Anxious to take a break from bustling San Francisco, Darcy and her Aunt Abby pack up the food truck and head for the apple festival at Apple Valley, California. Aunt Abby is sure her almond apple tarts will be a hit and Darcy wants to collect more recipes for her food truck cookbook.
But when a fellow guest at the Enchanted Apple Inn is pared-down—and the Inn’s owner ends up the prime suspect—Darcy must peel away the layers of the mystery. Because an apple a day certainly isn’t keeping the killer away...
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Other Books by Penny Pike
Excerpt from How to Host a Killer Party
“What smells so good?” I asked as I entered my aunt Abby’s home through the back door of her San Francisco Victorian. The aroma of cinnamon, sugar, and baked apples perfumed the air and made my mouth water. I inhaled deeply, trying to fill my lungs with the intoxicating fragrance.
“Abby’s Salted Caramel-Apple Tarts!” she exclaimed proudly as she lifted a tray of steaming-hot pastries out of the oven and onto the stove to cool. “It’s my latest creation. I’m using caramel in the recipe and sprinkling it with salt. I’ll let you taste one as soon as they cool down a bit. The flaky crust just melts in your mouth.”
“Yum!” I stared at the lightly browned individual tartlets, willing them to cool off faster.
“Sit,” Aunt Abby ordered. “You’ll get drool all over my tarts.”
I obeyed her command and took a stool at the island counter that occupied much of the kitchen. Basil, my aunt’s long-haired Doxie, nuzzled my red Toms.
“What prompted you to whip up something new?” I asked, petting the dog with one foot. “Your customers love the comfort foods you already serve. I hope you’re not going to replace your caramel chocolate brownies with these. That could cause a riot.”
Shortly after my aunt retired from serving cafeteria food at the local high school, she bought an old school bus, tricked it out, and turned it into a kitchen on wheels. For the past year, she’d been serving “old-school” comfort food in her Big Yellow School Bus at Fort Mason, where a dozen other food trucks gathered. Since I was between jobs, I’d been helping her out by making sandwiches, mixing up mac and cheese, and taking orders from hungry customers. Truth was, I’d recently been let go from my job as restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle and hadn’t yet finished writing my soon-to-be bestselling cookbook featuring food truck recipes. Unfortunately I wasn’t much of a cook—I was more of an eater—but I was quickly learning how to make potpies in bulk.
“No, my pretty,” my aunt said, assuming the voice of a wicked witch. “These are for something special.” And then she actually cackled.
I laughed at this silly side of my sixtyish aunt. Yes, she could be eccentric, but there was something mischievous behind those twinkling Betty Boop eyes that even her Shirley Temple dimples couldn’t hide. “What are you up to, Aunt Abby?”
She handed me a newspaper clipping and plopped down on the stool next to me.
I picked up the article and scanned the headline: ANNUAL APPLE FEST OPENING OCTOBER 1ST.
I looked at my aunt, puzzled. “What’s this about?”
“Read it!” she demanded, her smile as wide as her bright eyes.
While I skimmed the article, Aunt Abby hopped off her stool and busied herself making coffee, no doubt to wash down the caramel-apple tart I was hoping to taste soon. There was nothing special about the story—just a three-paragraph piece about a popular attraction in California’s gold country.
Nestled in the rolling Sierra foothills of El Dorado County is a wonderland of apple orchards and apple farms, apple wineries and apple breweries, just waiting to bring you a variety of sweet, tart, and tempting apple treats. The area, known as Apple Valley, stretches from Placerville to Pollock Pines, providing the perfect place for a fruitful getaway. You’ll find apple delights, from apple-cranberry cake to zucchini-apple bread, all prepared from the freshest farm ingredients.
While you’re there, be sure to sample such homemade specialties as apple crisp, apple strudel, apple bread, apple donuts, apple butter, apple cider, caramel apples, baked apples, and everyone’s favorite—all-American apple pie.
