Take one burned-out city girl. Add a crusty codger, a pinch of gossip, and a dash of romance. Stir in a generous helping of murder and you’ve got the ingredients for one truly delicious mystery . . .
Haunted by the car accident that ended her career as a cookbook publicist, Val Deniston has traded in the chaos of New York City for a quieter life near the Chesapeake Bay. Living with her curmudgeonly grandfather in the tourist town of Bayport is hardly glamorous, but she enjoys working at the Cool Down Café at the local fitness club, and she finally has time to work on her long-planned cookbook. But when one of the club’s patrons is found dead, she’ll have to cook up a scheme to find the killer. As the number of suspects rises like crabs in a bucket, it’s out of the pan and into the fire for Val. If she can’t find the culprit soon, she might as well be chum in the water . . .
Includes Five Delicious Recipes from Val’s Cookbook!
“Cozy mystery readers will love the puzzle and the enjoyable look into this small tourist town by the sea.” —Nancy Coco, author of the Candy-Coated Mysteries
“Suspects abound and the puzzle solution is deftly handled in this charming cozy . . . With recipes included, this is definitely a starter for fans of Diane Mott Davidson, Lou Jane Temple, and Virginia Rich.” —Library Journal
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By Cook or By Crook
By Maya Corrigan
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Mary Ann Corrigan
All rights reserved.
Val Deniston waved good night to her last customers, relieved that they'd ignored the elephant in the Cool Down Café. No one had rehashed Monique's rant about her husband's affair with Nadia. Maybe they'd tired of the topic after three days or avoided it with Nadia around. Though thankful that Monique hadn't shown up tonight, Val worried that her cousin had spent the evening alone, plotting how to get back at Nadia.
Exercise music from the workout room drifted into the athletic club café and set a quick pace for Val's cleanup. She poured a pot of coffee down the drain, taking a last whiff of the aroma that masked the scent of sweat. Not many takers for coffee tonight. After two hours on the tennis courts, the crowd had thirsted for juice and smoothies, not lattes.
The music cut off, and a gruff voice came through the speakers. "The Bayport Racket and Fitness Club will close at nine-thirty. Please finish your workout promptly."
As Val wiped down the eating bar, the exercise junkies who'd stayed until closing time on a Sunday night filed past the café toward the exit. A petite woman in a white tennis dress bucked the flow and rushed back into the club. Nadia Westrin carried an athletic bag large enough for three rackets, a change of clothes, and a Thanksgiving turkey.
"Thank goodness you're still here, Val." Nadia dropped her sports bag near the eating bar. Under the hanging lights, her frosted brown hair with gray roots resembled a desert camouflage helmet. "My car won't start. Can you give me a lift home?"
Val hesitated. Since the night of her accident this past winter, she'd allowed no one to ride with her after dark. Time to get over that. The country road from the club to town posed no driving hazards. Though Val didn't want to do any favors for her cousin's enemy, refusing to give Nadia a ride smacked of schoolyard tit-for-tat. "Of course. Give me a minute to finish here."
"I'm glad you agreed to play in our mixed doubles group and open the café for us." Nadia watched Val stack biscotti studded with pistachios and currants in a glass jar. "The last café manager sold everything in cellophane like a vending machine. Your fresh food is way better."
"Thanks." Val waited for the dig that would surely follow the compliment.
"Isn't the café a comedown for you, though? After doing publicity for New York chefs?"
Val clenched her teeth. Over the last few months, she'd adjusted to living in a Chesapeake Bay town, but reminders of her shattered career still rankled. "I publicized other people's cookbooks for ten years. Now I have a job that lets me try out recipes for my own book." Recipes the average person could make in less time than it took to watch a TV cooking show.
"When the tennis teams finish the season in July, we always throw a big catered party." Nadia leaned toward Val like a conspirator. "I can talk the club manager into letting you cater. It's four weeks away, but I'll need menu options and prices pretty soon."
Val perked up as if a shot of espresso had hit her veins. One catering gig could lead to another and plump up her résumé. "I'd love to do it. When do you want to talk about it?"
