Pirate Week is sweeping through Crystal Cove and keeping Jenna Hart and her bookstore, the Cookbook Nook, plenty busy. But she’s not too swamped to also host the local Chocolate Cookbook Club’s meeting—especially because the guest of honor is her friend, candy maker and cookbook author Coco Chastain.
Jenna whips up a delicious event amidst the rowdy festivities, but the mood is soon broken by robberies, simmering tempers, and a dead body—Coco’s editor, Alison. The suspects turn out to be more plentiful than a pot full of gold doubloons, so to prove Coco isn’t responsible for the dastardly deed, Jenna will have to stir up some clues and figure out who’s the real sticky-fingered killer…
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CHOCOLATE. IS THERE anything not to like—excuse me, love—about chocolate? And it’s February, so it’s National Chocolate Month, which means I can focus The Cookbook Nook’s theme on chocolate. Heaven. I plucked a homemade chocolate-cherry bonbon from a bowl sitting on the sales counter and popped it into my mouth, relishing the burst of flavor. Yum! Definitely not poison.
“Back to work, Jenna,” I whispered.
I was alone in The Cookbook Nook. My aunt had yet to arrive, and Bailey, my best friend in the world and the main sales clerk at the shop, had called saying she was running late, too. I enjoyed mornings in the shop by myself. I could take time to scan the wares and appreciate what I’d been able to build in the past few months.
Back in August, I gave up my cushy job at a swank San Francisco advertising firm and returned home to help my aunt Vera open our culinary bookshop. I am so proud that, with my aunt’s financial backing and my marketing expertise, we have created this must-visit haven for foodies and lovers of cookbooks. The floors are filled with movable bookshelves upon which sit hundreds of cookbooks with tasty titles. On the shelves along the walls are colorful arrays of cooking utensils, salt shakers, pepper mills, aprons, and more. We fashioned the rear corner as a young cooks area, where kids and their parents could sit and read or even do crafts. My aunt, who loves to tell fortunes, set up a vintage kitchen table near the front entrance where she offers occasional readings. She isn’t a seer; she doesn’t have extrasensory powers, but she believes her readings help her friends and clients cope. I’m not a believer, but I would never tell her sharing her passion is out of the question. Sometimes, her predictions come true.
“Work!” I reminded myself.
I moved to the display table, where I had arranged delicious cozy mysteries with some of my favorites by Krista Davis and Jenn McKinlay. I added a new cozy to the grouping, Murder of a Chocolate-Covered Cherry by Denise Swanson. I also added a couple of new books to our permanent supply of food-related fiction: The Chocolate Lovers’ Club and The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris.
Next, I gathered a stack of chocolate-themed cookbooks from the sales counter and skirted around the centermost movable bookshelf, while gazing lustfully at the top book—one I intended to take home with me, written by the renowned chocolatier Michael Recchiuti: Chocolate Obsession: Confections and Treats to Create and Savor. Granted, it was not a book for beginners, like me. In fact, one woman who had reviewed the book on Amazon said to do exactly what Recchiuti said or else. Um, okay, perhaps she hadn’t written that as a specific threat, but it was implied. Make sure to buy the higher butterfat butter was one of her suggestions. Also, use the expensive chocolate. Forget about baking with Hershey’s. Now, I adore Hershey’s Kisses and those adorable Hershey’s Miniatures, but even I can tell the difference between an everyday chocolate and Scharffen Berger.
I placed the chocolate books on another display table, stood the Recchiuti book upright with its pages fanned open, and set a pile of books behind it. I laid out other titles, like Crazy About Chocolate: More Than 200 Delicious Recipes to Enjoy and Share—the cover alone with a dozen mouthwatering mini chocolate éclairs would sell that book in a heartbeat—and Absolutely Chocolate: Irresistible Excuses to Indulge—its sinfully all-chocolate cover was great, as well. I had space for a few more titles and hurried back to the stockroom.
When I returned carrying a stack of books that reached my chin, a forty-something woman with sleek black hair, one of our regulars, rapped on the front door, which I’d propped open—I love crisp, fresh air. She wiggled her fingers. “Jenna, are you ready for a few customers?”
It was almost nine. “Sure.”
“Can you help us?” She and two friends made a beeline for the paleo diet section of books. I followed. “Paleo,” she said matter-of-factly. “Can you explain the regime to us?”
Although it wasn’t my preferred way to eat—I savored carbs—I knew the basics. Paleo involved eating the way cavemen did, which meant consuming only things we could hunt, fish, or farm. Sugar-packed cereal and pasta made with white flour were out. P.S. I really like fettuccine Alfredo.
“We’re confused, then,” she said when I finished speaking. “How can this be right?” She held up The Paleo Chocolate Lovers’ Cookbook: 80 Gluten-Free Treats for Breakfast and Dessert. The woman’s forehead and eyes were pinched with concern. “I thought you said sweets were out.”
I smiled, having wondered the same thing. With a little research, I’d made sense of the notion. “None of the recipes include gluten, grain, or dairy. The author, a popular cooking blogger, has created many of the recipes using coconut or ground nuts. With the help of the herbal sweetener stevia, she shows you how to keep the honey and coconut sugar—her preferred sugars—to a minimum.”
“Ooh, I get it.”
“By the way,” I added, “I’ve heard the chocolate pie with raw graham cracker crust is to die for.”
Bailey tore into the shop and skidded on her wedged heels, almost taking down our customers and me. “Sorry.”
“Excuse me,” I said to the ladies. Juggling my pile of books, I scooted Bailey around a stand of bookshelves and whispered, “What’s gotten into you?”
