In the still of the night…
Halloween is approaching, and the co-owners of Zydeco Cakes, Rita Lucero and her former mother-in-law, Miss Frankie, have scored a sweet treat—a fantastic catering opportunity that could lead to a rich future for their bakery. But their good news is quickly rattled by a bump in the night when Miss Frankie’s neighbor, Bernice, barrels into her kitchen toting a Bible and a gun, and serves up a story about a ghost at her window.
Bernice swears she just saw the ghost of her moonshiner uncle who disappeared in the swamp fifteen years ago. And when her cousin soon goes missing in the same swamp, Bernice is certain someone’s playing a nasty trick, and convinces Rita and Miss Frankie to help her investigate. They’ll just need to watch their steps, as these ladies are liable to get mired in a very swampy mystery…
INCLUDES DELICIOUS RECIPES
About the Author
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“You need to tell her,” the voice inside my head whispered. It’s an annoying voice, so despite the fact that my aunt had raised me to listen when my conscience voiced an opinion, I did my best to ignore it. It isn’t always right, and besides, I was pretty sure Aunt Yolanda hadn’t counted on me having to deliver bad news to Frances Mae Renier when she gave me that advice.
Frances Mae, known by most as Miss Frankie, is my mother-in-law (which explains why Aunt Yolanda didn’t know about her when I was a kid). She’s also my business partner. Together we run Zydeco Cakes, a high-end bakery near New Orleans’s Garden District. Actually, I do much of the running. Miss Frankie is my mostly silent partner who does behind-the-scenes stuff like writing checks and nudging high-profile clients our way.
My name is Rita Lucero, and I want to say up front that, despite my hesitation to come clean with Miss Frankie, I am not a coward. I am a trained pastry chef who moved from Albuquerque to New Orleans just like that last summer when Miss Frankie offered me the chance to take over the day-to-day operations at Zydeco after the death of her son, Philippe, my almost-ex-husband. I’d had to stand up to Uncle Nestor to do it, too. Believe me, that took courage.
My complicated relationship with Miss Frankie is why I was parking the Mercedes I’d inherited from Philippe’s estate in her driveway on a Friday night. I should have been joining the rest of Zydeco’s staff for a birthday party at the Dizzy Duke, our favorite after-hours hangout. But Miss Frankie had summoned me, so here I was. I didn’t know what she wanted, but that wasn’t unusual. Still, I was feeling a little resentful as I climbed the front steps and rang her doorbell.
A stiff wind tossed the branches of the massive trees that lined the street. Their shadows did a macabre dance suitable for the Halloween season on Miss Frankie’s sweeping front lawn, and I smiled as I watched them shift and bend.
Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. Not because I’m overly fond of ghosts and goblins, but because I have sweet memories of trick-or-treating with my parents when I was young. They died in a car accident the year I turned twelve. I’ve lost too many memories of them over the years so I cling to the ones I’ve managed to keep. Losing them flipped my world upside down for a while, so I knew how much losing her only child had rocked Miss Frankie’s. I do my best to be gentle with her, which is why I was hesitating over telling her that I’d be going to Albuquerque for Christmas. We’d limped through the holidays last year, mostly ignoring the festivities and staying home rather than joining others. She tries hard not to be clingy where I’m concerned, and some days she succeeds. Others, she hangs on to me like a good-quality plastic wrap.
Miss Frankie was well aware that I had missed home since I’d moved to New Orleans. She knew that, with the exception of one brief visit from Aunt Yolanda and Uncle Nestor, I hadn’t seen my family in over a year. I’d left my familiar Hispanic culture behind and stepped into the very different world of New Orleans, and sometimes homesickness hit hard. Surely Miss Frankie would understand why I wanted to go back for Christmas. At least she’d try to.
I heard footsteps on the other side of the door, and an instant later it flew open. Miss Frankie greeted me with a warm hug and a glimmer of excitement in her golden brown eyes. In spite of the late hour, she looked ready to begin her day. Her auburn hair was teased and sprayed, a whiff of Shalimar noticeable as she wrapped her arms around me. She wore a pair of wide-legged pants and a loose-fitting tunic made of silky rust-colored fabric. A pair of off-white sandals revealed toenails painted a deep pumpkin color to match her fingernails.
“Thanks for coming, sugar. Let’s talk in the kitchen. I’ve got everything in there.”
I wondered what “everything” was, but I knew there was only one way to find out. After closing the door behind me, I followed her to the back of the house. “I can’t stay long,” I warned as we walked. “I’m meeting the rest of the staff at the Duke in half an hour to celebrate Dwight’s birthday.”
Dwight is one of Zydeco’s best cake artists and an old friend from pastry school. He’d come to New Orleans to work for Philippe, but he’d been supportive of me since Philippe died and I took over at Zydeco. I wanted to show him that I could be a good friend, too.
I was even looking forward to the party, which I considered progress since I’m not much of a partier. When Philippe and I were married, I was much more likely to be found balancing the books while he entertained our friends. Since stepping into his shoes at Zydeco, I’d been making an effort to loosen up.
