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Authors: Janel Gradowski

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Cozy, #Women Sleuths, #Romance, #Romantic Comedy, #Suspense, #Contemporary Women

Pies & Peril (10 page)

BOOK: Pies & Peril
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"
Or he did kill her and is trying to throw me off his trail by making me defend myself. I mean, I've already been cleared because I was with you, but he doesn't know that. Murderers are sneaky. They try to pin their crimes on other people all the time. Going to jail is probably not high on their priority lists. Did you find out from Bruce if Kevin is a suspect?"

Ugh. The truth was only going to shore up Amy
's theory. Hopefully she wouldn't get into trouble using the knowledge. "He said they always look into the spouse until they can find credible witnesses who can confirm they are innocent."

"
That's it? Pretty vague."

"
It's a police investigation. He isn't supposed to be sharing information with the general public or worse yet, people involved in the case."

Amy raised her eyebrows.
"Sounds to me like Kevin doesn't have anybody to vouch for his whereabouts when Mandy Jo was killed."

C
HAPTER NINE

 

"It's lovely. Thank you so much for making it fit in with the salon's decor." Thalia hugged Amy and whispered in her ear. "I hate it when people come in with old industrial-sized mayonnaise jars to collect donations for fundraisers."

"
No problem. I wanted to make it look as nice as possible."

The black lacquer box with an ornate gold picture frame glued to the front did look like it belonged with the leather chairs and gilt framed mirrors of the salon
. A jar adorned with bows and lace would be as out of place as cake mix cookies on the dessert tray at a 5-star restaurant. Thalia and the salon didn't do cute and fluffy anything.

"
Where would you like to go to lunch? My treat." Thalia patted her espresso brown hair that was curled into a riot of messy ringlets. "Riverbend Coffee has great paninis. Now that I don't look like a Smurf, I don't think I'll embarrass us too much."

Amy quickly shook her head before her stomach over
rode her brain. The smoked turkey panini with Brie and homemade apple butter at Riverbend was a perfect rectangle of toasted sandwich heaven. Too bad Lucy seemed to like mini hamburgers instead of gourmet sandwiches. "How about Louie's? I haven't been there in ages, and I've been craving their burgers for some reason."

"
Really?" Thalia raised her perfectly waxed eyebrows. "I can afford someplace better than that, but whatever you want. Now that you've mentioned it, sliders do sound kind of good."

Amy turned away from Thalia and fiddled with the lid of the donation box. She had never had hopes of being an international spy for a reason. Her traitorous face always broadcast her emotions like a flashing, electronic billboard. Actually, she hated the grease
-dripping, soggy-bunned, heartburn-inducing, miniature burgers. "It's been awhile since I've eaten there and I wanted to take some notes about how they're made, for a contest."

Thalia shrugged as she looked out the front window.
"Since it's such a nice day, do you want to walk down there? I could use some fresh air."

"
Sure." Maybe the exercise would help burn off some of the onion-infused calories. "It's so nice now that the temperature has turned down from the broil setting."

Outside, the sidewalk bustled with people shopping and heading to lunch at one of the many downtown restaurants. All of the restaurants on the way to Louie
's Hamburgers were a hundred times better than the grungy dive, but she wasn't going for the food.

Thalia edged closer as they passed by a Lebanese cafe where the smoky scent of grilled meat drifted from the
sidewalk patio seating area. "I feel so guilty about Mandy Jo's death."

Huh? They hadn
't walked a block, and Thalia was playing a heavy duty game of true confessions. "Why?"

"
I was going to fire her, had the speech all planned out and everything. Most of her customers had switched to other stylists over the last three months. I lost count of the number of complaints about everything from her spreading nasty rumors about a client's friend to cutting 6-inches of hair off when the customer asked for a trim. She only worked two days a week for the last few months. The money she was bringing in wasn't worth the hassle of dealing with her screw-ups. Don't expect a lot of my customers to chip in for her memorial, but I will help. Let me know how much money you need after you are done collecting donations. She worked for me for over eight years and was an excellent stylist for most of that time."

