Scottsdale, Arizona, may not be the liveliest place on earth, but it’s never been as dead as this. Hundreds of fans have gathered together for the first annual Old Town Zombie Walk, and Mel, Angie, and the Fairy Tale Cupcake crew are donning their best undead attire to sell some horror-themed desserts to the hungry hordes.
But the fun turns to fright when Mel finds a real dead body in a prop casket outside of the bakery’s truck—and the corpse looks alarmingly like a zombie of their own. Knowing that Joe, Angie’s brother and Mel’s former flame, has been working on a dangerous mob case, Mel worries that the murder is a hit gone wrong and that someone near and dear was the real target. To keep any of her friends from winding up six feet under, Mel will do whatever it takes to find a killer—no matter how scary things get...
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“He looks really good in there,” Angie DeLaura said. “Peaceful even.”
“You can’t say that about everyone,” Melanie Cooper agreed.
“It’s all about the casket,” Tate Harper said. “You want to choose a lining that complements your skin tone in the postmortem.”
Mel and Angie turned and gave him concerned looks.
“How could you possibly know that?” Mel asked.
“The funeral director at the mortuary told me,” he said. He threw an arm around Angie. “Since we’re engaged and all, maybe we should pick out a double-wide so we can spend eternity snuggling.”
Angie beamed at him and giggled. Then she kissed him. It did not maintain its PG-13 rating for more than a moment, and Mel felt her upchuck reflex kick in as she turned away.
She was happy for her best friends in their coupledom, really she was, but sometimes, like now, it was just gag worthy.
“Really you two, how about a little decorum, given the gravity of the situation?” she asked. She knew she sounded a bit snippy but honestly, some days they were just too much.
“Of course, you’re right,” Tate said. “Sorry.”
He and Angie untangled themselves from each other. He smoothed the front of his shirt and straightened his jacket while Angie fluffed her hair and shook out her skirt. Duly subdued, the three of them stood beside the casket that held their friend and employee Marty Zelaznik.
Marty looked particularly spiffy in his white dress shirt and his favorite bold blue tie. His suit was black, and Angie had tucked a blue pocket square into his breast pocket so that just the edge of it was visible. His features were relaxed and his bald head was as shiny as if it had been waxed to a high gloss.
“Hey.” Oscar Ruiz, a teen known as Oz, who worked alongside Marty in the bakery Fairy Tale Cupcakes that Mel, Angie, and Tate owned, joined the trio by the casket. “So, we’re going with an open lid, huh?”
“We think it’s for the best,” Mel said.
“His tie is crooked,” Angie said. “We should fix that.”
“Yeah, and his makeup is a little on the heavy side,” Tate said. “He has angry eyebrows.”
“Anyone have a handkerchief?” Mel asked. “A little spit will take care of that.”
At this, Marty’s eyes popped open and he sat up in his coffin and glared. “What am I, five? You are not spit shining me!”
“Ah!” Angie yelped and leaped back with her hand clutching her chest. “Gees, Marty, you scared me to death!”
“Nice one.” Tate laughed as he and Oz high-fived and knuckle-bumped Marty.
“What? Did you think I was really dead?” Marty asked, sounding outraged.
“No!” Angie snapped. “I thought you were napping. You had a little drool in the corner of your mouth.”
“I was, but that doesn’t mean you get to swab my decks,” Marty said as he shifted around and rubbed the dried spittle off his chin. “You know, I have to say it’s pretty comfy in here. I may have to look into putting a deposit on one of these for the future.”
“Way in the future,” Mel said.
Marty glanced at the four of them. “So when do we leave for the zombie walk? I want to catch a few more Z’s. Oh, and by the way, the undead look you’ve all got going, yeah, I don’t want to wake up to that ever again.”
Mel glanced at her friends. Tate and Angie were doing the undead bride and groom. In requisite tux and white wedding gown, they had topped off their look with gray makeup and faux partially rotted flesh. Tate had a fake knife lodged in his skull, while Angie had an axe sticking out of her back. They had already taken bogus wedding photos that Angie was seriously considering making their official wedding portrait.
Being single and thinking this was going to become a permanent state, Mel had decided to go as an undead chef complete with her toque, double-breasted white coat, and checkered pants. She wore her pleated hat back on her head to enhance the amazing latex scar Oz had adhered to her forehead. It was pretty badass.
Oz had decided to wear his chef whites as well, but had changed it up by making the side of his face appear to be rotting off. Every time Mel saw his fake putrid skin flap in the breeze, she had to resist the urge to peel it off.
