Fry Another Day (Biscuit Bowl Food Truck Series #2)

Fry Another Day (Biscuit Bowl Food Truck Series #2)

by J. J. Cook

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Overview

From the national bestselling author of the Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade Mysteries comes the second in a new series featuring Zoe Chase, a Southern food truck chef who serves justice on the side.
 
With a few loyal friends in tow—including her handsome attorney, Miguel, and her cat, Crème Brûlée—Zoe drives the Biscuit Bowl to Charlotte, North Carolina, to enter a nationally televised food truck race. The contest features challenges across the Southeast, and with a fifty-thousand-dollar grand prize, competition isn’t just fierce—it’s killer.
 
As everyone gears up for the first challenge, another food trucker from Zoe’s hometown is found dead. The race rolls on, but when the body count rises, police begin to suspect Miguel. Now Zoe must race to catch the killer before her attorney needs an attorney.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425263464
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/03/2015
Series: Biscuit Bowl Food Truck Series , #2
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 310,095
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

J. J. Cook is a pseudonym for a married couple who writes mysteries, mostly set in the South, with a touch of paranormal and romance. The Biscuit Bowl Food Truck series includes Death on Eat Street and Fry Another Day.

Read an Excerpt

ONE

“Can you really make a biscuit out of sweet potatoes, Zoe?” Delia asked.

“I’m not sure,” I replied. “I guess we’ll find out.”

It was four A.M. on the downtown streets of Charlotte, North Carolina. It was dark and quiet in the city. A line of food trucks with names like Stick It Here, Meggie’s Mushrooms, and my food truck—the Biscuit Bowl—were in place as though they were waiting for the lunch crowd.

Only extra early.

It was the first morning of the Sweet Magnolia Food Truck Race. Ten food trucks from across the Southeast United States were competing for a fifty-thousand-dollar grand prize. Even if I didn’t win the cash, the race was being shown on national food networks, which would be good publicity for the Biscuit Bowl.

How great was that?

The organizers had made it clear the day before the race started that there would be plenty of challenges, and even a few tricks, along the five stops beginning in Charlotte and ending in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama.

They weren’t kidding.

We’d spent the night in Charlotte to be up early the first morning. Lucky for me, the race sponsors were footing the bill for the hotel and food. There was big money involved from businesses across the South, and for the charities that would receive donations from the race. The promotion was getting lots of media attention. I was happy to be part of it.

I hadn’t been sure if my old Airstream RV, which had been converted to a food truck, was up for the long drive, but it came through like a champ. Lucky I had Uncle Saul with me to work on it as needed.

The challenge for today had been announced the night before once all the food truck teams were in Charlotte. We were starting off with each food truck making their specialty item with sweet potatoes replacing one ingredient. Once the item was made, we had to sell at least one hundred of them in the heart of the city, and get twenty people to say they were delicious.

I hoped my team was ready.

“Yeah, you can make ’em,” Ollie said. “But what are they gonna taste like?”

“They’re going to be great!” I enthused to make up for my team’s lack of excitement. “You’ll see. Get the flour.”

My specialty was the biscuit bowl. A delicious, large biscuit made with an indentation in the middle, and deep-fried. My truck was named for it. My hopes and dreams were pinned on it.

I made my biscuit bowls fresh every day, filling the centers with either sweet or savory foods. It could be anything from chili to spicy apples. I tried to mix it up as much as possible.

Someday, I hoped to own a restaurant that brought people in from all over the world. I had the restaurant—well, a diner—but it needed about fifty thousand dollars’ worth of renovation to bring it up to code.

That’s why I’d started my food truck business. It was also a good reason to enter the food truck race.

“So you’re gonna use the sweet potatoes with the flour, egg, and milk to make the biscuits?” Uncle Saul was struggling to understand what he’d come to call food truck madness.

His frequent rant was: I owned a restaurant for years in Mobile. I had a standard menu. Customers ordered from it. I never went through crazy changes and looked for new kinds of food to make each day.

I knew that to keep food truck customers—my customers—coming back each day, I had to have a good mix of old and new foods. If I didn’t, they’d go somewhere else. There was a big jump in competition between when Uncle Saul had his restaurant and now.

“That’s right.” I pushed a curl out of my face. It had escaped the scarf I’d used to keep my curly black hair down. “My problem isn’t using the sweet potatoes. It’s baking one hundred biscuit bowls in this little oven.”

Normally, I would’ve baked my biscuits at home in the diner where I lived. I tried not to spread that information around too much. It wasn’t really legal to live in the diner. But I had to give up my apartment to afford the other payments.

You have to do what you have to do to find your dream, right?

I got up five mornings every week and made biscuits. I waited to deep-fry them in the Biscuit Bowl truck as I received orders for them. That way, they were as fresh as they could be when my customers ate them.

It wasn’t an easy process, but it had worked for me. I was on the radar now. That meant a few food truck websites monitored where my truck was located each day, and a local radio station announced what my menu was. I had fans who followed me—at least thirty of them, by my last count.

