And here's Chapter 1:
A poet was threatening to skewer my freshly-painted ceiling, and I had no one to blame but myself.
“Die!” Professor Starke tossed his head, blond locks gleaming beneath Pie Town’s metal overhead lights. Again, he thrust his saber upward, and I tried not to cringe. “Die—”
This time I did flinch, and I twisted in my seat to glare.
In a pink corner booth, my seventy-something piecrust maker, Charlene, held a screwdriver in her fist. She raised it over an upturned pie tin.
The darkening sky made a black mirror of the window behind her and reflected her snowy curls. Her white cat, Frederick, lay draped over her shoulders. The two were inseparable, largely because Frederick was too lazy to perambulate on his own four paws.
Charlene punched the screwdriver into the center of the tin, making a hole. With a metallic squeak, she pulled it free and caught my eye.
“Sorry,” she mouthed, looking less than contrite. Charlene slipped the screwdriver into the pocket of her green knit tunic and folded her hands on the Formica table.
I narrowed my eyes at her and got caught in the intent stare of another of the visiting professors. Professor Jezek sat in the row of chairs between Charlene and me. His sunken, near-black eyes and lank gray hair and mustache gave him a Rasputin look. Beads of sweat dampened his domed forehead. His lips moved, soundless. He could have been spellcasting, praying, or reviewing his shopping list. Anything was possible with this crew.
I smiled weakly.
Jezek’s head twitched, and I realized he was looking past me, at the reader.
Grimacing, I returned to facing forward. I'd thought holding a poetry slam in Pie Town might be fun. Chalk that up to the had-I-but-known category.
The reader, Michael Starke, glared at us both. “Die,” he finished and jerked his saber for what I hoped was one last time toward Pie Town's ceiling.
But in spite of the flourish, his poem had ended with a whimper, not a bang. Not that I'd paid much attention to its beginning or middle. At some point, I'd gotten lost in the poetry professor's tangles of metaphors.
My employee Abril leapt to her feet and applauded, cheeks glowing. A lock of long, glossy black hair escaping escaped the young woman’s bun. She wore a Pie Town t-shirt, and I beamed with pride. After all, this was Abril's show. The budding poet worked part time in the Pie Town kitchen and studied English at the local community college.
Another college-age, olive skinned woman rose and clapped as well.
Others joined in. Belatedly, I followed along with the small audience's less-than-enthusiastic applause.
Professor Starke nodded and cleared his throat. Even in his tweed blazer, he looked more like a beach bum than an authority figure.
I smiled. The poetry reading might not have been a smashing success, but Pie Town was a hit. My insides warmed at the sight of the black-and-white floor, the glass display case (near-empty at this time of night), and the neon logo behind the counter. Its big pink smile was irresistible above our motto: Turn Your Frown Upside Down at Pie Town!
“The hole should be round,” Charlene muttered behind me, and I shook my head. I had no idea why my friend was defacing pie tins. As far as I was concerned, ignorance was bliss.
“Death in a Parking Lot,” Starke began.
I braced my elbow on the table and tried to look interested.
The bell over the front door jingled, and I straightened, looking toward the door. A stranger walked in and took a seat.
I slumped in my chair. My brother, Doran, was late. What had happened to him?
Since I wouldn’t get any answers listening to bad poetry, I stood and wove through the tables to the kitchen. Baking long over, it smelled of cleaning supplies. The floor-to-ceiling pie oven, industrial refrigerators, and metal countertops gleamed.
Leaning one hip against a counter, I blew out my breath. Why was I so disappointed Doran hadn’t made it? Oh yeah, because he was my only living relative who wasn’t a criminal.
The door swung open, and Charlene breezed into the kitchen. “What a snooze.” She set her damaged pie tin on the pie safe.
I eyed the elderly woman, who still wore Frederick like a stole. She knew the cat wasn’t allowed inside the kitchen, but she had stopped beside our antique pie-safe. It was just outside the work area, and she’d declared it a safe zone, pun intended.
“We did sell some pies,” I said. “And the event’s important to Abril.” I wanted to support Abril and the college, even if the school wasn't strictly in San Nicholas.
“I thought that brother of yours was coming tonight?”
I grabbed a cloth and wiped a counter that was already clean. “He said he might not be able to make it.”
“There’s still a lot you don’t know about him,” she said cautiously.
“Which is why I’m glad he moved to San Nicholas.” We hadn’t known the other had existed until recently. The discovery I had a half-brother had been a shock, but a good one.
“I thought he came here for work?”
