#4 in the Series
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Rita Lucero, owner of New Orleans cake shop Zydeco Cakes, can’t seem to stop saying “yes.” Even though things at the bakery are busy, Rita finds herself accepting a seat on the local small business alliance—a group full of colorful characters like Chopper Shop owner Moose Hazen and his wife, Destiny, whose personal life is messier than a cake someone left out in the rain.
On the street following a heated alliance meeting, Moose pulls Rita out of the path of a speeding van. Shaken and bruised, Rita notices the next day that her prescribed pain killers are missing. When she discovers Destiny’s body in the couple’s shop, the stolen pill bottle in her lifeless hand only adds another layer to her mysterious death. But getting the frosty NOPD detective to stop focusing on Rita and look for Destiny’s real killer will be anything but a cakewalk…
One of these days I am going to learn how to say no. And mean it. And stick to my guns once I’ve said it. Especially when it comes to my former mother-in-law and current business partner, Miss Frankie Renier. I made a solemn vow to myself, right then and there, in the middle of a stuffy upstairs room in a renovated house on the edge of New Orleans’s Garden District. One of these days.
My name is Rita Lucero. I’m a trained pastry chef, and for the past year, I’ve handled the daily operations at Zydeco Cakes, a high-end bakery known for its one-of-a-kind cake creations. I took over at the shop after Philippe Renier, my almost-ex-husband, died and his mother inherited the business. She had offered me a partnership and since being my own boss (almost) was a dream come true for me, I’d jumped at the chance.
Miss Frankie is not a trained chef, but she is determined to carry on her only son’s legacy. She’s a mostly silent partner. . .except when she’s not. Like when she decides to volunteer my services without asking me.
Which was how I ended up sitting in that over-crowded room on a hot August evening, listening to a bunch of people shouting at each other when I would much rather have been at home watching the latest episode of Castle and spending quality time with Ben & Jerry.
The circus going on in front of me was actually a meeting of the Magnolia Square Business Alliance, a fancy name for a collection of small business owners who had decided it was time to improve the neighborhood. The square, which covers eight square blocks and borders the Garden District, is made up of an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and other businesses. I was here because while Miss Frankie felt strongly that Zydeco should have a seat at the table, she had no interest in occupying that seat herself. She thought getting involved would help me connect with the neighboring business owners and help me become part of the community. As she so often did, she’d committed me to the venture without bothering to discuss it with me.
The venue for tonight’s meeting was Second Chances, a thrift store two blocks north of Zydeco. Aquanettia Fisher, owner of Second Chances, was also the acting chair of our group—a position that would likely become official if the elections scheduled for next month went as anticipated.
Aquanettia, a fifty-something black woman with short hair, a sturdy frame, and a no-nonsense face, banged her gavel on the table. “People! People!” she shouted, and glared around the room. Not that it did any good. Only a handful of us had stayed out of the argument. The others weren’t paying attention to anything except what they wanted to say next.
I drained the last drop from the water bottle in front of me and wondered if anyone would notice if I slipped out. Earlier, a wave of hot moist air had moved in from the Gulf of Mexico, leaving everyone in its path cranky. I was no exception. Even though the sun had slipped low on the western horizon, there was no relief from the heat and humidity and that gleaming ball of brilliant orange turned everything it touched the color of rust. Two small fans at one end of the room whirred softly in an effort to stir the heavy air. I couldn’t tell if they succeeded. I was too far away to reap the benefit.
Aquanettia had passed out a two-page agenda full of important issues to discuss, such as whether to require all member businesses to install identical Dumpster-disguising fencing and whether to start a neighborhood watch program. I was still on the fence (no pun intended) on both votes. While she tried to regain control of the meeting, I folded my agenda in half and waved it back and forth in front of my face. It didn’t do much to lower the temperature, but at least the air in my personal space was moving.
In the seat beside mine, Edie Bryce, Zydeco’s office manager and second alliance member, watched the fracas with a mixture of irritation and concern. Edie is mid-thirties, around five-four, and a definite force to be reckoned with. She sat with one hand resting on the baby bump that had only recently become noticeable. Her dark chin-length hair seemed shinier since she’d become pregnant, and despite her unsettled expression, her almond-shaped eyes and her porcelain complexion were luminous. I don’t think her Chinese-American heritage had ever been more evident in the years I’d known her.
