In an attempt to woo tourists to Jewel Bay and cheer up the townies, Erin Murphy, manager of the specialty local foods market known as the Merc, is organizing the First Annual Food Lovers’ Film Festival, filled with classic foodie flicks and local twists on favorite movie treats. But when her partner in planning, painter Christine Vandeberg, is found dead only days before the curtain rises, Erin suspects someone is attempting to stop the films from rolling.
To make matters worse, Nick—Erin’s brother and Christine’s beau—has top billing on the suspect list. Convinced her brother is innocent and determined that the show must go on, Erin has to find who’s really to blame before Nick gets arrested or the festival gets shut down. But the closer she gets to the killer, the more likely it becomes that she’ll be the next person cut from the program...
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THE MURPHY CLAN:
Erin Murphy, manager of Glacier Mercantile, aka the Merc
Francesca “Fresca” Conti Murphy, Erin’s mother and the Merc’s manager emeritus
Tracy McCann, salesclerk and budding chocolatier
Chiara Murphy Phillips, Erin’s sister and co-owner of Snowberry Gallery
Landon Phillips, age five, Chiara’s superhero son
Nick Murphy, aka Wolf Man, Erin’s brother and a wolf biologist
Christine Vandeberg, painter and chief organizer of the Food Lovers’ Film Festival
Larry Abrams, retired Hollywood lighting director, Film Club advisor
Zayda George, president of the Jewel Bay High School Film Club
Dylan Washington, future filmmaker
VILLAGERS AND FRIENDS:
Kyle Caldwell, head chef at Caldwell’s Eagle Lake Lodge and Guest Ranch, and car nut
Sally Grimes, owner of Puddle Jumpers Children’s Clothing and Toys
Danny Davis, Kyle’s high school buddy and fellow car nut
Rick Bergstrom, aka Farm Boy, hunky grain salesman
Adam Zimmerman, hunky Wilderness Camp director and Erin’s college classmate
Jack Frost, aka the Junkman, Christine’s feisty neighbor
Ned Redaway, longtime owner of Red’s Bar
J.D. Beckstead, Ned’s grandson and a sign of change at Red’s
Wendy Taylor Fontaine, baker extraordinaire
Mimi and Tony George, Zayda’s parents and proprietors of the Jewel Inn
Kim Caldwell, sheriff’s detective and Jewel Bay’s resident deputy
Ike Hoover, undersheriff
Mr. Sandburg, Erin’s sleek, sable Burmese cat
Pepé, Fresca’s lively Scottish terrier
Pumpkin, Christine’s full-figured orange tabby
Bozo, Tracy’s Harlequin Great Dane, a rescue dog
• One •
“I need to talk to you.”
One hand on the aluminum stepladder, I peered out the broom closet door, wondering who needed me and why she whispered about it so urgently.
A blond teenager in gray leggings and purple running shoes, hair in a ponytail, stood at the open door to the Playhouse control room, her fleece-clad back to me.
“Later,” came the reply. Older, male, firm.
“Now,” she demanded, and I recognized Zayda George—high school senior, track star, president of the student Film Club.
“Coming through,” I called, and wriggled my way out the door and into the wide passage leading to the lobby, both hands gripping the six-foot ladder. In the shadows, Zayda froze. I didn’t need bright lights to know she’d been pleading with Larry Abrams.
Half a dozen kids from the Film Club who were running the projectors, lights, and sound for the weekend mingled in the Playhouse lobby. Christine Vandeberg pointed to a spot on the tile floor and I set up the ladder. She whipped a plastic bag off a five-foot-long hand-painted sign leaning against the wall.
“Like it?” Christine clasped her hands, squeezing her fingers as she waited for my opinion.
“Perfect.” For our first Food Lovers’ Film Festival, we’d rechristened the Playhouse in Jewel Bay, Montana, taking it back to its roots. You can’t go back again, not really. Times change. The places you love change. You change.
But the right sign can transport you anywhere.
“Perfect,” I repeated. “Like an old-time theater marquee.” Flamingo pink stripes emulating neon tubes ran across the top and bottom. On each end, faux diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires sparkled. And in the center, three-dimensional gold script read THE BIJOU. Literally, the jewel. Figuratively, the Jewel Box.
“You’re too young to talk about old-time, Erin.” I hadn’t seen Larry Abrams approach. Not quite movie-star handsome but close, with white hair and chiseled features just beginning to soften. “It’s Brooklyn, 1955, decades before you were born. I went to the movies every Saturday afternoon, sometimes twice.”
The red hair coiled on top of Christine’s head in a tribute to Marge Simpson bobbed like a buoy in a windstorm. “I used Larry’s movie poster collection and a picture of our original theater as inspiration. Larry, hold the ladder while we hang this.”
The longtime Hollywood lighting director forced a helpful expression. In his post-retirement volunteer work, he enjoyed being in charge.
I could relate. But this Festival was Christine’s baby, and to tell the truth, being the gofer made for a welcome break.
Larry steadied the ladder and Christine clambered up the rungs. I handed her the chain attached to the sign. She slipped the top link over a hook barely visible in the shiny tin ceiling and climbed back down. As I juggled the weight of the sign and Larry scooted the ladder over, I caught sight of Zayda a few feet away, one arm folded across her torso, absently biting the tip of her little finger.
Moments later, I stepped back. “What do you think, Zayda? Right height?”
“Um, it’s good. Sparkly.” Her voice lacked its usual zip, and she blinked rapidly as she glanced at Larry. His own eyes lit on her briefly before refocusing on the sign.
