Dairy-Free Death

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chapter 1

drop-cap-orange Blossom no longer howled at night, as long as Erin or Vic was around and the cat could snuggle with one of the two young women when they went to bed. Usually with Erin, but sometimes the traitorous feline chose Erin’s eighteen-year-old housemate instead, for no discernible reason. Erin would lie awake, waiting for him to come in, and he simply wouldn’t come. She would fall asleep eventually, but those were always restless nights. She got up very early to go to the bakery, and it was those mornings that it was hardest and felt like just throwing in the towel and finding some line of work that kept office hours of nine to five, so she could be a normal person instead of a zombie by evening and an early bird chasing down the worm in the morning.

Orange Blossom no longer kept the neighbors awake, but he still knew how to use his voice, and as soon as Erin stepped into the kitchen following her wake-up shower, he would immediately be winding himself around her ankles, meowing chattily, making sure she couldn’t forget to feed him.

Vic laughed as she followed Erin and Orange Blossom into the kitchen. She hit the button on the coffee maker while Erin tripped three times over Orange Blossom trying to get to his food bin in the pantry. Victoria’s pink flannel jammies were wrinkled, and she smelled warmly of sweat. Her hair was as blond as Erin’s hair was dark. Erin’s hair was not quite black, but as dark a brown as you could get without being black.

“Why does he still act like that?” Vic asked. “Like he’s starving to death and you might forget to feed him? I mean, he’s been fed every day. It’s a routine now. Shouldn’t he be settling down about it?”

Despite the facts that there were only ten years between them and Vic topped her by a head, Erin often felt like she was in a parental role to Vic. She emerged from the pantry with her scoop of kibble and filled Orange Blossom’s bowl. Her kitten plunged his head into the bowl that was still too big for him, wolfing the food hungrily, making little yipping noises between gulps.

“I don’t know, Vic. I assume that sooner or later… he’ll at least dial it back a bit. But you have to remember, he’s still just a kitten, and he was a starving street cat when I brought him home.”

She remembered how hard he had been to catch, how skittish and slippery he had been. No problem with that now. He was always underfoot. And when she did pick him up, he immediately snuggled against her, purring warmly and bumping the top of his head under her chin. No one would ever guess that he’d once been such a frightened stray.

The first cup of coffee was done, and Vic handed it to Erin before putting the second pod in.

“You look tired this morning,” she offered by way of explanation since the first cup was almost always for her.

“I didn’t sleep very well. Where was that silly cat? In with you?”

“Yes.” Vic giggled. “Right under my chin. Kept getting fur up my nose whenever either of us moved.”

Erin shook her head and took a sip of the coffee. It was still too hot to drink, so she held it there, smelling the rich, dark, comforting scent. The smell itself was almost as good as the caffeine boost. She sighed and put it down on the counter to cool for a few minutes.

“I’d better grab a couple of things for lunch.”

They usually had sandwiches for their early, pre-lunchtime-rush meal, a combination of the bakery bread or buns and whatever fixings were in the fridge. And if they wanted more than tomatoes on toast, Erin needed to restock.

Vic picked up her coffee once the machine finished dripping and headed for the bathroom. By the time Erin was ready for her work day, all her lists prepared, Vic would be dressed for the day and ready to go. The coffee would hold them both over until the first batch of muffins was fresh out of the oven, and then they would take a break to each have one or two before continuing their preparations. Waking up so early and working through the breakfast and lunch rushes, they took their own meals at odd times.

“Book Club day?” Vic asked as she and Erin climbed into the Challenger to buzz over to the bakery. It was only a few blocks from the little green and white house, but they had things to carry, and they would be on their feet all day. It was still dark, a couple of hours before dawn.

“Yes,” Erin agreed, mentally reviewing her lists for the day. Book Club Day was a big deal for the ladies, but it didn’t really change Erin’s product line-up. They enjoyed a cookie or two, but she didn’t have to do anything special, just make sure there was a variety to choose from. Vic would make up a platter and take it over to The Book Nook next door after lunch. “And I need to do a cake for Peter Foster’s birthday. His mom is so excited about being able to order a bakery cake instead of having to make one herself this year. ‘Decorated and everything.’” Erin chuckled over how excited Mrs. Foster had been about it. “She’s got her hands full with that little Traci. I honestly don’t know how she gets anything done.”

“What kind did Peter want?”

“Chocolate cake. Darth Vader. I have a pattern.”

“That will be cool.” Vic swept her blond hair over her shoulder and tucked stray strands behind her ears. “I wonder what Traci will want on her birthday.”