So the wicked witch routine had affected Mandy Jo
's paycheck and pissed off Thalia. It was never a good idea to tick off a boss. The repercussions from maintaining the consistently nasty attitude didn't seem worth it, at least not if Mandy Jo wanted to continue working as a hair stylist. "Sounds like she had become very difficult to deal with."

"
That's an understatement."

They walked in silence past the health food store and a jeweler. Thalia could barely kill a
moth even if it made circles around her cutting station for an hour straight. Just getting up the nerve to decide to fire Mandy Jo had probably given her an ulcer. She couldn't have killed the diva of crankiness.

The overpowering scent of grilled onions assaulted Carla and Thalia
as a man in an expensive suit held open the door to Louie's for them to enter. The greasy spoon restaurant was basically a big flattop grill, a deep fryer, and rows of retro tables and booths. Many of the red vinyl covered stools and benches were patched with silver duct tape. A line of customers zigzagged across the worn checkerboard floor, queuing up to order the famous mini hamburgers and crispy, shoestring fries. Customers ranged from dust covered road construction workers to women wearing trendy vintage dresses.

Amy stared at the menu board and leaned toward Thalia.
"Do you have any idea why she was so thorny lately?"

"
She's always been moody, you know that. Recently she had turned unbearably obnoxious. It took a bit for me to pry it out of her, but she did have a pretty good reason for being extra angry. She thought Kevin…"

Amy glanced at Thalia when she stopped talking then followed her gaze to Lucy. Bingo! Her hunch had been right. Louie
's was a regular lunch stop for the annoyingly thin secretary. How could she eat there over and over without having to buy a larger size of pants every month? And why had the appearance of Lucy stopped Thalia in the middle of a sentence? A very intriguing partial sentence. She couldn't wait a second longer. It was not a good time to politely let the conversation drop. "She thought Kevin what?"

Thalia waggled her fingers at Lucy and whispered,
"Mandy Jo thought Kevin was having an affair with his secretary, who happens to be one of my clients, and she just walked in the door."

 

*   *   *

 

Half an hour later Amy and Thalia returned to the salon. Louie's was known for speed in getting diners in and out. The only choices customers were given was how many sliders and what size of fries, then fountain pop or a milkshake to drink. No healthy options, just grease and sugar-filled soft drinks or grease and artery-clogging shakes. It was the kind of place where people ate and then left, instead of hanging around chatting. In fact, Lucy had gotten her bag full of sliders to go again.

"
Thank you for having lunch with me. It was wonderful to catch up with you." Amy hugged her former boss while trying not to sneeze down her back.
Thanks for confirming my suspicions about Kevin and Lucy.
"I'll see you again soon."

She walked out of the salon. The heat had ramped up in the few minutes she had been inside the flower-scented hairstyling mecca. So much for a cooler day. She sniffed. The fried onion odor had seeped into her dress while she and Thalia sat inside Louie
's. The burnt onion smell was tenacious. Adding a liberal spray of Elegance's signature perfume, always on hand in the business's rest room, didn't mask the scent so much as changing it to a slightly floral oniony aroma. The stench was worth it, though. She had wanted to see if Lucy often visited Louie's, to possibly chat her up in the future and figure out if she was playing the role of employee with benefits. That sure-to-be-unpleasant conversation wasn't necessary. Mandy Jo was obnoxious, but she was also smart and observant. Thalia had even seconded the theory that extra-curricular secretarial duties were being performed. Disposing of Mandy Jo could've been more appealing than facing her special brand of revenge.

By the time she had walked the couple blocks to Maxson
's Bakery, Amy was actually looking forward to the wintry atmosphere. Elliot and one of his mint-green-clad workers were chatting behind the counter when she walked into the bakery. The sloping glass cases were once again filled with teeth-staining, brightly iced cookies and cupcakes. More people might stop by for a bit of dessert after lunch if they didn't have to worry about looking like a technicolored ghoul when they smiled after eating one of the treats.

"
Hello. I was in town again and wanted to check on the donations."

The jar next to the cash register still had only a small pile of change and a couple bills inside it. Elliot shook his head when she looked at him.
"Still a rather negligible amount, I'm afraid."

