Mint Chocolate Murder by Meri Allen: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQJuly 26, 2022
After spending ten hours on my feet at the ice cream shop, I longed for a hot bath and a few hours curled up with an Agatha Christie paperback, a glass of pinot noir, and a cuddle with my cat, Rocky. But as the old New England saying goes, there’s no rest for the wicked. I have a nine o’clock. meeting with Maud Monaco, the mysterious and reclusive director of Moy Mull, Penniman’s artist colony.
A former model who inherited a fortune after her European nobleman husband died, Maud wanted a fantasy ice cream social to celebrate the opening of a special exhibit at Moy Mull’s summer art festival and hired me to work with her caterer to invent specialty flavors for the event. Well, she’d sent an employee, Prentiss Love, over to the shop to hire me. Now I’d get to meet Maud herself. I had to admit, I was intrigued and maybe a bit nervous and puzzled. The gallery opened tomorrow night and she wanted a tasting now? I sighed. No one said no to Maud Monaco.
So instead of sinking into a warm bath, I grabbed a slice of leftover pizza from the fridge, took a quick shower, and threw on a breezy shirt dress in navy blue linen. I brushed aside my too-long bangs and dug through my closet for something to improvise as a hairband.
Rocky, my all-black rescue cat, padded into the room and gave me a plaintive yowl as I tied on a silk scarf I’d picked up at a flea market in Rome. “I’m sorry, I promise you a big cuddle when I get home.” He flashed me an injured look and stalked off with a flick of his tail. He’d been neutered two weeks before and still hadn’t forgiven me for that, plus the indignity of the cone.
I dashed outside and gave a quick wave to the Fairweather Farm’s employees closing up the stand across the lane. The farm’s fields rolled to the horizon and warm lights burned in the sprawling farmhouse. I drove down the lane, passing the small, purple building that housed Udderly Delicious, the ice cream shop I managed. The shop’s parking lot was full, every picnic table surrounded by families enjoying the warm night air.
As I turned onto Fairweather Road, I took a deep breath. From what little I knew of Maud Monaco, nothing should surprise me. Nothing about this woman was ordinary. I was a librarian before I took over the shop, so I’d done my research on her. “Exotic, enigmatic, elegant” was the headline on the Penniman Post’s article about Maud when she bought Moy Mull, the former estate of an eccentric millionaire who loved the Scottish Highlands and wanted a castle of his own. His eccentricities included not allowing any guests to sleep under his roof, so several guest houses dotted the estate. Maud’s friends found Moy Mull a welcome escape, and since her friends were artists, she rented them cottages on the property and converted the barn into an art gallery and studio space. Her friends told their friends, and before she knew it, Maud had an artists’ colony.
The setting sun provided a warm, burnished glow to the spreading branches of oaks and maples. Cool air streamed in the window of Sadie, my loaner Volkswagen station wagon, as she strained up the one hill between the shop and Moy Mull. My company car. “Come on, Sadie, this is no time to give up the ghost.” I patted the dash.
Two pier lanterns on tall stone pillars bracketed a narrow lane lined with laurel bushes. I drove between black iron gates topped with sharp spikes that could be swung shut to close off the drive. Just past the entrance, the road forked around a gate house, gray stone with a moss-covered black tile roof. A man stepped out, holding a clipboard. Though he wore khakis and a polo shirt embroidered with the double MM monogram, his stolid squared shoulders and ramrod posture made me think he was ex-military.
“Good evening,” he said. “Name please?”
He didn’t bother to check the clipboard. He pointed at me. “Chunky Monkey.”
I laughed, then sighed, then laughed again. The first time this happened, it took me a moment to remember that Chunky Monkey was a flavor, and not a warning to lay off the ice cream. Since I’d been running Udderly Delicious, people greeted me with their favorite flavors.
The guard continued, “That pecan crumble on top is great.”
“I made a fresh batch today,” I said.
“I’ll be by.” His face resumed its impassive expression. “Please park in one of the service spots at the back of the castle and follow the lighted path to the kitchen entrance. Don’t block the portcullis—that’s the fancy gate on the entrance to the garage. You’ll see the coat of arms over the door. Have a good night.” He nodded toward the house.
I thanked him, not mentioning that I knew what a portcullis was. Visiting castles on trips—what my dad called collecting castles—has always been one of my favorite things to do. I followed the narrow, twisting gravel road up to the castle. I was still getting used to being referred to as the ice cream-shop lady. My best friend, Caroline Spooner, had inherited the shop two months ago when her mom, Buzzy, passed away, and asked me to run it for her, since she worked for an auction house in Boston. The timing had been right. I’d needed a place to land after leaving my job as a librarian for the CIA (yes, Central Intelligence Agency, not the Culinary Institute of America). I didn’t know if I’d stay. Penniman, Connecticut, was my hometown and my father still lived here, but I hadn’t since I finished high school seventeen years ago. Penniman was the epitome of New England Charm—it had a town green, a covered bridge, and the crowds of leaf peepers in the fall to prove it—but it was so quiet, so peaceful, maybe too quiet for someone like me who’d lived in Washington, D.C., for the past ten years. Still, I’d promised to stay through the season. The shop would close for the winter at the end of October. Until then, this request by the mysterious lady of the manor was a bright spot. I needed to stretch my creative muscles, and the contract I’d signed had a solid number of zeroes, which would help the shop’s bottom line.
