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Authors: Laura Childs

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BOOK: Crepe Factor
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Harrison took over the introductions. “Carmela Bertrand and Ava Gruiex, may I present Harvey and Jenny Jewel, proprietors extraordinaire of the Jewel Caviar Company.”

Ava was suitably impressed. “Ooh, I just adore fish eggs.”

“You're from right here?” Carmela asked. “New Orleans?”

“That's right,” Jenny Jewel said.

“I'm guessing you're a relatively new company,” Carmela said. She'd never heard of them before.

Harvey smiled. “Did you enjoy the caviar you had on toast points earlier?”

“It was delicious,” Carmela said.

“That was our caviar,” Harvey said proudly.

“Well, this is fascinating,” Carmela said. “I thought the caviar industry had been completely decimated. That all the beluga sturgeon in the Black and Caspian seas had been fished to extinction.”

“They pretty much have,” Harvey Jewel explained. “But that disaster was a long time coming, so some very clever people involved in aquaculture took matters into their own hands. Beluga sturgeons have been crossed with different types of sturgeon, such as shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon, to create hybrid fish that produce fabulous eggs. Now caviar is being farmed in a dozen different countries around the globe.”

“That's amazing,” Carmela said. “And where do you source your product from?”

“We buy bulk sturgeon caviar from a farm in Finland,” Harvey Jewel said. “We ship the caviar here in refrigerated containers and package it ourselves in a repurposed shrimp factory that went bust after the BP oil spill.”

“You probably use those teeny-tiny little jars,” Ava said.

Harvey Jewel smiled. “Well, an ounce of caviar is still rather expensive.”

“But there's a good-sized market for caviar?” Carmela asked.

Both Jenny and Harvey Jewel beamed.

“You have no idea,” Harvey said, just as a bell tinkled to call everyone to dinner.

*   *   *

Babcock finally joined their group just as they were all sitting down at their table. Carmela was none too pleased with his behavior, but decided to give him a pass. His mind was occupied, after all.

“Look,” Carmela said, reaching through a forest of wineglasses to pick up a small menu printed on elegant parchment paper. “They're serving duck gumbo as the first course. One of your favorites.”

Babcock gave a noncommittal grunt.

“Excuse me?” Carmela said. She'd just about had her fill of Babcock's bad behavior.

“That call I just took?” Babcock said. “It was about your buddy.”

“What are you talking about?”

Babcock lowered his voice. “Quigg Brevard somehow managed to have all of Martin Lash's reviews on the Glutton for Punishment website taken down.”

Carmela was surprised. “He did? Really? Just like that?”

“Apparently he snapped his fingers and—poof!—the reviews simply disappeared.” He took a sip of wine while he held her with his eyes. “You don't know anything about that, do you?”

The implication irritated Carmela. “No, of course not. And I can't imagine how Quigg managed to pull Lash's reviews down so quickly. Or figure out whose arm to twist.”

“The guy's obviously got friends,” Babcock said. “Business compadres who are willing to stick their necks out for him.”

“Chill out, will you?” Carmela hissed. She was still miffed that Babcock continued to see Quigg as a suspect. The only suspect.

The rest of the dinner felt like a blur to Carmela. The food was fantastic, of course. A spicy duck gumbo; a colorful Noel salad topped with strawberries, cranberries, and walnuts; and an entrée of blackened redfish with pommes Anna. Desert was a delicious zuppa inglese, a creamy mélange of custard and sponge cake.

Carmela laughed, chatted, and made jokes as if nothing was amiss, but she was keenly focused on Babcock giving her what felt like a very cold shoulder. When dinner was finally over and couples began wandering into the bars and lounges for a nightcap, Babcock bolted a cup of black coffee and turned to her.

“I'm sorry, but I really have to leave,” Babcock said. “Would
you like me to take you home or can you catch a ride with your friends?”

Carmela gave him the chilliest stare her blue eyes could muster. “A lady always leaves with the gentleman who brought her.”

Babcock stood up. “Then we'd better get going.”

The ride home wasn't much better. Babcock made only noncommittal grunts to her idle, nervous chatter.

“Are you even listening to me?” Carmela asked.

“Of course I am.”

“What did I just say?”

“Um, something about a concert?”

“Nice try.”

“Carmela, I'm sorry. But I'm preoccupied. Can't you see that?”

“Yes, I can see that. In fact, everyone at the Reveillon dinner could see that.”

He pulled his car to the curb and stopped. “Come on, it wasn't that bad.”

