The holidays are a busy time for scrapbook shop owner Carmela Bertrand—but not so hectic that she doesn’t have time to enjoy browsing the booths at the Winter Market with her best friend, Ava. The last thing the ladies expect to see is a lurching man stabbed by a serving fork, dying in front of them.
The victim is loathed restaurant critic Martin Lash, who posted his scathing reviews on the Glutton for Punishment website. And the prime suspect is New Orleans restaurateur Quigg Brevard—who was seen giving the critic a tongue-lashing minutes before someone stuck a fork in him. An old flame of Carmela’s, Quigg asks for her help, which does not please her current beau, Detective Edgar Babcock, to say the least.
Before her relationship is the next victim, Carmela needs to find a murderer who had no reservations about punishing the culinary curmudgeon…
“The plot is detailed with layers of mysteries...The rich descriptions and dialog bring this story to life.”—Open Book Society
SCRAPBOOKING TIPS INCLUDED!
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Red rockets arced into an indigo-blue sky and exploded in a thousand points of incandescent light. The crowd at the Winter Market (already lubricated from tossing back multiple geaux cups of fine liquor) murmured a collective, appreciative "ooh" as the flat waters of the Mississippi River reflected mirror images of the colorful bursts.
"This is my favorite time of year," Carmela Bertrand said. "Right before we head into the holidays, when the weather's cooled down and you can feel the French Quarter literally pulsing with electricity."
"You sure you're not just having a hot flash?" Ava asked.
Carmela grinned and shook her head. "How old do you think I am, anyway?"
"A year younger than me," Ava sighed. "Isn't it amazing how the old tempus can fugit? It's like living in a game show with a permanent lightning round."
Carmela had cool blue eyes, hair that was short, choppy, and streaked with honey, and a radiant complexion that was due in part to the industrial-strength humidity of New Orleans. She was smart, practical, and possessed a nimble mind that fairly burned with curiosity. (Yes, the kind of curiosity that killed the proverbial cat.)
Ava, on the other hand, was her dark twin. Masses of raven hair, lush lips, heart-shaped face, and eyes slightly canted to give her an almost catlike appearance. Tonight, her leather slacks appeared to be airbrushed on and her red silk top was cut so low that her generous dcollet seemed like an offering to the gods. Even though she was a few ticks over the age of thirty herself, she dressed the same as when she was a perky, eighteen-year-old beauty queen candidate from Wetumpka, Alabama.
"This turned out to be fun," Ava said as she stopped at a jewelry booth to admire a small gold skull necklace. "I'm glad we came."
"Instead of sitting at home, watching Netflix, and eating ourselves into a fudge-and-kettle-corn stupor?"
"Speak for yourself," Ava said. "You're the one with the tough cop, nose-to-the-grindstone boyfriend who toils nonstop for all us sinners and ungrateful taxpayers. Whereas I could have been swanning around some exotic five-star restaurant with my dear sweet Roman Numeral if I'd crooked my little finger at him." Roman Numeral was Ava's pet name for Harrison Harper Wilkes III, her latest conquest in a long list of conquests that practically rivaled those of Alexander the Great.
It was early December and Carmela and Ava were taking in the excitement and raucous fun of the Winter Market. This outdoor celebration of art, jewelry, crafts, foods, and vintage clothing had been set up adjacent to the French Market, its string of flapping canvas booths and gaudy electric lights backing up directly to the dark Mississippi. Hordes of bead-wearing, hard-drinking revelers streamed through the marketplace, while Christmas carolers, stilt-walkers, fortune-tellers, and the occasional fire-eater also mingled in to enliven the celebration.
"Mmn," Ava said. Eyes open wide, she gestured frantically with her glass of wine, looking as if she'd just swallowed a bug. "Wine. More."
"Why are you suddenly talking as if you just deplaned from a foreign country?" Carmela asked.
Ava tilted her cup back and gulped a final hit. "Because my throat was caught in drink-swallow-belch mode," she explained. She fluttered a hand against her chest, let loose a genteel burp, and said, "There. Better."
"Maybe for you," Carmela said. "So . . . what? You want another glass of wine? Maybe something spiced?" She steered her friend toward one of a dozen wine vendors.
"Whatcha got?" Carmela asked the wine vendor, a middle-aged man with a heroic handlebar mustache and a red sweatshirt that said KISS ME I'M CAJUN.
"Spiced wine, mulled wine, and chilled red wine," the vendor told her.
"Two spiced wines, please," Carmela said.
"What's the difference between mulled and spiced?" Ava asked.
The vendor shrugged. "The spiced wine has spices and the mulled wine has mulls."
"Clearly you're not the vintner," Carmela said. "Or if you are, we're in big trouble."
"Nah, I just work here," the guy said. He shrugged again. "Hey, what are you gonna do?"
"How about pouring us a couple of geaux cups?" Carmela said.
