Trying to balance her hectic family life with her growing businessincluding a coveted contract with the local organic food storeleaves Colbie scrambling to keep all her balls in the air. But when a Sunnyside resident is found dead in his garage, she takes on a new role: harboring a suspected killer.
The eighteen-year-old murder suspect, a former foster kid and Colbies part-time chef, had a powerful motive to snuff out the high-profile businessman. The real question is, who didnt? Sifting through the victims sordid history unearths a cats cradle of crimes, including money laundering and abuse. Now, to clear an innocent girls name, Colbie must sniff out the truth before a killer who smells trouble goes on the attack again.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.42(d)|
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The rabbit was back. And he was eating my strawberries. Again.
His face was unapologetically stained red, looking like a zombie bunny from one of Elliott's horror novels.
My cat Trouble pressed against the screen door overlooking the backyard, her orange tail at full bristle with rage. She growled as if to say, Let me at him!
I agreed with the sentiment. My son, Elliott, and I had planted those strawberries in late June, soon after we'd decided to make the temporary move into my dad's house permanent. It was late in the season to start, but the nursery guy assured us we'd see some berries in about six weeks. Which was now.
The raised bed I'd built — with the enthusiastic help of my twelve-year-old and the more competent help of our farmer neighbor — meant more than a bunch of berries. We'd nurtured and watered and weeded that little patch of ground for weeks. August in Sunnyside, California, twenty miles inland from San Diego, where we'd spent the first twelve years of Elliott's life, meant a landscape of brown hills in the distance and desiccated lawns in the neighborhood. But our tiny strawberry field — with a Strawberry Fields Forever sign in the middle — was green. We were basically city folk, amazed when the tiny buds became green berries. And just when we were about to harvest something, anything, the little monster was ruining it.
"Calm down, tiger," I told Trouble. "I'll call Bug Off! again."
I opened the door, used my foot to block the cat from leaving, and shooed the rabbit away. I knew it was the same darn rabbit that had supposedly been relocated far enough away never to return because he had a white spot on his side that looked exactly like Australia. It probably was thinking Cheers, Mate! I waited until it ran out of sight behind the garage before going inside.
My dad's house backed up to a small farm with a large field where the corn had already been harvested. The farmer had turned the plants into the soil and it looked barren this time of year. The sun already felt like it was baking my skin. The temperature had reached one hundred degrees far too often the past month for my liking, even if it wasn't as humid this far from the ocean.
It was time to wake up Elliott. He'd been up late the night before worrying about the first day at his new school and getting him out of bed was not going to be easy. Trouble followed me to his room just as my dad came out into the hall, already showered and ready for the day. He'd recently recovered from two bouts of pneumonia. Now that he was feeling so much better, he filled his days doing all the things he'd missed while he was sick — watching his beloved Red Sox at the St. James Gate Irish Pub, bowling with his league, and seeing movies before noon, when they were half price. I was grateful that the sparkle was back in his green eyes, and that he'd gained enough weight to fill out his cheeks to their normal plump ruddiness.
"Elll-eee-ot," I croaked in the voice of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial from my son's doorway. He'd taken the small, back bedroom of my dad's house, where the roof slanted down, creating a reading nook in the corner. Once we decided to stay, he'd plastered the walls with posters from Broadway musicals and a few from his own junior theater shows.
Silence. Perhaps he hadn't heard me. Trouble jumped up on the bed as if to defend him from me. You know he hates that movie, her glare said.
I moved closer to the bed. "Elll-eee-ooot." I dragged it out even more. "Time to wake up for school."
Elliott pulled his Minecraft bedspread over his head.
"Maybe try a bucket of cold water," my dad suggested from the hall.
"It's too early," Elliott groaned, not worried about the empty threat from his grandfather.
I began humming the E.T. theme song and my dad joined in.
Elliott ignored us.
We progressed to "Bah-Bah, bah-bah-bah-bah, Bah-BAH!"
Trouble gave a protest meow. At least hum it in key.
"WAY too early," Elliott said, even louder.
I uncovered his head and smiled as he blinked owlishly at me. "It's actually just about perfect o'clock."
He gave a dramatic sigh and sat up, his dark hair falling over his eyes. "Why do they start school in freakin' August out here?"
"Maybe you can ask your teacher that one," I said.
"Right," he said. "Are you sure you don't want to home school me?"
I knew he was kidding. "I'm sure. Your breakfast is almost ready, and if you hurry with your shower, you'll have time to eat before you meet your doom."
My dad snorted. "Yeah, you don't want to face that on an empty stomach." We headed downstairs.
My cell phone rang from the kitchen, but stopped by the time we got there.
"Lani?" my dad predicted, grabbing a cup of coffee and taking a seat at the kitchen table.
Very few people would call me this early and my best friend, Lani Nakano, was one of them. I glanced at the phone screen and saw that it was indeed Lani who had called. "You got it." I smiled at my dad before pushing the button to return the call. "You're on speaker phone," I said when she answered. "My dad's here." I turned the gas on under the griddle pan and started whisking the eggs and milk mixture into my dry pancake ingredients.
