Muffins Masks Murder

muffins masks murder

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chapter-1

drop-cap-ah, finally.” Vic took a long breath of air as they stepped off of the plane. “I can get warm again!”

Erin laughed and shook her head at her young, blond assistant. Vic had not been able to get properly warm since crossing the border into Canada. Even though she had bundled up on their Alaskan cruise, she just had not been able to get comfortable.

It hadn’t been so bad for Erin. Her body was more acclimatized to Maine weather than to Tennessee, so she had fared better. But she had to admit that she still preferred being warm to cold. And while the cruise had been intended to be a nice diversion from her life in Bald Eagle Falls, things had not exactly gone as planned. A relaxed, carefree vacation it had not been.

“There’s no place like home,” Erin declared.

“There shorely isn’t,” Vic agreed, drawing out the words in her longest southern drawl.

“We’ll need a vacation from our vacation,” Officer Terry Piper said, as the men followed the women off the plane and through the corridor to the terminal.

“You’re not kidding about that,” Vic agreed.

Erin glanced back at Willie, who was characteristically quiet, to see how he felt about it. His skin, darkly stained from the mining and metal processing he did, was disconcerting to someone just meeting him for the first time, but Erin was so used to it that she hardly even noticed it anymore. A far cry from when she had first arrived in Bald Eagle Falls and had taken him for a dirty homeless man and had been afraid to let him help her carry supplies into Erin’s new gluten-free and specialty bakery, Auntie Clem’s. Now, Erin wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Willie was one of the family. He might be nontraditional, picking up whatever odd jobs he felt like between working his mineral claims, but she knew he was a hard worker, not the layabout that many people seemed to think. He had been in Bald Eagle Falls much longer than she had and the townspeople should have known better. There was still prejudice against people who didn’t conform, and Willie was about as non-conforming as they came.

Willie smiled and nodded at Erin, acknowledging her look, but didn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation. He moved forward to put his arm around Vic, who also faced prejudice for her gender identity. He bumped against the cast on her arm.

“Just about time to get these off, Miss Victoria.” He indicated the cast on his leg as well. “It will feel good to be able to get the darn thing out of the way.”

“And to scratch,” Vic said fervently. “If there’s one thing I want more than to be warm right now, it’s to be able to scratch this arm like a dog at a flea circus.” She scratched around the end of the cast, sliding her fingers under the edge as far as they could reach.

Terry didn’t take Erin’s arm, but was trying to keep K9 under control. K9 wasn’t usually on a leash, but was well-trained to heel and, other than when he had first met the stray orange kitten who had wandered into Auntie Clem’s Bakery, Erin had rarely seen him out of Terry’s control. But he clearly knew that they were going home. He was sniffing the air and dragging Terry along, eager to get out of the airport terminal and back to familiar settings.

“Heel,” Terry commanded in a low, firm tone. “Come on, buddy. Let’s show some professionalism here.”

It took a few tries before K9 was finally at his side, behaving as was expected from a veteran police dog. But his nose still quivered and his ears pointed forward.

“Do you think he’s looking forward to getting back to work?” Erin asked.

“Animals like routines. He’s not used to being cooped up on a ship. Even though I walked him plenty, it’s not the same as patrolling all day, and I’m sure he felt it worse than I did. I’m going to have to work off a few extra pounds here…” He patted his sleek belly. Erin couldn’t tell that he’d put on any weight, but she knew it was bothering him.

“Who knew you could gain weight eating vegan food?” She laughed. “I was sure we’d all be thin as rails by the time we got back. Unfortunately… no such luck.” She was so short, every pound she put on looked like two. Her frame was not nearly as forgiving as Vic’s tall, slender physique. “But I can’t tell you’ve gained anything, and after you’ve been hitting the streets of Bald Eagle Falls again, it will just melt away.”

“I hope so. I have no intention of turning into one of those cops with a big beer gut hanging over his belt.”

“I don’t think you need to worry about that.”

Erin couldn’t help admiring her “Officer Handsome.” He had boyish good looks, cut a very dashing figure in his police uniform and, when she made him smile, had the cutest dimple in his cheek. He was intelligent and kind, and it was a wonder he hadn’t been scooped up by some other woman long before Erin had shown up on the scene. But he was married to his work, and maybe no other woman had wanted to compete with that devotion and the long hours of days and nights that he was gone. In a little town like Bald Eagle Falls, with its minuscule police force, he was frequently the go-to man, even when he wasn’t supposed to be on call.

It was another hour before they finally got all of their baggage off of the carousel and were on their way. They retrieved Willie’s truck from long-term parking and piled everything into the back before climbing up into the seats.

“Are you glad to be home?” Vic asked Erin, looking back over the seat of the cab to where Erin and Terry sat in the second row of seating.

