Series: Sweet Bites Mysteries #3
Published by: Jelly Bean Press Co
Release Date: 7/4/2013
Contributors: Heather Justesen
Genre: Culinary Mystery
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Halloween carnivals are supposed to be all fun and games, but when one of the school teachers is found strangled by a quilted table runner at the end of the night, Tess, bakery owner and amateur sleuth, is on the case.
Between stalkers, small business rivals and neighbors whose hobbies clash with the victim’s, there is no shortage of suspects. Tess’s social life finally starts to take off as things get interesting with Jack and her good friend and employee, Lenny’s, wedding is only days away, Tess has got her hands full. Will she be able to catch the killer before he or she strikes again?
Also in this series:
Kids squealed and giggled, zig-zagging through the crowd at the elementary school Halloween carnival. I carried my box of chocolate-chocolate chip muffins to the cupcake walk (yes, I know they’re technically muffins, not cupcakes, but they’re good enough to do in a pinch. Chocolate is chocolate, right?). Business at my bakery had been completely insane and despite the fact that my assistant, Lenny, came in early and stayed all day, I had just barely gotten away to help at the carnival.
I don’t have kids, but Honey, my best friend, promised to lend a hand in my shop one day while Lenny is on his honeymoon if I spent an afternoon helping out at her booth. I decided the deal was more than fair.
Honey looked up at me as I came over and let out a sigh of relief. “What kept you so long? We’re already running low on cupcakes.”
“Sorry. It’s been a madhouse. I think half the high school volleyball team bought stuff at my shop to donate to the bake sale instead of making their own. Not that I’m complaining.” I flipped back the lid of the container and started pulling out my contributions.
“Muffins? Really?” She lifted her brows in disbelief. “Tess, you were supposed to bring cupcakes. Couldn’t you have at least thrown some frosting on them so they looked like cupcakes?”
“I know, I know. Sorry. All out, except for those piña-colada-flavored ones, and kids don’t seem to like them as much. Lenny is baking some strawberry shortcake cupcakes now and will bring them down when he closes shop for the day.” I hurried to empty the bakery box and turned to the kids waiting in line to join the circle.
“How’s the wedding cake coming?” Honey asked.
“Amazing. I can’t wait to set it up tomorrow. The bride is going to flip!” I moved to my post to take tickets from the next kids in the line. “All right, you two join the others. Sorry, Madi. You have to wait for the next group.”
Honey’s five-year-old daughter, Madison, pouted a little, but didn’t complain when I stopped the line where she was standing.
“Where are your brother and sister?” I asked. She was the middle child with an older brother, Chance and younger sister, Zoey.
“They’re with Dad at the fishing booth again. It’s Chance’s teacher, Miss Clark. She’s really nice.” She clutched a stack of tickets. The carnival was a fundraiser for the PTA, and everyone seemed anxious to support the school. Or maybe just to win more prizes.
Honey played the music and called out numbers when it stopped. With each round, three children got their cupcakes, then wandered off, getting frosting on their hands and faces and totally ruining their appetites for dinner—but who was I to complain? I made my living off ruining people’s appetites—my cupcakes were notorious.
I let more kids into the circle and Honey started the music again.
I waved to friends and neighbors in the crowd, passed out dozens of cupcakes and nearly sighed with relief when Lenny brought in more supplies. We were almost out of treats for the unending line of munchkins. “What took you so long?” I whispered.
“Don’t ask. Just be glad you weren’t there.” He unloaded the bakery box in record time as one of the teachers approached. Her long, dark hair hung straight down around her shoulders, her seventies-era costume and headband reminiscent of Cher. It was Francine Clark, Chance’s second-grade teacher. She often came into my shop.
“I love your muffins!” she said, pulling one from the dwindling pile. Her bright orange fingernails contrasted against the chocolate. “Connie Larabee just brought these in for the cake walk.” She passed over a cookie sheet of cupcakes that had the uniform decoration indicating they’d been mass-produced for a grocery store bakery. Who did she think she was fooling, anyway?
“Thanks for bringing them by. How’s it going at your booth?”
“Fine, fine. Just trying to keep up.” She looked at the chocolate muffin in her hand and sighed slightly. “No rest for the weary. I’ll stash this behind the fishing booth to eat when things calm down here.” She tossed her wig’s thigh-length hair back behind her shoulder before turning away.
I had thought the party would be over and done within an hour, but the second hour was near its end before the crowd started to noticeably thin. Thirty minutes later and we were pulling up the numbers off the floor while others disassembled their booths.
Madison ran back over to me, taking my hand. “Auntie Tess, I need to go to the bathroom. Will you take me?”
I seriously doubted she couldn’t find it herself—this was her school, after all—but there were a lot of people wandering around the building still, so I supposed the crowd made her nervous. “Sure, sweetie.”
The bathrooms were on the other side of the gym and down a long hall. Most of the booths were disassembled by the time we headed back toward the gym, but I noticed the fishing booth was still up.
Francine Clark should have been tearing it down, but was nowhere to be seen. “I wonder where Miss Clark went,” I said to Madison.
