Authors: Jerrilyn Farmer
A Madeline Bean Mystery
For my mother,
Molly Sarnoff Klein,
who sat pretzel-style on
the kitchen linoleum
and taught me to play jacks
“Any last words?”
Bruno Huntley was a tall man, about six foot twoâ¦
You haven't seen upscale real estate until you've gazed atâ¦
To give the grounds of the estate the proper Halloweenâ¦
Just then I heard the gong sound out, announcing theâ¦
Wesley and Holly and Alan and I were standing togetherâ¦
I woke up very late Saturday morning, warm and safeâ¦
I felt that my luck was changing. I found aâ¦
I was standing in the street next to my car,â¦
My car phone has a feature for frequently called phoneâ¦
Back at my house, I left the Wagoneer in theâ¦
There were still a few little things I needed Wesâ¦
It was nine o'clock. Arlo and I were slowly puttingâ¦
Sunday morning, as I stood in the shower, I keptâ¦
I stopped off at my house to change out ofâ¦
Nestled into a block of gracious traditional homes, the ungainly,â¦
I was stressed. With the weird encounter on Bedford Driveâ¦
“We're waiting for Bru,” Lily explained, as she led meâ¦
A silver Mustang convertible, with the top down, pulled upâ¦
It was well past ten on Sunday evening as Iâ¦
Wesley was waiting for me upstairs when I got home.
I had slept fitfully, tossing the quilts and pillows ontoâ¦
“So did you figure out who killed Bruno Huntley?” Iâ¦
I used my car phone to make a few callsâ¦
I started back down the hill and had to waitâ¦
I put ice cubes in my glass and moved toâ¦
The attorney's name was Del Schreiner. He was extremely “businessâ¦
While I was out, Holly fielded calls from everyone weâ¦
I consider myself a pretty good driver. Except when it'sâ¦
The study was empty and this time, before I pickedâ¦
I looked into the mirror above the yellow sink. Theâ¦
“I've got to talk to you.”
It was after some time had passed, with me staringâ¦
The police were busy on Wednesday and Thursday. Carmen Huntleyâ¦
ny last words?”
A puff of dense steam clouded the hot kitchen as the young man pulled the lid off an enormous stainless-steel stockpot. His remark had been addressed to a tank filled with ten dozen live Maine lobsters.
In the warm air, the pungent smell of garlic and hot frying butter mixed with countless other delectable aromas, blanketing the crowded room with the fine perfume of many cooks' efforts. I stepped into the din and swirl and heat, instantly embraced by the heady atmosphere.
Wesley, half a head taller than any of the assistant chefs in the room, saw me at once and met me at the door.
“The truffles never arrived. Fifteen pounds for the love of France!” Wesley checked his watch, the kind with a digital readout and timers and buzzers. “It's seven. The schedule's shot. There goes the artichoke and Swiss cheese tortellini topped with fresh truffle shaved to order.”
I met the eyes of Wesley Westcott, my dearest friend and business partner. Wes was usually granite right before guests arrive, when it's one hour to dinner and counting, but this was the first time we'd spent fourteen thousand dollars on one fragile ingredient.
“Coming through!” Our assistant backed her way into the huge kitchen, leading three young men. Each pushed
handcarts stacked with crates marked
“Who's got the crowbar?” Holly's strong voice rose above the commotion of thirty cooks and helpers hard at work.
I said to Wes, “The truffles have arrived fashionably late.”
“Ah. Good.” He rechecked his digital. “Fine.”
Someone moved aside, and I felt a blast of smoky air from the fireplace where several legs of lamb were roasting on a spit. I was getting high breathing in the succulent aroma of rosemary-scented lamb. I love this. The fun, the noise, the smells, the elevated temperature, the sensuous pleasures of cooking.
I smiled at Wes and he seemed to relax a notch. After all, the truffles had arrived.
Our track record for keeping some of Hollywood's biggest stars happy at their own parties, perhaps even more than the excellence of our cuisine, was adding to the growing word-of-mouth popularity of our company, Madeline Bean Catering.
And this is a great town for caterers. Here, clients desire parties that are extraordinary and are prepared to pay the extraordinary costs. It's this outlandish disregard for thrift that the small-business person such as myself can come to appreciate in their clientele. And such parties!
Wes and I once set up a bar mitzvah for the son of a talent agent in a mock rainforest. It included a parrot that recited the first line of the bar mitzvah boy's Hav Torah. In Hebrew. And the
wrote up our “wrap” party for Mel Gibson's last action movie. We blew up the catering truck right after dinner.
Tonight we were standing in the kitchen of TV producer Bruno Huntley's grand estate, on the evening of October thirty-first, preparing dinner for six hundred guests. And as for our reputed ability to soothe cranky hosts, this evening could be the acid test. If we could keep a famous asshole like Bruno Huntley happy at tonight's Halloween party, we would soon achieve a new “personal best.”
Manny Martinez, working on the other side of the kitchen, was waving his wooden spoon at me. He didn't appear happy.
Holly flattened herself against the crates she was working on as Wes and I squeezed by.
Close up Manny looked more worried. “Taste it.”
I picked up a fork and dipped it into the souffle he proffered. It flaked. It crumbled. It pulled away from the sides of its dish pathetically. Too dry. Too brown.
Wes grabbed the fork. “Is this the arugula and chevre souffle?”
It was something less than the golden, well-puffed mixture of garden greens and goat cheese that was our hostess's favorite dish.
“It was fine when it came out of the oven,” Manny said. “But nowâ¦”
I pointed at the pretty round baking ramekin decorated with hand-painted black cats. “It's the dish.”
