An Agatha Award-winning AuthorA Spice Shop MysteryIn Seattle's Pike Place Market, Spice Shop owner Pepper Reece is savoring her business success and looking forward to a visit from her mother, Lena. But soon she finds her plans disrupted by a killer. As Pepper roots out long-buried family secrets, will she be digging her own grave?
First Chapter or Excerpt
One To everything-turn, turn, turn There is a season-turn, turn, turn And a time to every purpose under heaven. -Pete Seeger, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" adapted from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 "Why is it called a salt pig?" Matt said. "Is that like salt pork?" "No, silly. Salt pork is pork belly that's cured by salting instead of smoking. Think bacon. My grandmother used it to flavor her Sunday pork and beans." Cayenne's dark eyes flickered open and shut in remembered rapture, long lashes brushing her high cheekbones. The banter between the Spice Shop's newest employees put a smile in my heart. No last-minute desperation hires this time. He knows retail; she knows food. And as their boss, I knew within days of hiring them that they would be great additions to the Pike Place Market, Seattle's heart, soul, and stomach. But Matt's cocked head and half squint said her explanation hadn't cleared up the muddle over the classic salt container. "Some sources say it looks like a pig's back end if you stand it sideways on its head." Cayenne used a particularly porcine model-smooth, glossy, and pinky-beige-to demonstrate. "But I've also heard that pig is an ancient Scottish word for a clay pot." "That works for me." Roundish, sixtyish, sporting the short, dark hair of an Italian pixie, Sandra lifted the lid off a celadon green oval jar and mimed scooping out salt with two fingers. "This one's good. Lets you get a grip on the stuff." "That's another thing I don't get," Matt said. He slid into the mixing nook beside the rest of us. Seeing the crew gathered for our Wednesday morning staff meeting, each sipping coffee or our custom-blended spice tea, a box of pastries open before us, gave me the satisfaction of a mother hen. After all that upheaval . . . I perished the thought. As if he read my mind from where he lay under the table, Arf rested his muzzle on my knee. I rubbed a thumb on the magic spot on his forehead. "A pinch is really a guess. Why not measure?" Matt continued. "And what about hygiene?" "You measure with your eyes and your mouth," Sandra said. "A recipe may look precise, but it's a guideline. You can't know how much salt your soup needs until you taste it. Is your broth salty? Are your carrots and onions on the sweet side? You taste, and balance." "Except when you're baking," I said, raising a finger. "Then you're talking chemical reactions. But with herbs and spices, you have more freedom." "And cooks are trained to wash their hands a lot ." Cayenne set the salt pig back in the weathered wooden box and withdrew a rounded container. The lower half was glazed a rich, blue-streaked mahogany, the upper a cinnamon-speckled oatmeal. A hand-carved wooden spoon poked out of the almond-shaped opening in front. "Isn't this wonderful, Pepper? The potter's new to the Market." She handed me the earthenware pig. The opening allows easy access while keeping the salt free of kitchen dirt and drips. Salt is hydrophilic, so an unglazed interior absorbs moisture and keeps the salt from clumping. Nice, in Seattle's damp clime. "It's food safe, obviously, and dishwasher safe," Cayenne said. "Are you her new sales rep?" Matt gibed. "No. I just love her work, and I think we should carry it." "Wish we could. But if she sells through us, she'll lose her Market permit. And the artists' tables are a huge draw-she'll do better on her own." Cayenne opened her mouth to protest, but I cut her off. "Hey, I don't make the rules." I set down the pig and reached for the potter's card. " Bonnie Clay - Potter - Functional Sculpture . Oh, too funny." Blank faces stared at me. "Continuing the Scottish theme," I said, "'bonnie' means pretty or attractive. So, her name translates to Pretty Pots." "Maybe she named herself," Reed ventured. "Because of her work." Sandra snorted. "Ya think?" She and Reed had come with the shop when I bought it nearly two years ago, and despite their differences in age and temperament, she treats him like a favorite puppy. Most days. Now, she ignored the wounded look on his gentle features, and he hunched over his tea, a lock of black hair flopping onto his forehead. "Sorry, Cayenne," I said. "Good find, but no go. I'll take the samples back and talk to her." We turned our attention to the long list of daily tasks. We'd all pitched in to train the newcomers while unpacking shipments, refilling hundreds of jars and canisters holding spices from around the world, making deliveries to restaurants, yada yada. Plus blending our own tea and spice mixes fresh every week. After years working all