Authors: Penny Pike
“With her aunt’s business—and freedom—on the line, it’s up to Darcy and Dream Puff Jake Miller to put the brakes on a crabby—and out-of-control—killer.”
“A fun food-related series . . . [with] recipes to die for.”
—Kings River Life Magazine
“Fun, fresh, and different.”
—Open Book Society
“A page-turner that I needed to finish.”
“A thoroughly enjoyable read.”
—Here’s How It Happened
PRAISE FOR THE
PARTY-PLANNING MYSTERY SERIES
BY PENNY PIKE
WRITING AS PENNY WARNER
“An appealing heroine whose event skills include utilizing party favors in self-defense in a fun, fast-paced new series guaranteed to please.”
New York Times
bestselling author of the Death on Demand Mysteries
“A party you don’t want to miss.”
New York Times
bestselling author of the Scumble River Mysteries and Devereaux’s Dime Store Mysteries
“Penny Warner dishes up a rare treat, sparkling with wicked and witty San Francisco characters, plus some
real tips on hosting a killer party.”
New York Times
bestselling author of the Royal Spyness Mysteries
“There’s a cozy little party going on between these covers.”
—Elaine Viets, national bestselling author of the Dead-End Job Mysteries
“Fast, fun, and fizzy as a champagne cocktail! The winning and witty Presley Parker can plan a perfect party—but after her A-list event becomes an invitation to murder, her next plan must be to save her own life.”
—Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, and Mary Higgins Clark Award–winning author Hank Phillippi Ryan
“The book dishes up a banquet of mayhem.”
“With a promising progression of peculiar plots and a plethora of party-planning pointers,
How to Host a Killer Party
looks to be a pleasant prospect for cozy mystery lovers.”
“Warner keeps the reader guessing.”
“Grab this book. . . . It will leave you in stitches.”
—The Romance Readers Connection
“Frantic pace, interesting characters.”
“I highly recommend this book to all mystery readers, cozy or not. This is a party that you don’t want to miss.”
—Once Upon a Romance
“Presley is a creative, energetic young woman with a wry sense of humor.”
—The Mystery Reader
The Food Festival Mysteries
Death of a Crabby Cook
Death of a Chocolate Cheater
BOOKS BY PENNY PIKE
Writing as Penny Warner
The Party-Planning Mystery Series
How to Host a Killer Party
How to Crash a Killer Bash
How to Survive a Killer Séance
How to Party with a Killer Vampire
How to Dine on Killer Wine
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014
USA|Canada|UK|Ireland|Australia|New Zealand|India|South Africa|China
A Penguin Random House Company
First published by Obsidian, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Copyright © Penny Warner, 2015
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
OBSIDIAN and logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.
Thanks to everyone who helped make my chocolate dreams come true: Colleen Casey, Janet Finsilver, Staci McLaughlin, Ann Parker, Carole Price, the guys at Pacific Puffs, the people at San Francisco Chocolate Tours, my wonderful agent, Andrea Hurst, and my incredible editor, Sandra Harding. I owe you all a big box of
“What kind of monster could possibly hate chocolate?”
“When I die, I’m not going to be embalmed. I’m going to be dipped.”
“Darcy, did you know chocolate is a valuable energy source?” my sixtysomething aunt, Abby, asked as she handed me one of her homemade lattes. By homemade, I mean she used her instant one-cup machine, pressed a button, and voila. “I just read that one chocolate chip can give you enough energy to walk a hundred and fifty feet.”
“Great.” I took a sip of the steaming mix of milk and coffee and washed down a bite of a brownie I’d found on the counter. “I’m going to need about seven billion of them to get going this morning.” It was a good thing I’d found the leftover brownie or I would have run right out and bought a bag of chocolate chips. Just the word “chocolate” made my mouth water.
Aunt Abby settled onto the empty barstool at her kitchen counter with her special “Lunch Lady” mug, her faithful long-haired Doxie, Basil, at her feet, wagging his tail. She was already dressed for the day in a pink blouse and black slacks, covered with her “Big Yellow School Bus” apron. She wore her Clairol-colored fire-engine-red hair in the same bubble cut she’d had in
high school, and her overly mascaraed eyes and blushed dimples made her look like a Kewpie doll.
