Newly widowed and stuck in a middle-aged funk, Poppy has been running on cookies, infomercials, and one-sided chats with her cat for months. There’s no way on earth she’s attending her twenty-five-year class reunion—especially after receiving a very bizarre letter from Barbie, the popular cheerleader who taunted her all through high school. At least, not until Poppy’s best friend practically drags her to the event . . .
Using the dreaded homecoming as an excuse to visit her eccentric Aunt Ginny, Poppy vows to leave Cape May with pride and Spanx intact. Too bad Barbie is still the queen of mean at the reunion. And worse, that her dead body is lying right in front of Poppy’s old locker. Singled out as the killer, it’s up to Poppy to confront her past and clear her name. But between protecting her aunt from disaster and tackling a gluten-free diet, can Poppy crack the case before she’s voted “Most Likely to Die” by the murderer?
Includes Seven Recipes from Poppy’s Kitchen!
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I was being bullied by stationery. The note had arrived the day before by courier service — and it had to be a trap. I glared at it on the coffee table wondering if I dare open it. I pulled my knees up to my chest and hugged them to calm my shaky nerves.
The sender wasn't a mystery to me. We had hated each other for years. She was flaunting her wealth as usual. Expensive linen stationery, ebony embossed script addressed to Ms. Poppy McAllister (I hadn't been called that in ages) and a monogrammed B in silver filigree in the upper left corner.
I read the return address again:
Barbie Pomeroy Clark Pemberton Estates Cherry Hill, New Jersey
I didn't know whether to rip it into tiny pieces or set it on fire. Maybe both. I was older and wiser now and I wouldn't fall for her schemes anymore. After all these years, why Barbie would think I'd care about anything she had to say was beyond me. She has a lot of nerve, I'll give her that. I fought back the horrible memory of high school that had piggybacked in with Barbie's engraved audacity. "I don't know what lie she's selling, Fig, but I'm not buying."
Figaro blinked at me with his Oh, great. Here comes some drama look.
"Well, of course I believe people can change. Just not her."
Figaro jumped down and turned his back to me.
"Really, Fig, cats can be so judgmental sometimes."
All night the envelope had lain there, like the presence of a chainsaw- wielding serial killer in my house. I was tired of obsessing about it. I hadn't had a decent night's sleep in months what with all I'd been through. Of course, my addiction to infomercials might be partly to blame. If it could chop, roast, juice, store stuff, or be ShamWowed, I had it. At least the infomercials swallowed up the silence.
I'd never thought I could miss the sound of John's incessant snoring, like a 747 coming in for a landing, but during those endless nights while I lay on the sofa listening to shouting pitchmen, I knew I'd give anything to hear that sound again. I missed him. I missed the way his glasses sat crooked on the end of his nose and how he smelled like coffee and aftershave. I even missed tripping over his books all over the house. Every room had a narrative history or stuffy memoir lying somewhere. All those arguments over something so trivial and fleeting.
I dug into the couch cushion for the Pepperidge Farm bag I'd lost around three a.m.
Oatmeal cookies for breakfast. That sounds reasonable, I thought, and crammed one in. You know what these need? Chocolate fudge frosting. But I didn't think I could handle a grief-and-frosting hangover and Barbie. Beautiful, rich, successful, married-to-money Barbie.
So I suffered through plain cookies, flipped the envelope over so I wouldn't have to look at her name again, and changed the channel.
"Today we are making ... FISHHHH!" I giggled. Julia Child had to have been half lit during the taping of most of her shows. Still, she'd been one of my childhood idols along with that other influential kitchen icon — the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show. I spent many a Saturday afternoon watching Julia cook and dreaming of the day I would be a fancy French chef.
The bar was set pretty low growing up in South Jersey in the '80s. Most of my role models worked as waitresses or chambermaids. The main goal was to lie on the beach all summer until your skin was leathery and crocodile-like, and to save up enough tip money to scrape by and survive through the off- season. You weren't popular if you weren't beautiful, and you weren't beautiful without a tan and bikini body.
So much for aspirations and goals.
My "old lady dress" with the cellulite-covering skirt-of-shame that wasn't fooling anyone was the railroad spike in the social coffin. Of course, my red hair and freckles gave me my superpower (which is the ability to burn under a table lamp) so the threat of looking like rock lobster kept me off the beach and in the free air-conditioning of the public library every summer throughout high school.
I drew the fat straw. So while the cool kids worked summer jobs lifeguarding and selling Italian water ice, I roamed the library shelves of Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. These were my people. They understood me and they didn't judge. There had to be more to life than parties and popularity. At least that's what I told myself. So my summers were spent in conversation with dead authors. ("Oh Jane, really? Heathcliff said what?" "Leo, does every character have to have three names? I can't tell who's speaking.")
I had one goal in life. Get out of South Jersey and get as far away as possible. I vowed I would never go back. That's pretty much the only successful thing I'd ever done. And now this high school reunion fiasco had arrived to jeopardize all that.