Miss Frankie glanced back at me. “Is that tonight? I guess I plumb forgot about it. But don’t worry. This won’t take but a minute.” She stopped just inside the kitchen and motioned me toward the table, which was piled with magazines, recipe books, newspaper clippings, and a large three-ring binder—the kind she used whenever she coordinated a social event. It’s her favorite thing to do.
“It looks like you’ve been busy,” I said. “Are you planning a party?”
She grinned and headed for the coffeemaker. “Not exactly.” She turned back to me and linked her hands together over her chest. “Oh, sugar, isn’t it exciting? I decided to take Pearl Lee’s advice.”
I knew right then that we were in for trouble. Pearl Lee Gates is Miss Frankie’s cousin, five foot nothing of “Let’s see how much I can get away with.” She’s a few years younger than Miss Frankie, which puts her somewhere in her late fifties or early sixties, I think. Talking to her is dangerous enough. Taking her advice could be a disaster. You’d think Miss Frankie would know that by now.
“What advice is that?” I asked. I thought I sounded remarkably calm, considering.
“Well, about Christmas, of course. It’s only two months away.”
Uh-oh. I got a squidgy feeling in my stomach, and my conscience gave me a sharp poke. This was the perfect time to tell Miss Frankie about my plans. And I probably would have if she hadn’t kept talking.
“I was thinking about giving it a miss again this year. The thought of sitting around while people talk about Philippe—and you know they will—is just too much. It’s barely been more than a year since he died and people think I should be through grieving. But we both know it doesn’t ever really end.”
We’d just stepped onto uneven ground so I thought about my response before I spoke. I didn’t have any experience with losing a child, but I did know how easy it was to get stuck in the moment of a loved one’s death. I didn’t want that for Miss Frankie, and I knew Philippe wouldn’t have wanted it either. “It doesn’t end,” I agreed cautiously, “but it does change with time. I still miss my parents, but the thought of them doesn’t hurt like it used to.”
My conscience flicked me again, but Miss Frankie was staring at me with eyes that were too bright and a smile that looked too brittle. She tried so hard to cope with the death of her only child but I could tell that she was on the edge of tears, so I swallowed my news and smiled instead. “So does this mean you’re going to join your family this year?” I said. “I think that’s wonderful.”
“It’s better than that,” she said, waving me toward a chair. “We’re hosting this year.”
I think I gasped. I was all for Miss Frankie taking a step forward this year, but hosting? What was she thinking?
“You’re doing what?” I squeaked.
“Hosting the family. They’ll all come here this year.”
If Pearl Lee had been in the room, I might have throttled her right then and there. In Miss Frankie–speak, family meant a dozen cousins from the Dumond family line along with their spouses and any children or grandchildren who had no other plans. Throw in a couple of ancient aunts and uncles and a Renier relative or two at loose ends, and she could be looking at fifty mouths or more to feed.
“That’s a huge job,” I pointed out in case she’d failed to do the math. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
“Well, of course, it’s far too big a job to do alone. That’s why I’m counting on your help. I’ll admit that when Pearl Lee first suggested it, I thought it would be too, too much, but then she pointed out that by inviting everyone here, we’ll be able to set the tone for the holiday week and maintain some kind of control over the events. It’s my turn anyway, so I really should just jump in and do it.”
“But I—” I sank into the closest chair and tried not to sound angry. That wasn’t easy. Miss Frankie has a habit of volunteering me for things without talking to me first. It’s one of the few downsides of our relationship. “I’m sure everyone would understand if you wanted to wait another year.”
“But I don’t want to wait. That’s the point.”
I knew that Pearl Lee was responsible for Miss Frankie’s attitude, and that irritated me big-time. Pearl Lee has her fair share of problems, but Miss Frankie is fiercely loyal. I’d learned not to bad-mouth her cousin in front of her, so again I went with a careful answer. “Pearl Lee might have a point,” I said with caution. “But wouldn’t you rather put your heads together and do this with her?”
Miss Frankie waved a dismissive hand. “Pearl Lee is useless when it comes to things like this. I need your head, sugar. I’ve been thinking that if you make some amazing cake for the family, they’ll see that the bakery is in good hands and we’ll be able to focus on the future instead of the past.”
“Yes, but—” Hearing her talk about moving on was a good sign, even if her chosen method for doing it was questionable. I took another deep breath to steady my nerves. “You can’t keep making commitments for me without talking to me first. What if I had other plans?” Okay, so it wasn’t the direct approach, but it was the best I could do with the threat of my mother-in-law’s tears so close to the surface. When it comes to Miss Frankie, it’s more effective to steal a few bases at a time than to try for a home run right off.
Her expression fell, but she looked concerned for only a moment. “Have you made plans? Gracious! I never even thought. Well, that’s no problem. You’ll just invite whoever it is to join us here. After all, the more the merrier. Is it one of your young men?”
By that, she meant Liam Sullivan, a detective with the New Orleans PD’s Homicide Division, and Gabriel Broussard, part-owner of the Dizzy Duke. I’d been seeing both of them over the past year—all open and aboveboard—but neither relationship had progressed to the “spend holidays together” stage.
I screwed up my courage, ready to tell Miss Frankie about Albuquerque, but she didn’t wait for an answer. She waved a hand at the mess on the table. “We can work all of that out later. That isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about anyway. I have the most wonderful news for Zydeco, and I simply couldn’t wait to tell you. How would you feel about making a cake for the Crescent City Vintage Clothing Society Belle Lune Ball?”
