Iced Pumpkin Murder: A Donut Hole Cozy Mystery - Book 26, page 1
Table of Contents
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Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright 2016 by Guardian Publishing Group - All rights reserved.
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Table of Contents
Heather Shepherd fastened her Donut Delights apron and stepped up to the silver counter in the kitchen of her store.
Her assistants, three of them, at least – Maricela and Ken manned the counter out front, and Ames was on errands – gathered around her, elbow to elbow.
“All right,” she said, “so, I’ve taught the others how to make this week’s donut, and it’s about time I teach you guys too. It’s really simple, but it’s a crowd pleaser.”
Jung rubbed his palms together. “I can’t wait.”
“What is it, boss?” Angelica asked.
Emily Potts licked her lips and brushed off her apron. She’d been the quietest of the bunch since she’d joined their team.
“We’ve got Thanksgiving coming up,” Heather said, “so I thought we’d do a pumpkin themed donut. The Iced Pumpkin donut, to be precise.”
“Oh gosh, I’m getting hungry already.”
“We really want this to be a little chunk of Thanksgiving with every bite.” Heather smiled at them all. “Minus the turkey, of course.”
Heather tapped her fingers to the side of a steel bowl. “We’ve got fresh roasted cinnamon pumpkin, which we’ll mash up to add to the batter. Then add in some ginger for flavor, as well, and a touch of condensed milk. Flour, of course, whole grain, the best Ames can find. This is going to be quite a heavy, cake-like mixture.”
“So, you’ll do a light glaze then?” Emily asked. She might be quiet, but she learned super-fast.
“That’s exactly right, Emily.” Heather beamed at her youngest assistant and Angelica gave her a thumbs up. “I want this donut double-dipped in a very simple vanilla glaze. We’ll do a tiny splash of lemon juice in the glaze, to add a little zing to each bite, but the predominant flavor is going to be the cinnamon and pumpkin.”
“Wow,” Jung breathed.
“It’s supposed to excite the taste buds,” Heather said and tickled her fingers in front of her lips. “They’re cooked in the oven. Okay, so let’s get started.”
The assistants shuffled closer still. Emily whipped out a notepad and scratched across it with her pen.
“First off, we’re going to mash up –”
The kitchen door swung inward, and Geoff Lawless stepped into the room, closely followed by Ken. “I’m sorry, Heather, I couldn’t stop him,” her assistant said, and frowned at the big, bald guy. “He ran past me before I could.”
“That’s okay, Ken,” Heather said. She stepped back from the counter, and curiosity twirled through her belly. “You guys mash up the pumpkin and spice it with cinnamon. I’ve put the recipe on the counter. Carry on with the batter, but don’t cook it until I’ve come back to have a taste.”
“Aye, aye, captain,” Jung said and saluted.
Heather rolled her eyes at him, then chuckled and walked over to Geoff Lawless.
For many weeks, the man had been a sheer pain in her neck, but that’d changed last week.
His mockery of a donut store had closed, and he’d quit his incessant Heather-stalking ways.
“Geoff?” Heather said. “Do you want to talk in my office?”
He shook his head in reply but drew her off to one side of the kitchen. It was huge, after the renovations – the others couldn’t possibly hear them.
“What’s going on?”
“Had to come,” Geoff said. “Had to come to warn you about her.”
Heather’s insides turned frosty. She’d been through enough investigations and odd situations to sense another one incoming. “About who?”
Geoff glanced back at the kitchen doors and swallowed, loudly. “Kate. My sister. She’s coming for you.”
Heather’s nerves jittered, but she kept her face smooth as red velvet donut. “What do you mean?”
“Kate’s setting up another bakery. Another store to compete with you,” Geoff said.
Heather arched both eyebrows. “Oh, that’s not so bad.”
“It’s a cupcake store. She wants to set up right down the road. She’s going to try to steal your customers.”
“I see,” Heather replied. “Thanks a lot for warning me, Geoff. I appreciate that.” She patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. “But I don’t think you or I need to worry about Kate Laverne. She can set up the store if she wants, but she’s got a lot of work to do before she can compete with us.”
Heather had all the confidence in the world in her store and her staff. They were a family, and nothing could break that.
“She’s dangerous,” Geoff said, darkly. “She’ll do anything to get what she wants. Be careful, Shepherd. Watch your back.”
“Thanks. I’ll do that, Geoff.” Heather walked toward the door, and he joined her. She pushed it open, and they traipsed out into the storefront of Donut Delights.
People chattered and ate donuts, and they slurped milkshakes and coffee, their coats over the backs of their chairs or hanging on hooks against one wall. The golden boards glinted beneath the downlights overhead.
Oh, yeah, it’d taken Heather ages to get her store to this point. Full every day, online orders pouring in and happy customers. If Kate thought she could compete, well, she could bring it on.
