Food truck vendor Darcy Burnett unwraps a murder at the San Francisco Chocolate Festival in this mystery from the author of Death of a Crabby Cook…
At this year’s chocolate festival, Darcy and her Aunt Abby hope to win the $10,000 prize in the chocolate contest with Aunt Abby’s taste sensation: the chocolate raspberry whoopee pie. A little friendly competition from Darcy’s sometime-beau Jake Miller, who plans to enter with his chocolate cream puff delight, only sweetens the deal. But things get sticky when one of the judges, Polly Montgomery, is taken out of commission—permanently.
The suspects include every contestant with reason to believe Polly wasn’t too sweet on their sweets, including Aunt Abby’s high school friend. Now Darcy must pick through an assortment of secrets to catch a killer before someone else gets a bittersweet finish.
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PRAISE FOR DEATH OF A CRABBY COOK BY PENNY PIKE
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“Darcy, did you know chocolate is a valuable energy source?” my sixtysomething aunt, Abby, asked as she handed me one of her homemade lattes. By homemade, I mean she used her instant one-cup machine, pressed a button, and voila. “I just read that one chocolate chip can give you enough energy to walk a hundred and fifty feet.”
“Great.” I took a sip of the steaming mix of milk and coffee and washed down a bite of a brownie I’d found on the counter. “I’m going to need about seven billion of them to get going this morning.” It was a good thing I’d found the leftover brownie or I would have run right out and bought a bag of chocolate chips. Just the word “chocolate” made my mouth water.
Aunt Abby settled onto the empty barstool at her kitchen counter with her special “Lunch Lady” mug, her faithful long-haired Doxie, Basil, at her feet, wagging his tail. She was already dressed for the day in a pink blouse and black slacks, covered with her “Big Yellow School Bus” apron. She wore her Clairol-colored fire-engine-red hair in the same bubble cut she’d had in high school, and her overly mascaraed eyes and blushed dimples made her look like a Kewpie doll.
She picked up the San Francisco Chocolate Festival brochure she’d been reading from. “And it says here chocolate has great health benefits,” Aunt Abby continued after adjusting her paw-print-decorated Peepers. “Chocolate helps alleviate depression; it can lower blood pressure, reduce tumors, and relieve PMS. . . .” She paused and shot a glance at me.
I frowned. “Are you hinting that I’ve been crabby the past few days?”
She raised a perfectly drawn brow. “I’m just saying, chocolate supposedly increases serotonin and endorphin levels, in case yours happen to be low.”
I knew she was referring to my recent dark mood. Ever since I was let go from the San Francisco Chronicle a couple of months ago, I’d been helping my aunt serve comfort food from her Big Yellow School Bus food truck. Her “busterant,” as she called it, was semi-permanently parked at Fort Mason, not far from her Russian Hill home. In order to make ends meet after losing my reporter’s income, I’d regularly been making Bus Driver BLTs and dishing out Teacher Tuna Casseroles. And it looked like that would continue, at least until I sold my as-yet-to-be-completed-and-future-best-selling cookbook. I planned to feature recipes from food trucks, the culinary phenomenon that had swept the country. Maybe then I could move out of my aunt’s Airstream, which was parked in her side yard, and get on with my life after Trevor the Tool, my cheating ex-boyfriend.
Unfortunately, life wasn’t progressing the way I’d planned. I was beginning to think I’d be serving Principal’s Pot Pies and Custodian’s Crab Mac ’n’ Cheese for the rest of my days. The only respite from the daily food truck workout had been my budding relationship with Jake Miller, the dreamboat from the Dream Puff truck. I’d had a crush on Jake since the first time I tasted one of his cream puffs, and we’d recently worked together to save my dear aunt from a life serving jailhouse food. We made a great team. The only trouble was, I’d been sampling so many of his creamy concoctions, the results were beginning to show around my waist.
Until recently, that was. I hadn’t had a cream puff in days; nor had I seen much of Jake. I looked away from my aunt’s probing gaze and into my coffee mug. The color of my cooling latte was no longer a creamy rich caramel but had darkened to a morose drab brown, matching my mood.
I yawned, trying to wake up, and took another sip of the latte. “Are you sure this isn’t decaf?”
Aunt Abby shook her head, absorbed in the Chocolate Festival brochure again. Her red curls bounced, then settled back into place. “Chocolate contains caffeine, you know. Maybe you should pour some chocolate syrup in that cup and throw it in the microwave.”
“I’d have to add the whole jar to get the same amount of caffeine that’s in a cup of coffee. Maybe I’ll just have another brownie.” I felt my jeans tighten at the thought.
Aunt Abby turned a page, then sat up straighter. “Did you know chocolate also contains iron, helps prevent tooth decay, and has antioxidants, which help minimize aging?” She patted her porcelain skin. The only giveaway to my aunt’s years were the tiny laugh lines around her mascaraed eyes. I wondered how much chocolate she’d consumed in her lifetime.
