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Authors: Laura Childs

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BOOK: Crepe Factor
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“We'll tell everyone to come to your booth,” Ava said. “So they can taste for themselves how good your food is.” She looked at the backdrop that was splotched and still dripping with gumbo. “That's if they can read your menu.”

“Sure,” Quigg said. “Whatever.” He turned to one of his employees and sighed. “Mario, see what you can do about this mess.”

*   *   *

“Is Quigg always such a hothead?” Ava asked.

“I don't think I've ever seen him that angry before,” Carmela said.

“New Orleans does that to you. After a while it messes with your mind and brings out your inner crazy. This city should come with a warning label.” Ava held up her plastic cup. “Hang on a minute. I want to top off my Merlot.” She wiggled her way to another wine booth and let them pour a stream of Chablis into her half-full cup.

“Really?” Carmela said. “And what does that get you?”

Ava gazed into her drink. “Pink stuff.” She took a sip. “And it's pretty dang good, too. Mixed with the Merlot it tastes like . . . Chablot.”

“Just don't spill that gunk on your suede boots. Or get sick and oopsy all over them. Remember what happened last time you mixed your liquor?”

“That was an extremely rare and isolated case of Wild Turkey not seeing eye to eye with French champagne,” Ava said. “That wouldn't happen again in a million years.”

“Hah.”

“Say now,” Ava purred, her eyes locking on to another booth, where candles flickered and black leather and silver chains gleamed. “What delicious little goodies do we have here?”

Carmela glanced into the booth. It was filled with leather corsets, garter belts, and lace-up boots. And was that a whip she saw dangling overhead? Oh my.

“A bondage lover's dream,” Ava declared, fingering a leather garment. “I wonder if they have this corset in my size?”

The frizzy-haired woman working the booth smiled at Ava. “What are you, about a six or eight?”

“On a good day, yes,” Ava said.

“This corset would fit you beautifully, then,” the woman said. “And we also have it in red leather with gold studs.”

Ava held up the black corset for Carmela to see. “What do you think?”

“For me, personally, I would go with the red,” Carmela said.

“Be serious.”

“Okay. For me, personally, I would skip the whole thing. Who wants all that leather cinched tight around your waist? I prefer to suck in my fat the old-fashioned way. By holding my breath.”

“I'm going to try it on,” Ava said.

“Of course you are.”

“Just duck behind this curtain,” the woman said, shoving a purple paisley shawl aside. “Maybe try it on right over your blouse.”

Ava disappeared inside while Carmela waited. Candles flickered, leather gleamed, and Carmela felt more and more uncomfortable. “You almost ready?” she called out.

Suddenly, the entire booth began to shift and shake. Carmela wondered what on earth was going on back there? It couldn't be
that
tough to squeeze into a corset, could it? “Ava?” she called out.

Ava and the booth's owner peeped out from behind the curtain just as another enormous vibration rocked the booth.

“Ava, get out here!” Carmela called. Something felt very wrong.

Ava popped out, looking frightened. “What?” she yelped. She had the corset on around her. “Was somebody trying to rip open the back flap and get a peek at my chichis?”

This time the canvas booth trembled harder, as if the earth were about to open up and swallow it. Canvas flapped and rippled, an aluminum pole snapped, flaming candles wobbled and then toppled over, spewing rivulets of hot wax everywhere.

“Oh!” the booth owner cried as the booth jerked and spasmed.

“What's going on?” Ava asked, her eyes wide as saucers.

“Something's happening behind it,” Carmela said. For some reason, there'd been a break in the crowd and they were the only ones around. That seemed to make the night feel darker, the flicker of lights more menacing.

Ava jerked straight up like a prairie dog on point. “It
sounds like somebody's tenderizing meat out back. Smacking a side of beef with a wooden mallet.”

Carmela listened for a split second. “More like somebody's fist is connecting hard with somebody's face.”

“You mean, like a fight? We should call a cop.” Ava looked both fearful and distracted. “How come there's never one around when you need . . . ?”

Carmela pulled out her cell phone, ready to hit 911. But just as her finger was poised above the keypad, all hell broke loose. The tent jerked and shivered as if an F5 tornado were bearing down upon it. Then it teetered forward precariously, the overhead string of lights popping like cheap cheeseburgers on a grill. The table tipped forward and all the leather goods slipped to the ground.