As the body in the casket, Marty had chosen to be less undead than the rest of them. He was pasty pale and sunken eyed but that was about it. Mel suspected that because he was closer to his actual expiration date than the rest of them, dressing up as a dead man had less appeal for him. Overall, she had to admit, they were fabulously gruesome.
“Sorry, Marty, but no napping,” Mel said. She grabbed him by the elbow and hauled him out of the casket, which was sitting on a trailer on the back of the cupcake van. “We’ve got to load up the van and get over to the Civic Center Park and set up our station before the undead descend upon us.”
“Ooh, that sounded nice and grisly.” Angie shuddered.
“It did, didn’t it?” Mel said. She let go of Marty, ignoring the look of longing he gave the coffin. “Let’s move, people.”
She hurried to the back of the bakery, where she’d left her rolling cart loaded with boxes of cupcakes. She pushed it alongside the service window of the van and began to hand them off to Oz, who was inside.
“What flavors did you create for zombie cupcakes?” Tate asked.
“No new flavors,” Mel said. She flipped open the lid of one of the boxes to show off the cupcakes. “Just new names. In place of the usual suspects we have the Marshmallow Mummy—”
“Hey, you made the frosting look like bandages on a mummy’s head,” Oz said from the window. “Cool.”
“And it has a marshmallow filling,” Mel said. “We also have Vanilla Eyeballs, Strawberry Brains, and Dark Chocolate Demise just to round out the flavors.”
“The eyeball one is staring at me,” Marty said. “I don’t think I could eat that.”
“How about the brains?” Tate said. “How did you pipe the frosting in the shape of a pink brain?”
“Fine pastry tip,” Angie said. “It was fun.”
“Are those little candy coffins on the chocolate ones?” Oz asked. “I dig those. Get it?”
“Aw, man, that stunk worse than rotting flesh,” Marty said. He closed the lid on the box, took it from Mel, and handed it through the window. The others stared at him and he asked, “What? I’m just getting into the spirit of things.”
“Fine, but please keep the rotten flesh remarks to a minimum when selling the cupcakes,” Mel said.
“This from the woman who ruined a perfectly good cupcake by putting a bloodshot eyeball on it,” he said. He shook his head as if he couldn’t fathom what she’d been thinking.
Mel lowered her head to keep from laughing. She didn’t want to offend Marty, as he took his vanilla cupcakes very seriously.
“Melanie!” a voice called from the bakery. Mel glanced up to see her mother, Joyce Cooper, stride out the door. Joyce took three steps and stopped, putting her hand to her throat. “Oh, my!”
“We look amazing, right?” Mel asked. She spread her arms wide to include her entire crew.
“What are you?” Joyce asked.
“The baking dead,” Oz said from the van.
“Niiiice.” Tate nodded.
“Yeah, I’ll give you that one,” Marty agreed and exchanged a complicated handshake with Oz.
Mel approached her mother, who flinched only a little when she drew near. “Thanks for watching the bakery so we could work the zombie walk, Mom.”
“No problem,” Joyce said. “But, honey, really I just have to say that white foundation you have on, well, it’s really not terribly flattering, and now that you’re single, you really might want to consider a little blush and maybe a less prominent eye shadow.”
“I’m supposed to look like a zombie,” Mel said. “I’m pretty sure they don’t wear blush or eye shadow.”
“No,” Mel said.
Joyce heaved a beleaguered sigh, turned and walked back into the bakery.
“Really?” Mel said to Angie. “She’s worried about my pasty foundation, but she blithely ignores the fact that I have a gaping wound on my head.”
“She’s just looking out for you,” Angie said. “Maybe you’ll meet a nice undead lawyer at the zombie walk and she’ll stop worrying.”
“There’s only one lawyer I’m interested in,” Mel said. “And as far as I know he is alive and kicking.”
Angie gave her a half hug as if trying to bolster her spirits. The love of Mel’s life was Joe DeLaura, the middle of Angie’s seven older brothers. A few months ago, Joe had rejected Mel’s proposal of marriage even though he had already proposed to her and she’d said yes. As Mel explained to her mother, it was complicated.
The truth was that Mel had gotten cold feet at the “until death us do part” portion of the whole marriage package, but she had worked through it. Unfortunately, when she had gotten over her case of the wiggins and proposed to Joe, he’d just taken on the trial of a notorious mobster, who was known for wriggling off justice’s barbed hook by murdering anyone who tried to lock him up.
