Thursday Sampler: Chill Well Before Killing by Tiger Wiseman

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In our mission to connect readers, writers, and books, Caleb and Linda Pirtle has launched a new series featuring writing samples from some of the best authors in the marketplace today. Thursday Sampler is an excerpt from Chill Well Before Killing, a mystery by Tiger Wiseman. 

Chill Well Before Killing was the first place winner in the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards for Works in Progress.

The First Chapter

I can think of only three conceivable reasons anyone would work for Suzanne Tolliver: stupidity, desperation, or masochism.

Color me desperate.

A doleful timer ticked in my head. Sixty days and counting. One thousand, four hundred and forty hours until I faced my worst nightmare. And first, I had to survive tonight.

Tonight could make, or just as easily break, my career.

Whatever made me think catering Gabe Tolliver’s senatorial campaign launch—an intimate gathering of the deepest-pocketed movers and shakers Fairfield County—was a good idea?

My catering experience consisted of five dinners in the last six months, none for more than six diners. And those were only a stop gap measure to bolster the cash flow from my train station food concession. Tonight there would be seventy-five guests. Talk about biting off more than you can chew.

And if that weren’t enough, my client—the candidate’s wife—is the most demanding woman I know. Why had she hired me, an unknown culinary quantity, not to mention the person she held responsible for all her daughter’s—my best friend’s—teenaged peccadilloes?

Working in this house was a potential recipe for disaster. So is a wandering mind. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the wine reduction for the beef tenderloin crostini bubbling over the rim of its saucepan. As I dove to snatch the pan off the heat a shout froze my forward motion as effectively as a stone wall.

“Kensing!”

Only two people call me by my full name: my mother and tonight’s client. Suzanne Tolliver—or Mrs. T. as she is known to those of us who grew up with her daughter—glared at me from the doorway, the noise of a party in full swing serving as her backup group. Mrs. T. was at the back end of her fifties, old enough to be my mother, but thankfully not. She looked exactly like what she was: a suburban-Connecticut matron who spares no expense to fight gravity and age. So far, she was winning by a slim margin, thanks to a talented hair stylist, a ruthless Pilates regimen, and a skilled plastic surgeon.

Her bark halted my body, but the wooden spoon in my hand continued on its trajectory, hitting a liquid bull’s eye and splashing hot Cabernet Sauvignon up the front of my white chef’s jacket.

Interested only in her own immediate concerns, Mrs. T. ignored the likely catastrophe she’d set in motion, raising her voice above the rumble of a kitchen in full service mode. “Kensing, has Gabe arrived?” The question, delivered at about the same decibel level as a train horn, tweaked my last nerve.

I inhaled deeply before I answered her, swallowing the urge to point out that she’d asked me the same question eight times in the last hour and a half. “Not yet, but I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”

My negative answer, or maybe it was the now-wine-stained jacket, earned me “the Look.” The same one I’ve dreaded since the day I first met the Tollivers in the prep school dorm room I’d share with Mrs. T.’s daughter, Tina, for the next four years. Fifteen years later, the woman still had the ability to make me feel like an unsophisticated schoolgirl.

“I swear I will kill him if he doesn’t get here soon,” she said, in a tone that left me believing in such possibility. “I can’t imagine what he’s thinking. Or where he is when he should be here, greeting his supporters.”

I couldn’t imagine either, since the party had started an hour ago, but I said a silent prayer to the kitchen gods that he’d appear soon, before I forgot a business owner’s first rule: the customer is always right. Even when she’s a witch with a “b.” Make that a wealthy witch with a capital “B.” My cheerful, commuter customers were looking real good right now.

I wiped my hands on my side towel and rearranged the elastic around the end my long braid, tucking in errant copper tresses and stalling for time. “Maybe he’s caught in traffic?”

“Between here and the train station?” Sarcasm dripped from every carefully enunciated word. She has one of those faces that teeter perennially between condescension and ingratiation, although the latter has never been directed at me.

“Are his partners here yet?” I asked, referring to the law firm Gabe heads. “Maybe Metro North is running late. Switching problems? Or a derailed train?”

The “Look.” Again. “Call and find out.” Then she turned and disappeared through the swinging door, leaving a trail of DK Cashmere Mist and disapproval in her wake.

The faces of my part-time staff registered sympathy. Sergio made a rude hand gesture at Mrs. T.’s back; his brother Carlos nodded and repeated the gesture. Julie giggled before quickly returning to her duties. Daniel, the leader of the quartet, patted my shoulder. “Want me to check the railroad website?”

My crew watched, half-amused, half-concerned as I fidgeted, rearranging a shrimp here, removing a dead herb there. Thankfully they couldn’t hear the dialog going on in my head or they’d really have been concerned with an impending client-cide. “Thanks, just a quick check if you wouldn’t mind. I need to clean up this mess and salvage the wine reduction. Right after I unlatch my teeth from my tongue.”

Daniel chuckled. “Aren’t you glad you gave up the soothing sanity of chasing embezzlers and forgers to become a cook?”

“Who’s to say there isn’t someone pushing a Ponzi scheme in the great room right now?” I asked. “I met Bernie Madoff once. He would fit right in with tonight’s guests: personable, intelligent, well mannered, and very, very rich.”

“Also crooked, amoral, two-faced, and probably mortgaged to the hilt.”

I attempted “the Look” but, judging from his grin, failed.

“Just remember, the wine goes in the pot and not down your throat. Or your jacket.” He whipped out his cell phone.

I pondered Daniel’s comment as I stirred the reduction. Did I miss my old job? Miss the excitement of unraveling yet another white collar fraud? Yes and no. I missed the challenge, but not the restrictive corporate mentality. And it’s not like I was twiddling my thumbs all day: developing new muffin recipes, and baking batch after batch for commuters heading into Stamford and New York City, kept my mind and hands busy.

“Trains are on time.” Daniel whisked by me with a tray of crab cakes, each golden round topped with a dab of tarragon remoulade sauce.

Damn. Did I want to be the bearer of ill news? Did the pioneers want arrows in their backs?

Wiping clammy hands on my pants legs, I stared at the swinging kitchen door. Out there, in the candelabra and chandelier-lit great room, Mrs. T. and seventy-five of Fairfield County’s glitterati had my financial fate, and my crew’s tuition, in their hands. And mouths.

One trait I shared with Gabe Tolliver was the drive for success, both personal and professional. So what was so important that he’d miss a surefire step on the staircase to his goal?

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