I heard the first scream just as I gave a warm apple-spice donut and change to Phyllis Higgins from the booth outside my shop, Donut Hearts, during the nineteenth annual April Springs Winter Carnival. There had been whoops of great merriment long before then coming from the crowd of folks out enjoying the displays and vendors’ offerings, but there was a quality to this particular shriek that chilled me to my toes, despite my wearing two layers of thick woolen socks and my most sensible shoes. I wondered for a second if it had been some kind of aberration, but then there was another scream, and yet another.
When I heard someone in front of the courthouse shout, “Muriel Stevens has been murdered,” I knew the Winter Carnival—and Muriel—had come to a sudden and abrupt end.
* * *
Christmas is my favorite time of year. I love the way my neighbors decorate their homes with icicles of light and erect trees overloaded with ornaments and tinsel inside. It’s no accident that my attitude is reflected in the selection of donuts at my shop, offering treats adorned with red and green icing and glistening sprinkles that overload the display cases in honor of the holidays.
Our Winter Carnival—balanced precariously around Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas—offers the residents of my small town in the North Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains the opportunity, even the excuse, to go outside and enjoy the brisk weather. During most years of the festival, we hadn’t experienced our first snow of the season yet, but at the moment, the streets of our quaint little town were covered in a glistening layer of white. It was like everything was topped with icy frosting, a place nearly everybody in the world would visit if they could.
But now all that was ruined.
* * *
Phyllis dropped her donut in the snow when she heard Muriel’s name.
“Suzanne, could it be true?” she asked me.
“I was standing right here beside you when we heard the first scream,” I said. “Let me get you another donut, and then we’ll go see what’s going on.”
“Don’t bother,” she said. “I couldn’t bear to eat it now. Poor Muriel.” I knew Phyllis was shaken. She’d never passed up the chance at a donut in her life.
As she waddled away toward the courthouse, I turned around and rushed into Donut Hearts. It was handy having my booth right in front of my business, and I’d asked my friend and the carnival coordinator, Trish Granger—owner of the Boxcar grill just across the street from my donut shop—for the favor, which she’d gladly granted me. There had been some grumbling from a few of the other vendors when they learned of my coup, so to be fair, Trish decided to scrap the previous year’s plan and start completely over. Business owners in April Springs got their first choice of spots, and vendors from out of town had to make do with what was left. It made sense, especially for me. If I was going to supply my customers with fresh, hot donuts, I needed to be as close to the source as I could manage. I had my assistant, Emma Blake, inside, ready to add hot glaze to some of the extra donuts we’d made that morning as we needed fresh supplies. I would have loved to make the donuts themselves as they were needed, but the process didn’t lend itself to sudden orders, and the warm glaze still managed to give the donuts an air of instant creation.
“What’s going on?” Emma asked as she peered outside at the people hurrying by the shop window. Barely out of her teens, Emma had a petite figure I envied and flaming red hair.
We watched what was going on from where we stood inside the shop. My donut shop was housed in an old railroad depot, and it afforded plenty of views of the abandoned tracks beside us as well as Springs Drive through the front windows, the main road in our little town.
“I need you to watch the booth,” I said. “Somebody just screamed that Muriel Stevens is dead, and I need to check it out.”
Emma reached for the telephone. “Should I call 911?”
“No, from the sound of it, it came from in front of City Hall. I’m sure Chief Martin is already there.”
Emma frowned at me as she asked, “Suzanne, you’re not investigating another murder, are you?”
I shook my head. “No way. I’ve had my fill of that. I just want to go check on poor Muriel.”
“Fine, but come back as soon as you hear anything. Promise?”
“I’ll get back as fast as I can,” I said as I left the shop.
The snow was falling again, picking up its intensity, and I wondered if that would affect the crime scene. I’d been thrown into an investigation or two in the past, and I’d been forced to learn a little about police techniques, if for no other reason than to keep myself out of jail as I dug around the edges of cases that impacted my life.
