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Authors: Liz Mugavero

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BOOK: Murder Most Finicky
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Chapter 8
Nutty stayed in the commode for a long time. When he finally emerged, shaking his feet, he walked up to Stan and meowed for his dinner. Perfect timing, because someone knocked on the door. She went down to the kitchen and peered through the peephole. Room service. With a huge cart.
She opened the door. The man bowed and wheeled the cart inside. He set up a line of covered silver plates on the expansive counter, then added a row of smaller silver plates. “For the cat,” he said, then bowed and wheeled the cart out.
Stan peeked under the silver tops. Lasagna. Right up Maria's alley. The next one contained a white fish in a buttery-looking sauce. She moved down the line. Green beans. Rice. Salad. Prime rib, for crying out loud. Desserts overflowed from the final plate. In a smaller set of the same silver-lidded plates Nutty had his own servings of fish, tiny pieces of shrimp, and some broccoli florets.
She took pictures of the spread to show Jake, then made Nutty a plate. On second thought, she selected rice and salad for herself, then locked herself in the bedroom. Nutty attacked his food with a vengeance, pieces of fish flying out of the bowl. She ate a couple spoonfuls of rice and put the plate aside, flopped on the bed, and dialed Jake's cell phone. While she waited for him to answer, she closed her eyes and imagined they were in her cozy house instead. She and Jake would be lounging around her den, reading or watching TV, the dogs and cats inhabiting their favorite spots. Scruffy, her schnoodle, would be tucked on the couch next to them. Henry, her pit bull, would be in his bed, and Jake's Weimaraner, Duncan, would be on the floor at their feet. Nutty would have claimed the back of the couch, and Benedict, the orange cat and her newest addition, would've staked out the window seat. Candles would be burning. If the TV wasn't on, they might listen to a jazz CD while eating take-out sushi. Or maybe they'd cooked a nice meal together. If Jake had to be at the bar, she'd go too and hang out for the evening. Since he'd added an oven for her use, she could use the time to bake, or simply relax and enjoy the atmosphere if she was caught up. But business had been booming and she usually had plenty of orders to fill.
The phone picked up on the fourth ring and a woman's voice answered. It wasn't Brenna, Jake's other sister, who worked as Stan's baking assistant, and also worked at the bar a few nights a week. Stan didn't recognize this voice and was momentarily startled into silence. “Hellooooo,” the woman shouted again. “Anyone there?”
Stan's eyes narrowed. She resisted snapping out a
Who the bleep are you
and settled for, “Is Jake there?”
She could hear laughter and glasses clinking in the background. “Jake? Sure thing, one second.” A minute later he came on the line.
“McGee.”
“It's me,” she said.
His voice immediately warmed. “Hey, babe. How's it going?”
“Who was that?” Despite her best attempts at a neutral tone, she could hear the snark come through and tried to tone it down. Tired, she told herself. Stressed.
“Shannon. One of my waitresses. She needed to call someone a cab.”
“Oh.” Now she felt stupid. And she could feel him grinning on the other side of the phone.
“You miss me?” he asked.
“Of course I miss you. And the dogs. And Benedict. How are they all?” Just thinking of them all made her teary. And then she was weeping.
“Stan?” He sounded alarmed now. “What's wrong?”
“Everything,” she sniffled. “I'm sorry. You're working. . . .”
“Hang on.” The background noise on Jake's end faded away. She heard the sound of a door closing. He'd probably gone up to his apartment. She was grateful for the quiet, and for his full attention. Restless, she pushed herself off the bed and paced the room.
“Okay. Sorry. I needed to get out of the pub. What's going on? Is Sheldon being a jerk? Are the other chefs not being nice to you?”
His line of questioning made her smile through her tears. She found a box of tissues next to the bed and blew her nose. “I wish those were my problems. One of the chefs is dead. Someone killed him.”
Silence on the other end. Then, “You're kidding, right?”
“Nope.” She opened the balcony door and stepped out into the night. Her room overlooked an area of the parking lot directly behind the hotel. She knew the ocean waited just beyond the parking lot, but the darkness made it too hard to see, keeping the comforting sight out of her reach. Just like Jake.
“How?”
“Someone slit his throat.”
He sucked in a breath. “And you saw him?”
“I found him. In the backyard at the house we were supposed to be staying in.” Below her, a couple of people exited the hotel's back door, laughing. She saw the flare of cigarettes as they strolled the parking lot, talking and smoking.
