As Robbie arranges a breakfast-themed cook-off at Pans ‘N Pancakes, visitors pour into Brown County for the annual maple extravaganza. Unfortunately, that includes Professor Connolly, a know-it-all academic from Boston who makes enemies everywhere he goes—and this time, bad manners prove deadly. Soon after clashing with several scientists at a maple tree panel, the professor is found dead outside a sugar shack, stabbed to death by a local restaurateur’s knife. When an innocent woman gets dragged into the investigation and a biologist mysteriously disappears, Robbie drops her winning maple biscuits to search for answers. But can she help police crack the case before another victim is caught in a sticky situation with a killer?
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The banner outside Pans 'N Pancakes proclaimed "JOIN MAPLE MANIA!" The Brown County Maple Festival's logo of a grinning bottle of syrup beamed its invitation. But the look on Professor Sonia Genest's face would have frozen butter on a tall stack of hot flapjacks.
I'd hung the banner for the fifth annual festival across the wide covered porch of my country store restaurant and had stepped into the road to check the level. Instead, I watched as the voluptuous thirty-something professor glued her fists to her hips. She glared from the bottom step at a portly man in a suit with sharply creased trousers. He'd just climbed out of a black Lexus parked in the last of the ten spots angling in to the store's wide covered porch. Incongruous with his attire was a Red Sox cap perched atop his head.
"How dare you?" she snarled, not trying to keep her voice down. Sonia, a lifelong resident of our little town of South Lick, Indiana, and a regular at Pans 'N Pancakes, had just finished a full breakfast inside. She was a woman who appreciated a good meal.
The man clasped his hands in front of him and sort of smiled, but his top lip curled, making him look like he'd tasted curdled milk. "My dear, can I help it if my grant proposal was funded and yours wasn't?"
"I'm not your dear, Warren." Strictly business, she spoke each scorn-laced word distinctly. Her outfit was all business, too, a black wool coat over a gray jacket and skirt with black tights and ankle boots. "And if it weren't for the conference, I'd never have to set eyes on you."
The academic conference on maple tree science was on a parallel track with the county's Maple Festival. The festival organizers aimed to bring tourists to town in March, a normally dead time of year for local businesses. On the festival schedule this afternoon was the breakfast cook-off, with area cooks competing to produce the winning maple-favored breakfast item. And it was slated to be held right here at my restaurant. I hoped I was ready.
I abandoned my banner examination and approached the pair. They must be continuing a prior disagreement. "Good morning, sir. I'm Robbie Jordan, owner and chef here." I extended my hand.
"Ah, Ms. Jordan." The man patted his expansive stomach and talked through his smile, his tiny eyes almost disappearing in the flesh of his cheeks. "I'm Warren Connolly." He offered a puffy padded palm. "I was just coming to sample your menu. Your restaurant is quite the talk of the conference."
I shook his extended hand. I'd never really trusted people who talked and smiled simultaneously. Sonia looked like she didn't, either.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Connolly," I said. "Are you at Indiana University or from out of town?" A truck rumbled by on the road and I had to strain to hear his response.
"It's Professor Connolly. I teach and do my research at Boston College."
"'Research.'" Sonia surrounded the word with finger quotes. "You call it research to accept money from climate-change deniers and then counter well-established facts with some environmental fantasy?" She shook her head, streaked dark blond hair flying, and turned away, her words sizzling the chilly early-March air. "Great breakfast, Robbie," she called as she headed for her car.
"Thanks," I answered, but I wasn't sure she heard me. I shivered and hugged myself. I wasn't exactly dressed for forty-degree weather in my jeans, long-sleeved T-shirt, and blue-and-white striped store apron. The sun promised to warm the day later, though. Cold nights and warm days created perfect conditions for inciting maple sap to run in the veins of trees all over Indiana's most heavily forested county. Since it was only eight o'clock, we were still in the chilly part of the cycle.
"How about that breakfast?" I said in a bright tone to the professor.
He laid a hand on the railing and nodded once up, once down. "Excellent idea," he said, but his now unsmiling gaze was on Sonia's silver sedan as it disappeared down the road toward the center of town.
* * *
Back in the store, Turner Rao gave me a frantic look as I inhaled the welcome scents of bacon and biscuits. Danna Beedle, my able assistant since I'd opened last fall, had traveled to San Diego for a volleyball tournament. Turner was the new part- time employee I'd hired and I'd apparently been outside a few minutes too long. He frantically flipped whole wheat banana walnut pancakes, turned sausages and strips of bacon, and rescued two almost-burnt slices of toast. Across the room a customer with an empty platter waved his hand in the air like he wanted his check, while another caught my eye and held up her coffee mug signaling for a refill. I pointed Professor Connolly to a table for two in the corner, mouthed, "Sorry" to Turner, and grabbed the coffeepot.
I'd restored order in a couple of minutes, grateful I'd found the slim twenty-two- year-old to help out. Danna and I had agreed we really needed a third worker. Turner was a good enough short-order cook to man the grill, and despite his recent college degree he didn't mind waiting and busing tables or doing cleanup. Danna and I also wore all hats around here, although I was the only one who did the books and paid the bills. It was my business, after all.
