Authors: Connie Shelton
Tenth Samantha Sweet Mystery
Samantha Sweet pushed her way
through winter coats and touched the keypad on their closet safe. The numerals came
naturally to her now and the door swung outward with a tiny electronic beep.
Moving Beau’s spare service pistol aside, she made room for the large brown
envelope she had brought home from town. A year of marriage and they’d finally
gotten around to rewriting their wills.
“I hope I don’t have to look at
you again for a good long time,” she muttered to the envelope as she shoved it
to the bottom of a stack that included their marriage license and birth
certificates, a home inventory list and both passports. Writing a will seemed
morbid, even though she knew it was a necessity.
Her hand grazed the curved
surface of a wooden box she’d placed there for safekeeping months ago. She felt
a little rush of emotion, as if the box’s history with her was akin to that of
a person. It
saved her life,
actually, on a couple of occasions. It had imparted the energy she needed to
start her dream enterprise, her pastry shop, Sweet’s Sweets. For all she knew,
perhaps a nice side benefit might have been the near-instant attraction with
Beau—they had met shortly after Sam received the box.
On the other hand, there were
times when the odd artifact scared the heck out of her, most recently during a
showdown over it between two rival organizations. Sam still wasn’t sure what or
whom to believe about the meaning of the box’s powers, and that was a big
reason it now stayed in the safe—out of reach to herself or anyone else. She
closed the safe, pressed the buttons to lock it and backed out of the closet.
A pair of strong arms closed
around her and she shrieked.
“Gotcha!” Beau pulled her to his
chest and nuzzled her neck. “Which would you rather have—homemade waffles for
breakfast or thirty minutes upstairs?”
“Umm…. Could I choose both?”
He backed toward the leather sofa
in the living room, reaching for the buttons on her baker’s jacket. “I suppose
if we were to skip the part about climbing the stairs …”
A musical tone chimed and his
glance slid toward the end table beside them. The readout on his phone showed
the department dispatcher’s extension.
“Rats!” He reached for the phone.
“Dixie, this better be important.”
Sam could hear the familiar voice
apologizing for the early call. “Sheriff, I’m sorry. You didn’t respond to the
“Because I’m supposed to have a
half-day off today.”
“I know. It’s just that all of a
sudden we’re real shorthanded. Remember how Rico felt like he was coming down
with the flu yesterday? Well, five more have it today. Three deputies and a
couple others from admin. We need you to reassign duties, and if you could
maybe fill in some of the gaps yourself …?”
Beau sighed. “Okay, then. I’m on
Sam started to pull her jacket
over her bare shoulder but his mouth was suddenly in the way. He planted a moist
kiss on her collarbone.
“Save that for later. If I can
rearrange things at the office maybe we can meet up to continue this line of
thought around lunch time.”
She indulged him with a long kiss
and a smile. They both knew the odds of breaking away for a midday tryst were
next to nil. Their lives didn’t work that way. He sighed and climbed the
stairs, unsnapping his plaid western shirt.
“Don’t worry,” she called out.
“I’ll feed the dogs and put something in the crockpot for dinner before I head
He returned in under five
minutes, strapping on his leather belt crammed with radio, holster, cuffs and
other gear, and she could tell that his mind had switched to law enforcement
mode just that quickly. She watched his cruiser head down their long driveway
before she turned her attention to her own day. The simple chores occupied her
hands, and her mind began to focus on business.
With the crisp September days had
come seasonal changes to the offerings at Sweet’s Sweets—apples, cinnamon and
cranberries fit her customers’ desires now. Sam had spent several days
developing new recipes, especially looking for ways to include the season’s
abundant Hatch green chile into her savory breads and muffins. As she checked
the lock on the French doors to the back deck, she thought of another twist she
might add to the chile-cheese pull-apart loaves she’d been working on
Ranger and Nellie, their black
Labrador and border collie, watched complacently as she filled their water bowl
on the porch and then climbed into her bakery van with its colorful all-over
design of pastries. The road to town was crowded this time of day; Sam had
nearly forgotten that even little Taos had a rush hour, since she was normally
way ahead of the crowd at four-thirty each morning.
She had to admit that adding
hired help at the shop was nice. Julio could practically get the store open
with his eyes closed, stocking the cases with their signature items in a flurry
of pre-dawn baking. Jen would be there by now, arranging the displays and
brewing coffee and tea. Becky, Sam’s decorator, always arrived shortly after
she’d taken her kids to school. Sam thought back to the days when she did every
bit of baking from her home kitchen, back when business consisted of specialty
cakes and cookies and she also delivered everything herself.
She took Camino de la Placita as
a less-congested back way and passed a block west of the famed Plaza, cruising
past the front of her shop. The charming storefront in its Depression-era adobe
building, with her own purple awnings and pastry-filled display windows, made
life a lot more fun even when it wasn’t especially easier. She stifled a
picture of the upcoming crazy holiday season as she steered into the alley
behind the row of shops, vowing to simply enjoy the beautiful autumn weather
right now. The scent of roasting green chile from a nearby vendor greeted her
as she got out of the van. She took a deep breath and went inside.
“Sam! Oh, thank goodness you’re
here.” Becky Harper stood at the stainless steel worktable with a bag of
hot-pink frosting in one hand and a customer’s sketch in the other. A
two-tiered cake stood on the table, base-coated in white. It was nothing like
“How is this,” Becky said with a
nod toward the cake, “supposed to become
She waved the drawing toward Sam.
“Good morning to you, too,” Sam
said, hiking the strap of her bag over her shoulder and taking the sketch and
Sure enough, the cake was
described as two round tiers—which it was—but the design clearly showed a hot
pink fashion purse, a modified hatbox shape with quilted fondant covering it
and black ropey handles.
“I made the buttercream and
loaded the bag before I pulled the layers from the fridge,” Becky said.
“Maybe the cake was mislabeled.
Did you check that?”
Becky nodded. “The same
name—Perdida Sanchez—is on both.”
“Let’s check with Jen,” Sam said
with a sigh. “She took the order. She’ll probably remember the circumstances.”
Jennifer Baca, her front counter
assistant, had recently shown a few little lapses of attention in her work but
this was the biggest error so far. She was probably going to have to sit Jen
down for a talk. All she really wanted to do was start on the batch of molded
chocolate magnifying glasses she’d envisioned for the Chocoholics Unanimous
book group’s meeting this evening. They were on a Sherlock Holmes kick this
She hung her bag on a hook at the
back of the kitchen, tugged her jacket straight, and headed toward the sales
room. Female voices came from the other side of the curtain separating the two
Jen stood behind the counter
while the only customer stood at the display windows, which faced the street,
admiring the elaborate autumn-themed wedding cake Sam had put on display
“Jen, I’ll take over here. Becky
needs interpretation of an order she’s working on.” Sam moved into the room.
Jen pointed toward the customer’s back, trying to convey some message, then
shrugged and headed for the kitchen.
“Yes ma’am—how may I help you?”
The woman turned and Sam got her
first close look at the customer. She stifled a gasp. The woman’s blouse was
torn at the shoulder and a bloody scrape blazed across one cheek. Her dark,
layered hair had an obviously good cut but was dirty and stood out in tangles.
Her skirt and blouse were disheveled and she fiddled with a ripped nail on her
“What happened to you?” Sam
blurted it out without thinking.
“I—I don’t …” The stranger turned
“I’m sorry. That was rude of me,”
Sam said. “Can I get you some coffee? Or would you like to use our bathroom?”
The woman shook her head, as if
she were clearing away bad thoughts. Sam began to notice more details. Her
clothing was of decent quality although she didn’t have a purse, and a glance
out the window revealed no car in the parking lot, suggesting the visitor had
arrived on foot. However, the lady’s complexion and bearing defied the idea
that she might be a street person.
“Let me at least get you a cup of
tea and a scone or something,” Sam said. “Take a seat and just relax for a
The woman pulled out a chair at
one of the small bistro tables, a seat facing the door, Sam noticed. She brewed
a cup of tea and set it down for the lady.
“Blueberry, almond or cranberry?”
Sam asked. “Or maybe a muffin or brownie?”
The woman shook her head again,
flinching in pain.
“Look, it’s obvious something
happened to you,” Sam said, taking the chair across from her visitor. “Were you
in an accident? Did someone attack you? My husband is the sheriff. He can
investigate and find the person.”
