Misfortune Cookies (When The Fat Ladies Sing Cozy Mystery Series Book 1)
Chapter One – Wonton Fun
You might as well know that Sue Jan and I are fat. I don’t know which one of us is fatter, but we wear the same size clothes. Not that I would ever wear anything of Sue Jan’s. She’s way too flashy for my taste. For instance, yesterday she dyed her hair “Crazy Cherry Red” with yam undertones. She’s always changing her hair color with some wild concoction. Now me, I think when you’re overweight you oughta groom and dress to flatter, not call attention to your size. My hair is a warm honey brown, at least that’s what the bottle says, and I wear very little makeup. I dress real conservative, too, nothing bright or flashy, just ordinary regular-type clothes.
On Thursday, as usual, we were having lunch at Chun’s Hong Kong Gardens. Funny, our town’s got almost one of every important thing—a bank, grocery store, diner, one-chair barbershop, pool hall, doctor’s office, beauty shop/boutique, and a handful of other stores. But for some reason, we have two Chinese restaurants: Chun’s Hong Kong Gardens and Cheng’s Dragon Inn. There’s a Wal-Mart twenty miles away in Bentley. I guess you’re not really on the map unless you have one. And we don’t.
I inherited a passion for Chinese food from my father, a frequent customer of Chun’s and Cheng’s. But since I was on a diet—again—I ordered a bowl of egg drop soup. Unlike me, Sue Jan studied the menu like she was trying to decipher the Rosetta stone.
She eyed our waiter. “Tan, you got anything new on the pupu platter this week?”
He offered a polite bow. “No, we do not, Miz Sue Jan, but I could make one up special for you.”
“Oooh.” She flashed a red-lipped smile. “I’d like that a lot.”
“Okay then, what can I get for you, MizSueJan?”
Without looking back at the menu, she rattled off, “Some crabmeat sticks, those cute tiny egg rolls, shrimp toast, fried wontons, barbeque beef, spareribs, and fan-tailed shrimp with extra pepper on ’em, if you don’t mind. And since Lovita ordered the egg drop, I’m gonna want the silky corn crabmeat soup. Got that?”
His pen flew across the pad, trying to catch up, but then, no waiter has ever been able to keep up with her.
“Sue Jan, you need to slow down or Tan’s gonna need a course in stenography. Besides, why’d you order all that for an appetizer?”
She swirled her hand over the table as Tan walked off to fill our orders. “It’s for both of us, girlfriend.”
“But you know I’m on a diet.”
She pointed a red-clawed finger at me. “Lovita Horton, don’t you go and lose weight. Skinny women get all wrinkly in the face.” Sue Jan somehow managed to suck in her cheeks and scrunch her face, her impression of a typical skinny woman. “You never see wrinkles on a balloon, do you?”
“Nooo.” I snickered, barely able to swallow a sip of iced tea.
“So that settles it.” She pounded the table. “We’re sharing lunch.”
Just then, Tan returned with our soup. “The pupu platter will be out in a few minutes. You ladies ready to order the main course?”
“Tan, we’re sharing today.” Sue Jan winked and lowered her voice to her idea of a whisper. “Lovita’s trying to lose weight.”
He looked confused, but he nodded, trying to be polite. He cast a glance my way from the corner of his eye.
I glared at her, but Sue Jan knew better than to look up just then. “Sooo, we’ll have a large order of shrimp-fried rice to go with the regular sticky rice with our main course. And let’s just order Lovita’s favorite dish, why don’t we.” She looked up at me, lashes fanning, her face masked with a faux look of innocent intent. “What was that thing you used to order all the time?”
“Shrimp egg foo young,” I grumbled. She knew me too well. I loved that dish, but mostly because it was my daddy’s favorite. Tan took it off the menu a long time ago. Right after Daddy di—
“That’s right.” She thrust the menu at Tan. “Lovita and I are gonna share the shrimp egg foo young. I know you won’t mind making that up special for her, and while you’re at it, we might as well have something else, too. Hmm.”
I tapped the table to get her attention. “I thought you said we were sharing?” Just to spite her I added, “Well, instead of shrimp egg foo young, I would prefer to have the triple dee-light.”
Her teaspoon hovered in midair for a moment. “Really?” She blinked the surprise away. “Suit yourself, girl. Anywho, I thought we should order two entrées because then we’ll have leftovers to share for din-din.” She tapped her temple with her index finger. “I’m always thinking, my friend, always thinking.
“Okay, so Lovita will have the triple dee-light and”—she pointed at Tan—“I think I’ll have the Kung Pao chicken.”
Tan and I gasped. We both knew that Sue Jan hated the Kung Pao chicken. She said she felt compelled to order it from time to time though, hoping that Chef Hans Han might finally “get it right.” But I knew, we all knew, she had ulterior motives.
In no time flat we polished off the soup, followed by the pupu platter. Then our triple dee-light and the Kung Pao chicken arrived on steaming-hot plates. I watched her through a few tentative chews, waiting for what I knew would happen next.
After a few halfhearted bites, she threw down her fork. “Now what do you expect,” she shouted, nostrils flaring, “from a German-Chinese chef?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Szechwan schnitzel?”
She couldn’t catch her breath and when she finally did, she snorted out laughs in short spurts. A couple of bean sprouts hung off the side of her mouth. I pointed at her, laughing.
“Sue Jan, wipe those bean sprouts off you.” I couldn’t help but sneer. “After all, you wouldn’t want Chef Hans to see you like that.”
She looked up. Panicked, eyes wide, she gulped. “He’s not out here, is he? Just the mention of his name gives me chill bumps.” With one deft motion, she swiped the bean sprouts from her face into the air.
Not wanting to know where the sprouts landed, I looked straight ahead. “No,” I answered between bites of my triple delight. “Your honey Hans ain’t left the kitchen yet.” Not that Hans was in Chun’s kitchen most of the time. Hans was the master chef at his mother’s restaurant, Cheng’s, but a couple days a week, he worked for his uncle, who allowed him to do what Mama Loo didn’t—experiment with recipes.
Most of Sue Jan’s attempts at snagging a man were unsuccessful. But you had to hand it to her for trying. Not like me. After a few rejections I just sorta gave up on ever finding the man of my dreams—or any man for that matter. I figured if God wanted me to jump over the broom, He was gonna have to get me the groom.
Sue Jan suddenly slapped her sequined, suitcase- sized purse onto the table and started digging. First her hand disappeared, then her arm to the elbow.
“Girl, you looking for some lipstick or performing psychic surgery?”
“Very funny,” Sue Jan said with a smirk. “I need some lipstick. You got some?”
Just as I was reaching for my much smaller purse, she exclaimed loudly, “Oh, wait, I found it!” To her surprise, she pulled out a battery-operated nose hair trimmer instead. I bit my lip, reached for my purse again, rooted around fast as I could, and handed her my lipstick.
“‘Candied Apple,’” she voiced, doubtful. “Hmm, I suppose that’ll do. Uh, thanks, Ita.” Momentarily distracted, she left the patented Trim Schnoz right next to her unused chopsticks.
Which was just like something Sue Jan would do. She and I are best friends. Ever since elementary school, we’ve lived in the same place all our lives—Wachita. We pronounce it “Waah-chee-tah,” with the emphasis on the tah. It’s from an Indian word that means “place of stagnant waters,” which suits this town just right. Sometimes, living in a small town feels like you’re sitting in a puddle of stagnant water, not going anywhere, not making your mark in life. Other times, though, it feels good, like wearing an old, comfortable pair of shoes. I love it here and I hate it here. It’s that kind of place.
“Do you think he’ll come out of the kitchen?” Sue Jan was anxious, her eyes on the swinging doors. “He will if you complain again.”
Just then, Tan showed up at the table with a stainless pitcher sheathed in frost, to refill our glasses. Unlike other restaurants, Tan made sure his iced tea was Eskimo-cold. And on a hot day, there was nothing better.
“Evee-ting okay, ladies?”
“Be nice,” I whispered to Sue Jan.
Tan was a pleasant and patient man. Short and efficient, his hair dulled by gray and thin on top, he always forced a nervous smile in the presence of Sue Jan, and today was no exception. He looked down at the table, his eyes focused for a moment on the Trim Schnoz. A puzzled (or was it horrified?) look washed across his face and he looked away.
“Tan?” I discreetly covered the trimmer with my dinner napkin.
“Yes?” He smiled, relieved to focus on me.
“My triple delight was dee-lightful and dee-lishus. Chef Hans has really outdone himself today. You tell him that, okay?”
He nodded, smiling. “Yes, yes, I will.”
A booming voice, peppered with West Texas twang, broke in. “Well, you can tell Chef Hans a thing or two from me, too.”
Hesitant, he turned to Sue Jan and bowed halfway. “What can I tell him for you, MizSueJan?”
It was my turn to interrupt. “You can tell Chef Hans that she’s crazy in love with him.” A handful of sticky rice plastered my face almost before I finished talking.
“Don’t listen to her, she, she’s—” Sue Jan’s face flushed red. “You just tell him that he still doesn’t know how to make Kung Pao chicken right. It tasted like Kung Pao Kibbles ’n Bits!”
“Sue Jan!” I cried out, annoyed as I picked rice off my face. “That was mean.”
She threw her head to the side and flipped her hair in dramatic defiance. “Sorry about the rice.”
“You know full well I’m not talking about the rice.”
“Well, it did taste bad,” she snipped, and then she stuck her tongue out at me.
Tan’s eyes were looking away, toward the safety of the swinging doors to the kitchen. He looked as if he wanted to bolt. “So sorry, MizSueJan. Let me bring you some-ting else.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I don’t want anything else, Tan.”
“Do you want a refund, MizSueJan?”
She sighed and picked at some imaginary lint on her fuchsia blouse. “Noooooo.”
I slammed my hands down on the table. “Cut to it. Tell him you want to see the chef.”
Relieved, Tan bowed, picked up the hem of his apron, and wiped it across his brow. “I will retrieve him for you, MizSueJan.” He burst through the swinging doors and disappeared.
I turned back to her. “Well, now you’ve done it. Any second now, a very angry blue-eyed German- Chinese man is gonna bust through that door with a butcher’s knife in his hand.”
Sue Jan sat up straight and perky. “How’s my lipstick look?”
I let out a tired little sigh and muttered, “Just like mine.”
Chapter Two – The Cornstarch Thickens
Chef Hans Han stood over us, all six foot two of him. I glanced at his hands and thought it strange that a large man would have such tiny hands. No butcher’s knife in sight, though. Not even a paring knife.
I looked across the table at Sue Jan. After a hasty trip to the ladies’ room, she’d returned with the flame of “Crazy Cherry Red” hair swept back in an attractive updo, eyes lined a metallic blue, brows penciled in brownish-black, and my “Candied Apple” red lip color slathered across her wide mouth. Glittery purple gemstone hoops hung from her ears, completing whatever look she was going for.
“Hellooo, Hans,” she purred, oozing with flirtatious expectation. Her neck tilted backward, and she stared up at him, real dreamy-like. Her masculine ideal had small ice-blue eyes, whitish eyelashes, and a carved- statue face. The only parts on him that showed a dip in the Asian gene pool were his sleek black hair and tiny hands. Not a fat cell anywhere on his body either.
Chef Hans clicked his boots together like a military man and bowed forward. “Miz Sue Jan.” He kissed her hand and, for a moment, Sue Jan was completely speechless. No one, to my knowledge, had ever had that effect on her, not even when she won a twenty-five- dollar gift certificate to Brandee’s Catfish Kitchen in a radio contest two weeks ago and Crazy Lenny Z, her favorite DJ, presented it to her.
Before she could catch her breath, Chef Hans turned to me. “Miz Lovita.” He gripped my left hand in his and kissed it. His lips felt dry. For some reason, I don’t know why, I felt like pulling my hand away.
Turning back to Sue Jan, he stated, “Mr. Tan has informed me that you are unhappy with the Kung Pao chicken entrée you ordered.” He forced out a quick laugh. “He told me that you made some disparaging remarks about my prowess as a chef. I can assure you, I have been fully trained in the art of Asian cooking. In fact, I have two culinary degrees.” He slowly shook his head and wagged his finger while making a tic-tic-tic sound. Resting his baby doll hands on the end of the table, he leaned in toward Sue Jan.
I gasped as Hans loomed over our table.
His thin lips cracked upward a sliver. His attempt at a smile, I guessed. “Other customers rave about my special recipe for Kung Pao. In fact, a reporter at the Bentley Buzzard recently gave us a favorable review.” He leaned in farther, now face-to-face with her. “Now, Miz Sue Jan, please tell me why you are so unhappy with my dish.”
Obviously infatuated, and overcome by his presence, Sue Jan gulped as the color drained from her face. “Well—ah—ah.” Her eyes seemed to roll like blue and white marbles to the left and to the right. The muscle on her right eye started jumping. “It—it was Lovita’s idea that I should complain.”
My jaw dipped down and up like a fish caught on a hook. She shot me a menacing look; an expression so desperate that I just shut my mouth and tilted my head to the side in amazement.
“You see, she thinks that I,” she snorted out, “I mean me, I mean I, personally, make the best Kung Pao chicken there is and that since I do, maybe you should come over for dinner one night.” She smiled at him and blinked a couple of times for effect, and then she looked my way, begging me with her eyes to cover the lie.
The statue turned to me. “Is this true, Miz Lovita?”
Now I personally believe that lying’s a sin, but the Ten Commandments are like “Hints from Heloise” to Sue Jan. We’re roommates, so I know firsthand that she pretty much worships St. Mattress on Sundays. Sometimes though, when she buys a new hat or a new outfit and wants to show it off, she’ll come to church with me.
So, in frantic response to Chef Hans’s question, I grabbed my glass of iced tea and gulped as if I could dive in and swim away. That’s when I gasped. A piece of ice stuck in my throat. I stood up, pointing to my neck. I felt like my eyes were bulging out of my face.
I heard Sue Jan yelling, “Don’t just stand there Hans—help her!” But it sounded distant and distorted, like the audio in a film running in slow motion.
Everything around me seemed to be turning white. Suddenly, two arms enveloped me from behind and jabbed my midsection. The cube shot out and bounced off the table like a piece of hail. I collapsed into my chair. Sue Jan simultaneously fanned my face and handed me a glass of water. I closed my eyes and took in a few deep breaths before I dared open them again.
“Thank you, Hans. I think you saved my life.”
“Hans?” exclaimed Sue Jan. “He didn’t save your life, someone else did. I’m real disappointed in Hans. He can’t even perform the Heimlich maneuver. Ain’t that a German word? Heimlich? And he couldn’t even do it. He ran off to the kitchen, but he’s still cute . . . ”
I felt a tap my shoulder. I opened my eyes and looked behind me. The arms that had somehow made it around my waist belonged to Monroe Madsen. Good ole Monroe. I managed a faint smile and looked him in the eye. “Thanks for saving my life,” I rasped. “What are you doing here, Monroe? I haven’t seen you for about four, maybe five years.”
“I’ve been here all along, here in the restaurant, today, that is. Just a table away, but there’s a big bamboo plant in between, so I guess we couldn’t see one another.” He paused. “I could sure hear you all though.”
“I’ll bet you could, Monroe.” I snickered, and then coughed. I was definitely not ready to snicker. I tossed my hair back from my face. Choking on that cube had left me all askew. “Last I heard you graduated with a law degree.”
