Just when you think you’re turning over a new leaf… surprise! It’s the old leaf.
Yeah, I can’t help myself. Even when I’m on vacation in the Outer Banks, if there’s even a sniff of a crime… even the whiff of a murder… I can’t help but get drawn into it. In another life, I should have been a cop. Instead, I’m gonna follow this tattooed guy with a gun all the way down this beachy road because he said something weird in the bakery once.
It’s like I’ll never learn…
(RECIPE INCLUDED: The Dismembered Donut!)
This book used to be titled Vangie Vale and the Dismembered Donut and this is the second edition.
“I really enjoy this series and it's one of my favorite cozy mystery series...Vangie is such an interesting character and feels so realistic, I really enjoy reading about her.”
Outer Banks, North Carolina
“This isn’t funny,” I kept repeating. The monstrosity of teal shutters and white clapboard loomed in front of me. My father had always insisted that it was a copy of the Matchbakery. It was… nothing like my old bakery in Montana.
The surrounding day was gloomy and gray—not unusual for a Tuesday in the middle of February. However, this experience would have been much improved by beachy sun and blue sky.
My sister, Priscilla Vale, stood next to me, in her fashionable a-line flower-print dress and heels, nodding her perfectly coiffed blonde head. “I told you so.”
“It just isn’t funny.”
“I mean, she’s not—”
“She realizes what—”
“The….” I took a breath. “Snatchbakery?”
Cilla giggled. “Every time you say it out loud, it gets funnier.”
But I couldn’t stop shaking my head. Marveling at the idiocy. Even a rudimentary knowledge of modern jargon would reveal that snatch was not a word you wanted to use in the title of anything related to food.
“Here’s what she said to me when I asked her,” Cilla said, passing a hand over her mouth. “She said, and I quote, they’ll think they can stop in and ‘snatch’ something to eat.”
I shook my head. “No one is thinking that.”
In a twist of fate, Cilla also hadn’t prepared me for it. When Laura or my father referred to their place of business, it had been the bakery. My sister never added anything in or corrected them. She probably wanted to see the look on my face when I read the sign.
I hadn’t stopped staring at it.
We had driven all the way down the island, almost to Cape Hatteras, on our way to my father’s new house, before I saw the first sign. When we pulled into Brighton—the all-year tourist town my parents had bought a house in—there was a sign for “Dirty Dick’s Seafood”, and directly behind it, a huge teal sign that read “Stop in the Snatchbakery”. I almost made a comment about the proximity of the two signs when it hit me.
That was Laura’s business.
My bakery was the Matchbakery. It took me a second to realize she was trying to be complimentary to me.
It felt like a bad joke.
Laura genuinely had no idea.
My dad came up behind me as Cilla and I stood on the sidewalk outside the bakery. He slipped his arm around my shoulders and kissed the side of my forehead. “Don’t say anything to her about it, Vangie. Just let it go.”
“But, Dad.” I couldn’t keep the idiots-all out of my voice. I was dumbfounded.
“It’s named. There’s nothing we can do now except profit off the curiosity.”
I held my tongue. I supposed he was right. This attention-grabbing thing. Might be onto something. My concept at the Matchbakery—come-in-and-I’ll-match-you-to-a-dessert—was a bit more esoteric than most tourists could handle, too. Of course, the fresh-baked macarons and donuts cancelled any worries about branding.
“Laura can’t wait for you to see the place,” my father said in a low voice as we ascended the rickety wooden stairs. “Be kind.”
That was like asking the Pope to be good. I was always kind. You can be snarky and also kind. I would kindly refuse to say anything, most likely.
I mean, I’m not a saint. But I’ll try.
The heavy door creaked as we entered. Everything at the beach seemed permanently in need of repair. The weather was never kind there.
Immediately, I heard hushed voices with some fervor behind them. I couldn’t find the source of the conflict, but the tones left no question. Someone was unhappy.
Dad must have heard it as well, because he tapped my shoulder and held up his hand, like he was gesturing for me to stay. My natural inclination was toward curiosity, so I wanted to see what was up, but my sister grabbed my arm, holding me in place while Dad went toward the back. I looked around the room instead.
The walls were wood laminate, like a 70s basement. Hanging all over them were giant shelves of kitsch. Commemorative plates, shells, jars, photos, balls, toys, dolls—and doll heads, y’all. What kind of serial-killer-nonsense is this?
