1: Good Luck, Suckers!
“Beans? Are my old ears givin’ out on me, Jane? You expect me to contaminate my fine Texas chili with beans?” Eighty-six-year-old Dawn Ann Hammond harpooned me with a look that was half disgust, half pity, and one hundred percent pure Texas outrage. “For your information, missy, it’s called chili con carne, not chili con frijoles.”
Sexy Beast, scouring the grass at my feet for dropped yummies, grumbled will something in Poodle that sounded an awful lot like, If anyone asks, I don’t know you.
“Don’t shoot her, Dawn,” Larry chuckled. “Poor little Yankee doesn’t know any better.”
I hadn’t noticed him ambling over to join me under Dawn’s display canopy. No surprise there considering Crystal Harbor’s Fifteenth Annual Chili Cook-Off was well under way. Between the crowds milling about and sampling the various chilies, the children and dogs chasing one another around the grounds, and the Texas swing band belting out “Corrine Corrina” a short distance away, it was enough of a challenge just to hold a conversation.
You could be forgiven for assuming this cook-off was taking place somewhere in the Lone Star State, but let me assure you the town of Crystal Harbor is situated well north of the Mason-Dixon Line, specifically the North Shore of Long Island, New York. A large section of Nevins Park had been transformed for today’s event, with canopies and tables for the contestants, a stage and awning for the band, a portable dance floor, and hay bales for seating.
“What’s wrong with beans in chili?” I stirred the little sample bowl Dawn had handed me, still hunting for a fugitive legume. “I always thought they were pretty much standard. Like creamed spinach on sweet potatoes.”
Dawn turned to Larry. “Can I shoot her now?”
“I didn’t say I eat creamed spinach on sweet potatoes,” I mumbled, feeling my face heat. “As if I would ever. It was just, you know, the first thing that popped into my head.” I met Sexy Beast’s accusatory stare. The two of us had shared more than a few I Yam What I Yams. Yeah, I told a fib, SB. So sue me. Who knew seven-pound apricot poodles could be so judgmental?
“And who are you to call me a poor little Yankee?” I asked Larry, as I decorated my chili with some of the savory toppings Dawn had set out: shredded cheddar cheese, sliced avocados, sour cream, and chopped tomatoes. “I happen to know you were born and raised in this town.”
“Nevertheless…” He tapped the badge clipped to his Hawaiian shirt, which identified him as an official judge of the cook-off.
In fact, as Crystal Harbor’s most renowned celebrity, Larry was an official judge every year, along with local caterer Maia Armstrong and Mayor Sophie Halperin, who just happened to be my best pal. So yeah, I guess he did know a little something about chili after helping to judge this cook-off for the past fifteen years.
With his signature jovial chortle, he said, “Most Texans will tell you that beans have no place in real, authentic chili con carne. The rest of the world is a little more flexible. As am I when I’m wearing this badge.”
Dawn took a swig of bourbon. The transplanted Austinite, who owned a local piano saloon called Dawn’s Depot, looked as out of place in this town as she sounded. Today, as always, the skinny old woman wore a Western pearl-snap shirt, jeans, fancy cowboy boots, and enough turquoise jewelry to double her weight. Her carroty hair was pulled back into a neat French twist, while my own strawberry-blonde mane kept springing loose from its claw clip. I’d decided to wear my hair up today in deference to the late August heat, but as always, it had other plans.
In case you’re wondering about me, my name is Jane Delaney, but most people in town know me as the Death Diva.
Really? You think that’s a scary nickname? Gee, I never heard that before. Listen, I didn’t choose the creepy moniker, but I’m stuck with it. And trust me, there’s nothing creepy about the services I provide.
Let me amend that. There’s nothing creepy to me about the services I provide. All of which happen to involve dead people. Looking for someone to deliver less-than-loving last messages to your friends and family after you’re gone? Done that. How about arranging for your cremated remains to be incorporated into a unique (read X-rated) example of ceramic art? You guessed it, I’ve done that, too. Want someone to break into the morgue and photograph the treasure map tattooed onto your great-uncle Oliver’s back?
Lose my number. The jobs I do are strictly legal. Well, sometimes legalish. And yes, someone actually tried to hire me to do that last one. As you can imagine, I turn down a lot of assignments.
“Eat, Jane.” Dawn gestured at the bowl I still held. “You’re lettin’ good Texas chili get cold.”
