Stirring Up Murder

stirring up murder

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chapter-1

drop-cap-erin managed to block Orange Blossom from getting out the door as she took out the garbage. She drew in a deep breath of fresh air and enjoyed the stillness of the early morning. There would be plenty of action at Auntie Clem’s Bakery. It was good to cherish the quiet for a moment at the beginning of her day. Adele told her that she needed to take more time for herself and be at one with nature and the universe. It probably wouldn’t hurt, but Erin’s mind was always racing ahead, already working on the next thing.

She held her breath when she opened the garbage bin and threw her bag in. Even though she washed it out regularly, it still made her gag if she caught a whiff of it from a few feet away. Erin glanced up and down the street for any sign of activity and then went around to the back of the house.

There was a light on in Vic’s loft over the garage, so Erin knew she was up and around and would be joining Erin before long to start their day at the bakery.

As soon as she was in the door, Orange Blossom was winding around her legs, mrrowing for food and attention. Erin bent down to pat him and then to pick him up and give his ears and chin a good scratch.

“Hey, Blossom. How was your night?”

The orange and white cat yowled and yipped chattily, telling her all about it. Even after having had him for a few months, it still made Erin laugh at how vocal he was. She’d never known any cat to be so noisy and interested in carrying on a conversation with his two-legged companions.

“I see. Well, that all sounds very interesting,” Erin told him. She put him down on the floor and washed up, then went about getting his breakfast ready while her coffee brewed. Blossom stood up on hind legs and batted at her with soft paws while she opened a smelly can of cat food and scooped it into a dish for him. When she put it down on the floor, he immediately pushed his nose into the bowl and began to chow down, his loud purr rumbling through the kitchen.

The coffee finished brewing just as Vic tapped at the back door and entered. Erin wasn’t sure how she managed to look fresh and polished so effortlessly first thing. Erin always felt so awkward and plain beside her young bakery assistant. Vic’s height was the only aspect of her appearance that hinted at her transgender identity, and her height only increased her poised, willowy air.

“Morning,” Vic drawled. “If it isn’t just a crisp as a new dollar bill out there this morning. I do love this time of the year!”

Erin smiled at her Tennessee twang. “It really is lovely,” she agreed. “If it could only stay like this all year instead of getting so blasted hot.”

“We had such a mild summer, you don’t know hot.”

Erin shook her head. “Ugh. Don’t tell me that.”

Erin poured them each a cup of coffee.

“Now that the holidays are over, we need to be thinking about what else we can do to draw customers.” Erin studied her coffee as if the answer might be there. “We don’t want to go through a big slump because people aren’t buying gingerbread men and pumpkin pies.”

“We don’t exactly have a big pool to draw customers from. Bald Eagle Falls isn’t the biggest place.”

“I know, but I think we still have untapped resources. Not everyone comes to Auntie Clem’s. What are people buying in the city? What are they getting at the grocery store that they should be buying at the bakery? And why aren’t they coming to the bakery for it?”

Vic sipped her coffee. Orange Blossom, having finished gobbling down his breakfast, sat back on his haunches and stared at them as he applied tongue to paw and washed his face.

“People who can eat gluten buy bread and baking at the grocery store because it is cheaper and convenient. Easier than making a separate trip to Auntie Clem’s. And because of the stigma of gluten-free food being inferior.”

Kicked into a higher gear by the caffeine, Erin’s mind was already whirring, thinking about all the factors involved. “What if we sold bread to the grocery store? They could sell it off the shelves with their commercially produced stuff. People wouldn’t have to make an extra trip. It would be right there.”

Vic pursed her lips. “I’m not sure about that. If people don’t come into the bakery, we can’t up-sell. If they pick up a loaf of bread from the shelf at the grocer, how are we going to sell them cookies or cupcakes? Can we really stock the shelves at the grocery store too? That would be a lot of extra work.”

“It would be. And we wouldn’t be able to build a relationship or to up-sell… unless we sold cupcakes and cookies to the grocery store as well…”

Vic was shaking her head.

“Which would also be extra work,” Erin admitted. “And if people didn’t buy as much at the grocery store as we expected, Mr. Cooper would lose money. The margins are so thin, we couldn’t afford to sell it to him much lower than we sell to bakery customers.”

“I don’t think you can be in both the bakery and the grocery store.”

“No. You’re right.” Erin was quiet while she thought about other possibilities. Orange Blossom finished his bath and went over to Vic, rubbing up against her and yowling to be picked up.