“I’ll be glad when I am home,” Erin agreed. She might be back in Tennessee, but she wasn’t in her house yet, and that was what she wanted. Just to be home and away from all of the drama and excitement that had surrounded their cruise, back in her familiar environment with her lists of things to do and her baker’s schedule and something to keep her busy. The idea of a cruise had been nice, and Terry had thought that it would help Erin to be away from the stressful day-to-day business of running a bakery, but it had been more difficult not to have something to keep her hands and her mind busy, so she didn’t have to think about finding the body of Mr. Inglethorpe, or the other traumatic events that had preceded the cruise. Erin had to admit that she wasn’t a “fun” person. She wasn’t interested in going out to a restaurant or dancing or watching a lounge act or going on a tour. She was happier following her set routine.

“You’ll be happy to get back to your house, the bakery, and your animals,” Terry agreed.

Erin reached down and scratched K9’s ears. K9, being a specially trained service dog, had been allowed to go with Terry on the cruise without too much hassle. Erin bringing her cat and rabbit would have been another story, besides which, they wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all. Like Erin, cats preferred familiar surroundings and routine. She didn’t know what rabbits thought about changes. Marshmallow was pretty chill and took everything in stride, but Orange Blossom, who had grown from that straggly little orange stray to a sleek, luxurious adult cat, would have been miserable.

“I’ll be thrilled to see them again,” she agreed. “I didn’t know how much I was going to miss them. Do you think everything is okay with them?”

“Adele would have told you if there were any issues. They don’t take a lot of care, and they’re not old, so I don’t think a short vacation away from them will have been a big deal.”

“She would have told me if one of them got hurt, or lost, or wasn’t eating.” Erin needed to hear the words to reassure herself. Of course Adele would have let her know. Except that they had not had much contact with Bald Eagle Falls while they’d been on the cruise, telecommunications being pretty spotty. And Adele had known the trouble they had run into there, and maybe wouldn’t have wanted to put any more stress on Erin if something had been wrong with one of the animals. She might have just kept quiet about it, figuring it would keep until Erin got back.

“I’m sure she would have,” Terry agreed. He rubbed Erin’s back, digging down into the tense muscles and trying to massage the stress away. “You’re going to see them in just a little while.”

chapter-2

drop-cap-erin watched out the window, looking at the trees that surrounded Bald Eagle Falls. It was so lush compared to what they had seen in Alaska. She had gotten accustomed to the rocky cliffs and sparse trees that faced the ocean in Alaska, the gray water and clouds more reminiscent of what she had seen during Maine winters, and she had forgotten how full of life the Tennessee scenery was, even though it was fall and the weather was starting to get cooler. The trees were a brilliant canopy of oranges and reds, something tourists would be flocking from miles around to see.

When they pulled into Bald Eagle Falls, it looked just as Erin had remembered leaving it.

It wasn’t like she’d been away for years. It had only been a couple of weeks. It just seemed like a lifetime ago. She finally felt like she had a home. A place where she belonged. She was no longer moving from job to job and from one sad, empty room or apartment to another. Instead, she had her own house, courtesy of Aunt Clementine who had left it to Erin in her will along with the bakery. She was the boss instead of someone who had to listen to everyone else and obey the whims of some old lady or frustrated high school dropout. It hadn’t been easy, especially when she lost her first location to a fire, but things were running better than ever at Auntie Clem’s Bakery 2.0, and Erin finally felt like she had some security.

Everything looked just right. A little more gold and yellow in the leaves. The traffic was the same, the people whose faces she saw as they drove in on Main Street were the same familiar faces. It was all exactly as it should be.

And then they pulled onto Erin’s street. She let go of a big breath of air she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, the muscles in her body finally relaxing. There it was. Nothing had happened to it while she was gone. It hadn’t been burned down or burgled or anything else.

She was the first one out of the truck and was at the door while everyone else was still climbing out and then pulling the luggage out of the back of the truck. Erin unlocked the door and disarmed the burglar alarm.

“Hello?” she called. “Where are my furry beasties?”

There was silence. Orange Blossom was a very loud and vocal cat, so Erin was disconcerted that he didn’t answer and rush to the door, complaining loudly about her having abandoned him for so long. She looked around.

“Blossom? Marshmallow? Come on, guys…”

Marshmallow hopped around the corner and slowly approached her, then nuzzled her leg and nibbled at her pant cuffs. Erin smiled and bent down to scratch the white and brown rabbit’s ears.

“Hello, Marshmallow. Did you miss me? Was I gone for a really long time? You knew I would come back, didn’t you? I hope you didn’t worry too much.”

He didn’t seem to be the least bit concerned about her absence, though her shoes clearly smelled very interesting. Erin moved farther into the living room and nudged him out of the way so that the others would be able to get in the door without stepping on a curious rabbit. She stroked his velvety ears and looked around.

“Where’s Orange Blossom? Has he shut himself in the bathroom?”

It wouldn’t be the first time. Reg suspected that he did it on purpose just to get attention. She walked down the hall to the bathroom to check, but the door was still open. His litter box was in there, looking as spotless as if Adele had just been there and refilled it. Erin checked the spare room and then her bedroom.

