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…
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.
Read an Excerpt
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!”
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 that hadn’t ended well. But sometimes, even now, when I found myself humming “Danza, danza fanciulla gentile,” I could hear Miss Abbandonato saying, “Ciao, Lilah, splendido!”
She had told us, in the early days of our classes, that her family name meant “forsaken,” and I had remembered it when I, too, was betrayed. Abbandonato. How forsaken I had felt back then.
I turned off my phone and smiled at Mick, who was still licking his chops. We climbed out of the car and made our way to the cozy little cottage with its green wood door and berry wreath. Home sweet home.
I grabbed my mail out of the tin box and unlocked the door, letting Mick and me into our kingdom. We had hardwood floors, too, at least a few feet of them in our little foyer. The living room was carpeted in an unfortunate brown shag, but it was clean, and there was a fireplace that made the whole first floor snug and welcoming.
My kitchen was tiny and clean, and between my little dining area and the living room was a spiral staircase that led up to a loft bedroom. Every night I thanked God for Terry Randall and his generous heart (and for my savvy parents, who had talked him into renting me my dollhouse cottage).
As I set my things down, my phone rang.
“Hi, honey.” It was my mother. I could hear her doing something in the background—probably putting away groceries. “Are you going to bingo with me tonight?”
“Mom. Bingo is so loud and annoying, and those crazy women with their multiple cards and highlighters . . .”
“Are what? Our good friends and fellow parishioners?”
I groaned. “Don’t judge me, Mom. Just because I get tired of Trixie Frith and Theresa Scardini and their braying voices—”
“Lilah Veronica! What has gotten into you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sweetie, you have to get out. Dad thinks you have agoraphobia.”
“I don’t have agoraphobia. I just happen to like my house and my dog.”
“What song is in your head right now?”
My mother knew this odd little fact: I always had a song in my head. There was one in there when I woke up each morning—often something really obscure, like a commercial jingle from the nineties, when I was a kid—and one in my head when I went to bed at night. It was not always a conscious thing, but it was always there, like a sound track to my life. My mother had used it as a way to gauge my mood when I was little. If I was happy it was always something like “I Could Have Danced All Night” (I loved musicals) or some fun Raffi song. If she heard me humming “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” she knew I needed cheering up. Nowadays my musical moods could swing from Adele to Abba in a matter of hours. “I don’t know. I think I was humming Simon and Garfunkel a minute ago.”
“Hmm—that could go either way.”
“Don’t worry about it, Mom.”
“You haven’t spent much time with young people lately. You need to get out on the town with Jenny, like in the old days when you two were in college.”
“I’m planning just that next week. We’ve been texting about it. But, Mom, I’m not in college anymore. And neither is Jenny. She’s busy with her job, I’m busy with my jobs—plural. And if you are subtly implying that you want me to meet men, I am not ready for that, either.”
My mother sighed dramatically in my ear. “One bad relationship doesn’t mean you can’t find something good.”
“No. It just means I’m not interested in finding a man right now. I think I’m a loner. I like being alone.”
“I think you’re hiding.”
“Mom, stop the pop psychology. I have a great life: a growing business, a nice house, a loving family, and a devoted dog. People who saw my life would wish they were me.”
“Except no one sees your life, because you hide away from the world in your little house behind a house.”
“Right. With my agoraphobia,” I said, choosing to find my mother’s words amusing instead of annoying. She had found me this house, after all.
“Come with me tonight. I heard that Pet will be making her chili. It’s my favorite,” said my mother, who was one of only three people who knew my secret.
“I guess I’ll go,” I said. “But only because I’m hoping your crazy luck will rub off on me and I’ll win the jackpot.”
My mother had won two thousand dollars at bingo six months earlier. She came home beaming, and my father groused about the fact that she went at all. Then she pulled out twenty hundred-dollar bills and set them in his lap. Now he didn’t say much about bingo, especially since they’d used the money to buy him a state-of-the-art recliner.
What I could do with two thousand dollars. . . . I gazed around the kitchen and indulged a brief lust for gourmet tools, an updated countertop, or even a new stainless steel refrigerator—the wide kind that accommodated large pans.
“Great!” said my mother. “Do you want to come over now and we’ll hang out together before we go? I have a couple of Netflix movies. One is a Doris Day. Remember how we used to watch her when you were little, and have our tea parties?”
