Cover image for Scorched eggs
Title:
Scorched eggs
Author:
Childs, Laura.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Berkley Prime Crime, 2014.
Physical Description:
305 pages ; 21 cm.
Summary:
When their longtime friend at County services, Hannah Venable, dies in a fire, Suzanne, Petra, and Toni, vowing to find the arsonist, investigate a possible connection with the nearby Prairie Star Casino.
General Note:
Includes recipes.
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780425255599
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

"Time to eggs-tinguish an arsonist. Getting her hair colored at Root 66, Suzanne is stunned to witness the County Services office next door suddenly go up in flames. Sadly, the fire claims the life of longtime civil service worker-and friend to the Cackleberry Club-Hannah Venable. When it's discovered that an accelerant was used to fan the flames, Suzanne, Petra, and Toni vow to smoke out the culprit. When Suzanne finds a possible connection between the fire and the nearby Prairie Star Casino, she comes to realize that the arsonist wanted something very big and bad kept secret. And if the ladies aren't careful, they may be the ones gambling with their lives . . . 'Childs shines . . . a dandy plot and cherished characters.'a Richmond Times-Dispatch ' Scorched Eggs ais a delight.' Fresh Fiction 'A strong entry in an enjoyable series. Ms. Childs writes some of my favorite cozy mysteries, and this is no exception.' Open Book Society "


Author Notes

Laura Childs is a pseudonym used by Gerry Schmitt. Before becoming a full-time author, she was a Clio Award-winning advertising writer and CEO of her own marketing firm called Mission Critical Marketing. She writes the Tea Shop Mystery series, the Cackleberry Club Mysteries and the Scrapbook Mystery series.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Early in Childs's entertaining sixth Cackleberry Club mystery set in the Midwestern town of Kindred (after Eggs in a Casket), Hannah Venable perishes in a fire that destroys the county services building where she worked. In what becomes an arson case, suspicion falls on Hannah's estranged husband, Jack. Perky Suzanne Dietz finds time to investigate the crime in between planning, cooking, and serving two meals a day, plus afternoon tea and assorted special events, at the Cackleberry Club. She runs the cafe with two partners, Toni and Petra, with whom she mulls over the case. Fortunately, Sheriff Roy Doogie is happy to share what he knows with Suzanne, and even the arson investigators brought in from out-of-town have no compunction about including her. Some dollops of romance add spice. Culinary cozy fans will welcome the egg-centric recipes that round out the volume. Agent: Sam Pinkus, Veritas Media. (Dec.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Library Journal Review

Suzanne desperately needs her roots touched up before Kit Kaslik's wedding. But when the historic old County Services Bureau building explodes next door, she escapes safely out of the beauty parlor. Sadly, beloved Hannah Venable dies of smoke inhalation. Now Suzanne and her Cackleberry Club Cafe co-owners vow to find the arsonist in this sixth series entry (after Eggs in a Casket). Recipes included. (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Acknowledgments CHAPTER 1 SUZANNE didn't know how she felt about Blond Bombshell No. 4 as a hair color, but she was about to find out. Especially since she was sprawled in a red plastic chair roughly the size of a Tilt-a-Whirl car, bravely enduring her "beauty experience" at Root 66, downtown Kindred's premier hair salon. Silver foils that looked like baked-potato wrappers were crimped in her hair, while a sparkly pink '50s-era bubble-top hair dryer hovered above her head, blasting a constant stream of hot air. Yup, the foils were bad enough, but the droning dryer made Suzanne feel as if her head were being sucked into a jet engine. Jiggling her foot, tapping her fingers, Suzanne knew she should try to regard this as "me time" as so many women's magazines advocated. But, all cards on the table, Suzanne felt restless and a little guilty about ducking out of the Cackleberry Club, the cozy little café she ran with her two partners, Toni and Petra. She'd dashed away this Friday afternoon claiming a dire personal emergency. And when you were a silvered blonde who was a tad over forty, the emergence of dark, scuzzy roots all over your head definitely qualified as an emergency. But now, after all the rigmarole of mixing and tinting and crimping and blow-drying, Suzanne just dreamt of sweet escape. She glanced around at the five other women, customers in the salon, who seemed perfectly content to sit and be beautified. But scrunched here, paging through an old copy of Star Whacker magazine and reading about the questionable exploits of Justin and Miley, didn't seem like the most productive way to spend an afternoon. "How you doin', gorgeous?" cooed Brett. He bent down and flashed his trademark pussycat grin. Brett was her stylist and a co-owner of Root 66. A man who wore his hair bleached, spiked, and gelled. "Are you in need of a little more pampering? Should I send Krista over to do a French manicure?" He cast a slightly disapproving glance at Suzanne's blunt-cut nails. "No thanks, I'm fine," Suzanne told him as she balled her hands into tight fists. What she wanted to tell Brett was that she had working-girl hands. Every day she muscled tables, swept floors, hauled in boxes of groceries, and wrangled two unruly dogs when she finally arrived home at night. In her free time, she stacked hay bales, mucked stalls, and guided her quarter horse, Mocha Gent, through his paces at barrel racing. Oh, and last week, on an egg run to Calico Farms, she'd manhandled a jack and changed a flat tire on her Ford Taurus. Lifestyles of the rich and famous? Here in small-town Kindred? Like . . . not. Suzanne poked a finger at an annoying tendril of hair that tickled the back of her neck. Ten more minutes , she told herself. Gotta white knuckle it for ten more minutes. Then I'm outta here. She knew she should