Out of control skinheads, a flashy magazine publisher, a dead celebrity chef, and a vindictive food critic make for one messy kitchen. Add one murder suspect in the person of caterer Perry Stevens, and you have a recipe for disaster. It’s up to chef and part-time sleuth Neil Marsha
ll to turn up the heat and smoke out the real killer before his boss finds himself ordering his last meal a la cart on death row.
Too many cooks may spoil the broth, but one dead chef ruins the party.
Publisher's Weekly said:
There's quite a shake-up in Houston's glamorous culinary world in Hemlin's latest mystery. While TV chef Sherwood Welles is ruling the airwaves, his assistant chef, Warren Clay, comes knocking on the door of rival cook Neil Marshall, proposing that they go into business together. Neil refuses and Warren goes away angry. Meanwhile, Neil overhears Agnes Berryman, owner of Texas Tastes lifestyle magazine, arguing with Neil's boss, Perry Stevens, Houston's premier caterer, whom she had hired to cater an event and then refused to pay. The next day, Neil begins to receive several anonymous death threats in the mail. When Welles is found dead, stabbed in his kitchen studio, Perry is named the prime suspect, and it's up to Neil to solve the crime. If he can't deduce how all the pieces fit together, his boss will do time. Events reach fever pitch as preparations begin for Perry Stevens Catering's much touted Fifth Annual Crawfish Boil. Hemlin (A Catered Christmas) spices his South Texas brew with a lively cast of characters and fast-paced plotting.
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About the Author
For twelve years, Tim Hemlin was a chef for a gourmet catering company in Houston, Texas. He now lives near Houston with his wife and children and teaches English in a secondary school. He is the author of If Wishes Were Horses . . ., A Whisper of Rage, People in Glass Houses, and A Catered Christmas.
Read an Excerpt
For a man who only wanted a beer and some downtime, I was getting hit on two fronts. To my left was Warren Clay, a very talented chef but a socially inept man, clumsily attempting to woo us into business with him. On my right was my buddy and coworker, Robbie Persons, who, while totally ignoring Clay, couldn't get his mind off of Perry Stevens Catering's Fifth Annual Crawfish Boil'a tongue-twisting title that further numbed my mind. The fact that Robbie wouldn't leave the day's business back at The Kitchen was bad enough. To have Clay droning in my ear was giving me a headache. The only way the evening could get worse was if I ended up in a damn bar fight.
"You're a good enough chef," Clay proclaimed, pushing his horn-rim glasses up his nose, "but Robbie's a great waiter and bartender, you know? We could make quite a team, like the Three Musketeers."
I groaned, turned to Robbie. "Do you hear what he's saying?" Bjork's song "Hunter" shot a bolt of energy into the early-evening atmosphere. I liked the Icelandic singer, though as the bar filled, the loud music made talking three in a row difficult. I guessed, however, Robbie caught more of the conversation than he was letting on.
"Trying not to," he said, confirming my suspicions. "I'm thinking about two hundred pounds of crawfish. You sure that's enough?" He lifted a glass of chardonnay to his lips.
I thumped my Heineken bottle onto the bar, drawing a scowl from the bartender. Ignoring his irritation, I signaled for another round.
"Do we really have to go through this again?" I said to Robbie, and dug a fingernail into the green label.
"So what do y'all say? We a team?" Clay asked, regaining my attention.
"Just a minute," I replied. "We're conferencing." I huddled close to Robbie. "This is your fault," I told him. "If we'd gone to the Ale House instead of Sue-Ellen's I'd be savoring a Newcastle Brown Ale from the tap. I'd also have avoided?" I stopped, rolled my eyes in Clay's direction.
"Well, he sat next to you, not me." He grinned.
"But I'm only good enough," I whispered harshly. "He thinks you're the cherry on the whipped cream of life."
"And you call yourself a poet."
