Mahalia’s Sweet Tea boasts the most flavorful soul food in all of Prince George’s County, Maryland. But as events at the beauty industry’s leading trade show turn ugly, owner Halia Watkins needs to bite into an unsavory new item on the menu—murder!
When the chicest hair convention of the year gets cooking in town, so does business at Mahalia’s Sweet Tea. Halia can barely handle the influx of customers looking to satisfy their appetites after spending the day surrounded by outrageous runway styles. As buzz builds around beauty mogul and pop culture icon Monique Dupree, collard greens start moving out of the kitchen faster than models strutting down the catwalk . . .
But the glitz fades the moment Monique is found shot to death. Turns out, the glamorous entrepreneur’s vanity empire was stained by bitter rivalries, explosive affairs, and backstabbers scheming for fame and fortune. With more suspects than ingredients listed on a bottle of deep conditioner, Halia and her cousin Wavonne rush to discover who pulled the trigger—before the conniving culprit dishes another deadly surprise . . .
Features delicious recipes from Mahalia’s Sweet Tea,
including Double Crust Chicken Pot Pie and Chocolate Marshmallow Cake!
About the Author
A.L. Herbert grew up in both Prince George’s County and Charles County, Maryland. A.L. is currently working on the next Mahalia Watkins Soul Food Mystery and more delicious comfort food recipes. Readers can e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. And please visit www.alherbert.com and www.facebook.com/a.l.herbert123.
Read an Excerpt
"Be careful with that," I say to Latasha as she paints the white cream on Wavonne's hair. "Sometimes I think all that relaxer has fried her brain."
"Now you just shut your mouth, Ms. Naturally Straight Hair," Wavonne says. "Keepin' it short like you do should be a crime."
Wavonne and I are sitting next to each other in front of the long mirrors at Illusions, the hair salon a few doors down from my restaurant, Mahalia's Sweet Tea. Latasha owns the salon and has been cutting and styling our hair for years, even though Wavonne wears wigs much of the time. As Wavonne mentioned, I was blessed with "good hair" that doesn't need to be relaxed, but running a restaurant doesn't leave me a lot of time to fuss with it. So, much to Wavonne's annoyance, I keep it fairly short.
"I like Halia's cut." Latasha comes to my defense. "It frames her face nicely. It gives her a contemporary look ... makes her look neat and professional."
"What it 'makes her look' is like the sista in those Popeyes commercials." Wavonne turns her eyes to me. "Now, if only your fried chicken was as good as Popeyes'," she adds, an evil grin rising on her face.
Latasha and I gasp in unison.
"You did not just insult her fried chicken?! Them's fightin' words," Latasha says with a laugh.
"Damn right, they are." I look at Wavonne. "Don't make me take my earrings off."
"Simmer down, Halia. I'm just messin' with you. We all know you serve the best fried chicken in town." She shifts her eyes to Latasha's reflection in the mirror. "You gotta play to the old girl's ego sometimes," she says. "She ain't got no man, so her fried chicken is all she has."
"Old girl? First you insult my chicken, and then you call me old. Keep it up, Wavonne, and I'll conspire with Latasha to leave that relaxer on your hair until it falls out."
"Calm down, ladies. There'll be no hair falling out in my salon. It's bad for business," Latasha says. "And I certainly don't want any mishaps with Monique Dupree due here in two days."
"Monique Dupree?!" Wavonne exclaims. "Is comin' here?!"
"Who's Monique Dupree?" I inquire.
Wavonne ignores my question. "Why's Monique Dupree comin' here?"
"She's kicking off a cross-country tour at the Unique Chic Hair Convention in the city this weekend. From there, she'll be traveling all over the United States doing promotional events and visiting salons. We sell a lot of her products, so Illusions made the cut as one of the few stores that she plans to visit before she leaves the DC area. She'll be here on Friday for a meet and greet. My clients are really excited. She's originally from this area, you know. She moved to New York back in the nineties and hit the big time. She only recently took up residence here in Maryland again. Supposedly, she had some grand house custom built in Mitchellville."
