Chapter 1Guest of Honor
Stanley Parker slipped his left arm and shoulder through a strap of his backpack, moving cautiously, afraid of pain. When the wary movement didn't hurt him, he felt deeply grateful. The pack was of hand-stitched Italian leather and dated to his honeymoon a half a century ago; the pain was of more recent origin. It was ever increasing, growing as fast as a squalling infant, sensitive as a weather gauge to changes in the temperature, humidity, and the pressure of the atmosphere around him. Tonight, however, the agony was dozing. It was stuffed away inside of him, invisible, like the frosted, squat green bottle of brandy he carried in the weathered old backpack.
The old man alertly stepped onto the gravel of his circular driveway. There was nothing wrong with his hearing; he heard pebbles crunch under his feet, sounding as sharp as pellet shots in the crisp night air. He even heard the hum of the generator that ran the pump that provided fresh well water to his greenhouse, and he heard--or felt--the rhythmic surge of the ocean onto the beach below his home, and the waves drawing back into themselves again.
Tonight, when he moved, no sharp pain stabbed his hip.
Stanley sighed with a depth of gratitude known only to someone who has endured anguish and then finds himself liberated from it for a blessed little while.
"Thank you, Jason, my boy," he murmured.
He owed this freedom to a boy who had taken a risk for him.
The old man lengthened his stride a bit, still suspicious of the price of movement. He was determined to drive his motorbike over to the dinner party at Genia Potter's home this evening. With every step forward he discovered to his relief there was no real pain tonight, only a trace of an ache, and an ache was nothing to him; he might even describe it as "mere."
He had dressed for dinner, but no more formally than was his nightly custom: a starched white shirt, a yellow bow tie, and a light blue summer suit, pinstriped in white, with the old-fashioned wide lapels he had worn in his youth and still preferred. The left lapel sported a cluster of pins that denoted some of the honors he had won over a long, productive civic life: master of this, emeritus of that, honorary such-and-such. Sometimes he forgot which pin signified which honor, and so he made up answers when he was asked about them. "This pin? Oh, they gave me this at the Culinary Archives and Museum in Providence, for being on their board of directors longer than the dinosaurs roamed the earth."
A full moon lighted his path, illuminating his features as if he were alone on a stage: He had big ears and white hair that was parted on the right side and which he had earlier pushed flat against his skull with water and a small black comb. His eyebrows were bushy and white and he had combed them, too. Deep runnels had etched themselves into the skin beside his mouth, but the mouth was wide and straight, only slightly turned down by age, obstinacy, and occasional bad temper. There was unmistakable, formidable wit and intelligence in his faded blue eyes, giving him the appearance of a man who didn't tolerate fools at all, much less gladly.
Through the fragile skin and thin muscles of his back, Stanley sensed his big stone house behind him, looming like a lighthouse but without a warning beacon in its tower. In his imagination its very stones exuded warmth, better than liniment for an aching heart or body. Known locally as Parker's Castle, it had already housed four generations of his family and had become, under his tenure, capable of standing long enough to shelter at least as many more. He hoped none of them would be sired by his daughter Nikki's worthless husband, Randy.
More confidently now the old man continued toward his motorbike, standing propped up and waiting for him on the far side of the drive. At least his handyman, Ed Hennessey, had done that one thing he'd been told to do. Like the backpack--like Stanley Parker himself--the bike was worn, battered, almost all used up.
Glancing skyward Stanley Parker spotted a moon like a wedding mint, all round and creamy. In order to admire it, he had to stop, because he couldn't walk and look up at the same time and still hope to keep his balance.
Moon, he thought, spoon, prune, honeymoon.
"Why is my wedding on my mind tonight?" he asked himself.
He'd bought the backpack in a tiny, fragrant leather-goods store on the famous old bridge called the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy, on the day after his marriage. The River Arno had flowed beneath them, polluted, but sparkling all the same. It had felt so odd to the young bridegroom to be shopping with a wife on a bridge over a river in a foreign place. It had all seemed foreign to him in that moment: the country, the shop, the woman, the marriage. Impossible not to buy a souvenir, some object to prove he had really been there, doing that odd thing in that unexpected place.