Every thought inside my head froze and my heart began to thump. The Crescent City Vintage Clothing Society was one of the most prestigious groups in New Orleans. The Belle Lune Ball, held each January, was a premiere social event. The moneyed set shelled out staggering amounts of cash for tickets every year, and the silent auction brought in a whopping total that was used to help disadvantaged women around the world.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked. “We actually have a shot?”
Miss Frankie smiled slyly. “You like the idea?”
“Um . . . yeah! It’s only one of the biggest events in the whole city. Do you know what a coup like that would do for our reputation?”
“I have a good idea. That’s why, when I heard that the society had an opening, I invited Evangeline Delahunt to lunch. She’s eager to find someone quickly. For an event that size, time is running out. I saw an opportunity to get your work in front of the right people and I took it.”
Uuurch! My excitement ground to a screeching halt. “Wait a minute. You’re not talking about this year’s ball? The one just three months away . . . are you? With the holidays and everything, it’s going to be tough to come up with a design, coordinate everything, and put together the kind of cake they’d want.”
“Well . . . it’s a little more than just the cake, sugar. Actually, she needs a caterer for the entire event.” Miss Frankie flicked her wrist as if catering dinner for a few hundred people would add barely any extra work. “Don’t worry, though. I have faith in you.”
“But Zydeco doesn’t do catering,” I pointed out in what I hoped was a reasonable tone. “We’ve never done catering.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You’ve had training, and I know Ox and Dwight have, too. Really, Rita, I’m offering you the chance of a lifetime. But if you really don’t want to do it, I’ll call Evangeline and tell her to look for someone else. She’ll be disappointed, but I’m sure she won’t hold it against you.”
I kneaded my forehead and tried to pull my thoughts together. “Why did she wait so long to find a caterer? Surely she knows what a huge job this is.”
Miss Frankie waved her hand again. “Well, of course she knows. She’s been in charge of planning the ball for at least a decade. This is a great opportunity for Zydeco and for everyone who works there. There will be press coverage of the event, and there’s a very good chance you’ll be interviewed yourself.”
“But we don’t do catering,” I reminded her again. “I don’t want Zydeco to gain a reputation as a caterer. I want it to be known as New Orleans’s premiere bakery for high-end cakes.”
“And it will be, after you do this job.” Miss Frankie gave me a look that clearly said she thought I was being a bit slow on the uptake. “Philippe tried more than once to get his foot in the door with Evangeline Delahunt. He never could do it.”
That made my ears perk up. Philippe and I had met in pastry school, and at least in the beginning, we’d indulged in what I thought was a healthy and harmless competition, pitting our cake decorating and business skills against each other whenever the occasion arose. Looking back, I could see now that before we’d separated, the competition had become less healthy, but I hadn’t realized it at the time.
Hearing about Philippe’s failure to land the contract I’d just been handed made my competitive side yawn and stretch like a cat waking up after a long nap. I tried again to get an answer to my question. “If working for Evangeline Delahunt is such a coup de grâce, why is she looking for a caterer at this late date?”
Miss Frankie’s gaze flickered ever so slightly, which set off a warning bell in my head. “She had to let the first one go. Something about them failing to produce an appropriate design and menu. I could have told her she’d be dissatisfied with her original choice if she’d only asked my advice. Anyway, she’ll be coming to see you tomorrow morning at ten. I hope that works with your schedule.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “I haven’t agreed to this yet. Who was her original choice?”
My mother-in-law gave me an enigmatic smile. “Gâteaux.”
I could almost hear the sound of her reeling me in. Gâteaux was Zydeco’s stiffest competition, and Dmitri Wolff, Gâteaux’s owner, was a complete snake in the grass. He’d not only tried to lure away my staff, but also indulged in a little industrial sabotage before trying to buy Zydeco from Miss Frankie after Philippe died. I smiled slowly. “Wolff couldn’t make her happy?”
Just like that, every one of my objections disappeared. Like I said, I have a competitive nature. So what if Gâteaux had had months to come up with a winning plan? The important thing was that I had a chance to succeed where Dmitri Wolff had failed.
I had an amazing staff made up of the most talented cake artists around. About half of us had formal training in the kitchen, and the others were talented artists who’d learned on the job. We worked together like a well-oiled machine. Most of the time anyway. If anybody could do this, I thought to myself, we could. And besides, it would be morally irresponsible to leave such a well-publicized and popular event without a caterer. Or, considerably worse, with substandard food for their event.
I swallowed all of my concerns and smiled. “I’ll make it work.”
“Good. Now, about Christmas—”
The abrupt change of subject caught me off guard, and before I could shift gears, I heard the sound of Miss Frankie’s back garden gate open and close, followed by rapid footsteps tapping toward the kitchen door. A moment later someone banged on the door urgently.
Mild concern hit me at once, but relief at the interruption was the stronger emotion. After all, I thought, nothing bad ever happens in Miss Frankie’s neighborhood. Yep, I actually thought that. And yeah, I was wrong.
