Grounds for Murder
Grounds for Murder (A Coffee Lover’s Mystery)
by Tara Lush
About Grounds for Murder
Grounds for Murder (A Coffee Lover’s Mystery)
1st in Series
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books (December 8, 2020)
Hardcover: 320 pages
Digital ASIN: B0871KTTMC
When Lana Lewis’ best — and most difficult — employee abruptly quits and goes to work for the competition just days before the Sunshine State Barista Championship, her café’s chances of winning the contest are creamed. In front of a gossipy crowd in the small Florida town of Devil’s Beach, Lana’s normally calm demeanor heats to a boil when she runs into the arrogant java slinger. Of course, Fabrizio “Fab” Bellucci has a slick explanation for jumping ship. But when he’s found dead the next morning under a palm tree in the alley behind Lana’s café, she becomes the prime suspect.
Even the island’s handsome police chief isn’t quite certain of her innocence. But Lana isn’t the only one in town who was angry with Fabrizio. Jilted lovers, a shrimp boat captain, and a surfer with ties to the mob are all suspects as trouble brews on the beach.
With her stoned, hippie dad, a Shih Tzu named Stanley, and a new, curious barista sporting a punk rock aesthetic at her side, Lana’s prepared to turn up the heat to catch the real killer.
After all, she is a former award-winning reporter. As scandal hangs over her beachside café, can Lana clear her name and win the championship — or will she come to a bitter end?
GROUNDS FOR MURDER
By TARA LUSH
I gripped the bowl-shaped mug in my left hand so hard I thought it might crack, then eased off and took a deep breath.
The aroma of rich, heady coffee hit my nose. I almost swooned.
“The espresso’s perfect,” I murmured, more to myself than anyone else. “Here comes the froth.”
In my right hand, I held a stainless-steel pitcher filled with steamed milk. I hesitated for a second, and my café’s best barista inched closer. I gave him a side-eye and leaned away, in the direction of the counter.
“Sorry, Lana. Didn’t mean to violate your personal space.” Fabrizio Bellucci was from Milan. He was something of a coffee celebrity because of his artfully designed lattes, but also for his shirtless selfies snapped on the white Florida sands two blocks from our coffee shop.
“Pour the milk in the center,” he said in that velvety Italian accent. “Slow. Lento. Slow. I say that to all the women, by the way.”
I rolled my eyes. He wasn’t hitting on me. That was just Fab. He gently flirted with every woman aged eighteen to eighty. Sometimes it was charming, other times hilarious, and occasionally, like when I practiced my latte art, it was mildly annoying. But I tolerated his quirks because he was a java genius.
“Fab. Focus. I need to learn this if we’re going to be a team for the contest.”
“We’re going to be the perfect team. I promise. You’ve been doing so well. And there’s still a couple of weeks to practice. You’ve got this.” He gestured toward the cup with a smile. I had to hand it to Fab; he was encouraging and loyal, despite his wandering eye.
The jangle of bells erupted over the strains of Fleetwood Mac playing on the internet radio. Just last weekend, I’d unearthed four tarnished gold bells at a yard sale. After a bit of elbow grease, I attached them to a weathered fisherman’s rope, then hung the whole arrangement on the front door so we could hear people coming and going.
Fab moved away, toward the register, while gesturing wildly. “Keep at it. You’ve got the soul of an artist. Let it out, Lana.”
I cracked a grin while drizzling the milk into the espresso. There was a time, not too long ago, that I was a hotshot journalist pursuing a Pulitzer prize in Miami and married to a handsome network news anchor. Now, I was an aspiring latte artist on the island of Devil’s Beach, the princess of Perkatory.
Okay, well, the manager of Perkatory. That’s the name of my family’s coffee shop, and it’s the coziest café on the Florida Gulf coast. The name might refer to the underworld, but I aimed for a heaven-on-earth vibe.
Or maybe I’d decorated this way because I was the one in need of salvation. A plausible conclusion after everything I’d been through over the last year.
Perkatory was decorated in hues of weathered wood with sky blue accents, and nearly every tourist who stopped by took tons of photos. The regulars smiled the second they walked in. You could see their shoulders lower, the stress ebbing from their bodies.
The coffee shop was a welcome respite on our bustling island, which was jam-packed with festivals, quirky local boutiques, and a plethora of outdoor activities that left both locals and tourists in need of a relaxation station.
And yet despite my interior decorating skills, pretty lattes eluded me. My wrists felt like they were forged from tin and lubed with oil every time I attempted to rotate the mug and drizzle the milk into a heart-shaped pattern.
Today, when finished, I set the pitcher down and scowled at the design.
“Looks like a poop emoji.” I looked up, searching for Fab. He was a few feet away, tending to a customer. I walked over to see him grinning at a woman with short, jet black hair interspersed with deep blue streaks.
“Welcome to Perkatory.” I put the warm mug on the counter. “I’m practicing my latte art, so this one’s on the house. Just made it. If you’re in the mood for coffee, that is.”
