Old West ghost towns are as American as apple pie. So what better place to sponsor a pie-eating contest than the Bar X, a fake ghost town available for exclusive private events on the edge of Silicon Valley. Valentine Harris is providing the pies, hoping to boost business for her struggling Pie Town shop and become a regular supplier for the Bar X.
But no sooner does she arrive in town than a stray bullet explodes the cherry pie in her hands. And the delicious dessert is not the only victim. Val finds the Bar X bartender shot dead in an alley. Egged on by her flaky friend and pie crust specialist, Charlene, Val aims to draw out the shooter. But solving a real murder in a fake ghost town won't be easy as pie. And if Val doesn't watch her back, her pies won't be the only thing filled full of lead . . .
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I gripped the pie box as the Jeep bumped along the winding, dirt road.
Charlene, my octogenarian piecrust specialist, yanked the wheel sideways. Her white cat, asleep on the dashboard, slid toward me and the Jeep's open window.
One-handed, I steadied the cat, Frederick. Charlene believed Frederick was deaf and narcoleptic, so she carted him everywhere. I thought he was rude and lazy and didn't belong on important pie-selling business.
Oblivious to Frederick's near-sudden exit, Charlene hummed a western tune. The breeze tossed her white hair, its loose, glamour-girl curls shifting around the shoulders of her lightweight purple tunic.
Certain in the knowledge I wasn't getting that tune out of my head in the near future, I sighed and leaned closer to the windshield. My rollercoaster fear mingled with optimism in a heady brew of nervicitement. We were zipping toward a faux ghost town as super exclusive as only an event site on the bleeding edge of Silicon Valley could be. The Bar X was so private, I'd only learned about it three days ago, and I'd been living in San Nicholas nearly nine months.
Now, not only was I going to see the Old West town, but I was delivering pies that would be featured in its charity pie-eating contest. If all went well, the Bar X would become a regular Pie Town client. If all didn't go well, I didn't want to think about it.
Frowning, Charlene accelerated, and gravel zinged off the Jeep's undercarriage. "I don't know why Ewan had to make the roads so authentically awful. Now about our case —"
"Mrs. Banks is a lovely person." I gripped my seat belt. "She buys a strawberry-rhubarb pie every Friday. But she's a little distracted, and she's not a case."
"You mean you think she's gaga. Not every old person is nuts, you know." Her white curls quivered with indignation.
"She says when she buys groceries and brings them home, they disappear from her backseat."
"Mrs. Banks is forgetful, and no," I said before Charlene could object, "I don't think all old people are forgetful. But she is. She might not have remembered to load the groceries into her car in the first place." And the Baker Street Bakers, our amateur sleuthing club, didn't have time for another tail-chasing case. I had my hands full with my real job.
Four months earlier, in a fit of sugar-fueled enthusiasm, I'd doubled Pie Town's staff. Now, the pie shop I'd put everything I'd owned into was barely scraping even. At the thought of the financial grave I'd dug for myself, nausea clutched my throat.
"I've researched Banks's problem." She veered around a curve, and my shoulder banged the passenger window. "I'm thinking fairies. They're known thieves. I wouldn't put a few bags of groceries past them."
"It's a well-known fact that there are no fairies on the California coast." Or anywhere else, since they're not real.
"You're wrong there. There've been reports of fairy activity in the dog park. Of course, most people think it's UFOs."
"Right. Dog park. Because where else would they be?" The late summer morning was already warm. I smelled eucalyptus and sagebrush and a hint of salt from the nearby Pacific.
"Or the cause might be ectoplasmic," she said enthusiastically. "The groceries could be apporting."
I struggled not to ask, and failed. "Apport? What does that mean?"
"It's when ghosts suck objects into another plane." She made a whooshing sound. "Then the spirits make the objects reappear in different places in our dimension. I told her we'd stop by on Friday night and try out my new ghost-hunting equipment."
I rubbed my brow. Right now, I wouldn't mind apporting to another plane. Our armchair crime-solving club was all in good fun ... until Charlene left the armchair. "I really don't think it's a case."