“Would you like to stay for a donut, Geoff? On the house.”
Lawless’ thin lips twisted to one side. “No thanks. I can’t eat ‘em. Not since the other place.”
“I understand,” Heather said. “Well, if you ever need anything, you just let me know.”
“Just be careful,” he repeated. “She’s not right. She’s not good. Be careful, Shepherd.” And then he loped toward the door, in classic Geoff style, and brushed past several customers on his way.
They stared at him in consternation.
Heather couldn’t help but chuckle. Somehow, she’d made the weirdest friend she’d ever had in
Geoff pushed out into the blustery fall morning, and the bell tinkled overhead. Amy jumped out of his path and stared at him, then hurried indoors and toward the front counter.
“What was that about? Geoff up to his old tricks?”
“Nope,” Heather replied. “All different ones, this time.”
Heather looped her arm through her bestie’s and walked down the street. Lilly trotted along beside her, and Dave set their pace, his doggy claws scrabbling along the rough concrete of the sidewalk.
“Just another week in paradise,” Heather sang.
“If paradise is freezing cold,” Amy replied, and clutched the edge of her coat with her free hand. “This is ridiculous.”
“We’re in Texas, Amy,” Lilly said. “It’s not that bad.”
“Says, you.” Amy stuck out her tongue, then winked at the little girl.
“Ames has always had a low tolerance for cool weather. And the hot weather,” Heather said, and tapped her chin. “Now that I think of it, you have a low tolerance for almost every kind of weather.”
“It’s simple, really.” Amy gestured with her hand. “All I want is clear, blue skies, a moderately warm day and a hint of a breeze. Just a hint. No rain, no freezing winds, no boiling sun. Is that too much to ask?”
“Yeah,” Heather and Lilly said, in unison. Dave barked his agreement.
“Always ganging up on me,” Amy muttered and pursed her lips.
It was an act, of course. Heather’s bestie could never stay mad at them.
They continued their journey through suburbia. Houses and gardens passed by. Some had picket fences; others had trees. A dog yapped from behind a fence and launched himself at it.
Dave ignored him and padded on. One sniff was all it took to determine how interesting the object was. The dog had failed Dave’s test, for sure.
“Thanksgiving is on the way,” Heather said. “Where are you going to be, Ames? With Kent?”
“No,” she replied, swiftly, then looked at the top of Lilly’s head. “I, uh, I hoped to spend Thanksgiving with you guys, if that’s okay?”
“Of course. I kinda hoped you’d say that.” Heather patted her bestie’s arm and smiled.
A scream pierced the late afternoon air. This time, Dave barked, loudly. Lilly froze in her tracks, and Amy pulled up short, too.
“What on earth?” Heather let go of her bestie and hurried forward. “What was that?”
“A sign to turn back?” Amy suggested.
Lilly grasped her hand. “I don’t like this.”
The scream rang out again, from a house two doors down. Heather pressed her lips together, then fished her phone out of her pocket. She’d already assigned Ryan’s office number to speed dial.
Heather looked back at her favorite folks. “Amy, please will you take Lilly and Dave home.”
“Au-Heather. It’s dangerous. You should come too,” Lilly whispered.
“No, sweetie. I’ll be fine. Amy will stay with you until I’m back. Right, Ames?”
“Of course,” Amy said, then turned and led Lilly away.
“Mom,” Lilly called.
“I’ll be home, soon. I promise, Lils,” Heather said, and her heart skipped a beat. Whenever Lilly let the ‘m’ word slip, that happened.
Heather pressed the button and dialed Ryan’s number. She pressed the phone to her ear and strode down the sidewalk, gaze on the house at the end.
“Shepherd,” Ryan answered.
“Hey, honey,” Heather said. “We’ve got a situation here on Heritage Street. I just heard several screams coming from Number 306. I’m checking it out, but I think you should send a car down here.”
“On it,” Ryan replied.
Heather hadn’t technically seen anything to indicate danger – it could be a woman freaking out about a mouse or something – but it was better to be safe than sorry, always.
She opened the low gate which led up to the house and stepped onto the path.
The front door burst open, and a woman rushed out, pale as a sheet of flattened fondant. She ripped at her pale pink apron and tore it off. “Oh my, gosh,” she yelped.
Heather stepped into her path and held out her palms. “Whoa, there,” she said. “What’s going on? Are you all right.”
The woman tugged at a lock of graying hair and shook her head. “Oh my gosh, Mr. Jones. Not Mr. Jones.”
“Slow down,” Heather said and patted the air. “It’s all right. You’re safe.” She glanced over the maid’s shoulder and up at the front door, which had swung shut behind her. “Is there a danger?”
The woman nodded.
“Is there someone trying to hurt you? Mr. Jones?”
