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Authors: Laura Childs

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BOOK: Crepe Factor
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“Watch the leather,” Ava warned. “The shoes you can gnaw but the leather is sacrosanct.”

“Poobah!” Carmela shouted. “Get down.”

Poobah ducked his head and gave them both a crazy, crooked doggy smile, his tongue hanging out like a pale pink ribbon.

“He really is cute,” Ava said. “For a Heinz 57 dog.”

“Shh,” Carmela joked. “Poobah still dreams of making it to Westminster.”

Carmela cracked open a bottle of rosé then and they sat in her living room, digesting the evening, if not all the greasy and sugary food they'd consumed.

“Eh,” Ava said. She flopped down across the leather sofa.
“I never thought a trip to the Winter Market could turn out so dreadful.”

“It's one for the record books,” Carmela agreed. She'd lit a candle, kicked off her shoes, and flaked out on her chaise lounge. Now, for the first time tonight, she felt like she was able to relax. Babcock had grilled her like a hunk of halibut over a bed of hot coals. Demanding to know why she and Ava had been at the Winter Market. Wanting to know how much of the argument between Quigg and Martin Lash she'd overheard. Carmela had been . . . cautious. She liked Quigg, she really did. And sometimes Quigg could be his own worst enemy. So, yes, maybe she'd been a little bit protective of him. Who wouldn't be if some crappy music box vendor was pointing his fat finger at their friend? Talking about a complete meltdown. Oh please.

“You know what?” Ava said.

“What?”

“I think I've got kettle corn stuck in my fillings.”

“I'm not surprised, you ate enough of it.”

“I'll probably have to pour a gallon of hydrogen peroxide into my teeth-whitening tray tonight.”

“What's that gonna do?”

“Break up the chunks of caramel that are glazed onto my teeth?”

“That's a nice thought,” Carmela said. She gazed about her apartment dreamily. It was a comfy, cozy place that had been her first refuge when she'd gotten divorced from Shamus. But now she'd turned it into the kind of genteel, elegant, slightly frayed home that born-and-bred New Orleans residents adored. A leather sofa, slightly nicked and scratched from dog paws. Persian carpet. Dark, crackle-glazed oil paintings. Thick velvet draperies that lent a slightly decadent feel. Yup,
this was home, all right, and Carmela reveled in the fact that she'd created it all by herself.

“I hate to bring this up,” Ava said.

“Then don't.”

“But I'm not sure I've seen anything as gross as Martin Lash staggering toward us with that huge fork stuck in his neck.”

“It was pretty awful,” Carmela agreed.

“And the really bad thing is . . .”

“Yes?”

“Well, Quigg is kind of an obvious suspect,” Ava said.

Ava's words dug deep into Carmela, creating a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. “I know Quigg's a hothead sometimes. But, believe me, he didn't have anything to do with this.”

“Are you sure about that,
cher
?” Ava held up a hand. “I mean, really sure?”

“Yes, I think so.”

Ava pulled herself upright and reached for the wine bottle. Poured herself another drink. Her dark eyes drilled into Carmela. “You think or you know?”

“I know. Quigg blows hot and cold but he's no killer,” Carmela said. At least she hoped he wasn't. Because if Quigg momentarily lost his temper and
did
kill Martin Lash, then he was in a world of trouble.

“That's good,” Ava said. “That you're so sure of him. That you'd stand behind him like that.”

Carmela arched a brow. “Ava, where are you going with this?”

Ava stretched languidly. Whenever she was going to present Carmela with a moral dilemma she stretched languidly, trying to look innocent. It was like a “tell” in poker.

“I was thinking that maybe you should help Quigg,” Ava said. “Give him a little assist.” There was a pregnant pause. “Because you're good at this Nancy Drew stuff.”

“Are you crazy? You know I dated Quigg.
Babcock
knows I dated Quigg. So helping him would just open up a big fat can of worms.” Boo, who was lying right near Carmela's feet, lifted her head and stared at her.

Ava stared at her, too, her brown eyes looking almost pleading in the flickering candlelight.

“No,” Carmela said. “I want nothing to do with this case. Babcock doesn't trust Quigg anywhere near me, and if I nose around this murder case, Babcock probably won't trust me, either.”

They sat for a few moments, Boo's front paws twitching a couple times as she dropped into sleep again.

“Nothing is worth risking my relationship with Babcock,” Carmela said. “Nothing.”

Ava fluttered a hand. “Not even saving a man from death row?”

Silence took over the room.

Chapter 3

S
HAFTS
of sunshine punched through early-morning rain clouds as Carmela pushed open the door to Memory Mine. The minute she stepped inside her little scrapbooking shop a sense of homey peacefulness enveloped her. It was the exact feeling she'd strived for when she first opened the shop on Governor Nicholls Street in the French Quarter a few years ago. The quaint space, deeper than it was wide, with brick walls and pegged wooden floors, had been an antique shop in an earlier incarnation. Now it was stuffed full of scrapbook paper, leather-bound albums, rubber stamps, ink pads, stencils, packets of ephemera, ribbon, cardstock, memory boxes, and all manner of gift wrap.