For the race, however, the judges required that everything had to be done in the food truck. I had to purchase a small camping oven for the task. We’d tried it out a few times at home. It had worked fine—as long as there were no other electric appliances running in the truck.

You see my dilemma.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to take to bake so many biscuits,” I explained. “It takes twenty minutes to warm up the deep fryer. We only have two hours before we start selling.”

“It’s gonna be fine.” Uncle Saul grinned. His wild, curly black hair was like mine, but streaked with gray. He lived with an albino alligator named Alabaster in the swamp outside Mobile in a log cabin he’d built. He seemed to like it that way.

“That’s why I brought you along.” I mixed the orange biscuit dough. “You’re the best cheerleader I have. And I appreciate you offering to leave the swamp for a few days. I know you hate being away.”

He shrugged his bony shoulders. “I’d pretty much do anything for you, Zoe girl. Leaving Alabaster isn’t easy, since she likes to sneak into the neighbor’s chicken coop for a few free snacks. But I think Bonnie will keep a good eye on her.”

“How’s it going with Bonnie?” I asked about the wildlife officer who was sweet on him.

He grinned. “Don’t worry about my personal affairs. I think you’ve got enough of your own to mind!”

“What about me?” Ollie towered above us in the food truck. He was a big man, an ex-marine, six-foot-six with a skull tattoo on the back of his bald head and neck. “Don’t I count as a cheerleader? I think I’m always cheerful.”

“Cheerful as a rock.” Delia laughed at him. “If I had to get up every morning with you as my alarm clock, Ollie, I’d probably go jump in Mobile Bay.”

Delia Vann had lost her job as a cocktail waitress in a sleazy dive back home. She’d been working with me in the food truck ever since. Not a big step up, but at least I respected and envied her.

She was as beautiful as any model or actress you see on TV—tall and thin, long legs, and gorgeous hair. I was short and on the plump side. Too much good food, I guess. It was hard not to taste when I cooked.

Ollie frowned. He had a secret crush on Delia and was trying to work out the details. The movement affected his whole face from forehead to chin. “I don’t know why you’d say that. I work well with others and maintain my cool. What more is there?”

I saw him ogling Delia’s long legs, now in tiny white shorts. Her cocoa-colored skin was flawless. The summer had put highlights into her long, dark hair.

Delia also had a way of handling things—mostly men—that I admired. She was so confident and poised. I was like Ollie—still trying to figure out the opposite sex.

I thought I knew what there was to know about relationships until I broke up with my boyfriend. I’d thought Tommy Lee and I were made for each other. Then I found out he was seeing someone else. It had dented my confidence a lot. If I couldn’t figure out Tommy Lee, who could I figure out?

“There’s a lot more to life, Ollie.” Delia smiled as she took the tray out of the small oven for me. “Sometimes I think customers run away because they’re scared when they see you.”

I knew Ollie might be big and tough-looking, but he had a soft heart. Delia’s words had to hurt. I felt bad for him.

Ollie had been homeless and living at the shelter a few doors down from the diner when I’d bought it. He’d led me to the diner accidentally after helping me and Uncle Saul fix up the Biscuit Bowl.

We’d clicked right away, and he’d stood faithfully by me after I got started. He was still homeless and living at the shelter. He seemed to like it that way.

I thought that could be a drawback for him with Delia. She knew a few wealthy men from the cocktail lounge and frequently dated them. I knew she didn’t want to work in my food truck and sleep on a cot in the diner the rest of her life. I didn’t blame her.

I had to keep everyone working together for the next five days while we almost lived together during the race. I couldn’t let Delia hurt Ollie in case they had a future together. I had to keep Uncle Saul from becoming too depressed about the absurdity of the food truck world.

Hey! I was born for this. I was going to win that fifty thousand dollars—or die trying. The back door to the food truck opened. It was my sometimes attorney, Miguel Alexander. He was taller than me, but that wasn’t hard since I was only five-foot-two and three-quarters. He was darkly handsome, a little sad, and had a wonderful, sexy voice that I could listen to all night.

I’d somehow managed to talk him into coming along for the race. I wasn’t sure exactly why he’d agreed to be there. He’d helped me out of a jam once when I was getting started with my business. I still saw him from time to time. But food trucks really weren’t his thing.

I hoped he was there for the same reason that I’d asked him to come—that there was something more between us. He could be aloof at times, and I didn’t really know him well. He was older, worldlier than me. I knew he’d had personal problems in the past.

None of those things would have bothered me if I hadn’t been already smarting from my boyfriend’s betrayal. Sometimes I knew Miguel and I were meant to be together. Some days I thought the only thing I knew was biscuits.

But I’d been patient and cool. I was ready for the next step in our relationship—a real date. Just the two of us. Someplace nice.

