It’s time for the Irish Spring at the Ballantyne Foundation, and charity director/PI-in-training Elliott Lisbon kicks off the annual Pot of Gold Cook-Off in shamrock style. Twenty chefs compete for the corned beef and cabbage crown but only one can win the title.
The odds improve when one chef goes missing…until Elli finds the Ballantyne’s own Chef Carmichael standing over the body with a knife. With pug puppies, Colonel Mustard and Mrs. White, by her side, Elli searches both sides of coastal living for a clue to the killer. From million dollar condos to a run-down trailer park, the evidence pits her against sexy Nick Ransom, and the case gets hotter than a handful of peppercorns.
Something about the case smells funny—and it has nothing to do with the cook-off. The luck of the Irish is nowhere in sight, but if Elli can’t crack this one open, Chef’s goose will get cooked for good.
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POT LUCK by Kendel Lynn | A Henery Press Mystery. If you like one, you'll probably like them all.
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About the Author
Amanda Dolan is a New York City-based actor. She has an MFA from Brown University and tries to put it to good use as often as she can. In addition to acting, Amanda works as a theater educator and a musician.
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(Day #1: Saturday Morning)
I walked the dirt path from the parking lot to the main road of Fisher's Landing Trailer Park and Yacht Club, counting two spots until I reached number three. I'd barely placed one sneaker on the plastic grass when two brown dogs barreled toward me. Barking and snapping with their legs rushing at full speed. I was nearly trampled to death. Seeing how they were no larger than a pair of Beanie Babies, I survived.
Whilst I rolled around in love at first sight, and not kidding, in my complete time on Planet Earth, I'd never seen something as cute as those pug puppies, with their silky tan coats and squishy black faces, Lola Carmichael exited her Airstream with a snap of her gum and a swing of her hip. Both trailer and owner were circa 1952 — Mad Men had nothing on Lola Carmichael. She wore her beehive like a helmet and kept her jewelry plastic. Today it was all glittered and green.
"Aren't they marvelous?" Lola tossed down what look like two petrified Slim Jims and the pugs abandoned me. They settled on the ten foot patch of AstroTurf that covered her front lawn area, gnawing on their mini logs. "That's Colonel Mustard and Mrs. White. My new watch dogs. Though someone could steal my whole kit and caboodle and those two wouldn't notice with a Bully Stick in front of 'em. Don'tcha just want to scoop them up and put 'em in your pocket?"
"Immediately." And I meant it. Metaphorically. I like my pets the same way I like my children. Under someone else's ownership.
Lola dusted off an aluminum chair, the kind with frayed vinyl slats, and gestured for me to sit. "Thanks for popping over, Elli. I know you're busy with the big party today and all, but when I saw you park at Tug's, I saw it as fate. I could really use your help. A favor, really."
"Of course," I said.
Lola fidgeted. First with her hair. Then her nails. Then the turquoise princess phone sitting on the table. Its twenty-foot cord wound across the lawn patch and through the screen door of the trailer. "Can I getcha some pretzel salad? Made a fresh batch this morning."
"Pretzel salad? That's a thing?"
"Sure is. Jell-O, fresh pineapple, gooseberries. Irish cream, homemade. And not to brag, but mine's kind of legend here in the park. It's the Pennsylvania pretzel base. Makes it slap-your-grandma -in-the-face good."
"Huh. Well, I ate an enormous breakfast, but maybe next time." Or never. Jell-O, pretzels, and Irish cream?
"How about a lemonade? With iced tea? Or just iced tea? I've got instant coffee, put a dollop of Irish cream in there?" Lola jumped up so fast, she startled Colonel Mustard. He barked and yipped until she rubbed behind his velvet puppy ears in reassurance that all was safe.
"Lola, what can I help you with?" I asked, discreetly shifting my bottom into a more comfortable section of the pre-worn chair slats.
"I know I'm not one of your fancy donors," Lola said, easing back into her chair, crossing her legs, adjusting her top. "But I always give to the Children's Hospital Wonderland Tea."