relax and let herself be coddled, but there were things that needed to be done. Kit Kaslik's vintage wedding was tomorrow and she had to figure out what to wear. Toni was babbling about launching a new book club. Her horse, Mocha Gent, still wasn't ready for the Logan County Fair. And Petra was all freaked out about the dinner theater that was coming up fast. And what else? Oh man. She'd gone and invited her boyfriend, Sam, over for dinner next week. And hadn't he promised to bring a bottle of Cabernet if she grilled a steak for him? Yes, she was pretty sure they'd struck that particular deal. Suzanne drummed her fingers. She wasn't high maintenance, but she was definitely a high-achieving type A. Even so, she projected a certain calm and sense of poise, looking polished but not prim today in a soft denim shirt that was casually knotted at the waist of her trim white jeans. But underneath that denim shirt beat the heart of a racehorse--a thoroughbred who was smart, kind, and the kind of crackerjack businesswoman who could drive a hard bargain or negotiate a sticky contract. Suzanne shifted in her chair. She figured she had to be parboiled by now. After all, that wasn't her morning spritz of Miss Dior that was wafting through the air. In fact, it smelled more like . . . what? A few inches of sludgy French roast burning in the back room's Mr. Coffee? A cranked-up curling iron? Someone's hair being fricasseed by hot rollers? Suzanne peered around suspiciously. Maybe it was Mrs. Krauser, who was tucked under the hair dryer directly across from her. Mrs. Krauser with a swirl of blue hair that perfectly matched her light blue puffed-sleeve blouse. Wait a minute. Now she really did smell smoke! Suzanne wiggled her nose and sniffed suspiciously. Was it her? Was her hair getting singed? Tentatively, she touched a hand to the back of her head. She was warm but not overly done. So . . . okay. Peering around again, she felt a faint prickle of anxiety. It had to be Mrs. Krauser over there, blotting at her pink cheeks with a white lace hankie. But wait , Suzanne told herself. There was something definitely going on. Something cooking. And it wasn't Brett's complimentary snickerdoodle cookies from his back-room oven. So where on earth was that smell coming from? Suzanne ducked her head out from beneath the behemoth hair dryer and gazed around the salon, where everything seemed copasetic. Still . . . it really did smell like smoke. And were her eyes deceiving her, or did everything suddenly look slightly ethereal and hazy? Like she was peering through a gelled lens? Holy crap on a cracker! That was smoke! Suzanne scrambled to her feet so fast every pair of eyes in the place was suddenly focused on her. "I think there's . . ." she said, and then hesitated. Standing in the middle of the beauty shop, with everyone staring at her, she felt a little unsure of herself now. No sense making a ruckus over nothing. But when she inhaled, she definitely detected a nasty, acrid burning scent. A scent that touched the limbic portion of her brain and sent a trickle of fear down her spine. Smoke. I definitely smell smoke. "Something's on fire!" Suzanne cried out, trying to make herself heard above the roar of the blow-dryers and the blare of show tunes playing over multiple sets of speakers. Brett looked up from where he was shampooing a client. "What?" He sounded puzzled as bubbles dripped from his hands. "Something's what?" But Suzanne had already crossed the linoleum floor in three decisive strides and was pushing her way out the front door. On the sidewalk, smack-dab in the middle of downtown Kindred, the summer breeze caught her. It ripped the foils from her hair and sent her purple cape swirling out around her as if she were some kind of superhero. And as Suzanne stood there, arms akimbo, knowing something was horribly wrong, she heard a terrifying roar. A rumble like the 4:10 Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train speed-balling its way through Kindred. Within moments, the roar intensified, building to such a furious pitch that it sounded as if a tornado was barreling down upon the entire town. And then, without any warning whatsoever, the windows in the redbrick building right next door to Root 66 suddenly exploded with an earsplitting, heart-stopping blast. And a molten blizzard of jagged glass, chunks of brick, and wooden splinters belched out into the street! Suzanne ducked as shards of glass shot past her like arrows! She felt the intense heat as giant tongues of red and orange flames belched from the blown-out windows as if they'd been spewed by World War II flamethrowers. Fearing for her life, her self-preservation instinct kicking in big-time, Suzanne dove behind a large blue metal sign that proudly proclaimed Logan County Historic Site . She buried her face in her hands to shield herself from flying debris, hunched her shoulders, and prayed for deliverance. A few moments later, Suzanne peered out tentatively and was shocked to see that the entire building, the old brick building that housed the County Services Bureau, was completely engulfed in flames! Like a scene out of a Bruce Willis action flick, people suddenly came streaming out of all the surrounding businesses. Realtors, bakers, bankers, and druggists, all screaming hysterically, waving their arms and pointing at what had become a roiling, broiling inferno right in the middle of Main Street. Everyone seemed hysterical, yet nobody was doing much of anything to help. "Call 911!" Suzanne yelped to Jenny Probst, who ran the Kindred Bakery with her husband, Bill. Jenny nodded frantically. "We called. We already called. Fire department's on its way." Two minutes later, a fire engine roared to the scene. A dozen firemen jumped off the shiny red truck even as they struggled to pull on heavy protective coats and helmets. "There are people in there!" Suzanne cried to the fireman who seemed to be in charge. She pointed desperately at the building that was now a wild torrent of flames. "You've got to get them out!" "Stand back, ma'am," ordered one of the firemen, and Suzanne did. She retreated a few