“Goodness, what a racket!” Miss Frankie said, waving me back to the seat I’d risen from. She peeked out the window and glanced at me with a scowl. “Well, for heaven’s sake, it’s Bernice. Honestly, Bernice! There’s no need to break down the door,” Miss Frankie scolded.
She opened the door and her next-door neighbor, Bernice Dudley, stumbled inside. The two women have been friends and neighbors for much longer than I’ve been around. I’m pretty sure they’re roughly the same age but they wear the years very differently. Miss Frankie is tall, thin, and angular with short hair that’s not only kept teased and heavily sprayed by her stylist, but tinted an unnatural shade of auburn for a woman her age.
Bernice is shorter, rounder, and generally fluffier. But not today. It took only one look for me to see that something was wrong. She clutched a Bible to her chest and her face was as white as the cloud of softly curling hair on her head. She blinked back tears as she staggered through the door. After fumbling with the knob for a moment, she looked up in frustration. “How do I lock this thing?”
Miss Frankie gently nudged her out of the way and turned the lock. “Why, Bernice, you’re shaking like a leaf. What’s wrong?”
Bernice tightened her grip on the Bible. “I just saw someone outside my window. It about scared me to death.”
Concern suddenly trumped the relief I’d been feeling over the interruption. Bernice is a sweet woman, and I didn’t like thinking that something had frightened her.
Miss Frankie just looked confused. “What do you mean, you saw someone?”
“I mean, I saw someone,” Bernice snapped. “A man. Right outside my kitchen window.”
That got me on my feet in a hurry. I looked out the large back window, hoping I wouldn’t see anything—or anyone—out there. The two women live in an affluent neighborhood with a low crime rate, but it is part of New Orleans and bad things can happen anywhere. Better to be safe than sorry.
The dense trees separating one property from the next would make it easy for someone to hide in the shadows, but I couldn’t see any men, strange or otherwise, skulking around the backyard. That made me feel a little better. “Are you sure you saw a man?”
Bernice gave her eyes an impatient roll. “As sure as I’m standing here. He was right outside my window, staring inside. At me!” A shudder racked her body and she collapsed onto the chair I’d vacated.
I turned back for a second look. I could see Miss Frankie’s reflection as she sat beside Bernice and patted her hand. “I’m sure it’s not anything to worry about,” Miss Frankie said. “It was probably one of the neighbors.”
“It was not a neighbor,” Bernice informed us tersely. Her attitude surprised me. I’d never seen her like this, and it worried me. “I know all my neighbors,” she insisted. “This was not one of them.”
“You didn’t recognize him, then?” I asked.
Bernice took a shaky breath and her gaze fell to the Bible on her chest. “I thought I did for a minute. He looked like . . . like someone. But it wasn’t him. That I know for sure.”
“Try not to let it upset you,” Miss Frankie said in a soothing tone. “It’s almost Halloween. Kids are out playing tricks. One of them just wandered into your yard, probably trying to spook you. It’s understandable that you were startled, but let’s not overreact.”
Bernice’s cheeks turned a deep shade of pink. “I am not overreacting. I know what I saw, Frances. That was no child playing tricks. And don’t you look at me that way. I know you think I’m seeing things, but I wasn’t.”
I checked the window for a third time, craning to see into all the corners of Miss Frankie’s yard. The trees were still doing their dance in the wind, and shadowy shapes flitted here and there in the moonlight. “Maybe it was a trick of the wind,” I suggested. “You know . . . a shadow or something.”
“It was not a shadow. I saw a man clear as day. I saw his face. He was as close to me as I am to you. Just, thank God, on the other side of the window.”
Miss Frankie glanced at me briefly. I could see the doubt in her eyes. “In that case,” she said to Bernice, “why did you leave the house? Something horrible might have happened to you.”
Bernice put one trembling hand into her pocket. “Well, I couldn’t stay there by myself, could I? I had my Bible and I said the Lord’s Prayer over and over while I was running over here. And besides, I had this with me.” With a flourish, sweet little Bernice pulled out a small handgun.
I gasped in surprise. “You have a gun?”
“Well, of course I do. Don’t tell me you don’t carry protection.”
“No, I don’t. Is it loaded?”
She gave me a duh! look. “There wouldn’t be much point in carrying it if it wasn’t.”
I guess she had a point there. But still . . . “Do you know how to use it?”
“Rita, honey, I’ve been shooting since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Daddy taught all us kids.”
My own father and I had skipped that particular bonding ritual, but I didn’t mind. Leaving my post at the window, I joined the other two women at the table and jerked my head toward the gun in Bernice’s shaky hand. “Did you know she had that thing?” I asked Miss Frankie.
She shrugged casually. “Of course I did. I have one myself.”
Whoa! What? “You do? Where?”
Miss Frankie transferred her patting hand from Bernice to me. “Oh, sugar, just about everybody I know carries a gun. It’s not something you need to worry about.”
I wanted to believe her, but it was hard to relax. “Bernice is obviously upset. She’s shaking like a leaf. The last thing she should be doing is running around the neighborhood with a loaded gun.” Turning to Bernice, I added, “What you should have done was call the police. In fact, that’s what we’ll do right now.”
I reached for my bag, intending to find my cell phone.
Bernice grabbed my wrist with a surprisingly strong grip. “No! No police.”