Joe had walked away from Mel to keep her from being a target. To Mel it still felt like rejection. She didn’t handle that sort of thing well and in the past three months had gained fifteen pounds from comfort eating. For that alone, she hoped Joe brought his mobster to justice.
“Come on, ladies, it’s ‘time to nut up or shut up,’” Tate said as he dropped an arm around Mel’s and Angie’s shoulders and began to herd them to the van.
“Zombieland,” Mel and Angie said, identifying the movie together.
The swapping of movie quotes was one of the foundations of their friendship. Mel and Tate had met first in middle school, but then Angie had come along and the three friends had spent weekends in Tate’s parents’ home theater, watching old movies and eating junk food. Ever since, they had played a game of stumping one another with movie quotes.
These days just the memory of those happier times made Mel glum. Why did it seem like everything was so difficult now?
“Chin up, Undead Chef,” Tate said. “We’re going to go sell cupcakes to the shambling masses and make an arm and a leg in profit.”
“Ba dum dum,” Angie made the sound of a drummer’s rim shot.
Mel rolled her eyes. “I guess that’s better than making a killing.”
“That’s the spirit,” Angie said with a laugh.
“Aw, come on. It’s a zombie walk finished off with an outdoor big screen showing of Night of the Living Dead,” Tate said. “How could we have anything but a good time?”
Because the cupcake van was packed to bursting with food, there was no way to wedge Angie’s poufy meringue of a dress into the back. She and Mel opted to walk the half block to the Civic Center, the park in Old Town Scottsdale where the zombie walk would end and the party would begin.
As Mel and Angie strolled through the bakery’s neighborhood, Mel hoped they didn’t scare any small children in their ghoulish getups. She did not want to be responsible for anyone’s nightmares.
As they passed the tattoo parlor on the corner, Mick the owner poked his head out of the doorway. Standing six feet four and covered in ink right to the top of his shaved head, which sported a rising phoenix, he was fearsome to behold.
“Well, look what crawled up from the netherworld,” he said. “And here I thought today was going to be ordinary.”
Mel glanced at the metal implants on Mick’s forehead that made him look like he was about to sprout horns. Did the man even know the meaning of the word ordinary?
“It’s my new look,” Angie said as she twirled, giving him an eyeful of her axe in the back. “What do you think?”
“Totally hot. If you weren’t spoken for, I’d ask you to the opera tonight.”
“You mean you’re going to miss the zombie walk?” Mel asked. She would have thought it was right up Mick’s alley, literally.
“Sorry,” Mick said with a shrug. “La Bohème is tonight. You know how I feel about my man Puccini.”
Mel nodded. Mick was an onion with a lot of layers. Despite his outwardly scary appearance, he was a season ticket holder to the Arizona Opera, and she knew from his weekly visits to the bakery that he had a weakness for coconut cupcakes.
“Oh, ew!” Mel turned around to see a young woman in a charcoal gray skirt and suit jacket over a black blouse and black tights, staring at her and Angie in revulsion. Frances Kelly, CPA, was new to the neighborhood as she had just rented office space above Mick’s tattoo parlor. Frances twirled her finger at them. “That is so wrong and on so many levels.”
“Frances, I’m hurt,” Angie said. “I can’t believe you don’t like my outfit.”
“Flirting with damnation is not my idea of a good time,” Frances said with a sniff. Frances had a very rigid religious code that as far as Mel had been able to determine meant no fun of any kind ever.
Mel rolled her eyes at Mick, who grinned in return.
“Come on, Frankie, lighten up,” he teased the young woman. “A zombie walk is good, clean fun. No harm, no foul.”
“It’s Frances, Mr. Donnelly; you would do well to remember that,” she snapped and jerked on the lapels of her jacket while hoisting her messenger bag up onto her shoulder. “And for your information, playing with Satan is always harmful. I’ll pray for you all.”
With that she strode past them to the stairs on the side of the building, which led to her office above. When they heard the door shut behind her, Angie turned to Mick with a perplexed expression.
“Explain to me how that”—she paused to point up—“ended up renting space from you.”
Mick shrugged. “Price and location. Besides, I think she likes me.”
“Oh, yeah, I saw a glimmer of that mixed in with her scathing contempt,” Mel said. “Not.”
Mick laughed. “Well, she’s not indifferent to me, so we have a starting place.”
Mel and Angie waved good-bye as Mick ducked back into his shop.
“Is it just me or is he completely deluded?” Angie asked.
