The Big Chili (An Undercover Dish Mystery)

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9780425275900: The Big Chili (An Undercover Dish Mystery)

First in a delicious new mystery series filled with casseroles, confidences, and killers...

Lilah Drake’s Covered Dish business discreetly provides the residents of Pine Haven, Illinois, with delicious, fresh-cooked meals they can claim they cooked themselves. But when one of her clandestine concoctions is used to poison a local woman, Lilah finds herself in a pot-load of trouble...

After dreaming for years of owning her own catering company, Lilah has made a start into the food world through her Covered Dish business, covertly cooking for her neighbors who don’t have the time or skill to do so themselves, and allowing them to claim her culinary creations as their own. While her clientele is strong, their continued happiness depends on no one finding out who’s really behind the apron.

So when someone drops dead at a church Bingo night moments after eating chili that Lilah made for a client, the anonymous chef finds herself getting stirred into a cauldron of secrets, lies, and murder—and going toe to toe with a very determined and very attractive detective. To keep her clients coming back and her business under wraps, Lilah will have to chop down the list of suspects fast, because this spicy killer has acquired a taste for homicide...

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About the Author:

Julia Buckley is the author of the Teddy Thurber mysteries and the Madeline Mann mysteries. She’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the Romance Writers of America, along with the Chicago Writer's Association. Julia has taught high school English for twenty-six years; she lives near Chicago with her husband, two sons, four cats, and one beagle.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Acknowledgments

CHAPTER ONE

My chocolate Labrador watched me as I parked my previously loved Volvo wagon and took my covered pan out of the backseat; the autumn wind buffeted my face and made a mess of my hair. “I’ll be right back, Mick,” I said. “I know that pot in the back smells good, but I’m counting on you to behave and wait for your treat.”

He nodded at me. Mick was a remarkable dog for many reasons, but one of his best talents was that he had trained himself to nod while I was talking. He was my dream companion: a handsome male who listened attentively and never interrupted or condescended. He also made me feel safe when I did my clandestine duties all over Pine Haven.

I shut the car door and moved up the walkway of Ellie Parker’s house. She usually kept the door unlocked, though I had begged her to reconsider that idea. We had an agreement; if she wasn’t there, or if she was out back puttering around in her garden, I could just leave the casserole on the table and take the money she left out for me. I charged fifty dollars, which included the price of ingredients. Ellie said I could charge more, but for now this little sideline of a job was helping me pay the bills, and that was good enough.

“Ellie?” I called. I went into her kitchen, where I’d been several times before, and found it neat, as always; Ellie was not inside. Disappointed, I left the dish on her scrubbed wooden table. I had made a lovely mac and cheese casserole with a twist: finely sliced onion and prosciutto baked in with three different cheeses for a show-stopping event of a main course. It was delicious and very close to the way Ellie prepared it before her arthritis had made it too difficult to cook for her visiting friends and family. She didn’t want her loved ones to know this, which was where I came in. We’d had an agreement for almost a year, and it served us both well.

She knew how long to bake the dish, so I didn’t bother with writing down any directions. Normally she would invite Mick in, and she and I would have some tea and shoot the breeze while my canine lounged under the table, but today, for whatever reason, she had made other plans. She hadn’t set out the money, either, so I went to the cookie jar where she had told me to find my payment in the past: a ceramic cylinder in the shape of a chubby monkey. I claimed my money and turned around to find a man looming in the doorway.

“Ah!” I screamed, clutching the cash in front of my waist like a weird bouquet.

“Hello,” he said, his eyes narrowed. “May I ask who you are?”

“I’m a friend of Ellie’s. Who are you?” I fired back. Ellie had never suggested that a man—a sort of good-looking, youngish man—would appear in her house. For all I knew he could be a burglar.

“I am Ellie’s son. Jay Parker.” He wore reading glasses, and he peered at me over these like a stern teacher. It was a good look for him. “And I didn’t expect to find a strange woman dipping into Mom’s cash jar while she wasn’t in the house.”

A little bead of perspiration worked its way down my back. “First of all, I am not a strange woman. In any sense. Ellie and I are friends, and I—”

I what? What could I tell him? My little covered-dish business was an under-the-table operation, and the people who ordered my food wanted it to appear that they had made it themselves. That, and the deliciousness of my cooking, was what they paid me for. “I did a job for her, and she told me to take payment.”

