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Authors: Laura Childs

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BOOK: Crepe Factor
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Once Quigg had checked out the women in the shop, he turned his attention back to Carmela.

“Carmela,” he growled.

“Quigg,” Carmela said back.
What does he want? Is he here to bring disaster and suspicion down upon my head, too?

“I need to talk to you.” Quigg moved much closer to her than necessary, invading her personal space, as was his habit with women.

Carmela hesitated. She had a funny feeling that she knew what he might want. And probably should have just tossed him back out on the street. Instead, against her better judgment, she crooked her little finger at him, indicating that he should follow her back to her office. She figured she'd be more in control of their conversation there.

It was only when Carmela plopped down in her leather
chair that she realized what a bad decision she'd made. Quigg sat down in the guest chair and squiggled it up close to her until they were touching knees. Now she felt downright uncomfortable. After all, he was handsome, hunky, and they used to date. There'd even been a few tiny sparks when they'd kissed. Of course that had been a few years ago, pre-Babcock.

“I need your help,” Quigg said with barely a preamble.

“How's that?” Carmela asked pleasantly when she was really thinking,
Oh shit. Here it comes.

“As you can probably guess, I'm in big trouble. That rather public argument I had with Martin Lash last night did me no good at all.”

“Okay.”

“And of course you know that your tough-guy boyfriend, Detective Babcock, interviewed all the vendors from the booths surrounding mine. None of them put in a good word for me.”

“Okay,” Carmela said again, practically holding her breath.

“Anyway, about an hour ago, Babcock informed me that he'd collected a number of statements that corroborated the verbal disagreement Lash and I had.”

“Verbal disagreement?” Carmela said. “That sounds fairly benign. When the truth of the matter is you two were screaming at each other like a couple of crazed harpies.”

Quigg lifted a shoulder. “Whatever.”

“Wait a minute,” Carmela said. “Are you blaming me because Babcock is doing his job?”

Quigg leaned forward in his chair. “Not exactly. But I think you could have used your influence to help defuse the situation.”

Carmela felt her temper flare. “Oh no, Quigg. You are so wrong. Your situation is your situation and the smartest thing I can do is stay out of it.”

Quigg slowly reached over and took Carmela's hand. “But, darlin', I need your help.”

Carmela cringed inwardly as she pulled back her hand. “No, you really don't.”

“Carmela.” Quigg focused his hazel eyes on her. Eyes that, a few years ago, might have won her heart if he'd tried a little harder, put a little more effort into the relationship.

“No,” she said again.

“You know me, Carmela. You know that I'd never murder another human being. Never in a million years.”

He had her there. Carmela knew for a fact that Quigg was a good and decent person. His chefs and waitstaff all adored him, and his companies donated generously to New Orleans charities. Once, when her beloved Children's Art Association had been strapped for cash, he had given her five thousand dollars (as an anonymous gift, no less) to buy art supplies for a bunch of at-risk kids.

“Carmela,” Quigg said. “We've known each other for a good long time. You're the one person I trust who can help me.”

“I wish you wouldn't say that.”

“But it's true.” Quigg gazed soulfully into Carmela's eyes, making her feel even more uncomfortable. “We had something special once. I know I blew my chance with you. But you've always remained gracious, always stayed a friend.”

“Quigg, the New Orleans Police Department has the case well in hand. Let them solve it.
Trust
them to solve it.”

Quigg's dark eyes drilled into her. “That's the problem. They think they
have
solved it. They've set their sights on me. And considering that altercation I had with Lash, I'm not in the best position to defend myself.”

“So hire a lawyer.”

Quigg squeezed his eyes closed and then opened them. “I need someone to poke around and figure out who the real
killer is. I need someone who has experience in finding a killer, before I get completely railroaded.” He paused. “Carmela, I need
you
.”

Carmela gazed at him. Quigg was pushing all the right buttons. He was giving her sincerity and desperation as well as a modicum of flattery. She was reluctant to help him, but felt a little torn as well. For all his flirtatiousness, Quigg was a sweet guy, an innocent guy. And he seemed so . . . worried. Should she help him? Could she help him?

Quigg seemed to read her mental calculations. “Please?” he breathed.

Carmela took a few moments to make up her mind. Then she said, “I'll make you a deal. I'll try to find out what I can, but only on one condition.”

“Name it.”

She leaned forward to drive home her point. “You dare not tell Babcock a thing about this. Whatever I do to help will remain our little secret.”

“My lips are sealed. And I promise you won't regret this, Carmela.”

She was regretting it already. “We can only hope.”

*   *   *

When Quigg finally left amidst a flurry of interested smiles and glances, Carmela breathed a sigh of relief. She'd made some promises to Quigg, yes. Promises that might be a trifle far-fetched. But with any luck at all, Babcock would be out there beating the bushes, working his expertise, aggressively hunting for the real killer. And once he closed the case, he'd never be the wiser that she had agreed to help Quigg.

Somehow, even with all that rationalization, the feeling of dread in Carmela's heart didn't ease. Oh well. She slipped
behind the counter, picked up a roll of gold gossamer ribbon, and then grabbed for the phone when it rang.

