Killer Comfort Food – Lynn Cahoon

Angie Turner stood in the back of the banquet room of the County Seat, watching as her friend and partner, Felicia Williams, led the cookie baking class. It was the last class they’d scheduled for the Christmas season. Of course, it was past Christmas, but the class had been so popular, the room was filled to capacity, even on a wintery January Saturday. Or maybe because it was a cold Saturday. With the weather in southwestern Idaho turning to snowy days, local cooks were still enjoying the fun of turning on the oven during the weekend and creating some baking magic. Angie’s thoughts were already turning toward spring and what she wanted to plant this year. Which brought her to the thought that had been keeping her awake for months now. What is going to happen to Nona’s farm? She hadn’t heard from Jon Ansley, the lawyer working for Taylor Farms and the soybean project, for a few weeks now, but that didn’t mean the guy had gone away. They already had one of the nearby farms locked into a contract. And her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Potter, was weakening. Especially with the last, very-crazy-large, offer. Angie couldn’t blame her—getting that kind of money out of her farm would set her and her family up for generations. Angie didn’t want to sell. The house, the barn, the land, held memories for her.

Good memories. Like the snowball cookies Felicia was demonstrating for the packed class. She turned and left the room, knowing she wasn’t needed there. But where to go? The County Seat’s kitchen was deep into prep for that night’s service. If she went in there, her second in command, Estebe Blackstone, would just frown at the intrusion to his time and put her to work. Instead, she grabbed her coat and headed outside, jaywalking across the street to the city park. Traffic on the cold winter Saturday was light. The people who lived in the surrounding subdivisions typically went to a larger town for their weekend chores like shopping and dry cleaning. River Vista was changing from a dying agricultural town to a more boutique small town. The dance studio that had opened last month on Main Street was crowded with students hoping to make it big someday.

Next to that, a bakery had just opened, and Angie could see the parents from the dance studio making their way into the store for more coffee and a midday treat. Change was good. Development was normal. She didn’t want to give up her family home. Even though the plant would bring much-needed stable jobs to the area. What was the saying: Not in my backyard? Was she selfish to be fighting the development? She sighed as she brushed snow off a wooden bench where she could sit and watch the activity on Main Street. A car slowed as it drove past her. The metal swings were empty and silent. The ancient merrygo-round still. The park had three horseshoe pits that were filled with snow over the sand that surrounded the metal poles.

The city council had voted last year to upgrade the park with more up-todate and safer playground equipment, but the funds hadn’t been there for the fall renovation. The County Seat had participated in a fund-raiser this Christmas raising money for the now scheduled March renovation. A large trench had been dug to move water lines in October, but the project had been put on hold after the early snowstorm. Now, with the blanket of snow, the park looked like it had been locked in time. One of the last remnants of the town that used to be. River Vista Days happened every August, with the center of the activities right here in the park. A street dance closed Main Street, and a carnival set up in the parking lot right behind the park. It was a special event for the town, and Angie wondered if, with all the development, it would still feel the same. Her cell rang. She answered without looking at the caller ID.

“This is Angie.” “Why are you sitting out in the cold? You’re going to get sick,” a deep, smoky female voice asked. “Who is this?” Angie glanced around her, wondering who was watching her mope. “Barb. Barb Travis. Come over to the Red Eye. I need to talk to you. Besides, you need to warm up before you freeze to death.” “I’m not cold,” Angie protested, but she realized the line had gone dead. Barb Travis, owner/manager of the country dive bar a few doors down from the restaurant, was a woman of few words.

She was in her fifties, but she looked like she could toss out any errant cowboy who decided to cause trouble in her establishment. And when Barb spoke, you listened. If you knew what was good for you. Knowing the woman wouldn’t give up, Angie stood and headed back across the street. Her pity party had been cancelled. She needed to let the attorney she’d hired worry about the fate of her home. But, like Barb, Angie wasn’t good at handing problems over to others. She knew she needed to find a way out of this mess that didn’t turn her home into a parking lot for the plant, or worse, leave her as the sole house hemmed in by industrial development. She pushed open the heavy wooden doors and stepped into the darkness of the bar. After being outside in the sunny, snow-bright day, it took a few minutes for Angie’s eyes to adjust to the bar lit with strands and strands of white Christmas lights.

