Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Battered to Death (Daphne Martin Cake Mystery) by Gayle Trent Excerpt

Battered to Death (Daphne Martin Cake Mystery) by Gayle Trent


Life is sweet for Daphne Martin right now, from her flourishing cake-decorating business to a rekindled romance with her high school boyfriend, Ben. All that’s about to change, courtesy of famously foul-mouthed celebrity chef Jordan Richards. The TV star has come to Brea Ridge, Virginia, for the town’s lavish cake competition, but he won’t be leaving under his own steam. After his first master class, Jordan is found bludgeoned with a cake stand and drowned in some very bitter batter.

Plenty of townsfolk think the curmudgeonly confectioner had it coming, but the half-baked evidence points to Daphne as a prime suspect. With Ben mulling a new job offer—in Kentucky—Daphne is faced with a multilayered dilemma. She needs to somehow keep her boyfriend, win the cake competition, and sift out the real culprit . . . before the killer serves up another victim.


Chapter One
It had been a long, bleak winter in southwest Virginia. Even though I was born and raised in the small town of Brea Ridge and should be used to the cold, often snowy winters, I was a warm-weather gal at heart. I sometimes wondered if I was adopted . . . if I’d been born to parents whose native climate was tropical . . . and if they ever wondered what had become of their dear Daphne and wished they’d have kept me there with them in their oceanfront mansion.
And so my thoughts were meandering now that the weather was finally warming up. I was sitting at the island in my kitchen—as close to a tropical island as I was likely to get for a while—making flowers for the wedding cake I was entering in the first annual Brea Ridge Taste Bud Temptation Cake and Confectionary Arts Exhibit and Competition when Myra rapped on the door. The knock was a mere formality. She could see me and figured—rightly so—that the door was unlocked, so she came on in.
Myra is my closest—both in proximity and in relationship—neighbor. She’s wonderful, she’s exasperating, she’s aggravating, she’s endearing, and she’s always entertaining.
“What are you doing?” she asked, cocking her head as she watched me using my cattleya  orchid cutters to make petals out of fondant.
“I’m making orchids for the wedding cake I’m doing for the cake competition,” I said.
“Oh, good. I thought you were making the weirdest-looking cookies I’d ever seen.” She sat down on one of the stools across the island from me. “So . . . do you think anything crazy will happen at this cake thing?”
“Crazy?” I smiled. “There’s always something crazy going on in the cake world. That much competitive spirit combined with all that sugar makes for some interesting shenanigans.”
“No, no, no.” She waved away my “interesting shenanigans”  with a double flick of her left wrist. “I’m talking about criminal activity. I’m hoping that with all these people coming to little old Brea Ridge, Mark and I will have at least one interesting case on our hands before the weekend is out.”
Myra—an attractive widow in her early to mid-sixties—had been dating private investigator Mark Thompson for the past couple of months. Mark was good at his job and had plenty to keep him busy. He’d also had the good sense to keep Myra away from his investigations for the most part, but I suspected that was getting harder and harder for him to do.
“I didn’t know Mark was looking for extra work,” I said, gently picking up one of the orchid leaves and ruffling its edges with a ball  modeling tool.
“He’s not, but he’s told me that if the right kind of case comes along, he’ll be glad to have me help out.”
The right kind of case . . . Well played, Mark. Well played, I thought.
I continued shaping the orchid. “Well, good luck, but I can’t see anything too awfully crazy happening over the course of the next few days. I mean, any criminal activity would be handled by the police, so I don’t know what could happen in that short amount of time that would require the services of a private investigator.”
“That’s the kind of stuff people say just before disaster strikes,” Myra said, with a sage nod of her head that would’ve done any mountaintop guru proud.
“I guess you have a point there.” I tried to change the subject. “I hope the confectionary arts exhibit and cake competition  will go well. I know there are some people in Brea Ridge who aren’t happy that so many people will be converging on the town, but I think it’ll be good for the local economy. Don’t you?”
“Well, honey, I hope it will. I know all the locals could use the money. Tanya’s even put a sign in her window that walk-ins are welcome and that they specialize in updos .”
I’d seen some of the updos that had been done at Tanya’s Tremendous Tress Taming Salon. The words “beehive” and “shellacked” immediately came to mind.
“Hopefully, she’ll get some business,” I said, trying not to shudder as I imagined scores of out-of-towners with ten-gallon updos that would stand up to hurricane-force winds. I really did hope Tanya would get some business, though. Maybe new customers would be good. They could look at their new hairstyles as part of the whole Brea Ridge Taste Bud Temptation experience.
Myra looked down at the orchid I’d just finished. “Well, that’s pretty after all. I didn’t know what you were going to wind up with when you started.”
“Thanks. I’ve not done many orchids before, but I thought white orchids and peach roses would be a beautiful combination on the wedding cake I’m entering into the competition.” I put the orchid on a foam square. “Hopefully, next year, I’ll be able to incorporate the Australian string work I’ll be learning in Jordan Richards’s two-day class that starts tomorrow.”
“Jordan Richards?” Myra leaned back and frowned at me. “He’s that cake decorator from TV, right?”
