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MURDER ON THE MENU
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2007 by The Berkley Publishing Group.
Interior text design by Kristin del Rosario.
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ISBN: 1-4295-3831-7
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One

"
HE HAS SHIFTY EYES. AND THEY'RE SET WAY TOO
 close together. I read somewhere that's a sure sign of a criminal. What do you think, Annie? What do you suppose he's up to?"
   If I was a better/less-harried/not-so-incredibly stressed friend, I would have paid more attention to what Eve was saying. More than none, that is. As it was, I was staring at invoices from food suppliers, beverage distributors, and the janitorial service that took care of the floors and bathrooms in Bellywasher's, soon to be Alexandria's best, trendiest, and (if only the culinary gods would smile on us) most successful new restaurant.
   The part of my brain that wasn't taken up with being nervous about what would happen in a few minutes when we finally opened the doors for our first day of business was filled with numbers. Lots and lots of numbers. As quickly as they flashed through my head, I tallied them up and balanced them against how much I knew was in the restaurant's checking account.
   My stomach clenched. My breath caught.
   We weren't in red-ink territory. Not yet. But we were
skirting the edges, pretty much like Bellywasher's did, poised as it was on that invisible line that divided the upscale, gentrified part of Alexandria, Virginia, and the slightly seedier neighborhood farther from the Potomac River.
   I tossed out an answer to Eve's question, eager to appease her, because I knew that until I did, she wouldn't leave me alone. "Criminal? Sure. Whatever you say."
   "I mean it, Annie." It didn't work. The beauty pageant Southern drawl Eve usually reserved for good-looking men and social occasions had a way of rearing its ugly head when she was miffed. Or, come to think of it, when she was under pressure, under the weather, or over the moon about anything. "I'm telling you, girl, he's up to something. And don't tell me I'm imagining it."
   I checked the clock hanging on the wall above my desk. Thirty minutes and counting, and I still needed to doublecheck the change in the cash register. "You're imagining it."
   Eve snorted her opinion. "You don't even know who I'm talking about."
   I didn't, and I guess realizing that fact was what made me aware of how inconsiderate I was being. Harried or not, there was no excuse for that.
   "I'm sorry." Eve was my best friend and Bellywasher's one and only hostess. We'd been through a lot together, Eve and me. Good times and bad times. Middle school, high school, and now almost middle age. Any number of engagements (Eve's), one disastrous marriage (mine), a divorce that wasn't as acrimonious as it was just plain awful (again, mine), and if we counted what happened the summer before at Très Bonne Cuisine, where we went to cooking school together, a couple of murders, too.
   I owed her better.
   I pushed back from my desk and spun my chair around. "All right, I give up. Who's the shifty-looking one?"
   "Shh! Not so loud. He'll hear you." Eve had been standing in the doorway of my office, and she shot inside, looking to hide. Easier said than done. As the restaurant's business manager, I had the luxury of the biggest office in the place, but of course, bi
ggest
is a relative word.
   The room was only ten by twelve, but thanks to the dark wood paneling that had been de rigueur back when Angus MacDonald first bought the place, it looked and felt even smaller. There was a desk jammed into one corner, and it was piled with so many papers, I could barely get to the keyboard of the computer I'd brought from home. No big loss there. The computer, it seemed, did not like the move from Arlington to Alexandria. It was fidgety and these days it liked to give me error messages and mysteriously reboot in the middle of important projects more than it did anything else.
   The rest of my office was taken up with file cabinets. I had one guest chair, too, but at the moment, it was a little hard to locate. It was awash with catalogues from restaurant supply houses, boxes of matchbooks printed with the Bellywasher's name, and sample place mats in every material imaginable including plastic, paper, and a product the sales rep who was trying to sell it to me swore was made completely from recycled truck tires.
   The mess was unlike me, and it was a constant source of irritation. So was the fact that someone had yet to invent a way to cram more than twenty-four hours into a day.
   I sighed. Eve might have noticed and come to the conclusion that I had better things to do than play into her warped fantasies if she wasn't so busy peeking around the door and into the restaurant.
   "Him," she said in a stage whisper, pointing toward where an ordinary-looking guy in an ordinary blue work shirt and pants was going about what was probably an ordinary day for him, hauling in armloads of shrink-wrapped napkins. "The guy from the linen service," she added, in spite of the fact that he was the only one in the restaurant at the moment. "You know, Gregor."
   I did know, though I hadn't picked up on the fact that his name was Gregor. Leave it to Eve. In addition to being tall, blonde, willowy, and gorgeous, her ability to make friends with everyone who crossed her path was exactly the reason I suggested she work as Bellywasher's hostess and precisely why Jim MacDonald, the restaurant's new owner, had agreed.
   "Gregor is not a criminal," I told Eve, and I peeked into the restaurant, too. Gregor saw me and waved. I waved back.
   "There's not a thing wrong with him or with the linen service he works for," I reminded her, careful to keep my voice down. "I checked them out before I contracted with them. I got plenty of references."