The woman’s vivid blue eyes grew
wider at the mention of the sheriff and she set her tea mug down. Sam leaned
“Okay, we don’t have to report it
until you are ready. Can we just start with your name?”
The shapely dark brows furrowed
for a moment.
“Your name, sweetie. What’s your
Her mouth opened, then it closed
again. Her eyes widened again and a flicker of fear crossed her face. Sam
reached out to take her hand but the woman drew back.
“You don’t have to tell me,” said
Sam gently. “Are you sure about the muffin—?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then a slice of our banana nut
“I don’t know my name.” Her eyes
darted back and forth, taking stock of her clothing, her hands, her
surroundings. “I don’t even know where I am.”
“Jen, can you come back out
here?” Sam asked, keeping one eye on the new mystery sitting at her bistro
table. “Keep her company. I’m calling Beau.”
She slipped into the kitchen as
Jen walked toward the case full of pastries. Without asking, Jen picked up a
plate and fork and served up a slice of cheesecake. Sam let the curtain fall
and walked to the back door. On the small stoop outside, she pulled her cell
phone from her pocket and tapped Beau’s number.
“Hey you,” he said. “Look, I’m
afraid a lunch break doesn’t look possible—”
“I’m not worried about that,
honey, and I’m sorry to bother you but I wasn’t sure what else to do.”
“Something wrong?” His casual
voice had given over to his all-business one.
“There’s a woman in my shop and I
think she’s been hurt. She’s extremely nervous and seems to have amnesia and I
have no idea who to call.”
“You did the right thing. I’m on
He must have been on patrol
nearby because he walked in the back door less than three minutes later.
“Jen’s serving her cheesecake and
tea in the front,” Sam told him as she pulled chocolate and sugar from the
shelf for her next project. “Other than that, I know nothing about her.”
“Go in there and introduce me so
she won’t freak out at the sight of a lawman,” he suggested.
Sam led the way. Her visitor had
taken only a few bites of the cheesecake, despite its being their most popular
“This is my husband, Beau,” she
said gently. “He’s the sheriff and he can help you figure out what to do next.”
The woman swallowed hard and pushed
her dessert plate away, watching Beau with a wary eye. He sat across the table
and took a small notebook from his pocket. A few standard questions and it
became apparent the lady couldn’t tell him anything.
“Think back,” he repeated
patiently. “Right before you walked into the bakery, where were you?”
“I … I seem to have forgotten …”
The woman cupped her mug in her palms and took a breath. “I … saw your shop
from across the street.”
She stared toward the front
windows. “I guess I crossed by that stop sign and just started walking. The
cakes in the window are so pretty.”
Of all the shops in the small
strip, cakes had been more appealing than the books at Mysterious Happenings or
the doggie logo at Puppy Chic, the grooming shop on the other side. That fact
might tell them something about the woman and her past. Or, it might have
simply meant she was hungry at the moment.
“You have some injuries,” Beau
said. “Any idea when or where you got them?”
Jane Doe, as Sam had begun to
think of her, raised one hand to her face and gingerly touched the abrasion on
her cheek. She noticed the broken nail on her right hand and stared at it. Her
hands had other scrapes, as if she’d fallen and caught herself as she hit the
“Oh, heavens. I should have
washed up before eating.” Jane started to get up.
“That can wait for a minute,”
Beau said. He indicated her torn blouse. “I need to ask this. Do you think you
might have been molested? Sexually.”
Jane’s eyes went wide and she
crossed her arms protectively over her chest. “No—I mean, I don’t think so!”
She looked at Sam, perhaps hoping for verification.
“We should get you in for an
exam,” Beau said. “I’ll call a social worker who can take you to the hospital
for that part of it. If your injuries aren’t serious we can get you into the
women’s shelter until we figure out what to do next.”
“A shelter?” Clearly, Jane felt
some distaste for this idea.
“Can you remember anything about
where you live or where you work? The names of any friends or relatives?”
At each suggestion, Jane seemed
more bewildered. She shook her head sadly and Sam felt pangs of pity for the
poor woman and her situation.
“I don’t want to go to the
hospital,” Jane insisted. “I’m not hurt that badly.” She held up the scraped
palms as evidence.