"My round, partners, wouldn't you say?" Clay announced loudly, responding to the bartender's arrival with another set of drinks.
"About time," Robbie muttered.
I glanced about. We were surrounded by neon, chrome, and mirrors, all impeccably clean. While Clay dug the money out of his snug blue jeans and conversed with the bartender, I stretched and told Robbie, "Trade places with me."
"Because then he'll think I'm interested in him," Robbie replied firmly.
"Well, I'm not interested in him or?"
"I know," Robbie affirmed, "and I'm sorry. When Warren Clay called me and said something about working together, I thought he meant a joint venture between Perry Stevens Catering and his place. Maybe even a television spot. I had no idea he had such grand visions."
Television? I wondered, but I cut to the chase. "Then help me. You know him. I don't."
The music changed to Bjork's "Bachelorette." Cool. In a different situation I might've even begun to relax.
"So what do you say, guys?" Clay prodded again, pulling himself together. Our new drinks were placed in front of us, and Clay took his gin and tonic and leaned in close. I was not a touchy-feely guy, and his drifting into my space made me extremely uncomfortable.
"Say about what?" Robbie asked.
"A partnership," Clay responded, raising his glass. "My talent and brains, y'alls talent?"
"Who has the start-up money?" Robbie inquired. "Neil and I don't."
"Excellent point," I jumped in, taking Robbie's lead. "Unless there's serious money behind us, there's no way we could get this operation off the ground."
"There has to be a backer," Robbie concluded. He tilted his glass in a toast and drank his wine. "Neil and I can't afford to work for free," he added.
"No, we can't," I agreed.
Clay straightened, much to my delight, and chugged on his drink. "You two wouldn't go with me even if I had money," he suddenly declared.
"Thats not necessarily true," I found myself saying, not wanting to bring the man's dream down.
"It's a moot point without financing," Robbie contributed.
"Money!" Clay exclaimed, jumping up. "It's always fucking money!" He slammed his glass on the counter. Broken glass, ice, and gin shaved the air. Automatically, I stood. This strange burst of anger ran deeper than our conversation.
As quickly as the anger flared, though, Clay regained his composure and returned to his seat.
"Sorry," he apologized.
It's not okay, I thought. I wouldn't go into business with you in a million years.
But Robbie spoke. "We like working for Perry," he explained. "And there are a lot of good people out there who want to go into business for themselves. Some even have money."
The bartender eyed us angrily, but I put up a hand. "Accident," I told him. "I'll cover any charge."
Clay looked from Robbie to me and back, then glanced at the blood running down his hand. He grabbed a napkin, pressed it against his palm, then, without another word, left.
I sat down again.
"He's frustrated," Robbie informed me.
"That's an understatement." I brushed shards of glass into a small pile with a bar napkin while the bartender used a towel to sop up the gin.
"Do you know who he works for?"
"No." I tossed the napkin down.
"The television chef?" I asked, and took a healthy swig of beer.
"The one and only."
"Now I understand what you meant about a TV spot. You hoped we'd get on Welles's show."
"Worth a shot," Robbie said meekly.
"Wouldn't Welles have called Perry himself if that was the case?"
"I thought we might get in through the back door with Clay's help," he replied, and drank his wine. "I had no idea he was planning a rebellion."
"Why would he rebel?" I asked. "You think Welles is pushing him out?"
"Seems likely," Robbie agreed. "Clay's a great chef, but a bucket of dirt has more personality. Maybe Welles wants a snappier assistant."
"A Vanna White to spin the hors d'oeuvres and showcase the desserts?" I shrugged.
"You have such a way of putting things in perspective, but it's obvious you don't watch All's Welles in the Kitchen."
"Must have something to do with the title," I said. "There's consonance, and then there's verbal assassination of the language."
"He's got a Vanna," Robbie told me. "Even I think she's a beauty. You'd like the show. Trouble is, after watching for five minutes you realize she knows nothing about the culinary arts."