“Anything she can get her hands—and mouth—on.”

“I love the way she gets so excited whenever the Fosters come into the shop. When we started, she was just a nursing baby. Now, she wants her cook-kie!”

“Yes, she does!”

As she opened the back door to the bakery and stepped into the kitchen, Erin took a deep breath of the warm, yeasty air. It was like a drug. Or a perfume. Bottle that smell and she would have a better mate-catcher than any floral concoction. The caffeine of her morning coffee was kicking in, and Erin felt energized and excited to begin her day. She always felt like that. It was hard to wake up initially, but by the time she got to the bakery, she was raring and ready to go.

“You want to start with those maple-bacon muffins?” her young assistant suggested.

Vic had initially been disgusted by the idea, but once she tasted the perfect balance of sweet maple and salty, smoky bacon, she was a convert. Now they were one of her favorites, and were frequently her choice for breakfast.

“Sure,” Erin agreed. “Maple-bacon it is.”

They already had several batters mixed ahead of time, so Erin selected the maple-bacon muffins and put them on the counter while the oven preheated.

drop-cap-did you see?” Melissa asked as she paid for her muffins. Her dark, curly hair was looking a little windswept, even though it was a calm day. She looked back over her shoulder, but Erin had no idea what she was supposed to be looking at.

“Did I see… what?”

“There’s somebody over at the bakery. Angela’s old bakery,” Melissa clarified, even though Erin had a pretty good idea that Melissa was talking about the only other bakery in town, which had been shut down after the death of Angela Plaint, the former owner.

“Who’s at The Bake Shoppe?”

“I don’t know. It’s an out-of-state car. No one has any idea who it belongs to.”

Erin wasn’t sure who ‘no one’ was, other than Melissa herself, but Melissa looked over the people in line behind her, and a few of them nodded a little, verifying what she said. A strange car that no one knew.

“No one saw who got out or knocked on the bakery door to make sure they had a legitimate reason to be there?” Erin knew how things were handled in small-town Bald Eagle Falls. Everyone felt like they had the right to know. If an outsider was in Angela’s bakery, then they’d better have a darn good reason to be there.

“No. No one saw them get out. The door’s locked and no one is answering. But someone is there. The car had to come from somewhere.”

“Maybe Officer Piper should have a look. Maybe somebody just dumped the car here. That happens, sometimes.”

“In the big city, maybe. Where there are other places to go and ways to get out of town. But people don’t do that here. You dump your car and you’re stuck.”

Erin motioned for Melissa to step back so that she could ring up the next customer.

“Maybe it’s one of the employees,” she said. “Just cleaning up or picking up personal items.”

“They wouldn’t have out-of-state plates. It’s someone who doesn’t live here.”

“Angela’s lawyer?” Erin suggested. “Realtor?”

“Neither are from out of town,” Melissa insisted.

Erin exchanged a look with Vic. “It’s a mystery, then,” she said with a shrug.

Melissa nodded eagerly. “Exactly!” she said. “Maybe we’ll have to put our local PI onto it.” She gave Erin a wink.

“Whoa, Nelly.” Erin held both hands up in a ‘stop’ motion. “I am not a private investigator. I’m a baker, and I’ve got plenty to keep me occupied without sticking my nose into someone else’s business.”

“But it is related to the bakery business,” Melissa coaxed. “Since you are the only bakery in Bald Eagle Falls, and this person is in Angela’s old bakery…”

“That doesn’t make it anything to do with me. I’m not getting involved.”

The door to Auntie Clem’s Bakery opened with such a wild jangle of the entrance bells that everybody looked up or turned around to see who had just come in and what the big emergency was. No one hurried in Bald Eagle Falls.

It was Lottie, another of the First Baptist ladies that Erin knew from her Sunday post-service teas. Her face was red and she leaned back against the door, breathing out a puff of breath. She was not embarrassed by having the attention of everyone in the store on her. Rather, she seemed to expect it.

“It’s Trenton,” she burst out. “Trenton Plaint.”

The blood drained from Melissa’s face. She stared at Lottie in shock. “What’s Trenton Plaint?” she said finally, forcing the words out and breaking the stunned silence.

“The out-of-state plates. The man at the bakery. It’s Trenton Plaint.”

“No.” Melissa shook her head. She looked as if she had seen a ghost. “It can’t be. This is a mistake.”

“It is!” Lottie’s voice went up a notch, petulant as a child’s. “Come and see if you don’t believe me.”