“I did it.”
Bailey fluffed her fringed hair and batted her baby blues. “As head of the Chocolate Cookbook Club, I declared we are going to celebrate the entire month of February by purchasing a new chocolate-themed cookbook each week.” The book club meets on the first Thursday of every month. “I’ve contacted all thirty members, and everybody is on board. Do the math. Ka-ching!” She mimed opening a cash register then grabbed me by the shoulders, her hands barely able to reach me because of the books I held. I forced myself not to laugh. She was, after all, at a disadvantage being shorter than I was by almost a foot. At five foot eight, I stood taller than most women I knew.
Bailey shimmied me. “C’mon, girlfriend, do a happy dance with me.”
My hair bounced around my shoulders. My tower of books teetered. “Cut it out.”
“Not until you dance.”
I shuffled my feet. “Look, Ma. I’m dancing.”
“You call that dancing?”
“Let me go.”
Bailey giggled but obeyed. “Get this, I talked them into buying Coco’s latest cookbook first. Sweet Sensations: All Things Chocolate, from the Delicious to the Fantabulous.”
Coco Chastain was one of Bailey’s and my good friends. We had known her since high school, although at the time we didn’t hang out. Bailey was in the popular girl group; I floated between the studious and theater group; Coco was part of the art crowd. Now, she was a local chocolatier who owned Sweet Sensations, a delectable candy store. I couldn’t walk by the place without stopping to inhale. Coco, a lusty woman with a curvaceous figure, had been engaged once, but her fiancé left her for a younger, skinnier woman. Boring, as Coco would say. I glanced over my shoulder at my customers. They didn’t seem to mind that Bailey was distracting me.
“Go on,” I said.
“I asked Coco to speak to the group,” Bailey said. “She jumped at the chance. She even offered to invite Alison.”
Alison Foodie, a successful independent publisher in San Francisco who specialized in cookbooks and related nonfiction, was Coco’s publisher. We carried a few of Foodie Publishing’s titles on our shelves. Foodie was Alison’s real surname, Scottish in origin, and not a fictitious name for her business. She originated from Crystal Cove, too. In fact, her family lineage, which was colorful to say the least, dated back to the first settlers. However, up until a couple of years ago, I had never met her. Neither had Coco. Alison was a few years older than we were. Bailey had brought us all together. Bailey and Alison met at a businesswomen’s retreat. When they realized they came from the same town, they became fast friends. Small world.
I said, “Alison will deign to come down from San Francisco?”
“Stop it.” Bailey swatted the air. “You know she’s not a snob.”
Actually, Alison had a wicked sense of humor. She was incredibly smart.
“She doesn’t come back to town often because she’s super busy,” Bailey went on. “She does visit occasionally to check in on her mother.”
“That’s sweet,” I said, though I had to wonder. Alison’s younger brother lived with their mother. Didn’t Alison trust him to tend to her?
“Coco said Alison will give the club the inside scoop on the publishing world. Isn’t that cool?” Bailey clapped her hands.
“Super cool. Maybe she’ll give me an insight to the next best thing in the cookbook world.”
A swish of fur swiped my ankles. I sidestepped and peered at Tigger, my silly kitten. At least I think he was still considered a kitten. He’d wandered into the shop—and into my life—a few months ago. At the time, I’d pegged him at two months old. I had him neutered in November. Ouch, but necessary. As a result, he hadn’t ever sprayed my cottage, and he had retained his kittenish playfulness.
I set the books on a nearby table, scooped him into my arms, and scruffed him under the chin. “What’s up, Tig-Tig?” I’d dubbed him Tigger because, like the Disney character that pounced and trounced, Tigger had done twirls and other fun gyrations that first day to win my heart. “Did silly old Bailey and her loud voice wake you up from your nap?”
Invariably, when we arrived at the shop, Tigger moseyed into his spot beneath the children’s table for a lengthy snooze.
“I am not loud,” Bailey said.
He yowled again, disagreeing with her.
“Are you hungry? Let me check your bowl.” I signaled the three ladies by the paleo section. “I’ll be right back, if you need me.”
Bailey trailed me through the shop to the stockroom. She propped the drape open with a hip and continued her conversation while I refreshed Tigger’s goodies. “I was thinking we should hold tomorrow’s book club meeting in the Nook Café since we’ll have special guests.”
The eatery, an adjunct to The Cookbook Nook and connected by a breezeway, had become a wonderfully profitable side business, thanks to the budding reputation of our inspired chef, Katie Casey, another high school buddy of Bailey’s and mine.
“Katie agreed to close the café,” Bailey went on.
“You already cleared it with her?”
“Yep. She’ll make a tasting from Coco’s latest cookbook,” Bailey went on. “Not just the sweets, but the savory things, too, like the chicken with the luscious chocolate mole sauce.”
“Or the mixed salad with orange slices dipped in chocolate. And, of course, an assortment of desserts. C’mon. This’ll be fun.” Bailey rapped me on the arm. “Girls’ night out. We’ll help Katie with the cooking.”
“We?” I gulped. “For thirty?”
“With Katie’s supervision.”
Remember, earlier, when I mentioned that Michael Recchiuti’s Chocolate Obsession might be beyond my ability? That is because I’m not a cook. I’m trying to learn. I’ve graduated from making five-ingredient recipes to multiple-ingredient ones. I’ve even tried my hand at cooking entrées as well as desserts. The chocolate cherries on the sales counter? Mine. But creating an entire meal for what could be a possibly hypercritical crowd? My heart started to chug until I channeled Sophie Winston, the event planner from the Domestic Diva Mysteries. She made cooking sound so easy; she always had things prepared way in advance, much of it stored in the freezer. I could do this. I could. Yes, indeed, with a battalion of cooks and Katie’s supervision, a soiree was going to be a snap.
