The last thing Val needs in her life is an unsolved murder, especially when the victim, an actor famed for impersonating Edgar Allan Poe, happens to be dressed exactly like her Granddad. To keep an eye on Granddad, whose latest job takes him to the home of Rick Usher, a local author inspired by Poe, Val gets herself hired as a cook in Rick’s House of Usher. When she discovers the actor wasn’t the only one doing an impersonation, separating the innocent from the murderous becomes a real-life horror story. But Val must decipher a killer’s M.O. sooner rather than later . . . or she can forget about finding poetic justice.
Includes 6 delicious five-ingredient recipes!
PRAISE FOR FINAL FONDUE
“Corrigan keeps her simple mixture of pleasant characters, murder, and recipes in the oven.” —Kirkus Reviews
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The Tell-Tale Tarte
By Maya Corrigan
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Mary Ann Corrigan
All rights reserved.
Why would a man in his seventies change his appearance overnight? Val Deniston stared at her grandfather, her spoon motionless in the skillet of sizzling onions.
Framed in the doorway to the kitchen, Granddad looked as if he belonged in a fountain-of-youth drug ad, not at all like the man who'd welcomed her as a housemate a year ago. Only yesterday he'd resembled Santa Claus, with a fluffy beard, white curls fringing his head, and wire-framed bifocals slipping down his nose. Now he had shorter hair, a trimmed beard, rimless glasses with tinted lenses, and a tweed driver's cap covering his bald spot on top.
Val pointed her wooden spoon at him. "Who are you, and what did you do with the real Don Myer?"
"I got a new style for the New Year. What do you think?" He sauntered across the kitchen as if on a runway in a fashion show. Then he shed his black wool car coat, hung it over his chair at the breakfast table, and showed her his shirt and pants — black, hip, and expensive.
"You look ... fantastic, Granddad." Something other than the New Year must explain his makeover and possibly also his long absences from the house the last few days ... something or someone. Six months ago, he'd spruced up his appearance, though less radically, to charm an attractive widow, but he'd soon reverted to his plaid shirts and well-worn pants.
He patted his jaw. "How do you like my whiskers?"
"A big improvement." He'd grown a full beard to play Santa, arriving by boat at the town dock to kick off Bayport's holiday fest. Instead of shaving off the beard after the fest, he'd hacked at it for weeks. "Your barber gave you an elegant beard, but he took off too much hair above it. I liked the curls around your ears."
He snorted. "Barber! I went to a stylist in Annapolis. You should go too. You're starting to look like that poodle across the street."
She feigned horror. "The apricot poodle? No way. My hair's darker, like cinnamon." She fingered her unruly curls. "And if it needs a trim, Bayport has plenty of stylists. Why'd you go all the way to Annapolis?"
He pointed to his tweed cap. "I bought it at Hats in the Belfry. You can't buy anything like this in Bayport."
True. The hats sold in this town appealed to the tourists who flocked to Maryland's Eastern Shore for boating on the Chesapeake Bay, duck hunting, and golfing. Before now Granddad had never worn a driving cap. He'd bought few new clothes since Grandma died almost seven years ago, except maybe underwear. He could count on receiving socks, shirts, sweaters, and pajamas for birthday and Christmas gifts. "What are you doing that requires a stylish wardrobe?"
"Work for a new client. I'm finally attracting the right type of business. No more tracking down runaway tabbies or stolen garden gnomes."
"With a business card that identifies you as a problem solver and sleuth, you have to be prepared for any challenge. Mrs. Smith was very grateful you found her cat."
"She wasn't grateful enough to pay me with cash, just cookies. I want to earn back some of the money I forked over for that online private-eye course. My client is paying my expenses and even gave me an advance." He adjusted the angle of his driver's cap.