I laughed. “I do remember. And as I recall, you developed quite a crush on Cary Grant after watching That Touch of Mink.”
“Oh yes,” my mother said. “My secret crush.”
“It’s not secret. Dad knows about it and hates it.”
She giggled. “Your father is attractive when he’s jealous.”
“Anyway. I have to pass on the movies—I need to walk Mick. I have one last delivery, and then I’ll be there for our bingo date.”
“Okay.” Her voice had brightened since I’d agreed to go. My mother was an innately cheerful person.
I grabbed a water bottle from my fridge and hooked Mick’s leash to his collar. We went outside, through Terry’s amazing backyard, with its plush furniture and giant stone birdbath, down his driveway, and out onto Dickens Street, where we walked at a leisurely pace and admired the Halloween decorations. The evening was cold and dark, yet somehow cozy because of all the glowing yellow and orange lights, and the occasional jack-o’-lantern lighting up a storefront window. The air smelled like woodsmoke and winter, and Mick kept pausing to sniff it. My brain was playing a song that my dad had once sung to me when I was little—something by Don Henley with the name Lilah in it. The melody was a pretty blend of love song and lullaby, and my father said he had started singing it to me almost the moment I was born. So I walked along hearing the refrain of my own name, which was both comforting and disconcerting. We went around the block and returned home, where Mick ambled to his basket beside the fireplace for a little evening nap.
“Okay, buddy. I’m going out for a while, but I’ll see you after bingo, okay?”
Mick gave a half nod because he was already dozing.
I went out and locked my door behind me. I returned to the car, where I had a Mexican casserole waiting, keeping chilled in the October air. This one was for Danielle Prentiss, who hosted poker parties at her house on Saturday nights. I drove to the outskirts of town, to Jamison Woods, a little forest preserve where Mick and I would sometimes go on a weekend morning to watch wildlife and enjoy nature. In Mick’s case this often meant chasing things, and once it had even involved pursuing a young deer. He stayed on its tail as far as the tree line, and then they both paused, looking at each other. Mick finally peered back at me, confused. He wasn’t sure what in the world he was supposed to do with this animal. I laughed and took pictures on my phone; eventually the deer ambled off, no longer afraid of my big soft-hearted puppy.
I pulled into the empty parking lot; no hikers were visible on this particular day. Dani showed up in her station wagon with the wood-look sides, seeming as always like a throwback from the seventies. She climbed out of her car and met me at the back of mine. “Hey, Lilah. Thanks for meeting me at our little rendezvous point.” She grinned at me and blew out some smoke; only then did I notice the cigarette in her hand, although I shouldn’t have been surprised—Dani was a two-pack-a-day smoker, and her raspy voice told the tale.
“Sure. I made this one with some extra onion and cheese, as your patrons requested,” I said, pulling out the box that contained the glass baking pan. “I think you’ll like it even better than last time. I put in a new and wonderful spice.”
“Just a little cumin. Not enough to change anything—just to enhance it.”
She looked at me, dubious. “I really liked it the old way.”
“You’ll love it. Have I ever given you anything bad?”
She shook her head. “No. I love your cooking.” She grinned at me. “And my poker pals love mine!”
“That’s right. And when they ask you why it’s so extra delicious, say it’s cumin.”
I set the box in her arms and slammed my door.
“Money’s in my jacket, hon,” said Dani, sniffing the box.
A little white envelope jutted out of her pocket. I took it out; it smelled like smoke.
“Thanks, Dani. Just e-mail me when you need another dish.”
“You got it, hon. Hey, your hair looks pretty. I like it in a braid like that. It’s so thick.” She sighed. “I always wanted blonde hair, like a Disney princess. Instead I got boring brown, and then it turned gray. What’re you gonna do?” she asked, and laughed.
I laughed, too. “Thanks, Dani. For the job and the compliment. See you soon!”
I climbed into my car and sighed deeply. My day’s work was done, and now I could relax. With my mother. At St. Bart’s bingo.
Some Saturday nights were more exciting than others.