“Is that so?” He leaned against the door frame, a man with all the time in the world. All he needed was a piece of hay to chew on. “And what job did you do for her?” He clearly didn’t believe me. With a pang I realized that this man thought I was a thief.

“I mowed her lawn,” I blurted. We both turned to look out the window at Ellie’s remarkably high grass. “Wow. That really was not a good choice,” I murmured.

Now his face grew alert, wary, as though he were ready to employ some sort of martial art if necessary. I may as well have been facing a cop. “What exactly is your relationship to my mother? And how did you even get in here, if my mom isn’t home?”

At least I could tell the truth about that. “I’m Lilah Drake. Ellie left the door unlocked for me because she was expecting me. As I said, we are friends.”

This did not please him. “I think she was actually expecting me,” he said. “So you could potentially have just gotten lucky when you tried the doorknob.”

“Oh my God!” My face felt hot with embarrassment. “I’m not stealing Ellie’s money. She and I have an—arrangement. I can’t actually discuss it with you. Maybe if you asked your mother . . . ?” Ellie was creative; she could come up with a good lie for her son, and he’d have to believe her.

There was a silence, as though he were weighing evidence. It felt condescending and weirdly terrifying. “Listen, I have to get going. My dog is waiting—”

He brightened for the first time. “That’s your dog, huh? I figured. He’s pretty awesome. What is he, a chocolate Lab?”

“Yes, he is.” I shifted on my feet, not sure how to extricate myself from the situation. My brother said I had a knack for getting into weird predicaments.

I sighed, and he said, “So what do we do now?” He patted his shirt pocket, as though looking for a pack of cigarettes, then grimaced and produced a piece of gum. He unwrapped it while still watching me. His glasses had slid down even farther on his nose, and I felt like plucking them off. He popped the gum into his mouth and took off the glasses himself, then beamed a blue gaze at me. Wow. “How about if we just wait here together and see what my mom has to say? She’s probably out back in the garden, picking pumpkins or harvesting the last of her tomatoes.”

I put the money on Ellie’s table. “You know what? Ellie can pay me later. I won’t have you—casting aspersions on my character.”

“Fancy words,” said Ellie’s son. He moved a little closer to me, until I could smell spearmint on his breath. “I still think you should hang around.”

I put my hands on my hips, the way my mother used to do when Cam or I forgot to do the dishes. “I have things to do. Please tell Ellie I said hello.”

I whisked past him, out to my car, where Mick sat waiting, a picture of patience. I climbed in and started confiding. “Do you believe that guy? Now I’m going to have to come back here later to get paid. I don’t have time for this, Mick!”

Mick nodded with what seemed like sympathy.

I reversed out of Ellie’s driveway, still fuming. But halfway home, encouraged by Mick’s stolid support, and enjoying the Mary Poppins sound track in my CD player, I calmed down slightly. These things could happen in the business world, I told myself. There was no need to give another thought to tall Jay Parker and his accusations and his blue eyes.

I began to sing along with the music, assuring Mick melodically that I would find the perfect nanny. Something in the look he gave me made me respond aloud. “And another thing. I’m a grown woman. I’m twenty-seven years old, Mick. I don’t need some condescending man treating me like a child. Am I right?”

Mick was distracted by a Chihuahua on the sidewalk, so I didn’t get a nod.

“Huh. She’s pretty cute, right?”

No response. I sighed and went back to my singing, flicking forward on the CD and testing my upper range with “Feed the Birds.” I started squeaking by the time I reached the middle. “It’s tricky, Mick. It starts low, and then you get nailed on the refrain. We can’t all be Julie Andrews.” Mick’s expression was benevolent.

I drove to Caldwell Street and St. Bartholomew Church, where I headed to the back parking lot behind the rectory. I took out my phone and texted I’m here to Pet Grandy, a member of St. Bart’s Altar and Rosary Guild, a scion of the church, and a go-to person for church social events. Pet was popular, and she had a burning desire to be all things to all people. This included her wish to make food for every church event—good food that earned her praise and adulation. Since Pet was actually a terrible cook, I was the answer to her prayers. I had made a lot of money off Pet Grandy in the last year.