Muriel’s murder wasn’t going to be one of them, though. She was a regular customer of mine, but nearly every other business owner in April Springs could make that claim as well. Muriel Stevens was the grandmother figure everyone loved, and I couldn’t imagine what would drive anyone to kill her.
As I started toward the courthouse, I felt a hand grab my shoulder from behind, and I wondered for a split second if I was next on the killer’s list.
Then I heard Gabby Williams speak, and almost found myself wishing it was the murderer instead. At least then I could be openly hostile, something that I could never afford to do with Gabby. She was the town wag, spreading stories and rumors at a speed that put satellite relays to shame, and worse yet, her used clothing shop was right next to mine. Getting on her bad side was a form of character suicide, and I always tried to tread on her good side, though at times it was a tough line to toe.
“Suzanne, where are you going in such a hurry?”
I tried to brush her hand loose, but she had the grip of a longshoreman, despite her prim and petite appearance. It would be easy to underestimate the woman, but I’d made that mistake before, and wasn’t about to make it again.
“It’s Muriel Stevens,” I said.
Gabby’s face went ashen. “What about her?”
“I heard someone say she was dead. Murdered,” I added softly.
Gabby frowned. “Why are we standing here, then? Let’s go.”
Her grip barely eased as we hurried up the sidewalk toward the courthouse. There was a crowd gathered around the town clock mounted on an ancient cast-iron pole, but it was clear no one was all that interested in the time. As Gabby and I fought our way through the mass of people to get a better look, her grip on my shoulder finally eased, and I broke away from her before she could reattach it.
I saw George Morris, a loyal customer and retired cop who helped me with inquiries from time to time, so I pushed through the crowd toward him.
“What’s going on?” I asked as I finally reached him.
“Hey, Suzanne,” George said. “At this point it’s still too hard to tell, but someone shouted that Muriel Stevens had been murdered, so of course everybody in town rushed right over here. I tried to help with crowd control, but the chief sent me over here.” He looked miffed by the thought of his dismissal, and I didn’t blame him. “I thought I might be of some use is all.”
“It’s tough being a retired cop, isn’t it?” I said as I patted his shoulder.
“I admit it, ‘Serve and Protect’ kind of gets in your blood.” As George spoke, his gaze stayed firmly on the body in the snow. When folks nearby shifted from foot to foot, I caught a glimpse or two of Muriel’s coat, and I knew that there’d been no mistaking her, even from that distance. The jacket was a patchwork whirlwind of reds, yellows, oranges, and blues, something as distinctive as the woman herself had been.
Then I saw a touch of gray in the murder victim’s hair—which made me look closer—and said softly, “That’s not Muriel.”
“What are you talking about, Suzanne,” George said. “No one else in the world has a coat like that.”
“I’m telling you, it’s not her,” I repeated, staring again at what had to be a wig. The black and gray hair had skewed a little—maybe in the attack—and I could see blonde hair beneath it pinned down. If there was one thing Muriel was prouder of than her coat, it had to be her lustrous black hair. Whenever a gray hair dared to appear, it was quickly either plucked or dyed out of existence.
Before he could ask me more, we were interrupted by a voice behind me.
“There you are,” Gabby said as she joined us. I moved instinctively away from her, but if she noticed, she kept her to herself.
After a moment, Gabby said flatly, “That’s not Muriel,” leaving no room for debate.
For once, and maybe the first time in my life, I was startled to realize that I agreed with her. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell George. It’s the hair, isn’t it?”
Gabby didn’t even look back at the body as she spoke. “No, that’s not it. She brought a bag of clothes into the shop yesterday, and three hours later she was pounding on my door, a good thirty minutes after I was closed for the day. It seemed that she was under the impression that she had put her favorite coat,” she paused and glanced briefly at the body, “that coat, in the bag by mistake. She wanted it back, and I mean instantly. The problem was, though, when we went through the bag, the coat wasn’t there. She claimed someone stole it from my backroom, but I’ve never had anyone ever take any of my merchandise.”
“At least not that you’re aware of,” George said.
