"What do you think, Ruby?"
"I'm thinking pimento cheese and tuna fish disguised as a sushi roll doesn't do it for me, Essie Sue."
I use my cocktail napkin to remove all traces of the inedible faux sushi she's just forced through my lips with her Verry Berry talons.
"But the chef says he'll name it the Essie Sue Roll in honor of our booking the hotel party rooms."
"Maybe that should tell you something about how desperate he is for business." Milt Aboud's low growl is barely audible in the background, but Essie Sue hears it.
"He's not desperate at all -- you know this hotel is the best convention site in Austin. In fact, I had to talk the manager into squeezing our Temple Rita reunion group into the hotel at the same time they're hosting a world-famous convention. This is the final menu-tasting session -- the others didn't go well."
Essie Sue doesn't miss the look Milt gives me.
"You're just jealous, Milt, because you and Ruby aren't getting this banquet catering job for The Hot Bagel. You're already catering the closing Donor Breakfast at the temple -- what more do you want?"
"Oh, we're desperate, too," Milt says, "sales have been down all year. And you can bet your Lexus I wouldn't have driven all the way up from Eternal to Austin for reasons other than financial."
Milt's my working partner in our bakery, The Hot Bagel, and not exactly a fan of Essie Sue's, although in emergencies, I notice she always wants his opinion. Not that she listens. She's been asking and not taking my own advice for years, ever since my late husband Stu came to Eternal as rabbi of Temple Rita. Yes, Rita. Essie Sue was head of the Rabbinical Selection Committee at the time, and in a masterful stroke of self-perpetuation, engineered her own election as Permanent Chair of the Temple Board a few years ago.
The three of us, Milt, Essie Sue, and I are sitting at a lone folding table under a huge crystal chandelier, sampling food served by what looks like the entire hotel catering staff. Essie Sue's bites are always minuscule, in pursuit of perpetual thinness, which she's already attained six times over. Her Tawny Blonde page boy of years past -- way past -- has flipped outward and upward this year in the latest svelte cut, but still remains as tawny and moussed as ever.
This room could easily hold several hundred people, which is one reason I'm wondering why our event, planned for a mere fraction of that number, is being given such attention. Maybe the hotel is desperate, but the more obvious answer is that the banquet manager, like the rest of us, succumbed to Essie Sue's Godfather treatment.
"I told them cheap but elegant," Essie Sue informs us as we're served something called Imitation Caviar, which more than proves the point, with the emphasis on cheap. Milt shifts in his chair in an effort to escape, but before he can get up, an assistant hotel manager makes an appearance.
"I've brought along my own caterer from Eternal," Essie Sue tells the manager, "and he's quite taken with your spread."
"Yeah, taken ill," Milt says in my ear, and I kick him to behave. We honestly can't afford not to get at least part of this reunion for The Hot Bagel. What my interest in our partnership earns isn't enough to support me, and it's rough going even with my second job as a computer consultant.
Fortunately, the manager doesn't notice my boot under the table. He's more interested in the bookings.
"What's your latest count on the hotel guests? And it's for what special occasion, Mrs. Margolis...?"
Essie Sue sticks an engraved invitation in his face by way of explanation, though in my opinion, it looks more like a summons to a séance than to a reunion:
Come One, Come Some
You Are Cordially Invited to
La Dolce Vita at Temple Rita --
Homecoming for the Long-Gone
Join This Exciting Reunion of Those Who Have
Departed from Our Beloved Eternal, Texas, and
Have Gone on to Greener Pastures
(Psalm 23: He maketh me to lie down in green pastures...)
What Have You Made of Yourself?
Share Your Lives, and Especially Your Bounty with the Congregation That Shaped What You Are Today.
Our Founding Fenstermeister Family Will Be Honored Along with the Lifetime Chairwoman of the Board, Mrs. Essie Sue Margolis.
Major Donor Reception Planned for the More Fortunate.