“You gonna tell dad about the church now?” Cilla said, sobering the mood.
I let out a slow breath. I still hadn’t told my father the actual reason for my visit. After almost a month and a half of a semi-suspension from my old part-time job at the church, I’d decided not to go back.
It was my first day in the Outer Banks, but I’d been in North Carolina since Christmas. I spent a week with my family after closing down the Matchbakery back in Montana, then went to Durham for a month of in-service learning at Duke, and there I was, in my last days away before I had to make a real choice.
I was seriously considering not returning to the church when I went back to Montana, and I didn’t want to admit it.
“I’m not gonna tell him,” I said at last. I didn’t want Priscilla accidentally spilling the beans. I didn’t want my father to know. Not yet.
His eyes still lit up when he looked at me. I didn’t want his shine to go away.
“He’ll find out eventually, Vangie.”
“We’ve made it this far,” I said, plastering on a smile for whoever was watching.
Laura’s bakery was empty. Of course, it was two in the afternoon in the middle of the week in February, so it surprised me that they were even open. The Outer Banks was notoriously seasonal, and there were entire towns that shut down during the off-season. Brighton was one of the all-year-round towns, just before the turn down to Ocracoke. But still, most restaurants reduced their hours. Even if there were no customers, the staff would have to be paid to be in the building.
“In my kitchen, Walter!” came Laura’s voice, and then the slam of the back door. I couldn’t see either my father or my step-mother, and I wasn’t about to go back there and brave her anger.
“Settle down, Lor,” my dad said from behind the kitchen wall. A swinging door hid the entrance to the tiny kitchen but did little to hide the kerfuffle behind it.
“I don’t care if the girls are here. This is my business.”
“Lori! Hush now. They’ll hear you.”
“Let ‘em hear me. I’ve just about had it with him.”
Cilla and I exchanged a glance. There were no customers in the building to hear, but still…
Laura started in again, at a higher pitch this time. “This isn’t the first time he—”
“Stop it, Lor. Let’s go out and see the girls.”
She huffed and I could hear them shuffling something. “Give me a minute to settle down. I’ll be right out.”
My dad walked through the swinging door with a smile. “She’ll be out in a second,” he announced, like we hadn’t just heard them arguing. “We’re having… um… staffing issues at the moment.”
Cilla pulled on my arm. “Come and see the bake case, Vange. This is the one place I managed to get her to listen to me.”
I wove through the chairs and tables that were empty—some tables with crumbs on them still, and rings of coffee stains. The bake case was big and white and long, along the whole wall in front of the kitchen. It looked a lot like the one Priscilla had picked out for my place in Montana, which I’d dismantled before coming here. I still remembered it. Bright and crisp and pretty.
There were still moments where I missed that life.
Right in the middle of the case, on the top shelf, sat several lines of bright pink macarons. It brought a smile to my face just to see them. Whoever was doing the baking, I approved already.
There were purple macarons beside the pink, and teal next to that. She stocked a lot of products for an off-day. A pang of worry crested through my chest. If she made this many cookies fresh on Monday, they’d be too crumbly to sell before the end of the week, which was a waste of product. It didn’t look like they’d sold any yet this week. All the rows were still pristine. No cookies missing.
Not a good sign.
The donuts, however, looked ravaged. There were little rings of white frosting dotting the bottom rows of the bake case. Some chocolate rings. Lots of donuts selling here. But the fancy desserts along the top looked untouched.
“So sorry about that, girls,” came Laura’s voice as the kitchen door swung open again. Her wispy blonde hair seemed wispier, and her pointy nose seemed pointier, like all of her features had become more pronounced. Maybe with stress.
“Our afternoon help just left for the day.” Dad came up beside her and put his arm around her shoulders. “You can meet him tomorrow.”
Laura grunted, bringing more wrinkles around her nose and eyes. At the moment, I noticed how old my parents were, and then I felt aware of my age. Or maybe it was just the beach. The weather out there aged everything fast.
“Anything we can do to help?” I asked with a smile.
“No, let’s get you girls up to the house.” Laura shooed us both toward the door in her gooey Savannah accent. “You’re gonna love it.”
“You’re gonna leave the bakery without staff?” I asked.
“We’ll just close for an hour or so,” said my step-mother. “It’s the slow part of the afternoon anyway.”
I wanted to make a suggestion about closing normally in the afternoons. Letting her staff have the time off. But I didn’t. I hadn’t seen her bottom lines, and all I knew was, when we weren’t busy at my old bakery, I didn’t schedule staff. But maybe that was just me.
