Berkley Prime Crime: July 1, 2014
Now available in audio, too!
From the cover:
Gourmet food market owner Erin Murphy is determined to get Jewel Bay, Montana’s scrumptious local fare some national attention. But her scheme for culinary celebrity goes up in flames when the town’s big break is interrupted by murder.
Food Preneurs, one of the hottest cooking shows on TV, has decided to feature Jewel Bay in an upcoming episode, and everyone in town is preparing for their close-ups, including the crew at the Glacier Mercantile, aka the Merc. Not only is Erin busy remodeling her courtyard into a relaxing dining area, she’s organizing a steak-cooking competition between three of Jewel Bay’s hottest chefs to be featured on the program.
But Erin’s plans get scorched when one of the contending cooks is found dead. With all the drama going on behind the scenes, it’s hard to figure out who didn’t have a motive to off the saucy contestant. Now, to keep the town’s rep from crashing and burning on national television, Erin will have to grill some suspects to smoke out the killer.
Includes delicious recipes!
“We can’t replace one of the chefs,” Mimi George said, her voice piercing the gravy-thick air of the Jewel Inn’s banquet and meeting room. “The Grill-off is in two days.”
Two and a half, but who was counting? We obviously had bigger fish to fry. Or steaks, in this case.
“What if,” I said, jumping in where angels fear to tread, “we say there’s been a mix-up and ask them to submit new recipes? Time is short. But if there’s one thing every chef in Montana can do, it’s conjure up new ways to serve steak.”
“There is no mix-up. Simply put, you people have a thief among you.”
Nothing raises the collective temperature of any group more than being referred to as “you people.” I’d had just about enough of Gib Knox and his demands, but we’d invited his TV show, Food Preneurs, to film the Thirty-Fifth Annual Jewel Bay Summer Food and Art Fair, and its centerpiece, the Grill-off, and we were stuck with him now.
And I didn’t need a meat thermometer to know the other committee members were getting hot, too.
“You wait one minute there, young fella.” Ned Redaway crooked a beefy finger in Knox’s direction. “Don’t go accusing folks you don’t know of being a thief.” Ned had run Red’s, the village watering hole, for close to fifty years, and he didn’t tolerate bullies. He’d once had the hair to match his nickname, though what was left of it had faded to an almost colorless fuzz. At six feet tall and two hundred mostly solid pounds, he was still imposing when riled.
“He may be the best-known chef in the state,” Gib Knox said in a voice as smooth as Belgian chocolate. “He may be your big draw. But he’s a thief.” Six-two or better, a dark-haired man graying handsomely at the temples, the TV host and celebrity chef smiled in smug satisfaction. But we could not let “Nasty Knox” portray the village of Jewel Bay, Montana, to the food-loving world as hicks who couldn’t cook and didn’t know better.
“Hang on,” I said, using my hands as stop signs. “I’m sure we can resolve this without any harsh words or accusations. All we need to say is that two of the three chefs proposed similar dishes. Hucks and morels are a natural combination around here. Since the goal is to give our chefs a chance to demonstrate a beef dish with a local flavor, we’ll ask those two for new recipes.”
“Perfect, Erin.” Stacia Duval, the show’s producer, clapped her hands together. A petite dynamo whose chin-length brown bob boasted red and gold highlights, she practically bounced out of her chair with relief. “But who will tell them? It might be uncomfortable for Mimi.”
“You don’t mean Drew Baker? My chef would do no such thing,” Mimi said in disbelief. She’d gone pale blond for summer, and under her tan, she blanched to a matching shade. Normally, she radiated an eye-of-the-storm calmness-no doubt from years of running the Jewel, one of the village’s favorite restaurants-but she was visibly shaken now.
“What about Drew?” Tara Baker’s heels rapped on the parquet floor as she crossed the room to the long table we’d commandeered for our meeting, her long ash blond hair swinging. As always, she wore black, top to bottom. She and Drew had moved to Jewel Bay six years ago, while I’d been away-he to serve as executive chef of Caldwell’s Eagle Lake Lodge and Guest Ranch, she to be the sales and marketing manager. When they divorced, she stayed at the Lodge and he became chef at the Jewel Inn. A highly acclaimed chef, whose dinner service had become destination dining. The crown jewel of a town that called itself The Food Lovers’ Village. Drew and Knox had worked together years ago in L.A., and when Mimi asked Drew if he could entice Knox and EAT TV to film an episode here, he’d readily agreed.
“Mr. Knox has accused my chef-” Mimi began.
Tara’s gray eyes widened.
“I’ll talk to him,” I said. Not that I relished the task of playing the heavy, but Stacia was right. Even mellow chefs, like Drew, tend to be strong-minded. I turned to Tara. “Two contestants in the Grill-off happened to think along the same lines. We’ll ask for new recipes and be back on track.”
“Fine, if you want to sweep it under the rug.” Dressed straight out of a Western wear catalog, Knox wore a gray and white tweedy jacket, Western-cut, over blue jeans. His boots were polished but well worn.
“Drew and who else?” Tara said, her tone guarded. “Which other chef?”
The corners of Knox’s full lips twitched. Was he enjoying making us squirm? “That promising young woman from, what is it, Bear Poop Lodge? Such charming names up here.”
