Stitch, Bake, Die! (An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery)
by Lois Winston
About Stitch, Bake, Die
Stitch, Bake, Die! (An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery)
10th in Series
Setting – New Jersey
Independently Published (October 4, 2021)
Print length : 218 pages
ASIN : B09D5VZFRX
With massive debt, a communist mother-in-law, a Shakespeare-quoting parrot, and a photojournalist boyfriend who may or may not be a spy, crafts editor Anastasia Pollack already juggles too much in her life. So she’s not thrilled when her magazine volunteers her to present workshops and judge a needlework contest at the inaugural conference of the NJ chapter of the Stitch and Bake Society, a national organization of retired professional women. At least her best friend and cooking editor Cloris McWerther has also been roped into similar duties for the culinary side of the 3-day event taking place on the grounds of the exclusive Beckwith Chateau Country Club.
Marlene Beckwith, wife of the multi-millionaire pharmaceutical magnate and country club owner, is both the chapter president and conference chairperson. The only thing greater than her ego is her sense of entitlement. She hates to lose at anything and fully expects to win both the needlework and baking competitions.
When Anastasia and Cloris arrive at the conference, they discover cash bribes in their registration packets. The Society members, few of whom are fans of Marlene, stick up for the accused and instead suggest that Marlene orchestrated the bribes to eliminate her stiffest competition.
The next morning when Marlene is found dead, Anastasia questions whether she really died peacefully in her sleep. After Marlene’s husband immediately has her cremated, Anastasia once again finds herself back in reluctant amateur sleuth mode.
With the help of Cloris, Marlene’s personal assistant Rhetta, and a laptop someone will stop at nothing to find, Anastasia soon unravels evidence of insurance scams, medical fraud, an opioid ring, long-buried family secrets, and too many possible suspects. And that’s before she not only stumbles over the body of yet another member of the Stitch and Bake Society but also finds Rhetta unconscious.
Can Anastasia piece together the various clues before she becomes the killer’s next target?
Crafting tips included.
Excerpt Stitch, Bake, Die!
An Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery
© 2021 Lois Winston
“Solve any murders over the weekend?”
Cloris McWerther, AKA American Woman food editor and my best friend, entered the break room as I helped myself to a cup of coffee, my second since arriving at the office half an hour ago. It was one of those mornings. I scowled into my coffee cup. “Monday morning gallows humor? Definitely not appreciated, especially today.”
“Uh-oh! Do tell.”
I glanced at the large bakery box she clutched in her hands. “Only if you’re about to bribe me. And it better include chocolate.”
She quirked an eyebrow. “Or?”
“I refuse to take responsible for my actions.”
Cloris shoved the box into my outstretched arms. “In that case, take the entire dozen. I don’t want to be charged with accessory to whatever crime you’re contemplating this morning. Or worse yet, wind up your victim.”
“Smart woman.” I placed the box on the table and lifted the lid to reveal twelve chocolate éclairs. I grabbed one and took a huge bite. An explosion of raspberry pastry cream mamboed around my mouth, mingling with chocolate ganache and sending my taste buds into gastronomic bliss.
After rinsing the mouthful down with a swig of coffee, I said, “I’m nominating these for a Nobel Peace Prize.”
“I don’t think they give Nobels for food,” said Cloris, helping herself to an éclair.
“Well, they should. If given a choice between these and war, peace would reign supreme.”
Cloris consumed the éclair and helped herself to another. I forced myself to exert massive self-control as I stared longingly at the remaining nine éclairs. Superior metabolism is Cloris’s superpower. No matter what she eats, she remains a Size Two. Me? I probably gained three pounds staring into the box.
“So?” she asked.
I nibbled at the remainder of the éclair in my hand. Best to make the pleasure last as long as possible. “My Lucille reprieve ended yesterday. She’s back home.”
Cloris frowned as she pushed the bakery box toward me. “When dealing with the mother-in-law from Hades, one éclair is never enough.”
I definitely deserved to lose myself in éclair heaven, but with a courage I normally lacked, I shook my head and slid the box back to her. If I caved, I’d regret my weakness when I stepped on the bathroom scale tomorrow morning. Besides, with a wedding on the horizon, I should be eating escarole, not éclairs.
“Are we talking general Lucille belligerence, or something specific?”
“No point boring you with details. You’ve heard it all before in one form or another. Let’s just say the reprieve was far too short, and she spent yesterday making up for lost time.”