“How’s it going in here?” Miguel asked. “Alex Pardini, the host of the food truck show, is interviewing at the truck back from here. He should be by anytime now.”

“It would be better if they’d given us bacon to work with instead of sweet potatoes.” Uncle Saul scowled as he monitored the biscuits that were in the little oven.

“You think you’ve got it bad, Pizza Papa has to use them for topping.” Miguel chuckled. “The Dog House either has to put sweet potatoes in the buns instead of sausages—or he has to put the sausages into the sweet potatoes.”

“Thanks for the heads-up.” I took a moment to smile at him, hoping there wasn’t flour on my face. I could feel our gazes meet and cling. At least I thought I could. I hoped I could.

I’d convinced Miguel to come along as our “outrider.” Every food truck team could have one outrider with another vehicle. That person could pick up supplies or do other odd jobs along the way.

“Do you need anything?” he asked.

“No. I think we’re fine for right now. Thanks, Miguel.”

“I hope everything is ready for the interview. I’ll be outside if you need me.”

“All right. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” he called out before he left the back of the crowded food truck.

“Hats on,” I told my team.

“Oh, Zoe,” Ollie complained. “Do we have to?”

“Chef Art gave us a five-thousand-dollar stake so we could participate in the food truck race. We’re promoting for him, and for ourselves. Put the hat on.”

“You know, I got this tattoo for a reason,” he continued to grumble. “I don’t want hair or a hat to mess with.”

“At least you don’t have my curly hair that you have to try and stuff under the hat. I had to wear this scarf to hold it down long enough to even try and put the hat on.”

The hats were oversized white chef’s hats with Chef Art Arrington’s name, face, and logo printed on them. They were almost too big to fit in the food truck at one time, with us and all the equipment jammed inside.

The oven chimed and Delia took out the first ten biscuits. “They look good.”

“We have to try one,” Uncle Saul said. “How are we gonna know what they taste like if we don’t?”

I knew he was right. I hated to lose even one biscuit when we were trying to make a hundred. I usually didn’t make that many for breakfast and lunch together on a busy Monday morning at home.

“Okay. Do it. I need some lipstick to talk to Alex Pardini. Delia, you saw the way I mixed that batch. Can you start another one? Ollie, get the next batch in the oven, please.”

My lipstick was fresh and my team was humming when the TV host came to visit. He only peeked in for a moment before he disappeared and his assistant took his place.

“Alex only has five minutes for your pre-race interview.” He looked at his clipboard. “Joey. You’ll have to answer his questions as quickly and thoughtfully as you can. Don’t forget to pour on the charm. Be as cute as possible, but don’t look right at the camera. Got it?”

“That’s Zoe,” I corrected, but he was already gone. Hopefully Alex wouldn’t make the same mistake.

I looked into the tiny mirror I’d put up near the door. A little racy red lipstick helped with my already pink face. There wasn’t time for eye makeup. Lucky for me, my eyelashes were naturally dark.

“All right. I’m going out there. If I’m not back in five minutes, someone come and get me.”

TWO

Alex Pardini’s assistants had set up a little café table for two with an umbrella that boasted his network’s affiliation.

I usually had a few small tables and chairs with me when I went out each morning. They were for my customers when I had to park where there weren’t places to sit. I think people liked it when you gave them some extra consideration.

I’d had to leave them at home for the race. No furniture outside the food truck. There was a whole book of rules to follow. I had to keep reminding myself—fifty thousand dollars.

“Come on over and let’s get started,” Alex invited. He was a photogenic thirtyish man with thick blond hair and remarkable blue eyes. I’d noticed, watching him on TV, that he always wore blue to emphasize them.

“I’m Alex.” He shook my hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Joey.”

I smiled. The names did sound a lot alike. Just think how many names he had to remember, bless his heart.

“My name is Zoe Chase. Thanks for having me here.” I sat down in the chair opposite him and crossed my legs.

“Fair enough, Zoe.” He grinned; another man who realized how handsome he was. “Let’s talk about your life as a food truck vendor, shall we?”

Before a word could come out of my mouth, my sponsor, Chef Art Arrington, came around the corner of the Biscuit Bowl.

His assistant, Lacie, a nervous little woman with huge glasses who wore her skirts too short, managed to make it to the table right before he did. She quickly put out a chair for him.

“All right! I love interviews, don’t you?” Chef Art was famous in Mobile. He was like Colonel Sanders and Papa John rolled into one short, round body and white linen suit. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

“I’m sorry,” Alex said. “I wasn’t expecting a sponsor.”

“That’s quite all right, my boy. No harm done.”

“I mean, this interview is supposed to be between me and the vendor.”

“Not a problem. I’ll sit back here and take it all in. Zoe, you give the man the answers he needs now, you hear?”

Chef Art had always been a larger-than-life figure in my hometown. He lived on an old estate called Woodlands outside Mobile where he entertained famous people from across the world in his mansion.

