Before she started hosting dinners for Indiana University’s Sociology Department at Pans ‘N Pancakes, Robbie never imagined scholarly meetings could be so hostile. It’s all due to Professor Charles Stilton, who seems to thrive on heated exchanges with his peers and underlings, and tensions flare one night after he disrespects Robbie’s friend, graduate student Lou. So when Robbie and Lou go snowshoeing the next morning and find the contentious academic frozen under ice, police suspect Lou might have killed him after their public tiff. To prove her friend’s innocence, Robbie is absorbing local gossip about Professor Stilton’s past and developing her own thesis on the homicide—even if that means stirring up terrible danger for herself along the way . . .
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When the Grits Hit the Fan
By Maddie Day
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Edith Maxwell
All rights reserved.
Who knew people could be so nasty to each other?
I'm Robbie Jordan. While I cleared dinner plates, I watched and listened as a mix of grad students and professors from Indiana University discussed medical sociology during their bimonthly dinner meeting at my restaurant, Pans 'N Pancakes. It wasn't pretty. I'd served fifteen of them Chicken Ezekiel on rotini, with garlic bread and winter greens from a local farmer harvesting even in February. The air still smelled deliciously of Kalamata olives, garlic, and roasted tomatoes, and from the empty plates, it sure looked like the meal had been a success.
The conversation? Not so much. Half the terminology went right over my head. But when Charles Stilton glared at my friend Lou Perlman, the meaning was unmistakable.
"It was unethical of you to take the ideas in my paper and present them as your own," Lou went on, the silver rings on her fingers flashing as much as her eyes as she pointed at him across the wide table. "You agreed to sponsor me, but I sure didn't agree to give up my original research."
"You're a doctoral student," the diminutive professor said, his bright green shirt a spot of color among the more muted shades worn by his colleagues. He picked up his glass of red wine and sipped. "I'm a tenured professor in the same field. I can't help it if our research is pursuing parallel ideas. I didn't steal a thing." He studied my shelves of vintage cookware and blinked as if the conversation was over.
I'd met Professor Stilton in the preceding weeks. He'd been polite and friendly to me but had gotten into tiffs with the others at a few of the gatherings. I'd have to ask Lou what was up between them.
A woman I hadn't seen before pushed back her chair. She stood and set her hands on the table. "That's enough, you two. These meetings were supposed to be congenial intellectual gatherings, not some mudslinging sessions."
Charles stroked his tidy black goatee. Ignoring the woman, he turned to the man on his right. "How about them Pacers?" I watched Lou fume, nostrils flared, lips pressed together. She pushed her chair back and stalked to the restroom. We had met in the fall when she'd come in for breakfast with a group of cyclist friends. She'd helped me find my father and we'd become good friends. I'd never seen her so mad.
The woman who'd admonished them had come in late and I hadn't been introduced to her. Shaking her head, she picked up her plate and brought it to where I stood at the sink in the kitchen area that adjoined the rest of the space.
"Thanks." I wiped my hand on my apron before extending it. "Robbie Jordan, proprietor here."
She set down the plate and silverware and shook hands with a firm, vigorous touch. "I'm Professor Zenobia Brown. But just call me Zen." A wiry woman, she stood a couple of inches shorter than my five-foot-three, and was at least two or three decades older than my twenty-seven years. Her salt-and-pepper hair was cut in a no-nonsense short do with the top a little bit spiked. She smiled, her skin crinkling around blue eyes. "My mom thought with a last name like Brown I needed a unique first name. Anyway, I'm a new professor in the department. The chair, actually. I live halfway between South Lick and Bloomington and I've been meaning to get over here for one of your famous breakfasts. Still want to."
"Not so sure they're famous, but you're welcome to come and sample what we serve."
"Whole wheat banana walnut flapjacks? That's my kind of breakfast." She glanced back at the group. "Sorry about the commotion. It's like wrangling cats sometimes to get these people to act civilly."
"It's okay. As long as I get paid and people don't start a food fight, I don't really care how they get along." I'd happily agreed to Lou's idea of the dinner meetings. I'd only opened my country store breakfast-and-lunch place in October and hadn't realized how slow business would be during the winter. It was cold and often snowy in the hills of southern Indiana, but most years not snowy enough to bring a winter tourist trade. Even the locals seemed to be staying home instead of eating out. I'd reduced the days I stayed open to Wednesday through Sunday to save money on my assistant Danna's pay. It also kept me from ordering food that spoiled because it didn't get used. The boost of a nice flat sum from this group every other Friday night was definitely helping the bottom line. I served the same menu to everybody, changing it up each time, and so far no one had complained.
I loaded up two platters of brownies and took them to the table, which I'd created by shoving together smaller tables into a conference-table-sized surface they could all sit around. "Coffee or tea, anyone? Or decaf?"
"I'm sticking with wine," Charles said, pouring the last of his bottle of Merlot into his glass. "I can because I'm walking home," he added in a defensive tone.
I knew he lived half a mile away right here in South Lick. I thought most of the other faculty and students, like Lou, resided nearer the sprawling flagship Indiana University campus fifteen miles away in Bloomington.