The tree that had been at the back of the bandstand was gone, but Barb had kept the additional lights up all around the room. She spotted the woman sitting on a bar stool, watching her. “Every time you come in here, it’s like you’re walking into a strange country. Don’t tell me you didn’t frequent your share of dive bars when you were in college.” Barb’s rasp turned into a chuckle, then a cough, which went on a little too long for Angie’s mind. “I’m just not used to the dark anymore. Especially, today, after being outside. The sun sparkles on all that snow, now that it’s had time to ice over.” Angie moved toward the bar, taking off her gloves and hat and stuffing them into her coat pocket. She didn’t look at Barb when she sat down next to her, just asked the one question Angie didn’t think she’d answer.

At least not truthfully. “How are you?” “I’m fine. You worry too much.” Barb stuffed the tissue she’d used to wipe her mouth into a pocket. “Anyway, I need a favor.” “Anything.” Angie smiled and shrugged out of the parka. The bar’s heat was on high, and the large room was warming up fast. “You’ll take that back when you hear what I’m asking.” Barb pulled out a picture and pushed it across the bar toward Angie.

She glanced down at it. The picture showed a woman with a small girl by her side. They were standing near a sixties Mustang, and both the woman and the girl had on matching dresses and kneehigh white boots. The round wire rimmed glasses framed the woman’s face, and she had dark hair, long and wavy . She stared at the picture, then glanced at Barb. “Is this you?” “Guilty as charged. That was taken Easter 1987. My daughter, Sunny, was two.” Angie glanced up sharply. “I didn’t know you had kids.

” “Just the one. Sunny. She graduated from law school, and then decided her mom’s occupation was a little too common for her new friends.” Now Angie didn’t like the grown-up Sunny. Not at all. “That reminds me of Felicia’s new friends from her yoga group. Several of them have attitude problems. Seriously, people are all the same, no matter what they do for a living.” “You don’t have to tell me that. You’d be surprised at who comes into this place for a little drink now and then.

” Barb took back the picture. “She was a good girl. My sister raised her from the time she started school. I was wild back then, and Sunny was unplanned. Karen couldn’t have kids. It just made sense. At least on paper. In Sunny’s eyes, I became more like an aunt than her mother. Karen’s husband was a big shot lawyer in Boise and handled the adoption quietly. I should never have signed those papers.

It was easier that way. I’m not sure she even remembered our time together. Don’t think badly of her. Or of me.” “Sorry, I’m partial to the underdog in a fight. I would do anything to be able to talk to my mother, or my Nona, just one more time. Surely your sister has told her the truth by now.” “I don’t think Sunny remembers she had a life before Karen was her mom. My sister died a few years after Sunny graduated from high school. Her husband remarried, and they didn’t want me confusing the issue.

I didn’t even get an invitation to Sunny’s wedding.” Barb sipped on her coffee. “They said they mailed one but it was returned because it was an old address. I was running with a hard crowd at the time. I wouldn’t have fit in anyway, especially not as the mother of the bride.” “It’s never too late to change the future. We don’t have infinite time to make things right.” Angie shook her head. “But this isn’t about my wishes and dreams. You needed my help with something?” Barb pulled out another picture.

This one was clipped from a newspaper. It was a wedding announcement. “I’m sorry. This is the most recent picture I have of Sunny.” Angie set the picture down on the bar, but only glanced at it. She needed to get back to the restaurant. Service was starting soon, and she had a lot to get done before the doors opened. “I’d love to stay and chat with you for a while, but I have to open the restaurant. This is going to sound shorter than I mean it to. What do you need?” “Sunny’s missing.

She always sends me, her aunt, a Christmas card, and she didn’t this year. I went by her house over in that new subdivision just north of town when her husband was at work, and no one’s there. My little girl has disappeared, and I think he’s behind it.” * * * * Felicia was cleaning up the banquet/training center when Angie got back to the restaurant. She looked up when Angie walked in, immediately setting down the towel she was using to wipe down the table, and made her way over to Angie. “What’s wrong?” “Coffee first, please.” After Felicia had poured two cups of coffee, Angie told her what Barb had said. “I just can’t wrap my head around it. Barb must be out of her mind with worry.” “Why doesn’t she go to the police?” Felicia sipped her coffee and glanced at her watch.