Tigger butted my ankle with his head. He opened his eyes wide, as if offering reassurance.
“Please, pretty please,” Bailey said.
“Okay. We’ll do it.”
I fastened a pearl button on my cardigan sweater and moved past Bailey into the shop. More customers had arrived. Many were ogling the aprons. A few were admiring the selection of chocolate-themed fiction. One, a darling older woman, had nestled at the vintage kitchen table to tackle the latest food-themed jigsaw puzzle. We always had one going. Customers loved to piece them together. I think it made them feel like family. I tucked in behind the sales counter.
Bailey joined me. “Do you have a favorite dessert recipe in Coco’s latest?”
“The chocolate-cherry bonbons, which I’ve already made.” I gestured to the batch on the counter. “Try one.”
“Chocolate is good at any time of the day.”
Bailey bit into one. “You made these?”
“Yep.” I polished my fingernails on my sweater.
“Girlfriend, I’m impressed.”
“Thanks.” I opened the cash register drawer and counted ones and fives. “Do me a favor and check again with Katie. Make sure she knew what you were asking.” Sometimes Katie, distracted by the many duties of running a restaurant, would bob her head in answer to any question.
“Will do.” Bailey whooped as she hurried to the café.
At the same time, a shaggy-haired pirate—kid you not, pirate—darted into the shop. He was wearing pantaloons and a red waistcoat. Sword drawn, he crept stealthily behind one of the bookcases at the center of the store.
The customers, including my paleo cookbook hunters, gasped.
Tigger poked his head through the split in the drapes from the stockroom. I waved at him to retreat. He didn’t. He stared bug-eyed at the man.
Seconds after the red pirate hid, a pirate in a blue waistcoat and pantaloons entered, followed by a pair of robust women dressed in ecru blouses topped with lace-up vests and gathered skirts. All of the intruders wore boots; the men wore feathered tricorn hats.
The blue pirate yanked his sword from its scabbard and yelled, “Where are ye, ye whining, yellow-bellied landlubber?”
The red pirate bolted from his hiding spot, sword raised.
The blue pirate lunged. Metal clanged. The red pirate hopped backward onto one of the chairs by the vintage kitchen table. The blue pirate ducked, pivoted, and came up on the other side of his enemy. He thrust the tip of his sword at the red pirate’s throat.
The red pirate dropped his sword and raised his hands.
“OFF WITH YER head!” the blue pirate said. A tense moment followed. Then the blue pirate laughed and lowered his sword. He offered a hand to the red pirate. “Grab hold, mate.” He helped the red pirate to the floor, and each clapped the other on the shoulder.
“Well done,” the red pirate said.
I stomped toward the pair. “What the heck, you two? What’s going on? You nearly gave me . . . us”—I indicated the crowd—“heart attacks.”
The red pirate grinned. “Lass, have ye forgotten? It’s Pirate Week.”
Forehead smack. I had forgotten what my aunt told me only yesterday—at times I have a short memory span. For the last five years, during the first week of February, the people of Crystal Cove celebrated our pirate heritage. Pirates hadn’t settled the town, but there were plenty of ships that had sailed along the coast of California, and tales were told of thievery and conquest. Heck, the California coast was rich with stories from Zorro to Russian fur-traders to Spanish missionaries. However, in honor of the pirate part of our sketchy heritage, our energetic mayor, always ready to capitalize on a tourism theme, had established Pirate Week, which ran from the first Wednesday in the month to the following Tuesday. Why Wednesday? Because during the winter months, Crystal Cove tourists primarily arrive on Wednesday or Thursday and stay for a week or long weekends.
I recalled asking my aunt why Pirate Week was such a big lure, because pirates were notoriously not nice people. She said the intent of Pirate Week wasn’t for one minute to suggest that real, honest-to-goodness pirates were in any way, shape, or form worth emulating, but the image of swaggering pirateness was fun and exciting and, in her words, harmless. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies were a success because being a pirate looked like a blast.
The blue pirate swaggered toward me. “Milady, truth? Did ye take us seriously?”
“Aye,” I said, kicking in with pirate speak. “I did. The whole lot of us did.”
Some argued that, seeing as International Talk Like a Pirate Day—yes, there is such a day—was celebrated in September, shouldn’t we have Pirate Week in that month? The mayor countered that September in Crystal Cove was already packed with activities. We needed a lure for tourists in February, when the temps were cooler. During Pirate Week, we were encouraged to converse in pirate speak whenever we encountered someone dressed as such. Aunt Vera had not told me that during Pirate Week, participants would show up in costumes and plunder the shop.
The blue pirate grinned and addressed the crowd. “Don’t worry, folks. We were only joshing.”
“However, if ye are interested in seeing more,” one of the robust women said, “come one, come all, to The Pirates of Penzance at The Theater on The Pier.”
For Pirate Week, the mayor had also arranged to have specialty plays, dinner cruises, duels, and more. At the end of the week of events, the mayor would hold a town meeting. She would draw a ticket, and some lucky person would win a pot of gold doubloons. People could pick up their free drawing tickets at any of the shops on the main strip of town or on The Pier.
“The musical,” the blue pirate continued, “is a rollicking comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan.”