She glanced down, and to my relief, didn’t laugh at my creation. “Sweet!”
I expected her to grab the drink and leave, but instead, she dug around in a black cross-body satchel and pulled out a five-dollar bill. She stuffed it into the tip jar and smiled. “Thanks for the free drink. I know what it’s like to be a barista.”
“Appreciate the tip. You here on vacation?” That’s what I loved about running my family’s coffee shop — I could chat with folks all day, every day. People shared the craziest details about their lives, and I loved every conversation and bit of island gossip. It was like being a reporter, only without the deadlines and the writing. But I tried not to think about that part, because I missed storytelling so much. Heck, I even missed deadlines.
“Nope. Just moved here. Living over at the marina in a sailboat, looking for a job. You know of anything in a restaurant or bar?” The woman took a sip and her eyebrows shot up. “Girl, this is some great coffee.”
I shrugged modestly. “We buy quality beans from around the world here at Perkatory. My foam art, though, that’s the hard part. At least for me. Fabrizio here been trying to teach me his mad skills.”
He crossed his arms and beamed. I suspected he posed like this because it showed off his muscular, tanned biceps that strained the sleeves of his T-shirt. “She’s an excellent student.”
The woman took another sip. A faint mustache of frothed milk clung to her top lip for a second, until she swiped her tongue to make it disappear. “I could probably explain a few shortcuts. I used to teach foam art to new baristas in Seattle. I ran classes.”
She mentioned a well-known coffee chain. My eyes widened. “No way. Really? Could you teach me?”
“Sure. Why’s it so important to learn, anyway? Your coffee’s great enough as is. You don’t need the bells and whistles.”
“Well, for one, it’s good for business. Customers love latte art. And we’re competing in the Sunshine State Barista Championships. It’s being held on Devil’s Beach in two weeks. I’d really like to win. We need some great publicity for the shop.” I didn’t say that I also wanted to win because it would prove I was good at something. Ever since I was laid off from the newspaper, I’d felt like a total failure. Coming home seemed like admitting defeat.
“You worry too much, Lana. Of course we’ll win,” Fab said. “The judges will love me. Er, us.”
The bells on the door jangled again, and an older woman walked in. She had short, silver-blonde hair, oversized rose gold sunglasses and wore a zebra-print muumuu. She was trailed by a tall, blonde guy in neon green board shorts and a worn white T-shirt. He looked like he knew his way around a surfboard.
“Excuse me for a moment.” He moved from behind the counter and went up to the guy. “Lex Bradstreet, what’s up, man? You know you’re supposed to wear shoes in here.” He and the surfer dude gave each other a chummy hug.
Like most of the businesses in downtown Devil’s Beach, we had a policy that customers were supposed to wear shoes. Sometimes, people couldn’t be bothered. Since we were so close to the public beach, they often tracked sand inside, and I’d sweep up piles of it three and four times a day.
As I was about to say something — no shoes, no shirt, no caffeine — I watched as the woman pulled a pair of large black flip-flops out of her beach bag and dropped them on the floor. The surfer slipped them onto his tan feet. I turned my attention back to the woman with blue-black hair.
“Fab knows everyone around the island,” I explained.
“Is he always so…” she waved her hand and we both glanced at Fab. His lips were on the cheek of the woman in the muumuu.
“Did he ask you to watch the sunset with him from his rooftop lounge?” I winced. That was his usual pickup line with women. He’d tried it with me a couple of times. I’d turned him down. And not just because I hated rooftops, and heights.
“No, he stared deeply into my eyes and asked me what I desired. I think he got the message that my answer didn’t involve him. He’s pretty easy on the eyes, though. But I’m not in the mood to deal with that kind of mess at the moment. You know. A man mess.”
A giggle escaped my lips and an image of my ex-husband popped into my mind. “I’m quite familiar with man messes. Fab has a sometimes girlfriend, but he’s an incorrigible player. Fully admits it, too, so it’s not like I’m talking behind his back. He’s a hard worker and great barista.”
“Sometimes you gotta take good with the bad.” She lifted a shoulder.
“Exactly. Are you serious about teaching me latte art?”
“Sure. You want me to pull a shot and do a test drink to show you?”
I tilted my head. Hunh. If she was any good, perhaps I could hire her. We’d been slammed lately, and a look at the books last week revealed we had the budget for another barista. Dad told me I should make all the necessary decisions for the café.
“Sure. Why not? Come on back.”
She held out her hand. “Erica Penmark. Love the look of this place, by the way.”
“Lana Lewis. Good to meet you.” Her grip was firm, something I appreciated. Her fingernails were the same hue as the midnight blue in her hair. With her all-black, punk rock aesthetic, she stood out among the café’s décor, which was awash in beach shabby chic — right down to the perfectly distressed white wood antique furniture, the inspirational beach slogans painted on one wall and the robin’s egg-blue pillows that graced the wicker furniture nestled next to the floor-to-ceiling windows.
