Trust me when I say that I usually lead a pretty ordinary life. It’s not every day that I stumble across a body while I’m working at Donut Hearts, my handmade-donut and premium-blend coffee shop perched on the edge of the downtown district of April Springs, North Carolina, population 5,001.
But this was anything but ordinary.
Someone had dumped a body in front of my shop in the darkness of night as I watched, and then sped off into the shadows before I could react to what I’d seen.
I work the graveyard shift at the shop, there’s no other way to put it. My hours are off-kilter in relation to the rest of the world, from 2 A.M. when I mix the first batch of dough until I sweep up and lock the doors sometime around noon. It kills all possibilities of dating after 8 P.M., but I haven’t been all that interested in going out since my divorce from my ex-husband, Max, the great impersonator. He’s an actor, and prides himself on his ability to fake his way through any role—including husband—something I found out much to my consternation. The man had been so smooth when he’d lied to me during our marriage that I doubted a polygraph could have picked up his deceit. He had an unsteady income doing nationally distributed commercials now and then, and I’d been urging him to try his luck in Hollywood, not because of his talent—of which there was little—but because it would get him out of my hair once and for all. No such luck. He refused to leave April Springs, the small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where we’d both grown up, and I wasn’t about to budge, either.
Sorry, that’s a tangent I’m in no mood to take. Let’s get back to what happened. I watched in stunned silence as something heavy was dumped out of a speeding car just after I walked into the shop. As a matter of fact, my hand was on the switch to light the DONUT HEARTS sign when I heard the noise outside. At twelve past two in the morning, I was used to having the world to myself. Emma Blake—my assistant at the donut shop and my honorary niece—never made it in until two-thirty, and she wasn’t coming in today at all, since it was her day off. On the one day of the week I was opening by myself and working in the shop all morning alone, the world had conspired to throw my life into turmoil.
The presence of the car itself had been enough to make me look up when I heard it outside. We don’t get much traffic on Springs Drive that time of morning. Before I could grasp what I’d seen, I flipped the switch up, lighting the world just outside my shop and turning the shadowy lump lying on the street into what was clearly a body. All I’d really caught of the person dumping the body had been a face covered with a black ski mask, and the flash of a faded tiger embossed on a dark, hooded sweatshirt. The car door slammed the second I spotted him, and the killer drove off before I could manage to do much more than scream as it disappeared into the darkness.
“Did you check for a pulse when you found him, Mrs. Hart?” the young police officer asked as I finished brewing a pot of our specialty coffee blend. I usually need a jump start in the morning before I start on the dough, and today it was true, more than ever.
“I told you before, Officer Moore, it’s ‘miss,’ and you should call me ‘Suzanne’. I ran outside after I called you’all, but I’m not sure I could find a pulse if I had to.” I shivered a little as I remembered my fingers probing the man’s neck as he lay sprawled facedown on the pavement. When I’d rolled him over to try to help him, I’d nearly lost it when I realized it was Patrick Blaine. Patrick came by for donuts once a week since I’d taken over the shop, and I’d grown quite fond of him over the years. He didn’t look peaceful at all now, like they sometimes show in the movies. I hadn’t been all that surprised when there’d been no indications that he was still alive. His face grimaced in a death mask that nearly made him unrecognizable. He’d joked with me about being my honorary uncle, and now he lay dead in the street in front of my shop.
Officer Moore asked, “Did you catch a glimpse of the driver at all?”
I frowned, then finally admitted, “Not enough to identify who it was. It was dark out, and whoever was driving wore a ski mask and a hooded sweatshirt.” I paused, and then added, “There was a faded tiger on the front of it; at least I think that’s what it was. It could have been a dog. Or maybe even a race car. I don’t know, I only saw it for a second.”
Moore nodded, jotting again in his notebook. He was a hearty, robust young man, with jet-black hair and eyes that nearly matched. “And you don’t know what kind of car you saw, is that right?”
I shrugged. “I’m sorry. It was dark, and it all happened so fast. Is there a chance Patrick is still alive?”
