A Fateful Plateful
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Was Pa poisoned?
Everything is just fine in Bald Eagle Falls. Auntie Clem’s Bakery is stable and making good money.
It seems like ages since anyone was murdered or kidnapped. And it seems like just yesterday.
But things are not so rosy in Moose River. When Vic gets the news that her father is on his deathbed, she isn’t sure what to do. Erin takes the trip with her and it soon becomes clear to both of them that all is not right with the Jackson family.
Something dark and dangerous is going on in Moose River, and Erin Price is about to get her fill.
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Like baking mysteries? Cats, dogs, and other pets? Award-winning and USA Today Bestselling Author P.D. Workman brings readers back to small town Bald Eagle Falls for another culinary cozy mystery to be solved by gluten-free baker Erin Price and her friends.
Have your gluten-free cake and eat it too. Sink your teeth into this sweet treat now!
Release date: May 20, 2022
Publisher: pd workman
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Behind the book
Author Notes may contain spoilers!
I decided it was time for Vic to go back to Moose River again to deal with a mystery surrounding her family. But when her father had chased her off last, he had told her never to come back home, and she had agreed. So what would get her to go back home again after that?
Would she go back if her mother asked her to? If someone in the family was in danger? Despite everything that had happened, Vic had grown up in a small, insular community, where family ties were valued and she was expected to participate in working the farm. She hunted and worked with her older brothers and was very close to them, or at least to Jeremy, the sibling nearest to her in age.
I knew that writing about Vic’s family would give me plenty of new fodder for a story. Their ties to organized crime, Crazy Theresa, and the dysfunctional family relationships gave me lots of places to take the story. Maybe there are a few twists and turns that you didn’t expect!
A Fateful Plateful
Erin brushed her forehead with the back of her wrist to wipe away a bead of sweat as she walked from the kitchen of Auntie Clem’s Bakery to the front store space where her customers were gathering. She smiled in greeting.
“How are ya’ll this morning?”
“You’re sounding like a regular Tennessean,” Mary Lou Cox observed, giving Erin a brief smile. She smoothed the fabric over the hips of her pantsuit.
“I’ve been giving her lessons,” Vic offered cheekily. “Trying to train her on the proper grammar and etiquette that a business owner in Tennessee should know.”
Mary Lou nodded and looked into the display case to see what the bakery had on offer that morning. “Hmm. Half a dozen of the cheesy rolls. Half a dozen brownies. Pizza shell… and a loaf of multigrain bread.”
Erin started to pull the order together while Vic rang it up on the till. She knew that the multigrain bread was for Mary Lou. Everything else would probably be consumed by Joshua, her younger son. They were the only two left at home and Mary Lou watched her figure carefully, rarely allowing herself a baked treat. But Joshua was a growing teen and was still getting back in shape after being kidnapped and starved.
“How is Joshua?”
Mary Lou rubbed the back of her neck, considering her answer. There were other people around, so her response would probably not be as open as it would be if it had just been the two of them alone.
“Everyone says that kids are resilient and he will be back to his old self in no time.” Her eyes were distant. “But it’s been a long time since Joshua was ‘his old self.’ All of the trials that he and Campbell had to go through when Roger…” She trailed off, not putting it into words. They both knew how Roger had lost all of the family’s money and had tried to commit suicide. And about the brain damage the attempt had left him with. The boys had been forced to grow up and become men way too quickly, and it had taken its toll on both of them.
Erin hadn’t lived in Bald Eagle Falls then, so she had only known the boys after the spate of family disasters. She liked them both. They had been responsible and hardworking until, eventually, they just couldn’t keep it up anymore. Cam was now in the city, living with friends in a lifestyle that Mary Lou definitely did not approve of. And since his kidnapping, Joshua had also dropped out of school and was having trouble getting over everything that had happened.
“What about counseling?” Erin suggested. “Is he seeing someone?”
“No. He won’t have anyone in town knowing his personal thoughts and feelings and says that he doesn’t want to go all the way into the city. It’s too far. I told him I would take him, of course, that we would make it work, but… I know it’s just an excuse. And at this age, I can’t really force him. I can’t exactly throw him over my shoulder and drag him off anymore.”
Erin smiled at the image this brought to mind. Joshua was taller than Mary Lou, lanky and still regaining his weight, but certainly too big for Mary Lou to physically force into anything.
Though Erin had known families in the past who would have used other methods to force their will on a recalcitrant teen. Having grown up in the foster system, she had seen her share of domestic violence and other coercion.
