Spring has come to charming Mayville Heights, and with it, some Hollywood glamour. The little town is abuzz because the reboot of a popular baking TV show is filming there. Librarian Kathleen Paulson is working as an advisor on historical facts for the show, local restaurants are providing catering for the camera crews, and Kathleen's faithful felines, Hercules and Owen, are hoping there is a cat treat challenge.
But then Kathleen finds one of the judges dead. She has solved many-a-murder with help from the supernaturally gifted Herc and Owen, and with the whole town on tenterhooks, the talented trio will have to have all paws on deck to chase down this killer.
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Dead?" Rebecca asked.
I sighed. "I'm sorry. Yes."
"That's what I was afraid of." She looked glum, which was surprising because Rebecca was a very positive person in general, and the dead thing we were looking at was a glass bowl filled with an inactive sourdough starter.
"How long have you had it?" I asked. Rebecca had been baking since she was a girl, so her starter was likely years old.
Two splotches of pink appeared on her cheeks and she ducked her head. "Less than a month."
"Oh," I said. That was a surprise.
Her blue eyes met mine. "Kathleen, when it comes to starters, I have to confess that I'm the kiss of death."
I smiled. "I find that hard to believe. You're a very good cook. No one makes piecrust as flaky as yours."
"Well, I do like to feed people," she said.
I glanced over my shoulder at my two cats, Owen and Hercules, sitting by the chrome kitchen table, their gaze fixed on Rebecca. "And cats," I teased.
Rebecca smiled. She kept Owen supplied with yellow catnip chickens and Hercules with tiny organic kitty crackers. They both adored her. "It seems feeding is the problem. According to Eric, I've been overfeeding my starter."
Eric was Eric Cullen. He owned a diner downtown, near the waterfront.
"Where did this one come from?" I picked up the bowl and gave the contents a swirl. It was an odd, unappetizing shade of pink and it had a funky smell of decay that just confirmed what my eyes were telling me.
"Eric gave it to me," Rebecca said. She took the dish out of my hands and poured it down the sink.
"Well, I'm sure he would be happy to get you started again," I said.
Eric wasn't just a great cook, he was also a very generous person, quick to offer his time and talents to his friends and to the community.
Color flooded Rebecca's face a second time. "I really don't feel I can ask him again. The third time may be the charm, as my mother used to say, but I think the fourth time would be just making a pest of myself." She rinsed the bowl and set it on the counter. Then she dried her hands and turned to face me. "I don't just need a bit of starter to get one of my own growing again. I need a lot. I need enough to bake with. I may have inherited my mother's love of feeding people, but I didn't get her way with a sourdough loaf. I need to practice my bread at least a couple more times. And I have to leave some free time because we're filming promos this afternoon."
Rebecca was one of the contestants on the revival of the television show The Great Northern Baking Showdown. Filming for the first season had begun here in town in April. Six episodes had been completed and there were just four more left to film. Mayville Heights had been chosen, among other reasons, because the show's executive producer, Elias Braeden, who had bought the rights to the show, was from this part of Minnesota. And he knew it would be very affordable to film here. Rumor had it that a major network and at least one streaming service were interested in the show, but as far as I knew it hadn't been sold to any outlet yet, so the filming budget was tight. Participants on the show came from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Rebecca and artist Ray Nightingale were the only local contestants. They had won their places in a regional event.
No one had been surprised when Rebecca was among the top three in the area competition. Anyone who had ever had a slice of one of her blueberry pies or a bite of her pumpkin spice donuts-which was pretty much everyone in town-knew she was a talented baker.
Ray Nightingale also making it onto the show was much more unexpected. Ray was an artist who created elaborate ink drawings that were a cross between a mosaic and a Where's Waldo? illustration. They featured a small rubber duck named Bo who always wore a fedora and black-framed sunglasses. No one had had any hint that Ray even knew the difference between shortbread and puff pastry or how to make a croquembouche. He and Rebecca had become fast friends once they'd won their places on the show.
