Battered to Death
IT HAD been a long, bleak winter in southwest Virginia. Even though I was born and raised in the small town of Brea Ridge and should be used to the cold, often snowy winters, I was a warm-weather gal at heart. I sometimes wondered if I was adopted . . . if I’d been born to parents whose native climate was tropical . . . and if they ever wondered what had become of their dear Daphne and wished they’d have kept me there with them in their oceanfront mansion.
And so my thoughts were meandering now that
the weather was finally warming up. I was sitting at the island in my kitchen—as close to a tropical island as I was likely to get for a while—making flowers for the wedding cake I was entering in the first annual Brea Ridge Taste Bud Temptation Cake and Confectionary Arts Exhibit and Competition when Myra rapped on the door. The knock was a mere formality. She could see me and figured—rightly so—that the door was unlocked, so she came on in.
Myra is my closest—both in proximity and in relationship—neighbor. She’s wonderful, she’s exasperating, she’s aggravating, she’s endearing, and she’s always entertaining.
“What are you doing?” she asked, cocking her head as she watched me using my cattleya orchid cutters to make petals out of fondant.
“I’m making orchids for the wedding cake I’m doing for the cake competition,” I said.
“Oh, good. I thought you were making the weirdest-looking cookies I’d ever seen.” She sat down on one of the stools across the island from me. “So . . . do you think anything crazy will happen at this cake thing?”
“Crazy?” I smiled. “There’s always something crazy going on in the cake world. That much competitive spirit combined with all that sugar makes for some interesting shenanigans.”
“No, no, no.” She waved away my “interesting shenanigans” with a double flick of her left wrist.
“I’m talking about criminal activity. I’m hoping that with all these people coming to little old Brea Ridge, Mark and I will have at least one interesting case on our hands before the weekend is out.”
Myra—an attractive widow in her early to midsixties—had been dating private investigator Mark Thompson for the past couple of months. Mark was good at his job and had plenty to keep him busy. He’d also had the good sense to keep Myra away from his investigations for the most part, but I suspected that was getting harder and harder for him to do.
“I didn’t know Mark was looking for extra work,” I said, gently picking up one of the orchid leaves and ruffling its edges with a ball modeling tool.
“He’s not, but he’s told me that if the right kind of case comes along, he’ll be glad to have me help out.”
The right kind of case . . . Well played, Mark. Well played, I thought.
I continued shaping the orchid. “Well, good luck, but I can’t see anything too awfully crazy happening over the course of the next few days. I mean, any criminal activity would be handled by the police, so I don’t know what could happen in that short amount of time that would require the services of a private investigator.”
“That’s the kind of stuff people say just before disaster strikes,” Myra said, with a sage nod of her
head that would’ve done any mountaintop guru proud.
“I guess you have a point there.” I tried to change the subject. “I hope the confectionary arts exhibit and cake competition will go well. I know there are some people in Brea Ridge who aren’t happy that so many people will be converging on the town, but I think it’ll be good for the local economy. Don’t you?”
“Well, honey, I hope it will. I know all the locals could use the money. Tanya’s even put a sign in her window that walk-ins are welcome and that they specialize in updos.”
I’d seen some of the updos that had been done at Tanya’s Tremendous Tress Taming Salon. The words “beehive” and “shellacked” immediately came to mind.
“Hopefully, she’ll get some business,” I said, trying not to shudder as I imagined scores of out-of-towners with ten-gallon updos that would stand up to hurricane-force winds. I really did hope Tanya would get some business, though. Maybe new customers would be good. They could look at their new hairstyles as part of the whole Brea Ridge Taste Bud Temptation experience.
Myra looked down at the orchid I’d just finished. “Well, that’s pretty after all. I didn’t know what you were going to wind up with when you started.”
“Thanks. I’ve not done many orchids before,
but I thought white orchids and peach roses would be a beautiful combination on the wedding cake I’m entering into the competition.” I put the orchid on a foam square. “Hopefully, next year, I’ll be able to incorporate the Australian string work I’ll be learning in Jordan Richards’s two-day class that starts tomorrow.”
“Jordan Richards?” Myra leaned back and frowned at me. “He’s that cake decorator from TV, right?”
I nodded. “He’s a renowned sugar artist. A lot of people are coming to the cake and confectionary arts exhibit and competition just to see him. He only accepted ten students into his class. The ones who weren’t able to get into the class will be attending his demonstrations at the show.”
Myra scoffed. “Like he’ll give two hoots of an owl’s patoot.”