(Dates, places, and events on enclosed sheet)
"So this is a reunion of your temple in Eternal?"
"Odd, isn't it," I say, unable to resist pointing out one more time that the idea of having a small-town congregational reunion at a fancy Austin hotel is beyond ludicrous.
"Don't pay any attention to Ruby," Essie Sue says. "She has no imagination. As a manager of a sophisticated establishment, you'll have no trouble understanding that if one wants to attract the affluent, one must give them an elegant setting. Why offer them accommodations in Eternal when they can go four-star in Austin?"
"Maybe because they're supposed to be reuniting in their own hometown?" Milt does get to his feet this time.
"What's all this with the affluent?" I ask. "How about the great unwashed, like most of us at Temple Rita? It's our reunion, too."
"You weren't even confirmed at Temple, Ruby -- the reunion's really not for you. You're embarrassing the manager."
I leap up from the chair myself this time, but not before the assistant manager, who knows a getaway line when he hears one, starts making his excuses.
"So before you go," Milt asks him, "you say your hotel is booked for the same time with another gathering?"
"Fully booked. With overflow. Ordinarily, you wouldn't have a chance this week. Unfortunately, Mrs. Margolis produced a reservation for your group made three years ago and confirmed in the previous manager's files."
"You made this reservation three years ago, Essie Sue?" I ask.
"Right after that mini reunion of my confirmation class," she says. "I figured we might want to expand the reunion next time and make a fund-raiser out of it, and that's exactly what developed."
Aside from the fact that she makes a fund-raiser out of everything, she's nothing if not persistent.
"I told Mrs. Margolis we'd give her a much better deal if she'd change the date, and your group would find a quiet weekend to be more enjoyable," the manager says, "but she wants this one -- less than a week from today."
"And what's the group that's booked with ours?" I ask.
"It's KillerCon, an international mystery convention."
I'm excited. Maybe Josie Joaquin's here.
"I have a friend from high school who's a mystery writer," I say, "and a well-known one. She may be here."
"Well, we have over fifteen hundred registrants. We're quite honored that they chose Austin and our hotel in the heart of downtown -- it shows what important projects we can take on these days. Truly amazing."
The man has no idea.
Copyright © 2004 by Sharon Kahn
A Ruby, the Rabbi's Wife Mystery
Which Big Giver Stole the Chopped Liver?
A Ruby, the Rabbi's Wife Mystery
The reunioners are gathering at a ritzy hotel in nearby Austin to celebrate the beloved temple's history and to salute its two most important -- or is it self-important -- members: Freddie Fenstermeister, grand-nephew of Miss Rita Fenstermeister, who gave the money to establish the temple, and the temple's current leading lady, Essie Sue herself.
Ruby Rothman, whose late husband Stu was the Temple Rita rabbi, has been roped into helping Essie Sue with some of the plans. Big mistake. An Essie Sue event is sure to be full of surprises, not all of them pleasant.
Cheap but elegant is Essie Sue's motto, with an emphasis on "cheap." To save money, Essie Sue has made her own pièce de résistance -- a chopped liver mold in the shape of Texas. Imagine her shock when the mold disappears from the hors d'oeuvres table and is replaced by a body on ice.
Is the unfortunate corpse related to one of the out-of-town reunioners, or is he a complete stranger who just wandered into the Temple Rita festivities? Who had a reason to wish him dead?
With some unexpected help from Rabbi Kevin Kapstein, and from police lieutenant Paul Lundy, Ruby's soon on the trail of a killer who's also a chopped liver thief.
Meanwhile, back home in Eternal, Ruby's dog Oy Vey must learn to live with new feline friend Chutzpah, and Ruby must decide which of two special men has a place in her heart.
Rich with humor and suspense and with deep insights into the friendships and foibles of small-town congregational life, Which Big Giver Stole the Chopped Liver? is the best yet in this captivating mystery series from one of crime fiction's most entertaining storytellers.