I nodded. “He’s a renowned sugar artist. A lot of people are coming to the cake and confectionary arts exhibit and competition  just to see him. He only accepted ten students into his class. The ones who weren’t able to get into the class will be attending his demonstrations at the show.”
Myra scoffed. “Like he’ll give two hoots of an owl’s patoot.”
“What?” I chuckled.
“He’s the one who’s so mean on television. He makes that Gordon Ramsay  fellow look like Mary Poppins .”
“I know he has the reputation of being hypercritical  and a . . .” I struggled to find the right word.
Myra didn’t need to think about it as long and hard as I did. “Jerk . . . creep . . . rabid, inconsiderate, rude, hypocritical  ball of snot?”
“Uh . . . yeah, I guess you could call him any or all of those things. But that might just be his TV persona. He might be nothing like that in real life. At least, I hope he’s not.” I held up my crossed index and middle fingers. “Fingers crossed. Besides, I want to learn from the best.”
“Oh, honey,” Myra said. “Sometimes you learn just as many bad things as good from the best.”
I put aside the orchid petal I was working on and asked Myra if she’d like something to drink. Experience had taught me that when Myra began an Oh, honey story, I might as well make myself comfortable and settle in for the long haul.
“No, thanks, I’m fine,” she said.
I took a bottle of water from the fridge, uncapped it, took a long drink, and sat back down.
“Ruthie Mae Pruitt got to be purt near fifty years old before she learned to drive a car,” Myra said. “She didn’t really feel the need to learn to drive until after her husband died. The fact that he’d died as the result of a car accident didn’t really faze her, since he’d been walking and was hit by the car that had the accident.”
“So she figured she might as well learn to drive in case she wanted to hit somebody? Or was it because she was afraid to walk wherever she wanted to go after her husband’s death?” I was being sarcastic, but Myra answered as if I weren’t.
“Mainly, she didn’t want to walk everywhere she wanted to go. And, of course, she got to thinking that driving herself could really broaden her horizons. She’d had to depend on someone else to take her wherever she’d wanted to go all her life. With her own driver’s license, she could go anywhere she wanted. She’d even decided to visit her sister two states down and one state over, in the upper corner of Georgia. That was a big deal to Ruthie Mae. So she started asking around town because she wanted to learn to drive from the best.” Myra leveled her gaze at me. We were getting to the moral of the story.
“Now, everybody in Brea Ridge knew that Tony Barger was the best driver around. He could’ve probably gone pro on the NASCAR  circuit or that Indy 500  deal or some other big-time racing racket had it not been for his drinking problem,” she continued.
“Please tell me Tony Barger wasn’t drunk when he taught Ruthie how to drive,” I said.
“Of course he wasn’t. He had, however, tied one on and kept it on the entire weekend before he took Ruthie Mae for her first and only driving lesson on Monday afternoon.”
“First and only?” I asked. “Did she decide she didn’t like it after all?”
“More than likely, that was her final thought. Neither of them made it out of that driving lesson alive. You see, Tony was definitely not drunk when he was driving Ruthie Mae out to the parking lot of that closed-down grocery store where he was going to give her that first lesson in driving. He was very conscientious about that. He wanted to set a good example and that sort of thing. But the poor man did have the DTs something fierce,” she said, slowly shaking her head. “Some say he might’ve even had a seizure.”
“Wait a second. How do you know he had delirium tremens?” I asked. “Did someone see him having them?”
“Nah, honey. It just stood to reason. What would you think if a man who was normally a drunk who could drive circles around everybody else in Brea Ridge suddenly took a relatively young widow for her first driving lesson and drove her into the side of an abandoned grocery store at eighty-five miles an hour, instantly killing them both?”
“I’d think he was drunk at the time instead of suffering from withdrawal,” I said.
“That’s because you didn’t know Tony. He could drive just as good drunk as he could sober,” Myra said. “In fact, he drove better drunk than some people could drive sober. And had he been drunk, that accident never would’ve happened.”
I took another drink of my water, figuring it was useless to argue the point with her. Even though I found it nearly impossible to believe that an intoxicated man could outdrive most of the sober citizens of Brea Ridge, why argue? After all, what difference did it make?
“Plus, there was no alcohol in his bloodstream at the time of the accident,” Myra went on. “It was in the newspaper. That’s how everybody knew it wasn’t the alcohol that caused the wreck but the fact that he’d been off it since Sunday night that had been the problem. So you see? Sometimes learning from the best isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “Hopefully, Chef Richards won’t be drunk . . . or sober . . . or in any kind of condition that would hinder him from instructing us all in the fine art of Australian string work. And even if he is, the worst he can do is frost us to death, right?”
She laughed. “I guess so. Just be careful he doesn’t put you in a sugar coma.”
“Or cause me to gain ten pounds overnight,” I said.
“Oh, honey, that’s my worst nightmare . . . well, one of them anyway.”
At the time I didn’t realize that taking a cake decorating class from Jordan Richards would not be too different from hitting a brick wall at eighty-five miles per hour. We live and we learn. And, to Myra’s credit, it turned out that sometimes learning from the best was not everything you thought it would be.

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