Beau sighed. “I can’t force you.
But seeing as you have no purse, ID or money, I really do think the shelter is
the best idea until we can find out where you belong.”
“I like the cake shop better. Can
I just stay here?”
Oh boy. Sam could see this
stretching out all day, and then what was she supposed to do with Jane when it
came closing time? She sent Beau a frantic look.
“How about this?” he said. “I’ll
get out in the neighborhood and ask some questions. Maybe someone on the plaza
saw an incident or knows you. If Sam doesn’t mind your staying here for an hour
or so, we may have this whole thing solved pretty quickly. If I can’t find out
where you belong, I’ll send Melissa Masters over. She’s a lady who works for
the county and she can find you a place for the night.”
“That’s a good idea,” Sam said.
“I know Melissa. She’s very nice. And I’m sure Beau will get this figured out
Really soon. Please.
Poor Beau, she thought, as he
brought in a camera and snapped a few pictures of Jane. He had no time to go
door to door looking for someone who knew this woman, especially on a day when
half his deputies were out sick.
Jen came to the table with a
refill for Jane’s tea.
“Stay here until you hear from
me,” Beau said.
Jane seemed preoccupied with her
own hands, picking dirt from her cuticles as Beau left.
“Would you like to wash up?” Jen
As long as Jane had no intention
of going to the hospital for an exam, she might as well make herself a little
more comfortable, Sam thought. She offered to show the way to the restroom at
In the kitchen, Jane stared at
the large worktable. A smile came over her face. “How pretty!”
Becky had obviously gotten the
designer purse cake figured out, and the quilted pink fondant with gold trim
was coming together nicely. She sent a smile toward the visitor.
Sam got Jane equipped with a
clean washcloth and soap, and found a box of adhesive bandages in the medicine
cabinet. “Help yourself to whatever you need,” she offered. “I’ll be right out
here in the kitchen.”
Beau sat in his cruiser behind
the bakery. “Dixie, sorry to put you on detective work but being so shorthanded
“No problem, boss. What can I
He gave Jane’s description: White
female, aged late-thirties to early-forties, a hundred twenty pounds, shoulder
length brown hair, blue eyes. Wearing a straight black skirt and blue silky
“See if there are any missing
person reports for the county, then go statewide if you need to. Call me if
anything close comes in and email me a photo if you come up with one.”
He started his cruiser and drove
the half block to the plaza. Canvassing was the least exciting part of a cop’s
job but then sometimes it yielded exactly the right information to put the
whole puzzle together. He stared at the crosswalk where Jane indicated she had
come over to Sam’s shop. It was a small intersection, but a bustling one, with
traffic constantly on the move and a number of pedestrians. Everyone was on his
or her way somewhere. No vendor carts or school crossing guards. No real reason
for someone to hang around here. He turned and entered the first plaza shop he
came to, a gallery.
“Sorry, I just got here ten
minutes ago,” said an effeminate man who bustled about with an air of busyness.
Clearly, the sheriff had not come in the door to buy anything and was,
therefore, an unwanted distraction.
Beau went on, getting the same
result at a fine jeweler, a pottery shop and an upscale clothing store. The art
crowd didn’t get out early and no one had been around an hour ago. At the
drugstore, which actually still had an old-fashioned soda fountain, the clerk
was the bored sort who rang up trinkets such as keychains and shot glasses that
proclaimed to be from Taos although they were manufactured in China. Beau’s
inquiry met with, “You gotta be kidding me, man. A thousand people a day come
“I’m asking about the last hour
or so. At least look at the photo. She has scratches and dirt on her face—you would
have noticed that.” He held up the digital screen.
The eye-roll told Beau this guy
probably never even looked at faces. The man shook his head.
Out on the sidewalk, he took
stock. On the opposite side of the plaza the hotel might provide a lead. He should
have thought of it first. He edged between parked cars and crossed the street.
In the shady square he circled wrought iron benches and scanned the ground. How
much simpler this morning would become if he spotted a scuff on the pathway and
a purse with “Jane’s” ID lying on the ground. He checked the area carefully but
had no such luck.
On the south side of the plaza he
crossed the street and entered the hotel’s lobby. Four people stood in line to
check out, with one busy young clerk trying to handle it all. As he was
deciding whether to push ahead and piss them all off, his radio squawked. He
stepped outside; maybe Dixie had news.
“Sheriff, we have a next-of-kin
notification. APD needs you to get right on it.”
Notifying a family of a death was
higher priority than a woman who, although she had problems, was happily eating
her way through the pastries at Sam’s shop.
“Who do I need to see?” he asked.
“We don’t have a name. You’ll
need to speak with the detective in charge.”
“I’m nearby so I’ll come in. Anything
on the missing person I had you checking?”
“Not yet but it’s been a little
crazy here. I’m still looking.”
“Thanks, Dixie.” He quick-walked
to his cruiser and edged out of the congested plaza. Less than five minutes
later he was pulling into his assigned spot at the department.
Jane Doe emerged from the
restroom looking much better. Aside from a bright red scrape on one cheek, her
face was clean. She’d put Band-Aids over the abrasions on her palms and the
shoulder seam of her blouse was no longer gaping open.
“I found a safety pin in your
medicine cabinet,” she explained. “I hope it was okay to borrow it.”
“Sure, no problem,” Sam said,
turning away from the pan of half-melted chocolate on the stove. A few more
minutes to reach the magical one hundred eighteen degrees and she could take it
off the heat and seed it for tempering. She responded to the
of a timer and pulled a tray of
fragrant mint-chocolate chip cookies from the oven then carried them to the
Julio, whose concentration was
focused on measuring flour into the big Hobart mixer across the room, sent her
a look of gratitude. Sam scanned the kitchen out of habit, making sure no one
needed an immediate hand with something.
Together, Becky and Jen had
sorted out the mix-up on the cake orders. The tiers covered in white fondant
now waited at one end of the table, ready to be turned into a fiftieth
anniversary cake, while the drawing of the bright pink purse with gold beading
and black fondant handles was meant to be a triple chocolate Kahlua cake, all
along. Once Becky knew that there were two customers named Perdida Sanchez—who
would have guessed?—and found the other cake in the walk-in fridge, she got
everything under control.
“I haven’t heard anything from
Beau—uh, the sheriff,” Sam told Jane, although she noticed that Jane hadn’t
asked. “I know he’s hoping to find out where you belong so you can go home.”
Jane nodded, a wistful expression
crossing her face. She turned to the worktable where Becky had the fashion purse
cake nearly finished.
“That’s so clever,” Jane said.
Her eyes seemed to take in all
the decorating tools and the black gum-paste flowers Becky was tucking beside
the purse. She smiled fondly at the scene, although many people would have
found the table and the several works-in-progress pretty chaotic.
“Do you know anything about
decorating cakes?” Becky asked.
“Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t
recall,” Jane said. She looked a little lost again.
Not surprising, since you can’t remember anything.
herself. That line of thinking was petty and unkind. It wasn’t as if Jane was
in the way or disrupting the work. After all, didn’t most of Sam’s life consist
of one distraction coming along to override another?
She thought of her brief contact
with the mysterious wooden box in the wall safe at home this morning. If only
she had handled it longer, more thoroughly. The box had led to visions in the
past—seeing auras around people, spotting fingerprints that were otherwise
invisible. It might have assisted her in observing some unseen fact about Jane
this morning, something that would help identify the woman.
“Sam!” Jane’s voice held a new,
sharp edge. “I think your chocolate is about to burn!”
The stranger was sniffing the
air, facing toward the stove with the now-bubbling pot. Sam sprinted across the
room and lifted the pan off the double boiler. The chocolate looked fine but
there was a tiny whiff on the steam rising above it. Another few seconds and
the batch would have been too far gone to save.
Sam turned off the burner and
rapidly stirred the chocolate to cool it. A few pieces of solid chocolate
helped bring the temperature down.
“Wow, good catch,” she said,
turning to Jane. “How could you tell?”
Jane blinked three or four times
and bit at her upper lip. “I really don’t know.”
Sam retrieved the pan, dipped a
clean spoon into the chocolate and tasted it. Thank goodness, the flavor hadn’t
been compromised. Now if it would just temper properly, she could finish the
chocolate magnifying glasses for the Sherlock bunch and get on with the day.
Except that the day had gone off track the minute this strange woman had walked
in the door.