The Culinary Art of Murder • Book Six of The Alvarez Family Murder Mystery by Heather Haven
Lee’s Uncle Tío is smitten with the guest chef at a Silicon Valley culinary arts institute. When the woman is arrested for the murder of a fellow chef, a reluctant Lee agrees to help prove Tío’s lady love innocent. But Lee suspects the ambitious, southern belle of a cook might just be guilty. Undercover work at the institute proves to have more pitfalls than whipping up a chocolate soufflé. The killer isn’t done and tries to get Lee out of the way permanently. But just who is the murderer? The accused? One of her two sons? Another inmate from a cooking school with more to hide than dirty dishes? With secrets as plentiful as sauces, the nagging question remains, if Lee proves the lady chef guilty, will Tío ever forgive her for sending his new love to jail?
And Then There Were Nuts
“Well, looked who’s honored us with her presence. Welcome back, Lee. I almost forgot what you looked like, which is stunning, of course.”
“I see you got hauled in at the crack of dawn, too. For eight AM on a Monday morning you don’t look so bad, yourself.”
I stood in the reception area of Discretionary Inquiries, Inc., the family run detective agency, face to face with Stanley, the man who keeps all things sane in our crazy business.
I took in his dark suit and white shirt, and noted the tie. Stanley’s choice in garish neckwear added a touch of light-heartedness to his otherwise somber outfits. This one was hot pink with small yellow polka dots.
He shot me a smile. I grinned back. Stanley has worked for us for the past nine years and we would be lost without him. The man is an organizing marvel.
“I didn’t mind coming in early,” he said. “I have to take time off for a dentist appointment at eleven-thirty, so this works out fine. Coffee and rolls are already in the board room. But poor you, weren’t you walking the warm sands of a Bermudian beach, hand-in-hand with your man only yesterday?”
“Yes, and drinking tamarind cosmos. I’m not sure where it all went wrong.”
“I read somewhere, Lee, when chaos turns out to be a way of life, it’s no longer chaos but your life.”
“Oh, really? That’s pretty heartless for someone not living my life.”
“I hid a cheese Danish behind the coffee urn for you.”
“All is forgiven.”
I have to admit, there’s a downside to running a detective agency in the heart of Silicon Valley. My job description says I ferret out cybercrimes. But when I’m not looking, I tend to fall over dead bodies.
I hate that.
My name is Liana Alvarez. Call me Lee, but for heaven’s sake, don’t do it around my mother. She’s a lady who would rather eat broken glass than utter a nickname.
I’m the lead in-house private investigator of Discretionary Inquiries, better known as D. I. That is, to everyone except Mom. She doesn’t approve of initials, either.
My trip to Bermuda came about because I’d needed a little R&R after dealing with the skullduggery of a visiting research scientist at Caltech. This rogue made off with a bucketful of genetically engineered tomato seeds belonging to the school. Patent pending, the seeds were worth millions.
- I. to the rescue. During a rushed meeting, the client revealed certain mandates i.e., no police, no publicity, no how. And they wanted the thief caught pronto before he had a chance to sell the seeds off.
Word to the wise: never leave a meeting like that to visit the ladies room. In absentia, it was decided I would handle the case ‘personally’.
The case found me running up and down the back hills of California, Oregon, and Washington states. Deeper and deeper into the wilderness, through poison oak and marijuana farms, day after day, wearing the same old sweats and sneakers, and gulping down slop masquerading as coffee from dingy motel rooms.
I caught up with the bucket-snatching thief near the Canadian border in a shabby motel held up mostly by mounted dead animals and cobwebs. He wasn’t happy to see me and didn’t give up without a fight.
I hate that.
Sure, I got the bucket back, but between logging in eighteen-hour days and scrapes and bruises, I was in need of some serious time off. And a good cup of coffee.
After two weeks in Bermuda with my adoring husband of four months, reality bellowed. I whined, but this Monday morning found me back in D. I.’s South Conference Room dreading the urgent board meeting called at the last minute by Lila Hamilton Alvarez, CEO, mother mine, and She Who Must Be Obeyed.
I stifled a yawn. Aside from Mom, my fellow hostage was kid brother and CTO, Richard Alvarez. We sat awaiting the arrival of the two remaining board members, Ms. Evangeline Packersmythe and Mr. James Talbot.
