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Authors: Laura Childs

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BOOK: Crepe Factor
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Shamus's mouth abruptly snapped shut and his eyes went buggy. He realized that he'd probably said too much already.

Carmela pounced on him like a rabid Socialist going after a member of the Tea Party. “Excuse me,
who
are you talking about? Where were you going with this?”

Shamus did everything but dig his big toe into the carpet. “Aw, I really shouldn't say any more.”

“You really should,” Carmela said. “In fact, now you have to.”

“The cat's half out of the bag already,” Ava said. “So you may as well let 'er rip.”

“All right,” Shamus said. “But you didn't hear this from me.”

“Our lips are sealed,” Ava said. “Lip glossed, too.”

“Do you know who Allan Hurst is?” Shamus asked.

“Nooo,” Carmela said. “Should I?”

“Is he a society guy?” Ava asked. “Does he drive a Bentley?”

“He probably drives an old beater,” Shamus said. “No, Allan Hurst is the owner of Fat Lorenzo's restaurant over on Magazine Street.”

“What kind of restaurant is it?” Ava asked.

“Italian,” Shamus said. “But that's not the point.”

“Then what is?” Carmela asked.

“The problem,” Shamus said, “is that Hurst never really got Fat Lorenzo's off the ground because Martin Lash wrote a horrible review the very first week they opened.”

“And let me guess,” Carmela said. “Because of that hateful review customers stayed away in droves. Which means Hurst probably lost a ton of money.”

Shamus nodded. “Did he ever. Hurst is still bitter about Lash's review. Still struggling to pay back a bank loan he signed for personally.”

“And you know all this because . . . ?”

“Because I gave him the bank loan,” Shamus said.

“If Hurst doesn't repay the loan, will you foreclose on his restaurant?”

Shamus gave a thin crocodile smile. “In a heartbeat.”

*   *   *

Back at home Carmela was ready to collapse. She'd eaten and drunk too much at brunch, the visitation was freaky, and seeing Shamus always gave her a sick headache.

What to do? Well, she could pull the shades and check out Netflix.

Except the phone was suddenly ringing.

What now? Please don't let it be Shamus calling to bug me about something insignificant.

But it was Quigg.

“Now what do you want?” Carmela asked. She could hear restaurant noises in the background and figured he must be downtown at Mumbo Gumbo.

“I was just wondering if you'd made any progress?” Quigg asked.

“You have to stop bugging me—you're driving me crazy.”

Quigg's laugh was a short bark. “You're tough, Carmela. You can take it. Besides, my life is hanging by a thread right now. The police want to slap on a pair of handcuffs and throw away the keys. Send me to Angola prison or worse. You realize Louisiana still has the death penalty.”

“But now it's lethal injection, not Gruesome Gertie,” Carmela said. Gruesome Gertie was the name of the old wooden electric chair that had been used up until 1991.

“What a lovely thing to bring up, Carmela. Thank you so much for planting that image in my head. I'm sure I'll have wonderful dreams tonight.”

“Quigg?”

“What?” Now he just sounded testy.

“Cool your jets. I just came from Martin Lash's visitation.”

Quigg let loose a low whistle. “You
have
been working on my behalf.”

“I'm not completely indolent.”

“So who was there? What did you find out?”

Carmela gave him a quick report on Josh Cotton, who she figured was probably going to take over the organization.

“So there's motive right there,” Quigg said. “Cotton wanted to get himself into the power position.”

Then she told Quigg about Allan Hurst, the owner of Fat Lorenzo's.

“I heard about that. Hurst is another restaurant owner who got blindsided by Lash. He thought he was going to get a stellar review and instead he got creamed. The review came out, like, the day of his grand opening and really slammed the door on business. He never really got Fat Lorenzo's off the ground. I wouldn't be surprised if he had to close down pretty soon.”

“What I need to know,” Carmela said, “is if you have any information about Hurst personally? Is he the kind of guy who would retaliate? I mean, would he kill over a bad review?”

