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Authors: Janel Gradowski

Fudge Brownies & Murder

BOOK: Fudge Brownies & Murder
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Copyright © 2015 by Janel Gradowski

Cover design by Lyndsey Lewellen

Gemma Halliday Publishing



All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.



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Amy used a fork to retrieve some of the farro from the pot of boiling water. The grains bobbing among the bubbles were mesmerizing. It was sort of like watching a fish tank, but she didn't have time to get into a Zen zone. She was in the middle of a competition.

"Ten minutes left, ladies," someone in the crowd announced. Amy glanced at the electronic countdown clock hanging on the conference room's wall. It was crunch time. Custom-designed artwork for her blog was at stake.

The farro was tender, so it needed to be drained. Since the informal Fast Food Feud competition was being held in a conference room, there was only one sink for all five cooks to share. At least they all had their own prep tables outfitted with an electric hot plate. Nobody else seemed to need the sink at the moment, so Amy grabbed a colander from the stash of supplies every station had been outfitted with. After the cooked wheat kernels were drained, all she needed to do was combine them with the vegetables and dressing. Her quick dinner would be complete. She pulled on oven mitts and grabbed the pot topped with the overturned strainer.

"Excuse me. Coming through. Hot pan," she called as she passed behind Esther Mae Bates, whose table was right in front of the sink. Amy was trying to concentrate on keeping the pan full of hot water as stable as possible, but out of the corner of her eye she couldn't help but notice Esther Mae's red face. She emptied the pot's contents into the colander set in the sink. As Amy waited for the farro to drain completely, she turned to look more closely at the older woman. "Are you okay, Esther Mae?"

"It's hotter than Savannah in August in here," Esther Mae answered in a Southern drawl. She pushed a stray strand of licorice-black hair off of her cheek with the back of her hand. "But I'll be fine. I am certainly not a wilting daisy. I could dance at the gates of hell for a measly ten minutes."

It was slightly warm in the room, but Esther Mae seemed to be faring worse than anybody else whether it was from heat or stress. Amy really questioned the older woman's ability to make it to the end of the friendly competition. She was pretty sure Esther Mae was in her sixties even though her hair didn't have a single strand of gray, most likely thanks to regular visits to a salon instead of good hair genes. Esther Mae had a propensity for wearing colorful makeup that seemed rather clownish whenever Amy spotted the Southern cooking entrepreneur working behind the counter at her mini restaurant in Clement Street Market. Now the mint-green eye shadow and signature tangerine lipstick clashed with her lobster-like skin tone. The apples of her cheeks, where she had applied blush, were as dark red as a real Macintosh.

"Maybe some cold water will help make that dance a little easier." Amy plucked a bottle of water from the kitchenette's mini fridge and set it on the corner of Esther Mae's worktable. Then she returned to her cooking tasks. She grabbed the colander by the handles and gave it a shake. Excess water splattered onto the sides of the stainless steel sink. She settled the strainer on top of the pot and turned to go back to her table. As she passed behind the overheated woman, Amy pleaded, "Please just have a seat and cool down if you start to feel bad. You don't want to be sick for the big party."

"Thank you, darling, but I'm tougher than an overcooked pork chop. No need to worry."

Amy grinned at the foodie simile. "Okay then. Good luck!"

Back at her table, Amy gave the colander one last shake over the empty pot before tipping the chewy farro into a mustard-yellow ceramic bowl. There wasn't much space on her table, so the bowl was doing double duty. After she was done combining the grains, vegetables, and dressing, she would clean up the edge and use it to also serve the vegetarian main dish salad.

It was the first time Amy had attended the annual Blogger Bash conference at the K Hotel. Her fledging cooking blog, Amy's Kitchen, was doing pretty well, but there was still a lot of room for improvement. That's why she signed up for the conference, which was described as
promoting friendship and unity in the blogging world
. However, each blog genre was holding head-to-head contests to wrap up the meetings and classes. A half dozen food bloggers had agreed to concoct their best, fast-fix main dishes. Mommy bloggers were going the glue and glitter route whipping up quick crafts for kids. Even the fashionistas got into the competition action by turning willing contestants loose on racks of random clothing to put together trendy outfits. Professionally designed blog artwork would be awarded to all of the victors. The battles seemed to undermine the friendship and unity goal a bit, but the atmosphere was lighthearted for the Fast Food Feud.

Amy spooned the sautéed mushrooms, red pepper, zucchini, and onion on top of the farro. The dressing with its secret ingredient, tangy pomegranate juice, would add some tasty zing. Amy scattered chopped pistachios, parsley leaves, golden raisins, and crumbled goat cheese over the top, drizzled on the dressing, and tossed everything together. She used a plastic fork to sample her creation. A sprinkle of salt was all it needed. Then she wiped down the edge of the bowl with a paper towel and plunged a serving spoon into the center of the warm salad. The buzzer sounded to signal the end of the cooking period.
Made it with three seconds to spare!

Amy had gone with a vegetarian dish, figuring grains and vegetables would be quicker and easier to prepare correctly in half an hour. Plus, Meatless Monday was a popular trend among health-conscious cooks. How would her warm salad compare when pitted against the other dishes? Peppered bacon had been sizzling on Esther Mae's hot plate. On the journey to the sink, Amy had also spotted mountains of grated cheddar cheese on another woman's cutting board, far more than the small log of goat cheese she had used.

The woman who organized the contest, a French food blogger from Milwaukee, handed out markers and sheets of card stock to the competitors to write the names of their entrees on. Several helpers were dishing sample portions of each meal into small plastic cups and arranging them on the worktables. What would all of the other bloggers think of her creation?

