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Authors: Laura Childs

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BOOK: Crepe Factor
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“What have I got?” Carmela asked.

“The grumps.”

*   *   *

Carmela did as she was told. Went into her office and chugged a good long slug of Diet Coke. When she felt fizzy bubbles rise up in her nose she quit and let loose a few good sneezes. Her sneezing fit finally over and done with, she took a spin around in her chair and studied some of the sketches she'd pinned to her wall. All ideas for projects: a booklet with a small pocket that would hold a tea bag, a wooden box that she would paint with copper and gold and stencil with an image of an old clipper ship, a small clutch purse made of super durable paper that would look great when it was stamped and embellished.

Lots of projects to do. Not so much time.

Carmela leaned back in her chair and massaged her temples. Just how long was she going to be able to cope with Babcock's suspicions about Quigg? How long could she deal with Quigg coming on to her?

She knew her life was devolving into a circus. And not
the fun kind, either. More like the kind where all sorts of wacky clowns spilled out of a tiny little car and into her life.

Staring at her computer screen, Carmela skipped her fingertips lightly across the keyboard. What about this Allan Hurst and his restaurant? What
was
the deal with that?

Babcock had told her that all of Martin Lash's reviews had been purged from the Glutton for Punishment website, so that wouldn't be any help.

So where could she find the Fat Lorenzo's review? How was a girl supposed to get any research done?

Carmela clicked along and twenty seconds later she was on Yelp. And found that a helpful someone had posted a quote taken directly from Martin Lash's review of Fat Lorenzo's. She scanned it quickly.

Don't worry about getting Fat at Fat Lorenzo's. The food is inedible. Start with a salad. I promise you wilted greens, mushy tomatoes, and mushrooms that were artfully diced to cut away the mold. Entrées? Unless you enjoy gelatinous pasta, rubbery calamari, and shoe-leather chicken, skip this course entirely. As for dessert, if tepid coffee and cheesecake the texture of curdled grits are your faves, then you're in luck. With so many intriguing restaurants in New Orleans, why waste a moment—or a dollar—at Fat Lorenzo's? Take my word, this Fattie won't be around for long.

Yipes! Talk about a vicious, venomous review. And that was only part of it. Carmela could understand why customers had stayed away in droves. Lash made Fat Lorenzo's sound like eating there was tantamount to catching the bubonic plague. She could almost understand—but not justify—Lash's murder. Allan Hurst, the owner, must have been hysterical when Lash's review came out. And now, according to
Shamus, Hurst had zero customers and was carrying a mountain of debt. Revenge did seem to loom large!

Next, Carmela ran a search on Allan Hurst. She didn't find much, just an archived article from the business section of the
Times-Picayune
. It was your basic bare-bones announcement about the restaurant planning to open within a few months. The press release was accompanied by a small, grainy photo of Hurst.

Carmela studied the black-and-white photo. Hurst looked deer-in-the-headlights surprised, eyes wide open, brows beetled, like maybe he'd taken a not-so-good selfie in his shaving mirror.

And now his business, probably his life's dream, was in ruins. Was Allan Hurst the type of hothead who'd grab a meat fork from his own kitchen, tail Martin Lash to the Winter Market, and then stab him in the neck?

Carmela wasn't sure. It was hard to tell all that from a tiny black-and-white photo.

“Carmela?”

Carmela spun away from her computer. “Are our crafters here already?” she asked Gabby. Had she fallen down the rabbit hole and been consumed with this whole Martin Lash thing for the last couple of hours?

But no. Gabby was just asking about lunch.

“If you want to mind the front counter,” Gabby said, “I'll run down to Pirate's Alley Deli and grab a couple of po-boys for lunch.”

“Great. Thank you.” Carmela stood up. “Wait. And get me another Diet Coke, too.”

Gabby smiled. “The caffeinated kind?”

“Can you think of anything else that jacks you up so nicely?”

Gabby shook her head. “Nothing that's legal anyway.”

Chapter 10

C
ARMELA
was still nibbling the last delicious bites of her po-boy when she heard the front door bang open. She sat up straighter in her chair and dabbed at her lips. “Hello?”

“Hellooooo!” came a familiar yodel.

Tandy Bliss
, Carmela thought to herself. When Tandy swept in you were assured of a serious tornadic event.

“Hey there, Gabby,” Tandy bellowed again. “Where's Carmela? Did she forget we've got a class today?”

Carmela wiped her hands on her napkin, stuffed the remnants of her lunch in a brown paper bag, and dumped the detritus into her trash can. Then she grabbed her second Diet Coke and ran out to greet Tandy just as Gabby was reassuring her that the crepe paper class would indeed start in just a few minutes.

Elbows out, Tandy punched her fists on nearly nonexistent hips and turned to face Carmela. “Have you heard from Baby? She's supposed to be here and she's late.” She tapped a toe. “Late again.”

