Death of a Crabby Cook

PRAISE FOR THE PARTY-PLANNING MYSTERY SERIES BY PENNY PIKE (Writing as Penny Warner)

“[Presley Parker is] an appealing heroine whose event skills include utilizing party favors in self-defense in [this] fun, fast-paced new series guaranteed to please.”

—Carolyn Hart, Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity award–winning author of
Death Comes Silently

“A party you don't want to miss.”

—Denise Swanson, national bestselling author of
Little Shop of Homicide

“Penny Warner dishes up a rare treat, sparkling with wicked and witty San Francisco characters, plus some real tips on hosting a killer party.”

—Rhys Bowen, award-winning author of the Royal Spyness and Molly Murphy mysteries

“There's a cozy little party going on between these covers.”

—Elaine Viets, author of the Dead-End Job mysteries

“Fast, fun, and fizzy as a champagne cocktail! The winning and witty Presley Parker can plan a perfect party—but after her A-list event becomes an invitation to murder, her next plan must be to save her own life.”

—Hank Phillippi Ryan, Agatha Award–winning author of
Drive Time

“The book dishes up a banquet of mayhem.”

—
Oakland Tribune
(CA)

“With a promising progression of peculiar plots and a plethora of party-planning pointers,
How to Host a Killer Party
looks to be a pleasant prospect for cozy mystery lovers.”

—Fresh Fiction

“Warner keeps the reader guessing.”

—Gumshoe

“Delightful [and] filled with suspense, mystery, and romance.”

—Reader to Reader Reviews

“Grab this book. . . . It will leave you in stitches.”

—The Romance Readers Connection

“Frantic pace, interesting characters.”

—
Publishers Weekly

“I highly recommend this book to all mystery readers, cozy or not. This is a party that you don't want to miss.”

—Once Upon a Romance

“Presley is a creative, energetic young woman with a wry sense of humor.”

—The Mystery Reader

ALSO BY PENNY PIKE (Writing as Penny Warner)

 

The Party-Planning Mystery Series

How to Host a Killer Party

How to Crash a Killer Bash

How to Survive a Killer Séance

How to Party with a Killer Vampire

How to Dine on Killer Wine

OBSIDIAN

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014

USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia | New Zealand | India | South Africa | China

penguin.com

A Penguin Random House Company

First published by Obsidian, an imprint of New American Library,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC

Copyright © Penny Warner, 2014

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

OBSIDIAN and logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) LLC.

ISBN 978-0-698-14334-0

PUBLISHER
'
S
NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.

Version_1

Contents

Praise

Also by PENNY PIKE (Writing as Penny Warner)

Title page

Copyright page

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Epigraph

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

 

Food Truck Recipes

Excerpt from
Death of a Chocolate Cheater

 

To my gourmet husband, Tom, who enjoyed helping me with the
research

Acknowledgments

Many thanks to my fellow writers Colleen Casey, Janet Finsilver, Staci McLaughlin, Ann Parker, and Carole Price. Thanks to the wonderful food truckers who gave me their delicious recipes and secrets! And a special thanks to my wonderful agent, Andrea Hurst; to expert reader Martha Schoemaker; and to my incredible editor, Sandra
Harding.

Cupcakes are dead. Long live cream puffs!

—Darcy Burnett,
San Francisco Chronicle
restaurant critic

Chapter 1

Life sucked.

Forget counting calories. I needed this cream puff.

It would have been the perfect spring day in San Francisco—no fog, sunshine, with a light, salty breeze coming off the bay—if it weren't for the news I'd just received from my editor at the
San Francisco Chronicle
.

“Darcy, I'm afraid we have to let you go,” Patrick Craig had told me moments after I'd arrived at my soon-to-be-former desk. “As you know, times are tough in the newspaper business.”

