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A Little Taste of Heaven catering certainly knows how to feed people. Dogs, however? When sisters Bernie and Libby sign on to cater Trudy the Pug's birthday bash, it isn't just any doggie do. Trudy's owner, Annabel Colbert, is one of the richest women in town—and as mascot of the Colbert toy company, Trudy herself is a bona fide celebrity. But when the big day arrives, mere moments after dipping into the wine, Annabel is shrieking she's been poisoned—and falling face first into her soup. After two days in a coma, Annabel is dead.
It seems the woman who had everything also had her share of enemies. In fact, Annabel was cheating, blackmailing, or backstabbing most everyone she knew—including Trudy's trainer and kennel owner. With so many suspects, sniffing out the truth is a risky proposition. Bernie and Libby had better close the oven on this case fast—before they get burned…
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Libby dried her hands on the edge of her apron. She put the spatula covered with brownie batter in the sink before turning to face her younger sister. Then she took a deep breath. When that didn't calm her down she took a second and a third. Maybe her boyfriend Marvin was right. Maybe she did need to mellow out.
"You like dogs," Bernie said to her in her most soothing voice.
"Not to the point of making dinner parties for them," Libby told her sister.
"Birthday party," Bernie corrected. "We're making a birthday party."
Libby frowned and waved her hand in the air. "Same thing."
"No, it's not."
"It's close enough."
"Let's not get overly semantic."
"You do," Libby told her.
Bernie decided to ignore the comment and stick to the matter at hand. "This isn't for 'any' dog," Bernie said. "This is for Trudy, Annabel Colbert's dog."
"I know who Trudy is," Libby replied as she studied the toothpick she'd just plunged into the first batch of brownies in the oven. "Everyone in the world knows who Trudy is."
Okay, that was an exaggeration, but not by much, Libby thought. There might be some obscure tribe living in the Brazilian jungle who didn't know about Trudy, but that was about it. Trudy was the model for the Puggables, a group of stuffed toys that were the lynchpin of the Colbert toy empire.
The collection was composed of Eenie and Minnie, the mom and the dad, plus the three pups, Paggie, Poogie, and Twinkles, as well as numerous other family members with names too disgustingly cute to mention. Not only that, but they came in a range of annoyingly saccharine pastel colors. However, they had made Annabel and her husband a fortune. Before the Puggables, Colbert Toys had been just another company struggling to survive.
Libby sighed as she turned her thoughts back to the brownies. They were almost done. Five more minutes at the most. That was the trouble with brownies: They were easy to make, but difficult to make well. If you added the chocolate and butter mixture to the flour before it cooled, the bars came out heavy. If you baked them too long they came out dry.
Bernie nodded at the brownies. "Are these the ones you made out of seventy percent dark chocolate with chili powder?"
Libby nodded. "It'll be interesting to see how they sell."
"We need to call them something cool." Bernie was a firm believer in the power of names.
Libby shrugged. She wasn't.
"Dogs can't eat chocolate, you know," Bernie told her, getting back to the matter at hand. "It gives them heart attacks."
"Then I'm glad I'm not a dog," Libby retorted as she watched her sister smooth her shirt down around her waist.
It was twenty-five degrees out, but Bernie was wearing a long, black cotton sweater, a white and gray striped scarf, a silk shirt, twill pants, and suede boots. How she did it Libby didn't know. She herself was wearing a flannel shirt, a hoodie, jeans, and wool socks and she was still cold.
"It's really for Annabel Colbert's friends and family," Bernie continued. She took up the conversation where she'd left it a moment ago.
Libby slammed the oven door shut. "And dogs."
"Pugs," Bernie corrected. "Six pugs."
"Well, you wouldn't want Trudy to have a birthday party without her friends. That would just be mean."
Libby threw the toothpick into the garbage can, stalked over to the cutting board, and began shredding ginger for their special gingered chicken. As Bernie followed her, she reflected that she probably should have talked to her sister about the dinner later in the day. She might have been more receptive then. The fact that they were behind because their counter girl, Amber, had called and told them she was going to be three hours late this morning hadn't put Libby in a good mood.
As Bernie peered over her sister's shoulder she once again marveled at the speed with which her sister's hands moved. "I'm going to Sam's Club to get napkins, plates, sugar, and salt. Do we need anything else?"
Libby kept chopping. "I don't like pugs," she informed Bernie.
"Neither do I," Bernie said as she snagged a piece of carrot off the table. "They wheeze."
Libby stopped chopping and turned to face her. "So why are we doing this?"
Bernie snorted. "You can't be serious?"
Libby wasn't. Not really. She knew exactly why they were doing this. They were doing this because you don't say no to the wealthiest person in town. At least you don't if you want to stay in business. Libby chewed on the inside of her lip as she extracted a piece of chocolate from the pocket of her shirt, unwrapped it, and popped it into her mouth.
That wasn't the issue. Not really. The issue was respect. Bernie was always running off and committing them to engagements without asking her first, leaving her to run around like a chicken without its head, as her mother used to say. Frankly she was sick and tired of it.
"You should have discussed it with me first," Libby told her.
"I was going to," Bernie protested. "But you were asleep when I got home."