“Chef Amber Stone,” Mimi said, biting off the words. “Bear Grass Bed and Breakfast.”
Amber Stone and her sister had taken over a run-down inn north of town, adding a dinner service open to the public. She was the only chef who’d actively sought an invitation to the Grill-off-an admirable sign of motivation.
Tara’s thin, sharp features relaxed. “Well, whatever happened, that’s a good solution. Good to see you, Gib.”
Gib rose. Tara turned her head and a kiss meant for her cheek landed on her ear instead. He scowled briefly. She brushed lips with the cameraman sitting next to him-her boyfriend-then slid into an empty chair, dropping her black quilted leather handbag to the floor. The impact rattled the ice in the water glasses.
The third contestant, Kyle Caldwell, had taken over Drew’s post when Drew and Tara divorced. The Grill-off was always held at the Lodge, and the Lodge chef always participated, as a courtesy. No home-range advantage-all the chefs used propane grills provided by Taylor’s Building Supply. The event took place on the Lodge’s stone patio overlooking Eagle Lake, in front of a hundred and fifty guests or more. Tara smiled at me nervously, no doubt relieved to know that Kyle was not involved in the mix-up, whatever it was.
“That’s settled then,” Stacia said with obvious relief. “Erin will talk to the chefs and get new recipes by-what, five o’clock Friday? That should give us time to make sure everything is in order.”
Both chefs? I hadn’t volunteered to talk to Amber, but obviously someone had to. As the new girl-or rather, the newly returned prodigal daughter-I got the chores no one else wanted.
Stacia surveyed the table efficiently, smiling with relief. “Now the next item on the agenda . . .”
I glanced up at the bull moose rack draped with Mardi Gras beads who oversaw this end of the banquet room. No doubt he’d witnessed far fierier explosions. From this angle, he seemed to be winking.
My attention wandered as Stacia and the cameraman, Pete Lloyd, reviewed the plan for tonight’s filming. Stacia was a doll, whip-smart and organized to the max. She had more planning apps on her phone than I’d known existed, and knew how to use every one. She’d sent a list of requirements in advance, but Pete was a last-minute substitute. We’d dodged a bullet earlier in the week when Stacia got the news that their regular cameraman had a health emergency and couldn’t travel. To avoid cancellation, Tara suggested Pete. He’d left a job filming TV news for a station in Pondera, the largest town in northwest Montana, a year or two ago. Now working freelance, he had all the right credentials and experience.
Not to mention the right connections, as Tara’s current paramour. The grapevine claimed she went through a couple of guys a year, but that this one might actually last. They made an odd pair: Tara’s ensemble-wide-legged pants, heels, and a long, collarless V-necked jacket, a lace-trimmed black camisole beneath-reflected an urban style and an urban hyperactivity that hadn’t worn off despite half a dozen years in the rural West. Pete, on the other hand, seemed as casual as his clothing-baggy olive drab pants and a russet brown long-sleeved twill shirt, cuffs frayed, worn like a jacket over his brown T-shirt. Whatever influence Tara had over him had not yet extended to his wardrobe. Which was probably healthy for a relationship.
“What do you think, Erin?”
Busted. I glanced at the agenda. No clue. “Uh. The wine, right?”
Someone-Pete? Gib?-snickered. Stacia smiled gently. “I was saying we’ll meet at the Lodge at four thirty. Chef Kyle’s making the appetizers, and his pastry chef and your marvelous baker friend, Wendy, are doing the desserts.”
“Right.” The appetizer and dessert segments were being filmed tonight so that Saturday evening, we could focus on the Grill-off. During the day, the crew would film local producers. A winery, a creamery, a custom butcher and sausage maker specializing in wild game, and more-every nook and farm we could think of to showcase the taste of Montana. And on Sunday, they’d film the food and art booths at Summer Fair.
“This way, we’ll get the kinks out before Saturday,” Pete said, his voice thin and raspy. “Sort of a dry run.”
“Dry, my eye,” Ned said. “I’m pouring wine.”
“I’ll need it.” I grabbed my phone and pushed back my chair as the meeting broke. I had intended to slip out early and get busy readying the Merc for the big weekend. Officially the Glacier Mercantile but still called Murphy’s Mercantile by the old-timers, the Merc had been in my family for more than a hundred years. When the major businesses left downtown-aka the village-for the highway thirty years back, the Merc stayed put. My grandfather Murphy soldiered on as a grocery man, despite competition from the new supermarket. But he lost heart after my father was killed fourteen years ago in a still-unsolved hit-and-run, and the business floundered. Finally, my mother Fresca-Francesca Conti Murphy-had rescued it from oblivion, creating a haven of local food and craft. But running the business had kept her from her own passion-cooking up a line of pastas and sauces for wholesale and retail trade. So, earlier this year, I’d come back from Seattle and taken over. This would be my first Summer Fair as a village shopkeeper, and my to-do list was long.
Now, two items longer.
Knox towered over all of us except Ned. “First the cameraman falls on his death bed. Then a recipe thief. Let’s hope this thing isn’t cursed.”
“Hush your mouth,” Stacia said, the first harsh words she’d uttered in all our dealings.
I rubbed the colored stars tattooed inside my wrist, and bit my tongue to keep from cursing Gib Knox.