Take the scenic drive along Highway 50, or ride the shuttle, which begins at Apple Annie’s Farm and ends at Adam’s Apples, with stops along the way at the many apple orchards, food tents, and food trucks, and the A-MAZE-ing Hay Maze. Come pick your favorite apples and taste the apple treats, all fresh from farm to fork. Remember: An apple a day keeps the doctor away—as long as you buy your apples from an Apple Valley–certified grower!
The piece, included in the “What to Do and Where to Go This Fall” section of the newspaper, was written by someone calling himself Nathan “Appleseed” Chapman, a descendant of the Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman family and the organizer of the Apple Valley Festival. Although I liked apples as much as the next all-American, I’d never been to the area, about a two-hour drive northeast from San Francisco. I got my apples from the local market, and only the green ones, which I cut and dipped in peanut butter. And sometimes chocolate.
“Is this where you got the idea for your apple tarts?” I asked.
Aunt Abby set a latte down in front of me. I encircled the hot cup with my hands to cut the fall chill and bring on the warmth. Was that cinnamon I smelled wafting from the coffee?
“Not just the idea for tarts, Darcy. I’ve signed up to serve them during opening weekend at the Apple Fest in four weeks.”
“What are you talking about? Are you entering a contest or something?”
“Nope,” Aunt Abby replied. “The festival committee invited selected food trucks to join in the festivities, and I applied. Guess what? I’m taking the school bus up for the weekend! Doesn’t that sound fun?”
She turned her back before I could make a face. While a weekend in the country sounded nice, I had made reservations at the Butler and the Chef in the South of Market District for Jake’s upcoming birthday, and had my own festivities planned. Jake Miller was the Dream Puff who owned his own cream puff truck, and we’d been seeing each other for the past few months. I’d really been looking forward to spending some alone time with him. Now I assumed I’d be dragged along to help her in her school bus–turned–food truck. I sipped my coffee and watched my aunt drizzle melted caramel on the top of the tarts, then add a dash of salt. When she was finished, she scooped one of the tarts onto a small plate and brought the still-steaming treat to me.
“Seriously? You’re really going up there in the food truck?” I leaned over the apple tart and inhaled deeply.
“Doing what?” came a sleepy voice from the doorway. Dillon, Aunt Abby’s twenty-five-year-old son, stood in the entryway looking like a zombie, his dark hair sticking up porcupine style, and a two – or three-day stubble on his chin. He wore a holey Tom and Jerry T-shirt and baggy flannel pajama bottoms decorated in Minecraft images. Naturally he was barefoot, and he really needed to do something about his toenails.
“Dillon!” Aunt Abby said cheerily. “Perfect timing! You’ll have to taste my salted caramel-apple tarts.”
Dillon had a knack for showing up when his mother was baking. He had some kind of sixth sense when it came to food. He lumbered in and took the stool across from me, then eyed my tart. I pulled it back and wrapped my hands around it like a prisoner hoarding food from other convicts.
“So, what were you guys talking about? Are we going on a trip?”
Before Dillon had a chance to grab my fork out of my hand, I stabbed the tart, broke off a bite, and ate it. Since I’d moved into Aunt Abby’s RV in her side yard, Dillon and I had had a bit of cousin rivalry going. He was only four years younger than I, but he acted more like a teenager at times. It didn’t help that his mother spoiled him rotten. “Mmmmmmm,” I murmured, closing my eyes. When I opened them again, Aunt Abby and Dillon were staring at me. “Wow” was all I could add.
Aunt Abby beamed. Dillon turned and looked at her hopefully.
“Here you go, dear,” Aunt Abby said, setting a caramel-drizzled tart in front of him. “You want coffee?”
Dillon didn’t answer, too busy stuffing his mouth with the warm fruity pastry. My aunt and I looked on in awe as he wolfed it down in three large bites. “Good,” he said simply. “Can I have another?”
“No,” Aunt Abby said. “I’m taking the rest to the busterant this morning to see how the customers like them before I serve them at the Apple Fest.”
