COOKING UP MURDER
Thanks for a place to brainstorm,
the Goat White,
and the salt and vinegar chips!
Dying al Fresco
What I'd mistaken for a black trash bag was really a black coat. Drago was sprawled on thepavement, one hand clutching at his chest, his face pale and contorted with pain.
"Drago?" I knelt on the pavement, afraid to get too close. With one finger, I gave him alittle nudge. He groaned, and I figured it was a good sign.
"Drago, my name is Annie. My friend Eve went for her phone. We're going to get somebody tohelp you."
His eyes flickered open. His gaze wandered aimlessly, to the Tres Bonne Cuisine building, thento the tree Eve and I had hidden behind to watch him and Beyla argue. Just thinking back toeverything we heard and saw made a chill race up my spine. It turned to ice when Drago's gazefastened on me. He reached for my hand, and when he found it, he hung on like there was notomorrow. For all I knew, for Drago, there wouldn't be.
"Al . . . bas . . . tru." His voice was no more than a breath, and it was even more heavilyaccented than Beyla's.
"Alabaster?" I wondered if that was his dog's name.
"Alba . . . stru." Drago gasped from pain. His breaths came quicker, each one a little moreshallow than the last. He groped for the breast pocket of his coat, and when he brought hishand out again, he had a piece of paper clutched in his fingers.
"This . . . is important. You will see." He pressed the receipt into my hand, and I glanced atit. It was from a restaurant called Bucharest. Important? It didn't seem likely, not unlessDrago had been counting calories . . .
Table of Contents
I WAS IN THE KITCHEN BURNING A POT OF WATER when Eve leaned on the buzzer down in the lobbyof my apartment building.
How did I know?
About Eve? Or about the water?
I knew it was Eve because she's the only one with a sense of humor warped enough to try toplay "Love Hurts" on the buzzer. And the water . . . well, I'd been so lost in my own miserablethoughts, I'd forgotten that I put it on the stove. It didn't cross my mind again until Idragged myself into the living room and buzzed Eve in. A minute later, she swept into myapartment, a vision in a tight black skirt and a purple tank top that hugged every inch of hersurgically enhanced to perfection chest.
The door closed behind her, and I braced myself for a hug. Eve hugs everybody. Friend orstranger, male or female, it doesn't matter to Eve. A hug is as natural to her as the chirpy"How are you?" that's sure to follow, a greeting she somehow manages to turn into one word with
But this time, when what I needed more than anything was both a hug and an inquiry into mywell-being, so that I could answer that I was lousy, Eve didn't do either.
She stopped dead in her tracks and wrinkled her nose. "What is that smell?"
You can take the girl out of North Carolina but you can never take the Southern belle out ofthe girl. At least not a girl like Eve. Even here in Arlington, Virginia (which is, after all,technically the South, even if it has been overrun by Yankees), her accent is as thick as honeyand as noticeable as Eve is herself.
Eve is tall. A good four inches taller than me even when she's not wearing some outrageouspair of heels that puts her up in skyscraper country.
Eve is blonde and blue-eyed. Her hair is poker-straight, and she makes a trip to herhairdresser at least once every couple weeks to make sure her do is as chichi as the latest
Vogue . issue of
I've got shoulder-length brown hair that I usually end up piling on top of my head becauseit's curly and unmanageable. My eyes are plain ol' brown, too. Not a combination that makes mestand out in a crowd.
Eve is gorgeous.
Well, guys always tell me that I'm "cute." I guess it's my heart-shaped face. Or my turned-upnose. Maybe it's because instead of being pencil-thin like Eve is and like the media says allwomen should be, I'm unfashionably curvy.
I knew the truth. Cute is a code word guys use because it's kinder than coming right out andsaying that though I'm the girl they want to be best friends with, Eve is the type they allfall head over heels for.
Every guy except for Peter.
I couldn't help it--I sighed. Maybe it was the sound that got Eve moving again. She pivoted,looking all around at the same time she sniffed again.
"Something smells weird. Annie, is something burning?"
