Evil Eclairs

A Donut Shop Mystery

Donut Shop Mysteries (Volume 4 of 12)

Jessica Beck

Minotaur Books

CHAPTER 1
 
Owning and running a donut shop is not for the faint of heart. If I’m going to get anywhere close to the minimum six hours of sleep I need before I get up at one A.M. every morning, I have to be in bed by seven every night.
Tonight I’d pushed my bedtime back too far and I knew I’d pay for it in the morning. As I drifted off to sleep just after eight, I heard the name of my donut shop mentioned on the radio. That was odd, since I had never been able to afford even their low advertising rates to tout my specialty donut and coffee shop.
Then I realized that Donut Hearts wasn’t being described with any affection. Lester Moorefield, the local news jockey on WAPS, was broadcasting another of his diatribes, and this time, I was evidently his target. His show ran in the morning, but his editorials were always done at night.
“Donuts are a perfect example of how we are slowly killing ourselves. To give you just one instance, I sat in my car across the street from Donut Hearts this morning, and in one hour, I saw countless overweight or downright obese people stumbling out of the place with glazed looks on their faces and powdered sugar on their lips. Suzanne Hart feeds this sickness within her customers, catering to their base cravings like some kind of dealer. Her products are toxic, deadly dough, if you will, and we in the community need to take a stand. I propose that over the next seven days, the citizens of April Springs, and all within the sound of my voice in North Carolina, boycott this shop, and others of its ilk, and stand up to those who would enslave us with their tempting but fatal offerings.”
Suddenly I was wide awake.
*   *   *
Momma was sitting by the radio downstairs, and from the expression on her face, she hadn’t missed a word of Lester’s diatribe, either. I’d barely taken the time to throw on some sweatpants and an old T-shirt before I’d raced downstairs.
“That man is a menace to society,” she said. “Someone should stop him.” Though my mother was physically slight, barely five feet tall, she more than made up for it with her fierce spirit.
“He’s gone too far this time,” I agreed as I threw on my running shoes. I wouldn’t win any Best Dressed awards for my ensemble, but I wasn’t about to take time to consider my wardrobe.
“What are you doing?” Momma asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked as I struggled with one shoelace that had somehow managed to knot itself into a mess. “I’m going to go see him at the station.”
“Suzanne, don’t do anything reckless.”
“Why not?” I asked. I was about to get a knife to cut the lace’s knot when it started to come loose of its own accord. “In a situation like this, sometimes that’s exactly what’s called for.”
Momma stood and looked at me. “One thing I learned early on; you should never pick a fight with a lawyer or someone who has their own bully pulpit. I don’t like it any more than you do, but if you leave Lester alone, tomorrow he’ll move on to his next victim and you can go about your business.”
There, the knot came free. “Momma, too many people roll over and play dead for that man. Well, not me. If he wants a fight, he’s got one.”
I grabbed my jacket as I started for the door. It was early April, and the weather could be chilly in the evening but still have a hint of real warmth in the middle of the day.
Momma stood and reached for her own coat.
I stopped in my tracks. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“With you, of course,” she said, clearly puzzled by the question.
“Momma, I love you with all my heart, but this is my battle, not yours.”
I may have tweaked her a little with the declaration, but it had to be said. I’d given up a great deal of my independence when I’d moved back in with her after my divorce from Max, and I found myself reverting to old habits sometimes. But I had to do this by myself. I was a grown woman, able to fight my own wars.
Her jacket went back on the rack, and I found myself trying to soften the blow. “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but I have to do this alone. You understand, don’t you?”
“Suzanne, of course you’re right. Sometimes I forget that you’re a not a child anymore.”
“A small part of me will always be your little girl. You know that, right?”
She looked pleased by my comment. “You should go now so you can catch him in the act. It’s like housebreaking a puppy. If you don’t point out the mistake to them right away, they’ll never learn.”
“I’ll rub his nose in it, all right,” I said with a grin. “Wish me luck.”
She smiled at me. “I have a feeling it’s Lester, not you, who will need the luck.”
“I believe you’re right.”
I got into my Jeep and drove to the radio station on the outskirts of April Springs. As I started on my way across town, I passed Grace Gauge’s place. Grace and I had grown up together, and she’d been my best friend just about my entire life. We’d stayed close, and the years had done nothing to loosen our bond.
And then I came to Donut Hearts. It was odd seeing my old converted train depot this time of night. I always felt a tug when I saw the place. I’d bought my shop almost as a whim on the heels of my divorce from Max, but it had been the best stroke of luck I’ve ever had in my life. The shop kept me busy, alive, and connected to the world around me. It also made it tough to feel sorry for myself after my marriage fell apart. In truth, I was just about too busy to notice.
I drove past the town clock, and soon enough, I saw the police station. I thought of Jake Bishop when I did. He was an investigator for the state police, and had recently added being my steady boyfriend to his résumé. We’d endured some rocky moments in our relationship from the start, but since the previous Christmas, we’d managed to overcome most of them. I knew that he’d done his best to get over his late wife, and I was glad that I’d been patient until he was ready to move on with his life.
Jake was turning out to be worth the wait, after all.
Soon enough, I was in the parking lot of our local radio station, WAPS. I’d feared for a moment that Lester had taped his editorial, since he had a live program he broadcast every morning, but luckily for me, his car was in the parking lot, along with another that had to belong to his producer. I’d never been a fan of Lester’s, but I really liked Cara Lassiter. She’d helped me before when I’d had trouble with Lester, and I was in fact surprised she hadn’t warned me about what was coming.
I knocked on the door, and I saw the TV camera above it swing around to me.
“Cara, it’s Suzanne.”
The door buzzed, and I walked into the building.
She met me before I managed to get three paces inside. “Suzanne, I would have warned you about what he was doing, but I had no idea who he was skewering tonight. By the time I could have called you, it would have been too late to do anything about it, and he would have fired me in the bargain.”
