Dead-Pan-248x383“…a sweetly satisfying mystery that’ll have you licking your lips for more!” – Christine Verstraete, Searching for a Starry Night, a Miniature Art Mystery
 
“Murder Takes the Cake has all the right ingredients for a delicious read.” – Ellen Crosby, author of The Bordeaux Betrayal

Chapter One  

            For the second time in as many months, I found myself telling a police officer, “I just brought the cake.”

We were sitting in my kitchen with its beige walls, white cabinets and light-colored wood floor. It’s usually a peaceful, happy place. But then, I’m usually not being interrogated here . . . although, I am interrogated here more than you might thing.

“Yes, ma’am,” the police man was saying, “and the lab has already tested remnants of that cake and determined it’s not the cause.”

“Well, that’s a relief.” It was also a relief to be dealing with Officer McAfee rather than Officer Hayden this time. Officer McAfee appeared to be on the backside of thirty and didn’t seem to rush to judgment the way young Officer Hayden had.

“Nevertheless, ninety percent of the folks who attended the Brea Ridge Pharmaceutical Christmas party are violently ill today,” Officer McAfee said.

“Right. As I said, I just brought the cake. I didn’t stay for the festivities.”

“Lucky you.” His brown fingers fumbled with a small blue notebook. “You didn’t notice anything unusual going on?”

“Like Momba Womba spiking the punch?” With a name like Daphne, I’m entitled to a Scooby Doo reference now and then, especially when I’m nervous. I can’t remember what Momba Womba really did, although I do remember he was a witch doctor. I’m fairly sure he didn’t spike any punch, or else Shaggy and Scooby would’ve been in big trouble. Those guys would eat and drink things found in cobweb covered cabinets in creepy haunted houses.

Officer McAfee’s dark eyes widened as he leaned forward in my kitchen chair. “You saw somebody spike the punch?”

“No, no . . . I didn’t see anything.”

He stood up. “If you think of anything—anything at all—that might’ve made those people sick, call me.” He handed me his business card. “This is deadly serious, Ms. Martin. Fred Duncan is in the hospital in a coma today.”

“Fred Duncan?”

“Yeah. You know him?”
“He works at the Save-A-Buck.”

“Right.”

I walked Officer McAfee to the door. “That’s terrible. Do the doctors think he’ll be okay?”

He shook his head. “It’s not looking good.”

I’d barely had time to put our coffee cups in the dishwasher before my neighbor Myra was at the door. Myra was a feisty widow with too much time on her hands, but she was always entertaining. I invited her in and we went to sit in the living room. I felt I might as well be comfortable for my inquisition.

“I thought I saw a police car over here,” Myra said, kicking off her loafers and dropping into my pink and white checked club chair.

“You did. You did see a police car.” The Looney Tunes reference was lost on Myra. She was like a bloodhound with a scent to follow.

“What were they doing here?”

I sat down on the couch. “Brea Ridge Pharmaceuticals had their Christmas party last night.”

“Were you there? Did it get rowdy? Was there a drunken brawl?”

“I delivered a cake, but I left before the party started.”

“So you didn’t get to see the brawl?”

“As far as I know, there was no brawl.”

“Then why were the police here?”

“A lot of people who were at the party got sick.”

“From your cake?”

I held up my hand. “Definitely not from my cake. Officer McAfee said the lab tested remnants of the cake, and it was fine.”

“Remnants? I thought only carpet came in remnants. Huh.” She folded her legs up under her. “That Officer McAfee is a good looking man, ain’t he? He reminds me of Malcolm Winters from Y and R. Of course, he’s on that crime show now, so there you go.”

“There you go,” I echoed, as if her train of thought made one iota of sense.

“What was it that made everybody so sick?”

“They don’t know yet. Fortunately, the company had some drugs on hand that lessened the symptoms for most of them. They couldn’t help poor Fred Duncan, though.”

“He still sick?”

I nodded slowly. “He’s in a coma.”

“Fred Duncan is in a coma?” She scoffed. “Bet he’s fakin’.”

“Myra, you can’t fake a coma.”

“Oh, honey, you can. I did it one time. Me and Carl had this big fight and he stormed out. I wanted him to find me passed out on the bedroom floor when he got home so he’d feel really ashamed for how he’d left.”

I merely stared at her with my mouth hanging open.

