I heard the woman’s scream coming from the park across the street just as I closed the front door of my shop a little after eleven-fifteen on a rare chilly day near the first of May. I was ready for warmer temperatures—along with the rest of April Springs, North Carolina, where I ran Donut Hearts—but the unseasonable cold snap had forced us all into our jackets again. The “Donuts” in the name of my business is pretty self-explanatory, and the “Hearts” part is, too, if you know that my name is Suzanne Hart. I bought the donut place the second my divorce from Max became final, a decision I was normally pretty happy about, but I had to admit that there were a few trying times when I wished I had it all to do over again. That also could be said for moving back in with my mother after my marriage had dissolved, but that’s a different thing altogether.
The temperature had been in the low eighties just a few days before, but we’d be lucky to hit the fifties today. The weather hadn’t stopped folks from coming out to the park, though. What had that scream been about, anyway? I looked over to see what was going on, but I wasn’t too alarmed at first. After all, a great many folks were in the park taking in the sunshine, not seeming to mind the cooler temperatures at all, and I knew there were times when their rambunctiousness got the better of them, kids and adults alike.
After a split second, though, I knew that it hadn’t been that kind of scream at all when I heard the next one.
This was a gut-wrenching shriek that shouted, “Something is wrong, something is wrong. Danger. Danger.”
I looked up to see two of my favorite customers, Terri Milner and Sandy White, racing toward me with their children in tow. “Suzanne, call 911. Hurry,” Sandy said breathlessly as they neared me.
“What happened?” I asked as I reached for my cell phone.
“Somebody just s-t-a-b-b-e-d James Settle.” Terri spelled out the crime to soften the blow for her children, but in her shock, she must have forgotten that her twins had learned to spell.
“He was stabbed?” one of the little girls asked. “Why would someone do that?”
Terri and Sandy both knelt down and started speaking softly and reassuringly to all three children, trying to calm their obvious distress.
“Is he okay? How bad is it?” I asked them. I couldn’t believe it. James Settle and I had gone through a rocky beginning when he’d first come to April Springs, but we’d become good friends since the blacksmith had decided to stay. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to hurt him. I looked wildly around the park and saw a group gathered around something on the ground near the place where he’d been holding his blacksmithing exhibition. Sure enough, it parted for just a moment and I could see our town doctor working on him. I knew at that moment there was nothing I could do to help James.
“I don’t know, but it’s not good,” Terri said sadly, and I felt myself start to react. There were kids there, though, who didn’t need to see that, and I had a call to make.
I grabbed my phone from my pocket and dialed a number I knew all too well.
“Grant here,” my friend Officer Stephen Grant said as he answered my telephone call; it appeared that he was back on temporary desk duty for another imagined slight on the orders of our chief of police. I was beginning to wonder if Chief Martin was holding his subordinate’s friendship with me against him, since he was riding that desk so much lately.
“You need to get over here to the park right away. Someone just stabbed James Settle in front of my shop,” I said, trying to shield the phone with my hand so the kids wouldn’t have to listen to me repeat what they’d just learned.
“What? Speak up; I can’t hear you. Suzanne, is that you?”
I took a few steps away from the group, turned my back to the kids by facing my front store window, and repeated, “Listen, I don’t have any more details, but Terri Milner and Sandy White both told me that someone just stabbed James Settle. I don’t even know if he’s still alive. He was doing a blacksmithing demonstration in the park across from Donut Hearts when I heard the women scream. That’s all I know.”
“I’ll be right there,” Officer Grant said.
“Should I call for an ambulance?”
“I’ll take care of that myself,” he said, and then hung up before I could thank him.
I turned back to the ladies, and saw that the kids were still really upset by what they’d learned. Who could blame them? It was a pretty horrific thing to learn at such a young age. Maybe there was something that I could do to help, though. “Hey, if you guys are interested, I have some donuts left over from today. Does anybody want a treat, on the house?”
That seemed to get their attention, and I saw the glimmerings of a few smiles.
Just a few seconds earlier, Emma had walked outside to see what the commotion was all about, and she looked at me oddly as I made the offer, not knowing what had just happened.
“Something just happened to James Settle, and everyone’s really upset. Do you mind helping out and waiting on them? Give them whatever they want. I’ll fill you in with all of the details later.”
“I’m glad to do it,” she answered. Ever since she’d come back to town and was working for me again, Emma had become the model employee. College life away from home hadn’t agreed with her, and she was truly excited to get her old life back.