steps and took her place in the middle of the street along with the rapidly growing crowd. A second fire truck arrived and a metal ladder was quickly cranked up to a second-floor window. To shouts of encouragement from the onlookers, a fireman gamely scrambled up. Then a siren blatted loudly directly behind Suzanne, giving its authoritative whoop whoop , and she was forced to move out of the way again. Sheriff Roy Doogie had arrived in his official maroon and tan cruiser, along with two nervous-looking deputies. Sheriff Doogie, by no means a small man, hopped out and immediately began to bully the crowd back even farther. "Get back! Give 'em room to work!" Doogie shouted as his khaki bulk quivered. "Get out of the way!" Then a white ambulance came screaming into the fray and rocked to a stop directly next to Doogie's cruiser. Two grim-faced EMTs jumped out, pulling a metal gurney with them, ready to lend medical assistance. Thank goodness , Suzanne thought. When Suzanne glanced up again, she was thankful to see a terrified-looking woman and a small child clambering over a second-story window ledge and into the waiting arms of the fireman on the ladder. "That's Annie Wolfson," said a voice behind her. Suzanne turned around and found Ricky Wilcox, the young man who was the groom in tomorrow's big wedding, staring fixedly at the rescue that was taking place. Good , Suzanne thought. Annie and her child have been saved . But what about the folks in the first-floor County Services Bureau? Bruce Winthrop, the county agent. And his longtime secretary, Hannah Venable. What about those poor souls? Were they still inside? Suzanne's question was partially answered when Winthrop, looking bug-eyed and scared spitless, suddenly crashed through the crowd. Arms flailing, he caromed off her right shoulder and then continued to push his way toward the burning building. "Hannah!" Winthrop cried, frantically trying to charge through the surging crowd. "Hannah!" He seemed ready to rush into the burning building and save her single-handedly. "Whoa, whoa!" Suzanne cried out. She dashed forward a couple of steps, snagged Winthrop's arm, and tried to pull him back. But the man was in such a blind panic that he simply shook her off. Suzanne made a final frantic grasp at the back of his tweed sport coat, found some purchase, and fought to reel him in backward. "Wait," she cried. "You can't go in there. You've got to let the firemen do their jobs." Winthrop spun around to look at her, but was in such an anguished state that he didn't display a shred of recognition. His face contorted with fear as he tried to jerk away. "Let me go!" he cried. Then, in a pleading tone, "I've got to go in and get her." "No you don't," Suzanne told him. She grabbed Winthrop's arm and gave a sharp tug that made him suddenly wince. But at least she'd commanded his attention. "Better to alert Doogie," she said. "He'll send a couple of firemen in to rescue Hannah." "Gotta hurry hurry hurry," Winthrop chattered. Suzanne waved an arm over her head and cried out, "Doogie! Sheriff Doogie!" Doogie heard his name called out above the roar of the fire and the nervous mutterings of the crowd. He swiveled his big head around, saw Suzanne, and frowned. Suzanne pushed closer toward him, dragging Winthrop along with her. "Hannah Venable's still inside," she shouted. "You've got to send someone in to get her." Doogie's eyes widened in surprise and he gave a sharp nod. Then, quick as a wink, he grabbed the fire chief and pulled him into a fast conversation. "You see?" said Suzanne. She still had a firm grip on Winthrop's arm. "They'll get Hannah out. She'll be okay." Winthrop just nodded woodenly as if in a sleepwalker's trance. The firemen shot thick streams of water at the building now, trying to beat back the flames. As water gushed from fat, brown hoses that crisscrossed the street, the fire hissed with fury but seemed to slowly retreat. "I think they're gaining on the fire," Suzanne said to Jenny, who'd taken up a spot in the front lines next to them. "I hope so," she said. Two firemen hastily donned protective gear--full breathing apparatus and special asbestos coats. Then, after a hasty conference with their fire chief, they plunged into the burning building to make the daring rescue. They were the brave ones, Suzanne thought. They were the ones who risked their lives for others. God bless and keep them. The firemen working the hoses were definitely gaining a foothold on the fire now. Flames were knocked back as charred beams and red-hot embers sizzled and hissed. "Getting it under control now," said Darrel Fuhrman, a man Suzanne recognized as one of Kindred's firemen. He was tall with slicked-back dark hair and eyes that danced with wild excitement. Suzanne wondered idly why Fuhrman wasn't in the fray lending a hand, as she continued to keep her eyes fixed on the front door of the building, waiting to see Hannah Venable come staggering out. Hannah was the sweet-natured clerk who had manned the front desk at the County Services Bureau for the past fifteen years. She answered phones, kept the books, and handed out brochures on how to grow snap peas, raise baby lambs, and put up fruit jams and jellies without giving your family ptomaine poisoning. Antsy and nervous now, Suzanne moved forward. She could feel the heat from the fire practically scorching her face, like having a too-close encounter with Petra's industrial-strength broiler back at the Cackleberry Club. What must the firemen be feeling inside, she wondered? What must poor Hannah be going through? Sheriff Doogie whirled around and saw Suzanne edging up to the barricade. "Get back!" he yelled, waving a meaty arm. "Everybody, get back!" Suzanne retreated two paces, and then, when Doogie turned around, when he wasn't looking anymore, she crept back to where she'd been standing. "Watch out!" cried one of the firemen who was manning a hose and shooting water through one of the front windows. "They're coming out." Everyone peered expectantly through the drift of smoke and ashes. And then, like an apparition slowly appearing from a dense fog, the two firemen