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Baker/sleuth Carol Sabala probes into the death of Chef Jean Alcee Fortier at the swanky restaurant Archibald’s. As a great womanizer, Fortier has left a trail of possible suspects, from his young lover Delores Medina to the lesbian feminist Patsy.

 


Excerpt: Chapter One

1991

“Be careful what you wish for, Carol,” my mom always said. “It might come true.”

What happened with Head Chef Jean Alcee Fortier was a case in point. I had wished him dead a dozen times, and I remember one of those times vividly. I’d stumbled into Archibald’s at three-thirty a.m. in a semi-somnolent state. Even after years of working as a baker at this swanky restaurant, I hadn’t adjusted to the early morning hours.

I entered the building from the loading dock, which was on the front of the building, but well screened from the brick U where uniformed valets would later hustle to park Mercedes and BMW’s.

A forty-watt bulb illuminated the time clock. This was one of the kitchen manager’s subtle manipulations, to make us squint, and therefore to focus, on what we were doing. People underestimated Eldon. The bumbling, mild-mannered Clark Kent exterior hid his cunning interior. He projected a sense of incompetence while all the hard evidence suggested otherwise. For one thing, he’d held on to his job for ten years in Santa Cruz, one of the most competitive towns in the world for eating establishments. Secondly, the kitchen made a profit for the conference center.

The hall lights were off, but I knew the place like my home.

I was groggier than usual. Chad had awakened me at midnight with a cough he’d recently developed. Just as his deep breaths lulled me back to sleep, a cough lodged in the middle, like a skip in a record. I turned on the lamp and shook him awake. Even half asleep, he was a hunk, but that didn’t stop my irritation.

His blue-green eyes gradually comprehended the situation and glinted with annoyance. “You woke me up to tell me that I was coughing.”

“You’re keeping me awake.”

“Go sleep on the couch.”

“You go sleep on the couch,” I retorted. “You’re the one who’s choosing to commit suicide with cigarettes.”

He fell asleep and I ended up on the couch.

Between the hard cushions and my angry mood, I hadn’t slept at all, and I entered the fluorescent glare of the locker room in a sleepwalking state. Not that many years ago, the female employees had changed clothes in the tiny restroom, while the male employees enjoyed the convenience of the locker room. Then this last bastion of chauvinism had been converted to a unisex facility with a screened section in each of the far corners.

I didn’t see Fortier at first, but he certainly had seen me, and made no attempt to cover himself. More naked than Adam, he sat on a bench in front of the lockers.

I gasped.

“Thank you,” he said, in a voice like black velvet and old whiskey. “I know I’m good-looking, but I don’t inspire many gasps.” He smiled, a wicked, relishing grin, his white teeth set off by olive skin. At 3:30 in the morning and stark naked, he looked impeccably groomed, his black, wavy hair recently barbered and brushed straight back. He stood, revealing the works: broad shoulders,
washboard stomach, and a penis to match his ego.

“Excuse me.” I backed out, my cheeks burning, more with anger than embarrassment. I should have known decorum was a wasted effort.

“Hey, Carol, don’t go. My sausage needs some spice.”

I went outside the building to cool down. The asshole. Why did all the women flip over him? Given the image only now fading from my retinas, that was a rhetorical question. I understood how his new girlfriend, the twenty-year-old Delores, mistook his lowlife humor for charm, but how could mature women like Suzanne or Concepción take inconsideration as joie de vivre? With the right looks, a person could get away with murder.

On the loading dock, I faced the grounds of the conference center and inhaled the jasmine and eucalyptus-scented darkness. Archibald’s was on a wooded hill, high above fog-shrouded Santa
Cruz. The serenity soothed me.

I wondered what the hell Fortier was doing here so early, although, he often was the second person to arrive. I begrudgingly acknowledged that he was deserving of his position as Head Chef,
and wondered if a sexual harassment complaint would cost me my job. In truth, I was pissed partly because I’d been too startled to think of a snappy comeback.

As I paced the concrete dock, waiting for someone else to arrive, I had one of those momentary epiphanies where I understood completely why my husband Chad smoked. I wanted a cigarette and I hadn’t smoked since high school.

Looking back, I suppose I waited out there getting chilled because I expected the next arrival to be my buddy and comforter, Buzz Fraser. Instead, I heard a motorcycle roar through the night. Unlike the rest of us who parked a half-mile away and stumbled to the kitchen, Patsy drove her Harley right up to the dumpster.

“Hey, kiddo, whatcha doing out here?” her disembodied voice said. Patsy routinely wore black leather, so I couldn’t see her, only the winking red reflector on her helmet.

“Oh,” I said, “I’m contemplating how to kill a son-of-a-bitch.”

Another thing my mom used to say was “hold your tongue.” When she’d say that, I’d stick out my tongue and grab it to prove that I was the impossible, incorrigible kid that she claimed.

Little did I know that I was about to develop a keen appreciation for my mom’s clichés, especially the one about being careful what you wished for.