Read Basil Instinct Online

Authors: Shelley Costa

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #General

Basil Instinct


—Killer Nashville

Praise for the first mystery in the irresistible new series from
Shelley Costa


“Intriguing. . . . A nicely crafted mystery about murder, opera, and delicious, mouth-watering Italian food.”

RT Book Reviews

“The heart and soul of this book is the warm relationship between Nonna and her granddaughter, Eve.”

Reviewing the Evidence

“Fun, delightful. . . . This laugh-out-loud tale combines a murder mystery with an entertaining picture of an Italian restaurant and delicious glimpses of its larger-than-life staff.”

The Reading Addict

“Entertaining and delightful.”

Spotlight Reader

“I enjoyed the author’s style and humor . . . and look forward to more adventures at Miracolo.”

I Love a Mystery

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For Aunt Gem—

more beautiful than Eve,

more elegant than Maria Pia,

and more fun than all the others—

with love always


To my dear Italian family of cooks: Pia, my own nonna, at whose table I first tasted stuffed artichokes at the age of three; my talented chef cousins, Lisa, Susan, and Andrea (thanks, Lisa, for letting Choo Choo use your delicious Gorgonzola recipe); and my aunt Gemma, who first introduced me to bagels and lox. Not every great thing is Italian.


At 9:41 p.m. on June 16th I uttered those fateful words: “How bad can it be?” If you didn’t tumble out of your crib just yesterday, surely you know that the universe hears those words as a challenge. So it sends you a hurricane or a tax audit or a new man who still lives with his mother. Even so, I didn’t see it coming.

As the head chef at Miracolo Italian Restaurant in Quaker Hills, Pennsylvania, I had just been plating an order of
vitello alla Bolognese
when our best server, Paulette Coniglio, one of those sturdy middle-aged women with wedge cuts and expensive highlights, handed me a violet envelope. Telling me someone had left it on the table, wedged between the salt cellar and the ornamental bamboo, she arched an eyebrow, smirked, and flipped
the envelope at me the way a cop hands you a ticket for speeding. Not that I would know.

Our eyes met.

I took the envelope gingerly between my slightly greasy thumb and forefinger and gave it a look. Navy-blue calligraphy on card stock. Back flap sealed with a round blob of navy-blue wax embossed with the letter
. Addressed to Chef Maria Pia Angelotta— my nonna (Italian for annoying grandmother), who owns Miracolo.

“So who left it?” I asked.

Paulette rolled her shoulders to get the kinks out. “Two well-dressed women who knew enough to get the Barolo with the veal.” I like this woman for a couple of reasons. First, she used to date my father Giacomo (Jock) Angelotta, and she stuck around even after he didn’t. Second, she is the field commander you want in all the battles of daily life.

“Ah,” I said ruminatively, “foodies.” Wine selection is always the giveaway.

Paulette’s gaze swung to my cousin Landon, my sous chef, who was garnishing an order of his profiteroles—think cream puffs—and doing the famous two-handed hat lift from the Bob Fosse number “I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man.” Her eyes narrowed. “Mm,” she hummed, shaking her head slowly, “something more.”

“More than foodies? What could that be?” I was
at a loss since I had been so busy during the dinner rush that I hadn’t peeked my head out of the kitchen even once. I wiped my hands. “Did Maria Pia recognize them?” She’d been swanning around the dining room all evening. My grandmother sincerely believes our customers come because of her. The rest of us believe they come in spite of her.

“I don’t think so.” Paulette is my ally in my ongoing effort to keep the dragon (Maria Pia) at bay in the business of the restaurant, which is why she always keeps me in any loop reassuringly ahead of my wild-card granny.

I brought the violet envelope next to my ear, squeezed it between my fingers, and then held it up to the overhead lights. “Well,” I said philosophically, “it’s not ticking, oozing white powder, or holding cash, so I think I’m losing interest.”

She held out her hand. “I’ll give it to Maria Pia.”

Which is when I said with a shrug, “How bad can it be?”

I found out just two minutes later, when my grandmother flung open the double doors and stood there dazed, the opened envelope hanging loosely between her fingers. Out in the dining room the regulars were tuning up, trying to find an A they could agree on. They’re amateur musicians who several years ago decided Miracolo is the perfect place to try out their stuff. In public. To get
the picture, think squatters with musical instruments. Maybe none of them has a garage.

Landon and I turned to our grandmother. “It’s happened,” she croaked, her arms pushed quivering against the double doors like she was trying to launch a lifeboat from the
. Her face was ragged.

“What?” I asked her, as I plated an order of risotto
“You finally been invited to a baby shower?”

“It should only be yours,” she answered kind of automatically, in a strange voice, staring past me. On my nonna, it’s hard to tell the difference—just by looking at her—between alarm and ecstasy, which must have somewhat complicated her love life with my grandfather, the sainted Benigno.

At seventy-six, Maria Pia Angelotta is pretty much what you’d call a babe—with wrinkles. These she slathers nightly with half a dozen different creams labeled “crèmes” to jack up the price. She looks a lot like Anne Bancroft, those big, wide-set dark eyes, that broad and sensuous mouth. From her I got my good legs, something she never lets me forget, although hers are shorter, something I never let her forget.

