Gluten-Free Murder

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chapter 1

drop-cap-erin Price pulled up in front of the shop and shut off her loudly-knocking engine. She took a few deep breaths and stared at the street-side view. She hadn’t seen it since her childhood, but it looked just the same as she remembered it. Maybe a little smaller and shabbier, like most of the things from her childhood that she re-encountered, but still the same shop.

Main Street of Bald Eagle Falls was lined with red brick buildings, pasted shoulder-to-shoulder to each other, in varying, incongruous styles. Each one had a roofed-in front sidewalk to protect shoppers and diners from the blazing Tennessee sun they would face in the coming summer. All different colors. Some of them lined with gingerbread edges or whimsical paint jobs. Or both. Some of the stores appeared to have residences on the second floor, white lacy curtains drawn in windows that looked down at the vehicles, mostly trucks, nose-in in the parking spaces. There was no residence above Clementine’s shop. She had lived in a small house a few blocks away that Erin had no memory of. She had spent most of her time at the shop and did not remember sleeping over at her aunt’s when her parents had brought her for a visit.

A US flag hung proudly on a flagpole in front of the stores, just fluttering slightly in the breeze. It was starting to get dark and she knew she’d have to find the house in the dark if she were going to stop and take the time to explore the shop.

With another calming breath, Erin unbuckled her seatbelt, unlocked the door, and levered herself out of the seat. She felt like she’d been pasted into the bucket seat of the Challenger for three days straight. She had been pasted into the bucket seat for three days straight, other than pit-stops and layovers. She wasn’t tall, so she wasn’t crammed into the small car, but she’d been in there long enough to want to get out and straighten her body and stretch her legs. And to go to bed, but bed was still a long way off.

Erin walked up to the shop and put her key into the lock. It ground a little, like it hadn’t been used for a long time. Maybe it needed a little bit of lubrication to loosen it up.

The air inside the shop was too still and too warm. She remembered when the little shop had been filled with the smells of exotic teas and fresh-baked goods, but Clementine had retired and closed it years ago. It had been a long time since anything had been baked there. It just smelled like dust and stale air. Erin left the front door open to let some fresh air circulate while she took a look around. There wasn’t much space to explore in front of the counter. She would need a couple little tables, with a limited number of chairs, for the few people who wanted to eat in. Most of her business would just be stopping in to pick up their orders. She walked behind the counter. Everything seemed to be in good shape. A good wipe-down and some fresh baked goods in the display case and she’d be ready to go. Maybe a fresh coat of paint on the wall and a chalk board listing the daily specials and prices.

She walked into the back. A kitchen with little storage and a microscopic office that might once have been a closet. The back stairs led to a larger storage area downstairs, she remembered. And what Clementine had always called the commode. There was a second set of stairs from the store front down to the commode for customers. Not exactly convenient, but it was a small, old building. The arrangement had worked okay for Clementine. As a girl, Erin had always been a little afraid of the basement. She would creep down the stairs to use the bathroom and then race back up again, always drawing a warning from Clementine to slow down or she would trip and catch her death on those stairs.

All the old appliances were still there in the kitchen. Even a decades-old industrial fridge stood unplugged and propped open. There was no microwave and Erin was going to need a fancier coffee machine, but everything else looked usable.

“What are you doing here?”

Erin turned around and saw a looming figure in the kitchen doorway at the same time as the clipped male voice interrupted her thoughts. She just about jumped out of her skin.

She put her hand on her thumping chest and breathed out a sigh of relief when she saw that it was a uniformed police officer. But he wasn’t looking terribly welcoming, jaw tight and one hand on his sidearm. There was a German Shepherd at his side.

“Oh, you scared me. I’m Erin Price,” she introduced herself, reaching out her hand and stepping toward him, “and I’m—”

“I asked you what you’re doing here.”

Erin stopped. He made no move to close the distance between them and shake her hand, but remained standing there in a closed, authoritative stance. His tone brooked no nonsense. Erin couldn’t imagine that she looked anything like a burglar. A little rumpled from the car, maybe, but she hadn’t been sleeping in it. Was a slim, white, young woman really the profile of a burglar in Bald Eagle Falls?

“I own this shop.”

He raised an eyebrow in disbelief, but he did let his hand slide away from the weapon and adopted a more casual stance. Erin allowed herself just one instant to admire his fit physique and his face. He was roguish, with what was either heavy five o’clock shadow or three days’ growth, but his face was also round, giving him an aura of boyishness and charm.

“You own the shop. And you are…?”

“Erin Price. Clementine’s niece.”

“If you’re Clementine’s niece, why haven’t we ever seen you around here?”

“It’s been years since I’ve seen her. My parents died and I lost all my family connections years ago, living in foster care. A private detective tracked me down.”

He considered this and took a walk around the kitchen, looking things over. His eyes were dark and intense. “You’ll be selling the place, then? Why didn’t you just hire a real estate agent?”

“No, I’m not selling,” Erin said firmly. “I’m reopening.”

The eyebrows went up again. “This place has been sitting empty for ten years or more. You’re reopening Clementine’s Tea Room?”

