The author of Murder Gone A-Rye and Gluten for Punishment returns to Oiltop, Kansas, where gluten-free baker Toni Holmes has to separate the wheat from the chaff to clear her brother of murder…
It’s never a good time for a crisis. Toni’s busy whipping up gluten-free holiday treats when a murder forces her to put baking on the back burner. A dead man has been found in the bathtub of a local inn—in a room registered to her brother, Tim.
With her sibling now a prime suspect in a mysterious homicide, Toni is determined to find out who set him up. But she’s about to get some unwanted assistance from former investigative journalist Grandma Ruth, who won’t let anything slow her progress in running down a killer…
Release date: May 5, 2015
Print pages: 304
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Flourless to Stop Him
Nancy J. Parra
I love my family. I do. But there are times when I sincerely wish they would take a day off. Rest is not part of my grandma’s vocabulary. We won’t talk about the stir my brother Tim likes to cause. Or the nosey phone calls my sister Joan makes every day, letting me know that someone in the neighborhood watch just called her about something going on at the homestead.
The homestead is the large Victorian house I inherited when my mother died. The house is beautiful with three full floors of bedrooms rising above the wraparound porch. In fact, my best friend, Tasha, suggested it was the perfect size for a bed-and-breakfast.
What it really was, was the perfect size for my enormous family, which included fifty-two cousins. Mom had insisted in her will that I be given the house with the codicil that any member of my family could stay there when they needed to. Which meant that, while I might have been a newly single girl, I was rarely alone.
Lately my brother Tim, the last family member to live in the house, finally moved out.
That left only me and my best friend, Tasha; her son, Kip; and Kip’s rescue puppy, Aubrey. With Tasha and Kip staying in the attic suite, I had the second floor to myself—at least for now. Christmas was coming and along with the holiday was the massive influx of family looking for a reason to visit Grandma Ruth.
Grandma Ruth had brilliantly moved into a seniors-only high-rise apartment with only one bedroom. With the way my Grandma drove her indoor/outdoor scooter nobody dared sleep on her couch, or worse, her floor, lest they—intentionally or unintentionally—get run over. At least not when there was a five-bedroom house open for their use only a few blocks away.
My family—all five siblings plus seven aunts and uncles plus fifty-two cousins—knew I was a soft touch. As long as they respected my gluten-free kitchen they could come and go as they pleased and always find a soft bed and clean linen welcoming them.
When it came to my gluten-free bakery, Baker’s Treat, I was even more of a pushover. At first I took only Sundays off. I was nervous about being closed at all for fear I would lose customers. I mean, being a gluten-free bakery in the heart of wheat country was difficult enough without being closed when someone needed a cake. But my Grandma Ruth had told me a secret when I set up shop in my hometown of Oiltop, Kansas.
“Toni,” she said in her cigarette raspy voice, “people want what they can’t have. If you’re always available, they’ll take you for granted. I learned that the hard way.” Her blue eyes glittered. “Always limit what you offer. It keeps them coming back.”
Grandma Ruth was a genius—literally. She was a lifetime member of Mensa, an international club for people who score in the top 2 percent of the population on a standard IQ test. I learned early on that it paid to listen to Grandma’s advice—even if it seemed counterintuitive.
So it was that I closed the bakery on Sundays and Mondays. This Monday, I sat in the lobby of the Red Tile Inn, where Tasha Wilkes, my best friend and current roommate, was the manager. You see, the problem with having Mondays off was that everyone else didn’t. Luckily I knew that I could always come over to the inn and visit with Tasha while she worked.
“How’s Aubrey? Did he give you any trouble?” Tasha walked in carrying a box nearly as big as her.
Aubrey was the puppy Kip had rescued. “No, he’s great. I put him out in the yard. There isn’t a lot he can get into while I’m gone.” I curled up in a wingback chair in the lobby and used the Wi-Fi to Christmas shop from my tablet. The inn had a comfortable lobby with a gas fireplace, two overstuffed couches, three wingback chairs placed strategically around the fireplace, and a bookshelf that offered novels for anyone not attached to the Internet.
