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Drop Dead Chocolate
A Donut Shop Mystery
By Jessica Beck
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Jessica Beck
All rights reserved.
I guess you could say that the murder was partly my fault. After all, I was the one who urged my mother to run for mayor of April Springs. If I'd had the slightest idea what that would lead to, I like to think that I would have kept my mouth shut when the subject first came up and stuck with making donuts, the thing that I did best in this world.
But then again, knowing me, I probably wouldn't have been able to stop myself, even with the foreknowledge of what was to come.
And one of our town's citizens would be dead because of it.
Worse yet, suspicion would turn its gaze onto me and my family once again, and I would be thrown into another murder investigation that I didn't ask for.
* * *
"This is outrageous," my mother said as she stormed into the cottage we shared in April Springs, North Carolina, late one February afternoon.
"I agree wholeheartedly," I said as I sat up from the couch where I'd been napping. I worked some pretty brutal hours at the donut shop I owned, so I tried my best to grab some shut-eye whenever the opportunity afforded itself. As I stretched, I asked, "What exactly are we upset about this time?"
Momma gave me that look she'd honed since I'd been a kid, the one that said my humor was not exactly hers. "Suzanne, I'm not in the mood for your witty banter. Our mayor has finally gone off the deep end. Did you read the newspaper this morning?"
As the owner and head baker at Donut Hearts, I got to work every morning at three a.m., well before the newspaper was even printed, and I didn't exactly have time to sit around reading all morning. There were donuts and coffee to sell, tables to clean, and customers to greet. Emma Blake, my young assistant who worked with me, kept up with dishes in back while we were open, but the most important part of her day was helping me make the donuts six days a week. She got one day off to rest, but I was there every day that ended in y. I knew I could close one day, but I couldn't stand giving up the income. It was all part of the joy of being a small business owner.
I stood up and stretched again. "Sorry, I didn't have the time to look at it. What has Emma's dad been up to now? Is he trying to stir up trouble to increase his circulation again?" The April Springs Sentinel was barely more than an advertising machine for local businesses, but every now and then Ray Blake liked to write an editorial or post a controversial interview in an attempt to boost his readership. Ray was barely one step above a tabloid as far as most folks around town were concerned, though I knew that deep in his heart, he considered himself a true journalist.
"There's a story in here about our mayor," Momma said as she smacked the paper in her hand. "You need to read this."
As she handed me the paper, I said, "Why don't you save us both some time and give me the condensed version?"
"Suzanne, this is important."
I knew from her tone of voice that there was no escaping it, so I took the newspaper and unfolded it so that I could read the front page.
The banner headline blared out: MAYOR CAM HAMILTON AWARDED COUNTY JOB. CAUSES BIG STINK.
"What's this about?" I asked Momma.
"Read on," she said, clearly too upset to add more until I'd read the entire article.
The story read, "This reporter has uncovered the carefully guarded secret that our mayor has submitted and won a contract to construct the new county waste disposal treatment plant on the edge of town. Normally happy to work on small jobs around our quaint fair city to leave more time for his mayoral duties, Hamilton has decided to go big time, and something doesn't smell quite right about our commander in chief going after a taxpayer-funded job while he's in office."
"Can he do that?" I asked, looking up from the newspaper. "It doesn't seem legal."
Momma's lips were pursed into a pair of thin lines before she spoke. "I checked, and there's nothing specific in our town charter that forbids it, but one of his cronies is on the committee that awarded him the job. For once, I think the Sentinel got it right. There should be a big stink about this, despite the clever play on words for a treatment plant. Cam Hamilton needs to walk away from this."
"Fat chance he'll ever do that," I said, remembering how self-important our mayor could be. He'd once told me that the police department worked for him, not the citizens of April Springs, and when I'd informed him that things didn't work like that in our part of North Carolina, he'd nearly thrown me out of his office. The man did not enjoy being challenged on any level.
Momma said, "If he doesn't withdraw, and I mean right now, I'll make him sorry that he ever made that bid."
"Why don't you run against him?" I suggested. "You'd make a great mayor, and the election's coming up soon. You'd do an excellent job."
She looked at me askance, another expression I was used to. "Suzanne, I'm not a politician."
"That's why it's so perfect," I said, beginning to really warm to the idea. "Think about all of the good you could do as mayor. There wouldn't be any of this nonsense, that's for sure."
Momma stood there for a second mulling it over, and then grabbed her coat and her purse as she headed for the door.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"Where do you think? I'm going to have a word with Cam Hamilton," she said.
"Wait up, I'll go with you." I didn't want my mother rampaging around city hall by herself. She was barely five feet tall and didn't weigh a hundred pounds soaking wet, but when she was on fire like this, there was no one in their right mind who wanted to go up against her. I was going not to protect her, but anyone who might be foolish enough to stand in her way.