I gestured to the La Marzocco espresso machine. “There it is. My baby.”
Erica let out a low whistle. “That is one sexy coffee maker.”
She walked around the stainless-steel machine, studying it from several angles. “Does she have a name?”
I grinned. “Fia. It’s short for Sofia. As in Sofia Loren. Fia’s got independent boilers, auto steam flush and auto brew ratio with drip prediction. My mom picked it out, and named her. This place was my mom’s to begin with.”
With the proper amount of reverence needed to work a machine that cost more than my car, she faced the front. “Nice to meet you, Fia. Mind if I do a few warmup shots?”
“Be my guest. Here’s the grinder, and the tamper.” I patted the electronic shot tamper that packs the coffee grounds to a fully compressed, even, and level, puck of coffee.
“Whoa. I’ve never used one of those. Always did it by hand.”
“Manual tamping isn’t consistent,” I replied. “But if you’d rather, there’s a hand tamper.”
Erica became absorbed in the process of pulling a test shot. I stood back and watched her work. She was clearly an expert, with quick, efficient movements. In between watching her, I scanned the front counter for customers. Since it was around two in the afternoon on a Tuesday, it was a slow time.
This was the time of day I loved Perkatory most. In the bright Florida light, with the overstuffed pillows on the sofas and the artfully peeling white paint on the wood tables, it seemed like a soft and ethereal refuge. A waiting room of heaven, even.
She tasted her first shot, and shook her head. Then made a second, and a third. By the fourth, she made two from the machine’s dual spout, and handed me one. I took a sip. “Perfect.”
A grin spread on her ruby red lips. “Now for a cappuccino.”
Without a word, I took the whole milk, sourced from a farm on the mainland, out of the fridge underneath the counter.
She again made a shot. The robin’s-egg blue mugs were ready and waiting atop the machine, and she plucked one from the nest, then poured the espresso inside. She splashed milk into the stainless-steel pitcher and frothed it for twenty seconds (she used the little digital timer next to the machine), the wand making a satisfying hiss.
With the blue cup in her left hand tilted about thirty degrees, and the carafe in her right, she drizzled the milk to mix it with the espresso. A few tightly controlled flicks of her wrist led to perfectly white squiggles in the cup, and then it magically took shape.
“A swan,” I gasped. It was one of the more difficult latte art patterns, and astonishingly, it was better than anything Fab had ever done. “You’re incredible.”
She smiled, but not in an arrogant way. “And I’m available.”
We both laughed. “Listen, I’m actually the owner here. Sort of. My dad technically owns the place but I run it. Let me talk to him. I’ve only been in charge for a few months, and I want to get his okay. Can you come by at the end of the week? Maybe Friday? I’d like to study the schedule and see where we can fit you in. We’ve been pretty busy lately and I’d hoped to bring someone on before the winter tourist season hits.”
“Absolutely. Works for me. I’m free any day, any time. Can give you references and everything. I’ll bring a resume.”
“Perfect. See you then.”
Erica walked away and I busied myself with wiping down the counter. When I looked up, Fab was standing there with a sour look on his face.
“What?” I asked.
“We don’t need another barista. I don’t have time to train another staffer before the competition. You and Barbara and your father are enough to handle.” Barbara was our other employee, who worked part time because she also ran an art studio here on the island. My father was, well, my father. Fab was well acquainted with his eccentricities.
“Come on. Erica obviously doesn’t need much training. And we’ve been super busy for weeks. I’d eventually like a day off, you know.”
We stared at each other warily. This wasn’t the first time that Fab had tried to pull rank on me, even though I was his boss. He’d worked at Perkatory for a year and a half, while I’d technically just started a few months ago. I had a nagging feeling that he’d hoped to manage the place, and was irked when Dad put me in charge. Still, we had a solid working relationship and I’d come to view the café’s employees as a little family — not as crass or freewheeling as my old newspaper family, but one that was just as devoted but made better coffee.
Maybe Erica could join our clan.
Fab sniffed. “Working every day isn’t a bad thing. Not for you, anyway. You don’t do well with downtime.”
I straightened my spine. Gah. Dad must have told Fab how depressed I’d been when I first returned to Devil’s Beach after the layoff and divorce. Still, why would he care who I hired? Unless he felt threatened by someone who was as good, if not better, than him. He’d have to get used to it.
“I’m going to hire her. In fact, I might have her compete in the championship with you, instead of me. We’ll evaluate her capabilities this weekend.” I grinned. What a brilliant idea. The two of them would be a formidable pair and certainly wow the judges.
“Over my dead body,” he muttered.
About Tara Lush
Tara Lush is a Rita Award finalist, an Amtrak writing fellow, and a George C. Polk Award-winning journalist. For the past decade, she’s been a reporter with the Associated Press, covering crime, alligators, natural disasters, and politics. She also writes contemporary romance set in tropical locations. A fan of vintage pulp-fiction book covers, Sinatra-era jazz, and 1980s fashion, she lives with her husband and two dogs on the Gulf coast.
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