When my husband, Karl Marx Pollack, so named due to his mother’s communist convictions, died suddenly in Las Vegas a little more than a year ago, Lucille Pollack became my permanent houseguest and albatross—along with her French bulldog Manifesto. The dog’s ill-tempered disposition, most likely the result of his political moniker. I’ve yet to meet a commie with a pleasant personality, and thanks to my mother-in-law, I’ve met far too many.
If I could, I’d set Lucille up in an assisted-living facility. Unfortunately, thanks to a well-hidden gambling addiction, Karl left me in debt greater than the GNP of the average Third World nation.
My name is Anastasia Pollack. I’m a widowed mother of two teenage boys, a women’s magazine crafts editor, caretaker to a Shakespeare-quoting parrot, and ever since Karl’s death, a previous member of the middle class and reluctant amateur sleuth. Don’t ask me how many dead bodies I’ve stumbled across. I’ve lost count. Seriously.
Lucille had spent the last three weeks convalescing at a rehab center, the result of a car accident that saw the demise of a misguided assassin. Said assassin had taken it upon herself to eliminate several people she deemed problematic to me and my family, including my fiancé’s father, my mother’s ex-husband, and a boorish misogynist. We believe Lucille was her next intended target.
Cloris left the remaining sinful confections in the break room for nine lucky coworkers. Coffee cups in hand, we headed down the corridor to our cubicles, which lay across the hall from one another. Before we arrived, we heard our names called from behind.
We turned to find the ever-efficient Kim O’Hara, our editorial director’s assistant, waving to us. As usual, she held a stack of file folders cradled in one arm, her phone clutched in her other hand as she held it overhead and continued waving. A curtain of straight auburn hair whipped around her face as she race-walked toward us, Manolo Blahnik’s clicking a staccato beat along the terrazzo floor.
Half-Chinese, half-Irish, Kim had lucked out in the gene lottery, inheriting the best features from both branches of her family tree, but unlike our self-absorbed fashion editor, Kim was as sweet as she was gorgeous. When she caught up to us, she said, “Naomi wants to see you both, ASAP.”
“About?” I asked, fighting back the trepidation growing inside me. Although the best of friends, Cloris’s work and mine rarely overlapped, and with our monthly staff meeting still two weeks away, we certainly hadn’t forgotten to show up for an issue planning session. For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine why Naomi wanted to see both of us at the same time unless we were about to be fired.
Rumors concerning major editorial changes constantly whipped around the office at 5G speed. We’d had several upheavals since the hostile takeover that had absorbed us into the Trimedia a few years ago. With so many magazines on life-support, I immediately expected the worst. I glanced at Cloris and saw the same thought reflected in her eyes.
Kim merely smiled cryptically as she shrugged and said, “You’ll have to ask Naomi.”
“Spoken like a true acolyte,” said Cloris.
Kim chuckled as she zipped past us on her way to carry out her next task.
“Never let it be said that Kim allows any moss to grow under her designer stilettos,” I said, amazed at her ability to stay upright in five-inch heels as she jogged down the hall. “I’d twist an ankle before I managed two steps.”
“You and me both.” Cloris took a deep breath and exhaled with a rush. “I suppose we’d better see what Naomi wants.”
A minute later we stood outside the office of our editorial director. Cloris raised her hand and rapped twice. From the other side of the door we heard Naomi call, “Come in.”
We found Naomi Dreyfus seated behind her desk. She waved us forward, directing us to take the two seats that faced her.
Naomi had recently turned sixty, but you’d never know it by looking at her. Statuesque and regal with emerald green eyes and silver hair always styled in an elegant chignon, she gave off an aura of old money and finishing schools. She reminded me of Grace Kelly—back before the former actress-turned-princess had added the menopause pounds that robbed her of her waist. At sixty, Naomi still maintained her girlish figure, not to mention her flawless, wrinkle-free complexion.
She offered us a warm smile as we settled into the chairs. I took that as a positive sign. If you’re about to be canned, you might receive a malicious smirk from the boss, but a friendly smile? Not likely.
Without any chitchat-filled prelude, Naomi got right to the point. “Are either of you familiar with the Stitch and Bake Society?”
“I think so,” said Cloris. “Aren’t they a women’s social group similar to the one where members wear purple and sport red hats?”
Naomi nodded. “Similar but different. The Stitch and Bake Society began several years ago when a recent retiree realized she’d spent her entire life as a single, workaholic executive and now had few friends and fewer pastimes to occupy her days.”