“He’s so demanding,” Vic complained. But she put her coffee cup to the side to pick him up and cuddle him.

“That’s because he’s spoiled,” Erin said.

“It is not!” Vic planted a kiss on the top of Blossom’s head. “He was demanding even when you first got him. Before either of us had a chance to spoil him.”

“That’s true,” Erin admitted. She eyed the clock on the kitchen wall. “I guess we’d better head out.”

Vic gave Orange Blossom one more scratch and put him down. “Okay, Blossom, you’d better be good today. Marshmallow is here to keep you company, so no noise.”

Orange Blossom stood looking at her for a minute, eyes intent and ears pointed forward. Then he turned and left the room. Erin got a carrot out of the fridge for Marshmallow and gave him his treat on her way out.

It wasn’t long before Officer Terry Piper stopped by the bakery as he patrolled the neighborhood. Since it wasn’t hot, his water bottle didn’t need to be topped off yet, but Erin gave his partner, K9, a gluten-free doggie biscuit.

“How is everything today?” she asked Terry.

“Pretty quiet. Mrs. Sturm reported some vandalism last night, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to get anywhere on that. Kids, most likely.”

“Vandalism? What happened?”

“Her car has been egged. No damage, just a mess.”

Erin shook her head, thinking about the woman with the girlish blond pigtails and the people she had seen interact with Lottie. “You’re probably right. Sounds like kids. Did she have any idea who it might have been?”

“Nothing too certain. Unfortunately, Lottie Sturm is… not well-liked among the younger generation.”

Vic snorted. “Lottie isn’t liked by a lot of people in any generation. If I had a nickel for every time she tried to stir up trouble…”

“I don’t know if she tries to, or if she’s just awkward,” Erin said.

“She’s not awkward,” Vic said. “It’s totally on purpose. She’s a troublemaker. That’s the kind of person she is.”

“We really don’t know anything about what kind of person she is. Some people say the wrong things and hurt people’s feelings without meaning to.”

“And you think Lottie Sturm is one of those people?”

Erin considered. “No,” she admitted finally. “You’re probably right. She seems to get a certain amount of enjoyment out of it.”

Vic nodded vigorously in agreement.

“Regardless of whether or not she brought it down on herself,” Piper said, “I’ve taken her statement and opened a file, and if the culprits are found, they will be dealt with. Other than that, it was a quiet night, and it’s shaping up to be a quiet day.” His eyes met Erin’s. “No bodies. No twenty-year-old mysteries. Just the normal Bald Eagle Falls stuff.”

“Good. I don’t think I’m up for any more bodies. I’ll stick to baking. That’s what I’m good at.”

“Well, I can’t disagree with that,” Terry agreed. He was eyeing a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies that Vic was starting to lay out in the display cabinet.

Vic and Erin exchanged a look. “Do you want one?” Vic asked, eyes twinkling.

“I don’t know, I probably shouldn’t…” Piper patted his belly like he might be putting on weight. But if he was, Erin certainly couldn’t tell. His police uniform fit him as neatly as it ever had and didn’t pull or bulge around the middle.

“Oh, come on.” Vic put one into a paper sleeve for him. “With the amount of walking you do on a day of patrol? You’ll walk this off easily. “

“I suppose.” He took it when Vic handed it across the counter to him. “But even so, the sugar probably isn’t good for me.”

“It’s gluten-free,” Vic said with a wave of her hand. “That means it’s good for you.”

Erin opened her mouth to object that just because something was gluten-free, that didn’t mean it was healthy. The cookies were full of refined sugar and flours, chocolate, and butter and were far from being a health food.

She saw the way that Piper was looking at her, expectant, waiting for the lecture, and closed her mouth. Was she that predictable?

“It’s a dessert,” she said instead. “As long as you don’t go overboard, I don’t think it will harm you.”

“One little cookie never hurt anyone,” Vic declared.

“Well…” Erin couldn’t help objecting to this. Her muscles tensed up in spite of the fact that she was just talking to her friends. “If they’re allergic or intolerant, then one cookie could cause damage, even an anaphylactic reaction—”

“Terry’s not allergic, though.”

“I know that. I mean that if he was…”

“I’m just going to eat this cookie,” Terry said.

Erin looked at him. He took a bite of the warm cookie, leaving a smear of chocolate on his lip. The tension drained out of Erin and she laughed weakly.

