from If You Can't Stand the Heat, the first book in the Poppy Markham: Culinary Cop Mystery Series, now available from Midnight Ink

I parked near the Shady Grove RV Park and found a spot under a canopy of gnarled Live Oak trees. The temperature had reached the upper-nineties by noon when I arrived at the back door of Mostaccioli’s Italian Grill. I took a moment to inhale the yeasty fragrance of pizza dough mingled with onions and garlic while I pulled out my badge and switched my phone to vibrate.

I rang the doorbell and looked around the parking lot and dumpster area while I waited for someone to open it. A cook pushed his arm through the door with his finger already pointed in the direction of the sign on the outside wall that read “No Deliveries Between 11 AM – 2 PM.”

I held up my badge. “Surprise.”

“Oh, sorry ma’am,” he said.

I don’t like being called ma’am. People call women of a certain age ma’am. And they had been calling me that a lot lately. “Can we do anything else for you ma’am?” “I’d like to ask you a few questions about the murder ma’am.” “I’m sorry to tell you this, ma’am, but you need a new transmission.” I tried to view it as a sign of respect, but knew it was a sign of age.

“Thirty-eight isn’t that old,” I said.


“Who is the M-O-D?”

“The what?”

“The manager on duty.” He must be new. I would watch him closely.

“Oh,” he said, tapping his chin with a bare index finger. “Vito, I think.”

“His name is Vidal,” I said, stepping through the threshold which forced him to move back to let me in. “And you can tell him I’m here after you wash your hands.”

I had every right to begin the inspection without notifying anyone, and a lot of inspectors did that. But if a restaurant was going to fail a surprise inspection, they failed before I even walked in the door. Plus, I liked Vidal, and he had enough stress managing the lunch rush without happening upon the health inspector examining expiration dates in the walk-in.

In a restaurant, which is where most people are concerned about contracting food poisoning—if they’re concerned about it at all—patrons are satisfied with making a visual inspection of their waiter and determining whether he’s fit to serve their meals. But that’s a false reading.

Who they should worry about is the kitchen staff preparing the food. The dishwasher who hasn’t had a proper bath for a week, but thinks it’s okay because he works with soap and water at work. Or the prep cook who was up all night partying with her Goth friends, but has to clock in at 7:00 AM, so she sweats out all of the tequila she drank while she bags pasta and slices mushrooms. And when she nicks her finger and starts to bleed, she wraps a napkin around it because she doesn’t have time to bandage it. The sooner she finishes, the sooner she can take a break before she passes out. And besides, a little blood never hurt anybody. She and her friends drink each other’s blood all the time. Or the line cook with the new flaming skull tattoo on his forearm that’s finally starting to scab over. It’s also starting to flake off into the chipped beef.

“That kind of thing doesn’t happen in my restaurant,” the owners and managers say. “My people know better.” Yeah, and their people also know about food costs, docked pay, and lost jobs.

Basically, I’m the food police, keeping the dining public relatively safe from gross and careless people.

“Poppy!” Vidal said, approaching me with his quick, small steps. “So good to see you.”