Lillian had pretended to tease him about getting an object so prosaic for himself, instead of a romantic gift for her. Something about the way she'd said it had broken through his usual pragmatic defenses--"But I need a backpack, Lil"--and he'd had a feeling that if he didn't rectify this apparent mistake, he'd spoil the rest of his marriage to her. It had been a melodramatic thought, but he had believed it with a kind of urgency.
That night he had filled their suite with roses and champagne, and even hired a fiddler and tenor to serenade them from the street. Lillian had pretended it had done the trick, but Stanley believed it hadn't, not really, and he even understood why: The gesture was born of a desire to appease, rather than of a genuine urge to please her.
Nevertheless, she'd pretended to adore it.
Her pretenses had lasted decades, until they gave out with age, and she divorced him thirty-five years later. Two years after that she met a man who gave her the spontaneous, romantic gestures for which she had never stopped pining, and he did it without even having to be teased into it. Five years ago, Lillian Parker had divorced Stanley Parker, and three years ago she had married David Graham. Now she was dead, leaving behind two husbands in the same small town.
I don't blame you for marrying David, Stanley thought. I blame myself.
He still loved his Italian backpack, and he still loved his wife and thought of her as that.
About his backpack he was given to saying, "It's just like me," by which he meant it was softened by a lifetime of heavy use. He suspected that few people grasped he meant that; most thought he meant it was battle-scarred and immortal, which was how he thought he appeared to people.
Who would want to be immortal and live in pain? was his thought now. He felt grateful for this moment's ease, but he knew the suffering would come roaring back eventually.
His motorbike didn't roar, but merely sputtered, and he loved it, too.
I have loved too many things, and too few people, the old man thought, as he tilted the bike toward his body. Lillian. Our Nikki. All the rest--even proteges like Lew Potter, even Genia--I've merely liked, or used, or moved about my life like furniture.
The motorbike had a mottled red carcass, reminding him of his own red-veined face, and it had a seat well conformed to his own rear end. He sank onto it like dropping into a favorite chair, with a sigh of appreciation for familiar comforts. Old as they were, both the pack and the bike were young compared to his own seventy-nine years. Whippersnappers was how he thought of anything or anybody younger than himself.
And to whom but God am I a mere whippersnapper?
He turned the key in the ignition and brought the motorbike to life. Now the air around him smelled of leather and gasoline. When he gripped the handlebars, it felt like grasping palms as calloused as his own. Cautiously he eased the motorbike off the gravel driveway and onto the dirt path that wound above the ocean between his house and the one which Lew Potter's widow, Genia, had rented for the summer.
Bless her, she'd brought new life into his own.
To his left pine trees blocked a last trace of twilight in the west; to his right and thirty feet down the tide pulled out to sea. Out there was the water of Narragansett Bay in one direction and Block Island Sound in the other, now tugging irresistibly at the shores of his own beloved South County, Rhode Island.
He puttered on down the familiar path, over rocks and summer leaves. As the moon rose higher, the trees cast long, disorienting shadows across his path. The surface of the sea turned white in the moonlight. The air was at the same time soft with salt and sharp with the scent of pine and decaying vegetation.
Once he'd had a real motorcycle, which Lillian had refused to ride. It had frightened her, she'd hated it, and finally he had sold it in yet one more act of appeasement. Years later when he bought this miniature version of the one he'd loved, she hadn't objected. It hadn't appeared so threatening to her.
Or maybe she no longer cared if I fell off, it occurred to him now, as he bumped along on it. Maybe Lil didn't care anymore if I split my fool head open.
Lately, everything seemed to remind him of something else.
It's the curse of age, he thought, as the bike nosed between tall trees. I can't experience anything fresh and new; it's all got to be filtered through a sieve of time.