“Good fun with a one-drink minimum,” the red pirate added. “A bargain at any price. And, remember, when we’re not playing, we’re singing.” When a show isn’t in progress, The Theater on The Pier serves as a piano bar.
If you haven’t visited Crystal Cove, it’s a seaside community consisting of three crescent-shaped bays. A range of modest mountains defines the eastern border and traps ocean moisture, blessing our sweet community with a temperate Mediterranean climate. The boulevard that runs parallel to the ocean is rife with shops and restaurants. On the southernmost end of town stands The Pier, which features shops, restaurants, a carousel, some carny games, and a rousing dance hall–style theater. At The Pier, people may also hire boats for sunset or sightseeing cruises and fishing expeditions.
“Farewell, fine maidens.” The blue pirate doffed his hat and made a deep bow. The red pirate copied him. The ladies at the rear of the store giggled.
“Farewell, sweet furry critter,” one of the wenches cried. She wiggled her bright red fingernails in Tigger’s direction. He crept from behind the curtain and ducked behind my ankles.
“And we’re off!” said the red pirate. He and his friend hooked arms with their female companions and headed to the next stop on their get-the-word-out journey.
As Bailey returned and offered a thumbs-up gesture—Katie was on board for tomorrow night—I realized we had to get cracking and put up our Pirate Week display. ASAP. So much to do. Always! Personally, I like being busy. Less time to let my mind dwell on sad memories.
Using poster board—we kept plenty on hand in the stockroom—Bailey and I created a pair of pirate silhouettes. We added cutouts of tricorn hats and eye patches to the silhouettes and set them in the window. In front, we placed a toy galleon that my aunt had purchased expressly for the display—about four feet long and metal, fitted with three masts, a pointed bowsprit, and spanking white sails—and then added a low cutout of blue waves. We dangled a seagull overhead and set out a variety of Caribbean cookbooks, including the tasty Caribbean Potluck written by a pair of sister chefs. And we added the pirate-themed children’s books that my aunt had suggested. When we finished, I posted a banner: Children’sPirate DaySaturday. For that event, I would have Katie make sugar cookies iced with pirates, skeletons, or skull and crossbones. Perhaps some kind of chocolate-making demonstration with free giveaways of almond- or pistachio-laced chocolate would be a nice treat for the adults.
While Bailey toured the shop looking for a place to hide a rubber goldfish—the first lucky child who found the toy would win a free book—I put together a flyer to distribute to local shops encouraging children to come to the event dressed as pirates. Any child who wore a costume would receive a goodie bag filled with gold foil–wrapped candy. One family would win the grand prize: Dessert for four at the Nook Café.
The rest of the day went off without a hitch. People poured in. Children scoured the shelves, but none found the rubber goldfish. Bailey had hidden it well. Adults were fascinated with the choices of pirate-themed cookbooks. One of the most popular was A Pirate Cookbook: Simple Recipes for Kids, which featured fun recipes like Gangplank Dippers, Chocolate Gunpowder, and Parrot Punch. The author offered darling tips like reminding her readers to wash their hands because pirates were dirty. What parent could resist that?
• • •
THURSDAY MORNING ARRIVED as fast as a speeding bullet. Thursday night, even faster.
“It’s time,” Bailey yelled. “Get ready to be chocolatized!”
She nabbed me and led me to the Nook Café kitchen. The aroma was heavenly. My stomach grumbled dramatically.
Bailey slung on an apron and handed me one. “Arrr.” She faced our chef Katie and snarled like a pirate. “What now, oh mighty captain?”
Katie Casey was a jolly soul with bright eyes and an easy laugh. She chortled so hard her toque nearly fell off her curly mop of hair. She righted it and glanced at the pocket watch she always wore pinned to her chef coat. “Jenna, fetch the oranges from the walk-in.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
“Not you, too.” Katie frowned, which made her hangdog-shaped eyes turn even more downward, an intentionally comical look. “There’ll be no pirate talk in my kitchen. I run a tight ship.”
“Ho, ho,” Bailey said. “Very funny.”
“Don’t ye mean yo ho?” Katie grinned then twirled a spatula in the air. Chocolate mole sauce ran down the length of the handle and splatted her apron. “Oops!” One of the two sous-chefs Katie had brought in for the event—she had also appointed two of the regular waitresses to help us out—rushed to her aid and offered a wet towel. Katie cleaned up and said, “Keller”—he was her boyfriend—“is totally into this week of pirate events. He’s spending all his time on The Pier vending his ice cream just so he can be close to the action, and he’s forever saying, ‘C’mere, me beauty.’”
“Well, at least he thinks you’re beautiful,” I said.
Katie reddened and tucked a loose hair behind her ear. “Yeah, right. Bailey, what do you think of Jenna’s idea to do chocolate-making demonstrations in the shop?”
Bailey giggled. “You have to ask? You know me and chocolate.” She pressed two fingers together. “We’re tight.”
“As tight as you and Tito?” Katie teased.
Tito Martinez, a local newspaper reporter, was Bailey’s newest boyfriend.
Bailey blushed. “We’re not that tight.”
“Yes, you are.” I nodded. “I’ve seen you two gaze into each other’s eyes.” I hadn’t always been a fan of Tito’s. However, the more I’d gotten to know him over the past few months, the more he had grown on me. As for Bailey, he had won her heart with his sense of humor and his penchant for volunteering for good causes. The fact that he could also, magically, pull a quarter out of her ear at any given moment made her smile. She loved to be surprised.
“We’re not as tight as you and Rhett,” Bailey countered.