She picked up the San Francisco Chocolate Festival brochure she’d been reading from. “And it says here chocolate has great health benefits,” Aunt Abby continued after adjusting her paw-print-decorated Peepers. “Chocolate helps alleviate depression; it can lower blood pressure, reduce tumors, and relieve PMS. . . .” She paused and shot a glance at me.
I frowned. “Are you hinting that I’ve been crabby the past few days?”
She raised a perfectly drawn brow. “I’m just saying, chocolate supposedly increases serotonin and endorphin levels, in case yours happen to be low.”
I knew she was referring to my recent dark mood. Ever since I was let go from the
San Francisco Chronicle
a couple of months ago, I’d been helping my aunt serve comfort food from her Big Yellow School Bus food truck. Her “busterant,” as she called it, was semi-permanently parked at Fort Mason, not far from her Russian Hill home. In order to make ends meet after losing my reporter’s income, I’d regularly been making Bus Driver BLTs and dishing out Teacher Tuna Casseroles. And it looked like that would continue, at least until I sold my as-yet-to-be-completed-and-future-best-selling cookbook. I planned to feature recipes from food trucks, the culinary phenomenon that had swept the country. Maybe then I could move out of my aunt’s Airstream, which was parked in her side yard, and get on with my life after Trevor the Tool, my cheating ex-boyfriend.
Unfortunately, life wasn’t progressing the way I’d
planned. I was beginning to think I’d be serving Principal’s Pot Pies and Custodian’s Crab Mac ’n’ Cheese for the rest of my days. The only respite from the daily food truck workout had been my budding relationship with Jake Miller, the dreamboat from the Dream Puff truck. I’d had a crush on Jake since the first time I tasted one of his cream puffs, and we’d recently worked together to save my dear aunt from a life serving jailhouse food. We made a great team. The only trouble was, I’d been sampling so many of his creamy concoctions, the results were beginning to show around my waist.
Until recently, that was. I hadn’t had a cream puff in days; nor had I seen much of Jake. I looked away from my aunt’s probing gaze and into my coffee mug. The color of my cooling latte was no longer a creamy rich caramel but had darkened to a morose drab brown, matching my mood.
I yawned, trying to wake up, and took another sip of the latte. “Are you sure this isn’t decaf?”
Aunt Abby shook her head, absorbed in the Chocolate Festival brochure again. Her red curls bounced, then settled back into place. “Chocolate contains caffeine, you know. Maybe you should pour some chocolate syrup in that cup and throw it in the microwave.”
“I’d have to add the whole jar to get the same amount of caffeine that’s in a cup of coffee. Maybe I’ll just have another brownie.” I felt my jeans tighten at the thought.
Aunt Abby turned a page, then sat up straighter. “Did you know chocolate also contains iron, helps
prevent tooth decay, and has antioxidants, which help minimize aging?” She patted her porcelain skin. The only giveaway to my aunt’s years were the tiny laugh lines around her mascaraed eyes. I wondered how much chocolate she’d consumed in her lifetime.
“Stop!” I held up a hand. “I’ve gained five pounds from eating so many of Jake’s chocolate cream puff samples, especially those Mocha Madness ones. They’re killer. No more talk about chocolate! Pretty soon I won’t be able to fit in my Big Yellow School Bus T-shirts. You’ll have to get me Extra-Big.” I put down the half-eaten brownie and sipped my coffee.
“Well, you’d better get used to being around a lot of chocolate,” Aunt Abby said, “because I have a surprise.”
“Oh?” I asked warily, peering over my coffee mug. It was too early in the morning for one of Aunt Abby’s surprises.
“I just signed us up for the Chocolate Festival competition next month!”
I set my mug down with a
. Coffee sloshed inside like a mini tsunami. “But your specialty is comfort foods, not chocolate.”
Aunt Abby frowned at me. “
. Chocolate is the
comfort food. And are you forgetting my chocolate-covered potato chips? My chocolate-peanut-butter sandwiches? My chocolate pasta? My chocolate pizza? I’ve seen you sneak plenty of those chocolate leftovers at the end of the day.” She eyed the half-eaten brownie.
