Eggnog & Extortion

By: Heather Justesen

(Sweet Bites Mystery) (Volume 4)

In memory of Keith Fisher, who welcomed me into his critique group and as his friend.

Keith, you are missed.

Big red bows decked the hall and multi-colored glass balls bejeweled the nearby Christmas trees at Nova Cosmetics, but I wasn’t full of holiday cheer. I checked my watch and resisted the temptation to tap my foot, wondering when Anise was going to finish her dog and pony show. Lenny and I were providing the desserts for Nova Cosmetics’ annual Christmas party and we’d been told things would be petering out by now. Then the dancing had been interrupted so Anise, the company’s founder and president, could wax poetic about how thrilled she was regarding the company’s growth, and her excitement about the breakthrough line of organic cosmetics they were releasing before the end of the year.

She was resplendent in her peacock blue dress, ice pick heels, and flashing jewelry. The woman knew how to pick gold and gems for maximum effect. Her necklace was flashy and a tad pretentious without being gaudy. How did she do that? I had a collection of jewelry I rarely wore, thanks to my job, but never seemed to have the just-right piece when I needed it.

Lenny muttered something unrepeatable about the length of the speech and several employees drifted toward the door, anxious for the night to be over. I was firmly in their corner. The event was supposed to be over in ten minutes but I didn’t see that happening.

“And now what you’ve all been waiting for.” Anise clapped her hands and people entered on each side of the stage, their arms laden with the company’s signature cerulean gift bags. “I have samples of the complete line for each of you, to thank you for your hard work. Please try them and spread the word.” She raised her hands with a flourish as if she had just performed an amazing magical feat.

Everyone clapped, though I wondered if, like myself, it was mostly in gratitude that the mind-numbing speech was over. Several men and women streamed from the stage, passing out more bags, and the dance music started again.

“Remind me to find an excuse not to come back here next year,” Lenny said to me. “If we get the contract, I’m afraid I’ll have an unavoidable trip to visit Kat’s parents.” He referenced his new wife.

I elbowed him. “You cannot tell me that listening to her was worse than dealing with your in-laws. Your in-laws, need I remind you.” They were mean to him, mean to Kat, and the worst kind of ignorant rednecks. The town of Silver Springs, Arizona, where we lived, was full of cowboys and ranchers, so I knew my rednecks. Most of them were not only much smarter than the term implied, but also extremely pleasant—an adjective that could only be applied to the female members of Kat’s family. The wedding was only a month behind us and the thought of seeing them again next year at Christmas already made me shudder.

“No, you’re right. I might as well save myself the airfare and stay here. At least I’m getting paid for this torture.” He tugged on his chef’s hat.

I shot him a dirty look for his bad attitude, and then smiled as someone approached for a slice of chocolate peanut butter cheesecake.

“I shouldn’t,” the cute twenty-something blonde said as she accepted the treat. “I ought to be home dealing with my headache before it gets worse, but I can’t resist.”

I’d seen her in the shop a few times since I opened it the previous March, though I didn’t know her name. I loved moving to the town where my grandma lived until her death a few years ago, but I still had a lot of people to get to know. “Well, if anything short of medical assistance can cut a headache, it’s one of my desserts.”

“Don’t I know it?” She forked off a tiny sliver and her eyes closed with appreciation as she savored it. “I hear you’re doing a booth for Christmas Around the World. Will there be cheesecake?”

I smiled. “Nope, but there will be plenty of other treats. Like kolacky—which is a cookie made mostly of butter and cream cheese—total decadence. You should stop by and try a couple of them.” I was talking up the city celebration every chance I got—they had never held the event before and I was worried attendance wouldn’t be very good.

“I’ll have to do that.”

Someone called her name—which was apparently Jasmine—and she waved goodbye to us with her fork, as she had just taken another bite. She swayed to the music as she made her way back through the thinning crowd.

The crush of people ebbed and flowed around us, gradually growing lighter until most of them had wandered out nearly an hour later. Anise came over to the table with a gift bag in each hand and set them on the table. “The desserts were magnificent. Everyone raved about them. We’d love to have you back next year. Unlike some people.” She shot a look of disgust at the caterers who had brought the rest of the food.