“Well… tell him hello for me.” Erin put a couple of extra brownies into the bag for him. Chocolate and carbs might not heal every ill, but they wouldn’t do him any harm. “Tell him I’m thinking of him. And if he ever wants to talk…”
Mary Lou nodded once. But she probably wouldn’t tell Joshua that part. She would prefer that Erin and Joshua did not get too close, convinced that Erin would do more sleuthing around Bald Eagle Falls and would drag Joshua into something he shouldn’t be involved in. She would prefer that he just worked things through and decided to go back to school when it started again in the fall.
Vic smiled warmly at Mary Lou and gave her the total. Mary Lou counted out her cash carefully and gave her exact change. Erin couldn’t help but wonder how much Mary Lou struggled financially. Joshua’s medical bills on top of the bankruptcy Roger had caused… Mary Lou worked at the General Store, which probably didn’t bring in much money. She had only herself and Joshua to take care of, but even that must have been difficult.
“Y’all come back now,” Erin told her, and winked at Vic.
Vic gave her a smile of sympathy, and they turned their attention to the small mob of Fosters waiting to be served.
The Fosters were Erin’s favorite customers, if she allowed herself to pick favorites, which she knew she shouldn’t. But she couldn’t help herself. Most of the reason was young Peter Foster, the oldest of the children, who had severe celiac disease. Erin opening up the gluten-free bakery in Bald Eagle Falls had changed his life for the better. He now had the choice of anything in the store, instead of being limited to the single brand of dry gluten-free bread that the grocery store carried and boxes of commercial gluten-free cookies, which only came in a couple of varieties.
He tried to herd his younger sisters and to direct them as to what they should do, helping Mrs. Foster out the best he could. Still, sometimes his attempts backfired and he ended up causing a fight with the girls instead of keeping them in line.
“Choc’late!” Traci insisted, getting her fingerprints all over the display case as she pointed insistently at the chocolate chunk cookies at her eye level. “Want choc’late. Choc’late!” Her voice rose insistently. The baby of the family until just recently, she was used to getting her way. It must be hard for her to understand why the new baby in Mrs. Foster’s sling had changed everything so much for her. Somebody else was the center of attention now. Everyone fussed over him, and he stole Traci’s mother’s time from her.
“Okay!” Peter told her, trying to shush her. “I hear you, Traci. You want the chocolate cookie.” He rolled his eyes dramatically at Erin. “Can Traci please have a chocolate chunk cookie for her kid’s club cookie?” He looked down at Traci and tapped her on the top of the head. “Say ‘please!’”
“Pwease?” Traci demanded, looking at Erin and jabbing her finger in the direction of the chocolate chunk cookies several more times for emphasis. “Pwease? Choc’late? Dat one?”
Erin followed Traci’s pointing finger through the glass and touched one of the cookies with her gloved hand. “This one?”
“No! Dat one!”
Erin moved over one cookie. “This one?”
Traci nodded. Erin pulled it out and put it into a napkin for Traci. “Okay. And how about the rest of you cookie monsters?”
Karen and Jodi laughed at this, and each picked out which cookies they wanted, ignoring Peter’s attempts to try to get samples of as many different kinds of cookies as he could. Not that he hadn’t already tasted everything Erin had on offer. It was about time to mix things up and add a couple of new varieties of cookies to get people’s attention. And some Easter cut-outs.
“How is everything?” Erin asked once the children were munching on their kid’s club cookies more quietly. “You’re getting back into the swing of things?”
“Trying to,” Mrs. Foster agreed. “It seems a little bit harder this time. Maybe I’m getting too old to keep doing this. Maybe we should stop at five.”
Erin shook her head. “You are amazing with them. I can’t imagine being able to wrangle that many. Even just thinking about how I would fit one baby into my life… I don’t think I could do it.”
“It gets easier after the first two or three.” Mrs. Foster jiggled and looked down at the baby cradled in the sling. “Until you end up with one with colic or who has a more… demanding personality. After Peter and the girls, I thought I had it all figured out. It was easy. But this one…” She bounced Allan up and down. “He has his own ideas of how things should be done. Like what time he eats and sleeps. I think he has allergies.”
“Oh, no. What about celiac disease? You don’t think he’s celiac like Peter, do you?”
“We’ll have to get him tested, I guess, once he starts eating solid foods. He shouldn’t be getting gluten through my milk. But he definitely reacts negatively to some of the stuff I eat. Like peppers. This little man does not do well with peppers.”
“Poor guy. Well, if you need anything special for your diet, you be sure to let me know. You don’t need to worry about peppers in anything here but the pizza bread, but if you identify anything else… I’ll make sure you still have other options.”
Mrs. Foster smiled and nodded. “You are so accommodating to everyone. I have no idea how you do it. Everything tastes so good and has a good texture, even though it is gluten-free and sometimes vegan or something-else-free. You’re a lifesaver.”
Erin couldn’t help beaming at that. That was precisely the reason that she had wanted to start the gluten-free bakery. So that people like Peter and Mrs. Foster had delicious choices and didn’t have to feel left out. She wanted there to be something for everyone at Auntie Clem’s Bakery.
Mrs. Foster placed her order, and Erin was busy for a few minutes getting everything packaged up.
“Mom? Blueberry bagels?” Peter pointed out. “Can we get some? Please? I’ll eat them for breakfasts.”
“I don’t want you harassing me to buy out half the store,” his mother warned.
“I won’t. That’s the only thing. I won’t ask for anything else.”
Of course, he knew everything else that his mother had already ordered. There was no need for him to beg for the regular bread, rolls, granola bars, or other things she had already ordered.
“Fine,” Mrs. Foster conceded. Erin knew that she always left a little flexibility in her order, knowing she would need to deal with Peter’s negotiations. “We’ll take a bag of the blueberry bagels as well.”
Erin added it to the order. After Vic rang up the order, she helped to pack everything into a box for Mrs. Foster. “Let me carry that out to the car for you. Then you don’t need to juggle it and the baby at the same time.”
Of course, she would have to once she got home, and Peter and the older girls would be at school so they couldn’t help her. Mrs. Foster nodded. “Well, all right.”
Peter led the family out of the bakery like so many little ducks walking in a line.
Erin took advantage of a momentary lull in customers to go to the kitchen and get a couple more batters mixed up. It was always nice to have something fresh out of the oven at the end of the day when the after-school and before-dinner rush came around.
There was a knock on the back door. Erin checked through the peephole, then opened the door.
“Adele! Come in!”
The tall, dark-haired woman slipped into the kitchen. She glanced around briefly.
“I want to take advantage of your day-old bread program,” Adele told Erin.
Erin raised her brows in surprise. In trying to help the rural homeless in and around Bald Eagle Falls, a community very difficult to identify or get close to, she had set up a program where anyone could ask for day-old baked goods, which Erin normally saved up to take into one of the homeless shelters in the city, and they would be provided free of charge.
A lot of the church women had rolled their eyes at this and insisted that there were no homeless in Bald Eagle Falls or the surrounding wilds and farmlands. And if there were, they were clearly homeless by choice and should get paying jobs to support their families and pay for their own food. But Erin had seen some of the homeless families with her own eyes. Women, often on their own, taking care of thin children with old eyes. Women who were doing the best they could to eke out a living in a society where even the most basic of homes or lands cost more than a person on minimum wage could afford. Especially if they weren’t able to work two or three jobs because of childcare.
Adele had become acquainted with one of the families who had been camping out in Erin’s woods, the treed lands behind Clementine’s house that she had inherited along with the house and the storefront for Clementine’s old tea shop, the first iteration of Auntie Clem’s Bakery. So Adele was not one of the parties who rolled her eyes and suggested that anyone willing to work should be able to earn a living wage.
Erin employed Adele as the groundskeeper for the woods, tasked with keeping away trespassers who might light fires, dump trash, or hold Erin liable for some ill that befell them while camping out or taking a hike through her property. In exchange for this service, Adele lived in the summer cottage rent-free and was able to spend her time wandering in the woods, picking herbs, and doing whatever it was that Wiccan women did at night under the full moon. Adele had already been run out of other towns in the Bible Belt when people had come to suspect or know that she was a witch.
“Are you… not making enough to survive on?” Erin asked guiltily. Adele sold herbs and handicrafts made from nature in the General Store and online. Erin didn’t suppose that it made a lot of money but, since Adele didn’t have to pay rent and harvested some of her own food, her living expenses were very low.
Adele gave her a reproving look. “I thought the policy was ‘no questions asked,’” she pointed out.
“Oh. Well, yes, of course. Sorry. I was just surprised. I didn’t mean to pry. What can I get for you? Bread, rolls, dessert?”
“I think… bread and maybe some muffins?”
“Absolutely.” Erin went over to the chest freezer. “How much?”
If it were just for Adele, then all she would want was one loaf and a few muffins. But she ended up picking out three loaves of bread and a couple of bags of muffins. She was feeding someone other than herself.
That was exactly why Erin had started the program, so she wasn’t going to do anything to sabotage it.
“Come back whenever you need more. I don’t want anybody in Bald Eagle Falls going hungry. We should take care of our neighbors.”
Adele nodded. “You are the only one I know of who puts your money where your mouth is. It’s funny that all of these Christian women, who believe in a Jesus who said to feed the hungry, find so many excuses not to help.”
She didn’t care what anyone’s religious beliefs were. She was happy to let others believe what they wanted and hoped that they would let her live life the way she wanted to. But it seemed like the most vocally religious ones were the same ones who refused to take action when there was a clear need for it. They were good about collecting Christmas presents for needy children in December. Erin knew that they went as a group to serve at one of the big soup kitchens in the city at least twice a year. Still, those token efforts seemed to satisfy them that they were doing all they could and that no one closer to home needed their help.
“Thank you for helping out,” she told Adele. “I’m glad that someone is taking me up on my offer.”
Most of the families that Erin had reached out to had turned down her offer of “charity,” saying that they didn’t need anything from her and could provide for themselves.
Adele gave one brief nod and headed for the door. “Change happens slowly,” she pronounced, “but it is possible over time.”
Vic had taken out the Fosters’ purchases and was back at the front counter when Erin finished with the batters she would want later in the day and returned to the storefront.
“There you are,” Vic commented. “Wasn’t sure what you were up to.”
Erin glanced around. There were a couple of customers waiting, but no one who looked impatient or like they had been waiting for a long time. She hadn’t really been in the back long enough for anyone to be upset about the wait. Small town life in Bald Eagle Falls was a slower pace.
“Just dealing with some day-old bread,” Erin commented.
Vic frowned and looked at her. “I thought it was all in the freezer already.”
“It was. But someone needed it.”
“Who would—” Vic caught on suddenly. “Well, that’s good. Glad someone is coming by to get what they need. We had enough?”
“Plenty and to spare.”
Erin nodded. She was inordinately happy that someone was taking advantage of her offering. She turned her smile onto Betty, one of her older customers. She always took her time making choices and could drive Erin crazy with her endless questions. Still, she was a good, steady customer who always came back looking for something for dinner or for the next event she was planning. Bridge night with the girls or the grandkids coming over for Easter. There was always something going on.
“What can I get for you today, Betty?”
“Oh, I already told that nice young lady,” Betty assured her.
Vic already had a bag started. She pointed to the seeded bread. “One of those, and then we’re done.”
Erin wrapped it up while Vic rang everything up on the register. Betty paid for her purchase, carefully putting coins down on the counter as she added everything up.
“Thank you. See you again soon.”
“Goodbye, Betty. Have a good day.”
The customer waiting patiently for Betty to finish was Beaver.
Rohilda Beaven was a federal agent, living part of the time with Vic’s older brother, Jeremy, who had come to Bald Eagle Falls to get away from the family and their involvement with the Jackson clan, an organized crime syndicate operating in the Moose River area. Jeremy had been in and out of trouble, but that didn’t seem to faze Beaver a bit. Maybe she liked flirting with the wrong side of the law. At any rate, she and Jeremy got along together like a house on fire, even though Beaver was a number of years older than Jeremy was.
“Hi, Beaver,” Erin greeted. “What can I get for you today?”
“Actually…” Beaver chewed vigorously on her omnipresent wad of gum, her strong jaw working up and down. “I came to talk to Miss Victoria.”
Erin raised her eyebrows and turned her head to look at Vic to see whether she had been expecting this. Vic looked just as surprised to hear that Beaver needed to talk to her as Erin was.
“You want to talk to me? What’s up?” Vic’s eyes went over Beaver’s serious face. “Is something wrong? Did something happen to Jeremy?”
It wasn’t that long since Jeremy had been shot on his job at Crosswood Farm, protecting a valuable ginseng crop. He had recovered quickly, and he hadn’t quit his job there like Erin thought he would. Apparently, he liked it enough or made enough money at it that a little thing like a bullet was not going to deter him.
Beaver held up her hand. “It isn’t Jeremy.”
Vic swallowed and licked her lips. “Then who?”
“It’s your father.”
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