Carmela couldn't help but smile. Tandy's temperament was as fiery as her intensely hennaed red hair.

“Sweetie, she'll be here,” Carmela said. “Relax. Take a breath.”

Tandy was still spinning like a Texas dust devil. “She's not always prompt, you know. And this is
important
.”

Before Carmela could hand Tandy a paper bag to keep her from hyperventilating, the door opened again and a blond-haired woman wearing a navy blue Chanel jacket over a sleek white blouse and perfectly pressed blue jeans strode into Memory Mine. With her artfully cut hair and still-flawless-yet-fifty face, she looked like the idealized version of a mature woman.

“There you are!” Tandy cried.

“Tandy, honestly,” Baby said. “I could hear you screaming from all the way out on the sidewalk.” Baby Fontaine was a Garden District socialite with a gentle demeanor and unerring common sense. She also had a finely tuned sense of humor.

“Because I was wondering where you were,” Tandy said. “Time's a-wastin'.”

“Not to worry,” Carmela said, shepherding them back to the craft table. “You're all just fine on time. I'm guessing you'll probably be able to finish at least two or even three craft projects today.”

“That's what I'm talkin' about,” Tandy said as she plopped into a chair.

As Gabby started passing out rulers and scissors, the front door flew open again and two more ladies came in. The taller of the two, a silver-haired woman dressed in a
wheat-colored cashmere sweater and khaki slacks, said “Is this right? The crepe paper class?”

“This is it,” Carmela said. “Come on back.”

“I'm Margery Landon,” the woman said. “This is my sister Allison May.”

Allison May, dressed in a black turtleneck and jeans, gave a finger wave when her name was mentioned.

Carmela introduced herself, then led them back and made introductions all around.

“I think we've got one more person coming,” Gabby said.

“Josie?” Carmela said.

“That's right.”

Josie Thibideaux, a young librarian who'd begun taking craft classes the previous summer, showed up some two minutes later.

When Carmela was sure that everyone was present and accounted for, she stood at the head of the table and held up a large wreath made entirely of poufy black crepe paper flowers. A black crow with beady red eyes was perched in the center of the wreath.

“Spooky,” Tandy said, causing everyone to laugh.

“It is spooky,” Carmela agreed. “I made this wreath a couple of months ago for Halloween. But when you use different-colored crepe paper flowers, this basic wreath can be adapted for almost any holiday. For Christmas, you could do red, green, silver, or whatever you'd like.”

Gabby stepped in. “Since we're all going to create flowers just like Carmela did, you're going to need a template for the flower petals.” She proceeded to hand out metal templates to everyone. “For each flower you need to cut about eight to ten petals.”

“So you cut out all your petals and then squeeze them together at the bottom . . .” Tandy said.

“That's right,” Carmela said. “And then you secure them in place with a twist of wire. Once that's done, you kind of bend and pull each petal, working it into a flower shape.”

“Neat,” Baby said as she started tracing and cutting. “I think I'm going to do a pale blue wreath and decorate it with some of those sparkly little white birds I saw at the front of the shop.”

“Perfect,” Carmela said.

The women all started working on their flower petals, except for Tandy. She wanted to make super huge flowers, so Gabby fixed her up with a slightly larger template.

Once the flowers were made, the next project on the agenda was a surprise ball. And to Carmela's surprise, everyone wanted to make one.

“I've got, like, a jillion nieces and nephews,” Margery said. “So this might be just the thing for them.”

“Explain, please,” said Josie.

Carmela held up a small red rubber ball. “What you do is anchor a long strip of crepe paper to a ball and then start wrapping. As you wrap the strips, you insert little gifts, like tiny toys, charms, candy, or fortunes. Then when the ball is all wrapped up, you put a gold sticker on it and tie it with ribbon. It's great for the holidays—for kids or as party favors.”

“Could I do all candy?” Josie wanted to know.

“Of course,” Carmela said. “You can do anything your heart desires.”

Thirty minutes later, the table was a riot of crepe paper flowers and surprise balls. In the meantime, Gabby was busy snipping hunks of wire into three-foot pieces and bending them into circles.

“Okay,” Gabby said. “Set aside your surprise balls for a moment, it's time to grab your flowers and fashion your wreaths.”

She passed out the wire and everyone slipped their flowers
on and anchored them in place. Then the ladies began searching the scrapbook shop for embellishments. Josie decided to create delicate pink bows for her wreath. Margery stamped angels onto cardstock and was busy cutting them out. Once her angels were cut into tags, she would color them using a copper-colored pen.

Baby, who was sitting next to Carmela, nudged her friend and said, “What's this I hear about you witnessing a murder the other night?”

Carmela wrinkled her nose and whispered, “Oh, you heard about that?”