“No, I’ll be opening a specialty bakery, once I get everything whipped into shape.” She folded her arms across her chest, looking at him challengingly. “I assume you don’t have a problem with that?”

“No, ma’am.”

But he didn’t give any indication of leaving. Erin swept back a few tendrils of dark hair that had slipped from her braid, aware that she was probably looking travel-worn after several days in the car. She had put on mascara and dusty rose lipstick before getting on her way that morning, but she felt gritty and sweaty from travel and would have preferred a shower before having met anyone in her new hometown.

Erin strode toward the front of the store and the policeman moved out of the doorway and then back around the counter toward the front door.

“You shouldn’t leave the door wide open.”

“I wanted some air in here. I’ve only been here five minutes. Do the police always show up that fast in Bald Eagle Falls?”

“I just happened by. Thought it was strange to see Clementine’s door hanging open. Didn’t recognize the car.”

“Well, thank you for looking into it.” Erin waited until he stepped out onto the sidewalk and then followed, pulling the door shut behind her. He watched as she locked it again. “You see? I have the keys.”

“Where did this detective find you?”

“Maine.”

“Is that where you’re from?”

“I’m from a lot of places. Now I’m looking at settling back down here.”

Erin looked at the German Shepherd, doing the doggie equivalent of standing at attention.

“I’ve never heard of a small town like this having a K9 unit.”

“Well,” he looked down at the dog, chewing on his words, “this is the extent of our K9 contingent.”

“He looks… very well-trained. What’s his name?”

“K9.”

Erin cracked a smile. “Seriously?”

He kept a serious face, nodding once.

“Okay. Well, again, thank you for checking in on my store, Officer…?”

“Terry Piper.”

“Erin Price.” Erin offered her hand and this time Piper took it, giving her hand a brief squeeze as if he were afraid of crushing it.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss Price. Or is it missus?”

“It’s Miss.”

“Keep safe. Give us a call if you need anything.” He produced a business card with a blue and yellow crest on it. “We don’t exactly have 9-1-1 service but there’s always someone on call.”

Erin nodded her thanks. “I’ll keep it handy. A lot of crime in Bald Eagle Falls?”

“No. It’s a sleepy little town. Not too much excitement. Rowdy teenagers. Some of the drug trade trickling down from the city. The occasional domestic.”

“Not a lot of break-and-enters?” she teased.

He didn’t look amused. “You can’t be too careful. Where are you headed now? There’s a motel down the way…”

“No. I got the house too. I’ll be staying there.”

“You can’t sleep there tonight. Won’t be any water or power.”

“They’ve been turned on. Thanks for your concern.”

He looked for something else to say, then apparently couldn’t find anything, so he nodded and walked down the sidewalk with his faithful companion.

Erin kept one eye on the GPS and the other on her rearview mirror to see if Officer Piper had any ideas about hopping into his car and following her home to make sure that she was properly situated. But apparently, he couldn’t think of any laws she had broken and he never appeared behind her. Clementine’s house was only a few blocks away. Erin parked on the street in front of it and took it in. It was a pretty little house with white siding and green shutters, roof peaks, and accents. The living room had big windows to let in the light and a window up at the top peak hinted at an attic bedroom or study. Beside and behind the house, beyond the fence line, were shimmering green, dense woods.

Erin got out of the car and grabbed her suitcase before walking up to the heavy paneled door and inserting her key in the lock. This one didn’t stick, but turned smoothly like it was welcoming her home. Erin lugged her suitcase into the front entryway and closed and locked the door behind her. No point in inviting more visitors. She really didn’t want to have to deal with anyone else until morning.

The AC was on, so the house wasn’t stifling like the shop had been. Erin hadn’t been sure what to expect. Burgener, the lawyer, had informed her that the house was furnished, but she hadn’t known what kind of state it would be in. But it was neat and tidy. Furnished, but not cluttered. There were a couple of magazines on the coffee table in the living room that were months old, but other than that, Clementine might have just left it a few days before. Or still be in the other room just awaiting Erin’s arrival.

She wasn’t a believer in ghosts or restless spirits, but Clementine’s smell and flavor still clung to the place.

Erin left her suitcase at the door and explored the house slowly. Living room, small dining room, kitchen, Clementine’s bedroom, a guest room, and what Erin thought she might call a sewing room. There was fabric, rolls of wrapping paper, partially finished crafts, and post-bound books of genealogy, painstakingly written in longhand.

There were pull-down steps to the attic. If there had only been a ladder, Erin probably wouldn’t have explored any further, but the stairs were well-made and modern and raised her hopes that the attic had been properly developed and wasn’t just a storage space full of boxes, bags, cobwebs, and dust.

She mounted the stairs. At the top, there was enough light from below to find a light switch. Erin switched it on and had a look around.

It was a beautiful, bright room. Erin knew she was going to be spending a lot of her free time up there. White paneling and built-in cabinetry, soft, natural-looking lighting; it consisted of a reading nook, a writing desk, a comfy-looking couch, and various other touches that would make it a paradisiacal oasis at the end of a tiring day of baking.