As Emma unlocked the door and led them all inside, Terri turned to me and mouthed the word, “Thanks.”
I nodded and said softly, “You’re welcome,” as she and Sandy—along with their children—walked into Donut Hearts. I noticed a few other kids who were hiding between their parents’ legs in the general vicinity, and I walked around and repeated the offer to all of them I could find. We had about three dozen donuts left from the day’s sales, and I was glad we had them. These kids needed a good memory to help blunt the bad one they were all sharing now. By the time I’d escorted the last of them discreetly into the shop, Officer Grant drove up. I saw that Chief Martin was sitting beside him, so evidently the banishment had been lifted, at least for the moment.
As they approached me, I couldn’t help noticing how the chief’s former bulk had diminished even more than the last time I’d seen him. Since the man had been dating my mother, he’d constantly been on a killer diet and exercise plan, and it showed. I wasn’t sure how far he was going to take it. I liked carrying a few extra pounds around on my frame—or so I lied to myself whenever I passed by a mirror—unlike my best friend, Grace Gauge. She could still fit into her prom dress, while I probably wouldn’t even be able to belt my oversized robe from high school around my waist these days.
“What exactly happened here?” the police chief asked me.
“I have no idea,” I said, happy for once that I wasn’t involved in any way, shape, or form.
“But you called the stabbing in,” he said, clearly a little confused by my denial.
“I didn’t see a thing. Terri Milner and Sandy White asked me to call you for them,” I admitted.
“Then where are they?”
I pointed behind me into the donut shop. “They’re having donuts with their kids. They were all pretty traumatized by what happened. If you’re looking for James, he’s over there. Doc’s trying to do what he can for him.” Just then I heard a siren’s wail in the background, and I knew that the paramedics were on their way.
Chief Martin stared at me a second, shook his head, and then turned to his subordinate. “Grant, take Lincoln and secure the perimeter.”
“Yes, sir,” Grant said as he happily hurried into action, joining up with another officer who was doing his best to keep the growing crowd away from the blacksmith so that the doctor could work on him.
The police chief was about to join him when he turned back to me and said, “Suzanne, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t go anywhere.”
“I’m not sure what else I can tell you, but I’ll be in the shop until you need me,” I said, and then I started back into Donut Hearts.
“Hey, are the free donuts I’ve been hearing about available to everyone?” a big, husky man asked me before I could get back inside the donut shop. He must have heard someone say that I was giving them away.
“That depends,” I asked. “Are you so scared right now that you need your mommy to comfort you?”
He shook his head. “No, I can’t say that I am.”
“Then come back tomorrow,” I said as I patted his arm. “You can have one then.”
He smiled. “Hey, there’s no harm in asking, right?”
I liked the way he took the rejection, so I added, “If you do decide to come in tomorrow and ask for me, you can have one donut on the house.”
“That sounds good.” He smiled a bit too strongly at me as he added, “Maybe I can take you out for lunch tomorrow after you finish working.”
“That would be great,” I said with a false smile. “My boyfriend’s a state police inspector, and I expect him back in town tonight. We can both be ready about noon.”
“Did I say tomorrow?” he quickly backpedaled. “What was I thinking? I just remembered that I’m going to be out of town all day tomorrow.”
“How about a rain check, then?” I asked innocently.
“I’ll let you know,” he said, and then took off quickly down the street.
I looked over and saw the chief trying to stop folks from leaving the crime scene, but he wasn’t having much luck. Finally, he pulled a whistle out of his front shirt pocket and blew it shrilly.
Everyone stopped dead in their tracks.
“Stay right where you are,” he said with all of the authority he possessed. As he said it, I noticed that three other officers were just arriving on the scene. That left just one cop to cover the rest of April Springs, but it was understandable. Murder didn’t visit our sleepy little town every day, and whenever it did, it always threw everything off kilter until the killer was finally caught. “I’ve got an officer coming around to take your names and contact information. Be prepared to show your ID as well. Anyone without an ID will be asked to stay behind until we can determine if you’re really who you say you are.”
An older woman near him said quite clearly, “Phillip Martin, my driver’s license is at home, along with my car keys. I’m eighty-seven years old, and I knew your father and his father before him. Are you telling me that I can’t leave this chilly park and find some comfort by my fireplace at home?”
“No, that’s fine, Mrs. Jenkins. You can go.”