“Okay. Good. And you two quit teasing me.”

They both grinned like kids caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar. Erin shook her head.

The bells on the front door chimed, and Erin turned to greet the next customer.

chapter-2

drop-cap-the fixer sat across the table from his boss. The man was physically unimposing, but if he could pay, that was the only thing that mattered.

“You found her?” the boss asked.

“Of course I found her. It wasn’t hard. She’s not in hiding.”

“If you could find her, so can someone else.”

He ran his fingers through his hair. “Sure. Anyone who is looking and has a little experience and the right tools could find her too.”

“Even though you didn’t know her name…”

“A name is nothing. Just one piece of the puzzle. If you have enough of the other pieces, you can figure out the solution.”

The boss’s eyes flicked around him, and he lowered his voice so it was almost a whisper. “Then I need for her to… disappear.”

The fixer sat back in his chair considering the boss’s words. “And by disappear, you mean…?”

It wasn’t that he hadn’t ventured over the line before. He worked outside the law at least as much as he worked within it. But if the boss was looking for a permanent solution, the fixer wasn’t so sure. He would charge a much higher price, but he was also taking on a lot more risk. Was he willing to put his own tail on the line?

The boss scratched his head, twisting his face into a grimace. There was a long silence between them. He looked around to be sure no one was paying them any particular attention. Eventually, the boss wet his lips and cleared his throat. But he continued to speak in a whisper.

“I don’t want her dead,” he said. “That wouldn’t be right. But if she disappeared, fell off the grid…”

“Why would she do that?”

“Maybe… she had to go into hiding.”

The fixer thought about this, rolling it around in his mind and trying to formulate a plan. “Why would she go into hiding?”

“Why does anyone go into hiding? Maybe her boyfriend is abusive. Maybe she stole something. Maybe she was in danger. Be creative. Sometimes people leave just so they can start over again somewhere else.”

“But how would I make any of those things happen? If you really do want to drive her into hiding, and you don’t want her… dead… then making her decide to disappear… that’s a lot more difficult than trying to warn her off or to blackmail her. I’m not sure how to work that.”

“You’ve done well until now. I thought you were pretty competent.”

The fixer was encouraged by these words. He did his best. He was willing to outwork everybody else to get the results his bosses needed. But he wasn’t sure this current boss quite understood what he was getting into.

“You do know what family that boyfriend is part of, don’t you?”

The boss narrowed his eyes. “Are you telling me you’re afraid of some two-bit Tennessee family?”

“I didn’t say I was afraid of them.” But of course, any contact with organized crime made him nervous. He didn’t like to be put in the line of fire of family business, big or little. “But it isn’t like dealing with one person or one family. This is an organization. If we interfere with the girl or with her boyfriend, we’re going to have targets on our backs and a lot of people looking for us.”

“Are you saying I should be getting someone else for this job?”

The fixer chewed on his lip and ran his fingers through his hair again. “I have to think it through. We need to come up with a plan here. Something that makes sense.”

“I don’t need anything complicated. The fewer details I know, the better. Just make sure she goes into hiding where no one is going to find her.”

“What’s the payout for making her disappear permanently?”

The boss studied him carefully. “You understand that I don’t want her dead. I’m not saying hide the body where it won’t ever be found. I’m saying don’t kill her.”

“Killing her is not part of the deal. That’s agreed.”

“Not just that we haven’t made it part of the deal. But it can’t happen. I don’t want her death on my conscience.”

“Yes. Agreed. That’s understood.”

The boss looked down at the top of the table, scarred by many hands and nails. Using his body to shield anyone from seeing what he was doing, he traced invisible numbers with his index finger. The fixer watched the numbers and counted the digits. It wasn’t a windfall. It wasn’t the type of money he could retire on. But it would be enough to live in comfort for a while and not have to survive hand-to-mouth.

How far was he willing to go for that kind of money?

How much was he willing to put on the line?

It had been a while since Vic and Erin had gone out together to eat, just the two of them, so when Vic suggested a girls’ night out, Erin accepted. She knew that Vic didn’t have many other friends. Even though Vic was a fun, friendly, compassionate girl, she wasn’t well-accepted in Bald Eagle Falls. The town was part of the Bible belt and, while the women there weren’t any more perfect there than anywhere else, they were judgmental of the moral wrongs they saw or imagined. And Vic being a transgender girl meant that they would not have anything to do with her socially. It would have made for a lonely existence without Erin and Adele around or being able to go into the city for larger gatherings. And of course, she had Willie too, but he was out of town attending to some unnamed business. Erin wondered fleetingly what he was up to. But Willie was Willie, and he kept his business dealings pretty close to his chest.