She put her ferret-eyed gaze on him. “Sir, I know my business, and I know my inventory. If I say something about my shop, you can believe it.”
George was suppressing a smile, but he somehow managed to keep her from noticing. “My apologies, ma’am.” I swear, if he’d had a hat, he would have tipped it to her.
“Can you even be sure the coat was there in the first place? Did you go through the bag the second it arrived?” I asked.
“Suzanne, I don’t have time to evaluate the things I’m offered immediately,” Gabby said. “I categorize and price the items at my leisure, not my clients’.”
“So you can’t be sure the coat ever made it to ReNewed,” I said.
Gabby frowned. “I just told you, it was never there.” She paused, then added, “Though Muriel was absolutely certain of it. She accused me of keeping it for myself, as if I’d ever wear something as garish as that, much less display it in my store.” Gabby Williams made a nice living reselling some of the nicer clothing items in our part of North Carolina. I’d bought a suit there once myself, and with our shops next door to each other, I saw her inventory more often than I liked. She was right, too. I couldn’t imagine Gabby ever selling something as, well, for lack of a better word, colorful as Muriel’s coat in her shop.
Chief Martin was shouting for everyone’s attention, and we quieted down to listen to what he had to say.
“Folks, it’s pretty obvious this year’s Carnival is over. We’d appreciate it if you’d give your names and addresses to one of the deputies standing by as you leave. Have a driver’s license ready to show them, or some kind of photo identification so they can confirm your information.”
“Who killed Muriel?” a voice from the back shouted.
“We’re not ready to disclose what happened here yet,” he said. “And I’m not going to answer any questions until I’ve got a better handle on what’s going on.”
I couldn’t help myself. “How about a statement, then? It’s pretty obvious that’s not Muriel Stevens. Why don’t you tell us who it really is under that wig?”
Chief Martin met my gaze, then said icily, “Suzanne Hart, get up here. Right now. Everybody else, do as I said. Now.” The last word was delivered with an explosive forcefulness that got the crowd moving, albeit reluctantly. Deputies were posted on both sides of Springs Drive with clipboards, and I noticed folks digging for their IDs as I walked up to the police chief.
That’s when I realized that George was right behind me.
I stopped in my tracks and said, “I appreciate the show of support, but I don’t want to make him any madder than I already have.”
“Don’t sweat it,” George said. “I’m not going to let him bully you.”
I shook my head, but I didn’t say anything else as I walked toward the chief. If he wanted to get rid of George, let him try. Honestly, I was kind of glad he was there beside me, despite my effort to convince him otherwise.
“Just Suzanne,” the chief said when he saw him.
“Sorry, that’s not happening,” George said.
He and the chief locked glares, then Martin waved a hand in the air. “Don’t push me, George.”
“I won’t any more than I have to,” my friend said, and I had to wonder how much of his bridge to the April Springs Police Department he was burning on my account. As a retired cop, George enjoyed nearly free access to his old workplace, but we all knew that it was at the whim and will of the chief.
Chief Martin seemed to forget all about him as he focused back on me. “Suzanne, how did you know it wasn’t Muriel, especially from that far away?”
“Gabby Williams told me Muriel lost her coat yesterday, so I figured it couldn’t be her. Plus, I saw that black-haired wig with touches of gray on that poor woman’s head, and I knew it without a doubt. You know how proud Muriel was of her black hair. She never wore a wig in her life, especially not one with gray hair in it. Whoever was killed was a blonde, you can see that, if you look closely enough. So, who was it?”
“You seem to know a lot about this,” the chief of police said, still refusing to answer my question.
“She’s observant,” George said.
“Who was it, Chief?” I asked again, hoping he’d tell me, though I knew he had every reason in the world not to.
“We’re not releasing that information at the moment,” he said as he turned his back on me and dismissed me.
I tried to get another look at the body, but there was still a cluster of police blocking the way, so that was pointless. I turned to George and said, “Let’s go.”
As we walked toward one of the deputies, I told George, “I didn’t mean for you to get into trouble because of me.”