“She’ll be out here within thirty seconds,” I told Mick, and sure enough, he had barely started nodding before Pet burst out of the back door of the church social hall and made a beeline for the adjoining rectory lot. Pet’s full name was Perpetua; her mother had named her for some nun who had once taught at the parish school. Pet basically lived at the church; she was always running one event or another, and Father Schmidt was her gangly other half. They made a hilarious duo: he, tall and thin in his priestly black, and she, short and plump as a tomato and sporting one of her many velour sweat suits—often in offensively bright colors. In fall, you could often spot them tending to the autumnal flower beds outside St. Bart’s. At Christmastime, one of them would hold the ladder while the other swayed in front of the giant pine outside the church, clutching strings of white Christmas lights. Pet was utterly devoted to Father Schmidt; they were like a platonic married couple.

As she marched toward my car, I studied her. Today’s ensemble, also velour, was a bright orange number that made her look like a calendar-appropriate pumpkin. Her cheeks were rosy in the cold, and her dark silver-flecked hair was cut short and no-nonsense. Pet was not a frilly person.

She approached my vehicle, as always, with an almost sinister expression, as if she were buying drugs. Pet was very careful that no one should know what we were doing or why. On the rare occasions that someone witnessed the food handoff, Pet pretended that I was just driving it over from her house. Today she had ordered a huge Crock-Pot full of chili for the bingo event in the church hall. Everyone was bringing food, but Pet’s (my) chili had become a favorite.

I rolled down my window, and Pet looked both ways before leaning in. Her eyes darted constantly, like those of someone marked for assassination. “Hello, Lilah. Is it light enough for me to carry?”

“It’s pretty heavy, Pet. Do you want me to—”

“No, no. I have a dolly in the vestibule. I’ll just run and get it. Here’s the money.” She thrust an envelope through the window at me with her left hand, her body turned sideways and her right hand scratching her face in an attempt to look casual. Pet was so practiced at clandestine maneuvers that I thought she might actually make a good criminal. I watched her rapid-walk back to the church and marveled that she wasn’t thin as a reed, since she was always moving. Pet, however, had the Achilles’ heel of a sweet addiction: she loved it all, she had told me once. Donuts, cookies, cake, pie, ice cream. “I probably have sweets three times a day. My doctor told me I’m lucky I don’t have diabetes. But I crave it all the time!”

Pet reappeared and I pretended that I was about to get out of my car to help her. I did this every time, just to tease her, and every time she took the bait. “No,” she shouted, her hand up as though to ward off a bullet aimed at her heart. “Stay there! Someone might see you!”

“Okay, Pet.” She opened my back hatch and I spoke to her over my shoulder. “It’s the big Crock-Pot there. Ignore the box in the corner—that’s for someone else.”

“Fine, fine. Thank you, Lilah. I’m sure it will be delicious, as always.” She hauled it out of the car, grunting slightly, and placed it on her dolly. Then, loudly, for whatever sprites might be listening, she said, “Thank you so much for driving this from my house! It’s a real time-saver!”

I rolled my eyes at Mick, and he nodded. Mick totally gets it.

I waved to Pet, who ignored me, and drove away while she was still wheeling her prize back to the church hall. My mother played bingo there sometimes and probably would tonight. We were church members, but we were neither as devout nor as involved as was Pet. My mother called us “lapsed Catholics,” and said we would probably have to wait at the back of the line on our way to heaven, at which point my father would snort and say that he could name five perfect Catholics who were having affairs.

Then they would launch into one of their marital spats and I would tune them out or escape to my own home, which was where I headed now.

My parents are Realtors, and I work for them during the day. I mostly either answer phones at the office or sit at showings, dreaming of recipes while answering questions about hardwood floors, modernized baths, and stainless steel kitchens. It isn’t a difficult task, but I do lust after those kitchens more than is healthy. I have visions of starting my own catering business, experimenting with spices at one of those amazing marble islands while a tall blue-eyed man occasionally wanders in to taste my concoctions.

Mick was staring at the side of my face with his intense look. I slapped my forehead. “Oh, buddy! I never gave you your treat, and you had to sit and smell that chili all through the ride!”

Mick nodded.

We pulled into the long driveway that led to our little house, which was actually an old caretaker’s cottage behind a much larger residence. My parents had found it for me and gotten me a crazy deal on rent because they had sold the main house to Terry Randall, a rich eccentric who had taken a liking to my parents during the negotiations. Taking advantage of that, my parents had mentioned that their daughter would love to rent a cottage like the one behind his house, and Terry had agreed. My rent, which Terry didn’t need but which my parents had insisted upon, was a steal. I’d been in the cottage for more than two years, and Terry and I had become good friends. I was often invited into the big house for the lavish parties that Terry and his girlfriend liked to throw on a regular basis.

