The Culinary Capers Dinner Club is planning a fall picnic for their next meeting. What could be better than sharing delicious food with friends under a beautiful autumn sky? But when club member Alison Malkovich opens the back of her SUV to load in the picnic supplies, she finds a dead body. To make things worse, it's the body of her ex-husband, and now she's the prime suspect. Because Alison is a police officer, she is suspended and warned not to do any investigating of her own. That's not about to stop J.J. and the Culinary Capers gang though. They know that Alison is innocent, and after all, they do have some experience solving crimes.
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The horn of a passing car blared so loudly, J.J. Tanner almost knocked herself out when her head snapped up and hit the doorframe of the SUV she was helping to pack.
"Ouch, ouch, ouch!"
"Are you okay, J.J.? It's that idiot Darrell Crumb making an ass of himself each time he passes by." Alison Manovich glared at the taillights of the old beat-up Ford pickup.
J.J. rubbed the back of her head and tried not to wince too much. "An admirer, is he?"
Alison made a face. "Just erase that thought from your head, girl. He's the last guy on earth I'd be interested in, if I were even interested in meeting someone."
"Can't you do one of your cop things and arrest him for harassment or such?"
"Not worth the effort. So far." Alison leaned the folding camp chairs up against the side panel inside the back of her silver SUV. "There should be enough room for a couple of coolers in here. Surely all the food we need for the annual Culinary Capers dinner club picnic will fit into two."
J.J. joined her at the back of the SUV and glanced in. "I'd say that's plenty of room. In fact, there's also lots of space for Beth, Connor, and me. And if Evan decides to drive his new sports car, he can put some food on his passenger seat, after all. It will serve him right. Show-off."
J.J. grinned as she said it. Evan Thornton wasn't really a show-off, just flamboyant at times. He'd been the one who'd invited her to join the dinner club after she'd moved to Burlington, Vermont, a couple of years earlier. She'd left behind a broken heart along with a broken engagement in favor of an offer to work for her friend Skye Drake's event planning business, Make It Happen. Evan was their landlord, and now a close friend, as were all the members of the club.
Alison shook her head, her blonde ponytail flipping from side to side. "Who would have thought those two would just up and buy a sports car? It's a totally new image for Evan and Michael. It must have cost a small fortune."
"Well, it's not as if they have a family to support. They both have very good jobs and a house, so they're entitled to play with a car."
Alison sighed. "You're right, of course. I'm just seeing a little green, I guess."
"I can see you behind the wheel of a convertible, especially in your cop uniform. Now, that would be an attention-getter."
Alison's response was drowned out by the very loud arrival of a motorcycle. Both women stared in surprise, wondering who'd joined the party. When the Harley-Davidson came to a stop just inches away from them and Connor Mac lifted off his helmet, they broke into shrieks.
"OMG, when did you get that?" Alison asked, dancing around the shiny black bike, giving it a thorough once-over.
"I picked it up this afternoon. What do you both think?"
"I love it," Alison answered first. "I'm in awe. I need a ride and soon."
Connor looked delighted. "Happy to oblige anytime."
J.J. eyed it skeptically. "I think the next time we go to a movie, I'm walking."
She smiled to keep it light. They'd gone out to one movie since the murder of his girlfriend last fall. It was complicated. He was still grieving. The bike was a total surprise. Maybe it was part of the recovery process. She had to admit, it looked like it might be working.
Connor was another of the Culinary Capers gang, and she and he had dated on occasion before the fateful casino fund-raising cruise, organized by J.J., that had ended with one of the emcees dead. J.J. had been as surprised as the others to learn he'd been dating the murder victim, his former fiancée. And then she was dead. Fortunately, with the help of J.J. and his friends, he'd been proven innocent of committing the crime.
"So, are you driving it to the picnic tomorrow?" Alison queried.
"Of course. It's going to be great weather and that's exactly what a bike is for."
"What about your food?" J.J. asked. She wasn't fond of motorcycles, feeling they were too loud and much too dangerous, but she tried not to let that show and put a damper on his obvious delight.
Connor's smile was all little-boy-begging. "I thought you might take it up for me, J.J. Maybe you could swing by on your way over here tomorrow morning?"
J.J. groaned. She was such a pushover. "All right. But I have dibs on any extra chocolate that may find its way there."
"Are we going to convoy?" Alison asked, back to packing her SUV, stuffing a large golf umbrella behind the chairs.
"I'm up for anything," Connor answered, climbing off his bike and releasing the kickstand. He looked around. "No Evan or Beth yet?"
"Well done," J.J. said as Beth's red van pulled into the driveway, stopping a few inches from the bike. "You must have conjured her up."
