Café owner Maggie Miller’s offer to help out the bridal shop owners next door leads to a case of cold-blooded murder in this light-hearted mystery.
Settling into her new life running a coffee and beignet café in the small town of Table Rock, Arizona, Maggie Miller expects nothing but smooth sailing from here on. But she’s blown way off course when Clive Rothschild, co-owner of The Hitching Post, the bridal shop next door, begs her for a favour.
That favour leads to Clive and Maggie discovering a dead body buried beneath a wedding cake. And with the evidence stacking up against Clive and his partner, former professional skater Johnny Wolfe, it’s up to Maggie to dig through the layers of deceit and hem in the real killer. But she may have to skirt the law to do it . . .
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Beignets, Brides and Bodies
By J.R. Ripley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 J R Ripley
All rights reserved.
'Welcome to Maggie's Beignet Café.' I swiped back a strand of hair falling from the confines of my visor and smiled. 'What can I get you?' I recognized the athletic-looking young man as one of the paramedics who worked for the town. 'Keith, right?'
He beamed. 'Yep.' He had big teeth and broad shoulders.
Aubrey, my assistant, came through the swinging doors from the back storeroom lugging a ten-pound bag of barley flour. I make my beignets with a special blend of barley and all-purpose flour.
'Here you go, Maggie.' Aubrey and I wore identical periwinkle polo shirts and beechwood cargo shorts. We were practically twins, except she was younger and prettier, and blonder. I've never checked with a ruler but I was pretty sure her teeth were straighter, too.
Our uniforms had been her idea and her creation. She'd sketched out the logo and a local embroidery firm had made the patches that she'd then sewn onto our shirts and visors. She was pushing me to start selling Maggie's Beignet Café T-shirts to the customers but I was still concentrating on selling folks my own brand of New Orleans-style beignets.
I was experimenting in my free time on a chocolate dough beignet – so far I hadn't gotten the balance of cocoa powder to flour where I wanted it. But when I did, look out world.
Aubrey's a gem. I was recognizing more and more just how lucky I was to have her. 'Set it next to the fryer, would you?' I said.
Aubrey set down the big awkward bag and wiped her hands briskly together. She smiled expectantly at Keith. Her jade-green eyes sparkled. 'So, what'll it be?'
'Two coffees and two orders of beignets,' he replied. 'Make that to go.'
I smelled strawberry-scented shampoo. I smelled romance. I had a feeling this young man might be smitten with my lovely young strawberry-blonde assistant. She gets a lot of that – not that I'm jealous. I'm just saying.
I've got enough going on in my life without needing a man and all the complications that come with consorting with one of the cute, cuddly yet difficult critters. Did I mention I have a cat? I sniffed a lock of my hair. Maybe I should get some of that shampoo Aubrey was using. My hair didn't smell like strawberry, it smelled like cat.
'You got it.' Aubrey's hands ran deftly over the keys on the register – something my hands never did. But at least I knew how to make a mean beignet. I got busy on Keith's order. All our produce is made fresh. There's no other good way to eat a beignet. Once the sweet treats cool, they toughen up and you may as well be chewing on a loofah. Maybe I could give the old ones a second life and sell them as bath scrubs.
I looked up. My dream bubble burst. 'Good morning, Clive. Come looking for a treat?'
'Actually,' Clive said, pulling up to the glass barrier in front of the fryer where I make my beignet magic, 'I've come looking for a ride.' He tugged at his blue polka-dot bowtie.
I scooped half-a-dozen beignets from the fryer and set them on the draining tray. In another few seconds I'd dust them with powdered sugar and presto! They'd be ready to serve. 'A ride?' Somehow the image of Clive struggling to balance his lanky frame astraddle the handlebars of my Schwinn dressed in that fancy dark suit of his refused to make sense. 'You know I drive a Schwinn, right?' I'd pedaled past his shop often enough.
Clive nodded. 'I know, but I'm desperate.'
I watched Keith walk out with his order. I watched Aubrey watch him walk out. Yes, romance was in the air – at least for some of us.
I smothered a sigh.
'Where's Johnny?' Johnny Wolfe was Clive's partner, business and otherwise. Johnny drives a flashy black BMW convertible. Clive and Johnny own The Hitching Post next door. This being the Old West, of sorts, you'd think The Hitching Post would be selling saddles, reins, braids and tack. But this was Table Rock. This was the New West. This was the New-Age West. This Hitching Post sold bridal gowns, sashes, garters and veils. Items of the 'I do and forever after' variety.
I've suggested to Johnny that he might want to change the name of his shop. In return, he's suggested to me that I might want to change the location of mine.
Johnny and I have a special relationship.
'Johnny's had to go to a client's house. He's making some last-minute alterations to a gown. Please, Maggie, I'm desperate. I've got to get to Markie's Masterpieces at Navajo Junction – pronto. The bride's mother insists that we make sure the dress and cake are properly coordinated.' He held up a square of lace and tulle.
'What about your shop?'
'I stuck a sign in the window: Closed, be back soon.' Clive ran a nervous hand through his hair. 'I don't have any appointments scheduled.'