"Well, what about Ray? He might have some starter," I suggested.
Rebecca made a face. "I'm sure he'd want to help," she said. "But he needs to practice just as much as I do. He'll need every bit of his own starter."
Rebecca's goal was to finish in the top three once again. There would be a three-minute profile on each of the finalists at the beginning of the finale episode of the show. She was hoping to focus as much attention as she could on Mayville Heights during her segment.
Like a lot of small places, the town's economy depended on tourists who enjoyed our quieter pace of life and the gorgeous scenery. In some ways the town hadn't changed that much in the past hundred years or so. That was part of its charm. From the St. James Hotel you could still watch the boats and barges go by the way they had a century ago. You could still climb to the top of Wild Rose Bluff for a spectacular view of the water.
Aside from some shots of the Riverwalk, the Stratton Theatre and the gazebo at the back of the library that were used in the opening credits, Mayville Heights hadn't been mentioned much at all in the show up to now. The spotlight was on the competition and the bakers.
Ray was easygoing and affable but he had admitted to me that he wanted to win the competition. Like Rebecca, he wanted the opportunity to bring some attention to everything Mayville Heights had to offer. I suspected in his case it was more about redemption than his love for the town. In the past Ray had helped fudge some artistic credentials for another artist and had come within a hairsbreadth of being kicked out of the local artists' co-operative. To his credit, he had worked hard to get back in his fellow artists' good graces-not just apologizing but working to promote both the artists' co-op store and its website as well as volunteering his talents with the rescue group Cat People.
Rebecca was staring at a point somewhere over my left shoulder, probably trying to think of anyone she knew who could help her. Who did I know who made sourdough bread? I couldn't think of a single person, although I had had sourdough pancakes just last weekend at my friends Eddie and Roma's house.
"Eddie," I said, holding out both hands as though the answer was obvious-which it suddenly was.
Rebecca gave her head a little shake and focused on me again. "Excuse me, what did you say?" she asked.
"Eddie," I repeated. "He doesn't make bread, at least as far as I know, but sourdough pumpkin pancakes are his specialty. Roma said when he was still playing hockey it was tradition for him to make them before every Saturday home game. And I've had them. They're really good." My stomach suddenly rumbled as if to give more credence to my words.
"I suppose it wouldn't hurt to ask," Rebecca said, a smile starting to pull at the corners of her mouth.
Her phone was lying on the kitchen table and I gestured at it. "Call him," I urged. "I'll drive you out there. I don't have to be at the library until twelve thirty and I already have all the information ready to drop off to Eugenie and Russell.
The Baking Showdown was being hosted by cookbook author Eugenie Bowles-Hamilton, along with musician Russell Perry. Two weeks ago I had been hired to replace the show's researcher, who had broken both of his arms trying to vault over a sofa to win a bet. Football and a large amount of beer had been involved. I'd been told.
I'd gotten to know Eugenie when she'd come into the library a few days after she'd arrived in town, looking for more information about Minnesota than the show was supplying her with. She wanted to work in regional references whenever she could during the filming of each episode.
"I want more than just the usual drivel about which is the best choice for pastry; butter or lard," she'd told me. I'd taken that as a criticism of the information she'd been getting from the show's researcher. "I want Minnesota color and flavor." The animation in her voice and her gesturing hands were a contrast to her cool and elegant appearance.
"Did you know the bundt pan was invented here?" I'd asked. "So was the pop-up toaster. And some people believe that airplane hijacker D. B. Cooper was a Minnesotan."
Eugenie had smiled then. "That's the kind of thing I'm looking for."
I'd answered her questions, found her a couple of reference books and then dropped off another book and a magazine to her the next day. When the research job had become vacant Eugenie had lobbied hard for me to take it.
It was only part-time, providing background information that dovetailed with whatever each week's focus was. So far I'd been able to juggle it with my work at the library. Like most librarians, I have good research skills. In any given day I might be asked what time the recycling center closes, how many wives Ben Cartwright had on Bonanza and what color puce actually is-four thirty, three and purplish brown, respectively.
