Ellie Alexander Excerpt: Another One Bites the Crust

Another One Bites the Crust by Ellie Alexander is the seventh book in the Bakeshop Mystery series (available January 2, 2018).

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Torte―the beloved small-town bakeshop run by Jules Capshaw―is set to hit the stage. But who would have guessed that murder would makes a surprise appearance?

It’s the role of a lifetime for Jules. The Shakespeare Festival has returned to Ashland, Oregon, for the season and Torte has been cast as the supplier of Elizabethan-era treats for the main event. But on the eve of opening night, a brawl between Jules’s friend Lance, the artistic director, and a strapping young thespian named Anthony almost brings down the house. . .and the next morning, Anthony is dead. Jules knows that Lance loves his drama―and his just desserts―but she also knows that murder is way off-script for him. Now it’s up to Jules to cut through a bevy of backstage betrayals and catty co-stars who all have their own secrets―before the curtain drops on someone else…

Chapter One

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. After a week away from my beloved town of Ashland, Oregon, I knew this to be true. The sidewalks along the plaza seemed merrier, the budding spring trees looked cheerier, and the southern Oregon sky glowed in warm pink tones as I made my way to Torte. It was as if Ashland had rolled out the welcome mat to greet me. I smiled as I passed sleepy storefronts and drank in the cool, early morning air. Our family bakeshop sat at the corner of the Elizabethan-inspired village. Huge Shakespearean banners announcing the new season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival danced in the slight breeze. Torte’s front windows had been decorated with matching maroon and gold banners, ribbons, and twinkle lights. Platters of cupcakes adorned with edible, hand-painted theater masks, busks, and scrolls made for a colorful and tempting display.

“I’m home,” I said to no one as I took a deep breath and unlocked the front door. Inside, the bakeshop was blanketed in darkness. I flipped on the lights and surveyed the dining room. Torte was divided into three unique spaces. The front served as a dining room with red and teal walls, corrugated metal siding, an assortment of small tables, and cozy booths lining the windows. An espresso bar and pastry counter divided the dining room and kitchen. A large chalkboard menu took up most of the far wall. One of Torte’s youngest customers had colored a stick figure family with a dog, cat, and what I could only guess might be some kind of a bird in the bottom corner of the chalkboard. We keep an assortment of colorful chalk on hand to entertain youngsters while their parents nosh on pastries or linger over coffee. It’s been a tradition since my parents opened the bakeshop to reserve a special section of the chalkboard for budding masterpieces.

The same was true for the rotating Shakespearean quote on the top of the chalkboard. My father had always been a fan of the Bard’s work and enjoyed sharing his passion for poetry with customers. When he died, Mom continued the weekly quotes as an homage to him. This week’s quote was from Antony and Cleopatra. It read: “Give me some music; music, moody food. Of us that trade in love.” Not only was it a lovely quote, but it was also a teaser for the new season at OSF which kicked off in a week with the premiere of Antony and Cleopatra. Everyone in Ashland had been buzzing with excitement. The commencement of another season meant that soon our calm streets would be packed with tourists in town to take in a show and shop and dine in our little hamlet. I liked Ashland’s seasonal rhythm. When the theater went dark for the winter, so did we. GONE FISHING signs hung from storefront windows, locals packed up and followed the sun south, and business owners spruced up their shops and planned for the coming year. Having a cold and snowy reprieve where things quieted down and assumed a more leisurely pace for a few months was always nice, but by February the entire town was ready and eager to welcome tourists from around the globe.

I’d been away on a temporary assignment as head pastry chef for the luxury cruise ship The Amour of the Seas, where I had spent many happy years with my now estranged husband, Carlos. Our time together had been blissful, although perhaps not grounded in reality. Traveling across oceans had allowed me to explore the world and taste exotic pastries, like Taiwanese buns with dried jujubes and traditional star plum pastries from Finland. My palate expanded with every bite at each new port of call. I credit my years on The Amour of the Seas for making me the chef I am today. Yet, when I left it behind I never looked back. From the moment my feet hit the pavement in Ashland I knew I was home.

