Managing a fitness club café and collaborating on a cookbook with her grandfather are Val Deniston’s usual specialties, but she’s about to set sail into nearby Chesapeake Bay—straight into a murder case . . .
Since catering themed events is a good way to make extra cash, Val agrees to board the Titanic—or at least cater a re-creation of the doomed journey on a yacht. The owner of the yacht, who collects memorabilia related to the disaster, wants Val to serve the last meal the Titanic passengers ate . . . while his guests play a murder-mystery game. But it is the final feast for one passenger who disappears from the ship. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Now Val has to reel in a killer before s’more murders go down . . .
Includes delicious five-ingredient recipes!
PRAISE FOR FINAL FONDUE
“Corrigan keeps her simple mixture of pleasant characters, murder, and recipes in the oven.”
About the Author
Maya Corrigan lives near Washington, D.C., within easy driving distance of Maryland's Eastern Shore, the setting for this series. She has taught courses in writing, detective fiction, and American literature at Georgetown University and NOVA community college. A winner of the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense, she has published essays on drama and short stories under her full name of Mary Ann Corrigan. Visit her at mayacorrigan.com.
Read an Excerpt
"I want you to re-create the final dinner served on the Titanic. Ten courses for eight people."
Val Deniston stared at Otto Warbeck. Was he joking? Not visibly. The yacht owner had wrinkles in his forehead, but no smile lines. Not a man given to jests. When she'd agreed to cater a dinner for him on the Chesapeake Bay, she hadn't expected him to demand a custom-made feast, not to mention one with really bad karma.
She ran her fingers along the granite counter near the glass cooktop, cool and hard like everything on his yacht. "I've catered themed dinners before, Mr. Warbeck." Only a few, since catering was a sideline for her. "My clients have always selected dishes from my standard menu, which offers many choices." She reached into her tote bag for her catering menus.
He stroked his neat salt-and-pepper beard. "Your grandfather assured me that your dinner party menus were flexible."
Granddad would say anything to get her a client. She would walk away from this gig if it weren't for the termite damage to the house they shared. Granddad needed help paying for the repairs, so she'd try to reach an agreement with the yachtsman. "Let's sit at the table and talk about this, Mr. Warbeck."
"Call me Otto."
As she walked around the counter that separated the galley from the dining table, the floor swayed under her feet, reminding her that she wouldn't be cooking and serving on solid ground. The boat would rock even more once it left the Bayport marina for the open water of the Chesapeake Bay. Fortunately, she wasn't prone to seasickness. But if the dinner guests felt sick in rough water, they might blame her food for their nausea.
Otto held her chair as she sat down, a courtly gesture that went along with his formal manner of speaking. Standing only four inches taller than her five foot three, he tucked his hand, Napoleon style, into his navy jacket with brass buttons. He took the seat to her right, at the head of the table. "As a collector of Titanic memorabilia, I really look forward to this dinner. It has a special meaning for me."
"I can certainly prepare a special dish that isn't on my standard catering menu." One dish, not ten.
His frown lines deepened. "Your grandfather led me to believe you were creative in the kitchen. But you just want to make the same things over and over from a set menu. Where's your spirit of adventure?"
Val's jaw clenched. What an annoying man, putting her on the defensive when he was making an unreasonable request. "Catering isn't an adventure for me. It's a business. I offer creative dishes at fair prices. I know my clients will be happy because I've thoroughly tested the recipes. With only five days before your dinner party, I don't have much time to cost out an elaborate meal and experiment with dishes I've never made before."
He reached for the catering menus she'd put on the table, giving her hope that he was open to compromise.
He scrutinized them. "You don't need to price out anything. Let's say I want you to make a four-course meal of the most expensive items you offer. Adding up the prices and multiplying by eight people, the bottom line is ..." He took five seconds to calculate the total and announced it.
"That sounds about right. So you'll be happy with a four-course meal?"
"No! I'll multiply the total by two and a half, because I want ten courses, not four. Then I'll double that figure because of the extra work involved in preparing dishes you haven't previously tried." He flashed a puckish smile. "Have I made you an offer you can't refuse?"
Getting there. "I'd love to give you your dream dinner party, but I can't possibly cook and serve ten courses to eight people all by myself."
"I expected you might say that. I'll pay your grandfather to serve as sous chef. He told me his Codger Cook newspaper column features easy five-ingredient recipes, but surely he can assist you with more complicated dishes. He knows his way around a kitchen."
Granddad's cooking expertise was like a soufflÃ©: mostly hot air. He'd wangled the job of food columnist by tweaking her recipes. "Besides my grandfather, I could use another assistant. My friend Bethany has experience helping at the athletic club cafÃ© I manage." A Titanic dinner was wacky enough to appeal to Bethany. Besides, she owed Val after dragging her into hunting for a dead body with a borrowed cadaver dog.
Otto raised his index finger and moved it back and forth like a metronome. "I won't pay for another assistant."
Only fair, given how much he was forking over for this dinner. Val would pay for Bethany's services out of her own pocket. "I'll need time to test recipes. Can you postpone the dinner?"