Before the rest of them could come up with excuses of their own, the chief added, “Okay, if you’re over eighty-five, you can take off. Everyone else needs to stick around, though.”
Mrs. Jenkins paused as she walked past me and offered me a quick wink. I smiled slightly as I returned it, and then watched her walk away without the slightest catch in her step.
As the chief and his men started taking names, a voice behind me asked sweetly, “Suzanne Hart, what kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into this time?”
Though he’d tried to disguise it, there was no way that I wouldn’t know Jake’s voice. I turned to my boyfriend and hugged him with a great deal more force than I’d intended. I’d been holding it together for the sake of everyone else around me, but having Jake there to lean on allowed me to let some of it go. “It’s just awful,” I said as the words poured out of me. “Someone just stabbed James Settle.”
“I heard about it on the radio on my way over here,” he answered. “How bad is it?”
“They’re still working on him,” I said as I glanced over in that direction.
“My timing’s pretty lousy, isn’t it?”
I hugged him tighter. “Never, ever apologize for coming to see me,” I said. “How long can you stay this time?” His job investigating significant crime took him all over the state of North Carolina, and I was lucky to see him once a month, not that I was complaining. I didn’t need to be courted and pampered seven days a week, but when Jake could make it to April Springs I had to fight from declaring a donut holiday so I could spend more time with him.
“I don’t have much time at all,” he admitted sadly. “Are you free for dinner?”
“Why wait that long? We can start with lunch and work our way up to dinner,” I said. “I’m really glad that you’re here. Give me a second and then we can go.” I suddenly remembered Chief Martin’s instructions to me before he’d left. “Shoot. The chief asked me to hang around until after he was finished.”
“Do you know anything about what happened?” Jake asked, his gaze lingering over the crime scene.
“I heard two screams, and then a pair of my customers ran over here with their kids and asked me to call 911. That’s the sum total of everything I know.”
He nodded gravely. “Then you should be in the clear.”
“Maybe,” I said a little reluctantly.
“What does that mean?”
“James and I had a disagreement about the smoke from his portable fire pit coming into my shop this morning, but it was really nothing.”
“Is that what he was using for a forge?”
“Of course not,” I said. James had given me a crash course in blacksmithing several months before, and I’d remembered quite a few things about it. “That fire would never get hot enough for forging, but he told me that he wanted the folks who lingered to watch to stay warm, so he brought the pit along as well. That’s where all the smoke was coming from.”
“Okay. Let me talk to the chief and see if I can get you excused.”
I glanced back inside and said, “If you’d like, I can go with you. Give me a second to talk to Emma, and then we can both tell the chief I’m leaving.” I glanced over at Jake and saw that his attention was still focused on the crime scene. I doubted that he’d heard a word I’d said. “Would you rather postpone lunch and go talk to Chief Martin yourself first? I don’t mind if that’s what you want to do; really I don’t.”
He kissed me quickly, and then said, “Thanks. I won’t be long,” as he hurried toward the action while everyone else with the slightest bit of sense was doing their best to get away from it.
I walked into my donut shop and saw that nearly all of our leftover donuts had been consumed by our makeshift crowd. A great deal of the tension I’d seen earlier had begun to ease. I knew that my meager offerings wouldn’t erase what they’d seen, but at least it might help them forget, at least for a moment or two.
“Is everyone feeling better?” I asked.
As though they were all in school, the kids turned to me en masse and said in a semblance of unison, “Thank you, Mrs. Hart.”
“Actually, you can all call me Suzanne,” I said. A few of the mothers noticed the familiarity, but I didn’t care. I wanted these kids to feel safe and welcome in my shop, and if I stepped on a few adult toes doing it, so be it.
“What do we owe you?” Sandy asked as she approached me, digging into her huge purse.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s on the house,” I said, making it loud enough for everyone to hear.
“But we had chocolate milk, too,” she protested. “The donuts may have been extras, but the milks weren’t.”
“Leave something in the tip jar if you feel like you have to and we’ll be square,” I said. I’d originally put it there to help Emma with her college expenses, but now that she was living at home again I’d have to find another way to put it to good use. I just knew that I wouldn’t feel right keeping it for myself, or even splitting it with my assistant. There were no worries, though. I was certain that I’d find a good cause for it if I just put my mind to it.
I saw that Jake was back, but he didn’t come inside. I stepped out, and the second I saw his face, I knew that it was bad news.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, Suzanne.”
I felt something inside die a little. “Do they have any idea who might have done it?”
He shook his head, and I felt a rage begin to boil for whoever had taken my friend away from all of us.
“The chief needs me over there, but I thought you should know,” he said as he gave me a tender hug before he left.
When I walked back inside, I did my best to smile, even though I was shattered by the unbelievable news. “If we’re all finished eating, I’d appreciate it if you all would do something for me,” I asked loudly.
“Anything,” Terri said. “Just name it. Would you like Sandy and me to stay behind and help clean up?”
“That won’t be necessary, but thanks for the offer.”
“Then what can we do?” Sandy asked.
“I want you all to go out and try to have a lovely afternoon,” I said with my brightest smile. It was tough to do, but the kids deserved it.
It was a relief to see so many smiles coming back at me. I was in shock about James’s murder, and I knew that the truth of the matter was that it hadn’t even hit me yet, but I had made up my mind to be brave for these kids, and I was going to do exactly that, even if it crushed me. A few mothers visited the tip jar, though I couldn’t see what they were contributing, nor did I care.
After they were all gone, Emma said, “I’ll get started on these dishes.”
I shook my head as I said, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be happy to do them myself. Emma, thanks for sticking around to help out. I appreciate it.”
“Is it really true? How is James doing?” she asked earnestly.
“I’m afraid that he’s dead,” I answered. I looked around the dining area, and realized that the mess might be exactly what I needed to take my mind off what had just happened. “Now take off before I change my mind.”
She was gone in an instant, and I locked the door behind her.
In fifteen minutes I had the dishes done, the floor swept, and the counter and tabletops wiped down, but there was still no sign of Jake. I decided not to wait for him in the shop, since a few folks had already come by and knocked to get in while I’d been cleaning up. There were two donuts left, both in the heart shape of a cutter I’d gotten from my temporary employee, Nan Winters, and I’d saved them just for him. He hadn’t had one of the new shapes of donut yet, and I wanted him to get at least one while he was in town.
I took a seat at the table out in front of the shop and watched the police move with amazing efficiency as they examined the crime scene. James’s body was gone, but his portable blacksmithing equipment was still there—and his fire pit as well, still sending up wisps of smoke every now and then. Why would someone want to kill him? It had to have been a heated argument, no pun intended. After all, it wasn’t likely that someone had planned to stab him in broad daylight in the park with dozens of eyewitnesses around. That meant that it was either done in a burst of passion, or because the opportunity presented itself. Whoever had killed him had the guts of a cat burglar, and I didn’t envy the police chief as he tried to catch the culprit.
I was still waiting for Jake when I noticed someone walking toward me from the storefront closest to mine.
What did Gabby Williams want with me, and why did she look so upset?
I had a feeling that I was about to find out, and what was more, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to like it. I had to fight the impulse to run away in the opposite direction the second I saw her bearing down on me, but I held my ground as she neared me.
“I just don’t understand it. Why did you have to kill him, Suzanne?” Gabby shouted as she got closer, and I knew that my initial instincts to escape had been right on the money.
I wasn’t sure why Gabby was accusing me of murder, but I knew that I had to nip it in the bud before the story spread all over April Springs. I’d been convicted in the court of public opinion before, and I had no desire to ever revisit the experience again.
FRIED CINNAMON TOAST
This is a variation on one of our old camping favorites. Instead of cooking the dough on a stick over a campfire, though, we load it down with our delicious extras and deep-fry it. One of my best, and easiest, donut recipes! This is one is well worth a try!
• 1 canister refrigerated biscuits (we use Pillsbury Grands! Homestyle Buttermilk in the 10.2 oz. size with 5 biscuits)
• ¾ cup sugar, white granulated
• ½ stick butter, softened (4 tablespoons)
• 1½ tablespoons cinnamon
• Canola oil for frying (the amount depends on your pot or fryer)
Open the canister of biscuits and pat in your hands until they are in oval shapes. Mix the softened butter, sugar, and cinnamon, and then put 1 to 2 tablespoons in the center of the oval. Bring the dough up around the sides and pinch the edges tightly.
Drop the logs of dough into the oil, being careful not to splash hot oil. Fry in the hot canola oil (360 to 370 degrees F) 3 to 5 minutes, turning halfway through. Remove when they’re golden brown, and you’ll be greeted with five cinnamon smiles!
Yield: 5 cinnamon toast sticks
Copyright © 2013 by Jessica Beck