"
I see that." Was it because people didn't want to donate or because the bakery didn't have many customers? "I guess it might take a while."

"
Can you handle the counter for a few minutes?" Elliot asked the woman who was working with him. When she nodded, he turned to Amy and asked, "Would you care to stroll to the park with me? I could use some fresh air on such a lovely day."

So much for hanging out in refrigerated comfort, but it could work to her advantage.
"That sounds wonderful. The park is beautiful right now. We could look at some of the memorial benches. I would like to get your opinion on which one would be more appropriate."

"
I would be delighted to help make a decision on the style of bench to purchase in Mandy Jo's honor. Also, I have a proposal on how to fund that memorial, since donations are a bit on the dismal side."

Amy chewed on her lip. The conversation was like a double crust mystery pie. What surprise was hidden by the perfectly browned top crust?
She could be dealing with a metaphorical liverwurst and onion pie. The proposal would most likely involve a way for Elliot to weasel out of chipping in. A proactive counter-measure was in order. "Oh, how wonderful. I have an idea for you, too. I just found out that Elegance Salon is willing to chip in for the memorial. My husband is also willing to contribute, since Mandy Jo's husband's business was one of his clients. If your bakery would pick up some of the cost I could order the bench within a few days. It would be fabulous if I could get this little project off of my cutting board and into the skillet, so to speak."

She glanced at Elliot. His lips were pressed into a straight, thin line. He motioned toward a fork in the path as they entered the park on the other side of the river.
"As I've said before, while I think the memorial is a touching tribute to the champion pie baker, contributing a large sum is not something I would care to do at the moment."

He stopped to crouch and examine an evergreen topiary that was shaped like a rabbit. Did he really think ignoring her would work? Letting her comment pretend to blow away like a parking ticket in the wind was
not
acceptable. What was the big deal? She looked up at the fluffy, marshmallow-y clouds drifting overhead. A reason for Elliot's thriftiness drifted into her mind. He could be opposed to the memorial because he had something to do with Mandy Jo's death!
But
, wouldn't a guilty conscience make him more agreeable to shelling out the money?

After a thorough inspection of the prickly faux bunny Elliot cleared his throat.
"I have an idea for a way that Mandy Jo herself could contribute to the proposed memorial, with a bit of assistance from you."

Good grief. He was
tiptoeing into the green pasture of delusion. How was she supposed to help a dead-and-buried woman make money? Was he insane?

Elliot continued,
"If you could get the recipes for some of Mandy Jo's prize winning pies, like the cherry one from last year or the lemon meringue masterpiece from a few years ago, I would be more than happy to make them at my bakery, even tout them as being made from her prize-winning recipe. For every piece sold I could donate one quarter of the profit to the memorial."

"
How am I supposed to get Mandy Jo's recipes?" Maybe she should talk to Kristi about mental health counseling. "It's not like we were buddies. You know as well as I do, she hated me. She wouldn't even talk to me unless she had some new insult to hurl. We weren't recipe swapping pals."

He swished his fingers like he was sweeping away a levitating cloud of silliness that had just burped out of her mouth.
"To the best of my knowledge, Mandy Jo wasn't friends with
anybody.
As a fellow contest competitor, and if my memory serves me correctly, former co-worker, you would have some leverage in obtaining a recipe from her husband." He sniffed and added, "I should think finding money for your precious bench would give you incentive."

She had come up with the idea to memorialize her arch enemy because she felt guilty about marrying Alex and
possibly being the catalyst for Mandy Jo's plunge into a state of perpetual hostility. Now she was stubbornly pursuing donations and Elliot was just as mulish in his refusal to contribute even one cent of his own money. The man was slipperier than a butter-coated pan in a hot oven. Well, she could spin conversations to her advantage. "Why don't you just come up with your own recipes and name them in her honor? That would be such a nice gesture on the bakery's part."

Elliot wrinkled his nose. Was he unhappy with her proposal, had caught a whiff of her Eau de Louie
's Hamburgers, or both? He said, "I have always suspected that she employed some kind of secret ingredient in her pies which would make it very difficult to duplicate the recipes."

BOOK: Pies & Peril
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