That's when I remembered the water. And suddenly, the metallic aroma that had been buildingtoo slowly for me to notice hit my nose and the back of my throat.
Eve and I took off for the kitchen at the same time. I might not be as graceful or assylphlike as she, but I was faster. Probably because my bunny slippers provided better tractionthan her Pradas.
I got to the stove just as the last drop of water boiled away and my not-so-good cookware wentfrom an ugly shade of gray to an uglier and very burned black. I turned off the stove andstepped back, thinking about the best--and safest--way to keep things from getting any worse.
Eve stepped right between me and the stove. Like a surgeon awaiting a scalpel, she held outone hand. "Pot holder," she said.
Call it habit--when Eve tells me to do something, I listen. But not because I'm a pushover.Eve and I have been best friends since we were in preschool together, and more than thirtyyears of thick and thin have taught me to face the truth: I'm the cautious one who evaluatesevery situation to death. Look before I leap? I look, all right, from every angle. Eve is themover and shaker.
I was self-aware enough to know I'd never be the take-no-prisoners type like she is, but Ialso knew that while I was still thinking, considering, weighing, and justifying, she wasalready doing. And whatever she was doing, she was usually right.
If she wanted a pot holder, damn it, I'd give her a pot holder.
It was only when I'd turned to grab one that I remembered that Peter had taken all the potholders with him when he left.
Talk about adding insult to injury. The realization hit me like a kick in the stomach. Idropped into the chair by the kitchen table and propped my head in my hands, watching as Evegrabbed a dish towel, folded it in two, and without a moment's hesitation, moved my ruined-beyond-being-cleaned pot from the hot burner.
When she was done, she brushed her hands together and sat in the chair next to mine. Shecocked her head, and when she spoke, her look and her voice were compassionate. "You weremaking a cup of tea. I hope it was that aromatherapy brand I gave you. You know, the one that'ssupposed to boost your mood and enliven your spirit."
"I was making chicken soup." I pointed to the box on the counter. Eve looked that way and tookin the empty container of Cherry Garcia, the crumpled bag of Chips Ahoy, and the half-eatenbowl of pretzels that weren't there when she dropped me off the night before.
Well, like I said, we'd been friends a long time. Never having gone through what I'd beenthrough, she might not understand. But I knew she wouldn't pass judgment, either.
"Oh. Comfort food." Eve patted my hand. Maybe she did understand after all. "You know, youshould have used the teakettle to boil the water. It's far safer."
"Except that Peter took the teakettle."
She winced. "Sorry. I keep forgetting--"
"Yeah, me, too," I lied. If I was busy forgetting, I wouldn't have nearly burned down theapartment building because I was so busy obsessing about the fact that as of yesterday, I was adivorce statistic.
I was a terrible liar, and nobody knew it better than Eve. She leaned forward. "It's OK to getit all out," she said. "Why, it's only natural that you'd feel--"
"Like I'd like to wring his neck?"
She slumped back in her chair. "I thought we were past the anger stage and working onacceptance."
So did I.
Until I realized I didn't own a pot holder.
I scrubbed my hands over my face. It was two o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, and even thoughit was June and outside the Virginia air was hotter than my just-about-combusted saucepan, Iwas wearing jammies and a flannel robe. Comfort food, comfort clothes. I cinched the belt alittle tighter around my waist.
"I've been working on acceptance for just about a year now," I reminded Eve and myself. "Eversince the day Peter told me he never really knew what love was until he met that girl at thedry cleaner's. News flash! If the knot in my stomach means anything, acceptance is notworking."
"Well, of course not!" Eve popped out of her chair and rummaged around in the cupboards. Shecame back to the table with a jar of peanut butter, two spoons, and all that was left (itwasn't much) of the giant Hershey's bar she'd bought me the day before, on the way back fromthe court-house where Peter and I had signed the papers that said our marriage was officiallyover.
Eve broke off a piece of chocolate, slopped peanut butter onto it, and handed it to me. "He'sa slimeball," she said.