"We don't know that. And it's not as if you have other plans for Friday night."
My cheeks heated, and I braced an elbow on the window frame. Charlene knew very well what I'd scheduled for Friday night. "Sorry, but Gordon and I are going on a date on Friday. Remember?" My insides squirmed with pleasure. It had been a long time since I'd been on a date — not since my engagement to Mark Jeffreys had gone kablooey earlier this year. Detective Gordon Carmichael and I had been dancing around going out for months, and it was finally happening.
"Are you sure it's a date?" She quirked a white brow. "Not just two people getting together?"
"Of course, it's a date."
"Because you two have been having a lot of 'notdates.'"
"We've been getting to know each other," I said, defensive.
"Usually that happens on dates."
"It's the twenty-first century, Charlene."
She grimaced. "Don't remind me. Have you bought new knickers?"
"What?" I yelped.
We rounded a bend. Charlene cut the curve close and scraped the yellow Jeep against the branches of a young eucalyptus tree.
"You heard me," she said. "You can't be too prepared."
I sputtered. "It's only a first date!" And knickers? Who even talked that way anymore? It's not like she was from Regency England.
"High quality unmentionables —"
"Unmentionables?" Had we time traveled to the Victorian era?
"Are a confidence builder."
And Charlene knew all about confidence. She'd been in the roller derby. Had scuba dived off the Great Barrier Reef. Had gone skydiving. And if it hadn't been for her, there never would have been any Baker Street Bakers.
I hadn't quite forgiven her for that.
"Besides, your date will be over by the time the ghost hunt starts. Things don't really get going until midnight or one AM."
"And you know I have to be at work by five. If I'm not in bed by ten, I'm done for." I yawned just thinking about it.
We trundled into an Old West ghost town. Its single dirt road was lined with ramshackle wooden buildings. Hills carpeted with low, green scrub cascaded from the east.
"I wonder where Gordon will take you," she mused. "Your options are limited in a small town like San Nicholas. Maybe he'll take you to the ... Marla!" She slammed on the brakes, and I careened forward.
The seat belt caught me in the ribs, but not quick enough to keep my head from banging into the windshield.
"The pies!" Ignoring the thudding pain in my skull, I whipped around and peered anxiously at the pink and white boxes stacked in the rear of the Jeep. I exhaled a shaky breath. The boxes hadn't fallen.
A growl vibrated beside me.
I turned, eyeing Frederick. The sleeping cat hadn't budged from the dashboard.
Charlene's knuckles whitened on the wheel. "Marla, here. Here!"
"What?" I looked around. The street was empty. "Who's Marla?"
Charlene floored the accelerator, whiplashing me against the seat. We rocketed down the dirt road and flew past a saloon, a chapel, and other random Old West buildings.
I yelped. "Pies. Pies!"
She braked hard. The Jeep screeched to a halt, engulfed in a cloud of dust.
Coughing, I rolled up the window. "What was that about?"
"Marla, is what," she snarled. Opening her door, she gently dislodged Frederick from the dashboard and arranged him over one shoulder. Charlene strode into the dust cloud and vanished.
I unbuckled myself and clambered over the seat. Holding my breath, I lifted the lid on one of the pies in the cargo area. The air whooshed from my lungs. The pie had survived. The others might be okay as well.
Pie-eating contests are traditionally messy, but it wouldn't do to prebreak the inventory. Not when I wanted to make a deal with the Bar X to be their regular pie supplier. Aside from guns, cowboys, and those old-timey photos where you dress like a prostitute, there's nothing that says "Old West" more than hand pies. And we made awesome hand pies.
Lurching from the yellow Jeep, I dusted off my pink-and-white Pie Town T-shirt. Beneath its giant smiley face was our motto: TURN YOUR FROWN UPSIDE DOWN AT PIE TOWN! I'd designed the shirts myself, one of the perks of owning my own business.
