Tom stopped coating hot apple fritters in that tantalizing mixture of cinnamon and sugar. He stared over the half wall separating Deputy Donut's kitchen from our dining area. "One of our regulars is missing."
Naturally, Tom noticed when folks didn't show up for their usual coffee break. Before his stint as Fallingbrook's police chief, he'd been a detective.
"Once a cop, always a cop," I teased.
"You got it, Emily. I might have retired from the force, but . . ." He pointed at his hat. "I'm still the chief and I've got the fuzz hat to prove it."
Tom's Deputy Donut hat was a pretend police cap with a fuzzy donut glued on where the badge would be. The rakish way the hat tilted on Tom's short gray hair echoed the tilt of the police hat on the cat silhouette printed on our dishes and embroidered on our aprons. "Not necessarily." I raised my eyes as if I could see the top of my head and my own Deputy Donut hat, identical to Tom's. "Here, we're both chief." In addition to our hats and aprons, we both wore black jeans and white shirts. "Who's missing?"
I stopped smiling. I liked Georgia. A lot.
. . . continues
The yelling began almost the second I started walking down the driveway between Deputy Donut, the café that my father-in-law and I owned, and Dressed to Kill, Jenn Zeeland’s cute clothing boutique.
The loud argument wasn’t going on inside Deputy Donut, where Tom was finishing the day’s tidying. It was going on inside Dressed to Kill, where I was heading. I couldn’t make out the words, but the women spewing them were obviously angry.
I almost turned around and went back to Deputy Donut.
However, it was nearly five. In ten minutes, Dressed to Kill would close for two weeks, and I needed the black jeans and white shirts that I’d ordered. Besides, what if Jenn was in danger?
I hurried to the front of Dressed to Kill.
I wasn’t about to barge inside without peeking in first. Jenn’s display windows were lovely, but I couldn’t see beyond her hand-knit sweaters, mittens, scarves, and hats, and the cords and down-filled vests that went with them. The clothes were draped over antique skis, sleds, skates, and snowshoes. In one window, an electric fireplace sent warm hues rippling over the entire scene. It could have been very welcoming if women inside the store hadn’t been screaming at each other only seconds before.
A red-faced woman burst out of Dressed to Kill. She muttered, “Don’t go in there,” budged past me, and raced south on Wisconsin Street.
My training kicked in. Get a description, Emily.
I guessed she was in her mid to late forties. She was tall and angular with straight brown, flyaway hair. Her mid-calf, flowing dress, a floral print in blue and white, hung several inches below an unbuttoned navy wool coat. She hadn’t zipped up the sides of her tan, knee-high leather boots. With their tops flapping and threatening to trip her with each step, she ran past the bookstore and the artisan’s co-op, and then she turned right and disappeared. For a few seconds, I heard the clap, clap, clap of those unzipped boots.
I had never seen her before.
I again considered returning to Deputy Donut. Before Tom and I opened our coffee and donut shop, he had been Fallingbrook’s police chief. Tom could handle whatever had gone on inside Dressed to Kill.
And so can you, Emily.
I pulled the door open. Tiny bells jingled.
Usually, unless Jenn was busy with a customer, she heard the bells, peeked around racks of clothing, and greeted me.
This time, she didn’t. I was getting twitchy.
That shouting I’d heard earlier . . .
And now, this breathless quiet . . .
. . . continues
Every morning, the aromas in the Deputy Donut kitchen were enticing, and the morning of July Fourth was no different. I smelled coffee, yeast dough, cinnamon, nutmeg, and the two types of jelly we’d just opened—raspberry and blueberry.
I was in the midst of an argument.
Well, sort of. Making a very stern face, I settled my Deputy Donut hat firmly on my rowdy curls. “It’s perfectly fair, Tom,” I informed my father-in-law. “I won the coin toss, and I’m driving our donut car in the parade this morning.” Unfortunately, the hat did not quite give me the authority of a real police hat, maybe because of the fuzzy white donut glued in front where the badge should be.
Tom was also trying to look serious, a difficult task considering that his dark brown eyes were twinkling and his Deputy Donut hat was jammed crookedly on his salt-and-pepper hair. “Emily,” he warned, “I’m the police chief.”
“Retired,” I reminded him. “And our donut car police cruiser is from 1950, way before you were a rookie cop.”
“All the more reason for me to drive it. You’re barely over thirty.”
“And a half. When you were my age, you drove real police cars with real sirens and real flashing lights. It’s only fair for me to drive our pretend cruiser this morning while you and Jocelyn keep making Fourth of July donuts.”
Tom grinned at our new assistant. “Never expect to win an argument with Emily.”