"We appreciate your support. Whatever you need, Lola." As Director of the billion-dollar Ballantyne Foundation, I often helped many an islander with discreet inquiries. It was part of my job description. And I was in hot pursuit of my PI license to help my endeavors. Only four thousand hours until I was official.
"Vivi Ballantyne helped me out of a jam. Really more than one, honest to Pete. She's always been good to me, you know?"
"Absolutely. Vivi adores you. I'll help in any way I can."
"Which probably means I owe her, not the other way around," Lola said. "I get that. But I need the help."
"Lola, I'll help," I said, trying to sound patient as Lola dragged her feet as if she was about to ask me for a kidney.
"Vivi is the one person I trust with my life, certainly with my business." Lola waved her arms in the vicinity of the trailer park. "And if she trusts you with her Ballantyne —"
I reached out to touch her shoulder and nearly toppled over in the lightweight nine-ounce aluminum chair. I righted myself. "Lola, I'm in."
She scooched in closer, the chair softly rattling against the plastic grass. "Someone paid off my mortgage. Here at Fisher's Landing."
"For your trailer?"
"For the park," she said. "Like I said, my whole kit and caboodle."
"Someone paid your mortgage, and this is bad?"
"My luck ain't that good." She walked over to the screen door and popped inside.
I knew she was the manager, had been as long as I'd lived on Sea Pine Island, but owner?
She came out and handed me a folder. "Here's everything on the place. Fisher's Landing. I got the trailer park and yacht club in my divorce settlement. Tug owns Tug's, but I lease him the land. Standard lease. He pays on time. I've always had a mortgage on the Landing. But lately I've been running behind on payments. Like for a few months. Maybe more than a few. Close to six. I was headed to the lawyer's today to look at bankruptcy options."
I leaned in, one hand on her arm, the other on the folder. "Oh, Lola, things are that bad?"
"Well, not anymore. And that worries me."
I glanced through the folder. Looked like standard paperwork not meant to be understood at a glance. More like a two-hour sit down with a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a doctorate degree in financial management. "I'll look into it first thing Monday, see what I can find out."
Lola actually smiled for the first time since I arrived. "You're the best, Elliott."
I hoisted myself from the clingy chair slats, folder in one hand. I casually rubbed Colonel Mustard's belly with the other until he yipped at me. Probably thought I was going to swipe his Bully Stick and run. "You coming to the Irish Spring at the Big House?"
"I thought that's usually a nighttime shindig," Lola said.
"We switched it this year. A beer tasting and corned beef cabbage cook-off is better held on the back lawn in the sunshine." The Ballantyne held the largest St. Patrick's Day party on the island. Half fundraiser, half excuse to host a backyard party. "You should come, Lola."
"No, not me. Those foodies and I go way back." She fluffed her hair hat. "Really way back. Not my crowd."
"It'll be fun. I know you love St. Patrick's Day." I gestured to her tight green top, sparkly green nails, and dangling clover earrings. It was a lot of green, considering the official holiday was still three days away.
She smiled and touched her earrings. "I can't. I had a falling out with the chefs."
"All of them? The cook-off features about twenty different chefs."
Lola shrugged. "Most. The Carmichael clan, anyhoo."
Chef Carmichael, who owned a renowned eatery on Sea Pine Island, had participated in many a Ballantyne function. He'd never served on our board, but we still considered him one of our own.
Lola Carmichael, Chef Carmichael. I'd never put it together. "You're related to Chef?
"By divorce. My ex is his brother. I kept the trailer and the park, he kept his girlfriend and the Winnebago. They drive-in for the Savannah St. Pat's parade every year."
"Carmichael is Scottish, though, right?"
"Yes, but green beer is still beer."
"They won't be at the Ballantyne party. Chef Carmichael, yes, but the rest of the clan, no. I've never met them nor seen a Winnebago in valet." With a last pat to Mrs. White, ignoring the temptation to actually stick her in my pocket and abscond, I walked toward the drive. "Think about it, Lola. Vivi would be delighted if you came to the Irish Spring."
"You'll call me on Monday when you find out?" Lola asked with a nod to the folder.