I pulled a Tupperware container out of my tote bag—Mick’s reward whenever he accompanied me on trips. “Who’s my special boy?” I asked him as I popped off the lid.

Mick started munching, his expression forgiving. He made quick work of the chili inside; I laughed and snapped his picture on my phone. “That’s going on the refrigerator, boy,” I said. It was true, I doted on Mick as if he were my child, but in my defense, Mick was a spectacular dog.

I belted out a few lines of “Jolly Holiday” before turning off the sound system and retrieving Mick’s now-clean container. I checked my phone and found two text messages: one from my friend Jenny, who wanted me to come for dinner soon, and one from my brother, who wanted me to meet his girlfriend. I’d met lots of Cam’s girlfriends over time, but this one was special to him, I could tell, because she was Italian. My brother and I, thanks to a wonderfully enthusiastic junior high Italian teacher, had developed a mutual love of Italian culture before we even got to high school. We immersed ourselves in Italian art, music, sports, and film. We both took Italian in high school, and Cam went on to get his PhD in Italian, which he now taught at Loyola, my alma mater. We were Italophiles from way back, but Cam had never met an Italian woman. It was I who had won the distinction of dating an Italian first, and tha...

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Descrizione libro Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2015. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. First in a delicious new mystery series filled with casseroles, confidences, and killers. Lilah Drake s Covered Dish business discreetly provides the residents of Pine Haven, Illinois, with delicious, fresh-cooked meals they can claim they cooked themselves. But when one of her clandestine concoctions is used to poison a local woman, Lilah finds herself in a pot-load of trouble. After dreaming for years of owning her own catering company, Lilah has made a start into the food world through her Covered Dish business, covertly cooking for her neighbors who don t have the time or skill to do so themselves, and allowing them to claim her culinary creations as their own. While her clientele is strong, their continued happiness depends on no one finding out who s really behind the apron. So when someone drops dead at a church Bingo night moments after eating chili that Lilah made for a client, the anonymous chef finds herself getting stirred into a cauldron of secrets, lies, and murder--and going toe to toe with a very determined and very attractive detective. To keep her clients coming back and her business under wraps, Lilah will have to chop down the list of suspects fast, because this spicy killer has acquired a taste for homicide. Codice libro della libreria ABZ9780425275900

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Descrizione libro Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2015. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. First in a delicious new mystery series filled with casseroles, confidences, and killers. Lilah Drake s Covered Dish business discreetly provides the residents of Pine Haven, Illinois, with delicious, fresh-cooked meals they can claim they cooked themselves. But when one of her clandestine concoctions is used to poison a local woman, Lilah finds herself in a pot-load of trouble. After dreaming for years of owning her own catering company, Lilah has made a start into the food world through her Covered Dish business, covertly cooking for her neighbors who don t have the time or skill to do so themselves, and allowing them to claim her culinary creations as their own. While her clientele is strong, their continued happiness depends on no one finding out who s really behind the apron. So when someone drops dead at a church Bingo night moments after eating chili that Lilah made for a client, the anonymous chef finds herself getting stirred into a cauldron of secrets, lies, and murder--and going toe to toe with a very determined and very attractive detective. To keep her clients coming back and her business under wraps, Lilah will have to chop down the list of suspects fast, because this spicy killer has acquired a taste for homicide. Codice libro della libreria BTE9780425275900

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Descrizione libro Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2015. Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. First in a delicious new mystery series filled with casseroles, confidences, and killers. Lilah Drake s Covered Dish business discreetly provides the residents of Pine Haven, Illinois, with delicious, fresh-cooked meals they can claim they cooked themselves. But when one of her clandestine concoctions is used to poison a local woman, Lilah finds herself in a pot-load of trouble. After dreaming for years of owning her own catering company, Lilah has made a start into the food world through her Covered Dish business, covertly cooking for her neighbors who don t have the time or skill to do so themselves, and allowing them to claim her culinary creations as their own. While her clientele is strong, their continued happiness depends on no one finding out who s really behind the apron. So when someone drops dead at a church Bingo night moments after eating chili that Lilah made for a client, the anonymous chef finds herself getting stirred into a cauldron of secrets, lies, and murder--and going toe to toe with a very determined and very attractive detective. To keep her clients coming back and her business under wraps, Lilah will have to chop down the list of suspects fast, because this spicy killer has acquired a taste for homicide. Codice libro della libreria ABZ9780425275900

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