Though it's an unseasonably chilly October in Timber Ridge, North Carolina, Eleanor Swift is warm and cozy in A Slice of Delight--her scrumptious pizzeria. But when snooty Judson Sizemore breezes into town to open an upper-crust pizza parlor nearby, Eleanor's biggest worry is that her beloved restaurant's days may be numbered...until she hears Judson's days have come to a most gruesome end...
Since half the town saw Judson causing a ruckus in A Slice of Delight before he expired, Eleanor and her saucy sister, Maddie, are the prime suspects. The only way out is to prove their innocence. Soon, a little surreptitious sleuthing reveals that the dough behind Judson's impending pizzeria came from Timber Ridge's resident recluse: crusty oddball millionaire Nathan Pane. It turns out he's Judson's long-lost uncle...and someone is after him, too.
As Eleanor digs deeper, her suspect list grows longer than the local soccer team's pizza order--and life in the once quiet town heats up like Maddie's five-alarm Volcano pie. Could it be Judson's gold-digging sister? Or her secret boyfriend? Between working on the case, keeping her customers happy, and even finding time for an old flame, Eleanor's plate is full. But with an unhinged murderer closing in, she'll have to move very quickly--and very carefully--because the killer is already much closer than she thinks...
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April 26, 2011
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Excerpt from A Pizza to Die For by Chris Cavender
The pizzeria was dark, and nothing moved among the scattered tables and chairs in the dining room or the counters and work areas in the kitchen. There was just a whisper of light filtering in through the windows in front, but back near the oven, most of the light had already dissipated into darkness.
At first, it was hard to make out the identity of the body lying on the floor, but after a closer look, it was clear to see the one thing that would shake the very core of the citizenry of Timber Ridge, North Carolina.
There on the floor was the pizzeria owner, and a status of dead or alive was too difficult to determine at that moment.
I knew it was bad news the second I heard there was going to be another pizzeria opening in direct competition with mine in our sleepy little town of Timber Ridge, North Carolina, but I never thought it would lead to murder. It was alarming enough that someone was going to try to steal my customers, but opening another pizzeria on the promenade a thousand feet from A Slice of Delight was just too much.
There was going to be trouble; I was certain of it.
I just didn't realize how much when I first heard the news.
"It's freezing out there," my sister, Maddy, said as she walked into A Slice of Delight before we opened one morning toward the end of October. "What happened to the concept that we're living in the South where it's supposed to be warm?" Maddy was tall, thin, and lovely, and whenever we stood side by side, I felt every extra pound I carried on my shorter frame. "I didn't think it was supposed to get this cold until January."
"You know our weather," I said as I continued kneading the dough I'd been working on. "It can change in an instant this time of year. It could just as easily be in the seventies and sunny tomorrow."
"Then again, it could be snowing," she said as she rubbed her hands together.
"Aren't you going to take your coat off and stay awhile? It's going to be tough to prep the veggies if you're bundled up like that."
"You turn up the thermostat and I'll take off my jacket."
I walked over and raised it one degree, but I really couldn't afford to heat the entire place when it was just the two of us, and Maddy knew it. Our operation was marginal, and we both realized it. We could stand one bad month, but two in a row could shut us down for good, and I wasn't about to give up my pizzeria without a fight. My late husband, Joe, and I had worked too hard establishing the place for me to give up on it.
My sister acknowledged my gesture by finally slipping off her coat. As she did, Maddy said, "Eleanor, I still wish that you and Joe had bought one of those wood-fired ovens instead of the conveyor system we've got. It would be nice to be able to warm ourselves up by the fire."
I laughed. "If you're that cold, go ahead and turn on that space heater in the corner. Sorry, but it's just going to have to do. Joe and I looked at wood-fired ovens when we first opened this place, but we couldn't afford the initial investment, let alone the hassle of collecting wood, keeping the fire going, and hauling off the ashes. Besides, you have to admit that it's a lot easier to make a pizza, put it on the conveyor, and then just wait for it to come out the other side. With a wood-fired oven, we'd have to be checking every pizza and sandwich constantly, and I know for a fact that you don't have the attention span that would require."
She smiled. "That may be true, but you've got to admit that I have other attributes."