Ava held up a hand. "Just plain red wine for me. Merlot if you've got it."
As Carmela and Ava sipped their wine, they wandered past booths selling pottery, photographs, beaded bracelets, hand-tooled leather belts, and T-shirts emblazoned with the words BIG EASY.
"Quigg's gumbo booth should be down here somewhere," Carmela said.
"He's here?" Ava said. "Why's that?" They continued to push through the crowd, past a row of food booths that offered po-boys, roast beef sandwiches, fried oysters, and shaved ice.
"Probably because selling food always proves to be lucrative at these events, as well as incredibly popular."
"You sure about that?" Ava asked. "Because I think I see one of Quigg's customers right now and the guy looks like he's ready to pop a blood vessel."
Carmela frowned. "What?" Across the way, a booth selling antique music boxes and bronze dogs had caught her eye. Then she turned her attention back to Ava.
"You see," Ava said, pointing, "Quigg's really throwing shade at that guy. Giving him a piece of his mind."
Carmela switched her attention to the mini drama that was being played out some twenty feet away from them.
"Are you serious?" Quigg's voice rang out. "You actually think you're doing the public a favor?" Quigg Brevard, the owner of Mumbo Gumbo, Bon Tiempe Restaurant, and St. Tammany Vineyard, was in the middle of a shouting match. A serious shouting match. His normally handsome face was pulled into a snarl, his olive complexion darkened to reflect his anger. Two of his employees cowered behind him in a booth strung with lights and papered with colorful menus.
The closer Carmela and Ava got to the turmoil, the more aggressive both parties got.
"You're a hack," Quigg screamed. "You have zero credibility in this town."
"And you're a fool," the man shouted back at him. "A pretender. An insult to decent restaurateurs." The man was forty-something, around Quigg's age, but completely opposite in stature. This verbal opponent, who darted in to deliver insults, was thin and wiry compared to Quigg's broad-shouldered, athletic build.
"You wouldn't know a decent eggs Sardou if it jumped up and bit you in the ass," Quigg shouted at him.
At that, the man snatched up a large bowl of steaming shrimp gumbo, cocked back his arm, and hurled it into the booth. Quigg ducked just in the nick of time, but the gumbo smacked hard against the back wall. Whap! Gumbo spattered the entire booth, dripping globs of roux, okra, and shrimp, and obliterating the red and green sign that listed the various kinds of gumbo. Crab, shrimp, and oyster, to be exact.
"Ouch," Ava said. "This is takin' on the appearance of a street brawl."
Quick as a snapping turtle, Quigg leaned across the counter and grabbed the man by his collar. "Get out of here!" he thundered. "Before I rip your fool head off."
The man windmilled his arms and jerked himself out of reach. "You'll be sorry," he snarled, waving a clenched fist at Quigg. "You're gonna pay for this."
"I hope you choke on a chicken bone!" Quigg yelled as the guy spun away.
"Quigg," Carmela called out. She wore a tentative, hopefully soothing smile on her face. They were friends, after all. They'd even dated a couple of years ago.
"What!" Quigg screamed, not even bothering to look at her.
"Whoa. Quigg." Carmela walked up to the counter of his booth and held up a hand as if to create an invisible force field against his anger and bad vibes. "Take it down a notch. It's me, Carmela."
"And me, too," Ava said, managing a lopsided smile.
"What's going on?" Carmela asked. "Why were you banging away on that guy? Did he wreck your car? Embezzle money from you?"
"Ach." Quigg snorted and flapped a hand derisively, still looking sublimely upset. "That was Martin Lash."
Ava glanced in the direction of the departed Lash, who had since melted into the crowd. "Who dat?" she asked.
"You girls know who he is," Quigg said in a dispirited tone. "He's the jerk who writes for that stupid food website, Glutton for Punishment."
"Oh, him," Ava said. "Yeah, I have heard of him. Vieux Carr Magazine called him 'the spicy new voice of foodies everywhere.'"
"And let me guess . . ." Carmela lifted a perfectly waxed brow. The pieces were tumbling into place for her. "Martin Lash gave one of your restaurants a very bad review."
Quigg's swarthy complexion darkened another couple of shades. "I wouldn't call it a review so much as he excoriated me."
"Say what?" Ava said.
"He wrote a nasty review," Carmela explained.
Ava frowned. "Well, that's uncharitable. Especially for a guy who gets to feed his face for free all over town."
"Lash is a blowhard with an ego bigger than a Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloon," Quigg said. "Which is exactly what I was trying to drill into his pea brain when you ladies came along and broke my concentration."
"It sounded more like you were threatening him," Ava said.
"So what was the upshot of all your hostilities?" Carmela asked. "Will Lash change his review? Maybe give you another chance?"