“Then what, Nonna?”

“It’s Belfiere.”

“Who’s that?”


Which didn’t clear it up. “And Belfiere is—?” I prompted her slowly.

Nonna got testy. “Have all your pants cut off the circulation to your brain?” She believes I’ve ruined all my chances at a niceItalianboy by preferring pants to skirts. I resist telling her that niceItalianboys have no trouble getting past garments of any sort. And I do mean getting past. “Belfiere is the oldest culinary society in the—the—world.”

Landon and I exchanged a look. His said:
Do you think it’s time to take her in for an evaluation?
Mine said:
I thought this blessed day would never come.
Then Landon cranked up his help-me-to-understand manner. He leaned in toward her and said, “Kind of like the American Culinary Federation, Nonna?”

I crossed my arms. “Or . . . The American Cheese Society?”

She hit us both with the violet-colored invitation. “No, you ninnies, not at all like those.” This was followed with a spray of sentiments half in Italian that—from what I could follow—compared Landon and me to that traitor Little Serena, her other granddaughter, whom she likened to bread made with expired yeast and then taken off to the woods by non-Italian wolves. (But then, my Italian is a little rusty.) All Little Serena had done was to come out of the closet and declare her kitchen
orientation—“I don’t cook”—upon which she blew town to work a ride at Disney World.

I held out my hand. “Can I see the invite, Nonna?”
, a soft little nursery rhyme kind of word. Makes you picture some mild-mannered smiling human cushion that shells peas, slips you five dollars if she thinks you studied your catechism, and uses her loose dress as a dish towel. But this would be somebody else’s nonna, not mine.

She glared at me. “Of course you can’t see it. It’s not for the uninitiated.”

Landon went for logic. “Well, you’re uninitiated.”

She gave him the look she usually reserves for overcooked pasta. “Yes, but I am among the chosen.” And then, as Landon and I stood there, Maria Pia Angelotta got intense, which is definitely her default setting, clutching the invitation to her generous breast. “Belfiere,” she explained in the hushed tones usually reserved for deathbeds, “is two hundred years old. It’s a”—she slanted a suspicious look at Li Wei Lin, our young Chinese dishwasher, as though she couldn’t be absolutely sure he wasn’t a spy—“secret society of no more than fifty chefs—all women, no men—and you can’t apply to become a member. You are selected by a secret process.” Her already large, expressive eyes widened. In awe, I thought. Maybe fear. Hard to tell. “And inducted in secret.”

It took a lot for Landon not to roll his eyes. “We get it, Nonna, it’s very hush-hush.”

“Well, what do they actually do, these Belfiere ladies?” That was me.

“Do?” Nonna gasped. “Do? They don’t have to ‘do’ anything. They just”—and here she exhaled reverently—“are.”

“Well,” I said, scratching my head, “are you going to have time for this—this—secret cooking club? I mean, the restaurant kind of, well, needs you.” Was I crazy? Maybe Belfiere was the perfect excuse to get her out of my hair . . .

Chef Maria Pia Angelotta pulled herself up straight and gave me a stony look. “You don’t understand. This is not some little club for”—her fingers twiddled the air in the Italian gesture that says
You are so inconsequential, even my fingers are bored
—“tap dancers or hairdressers.” Are there really such things? “Belfiere is the greatest honor in all the world for a woman chef. If you are called,” she said, rippling an eyebrow at me, “you go.”

Landon got alarmed. “What do you mean you go? Is it a commune? Do you have to sell all your stuff and go live with them?” He was winding himself up, all right, but it was alarm I happened to share. “If so,” he finished with a self-conscious little laugh, “I get the art deco blue mohair armchair. Please, oh, please. Just remember I’m your oldest grandchild.”

He pursed his lips and I elbowed him in the ribs.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said imperiously. Then she lifted the invitation and scrutinized the printed instructions. “That’s not how it works. Tomorrow will be busy. I start preparing for the special meal I cook as part of my initiation—so we’ll be needing extra help.”

Landon groaned. “Extra help?”

“Cooking? Serving? What do you mean?”

She waved us off, lost in a daydream about hobnobbing with her fellow wizards. “Belfiere,” she said, choked up, “I can hardly believe it. I only wish Benigno had lived to see it,” she finished with a magnificent sniff. Then she bit her lower lip and stared at a far corner of the ceiling. “So much to do,” she said, turning away, tapping the invitation against her hand. “First thing tomorrow,” she announced, “I get my Belfiere tattoo.”


Maria Pia Angelotta?

The woman who, on the subject of body art, runs the gamut from nausea to horror?

Little did I know that before the week was up, I’d be seeing another Belfiere tattoo—on a corpse.

*   *   *

If this Belfiere cooking society was enough to get my squeamish grandmother ready to run off
and get inked, already I didn’t like it. Neither did Landon. I could tell by the fact that in the last thirty seconds he had left traces of mint leaves and chocolate shavings in his otherwise perfect hair.

We followed her back into the dining room, where the last of the evening’s customers were weighing the effort of pushing themselves off their chairs against hanging around for the first set played by the late-night regulars. Our cousin Choo Choo Bacigalupo, the maître d’, dimmed the lights and smiled suggestively at his crush, our server Vera Tyndall.

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