As a cookbook collector he thought he could be forgiven for turning life into food and cooking metaphors, seeing the moon as a mint and time as a colander. Genia Potter would certainly understand, if he could remember to tell her. (There was so much else to talk about at her dinner party.) She was an understanding sort of woman--Lew Potter wouldn't have married any other kind--and Stanley had neatly managed to manipulate her into writing a cookbook under his tutelage.
He wasn't entirely ashamed of having done that to her.
It was the cookbook he had long desired for his home state, full of local recipes and the culinary secrets he had gathered over a lifetime of hobby cooking and collecting. The Secret Ingredient Cookbook, they were calling it, which was deeply ironic considering what he had to do and say this evening.
"Secrets and ironies, the ingredients of tragedy," he said aloud.
They had planned this dinner party together, ostensibly to give her a chance to try out some of their recipes. He knew she suspected him of other motives, and she was right, although she didn't know that yet. By the time her niece, Janie Eden, served dessert, they'd all know. It was time to right wrongs, to set things straight in his hometown, and he didn't know how much time there was left for him to accomplish that.
Better not to wait. Best to do it now. For all concerned.
There was a place just ahead of him now where a second path, coming from the paved road beyond the woods, bisected the one he was on. Suddenly a figure emerged from that path, blocking his way. What with the failing light and his own fading eyesight, it took a moment for him to recognize the figure of his own handyman and groundskeeper, whom he had fired that very day.
"Get out of my way, Eddie!" Stanley Parker shouted above the noise of the engine. He let his motorbike slow, then stop, and straddled it while it idled. He was pleased that age had not diminished his voice. Lillian had called it "sandblasting"--the effect he had when he yelled at people. "What the hell are you doing here, Eddie? I told you, you're fired. You don't do a blasted thing around here that I tell you to do, and if I could prove you steal the way I know you do, I'd have you arrested! I want every damned thing of yours out of the garage by the time I get back from Genia's. Now get out of my way."
But the younger man stood his ground, hands on skinny hips.
Thirty rugged feet below them was a rocky beach, and beyond that the Atlantic Ocean, and beyond that the darkness that the sun had left behind.
In appearance Ed Hennessey reminded his employer of a tough chicken leg, all grease and bone and gristle. Both men had been born and bred in Devon, Rhode Island, on the banks of the Atlantic Ocean, though more than forty years apart. But the stock in which they'd steeped was made of different stuff. One had been rich with the flavor of culture; the other had been a thin gruel, hardly enough to grow a boy into a man, much less into a seasoned man well worth his salt.
He'd hired Hennessey out of pity, to give him a break.
"You think you can fire me, old man?" The voice was deep and hoarse, roughened by cigarettes and booze. There was about it an insinuating, patronizing tone. "I been thinking since this afternoon. You better give me a raise instead. I want another hundred dollars a month. Maybe two hundred. That's what it's going to cost you, unless you want the cops knowing what the kid is doing in your greenhouse."
The kid! Stanley's heart gave a guilty lurch. Genia Potter would never forgive him if he caused any harm to her grandnephew, Jason Eden. Hell, he'd never forgive himself! The humming ache in his hip increased its volume, and he recognized it as a precursor to real pain. "What Jason is doing? What the hell are you talking about?"
That earned him a knowing smirk.
"You're drunk again, Eddie. That's why I fired you, man! When are you going to learn to take advantage of an opportunity when life presents it to you?" Stanley toughened his heart and the tone of his voice. "Go away, and don't pull any stupid tricks on me! I fired you, and you're still fired!"
He tried to make the little engine spit, but it was a puny sound. He turned the throttle, lifted his feet back onto the pedals, and rumbled straight toward the man in his path.
Hennessey jumped out of his way, raising a fist as he passed.
Excerpted from The Secret Ingredient Murders by Nancy Pickard based on the character created by Virginia Rich. Copyright © 2002 by Nancy Pickard based on the character created by Virginia Rich. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.