"Mitchellville? Swanky," Wavonne says. "I'll have to stop by on Friday ... and I should get tickets to the convention. They'll probably have some good samples and giveaways. Lately I've been tryin' this new stuff ... GrowNRestore cream. It has Jamaican Black Castor Oil in it."
"Jamaican Black Castor Oil?" Latasha inquires.
"Yes. It's the latest thing. The package said it stimulates growth and helps repair dry, damaged hair ... and breakages. I've only been using it for five days. I hope it kicks in soon."
Latasha and I exchange brief glances via the mirror as both of us know that whatever claims the label of this GrowNRestore cream makes, it could contain holy water blessed by Jesus Christ himself, and it still likely wouldn't grow or restore Wavonne's hair, which, much like my relationship with moderation and chocolate cake, is beyond repair. Latasha does the best she can, but between Wavonne's hot iron, cheap home relaxers, and the bargain bin dyes that she uses between salon visits, comparisons between Wavonne's locks and a Brillo Pad are not exactly unwarranted.
"I've never heard of this Jamaican coconut oil stuff. You'd —"
"Castor oil," Wavonne corrects.
"Whatever," Latasha says. "If you don't have any luck with that, I'd recommend Monique's Crème De Curl and her taming balm. We sell the Crème De Curl like crazy. In fact, my stylists and I sold more of it than any other salon in Maryland ... well, except for one ... apparently Salon Soleil in Upper Marlboro was her number one seller. I hear the owner, Odessa Thornton, is a personal friend of Monique's."
"Who is this Monique woman?" I ask again.
My question, for the second time, gets lost in Wavonne and Latasha's exchange.
"I've heard of Odessa and Salon Soleil. My girl Melva gets her high bun with a twist done there. It's supposedly off-the-chain luxurious, but you can't get an appointment there to save your life. Melva says that Odessa can throw down with a hot comb ... booked solid through Christmas. I called there. ..." Wavonne lets her voice trail off as her blabbermouth self realizes she is about to commit a cardinal beauty shop offense by admitting that she was trying to secure an appointment with another stylist. "I called there ... you know ... once ... just once when you were on vacation, and I needed my roots touched up."
"Only once, eh?" Latasha questions. "It couldn't wait until I got back?" she asks with a chuckle just to give Wavonne a hard time.
"I don't know. Maybe I had a hot date or somethin' ... and all my wigs were at the cleaners."
Latasha grins, decides to let Wavonne off the hook, and returns to talk of hair care products. "Well, if you want to go sans wigs more often, you really should try Monique's Crème De Curl. It's meant for curls, but it's a great cream even for relaxed hair like yours. I'll give you a discount on your first bottle."
"Girl, you've already sold enough of Monique's swag to get a visit from her. You don't need to be pushin' her potions on me. Girlfriend does make some good stuff, though." Wavonne pauses for a moment. "Monique Dupree. Comin' here."
"If someone doesn't tell me who this Monique Dupree person is ..."
"How can you not know who she is, Halia?" Latasha questions, almost as if she's scolding me.
"Pay her no mind," Wavonne says. "Halia's idea of hair care products is some Suave shampoo and a can of Aqua Net."
"Monique is only about the biggest thing to happen in the world of African American hair since Jheri Redding invented the Jheri Curl."
"Oh my," I say. "I remember the Jheri Curl. Boy did people go through a lot of trouble to sport a greasy mop of damaged hair."
"I've seen photos of sistas with the Jheri Curl," Wavonne says. "I'm glad that mess was before my time."
"Call it what you want, and I know you weren't even out of the womb when it was popular," I say to her, "but, back in the day, once Michael Jackson showed it off on the cover of his Thriller album, everyone had to have one."
"Believe it or not, I still do Jheri Curls for a few of my customers. I don't think you can buy the actual Jheri Curl brand anymore, but there are other products with the same effect still available. I try to steer customers toward something more contemporary, but, in the end, it's their hair ... you know, the 'customer is always right' and all that jazz. If they insist on looking the same way they did when DeBarge was topping the charts, so be it."
"Do you still use that greasy activator?"
"I had friends in high school with the Jheri Curl. Their hair was so slick it stained everything it came into contact with. Momma didn't even want them sitting on the sofa," I say.
