“For people who love a tasty cake and a cozy murder mystery, Murder Takes the Cake is a delicious read.” -Suzanne Pitner, Suite101.com
“The breezy story line is fun to follow…Daphne is a solid lead character as she follows the murder recipe one step at a time to the delight of sub-genre readers.” – Harriet Klausner, The Mystery Gazette
Special Note: Amazon is offering Murder Takes the Cake for only $1.99 in Kindle form for the month of August. Take advantage of this special pricing while you can!
“Mrs. Watson?” I called, banging on the door again. I glanced up at the ever-blackening clouds. Although I had Mrs. Watson’s cake in a box, it would be my luck to get caught in a downpour with it. This was my third attempt to please her, and I couldn’t afford another mistake on the amount she was paying me. Whoever said “the customer is always right” had obviously never dealt with Yodel Watson.
I heard something from inside the house and pressed my ear against the door. A vision of my falling into the living room and dropping the cake when Mrs. Watson flung open the door made me rethink that decision.
“Mrs. Watson?” I called again.
“Come in! It’s open! Come in!”
I tried the knob and the door was indeed unlocked. I stepped inside but couldn’t see Mrs. Watson. “It’s me—Daphne Martin. I’m here with your cake.”
“Come in! It’s open!”
“I am in, Mrs. Watson. Where are you?”
“I know! I—” Gritting my teeth, I walked through the living room and placed the cake on the kitchen table. A quick glance around the kitchen told me Mrs. Watson wasn’t in there either.
Man, could this lady get on your nerves. I decided to follow the voice. It came from my left, so I eased down the hallway.
On my right, there was a den. I poked my head inside.
I turned toward the voice. A gray parrot was sitting on its perch inside its cage.
“It’s open!” the bird squawked.
“I noticed.” Great. She’s probably not home, and I’ll get arrested for breaking and entering…though technically, I didn’t break….
It was then I saw Mrs. Watson lying on the sofa in a faded navy robe. There was a plaid blanket over her legs. She appeared to be sleeping, but I’d heard the parrot calling when I was outside. No way could Mrs. Watson be in the same room and sleep through that racket.
I stepped closer. “Are you okay?” Her pallor told me she was not okay. Then the foul odor hit me.
I backed away and took my cell phone out of my purse. “I’m calling 9-1-1, Mrs. Watson. Everything’s gonna be all right.” I don’t know if I was trying to reassure her or myself.
Everything’s gonna be all right. I’d been telling myself that for the past month.
I lingered in the doorway in case Mrs. Watson would wake up and need something before the EMTs arrived.
I turned forty this year. Forty seems to be a sobering age for every woman, but it hit me especially hard. When most women get to be my age, they at least have some bragging rights: successful career, happy marriage, beautiful children, nice home. I had none of the above. My so-called bragging rights included a failed marriage, a dingy apartment, and twenty years’ service in a dead-end job. Cue violins.
When my sister Violet called and told me about a “charming little house” for sale near her neighborhood, I jumped at the chance to leave all the dead ends of middle Tennessee and come home to southwest Virginia. Surely, something better awaited me here.
So far, I’d moved into my house—which I recently learned came with a one-eyed stray cat—and started a cake decorating business. A great deal of my time had involved coming up with a name, a logo, getting business cards made up, setting up a Web site and other “fun” administrative duties. The cake and cupcakes I’d made for my niece and nephew to take to school on Halloween had been a hit, though, and had led to some nice word-of-mouth advertising and a couple orders. Leslie’s puppy dog cake and Lucas’ black cat cupcakes were the first additions to my Web site’s gallery.
Sadly, my first customer had been Yodel Watson. She’d considered herself a world-class baker in her hey-day but no longer had the time or desire to engage in “such foolishness.”
“I want you to make me a cake for my Thanksgiving dinner,” she’d said. “Nothing too gaudy. I want my family to think I made it myself.”
My first two attempts had been refused: the first cake was too fancy; the second was too plain. I’d been hoping—praying—third time would be the charm. Now the laboriously prepared spice cake with cream cheese frosting decorated with orange and red satin ribbons for a bottom border and a red apple arranged in a flower petal pattern on top was on Mrs. Watson’s kitchen table. Mrs. Watson herself was lying on her den sofa as deflated as a December jack-o-lantern. Oh, yeah, things were looking up.
I was startled out of my reverie by a sharp rap.
