A Trifle Dead: Cafe La Femme, Book 1

BOOK: A Trifle Dead: Cafe La Femme, Book 1
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A Trifle Dead
Cafe La Femme, Book 1
Livia Day

A Trifle Dead

by Livia Day

Book one in the Café La Femme series

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1

Y
ou can tell
a lot about a person from their coffee order. I play a game with the girls who work in my café—guess the order before the customer opens their mouth. It’s fun because half the time you’re spot on—the bloke who would rather die than add anything to his long black, the girl who doesn’t want to admit how weak she likes her latté, the woman who’ll deliberate for twenty minutes as to whether or not she wants a piece of cake (she does), the mocha freak, the decaf junkie.

The rest of the time, you’re completely wrong. An old age pensioner requests a soy macchiato, a gang of pink-haired school girls want serious espresso shots, a lawyer in a designer suit stops to chat for half an hour about free trade…The best thing about people is how often they surprise you.

Ever wondered what kind of coffee a murderer drinks? Yeah, me neither.

I
tumbled
into the kitchen of Café La Femme, arms full of bakery boxes, a vintage mint-green sundress swirling around my knees. Late as usual, but at least I was wearing my favourite sandals.

A gal can cope with anything when her shoes match her bra.

Nin paused in the middle of kneading focaccia dough to stare at me from under her expressive eyebrows. I love her eyebrows. They make Frida Kahlo’s look meek. ‘They’re here again,’ she said, and went back to kneading.

My assistant cook doesn’t use paragraphs when a sentence will do, so I had to read between the lines. ‘They’ almost certainly referred to several respected members of the Hobart police force, most of them in uniform, some of them armed. ‘Here’ meant all the comfortable chairs in the main room of the café, and probably leaning on the counter as well. ‘Again’ meant that Nin was sick to death of them all asking her where I was, and how I was doing, and I probably owed her a raise.

I couldn’t afford to give her a raise, so I piled my boxes of bread rolls, bagels and croissants on the bench and tied on my
Barbarella
apron instead. ‘Can I help you with that dough?’

Nin’s eyebrows judged me. Hard.

‘Okay, okay. I just have to bring in the eggs, and then I’ll go front of house. Five minutes.’

I ducked outside and took several breaths of salty spring air before she could object. Five minutes, and I could just about deal with a café full of guns and bicycle clips. Couldn’t I? The café courtyard is a gravel square, walled in by sandstone blocks that were once shaped by convict hands. I keep saying I’ll clean it up and put tables out here, but the truth is I don’t want to lose my little sanctuary of calm.

Our local egg supplier had left a basket by the back step. I’d asked her more than once to take them straight into the kitchen so no one will trip over them, but she claims to be afraid of Nin’s eyebrows. Who can blame her?

As I leaned down to pick up the basket, I caught a whiff of strawberry perfume, and then someone came up behind me and yanked my braid. I reacted with a lifetime of skipped self-defence classes by screaming like a girl, and slamming the basket of eggs behind me and into the face of my assailant.

‘What the— !’ she exclaimed in disgust, and let go of my hair.

Oops. I turned around to see a tall, glamorous woman in black. Not black like a Goth, but black like Emma Peel in
The Avengers
, circa 1966. ‘Is that actually a catsuit?’ I asked, impressed. Even if I had a stomach as flat as hers, I doubt I’d have the nerve to wear something like that, and I have (almost) no shame when it comes to fashion.

‘It was,’ said my assailant. Egg and shell dripped down over the black catsuit in question, and down into her fitted leather boots.

‘It looks great,’ I offered.

‘Thanks.’ She crossed her arms, elegant and menacing despite wearing twenty dollars worth of smashed free range egg. ‘So where is he?’

‘You’re going to want to get in a shower really soon. Raw egg does bad things to hair, when it goes hard…’

‘I’ll keep that in mind.’ She paused meaningfully. ‘Tabitha? I’m in a hurry here. Your landlord. The arsehole. Where is he?’

Ah, well that made more sense. She was looking for Darrow. ‘Does he owe you money? Or are you planning to hurt him?’ Both possibilities were more than likely.