"It's so great you got permission for us to do the BYOB thing, Robbie," Lou said, back in her chair, pouring a half glass for herself from a bottle of white. "Dinner's not really civilized unless you can drink wine with it. And I'm having more because I caught a ride with teetotaler Tom here."
Tom, Lou's fellow grad student, grinned and waved.
"As long as I'm not a licensed alcohol establishment, which I'm not, it's apparently legal. And as long you pour your own." I'd purchased a supply of stemless wine glasses and a few corkscrews when I'd learned I could allow customers to bring bottles of wine. Nobody had asked yet if they could carry in beer or hard alcohol, which was good, because my research hadn't extended that far. I didn't advertise the BYOB option, and I wasn't usually open for dinner, anyway, but several times a group of ladies had brought their own wine for a special luncheon, as had an elderly local couple celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary with lunch out instead of dinner.
Lou had been talking with Tom and Zen. She tilted the bottle at Zen's glass. "More?"
I noticed Lou was carefully avoiding any interaction with Charles, wisely so. He was still deep in conversation with the man next to him.
Zen covered the glass with her hand. "Not for me, thanks. One glass is my limit. I'm training for a marathon. But I'd love a cup of decaf, Robbie."
So running was why she was that wiry. I was a serious cyclist, myself. It was how I'd met Lou and Tom, who also loved riding for miles up and down the scenic hills of Brown County. But my cycling habit was offset by my love of eating. Nobody would ever call me wiry and I didn't care. I was healthy, and I did have a nicely defined waist to offset my generous hips.
I took the rest of the hot drink orders. After I delivered the mugs, I busied myself cleaning up. It was already eight-thirty and I still needed to prep for tomorrow. We'd agreed on a finish time of nine o'clock for these gatherings. I was up every morning by five-thirty to open the doors by seven, so I didn't want Friday nights to turn into an open-ended session of wine sippers sitting around talking abstractions.
The discussion had turned to the topic of public health, which apparently wasn't as controversial as the conversation between Lou and Charles had been, and didn't seem abstract at all. Snippets of talk about social change in women's paid and unpaid work and the consequences of these changes for women's health floated my way. Zen seemed to be leading the discussion, while Charles sat back with his arms folded, a little smirk on his face. I carried the remains of the rotini and the salad into the walk-in cooler. When I came out with butter and flour in my arms for tomorrow's biscuit dough, the mood had changed.
Zen stood with her hands on her hips. "How dare you say that to me?" Her eyes narrowed and nearly shot daggers at him.
Charles shrugged then grabbed his coat. "You can take it. You're our esteemed chair, aren't you?" He sauntered toward the front door. "Have a nice night, fellow sociologists."
The cowbell on the door jangled his exit, but it looked like Zen's nerves were a lot more jangled.CHAPTER 2
By nine the next morning the restaurant was blessedly not in a slump. For once, every table was full and a party of three women browsed the antique cookware shelves as they waited for seats to open up. Good. I'd much rather be too busy than sitting around waiting for customers. The air was full with the rich aromas of sizzling sausages, sweet maple syrup, dark coffee, and freshly flipped pancakes. Bits of conversations were punctuated by the clink of silverware and the occasional jangling of the cowbell on the front door marking exits and entries.
Between hurrying from table to table, taking orders and clearing, I glanced at Danna, the best nineteen-year-old co-chef I could imagine. Tied with an orange band, her titian dreadlocks hung down her back as she flipped pancakes, turned sausages, and expertly ladled gravy onto hot biscuits. The girl was tireless, nearly always cheerful, and had contributed plenty of innovative ideas for extras to accompany our usual menu. She'd made creamy grits with cheese last Saturday and we'd sold out. Today the Specials chalkboard read, WARM UP YOUR TOOTSIES OMELET: ROASTED RED PEPPERS AND PEPPER JACK CHEESE SERVED ON A WARM CORN TORTILLAAND TOPPED WITH FRESH JALAPENO SALSA. It was Danna's invention, even though as a native Californian, I might have thought of it myself.
"You good?" I called to her.
She returned a thumbs up, so I continued on my trajectory to three men with the ruddy faces of those who spent a lot of time outdoors. I didn't know if they were farmers, construction workers, or even electrical linemen like my new sweetie, Abe.
"Refill, gentlemen?" I held out the coffeepot. One covered his mug with his hand, but another smiled and lifted his mug. The third had pushed aside a plate empty except for a small pool of gravy and was engrossed in the New York Times crossword puzzle. He was doing it in ink. My radar went up since crosswording in ink was my favorite downtime occupation, bar none — even more than cycling.
"Today's?" I asked him, sidling around to his side of the table. "I haven't gotten to it yet." I smiled when he glanced up.
"Know what the biggest Channel Island is?" He frowned at the paper. "I don't even know what channel they're talking about."
"How many letters?"
"Nine. Could be the British Channel. How do you spell brek-how?"
"You mean Brecqhou? That's only eight letters. I'll bet it's Santa Cruz. Try that."