I shook my head at Aunt Abby’s made-up word, “busterant.” Since her food truck was actually a converted school bus and not a truck, she coined the term for her half bus, half restaurant.
“What fest?” Dillon said, getting up and heading for the refrigerator. He opened the door, took out the milk, and drank right from the carton.
I gagged a little.
Aunt Abby explained her plan to Dillon. Opening day of the festival was in four weeks and she hoped Dillon and I would join her and help serve her apple tarts. She must have caught my hesitant look.
“Of course, there will be some perks,” she added.
“Like what?” Dillon asked.
“I’ve booked three rooms at the Enchanted Apple Inn, a bed-and-breakfast farm, for the weekend. My old friend from cooking school owns the place, so you’ll get to see a real working apple farm.”
Dillon and I looked at each other skeptically.
“Plus,” my aunt continued, “the fest is offering apple wines and beers, a bunch of craft booths, scooter rides, a hay maze, and even a scarecrow contest! Doesn’t that sound fun?” Her dimples deepened with her widening grin.
“Dude, I don’t know,” Dillon said. “I’ve got a bunch of stuff to do on the computer, like update your Web site and maintain your Facebook and Twitter accounts. . . .”
“And I was planning to take Jake out for his birthday that weekend . . . ,” I added weakly.
“No excuses. Dillon, you can bring your computer with you. I checked with my friend Honey and she has Internet service there. And, Darcy, apparently you haven’t talked to Jake this morning?”
“I got him to sign up too!”
“Jake’s coming?” He hadn’t mentioned it when I talked to him last night.
“And so is Wes,” Aunt Abby said. “That is, if he can get the time off. Then we’ll all be up there together!”
OMG. My nemesis, Detective Wellesley Shelton, had been dating my aunt for several weeks, and I still wasn’t used to it. Most of my encounters with the very big, very intimidating detective had been interrogations about various homicides that had occurred recently. I couldn’t imagine sitting around the breakfast table making small talk with the man.
“But—” I started to argue.
She cut me off. “Plus, I’ll pay you overtime.”
Dillon wiped off the milk mustache. “I’m in.”
I sighed. I could truly use the extra money. “I guess we can celebrate Jake’s birthday there with some apple birthday cake.”
“Wonderful!” Aunt Abby said. “Now, let’s get to work!” Basil, Aunt Abby’s long-haired Doxie, barked in excitement. Maybe she thought she’d be getting some leftovers.
Ah well. So much for a romantic birthday weekend alone with Jake.
• • •
As soon as we got to Fort Mason, I ducked over to the Dream Puff truck to see Jake. We’d been spending a lot of time together, but he hadn’t mentioned he’d be going to the Apple Fest. Aunt Abby must have talked him into it early that morning.
“Morning, Darcy,” Jake called from the service window of his truck. Seconds later the door opened and I stepped up and into cream puff paradise. Jake wore his usual formfitting logo T-shirt and sexy jeans, covered by an orange-stained apron. I was tall at five feet ten, but he towered over me. The sparkle in his dark eyes when he looked at me made my heart skip a beat. He’d already prepared today’s fall special—a cream puff shaped like a pumpkin, filled with pumpkin cream, and topped with caramel sauce and a green gumdrop to simulate the stem. Not only was it adorable; I was sure it was delicious. Jake was a master of cream puff creations, and I was his go-to taster.
“So,” I said, my eyes lingering on one of the pumpkin puffs, “I hear you’re joining my aunt for the opening weekend festival at Apple Valley.”
He grinned. I melted a little. “What can I say? She has a way of wrapping me around her little manicured finger.”
“Tell me about it.” I rolled my eyes.
“She said you’ll be there too, so I plan to make a reservation at the same B and B.”
“Oh no,” I said, then added, “you can just stay with me.”
His grin widened. I melted some more.
“I’m hoping it will be a nice getaway and we’ll have some time together,” I continued. “I wouldn’t mind taking a break from city life and all its recent drama, and spending a peaceful minivacation in the quiet country. Besides, the festival is offering apple wine. I’m a sucker for fruity wines.”