I popped the whole piece of chocolate into my mouth. "Sure he is." I would have sounded moreconvincing if my words weren't stuck together with peanut butter. "And honestly, she's welcometo him."
"Annie, it's not what you say . . ."
"It's what I feel," I finished for her. I'm not sure it exactly proved my point, but Iemphasized my sincerity by grabbing a spoon and a piece of chocolate. I ladled peanut butter onit and this time chomped the piece of candy in half. I licked peanut butter off my fingers. "Ifhe cheated on me, he's going to cheat on her," I told Eve. "Maybe not any time soon, butsomeday. I'm better off without him."
"I'm happier without him."
"You've got to be."
"I've got a bright future in front of me."
"I'm . . . I'm . . ." I paused, desperately hoping the endorphins from the chocolate wouldkick in at that moment.
My shoulders drooped. My spine folded like an accordion. I dropped my head on the table. "I'malone and miserable!" I wailed.
"There, there." Eve patted my back. "You have so much to look forward to."
You would have something to look forward to "No." I sat up, pushing my hair out of my eyes. "
if you were divorced. If you were divorced--"
She cocked her head. "But I've never been married."
"But if you were. If you were married, and then you were divorced. You'd have something tolook forward to. Guys would be lined up around the block to date you."
"And they're not for you?" Eve rolled her eyes. "Why, that nice Ed Downing at the bank--"
I cut her off with a groan. "That nice Ed Downing is fifty-four and still lives with hismother."
"He's saving to buy a house."
"He's a loser."
"He likes you."
"He likes me because every time he screws up his drawer, I'm able to make sense of it beforethe head teller shows up and he gets his ass fired." I got rid of the thought with a shake ofmy shoulders. "I don't know why I even mentioned it. It's not like I care. Mr. Right could walkin here right now--"
"No." Eve's eyes twinkled with mischief. "Let's have him drive in. In a red Jag."
"OK, Mr. Right. In a Jag. He could drive in here right now stark naked--"
Eve giggled. "And with a nice, tight ass."
"And he could ask me to rip off my clothes and--"
"Ask?" Eve pooh-poohed the very idea with the wave of one manicured hand. "We don't want himto ask, honey. We want him to beg. Mr. Right. Jag. Naked. Begging. If you're going tofantasize, you might as well go whole hog."
"I still wouldn't want him." I folded my arms over my chest and harrumphed , just so Eve
would know I meant business. "I'm never going to look at another guy. I'm never going to dateanother guy. I'm never going to get married. Not again."
"Of course you are." Eve took a bite of chocolate, and because she forgot to spread it withpeanut butter first, she dipped her spoon in the jar, scooped up some extra crunchy, andswallowed it down. "Annie, really . . ." She pointed at me with the spoon. "You're talkingcrazy. You make it sound like your life is over. You're only thirty-three."
"I'm thirty-five," I reminded her. She was just trying to be kind, and I wanted none of it.Kind would make me feel better, and right now, I was too busy wallowing in my misery. "I'm athirty-five-year-old bank teller and my hips are too big and my hair is too curly and I havethe most boring life in the world and--" My voice wobbled, and I screeched, "I don't even own a
Eve didn't mind the screeching, probably because she'd been overemotional herself a time ortwo. Sometimes it was because her job--whichever one she happened to have at the moment--wasn'tgoing right. Sometimes it was because she'd missed a sale at Macy's or put a run in her lastpair of hose.
Mostly it was because of men.
Fact is, Eve's affairs, like everything else in her life, are the stuff of grand opera.There's always plenty of uncontrollable passion at the beginning and usually, just as muchangst at the end. Hence, the screeching.
Me, on the other hand . . . well, the truth of the matter is that I wasn't used to these sortsof gut-wrenching emotions. My life before, during, and after I'd met Peter had been pleasantand largely uneventful. We'd been introduced by friends, and I liked him instantly. Maybebecause unlike all those other guys, he'd never once said I was cute. Maybe because unlike allthose other guys, Peter really liked me.
Was it any wonder that I really liked him back?