“Stop!” I held up a hand. “I’ve gained five pounds from eating so many of Jake’s chocolate cream puff samples, especially those Mocha Madness ones. They’re killer. No more talk about chocolate! Pretty soon I won’t be able to fit in my Big Yellow School Bus T-shirts. You’ll have to get me Extra-Big.” I put down the half-eaten brownie and sipped my coffee.
“Well, you’d better get used to being around a lot of chocolate,” Aunt Abby said, “because I have a surprise.”
“Oh?” I asked warily, peering over my coffee mug. It was too early in the morning for one of Aunt Abby’s surprises.
“I just signed us up for the Chocolate Festival competition next month!”
I set my mug down with a thunk. Coffee sloshed inside like a mini tsunami. “But your specialty is comfort foods, not chocolate.”
Aunt Abby frowned at me. “Hmph. Chocolate is the ultimate comfort food. And are you forgetting my chocolate-covered potato chips? My chocolate-peanut-butter sandwiches? My chocolate pasta? My chocolate pizza? I’ve seen you sneak plenty of those chocolate leftovers at the end of the day.” She eyed the half-eaten brownie.
She was right. In addition to her usual fare of American comfort foods, with school-themed names like “Cheerleader’s Chili,” “Coach’s Cole Slaw,” and “Science-Experiment Spaghetti,” my aunt Abby had dishes where she put her own chocolate twist on classic cuisine. Her chocolate-dipped, raspberry-iced Twinkie bites were worth the extra calories.
I loved just about everything on my aunt’s Big Yellow School Bus menu, but I wondered if her chocolate offerings were good enough for the prestigious San Francisco Chocolate Festival competition. The annual event featured locally renowned chefs competing for some hefty cash prizes and appearances on Food Network shows. It seemed out of her league.
“Don’t you think my chocolate goodies are award-winning?” Aunt Abby asked, as if reading my mind.
I cleared my throat and backtracked, worried I’d hurt her feelings. “Oh, of course they are . . . but it’s a tough competition. Remember George Brown, the guy who owned Chocolate Bliss? He took home the grand prize with his Peanut-Butter–Chocolate-Chip-Cookie-Dough Cheesecake. Which, by the way, was to die for.”
“Yes, I remember. George is an old friend. And this year he’s one of the judges. But nothing beats the creation I’ve come up with for the contest.” She smiled mysteriously. “Not even his grand-prize recipe.”
“Really? You’ve got something new planned? What is it?”
“Top secret. If I tell you, I’ll have to—”
“—I know. I know. Just give me a hint, then. Chocolate-covered snickerdoodles? Chocolate-dipped Danish? Chocolate-frosted cinnamon buns?” I teased.
She harrumphed. “Very funny. Now you’ll just have to wait and see.”
I shrugged in response to her secretiveness. “It’s going to be a lot of extra work, you know, plus the cost of ingredients and the entry fee. Are you up to it, in addition to running your busterant?”
Not to mention the fact that I didn’t have time for a lot of extra work. I had a book to write, a career to develop, a life to start over. And Jake . . .
“What extra work?” came a low voice behind me.
Basil barked in response.
“Quiet, Basil!” Dillon, Aunt Abby’s twenty-five-year-old son, shuffled into the kitchen barefoot. Tall and slim like his deceased father had been, he wore a thin, shaggy robe over his bare chest and Superman boxer shorts. His curly dark-red hair looked as if it hadn’t seen scissors, gel, or even shampoo in days, nor his face a razor.
I started when I saw his pet rat, Ratty, on his shoulder and backed away.
“Do you have to bring that thing in here?” I asked. “It’s unsanitary!”
Ignoring me, he went directly to the pantry, opened the door, and stared at the loaded shelves. “Mom, you’re out of cereal.”
“Yes, dear,” Aunt Abby said to her boomerang son. “And Darcy’s right. Ratty doesn’t belong in the kitchen. He’s upsetting Basil.”
After glaring at me, Dillon lumbered back down the hall, his rat clinging to the shoulder of his robe. Aunt Abby’s son had been “asked” to leave the university due to some suspected hacking activity and had moved home to “reconfigure” his life goals. In other words, sponge off his mom, sit on his butt, and play computer games.
At least I paid rent.
He returned moments later, rat-free. “Got any more of those chocolate whoopie pies you made last night?”
“Dillon! Those were supposed to be top secret!” Aunt Abby looked at me. “Well, Darcy, now you know my secret weapon for the chocolate competition—my newest creation: Chocolate Raspberry Whoopie Pies. But both of you need to keep quiet about this. I don’t want anyone to find out and steal my idea before the contest begins.”
“Chocolate Raspberry Whoopie Pies?” I said, stunned at her entry choice. I wasn’t even sure what a whoopie pie was.