Jocelyn’s dazzling smile included both of us. “With either of you.”
The athletic nineteen-year-old was dressed like Tom and I were, in knee-length black shorts, white polo shirt, Deputy Donut apron, and donut-trimmed “police” hat. Like me, she had dark hair, but she pinned hers, which was long and straight, into a bun she wore low to accommodate the cap. Her eyes were almost black, not blue like mine.
Pasting on a fake glower, Tom shook his index finger at me. “Someday, I’m going to drive that car.”
I frowned and wagged my finger right back at him. “How about next Fourth of July?”
Off to my side, something whirred and clicked.
Jocelyn glanced past me. Her smile disappeared, leaving her face blank and unreadable. She twirled on one toe and glided out of the kitchen and into our storeroom, out of sight of Tom and of me. And also out of sight of everyone in our dining room.
I turned toward the sounds I’d heard.
A man on the other side of our serving counter lowered a camera from his face. Like nearly everyone else besides Jocelyn, he was taller than I was, maybe about five ten, but his slight stoop made him appear shorter. He seemed too thin for his faded jeans, khaki photographer’s vest, and formerly white T-shirt that must have been washed with the dark clothes. Everything about his face seemed droopy—skin, eyes, mouth. Wrinkles bracketed his mouth. He looked about forty but could have been thirty.
I asked him, “What would you like? In honor of the Fourth of July, our special coffee today is one of the few coffees grown in the U.S., Ka’u from Hawaii. Like all Hawaiian coffees, it’s mellow and flavorful.”
Still holding his camera near one shoulder, the man gave me a long, silent, and disapproving look. Without a word, he turned around and walked quickly but quietly out of the café.
That was odd.
Jocelyn’s abrupt departure a few moments before was even odder.
. . . continues
Even from the kitchen in the back of Deputy Donut, the three of us could hear the man at a table near one of our café’s front windows. “Boston is the best city on earth!” he boomed. “You can get fresh seafood anytime, day or night. And I mean fresh. Not like here in Wisconsin.”
Boston. I had to smile. Tom Westhill, Nina Lapeer, and I were making Boston cream donuts, but Halloween was only five days away, so we were calling them Boston scream donuts. Spreading fudge frosting on one, I mentally defended our town. Fallingbrook wasn’t on an ocean, but the north woods near the Great Lakes had other advantages. I muttered to Nina, “That new customer should try fresh Lake Superior yellow perch. Or whitefish.”
Nina cast a sideways grin down at me. With the rounded tip of a wooden spoon’s handle, she made indentations resembling frightened eyes in the fudge frosting on a Boston scream donut.
“Who is he, Emily?” The longest eyelashes I’d ever seen framed her brown eyes. Her spiky dark brown hair was mostly hidden underneath her Deputy Donut hat, a police hat with a fuzzy donut where the badge would be on a real police hat.
“From the sound of things, he’s the Boston Screamer.”
. . . continues
Maybe I shouldn’t have driven our Deputy Donut delivery car to the fairground in Fallingbrook that August morning. The sturdy Ford sedan had been through a lot in its seventy-plus years. With luck, it would survive creeping down this grassy hill even though its springs squeaked with every bump and hollow. I eased it around a grove of spindly trees.
On the passenger side of the wide front seat, Nina pointed ahead. “Emily! Look!”
A village of colorful tents, food trucks, and amusement rides had sprouted up on the flats below us. A jaunty banner fluttered above an opening in the orange plastic fencing surrounding the site. “FAKER’S DOZEN CARNIVAL,” Nina read aloud. “GOOD LUCK ON FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH!” Laughing, she turned toward me. “That sounds like a dare.”
I cranked down my window, letting in sunny breezes and the smell of freshly mown grass. “Or a threat.”
“Mirrors to break, black cats to cross paths, salt to spill, and ladders to walk under!” Although in her midtwenties, my enthusiastic assistant was bouncing almost more than the car was. “Too bad we’ll be selling fritters all day. We could go play with the ladders. I just had a new, fourteen-foot-tall one delivered, and now I can safely reach the top of my biggest canvas ever. I walk underneath ladders all the time, and I’m one of the luckiest people in northern Wisconsin, maybe in the whole world! I still can’t believe that the Arthur C. Arthurs Gallery is giving me a one-person show.”
I was almost as excited as she was about her show at the prestigious art gallery in Madison. “It’s not luck,” I reminded her. “Did you finish your paintings in time for the movers last night?”