This statement was overheard by Norman Butterwick, a dapper gentleman well into his nineties who was strolling nearby with the aid of one of his elaborate antique walking sticks. “Sounds like it’s time to turn up the heat! Is it time to turn up the heat, Larry?”
Larry responded with his usual bonhomie, offering a wave and a jolly, “It sure is, Norman. It’s definitely time to turn up the heat.”
“Sorry, Dawn,” I said, “I’ve been too busy taking abuse from you two to actually taste the chili. I have to say, it smells amazing. Real smoky.”
Sexy Beast licked his lips and sidled closer.
“Sorry, SB, but spicy chili is not for puppy.” I delivered the last three words in a singsong tone I knew he’d correctly interpret as Better luck next time.
Did I mention? Sexy Beast wore a tiny cowboy hat, with a stylish little red bandana tied around his neck. It was all the costume he’d tolerate, and alas, not nearly creative enough to win today’s Chili Dog contest, for best-dressed pooch.
Dawn filled another small bowl, heaped toppings onto it, and held it out to Larry. “I suppose you’re gonna want some, too,” she groused.
“Unless you intend to forfeit your place in the competition,” he said, before leaning over the bowl and inhaling with a dreamy look on his face.
Larry and I took our first spoonfuls at the same moment, and groaned in unison. It was the most addictive chili I’d ever tasted, with a complex flavor profile that stood up to both the delicious smokiness and the spicy heat. I didn’t miss the beans one little bit.
Larry made fast work of his sample before tossing the empty bowl and spoon into a nearby bin. Mine soon followed. He withdrew a notepad and pen from his baggy cargo shorts and jotted a few lines.
I greeted several of my friends and neighbors as they drifted over to sample Dawn’s chili, as well as the Mexican street corn she’d prepared as a side dish. Attendees of the cook-off paid an admission fee, which entitled them to free samples from all the contestants’ booths, all the water, soda, and iced tea they could drink (plus beer for a measly buck), and a ticket for a chance to take home the door prize: a Tex-Mex – themed gift basket. Proceeds from the event benefited Crystal Harbor’s no-kill animal shelter.
Maxine Baumgartner, the pugnacious owner of Murray’s Pub, a historic local drinking establishment, called out, “Larry! It’s time to turn up the heat!”
She and Larry exchanged warm grins and a thumbs-up. He said, “You got that one right, Max. It sure is time to turn up the heat.”
Dawn kept one eye on Larry as she ladled samples from the big iron kettle sitting on a portable propane burner. “So? How’s my fine, authentic chili stack up against the pitiful competition?”
He shoved the notepad and pen back into his pocket. “You know I can’t comment, Dawn. Not while judging’s still going on. What kind of meat did you use?”
“Pork and bison. Along with hickory-smoked bacon, chipotle peppers in adobo, smoked paprika—” She cut herself off, her suspicious gaze raking everyone within earshot. “That’s all I’m gonna say. There are spies everywhere, lookin’ to steal my secrets. Good luck, suckers!”
He said, “Before I move on, Dawn, I’ve love it if you’d—”
“I’m warnin’ you, Larry, if I hear the words ‘turn up the heat,’ I’m gonna box your ears.” She took another healthy gulp of bourbon.
“Me, she threatens to shoot,” I told Larry. “You just get your ears boxed.”
He shrugged and tapped his judge’s badge again. “What can I tell you, Jane? The privileges of power. I was just trying to say, my dear, delightful Dawn, that I would love it if you’d set me up with a little of that Mexican street corn.”
“Comin’ right up.”
In the few seconds it took Dawn to dish it up, I noticed Larry absently rubbing his midsection. He’d been a hefty, barrel-shaped guy as long as I’d known him, with a healthy appetite. I’d never seen him turn down food. And today was no exception, though I couldn’t deny he was looking a tad peaked under his summer tan.
He accepted an extra-large helping of Mexican street corn from Dawn before wishing her luck and moving on, with Sexy Beast and me at his side. I couldn’t help noticing that Larry seemed a little unsteady on his feet. Also, his pupils appeared dilated, despite the intense sunshine. I’d never suspected him of abusing drugs. Perhaps it was a side effect of some prescription medication.
I lightly touched his arm, keeping my voice low to thwart eavesdroppers. “How are you doing, Larry?”
“Oh, I’m doing great, Jane. Having a swell time. I love this cook-off. Look forward to it every year.”