His wreath of white hair, bright blue eyes, and closely clipped gray beard were well known throughout the South. He’d once owned a famous restaurant back home. It was so famous that investors had asked him to open another one just like it in New York City.

That one had failed, but it hadn’t tarnished his legend. Everyone knew him and admired him. Someday, I wanted to be just like him—except for the beard and the linen suit.

“Okay.” Alex nodded to the cameraman who was to my left. “Let’s get started.”

There were several adjustments that had to be made because the light wasn’t good for Alex. I tried to wait patiently.

The street behind us was starting to pick up traffic. I glanced at my watch. It was five A.M. If he was going to talk to me, he’d better do it. I wasn’t losing the first challenge because my interview ran late. Staying on time was one of the rules.

“Zoe, how did you get started with your food truck?” Alex asked—finally.

“Well, Alex, I really wanted my own restaurant, but I couldn’t afford to open one. I started the Biscuit Bowl for an investment in my future, and because I wanted to cook for people.”

Chef Art cleared his throat. “She’s my protégé, you know. I’m very proud of her.”

Alex glared at him but continued the interview. “Tell us what a biscuit bowl is, Zoe.”

I described, in detail, what a biscuit bowl was and what I could do with it. My speech should’ve been perfect—I’d been practicing for a week.

It went off without a hitch.

“That sounds really good,” Alex encouraged me. “I’d like to have one, and I’m sure our audience at home would like to see me eat one.”

Eat one? Take another biscuit out of my stash as we struggled to reach one hundred biscuits for the challenge?

It was the opportunity of a lifetime. What else could I do?

Delia had been watching from the open doorway. She removed her chef’s hat so her long, silky dark hair fluttered around her shoulders in the early morning breeze.

“Here you are, Alex.” She handed him a biscuit bowl, bending over to show a little cleavage.

The camera zoomed in that way because it was close to the biscuit, of course.

“Thanks.” He couldn’t take his eyes off her. The biscuit, orange with sweet potato in it, was in his hand. It stayed there for a full minute as he smiled at her.

The cameraman cleared his throat. Chef Art chuckled.

“Let’s take a big bite.” Alex studied the filling. “What’s inside of here, Zoe?”

I couldn’t think for a minute. What are we filling the biscuits with today?

Delia, now off camera, made a circle around her face with her hands and puffed out her cheeks.

“Apples. Spiced apples,” I said as she nodded. Smart girl.

“Here we go.” Alex took a big bite.

The biscuit bowl stayed together, one of my fears about adding sweet potato to it. He chewed and swallowed. He was looking at Delia. She blew him a kiss, but his words of praise were for my biscuit bowl. “Deelish!”

It was Alex’s favorite way to express how much he liked a food when he ate it. I’d watched him say it on food TV for a year.

Chef Art was beaming. The interview was over. I was quickly shuttled away from the table and chairs so they could be moved to the next food truck.

Alex thanked me—and asked for Delia’s cell phone number.

“I’ll tell her you’re interested.”

He was okay with that and gave me his card. “Talk to you later, Zoe. Good job!”

I went back inside my food truck and gave Delia his card.

“You sounded great,” she said. “I think he really liked the biscuit bowl.”

“And the woman who brought it out to him.” I grinned. “Thanks for rescuing me during my brain glitch.”

“That was my idea,” Uncle Saul said. “Ain’t nothin’ better than good food and a pretty woman.”

“How do we stand on our biscuit count?”

“We’re halfway there.” Ollie yanked another tray of biscuits out of the oven.

“Great! Let’s make sure all the fillings are ready. We need to be able to hit the ground running at six.”

Uncle Saul stroked his jaw. “You know, I was thinking—two of us can sell while two of us stay here and keep making food.”

“We could do that. There’s nothing in the rules against it. Great idea! I don’t know what to say about the filling. I’d planned for hot fillings, but we can’t run the microwave and the oven at the same time.”

“We could start with cold,” Ollie added. “We’ve got apple and raisin filling that won’t have to be warmed. They didn’t say what had to go inside, right? Then we can move into the cheese and bacon filling.”

“Absolutely.” I smiled at my team. “You’re the best!”

Chef Art joined us, the Airstream leaning a little lower with all five of us inside. “You did good out there, Zoe. Sounded like a pro. Make me proud this morning.” He reached toward the pile of biscuits on the side shelf. “I’d like to have one of these.”

“Get in line at six.” Ollie slapped his hand.

Chef Art didn’t look too pleased about that. “I oughta—”

I rushed in to keep that drama from happening. “We need one hundred biscuits. We’re working really hard to get that right now. Every biscuit counts.”

“What’s the problem?” He shot an angry glance at Ollie but let it go.

I explained the situation to him. He offered to bake some of the biscuits in his RV, which was double the size of mine and had a huge kitchen in it. It was a nice idea, but we’d lose if we did it. “The rules say that all the food has to be made in the food truck.”

“Crazy rules.” He shook his head. “Where’s Delia’s hat?”