She was right. In addition to her usual fare of
American comfort foods, with school-themed names like “Cheerleader’s Chili,” “Coach’s Cole Slaw,” and “Science-Experiment Spaghetti,” my aunt Abby had dishes where she put her own chocolate twist on classic cuisine. Her chocolate-dipped, raspberry-iced Twinkie bites were worth the extra calories.
I loved just about everything on my aunt’s Big Yellow School Bus menu, but I wondered if her chocolate offerings were good enough for the prestigious San Francisco Chocolate Festival competition. The annual event featured locally renowned chefs competing for some hefty cash prizes and appearances on Food Network shows. It seemed out of her league.
“Don’t you think my chocolate goodies are award-winning?” Aunt Abby asked, as if reading my mind.
I cleared my throat and backtracked, worried I’d hurt her feelings. “Oh, of course they are . . . but it’s a tough competition. Remember George Brown, the guy who owned Chocolate Bliss? He took home the grand prize with his Peanut-Butter–Chocolate-Chip-Cookie-Dough Cheesecake. Which, by the way, was to die for.”
“Yes, I remember. George is an old friend. And this year he’s one of the judges. But nothing beats the creation I’ve come up with for the contest.” She smiled mysteriously. “Not even his grand-prize recipe.”
“Really? You’ve got something new planned? What is it?”
“Top secret. If I tell you, I’ll have to—”
“—I know. I know. Just give me a hint, then. Chocolate-covered snickerdoodles? Chocolate-dipped Danish? Chocolate-frosted cinnamon buns?” I teased.
She harrumphed. “Very funny. Now you’ll just have to wait and see.”
I shrugged in response to her secretiveness. “It’s going to be a lot of extra work, you know, plus the cost of ingredients and the entry fee. Are you up to it, in addition to running your busterant?”
Not to mention the fact that I didn’t have time for a lot of extra work. I had a book to write, a career to develop, a life to start over. And Jake . . .
“What extra work?” came a low voice behind me.
Basil barked in response.
“Quiet, Basil!” Dillon, Aunt Abby’s twenty-five-year-old son, shuffled into the kitchen barefoot. Tall and slim like his deceased father had been, he wore a thin, shaggy robe over his bare chest and Superman boxer shorts. His curly dark-red hair looked as if it hadn’t seen scissors, gel, or even shampoo in days, nor his face a razor.
I started when I saw his pet rat, Ratty, on his shoulder and backed away.
“Do you have to bring that thing in here?” I asked. “It’s unsanitary!”
Ignoring me, he went directly to the pantry, opened the door, and stared at the loaded shelves. “Mom, you’re out of cereal.”
“Yes, dear,” Aunt Abby said to her boomerang son. “And Darcy’s right. Ratty doesn’t belong in the kitchen. He’s upsetting Basil.”
After glaring at me, Dillon lumbered back down the hall, his rat clinging to the shoulder of his robe. Aunt Abby’s son had been “asked” to leave the university due to some suspected hacking activity and had moved
home to “reconfigure” his life goals. In other words, sponge off his mom, sit on his butt, and play computer games.
At least I paid rent.
He returned moments later, rat-free. “Got any more of those chocolate whoopie pies you made last night?”
“Dillon! Those were supposed to be top secret!” Aunt Abby looked at me. “Well, Darcy, now you know my secret weapon for the chocolate competition—my newest creation: Chocolate Raspberry Whoopie Pies. But both of you need to keep quiet about this. I don’t want anyone to find out and steal my idea before the contest begins.”
“Chocolate Raspberry Whoopie Pies?” I said, stunned at her entry choice. I wasn’t even sure what a whoopie pie was.
“It’s my own recipe,” Aunt Abby said. “Instead of using regular chocolate cakey cookies, I use brownie cookies, and instead of vanilla filling, I use chocolate buttercream frosting with fresh raspberries. And then I dip the whole thing in melted chocolate and add sprinkles.”
It sounded like overkill, but when it came to chocolate, maybe there was no such thing.
“So where are they?” Dillon said, looking around helplessly.