We stood on the rickety porch, staring at the empty highway that ran in front of the strange bakery.
My sister pulled out her phone and I saw Ty’s name pop up on the screen. “I have to take this,” she said, and stepped down the porch, away from us, saying hello to her fiancé.
“What should we do for dinner tonight?” my dad asked, like he had to fill the unnatural silence while Laura dug in her purse for her keys.
She was flipping the closed sign around and pulling the door closed when a horn honked. A giant pickup came barreling into the bare parking lot. Someone hung out the window, tattoos all up and down his arms.
“You’re closing?” asked the tattooed guy, hanging most of his body outside. A tank top in February was strange, even if you were from North Carolina. It wasn’t Florida.
“I can open back up for you,” Laura said, putting her keys in her pocket.
“Thanks.” The guy pulled into a weird angle, like it was his first time using a real parking lot. “I’ve been dying for a donut, and everywhere’s closed.”
“Not much open in the off-season.” Dad gave a tense smile with a pull at the edge, like he wasn’t happy stating this obvious fact.
Tattoo Guy climbed out of his truck and presented an even weirder picture. White tank top, Bermuda shorts, sandals. It couldn’t have been more than fifty degrees outside, but he was dressed for Myrtle Beach in July.
“I’m not from around here,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets. “Not used to the random hours.”
His eyes landed on my sister and he gave her an appreciative once-over, then smiled almost shyly. He didn’t make any sense to me.
“Y’know, there’s a Duck Donuts open in Avon,” I offered, before I realized what I’d said. My dad’s little intake of breath made me wish I hadn’t mentioned it.
“Nah, we’re staying close.” The guy waved his hand and passed through the door. Dad and I followed, like he was the only entertainment we’d see in these parts.
“Whereabouts you staying?” Dad asked.
“Just off Blackbeard.” The guy stood in front of the bake case, running his finger across the glass, over the donuts. “We’ve got a house right on the beach.”
“So do we.” Dad smiled, but the wrinkles hadn’t quite left the corners yet. “We’re probably just behind you. Warbler.”
“Oh, right.” The guy laughed, then poked the glass. “There. Those ones. The Krullers, right?”
“Right,” Laura said, sliding the case open. “Those there are Krullers.”
“You should really try the old-fashioned,” I said quickly, stepping in like I was matchbaking again or something.
Tattoo Guy gave me a side-eye. “Who are you?”
I held up my hands. “Just someone who knows a lot about donuts.”
He quirked a brow. “You work here?”
“I have a bakery,” I said, pointing at the old-fashioneds. “You just seem like the kind of guy who would want a little bit of a cakier donut than the Krullers. They’re pretty doughy.”
“Sold.” He swiped his hand across the whole right side of the case. “I’ll take all the donuts.”
“Got a big party with ya?” Dad asked, leaning back on his heels like an old man. I loved him, but some days, he was just such a dad.
“There are twelve of us.” The guy gave us half a smile and looked around the room. “Need a sugar fix.”
“You’re in the right place,” said Laura, boxing up all his donuts.
When he turned to one side, I noticed a bulge right in the back of his tank top. My stomach gave a quick turn-over. Wallet?
But he dug in his pocket when Laura told him the total, and the tight draw of his shirt over the section of his back showed the outline of what definitely appeared to be a handgun. When he stuffed the wallet into his other pocket, I noticed there was also still a bulge at the bottom of that one.
Who carried two guns in a beach town in North Carolina in February?
I had no answer. No explanation made sense.
It was plenty normal to have guns in vehicles and purses. Lots of people had concealed carry permits. But the placement and number was unusual.
When he took a step, I noticed something white on his foot, and shifted a little to get a better glimpse. A little white tag fluttered as he took a step, then caught back under his foot. A tag with a plastic loop, like it came from a store.
Nothing about his appearance made sense. Not for February, not for the Outer Banks, not for logic.
He made his goodbyes and left with two big boxes of donuts.
All I could do was stare after him and try to ignore the crawling, weird sensation in my stomach that wanted to make sense of the data I had just seen. The old Vangie would have followed him, gone down Warbler after his truck, trying to figure him out.
But new Vangie was turning over a leaf. The run-ins-with-the-law were all behind me and I hoped never to be involved with another law enforcement officer ever again. If I could help it.