"You don't have to babysit me, young lady," she said as I hurriedly put on my tennis shoes.
"Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss this for the world. I want a ringside seat for the fireworks."
She didn't seem to approve of me going with her, but then again, she didn't actively protest it, so I ended up tagging along.
As she drove to city hall, I said, "You know, there's a good chance that he may not even be there."
Momma frowned. "If he's not, I'll hunt him down like the mad dog he is."
"You might not want to open with that," I said, trying to take a little sting out of her mood.
It clearly didn't work. "If anything, I can only get angrier from here."
Momma pulled up in front of city hall and was halfway up the steps before I caught up with her. I put a hand on her shoulder, and somehow managed to slow her down, at least momentarily. "Hang on a second."
I looked into her eyes and said, "Momma, you need to take a deep breath and count to ten before you go in there."
"Suzanne, I am in full control of my facilities," she said. "There is no need for a childish exercise."
"Humor me," I said.
She didn't want to, but I watched as Momma did as I asked. When she was finished, her breathing had slowed a little, and a touch of the fire had gone out of her eyes. "There. Are you satisfied?" she asked me.
"Absolutely. Thanks," I said, knowing that if I got in her way much more, her ire would shift toward me, something I had no interest in experiencing.
We got to the mayor's office, where Polly North, a retired librarian who worked the desk as the town hall secretary these days, was at her station. Like Momma, she was a woman of small stature, but she wasn't someone worth crossing, either.
"Hello, Dorothy," Polly said, not even acknowledging me by name, but offering me a quick glance before focusing on my mother.
"Is he in?" Momma asked as she looked at the mayor's closed door.
Polly didn't skip a bit as she replied, "Why, I'm fine. And you?"
Momma got it, and I could see her expression soften for just a moment. "Sorry, Polly. I'm not mad at you. It's just that he's gone too far this time. I need to see him right now."
Polly pointed to the office door, smiled, and nodded, all the while saying, "I'm sorry. I'm afraid His Honor can't be disturbed right now."
Momma shot her a quick smile. "Got it. If anyone asks, I barged into the room uninvited."
Returning the grin, Polly said in a happy voice, "I really must ask you not to go in there," all the while nodding her head vigorously for us to go right in.
As Momma threw open the door, I saw that Cam was behind his desk, his feet propped up, a soda in one hand. There was a hot dog on his desk, and it wasn't too tough to see why he'd put on weight since he'd played high school football many years before. Only his hair had stayed the same, carefully styled and sprayed, with nothing out of place.
"Ladies," Cam said as he sat up in his chair. "Polly," he added, nearly bellowing, "I told you I wasn't to be disturbed."
"Don't blame her," Momma said. "She tried to stop me, but I wouldn't allow it. What is this nonsense about you making a bid on a county project while you're mayor of April Springs?"
Cam dabbed at his lips with a napkin and said, "So, you've seen the newspaper."
I could see the steam start to build in Momma's eyes. "Everyone has. It's wrong, Cam, and you know it."
He looked as though that last bite of hot dog hadn't agreed with him. "Dorothy, if you please, I'm happy to be called Cam on the street, but when I'm at my desk here at city hall, I ask that you respect the office. It's Mr. Mayor."
I thought Momma might have a stroke just then, but she took a deep breath, and then said almost cordially, "You really enjoy having that title, don't you?"
He looked smugly at her as he replied, "Why shouldn't I? It's a perfect description of who I am."
Momma shook her head. "There you're wrong. It's a job description, not a personal one. Whoever is mayor at the moment owns that title."
He looked puzzled by her comment. "What's your point? I am the mayor."
"For now, perhaps."
That clearly got his attention. He sat up in his chair and put his soda on his desktop. "What do you mean by that?"
"This is an election year, Mr. Mayor, or have you forgotten that? I know you haven't bothered putting signs up yet, probably because you'd like folks to forget, but the filing deadline is tomorrow, and the election is in a week." Our local political races ran in February, an odd time compared to the state and national election cycles, though no one I knew understood why.
"No one's running against me," he said. "It's a safe bet that I'm going to retain my title as long as I care to have it." Wow, he was so smug, if Momma didn't run against him, I was considering it myself. That man needed to be taken down a few notches.
"Are you dead set on taking this project?" Momma asked in a soft voice that I knew meant that she was serious.
"It's a done deal, Dorothy. I don't know what the fuss is about. After all, I deserve the right to earn a living."
"I'm not saying you don't," Momma said. "But this smells bad to everyone who is going to hear about it. It doesn't just make you look bad. It's a poor reflection on all of us."