But Melissa stayed exactly where she was, frozen to the floor. Erin looked at Vic, not sure what to do. She thought she ought to offer a hand. Or a coffee. Or a good stiff drink. But she wasn’t sure. Vic, young as she was, always seemed to have a better knack for customer service than Erin did. Erin was good at the business. She was good at baking and at figuring out marketing and other things to do with the business. But it was Vic who added the warm human touch at Auntie Clem’s Bakery.

Vic recognized the panic in Erin’s eyes and touched her arm briefly as she walked by and out from behind the counter. Just that fleeting touch made Erin feel better. Vic really did know what to do. Vic took Melissa gently by the arm.

“Are you okay? Would you like to sit down?” She steered Melissa toward one of the chairs provided for customers. They were never all full except during the after-church service on Sunday when they had to bring in a few extra to round out the numbers.

Melissa let Vic guide her into a chair. She shook her head and whispered, “It can’t be true.”

“Can I get you a drink of water? Tea?”

Melissa gave a confused head-shake. Vic looked at Erin. “Why don’t you get her a glass of ice-water anyway?”

Erin nodded and went into the kitchen. When she got back out to the front of the shop again, Vic was still hovering over Melissa, who was sitting in one of the wrought-iron chairs. And Lottie was still leaning against the door, entranced, as if she were watching a movie.

Erin handed Vic the glass and headed for the door.

“You need to get out of the doorway,” she told Lottie firmly. You’re blocking anybody from getting in or going out.

And maybe that had been Lottie’s intention. To hold them all hostage there until she got the reaction she wanted. If that were the case, Erin wasn’t sure what she was waiting for. Melissa’s reaction must have been satisfying enough for anyone.

Lottie took a sulky step forward from the doorway, making it obvious that she wasn’t waiting in line for service. Erin studied her for a moment. She’d never quite understood where Lottie fit in. She had girlish blond pigtails and a round, broad face, which made her look like she was stuck between forty and fourteen. Too girlish for a mature woman, too worn and experienced for a teenager.

“Are you going to come see?” she demanded from Melissa.

“No. No, I don’t want to see him. I don’t… I didn’t think I would ever see him again in my lifetime.”

“How about we give Melissa a little space to breathe and some time to calm down again?” Vic suggested, straightening up and moving toward Lottie. Vic was quite tall, and she moved confidently into Lottie’s personal space, making Lottie instinctively pull away. “Melissa just needs—some—space.” She repeated. Lottie took another step back.

Everyone was frozen for a minute, still watching the drama. Then people started to murmur to each other, acting like they hadn’t seen and heard everything that had happened and were only interested in their bakery orders and settling up. Erin finished counting the cookies that Mrs. Potter had finally picked out and rang up the order on the register. Lottie sniffed and walked back out the door with a bang and another clash of bells.

Melissa eventually gathered her wits and left the bakery, giving Erin and Vic a half-hearted nod and heading out the door without further discussion or explanation. Erin retrieved her half-consumed glass of water from the table and put it in the sink in the kitchen. When the line of customers dried up, Erin flipped the sign on the window to “We’ll be back…” and she and Vic retired to the kitchen to get off their feet and have their early lunches. Erin wriggled her toes, breathed in the savory scent of her grilled vegetable sandwich, and took a big bite.

“So… what do you think is going on with Melissa and Trenton Plaint?” Vic asked, after swallowing her first bite.

“I don’t think anything is going on with them. Trenton Plaint disappeared almost twenty years ago, the year they were both in twelfth grade. Melissa hasn’t seen him since.”

“There’s something going on there,” Vic said with certainty. “You don’t act like that when you just hear that some guy you knew twenty years ago has returned to town. They were more to each other than just acquaintances.”

“Maybe,” Erin allowed. “But I don’t think they were friends. From what Melissa has said about the Plaint boys… they were bullies. Nasty to people their age, even though the adults thought they were wonderful. I don’t think that Trenton and Melissa were friends.”

“Enemies?”

“That might be closer.”

“She’d be pretty ticked about him showing up here again if they were enemies too, wouldn’t she? It would make more sense that she didn’t want to go see him.”

Erin nodded. She took another bite of her sandwich and chewed it slowly, appreciating all of the tastes and textures. There was no point in rushing through lunch without enjoying it. She’d end up craving all the baked goods in front of her in the display case at the front of the store. No good if the baker is drooling over everyone else’s purchases.

“Did you think Lottie came to tell anybody in particular that Trenton was back? Or just everyone in general?” she asked Vic.

“She wanted to tell Melissa. She didn’t care about anyone else.”

“Yeah.” That was what Erin had sensed as well. Lottie barely even saw anyone else in the bakery. She only had eyes for Melissa. “But why? If they were enemies, why would she rush to tell Melissa that Trenton was back?”