"Too many to name," I agreed. "I hate to burst your bubble, but I heard on the radio that we might get a hint of snow flurries this weekend."
"Whatever happened to this global warming that everyone was making such a fuss about?" she said as she washed her hands and started prepping the vegetables and meats for our pizzas and subs.
I loved the morning hours before we opened. It was the only time of day that Maddy and I had a chance to work together and chat, and as much as I objected sometimes to her subject matter, it was great having her close. My sister had been a real sport, moving back to town when my husband died to help me out in my darkest hour. It just so happened she'd been between husbands at the time, but I had a feeling that she would have found a way to come back anyway. Having her at the pizzeria made all the difference to me.
"Come on, you remember how much we both loved snow when we were kids," I said, trying to lighten the mood as I formed the dough into balls and stored them in the refrigerator until they were needed later in the day.
"I was quite a bit younger then," she said.
"Hey, so was I," I protested with a grin. "If you get to be younger, Sis, then I do, too."
Maddy studied me for a few moments, and then she said, "What's gotten into you today, Eleanor? You're awfully chipper for it being first thing in the morning."
"Halloween is next week," I said. "How can I not be excited about that? You know it's my favorite time of year."
She laughed. "You used to come up with some unique costumes, I'll give you that. Remember the ghoul-friend outfit you wore in high school?"
At the time, I'd been dating the guy who would become our current sheriff, and I wasn't certain I liked any reminders of the time we'd been a couple. Kevin Hurley had been handsome, a smooth talker, and younger than me. Against my better judgment, I'd gone out with him for quite a while until I'd caught him cheating on me with the girl who was now his wife. The Halloween we'd been together, he'd refused to dress up, so I'd donned zombie makeup and then created a sign with an arrow pointing to the left. Instead of it saying, I'M WITH STUPID, it proudly stated, HIS GHOUL-FRIEND. Kevin hadn't been all that amused, but I'd refused to take the sign off until Halloween was over.
"Those days are long gone," I said.
"Thank goodness for that." Maddy paused, and then asked me, "Did you hear that?"
"Someone's pounding on the front door."
"They can just wait until we open," I said. We'd been working hard prepping the place, and we were close to our opening time. I didn't realize how close until I glanced at the clock and added, "They just have to wait ten minutes. It won't kill them to stand out in the cold that long."
"It's your place," Maddy said. "I know how you hate not answering a door or a ringing telephone."
At that moment, my cell phone rang.
"How did you do that?" I asked my sister as I reached for my telephone.
"I'm just that good," she said with a sly smile.
"Hello?" I asked, after I'd quickly washed my hands and then dried them on one of our towels.
"Eleanor, have you both gone deaf? Would one of you mind coming up here and opening the front door and let me inside? It's freezing out here."
"Greg? What are you doing here? You're early." Greg Hatcher was our delivery guy and inside waiter, a student at the nearby college, and one of the best employees I'd ever had. Though he'd recently come into a substantial amount of money, I'd been relieved to learn that he had no intention of quitting his job at the pizzeria. It appeared that he enjoyed being with us as much as we loved having him around.
"Let me in where it's warm, and then I'll explain."
I was about to ask him more when he hung up on me.
"Wow, Greg's less of a fan of the cold weather than you are," I told Maddy.
"At least some of us around here have some common sense," she answered.
I shook my head. "It's October. I'm not sure what you both expect, but I for one like changing leaves, brisk weather, and snuggling up by a fire."
As I walked out front, Maddy asked, "I thought he wasn't supposed to be due for another half-hour?"
"He's not, but evidently he's got something to tell us."
Greg came in stamping his feet and rubbing a hand through his always-short haircut as though he was trying to warm up his scalp. He was built like a linebacker, solid and strong, but underneath that exterior was a young man who had a good heart, a deep soul, and a real desire to make the world a better place. I would never have admitted it out loud, but of all the high school and college employees I'd had over the years, Greg was my favorite. Josh Hurley, the police chief's son and the remainder of my current staff, was a close second, and I dreaded the thought of my favorite team breaking up someday, as they always did, sooner or later.
"What's so urgent?" I asked him out front as he took off his jacket.