“I don’t have a problem with you,” I said. “Where is he?”
She looked around the small station. “I don’t know; he was right here a second ago. He just signed off the air for the night.”
I looked into the broadcasting booth, and then his small but neat office. It, too, was empty. “Where is he, then?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say that he’s probably on his way out to grab a quick smoke.”
I looked back the way I’d come. “I didn’t see him go out.”
“He uses the employee entrance. Suzanne, you can’t win with him, you know that, don’t you?”
“Maybe not, but I’m not just going to take it.”
I started for the door. “Care to come with me? You can be a witness.”
Cara grinned at me. “I’d love to, but if he knew I was watching you ream him out, he’d fire me for sure.”
“I understand. Maybe you can watch on the security camera.”
I went out the door, and sure enough, there was Lester, leaning against his car with a glowing cigarette in his hand. With the streetlight across the way, I could see him just fine. Lester was a tall and lean man, with a sharp nose and eyes that didn’t miss much. His hair was greased back with some kind of product, and he wore a suit that hadn’t been in style for years.
Why did he not look at all surprised to see me?
Of course, my Jeep was parked right there beside him.
I’d have given anything to wipe the smug look off his face. He said, “I was wondering if you heard my broadcast. What did you think?”
“You are a coward and a weasel, and I’m going to sue you for what little you must have for what you just said.” I tried to keep my voice calm, but it was more than I could manage. At least I wasn’t yelling. Not yet, anyway.
My words brought a smile to his face. “Take your best shot. I’m protected by the First Amendment,” he said.
“Not if you’re lying.” I was moving closer to him now, and my temper was starting to assert itself.
“What did I say in that editorial that wasn’t true?” There was an edge in his voice as well now. It was clear that he was no longer amused by my reaction. Good, that made two of us. “Suzanne, you sell death, and you know it. Heart disease is a mass murderer in this country, and you’re part of the reason it’s so prevalent.”
“Seriously? You’re actually blaming me for heart attacks?”
“Don’t play innocent with me. You contribute to the problem,” he said, jabbing his cigarette at me as if it were some kind of knife. “I wasn’t lying. I saw what your customer base looked like today.”
“Donuts don’t kill people,” I yelled. “I’m the first to admit that no one should eat them every day, but there’s nothing wrong with a treat now and then. Skinny people come to my shop, too, and I know a lot of them did throughout the day today. Did you see them and choose to ignore them, or were you even there?”
“The heavyset outweighed everyone else,” he said, pointing at me with his cigarette again.
“What about your cigarettes? Don’t you think they’re killers?”
“We’re talking about donuts, remember? You might as well give up. I’m not about to back down from what I said tonight.”
I got up in his face this time. “This isn’t over.”
I heard Cara from a few feet away. How long had she been standing there? She looked as though she wanted to die as she spoke. “Lester, you’ve got a call from Mr. MacDonald.”
That got his attention. “What does he want?”
“He didn’t say. Do you want me to tell him that you’re on your break?”
Lester threw the cigarette down and ground it out with his heel. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll take the call.”
“It’s line three,” she said.
As Lester disappeared back into the building, Cara’s tense face blossomed into a smile. “Wow, I thought you were going to slap him there for a second.”
“You saw that?” Suddenly I wasn’t so proud of my outburst. What had I accomplished, after all? Did I think Lester would air an apology and a retraction if I could bully him into it? Maybe I should have let Momma come along, after all. She might have been able to keep me in check. The fact that I was even considering such an option was enough to tell me that I’d overstepped my bounds. When my mother was the voice of reason, it was time for me to reevaluate my position.
Then again, she could have just as easily led the charge, and things could have turned out even worse.
“I just saw the last bit,” Cara admitted.
“Thanks for making up that call, then.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t. Mr. MacDonald owns this station, together with a dozen other investors.”
I grinned at her. “Maybe he’s a donut fan, and he’ll fire Lester.”
As Cara hurried back into the building, I realized that I’d done enough damage for one night. I looked at my watch and saw that it was nearly nine. I just had a handful of hours until it was time to get up. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get to sleep, not after what had just happened, but I owed it to myself to try.
As I drove back home, I thought about how personal that attack had been. I knew Lester wasn’t a fan of mine, but I had no idea he disliked me that much. Had he come up with his little diatribe on his own, or had someone else put him up to it? I had my share of enemies in April Springs, but small towns could be like that. Sometimes folks took a dislike to someone for no apparent reason, and no doubt a few felt that way about me. But which one of them might have enough influence over Lester to get him to come after me so openly?
I needed to find out, and sooner, rather than later.
*   *   *
My alarm woke me way too early. It had taken some time for me to get to sleep after recapping my confrontation with Lester to Momma. Maybe I’d be able to grab a nap at some point after work. I wasn’t sure how many customers I’d have today, given Lester’s diatribe on the air. Then again, how many of my customers actually listened to our local radio station, especially at night? Only time would show how effective Lester had been in trying to lead a boycott of Donut Hearts.
I didn’t make it to the shop until five after two, late by my normal standards. As I walked past the coffee machine, I hit the start button and then turned on the fryer. It took a while for all that oil to heat up for the first run of donuts at three hundred degrees, and I’d learned early on to start it warming as soon as I walked in the front door.
Emma Blake, my assistant and friend, wasn’t due in for nearly half an hour. That was one bonus I gave her that didn’t cost me a dime. She claimed that the extra half hour of sleep was better than any raise I could afford. I checked the answering machine, hoping for a big order in case Lester’s call for a boycott worked, but there weren’t any messages. Normally I fussed about people who waited until the last minute to order massive amounts of donuts, but I would have gladly taken a spontaneous order at the moment.