When my mother and I got to St. Bart’s, the parking lot was already full. People loved bingo; these were serious gamblers who figured the odds were much better here than in the lottery, and they meant business. Sure, there was some socializing, but when Father Schmidt called those numbers, people who were smart knew to sit down and shut up. I told my mom about the Lilah song, and we started singing it together as we walked toward the entrance. Then she laughed one of those nostalgic laughs. “Ah, I can still see Daddy rocking you in your little carrier and singing that song. And you would look at him so solemnly, with your big wide eyes, as if you didn’t want to go to sleep and miss part of the melody.”
I laughed, too, and we walked through the entrance. Things hadn’t started yet, but the room was bustling with activity. Mom and I purchased our cards (a modest three each) and found a table. Barb Hadley and her husband, Mel, whom we knew only slightly, had already taped down their thirty cards and were lining up their big pink daubers. They were no-nonsense about winning, and they barely spared us a glance. Mel was telling his wife that when the buffet line opened, she should grab him a bowl of chili before it ran out. My face warmed with the unexpected compliment.
In the kitchen on the north side of the hall, we could hear chatter and laughter as various cooks prepared their dishes. Pet’s chili pot already sat on a side table, the one labeled “may contain nut products.” I had never revealed my secret ingredients to Pet, but there was a nut-based ingredient in the chili, so it had to be separated from the non-nut food in these days of terrible allergies. The “nut products” table was quite full, with all sorts of other appetizers and main dishes. Across from it was an equally long table of nut-free dishes. The food smelled good, and I realized that I was hungry.
I waved at some people I knew: the three Grandy sisters, Pet, Angelica, and Harmonia; Trixie and Theresa, the inseparable “church ladies”; Shelby Jansen, a teenager from the parish and a family friend; Father Schmidt and Mary Breen, the housekeeper at the rectory. Bert Spielman, our town librarian and a bingo lover mostly because he enjoyed socializing with the St. Bart’s crowd, many of whom were his patrons, stared down at his two cards with an intelligent gaze, as though he were finding significance in the random numbers.
“Isn’t this fun?” my mother asked. “Mother and daughter on the town.”
“I could think of other ways to be on the town,” I murmured.
My mother waited until I locked eyes with her. She looked pretty; her brown eyes were wide and bright, and she wore a lavender dress that brought out their color. “What I mean is that it’s nice to spend time with you. We haven’t done anything lately, just you and me. What takes up all your time?”
“Nothing,” I said glumly. “Just Mick and my jobs. You know the drill. And I read a lot of books and listen to music and stuff.”
Clearly she wasn’t finished with her agoraphobia theme. “You should get out more,” she said brightly. “And not just with me. Terry’s having another party next week. Are you going?”
“He invited me, yeah.”
“You should bring a boy with you.”
“A boy? Like a six-year-old?”
My mother sighed. “A man, then. Are you seeing anyone?”
“Not since Angelo.” We both shuddered. Angelo, true to his name, had once seemed sent from heaven; that had proved to be an illusion. My brother Cameron said that men named for angels probably felt compelled to be bad.
“I see Pet is in her element,” my mother said, leaning closer and lowering her voice. “I’ll bet she’s jealous that Alice Dixon is the one who gets to start off the festivities and do her little tasting ritual. So weird, really.”
Alice was the president of St. Bart’s Altar and Rosary Guild, which helped to run bingo nights. While Pet tended to slave away on the setup for events, Alice was the face—and the voice—of authority. Generally on bingo nights she would signal that the buffet was open by tasting a main dish—usually Pet’s chili, because Pet had earned this honor with all her labor—and telling everyone how delicious it was, and that they should join her in the buffet line.
Alice was a tall woman with dark hair, artfully graying at the temples. She had dark eyes and wore elegant clothing, and generally she was considered a trendsetter among the St. Bart’s congregation. I imagined her age to be anywhere between forty and fifty—it was hard to tell with people like Alice, who probably used expensive products that preserved a certain youthfulness in her appearance. She seldom smiled, and I had always suspected it was her way of trying to minimize mouth wrinkles.
“Well, Alice was elected fair and square,” I said. “I don’t see why Pet doesn’t run for president.”
My mother nodded, watching Perpetua as she scuttled toward the food table with a basket of rolls. Behind her were two of her seven sisters, Angelica and Harmonia. Pet and these two were the last of the Grandys to stay in Pine Haven, probably because they were the three who had not married. They all looked similar to one another, except Pet’s sisters were light-haired and not yet graying. They tended to follow Pet as a matter of course, supporting her in all of her endeavors and often seemingly reading her mind. Now Angelica marched after Pet with a dish of butter, and Harmonia with a pile of napkins.
