Excerpt from Apples and Alibis

At the end of the day, I looked around at my weary staff. Anyone would’ve been able to tell we were bone tired. Even sixteen-year-old Oscar, who’d tackled his first day at work with gusto, was stifling a yawn.

“Everyone did a wonderful job today,” I said. “May I count on all of you to be back next Saturday?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Oscar said. “I had fun.”

“I’m glad. Could I ask one more thing of you before you go?”

He nodded.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Luis try to hide a grin. He knew what was coming—it was our usual Saturday routine.

“Would you help me divvy up the desserts in the display case?” I asked. “New employees get to choose first.”

Oscar’s brown eyes danced as he hurried over to the display counter and chose chocolate chip cookies and brownies.

“Anything else?” I asked.

He glanced at Luis for approval. I could see that Luis was shaking his head, so I cleared my throat.

“Just this once,” Luis said.

“May I please have two pieces of the caramel apple pie for my parents?”

“Sorry, you’re going to have to take the whole half pie.” I shrugged. “We don’t do slices at the end of the day on Saturday. Whatever’s left has to go.”

“Thank you, Ms. Flowers.”

“Please call me Amy.”

The boys said their goodbyes and left, Luis with his arm around his brother’s shoulders. I smiled at their retreating backs.

“They’re sweet, aren’t they?” Shelly asked.

“They sure are.” I turned to her. “Shelly, won’t you please take this banana pudding home with you?”

“Honey, if I did, I’d have it eaten by tomorrow morning, and I’d be sick as a dog. Besides, I’ve got my figure to watch. Grandma always did warn me about the middle-age spread.” She waved as she headed for the door.

“Donna?”

Donna was our part-time waitress. “I’d love to take a few slices of that chocolate cake to Bill and the kids.”

I boxed up what was left of the chocolate cake and handed it to Donna. “Anything else?”

She shook her head. “This is more than enough. Thanks, Amy.”

“Thanks for coming in today,” I said.

“Glad to help.”

I turned to Jackie. “It’s just you and me. What are you taking?”

She blew out a breath. “We can’t eat all that. The boys should’ve taken more. I think Oscar was too shy, and Luis was trying to set a good example.”

“Well, I’m taking food out to Ms. Pridemore, so I’ll include the banana pudding with her order free of charge. It’ll be a bonus.”

“What’s up with that? Since when did we start a delivery service?”

“We didn’t.” I shook my head. “I wish she’d have talked with you, and then I wouldn’t be driving out there.”

“You’re darn right you wouldn’t. How’d she rope you into doing it?”

I lifted and dropped my shoulders.

“Let me guess,” Jackie said. “Guilt trip?”

“Pretty much. I could just imagine it being Aunt Bess.”

“Wait a minute…Pridemore…” Jackie raised her eyes to the ceiling as she wracked her brain. “Pridemore…” She brought her eyes down to meet mine and then hurried out to the parking lot.

“What is it?” I hurried behind her.

“I was checking to see if the Ostermanns were still here. If so, they could’ve taken the food to Ms. Pridemore. They live in a mobile home on her property.”

“That’s right. I’d forgotten about that. Their farm is actually her farm, isn’t it?”

Jackie nodded. “I heard they have some kind of lease-to-own deal, or that they get the farm after Ms. Pridemore dies or something. But, yeah, they could’ve taken the food.”

“Maybe she didn’t know about the farmers’ market…or didn’t realize it was in our parking lot. Still, how weird is that? The first time she ever calls us for food—and begs me to deliver it—her tenants are here.”

“Yeah, that sounds fishy to me. Want me to go with you?”

“No. I’m sure it’s all right. She’s probably just old and stubborn,” I said.

“Still, you’ve never met this woman before. And what if she has a big mean dog or something?”

“I told her I would call when I got there. If nothing else, maybe she can come out to meet me.”

“I still don’t like it,” Jackie said.

“Fine. You can come along.”

 

 

After we dropped the rest of the desserts off at my house, I drove Jackie to the Pridemore house. Before we got to the property, we saw signs directing people to the corn maze. It reminded me to make this a quick visit so that Jackie and I didn’t get blocked in or caught up in the traffic.

The large, white farmhouse set about a hundred and fifty yards off the road. I couldn’t see a mobile home or the corn maze from Ms. Pridemore’s driveway, so I guessed the woman must have quite a bit of acreage.

I requested my Bluetooth device call Ms. Pridemore as we neared the house. There was no answer.

“Oh, well…I don’t see any dogs around,” I said. “Do you?”

“No. And surely we’re close enough that they’d be running out barking by now.”

“We’ll just go to the front door then.”

After getting no response from Ms. Pridemore at the front door, we decided to go around back. From the back of the house, we could see the corn maze, the apple orchard, the garden, the barn, the mobile home, and other small buildings on the Pridemore property.

I knocked on the back door. Again, no answer.

“Let’s just go,” Jackie said.

“But all this food…” I shook my head and tried the door. It was unlocked and opened easily. “Ms. Pridemore! It’s Amy and Jackie from Down South Café!”

There was a strong, almost overpowering musty odor in the room. I pushed the door open farther and saw Ms. Pridemore slumped onto the kitchen table, an overturned coffee cup by her left hand.

I thrust the box toward Jackie and hurried into the room. “Ms. Pridemore!” I kept calling her name as I patted her arm and tried to rouse her. I noticed that her fingernails and lips had a bluish tinge. “Jackie, call 9-1-1.”

“Already on it,” Jackie said.

I looked around to try to figure out what had caused Ms. Pridemore to collapse. My head was starting to ache, and given the odor in the house, I thought maybe there was some sort of gas leak. I noticed that the stove was on. There was a Dutch oven on one burner, and it was on low. The pot must’ve contained only water, however, because it had evaporated. That or Ms. Pridemore hadn’t put anything in the pot. I wondered if she suffered from dementia.

I turned the oven off and moved the pot to the kitchen sink. There were no other dishes in the sink, and the room was tidy. I didn’t hear any hissing, and since the stove appeared to be electric instead of gas, I didn’t think that was the problem.

“The paramedics are on their way,” Jackie said.

“I sure hope they hurry.”

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