"I found out what's going in The Shady Lady's place," he said as he rubbed his hands together. I didn't like it, but I had to admit that it was a fact of life that businesses on the promenade had a way of coming and going. I loved where A Slice of Delight was located, nestled in a blue building among a series of shops that were lined up in a nearly continuous block of storefronts, with a large brick promenade out front that made it easy to stroll around from place to place. I'd seen pictures of the location from the turn of the century, and it was decidedly strange to see a dirt street out front instead of those weathered bricks.
The Shady Lady's demise didn't surprise me. How on earth Myra Clark had stayed afloat selling just lamps, shades, and accessories had been a constant source of amazement to me. Since she'd closed her doors a month ago, the windows had been soaped over, and despite the buzz of activity around the place and the proclivity of townsfolk to dig out the most carefully guarded secrets, no one had an inkling about what was going in.
Apparently until now, at any rate.
"What's it going to be, another clothing store?" Maddy asked.
He shook his head. "Trust me, you could both take a thousand guesses, and you'd never get it."
"It's not going to be another restaurant, is it?" I asked.
"How could you possibly guess that?" Greg wanted to know. "I thought I was the only one who knew."
"I don't know anything," I said. "I was just guessing. Then it's true?"
"I'm afraid so," he said.
I shrugged. "I've got to admit that I'm not happy about having competition so close to the Slice, but we'll be okay. We've got a loyal fan base who love our pizza. They won't desert us." I wasn't sure I meant it, though. There were months where we barely squeaked by as it was. With another restaurant so close, it would make my life harder than I liked.
"I'm not so sure," Greg said as he handed me a flyer. "That's not the worst part of it."
What I saw printed there was enough to make my stomach drop.
Announcing Our Grand Opening This Saturday at Noon! ITALIA'S offers a wood-fired oven and a professional pizza maker who will spin your crust into the air as you watch, amazed! Come by for the show, and for a sample of what real pizza should taste like! We'll have free food, drinks, and prizes, so don't miss it!
"We're dead," Maddy said as she read over my shoulder.
"Not yet," I said. "Grab your coat."
My instruction surprised her. "Where are we going? We're supposed to open in ten minutes, Eleanor."
"Sorry to disappoint anyone who's in the mood for a slice, but this can't wait. We need to see just what we're going to be up against."
No one answered the door when I knocked at Italia's, which shouldn't have come as a great surprise to me, since the sign still wasn't up and the windows were soaped over, not letting even a speck of light through.
As he jammed his hands into his pockets, Greg said, "We're wasting our time, Eleanor. It's pretty clear that no one's here."
"Come on, we can't give up that easily," I said. "They have to be taking deliveries in back if they're going to open so soon. Let's go check it out."
Though her legs were longer than mine, Maddy had trouble keeping up with me as I raced around the promenade. "Sis, I don't think I've ever seen you this fired up," she said.
"No one's threatened my way of life before," I said. "You know what they say. This isn't personal. It's business."
The three of us went around back, passing the pharmacy and the bank along the way, and I was surprised to find the back door of the new pizzeria standing wide open. I knocked on the steel frame, but again, no one answered.
I started to go in when Maddy grabbed my arm. "Hang on a second, Eleanor."
"Why should I? It's not like I'm going to tear the place up or threaten anyone. I'm just going to offer a friendly welcome to our new neighbors."
"Is that all?"
"Of course not," Greg said as he brushed past us both. "She's going to mop up in there. Let's go. I'll lead the way."
Greg was being entirely too enthusiastic, so I put a hand on his shoulder. "I appreciate the gesture, but this is my battle, remember? I'm going in first, and I'll do the talking."
"Do you honestly see that happening in your wildest dreams, Eleanor?" Maddy asked.
"If you don't, then you both need to stay out here while I deal with it myself," I answered. From the tone of my voice and the expression on my face, they both knew I wasn't kidding.
"Fine," Maddy said, "but don't think for a moment that you're going to keep us standing out here while you go in and have all the fun by yourself."
"Do you agree to those terms, too, Greg?" I asked.
"You bet," he said with a grin. "It's going to be fun sitting back and watching you work. Let's go."
