Pastry chef Rita Lucero’s Mardi Gras party turns funereal when one of her guests is found dead after a public fight with her uncle — leaving Rita no choice but to find the real killer and clear her uncle’s name…
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“You’ll be here by seven, won’t you, sugar? You won’t be late?”
My mother-in-law sounded so hopeful, I hated to disappoint her, but how could she ask me to leave work early on a Friday evening during Mardi Gras season? I shifted my cell phone to the other ear and glanced at the chaos surrounding me. Clutter and constant movement filled every corner of Zydeco Cakes, signs of the work overload the staff and I had been experiencing since the first of the year.
Stacks of empty boxes, all decorated in traditional Mardi Gras purple, green, and gold, teetered in every corner of the massive design room. Near the door to the loading dock, boxes filled with King Cakes awaited delivery to businesses and events. More boxes filled the other end of the room, in preparation for the walk-in customers we hoped would be coming in droves to pick them up before the season was over. And that was on top of our regular business: cakes for two weddings, a Valentine’s Day party, and a fiftieth birthday party, all scheduled for delivery in the coming week.
I’d only been running Zydeco Cakes for a few months, and this was my first Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I knew the carnival season was a big deal around here, but as a recent transplant to the city, I was still shocked at just how big a deal it was. We were already a month into the season, but the sharp increase in business had left me off-balance and scrambling to catch up. I’d been looking forward to the celebration, but I was starting to wonder if I’d be able to find enough free time to enjoy any of it.
But that wasn’t Miss Frankie’s fault, and I tried not to take out my frustrations on her.
She and I became partners last year, shortly after the death of her only child, Philippe Renier, who’d also happened to be my husband—at least on paper. I was his widow on a flimsy technicality: he’d been killed minutes before he was supposed to sign our divorce agreement, though Miss Frankie liked to imagine that we’d been on the verge of reconciling when he died.
I’m the one with the training and experience as a pastry chef, so I handle the day-to-day work at the bakery. Miss Frankie offers moral support and the occasional cash infusion from the comfort of her living room. Most of the time our arrangement suits me, but today I was frustrated by my partner’s lack of hands-on experience.
I’d been working alongside the rest of the staff for days, ignoring the growing heap of paperwork in my office and the even longer to-do list for tonight’s Mardi Gras party at Miss Frankie’s country club. The same party Miss Frankie was nagging me about at that very moment.
“Rita? Are you even listening to me?”
Her insistent tone pulled me away from my growing frustration and back to the conversation. “I’m listening,” I assured her. “But I don’t think you realize how crazy it is around here. We’re up to our eyeballs in work. Nobody has been able to take a lunch break for two days and things are only getting worse.”
“I know y’all are busy,” Miss Frankie said, “but tonight’s party is important.”
And there it was: the crux of our argument.
“It’s a party,” I pointed out.
“A very important party,” she pointed back. “With very important people. It’s not just a social event, Rita. It’s the Captain’s Court for Musterion. It’s crucial to the business that you be here, and that you show up on time.”
Like I said before, I’m no expert on Mardi Gras, but over the past few months I’d learned a few things. All of the parties, parades, and balls are organized by social clubs known as krewes. There are hundreds of them scattered across the Gulf Coast region. Some krewes take themselves very seriously, others not so much. Musterion (whose membership list topped 2,000) falls somewhere in the middle. The Captain’s Court was a sort of last blast for Musterion’s movers and shakers, a celebration of all the work they’d done to get ready for Mardi Gras and the prequel to next week’s parade and formal ball, which would be open to the entirekrewe.
Carnival season may seem heathen on the surface, but it actually has deep roots in Christianity. The whole point of it, after all, is for people to stuff themselves silly on Fat Tuesday before the forty-day austerity of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. That “last hurrah” starts all the way back at Epiphany on January 6. Which is where the King Cake gets its name—the word King refers to the wise men, and the traditional plastic baby figurine baked into every cake represents the baby Jesus. According to tradition, the person lucky (or unlucky) enough to get the slice of cake with the hidden baby in it is obligated to host the party next year.
Philippe, who had been a longtime member of the Krewe of Musterion, got the baby at last year’s Captain’s Court celebration, which put him on tap to act as this year’s host. Thanks to Miss Frankie, I got custody of the baby when he died. This party was, according to Miss Frankie, a very big deal, which was why she volunteered me to take over as hostess. I just wish she’d discussed it with me first.
I’m all about doing what’s best for the business. I just didn’t happen to agree that this party she was so wound up about needed the top spot on my priority list. I’d said so about two million times in the past few weeks, but Miss Frankie wasn’t listening.