“Maybe she’s inside. She was really busy before. She had the best prizes.” Her eyes glowed and she held up the kaleidoscope she’d won earlier.
“Very cool.” I took the scope in hand and looked through it at the florescent lights just ahead. Pink hearts, white stars, many-pointed yellow suns, and colored flowers cut out of clear, jewel-toned plastic met my eye. I could see why Madison loved it so much. “That’s beautiful.”
“What’s that?” Madison asked. She pointed to something poking out beneath the cream-colored muslin they had used to cover the front of the fishing booth. “Is she asleep in there?”
I looked closer and realized it was a set of long fingers. I could just see the orange fingernail polish that Francine had been wearing earlier. “Hold on a second, sweetie.” I let go of Madison’s hand and moved to the front flap, a hard ball of ick forming in the pit of my stomach. These kinds of things never went well for me. Maybe I should have called someone to take a look, but I couldn’t stop myself.
Francine Clark lay behind the curtain, her eyes wide open, her lips slightly blue. A multi-colored piece of fabric circled her neck and her hair spread out around her head. Her limbs were askew, one shoe half off and the chocolate muffin she’d gotten from me earlier was smashed, as if someone had stepped on it.
I reached down to check for a pulse, but couldn’t find one on her cool skin.
She was dead.
“Auntie Tess, what’s going on?” Madison’s voice broke me out of my shock and had me retreating before she could catch sight of the body.
“Nothing for you to worry about, sweetie. Come on, let’s go find your mom.” I half dragged her back to where Honey was helping someone else clean up around the apple-dunking barrel across the room. My insides were rolling and the dread I’d felt as I pulled back the curtain had multiplied.
Honey looked over and grinned, “Hey, I wondered if you took off with my daughter on some nefarious baking adventure.”
I must have looked as ill as I felt because she immediately set down the bag of apples she carried and came over. “What’s going on?”
“I have to call Detective Tingey.” I didn’t want to say more, partly because I wasn’t sure if I could find the words, and partly because I didn’t want to scare Madison.
“The usual reason I’ve had to call him,” I said. Silver Springs, Arizona didn’t have a homicide department, but Tingey was head detective and caught the town’s murders.
Honey’s dark complexion turned ashen. “You’re kidding me. Who?”
“No, I’m not kidding.” I left the second question unanswered, but released Madison’s hand and turned back, headed for the corner by the stage where it was more private to make my call. Honey trailed after me, wanting to hear the news.
Tingey picked up on the third ring. “This is Detective Tingey.” He sounded a little aggravated and I wondered vaguely if it was because he was interrupted in the middle of something or just had a long day and wanted to be left alone.
“Detective, this is Tess. I found another body.”
Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Muffins
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, (1 stick) softened
1/2 cup cocoa
1 cup milk
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cream of tartar
2 cups flour
1 cup chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Cream the butter, sugar and eggs until smooth. Mix in cocoa and then the milk. In another bowl mix the salt, baking soda, cream of tartar and flour, then add slowly to the wet ingredients, mixing as you go. Add the chocolate chips to the batter and mix them in, then spoon into cupcake liners about so they are about 2/3 full.
Bake for 22-25 minutes or until the cakes spring back when slight pressure is applied to the top. Recipe makes about 18 muffins.
Two hours later, after the police had kicked everyone out of the school and I had given my statement, I was back at the pastry shop, trying to focus on the wedding cake. I needed to finish it for the next morning, but I was still shaky and the design involved some tricky string work.
After failing at three attempts to hold my hand still, I gave up and set down the pastry bag. Cookies. I needed to make some dough so it would be chilled and ready to put in the oven in the morning. Maybe when I finished I would be calmer and ready to work on the cake again.
I pulled butter from the cooler and various ingredients from cupboards and drawers, then moved to the stand mixer. There was a knock at the front door and I looked over to see Jack standing out front. My heart did a little flutter when I saw his smile and the single yellow chrysanthemum he must have taken from his yard. There was nowhere open within ten miles this time of night where he could have bought flowers.
I walked over and let him into the shop, turning the thumb bolt to lock the door behind him.
“Hey. How are you doing? I heard you found another dead person.” He brushed the silky-soft blossom against my cheek and then handed it to me, his pale blue eyes never leaving my face. “I figured you might need someone to talk to if Lenny had gone home.”
I didn’t question how he knew—Jack had his ways. The fact that he was a paramedic and knew all of the local police didn’t hurt. “He did,” I said. “I didn’t call him after... after. I didn’t want to bother him. The wedding’s next week, and he and Kat are going crazy trying to get everything done. I made Honey take Madison home before the police arrived. I didn’t want her to know.” Madison was just curious enough to try to sneak back to find out what was going on.
“She’s going to hear,” he said, leaning one narrow hip against my display case.
“I know. But having her there when the police arrived...” I shivered at the thought. “No need for her to have nightmares too. I can’t believe I was talking to Francine only an hour before she died. Maybe less. She’d been lying there for a while.”