Libby grunted. "You could have left a note."
"I wanted to talk to you."
Libby felt her resolve weakening. This was the problem. She could never stay annoyed with her sister for long. "When is this event supposed to take place?"
Bernie hemmed and hawed. Libby started tapping her foot.
Bernie plastered a grin on her face. "Friday." She gave the word an upward swing.
"Er ... this Friday."
"That's two days away!" Libby yelped.
Bernie looked unhappy. "Well, you know how impulsive Annabel Colbert is. But on the bright side, the Fieldses canceled their dinner party, so that leaves an opening."
Libby's eyes narrowed. "You didn't tell me that either."
"It was on the answering machine last night. I figured you'd listen to the messages."
Libby cursed silently as she strode toward the calendar hanging on the wall. At least they hadn't butterflied the lamb yet or ordered the scallops for the Coquille St. Jacques, so that was good. And she had to admit that what Bernie had just said was true: Annabel Colbert was impulsive. And insistent. She never took no for an answer. She had that sense of entitlement the superrich have. Just saying something made it so.
Libby clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth while she studied the calendar. They were pretty well booked, what with dinner parties, benefits, and bar mitzvahs. But Bernie was correct. The Fieldses' party was the only event they had going for Friday night.
"She's going to want a deal," Libby said. "She always does."
"No, I'm not," a voice behind them trumpeted.
"Nothing is too good for my Trudy."
Libby and Bernie spun around. Annabel Colbert was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the counter area with her pug in her arms. She'd recently gotten a short, spiky hairdo, but instead of making her look punk, it made her appear even gaunter. Scrutinizing her, Bernie decided that the "too thin" part of the adage "You can never be too rich or too thin" had definite limits and Annabel Colbert was on the verge of transgressing them. There was thin and then there was just plain bony. Bernie was thinking about what the tipping point was when she noticed that their counter guy Googie, aka George Nathan III, was right behind her.
"I'm sorry," he stammered as he wiped his hands on his apron. "I couldn't stop her. She just barged in."
Libby nodded. "It's okay."
"Seriously. Go back behind the counter," Libby said, and she shooed Googie away before turning her attention to Annabel. A Little Taste of Heaven wasn't packed, but there were ten people out front waiting to be served. Aside from which it didn't do to leave the cash register unguarded. Longely wasn't the type of place where you had to worry about stuff like that, but why take chances? "I'm sorry but Trudy can't be in the kitchen," Libby told Annabel. It would just be their luck to have the health inspector walk in on them.
"But I'm holding her," Annabel protested.
Bernie shrugged. "Health code rules are health code rules."
Annabel scowled. "She's cleaner than most people."
"I'm sure she is," Bernie said as she escorted Annabel out of the kitchen and up the stairs to the Simmons's living quarters.
Luckily her dad was out at the moment; he wasn't a big fan of the Colbert family.
"Morons," was the kindest comment he made whenever their name came up.
"I like Trudy's collar," Bernie said on the way up the stairs. It was thick braided leather with a large gold buckle.
"Hermes," Annabel trilled.
Bernie managed to restrain herself from asking how much. But it had to be at least five hundred dollars. Probably more.
"This flat is so ... so ... cozy," Annabel commented in that annoyingly arch way she had when she and Bernie walked into the Simmons's living room.
Translation: small. But then Bernie supposed that when you lived in a place that boasted its own solarium, library, gym, media room, bowling alley, and beauty parlor, as well as a canine fitness center complete with treadmill, the Simmons's flat was small. Annabel plopped herself down on the sofa, put the pug on her lap, and began fingering one of her diamond studs.
In case I missed them, Bernie thought as she took the armchair opposite her customer. Like that was possible. Missing them would be like missing a flashlight beam in the dark. Despite Annabel's make-up, Bernie noted the dark circles under Annabel's eyes and the fine lines around her mouth. The haircut was definitely not kind to her. Bernie bet it had been expensive too. Probably six hundred dollars. Maybe even eight. She was just about to ask Annabel who did her hair when Annabel started talking.
"We have to revamp the menu," she announced.
Bernie barely managed to suppress a groan. It had taken them three hours yesterday to agree on the one they had.
"I've decided I want the same menu for the dogs and their humans," Annabel continued. "It'll be much more of a bonding experience that way. And I want the food served on my good Limoges. Naturally the dogs will be seated at the table."
"Naturally," Bernie murmured.
Annabel shot her a look. "They do it in Paris all the time."
But we're not in Paris. We're in Westchester County, Bernie wanted to say. But didn't.
"Yes," Bernie added. "It's wonderful. So humane. When I was in Brussels I sat next to an extremely well-behaved standard poodle riding on the bus with his owner. There was me, the poodle, and the owner all sitting in a row, all staring straight ahead."
For a moment Annabel looked miffed at having been outdone in the story department, but she rallied. She waved her hand in the air. "And you don't have to take care of the decorations. I'll do those. I'm thinking of using the whole Puggable family. That will work, don't you think?"
Bernie didn't think it would work at all. She wasn't a fan of huge stuffed animals. On the other hand, she wouldn't have to deal with them. That was a plus. Also in situations like this, despite what her sister thought, Bernie always went with the client's wishes. Therefore, she lied and told Annabel she thought it would be great.