Connor had thrown up his hands to warn Beth away from his bike, an exaggerated look of terror on his face.
Beth opened her driver's door and leaned out. "Oh no. Don't tell me. Connor, you didn't go over to the dark side, did you?"
"Lord help us." Beth struggled out of the car and leaned against it, taking a few deep breaths and glaring at the bike.
"Are you all right, Beth?" J.J. asked. Beth looked even more tired than usual. Maybe it had been an exhausting day at her Cups 'n' Roses café. She hoped that's all it was. J.J. marveled at the amount of stamina her older friend seemed to always have. After retiring from her career as a high school music teacher, Beth had started up the café, which proved to be another full-time job. But she always seemed to have time for the dinner club.
"A little fatigued, that's all." Beth tucked her short hair behind both ears and turned to the street. "Evan wanted to drive his new baby over so I expect he'll be making his big entrance any minute now."
On cue, a shiny red Miata, top down, pulled up in front of Alison's town house. Evan parked, blocking the driveway, and took his time getting out and sauntering over to the rest of the Culinary Capers dinner club members.
"Do you like it?" He beamed like a proud papa. Then he noticed the Harley. "What's this? Am I to be outdone by a biker?" He added a note of scorn to his voice but smiled.
"Boys and their toys," Beth said in a loud voice, and wandered over to Alison's SUV. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Nope," Alison said. "I think with the chairs pushed up against one side, there'll be plenty of room for most of the food. You're riding with me tomorrow, aren't you?"
"I'd be happy to." Beth looked at Evan. "And just what are you going to be able to bring along to the picnic in that cream puff?"
"I thought I'd bring J.J."
J.J.'s mouth dropped open. "First I've heard of it, but I'd be delighted. Can I drive?"
Evan sputtered. "In a word, no."
He leaned into the car, pulled out a long red scarf, and passed it to J.J. "But you can wear this. Don't you think it brings a certain je ne sais quoi?"
"Very continental, sir. But I seem to remember that a long scarf and a sports car can be a deadly combination. Remember Isadora Duncan? The dancer? Mid-1920s? It proved fatal for her." J.J. grimaced. "And where did you get the scarf? Did it come with the car?"
"It was a gift from the salesperson I bought the car from. A woman." He grinned and wrapped it around his neck. "Now, what's the final game plan?"
"I was just saying we could meet here at, what?-say, ten-load up, and then convoy over to North Hero Island," Alison suggested. "It shouldn't take too much more than half an hour to reach the beach and if we get there early, we can snag a good picnic table."
J.J. shot a covert glance at Connor. North Hero Island had played a big part in all that had happened in the fall. He didn't let on if he was upset.
"I have a wonderful fold-up table that would be perfect," Beth offered. "It would be sort of dreamy with a flowing white lace tablecloth, which I just happen to have."
"Oh, and I could bring candles with hurricane covers," J.J. offered, getting into the spirit.
"Very glam," agreed Evan. "Flowers. I'll pick up a small floral centerpiece on my, on our, way."
Alison folded her arms. "It all sounds delightful, but I think I'm the hostess this month and, although I do appreciate the input, I'd really like just an old-fashioned picnic table with an oilskin cloth that I'll bring. It's what my mom always used for our family picnics."
Beth looked apologetic. "I tend to get carried away sometimes. I'm sorry, Alison. Not my month so not my place to take over. I look forward to a good old-fashioned picnic."
"We all do," J.J. added. "Your turn to host the dinner, your choice of cookbook, your choice of, well, everything. And, I just wanted to thank you, Alison, for picking a cookbook this month with such wonderful photos. Summer Days & Balmy Nights is a real delight to thumb through."
Alison smiled. "I did it just for you, J.J. But I do hope you've actually read through it and picked a recipe from it."
J.J. made the sign of crossing her heart. "I always play by the rules, Alison. And I know that tomorrow will be most memorable."
J.J. stopped in the hall as she was passing her neighbor Ness Harper's door and knocked. He answered so quickly she was certain he must have been on his way out but he still had his bathrobe on. And an unfriendly expression which changed immediately on seeing J.J.
"Heading out kind of early for a Saturday, aren't you?" he asked, peering around her and looking in both directions along the hall. His salt-and-pepper hair, often a bit on the scruffy side, stood out at odd angles. Maybe he was ill. That would be a first.
"Are you okay, Ness?"
"Uh, sure. Why wouldn't I be?"
How odd. "No reason, I guess. And, it's not really that early. It is nine fifteen."
She thrust the covered glass dish she was holding at him. "I made an orange, endive, and black olive salad for our Culinary Capers picnic today and have some extra. I thought you might like to try it."