“I prefer apple beer,” Jake said as he filled more cream puffs for impending customers. “Bittersweet.”
I scrunched up my nose. “I’ll stick to wine.”
“Seriously, it’s good. You’ll have to try it.”
I glanced back at the cream puff I’d been eyeing seconds before.
Jake caught my unsubtle hint and pulled out another cream puff from the refrigerator. “Here. Try one of my Praline Apple Cream Puffs and tell me what you think.”
I took a small bite and let the flavors of apple and caramel tickle my mouth, then dissolve away. “Killer,” I said.
“Glad you like it. Hope the Apple Fest attendees do too.” He offered me a napkin. “Actually the weekend sounds fun. I’ll challenge you to a race through the hay maze.”
“I was planning to celebrate your birthday at the Butler and the Chef,” I said, “but Aunt Abby made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I guess we can celebrate up there.”
“In our room at the bed-and-breakfast inn?” Jake raised an eyebrow.
“We’ll see,” I said coyly.
He laughed. “Tell you what. If I get through the hay maze first, you have to grant my every birthday wish. And if you finish first—”
“You have to do whatever I ask,” I said, cutting him off.
Jake laughed again. “Deal,” he said. “Sounds like I can’t lose either way.” He reached out a hand and we shook on it. My hand lingered in his. He pulled me forward and kissed the cream puff residue from my lips. It tasted even better than the puff itself.
There was no better way to start the day. Except maybe waking up in Jake’s arms in a cozy bed-and-breakfast in the fall countryside.
I peered out the window. “I better get back to the school bus. Looks like a line is starting to form. Time for another hectic day in the truck trenches. I hope that weekend in the country isn’t all work and no relaxation. I could really use some peace and quiet.”
“I hope it stays quiet,” Jake said as I headed for the exit.
I turned back. “What do you mean?”
He shrugged. “I went online before I signed up to see what the Apple Fest is all about.”
“Sounds like not everything in Apple Valley has been in apple pie order.”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Apparently something’s been upsetting the apple cart lately.”
“Will you quit with the apple metaphors and tell me what’s going on?”
“Well, according to the American Apple Association, some GMO companies are trying to infiltrate the industry and it’s causing quite an uproar among the farmers.”
“GMO? As in genetically modified organism?” I’d read about GMOs while working at the newspaper and knew that GMO foods were controversial.
Jake nodded. “A couple of the articles claimed GMO apples are going to cut the organic farms to the core.”
I rolled my eyes. One more apple metaphor and I was going to turn him into applesauce.
But, more important, what was my aunt Abby getting us into this time?
“Aunt Abby?” I called as I mounted the steps of the school bus. “You’ve already got a line of hungry customers.”
“I know,” Aunt Abby said, handing me a fresh yellow apron emblazoned with the Big Yellow School Bus logo. “I can’t wait to have them try my new apple treats. I just hope Dillon didn’t eat them all.” She shot a glance at Dillon, who was perched on a stool, checking his iPhone.
“I only had three,” Dillon argued absentmindedly. As usual, he was tapping out a text message. “Or maybe it was four. Or five.”
Dillon claimed he could multitask, but I thought he was just doubly distracted. He often spoke without thinking first, and his bluntness irritated me, but as Aunt Abby’s only son, he was the apple of her eye and a genius when it came to computers. I only hoped his hacking skills didn’t get him arrested one day. He’d already been in enough trouble at the university. I thought it was time he got his act together, in spite of his lack of social skills, but Aunt Abby coddled him too much. I also sensed he was unhappy I was living in his mother’s Airstream. I was sure he wanted it for himself. Still, he’d helped me on several occasions, using his computer savvy, and I owed him for that.
“The tarts aren’t that big, you know,” he continued. “I could barely taste anything until I got to the last one.”
While I shook my head, Aunt Abby smiled fondly at him. Her son could do no wrong in her eyes.
