I checked my watch and was pleased to see I was on schedule. The cake set up at the Silver Spring, Arizona fitness center’s open house went smoothly—to my great relief—leaving me plenty of time to do the last-minute decorating of the miniature tennis courts. The cake was huge—big enough to feed four hundred and decorated to look like the new facility.
I looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps and smiled at the mayor, Ralph Tanner, and Eric Hogan, the city councilman who had overseen the entire project. “What do you think?” I asked.
They stared at my masterpiece as if they hadn’t believed I could do it. “Wow. Can I say “wow”?” the mayor asked.
“I’m always happy with wow,” I said smiling. Wow fell only slightly behind gorgeous, awesome and fantastic in my book.
“It looks great.” Eric nodded, studying the entire grounds before turning to me. “Do you have those pies?”
“Yes, they’re in the kitchen. I stashed them in the cupboard over the fridge where no one would find them.” He’d prepaid for them when he ordered over the internet (prepay was one of my favorite words now that I was in business for myself).
“And you used fresh peaches and blackberries?” he asked, as if doubting my word.
“Of course. I used only fresh ingredients, and no preservatives, so you’re completely safe.” He claimed his wife was allergic to preservatives, but I heard through the grapevine that requests like this predated his marriage by several years. Still, he came in often and usually paid with cash, so who was I to quibble?
“Good, good. We have some things to check out, but this place should start to get busy really soon,” Mayor Tanner said, checking his watch.
Feeling suddenly nervous, I made an effort to relax my stomach muscles. Everything was fine. The cake was perfect and would taste great. No problem.
* * *
People milled all around, whispering about their weekend plans or discussing my cake while Mayor Tanner gave a long, drawn-out speech on how excited everyone was for the new facility, and how it would serve generations to come. Yeah. He’s one of those. Councilman Hogan came on stage and received the mayor’s thanks for watching over the project.
I glanced toward the contractor, whose work hadn’t even been acknowledged, and saw him glower at Hogan. What was his name again? Greasy? No Grizzle. Marty Grizzle. A big bull of a man, he folded his arms over his plaid flannel shirt (flannel in Arizona, in July, really?) and spread his legs into a defiant stance. His work boots were crusted with mud from one of his job sites and there was a black pack of Camels poking out of his front pocket. I got the feeling if he had free reign to talk about how wonderful Hogan was, the words he spoke wouldn’t be printable.
“And now, we’re going to cut the ribbon, and then Tess Crawford, owner of the The Sweet Bites Bakery, will slice her incredible replica of the facility.” My name pulled my attention back to the mayor, who held a huge pair of scissors. “If you haven’t taken a good look at this cake, you better do so before we start cutting. And I understand it’s supposed to taste great, too!” He grinned as if he were imparting some special wisdom before he opened the scissors and cut the ribbon that cordoned off the rest of the building from the crowd. The outer facilities had been used all summer for city-league sports, but the indoor portions including the pool, track, weight room, gym and racquetball courts would officially open this afternoon.
Within five minutes I had smiled for several people—including the news reporter—who took pictures of me behind the cake, then started slicing from both ends. I’d made it with white cake on the front of the building and chocolate on the back to satisfy various appetites. Taking a better look at the crowd, I was surprised by the number of people in attendance. More advertising as far as I was concerned. Word of mouth was far more effective in creating sales than newspaper articles anyway.
I spent the next half an hour happily destroying my masterpiece while people’s eyes popped as they tasted the treat. That was what I lived for—that and the joy of designing and decorating the cake in the first place.
Despite how huge it had started out, there was only a small section of white cake left when the last of the guests dispersed. I packaged up the remainder in a couple of pastry boxes and headed down the hall where I’d seen the mayor and facility manager talking earlier. Someone might as well enjoy the end of it, and I didn’t need it. The local nursing home, women’s shelter and food bank already got regular donations of my leftover products.
The halls were eerily quiet, my footsteps echoing on the gray asphalt tiles. Children’s voices trickled from the pool, while the clank of weight machines sounded down the other hall. The facility was free to the public for the rest of the day and plenty of people were taking advantage of it.
When I didn’t find the mayor on the main floor, I went upstairs where there were rooms available for rent. I checked a couple of meeting rooms, then pushed on the door to the closet-sized kitchen, which could be rented to portion out snacks for events. The door stopped when it was halfway open and I looked down, seeing a big, brown man’s shoe blocking the way. It appeared to be attached to a pair of men’s dress pants.
My heart raced and I caught my breath as I looked around the edge of the door, already knowing I was not going to like what I saw.
Eric Hogan lay on his back, the boxes of pie I’d made lay next to him, one on its side with the pie falling out onto the floor in chunks. His hands splayed at his side and a big red bullet hole marred his forehead, blood still oozing out of it into a pool around his upper body and trickling down under the oven.
My stomach clenched as I grew nauseated. The smell of peaches and spice assaulted my nose along with the coppery scent of blood (though that might have been my imagination). I took two quick steps back, holding my stomach, hoping I wouldn’t vomit. A few more steps and I ran into the railing that overlooked the main floor. Turning, I saw the mayor and a woman passing below me. “Mayor, help! Call 911.” My voice failed me, and he looked up at me, confused. “It’s Eric Hogan,” I said.
“What’s wrong with him? Is he hurt?” He started up the stairs toward me, fast.
“He’s dead.” I slid down the railing to sit on the floor and pulled my legs to my chest, dropping my head between my knees, hoping I wouldn’t pass out. What was it with me finding dead bodies?