variety of retail, Matt had grasped our customer-first philosophy from the get-go. Cayenne oozes natural charm and has an encyclopedic knowledge of food. But she occasionally needs a reminder that no matter how busy she is sweeping up spilled thyme, the customer is never an interruption. "Were you able to solve that glitch in the wedding registry software?" I asked Reed. He opened his mouth, but Sandra spoke first. "There was no glitch. The bride has the same personality as her mother. The registry shows no gifts purchased because she has no friends." I suppressed a smile. The bridal mother had stomped in yesterday afternoon spewing complaints. We had wrongfully delayed sending her beloved daughter any gifts; our system bordered on false advertising, if not fraud; and we were not fit to kiss the hem of the most beautiful bride in Seattle's pearl-encrusted train. "Send the bride our thyme gift box as a thank-you for registering." A perennial best seller, thyme was also our featured Spice of the Month. By mid-June, most Seattle gardeners are deep into maintenance mode, so we'd arranged the last few seedlings in the center of our main display table. The slightest movement of air sent pleasant grassy notes swirling through the shop. "Anything else?" Three bright-eyed heads shook "no." "Great. Let's have a spicy day." The fourth head stayed bowed, and its owner stayed put. I waited until the others had slid out of the booth and started their morning routine. "What's up?" A long silence. "I hate women who bawl at work." Sandra, my assistant manager, on the verge of tears? About as likely as Momzilla sending me roses to apologize for her hissy fit. But thirteen years working HR in a law firm, managing legal secretaries, assistants, and receptionists, had taught me to keep my mouth shut and leave room for her to speak in her own good time. Sometimes you have to sit a little longer than your backside wants. She wrapped her arms around her ample midsection and gripped her elbows, eyes damp and unfocused. "I-I can't talk it about it, Pepper. Not yet." My mouth went dry. Was she ill? Selfishly, I worried about the shop-how could we manage without her? The citrus-and-spice smell of our signature tea filled the air as Matt poured an extra-strength batch of hot brew into the giant cooler, the ice in the bottom crackling. I touched her arm. "We're here for you. Whatever you need." Sometimes the clichés are true. At ten o'clock, I sent Arf to his bed behind the front counter and unlocked the door. Two minutes later, Kristen swept in, a bubbly blond cloud. My lifelong BFF and part-time staffer, she'd skipped this week's huddle for a plotting session with her landscaper, arranging the final floral touches in her backyard. Two days till her annual shindig-a joint birthday party for the two of us, born two weeks apart. It was also a celebration that her family's long-running remodel was finally finished and a chance to welcome my mother home for a visit from Costa Rica. "What a pretty day! We are going to be swamped, even midweek. Pepper, the house looks so fabulous. And the garden. Ohmygosh." She disappeared from view long enough to stash her purse in back, then emerged, tugging her black Spice Shop apron over her head. Our white logo-a saltshaker sprinkling salt into the sea-bobbed as she wound the strings around her narrow waist and tied them in a floppy bow. "Is this Cayenne's new potter? How fabulous." She picked up a card and read the name. Tossed it aside. "I can't wait for you and Lena to see my surprise! You won't believe what we found in the basement." "What? You never said a word." The year we were born, Kristen's parents and mine established a communal household in the four-story Capitol Hill house her mother had inherited. I'd helped her with design work and shopping, but knew nothing of a basement discovery. She wiggled her brows and lifted one shoulder. "A girl's got to have some secrets." The bell on the front door jangled, and a gaggle of women surged in. "Don't be nervous," she said before rushing off to welcome the customers and offer samples of tea. I headed for my office to return a few phone calls and follow a lead on a Portuguese whole black mustard seed I'd been trying to import for months. A cell phone is an unreliable mirror, but in that fleeting second between powering on and lighting up, the screen reflected my raggedy-on-purpose hair, and I fluffed it instinctively. My mother had not been surprised when I'd left my police officer husband, after catching him and a meter maid-I can't bring myself to say "parking enforcement officer"-practically plugging each other at a back table in a posh new restaurant when he was supposed to be working overtime for a buddy. She had not been fazed when, thirty days later, I plunked down every penny I had on an unfinished loft in a century-old warehouse above the waterfront. She barely blinked when the law firm imploded in scandal and I lost the job I