I held it up. "Definitely. Who knows? Maybe you have a secret admirer."
She swung her hip. "My admirers don't keep me a secret."
I laughed and headed toward Tug Jensen standing near my Mini convertible. I had wedged it into a half-spot reserved for scooters near the entertainment center slash laundry room of the trailer park.
"I saw you head to Lola's after you pulled up," Tug said. He was a scruffy man who looked like he owned a bar in a trailer park, one appropriately named Tug Boat Slim's. "Everything okay?"
"Everything's great," I said. "Sorry I'm a little late."
"Perfect timing, actually," he said. He held an eight-foot Blue Marlin, complete with a two-foot, razor-sharp spear nose. Spear bill? Upper-jaw portion of its face. I was never sure if Tug had caught this sucker in the wild or if he'd purchased it off eBay, but when he handed it to me and I didn't tip over from its weight, I had my answer. "Thanks for the help," Tug said. "We're all packed up, but Marley needs special handling. He's the centerpiece of our display. You got this?"
I glanced from the eight-foot fish to my three-foot backseat. "Sure, Tug. See you there."
He trotted off to a line of trucks stuffed with grills and pots and chowder-making goods, all headed to the Big House. Another of my directorship duties: making sure the Irish Spring ran smoothly. Even if that included barreling down Cabana Boulevard with a fiberglass marlin precariously perched out the back of my Mini Coop.
I stood it upright in the backseat (not on the leather, I'm not a hillbilly) with its tail resting comfortably on the floor and its spear pointing jauntily toward the sky. With Marley secure (ish), I snapped my seatbelt and drove out of the mostly empty lot. Only two cars left behind. One I didn't recognize and one I did. Bitsy Obermeyer's. Her Mercedes stuck out like a Pucci kaftan at a yard sale. Also because it was pink. I glanced around but didn't see her, and Tug's bar looked empty.
I didn't give it another thought, and with nary a care, I zipped down Cabana Boulevard away from the Palmetto Bridge that connected the island to South Carolina. The sun was bright and the briny air whipped around me, the luck of the Irish breezing me along toward the Ballantyne's Big House and the Irish Spring backyard party.
I'd never been great at recognizing the foreshadows life offered me. I once had a platter of petit fours slung at me and I never saw it coming. But like my dear friend Mary Poppins once mused, something was brewing and whatever was to happen had happened before. Or maybe it was Burt who predicted the change in the winds. Either way, that weather vane flipped directions, and me and my merry marlin didn't even notice. That damn stupid ridiculous oversized fiberglass juggernaut shoved into my backseat. It changed my life. And not for the better.CHAPTER 2
(Day #1: Saturday Afternoon)
The Ballantyne Big House manse served as the headquarters for the Ballantyne Foundation as well as home to Edward and Vivi Ballantyne. It earned its nickname the old-fashioned way: it looked like a Big House. Also, the number of peccadillos, transgressions, and misdemeanors may have been more suited to an episode of Orange is the New Black — if it were G-rated and performed by an all American cast of Downton Abbey. The Big House had grandeur and grace and sat up high surrounded by acres of magnolias and live oaks, sharing its splendor with all of Oyster Cove Plantation. At least what one could see from the front.
Today the front looked elegant and bright. Flowers blooming in oversized pots bordered the long drive. The last of the lumbering delivery trucks drove away, while the gardening staff finished draping the front banisters with green, white, and orange silks. We'd been planning the party for a month, actively setting up for three days. While most folks enjoyed parties that raged late into the night, I preferred our leisurely afternoon garden parties. Especially those that included table after table of chef-driven Crock-Pot cookery.
After I handed the marlin to one of Tug's servers and juggled three chefs needing immediate attention, I carried eighteen platters of Guinness chocolate cake cups in four trips. With everything running mostly on time, I went into my office to change. Normally I'd just drive the two miles down to my cottage, but time was tight and I needed every minute I could save. I stared at two garment bags, trying to talk myself out of wearing the same outfit I wore last year. And the year before. Possibly one other year. I only had so many green garments (two) and this particular dress looked really great on me. Good on me. Decent. That's my bar.