“That’s right. I worked over in Houston for a while, but now I’m back. I was just hired at a firm over in Bentley.” Monroe pushed his round brown glasses back up on the bridge of his nose where they belonged.
Monroe was a classmate of ours. A real nerd. He’d carried a big torch for Sue Jan back then, but she never paid him any mind.
“Why don’t you join us, Monroe?” I invited.
“Oh, a . . .Monroe”—Sue Jan pursed her lips, staring at his chest—“let me help you with that.”
“What?” Monroe and I both asked. Why is she being so nice to him?
It was obvious where the bean sprouts had landed. Sue Jan dipped her napkin in a glass of ice water and wrung it out.
“Sorry about that.” She brushed the sprouts off, scowled at the stain left behind on his suit, and dabbed at it. Then she beamed a tentative smile his way. “You finished eating?”
Before he could open his mouth to answer, Tan, ever vigilant, delivered to our table Monroe’s plate, cutlery, and a fresh napkin.
Monroe’s eyes lit up. He stuttered a thank-you, his gaze all the while on Sue Jan, and finally answered my question. “Y–yes, I do believe I would like to join you.”
“There,” Sue Jan announced with a pat to the soggy spot on his chest. “You’re good as new.”
He melted into a chair at our table.
I looked him over. Monroe was wearing his usual play clothes—a wrinkled blue and white seersucker suit and a baseball cap. Some things never change.
“I’m looking for a house here in Wachita,” he announced. “Right now I’m staying with my sister in Bentley, but I–I’m kinda partial to this town.”
“You’re moving back here?” I asked, surprised.
“Monroe,” belted out Sue Jan, “I want to thank you for saving Lovita Loco. But seriously, why are you moving back here? Bentley’s bigger and that’s where the firm is, too. Everybody else is trying to get out of this town, and you’re moving back?”
His face flushed red. “Th–hank you, Sue Jan. I guess I’m m–moving back for a variety of reasons. Um, I guess you could say, ‘there’s no place like home.’ ”
I raised an eyebrow, my mind still a few sentences behind. “ ‘Loco?’ I guess I should be grateful that you can’t call me Lovita the Liar instead. I cannot believe you fibbed and expected me to . . .”
Just then, Hans and Tan ran out of the kitchen, speaking rapid-fire Chinese with what sounded like a bit of German thrown in, which stopped abruptly when they reached the table.
“You okay, MizLovita?” asked Tan, his brow furrowed with concern.
“I’m fine, Tan.” I answered. “Thanks to Monroe here,” I said, pointing.
Tan threw his arms up with dramatic flair. “All your lunches—on the house.”
“No, Tan,” I insisted. “We’ve been enough trouble today. We’re paying.”
He shook his hands together as if in urgent prayer. “Please, MizLovita, accept this complimentary lunch, and we will have no more trouble between us.”
“You heard the man, Lovita!” boomed Sue Jan. “Don’t be rude.”
“No, Tan, I insist we pay. Fair is fair.” Then I turned my attention back to Sue Jan. “Rude?” I screeched, my voice still a bit scratchy. “You think I’m rude?”
Sue Jan smiled at Tan. “Thank you so much for making our dining experience here at Chun’s Hong Kong Gardens so enjoyable. Now, would you please bring us our fortune cookies?” She mimicked Hans’s earlier move and tick-tocked her index finger like a pendulum. “After all, the din-din’s not over until the cookie crumbles. Oh, and one for Monroe, too, please.” Sue Jan, in all her glory, turned to Monroe and smiled.
Now I can’t be certain, but I believe I saw the whites in Tan’s wide-opened eyes before he scurried off to the kitchen to fetch some fortune cookies.
Chef Hans Han was halfway to the kitchen himself when Sue Jan hollered at him. “I’m not mad at you any more, Hans! In fact, I’ll expect you for dinner on Sunday night at 6:30 sharp, okay?”
He stopped short and pivoted around kinda slow. But before he could make an excuse, she went in for the kill. “That’s still your day off, isn’t it?”
I had to hand it to her. She always did her dating homework.