“I’m glad we got him a doghouse for days like today,” Tasha said and put the box down next to the front window.
Outside was gray and bitter cold, in keeping with a normal Kansas December. The ground was frozen and brown. The trees were bare and bleak against the eternally gray sky. It was the time of year when there may or may not be snow. Mostly there wasn’t snow, only bitter cold wind and dreary clouds.
“His doghouse is stuffed with straw, and he has a heated water bowl.” I flipped through pictures of gifts on my tablet. “I think he actually prefers the cold.”
“I have to agree,” Tasha said as she cut through the box tape to expose the contents. “It’s all that Pyrenees fur. Two coats and I’ve been vacuuming daily. Who knew a dog would shed so much?”
“I hear him walking around upstairs at night.”
“I know.” Tasha pulled out the first of many artificial tree limbs covered in fake green needles and fiber-optic wires. “It turns out they’re nocturnal. Which is fine. Trust me, after the incident in October I’m glad someone is on guard duty while we sleep. I’m sorry if he keeps you up.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “Don’t worry, I like him. He’s sweet and I think Kip has really blossomed since Aubrey has been with us.”
“He has.” Tasha studied me. “If I had known that a dog would bring out the best in Kip, I would have gotten one sooner.”
“Don’t think like that,” I said. “Things happen when they do for a reason. Right?”
A fire crackled on fake logs in the fireplace across from my chair. It put out heat that reached my knees. The lobby smelled of cinnamon and pine-scented candles. Christmas music played softly as Tasha assembled the artificial Christmas tree.
“I can’t believe you’re done with your Christmas shopping,” I said. “I haven’t even started.”
Tasha shook her blonde curls. “I start my list in February and ensure I’m done by November first. The holidays are too hectic to think about shopping.”
“I’m not that organized.” I paged through the overstock website on the tablet. “Besides, no one knows what they want for Christmas until December, so buying in advance is worthless.”
Tasha pulled a crocheted penguin out of a box of ornaments. “You’re looking at it all wrong.”
“How so?” I drew my eyebrows together. Of course no one could tell since my red hair meant they were so light they were nearly nonexistent.
“I never worry about what they want in the moment. That’s too hard. Instead I keep an eye on the sales throughout the year and if I see something that reminds me of a person I buy it. Nine times out of ten I have a winner. Seriously, it’s about the people, not what’s popular at the time.”
“Nine times out of ten?” I teased.
“Well”—she stopped and put her right hand on her chin—“there was this time in high school. I was dating Lance Webb.”
“He was in Richard’s class, wasn’t he?” I could usually place people’s age by which of my siblings went through school with them. Richard was older than me, which made every boy in his class cool at the time.
“Yes,” Tasha said and sighed. “He was tall and athletic and had the prettiest blue eyes.”
“I remember him,” I said. “He was on the football team, right?”
“Yes, he wanted to be a quarterback, but Tim had a lock on that position even though he was two years younger, so he ended up a running back. I was so in love with him. I heard him tell someone he wanted to get a CD player for his car.”
“It wasn’t built-in?”
“Not back then—all he had was a tape player.”
“Oh my gosh, I remember tape players. . . .” I laughed. “How far we’ve come. I bet my nieces have no idea what a tape player is.”
“Kip does.” Tasha hung another ornament. “He’s been researching the history of recording from Alexander Graham Bell to today.”
“Let me guess, you bought Lance a CD player. . . .”
“Yes, I saved and saved and bought him a custom car player. I was so excited. I had it wrapped and stored in my closet for two months.”
“Lance dumped me for Suzy Olds two weeks before Christmas.”
“Oh.” I sat up straight. “I remember that. She wore that gold dress with fishnet stockings to the Christmas dance.”
“He took one look at her and I no longer existed.” Tasha picked up a red-and-gold glass ball ornament.
“Did they ever get married?”
“No.” Tasha’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Suzy met a guy in college who had a pedigree and a trust fund.”