"Stop by my house Tuesday morning before you open the café. I get up early. Let's make it seven o'clock."
The day after tomorrow. Not much time to work on the menus. "Okay, and thanks for the chance to cater the party."
"We always funnel business to each other here at the club. I hope that when your grandfather's ready to sell his house, you'll reciprocate and give me the listing."
Ah. The sales commission on Granddad's huge house would dwarf whatever Val earned from catering the club party. Nadia's idea of a fair trade—her lentils for your caviar.
Fifteen minutes later, Val steered her Saturn off a narrow tree-canopied road and onto Nadia's street at the outskirts of town. "Let me know when we get to your house. I'm not sure I'll recognize it in the dark."
"I appreciate the ride. I'm glad your cousin hasn't turned you against me."
Val felt her blood pressure rise. "Don't start knocking Monique. I won't—"
A black-clad figure darted into the car's headlights.
Val swerved. She slammed on the brakes and clutched the wheel in a death grip. A memory flared of an icy highway, the car skidding and hurtling toward leafless trees.
The tires grabbed the road, and she snapped back from the past. Breath whooshed from her lungs, a mix of relief and frustration. No crash this time, no blood spattered on her. But the elusive memory of the accident last winter had vanished, leaving behind a single frame when she needed the whole reel.
Nadia smacked the dashboard. "What an idiot. Who jogs at night dressed in black? If you'd hit the guy, it wouldn't have been your fault."
No fault didn't mean no guilt. Val started the stalled car. "How far to your house?"
"Just past the bend."
Val took the curve slowly, still shaky from her near miss. Pinpoints of light came from houses set back from the road. An eerie glow flickered through the bushes. Flames? "It looks like someone built a campfire up ahead."
Nadia peered through the windshield and squawked, "That's my place."
Val stopped across the street from Nadia's driveway. They both dashed from the car toward the fire.
The flames came from a makeshift torch, a wad of white fabric tied to a wood shaft like a giant onion on a two-foot skewer. The odor of charcoal lighter fluid hung in the still air. Val circled the torch planted in a bed of river rock near the driveway. No trees or shrubs nearby. It would take a gale force wind off the Chesapeake to spread the fire. Tonight, though, a shroud of humid air hung over Maryland's Eastern Shore. This fire would die in place.
The light from it tinged Nadia's ashen complexion orange and emphasized the frown lines in her forehead. "Who put that here? What is that thing anyway? Why—?" Her voice broke on a helium high note.
The outer layers of cloth disintegrated and the inner ones sprouted holes. The shape under the cloth became visible—oval and flat like the head of a tennis racket.
Val gasped. "A wood racket?" She'd occasionally seen one of those at a garage sale, but never on a tennis court or on fire.
Muffled pops came from the head of the torch, strings snapping from the heat.
The burning racket would make an awesome kickoff for a surprise party. Too bad no one was jumping out of the bushes, singing "Happy Birthday."
Nadia thrust her shoulders back, her posture ramrod. "Your cousin did this. She's harassed me for the last three days."
Val's jaw clenched. A few seconds ago, she'd felt her first ever twinges of sympathy for Nadia. Not anymore. "You have no way to know if Monique—"
"She turned everyone against me. Blew off a team match. Now look what she's done."
Val waved away the torch smoke and the accusation. "Let's put the fire out. Where's your hose?"
Nadia flicked her wrist toward her white Cape Cod. "Hanging near the back porch."
Val turned on her key ring flashlight, headed toward the clapboard house, and unwound the hose.
She tugged it toward the fire. "Good thing you hitched a ride with me and not Althea." The flaming racket would remind the tennis team's only black player of Klan cross-burnings.
Nadia put her palms together. "Amen to that."
A car door slammed and someone bounded up the driveway. Luke Forsa entered the circle of light made by the fire. "Hey, Nadia, what's with the torch? You having a luau?" Her silence must have told him his joke had fallen flat. "I was driving by and saw the fire. You need any help dousing it?"
"Val's got the hose. We can handle it."