"Good morning, Hank," Lani called out. "Good morning, Colbie. How's Elliott?"
"A bit nervous," I said. "But he'll be fine. His buddy from summer camp is going to show him around."
"Oh good," she said. "Hey, can Mira carpool with you? I was planning to drop her off at the kitchen but I have an emergency in L.A."
Mira Bellamy was one of Lani's "kids," as she called them. Lani was a CASA, a court-appointed special advocate for foster children in San Diego. She volunteered with several children, meeting regularly with them, their foster families, social workers, and representatives from the court system to ensure a safe environment. Mira had aged out of the foster program and worked for me part-time. She had three other jobs, and my commercial kitchen was the only one she couldn't get to on her bike.
"Sure," I said. "What's the emergency?" I poured pancake mix on the griddle, roughly in the shape of a stick-figure person.
"Remember that bridal gown I made a few months ago?" she asked.
Lani was the creator and owner of Find Your Re- Purpose. She recycled used clothes to create works of art for people with a lot of money and an adventurous fashion sense.
I heard a car beep through the phone and imagined that she'd cut someone off. "For that actress?"
"Yep," she said. "She used it for some kind of movie shoot and now it's torn. She's demanding that I be the one to fix it. They're holding up production until I get there."
"You mean no costume designer in the entire L.A. film industry is capable?" I asked and my dad shook his head at the stupidity.
"Hey, if she wants to pay my next month's mortgage in exchange for one day's work, it's fine with me," Lani said.
"I'll pick up Mira after I drop off Elliott," I said, calculating how delayed I'd be.
"No need," she said. Then I heard her car beep outside. "I'm delivering her to your door."
My dad laughed. He enjoyed Lani's surprises as much as I did. "I'll let her in," he said, pushing back his chair.
I flipped the pancake onto a plate, and got out the chocolate syrup and whipped cream.
Elliott came down the steps slowly, pretend protest in every step. Trouble trotted down after him and started weaving around my ankles, demanding her own breakfast. For a cat food chef, you sure are slow to serve your own cat.
"One minute," I told Trouble as I decorated Elliott's pancake and added the already cooked chicken apple sausages on the side.
She huffed as if she understood me and jumped onto the windowsill to check out the neighborhood, her ears flicking impatiently.
"Good morning, sunshine." I placed Elliott's plate in front of him.
"What's good about it?" He tilted his head, trying to figure out what I'd made. Then he recognized the chocolate-striped clothes, ball and chain, and prison bars and laughed. "A prisoner? Thanks, Mom. Thanks a lot."
Mira stepped into the doorway of the kitchen as if unsure of her welcome. She was eighteen, with the rounded shoulders of someone who had spent too much time trying not to be noticed. She wore all black, except for a red bandana tied around her wrist. She had immediately copied Zoey, my main chef who refused to wear a hairnet, when she started working for me. Instead both wore bandanas on their heads in the kitchen.
Trouble immediately meowed and jumped down to greet her. Mira had become one of the cat's favorite people the moment they met. Lani thought it was because they'd both been abandoned young, that they recognized something in each other. My dad said it was because Mira spoiled Trouble rotten.
Mira bent over to pick her up and cradle her like a baby, and Trouble gave me a look that meant, Finally. Someone who does what I want when I want it.
"Good morning, Mira," I said. "Would you like some pancakes?"
"No thank you," she said. "I ate at home."
In case she was just being polite, I added more mix to the bowl.
My dad gestured to the table. "At least sit for a bit before you get going." He grabbed a mug. "Coffee?"
She shrugged, put Trouble on the floor and sat, but he was already pouring one for her. He set it in front of her and refilled his own mug. She reached for the sugar and cream, as bad a caffeine addict as I was.
"Need a refill, Colbie?" he asked, holding the pot over my mug.
"Yes, thanks," I said, focused on my dad's pancakes in the shape of a bowling ball and pin.
"Nice," he said when I flipped them onto a plate along with a sausage and put them on the table.
I handed him the syrup and whipped cream. "Decorate them as you wish."
"Ready for your first day?" Mira asked Elliott.
He had just shoved a large bite into his mouth, so he nodded with his eyes wide to show his nervousness.
"What ya wearing?" she asked.
I pretended not to listen, keeping my eyes on the pancakes. He'd tried on and discarded far too many outfits the night before, driving my dad crazy with his worry that somehow the wrong clothes would doom him to unpopularity forever. In high school, my dad would've worn his football jersey and been set.
"Black Lives Matter shirt," he said. "And dark jeans."
She raised her eyebrows at him.
"Too much?" he asked.
"Maybe for the first day," she said.
I put a large pancake in the shape of a cat in front of her.
Mira smiled. "Thanks."
"You're more than welcome." I slid the syrup and whipped cream in front of her.
"Here." She handed Elliott a folded piece of paper.
Elliott opened it. "Holy cow!" he said. "This is amazing."
I stopped in the middle of getting Trouble her breakfast and looked over his shoulder. "Wow."