“I don’t know. Some people like to be the bearers of bad news. Or just to stir up trouble in general. She’s more trouble than a nest of hornets.”

Erin smiled. “I’ve met people like that. Melissa tends to be a bit dramatic herself. Maybe she and Lottie are used to winding each other up. They probably went to school together; they’re around the same age.”

Vic got up and made some tea. Erin could tell that Vic still had something on her mind. Vic liked to move around when she was thinking. To physically work her way through any knotty problems. When they each had a cup of tea, Erin stirring a little wild honey into hers, Vic looked away as if examining the baking schedule on the whiteboard.

“Are you worried about Trenton being back in town?” she asked.

“No! Why would I be?”

“Because… he’s at The Bake Shoppe. He’s Angela’s heir, isn’t he? Maybe he came back here to reopen the bakery.”

Erin sipped her tea, frowning.

“I doubt that he is. Reopening the bakery. I mean, he’s never had anything to do with it before. Why would he do that?”

“You did.”

“Well… it’s a little different…”

“How? Your aunt died and left you the shop, and you reopened it. His mother leaves him her bakery…”

“But I didn’t reopen as the same business. I just used the building and equipment… and opened it as a bakery. It wasn’t a bakery when Clementine ran it.”

“She did some baking.”

“Some,” Erin allowed. “A few treats to go with the tea. But mostly she bought them at the bakery and just served them in the tea room.”

“You don’t think we need to worry about Trenton reopening The Bake Shoppe?”

“No.” Erin shook her head, but there was a knot growing in her gut. Her business had been going quite well as the only bakery in town.

What if Trenton did reopen Angela’s bakery? Was there enough business to go around and for both stores to be viable? And would people choose a gluten-free bakery over one that sold traditional bread, given the option? When Erin had first moved into town, everyone had said that there was only room for one bakery in Bald Eagle Falls.

“I don’t think he’s going to reopen,” she told Vic. “And if he did, baking probably isn’t his thing. He left his mom to run The Bake Shoppe and stayed away for twenty years. If he wanted to run a bakery… he would have come back at some point. Wouldn’t he?”

Vic leaned back in her chair. Her shoulders lifted and fell.

“He’s probably just having a look around to see how much he has to clean up,” Erin said, “What he can sell. What the place is worth. If he’s the heir, he’ll need to take care of all of that.”

“A lawyer and real estate agent could have taken care of all of that without him ever coming to town.”

“Maybe he needed to prove his identity. Or do something in order to inherit. I don’t know. Maybe he just wanted to come back to make sure that Angela was really dead.”

“Yeah.” Vic’s tone was subdued. It wasn’t until then that Erin remembered Angela was Vic’s aunt.

“Do you remember Trenton? No, you wouldn’t remember him, he left around the time you were born. But did you see pictures of him? Hear stories? Do you know any of the other kids? I think Melissa said… there were three children? Two boys and a girl?”

“Uh…” Vic rolled her eyes upward, trying to remember. “Trenton, Davis, and Sophie. But Sophie died, and Trenton disappeared. Davis… I don’t think he disappeared, exactly. Not like Trenton did. I think Aunt Angela still knew where he was. But she didn’t have anything to do with him. He was… you know… an addict. She was very… judgmental.”

Vic herself had felt the sting of Angela’s judgments due to her gender identity. Erin looked at Vic, hoping she hadn’t made her assistant uncomfortable bringing up the subject.

“Are you okay?”

“Sure. Yeah. It doesn’t matter to me.”

“So, there are two heirs, Trenton and Davis. If she didn’t write them both out of her will.”

Vic nodded.

“And she must not have,” Erin mused, “or Trenton wouldn’t be here. If she just left everything to First Baptist, there wouldn’t be any need for him to come to town to look The Bake Shoppe over.”

“Could she do that?” Vic sounded surprised.

“Leave it all to the church? Of course. People leave money to churches or charities all the time. You’re not actually required to give it to your family.”

“Really? You can just leave it to whoever you want?”

“Yes. Sure.”

“But what if her family objects? I mean, what if she did leave it to the church, and Trenton… didn’t think the church deserved it?”

“I guess he’d have to take the estate to court over it… challenge the will…”

“Because he could be like you. He could want to take over the bakery. The church wouldn’t have any use for it, and if he wanted to…”

“I… don’t know,” Erin admitted. “The sum of my knowledge of estate law is what I learned from Clementine’s lawyer and popular TV. That doesn’t exactly make me an expert.”

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Dairy-Free Death

By P.D. Workman

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