“Do something,” she said, leaning over to me. At least that’s what I think she said. I couldn’t actually hear her over Felix Blackwater’s bellowing.
Felix owns the neighborhood market down the block from Zydeco. They advertise the best Muffaletta sandwiches in town, and I’m inclined to agree. Normally, Felix is an easygoing guy. Mind-mannered and almost shy. In his mid-fifties and paunchy, he has a ring of graying hair circling his freckled head, a bulbous nose, and small nubby teeth that were currently bared in an uncharacteristic snarl.
I knew what Edie wanted me to do. She wanted me to speak up and side with Felix on the question at hand, but I was still undecided. Under the circumstances, I figured there was no time like the present to begin my “Just Say No” campaign.
I shook my head firmly and mouthed back, “I’m not getting involved.”
“But you have to,” Edie insisted. “Aquanettia is clearly in over her head.”
Luckily, Aquanettia chose that moment to assert her authority again. Bang! Bang! Bang! “If you can’t settle down and be quiet right now, I’ll have every last one of you removed from this meeting.”
I wondered how she planned to manage that, but decided she’d probably call on her two sons to carry out the protesters. Both Isaiah and Keon were in their early twenties and strong enough to manage most of us if it became necessary.
On my left, Gabriel Broussard, six feet of Cajun sexy, watched the ruckus with a secretive smile. I couldn’t tell if he was annoyed or amused, but knowing Gabriel and his appreciation of the absurd, my money was on the latter. That meant he would probably vote against Felix, and knowing that put me in an uncomfortable position.
Gabriel and I have gone on a few dates since I moved to New Orleans last year, but we’re nowhere near an item. That’s exactly how I want it, for several reasons. None of which had any bearing on this disastrous meeting.
Gabriel was here because he tends bar at a local watering hole known as the Dizzy Duke. In the “That’s News to Me” department, I’d recently learned that he was also one of the bar’s owners. Which probably shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Finding out he was more than just a bartender had changed something between us, and I was still trying to sort out how I felt. I liked knowing he was more ambitious—and more stable—than I’d first thought, but I was still a little miffed at him for withholding what I considered vital information.
Gabriel caught the exchange between Edie and me and his smile grew a little wider. “Edie’s right. It looks like Aquanettia could use some backup.”
They were ganging up on me? That was so not fair. But two could play that game. I grinned at him and shrugged casually. “In that case, maybe you should do something.”
He gave me a heavy-lidded look. “I would, cherie, but I’m not a board member.”
“Technically, I’m not one either,” I reminded him. “My position is only temporary.”
“But you’re going to be elected,” Edie predicted.
That was no doubt true, since nobody was running against me. The entire slate of candidates was running unopposed, mostly on a candidate-by-default basis. If Edie hadn’t been due to give birth in another three months, I would have nominated her for the board seat. Policy, procedure and rules were the kind of things she loved.
Clearly growing more aggravated by the moment, Aquanettia gave up on the gavel and began shouting along with the rest of the group. The more frustrated she became, the more I felt my resistance weakening. I held back for two reasons. One, I didn’t want to be here in the first place; and two, if I stepped in without an invitation, I risked either alienating Aquanettia or (infinitely worse, in my opinion) giving the others the idea that I was leadership material. I wanted to avoid that at any cost.
I waved my makeshift fan a little faster and did my best not to make further eye contact with either Edie or Gabriel. After a moment, I realized that there was at least one person other than me in the room who wasn’t trying shout louder than the rest.
I didn’t know Moose Hazen well, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. He was probably in his late thirties. A big man dressed in black biker leather, which by itself didn’t intimidate me, but his shaved head and the tattoos covering almost every visible inch of skin gave him a menacing look. The deep scowl on his big square face didn’t help. I gave him points for maintaining his cool in the middle of the craziness, but the fact that this shouting match had all started because of his wife pretty much cancelled them out.
I knew even less about Destiny Hazen than I did about her husband, which wasn’t saying much. I wouldn’t want to meet either of them or Destiny’s father, Scotty Justus, in a dark alley. Moose could probably snap me in half with his bare hands, and Destiny would probably shank me before I could get a word out and Scotty would hide the body.
This was the alliance’s fourth monthly meeting, and the fourth meeting in a row that Destiny had missed. And that’s why Felix had made a motion to remove her as one of the Chopper Shop’s two allowed representatives under the association’s temporary rules. The fact that Felix had made the motion at all had caused an uproar. That he’d made it without first being recognized by Aquanettia had only stirred up more emotion.