“Dear Lord, what's happening?” Ava cried.

That's when a god-awful scream pierced the air. It rose up, tortured and shrill, like the death knell of a banshee.

Ava stumbled over to Carmela and grabbed her friend's arm in a viselike grip. “Was that scream even human?”

Carmela was just as stunned. “I gotta call . . .”

Another scream rent the air just as the tent collapsed completely, folding in on itself with a crash that sounded like the end of time.

“Holy crap!” Ava shrieked. She lifted a hand and pointed as a figure stumbled out of the darkness toward them.

Carmela and Ava stared, disbelieving, as Martin Lash staggered into the dim light. He was gasping for air and lurching wildly. Worse than that, a huge serving fork protruded directly from his carotid artery.

Feet clomping woodenly, eyes dark pools of pain, looking stiff and half dead, like the Frankenstein monster, Lash advanced on them.

“Holy shit!” Ava cried. “It's that blogger guy, Lash!”

Lash stared at them, eyes glazed and burning red, practically unseeing. Then his mouth formed a perfect O and he let out a low, threatening hiss like a dying vampire.

Stunned, practically scared out of their undies, Carmela and Ava backpedaled away.

“Help!” Ava squawked. But they were both too astonished by Lash's macabre dance of death to turn away completely.

Lash managed one more awkward, clumpy step, as if his dying brain was operating solely on autopilot. He hesitated, the giant fork in his gullet quivering and jiggling wildly. Rivulets of bright red blood spurted from his neck, creating blossoms of red down the front of his shirt. He stared at them blankly for a few more seconds, then flung his arms straight out to his sides. “Graaah!” he warbled as he slowly tipped back on his heels.

Carmela and Ava watched in horror as Martin Lash, blogger non grata, keeled over backward and landed hard on the pavement. Splat.

Seconds went by.

“You think he's dead?” Ava whispered.

Carmela tiptoed forward a couple of steps, caught the metallic glint of the giant fork still stuck in Lash's gullet, and nodded. “He's done for.”

Chapter 2

I
N
spite of the dead body lying practically at her feet, the frizzy-haired booth owner spun around wildly like a gyroscope that was out of control.

“This is crazy!” she shrilled, arms flung out, wobbling on her high-heeled leather boots. “My beautiful leather goods . . . my booth!” She went into orbit again and pointed at Ava. “You there. Remove that corset. It doesn't fit you anyway.” Then she went back to kvetching. “Last year it rained and everything turned into a soggy mess. This year it's raining dead men!”

“Well, jeez,” Ava grumbled as she picked at the laces. “It wasn't that flattering anyway.”

“That,” Carmela said, “is the least of our problems.”

Two minutes later, they were surrounded by a cadre of uniformed officers. Apparently, cooler heads had prevailed somewhere and a 911 call had gone out. Now two officers stood over
the dead man, pretty much scratching their heads. Right on the heels of those officers came a raucous gang of looky-loos, predictably anxious to get their grisly kicks by looking at a dead guy.

“Get back. Everybody back,” one of the uniformed officers hollered. His name tag said
BAILEY
and he was red-faced and huffing from the exertion, rings of sweat forming under his arms. When the crowd was sufficiently cowed, Officer Bailey glanced back at the dead man and then asked, “Are there any witnesses?”

Carmela raised a tentative hand. “My friend and I. We saw him stagger out.”

“Him,” Bailey said. “It sounds as if you know who he is?”

“I think his name is Martin Lash,” Carmela said.

“Wait right there,” Bailey said as the crowd pressed forward again. “You'll need to speak with one of the detectives.”

The name Martin Lash did it, of course. The name was repeated, whispered, and then passed along again. The rumor that Lash had been stabbed—probably murdered—ran through the Winter Market like wildfire.

Carmela and Ava waited, surrounded by jostling crowds, until they heard the noisy, high-pitched bleat of an ambulance. Then another uniformed officer joined Officer Bailey as they tried to keep everyone at bay while the shiny white ambulance backed in slowly, the driver trying his best not to roll over anyone's toes.

Carmela and Ava watched, fascinated, as a gurney was unloaded and two EMTs rushed to the aid of Martin Lash. They worked quickly and efficiently, administering oxygen, doing chest compressions, even yanking out the giant meat fork. But short of a Lazarus-type miracle, nothing seemed to be working.

