Authors: Jessica Beck
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Cozy, #Amateur Sleuth
Chief Martin was shouting for everyone’s attention, and we quieted down to listen to what he had to say.
“Folks, it’s pretty obvious this year’s Carnival is over. We’d appreciate it if you’d give your names and addresses to one of the deputies standing by as you leave. Have a driver’s license ready to show them, or some kind of photo identification so they can confirm your information.”
“Who killed Muriel?” a voice from the back shouted.
“We’re not ready to disclose what happened here yet,” he said. “And I’m not going to answer any questions until I’ve got a better handle on what’s going on.”
I couldn’t help myself. “How about a statement, then? It’s pretty obvious that’s not Muriel Stevens. Why don’t you tell us who it really is under that wig?”
Chief Martin met my gaze, then said icily, “Suzanne Hart, get up here. Right now. Everybody else, do as I said. Now.” The last word was delivered with
an explosive forcefulness that got the crowd moving, albeit reluctantly. Deputies were posted on both sides of Springs Drive with clipboards, and I noticed folks digging for their IDs as I walked up to the police chief.
That’s when I realized that George was right behind me.
I stopped in my tracks and said, “I appreciate the show of support, but I don’t want to make him any madder than I already have.”
“Don’t sweat it,” George said. “I’m not going to let him bully you.”
I shook my head, but I didn’t say anything else as I walked toward the chief. If he wanted to get rid of George, let him try. Honestly, I was kind of glad he was there beside me, despite my effort to convince him otherwise.
“Just Suzanne,” the chief said when he saw him.
“Sorry, that’s not happening,” George said.
He and the chief locked glares, then Martin waved a hand in the air. “Don’t push me, George.”
“I won’t any more than I have to,” my friend said, and I had to wonder how much of his bridge to the April Springs Police Department he was burning on my account. As a retired cop, George enjoyed nearly free access to his old workplace, but we all knew that it was at the whim and will of the chief.
Chief Martin seemed to forget all about him as he focused back on me. “Suzanne, how did you know it wasn’t Muriel, especially from that far away?”
“Gabby Williams told me Muriel lost her coat yesterday, so I figured it couldn’t be her. Plus, I saw that black-haired wig with touches of gray on that
poor woman’s head, and I knew it without a doubt. You know how proud Muriel was of her black hair. She never wore a wig in her life, especially not one with gray hair in it. Whoever was killed was a blonde, you can see that, if you look closely enough. So, who was it?”
“You seem to know a lot about this,” the chief of police said, still refusing to answer my question.
“She’s observant,” George said.
“Who was it, Chief?” I asked again, hoping he’d tell me, though I knew he had every reason in the world not to.
“We’re not releasing that information at the moment,” he said as he turned his back on me and dismissed me.
I tried to get another look at the body, but there was still a cluster of folks blocking my way, so that was pointless. I turned to George and said, “Let’s go.”
As we walked toward one of the deputies, I told George, “I didn’t mean for you to get into trouble because of me.”
He shrugged. “If it wasn’t you, it would be something else. I seem to have a knack for it lately.” As our gazes met, George added, “You need to stay out of this investigation.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you,” I said. “I just wanted to know what happened, so I asked.”
George didn’t respond to that, and after we gave our names to one of the deputies and showed our IDs, we went our separate ways.
I walked back to my booth, thinking about what I had to do to shut it down for another season. The
Carnival still had a few hours until its official closing time, but I had to agree with Chief Martin. It was no longer a time for fun and frivolity.
When I got back to Donut Hearts, I found Emma peering out the front window toward me.
She said, “What’s going on? Is it true? Is Muriel dead?”
“No, it was someone else,” I said as I took off my jacket and hung it on the coat rack. I looked around, happy to be back in my shop where I felt safe and happy. The front dining area was filled with couches and comfortable chairs, while the walls and harsh concrete floors were painted with a pretty plum faux finish. All in all, it was a lovely place to spend my life.
Emma asked, “Who was it, then?”
“The police aren’t saying,” I said.
“And you’re going to let it go at that?” she asked. “That’s not like you, Suzanne. What’s happened to you?”
“I’ve decided to keep my nose out of it, for once,” I said. “Do you want to help break down the booth, or would you like to stay inside where it’s warm?”
“Thanks, but the snow’s still coming down pretty hard. I think I’ll cover the front,” she said.
Emma wasn’t a big fan of the cold, and one of her constant threats was to move as far south as she could until she could see the outline of Cuba in the distance. I’d been to Key West once—had even rubbed the colorful marker at the southernmost point of the US for good luck—and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Cuba was invisible from there, still nearly ninety miles away. Emma added college brochures of schools in
warmer climates whenever the temperature dropped below forty degrees. I knew my assistant would go off to study somewhere soon enough—and I dreaded that day like a root canal—but I couldn’t expect her to be my helper for the rest of her life.
“I’ll take care of the booth, then,” I said as I grabbed my jacket and headed back outside. The sooner I got everything dismantled, the faster I could forget seeing that body lying on the cold, snow-covered ground. I for one loved the snow, relished the way it decorated the world with a fresh, new coat of promise. Even the ugliest things took on a new perspective with the brush of winter.
I was just beginning to take the vinyl banner down from the top of the booth when I heard a familiar voice beside me.
“Need a hand with that?”
It was my ex-husband Max, more handsome than he had any right to be, with wavy brown hair and deep brown eyes. He also had a voice that could melt my toes when he put his mind to it.