Peter was a high school chemistry teacher. He had a good job, a low-key sense of humor, and anappreciation for all the things I valued. Things like stability and a balance in our savingsaccount that promised that someday, we'd own a home of our own. We dated for two years beforewe got engaged, and then we had a wedding that was as pretty as a fairy tale. We were marriedfor eight years and were finally at the point of looking for that home we'd spent so manynights talking and dreaming about.
Then he made that fateful trip to the dry cleaner's.
Call me a wimp, but I sighed again.
"Speaking of pot holders . . ." Eve's eyes lit the way they did when she's excited aboutsomething. "I think I've got just the thing to make you feel better."
"A lifetime supply of pot holders?"
She was as good as anyone at ignoring sarcasm. Rather than respond, she disappeared into theliving room and came back a minute later, Kate Spade bag in hand.
"No pot holders. I'll let you buy your own." She dug through the purse, and when she didn'tfind what she wanted, she began the unloading process. Wallet, checkbook, comb, compact, blush,lipstick, eyeliner, lip liner, nail polish. After less than a minute, my kitchen table lookedlike the cosmetics counter at Saks.
"Ah! Here's what I'm looking for." Grinning, Eve pulled a piece of paper out of her purse.
"That better not be a confirmation for a trip to anywhere," I warned her, backing away to putsome distance between myself and whatever she might have planned. "You can't afford a vacation,and I can't take the time off from work. I've already missed enough days going back and forthto court."
"No trip." Eve waved the paper. "And you won't need to take any time off from work. This is inthe evening. Every evening for ten evenings, starting this Monday."
"A book discussion group."
Eve rolled her eyes. "You know better than that! A girl with my busy social schedule doesn'thave time to read."
"A visit to a spa."
"For ten days in a row? Don't I wish!"
"Then what?" I drummed my fingers on the table, annoyed and, I admit, intrigued in spite ofmyself. "Oh, I know. It's Peter's new address. That place he bought with Mindy or Mandy orwhatever her name is. We're going to stake out the house, wait until he leaves one night, jumpout of the bushes, and--"
"Now, now. Remember: acceptance." Eve tapped my arm with the paper. "This," she said, "is myreceipt. Enrollment for two. You and me, honey, we're taking a cooking class."
I would have laughed if there was anything funny about it. Instead, I aimed a laser look inEve's direction. Sometimes that could get through to her.
This time, it didn't.
"Earth to Eve!" I waved my hands in the air. "Do I need to remind you? You live on carry-outChinese. And me?" I looked over my shoulder at my ruined saucepan. "I can't even boil water!"
"All the more reason to take the class." She set down the paper and swept her things off thetable and back into her purse.
I took the opportunity to scoop up the receipt and look it over. "Ten Nights to the PerfectTen-Course Meal," it said, right above the part that said the class would be held at Tres BonneCuisine.
I knew the place, all right. Fancy-schmantzy kitchen shop on the ground floor, upscale cookingschool above. It was in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, one of those rare spots intown where old storefronts stood in unexpected but peaceful coexistence with million-dollarcondos, trendy boutiques, and restaurants with sidewalk cafes out their front doors.
I knew the place well, but not because I was a social climber. Tres Bonne Cuisine was the homeof Vavoom! seasoning, a cult icon in Maryland, D.C., and beyond. Like thousands of others, Iwas addicted. I used Vavoom! on everything from popcorn to chicken wings. I knew exactly howmuch a two-ounce jar of it cost and, if I wasn't heavy-handed, how long it would last me. Andgoing on how expensive those two ounces were, there was no doubt in my mind that ten days ofclasses would be exponentially pricey.
I dropped the receipt like it was on fire. "No way, Eve. No way am I going to let you--"
Her mouth puckered. "Like it or not, you're going to do it."
"Like it or not, you're going to get a refund. You can't afford to pay for a cooking class forme. You can't even afford to pay for a class for you!"
"Afford has nothing to do with this. Haven't I always told you, Annie, it's not thenecessities in life we need to worry about. They'll be provided somehow. It's life's littleluxuries that are important. Right now, we need to get your mind off Peter. This is one way todo it."