“I’ll get there as soon as the orders for tomorrow morning have been filled,” I said, also for the two-millionth time. “That’s more important for the business than me standing around with a glass of champagne in my hand.” She started to argue, but I went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “I don’t know any of the people on your guest list. They’re not going to miss me if I’m a little late. If you need help entertaining the masses before I get there, I’m sure Bernice will pitch in.”
Bernice Dudley is Miss Frankie’s neighbor and closest friend. She’s a sweet lady with a halo of white hair and a drawl as smooth and Southern as aged Kentucky bourbon.
“Well, of course I can count on Bernice,” Miss Frankie said with a tick of her tongue. “That’s not the point. A proper party simply cannot begin without its hostess.”
That would be me, though not by choice. I was harboring some resentment over the way Miss Frankie had finagled me into the role, which might have been making me slightly more stubborn than usual. I still wasn’t convinced that Philippe’s predeath party obligations had legally become my responsibilities.
Miss Frankie let out a long-suffering sigh. “Rita. Sugar. Try to understand. This party is important. All the top brass of Musterion will be here, and that includes some very influential—and wealthy—people.”
I could have refused, but I was a little concerned about Miss Frankie. Losing her only son had shaken her world to its core. She’d made a valiant effort to keep her spirits up as we stumbled through the holidays together, but by New Year’s Eve she’d had enough. The idea of heading into an entire year without Philippe had crumbled her like a stale cookie. She’d spent the whole month of January in a funk, and had only started rallying again in the past week or so. I didn’t want anything to jeopardize that.
“These people were friends of Philippe’s,” she was saying now. “Most of them were clients of Zydeco when he was alive.”
“I understand that, but—”
“They’ll want to meet you.”
I laughed. “I doubt that.”
“Why would you? You were Philippe’s wife and you’re running Zydeco now. Of course they’ll want to know more about you. This is your chance to make a good impression. To establish yourself as one of them. Otherwise, they might take their business somewhere else now that Philippe is gone.”
But I wasn’t one of them. I knew it, and they’d figure it out soon enough. Philippe and Miss Frankie had been born into that society. Old money and the genteel Southern breeding might be in their blood, but they weren’t in mine.
“I know there are a lot of potential customers on the guest list, but I can’t ignore current paying customers just to play nice with people who might spend money at Zydeco in the future.” It was a lousy excuse. Even I knew that. But the thought of trying to impress two hundred of New Orleans’s most influential citizens at once was stressing me out,
“I’m not asking you to ignore anybody,” Miss Frankie said. “But you work too hard. I’m asking you to take one evening to have a little fun and make an investment in the bakery’s future at the same time. Is that so difficult?”
“Much more difficult than you can imagine,” I grumbled, sounding like a moody teenager. Work had always been my comfort zone, and I was resisting leaving it big-time.
Over the phone, I heard the tap-tap of fingernails on a hard surface, a sure sign that Miss Frankie was processing my response and formulating another argument. “What’s the matter, sugar? Why does the idea of this party bother you so much?”
She knew me too well. “Besides the fact that I don’t know anyone on the guest list?” I rubbed my forehead with the fingertips of one hand as if I could scrub away my nervousness. I had half a dozen solid objections to hosting this party, but Miss Frankie didn’t really want to hear any of them. “It’s just that it falls at such a bad time. This carnival thing is pretty overwhelming.”
Miss Frankie gave a low chuckle. “Relax, sugar. Have fun with it. That’s the whole point of carnival.”
Relax. Have fun. This wasn’t the first time she’d given me that advice. I rotated my head on my neck and tried to work out a few of the stress kinks. “I’ll try,” I said. But it wasn’t that simple. I’d been raised by a master worrier. My uncle Nestor didn’t know the meaning of the word relax, and he’d taught me everything I knew about stressing out. Part of me wanted to enjoy life more—I just didn’t know how.
Miss Frankie pretended to believe me and changed the subject. “By the way, did I tell you who phoned in an RSVP this morning?”
I stopped rolling my head. “This morning? I thought we turned in the final head count to the caterer two weeks ago.”
“We did, but everyone knows that, for a party like this, the final head count is just a guideline.”
“Not everyone,” I mumbled. We’d hired a caterer for the buffet, but Zydeco was supplying the King Cakes and I’d been relying on those figures to plan how many we’d need.
“I’m sure we’ll have plenty of food,” Miss Frankie said. “Nobody expects us to turn away a guest who calls at the last minute. Now, guess who it was.”