“It’s my own recipe,” Aunt Abby said. “Instead of using regular chocolate cakey cookies, I use brownie cookies, and instead of vanilla filling, I use chocolate buttercream frosting with fresh raspberries. And then I dip the whole thing in melted chocolate and add sprinkles.”
It sounded like overkill, but when it came to chocolate, maybe there was no such thing.
“So where are they?” Dillon said, looking around helplessly.
“In the fridge,” Aunt Abby said.
Dillon opened the refrigerator door, brought out a plastic container, and set it on the counter. After withdrawing a double-decker-Oreo-sized “pie,” he stuffed the whole thing in his mouth. It wasn’t a pleasant sight.
Aunt Abby sighed. “Oh well. The secret’s out now. You’re sworn to silence, Darcy. Want to try one?” She picked up the container and brought it over to the kitchen island where I sat. Dillon followed her like a hungry puppy and plopped down on the barstool next to me, still chewing. Chocolate frosting had oozed out from the corners of his mouth.
I reached into the container and helped myself. Taking a tentative bite, I let the sweet morsel dissolve on my tongue. The flavor flooded my mouth.
Wow. Chocolate crack.
“This is incredible!” I said when I could talk again.
“Awesome, right?” Dillon agreed, then popped another one into his mouth. “You may actually have a shot at winning this thing,” I said to Aunt Abby. “What’s the prize?”
“Den fouszen dollars,” Dillon answered with his mouth full.
“Ten thousand dollars?” I repeated. I was used to translating Dillon’s food-obstructed speech. “That’s a lot of money.”
“And a chance to be on that Food Network show Chocolate Wars,” Aunt Abby added, batting her feathered eyelashes in excitement.
I knew Aunt Abby’s dream was to appear on one of the many TV cooking shows, especially The Great Food Truck Race, but it was the money that had caught my attention. I knew she could use it to make improvements in her bus. “When’s the festival?” I asked.
“In two weeks,” Aunt Abby said.
I gulped. “We’d better get to work!”
* * *
Half an hour later I was on my way to Fort Mason to help Aunt Abby prepare today’s specialties in her Big Yellow School Bus. We would soon be serving comfort food to the usual hungry patrons. I hoped to see Jake, since he’d seemed too busy the past few days to stop by or meet after work. I wanted to tell him about Aunt Abby entering the Chocolate Festival competition. At least, that was my excuse for talking to him.
As I drove down Bay Street to the Marina, I thought about the annual festival and the competition. Although I’d covered the event as a restaurant critic for the newspaper, this would be the first time I’d get to see it from the contestants’ point of view. The festival was held near Ghirardelli Square, home to one of the original chocolatiers of San Francisco. Last year twenty thousand people had paid the twenty-dollar entry fee to taste the mouthwatering wares of two dozen chocolate vendors and half a dozen contest entrants.
I’d learned from Aunt Abby that any legitimate vendor could participate in the festival and contest as long as he or she offered something chocolaty—and could make enough for hundreds of attendees. Each entry in the competition would be judged by a select panel of local experts in the chocolate industry. And while the thought of personally tasting all that chocolate had my heart singing, it was the winner’s ten-thousand-dollar check that really had me excited. Aunt Abby had promised Dillon and me each a third if her whoopie pies won.
I pulled up to the permit-only parking lot at Fort Mason in my coffee-colored VW Bug and headed for the circle of food trucks parked in an adjacent lot. The area was home to a dozen permanent vendors, including my aunt, but other trucks came and went, depending on how popular they were. There was always a long list of new trucks vying for the few nonpermanent spots. My aunt had been fortunate—her comfort-food menu was a hit with people who longed for “Mom’s home cooking.”
As I headed over, I spotted Jake outside his festive Dream Puff truck, decorated in giant-sized cream puffs. It had been too long since I’d caught more than a glimpse of him. He looked especially sexy this morning, even though he wore his usual Dream Puff T-shirt and denim jeans. A lock of his sun-streaked brown hair had fallen over his forehead, and he brushed it back with a tanned hand, causing me to quiver a little. Suddenly feeling shy, I took a deep breath for courage and walked over under the guise of telling him about Aunt Abby entering the contest. I was eager to see him, and snagging one of his Dream Puffs of the Day samples would just be the frosting on the cake. Or cream puff.
The hand-printed blackboard sign read TODAY’S SPECIAL: CHOCOLATE MOCHA MOUSSE.
OMG. Chocolate Mocha Mousse. It was all I could do to keep from drooling down the front of my Big Yellow School Bus T-shirt. Was it the thought of the cream puff, or Jake?
“Do you have anything with no calories?” I asked, coming up behind him as he filled bowls with toppings for his dreamy delights.
He whirled around and gave me that adorable, toothy grin. “Darcy!”