Val turned the burner down as she digested Granddad's words. With that dubious online training and a minor role in solving a murder or two, what could he be doing to merit up-front payment? Did his client want him to go where a younger person wouldn't fit in? Maybe he'd exaggerated his undercover snooping in a retirement community last summer. She only hoped he wasn't getting in over his head. "What kind of work does your client want you to do?"
"That's confidential." He pointed to the pan on the stove. "Looks like you're making enough onions for the whole town." He sniffed. "I smell beef and bacon too. What's the occasion? You don't usually cook good stuff like that for me."
At her mother's insistence and despite his grumbling, Val kept him on a low-cholesterol diet. "The French onion soup and the daube Provençal are for a dinner party I'm catering tomorrow. The flavors have to blend for a day."
"You didn't tell me you had another catering job."
"I just got it three days ago, and I've barely seen you since then." She wouldn't let him get away with changing the subject from his gig to hers. "When did you start working for your new client?"
"This week." Granddad picked up her recipe card from the counter and held it at arm's length. "I can't read it with these tinted glasses. I need my bifocals. Can we use this soup recipe in the cookbook?"
"Sorry. It doesn't meet your exacting standards. If an old codger like me can cook, anyone can. Five ingredients is all you need."
He frowned. "When did I say that?"
"In your first interview, after you submitted my recipes as your own and won the job of food columnist." Having fooled local newspaper readers into believing he could cook, he now wanted to take his Codger Cook ruse to a larger audience by publishing a cookbook.
"I think of them as family recipes. Your grandmother taught you to cook right here." His sweeping gesture encompassed the cheerful kitchen and the butler's pantry in the old house.
Val still felt Grandma's calming spirit in the kitchen and changed the subject rather than argue with Granddad over his right to the recipes. "By the way, I'm going out to dinner tonight with Gunnar. There are some leftovers in the fridge."
"Don't need 'em. Got plans of my own tonight." He went to the sink for a glass of water. "Gunnar hasn't been around lately. I was afraid you two broke up."
A few months ago, Granddad would have been thrilled if her romance with Gunnar turned sour. "He's working on a big forensic accounting contract and rehearsing for the Treadwell Players' next production." Val had seen less of him lately than at any time since he moved to Bayport last summer.
"With Gunnar so busy, you have more time to test recipes for the cookbook."
She put down the wooden spoon and turned toward him, her hands on her hips. "In the fall, when you came up with this cookbook idea, you agreed to test the recipes for it. Unless you do that, you don't get to use my recipes in The Codger's Cookbook and put Don Myer on the cover along with Val Deniston."
"Don't get in a snit about it. I'll do my part when I'm not tied up with a client, but we gotta move fast on the cookbook. I'm lining up an agent."
Val stared at him, incredulous. Unless publishing had become far less competitive in the year since she left her job as a cookbook publicist, he couldn't have snagged a reputable agent with so little of the book finished. He must have fallen for a scam. "Where did you get this agent?"
"Never mind. Just test some recipes and get 'em on paper. You got a couple hours now, before you go to dinner, and you can work on it tomorrow if Bethany manages the café for you."
"This afternoon I'm going to help her pick out a dress for a wedding. She worked today at the café. I can't ask her to do it again tomorrow. After teaching first graders all week long, she needs at least one day off." Bethany would also work at the café on Monday, the Martin Luther King Day holiday, so Val could sleep in after catering the night before.
Granddad stroked his neat white beard. "If I find someone to help you at the café, do you think you can finish the cookbook in the next six weeks?"
She stirred the onions vigorously. Six weeks from now she might not have a café to manage. Based on the rumor she'd heard today, the space occupied by her café at the athletic club would turn into a sportswear boutique. She'd hold off on telling Granddad until she confirmed the rumor. "I can't work every day for the next six weeks on the cookbook. Do you know what happens in the middle of next month?"
"Middle of February? Hmm. Your birthday." He shrugged. "You're gonna be thirty-three, so it's not a big birthday. That shouldn't keep you from finishing the cookbook."