“It’s not you,” Mel said. “For reasons unknown to me, men do not seem to suffer the same self-esteem issues as women do. I mean, have you ever noticed that old, fat bald guys tend to go for young, skinny, pretty girls? What’s up with that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they see themselves as they were when they were young,” Angie said.
“See? Deluded,” Mel said. “Not unlike our inked-up friend there thinking he stands a chance with the poster girl of prim and proper.”
“Agreed,” Angie said. “Let me just say if Tate ever throws me over because I’ve gained a few pounds or let my hair go gray while he did the same, why I’d . . .”
“What?” Mel prompted her.
“Lose the weight, dye my hair, find the youngest, hottest man in town, and make Tate regret his stupidity until he draws his last breath.”
“Wow,” Mel said. “You’re kind of scaring me right now.”
Angie gave her a sidelong glance as they crossed the street. “You are not the one who needs to be scared.”
As they entered the park, Mel could see other vendors setting up their booths for the zombie walk. She was relieved that most of them had dressed up as well, making her feel much less conspicuous than she had under Frances’s censorious gaze.
It was a perfect March day in Arizona with a warm sun and a cool breeze, making it the sort of day that demanded it be spent outside.
“Oh, check them out.” Angie nudged Mel with her elbow and pointed to a gruesome twosome.
Mel felt her jaw drop. The woman was dressed like a dominatrix, and she led her zombie man around by a chain around his neck.
“I thought this was a family event,” she said.
Angie shrugged. They watched as the man moaned and shambled past them while the woman strutted on stiletto boots that went all the way up to mid-thigh. She smacked a riding crop against her thigh as if just itching to use it.
“That’s fifty shades of seriously wrong,” Mel said and Angie laughed.
“Halt!” A man in a black T-shirt with a bright yellow star on it, black fatigues, and black combat boots jumped in front of them. He assumed a fighter stance and was carrying what looked like a very large semiautomatic weapon.
Mel jumped. “What? What did we do?”
“I’m with the Department of Zombie Defense,” the man barked. “And you look undead to me.”
“Who? Us?” Angie asked. She looked like she was trying not to laugh as she played along. “No, no, we’re very much alive.”
“Yep, we have all of our body parts,” Mel said. “See?”
She and Angie shook their arms and legs to prove that all their parts were still attached.
The man gave them a dubious look. “All right. I’ll let you pass this time, but you may want to get some sun. You’re looking a little pale.”
“Will do,” Mel promised. She and Angie hurried around him to go meet the cupcake van, which was slowly rolling towards them.
“And probably you should get that axe in your back looked at,” the guy yelled.
Angie snorted. “Oh, yeah, this is going to be fun.”
Two zombie cheerleaders scuffled past them with their pom-poms hanging low.
Mel grinned. “I think we need to work on our shamble.”
“Agreed,” Angie said. She pulled her veil over her face and then limp/shuffled towards the cupcake van, which had just pulled into its designated space near the amphitheater.
Tate leaned out the driver’s window and let out a wolf whistle, which made Angie giggle.
“There was absolutely nothing zombie sounding about that,” Mel said.
“Sorry,” Angie said. “He’s just so cute.”
Mel looked at Tate, with the knife through his skull dripping fake blood all over his collar and down his shirtfront. He’d put in a pair of fake rotten teeth, and his makeup made his eyes appear sunken and his features gaunt.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were drunk,” Mel said.
“I’m worse than that,” Angie laughed as they approached the van. “I’m in love.”
Mel studied her friend. Her eyes were bright, her smile wide, and even under her ghoulish foundation, she glowed. Yep, Angie had it bad.
“Have you two set a date yet?” Mel asked as Tate stepped out of the van to join them.
“Not yet,” Angie said. “But don’t you worry; as my maid of honor you’ll be the first to know.”
“Hold the phone,” Tate said. “Mel can’t be your maid of honor. She’s my best man, well, woman. Yeah, that’s right. She’s my best wo-man.”
“Um,” Mel hummed as she glanced between them. Once they’d become a couple, she had thought she’d never have to choose between them unless they broke up, a thought she refused to let enter her head for fear she’d never sleep again.
“No, I have dibs on Mel,” Angie said. “She’s my best friend.”
“She’s my best friend, too,” Tate protested. “I always figured when I tied the knot, she’d be at my side.”
“Well, so did I,” Angie said.
“Come to think of it, I thought you’d be there, too, as a groomsman, but that was before I fell in love with you.”