“Morning, Jake,” I said, unable to stifle my own smile. It was good seeing him up close again.
“It’s been a while,” he said, looking me over. “You look . . . really nice.”
“Thanks,” I said, running my fingers self-consciously through my dark brown, bobbed hair. “I haven’t seen you much lately,” I said.
I’d told myself Jake had been too busy with his food truck to do much socializing, but in truth, I was beginning to wonder if his interest in me was starting to wane. Aunt Abby’s situation had given us a reason to spend time together. But once that was over, it seemed like things had changed.
“Yeah, sorry about that, Darcy,” he said as he arranged the condiments on the outside shelf. He looked incredible in his white Dream Puff T-shirt and faded jeans. “It’s been crazy around here the past few days.”
“Oh, I know how it is. Me too. You know . . . lots of stuff going on . . .”
“Actually, I’ve been dealing with something the past couple of weeks,” he said, brushing his sun-lightened brown hair off his forehead again, “but, hey, if you’re free later tonight, how about we get a drink and catch up?”
“Sounds great,” I said, grinning at the thought of spending some alone time with him. “I’ve got some news to share.”
“Really? What’s up?”
“I’ll tell you tonight,” I said mysteriously. I just hoped Aunt Abby hadn’t blabbed her news about entering the Chocolate Festival competition already. She had a habit of oversharing everything with anyone who would listen, including details of my personal life.
“Looking forward to it,” Jake said. He reached in through the open truck window and pulled out a two-bite cream puff nestled on a paper doily. The delicate puff was filled with a mocha-colored cream, drizzled with dark chocolate, and topped with a perfect chocolate curl. “Want to try my latest?”
“Love to! Is it today’s special?”
He nodded. “Let me know what you think.”
I took a bite. The creamy mixture spread over my tongue and melted away in seconds, leaving the crunchy shell to savor. I felt a bit of the cool cream on my upper lip.
Jake leaned in, and with his fingertip, wiped away the mocha mustache I apparently wore. Then he licked the tip of his finger.
Whoa. I suddenly felt dizzy. I didn’t know which had my heart racing so fast—Jake’s dreamy cream puff or the mustache removal I’d just experienced.
I held up the remainder of the cream puff. “This is incredible,” I managed to say.
“You like it?”
“You’ve outdone yourself.”
“Great, because I just signed up for the Chocolate Festival competition, and that’s what I’m entering.”
I felt my smile waver. Oh no! Jake was entering the competition? With that killer cream puff? Suddenly my news about Aunt Abby’s whoopie-pie entry didn’t sound so exciting.
“Are you sure you like it?” Jake said, obviously noticing my reaction.
“Oh, yes . . . of course!” I said, mustering up some enthusiasm. “It’s . . . great! I’m sure you’ll do well in the competition.”
“Hope so. I don’t care about being on the TV show, but I can always use the money. The cream puff business isn’t quite as lucrative as the litigation business,” he said, referring to his former job.
“Well, it’s definitely a winner.” I pointed to Aunt Abby’s bus. “Uh, I . . . gotta go. I’m going to be late. You know what a tyrant my aunt can be. See you tonight?”
He smiled and nodded.
I turned and hustled over to my aunt’s school bus before I accidentally blurted out her news.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want Jake to win.
I just wanted us to win more.
How was I going to tell him we’d be competing against him?
As I reached the bus, something else Jake had said bothered me. It wasn’t the contest, or the fact that we hadn’t seen each other much lately. It was his comment about dealing with something lately.
Something important enough to keep him from spending time with me?
* * *
Before I started plotting his imaginary girlfriend’s demise, I stepped into the school bus, wondering how I would break the news to Aunt Abby about Jake’s entry into the competition. Not only would she be competing against some of the best chocolate chefs in the area, but now she’d be going up against her friend Jake Miller.
But instead of busily preparing today’s menu selection, my aunt was sitting on a stool, holding her cell phone. The color had left her face and she looked dazed. She had her hand on her chest, as if she might be having a heart attack.
“Aunt Abby!” I rushed over to give her some support. “Are you all right? You look like you’re about to collapse.”
Aunt Abby sighed and lowered the cell phone to the counter. She stared blankly at it.
“What is it, Aunt Abby? Are you ill? Do you want me to call a doctor?”
She shook her head. “It’s not that. I’m okay, I guess.”
“Then what is it?”
Still staring at the phone, she answered, “That was Reina Patel. . . .”
I shrugged, not recognizing the name.
“She’s the Chocolate Festival coordinator. The one who decides who’s eligible for the competition, the one who handpicks the judges, the one who’s in charge of the whole event.”
“Did something happen? Are you disqualified from competing for some reason? Because if she says you can’t participate, well, I’ll just go down there and—”
“No, no,” Aunt Abby said, cutting me off. “I’m still in the competition—”
“Good,” I said, cutting her off this time. “Because I’ve got some news—”
She held up her hand to stop me. “Reina called to tell me they’ve had a little glitch in the competition. That’s what she called it—a little glitch.”