He shrugged. “If it wasn’t you, it would be something else. I seem to have a knack for it lately.” As our gazes met, George added, “You need to stay out of this investigation.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you,” I said. “I just wanted to know what happened, so I asked.”
George didn’t respond to that, and after we gave our names to one of the deputies and showed our IDs, we went our separate ways.
I walked back to my booth, thinking about what I had to do to shut it down for another season. The Carnival still had a few hours until its official closing time, but I had to agree with Chief Martin. It was no longer a time for fun and frivolity.
* * *
When I got back to Donut Hearts, I found Emma peering out the front window toward me.
She said, “What’s going on? Is it true? Is Muriel dead?”
“No, it was someone else,” I said as I took off my jacket and hung it on the coat rack. I looked around, happy to be back in my shop where I felt safe and happy. The front dining area was filled with couches and comfortable chairs, while the walls and harsh concrete floors were painted with a pretty plum faux finish. All in all, it was a lovely place to spend my life.
Emma asked, “Who was it, then?”
“The police aren’t saying,” I said.
“And you’re going to let it go at that?” she asked. “That’s not like you, Suzanne. What’s happened to you?”
“I’ve decided to keep my nose out of it, for once,” I said. “Do you want to help break down the booth, or would you like to stay inside where it’s warm?”
“Thanks, but the snow’s still coming down pretty hard. I think I’ll cover the front,” she said.
Emma wasn’t a big fan of the cold, and one of her constant threats was to move as far south as she could until she could see the outline of Cuba in the distance. I’d been to Key West once—had even rubbed the colorful marker at the southernmost point of the U.S. for good luck—and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Cuba was invisible from there, still nearly ninety miles away. Emma perused college brochures of schools in warmer climates whenever the temperature dropped below forty degrees. I knew my assistant would go off to study somewhere soon enough—and I dreaded that day like a root canal—but I couldn’t expect her to be my helper for the rest of her life.
“I’ll take care of the booth, then,” I said as I grabbed my jacket and headed back outside. The sooner I got to work, the faster I could hope to forget seeing that body lying on the cold, snow-covered ground. I loved the snow, relished the way it decorated the world with a fresh, new coat of promise. Even the ugliest things took on a new perspective with the brush of winter.
I was just beginning to take the vinyl banner down from the top of the booth when I heard a familiar voice beside me.
“Need a hand with that?”
It was my ex-husband Max, more handsome than he had any right to be, with wavy brown hair and deep brown eyes. He also had a voice that could melt my toes when he put his mind to it.
“No, thank you. I’ve got it,” I said as I reached up for the banner and managed to grab one corner of it.
“Here, let me get that,” he said as he brushed past me and took the edge from me. From his proximity, I could smell Max’s subtle cologne, and despite my feelings about the man, I was ashamed to realize that I had to fight the urge to lean toward him and savor his presence.
He easily plucked the banner off its hooks, then folded it before handing it back to me. “Here you go. You must have sold out fast.”
I shook my head. “No, there are dozens of donuts inside that I don’t have a clue what to do with.”
“Then why are we taking the banner down?” he asked.
“I don’t need it now that the carnival’s over.”
Max looked around, and seemed to realize that most of Springs Drive was deserted. He looked at his watch as he shook his head. “What happened? It’s supposed to run another two hours.”
“Did you just get here?”
Max shrugged. “You know I like to sleep in whenever the opportunity affords itself,” he said. “I haven’t been up all that long. So, what happened?”
“Somebody was murdered under the town clock,” I said.
It was pretty clear that Max was hearing this for the first time. “What happened? Who was it? Come on, Suze, give me some details.”
I hated when he called me Suze, but he was too upset for me to correct him. Max, though his exterior was always cool and urbane, was a soft cookie on the inside, one of the things that had drawn me to him in the first place.
“A woman wearing Muriel Stevens’s jacket was killed. I’m not sure how, nobody really said.”
He frowned. “How do you know it wasn’t Muriel? And why was someone else wearing her coat?”