The downsides of entrepreneurship? Baker's hours and knuckle-biting payrolls. If I could add this wholesaling business, the latter worry would be a thing of the past.
The dust dissipated, leaving a brownish ground fog. We'd parked in front of a squat wooden building set amidst a stand of eucalyptus trees. A sign above the one-story wooden shack read: POTTERY.
At the far end of the dirt road, Charlene vanished into a carriage house, its ginormous, barnlike doors wide open.
A shot rang out, and I flinched.
Mr. Frith had warned me about the gunshots. It was only the sharpshooters, practicing for the event later today. But since a homicidal maniac had attempted to shoot me earlier this year, I was an eensy bit sensitive to gunfire.
"Charlene!" A woman shrieked inside the carriage house. "You look awful. What happened?"
Three more shots rang out in rapid succession, and my jaw clenched.
I trotted into the carriage house and slithered past a massive coach that looked like it had driven out of a Wells Fargo ad. Straw lay scattered about the wood plank floor, and the massive room smelled strongly of manure. Past the coach were rows of empty stalls, and a second set of open doors on the other end of the building.
An elegant, silver-haired woman in a salmon-colored silk top and wide-legged slacks was awkwardly embracing Charlene. Diamonds flashed on the woman's fingers. An expensive camera hung from one slim shoulder.
An older gentleman in jeans and a crisp, white button-up shirt beamed at them both. "I'd no idea you two knew each other." He chuckled. "That's life in a small town. I should have guessed."
The woman released my piecrust maker. "What are you doing here?"
"Pies," Charlene said, gruff. "For the event today."
"You're the pie maker?" The woman's lip curled.
"Charlene, I would have thought you'd have retired." She sighed. "That's California though. So impossibly expensive. Fortunately, I've got my real estate rentals. I had no idea I could make so much money renting houses. So much money."
Charlene stiffened. She owned rentals as well. And as one of her tenants, I didn't like that this conversation was headed toward higher rent.
The snowy cat looked up from Charlene's shoulder and yawned.
"I work because I want to," Charlene said. "I like to keep my hand in, stay busy."
"Of course, you do," the woman said. "Ewan, take a picture of the two of us. I can't wait to compare this to our old yearbook photos."
The man stepped forward, and she handed him her camera.
The woman — Marla? — pressed herself next to Charlene and struck a pose.
Charlene flushed, her fists clenching.
Uh-oh. For some reason, Charlene was seriously annoyed. I cleared my throat. "Mr. Frith?"
He returned the camera to Marla and swiveled, his teeth gleaming white against his rough and ruddy skin. "And you must be Val. I'm Ewan. Welcome to the Bar X, young lady!" He strode forward and took my hand, pumping it enthusiastically.
I was twenty-eight, but I'd take young lady, and I grinned.
"Charlene's told me so much about you," he continued. "Not that she needed to. Your pies speak for themselves."
I grinned. That sounded promising. "And this is the famous Bar X! I'm excited to finally see it."
The mystery woman — Marla, it had to be — sidled up to him and draped a diamond-spangled hand over his broad shoulder. "And who are you? Charlene's employee?"
"Ah ..." I darted a glance at my piecrust maker. "We work together," I said, deliberately vague.
Charlene's shoulders dropped. She raised her chin. "Val owns Pie Town. I run the piecrust room. Val Harris, this is Marla." Her voice lowered on the last syllable, dripping with disdain.
Marla scanned me. "How adorable. And your skin! What I wouldn't give for the skin of a twenty-something, right Charlene?"
Adorable? I'd always figured myself for kind of average, and I warmed at the compliment. I was a normal California gal — blue eyes, five foot five, and a little curvy (the tasty tragedy of owning a pie shop). I touched my brown hair, done up in its usual knot.
Charlene harrumphed. In her mind, she still was a twentysomething. Or at least a fortysomething.
"When Ewan suggested a pie-eating contest for our little fundraiser," Marla said, "I'd no idea you two would be involved."
"Who is it supporting?" I asked.