Since it was the conference's fifth year, it seemed that the organization for the event had been honed to near perfection. Almost every person she met who had attended in the past raved about the wrap-up cocktail party that would start in a few hours. Even though the K Hotel was a short drive away from her home, Amy had chosen to stay in the conference's block of hotel rooms to immerse herself in the experience. Being paired up with roomies who authored different types of blogs was all part of the fun. Her husband, Alex, was home for the weekend to take care of Pogo, their tiny pup with a lion's attitude, so she was free to enjoy the weekend full of learning and camaraderie.

Even competitors in the Feud were allowed to vote, so Amy took her place at the back of the line queued up for samples. She plucked a strip of paper, a miniature pencil, and a plastic spork from the basket that was being passed back through the line. Everything needed for people to taste the samples then vote for their favorite. After her journey past the row of tables, Amy jotted down her choice for the best meal—a skillet pasta dish. Angel hair pasta cooked in a light tomato sauce with shrimp and fresh mozzarella.

Amy deposited her voting slip into the collection jar and followed several other women out of the room. The wood-paneled hallways of the conference center were crowded with people exiting the various competitions. Winners would be announced at the cocktail party, so there were a few spare hours to chat with friends and glam up for the party.

Rori flagged Amy down when she walked into the lobby, the buffer zone between the adjoined conference center and hotel. The yoga teacher maintained a popular yoga blog where she offered videos of specialized routines to help with everything from a sore back to a headache. She owned Yoga For You in downtown Kellerton, a business Amy had begun frequenting after stress from trying to plan her best friend, Carla's, wedding and solving a murder had left her aching from head to toe. It was Rori who had told Amy about the Blogger Bash and suggested she attend.

"How did you do?" Rori asked as she offered to Amy one of the two glasses of white wine she was carrying. "I snagged some peach Moscato for us."

"Yum…thank you." Amy took a sip of the fruity, sweet wine. Heavenly. "I think I did pretty well. I made a warm farro salad I think you would like. Lots of whole grain and veggies. You could leave out the goat cheese to make it vegan."

Rori nodded her head. "Sounds like the perfect meal to me. Although, judging from the smell in the hall, bacon was involved in somebody's dish."

"That would be your roommate's Five Cheese Macaroni with Bacon."

"Oooh, just that description makes my stomach churn." Rori's dandelion poof of blonde, curly hair quivered as a tremor of culinary horror shook her. "I can't believe someone would willingly eat that type of food and abuse their body."

Somehow the yogi, who encouraged people to eat a natural, plant-based diet for improved health, had been assigned to share a room with Esther Mae Bates. The Queen of Unhealthy Food co-owned the Southern Gals booth at Clement Street Market, which offered dishes laced with butter, sugar, and bacon. The peach cobbler was sweet enough to cure any sugar craving. Just in case the syrupy peach filling wasn't sweet enough, a crunchy layer of sugar adorned the top of the crust. The booth's bacon and jalapeno corn bread had a crispy crust courtesy of being baked in a cast iron skillet greased with lard. Amy hadn't realized the older woman also maintained a blog until she spotted her at a seminar on photographing food the previous morning.

Amy shrugged. She had been trying to eat healthier, but Esther Mae's mac and cheese had been incredible. "Sometimes a little indulgence is okay, right?"

Rori's Caribbean-blue eyes widened. "But she eats that way for every meal. She was bragging about it last night to me as we were getting ready to go to bed. Considering her age, I can't believe she hasn't had a heart attack or stroke from clogged arteries."

"The recipes she uses at Southern Gals are supposed to be passed down from generations in her family. Maybe she has genetically built up a tolerance for fatty foods." As Amy spoke she remembered how Esther Mae had looked in the conference room. She definitely wasn't handling the stress and heat well—at all. When Rori tilted her head in question of the hypothesis, Amy backtracked. "Or maybe she has a lot of medical problems."

"Judging from the pill bottles in her cosmetics bag, I'd say the last thing is true." Rori tipped back the rest of her wine. "Plus, she snores like a lumberjack. This is the third year I've attended the conference but the first time I've gotten a roommate that I didn't enjoy. I'm so tired of her telling me I need to eat some bacon to put some meat on my bones."

"I'm sorry." Amy frowned. "I guess she has a big personality, to match her big hair."

Esther Mae's bluish-black locks were teased and hair sprayed into an inflated updo that a crow could easily nest in. The fact that she engineered the hairstyling feat every day impressed the former hairdresser in Amy. She didn't care for the retro big hair look, but Esther Mae had some serious skills when it came to back-combing and hair spray application.

Rori raised her hands up in surrender. "Don't get me started about the hair! She spent forty-five minutes putting on makeup and fixing her hair this morning
taking a half-hour-long shower. All of the fumes escaping from under the bathroom door gave me an allergy attack. It's going to be a struggle sharing the bathroom to get ready for the party, if she's going."

The lobby was getting more crowded by the minute as conference attendees emerged from the meeting rooms and congregated to sip wine and chat. Out of the corner of her eye, Amy noticed people to her left shifting positions. A sea of bloggers was parting to let Esther Mae through. Everything seemed larger than life about her, from her hair, to her chest, and even her height. A few women gasped as she passed by. Somehow her face had become even redder, deepening to burgundy. Even though she looked like hell, the aging Southern belle held her head high among the odd looks and whispers swirling around her. It was as if she had built a protective bubble around herself using sheer willpower to ignore the minor uproar her unnatural complexion was causing.

BOOK: Fudge Brownies & Murder
8.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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