Angie knew it was almost time to start the final prep for service. They didn’t have time for this. They didn’t have time for the head chef to be freaking out. But she was. And Angie needed to tell someone else Barb’s story before she could just go on with her day. “She did. Sheriff Brown took a missing person’s report, but the husband said she’d gone off to visit her mother. Since Karen’s dead and Barb hasn’t seen her, his story doesn’t hold up. Unless he’s talking about the stepmom, and apparently, she lives here in Boise. Allen’s looking into the husband now.

” “I have a bad feeling about this. What if he killed her?” Felicia’s gaze moved to a spot on the wall that would show her the Red Eye if she’d had X-ray vision. “He must know something to lie like that.” “Or Sunny lied to him.” Angie nodded to the waiter, who peeked into the room and then disappeared. She stood and moved to the doorway. “You’re needed out front, and I need to get in the kitchen. We can talk about this later. But thanks for letting me vent. I’m not sure I could have held that in for the entire service.

” Felicia fell in step with Angie. “I’ll finish cleaning this room tomorrow.” “I feel bad not even staying for the end, but how did the class go?” “You were here for most of it. I saw you in the back. You tell me?” Felicia turned off the lights to the room. She carried a tin of cookies out of the room with them. “They were engaged, making notes, and chatting with each other. It sounds like it was wonderful.” Angie turned toward her office. She needed to drop off her coat and get on her chef’s whites.

“You’re an excellent teacher.” “Yeah, but this group knows me from yoga. They’re easier to talk to, I don’t have to put up a confident face.” Felicia took the coffee cup fromAngie and put both into a dishpan. “Go have a great service. We’ll talk about everything either tonight, or if we’re too beat, I’ll come out and make you breakfast tomorrow. I’m needing a Dom fix.” Dom was Angie’s year-old Saint Bernard. He adored Felicia almost as much as he loved Angie or Ian, Angie’s boyfriend. Angie tapped on the tin.

“Is that what you’re doing with the cookies? Bringing them over to the house?” Felicia shook her head. “I think now I’m dropping them off at the Red Eye. Poor Barb, she must be going out of her mind. Sugar will help keep her calm.” “Have you not ever heard of a sugar high?” Angie stared at Felicia, not believing what she’d just heard. “Don’t judge. When I’m worried, I eat. I know you have the same bad habit. I just want Barb to know we’re here for her. Just in case.

” Felicia glanced at the clock. “I’m going to have Tori get the staff working on the dining room, and then I’m popping out. I’ll be right back.” Angie made the turn into the kitchen, leaving Felicia to handle the front of the house. Her friend was a top-notch pastry chef as well as being amazing at running the front of the house. And she had a heart of gold that seemed to carry the weight of her friends’ burdens. Angie was surprised that Barb hadn’t asked Felicia for the favor, rather than her. “Why are you looking like someone stole your milk money?” Estebe stood by the chef table watching her. “Is there something wrong?” At Estebe’s question, she felt the gaze of everyone in the kitchen land on her. They’d be worried about the restaurant.

About their jobs. About their scheduled hours. Angie needed to put Barb’s issues away and clear the kitchen from any negative energy. There was enough time outside of service to worry about what had happened to Sunny Travis. Angie didn’t need to upset her kitchen family. “No worries at all. I’m just thinking about the farm and this soybean plant.” Angie hoped the lie would ease their fears. “I mean, seriously, if someone was going to run me out of my home, why couldn’t it have been for a winery or a bakery? I like bread.” A smile creased Estebe’s face, showing the lines already forming.

“And you like wine. Do not bring tomorrow’s worries into today. Let them stay in the future.” A Nona-ism if she’d ever heard one. “My grandmother used to say something similar. You’re right. I’m putting it away. How is prep going?” “Estebe wants to change my appetizer recipe,” Nancy called out. “He thinks every recipe needs a potato element.” “It is Idaho,” Matt quipped.