who'd made the daring foray into the burning building came into view. Their faces were smudged, their eyes red, their respirators dangled around their necks. But they carried a stretcher between them. "They got her," Suzanne whispered. Everyone in the crowd behind her seemed to relax and heave a deep sigh of relief. Sheriff Doogie, who'd been clutching a blue blanket, stepped forward and laid it gingerly over the stretcher. Thrilled that the firemen had been able to make such a daring rescue, Suzanne pressed even closer. "Is it Hannah?" she asked Doogie. She crept forward expectantly, practically bumping up against his beefy shoulder now. Surely they were going to load Hannah into the waiting ambulance. They'd rush her, lights twirling and sirens blaring, to Mercy Hospital, where Dr. Sam Hazelet, Suzanne's boyfriend , Dr. Hazelet, would resuscitate Hannah and tell the old dear what an amazingly close call she'd had. "Is it Hannah?" Suzanne asked again. The brim of Doogie's modified Smokey Bear hat barely quivered. A muscle twitched in his tightly clenched jaw. "Is she . . . ?" Suzanne was about to say okay. Doogie turned to her, his eyes sorrowful, his hangdog face registering total dismay. And uttered the two fateful words that Suzanne had not expected to hear: "She's dead." CHAPTER 2 BY the time Suzanne got back to the Cackleberry Club on Friday afternoon, Toni and Petra had heard the news about the fire. They were standing in the kitchen, listening to the latest report on the radio, looking bewildered and shaken. "The whole thing's been on the radio," Toni cried out. "Tom Wick, one of WLGN's DJs, was downtown when the fire started. So he called in to the Afternoon Farm Report and the station broadcast a kind of play-by-play." Toni was wild-eyed and skittish. Her roaring metabolism kept her sleek as a cat and today her frizzled blond hair was piled atop her head making her look like a show pony. Except that show ponies didn't wear scrunchies, false eyelashes, and coral lip gloss. "Hearing the whole thing pretty much killed us," said Petra. She was big-boned and sorrowful in a pink shirt, khaki slacks, and bright green Crocs, clutching and twisting her red-checked apron in her hands as if it were a lifeline. "It was like watching one of those wars in the Middle East broadcast live on CNN." "Did they say anything about Hannah?" said Suzanne. Toni nodded solemnly and Petra, even with her natural stoicism, looked like she was about to cry. None of them were used to having a major disaster like this intrude into their daily lives. Kindred was a sleepy little Midwestern town where you shared coffee and sticky buns with your next-door neighbor, sang hymns in church on Sunday, grew bushel baskets of zucchini, and watched life chug along on a nice even keel. Nestled in a river valley next to Catawba Creek, their town was, Suzanne often thought, reminiscent of Brigadoon, that wonderful, mythical Scottish village that disappeared into the Highland mist only to emerge every hundred years. Petra continued to be dazed and more than a little angry. "How could this happen?" she choked out. "Hannah was a member of our church. She has grown children." Her placid, square-boned Scandinavian face shone with outrage. Suzanne noticed that Petra was already speaking about poor Hannah Venable in the past tense. "Maybe we should say a prayer or something," Toni mumbled. A self-proclaimed wild child who favored skintight cowboy shirts, she wasn't a regular churchgoer like Petra, but this occasion seemed to call for a certain degree of solemnity. "Yes, let's," urged Petra. Suzanne quickly glanced through the pass-through. There were three customers still sitting in the café. Two at a table, one at the marble counter. They were all working on their afternoon coffee and apple pie, looking perfectly content. "Okay," said Suzanne. "Let's take a few minutes right now. But do it fast." "Prayer should never be rushed," said Petra. "I think she meant for us to keep it short but sweet," said Toni. "Really, I'm sure it will be heard." "Dear Lord," said Petra as she bowed her head, "please accept dear Hannah Venable into your Kingdom. Please know that she was a truly good person, kind and gentle, and that she . . ." Petra halted abruptly as tears welled up in her eyes and streamed down her face. She bit her lip and shook her head, unable to go on. "And know that Hannah made the best cherry pie in town," Toni finished. "Amen," said Suzanne. She figured they really did have to wrap this up, since old Mr. Henderson was suddenly standing at the cash register, looking around, waiting to pay his bill. Not only that, she'd just caught a glint of Doogie's cruiser as it rolled into their front parking lot. Now what? Suzanne wondered. *   *   * LIKE a rifle shot, the screen door whapped open hard against the wall and Sheriff Doogie strode into the practically deserted café. His leather utility belt creaked, his broad shoulders were hunched forward, and his gait seemed heavy and dragging. Only his sharp law enforcement eyes betrayed his high level of anger and intensity. Toni, who was piling dirty dishes into a gray plastic tub, looked up and said to Suzanne, "I have a feeling we won't be closing none too early today." Suzanne took one look at Doogie and figured the same thing. Doogie made a beeline for the end stool at the marble counter. It was his favorite stool, the one that creaked when he sat down and, over the past couple of years, had assumed a distinct list. Suzanne reached behind her and grabbed a pot of coffee from where it rested on the soda fountain backdrop they'd scrounged from an old drugstore. She filled a ceramic mug for Doogie and slid it across the counter to him. "How are things at the fire?" she asked. But she could tell by the look on his face that the situation wasn't good. "Terrible," said Doogie. He took a quick gulp of coffee. "Real bad. The building's a complete disaster and--" Petra came flying out of the kitchen, shoes clumping, hair sticking up in uncharacteristic spikiness, to interrupt. "Who cares about the stupid building?" she demanded. "We want to know about