“Because they enjoy making everyone as stressed out as they are?” Calliope Costas responded, but with a smile. Her friends and clients called her “Callie,” but her Greek father normally stuck with “Calliope.”
As the proprietor of Callie’s Kitchen, a Mediterranean meets Midwest from-scratch meals business, she’d had her fair share of demanding clients. But customers were customers. Anyway, Callie knew she was more able to tolerate self-absorbed brides now than she used to, now that she had a new special someone in her own life.
As the two women chatted, Callie was rushing alongside Natalie, placing mini boxes of her famous Greek snowball cookies, aka, kourabiethes, at each place. The inn had its own chef, but occasionally Callie contributed an extra sweet treat to events at the inn at the host’s request. To celebrate the season, Callie had spiced the treats with ouzo, the flavorful Greek liqueur, and had placed a fragrant clove in the center of each cookie. She wished that Natalie would eat a cookie – maybe the combination of booze and melt-in-your-mouth texture would cheer her up.
“Okay, that just about does it.” Natalie straightened a final centerpiece and glanced out the huge expanse of windows overlooking Crystal Bay’s namesake waterfront. She leaned forward a bit, squinting at the view. Callie kept placing boxes of cookies at each place. If anyone was out there, it had to be a duck who had forgotten to migrate: who else would brave the 15-degree temperatures?
The day was a bit overcast, but nothing unusual for Wisconsin in mid-December. The lake looked icy and gray, but even the lack of sun couldn’t take away from its beauty. So far the month was unusually cold, even for Crystal Bay. Unlike previous years when warm temperatures prevented the water from icing over completely, it looked like this year the bay and surrounding waterways were experiencing an early freeze. The ice fishermen and ice skaters would have a field day.
Inside, the airy dining room glowed with soft Christmas lights and so many fresh pine boughs and tiny white fairy lights that it felt like walking through a winter forest. Large windows framed the pleasant vista of Crystal Bay. Delightful. Callie inhaled the pine-scented air deeply before turning to Natalie once more.
“Anything else that I can do to help right now?” she asked.
The young woman shook her head. “Not that I can think of.” Natalie was, by all accounts, exceptionally good at her job as the head of events at The English Country Inn, a Crystal Bay mainstay for the last 40 years. The midsized boutique hotel was situated directly on the water, making for charmingly picturesque views. The interior décor reflected its namesake with inviting floral sofas and wallpaper, plush carpet and warm paneling.
The inn was also famous for a spectacular English-style Victorian tea service, presented only at Christmastime. Locals and tourists alike flocked to partake of the tender cucumber tea sandwiches, rich, flaky scones and spicy gingerbread. Callie had planned to attend the tea event with her grandmother, Viv and her 10-year-old daughter, Olivia. She was even toying with the idea of inviting the British-born detective she was seeing. Would a detective enjoy a tea party?
Callie glanced again at Natalie who appeared to be white with fatigue. “Natalie, come on. Let’s sit down for a minute. You look run off your feet.”
“I can’t,” Natalie responded firmly. “You’re sweet to worry about me but there is just so much to do.”
“Let me help you then. I need to go back to work soon, but I can stay a little longer. Why not take advantage?” Callie smiled.
Natalie smiled back, but weakly, so it seemed to Callie. “Thanks,” she said with a sigh. “Maybe I will take a short break. This particular bride is not my favorite and I really can’t let my feelings show.”
“Oh?” Callie asked, handing over one of the kourabiethes. Natalie dropped into a chair with another gusty sigh and munched glumly on the cookie.
“I’m surprised you don’t know the story,” she said. “These are good by the way. A little spicy, but buttery.”
Callie smiled. At least her kourabiethes hadn’t lost their ability to cheer people up. “Thanks. Now – what story are you talking about?”
“Well, this is the second bridal shower I’ve planned for the bride. At the first one, she and some of her relatives got, shall we say, a little too argumentative and the groom ended up ditching her.”
“I didn’t know that.” The bride, Lexy Dayton, was a regular customer at Callie’s Kitchen, and she had insisted that the Greek cookies be on the menu at her bridal shower. “That’s terrible. Poor Lexy!” Callie offered, reluctant to criticize a loyal client – and Greek cookie lover.
