A Donut Shop Mystery
By Jessica Beck
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 Jessica Beck
All rights reserved.
I thought getting away from my business — Donut Hearts — for a few days might be fun. But when I agreed to make gourmet donuts for one of my friends, I had no idea it would put me right in the middle of yet another homicide investigation.
Just about everyone I knew in April Springs, North Carolina — population 5,001 — was looking forward to the September Kitchens Extraordinaire home tour ever since it had first been announced in The April Springs Sentinel, including me. When my friend Marge Rankin suggested I demonstrate how to make something special in her newly remodeled kitchen for the tour, I'd jumped at the chance to show off just what I could do with some dough and a portable fryer. There wouldn't be a yeast donut or an apple fritter on the menu; I was going to pull out all of the stops and make something unforgettable.
"Jake, do you really want to learn how to make beignets?"
My boyfriend — a state police inspector named Jake Bishop I'd been seeing since March — smiled at me as we stood in the kitchen of Donut Hearts. He looked cute wearing one of our aprons, but I knew better than to tell him that. Jake was tall and thin, with a healthy head of sandy blond hair, and there was something about the man's presence that made me smile.
"Not as much as I want your company," he admitted. I didn't get to see him nearly enough, since his casework took him all over the state of North Carolina. I had to give him points for honesty, but I still had a job to do.
"I've got an idea," I said. "Why don't you sit over there and keep me company, and I'll let you sample the beignets I make? You can be my official taster."
He took off the apron as though he'd been pardoned for a crime he'd never committed. "That's the best deal I've had in weeks."
"You don't have to look so relieved when you say it," I said with a grin.
"What can I tell you? I'm all about leaving tough stuff to the experts."
I frowned at the finished dough. It was close to the consistency I'd been hoping for, but the true test would be in the taste. "I'm not sure I qualify."
"Come on, you're the best donut maker in the world. You told me yourself beignets are just fancy donuts, and no one's better at making those than you. I'm a cop; trust me, I know donuts."
"I appreciate the sentiment, but I don't have time on the tour to make these with yeast, so I'm going to have to substitute baking powder instead. It's more chemistry than you'd imagine." It was true. While cooking recipes could usually be slightly modified with impunity, baking was another matter altogether. I needed enough baking powder to make the dough rise when it hit the hot oil, but not too much, or it would be a disaster, and if there was one thing I couldn't afford, it was to wreck my demonstration.
He laughed. "Don't sell yourself short. I know I couldn't do it."
I lightly floured the counter and rolled out the dough until it was somewhere between a quarter- and an eighth-inch thick, and then cut it into squares. For the demonstration, I'd be using my ravioli cutter, a scallop-edged tool that left perfectly shaped circles, but this test run was more about taste than appearance.
I dropped the first rounds into the oil and held my breath. After cooking two minutes on one side, I flipped them, and then pulled them out after another two. I had a plate ready, and dusted them with confectioner's sugar while they were still hot.
"Man, those smell fantastic," Jake said as I slid the plate in front of him.
"Now let's see how they taste," I said.
We both reached for the same one, and I laughed. "There's plenty for both of us."
"That's what you think." He took a bite, and I watched his expression. If his look of joy meant anything, I might have a winning recipe after all.
"Outstanding," he said as he reached for another one.
I was happy with his reaction, but I was a harsher judge myself. I bit into the treat, and felt the texture of the beignet in my mouth. The flavor was spot on, a hint of airy lightness that tasted something like a sophisticated funnel cake from a fair. I had to agree that it was good — there was no doubt about that — but was it as good as my yeast beignets?
"Are you sure?"
"Well, maybe I'd better eat the rest of these so I can be sure." He had a hint of powdered sugar on his nose, and I reached over and wiped it off just as his cell phone rang.
"Bishop here," he said as he answered, his voice becoming instantly serious. I had no idea how he turned it off and on like he did.
"Yes, sir. I understand. I'm on my way."
After he hung up, I asked, "Bad news?"
"I've got a case. It's on the Outer Banks, Suzanne. Looks like I'm going to have to miss the tour. Sorry."
"You've got a job to do," I said, a little sad that he wouldn't be there for my demonstration.
He shrugged, and then wrapped me in his arms. "I'll call you later."
"Liar," I said with a grin. When he was on a case, I knew how focused he could get, so I didn't expect daily, or even weekly telephone calls.
"You caught me," he said, and then to make up for it, he kissed me.
After he was gone, I could swear I could still taste the beignets on his breath.
The day before the tour, Marge stopped by Donut Hearts half an hour before we were set to close to go over my menu one more time. She was a petite woman in her early sixties, and her smile was always a little crooked, shifting slightly to the left whenever she grinned. You couldn't see it at the moment, though, since Marge wasn't anywhere close to smiling.