“Seriously, old man. You kept the posters from when you were a kid?” Zayda’s boyfriend, Dylan, ran a hand through his dark blond hair. I’d spent enough time with the kids to realize that while she adored the movies, it was the technology that fired him up.
“They came later,” Larry said. “Took me years to build that collection.”
“What’s the deal about collecting?” Dana Grant, another Film Club member, tilted his head. “I don’t get it.”
“Think of Barbies or Legos you’re too old for, but you still love,” a girl with hair in shades of red from strawberry blond to cranberry replied. Her parents ran the pizza joint. “Or tickets from a concert. You keep them to remind you how you felt.”
“Zayda’s got her number bibs from every race,” Dylan said. “Plus all her ribbons. They cover the back of her bedroom door.”
“’Cause she always wins,” the redhead said.
“Yeah, but buying stuff just to hang on to it . . .” Dana’s voice trailed off. Clearly, he was not in possession of the collector gene.
“Enough jabbering. Gotta make sure all this new gear runs like it’s supposed to.” Larry pointed toward the control room.
“Yessir.” Dylan gave a mock salute, and the kids swarmed out of the lobby.
Zayda trailed behind. “Larry, you promised . . .” she said in a low voice.
“Soon as the job is finished,” he said. Zayda bit her lower lip and followed the other kids. Larry headed for the men’s room.
“What was that all about?” I asked Christine.
Face raised, her gaze darted from one end of the sign to the other, measuring whether it hung straight and level. Years as a professional framer gave her a sharp eye for details.
The sign sparkled. Which was the point: To bring a little color and light to a village mired in the deep midwinter. Let other towns break the monotony of February with hearts and flowers. But a town that calls itself the Food Lovers’ Village and boasts first-class summer stock plus a vibrant community theater? Food and film, a natural combination.
“What? Something happen?”
I reached for the ladder. “No. But Larry may be a little too directorial.” Zayda was a good kid, eager to prove herself. Eager, too, to get on a pro’s good side and make contacts in the industry. Her mother, Mimi, had told me she had her heart set on film school in L.A. She’d work lights and sound, almost any job, biding time for a chance to get behind the camera. Let other girls crave the spotlight. Zayda George wanted to be the one telling them what to do.
Christine squinted at the sign through turquoise glasses frames. “Yeah. But without the money he raised for the screening equipment, we wouldn’t be having a film festival, so . . .”
“Did you convince him to display his poster collection in the lobby?”
“Your sister figured out some kind of insurance thing, so he finally agreed.” She scooped up the bag from the sign.
“Are all his posters for movies about Montana?”
“Just the ones he’s lending us—Jane Russell in Montana Belle, Gene Autry in Blue Montana Skies, a dozen others. I guess some are pretty valuable.”
“Speaking of collections,” I said. “Have you decided what to do with Iggy’s? I still can’t believe she had all that amazing art.” Iggy Ring, painter, collector, teacher, mentor, and a fixture in Jewel Bay, had died over the past winter. A tiny woman who’d left a huge hole in the community, and in my heart.
The red-haired buoy wobbled dangerously. “A few legal details to work out, but most of it’s going to the Art Center. What they can’t keep, we’ll sell to fund education programs. Art classes for teens, I’m thinking, and a business training course for artists. I’ve got to finish Iggy’s inventory, then get an appraisal.”
“Good work, ladies.” Larry crossed the lobby to join the kids.
“Thanks,” I called to Larry. To Christine, “good choice.” More than a century ago, settlers began floating logs cut from the surrounding mountains down the Jewel River to a mill beside the bay. Around 1900, construction of a small dam and power plant, and a new road for lumber wagons and trucks, spurred more growth. By the 1970s, the mill had closed, lights had dimmed, and the town needed a new spark. Locals—including Old Ned Redaway and my family—fashioned Jewel Bay into an arts village, and in recent years, cooked up a reputation as a food lovers’ haven. Others built up the area’s recreational assets.
Now those passions bloom side by side, making Jewel Bay, Montana, a most unexpected place. It melds mouth-watering food, eye-watering art, a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, tummy-churning whitewater, and the most dedicated volunteer force on the planet. The result? A village chock-full of charm. Not to mention that it sits on a bay of the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, with a backyard wilderness stretching more than a million acres, and Glacier National Park half an hour’s drive away.
Since moving back home nine—nearly ten—months ago to take over the Merc, my family’s hundred-year-old grocery, I’d come to understand the power of local in a whole new light. My mother and I converted the Merc into a market specializing in foods grown or produced in the region. Wine to wash them down, pottery to serve them, and soap to wash up, all of it locally made, too. We also created a commercial kitchen in the back of the shop, so vendors can cook and pack their products in a facility that meets health department specs.
But while I love my vendors dearly, it took about ten seconds to realize that knowing how to make fabulous pasta and pesto, cure award-winning salami, or cook huckleberry jam that makes grown cowboys tear up is a far cry from knowing how to market those skills. A whole ’nother kettle, as my grandfather Murphy would have said.
So I’d put my decade of experience as a grocery buyer for SavClub, the international warehouse chain based in Seattle, to work mentoring my vendors in the fine arts of inventory control and cost management, giving an occasional lesson in sales and marketing.
And after watching my sister, Chiara, launch a successful co-op gallery while other artists struggled to pay the bills, I firmly believe every working artist needs a crash course in business savvy.