   "References don't mention how shifty people look. His eyes—"
   "Look brown." I took another gander at Gregor, just to be sure. "At least from here. But of course, I can't be certain from this distance."
   "And the fact that they're so close together?"
   "Is a sad twist of genetic fate."
   "Which has also been cited as a cause of criminal behavior."
   "Except Gregor isn't doing anything criminal. He's bringing us napkins."
   "And you think he should what, wear a sign around his neck? One that says, Look at me! I'm a bad guy!" Logic had never been Eve's strong suit. She should have learned that by now. Alas, she apparently thought of her Gregor theory as flawless reasoning. "Believe me, Annie, I know what I'm talking about. I've got experience with these sorts of things."
   I didn't have to ask. I knew the experience Eve was talking about had to do with the aforementioned cooking class. More specifically, with the murder we'd investigated while we were students in that class. Before that, the closest Eve had ever been to a bad guy was watching Anthony Hopkins in
Silence of the Lambs
. And as I recall, through most of the movie, she kept her eyes shut.
   I let out a long, slow breath that teetered on the edge of impatience. "Just because we were unlucky enough to run into one mystery last summer—"
   "Unlucky?" Eve's golden brows dropped low over eyes the color of Virginia bluebells. She was wearing a skirt in the same shade and a white blouse that hugged her surgically enhanced chest in all the right places. Call me shallow, but I couldn't help but compare my body to hers.
   She's tall and gorgeous. Me? I belong in the short and cute category. I've got way-too-curly-to-be-contained hair, a turned-up nose, and a body that's too curvy to look good in anything even half-fashionable.
   Of course, Eve wasn't thinking about any of that. "Do you think we were unlucky?" she asked. "I don't. We solved a murder. And caught a real bad guy. I think it was exciting."
   "Almost getting killed is definitely not exciting," I reminded her, though it was clear I was wasting my time. There was nothing like a couple months of peace and quiet to make somebody forget that only a short while earlier, we'd spent our time dodging arms smugglers, bullets, and one particularly nasty poisoner. Especially when the somebody in question was Eve.
   I, however, had not forgotten. Nor was I likely to. Call me crazy, but I don't need my adrenaline kicked into high gear by life-and-death situations. Everyday life is excitement enough for me.
   I pulled in a breath, but as much as I tried, I couldn't bite back the same lecture I'd been repeating these last few months. Ever since Eve started seeing mysteries around every corner.
   "There's nothing weird or evil about Gregor, Eve. He's not a bad guy. He isn't planning anything, except maybe how to get a free cup of coffee out of us before he leaves. There's nothing suspicious or criminal happening with anyone around here. We're regular people, just like all the other regular people in the world. Regular people working through a regular day. Just because we solved one mystery doesn't mean we're likely to ever run into another one. There aren't bad guys lurking everywhere."
   "Sure, that's what you said before."
   It was. I admit it. But facts were facts: I was a bank teller by day and Bellywasher's business manager on nights, weekends, and holidays when the bank was closed. I did not have the pedigree to be a crime fighter.
   "When someone ends up dead—" Eve began.
   I didn't give her the chance to get any further. Before she could say anything else, I popped out of my chair and headed into the restaurant. "Nobody's going to end up dead," I told her, just like I'd been telling her for months. "Nobody's going to jail. Nobody's being sneaky or crooked or felonious. Our crime-fighting days are over, Robin, park the Batmobile in the cave."
   She was still thinking about the metaphor when I swept past her.
   "See you, Gregor," I called to the linen man as he walked through the restaurant and back toward the kitchen.
   "If you want, grab a cup of coffee on your way out," Eve added. I doubt she made the offer because she felt guilty about labeling him an offender before he ever had a chance to do anything even mildly offensive. This was part of her Southern hospitality upbringing, and though I was concerned about our bottom line and thus not happy about giving away free coffee, I knew Eve's warm and welcoming personality would serve us well in the long run.
   It was working already.
   Gregor smiled his thanks, promised he'd be back for lunch one day soon, and disappeared into the kitchen. I knew Heidi, our one and only waitress, was back there with Damien and Marc, the two young men who helped Jim with the cooking. They'd take care of him.
   That handled, I checked the clock one more time and gave the restaurant a final once-over.
   When I first arrived to see the place Jim had inherited from his Uncle Angus, Bellywasher's was . . . well, how can I say this delicately?
   Bellywasher's was, in a word, a disaster.
   The bar and restaurant was one part dive, one part neighborhood hangout. It had a menu that featured things like wieners, grilled cheese sandwiches, and the occasional blue plate special. Legend has it that thanks to Uncle Angus's nearsightedness and his tendency to not rotate kitchen stock as effectively as he should, on one particularly unfortunate occasion (and much to the dismay of the health department) blue food really did make an appearance on the plates. Lucky for Angus, no one got sick, and the regulars took it all in stride.

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