Just when Vangie Vale’s life was getting back to normal…
…after a murder that rocked her little Rocky Mountain tourist town, she found herself in the middle of another murder… as the chief suspect.
Vangie stood shocked on the side of the curb as the sheriff stretched yellow crime scene tape around the front of her new bakery. Wouldn’t this make a lovely headline in next week’s paper: Local Pastor Poisons Parishioner With Pudding. Vangie’s road back to good graces as a part-time pastor was bumpy enough already. This would be a road block. Can’t have that.
Don’t miss a moment of Vangie’s new adventure.
This book was first published as Vangie Vale and the Strangled Strudel. This is the second edition.
RECIPE INCLUDED: The Strangled Strudel
“I loved this series from the first book, but I adore it even more with each new one. The characters are becoming more real, and the plots even more twisty! Can’t wait for the next one!”
“Be prepared to escape in a suspense that will capture you till the very end! Ms. Syme didn’t disappoint me! She sure knows how to grab your interest by leaving clues everywhere! Lovers of 'who dun it' of cozy mystery suspense are in for a treat. Following Vangie is so much fun!”
Saint Agnes, Montana
A sour veil of smoke filled every crevice of my little Montana town. The normally crystalline skies were dull and brown, and handwritten warnings were posted on most business fronts to watch for fire danger. Danny Murphy at the feed store even extended his ring of no-smoking-around-the-building out into the parking lot, which sent all the farmers out to their trucks to smoke in isolation.
Everyone was on edge. Everything could burn at a moment’s notice.
At the Matchbakery, which was the first business on the two-lane highway into Saint Agnes, I decided not to resort to scare tactics, but my shop neighbor, Emma Brent, had an unusually strict No Smoking Anywhere on This Property sign tacked up on the door of Saint Agnes Agates and Gifts.
Or Else was implied.
I figured if they smoked on the asphalt, we’d be copacetic. But I still had an emergency evacuation plan and carried everything important around in the Tank with me. My big green Hummer was parked in the first stall next to the big picture window instead of across the big lot, just in case.
As a transplant, I’d never lived through a fire season in the mountains before, where there was dry forest on every side of every road and every building. I wasn’t taking any chances.
The sheriff stopped by my bakery, and the sight of Malcolm Dean’s tall, broad-shouldered frame and typical white cowboy hat made me chuckle to myself. He really was the John Wayne of small-town sheriffs. He was also a sight for sore eyes. Even though we were neighbors, I hadn’t seen much of him since the fire season had started more than a month ago.
He’d had too many late nights, and I had early mornings for prep at the bakery almost every day. The one day he consistently took off—Sunday—was my other main work day.
Malcolm nodded at Nadine Winters and the coffee ladies, and at the table of farmers off in the other corner who’d started to call the Matchbakery their morning home. They all wore plaid and green hats and jeans, and they only ever drank black coffee. I loved having regulars.
One of the John-Deere-capped men stopped Malcolm before he got to the counter, and I came around the big white-wood-framed bake case to greet him.
“I hear they’re going to close the road to Rolo,” Cal Koenig was saying as I approached. Malcolm tipped his wide-brimmed white cowboy hat in my direction without saying a word, and Cal continued. “They’ve gotta give us notice before they do these things, Sheriff. My wife will be stuck on the other side of the valley if they do.”
“I haven’t heard that yet, Cal,” rumbled Malcolm in his customary deep growl. “But it wouldn’t be a bad idea to head back home for a while. There’s a new fire up Ruby Ridge, and it’s only about twenty percent contained.”
I stuffed my hands in my pockets, puffing up the front of my apron. I still didn’t know the geography of this area well enough to know where Ruby Ridge was, but I had to assume the two men looked concerned because it was close. Yet not close enough to evacuate.
“But the Feed Store doesn’t open until eight,” Cal argued, pointing at the clock on the wall. It was barely seven-fifteen, and I’d just opened.
“Then get what you need there and get on home. They haven’t closed the road yet, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. And it may be a split-second decision, so you’d be best off getting back to Janice.” Malcolm nodded at Cal and touched my arm, pointing off to one corner of the bakery where there were no people.
I followed, swallowing the nervous energy that threatened to crop up. I hadn’t been friendly enough with Malcolm lately to warrant a drop-in. It felt ominous for him to show up like this. Like he was about to drop bad news.
“Evangeline,” he said with a nod, like he was greeting me for real this time.
“What can I do for you, Malcolm?”
“I wanted to check in on you. Make sure you have your evacuation plan ready, in case something happens.” He held that big Stetson of his against his leg, looking for all the world like a throwback to another time when men with six shooters prowled the streets of the Old West.
“I do.” I pointed to the big picture window next to my door. “I posted it at all the exits, just like we were told.”
“Good.” His shoulders dropped, tension releasing. “I want you to keep my number on speed dial, just in case, okay? You’re our only business owner who hasn’t been through a fire season before. If we have to evacuate, it could happen fast.”
