If Emily has learned anything from her past as a 911 operator, it’s to stay calm during stressful situations. But that’s a tall order when one of her regulars, Georgia Treetor, goes missing. Georgia never skips morning cappuccinos with her knitting circle. Her pals fear the worst—especially Lois, a close friend who recently moved to town. As evening creeps in, Emily and the ladies search for Georgia at home. And they find her—murdered among a scattering of stale donuts . . .
Disturbingly, Georgia’s demise coincides with the five-year anniversary of her son’s murder, a case Emily’s late detective husband failed to solve before his own sudden death. With Lois hiding secrets and an innocent man’s life at stake, Emily’s forced to revisit painful memories on her quest for answers. Though someone’s alibi is full of holes, only a sprinkling of clues have been left behind. And if Emily can’t trace them back to a killer in time, her donut shop will end up permanently closed for business . . .
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Tom stopped coating hot apple fritters in that tantalizing mixture of cinnamon and sugar. He stared over the half wall separating Deputy Donut's kitchen from our dining area. "One of our regulars is missing."
Naturally, Tom noticed when folks didn't show up for their usual coffee break. Before his stint as Fallingbrook's police chief, he'd been a detective.
"Once a cop, always a cop," I teased.
"You got it, Emily. I might have retired from the force, but ..." He pointed at his hat. "I'm still the chief and I've got the fuzz hat to prove it."
Tom's Deputy Donut hat was a pretend police cap with a fuzzy donut glued on where the badge would be. The rakish way the hat tilted on Tom's short gray hair echoed the tilt of the police hat on the cat silhouette printed on our dishes and embroidered on our aprons. "Not necessarily." I raised my eyes as if I could see the top of my head and my own Deputy Donut hat, identical to Tom's. "Here, we're both chief." In addition to our hats and aprons, we both wore black jeans and white shirts. "Who's missing?"
I stopped smiling. I liked Georgia. A lot. "That's strange." The knitters who called themselves the Knitpickers were backlit by morning sunshine slanting in through the front windows, and I couldn't make out features. "Don't I see six women at their table?"
"Not Georgia." The fryer beeped. Tom lifted another basket of fritters out of hot oil. "I see another white-haired woman who resembles her, but she's even smaller than Georgia."
"I'll go check." I carried a carafe of our house blend, a medium roast Colombian, past our glass-fronted display case and the marble counter where patrons sat on stools. The aroma of the coffee almost let me forget the mouthwatering cinnamon behind me in the kitchen.
Greeting other customers in our dining room and topping up coffee mugs, I made my way to the Knitpickers' usual table, one of the two large ones closest to Wisconsin Street. Tom was right. A tiny woman with a dandelion fluff of white hair sat facing the street. Tom had been able to tell from her back that the woman wasn't Georgia.
A twinkle in her light blue eyes, the new woman smiled up at me. "You must be Emily. Georgia told me about you. I recognize the dark curls, bright blue eyes, and friendly smile. I'm Lois Unterlaw. Georgia will tell you I'm her oldest friend, but that can't be true." She winked. "I'm not all that ancient. I'm the friend she's known the longest." Despite the white hair, she was youthful in her white jeans and flowing periwinkle top. "I just moved back to Fallingbrook from Madison, and she told me to meet her here this morning." She held up a handmade quilted tote, pieced together from cheerful prints in fuchsia, turquoise, and yellow. Knobby ends of knitting needles stuck out of the top. "I brought my knitting. She said I'd fit right in with the Knitpickers."
I shook her hand. "Welcome back to Fallingbrook, and welcome to Deputy Donut." Her hand was barely bigger than a child's. The strength of her grip startled me.
The knitters all began talking at once.
"Where is Georgia?"
"She never misses one of our morning Knitpicker meetings!"
"She's never, ever late."
"It's Monday. Maybe she went off for the weekend and was delayed getting home."
"Taking time off from mending dolls at her own doll hospital is one thing, but taking time off from us?"
"If she had a trip planned, she would have told us on Friday, wouldn't she?"
"Maybe she slept in."
One of the knitters pointed at me and told Lois, "Emily's the brains behind Deputy Donut."
"Actually, I'm not," I said. "Blame the Fallingbrook police department. They'll tell you that cops eating donuts is a stereotype, but most of them agree that they drink a lot of coffee, and the officers here in Fallingbrook really like my donuts. They made me open the shop so they could buy them every day." One of the four policemen at the next table let out a particularly hearty and contagious laugh. I flashed him a smile.
Lois tilted her head. "What did you do, Emily, drop out of junior high to open this shop?"
"No, but thanks." I lowered one eyebrow in fake skepticism. "I think." I was almost twenty-nine, but saying it would probably make me sound as juvenile as I apparently looked.
"What's your secret to staying so slim, Emily?" Lois was smaller than I was.
I quipped, "Lots of coffee and donuts."
She folded her arms. "I doubt that. You brought your apron strings all the way around to the front and tied them in a bow, with lots left over!"
"The secret to that is long apron strings." And an unspoken competition with Tom, who worked at staying fit and tied his apron strings in front also, but only in a square knot without excess strings dangling, which was just as well, since he was usually the one operating the fryers.