Rhett Jackson is my boyfriend, going on a couple of months. We haven’t said I love you or anything like that yet, but whenever I’m with him, the world goes still, in a good way.
“Wipe that silly grin off your face,” Bailey said.
“Why should I?” I would never forget my first glimpse of Rhett. Tousled dark hair, sparkling eyes, and jeans that fit just right. I would also never forget our first kiss. And our first dinner alone at his cabin. He’d farmed out his dog so there would be no intrusions. And our first—
Bailey fanned me with a pot holder. “Wowie! What are you thinking about, girlfriend? Hearts afire! Katie, look at Jenna’s cheeks. They’re red-hot with lust. Get the extinguisher.”
I smirked. “Ha-ha.”
“By the way,” Bailey went on, “have you seen what Rhett has done outside Bait and Switch on The Pier?”
Bait and Switch Fishing and Sport Supply Store is one of the largest buildings on The Pier. Rhett owns it. Previously he was the chef at The Grotto, a four-star restaurant that used to be located on the second floor of Fisherman’s Village—just upstairs from where The Cookbook Nook and Nook Café are located. The restaurant burned down, but surprisingly no shops below or to the right or left of it were touched. Rumor was that Rhett had started the fire. Rhett swore he didn’t, which turned out to be true. Only recently, our clever chief of police, at my urging, pulled together all the clues and found the previous owner hiding out in New Orleans. As Rhett had asserted all along, the woman had absconded with a horde of priceless art. Not only was she sent to jail, but she had to relinquish the hefty insurance settlement. Mystery solved. Hooray!
Bailey said, “Rhett constructed a rock climbing wall.”
“He’s gung ho about this pirate thing, too.”
Katie grinned. “Keller’s already climbed the wall five times. It seems pirates were adept at climbing up things.”
“Like enemy ships,” I quipped.
Bailey aimed a finger. “We should do it.”
“We?” I said. “As in the three of us?”
Katie grinned. “I wish I could. Too much to do this week.”
“I’ll have to put on tennis shoes,” I said. I preferred flip-flops to just about any other kind of shoe. Not stylish, I know, but comfy. “I’m pretty good at rock climbing.”
“You are?” Katie looked astounded.
“Don’t you remember how I used to go backpacking with my brother?” On a trip to Yosemite, he taught me how to rappel off the top of a mountain. I remember how cautious I was at first. Tiptoeing down the rock wall backward. Worrying that my brother was secretly trying to do me in. Was the belay device threaded right? Would the rope hold my weight? However, within minutes, I was pushing off and whooping with glee. It was a great bonding moment for the two of us.
“Hey, Jenna. Hey, Bailey.” Coco Chastain poked her head into the kitchen. “We’re here. Can I come in?” She didn’t wait for an answer. She hustled in and struck a pose. The magenta dress she wore looked painted on. Forties-style curls framed her face. Va-va-voom, as a couple of non-PC male coworkers at Taylor & Squibb Advertising, where I used to work, would have said. “I want you to come out to the dining room and meet the others before the book club members arrive.”
“Don’t you mean other, singular?” Bailey asked.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Coco moved closer, her stylish, ankle-laced heels clacking the floor. “In addition to Alison, the copyeditor, Ingrid—she’s a newbie—wanted to come along for the experience, to see what it’s like for an author to schmooze, and the photographer, Dash—he’s such a talent.” Coco laid a hand above her voluptuous chest. “He loves everything pirate, so he begged to tag along, too.” She lowered her voice. “Wait until you see all his tattoos. Arrr, matey.” She gripped Bailey’s elbow. “C’mon. Katie, you, too.”
Katie wagged her head. “Aye, there’s the rub,” she said. “I’ve got work to do.”
“Please?” Coco said in a girlish way. “Tito is already out there taking photographs. I want you in them.”
“Uh-uh,” Katie said. “Way too many pots on the stove. You all go ahead. We”—she indicated the sous-chefs and waitresses—“need to keep this under control.”
Two tables, set for sixteen diners each, stood by the windows with the ocean view. Alison Foodie, a largish woman with a strong jaw and thick black hair, sat at the head of one table. She paused what she was doing—tapping in a message on her cell phone—and glowered at the screen. She took a sip from a glass of water and started in again. Tap, tap, tap.
“Alison, look over here,” Tito Martinez ordered. When I first met Tito, he reminded me of an insecure boxer, the four-legged kind: broad face, broad shoulders, short legs, and eager for a confrontation. Now, he was smoother, almost suave. “Look this way.” Bailey had asked him to do a front-page spread about Alison and Coco’s united rise to fame. The story had local roots. Tito was totally on board. “No more business, Alison. C’mon. Smile.”
Alison dropped her cell phone into her purse and offered a big, toothy grin. Wearing a swatch of a red-patterned tartan—what many in America call a plaid—slung over the shoulders of her sweater, she reminded me of a Scottish warrior.
Spying Bailey, Alison set her glass aside and scrambled to her feet. She wasn’t much taller than I was, but when she hugged pint-sized Bailey, she seemed to consume her. “Darling, how are you?” Five years ago, when Bailey broke up with fiancé number two—or was it number three?—she crashed on Alison’s floor. Bailey could have stayed with me, of course, but she hadn’t wanted to intrude upon my new, albeit short-lived, marriage. A brief thought about my deceased husband was all I could manage. No more dwelling had recently become my mantra. I pushed the memory aside and strode ahead.
“Alison,” I said, extending a hand. “Welcome.”