As a painter and framer, Christine had seen plenty of artists fight that same battle. She gave the sign a long, loving gaze. “This weekend is going to be a hit, isn’t it?”
I folded the ladder and hoisted it onto my hip. “Everything’s falling into place perfectly.”
Famous last words.
* * *
The first Friday in February and the Merc was quiet as a cloud. I minded—cash flow trickles this time of year—but it’s kinda nice to catch your breath once in a while.
Happily, Tracy McCann, my shop clerk and sole employee, is a display whiz. The plate glass windows on either side of our front door boast deep bays that present a constant challenge. To me, anyway. To Tracy, changing the product mix and finding the right theme and accent pieces is the best part of her job.
Second best, after a seriously fine talent for making truffles.
One window celebrated Valentine’s Day: wine and roses, chocolates, scented soaps and lotions, red-and-white dishes. A picnic basket—one of our year-round specialties—brimming with ingredients for a romantic dinner for two.
In the other window, the movies held center stage. The Festival poster. Popcorn poppers in the newest, grooviest styles, from Kitchenalia, across the street. Saltshakers in two simple designs: clear quilted glass with a metal screw top, and an aluminum canister with a curved handle. And from my favorite NFL player-turned-potter: a serving bowl in a poppy red glaze and four small bowls, each bearing a distinctive red-and-white pattern. Red-and-white popcorn cartons and boxes of Junior Mints and Dots continued the theme.
Not to mention the bags of organic white popcorn, grown in Montana and sourced for us by Montana Gold, a family-owned wheat and grain farm and distributor headquartered on the Hi-Line, the state breadbasket.
“Now for the pièce de résistance, or whatever it’s called.”
“Great find.” I picked up one end of the antique movie projector. “Woof. Heavy.”
The red enamel hearts that hung from Tracy’s earlobes swung drunkenly as we hoisted the projector carefully into place. She stepped back to catch her breath. “Borrowed it from the tuna tycoons.”
Jewel Bay is home, at least part-time, to all kinds of folks who made all kinds of fortunes in all kinds of ways. We’ve got our coaster king and queen—Bob and Liz Pinsky, the family friends who own the property I take care of in exchange for rent. We’ve got our mattress millionaires, our software squillionaires, our baby-wipe barons.
And our tuna tycoons. Tracy and Mrs. Tuna bonded over their love of rescue Great Danes—Tracy’s baby is a black-and-white Harlequin called Bozo. Major movie lovers, the Tunas had joined forces with a dozen other businesses and individuals as Festival co-sponsors. Winter events are for fun and friendship, not profit, though we seriously heart any and all mid-winter vacationers who stray our way.
“And the final touch.” She cleared a space on the front counter for a red-and-white popper, a replica of a theater-style machine.
“It even smells like popcorn. Plus it’s the perfect color.” Like other businesses—both in the village, aka downtown, and on the highway—we fly red and white on weekends, in a show of school spirit.
“The big popper they salvaged from an old theater is going in the Playhouse for the weekend,” she said. “We can use this one to get people in the movie mood.”
“Mood, I like; the mess, I don’t like, but it’s all for a good cause.” During my SavClub years, I worked a day or two a month in a Seattle warehouse to stay current and get real-time customer response to our products. That meant an occasional stint cloaked in white, my dark above-the-shoulder bob in a hairnet, serving hummus on chips or chicken cacciatore. Those little white pleated paper cups and napkins end up everywhere.
We have a similar problem here whenever we offer samples—one of the few similarities between slaving for an international food giant and sweating over a small-town specialty shop.
“What are we waiting for?” I said. We plugged in the popper and poured in the corn. Suddenly, we were ten again, going to the movies.
Tracy glowed, and not from the light sweat we’d worked up. Or from the mouth-watering smell of the kernels popping.
No, I suspected her glow came from thoughts of Rick Bergstrom, the Montana Gold sales rep. He and I dated briefly last summer, but quickly discovered that a shared passion for the food biz was not enough to overcome a clash of temperaments. “Farm Boy,” as Tracy dubbed him when he first came calling on the Merc, is a great guy. Just not the right guy for me. I’d been delighted to see him and Tracy get together.
My own love life had taken another twist, one that still took me by surprise.
“What are you girls doing?”
“Mom.” Even after working with my mother most of a year, I don’t always remember to call her “Fresca,” short for “Francesca,” at the shop. I licked butter and salt off my fingers. “Try some. It’s really good.”
“With one of your special seasonings?” She scooped about six kernels into a red-and-white paper boat. “The secret is portion control,” she always says when I worry about my weight, but clearly I had not inherited her metabolism, or her flawless olive skin, oval face, and perfect features.
“We went classic for the first batch.”
“Classic is good.” She licked a finger, her Coral Sunset nail polish complementing the fluffy yellow-white kernel and golden butter. She makes fresh pasta, sauces, and pestos in the Merc’s commercial kitchen on Mondays and Tuesdays, and gets a manicure every Wednesday.
“We tested them all,” Tracy said, settling onto a red vinyl stool at the stainless steel counter separating shop floor from kitchen, her second sample in hand. “Cajun, dark cocoa, bacon salt.” She made a face at that one.
“And everyone’s favorite”—I paused for effect—“cheesy garlic,” as Tracy sang out “caramel marshmallow.”
“They sound divine. I popped in—no pun intended—the day you tried truffle salt, but I didn’t hear that on your menu,” Fresca said.
“Too expensive. We need to keep every variety the same price.”