Natalie rolled her eyes at Callie. “I can’t say I blame her ex. The Daytons appear to be ever-so-elegant on the surface, but they know how to wreck a party. Believe me. In any case, Lexy blames me for her relationship gone awry. Logic is not her strong suit.”
“I’m inclined to agree. Why on earth would she have her bridal shower at the inn if she blames you for ruining her last engagement?” Callie asked, raising her dark eyebrows.
Natalie finished her second cookie before answering. “The Daytons are loaded, so they really could afford to have the shower anywhere. Though, I suppose this setting makes sense to them. Apparently, Dayton brides have been fêted at The English Country Inn since forever and they are intent on keeping the tradition alive. I only hope that the groom doesn’t dump Lexy today. I could lose my job!”
Natalie slumped back in her chair and frowned at her beautifully manicured fingernails. “To make matters worse, I went to high school with Nick Hawkins, Lexy’s new groom. He had a crush on me way back when, but I think he’s forgotten about it. Not Lexy, though. She’s probably got a spreadsheet of every woman that Nick ever glanced at.”
Callie laughed. “Oh, Natalie. No wonder you’re tense today! Don’t worry so much. Everything looks beautiful, the food will be delicious and you can just cut them off early if they hit the bar too often. Hopefully, the Christmas Spirit will help too.”
Natalie stood up, smoothing her navy dress, accented with a flowing scarf, tied into a loose bow. To Callie’s eyes, the dress looked like an expensive designer number that Callie had drooled over online. Was it Kate Spade? Either it was the real deal or a very convincing knock-off. Natalie must be doing well for herself if she could purchase that. Callie could only afford to dream of such clothing.
“You’re probably right. And thanks for talking,” Natalie seemed a little more calm and some color had come back to her attractively freckled face. “If you’re sure you don’t mind, I think I will ask you to do something for me. Will you see if the coat check person is here? The guests are arriving any minute and I forgot to do something.”
“Of course,” Callie agreed, inwardly relieved to be given such a minor task. She had been up early and was feeling tired.
“Thanks for all of your help today,” Natalie smiled at Callie before lowering her voice to a near whisper. “I know you probably wouldn’t but, please, don’t repeat my story about the Daytons.”
“No worries, here,” Callie responded. “We’ve all dealt with bridezillas.”
Natalie giggled and started walking quickly down the hallway. “See you in a minute,” she called over her shoulder.
Callie checked her watch and strode to the lobby to look for the coat check person. She didn’t see a soul, not even the concierge, Melody Cartwright.
Perhaps Melody wasn’t working today – she was the type to have a lot of irons in the fire. Besides working part time at the inn, the forty-something Melody ran a tea party business for children and was about to have her first book published – it would include tea party tips and recipes. Callie thought the book sounded wonderful. There was even talk of her being a guest on a national talk show. Melody was Crystal Bay’s closest thing to a celebrity these days.
“Melody!” Callie called, but no one answered. She headed back near the coat check area and was relieved to see a young woman standing behind the half-door.
“Oh. Hi there. I’m helping out today for the Dayton shower and Natalie Underwood just wanted me to check to see that you’d arrived,” Callie explained.
The young woman nodded and smiled. “Well, let her know I’m here and I’m ready when the guests are.” She smoothed her long blond hair back from her face. “Is everything okay? Natalie usually checks in with me personally before an event.”
“Oh yes, everything’s fine,” Callie said, relieved that her tasks were nearly finished. Her assistant, Max, was working but she needed to get back to her shop for a pile of food prep. “Natalie is just really busy today. I’m Callie Costas, by the way.”
“Kayla Hall,” the coat check girl said, extending her hand. “I know you – you run the Greek food business downtown. It’s really good.”
“Thanks!” Callie felt herself blush a little at the praise. “You look familiar to me, too. I hope you can come to Callie’s Kitchen again soon. We’ve got some great Christmas goodies. I even decided to do Kringle this year.”
