Revenge of the Chili Queens (A Chili Cook-off Mystery)

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9780425262443: Revenge of the Chili Queens (A Chili Cook-off Mystery)

The author of Death by Devil’s Breath takes the chili cook-off circuit to southern Texas to prove that revenge is a dish best served hot . . .

Everyone in San Antonio remembers the Alamo, but how many remember the Chili Queens? Back in the early twentieth century, these spicy señoras sold their lip-smacking chili in plazas all around the city. Now, as part of the Chili Showdown, Maxie and her half-sister, Sylvia, are dressing up as the Chili Queens to raise money for charity.

But someone wasn’t feeling too charitable toward a local troubadour, who is murdered at the fundraiser. When their friend Nick Falcone, head of security for the Showdown, actually becomes the prime suspect, it’s up to Maxie and Sylvia to turn the heat up on a killer, who’s planning a chili reception for them . . .

INCLUDES DELICIOUS RECIPES!

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About the Author:

Kylie Logan is the author of the Ethnic Eats and League of Literary Ladies series, as well as the Chili Cook-off Mysteries, Death by Devil's Breath and Chili Con Carnage.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Acknowledgments

CHAPTER 1

They say there is nothing hotter than Texas in July.

They are not only dead wrong, but that collective they owes me an apology, a clean blouse—since my white cotton peasant shirt embroidered with bright flowers was already wringing wet—and a tall, icy margarita.

Those perfect-haired, big-smile, smooth-talking weather forecasters on TV didn’t offer much consolation. They said the record high temperature for San Antonio in October was one hundred degrees, and that it looked like over the next few days, that record would be broken.

By the way, that record was set way back in 1938.

Didn’t it figure.

See, 1938 or thereabouts was exactly what we were trying to recreate there on the plaza outside the famous Alamo.

The year 1938, and the reign of the San Antonio Chili Queens.

“Are you just going to just stand there, or do you plan on doing some work tonight?”

My half sister, Sylvia, zipped by and tossed the comment at me, dragging me out of dreams of the AC back in the RV we used to travel the country with the Chili Showdown, the event that wandered from town to town all over America, hosting chili cook-off contests and showcasing chili in all its glory, as well as chili fixins and all the must-haves that go along with a good bowl of chili, stuff like beans and sauces. Too bad she was carrying a head-high stack of plastic bowls and she couldn’t see the look I shot her way in return.

Work?

In this heat?

The words I grumbled are best left unreported.

But never let it be said that Maxie Pierce isn’t one to pitch in. Especially when that pitching in meant reenacting the role of one of the city’s famous Chili Queens, those wonderful women who were part of a tradition here in San Antonio for more than one hundred years. The Chili Queens cooked pots of steaming chili in their homes, then, once the sun went down, carted them to plazas around the city to feed the customers who couldn’t get enough of the bowls of spicy goodness. For all those years, the Chili Queens were at the center of San Antonio nightlife. Along with them, the plazas filled with diners and musicians, with talk and singing and music that continued into the wee hours of the morning.

Of course I would work. But not because Sylvia asked me to.

Chili, see, is in my blood. Just like it’s in the blood of my dad, Texas Jack Pierce, a man who’s been missing for a few months and whose place Sylvia and I had taken behind the counter of the Hot-Cha Chili Seasoning Palace where he sold dried peppers and spices and chili mixes that were famous from one end of the country to the other. So it’s only natural, even though I’m not from San Antonio and nowhere near old enough to have ever had contact with any one of the original Chili Queens, that I definitely feel a connection.

I bet there were plenty of nights they melted in the Texas heat, too.

I lifted the hem of my flowing black skirt and headed into the nearby tent where Sylvia and I would be serving chili to the crowds of people gathered that night for a charity event.

Read with the Chili Queens.

That’s what they were calling it, and this night—a Monday—the event was raising money for a local literacy center. On Tuesday, we’d be there with a bunch of warm-and-fuzzy types collecting money for an animal shelter; on Wednesday, the food bank people; and on and on through the week. The whole celebration ended on Sunday evening with a beauty pageant back at the Chili Showdown at the fairgrounds.

Charities aside and beauty queens ignored, I had a proud tradition to uphold.

Chili. It’s my life. And I do everything I can to promote it in all its wonderful, glorious, spicy-good incarnations!

The thought firmly in mind, I sidestepped a stack of folding chairs that still needed to be set up around the tables under the tent designated for the Palace, and headed over to where Sylvia—dressed the way I doubt any real Chili Queen ever would be, in a flowered sundress in shades of pink and purple—was doing a last-minute check of our prep area.

“Chili. Spoons. Bowls. Napkins.” Just as I walked up, her jaw dropped and her baby blues bulged. “Napkins. There are no napkins. Where are the napkins?”