As a parting gift, he'd promised to give me some freelance assignments from time to time, the first being a review of the San Francisco Crab and Seafood Festival, which was being held for the next two days at Fort Mason. My assignment: write up a critique of the festival and an article about the Oyster Shuck-and-Suck Contest. I hated oysters. The slimy things made me gag. But as a now-unemployed restaurant critic, what choice did I have? If I didn't take this gig, I'd soon be living on Top Ramen.

I sat on a bench near the daily food truck gathering at Fort Mason, trying to figure out tomorrow's story angle as I watched the prelunch crowd gather. Hungry
gourmands were queuing up at the dozen colorful food trucks that were parked each day in the prime spots. The names were almost as entertaining as the decorated trucks themselves. Road Grill, a bright red truck with giant grill marks painted across the front, served “exotic meats” and was by far the biggest crowd-pleaser with the longest line. The Yankee Doodle Noodle Truck, yellow, with images of noodles the size of octopus tentacles, had its fair share of fans, as did Kama Sushi, blue and covered with tropical fish, and the Coffee Witch, featuring a sexy cartoon witch stirring a cauldron of steaming brew. No food truck stop was complete without a bacon truck—this one called itself Porky's.

But my favorite was a truck called Dream Puff, featuring a giant chocolate-laden cream puff painted on a vanilla background. The cream puffs, everything from strawberry mocha to pralines and cream to lemon meringue, were to die for—not to mention the “Dream Puff Guy” who served them.

But it was the Big Yellow School Bus, a former school bus converted into a food truck, that got most of my business on my lunch breaks. I was a frequent diner there, mainly because it was owned and operated by my eccentric aunt Abby, and she gave me free food.

Currently soothing the news of my job loss with a Caramel Espresso Dream Puff, I was interrupted by the sound of shouting coming from the middle of the circular food truck court. I recognized the fortysomething, balding man as Oliver Jameson, the owner and chef at Bones 'n' Brew, a brick-and-mortar restaurant across from Fort Mason. The seasoned place had once been a popular dining
spot in the city, but business had fallen off over the past couple of years, and the quality had gone downhill too. I'd written a review last year about how the restaurant hadn't changed much since Jameson's father, Nigel, ran the place thirty years ago. In his many letters to the newspaper's editor, Oliver Jameson had blamed the “inundation of rat-infested roach coaches that had set up shop across the street from my distinguished dining establishment” for his business losses. But as a restaurant critic—or former restaurant critic—I had a hunch it was because Jameson hadn't updated his menu or decor in decades.

“Get outta here, you old bag, or I'll call the police!” Jameson yelled at the petite sixtysomething woman opposite him. The big balding man gestured threateningly at her with a meat tenderizer as he bellowed, “Take your botulism-riddled bus and go park it in the Tenderloin where it belongs!”

As for the “old bag” in question, well, that would be my aunt Abigail Warner. After retiring from her job as a high school cafeteria cook last year, she'd bought an old school bus and converted it into a portable eatery featuring her specialty—classic American comfort foods with a gourmet twist. I was a big fan of her Crabby Cheerleader Mac and Cheese, filled with local crabmeat.

“It's a free country, you hash-slinging fry cook,” my aunt yelled back at the towering man. “You're losing business because your fat-saturated menu is out-of-date, and your fried food is overpriced. Don't blame me for your bleeding cash problems.”

Aunt Abby waved a knife at him. In her small hand it looked like a deadly Samurai sword.

“And if you plant one more dead rat anywhere
near
my truck, I'll take my Ginsu knife to your dangling—”

“Aunt Abby!” I yelped, rising from the bench. I hurried over to the battle site, hoping to run interference before my aunt was arrested for assault, battery, or improper language in public.

Aunt Abby lowered her menacing weapon when she saw me approach. I knew she was feisty—she had to be in order to survive serving “meat surprise” to a bunch of surly teenagers for all those years—but I didn't know she had a murderous streak. Still, I didn't blame her. Ever since she'd started her food truck business six months ago, she'd encountered nothing but problems, everything from permit red tape to parking tickets to jealously competitive restaurant owners.