“What a gig you have,” she said. “Well done, Jenna. Let me make the introductions.” She gestured toward the two people sitting at her table. “Bailey and Jenna, please meet our photographer, Dash Hamada.”
I bit back a laugh. I heard Bailey swallow a snort, too. Dash—an unusual name for a Japanese man—looked every bit the pirate. He wore a bandana over a head of long black-gray hair. He was wearing a rumpled white shirt, opened at the collar, its sleeves cut off. Multiple tattoos, as Coco had warned us, decorated his arms and the V of skin beneath his neckline. He was paying us no mind. He was aiming a high-end Nikon camera at Coco and then Alison, taking snapshot after snapshot. A photographer’s vest, the kind with a horde of pockets, hung over the back of his chair. He pulled a swatch of silk out of a pocket and polished his lens, shoved it back in the pocket, and resumed shooting.
Bailey bumped me with an elbow and rasped under her breath, “You’re gawking.”
“I am not.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Dash. Avast, me hearty! Stop what you’re doing,” Alison chided. “Be polite and focus!”
Dash released the camera—it hung from a strap around his neck—and his mouth curled into a rakish, albeit bordering on menacing, smile. “I’m not Yakuza, ladies, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
I understood his reference. I happen to know that Yakuza are members of an international organized crime syndicate, most predominantly located in Japan. A couple of years ago, I read Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, a riveting story by an American investigative journalist. My husband had loved true crime.
Dash added, “I do it for the appreciation of the art.”
His tattoos were gorgeous and singular. The dragonfish down his right arm was surprisingly intricate. The aging ninja warrior that wrapped around his left bicep was fierce. The word love blazed across his chest.
Alison said, “Dash—short for Dashiell, his father adored pulp fiction—takes photographs of tattoos, as a hobby.”
“Not a hobby.”
“Fine.” She flicked a finger at him. “He’s written a book about the art of tattooing, starting with woodblocks from the eighth century. He focuses on works by Horitaka, Shige, and more. You should see his website. It’s very deep.”
“Deep, as in lots of pages,” Dash said.
“He’s very Internet savvy.” Alison smiled at him in a patronizing way. “By the way, he doesn’t mind if you stare.”
Dash grinned. “I wouldn’t have gotten the tattoos if I didn’t want you to check them out. They all mean something special. This one”—he used his ring-clad pinky to point out the dragon—“represents the fiery danger I had to go through early on in my life. I was an abused child. This one”—he rotated his forearm to reveal a tattoo of an ear floating on top of tight abs—“represents my former line of business. I used to do tattoos and piercing.”
Alison said, “Some people think when others tat and impale themselves, beyond the norm—you know, a tiny rose tattoo on the ankle or pierced ears—that the person is weird. He or she must have issues. However, Dash sees piercing or tattooing as a personal expression.”
Dash cocked his head. “It’s a way of showing to the world what you’ve accomplished and experienced. A life story, if you will. You’d be surprised who gets tattoos these days. People from all walks of life. Schoolteachers, lawyers, nurses.”
Though tattooing was in vogue, I had chosen not to add artwork to my body.
Dash spread the neckline of his shirt and revealed that there was more to the love tattoo. The word circled a globe. He smirked. “This one doesn’t need an explanation, does it? But enough about me. Have you met Ingrid Lake?” He aimed a forefinger at the lean woman sitting beside him and then resumed taking photographs.
Ingrid was pretty in a put-together way. Chin-length, smooth blonde hair cupped her face. “Hello,” she whispered. At least I think that’s what she said. Her lips moved; her teeth didn’t budge. Perhaps she had been a ventriloquist at one time in her life, I mused, but then revised the idea. Ventriloquists didn’t move their lips. Maybe her teeth were wired together for dental purposes.
“C’mon, me lass.” Dash nudged her, his pirate-like brogue thick and leaning toward a British accent. “Speak up.”
Ingrid blushed through her pale makeup. “Don’t speak pirate-ese to me, Dash.” Even with prodding, her teeth didn’t move. “It’s infantile.”
“Don’t yerself,” Dash shot back. “I’m here to have fun. And, if I recall, you asked to come along. Look lively.”
Ingrid toyed with the top button of her frilly blouse.
“He’s right, Ingrid,” Alison said. “Lighten up. No lemons, only lemonade.” She turned to Bailey and me. “Ingrid is the copyeditor at Foodie Publishing. Very detail oriented.” Alison glanced over her shoulder, making sure she caught Ingrid’s attention. “Perhaps too much so.”
“I am not,” Ingrid whispered.
“No T’s uncrossed, no I’s undotted,” Alison said. “And heaven forbid if I or any of my authors use the words I or me improperly in a sentence.”
“The way we speak exhibits the level of our education,” Ingrid said.
“To quote your mother,” Alison teased.
Ingrid sat straighter. “She was a genius.”
“As are you.”
Coco planted a hand on one hip. “Aha. So, Ingrid, you’re the one who’s been changing all my cooking directions. I like them to be written in what I call easy prose. Chatty. I don’t want them spruced into perfect English.”
Ingrid shook her head. “No, that’s not me. I would never change your voice. However, Alison—”
Alison cleared her throat.
“I mean Miss Foodie—”
“No, Ingrid!” Alison cut her off. “I didn’t mean for you to correct yourself. Just don’t speak.”
Coco’s face clouded over. She rapped Alison’s shoulder. “What is she trying to tell me?”
“You’re not messing with my voice, are you?”
Alison didn’t respond.
“Are you?” Coco picked up a glass of water from the table.
Alison eyed it and smirked. “Don’t tell me you intend to throw that at me.”