I'd purchased the run-down country store over a year ago, and had used the carpentry skills my late mother taught me back home in California to carry out the renovation work myself. Now I was the proud proprietor of a popular breakfast and lunch restaurant. I also sold antique cookware and a few other odds and ends in the store, including my aunt Adele's gorgeous yarn from her nearby sheep farm. I was almost finished renovating the second floor of the building into several rooms I planned to rent out as a bed and breakfast. The village of South Lick in scenic hilly Brown County had become my home — my apartment conveniently abutted the store at the back — and I couldn't be happier.
My new life would fall apart, however, if I didn't keep my customers as happy as I was. I delivered a menu to the professor and asked if he'd like coffee.
"Sure." He gave the menu a once-over glance and handed it back. "I'll have the Kitchen Sink omelet, with biscuits, plus bacon — crisp — and hash browns."
In the background buzz of diners chatting, silver clinking, sausages sizzling, I waited for the please. When it wasn't forthcoming, I said, "You got it."
"I don't suppose you serve Bloody Marys, do you?"
"Sorry, no liquor license." I decided not to mention I had an entirely legal BYOB policy in place. I didn't advertise it, but regulars knew they could bring a bottle of wine or a couple of beers to lunch to celebrate special occasions. The state restricted the practice to wine and beer only, and I wasn't allowed to pour it. Someone occasionally showed up with a bottle for Sunday brunch, but so far never for breakfast on a Friday.
"I didn't think so." Connolly's mouth pulled down in disappointment. "Where's the best bar in town?" He drummed his fingers on the table. A gold ring featuring an embedded diamond dented his right pinkie.
I glanced at the big old schoolroom clock on the wall — he wanted a bar before nine in the morning? "The Casino Tavern, on the other side of town. Actually it's the only bar in town." A casino in South Lick had flourished for a couple of decades over a hundred years ago, in the heyday of mineral springs spas. The present-day bar was a casino in name only. "The conference is in Nashville, right?" I'd lived in Brown County for four years. By now I said the name of the colorful artsy county seat like the locals did — Nashvul.
"The bar's on the road out of town heading that way. You probably passed it on your way here." I saw Turner make the hand signal meaning an order was ready. "I'll go get your food started."
Apparently please wasn't the only word missing from this Bostonian's vocabulary, since he didn't thank me, either. I gave Turner the order, delivered three platters to a table of South Lick residents, and poured the professor's coffee. He didn't even look up from whatever he was doing on his phone.
Back at the grill, I asked Turner, "Want to switch?" We tried to change jobs once an hour or so to avoid boredom — and to give each other a break from rude customers.
"Sure. One second."
I watched Turner's long smooth-skinned fingers deftly wrap around the handle of the pitcher holding the pancake batter. His mother, Mona Turner-Rao, was a local girl but his father, Sajit, had been born in India. The family owned a maple tree farm in the county and Sajit was also somehow affiliated with the university over in Bloomington. After pouring six pancakes worth of batter into identically sized disks, Turner pulled off his stained apron and donned a fresh one from the box.
I was checking the status of the current orders on the lined-up slips of paper when the bell on the door jangled.
"What's he doing here?" Turner muttered under his breath.
His father hurried toward us. He wore a fleece vest over a blue Oxford button- down, and was bulky where his son was slim. "Turner, I need your help at the farm." His accent wasn't a strong one, but his son's name sounded almost like "Durner."
"Baba, I told you." Turner kept his voice low. "I have a job. I can't just leave."
"But we have much to prepare for tomorrow. You know we are hosting the sugaring off demonstration for the festival." His hands flew through the air as he talked.
The festival schedule included opportunities to learn about sugaring off — like the one at the Rao maple farm — fun events for children, a Native American maple syrup demonstration in Brown County State Park, and themed culinary cook-offs like the one this afternoon. Sugaring off, the process of slowly boiling down maple sap to remove the water, resulting in thick, sweet syrup, was particularly popular. The organizers were hoping the cook-offs would draw crowds, too.
"I can't." Turner, at six feet standing several inches taller than his father, lowered his face right in front of his father's. "Robbie would be alone here. I'm not leaving."
Mr. Rao exclaimed in whatever his native language was. I didn't understand the word but it sure sounded like he was exasperated.
"You are a smart boy." He shook his head at his son. "What are you doing cooking for your job? And cooking meat, no less! We paid for you to earn your degree. You should be using it, not doing women's work making American breakfast."
I sniffed, and tore my gaze away from the pair. Just in time I flipped the cakes before they burned, and scooted four crispy sausages to the cooler end of the grill. Turner had told me his father wasn't particularly happy about him working for me, but I hadn't realized Mr. Rao felt so strongly about it. "Women's work" indeed. What century did he live in, anyway?
"You didn't pay much for my B.A.," Turner said. "You know I got free tuition because of your IU connection, and I lived at home."
"I have sacrificed much for you. You are my only son."