Luke sidled up to Val. "Whaddya know? Meeting an old flame over a fire."
Val nearly dropped the hose, surprised that he remembered those kisses and fumbles after nearly two decades. Back then, his success at poker and hooking up had earned him the name Lucky Luke. Now the dashing rebel of her teen fantasies manned the grill at his mom's diner.
Luke's gaze lingered on Val's thighs, where her tennis shorts ended. The guy still hoped to get lucky. She looked down. Did torchlit legs, like candlelit faces, have a romantic glow? Not that she could see. Val gave one last tug to the hose, aimed the nozzle at the torch, and squeezed the handle. Luke jumped back from the water ricocheting off the rocks. So much for old flames.
She soaked the racket thoroughly and turned the flashlight on the charred frame. Bits of singed cloth clung to it.
"Racket flambé. Yum." Luke stepped toward Nadia. "You should have given your racket a decent burial instead of cremating it."
"It's not mine." Nadia glared at him. "How old do you think I am? Wood rackets were passé long before I took up tennis."
Luke pulled the charred racket out of the ground. Either it had cooled down, or he had asbestos hands. The racket's handle, bare of grip tape, was whittled to a point. "Lot of work, turning this into a stake and getting it to burn."
"Right on schedule too. I always play mixed doubles on Sunday and hang around the club until closing time." Nadia waggled her index finger at Val. "That jogger I took for a man could have been a tall woman. She wore a hoodie so I wouldn't recognize her."
The flashlight wavered in Val's hand. Monique, the tall woman Nadia meant, could have waited near Nadia's house for an approaching car, set the fire, and fled in a face-hiding hoodie. But so could anyone who'd played tennis tonight, or even one of Nadia's neighbors.
Val didn't want Luke, or anybody else, to hear wild charges against her cousin. "Would you get Nadia's sports bag from my car? It's parked across the street."
"You bet." He jogged down the driveway.
"Are you going to report this to police?" Val held her breath, waiting for Nadia's answer.
"I don't need the police to tell me who did this."
Val exhaled. Nadia could make accusations, but no one would believe them without evidence to back them up.
The bushes on the far side of Nadia's driveway rustled. A sixtyish woman in a black caftan emerged from them.
Tall and erect, she held a portable lantern in her upraised hand. "I saw a fire from our window. Is everything okay?" Nadia's neighbor, Irene Pritchard, made an imposing figure.
Nadia looked tiny next to her. "Everything's fine now. The fire's out."
Val stepped back from the lantern's beam. She felt uncomfortable around Irene, her former rival for the café manager job.
Irene lowered her lantern toward the charred racket. "What on earth? That's a nasty thing."
Luke joined them, gave Nadia her sports bag, and pointed to the racket on the ground. "You want me to junk that?"
Nadia picked it up. "I'll take care of it. Y'all keep a lid on this, okay?"
She held the racket away from her tennis whites and marched toward the house with Irene lighting the way. Dramatic exit. A crescendo from the cicadas in the trees sounded like applause.
Val aimed the blue beam of her LED flashlight at the driveway.
Luke fell into step beside her, gravel crunching under his feet. "You're still in Bayport, huh? I heard you came here just to coax your grandpa to sell his house."
"That's what Mom wanted." But not Granddad. Easier for Val to side with him while living in his house than with her mother a thousand miles away in Florida. "The house needs work before it goes on the market. I don't have the time to spend on it, now that I'm running the café at the club."
"And competing against my diner." He nudged her with his elbow.
"No competition. You have a different clientele."
"I'll say. My customers would never burn sports equipment. What do you make of that flaming racket?"
"An ugly practical joke?" Or an act of revenge.
Val swiped at a mosquito whining near her ear as Luke aimed his remote at a black BMW. Fancy car. He must have made money before moving back home to rescue his mom's diner, a doomed business if Val ever saw one. But what small business in a small town wasn't doomed? Granddad had kissed good-bye to his fish market and his video store.
"Drop by the diner sometime with your grandpa. He used to eat with us everyday, him and his buddies, sometimes all three meals."