"Absolutely," Libby added. She'd come up after finishing the chicken and was now standing in the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest. She felt that it behooved her to be in on the planning due to Bernie's well-documented tendency to commit them to things without thinking them through. Witness today. "Do you have any ideas about what you'd like to serve?"
"Ideas? Ideas?" Annabel repeated. She wrinkled her nose, giving the impression that she found the question puzzling. "That's why I came to you."
Libby flicked a tiny piece of ginger off the sleeve of her hoodie. "Well, what's your price range?"
"Price is no object," Annabel snapped. "I already told you that in the kitchen, isn't that right, Trudy?"
Trudy yawned, curled her tongue, stretched, and licked Annabel's hand in a desultory manner.
"See. She agrees," Annabel said.
Bernie and Libby both managed to not roll their eyes.
"What about the wine?" Bernie asked, changing the subject.
"What about it?" Annabel said.
"What are your thoughts? California? Long Island? They've gotten a lot better recently. French? Italian? Australian? Do you want us to get it or ..."
"No," Annabel replied before Bernie could finish her sentence. "Forget about the wine. Richard will take care of that. He orders it from The Grape, that little shop over by Henley Drive."
"I know where it is," Bernie said. Not that she ever bought anything there. They only carried high-end stuff.
"They get my wine for me there. I'm particularly fond of an estate-bottled Spanish Rioja that's quite hard to come by, but somehow the owners manage. It's my special wine. In fact, it's the only thing I'm drinking now. In any case, we'll just have wine with the meal; otherwise we'll stick to bubbling water and soda. Richard will take care of that as well. After all, it's Trudy's party, so I think it would be nice if there's nothing there she can't have."
"Understood," Libby said.
Annabel went back to fingering her diamond earring. "And needless to say, I want all the ingredients in this meal to be organic. We don't tolerate anything else in our house. My husband won't allow it. Local would be even better. The less of a carbon footprint we leave the happier all of us will be. Also, I don't want any black pepper in anything, because Trudy's allergic to it. Naturally I want both of you to set up and serve. It'll be more intimate that way. You won't have to worry about my staff getting in your way. In fact, I've given them the time off."
"Is that it?" Bernie asked.
"For the moment," Annabel replied as she got up. "If I think of anything else I'll let you know."
Bernie stood up as well. "We'll call you with the menu."
"That won't be necessary," Annabel replied. "You can fax it to my personal assistant, who will show it to me. If I have any quibbles I will relay them to her and she will fax you back. Unfortunately, I'm terribly busy with my new projects at the moment. I'm trying to get them squared away, so I can announce them at the birthday party, but I'm sure you girls will do a marvelous job. After all, that's why I hired you." She glanced at her watch. "Can I tell my assistant to be looking for your fax in an hour or so?"
Bernie looked at Libby. Libby looked back at Bernie.
"That'll be fine," Libby said as she saw her plans for the day disappearing over the horizon. Now she'd be even farther behind.
"Good." Annabel smiled. "And by the way, Bernie," Annabel added as she got to the doorway, "you should cut down on the carbs. You're getting a little chubby around the derrière." And she patted her rear end. "I hope you don't mind my saying something, but if the positions were reversed I'd certainly want to know."
Bernie managed to get out a strangled "thanks" as Annabel walked through the door.
"Am I?" Bernie asked her sister as soon as she was sure Annabel had left the building. She wasn't going to give Annabel the added satisfaction of overhearing her comments if she could help it.
"Don't be ridiculous," Libby replied.
"Really. Of course, in comparison with her rear end, everyone's is big."
Big was not the word Bernie wanted to hear at the moment. "Thanks a heap."
"Oh, come on. Annabel just can't stand to see anyone looking good. I would kill to have your body," Libby told Bernie as she watched her sister study herself in the mirror hanging on the wall. And she wasn't just being nice. She meant it.
"Maybe I shouldn't wear these pants anymore."
"You're right." Bernie brushed a lock of hair off of her face. "Why am I listening to someone who could be a stand-in for a famine victim?" The corners of Bernie's mouth worked themselves into a smile. "And we are charging her a lot of money."
Libby smiled. "Pots of it. And we're getting three-quarters of it up front or we're not doing it."
"Good," Bernie said. If there was one thing she'd learned over her years of catering it was that the rich don't like to settle their bills. "And now for the menu. I think we should start with a liver pate on toast points, some cheese stuff, maybe some bacon and peanut butter on slices of bread...."
Libby wrinkled her nose.
"Hey, I know they're not haute cuisine, but dogs and kids like them," Bernie said a little defensively.
Libby nodded. It was true. They did.
"And then," Bernie continued, "we move on to steak and potatoes."
"What about the cake?"
"Something vanilla. Maybe an old-fashioned layer cake, light on the frosting, in the shape of a dog bone?"
Libby pursed her lips. That would do. "Ice cream?"
Bernie thought for a moment. "Probably not. That might be overkill in the sugar and dairy departments."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Catered Birthday Party"
Copyright © 2009 Isis Crawford.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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