She leaned across the front seat, gave him a perfunctory kiss, and reached for the door handle. “Edgar, it really was.” And then she was out of the car and running through the porte cochere, headed for her apartment. Her heels clicked like castanets against the flagstones, her opera cape billowed out behind her.

What a disaster
, Carmela thought.
What a waste of an evening. Better to have stayed in and snarfed an entire bag of Chips Ahoy! than to . . .

A long shadow moved across the courtyard in front of her.

Carmela stopped in her tracks, eyes gone wide, heart suddenly fluttering in her chest like a wounded dove.
Someone's here? Waiting for me?

Banana palms waved in the chilly breeze, the water in the
fountain splattered as it dripped from one level to the next. All familiar sounds that suddenly felt lonely and threatening.

Mustering her courage, Carmela called out, “Is someone here?” She was holding her breath, mentally girding herself for Martin Lash to stagger out and grab her like a returning corpse from
The Walking Dead.

Instead, Quigg Brevard stepped out from the shadows.

“Holy crap!” Carmela cried. She lowered her beaded clutch from where it had been raised to use as a semi-deadly weapon. “You scared me to death.”

Quigg held up his hands in an apologetic gesture. “Sorry, sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you.”

“Well, you did.” Carmela felt angry and cross and didn't care if he knew it. “What are you doing here, anyway? Besides lurking in the shadows?”

“I've been waiting to talk to you. I was hoping the boyfriend didn't come in for a nightcap.”

She shook her head. “Little chance of that. Babcock's been totally preoccupied all night long. Trying to puzzle out Martin Lash's murder and, I suppose, clear your name.”

“Somehow, I doubt that clearing my good name is his main mission in life,” Quigg said. “I happen to know I'm still very high on his suspect list. Probably up there in the top two or three.”

“And you're doing nothing to help yourself,” Carmela said. “Babcock found out that you had Lash's Glutton for Punishment reviews taken down. He views it as questionable, suspicious behavior.”

“Wrong,” Quigg said. “It's simply smart business. I've got to distance myself from that idiot Lash as much as possible. His ravingly bad reviews could've killed me, especially where my new wines are concerned. I'm counting on this year's holiday sales to really cement my name in the wine industry.”

“How can you think about business when you're suspected of murder?”

Quigg gave her one of his devastating smiles. “It's easy. I compartmentalize.”

Somehow, the notion was appealing to Carmela. “I wish I could learn how to do that.”

Quigg moved a step closer to her. “It just takes a little practice. Besides, I didn't kill Martin Lash. I'm innocent. And, my dear Carmela, you know that to be a fact.”

Before Carmela could say a single word, before she even knew what was happening, Quigg leaned forward and wrapped his arms around her. She tilted her head back, about to lodge a formal protest. That's when his lips touched hers and, even though she knew it was the worst thing she could possibly do, she melted into his arms and kissed him back.

Oh no! Oh no!
her mind screamed even as she wondered what had come over her and realized that she was quivering all the way down to her toes.

“You're an angel,” Quigg whispered, his breath hot and urgent and tickling as his lips moved down to brush gently against her neck. Then he released his grip and slipped away into the darkness.

Like Lot's wife turned to salt, Carmela stood there staring into the darkness.
No
, she thought, still feeling the thrill of his lips pressed hard against hers.
I'm not an angel. And I definitely am in big trouble.

Chapter 7

C
ARMELA
and Ava strolled leisurely down Royal Street. It was just past noon on Sunday and tourists as well as locals were out in full force. The jostling crowds were enjoying the shaved ice vendors, rides in horse-drawn jitneys, and superlative window shopping. After all, only the finest sterling silver goblets, antique jewelry, and eighteenth-century oil paintings were on display in the upscale antique shops on Royal Street.

“Everyone's out so early this morning,” Ava said. She wore a purple tweed jacket and pencil skirt with a black blouse that had tiny pearl buttons down the front. It didn't take a close inspection to see that Ava had neglected to close most of the buttons when she'd gotten dressed.

“Honey, it is early,” Carmela said. “But it's early afternoon.”

Ava stifled a yawn. “I guess it just feels like morning because I had such a late night. After the Reveillon dinner, Harrison and I went to Dr. Boogie's and knocked back a few more pops. Then we listened to some hot jazz . . . and went back to my place for . . . you know . . . yadda, yadda, yadda. How was your post-party? All snuggly and nice, too?”

Carmela shook her head. “Don't even ask.”

“Please don't tell me that Babcock just dumped you at home like yesterday's California roll?”