“What kind of glitch?”
Aunt Abby sighed again. Tears welled up in her eyes. Her shoulders sank. “Apparently, they’re looking for a new judge to replace George Brown.”
“Why? Did he quit?”
“No,” she said. “George Brown is dead.”
One of the judges is dead? I blinked at the surprising news. “What happened?”
“Reina wasn’t sure,” Aunt Abby said, absently patting the phone. “Some kind of accident. She’s looking for a replacement judge so the competition can continue. . . .” She drifted off.
She was taking this news pretty hard.
“You said you knew George Brown? Were you close?”
My aunt sighed. “You could say that. I met George years ago, when we were at culinary school together in Napa. After graduation, he went on to become editor of Chocolatta, a print magazine that featured anything and everything to do with chocolate. But the rag folded, like so many do these days. And now he’s dead.” Tears welled again.
“I’m so sorry, Aunt Abby.” I rested a hand on her shoulder. I wondered if he had been more than a friend.
Aunt Abby seemed to read my mind. “George was a nice guy. Good-looking too. We dated a little while we were at the academy, but then Edward came along. We got married, and I forgot about George. I always figured George would become a pastry chef, since he loved desserts so much, but I guess he preferred tasting and writing to cooking and baking. I hadn’t thought about him for years, until I heard he’d entered the competition last year—and won.” A tear ran down her cheek. She turned away and wiped it off with the back of her hand.
So there was some history there. “Maybe we can check the Internet and see if there’s a report on the accident,” I offered, giving her a hug. Perhaps that would help with closure.
Aunt Abby said nothing, seemingly lost in her memories.
“Why did Reina call you?” I asked, thinking it odd that the woman running the festival would take the time to tell the contestants this news.
Aunt Abby shrugged and looked at the clock.
“Goodness!” she said, rising from the stool. “It’s almost showtime!” She patted her face, brushed the wrinkles out of her apron, then took down a loaf of whole wheat bread from a shelf.
“Are you okay?” I asked, surprised at this turnabout.
“I’m fine,” she said, handing me the bread. “Here, you slice this for sandwiches. I’ll shred the cheese for the chili. Where’s Dillon? That boy will be the death of me.” In an instant, she was back to her old self.
Speaking of the devil, “the boy” bounded aboard the school bus, ducking his six-foot-plus to clear the doorway. The bus rocked on its wheels.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said, grabbing an apron from the nearby hook. At least he had changed out of his robe and underwear and now wore nearly suitable clothing. If you can call torn, saggy jeans and a threadbare Radiohead T-shirt clothes. Dillon refused to be caught dead in the Big Yellow School Bus T-shirt his mother had made for all of us.
“You’re late again,” I snapped, shooting him a daggered look. I attacked the bread with a serrated knife.
“Yeah, well, I’m here now,” he snapped back. “And besides, I have a good reason.”
I rolled my eyes. “What? Was the FBI chasing you? The CIA? The NSA?”
Ever since Dillon had left the university under the computer-hacking cloud, he was convinced the government was watching his every move. When he felt especially paranoid, he dressed up in disguises and slept in the school bus instead of at home.
“Or was it the PTA this time?”
“Ha. Ha,” Dillon said, not laughing.
“Now, you two”—Aunt Abby handed Dillon a chunk of cheese and a grater—“cut it out or I’ll make both of you wash the bus tonight. Speaking of which, wash your hands, Dillon.”
“Well, if you don’t want to hear the news . . .” Dillon pouted as he went to the sink and turned on the water.
“What news, dear?” Aunt Abby asked as she began stirring a pot of her popular chili. The woman had the patience of a school cafeteria lady.
Dillon turned off the water and wiped his hands on a paper towel. “One of the Chocolate Festival judges died last night,” he announced.
We looked at Dillon. “We know,” we said in unison.
Dillon frowned. “How did you know? I just found out.”
“Reina Patel called this morning and told me,” Aunt Abby explained. “It was George Brown, an old friend of mine. She said he had some kind of accident.”
Dillon’s eyes narrowed. “You knew him?”
“A long time ago. Before I met your father.”
“Hmm,” Dillon said. Then something clicked in his warp-speed brain. “Then you don’t know what really happened to him?”
Aunt Abby stopped stirring. I stopped slicing.
“You know?” Abby asked. “Tell me!”
Dillon pulled a small notepad from the back pocket of his saggy jeans. I had a feeling this was going to be a long story. If that was the case, we were never going to be ready to open for business on time.
“Okay, so, I did some digging to find out more about the judges—you know, their likes and dislikes, stuff like that—to help us win the competition. Anyway, I went to hiddenhacker.com and a bunch of other sites and looked up each of their names, then dug a little deeper—”
“You mean you hacked into their personal information,” I said, shaking my head.
