It’s Halloween, and café owner Maggie Miller’s special pumpkin spice beignet promotion is proving popular. But the evening ends in disaster when Maggie discovers the body of one of her regular customers, strangled to death with an expensive cashmere scarf.
The late Nancy Alverson had tended to keep herself to herself – but what secrets was she hiding? And why had she been studying books on witchcraft?
Of one thing Maggie is certain, it was no witch who killed Nancy. But has someone taken advantage of the spookiest night of the year to commit a brutal murder . . .?
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'Let me get that for you.' The man coming out the entrance of Maggie's Beignet Café switched the bag of freshly fried beignets from his right hand to his left and held the door to the café open for me to pass.
'Thanks,' I replied, sliding awkwardly past him. 'Have a good day.' I had just come back from the thrift store and my arms were full.
I wobbled across the floor, steering awkwardly between dining tables. I was anxious to relieve myself of my bulky load. A shopkeeper's assistant had given me a ride back to my place. Not owning a car, my transportation options were limited and that limited my ability to travel, let alone transport, big, bulky items like this one.
Schwinns are nice but, even with a basket between the handlebars, they are no match for a minivan or station wagon at such times.
There were days I regretted selling my car but I'd needed the cash to open my café.
'What's that?' asked Kelly.
With a grunt, I hefted the unwieldy machine up onto the front counter and slid it back from the edge. I winced as I watched deep new gouges form in the green Formica countertop.
'An espresso machine,' I huffed, picking up a shiny loose bit that had fallen to the floor and slapping it down next to the polished copper and brass beast. 'It's vintage.'
'An espresso machine?' gaped Kelly. 'Looks more like a steampunk spaceship.' She took a step back. 'What did you bring it here for, Maggie?'
I frowned as I looked out the window and across the street toward my competitors, Karma Koffee. 'I thought it might help us drum up some more business.'
There was a line out the door at the Gregorys' shop. I had one paying customer at the moment, Belinda, from Salon de Belezza, the beauty shop next door. She ordered coffee and a plate of beignets, her usual mid-morning snack. It was going to take more than an espresso machine to compete with the Gregorys.
'Maybe.' Kelly fiddled with the loose bit then popped it over one of the spaceship's nozzles. Kelly Herman had been my second employee here at Maggie's Beignet Café. She's a quiet, twenty-three-year-old half Havasupai, half Jewish beauty with long black hair and soupy brown eyes.
She works part-time for me in the café and part-time for my sister, Donna, and her husband, Andy, at their business. They owned Mother Earth/Father Sun Grocers a couple blocks' away.
I had moved from Phoenix to Table Rock a few months back to open my fledgling business after divorcing my dead ex-husband, Brian. He wasn't really dead but a woman could dream, couldn't she?
My sister and her family, a husband and two boys, and my mother were already here, so I figured it was the place for me too.
Table Rock is a lovely little town located in the scenic northern Verde Valley of Arizona, halfway between Sedona and nowhere. People around Table Rock like to say it's where people move to who think Sedona is too mainstream. Anybody who's ever been to Sedona knows that the town, with its New Age and metaphysical culture, is about as far from mainstream as one can get, so that was really saying something.
It didn't hurt that prices in Table Rock were cheaper than in Sedona. New Age dreamers were more interested in all things spiritual and in developing their consciousness than they were in inflating their bank accounts.
Folks around town also like to say that aliens outnumber Table Rockers four to one. I wasn't sure yet about the aliens but I was certain that pickup trucks outnumbered people by at least that ratio.
'Thanks. I was wondering where that goes.' The machine had set me back three hundred bucks – a steal, according to the woman who had sold it to me, Laura Duval. It looked terribly complicated, although Laura had assured me I could manage it.
'No problem. Where did you get it?'
I blew out a puff of air and felt the tiny hairs on my forehead dance. 'Laura's Lightly Used.' Laura's Lightly Used was the thrift shop a couple blocks east of Maggie's Beignet Café. The sprawling store sold vintage clothes, items for the home, outdoor goods, sporting equipment and more, such as secondhand restaurant equipment.