“Gabby?” Carmela called out. No answer. But the door had been unlocked and the lights were turned on so Carmela
knew that Gabby Mercer-Morris, her dependable assistant, was somewhere on the premises.

And here she was now.

Wearing a chic caramel-colored sweater set and matching pencil skirt, Gabby came tiptoeing out of the back office in her Tory Burch flats, balancing a stack of scrapbooking paper, each color banded with its own wrapper.

Gabby spotted Carmela standing at the front counter and wasted no time. “Good morning, Carmela. Would you believe we've already had three calls and it's barely nine o'clock? There's a mother and daughter coming in shortly and they're hot to make wedding scrapbooks.” Gabby ticked their requests off on her fingers. “The daughter wants a Mr. and Mrs. book, a bouquet book, a ceremony book, and of course she wants to create smaller books for all her bridesmaids.” She paused to catch her breath. “So I'm glad you're here, what with all our regular customers coming in to stock up on holiday décor. Oh, and I left a copy of the
Times-Picayune
on your desk.” Her brown eyes shone with intensity. “Apparently, a horrible murder took place at the Winter Market last night.” She dropped her load of paper on the back table, the one they'd dubbed Craft Central. “Just when were you planning to tell me about
that
?”

Carmela smiled faintly. The newspaper had plopped down on her own doorstep at five o'clock this morning and she'd raced out to grab it, startling the paperboy, who wasn't used to seeing a frazzle-haired women in a filmy peignoir peeping out at him. Or maybe he was.

“How about now?” she said to Gabby.

Gabby put a hand on her hip, her brownish-blond bob nodding in agreement. “Well, I guess.” Gabby was gentle natured and demure, a perfect complement to her quintessential preppy style.

“Do we have time to grab a couple cups of tea first?”

“It's already steeping. Cranberry Spice from that little shop you like so much in Charleston. It's one of their holiday house blends.”

“Sounds perfect.”

Gabby fetched two cups of tea in bone china teacups and brought them to the front counter. Along with the newspaper.

“This is so civilized,” Carmela said. “And the teacups are a major upgrade from our usual clunky mugs that vendors give us for free.”

“I bought a few cups and saucers at Pink Elephant Antiques just down the street. I figured if we were going to brew a proper cuppa we should probably have proper teacups.” She took a sip. “So . . . the murder. Are you going to share all the grisly little details before we're inundated with customers?”

“Do you want me to?”

“Well, not the really bad stuff,” Gabby said.

“The whole thing went down pretty much according to the newspaper story. The Winter Market, throngs of partiers, and one dead guy with a serving fork stuck in his throat.”

Gabby grimaced and then tapped a finger against the newspaper. “There has to be more to it than that.”

“I was getting around to that particular aspect. But what I'm going to tell you is just between the two of us, okay?”

Gabby suddenly looked nervous. “Sure. I guess.”

“Right before the murder Quigg Brevard and Martin Lash were involved in a terrible shouting match.”

“What?”

“Ava and I witnessed the whole thing. In fact, their argument got so heated that Lash grabbed a bowl of shrimp gumbo and flung it into Quigg's booth.”

Gabby's brows shot up. “My Lordy.”

“Of course we figured that was the end of it. They'd both had their Mount St. Helens explosion and the matter was over. So Ava and I kind of wandered off and started browsing the craft booths. Then, just as Ava was trying on this weird leather corset thing, Lash came staggering out from behind the booth, looking like an extra from
The Walking Dead
.”

“With the fork stuck in his throat,” Gabby said.

“Yes, ma'am.”

Gabby shook her head. “So horrible. So grisly.”

“And then everything went boom, and about a zillion cops showed up, Babcock included.”

“Did you tell him about the red-hot argument? Between Quigg and Lash?”

“I didn't have to. Some other helpful tattletale jumped in and took care of that.”

“So what . . . now Quigg's a suspect?”

“Numero uno, Grade A prime.”

Gabby frowned. “Quigg's got a big personality. I mean . . . he can be a little blustery. But you and I both know he wouldn't hurt a fly.”

“Funny, that's exactly what I told the police. But they chose not to listen to me.” Carmela shrugged. “I guess I'm not a reliable character witness.”

“So now Quigg's found himself in serious trouble,” Gabby said. She whispered these last words as the front door suddenly banged open and smacked the wall.

Hello there
, Carmela thought to herself.
Who are you?

A middle-aged woman in a pink suit caromed through the door, pulling along a young woman dressed in bright blue yoga pants and a matching top. The middle-aged woman looked around speculatively as if she were the critic for
Southern Living
magazine, while the young woman remained hunched over her iPhone, poking at the screen.

“I'm Emily Jackson,” the woman announced loudly. “This is my daughter Melanie. We're looking for Gabby?”

Gabby lifted a hand. “That's me.”

“We called earlier about the wedding scrapbooks?”

“Of course,” Gabby said. “Welcome to Memory Mine.”