Hannah! Did the poor woman even have a chance?" Doogie threw a sad, haunted look in her direction and shook his big head. "Probably not. I'm sorry . . ." His voice dropped off to a low mumble. "Did Hannah burn to death?" Toni asked, edging closer to the group. Toni had a certain fascination with the macabre that wasn't always healthy. "Toni!" cried Petra. "That's a terrible thought!" But Doogie hastened to alleviate their fears. "No, no," said Doogie, spreading his hands as if to make peace. "The fire chief was pretty sure that Hannah was overcome with smoke first." "Which means she suffocated," said Petra. She gazed at them in horror. "That's a terrible way to go." "Try not to think of it that way," said Suzanne. "Try to think of it as Hannah blacking out and not suffering much." Petra sniffed and pulled a hankie from her apron pocket. "I can try to think about it that way, but it won't be easy." "Do they know what caused the fire?" Suzanne asked. "Was it faulty wiring?" asked Toni. "That was a pretty old building, after all." "On the Historic Register," said Suzanne, recalling the sign she'd been so very lucky to duck behind. Doogie sucked air through his front teeth and hesitated. "Doogie, what?" said Suzanne. She knew the sheriff well enough to know when he was stalling. Their battery of questions had caught him a little unprepared. Doogie scratched at his chin with the back of his hand. "Ah, jeez." He looked like he was mulling something over in his head. "What?" said Petra. "Tell us," said Toni. "Fire Chief Finley's working on a couple of things," said Doogie. Suzanne cocked her head. "Such as?" Doogie stared directly at her. "The fire started with a huge burst, right? I mean, you were there. Next door at that beauty salon." "It felt like that's the way it happened," said Suzanne. Sure it had. She'd smelled smoke, run outside, and then, boom , the fire was suddenly raging. "Did you hear a loud explosion first?" Doogie asked. "Not really," said Suzanne. "What are you thinking?" asked Toni. "That it was a gas main explosion?" "Not exactly," said Doogie. He picked up his coffee cup and took a very deliberate sip. Watched out of the corner of his eye as the last customer got up and left. "There's something else going on here, isn't there?" said Suzanne. "You're already working on a theory." Doogie hesitated for a moment. "Fire Chief Finley thought there might have been an accelerant." "An accident?" said Petra. "No, an accelerant," Doogie repeated. Toni frowned. "Oh, you mean like the fire accelerated and burned super fast? Like spontaneous combustion?" "Not exactly," said Doogie. He looked around as if someone might be listening in. As if they weren't the only ones hunched around the counter at the Cackleberry Club at four in the afternoon. "You ladies have to keep what I tell you under your hats, okay? I mean, you can't be spreading this information all over town." "What?" said Suzanne, her heart doing a little flip-flop. Then, when Doogie still seemed hesitant, she spoke the terrible words they'd all been thinking but hadn't wanted to voice. "Are you saying the fire was deliberately set? That it was arson?" Doogie gave a kind of tight-lipped grimace. "It's looking that way, yes." "How would you determine that for sure?" asked Toni. Doogie frowned. "For one thing, Chief Finley is talking about bringing in an arson investigator." "Oh my," said Toni. "This is serious." *   *   * "CRAZY things like fires and arson aren't supposed to happen in Kindred," declared Petra. Sheriff Doogie had departed some fifteen minutes ago, a white bakery bag containing three sticky rolls clutched in his hand. Now the three of them were sitting in the Knitting Nest, trying to sort through and digest Doogie's words. Though he hadn't expanded on his arson theory, or said that he believed it was the absolute gospel truth, he'd certainly tap-danced around the idea. "If it was arson," said Toni, "then it was . . ." "Intentional," said Suzanne. "Exactly," said Petra. "So who would . . . ?" She shook her head and dabbed a hankie to her eyes. For all of Petra's toughness, she was still pretty much in shock. "Who indeed?" Suzanne murmured. She gazed about the Knitting Nest, the small shop that was adjacent to the café and right next door to their Book Nook. With hundreds of skeins of gorgeous yarn tucked into virtually every corner, and displays of knitting needles and quilt squares, it was a cheery little place. A kind of safe harbor. Women came from all over the tri-county area to settle into the comfy, rump-sprung chairs, work on their latest project, sip tea, and hang out. Generally, the Knitting Nest was Petra's domain. She taught knitting classes several nights a week, always encouraging her knitters with smiles and creative suggestions on new stitches and techniques. And the colorful shawls, wraps, and sweaters she'd whipped up herself were artfully displayed on the walls. But today Petra's heart was truly broken. And no kind words would mend it, no pair of smooth bamboo knitting needles would soften the look of despair on her face. "We have to do something," Petra said finally. Toni hunched her shoulders. "Do what? That's easy to wish for from the cozy environs of the Knitting Nest, but how would we even begin to make things right?" "Well, we probably can't do that ," said Petra. "Since the damage has already been done and Hannah is dead. But we can certainly do something about finding her some justice." "How about revenge?" said Toni. She prided herself on her feistiness. "That sounds good to me." "You know what?" said Suzanne. "There is something we can do." "Thank you, Suzanne," said Petra. "Whatcha got in mind?" said Toni. Suzanne held up a finger. "We can wait patiently until Doogie and Fire Chief Finley bring a professional arson investigator into town. An expert who can analyze the ashes and cinders and everything else and tell us what really happened. After all, it could have been an accident. We don't know for sure that it was arson. Doogie was really just . . . speculating." "So we do nothing?" Petra sounded shocked. "But . . ." "Arson just sounds awfully