The woman shook her head. “It’s a snake.”
Relief flooded Heather. Just a silly old snake. But who would name their snake, Mr. Jones? Weird choice for a scaly serpent.
“A snake killed Mr. Jones,” the woman said, and wrung her hands.
Heather’s relief evaporated into thin air. “Mr. Jones is your employer? Did the snake get out of its cage?”
“No. I mean, yeah, he’s my boss, but he didn’t own a snake. I don’t know where it came from. I’ve never seen one like that before.” She shivered and rubbed her upper arms. “It’s all red and yellow all over.”
Heather exhaled sharply. That sounded like a Coral Snake. She hadn’t seen one of those since she was a kid.
She’d been somewhat fascinated by snakes in middle school.
“Can you do me a favor?” Heather asked.
“Yeah,” the woman replied, and trembled from head to toe.
“Stay right here with me. The cops are on their way. They’ll get rid of the snake and check if Mr. Jones is all right.”
“He’s definitely dead,” the woman said. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Oh gosh. I only came back because I forgot my purse on the counter, like an idiot, and then he was there. Oh, gosh, I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Just breathe,” Heather said and stroked the maid’s back. “Breathe. Everything is going to be all right.”
Not necessarily true. They’d have to catch the poisonous snake and figure out how it’d gotten in there in the first place.
The cruiser whooped behind her and flashed its lights. The maid transformed into a gibbering mess and sobbed, uncontrollably. Perhaps it was relief at the arrival of an authority figure.
Ryan got out of the car. “What’s going on?”
Heather licked her lips. “I think you should call Snake Control.”
The guy in the tan uniform slammed the back doors of his van closed, then turned and tipped his hat toward Heather and Ryan.
The stark, black lettering, Hillside Snake Rescue, stood out on the side of the vehicle.
“That’s that,” Ryan said. “Snake is out of the way, and Mr. Jones has been taken for his autopsy.”
Heather grimaced. “The minute I heard it was a Coral Snake, I knew it was done. Such a pity.”
Ryan nodded, then unhooked his thumbs from his pockets and gestured up toward the house. “Shall we?”
“Yeah, I’ve got time. I just checked in with Amy, and they’re both fine. Lilly’s making popcorn again. She’s insisted on a movie afternoon.”
Ryan chuckled, then led the way up the path to the front porch. He stomped up the stairs and to the door, then creaked it open and disappeared inside.
Heather followed him, but her frown didn’t disappear. Sheesh, at this rate she’d end up with wrinkles on top of wrinkles. She’d be one giant wrinkle by the age of seventy.
“Coral snake,” Ryan said. “I’ll have to research those. I don’t know much about our slithering brethren in Texas.”
“That’s what bothered me,” Heather replied. “Not your lack of serpentine knowledge, I mean, but the fact that there was a coral snake indoors. These are the kind of snakes that spend most of their time underground.”
“Yeah. I could understand if the snake had burrowed under the guys front porch, and he was down there and got bitten by accident, but here? In his living room?” Heather shook her head and glanced around at the beige living room furniture and the potted plant in the corner. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Ryan walked around to the spot where the victim had fallen. “So, you’re saying this might have been a… manufactured scenario?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. All I’m saying is it doesn’t make sense,” Heather replied. “Let’s take a look around.”
“Good idea,” Ryan replied. He walked toward the fireplace at the end of the room and peered past the grate. “You don’t think it could’ve slipped through here?”
“Through a chimney? No.” Heather strode toward the back door in the kitchen, then tried it. Locked up tight. The key hung on a hook on the wall, out of reach from the window.
She glanced at the window pane, then froze. What was that?
“Hon, come take a look at this,” she said, and her footsteps clicked across the plain, white tiles.
“What is it?” Ryan asked and jogged up to her. “A snake hole?”
“Maybe.” Heather pointed at the window and the netting which had been installed on the outside of it. “Someone’s opened a hole in the netting. And it’s definitely big enough for a coral snake.”
“Window’s open, too,” Ryan said. “Looks like this might be our entry point.”
Heather paced back and forth in front of the kitchen counter. The more she considered the scenario, the less sense it made that a snake would randomly slip into this man’s house and attack him.
Snakes didn’t behave that way unless provoked. Even a notoriously aggressive rattlesnake wouldn’t go out of its way to track down a potential victim.
Heather hurried to the keys beside the door, grabbed them, then unlocked and opened up.
She stepped into the back garden and Ryan followed, hot on her heels.
They stopped beside the window, and Heather bent and stared at the flower bed. “Footprints. Shoe prints. Small and flat.”
“I’m going to have to get some of the boys down here to help me process this scene. Looks like we’ve just upgraded the case from accident to homicide,” Ryan said, then sighed. “Man, these things get more complicated each week.”
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