“Where are you now? I'll come get you.”
“You can't,” she said.
“What do you mean, I can't?”
She explained Sheldon's plan to entertain the investors despite losing Pierre. “So we're here, and we're cooking. The show must go on, apparently. We're in a hotel. The Newport Premier. And if we don't end up with a Food Channel contract on Monday, we all might be in danger of being murdered.” She leaned on the railing. Another figure hurried out of the hotel. She recognized the long hair and heels. Lucy Keyes. Lucy hurried to a silver SUV parked directly under a floodlight, climbed in, and drove away. Stan left the window and went back to sit on the bed.
“That's absurd,” he said. “Listen to me. If you don't want to stay, you don't have to. You don't owe this guy anything. All he does is pop up and disrupt your life. Screw him, Stan. You can open a shop on your own.”
Jake wasn't a huge Sheldon Allyn fan. There weren't many people he didn't like, but Sheldon had made the list. Aside from Sheldon's flamboyant, demanding nature, Stan suspected Jake worried Sheldon's fancy lifestyle would eventually coax her away from simple, quiet Frog Ledge. It would never happen. She had no desire to live the Famous Chef Life Sheldon boasted about. It clearly hadn't worked out for Pierre. But Jake needed more convincing.
“I know I don't owe him anything. But I want to make the shop work, and I think he can help me do that,” she said. “I promised I'd see this through, and it will benefit all of us if it goes well.”
He sighed. “I don't like it, Stan. Do they have any leads on who did it? If it's not safe I don't want you staying there out of some misguided allegiance to this guy.”
“I'm sure it's perfectly safe. There're a lot of cops on it. We're in a public place. And I don't have an allegiance to Sheldon. I just like to finish what I start. You're the same way.”
She had him there. Reliability was Jake McGee's middle name. There was no way he could fault her for the same. “Honestly, don't worry. It's only three days,” she reasoned, pushing away the stubborn thought that kept running through her head:
a heck of a lot can happen in three days.
“It will be fine.”
After they hung up, she realized her stomach growled. Talking to Jake had helped rekindle her appetite. Maybe she'd go down and get more dinner. It wouldn't hurt to ask Maria to join her. Slipping her feet into her flip-flops, she left her room and went to Maria's door. She rapped three times and waited. No answer.
“Maria?” she called.
Nothing.
She tried the knob. The door opened. The bedroom appeared empty. Maria's cannoli container sat forgotten on the night table. “Maria, you here?”
Nothing. She peeked further into the room, afraid of what she might see. She couldn't take another dead person. But the bedroom was definitely empty. The bathroom door stood open, demonstrating that it, too, had no occupant, alive or dead.
Maria must have gone out. Maybe the dinner here wasn't to her liking. Shrugging, Stan shut the door and went downstairs. It wouldn't do to let good food go to waste.
Chapter 9
After Stan ate, she turned on the TV in her bedroom and promptly fell asleep in her clothes. She woke up a couple hours later, pulled her pajamas out of her suitcase, washed her face, brushed her teeth, and crawled between the covers. Nutty was fast asleep on one of the pillows. He'd had a long, hard day, too.
She switched off the lamp and slept like the dead until someone banged on her door. She jumped up, on full alert, and flung her covers off. Simultaneously, her cell phone rang.
“What the . . .” She fumbled on the nightstand for the phone while trying to climb out of bed, not sure which to address first in her bleary-eyed state. She found the phone first and answered. “What?”
“Stan, it's Sheldon.”
“Sheldon?” She glanced at her clock. Two-fifteen. “What's up?”
“Open your door.”
“My . . .” She crossed to the bedroom door and flung it open. Sheldon stood there, still in his silver suit, although his feet were bare. His toenails were painted purple. That was about the only other color associated with him. He looked pale and drained, and his normally perfectly coiffed hair stuck up every which way. “What's wrong? How did you get into the suite?”
He ignored that question. “I need your help.” He reached for her arm and started to drag her out the door.
“What? No!” She jerked her arm away. “Help doing what? It's two in the morning! Don't you sleep?”
“Sleep?” He barked out a laugh. “After what happened yesterday? No. We need to do some damage control and I don't think Tyler is up to it, quite frankly. He's fabulous at getting us good attention. Crisis communications? Not so much. But I don't usually have crises.” His expression changed to pure puppy dog. “I know public relations and dealing with the media is your other expertise. Would you please consider helping me? Helping us?”