“Ha! Serves Lance right.” I leaned back into the chair. “What did you do with the CD player?”
“I sold it to Orland Metzger. It turns out it was a hot gift that year and all the stores were sold out. So I made a tidy profit.”
“See? You have the best Christmas luck. If I buy something early it goes on sale—deep discount—two weeks later. Or worse, for instance, I bought my niece Kelly a china tea set.”
“It was the year she decided she was a feminist. She gave me a lecture about gender toys and how sexist tea sets were. Then she promptly put it in the Goodwill bag.”
“Right? Meanwhile her brother, my nephew Kent, wanted a toy he’d seen the week before Christmas. Nothing else would do.” I rolled my eyes. “Isn’t Kip influenced by all the Christmas toy commercials and the giant toy catalogs?”
“Kip is easier than most kids. He obsesses over one thing and doesn’t even see the need for anything other than what interests him at the time.”
“I wish my nieces and nephews were that easy.” I sighed. I came from a big family. When I said big, I meant big—unfashionably big. Grandma Ruth had eight children and most of them had eight or more children. I was lucky in that my mom and dad had only six kids. But of us six, my younger brother, Tim, and I were the only two left without kids. This meant we were expected to be the cool auntie and uncle who bought the good stuff at Christmas.
“Just get the kids board games. They have some really nice ones out these days, and it’s something different that they can do when the family gets together.” Tasha studied the tree and added another penguin to an empty spot.
“That’s Tim’s fallback gift.” I pursed my lips and eyed the latest techno gadget. “Do you think Grandma Ruth would want a mini tablet, or is her current tablet good enough?”
“Ha! It’s hard to tell with your grandma. I mean, it’s cool that she’s an early adopter, but it also means that she has everything the day it comes out.”
“Right?” I muttered. “What do you get someone who has everything?”
“Again, I don’t wait until three weeks before Christmas to start looking.”
“Yes, well, that’s good advice for next year, but doesn’t help me now.” I uncurled my jean-clad legs and stood to stretch. My green sweater hiked up as I raised my arms, exposing my pudgy white tummy. I yanked it down as I looked out the window. “Is Maria working the housekeeping shift today?”
“She’s coming this way and she looks very pale. I hope she’s not getting sick.” I watched as the tiny Hispanic woman hurried across the parking lot. Her normally rich brown skin was ashen, and her happy chocolate eyes were wide with terror.
Tasha put down the ornament and went to the door, yanking it open. “Maria, what is it? Are you okay?”
“No, no, I am not okay,” Maria said as she puffed through the door. Her hands fluttered on her stomach. She wore a light gray housekeeping uniform and a thick cream sweater over it. Her legs were encased in white tights and her feet wore sturdy dark athletic shoes. “You have to call the police, Miss Wilkes.”
“Okay.” Tasha put her arm around Maria’s shoulders. “Why? Did someone hurt you?”
“Here, sit. You look like you might collapse.” I pulled a chair toward her as Tasha put her hand on Maria’s elbow and drew her to sit.
“Room two-oh-two,” Maria said breathlessly as she sat. “You must call the police. There is a very dead man in the bathtub.”
I looked at Tasha and she looked at me. “A dead man?”
“Yes, yes! Call the police.”
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and hit the speed dial number that went straight to the police. “911, how can I help you?”
“Sarah? This is Toni Holmes. I’m out at the Red Tile Inn and Maria Gomez says there’s a dead man in the bathtub of room two-oh-two.”
“Seriously?” Sarah Hogginboom worked the dispatch desk at the police station. She liked my pastries and had her boyfriend pick her up a gluten-free Danish whenever I was open.
“Seriously,” I said as Maria sat back and closed her eyes. Tasha went over to the watercooler and poured Maria a cup of cold water.
“Did you see the body?” Sarah asked.
“No.” I left Maria to Tasha’s care and walked out into the icy-cold air. “I’m heading over to the room now.”
“Don’t touch anything. The guys are on their way over.”
