It's fiesta time in Broken Boot, Texas, and tourists are pouring into town faster than free beer at a bull roping for the mouthwatering Cinco de Mayo festivities. Tex-Mex waitress Josie Callahan, her feisty abuela, and even her spunky Chihuahua Lenny are polishing their folklórico dances for Saturday's big parade, while Uncle Eddie is adding his own spicy event to the fiesta menu: Broken Boot's First Annual Charity Chili Cook-off.
But Uncle Eddie's hopes of impressing the town council go up in smoke when cantankerous chili cook Lucky Straw is found dead in his tent. And when Josie's beloved uncle is accused of fatal negligence, she, Lenny, and the steadfast Detective Lightfoot must uncover who ended the ambitious chilihead's lifebefore another cook kicks the bucket.
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On such a gorgeous May morning, what could be better than a power walk to Cho's cleaners with my long-haired Chihuahua, Lenny? The morning sun had tossed a wide blanket of gold over the Davis and Chisos mountains, awakening the pi–on pines and the weeping junipers from their slumber, illuminating the bluegrass and scrub so they looked like desert jewels. The plan had been to retrieve my abuela's folkl—rico costume and burn some extra calories. And though we made good time-considering the length of my canine sidekick's pencil-thin appendages-the morning sun galloped down Broken Boot's cobbled streets while I paid Mr. Cho with a crumpled five-dollar bill and a coupon for a dozen free tamales.
"Yip." Lenny lapped from the pet fountain in front of Elaine's Pies, soaking his black-and-white coat.
"ÁV‡monos, amigo!" If we were late to the final dance rehearsal before the Cinco de Mayo parade, God only knew when Senora Marisol Martinez, our matriarch, would permit me to call her abuela again.
During my first few months back home, I was elated to find I could accomplish tasks in far less time than in the crowded thoroughfares of Austin. Almost a year later, I was forced to admit the slower pace of our dusty little town didn't aid me in my quest to check things off my list. It merely encouraged me to meander.
On that happy thought, Lenny and I raced down the sidewalk toward Milagro. Suddenly I tripped over the plastic clothes bag, nearly kissing the pavement with my face. "Whose great idea was it to rehearse this early?"
"That's what I was afraid of."
When we barreled through the front door of Milagro, the best, and only, Tex-Mex restaurant on Main Street, I expected the folkl—rico rehearsal to be in full swing. Instead my best friend, Patti Perez, glared at me, which only made me smile. I was wise to her marshmallow center, in spite of her ghostly Goth appearance.
"Sorry," I mouthed. After all, it had been my idea for all of us to join the local folkl—rico troupe-my way of embracing life back in good old Broken Boot, Texas.
"About time," she chided as I draped Senora Mari's costume over a stack of hand-painted wooden chairs. In my absence, the other dancers had cleared the dining room to create a dance floor on the beautiful Saltillo tiles.
"I would have called," I began.
"But I was trapped in a dead zone," we said in unison. Service was so bad in Broken Boot and its outlying communities that folks were slower here than in the rest of the country in ditching their landlines.
"Where's Anthony?" When our headwaiter offered his newly formed mariachi band to play for our first performance, I didn't have the heart to say no. Beggars can't be choosers, or look a gift band in the mouth.
"Tsk, tsk." Across the room, Anthony's new fiance placed her hand over the bar phone's mouthpiece. Though christened Lucinda, we'd quickly dubbed her Cindy to avoid calling her Linda, my aunt's name, and vice versa. "He says his truck has a flat tire." She scowled at whatever Anthony said next and responded with a flurry of Spanish.
"Who doesn't keep a spare in the desert?" Patti, whom I referred to as Goth Girl if for no other reason than to hear her snort, delivered this line with a deadpan expression and a flick of her rehearsal skirt.
"Yip," Lenny said, chasing after her ruffles.
Goth Girl snapped her head in my direction and gave me the stink eye. "Tell me you replaced your spare."
"Uh, well, not yet, but I will after Cinco de Mayo." Money was a bit tight, what with the loss of tourists during the winter months.
To my right, Aunt Linda, a stunning middle-aged woman with warm chestnut hair, modeled her bright-colored skirt better than any fashionista in Paris. "That's what you said about Valentine's Day." She was my late mother's older sister. She might look great in her Wranglers, but she and rhythm had never been introduced.
"And Saint Patrick's," chimed in Senora Mari, executing a double spin. This morning she wore a rehearsal skirt of black-tiered lace along with her Milagro uniform of peasant blouse, gray bun at her nape, and large pink flower behind her ear. No matter how much I rehearsed, none of my moves could compare to her sassy head turns and flamboyant poses. Who knew my seventy-something, four-foot-eleven abuela would turn out to be the star of our ragtag troupe?