Carmela was going to spill the beans to Ava about Quigg showing up, but since they'd just arrived at the pink stucco building that housed Brennan's Restaurant, she decided to save her tale of infamy for later. Right now she needed an eye-opening cocktail and a fortifying brunch entrée. Or maybe she'd throw caution to the wind and just skip right ahead to their flaming bananas Foster. Give in to the stark raving sugar junkie that lurked inside of her.

A well-coiffed maître d' greeted them in the entry. “Good afternoon, ladies.”

“Huh,” Ava shook her head. “If he says it's afternoon, then I guess it must be afternoon.”

The smiling maître d' didn't lose a beat. He grabbed two menus and said, “I have immediate seating in the Chanteclair Room.”

“Wonderful,” Ava said. “And can we possibly get one of those little tables next to the glass wall overlooking the garden?” She batted her eyes for extra effect.

“Certainly, madame.” He led them into a cheerful room with light green trellises adorning the walls and ceilings, then pulled out green cane chairs with coral seats and backs. Ava seated herself with one hand delicately outstretched as if she were a newly crowned queen.

A waiter dressed in black and white brightened by a pink sateen bow tie hurried over to their table. He presented them with an enormous wine menu.

“Perhaps you'd like to start with a bottle of wine?” the waiter asked. Brennan's was rumored to have a wine cellar containing fifty thousand bottles and it looked like every one of them must be listed.

“I'm thinking champagne,” Carmela mused. She looked across the table at Ava. “What about you?”

“Like I'd ever say no to champagne?” Ava scanned the bubbly section. “What looks good? Besides everything.”

“The last time I was here with Babcock, he ordered the Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve.”

“Sounds spendy.”

“It is.”

“So that's what we should have.”

“Very good, ladies,” said the waiter.

Carmela wasted no time in scanning the brunch menu. It was glorious, of course. Fried oysters, eggs Sardou, vanilla-scented French toast, and another half dozen of Brennan's famous brunch entrées.

“I wonder how Martin Lash would have reviewed this place?” Ava asked.

“Please,” Carmela said. “Brennan's is a New Orleans institution. Right up there with Commander's Palace and Antoine's. If Lash ever dared write a snarky review he probably would have gotten himself lynched.”

“As opposed to just stabbed. And by the way, what is Babcock doing about that? He certainly was in a sour mood last night.”

Carmela's lips pulled tight.

“Oh no, has our own Dudley Do-Right been treating you badly?”

“More like just ignoring me.”

“Because he's so preoccupied,” Ava said.

“I suppose,” Carmela said.

“And because he's fiercely jealous of Quigg.”

“I really wish you wouldn't say that.”

“But it's true.” Ava smiled as the waiter brought their champagne, popped the cork, and deftly poured out two glasses. “So,” she said when he was gone, “what's up? You look like a woman with a deep, dark secret.”

“Secret?” Carmela said, her voice going slightly shrill.

“Ah, so I was right.”

Carmela took a fortifying sip of champagne. “I suppose I
do
have something to tell you.”

“I knew it.”

“But you can't blab it to anybody.”

“Who would I tell?” Ava asked.

“Um . . . everybody?”

“I wouldn't do that,” Ava said.

“Then swear on something.”

“Cross my heart and swear on my evil eye earrings.” Ava leaned forward eagerly. “Okay, so tell me. Spill the beans, girlfriend.”

“After Babcock dropped me off last night. After he pulled over to the curb, barely slowed the car, and practically pushed me out into the gutter . . . I was hurrying to my apartment . . .”

Ava gave an encouraging nod. “Yeeees.”

“And . . . well . . . Quigg was kind of hiding in the courtyard waiting for me.”

Ava grinned. “Look at you, hot momma. Juggling two guys at once. Back in the day I used to do that myself. You know, I'd line up two, maybe three dates in one night. Cocktail hour, then dinner, then a late-night rendezvous. Lately I've been trying to cut back.”

“Ava, stop. This wasn't any kind of date. Quigg was just lurking there. Totally unbeknownst to me.”

“He was just . . . waiting for you? Why,
cher
?”

“He wanted to talk about the murder. He was wondering if I'd found out anything new.”

“But you haven't.” Ava took a quick sip of wine. “Have you?”

“Not really. I had no real news for Quigg. Aside from the fact that Babcock is suspicious about how he waved a magic wand and had Martin Lash's reviews taken down from the Glutton for Punishment website.”

Ava cocked her head. “That's all very interesting. But none of that explains why a man was standing at your front door in the wee hours of the morning.” She wiggled her fingers. “So what really happened?”

Carmela had sipped just enough champagne to loosen her tongue. “I kissed him.”

Ava gasped.

“I mean . . . he kissed me first. And then I just couldn't help myself.”