I wasn’t even going to try. “Who?”
The muscles in my neck tightened up again. Ivanka Hedge was one of the wealthiest young women in New Orleans, heir to the Lafitte perfume fortune. Just a week earlier, she’d announced her engagement to Richard Montgomery III, son of an obscenely wealthy businessman with international ties. His grandfather, Richard I, had founded the prestigious Terrebonne Academy, a private school open only to those with the right family background and sufficient money to afford the astronomical tuition. Academic accomplishment factored way below the right genealogy on the list of qualifications.
The city had been buzzing with wedding talk all week, and every business that was remotely tied to the wedding industry had been scrambling to offer their services for flowers, dresses, entertainment, china, silver, and of course, the various cakes they’d need.
At Zydeco, we’d been discussing the possibility of landing the wedding cake contract—a dream only slightly less ambitious than being hired on by the White House. For the past four days I’d tried countless times to reach Ivanka personally or, failing that, to set up an appointment through her assistant. For all my efforts, I had yet to even speak to a live person.
My heart did a little pitty-pat at the prospect of actually meeting Ivanka tonight. I nibbled at the carrot cake Miss Frankie was dangling in front of me. “Are you serious?”
“Would I lie to you?” she asked.
Only if she thought the means justified the end. “How did you manage to get her to come?”
“I have connections, sugar. The Montgomery men have belonged to Musterion for six generations. Richard is on the Parade Committee this year. I knew he and Ivanka were on the guest list, but I didn’t want to say anything until I knew they were coming. So you see why you have to be here on time. This really is your chance to make a good impression.”
Well. That ought to help me relax. No pressure at all.
I chewed on my bottom lip and argued with myself for a few seconds. Maybe I could leave work a few minutes early. Someone else on staff could stick around here to make sure all the orders were filled. My staff was competent and well trained. They didn’t need me to hold their hands to make sure the work was done. And if leaving early would help me land the Hedge-Montgomery wedding contract, everyone at Zydeco would benefit. Win-win.
“Fine, I’ll be there by seven,” I said, making an executive decision. “Should I bring anything special with me?”
“Just your sunny personality.” I could hear the triumphant smile in Miss Frankie’s voice. “But don’t keep the staff working too late. They’re all on the guest list, too, and you know Philippe wouldn’t want them to miss out.”
She was right about that. Philippe had loved a good party more than almost anything else. If he’d still been alive, the whole bakery would have shut down early so the staff could get ready, even if he’d lost business as a result.
I’d always been more practical. It’s not that I don’t like a good party. I’m fun. I just believe that work should come first, especially in our current circumstances.
Zydeco’s reputation had suffered a hit because of Philippe’s death. We’d lost enough business to hurt our bottom line, and new orders had been slower to come in since I took over at the bakery’s helm. I guess people were waiting to see whether I could maintain the high quality and creative genius Zydeco was known for.
Eventually people would realize that the quality of our work hadn’t suffered. But until then, we’d have to rely even more than usual on the income we could make during Mardi Gras. Shutting the whole operation down early and losing walk-in customers wasn’t an option I would consider.
I was trying to figure out a tactful way of saying so when Dwight Sonntag looked up from his work table and gave me the stink eye. He jerked his chin toward my own station, where the work was beginning to pile up. “Hey! Rita! A little help?”
I’ve known Dwight since pastry school in Chicago. He’s a talented cake artist with a strict work ethic, but you’d never know that to look at him. He’s six-foot-nothing with shaggy hair and an untidy beard, both tucked into sanitary netting when he’s working. His clothes hang off his thin frame and he slouches through life looking as if he just rolled out of bed. But there was nothing casual about the frustration glinting in his hazel eyes this morning.
I held up a finger to indicate that I’d be finished in a minute and told Miss Frankie, “I have to go.”
“Nothing I can’t handle.”
Since I took over at Zydeco I’ve tried to protect Miss Frankie from unpleasant reality whenever possible. Partly because losing her only son had left her vulnerable and—let’s face it—a little unhinged. But also because my life is a lot easier when Miss Frankie doesn’t know about every speed bump Zydeco encounters. If it’s earth-shattering, I discuss it with her, but if I ran to her every time one of my eccentric, talented, and emotional staff members got upset, I’d never get anything else done.
A momentary silence fell between Miss Frankie and me, followed by a soft, resigned sigh. “Seven o’clock,” she said again. “Don’t be late.”
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Berkley Prime Crime: ISBN-13: 978-042524622