Kayla’s eyes lit up at the mention of the classic Danish pastry, a Wisconsin Christmas tradition. Callie was about to elaborate but stopped when she noticed that Kayla suddenly looked strained, a forced smile painted on her face.
“Welcome to The English Country Inn,” Kayla said perkily to someone who stood just behind Callie. “May I check your coat?”
Callie stepped aside for a tall, model-thin woman in her mid-fifties with a short, chic gray haircut. Without a glance at Callie, she handed a fur coat across the door to Kayla. She didn’t look as if she ate much Christmas Kringle but looks could be deceiving. Callie had learned that sometimes the thinnest people had the best appetites.
“Thank you,” the woman addressed Kayla in a brisk tone. Her voice was deep and resonant, like a newscaster. She was wearing a bright red jacket and matching pencil skirt that set off her athletic build. Her Christmassy outfit was set off with dangling earrings in the shape of small, sparkly snowflakes.
Abruptly, she turned to Callie. “Are you working the Dayton bridal shower? I need to speak to someone about the seating.”
Ah. The famous Dayton mother of the bride. She certainly appeared to be elegant and put together. Callie tried to imagine her in the type of family brawl that Natalie had described and failed.
“I’m not the event planner if that’s what you mean,” Callie began, but the other woman cut her off.
“I know that. Natalie Underwood is the event manager.” The Dayton woman took a step closer, enveloping Callie in a cloud of expensive perfume that smelled like the La Vie Est Belle Callie’s best friend Sam had gifted to her at her last birthday. Life Is Beautiful.
However, this woman appeared to be thinking just the opposite about life, at least at the moment. She glared at Callie and started tapping her foot. “Do you work for Natalie? I need to go over a few things. But perhaps Natalie would be the best person for me to deal with.”
Anxious to get back to her own place of business, Callie decided the best thing to do was be gracious. “I’m sure she would be able to assist you. I just provided a few treats from my food business, Callie’s Kitchen. Your daughter may have told you.”
“Oh yes, Callie’s Kitchen.” She didn’t look as if she thought much of her daughter’s taste in food providers. “All right, then. Please see if you can find Natalie. The guests should be here in half an hour and I want everything to be perfect.”
Getting a sympathetic glance from Kayla, Callie attempted to soothe the nervous mother of the bride. “Of course you do. I’ll go look for her right now.”
Grateful for an excuse to leave this woman’s towering and intimidating presence, Callie scooted off in the direction she’d last seen Natalie. There was no one in sight but a few housekeeping workers and they had no idea where Natalie – or Melody Cartwright, the concierge – had disappeared to.
Callie started to sweat. The last thing she wanted was a confrontation with Mrs. Dayton who, despite her polished appearance, became somewhat overbearing once she spoke. Natalie was in for an interesting afternoon.
Finally, one of the bellboys took pity on Callie and directed her to Natalie’s office, situated near the kitchen, where succulent odors of roast chicken were wafting through the doorway. Her stomach rumbled but this was no time for food.
“Natalie,” Callie said, knocking on the closed office door. “The mother of the bride is looking for you and she seems a little tense.”
The door swung open but instead of Natalie, it was Melody Cartwright who emerged from the office. “Hello, Callie,” she said. “I was looking for Natalie, too.”
“Oh!” Callie was startled. “I wondered where you were. The Dayton party is arriving and you might want to get out there, pronto. The mother of the bride had some things to discuss with Natalie and she looks like she means business.”
“Oh my,” Melody said, a frown creasing her forehead. “The Daytons want a perfect event, that’s for sure. Where can Natalie be?”
Perfect. There was that word again. Despite enjoying the fee that came with supplying food for an event, Callie was glad she wasn’t running this show. Everyone seemed a bit too uptight and combined with what Natalie had shared about the Daytons, the event had all the potential of a reality TV episode, complete with overturned tables and hair-pulling.
Melody ran a hand over her smooth dark hair, pulled back in a low bun. She looked conservative, but sophisticated, quite a different look than when she dressed up as a princess or a fairy for the children’s tea parties she hosted. Melody pulled her ivory blouse more securely over her hips and smoothed her black trousers as she started down the hallway.
