When the organizing committee for her upcoming high school reunion desperately needs a caterer, Halia agrees to help out. Soon she's serving up her signature macaroni and cheese and famous chicken wings to a host of appreciative ex-classmates. Some folks have blossomed since graduation. Others, like manipulative Raynell Rollins, currently married to a former football star, haven't changed nearly enough.
When Raynell is found dead the morning after the reunion, the role call of possible suspects could fill the school gymnasium. Extra-marital affairs, mega-church scandals and sports secrets...Raynell had her perfectly manicured hand in a lot of sticky situations. With her cousin Wavonne's bungling assistanceand a helping of unwelcome dating advice from her mother, CeliaHalia is on course to track down the killer, before she becomes the alumna most likely to meet an untimely end...
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Murder with Macaroni and Cheese
A Mahalia Watkins Soul Food Mystery
By A.L. Herbert
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 A. L. Herbert
All rights reserved.
"Someone needs to turn the heat down out there. I'm about to sweat my wig off," Wavonne says as she comes through the front door of Mahalia's Sweet Tea. "But it sure feels good in here." She leans her head and shoulders back, rolls her neck from side to side, and takes in the cool air pumping through the vents from three air conditioners toiling at maximum capacity on the roof above my restaurant.
"It is a scorcher." I look at my watch. "You were supposed to be here an hour ago and help us set up for lunch. We'll be busy today. People will want to get out of the heat and into the air conditioning. We'll go through iced tea like crazy."
"Speakin' of iced tea. What kind we got on special today? I need to get me a glass."
"It's strawberry. Laura brewed the syrup early this morning."
Laura is my assistant manager and, thankfully, a morning person. She usually gets in around eight a.m. and starts working with my kitchen prep staff to have us ready for our lunch opening at eleven. I generally come in after ten and stay until after we close. On weeknights it's often past eleven p.m. when I leave and usually later than that on Friday and Saturday nights.
"Strawberry! That's my fave!" Wavonne hurries toward the back of the restaurant where we keep the tea dispensers.
I stand by the bar as I watch Wavonne scoop some ice, drop it into a tall glass, add a big serving of homemade strawberry syrup, and fill the whole thing with sweet tea. For customers, we add the syrup to unsweetened tea — the strawberry flavoring is made from berries and plenty of sugar, so it adds a nice touch of sweetness to regular tea. But Wavonne likes her tea so sweet the straw practically stands up on its own.
"You do realize you are here to work, Wavonne, no?" I watch her linger by the drink station, alternating between sipping and stirring her tea with a straw as if she's a customer on a leisurely lunch break rather than a paid employee.
Wavonne is my significantly younger cousin and, after a troubled youth that involved only sporadic amounts of supervision from my alcoholic aunt, came to live with Momma and me when she was thirteen and has been a handful ever since. She's in her twenties now, but I still find myself reprimanding her as often as I did when she was a teenager.
"All right, all right. Slow your roll, boss lady." She pulls a lavender tie from her pocket and starts tying it around her neck. All my servers wear black pants, long-sleeve white shirts, and pastel ties. But all my servers certainly do not tell me to "slow my roll" or call me "boss lady." As a member of the family I allow Wavonne a certain amount of slack, and, knowing that I'll never fire her, she takes every bit of it. But, honestly, given her history, most days I'm happy that she manages to show up for work at all.
I'm about to ask Wavonne to make sure we have enough rolled silverware on hand for the lunch crowd when I see Saundra, my afternoon hostess, with the phone in her hand, motioning for me to come to the hostess stand.
"There's a call for you. I said I'd take a message, but she insisted on speaking with you now. She said she's Raynell Rollins's assistant."
"Raynell Rollins?" It takes a moment for the name to register. It's not a name I've heard in quite some time — I have, however, seen it all over town. I haven't been in touch with her since high school, but Raynell Rollins is a local real estate agent — you can hardly visit any of the better neighborhoods here in Prince George's County, Maryland, without running into one of her "For Sale" signs with her photo plastered on it. "Wonder what she wants," I say more to myself than Saundra, remembering how my friend Nicole, the only person from high school with whom I've kept in regular contact, gave me an update on Raynell a while back. She told me that Raynell married Terrence Rollins shortly after college when he was starting for the Washington Redskins. Nicole, who loves to gossip and has way more time to surf Facebook than I do, also recently informed me that Terrence, who has since retired from playing football, is now a sports anchor on a local station. I don't really follow sports, but I've seen him on the news a few times. Per Nicole, thanks to Terrence's past as a star football player and his current presence as an on-air personality, Raynell has managed to build quite the little real estate sales empire — mostly by tapping Terrence's network of broadcasting and professional-sport-player friends as clients.
I take the phone from Saundra and lift it to my ear. "This is Halia."
"My name is Christy Garner. I'm Raynell Rollins's assistant. She asked me to set up a lunch date with you."