"No." I could be just as stubborn as she was. "Get your money back."
"Can't." She pointed to the line on the bottom of the printout that said all enrollments werefinal. "It's paid for, Annie. I know the way your logical little mind works. You know it'sbetter to take the class than waste the money. Besides, it will be good for you to get out."
"So I can embarrass myself in front of a class full of chefs? You know I'm a terrible cook!"
"Don't be silly." Eve got up, slung her purse over her shoulder, and headed for the door."You'll get an e-mail," she said. "We all will. Tomorrow and every night before class. They'lllet us know what ingredients to bring. That way, they'll be nice and fresh. And don't worryabout driving. I'll pick you up. Monday, six fifteen."
She knew I was going to keep on arguing--that's why she didn't give me a chance. Eve swept outthe door and left me alone. In my jammies and my bunny slippers, the caustic tang of burntmetal still sharp in the air.
"Cooking class?" I'd already heard my own voice echo back at me before I realized I wastalking to myself.
When Peter was around, I at least made an effort to cook. Spaghetti sauce, omelettes, theoccasional blueberry muffin (always from a box). Since he'd been gone, I hadn't done even thatmuch. I lived on soup and cereal, and when I tried to cook . . . well, all I had to do wascatch a whiff of the metallic odor in the air to know how things usually turned out.
But I couldn't be mad at Eve. She was my best friend, bless her, and she was just trying tomake me feel better. For that, if for nothing else, the least I could do was cooperate.
I told myself to get a grip and did a mental check through my schedule for the next ten days.It didn't take long: Class was in the evening, and I didn't have a social life. All I had toworry about was embarrassing myself or burning down the cooking school.
But after all, there would be professionals at class, guiding us through each step. Therewould be cooks--real cooks--telling us what to do and what not to do and how to make sure wenever burned pots of water.
How dangerous could a cooking class be?
WE WERE LATE FOR THE FIRST CLASS. JUST FOR THE record, it wasn't my fault.
Like I did every day (except for Fridays when the bank was open until six), I arrived home atexactly five twenty-five. By five thirty, I'd sorted through the day's mail. I filed the billsin their proper slots in the accordion folder I kept nearby, threw away the junk, and made aseparate pile for the letters that were still arriving addressed to Peter. As usual, my planwas to rip them into tiny little pieces and toss them out but--as usual--I relented. I wrote"forward" on his mail along with the address of the school where he taught, and stuck theletters by my purse so I could drop them on the table in the front lobby as I was leaving.
I wasn't sure what cooking students wore, but after a sweltering weekend that culminated in aSunday afternoon thunderstorm, the temperature had cooled considerably. I changed out of myblack pantsuit and into jeans, a green long-sleeved T-shirt, and sneakers. After a minute, mynervous energy got the better of me and I swapped the green T-shirt for a white one. Chefs worewhite, didn't they?
About a minute later, I switched back to the green.
Just before I walked out the door, I grabbed the groceries I'd picked up on my lunch break.
"Chicken stock. Broccoli. Cheddar cheese. Cream. Butter. Spanish onion." Even though I'dchecked and rechecked earlier, I peeked in my grocery bag and did an inventory, making surethat I had everything mentioned in the e-mail that arrived the night before from someone namedJim at Tres Bonne Cuisine.
Thirty minutes later--twenty minutes after she promised--Eve careened into the parking lot ontwo wheels and slammed on the brakes right next to where I was pacing in front of the cementpad outside the lobby door.
"Forgot to shop," she said breathlessly as I climbed into the car and fastened my seat belt."Had to stop on the way. Had a heck of a time finding cauliflower. Did you get cauliflower?"
I had printed out the e-mail shopping list. I pulled it out of my bag and I pointed to a lineon the ingredients list. "It was supposed to be broccoli."
"Oh. You're right. I always get those two mixed up." Eve's plucked-into-submission eyebrowsdipped. "I thought--"
"That's OK. I've got enough for both of us."