“Got it.” I almost saluted him, but it would have felt disrespectful. He was doing his job. He wasn’t the friend who’d sat with me, trying to parse out a rich woman’s disappearance over custards. I hadn’t seen that friend in months and wasn’t sure how to get him back.
This was the sheriff through and through.
“Emma has been through this before,” he said, nodding toward the wall that I shared with Saint Agnes Agates and Gifts. “If you need anything, you go to her. Or you call me, personally. Don’t put it off.”
I almost responded with something about Derek being here all the time. In fact, if Malcolm didn’t leave soon, he and Derek would cross paths for really the first time since we’d started dating. For some reason, the words just wouldn’t come out of my mouth. I wasn’t sure why the thought of them seeing each other bothered me, but it did.
“Thanks, Malcolm.” I reached for his arm as he moved to walk away. “Do you have Chandler right now?”
The reference to his son made him stiffen, and he paused, pursing his lips before he turned back to me. “He’ll be with his mother until this is all over.” His voice was so low, I almost couldn’t hear it. “She lives in Madison Falls, so there isn’t as much danger as we have here.”
“I was going to offer to help with him if you needed it,” I kept blathering. Why wouldn’t I shut up? Seriously, Vangie, he’s uncomfortable enough already.
“I don’t need it.” There was a sharp edge in his tone that made me take a step back.
Clear as crystal. Don’t talk about Chandler.
I crossed my arms over my chest and took a little step backward. “Want some coffee before you go?”
“No. I’ve got more businesses to get to.” He fidgeted with his hat and then stuffed it on top of his head and gave me a nod. “Be safe. Keep your phone on you.”
And with that, he was gone. He strode through the bakery, nodding at all the customers in turn, and didn’t look back when he went through the door. I knew Malcolm was stressed. We all were. But seeing him here reminded me of those moments when I’d felt most at home in Saint Agnes. It struck me that he’d usually been a part of that. I felt completely safe with Malcolm around.
I put on a new pot of coffee, assuming that either the farmers or the coffee ladies would polish off the last of the current pot in a few minutes. Thanks to Beth, the baking was done for the morning, but I still had to move the cooled pastries into the bake case, and replenishing the stash did take a bit of time.
Derek Hobson walked through the door just as I was returning the cooling rack to the kitchen, and a little smile lifted the corners of my mouth. I hid in the door of the kitchen and allowed myself to gawk a little as he walked through the tables greeting the customers. He still had that Brock O’Hurn look, with his long hair and glowering eyes. The light beard. The muscles for days.
We’d worked out a compromise where he didn’t come to work until closer to eight o’clock, since I had Beth to do the baking and the first hour of business was slow. It was better for him to get his rest and be at the bakery for the middle of the day, when I’d have more customers.
He took his apron off the hook, pulled me behind the patch of wall between the open kitchen doorway and the pass-through window, and kissed me good morning.
I pushed at his shoulder. “Not in front of the customers.”
“They’re not watching,” he said with a smirk, pulling the apron over his head and tying it around his back. He wore the customary robin’s-egg blue Matchbakery T-shirt that all the staff now wore on-shift, and together we looked like a matching set.
“Oh, you know these busybodies.” I slipped the refrigerator door open, pulling out the half and half and the two-percent milk. “They’re always watching.”
He just grinned at me as he took the dairy out of my hands and went to the condiment bar. My phone buzzed in my back pocket and I pulled it out. The call was from a number I didn’t recognize. An 843 area code. After a moment of consideration, I shoved it back into my jeans without answering. Patience was a virtue, but I hated talking to telemarketers. If it was someone from the church who really needed me, they would leave a message.
After Derek brought back the milks and re-stowed them, he checked the sugars—all part of our morning routine. Stocking, checking, prepping. There would be a bit of a rush starting soon, with people stopping in on their way to work and school. Now that the Matchbakery had really taken off, I got to see a lot of the people in Saint Agnes at some point over the course of the week. It made me feel like a real part of the town.
Because of our proximity to a major national park, we also had plenty of tourist traffic, and while there’d been a noticeable drop-off after Labor Day weekend, the visitors weren’t quite done with us for the year. Still, we’d halved our baking after over-preparing for a few days, and we were now back to the pre-tourist-season levels.
With the traffic change and the fires close, Saint Agnes felt a bit like a ghost town these days. It was an adjustment, no denying it.
My pocket started buzzing again just as the bell over the door rang, announcing the arrival of the big Dekker family. There were seven Dekker children, stair-stepped up from five years old to sixteen, capped off by two harried-looking parents. They lived in the mountains, but they were Thursday regulars. They stopped in for breakfast whenever they drove into town for a supply run.
Karin Dekker had long, mousy brown hair that she always wore up in a knot at the top of her head. Today, though, it flowed around her shoulders, and I could’ve sworn she was wearing makeup. She looked beautiful.