“But if there’s someone dangerous in the neighborhood—” I began.
Bernice shook her head so firmly, a couple of white curls bobbed out of place. “I know you mean well, but I can’t let you call the police. Polly Ebersol, the church music director, lives just down the block. She’s a sweet woman, but she does love to talk. If she sees the police at my house, everybody at church will know about it before morning. Come Sunday, I won’t be able to show my face in the sanctuary.”
Now there was a good reason to take a safety risk. “I understand that you don’t want people talking, but what if something happens to you? Or what if this guy moves on and robs one of your neighbors?” Or worse. “You’d never forgive yourself if he hurt a friend.”
Bernice’s eyes flew wide and the hand at her throat fluttered. “Oh! Do you think . . . But I—” She turned to Miss Frankie. “You don’t suppose she’s right, do you?”
Miss Frankie went back to patting Bernice’s shoulder. “If you’re sure you saw someone, it might be a good idea to call the authorities. Just in case. But I really think it was just kids pulling a prank.”
Bernice tilted her head to one side and gave that some thought. “But he looked so real. Then again, it’s been a while since I saw him. Maybe I was mistaken.”
I stared at her. “Are you saying that you recognized the man? I thought you said you didn’t know him. So who was he?”
Bernice slipped the gun back into her pocket and put both hands on her Bible. “I don’t believe I said that I didn’t know him. I said it couldn’t possibly be him.” She closed her eyes for a moment, and I wondered if she was offering up another round of the Lord’s Prayer. “I can’t believe I’m going to tell you this,” she said when she opened her eyes again. “And I’ll only tell you if you both promise not to say a word. Not one single word. To anybody.”
She waited until Miss Frankie and I had vowed utter silence.
“The man I saw tonight looked exactly like Uncle Cooch. He had long gray hair and a beard hanging halfway down his chest.”
“This is Louisiana,” Miss Frankie reminded her. “There are plenty of men who look like that.”
“Not all of them have a lazy eye,” Bernice argued. “Or a birthmark on their cheek.” She pointed to a spot just below her eye. “Right here. It’s in the shape of a football but very distinctive. I guess you could say it’s a family mark, but it doesn’t show up more than once or twice in a generation. My granddaddy had it, too,”
I counted to ten, drawing on all my patience. Though I’d never known Bernice to be overly emotional, there’s a first time for everything. But it was beginning to look as if I’d miss Dwight’s birthday party completely, and that wasn’t okay with me. “If it was your uncle coming to see you, he’s probably still out there. Why don’t I go look for him?”
Bernice sat straight up in her chair and shook her head firmly. “Absolutely not. You’ll stay right here. We all will. You did bolt the door when I came in, didn’t you, Frances?”
Miss Frankie nodded. “I did, but I don’t think we need to worry. If your uncle stopped by for a visit—”
“I said that he looked like Uncle Cooch,” Bernice said, cutting Miss Frankie off. “But it wasn’t him.”
“You can’t possibly know that for sure,” I said. “Obviously seeing him outside the window startled you, and you came right over here. I know you didn’t really get a good look at him, but it all sounds innocent enough.”
Bernice put both hands on the table and split a glare between Miss Frankie and me. “Will you both stop talking for a minute? I swear, with the two of you yapping like a couple of hounds, I can’t even finish a thought.”
We both fell silent, startled by Bernice’s uncharacteristic outburst.
Seemingly satisfied by our obedience, Bernice brushed a lock of snowy white hair from her forehead, took a deep breath, and lifted her chin as if defying us to utter another word. “That’s better. I do wish you’d pay more attention, Frances. I’ve told you about Uncle Cooch before.”
Miss Frankie lowered her eyes and tried to look sheepish, but the smile playing on her lips gave her away. “Of course you have,” she said. “But in my defense, you do come from a large family. It’s difficult to keep them all straight.”
“Uncle Cooch was my father’s youngest brother. He’s just ten years older than me. You remember I told you about the still he had out in the middle of the swamp. Everybody knew about it, but nobody could ever find it. The location was passed down the Percifield line from father to son for generations. Nobody else ever knew where it was. Uncle Cooch had quite a business. Made a small fortune and hid a whole lot of it somewhere out there in the woods.”
This was a side of Bernice that I would never have guessed at in a million years. I leaned up, chin in hand, eager for the rest of the story. “Your uncle is a moonshiner?”
“Among other things,” Bernice said. “He hunted. Trapped. Fished. Even caught alligators for a while.”
“He sounds like quite a character,” I said with a laugh. “I’d like to meet him.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Bernice said. “Uncle Cooch went missing out in the swamp fifteen years ago. Nobody’s laid eyes on him since . . . until tonight.”
Bernice’s words landed with a dull thud in the silence. Miss Frankie shot me a “do not encourage her” look, but I couldn’t stop myself.
“So you’re saying you saw . . . a ghost?” I asked.
“It certainly seemed like it,” Bernice said with a soul-deep sigh. “We always thought an alligator got him. They found his boat a few days after he disappeared along with signs that there’d been a large gator in the area. His gun was on the bank of the swamp so everyone reckoned that he got out of the boat to catch a gator on dry land. That’s extremely risky. Gators are much faster than humans on land. Anyway, that’s what the police said, and we didn’t have any reason not to believe them.”