“Showtime!” Aunt Abby sang out, signaling the start of our business day. She pulled up the blinds and slid open the ordering window, ready with her pen and pad.
The next four hours went quickly with nonstop customers. We were always busier on the weekends, when more tourists were around. As usual, I was ready to collapse by the time Aunt Abby offered me a break around three o’clock.
I removed my food-streaked apron and dumped it into the hamper. “Wow, your new tarts were a hit, Aunt Abby!”
She gave her dimpled smile. “We sold out just after the lunch rush! I’ll have to double the recipe for tomorrow.”
“I’m glad they were a success. And they were perfect.”
“Oh no.” My aunt shook her head. “There’s always a way to make something better. Maybe a bit more caramel and a little less salt. Or vice versa. I’ll have to experiment tonight. But as soon as we clean up here, you two can go. I’ll see you at home, after I stop off at the market and get a few things.”
We finished doing the dishes, sanitizing the surfaces, and putting utensils away and had the bus shipshape in record time. I checked Jake’s truck as I headed for my VW Bug, but he’d already closed down for the day. Well, I’d see him soon enough. He’d invited me to dinner at his loft in SOMA, and I looked forward to whatever he was whipping up.
I left Fort Mason and drove home, thinking about the upcoming Apple Fest. As soon as I got to the Airstream that was parked on the side of Aunt Abby’s Russian Hill house—my temporary home—I cleaned up in the tiny shower and threw on black jeans, an orange V-neck sweater, and a pair of black Toms. Eager to do some research and check out the Apple Valley Web site so I could start planning the romantic part of the getaway weekend, I opened my laptop and logged on. The official Web site proved to be full of information on everything anybody would want to know about apples.
Apple Valley is a wonderland of orchards, farms, wineries, breweries, and bed-and-breakfast inns—the perfect place for an out-of-town getaway, a country picnic, or fun with the family. Come pick your own apples right from the trees or gather them from the convenient containers, then sample the apple treats freshly prepared in our kitchens. You’ll find dozens of varieties of apples to choose from, including golden delicious, Granny Smith, Pippin, pink lady, Rome Beauty, Fuji, Gala, and Mutsu, just to name a few. While you’re here, learn about the joys of apple farming, which apples are best for cooking and which are best for eating, and savor the fruits of our labor while viewing acres and acres of apple trees, as far as the eye can see.
Whoever wrote this stuff made the place sound like Apple Eden. In a good way, of course, without the serpent and all that befell from that notorious apple incident. I clicked the link to read about local bed-and-breakfast inns in the Apple Valley area, then tapped on the Enchanted Apple Inn. The more I read, the more I wanted to leave today and not wait another four weeks.
Welcome to the Enchanted Apple Inn, a luxurious country estate nestled in the sprawling Apple Valley. Come rest your bones, replenish your spirits, and revive your romance at our beautifully restored Victorian home. The rooms are lovingly decorated in an apple theme, with baskets of your favorites at your fingertips. Stop by the tranquil duck pond, stroll through the ample gardens, and sample a complimentary glass of apple wine while you take in the scenic surrounding farms and orchards.
By the time I finished reading the flowery description, I was ready to move there, permanently. Was this place a slice of apple pie heaven or what? I could probably fill my Food Truck Cookbook with nothing but apple recipes.
I clicked back to the main site to see if there was anything I’d missed. Scanning down to the bottom of the Web site, I noticed a link that read “Note.”
I tapped the link. “We are proud to grow only natural, organic, and pesticide-free fruit in Apple Valley. Do not be fooled by artificially manufactured and genetically modified apples.”
That was an odd thing to add to the promotion information. I remembered Jake had said something about a controversy among the apple growers. My reporter instincts kicked in and I typed “GMO apples” into my search engine. A number of links to genetically modified apples appeared on the screen. I clicked the one at the top and read the headline.
Eden Apple Corporation—
Are You Ready for Frankenfruit?