"And Su is in med school. Your only daughter will be a doctor one day. That should make you happy. Me, I love to cook," Turner said, loading his forearms with four orders. "I want to be a chef. This is great experience for me. Please don't make a big fuss, Baba."
"Leave Sujita out of this. It will be on your head if a hundred people come tomorrow and we are not ready." Turner's father turned away with a huff of air.
I ladled out an omelet's worth of beaten eggs, but out of the corner of my eye I saw Mr. Rao freeze. Now what was wrong? I sprinkled sautéed green peppers, mushrooms, and onions onto the egg base, added capers and a handful of grated cheddar, and looked up to see what the problem was. Sajit stared with narrowed eyes at Warren Connolly, who shot him the curled lip under flared nostrils for a second. Then Connolly plastered on a fake grin and waved to Sajit with one pudgy hand.
"Dr. Rao. Join me, would you?" the professor called.
So it was Dr. Rao.
"Climate change denier," Turner's father muttered. This time whatever word he added after that sounded a lot more like a curse than the earlier expression of frustration, but he made his way to Connolly's table.
I exchanged a glance with Turner. He only shrugged. As he delivered the loaded plates to their destination, I turned half of the omelet over onto itself, hoping the two scholars' interaction wasn't going to turn into a display of in-store fireworks. Uproar was never good for business.
Despite it being March, not July, fireworks was exactly what the conversation between Drs. Rao and Connolly became after Turner's dad sat at Connolly's table. Every time I glanced their way, Dr. Rao did not look happy and Professor Connolly kept a smug, self-satisfied expression on his face. Turner asked his dad if he wanted coffee or something to eat, but Dr. Rao waved him away with an impatient gesture.
After about ten minutes Dr. Rao stood so suddenly his chair clattered over sideways. "No. That is simply not acceptable. All the science is against you and you know it." If voices could kill, the deadly force of his would have.
I watched from the cooking area as Professor Connolly blinked. Turner cringed. Other customers turned to stare.
Connolly flipped open his hands. "You have your opinion, Sajit, and I have mine."
"It's not a matter of opinion," Turner's dad spat out, each word distinct. "The maple genus is suffering all over as the temperatures warm. The entire cycle is disrupted. Insects, microflora, all of it."
"My funders believe otherwise."
Dr. Rao stared at Connolly. He turned on his heel and left without saying goodbye to his son. Turner frowned but didn't seem to mind. I was just glad the exchange had ended without a Roman candle going off, not to mention an even bigger explosion. Nobody wants their delicious breakfast interrupted by someone else's fireworks. Interesting that it ran along the same theme as Sonia's objection to Connolly earlier.
The professor left a few minutes later and the next hour turned so busy I didn't have time to think. Rushes like that were exhausting but always proved great for the old bottom line. The crowd had to be due to all the folks here for the festival. I served and cooked for far fewer familiar faces than usual. Ten o'clock brought the opposite, a total lull in business.
"Sit down for a few while you can, Turner," I said. "And make yourself whatever you want to eat. If it's as busy as it was earlier, we won't have a minute for lunch until we close at one-thirty." I was still trying to ensure he felt welcome as my employee and also paced himself on rest and eating. The last thing we needed was one of us passing out from low blood sugar. I threw a slice of sharp cheese on top of an unclaimed pancake and topped it with another, making myself an ad hoc sandwich. I brought it and a glass of milk to a table and sank blissfully into a chair.
He joined me several minutes later, with a plate full of an egg-veggie scramble and a pile of overly crisp hash browns.
"I didn't realize your dad felt so strongly about you working here," I ventured after he sat. "I hope it's going to be okay at home."
He swallowed a bite of potato. "It'll be fine. But it's time for me to move out. Dad grew up in India, and the expectations for first sons — and especially only sons — are pretty different there, even now."
"But you were born here, right?"
"I sure was. At the hospital in Bloomington. A Hoosier, born and bred, even if I don't quite look like one. And I haven't gone anywhere, Robbie, except twice to visit the rels in India." He sounded wistful.
I cocked my head. "Your father seemed upset you're cooking meat, too. Do you mind cooking it? I'm sorry. I never thought to ask you."
"I don't mind. The Hindu religion discourages the eating of meat, particularly beef, because the cow is sacred. But my father knows I'm only preparing hamburgers, not consuming them." He gestured to his plate. "It's not like we live in a vegetarian country, anyway."
"Especially here in Indiana. People love their meat. Beef, pork, lamb, you name it." I wanted to ask what his mom thought of Turner's choice to train as a chef, but I didn't want him to feel that I, his boss, was prying into his personal life. His dad had brought the issue to my grill — asking about his father was fair game. Then Turner answered my unasked question anyway.
"At least Mom's got my back. She's always said Su and I could do whatever we wanted with our lives, as long as it was legal and we could support ourselves." He scarfed down his eggs while I finished my pancake sandwich. "Are you all set for this afternoon?"
Excerpted from "Biscuits and Slashed Browns"
Copyright © 2018 Edith Maxwell.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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