I had purchased much of the equipment from Laura's store when I was setting up my café. She had also sold me my Schwinn. At this point, I figured Laura had more of my money than I did.
Maggie's Beignet Café sold beignets, coffee and soft drinks. I was slowly adding additional sweet-flavored beignets and savory beignets to the menu in an effort to increase foot traffic. Well, mouth traffic, really.
As for my hair, it was finally starting to grow back. I studied my reflection in the shiny espresso maker's thirty-eight-ounce boiler. Definitely a sign of hair growth. My green eyes looked a little sallow and my face a little sickly. I blamed that on the brass. All in all, I didn't look bad for a fifty-year-old. Too bad I was only thirty-nine.
I guess I should have been grateful my hair was now long enough to reach my forehead. I shot a furtive glance at Belinda as she scarfed down her third powdered sugar-covered beignet. The woman's boss, Caitie Conklin, had recently shaved me bald and I wasn't in a forgiving mood yet. It had been done in the name of charity – with all of the hair being donated to cancer patients along with the money charged for the cuts – but still ... A woman can only tolerate so much.
And though my red hair was beginning to grow out, the nickname Cueball had obstinately stuck around.
I hoisted the piano-hinged section of the countertop and scooted around behind the counter. The eight-table café sits on Laredo Street, at the edge of the Historic Old Town and just a few blocks from Table Rock Town Square. The café still contained remnants of the deli it had once been, like some signage and even some deli-branded paper napkins I'd found in storage and was determined to use up before having to order new ones.
I'd been told by a man named Cosmic Ray over at the Table Rock Visitor Center that my café had been a head shop in one of its previous incarnations. So far, I'd found no evidence of that. Not a bong in sight.
The front counter also contained the deep fryer and prep station. Customers could watch the beignets being fashioned and fried behind the protection of a glass divider.
The big mixer sat on the floor to the right of the accordion-style swinging doors that led to the storeroom. The back wall contained the coffee and drinks machines, a couple of small coolers and a sink.
Beignets, the state donut of Louisiana – though they look more like puffy golden pillows than donuts – are sweet, fried pieces of dough smothered in powdered sugar. I didn't expect to get rich selling them but I was hoping they would pay the rent.
'Give me a hand, Kelly.'
With Kelly's help, I moved the espresso machine next to the French-press coffee makers. Kelly moved some napkins and cups out of the way to make room.
I tilted my head at the new machine. 'I don't suppose you know how to operate this baby?' I twisted the burnished wood grip of the lever.
'I'm afraid not.'
'Didn't it come with a manual or some instructions?'
'No. Laura told me how it worked.' I scratched my head. 'I can't exactly remember what she said.' I forced a smile. 'I'm sure it will come back to me.'
'Maybe we can look it up online.'
'That's a good idea,' I said brightly. I ran a finger along the open wings of the eagle at the machine's peak. 'Laura said it's a Belle Époque-inspired design built by La Floriano.'
The machine was fifteen inches wide and over two feet tall, not counting the majestic eagle. I admired the intricate details.
'What's this here?' Kelly stuck her hand in a cavity near the top of the boiler.
'That's for the espresso cups. Laura explained that the cups are kept warm there by the hot water in the boiler. According to the date on the bottom, this machine was built in the late nineteen thirties.'
'All we have is paper to-go cups and regular coffee cups.' Kelly bent until she was eye level with the opening. 'They won't fit.'
'I know. Laura didn't have any cups for it. I'll have to find someplace else to get them. If Laura didn't have them, I doubt I can find them locally. I may have to order them online.' It wasn't worth a hundred-plus mile trip down to Phoenix to shop for them.
'In the meantime, let's give it a good cleaning and reconditioning. I'm sure that between us we will have this baby figured out in no time.' I slapped it lovingly on its side.
'This isn't going to end up like the waffle maker, is it, Maggie?' Kelly asked as she reached for the cleaning supplies under the front counter.
'What do you mean?'
Kelly set the green bottle of environmentally friendly cleaning fluid my sister insisted I use next to the espresso machine. 'I mean this.' She ran a finger along the authentic Liege-style Belgian waffle maker I had picked up for a song online. She held up her finger.
'You bought this what? Six or seven weeks ago?' She wiped her finger with a damp rag.
