Authors: Jerrilyn Farmer
A Madeline Bean Catering Mystery
For Dad Bob
the artist at the easel in the den
Deathâmy ownâwas the furthest thing from my mind as Iâ¦
“Youâ¦lookâ¦soâ¦thin!” Darius's dramatic voice spoke each word with its ownâ¦
Tires screeched. Car horns bleated and blared. Amid the chaosâ¦
A blonde holding a shih tzu was standing at theâ¦
At the end of a charming cul-de-sac, in the historicâ¦
Three weeks squirmed by. I was not amused by theâ¦
I don't care what your mother taught you. If youâ¦
I crossed the deserted foyer and peeked through a pairâ¦
“Who was that guy?” Holly lifted a flute of Taittingerâ¦
The waiters were clearing the dessert plates which held scantâ¦
In hindsight, Monday morning was not the best choice forâ¦
It was turning out to be one of those days.
The 400 block of South Melwood Drive offered a jumbleâ¦
Sitting at a booth at Kate Mantellini's, the table inâ¦
Halfway across town, I changed my mind. I had anâ¦
I stripped off the black tank top and let itâ¦
I readjusted my laptop computer and snuggled into a moreâ¦
The robber barons who run the parking structure at Cedars-Sinaiâ¦
“All I ever wanted was my own house.” Sara Silverâ¦
I pulled my thin jacket tighter around myself. There wasâ¦
The rest of the day was packed. I owed callsâ¦
There was nothing wrong with the offer. I actually consideredâ¦
It was nearly eleven, but I was buzzed. When Iâ¦
“Madeline, it's Honnett. Am I calling too late?”
Let me explain why a trained chef like me isâ¦
“It's almost seven,” Wes said, playing his usual role ofâ¦
I had prepared a spectacularly light, three-layer high, lemon curdâ¦
A week had come and gone, allowing all the eventsâ¦
eathâmy ownâwas the furthest thing from my mind as I tooled around Beverly Hills. Leaving behind the congestion on Rodeo Drive, where predatory Jaguars and Cobras stalked nonexistent curbside parking, I swung my big old Jeep up an alley behind a row of exclusive shops. Here, delivery vans did their blue-collar best to slip in and out of the exalted suburb without being noticed, preserving the mystique of fully stocked stores without the malodor of labor.
Here, amid the quiet bustle of behind-the-scenes commerce, the scrubbed alleys of B.H. witnessed the subtle, brutal drama of social wars won and lost. Behind each shop, a few precious parking spaces were reserved for those whom favor or a sharp-eyed shop owner smiled upon. It was to one such spot that I was headed. Darius Boyer, proprietor and star of Darius Floral Design, had invited me to “just park in the rear”âa mark of high favor in a neighborhood where parking privilege equaled social status.
I was behind the wheel of my old black Grand Wagoneer. It's a classic, one of those metal monsters, basically a tank adorned with woody panels. I pulled into the one open spot, snugly nestling it next to Darius's own gold Mercedes wagon.
It was nearly 4:00
, and I was running late. Again. The cell phone seems to have been invented for people
like me. I hate being late, making people wait. I dialed the number to my house. After two rings, Holly Nichols picked up.
“Mad Bean Events.” She gave the standard business opening.
“Say âMadeline,'” I tried correcting. “Madeline Bean Events.”
“Too long.” My assistant was unimpressed by my tone, which was not unprecedented. We are more friends than employer/employee. And in our newest venture, a catering and events-planning firm, she was the one who kept us all on track.
“I'm late again, Holly. I just pulled in behind Darius's. And this is not a quick stop.”
“He likes to talk.”
“I like to talk to him, too. That's why I'm here, actually. So I'm afraid I won't be home early enough to do dinner.” I nibbled a cuticle.
do it?” she asked, her voice picking up an edge of eagerness, but dampened as if she didn't want me to notice, get pissed off, and say no.
Another decision I didn't want to have to make. I thought it over.
I love to shop and I love to cook. Half the fun of picking out perfectly fresh ingredients, like a fragrant and dewy bunch of purple-veined basil, or a basket of the sweetest Oxnard strawberries, was the anticipation of turning them into a new dish, creating a new recipe. But today it would have to be someone else's pleasure to cook up the dinner. That someone was Holly and my partner, Wesley Westcott.
“Fine.” I suppose I didn't sound totally generous, if one was listening carefully. Late afternoons, I react to low blood sugar and get primal cravings for caffeine.
“You're a peach,” Holly said, dryly. But I knew she was pleased. Wesley was giving Holly secret cooking lessons and she didn't think I knew about it. Perhaps she had decided to get more serious about her cooking and was waiting to surprise me with the news.