“All but one, so they crated the others and took them away. All I have to do is put the finishing touches on the biggest, and, I hope, most expensive one. And don’t worry. I scheduled time for the preparations for Samantha and Hooligan’s wedding on Wednesday. The florist has already ordered the flowers. We’ll decorate the tent Wednesday morning, and then I’ll help you, Samantha, and Misty with your hair and makeup before I scoot into my seat to watch you all walk down the aisle. I can hardly wait! Samantha and Hooligan are a perfect couple, and it was sweet of them to ask me to design the flowers.”
I steered toward an opening in the fencing. “They’re thrilled to have a real artist doing it.”
“They’re paying me too much.”
“I doubt that.” I knew that Nina was worth every cent, and she could use the extra funds, besides. She worked fulltime at Deputy Donut, but the combination loft apartment and artist’s studio she rented had to be expensive, as were art supplies. And she hadn’t yet sold many paintings. She’d been saving for that ladder for about a year.
A tall and imposing woman stepped in front of our pretend police car, thrust out her hand, and yelled, “Stop!”
. . . continues
How could a blizzard be on the way to this part of northern Wisconsin? Puffy white clouds dotted a blue sky, and even though I was wearing ski goggles with dark, mirrored lenses, the snow seemed brighter than white in the sunlight.
I latched my boots into the bindings of my cross-country skis and pulled on my red, green, and white striped stocking cap and my leather-palmed gloves. I slipped my hands into the straps of my poles and grasped the handgrips. The blade-like tips on the ends of my poles would help propel me along the snow-packed driveway where Brent and I had parked our SUVs. My black wind-resistant nylon pants and matching jacket, worn over leggings and a long sweater, would be enough to keep me warm when we really started moving.
Brent and I had once rented the equipment for skate-skiing and had decided we preferred the more classic form, keeping our skis parallel except while turning, slowing, stopping, or herringboning up steep hills. The flat, mostly plowed driveway was snowy enough for us to ski along it to a groomed trail crossing the front yard of a gorgeous natural wood chalet nestled among pines. Snow from the previous week’s storm covered the building’s steeply pitched roof and drooped in scallops below its eaves, not quite covering holly-bedecked cedar garlands and Christmas lights. Wreaths and candles decorated windows.
When Brent had invited me on the afternoon’s ski outing, I had asked who owned the property where we were going, but he had only answered that we could ski there that afternoon and again in three days when he was hosting a Saturday-before-Christmas party.
The trail curved to the left. The chalet’s front yard ended at the brink of a forested hill where the trail headed abruptly into a valley. I clamped my poles to my sides with the ends sticking out behind me, crouched, and swooped downward. Wind whipped past my cheeks and ruffled the curls sticking out beneath my cap. I couldn’t help a huge, teeth-chilling smile. Slowing, I navigated a tricky S curve, first right and then left. The trail became less steep and ran beside a creek where miniature waterfalls flowed around rocks mounded with snow.
In the valley, a lake was mostly covered in thin sheets of shifting, grumbling ice. The trail widened around a sharp left turn and then passed a small boathouse and what might have been a beach underneath the snow.
Above me, clouds gathered and blue patches shrank. Inhaling the exhilarating, clean, and piney air, I settled into a comfortable rhythm of push, glide, push, glide. I skied up short slopes and down shallow dips.
The predicted blizzard began to seem possible. The clouds became dappled with gray and darker than the white of the snow-laden pine branches beside the trail. My skis sang against hard-packed snow. Behind me, Brent’s did, too.
At almost six feet, he was about nine inches taller than I was and could easily have skied faster than I did, but he always stayed far enough back to avoid ramming the tips of his skis into the tails of mine and sending me tumbling into soft snow beside the harder groomed trail. The previous winter, I’d learned that climbing out of deep, fluffy snow while wearing skis wasn’t as easy as it sounded, even with the help of a big, strong man. To his credit, he had tried not to laugh.
In a way, I was relieved that, on this first outing in a long time with the big, strong man, skiing prevented us from talking or even looking at each other. Brent had been my late husband’s best friend and his partner in the Fallingbrook Police Department. After Alec was shot and killed, Brent’s and my grief had kept us apart. About three years later, we’d finally begun doing things together like eating at my house where he could play with my cat, kayaking in the summer, and cross-country skiing in the winter.
Our shared grief had drawn us closer than we’d been when Alec was alive, but it had also kept a barrier between us.
Now I thought I might want to destroy that barrier.
I had a problem. I didn’t know how.
. . . continues
For the second afternoon in a row, the pinch-faced woman sat alone with her back to the wall at a two-person table in Deputy Donut. Our café was crowded and noisy, with locals and summer visitors teasing one another. The pinch-faced woman didn’t join the fun.