These ghastly, first-thing-in-the-morning board meetings require you not only to show up, but dress the part. Being a professional, I’d tried to do just that. Colorful, but I like to think classic. Even my long, dark hair was restrained in a conservative bun.
Mom gave me a look that said ‘no’.
She appraised each part of my outfit in turn, turquoise pantsuit, clunky silver and coral earrings, bracelet, and matching pin. I think my orange stilettos ‘done’ her in.
She looked away and sighed, shimmering at the head of the table. By sharp contrast, my cool, blonde mother was dressed in a haute couture silver-grey ensemble, and wearing her ever-present pearl button earrings. Serene, beautiful, and totally in control, this was the mother fate chose to give me. I loved her, anyway.
Brother Richard sat as upright in his chair as his slight frame would allow. That would be slightly taller than me, five-eight and a half. Unlike me, he takes after our mother in the coloring and features department, fair. Unlike her, he drapes his body in faded t-shirts, worn jeans, and all-out dorkiness. What can I say? He’s a techie. Brilliant – but still – a techie.
“So where are the other two? I thought we had an eight AM board meeting,” I said.
“They are due at eight-thirty, Liana,” Mom said. “ I wanted you here ahead of time to apprise you of the situation concerning Ms. Packersmythe.”
“Ms. Packersmythe?” I was shocked. What kind of situation could the most straight laced person in the world cause?
Out of the blue, my brother made his own surprising announcement. You know how people like to grab the attention.
“I can’t wait to tell you what’s been going on while you were gone. Tío has a lady friend. She’s a southern chef.”
I looked at Mom. If she was as shocked as I was by Richard’s words, she didn’t show it. But Ice Princesses tend not to show their emotions, other than pleasure at a subject’s bowing and scraping. Or displeasure at them not doing so.
Maybe I hadn’t heard Richard right. Maybe my ears were still clogged from the 35,000 feet descent into the San Francisco Airport the night before. I waved a dismissive hand.
“Don’t be an idiot, Richard.”
“Tío has a girlfriend,” Richard insisted. “And you are such a doofus.”
“You’re the doofus, Richard.”
“Children!” Mom looked from Richard to me, her voice lowering the temperature of the room several degrees. “This is not the conversation we should be having now. The others will be joining us at any moment.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Yeah, me, too,” Richard chimed in.
“However,” said Mom, having the conversation she said we should not be having, “it is true. Let me simply state that Mateo and this woman appear to have culinary interests in common.”
“But who is she?” I was stuttering.
“Her name is Patricia Durand. Although, I understand she prefers to be called….” And here Mom sniffed as if a rotten egg had rolled in under the door. “…Patsy.”
Mom rallied. “But that is neither here nor there. The reason for this impromptu meeting is Francis called last night to warn me that Ms. Packersmythe was detained yesterday afternoon at the police station for inciting a riot at a car dealership.”
Mom sniffed again. It was becoming a habit. She also has a habit of beating you over the head with verbally underlined words just in case you – a moron – can’t get her meaning, otherwise.
I asked a moronic question. Actually, three of them. “Our Evangeline Packersmythe? Inciting a riot? Old Ramrod Packersmythe? I don’t believe it.”
“As of late,” Mom said, “Ms. Packersmythe has been behaving in a most uncharacteristic manner. Her affiliation with this rabble crowd is an example. It is only a matter of time before the media links her to the agency. This is not the image Discretionary Inquiries should have with the public. We have a reputation to maintain.”
“Discreet and all that,” I said.
“Yes,” Mom said. “Francis was most alarmed, as am I.”
To back up, Francis is Frank Thompson, Palo Alto’s Chief of Police, longtime family friend, and Richard’s and my godfather. A good guy.
Ms. Evangeline Packersmythe is another story. She is our in-residence accountant and board member. A highly opinionated Vassar graduate about six feet tall, she’s probably the most intimidating person I’ve met in my life. I do not say this lightly. Her size coupled with her demeanor reminds me of a Clydesdale horse wearing pantyhose. I have often envisioned her with the red, white, and gold Budweiser wagon in tow.
“What was the riot about?”
“Solar cars.” Mom’s tone of voice was akin to saying grave robbing. “She appears to be anti.”