“Memory Mine,” Carmela said. “How may I help you?”

“I'm just checking to see how you survived last night,” came a warm baritone voice.

Oh no, it was . . .

Carmela let out a yelp. “Babcock!”

Chapter 4

“W
HY
do you sound so surprised?” Babcock asked.

“You just caught me off guard,” Carmela blurted out. Truth be known, she was suddenly in a blind panic over his call. Coming on the heels of Quigg's visit, it felt like Babcock might be tuned in to her vibrations. As if he could peer into her prefrontal cortex and know exactly what mischief she was up to.

“I'm just checking to see if we're still on for tonight.”

“Yes. Of course we are,” Carmela said. They were supposed to attend a fancy Reveillon dinner at the Hotel Montague with Ava and Roman Numeral. “Why? Has something come up?”
Like, please, have you solved the Martin Lash murder so I don't have to keep my promise to help Quigg?

“The problem right now is I'm being pulled in a million different directions,” Babcock said. “The mayor and Downtown
Council are totally freaked out over last night's murder. Going into the holiday season they're terrified it might scare away the tourists.”

“They're always worried something's going to scare away the tourists,” Carmela said. “And the tourists still come. We could have an invasion of zombie alligators from outer space and the tourists would still come to drink our liquor and wander through our cemeteries.”

That made Babcock chuckle.

“So what exactly are you saying?” Carmela asked. “That you're trying to duck out of our date? That you can't give me two lousy hours tonight?”

“Carmela . . .”

“Because I've been looking forward to this for weeks.”
And now that I think about it, I need to pick your clever little brain and see if you've made any progress in solving this case.

“I give up, Carmela. You win. I'll be there.”

“Thank you.” She paused. “So . . . the Martin Lash case. How's that coming along . . . really?”

Babcock made a sound between a grunt and a groan. “Terrible.”

That was the opening Carmela needed.

“I have some information that could be pertinent, perhaps even helpful.”

“What's that?” Now Babcock sounded guarded.

“Have you ever heard of the Environmental Justice League?”

“No. But I'm guessing you're talking about one of those green groups. Clean up the river, wind farms, solar heating, something like that?”

“Sort of,” Carmela said. “The Environmental Justice League is a small, nonprofit group that fights to keep the environment pristine. Their particular interest is swampland and bayous.”

Babcock was less than interested. “Lots of that going around. So what's so special about this group?”

Carmela smiled to herself. She was a step ahead of him. “Martin Lash was their executive director.”

There were a few moments of silence and then Babcock said, “Really?” He said it like he didn't believe her.

But Carmela was rolling now. “So I was thinking . . . couldn't that have been a motive for Lash's murder? People get pretty upset about environmental issues. Ever since the BP oil spill there have been lots of heated battles between folks who support the environment and folks who think industry and jobs should come first. If someone thought the Environmental Justice League was threatening their livelihood, well, things could have gone off the rails.”

She could practically feel Babcock mulling over this new information and was determined not to say another word until he spoke.

“How do you know about this?” he asked.

“Gabby told me. Apparently Martin Lash accosted her husband a while back. He threatened to smash windows in his showroom or something bizarre like that because Stuart sold cars that Lash considered to be gas-guzzlers.”

“So you're telling me that Stuart Mercer-Morris might have done Lash in?” There was a hint of irreverence in Babcock's voice.

“No, of course not,” Carmela said. “You know Stuart, he considers chess a violent game. But it could be somebody of that ilk. A member of the business community who's been threatened by Lash and his merry band of environmentalists. From what I understand, Lash was a pushy, confrontational type of guy.”

“Not anymore he's not.”

Carmela didn't say anything. Babcock had a point.

Babcock continued. “Your old boyfriend Quigg Brevard has quite a nasty temper, too, from what I understand.”

“He's not my old boyfriend.”

“Then what is he?”

Carmela had to think about that for a moment. “An acquaintance?”

“Hah!” Babcock said. And promptly hung up.

*   *   *

Carmela set the phone down. Her mind was spinning and she wondered if Babcock had even taken her seriously. Even if he hadn't, she felt like she was standing in the eye of a hurricane. She'd promised to help Quigg, but Babcock would go completely batshit if he thought she was meddling. Even worse, Babcock had always been a little jealous (okay, a
lot
jealous) about her dating Quigg, even though it had been a few years ago. So what was a girl to do?

Well . . . it probably wouldn't rip the fabric of the universe too badly if she did a teensy bit of poking into the Environmental Justice League, would it?

Carmela's fingers flew across the keys of the front desk computer as she ran a quick Internet search. And what she discovered surprised her.

Lawsuits!

From several news stories, she discovered that the Environmental Justice League was embroiled in over a dozen lawsuits. There was one with a group of real estate developers who wanted to fill in a small amount of wetlands, another with a commercial alligator farm, and yet another with an oil and gas exploration company.

Carmela was hitting the Print icon so rapidly that she was afraid the printer would jam. Still, she kept gathering her clutch of evidence.

“What on earth are you doing?” Gabby asked. She was peering across the counter at Carmela. “Printing patterns or something?”