"My birthday is also Valentine's Day. I'd like to take some time off to spend with my valentine." Gunnar had talked about the two of them making a trip to New York then, her first visit back there since leaving her fiancé and her cookbook-publicist job. Val tried to ignore her grandfather's dejected expression. "I can finish three chapters by the beginning of March, but only if you test the recipes. Three chapters will be enough for an agent to send to a publisher."
"Okay." He took the black car coat from the back of the kitchen chair. "I'm going to run some errands." He left the kitchen.
His new look and his secrecy about what his client wanted him to do struck her as fishy, but as long as the work didn't land him in hot water, it wasn't all bad. The job had pulled him out of the post-Christmas doldrums he'd suffered ever since her brother's family had gone home to California. Granddad had really enjoyed his great-grandsons over the holidays and missed them.
The café contract occupied Val's thoughts as she caramelized the onions. If she lost the contract, she'd need another job fast to help Granddad with the household expenses. Without her income, he'd have to sell the large Victorian where he'd spent most of his life. And she'd have to admit failure, that sickening feeling she'd had after her career and her engagement ended. She had six weeks to prove she wasn't a failure at the café.
* * *
Val drove into the parking lot at the Queenstown outlet mall. At three on a Saturday afternoon, with the post-holiday sales in full swing, the mall was swarming with shoppers. She pulled into a space and read the text Bethany had sent with the name of the shop where they should meet. Unfortunately, she didn't say in which of the outdoor mall's four sprawling buildings the shop was located. With parking lots around and between the buildings, Val could have a long chilly walk.
She got out of the car, scanned the longest building in the complex, and counted herself lucky to see the shop nearby.
When she went into it, she immediately spotted Bethany's ginger hair and neon yellow parka. Val joined her at a circular rack of dresses. "Sorry I'm late. Buying and prepping the food for the book club dinner took longer than I expected. I have to serve a meal related to the book under discussion."
"What are they reading?"
"Rick Usher's recent best seller. I'm making a French dinner because the story's set in Paris."
Bethany moved the hangers along the rack, studying one brightly colored dress after another. "I've read every one of Usher's horror books. I didn't know he had a new one. What's it called?"
"The Murders in the Rue Cler, but it's not horror. I looked it up online. It's about a French detective, Gaston Vulpin."
"Usher models his writing on Edgar Allan Poe's. He publishes one eerie book and one murder mystery each year. I don't know how he manages to write so much. He's getting kind of old."
"He has help. There's another name on the book cover, under his." If Granddad had his way, his name would appear first on The Codger's Cookbook and the person who actually came up with the recipes would get second billing in smaller type.
Bethany pulled a hanger off the rack. "I picked out a couple of dresses I liked. Everyone says sideways stripes make you look fat, but up-and-down ones should be okay. What do you think of this?" She showed Val a boxy sheath with multi-hued vertical stripes.
The colors reminded Val of a set of jumbo crayons. "Narrow vertical stripes might be slimming, but those wide stripes would make even a runway model look chunky."
"No matter how much I diet, I'll never be thin enough for a runway." Bethany put the dress back and unhooked another one from the rack. "This is my second choice."
She held up a full-skirted dress cinched at the waist by a wide black belt. Above and below the waist were amorphous blobs of red, pink, and white, with bits of green interspersed, like a field of poppies viewed by someone nearsighted.
Val couldn't decide whether the flower riot would look better or worse than the crayon box on Bethany. Neither would flatter her. "That dress would be fine in the spring," and on someone half Bethany's size. "A January wedding calls for something else. Let's try another store."
A frigid wind whipped around them when they left the shop. Val spotted a bearded man in a black coat and a driver's cap sauntering through the parking lot. Granddad in his new clothes. Maybe this visit to the mall was related to the job he was keeping secret from her. Could someone have hired him to be a mystery shopper?
Val pointed toward the farthest lane of the parking lot. "There's my grandfather over there."