“That poor sucker's dead,” Ava said.

“Don't be so hasty,” Carmela warned.

“No, the rumor is that he's really dead,” a voice behind them said. They turned around to find Quigg Brevard anxiously watching the frantic activity.

“Happy now?” Carmela asked him. She hadn't much cared for Quigg's matter-of-fact tone of voice. Rumors were just that: rumors. Maybe Martin Lash still had a fighting chance.

“Of course I'm not happy,” Quigg snapped back at her. “Don't be ridiculous.”

Carmela turned her attention back to the scene of the crime. The police seemed to be genuinely puzzled and all talking at once. And even as the EMTs continued to work over the body, the frizzy-haired woman scrabbled around shoving leather bustiers into cardboard boxes, the mustachioed wine vendor moved in closer, and some guy wandered through the crowd, selling kettle corn to fascinated onlookers for ten dollars a bag, twice the going rate.

Officer Bailey came up to Carmela and said, “Just a few more minutes, ma'am. The detective is on his way.”

“Is he dead?” Ava asked. She pointed toward the body on the ground.

Bailey seemed unhappy. “It looks that way.”

“Do you know who will be . . . ?” Carmela began. But the officer had already turned away. No matter. Carmela had already caught sight of a familiar blue BMW cruising toward the scene. She nudged Ava. “Guess who got the call-out?” She looked around for Quigg, but he was gone.

“Huh?” Ava said. She could barely pull her eyes away from the EMTs and the craziness of the crowd.

Carmela turned her attention back to Babcock. He'd parked his car and was striding toward the murder scene now, looking rather serious and take-charge.

Tall and lanky, Edgar Babcock moved like a big cat with
a reserve of coiled energy. Even though it was late in the day, Carmela could imagine the scent of Dial soap, Paco Rabanne, and a nicely starched shirt as he hurried along. Babcock's ginger-colored hair was cropped short and his blue eyes were pinpricks of intensity. Interestingly enough, he was also a serious clotheshorse, always dressing extremely well. Tonight he wore a wool tweed jacket, dark slacks, and leather slip-on loafers that Carmela guessed were from Prada. It was no surprise that he was up for deputy chief.

Carmela touched two fingers to her heart. “Thank goodness,” she said. “If anybody can figure this out, Babcock can.”

“Absolutely,” Ava said. “Because he's not only got the smarts, he's tenacious.”

“A pit bull,” Carmela agreed.

But right now Babcock had a scowl on his face and was waving his arms.

“Push them back,” he yelled at Officer Bailey. “Get everyone out of here. I want at least a twenty-five-foot perimeter.”

“Will do,” Bailey shouted back.

But the onlookers were slow to move.

Babcock shook his head and repeated his order. He was losing patience.

Finally, Bailey and four other uniformed officers gained some control over the crowd, and the circle around the body began to widen. Then Bailey leaned in and said something to Babcock. Babcock nodded, glanced around, and started scanning the crowd. When his eyes landed on Carmela they widened in surprise.

Uh-oh
, Carmela thought. But she lifted a hand and gave him a brief finger-flutter wave anyway.

Babcock looked toward the heavens, shook his head, and turned back to Officer Bailey.

“We might have a problem,” Carmela said.

“What? Us?” Ava said. “Nah. I doubt it.”

Carmela watched Babcock carefully as the crowd slowly dispersed and, one by one, he began questioning a number of vendors. From the blank looks on their faces, it was pretty clear that most of them hadn't seen or heard anything out of the ordinary. The frizzy-haired leather lady was no help at all.

“All I know is that he knocked down my booth.” She jabbed a finger angrily toward the very dead Martin Lash. “Never seen him before, never hope to again.”

Babcock questioned a few more vendors, but it wasn't until he talked to the music box vendor that he hit pay dirt.

“Yeah, he was yelling his head off and arguing,” the music box vendor said. He was short and stocky with a hawk nose and a shock of dark hair. He looked like an extra in a wiseguys movie.

“There was an argument?” Babcock asked. This was the first he'd heard.

The music box vendor nodded. “Between the guy that got stabbed and the gumbo guy, yeah.”

Babcock gave a slow, reptilian blink. “Gumbo guy?”

Uh-oh
, Carmela thought.

“Quigg something,” said the music box vendor.

“Quigg Brevard?” Babcock's eyes flickered over toward Quigg's booth, where a major cleanup was under way.