“What?” I chuckled.
“He’s the one who’s so mean on television. He makes that Gordon Ramsay fellow look like Mary Poppins.”
“I know he has the reputation of being hypercritical and a . . . ” I struggled to find the right word.
Myra didn’t need to think about it as long and hard as I did. “Jerk . . . creep . . . rabid, inconsiderate, rude, hypocritical ball of snot?”
“Uh . . . yeah, I guess you could call him any or all of those things. But that might just be his TV persona. He might be nothing like that in real life.
At least, I hope he’s not.” I held up my crossed index and middle fingers. “Fingers crossed. Besides, I want to learn from the best.”
“Oh, honey,” Myra said. “Sometimes you learn just as many bad things as good from the best.”
I put aside the orchid petal I was working on and asked Myra if she’d like something to drink. Experience had taught me that when Myra began an Oh, honey story, I might as well make myself comfortable and settle in for the long haul.
“No, thanks, I’m fine,” she said.
I took a bottle of water from the fridge, uncapped it, took a long drink, and sat back down.
“Ruthie Mae Pruitt got to be purt near fifty years old before she learned to drive a car,” Myra said. “She didn’t really feel the need to learn to drive until after her husband died. The fact that he’d died as the result of a car accident didn’t really faze her, since he’d been walking and was hit by the car that had the accident.”
“So she figured she might as well learn to drive in case she wanted to hit somebody? Or was it because she was afraid to walk wherever she wanted to go after her husband’s death?” I was being sarcastic, but Myra answered as if I weren’t.
“Mainly, she didn’t want to walk everywhere she wanted to go. And, of course, she got to thinking that driving herself could really broaden her horizons. She’d had to depend on someone else to take her wherever she’d wanted to go all her life.
With her own driver’s license, she could go anywhere she wanted. She’d even decided to visit her sister two states down and one state over, in the upper corner of Georgia. That was a big deal to Ruthie Mae. So she started asking around town because she wanted to learn to drive from the best.” Myra leveled her gaze at me. We were getting to the moral of the story.
“Now, everybody in Brea Ridge knew that Tony Barger was the best driver around. He could’ve probably gone pro on the NASCAR circuit or that Indy 500 deal or some other big-time racing racket had it not been for his drinking problem,” she continued.
“Please tell me Tony Barger wasn’t drunk when he taught Ruthie how to drive,” I said.
“Of course he wasn’t. He had, however, tied one on and kept it on the entire weekend before he took Ruthie Mae for her first and only driving lesson on Monday afternoon.”
“First and only?” I asked. “Did she decide she didn’t like it after all?”
“More than likely, that was her final thought. Neither of them made it out of that driving lesson alive. You see, Tony was definitely not drunk when he was driving Ruthie Mae out to the parking lot of that closed-down grocery store where he was going to give her that first lesson in driving. He was very conscientious about that. He wanted to set a good example and that sort of thing. But the poor man
did have the DTs something fierce,” she said, slowly shaking her head. “Some say he might’ve even had a seizure.”
“Wait a second. How do you know he had delirium tremens?” I asked. “Did someone see him having them?”
“Nah, honey. It just stood to reason. What would you think if a man who was normally a drunk who could drive circles around everybody else in Brea Ridge suddenly took a relatively young widow for her first driving lesson and drove her into the side of an abandoned grocery store at eighty-five miles an hour, instantly killing them both?”
“I’d think he was drunk at the time instead of suffering from withdrawal,” I said.
“That’s because you didn’t know Tony. He could drive just as good drunk as he could sober,” Myra said. “In fact, he drove better drunk than some people could drive sober. And had he been drunk, that accident never would’ve happened.”
I took another drink of my water, figuring it was useless to argue the point with her. Even though I found it nearly impossible to believe that an intoxicated man could outdrive most of the sober citizens of Brea Ridge, why argue? After all, what difference did it make?
“Plus, there was no alcohol in his bloodstream at the time of the accident,” Myra went on. “It was in the newspaper. That’s how everybody knew it wasn’t the alcohol that caused the wreck but the
fact that he’d been off it since Sunday night that had been the problem. So you see? Sometimes learning from the best isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. “Hopefully, Chef Richards won’t be drunk . . . or sober . . . or in any kind of condition that would hinder him from instructing us all in the fine art of Australian string work. And even if he is, the worst he can do is frost us to death, right?”
She laughed. “I guess so. Just be careful he doesn’t put you in a sugar coma.”
“Or cause me to gain ten pounds overnight,” I said.
