Twenty-eight-year-old widow Ricki James leaves Los Angeles to start a new life in New Orleans after her showboating actor husband perishes doing a stupid internet stunt. The Big Easy is where she was born and adopted by the NICU nurse who cared for her after Ricki’s teen mother disappeared from the hospital.
Ricki’s dream comes true when she joins the quirky staff of Bon Vee Culinary House Museum, the spectacular former Garden District home of late bon vivant Genevieve “Vee” Charbonnet, the city’s legendary restauranteur. Ricki is excited about turning her avocation – collecting vintage cookbooks – into a vocation by launching the museum’s gift shop, Miss Vee’s Vintage Cookbooks and Kitchenware. Then she discovers that a box of donated vintage cookbooks contains the body of a cantankerous Bon Vee employee who was fired after being exposed as a book thief.
The skills Ricky has developed ferreting out hidden vintage treasures come in handy for investigations. But both her business and Bon Vee could wind up as deadstock when Ricki’s past as curator of a billionaire’s first edition collection comes back to haunt her.
Will Miss Vee’s Vintage Cookbooks and Kitchenware be a success … or a recipe for disaster?
In some cities, a middle-aged woman dancing down the street dressed as a cross between a 1970s disco queen and Wilma Flintstone would be unusual. But this was New Orleans, where the unusual was the everyday.
The woman dancing past Ricki James-Diaz, dodging the broken concrete in the Irish Channel's worn sidewalks, happened to be her landlady, Kitty Kat Rousseau, who lived on the other side of Ricki's rented double-shotgun cottage on Odile Street. "On your way to a rehearsal?" Ricki called to Kitty from the porch. Kitty belonged to the ABBA Dabba Do's, one of the Crescent City's many synchronized dance and marching troupes that entertained at parades and special events.
"You know it, chère." Kitty did the hustle, then paused. "Whew, spinning made me dizzy." She leaned against a lamppost, trying to regain her equilibrium. "I'm glad you caught me. I wanted to wish you good luck today."
Ricki used the back of her hand to wipe a drip of perspiration from her forehead, the result of nerves, not the mid-August heat. "Thank you so much."
"Yes," Ricki admitted.
"Don't be. I'm gonna stop by Holy Name and say a prayer you sell your idea." Kitty blew Ricki a kiss. She hopped into her purple sedan and slowly drove away, maneuvering down the old streets at what an amused Ricki liked to call "parade speed."
Ricki turned and went inside, walking through her living room, bedroom, and kitchen to the bathroom. The mid-nineteenth-century home had earned its "shotgun" sobriquet because it was said if you fired a shot from the front door, it would fly a straight path right out the back door. Why being able to fire off a shot like that might be necessary at any point in time was unclear, but the home was the perfect size for a twenty-eight-year-old widow eager to put some questionable past decisions behind her and make a fresh start.
She retrieved a yoga mat from a shelf in the cabinet where she stored towels and returned to the living room. After a quick check for cockroaches, the state bug of Louisiana, she unrolled the mat and went through a fifteen-minute combination of yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation. Mellowed by the soothing routine, she showered and then towel dried her hair, having never mastered the art of blow-drying her mass of light brown curls. She applied a touch of understated makeup, adding olive liner that brought out the unique ring of yellow in her hazel-green eyes and complemented her tawny complexion. Rather than dress in her usual California laid-back look of comfy tops and yoga pants or thrift store finds, she slipped on a teal cotton A-line dress and black pumps. Ricki figured the conservative outfit was a safe choice for a meeting with Eugenia Charbonnet Felice, president of the Bon Vee Foundation board. The New Orleans aristocrat was the brains behind opening the home of her late aunt, legendary restaurateur Genevieve "Vee" Charbonnet, to the public as the Bon Vee Culinary House Museum.
Ricki gave herself a quick once-over in the bedroom's tarnished full-length mirror. She checked her giant tote bag to make sure she had everything she needed for her presentation. Deciding the bag was too heavy, she extricated a wheeled carry-on bag from behind a stack of unpacked boxes and transferred the tote's contents into it: laptop, leather portfolio case, a Depression-era can opener, and several vintage cookbooks ranging in decades from the Roaring Twenties to the Swingin' Sixties. Everything Ricki needed to pitch her idea for running the gift shop at Bon Vee, which she planned to name Miss Vee's Vintage Cookbook and Kitchenware Shop.
Ricki headed out the door, fighting to keep her balance in heels she wasn't used to wearing. Her first stop was at Peli Deli, nestled inside one of New Orleans's picturesque corner storefronts in her Irish Channel neighborhood. An exceptionally tall, thin man somewhere in his thirties and dressed like an old-timey undertaker stood outside the building lecturing a group of weary tourists, as he did almost every day. "You may wonder why we've wandered so far from the haunted sites of the Lower Garden District," he opined in a sepulchral voice.