“I know you do,” I said. “I just thought you might be experiencing a little indigestion. I mean, there’s a lot of highly seasoned food here today. I know you have to sample all the chilies, but maybe a bite or two of each one will suffice, and take a pass on the rest of it.” I stared pointedly at the bowl of creamy, spicy corn he was digging into.
“Don’t worry about me.” He patted his stomach, a vigorous thump this time. “Pure cast iron.” His chuckle sounded forced.
Though Larry took care not to show his age (think dye job and aggressive comb-over), I happened to know his “cast-iron stomach” was seventy-four years old, and probably more sensitive to rich, spicy foods than it once was.
I also knew that even if he felt sick, he wasn’t about to admit it. Appearances were important to Larry Kool, who’d been a professional actor his entire life, starting in early childhood when he’d played an apple-cheeked toddler on a television sitcom.
Yes, his last name was Kool, and no, it wasn’t a stage name he chose for himself, though there’s no denying it was, well, cool. Kool is a solid Dutch name, meaning either “cabbage” or “coal,” depending on what your ancestors did for a living. Larry’s cabbage-growing or coal-mining Dutch ancestors helped to settle New Amsterdam four centuries ago, before the English decided that what the place needed was a New York state of mind.
I know you’re wondering about that “turn up the heat” business. Larry used to star in a detective TV show called Chase & Knabbe. He played a wisecracking homicide detective named Eddie Knabbe (you guessed it, the K is silent). His partner was Samson Chase. The show ran for just three seasons forty years ago, but gained immortality through constant reruns and streaming, earning an inexplicable cult status among younger viewers. I myself have seen all seventy-nine episodes multiple times, despite the fact that the show was canceled the year I was born.
Detective Eddie Knabbe had a catchphrase he deployed at opportune moments in the show. Which is why “It’s time to turn up the heat!” followed Larry wherever he went, even now, four decades after Chase & Knabbe ceased production.
Not that he minded one little bit. Larry was the most gregarious “people person” I’d ever met. He loved nothing more than being the center of attention, and the residents of Crystal Harbor were more than happy to oblige. Even on normal days, his status as the town’s most famous home-grown celebrity, combined with his naturally outgoing personality, pretty much guaranteed a steady stream of adoring hugs, fist-bumps, and smooches galore, wherever he went.
“Hey, Frank, how are you doing today?” Larry had proceeded to the next booth, where contestant Frank Martinez was dishing out samples. His chili wasn’t the same rich, dark color as Dawn’s masterpiece, and I spotted plenty of kidney beans. I was no longer sure how I felt about those. Still, it looked and smelled appetizing, and there was nothing wrong with the sample I tried. Less spicy and flavorful than Dawn’s, but still, comparable to good restaurant chilies I’d enjoyed.
His side dish was Southern-style corn sticks: corncob-shaped sticks of cornbread baked in specially shaped cast-iron pans. They were crunchy and flavorful—a perfect accompaniment to chili.
Frank was the administrator of Whispering Willows Cemetery, the local graveyard, so he and I were well acquainted. Our paths frequently crossed when my Death Diva assignments took me to his place of employment.
He was in his late thirties, with brown eyes, a swarthy complexion, and longish, dark hair that he’d corralled today with a navy-blue bandanna, do-rag style. He appeared to be carrying an extra fifteen or so pounds on his frame, possibly from overindulging in his own chili and corn sticks.
Larry was his usual extroverted self as he sampled the chili—thumping Frank’s shoulder, asking about his family, joking with him. Or trying to. Frank never once cracked a smile during the few minutes we spent with him, and offered only dour, monosyllabic responses to Larry’s friendly overtures. Not exactly how I’d choose to ingratiate myself to one of the judges, but to each his own.
Just as we were about to depart, Frank finally strung a few words together. “So are you going to be fair this year?”
Larry sighed. “Frank, we’ve been over this. You know we aim to be fair in our judging every year.”
Frank leaned his fists on his table and treated Larry to a blistering glare. I resisted the urge to back up. Clearly this man harbored more than a little suppressed rage.
So much for hugs and kisses following Larry wherever he went.
“I’ve entered this cook-off every year for the past four years,” Frank said.
“I know you have,” Larry said, “and you make a damn fine chili, no doubt about it.”
“Then why haven’t I ever won?”
“It’s not just me doing the judging. You know that, Frank. This kind of thing is totally subjective.”