"Suzanne, are you certain you're ready for the big day? I don't mean to put any extra pressure on you, but this is important."
I nodded and did my best to reassure her. "Marge, I've got everything under control. I've been staying late an hour every day for a week to test my recipes and polish my cooking techniques with the portable fryer, and I've got it all down cold. Don't worry. It's going to be fabulous."
Marge Rankin had inherited a great deal of money from her father when he'd passed away a few years earlier. Rumors around town put her net worth at two million dollars on the conservative side, and all the way up to ten million on those hot summer days when no one had anything else to talk about. It was impossible to tell that Marge had money by the way she dressed, though; she bought her clothes from Gabby Williams's shop next door to the converted train depot that now housed my donut shop. ReNEWed was a clothing store that offered some of the best recycled clothing in our part of North Carolina, and Marge wasn't afraid who knew she shopped for her apparel secondhand.
"It just has to be perfect," Marge said, wringing her hands together with such force they were white. "I've dreamed about this kitchen for twenty years, and I can hardly believe I finally have it. I want everyone to know it, too."
I'd had the grand tour of her remodeled place the day before, and she had every right to be proud. From the Viking stove to the deluxe six-burner industrial cooktop, the lustrous marble countertops to the elegant hardwood floors, it was truly a thing of beauty.
"It's going to be the star of the show," I said. "Everyone will be talking about it when we're through."
Marge smiled. "I certainly hope so. Thanks again for making donuts for me."
The underlying theme of the exhibition was Working Kitchens, and everyone with a stop on the tour had hired a professional chef to show off their creations. I was the lone demonstrator who hadn't gone to culinary school, and I was beginning to feel the pinging of my nerves, something I couldn't let Marge see.
I tried to match her smile as I said, "Are you kidding? How often do I get the chance to work in such elegant surroundings? I'm looking forward to it."
She looked around the shop, then frowned softly. "I think your place is quaint. Who doesn't love an old train depot?"
I glanced at the painted burgundy floor, the large windows overlooking Springs Drive from one view and the abandoned railroad tracks from the other, and saw Donut Hearts in a different light. Sometimes I took it for granted, but it really was a welcoming place to spend my days, even if they did begin at one-thirty in the morning and end a little after noon.
"Don't get me wrong," I said. "I'm a huge fan of my shop. After all, it's named after me, isn't it?" Marge nodded. "That was so clever, adding an E to your last name. Hart for Heart, it's perfect."
"I like it," I admitted. "Now, don't you have a thousand things to do to get ready for tomorrow? Do you have the list of ingredients I asked you to get for me?" Marge had insisted on supplying everything I'd need for the day's donut making, and I hadn't fought her on it. After all, it freed me to try some things that I'd only read about in books before, and I wasn't going to scrimp or substitute on second-class ingredients.
"I've got three of everything you requested, so we'll be fine. I do have to see about the china, though. I'd better go check to see if it's arrived at the house yet."
As she started for the door, Marge hesitated, then asked, "Have I thanked you recently for doing this for me?"
"Just a thousand times," I said with a grin. "Just remember to relax and have fun with it. Our stop is going to be the talk of the town. Now shoo."
After she left, my assistant, Emma Blake, came out of the kitchen. Emma was a pretty young woman nearly out of her teens, with a cute figure and flaming red hair. She'd been working for me a few years, saving to go away to college someday and taking classes at the community college at night. Selfishly, I hoped it wasn't any time soon. I'd grown to depend on her, and had learned to trust her with my life. In a two-woman operation, she was more important than my flour supplier and all of my regular customers combined.
Emma looked around the room, as if not trusting her eyes, as she asked, "Is she finally gone?" "Don't tell me you don't like Marge Rankin," I said. "She's got to be the gentlest woman in the world."
Emma bit her lower lip, then said, "Honestly, I'm just tired of having her hover around the shop all of the time."
"Don't worry, it's almost over. She's understandably just a little nervous about everyone in town parading through her place."
My assistant frowned at me. "You showed me pictures of her kitchen. What on earth does she have to worry about? It's absolutely perfect."
I shrugged. "Maybe so, but I know she's not going to sleep a wink until the debut tomorrow."
Emma sighed. "I wish I had her problems."
"I'm not sure you should," I said. "Just because she's wealthy doesn't mean she's got it made." It was time to change the subject, so I asked her, "Is everything set here for tomorrow? Do you have any lastminute questions?"
That earned me a frown from her. "Suzanne, I told you, I can handle the donut shop. Mom's coming in to help me, so we'll be fine. Don't worry, your place is in good hands."
I clearly surprised her by hugging her. "I know it is. I trust you completely." Though I made donuts alone once a week on Emma's day off, she'd never had to make them without me. But she'd been working for me for two years, and I'd taught her everything I'd learned since I'd bought the place. Donut Hearts had been my personal emancipation proclamation, bought with my settlement from the divorce from my cheating husband Max. Max was out of my life, though he still lived in town, and was constantly trying to get back into my heart.
Emma said, "I need to get back to those dishes."
A few minutes after she disappeared in back, a nice-looking man in his thirties came into the shop, and I had to keep myself from openly staring at him. It wasn't just because he had a full head of lustrous blond hair and the bluest eyes I'd ever seen in my life. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn't place him for the life of me.
"May I help you?"
"I'd like two black coffees to go," he said.
"Can I get you any donuts to go with them?"
He grinned at me as if I'd just said something amusing, then shook his head. "No, just the coffee, please."
As I filled two cups for him, I wanted to start a conversation, but I couldn't think of a thing in the world to say. When I glanced back at him over my shoulder, I saw him smiling at me, as if he knew something I didn't.
I told him how much he owed me, and as he paid for the coffee, he said, "I'll see you the same time tomorrow."
"I won't be here," I blurted out. Honestly, it was as though I'd never seen a nice-looking man in my shop before. Why was I suddenly acting like a girl in junior high school?
"More's the pity," he said, and then left.
Now what on earth had that been about?
The front door chimed ten minutes later, and I looked up to see who was coming into the shop three minutes before we were set to close.
I gritted my teeth the second I saw that it was Peg Masterson — the organizer of the kitchen tour — a woman with an amplified, nasal voice that could make a marble statue run away screaming. I knew her clothes were at best second-hand from Gabby's shop, but she still made me self-conscious about my blue jeans and T-shirt.
"Suzanne, I need a word with you," she said as she tapped her clipboard with the back of her pen. Peg was a short woman in her fifties, nearly as wide as she was tall. Her figure must have been a challenge to clothe, but I wasn't sure that justified the handmade creations she sometimes made for herself to wear. What might look good on a fashion model that was a size zero certainly didn't seem to flatter her figure. She had black hair, and it was pretty clear to me that it wasn't natural.
"Hello, Peg. Come by for a donut?"
She looked at them for a second with longing. "No, I'm afraid I've decided to cut back on my sweets intake. They play havoc with my figure, you know."
"Not even a lemon-filled one?" I asked wickedly. They were Peg's downfall, and she usually ordered them from me by the dozen.
She looked tempted to break her abstinence, and I felt ashamed for my little jab, so I was more than a little upset with myself when she said, "Oh, why not? What's one going to hurt? You know, I've never been able to resist these little devils, even if I could stand to lose a pound or two."
More like forty or fifty, I thought to myself, again rather unkindly. Peg just seemed to bring out the worst in me, and I wasn't all that proud of it.
As she wolfed down the donut, I asked, "What can I do for you?"
She tapped the clipboard again. "I'm still not sure about your exhibition. You assure me that it's going to be keeping in tone with the rest of the tour, correct?"
Now that she was firing back at me, I wasn't nearly as amused as I had been before. "Peg, I know you're not thrilled that Marge asked me to demonstrate donuts, but you really shouldn't be so narrow-minded. Donuts have been around since biblical times, they've been some of the favorite treats of presidents, and they're eaten all over the world. You really should respect them for their contributions to the world's happiness."
She rolled her eyes, and I knew it was a lost cause. "What exactly are you making tomorrow? It's the first day of the tour, and much will depend on how well it is received by the visitors who come tomorrow."
"I've been thinking about starting with beignets. You'll have to try one. They're delicious."
Peg frowned, then studied her clipboard again. "I have you down for donuts, which is fairly obvious since you own a donut shop. Why the change in offerings?" She added with a bite, "Unless simple donuts aren't good enough for you."
"A beignet is a donut, Peg," I said, trying to keep my temper in check. I didn't care what she thought of me, but if she was looking for an excuse to scratch Marge from the tour, I wasn't going to be the one who provided it. I'd been surprised to learn that Peg had allowed her rival a spot on the kitchen tour at all, and I had hoped that she'd finally put her petty jealousies behind her.
Apparently, that hope had been in vain.
Peg stared at me over the clipboard. "Whatever. Don't let all of us running the tour down, Suzanne."
"My part of it will be perfect," I said.
"Let's hope so," Peg said as she walked out the door, getting the last word in yet again.
I had one minute left before closing, but I couldn't face the idea of Peg popping back inside with "one more thing." I didn't think I could greet her again without screaming. The shop was empty, so I flipped the OPEN sign to CLOSED and started to dead-bolt the door. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Fatally Frosted by Jessica Beck. Copyright © 2010 Jessica Beck. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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