“I took a couple of sleeping pills and laid down on the floor,” she continued. “I don’t know how long I’d been asleep before Carl got home, but he was plenty worried when he finally got me revived. He called an ambulance and everything. And that wasn’t like Carl. Normally, he was so cheap, he’d have just pitched me in the back of the Buick, turned on the four-way flashers and took me to the hospital himself.” She smiled smugly. “Even with our insurance, that trip cost us a pretty penny. They checked my heart and everything.”

“You didn’t tell the doctor you took the sleeping pills?”

“Nah. That showed up in the blood work later. But by then, they’d gone over me with a fine tooth comb. I even got to have a CT scan. Let me tell you, Carl Jenkins never dared storm off and leave me again.”

“I guess not.”

“So, you see? You can fake a coma.”

* * *

            Despite Myra’s assertions to the contrary, I did not believe Fred Duncan was faking his coma. I felt horrible for him and his family. His grandfather and my uncle were hunting buddies, and I knew Fred’s near fatal car accident and resulting brain damage about a year ago had taken a considerable toll on the Duncans.

My niece and nephew were convinced Fred was “crushing on me big time” after he asked my sister a ton of questions about me at the grocery store and then ordered a cake for his grandfather. He’d ordered a birthday cake; and since Mr. Duncan’s birthday was still months away, Fred’s mother had called and canceled the order.

All of this pondering somehow led to my hopping in my little red Mini Cooper and heading to the hospital. And I hate, hate, hate hospitals.

I approached the two elderly women volunteering at the reception desk.

“I’m here to see Fred Duncan.”

One of the women tapped Fred’s name into the computer before directing me to the ICU waiting area. The halls were lined with potted peace lilies. I spotted the door with the sign reading “Chapel” and considered going in to say a prayer for Fred. The chapel would be an excellent place to hide while I steeled myself to actually go and see Fred. On the other hand, if there was a grieving family in the chapel, that would be a terribly awkward situation . . . especially if it was Fred’s family. I took a deep breath and went on to the ICU waiting room.

A nurse approached and quietly asked who I was there to see. I told her, and she led me back to a cramped room where Fred lay hooked up to a number of beeping, whirring, whooshing gadgets. A tired-looking woman wearing a pink sweatshirt and jeans sat in a straight-backed chair by the bed and held Fred’s hand. I’d been standing in the room a full minute before she looked up.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Daphne Martin.”

“The cake lady.” She smiled wanly. “Now I can see why Fred ordered his papaw a birthday cake five months early. I’m Connie Duncan.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Duncan. How’s Fred?”

Connie looked at her son. “Not very well, Daphne. Would you talk to him . . . let him know you’re here?”

“Of course.” I moved closer to the bed. “Fred, hi, it’s me, Daphne. You’d better hurry up and get well before the Save-A-Buck goes broke. You know they can’t run that place without you.” I looked from Fred’s ashen face to Connie’s.

“Thank you,” she said softly.

“Can I get you anything? A cup or coffee or a soda maybe?”

“Coffee would be nice. Would you walk down to the cafeteria with me?”

“Sure.”

Connie went by the nurses’ station to inform them she’d be back within five minutes, and then we headed for the cafeteria.

“I heard about the party,” I said as we walked. “Actually, Officer McAfee of the police department stopped by and asked me about it. I told him I only delivered the cake and didn’t know about all those people getting sick.” I bit my bottom lip. “For the record, the lab confirmed there was nothing in the cake that caused the illness.”

“I know, sweetie. This isn’t your fault.”

“What happened? How did all those people get sick?”

“I don’t know. I only wish that if one of us had to be sick, it had been me instead of Fred. He’s been through so much already.”

“Do you work at Brea Ridge Pharmaceuticals?”

“Yes. I’m the bookkeeper.”

“I simply can’t understand how everybody—at least, everybody infected—got so sick so fast. Even if they contracted some sort of virus, it usually takes a few days to incubate, doesn’t it?”

“You’d think,” Connie said. “But the medicine Dr. Holloway gave out when people started getting sick appeared to help everybody except Fred.” She looked at me. “Why didn’t it help Fred?”

“I wish I knew.”

We’d arrived at the cafeteria. While Connie got her coffee, I stepped over to the soda machine to get a Diet Coke. I popped the tab on the can and took a drink. She rejoined me and we started walking back toward the ICU waiting area.

“I was impressed by how you found out who killed Yodel Watson,” Connie said. “I read about it in the papers.”

I grinned. “I wasn’t all that impressive. I’m dating the guy who wrote the article, so he might’ve fudged a bit.”

“No,” she said, “I don’t think so. I think you were very brave. You set your mind to finding out what happened to that old woman, and you did it. I admire you for that.”

“Thank you.” Why do I have a huge knot of dread gathering in my stomach? Dread not even Diet Coke can wash away?

She nodded and stirred her coffee. “I want you to do that for me.”

I stopped walking. “Excuse me?”

She’d taken a couple steps ahead of me and had to turn around to face me. “That’s what I want you to do for me. Find out what happened to Fred.”

“The police are already investigating, and—”

“But you’re Fred’s friend. You know him.”

Not exactly.

I started walking again and she fell into step beside me. “But I’m not a detective by any stretch of the imagination.”

“Yes, you are! You solved that other crime and put a killer in jail.”

Yeah. Not looking forward to testifying in that case. Certainly don’t want to get tangled up in another messy situation.

“Mrs. Duncan, I’d love to help you . . . really, I would . . . but the police are doing everything they can. I’m sure they’ll resolve this as quickly as possible.”

When we entered the ICU waiting area, the nurse on duty rushed toward Connie and propelled her in the direction of Fred’s room. Not knowing what else to do, I followed.

The nurse spoke in a hushed but urgent tone. “Fred is in some significant distress, Mrs. Duncan. We’re doing everything we can do.”

“Distress? What do you mean? What kind of distress? Will he be all right?”

If you’ve ever seen a soap opera or a movie-of-the-week, then you’ve heard the beep. As soon as I heard the beep, I closed my eyes.

Please, no. This can’t be happening.

When I reopened my eyes, a nurse was pulling the curtain around Fred’s bed and the doctor was approaching Connie.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Duncan. We did all we could do.”

Connie screamed, dropped her coffee, and threw herself into my arms. “They’ve killed him! They’ve killed my baby! You have to help me, Daphne.”

“I will,” I said, patting her back. I have to. It’s my fault you went for coffee.

            The nurses gathered around Connie. I heard one say they’d called her family. I waited with Connie in the hallway—mainly holding her hand, patting her shoulder and trying not to say anything stupid—until Walt Duncan, Fred’s grandfather, arrived. I then excused myself and told Connie I’d call her later.

I walked down the hall and pressed the button for the elevator. I was relieved to see the elevator was empty. Being in a crowded hospital elevator is especially awkward. Before the door could close, I saw a tall, thin blonde woman with a briefcase and a travel mug briskly approaching.

I studied her while I was holding the “Open Door” button. “Cara? Cara Logan?”

She whisked a long strand of hair off her face with her wrist. “Daphne?” She smiled. “Hi! What’re you doing here?”

“I was visiting a friend. You?”

“Following a story. As always. My boyfriend works with Brea Ridge Pharmaceuticals. They had some sort of outbreak during a Christmas party, of all things.”

“I heard.”

“My boyfriend, John Holloway, saved just about everybody with some kind of miracle vaccine the company has been working on.”

I merely nodded. Just about everybody was right.

“The only guy who didn’t get better right away was Fred . . . somebody.”

“Duncan,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s it. Anyway, his reaction was more severe than everyone else’s, and I intend to figure out why.” She lifted her mug and took a drink of—given the scent—coffee. “I meant to talk to them upstairs, but they sent me away. Even threatened to call security.”

The elevator door opened.

“Oh, well, see ya, Daphne. Maybe we can get together while I’m in town.”

“Sure. That’d be great.” I slowly walked out of the hospital.

Cara was a reporter from Richmond. How her paper had the resources to send her all over the country to follow stories was beyond me. Or maybe Cara was the one with the budget, and the paper just gave her free rein to pursue whatever stories she wanted to report on. Either way, it seemed a bit strange to me.

I’d met Cara a few months ago at the Oklahoma Sugar Art Show. We discovered we were from the same area of the country and had lunch together. Over lunch, Cara had talked in depth about her career. She flitted from story to story and subject to subject like a honeybee in a field of wildflowers. Buzz. . . buzz. A murder in Kentucky. Buzz . . . buzz. Katrina restorations. Buzz . . . buzz. Fashion week in New York. Buzz . . . buzz. The Oklahoma Sugar Art Show. And now she was here in Brea Ridge covering a story involving her boyfriend, Dr. Holloway. . . a story—given Fred’s death—I wouldn’t think Dr. Holloway would want told.

# # #

Please visit Gayle Trent at http://www.gayletrent.com. If you’d like to order Dead Pan, you may do so at Amazon, Books-A-Million, Barnes & Noble, or from your local bookseller. Thank you so much for your interest in Dead Pan!