'Well,' I said with hesitation. 'I might be able borrow a car ...' I looked at Aubrey. 'But I've got a business to run.'
Navajo Junction was the moniker given to a once-abandoned industrial complex on the far edge of town. It had been a big commercial and warehouse center back in the day, built beside the railroad tracks. In the thirties I'm told it was a bustling center of business activity. That activity had wound down to nothing by the fifties and the buildings had been abandoned. In the sixties, a bunch of artists took over and Navajo Junction stuttered along for a couple of decades. Then one of those artists hit the bigtime with his red rock landscapes, bought Navajo Junction and gave it a makeover. Since then the area has experienced a revival as an arts and crafts community and tourist destination.
'You go ahead,' said Aubrey with a wave of her hand. 'I've got this totally, totally covered. Besides, Kelly is due in less than an hour.' When Aubrey totally did something, she did it times two.
I pursed my lips. Kelly Herman was a new hire, so I really had no idea what she could or couldn't handle. Kelly also worked for my sister, Donna, part-time over at the health-food grocery that she and my brother-in-law Andy own. Not that they like it being labelled a health-food store. They consider the food they sell to be the real thing and they consider supermarkets nothing more than food factory outlets. They also believe we're all part of some giant earthly consciousness and that everything we say, do and think has an effect on all of us. They do their best to set a good example to others. Donna and Andy: Guardians of the Noosphere.
Me? I consider food to be food. I'm OK with my food coming from a factory, just so long as I don't find any stray factory parts in it like cogs or gaskets. Such things are barely digestible – like my sister's cooking.
Donna and Andy both spoke highly of Kelly. 'Fine,' I said, seeing how desperate poor Clive looked, 'but you call me,' I insisted, 'if anything comes up.'
Aubrey promised she would and Clive and I marched the two blocks to Mother Earth/Father Sun Grocers. We went up the alley. I spotted Andy's yellow Yukon mid-1955 Chevy pickup tucked up close to the back wall. The vehicle was in impeccable condition. Andy worked hard to keep it that way, too. I didn't see Donna's Mini Cooper around anywhere. She was probably home with the boys, fourteen-year-old Connor and twelve-year-old Hunter.
I frowned and tapped the side panel of the truck.
'What's wrong?' worried Clive.
'Looks like Andy's here.' I'd been hoping for my sister. I'd rather ask to borrow the Mini than my brother-in-law's truck. It's not that he'd refuse, he's much too sweet for that, but I knew how fretful he'd be the entire time I was driving it.
I really couldn't put him through that, could I?
I decided it was better not to ask. I'd be saving him from undue stress. 'Give me a minute.' I pulled open the back door to the grocery and quietly stepped inside. A blast of moist, chill air hit me. Donna and Andy rarely lock the back door during the day, what with deliveries coming in and going out all the time. They also kept the lights to a minimum throughout the store to save on energy. Everything ran on solar panels up on the roof.
There was a strong earthy smell back here – potatoes, onions, leeks. I noticed Andy's truck key on a hook near the battered oak desk that served as the store's office. I heard voices out front but the backroom was deserted. I pocketed the key and hurried outside.
'Well?' Clive asked, his eyes filled with expectation.
I pulled the key from my pocket and dangled it in the sunlight. 'No problem.' With lady luck on my side I'd have the truck back before Andy was any the wiser.
Table Rock, Arizona is in the heart of Red Rock Country, about halfway between Sedona and nowhere. Though Sedona is a New-Age mecca in its own right, you'll not hear that from a Table Rocker. Table Rock is where folks move to who feel that Sedona is too 'mainstream.'
I'm a recent immigrant to Table Rock. With a population of approximately five thousand (and one) or so humans, and another twenty thousand or so extraterrestrials – according to the New-Age gurus living and operating from our odd little red-rocked corner of the world – Table Rock is a mite on the small side. According to the gurus, aliens outnumbered Arizonans four-to-one.
Gurus themselves are as ubiquitous as cacti around here – and equally as prickly if you question their belief systems. I'd gotten into conversations with more than a few of them in the café and things had gotten testy. But really? I'm supposed to believe that there are such things as alien-crafted crystal skulls lying around the desert through which those aliens are communicating with these New-Age gurus? And the gurus claim they understand what the aliens are saying?
Please, I can barely comprehend my mom half the time, let alone aliens. I can't even understand my cat and she only knows one word: mrowl. What's that supposed to mean? From what I've been able to deduce, the darn word has at least a dozen meanings, from 'feed me' to 'pet me' to 'clean my freaking litter box already!'
'It's really nice of you to give me a ride like this,' Clive said, turning to face me as we rumbled down the asphalt. Fifty-five Chevy pickups don't cruise silently, they rumble. Clive's thick red hair blew in the wind being drawn in through the open pickup windows. Though his hair was so closely cropped it couldn't blow far.
'No problem.' I squeezed my eyes together. 'We redheads have to stick together.' My long hair blew everywhere – mostly into my eyes at the moment – and it stung like the dickens. Dickens made out of barbwire. A bit annoying but I could still see the road, at least most of the time – not worth mentioning to Clive. He'd only worry about me crashing the truck and us into the orange-red rocks flanking the road.