He added those letters, nodding as he did. "That's it." He glanced up at me. "So it must be the California Channel Islands. How did you know?"
I laughed. "I grew up across from Santa Cruz Island, in Santa Barbara. Santa Cruz is definitely the biggest island of the archipelago, and it's gorgeous on a clear day. It's like seeing the top of a mountain range push up from the ocean. Which I suppose it is. They're all gorgeous — Anacapa, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, even tiny Santa Barbara Island."
"Sounds like you miss them. Well, thanks, miss. I appreciate the help." He chuckled. "Thought I was only coming in for biscuits, gravy, and bacon."
"My pleasure. Will that be all today, guys?"
He looked at his tablemates, who nodded. "Yes, I do believe so. It was all very tasty."
"I appreciate that." I slid their ticket facedown onto the table and headed for another table. The cowbell on the door jangled and I turned my head to see Maude Stilton holding the door for her tiny mother, Jo Schultz. I'd bet Jo was all of five feet when she stood up real straight, although Maude was a good five or six inches taller.
"Come on in, ladies," I called, and headed that way, instead.
Jo, the former owner of my building, handed her wool coat to Maude and sank onto the bench. "Hi, there, Robbie. How's my store?" She smiled, further creasing her lined face. She always wore her white hair in a bun on top of her hair, giving her an even more old-fashioned look than her almost seventy years would suggest.
"It's good. And busy this morning, as you can see." I gestured behind me. "I'm sorry you'll have a short wait, Jo, but I'm glad to see you." I greeted Maude, too. "There are two parties before you. Breakfast usually turns over pretty fast, though."
"Not a problem, Robbie. Glad you're busy." Maude, a successful local architect and Professor Stilton's wife, didn't look a bit old-fashioned. Barely a line showed in her face, even though she had a nearly twenty-year-old son. Every time I'd seen her, her streaked chestnut hair was freshly colored and cut in an elegant layered style that fell between her ears and her shoulders. She slid out of a stylish cardinal-red coat and hung it on the coat tree with Jo's.
"It's looking real good in here," Jo said. She might look like an older lady, but both her mind and her eyes were clear and sharp. "You done a good job with the renovations. And I'll bet you're glad not to be involved in any more murders."
"You can say that again." I shuddered inwardly at the memory of being face-to-face with a killer right here in my store at the end of November. "It's been nice and quiet for three months, and I'm planning on it staying that way."
"Say, you ever get a chance to work on the upstairs like you said you were wanting to?"
Danna dinged the little bell indicating an order was up. I swiveled my head in her direction and caught an annoyed look. Busy like we were, I had no business chatting up a customer even if we were connected through this building.
"Gotta run, Jo," I told her. "I'll catch up with you later."
I ran my tush off for the next half hour, clearing, taking orders, and serving up platters of tasty, filling breakfasts. By the time I delivered an egg white omelet with dry toast and a bowl of fruit for Maude and a half order of banana-walnut pancakes for Jo, it was almost thirty minutes later and the crush was over. Three tables were empty and four others already had their checks.
"Whew. Sorry that took so long," I said, setting down their food. "Can I top off your coffees?"
"No thanks," Jo said
"Please," Maude said. "I ought to take some to Ronnie. He's out ice fishing all day. At nineteen, did he think to take a thermos of something warm to drink? No, he did not."
"That's one cold way to have fun," Jo said. "But he's my grandson. I expect he has a mind of his own, and right that he should."
"I helped him take his equipment onto the lake this morning when I dropped him off. You wouldn't catch me sitting on a bucket all day long hoping to catch a couple perch or bluegill." Maude raised perfectly arched eyebrows and shook her head.
"Jo, you were asking about the upstairs. I've been working on it this winter." I'd done all the renovations on the downstairs myself. My mom had had a successful business as an artisan cabinetmaker in California and had taught me carpentry. When she'd died suddenly a year ago, the money I inherited from her, together with my savings from working as a chef in nearby Nashville, Indiana for the three years prior, had helped me buy the property from Jo. But I'd rather still have Mom alive. "So far I'm still in the demolition phase."
Maude looked worried as she glanced at her mother.
Jo seemed to shrink into herself, but she mustered a smile. "That's nice. I know you want to make the place into an inn."
"I'm sorry." I cringed at my thoughtlessness. "That's not very nice of me to mention the demolition. You both used to live up there. It's just that I wanted a configuration of walls different from the previous ones." And insulation. And modern wiring. And a myriad other improvements.
"Don't worry about it," Maude said.
Jo's smile brightened. "I'm glad you're going to improve it. The place got pretty run down, I admit."
"That striped wallpaper I put up in my room was pretty bad, as I recall," Maude said. "But hey, I was a teenager."
"And you did it all yourself, don't forget." Jo smiled at her daughter. "You did a good job."
"If you need a consult on the new design, my office is right above the bank." Maude's mouth smiled, but not the rest of her face. "I'd be happy to take a look one of these days." She kept smiling as she talked.
Excerpted from When the Grits Hit the Fan by Maddie Day. Copyright © 2017 Edith Maxwell. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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