"The local humane society," she said. "All those poor lost doggies and kittens. I'm on the board. You know how it is when you're retired. It does help to stay involved, even if my passion is helping others rather than baking pies." Her nose wrinkled, and she linked her arm with Ewan's. "Now, did you say something about a private tour?"
"Of course," he said. "The carriage isn't hitched up, so we'll have to walk. Charlene? Val? Would you like to join us?"
"Val can't," Charlene said. "She needs to get the pies out of the Jeep."
I shuffled my feet. The pie retrieval wasn't that urgent. "But —"
"Before they get soggy in the heat," she continued.
"But I could go for a walk," Charlene said.
Marla's face tightened. "Lovely. We really do need to catch up. Are you sure you can manage the exercise, Charlene? You look rather tired."
Charlene glowered. "I'm fit as a fiddle."
"Oh, Charlene." Marla laughed, a jewel-like tinkle. "You haven't changed a bit. At least, not on the inside." She snapped a photo of the carriage house, and the three ambled toward the open doors on the other side of the barn.
Another shot rang out, and I started. "Wait," I said. "Where should I put the pies?"
"The saloon," Ewan called over his shoulder. "My daughter Bridget will be there to help you."
"Okay," I said. But they'd already disappeared around the corner of the carriage house. My lips compressed with disappointment. I wouldn't have minded a tour, but I could take a hint, and Charlene's had been as obvious as an elephant on Main Street. She didn't want me around.
I stomped to the Jeep, opened the driver's side door, and paused, chagrined. Charlene had the key. I could get inside, but I couldn't drive the pies closer to the saloon, which was across the street and down a bit. I'd just have to make lots of trips.
Another shot cracked.
A murder of crows rose noisily from the nearby eucalyptus trees. Uneasily, I watched them flap toward the hills.
I stacked six pink pie boxes in my arms and clamped my chin on the top box to steady them. Nudging the door shut with my hip, I lurched across the road, automatically looking right, then left. I gave a slight shake of my head. It wasn't as if buggies were racing down the —
A shot cracked. The top box flew from beneath my chin. It exploded in a burst of pink cardboard and piecrust and cherry filling.
I shrieked, the boxes swaying.
I slapped my hand on the top box, and they steadied. Okay. Okay. I was alive. But what-the-hell? Another shot rang out, louder.
Heart banging against my ribs, I scrambled for cover behind a horse trough. My tennis shoes skidded in the loose dirt, and I half fell against the trough. I clutched the remaining boxes to my chest. Someone. Some stupid person ...
My fingers dented the pink cardboard. Probably some kids, or hunters, or a random idiot. The trick shooters couldn't have been this careless.
I forced my breathing to calm. "Hello?" I shouted. "Hold your fire!"
No one answered.
Still clinging to my pies, I squirmed about and peered over the trough. Since I hadn't been hit, the bullet that had taken out my pie must have come from an angle, from my side rather than my front or rear.
The eucalyptus trees across the street shivered. They would have made a good hiding place for a shooter.
Hiding place? The shot had to have been an accident, but suddenly all I wanted was to get out of here.
I hunched over my remaining pie boxes and speed walked toward the saloon, the nearest shelter. It now seemed light years away. Its front doors were shuttered closed.
I scooted up its porch steps and set my pies by the door, rattled the heavy wood shutters.
Locked. I gave a small whimper.
Abandoning my pies, I ducked into the alley between the saloon and a bath house. Panting, I peeked into the main street.
I was probably safe here. I'd probably been safe behind the watering trough. This was twenty-first century California, not the Wild West. But cold sweat trickled down my neck. I backed deeper into the shade of the alley.
My heel bumped something. I staggered and braced my hands against the rough, wood-planked wall. Legs wobbly, I exhaled, turned.
A man lay sprawled on the dirt, his plaid shirt soaked with blood. Mouth open, he stared sightlessly at the cloudless sky.
Excerpted from "Bleeding Tarts"
Copyright © 2018 Kirsten Weiss.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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