“I'll see you later, then.” I punched the off button and flipped my phone closed. And then, without another thought, really, I opened my car door.
You see, it's minute events such as thisâthe timing of them, the serendipity of where you park or how long a phone call lasts, the habit of them, the routineâwhich can change one's entire life. But of course, we're so focused on the big stuff, we miss the point. We're busy obsessing on The Big Questions: Should I marry him? Should I have children? Do I believe in God? Who, quite frankly, knows?
But the tiny decisions are the ones that get you. Do I turn right? Should I go left? Balls set in motion that will have consequences far in the future. Or sometimes not so far.
Perhaps it's just as well that we aren't accompanied by corny movie soundtracks that play DUN-DUN-DUUN, menacingly, as we casually open our car doors on sunny blue-sky afternoons in affluent neighborhoods. After all, life is life, and with or without warning, what-cha gonna do?
ouâ¦lookâ¦soâ¦thin!” Darius's dramatic voice spoke each word with its own staccato punch.
“Youâ¦lookâ¦soâ¦thin!” Darius always knew the right thing to say to each of his friends and clients. And
was always the right thing to say.
“Oh, stop,” I answered, pleased anyway.
“Protein power?” Darius guessed, as his hands flew, lacing more white roses into the charming flower arrangement on the counter between us. Darius knew each and every diet that every one of his clients was on. As a matter of fact, so did I. That's part of the job description when you cater in this community.
“I'm more into a tasting diet,” I joked. “I end up having a taste of everything I prepare. The hard part is convincing myself that's enough.”
“Mmm hmm,” he said, a rose in his mouth, as he spun the flower arrangement around, looking for bald spots. Deftly, he found the spot and worked the stem in. “But I hear you are
working, these days. True or false?”
“Wellâ¦” Rumors spread so fast. I had only just been hit with the lawsuit that week. I shook my head. “It's a long story. The people who bought my catering company need to get straightened out. That's all.” I took a deep breath of cool, slightly moist air, appreciating the spicy sweet aroma of so many blooms at their peak.
“So-o-o,” Darius asked, eyes agleam, “do you have a good lawyer?” I was sure he had several names he wanted to recommend.
“My buddy, Paul, is taking care of it. Don't worry, okay? We just have a little down time now. Why shouldn't we take a rest?”
“So-o-o,” he said, tsking, “they slapped you with an injunction.”
“We'll be fine.” I smiled, in a fine way.
Darius looked around his empty shop and said, “Word isâ¦”
I braced myself. I could tell we were in for some serious gossip.
“â¦Vivian Duncan is looking for you!” And then he went on to explain why the most notorious wedding consultant in Beverly Hills had decided she wanted me to buy out her fabulously successful business.
I let him have his say. Darius's elegant shop contained the most sought-after blossoms in the world. The rarest tulips and specialty orchids were flown in from around the world, filling his cool shop with mystery and beauty. The walls were painted the color of dark moss, the better to show off each precious floral jewel. I loved to visit him there, to catch a few glimpses of the wonderful new arrangements he kept inventing for his picky clientele, and to hear the latest gossip circulating through our tight little world of party planners. I wasn't expecting today's central topic, however, to be me.
Darius fixed his green eyes on the project at hand and removed one single stem from the profusion of blooms in the vase. “Now then, what was I saying?”
“I'm not sure. But what
saying is I am not interested in buying someone else's business. Ever since I came into some moneyâ¦”
of money,” Darius interrupted, smiling.
“Well, we were lucky. We sold my old catering company to a foolish buyer. That's true. But now every restaurant in town is after me to invest in their expansion.
Or there's a guy who wants me to be a silent partner in his chef's supply store. I mean really.”
“But Vivian's the best wedding consultant there is,” Darius said. “Frankly, everyone is simply shocked she'd consider leaving the business at all. What is she? Sixty? I don't knowâshe's been lifted so many times. But here she is offering you a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
“Weddings make me nervous,” I said, joking.
“Oh, ha-ha-ha,” Darius said, with only the heaviest hint of sarcasm. “You refuse to settle down just to drive all the straight men in Los Angeles wild.”
“Yes,” I said, straight-faced, “that's my plan.”
I looked at the flowers he was almost finished working on and sighed. “Youâ¦areâ¦suchâ¦aâ¦genius!”
He smiled. Yes, I knew what to say to my suppliers, too.
Just then a young couple entered the shop. Darius was the trendiest florist in Beverly Hills, and he had not managed to stay at the top of the heap by scaring away affluent couples, especially when the female half of the couple sported an engagement ring featuring an emerald the size of a cocktail onion.