“Oh, those Grandy girls,” my mother said with a sigh. “They’re like a throwback to the sixties with their nun names and their servitude. They need to find a hobby, or travel outside this town.”
“They’re not girls, Mom. They’re probably in their fifties.”
“Well, anyway. Oh, good—here’s Alice. I’m starving!”
Alice Dixon approached the microphone that Father Schmidt had set up a few moments earlier. She looked perfect, as usual, with her dark sweep of hair and her stylish blue-gray dress. I didn’t know Alice Dixon well, but I had never liked her. My feelings were based not on one event but on various things I’d noted over the years: Alice’s tendency to wear a superior expression when she was around Pet or one of the other women who toiled around the church; her usual excessive use of a very unpleasant perfume; her snappish answers when people asked her questions. Once I had seen her give a sarcastic response to two little children who were helping with Christmas decorations around the altar. They’d asked her something, in voices barely audible, and she had snarled at them.
In public, though, and in front of a microphone, Alice was all smiles and loveliness. Her ex-husband Hank sat in one corner with his bingo cards and his new girlfriend, Tammy, and he barely looked up when Alice began to speak.
“Good evening, everyone. I’m Alice Dixon, and I’m the president of St. Bart’s Altar and Rosary Guild. Thanks for coming out to support St. Bart’s bingo night!”
Some scattered applause.
“Tonight’s big jackpot is two thousand, five hundred dollars!”
That got bigger applause. People really were greedy, I reflected. But then again, I’d been wondering how many bingo jackpots would allow me to enlarge the kitchen in Terry’s little guesthouse. . . .
Alice smiled again and picked up a bowl of chili from the table next to her. “Pet has made her delicious chili for us tonight, and many other cooks have brought delicacies to our table so that we won’t go hungry while we listen to those numbers!”
Applause and some laughter.
Alice took a big bite of chili. I hoped she hadn’t let it get cold. “Pet’s chili is delicious, as always—and I think you’ve added something new, haven’t you, Pet? Something sweet. It provides an interesting counterpoint to the flavor.” Pet shot a look at me and I shook my head. Nothing new in the chili. Alice took another bite and set the dish down. “Anyway, this officially starts our evening’s festivities; I hope that—oh my!” She swayed slightly before us, looking distressed. Her right hand flew to her forehead, her left to her abdomen. “I think that—something’s wrong. With the chili.”
Then she fell like a stone, and we heard her head hit the floor.
A chorus of screams and groans rose in the crowd; several people ran to Alice where she lay unmoving, including my mother, Alice’s ex-husband Hank, and Brad Witherspoon, who was a doctor. I made my way to the front, too, and went to the chili pot. Surely I couldn’t have used bad ingredients? I always checked expiration dates and smelled the food before I cooked it. This had been a fine batch—a delicious batch. I lifted the lid and inhaled. Oh, there was something wrong with the chili, all right. Someone had tampered with it, and it did not smell right.
I turned to Father Schmidt, who stood near me. “Don’t let anyone eat this,” I said. “And I think you should call the police.”
“We’ve already called an ambulance,” Father Schmidt said, his face pale.
“Call the police, too, Father,” I said gently. “Something’s wrong about this.”
I moved to the doorway, where Pet stood wringing her hands. “What should I do?” she said.
“Do you want me to tell them? When the police come? Should I tell them I made it?” I whispered.
Pet looked surprisingly defiant. “Well, no—because after Alice gets better I’m still going to want to make food for events. Everyone loves my food,” she said, tears spiking her eyes.
“It’s okay, Pet. Maybe one of the ladies thought she was being helpful and added something to it in the kitchen. But it smells strange now.”
“So if they ask me—?”
“Just say that someone tampered with your chili. Go lift the lid—you’ll see what I mean.”
The ambulance arrived, and the attendants rushed in to Alice, who was surrounded now on the floor. Pet went over to the chili and opened the lid; her brows creased in surprise. Then she returned. “I’ll tell them that. So I don’t want you to say anything, Lilah. This is mine and I made it. Okay?”
“I just don’t want you to be blamed for anything—”
“I won’t, because I didn’t do anything wrong.” Her plump little body was rigid and stubborn as a child’s. She wore jeans and a sweatshirt that said London in white letters on a black background.
“I know, Pet.” I tried not to look at the cluster of people around Alice. “How many people had access to that kitchen tonight?” I asked.
Pet sighed a quivering sigh. “Oh Lord, everyone and her brother. There were some high school kids helping us for a service project. Me and my sisters, of course. Alice and some of the Rosary Guild ladies. Hank and his girlfriend, who made a dessert. Father Schmidt. Trixie and Theresa. Mary, the rectory housekeeper. Bert Spielman came in to sniff things. Some more people, probably.”
She trembled as they carried Alice out on a stretcher, her arm connected to an IV. The ambulance attendants were running. The brief glimpse I caught of Alice must have been an optical illusion, because her skin looked weirdly pink.
“Oh God,” I murmured.
Father Schmidt had started a group prayer, and most of the people in the room had joined in.
A moment later some uniformed officers showed up at the door and glanced around; they spied Father Schmidt and went to him, their various tools of the trade clicking and jingling on their belts. He stopped praying and conferred with the officers in low tones. Then he went to the microphone and lifted it with shaking hands.
“The police have just informed me that they would like everyone to stay here for the time being.” He cleared his throat. “They have also informed me that our dear friend Alice Dixon—has just died.”
A wail of distress and fear rose in the small crowd.
Father Schmidt wiped away a tear and said, “And the ladies have told me that no one else should eat the chili.”
Pet was sitting on a folding chair near a window, taking deep breaths and accepting comfort from her sisters. My mother, who had CPR training and had tried to help Alice, was looking pale and shell-shocked. I was scanning faces, trying to imagine what could have happened, what horrible accident had somehow caused Alice Dixon’s death.
The police had been questioning people and taking notes; now a new group of police officers appeared in the doorway, and more of them flowed into the scene, including a man in a shirt and tie and a woman in a blue suit. The man looked familiar—my stomach lurched. It was the man from Ellie’s house: the one who had accused me of being a thief. He looked different because he didn’t have his glasses on, but it was the same guy, all right. Now I was at the scene of a death, and I had made the food that might potentially have killed the woman in question.
As if sensing my fear, the man in the suit looked my way and seemed to recognize me; his brows went up and his body moved forward, toward me. Then he was there, tall and intense, his mouth a serious line. “Hello again.”
“Hello. Did your mother verify that I was not a criminal?”
He nodded, smiling briefly as he scanned the room over my head. “What brings you here tonight?”
“Bingo. I mean, my mom wanted to play, so I came along. We were just waiting for the event to start, and Alice did this thing she always does, which is to eat some food in order to encourage people to start heading toward the buffet. And it seemed to make her sick. Are you a cop, or what?”
He pulled out a badge. It said Detective Inspector Jacob Parker, Pine Haven PD.
“Oh boy,” I murmured.
“Listen, there’s something you should know. Pet’s chili is always delicious, and—it’s made with great care. I’ve eaten it many times. But tonight, after Alice ate the chili, I went to the pot and smelled the batch, and it’s not right.”
“So you think she might have gotten food poisoning?”
I shook my head. “Food poisoning doesn’t manifest itself that quickly. She took a bite and she was almost instantly ill.”
His brows rose. “Where is this chili?”
I led him to my big, beautiful Crock-Pot, and he lifted the lid. He leaned in and inhaled, then quickly covered the pot again. “Simmons!” he yelled, and a man jogged over. “I want this taken into evidence.” He turned to me. “Excuse us for a moment, will you?”
I stepped away, but I kept watching them as they spoke in low voices. Then they wrapped the entire pot in some sort of crime lab cellophane and carried it out of the room.
The police were ordering that all of the windows be opened.
Parker came back to me. “Listen—Lilah, right?”
“Go into the nearest lavatory and wash your face.”
“Wash your eyes, too. If this is the poison I think it is, then you’ll want to wash off any trace of vapor before it can affect you. Just to be on the safe side. Did anyone else inhale it?”
I gestured toward Pet, and he sent someone to her with the same message.
“Did you say poison?” I said.
He pointed. “Go wash.”
I ran to the bathroom and washed, suddenly terrified that I was dying. Pet was at the opposite sink, splashing away at her face and crying. “What in the world is happening?” she asked, burbling into the water.
Excerpted from "The Big Chili"
Copyright © 2015 Julia Buckley.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I adore this book! Great cozy mystery with interesting characters. I received this book as a gift and immediately bought the other 2 books available. I can't wait to see what Lilah does next!! I think a character named Katie, who moves to Nashville should be introduced.
Fun and compelling!
I have been reading new authors, and enjoyed this fun book. Love, murder, music, food and a dog. What more could you want?
I was surprised by the killer.
What an entertaining new mystery in a cute town called Pine Haven. And Lilah Drake definitely has my new favorite dog sidekick, a chocolate lab named Mick, whose head nods as though he’s really listening (and I bet he understands it all too!). Lilah works in her parents’ real estate office, but has begun providing food to various townspeople in hopes of eventually starting her own catering business. When the chili she has made for Pet Grandy winds up poisoning another (unlikable) church member, Lilah can’t help but be drawn in to a bit of sleuthing. There were a lot of new characters to get to know, but I really liked Lilah’s family and the new detective in town.
Who Poisoned the Chili? I couldn’t pass up on the idea behind the Undercover Dish series. Actually, I’m a bit surprised that we haven’t seen it done before with all of the culinary cozy series out there. However, I unfortunately found that The Big Chili wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped it would be. Lilah Drake works part time for her parents at their realty office. However, her real dream is to be working with food, and she supplements her income with a quiet catering business. She makes dishes for clients and lets them pretend that they made it themselves. While it doesn’t allow her to gain a well-deserved reputation for her hard work, she has a loyal client base that is extremely happy with her work. One of those happy clients is Pet Grandy, who has become well known for “her” chili, which she always brings to the parish’s bingo night. However, the latest batch has some poison in it, and a woman dies before the bingo night begins. Now Lilah has a dilemma – should she break her client’s confidence and make herself a suspect to the police. Or should she find the killer herself so her secret doesn’t matter? As I said, this book has a unique premise and a fun twist on the motive for the main character to get involved with the investigation. The murder happens fairly early in the book, and the plot moves forward at a steady pace for most of the book. I did feel it got bogged down as we were approaching the end, which is a bit surprising, although we do get a logical and satisfying climax. The book is populated with a variety of fun characters. They are a bit on the caricature side, especially at first, but as the book progresses and we get to know them better, they are fleshed out and feel more real. They are always fun, and I enjoyed spending time with them. Unfortunately, I felt the romantic sub-plot weakened the book. I was okay with what was happening and where it was going until the end. Heck, I’m even okay with what happened at the end since I found one character’s reaction to things perfectly believable. However, I felt the other character overreacted to things. The effect was that the entire thing felt rushed and forced to me. Of course, we get some delicious sounding recipes at the back. They are mainly for casserole type dishes, the chili of the title being an obvious exception. They sound delicious, so if you are looking for some new choices to try, you’ll love them. I wanted to like The Big Chili, and I liked it for the most part. Unfortunately, the flaws kept me from liking it as much as I thought I would. NOTE: I was sent a copy of this book in hopes I would review it.
The Big Chili is the first book the Undercover Dish Mystery. A wonderful new series, too. Lilah Drake works for her parents in their real estate office, but her true love is cooking. For the residents of Pine Haven, Lilah will discreetly prepare meals and secretly deliver them so that know one needs to know someone else prepared it. Pet Grandy is very involved with her church St. Bartholomew and the Altar Guild. Whenever the church has a Bingo night, everyone looks forward to Pet's chili, but she is a terrible cook. That's where Lilah comes in, she prepares the chili and delivers it to Pet. But then things go wrong when Alice Dixon, president of the Altar Guild, announces that food is ready and bingo is about to begin. Then she takes a big bite of the chili and collapses and a short while later, dies of poisoning. Lilah is caught in the proverbial between a rock and a hard place. Should she the detective, Jay Parker, in charge of the investigation and the son of one of her customers and who had caught Lilah in his mother's house, taking money out of her cookie jar or just remain silent. Pet asks her not to say anything as she not a person of interest. Lilah still feels the need to look into who might have wanted to poison the chili, just in case it would come out the she prepared it. She soon finds out that there are quite people who aren't particularly sad to see she has passed. This book has a wonderful cast of characters in addition Lilah. There's Terry Randall and his wife Britt, who are renting Lilah a comfortable home that's located on their property. They like to entertain and often invite Lilah. Her parents are also very likable, mom may be a little protective, but overly so. Jay Parker, the detective, may be a romantic interest, but for that to happen, they will both need to be a little more understanding of each other. And my Westie, Duncan, wants me to be and mention Mick, Lilah's Chocolate Lab. Mick doesn't help solve the murder, but is a very good listener and knows just the right times to nod. A very adorable character. Delicious recipes are also included with the book. Definitely will be watching for the next book in this delightful new series.