"I cannot. The date, the place, and the guests have aligned for this occasion. Saturday is April fourteenth, the anniversary of the last dinner on the Titanic. I now own a boat that can accommodate eight for dinner here in the saloon." His sweeping gesture encompassed the sitting-eating-cooking space that landlubbers would call a great room.
For the first time since she boarded the yacht, Val focused on the sitting area, two steps down from and aft of the galley and the dining space. Picture windows along the sides made the saloon look larger than it was. The cherry wood paneling and matching cabinetry gave it a welcome hint of warmth. "The saloon is elegant, like a lounge on an ocean liner," she said.
"In miniature. My wife is going to add decorative touches that suggest the Titanic. I even have tableware in patterns used on the Titanic." He pulled a card with rounded corners from his breast pocket. "Here is the first- class dinner menu from that fateful night."
She gaped at the gilt-edged card he'd passed to her. On a surface barely larger than five by seven inches, the menu listed around twenty-five dishes. "This is a restaurant menu."
"And I don't expect you to turn the galley into a restaurant kitchen. Just choose one of the options listed for each course."
The menu included dishes she'd never heard of — Consommé Olga, Punch Romaine, and Waldorf Pudding. "I'll have to do research to find recipes for these dishes."
"There are no surviving recipes for the dishes served on the Titanic, so you have leeway with the recipes, as long as you come up with something similar to what's on the menu."
Hooray, a chink in his armor. Val tried to picture what it would be like to cook and serve the dinner in such close quarters. She saw a potential problem. "Your guests will be sitting steps away from where I'm preparing the meal. You'll have cooking odors that the first-class dining room on the Titanic didn't have."
"They can always get up between courses and go outside for fresh air." Otto pointed to the door in the dining area. "That will give the guests easy access to the side deck. You can do much of the cooking ahead of time. Half the dishes on the menu are best served cold — even the consommÃ© and the salmon."
Val didn't mind serving salmon cold, but she drew the line at jellied consommé. She glanced at the other end of the saloon. The L-shaped sofa, three chairs, and built-in cabinetry didn't leave much open floor space for a meet-and-mingle cocktail party. "Where do you want me to serve the hors d'oeuvres?"
"Weather permitting, on the large open deck above us." He pointed to the ceiling. "I'll show you."
They went out the sliding glass door from the sitting area to the aft deck. A door just outside the saloon led to a tiny powder room, which Otto called a head. Val called it a step up from an outhouse. They took the stairs to the open area on the top deck. Perfect for serving drinks and hors d'oeuvres unless it rained. The only indoor space on this deck was the glass-enclosed bridge, equipped with three leather chairs facing the helm.
They'd just returned to the saloon when a young woman slid open the door from the aft deck and swept into the room. Val recognized her from the Protect the Bay Barbecue the weekend before last.
The woman flung her leather jacket on the sofa in the saloon. "Getting windy out there." She finger-combed her golden brown hair back into place. It grazed her shoulders and turned under neatly.
Val didn't bother trying to smooth her own, less tame, hair. After its wind treatment on the upper deck, it probably looked like a cinnamon-colored clown wig.
Otto stood up and hugged the young woman. His daughter, perhaps?
He steered her toward the table. "Come and meet the caterer for our dinner. Val, this is my wife, Cheyenne."
Ah. The trophy wife. She looked to be in her late twenties, at least five years younger than Val. "Hi, Cheyenne. I'm Val Deniston. We were both helping the children make s'mores at the picnic a week ago." Though Cheyenne had done more eating than helping.
"They were so yummy," she gushed. "It was like being back at summer camp. Fun times around the open fire. Can we have s'mores at the dinner party, Otto?"
He winced. "Even if s'mores existed in 1912, they wouldn't have been served on the Titanic. You know I'm striving for authenticity with this dinner. I don't want the ambiance of a backyard barbecue."
"I saw a classy tabletop s'mores maker that uses chafing dish fuel. We could serve the s'mores as an ice breaker," his wife said, unmoved by his objection. "You need something like that, or the guests will stand around stiffly in their formal clothes. It'll be deadly dull."
"I doubt that." He looked at Val as if he expected her to reject his wife's idea.
The last thing this dinner needed was another dish, but Val saw how she could turn this one to her advantage. "In addition to the sweet s'mores, we could do savory ones as one of the hors d'oeuvres. Melted Brie on a cracker with sun- dried tomato pesto." She smiled at Otto. "The assistant I mentioned could be in charge of that. She was a camp counselor, an expert at making s'mores."
"Okay." Otto touched his wife's cheek and then turned to Val. "Add the pay for the s'mores expert to my bill."
After his concession on the s'mores, he allowed Val to tweak the meat-heavy menu. She proposed mushroom pâté as a substitute for pâté de foie gras. He agreed that she could skip the course of roasted squab — difficult to get locally — and add fresh fruit and cheese as a final course.
She took out two copies of her standard contract and filled in the price and terms they'd negotiated.
As Otto looked over the contract, Cheyenne offered to give Val a tour of the lower deck. They went down the curved staircase near the dining area. Doors from the lower hall led to three staterooms and the guest head, all decorated with a nautical theme.