“I won’t touch anything. I learned my lesson.” I climbed the concrete steps to the second floor. The Inn was an older model motel where all the doors opened to the outside. Room 202 faced west, toward the clubhouse lobby, in the center of the U-shaped hotel.
The door to room 202 stood open. Maria had pushed her housekeeping cart just inside. There was a large canvas bag on the end of the cart to hold trash. There was a drawer for cleaning sprays and mops and rags and brushes, while the shelves held fresh sheets, towels, tissues, and toilet paper. The Red Tile was a no-frills motel a half mile from the turnpike entrance. It usually drew weary travelers, truckers, and, on rare occasion, people with family in town.
“I don’t see any obvious signs of struggle,” I said to Sarah and I stepped farther into the room. “The beds are made so whoever it is hadn’t slept yet. There’s a duffel filled with clothes and such on the floor by one of the beds.”
“Be careful,” Sarah said.
I pulled my key chain out of my pocket. I had a palm-sized can of pepper spray attached to it and put my finger on the trigger. “I am.” The bathroom was at the back of the room. The door stood open and I peered inside. The light was on. The white vinyl shower curtain was torn from the rod and tangled around the fully clothed body of a man who appeared to be in his thirties. He had on jeans and a dark tee shirt with the words ARE WE HAVING FUN YET? scrawled across in white. The man’s arms showed signs of needle marks. His mouth hung open, and blood pooled under his head. His blue eyes stared at the ceiling. White foam caked his mouth. His hair was thin with a few long strands of blond pasted down over a shiny dome where it wasn’t coated in brownish-red blood.
“Toni?” Sarah’s voice pulled me back to reality.
“Yeah, I’m fine. He looks pretty dead. Do I need to check for a pulse?”
“No, the guys should be there any second. Can you hear the sirens?”
I paused, trying to sort the sound of my pounding heart from the rest of the room. Somewhere music played. The announcer said it was radio station 102.9. I carefully walked out, one foot in front of the other, following the same path I had walked in. The television was off. The clock radio on the night stand blinked, revealing the source of the music.
When I got to the doorway I heard the sirens. “I can hear them,” I said.
“Good. Stay on the line with me until they get there.”
“Okay.” I watched as a police car pulled into the parking lot followed by an ambulance. I waved my arms to let them know where I was. It wasn’t hard to see since it was after noon and most of the hotel was cleared out for the day. Checkout time was 11:00 A.M. and check-in time was at 3:00 P.M., so we were at the odd housekeeping time between occupants.
Not too many people spent more than one night at the Red Tile. It was more of a stopover hotel than a destination.
Officer Calvin Bright climbed out of the police car. He nodded toward me and headed up the stairs.
“I’m going to hang up now,” I said to Sarah. “Thanks.”
“Okay,” Sarah’s voice said. “Toni?”
“Take care of you.”
I could detect the concern in her voice. “I will,” I said. “I’m pretty sure this one isn’t linked to me. Not this time.”
“I certainly hope so. I’m starting to dread hearing your voice on the line.”
“I know,” I said. “I know.” I hung up as Officer Bright came around the corner. Calvin was a good-looking guy with brown hair and thoughtful brown eyes. There was a calmness about him that came from years of knowing he was able to take down any bad guy. He was also dating Tasha. Which made him a real hero in my eyes as she had gone out with so many losers before him. Officer Bright treated my best friend like a princess. I had to give the guy props for that.
“Toni.” He nodded his welcome like most guys do.
“Hi, in here.” I waved toward the open door. “Maria found him.”
Officer Bright stopped inches from me and the door. His dark gaze studied me. “Did you go inside?”
“Yes, I had Sarah on the line when I did,” I said and clutched my phone in one hand and the pepper spray in the other. “I didn’t touch anything.”
“Okay. Stay here.” He held out his hand palm-up and then pulled out his gun and stepped inside.
I could have told him it was clear, but I thought he needed to figure that out on his own. So I hugged myself against the bitter cold and leaned on the warm brick wall outside the door.
An ambulance crew had arrived right behind Calvin. They made their way up the steps.