Talk about surprises. I can't wait for the next book! Twenty-seven-year-old Lilah Drake is unlucky in love. Good thing she has a passion for cooking. Currently, she’s a receptionist for her parents’ real estate company. But Lilah has dreams to one day open her own catering company. In order to get her food and cooking skills some exposure, she has started her own underground secretive covered dish business. The idea of the business is to help the citizens of Pine Haven, Illinois who can’t cook pass off food made by her as their own. Things are going well until a chili dish she secretly prepared is used to poison and kill a member of St. Bartholomew Church. While Lilah wasn’t a fan of the dearly departed, she’s surprised to learn about some of the deceased’s past actions and just how difficult she truly was. Julia Buckley gives readers a wonderful story with The Big Chili. Though, I have to admit the beginning of the story was slow going. However, once the investigating and wondering whodunit it started, it got better. I lost myself to the story and learning more about Lilah and all the interesting characters in the story; from Mick the Chocolate Labrador to the sexy Detective Inspector Jacob Parker of the the Pine Haven PD to the happily single Grandy sisters. I will also admit to consistently questioning every character Lilah came across. When Lilah put all the pieces together, I was shocked. Even after that, things got more interesting and my shock at the turn of events went off the charts. Told in first person, The Big Chili is the first book in what promises to be a really good cozy mystery series from Julia. However, the romance lover in me is NOT happy. I’m looking forward to finding out what else is in store for Lilah and the Pine Haven. **Received a copy from Berkley in exchange for an honest unbiased opinion.**
I have just found one of my favorite new series of 2015! Author Julia Buckley is a new voice in the cozy mystery world. Like most readers who series books, I get both excited and a little unsure when the first in a new series comes out. Especially when it’s by an author I’m not familiar with. Well, by the time I was on page three of THE BIG CHILI, I was really enjoying it and by the end of chapter one, I was hooked! This was another read in one sitting book for me. This delectable debut novel has everything I love in a cozy mystery. Superb writing, a cast of great, quirky characters, and a sweet small town setting. This story also has a wonderful dog in it that was the icing on the cake for me. Or should I say the cheese on the chili? ;-) Ms. Buckley’s theme of undercover dishes is original and enjoyable to read. A perfect cozy for autumn reading, snuggled in a favorite chair with a cup of tea. There are a lot of fun moments in this story. I loved sneaking around town with main character Lilah Drake and her chocolate Lab, Mick, delivering covered dishes to clandestine locations, to the cooking impaired. The fun took nothing away from the mystery, which was compelling and well done. Just the right amount of twists to keep the reader guessing the whole way through until all is revealed. Mystery fans, you have got to read THE BIG CHILI. You won’t be disappointed. Like me, you’ll be anxiously waiting for the author to cook up another story that we can dive into and gobble up. Speaking of gobbling up, check the back of the book for some delicious sounding recipes!
Let me start by saying I received an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review of this book. That being said, I loved it. Lilah is a talented cook who has made a small business for herself by cooking for people secretly so they can pass it off as their own cooking. One night at church bingo someone dies after eating her chili, and Lilah has to figure out who really did it before she loses her business or worse. I loved the characters in this book. They were all very real, well written, and made me look forward to reading more about them. Lilah is an independent woman, headstrong but with strong family ties, and a genuinely nice person. Her dog, Mick was my favorite part of the book. I now want to train my dog to nod. The rest of the town is equally as appealing, from the church ladies to the handsome detective investigating the murder. Overall, I would recommend this series. It was a fun, easy read that was hard to put down. I look forward to reading more by Julia Buckley as well as more from the town of Pine Haven.