Carmela gathered up her sheets of paper and tamped them all together. “Let me tell you something, Stuart wasn't the only business that Martin Lash and his Environmental Justice League went after. These are all articles I found about lawsuits.”

“Lawsuits against . . . people?” Gabby asked.

“Individuals, companies, an unincorporated city, you name it,” Carmela said.

“So Lash was a litigious type of guy.”

“Lash either had a brother-in-law who worked pro bono or he had an entire law firm on retainer. Because it looks like he was going after everybody to protect those wetlands.”

Gabby indicated the papers Carmela clutched in her hand. “Are you going to pass this information on to Babcock?”

“I already told him that Martin Lash was the executive director of the Environmental Justice League. And that he threatened Stuart.” She riffled the papers with her index finger. “So maybe I'll hold on to this information for a while longer. Let him conduct his own brand of investigation.”

“And then you'll . . . ?” Gabby was suddenly interrupted by the
da-ding
of the bell over the front door. “Oh,” she said as Jade Germaine strolled in.

“It's the lady in her coat of many colors,” Carmela said, referring to the brightly colored floral velvet jacket that Jade was wearing.

“How do, ladies,” Jade said as she brushed a corkscrew of blond hair off her forehead. She waved to Gabby and leaned in to give Carmela a hasty air kiss.

“What brings you in?” Carmela asked.

“My undying thanks,” Jade said. She put a hand on her hip, leaned back, and said, “I can't thank you enough for that
scrapbook you created for me. My Tea Party in a Box business has taken off with a bang. Whenever I do a presentation to a potential customer, they start turning the pages and barely make it to the middle of the book before they want to book a tea party.”

Carmela grinned. “That's great, Jade. But in all honesty, you provide a spectacular service. If Gabby and I ever decided to host a tea party, we'd put all our trust in you.”

“That's right,” Gabby agreed. “You're the tea expert. You're the one who can match the right Darjeeling to a poppy seed scone.”

“But you ladies are the ones who gave my scrapbook the design spark,” Jade said. “You encouraged me to stick with one type of paper so all my photos would stand out better. And they do. Every table setting, every teapot, every dessert looks fabulous on that Champagne Cream paper you recommended. And the gray silk shantung cover gets raves. No wonder my business is flourishing.”

Gabby patted Jade's shoulder. “Don't you think your hard work had something to do with it?”

“I suppose,” Jade said. “But now that I've hit the mother lode, I want to share some of my success.”

“What do you mean?” Carmela asked.

Jade poked a finger at Carmela. “I'm hosting a tea party for the Evangeline Women's Club this Thursday and I want you to come.”

“Me?” Carmela squeaked. “I don't know. That club is awfully fancy.”

“Not just fancy,” Gabby said. “Stuffy, too. Stuart's momma is on their board of directors and you know what a stickler for etiquette she is.”

Jade waved a hand. “Not to worry, Carmela, you'll make a positively brilliant guest.” She headed for the door and
then turned to deliver her final words. “And I won't take no for an answer!”

The door was barely shut when Carmela turned to face Gabby, who was clapping excitedly.

“This is such an honor, Carmela. Just think, if you make a good impression, you could be invited to join the Evangeline Women's Club. They're like the crème de la crème of New Orleans women.”

“Help.”

Gabby cocked an eye at her. “Help? What's that supposed to mean?”

“I've never been to a fancy tea party before,” Carmela admitted. “Not even once.”

“Oh, come on. You've been to scads of upscale cocktail parties. Afternoon tea is pretty much the same thing. You wear a cute suit, a nice choker of pearls . . .”

“But there's a ton of etiquette involved in a tea party, isn't there? All that breaking of scones and sipping of tea and lifting your pinky finger.”

“Carmela, under penalty of law, do not lift your pinky finger.”

“Even if it's quivering nervously?”

“Why are you so worried?” Gabby asked. “Really?”

“Here's the thing,” Carmela said. “Stuart's momma isn't the only stuffy woman on their board.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Shamus's big sister, Glory Meechum? She sits on the board of the Evangeline Women's Club, too.”

Gabby grimaced. “You mean the great stone face?”

“That's right,” Carmela said. “The one Shamus used to call ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed.'”

“Used to? What does he call her now?”

“Now that Glory's in complete control of Crescent City
Bank and all the Meechums' investments and real estate holdings, he calls her his sweet adorable big sis.”

Gabby poked a finger at her mouth. “Gag me.”

“You got that right.”

*   *   *

Midafternoon, Carmela and Gabby called it a day and hung a
CLOSED
sign on Memory Mine's front door. They were both attending the Hotel Montague's Reveillon dinner tonight, along with half of New Orleans, and really looking forward to it. The dinner was a very big deal—the first of many Reveillon dinners that would be held in the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year's. Fancy and formal, with multiple courses, Reveillon dinners were a revived holiday tradition that hearkened back to the elegant dinners served after midnight Mass a century ago.

“I'm going home now to go get pretty,” Gabby sang out. “I'll lock the front door.”

“See you tonight,” Carmela called back. She folded her computer printouts and stuck them in her purse, rolled the phone over to her answering service, and then slipped on her black leather bomber jacket.

BOOK: Crepe Factor
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