“She’ll put it back on.”

“Too bad she wasn’t wearing it on camera. The audience would’ve gone wild.”

When he was gone, Ollie laughed. “What’s he talking about? The audience wanted to see Delia. They didn’t care what she was wearing.”

Delia smiled at him as she adjusted her chef’s hat on her head again. “You always say the nicest things.”

Ollie frowned. “You know what I mean. You’d look good if you were wearing a hat or not.”

Uncle Saul laughed as he put in a new tray of biscuits.

I was about to rein in the banter before I lost Ollie and Delia when I heard a loud howling sound from the passenger seat at the front of the food truck.

Crème Brûlée!

I ran past everyone and outside to the passenger side door. Before getting the Biscuit Bowl set up for the race, I could walk between the driving and cooking areas. Because we had to add extra items, like the oven, and modify the back area to hold four people, the spot was closed now.

“I’m so sorry I forgot about you,” I said to my very large white-and-tabby-colored Persian cat. He was lying on his back with his large paws up in the air. “I know. You’re hungry. Let’s come outside for a few minutes.”

I strapped him into his harness—no mean feat since he kept rolling back and forth on the seat and batting at me with his paws.

“You know, you didn’t want to stay with my mother. This is what happens when you go on an extended road trip. You have to get out of the RV and walk around a little in the soft grass and go potty.”

It took both arms to carefully lift him out of the seat and put him in a nice patch of grass next to the Biscuit Bowl.

He’d given me grief all the way up here from Mobile, wanting his familiar litter box. So far, no accidents on the seat. I was hoping that wouldn’t change.

I couldn’t really walk him to the grassy spot. He hated the harness and started meowing loudly and chewing on it. It was hard to imagine that he could bend his big body enough to reach the material with his mouth, but he could.

I was pretty sure there were lots of things he pretended he couldn’t do so that I’d do them for him. He was devious that way.

I set him down in the grass and waited, holding his harness. I was worried that he might sneak off and get lost. Crème Brûlée never ran anywhere—I was safe from that problem.

He looked up at me from the grass and sweetly meowed.

He was so cute! But I had to be tough with him. “Just get it over with already. Then you can go back inside and eat your breakfast. Don’t be so stubborn.”

I heard shouting from inside the food truck parked in front of ours. Something slammed on the floor and broke. I grabbed Crème Brûlée, hoping he was done with his private business, and walked up to the Dog House.

The Dog House was the only other food truck from Mobile that had made the cut for the race. I thought it was probably the cuteness of the truck, which was made to actually look like a dog, with a face on the front and a tail sticking out the back. Ingenious.

I knew the owner, Reggie Johnson. He wasn’t so cute. He was greasy with a lank ponytail sticking out of the back end of his baseball cap. He had bad acne scars, most of his teeth were missing, and his nose was twisted like he’d broken it a dozen times.

He wasn’t a very nice person, either. There were several times back home that he’d zoomed in and cut me off for a prime location at the police station or down by the docks where the tourists disembarked from the cruise ships.

He’d come into the Biscuit Bowl a few times and stood around telling me nasty jokes while he stared at my butt. Altogether not my kind of person. I wasn’t exactly thrilled when he was announced as a contestant for the race.

The two male voices in the trailer were still arguing. As crazy as it seemed, it sounded like Reggie and Alex Pardini. I knocked on the back door. “Everything okay in there?”

Reggie pushed open the door a crack, not enough for me to see inside. “What do you want?”

“I was just checking on you.” I smiled. “Anything wrong?”

“Mind your own business, Zoe Chase. I’m getting ready for the race.” Reggie slammed the door closed again.

I didn’t see Alex, but it had certainly sounded like him.

“Well, at least he’s okay,” I said to Crème Brûlée as we walked away. “I wonder what he and Alex were arguing about.”

I walked back to the Biscuit Bowl and put Crème Brûlée in the passenger seat of the truck again. “Try to be good,” I coaxed. “This is only the beginning of the race.”

“How’s he doing?” Miguel asked, startling me.

“He’s fine.” I smiled back. “Just a little homesick, I think.”

He shrugged. “Me, too. I haven’t left Mobile in a long time.”

“Me, either.” I stroked Crème Brûlée’s head. “I know how he feels. I’m always more comfortable at home.”

“Me, too.” Miguel smiled. “I’m sure you’re going to do well during this race.”

I really loved his smile.

“Thanks. I’m happy you could be here to help. I really appreciate you taking the time to come with us—to come with me.”

“No problem. It sounded like fun.”

I turned away with a sigh. We never seemed to get any further than polite Q & A like this. It seemed as though one of us should’ve been willing to step up and kiss the other person senseless.

Just not me.

There was a loud shout from inside the Biscuit Bowl.

Now what?

THREE

I joined my team in the cooking area. They were still making biscuits. The pile was steadily growing. What a team!

Miguel had to stand outside since the kitchen was so small. I wished it could be different, but the area wasn’t meant to hold so many people and cooking supplies.