‘Both. Hurry up, I can feel my hair hardening as we speak.’

‘I don’t know where he is,’ I admitted. ‘Honestly, haven’t seen him for weeks. But he’s Darrow. He’ll stroll back in, sooner or later.’

She gave me a filthy look, and somehow managed to still look gorgeous in the process. ‘You wouldn’t lie to protect him, would you?’

‘Of course not.’

Yeah, I probably would. There’s something about stupidly attractive men. They smile, and your knees turn to honey, and suddenly you’re doing things you never thought you would, like giving false witness, or accidentally learning how to poach quail eggs. But I wasn’t lying today. ‘If you must beat the information out of someone, why not try his white-haired, old grandmother?’

She smiled tightly. ‘Good suggestion. I’ll keep it in mind.’

I didn’t feel guilty. Darrow’s white-haired old grandmother was more than a match for either of us. ‘Okay, then. I have to go inside and call my egg supplier. And evict twenty police officers from my café.’ I backed away from her, until I reached my kitchen door. ‘Oh—Xanthippe?’

‘What?’ she said, sounding tired.

‘Good to see you back.’

She glanced down at her egg-streaked outfit. ‘Yep. Just like old times.’

B
ack in the kitchen
, Nin had put the focaccia in our little pizza oven to toast, and was making salad rolls so that the breakfast crowd could take their lunch away with them. When I was growing up, a salad roll was a confection-like sticky bun filled with cheese, tomato, lettuce, beetroot and sliced egg, all glued together with a mock-mayonnaise. Good old Australian corner shop tucker. Now, if it didn’t have cranberry sauce, gouda or red pesto on it, our customers whinged the roof down. Oh, and ham wasn’t good enough for most of the hipster lunch set, even if it was triple smoked and carved off an organic local pig. Fat-free turkey and smoked salmon were where it was at—with a growing interest in grilled mushrooms and haloumi.

I realised I had reached the point of no return when I put ‘tofu and ricotta salad roll, deconstructed’ on the menu, and it became my biggest seller. After that, I started really having fun. If food isn’t creative, what’s the point?

Unfortunately I still had a very vocal (if minority) group of customers who were firmly attached to the Good Old Days, and relied on me to provide the basic staples of Man Food. Steak, fried potato products and pies. I never had this much trouble with the uni students when I was working at the café on campus. At least students appreciated an ironic sprout when they saw one.

Well, no more. The old guard were going to have to find their pies somewhere else. I had hipsters to feed.

The customer bell twanged loudly in the café.

‘In a minute,’ I protested as Nin’s eyebrows became stern and judgemental. ‘Egg emergency.’

As I picked up the phone, a tall, dark and handsome police officer in street uniform put his head through the swinging doors. ‘Tish, the natives are getting restless.’

I rolled my eyes at the old nickname, and handed the phone to Nin. ‘Call Monica. We’re going to need another three dozen. Might require grovelling.’

She dialled, knowing a good deal when she saw one.

‘So,’ I said to Senior Constable Leo Bishop, ‘by natives, you mean the usual gang of reprobates?’

Bishop grinned his gorgeous grin at me. ‘The accepted term is still
police officers
, you know.’

We went through to the café together. Two customers sat at a window table, enjoying plates of muesli trifle and plum honey toast. The other fourteen customers—sprawling on tables and generally holding up the walls—were mostly over forty, uniformed and slightly dangerous. Even the detectives were so painfully plain clothed that their police credentials were obvious.

Bishop was pushing thirty, but the other adjectives still applied. Uniformed and dangerous. ‘One of these days,’ I warned him in a low voice, ‘you’re all going to get bored with keeping an eye on me.’

‘Duty is never dull,’ he shot back, with that look in his eye. That look had made my stomach jump somersaults when I was sixteen and still innocent enough to be impressed by cute men in uniform. Good thing I got over that particular fetish.

I circulated, smiling my best smile at a horde of middle-aged men who thought of me only as Tabitha, Geoff and Rose Darling’s precious little girl. ‘G’day all. Seen my new breakfast menu?’

Inspector Bobby tapped the pretty laminated pages. ‘No pies on there, Tabby love. How’m I going to start my day without one of Rose’s steak and bacon glories?’