drastic," said Suzanne. "Especially for the County Services Bureau." She was suddenly pinning all her hopes on a logical explanation for today's fire. "I don't know," said Toni. "Arson's not all that tricky to pull off. Any dunce can do it. Heck, Junior once stuffed some greasy old car rags in a coffee can and then lit up a Lucky Strike." Junior was Toni's estranged husband and not the brightest bulb in the box. "Good heavens," said Petra. "What happened?" "The dang rags pretty much exploded right in his face and the flames singed his eyebrows off is what happened," said Toni. "Burned those furry little caterpillars right off his face." "I remember that particular mishap," said Suzanne. "Junior had to use an eyebrow pencil for months just to look normal." "But he always used too much," said Toni. "And ended up looking like a Groucho Marx impersonator." "Sometimes I think that husband of yours isn't quite right in the head," said Petra. She was sitting in a rocking chair, slowly picking nonexistent fuzz off her slacks. "What do you expect?" said Toni. "The poor guy suffers from DDT." "Don't you mean ADD?" said Suzanne. "Yeah, that, too," said Toni. "Petra," said Suzanne, glancing at her friend, who was slouching even deeper in her chair, "you look like you're headed into a deep blue funk." "I think I am," said Petra. "Because I . . ." She seemed to want to say more, but stopped herself by tightly clenching her jaw. Toni jumped up from her chair and scurried over to fling her arms around Petra. "Don't funk out on us, honey. Please try to think of something upbeat or happy." "Like what?" said Petra. "When all I really want . . ." "For one thing," said Toni, "tomorrow is Kit's big wedding day. I know you've been looking forward to that. We all have." Kit Kaslik was a sometime Cackleberry Club employee that Suzanne and Petra had rescued from her former job as an exotic dancer at Hoobly's Roadhouse, a disreputable bar out on County Road 18. Kit, now pregnant, was marrying her fiancé, Ricky Wilcox, tomorrow in an outdoor ceremony at Founder's Park. They'd all been looking forward to the wedding and, to celebrate the joyful event, Petra had even promised to bake a truly spectacular wedding cake. "Yes," said Petra, still looking perturbed, "there is that." "And remember," Toni went on, "Kit's having a vintage wedding. So the wedding party is going to be all duded up in vintage clothes from that funky little shop, Second Time Around, over in Jessup." She grinned. "I got a sneak peek at Kit's dress. It's all ruffled and romantic, very '60s earth mother." "It sounds lovely," said Suzanne, chiming in. "And it's nice and flowy," said Toni. "So you can't really tell that Kit's got a bun in the oven." "Oh dear," said Petra, her brow furrowing. "I wish you hadn't brought that up." Petra wasn't thrilled that Kit was having what she euphemistically referred to as a shotgun wedding. "Let's just let that go," said Suzanne. "It is what it is and we can't change things." Toni looked thoughtful. "I just hope there isn't any fallout from the fire and that it's not still smoky downtown. That burned building is awfully close to the park where Kit's wedding is gonna take place." "I doubt the fire will upset her plans at all," said Suzanne. "That building's still a couple of blocks away. You can't even see it from where the bandstand is. There's a whole row of birch trees and a grove of oaks blocking the view." "Petra," said Toni, "you're still going to bake Kit's wedding cake, aren't you?" "Of course I am," said Petra. "I said I would and I never break my promises. I've got a design all sketched out and I plan to start baking first thing tomorrow so the cake's all nice and fresh." "That'll for sure put you in a better mood," said Toni. "I don't know," said Petra. She hoisted herself out of her chair with a huge sigh of resignation. "I can't stop thinking about Hannah and . . ." She stopped abruptly and shook her head. "Petra," said Suzanne. "Is there something you want to tell us?" It felt like Petra was holding back. "No," said Petra. "At least not until I get my mind in the right place." CHAPTER 3 THEY locked up the Cackleberry Club then, getting ready to head for home. After Petra sped off in her car, still looking upset and out of sorts, Suzanne and Toni lingered in the back parking lot, talking. With the late-summer sun lasering down through the oaks and pine trees that bordered the lot, the day felt warm and mellow. But the leaves on the sumac were starting to turn red and Suzanne had noticed a few tinges of gold and yellow among the poplars and white oaks. Summer on the wane, autumn sneaking up on us, she thought. Where did the time go? Why did the seasons whip by as if you were riding a wildly spinning carrousel and leaning out to frantically grab the brass ring? And then Suzanne remembered, she had grabbed the brass ring. After her husband, Walter, had died a year and a half ago, she hadn't been sure if she could ever be truly happy again. That worry had been one of the deciding factors, the impetus to open the Cackleberry Club. If you build it, they will come, she'd told herself. Plus it would give her mind a vacation from sorrow and sadness. And she had hoped that maybe, somewhere along the line, she might find peace and happiness again. Well, customers had come. They poured in for morning breakfast, farm-to-table lunches, and afternoon tea and scones. And somewhere in that whole crazy, jumbled process of becoming an entrepreneur, negotiating contracts, building a customer base, and expanding into books and yarn, Suzanne found herself bouncing back. She found her happy. And then, wonder of wonders, she'd met Dr. Sam Hazelet, whose crooked grin, sense of humor, and steady optimism had really made her happy. And wasn't that just the cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae. Suzanne blinked, suddenly coming out of her reverie and realizing that Toni had just spoken to her. "Excuse me, what did you say?" "Have you got big plans for tonight?" By "big plans" Toni was asking if Suzanne had a date with Sam. "No, nothing. What about you?" "Aw, I'm just gonna go home and curl up with the latest issue of OK! magazine. See which stars are back in rehab." "Ah," said Suzanne. She figured Toni had something on her mind. Sooner or later she'd spit it out. Toni stuck the scuffed toe of one cowboy boot into the sand and shoved it around, creating a panorama of miniature hieroglyphics. "What if you and I went downtown and took a look at that burned-out building?" "Why would we want to do that?" Toni shook her head. "Dunno. It just feels like something we should do. Kind of for Hannah's sake. Look at the . . . remains." Suzanne mulled this over for a few moments. "Okay. I guess I can see your point." Truth be told, she was a little curious, too. What was going on down there? Had any sort of arson investigation kicked into gear yet? Had the building been deemed an official crime scene? Maybe there were some answers to be gleaned. She pulled open the driver's side door of her Taurus. "See you there?" "Sure," said Toni. Just as Suzanne was pulling out, a blue BMW turned into her lot and cruised toward her. She rolled to a stop, grinned happily, and thought to herself, Sam, how perfect. She jumped from her car just as Sam came to a quick stop and jumped out of his car. He was wearing blue scrubs and a pair of New Balance shoes. With casually tousled brown hair and intelligent blue eyes, he had a slightly preppy, boy-next-door look to him. They were in each other's arms in a heartbeat, kissing, hugging, cooing greetings to each other since it had been two whole days since they'd last seen each other. "I was worried about you," Sam said, his words tumbling out. "I knew you were downtown today." His eyes mirrored his concern; his voice, generally smooth and mellow, conveyed a touch of worry. "I witnessed the entire thing," said Suzanne. "The explosion, fire, everything. I was getting my hair, um, done at Root 66." She didn't want to go into too much detail. Sam was four years younger than she was, and didn't need to know all the sordid details about root touch-ups, foils, and hair color. Instead, she went on to tell him about the fire, the firemen showing up, and the tragedy of poor Hannah Venable. "I knew it was bad," said Sam. "I was in a meeting at the hospital and heard the ambulance go screaming out of the ER bay." "But they were too late." "It's still a piece of luck that there was only one casualty." "Sheriff Doogie's already talking arson," Suzanne blurted out. "Is that a fact? Wow. I hadn't heard anything about that. That puts a whole 'nother spin on things." "Why would someone intentionally set a fire?" Suzanne asked. "For the thrill of it? To cover something up? Or are they just . . . deviant?" "I'm no psychiatrist," said Sam. "But I know that arson often has deep-seated roots that can stretch back to an unhappy childhood." "Sounds awful," said Suzanne. "So a person does it just to gain attention?" "Sometimes," said Sam. "Or they're acting out, crying for help, or . . ." He stopped. "Or what?" "Or they think their actions are perfectly normal." Suzanne's brows knit together. "Normal? How would you deal with someone with that sort of mentality?" Sam gazed at her. "Very carefully." Then his smile warmed up again. "Okay, gotta get back to work. You take care now." "Always," said Suzanne. *   *   * "OH man," Toni cried when they met in the middle of Main Street some ten minutes later. "With the County Services Building destroyed, this block looks like a jack-o'-lantern with its front teeth knocked out." Suzanne had to agree. The building, still smoldering, stood in total ruin. The front walls and windows were completely gone. So was the second floor, where a small apartment had been located. The only thing left of the roof was a web of blackened timber, open to the sky in most places. The brick wall that abutted Root 66 seemed relatively intact, but the opposite side and back walls had been reduced to rubble. The gutted, jagged remains reminded Suzanne of old newsreels she'd seen of bombed-out buildings in Berlin at the end of World War II. "And it's still all smoky," said Toni, wrinkling her nose. "It's awful," Suzanne agreed. An acrid smell and faint haze hung over this entire block of downtown Kindred. And even though the rubble was black and charred--nothing really left to burn--the smaller of the town's two fire trucks was still parked at the curb with two uniformed firemen standing watch. "I guess they think the fire might start up again," said Toni, gesturing at the fire truck. "Or maybe that a gas line might have been disrupted and could spark another blaze," said Suzanne. "They can do that?" "I think so," said Suzanne. She noticed that Gene Gandle, the intrepid reporter from the Bugle , was dashing about, snapping pictures like crazy and scribbling in his notebook. With his skinny body and flapping suit, he reminded her of a scarecrow. Toni glanced around at the crowd of two dozen or so folks who had gathered as a hazy twilight began to slowly descend upon their town. They all talked in low voices and seemed intrigued by the wreckage. "See, we weren't the only ones who felt compelled to come here. Lots of folks came out to take a gander." "This is a major event for Kindred," said Suzanne. "In fact, I don't recall ever seeing a fire quite this destructive." "There was that fire last year at the Pixie Quick," said Toni. "I think some kids tossed firecrackers into the Dumpster out back. It just blew the top off and spread a bunch of rotten lettuce and oranges around." "Oh . . . right," said Toni as she continued to scan the crowd. "Hey!" She brightened considerably when she suddenly spotted a familiar face. "Look who's here." She lifted an arm and pointed toward Ricky Wilcox. "Back again," said Suzanne. "I ran into Ricky this afternoon right at the height of the fire. Well, him and just about everybody else in downtown Kindred." "Hey, Ricky!" Toni called. She was waving like crazy now, all jacked up with excitement. "Howdy-do, fella!" Ricky noticed Toni waving and lifted an arm in a shy return greeting. Then he ambled through the crowd to talk to them. Ricky had sandy brown hair that perfectly matched his eyes, a husky