I stole a quick glance at Cloris and caught her eye. I could think of dozens of activities we’d both enjoy if only we had both the free time and funds of a financially well-off retiree.
Naomi continued, “She remembered how her mother, grandmothers, and aunts had always enjoyed needlework projects and baking, activities she’d deemed as old-fashioned and a waste of time.”
“Why make what you can easily buy?” asked Cloris.
“That’s not why people pursue hobbies,” I said.
“You and I know that, but she didn’t,” said Naomi. “Anyway, out of boredom, she took a few classes and found herself falling in love with the very hobbies she’d eschewed her entire life. Through social media, she connected with other retired professional women in similar circumstances and eventually founded an organization devoted to women exploring these shared passions in their golden years.”
“Are we giving them a write-up?” I asked.
“More than that. The organization has grown to include chapters across the country. The New Jersey chapter is holding their first mini-conference next week, a three-day event at the Beckwith Chateau Country Club.”
Cloris whistled under her breath. “These ladies are definitely not getting by on only their IRAs and Social Security checks.”
“Not by a longshot,” said Naomi. “Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Marlene Beckwith is president of the New Jersey chapter.”
“Nothing like having well-placed friends,” I said. Marlene’s family owned the most exclusive country club in the state. Rumor had it membership was by invitation only, and if you needed to ask the initiation fee and annual cost, you couldn’t afford to join.
“American Woman has agreed to be one of the sponsors,” said Naomi, “which leads me to both of you. Along with hosting speakers, as part of the festivities they’re holding a baking competition and a needlework show. The two of you will each give a one-hour talk once a day and also judge the two competitions.”
“Which three days?” I asked. “Are we talking giving up a weekend?”
“Tuesday through Thursday,” said Naomi.
“That’s a relief,” said Cloris.
“Something doesn’t add up,” I said. When Naomi raised an eyebrow, I continued. “This conference is scheduled a week from tomorrow, and they’re just now requesting speakers, judges, and corporate sponsorship? Most conferences take a year to plan and execute.”
“Most conferences don’t have Beckwith resources behind them,” said Naomi. “But you do have a point. It does seem odd the way this was thrown together so suddenly.”
“Not to mention,” said Cloris, “if they have Beckwith backing them, why do they need our sponsorship?”
“For the publicity we’ll give them in an upcoming issue,” said Naomi. “We’re not supplying any funding, only corporate merchandise, like the tote bags and other publicity items left over from last year’s consumer show at the Javits Center.”
“Still, it would have been nice to have more time to prepare,” I said. “Judging a cooking and crafting competition doesn’t require planning. But working up three one-hour presentations will take hours, if not several days.”
“Not to mention the three days we’ll be away from the office not getting our regular work done,” added Cloris.
“Exactly,” I said, glad Cloris had broached the subject.
“Would it help if I comped you both three days?” asked Naomi.
“Definitely,” said Cloris, “given that we’ll have to work nights to meet our deadlines.”
“Overtime would be preferable,” I said. The way to this impoverished craft editor’s heart is through her depleted bank account.
Naomi grew silent as she weighed her options. On the one hand, she was aware of my financial situation. On the other, I was aware of the magazine’s financial situation. Finally, she clasped her hands on her desk and said, “I’ll see what I can do. No promises.”
“You think she’ll come through with the money?” asked Cloris a few minutes later as we made our way back to our cubicles.
“Hard to say. I guess it depends on how much her discretionary fund was slashed in this year’s budget.”
“At least we’ve got three comp days if nothing else.”
“All in all, not a bad negotiation.” Yet I still couldn’t help wondering why an organization would throw together a conference with so little prep, not to mention scheduling it for March. Even though the conference began on the first day of Spring, historically, New Jersey had suffered through some of its worst snow storms the end of March. If one hit the day of the conference, the chapter would wind up hosting an event devoid of attendees.
“Unfortunately, I can’t even think about the conference right now,” said Cloris. “I’m spending the day mentoring culinary students at the local vo-tech.” She glanced at her phone. “I have to leave shortly.”
“My day is already booked,” I said. “I’ve got a photo shoot this morning and an interview with a breakout Etsy crafter this afternoon. We’ll have to start brainstorming tomorrow morning.”
Cloris made a face. “Which leaves us one less day to get everything done before next Tuesday.”
About Lois Winston
USA Today and Amazon bestselling and award-winning author Lois Winston writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and nonfiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Kirkus Reviews dubbed her critically acclaimed Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” In addition, Lois is a former literary agent and an award-winning craft and needlework designer who often draws much of her source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry.
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