“All those other people who won,” Frank said, “their chilies couldn’t hold a candle to mine. I never use ground meat, it’s all chopped by hand, and I use premium dry-aged beef.”
“And it shows,” Larry said. “No one ever said your chili is inferior. For heaven’s sake, Frank, we had the same conversation yesterday. What good does it do to rehash—”
“I know the other judges love my chili. It’s you, Larry.” Frank jabbed a finger at the other man’s chest. To his credit, Larry never retreated or lost his temper. His expression remained pleasant, though he looked even paler than before and his face was sheened with perspiration. It was warm, but it wasn’t that warm. Clearly he wasn’t feeling well, but I’d brought it up once. There was no point in doing so again.
“You’ve got something against me,” Frank said. “You always have. You’ve been convincing Maia and Sophie to vote down my chili, and you’re going to do the same this year. You think you’re so special, but you’re just a washed-up old has-been, cashing in on your former glory, Detective Knabbe.”
Larry raised his hands. “Okay, I’m sorry you feel that way, Frank, but it looks like we’re going to have to agree to disagree. I wish you luck. I mean that sincerely.”
Frank flipped him off as we walked away. Once we were far enough from the booth, Larry said, “For crying out loud, the point of all this is for families to come out and have some fun, and to make a few bucks for the animal shelter.”
“He does seem to be taking it a little too seriously,” I said.
“I know everyone wants to win this thing,” he said, “I get that. But most folks have the sense to at least pretend to be adults about it.”
“Did I hear you say you and Frank talked about this yesterday?”
“Yeah, he showed up—” Larry cut himself off with a resigned groan as a couple approached us.
The woman appeared to be in her late fifties, though, like Larry, she made a conspicuous effort to appear more youthful. Her makeup was a touch too heavy, her acid-yellow sundress a couple of inches too short. Her jewelry was impossible to ignore: sparkly shoulder-duster earrings, bangle bracelets on both wrists, and flashy cocktail rings on almost every finger. Gray roots marred an otherwise pretty head of long, dark blonde hair.
She appeared more excited to see Larry than he was to see her, racing up to him to bestow a bone-crushing hug and a loud smack on the cheek. “I wanted to surprise you. Did it work?”
“Liddy,” he said, without his usual smile, “if I live to be a hundred and fifty, you’ll never stop surprising me.”
You would have thought this was the most hilarious witticism, judging by her manic laughter. She yanked her companion to her side and latched on to him. “I wanted you to meet Wes. My friend Bexley—you remember Bex, don’t you? the artist who works in peanut butter and jelly?—well, Bex introduced me and Wes at this thing out in the Hamptons last week and we’ve been inseparable ever since.”
Wes was a good-looking man with wavy, auburn hair. He was also, at around forty-five years of age, more than a decade Liddy’s junior. He extended his hand, and Larry shook it.
Wes said, “When Liddy told me her big brother is Larry Kool, I thought she was putting me on. Great to meet you, man. I’m a huge fan.”
“Thanks,” Larry said. “This is my friend Jane Delaney. Jane, I don’t think you ever met my sister, Liddy.”
Handshakes all around as we said the polite things. Liddy squatted down to make friends with Sexy Beast, pitching her voice up several ear-ringing octaves. “What a cutie! Oh, just look at that little outfit! You’re a little cowboy doggie, yes, you are! Where’s your little horsie, you little cutie? Are you a good boy? I bet you are, I bet you’re just the bestest boy in the whole wide world, yes I do.” SB, though clearly startled by her enthusiasm, nevertheless accepted the adoration as his due.
Okay, I’ll be the first to agree that my dog is indeed a little cutie, but I can tell when someone’s laying it on too thick. Call me cynical, but I found myself wondering what this woman’s game was.
She straightened and grabbed hold of Larry’s arm, clinging like a lamprey. “Most people who see us together think Larry’s my dad,” she laughed. “I always have to explain he’s my half brother. My mom was Daddy’s second wife. I’m a lot younger than Larry. Like, a lot.”
A gap of fifteen to eighteen years would be my guess. True, there was a family resemblance, but I would never mistake these two for father and daughter.
“Liddy, we’ll have to catch up later,” Larry said. “I’m real busy today.”
“Sure, sure,” she said, “I know you are, but I texted you, like, a million times, Larry, and I left a bunch of voicemails. I was just hoping I could have a couple of minutes—”
“Not today,” he said, and strode quickly away.