“I’ll just wait out here until we’re ready to get started,” he said.

I hoped he didn’t feel like I was pushing him out of the way. I silently cursed my ex-boyfriend for making me doubt myself like this and took a deep breath to calm my frazzled nerves.

Maybe being part of a food truck race wasn’t the best time to explore my relationship with Miguel. It had seemed like a good idea when I’d asked him to come. We’d be in different places with different ideas. Different things, like romance, would just happen naturally.

It’s going to be all right. Miguel likes you.

We just had a few details to work out. And trying to win this race was as good a time as any to figure it all out.

Ollie was nursing his hand like a hurt bear. “I burned myself taking the biscuits out of the oven.”

“He’s making such a fuss.” Delia brought out the tube of aloe I always kept in the kitchen. “It’s hardly anything.”

“To you!” He wouldn’t let her see his hand.

“Big baby!” She pulled his hand toward her and slathered on the aloe. “There. Doesn’t that feel better?”

“Thanks.” He sniffed—with a wink at me over her head.

He was enjoying it!

“What’s happening out there?” Uncle Saul asked. “Was that Crème Brûlée?”

“Yes, but something else, too.” I told him about Reggie and Alex. “Reggie’s always in a bad mood. I wonder who he got to sponsor him anyway. I’m surprised at him arguing with Alex, though. We’re a long way from Mobile to lose so soon and have to go home.”

“It would probably take more than that to send him home,” Ollie said. “I watch programs like this on TV all the time. People like Reggie always make it through. It’s the nice ones who have to worry. Like you, Zoe.”

“What were they arguing about?” Uncle Saul mixed a new batch of biscuit batter with mashed sweet potato.

“I’m not sure. I couldn’t tell what they were saying.” I tasted some of the apple raisin filling. “This is good. Let’s spice it up some.”

Uncle Saul glanced into the bowl. “Sounds good. Between us, Zoe, we have a good sense of these things.”

“Seems odd for the host of the food truck race to be arguing with anyone behind closed doors. If he’s doing it for ratings, he’d want everyone to see it, right?” Delia was still holding Ollie’s hand. She suddenly realized and put it down.

Ollie grinned.

I ignored them so I could concentrate on the forms we were going to have people fill out after they ate our food. “I think one of us will have to approach people about their opinions. We’ll have two selling the biscuits. That leaves two in the kitchen.”

“That might be a good job for Miguel,” Ollie said. “He’s awesome at talking people into things. If he wasn’t, I might be in jail right now.”

“Ollie might be right.” Uncle Saul ignored Ollie’s assessment of his life. “Would that fit his definition in the rules as an outrider?”

I scanned the rule book. “It looks like he can do anything I need him to do except cook. He’s kind of like a joker in a deck of cards.”

“Good comparison.” Uncle Saul smiled. “Why don’t you go out there and ask him what he thinks about getting opinions?”

Uncle Saul knew my devious plan to go back home with a different kind of relationship between me and Miguel.

“I’ll do that.” I glanced around the kitchen. “It looks like we’re ready to go at six. Thanks for all the hard work. Everybody take a break.”

I went back outside into the cool morning air. I knew it wouldn’t last for long. It was summer in the South, which meant hot weather. I was grateful that my food truck had air-conditioning as long as the portable generator was working. Not all food trucks were so lucky.

I found Miguel sitting on a bench near the Biscuit Bowl and sat beside him. There was a small magnolia tree hanging over us. I thought it was a very romantic place to talk. I wished I had something to say to him that didn’t involve what I wanted him to do for the food truck race.

“Everything ready?” he asked.

“I think so. The oven worked better than I thought it would.”

“Good.” He smiled and nodded.

Seriously? I was thirty years old and this was the best I could do? It was like I couldn’t get my tongue to say what I was thinking.

“I—uh—need you to get people to fill out these little forms on whether or not they like the food.” I showed him, deliberately leaning closer to him.

“I can do that.” He took the forms and scanned them. “I do this after you sell the food?”

“Yes.”

“No problem.”

“Thanks.” I sighed. Now what?

“Zoe?” He looked down into my face.

“Yes?” My heart was beating fast.

There was another loud noise from the Dog House. It wasn’t arguing this time—more like a dull thud followed by a loud groan.

“That didn’t sound good.” Miguel got to his feet. “I’ll check it out.”

“I’ll come with you.”

Whatever he’d been about to say was lost as we walked to the back door of the Dog House. Leave it to Reggie to ruin my perfect moment with Miguel.

Miguel knocked on the back door. There was no response. He pounded, and I called Reggie’s name. Still no response.

“Is there a problem, sir?” a burly Charlotte police officer asked. “Ma’am?”

“We’re from the other food truck.” I pointed behind us. “We heard a strange noise up here and were worried about our friend, Reggie. This is his trailer. We’re both from Mobile.”