Rather than tell her not to worry (because Sylvia was going to worry no matter what; she’s just that sort of high-strung), I spun around and headed over to where we’d stacked the supplies we’d brought over to Alamo Plaza that afternoon.

“Napkins,” I mumbled to myself, and dug through a mountain of packing boxes in search of them. I found what I was looking for and gathered pack after pack of napkins into my arms.

“Need help?”

At the sound of the voice, I stood and found myself looking up into a pair of luscious dark eyes, a cleft chin, and a smile that lit up the quickly gathering twilight.

“Help?” I am not easily upended by good-looking guys. It must have been the heat that caused my voice to crack. “I’ve got it. Really.” As if it would prove my statement, I hugged the packs of paper napkins closer to my chest. “Thanks.”

The man turned his smile up a notch and added a wink to go with it. While he was at it, he strummed his right hand over the strings of the guitar looped around his shoulders. “No problem, senorita.” He made me a small bow that was corny and gallant all at the same time. “I’m at your service.”

I gave him a quick once-over, but it didn’t take even that long for me to realize he was one of the entertainers who’d been hired by Tumbleweed Ballew, the administrative power behind the Showdown, to add a bit of authenticity to the evening. He fit the part. Tall, and with hair the color of the crows I’d seen around the city. “You’re . . . ?”

“Glad I stopped over.” Another of his smiles sizzled in my direction. “You’re Maxie, right?”

“You know me?”

“I’ve heard about you. But aren’t you supposed to be . . .” I’d given him a quick enough once-over, but when he looked me up and down, he took his time. “I was expecting the chili costume,” he said. “From what I’ve heard, it’s really something, and you . . .” Another once-over made heat rush into my cheeks. “You’re something in that costume.”

I wasn’t about to deny it.

“I’ll wear the Chili Chick costume at the Showdown over at the fairgrounds every day this week,” I told him. “But in the evenings when we’re here as part of the fund-raisers, we’re supposed to dress like the old Chili Queens. This outfit . . .” I put a hand on my long, black skirt. “It fits with the whole Chili Queen thing. A giant red chili costume, fishnet stockings, and stilettos? They don’t exactly go with the re-creation.”

“Maybe not, but . . .” He let go a long whistle. “It sure is something I’d like to see.”

“So stop at the Showdown.” Believe me, I wasn’t being forward. The whole point of me wearing the Chili Chick costume and dancing outside the Palace was to draw in customers. And this guy would be a customer, right?

“I’ll be there,” he promised. “But only if you’ve got plenty of spice.”

He was talking about chili and the dried peppers we sold at the Palace, but the way his eyes sparked gave his words a certain little spicy kick of their own.

I told myself to keep my mind on peppers. “Abedul peppers to zia pueblo peppers,” I said.

“And selling pepper and spices, business is good?”

“We’re smokin’ hot!”

Another long look and he grinned. “I have no doubt of that. So . . .” Another strum of the guitar strings and he stepped away. “I’ll stop in at the Showdown this week to meet the Chili Chick, and later when I have a chance, I’ll come back here and get a sample of the chili you and your sister are handing out. But only if your chili is good.”

Who was I to miss an opening as perfect as that?

Heat flickered in my smile. “My chili is very good.”

His eyes gleamed. “I bet it is. I’ll be back later for some,” he said, and he strummed the guitar again and walked away.

“Chatting? You’re chatting?”

Sylvia’s high-pitched question came from right behind me and made me jump.

“You were supposed to be getting the napkins.” She grabbed them out of my arms.

“I was doing a little PR,” I told her. “Drumming up business.”

“With the entertainers. Who are working here just like we’re working here. So you know he didn’t pay his one hundred dollars for the ticket to get into the event and sample all the different chili, and how much you want to bet he’s not going to leave an extra donation even if he does come back here to our tent?”

I peered around the plaza, and in the glow of the thousands of twinkling white lights that had been strung between the tents of the fifteen organizations that were handing out chili in honor of the Queens, I saw the guitar player stroll over to the tent directly across from ours and accept a bowl of chili from a hot young cutie standing near the entrance. The banner over their heads announced that it belonged to Consolidated Chili Corp.

Call it gut reaction—my eyes narrowed, my mouth pulled into a frown.

“Get over it!” This from Sylvia, and this time, she wasn’t talking about tall, dark, and luscious Mr. Hot Guitar Player. If I ever needed any proof that she was not worthy of working at the Hot-Cha Chili Seasoning Palace (I didn’t), she provided it when she looked where I was looking and poked me in the ribs. “They’re a huge corporation and they give people what they want.”

“Mass-produced canned chili?” The very thought made me shudder. “They don’t belong at an event dedicated to the memory of the Chili Queens.”