“I don't know. But somebody sure did a nasty job on Lash. Maybe it
was
Hurst. I heard that he was really angry and bitter.”

“Maybe that's just wishful thinking on your part.”

“Hey, I'll do anything to get out from under this black cloud.”

“Please don't say that. It makes
you
sound like you might have retaliated.”

“I wouldn't do that.”

“Even though you're angry?”

“Hey, did you know that Martin Lash said that my wine was no better than pig swill? Can you image that? The grapes that I've nurtured and labored over for six years?”

“I have to go now,” Carmela said.

“Hey . . . how about that kiss last night?”

“You can forget about that, buster! You caught me at a weak moment.”

“Okay, okay, sorry. Just keep working on this Lash thing, will you? You're doing great.”

Carmela hung up the phone and thought hard about Quigg. Her takeaway was that he was horribly angry. With
that kind of temper, could Quigg have killed Lash? He'd been right there, after all. He'd certainly had the opportunity. Plus he'd been mad as a hornet and all jacked up . . .

She sighed and flopped back down on her leather couch. And why was she involved in this, really?

Why indeed?

Maybe because she could still feel the urgent way Quigg's lips had pressed against hers last night?

Oh dear.

Chapter 9

S
UNSHINE
streamed in the front windows of Memory Mine this Monday morning as Gabby gathered up packages of brightly colored crepe paper. Carmela was standing behind the front counter, studying an invoice that had arrived in the morning mail.

“Did you order five hundred rubber stamps of a cartoon spider crouched in a cobweb?” Carmela asked.

“Um . . . no, I did not. Did we get billed for that?”

“Yes.” Carmela set the rogue invoice aside. It was either a mistake or some company was trying to slip an invoice past her, hoping to get paid. Happened all the time. Last week, an invoice for the magazine
Today's Reptile
had shown up.

“I'm going to start organizing all our paper and scissors,” Gabby said. “So we're as prepared as possible for our crepe paper class.”

“Every time we get ready for one of these classes I'm grateful for our previous tenants,” Carmela said. “The ginormous table those antique dealers left behind is so perfect. We can seat—what?—something like a dozen people around it? Fourteen if we all scrunch? Heck, we could probably serve Christmas dinner there if we could squeeze a forty-pound turkey into the microwave.”

“Those guys probably left it behind because they couldn't budge it,” Gabby laughed. “It's a behemoth and weighs a ton. The really good thing is it's also dented and scratched so a few more scissor nicks don't make a bit of difference.” She paused and pushed back a hank of hair. “So what else should I lay out? Oh well, I suppose it depends on what we'll be doing exactly.” She gazed at Carmela with an inquisitive smile.

Carmela picked up a roll of brass wire. “I'm planning to demo crepe paper flowers, crepe paper wreaths, fringed streamers, and surprise balls.”

“I guess there's a reason you advertised this class as a Crepe Paper Party. There'll be so much going on, lots of fun things to work on.”

“And it really is fun, isn't it?” Carmela said. “Especially when our customers get all jazzed up about a particular craft. You see their eyes start to sparkle and can almost see the creative juices flowing.”

“I love the interaction with customers,” Gabby said. “Helping them see a project through. Plus every time somebody takes a class with us it kind of springboards them into the next project.”

“Which is oh-so-good for sales.”

“I'm guessing you have a few more classes planned?”

“Always,” Carmela said. “I was planning to bring back our Paper Moon and Shadow Box classes right after the holidays.”

“Just in time for Mardi Gras,” Gabby smiled. “When
everybody goes hog wild with their invitations, scrapbooks, and party favors.”

“The other thing . . .” Carmela stopped mid-sentence as the bell above the door
da-ding
ed. Then a visitor she certainly wasn't expecting—namely Babcock—pushed his way into her shop.
Talk
about an unexpected visit.

Gabby, as if sensing an impending crisis, quickly turned tail and disappeared into the back of the shop. So she was no help. No, Carmela knew she would just have to smile and face Babcock all by herself.

“Hey,” Carmela said. “Surprise, surprise.” She cringed inwardly, figuring her words sounded stupid. Or worse yet, indicated some degree of guilt—meaning she had something to hide. Which she sort of did.

Babcock pressed himself against the front counter and leaned in close to her. She could smell his dreamy aftershave and could almost feel the smoothness of his cheek pressed against hers. Nice. Much better than Quigg's.

Don't think about that now
, she warned herself.
Don't start making
comparisons.

“I didn't hear from you yesterday,” Babcock said in his low baritone.

Carmela flashed him a bright smile. Wait, was that too bright? Did showing too much teeth make her look goofy guilty?

“I went to brunch with Ava,” Carmela said. “Then one thing led to another.” There was simply no need to spill her guts about going to Martin Lash's visitation yesterday afternoon. No need at all.

“One thing led to another?” Babcock asked. “Led to what?”

Carmela wasn't going to go
there
, that's for sure. So she tucked her hands behind her back and crossed her fingers.

“Oh, we had brunch at Brennan's. And then we wandered around and visited a couple of art galleries.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Lots of new exhibitions,” Carmela babbled on. “I guess everyone's all geared up for Christmas.”

Babcock gave a distracted nod. His mind was definitely on something else besides art galleries. “I have a question for you.”

Carmela's heart sank. This was it, the coup de grâce. He'd somehow discovered that she'd been to Martin Lash's visitation. And, really, she should have known. Should have realized that there'd be undercover cops hanging out there, looking for suspicious characters. And that once they'd spotted her, they'd report back to her boy toy du jour.

“Ask me anything,” Carmela whispered, steeling herself for the crack of the bat and a line drive down center field. Right to the heart of the matter.

Babcock leaned in even closer as amusement danced in his sharp blue eyes.

Please don't torture me like this.

“Did you have the bananas Foster?” he asked.

Carmela blinked. “Whu . . . ?”

“You know very well what I'm talking about. The signature dessert at Brennan's.”

Relief flooded Carmela's wonked-out brain. “The banan . . . why, yes!” she said brightly. “We did. And aren't you the clever detective to figure it out, a regular Sherlock Holmes. Of course we had bananas Foster. We practically went facedown in it. That's the whole point of going to Brennan's, after all.”

Babcock cocked his head at her. “I figured as much. I also figured you were still pretty steamed at me. You know, because of Saturday night.” He gave her an aw-shucks look. “I
have to apologize for that, Carmela. I guess I wasn't a very good dinner companion.”

Carmela waved a hand. “Oh, that.” She felt so flooded with relief at not being caught in a web of lies that she was more than willing to give Babcock a pass. “That's all behind us. I realize you have a very demanding job and I understand that an investigation will sometimes interfere with . . . well, with us.”

Interestingly enough, Babcock had just given her the perfect opening.

“So tell me,” Carmela continued. “How
are
you coming with the Martin Lash investigation?”

“Carmela . . .” Babcock's voice carried a hint of warning.

Carmela kept up her innocent-until-proven-guilty act. “Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to meddle. In fact, I wouldn't
dream
of it.”

Oh, I so hope a bolt of lightning doesn't come down and strike me upside the head
, Carmela thought.

“But I did have an idea,” she managed to slip in.

“What exactly are you talking about?” Babcock asked.

“I've been thinking about Martin Lash's sideline. About how he wrote all those nasty restaurant reviews.”

“Uh-huh.” Babcock was watching her carefully. About as carefully as a mongoose observes a cobra.

“And I was wondering if you'd looked at
other
New Orleans restaurateurs who received horrible reviews from Lash.”

Babcock shook his head. “Do you think we should?”

“It seems to me it might be a good angle to investigate.”