Bethany squinted at him. "That doesn't look like him."
"He got a makeover since the last time you saw him." Val stopped at a window display. "Look, this shop has forty percent off." She pulled the door handle.
"Wait, Val. Your grandfather's walking funny. Weaving and —" Bethany broke off as a car horn sounded from the far end of the lot.
Val watched a car creep toward Granddad. He paid no attention to it. He staggered. Then he disappeared as if a trap door in a stage had swallowed him. The car jerked to a stop.
Her heart raced. Granddad had fallen, or the car had knocked him down.
She dashed across the lanes of the parking lot, evading drivers cruising for empty spaces. A pickup truck backing out of a space nearly hit her. By the time she reached the place where she'd last seen Granddad, a crowd had gathered.
A middle-aged woman on the fringe of the group wrung her hands. "He just dropped on the ground in front of my car. I called 911."
As Val edged her way into the crowd, she spotted a tweed driving cap and tinted glasses on the pavement. Granddad's new purchases. Her eyes burned with tears.
Three people bent over him, blocking her view of his face. She saw only his dark trousers and shoes. Black loafers with metal hardware.
Granddad never wore loafers! And those shoes would be way too small for him.
Dizzy with relief, she wiped away her tears, craned her neck, and glimpsed the face of the man on the ground.
A day ago she wouldn't have seen any resemblance between him and her grandfather. But now, after an extreme makeover, Granddad had a similar haircut and beard, as well as the identical hat and glasses.
A burly teenager bending over the stricken man said, "I can't feel his pulse."
Val shivered, chilled to the core. Granddad was a dead ringer for a dead man.CHAPTER 2
Val's heart pounded as she peered at the ashen face of the man now receiving CPR. Where was her grandfather while his double lay motionless on the ground? If she knew, she would rush to him and hug him tightly enough to feel his heart pulsing.
Bethany sidled up next to her. "I couldn't keep up with you in these." She pointed toward her boots with chunky high heels. Then she peered over Val's shoulder at the man on the ground. "Poor guy. He reminds me of someone, but not your grandfather."
"Granddad just got his hair and beard trimmed exactly like that man's."
"Your grandfather cut his hair? I loved his white curls." Bethany sounded shocked and hurt, like a freshman returning from college to find her room at home redecorated.
The burly young man giving CPR looked up, beads of sweat on his forehead. "I don't know if I'm doing this right. Anyone else want to try?"
The teenager looked distraught. Like Val, he'd probably done chest compressions only on a dummy. Her recent CPR refresher gave her confidence. "I can spell you."
She switched places with him as sirens sounded. Mouthing the words to "Stayin' Alive," the recommended song to set the beat for CPR, Val kept up the compressions until the EMTs arrived and took over.
How long had it been since the man collapsed? She'd lost all sense of time. Chest compressions alone had a minute chance of reviving him, but CPR plus defibrillation within five minutes of cardiac arrest would give him a better chance of survival.
Val joined Bethany on the sidelines. "I hope he makes it."
"You did all you could," Bethany said. "When did you learn CPR?"
"I took a training course after I moved in with Granddad. I'd never forgive myself if he had a heart attack and I stood by helplessly." Val reached into her shoulder bag for her phone. "I'm calling him." She'd feel calmer once she heard his voice.
He didn't answer the landline or his cell phone. She was disappointed, but not alarmed. He must have gone out without his cell phone or forgotten to recharge it.
She marched toward the row of stores lining the parking lot. "Let's go find you a dress."
Bethany limped behind her. "Slow down. I think I got a blister from trying to run in these boots. You flew off in a panic just because you saw a man with a coat and hat like your grandfather's."
Val shifted her pace from fast forward to slow-mo. "Not only the clothes, his hair and beard too. Granddad just got those trimmed this morning."
Excerpted from The Tell-Tale Tarte by Maya Corrigan. Copyright © 2017 Mary Ann Corrigan. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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