“Hello, darlings,” Darius called to them, full of professional charm. “I will be with you momentarily. Please look around.” His eyes twinkled at them and then he turned back to finish his work. One of his trademark floral creations was nearly complete. In a round crystal bowl, a low arrangement had been made of two dozen tightly packed, burstingly large white roses. The exuberance of so many luxurious, velvet rose petals was only part of Darius's magic with flowers. His trademark creative stroke was found just below the waterline. The clear round bowl was packed to the brim with several dozen submerged fresh lemons, hiding and supporting the rose stems in one delightful masterstroke.
“Here you are,” Darius said, as he made one more quick adjustment to my arrangement. I watched his elflike features, deep in concentration now, his blond hair brushed down onto his forehead in bangs.
“Just one last word of advice to you, my pet,” he added as he wrote up the receipt. “Be careful if you mean to take on Vivian Duncan.” His voice dipped to
when he spoke the famous wedding planner's name.
“I'm not taking anyone on.”
Vivian Duncan, the doyenne of this city's wedding consultants, was a daunting figure in our little pond. She captained an elegantly tight ship and had the power and resources to float quite a few other friendly boats as well. Her favored florists sailed high. Her select bandleaders were booked for years in advance. Her flotilla of favorite caterers found their own bookings equally buoyant.
“Are you sure you're prepared for that war, honey?”
“It's only business,” I said.
“Maddie, Maddie, Maddie.” Darius tsked about ten times. “She doesn't like people who tell her no. And you, my sweet, are a twenty-something, neatly packaged, bundle of âno.'”
I love it when people underestimate my age.
“Why must there be any hard feelings?” I asked.
“Madeline, sweetie, look at yourself.
You look bored to death.”
“Thin,” he amended, “and bored senseless. What other parties do you have booked? Huh? Why notâat the very leastâlisten to Vivian's proposal?”
I was, in fact, getting itchy to work. Since my partner, Wesley Westcott, and I had sold off Madeline Bean Catering, it had been rather slow going. After eight frantically busy, terribly fun years, we'd slowed to a crawl. And now, there was this ridiculous litigation going on at the moment, about whether Wes and I were legally allowed to work. Our sales contract contained a standard noncompetition clause, which prevented us from opening any new catering firm soon, but now the new owners were getting testy about us doing any major events-planning work as well. It was maddening.
“I'm just saying, think it over before you dis Vivian
Duncan.” Darius added my purchase to my running tab.
I knew perfectly well how that one single woman had dominated elegant L.A. weddings. Vivian Duncan had done almost every celebrity wedding practically since Eddie Fisher had married Connie Stevens. Or was it Liz Taylor? Well, anyway, she had a way of protecting her turf in such a manner that no other name had emerged to challenge her wedding planner domination in decades. There were stories, too. Ill-fated stories. Stephen Kingâstyle stories. She had a rep as a fierce businesswoman.
“She gets exactly what she wants.” Darius's voice got low again.
I shrugged, amused. In truth, I find it much easier to shrug in amusement since I have recently come into this good deal of money. But then, I wonder if Sophocles would agree that shrugging in amusement, no matter how well-funded, might not be, in itself, a fatal character flaw of Greek tragic proportions.
“Oh, honey!” Darius said, elf eyes atwinkle. “She'll eat you alive.” And before I could defend myself, before I could say anything remotely pithy and above-it-all and elegant, Darius handed me my beautiful bowl of roses and turned his twinkle back to the attractive couple who was standing a few feet away, waiting for attention.
Outside Darius's shop, it was another sunny cloudless Beverly Hills afternoon. I shifted my packages. A little thing? Yes. But weren't we talking about just such an insignificant thing as this, one which suddenly has the power to alter life and death? And this one small thing may have made all the difference.
I began switching the heavy vase of flowers to my left arm, while fishing in my shoulder bag, one-handed, for the keys to my car. So I slowed my pace.
Suddenly, startled, I heard the roar.
Before I could jump back, a big black Mercedes screamed down the narrow driveway, leaping out of the back alley, gunning its engine, cutting over the curb, practically striking me. In shock, I spun, losing grip of my keys, losing grip of my purse, and, no! The heavy
glass vase I'd been holding began to slip. I tried clutching for it, tried to catch my balance, triedâ¦
As if in slow motion, I heard a pedestrian shriek. I heard the crashing tinkle of smashed glass. My legs were suddenly drenched, a wave soaking my jeans. I saw in a blur a skyrocket burst of broken crystal, chaotic careening lemons, wildly strewn roses, and then, too close, the alarm of red taillights and a flash of a California license plate.
A vanity plate. It wouldn't be hard to remember. The plate read: