A Nip of Murder: New Excerpt

A Nip of Murder by Carol Miller is the second installment in the Moonshine Mystery Series where amateur sleuth Daisy McGovern continues to struggle in converting her diner into a bakery (available December 16, 2014).

As Daisy McGovern knows all too well, it isn’t easy being a young, small-town waitress at a local diner in Virginia. It becomes even harder as she’s trying to stitch her life back together and salvage her job by converting the diner into a bakery. She’s preoccupied with snickerdoodles and cinnamon buns, trying to feed a group of geocachers in town, when a mysterious robbery occurs in the back room and one of the thieves ends up dead with a chef’s knife in his chest. With the sheriff out of town, Daisy, distrustful of the cop left in charge, takes it upon herself to follow up on clues and find out who the robber was and why he was there. While she’s investigating, she meets a handsome geocacher and is commissioned to bake a cake for the unlikely wedding of one of the Balsam boys, at the same time trying to avoid the charms of his moonshine-brewing brother.

When a second murder occurs, Daisy finds herself in a twisted game of cat and mouse that takes her from secretive nip joints overflowing with moonshine to weathered Appalachian mountaintops overflowing with history and guns. She must figure out who is the murderer and how her bakery is involved before she becomes the next victim.

Chapter 1

“I’m gonna need a red velvet cake, Daisy.”

Daisy’s only response was a slight nod. She was too busy hurriedly transferring a dozen gooey, swollen cinnamon buns that were dripping with white icing from a baking sheet to the decorative platter in the display case. The baking sheet hadn’t cooled as much as she had expected, and she was holding it with a flimsy flour sack towel instead of the thick protective oven mitt that she usually used.

“Gosh, those sure smell good.”

“They are good.” Having deposited the last sticky soldier on the platter, Daisy spun around and dropped the baking sheet on the work table behind her with a clatter. She blew on her overly warm, overly pink palm. “Good and hot.”

“Maybe I should get some of those too.”

“How many would you like?” Turning back to the display case, she reached for a piece of waxed paper and a foldable bakery box. “I assume you want to take them with?”

“I … Well, I…”

The hesitation was long enough so that Daisy looked up at him with a touch of annoyance. “It’s not a difficult question, Bobby. How many cinnamon buns do you want? And are you planning on eating any of them here?”

Bobby hesitated some more and shuffled his boots. It was typical behavior for him. Daisy had known Robert Balsam since they were together in kindergarten, and he had never been the sharpest tool in the shed. He was the last one to learn how to tie his own shoelaces. The only one to eat an entire box of crayons, repeatedly. And the first child in the history of the Pittsylvania County school system to have a sense of direction so bad that he managed to get himself lost while standing in the middle of the playground at recess, also repeatedly. Now at the supposedly mature age of twenty-seven, Bobby’s favorite activities were pretty much the same as they had always been—drinking, shooting, and not thinking too hard. Daisy didn’t ordinarily care how long it took him to reach a decision, but it was Saturday, and the bakery was especially busy that morning. She didn’t have time for him to deliberate whether his indubitable hangover would be better cured by a couple of chocolate-glazed doughnuts or an apple turnover.

“Okay, Bobby.” She set the box and waxed paper aside with a shrug. “I’ve got work to do. The frosting doesn’t pipe itself. Give me a holler when you’ve made up your mind.”

To her surprise, he replied almost immediately.

“Can you do red velvet cake, Daisy?”

“Of course I can do red velvet cake.”

“Are you sure?”

She frowned at him. “Yes, I’m sure.”

Bobby shuffled his boots again. “But the place is called Sweetie Pies. I thought you might only have pies.”

Rolling her eyes, Daisy gestured toward the delectable contents of the large glass display case in front of him, followed by the plethora of cookies, brownies, muffins, and scones all bagged and tied with colorful ribbons and organized in neat rows on the shelves along the wall to his right. “Do you see only pies?”

“No—”

“We’ve been open for over a month now. You’ve been in here at least ten times since then. You’ve tried every type of cupcake I make. And now you’re suddenly confused about pies and red velvet cake?” Daisy’s frown deepened. “What’s going on, Bobby?”

“It’s about R—”

He was interrupted by the clank of the rusty bell that was strung up above the front door of the bakery. A gust of fresh autumn air accompanied Beulah inside.

“Hey there!” Daisy smiled warmly at her friend. “What brings you by? I thought you had lots of appointments scheduled for this morning.”

“I did.” Beulah made an effort to smooth down her tangled, twisted curls, but she had little success. Her flaming red mop was in a permanent state of unruliness. Today was especially bad. She looked like Medusa with a double heap of windblown snakes.

“Are you done already? Did the time go by that fast?” Daisy glanced at her watch.

“Oh, I’m done, but it’s not because I’ve finished with all my appointments.”

Beulah swung a sturdy leg over the first emerald green stool in line at the counter and plopped herself down on it. Before becoming Sweetie Pies, the bakery had been a diner. The kind of good old-fashioned country establishment that took pride in serving first-rate baked beans, collard greens, and authentic chicken stew. The long white counter and vinyl-topped stools were vestiges that Daisy and her business partner, Brenda, had neither the money nor the inclination to remove. They had both been waitresses at the diner before its owner died, and they felt a strong sentimental attachment to it.

“I’m done,” Beulah repeated. “Only I never got started. When I opened the door to the salon this morning, there was two feet of water on the floor.”

“What! How did that happen?”

“I haven’t a clue. I couldn’t see a thing wrong. There wasn’t any busted pipe or leaky hose. At least not that I could find. Nothin’ was gushing out of nowhere. But there was clearly a problem—a big one—considering that I was wading around in a flood up to my knees. So I called Connor Woodley over at the hardware store. You remember him, don’t you? He’s the one who did all the plumbing and wiring for the salon originally. I was so happy when I got him on the phone. I was afraid that since it’s Saturday and the middle of October, he might be out scouting hunting sites for when deer season opens next month. And I know Aunt Emily wouldn’t want me getting anyone but Connor. She’s particular in that way.”

“She’s particular in a lot of ways,” Daisy said.

Beulah laughed in agreement. Aunt Emily wasn’t actually their aunt, but they had known her for as long as they had known each other, which was nearly all their lives. Emily Tosh was the grand old proprietor of the grand old Tosh Inn. There wasn’t much tourism in their little corner of rural southwestern Virginia, so the inn was inhabited mostly by local strays, who for one reason or another found themselves otherwise without a home. Both Daisy and Beulah lived at the inn, along with Daisy’s sickly momma. Beulah’s hair salon occupied a former potting shed on one edge of the property, making it necessary for her to consider Aunt Emily’s views regarding any major repairs. Aunt Emily was always generous with her advice and opinions. Taken on the whole, a bit too generous, and more often than not, it wasn’t so clear whether that advice tended to be brilliant or batty.

“Is Connor at the salon now?” Daisy asked Beulah.

“No, he can’t come until the afternoon. He said he’s alone at the store this morning. Duke went down to Tightsqueeze for a delivery, and Connor has to wait for him to get back. So of course I had to cancel all my appointments for the day. It’s not like I can ask the ladies to slap on a bikini and swim up to a chair. Plus, it’s impossible to do a shampoo or color when there’s no pressure in the sink. Hopefully, it’ll be a quick and easy fix, but,” she grimaced, “somehow I doubt it. I have a bad feeling that this is going to be long and expensive.”

Having recently completed her own renovations to the bakery, Daisy nodded with sympathy.

Beulah sighed. “Well, there’s no point in worrying about it now. That’s why I came here. You know my philosophy. Whatever else happens in this miserable life, there’s still good news in the form of sugar and cinnamon. Please tell me you’re not sold out of snickerdoodles.”

“Never. I’ve always got my special secret stashes.” Daisy reached down into the cabinet below the cash register. “Shortbread for my momma. Lemon bars for Aunt Emily.” She pulled out a pink plastic box with a matching snap-on lid. “And snickerdoodles for you.”

With the enthusiasm of a parched desert camel suddenly unearthing a cool pool of water, Beulah grabbed the box, yanked off its lid, and shoved a pair of cookies into her mouth. Bobby eyed the box with interest, but Beulah paid not the slightest attention to him. He might as well have been a bucket of sand. The first two snickerdoodles were swiftly followed by a third. As she chewed, Beulah glanced around the bakery.

“Bless you and your secret stash, Daisy,” she murmured gratefully. “Without it, I might have had to resort to something with peanut butter in it. This place is packed tighter than a jar of pickled onions today.”

“Wonderful, isn’t it?” Daisy beamed. “I can’t complain. That’s for sure. The whole week has been great. Tons of work, of course, but great.”

Beulah studied the pastry-eating, coffee-swilling crowd more closely. “I don’t recognize a single person in here. Are they all from that meeting—or whatever it is—going on in the mountains?”

“I think so. Lots of them seem to know each other. And if you look in the parking lot, the cars are mostly from out of state.”

“How long is it supposed to continue for?”

“Another week. At least, that’s what somebody told me. And let me just say that another week with this kind of business would be fantastic.” Daisy dropped her voice discreetly. “They all get breakfast in here every morning and take along piles of snacks for the day. The shelves are stocked full now, but by the time the group clears out later, they’ll be empty. I can barely keep up.”

“What about Brenda?” Beulah selected another cookie from her box. “Shouldn’t she be helping?”

“She’s in the kitchen, and she is not just helping, she’s a baking dynamo. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. I might be the one with the good family recipes and the finer touch for putting together the fancier stuff, but Brenda can mix and measure, scoop and proof like she just graduated with honors from cooking school. And she loves to clean, which is a real plus, considering that there is always a layer of flour dust on everything. It’s much fussier cleaning now with the bakery than it was with the diner.”

“I don’t know about flour dust, but you’d probably have less cat hair flying around if you didn’t let Blot wander at will.”

“Blot?”

“Blot.” Beulah pointed a crumb-covered finger toward her ankle.

Daisy leaned over the counter and saw Brenda’s humongous black cat rubbing up against Beulah’s sneakers, purring heartily for his share of the treats. Blot was equal parts spoiled and fat, precisely because he found himself so frequently rewarded for his friendliness. He was such a monstrous mass of shaggy fur when he sprawled out on the floor that he looked like a giant ink stain, hence his name.

“Oh, jeez. What are you doing here, Blot? Brenda knows she’s not supposed to bring you to work.” With a quick step, Daisy scooped up the offending kitty and carried him away from her customers as unobtrusively as possible. “You are a major health code violation, sweetheart.” She pushed open the swinging door to the kitchen, set Blot down on the other side, and hastily shut the door again before he could slip back through.

“Isn’t he just as much of a violation in there?” Beulah said, returning her attention to her snickerdoodles.

“Probably more—if we’re being technical about it—because it’s a food preparation area. But I don’t really have a choice. I can’t put him outside. He wouldn’t last five minutes, even in the parking lot. Blot is a serious scaredy-cat. Everything puts him on edge and sends him scampering for the hills. Everything except for food, mind you. He’s got the weirdest taste too. Last week Brenda offered him a stale piece of carrot cake, and he went crazy for it. It might as well have been a hunk of tuna wrapped in a sheet of bacon.”

Bobby meekly cleared his throat. “About the red velvet cake, Daisy…”

For the first time since her arrival, Beulah turned toward him. She surveyed Bobby’s appearance with a sharp hazel eye, then gave an amused snort. “Whenever I see you, Bobby, you’re always wearing the same thing. You’ve been wearing the same thing since high school. A tired old T-shirt, shredded old jeans, and dirty old boots. It’s been almost ten years now. Don’t you think it’s about time for an upgrade?”

He blinked at her. There was no anger or resentment in his expression. Bobby rarely exhibited such strong emotions. Aunt Emily often compared him to a hamster. Kind of cute. Generally harmless. Prone to making foolish choices. In the hamster’s case, that meant running in never-ending circles on a plastic wheel. In Bobby’s case, it meant playing with loaded firearms while guzzling corn whiskey.

“Laurel likes my jeans,” he replied. “And my boots. She told me so just this morning.”

“Who?” Beulah said.

“Laurel,” he repeated.

Beulah squinted at Daisy. “Who’s Laurel?”

“No idea. Never heard of her.” Curious, she was about to ask Bobby for an explanation when Beulah announced, “Blot’s back.”

“He is?”

“Either my sneakers smell really good because I stepped in something icky coming over here, or he’s awfully determined to get one of these cookies from me.”

Breaking a snickerdoodle in half, Beulah handed a piece to Daisy as she trotted around the counter and scooped up the begging kitty a second time.

“Here you go.” Daisy gave Blot the treat, then once again pushed him through the swinging door into the kitchen. “Now I hope you’re happy and will stay where you’re supposed to.”

Beulah shifted her focus back to Bobby. “All right. I’ll bite. Who’s this Laurel? Should I know her? Have I met her?”

He shook his head. “Naw. I don’t think so.”

“So how do you know her? Where did you meet her?”

“I … She…” Bobby seemed uncertain how to answer.

“Oh, wait,” Beulah said. “I forgot about that weaselly brother of yours. I should have guessed. She’s his newest plaything, isn’t she?”

Bobby started to respond, but Daisy didn’t hear him. She felt a warm pressure against her leg, looked down, and found Blot wrapping his thick tail around her calf.

“Good Lord! How on earth do you keep getting out here?”

Exasperated, Daisy lifted the big bundle of fur and marched toward the kitchen. As much as she liked Blot, she couldn’t take the risk that her fragile, fledgling business—the only means of financial support for her and her momma and Brenda—might get shut down because of him. Cats were not allowed in bakeries. There was no exception in the Virginia Department of Health regulations for extra-sweet, extra-fuzzy felines with burgeoning pastry addictions.

This time she didn’t simply deposit Blot on the other side of the swinging door. She had to talk to Brenda, to insist that in the future Blot remain at home and that she figure out a way to keep him in the kitchen and out of sight from the customers—not to mention possible clandestine health inspectors—for the rest of the day. With the cat tucked under one arm like a lumpy sack of potatoes, Daisy shoved open the door with her elbow. She took no more than three steps into the kitchen and promptly halted. Blot dropped to the ground and immediately scurried back to Beulah.

“He’s out here again, Daisy,” she called.

Daisy didn’t reply.

Beulah rose from her stool. “Blot’s made another dash in search of treats. Should I bring him to you?”

She still didn’t reply.

“Daisy?” Leaving behind the cat but not the cookies, Beulah headed toward the kitchen. “Do you need any help? I’d be happy to do something if you want an extra hand.”

Bobby shuffled after her, mumbling incoherently about red velvet cake. Beulah snapped at him in irritation, “Quit blathering, Bobby.”

“I need a red velvet cake.”

“So buy one. Nobody’s saying you can’t.”

“But Daisy’s gonna have to—”

He didn’t finish the sentence. Both his tongue and his boots stopped moving the instant he passed through the swinging door behind Beulah. The box in her hand fell to the floor. Bits of broken snickerdoodles went flying around the room, but she didn’t pick them up. Neither did Bobby or Daisy. The three were frozen in speechless surprise.

Brenda stood in front of the oversize refrigerator. Although it was wide open, she made no attempt to close it. She didn’t move a muscle, not even to adjust the apron that was hanging off one shoulder. The tortoiseshell clip that normally kept her black hair high up on her head in a tight bun sagged at her neck, clasping only a few graying strands. Brenda’s face was as white as the smashed eggshells that were dripping from the shelves behind her. It was in sharp contrast to her hands. She had perpetually cracked and peeling hands, but today the worn skin wasn’t visible. Instead it was covered with blood. A thick coat of vivid scarlet blood, dripping just like the eggs, oozing down Brenda’s fingers and over her palms, spreading along her wrists to her arms. It came from the chef’s knife that she was holding. The stainless steel blade looked as though it had been dipped into a pot of crimson paint. A matching crimson puddle was slowly growing around the man lying motionless at her feet.

Finally, Brenda raised her bulging eyes from the man to Daisy.

“I—I think I killed him,” she said.

 

Chapter 2

“Have you noticed any strangers around the premises lately?”

Daisy blinked at the deputy sheriff sitting before her in his starched brown uniform with gold trim. “You mean other than the dead man and his two friends who Brenda saw run off?”

Deputy Johnson—according to the shiny little badge pinned to his shirt—didn’t look up from the stack of forms that he was thumbing through. “I mean strangers around the premises this week or last. Strangers are the number-one suspect when it comes to crime, ma’am.”

“Doesn’t it depend on the type of crime?”

“Crime is crime, ma’am. And strangers are strangers.”

That didn’t seem particularly helpful or even logical to Daisy, but she didn’t argue the point. “Okay. Except we’re a bakery, and we’re open to the public. So strangers are always going to be around the premises. They have to be around the premises if they want to buy anything from us.”

Having apparently located the correct form, Deputy Johnson pulled it from the stack and began filling in the blanks with a stubby blue pencil. “Incident date. Saturday, October fourteenth. Incident location. Bakery called—”

“Sweetie Pies,” Daisy supplied.

“I’m aware of that, ma’am,” the deputy returned.

His tone was sharp enough that Daisy raised a tetchy eyebrow at him. If he was going to take that sort of attitude with her, then she didn’t need to volunteer any further information. He could figure it all out for himself. She shifted in her seat toward Brenda. They were sitting on the tan plastic folding chairs that were ordinarily stacked in the far back corner of the kitchen. The chairs had once belonged to the diner for use at the semiannual barbecue held out in the parking lot. As far as Daisy knew, this was the first time that they had been set up at a crime scene around the refrigerator.

“How are you holding up?” she asked Brenda.

Brenda answered with a gurgle. Although her hands and arms had been scrubbed clean, her bulging eyes had yet to retreat. They were locked on the spot where the man had lain at her feet only a short while earlier. His lifeless body was now gone from the room, but traces of his blood remained. The crimson puddle that had surrounded him on the floor was replaced by dried mahogany smudges and streaks.

Daisy gave Brenda’s knee a supportive squeeze. “Try not to think about it. I know it’s hard, but just keep reminding yourself it’s over. Focus on that. It’s over, and nothing so awful like it will ever happen again.”

“Oh, Ducky. I pray you’re right. I pray that it is over.”

“Of course it’s over.” Daisy squeezed her knee once more. “The sheriff’s office is here now. Sheriff Lowell will take care of everything. He always does.”

“But…” Brenda swallowed hard. “But what if they come back? The other men who were here. What if they come back later? Or tomorrow? Or the day after that?”

“Don’t worry. They won’t come back.”

“How do you know?”

Daisy didn’t know. She could only guess, and hope that she was guessing correctly. But she couldn’t think of any reason why the two men would return to the bakery.

“It doesn’t make a bit of sense for them to come back here,” she told Brenda. “They got what they wanted. Or at least we have to assume that it’s what they wanted. Odd as it is. They wouldn’t have taken it otherwise.”

“You’re sure that it’s the only thing they took?” Deputy Johnson interjected.

Brenda squeaked in the affirmative.

“There’s no money missing? No checks or bank card receipts?”

“No,” Daisy replied.

“You’re positive?”

She nodded. “I was standing next to the cash register the whole time. They never came out of the kitchen. And we don’t keep any money back here.”

The deputy sniffed. “So they didn’t take anything of value?”

“Well, it does have value—”

“Real value,” he cut her off brusquely. “Usable, salable value. At a pawnshop or on the local black market.”

Beulah chortled. Up until that point, she had been sitting peaceably in her folding chair, flipping through one of the tattered, yellowed cookbooks that was stacked on the bottom shelf of the wire storage rack next to the refrigerator. “I can’t imagine there’s much of a black market in Pittsylvania County for stolen cream cheese,” she drawled.

Daisy couldn’t keep from chuckling with her. Even Brenda had to crack a slight smile. Deputy Johnson, however, didn’t share in the amusement. He sniffed once more and scribbled some notes on his form with a grim expression.

“Can you give me a rough estimate as to how much cream cheese was taken?”

“I can give you an exact amount,” Daisy said. “We had a delivery earlier this week. Three blocks. Thirty pounds apiece.”

The deputy looked up at her. “That’s ninety pounds. What could you possibly need ninety pounds of cream cheese for?”

“Frosting. Filling. And most obviously, cheesecake.” She frowned at him, annoyed by the inanity of the question. “Cream cheese is one of our staples. As you may recall, we’re a bakery. For a bakery, three blocks isn’t really very much.”

“They took all three blocks?”

“They did.”

“And the blocks were kept in the refrigerator?”

“They were. Cream cheese is perishable. It’s always in the refrigerator.”

“Do you think they knew it was cream cheese?”

Daisy sucked on her teeth, her irritation swelling. “I don’t see how they couldn’t have known. It says ‘cream cheese’ in big black letters right on the crates. On every side of the crates. The men could have been half comatose and still figured it out.”

“Maybe they took it by mistake,” the deputy suggested.

“Or maybe they eat a lot of bagels,” Beulah snapped. “Instead of talking like a fool and asking why Daisy and her bakery would have ninety pounds of cream cheese—which is pretty dang self-explanatory, if you stopped and thought about it for even half a second—you should be asking why anybody in their right mind would want to steal ninety pounds of cream cheese. That’s a heck of a pile of cheese to be hauling around the countryside.”

It was Deputy Johnson’s turn to suck on his teeth. He glared at Beulah from behind the smeared lenses of his glasses. “Were you an accomplice to the theft, ma’am? Because only a co-conspirator would know why a criminal does what he does.”

Beulah and her very short redheaded fuse slammed the cookbook on the floor. “You better not be accusing me of something—”

Daisy grabbed Beulah’s elbow as she started to rise from her chair. “Of course he’s not accusing you of anything,” she responded swiftly, giving Beulah a stern glance. “He knows that you were with me in the front of the bakery and that we came back here to the kitchen within a minute of each other and saw what had happened.”

There was a tense pause, during which Daisy kept a firm hand on Beulah’s elbow. She wasn’t any less irked than Beulah at the evident ineptitude of the deputy, but she was better able to remember that he was still a deputy. And they had called the sheriff’s office for a reason. Brenda did stab a man to death in front of the refrigerator with a chef’s knife. There was no doubt whatsoever about it being self-defense. Under normal circumstances, Brenda was about as aggressive as a pudgy slug snoozing under a shady leaf. But she had killed him. An official report couldn’t be avoided. The important thing at this point was making sure the report set forth the facts in the most favorable manner to Brenda. That was a lesson Daisy had learned from her estranged husband, Matt. Before Matt decided to drive off one morning nearly five years ago and never come home again, he had on occasion found himself in trouble with the local authorities. As a result, Daisy had a bit of experience with the law.

She shot Beulah another stern glance. When Beulah finally sat back down, Daisy turned to the deputy with a feigned apologetic smile.

“I’m sorry. As I’m sure you can understand, it’s been a stressful morning for all of us. I think the shock of it is beginning to catch up with everyone.”

Although Deputy Johnson didn’t appear entirely appeased by Daisy’s syrupy tone, his glare did soften somewhat. Encouraged, she continued.

“When we’ve had any problems here in the past, we’ve always talked to Sheriff Lowell. He knows us pretty well, and he’s used to our little quirks. So maybe it would be better if we talked to him now too.”

“You can’t,” the deputy said.

“We can’t?”

“Sheriff Lowell is gone, ma’am. He’s on vacation and won’t return to duty until the beginning of next month.”

Daisy sighed. She had known that the sheriff was planning on taking a cruise. It was to the Greek isles in celebration of his thirtieth wedding anniversary. Although his wife, Sue, had come into the bakery half a dozen times over the past few weeks to share all the exciting plans, Daisy had forgotten the exact dates. Talk about lousy timing. Sheriff Lowell was smart and reliable. He could have been counted on to clean up the whole mess quickly and efficiently, not only in relation to Brenda and the dead body, but also the underlying question as to why someone would want to steal ninety pounds of cream cheese from them. Unfortunately, if the sheriff was currently sipping ouzo seaside, then she and Brenda and Beulah were stuck with the clearly less smart—and probably equally less reliable—Deputy Johnson.

As though he could sense Daisy’s skepticism regarding his abilities, the deputy cleared his throat, straightened his spine, and returned to business.

“Can you give me any description of the two men who got away?” he asked Brenda.

She shook her head. “I couldn’t see their faces. They were wearing baseball caps with the hoods of their sweatshirts pulled up over the top, just like … like him.” She gestured toward the bloodstains on the floor.

“What about their height? And build?”

“Are you sure they were men?” Beulah jumped in.

“They had to be men,” Deputy Johnson said. “They carried out ninety pounds of weight between them. How many women could do that?”

“Except they were only planning on carrying out thirty pounds apiece,” Beulah countered. “A lot of women can handle that.”

“I can,” Daisy agreed. “I was the one who put the blocks in the refrigerator to begin with.”

“Laurel can carry thirty pounds,” Bobby said.

They all looked at him. It was the first time that he had participated in the proceedings since the law arrived on the scene. He was stretched out on two folding chairs, one arm hanging down to the ground, absently rubbing Blot’s portly belly, while both he and the cat dozed.

“It wasn’t her, of course,” Bobby continued. “Laurel wouldn’t want a crate of cream cheese, and she’s up in the woods. But she could carry it.” He glanced over at Daisy before closing his eyes again.

“Laurel?” Brenda asked in confusion.

“Laurel is a mystery woman,” Beulah informed her with a titter. “Although if she’s keeping company with Bobby and that weaselly brother of his up in the woods, it’s not too hard to guess what kind of—”

Daisy didn’t let her finish. She was still curious to learn who Laurel was, but not if it meant discussing Bobby’s brother. “Thirty pounds is manageable,” she remarked. “But sixty? The whole length of the kitchen, out the back door, and then loading it into a vehicle? It would have to be a heck of a farm girl to do that. There are plenty of guys around here who can’t carry sixty pounds all that way. It’s too much and too far.”

“So it could have been a woman for the thirty and a man for the sixty,” Deputy Johnson mused.

“Laurel and the weasel Rick, perhaps.”

Still tittering, Beulah said it quietly enough so that Bobby couldn’t hear her, but Daisy did. She wrinkled her nose.

“Don’t make that face at me,” Beulah retorted. “You ignore Rick like he’s been wallowing with the hogs whenever you see him. Maybe he was trying to get your attention.”

“By stealing ninety pounds of cream cheese? You’ve lost your mind!”

“I don’t think,” Brenda said, chewing on her lips thoughtfully, “there was a woman. They all moved like men.”

“But you can’t describe them?” Deputy Johnson pressed her.

Brenda went on thinking and chewing. After a minute, she mewed in frustration. “I don’t know. Everything happened so fast. I was at the mixer trying to get the dough for the shortcake to come together right. Ducky has shown me how to do it at least a hundred times, but somehow I still always make it too wet. So I turned to get a scoop of flour to dry it out, and all of a sudden, there they were. Three of ’em. With their caps and sweatshirts. Walking straight through the middle of the kitchen.” Brenda waved toward the center of the room. “I had the impression that they didn’t expect me to be here, because they stopped for a second, like they were just as surprised to see me as I was to see them. Then one of ’em signaled the others. He must have been the leader of the group, because they followed him to the refrigerator. He opened it and began looking around inside. I asked him what he was doing, but he didn’t answer me. I told him—I told all of ’em—to leave. Except they didn’t listen. They just started pulling out the cream cheese.”

“Did they say anything?” Deputy Johnson asked. “Did they speak at all?”

“Not at first. Not until Blot got underfoot.”

“Huh?”

“The cat,” Daisy explained, pointing at the heap of fur sprawled near Bobby.

The deputy squinted at Brenda. “How did the cat get underfoot?”

She squinted back at him. “The usual way, of course. Blot’s extremely friendly. He went over to the men to greet ’em—not knowing they were bad men—and one of them didn’t like it. He tried to shoo him away, but Blot didn’t understand. He’s a very sweet kitty and used to getting lots of love from everybody. Well, the man tripped over him, crashed into the rack next to the refrigerator, and started cursing up a storm. Blot naturally got scared and hightailed it out of the kitchen.”

Beulah turned to Daisy with a grin. “That settles it then. The cat’s a genius. That’s why he kept coming to us. It wasn’t my sneakers or the snickerdoodles that he wanted. He was trying to warn us.”

“Blot was trying to warn you?” Brenda’s bulging eyes stretched even wider. “You think so?”

“You bet. He was afraid that if there wasn’t any more cream cheese, he wouldn’t be getting any more carrot cake.”

Daisy had to clamp down on her tongue to keep from laughing.

“Carrot cake?” The deputy squinted harder. “What does carrot cake have to do with this?”

“Nothing. Nothing whatsoever.” Daisy looked at Brenda. “What happened next?”

“I told ’em to leave again, Ducky. I reminded them that it wasn’t their bakery and the cream cheese didn’t belong to them. But by that time, they weren’t paying a lick of attention to me. It was like I wasn’t even there. I might as well have been a spatula hanging on the wall. They each had a block of cheese in their arms. The leader was already carrying his toward the door. They could have all just left without any fuss, except Blot came back into the kitchen. He was really upset—racing around on his little kitty paws like he was wearing motorized roller skates—and he did something he almost never does. He bit the man who had tripped over him before. The man tried to shove him away with his foot, and Blot bit him again.”

Brenda paused, drawing a shaky breath. Her lips were almost raw from the intensity with which she had been chomping on them. “The man was awfully angry. He was cursing somethin’ fearful. And then he kicked Blot. It was so hard, Blot flew right up into the air! That’s when I got mad. I demanded he leave my cat alone. If he wanted the cream cheese so dang bad, he could have it, but there was no need for violence against a defenseless kitty. Well, the other two men turned back from the door and were trying to get the third one—the cat kicker—to come with them. They didn’t talk, but they kept grunting and motioning at him, almost frantically after a minute.”