"He laughed in my face when I suggested that," Quigg said. "He told me that Mumbo Gumbo deserved a negative two stars." Mumbo Gumbo was Quigg's pride and joy French Quarter restaurant. So Carmela could understand why Quigg was upset. Correction: change upset to infuriated.
"There's nothing you can do?" Carmela asked. "There's no recourse at all?"
"Short of blasting him off the Internet I don't know what I can possibly do," Quigg sighed.
"Apologize?" Carmela said.
"Never," Quigg said.
"So the bad review just stays there forever?" Ava asked. "Swirling through cyberspace along with Kim Kardashian's selfies?"
"I suppose so," Quigg said. Now he just looked depressed.
"Maybe it's not that bad," Carmela said. She was trying to find an upside to this, a silver lining. "People don't pay all that much attention to reviews, do they?"
"Tourists do," Quigg said.
Carmela grimaced. New Orleans was a tourist town. Nine and a half million people flocked to New Orleans each year to partake of fine food, grand architecture, free-flowing booze, outlandish behavior, and haunted cemeteries.
"And whenever we hand out comment cards in the restaurants," Quigg said, "customers always mention the reviews they've read."
Carmela decided to quit while she was ahead. Aside from hacking the Glutton for Punishment website, she didn't have any sparkling ideas to offer Quigg.
"We certainly wouldn't mind a couple bowls of your gumbo," Ava said. "We know how delicious it is."
"You're very sweet," Quigg said, but he was smiling at Carmela as he said it, looking a little wistful. "How you doin'?" he asked, leaning toward her, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial tone. "You still dating that cop?"
"Detective first grade," Carmela said. When she and Quigg had dated, nothing seemed to spark. Their relationship had been lukewarm at best. Now, every time Quigg saw her, he seemed to salivate over what he couldn't have. Carmela didn't know if all men were like that or just Quigg. Well, clearly her ex-husband, Shamus, wasn't. Whenever they crossed paths Shamus acted like a vampire fleeing a bouquet of garlic.
"We'll tell everyone to come to your booth," Ava said. "So they can taste for themselves how good your food is." She looked at the backdrop that was splotched and still dripping with gumbo. "That's if they can read your menu."
"Sure," Quigg said. "Whatever." He turned to one of his employees and sighed. "Mario, see what you can do about this mess."
ÒIs Quigg always such a hothead?Ó Ava asked.
"I don't think I've ever seen him that angry before," Carmela said.
"New Orleans does that to you. After a while it messes with your mind and brings out your inner crazy. This city should come with a warning label." Ava held up her plastic cup. "Hang on a minute. I want to top off my Merlot." She wiggled her way to another wine booth and let them pour a stream of Chablis into her half-full cup.
"Really?" Carmela said. "And what does that get you?"
Ava gazed into her drink. "Pink stuff." She took a sip. "And it's pretty dang good, too. Mixed with the Merlot it tastes like . . . Chablot."
"Just don't spill that gunk on your suede boots. Or get sick and oopsy all over them. Remember what happened last time you mixed your liquor?"
"That was an extremely rare and isolated case of Wild Turkey not seeing eye to eye with French champagne," Ava said. "That wouldn't happen again in a million years."
"Say now," Ava purred, her eyes locking on to another booth, where candles flickered and black leather and silver chains gleamed. "What delicious little goodies do we have here?"
Carmela glanced into the booth. It was filled with leather corsets, garter belts, and lace-up boots. And was that a whip she saw dangling overhead? Oh my.
"A bondage lover's dream," Ava declared, fingering a leather garment. "I wonder if they have this corset in my size?"
The frizzy-haired woman working the booth smiled at Ava. "What are you, about a six or eight?"
"On a good day, yes," Ava said.
"This corset would fit you beautifully, then," the woman said. "And we also have it in red leather with gold studs."
Ava held up the black corset for Carmela to see. "What do you think?"
"For me, personally, I would go with the red," Carmela said.
"Okay. For me, personally, I would skip the whole thing. Who wants all that leather cinched tight around your waist? I prefer to suck in my fat the old-fashioned way. By holding my breath."
"I'm going to try it on," Ava said.
"Of course you are."
"Just duck behind this curtain," the woman said, shoving a purple paisley shawl aside. "Maybe try it on right over your blouse."
Ava disappeared inside while Carmela waited. Candles flickered, leather gleamed, and Carmela felt more and more uncomfortable. "You almost ready?" she called out.
Suddenly, the entire booth began to shift and shake. Carmela wondered what on earth was going on back there? It couldn't be that tough to squeeze into a corset, could it? "Ava?" she called out.
Ava and the booth's owner peeped out from behind the curtain just as another enormous vibration rocked the booth.
"Ava, get out here!" Carmela called. Something felt very wrong.
Ava popped out, looking frightened. "What?" she yelped. She had the corset on around her. "Was somebody trying to rip open the back flap and get a peek at my chichis?"