Her coral lips tightened. She thinks I pay too much attention to cost of goods sold, inventory on hand, turnover rates, and price point—“all that business blah blah blah”—but we were finally making a profit. Not a lavish one, but trending up. The Merc had not turned a profit under her care, though she established a tradition of great food with a local emphasis. I thought we could have it all. So far, so good.
It’s particularly important to keep costs down on “adventure food” or “splurge snacks”—foods people don’t need, but think would be fun to try. We managed by packaging the blends in clear resealable bags dressed up with labels my sister designed.
“Speaking of divine, Candy’s bringing in a special taste treat.” Candy Divine—Candace DeVernero on the checks I write her every month. “Jewel Bay Critter Crunch.”
“You love Critter Crunch but can’t stand caramel marshmallow popcorn. What’s the difference?” Tracy said, laughing.
“One has chocolate and nuts and the other has marshmallows,” I replied. She rolled her eyes at my food quirks. Not that I think anyone who drinks Diet Coke for breakfast has a leg to stand on in Taste Wars.
“It all sounds wonderful, darling.” My mother kissed my cheek. “And Tracy, the shop looks so festive.”
Tracy beamed. “See you tomorrow, Erin. ’Night, Fresca.”
Last spring, when my mother asked me to come home and run the shop, Tracy worried that she’d be fired or forced out when the Merc once again became a family business. But while we have our moments, on the whole, we make a good team.
“And I’m off as well. Bill and I are going to Paris for the evening.”
One of the many advantages of my mother’s involvement with Bill Schmidt, the town’s only ex-lawyer herbalist, is that she now has someone besides me to drag along to festivities, this one a French-themed fund-raiser for the community college in Pondera. We’d been so focused on the displays that I’d barely noticed my mother’s flapper dress, seamed stockings, and wool felt cloche. And the dead fox draped over her shoulders, beady black eyes and all.
“Where did you find that thing?” I wrinkled my nose. “Oh, geez. It’s nearly six. I meant to fix that inventory glitch before Pool Night.”
“It belonged to your grandmother Murphy,” she said. “Don’t you remember, Nick used to scare you with it when you were little?”
I remembered. The only thing Nick liked about having two little sisters was terrorizing us. “And you wonder why he became a wildlife biologist? Have fun.”
“You, too, darling. Stay out too late.” She sashayed off into the night.
I locked the front door, switched off the lights, and carried the iPad and the vintage metal sewing box we use as a cash register up the half flight of stairs to the loft.
The office finally felt like my space. Fresca’s collection of cookbooks and food magazines had migrated, stack by stack, to shelves we’d installed in the basement—given a thorough cleaning and spiffing after last summer’s misadventures. We’d swapped the old green-and-gold linoleum for a slate look and painted the walls Roasted Red Pepper, a name that always makes me hungry. I’d begun sprinkling in personal touches, including a painting I bought from Christine last summer at the Art and Food Festival.
I sank into the fancy desk chair Tracy had scored second-hand, remembering what I’d rather forget. Murder and mayhem. Threats to my family, my friends, and this marvelous, maddening pile of bricks.
And to me.
My right hand circled automatically around my left wrist, my thumb massaging the three colored stars tattooed there.
Thank goodness for winter. Cold, calm, peaceful winter.
• Two •
“Four in the corner pocket,” Kyle Caldwell said, and I knew we were sunk.
If you had told me a year ago that the highlight of my week would be a burger and a beer at Red’s followed by hours of good-natured but competitive pool shooting, I’d have asked what you’d been smoking.
Well, everyone else is competitive. My run of beginner’s luck was screeching to a halt.
Adam leaned his long frame against the paneled wall, fingers wrapped loosely around a cue, a bottle of Moose Drool brown ale dangling from the other hand. A neon sign for Pabst Blue Ribbon glowed above him, giving his dark curls red and blue highlights. He has a natural detachment, an ease that rarely fails. “Unflappable,” my mother says. Good trait in a man who runs outdoor programs and a summer wilderness camp for kids.
Also, a nice balance for what my mother calls my “energy.”
His black-coffee eyes met my brown ones. He winked.
“Five in the side.” Kyle tapped the cue ball with a soft touch, the cue ball hit the five with a heavy clonk, and the solid orange ball slid down the hole and rattled down the rail to join its littermates.
“He’s running the table,” Christine said. She’d wrapped red and white ribbons around her coil of hair, making it look like a drunken candy cane.
When he was on it, and we gave him half a chance, Kyle often ran the table. As the last shooter, I’d given him more than half a chance. Three-quarters, at least.
Nick crept up behind Christine and leaned in to kiss her neck, her short sturdy frame a contrast to his slender height. When we started playing a few weeks ago, after Christmas, he’d sworn they were just friends.
That was then; this was now.
The game ended. Kyle racked and his teammate and cousin, Kim Caldwell, broke with a sharp, satisfying crack. This round pitted them against Nick and Christine, so I two-stepped across the room, in time to the music blaring through the speakers. Satellite radio.
“Hey, yourself.” Adam set his cue aside and drew me close. He tasted like chocolate and hops. “Your brother and Christine are having fun.”
“I like her,” I said. “A lot. But she dumped him once, a couple of years ago, and it hit him hard. I hope she isn’t using him because she’s lonely.”
“You mean after Iggy died.”
“Yeah. Not that one relationship is anything like the other, but . . .” Despite a fifty-year or more age gap, Iggy and Christine had been fast friends as well as studio mates and painting partners.
“But Nick came back to town right about the time Iggy died, and you can’t help wondering if Christine latched onto him for the right reasons.”