That changed a few weeks ago when Carlos called out of the blue and begged me to fill in. The ship’s pastry chef had stormed off in a huff, leaving the kitchen in a lurch. At first I had resisted the idea, but the timing had been perfect. Plus, Carlos had offered an all-expenses-paid vacation for Mom and the Professor. A week at sea under the tropical sun had been just what the doctor ordered for all of us. I got some much-needed clarity on my relationship and future with Carlos, and the Professor finally popped the question, getting down on one knee under a glowing sunset to ask for Mom’s hand in marriage. Every time I replayed his romantic proposal in my head my eyes began to mist.

Being back on the Amour had been a reminder of the life that I’d left behind. I didn’t harbor any ill will toward my memories or my years spent sailing on calm, azure waters. Nor did I regret marrying Carlos. What I had come to understand, though, was that it was possible to love more than one person or thing. I knew that my heart belonged in Ashland, even if Carlos would always hold a piece of it. It was time to let go of the past, even if that meant saying good-bye to Carlos. The ache of leaving him this time felt different. I knew that things were shifting, and I was ready to dive headfirst into my life here.

For starters that meant focusing on the task at hand—preparing vats of homemade soups, breads, and sweets for the incoming crowds. I tugged off my coat, grabbed an apron from the rack next to the espresso bar, and headed for the kitchen. In addition to gearing up for the busy season, we were in the middle of a major expansion. The basement property beneath the bakeshop had recently come on the market and Mom and I had decided there was no time like the present to take the plunge. While we were on the cruise, the first phase of construction had begun. The space had been waterproofed by adding special drainage and shoring up the foundation. With that project complete we could now turn our attention to the fun part—designing a state-of-the-art kitchen.

Our current plan was to roll the remodel out in stages. The next step involved gutting the current floor plan to make room for an industrial kitchen and small seating area. Once that was complete, baking operations would move downstairs. Then we would knock through the current kitchen, add stairs, and expand the coffee bar and dining room. I was most excited about the open-kitchen concept that the architect had drafted. We had discovered a massive brick oven that would serve a dual purpose—baking wood-fired pastries and pizzas and offering a cozy spot for guests to watch our team of bakers at work and nibble on buttery croissants. For the past week, I’d woken up in the middle of the night dreaming about pulling beautiful charred crusts and bubbling ramekins of macaroni and cheese topped with applewood bacon from the new oven.

It all penciled out on paper, but I was nervous about how everything would come together and keeping the contractors on track. But with one glance at our current kitchen I knew whatever stress this project brought would be worth it. We had reached maximum capacity in the current space. If we wanted to expand our offerings, and continue taking so many special orders for weddings and catering, we had to have more square footage.

One task at a time, Jules, I told myself as I fired up our shiny new ovens, which would eventually be repositioned downstairs, and studied my to-do list on the whiteboard. There were wholesale bread orders, four custom cakes, two corporate pastry orders, and the daily Torte menu to complete. I quickly sketched out a plan of attack. Stephanie, our pastry protégée, and Bethany, our newest recruit, could tackle the bread and corporate orders. I would work on the custom cakes. Sterling, our chef-in-training, would be responsible for soup and sandwiches, and Andy would man the espresso counter. Fortunately, Mom had decided to scale back a bit to focus on wedding plans. I would miss having her steady energy around, but honestly, I wasn’t sure how we could squeeze one more body into the tight space. Our expansion couldn’t happen fast enough.

As I turned on the sink and began washing my hands, the front door jingled and Stephanie and Andy arrived together.

“Morning, boss!” Andy grinned and waved.

Stephanie made some sort of grunting sound, hung her head, and shuffled inside after him.

“Someone needs a java—stat.” Andy mimicked Stephanie’s posture.

She shot him a harsh look. “Do you pound espresso before you get here?”

“Nope. But my mom always says that the early bird catches the worm.” He winked and tipped his baseball hat at her.

Stephanie scowled. “Will you please just make me a coffee?”

I hid a smile. I was used to their unique personalities. They were both students at Southern Oregon University, but that was where their similarities ended. Nothing ever appeared to fluster Andy. He was perfect in his role as Torte’s lead barista with his jovial attitude and easy ability to chat with anyone. Our customers loved him. They also loved his coffee. He had a natural talent for combining unique flavors and was a master at latte art. The things he could do with nothing more than foamed milk and a toothpick would make a professional sculptor’s head spin. From a swan floating on puffy white clouds to a pirate ship, complete with a skull and crossbones, Andy could create almost anything on the top of a cup. As of late he had been perfecting Shakespeare’s bust in foam, and starting to take requests. Watching him flourish had been one of the highlights of my career thus far.