The vendor nodded. “Yeah, that's the guy.”

That was also when Carmela stepped forward.

“Excuse me,” Carmela said. “I also witnessed that particular exchange. And it wasn't . . . such a big deal.”

The music box vendor rocked back on his heels. “That ain't what I saw, lady.”

“What exactly did you see?” Babcock asked him.

“I . . .” Carmela started.

But Babcock held up a hand. “Please. Let the man finish. I'll get to you in a minute.”

“From what I saw they had a pretty serious argument,” the vendor said. “Lots of yelling, a few nasty cuss words.”

“So you wouldn't exactly categorize it as friendly?” Babcock asked. “A friendly disagreement?”

“On a scale of one to ten,” the vendor said, “it was about a fifteen. Ten being a meltdown at Chernobyl.”

Carmela threw up her hands. “Oh, come on.”

Babcock ignored her. He turned to Officer Bailey and said, “We need to get Brevard over here.”

“Really?” Carmela said. She was suddenly very scared for Quigg, worried that he could take the fall for this.

Thirty seconds later, Quigg was standing with them, looking none too happy. But as soon as he recognized Detective Babcock, he hastened to explain. “Hey, Babcock, you know me. I wouldn't smack a mosquito at dawn nor dusk. I heard a rumor that Martin Lash got killed but I never had a problem with the man.”

Then Quigg noticed Carmela watching him closely. “Look, so maybe I did have a few words with Lash earlier tonight.” He spread his hands wide and shrugged his shoulders. “I own restaurants, he writes restaurant reviews. Sometimes we don't always see eye to eye, you know? But there was nothing physical between us. I mean, okay, he threw a bowl of gumbo at me and then went slinking off like a coward.” He pretended to wipe a blob of food from his pristine apron. “But there's no hard feelings. Really.”

“That's not what I hear,” Babcock said.

Quigg leaned forward. “What do you hear?”

“For one thing, you just spilled your guts and told me
plenty,” Babcock said, but in a moderate, reasonable tone of voice. “Apparently, Martin Lash wrote a review that you didn't agree with and then the two of you had a very nasty argument.” He glanced around. “In front of several witnesses. Next thing we all know, Martin Lash turns up dead.”

“He's good,” Ava muttered.

“Shh,” Carmela hissed. Babcock
was
good. And Quigg wasn't doing much to help his own case.

“You want to explain your argument?” Babcock asked. “Elaborate on what happened?”

Quigg glowered at him. “Explain why some hack writer insulted
me
? Are you serious? Martin Lash probably insulted every food vendor here. Why don't you go talk to them?”

“I already did,” Babcock said. “But the evidence keeps circling back to you.”

“Evidence?” Quigg shouted. “There is no evidence.”

“We have several eyewitnesses,” Babcock said.

“Maybe of the argument,” Carmela suddenly interjected. “But not of the murder. Ava and I were there. We didn't see anybody else.”

“And just why are you here again?” Babcock asked Carmela.

“To have fun?” she said in a small voice, just as the shiny black crime scene van bumped across the grass toward Martin Lash's dead body.

“Of course,” Babcock said. He turned back to Quigg Brevard. “We're going to need you to come in and give us a statement. Expect to be with us for a while because I'm guessing that more than words passed between you and Lash . . .”

Quigg suddenly bristled.

Babcock continued on. “And I do want to hear the entire story.”

“Sure. Whatever,” Quigg said.

“As for you,” Babcock said, turning to Carmela. “We need to have a very serious talk as well.”

“Sure,” Carmela said.
Gulp.

*   *   *

It took another hour for Carmela and Ava to finally get out of there, and by that time they were so jacked up they needed something to help them relax.

“A glass of wine,” Carmela said as she stuck her key in the door. Her garden apartment was located just across a quaint little courtyard from Juju Voodoo, Ava's voodoo shop. Ava lived upstairs in a teeny-tiny apartment that was painted Pepto pink with lots of leopard-print design touches.

“Sounds perfect,” Ava said.

But as the door opened, two wiggling, waggling dogs flung themselves at the two women.

“Down, babies, down,” Carmela pleaded. But Boo, her fawn-colored Shar-Pei, was already smothering her with kisses. And Poobah, a spotted rescue dog, pawed excitedly at Ava.

BOOK: Crepe Factor
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