“Promise me you’re not changing anything I write”—Coco’s mouth curled in a snarl—“or else.”
“Or else what? You’ll douse me?”
“It’s in my contract that you can’t edit without my approval.”
“I’m your publisher. I can do anything I want. Read your contract.”
Tito raised his camera. I whipped my arm up to block his shot.
“STOP!” BAILEY SHOUTED.
Everyone in the café but Tito froze in place. He clicked his camera in succession. Multiple flashes went off.
“No, Tito, stop!” I said, as visions of front-page photos reeled in my mind. The Nook Café: A perfect spot for a fight. Or Want to make a splash? Visit the Nook. Argh! Not all publicity was good publicity.
“Oh, relax,” Coco cried. “We’re not really going at it.” She set the water aside, and she and Alison erupted into giggles. “Gotcha.” She addressed the crowd. “Every one of you, close your mouths. My, oh, my, the looks on your faces. You especially, Ingrid.” She bumped knuckles with Alison. “We were good.”
“Yes, we were.” Alison grinned. “Practice makes perfect.”
“Or makes fun,” Ingrid grumbled under her breath. Her pale eyes glinted with malice. Apparently she didn’t like to be an unwitting patsy.
Neither did I, truth be told. What on earth had Alison and Coco been thinking? Was I just being a fuddy-duddy?
Dash guffawed. “Way to go, me lasses. You had us all by the throat.”
I leaned over to Bailey and whispered, “Were you in on this?”
“Nope. I didn’t have a clue.” Bailey eyed Alison and Coco, who were still high-fiving each other like pranking sorority sisters. “When did you two cook up this stunt?”
Coco chuckled. “Last night over one too many cocktails. And champagne. I’m such a lightweight when it comes to that.”
“Ahem,” Alison said. “Only you were drinking.” She yawned and quickly covered her mouth with a hand. “I wasn’t.”
“That’s because you’re such a party animal,” Coco teased.
“Hear me roar.” Alison clawed the air and mouthed a growl.
Ingrid tsked. Her nose flared. She was clearly displeased.
“I was the designated driver,” Alison said. “I had to get the two of us home in one piece.”
“Alison is staying with Coco,” Bailey explained.
“Why aren’t you at your mother’s, Alison?” I asked.
“I stayed there the night before last, but Ingrid needed a place to sleep. Coco suggested that my mother and Ingrid would get along well. Mom loves to gab because . . .” She cocked her head. “With Dad gone.” Her father had passed away a few years ago. “Coco suggested I crash at her place. That would create a little more space at Mom’s.” Alison eyed Coco. “And I guess it provided us with extra time to cook up a little tomfoolery.” She clapped her hands. “Okay, enough of this hoo-ha. Let’s raise the sails and set to sea. Where’s the grub?” She poked Dash. “Is that enough pirate-ese for you?”
“Not by a yardarm.” Dash cut a glance to his right. “Hey, scat, cat!” He waved his hand. Tigger appeared on Dash’s chair.
“Tigger!” I said.
The cat blinked to feign innocence. Had he been poking around in Dash’s photographer’s vest?
“No, kitty. Bad kitty.” I nabbed him. “Sorry, Dash.”
“No worries,” Dash said. “I just don’t want cat nose smudges on my contact prints.”
Contact prints are strips of photographic images produced from negatives. Back at Taylor & Squibb, the location scout would put together a spread of pictures, in the form of contact sheets, so we could peruse them to determine which location to use.
“What do you have contact prints of, you sneak?” Alison asked. “We’ve been in town less than five minutes, and Coco hasn’t cooked a thing.”
Dash’s mouth quirked up on the right. “I’m allowed to take photos on my own, Al.”
“Of course.” Alison explained to the rest of us, “Dash won’t go anywhere without his latest contact prints, like someone might swipe them from his room. Talk about paranoid.”
A guarded look passed between them.
“So what were you shooting?” Alison said.
“The scenery. Crystal Cove is a vision. Did you see the coastline?” Dash spread his hands as he described the bay. “Deep blue with a fine tinge of green close to the shore. And the mountains? Breathtaking in their simplicity. Don’t get me started about the lighthouse. You know how I love lighthouses.”
Alison said, “In addition to tattooed bodies, Dash loves to photograph lighthouses as well as monkeys, of all things. The San Francisco Zoo has a fine set of the latter, I’ve been told.”
“Yep.” Dash nodded. “They’re rascals.”
Ingrid nudged Alison and whispered loudly enough for all to hear, “I spied him taking photos of pirates.” She made it sound like that was a horrid offense.
“Yo ho, Dash.” Alison winked. “Got a thing for the mates, do ye?”
“Yo ho, yourself.” He grinned. “What do you think?”
Alison assessed him head to toe. She raised an eyebrow.
Dash blew her a raspberry. “Hardly. I’m photographing wenches, if ye will, the pretty kinds of pirates.”
“We had a few pirates in full regalia dart into the shop yesterday,” I said. “They broke into a sword fight.”
Bailey gawped. “Where was I?”
“In the café kitchen, I think.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“Oops.” I addressed the rest of the folks. “They scared the wits out of me, until I realized I’d forgotten what day it was.”
“The beginning of Pirate Week,” Bailey said. “So that’s why we got cracking on the display window.”
I aimed a finger. Bingo.
“Pirate Week is a draw,” Dash said. “Quite colorful. I have a mind to do a story about it, maybe sell it to the local papers.”
Tito, who had been hanging back taking more photographs, said, “Oh no you don’t, you scallywag. Don’t even dare.”