Wow. Jake was right. Apparently there was a worm in the apple industry. I couldn’t wait to read more. Maybe there was a story in it that could get me back at the Chron. Then again, did I really want to go back, now that I was working on a cookbook featuring food truck fare?
Who wouldn’t want a big perfect apple that doesn’t turn brown when you slice it? Sounds too good to be true, right? But that’s what’s happening in the biotech world of genetic engineering known as GMOs—and these genetically modified organisms are coming to a restaurant, fruit stand, and school cafeteria near you. Basically untested, this brave new world of apple modification is unlabeled and drenched in toxic pesticides, posing health risks we’ve not even considered. But companies like Eden Apple, one of the major GMO producers, are growing, and they’re pushing to have their Frankenfruit approved for sale to the general public. These mutants may soon take over the entire apple industry.
Well, I thought, here was scare-tactic journalism at its worst. But I had to admit, it had me at “Frankenfruit.” I couldn’t stop reading.
These newly created bad apples contain over forty pesticides that are especially toxic to children, yet some scientists say these tainted apples are “harmless.” As the pro – and anti-GMO movements argue about safety, the Eden apple has not been tested by the FDA or USDA, and may only be labeled as a GMO product in code—a five-digit number beginning with the number eight—when it lands on the shelves. Without it, consumers won’t be able to choose whether they want to buy and eat this freak of nature.
The controversy over these GMO fruits has raged for nearly a decade. But when the GMO apples appear on the shelves, the organic apples won’t stand a chance. Why? Because the GMO apple will “look” perfect.
“They’re not unsafe,” argues Reuben Gottfried, the CEO of Eden Apple Corporation. “People have been eating GMO products for decades—soybeans, corn, papaya—all genetically engineered to resist disease and increase yields. Your so-called organic apples are subject to all kinds of pests and diseases, like winter moth, codling moth, aphids, sawfly, weevil, scab, canker, brown rot—the list goes on. Thanks to science, we’ve found a way to remedy those threats and prevent acres of orchards from being destroyed.”
“The truth is, these GMO apples haven’t been studied properly,” says Adam Bramley, president of the American Apple Association. “If it’s not organic, I don’t eat it,” he states, “and neither should anyone else.”
My cell phone rang, startling me out of the engaging article. I looked at the caller ID and answered, “Hi, Jake.”
“Hey, Darcy. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye when I left, but it looked like you and your aunt were still swamped.”
“We were! With cleanup, I didn’t get out of there until nearly four. Are we still on for tonight?”
“Looking forward to it,” Jake answered. “I hope you like sushi.”
I gulped. I wasn’t a fan of raw fish. I covered by asking, “You make your own sushi?”
“Yep. I’ll teach you how to make your own rolls.” While I was impressed that he had mastered the art of sushi, I could barely make a tuna sandwich. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to learn how.
“I’ll probably turn them into cat food,” I said, not wanting to confess the truth if he’d already gone to trouble.
“You just wait. I’ll have you creating rolls almost too beautiful to eat.”
“Nothing’s too beautiful to eat,” I forced myself to say—except sushi. “See you soon.”
I hung up. I’d just have to grin and eat it, like those starving people on Survivor who had to swallow eels and bugs if they wanted to win a million dollars. If only it was for a million dollars.
Nuts! I’d forgotten to tell Jake what I’d found out online about the GMO controversy. Talking to him often distracted me from whatever I was doing or thinking. I knew he’d be interested, so I printed out a copy to take with me. If we ran out of conversation after making sushi art, at least we’d have something else to talk about. Of course, that wasn’t usually what we did when we ran out of conversation. . . .
• • •
The first time I visited Jake at his loft in the South of Market area, I was struck by how much the area seemed to change every time I went there. SOMA, once mostly industrial warehouses, factories, residential hotels, and deserted buildings, kept transforming itself thanks to a continual stream of new start-up companies looking for low rents. The run-down sprawl between the Embarcadero and Eleventh Street, Market and Townsend, was now an eclectic collection of new businesses mixed in with hot nightspots, upscale art galleries, furniture showrooms, trendy restaurants, and the ubiquitous Internet and tech companies that kept popping up.