Her husband Hank herded in the children, who all huddled around the bake case, talking about the treats in hushed voices. On their first visit, several months ago, the kids had all wanted the Matchbaker treatment, something that had made their parents visibly nervous, like it was some sort of psychic thing. By now, they all just picked their own treats. The offer to read people’s body language, eye movements, clothing, and facial expressions, and Match them to an item from the store was really only appealing to the tourists anymore—which I was grateful for. Trying to Match seven different kids to seven different pastries had been a challenge, to say the least. At the time, I’d barely had seven different kinds of pastry in the bake case.
Now that Beth worked five days a week, I had all kinds of new things on display. Danishes, muffins, strudels, tarts, doughnuts. It was a veritable banquet compared to the sparse offerings arrayed in the case on the Dekkers’ first visit.
My phone continued to buzz as the Dekker family inspected the treats, and I took it out while Derek got out a stack of plates. That same unfamiliar number. I almost answered this time, but if it was someone who actually wanted to talk, now wasn’t a good time. I stowed my cell and washed my hands in the little silver sink at the edge of the kitchen so I’d be ready to retrieve the Dekkers’ pastries. They practically got one of everything—one cinnamon roll, one donut, one cheese Danish, one cherry Danish, one caramel roll, one croissant, and one strudel. I busily filled plates and made small talk with Hank Dekker.
When I looked up to ask Karin if she wanted the usual, I couldn’t find her face in the crowd. Her oldest daughter looked so much like her, I almost got them confused for a second, but Hank looked around and shrugged his shoulders.
“She must have gone to the ladies’ room.” He waved his hand in the direction of his children. “I’m sure she’ll have the usual.”
“I figured,” I said, pulling one of the covered bowls of rice pudding from the case and sliding it across the counter to him. Karin was celiac, and since most of my treats were stuffed with gluten, the rice pudding was an obvious choice. It was my offering to the occasional gluten-free people who came through the door. She rarely ate more than a few bites, and I always asked her if she wanted to take the plastic container home, but she never did.
Derek passed over the last of the pastry plates, filled with a decadent, oozing, sugar-frosted apple strudel. One of Beth’s specialties now. Hank gave a smile and left his cash on the counter as he carried the strudel to the table. The kids had already scampered over with the rest of the plates.
I brought around a couple of white porcelain coffee cups and set one at Hank’s spot. Before I could place the other one beside the rice pudding in front of Karin’s empty chair, Mr. Dekker waved me away.
“She won’t have coffee today,” he said with a sigh. Both Hank and Karin always looked tired, which was of course understandable given the size of their brood. But today, he was extra tired. The lines around his eyes had deepened, and he seemed more harried than normal.
I pulled the cup off the table and nodded. “Sorry about that. I just assumed…”
“Not your fault.” He gave me a tired smile. “She’s already had four cups at home, and that’s two over her usual limit. Do you have some water?”
“Tap water okay?”
“Sure.” He cut the strudel into bite-sized pieces and then slid it over to his five-year-old son, pulling one piece off the plate and slipping it into his mouth. “Apple this time?”
“Yes. Beth is experimenting. She tried blueberry, chocolate—”
“Ooooooooh,” said the five-year-old, smiling up at me with some strudel between his teeth. “Chocolate strudel?”
“You like chocolate?” I asked, kneeling down next to him. Asher, I think his name was. I always got the two younger boys confused. They all had biblical names, which surprisingly didn’t help. For a pastor, I got Abraham and Moses mixed up shockingly often. I had to give up the ghost: I just wasn’t the best with names.
“I want a chocolate strudel,” the boy said, with wide eyes.
“I’ll tell Beth to make some for next Thursday. We made the apple because Emma and her husband like it so much, and they always seem eat my leftovers these days. But for you, I will make chocolate.” I patted his head and pushed to my feet as Karin came around the table behind me.
“You don’t have to do that, Pastor,” she said.
“Oh, it’s no trouble. She’ll be making strudel, either way. Might as well keep experimenting.”
“Well, Emma has good taste. The apple is delicious,” Hank said, giving his son’s hair a ruffle. “Don’t you think, Ash?”
“Yes.” The boy stuffed another piece of pastry into his mouth and made an appreciative noise.
“I’d eat chocolate strudel,” said one of the other boys.
“Everyone eat the food in front of you.” Karin’s voice had a bit of a snap in it, enough to make all the kids turn to their plates.
“Well, let me know if you need anything else,” I said, taking the empty coffee mug back toward the counter and reaching for the carafe.
“Can I get some coffee?” Karin asked as I filled her husband’s cup.
I couldn’t help glancing between the two of them, having been warned about her caffeine limit. But the silence that descended felt strained and awkward, and it wasn’t my place to say anything. I just picked up the cup from the counter and brought it over, filling it not quite all the way full. Karin liked cream and sugar in hers.
Mrs. Dekker began to devour the rice pudding, and Mr. Dekker continued to sample off all the kids’ plates, and I didn’t ask any more questions. There was something off about the Dekker family this morning. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but I knew I didn’t want to be in the middle of it.