A sharp clapping interrupted our chatter. "Let's try it on the counts," cried Mrs. Felicia Cogburn, mayor's wife and self-appointed dance captain.
"Yip," Lenny agreed.
"Why is that dog here?" Mrs. Cogburn demanded, her hands raised in mid-clap.
"He has a key role, remember?" My abuela smiled, an expression so rare on her dear weathered face it made folks uncomfortable.
Mrs. Cogburn blinked several times. "Of course." Before she could begin, a small truck landed at the curb with a bed full of musicians, trumpets and guitars in full serenade. The band stopped playing long enough to hurry inside.
"ÁAy, Dios! Senora, I had to borrow a spare. Mine was flat." Anthony waved his friends into a semicircle just inside the door.
Senora Mari thrust a finger into the air. "So you say." She snapped her head dramatically to the side. "Play."
With a worried look, Anthony counted off, and the group of dark-haired men and boys began to play the jarabe tapat’o, the Mexican hat dance. I spied a familiar face on trumpet. Anthony's little sister Lily gave me a wink and a nod.
As the trumpets and guitars played, Mrs. Cogburn called out, "And one, two, three, four."
"Where's your skirt?" Patti asked as we twirled first right and then left.
"Ah, chicken sticks." I dodged the dancers, ran up the stairs to my loft apartment, and retrieved my long skirt from a chrome dining chair.
"Yip, yip, yip," Lenny cried from the bottom of the stairs.
"Sorry." I found his straw hat on the yellow Formica table and made it downstairs without mishap. "Here you go, handsome." I perched the hat on his head and tightened the elastic under his chin. As we danced, Lenny would spin in place on his back legs, melting the hearts of the crowd faster than fried ice cream in August.
I hurried to my place on the back row next to Patti as the band launched into their next number, "El Mariachi."
"Josie, stand up straight," called Mrs. Cogburn. "Linda, you're turning in the wrong direction."
After running through our routine six times without a break, we collapsed into the dining room with refreshments. I was removing Lenny's straw hat when the cowbell over the front door clanged.
A middle-aged man with a gray buzz cut and white coveralls stepped inside. "Howdy." He checked his clipboard and gave us an expectant smile. "I'm looking for Mrs. Cogburn."
"That's me." With a hand to her hair, Mrs. Cogburn stepped forward. "As long as you're not from the IRS." She giggled, her cheeks flushing a soft pink.
Aunt Linda marched to the front door. "We have plenty of parking on the side of our building." She pointed through the doorway to where a white cargo van, emblazoned with fillmore's fireworks, stood double-parked. "Why don't you use it instead of blocking traffic?"
Buzz Cut's eyes narrowed. "Maybe I'd forgotten how ornery and downright persnickety small-town business owners can be."
A tense silence followed as he glared at her and she glared at him. Suddenly they burst into laughter and hugged. "Frank, what are you doing here? I thought you'd moved to Marshall or Longview, somewhere out in the Piney Woods."
With a self-conscious smile, he ran a hand through his hair. "I did, but business still takes me out this way a few times a year."
Patti and I exchanged glances. I had never seen my business-minded aunt react so warmly to any man except Uncle Eddie.
With a glance at our curious faces, Aunt Linda presented Buzz Cut like a sequined model presenting a heavy-load truck to a mesmerized crowd at the El Paso Car Show. "My prom date in high school, Frank Fillmore." With a flourish, she swung her arm wide. "And this is everybody."
"Nice to meet all of y'all." His eyes widened as he took in the large group of dancers and musicians. His grin revealed a wide space between his two front teeth. "Hola, Àc—mo est‡s?"
"Fatal," Senora Mari muttered. "Are we going to dance or chatter like squirrels?"
"Senora." His eyes twinkled with good humor. "Would your cooking be the source of the amazing, mouthwatering aroma of this place?"
She shrugged. "It's my kitchen, so it must be true."
"And I bet it's your way or the highway."
After a moment of hesitation, she honored him with a careful smile. "S’. Of course."
"My wife, Felicia, was the same way." His expression softened. "Had to be in charge of the kitchen, didn't want any help. Didn't even trust me to wash a dish."
"Come back after lunch and we'll set you up with all the dishes you can handle," I said. If the dishwasher didn't show up, me, myself, and the busboy were screwed.
Everyone laughed. Even Senora Mari added her abrupt ha-ha-ha.
"This young lady with the sassy mouth is my niece, Josie Callahan." Aunt Linda raised an eyebrow and gave me a look of gentle reproach.
"Frank, we'll have to catch up later. Glad you're back this year for Saturday's big show."