Orange Blossom was curled up in the center of Erin’s bed, having made a little nest for himself in the blankets. His nose was tucked into his tail and he didn’t move when she entered the room.

“Blossom! Oh, Blossom…!”

She poked and prodded, and eventually he deigned to lift his head and look at her. Then he stretched and tucked it back in again, shutting her out.

“Orange Blossom! What are you doing giving me the cold shoulder? Aren’t you happy Mommy’s home? We can cuddle up to read, and I’ll give you nice treats…”

He ignored her, even though she knew he understood the word “treat.” Even just the mention of a treat would usually have him trotting to the kitchen, meowing at Erin to follow and get him the promised goody.

She could hear the thumps of the others putting down the luggage and their voices as they talked to each other. There were footsteps in the hall and Erin turned her head to look as Terry looked in the doorway.

“Everything okay then?” he prompted.

“Sure, fine. I guess he’s just mad at me for leaving him alone.”

“He’ll get over it. Then he’ll be bossing you around and demanding that you feed him.”

“I suppose. I don’t like it, though.”

“You’re not supposed to like it; that’s why he’s doing it. To train you not to do it again.”

Erin chuckled. “I thought I was the one who was supposed to be training him.”

“Hate to tell you this, but…”

K9 made a huffing noise and Orange Blossom’s head popped up. He glared at K9 and scrambled to his feet, fur puffing out as he hissed and made his opinion of dogs in the house known to them all. Erin shook her head.

“You’re going to have to get used to K9 being around. Any other cat would have accepted him by now. I don’t know why you have to be so stubborn.”

The cat ignored her, staring at K9 and hissing at him to go away. Erin threw up her hands in exasperation. “Okay. We will leave you alone, how about that?”

She left the room, all of them going back to the living room. Vic was bending down to pet Marshmallow.

“Where’s Blossom? Is he okay?”

“Oh, he’s in fine form. I think I’m going to have to put up with the cold shoulder for a while. He isn’t happy with me.”

“His loss.” Vic stepped into the kitchen, raising her voice slightly to make sure that the cat could hear her clearly. “I’m going to get Marshmallow something out of the fridge.”

Erin heard Orange Blossom thump to the floor. She looked at the bedroom doorway and waited for him to come out. A little orange head peeked around the doorframe. When Blossom saw Erin watching him, he withdrew and did not leave the bedroom to investigate the possibility of treats. Erin suspected he was washing, pointedly ignoring her and pretending that he didn’t want any treat anyway.

Vic gave Marshmallow a carrot. She looked at Erin and raised an eyebrow. “He isn’t going to come?”

“Nope. He’s pretty mad. I guess he’s mad at both of us, not just me.”

“Too bad for him. Shall we all have a quick bite to eat before we go our different directions?” Vic looked at her watch. “It’s later than I expected, and I’m beat after the plane trip and waiting around. I’m going to either have a nap or go to bed early.”

“You could get out some buns and jam,” Erin suggested. “That’s really all we need. Well, it’s all I need.” She looked at Willie and Terry. “The menfolk may need something more substantial.”

“A bit of bread and jam is good for now,” Willie said. “I’m planning on hitting up Fatburger later on. I desperately need to top up my fat and cholesterol levels.”

Erin laughed. “How about you?” she asked Terry. “I could see what else is in the freezer. Maybe you’d rather have a chicken sandwich? Something that will stick with you a little better?”

“Jam is fine. I need to start working this belly off.”

It only took a few minutes to defrost some buns from Auntie Clem’s Bakery and to put out the various flavors of Jam Lady jams Erin had in stock. She wondered fleetingly whether Roger would ever be back with Mary Lou again to whip up some more batches of jam. If not, their Jam Lady supply was going to run out and they were going to have to go back to store brands or find another artisanal jam that was made locally. Other brands were sure to cost an arm and a leg. Jam Lady had always been very reasonably priced. Especially since Erin bought it wholesale to sell it out of the bakery.

Conversation lagged as they each spread butter and whatever jam they preferred on their buns. Erin had given K9 a gluten-free doggie biscuit. He munched on it quietly while they ate. Orange Blossom still didn’t show his face.

“Are you going to go back in to the bakery in the morning, or take a few days off to recover?” Terry asked Erin.

“I’ve just had a vacation. I don’t need recovery time.”

“Except that you didn’t actually rest on your vacation. I’m worried you’re going to try to do too much and your health will suffer.”

“No, I need to get back to work. I need my job more than sleep.”

“Okay… if you’re sure.”

Erin smiled. “You might make me feel guilty about jumping right back in if you weren’t going directly onto shift tonight.”

He looked sheepish. “Well… I do want to get back to normal police work. I know my town and what goes on here. I didn’t like the uncertainty of living on a cruise ship. It will make me feel better to know what’s going on in Bald Eagle Falls and to know that nothing has changed.”

Erin took another bite of her sandwich. She understood exactly what Terry was talking about.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Muffins Masks Murder

By P.D. Workman

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