build, and a youthful face, sprinkled with freckles and tanned from a summer of outdoor work. "What are you doing here?" said Toni. "Aren't you supposed to be attending some wild and crazy bachelor party and pouring Wild Turkey down your gullet? After all, this is your last night as a free man!" Ricky ducked his head. "Ah, I was just checking on the arrangements over in the park." "I hope everything's okay," said Suzanne. She hoped the smoke hadn't affected any of the wedding plans. To her, a wedding in the park, under a verdant bower of trees, seemed like a perfect idea. After all, what better cathedral to be married in than God's own? "Everything looks pretty fantastic," said Ricky, a grin creasing his face. "The bandstand has been strung with garlands and little white twinkle lights, and the chairs go in first thing tomorrow." "You must be all keyed up about this," said Toni. "I know we are." "I just wish Kit and I had more time for a proper honeymoon," said Ricky. "Oh no," said Suzanne. "Don't tell me your National Guard unit finally got called up?" She was afraid that was going to happen. Kit had been giving them constant updates on Ricky's unit and there'd been rumors all over town. Ricky nodded. "Yup, looks like I'm off to Afghanistan. I was hoping it wouldn't happen until November, but our orders are to take off this coming Thursday. At least that's the plan." He furrowed his brow. "I had to give notice at work. Sure hate to give up twenty bucks an hour for what Uncle Sam is going to pay me." "Only six days until you have to leave," said Toni. "That's an awfully short honeymoon." She gave a sly wink. "I trust you'll make the best of it." Suzanne just smiled. With Kit three months pregnant, she figured the honeymoon had already come and gone. Now she just prayed that the two young people could manage the stress of a long-distance military marriage as well as the birth of their first child. Toni clapped Ricky on the back. "Okay, Mr. Groom, we'll see you tomorrow!" As Suzanne and Toni headed for their cars, they were suddenly accosted by another familiar character. "Good evening, ladies," said Carmen Copeland. Carmen was a prominent romance author who lived in the neighboring town of Jessup. She was caustic, snooty, snotty, and exotic-looking--and the New York Times bestsellers she consistently churned out had made her rich. Which meant she indulged her taste in clothes and jewelry and always wrapped herself in the latest couture. Today her floral-print silk blouse and cream suede skirt were pure Givenchy, and the bright red soles on her four-inch-high alligator stilettos clearly proclaimed Louboutin. Because Carmen considered herself a glittering fashionista and the undisputed arbiter in all matters of taste and style, she'd opened a clothing boutique called Alchemy in downtown Kindred. Suzanne always figured it was Carmen's fiendish scheme to impose fashion and flair on what Carmen considered the little brown wrens of Kindred. But to Suzanne's amazement, Carmen's boutique had proven quite successful. Women actually purchased the silk blouses, filmy scarves, leather moto jackets, statement rings, and Hudson jeans that Carmen stocked in her shop. And Suzanne's good friend Missy Langston, although she had been fired and rehired multiple times by Carmen, still worked as store manager. Though Suzanne carried the entire backlist of Carmen's books in her Book Nook, the two women were basically oil and water. For whatever reason, they always seemed to argue or clash. Tonight, however, Suzanne made up her mind to be civil to Carmen. Correction, more than civil. She would shoot for cordial. "How are things in the rarefied air of the New York Times ?" Suzanne asked. Carmen's most recent release, Blossom's Sweet Revenge , had just landed at the number seven slot on the list. "Holding my own," said Carmen. "But as far as rarefied air goes, isn't this a complete disaster?" She flapped one hand disdainfully at the hulking wreck of the burned building. Suzanne bit down hard, the better to hold her tongue. "You know, Carmen, Hannah Venable was killed here today." "You're right," said Carmen, "it's terribly sad." She didn't sound one bit sad. "But this horrendous odor . . . I'm terrified it's going to seep into my boutique and taint all our clothing. We just received an enormous shipment of Cavalli jeans this morning--a dozen boxes--and I'm debating whether to even unpack them." She waved a hand in front of her nose as if, through sheer force of will, she could eradicate the offensive odor. "It's supposed to be nice and breezy tonight," said Toni. "Maybe this smoke will all get swept away." She gave a little snort. "Maybe all the way over to Jessup." "I live in Jessup," Carmen said in a steely tone. "Oh," said Toni. "Sorry." "Are you coming to the big wedding tomorrow?" Suzanne asked. "I'm afraid I had to decline," said Carmen. "As usual, I have a publishing deadline that's fraying my nerves and wrecking havoc with my beauty sleep." "Be sure to stop by the Cackleberry Club when you get a chance," said Suzanne. "We'd love to have you sign a few copies of your new book. In fact, we've already sold nearly half our stock." Carmen gave a self-satisfied smile and Suzanne decided that Carmen reminded her of the evil queen in Sleeping Beauty. If Carmen ever offered her an apple wedge she'd for sure decline it. "Your new book looks totally hot," Toni bubbled. "At least the guy on the cover does!" "Aren't you sweet," said Carmen, "to offer such a learned literary critique." She gave Toni a withering glance that also seemed to convey pity. "See you later," said Suzanne. She gave Toni's arm a good tug and pulled her away. When they were out of earshot, Toni said, "Why is it I can start out feeling like a million bucks, and when I run into Carmen I get reduced to a lousy peso?" "Don't pay the slightest bit of attention to her," said Suzanne. "She does that to everyone. Tries to intimidate or one-up you." "With you, too?" Excerpted from Scorched Eggs by Laura Childs All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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