I fought the urge to look outside at the activity around the body. I’d seen the paramedics arrive just as the police cruiser pulled into the parking lot in front of the shop. Donut Hearts was now in the building that had once been the train depot, back when the tracks had run through the edge of town. They had long been abandoned, but the twin rails were still there, hiding sometimes beneath the brush. The only other remnant of their presence was across Springs Drive where the Boxcar grill sat, a converted train car that now served as a diner. My eyes drifted back to the street outside the shop. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see what the paramedics were doing, especially if they were zippering my friend into a black body bag.
Officer Moore, barely into his twenties, shook his head curtly. “No worries there. He was dead before he hit the ground.”
His casual tone of voice struck me as a little too callous to be coming from someone ten years younger than me. “How can you be so sure? I knelt down in the street beside him and I couldn’t tell.”
The officer said slowly, “I know a gunshot trauma when I see it. The guy was practically a ghost, he was so white. He had to have bled out in the car. You must have noticed it yourself.”
I gulped my coffee, then said, “I saw him, but I thought the lights might be playing tricks on my eyes.” Officer Moore might be used to seeing dead bodies—though I doubted he’d been on the force long enough to run up against many of them—but it was a new and entirely unwelcome sight for me. I make donuts, plain and simple, and have ever since I bought the shop with my divorce settlement. Max had made a successful national commercial at exactly the wrong time, at least as far as our divorce was concerned. I’d caught him at one of the rare moments in his life when he’d been solvent, right after finding him in bed with Darlene Higgins, our once-upon-a-time prom queen and now a beautician at Wilma Gentry’s Cutnip.
That’s when I did three crazy things in the span of a month, after the official end of my marriage: I moved back in with my momma; I changed my last name to the one I’d been born with; and I bought the donut shop. It was a series of rash decisions that came when I needed to reestablish myself in the world as Suzanne Hart, not Max Thornburg’s wife.
The young cop finally flipped his notebook closed and finished filling in a multicopy form. I glanced at it as he held it out to me, along with a pen.
“Just sign here and I’ll give you a copy for your records.”
I did as I was told, and shook my head at the man’s precision. The time on the report was 2:37, not 2:40 or even 2:30. His seven would have looked like a one if it hadn’t been for the bar he’d put through the middle of it. You’d think police officers would be required to have good penmanship, given how much writing they must do in the course of a day filling out paperwork and making reports. I signed the form and handed it back to him.
After he glanced at my signature, he pulled off a copy from the bottom and handed it to me. “That’s all I need for now. Thanks for your cooperation.”
“I did what anyone would do,” I said as I walked him to the door.
“You’re kidding, right? A lot of folks would have pretended they didn’t see a thing and let someone else go through all of this.”
“I can’t imagine anyone in April Springs doing that.”
He smiled, but there wasn’t an ounce of humor in it. “Yeah, well, you don’t exactly hang out with the wrong crowd, now do you? Thanks for the coffee.”
“You’re welcome,” I said as I started to shut the door behind him. “Are you sure you don’t want any donuts?”
If there was one thing I’d learned early on running Donut Hearts, it was that most police officers hated the association of their line of work with donut shops.
I don’t know what I would have done if he’d said yes, since I hadn’t even started on the dough yet, but he just shook his head as he walked back to his patrol car. I don’t keep old donuts around the place overnight. If I have many extras at closing time, I box them up. What happens next depends on my mood. If I feel sociable, I take them around to businesses and offer them free of charge, in the hopes of drumming up more business down the line. If I’m dog tired and dead on my feet, which is more often than I care to admit, I give them to Father Pete at St. Theresa’s, and he sees to it that they go to folks who don’t have enough to eat.
I watched in silence as everyone finally drove away, and found myself once again alone in the darkness. It had been a traumatic way to start my day, but I had work to do, and I couldn’t let what had happened stop me from making donuts. In a way, it was a good thing I had something to do that kept me busy. The last thing I needed was to keep replaying that scene in my head again and again, and feel that feathery touch of dead skin on my fingertips once more.
If I’m being honest about it, my favorite time of day in my routine is when no one is at the shop but me. As much as I love Emma—and need her help producing thirty-five or forty dozen donuts each morning—I relish the one day a week when I do it all by myself. Making dough and batter, working on glazes, and coming up with new creations is great fun, despite the appearance of drudgery to the outside world of doing the same thing day in and day out. I’d been working on a new pumpkin donut recipe for the past few weeks, and I believed that I had finally achieved nirvana with the perfect blend of pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves in the recipe.
