Arsenic and Old Cake

Blind man’s bluff

With business going stale at Zydeco Cakes, Rita Lucero has plenty to worry about. But when the blind trumpet player Old Dog Leg Magee asks for a favor, she can’t say no. His brother Monroe disappeared forty years ago, and now someone has shown up claiming to be him. Old Dog Leg needs Rita to be his eyes—and see if it’s really his brother.

The Twisted Palms Bed and Breakfast is full of unsavory characters, Monroe included. Posing as newlyweds, Rita and her friend Gabriel check in, only to discover that Monroe’s true identity isn’t the only mystery they’ll have to solve. When another guest at the Twisted Palms turns up dead, it seems the mysterious man might also be a murderer…

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(copyrighted material)

 Chapter One

“Try to be reasonable, Rita. We can’t keep everyone working full-time right now.” Edie Bryce, office manager at Zydeco Cakes, pushed an ominous-looking stack of documents across the desk toward me. We were sitting in my office, a spacious room on the first floor of the renovated antebellum mansion near New Orleans’ Garden District that houses the bakery. A pleasant May breeze blew through the open windows, a treat I allow myself when the New Orleans humidity drops below stifling on my personal weather scale.

Edie’s almond-shaped eyes, inherited from her Chinese grandmother, were narrowed to mere slits in her round face, and she nudged the pile of papers closer, daring me to disagree with her. “Business is slower than ever,” she warned, “and especially now that we lost the Alexander-Mott wedding, we’re going to have to find a way to tighten the belt.”

The sudden cancellation of the large upscale wedding that had been scheduled for the following week had dealt us a blow; even I couldn’t deny that. We would retain a modest deposit, but it would barely cover the cost of materials and labor we’d put in so far. The profit I’d been counting on had evaporated. Not that I wished the couple any ill will, but I was grateful they’d canceled because they were splitting up, not because they’d changed their minds about hiring Zydeco to make their cakes.

And that’s what I tried explaining to Edie. “I know this isn’t an ideal situation—”

That’s as far as I got before she cut me off. “Ideal?” She laughed and tapped a finger on one of the pages in front of me. “It’s not even in the same time zone as ideal. It’s all right there in black and white,” she said. “I’m worried, Rita. And you should be, too. If we had enough business to keep everyone busy, I wouldn’t even suggest a payroll cut. You know how much I care about everyone here.”

And then she sat back in her chair, arms folded, waiting for my reaction.

My name is Rita Lucero. I’m a trained pastry chef and cake artist, half owner (along with Miss Frankie Renier, my former mother-in-law) of Zydeco Cakes, home of the finest specialty cakes in New Orleans. Since taking over the day-to-day operations last year, I’d been trying to maintain Zydeco’s reputation and make up for the dip in sales we’d experienced when Philippe, Miss Frankie’s son (who happened to be my almost-ex-husband), died. Not only did I have to show the cake-buying public that the quality of Zydeco’s cakes wouldn’t suffer on my watch, but I also had to convince his wildly creative and emotional staff to trust me. And even though I’d already known about half of them from pastry school, Philippe had won custody of their friendships when we separated, and the transition hadn’t been seamless.

Edie and I hadn’t exactly been friends in pastry school, but we’d grown closer since Philippe died. I’d known her long enough not to underestimate her when she was in a mood. And she was definitely in a mood today. Her dark eyes glittered, and every few seconds she tucked a lock of sleek brown hair behind her ear—an unmistakable sign of agitation.

I tried not to look worried, but it wasn’t easy. Though we’d had a few ups and downs, the staff had quickly become like family to me. I hated the idea of cutting hours and creating financial hardship for any of them. Even more frightening was the idea of losing one of them entirely. Business at Zydeco had taken a hit last year, and while it had started climbing slowly again a few months ago, the tanking economy had caused people to cut back on luxury items. The extreme cakes that we’re known for at Zydeco were apparently one of the first things to go. We had done well during Mardi Gras season and still had a modest stream of wedding clients, but orders for other occasions like baby showers and birthday parties had dropped dramatically in the past few months. Every bakery of our caliber had been hit, but I worried that one of our rivals might actually be able to pay my staff what they were worth.