“Come on, Aunt Abby,” I said, prying the knife from her tight grip. The growing number of gawkers slowly went back to their handheld meals as I dragged my aunt to her neon yellow bus a few feet away.
Nothing like a little drama to whip up an appetite,
I thought.

Among the creatively decorated circle of trucks, Aunt Abby's bus stood out. Not only was it big and blindingly yellow, but she'd hung schoolroom chalkboard signs on the outside offering her famous fare: Teacher Tuna Casserole, Principal Potpie, Science Experiment Spaghetti, and other old-school comfort foods.

I followed my aunt through the accordion doors and up the steps, listening to her curse under her breath—words she'd no doubt learned from her high school students. “Dillon!” I called out to her six-foot, twenty-five-year-old son, who was working the service window. “Keep an eye on your mom, will you?”

“I don't need to be watched,” Aunt Abby snapped, scowling as she retied her food-smeared apron in a complicated double fold. “What I need is rat removal—from Bones 'n' Brew.”

“What happened?” I asked.

She took a loaf of bread and began slicing it with the knife she'd been waving.

“I don't want to talk about it,” she said.

I shot Dillon a look and mouthed, “Watch her!” Then I stepped out of the bus in search of Oliver Jameson to see if I could find out what all the fuss was about. Unfortunately, he'd disappeared, no doubt back to his restaurant across the street. I thought about going after him but didn't have the energy. What I needed was another sugar boost to help my job-loss morale, so I wandered over to the Dream Puff truck for another medicinal cream puff, this time cappuccino cream.

Jake Miller, the Dream Puff Guy, as I called him, was just about as delicious-looking as his cream puffs. I couldn't help but notice him when he stepped out of the truck to refill the napkin dispenser or the sprinkle shakers in his formfitting blue jeans and muscle-hugging white T-shirt. I'd heard from my aunt that he'd once been a successful attorney, but for some reason he'd given up the Italian suits and lawsuits to whip up heaven in a puff pastry. Luckily for me.

Unfortunately, I'd gained five pounds just trying to get to know him.

When I reached the window, I saw the small sign:
BE BACK IN
5
MINUTES
. Bummer. The cream puff—and eye candy—would have to wait.

Glancing around at the circle of wagons, including the
latest ones that had set up temporary shop—the India Jones truck (Masala Nachos), the Conehead truck (Garlic Ice Cream), the Humpty Dumpling truck (Great Balls of Fire!)—I suddenly realized an idea was staring me in the mouth. Now that I'd been laid off, I could write that cookbook I'd always wanted to pen.

Granted, I wasn't much of a cook, but I
was
a total foodie and had tasted thousands of gourmet meals and written hundreds of restaurant reviews for the paper. As a reporter, I knew a hot trend when I saw one. Nothing was hotter than the food truck/food festival phenom currently sweeping the country. All I had to do was go to a bunch of food festivals, interview the food truck chefs, gather some recipes, and type them up in a breezy style, and I'd find myself on one of those cooking shows hawking my bestselling book!

I saw only one stumbling block. How was I supposed to support myself until the book royalties poured in? Not even a dreamy cream puff could fix that.

“Darcy!” Aunt Abby called from the service window of her bus.

I headed over, hoping to substitute one of Aunt Abby's freshly baked chocolate-pecan-caramel bars—aka Bus Driver Brownies—for the cream puff. But as soon as I stepped inside, she handed me an order.

“Dillon had to go do something, and I need a BLT, stat,” she commanded, meaning I was to make one of her most popular menu items
right this minute
! In spite of my lack of culinary skills, I figured I could manage a sandwich assembly. Heck, I could even do a microwave reheat in an emergency. But that was about it.

“He left you during lunch rush?” I asked as I dutifully
washed my hands, then slipped on a fresh cafeteria-lady apron. I struggled with the fancy double fold, gave up, and simply tied it around my waist. “What was so important he had to run off?”

Aunt Abby shrugged and tossed me a bag of multigrain bread. “He said it was something urgent. I swear, that boy will be the death of me. Good thing I caught you on your lunch hour. When do you have to get back to the paper?”