'Has it been that long?' I picked up the waffle maker. The machine was capable of making genuine, chewy and delicious Liege waffles and came with eight additional waffle plates. 'Trust me, we can make everything from ice- cream cones, heart-shaped waffles, stuffed waffles, croque monsieurs and galettes with this baby.' At least, that was what the online advertisement for the machine promised.
I didn't know exactly what a croque monsieur or a galette was yet and was dying to taste each. Whatever they were, sounding French, the tourists would probably go for them – and pay big bucks for the privilege – and the waffle maker would pay for itself in no time. I had only paid about a hundred and thirty dollars for it, and that included shipping.
'Yeah,' Kelly said, the corner of her mouth turning down, 'but you haven't even made a regular waffle yet, let alone any of that other fancy stuff you mentioned.' She wiped my fingerprints from the side of the espresso's boiler. 'And we don't sell ice cream.'
'Fine. Front and center.' I picked up the waffle maker and moved it to the center of the counter. 'Since we are going to have to wait to get cups for the espresso maker, we can start making waffles now.'
While I intended to make my own waffle mix, eventually I had purchased a couple bags of imported Liege waffle mix and Belgian pearl sugar for a start. 'Do you remember where we put the mix?'
'You put it in the cupboard behind the powdered sugar.'
'Would you mind running in back and getting it?' I reached for my apron on the shelf under the counter. Like me, Kelly wore the standard Maggie's Beignet Café uniform: a periwinkle polo shirt, khaki slacks rather than shorts, this being October, and a visor.
The uniforms had been Aubrey's idea. Aubrey Ingridson had been my first hire. Not only had having uniforms been her idea, she had sketched out the logo and gotten a local embroidery firm to make up the patches that she'd then handsewn onto our shirts and visors.
Our aprons were pure white with the addition of the café's logo. With all the powdered sugar flying around over the course of a day, it was the only color that made sense.
'Of course not,' Kelly replied quickly with a smile on her face. 'That's what you pay me for.'
As she pushed through the swinging accordion doors to the storeroom, the tinkle of bells announced a customer. 'Good morning,' I called.
'Hello, Ms Miller.' It was Nancy Alverson, a bookish woman with curly brown hair and brown eyes framed by delicate silver glasses. 'What's all this?' Her eyes went from the waffle maker to the espresso machine.
'We're trying some new things.'
The young woman nodded appreciatively. 'I can see that. I guess a girl can't live on beignets alone.' She patted her stomach with her free hand. Her left hand clutched the strap of a colorful red, blue and brown-striped cloth bag that I knew from experience held her purse, a notebook, a laptop computer and who knew what else.
'Not that I haven't been trying,' Nancy added. The thirty-five-year-old Ms Alverson was single and wan, spending much of her time indoors, from what I could tell. When she did venture out, like now, she wore a floppy sapphire-blue sunhat with a brown leather cord, olive cargo pants, flannel shirt and a black fleece vest with over-the-ankle hiking boots. The flannel shirt de jour was a plaid tan and sangria-colored affair.
We shared a laugh.
Nancy had been coming into the café for several weeks now but she kept to herself. Once or twice, a brave soul of the male variety had tried to engage her in conversation. She had remained aloof.
Not unfriendly, from what I could see and hear. But not welcoming of uninvited attention.
I knew she was a writer and scant else. She spoke little and rarely smiled, not because she seemed to have a dour disposition, but rather because she seemed lost in herself and as if the act of smiling might break something, like one of her facial bones.
Besides the traditional New Orleans-style beignet, Maggie's Beignet Café now offered chocolate, blueberry and lemon beignets. For Halloween, I had also added pumpkin spice beignets to the menu. If they were popular, I'd keep them on the menu permanently. If not, using a chalkboard for a menu made it easy to erase them from our list of offerings.
'Yes, please.' She lifted her hat, letting it fall to the back of her neck.
I did know that she was renting a room across the street, up above Karma Koffee, a high-end beverage and bakery shop. That she preferred walking across to the café rather than frequenting Karma Koffee made me like her all the more.
Belinda dumped her trash in the receptacle and returned her tray to the counter.