"He got that right," a sweaty man wearing an Ohio State T-shirt muttered to the woman next to him, who gave a vigorous nod of agreement.
"You must trust me when I say that this is one of the most haunted locations in all of New Orleans, and one you won't get to visit with any other tour group."
"Hi, Mordant," Ricki said to the tour guide. She walked past him and pulled open the shop's door.
"Hi, Ricki," he responded in a normal voice. "Tell Zellah I say hey."
Ricki stepped into the shop, whose comfortably worn wooden floor and shelves spoke to a century-plus of customers. In the middle of the store, a young woman about Ricki's age put the finishing touches on a mountainous display of Creole and Cajun seasonings. Her black-and-red braids were piled high in a bun, her eyelids and the area around her eyes intricately painted to resemble monarch butterfly wings, which seemed to float against her dark skin. She wore green leggings and a loose top splashed with bright flowers, making her resemble a bouquet where a butterfly had alighted. She noticed Ricki and smiled. "Hey."
"Hey. Is the craft kit ready?"
"You betcha." Zellah Batiste crooked a finger and beckoned Ricki. "Suivez-moi."
"Yes, ma'am." Ricki accompanied this with a mock salute. When Ricki first met Zellah, the deli employee-slash-artist explained her name meant "one who knows the path; lacking nothing." Zellah joked it was wishful thinking on her parents' part, but in the brief time Ricki had known her, she'd found the name pretty much on the mark. Ricki valued and sometimes envied her new friend's talent and serene self-assurance.
She followed her to the back of the store, where a sign reading "Create" stood over a doorway festooned with a curtain of colorful beads. They stepped through the beads into Zellah's special space, an outlet for the artistic talent she balanced with her work in the family deli business. A table displayed a range of kits for sale, from origami to airplane models to needlepoint. "I came up with something for the kiddies." Zellah handed Ricki a ziplock bag containing crayons and a coloring book whose cover showed a rainbow comprised of vegetables drawn in a midcentury style.
Ricki took the coloring book and thumbed through it, admiring the black-and-white illustrations. "This is so nineteen fifties. I don't know who'll love it more, the kids or their parents. You're a genius, Z."
"You're the genius. You've got a winner of an idea on your hands, muh friend."
"Here's hoping the Bon Vee Foundation president thinks so."
"If she doesn't, she's ba-nah-nas."
The women exited the craft shop. "I better get going," Ricki said. "By the way, Mordant is outside. He says hey."
Zellah chortled. "Of course he is. Of course he does."
"He's a man in love," Ricki teased. "He'll make up any story that gives him an excuse to drag his poor tourists this way so he can see you."
"I know," Zellah said. "The only thing haunted in this old wreck is the ancient plumbing and wiring." A filament lightbulb flickered, popped, and blew out as if to prove her point. "There goes another one," she said with a sigh. "As long as Mordant keeps bringing his guests inside for snacks and souvenir shopping, I don't care if he tells them I'm a ghost myself. Whoooooo . . ."
Ricki laughed as Zellah pretended to be a ghost. "I better go. Wish me luck."
"I can do better than that." Zellah showed Ricki a tiny gold lamé pouch tied shut with a green ribbon. "I made you a gris-gris bag for luck and prosperity. Let me pin it on you." She came from behind the counter and pinned the small bag on the inside of Ricki's dress, above her heart. "Ooh, your heart is beating real fast. You need this bag. Do not take it off until after your meeting. I'm sorry I won't be there for it, but I don't bring the sandwiches over until eleven thirty." Peli Deli supplied the lunches and snacks sold at the Bon Vee café. It was thanks to Zellah that Ricki first heard about the historic home's desire to launch a culinary-themed gift shop that would raise funds by appealing to both visitors and general shoppers. Ricki viewed this as the perfect opportunity to turn her hobby of collecting vintage cookbooks into a business.
"No worries. I've got you with me." She winked at Zellah and tapped where the gris-gris bag rested against her heart. Zellah winked back, creating a sense that the butterfly painted on her eyelid was fluttering. "Is my outfit okay?" Ricki twirled to give Zellah the full effect. "I'm not used to dressing this way. I feel like my look might be a little too 'lawyer from ambulance-chasing TV ads.'"
"You look perfect for meeting a New Orleans grande dame." Zellah shooed Ricki toward the door. "Allez. Go. I'm looking forward to good news."
Rather than risk the glowering clouds crowding out the sun, Ricki drove her Prius to Bon Vee. The estate's name served as a clever play on the French expression le bon vie-"the good life," which, judging by some of the anecdotes about Vee Charbonnet, was the life she enthusiastically led. Ricki slowed down as she entered a school zone. The zones were populated with speed cameras notorious for issuing tickets to drivers going even a single digit over the twenty-mile-an-hour limit. She saw a parking space directly in front of the mansion and zipped into it. That gris-gris bag is bringing me luck already, Ricki thought with satisfaction. She got out of the car, removed her carry-on from the passenger seat, and faced what she prayed would be her future workplace.