Like all of the D.C. Metro area, Arlington traffic has a bad reputation, and for good reason.By the time Eve negotiated her way through the crush of commuters between my not-so-stylishneighborhood and Clarendon and found a parking place around the corner from Tres Bonne Cuisine,we had exactly three and a half minutes to make it into the store. That meant getting to the
shop, climbing the steps, getting ourselves and our supplies organized . . .
I pulled in a breath, forcing my heart rate to slow. Late was not the end of the world, Ireminded myself. But even that bit of good advice wasn't enough to stop me from snapping out ofmy seat belt the moment Eve put the car into park.
I jumped out and then grabbed my bag and my jacket. Eve calmly leaned over, checked her makeupin the rearview mirror, put on a little more lipstick, ran a brush through her hair. To makematters worse, when she finally did get out of the car, her cauliflower tumbled out of her bag,and we had to chase behind it as it rolled toward the street. Needless to say, I wasn't exactlycool, calm, and collected when we arrived at the shop.
Maybe that's why I didn't hear the man on the other side of the front door.
Just as I reached for the knob, the door flew open so hard and so fast, I had to jump back orrisk getting my nose smashed.
The dark-haired man who stomped out of the shop was as broad as an I-beam and tall enough tofill the doorway. He was dressed in black pants, a black turtleneck, and a full-length blackleather coat that was open and flapped around him like the wings of a bird of prey.
His eyes reminded me of a hawk's, too. They were small and dark and so intense, they werenarrowed to slits. His cheeks were an ugly color between red and purple, and he was breathinghard, as if he'd just gone a couple rounds in a prizefight.
The fact that he didn't pay any attention to me wasn't surprising. After all, I was prettyquick on my feet, and even after my initial surprise melted, I made sure I stayed as far out ofhis way as possible. But Eve was standing not six feet away, watching the whole thing, and hedidn't give her a second glance, either. And let's face it, in her short, short khaki skirt,flamingo pink top, and hot pink stilettoes, Eve was hard to miss.
That more than anything told me the guy wasn't thinking straight. Every step was fueled by theanger that shivered around him like the heat off a wildfire. He marched over to a black BMWdouble-parked at the curb, got in, and slammed his keys into the ignition. I swear he didn'teven look over his shoulder to check traffic before he rocketed away.
"Have a nice day!" Eve waved. After my close call with the front door, I was grateful for herirreverence. Something about the man in the black leather coat sent a chill up my spine andacross my shoulders. Eve, on the other hand, wasn't about to be intimidated. Not by anyone. Itwas one of the reasons I liked her so much, and I couldn't help but smile.
Still grinning, I peeked into Tres Bonne Cuisine. The coast was clear.
I'd been there before (remember the Vavoom!) so I was familiar with the store. Glossy hardwoodfloors. Sleek cabinetry. Gleaming chrome. The place was a kitchen-aholic's dream come true,stocked floor to ceiling with the latest and greatest gadgets, the priciest of high-pricedcookware, jars of mysterious spices, and books that taught special cooking techniques for everyfood I'd ever heard of and some that I hadn't.
Of course, I am not a kitchen-aholic, or even a wannabee. I live on Lean Cuisine and wash itdown with ice cream and the occasional peanut butter and banana sandwich. Grilled, of course.Here in the land of Proper Cooking Technique, I was nothing more than a once-in-a-whilecustomer who spent as little as possible every time she did show up. Which I never did unless Ineeded a Vavoom! fix.
That's probably why the shop owner didn't recognize me when I walked in.
In fact, he didn't even acknowledge me.
Jacques Lavoie was the genius behind Tres Bonne Cuisine and the inventor (is that the rightword for a chef?) of Vavoom! He was also a one-man publicity machine, at least if thebillboards that advertised the man, the store, and his product on every city bus and at everyMetro station meant anything. In fact, his face was on the Vavoom! package in the form of ablack-and-white caricature that emphasized his round-as-apple cheeks and his sparkling eyes.His smile, as long as a baguette, pretty much jumped out and said, " Ecoutez! You must buy