“Come in! It’s open!” the bird called.
I hurried to the living room to open the door, and two men with a stretcher brushed past me.
“Where’s the patient?” one asked.
“Back here.” I led the way to the den, and then got out of the way.
I moved next to the bird cage. “Don’t you ever shut up? This is serious.”
“I’ll say,” agreed one of the EMTs. “Are you the next of kin?”
“Excuse me?” My hand flew to my throat. “She’s dead?”
“Yes, ma’am. Are you related to her?”
While the one EMT was questioning me, the other was on the radio asking dispatch to send the police and the coroner.
“I don’t know anything,” I said. “I just brought the cake.”
* * *
After calling in the reinforcements, the EMT’s sent me back to the living room. They didn’t get any argument from me. I sat down on the edge of a burgundy wingback chair and studied the room.
It was a formal living room; and on my previous visits, I’d only been just inside the front door. This room was a far cry from the den. The den was lived in. Ugh. Bad choice of words.
This room seemed as sterile as an operating room. There was an elaborate Oriental rug over beige carpet, a pale blue sofa, a curio cabinet with all sorts of expensive-looking knick-knacks. Unlike the den, this room was spotless.
Except for that.
Near my right foot was a small yellow stain. Parrot pee, I supposed. Still, even if Mrs. Watson had allowed the bird outside its cage, I’d have thought this room would’ve been off limits.
Maybe that’s what killed her. Maybe she came in here and saw bird pee in her perfect room and had a heart attack. Then she returned to the den to collapse so as not to further contaminate the room.
Funny thing, though; I didn’t even know Mrs. Watson had a bird until today.
I looked up. It was one of the deputies.
“I’m Officer Hayden, and I need to ask you some questions.”
“Um…sure.” This guy looked young enough to be my son—scratch that, nephew—and he still made me nervous.
“Tell me about your arrival, ma’am.”
Ma’am. Like I was seventy. Of course, when you’re twelve, everybody looks old.
I cleared my throat. “I, uh, knocked on the door, and someone told me to come in. I thought it was Mrs. Watson, so I opened the door and came on inside.” I pointed toward the kitchen table. “I’m Daphne of Daphne’s Delectable Cakes.” I patted my pockets for my business card holder but realized I must have left it in the car. “I brought the cake.”
Officer Hayden took out a notepad. “Let me get this straight. Someone else was here when you arrived?”
“No…no, it was the bird. The bird hollered and told me to come in.”
He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“I thought it was her, though.” Please, God, don’t let me get arrested. “It told me the door was open, and it was.”
Officer Hayden opened his eyes.
Never being one to know when to shut up, I reiterated, “I just brought the cake.”
* * *
About an hour later, I pulled into my driveway. I didn’t make it to the front door before I heard my next-door-neighbor calling me.
“Hello, Daphne! I see you’re bringing home another cake.”
She beat me to the porch. For a woman in her sixties, Myra Jenkins was pretty quick. “What was wrong with this one?”
I handed Myra the cake and unlocked the door. “Um…she didn’t say.”
“She didn’t say?” Myra wiped her feet on the mat and followed me inside.
I dropped my purse onto the table by the door. I let Myra hang onto the cake. She’d kept the other two rejects. I figured she’d take this one, too.
I went into the kitchen and took two diet sodas from the fridge. I handed Myra a soda, popped the top on the other, and took a long drink before dropping into a chair.
“This is beautiful,” Myra said, after opening the cake box and peering inside. “What kind of cake is it?”
“Spice. The icing is cream cheese.”
Myra ran her finger through the frosting on the side of the cake and licked her finger. “Mmm, this is out of this world. You know the Save-A-Buck sometimes takes baked goods on commission, don’t you?”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
She nodded. “They don’t keep a bakery staff, so they sometimes buy cakes, cookies, doughnuts—stuff like that—from the locals and sell them in their store.”
“I’ll definitely look into that.
“You should.” She put the lid down on the box. “Are you going to take this one?”
“No,” I said, thinking her poking the side had already nullified that possibility. “Why don’t you take it?”
“Thank you. I believe I’ll serve this one and the white one with the raspberry filling for Thanksgiving and save the chocolate one for Christmas.” She smiled. “Do I owe you anything?”
“Yes. Good publicity. Sing my praises to the church group, the quilting circle, the library group, and any other social cause you’re participate in.”
“Will do, honey. Will do.”
“Um…how well do you know Yodel Watson?” I asked.
Myra pulled out a chair and sat down. “About as well as anybody in this town, I reckon. Why?”
“She….” I sighed. “She’s dead.”
She gasped. “What happened? Car wreck? You know, she drives the awfulest car I’ve ever seen. All the tires are bald, the—”
“It wasn’t a car wreck,” I interrupted. “When I went to her house, I thought she told me to come in, so—”
“I beg your pardon?”
“It was probably Yodel’s bird Banjo tellin’ you to come in.”
“Right. It was. So, uh, I went in and…and found Mrs. Watson in the den.”
“And she was dead?”
“Was she naked?”
“No! She had on a robe and was covered with a blanket. Why would you think she was naked?”
Myra shrugged. “When people find dead bodies in the movies, the bodies are usually naked.” She opened her soda. “So what happened?”
“I don’t know. Since there was no obvious cause of death, she’s being sent for an autopsy.”
“Were there any opened envelopes lying around? Maybe somebody sent Yodel some of that amtrax stuff.”
“I don’t think it was anthrax,” I said. “I figure she had a heart attack or an aneurysm or something.”
“Don’t be too sure.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because Yodel was mean.” Myra took a drink of her soda. “Heck, you know that.”
I shook my head and tried to steer the conversation away from murder. “Who’d name their daughter Yodel?”
In the short time I’ve lived here, I’ve already learned that when Myra Jenkins says Oh, honey, you’re in for a story.
“The Watsons yearned to follow in the Carter family’s footsteps,” she said. “Yodel’s sisters were Melody and Harmony, and her brother was Guitar. Guitar Refrain Watson—Tar, for short.”
I nearly spit diet soda across the table. “You’re kidding.”
“No, honey, I’m not. Trouble was, nary a one of them Watsons had any talent. When my daughter was little, she’d clap her hands over her ears and make the most awful faces if we happened to sit behind them in church. Just about anybody can sing that ‘praise God from Whom all blessings flow’ song they sing while takin’ the offering plates back up to the alter, but the Watsons couldn’t. And the worst part was every one of them sang out loud and proud. Loud, proud, off-key and tone deaf.” She smiled. “I have to admit, though, the congregation as a whole said a lot more silent prayers in church before Mr. and Mrs. Watson died and before their young-uns—all but Yodel—scattered here and yon. ‘Lord, please don’t let the Watsons sit near us.’ ‘Lord, please stop up my ears just long enough to deliver me from sufferin’ through another hymn.’ ‘Lord, please give Tar laryngitis for forty-five minutes.’”
We both laughed.
“That was ugly of me to tell,” Myra said. “But it’s true! Still, I’ll have to ask forgiveness for that. I always did wonder if God hadn’t blessed any of them Watsons with musical ability because they’d tried to write their own ticket with those musical names. You know what I mean?”
“I guess you’ve got a point there.”
“Anyhow, back to Yodel. Yodel was jealous of China York because China could sing. The choir director was always getting China to sing solos. China didn’t care for Yodel because Yodel was spiteful and mean to her most of the time. It seemed Yodel couldn’t feel good about herself unless she was puttin’ somebody else down.”
“She must’ve felt great about herself every time I brought a cake over,” I muttered. “Sorry. Go on.”
“Well, a few years ago, our old preacher retired and we got a new one. Of course, we threw him a potluck howdy-get-to-know-you party at the church. It was summer, and I took a strawberry pie. I make the best strawberry pies. I’d thought about making one for Thanksgiving, but I don’t have to now that you’ve given me all these cakes. I do appreciate it.”
I waved away her gratitude. “Don’t mention it.”
“Anyhow, China brought a chocolate and coconut cake. She’d got the recipe out of McCall’s magazine and was just bustin’ to have us all try out this cake. Wouldn’t you know it? In waltzed Yodel with the very same cake.”
“If she loved to bake so much, I wonder why she gave it up. She told me she didn’t have time to bake these days. Was she active in a lot of groups? I mean, what took up so much of her time?”
“Keeping tabs on the rest of the town took up her time. When Arlo was alive—he was a Watson, too, of course, though no relation…except maybe really distant cousins once or twice removed or something…. There’s more Watsons in these parts than there are chins…at a fat farm. Is that how that saying goes?”
“I think it’s more Chins than a Chinese phone book.”
“Huh. I don’t get it. Anyhow, Arlo expected his wife to be more than the town gossip. That’s when Yodel prided herself on her cooking, her volunteer work and all the rest. When he died—oh, I guess it was ten years ago—she gave all that up.” She shook her head. “Shame, too. But, back to the story. Yodel told the new preacher, ‘Wait until you try this cake. It’s my very own recipe.’
‘It is not,’ China said. “You saw me copy that recipe out of McCall’s when we were both at the beauty shop waitin’ to get our hair done!’
‘So what if I did?’ Yodel asked.
‘You had to have heard me tell Mary that I was making this cake for the potluck.’
Oooh, China was boiling. But Yodel just shrugged and said, ‘I subscribe to McCall’s. How was I supposed to know you’d be making a similar cake?’
China got right up in Yodel’s face and hollered, ‘It’s the same cake!’
Yodel said it wasn’t. She said, ‘I put almonds and a splash of vanilla in mine. Otherwise that cake would be boring and bland.’
At this point, the preacher tried to intervene. ‘They both look delicious,’ he told them, ‘and I’m sure there are enough of us here to eat them both.’
Yodel’s and China’s eyes were locked like two snarling dogs, and I don’t believe either of them heard a word he said. China had already set her cake on the table, but Yodel was still holding hers. China calmly placed her hand on the bottom of Yodel’s cake plate and upended that cake right on Yodel’s chest.”
I giggled. “Really?”
“Really. And then China walked to the door and said, ‘I’ve had it with her. I won’t be back here until one of us is dead.’ And she ain’t been back to church since.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s some story.”
“Makes you wonder if China finally got tired of sitting home by herself on Sunday mornings.”
Seeing how serious Myra looked, I stifled my laughter. “Do you honestly think this woman has been nursing a grudge all these years and killed Mrs. Watson rather than simply finding herself another church?”
“There’s not another Baptist church within ten miles of here.” She finished off her soda. “People have killed for crazier reasons than that, haven’t they?”
“I suppose, but—”
“And if it wasn’t China York, I can think of a few other folks who had it in for Yodel.”
“Come on. I’ll admit she’s been a pain to work with on these cakes, but I have a hard time casting Mrs. Watson in the role of Cruella de Vil.”
Myra got up and put her empty soda can in the garbage. “I didn’t say she made puppy coats. I said there were a lot of people who’d just as soon not have Yodel Watson around.”
* * *
I was relieved when Myra left. She seemed to be a good person, and I liked her; but she could be a bit much. Everything had to be so dramatic with her. She even had me wondering whether or not poor Mrs. Watson died of natural causes.
I got up and walked down the hall to my office. It had a sofa bed to double as a guest room if need be. Other than that, it held a desk, a file cabinet and a bookcase full of cookbooks, cake decorating books, small business books, marketing books and one photograph of me with Lucas and Leslie. The photo had been taken last year when I was at Violet’s house for Christmas.
I booted up the computer. As always, I checked my e-mail first. E-mail is a procrastinator’s dream come true.
There was a message from my friend Bonnie, still holding down the fort at the company I’d worked for in Tennessee.
Hey, girl! Are you up to your eyebrows in cake batter? I can think of worse predicaments. We get off half a day Wednesday. I can hardly wait. Do you have tons of orders to fill before Thursday? I hope so. I mean, I hope business is off to a good start but that you have time to enjoy the holiday, too. I really miss you, Daph. Write when you can and fill me in on everything, especially whether or not any of your neighbors are HAGS!
I smiled. HAG was our acronym for Hot Available Guys. It wasn’t a flattering acronym, but it worked.
I marked the e-mail as unread and neglected to reply until I had better news to report. As I deleted my junk messages, I thought about Bonnie. She and I had met while I was taking culinary classes at a local college. She was taking business courses and was desperate to get into the field I wanted out of so badly. We met one evening because we were two of the oldest people in the student lounge. That night even the faculty members present were in their twenties! Bonnie and I were both in our early thirties, and after that initial meeting we had fun people-watching over coffee before all our evening classes.
When a job came open at our company, Bonnie applied and got the job. I was glad. It wasn’t long after she got the job that my college days came to an abrupt end. Not believing that I could actually be good—make that great—at something, dear hubby Todd came by the school one evening and saw Chef Pierre. Admittedly, Chef Pierre was impressive in every way, but Bonnie and I had already dubbed him a HUG—Hot Unavailable Guy. Chef Pierre was married, had three young children and was devoted to his lovely wife. Todd couldn’t get past the chef’s stellar looks though; and since I was the chef’s star student, Todd thought I had to be sleeping with the man. He’d made me drop out.
By then I’d been bitten by the baking bug. I watched TV chefs, bought books—including cake decorating course books, rented how-to videos, and practiced decorating every chance I got. I’d practice on vinyl placemats. And I’d tell myself “someday.” Now it seemed my “someday” had come. I am an excellent cake decorator, I’d finally taken a chance, and I was finally tuning out Todd’s taunting voice in my head. I was believing in myself for the first time in years. I knew I could make this business work.
The phone rang. It was Violet.
“Hey, I heard about Mrs. Watson. You must’ve freaked out when you found her.”
“How’d you know?”
“I saw Bill Hayden’s wife at the school when I picked up Leslie and Lucas this afternoon.”
Bill Hayden. Officer Bill Hayden. Married…and with children. He must be older than he looked.
“Why didn’t you call me?” Violet was asking.
“I don’t know.” Because you’re perfect; and in three years when you turn forty, all you’ll have to be concerned about is laugh lines? Because I didn’t come back home because I need a babysitter? Because I promised myself I wouldn’t be the one thorn in your bouquet of roses? “Myra came over as soon as I got home, so I really didn’t have a chance to call.”
“No, I don’t suppose you did. Did you tell her about Yodel?”
“Yeah. Was that all right?”
“I guess so. It’ll be in the paper tomorrow anyway.”
“Plus, it’s a really small town, Vi. There were probably a dozen messages on Myra’s answering machine when she got back home. I mean, you heard it at the school, right?”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Violet said. “I’m merely cautioning you to be careful of what you say to Myra.”
“With Myra, I find myself mostly listening.”
“I know that’s true.” Violet laughed. “I’m only asking you to be careful. As a witness in a homicide investigation, you have to watch what you say to the general public.”
“A homicide investigation? The coroner didn’t send the woman’s body to Roanoke for autopsy until this afternoon. The results couldn’t possibly be in.”
“No, of course not, but Joanne told me Bill said there were indications of foul play.”
“Is that ethical?”
“He only told his wife, Daphne.”
“And she told you and who knows who else. What is it with small town dramas?”
“Excuse me, Ms. Big City. I forgot how boring we must be to you now.”
“That’s not what I meant. I just think Officer Hayden should learn a bit about confidentiality, that’s all.”
“Please don’t get him in trouble.”
“I won’t. I—”
“Let’s talk about Thursday. What time will you be here?”
“I was thinking eleven, but I can come earlier if you’d like.”
“No. Eleven’s good. Mom’s spending the night, so I’ll have plenty of help in the kitchen.”
“Then eleven it is.”
After talking with Violet, I went out the kitchen door to sit on the side porch. It was cool outside, but I had on a jacket. Plus, I was feeling a little sorry for myself and felt better in the big wide open than I did in an empty house.
Violet did have a lot to be proud of. She’d been married for the past fifteen years to a dreamboat of a guy. She had gorgeous eleven-year-old boy/girl twins. She was a successful realtor. She had a lovely home. She had curly blonde hair, blue eyes and a bubbly personality; as opposed to my straight dark brown hair, brown eyes, and more serious demeanor. And she had a great relationship with Mom.
I’d been married for ten years to an abusive manipulator who is currently serving a seven-year term in prison for assault with a deadly weapon after shooting at me. Fortunately, he’d missed; and, in my opinion, he was sentenced to far too little time simply because his aim was off. He’d called it a “mistake.” Whether he meant shooting at me or missing, I have no idea. Mom called the whole ordeal a mistake, too. Neither of them could understand why I filed for divorce.
“He said he was sorry,” Mom had scolded me over the phone. “You made the man angry, Daphne. You know how you can be. A person can only take so much.”
I’d hung up on her. A person could only take so much. That was nearly five years ago.
I heard a plaintive meow and looked up to see the fluffy gray and white, one-eyed stray sitting a short distance away.
“Me, too, baby,” I told the cat softly. “Me, too.”
# # #
Visit Gayle at http://www.gayletrent.com. If you’d like to take advantage of Amazon’s special offer, please go to Amazon Kindle. To buy a hard copy book, you may do so at Amazon, Books-A-Million, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent bookseller. Thank you so much for your interest in Murder Takes the Cake!