Stan dragged her fingers through her tangle of blond hair. She felt like a zombie and did not want to have this, or any, conversation until she'd gotten another eight or so hours of sleep. And she sure as heck didn't want to relive her former career. But Sheldon didn't look like he'd let her off the hook easily. “Sheldon. I got out of that business. I'm rusty. It's been a year and a half—”
“Nonsense,” he interrupted. “If you have a talent, you don't simply lose it.”
“It's two in the morning,” she said again. “Is there really that much going on right now? Was Pierre's family notified yet? Has this even hit the news?”
“We need to be prepared,” he said. “And right now we're not.”
Why didn't I let Jake come get me when he offered?
Stan closed her eyes briefly, hoping to wake up in her own bed and find this was all a dream. But when she opened her eyes, Sheldon still stood in front of her. And if she didn't help with the PR, it might be an even longer weekend than she'd already anticipated.
“Fine. Let me get dressed.”
“No need.” He took her arm again. “You look lovely. Let's go.”
Stan glanced down at her cat pajamas and sighed. With a helpless look behind her at Nutty, still sound asleep on his pillow, Stan let Sheldon tug her out the door and close it firmly behind them.
Chapter 10
“I had no idea this place was so big.” She hurried to keep up with Sheldon. They'd taken the elevator to the first floor, crossed to another wing of the hotel, and gotten back in the elevator to the fourth floor. Now they were hurrying down a hall that appeared to be the length of the Daytona 500 if the track were in a straight line. Luckily, her flip-flops had been next to the door. Otherwise she'd probably be barefoot given Sheldon's urgency. As they power walked, she looped her hair up in a messy bun thanks to the band she'd had around her wrist when she fell asleep. Her mouth felt dry and thick and she wished she'd at least been able to brush her teeth.
“You've never been?”
“Just to parties. I grew up around here, remember? I never had a reason to stay in a hotel here. You knew that. You told the others, didn't you?”
He gave her a strange look, then shrugged it off. “Yes, of course,” he said, stopping in front of room 423. He inserted his card into the slot. The light flashed green and he shoved the door open.
Tyler sat at the kitchen table. His morose expression from earlier had darkened to explosive as he banged away on his MacBook Air keyboard, a cup of coffee at his elbow, rock music blaring out of the speakers. The ugly side of public relations. It was all fun and games until the scandal hit. She knew it well—she'd lost her own job to a scandal. When the president of the financial services company she'd worked for had been caught with his competitor's wife, there was no amount of PR that could've spun that story. So they got rid of her and her top staffers.
She felt a pang of sympathy for the kid. He looked all of twenty-five years old, if that. This was probably his first real gig, and really, how scandalous could cooking be? Unless you counted the illicit affairs, but those went on in every industry. They were hardly even news anymore.
“Tyler. You met Stan today. She was in public relations in a previous life. She's going to share her expertise. Could you please turn that music
off
?” Sheldon turned to Stan. “Can I get you something, my dear? A drink? Coffee?”
“How about water,” Stan said. “Hey, Tyler.”
Tyler grunted and jabbed at a button on his keyboard. The music abruptly stopped. “Are you taking over?”
“No. I'm here to help,” she said firmly. “What's going on? Where are you stuck?”
A loud snore came from the living room area. Stan glanced at Sheldon as he came over with a tall glass of ice water.
“Joaquin,” he said apologetically, setting the glass down. “He needs his sleep.”
“We all do,” Tyler snapped.
“I understand that, my dear boy,” Sheldon said, an edge to his voice. “Why don't you share with Stan your strategy, and then you can take a power nap while she enhances it?” He moved to the bar area and chose what looked like a brandy. He poured, drank, and poured again, clearly at peace with making this kid work all night.
“Great.” Tyler shoved the laptop toward Stan. “There's my strategy. When the news breaks, we say that we're devastated by the loss of our friend and colleague and we have every confidence that the police will bring the killer to justice. Meanwhile, we'll raise our cake pops or insert-favorite-pastry-here in his honor.”
Stan looked at Sheldon. “That's a perfectly acceptable statement. What's the problem?”
He frowned at her. “There will be questions about why he was at my house before the event commenced.”
