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I looked at the printout in my hand one more time, then checked the number spray-painted on the gravel in the formerly empty lot in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. “Thirty--eight. This is it,” I said to Jake Lambert, my assistant and chef—and, more importantly, my boyfriend. Sometimes I couldn’t get used to the fact that we were a couple. Sort of, anyway. Jake was my older brother Mike’s best friend and I’d known him almost all my life. He’d been the object of my huge teenage crush, even though I had been only Mike’s baby sister to him. When he moved back to Pittsburgh after retiring from hockey, I hired him as my chef and I realized that crush had never gone away. It also finally sank in that I wasn’t just Mike’s sister to him anymore. We had decided to take things slowly, though. He’d just gotten out of a bad relationship and we didn’t want to jump into anything and ruin a good friendship.
Jake dropped the poles and tent parts he’d lugged from his truck. “Thank goodness. I was starting to think they skipped us.” He swiped at his forehead with the back of his hand. It was only nine in the morning and already the temperature had hit eighty. Not unusual for a mid-July day, and we’d dressed for the heat. Jake wore khaki shorts and a white tank top, while I’d opted for my ancient denim cutoffs and a teal tank.
It had taken us twenty minutes to find the designated spot where we were to set up our tent for the inaugural Three Rivers Brews and Burgers Festival, which would take place over the course of this weekend and next weekend. It was Friday, and while the festival didn’t officially begin until tomorrow, most of the participants would be setting up today. It was kind of like a soft opening. It would give everyone a chance to meet the other brewers, and the judges the chance to sample our brews if they wanted. My brewpub, the Allegheny Brew House, was one of the fifty breweries and brewpubs invited to participate in what everyone hoped would be an annual event. There would be prizes for the best beers and for the best burger creation. I was entering three beers in the competition—a chocolate stout, an IPA, and my newly developed citrus ale.
So far, Jake was keeping his burger recipe top secret. Even my friend Candy Sczypinski, who owned the Cupcakes N’at bakery next door to the brewpub, couldn’t get it out of him. And Candy had an uncanny knack for learning everyone’s secrets. Her information network rivaled the NSA’s. Maybe it was the fact she looked like Mrs. Claus—if Mrs. Claus were a devout Steelers fan, that is. In any case, she’d never failed to get the scoop on anything going on in our Lawrenceville neighborhood—until now.
Jake stuck his hands into the front pockets of his shorts. “Do you want me to start setting up?”
Before I answered, a model-thin woman with an auburn ponytail and carrying a clipboard came up to us. She was dressed less casually than we were, in white capris and a navy-and-white cotton blouse. She reached out her hand. “Ginger Alvarado. You must be Maxine O’Hara. We spoke on the phone.”
I shook her outstretched hand. “Call me Max. It’s nice to finally meet you in person.” I introduced her to Jake.
“The hockey player, right?” she said.
“Retired.” Jake smiled, although I was sure he knew the inevitable question was coming.
“Aren’t you a little young for that?”
“It just leaves me more time for my second career.” It had become his standard answer, even though it wasn’t the reason he’d had to quit a few years early.
“I’m looking forward to tasting whatever masterpiece you’ve come up with.” Ginger turned to me. “And tasting your beer. I’ve heard a lot of good things about your pub.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m happy to hear that.”
Ginger slid a paper from her clipboard and passed it to me. “These are some general suggestions on getting your tent up and situated today. You can pull your vehicle up to unload, but move it to the lot next door when you’re finished. If you’re going to tap your kegs today, I don’t recommend leaving them here overnight. We’ve hired some off-duty Pittsburgh police officers, but only for the festival itself. Definitely don’t leave anything valuable in your tent.” She pointed to an area behind us. “Most of the temporary electric you’ll need is set up, and by the end of the day we should have all of it in place.
“Jake, the kitchen is over there.” She pointed to a large white tent at the far end of the lot. “There are twenty-five chefs registered for the contest, so you’ll all be sharing the prep space under the tent. There are plenty of both charcoal and propane grills surrounding the tent, thanks to some generous donors. The burger tasting will begin tomorrow afternoon, and the field will be whittled down to ten finalists by four o’clock. Those ten will compete next weekend in the final, where it will be whittled down to five—a winner and four runners-up. Your time slot is on that paper I just gave you two.”
She reminded us that the festival hours would be this Saturday from eleven a.m. to nine p.m. and Sunday from noon to five p.m. The second week would be the same, with the addition of official Friday hours of eleven to eight.
“The beer judging will be ongoing, since there are so many brewers,” she continued, “and everyone attending the festival will get a scorecard to mark their favorites so they can vote online in addition to scoring by our three judges. Winners will be revealed next weekend at the festival’s conclusion.”