The last thing I wanted to do was stand around schmoozing with Larry’s half sister and the boyfriend du jour. The way Liddy was looking at me, I just knew she was angling for a way to suck me into whatever drama she had brewing.
I tugged on Sexy Beast’s leash. “Sorry, guys, but I’d better walk this little fella before he decides to lift his leg on a hay bale. Nice to meet you,” I called over my shoulder as I scampered away.
I made a point of losing myself in the crowd, happy to swap greetings with my friends and neighbors on this gorgeous, sun-washed day. One of them was my physician, Louise Holliday, who had a thriving family-medicine practice in town. I knew she was Larry’s doctor, too.
Louise was a petite, dark-skinned Black woman in her early fifties. Today her thick, gray cornrows were mostly hidden under a bright pink ball cap featuring the logo of a local craft brewery. Unsurprisingly, she held a plastic cup of beer.
She was accompanied by her Jack Russell terrier, Luci, who wore a little white lab coat with her name embroidered on it in script: Luci Holliday, MD. A toy stethoscope was tucked into the pocket.
Luci and Sexy Beast, already well acquainted, exchanged a few perfunctory sniffs as they checked out each other’s costumes. I just know SB was thinking, These humans have got some serious issues.
Two young boys about eight years old sprinted past with a German shepherd wearing a homemade spider costume, complete with long, furry legs that stuck out everywhere. One of the kids called out, “Hey, it’s Doc Holliday!”
“Look,” the other boy said, “she’s drinking beer. I’m gonna tell your mom on you, Doc,” he added, giggling.
“Oh no,” Louise deadpanned, “don’t do that. The news might make Mama spill her Scotch.”
The boys didn’t hear that last part, which was just as well. Their dog had spied a comely Italian greyhound dressed in a crocheted pink bikini swimsuit (which included multiple tops to cover each row of nipples because this was, after all, a family event), and it was all they could do to keep up as he bolted after her, creepy spider legs flopping.
And yes, Louise Holliday, MD, was generally referred to, by young and old alike, as Doc Holliday, a name historically associated with one John Henry Holliday, Wyatt Earp’s bestie. Louise was so tickled by the moniker, I half suspected she’d gone to medical school just so she could share the name.
I knelt to give Luci scritches. “I’m glad I ran into you, Louise.”
“Something wrong? You feeling okay?” Louise peered closely at me through clear-framed eyeglasses.
“It’s not me, it’s Larry,” I said, rising. “Have you seen him today?”
She rolled her eyes. “Stubborn man. Yeah, I pulled him aside for a little chat. He swears he’s feeling fine, but I know him too well.”
“You think it could simply be his age?” I asked. “Like maybe he’s overdoing it today with all this rich food?”
“Could be. Or it could be he ate some undercooked chicken or a bad clam. The good news is, he doesn’t have a fever, for what it’s worth. I was able to feel his forehead before he could stop me, but he wouldn’t let me check his pulse.”
“Well, you know Larry,” I said. “He’ll die before he disappoints an audience. The show must go on and all that.”
Louise laid a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “I’ll keep an eye on him, Jane. The instant he’s done awarding the trophy, I’ll make him go home and get into bed.”
“Good luck with that,” I said. “I know his wife is around here somewhere. Maybe we can find Madison and enlist her assistance.”
“Sure. Let’s do that.” Louise glanced around to avoid being overheard. “I’ll look in the sandbox. You check the teeter-totter.”
I chewed back a grin. “She’s not that young.”
“Don’t tell that to the guy I saw carding her at the beer booth,” she said. Which was a joke since we both knew Madison avoided both carbs and alcohol. “What would make a man end seven decades of bachelorhood to marry a vapid little twentysomething?”
“You’re kidding, right?” We shared a knowing eye-roll at the folly of men in the throes of midlife crisis. Or in the case of Larry Kool, post-midlife crisis. “What he told me? She was his seventieth birthday present to himself.”
“That was four years ago,” Louise said, “and they’re still together. I was kidding about that ‘vapid’ business, by the way. I really don’t know Madison that well. She’s not my patient, she goes to some alternative-medicine quack, I mean healer.”
“I’ve met her a few times,” I said. “She seems all right.”
“Well, I hope it lasts and that Madison makes him happy,” she said. “That hardheaded old so-and-so has brought a lot of joy to a lot of people during his long career, and he deserves to be happy.”
“Amen to that.”Return to Liquidating Larry