“Hey, Toni.” Pat Sheridan dragged a stretcher behind him in one hand and his medical bag in the other. Kathy Neal lifted the back end of the stretcher and helped him maneuver it around the corner.
“Hey, Pat. Hey, Kathy.” I acknowledged the EMTs. “He’s in there.” I jerked my thumb toward the open door.
“Are you okay? Did you find him?” Kathy asked.
“I’m fine, and no, I didn’t find him. Maria did.” I sent her a small smile. “Tasha’s taking care of Maria, and I’m here waiting for you.”
“Does Maria need us to check on her?” Pat asked as he stepped over the threshold.
“No, I think she’s fine. Just a bit of a shock is all.”
“We’ll check her out before we leave.” Pat disappeared into the room, dragging the stretcher. Kathy followed behind.
A second squad car pulled up beneath me. The lights flashed opposite Officer Bright’s car, creating a frenzy of flashing blue and red. Officer Joe Emry stepped out of the car. He hitched his gun belt up on his skinny hips and looked around.
“Up here,” I called from the railing.
“I knew that.” Officer Emry cleared his throat. “I’m checking for anything suspicious.” He wandered around the lower deck of rooms for a while.
I rolled my eyes. Officer Emry meant well, but he had the brains of a gnat. My family called him Barney Fife. He was a skinny guy on a power trip that came with wearing a badge in a small town like Oiltop. At least Officer Bright was first on scene. As I said, Calvin was a large bear of a man with a killer square jaw. A big difference from the giant Adam’s apple on toothpicks that was coming up the steps. A third car pulled up and Officer Phil Strickland stepped out.
Officer Strickland was a twenty-year veteran of the police force. He rarely came out from behind the desk, so I was surprised to see him here. Then I remembered that Grandma Ruth said Strickland had started campaigning for Hank Blaylock’s job as chief of police. As far as Grandma was concerned Hank wasn’t going anywhere. But it did answer the question as to why Strickland was there. I watched him walk over to Officer Emry and speak to him before turning and heading toward the stairs.
The odd part was that Officer Strickland never even looked up. He must have been familiar enough with the Red Tile to know where room 202 was without needing any direction. I rubbed my arms and shivered in the cold. Officer Strickland came around the corner and stopped next to me. He was about six feet tall, with gray hair and brown eyes. He wore dark dress pants, a white shirt, and a black tie under his leather coat. His feet were encased in black leather cowboy boots, and he wore a Stetson hat.
“What happened?” His voice was as smooth as his expression.
“Maria opened the room to clean and found him. I called 911.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Did you touch anything?”
“Good.” He went inside, leaving me to blow on my blue fingers.
Next to arrive was my friend—most of the time—and local reporter Candy Cole. Candy’s dark blue Toyota whipped into the parking lot at a speed that should have gotten her a ticket. Except that most of the Oiltop police force was busy with the dead guy. Not that it mattered what the police were doing. Candy always drove like a bat out of hell. She never got a ticket. I suspected it was because she bribed the police force with regular breakfast donuts, bagels, and assorted pastries. I knew this because she bought them from me.
That, too, had a purpose. You see, neither Candy nor any of the officers needed to eat gluten-free. Candy could have gotten her sweets anywhere and probably had in the past. But recently she had decided that I was a magnet for news and she was going to stop by every day and ensure I didn’t discover something she needed to know about.
She stepped out of her car, her cell phone camera rolling. “Hey, Toni.” She waved up at me. “Did you find the body?”
I waved. “No, Maria did. She’s with Tasha in the lobby.”
“Thanks!” Candy headed toward the clubhouse. Her champagne blonde bob was camera perfect. She was my height—around five foot seven—in four-inch killer heels. Today she wore a trench coat against the bitter cold wind. All she needed was a fedora to look like a 1940s Hollywood star.
I shivered and turned back to the room. “I’m going to the clubhouse,” I called in to the busy crime scene. The contrast to the inside and the outside struck me as huge. Inside was warm, dim, and stinky. Outside was bright sunshine, ice-edged wind, and the fresh scent of snow. How it could smell of snow on a bright cloudless day had always baffled me, but it did.
“Don’t talk to anyone until you’re interviewed,” Officer Emry said behind me.
“Candy’s here,” I said as I stepped back out into the cold.
“I saw her,” he said and sniffed. “Don’t tell her anything until we get your statement.”
“Okay.” I shrugged. “You know Grandma Ruth would kill me if I talked to Candy first.” Grandma had been the county’s top reporter in the day. She was officially retired but still wrote a daily blog. A blog that was meant to scoop the press—especially Candy. It was a competition between the two to see who could do a better job of reporting quickly and accurately.
“Don’t talk to your grandma, either.” Officer Emry narrowed his eyes and swallowed hard. His Adam’s apple bobbed in his skinny neck.
“Emry?” Officer Bright stepped out of the tiny bathroom. “Did you bring a camera?”
“Yes.” He raised his hand and a digital camera dangled by its string. “I’m ready to record the crime scene.”
“Better get started,” Officer Strickland said, his tone at once dismissive and authoritarian. “The EMTs want to take the body to the morgue.”
“I’ll be in the lobby when you need me,” I said and pointed toward the other building.
“I’ll be over there in a few minutes to take statements.” Officer Bright nodded. “Do me a favor while you’re down there.”
“Find out who the room was registered to,” he said. “See if Tasha has a camera on the parking lot. If we can find footage of whoever else was in the room it would be very helpful.”
“Sure, no problem,” I said. The trip down the stairs and across to the lobby was short and quick. Spurred on by my nearly frozen feet, I rushed into the lobby and went straight for the fireplace to warm my hands.
“Where’s your coat?” Candy asked. “It’s twenty degrees out there.”
“I left it hanging.” I pointed to the wrought iron coat tree next to the door. “I wasn’t thinking about the cold when I left.”
“I bet you weren’t.” Candy made a note in her notebook. Her bright pink planner had notepaper and a pen always handy. “Can you tell me what happened? What’d you see when you got to the room?”
“You know I can’t say anything.” I rubbed my hands together and held them out to the heat.
“She has to ask,” Tasha said as she came out from the office next to the reception desk. “I told her we couldn’t tell her anything until the police took our statements.”
“A girl has to try,” Candy said. She raised her hand and snapped a cell phone photo of me warming my hands.
“Hey,” I protested and grabbed a tissue. The difference between hot and cold had left me with a runny nose. The Christmas tree twinkled in silent disapproval. “No pictures.”
“We’re in a public place.” Candy snapped a second picture.
Tasha stepped in between her camera and me. “Oh, stop it. Toni didn’t do anything but call the police. I know. She was with me all morning.”
“Fine, let me talk to Maria.” Candy headed toward the office.
“No.” Tasha put her hands on her hips and stopped the overzealous reporter. “The office is private property and off-limits.”
“Oh, come on, you know I’ll be talking to Maria whether it’s now or later,” Candy said.
“I’m opting for later,” Tasha said and pointed toward the lobby door. “Why don’t you go bug the cops?”
“It looks like they’re bringing out the body,” I said and pointed with my chin. The lobby windows revealed a flurry of activity.
Candy hurried out to capture pictures.
“That was convenient timing.” Tasha sent me a look.
“Calvin needs to know who the room was registered to and if you have any security footage.”
“Yeah, I figured.” Tasha’s baby blue gaze grew concerned. “It’s not good news, Toni.”
“No?” I drew my eyebrows together. “I didn’t recognize the dead guy. . . .”
“Good,” Tasha said. “That’s what I thought when I saw your face. I was worried, but when you didn’t look stricken I figured whoever had died in that room was not who was registered.”
A bad feeling crept down my spine. “Who’s the room registered to?”
“Your brother, Tim.”
“Oh no.” I sat down hard on the couch closest to the fireplace.
“I know.” Tasha took my hands in hers and rubbed them. “With your brother’s juvenile record, this doesn’t look good.”
“I don’t understand.” I cocked my head. “Tim s
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