Ice cream, Riley. They only want you for your ice cream.
Sadie’s 1970s vintage engine complained as she climbed to Moy Mull, each turn of the road revealing another a glimpse of the quirky building.
Moy Mull wasn’t a dream castle with white marble walls and fairy-tale spires. Moy Mull was modeled on a real medieval castle, thus the walls were built of roughhewn local fieldstone and cement, gray and weathered. There was a four-story tower with crenellations at one end, a broad porch overlooking rolling hills on the other. The narrow, mullioned windows above caught a glint of sunset red and it was easy to think of an archer standing there, demanding to know if I was friend or foe. Instead of balls and princesses, Moy Mull brought to mind narrow passageways and dungeons lit by torchlight. Fortification instead of Decoration. Fortified, not Disneyfied.
The original owner, Benjamin Franklin Clitheroe, named the castle Moy Mull, but some locals still referred to the quirky building as Clitheroe’s Folly.
I drove past the portcullis, where spotlights illuminated a shield above the lattice gate, the shield bearing an ornate golden script double M over crossed paintbrushes, one tipped with sapphire, one with ruby paint, and waved as the driver of a van with Creative Caterers stenciled on it passed me. I guess I wasn’t the only one called into Maud’s presence. I recognized Bitsy Bittman, caterer to New England’s elite. I’d developed the ice cream flavors for Maud’s party, and Bitsy’s job was to invent creative ways to serve them. I couldn’t wait to see what she came up with. I parked in a spot marked Service and unloaded a cooler packed with samples of some of the most creative flavors I’d ever made.
My footsteps crunched on the gravel of the well-lit path marked with a discreet sign that read Kitchen. Might as well say Servant’s Entrance.
Before I could knock, the kitchen door swung open on Prentiss Love, a slight, bald man with big, brown eyes, glasses with thick, black frames, and personality with a capital P.
He gave me a saucy wink. “Hello, Riley, I was just saying I could use some dessert!” He waggled his bushy eyebrows and took the bulky cooler from my arms as I stepped into the kitchen. “Welcome to Moy Mull, Maud’s humble abode, where I serve as the major domo, chief cook and bottle washer, and ice cream tester par excellence.”
I gave Prentiss a quick curtsy then entered.
The kitchen was long and narrow, with a slate floor, low ceiling, and a wall of windows; despite the presence of shiny stainless steel appliances, I felt as if I’d stepped back in time. There was a fireplace at the far end of the room, where a slim Black woman with a full Afro sat at the head of a gleaming oak table where three bowls were set on woven placemats.
“Have you two met in person?” Prentiss plunked the cooler on a counter and unpacked my samples as the woman rose to greet me. I’d seen Maud shopping in town, but had only spoken to her on the phone in connection with this job.
Slim and at least six feet tall, Maud Monaco wore jeans and a white silk button-down tunic with a wide neckline that highlighted her elegant collar bones and long neck. Her graceful posture and unhurried movements brought to mind the term “lady of the manor.” As she approached, light shimmered on a gold pendant of a bee that hung from a chain around her neck, a gold belt that cinched her tiny waist, and hammered gold discs on her ears. She shook my hand, her smile brilliant and welcoming.
“How nice to meet you in person, Riley. I’m dying to taste the treats you’ve whipped up for the festival.” Even Maud’s voice was beautiful, rich and deep. It was easy to see why Penniman village had embraced the reclusive former model. I’d seen Maud’s magazine covers from her teen years, when she’d been one of the first Black cover models, and I marveled that she hadn’t seemed to age in the past three decades.
“I can’t wait for you to try them.” I started to remove the lids on the pints I’d brought, but Prentiss shooed me to the table.
“Prentiss, spoons if you please.” Maud resumed her seat.
“Yes, your highness.” Prentiss set an ice cream scoop and a handful of spoons next to a crystal water pitcher and three glasses. “Napkins.” He spun back, set three damask napkins on the table, sat next to Maud, and rubbed his hands together.
“Shall I do the honors?” I asked.
“If you don’t, I will.” Prentiss scooted his chair up to the table. “I’m positively drooling. I know you worked with Bitsy to develop the menu for the social and you have my complete trust, but you must know Maud is a complete control freak. She can’t leave anything to chance, even ice cream.”