When they went back to the saloon, Otto gave Val a signed contract and a check for 50 percent of the total as a down payment. She tucked it in her shoulder bag. By preparing dishes wholly or partly ahead of time, she could pull off the dinner that had seemed impossible when he first brought it up.
Once off the boat, she walked along the dock, where sailboats and motorized yachts smaller than Otto's were moored. She turned to look back at his yacht and noticed what she'd missed earlier — the name painted on it. Otto's boat was called the Abyss.
She quelled a flutter of anxiety in her stomach. At least he hadn't named it the Titanic II.
* * *
Val pulled into the driveway at Granddad's gabled and turreted Victorian house, went in the side door, and looked around for her grandfather. He was in the front room, known as the courting parlor when the house was built. Instead of courting couples, it now held computers — Val's laptop and a new addition, the tablet her parents had given her. Her birthday fell during their annual sailing trip from Florida to the Bahamas, and they always sent a generous gift to make up for not celebrating with her.
Granddad stopped pecking on her keyboard when she joined him. Tufts of white curls fringed the sides and back of his otherwise bald head. "You usually come home earlier than this. Did your afternoon helper at the café show up late?"
"No, I got together with Otto Warbeck, the man you met at the Protect the Bay Barbecue, the one who needs a caterer." In the year since she'd moved in with her grandfather, he'd thrown several jobs her way, as if she didn't have enough to do managing the Cool Down Café. But she enjoyed catering small dinner parties as a change of pace. "The fancy yacht you saw at the marina yesterday belongs to him. That's where he wants me to make dinner. I wouldn't agree until I saw the kitchen on the boat. It's small but efficient and equipped with the latest appliances."
"Why didn't you tell me you were going on that yacht? I would have gone with you to see what it's like inside."
"You'll have your chance. Otto said he'd pay you as the sous chef."
Granddad grinned. "A chef on a yacht! I can do that."
"Assistant chef and server," she corrected. Nothing daunted the man. After taking an online course in private investigation, he'd added sleuth to his résumé. And despite little cooking experience, he was eager to turn his newspaper column into the Codger's Cookbook — with her help, of course. "Otto asked me to re-create the last meal the Titanic passengers ate."
Granddad's eyes bugged out behind his wire-rimmed bifocals. "Why does he want to do that?"
She shrugged. "He collects Titanic memorabilia. With this dinner, he gets to relive a piece of history."
"He's making a party out of a tragedy. It's like dancing on someone's grave. Fifteen hundred graves." Granddad pinched the skin at his throat, a habit of his when something troubled him. "I don't want any part of it. And you shouldn't either."
She hadn't expected pushback from him. Who else could she ask to help her? Her cousin Monique would do it, but she'd just left for a two-week vacation in Hilton Head. So it was Granddad or nobody. "The yachtsman is willing to pay big money for us to make this dinner, enough to cover half the termite repairs. It would take me months to set aside that much from the café earnings."
"The house isn't going to fall down if we don't fix it right away." He waggled his finger. "Your mother wouldn't want you to do this."
Val had stopped listening to her mother when she went to college fifteen years ago, and she didn't plan to start again. "I signed a contract with Otto. I can't back out."
Granddad stroked his chin, the beard he'd had all winter now gone. "If you're giving that dinner party on his yacht, I have to go too. Your mother would never forgive me if anything happened to you. I'm going to make sure that boat doesn't leave the dock unless it has enough life vests, life rings, and lifeboats."
The yacht doubtless had all the safety equipment it needed, but if confirming that was enough to get Granddad to go, she was content. Obviously, fear of tempting fate, also known as superstition, contributed to his negativity about the Titanic dinner. "Otto's willing to pay for two assistants. I'm going to call Bethany."
"Call Gunnar instead. He'll be more help in an emergency."
"But not with cooking and serving." Though her boyfriend liked to eat well, he had few kitchen skills. "Anyway, he's too busy."
"With what? His next role as an amateur actor?" Granddad's intonation conveyed his scorn for Gunnar's acting ambitions.
"No, he's swamped with work from his accounting clients. Income taxes are due in a week. By the way, did you mail your tax forms?"
He nodded. "I earned more money than in any year since I gave up my video store."
But not enough to pay the bills by himself. "I'm glad to hear it. By the way, I'm going to need your help testing Titanic recipes this week. And you'll have to learn how to serve a formal dinner."
"No big deal. I'll watch reruns of Downton Abbey and see how it's done."
* * *
Late Saturday afternoon, Val parked her Saturn near the marina. As she and Granddad unloaded the food for the Titanic dinner, she spotted Bethany, who'd walked to the marina from her house a few blocks away. Granddad did a double take at the sight of Bethany in a sophisticated black dress. She usually wore bright colors, which clashed with her ginger hair, and styles that would look better on the first graders she taught than on a curvy woman.
With Val toting a large cooler, Granddad two smaller ones, and Bethany bags of groceries, they skirted around the waterfront crab house toward the marina.
Val stopped short when the dock came into view. The Abyss wasn't among the yachts at the marina. "Otto's boat isn't here yet." She checked her watch. Almost four.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "S'more Murders"
Copyright © 2018 Mary Ann Corrigan.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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