I looked at the envelope again. It tried to suck me in. A furry nudge on my leg made me look down. Figaro had come back to apologize for his harsh dismissal of my cowardice — or maybe just to curl up next to me on the plush white sofa that had been my bed in recent months. I offered him a lick of my cookie. He sniffed it and politely refused. John would have taken a bite. ...
"This big house is too empty for just the two of us, Fig, but there is no way I'm giving Georgina the satisfaction of moving out."
The way Figaro's ears pinned against his head at the mention of the Wicked Witch, I could tell he agreed. Georgina was my mother-in-law. Or as Figaro and I called her, domineering overlord. She'd made my life miserable from day one. But then I wasn't exactly what she had been hoping for either. John was her baby and I ruined him.
He was the first genuine friend I made at William & Mary when I ran into him on the quad. Literally barreled into him with all the grace of a water buffalo. It was my freshman year and I was still following the map handed out at orientation. I was so engrossed in trying to find Psych 101 that I didn't see him sitting on the lawn. He was so engrossed in his paperback of Lord of the Rings, he never saw me coming.
He wasn't what you would call tall, dark, or handsome. He was more short and squatty. Your average geek before being a geek was fashionable. Stocky and muscular in a way that reminds you of a bulldog. With blue eyes and dark brown hair that curled at his neck. His dark-rimmed glasses coupled with his plaid shirt and faded blue jeans made him look more suited to the chess club than the football field.
I tripped over him and face-planted right in his lap. I was so mortified I started chattering nonsense like I do when I get nervous. Stuff about how I'm directionally challenged, and I really wanted to be a pastry chef not a psychologist, and I loved the relationship between Frodo and Samwise. When I ran out of steam, John was looking at me with wide eyes, his glasses askew on his nose from the impact of Hurricane Poppy. I realized my hand was still resting on his inner thigh and I promptly removed it. "I'm so sorry."
He straightened his glasses and said, "If you're looking for the psych wing you aren't even close. It's probably because your map is upside down. Come on, I'll take you there. My name's John, by the way."
From that moment on we were fast friends. He was like the big brother I never had. We talked about everything. Books, movies, school, family. He came from a very wealthy family with political ties on Capitol Hill. He was a grad student in his first year of law school and there was a lot of pressure on him to excel. I learned later that his family had been grooming him to run for the Senate one day. They never forgave me for destroying their plans.
John said I was the funniest girl he'd ever met, and before me he didn't know how to relax. We hung out as often as we could. John tutored me in calculus and I made chocolate crepes for him on my dorm hot plate. After a few weeks, I finally convinced him to let me go to a frat party. He didn't want me to be around "the debauchery" but I was insistent that I was a big girl and it was all part of the college experience. I don't think he attended many parties in his own fraternity because the other guys kept slapping him on the back and calling him "The Professor." He wanted to impress his "brothers" and I just didn't have any self-control, plain and simple. So we drank ourselves half blind and the next morning woke up in bed together under a blanket of shame. Things were awkward between us for a couple of weeks, but we finally came to the place where we admitted that we valued our friendship too much to let it be ruined by one mistake. I was never going to tell my fiancé, Tim. John was never going to tell anyone. After all, we weren't even sure anything had happened. Not really.
And then the morning sickness started. Peeing on that stick was the scariest thing I had ever done. I couldn't look at it so John was the first person to know we were having a baby together.
His mother was furious. She demanded that I get an abortion. She said I was trying to trap him and had ruined his career in politics. A career John never actually wanted, by the way. Many years later he told me that I had saved him from a life of misery, but first we had to go through hell from the fallout of our "blessed union."
Georgina was pushing me to deny any connection to John and protect her family from scrutiny in the public eye. She also said it was the only way I was ever going to get any support from them. If I publicly claimed the baby was John's, I would be on my own, a poor white trash single mom on government assistance, and their family would deny any connection to the baby. Nice.
John didn't take this treatment of me well. He told Georgina that if she ever threatened me or said one unkind word to me again, he would personally call the tabloids and ruin the family name. He intended to marry me and if she ever wanted to see her grandchild, she would treat me with respect. A part of me may have fallen in love with John that very day, but I didn't know it until much later.
"Oh yeah. I forgot about you for a minute." I was so lost in my thoughts. I resumed petting his majesty.
Sir Figaro Newton is my best friend in the world, now that John is ... gone. I couldn't bring myself to think the real word. Passed was the fill-in term.
Figaro is a black smoke Persian with a cotton candy coat; his fur is white with black tips, giving him a shaded, smoky-gray color. Little children are terrified of him because of his bright orange eyes. They think he looks like a Halloween cat but I think he's beautiful. We probably could have won ribbons in cat shows if he wasn't so ornery and uncooperative. He had a sixth sense and knew when I was sagging into a foul mood. Like now.
He flopped across me, as if he were a pillowcase and someone had just ripped the stuffing out. He either wanted to cheer me up or keep me alive until he grew thumbs and could work the can opener by himself.