“I'm not so sure about that. It would take a tremendous amount of manpower and would probably just lead to a bunch of dead ends. Not only that, we'd probably have a bunch of disgruntled restaurant owners beating on our heads.”

Carmela nodded agreeably with him even as she wondered
if she should tell him about Allan Hurst and the horrible review he got for Fat Lorenzo's. No, this wasn't the time or place. She would play her cards close to the vest for now. Maybe she'd even look into this all by herself.

“Speaking of bad reviews,” Babcock said, “your pal Quigg Brevard is coming in to talk to us this afternoon.”

“Really? I thought you were pretty much finished with him. That you'd dismissed him as a possible suspect.”

Babcock gave her a cool smile. “Sweetheart, I'm just getting started.” Then his phone rang, startling both of them. He glanced down, frowned, and said, “Gotta go.” He gave her a quick peck on the cheek. “Thanks for not holding a grudge about Saturday night.”

“See you later,” she said, waving as he darted out the door.
Thanks for not calling me out for a zillion trillion lies.

*   *   *

A few minutes later, Gabby crept back up to the front desk. But before she had a chance to ask Carmela if she and Babcock were all lovey-dovey again (Gabby being a huge champion of romance) their next-door neighbor came slaloming through the door.

The Countess Vanessa Saint-Marche was the owner of the overpriced, overhyped jewelry shop Lucrezia.

“Carmela!” the countess cried out. “And Gabby!”

The countess was whippet thin, so tan she looked like a baseball glove, and big on theatrics. Today she was costumed in a full-length leopard-print coat, her gobs of jewelry a walking advertisement for her shop. The countess's gold dangling multi-link earrings were so long they nearly collided with the thick choker of gold and pearls that was wrapped around her neck.

“I just saw your handsome young detective leaving a moment ago,” the countess announced. She didn't just talk, she
announced. Her hands fluttered in circles, jangling the half dozen shiny bracelets that graced each wrist. “You shouldn't let a plum prize like him walk around all single and fancy-free.” Now she held up a warning finger. “Some other woman could snap him up and then where would you be?” She cocked her head forward like an inquisitive bird. “Out in the cold, I suppose.”

“Carmela and Babcock are just fine,” Gabby said, rushing to defend her friend. “They're completely devoted to each other.”

“Lovely, lovely,” the countess said. “Which is why I'd adore getting that man into my shop to pick out an engagement ring.”

“I don't think you should necessarily rush love,” Carmela said.

The countess let loose dry chuckles as her skinny shoulders rose and fell. “Oh, my dear,
of course
you should. When you find the perfect man—or even an imperfect man, a scratch-and-dent type of fellow—you need to hurry up and lock that relationship down tight.”

“Carmela's got it locked,” Gabby said. “She really does.”

“Then remember this,” the countess said. “Lucrezia carries the most exquisite diamonds in all of New Orleans. Cushion cut, pear shaped, even old mine estate pieces. You send that fine detective of yours my way and I'll make sure he gets a good deal.” She winked at Carmela. “And that
you
get yourself a killer diamond!”

*   *   *

“Do we have any aspirin?” Carmela asked. “Talking to that woman always gives me a splitting headache.”

“Here,” Gabby said. She reached behind the desk and pulled out a bottle, shook two out for Carmela. “Take two of these with a hit of Diet Coke. It's a surefire remedy.”

“A surefire remedy would be if she closed her shop and moved out. I'm not sure she's even a legitimate countess. Her title—and her diamonds—could all be a complete fabrication.”

“I read somewhere that you can buy a title,” Gabby said. “Mostly titles like duke, earl, and viscount. And if your title is in the British Isles, you sometimes get a small plot of land—like eight inches by eight inches—to go along with it.”

“Sounds more like a cemetery plot where you'd bury an urn,” Carmela sniffed.

Gabby raised an eyebrow at Carmela and said, “You've got cemeteries on the brain? Yeah, you better hide out in your office for a while. You've got it bad.”

BOOK: Crepe Factor
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