"Really? Any particular reason? I haven't seen Raynell since high school." I'm considering adding that you can count on one hand the number of times Raynell and I spoke to each other while we actually were in high school, but I decide not to go there. Although I don't recall Raynell being a particularly nice person, it's not like there was any animosity between the two of us or anything like that — we just didn't run in the same circles.
"Ms. Rollins is scouting venues for her ... and I guess your high school reunion. She would like to discuss possibly holding the event in your restaurant."
"I thought the reunion was going to be at Colony South Hotel. It's in less than two weeks, isn't it?"
I got an invite to the event months ago and sent my regrets. I rarely take off Saturday nights, and, aside from Nicole, who I already see all the time, there isn't really anyone who I'm terribly eager to reconnect with, so I decided not to bother attending.
"There was a water main break at the hotel. They won't have the event space repaired in time."
"Really? That's a shame."
"Raynell heard that you owned a local restaurant and thought you might be able to host the affair."
"I'd be happy to discuss it with Raynell."
I wonder why Raynell didn't just call me herself, but if memory serves me correct, Raynell was one for putting on airs — using an assistant as an intermediary is probably just one of those wealth and status things I don't understand.
"Why don't you ask her to come by for lunch tomorrow, and we'll talk about it?" I offer even though it's highly unlikely that I'll agree to host the event at Sweet Tea. Depending on how many members of our graduating class are attending, hosting the reunion might mean closing the whole restaurant for an entire evening to accommodate the crowd. I doubt the reunion committee has the kind of money I would have to charge to make up for a Saturday night's worth of lost receipts. Besides, I learned the hard way that closing Sweet Tea for a private event is not a great idea. A few years ago, for a hefty sum, I agreed to close the place to host a wedding reception for the daughter of the owner of King Town Center, which houses Sweet Tea. He agreed to more than cover any lost revenue and, when the man who can raise your rent come lease-renewal time makes a request, you think long and hard before saying no. I tried to get the word out to my clientele about the closure that particular night a few weeks prior to the reception. Among other things, I displayed a poster at the hostess stand and put a notice on our Web site. I even sent e-mails to patrons on our contact list, but my efforts proved to be of no avail. Customer after customer came through the front door wanting a table the night of the reception. Believe me, you have not seen angry until you've had to turn away mouths that were all set to bite into crispy fried chicken and fluffy waffles. And some of the customers I had to deny entry to seemed to take it as a personal offense and posted some rather unpleasant commentary on Yelp. I just don't feel like going through all that commotion again.
"Raynell is available at twelve thirty tomorrow afternoon."
"That would be fine. Please tell her to come by Sweet Tea then."
"Sure. I will likely accompany her, and she may invite Alvetta Marshall, who has also been involved in the reunion planning. If that's okay?"
Alvetta registers in my head — another one I haven't seen since high school. I'm sure she's referring to the girl I knew as Alvetta Jordan. I remember Alvetta being nicer than Raynell, and, although she was prettier than Raynell, she was definitely the "number two" girl at my high school. Raynell was the clear leader of the gang of "it" girls, and Alvetta was her primary minion. I think there were six or seven girls in Raynell's little squadron. They all followed Raynell around like newborn ducklings waddling behind their mother. Raynell said "jump," and Alvetta and the others said "How high ... and in what kind of shoes?" I remember when Raynell got that horrible asymmetrical 'shroom haircut that was big in the eighties — next thing you knew, Alvetta and the other underlings were chopping one side of their hair and leaving the other side long to match their queen. Raynell bought an acid-wash denim jacket and, within days, it became like a new uniform for her girls. When neon was popular the whole lot of them wandered the halls like a walking advertisement for Day-Glo highlighters. I remember them going through a phase when each of them constantly sported a neon beaded necklace. They each had a different color — Raynell probably assigned them. I can't recall the colors the other girls wore, but I do remember that Raynell's necklace was bright green — only because the intense color reminded me of a St. Patrick's Day leprechaun. Raynell isn't much taller than a leprechaun, and seeing her roam the school halls in her colored necklace always made me picture her with a green top hat and pointy-toe green shoes with gold buckles on them. The image was always good for a laugh.
"Okay. I will confirm with Raynell, and we'll plan to see you tomorrow."
"Who was that?" Wavonne asks after I hang up the phone.
"The assistant to one Raynell Rollins. I went to high school with her — Raynell — not the assistant. Apparently, Raynell is on the reunion committee. Remember? I told you about the invite I got for it?"
"Yep. And I still don't get why you ain't goin'— all those former classmates who are likely eligible brothas. By the time people get to your age, Halia ... you know ... all old and creaky ... half of them have been divorced and are on the prowl again."
I laugh. "You'll be in your forties one day, too, Wavonne. I hope to be there the first time someone calls you 'old and creaky.' "
She rolls her eyes at me. "You know some of those brothas have been beaten down by naggin' wives for years. They probably all damaged ... ripe for the pickin'. If nothin' else, you could at least get a weekend fling out of it."
"Just what I need — a weekend fling with some man weighed down with more baggage than a bellman. Thanks, but no thanks!"