Adam’s astute observation made me wonder if my boyfriend and my brother had been talking. “I guess I should let him figure that out,” I said.
He squeezed my shoulder in agreement. “Hey, we’re invited for a snow barbecue Sunday, after skiing.”
The front door opened and a blast of arctic air blew in, ruffling the red-and-white bunting Red’s leaves up all year. A stocky man in grease-worn Carhartts and work boots, a ball cap pulled tight, shoved the door closed.
“Jack Frost,” the crowd yelled.
Not some magic winter incarnation, but his name. A Friday night regular, also known as “the Junkman.” He waved nicotine-stained fingers and stomped to the bar.
And as he stomped, Christine gave him the evil eye.
A few minutes later the last game ended, the Caldwell cousins still the champs. We ordered a plate of nachos and a basket of Red’s waffle fries and settled around a scuffed wooden table. The smells of hot cheese and jalapeños mingled with the scents of hot potatoes, salt, and spicy mustard.
The front door flew open again. Two men headed for the bar, passing our table on the way.
“Look who the cat dragged in.” Kyle stood, tall, slender, and blond like all his family, and extended a hand toward a man about his own age—mid-thirties—but his opposite at about five-seven and two hundred pounds. Opposite in dress, too: Kyle had traded the chef’s duds he wore by day for jeans, boots, and a collared gray knit pullover. The other man’s royal blue parka hung open, exposing pleated khakis and a navy tie dotted with green sailboats loose at the neck of his pink button-down.
“Caldwell,” the man said, squeezing Kyle’s hand in his own plump mitt. “Haven’t seen you in ages.” The sight whisked me back to a hot August day. Danny Davis, manager of the rental car agency in Pondera. PON-duh-ray, the big town—all of thirty thousand—thirty miles away. He’d given me the evidence I’d needed to persuade the undersheriff to probe a little deeper. Evidence that proved a man a liar and a killer.
“You know some of these folks, don’t you?” Kyle gestured around the table. “Christine Vandeberg, meet Dan Davis. My high school buddy and fellow car nut. Nick and Erin Murphy, I think you know.”
Nick stood and they shook hands. Four years my senior, he may not have known Danny. Kyle and Danny had been a year ahead of me, though Danny had barely been on my radar screen. As their hands dropped, Danny’s eyes settled on me and I wasn’t sure if they were friendly or not.
“Adam Zimmerman.” Adam’s chair leg hooked mine as he pushed it back, forcing him to an awkward half stand.
“And you know my cousin Kim,” Kyle said. “Don’t get on her bad side. She’s a pool shark.”
Not to mention a deputy sheriff. Danny rubbed his face and his eyes flitted around our table, chased by a hearty bellow. “So this is where the action is in Jewel Bay. Red’s never changes.”
“What brings you down here on a Friday night? You live in Pondera, don’t you?” Kyle reached for his chair. “Sit. Have a beer.”
“Dropping off a rental car.” Danny grabbed an empty chair from the next table, spun it around, and sat, arms folded over the chair back. An “I’m not staying” gesture. “Thought we’d grab a drink before heading home.”
“We were talking about the film festival these two”—Kyle pointed first at Christine, then at me—“cooked up.”
“The Food Lovers’ Film Festival,” Christine said. “Next weekend. Five great films, classic movie food. An Oscar feast to wrap it up on Sunday. You should come over.”
“I do love food.” He reached for the nachos.
“Six great films,” I said. “Don’t forget the kids’ documentary. World premiere.”
Kyle set his bottle on the table and leaned back. “Right. High school Film Club, Video Club, whatever they call it now. They shot a piece on classic cars and their owners—serious collectors. And a few basic car nuts like you and me.”
Danny frowned and tugged a wad of chips, cheese, and peppers off the platter. “What’s that got to do with food and the Oscars?”
I slid the napkin holder toward him. “Nothing. It’s just a way to showcase the kids’ project. Last summer, a rally came through town. A dozen pre-war Rolls-Royces, including a Silver Ghost from 1910, same year as the Merc was built. The owner and I got talking, and the kids got out their cameras. Shot some footage, realized they might have a story.”
“The story of horsepower and obsession,” Nick said.
“They even filmed me,” Kyle said. “Remember that old 1970 GTO Judge? You and I spent every spare hour in the barn. We tuned that engine till it purred.”
In the dim bar light, I saw the other man shift on the hard chair, wincing at its discomfort.
“You don’t still have that old wreck?”
“Yeah. Parked it when I went in the Army, and there it stayed. I go pet it occasionally. Still in good shape—some minor body damage.” Kyle had enlisted after graduation. Became a cook. Went to Iraq. Came home and worked his way up to head chef at Caldwell’s Eagle Lake Lodge and Guest Ranch, the family biz. “Drove it around for the kids. Been too busy to work on it, but I’m getting the bug again. Might turn it into my summer car.”
Beside me, Kim scraped her boot on the wood floor. I had the feeling she hadn’t quite forgiven her cousin for his part in the Art Festival tragedy, though they’d buddied up for Friday night pool. His had been a bit part, stemming from an old mistake, but as I knew too well, Kim does not let resentments go easily.
J.D., the new man at Red’s, cleared our empty beers and brought a new round. He gave Danny a questioning look.
“Gin and tonic, at the bar,” he said, his hands in push-up position on the chair back. “Been some changes around here after all.”
“J. D. Beckstead. Old Ned’s grandson,” I said. “So there’s still a Redaway behind the bar at Red’s, despite the last name. And a redhead, to boot.”