“Hey. People are careless with their passwords,” Dillon said. “It’s not my fault they’re stupid.”
“Sooo?” I said, circling my knife, meaning, “Get on with it.”
He rolled his eyes at me this time, then checked his notes. “So there are three judges, right? Simon Van Houten works for his family-owned corporation called Cote d’Ivoire Industries. At least, that’s what it says in his bio. But what it doesn’t say is that the company, owned by Van Houten Senior—Simon’s dad—owns a whole bunch of international import businesses under a bunch of fake names. Dad and son have practically cornered the market in—get this—chocolate. They have factories all over Africa, producing two-thirds of the world’s cocoa.”
“Huh,” I said. “I thought most chocolate came from Central and South America.”
“Me too,” Aunt Abby said.
Dillon shrugged. “Whatever. It sounds like they have a worldwide monopoly on wholesale chocolate production. But that’s not all. Junior and senior don’t get along all that well. Apparently, Dad is old-school conservative when it comes to business, while son is more eco-geek.”
“Interesting, but what does this have to do with the contest?”
“And what does it have to do with George?” Aunt Abby said before Dillon could answer me.
“I’m getting to him,” Dillon told his mother. “So, the second judge is Isabel Lau, right?”
Aunt Abby nodded.
“It wasn’t easy finding stuff on her,” Dillon said. He glanced at his notepad. “Seems she’s a regular judge on the dessert circuit, but I couldn’t find out much more about her. It’s like she came out of nowhere and suddenly became an expert on chocolate. No family history. No school credentials. Nothing. I did find an interview she gave in Chocolatta magazine. She claims chocolate is an aphrodisiac, and she puts chocolate on everything she eats, even salad.”
“So, she likes chocolate,” I said. “What woman doesn’t? Did you find out anything about George Brown?” I checked my watch again. If Dillon didn’t wrap up his report soon, we weren’t going to hear the punch line until after we finished serving the last customer at the end of the day.
“Dude, get this,” Dillon said. “George Brown used to be the editor of that Chocolatta magazine.”
“We know that,” I said, glancing at Aunt Abby for confirmation. “It went under.”
“Not exactly,” Dillon said. “Turns out Van Houten’s company, Cote d’Ivoire, bought the magazine, changed the name to The Magic of Chocolate, fired everybody on staff, including George, and hired all new people.”
Harsh, I thought. But it happened a lot in the magazine business, especially today, as print mags competed with e-zines. The competition was one of the reasons I’d been downsized at the newspaper.
Abby frowned. “Do you know what happened to George after he left the magazine?”
Dillon glanced at his notes. “Uh, let’s see. He opened up his own chocolate shop in Fisherman’s Wharf called The Chock’lit Shop, but it crashed and burned six months later. After that he started a gig writing an online blog he called Wicked Chocolate. Covered all the local chocolate news—reviewed chocolate shops, offered chocolate recipes, mentioned events, stuff like that.”
“This is all very interesting,” I said, “but do you have any idea what happened to him? Reina said it was some kind of accident.”
“Dude, chill. I’m getting to that. So anyway, George wrote a blog about being a judge for the chocolate competition and said he was looking forward to tasting all the chocolates, blah, blah, blah. But get this. He published that blog yesterday. And last night he was killed.”
“I thought it was an accident,” Aunt Abby said.
“It was,” Dillon said. “He was killed by a hit-and-run driver.”
“Oh my God.” Aunt Abby’s face went as white as her still-clean apron. She held the counter to steady herself. “I thought it was just an accident, like a fall or something. That poor man! What a horrible way to die. Did they find the person who did it?”
Dillon shook his head. “I checked the police records. It happened at night, and the only witness said the car was a late-model SUV, probably black.”
Aunt Abby sighed and shook her head. “I’m beginning to feel like Jessica Fletcher,” she mumbled. “Lately it seems like everywhere I go, someone gets killed.”
I knew exactly what she was referring to—the murders that had recently plagued the food truck businesses. She’d even been a suspect for one of the deaths.
“Who’s Jessica Fletcher?” Dillon asked.
“You’ve never heard of Jessica Fletcher?” I asked. “Murder, She Wrote? I think the show is still on a cable channel.”
“Before my time,” Dillon answered. “Was she a cop or something?”
I laughed. “No. She was a meddling mystery writer who kept stumbling over bodies in Cabot Cove, Maine—a quaint New England town that happens to have the highest murder rate in America. It almost became a joke that if Jessica Fletcher was in the area, there would be bodies—and most of the suspects were her relatives.”
“Sounds lame,” Dillon said.
“I loved that show!” Aunt Abby said. “She was one smart lady, and smarter than the police. I always guessed the killer right along with her, just by studying the physical evidence instead of being distracted by what the suspects said. You can’t argue with the evidence.”