“The murder victim had a gray-haired wig on, and Muriel never wore one in her life. Besides, Muriel told Gabby Williams she lost her jacket yesterday, so it couldn’t have been her.”
“If it wasn’t Muriel, then who was it?”
“I don’t know,” I said as I handed him a set of empty trays. “Make yourself useful since you’re here and take these in to Emma.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, adding a grin. “I’m your man.”
“You used to be, but you quit on me, remember?”
Max groaned. “Don’t bring Darlene up again, would you?”
“I won’t if you don’t,” I said. “I have no desire to ever talk about that woman again.” I’d caught my ex-husband in bed with Darlene Higgins, thus the end of our marriage and the beginning of a new life for me as a single woman. I’d reacted quickly to finding them together, divorcing my husband, moving in with my mother, taking back my maiden name of Hart, and buying a rundown shop and converting it into Donut Hearts.
Max took the trays inside, then returned to help me break down the actual booth itself. It was made of plywood, two-by-fours, and enough bolts to keep it up, but still easy enough to erect and disassemble when needed. I worked a few fairs a year selling my donuts, and it was handy having a nice place to work from when I was away from my shop.
Max and I had just carried the last piece into the shop and put it all into my storage room when the front door chimed.
“Do you need to get that?” he asked, once again standing more than a little too close to me than I liked.
“No, Emma’s covering the front,” I said.
“Then there’s no reason to rush back up there.”
He was definitely pushing his luck now, and he knew it.
I said, “Tell you what. I’ll buy you a donut and a fresh cup of coffee for helping me break down.”
“How about two donuts, and a hot chocolate?” he countered.
I couldn’t help smiling. “You never know when to quit, do you?”
“I like to think it’s part of my charm.”
I patted his cheek. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
He followed me back to the front, and I was surprised to find Chief Martin talking to Emma there.
“I said I was sorry,” I said the second I saw him. “I didn’t mean to give anything away. It was just a gut reaction.”
“I’m not here to see you,” the chief said.
“What did I do?” Emma asked.
Max took a step forward. “Then you must want to see me, though I can’t imagine what it could be about.”
“Let’s go somewhere we can talk,” the chief said as he glanced over at me.
“If you have anything to say to me, you can say it in front of these ladies,” Max said. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” the chief said.
“What’s this about?” Max asked, the usual playfulness in his voice now gone.
The chief glanced over at me, then said, “There’s no use keeping it a secret anymore. Your ex-wife was right. It wasn’t Muriel Stevens.”
It was all I could do not to say, “I told you so,” but I managed to contain myself. “Then who was it?” I asked.
Chief Martin ignored me. He asked Max, “Do you mind telling me where you were for the last hour?”
Max frowned. “I was sleeping—alone, unfortunately—and then I grabbed a quick shower, got dressed, and came out to see the festivities. Why do you ask? Are you just naturally curious, or do I need an alibi?”
“Why do you ask that?” the chief said.
“Because I’ve got the feeling you think I had something to do with whoever got killed. I can assure you, I didn’t do it.”
The chief frowned. “Save your assurances for someone else. Did you see anybody along the way from your place to the donut shop who can vouch for you?”
“No, I was surprised how deserted the streets were. Everyone was at the carnival, no doubt.”
The chief frowned, then said, “Everyone but you.”
I was amazed at Max’s patience, but I knew it couldn’t last much longer. I blurted out, “Get to the point, Chief.”
“Stop telling me what to do, Suzanne,” he snapped at me.
I took a step back from the force of his protest.
Max noticed it, too. “She’s right. Why are you grilling me?”
“You have an intimate relationship with the victim,” the chief said. “That automatically makes you someone I need to speak with.”
“The only person I care about in all of April Springs is standing right over there,” he said as he pointed to me.
“She’s not the only person you’ve been with in your life, though, is she?”
I knew what he was going to say next before the words left his lips, but his voice still fell like muted thunder as he added, “The murder victim was an old girlfriend of yours. Somebody killed Darlene Higgins.”
copyright © 2010 by Jessica Beck