Wes considered. “It's the right shape,” he said. Its sides were straight and tall and in the correct proportion to send the fluffy mixture towering skyward as the beaten egg whites expanded in the heat of the oven.
I clinked the side of the dish with my fingernail. I loved the fine art of detective work and I loved being right. “It's stoneware.”
Wes began to nod. Stoneware retains more heat than porcelain. “It's still cooking after it's out of the oven.”
“Manny,” I advised, “your eggs are getting scorched by the dish.”
“I knew I didn't overcook nothing,” Manny pointed out. We cooks have egos more delicate than, well, a souffle.
“So we adjust the recipe for stoneware. Make a note.” Wes turned and gave me a fond smile. “Oh, you're good.”
And then the screaming began.
“Oh no! Oh my god!”
First a woman's guttural shriek. Then men shouting.
“Get them off me! Get them off! Jeez!”
I turned quickly and spied Holly, usually calm as toast, now swatting at her legs in a panic, swearing like a teenager.
She had pried open one of the crates marked
. Instead of containing outrageously expensive delicacies air-shipped from the Perigord region in France, the crate had instead disgorged thousands of wriggling earthworms.
Freed from their wooden prison, they had oozed out onto the floor, squirming in their peaty-smelling packing earth, and over the shoes of Holly and several of her mates.
Wes was all business. “Okay. Get them the hell out of here. Then I want the floor bleached and sanitized. Got it? Oh, and all those of you who have beenâ¦” He smiled graciously. “â¦wormed, please change out of those clothes and shoes as soon as the creatures have been removed.”
A few nods as those on the front lines now stood their ground, six Levi-covered legs holding back the tide of earthworms until they could be contained and removed.
I was already on the phone calling to the airport. Ah. A mixup at LAX. Our two hundred and forty ounces of irreplaceable gourmet fungi were, at this moment, being trucked to a bait shop near Long Beach.
I signaled to the guys, who had renailed the crate shut. “Holly, drive the worms back to the airport. They'll radio the truck that took our truffles to meet you there.”
“Right.” Holly pulled off her apron and ran for the van.
I started to laugh. “We're always looking for new and exotic ingredients.” Wes and I liked to provoke each other.
Wesley was now back in his element and he grinned at me while he stirred a pot of pasta. There he stood, tall and thin as a strand of spaghettini. Wes is really very nice looking. He has good hair, straight and brown and immaculately cut, and even better clothes. This evening it was khaki slacks and a starched white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. A short, black, mannish apron was his sole protection from
flying tortelloni and splattering pumpkin seed oil as he worked the room.
The kitchen in the Huntley house was wonderfully equipped with two of everything: two dishwashers, two double sinks, two ovens, two icemakers in two separate sub-zero freezers. It had been remodeled in recent years, after Bruno wed Wife Number Three.
Since he had moved all his wives into the same historic mansion, it had become something of a tradition in Bruno's world to allow each new wife the pleasure of spending unquestioned amounts of money to redo the kitchen. And so, just days after returning from her honeymoon in Greece, his newest young wife and her decorator got to work. They turned the twenty-by-forty-foot space into an English fantasy, complete with two-hundred-year-old wooden beams shipped from Gloucester, and about a hundred thousand dollars worth of honey-colored pine cabinets made in London by Smallbone.
As I surveyed all the activity in this dream kitchen, I heard a distant wail. The door flew open, and a small, red-faced boy darted into the crowded room. He was running hard, heading straight at me. Then, to my astonishment, he ducked between my legs, jumped into the bottom cabinet, and pulled the door shut behind him.
Now, technically, on party day, the kitchen is mine and the kitchen's actual owner and family are encouraged to stay out. On party day, perfectly nice families can turn testy. I didn't even want to think about what it could do to a family like the Huntleys.
Just then, a petite woman rushed into the kitchen. Wile E. Coyote, I guessed, in the chase scene in progress. Her entrance had silenced the throng of hurried, concentrating chefs. The noise of knives hitting chopping blocks halted as everyone waited for the requisite cartoon anvil to drop.
“Babalu?” she called, her voice heavily accented with Spanish inflection.
Wesley and I shared a look of appreciation. It's not every day that one is treated to a tribute to Desi Arnaz.
“I'm Madeline Bean. Can I help you in any way?”
She turned to me like to a life preserver. Sounds of chopping resumed as my staff remembered their deadlines.
“I'm sorry Missus Madeline. It's my Babalu. Little Lewis. He is running away from me,” she explained. “It is the Gummi Worms. I say, âNo, no, Babalu! You have too many.' But he don't like me to say this.”
A dispute over candy worms. A particularly unsavory mental picture in light of our recent visitors.
And in an evening of dramatic entrances, the swing-door banged open on its antique hinges yet again.
“Where in the goddamned hell is he?”
In strode Bruno Huntley, producer of soap operas and T.V. movies. He liked to claim that
version of the Joey Buttafuoco story pulled damned decent ratings, despite having been the fifth one to air. It was his lavish dinner party we were all working on tonight, so I guess he figured he could yell if he wanted to.
“The kid is four goddamned years old!” he bellowed. “Find him and I'll thrash his butt til it bleeds, dammit! I'm ready!”
And, I swear, the man unbuckled his belt, shouting obscenities and threats, and ripped it from his jeans. The room went stark quiet as Bruno Huntley, apparently gone berserk, began swinging the lizard belt in frantic arcs over his head.
The heavy brass belt buckle swung low and knocked a glass crashing from the counter. And as it whipped by again, it just missed the nanny's face by inches.