Mrs. Cogburn clasped her joined hands to her chest. "Mr. Fillmore, please accept my apologies. I should have recognized you from the last time you participated in our Cinco de Mayo festivities, regardless of your new hairstyle."
"No need to apologize." He gave her a brief smile. "But I do need someone to follow me to the fairgrounds. The mayor wanted a bigger show; and it requires a different setup."
Aunt Linda took Mrs. Mayor by the arm. "Senora Mari will take them through their paces, won't you?" She raised a brow at her mother-in-law.
My abuela studied us like a drill sergeant studies his rough recruits. "S’, I will lead."
"I wish my husband was here. He would make it plain as day."
"I can go," I said.
"Jo Jo, you stay." Uncle Eddie entered from the hallway, dressed in his usual attire: pressed jeans, plaid Western shirt, and leather vest. "You and I need to go over the last-minute details for tomorrow. I don't want no International Chili Association official to tear a strip off my hide." A tourist at Two Boots dance hall, our other establishment, might suspect Uncle Eddie of wearing a costume. Little did they know, he wore the same outfit day in and day out.
"I'll be glad to help out." Aunt Linda threw an arm around Mrs. Cogburn's shoulders.
I waited for my aunt to introduce Frank Fillmore to my uncle, but the introduction never came.
"ÁV‡monos! Don't stand around gawking." Senora Mari took her place front and center while the rest of us darted into position and the band started to play.
After a word to Fillmore, Mrs. Cogburn returned to her charges. "And one, two, three, four."
Uncle Eddie made for Milagro's office just as Frank Fillmore opened the front door for my aunt. She caught my eye, glanced toward her husband's retreating back, and, with an impish grin, lifted a finger to her lips.
Two hours later, my abuela threw her copy of the Broken Boot Bugle onto the counter. ÒÁSuficiente! Who cares if you break one or two rules?Ó
Senora Mari was not my grandmother. Technically, she was my Aunt Linda's mother-in-law, but since I'd been raised in their home after the car accident that claimed both my parents, she often allowed me to refer to her as abuela. But if Lenny had been under foot or barked too loudly in the morning, she would remind me that Senora Mari was her rightful title.
"Mam‡." Uncle Eddie lowered a fresh glass of sweet tea without taking a sip. "The town council is watching me like a hawk, just waiting for me to screw up." My uncle's dark hair was slicked back in his usual style, light puffs of gray at his temples. His broad, honest face was tense with worry, deepening the wrinkles the West Texas sun had furrowed across his forehead.
"You're imagining things." I took the International Chili Association cook-off planning binder from his hands. "It will all fall into place, you'll see." And I gave him a pat on the shoulder. "We've reviewed every detail from beans to trophies."
"Yip." Lenny stood on a wooden chair so Cindy could complete his costume fitting.
"Okay, okay, little one. Soon. I will finish soon." Her small, delicate hands had created a darling pair of white satin pants and jacket to match what the members of Anthony's mariachi band were wearing.
"Where's his sombrero?" asked Uncle Eddie.
"I have it here." From her sewing kit Cindy retrieved a white satin hat with gold detailing and placed it on his head.
I squealed with glee. "Isn't he adorable?"
"Humph." Senora Mari thrust her hands on her hips. "If you think a long-haired rat dressed like a human is cute, you are loco."
"Is it not right?" Cindy asked.
I glared at Senora Mari behind the young woman's back. "It's not you or your beautiful costume." I smoothed Lenny's white jacket and rubbed him under the chin. "She would say the same if he were dressed like Our Lady of Guadalupe."
Cindy turned her wide brown eyes on Senora Mari. "You would?"
Cindy smiled. "Then he is perfect for tomorrow's parade."
"Let's try it out." I lowered Lenny to the tile floor. "Stand," I commanded. Without hesitation, he lifted his front legs and pawed the air.
"So adorable." Cindy clapped her hands.
"Turn," I continued.
With the grace of a ballet dancer, Lenny hopped in a full circle until he was back where he started, paws still high.
"Good boy." I scooped him up and kissed his head.
"Yes, yes, very handsome." I paid Cindy on her way out, even though she insisted the beautiful costume was a gift.
When I returned, Senora Mari was waiting. "Where are you?" She tapped the paper with the tips of her fingers. "You said you wrote a story."
"Page ten. The article about the fifty head of Herefords blocking Highway 90."
With a grunt, she found the page and read the article. "This is," she held her thumb and index finger about two inches apart, "smaller than a cucaracha." She lifted her chin. "Why?"
Excerpted from "Cinco de Murder"
Copyright © 2018 Rebecca Adler.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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