“Girl, you are so walking a thin, red line.”

“I know that!”

Ava dimpled. “So give me all the details.”

“There are no details. It was just a simple kiss.”

“Simple?” Ava smirked. “A kiss with a man like Quigg Brevard is never simple. You should know that.”

“Which is why this whole thing is quite complicated.”

“Of course it is,” Ava said. “But the big question is, what are you going to do about it?”

“I have to do something?” Carmela asked. “What would I do? Jeez, Ava, all I want right now is for the kiss to have never happened.”

“It's too late,” Ava warned. “That kiss is out there in the ozone. It's like posting a bad selfie—it'll never go away.”

“So what do you suggest I do?”

“You actually have several options. You can avoid Quigg for the rest of your natural-born days. You can confess your infidelity to Babcock and beg for forgiveness. Or you can live with this secret locked in your heart forever. Personally, the option I'd go for would be to kiss him again.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Carmela cried, so loudly that a couple of people turned to stare. “Kiss him again?” She lowered her voice. “Babcock would kill us both. And because he's a smart detective who carries a gun, he would probably get away with murder.” She picked up her menu and waggled a finger at the waiter. “Ah, forget it. Let's just order.”

They did order. Eggs Benedict for Carmela and eggs Sardou for Ava. Then Carmela sat and stared into the garden for a few minutes, deep in thought.

“You okay?” Ava asked.

“I don't know what to do.”

Ava picked up the bottle of champagne. “Have another drink, sweetie. Champagne makes everything better.”

*   *   *

By the time their food arrived, Carmela was sufficiently calmed down.

“My entrée is perfection,” Ava said. “Angels must have descended from heaven and whipped up this sauce.”

“Then they must have gotten a hall pass good for the entire day, because my eggs Benedict is marvelous, too. But,” Carmela admitted, “I'm already thinking ahead to dessert.”

Ava aimed a fork at her. “Bananas Foster for two.”

“You got that right,” Carmela said. “There's nothing better than caramelized banana flambéed in rum.”

“Except maybe Brennan's chocolate rum drink. That's my idea of perfection. Pigging out on chocolate while you
get a nice buzz on.” Ava smiled. “See how much better you're feeling now?”

“That's because I'm drinking. And overeating.”

They settled down then, enjoying their brunch as the day stretched into late afternoon. When Carmela finally glanced at her watch and saw that it was almost four o'clock, she said, “Would you believe that Martin Lash's viewing starts in a couple of minutes?”

Ava was surprised. “They've got him fixed up already? They patched up that awful old grisly hole in his throat?”

“Apparently so,” Carmela said. “The notice for his visitation appeared in the
Times-Picayune
this morning. Visitation today, memorial service on Tuesday.”

“Those funeral directors sure work fast, huh?”

“I think they pretty much have to,” Carmela said.

“And there's a valid reason why you're thinking about attending Lash's visitation? And I'm guessing you want to drag me along with you?”

“Chalk it up to curiosity.”

Ava laughed. “Now that's something I can relate to.”

*   *   *

Twenty minutes later they were standing outside a wrought-iron fence, gazing in at a three-story white clapboard mansion. The windows were framed with black shutters while four Ionic columns fronted the building. A discreet brass sign with the words
CASTLE FUNERAL HOME
was affixed to the fence at eye level.

“This place looks kind of spooky,” Ava said. “Do you think it's haunted?”

“Probably not,” Carmela said.

“I read somewhere that New Orleans is the most haunted city in the United States.”

“Nice try,” Carmela said as they started up the steps to the front porch. “You're still coming in with me.”

Just as they reached the double oak doors with stained glass inlays, the right door popped open and a liveried doorman leaned out. His graying temples and stiff bearing made him look just like Carson, the butler on
Downton Abbey
.

“Come in, ladies,” the doorman said in cultured tones. “How may I direct you?”

“We're here for the Martin Lash visitation,” Carmela said.

“Straight ahead,” Carson said. “Kindly sign the guest book as you pass by.”

“Will do,” Ava said as they stepped into a large marble-tiled entry. The walls were painted a deep rose color, the woodwork was gilded, and a large crystal chandelier dangled overhead. A flurry of white doves and levitating cherubs were painted on the ceiling.

“So tasteful,” Carmela said. “Yet so understated.”

“I wonder who their decorator was?” Ava said. “The last archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?”

“Let's just play nice and sign the guest book.”

They stepped up to a polished wooden lectern that held an oversized leather book. The pages were a creamy ivory paper edged in gold. A faux quill pen was stuck in a faux inkwell.

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