“You mean before you noticed me.” Angie glowered. Gone were the joyous sparkles from her eyes, replaced with sizzling lasers of seriously not happy.
“Yeah, I always figured the three of us would rock matching tuxes, and the bachelor party would be the stuff of legends, maybe Vegas. You know, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” he said.
“Not helping,” Mel whispered as she leaned towards Tate. He glanced at her and then at Angie, who looked like she might pull the axe out of her back and whack him on the head with it.
“Who do you want to stand up for, Mel?” Angie asked. “Me or Tate?”
“Oh, no.” Mel shook her head and raised her hands. “I’m Switzerland. I am not stepping into the middle of this. It will be an honor to stand up for either of you, but that’s for you two to decide, not me.”
Angie glared at Tate and crossed her arms over her chest. He scowled back. Neither one of them looked like they were going to budge, until Oz poked his head out of the service window of the van and shouted, “Hey, how about a little help here?”
Together, Tate and Angie stomped towards the van.
“What’s going on with those two?” Marty asked as he joined her.
“A stand-up standoff,” Mel said.
“Huh?” Marty asked. “What the heck does that mean?”
“It means, ‘Houston, we have a problem,’” Mel said.
“Apollo 13,” Marty said.
Mel looked at him.
“What?” he asked. “I don’t watch movies? Anyway, it’s wrong.”
“What’s wrong?” Mel asked.
“The quote,” Marty said. “I was older than you are now in 1970 when Apollo 13 launched and what Jack Swigert, the pilot, really said was, ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem here.’”
Mel tried to wrap her head around the fact that Marty had been almost forty in 1970. She couldn’t make it compute. The world events he’d seen and the things he’d done in his lifetime boggled her mind.
“Wow,” she said, finally. “You’re pretty smart for an undead guy.”
Marty shrugged. “Meh. You pick stuff up along the way, you know, if you’re paying attention.”
“Nice outfit, princess.”
Mel and Marty spun around to see Olivia Puckett standing there with her arms crossed over her chest, not an easy feat with a knife sticking out of her ribs, and a frown marring her zombified features. Like Mel, she had gone with the undead chef thing, which did not make Mel happy for a variety of reasons—not the least of which was that Olivia’s fake blood looked more real than Mel’s. Annoying.
Mel glared. Olivia Puckett was the owner of Confections, a rival bakery, and had been the bane of Mel’s existence since the day she opened her shop. Their enmity had gotten pretty heated right up until Marty had decided to venture into the online dating world and had inadvertently hooked up with Olivia.
Mel told herself that this was one of those the-universe-works-in-mysterious-ways sort of situations, but it still felt like a cosmic ass kicking, which was usually what she wanted to do to Olivia.
The relationship was complicated for Mel because she was afraid if Marty were forced to choose between working at Fairy Tale Cupcakes and his girlfriend, he’d choose the girlfriend. Losing Marty to Olivia would be even worse than losing a bake-off, and so Mel was forced to play nice, but it was an effort.
“I could say the same to you,” Mel said. She crossed her arms over her chest, mimicking Olivia’s stance. “You make an okay zombie chef.”
“Okay?” Olivia bugged her eyes at her. “I am so much better than okay. And who are you to judge since you didn’t even bother to dress up.”
“Why you—” Mel took two steps towards her nemesis, when she felt someone grab her arm and spin her around.
“All rightie then, all kidding aside,” Marty wheezed, looking slightly panicked at the catfight that was about to ensue. “Mel, I think they need you at the cupcake van. Liv, how about you show me your setup? I’d like to see where my girl will be during the shindig.”
“Your girl?” Olivia tittered and blushed. “Oh, Martin, you are a charmer.”
It took everything Mel had to keep her eyes from rolling back into her head. Then again, given that she was at a zombie walk, it was a look that would work, and she could always say it was part of her shtick.
She let her eyeballs roll. Sadly, the effect was wasted on Marty as he had linked arms with Olivia and was now strolling through the undead vendors over to her spot in the festivities. Mel was just relieved that it was not right next to theirs. She didn’t think Angie would manage her temper near as well as Mel had.
She circled the van and glanced in the back door to see how things were going between Tate and Angie. Judging by the way Angie was keeping her axe, rather her back, to him, Mel assumed not well.
“We need to put the eyeball cupcakes where people can see them,” Oz said. He was fussing with the display case beside the service window. Both Tate and Angie were ignoring him. “Hey! A little help here, please.”
