by: Julia Buckley
Series: Undercover Dish Mystery
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Release Date: September 6, 2016
Publisher: Penguin Berkley Prime Crime
Caterer and cook Lilah Drake is up to her elbows in deadly trouble in the latest mystery from the author of The Big Chili...
The Christmas holidays are one of Lilah’s favorite times of the year, filled with friends, family, and, of course, tons of food orders for her Covered Dish clients. But Lilah’s Yuletide cheer ends when she sees a most Grinch-like crime: the murder of a Santa in a school parking lot.
It turns out the deceased Kris Kringle was a complicated tangle of naughty and nice, with a long list of people who might have wanted him dead. And whoever did the deed wants to make sure that Lilah keeps quiet. Now, Lilah will have to team up with her former fling, Detective Jay Parker, to unwrap the mysteries of a deadly Christmas killer and stay alive long enough to ring in the New Year...
Bing Crosby was crooning White Christmas as I tried to fasten a Santa Hat on the large skull of my chocolate Labrador, Mick. He wasn’t cooperating. “Come on, Mick. I’m trying to get a Christmas card shot here,” I wheedled, petting his nose. “Can you hold it on for just one minute?”
Mick nodded. This was Mick’s special talent, but only one of the things that made him loveable. He was able to convey, with one little human-like gesture, the idea that he agreed with me, even approved of me. I had never encountered another dog who could nod like Mick.
I fastened the hat under his chin and took three quick snaps of him sitting in front of my shiny silver stove. I quickly reviewed the shots on my viewfinder. “Perfect! Very cozy and domestic. Thanks, Mick.” I took off the hat and scratched his ears; then I gave him a rawhide chew, which he took into the corner of the kitchen for further investigation.
I washed my hands and went to my extra-large refrigerator (a new purchase for which I’d saved up funds for a year) and pulled out two huge trays of macaroni and cheese bake with crumbled potato chip topping. The casseroles smelled wonderful, and I realized I was hungry. Perhaps after I delivered them I could get myself some lunch. But before then I needed to get the food to John F. Kennedy Grade School, where Miss Jenny Braidwell taught third grade, and where her classroom full of students were convinced that their teacher was a terrific cook and baker. Miss Braidwell (who had once been my college roommate) made delicious, kid-friendly meals for all of her school events, and for many of them she was reimbursed by the school, since everyone at JFK liked Jenny Braidwell’s cooking. No one knew, however, of Jenny’s secret weapon: an old college pal who had made a clandestine agreement with Ms. Braidwell to provide her with quality food—and an enhanced reputation as a super-teacher—in exchange for a generous sum of money.
At this point, all of my clientele were clandestine, but I was filling a niche. In the last two years I had learned a surprising fact: lots of people wanted credit for making food that they didn’t have the time or the talent to make themselves. Some of those people had found me, or I had found them, and now I had a phone book full of clients. My father jokingly called this my “Undercover Dish” business.
I bundled the food carefully into the back of my aging Volvo, then went back into my hallway and called to Mick. “Want to come along for deliveries?” I asked. Normally Mick was my security guard, but today he only had eyes for his rawhide. I could hear him chewing it and making little satisfied growly sounds. Bing stopped singing and my stereo, plugged into my iPod, selected another song from my shuffled playlist: Blue Christmas—the original Elvis recording. I definitely didn’t want to hear a sad love song, Christmas-themed or otherwise. It was time to leave.
“Fine, Mick. Party pooper. I’ll see you in a while.” I locked the door of my little dwelling, which was actually an old gatehouse behind a much larger property, and climbed into the car; it smelled like cheesy heaven. Those little kids didn’t know what joys awaited them.
I buckled in, flipped on the radio, and started backing out of the long driveway, headed for Dickens Street. A woman’s voice on the Chicago “light” music station was speaking in soothing tones about the Christmas season. She informed me that it was 12:06. “It’s December 16th,” she warned. “Have you finished all of your holiday shopping? If not, remember that Dalby’s has a full-service gift shop right next to the Deli!”
Dalby’s was a Chicago-area grocery chain. I shopped there often, and if I didn’t get my act together, I realized, I would probably end up doing all of my holiday shopping at a grocery store. This made me briefly sad, so I lifted my chin and changed to the classical station; there was only one in Chicago, but it was fantastic. Right now they were playing something from The Nutcracker Suite, and I pounded an imaginary baton on my steering wheel as I turned on Breville Road and headed north. There was a Dalby’s on the left side of the street, highlighting the commercial message from the radio. I hadn’t been to that particular store for a month because of an unpleasant experience that had made me avoid it.
At the end of November I had stopped at Dalby’s in the evening to pick up some ingredients for a client’s dish. While I marched down the spice aisle in quest of a four-pepper blend that almost always sold out, I caught a glimpse of a dark-haired man pushing his cart past the mouth of the aisle. I shrank against the wall of spices, but he hadn’t seen me. It was Jay Parker, a police detective with whom I’d shared what turned out to be a one-evening event. I couldn’t even call it a fling—it was just some rather passionate kissing which had suggested we might have a future together. Parker had later cast me off because I lied to him (for very complicated reasons), and the whole thing had been humiliating. The last thing I wanted, ever again, was to see him.