Stephanie might not have Andy’s laid-back attitude, but I had learned that sometimes there’s a soft and sweet center under a crunchy exterior. Her goth style, shockingly purple hair, and tendency to dress in all black paired with her sometimes-surly smile made her appear uninterested and aloof. But nothing could be further from the truth. She was loyal, dependable, and a quick study. Mom and I had been teaching her the tricks of the pastry trade, and I was impressed by how much her skills had grown in the last few months. She often surprised me. Like the fact that she binged on hours and hours of Pastry Channel baking shows for entertainment and her own education. Or that she had forged a strong bond with Bethany and seemed genuinely excited about taking on independent projects like Torte’s Web site and social media accounts.

Andy removed his baseball cap and gave Stephanie a half bow. “My pleasure. I’m here to keep you caffeinated.”

“You better make that a double,” I hollered from the kitchen.

Stephanie tied on an apron and joined me while Andy began to steam milk and grind beans.

“Late night?” I asked, handing her the wholesale order sheet.

“Don’t even get me started. A new girl moved in next door. She’s a music major and likes to belt out show tunes all night long. All freaking night long. It’s been going on for a week and I think I might snap.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Show tunes, really? Somehow I don’t think of your generation being big into show tunes.”

Stephanie scowled. “We’re not.”

Andy turned to face us. “I second that! Man, I feel for you, Steph.”

“Thanks.” She rubbed her temples. “If I hear the soundtrack of Oklahoma! one more time I’m going to lose my mind.”

“Only in Ashland.” I shook my head and laughed. “You know who would love this? Lance.”

“No. Don’t give him any ideas,” Stephanie pleaded. “Gawd, can you even imagine? He’d probably want to have her come in and audition or something.”

“Good point.” I gathered mixing bowls and nine-inch round pans. “I promise this will be a show-tune-free zone today. Are you okay with working on the bread orders? Once Bethany gets in I thought the two of you could focus on the corporate deliveries, too. They want an assortment of pastries, so we can double up our daily offerings.”

“Sure.” Stephanie’s eyelids, which were coated in purple shadow, drooped as she read through the bread orders. Upon closer inspection, her deep-set eyes were puffy with heavy bags beneath them. Her skin looked pale, but not from makeup. She absently twisted off the lid to a flour canister and nearly dropped it on the floor.

I felt sorry for her. Having a noisy neighbor was the worst. I was fortunate to have complete privacy in my apartment in Ashland. It was located above Elevation, an outdoor store that closed at seven every evening. However, I remembered my early days working for the cruise line when I had to bunk with three other women. The crew quarters were often an all-night party, which did not lend itself to bakers’ hours. I had invested in an expensive pair of earplugs to get to sleep. I wondered if I still had them. I would have to check later and bring them in for Stephanie.

We worked in silence for the first thirty minutes of the morning. I creamed butter, sugar, eggs, and vanilla in the mixer and then sifted in dry ingredients for the first cake. The order was for a vanilla sponge with vanilla buttercream. A simple but classic request. The customer hadn’t specified any design preferences so I planned to use an old method called spooning. After frosting the layered cake with generous amounts of buttercream I would pipe vertical dots all over the cake. Once the cake was covered with dots of buttercream I would use the back of a spoon and start at the base, making small swirls up to the top edge. Then I would repeat the process around the entire cake. The final product would look like fluffy clouds or flower petals. It’s a gorgeous vintage look that never goes out of style.

Andy cut the silence by bringing us two brimming mugs of black coffee. “Coffee anyone?”

I poured the creamy vanilla batter into the cake pans, slid them into the oven, and turned toward Andy.

He handed a ceramic mug to me. “I went with a straight-up light roast. It’s delicate and floral and I think it’s best without any cream or sugar.”

Stephanie, who was up to her elbows in bread dough, frowned and stared at Andy’s offering. “Light roast. I need caffeine—like an IV of caffeine. I can’t stop singing ‘Oklahoma!’ in my head.”