“We're kind of in a rush,” the woman said.

“Good thing I've been thinking about your project, then,” Gabby replied. “In fact, I've already pulled a few albums to help you get started. If you'll just step this way . . .” She swept an arm out and smiled at the younger woman. “Melanie? I take it you are the lady of the hour, the bride-to-be?”

“Yes'm,” Melanie murmured without looking up from her phone. Which earned her a well-delivered jab in the ribs from Mom.

“Put that thing away,” her mother hissed. “Pay attention.”

The two women disappeared into the back of the store with Gabby, while Carmela slid behind the counter. She was there for six seconds at best before two more ladies came rushing in. They were dressed in identical jogging suits, one mint green, one charcoal gray.

Gray Suit said, “We need some nice rich paper suitable for Reveillon dinner place cards.”

The lady in green clapped her hands. “It's going to be rather exciting. We've got family coming from all over the state.”

“Even our great-aunt Delia from way out in Sugartown,” the lady in gray said.

“Then you must have a very special menu planned,” Carmela said.

“Turtle soup,” Green Suit responded. “I told sister I don't give a whit about the other four courses, but we simply must have turtle soup. Daddy, bless his sweet heart, would roll over in his crypt if we served anything besides turtle soup for our first course.”

Carmela led them back to her paper stacks and showed them a cardstock in the palest celadon green. “This could easily be trimmed into place cards,” she told them. “And, if you want a festive accent, you could add a tiny holly leaf in the corner.”

More clapping. “I like that. What do you think, Sister?”

Fortunately, Sister agreed.

Carmela packaged up the celadon paper, a rubber stamp of a holly leaf, and a red ink pad. Once the sisters had left, the store enjoyed a steady flurry of customers. One lady asked for colored raffia and brown kraft paper gift bags, one was searching for batik paper, another wanted to make holiday cards. Carmela pulled bags and paper, offered crafty suggestions, and (oh, happy day!) rang up sales.

When things finally settled down to a dull roar, with more customers browsing rather than asking for help, Gabby wandered back to the counter to join Carmela.

“How goes it with your bridal crew?” Carmela nodded toward the back table.

Gabby rolled her eyes. “They're still sniping about color schemes. I'm going to let them duke it out for themselves.”

“Sometimes that's all you can do.”

Gabby picked up a packet of brass brads and fingered it. “You know, I've been thinking about the Martin Lash thing. And I realized that I kind of know him.”

Carmela leaned forward, wanting to know more. “Seriously? How's that?”

“I met Lash in an odd sort of way. You know, besides being a food critic, Lash is . . . was . . . the executive director of a small nonprofit group called the Environmental Justice League. They're very passionate about preserving Louisiana's swamps and bayous.”

“Okay, I guess I did read something about that in the
newspaper article.” Carmela wondered where this conversation was going.

“Well, that very same group once rudely accosted my husband when we were at a charity dinner,” Gabby said. Her husband, Stuart Mercer-Morris, owned something like five different car dealerships and often referred to himself as the Toyota King of New Orleans.

“Accosted Stuart how?” Carmela asked

“Lash and his Environmental Justice League members were all worked up about how environmentally insensitive Stuart's cars were, so they picketed the dinner and started haranguing him about what awful vehicles they were.”

“Didn't they realize Stuart just
sells
the cars, he doesn't manufacture them?”

“They didn't much care,” Gabby said. “They were a lot more interested in making a big stink. And getting on the ten o'clock news.”

“And this incident happened fairly recently?”

“A couple of months ago.”

“That's a fairly interesting story,” Carmela said. “I mean, if Lash has a history of verbal abuse and bad behavior, this is something Babcock should know about.”

Gabby nodded. “That's exactly what I was thinking.”

“I mean, if he's known for being a hothead . . .”

“Oh, Gabby!” a plaintive voice called from the back of the store.

Gabby touched a hand to her forehead in a dramatic, what-can-you-do? gesture. “I'll be right there, ladies.”

*   *   *

Just when business was hopping and Carmela didn't think another scrapbooker could squeeze their way into her shop, Quigg came sauntering in. He was dressed
in a slim-fitting charcoal gray suit that showed off his narrow hips and broad shoulders to perfect advantage. His tailored white shirt was open at the neck, giving his outfit a casual, European vibe.

Never able to help himself, Quigg did a quick scan of the ladies, his eyes lingering on the bride-to-be as well as on an extremely attractive woman who wore a supple black leather jacket and tight blue jeans. Of course, he wasn't unaware of his own good looks when the lady in black leather smiled back at him.

Just look at that tomcat
, Carmela thought.
He's preening. Completely aware of the devastating effect he has on women. In fact, he works at it. Cultivates it.

The self-knowledge that he was attractive to women was one of Quigg's most irritating traits. It had bugged Carmela endlessly when she'd dated him. Even when he'd escorted her to the world-famous Antoine's for a romantic, candlelight dinner for two, she'd never felt she had his full attention.

BOOK: Crepe Factor
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