I looked over the bank statement Edie had placed on top of the stack and moved quickly on to the bakery’s balance sheet. Our bottom line might seem impressive to an outsider, but it costs a small fortune to fund Zydeco’s day-to-day operations. We had enough money in the bank to stay afloat for the next month or two, but if business didn’t pick up soon, we’d be in trouble.

In spite of the evidence and Edie’s warning, I refused to believe that cutting staff work hours was inevitable. I still hoped we could find a way to keep everyone working full-time and meet our expenses. “I think we should wait a bit longer. Things are tight, but we’re not at the do-or-die stage yet.”

Edie pursed her porcelain-doll mouth in disapproval. “Close enough for me,” she said and pushed a color-coded calendar toward me. “That’s what we have on schedule for the next two weeks. There’s not enough work there to keep everyone busy, and we can’t afford to pay people to sit around and shoot the breeze just because we like them.”

The calendar was emptier than I’d realized. This was my first May wedding season at Zydeco, but even I could see that we didn’t have the numbers we needed to call it a success. My spirits drooped, and for one brief moment I considered staging a reconciliation between the Alexander-Mott couple to patch up their failed relationship. The cake they’d ordered before Jamal found Celia in his best friend’s bed would have kept the entire staff busy for two weeks, and the hefty price tag would have given our balance sheet a shot in the arm.

As if she’d materialized on my shoulder, I heard my aunt Yolanda whisper, “Careful, mija. The love of money is the root of all evil.”

My aunt and uncle had raised me after my parents died when I was twelve. In the years since I went to live with her, Aunt Yolanda’s deep faith had underscored more life lessons than I could count, but I would have argued with her on this one. I didn’t want the money for myself. I just wanted to provide for those who depended on me.

“I know we can’t pay the staff if there’s no work,” I said, grudgingly shaking off the urge to play Cupid. “But I’m sure things will pick up soon. They have to.”

“Yeah. Maybe.” Edie’s voice was filled with skepticism. “Look, Rita, I’m not saying you need to lay somebody off. I’m just suggesting that we trim a few hours from everyone’s schedule for a while, including mine. We’ll make a push to find some new clients and maybe hit the wedding show circuit a little harder in the fall. If we can weather through this now, hopefully we’ll be back to normal next year.”

“Why wait until fall?” I asked. “How many wedding shows are scheduled in this area over the next few months?”

Edie shook her head and crossed her legs. “None. Most of the shows are in the fall and winter.”

“Maybe we could branch out and expand our radius,” I suggested. “There might be something scheduled in other states.”

“Even if there were, we’d just spend money we don’t have on travel and lodging,” Edie pointed out. “We’re in a bad spot, Rita. We didn’t get the wedding orders we needed from last year’s shows, and we’re paying for it now.”

I looked at the schedule again, then sighed and propped my chin in my hand. “We might have to cut hours,” I conceded reluctantly. “But you know I can’t make a decision like that without talking it over with Miss Frankie.”

Miss Frankie and I have a good working relationship and a surprisingly close personal one, especially considering that, had things turned out differently last year, Philippe would have signed the divorce papers and our marriage would have been over. I’d have gone back to my low-grade sous chef job at Uncle Nestor’s restaurant in New Mexico, and Miss Frankie and I might never have seen each other again.

Instead, Philippe had been murdered before the papers could be signed, leaving me, technically, his widow. I’d inherited his house, his car, and his personal bank account—which, though a big deal to me, wasn’t enough to give Zydeco the shot in the arm it needed.

Miss Frankie had become sole owner of Zydeco. But she wasn’t a baker and she knew nothing about cake decorating, so she’d begged me to stay and help her, offering me a partnership to sweeten the deal. How could I say no? She needed me.

Okay, my motives weren’t entirely unselfish. Zydeco was my dream bakery, and the staff Philippe had put together was top-notch. Plus, I’d been dissatisfied with the entry-level job at Uncle Nestor’s restaurant. It had required only a moderate amount of arm-twisting on Miss Frankie’s part to convince me to say yes.