They decided to go for Chinese, where they hadn’t been for a while. Willie preferred the ‘meat plus three’ at the family restaurant, or maybe the hot chicken at the BBQ.

Erin watched Vic struggling with her chopsticks, a w-shaped wrinkle of concentration between her eyebrows. Vic looked up and saw Erin watching her, which made her drop the mouthful she had finally managed to wrangle.

“Shut up,” she said sheepishly, “I can do a lot of things, but chopsticks are not my forte!”

“You’re doing fine. You just need a little practice and you’ll be an expert.”

“At home, we always used forks when we went out for Chinese. It never even occurred to me to use chopsticks.”

“You can use a fork here if you want to.”

Vic always had before. But she shook her head. “No. I want to learn how to do this. Eating with chopsticks is different than eating it with a fork. I want the authentic experience.”

“Okay. You’re doing fine, so don’t mind me.”

Vic nodded and went back to work. Erin ate her meal slowly. She didn’t want to be done when Vic was still trying to get her first few mouthfuls down.

“How’s the research going?” Vic asked. “Did you mind being taken away from it tonight?”

“No, not really. I keep running into dead ends and I just get frustrated. Other people seem to manage to find long-lost family members, so why can’t I?”

“You’ve just started. Sometimes those searches take years, you know. Decades, even.”

“Don’t tell me that!” Erin’s heart sank. “That was pre-internet. Now, it should just be a matter of doing a few searches, and then… bingo, here’s your new family!”

“Even when you know someone’s name, it can be hard to find them on the internet. Not everybody even has email or social accounts. Some people who do still don’t leave any tracks. And since you don’t even know her name…”

Erin shook her head and wound noodles around her chopsticks. “How can I not even know my own sister’s name? I mean… not even her birth name. How do you begin a search when you don’t even have a birth name? Every time they talk about tracing adoptees on TV, they always say ‘her birth name was…’ Where do you start if you don’t even have that?”

“I wish I could tell you. Usually there is a friend or family member who knows the history. Or hospital records. Or an attending nurse. Pretty hard when you don’t have any of those things to start with.

“Everybody who knew anything is dead. The hospital only keeps five years’ worth of records, and even if they did keep them longer than that, they’ve had black mold and a fire. Not just one or the other, but both!” Erin sighed in exasperation. “If I believed in God, I’d think he was trying to tell me not to look any further. Every time I think I found a way to track her down, it’s blocked.”

“God will make a way for you.” Vic gave her a mischievous grin. “If there is a God.”

“I can’t just sit back and rely on some power of the universe to take over and direct my life.” Erin used a pot sticker to wipe up juices on her plate. “If I did that, I never would have gotten anywhere in my life. I haven’t gotten where I was by sitting still.”

Vic gazed at her for a minute. “No… but you didn’t get the bakery because you decided that was what you wanted to do and saved up and bought it.”

“No,” Erin admitted. “I just took the opportunity when it was presented to me. I thought this was my one chance to do what I always wanted to and make gluten-free baking for people with dietary restrictions.”

“But you don’t think an opportunity like that was more than just chance? Maybe fate? Or God? Or the universe?”

“It wasn’t chance or God. It was Clementine. I guess she knew how much I liked it when she ran the tea shop. She didn’t have any other living relatives. So she left it to me.” Erin shrugged. There was nothing coincidental about that.

“I’m not convinced it wasn’t by divine design. How do you explain the fact that you wanted to start a baking business and that’s the opportunity that Clementine gave you?”

“I hadn’t ever thought I’d be able to start a baking business. I just liked making gluten-free food for friends and clients who wanted it. I liked baking because I liked working with Clementine when I was a little girl. It’s no coincidence or design. It’s just history.”

“Okay.” Vic gave a wide shrug. “Whatever you say, Erin. It was all just you and Clementine and your history together. I just think it all fits together rather nicely. That doesn’t always happen, you know. I liked hunting when I was little, but if my Uncle Archibald left me a hunting lodge, I wouldn’t run it. I’d just liquidate it and get out of there.”

“It’s not the same.”

“No. Because for you it was meant to be.”

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

Stirring Up Murder

By P.D. Workman

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