Three meals of cholesterol, salt, and empty calories, the diner's staples. At least Val could check off one item on her mother's agenda: a healthier diet for Granddad.
Back in her car, she grabbed her cell phone, punched the first three digits of Monique's number, and stopped. What would she say if her cousin admitted burning the racket? What would she say if Nadia asked whether Monique had done it? If Val didn't know the answer, she wouldn't have to lie or betray her cousin. The best strategy for flaming rackets: don't ask so you can't tell.
She clicked the phone off and drove home—or what passed for home temporarily—a gabled and turreted Victorian that looked like an eyesore by day and a haunted house by night. Her grandfather's big Buick sat as usual on the street. He'd hit the mailbox backing out of the driveway so often that he happily ceded the driveway to Val's much-used Saturn.
She let herself into the house by the side door sandwiched between the dining room and the sitting room. She found her grandfather ensconced in a recliner by the sitting room window. A scene from Hitchcock's Vertigo, one of his favorites, played on the flat-screen TV near the tiled fireplace. The ear hooks of his bifocals nestled in tufts of white curls that fringed his balding head.
He pressed the pause button on his remote. "Humidity must be bad. Your hair's wilder than usual."
She ran her fingers through the unruly, cinnamon-colored locks she inherited from him. Eventually her curls would turn ivory like his. She pointed to a plate with telltale crumbs on the end table. "I see my apple crisp was a hit."
"A base hit, not a home run. Your grandmother always topped it with whipped cream."
Val glanced at the mahogany table in the dining room where Grandma had served so many family meals. Cream, butter, and red meat, Grandma's favorite foods, had nudged her toward a heart attack six years ago. Val knew enough not to say that to her grandfather. He'd reply that at least Grandma had enjoyed life, and Val couldn't argue with that.
She sank onto the oatmeal tweed sofa near his chair. Its cushions enveloped her like a hug from a long-lost and slightly seedy friend. "An amazing thing happened tonight on my way home." Even more amazing than a burning racket.
Granddad wiped the lenses of his glasses on the hem of his polo shirt. "I'm glad someone had an exciting evening."
Whenever he channeled Eeyore, she pretended not to hear. "I had to stop short to avoid a jogger. Hitting the brakes hard brought back a memory. I did the same thing that night in January. Maybe the rest will come back too."
"Dwelling on the past won't change it." Granddad gestured toward the agitated Jimmy Stewart on the TV screen. "There's a man destroyed by his memories."
Val picked at loose threads on the sofa arm. "I just want to know what happened. I need the truth."
"You store a lot in your noggin. Recipe ingredients, movie plots, bits of trivia. They pop out when you need them. That night you had a concussion. It's not your fault you can't remember."
"I know." But the accident might have been her fault. With no memory of what led to it, Val didn't know if her anger had turned destructive. Could she have crashed the car deliberately, as the man riding with her claimed? That night had tested her character. After five months she still didn't know if she'd passed or failed.
"Take my advice, Val, and let it go." Granddad squeezed her hand. "How was your game tonight? Did they pair you with a geezer again?"
The change of subject brought Val out of her funk. "This time I had a younger partner, in his thirties. He works in D.C. and is looking for a weekend place. Gunnar Swensen."
"Possibly, but mixed with Latin blood. Thick dark hair, bluish eyes." Plus rugged features and a crooked nose. But a megawatt smile transformed his face from almost a train wreck to almost attractive. "He's pretty buff for someone who works in an office. His tennis isn't bad, and he wants to play me in singles."
Granddad's eyebrows rose, furry white squiggles in his forehead. "Gonna whup him?"
"Gonna try. Tennis gives a short player like me a fighting chance against a taller, stronger one. That's why I like it."
"Losing to a small woman—that'll test his mettle." Granddad laughed.
"Tony couldn't handle it." Her ex-fiancé used to sulk whenever he lost to her.
Excerpted from By Cook or By Crook by Maya Corrigan. Copyright © 2014 Mary Ann Corrigan. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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