Ginger glanced at her clipboard. “Feel free to roam around and meet the other vendors. I know you probably know some of them, but there are quite a few from out of town. Give them a real Pittsburgh welcome. If you need anything, my cell phone number is at the bottom of the page.”
After she moved on to the next brewer who had arrived, Jake turned to me. “I’m a little nervous about the competition.”
“Maybe if you tell me about your burger, I can help you decide whether or not to back out.”
Jake grinned, showing the dimple I liked so much. “Oh no, you don’t. I know what you’re trying to do.”
I gave him my most innocent look. “I’m not trying to do anything. I just want to help my most trusted employee make the proper decision.”
“Right.” He laughed and a curl of Irish-stout-colored hair slipped onto his forehead, and I reached up and pushed it back. Not an easy feat, since at six foot three, he was a foot taller than me. He rested his hands on my shoulders. “I thought Nicole was your most trusted employee,” he said.
Nicole was my part-time hostess-waitress-bartender, recently promoted to manager. I was leaving the pub in her capable hands while we were at the festival. “She is. But you’re a close second,” I teased. “So. About this burger . . .”
Jake ruffled my hair just like he’d done when we were kids, and took a step back. “I’m not falling for it, O’Hara. You’ll have to wait to be awed by my creation like everyone else.”
I finger-combed my short black pixie into place. “Did anyone ever tell you how mean you are?”
“All the time.” He leaned over and picked up one of the metal tent poles. “Any idea how we put this thing together?”
An hour later we had the ten-by-ten-foot canopy tent up and Jake’s truck unloaded. We had a banquet-size folding table, which I covered with a white paper tablecloth. We weren’t bringing the kegs until tomorrow—the first official day of the festival—but I’d brought several large coolers filled with ice and growlers. We’d have plenty of beer for the other brewers, any festival workers, and the judges without having to lug the heavy kegs. With everything in order, I opened a package of plastic cups and placed them on top of the table.
I stood back to admire my handiwork. Many of the other vendors had arrived by that time, and the previously empty lot looked like a sea of colorful canopies against the backdrop of the Pittsburgh skyline and the bright yellow David McCullough Bridge (which everyone still called the Sixteenth Street Bridge). My booth was bright enough, but I needed to find something to make it stand out. I wasn’t sure what it would be, though. I had brought a printed list of my beers with me, but that wasn’t enough—everyone probably had one of those. Maybe I could make a colorful poster board with the list and put it in front of the tent.
Jake had already gone to check out the kitchen, so I decided to make the rounds and talk to the other brewers before the judges came around. I’d waved to a few friends while we were setting up, and I really looked forward to talking shop with them. Since the brewpub opened two months ago, I’d been too busy to do much else but run it. Not that I was complaining. I was thrilled the pub was a hit so far.
No one had set up in the space beside us yet, so I strolled over to the next one, where Dave Shipley was having a tug-of-war with the canopy as he tried to slip it over the metal corner. As I reached him, the opposite side of his tent swayed and I grabbed it and pulled. The tension was just enough for Dave to attach his end.
“Thanks, Max,” he said. “When the directions said pop-up, I didn’t think I’d need help putting it up.”
“Are you here by yourself?” I held the pole while he secured it with a stake.
“Yep. I couldn’t spare anyone today. The Pirates play tonight.” Dave owned Fourth Base, a popular brewpub on the North Shore, situated between PNC Park and Heinz Field. It was a prime location—he got baseball fans in the summer and football fans in the winter. He brewed pretty good beer, too. He was one of the first brewers I’d met when I moved back to town, and he’d been a big help when I had questions on starting up the brewery and the pub.
“What about tomorrow?” I said.
“Cindy and Tommy will be here.” Cindy was his wife and Tommy his eighteen-year-old son. “Tommy’s gonna enter that burger thing.”
“That’s great. I didn’t know Tommy could cook.”
Dave’s grin lit up his bearded face. “The kid’s never cooked a thing in his life, but he’s spent the last two weeks trying out different hamburgers on us. They’re not bad, either. Except for the one he stuffed with hot jalapeños and pepper jack cheese, then topped with hot sauce. My mouth didn’t cool off for days.”
I laughed. “I can imagine.”
He snapped open the legs on a folding table. “So, what’s Jake come up with for the competition?”
“I wish I knew. He’s keeping it top secret.”
“Must be something pretty good, then.”
“I don’t doubt it. I just can’t stand not knowing,” I said. “He knows it’s driving me crazy, too.”
“You don’t have that much longer to wait.”
We talked for a few more minutes until a white cargo van pulled up to the empty space between our tents. I fought the urge to groan aloud when the driver got out of the vehicle. Dave mumbled an expletive.