"Wait until you try the donuts here," another knitter warned Lois. "They're addictive."
"How can you eat donuts and knit?" Lois demanded. "Don't your yarn and needles get all sticky?"
One of the knitters made a pretend huffy face. "Give us credit for a little couth." She cocked her head toward a wall covered in artwork. "The ladies' room is just behind that wall, and it's very nice. We knit, then eat, then wash our hands, and then knit some more."
Lois held both thumbs up. "Georgia's right. I'll fit in for more than just knitting."
The knitters gave one another high fives, a tricky maneuver considering that some of them didn't let go of their knitting. "Welcome to the Knitpickers," they said to Lois.
She studied the wall between the dining room and the hall leading to the restrooms. "You have lovely paintings, sculptures, and wall-hangings, Emily," she said. "And your peach-tinted walls are a perfect background for the artwork."
One of the knitters sat up straighter. "The artists and craftspeople are all local."
Another chimed in, "People can buy what's displayed here through Emily and Tom."
"Tom?" Lois turned in her chair. Tom and his whimsical Deputy Donut hat were visible over the half wall. "Is that Chief Westhill?"
"Yes," I said. "He retired from the police. The two of us own Deputy Donut."
The original five Knitpickers watched me, obviously curious about what else I might say about Tom.
I raised my chin. "He's my father-in-law."
"I remember him," Lois said. "Nice guy."
The rest of us agreed.
A Knitpicker told Lois, "Emily and Tom don't charge commissions on the art in here."
Lois stared admiringly toward a spray of beech leaves sculpted from brass. "That's lovely."
"We get beautiful decorations — for free." I made a sad face. "But people keep buying my favorite pieces and I have to replace them." I opened my eyes as if surprised. "With new favorites!" Lois ran a finger along the edge of the table. Our tabletops had been made from giant slices of tree, coated with a silky, waterproof finish. "I'll bet your customers like to count the rings to see how old the trees were," she said.
"They do. And they write down the results in the guest book there by the door."
Lois asked, "Do their results vary a lot, Emily?"
"None of our customers could possibly be wrong."
All six women laughed.
Lois patted the arms of her chair. "What a charming and welcoming coffee shop. Even the chairs are comfy." She picked up the handmade copper vase from the center of the table and held it near her face. "I love the scent of chrysanthemums. And these burgundy mums go perfectly with the copper. Are the vases for sale, also?"
"Not from me," I answered, "but the guy who makes them sells them at The Craft Croft, the artisans' co-op down the street."
Lois clapped her hands. "I'll have to get Georgia to take me there. Where can she be? I meant to call her this weekend, but I was unpacking and putting things away in my new house, and she had a big order of dolls to repair."
I suggested, "Maybe our lot's full and she's searching for a parking space." Labor Day was only seven days away. The last week of a perfect summer had brought many tourists to northern Wisconsin. Almost every seat in Deputy Donut was occupied, while out on Wisconsin Street, smiling people were window-shopping and browsing through Fallingbrook's many appealing shops.
"What would you folks like this morning?" I asked. "Tom just made a batch of cinnamon and sugar apple fritters. They're still hot."
All six women ordered them. One woman wanted a cappuccino with cinnamon sprinkled on top, and Lois asked me to make her one like it. As usual, two of the women wanted to share a pot of green tea. One woman asked for decaf Colombian, and the other wanted the day's featured coffee, a dark roast Nicaraguan.
I returned to the kitchen, plated the fritters, steamed the milk to a soft foam for Lois and the other woman, pulled shots of espresso, and combined the steamed milk and espresso in small cups printed with the Deputy Donut logo. Even though the smell of the cinnamon was tempting me to make a cappuccino for myself, I was glad they'd ordered it. Sprinkling it on their cappuccinos made me feel less guilty about not yet having mastered drawing cat eyes, noses, and whiskers in the foamed milk. Usually, I could manage the semblance of a donut. If it turned out lopsided with no hole in it, I could claim I'd intended to draw a fritter.
Georgia still hadn't arrived when I delivered the last of the fritters and beverages to the Knitpickers. The woman who'd said that Georgia was never late repeated it. I heard anxiety in her voice.
Lois tapped her phone's screen. After a few seconds, she reported, "Georgia's not answering. Maybe she's on her way. Or taking a load of mended dolls to the post office."
The woman with the doleful voice pointed out, "She usually does that in the afternoon."
We told one another that Georgia would be along any minute, probably with an amusing tale about what had delayed her.
Many of our customers asked for fritters or cinnamon-flavored donuts. Chocolate was also popular that morning. I served unraised chocolate donuts drizzled with chocolate glaze, raised donuts with vanilla frosting and chocolate sprinkles, and ganache-filled donuts. Although I had tasted each kind, I wanted to sample them all again. I was a firm believer in what I liked to think of as quality control.
However, I didn't need to perform much quality control. Regular customers and new visitors were generous with their praise. One woman had driven from Pennsylvania to take pictures of the tall and beautiful waterfall that gave Fallingbrook its name. She cradled her ironstone mug between her palms. "Your donut shop warms my heart as well as my hands." She nodded at the hatted-cat silhouette on her mug and then smiled at the expanse of glass between the dining room and our office. "And I love the cat."