“Oh, honey, that’s my worst nightmare . . . well, one of them anyway.”
At the time I didn’t realize that taking a cake decorating class from Jordan Richards would not be too different from hitting a brick wall at eighty-five miles per hour. We live and we learn. And, to Myra’s credit, it turned out that sometimes learning from the best was not everything you thought it would be.
AFTER MYRA LEFT, Sparrow, my gray-and-white, one-eyed Persian cat, came out of my home office-slash–guest room, where she had a bed in the corner in which she liked to hide. Her mewing reminded me that it was nearing dinnertime. Although she was a stray that I had inherited when I’d
moved into my house last year, Sparrow had adapted very quickly to having her meals served on a regular basis.
As I opened a can of cat food and emptied it into her dish, I thought about how far I’d come these past few months. After my abusive husband had shot at me—fortunately, he’d missed—and had been arrested for attempted murder, I ended our fifteen-year marriage and moved from our home in Tennessee back to my hometown of Brea Ridge, Virginia. My sister, Violet, was a Realtor in Brea Ridge, and she’d found a house she knew I’d love. She was right. My cozy two-bedroom cottage suited me to a tee.
I also loved living closer to Violet’s twelve-year-old boy/girl twins, Lucas and Leslie. My ex-husband, Todd, and I had never had any children—a good thing, looking back—and Lucas and Leslie were as close as I was likely going to get to having children for a while. Of course, I was forty, and nearing forty-one at breakneck speed. If I was going to be a mom, I needed to get started on the process fairly soon . . . whether naturally or by adoption. I had a vision of Marisa Tomei stomping her foot in one of her movies and telling her onscreen boyfriend that her biological clock was ticking. I was afraid that if I waited much longer, my biological alarm would start buzzing . . . and I wouldn’t be able to hit the snooze button either.
Anyway, Leslie and Lucas had always held a
special place in my heart. I’d enjoyed spending plenty of time with them since I’d been back in Brea Ridge. It was just that sometimes watching them interact with Violet and Jason, their dad, I sensed the strength of the family’s bond and longed to have that closeness with my own child. A husband would be nice too, of course. Yes, I wanted the whole package. I wanted everything I didn’t have with Todd: a lover who cherished me, a man I could trust and respect, a provider and guardian who would shelter me and our child—or children—from life’s storms. Suddenly, music from Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet swelled in my head, and I nearly began singing “A Time for Us” at the top of my lungs. I restrained myself, though, because it would have really freaked out the cat . . . and any neighbors within earshot.
I’d worked for a government housing agency for over twenty years when I was living in Tennessee, so I was fortunate to get a severance package when I retired, which allowed me to realize my dream of operating a bakery out of my home when I moved back to Virginia. Pretty much ever since I’d been back in Brea Ridge, I’d been the sole proprietor of Daphne’s Delectable Cakes. And now I was getting ready to put my cake-decorating skills to the test by entering not one but two cakes in the Brea Ridge Taste Bud Temptation Cake and Confectionary Arts Exhibit and Competition. In addition to the wedding cake I’d told Myra about, I’d sculpted a
superhero cake to enter into the novelty cake division.
I washed my hands at the sink and then put away my orchid petals and the completed flowers while I wondered what to have for dinner. Ben, my significant other—the term “boyfriend” sounded too teenybopper to apply at our age, although I’d been envisioning him as the Romeo to my Juliet in my previously mentioned fantasy—was the editor in chief of the Brea Ridge Chronicle, and he was working tonight so I was on my own. I opened the cabinet and perused the shelves. Cold cereal it was.
I had several boxes on hand of various varieties. I’d learned cold cereal to be the most important staple of the single woman’s diet. I took the box from the cabinet and put it on the table. Before I could get my bowl, milk, and spoon, the phone rang. Maybe it was Ben, and he was going to be able to have dinner with me after all. We could cook something together, or get takeout, or . . .
I answered the phone. It wasn’t Ben. It was my sister, Violet.
“I finally talked her into it,” Violet said as soon as I’d said hello. “Leslie is going to enter a cake in the kids’ division of the cake competition.”
“I’m so glad! Is she going with carved, traditional, or something a little more modern, like the topsy-turvy cake we discussed?”
“She’s going to do a carved cheeseburger-and-fries cake.”
“That’s good,” I said. “She’ll be utilizing one of her strongest skills. She is great at eyeballing shapes and chiseling them out. How about Lucas? Is he going to enter a cake?”