His shoulders bowed inward. “Yes, Miz Sue Jan.”
Monroe’s shoulders caved, too, but Sue Jan wasn’t looking at him.
He still likes her. Even after all these years. She’s the real reason he’s moving back here.
“Drop the Miz, will ya? Call me Sue Jan or just call me, if you know what I mean.” She winked.
When the swinging door of the kitchen opened, I saw the blur of someone handing something to Tan as he strode out toward the dining area. In a blink, the door swung shut.
Tan and Hans paused to exchange looks, and then they passed each other. The cookies were arranged on three little black trays on top of the bills and placed in front of each of us. My tray had a red pen on it, decorated with lotus blossoms. We thanked Tan again. He bowed and made a beeline for the kitchen.
Monroe reached for the bills. “Ladies, now it’s my turn to insist.”
Sue Jan and I looked at one another. She shrugged. “Thanks.”
“Yes, thanks. That’s so nice of you.”
Cheeks red with excitement, Sue Jan scrubbed her palms together and looked over at Monroe. “Get ready to open your fortune cookie. I’m feeling lucky.”
He sat up straight. Sue Jan dealt the cookies off the trays like cards and, with one swift blow of her fist, had crushed her cookie to smithereens right in the wrapper. She ripped it open and pulled out the tiny slip of rice paper.
“When dark clouds gather, your answers will rain down.”
She looked up, disappointed. “Now what is that supposed to mean?”
Monroe braved an explanation. “Maybe when there’s a storm, you’ll find the answers to some questions you have. I looked at the Weather Channel before I came here today, and they say we’re in for a real cats- and-dogs soaker tomorrow, maybe even tornadoes.”
Sue Jan stared ahead, and then squinted her eyes in thought. “Maybe,” she mouthed almost inaudibly. She looked at me. “What do you think, girl?”
“Answers are a whole lot better than cats and dogs falling on you,” I said.
Sue Jan busted into giggles. “You always have a snippy little something to say, Ita. Now cut the chatter and open yours up. I’m dying to hear what your cookie has to say.”
“Not me, Sue Jan,” I insisted. “Monroe is next. We’re going clockwise.”
“Oh, all right. Go ahead, Monroe!” she barked. Monroe fumbled with the wrapper and, in the process, heaved a heavy but quiet belch. I could tell that it hurt him to keep it inside, but Monroe was ever the gentleman. Sue Jan squinched her nose in disgust, but she didn’t say anything.
“True love is only a heartbeat away.”
When he finished reading it, Monroe looked up straight in Sue Jan’s face. That’s when I knew for sure that he still liked her, maybe even loved her.
Sue Jan was livid. “Now why didn’t I get that one? I think Monroe got my cookie and I got his. Let’s trade,” she ordered. Before he could react, she grabbed the fortune from his hand and thrust hers into his.
“Uh-uh, no fair trading fortunes. What you got is what you git. Give it back,” I ordered.
“But Lovita,” Sue Jan whinnied like a pitiful pony. “Give it back,” I repeated.
Though reluctant, she exchanged papers with him.
“Sue Jan, I don’t mind.”
“Uh-uh, Monroe,” I cautioned, holding up my index finger.
Sue Jan looked at me. “Okay, Miz Fortune Cookie Police, open yours.”
I smiled and decided to drive her a little further over the edge. I crinkled the wrapper, like I was trying to get it off but couldn’t. “They just make these wrappers impossible to open. Wait—I think I’m getting it. No.”
All I saw next was a flash of red claws grabbing the cookie, smashing it, ripping the wrapper off, and lifting out the tiny white paper.
“Here,” she snapped, holding out the cookie’s fortune between two lacquered nails.
Smiling, I shook my head, took the fortune, and looked down.
“Well?” she asked.
I felt my smile collapse and the blood drain from my face.
Concerned, Sue Jan asked, “Ita, what is it?” Tears brimming, I cried as I read,
“Your father was murdered. A man in a Stetson will tell you more tomorrow.”