I’d have to hurry a little to make up for lost time, but I’d still have plenty of opportunity to mix the batter for the cake donuts, then move on to the yeast donuts, proof them, and be ready when we opened. I always started with the donuts that required a lower oil temperature, and then turned up the heat so I could finish with the yeast donuts.
For the cake donuts, I liked to offer something new every now and then without knocking any of the old favorites off the menu. For example, I offered a peanut donut, a basic cake recipe covered in glaze and then buried in peanuts, but I wanted to try something different that might complement it. The new recipe I was working on was for a peanut butter and jelly donut, something that might be a hit with my younger crowd. I planned on using a peanut-butter-based dough, and was going to try reduced grape jelly as a topping, but so far, I hadn’t been able to come up with anything I would be proud enough to sell.
I had just finished mixing the cake donut offerings for the day when Emma walked in, rubbing her eyes as she grabbed her apron. She was young and petite, with a figure I envied but knew I would never emulate, and she had red hair, freckles, and pale blue eyes. “Morning,” she said.
“There’s coffee,” I answered as I added plain cake donut batter to the spring-loaded dropper.
Emma nodded. “Coffee. Yes. Good.”
She went out front to get a cup, and I swung the dropper in the air like a pendulum, driving the dough to the extruding point. The donut rounds were dropped straight into the oil, and I always marveled at how perfectly they were formed as they began to fry. It had taken me a while to calculate the right distance to drop them. Too close to the oil and the donuts barely had holes, but alternatively, if I dropped them from too high, they were anything but round by the time they hit the oil.
I’d finished the plain cake and was moving on to the strawberry cake when I realized Emma hadn’t even poked her head through the door since she’d gone to get some coffee.
Putting the cleaned dropper aside, I peeked out front to see what was keeping her.
I was surprised to find her sitting at the counter, fast asleep, the mug in front of her forgotten.
My laughter woke her up.
As she lifted her head and rubbed her eyes, Emma asked, “What happened?”
“You dozed off,” I said. “If you want to take the day off, I can handle things here on my own today.”
Emma stood and stretched. “No, don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
“I mean it. It’s okay.”
“Suzanne, if I’m going to take the day off, I don’t plan on getting up at two in the morning to do it. I’m here, and I’m awake. Let’s get started.”
“You’ve got a few minutes,” I said. “I have a few more cake donuts to make.”
“I’ll get busy here then.”
I finished up the cake donuts for the day, adding half a dozen rounds of my latest peanut butter batter to the fryer. As they fried, I rinsed the dropper, and then called out to Emma. “You can ice them now.”
She came in, grabbed the pan, and began icing the cake donuts I’d made, drowning them in a cascade of sugar from the reservoir. I flipped the peanut butter donuts with long chopsticks, and after they were done on both sides, I pulled them out.
Emma noticed the small batch. “Another experiment?”
“You know me. I’m not satisfied unless it’s the best.” As I put them on the rack to cool, Emma started icing them, as well.
“Just do three,” I said. “Leave the other three.”
“You’re the boss.” She took a deep breath. “Should we split one?”
“I haven’t made the grape jelly glaze yet,” I said.
Emma crinkled her nose at that. “Why ruin them? Why don’t we offer them like this and see what happens?”
I grabbed one of the glazed donuts, broke a piece off it, and tasted it.
She was right. It didn’t need jelly at all.
It wouldn’t be the PB&J I’d planned to offer, but it was certainly a different flavor from the peanut-crusted donuts I’d been selling. I just hoped none of my customers had peanut allergies.
I decided to put one aside for George Morris, my friend and a good customer who had retired from the police force several years ago. A balding man in his sixties, George had been invaluable during some of my amateur investigations in the past. “Go ahead and glaze the rest of them, but hold one plain donut back for George.”
“Just one?”
“He’s been complaining about his waistline, so I’m trying not to tempt him too much with free samples.”
“I think he looks fine,” Emma said.
“Tell him that when he comes in. I’m sure he’d love to hear it. If he comes in, that is.”
“Why wouldn’t he?” Emma asked as she pulled that last rack of cake donuts off the icing station.
“After Lester Moorefield’s rant last night, I’ll be surprised if anyone comes through our front door today.”
Emma looked confused. “What happened? What did Lester say?”
I brought her up to speed, including my confrontation with him in the radio station parking lot. After I finished, Emma reached for the radio we kept in back.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I want to see if they might be rebroadcasting it.”
I glanced at the clock, but didn’t try to stop her. WAPS was still off the air, and would be until six A.M., when Lester started his broadcast day.
“Nothing but static,” Emma said.
“Trust me, you aren’t missing much. I just hope his boycott doesn’t work.”
She patted my arm. “Don’t give it a second thought, Suzanne. Our customers love us too much to turn their backs on us, especially on Lester Moorefield’s say-so.”
“I hope you’re right.” His attack had shaken me more than I cared to admit, and self-doubt had begun to creep in. We didn’t make a fortune at Donut Hearts on our best days, and there was a fine line between paying our bills plus a little extra and coming under what we needed to meet our daily operating expenses. I’d played with several ideas about how I might increase our income, but nothing had appealed to me. One of my friends and fellow donut makers in Hickory had added a bistro to serve lunch and dinner when the shop wasn’t busy making donuts, but he was a trained chef, while I was just a humble donut maker. If I was going to generate any extra income, it would have to be within the confines of the donut world.
*   *   *
At five-thirty, the donuts were ready, displayed proudly in their cases, and we had two different brews of coffee going, along with a carafe of hot cocoa made from my special recipe.
Now all we needed was a customer or two.
As I unlocked the front door, I was surprised to see a police cruiser drive up to the shop. Our chief of police didn’t like being seen at my donut shop because of the old jokes about cops and donuts, but some of his officers liked to come by occasionally. One in particular, Stephen Grant, was even becoming a friend, though it was clear Chief Martin wasn’t all that thrilled about one of his officers getting chummy with me.
I was in luck, it was my friend; but as Officer Grant got out of his squad car, I knew he wasn’t there for an early-morning donut.
There was trouble, and from the expression on his face I had a feeling that, once again, I was right in the middle of it.
 