“No, thank you. I’ve got it,” I said as I reached up for the banner and managed to grab one corner of it.
“Here, let me get that,” he said as he brushed past me and took the edge from me. From his proximity, I could smell Max’s subtle cologne, and despite my feelings about the man, I was ashamed to realize that I had to fight the urge to lean toward him and savor his presence.
He easily plucked the banner off its hooks, then folded it before handing it back to me. “Here you go. You must have sold out fast.”
I shook my head. “No, there are dozens of donuts inside that I don’t have a clue what to do with.”
“Then why are we taking the banner down?” he asked.
“I don’t need it now that the Carnival’s over.”
Max looked around, and seemed to realize that most of Springs Drive was deserted. He looked at his watch as he shook his head. “What happened? It’s supposed to run another two hours.”
“Did you just get here?”
Max shrugged. “You know I like to sleep in whenever the opportunity affords itself,” he said. “I haven’t been up all that long. So, what happened?”
“Somebody was murdered under the town clock,” I said.
It was pretty clear that Max was hearing this for the first time. “What happened? Who was it? Come on, Suze, give me some details.”
I hated when he called me Suze, but he was too upset for me to correct him. Max, though his exterior was always cool and urbane, was a soft cookie on the inside, one of the things that had first drawn me to him.
“A woman wearing Muriel Stevens’ jacket was killed. I’m not sure how; nobody really said.”
He frowned. “How do you know it wasn’t Muriel? And why was someone else wearing her coat?”
“The murder victim had a gray-haired wig on, and Muriel never wore one in her life. Besides, Muriel told Gabby Williams she lost her jacket yesterday, so it couldn’t have been her.”
“If it wasn’t Muriel, then who was it?”
“I don’t know,” I said as I handed him a set of
empty trays. “Make yourself useful since you’re here, and take these in to Emma.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, adding a grin. “I’m your man.”
“You used to be, but you quit on me, remember?”
Max groaned. “Don’t bring Darlene up again, would you?”
“I won’t if you don’t,” I said. “I have no desire to ever talk about that woman again.” I’d caught my ex-husband in bed with Darlene Higgins, thus the end of our marriage and the beginning of life for me as a single woman again. I’d reacted quickly to finding them together, divorcing my husband, moving in with my mother, taking back my maiden name of Hart, and buying a rundown shop and converting it into Donut Hearts.
Max took the trays inside, then returned to help me break down the actual booth itself. It was made of plywood, two-by-fours, and enough bolts to keep it up, but still easy enough to erect and disassemble when needed. I worked a few fairs a year selling my donuts, and it was handy having a nice place to work from when I was away from my shop.
Max and I had just carried the last piece into the shop and put it all into my storage room when the front door chimed.
“Do you need to get that?” he asked, once again standing more than a little too close to me than I liked.
“No, Emma’s covering the front,” I said.
“Then there’s no reason to rush back up there.”
He was definitely pushing his luck now, and he knew it.
I said, “Tell you what. I’ll buy you a donut and a fresh cup of coffee for helping me break down.”
“How about two donuts, and a hot chocolate?” he countered.
I couldn’t help smiling. “You never know when to quit, do you?”
“I like to think it’s part of my charm.”
I patted his cheek. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
He followed me back to the front, and I was surprised to find Chief Martin talking to Emma there.
“I said I was sorry,” I said the second I saw him. “I didn’t mean to give anything away. It was just a gut reaction.”
“I’m not here to see you,” the chief said.
“What did I do?” Emma asked.
Max took a step forward. “Then you must want to see me, though I can’t imagine what it could be about.”
“Let’s go somewhere we can talk,” the chief said as he glanced over at me.
“If you have anything to say to me, you can say it in front of these ladies,” Max said. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” the chief said.
“What’s this about?” Max asked, the usual playfulness in his voice now gone.
The chief glanced over at me, then said, “There’s no use keeping it a secret anymore. Your ex-wife was right. It wasn’t Muriel Stevens.”
It was all I could do not to say, “I told you so,” but I managed to contain myself. “Then who was it?” I asked.
Chief Martin ignored me. He asked Max, “Do you mind telling me where you were for the last hour?”
Max frowned. “I was sleeping—alone, unfortunately—and then I grabbed a quick shower, got dressed, and came out to see the festivities. Why do you ask? Are you just naturally curious, or do I need an alibi?”
“Why do you ask that?” the chief said.
“Because I’ve got the feeling you think I had something to do with whoever got killed. I can assure you, I didn’t do it.”
The chief frowned. “Save your assurances for someone else. Did you see anybody along the way from your place to the donut shop who can vouch for you?”
“No, I was surprised how deserted the streets were. Everyone was at the carnival, no doubt.”
The chief frowned, then said, “Everyone but you.”
I was amazed at Max’s patience, but I knew it couldn’t last much longer. I blurted out, “Get to the point, Chief.”
“Stop telling me what to do, Suzanne,” he snapped at me.
I took a step back from the force of his protest.
Max noticed it too. “She’s right. Why are you grilling me?”
“You have an intimate relationship with the victim,” the chief said. “That automatically makes you someone I need to speak with.”
“The only person I care about in all of April Springs is standing right over there,” he said as he pointed to me.
“She’s not the only person you’ve been with in your life, though, is she?”
I knew what he was going to say next before the words left his lips, but his voice still fell like muted thunder as he added, “The murder victim was an old girlfriend of yours. Somebody murdered Darlene Higgins.”