He threaded our fingers together. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. Again.”
“Me too.” I felt better just having him there, and his taking my hand—the first time ever—was a step that made me smile. “Want to help me make some cookies?”
“By help you mean watch, and maybe hand you ingredients, right?” he asked.
“Of course. Unless you’ve miraculously gotten yourself a food handler’s permit in the past few weeks.” The local health inspector was a bit of a stickler, so I didn’t take any chances.
I gave his hand a tug and pulled him back into the kitchen so I could return to work. “I’ll let you lick the mixing paddle when I’m through making the dough,” I offered.
He pulled the stool over to the counter to watch me work and I started talking about all the craziness we’d had in the shop that day, avoiding the topic of the murder.
After I’d creamed the butter, white and brown sugar and eggs together, he brought it up. “So, are you going to investigate what happened to Francine?” Jack asked. “Or are you going to leave it for Detective Tingey to worry about?”
“It’s his job, but I can’t get it out of my head. If you’d seen—it was worse somehow than what happened to Valerie.” I shuddered as I remembered my first murder victim here in Silver Springs. “Whoever killed Francine wrapped fabric around her neck. It looked like quilted material.” I added in the flour to the mixer.
“Isn’t there some big to-do about her in quilt guild?” Jack asked. His mother was in the guild, along with what seemed like half of the women in town.
When Honey had mentioned quilt guild meeting during our many phone calls, back when I worked in Chicago, I thought she’d been exaggerating about how involved the community was in the guild. I was so wrong. “Mary Ellen was unhappy, saying Francine stole some of her original quilt designs and sold them on the Internet. It’s a thing.” There had been hard feelings and bickering for several months now, but I hadn’t paid much attention.
“A thing, huh?” He smiled and snitched a chocolate chip off the counter as I added oats to the mixer.
I slapped his hand. “No eating in my kitchen. You want the health department to shut me down?”
He just grinned, and I reciprocated. It was against the rules, but I doubted I’d be closed down for such a small infraction. Even if you could see into the kitchen from the street.
“So, are you going to talk with Mary Ellen tomorrow? Sounds to me like she’s got a reason to be upset if Francine was stealing her designs,” Jack said.
I couldn’t see it myself. I mean, Mary Ellen was too upright and proper to kill someone. And strangling had to take a lot of strength and it’s up close and personal. “She’d be a good place to start out, if I were Tingey—which I’m not. I’m staying out of it this time.” A moment later I mixed in the chocolate chips and smiled. “I’m ready to stick this in the cooler. Grab that bowl, will you?” I pointed to a large stainless steel bowl on a nearby shelf.
Jack brought it over and held on while I moved the dough to the new bowl. The dough didn’t really need chilling, but preparing it tonight would save me time tomorrow. Peanut butter oatmeal cookies were one of my customers’ favorites. We covered the bowl and set it aside.
I handed him the beater, as promised. “Here, take that out front. I’m just going to put a few things away, and then I’ll join you.” I turned back to re-sort all of the ingredients into the correct cupboard and seal off the flour bag. I set the mixing bowl to soak in the sink of soapy water while I went to talk to Jack.
I grabbed two bottles of water on my way past the drink cooler and joined him at the table. “I didn’t ask how Sadie was doing. She looked like she was having fun tonight.” I’d seen him with his daughter across the room and traded waves with Jack, but Honey said they’d been to the cake walk before I arrived.
“Sadie had a blast. And now she’s all ready for the real Halloween tomorrow.” He shot me an exasperated look. “Remind me why the school decided not to do that carnival on Halloween night—I really have to do this two nights in a row?”
I chuckled and passed him the extra water bottle. “Don’t you have enough energy to keep up with a kindergartner?”
He covered his face with his hands and slid them down slowly. “It’s not keeping up with her that’s the problem. It’s the hair.” His voice was muffled, but his blue eyes looked at me across the table. “Do you have any idea how long it takes to do that curly, braided thing on her head? And I have to do it again tomorrow!” He covered his eyes again.
I couldn’t help but laugh, his actions were so over-the-top and ridiculously dramatic. “Come on—you can’t tell me your mom didn’t do that. It was perfect.”
“I wish she had.” Jack dropped his hands and twisted off the lid from his water bottle. “It was all me—Mom insists on it. I never thought this single-dad gig was going to mean doing little-girl hair. It’s inhumane.” He took a long guzzle of his water, then seemed to realize what I had just said. “Do you really think it was perfect?”
I nodded. “You should think about changing your career, Jack. Forget this whole paramedic, saving-lives thing and become a hair stylist instead.”
“No way. You just want me to stop poking needles in you. The best way to prevent that is for you to stop getting yourself hurt, you know.” He nudged my elbow on the bistro table.
“Hey, it’s not like I do it on purpose! And I’m staying out of this investigation. Absolutely out.” Yeah, I know, famous last words, right?
He smiled and took another drink, holding my gaze.
When he finally left half an hour later, my heart was a lot lighter and I was able to go back to work on the cake without a hint of shakiness left.