“We’re getting off the subject, guys,” I said. The clock was ticking. I could hear murmurs of a line outside the shuttered bus. “If George Brown was killed by a hit-and-run driver, it was probably an unfortunate accident. I don’t think Jessica Fletcher is needed for this. It’s sad, but right now we need to hustle.”
Aunt Abby frowned and gazed into the distance. “On the other hand . . . it could have been deliberate.”
“Seriously?” I stared at her.
She shrugged, smoothed her apron, and returned to stirring the pot of chili. “It’s possible, although I don’t know why anyone would want to kill sweet old George.”
Was it possible? Nah. With all this Murder, She Wrote talk, we were being overly suspicious. George Brown’s death was a tragedy, but there was no reason to suspect it was anything other than a terrible accident. Still, I wondered what he’d written in that last blog.
Aunt Abby glanced up at the clock. “Oh, goodness. It’s time to open up.”
I moved to the window, rolled up the shutter, and saw the long line of customers.
“Wait a minute!” Dillon said. “I haven’t told you the best part. Don’t you want to know who’s replacing George Brown in the competition?”
“They already have a replacement?” I asked, glancing at Aunt Abby. “That was quick.”
“Tell me about it,” Dillon said, tapping his notepad with his fingertip.
“How did you find out?”
“I have my ways,” he said, raising a thick, squirrely eyebrow.
“Oh my God, you hacked into the festival’s computer too, didn’t you!” I said, raising both my eyebrows.
Dillon glanced around. “Shh! You never know who might be listening.”
Aunt Abby held up a just-a-minute finger to the first customer in her line. “So tell us. Who’s the new judge taking George’s place?”
He looked at his notepad. “This chick named Polly Montgomery. Ever heard of her?”
Aunt Abby shook her head.
“Uh-oh,” I said under my breath.
Aunt Abby and Dillon looked at me.
“I know her,” I said. “I mean, I know of her. She’s the food editor at the Times. But we’ve never actually met. In person.”
The truth was, Polly and I had had a couple of snippy exchanges via e-mail, when she disagreed with one of my restaurant reviews. She’d had the nerve to accuse me of making stuff up, which of course wasn’t true. I had given the restaurant an honest review. The food was tasteless, the service was lax, and the prices were high. I later learned one of Polly’s several ex-husbands owned the place.
I had a sudden thought. “Aunt Abby, did you put my name on any of the entry forms?”
“No. Just mine. Why?” Aunt Abby asked.
“No reason,” I said. No sense in worrying my aunt that Polly Montgomery might be prejudicial if she knew I was part of Aunt Abby’s team. Nor did I want to get myself kicked off the team and lose a chance at that prize money. I didn’t know if Polly had that kind of power, but it wasn’t worth taking the risk.
“What’s this Polly person like?” Aunt Abby asked me.
I glanced out the window at the restless customers and said, “I’ll tell you later—”
Dillon interrupted me and held up his notes. “She’s quite the party girl. Her name came up in all kinds of social-type articles. It’s rumored she’s hooked up with the ex-mayor, the owner of Chez Paris, and one of the news anchors on Channel 4, at least. And get this. They say she also hooked up with the former editor of Chocolatta magazine—your George Brown.”
Aunt Abby’s face lost its pink color, but instead of tearing up again, she lifted her head, put on a smile, and she shoved open the school-bus service window. “What’ll you have?”
Talk about bouncing back. What was going on behind those Kewpie-doll eyes of hers? Had her relationship with George years ago really been more than just friendship? Did she still have feelings for him? If her reaction to the news that the new judge, Polly Montgomery, had hooked up with her old flame, George Brown, was a barometer of her feelings, she was making a serious effort not to let them show.
And if the restaurant world was as interconnected as it appeared to be, the chocolate community was even more so. Just like Cabot Cove.
The theme song from Murder, She Wrote played in my head the rest of the day. I wondered if George’s death had anything to do with my earworm. Had he really died accidentally, as reported? Or was it something else, as Aunt Abby seemed to suspect?
My thoughts jumped around like popping popcorn. George’s tragic death. His sudden replacement. The uncompromised competition. And now that my nemesis, Polly Montgomery, was to be the new festival judge, was I jeopardizing my aunt’s chances of winning if Polly found out I was part of Aunt Abby’s team? The woman clearly didn’t like me or the pen I wrote with.
Maybe I should take a clue from one of Dillon’s amateur spy tricks and wear a disguise to the Chocolate Festival. Dillon had a penchant for dressing up like Inspector Clouseau, if not Inspector Gadget, anytime he felt especially paranoid. But I had a feeling I’d just look silly wearing a deerstalker cap and a London Fog trench coat to the event. What would Jessica Fletcher do?