Dash saluted. “Aye, mate. Just joshing. That’s your arena. No worries.”
Someone rapped on the café door.
Pepper Pritchett, a thick woman with a beaky nose, poked her head inside. “Hello. Are you ready for us?” Pepper owned Beaders of Paradise, a beading shop next door. She was one of the first members of the Chocolate Cookbook Club. Prior to a few months ago, she wouldn’t have been caught dead in my presence—she had an ancient beef with my family—but we had mended fences. It hadn’t hurt that I’d cajoled Katie into making some spicy chocolate to win Pepper over. Having Pepper as an ally made working in the same complex so much more enjoyable.
Gran, a gray-haired but bright-eyed grandmother who owned the finest collection of shawls I’d ever seen, followed Pepper. Bailey’s mother, Lola Bird, who was like my second mother, trailed them.
“Hello, everyone!” Aunt Vera entered. She was a study in red—red turban, red caftan—red being her color of choice for the month of February.
Cinnamon Pritchett, Pepper’s daughter and our chief of police, lagged behind the pack, her cell phone pressed to her ear. Cinnamon was a stark contrast to my aunt. Her brown hair was as dark as my aunt’s red hair was bright. Aunt Vera looked like the sun had never kissed her skin; Cinnamon was a tanned, outdoorsy beauty. She, like me, wasn’t much of a cook, but she was a chocolate hound, and like so many of us in the Chocolate Cookbook Club, she confessed that she adored looking at chocolate porn—photographs of cookies, cakes, and candy. Whipped cream in a picture was an added bonus. Of the group, Cinnamon owned the largest collection of chocolate-themed cookbooks. With one arm, she balanced a platter covered with a checkered cloth.
Ending her conversation, Cinnamon pocketed the cell phone and grinned. “I’m ready to taste everything. Where’s Coco?” She lit a path to our guest of honor. After exchanging a few words, she whirled around and unwrapped the platter she was carrying. It held a selection of chocolate cookies and pastries. “Jenna, take a look at these. I made them myself.”
“Truth.” She crossed her heart. “I’ve been taking lessons.”
Cinnamon mimed sealing her lips.
“No fair,” I said. “Blab.”
“I’ve been told I’ll suffer a rogue’s death.”
“Talk!” I knuckled her.
“Okay.” Cinnamon chuckled. “It was Lola.”
Lola, a tiny bundle of luscious energy, much like her daughter, fluffed her spiky silver hair and offered a hearty laugh. “I knew you couldn’t keep a secret, Cinnamon.”
“How could I hold back?” Cinnamon snickered. “You’re such an inspiration. I feel like I’ve made leaps and bounds of progress in the past week. And possibly gained five pounds in the process.” Cinnamon was lean, like me, and exercised regularly. She claimed she had to remain buff to maintain her prominence in a department full of men. I doubted she would ever put on weight. “It’s a recipe out of Lola’s latest cookbook,” she added.
Lola, who owned The Pelican Brief Diner, had written two books. One focused on fish entrées; the other was dedicated to desserts. Foodie Publishing had put out both. Alison liked helping locals get ahead in their careers.
“You aren’t trying to outdo me, are you, Lola?” Coco asked.
“As if I could.”
“Try one, Jenna.” Cinnamon thrust the platter in my direction.
I plucked a frothy-looking chocolate cookie from the assortment and popped it into my mouth. “Mmm.” I licked my fingertips. “Meringue?”
Cinnamon nodded. “With a hint of . . .” she said leadingly.
“Ha! You’ve got a good palate.”
I might not be an ace cook, but I’ve always appreciated delicious food. I recalled a campaign we did at Taylor & Squibb for Zazzle Spices—Put a little spice in your life!—where we hired celebrity chefs to do a taste test and reveal flavors they detected in each course. A few of the executives on the campaign were invited to taste the samples. Of the five execs, I was the only one who had named all the spices correctly. Later that same day, Zazzle tried to hire me away from my job. I passed.
Minutes later, the café filled with more women and a few men, all of whom I recognized; in total, twenty-four of the thirty members. Bailey directed them to sit at the preset tables while I alerted Katie that we were ready to chow down.
Chatter rose to a crescendo as the waitresses served the meal. We had stuck to Bailey’s menu: chicken with chocolate mole sauce, a mixed salad with orange slices dipped in chocolate with a cocoa brioche crouton, and a savory chocolate baba ghanoush, an Eastern Mediterranean dish of mashed eggplant mixed with olive oil and seasonings. We didn’t serve wine. Bailey thought most of our guests would want to enjoy the pure, unadulterated flavors of chocolate without complicating the sensations with alcohol. Coffee with dessert, however, was permitted.
During dinner, Alison regaled us with publishing business tales. While dessert was being dished out, Dash excused himself, claiming fatigue.
“A likely story,” Alison teased. “You’re off to join the pirates. Avast, me hearty, have at it!” Yawning, she waved for him to leave. “Go. Don’t let us stop you. But you’ll be sorry you missed the best part of the meal.”
Dessert was a smash hit. Katie had prepared a silk chocolate pie using a recipe directly out of Coco’s cookbook. After each guest was served, to our surprise Coco lifted a tray filled with assorted chocolate truffles. She had hidden the tray on one of the chairs.
Chow down didn’t half cover what we all did. We pigged out. Some of our guests even chose to taste Cinnamon’s homemade concoctions. No one was disappointed.
Excerpted from "Fudging the Books"
Copyright © 2015 Daryl Wood Gerber.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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