“Oh, I’d love to help but I’m sure Tate already has dibs on the eyeball cupcakes,” Angie said.
“Now is that nice?” Tate asked.
“Just as nice as you claiming my best friend for your own,” Angie said.
Mel backed away from the truck. She was not going in there until they resolved their issue. She supposed it was lame of her to abandon Oz, but since they were fighting about her, she felt her presence would only make things worse.
She spied their chalkboard sandwich board. Angie had doodled their zombie specialties on the board with prices. Mel lugged it out to the front of the van and propped it up where she figured it would be most visible.
She wanted to wheel the coffin out front, too, as she figured it would give the undead a nice photo op and bring them in to buy cupcakes. She knew she wasn’t strong enough to carry the coffin herself, but she really didn’t want to get into the bride and groom scuffle again.
She glanced up to see if there were any festival workers that she could ask for help. Then again, how would she know who was working the zombie walk if they were all dressed as zombies?
“Yo, Mel, over here!”
Mel turned at the sound of her name. She squinted at the crowd, trying to see who was calling her. It took her a few seconds to recognize the two zombies shambling towards her. Al DeLaura, who was dressed as a redneck zombie complete with John Deere cap and grubby white tank top, and Paulie DeLaura, who was wearing a torn suit with one sleeve empty, which made perfect sense when Mel realized he was carrying his “missing” limb in his other hand. Ew.
“Al, Paulie,” she greeted them as she hugged them.
Paulie patted her on the head with his fake arm, and she straightened her toque and frowned at him. “Stop that.”
He grinned, showing some blacked-out teeth.
“Do I look as awful as you two?” she asked.
“No one looks as gruesome as me,” Al declared. “There’s a cash prize for best zombie outfit, and I’m betting on Bubba the redneck zombie to bring it home for me.”
“Since you’re here, how about a favor?” Mel asked. The brothers nodded and Mel gestured for them to follow her.
When they rounded the cupcake van and saw the coffin, they both went wide-eyed.
“That’s bringing it to all new levels,” Paulie said in approval.
“Agreed,” Al said. He ran his hand over the blue satin lining. “It’s so plush.”
“Can you help me wheel it to the front?” Mel asked. “I want to prop it up to help lure the zombies in.”
“Great idea,” Al said. “Where’d you get it?”
“Dom knew a guy,” she said. The brothers nodded. Among the seven DeLaura brothers, Dom, Sal, Ray, Joe, Paulie, Tony, and Al, they always “knew a guy.” Mel knew Joe kept tabs on his brothers and their flirtations with breaking the law. Although some of the DeLauras bent the rules a bit, for the most part they stayed within the law, mostly out of respect for Joe since he was a county attorney and all.
When Mel went to grab a side of the coffin and help, Paulie and Al shooed her away, making it clear that they had it under control. Paulie popped out his real arm and handed her the fake to hold for him. Ish!
Mel followed them, directing them to the spot where the coffin would get the most traffic. They locked the wheels on the little trailer, keeping the coffin safely propped up.
“Is it stable enough?” Mel asked. “Marty is going to hang out in it and let people take pictures in it.”
“Let me try,” Paulie said. He took his fake arm back and climbed into the coffin. He rested against the satin, clutching his fake arm to his chest. “How do I look?”
“Horrible,” Al said. He screwed up his ghoulish features with a look of distaste. Then he reached forward and slammed the door shut on the coffin.
“HEY!” Paulie shouted from inside, making it muffled but still discernable. The banging coming from inside started slow but quickly became panicked.
Mel shot Al a reproving look before she lifted the lid on the coffin. Paulie came staggering out and fell to his knees. His free hand was clutching his throat and he was gasping for air.
“I can’t breathe,” he wheezed.
“Oh, Paulie, are you okay?” Mel asked and she hunkered beside him. “That was not nice, Al. You scared your brother half to death.”
Al had the grace to look slightly abashed and he hung his head and mumbled, “Sorry.”
Paulie snapped up straight. “I was not scared, not even a little. It was the lack of oxygen.”
“Yeah, right,” Al said. He pushed his John Deere cap back on his head and gave his brother a skeptical look.
“It was!” Paulie insisted.
The two looked ready to brawl so Mel figured a change of topic was in order.
“Have either of you heard from Joe?” she asked.
If she’d hit them with a spray of ice water, she was pretty sure they wouldn’t have clenched up as much as they did at the name of the brother who had ripped her heart out.