“Mostly for work.” But partly because of me. He'd moved to San Nicholas to try his luck as a graphic designer in nearby Silicon Valley. I hoped it worked out for him. Having a family again had filled a hole in my life I’d been refusing to recognize.
The kitchen door edged open, and Abril stuck her head inside. Her brown eyes crinkled with concern. “Val, we need help.”
“What's wrong?” I straightened off the counter. I didn’t smell smoke, so it couldn’t be too awful.
She fingered the tiny gold cross at the base of her neck. “The reading is over, and people are leaving. But then Professor Starke and Professor McClary began arguing.” Abril edged further inside the kitchen. “It’s getting kind of heated.”
Charlene grabbed a rubber spatula from a ceramic holder. “A fight in Pie Town? I’ll take care of that.” She bustled out the door.
Ice chilled my midsection. When Charlene decided to “take care of” things, all sorts of bad things happened. Bigfoot hunts. Belly dancers. Boxing matches… “Uh oh.” I hurried past Abril and into the dining area.
On the opposite side of Pie Town’s counter, the two professors faced off. They wore similar tweed blazers, right down to their elbow patches. But otherwise, they were a study in contrasts. Professor McClary was dark-haired, with soulful, deep-set eyes that hinted at both dreaminess and passion, if that was possible. But tonight, his striking, pale face was mottled with fury.
Starke was more solid. Blond. Tanned. Clear, blue eyes. He could have been any of the surfers who ambled into Pie Town after an afternoon riding waves.
Slightly off to the side, Charlene’s white curls quivered, and she scowled at the combatants. Frederick yawned and rested his head on her shoulder.
Professor McClary's ivory hands fisted, his words flowing in an Irish lilt. “That was derivative at best and plagiarism at worst!”
Professor Starke's lip curled, his blue eyes blazing. I was suddenly glad he’d left his sword at the podium. “It's not your story at all.” He glanced over his shoulder.
McClary’s elegant nostrils flared. “Eff off.”
Charlene's hand snaked out. She whacked Starke in the ear with a rubber spatula.
He jumped and rubbed his ear. “Ow!”
“I'll have none of that language.” She shook her spatula at him. “Pie Town's a family restaurant.”
“What language?” he asked. “I called him a hack.”
“Hack?” She rubbed her chin with the tip of the spatula. “I thought you said something else.”
The Irishman stiffened. “Your blasted poem—”
Charlene raised her spatula. “Watch it, Riverdance.”
McClary edged backward and eyed her warily, his lips twitching. “Never mind.”
“Academics,” Charlene growled.
Professor McClary turned to me with a smile and bowed shortly. “I’m mortified by my bad manners. Thank you, Ms. Harris, for hosting us tonight.”
Call me weak, but it’s hard to stay annoyed at a man with an Irish accent.
“I don’t think the dean would have come without the lure of pie,” Professor Starke said in a low voice. He nodded toward a gray-haired man of Santa Claus proportions and wearing the inevitable tweed.
The dean studied the remaining treats – individual servings of pie in Mason jars – on the glass counter. He scratched his neatly trimmed beard.
“You’re welcome,” I said. “But it was all down to Abril. The poetry reading was her idea.”
Abril edged from the kitchen and into the dining area. Pretending not to hear us, she scuttled to the podium she’d set up in front of the booths.
Professor Starke smiled, his oceanic eyes gleaming. “I'll be sure to thank her. She's one of my best students.”
“I've no doubt,” I said, watching Abril blush. “She’s an amazing poet. And she's right over there.” I pointed toward the podium on the opposite side of the room. Abril had brought it from the college for the occasion.
The bell jangled over the front door, signaling the audience’s slow departure. A black-clad figure struggled against the flow and made his way inside the restaurant. My heart lifted. Doran.
Although his mother was Japanese, Doran and I looked a lot alike. Same oval-shaped face. Same blue eyes. His thick black hair, however, tended to fall into his eyes. My long, brown hair was almost always pulled into a bun, as it was tonight. It’s a food-service thing.
My brother sketched a casual wave, the shoulders of his black motorcycle jacket lifting. “Hey, Val,” he called. “Sorry I’m late.” He smiled at Abril. “I’ll help with the cleanup.”
Hawklike, Charlene watched the two professors, who’d begun arguing again. She slowly raised the spatula.
“Um, Charlene?” I asked, glancing Doran’s way. “Would you mind helping me with something in the kitchen?” As much as I wanted to chat with my brother, the only way to guarantee no more spatula assaults was to get her away from the two professors.