Edgar Zappa, owner of EZ Shipping, got right in Felix’s face and shouted, “Why don’t you sit down and shut up?” He’s thirtyish, tallish, a Nordic blond with an I-pay-a-lot-for-this-spray tan.
“Why don’t you back off?” Felix shouted back. “Destiny doesn’t even care about this organization. It’s hard enough to start a new group like this one. How are we supposed to accomplish anything if half the members don’t care?”
Edgar rolled his pale blue eyes. “We’re talking about one person, Felix. One. And it just so happens that the woman has been sick. Now you want to kick her out. What kind of way is that to repay her?”
Felix’s mouth fell open in shock. “Repay her for what? She hasn’t done a damn thing. She hasn’t even been to a single meeting.”
I wondered why Edgar was rallying to Destiny’s defense while her husband looked on in silence, but I told myself that was none of my business. Both Edgar and Felix had valid points, assuming that Destiny really had been ill for the past three months. Which might have been true. Although she’d looked robustly healthy when I saw her last week.
I waffled, one minute thinking we should remove Destiny from her seat, and the next agreeing that we shouldn’t be too hasty. The decision in front of me wasn’t as easy as it might seem. The Chopper Shop (quality motorcycle repairs and reburbishing) was a three-person operation consisting of Moose, Destiny and Scotty. With his long salt-and-pepper hair tied back in a ponytail, and his trademark Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts, Scotty had a Caribbean Island look going on, which seemed to appeal to women his own age. But he was also a retired commercial shrimper who spent most of his time sitting outside in a lawn chair, nursing a beer and collecting cans for the recycling bin. If we voted Destiny out, Scotty would be the only possible replacement. Frankly, I wasn’t sure he’d be much of an improvement.
One of those women who seemed to find Scotty charming was Zora Rappaport. She’s sixty and plump with mousy brown hair cut chin-length, an unflattering look on a face so round. She owns the Feathered Peacock Yoga Salon, she hasn’t actually practiced yoga since injuring her neck in an accident several years ago.
She shook a finger in Edgar’s face. “That’s the trouble with your generation,” she said in a voice surprisingly husky and deep. “You think that keeping a promise is optional. Destiny accepted the position in this group. She ought to be here.” She tossed an apologetic smile at the big man in leather. “I’m sorry, Moose. You know I think the world of you, but everyone knows you let that wife of yours get away with murder.”
Moose’s lips twitched, but he didn’t look amused. “With all due respect, Miss Zora, that’s not something you need to worry about.”
“It’s not just you she takes advantage of,” Zora said. “You know better than anyone how she treats poor Scotty. All he wants is to get to know her. Make up for lost time.”
“Which is neither here nor there,” Aquanettia interjected before Moose could speak. “We’re not here to discuss anyone’s family issues.”
Moose leaned forward, resting his massive and colorful forearms on the table. “Destiny said she’d be here tonight. That’s all I know. Can’t we wait a few minutes? She probably got caught on the phone or something.”
Felix snorted. He was at least ten years older than Moose and half Moose’s size, which made him either remarkably brave or ridiculously foolish. “I know she’s your wife,” he said. “I know you feel like you have to stick up for her. But think about the rest of us, man. She’s been wasting our time from the very beginning.”
“She said she’d be here,” Moose said again. He didn’t speak loudly, but he didn’t have to. His deep voice carried easily. “You’ve gotta understand my wife. She’s . . .”
“A flake,” said Lorena Babcock, a short, round woman with short blonde hair who works at the market with Felix. “The rules say we can kick her out if she misses four meetings in a year. This is number four.”
Sebastian Walker, the pharmacist at Magnolia Street Drug, jumped into the conversation. “I saw her outside right before the meeting. She was talking to come guy. You know the one,” he said to Felix. “That cop who was in the market the other day.”
“Good Lord,” Lorena moaned. “Was she being arrested again?”
Sebastian answered but I couldn’t hear what he said over the new wave of shouting that erupted.
Felix slapped the table and shouted over the others. “She is not here. The reasons don’t matter. I say let’s vote. Right now.”
Two dozen voices rose in response. I tried to measure the reaction, but as far as I could tell the group was evenly split.
It looked like Ben & Jerry would have to wait for me a while longer.
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