“Well, it was a fairly nasty business, so the
Times-Picayune
served it up as a feature story,” Baby said. “But my neighbor Deb Darling was actually
at
the Winter Market and told me that she saw you there. Apparently the police had roped off a spot and you were being questioned?”

“Because Ava and I witnessed the whole thing. Can you believe it? Some girls' night out, huh?”

“Must have been awful.”

“It was hideous,” Carmela said. “Like something out of a horror flick. But you know what? The truth of the matter is, Ava and I
didn't
really see the whole thing. We only saw that guy, Martin Lash, come staggering out from behind the row of tents.”

“With a meat fork stuck in his throat,” Baby said, a trifle aghast.

“Yup.” Carmela took a slug of Coke. “And the worst part is . . .”

“There's a worst part?” Baby asked. “Besides just the really bad part?”

Carmela nodded. “Babcock thinks that Quigg Brevard did it.”

“Your Quigg?”

“He's not really my Quigg,” Carmela hastened to say.

“He used to be.”

“No, no, not for a long time. That relationship is ancient history.”

“Still,” Baby said, “Quigg always struck me as pretty much of a pussycat.” She smiled to herself. “Well, maybe a bit of a tomcat, because he always seemed to have an eye for the ladies. But I can't believe Quigg would ever outright murder someone.”

“Tell that to Babcock,” Carmela said. “He's suspicious because Martin Lash . . .”

“The dead guy,” Baby said.

“The dead guy,” Carmela said. “The dead guy gave Quigg's restaurants some really rotten reviews. And then Quigg got on his high horse and confronted Lash and the two of them had a knock-down, drag-out fight right in the middle of the Winter Market for everyone to see. I mean,
food
was thrown.”

“No!” Baby said.

“And then not five minutes later, Martin Lash wound up with a meat fork stuck in his neck, spurting blood like the Trevi Fountain.” Carmela touched a hand to her chest and took a deep breath. “And that's why Babcock is looking so hard—and disdainfully, I might add—at Quigg.”

“So what's Quigg doing about it?” Baby asked. “I mean, has he hired an attorney to defend him? Or maybe even a private detective to help find the real killer?”

Carmela blinked at the “private detective” part.

“Oh no,” Baby said. “He didn't.”

“Of course he did.”

“He really asked you to get involved?”

“More like pulled me into it,” Carmela said. “He says I'm the only one he really trusts.”

“And of course you have the ear of the lead detective.”

“No, I don't,” Carmela said. “Not for this. Babcock isn't telling me squat. I'm on my own. Out on a limb, you might say.”

“Don't sell yourself short,” Baby said in a low voice. “You're pretty good. You've managed to unravel more than a few crimes in your day.”

“Which pretty much infuriates Babcock.”

“You two have a tempestuous relationship, don't you?”

“It's cooling on ice right now. Since Babcock shut me out completely.”

“And how do you feel about that?” Baby asked.

“Like I want to thumb my nose at him. Like I want to snoop around and figure things out for myself.”

Baby reached over and patted Carmela's hand. “Then do it, honey. You're one smart cookie, don't you know?”

*   *   *

The wreaths turned out beautifully, the surprise balls were charming, and Tandy's flowers morphed into six gigantic red and purple blooms. She ended up attaching them to long green pipe cleaners, so she could stick them into a large ceramic pot.

“That was so much fun,” Gabby said, half yawning, as everyone trooped out the door, heartfelt thank-yous drifting back to them. “But I'm ready to go home.”

“Then go,” Carmela said. “Just . . . go. I'll roll the phones over to the answering service and lock up.”

Gabby managed a crooked smile. “Yeah? But what about straightening up the craft table?”

“There's not that much to do. So just take off. Have a nice evening.”

“Thank you, I will,” Gabby said, pulling on her jacket.

Two minutes later, Carmela was all alone, wandering through her shop, straightening up a little, but deciding to leave most of it until morning.

Then the phone rang.

“Hello? Memory Mine.” Carmela hoped it wasn't a customer wanting some last-minute favor. But it was Quigg. “How did it go today?” she asked him. She meant the questioning by the police.

“Terrible,” Quigg said. “They're utterly convinced I'm a stone-cold killer.”

“But you're not.” At least she hoped he wasn't.

“Tell that to your boyfriend. He was ready to beat me bloody with a rubber hose. Carmela, you said you'd help me. I'm feeling frantic here.”

“I'm trying, Quigg, I really am.”

“Then please try harder. You don't know how close they came to actually detaining me today.”

“But they didn't. They let you go, right? I mean, you
are
out?”

“Yeah, I'm over at Mumbo Gumbo. I've got bills to pay and customers to charm. Anyway, they asked the same old questions over and over again. Why was I arguing with Lash? Did I leave my booth? For how long? Over and over until my head was spinning.”

“Maybe you passed their little test. Maybe they're finally finished with you.”

BOOK: Crepe Factor
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