“Okay. What's the answer?”
“Yeah,” Tyler said with a sneer. “What
is
the answer?”
Sheldon shot a look full of daggers at Tyler, who spread his hands innocently and said, “You know that'll be the first question. Once you figure it out I can work with it. Until then, I'm going to bed.” Tyler shut the laptop with a snap. “Good luck,” he said to Stan, and flounced out of the room. She heard his footsteps on the stairs, then a door slammed shut elsewhere in the suite.
Stan wanted badly to lower her head to the table and bang it a few times. Somehow—and she really had to engage in some self-help practices to figure out why—she ended up in situations like this more often than she cared to count.
“Sheldon,” she said. “Please tell me what I'm doing here.”
Sheldon's full lips pulled together in a pout. “I just told you. I need crisis communication help. I shouldn't hire people so young. They have no
sensitivity
.”
“Oh, cut the crap.” She figured she looked almost as surprised as Sheldon—too many years of corporate politeness and politics usually prevented her from outbursts—but it felt good. The combination of exhaustion and trauma had made her bold, and she'd just been yanked out of bed to do someone else's job. No wonder she'd taken so much solace in making pet food over the past year. She could do it alone most of the time and the only personalities she had to deal with were picky cats. Heck, the dogs ate anything she served them. She'd take that over people any day. “What is the answer, Sheldon? Tyler's right. Neither of us can help you if you can't tell us.”
They stared at each other for a full minute. Stan pushed her chair back and started to rise when Sheldon let out a long-suffering sigh and leaned back in his chair.
“Fine,” he said. “Fine, fine, fine. I don't know why Pierre was at my house. I have no idea how Pierre knew to
find
my house. I've kept this address very mum. Even my staffers didn't know it until they got to the locations where you all were being picked up. I sent them a text, all at the same time. You can check our phones. So I have no good answer.”
“If it's the truth, that's your answer. But it's a convenient answer.”
“My dear,” he said haughtily, “it's the truth. I don't care if it's convenient.”
“So you didn't tell him.”
“Of course not! He received the same invite as everyone else. He was supposed to ride with Maria, in Therese's car. She called me in a panic that he hadn't arrived and Maria was getting . . . cranky. I told her to come over, and that's when I called and left the address on his voice mail.”
“So he planned to come? He RSVP'd?”
“He did.”
“So how did he get here, Sheldon? Where was his stuff? Did he have anything with him?”
They stared at each other until Sheldon shook his head, slowly. He tipped his chair on its back legs and rocked. “I'm telling you, I don't know. It's even more of a mystery because Pierre and I . . . had been on the rocks lately. We hadn't really spoken in more than a month, and this retreat came up after that . . . last conversation. I'd hoped we could repair our relationship during this time.” He let the chair fall.
The desire to beat her head against the wall grew. “I changed my mind. I'll have a glass of that,” Stan said, nodding at the brandy. She told herself it could still be considered nighttime. Drinking in the early morning sounded much worse.
Sheldon rose, poured, and handed it to her. Stan drank it in two swallows, felt the liquid warm her throat. She held out her glass for one more shot. “What were you on the outs about?”
Sheldon held up a finger, went to the doorway leading to the living room, and peeked in to make sure Joaquin was sleeping. He moved back into the kitchen and sat at the table, speaking in a low voice regardless. “Pierre wanted me to fund a second pastry shop in Los Angeles. But his New York establishment . . . let's just say returns have been slow over the past six months.”
“You said no.”
“I didn't say no. But I hadn't decided for certain yet. He didn't like to wait.”
Stan pulled Tyler's computer over, opened a fresh document, and began typing notes. “So he was mad at you.”
Sheldon's lips tipped up in a tight smile. “Not just me. Pierre enjoyed being mad at the world.”
“Why?”
“Because he wasn't where he wanted to be in his career. He'd been on such a fast track, but his upward progress has petered out recently.”
“But right now he was mad at you. So why would he come to this event?”
Sheldon shrugged. “We still worked together, my dear. When you and I have occasional tiffs, I expect we'll be able to work through them.”
“Working through them is one thing. A weekend away together is another. Unless he had a carrot dangling in front of him.” She picked up an abandoned pen from the table and clicked it open and shut, open and shut. “Did you tell him about the endgame?”
He sent her an apprising glance. “You're very astute.”