We walked inside the back room, and I had to admit that though I'd meant every word I'd said, I still felt better having Maddy and Greg with me.
At first I thought no one was there, but then a man wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt came out of the front with a small bucket in one hand.
He looked startled to see us there. "Can I help you?"
"Do you own this place?" I asked, trying to keep my voice calm, though I wasn't nearly so tranquil on the inside.
He grinned at me. "No, ma'am. I'm the mason. I had to come by and put a few finishing touches on the pizza oven's fa?ade before the grand opening. If you haven't seen it yet, you should sneak a peek. It's a work of art, if I say so myself."
"Is the owner around?" I asked.
"He just stepped out," the mason said. "Excuse me, but I've got a window of opportunity here before the grout hardens, and it's closing fast. If I don't get to it, I'm going to have some nasty chisel work ahead of me."
After he was gone, Maddy asked, "Now what do we do? We're not going to just leave, are we?"
I looked at my watch, and saw that time was running out. I wasn't exactly sure how long the owner of Italia's would be before he showed up, and I couldn't wait around all day. We might just have to come back on our lunch break, but I wasn't all that pleased about doing it that way. I was ready and primed, spoiling for a fight, and I was afraid if I waited, I'd lose some of my fire. On the other hand, I couldn't afford to alienate any of my customers by opening the Slice late, especially with this place opening up so soon.
I was about to tell my sister that we were going to have to go back to the Slice when a tall, elegantly dressed man came in.
He took one look at us and sneered as he asked, "Are you the wait staff? I told the agency that you need to dress up for the interviews." He took in our apparel once more, and before I could say anything, he added, "It doesn't really matter. I'm not sure you're what we're looking for, but thank you for stopping by."
"I'm not here for a job interview," I said, the blood beginning to roar in my ears. "I own A Slice of Delight."
The man frowned as he shook his head. "Then you shouldn't be back here in my kitchen. So sorry, but you'll have to wait for our grand opening celebration before you can come spying on me."
"We weren't spying," Maddy said, despite my warning. Oh, well. It wasn't as though I actually expected her to abide by her agreement to remain silent. I knew in my heart that it was just too much to ask of her.
"Funny, that's what it looked like to me." The pizzeria owner walked us toward the back door, and Greg looked at me questioningly before he allowed himself to be moved. With Greg's size and strength, I would have loved to see the man try to physically remove him, but that wasn't the way I wanted to fight this battle.
I wanted to make one try at being nice, even though I felt little good will toward the man. I put out a hand and tried to give my best smile. "It appears that we got off on the wrong foot. I'm Eleanor Swift."
He looked distastefully at my extended hand, then he refused to take it. "I'm Judson Sizemore," he said. "Pleased, I'm sure."
"Not as much as you might think," Greg said, nearly growling out his words.
I had to handle this fast, before things got ugly. "What made you decide to open a restaurant in Timber Ridge?" I asked.
"Do you even have to ask? It was clear that this town was in desperate need of some authentic cuisine," he said.
"What we serve is good enough for the people around here," Maddy said with a frown.
"Perhaps they believe that now, but I daresay their tastes will change when they sample what we offer." He offered me a slight smile with a hint of condescension in it. "Perhaps you'll find another niche in the marketplace."
"Okay, I tried being nice," I said. "Clearly that didn't work. It looks like it's time to go to Plan B."
"And what might that be?"
"Don't worry. You'll find out soon enough," I said, since I had no idea what I'd meant myself. I turned to Maddy and Greg, and then said, "Come on, we're leaving."
"Fine by us," Maddy said.
As we walked out the door, I saw that Judson Sizemore had followed us.
Once we were outside in the alley, a delivery truck was just starting to unload when Judson called out a question to me. "Was that a threat you just made, Ms. Swift?"
"No, I wouldn't look at it that way. Think of it more as a promise," I said.
As we walked back to the Slice, I stared at the blue brick exterior. I'd been saving enough money to get it repainted to a more appetizing color, but that money was spoken for now. It was going to have to go into a war chest in a life and death struggle for my restaurant.
I was about to enter a battlefield, and I couldn't afford to be cash-strapped when I went to war.