PEANUT BUTTER DROP DONUTS
As I was writing this book, I suddenly realized that I’d never made a peanut-based dough of my own. What better time to explore how, along with Suzanne, to make these. It took a little trial and error, but I’ve found a recipe that I believe even Suzanne would be proud to serve at Donut Hearts!
INGREDIENTS
• 1 egg, beaten
• ½ cup sugar (white)
• ¼ cup brown sugar
• 1 cup buttermilk (2% or whole milk will also do)
• 2 tablespoons canola oil
• ½ teaspoon vanilla
• 1 cup all purpose flour
• 1 tablespoon baking powder
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• ½ cup peanut butter (I like chunky, but smooth works fine, too)
DIRECTIONS
Heat canola oil to 360 degrees while you mix the batter. Add the sugar slowly to the beaten egg, incorporating it along the way. Then add the milk, oil, and vanilla, stirring well. Sift the dry ingredients and fold it into the batter. Add the peanut butter last, and you’re ready.
Take a teaspoon of batter and rake it into the fryer with another spoon. If the dough doesn’t rise soon, gently nudge it with a chopstick, being careful not to splatter oil. After two minutes, check, and then flip, frying for another minute on the other side. These times may vary given too many factors to count, so keep a close eye.
Makes around eighteen small donuts


 
Copyright © 2011 by Jessica Beck