“I like my bruschetta just the way I designed it. With toasted French bread.” Nancy nodded to Matt’s station. “You have a lot of chopping left to do. I think you should keep your head down and out of this conversation.” Smiling, Angie went to the sink and washed her hands. She greeted Hope and Bleak, who were washing pans from the prep work. When she had a clean apron on over her chef coat, she moved back toward Estebe. “What can I help you with?” After it started, dinner service moved liked a well-rehearsed dance. This is why I love being a chef.

Angie finished wiping a plate and handed it to the waiting server. Felicia stepped into the kitchen. “Who wants to meet the chef tonight?” Angie asked. “Tell me it’s a kid rather than some politician. I love chatting up the kids. They don’t have any secret agenda.” “Actually, they wanted to talk to Nancy. It’s a couple, and the man says he knew you from before?” Felicia frowned as she delivered the message. “If you want, I can tell him you’re too busy to leave the kitchen.” “No need.

I wonder who it is? Probably someone from high school. I graduated from Nampa High. It could be any of the old crew.” Nancy stepped away from grilling. “Matt, cover me for a bit. That steak is just about ready to flip. And I just put on the chops.” After Nancy had explained what she was working on, she stepped away from the stove and paused at the doorway, where there was a small mirror hung on the wall. She wiped her face with a towel, then threw it in the laundry bin to the side of the room. “Probably some guy I dumped.

I hope he’s not here to make amends.” Angie followed her out of the kitchen. “I need to see this. I don’t think I’ve met any of your friends. You’re always so busy working, I don’t get to see you off the clock.” “Well, don’t judge me for my high school friends. I didn’t come into my own until college.” Nancy grinned at Angie and then scanned the room. “I don’t see anyone I know…” Angie knew exactly when Nancy recognized the guy. And it didn’t seem like it was an old boyfriend.

If Angie didn’t know better, she’d think that Nancy was going to bolt out the back door. Angie put a hand on her chef’s arm. “What’s wrong, who is it?” Instead of answering, Nancy stepped out in the dining room and walked directly toward the table where a man sat, smiling at her. The woman at the table didn’t look up, not once. “Charles, what are you doing here?” Nancy demanded. “I thought you were in Napa Valley now.” “I move around a bit. Business, you know.” He stood and leaned over to kiss her on the cheek, but Nancy shuddered and backed away from him. “Well, you can just move your way out of this town and out of our lives.

There’s no way I’m going to let you see the kids.” Nancy’s eyes were black. Angie stepped up and stood between the two. “I’m Nancy’s boss. I’m afraid if you two have problems, you’re going to have to leave. I can’t ruin the mood for my other diners just because you have issues with my chef.” Angie hoped her voice sounded as authoritative as she wanted. “Sorry, we haven’t been properly introduced.” He turned to Angie, ignoring Nancy to his left. “Angie Turner, you are lovelier than the photos from your newsletter articles when this place opened.

” “I’m sorry, you’re still going to have to leave, Mr….” Angie held her hand out toward the doorway. “And don’t worry about the meal, we’ll comp it.” “That’s kind of you.” He held his hand out to his dinner companion. “Come, Jane, I feel like we’re not welcome here.” “Yes, Charles.” The woman stood, tucking her purse under one arm. She didn’t argue, didn’t mention that she hadn’t eaten much of her meal. She just stood and followed him to the coatrack.

Angie put a hand on Nancy’s arm. “Go back to the kitchen.” Nancy nodded, then shot daggers to the man’s back. “Don’t trust him.” “I’m just going to make sure they get out the door. We’ll talk later.” Angie smiled, nodding to the kitchen. “You need to get back before Matt burns something.” “He wouldn’t dare.” Nancy’s eyes narrowed, and she started back to the kitchen, only looking back once at the exiting couple.

Angie stepped over to the hostess stand and watched while the man held out a nice wool coat for his date. He shrugged into his own coat, then nodded to the door. “Go ahead, I’ll be out in a second.” Once the woman was outside, he turned to Angie. “There are two sides to every story.” “I don’t really care, Mr….” He paused and looked at her carefully. “She didn’t tell you who I am, did she? I’m Charles Gowan, Nancy’s ex-husband.”



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