I really shouldn't complain, because at least my bangs – not so much the result of a bad hairstyle choice as a bad hair stylist choice – had finally grown out enough to get in my eyes.
The Chevy had no AC, so that's why we drove with the windows down. This was a bit of a distraction in other ways, too, because Andy had transformed the engine to run on vegetable oil and I got a fierce craving for French fries whenever I was in the truck. Like I was getting now. My mouth was watering and my stomach grumbling. My eyes were watering up, too – like some sad character on a soap opera who's just learned she's the adopted daughter of an orphaned single mother who died tragically in a factory fire after her husband left her when he found out she had an inoperable brain tumor – but that wasn't the French fries, it was my hair pelting my eyeballs.
Maybe I could convince Clive to stop at Bell Rock Burgers for a quick bite on the way back. They've got the best fries. I could fill up the gas tank, too. Bell Rock Burgers ought to have gobs of old French fry grease I could get on the cheap, if not free.
My hands hugged the wheel. It had been months since I'd driven a car. The last time I was chasing down some New-Age lunatic who I thought was a murderer but was merely a lunatic. Things had been a lot calmer since then and I'd been relying on my Schwinn for wheeled transportation, but when Clive had come running into the shop desperate for a lift over to Markie's Masterpieces, I hadn't been able to resist helping him out.
He and Johnny had done me a favor or two themselves since I'd moved to Table Rock a few months back. Like buying my old wedding dress off me when the chips were down and I needed some quick cash.
'I just don't understand it,' said Clive, worrying the swatch of dress fabric in his hand. He fidgeted. There was a nasty spring on the bench seat on the passenger's side that always drove me crazy, too. 'Markie isn't answering his phone. Neither is his assistant, Lisa, nor anyone else for that matter. I don't know what to do, Maggie. Normally we wouldn't be having anything to do with the wedding cake at all.'
He levelled his green eyes at me. We matched up there, too. 'But the bride's mother,' he rolled his eyes, 'let me tell you, she is a force of nature.' He sighed. 'As if Johnny and I don't have enough to do for this wedding. Now we have to deal with the wedding cake, too.'
'Why the last-minute rush?'
'Johnny just finished altering the lace overlay because the bride-to-be had some last-minute requests. I'm supposed to take this sample to Markie as a go-by.'
I told him it looked good.
Clive nodded, his hands playing with the fabric. 'Johnny does excellent work.' That he did. For a former figure skater, Johnny was a formidable seamstress and dress designer.
With Clive's help, we found the Entronque building on the edge of the Navajo Junction Arts Center complex alongside the railroad tracks. The Entronque was the tallest building in sight. A scattering of vehicles lay about the adjacent blacktop lot.
'You can pull up by that awning,' pointed Clive. 'The freight elevator is right there.'
I noticed a late-model sapphire-black Markie's Masterpieces decaled Nissan Cube parked nearby. I slid up to the mauve overhang and stopped. A sign on the side of the wall beside the door read Employees and Deliveries Only. 'Are you sure you can get in this way?'
'Want me to come in with you?'
'No need. I should only be a minute,' Clive replied briskly, climbing out.
I found a spot to park, shut off the engine and cranked up the radio. I had to flip through several New-Age stations, a station giving the farm report and another station, on which a Dr Jane Denver was telling listeners about her latest trip to someplace called Gamma Orionis in the Orion Constellation before alighting on Patsy Cline. Patsy's a bit before my time – I'm thirty-nine and intend to be for many years to come – but I liked her style.
I laid my head against the seat and closed my eyes. I rarely got the chance to relax like this these days. Patsy had barely finished her second song on this two-fer Tuesday when Clive jumped in the pickup and slammed the door.
I bounced up and stared at him. 'What's wrong? Are you OK?' He was sweating – hard to do in Arizona where the moisture gets sucked off your skin almost as fast as you can shed it out. I noticed frosting on his pant cuffs and black dress shoes and my brow went up. Clive is a stickler for cleanliness and elegance. They could paste his picture up next to the definition of dapper on Wikipedia.
Clive looked almost giddy, but not in a good way – in a kind of Looney Tunes way. 'Do you remember that time I was in your café and we found —'
I swear, his eyes bugged out like something in a cartoon and his Adam's apple swelled up like a Damson plum. I held up my hand like a five-fingered stop sign. 'Don't say it!'
I paused and stared him down. 'I do not want to talk about it. Not now, not ever again.' My life was difficult enough, what with a 'dead' ex-husband who wouldn't stay away and the struggle of running my fledgling beignet business. And now a cat named after somebody else's dead wife. Who needs a cat? And who needs a cat named after somebody else's dead wife?
'But Maggie —'
I shook my head. 'No, Clive.'
He sighed and pushed the door back open with his shaking knees. 'Fine.' He gestured with his finger. 'Follow me.'
I scratched my head and ran after Clive. What the devil was he up to?
Excerpted from Beignets, Brides and Bodies by J.R. Ripley. Copyright © 2016 J R Ripley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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