I wasn’t really worried about Reggie. I was talking nervously because I was wondering what Miguel was thinking and feeling. Had he planned to kiss me before this happened?

The faster we got through this, the sooner Miguel and I could sit on the bench and talk again. Or kiss.

The officer frowned at my words, but he took our concerns seriously. “Step aside, please. Let me handle this.”

Reggie had a pickup truck hauling the Dog House behind it. There was no access between the two vehicles. The side window on the trailer, where Reggie sold hot dogs and sausages, was closed and locked. It would probably break if the officer forced it open.

Miguel and I followed him as he circled the truck and around the other side of the trailer. The only logical way into the cooking area was to open the back door as Reggie had done earlier to yell at me.

By this time, another officer had joined us. The two officers discussed the situation for a moment as they tried to decide what to do. There was no way to be sure it was an emergency. We didn’t even know for sure that Reggie was inside the trailer. One of the officers called in the problem while the other decided to use a crowbar to open the back door.

Alex Pardini had seen the commotion and had brought his cameraman with him to investigate. “What’s going on, officers?”

“We’re not sure, sir. Step back, please.”

“We heard a bad sound inside.” I filled Alex in on why Miguel and I were there.

“What kind of sound, Zoe?” Alex wondered.

“I’m not sure.”

He conversed with the officers as they worked. “What are you hoping to uncover here? What do you think happened? Should our other drivers be worried?”

The officers stared at him like he was crazy.

The camera was taping everything when the officers finally managed to pry open the door to the Dog House. It splintered away from the side wall. Reggie wasn’t going to be able to use it again.

But it didn’t matter.

Reggie was on the floor with a refrigerator on his chest. It looked as though he might not need a door, or a food truck, ever again.

FOUR

“Is he dead?” Alex asked with a look of revulsion on his handsome face that wouldn’t have been good for his ratings. “I mean, seriously, someone should call an ambulance in case he’s still alive.”

The two officers assured him that they had already called for medics and an ambulance. They asked us to move away from the trailer again.

Everyone affiliated with the race was suddenly there with us, pressing closer to find out what had happened. There were murmurs of disbelief and horror that one of the food truck drivers had been seriously injured or killed—and a few unsportsmanlike comments about there being one less competitor for the fifty thousand dollars.

Miguel stayed there to hear what he could about Reggie’s condition. I went to the back of the Biscuit Bowl to tell everyone inside what had happened. My team had remained hard at work despite what was happening outside. I could hear the sound of sirens as other police cars and the ambulance arrived.

“That poor man,” Delia said after I’d told her. “Is he going to be okay?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t tell.” I shivered, thinking about the look on Reggie’s face. “I hope so. I think the strap broke that was holding his refrigerator in place.” I felt guilty after I’d thought such terrible things about him. I was going to feel really bad if he was seriously hurt—or the other.

“Accidents happen in the food industry just like any other,” Uncle Saul added.

“It seems strange that I was just over there talking to him. Well, he was yelling at me, like always, but still.”

“You mean when you heard him arguing with Alex.” Ollie shook his head. “Too bad you couldn’t hear what they were saying.”

“I don’t think Alex had anything to do with it. Miguel and I were sitting outside, talking about filling out the tasting forms, and I think we heard the refrigerator fall. Alex wasn’t anywhere around then.”

“I thought the big fridge was a good idea,” Ollie remarked. “I guess I was wrong. But I’m not shedding any tears for that jerk anyway. There were a few times I wanted to kill him back in Mobile!”

“You shouldn’t say that now,” Delia cautioned.

“Just ’cause he’s hurt doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a good guy,” Ollie argued.

“I’m sure it was only an accident,” Uncle Saul said. “I saw Reggie putting in the refrigerator when we were getting ready to leave Mobile. I was wondering how he was gonna manage to keep it in place.”

I shrugged. “It was terrible anyway. I hope he’s okay.” It didn’t really look like it, but I knew looks could be deceiving. It wasn’t a great way to start the race.

“He’s probably fine,” Uncle Saul said as he drank a soda. “One time I dropped a truck on myself as I was changing a tire. I pushed myself out from under it. I was banged up and had a few broken ribs—well, all of them were broken—along with my collarbone, both shoulders, and one hand. But I’m alive, and I drove that old truck until I had to send it to the scrap heap.”

“I had something similar happen to me.” Ollie began telling another amazing, and improbable, tale of survival after something had fallen on him.

Miguel burst in after their colorful tales. “He’s dead. Reggie is dead.”

“How do they know so soon?” Uncle Saul asked. “Didn’t they have to take him to the hospital?”

“They did,” Miguel agreed. “But they had already called it before they transported him.”

I glanced at Miguel. “How did he die?”

“The police said he didn’t tie down his refrigerator well enough and it fell on him.”

Uncle Saul removed his hat for a moment and stood with his head bowed, eyes closed.

“That isn’t a fit way for a man to die.” Ollie shook his head.