Or driving.

After exploring the attic, Erin shut off the light, descended, and pushed the stairs up until the counterbalance took over and raised them to snick softly into place in the ceiling.

Erin returned to the kitchen for a glass of water, not looking forward to the fact that she was going to have to go out and pick up groceries if she wanted anything to eat. She found a sticky note on the fridge on notepaper preprinted with the lawyer’s logo and phone number.

Welcome home. You’ll find some basic supplies in the fridge. JRB

Erin opened the fridge door and sighed. Milk, juice, eggs, bagels, jam, and some precut fruit and vegetable packs. That and the coffee maker on the counter would do just fine. If James Burgener had been there, she would have hugged him.

A quick snack and then she would be off to the guest room for some shut-eye. Ghosts or not, she wasn’t going to be sleeping in the master bedroom until she had made it her own.

Never one to let moss grow, Erin set to work immediately the next morning. She found a sort of a general store which carried both the small appliances she needed and painting supplies. With the back seats folded down, she filled the cargo area of the Challenger with as much as it would hold. She went back to the shop, opened the windows, and prepped the walls to start painting. Best to get a fresh coat of paint on before installing anything new.

“Knock, knock?”

Erin was startled out of her thoughts. She yanked the earbuds out of her ears and turned to face the woman who was trying to get her attention.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said, giving her a tentative smile. She had a pleasant face; a middle-aged woman with ash blond hair. Either she had the perfect figure, or her clothes were hand-tailored. “I didn’t want to startle you, but you were pretty engrossed…”

Erin wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Yeah. A little caught up in my music and my work.”

“My name is Mary Lou Cox. I heard a rumor that you were here. So, I just had to come over and extend a good old Bald Eagle Falls welcome.”

“Erin Price. I, uh… Clementine was my aunt.”

“Well, if you’re kin to Clementine, you’re kin to half the mountain. Welcome home.”

Erin nodded awkwardly. “Thank you. That’s very kind of you.”

“So…” Mary Lou took a look around the kitchen. “A fresh coat of paint and then I hear you’re opening up Clementine’s Tea Room again? I’ll tell you, this town has surely missed the tea room.”

“Uh. No. I’m not reopening the tea room.” Erin enjoyed a cup of tea at the end of the day as much as anyone, but she was much more interested in baking. The groove she got into while painting was nothing compared with the nirvana she would achieve while baking. “I’m opening a specialty bakery.”

Mary Lou patted her hair. “We already have a bakery in Bald Eagle Falls.”

Erin ran the roller down the wall, watching carefully for seams or drips.

“I’m sure the town can support more than one bakery.”

“But we already have The Bake Shoppe. We don’t need another bakery.”

Erin gave her a determined smile. “I’m opening a bakery.”

“Angela Plaint owns The Bake Shoppe and does a really nice business, I’m not sure any of us would go to another bakery. It wouldn’t be a very loyal thing to do.”

“You could go to The Bake Shoppe for… whatever Angela Plaint is best at and then come to my bakery for gluten-free muffins.”

“Gluten-free?” Mary Lou echoed.

“I assume you don’t already have a gluten-free bakery.”

“No, we do not. If you want that kind of baking, you have to drive into the city.”

“Well, now you’ll be able to get them in town.”

“There aren’t that many people that want that gluten-free stuff in Bald Eagle Falls. I don’t see how you could make a living off it.”

“We’ll just have to see. I do other specialty baking as well. Dairy-free, allergy-free, vegan.”

“We don’t have a lot of those kind of people here. We like our meat. Whoever put meat in muffins anyway?”

Erin studied Mary Lou for a moment, trying to divine whether she was teasing or being sarcastic. “You might not put meat in a muffin, but you would probably put eggs and dairy.”

“And you could make it without all those things? Who would eat such a thing? It would be like eating cardboard.”

“Not when I make it.”

“I guess we’ll just have to see,” Mary Lou said. “I sure don’t cotton to the idea of you trying to take Angela’s business.”

“I guess we’ll just have to see,” Erin echoed.

Mary Lou was the first the citizen of Bald Eagle Falls to express her opinion and welcome Erin to town, but she wasn’t the last. Next came Melissa Lee, a woman with curly dark hair and a wide, even smile. And then Gema Reed, with her long, steel gray locks and a girlish complexion.

Erin did her best to explain to them that she wasn’t there to horn in on Angela’s business and take money out of her pocket, but to offer a new service that hadn’t previously been available. But it was like talking to the wall. Or yelling at an avalanche. It didn’t stop them from dumping advice all over her, while smiling and telling her she was welcome in town.

She didn’t feel welcome.

At least Terry Piper did not show up with his K9 to give his input on the matter.

It was a long day and Erin never did meet Angela, her competition. The end of the day, the walls were freshly painted. Everything looked fresh and new. Exhausted though she was, Erin spent a few more minutes in the tiny office, going through the papers and plans in the folders she had brought with her from Maine.

Then she locked everything up tight and headed back home.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Gluten-Free Murder

By P.D. Workman

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