Andy bit his lip to keep from laughing and rested the cup next to the mound of springy bread dough Stephanie was kneading. “Trust me. This will do the trick. There’s no difference in caffeine when it comes to roasts. People assume that dark roasts have more caffeine because it’s a bolder coffee.” He paused and shook his head. “Nah, total myth. Roast has nothing to do with caffeine. Nothing. It’s kind of a big controversy in the coffee world, though. There’s a whole camp of people who think that light roasts actually have more caffeine. You know, because roasting the beans for longer brings out oils, so I guess you could say that more caffeine burns off in the process.”

Stephanie stared at him as if he was speaking a foreign language.

Andy looked to me for confirmation. “Right, boss?”

I shrugged. “Don’t look at me. To be honest, I’ve never considered the caffeine content of a roast.” I wrinkled my nose. “How do you know all of this?”

“YouTube.” Andy’s wide smile made his face look even more boyish.

“Really?” I cradled the coffee mug. The scent of floral notes hit my nose.

“Sure. I have to know what I’m talking about. When it comes to caffeine people get kind of crazy.”

“Light roast, dark roast, I’ll drink whatever you brew.” I held up the mug in a toast and took a sip. As promised the coffee was smooth with a sweet complexity and a fruity tanginess. I inhaled its fragrant, almost floral scent and took another sip. “This is fantastic.”

“Glad you like it. I’m going to experiment with this blend today. It should be a nice spring drink. I’m thinking of trying to pair it with some infused rose water or maybe orange blossoms. I’ll bring some stuff for you guys to try in a while.” With that he returned to the espresso bar.

Stephanie took a long drink of her coffee and then punched a mound of bread dough on the island. “Oh my Gawd, I’m such a tool.”

“What?” I looked up from the next order sheet.

She dug her black nails into the pillowy dough. “I accidentally put sugar in this instead of salt.” Then she pointed to a row of canisters next to her flour-coated workspace. Sure enough, the sugar lid was off and had measuring spoons resting inside it.

“It’s okay.” I set the order sheet near my coffee and walked to the other side of the island. “We can salvage this, no problem.”

Stephanie brushed flour from her hands with such force that I thought she might injure herself. “This is supposed to be French bread.”

I ripped off two tiny pieces of the dough, popped one in my mouth, and handed the other to Stephanie. “Taste it.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah?”

“Improvise,” I said, swallowing the sweet, stretchy dough. “Any good chef will tell you that some of their most revered dishes were nothing more than happy accidents.”

“Right.”

“It’s true.” I cut off a hunk of the dough and formed it into a round ball. “Here’s what we’ll do. Why don’t you coat the loaf pans with olive oil? Then we’ll drizzle each loaf with honey and a dusting of sea salt. Suddenly, you’ll have a crisp crunch, a light sweetness, and a touch of salt. Ta-da! Honey French Bread.”

“But that isn’t on the order list.”

“No problem. We’ll make another batch of standard French, but I guarantee you this is going to be a hit.”

Stephanie shrugged. “If you think so.”

“I know so.” I thought about patting her on the shoulder or giving her a quick hug to reassure her, but decided against it. Even in the best of circumstances Stephanie wasn’t effusive. I didn’t want to make it worse for her.

Sleep deprivation had rattled my young apprentice. I was going to have to keep an eye on her. I returned to the other side of the workstation, sipped my coffee and studied the next order. It was for a two-layer chocolate marble sheet for a fourth-birthday party. The customer had requested a unicorn and rainbow theme. That should be fun, I thought as the door jingled again and Sterling and Bethany arrived.

“Everyone’s coming in pairs this morning,” I said to Stephanie and waved hello to Sterling and Bethany.

Andy offered them a cup of his spring blend on their way back to the kitchen. They both gladly accepted drinks and joined the activity.

“Morning,” Sterling said to both of us, but I noticed his gaze linger on Stephanie for a moment. His eyes shifted ever so slightly. Was he worried about her, too?

Sterling had become like a brother to me. We shared a common love for food, we had both experienced losses, and we had tender, romantic souls. He had been holding a torch for Stephanie for a while now, and I just hoped that she wouldn’t break his heart. Not that he would have any difficulty finding someone new. Ever since we’d hired Sterling a rotation of young girls came into the bakeshop every day to catch a glimpse of the handsome, dark-haired chef. His brilliant blue eyes and poetic nature often sent groups of teenage girls into giggling fits in the dining room. Sterling was oblivious to the attention. He only had eyes for Stephanie.

“Are you up for a busy morning?” I asked Sterling and Bethany.

“At your service, Jules,” Sterling said, heading straight for the sink. “Put me to work.”

“Same here,” Bethany echoed. She savored her coffee. “Have you seen our social media accounts lately?” She wore her curly brown hair in two braids and had on a pale pink T-shirt with a silhouette of a cupcake and the words BAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE.

“No.” I shook my head. “Love your shirt, though.”

She grinned and gave me a thumbs-up. Bethany had come on board initially to cover while Mom and I were on the cruise, but she’d been so helpful and blended in with our staff so well that we asked her to stay permanently. She had started a brownie-delivery service, the Unbeatable Brownie, so part of our contract had been a partnership where she retained a portion of the profits from those sales. She had also agreed to work with Stephanie to bring us into the twenty-first century and create a stronger online social media presence. They had been snapping pictures of cakes, pastries, customers, and life in the kitchen and posting them online. So far the response had been great. It was fun to have fresh ideas and energy in the kitchen.

Bethany tied on an apron, hiding the sweet saying that could be Torte’s new mantra. “Well, Stephanie and I came up with this idea while you were gone and it’s been working really well. We’ve been posting a secret brownie flavor of the day. Anyone who comes in and mentions the flavor gets a free one. They have to take a picture and use the hashtag #SecretSweets. We’ve doubled our followers in less than a week.”

“That’s amazing. I love the idea. A little touch of mystery in the bakeshop never hurts. How have you been deciding on flavors?”

Stephanie patted the last round ball of bread dough into a bread pan and brushed flour from her hands. “We started with a crazy flavor just to see if anyone would bite.” She placed our experimental French bread in the ovens and unleashed the heavenly scent of my vanilla sponge cakes.

“Ha, bite!” Andy clapped from the espresso bar. “Well played.”

“Anyway,” Stephanie continued with an eye roll at Andy. “Bethany thought of adding sriracha to the brownie batter and we sold out in like an hour.”

“Sriracha brownies? Wow. I’m impressed, you two.”

“Thanks.” Bethany gave me a sheepish grin. “It sounded weird at first, but they were good. We went easy on the sriracha. And don’t they say that chocolate and spice go well together?”

“Absolutely,” I replied over the humming sound of the espresso machine.

“Well.” Bethany hesitated for a moment and fiddled with her hands. “You know my friend Carter? He’s working in Portland now and they are doing all kinds of unique things with macarons. Like Doritos and Fruity Pebbles. I’ve been wanting to learn how to make them, so I thought if you were up for it you could teach me and Steph, then we could mix it up and do macarons and brownies. I mean, only if you think it’s cool. No pressure or anything.”

“I think it’s a great idea. Let’s do it. Macarons are one of my all-time favorite desserts. We should definitely be offering them here.”

“Awesome.” Bethany reached over to Stephanie and gave her a fist bump.

We reviewed the task list and everyone started on their individual projects. I couldn’t keep the smile from my face. Our team at Torte was more than I could hope for. They were hard workers, self-starters, and innovators. How had I been so lucky? The morning was confirmation of my decision. Ashland and Torte were home, and nothing—not even the stress of a major renovation—could get me down.

That was until we opened for business an hour later and Lance, my friend and the artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, pushed his way past the small line queuing at the coffee counter. He balanced a pie box with one hand and used the other to snap at me. “Juliet, I need you!” Pausing for dramatic effect, he glanced around the dining room to make sure that he had everyone’s attention. “Darling, it’s an emergency. If I don’t talk you—now—I simply might die.” He stopped, gave a half bow to his audience, and raised the pie box. “Or rather, I might pie!”

 

Copyright © 2018 Ellie Alexander.

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Ellie Alexander is a Pacific Northwest native, who spends ample time testing pastry recipes in her home kitchen or at one of the many famed coffeehouses nearby. When she's not coated in flour, you'll find her outside exploring hiking trails and trying to burn off calories consumed in the name of “research.” She’s the author of the Bakeshop Mysteries, which began with Meet Your Baker, as well as the Sloan Krause Mysteries, which began with Death on Tap. Find her on Facebook to learn more!

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