“I heard they donated a bundle to be part of the week’s festivities. You know, for the publicity,” Sylvia informed me. “And look . . .” She wedged the stack of napkins under her chin so that she could retrieve something from the big square pocket on the front of her sundress. “They’re handing out the cutest stuff. You know, as a way to advertise the big Miss Consolidated Chili pageant that will happen over at the Showdown on Sunday.” She dangled a bottle opener in front of my eyes.

It took me a moment to focus and see that the bottle opener had Consolidated Chili written on it in red letters.

“And coasters,” Sylvia added, pulling one of those out of her pocket, too. It was made of heavy cardboard and featured a picture on it that I—along with millions of other people—instantly recognized thanks to the commercials on TV. A can of Consolidated Chili’s chili.

“Tacky,” I said. “And not at all in keeping with the spirit of the evening.”

“Maybe not, but it’s plenty clever,” Sylvia insisted. “So’s their marketing strategy. You’re dressed as a Chili Queen. There are a couple descendants of the real Chili Queens over there.” She couldn’t exactly point, since she had all those napkins in her arms, but she looked across the plaza at another of the tents. “There’s even a tent being run by a couple drag queens.”

This, I thought, was hilarious, but Sylvia just rolled her eyes.

“None of that was good enough for the Consolidated folks. They’ve got beauty queens handing out their chili samples. Real, honest-to-goodness beauty queens. I saw Miss Texas Spice. And Miss Chili’s Cookin’. Chili’s Cookin’, isn’t that cute? It’s one of the names of the chilies they sell.”

“Trashy and flashy.” I ought to know, since I’d been called the same things myself a time or two. I didn’t take it personally. At least not when the criticisms were aimed my way. I did take it personally when some big megacorporation stepped in and started messing with tradition and taste and everything else that’s near and dear to the heart of every true chili lover.

“They even have some bigwig here tonight overseeing the whole thing,” Sylvia added, standing on tiptoe so that she could crane her neck and get another look at the Consolidated tent over the heads of the workers who scurried around. “I didn’t see him, but I sure saw his limo. Big and black and shiny with a Tri-C license plate. Tri-C, get it? Consolidated Chili Corp. A big, shiny limo sure beats our RV and our food truck all to heck!” Sylvia gave an unladylike snort. “All these years, Jack has been wasting his time with the Showdown when he should have been concentrating on building a bigger business. Look what it did for those Consolidated Chili folks! And look . . .” In her megacorporation frenzy, she dropped the plastic-wrapped bundles of napkins so she could point. A tall man in a dark suit had just entered the Consolidated Chili Corp tent, and even though I couldn’t see his face, I could tell by the set of his shoulders and the angle of his white ten-gallon hat that he was someone to be reckoned with. Then again, the way the Consolidated Chili people started fawning and gawking and milling around him pretty much told me that, too.

I folded my arms over my chest when I raised my chin and leveled her with a look. “They can act like big shots all they want. And they can pretend they’re upholding some long Texas tradition, but anybody who knows anything about chili knows the truth. There’s nothing better in the world than honest-to-goodness chili and nothing better than real people making it, not machines and cans and conglomerates.” My lips puckered at the thought. “And there’s nothing better than the Showdown, Sylvia, don’t you forget that. Jack was doing what Jack loved to do. What he still . . .” Like I often did, I teared up thinking about Jack. Over the last couple months, I’d tried my best to find out what happened to my dad, but so far, I’d had no luck.

I bit my lower lip to control myself before I said, “There’s nothing better than traveling with our friends and fellow vendors. Nothing better than meeting chili lovers and spreading the word about chili.”

“Whatever!” Sylvia rolled her eyes. “You keep telling yourself that, Maxie. Me, I’ll keep dreaming of that wonderful someday when I work for some real company like that Consolidated Chili.” Thinking, she cocked her head. “They must need PR people, right? I’ve got plenty of experience as a food writer. And they must need admin types, too. Obviously, we wouldn’t have done as well as we have with the Palace these last couple months if it wasn’t for me. You have no head for business.”

“You have no head for business.” Yes, it was juvenile of me to repeat her criticism in a singsongy voice, but hey, Sylvia and I had been fighting all our lives, and maybe on some ethereal plane, even before. See, my mother had won Jack’s heart when he was still married to Sylvia’s mother. Sylvia had spent her life convinced that it was my fault.

His back was still to me as I watched the man in the dark suit and the big hat make his way through the crowd in the Consolidated Chili tent, and the way everyone bowed and scraped, I was surprised I didn’t see anybody kiss his ring. “You think real business is about some stuffy executive everyone sucks up to? That a real company is all about beauty queens and little bottle openers?” The irony of my questions was lost on Sylvia. Which is odd, since I’m the one who would normally find a bottle opener plenty usefu...

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