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Death of a Crabby Cook
“With her aunt’s business—and freedom—on the line, it’s up to Darcy and Dream Puff Jake Miller, to put the brakes on a crabby—and out-of-control killer.”—Examiner.com
"The food truck angle and the mouthwatering descriptions of the truck's offerings give this one a very appealing flavor."—Booklist
“The characters are strong, likeable, and come with secrets of their own.”—King’s River Life
“Fun, fresh and different.”—Open Book Society
“A clever new series that cozy mystery readers will eat up.”—MyShelf.com
“A thoroughly enjoyable read.”—Here’s How it Happened
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was great fun. A murder, family, budding romance, and career change angst all work together very well. I love it when a heroine is not a goody goody but has nice normal evil thoughts directed towards others. (Yes you, cousin.) I have the first book in series now, Death of a Crabby Cook, and plan to read it soon.
Enjoyed every page. Have read and enjoyed previous book in this series also. A real winner. Cannot wait for the next book. Great characters, plot development and held my interest completely.
Chocolate Contest Worth Killing For One of my favorite books from last year was the first in Penny Pike’s new Food Festival Mysteries. The instant I finished it, I started counting the days until I could read Death of the Chocolate Cheater, the follow up. I’m delighted to say it was just as much fun as the original. San Francisco’s annual Chocolate Festival is coming up, and Darcy Burnett’s Aunt Abby has concocted the perfect recipe for the annual contest. Her Chocolate Raspberry Whoopie Pies are sure to be the hit of the festival. Not that the competition will be easy since several other great chefs are entering, including Jake Miller with a delicious Chocolate Mocha Mousse Cream Puff. At the gala reception the night before the festival opens, Darcy is trying to stir clear of Polly Montgomery, one of the judges. They have a rocky past, and Darcy doesn’t want it to hurt Aunt Abby’s chances. However, everyone sees Polly a when she tries to climb up on a table and makes a huge drunken scene. A little while later, she shows up again - dead. When one of Abby’s oldest friends is arrested for the crime, Darcy begins to ask questions to try to find the killer. But with the other contestants and Vic’s fellow judges all having motive, can Darcy solve the crime? This series is fun because of the characters. Darcy’s supporting crew includes her cousin, a hacker, as well as her aunt and fellow food truck owner/contestant Jake, her love interest. They don’t feel like the normal supporting players, and the chemistry the group has makes me smile. We get to know them better here, and I liked what I saw even more. The suspects are just as colorful and real. I will admit the plot started out a little slowly this time around, but it got strong quickly and got stronger as it went along. The twists were coming so fast in the final 100 pages that I had a very hard time putting it down to get back to work when my lunch hour and breaks were over. The killer was logical, yet I didn’t figure it out before Darcy did. I did feel the romantic complication didn’t add much to the story, but again, it was a very minor issue. The book will definitely leave your mouth watering for chocolate. Fortunately, the recipes for the chocolate treats that all the main characters and suspects entered in the competition are included in the back of the book. Try not to drool as you read them. It’s hard. Another thing I love about this book is the pop culture references. Aunt Abby is a huge Disney fan (as am I), and the trailer where Darcy is living is decked out in all kinds of Disney stuff. There are also references to Murder, She Wrote and other things I’ve enjoyed over the years. While not a big part of the book, they are the chocolate frosting on what is already a great book. So my complaints with this book are truly small issues. Overall, Death of a Chocolate Cheater is another page turning read with characters you can’t help but love. I’m already anxiously waiting for San Francisco’s next food festival. NOTE: I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
Anyone who knows me knows I love chocolate. So how was I going to pass up a cozy mystery that has chocolate in the title? I didn’t. Especially not when that book was the second installment of the Food Festival Mystery series! Author Penny Pike has a wonderful style of writing. Her books read as though the words flow effortlessly from her fingers. She has a great talent for penning exciting and fun mysteries. With DEATH OF A CHOCOLATE CHEATER there were times that I held my breath, and others where I literally laughed out loud. Lines like . . . I reached into the container and helped myself. Taking a tentative bite, I let the sweet morsel dissolve on my tongue. The flavor flooded my mouth. Wow. Chocolate crack. . . Seriously, I went from drooling over what protagonist, Darcy was eating, to snorting with laughter over “chocolate crack”. The characters in this series are an absolutely delightful mix of personalities. The way they interact makes you want to be part of their inner circle. I look forward to seeing them even more fleshed out in future stories. The mystery in DEATH OF A CHOCOLATE CHEATER had so many facets. Much more going on than you would expect. Ms. Pike took me on a twisting, turning thrill ride that lasted all the way to our destination . . . the exciting reveal! To paraphrase character Darcy, “Wow. Book crack.” I am officially addicted to this fantastically tasty series. Author Pike has also included half a dozen tempting recipes at the back of the book, as well as a sneak peek of book 3, DEATH OF A BAD APPLE!