Dwayne Tunstall was the last person I’d expected to see here. On second thought, maybe I wasn’t all that surprised. Dwayne had a habit of turning up where no one wanted him, which was pretty much everywhere he went. The man was a leech. He was well-known in the brewing community, and not in a good way.
Dwayne walked over to where we stood. “Well, if it isn’t my two favorite brewers.”
“I wish I could say the same,” Dave said, ignoring the hand Dwayne had extended.
Twelve years of Catholic school had taught me if I couldn’t say something nice to not say anything at all, so I stayed silent.
“I must say, I’m surprised to see you here, Maxine,” Dwayne said.
I gritted my teeth at his use of my given name. “It’s Max. Only my grandmother called me Maxine.” And the nuns, but he didn’t need to know that. “Why are you surprised? This is a brews and burgers event. Where else would I be?”
Dwayne ran a hand through his sandy-colored mullet. Between the hairstyle and the jeans and muscle shirt he wore, he looked like a wannabe Billy Ray Cyrus. Somehow he’d managed to find a barber who was stuck in the eighties. I was tempted to ask him who did his hair. He or she was someone to be avoided at all costs.
“I figured you’d be keeping an eye on your pub,” Dwayne said. “Not to mention that you’re new to this whole brewing gig. Not like me. And Dave here. You don’t have a snowball’s chance of winning anything.”
“Max has a better shot than you do,” Dave said.
Dwayne laughed. “For the record, I’m going to be the one taking home that Golden Stein and the thousand buckaroos.”
“Who’d you steal the recipe from this time?” Dave put a stack of plastic cups down on the table a little harder than necessary. “I know it wasn’t mine. I learned my lesson the hard way.”
“I never stole anything. Not from you and not from anyone else. It was a coincidence.”
Dave straightened and put his hands on his hips. “You’re a real piece of work. You expect me to believe you just happened to come up with the same beer I’d been brewing for months. It’s no coincidence. You helped me brew it. You knew exactly what went into it.”
I braced myself to break up a fight, but instead Dave shook his head and turned away.
Dwayne looked at me. “I suppose you’ll take his side.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to.
“Fine. You just wait and see who wins the competition. Everyone will come flocking to my place. I guarantee it.” He strode to the back of his van, yanked open the door, and started unloading.
I wasn’t about to let Dwayne or anyone else ruin my weekend. Hopefully I’d be so busy serving up samples I wouldn’t even know he was here. I told Dave I’d see him later and moved on to visit some of the other brewers.
An hour later, Jake and I were sitting on folding chairs back in our booth taking a short break. We had been busier than I’d thought we’d be pouring samples for other vendors and some of the festival workers.
Dwayne Tunstall had stopped at our booth several times and tried to engage me in conversation, asking questions about my brews. I’d tried my best to ignore him without success. I finally ended up answering his questions curtly without telling him much of anything.
Jake had watched the exchange in silence, then finally said, “Maybe he wants to try a sample.”
“No, he doesn’t,” I said.
Dwayne raised his hands in the air. “I know when I’m not wanted.” He spun on his heel, then turned back. “You’re wrong about me, you know.”
I didn’t say anything and he walked away.
“What was that all about?” Jake said. “Other than the guy’s a little weird. He seemed harmless.”
“It’s a long story.”
Jake reached into a cooler and lifted out two bottles of water. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I opened the bottle he passed to me and took a swig. “Dwayne has a bad reputation. Some of the brewers have had problems with him in the past.”
“What kinds of problems?”
“Stealing,” I said. “Several years ago, Dwayne worked part-time for Dave, as well as part-time for Cory Dixon over at South Side Brew Works. Neither one of them knew it at the time, but Dwayne was filching the beer recipes. As soon as he got what he needed, he quit. The whole time he worked for Dave and Cory, he was in the process of starting up his own place. Dwayne didn’t even bother to put his own spin on the brews.”
“What did Dwayne mean when he said you were wrong about him?”
I recapped my bottle and put it on the ground beside me. “He insists it’s a coincidence that his beer just happens to taste exactly like the others. If they were merely similar, maybe I could buy it. But identical? No way. Every ingredient would have to be the same, and in exactly the same proportions—not to mention the brewing times and the fermentation.”
Jake finished his water and tossed the bottle into the crate I’d brought for recycling. “Kind of makes you wonder why he’s here.”
“What do you mean?”
“If he’s a pariah in the brewing scene,” he said, “why would he want to be where no one wants to have anything to do with him?”
“Good point.” I thought about what Dwayne had said earlier. “He’s here for the competition. He told Dave and me he’s going to win the Golden Stein. He sounded sure it was going to be him.”
“Sounds more like he’s delusional.”
I shook my head. “No. I don’t think so. But I wouldn’t put it past him to do something underhanded to make sure he walks away with that trophy.”