“In the fridge,” Aunt Abby said.
Dillon opened the refrigerator door, brought out a plastic container, and set it on the counter. After withdrawing a double-decker-Oreo-sized “pie,” he stuffed the whole thing in his mouth. It wasn’t a pleasant sight.
Aunt Abby sighed. “Oh well. The secret’s out now. You’re sworn to silence, Darcy. Want to try one?” She picked up the container and brought it over to the kitchen island where I sat. Dillon followed her like a hungry puppy and plopped down on the barstool next to me, still chewing. Chocolate frosting had oozed out from the corners of his mouth.
I reached into the container and helped myself. Taking a tentative bite, I let the sweet morsel dissolve on my tongue. The flavor flooded my mouth.
Wow. Chocolate crack.
“This is incredible!” I said when I could talk again.
“Awesome, right?” Dillon agreed, then popped another one into his mouth. “You may actually have a shot at winning this thing,” I said to Aunt Abby. “What’s the prize?”
“Den fouszen dollars,” Dillon answered with his mouth full.
“Ten thousand dollars?” I repeated. I was used to translating Dillon’s food-obstructed speech. “That’s a lot of money.”
“And a chance to be on that Food Network show
,” Aunt Abby added, batting her feathered eyelashes in excitement.
I knew Aunt Abby’s dream was to appear on one of the many TV cooking shows, especially
The Great Food Truck Race
, but it was the money that had caught my attention. I knew she could use it to make improvements in her bus. “When’s the festival?” I asked.
“In two weeks,” Aunt Abby said.
I gulped. “We’d better get to work!”
* * *
Half an hour later I was on my way to Fort Mason to help Aunt Abby prepare today’s specialties in her Big Yellow School Bus. We would soon be serving comfort food to the usual hungry patrons. I hoped to see Jake, since he’d seemed too busy the past few days to stop by or meet after work. I wanted to tell him about Aunt Abby entering the Chocolate Festival competition. At least, that was my excuse for talking to him.
As I drove down Bay Street to the Marina, I thought about the annual festival and the competition. Although I’d covered the event as a restaurant critic for the newspaper, this would be the first time I’d get to see it from the contestants’ point of view. The festival was held near Ghirardelli Square, home to one of the original chocolatiers of San Francisco. Last year twenty thousand people had paid the twenty-dollar entry fee to taste the mouthwatering wares of two dozen chocolate vendors and half a dozen contest entrants.
I’d learned from Aunt Abby that any legitimate vendor could participate in the festival and contest as long as he or she offered something chocolaty—and could make enough for hundreds of attendees. Each entry in the competition would be judged by a select panel of local experts in the chocolate industry. And while the thought of personally tasting all that chocolate had my heart singing, it was the winner’s ten-thousand-dollar check that really had me excited. Aunt Abby had promised Dillon and me each a third if her whoopie pies won.
I pulled up to the permit-only parking lot at Fort Mason in my coffee-colored VW Bug and headed for
the circle of food trucks parked in an adjacent lot. The area was home to a dozen permanent vendors, including my aunt, but other trucks came and went, depending on how popular they were. There was always a long list of new trucks vying for the few nonpermanent spots. My aunt had been fortunate—her comfort-food menu was a hit with people who longed for “Mom’s home cooking.”
As I headed over, I spotted Jake outside his festive Dream Puff truck, decorated in giant-sized cream puffs. It had been too long since I’d caught more than a glimpse of him. He looked especially sexy this morning, even though he wore his usual Dream Puff T-shirt and denim jeans. A lock of his sun-streaked brown hair had fallen over his forehead, and he brushed it back with a tanned hand, causing me to quiver a little. Suddenly feeling shy, I took a deep breath for courage and walked over under the guise of telling him about Aunt Abby entering the contest. I was eager to see him, and snagging one of his Dream Puffs of the Day samples would just be the frosting on the cake. Or cream puff.
The hand-printed blackboard sign read T
OMG. Chocolate Mocha Mousse. It was all I could do to keep from drooling down the front of my Big Yellow School Bus T-shirt. Was it the thought of the cream puff, or Jake?