I blinked, taken back by the playful way Prentiss talked to Maud. I thought he was an employee? Maud gave Prentiss a less-than-queenly eye roll.
I stifled a laugh. “Let’s start with the most delicate flavor first.” I scooped a small portion of the six flavors I’d brought into each bowl. “Cherry vanilla with Luxardo cherries poached in bourbon and cinnamon; rhubarb crumble; pumpkin spice—”
“My fave!” Prentiss exclaimed, taking the pint from my hands.
I laughed and continued. “Amaretto laced with bitter chocolate with almond biscotti crumble; pear and stilton; and this one we call Unicorn: blue, pink, and white stripes of light cream with a bubble-gum flavor.”
“Sprinkles?” Prentiss asked.
I pulled a jar of matching sprinkles out of my bag.
“You’re prepared,” Maud said, taking the tiniest taste of each flavor. “I like that. You’ve done such a wonderful job.”
We tasted in silence, Maud with a cat–got–the–cream curve of her lips, Prentiss with a broad, kid-in-a-candy-shop grin. Maud sighed and took a big scoop of the chocolate. “These are fabulous.”
Prentiss licked his spoon. “Magical, ambrosial! Well, you can tell. Maud took seconds and Maud never takes seconds.”
“Oh, one more thing! The gift, Prentiss!” Maud said. “I wanted tomorrow’s exhibit opening to be special, thus the fantasy ice cream social. Bitsy’s run with the theme and hired some kids to serve in costume.”
I stiffened. Did Maud expect me to wear a costume? That was not in the contract.
Prentiss stepped out of the room and returned with a tote bag embroidered with the Moy Mull logo.
Maud took out a royal purple chef’s jacket and turned it so I could see that Udderly Delicious was embroidered on the breast pocket. “For you and your staff to wear at the festival. What do you think?”
What I thought was that my staff and I usually wore T-shirts printed with cartoon cows and really bad cow puns. Looking at the charm offensive in front of me, both Prentiss and Maud beaming, even if I had wanted to say no—and I didn’t—I knew resistance was futile. “My staff will love them.”
“And your badge.” Prentiss handed me a high-tech badge with a computer chip hanging on a yellow lanyard. “This gives you entry to the castle and the Barn Gallery. It knows who you are. Just press it against the readers by the door.”
Maud said, “Now, there is one more thing, and of course we’ll adjust the fee.”
One more one more thing? I tried not to let my surprise show.
Prentiss put a paper in front of me, the copy of the contract I’d signed a month earlier. Now there was an addendum.
I remembered this was a woman with deep pockets and cleared my throat. “What did you have in mind, Maud?”
“I’m planning a very special dinner party for the board of the Moy Mull Art Foundation on Sunday night to celebrate the end of the festival. A small gathering, thirty or so. I’d like some ice cream that”—the light glinted on a ruby the size of a half dollar in the ring on her left hand as she waved it—“feels like Scotland.”
“Scotland,” I repeated.
“It’s a Scottish theme to go with the castle. Bitsy’s doing a traditional Scottish feast with haggis and everything.” Prentiss made a gagging gesture. “I’m going to the party as Scotland’s greatest export.”
“Whisky?” I asked.
Prentiss laughed. “Close. I’m going as Sean Connery in his white-dinner-jacket look from Goldfinger, red carnation and all.”
I recalled cranachan, a traditional dessert I’d enjoyed in front of a roaring fire on a foggy night at an inn at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. I’d made it many times—it was simple and elegant. “I’ve got an idea.”
“Marvelous! I hope this will cover everything.” Maud pointed at the generous fee she’d added. It would cover everything and more. I nodded.
“Oh, and one other thing . . . just a teensy change of plans. Now, you know I’m including the treats you and Bitsy have dreamed up in the new Moy Mull cookbook. The photographer would like to get some publicity shots of you and your staff and the owner—is it Carol?”
Change of plans? “Caroline Spooner,” I said warily.
Maud nodded. “On the farm and in the shop kitchen.”
Prentiss stood, gathering our silverware and empty bowls. “I’ll let you ladies discuss business while I clean up.” He carried everything to the sink, squirted soap, and ran the water.
All of Maud’s “one more things” were making my head spin.
“My photographer is coming from New York later tonight and would like to do the shoot tomorrow morning. I hope the short notice won’t put you out.” Maud smiled.
Having a photo shoot in the ice cream shop kitchen was not convenient. Did it matter? Maud’s smile was one of a person who always got her way.
“That’s fine but Caroline won’t be there tomorrow,” I said. “She’s coming back late on Saturday.”
“I’ll make sure we do her photo later.” Maud said.
A mountain of soap bubbles surged over the lip of the sink. Prentiss laughed and swore.
I remembered all the zeroes on the check. “No problem at all.”
Copyright © 2022 by Meri Allen. All rights reserved.