“Standard criminal behavior, ma’am.” Glancing up from the notes that he was taking, Deputy Johnson nodded authoritatively. “They didn’t want you to be able to identify them later based on their voices.”

“I would guess they were getting nervous,” Daisy told Brenda. “If you’re right about them not expecting you to be in the kitchen, then they were probably beginning to worry about how long it was taking them to get out of here. Somebody else could show up and surprise them. Like me or a customer or—”

“Or Aunt Emily and her shotgun,” Beulah chimed in.

There was a little whimper from Bobby. He was all too familiar with Aunt Emily’s Remington.

“They also must have been getting tired,” Beulah added. “From holding the stupid cheese the whole time.”

“The cat kicker put his block down on the rack,” Brenda said, “so he could chase after Blot. I still had that scoop of flour in my hand for the shortcake dough, and I threw it at him. Like flour does, it went everywhere. On the men, on me, on the floor. A bunch of it must have gotten into the kicker’s eyes, because he took up cursing again and went crazy rubbing his face. Then he slipped. I don’t know how exactly. He stumbled toward me and was yelling. The other men started yelling too. Blot jumped at him, trying to bite him again. The man grabbed my arm, and I grabbed the knife from the counter. Before I could really figure out what was happening, he fell against me, and the knife went into him.” She shuddered. “There was all this blood.”

“And the other men?” Deputy Johnson asked. “What did they do?”

Brenda shuddered once more. “They said something to each other. I can’t tell you what it was. I didn’t hear it. I was too busy looking at the blood. There was so much of it. It was all over me—and my hands—and the knife. And it kept coming. Gushing out of the man somethin’ terrible. Eventually, the other men took the cream cheese and left. I think they took his block from the rack too, because it was gone. Then Daisy walked in.”

“Did you see them?” the deputy said to her.

“No.” Daisy shook her head. “The back door was closed when I arrived. There was no cream cheese anywhere.”

She glanced toward the storage rack next to the refrigerator. In addition to the old cookbooks, the wire shelves were stacked with supplies: measuring cups and bowls, long sleeves of cupcake liners, assorted jars of colored sprinkles. It all looked a bit tossed about from the man having crashed against the rack, but nothing appeared particularly out of place. There was a thicker dusting of flour than usual from what Brenda had thrown. And the blood smeared on the floor in front of the rack.

“There was no cream cheese anywhere,” Daisy repeated, eyeing the mahogany stains. A man was dead, and she was going to have to scrub away the last remnants of his life.

Deputy Johnson added a few final scribbles to his form. “Well, I think that about covers it. Fornow,” he emphasized. “If you remember anything more about the other two men, you should contact me immediately.”

Brenda nodded. Daisy went on staring at the floor. There was something red on the ground peeking out from under the edge of the wire rack. It wasn’t more blood, of that she was certain. The color wasn’t right. It was too bright, and the object itself was too solid.

“You should keep a sharp watch for anything out of the ordinary,” the deputy continued. “We’ll give the place a good once-over. Maybe we’ll get lucky and pull a clean print off the refrigerator or back door.” He rose from his chair.

Not hesitating, Daisy stood up with him. She had noticed something out of the ordinary, and she wanted to get to it before he did. Beulah yawned. As she stretched in her seat, her sneaker pushed against the cookbook that she had thrown down earlier. Quick to take advantage of the opportunity, Daisy picked up the book and returned it to the bottom shelf of the storage rack. At the same time, she quietly scooped up the enigmatic object from the floor and tucked it into her pocket.

Turning back to the group, she wondered if anyone had spotted her. Apparently they hadn’t. Beulah was picking cat hair off her clothes. Bobby was sound asleep. And Brenda was nodding at every sententious word from the deputy.

“Criminals make mistakes,” he pontificated. “That’s how we catch ’em, especially strangers. Strangers think they’re so clever, except they always leave a clue behind. Sometimes it can be hard to find. But that’s my job. The first clue is the most important, and I’ll be the one to find it.”

As he droned on, Daisy’s lips lifted into a slight smile. She was pretty sure that she was the one who had found the first clue.

Copyright ©2014 Carol Miller.

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Carol Miller was born in Germany, raised in Chicago, and works as an international business consultant. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, cooking, and hiking in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of southern Virginia, where she lives. Miller is the author of Moonshine and Murder.

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