I stole a quick peek at the clock and decided I could afford to stick around a few minutes longer. I might miss most of Dwight’s party, but I was fascinated by Bernice’s story. “But no one ever found his body?”
Bernice shook her head. “We never found any other sign of him, but that wasn’t surprising. Considering where he was when he went missing, nobody really expected to find his . . . remains.”
“Then he’s still alive,” Miss Frankie said in a tone that brooked no argument. “It’s the only possible explanation for what you saw tonight.”
Bernice flashed a glance at the door and argued anyway. “I guess there’s a chance you’re right, but it seems unlikely. He loved his life. He adored Aunt Margaret and his kids. There’s no way he would have just walked away from them without a word—especially not from Aunt Margaret. The Percifield men are loyal.”
Maybe so, but he wouldn’t have been the first person to run out on the family everyone thought he loved. But it seemed kinder not to point that out so I said, “Is there any chance he’s been in contact with your aunt in secret? Maybe she knows where he is but she just hasn’t told the rest of you,” I suggested.
“I’m sure she hasn’t heard from him,” Bernice insisted. “Aunt Margaret would never lie. So you see, it just couldn’t have been Uncle Cooch. That’s what frightened me so badly.”
Miss Frankie tried to look supportive. “Well, it’s a puzzle for sure. Let me get you some coffee and cookies. What about you, Rita? What would you like?”
Offering food in times of crisis is what Miss Frankie does. I’m a bona fide foodie, but I wasn’t sure coffee and cookies would work a miracle cure for poor Bernice. “Nothing for me, thanks. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for what you saw tonight, Bernice. If it wasn’t your uncle, maybe it was some kid in a Swamp People or Duck Dynasty costume out for a few laughs. When you saw him in the window, you just thought it was your uncle Cooch.”
Bernice gave me a sad-eyed look, and I could tell she was tired of arguing. “I suppose that was it. But I was so sure . . .” She laughed softly and put both hands on her Bible. “Silly of me, wasn’t it?”
“Not at all,” I assured her. “Anybody would have had the same reaction.”
My cell phone rang and I recognized the ring tone as Edie Bryce, the office manager at Zydeco, no doubt calling to find out where I was. I stood and grabbed my purse from the back of the chair. “I’m sorry, ladies, but I can’t stay. The others are waiting for me at the Dizzy Duke and I’m already late. I hate to leave the two of you alone, though. Why don’t you come with me?”
Miss Frankie cut a glance at me over her shoulder. “Don’t be silly. We’ll be just fine—won’t we, Bernice?”
Bernice nodded. “I feel much better now. Besides, I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
“You wouldn’t be intruding,” I assured her. “We’re just having a drink to celebrate Dwight’s birthday. If you come along, Miss Frankie, you can tell the staff about the meeting with Evangeline Delahunt.”
Miss Frankie wore a pleased smiled as she carried the coffeepot to the table. She’d reeled me in once again, but at least she didn’t gloat when she bent to kiss my cheek. “You can tell them, sugar. I won’t mind at all. I’ll stay here with Bernice and make sure all is well. Now go. Don’t you worry about us for a minute.”
Even with their assurances, I felt a twinge of guilt about leaving them alone. I told myself that even though Miss Frankie didn’t believe Bernice had seen an intruder—or an uncle—she’d still keep the doors locked to be on the safe side. Frankly, now that I knew both of them were packing heat, I probably should be more concerned about that poor kid running around the neighborhood in costume.
I kept an eye out for anyone skulking around as I left the neighborhood, but everything looked peaceful. So I promised myself that I’d check with Miss Frankie on my way home, then pushed the worry to the back of my mind. I wanted to give all my focus to Dwight’s party.
Luck was with me. Traffic was light so I made good time. I even found a parking space less than a block from the Dizzy Duke, which was a minor miracle on a Friday night. The neighborhood had donned its Halloween attire—orange lights glowing from darkened storefronts, flyers advertising haunted tours and numerous ghoulish parties scheduled to take place over the next week or so.
I felt a rush of pride when I saw an ornate banner of black and gold advertising the Belle Lune Ball. Anticipation buzzed along my skin, making me feel like a kid on Christmas morning. This was going to be great, I thought. Everyone will be so impressed!
As I hurried inside, I spared a brief wave for Gabriel Broussard behind the bar. He looked great with his thick brown hair, his deep brown bedroom eyes, and his sexy Cajun grin. My heart did a little flippy thing, which was almost enough to make me forget about Dwight’s birthday and belly up to the bar instead. I showed a remarkable amount of self-control and kept moving forward. What can I say? I’ve always been responsible.
The house jazz band was onstage, and I found my staff gathered at our usual table near the bandstand. Everyone seemed in high spirits, and I felt a little giddy when I anticipated their reactions to my news.
Ox, known in other circles as Wyndham Oxford III, is my second-in-command. He’s another old friend from pastry school, usually thoughtful and always highly creative. I’ve often thought that he resembles an African-American Mr. Clean, but tonight, as he sat with one arm slung across his girlfriend Isabeau’s shoulders and a toothpick dangling from his mouth, there was a dash of Vin Diesel tossed in as well.