"Well then, don't you want to go just to show off? You own one of the most successful restaurants in town. If it were me, I'd go just to rub it in the faces of any nasty heifers who thought they were better than me in high school."
"What are you talking about?" I hear Momma say as she comes out of the kitchen into the main dining room. At seventy-four, she doesn't move as fast as she used to, but she still bakes up some mean desserts. She gets in early and whips up the cakes and pies for Sweet Tea. She's probably finished with her baking for the day and is about to head home.
"I can honestly say I have no idea, Momma."
"Halia was just remindin' me that she's skippin' her high school reunion."
"Why would you do that, Halia? Go. Mingle." Then she adds under her breath, "Find a husband ..."
"What did you say?" I ask even though I heard her. Momma is forever trying to find me a love life.
"I said for you to go and mingle ... and if you happen to find a potential romantic interest, so be it."
"You don't ever give up, do you, Momma?"
She ignores my questions. "Just go for Pete's sake ... and think like a lion while you're there — wait until an eligible man is separated from the herd and then move in for the kill. Stick with the divorced ones. Anyone who's never been married by the time they reach your age must have something wrong with them." She notices the look on my face. "Except for you, dear. You've just been ... well ... busy."
"Not that it has anything to do with your badgering, Momma, but I may be going to the event after all. Apparently, there was a water main break at the hotel where they planned to have the reunion, and they need a new venue. I just got a phone call about it. One of my old classmates who is on the reunion committee wants to host the event here at Sweet Tea. She's coming by tomorrow to discuss it."
"Do you think that's a good idea, Halia?" Momma asks. "You don't need perspective suitors knowing you own a restaurant right off the bat. Men can be funny about dating women who are successful in business. Let them get to know you first," she adds as if my status as a restaurant owner is akin to a case of herpes or a prison record ... or whatever else you wouldn't mention on a first date.
"I just agreed to meet with her. I didn't say I was definitely going to host it here. I'm not keen on shutting this place down for an evening ... especially on a Saturday night. I think I'll make a few phone calls instead, and see if I might be able to secure another location. Then I can just cater the reunion. That way I can help out without having to close Sweet Tea for an evening."
"That sounds like a good idea," Momma says. "You can have staff supervise the catering, and then you can go as a guest. We'll get you a new dress —"
Wavonne cuts her off. "And maybe we can do somethin' with that hair of hers," she says to Momma, and then turns to me. "Let me give you a full makeover, Halia. I'll do your makeup and loan you a wig ... one of the good ones with the European hair. I'll have you lookin' straight-up pimp in no time."
"I don't think 'straight-up pimp,' whatever that means, is exactly my style. But thanks all the same, Wavonne."
"Suit yourself, but that Eddie Bauer/L.L. Bean getup you got goin' on is not goin' to get you noticed."
"I'm on my feet and moving around this restaurant all day. I like to be comfortable, Wavonne."
"Fine. Be comfortable. But you ain't gonna land no man at your reunion lookin' all frumpadump."
"Whatever, Wavonne. My 'frumpadump' self has work to do, and so do you." I turn to Momma. "And isn't it time for you to get on out of here?"
Momma looks at her watch. "Why, yes. It really is. I've got to run, girls," she says to Wavonne and me before focusing her eyes on just me. "I do hope you attend the reunion, Halia. And remember what I said: you're the lion, and the single men are the gazelles. As soon as one lags behind —"
My back is already turned to her as I cut her off on my way to my office to make some calls and see about finding a venue for the reunion. "I know, Momma: 'Move in for the kill.' "CHAPTER 2
"Wavonne! If I catch you doing that one more time ..." I let my voice trail off as we both know whatever I say is no more than an empty threat. She just used a glass to scoop herself a cup of ice out of the well instead of the metal scooper. She does this all the time, and last year, in the middle of the dinner rush, she broke a glass in the process — we had to pour hot water in the well to melt all the ice and make sure we didn't miss any shards. Then restock the whole thing.
"My bad, my bad." Wavonne dumps the ice back into the cooler and uses the scooper to fill her glass before placing it under the sweet tea dispenser. "What time your high school friends comin' over?" "They should be here soon. And I wouldn't call them 'friends.' They are just former classmates. We barely interacted in high school at all."
"Oh ... so they were the popular girls?"
"What makes you think I didn't hang out with the popular girls?"
"'Cause you were probably always cookin' with Grandmommy or had your nose buried in some book."
"So what if I spent time in the kitchen as a teenager and liked to read? I turned out okay."
"How about the chicks you have comin' in here? How'd they turn out?"
"I don't really know. I haven't seen them in over twenty years."
"What are their names again?" Wavonne pulls out her phone.
"Raynell Rollins and Alvetta Marshall. Why?"
Wavonne starts typing on her phone. "Here's Alvetta." She places her phone under my nose.
"Ah ... the magic of Facebook." I take the phone, click on Alvetta's main photo, and watch it enlarge on the screen. "She looks good ... really good."
Excerpted from Murder with Macaroni and Cheese by A.L. Herbert. Copyright © 2016 A. L. Herbert. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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