She barely moved except to cross her ankles and tuck her feet close to the legs of her chair. She didn’t need to try to hide her chipped neon orange toenail polish and once-white flip-flops. Fallingbrook was one of northern Wisconsin’s many charming and hospitable tourist villages, and her flip-flops, blue denim cutoffs, and pink tank top weren’t out of place here on a mid-June afternoon.
She had been at that table most of the afternoon, long enough to sip at her coffee and empty her mug twice, slowly eat a large serving of pesto and mozzarella twists, and order cinnamon twists to go.
Her eyes, heavily lidded and ringed by thick eyeliner and mascara, moved back and forth in a sort of tense watchfulness. Judging by the deep lines on her face, she had been miserable for months, maybe years. I couldn’t pinpoint her age. She could have been anywhere from her early forties to her middle fifties.
Hoping to cheer her even a little, I smiled as I took her the bag of cinnamon twists and again refilled her mug with our coffee of the day, an almost chocolatey blend from Yemen. Her shoulder-length, wavy brown hair was tousled, as if she’d been untangling it with her fingers. A strand of it was caught in the hole in the middle of one of her gold earrings. The earrings were shaped almost like donuts, but flat and shiny like polished coins.
She turned her head and stared toward the large window into our office, which, like our kitchen, was at the rear of our building. As usual, I’d brought my shorthaired tortoiseshell tabby cat, Dep, to work. For health reasons, we kept the cat in the office. To prevent her from being bored, my business partner Tom, who was also the father of my late husband, had helped me build a kitty playground in our office. Ramps and mini stairways led to catwalks and tunnels near the ceiling. Large windows on all four sides of the office also provided Dep’s entertainment. We’d painted her climbing structures and the office’s walls in shades of apricot, peach, café au lait, chocolate, and vanilla.
At the moment, Dep was on the back of the office couch, a favorite perch where she could peer into our dining area. Although she sat up straight, her eyes were nearly closed. She was slightly smaller than the average house cat, and totally adorable.
The woman brushed crumbs off the glass tabletop and spoke in a voice so soft I had to bend forward to hear her. “That was a great late lunch.” She smelled of woodsmoke. A camper?
I thanked her. “Are you in Fallingbrook on vacation?”
“I live here, but like, not in town. I’m renting a cabin on Deepwish Lake until I get settled.” Red lines spider-webbed the whites of the woman’s washed-out blue eyes.
I repeated, “Deepwish Lake. I should know where that is.”
“It’s out near Fallingbrook Falls.”
I set the coffeepot down. “That’s one of my favorite places near Fallingbrook. My parents stay there during the summers.”
“Maybe they know the people who own the place I’m renting. The Peabody-Smiths.”
“I don’t know about my parents, but Summer Peabody-Smith manages the local artisans’ co-op.” I waved my hand toward the artwork on the peach-tinted white walls of our dining room. “We display some of their members’ works. The Craft Croft is another fun place to visit.”
“I did go there. Summer’s the one who opened the cabin for me and showed me around. She said her parents are the actual owners, but they’re on a cruise. She told me about The Craft Croft.” The woman dug around in an off-white canvas tote bag and pulled out a faux-fur donut. It was almost identical to the ones fastened to the front of the fake police caps that Tom and I and our employees wore at work. Our summer uniforms were knee-length black shorts, white polo shirts, and aprons. The shirts and aprons were embroidered with our logo, the silhouette of a cat wearing a Deputy Donut hat. The woman nodded toward the office. “That torbie is beautiful with those tabby stripes and tortoiseshell colors.”
“She’s my cat, and I agree that she’s beautiful. Not everyone knows that we call tortoiseshell tabbies ‘torbies.’” It wasn’t difficult to show admiration for the woman’s knowledge.
“An ex had one. I love cats, but I’m allergic, so I’m glad you have a place where I can look at one, but she can’t come in here and make me sneeze. I noticed her yesterday, so I brought her a catnip toy. Can she have catnip?” Like her toenails, the woman’s fingernails had been polished orange, but not recently. The polish was almost entirely scraped off her left thumb.
“Yes, and she’ll love it.”
Fiddling with her wallet, the woman didn’t return my smile. “Can you give it to her?”
The woman put bills on the table. She glanced toward the front windows, and the blood seemed to drain from her face. She quickly turned her upper body and again faced our office. She asked in a hoarse and almost breathless whisper, “Can I give it to your cat, Emily?”
How had she known my name? By watching and listening during most of two afternoons in Deputy Donut? And why had she changed her mind about who would give Dep the toy? She had also turned her back to the front windows as if she didn’t want someone in the sunlit street to see her.
. . . continues
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