Figaro was, in technical terms, "a little loopy-doopy." It could be disconcerting to have a sidekick who'd go completely limp and flop over like he'd just passed out. Sometimes with a stretch and a roll, sometimes with a thud as he hit the floor. It was his feline idea of performance art. He thinks it sends the message that he's not a threat and wants to be friends. Mostly it sends the message that he's crazy and could begin foaming at the mouth any minute. Many a child has run away from his famous death scene screaming, and left him lying there confused.
Just now he was staring at the envelope I was ignoring — then staring back at me. Envelope. Me. Envelope ...
"Stop that. I know I'm a chicken. Bwaaak! There. Happy? We need a distraction, Fig. Sitting here covered in cookie dust and wallowing in self-pity is starting to lose its appeal. You know what goes good with oatmeal cookies? Chocolate milk."
Figaro gave me a droll look.
"Fine, I'll get it myself." I shouldn't be talking to cats anyway. People will think I've lost my mind. "Are you listening to me, Figaro?"
Figaro buried his face under one smoky-gray paw. I brushed the crumbs off my Eeyore pajama pants, crumpled up the cookie bag, and headed to the fridge.
Leaving the envelope shouting "Coward!" at my back, I slippered my way into the kitchen and looked around the marble morgue. I hated this kitchen. Georgina had designed every inch of the steel and granite monstrosity to impress. Impress whom, I had no idea. Image was very important to John's mother, and he had promised it was easier to let her have her way. Then she'd leave us alone. Silly man. A kitchen is supposed to be the heart of the home. Well, this one matched that of its designer, cold as a dead fish.
Memories flooded back again. Good ones. John and I did have some fun in here. ... I loved to cook ("Clearly!" chuckled my reflection in the stainless- steel refrigerator door), and John loved to eat. He invited company over every weekend just to weasel some boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin out of the deal. He was always willing to help out with the prep work as my sous-chef. Mostly he just got in the way, but I enjoyed having him next to me.
Since he'd been gone these six months, I'd lived on Pop-Tarts and cookie dough. What was the point in cooking for one? Now any cooking I did took place in the microwave.
Take that, Georgina. Apparently, a pathetic, silent defiance was all I was capable of.
As I put my hand on the refrigerator door I found myself stared in the face by Georgina's event reminder, or as I called it, "The Summons." Georgina expected me to attend a black-tie charity gala in two weeks in John's honor. My mother-in-law firmly believed in hosting benefits for her cause of the month, as long as the press attended and she got lots of exposure in the news media. You know, "for the charity." Since Georgina was under the impression that she owned me from the moment I said "I do," I was required to be there in black taffeta and pearls, playing the "I'm-here-in-place-of-my-poor-dead- husband" card for extra media credit. Grief is good for donations. I was praying either for a house to fall on Georgina or the Rapture to take place. God's choice.
Really, I'm beyond pathetic. I could just say no.
But I never did.
Depressed and disgusted with myself, I got a glass of chocolate milk out of the fridge and added extra chocolate syrup to it. I still had enough dignity to not eat frosting for breakfast. But I did grab a bag of peanut butter cookies from the pantry (peanut butter is protein after all) and scuffed my way back to the living room.
Ousting Figaro from my spot, I changed the channel to the BBC. Nigella was at the open refrigerator, wearing her bathrobe, eating an entire cake with her bare hands. How long before that's me?
Figaro fixed me with a penetrating gaze. That's you since six months ago, Dumpling.
"I've got to get out of here."
The phone rang. I ignored it, hoping they would go away.
"Call from ... Montgomery ... Sawyer."
Audible caller ID is a wonderful invention. So is an answering machine set to screen out friends who have a guilt trip planned. Over the speaker I heard:
"Ohmygosh! Did you get it? Poppy, I know you're there. You never leave the house. Pick up! Pick up! Pick up!"
I was not answering, even for her. I didn't want to talk. I knew what she wanted and there was no way I was going back to New Jersey for a high school reunion. I'd rather have my eyes poked out with fondue forks.
I grabbed the phone. "Yeah, I got it but I'm not opening it because I don't believe for a minute that she means well. There's probably snake venom on the card."
Sawyer Montgomery had been my other best friend — Figaro read my thoughts and cocked one eyebrow — since she and I met halfway through the fifth grade. After my father died, my mother shuffled me off to live with Aunt Ginny, and checked herself into a nervous breakdown. Some sadist decided that my first day of school would be Valentine's Day. I'd gotten one Valentine addressed to "Extra" and a bucket of self-pity. And thanks to my mother's version of a Dorothy Hamill bowl cut, I looked like Moe from the Three Stooges. Everyone thought I was a boy. Sawyer and I became fast friends once I explained that I was indeed a girl and wearing a dress and not a plaid polyester kilt.
"It's gonna be a ton of fun seeing everyone again after all these years."
Sawyer was lighthearted, fun, and perky.
I was not. Especially when sleep-deprived.
Excerpted from "Class Reunions Are Murder"
Copyright © 2018 Lisa Schwartz.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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