She rolled her eyes. “What, did you think I just fell off the proverbial turnip truck? Give me a break, Sheldon.” She'd never understood that saying, or what turnips had to do with being savvy, but it seemed to fit this situation. “Look. I'm not starstruck like the rest of these guys. I want a shop in Frog Ledge, sure, but I'm doing fine without one. So just be straight with me and let's get this done, okay?”
Sheldon's smile faded. “Fine. Yes, I mentioned the contract. He warmed up immediately and agreed to come. But then over the next few days he had a lot of questions about it. Which I couldn't answer, because I don't have a contract yet.”
“What kinds of questions?”
Sheldon shrugged dismissively. “Like who would be named specifically, what the terms of the show would be, how often he would appear.”
“Seems preliminary.” Unless Pierre'd been familiar with the concept and knew of some potential loopholes to signing on. She narrowed her eyes as a new thought dawned on her. “Unless he thought that you would be the only one getting the contract, with the discretion to parse out spots as you feel appropriate.”
“He may have thought that. It's not exactly how it would work,” Sheldon said. “Sheldon Allyn Enterprises is—God willing—getting the contract. As part of that, a variety of food would be addressed, which is where you all come in.”
“But it wouldn't be us, per se,” Stan said. “So if one of us screwed up, you'd just need to have
someone
doing pastry, or vegan, or whatever.”
He shook his head, a glimmer of a smile returning. “You'll certainly keep me at the top of my game, my dear. Very perceptive, for someone who doesn't know this business well.”
“Again. Turnip truck. I'm not going to out you to the rest of them,” she said, anticipating his next question. “I don't even know them.”
“Ooh,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “This is shaping up to be just like
Survivor
!”
“Focus,” she snapped. “So Pierre tried to play hardball. What happened?”
Sheldon sobered. “He had no loyalty, that's what happened. He felt I wasn't doing enough for him, even though I helped him get to where he is today, his own flaws notwithstanding. Do you think he'd have been able to fund a bakery in
New York
without my influence?”
“I have no idea. I didn't know him, remember?”
Sheldon glared at her. “Well, he wouldn't. Trust me. Then he threatened to walk away from his shop and go into business with a competitor, if I didn't get him his own TV contract. A competitor who has, according to Pierre, more money and clout.”
“Which would've hurt your wallet and your reputation,” Stan said.
“Precisely. So we were at somewhat of a crossroads. But I gently reminded Pierre of a few times I'd covered for him. He didn't like that.”
“Covered for him how?”
“He'd been in a few scrapes with the law,” Sheldon said.
“For what?”
“Most recently, controlled substances. There were other unsavory pieces of his past as well. Due to my extensive network, I was able to get him . . . off the hook.”
“So you blackmailed him in return for the favor.”
“My dear, I don't blackmail,” Sheldon said. “I merely reminded him of all I've done for him.”
“What does that mean? Did you threaten to kill him or something?” She narrowed her eyes at him. “My God, Sheldon, did you kill him?” She looked around for a weapon, just in case.
“Did
I
kill him? My dear woman, is that what you think of me?” He pressed a hand to his heart, apparently crushed by her question. “I most certainly did not. Pierre was my first protégé. I adored him. Never a more talented pastry chef have I ever met. For human pastry, of course,” he said hurriedly, remembering his audience. “I am completely devastated that he's left this world. I can barely comprehend it.” He rose and poured more brandy as if to accentuate his point.
“I simply told him he darn well better not miss this dinner, because it would have negative repercussions on both of us.”
Stan absorbed that information. “Who's this competitor Pierre was working with?”
“He didn't name drop. Which led me to believe he might be hedging. But I've been putting out feelers and learned he had been spending an inordinate amount of time with Frederick Peterfreund.”
“Who's that?”
Sheldon gazed at her with a fatherly smile. “You're so refreshing. Frederick is young. Cutting-edge, they say.” He made a face. “He's tough and loud and looks more like a Hell's Angel than a refined chef working with elegant pastry. As a matter of fact, he rides his motorcycle to each kitchen with a backpack full of pastry-making paraphernalia. Very crude, but I suppose that's his brand. His schtick is saving dying pastry shops. He's weaseled his way into TV already. He worked on a new show last year with some up-and-coming chefs.
Kitchen Cutthroat
?”
Stan shook her head.
BOOK: Murder Most Finicky
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