But there was only one way to find out. I dropped a few of the donut-batter circles into the piping hot oil, flipped them with my beefy wooden sticks that resemble chopsticks on steroids more than anything else, and then pulled them from their hot bath when they were done. I tumbled the rounds onto the glazing grid, drizzled the donuts with a sugar glaze I’d made fresh that morning, and took my first bite. The sensation of the warm cake donut spiced just right burst in my mouth. Almost without awareness, I ate both samples and knew that this recipe was the one I’d been searching for. I caught a glimpse of myself as I opened my stainless steel fridge for some milk, and realized that I’d been sampling too many of my own wares lately. I was either going to have to learn to control myself, or start going to the gym again.
As I finished making the rest of the batch of pumpkin donuts and started on the plain cakes, I knew I’d have to start working out and cut back on my daily donut consumption. I have some willpower, but not that much. After the cake donuts were done—a selection of plain, blueberry, cherry, and more pumpkin today—I raised the heat of the oil from 350 degrees to 365 so I could make the yeast donuts sitting in the proofer waiting their turn in the hot oil fryer. “Proofer” is a fancy name for an insulated box with a lightbulb and a humidifier, and although the proofer is ancient, it works just fine. Besides, I don’t have the money to replace it just because it’s ugly.
The donuts need around half an hour to rest in the proofer once they are cut, but I’m never bored while I’m waiting. There’s not a lot of downtime in the world of donut making, especially when I’m working by myself.
I managed to hold my snacking down to one more donut by the time I opened the shop at five-thirty, when the early morning was still shrouded in March’s darkness. It hadn’t been easy, but I was able to deal with what I’d witnessed.
At least I hoped so.
One of my regulars was waiting outside when I unlocked the front door.
George Morris, a balding man in his sixties who had retired from the police force a dozen years ago, said, “I heard what happened, Suzanne. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, George. It didn’t take long for the word to get out, did it?”
He shrugged. “I always sleep with my police scanner on. When I heard this location mentioned, I woke right up.”
After he took his regular seat at the long counter in front, I asked, “Do you want your usual this morning?”
George nodded, and I grabbed two pumpkin donuts and a large glass of whole milk for him. I wasn’t going to tell him about my new recipe. If he couldn’t tell it was different, I had more work to do on it.
As I delivered his food, George said, “Come on, there’s nobody else around right now. Tell me what really happened.”
I frowned at the question, not wanting to relive what I’d witnessed, but also realizing that I wouldn’t be able to get him off the subject until I did. “I was here at two, just like always, and I was getting ready to turn on the lights when I heard a car race by and a body hit the pavement.” I shuddered involuntarily as I remembered the dull thud of the impact. I wondered if I’d ever be able to wipe it out of my mind.
George surprised me with an instant of tenderness as he lightly touched my hand. “It’s okay; the memory will fade. Just give it some time.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I hope so.”
He looked around the shop. “Where’s Emma?”
“It’s her day off,” I said.
“I’m sorry you had to go through that alone.”
I managed a smile for him. He was a sweetheart, and for some odd reason, I felt guilty about causing him sadness, which I know is ridiculous, but I can’t help how I feel. If I could, I would have been able to save myself a bucketload of pain over the years, most especially from my ex-husband. Then again, if there hadn’t been a Max once upon a time in my life, I wouldn’t be running my own donut shop now, so maybe it was good I didn’t have as much control over things as I would have liked.
I looked at George. “Did you hear who the victim was? It was Patrick Blaine.”
He shook his head. “They didn’t say over the scanner. That must make it twice as hard for you. You were fond of him, weren’t you?”
“I was,” I admitted. “I wonder if they know anything else about what happened.”
George glanced at his watch. “Let’s listen to the radio. Maybe Lester knows something about it.”
Jessica Beck loves donuts, and has the figure to prove it. It's amazing what someone can convince themselves is all in the name of research! For each recipe featured in the donut mysteries, a dozen more are tried and tested. Jessica Beck is the penname of an author who has been nominated for the Agatha Award and named an Independent Mystery Booksellers Association national bestseller nearly a dozen times. When not concocting delicious treats, Beck enjoys the rare snowfalls near her home in the foothills of North Carolina.