“I’m afraid not,” she said. “He still likes to bake sometimes, but he doesn’t think it’s cool to admit it anymore. He and Jason are attending a college baseball game Saturday, but they’ll be stopping by the competition either before or after the game to see how everything is going.”
“I’m glad. I can hardly wait to see him . . . them. I mean, it’ll be nice to see their dad too, but I haven’t seen Lucas and Leslie in over a week!”
“Hello? Don’t I rate at all?”
“Of course you do,” I said. “It goes without saying that I’ll be happy to see you.”
“Yeah, sure.” She laughed. “Way to try and cover. Between you and me, how do you think Leslie will fare in the competition?”
“I think she’ll do really well. She has a knack for decorating, and she learns quickly. The only problem I think she’ll have at all is stressing out over it too much,” I said. “Just remind her to do her best and then to let it go. Tell her to have fun with it.”
“I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you of the same thing,” said Vi. “You’ve been known to stress out too much over things like this yourself.”
She was talking about the time that I went all the way to the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show in Tulsa and then chickened out of entering my cake in the
competition. I wound up giving it to the staff at my hotel, much to show-director Kerry Vincent’s disapproval. Ms. Vincent had basically told me to come back when I was ready to put a little more faith in myself and my ability as a decorator. She was very kind and understanding. Maybe I would return to the Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show and compete . . . but I needed to see how I would fare in the Brea Ridge Taste Bud Temptation Cake and Confectionary Art Exhibit and Competition first. Then I’d think about frying bigger fish . . . in Oklahoma.
“In my defense, the hotel staff said my cake was gorgeous . . . and that it tasted delicious,” I said.
“I’m sure it was. And I dare you to bail out of this competition at the last minute like you did that one,” she said. “In fact, I’ll be there to kick your butt if you try. If I’d been in Oklahoma with you, I wouldn’t have let you squirm out of that one either.”
“But, Vi, you didn’t see all those incredible cakes!”
“I saw the pictures you took. Granted, they were magnificent—and there will be impressive cakes at this competition too—but you have to stop selling yourself short.”
“I will,” I said. “I promise.”
“All right. And I’m not going to let Leslie back out either. Like her aunt Daphne, she merely needs to recognize her own worth and talents and feel confident enough to show them off.”
“Preach, sister, preach!” I laughed.
She huffed. “Okay. I’ll get out of my pulpit now and let you go back to whatever you were doing.” She paused. “What were you doing?”
“Deciding which cereal to have for dinner,” I said. “I’m thinking of going with a granola entrée and following up with either a chocolaty or fruity cereal for dessert.”
“I take it Ben’s working?” she asked.
“Yep,” I said.
“How are things going between you two?”
“Great,” I said. “He’s wonderful. I should’ve never let him go all those years ago. I’m lucky he gave me another chance.”
Ben and I had been childhood friends and later high school sweethearts. Although we had tried to make it work, our romance fell apart after we went to separate colleges and I met Todd.
“Then don’t let him get away again,” she said. She kept her tone light, but there was a word of warning there.
“Do you know something I don’t?” I asked.
“No. I’m just saying that it’s rare for a couple to get a second chance like the two of you have been given,” she said. “Make the most of it.”
After talking with Violet, I took my bowl of granola into the living room and watched the episode of Chef Jordan Richards’s program I had recorded on my DVR.
As the show came on, it showed Chef Richards addressing a petite brunette about her three-tiered wedding cake. “What’s this *bleep*?” he demanded. “What color is this supposed to be?”
“Burnt orange,” the brunette said, lowering her eyes away from his scalding glare. “It’s what the client wanted.”
“Well, it looks like *bleep* brown to me!” He used his right hand to forcefully push the center tier of the cake, effectively knocking the entire cake off the counter and onto the floor. “Clean that up! Then you can start over!”
The camera zoomed in on the brunette’s face—particularly, her quavering lips—as she went to the corner of the kitchen to get a broom and dustpan. The cameraman followed, allowing the audience to see the woman’s humiliating trip back behind the table to clean up the remains of her hard work. He then panned the camera over to Chef Richards, who was shaking his head in contempt as he wiped his icing-covered hand on a dishtowel.
I gulped, suddenly dreading tomorrow morning’s class. I tried to reassure myself. I’d dealt with bullies before. Todd had bullied me for years before committing the act of abuse—trying to kill me—that was second only to the final act of abuse—succeeding in the murder attempt. At least Jordan Richards wouldn’t try to kill me during the course of teaching his string work class . . . would he?