The mayor shook his head. "If you've got a problem with that, blame it on Blake and his catchy headline."
"I'm not kidding, Mr. Mayor," Momma said, managing to put a great deal of scorn into her words, especially his title.
"You put her up to this, didn't you?" Cam asked me as he looked at me, acknowledging me for the first time since I'd walked in.
"Don't try to blame me. I'm just along for the ride," I said, trying my best to smile brightly.
"I'll bet," he said.
"Mr. Mayor, I'm perfectly capable of acting on my own," Momma said. "I will ask you only once more. Will you walk away from this right here and now?"
"No, ma'am, respectfully, I won't. You can't tell me what to do, and I won't be bullied by a ... citizen in my own office." I had a feeling he wanted to use a different word than "citizen," but even he wasn't that foolhardy.
Momma nodded curtly. "Then I'm going downstairs and filing my name as a candidate for mayor."
Cam didn't look happy about the news, but something must have suddenly occurred to him. He smiled broadly as he said, "Sorry, but you can't."
"What do you mean, she can't?" I asked. "Do you honestly think that you can stop her?"
The mayor drummed his fingers on the desktop. "The town charter clearly states that she needs a hundred signatures before she can file, and I doubt she can get them by tomorrow."
"I'd be glad to wager that you're wrong there," my mother said as she pivoted and headed for the door.
"Dorothy, you're biting off more than you can chew this time," Cam said as Momma reached the door.
She turned and gave him a withering stare. "Is that a threat, Cam?"
"It's Mr. Mayor, remember?"
Momma smiled, but there was no warmth in it. "For now," she said, and then I followed her out, carefully leaving the door open behind us.
Polly was standing just beside it, and it wouldn't have surprised me a bit to learn that she'd been eavesdropping on our conversation. She silently clapped a few times and smiled, but then Cam yelled for her, and she disappeared inside.
"What now?" I asked. "If the donut shop were open, I could get you the signatures you need in a heartbeat, but where are you going to find a hundred people right now? Are we going door-to-door begging for them?"
Momma shook her head. "We won't have to. We're going to start at the Boxcar Grill and move on from there until we've made our quota."
As soon as we walked into the diner, we told Trish Granger, the owner and one of my best friends, what we were up to. When she heard the news, she whooped with great joy. "Well, all I can say is that it's about time."
"I think so, too," I said.
Momma asked, "Do you mind helping us, Trish?"
"Are you kidding? I want to be the first one to sign it."
I looked at Momma and said, "We forgot to make up a sheet. Some campaign chair I turned out to be."
"Who said you could run my election?"
"Come on, I'm the logical choice," I said. "Who in the world believes in you more than I do?"
She softened for a just a moment, then said matter-of-factly, "Very well, but that means you need to take orders from me without resistance."
I wasn't sure I could abide by that. "I'll try."
Momma looked at me a second longer and then nodded. "I suppose that will have to do."
Trish reached into a drawer behind the register and brought out ten sheets of blank paper. She stapled them together, and then wrote in big letters on the front page: "Petition to Put Dorothy Hart on the Ballot for Mayor of April Springs."
She showed us and then asked, "How's that?"
"It's perfect," Momma said.
"Good." Trish signed her name bigger than John Hancock's, and then announced, "Let's go, folks. Dorothy Hart for mayor: Be one of the lucky ones who gets to sign the petition."
There was a rush up front, whether for my mother or against Cam Hamilton, but it really didn't matter what their motivation was. We needed signatures, and we needed them quickly.
As people signed, more came into the diner, and I found Trish working her telephone. When she hung up, I asked, "Where are they all coming from?"
"I dialed the ladies on the Disaster Alert call list, and they're phoning everyone in town. We'll have those signatures before the clerk's office closes."
"Should you be doing that?" I asked.
"Why shouldn't I? The list is strictly done on a volunteer basis, and it's not associated with any government agency at all."
I still wasn't sure this was the best way to start our campaign. "But it's not really a disaster, is it?"
Trish nodded. "You bet it is. Cam Hamilton has been mayor long enough. If getting your mother elected isn't a number one priority for this community, I don't know what is."
More folks were signing, most likely more than we needed.
"On second thought, you should be the one running her campaign," I said. "You've got a lot of ties to the community, and folks around here clearly respond to you."
"They respond to you, too," she replied.
"Maybe if they're craving donuts," I said. "But you're a natural leader."
"Don't sell yourself short. I wouldn't know how to run a mayoral campaign." She looked around the crowded restaurant and added, "I wouldn't mind being head of PR, though. I can spread the word like nobody's business."
I nodded. "As soon as I get my mother's approval, you've got the job."
Excerpted from Drop Dead Chocolate by Jessica Beck. Copyright © 2012 Jessica Beck. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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