“I wonder what we’ll do now,” Uncle Saul said. “Will the race go on or will we all go home?”

There was a loud meow from the front of the Airstream. I knew what Crème Brûlée’s vote was on the matter.

“I heard the producers are deciding what they should do,” Miguel said.

There was heavy pounding at the back door. Alex’s assistant peeked inside. “Everyone stay put for now. We’ll let you know what’s going on when they make a decision about the race.”

“So all this was for nothing?” Delia grabbed a biscuit and started eating.

“Good idea.” Ollie grabbed one, too. “We might as well eat them. They won’t be any good after a while.”

“Maybe we could give the biscuits away.” I considered the possibilities. “It would be better than all the food going to waste.”

“Couldn’t we sell them?” Ollie wondered.

“No. We don’t have a sales license for Charlotte. The show’s producers handled all of that for the race,” I explained. “But there’s nothing saying we can’t give them away.”

Chef Art knocked at the door to tell us what Alex’s assistant had already said. When I told him I was going to give away the biscuits, he was thrilled. “What an opportunity! You have a great mind for business, Zoe. Let me round up a few local reporters.”

At seven A.M. we were out on Trade and Tryon streets in the heart of downtown Charlotte. Chef Art had found a few interested reporters. We gave them biscuits, and they did some live feed to go with the story about what had happened to Reggie.

It wasn’t long until all the food truck drivers were taking the food they couldn’t use out on the streets, too. It was much better to be out on a sunny morning giving people food than to sit inside and worry about what would happen next with the food truck race.

If we went home, we went home. I wasn’t sure that wouldn’t be for the best anyway after what had happened to Reggie. Maybe I hadn’t liked him, but his death had put a pall on the whole idea of the race.

We got the trip to Charlotte and a night out at a hotel. The show would probably pay for our trip home, as they had for our trip here. Chef Art and the other sponsors got their names out there for their time and money. The rest of us had a chance to have our names on all the advertising.

I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.

It was a little sad to have to tell enthusiastic Charlotte customers that they could only get my biscuit bowls in Mobile, but that went with the territory. When I could get my products online, they could buy them frozen there. The biscuit bowls wouldn’t be as good but at least they could experience them without a trip to Mobile.

Delia had stayed with the Biscuit Bowl and Crème Brûlée while we’d given out all the biscuit bowls. We got back two hours later, and she told us the producers were ready to make a statement about the show.

“You go on, Zoe,” Uncle Saul said to me, sweating from the hot, humid air on the street. “It’s your food truck. The rest of us don’t need to be there.”

“We don’t need to be,” Ollie said, “but we want to be. I want to know what happened with Reggie.”

“Me, too,” Delia added.

“That’s fine,” Uncle Saul said. “You all go. You can tell me what happens next when you get back.”

“We’re supposed to meet at the cool-down tent,” Delia said.

– – – – – – –

The cool-down tent was set up to help alleviate the summer heat that everyone would be working in with a fine, cool mist. We were supposed to be in some of the hottest weather of the year from Charlotte to Mobile in the next five days. The large tent was also set up to be a meeting place, centrally located in the group of food trucks.

Miguel, Ollie, Delia, and I went back out on the street. Food truck teams were making their way toward the cool-down tent.

Alex Pardini was on a stage with a microphone beside the tent. Cameras were up there with him and panning on us out in the crowd.

“Don’t get your hopes up, Zoe,” Miguel cautioned as we waited for everyone to arrive at the stage. “I don’t think they’ll go on with this after Reggie’s death.”

“I’m prepared for that,” I told him. “It was a fun trip, if nothing else. I haven’t been to Charlotte in years.”

When it looked like everyone from the nine remaining food trucks (including ours) was there, Alex greeted us and gave us the news.

“A terrible thing happened here this morning,” he said. “Food truck driver Reggie Johnson, the owner of the Dog House from Mobile, Alabama, was found dead in his trailer. He was accidentally crushed by his refrigerator. We will never forget him as a daring and valiant competitor.”

Everyone applauded. The cameramen moved from place to place in the street to best get images of our reactions to the news. Police officers held back reporters and the crowd that had come to watch the race.

“We had a big decision to make, folks.” Alex bowed his head for a moment as though it was a difficult, personal decision for him. “Should we continue with the Sweet Magnolia Food Truck Race? Or should we end it right here? The producers made their decision. Now they want to hear from you.”

There was only a moment before food truck drivers began yelling out their answers.

Alex acknowledged a few of them after admitting that he couldn’t hear everyone at the same time. “Daryl Barbee from Grinch’s Ganache: what do you think we should do?”

Daryl stood beside his wife, Sarah. He was a very short man with a large cowboy hat that seemed to swallow his head. “I think we should honor Reggie by continuing the race.”

There was a loud round of applause following his words.

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Praise for Death on Eat Street

“Fast, fun and so foodworthy!”—Victoria Abbott, author of the Book Collector mysteries

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