Charlene folded her arms over her green tunic. “I'm piecrusts only, remember? I don't do cleanup.”
“This is about the piecrusts.”
“What about them?”
“I'm thinking of changing the recipe,” I said, feeling desperate. If she hit one of them again, she might get charged with assault.
“What!” Her eyes widened. Our piecrusts were her own not-so-secret recipe. “You don't mess with perfection!”
Behind the counter, I backed out of spatula striking distance. “Still, our other changes have been successful.” I nodded to the top of the display case, and the pies in Mason jars. There were only a handful of the jars left – they’d been an audience favorite.
She charged through the Dutch door and into striking range. “Change the crust! You can't do it.”
I fled into the kitchen, Charlene close behind me.
“Adding chocolate to the mix for your holiday pies is one thing,” she said. “But a recipe change? I'll quit!”
I raised my hands in a defensive gesture. “Your crusts are perfection, and I'm not going to change a thing. I just needed to talk to you privately.”
She dropped the spatula, and it clattered on the metal counter. “So, talk.”
My mind hamster-wheeled. I couldn't exactly tell her this had been a ruse to keep her from assaulting more visiting professors. “Any cases for the Baker Street Bakers on the horizon?” I asked, grasping at straws. The Baker Street Bakers was our not-so-armchair crime solving club. It only had two regular members – Charlene and myself. But we had allowed in the occasional associate, like my boyfriend, Detective Gordon Carmichael.
She slumped against the counter. “Not since the mystery of Gil Diefenderfer's missing surfboard.”
And that hadn't been much of a mystery. His wife had “lost” it at a church sale in a vain attempt to free up his time for more household chores.
“What's with the pie tin?” I asked.
“Oh, this?” She picked up the tin and held it in front of her face. I guessed she was staring through the hole she'd punched in its center, but it was too small for me to really tell. “It's our newest promotion.”
I eyed it askance. “Pie tins with holes?” We’d already added pie-baking classes, and sampler plates, and pies in a jar. I loved all the fun ideas, but I was starting to feel overwhelmed.
“It’s the famous McMinnville UFO hoax of 1950!”
I stared, uncomprehending.
“Oh, come on. Even you've seen those UFO photos. They were reprinted in Life magazine! The so-called UFO was obviously a pie tin hung on a wire. It was also just as obviously a false flag operation.”
“False flag?” I asked.
“Designed to divert attention from our country's real UFO problem,” she said darkly.
Moving along. “And this has to do with promoting Pie Town because…?”
“Because we make pies, and I have the hottest paranormal Twitter feed this side of Northern California.”
Okay, the scheme was probably harmless, even if I did lose some perfectly good pie tins in the process. “Excellent idea. I'm in.”
“You are? Good. Because I know you're still a bit iffy about UFOs, even if you were never abducted by one.” Charlene managed to sound disappointed by that fact. She brightened. “Now I've got an old fishing rod we can use—”
“Whatever you need.” Anything beat clambering on the nearby cliffs hunting Bigfoot or chasing mythical fairies in the dog park. And yes, Charlene had dragged me into those adventures and more. I’d gotten the poison oak to prove it.
Charlene sat on the stool beside our old-fashioned pie safe and made a list, while I cleaned and loaded dishes into the industrial washer.
Abril and Doran set the dining area in order and lugged plastic bins of dirty plates into the kitchen. I guessed Doran was helping because he felt guilty about being late. Whatever the reason, I’d take it.
The kitchen door swung open and my boyfriend, Gordon, strode into the kitchen in his favorite navy suit.
My heart jumped at the sight of the tall, dark and handsome detective. He'd had to work tonight and hadn't been able to make the poetry reading, but he'd come.
Charlene looked up from her notepad. “You missed—”
He pulled me roughly against him, wrapping his muscular arms around my midriff and pulling me into a bone-melting kiss.
My knees wobbled. I gasped coming up for air.
From the corner, Charlene whistled. “Detective Carmichael! Unhand that young woman.”
Gordon ignored her, his jade eyes boring intently into mine. “Val, there's something I need to ask you.”
My heart pounded faster. We hadn't been dating long. I hadn't even met his parents. Did he want me to meet his parents? Or… something more serious? Surely not. He knew I’d had a disastrous broken engagement. I wanted to be absolutely sure before jumping into anything permanent . “Sure.” I gulped.
His head bent closer, and his voice dropped to a rumble. “Where were you between the hours of eight and nine o'clock tonight?”