A DINNER TO DIE FOR
Summoned from her Arizona ranch to take charge of her teenage great-nephew and his twin sister, Genia Potter takes a rental on the Rhode Island coast. Old acquaintance Stanley Parker is only too happy to welcome her. And soon Genia is busily preparing for the tasting party that she and Stanley are hosting that evening at her cottage.
An avid cook and recipe collector, Stanley has already roped Genia into collaborating on The Secret Ingredient Cookbook, chock-full of Rhode Island culinary mysteries. Now is their chance to test some recipes and solicit others from each of the invited. Stanley has carefully selected six guests. And each has been asked to contribute a recipe with one secret ingredient. Genia asks no questions-until the lobster bisque is cold and all but one are present. Where is Stanley? Dead. And unlamented. Has one of the guests concocted a secret recipe for murder? Everyone has a motive. And everyone has a secret-including Genia's troubled great-nephew, the prime suspect. . .
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February 26, 2002
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Excerpt from The Secret Ingredient Murders by Nancy Pickard
Guest of Honor
Stanley Parker slipped his left arm and shoulder through a strap of his backpack, moving cautiously, afraid of pain. When the wary movement didn't hurt him, he felt deeply grateful. The pack was of hand-stitched Italian leather and dated to his honeymoon a half a century ago; the pain was of more recent origin. It was ever increasing, growing as fast as a squalling infant, sensitive as a weather gauge to changes in the temperature, humidity, and the pressure of the atmosphere around him. Tonight, however, the agony was dozing. It was stuffed away inside of him, invisible, like the frosted, squat green bottle of brandy he carried in the weathered old backpack.
The old man alertly stepped onto the gravel of his circular driveway. There was nothing wrong with his hearing; he heard pebbles crunch under his feet, sounding as sharp as pellet shots in the crisp night air. He even heard the hum of the generator that ran the pump that provided fresh well water to his greenhouse, and he heard--or felt--the rhythmic surge of the ocean onto the beach below his home, and the waves drawing back into themselves again.
Tonight, when he moved, no sharp pain stabbed his hip.
Stanley sighed with a depth of gratitude known only to someone who has endured anguish and then finds himself liberated from it for a blessed little while.
"Thank you, Jason, my boy," he murmured.
He owed this freedom to a boy who had taken a risk for him.
The old man lengthened his stride a bit, still suspicious of the price of movement. He was determined to drive his motorbike over to the dinner party at Genia Potter's home this evening. With every step forward he discovered to his relief there was no real pain tonight, only a trace of an ache, and an ache was nothing to him; he might even describe it as "mere."
He had dressed for dinner, but no more formally than was his nightly custom: a starched white shirt, a yellow bow tie, and a light blue summer suit, pinstriped in white, with the old-fashioned wide lapels he had worn in his youth and still preferred. The left lapel sported a cluster of pins that denoted some of the honors he had won over a long, productive civic life: master of this, emeritus of that, honorary such-and-such. Sometimes he forgot which pin signified which honor, and so he made up answers when he was asked about them. "This pin? Oh, they gave me this at the Culinary Archives and Museum in Providence, for being on their board of directors longer than the dinosaurs roamed the earth."
A full moon lighted his path, illuminating his features as if he were alone on a stage: He had big ears and white hair that was parted on the right side and which he had earlier pushed flat against his skull with water and a small black comb. His eyebrows were bushy and white and he had combed them, too. Deep runnels had etched themselves into the skin beside his mouth, but the mouth was wide and straight, only slightly turned down by age, obstinacy, and occasional bad temper. There was unmistakable, formidable wit and intelligence in his faded blue eyes, giving him the appearance of a man who didn't tolerate fools at all, much less gladly.
Through the fragile skin and thin muscles of his back, Stanley sensed his big stone house behind him, looming like a lighthouse but without a warning beacon in its tower. In his imagination its very stones exuded warmth, better than liniment for an aching heart or body. Known locally as Parker's Castle, it had already housed four generations of his family and had become, under his tenure, capable of standing long enough to shelter at least as many more. He hoped none of them would be sired by his daughter Nikki's worthless husband, Randy.
More confidently now the old man continued toward his motorbike, standing propped up and waiting for him on the far side of the drive. At least his handyman, Ed Hennessey, had done that one thing he'd been told to do. Like the backpack--like Stanley Parker himself--the bike was worn, battered, almost all used up.
Glancing skyward Stanley Parker spotted a moon like a wedding mint, all round and creamy. In order to admire it, he had to stop, because he couldn't walk and look up at the same time and still hope to keep his balance.
Moon, he thought, spoon, prune, honeymoon.
"Why is my wedding on my mind tonight?" he asked himself.
He'd bought the backpack in a tiny, fragrant leather-goods store on the famous old bridge called the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy, on the day after his marriage. The River Arno had flowed beneath them, polluted, but sparkling all the same. It had felt so odd to the young bridegroom to be shopping with a wife on a bridge over a river in a foreign place. It had all seemed foreign to him in that moment: the country, the shop, the woman, the marriage. Impossible not to buy a souvenir, some object to prove he had really been there, doing that odd thing in that unexpected place.