“It’ll be good for Ned to have family around, after what happened in June,” Christine said. “Not to mention what happened at the Art Festival. After a run of crime like that, you start to wonder, but thank goodness the system worked.”
Amen to that. My own father’s death in a hit-and-run nearly fifteen years ago had never been resolved. I was grateful that another family had gotten justice, or some semblance of it.
Kyle picked up his fresh beer. “The guy had to know they’d figure it out. Somebody always sees something.”
Danny stood abruptly, the wooden chair creaking. For a bulky man, he moved with grace. I had an idea he’d been one of my father’s basketball players. In small towns, kids of all sizes play all kinds of sports.
“Good to see you, Kyle, Kim.” His quick glance around the table took in all of us. “Don’t have too much fun tonight.” He winked and headed for the bar.
“You know, little sis, you guys ought to put on a wildlife film festival,” Nick said.
Christine snickered and stood. One of the few visible changes since my mother bought the building from Ned last summer had been to make the women’s room a place a woman no longer cringed at the thought of visiting.
As soon as she was out of earshot, I leaned across the table to my brother. “So, you guys back together or what?”
Nick played with his beer. “Christine isn’t the kind of woman you cut out of your life, just because you don’t want to spend the rest of it with her.”
“Because you’re not that kind of guy,” I said.
Sharp words spoken near the bar caught my ear. Red’s was still Ned Redaway’s business, not my family’s, but the tone was hard to ignore.
Christine uttered an equally sharp reply I couldn’t decipher, her pale skin flushed. Jack Frost spun his barstool, showing her his back, and barked an order at J.D.
But she was all smiles when she returned. We drank our beers and ate our nachos and fries—Red’s makes the world’s best waffle fries. We chatted about the film festival, the winter slowdown, business, art, food. How much fun it is to hang out and play pool, even though the Caldwells usually win.
“They must be cheating,” Nick said, “but I can’t figure out how.”
“That,” Kim replied, pointing a nacho at him, “is because you are too lame a player to recognize masters at work.”
“Hey, Caldwell,” Danny Davis said on his way out. “Let me sell that rust heap GTO for you. Get you in a real ride.”
Kim looked at him sharply, jaw tight. Kyle turned in his seat. “You faker. Half an hour ago, you called it a piece of junk. You trying to con me?”
“Your choice. You want to drive around like some old fart trying to hang on to his youth, or grow real balls.”
Men and car talk. One more thing I’ll never understand.
• Three •
Months before Christine roped me into helping launch the film festival, I’d started my own winter project: developing the Merc’s signature drink line. “You need another project like the proverbial hole in the head,” Fresca had said. Just when I thought she understood that a business has to keep reinventing itself to stay current.
So instead of my usual double latte and pain au chocolat from Le Panier, I started Saturday off with a chai mix taste test. Unlike the popcorn seasonings, we hadn’t created these ourselves. Instead, we’d put out a call inviting home cooks, restaurateurs, and other entrepreneurial types to submit their blends. We’d credit the winner on the label, and handle marketing, sales, and distribution. They’d also get to use our commercial kitchen for a reduced fee.
We already had our own custom coffee, Cowboy Roast, roasted and blended to our specs in Pondera. We also sold Montana Gold’s Wheat Coffee, a whole-grain substitute. This spring, the women of Rainbow Lake Garden would plant mints, lemon balm, and other herbs, and come summer, harvest the herbs, dandelions, and raspberry leaves for the Merc’s line of Jewel Bay Jewels, refreshing herbal teas.
But no black teas for the time being. Not exactly a made-in-Montana product. My neighbors and I hoped to recruit someone to open a tea shop in the village, serving high tea, low tea, and all kinds of tea in between. Huckleberry scones, huckleberry creamed honey, huckleberry clotted cream. The Village Merchants’ Association and the Chamber of Commerce had joined the effort. One prospect had turned us down. A second had toured the village earlier in the week but had yet to give us her decision.
I measured out chai mix, created by a local woman after a visit to a friend in India. Added hot water and stirred. Sipped.
Not bad. A touch sweet, but then, while I adore chocolate—the darker, the better—I don’t have the sweetest tooth. That, I leave to Tracy and Candy Divine.
I rinsed my mouth and tried the second blend. Both had impressed the first-round judges: Tracy, Fresca, and Heidi Hunter, owner of Kitchenalia. Sweetened with stevia, this one would score well with the calorie-conscious, an important factor in product development. A less traditional flavor combination than the first. Pepperier, if that’s a word.
“Yoo-hoo, Erin!” A voice rang out over the sound of the front door chime as two women entered. Mimi George, Zayda’s mother and the owner—with her husband, Tony—of the Jewel Inn, the chalet-style restaurant at the north end of the village. Best breakfast joint around. Dinner service would resume in the spring, when the new chef arrived.
Mimi sat at the counter, and I set out cups of chai. “Sit,” I told Wendy Fontaine, dressed in her white baker’s jacket, colorful cotton pants, and cherry red rubber clogs. “I need your professional opinion.”
They tasted, debated, retasted, and opined. The verdict? Different enough to offer both.
“So. Now,” Mimi said. “Let’s see the film festival menu.” The reason for our meeting.
Wendy opened her three-ring binder. “Thursday night is the reception in the Playhouse lobby for donors and sponsors, followed by the kids’ documentary. It’s an upscale night, so the appetizers and desserts will be fancier than our usual fare. Paddlefish caviar on crostini—Max cures the roe himself. Goat cheese on salted olive crisps.”