"So Welles is caught between a talented nerd and an incompetent showpiece," I commented.
"Oh, I sympathize with the man. I know how it feels."
Fortunately, before this conversation went any further or I flashed the one-finger salute, a friend of Robbie's whose name escaped me approached us. Because his hair was a mass of brown curls and his physique small and elvish, he reminded me of fitness guru Richard Simmons. And neither his flamboyant gestures nor dramatic expressions helped to dispel that image.
"Tommy, you remember Neil Marshall," Robbie said, pointing to me.
"Of course I do," he said. "So good to see you again."
"And you," I replied, glad Robbie had mentioned his name.
Tommy huddled in close to us, a hand on each of our backs. "Did you see those protesters outside?" he asked.
"No," I responded, a little surprised at the information.
"There wasn't anyone out there when we came in," Robbie added.
Tommy sighed. "Well, I guess even zealots can't wreak havoc until they finish their day jobs."
"How many of them are there?" I asked.
"Maybe a dozen, with signs calling us godless and bound for hell."
I shook my head and stood. "I may be hell-bound," I stated, and tossed a couple of dollars down for a tip, "but I'm not godless and I won't go on an empty stomach."
Tommy chuckled and slapped at my shoulder. "They aren't targeting all-American boys like you, and you know it. They want us unnatural vermin."
"You two can laugh, but I find them disturbing," Robbie said seriously.
"Don't you mean disturbed?" Tommy shot back.
"I'm going to grab a bite to eat," I said. "Either of you want to come with me?"
"I'll join you." Robbie also rose.
Tommy glanced at his wristwatch. "Charles should've been here by now. That fastidious little queen's never late."
"Does that mean you want us to wait until Charles arrives so you two can join us?" I asked.
"Sure you want to be seen?"
"I'll take my chances," I cut Tommy off.
"Charles really should be here any minute," Tommy told us. "And I'm game if he is. Let's go outside and catch him before he comes in. Then you can get a good look at the spectacle."
We walked the length of the bar, around the dance floor, and through the growing throngs of people.
"What are you in the mood to eat?" Robbie called.
"Anything but Cajun," I answered, not wanting to dwell anymore on crawfish or anything remotely related. Robbie caught my drift.
"Vietnamese?" Tommy suggested, though appeared confused at Robbie's laughter.
"Sounds good," I replied, and we pushed through the doors and into the spring evening. The air was warm but not saturated with the humidity that would claim Houston in a month or so. The sun was low and thick, its long rays the color of butter.
And then we saw the crowd on the outskirts of the parking lot, with their signs ordering repentance: GODLESS SINNERS, FREAKS, GAY USED TO MEAN HAPPY. Some people were flashing biblical quotes or making derogatory statements.
"This sickens me," I said, more to myself than anyone else.
"Ignore them," advised Robbie, then asked Tommy, "You see Charles?"
A roaring suddenly rose from the protesters. I scanned the area but at first couldn't see what caused the outburst. Then I noticed that a few of the picketers had turned their backs to the bar, and the group was slowly forming a semicircle.
"This doesn't look good, y'all," I muttered.
The shouting was growing louder.
"No, it doesn't," Robbie agreed.
"Should we?" I asked, but when I turned my attention to Robbie, he was already walking in their direction.
I followed. When his pace picked up, so did mine. By the time we hit the perimeter of the crowd we were both in a full run.
I reacted instinctively once I saw the cause of all the commotion.
Behind the zealots were four men dressed in black leather, their heads shaved to the skin. Red swastika patches were sewn to their shoulders and an animal fierceness pierced their eyes and turned their mouths into scowls. Between them a slender man was being tossed about, punched in the head, face, stomach, back, anywhere one of the crazed attackers could land a fist. By the time I pushed through the crowd and reached them, the victim was facedown, enduring vicious kicks.