However, I was fairly certain that Elias had offered me the job as much because of the show's tight filming schedule and financial constraints as for my expertise and Eugenie's support. Although there seemed to be a lot of people connected to the Baking Showdown, I knew that keeping costs down was important, given that the show had not been sold yet.
Rebecca's smile grew wider as she considered my suggestion. "Having you drive would be a big help. I don't think it would be a good idea for me to be behind the wheel and holding on to a bowl full of starter at the same time."
At her feet Owen suddenly meowed loudly.
"Good point, Owen," Rebecca said to the cat. "I should call Eddie first before I start making any plans. I'm getting a little ahead of myself, counting my chickens before they're hatched, so to speak." She reached for her phone while Owen looked around the room. As far as he was concerned there was only one type of chicken he cared about.
I leaned toward him. "Rebecca's not talking about your kind of chicken," I said softly.
"Mrrr," he muttered, wrinkling his nose in annoyance. With a flick of his tail he headed for the living room. If we weren't talking about a yellow catnip Fred the Funky Chicken, Owen didn't seem to see the point of the conversation.
Hercules watched his brother go and then looked up at me. He almost seemed to shrug. The charm of catnip was lost on the little black-and-white tuxedo cat. I reached over and gave him a scratch on the top of his head before I straightened up.
Rebecca was just ending her phone call. I was pretty sure by the wide smile on her face that Eddie had agreed to help her.
"He said yes?" I asked.
She nodded. "I explained my predicament and Eddie said he would be happy to give me the lion's share of his starter. We can drive out to Wisteria Hill right now, if that will work for you. He's out there working on the new home for the cats."
"I'm ready," I said. "All I need is my shoes and my bag." I picked my mug up off the table and drank the last mouthful of coffee. It was cold but I didn't really mind.
"Are you sure I'm not taking you from anything important?" Rebecca asked. She brushed a bit of flour off the front of her long-sleeved pink T-shirt.
"I'm positive." I set the cup in the sink and crossed the kitchen to get my shoes. The only plans I'd had before she'd shown up at my back door with a troubled expression and the rank-smelling bowl of starter was to scrub the kitchen floor, and that could wait for another day.
"You're in charge," I said to Hercules. He immediately sat up straighter as if he had understood my words. Given that Herc-and Owen-weren't exactly ordinary cats, I was fairly certain he had.
Rebecca didn't think it was the slightest bit odd that I talked to the boys pretty much as though they were people. She talked to Owen and Hercules all the time as well, and as she'd said more than once, with just the slightest edge of indignation in her voice, "Cats are people, too!" Now she leaned forward and smiled at Hercules. "There's a little something special in your future," she said in a low voice.
"No, there is not," I said firmly, shaking my head for emphasis. "Hercules does not need a treat and neither does Owen. You spoil them." We had had this conversation several times before. I had no illusions that anything I said would dissuade Rebecca, but I still felt I should make the argument.
"I didn't say I was going to give him a treat," she said. "This is just something to help with his recuperation."
Apparently Hercules knew what the word "recuperation" meant. He immediately looked at his back right leg where a patch of black fur was beginning to regrow. He'd had to have stitches there after catching his leg on some old wire fencing buried in the bushes between my house and the one next door belonging to the Justasons. Mike Justason had immediately cleared out all the rusted wire and trimmed back the bushes. He had a dog that often nosed around in the same spot. Hercules was still giving the area a wide berth.
Neither Hercules nor Owen liked to be touched by anyone other than me, probably because they had been feral early in their lives. That made visits to the vet traumatic for everyone, but Roma had managed to sedate Hercules so she could clean and stitch his wound and give him a shot. She'd been watching him carefully for any signs of infection since then.
The cat had suffered through the indignity of wearing a cone for several days and was still trying to convince me to wait on him every chance he got.
"He's already recuperated," I said as I pulled on my dark gray hoodie. It was cooler than usual for late May. I fished the keys to my truck out of my right pocket. "I'm ready."