They exchanged a worried look and Al said, “Nope, haven’t seen him.”
“Me neither,” Paulie said. He waved his fake arm at Mel as if to emphasize his words. “And you need not to be asking about him.”
“Why not?” Mel asked. “His trial is in all of the papers and on the news. It’s not like I can avoid it.”
“Well, you need to try,” Al said.
“Yes, Joe was very clear that we need to keep you safe,” Paulie said. “And to do that, we shouldn’t talk about him with you at all ever.”
“Oh, he said that, did he?” Mel asked.
Al reached over and snatched Paulie’s fake arm and then whacked him over the head with it.
“You are an idiot,” Al said. Then he handed the arm back.
“Ouch! What did I say?” Paulie asked.
“You just admitted that you’ve been in contact with him,” Mel said. “Now spill. When did you see him? What did he say? How does he look? Is he all right?”
The brothers exchanged another look, and she was afraid they were going to clam up on her. She was desperate for news about Joe, as he’d cut ties with everyone at the bakery in order to keep them safe from the mobster case he was presently working on. It had been an excruciating few months for Mel, and she wasn’t about to let the brothers hold out on her now.
“Please,” she said. She gave them her best sad puppy look. “Please just tell me how he is.”
Paulie opened his mouth and then closed it. He didn’t know what to say and it showed.
Mel tried to juice up her eyes a little. It wasn’t hard to do given how much she’d missed Joe over the past few months. In fact, the sob that made her throat constrict was barely manufactured at all.
“Please . . .” she said.
Al groaned and Paulie nodded. She knew she had them.
“Brains! Brains! Brains!” Chanting voices interrupted Mel’s plea and she was shoved back when one particularly large zombie pushed her aside to get to the cupcake van. She was separated from Paulie and Al as the horde of zombies shambled forward.
“Sorry, Mel, gotta go,” Al cried as he and Paulie dove into the horde, hiding from her.
Mel glanced over her shoulder to see that the park was filling up with the undead. It appeared the walk was over and the festival had begun.
Marty came shuffling back to the van, not that much of an act for him, and took up his post beside the coffin.
“I got this,” he said as he climbed back into the coffin.
When a group of teen zombies walked by, Marty reached out with a curled hand and grabbed one on the shoulder. The adolescent boy let out a yelp, which his friends thought was hilarious. Marty gestured for the youth to take his spot and prank the next group that came along. The teen jumped at the chance. Seeing that Marty had the front under control, Mel went back to stalking the brothers.
If Al and Paulie thought they had escaped her, they were so very wrong. Mel circled the cupcake van where Tate, Angie, and Oz were doling out chocolate coffins, mummies, eyeballs, and brains. Judging by the crowd, it appeared even zombies would forgo brains for cupcakes. Good to know, if there ever was a true zombie apocalypse.
She figured Paulie and Al had decided to blend with the crowd in an effort to hide from her. But she knew them too well. The lure of buttercream was their downfall, and sure enough, she found the two brothers hunkered down behind the van’s engine, trying to get Angie’s attention so they could score some cupcakes. Did they really think this wasn’t the first place Mel would look for them? Honestly, did they not know her at all?
Mel strode forward and braced an arm on each side of the zombie brothers. “All right, you two, start talking.”
Al hung his head while Paulie let out a yip of fright.
“Mel, we can’t,” Al said. “First, Joe would kill us. Second, it really is too dangerous for you to have any contact with him. We love you like a sister; we can’t risk anything happening to you.”
“Save it,” Mel said. “If you’ve seen him and nothing has happened to any of you, then I’ll be fine, too.”
“Now we haven’t actually seen him,” Paulie said. “He won’t see any of us. He says it’s too dangerous.”
“Then how have you been in contact with him?” Mel asked. The brothers were quiet. “Tony rigged something, didn’t he?”
Al pursed his lips and began to whistle while studiously not looking at her. Paulie examined his fake arm as if he were a surgeon trying to figure out how to reattach it.
“Angie!” Mel yelled.
Angie poked her head out of the passenger side window of the front of the van. “Hey, there you are, we were wondering where you went. We could use a hand in here, you know.”
Paulie held up his fake arm. “Here you go, Sis.”
“You’ve been waiting for someone to open that door all day, haven’t you?” Al asked.
Paulie nodded and grinned. “I can’t believe she said that. It was beautiful.”
“I need two chocolate coffins,” Mel said. “Stat.”
Angie frowned. “Why?”
“I need to loosen some lips,” Mel said.
