately need your help."
"What's going on?" I asked Cindy as Maddy and I walked inside. Visions of our lunch out dissipated like morning mist. "It looks like you could open today."
Excerpted from Rest in Pizza by Chris Cavender Copyright © 2012 by Chris Cavender. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted April 21, 2012
As busy as Sisters Eleanor Swift and Maddy Spencer always are in Timber Ridge, North Carolina’s popular Pizzeria; “A Slice of Delight”, they always seem to find some time to help others. Little did they know that the assistance that they offered to their friend, Cindy Rankin, would lead to a murder investigation as well as the grand opening of her book store. The opening was to be a star-studded affair featuring a cooking demonstration and book-signing by renowned cookbook author and TV star of the “Food For Thought Channel”; domineering, egotistical Chef Antonio Benet. After the Chef directs tantrums and nastiness at all of the staff, he is escorted to “The Slice” to rest and regain his composure before his appearance. When he doesn’t arrive back at the bookstore on schedule, Eleanor and Maddy scatter to find him. As Eleanor enters the pizzeria to check, she spots the Chef seated at a table with his back to the door and speaks to him. When she receives no reply she approaches, only to frighteningly discover that he has been stabbed to death. After the shock starts to wear off, reality sets in with concern for the future of the now-scarred restaurant combined with the beginnings of the sleuthing sisters’ investigation which produces much unrest and many suspects, including having to eliminate themselves! Friendship, Love, Loss, insecurities, courage, confusion, commitment, forgiveness and understanding create complications to the already heady mix of intrigue. Who would want the pompous, overbearing Chef Benet dead? Book shop owner; Cindy, who may lose everything due to Chef Benet’s insults and no-show? Oliver; the used, misused and abused wanna-be cooking star? The woman scorned and betrayed, Chef’s wife; Patrice? Jessie: the “Hot-Wire Connection” between the “Food for Thought Network and the Chef? Maybe pastry baker Paul who had “locked horns” with the critical, insulting chef? You’ll follow Eleanor and Maddy as they leave no stone unturned and even impress Police chief Hurley with their bulldog tenacity. This is the first of the author’s works I have read but I assure you it will not be my last and I believe I will have to go back and start with the first book of the four, “A Slice of Murder” as I’m ready for more adventures with spunky Eleanor and her saucy, multi-married Sister Maddy, their friends and hardworking crew. Kensington ARC Nancy Narma (less)
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