"And it still stains like crazy, but on the plus side, it requires touching up fairly often, so, you know ... cha-ching, cha-ching," Latasha says, making little cash register noises. "My 'Jheri Curlers,' as I call them, help me make the payments on my Lexus."
"I bet they do." I smile, before, once again, asking about this woman the two of them are so excited about. "So Monique sells beauty products?"
"Halia, you make it sound like she's an Avon Lady." Latasha points a finger toward the shelves by the reception desk. "That entire wall is full of Monique Dupree's line, Hair by Monique. I'm sure you'd recognize her if you saw her. Her infomercials run all the time. They're fun to watch even if you don't buy anything. She's always decked out in loud sparkly clothes, hocking her straightening cream and pomades while drinking martinis and gossiping about Hollywood big shots. She's even had some celebrities on ... Solange, Robin Givens, Sanaa Lathan ... that girl that was in one of the Madea movies ..."
"So we're using the term 'celebrity' rather loosely?" I comment.
"Joke if you must, Halia," Wavonne says. "But Monique is the real deal. She's worth millions. I can't wait to meet her! What time should we come over on Friday? We'll even whip up some refreshments at Sweet Tea for your guests."
"We?" I ask, knowing that the only thing Wavonne knows how to "whip up" is a peanut butter sandwich.
"It's the least we ... you can do for the chance to meet an icon," Wavonne says.
"If she really is all that, I guess I can put together a few treats if you like, Latasha."
"Are you kidding? I'd love that! And, who knows, maybe you'll get to plug Sweet Tea on television."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh ... did I forget to mention that Monique is traveling with a camera crew. When she kicks off her Wear It Straight tour at the convention center this weekend, she'll be recording the event. Actually, she'll be recording her entire tour, including her stop here — supposedly to gather footage for her TV promotions. But, rumor has it, she is planning to make a documentary about her rise from junior stylist at a local Prince George's County HairPair to the reigning queen of exclusive beauty products for black women. Honestly, I think the whole thing is designed to revive Sleek, her relaxing cream. It's the product that drove her initial success, but as you've probably noticed, more and more sisters are going natural these days, and relaxer sales have been slumping."
"Who cares about the reason as long as we can get on TV!"
Wavonne exclaims. "Oooh girl, I better pull Esther out from the wig box ... this calls for one of my 'good' wigs."
"You have a wig named Esther?"
"I've got names for all my wigs. Esther's my best one ... real human hair from Eastern Europe. Alma's real hair too, but not quite as nice. Maxine's my party wig ... she's made of nylon or some synthetic somethin', but she cleans up well and goes clear down to my waist ... pair her with one of my short sheath dresses and some platform booties, and I'm good for a night at the club. Gladys is more of an everyday wig ... she's —"
"We'll be here all day, Wavonne," I say, visions of Wavonne's closet, stacked with wig boxes, coming to mind. "I'm sure you'll look very nice in whatever wig you decide to wear if you happen to get on camera." I turn my gaze to Latasha. "How many people are you expecting?"
"Forty or so ... mostly regular clients. They are all very excited to meet Monique, and I'm sure they'll be thrilled to find that you've brought some of your culinary creations from Sweet Tea."
"I'll think about a menu this evening. We'll bring a nice spread for this in famous Monique and your other guests. I must admit I'm a little intrigued to meet her after hearing the two of you gush."
"Thank you, Halia. I think it will be a really nice event."
Latasha places a plastic cap over Wavonne's relaxer-coated head and steps over to me. She reaches for the dryer and curling brush and begins to blow out my hair. As the noise from the dryer halts our conversation I begin to think of what I'll prepare for the event with Ms. Dupree. I'm lost in thought about mini corn muffins with honey butter and chicken salad tartlets with candied pecans when she finally turns the dryer off and starts giving my hair a final once-over with a comb.
"Voilà," she says after giving my hair a light spray.
"Looks great," I compliment as she unsnaps the smock from around my neck.
Before getting up from the chair I take in my reflection. I'm not a beautiful woman ... cute maybe ... in a very unassuming way ... although "cute" isn't really a word used to describe women like me who shop in the plus-size department and have been on the other side of forty for a few years now.