“If you’re finished, you can feel free to go,” she called over her shoulder to Callie. “I’ll find Natalie. Thanks for your help!” Melody disappeared around the corner.
Callie let her breath out in a whoosh and headed back to the dining room to collect her coat and any stray cookie boxes. She heard a hubbub of voices in the lobby and realized that the guests would be entering the dining room any minute. No need to stick around for the bride – leave that pleasure to The English Country Inn.
As she re-entered the dining room, the windows framed a winter wonderland of white, fluffy snowflakes that descended gently from the sky. The scenery was certainly holding up its end of the bargain. Hopefully, the calm winter scene would pacify any edgy guests – or hosts.
Callie located her belongings and looked out the window once more. The snow was really coming down now, a harbinger of slippery roads. Instead of taking a chance on running into Mrs. Dayton again, Callie decided to go out the dining room door that led to the patio, a popular spot in warm months. It was closer to the parking lot, anyway, she rationalized. She put on her coat and braced herself for the cold.
As she stepped outside, Callie felt some of the stress lift from her. Snow was a pain to drive in, but a white Christmas was so romantic and this year she would have someone to share it with. Gazing out at the water and inhaling the cold, head-clearing air, Callie relished the chilly beauty of the scene, but a flash of color in the water near the large boathouse attached to the hotel caught her eye. Squinting, she took a closer look.
Just visible through the fluffy white wall of snowflakes was a burnished orange blob. That was odd. Did somebody drop something in the water? Callie was ready to shrug it off and head for the warmth of her car, but something made her take another look. A prickle of apprehension made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.
Slowly, Callie started walking toward the object. It was slow going. The snow was starting to become slippery and ice patches were already on the ground. The falling snow was starting to obscure the ice patches, making them even more dangerous.
Callie stumbled a bit and with a struggle, righted herself before she fell. She glanced longingly back towards the parking lot, but her curiosity was getting the better of her. She felt silly and vowed to head back to the car if she slipped one more time. For all she knew, it was a stray buoy, left behind when the piers were taken up and stacked like Tinker Toys for winter storage.
Cautiously now, Callie stepped closer. From this vantage point, it was clear the item wasn’t a buoy. What was it? The colors sharpened as she got closer. Callie started to quicken her pace, slipping a bit, but focused now. The outlines of a human body were now coming into view. Callie caught her breath in a gasp. An icy sensation began at her scalp and continued to her toes.
Forgetting the dangers of the ice and new-fallen snow, Callie made a beeline to the water’s edge and the unidentified object floating in it. What she saw made the back of her scalp tingle and her stomach lurch. She screamed.
Natalie lay face down in the water. The thin ice must have broken when she fell, revealing the icy depths underneath. Callie shuddered and shrieked, tears springing to her eyes and momentarily blinding her. No. Not again. Please. She wiped her streaming eyes with a mittened hand and forced herself to look again.
Natalie’s beautiful hair fanned out like seaweed. The back of her head was a bloody mass and the ends of her long, coppery locks were already starting to become covered with a fine coating of powdery snow.
Cautiously, Callie leaned down and nudged Natalie, loudly calling her name to no response. With one huge push, Callie turned the event planner over and then fell back onto the patio. Freezing water splashed onto her jeans and her hands felt like they’d been dipped inside a flash-freezing machine.
Natalie floated with her arms outstretched in the frigid water, her long designer scarf speckled with blood. Her normally rosy, freckled face was now grayish white and her wide-open eyes were glassy and devoid of the spark of life.
Jenny Kales is the author of On the Chopping Block, the first in The Callie’s Kitchen Mystery Series. Her marriage into a Greek-American Midwestern family inspired The Callie’s Kitchen mysteries, featuring Calliope Costas, food business owner and amateur sleuth. The setting of the story, “Crystal Bay,” is inspired by a favorite family vacation spot – Wisconsin’s beautiful Geneva Lakes.
Jenny is an avid reader, cook, and baker and she’s addicted to mystery TV, especially anything on Masterpiece Mystery or BBC America. A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, she lives just outside of Chicago with her husband, two daughters and one cute but demanding Yorkshire terrier.