"Elliott!" Tod Hayes, Ballantyne Administrator, hollered for me. From directly outside my door. "Guests are arriving. Slap on your good flip-flops and get out here."
I grabbed the familiar Monique Lhuillier sleeveless fit and flare that was more French chartreuse than Kelly green and figured I'd call it my lucky outfit. Like a uniform. It worked for Michael Kors. The man wore the same outfit every day. Certainly I can sport a lucky outfit at a St. Patrick's Day party four years in a row.
The Ballantyne property spanned seventy-five acres. It included courts for croquet, tennis, badminton, plus gardens for vegetables, roses, and meditation. Once out the patio doors, I walked past the sparkling pool lined with chaises adorned with turquoise and lime pillows to the stretch of lawn where the area's top chefs had set up gourmet cook-off stations. Each furnished with island décor from their restaurants. Chefs from Savannah, Charleston, and here on Sea Pine Island competed in the annual Pot of Gold Cook-Off with a seriousness reserved for national competitions, as if this particular competition got them one step closer to a James Beard Award. Considering our prize was a ten-inch tall gold clover trophy, perhaps ours might be better.
Sweet tangy scents from twenty batches of corned beef swirled around the chefs and their staff members. I perused the usual cook-off fare: whiskey-glazed corned beef and cabbage, braised corned beef flat-cut brisket, and my favorite: corned beef spring rolls with a Russian dressing dipping sauce.
Nick Ransom, full-time lieutenant, part-time boyfriend, and one-time love of my life, came up behind me and kissed my neck. My skin tingled and traces of his woodsy cologne blended in contrast to the sea-salted air. "You look lovely," he said.
"Thank you," I said and twirled to face him. "It's my lucky dress."
"Lucky, huh?" He leaned in close, his lips two inches from mine.
"You feeling lucky?" I asked.
"As a matter of fact, I am." He kissed me. Warm and gentle, then deeper, as if the house were on fire and we were lucky to escape the flames.
"Well, not here, Lieutenant Lucky," I said, pulling back and looking up at him. Light lines now fanned out from his eyes, his black hair speckled with dark gray. We'd met in college some twenty something years earlier and would've stayed in love forever had he not disappeared one night leaving me with a broken heart and a determination to never experience that again.
Until he waltzed back in last year. My determination waned from time to time.
"I have a party to host," I said.
I smoothed my dress and he grabbed my hand.
"Let's get away," he said.
"Today? I'm kind of busy."
"Ha. How about this weekend? You, me, a bottle of wine. We'll fly to Fiji."
"And trade one island for another?"
"Yes, but one where we know no one." He kissed my lips, lingering softly for a full two seconds, then walked toward the long line of cook-off stations.
Ah, I thought, as I spotted Matty Gannon in the mingling crowd behind me. I waved to him, he waved back.
Matty was Headmaster at Sea Pine Prep and also one of my best friends. One I dated for a short time. And then stopped when Ransom came back into town and into my life, and boy, did that change everything. Though I'm not sure Matty and I should've been more than friends. He liked to kayak and hike and sail and I liked to not do those things. He wanted kids and a big family and wanted me to not be in love with Nick Ransom. The man who now spent more time at the Big House than most board members ever since Matty became one of those board members. Not possessive, not jealous. Just there more.
Carla Otto, Ballantyne head chef and all-round mother hen, approached as I restrained myself from sneaking a spring roll from the nearest table. "Everyone's checked in and set up and only four complaints. Five if you count Chef Carmichael, and we both know he does not count."
Chef Carmichael owned The Wharf, one of the finest dining establishments on the island. He also had a fierce rivalry with our Carla. Though Carla was winning. Chef just didn't know it.
"Nope. Zibby's set to ring the bell in —" Carla checked her watch. "Four minutes." She nodded toward the platter of corned beef spring rolls. "Already secured you two. Plus, I made your favorite Reuben. It's in the kitchen."
"With coleslaw and Russian dressing? The way Edward X. Delaney makes it?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Pot Luck"
Copyright © 2016 Kendel Lynn.
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