Even though I was much larger than any of the four, I felt like a bull running into a pack of wild dogs as I dipped my head and drove into the two with their backs to me, knocking them off their victim and to the ground. Quickly I pushed off them and chased after a third skinhead. When he saw me coming, he backed up and raised his hands to defend himself. I took a blow on the side of my head as I grabbed his jacket, drove him back into the group of zealots, and threw him to the ground. To my dismay, my glasses flew off somewhere in the process. Robbie had tossed the fourth off and was kneeling to check the injured man. By now the first two had pulled themselves up. The shouts from the crowd faded. The skinheads and I stood, locked in a staring contest. I had no problem seeing up close. And up close the hate that emanated from their eyes was unnerving.
"It's Charles," Robbie told me, looking up from where he knelt by the victim.
"He needs an ambulance."
"No goddamn queer's going to push me around," one of the skinheads finally said, pointing a finger at me. He had dark eyebrows, pockmarked skin, and blue, blue eyes.
I saw no reason to contradict his statement; he wouldn't believe me or care, anyway. "You come any closer and I won't just shove you this time," I replied, voice calm and low. My hair had come out of its ponytail and was blowing wild in the evening breeze. With a full beard that didn't quite hide the scar on my face, I knew I could appear a formidable opponent. The "Viking look" my friend, Associate Professor Keely Cohen, called it. Sometimes the image came in handy.
I felt the skinhead I'd driven into the picketers come up behind me. Robbie was watching him closely.
Then we heard the sirens. A cavalry call couldn't have been more welcome. The skinheads glanced at each other nervously.
With surprising agility, the one who'd threatened me took a couple of skip-steps in my direction. I dipped my left shoulder and raised my fists. Robbie rose to cover my back.
But the man behind me quickly picked something off the ground and then ran back to his comrades. At the last second the first skinhead backed off.
An eerie hush had descended on the crowd. The skinhead again pointed at me, but in a slow, almost ceremonial manner, as if he were casting a spell.
"I am going to kill you," he promised.
A chill the likes of which I'd never felt before ran over me. However, I managed to respond, "You'll rot in jail, first."
"I will see you dead," he repeated. Then, as the sirens grew louder, the skinheads broke into a run like the pack of dogs that they were.
The protesters, too, were beginning to disperse.
"Don't y'all go anywhere," I shouted. "Leaving the scene of a crime is against the law. You're as guilty as this man's attackers!"
"We never touched him, mister," came a call from the group.
"Never tried to help, either," I responded angrily. "In fact, you encouraged it."
"He got what was coming to him," someone called.
"God's wrath," cried another.
"Vengeance upon evil."
"Y'all are as crazy as those neo-Nazis," I yelled.
The sirens drowned us all out and suddenly the group realized it was too late for them to leave. Police cars screeched to a stop, cutting off their escape route.
"A bunch of skinheads ran off toward the west," I hollered to one of the cars that then sped off in that general direction.
Tommy came running up. "Oh, my God," he cried, and knelt down by Charles. "Oh, God, oh, God. I ran inside to call the police," he explained. "I thought you and Neil were going to get killed. Look at him, oh, God, look at him." Tears streamed down his face and his hands shook uncontrollably as he tried to gently comfort the unconscious man.
Paramedics rushed over. Robbie helped Tommy up. I heard the leader of the protestersa stocky, balding, older man who looked vaguely familiartell the cops they had nothing to do with this.
My breathing slowed, as did my racing heart. I located my glassesamazingly intactthen stepped beside Robbie and awaited questioning from the police. My friend looked at me.
"I don't know if you're a hero or fool," he said.
"I think in order to be a hero you have to have a touch of fool in you," I replied, and tried to smile.
"You know the skinhead who was behind you?" he asked. Tommy was sobbing into Robbie's side.
"What about him?"
"I saw what he picked up." Robbie paused.
I caught the worried look in his eyes.
"It was your wallet," Robbie said.
My hand sprang to my back pocket. Empty.