Many of the older buildings had been retrofitted and converted into lofts and living spaces for those who shunned the typical flats and apartments in the city. The core areas—South Park, the Giants Ballpark area, the MOMA, and Folsom—were no longer referred to as the “wrong side” of the Market Street trolley tracks. Popular restaurants and shops drew locals and tourists, bohemians and business folks, artists and entrepreneurs, hipsters and geeks, gays and straights, offering funky urban charm. Here you’d find such diverse cultural offerings as the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Cartoon Museum, all within walking distance of each other.
Jake had taken me to several of the more interesting restaurants in the area over the past couple of months. My favorites were the Butler and the Chef, a French bistro with a killer croquet monsieur, the Brickhouse Café, known for its eggs Benedict, and Beard Papa’s Divine Dessert, offering hybrid pastry that is a cross between a croissant and a donut. If Jake ever decided to open up a Dream Puff outlet here, the locals would gobble it up.
I drove up to Jake’s building and parked on the street, then entered the four-story former warehouse that featured large windows on every floor. I took the elevator to the top floor and stepped into the long hallway that led to Jake’s loft. I recognized two young men who were holding hands as they passed by and we exchanged greetings before I knocked on Jake’s door.
The door opened. “You made it!” Jake said, ushering me inside. He was wearing one of his Dream Puff aprons and held a long knife in his hand.
“Planning to kill someone?” I asked, grinning, as I stepped in and slipped off my jacket. “Like Moby Dick, maybe?”
The room smelled of soy sauce and cooked rice. I glanced around the wide-open area that housed the island kitchen and the sparsely appointed living space. Posters of colorful food trucks lined the walls, an obvious nod to his passion. I stole a look upstairs at the bedroom loft and spotted his cat perched on the railing. That would be Brimstone, the Cat from Hell. Jake had found it abandoned by the previous owner and the two now had a distant but respectful relationship.
“Ready?” he asked, calling my attention back to the kitchen. He retrieved a clean apron from a cupboard and placed it over my head, then reached around me and tied it in the back. I had no choice but to kiss him.
“Are you sure you’re ready?” I asked, heading for the sink to wash my hands in preparation for handling raw fish.
“Hey, this is a piece of cake. You’re going to love making sushi.”
I took a deep breath and steeled myself for a lesson in the art of mastering fish rolls. “Bring it on. What are we going to make first? California roll? Hamachi? Spicy Tuna? Unagi? Fugu?” I’d been reading up in preparation for this.
Jake blinked. “Did you say fugu?”
I nodded. “I heard it was a rare delicacy.”
“It’s puffer fish.”
“Yeah?” I said. “So? Maybe you create a new cream puff from it.”
“I don’t think so. It contains tetrodotoxin, and it’s highly poisonous. You have to be trained and qualified to make fugu, and even then, I wouldn’t risk eating it.”
“Tetrodotoxin? Isn’t that the stuff that’s supposed to turn you into a zombie?”
“Only in old zombie movies,” Jake said, handing me a sheet of nori. I knew what that was. Dried-up seaweed. Yum. Not. “Shall we begin?”
I forced a grin and nodded. My cell phone rang just as I was about to press sticky rice onto the dried seaweed as instructed by Jake. I looked at my phone screen lying on the counter nearby to see who was calling. Aunt Abby. With one somewhat clean baby finger I pressed the answer tab, then put the phone on speaker.
“Aunt Abby? What’s up?” She rarely called me just to chitchat, so I figured it was something important.
“Sorry to bother you, Darcy, but I thought you’d want to know.”
“Know what? What’s wrong? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, dear. Perfectly fine. But I just heard from Wes.”
Detective Shelton? I was starting to get alarmed. “What did he want? Is it Dillon?”