“I'm in no hurry,” I said, not ready to tell her the truth. But the fact that Dillon had just left her on her own really bothered me. Ever since he'd dropped out of college to “find himself,” he'd been living at home and working part-time at his mother's food truck. When he wasn't at the truck, he was holed up in his bedroom, playing on his computers. It seemed as if sudden disappearances were becoming typical of the boomerang computer whiz. What could be so important that he had to leave in the middle of the lunch rush? An urgent update on his Facebook page? A lifesaving tweet? I almost said something snarky but stopped myself. After all, he was Aunt Abby's son—my cousin—and if it weren't for my aunt, I'd probably be homeless.

I opened the bread package and removed two soft slices; they smelled both sweet and savory. As I assembled the sandwich—thick, apple-smoked bacon, vine-ripened tomato slices, leafy green lettuce, ripe avocado, and aioli spread on multigrain bread—I half listened to my aunt complain about the war between the food truckers and the brick-and-mortar chefs. She'd had more than one run-in with Oliver Jameson, as had several other truckers at Fort Mason. But in the past year, Aunt
Abby had also butted heads with the health department, the chamber of commerce, and what she called the “parking enforcement goons.” My aunt wasn't the easiest person to get along with, but I admired her sassy attitude and endless energy. I think it's what kept her going after her husband, Edward, died last year.

As long as I didn't have to work with her for longer than a few hours. Then I'd be a nut case.

I wrapped the sandwich in butcher paper and handed it to my aunt. She shot me a look, rewrapped it, then called a name out the window and passed the sandwich to a guy talking on his cell phone. “Here,” she said, handing me three more orders. “You make them; I'll wrap them.”

Two hours later the line finally thinned out. “Thanks for your help,” Aunt Abby said. “I don't know where Dillon's got to, but you saved me.” She glanced at her Minnie Mouse watch. “Uh-oh. I hope I didn't make you late for work. You'd better get back to the newspaper before you lose your job.”

I started to tell her what had happened—that I was now on a permanent “lunch break” from the paper—but I decided to wait until a more convenient time. Like never.

I sighed. “Okay, well, I guess I'll see you at home.”

Aunt Abby frowned at me suspiciously, as if I'd just eaten all of her prized brownies. “Everything all right?” she asked, her pencil-thin eyebrow arched in question.

I nodded and stepped out of the bus. Okay, so I'd explain everything tonight, after I'd had a glass of wine. Or two. I knew I'd feel better after eating the chocolatey brownie I'd just tucked into my purse. Free food was one of the perks of being related to Aunt Abby. Through the
open window of the bus, I heard her break into a rousing rendition of Disneyland's “It's a Small World.” The earworm would no doubt haunt me the rest of the day.

•   •   •

I stopped by the Coffee Witch and grabbed a Love Potion Number 9—a latte made with a melted 3 Musketeers bar—then enjoyed my sugary treats as I drove “home”: that being my aunt's thirty-five-foot Airstream currently parked in the side yard of her Russian Hill home. It was the perfect location, close to the Marina District, Ghirardelli Square, and Fisherman's Wharf. In desperate need of shelter after my breakup with Tool-Head Trevor, a reporter at the
Chron
, I'd moved into her rig “temporarily.” That was six months ago. Now, with no more money coming in, my plans to eventually move out would have to be put on hold.

My widowed aunt had lived in her small Victorian home for most of her adult life, ever since she'd inherited it from her parents. Today the house would be worth a fortune, but she had no intention of selling it. Although she was my mother's sister, I'd hardly known her when I'd asked to rent the RV. She was considered the black sheep of the family, but no one had ever told me why. As I'd gotten to know her better, I found her charming, clever, and creative—and so different from my discerning mother and hippie father. My parents had divorced soon after I went away to the University of Oregon to study journalism, claiming they each wanted “new beginnings.” My dad moved to New Mexico to live in the desert and smoke dope, while my mom headed for New York in pursuit of culture and romance.

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