I love it when Wendy talks dirty.
“Vegetable platters—fresh, roasted, and pickled,” she continued, “Crostini of zucchini, scamorza—that’s smoked mozzarella—and bacon.”
“Chocolate mollieux and raspberry panna cotta for dessert. Sparkling wine, and the usual other beverages.”
“If there’s a movie theme in there, I don’t get it,” Mimi said.
It doesn’t take much to get Wendy’s Jell-O up. (As kids, we called her Wendy the Witch, conveniently forgetting that cartoon Wendy was a good witch.) And for all Mimi’s experience in the restaurant biz, tact does not top her talent list.
“We did agree to go for a bit of glamour Thursday night, and focus on the classic movie theater experience the other nights. Then Sunday, by reservation only, the Oscar-themed dinner at the Inn.” I laid my hand on Wendy’s notebook. “Lovely as all this sounds, I think we can figure out easy appetizers with a movie tie-in.”
After several more rounds of chai and debate, we had a plan. To honor Julie and Julia, canapés au Camembert. For Ratatouille, crostini topped with what else? A ratatouille of eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. And for Chocolat, oh, the options! We settled on éclairs, for fun and ease of service—no forks required.
“But what about Tampopo?” Another challenge, and another debate. Ramen bowls were the obvious choice for the noodle Western, and impossible.
“Wontons,” Mimi suggested.
“Those are Chinese,” Wendy reminded her. “Chicken satay skewers are always popular.”
“Thai,” I said. “I know—sushi!” We settled on two varieties of rolls: tuna, and crab and avocado.
“And for Babette’s Feast,” Wendy said, “we can make the crostini with paddlefish roe.”
“Uhhhh, sorry. Christine decided we had too many French films, so we switched to Big Night. Two brothers from Italy try to save their failing restaurant in New York.” I had to hurry before Wendy exploded. “How about arancini? Fried rice balls are easy and popular, and if you add sun-dried tomatoes to the filling, they won’t need a sauce.”
Mollified, she made a few notes and we wrapped up the menu. I’d already talked to Donna Lawson, the liquor store owner, who’d agreed to supply the drinks. Friday and Saturday, we’d offer free movie popcorn. In the concession stand, the kids would sell cookies donated by Le Panier: Junior Mints sandwich cookies, already a hit in the bakery, and Wendy’s and her assistant’s latest obsession, iced cookies.
“I picked shapes to go with the movies. Old cars. The Eiffel Tower. A cowboy hat—that ties Tampopo to Montana. And Oscar—the statue, not the grouch—iced in gold.” She opened a bakery box and laid out samples.
“Almost too amazing to eat.” But not quite. I nibbled a wheel off a race car.
“It’s practice for the Sugar Show, at Cookie Con. My assistant’s teaching a class on icing, and I’m giving a workshop on presentation. You know, cookie baskets, platters, bouquets.”
“Perfect. The grocery store is donating snack-size boxes of Dots, Milk Duds, and Hot Tamales,” I said. “Zayda and I are meeting Christine this afternoon at her studio to go over a few details.”
“She’s been so wrapped up with this Film Club thing.” Mimi downed the last drops of her chai. “She takes everything so seriously—I almost wish it were over. And there’s her college applications. Can you believe they need written references?”
Zayda reminded me of my teenage self: intelligent and determined. Sensitive? Yes, but often that’s what exasperated parents call kids who care deeply about things the adults think—or know from experience—don’t really matter.
Tracy arrived moments after Mimi and Wendy left. Today, the Queen of Cheap Chic wore a black knit skirt that hit her mid-calf and a scarlet tunic, a black-and-white geometric print scarf tied around her hips like a belt. She’d drawn her thick chestnut hair back in a black scrunchie to show off her mother-of-pearl earrings. Great look, and I doubted she’d spent more than twenty-five dollars for any of it. Except the low-heeled black harness boots.
I made a strong cup of coffee to wash down the sugar and spice of the chai and headed upstairs to tackle the project I’d skipped last night.
I ran the figures for our new Jam Club, begun just before Christmas. After a purchase of ten jars, the club member gets a free six-ounce jar, any flavor. Sales and net revenue had already skyrocketed. Yes!
Then, time to tend the shop floor. Even in February, Saturdays are our busiest days. We’ve worked hard to position ourselves as a local foods market, not another trendy, high-end shop, so when the dentist’s wife bought our last eggs, sausage, and organic cheddar, I cheered and called my producers for more.
“Have you decided about Treasure State Olive Oil?” Tracy asked.
“I’m still not convinced,” I said.
“It’s as local as the chocolates,” she said. “They use California oils and the balsamic vinegar comes from Italy. But they blend the flavored vinegars themselves, and bottle everything in Montana.”
The owners had pitched the health benefits, the taste benefits, the profit benefits. “It’s a good product, but I can’t justify the investment. Not at that price point.”