Much like Oprah, I knew early on that my currency in life was not going to be my looks. I'd like to think I'm reasonably attractive, but I've never been a head turner, and, although I enjoy getting gussied up for the infrequent special occasion, I've never really had a passionate interest in fashion ... or makeup ... or the latest hairstyles. I decided a long time ago I'd make my way in life with my smarts, a little personality, and a talent for cooking up some of the best soul food south of Sylvia's in Harlem.
As I rise from the chair, I think about how I used the word "unassuming" to describe myself. Then I look over at Wavonne, who's tapping away at her phone with one of her long red fingernails while Latasha removes the cap and runs a comb through her hair. "Unassuming" is so not a word I would use to describe Wavonne. Even with her hair lying flat against her scalp as the relaxer works its magic, she's still all flash and glitter — her face made up with a mix of loud eyeshadows, blush, and a shade of MAC lipstick she told me was called Russian Red. She's also sporting these things called double-stacked fake eyelashes. I'd never even heard of such things until she came home with them the other day, claiming they are the same type worn by Nicki Minaj.
Wavonne is on the tail end of her twenties. She's my cousin who has been living with Momma and me since adolescence, when social services deemed my aunt no longer fit to care for her. She has a good heart and I love her, but she's a handful. I employ her as a server at Sweet Tea, but work and Wavonne have never gotten along terribly well. If she weren't family, I'd have sacked her a long time ago.
I read a magazine while Latasha escorts Wavonne back to the sinks for the highly involved process of rinsing and neutralizing ... and conditioning before leading her back to the styling chair. Once Latasha has dried and styled the freshly straightened hair, she removes Wavonne's smock to reveal a Rubenesque figure a size or two larger than mine in a pair of tight black jeans and a snug low-cut top that highlights Wavonne's ample cleavage.
I watch as Wavonne hops out of her chair onto a pair of pointytoe pumps, which may have come from Payless or could be a designer brand she got off eBay or Craigslist. I can never tell with her purses, either. She buys knock-offs from street vendors, but she also procures "gently used" designer bags online ... and I seem to remember her belonging to some silly club that lets women rent expensive handbags and trade them out for new ones every month.
"Ready to go to work?" I ask Wavonne as we gather our things and walk over to the reception desk with Latasha to pay the bill.
I look at my watch. It's almost ten thirty in the morning. Laura, my assistant manager, comes into the restaurant at eight, and Momma's probably been there since six doing her baking, but I'd still like to be there when we open in thirty minutes.
"I just got my hair done," Wavonne says. "I hate to waste my new 'do on a shift at Sweet Tea. I guess I'll just have to go out after work and show it off. Maybe I'll get some of the girls together, and we'll go have some drinks. Why don't you join us, Halia?"
I laugh. "Did you just meet me?" I ask. "When was the last time I went out for late night drinks on a Wednesday?"
"Live a little, Halia. There's more to life than making waffles and brewin' iced tea. And, Lord knows, you ain't gonna find no man hauled up in the kitchen at Sweet Tea all day every day."
"You should go out tonight, Halia, and show off your fresh cut," Latasha says.
"The only thing I'll be doing after work tonight is taking a quick shower and curling up with a good book ... or a little late night TV."
"That's our girl," Wavonne says. "Party party party."
"I think you 'party party party' enough for both of us," I say, and hand Latasha my credit card, which she runs through the machine. I sign the receipt and give her a nice tip in cash. Then we say our good-byes and head toward the door with Wavonne, once again, grumbling about wasting her "new 'do" waiting tables at Sweet Tea.CHAPTER 2
"Hi, Momma," I say as Wavonne and I enter the Sweet Tea kitchen. Five of her famous freshly iced butter pecan cakes are on display on the counter in front of her.
"Those look divine," I compliment, eyeing her creations — decadent cakes made with apple sauce, cinnamon, and finely chopped pecans, which Momma covers with a whipped frosting made from butter, confectioners' sugar, and a touch of cooked caramel.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder with Collard Greens and Hot Sauce"
Copyright © 2019 A.L. Herbert.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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