loved. And she kept her mouth shut when I responded by buying the Seattle Spice Shop, a forty-year-old institution mired in the past. But cutting my sleek, dark, city-styled hair to a two-inch mass that resembled an old-fashioned dust mop, made of twisted yarn and electric with static-that gave her major heartburn. She wouldn't say a word until we were alone, but I'd know the moment she walked in whether she'd forgiven me. And Kristen wondered why I was nervous. Back out front, I surveyed my domain. Behind the counter, Sandra measured and bagged a large order, while Cayenne rang it up. "I need a hostess gift," a customer said. "I love your tea, but she's a coffee drinker." "A lot of those around." I gestured toward a display of gift boxes. "Does she grill? This set features our Cajun blend and a Southwest rub. If she prefers a milder touch, we've got another combo that's high on flavor and low on heat. Or we can put together a custom box." "She loves Indian food." "We've got just the thing." I handed her a tester. "Four custom blends: two curries, a garam masala, and a vindaloo cranked up with an extra dose of cayenne. All in an easy-to-ship gift box." She passed the open jar under her nose, her eyelids fluttering shut as she took in the aroma of our mildest curry. Her face softened, and she crossed the line from skeptical to satisfied. Spice does that. After a late-morning rush, we skidded to a pre-lunch lull. My predecessor had carried a handful of spice guides and ethnic cookbooks, but I'd spotted the sales potential right off the bat. We'd brought in two long, double-sided shelf units and added tons of cookbooks, essay collections, chef lit, and even fiction. I sat on the floor to straighten the foodie mysteries. Whether it's spice jars or books, I find alphabetizing a soothing task. "A for Albert and Rosemary Remembered, C for Laura Childs and Gunpowder Green. Gotta order her new one." My friend Jen works in the Mystery Bookshop in Pioneer Square and alerts me to authors my customers might enjoy. "What is The Diva Runs Out of Thyme doing way down there? That belongs in the Ds for Davis." "Are you talking to the books or yourself?" "Mom!" I stood and embraced a smaller version of myself, her well-tanned face breaking into a grin. Behind her, looking like an echo of my father-except that I hadn't seen my father in a suit since my wedding day-towered my brother, Carl. He leaned in and kissed my cheek. "Can't stay-I'm double-parked. Mom, I'll pick you up around five thirty." She waved a hand. "You go play with money or whatever it is you do. Pepper and I need girl time." My brother manages the city's bond portfolio, thrusting him into debates over construction projects, interest rates, and investment doodah that brings glazed looks to the faces of our parents-a Vietnam vet turned history teacher and a barely reformed hippie chick. He kissed her and strode off, waving to the staff on his way out. Kristen finished helping a customer and joined us. "Lena," she said, and my mother took her face in her hands. "So like your mother. I miss her." They hugged, and Kristen dabbed at her eye. My mother walked slowly around the shop, taking in the changes. "That apothecary is exactly right for the tea things. And to think Tag wanted you to leave it for the junkman." Actually, my ex had called me the neighborhood junkman. Not that he was wrong. She paused in front of the registry and gift display, a video of brides, grooms, and idyllic settings looping across the computer screen. "I can't believe what the wedding business has become. Brilliant of you to find a niche of your own within it." "Any new thing takes time, but it's starting to pay off." Behind my back, I crossed my fingers. She took my arm. "Lunch at the Pink Door? I'm desperate to drink the city in." The dog and I made a quick trip to the alley, then Mom and I headed out. My tote over my shoulder and the box of borrowed pottery in my arms, we wove through the crowds of tourists and downtown workers who'd dashed to the Market to grab a quick lunch and shop for dinner. Pike Place is the main thoroughfare, a curious L-shaped street paved in ancient cobblestones. Only the brave or the lost drive down it after opening bell. And a late delivery van or two. We cut between two idling trucks, my mother's hand on my shoulder, the hot diesel-y exhaust from a tailpipe whipping the leg of my black yoga pants. On the other side of the street, we stepped into the North Arcade, a covered walkway lined with two long rows of wooden tables painted green. To our left, where the farmers and other growers cluster, early-summer produce filled the four-foot allotments, and flowers burst out of buckets. My mother kissed Angie and Sylvie Martinez, aka the orchard sisters, and asked about their grandmother, an old friend from the farm boycotts and protest lines. Excerpted from Killing Thyme by Leslie Budewitz All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.