Angie looked back at her brothers. Her eyes narrowed and she disappeared back into the van. Instead of handing them through the window, Angie climbed out the driver’s side door and walked around.
“Chocolate cake with chunks of chocolate mixed into the batter, a dark chocolate buttercream with a milk chocolate coffin perched on top,” Angie said as she studied the two cupcakes in her hands. “I think we should rename these the Rest in Peace cupcakes.”
“Oh, I like that,” Mel said. “Did you know that chocolate releases endorphins? Studies show that even the smell of it makes you feel better.”
She and Angie both took a sniff of the cupcakes and sighed.
Al and Paulie looked as if they’d taken a punch to the gut.
“Too bad we don’t know anyone with a weakness for chocolate,” Mel said.
“Yeah, it’s a shame,” Angie agreed. “I’m sure they’d really enjoy these.”
“Hey, now, you’re not playing fair,” Paulie protested. “We took a brothers’ oath, a vow that we can’t break. You have to respect that.”
“You’re right,” Mel said. “You should put those back, Angie.”
“Wah,” Paulie sniveled. “Come on, have a heart. It’s not our fault we can’t tell you that Tony has rigged up the bakery so Joe can monitor—”
“You did not just say that!” Al interrupted.
“Say what?” Paulie asked. Mel held out the cupcake to him, and his eyes lit up as he chomped a bite of cake and frosting. “Oh, man, this is your best cupcake yet.”
“Details,” Angie said. She waved the cupcake under Al’s nose. “We need details.”
“All right, all right,” Al said. “Paulie pretty much blabbed it all out anyway. Tony rigged up a camera system at the bakery so that the brothers could communicate with Joe and he could keep an eye on who came and went at the bakery in case there was anyone suspicious.”
“Suspicious how?” Mel asked.
“Like someone sent to do a hit,” Al said.
He grabbed the cupcake from Angie and took a bite. Mel and Angie exchanged a look, and Mel wondered if she’d just gone as pale as Angie had.
“What do you mean ‘sent to do a hit’?” Angie asked.
Al looked at her while he chewed. “What do you think I mean?”
“What about Mom and Dad and the rest of the family?” she asked. “Is he having all of us watched?”
“Maybe,” Paulie said, which meant yes. “Oh, Joe did say that you make an adorable zombie chef, Mel, really cute.”
For a moment Mel felt the same schoolgirl gushy mushy feeling inside that she always felt when Joe DeLaura’s name came up in conversation. Then like a soap bubble it popped.
“Explain to me how this spying on me works exactly,” she said.
Al and Paulie shook their heads.
“We can’t,” Paulie protested. “Joe would kill us. Dead.”
“Deader than dead,” Al said.
“That’s nothing compared to what I’ll do if you don’t tell us,” Angie said.
“What could you do?” Al scoffed.
Angie took her cell phone out of the bodice of her dress and opened the images file. She tossed her veil back from her face as she studied the small screen. Finally, she found what she was looking for and she opened the picture, making it bigger.
Mel glanced over her shoulder and bust into a belly laugh. “Is that. . .? Oh, wow, that’s hilarious.”
“So, help me, Alfonso DeLaura, you tell us how the system works, or I go live on your social media files and share this picture of you with the world.”
“What picture?” Al asked.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Jenn McKinlay’s New York Times Bestselling Cupcake Bakery Mysteries
“You’re in for a real treat with Jenn McKinlay’s Cupcake Bakery Mystery. I gobbled it right up.”—Julie Hyzy, New York Times bestselling author of the White House Chef Mysteries
“Better than icing on the tastiest cupcake.”—Avery Aames, Agatha Award-winning author of the Cheese Shop mysteries
“[McKinlay’s] characters are delicious, and the dash of romance is just the icing on the cake.”—Sheila Connolly, New York Times bestselling author of An Early Wake
“Jenn McKinlay delivers all the ingredients for a winning read. Frost me another!”—Cleo Coyle, New York Times bestselling author of the Coffeehouse Mysteries
“Jenn McKinlay has baked a sweet read.”—Krista Davis, New York Times bestselling author of the Domestic Diva Mysteries
“Like a great fairytale, McKinlay transports readers into the world of cupcakes and all things sweet and frosted, minus the calories. Although…there are some pretty yummy recipes at the end.”—AnnArbor.com
“A tender cozy full of warm and likable characters and a refreshingly sympathetic murder victim. Readers will look forward to more of McKinlay’s tasty concoctions.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)