A real cat, my black, cream, and ginger tortoiseshell tabby fur baby, was in the office, sitting on the windowsill with her tail curled around her feet. Blinking sleepily, she peered through the glass at the people in the dining room. Tom and I had named Deputy Donut after her. To avoid confusion, I usually shortened the cat's name to Dep.
During a lull in cooking, coffee making, quality control, and swapping jokes and stories with customers, I opened the door from the dining room and slipped into the office. Dep's domain had windows on all four sides and a back door so I could whisk her into and out of the office without allowing her inside the dining room or kitchen. We didn't break health regulations, and my cat had the privilege of being both mascot and office manager. Besides, I'd miss her if I left her at home.
She was napping on the couch. She opened her eyes, stretched, hopped to the top of the short, cookbook-filled bookcase, and from there to the cushioned windowsill facing the kitchen. Switching her tail back and forth, she peered in at Tom. He smiled and waved. Dep purred.
The office had been chilly when we'd arrived at six thirty, but now it was toasty enough for my heat-craving cat, and I flicked off the gas fireplace between the windows overlooking the driveway. Dep jumped down to the ottoman, and then up to the windowsill behind the couch, where she could again watch the dining room. She settled down with her front paws tucked underneath her. If she tired of supervising the dining room, kitchen, driveway, and parking lot from her padded windowsills, she could rediscover her basket of toys or climb a carpeted pillar or her cat-width staircase to a multilevel catwalk circling the room above the windows. She had plenty of food, water, and a clean litter tray.
Planting one knee in the couch, I leaned forward and buried my face in her soft fur. She revved up the purrs. "I'll be back soon," I told her, and let myself into the dining room.
Shortly before noon, the Knitpickers packed up. I held the front door open for them and their crafty totes and handwoven baskets.
Lois frowned at me. "Georgia's still not answering her phone."
"She'll be fine." I hoped I was right. "See you tomorrow!"
I saw them sooner than that.
At five thirty, right after Tom left for the day, I was about to leash Dep and walk her home when a dark blue minivan pulled into the parking lot behind the shop. Lois hopped out. Leaving Dep in the office, I went outside to see why Lois had come back after we closed.
She held up a key. "This is for Georgia's house. She's still not answering her phone. We're going to check on her. Want to come along?"
Dep would be fine in the office with her food, water, litter tray, catwalks, and toys. "Sure." I would have been happier if Lois had come to tell me that Georgia had been at home all day, concentrating on repairing dolls and making tiny outfits for them.
I locked the office door and walked to the van with Lois. The other five Knitpickers were already inside. I crawled into the very back seat with two of them. Keeping my eyes open for Tom's SUV, I pulled my phone out of my bag, and then put it back. I'd have liked Tom to join us at Georgia's, but although he still thought like a detective and a police chief, he had the right to a pleasant evening with my mother-in-law. I could call one of my best friends, a police officer, but that was silly, too. Georgia would be fine. I was thinking it, and the other women were saying it.
About ten minutes after we left Fallingbrook's center, Lois pulled onto a road just inside the town limits. Homes in this subdivision were newer than those close to downtown, but old enough to radiate character. They were set back from the street on large lots surrounded by shrubs and flower gardens, with woods behind them. Tall trees had already dropped a few red and gold leaves on green lawns. Mailboxes near the road and a lack of sidewalks gave the neighborhood a rural atmosphere. It was homey, quiet, and a little isolated.
Lois slowed near a one-story baby blue house with white shutters. On a white sign on the lawn, navy blue lettering spelled out DOLL HOSPITAL. "There's Georgia's house." Lois craned her neck to see around a crimson bush beside a lamppost. "Oh no! Georgia hasn't gone anywhere. Her car's in her driveway." A compact silver sedan was parked in front of the closed garage door.
I suggested, "Maybe she took a taxi to the bus station."
One of my seatmates said, "Maybe someone picked her up. A friend or relative?"
Lois parked behind the silver car, and we all piled out.
No wonder Georgia often bought boxes of donuts to take home. Her front porch was a welcoming outdoor room where friends and neighbors could relax, chat, and enjoy snacks. Underneath its sheltering roof, the deep porch ran the entire width of Georgia's house. Yellow and bronze mums bloomed in white window boxes on the railing. Although the cushioned porch swing and rocking chairs were inviting, we all stood in a bunch at the door.
Lois pushed a button. Stately chimes rang inside the house. Shuffling our feet and fidgeting, we waited. Lois tried the doorbell three more times. Finally, she retrieved Georgia's key from the pocket of her white jeans. "Do you all agree we should go in?"
One of the women asked me, "You used to be a 911 operator, right, Emily?"
"For a couple of years, yes."
"Should we call 911?"
"Probably not." Unless we discover a reason to ...
The key turned, and Lois pushed the door open. "Georgia? Yoo-hoo! Georgia!" Her voice was surprisingly forceful for such a tiny woman.
Excerpted from "Survival of the Fritters"
Copyright © 2018 Janet Bolin.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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