The late Genevieve Charbonnet's home turned historical site sprawled over half a block in the Crescent City's legendary Garden District. Built in 1867, Bon Vee was the largest home in the neighborhood, and many considered it the most beautiful. Italianate in style and painted a warm ivory, the front of the home featured a curved portico graced with a half-dozen Doric columns. Intricate cast iron decorated the rest of the house, which was nestled amid an array of gardens ranging from a manicured parterre of clipped hedges to bowers of colorful subtropical flowers. Two peacocks strolled the site. One noticed Ricki and paused. Then he fanned his tail feathers in a gorgeous and imperious display of iridescent plumage.
Ricki suddenly felt insecure. There was something intimidating about the mansion. It loomed over the neighborhood as if daring the other homes to match up to its magnificence. Sweat dribbled into her eyes, delivering a salty sting. She blinked until the sting dissipated, wondering how long it would take to transition from the dry desert air of Los Angeles to New Orleans's soupy humidity. She took a deep breath and pulled open the ornate iron gate fronting the home.
She found Bon Vee's executive director, Lyla Brandt, waiting for her in the capacious entry hall, a harried expression on her face. Ricki had met with Lyla several times to hammer out her business plan and learned not to let the expression worry her. On top of Lyla's demanding job, the director was tasked with maintaining peace at home, where the dramas of her moody teenage daughter were an ongoing irritant, and her bewildered husband was losing his mind trying to figure out how "Daddy's little girl" had turned into a hormonal terror. Given the circumstances, Lyla's harried look was pretty much permanent, at least until she could ship her kid off to college.
"Oh good, you're early," she said to Ricki, skipping the formalities. Lyla had embraced Ricki's vision for the estate's gift shop the minute she heard it. Now they just had to sell the idea to Eugenia Felice, whom Ricki had yet to meet. "Mrs. Felice will be here in about twenty minutes." Lyla, whose sensible office wear always seemed slightly off-kilter, straightened her beige cardigan, which had slid halfway down one shoulder. She pulled off her taupe velvet headband and put it back on to lock down a few strands of salt-and-pepper hair that were on a constant quest for freedom. Then she clapped her hands together in a gesture that came across as more nervous than excited. "Let's do this."
Ricki followed Lyla into a lovely space labeled "Ladies Parlor." She and Lyla had decided that the room's size, sunny corner location at the front of the home, and cheerful interior of pale green damask-covered walls and white, ornately carved crown molding made it the perfect location for Ricki's brainstorm. Mullioned glass French doors also meant the shop could be locked up when not open for business. Lyla gestured to a pair of six-foot-tall cream bookcases with ornamental trim. "I had Maintenance relocate these bookshelves from the upstairs sitting room."
"There's an upstairs sitting room?" asked Ricki, who hadn't received a complete tour of the home.
"Several." Lyla motioned to two antique curio cabinets. "I also had them move a couple of display cases to this room."
"Display cases?" Ricki, overwhelmed by the home's grandeur, found herself repeating whatever Lyla said. "Why would you need those in a house?"
"It's New Orleans. How else is a family going to show off all the crowns and scepters they have from when they were kings and queens in Mardi Gras courts?"
"Ah." Not sure if Lyla was being sarcastic or sincere, Ricki kept her tone neutral. She unzipped her carry-on suitcase and pulled out a 1950s cookbook titled Thoughts for Buffets. "So, like you said-let's do this!"
Ten minutes later, a wide range of Ricki's cookbooks lined a shelf, their vintage covers facing forward. A curio cabinet displayed kitchenware gift items both old and new, along with Zellah's kids' craft kit. Ricki surveyed the scene with satisfaction. Out of nowhere, a barrage of angry, piercing bird shrieks startled her.
"Back off!" a male voice yelled. "Go away! Stop chasing me!"
Lyla made a face. "Theo's coming."
A door slammed. Footsteps pounded down the hall. Theo Charbonnet, Eugenia's nephew, and Vee's grandnephew, appeared in the doorway. "Stupid peacocks."
"From what I read, they're actually quite bright," Ricki said, all innocence. Lyla coughed to hide a laugh. Ricki hadn't read a thing about peacocks, but in the brief time she'd known Theo, she'd pegged the thirtysomething as an elitist whose ego was disproportionate in relation to his looks and personality. From what she could tell, he had only one thing going for him that he enthusiastically played on: He was a male employee in a staff otherwise skewing female, making him a "catch," not just in his eyes but in those of a few besotted Charbonnet employees. According to Lyla-who was not a fan, as they liked to say in Ricki's Hollywood hometown-Theo's position as director of community relations was ceremonial, the job basically an excuse to write off entertaining friends at Charbonnet's, the family's renowned Creole restaurant in the French Quarter.
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A Vintage Cookbook Mystery
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