I found my pepper and decided to forego the rest of the things on my list. I raced to the check-out lane, glancing furtively behind me to see if Parker were there.
The girl at the register was outrageously chatty, asking if I liked the cold weather and if I had any fun plans for Christmas, and though I gave her terse answers and forced a smile, she continued to chat, her hands moving at a leisurely pace. I was on the verge of strangling her when she finally handed me the pepper in a small bag and said “Thanks for shopping at Dalby’s. Have a nice day.”
Normally I couldn’t get one word—or even eye contact—out of a check-out person, but because I wanted to leave, Karma had made this one my best friend. I grabbed the bag from her and heard a voice say, “Lilah.”
I froze. It was Parker’s voice; I peeked behind me to see that he was in line, two carts back. His startling blue eyes met mine and they had the high-voltage effect they always did.
“Oh, hi, Jay.”
“How are you?” he asked.
The little white-haired lady between us, along with the check-out girl (whose nametag said Hi, I’m Bonita), watched without apology, open-mouthed with wonder, probably at Parker’s good looks.
“Oh, I’m fine. Just super busy. In fact, I have to run. It was good seeing you, though,” I said. I was talking far too rapidly, which aggravated me and clearly amused the white-haired woman.
“Can you hold on for one second?” he’d asked. “Can we talk in the parking lot, maybe?”
I couldn’t bear to look at him anymore. My eyes dropped to his cart, which was full of healthy foods like fresh vegetables and lean chicken breasts—and one giant tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream. “That would be so great, but I have to run and let Mick out; he’s been cooped up for hours.”
I dared a glance upward. His eyes expressed cool blue disbelief, so I added, “And I’m expecting a long-distance call. And some visitors.”
“Lilah—” Parker said. A teenage boy came to pack up the white-haired woman’s groceries, and he pushed me gently out of the way so that he could get to the bags.
“Oh, look at that—I’m in the way. It was great seeing you, Jay!” I said far too loudly, and then I ran out of Dalby’s and into the parking lot—literally ran—so that I wouldn’t have to encounter Jay Parker for even one second more. I thought I heard him call me once as I bolted toward the door, but I didn’t turn back.
I sighed now as I drove past Dalby’s. I hadn’t seen Parker since that day, and I had shopped solely at Jewel since then in hopes that it would stay that way.
I was looking toward a happy Christmas holiday and a New Year in which I would establish a new me. I had a new job that I really liked, working for the best caterer in Pine Haven; I had a wonderful family and good friends, and I was about to visit one of those friends right now. I hadn’t seen Jenny in person since November, either; she was always busy with school events and I was always busy making or delivering secret food. But we managed to sneak in a lot of Facebook conversations and some deliciously snarky e-mails and texts. She knew nothing of my brief thing with Parker, and I didn’t plan to tell her. It hadn’t even been complicated by sex—just a lot of delicious kissing and some affectionate words. That tenuous relationship had proved to be an illusion. The fewer people knew of my embarrassment, the better.
I pulled into the parking lot of JFK just as a light snow began to fall. It was lacy and delicate, like the kind inside a snow globe, and it lifted my spirits. I texted Jenny, informing her that the food was here. She wrote back “U R the best” and the “B rite out.”
I sat in my car and waited, watching the snowflakes make their delicate journey from heaven to earth. Looking back, it’s hard to remember what I was thinking as I stared through my windshield and contemplated the Christmas that was to come. It was of those moments in life when one is so comfortably immersed in daily details that one feels no obligation to contemplate the bigger questions of life and death, the vastness of the universe, the mysteries beyond earthly comprehension. It’s easier, in general, to focus on the minutiae of life because it’s hard to focus on things we can’t see clearly. In retrospect it seems like that moment of quiet amidst the snowflakes and empty cars was a last moment of innocence.
From CHEDDAR OFF DEAD
IN stores Sept 6
Purchase Cheddar Off Dead from:
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The Big Chili ~ Review
Julia Buckley is a Chicago-area writer. Her first mystery, THE DARK BACKWARD, was published in 2006; since then she has published the Madeline Mann mysteries and the first in the Teddy Thurber series on Kindle.
She writes two series for Berkley Prime Crime, with debut titles THE BIG CHILI and A DARK AND STORMY MURDER
Buckley is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and Romance Writers of America, as well as the Chicago Writers Association. She blogs about writing and mysteries at Mysterious Musings, where she has interviewed almost 200 other mystery writers about their work.
She teaches high school English and enjoys reading, playing Words With Friends on Facebook, and spending time with her husband and two sons, along with their menagerie of animals.
Places to find Julia Buckley: