Death on Tap by Ellie Alexander is the first book in the new Sloan Krause Mystery series (available October 3, 2017).
When Sloan Krause walks in on her husband, Mac, screwing the barmaid, she gives him the boot. Sloan has spent her life in Leavenworth, Washington becoming an expert in brewing craft beer, and she doesn’t have time to be held back by her soon-to-be ex-husband. She decides to strike out on her own, breaking away from the Krause family brewery, and goes to work for Nitro, the hip new nano-brewery in the Bavarian-themed town. Nitro’s owner, brewmaster Garrett Strong, has the brew-world abuzz with his newest recipe, “Pucker-Up IPA.” This place is the new cool place in town, and Mac can’t help but be green with envy at their success.
But just as Sloan is settling into her new gig, she finds one of Nitro’s competitors dead in the fermenting tub, clutching the secret recipe for the IPA. When Mac, is arrested, Sloan knows that her ex might be a cheater, but a murderer? No way. Danger is brewing in Beervaria and suddenly Sloan is on the case.
IT WASN’T SO MUCH THE sight of my husband’s bare ass that would become permanently etched in my memory, but rather the rhythmic sounds of the German brass band oompah-ing in the background, coupled with the strong, but delicious smell of grains steeping in the mash tun.
I shouldn’t have been in the pub anyway. It was my day off, but instead of spending it in the late summer sun, I had opted to tinker with a new recipe I’d been working on. A few minutes into the brewing process, I realized I’d forgotten cinnamon. Mac, my husband and brewmaster for Der Keller (the Cellar if you don’t sprechen sie Deutsch, as my mother-in-law likes to say), was nowhere to be found. Typical.
“Otto,” I called to my father-in-law, the patriarch of our family and an award-winning brewmaster. “I’m running to grab some cinnamon. Can you watch the wort? I’ll be back in a few.”
“Ja, Sloan,” Otto replied from behind an eight-foot copper kettle. “I will wait with ze beer.”
I grabbed a twenty from the register, tucked it into my pocket, and weaved through the crowd of regulars kicking back with midafternoon pints. Country air greeted me outside on the cobblestone streets. I hurried along Front Street for two blocks, passing flowerpots and window boxes stuffed with red geraniums, an authentic fifteen-foot-tall cuckoo clock in the town square, and rows of antique streetlights. A-frame rooftops lined the thoroughfare like gingerbread cottages. The sound of Steller’s jays squawking greetings to each other overhead made me pause and look up.
Gently sloping peaks rose around me in every direction. The nearby mountains sheltering our village stood at five to eight thousand feet, like gentle guardians watching over us. I smiled at the thought and noticed how the first signs of fall were beginning to creep in. A scattering of yellow and orange leaves dotted the otherwise dark green mountainside.
Continuing up Front Street, I saw that more preparations for fall were under way. Workers were installing crimson Oktoberfest banners, and shopkeepers were adorning their front windows with garlands of gorgeous foliage and yellow twinkle lights. Oktoberfest was right around the corner, which meant that soon our sidewalks would be packed with merry revelers toasting with overflowing beer steins and dancing to accordion music. Even the grocery store, with its brocade façade, looked like it should be nestled in the German Alps, not the Pacific Northwest. Like everything else in our small town, it was fashioned after a Bavarian village.
I stepped inside and weaved my way through aisles of imported chocolates, gummy bears, and sauerkraut until I found the cinnamon. Then I paid quickly and hightailed it back to the pub. Beer making is an art and a science. Timing is everything. I knew that Otto would keep his eye on my new creation, but this batch was the result of months of experimenting, and I wanted to make sure nothing went wrong.
“What’s your rush, Sloan?” the owner of The Nutcracker called as I hurried by. She positioned a miniature nutcracker wearing forest-green lederhosen and holding a stein in the window.
“The beer won’t wait.” I grinned and continued on.
As promised, Otto was dutifully watching my batch when I returned. His wiry gray hair stuck out in all directions. He looked more like a mad scientist than a jovial beer-loving grandpa (or Opa). Ursula, his wife, stood shoulder to shoulder with him.
“Sloan, we must go.” She pressed a timer into my hand. “Your beer is smelling good.”
She had to stand on her toes to kiss my cheek. In her prime, she’d stood not much taller than five feet. With age, her shoulders had started to slump and her walk had turned to a shuffle. She was the only mother I’d ever known, and watching her get older was sometimes more than I could bear. No tourist would ever have thought we were a family. Otto and Ursula, with their fair German skin, short stature, and matching gray hair; me with full lips, huge pores, and jet black hair. One of my foster moms once told me that my mother was Greek. It would fit. The sun loves my skin. Fifteen minutes outside, and my skin looks like a nut brown ale. Mac, on the other hand, is burnt to a crisp and glowing like a pint of amber in five minutes.
His ass certainly hasn’t seen the sun—that was the first thought that flashed through my mind when I walked to the back office to grab my notes and swung the door open, and there stood Mac with jeans slouched around his ankles and the twenty-three-year-old barmaid we had just hired sprawled on my desk.
My hand flew to my mouth. I dropped the spice jar on the floor. It broke and sent shattered pieces of cinnamon stick in all directions.
“Sloan!” Mac jumped and whirled around. “This isn’t what you think.” He yanked up his jeans and coughed.
Yeah, right. I couldn’t think of what to do next, so I pointed to the cinnamon shards on the epoxy floor, dusted off my shirt, and said, “You’re going to need to clean this up.”
I turned and tried to keep my composure as I walked away. The smell of wort enveloped me as I sprinted toward the fermenting tank. Usually the scent was comforting, but at the moment, it made me want to vomit. My hands shook. My knees felt like they were about to give way. I clutched the ladder at the base of the copper kettle.
Don’t make a scene, I told myself while trying to ignore the woozy feeling working its way up the back of my neck.
Years in the foster care system had taught me that making a scene gets you sent to bed without dinner or sent packing. I wouldn’t give Mac the satisfaction. I sunk onto the ladder. What an ass—literally.
I’d suspected for a while that Mac had been fooling around, but I’d never been able to prove it. The twenty-three-year-old barmaid, in my office? That, I never saw coming.
ADRENALINE PUMPED THROUGH MY TREMBLING body. How could he have done this to me? Fifteen years of marriage down the drain.
The room felt hot, and not because of the hundred-gallon copper tanks heating my malty blend of organic grains. Sweat beaded on my forehead and dripped down my face. I wiped my brow with the back of my hand.
What was I going to do?
At that moment, I heard a door slam and caught a glimpse of the beer wench scurrying toward the pub. Her long blond locks swung to the middle of her back, and her jeans looked as if she’d painted them on.
God, she was young.
Probably as young as I was when I married the scoundrel.
I couldn’t entirely blame her. Mac exudes an intense attraction. Wherever we went, women let their eyes linger a little too long on his baby face and flirtatious eyes. Over the years I’d gotten used to it, but that didn’t mean that I enjoyed watching women ogle my husband.
Mac and his family of German brewmasters had taught me everything I knew. Otto, Mac’s dad, had brought his German techniques with him to Leavenworth, Washington, in the early 1970s and formed one of the city’s first breweries and pubs. He and his wife, Ursula, had started a tiny tasting room in the midst of a full-scale town remodel. The dingy five-hundred-square-foot space was all they could afford when they uprooted their two young children, Mac and Hans, from Germany and transplanted to Leavenworth. It had been a family affair ever since, and Der Keller had grown into one of the largest breweries in the state, with a bevy of international clients and accolades to boot.
Beer aficionados credited the Krause family with putting Leavenworth on the map for its now globally famous microbrew culture. Times had changed dramatically since the Krauses began brewing. The villagers had poured everything they had into creating a destination town, and their bet had paid off. Our little town was now a beer travel destination with over a million visitors roaming our quaint streets each year.
Learning the beer business wasn’t something I ever aspired to. Nor was falling for Mac. It happened all at once. When I graduated from high school, I left the foster care system behind and took every job I could to pay the bills while attending community college. Being broke was infinitely better than being a foster kid.
My high school home economics teacher had seen potential in my ability in the kitchen—I think in part because the group of obnoxious football players I was paired with intentionally tried to burn everything we were tasked with baking. She recommended me for a scholarship in the cooking and restaurant management program at the college. Having my tuition covered was more than I could have wished for, but it still left me struggling to pay rent and buy groceries. I worked as a waitress in the evenings and managed a booth at Leavenworth’s farmers’ market on the weekends. That was when I met the Krauses. They were regulars at the market, where they would source fresh fruits and herbs for the brewery.
“Sloan, how is the schooling going for you?” Otto asked with a jovial smile, examining a bundle of pineapple sage. “Tell us about your newest cooking creations.”
“Otto!” Ursula hit him gently. “She’s working. Don’t bother her.”
The market stall owner had agreed to let me sell small batches of cookies and bars. Cooking had been an escape for me and a handy skill to have when I was hopping between foster homes.
I handed the Krauses a German chocolate cookie bar.
Ursula grinned as she took a bite. “Sloan, zis is wonderful. It is funny zey call zis German because it is an American recipe. Our Mac is coming home from his beer tour in Germany next week. We bring him to meet you, ja?”
“Sure.” I laughed, tucking a wavy curl behind my ear. The Krauses had been trying to set me up with their oldest son since the first day they stopped by my booth. “I’d love to meet him.” I don’t remember, but I’m sure I blushed. I hadn’t dated much, mainly because I never stayed in one place long enough.
The way the Krauses spoke about their children made my lonely apartment feel even more empty and cold than usual. Never having known my parents or any kind of stability as a child left me with a tender wound that I didn’t even know existed until I met the Krauses.
True to their word, they brought Mac the next week. My fellow market vendors called him the golden boy. His blond hair seemed to shimmer in the morning light. He towered over his parents at nearly six feet and captivated the busy market with his presence. His muscular body oozed sensuality and confidence. It was easy to fall for the golden boy. Although, in hindsight, I think really I fell for his family. One date led to another. Within four months, I was pregnant.
Fifteen years later, I didn’t regret marrying Mac. I knew I was biased, but Alex, our son, was the coolest kid I knew. When I felt generous, I had to credit Mac for being a good dad. However, with the scent of cinnamon searing on my burning cheeks, I didn’t feel an ounce of warmth toward the father of my only child. I had to get out of the brewery—now.
Copyright © 2017 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.” Ellie is the author of the Bakeshop Mysteries, including Another One Bites the Crust. Find her on Facebook to learn more!