Now I run the day-to-day business on-site, and Miss Frankie stays home and writes checks when we need them. Up until recently, anyway. We could have used one of Miss Frankie’s checks right about now, but the falling stock market had dealt a few blows to her bank balance along with everyone else’s. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated to ask for a cash infusion. Now, I wasn’t sure I should

Edie gave me a verbal nudge. “You can’t think about this forever, Rita. I have to post the schedule this afternoon.”

“Then post it,” I said. “Keep everyone full-time for now, at least until I talk to Miss Frankie. We can cut back next week if she agrees that’s the best solution.”

Clearly, that wasn’t the answer Edie wanted. She sat back in her chair and tucked that lock of hair behind her ear again. “Why don’t you just call her now?”

I resented being pushed to make a decision, especially one I didn’t want to make at all. Besides, I’d spoken with Miss Frankie earlier that morning and I knew she was having brunch with her best friend and neighbor, Bernice. Neither of them carried a cell phone, and I hadn’t asked where they were eating. I couldn’t have reached Miss Frankie if I’d tried.

Which I had no intention of doing.

“I’ll talk to her later,” I said decisively. “We’ll figure something out, I promise. And in the meantime, please don’t mention your concerns to anyone else. I don’t want the staff to worry.”

And by worry, I meant panic. I love my staff, but it’s full of artistic, emotional, temperamental people. Logic and restraint aren’t words that show up often in their vocabularies.

Edie’s gaze flickered away for a moment, making me wonder whether my warning was too late.

“Have you talked to anyone else about this?” I asked.

She shook her head quickly. “Not yet.”

“Good. If we do have to make adjustments, I think Miss Frankie and I should be the ones to explain what we’re doing and why.”

Edie stood but made no move to leave.

I smiled up at her. “Is there anything else?”

She started to say something, but just then we heard the tinkle of the bell above the front door, signaling a new arrival—unusual, since we don’t handle walk-in clients.

Edie scowled over her shoulder, annoyed by the interruption.

I, however, tried not to look overly grateful for it. Maybe it was a prospective client. If so, I’d think twice before turning them away. Besides, our conversation had run its course. Even with the decrease in business, I still had plenty to do that afternoon, starting with calculating payroll so the staff could get paid at all.

Muttering, “We’ll finish this later,” Edie hurried from my office.

I had no doubt we would. Edie isn’t known for letting things go. I tried to forget the warning and focused on getting the payroll figures logged into the computer. It would be easier to finish thiswithout a head full of distractions. The air outside was growing warmer, so I shut the window and got down to work.

I’d just opened the first file when Edie reappeared in the doorway. She looked uncharacteristically tentative as she slipped inside my office again and shut the door behind her. “You’ll never believe who’s here,” she said, her voice low. And then, before I could take a guess, she told me. “It’s Gabriel Broussard. You know . . . from the Dizzy Duke? And he’s got Old Dog Leg with him.”

The Dizzy Duke is a bar a few blocks away from Zydeco. It’s been the staff’s after-hours hangout since the bakery opened. Philippe was a regular. Me? Not so much, but I do try to join them a couple of times every week.

Gabriel is one of the bartenders, six feet of sexy, dark Cajun handsomeness. He and I indulge in a little low-key flirting from time to time, and we’ve gone out a couple of times. He’s spontaneous and exciting, but so far there’s nothing serious between us. Partly because he’s not the only guy on my personal horizon, and partly because I’m not sure I’m ready for serious. But hearing his name in the middle of the work day set off a pleasant internal buzz and I didn’t fight it.

Old Dog Leg is a seventy-eight-year-old blind trumpet player who occasionally sits in with the house band at the Dizzy Duke. He’s a sweet old guy and one of my favorites among the regulars at the bar. Still, for either of them to show up at Zydeco was unusual, but both of them walking through the door together? Unheard of. It sparked my curiosity in a big way.

I glanced toward the door and back at Edie. “What do they want?” I whispered.

Edie shrugged. “To see you. That’s all they’d say. Do you want me to send them in or tell them you’re busy?”

I still had way too much to do, but I hesitated for less than a second before closing my laptop and moving it out of the way. I really had no choice. If I sent them away, curiosity would eat me alive and I wouldn’t get anything done. It was simple self-preservation that made me say, “Send them in, of course.”

(copyrighted material)


Berkley Prime Crime: ISBN: 9780425251720

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