'Thanks again!' I called as she went out the door. She raised her left hand in reply.
'How's the writing going?' I inquired as I prepared Nancy Alverson's habitual order of three blueberry beignets and a black coffee. We make our coffee the traditional way too, with chicory. I'd read that chicory was originally added to coffee during a time of shortage during the Napoleonic Wars as a way to extend the coffee supply. Donna told me chicory has all kinds of health benefits and can reduce stress, relieve constipation, fight osteoarthritis and more.
I grabbed the French press and measured out portions of coffee and chicory, using a mix of two parts coffee to one part chicory root.
'It's going,' she said just as enigmatically as she did every time I asked her.
She watched in silence as I sliced and rolled out the blueberry beignet dough and dropped a trio of three-inch wide, quarter-inch thick squares into the fryer. The 370-degree cottonseed oil hissed and bubbled.
In a minute, the beignets were golden brown and ready to serve. I scooped them out with the long-handled, stainless-steel skimmer ladle and set them on the draining tray for a minute before dusting them with powdered sugar. I'd learned that if you added the sugar too soon, it melted and disappeared.
I grabbed a plastic serving tray from the stack at the edge of the counter. I plated the beignets and placed the tray on the counter between us. I added a couple of napkins and her coffee. 'Here you go. Enjoy.'
'I will.' She paid in cash, dropping fifty cents into the tip jar beside the cash register. Then she quietly took her tray to the corner table against the window, angling herself in such a way as to get the best view of the busy street and keep the glare off the screen of her battleship-gray laptop.
'Here.' Kelly set a five-pound bag of waffle mix and a smaller bag of pearl sugar next to the waffle maker.
'Thanks.' I read over the instructions on the back of the bag and got busy. One way or another, for better or for worse, I was making waffles. 'Hand me a mixing bowl, would you?'
Kelly went to the back, returning with a mixing bowl and several sizes of spoons. Together we managed to quickly complete a batch of waffle mix.
'Now all we have to do is wait for the waffle iron to heat up.' I rubbed my hands in expectation.
After several minutes, the iron chimed. Kelly raised the lid and I dolloped some thick waffle batter onto the hot plate. 'OK.' I licked my thumb, which had somehow gotten into the bowl.
Kelly shut the lid slowly.
I moved to the sink and started rinsing the mixing bowl and two of the spoons under warm water. I turned, my Pavlovian response to the tinkle of the leather belt of brass bells on the front door that announced the coming and going of customers.
It wasn't a customer. It was my employee, Aubrey. 'Good morning!' I waved a soapy hand and dried myself quickly with the end of my apron.
A moment later, two men and a woman, all dressed for business, stepped inside and Kelly greeted them. She picked up a pencil and the order pad.
Aubrey stepped behind the counter. I followed her to the storeroom, where she took off her light fleece jacket and hung it on the hook in the backroom next to mine. Though late October, and I'd heard there had been snow in Colorado, the temperatures in this part of Arizona were near perfect: highs in the seventies, lows in the forties.
Excerpted from "Beignets And Broomsticks"
Copyright © 2017 J.R. Ripley.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Maggie and her staff at the bakery are excited to be able to dress up and pass out free treats during their town's annual Halloween event. When one of Maggie's regulars is noticed as missing from the event, Maggie decides to bring her some treats since she happens to live just across the street. But when Maggie approaches her apartment, a strange discovery is made. The detective's girlfriend come fleeing down the stairs screaming at Maggie not to go up... and when Maggie most certainly goes up, she finds her missing friend, strangled to death. With the help of her friends and coworkers, and a strange man who calls himself 'Herman the Swede,' it seems like the nearby Church of Witchkraft might have something to do with all the strange happenings, maybe even the cursed espresso machine that Maggie thought would be a good addition. A mysterious church, pentacles, an expose being uncovered, self-proclaimed wizards, and a strange financial group lingering around gives the readers plenty of suspects to consider. The main character, Maggie, has a personality to love. I like the way she describes things and it gives the right amount of humor to the story. Special thanks to #NetGalley and #JRRipley for allowing me an advanced review copy of this title. #BeignetsandBroomsticks