Ness claimed the bowl and looked in both directions again. "Uh, thanks, kid. I'm sure I'll enjoy it. You have a good time, now, you hear." He backed into his apartment and shut the door.
J.J. stared at the door. What was that all about? Usually he liked to talk food; he'd often question her about recipes and ingredients. She looked both ways along the hall and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe he was just having an off day. What was he, about sixty-seven or so? Who knew what odd behavior might occur in a retired cop. She shrugged it off but made a mental note to stop in later that night.
She'd just pushed open the front door to the lobby of her apartment building when Evan pulled up to the curb. The sun highlighted the blond streaks he'd recently had added to his spiky red hair. The dark sunglasses with the enormous black frames added to his dashing image. And his usual bow tie-red and white polka dots today-was the finishing touch. His Miata glistened in the sunlight, and from the water drops on the hood.
J.J. opened the door and hopped into the passenger seat. "Drive through the car wash on your way over?"
"No way. I don't trust those brushes and things. Not when I have a driveway and a perfectly good hose at home." He glanced at J.J. "You're very observant for so early in the morning."
"Even though everyone is insisting it's early, it isn't. I've been up for hours and even had my walk."
"That's impressive. What does that make it, an entire week now that you've been at it?"
"Exactly." She checked her Fitbit on her left wrist. "Four thousand steps so far today." It had been a clever investment.
"Hah! So, who's the 'everyone'? You did say 'everyone is insisting.'"
J.J. smiled. She loved the feel of wind flowing through her hair although she'd been sure to secure it tightly with an elastic. She'd spend all day calming it down otherwise. Her long dark hair had enough body on its own.
"I meant my neighbor Ness. I dropped off some of the salad I'd made and he was all out of sorts. Not Ness-like at all."
"Hm. You have been known to have an overactive imagination."
"Moi?" she asked in her best shocked voice. "Drive on, Jeeves. We'll have no more disparaging talk." She wrapped a bright orange and yellow silk scarf around her head and tucked the lapels of her orange cotton jacket under the seat belt.
Evan pressed the gas pedal a bit harder and flew around the next corner. "That good enough for you?"
"Loved it, but Alison may have to arrest you for flying into her driveway if you're not careful."
He pointed up ahead. "No room. We're last again."
Beth and Connor were leaning against a redbrick planter in front of Alison's house. Her car was parked next to Alison's SUV while Connor's Harley was propped up behind it.
J.J. hopped out of the car once it had stopped. "Good cheery picnic morning to you both. Where's Alison?"
"She slept in," Beth said. "Can you believe it? She should be out shortly. We said we'd wait out here and enjoy the sunshine." She shook her head and her recently colored auburn hair shone in the sun. J.J. noticed the whole look-boot-cut jeans, a short gray cotton jacket over a long-sleeved black sweater with a roll neckline. She looked, well, so un-Beth-like. But great. Was there something special going on in her life? A man, maybe?
J.J. mentally pinched herself. Beth didn't need a reason to opt for a change. She probably just wanted to feel good. "You're not loading the SUV?"
"We just got here," Connor explained. "But now with more hands, it'll take just a few minutes, once Alison tosses out the keys. I hope everyone's brought everything necessary for our outdoor adventure."
"What adventure?" J.J. asked. "I thought we were going to sit around and talk and eat."
"Like a normal Culinary Capers dinner," Evan added. "Even though it's a Saturday, not Sunday, and it's late morning, not late in the afternoon. However, we are sticking to the monthly rotation of hosts for our dinners. And, it's always a treat when whoever is up during the warmer months wants to move the action outdoors."
Connor pointed into the backseat of Beth’s car. “Well, I brought a football and my hiking boots.”
“What!” Evan looked shocked. “You’re expecting seriousphysical activity? J.J. will be pleased anyway. She canput her new Fitbit through its paces.”
Before J.J. could answer, Alison kicked her screen dooropen and backed out, carrying one of the coolers. Connorran over to help her carry it.
“Good morning, all,” she said, once they’d put it on theground behind the SUV. “Sorry to keep you waiting. I just couldn’t seem to get going this morning.”
“Late night? Late visitor?” Evan asked, waggling his eyebrows.
“I wish. No, just a bunch of shift changes catching up. I’m really looking forward to today. I’m turning my cell phone off and am so ready to just enjoy the company and the fresh air.” She looked up at the sky and took a deep breath, zipping closed her olive green fleece jacket.
“And the food, of course,” J.J. added.
She walked back to the house, followed by Evan and Connor, who grabbed the second cooler. “Now, let’s get loaded up and out of here.”
Alison unlocked the SUV then lifted the hatchback. And screamed.