Excerpted from "Butter Off Dead"
Copyright © 2015 Leslie Budewitz.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Food Lovers’ Village mysteries
“An intriguing sleuth who loves gourmet food, family, and her hometown, plus recipes to die for distinguish a delectable mystery.”—Carolyn Hart, New York Times bestselling author of Don’t Go Home
“Clever, charming, and completely yummy. Leslie Budewitz cooks up a delectable mystery!”—Hank Phillippi Ryan, award-winning author of The Wrong Girl
“Small-town charm and big-time chills. Jewel Bay, Montana, is a food lover’s paradise.”—Laura Childs, New York Times bestselling author “Seamless and satisfying.”—Sheila Connolly, New York Times bestselling author “A delicious new series...Charming.”—Sofie Kelly, New York Times bestselling author
“Engrossing and satisfying.”—Fresh Fiction
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I always enjoy my visits to Jewel Bay, Montana. And, this, my third trip to the Food Lover’s Village did not disappoint. A wonderful description and synopsis of the story is provided on this page, so I won’t bore you with a repetition of the storyline. But I will try to explain why I continue to give this series a 5 star rating. First, author Leslie Budewitz’s obvious love of all things Montana is present in descriptions of scenery, food, and personalities. This book’s reference of Montana’s most famous artist, Charles M Russell, led me to investigate the Old West artist’s works further. While I have not spent much time there, her books make Montana a place I would like to explore more fully. Secondly, the wonderful residents of Jewel Bay could have been created from some of my own friends and family. Erin Murphy, her mother Fresca, brother Nick, and sister Chiara, are a celebration of family. Their love, good natured teasing, and concern for one another makes these characters so likeable. Ms. Budewitz has definitely spent some time with a five year old, as the character of Landon made me laugh out loud, and reminded me so much of my own five year old granddaughter. She has her own version of Superhero, frequently Anna or Elsa, and his same approach toward life. I liked the fact that the residents of Jewel Bay were having their own mid-winter festival; one for the community rather than the tourists. (Christine’s obnoxious neighbor, Jack Frost, is not like a friend or family member.) And I loved the two cats, Pumpkin and Mr. Sandburg’s, interactions. If you have ever tried to introduce a second cat into your home, you will appreciate it as well. Thirdly, the writing flows easily, and I was caught up in the mystery quickly. I did not guess the murderer, as the numerous red herrings kept me guessing to the end. The mystery storyline was very entertaining. It’s a book that is perfect for the beach, a rainy day, or curled up by the fire with a cup of tea. Lastly, although this is the third book in a series, it can stand alone. I had previously read both of the earlier books, so I let my daughter read it. She has not read the earlier books, and did not have difficulty following the characters or the plot. In disclosure, I won a copy of this book from a Facebook group in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. I purchased my copies of Death al Dente and Crime Rib, the earlier books in the series, and I was planning on picking up this book. My 5 star review is based solely on my enjoyment of this series, and this book in particular.
Nice installment in the Food Lover's Village series with an ending that surprised me!
BUTTER OFF DEAD by Leslie Budewitz is the third book in the Food Lovers’ Village Mystery series. Its bases around the First Annual Food Lovers’ Film Festival in Jewel Bay, Montana organized by Erin Murphy and Christine Vandeberg. During the preparation prior to the beginning of the festival, Christine is murdered which heaps even more responsibility on Erin. When her brother becomes one of the prime person of interest and the before the festival that the town’s economy is relying is closed down, Erin is determined to find out who murdered her friend. The book takes you on an adventure with lots of twists and turns as you learn about the quirky residents, lies of the past are revealed and mysteries are figured out. It’s a fun read full of food and theater with a bit of romance thrown in. Whether you like cozy mysteries, mysteries in general, or just want a great book to read, you’re going to love BUTTER OFF DEAD!
Dollycas’s Thoughts In this third installment Jewel Bay is hosting another event. This time a Food Lovers’ Film Festival, showing movies like Chocolat and Ratatouille. Sounds like a lot of fun until one of the organizers ends up dead. The author knows the key to a great mystery series is having characters that continue to grown and evolve and story-lines that put them in precarious situations. She dishes up perfection in Butter Off Dead. Erin’s brother, Nick is hiding something and it is making him look mighty guilty. Erin has to prove his innocence and find out who the heck he is protecting and that puts her right in the killer’s sights. We also meet some high school students who have volunteered to help with festival. They are also hiding something. This story is so well written. It kept me captivated from the first page until the very last. It was filled with many clever twists that left me guessing whodunit until the final reveal. Erin ran her butt off in this story while running the Merc, running the festival, and keeping community and family members in check, all while trying to figure out who killed her friend. She was always off doing something making the story pretty fast paced. I know some of the residents of Jewel Bay are not pleased with all the festivals and events but I can’t wait to return to this food loving town for the next one. I also look forward to shopping again soon at the Merc and trying more of those tasty recipes.
First, a thank you to the author for starting this book off with a character list. Even right down to the pets! It was lots of help. I’ve enjoyed the Food Lovers’ Mystery series since book one, DEATH AL DENTE. So, when I saw the cover and read the blurb for this book, BUTTER OFF DEAD, I couldn’t wait to get this book in my hands. It was more than worth the wait! Author Leslie Budewitz filled this story with twists and turns that had me on the edge of my seat, holding my book in a death grip, easing my hold only long enough to turn the pages. This was an expertly written mystery, from the sad death scene to the surprising and exciting reveal. I had no idea who to suspect as the murderer! As with the first two books, the characters in this series are still wonderfully charming and quirky. It was fun getting to learn even more about them. And I loved idea of the Food Lovers’ Film Festival. Such a fun idea to go with this series. I’d like to see come back in a future installment. It’s no surprise at all Leslie Budewitz won an Agatha Award for book two, CRIME RIB. She knows how to serve up a satisfyingly delicious story that fills your senses with delight and leaves you hungry for more. And check out the back of the book for The Food Lovers’ Film Festival Guide to Food and Drink, with 8 yummy recipes!