Isabeau Pope is more than just Ox’s girlfriend. She’s also a talented cake artist. She’s about fifteen years younger than Ox, twenty-something to his late thirties, and where he’s dark and intense, she’s blond and perkier than anyone has a right to be. But they’ve been together awhile now, and so far their differences don’t seem to matter. Even though I would never have thought to pair the two of them, they seem truly happy together and I was glad for them.
Next to Isabeau, Sparkle Starr stared morosely into a glass filled with a strawberry daiquiri. At first glance, that drink seemed like an odd fit for Sparkle, who lives to contradict her name. Her long hair is dyed pitch black, and her lips and nails are painted to match. She rims her eyes with thick black liner and keeps her complexion ghostly pale. When I first came to New Orleans, I’d found Sparkle’s goth appearance a bit unsettling, but time has mellowed my reaction so that tonight I barely even noticed the spiked dog collar on her neck or the gossamer black fabric of her bat-wing sleeves.
Next to Sparkle sat Edie Bryce, who is not only Zydeco’s office manager but another former classmate from pastry school. Unlike the rest of us, Edie hadn’t finished her schooling. She’d dropped out early after learning that her skills in the kitchen left something to be desired. She’s midthirties and petite with chin-length dark hair and features that hint at her Chinese-American heritage. She’s also eight months pregnant—a real success since her doctor had ruled hers a high-risk pregnancy at around the five-month mark. We’d all been walking on eggshells around her delicate emotions since the spring. Everyone at the bakery was ready for the baby to make its appearance.
Estelle Jergens, Zydeco’s oldest employee, sat across from Edie. Sprigs of bright red hair poked out from beneath a kerchief she hadn’t removed since leaving work, and her round face was flushed an almost identical shade of red—proof that she’d already had at least one birthday cocktail.
Finally, there was Dwight Sonntag, the birthday boy. He sat next to Estelle, slouched down in his chair in a way that I was sure added more wrinkles to his already rumpled clothing. If you judged his book by its cover, you’d come away thinking Dwight was scruffy, lazy, and dirty—none of which is true. Well, except for the scruffy part. His shaggy brown hair may look as if he’d been running his fingers through it and whiskers may always be sprouting all over his cheeks and chin, but he’s one of the hardest workers at Zydeco—and also one of the most talented.
He saw me coming and gave a little chin jerk greeting.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said as I claimed an empty seat next to Dwight. “Miss Frankie asked me to stop by and it took longer than I expected.”
Ox scowled across the table at me. “Trouble?”
“No! In fact, she had some good news for us.”
“For all of us?” Isabeau asked.
“Yeah. A great opportunity for Zydeco. But let’s talk about that later.” I placed my drink order, choosing a virgin margarita. Gabriel is a master of the craft and his salt-to-rim ratio is spot-on. The virgin variety isn’t my favorite, but I was driving so I settled for the responsible choice.
“You should have brought Miss Frankie with you,” Estelle said as our waitress walked away.
“Actually, I invited her, but she opted to stay home. Her neighbor was having a rough night, and Miss Frankie didn’t want to leave her alone.”
“Nothing serious, I hope,” Estelle said.
“No, just . . .” I hesitated for a moment, unsure how much I should share about Bernice’s imaginary prowler. But nobody at Zydeco really knew Bernice, so I didn’t see the harm. “She just thought she saw someone outside her window. Miss Frankie thinks it may have been kids pulling Halloween pranks.”
Sparkle studied my face carefully. “You don’t think so, do you?”
I turned the coaster the waitress had placed in front of me around on the table. “I don’t know. She said it looked like her uncle, but he’s been missing for the past fifteen years or so. Get this—the whole family thinks he was eaten by an alligator.”
“She saw a ghost?” Isabeau asked, her blue eyes wide. “For real?”
“No! Not for real,” I said with a laugh. “For one thing, there’s no such thing. If she did see her uncle, it just means he didn’t die in the swamp all those years ago.”
Isabeau leaned toward me. “I know a way we could find out.”
Ox barked a harsh laugh. “Oh no. No, no, no. I know what you’re thinking and you are not going there.”
“Going where?” I thought my question was innocent enough, but Ox seemed annoyed by it.
“Don’t ask,” he warned and shook a finger in Isabeau’s face. “I mean it, Isabeau. Not another word.”
If he wanted me to drop the subject, he was going about it the wrong way. What can I say? Curiosity has always been a weakness of mine. I would have pursued it, but at that moment the waitress arrived with my drink and Estelle pronounced the birthday party started. I swallowed my curiosity and concentrated on Dwight.
Ox offered a toast and then we brought out the presents: a DVD of some horror show that was his current favorite from Estelle; a pair of black bikini briefs with an orange flame—apparently an inside joke—from Edie; a bottle of expensive Scotch from Ox and Isabeau; and an ornate and extremely heavy German beer stein from Sparkle. I’d thought long and hard about what to get him and finally settled on a hand-knit beanie cap with a bright design for those times when someone forced him to dress up. By coincidence, the hat’s colors matched the bikini briefs. Yay.