Satisfied on the Evangeline Packersmythe front, I munched on my cheese Danish. “Patsy Durand, Patsy Durand. Why does that name sound familiar to me?”
“I am told,” Mom said, shifting gears, as well, “Chef Durand is well-known in Arkansas and throughout the eastern seaboard. She is here for the summer at the Palo Alto Culinary Arts Institute.”
“That’s why you know her name, Lee,” added Richard.
“Yes,” said Mom. “As a chef, she has attained a certain amount of fame. But please remember it is Mateo’s business who he sees or does not see. Once again, we are not here to discuss that. We are here to meet with Ms. Packersmythe to discuss the depth of her involvement with this anti-solar organization and how it impacts the agency. Let us keep our priorities straight, children.”
Content to have put us in our place, Mom cleared her throat in her lady-like manner and relaxed. Silence ensued. Several seconds ticked by as we waited for the others to arrive.
The door sprung open and in galloped Ms. Packersmythe, her nylon encased legs whooshing loudly as they brushed against one another. She stood before us, her breathing deep, steady, and loud.
“Good morning,” she thundered.
The door opened again. In strode the last member of the board, one debonair but elderly, James Talbot. Dressed in one of his ubiquitous three-piece suits and dapperness itself, he gave us a friendly but reserved smile.
Mr. Talbot has taken care of legal matters for the family – personal and business – for as long as I can remember. I’m thinking that when Mom’s ancestors came over on the Mayflower, he and a few Native Americans were waving from the shore.
That stated, Mr. Talbot is an expert in the finer points of corporate or anybody else’s law. And he is as sharp as the day he received his degree from Harvard. He’s also deaf as a doorknob.
“Good morning, one and all,” he crooned, twirling his silver cane in a roguish way.
“About time you got here,” roared Ms. Packersmythe. Though her voice has been known to chip plaster from walls, Mr. Talbot gestured he still hadn’t quite heard her.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Lila shouted. “If everyone would please be seated; I will call this meeting to order.”
Packersmythe and Talbot sat. Mom picked up the gavel to give it a good bang, which would officially bring the meeting to order.
“Madame Chair,” Ms. Packersmythe said, before Lila could bang her little gavel. ”I believe I know the reason for this meeting. My affiliation with the movement against the Syntar Solar Car Company.”
Lila paused mid-bang, but said nothing. She gave a single, strong nod and set the gavel down. Ms. Packersmythe went on.
“I have discussed the matter with – ah – a friend, and we both agree it would be better for all if I no longer participated in any formal public protests against the company. And I would also like to go on record as saying –”
“This is an off the record meeting, Ms. Packersmythe,” Mom interjected.
“Thank you, Mrs. Alvarez. I had hoped such was the case,” Ms. Packersmythe said. “I would like to bring to your attention that yesterday’s participation was on Sunday, my day off. However, I now realize my involvement could compromise the agency’s position in the community. I will drop off a letter of clarification and apology to Chief Thompson during my lunch hour today. You have my word on it. Will that satisfy the board?”
She gave each of us a ‘so-there’ look. Mom turned to Talbot, eyebrows raised in question. Talbot turned to Mom and nodded. Richard looked at his laptop. I looked at my watch. Five minutes. Situation remedied. Not a bad board meeting.
The two non-family board members left, just as my phone rang. When I saw it was my beloved uncle, I hopped on it.
“Hola, Tío,” I smiled into the phone. “You’re calling to welcome me back, aren’t you? I –”
“Sobrina, ayúdame,” Tío shouted, more frantic than I’d ever heard him.
Pulling the phone away from my ear, I tried to say something. But after the Spanish words of ‘niece, help me,’ he cut me off, segueing into broken English, then Spanglish, and then back to rapid-fire Spanish.
The more upset Tío is, the more he does that. Sometimes he rattles off words so fast and furious, I, who am fluent in both languages, have a tough time keeping up with him. But I got the gist of it. And he was yelling so loud, Mom and Richard got the gist of it, too, and from across the room.
Short and sweet: The head teaching chef of the Palo Alto Culinary Arts Institute was found stabbed to death in the kitchen pantry. And with one of his own knives.
It was a good thing Richard warned me Tío had recently acquired a lady friend. Otherwise, I would have been shocked out of my gourd when Tío informed me that said lady friend, one Patsy Durand, was just arrested for murder.
I hate that.