My smile got brighter. ‘Come on, Bobby, this isn’t Mum’s café. It’s mine. And I’m pretty sure your wife told me that eating those steak and bacon glories for breakfast is what led to your heart attack last year. I can’t have you on my conscience any more.’

‘Come on, Tabby,’ said Superintendent Graham in a genial voice. ‘Your pastry’s a work of art. Can’t go wasting skills like that.’

This is true. Excellent pastry is the one tangible thing I gained from running off to Europe with a French landscape artist instead of going to uni. Phillipe parked me at his mother’s farm in the Dordogne for six months, where I learned about soups and sauces as well as melt-in-the-mouth pastry before I found out about the other women he had waiting for him in Paris, Marseilles and Berlin.

‘I’m not wasting anything,’ I said patiently. ‘I have tomato-pear tartlets and vegan quiche on my Specials Board. And the mochaccino special comes with dunking profiteroles.’

The collective weight of the local police force muttered amongst themselves, and glared at said Specials Board.

‘What exactly is
in
vegan quiche?’ said Bishop in a low voice.

‘Bok choy,’ I told him.

‘And?’

‘What do you mean,
and
? I know you all miss my mum’s cooking, but she doesn’t run the police canteen these days. And, in case you haven’t noticed, neither do I.’

It’s not that I don’t appreciate their business. Loyalty’s a nice thing. But if you had fifty-odd honorary uncles and brothers constantly hanging around your place of work, you’d start to crack too. I never dreamed when my parents split up and Mum abandoned the police canteen to make lentil burgers at meditation retreats and folk festivals that I’d end up inheriting her old clientele.

Pies and chips are fine, but I’m not going to spend my life heating them up. This café was supposed to be a fresh start for me, and it was time for me to stand my ground.

‘So, no sausage rolls?’ asked Detective Sergeant Richo, from his little island of denial.

‘I haven’t served sausage rolls in six months.’ They were the first to go, and it hurt to do it. But every revolution has its casualties.

‘Yeah,’ Richo said sadly. ‘Rose always made great sausage rolls. But yours were better,’ he added.

I crossed my arms. ‘If no one orders the focaccia with tempeh and pepperberry dressing in the next thirty seconds, I’m going to have to ask you all to leave.’

There was a strangled pause. The effort that it took each of them to not say something patronising was monumental. I could practically see the steam coming out of their ears.

‘All right. Tabby,’ said Inspector Bobby. ‘We’ll be in later for coffee.’

‘Yeah,’ agreed one of the sergeants, brightly. ‘Those low-fat muffins of yours are almost as good as real ones.’

One by one, the officers trooped out of the café. I sagged a little. It wasn’t working. Possibly it wouldn’t work if I served nothing but flavoured oxygen. I was doomed to run a café under constant police surveillance.

‘Reckon you were a bit hard on them,’ said Bishop, who had stayed behind.

I gave him a dirty look. ‘Do you know how good my side salads are? In the year since I started this place, I’ve had three reviews that specifically mention how awesome my side salads are. I’ve turned side salads into a work of art. So the day that one of you bludgers actually
eats
one of my side salads, instead of pushing it to the side and ordering another slab of pie, is the day that you get to have an opinion about my menu.’

He folded his arms. ‘Do you really think we come here for the food?’

‘Thanks,’ I said, stalking behind my counter. ‘Nice to know.’

A couple of people came in to collect lunch bagels. I served them, ignoring Bishop the whole time. My muesli customers finished their breakfast, and paid for their meals.

‘You know I didn’t mean that in a bad way,’ he said, when they were gone. ‘We keep an eye out for you, that’s all. Since your dad…’

‘I know,’ I said between gritted teeth. And boy, did I. Good old Superintendent Geoff Darling, my beloved dad. In the days between his retirement party and eloping to Queensland with his soon-to-be second wife, he took it upon himself to ask every single member of Tasmania Police to keep an eye out for his precious girl. Imagine how grateful I was for that now. ‘I feel very safe and warm and protected.’

BOOK: A Trifle Dead: Cafe La Femme, Book 1
10.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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