Once he’d opened all his gifts, Dwight cut his cake: two tiers of milk chocolate cake covered with buttercream. Ox had carved the cake in the shape of a Jack Daniels bottle. Sparkle and Estelle had done a great job with the gum paste label and the added touches of edible paint. Isabeau had experimented until she had a whisper of Jack Daniels flavor in the buttercream. They’d all stayed late to work on the cake, and Dwight was suitably impressed.
After a while the birthday celebration wound down and the band took a break. In the sudden quiet, Ox tapped his fingers on the table to get my attention. “Okay, so what’s the big news? What did Miss Frankie want?”
I stood so everyone could hear me, and smiled around the table. “You’re not going to believe this, but this afternoon Miss Frankie had lunch with Evangeline Delahunt from the Crescent City Vintage Clothing Society. Ms. Delahunt is coming in tomorrow morning to discuss hiring us for their ball.”
I paused for their reactions, which naturally I expected to be positive. Instead, Edie struggled to her feet and waddled off to the ladies’ room (which she did roughly every five minutes), leaving me looking at a set of glum faces.
Maybe they hadn’t heard me right. “I know it’s short notice, but I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what a big deal this is for Zydeco. It’s a great opportunity for us to get our name in front of hundreds of potential clients. Not to mention the society page and blogs.” Taa-daa!
I waited through another uneasy silence until, finally, Estelle spoke up. “What’s the big deal, y’all? Three months is more than enough time to make a cake.”
Their unenthusiastic reception of the news made me proceed with caution. “Actually, it’s a bit more than just the cake. She’s looking for us to cater the whole event.”
“Then you’d better be talking about next season’s ball,” Dwight said, apparently forgetting how happy he’d been with my birthday beanie. “Nobody in their right mind would take on a job like that with just three months to plan.”
Okay, that reaction just irked me. “Actually, I am talking about the ball in three months, but what’s the problem? We’re the best around. This will give us an amazing opportunity to show people what we’re made of.”
Ox gave me a scowl. “Just how did this opportunity come up?”
“The first bakery the society contracted with failed to produce a design and a menu that Mrs. Delahunt could approve,” I said carefully. “She had no choice but to end that relationship and look for a company that could do the job right. Thanks to Miss Frankie, we are that company.”
Ox slowly put his glass on the table, and every head at the table swiveled to look at him, which double-irked me. Ox had always been closer to Philippe than to me. After Philippe and I separated, Ox was one of several friends—including Dwight—who’d come to New Orleans to help Philippe open Zydeco. I hadn’t been aware that any of my old friends were working with Philippe until I showed up here. The fact that none of them had thought to mention it, even on Facebook, had stirred up a lot of old feelings of inadequacy.
It hadn’t helped, either, that when I came to New Orleans to get Philippe’s signature on the divorce papers he’d been ignoring for two years, I’d found that he’d used my ideas to start Zydeco. Discovering that had felt like a shot in the heart and was nearly as painful as the day I’d watched him walk out on our marriage.
What People are Saying About This
“Brady’s writing is smooth as fondant, rich as buttercream.”—Sheila Connolly, New York Times bestselling author
Praise for the Piece of Cake Mysteries
“[A] lighthearted mystery featuring over-the-top characters and fun dialogue.”—Kings River Life Magazine
“A delectable mystery.”—Cozy Mystery Book Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Dollycas’s Thoughts Miss Frankie sure can get Rita into a lot of trouble and she does it up in spades in Rebel Without a Cake. First she makes plans for Christmas without even asking Rita or thinking Rita may want to go home to visit her family for the holidays. Then she sets her up with an appointment to cater a huge event, something Zydeco Cakes has never done before and they have less than 3 months to pull everything together and the woman in charge of the event is not making it easy. On top of that Miss Frankie and her neighbor Bernice has Rita traveling back and forth from New Orleans to the swamp where Bernice’s family lives and they show up just in time to find a dead body. Oh and how can I forget, things at Zydeco Cakes is crazy with Halloween orders and Edie is due to have her baby at any minute. She is definitely causing a bit of drama with all the employees. That is a lot happening in one book so hold on tight and get ready for a wild ride! I have come to love all these characters and all the baggage they bring with their lives. There can be disagreements, personal issues, time constraints and tons of pressure to produce awesome cakes that will make your mouth water, but through thick and thin there are there for each other no matter what. We meet some new characters this time like Ox’s psychic aunt and all of Bernice’s family. All very interesting and some a little rude and some a little scary. Jacklyn Brady creates wonderful people to fill her stories. Very unique and some a little crazy but all of them come together in a fantastic story. In this installment we are not only dealing with the current mystery but the author is setting us up for the next book in this series. Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year are right around the corner. The current mystery takes us deep into the bayou – gators can be anywhere and the pace is a little slower. Rita trusts the local law enforcement to catch the killer but she just can’t help but do a little investigating herself to try to hurry things along. I thought I had things figured out more than once and was cringing every time Rita was sticking her nose into things. Of course Rita kept digging and she proved me wrong again. I loved it! This is a series I recommend you read in order not only to get to know that cast of characters but also because the stories are so darn good. This is one of my favorite series for that very reason. There are fantastic subplots that continue through each book and each book is even better than the last. The tough part for me is waiting until next year to see what happens next!!
Enjoying this series. The setting in New Orleans makes for a different setting & the recipes are a nice end to the story