Mira had drawn an elaborate cartoon of Elliott conquering school. One panel had him walking down a hallway with lockers on each side. Much larger boys, with bulging muscles, were calling out to him, "Hey, New Boy. Go back where you came from," with sneers on their faces. Cartoon Elliott, with his half- shaved head, and other side of longer hair falling over his eyes, held up one hand toward them.
In the next panel, a see-through dome had fallen over the bullies, with Cone of Silence printed around it. They were stuck inside, angrily pounding on the clear wall.
The next cartoon had Elliott becoming invisible to sneak by a group of girls swirling around a human-sized bee wearing a crown — clearly they were the mean girls. A third had Elliott dressed like a ninja and doing a flip to get through a window and slide into his chair while an impatient teacher scowled and tapped his watch at the students coming in late.
Elliott looked up at her, dazed and delighted. "This. Is. The. Best. Thing. Ever!"
Mira ducked her head and smiled.
"You're so talented," I said. "You should be an artist."
I set Trouble's food dish on the floor, and she dug in. It's about time.
Mira looked at the table. "Maybe someday."
Shoot. I should not be telling Mira what to do with her life.
Mira's childhood had been less than ideal. I'd never been told the whole story, but knew she was put into the foster care system when she was twelve, had run away from an abusive placement when she was fifteen, and ended up in a group home. After becoming involved with a program that helps foster kids become independent when they turn eighteen, she started working part-time for me, Lani, and even the local farmer. She was focusing on earning money for a car so she could go to business school, something practical, not pie-in-the-sky ideas like becoming an artist.
I changed the subject. "Speaking of talents, how's the play coming?"
Mira had written a play about her time in foster care that had won a state-wide contest. She was working with a professional team of directors, stage and costume designers and actors to have her play produced by a nonprofit organization called Playwrights Project at The Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park, near downtown San Diego.
Her face lit up. "Great! The dress rehearsals are going really well."
"That must be so cool," Elliott said. "We have tickets for opening night."
Mira smiled. "I know. I'm so excited for you to see it."
My dad interrupted. "Better get dressed or someone's gonna be late."
Elliott stood up. "Eh. I'll just ninja my way in."
* * *
The only reason Elliott made it to school on time was by jumping out of the car and jogging the last block. I hadn't prepared for how many students would be heading for the school at the same time. Back in the city, I'd walked Elliott to his elementary school, like most families. One more thing to adjust to in Sunnyside.
"Note to self — leave way earlier tomorrow," I said to Mira as we pulled out of the line of parents who hadn't yet given up on getting their kids closer.
She smiled and then her phone dinged. "He found his friend already."
My relief that he had a buddy to show him around was a bit over the top. Elliott had adjusted well to our recent move into my dad's house but transitioning to a new school was a whole other level.
"He'll be fine," Mira reassured me, sensing my worry. "He's smart and funny and cute."
"Thanks," I said. I changed the subject. "I'm not sure if you know that we moved up the schedule for Seafood Surprise and we're making it today."
I'd started making Meowio Batali Gourmet Cat Food by accident. I found Trouble when she was abandoned as a very young kitten. She had a lot of digestive problems and could eat only food I cooked for her. When I realized friends appreciated the same quality of food for their cats, I started selling to an ever-widening circle until I graduated to farmers' markets.
Now Twomey's Health Food — with stores all over San Diego — was taking a chance on me and putting Meowio food in their stores. To increase production, I'd made my part-time cook, Zoey, full-time and hired Mira. We moved to a much larger commercial kitchen that was owned by Quincy Powell, a successful businessman who mentored newbies like me. He'd recently invested in my company and was doing everything he could to help us succeed.
In two weeks, Twomey's was holding a Take Your Cat to Shop Day to introduce customers to my food. So many people were now investing their time and energy into Meowio food, and the results of that day were the first measure of all that work. It was an amazing opportunity, and I was doing everything I could to get ready and also spread the word.
The parking lot at the El Cajon Rental Kitchen was half-full as we pulled in. It was surrounded by a bunch of one-story industrial buildings filled with small businesses. The sun had reached sizzling level, and I missed the air conditioning as soon as I turned off the car.
Mira started untying her bandana from her wrist as we got out. I heard car doors slam and turned around to see two men in their early twenties approaching us from a black SUV. One of them looked furious and had his hands clenched into fists. Had they been waiting for us?
Mira's eyes grew wide. "Get back in the car, Colbie!" she yelled and moved in between the men and me.
"No way." I grabbed her arm, pulling her around to my side of the car. "Stay over there!" I dialed the phone. "I'm calling the police." Instead I hit another number.
Mira put her hand up to stop me. "It's okay," she said. "They're my ex-foster brothers." She emphasized the "ex."
They didn't look like brothers. The older one had a square face set into a scowl, made even more threatening by his buzz cut and large shoulders. The younger one was both shorter and slight, with dark hair and eyes. His expression was apologetic, as if he didn't want to be here. They didn't stop until they were directly across from us, my Subaru hatchback seeming smaller than normal.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Trouble with Truth"
Copyright © 2018 Kathy Krevat.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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