Dillon had been kicked out of the University of California at Davis for hacking into the computers, ostensibly to show them how easy it was to break in. Unfortunately the dean called the FBI and Dillon left school in an attempt to avoid being arrested. He later explained his purpose to the feds, but he was now on the FBI’s watch list, and he was sure they, the CIA, the NSA, the UC system, and the SFPD were going to apprehend him at any minute. It was not unusual to find Dillon in one of his several disguises, dressed as a custodian, a homeless guy, a disabled vet, or other “invisible” person to keep from being identified.
“No, Dillon’s fine. He’s in his room doing something on the computer. How’s Jake?”
“Fine, Aunt Abby, but what’s this all about?”
“Oh yes. Well, Wes called. He heard some news over the police scanner about a fire.”
“Where? Near your house?”
“No, no, up in Apple Valley. In fact, it was some kind of storage building. Apparently there was a fire and a bunch of local growers lost a big supply of their apples.”
“Wow. That’s awful,” I said, still wondering why she was calling with this news.
“But the interesting thing is,” she continued, “the storage thingy belonged to the Enchanted Apple Bed-and-Breakfast Inn. That’s where we’re staying.”
“Was the inn damaged?”
“No, I just called up there and the owner, Honey Smith, said her place is fine. But she sounded quite distraught. I asked if she wanted us to find another B and B, but she insisted we still come. Is that okay with you? I thought I’d check.”
“Sure, I don’t think it’s an issue for us.”
“I’m sure it is for her, what with losing her apple crop and shed and whatnot.” She paused.
“Is there something else, Aunt Abby?” I asked.
“No, no, that’s it. Except there was another fire a few days before that—at another farm. But Wes said not to worry. Sorry I bothered you. Enjoy your evening with Jake.”
I thanked her for calling and told her I’d see her later, then hung up.
“Huh,” I said to Jake, who’d been listening to the phone call. “You heard that, right? There have been a couple of fires up there.” I thought for a moment, then asked, “So, how does an apple storage facility catch on fire? Is there anything flammable inside?”
“Not with the high levels of carbon dioxide usually used in cold storage,” Jake said. Then he looked at me and frowned. “Why? You think it was suspicious because there were two?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. But it does seem like the Apple Valley area is having its problems. Maybe there’s more going on there than meets the eye.”
He pulled me close. “Well, you’re the apple of my eye. Let’s leave the investigation to the local police and get back to carving up raw fish.”
Jake was right, I thought, as I took the knife he offered. I was probably making a mountain out of a valley. But that’s what happens when your background is journalism and someone yells, “Fire!”
After a few disastrous attempts at turning rice and fish into Wayne Thiebaud works of food art, I managed to end up with misshapen rolls that looked more like something Pablo Picasso would have made. I took a picture with my cell phone so I could send it to the “Nailed It” section of Pinterest.
Jake’s efforts, on the other hand, were suitable for his own TV show. He presented me with an amazing masterpiece that was sculpted to look like a panda bear, made from crab, shrimp, avocado, and rice with black olive accents. To my surprise, nothing was made from raw fish. He’d known all along my dislike for most sushi and stuck with the cooked stuff.
The man was incredible.
After a delicious and delightful evening, fueled by wine and filled with laughs, we headed to the upstairs loft for a little more creative fun.
The next morning I drove home early to take a shower and get ready for another day in Aunt Abby’s busterant. I asked my aunt if she’d heard anything more from Detective Shelton about the fire at the bed-and-breakfast inn—or any other fires. She relayed what the detective’s counterpart at the Apple Valley Sheriff’s Department had said: The sheriff there suspected arson.
Who, I wondered, would want to burn down a warehouse full of stored apples?
I didn’t have time to think about it during the weeks that led up to our getaway. The days were filled with school bus food and Apple Fest preparations, broken up by too few dates and dinners with Jake. We were both so busy and tired from the business of food truck service, we hardly had time to enjoy each other’s company in the hours we had leftover. My expectations for relaxation and recreation grew each day, and by the time of our departure on Thursday night, I had a bucket list of a dozen things I wanted to do with Jake while in apple country. Not all of them were about sex.