4 cups fresh peaches
1 cup fresh blackberries
½ cup sugar
3 Tbsp cornstarch
1 pinch salt
1 tsp cinnamon
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup shortening
1 large egg, beaten
2 Tbsn white vinegar
Line the bottom of the pie pan with crust and prick the sides and bottom with a fork. Then spread in the peaches and berries. Sprinkle the other ingredients evenly across the top. Top with a second crust and crimp the edges and bake for about an hour, or until crust starts to turn golden.
This is based on the recipe my grandma always used from her Encyclopedia of Cooking, though I really like the extra punch the berries give the pie. My friend Honey prefers it au-natural, though, with just the peaches. If it’s off-season and you just have to have your peach-pie fix, frozen peaches and blackberries can be substituted for the fresh ones, just put them in the shell still frozen. If you defrost them before you bake they can turn mushy.
“We really have to stop meeting like this.”
I’d know the voice anywhere—it belonged to paramedic Jack King, the man who always seemed to be there when I felt or looked like crap. I peered up at him now and hoped I wasn’t as pale as I felt. “You’re telling me. Did you get a look at him?”
“Yeah, there’s nothing we can do for him. How about you? Need an IV?” His blue eye twinkled at me and I glared. He knew how much I hated needles.
I hit his leg with my closed fist, though I didn’t put as much energy behind it as I could have. “Sure, just as much as you want an appendectomy.”
“Too late, I already had one, but yeah, surgery’s not really high on my to-do list right now.” He crouched beside me. “Are you going to be all right? You’re kind of gray around the edges.” He brushed at a couple of hairs that had escaped my hair clips.
“I’m feeling better. Help me stand and we’ll see how much better.” I slid my hand into his and tried to ignore the way it wrapped around mine so nicely, or the gentle way he helped me to my feet. Instead I reminded myself that he’d put a needle in my arm that spring. I still wasn’t ready to forgive him, even though I’d needed the IV and had sort of given permission.
“How’s that?” Jack asked when he got me to my feet. He put a hand on my back, steadying me for a moment as a bout of lightheadedness hit me.
When it passed, I nodded. “I’m okay.”
“Yeah, sure. Let’s find you a chair. Tingey will want to talk to you before you leave, anyway.” He nodded toward the detective, who was speaking with a man outside the kitchen door.
“Of course he will. And then he’ll ask me again, and he’ll have me write it down, and if I’m really lucky, I’ll get a ride to the station to give a formal report too!” I pasted on a manic grin as if it sounded like barrels of fun. Having experienced it before, though, I knew better.
My cell phone rang and I fished it out of my pocket as we headed down the stairs to a chair by the empty cake table. Someone had hauled off the board while I’d been upstairs trying not to be sick.
I glared at my phone when my shop’s number came up. “Hey, Angela. How’s it going?”
“Um, fine?” my nineteen-year-old employee said.
I could feel a headache coming on, and she hadn’t even said what was wrong, yet. “Yeah? You called to tell me everything was fine?”
“Well, see, I was helping Mrs. Hooper with the anniversary cake you made for her, and I sort of dropped it on the floor. It doesn’t look very good there.”
My mouth formed words I would not allow myself to speak aloud to an employee. Jack seemed to get the gist of it as he slid an arm around my back before I could give in to the desire to pass out for real this time. It had to be easier than dealing with such incompetence.
“Um, Tess, are you still there?” Angela asked when I didn’t speak for a long moment.
“Yes. Is Mrs. Hooper still in the store? Could I speak with her, please?” I was proud of myself for keeping my voice even.
A moment later the woman came on the line, her voice hitching with tears. “I promised my Albert we’d have something special for the family party tonight. I can’t believe it. It happened right in front of me. What are you going to do about it? It’s all over the floor.”
Dang. That meant I couldn’t just fix the exterior as I would if the damage hadn’t been serious. I looked at my watch. It was three-thirty. “Look, I have a round cake in my fridge that I was going to decorate tonight. How about if I come in and decorate it for you? I know it’s the wrong shape, but it’s the same flavor and I can do it up along the same design as the other one and deliver it to your house before six tonight. Will that work?”
The woman sniffled. “Yes. But I should get a discount if it’s going to be round.”
I ground my teeth together. “Of course. How does fifteen percent sound?”
“Well, I guess you are delivering it.” She seemed to debate for a moment. “That will be fine.”
“Terrific. Make sure you give Angela your address and I’ll see you in a few hours.”
Detective Tingey was not going to be happy about me ducking out, but I figured he knew where to find me. I hung up the phone and slid it back into my pocket.
“That didn’t sound good,” Jack said.
“You have no idea. The good news is I’m so furious that I’m not feeling light headed anymore.” I pulled one of my business cards from the pocket of my apron and grabbed my pen. On the back of the card I jotted. “Sorry, business emergency. I can meet you after six, or you can swing by the shop.” I put my cell number below it and signed my initials. I handed it to Jack. “Could you give this to Detective Tingey? I know I owe you for taking the glare he’s going to shoot at you when he reads my card. Bring your daughter in when you get a day off and I’ll get you both cupcakes on the house.”
“I won’t argue with that. You’re sure you feel okay, though?” He looked concerned and studied my face.
“Fine.” I gave him a fake smile, and hurried out to my SUV. I thought I heard Detective Tingey’s voice calling my name before the door closed behind me, but I didn’t stop to find out.
You can buy this on Amazon here, and on Nook here. It will show up on Sony, Kobo, iBookstore and several other sites eventually, when it finishes trickling through from Smashwords in a couple of weeks. You can read the first chapters of book 1, Brownies & Betrayal here.