Mystery Short Story: The Muffin Lady

Feb 18, 2023 | 2023 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Paula B. Mays

This story has never before been published.

As she drove through the city, Alma stopped to admire the cherry blossoms blooming at full peak and starting to shed. Floating white petals were sprinkled all over the city. In the early morning as the sun rose, the petals mixed with the dew looked like little white tears.

Alma parked her truck earlier than normal. Her restaurant permit allowed her to park her mobile muffin bakery right in front of a large K Street law firm. She drank in the serenity. Soon the area would be busy and noisy. Alma turned the ignition off, went to the back and retrieved all her utensils needed, and started mixing ingredients.

As the first muffins were coming out of the oven. The street smelled of cherry trees and muffin spice. As the sun burst through, sleepy eyed workers began to line up.

One of the first customers, a regular, was a well-built middle-aged man with light brown hair and sharp features wearing a custom-made blue suit and light blue shirt. His shirt reflected the blue in his eyes. His hair was freshly cut like a beautifully manicured lawn. Everything about him was manicured and well-kept.

He sniffed the air. “Good morning, Alma. It smells as good as always. I’d like my usual raspberry,” Joshua Baker said.

Attorney Josh, as Alma called him, had been a regular of Alma’s since she’d started parking her truck in front of his firm. Most days, Josh ordered a raspberry cinnamon muffin, sometimes two. Josh was allergic to blueberries, so Alma made sure his muffins were cooked in a fresh batch with new utensils that hadn’t touched any of the blueberries.

“I couldn’t get through the day without you and your muffins,” Josh teased Alma.

He and Alma had a playful rapport. Josh, a well-respected patent attorney was fifty-three. He had one adult daughter who lived in Annapolis with her boyfriend. A divorced workaholic, Josh could be at times intense. He was a senior partner at the law firm of Smith & Díane, LLC. By all accounts, Josh had a comfortable life. He went on vacation to Europe twice a year. His daughter attended prep school, St. Tim’s in Baltimore. He lived in a nice home in McLean, Virginia. To an observer, Josh had nothing to complain about.

Over the years, Josh and Alma bonded over tennis and had become friends. Josh was an avid tennis player. Alma loved to watch Serena Williams and she’d become a fan. Their love of tennis led them to deeper discussions and Josh and Alma openly discussed issues of race and structural racism in America along with sports and other subjects.

Alma became like family. She went to Josh’s home for family gatherings and holidays. She and her daughter were regulars for Thanksgiving and important events. After some banter about the latest match of Rafa versus Djokovic, Alma handed Josh his muffins and they smiled and bid one another good day. Josh said he’d see Alma tomorrow same time.

# # #

The next day brought spring rain, so the air was cool and damp. Despite the rain, Alma’s usual arthritis was not a bother. She was in her late sixties, but her smooth brown skin and abundant energy belied her age. Alma opened the truck window. An array of umbrellas, in what looked like a Seurat impressionist painting, amidst the colorful flowers, stood in a straight-line formation. When Alma finally looked at the clock hanging in her truck above the oven, it was 9:15, almost time to close up. Josh hadn’t shown up, yet she noticed. She’d made him a fresh batch of muffins and had intended to give him an extra one on the house. She’d just finished icing them when she noticed that Tina, Josh’s paralegal assistant stood in line. rain

“Is everything ok with Josh. He hasn’t shown up today. I have an extra muffin for him,” Alma said.

Tina waved her hand. “Oh yea, he’s busy setting up for a big meeting tomorrow. He told me to tell you he’ll be here in a bit. He has a big order for tomorrow,” Tina said.

“Ok great,” Alma said.

As the line of purchasers dwindled and still no Josh, Alma became concerned. She called his cell. No answer. By ten o’clock, the rain had stopped, and blue skies burst through. Alma was about to begin cleanup. As she wiped the oven and while her back was turned, Josh called to her. Alma turned to find Josh the sole customer in line. She was startled by his appearance. He seemed harried. His clothes were disheveled. The bags under his eyes evinced fatigue. He’d only partially shaven and gray strands of hair jutted from his chin. He looked different than the debonair man she knew. His tone was curt. “A dozen blueberry muffins, please, Alma.”

Alma furrowed her brow. “But Josh, blueberry? Are you sure? You’re allergic … you look terrible.”

Josh looked up and down the street then looked back at Alma.

“Alma, just do as I say, please. I don’t have time to argue. I have an important meeting tomorrow. A dozen blueberry muffins,” he said.

“Ok, but you can tell me if something is wrong. You know that, Josh,” she said.

“Just the muffins, Alma.”

Alma, stunned at his coldness, complied and put the blueberry muffins in one of her signature white boxes, which bore the trademark: AlmaMufs ®.

“I made some raspberry cinnamon and set them aside for you.”

Josh twisted his mouth, agitated.

“I don’t want them. Just the blueberry, hurry, please,” he said.

Alma handed him the muffins.

“Thanks,” he said, snatching the box from her hand, and scurried off.

Alma remembered that Josh had a big patent litigation case coming up. Maybe it wasn’t going well and he was just cranky. She knew he’d sometimes slept in his office when preparing for important cases. That must have been it she reasoned.

Alma closed the store window for the day and drove home. She spent the rest of the day doing paperwork and organizing her finances. The muffins were bringing in good business and her bank account, along with her retirement, were in good shape, better even than when she was working. Alma felt grateful. She’d worried about growing old alone. She’d divorced years ago and had to work to support her daughter as a single parent. She’d faced discrimination at her job by her supervisor who’d called her the N word and refused to give her good assignments. She’d won a claim against the agency, but she’d been subject to retaliation and kept from advancing. The muffin truck had been a Godsend.

“I should have done this long ago,” she thought.

She felt a peace she hadn’t felt in sometime, the type of peace that comes from being free from financial worry.

fireplaceWhen she tired of paperwork, Alma, schlepped into the living room with her fuzzy pink slippers and sat on her couch and propped her feet up on the coffee table. She grabbed the remote and flipped through the TV channels in search of entertainment. She landed on the local news channel. Reporter, Jan Smith, one of Alma’s favorites, held a microphone to her mouth. She wore a grim expression. Alma sat up straight and turned up the volume on the television. There on her screen, Josh Baker, her Josh, lay on the floor of what appeared to be a conference room, in the same rumpled suit she’d seen him in earlier. Another reporter stationed outside the law building, continued in a staccato voice that prominent attorney Joshua Baker had been found dead in his K Street law firm. His assistant, a young woman had found him. There was no official word, but it appeared to be suicide, as the police had found a note and an empty bottle of pills. The reporter said an autopsy would follow.

Alma couldn’t move. Her mouth hung open. She sat riveted, still gripping the remote, as tears fell off her cheeks and into her nightly herbal tea. She didn’t know what to do, whom to call. Josh? Her friend, Josh? Dead? It couldn’t be. Committed suicide? That wasn’t possible.

# # #

Alma tossed and turned all night dreaming and reliving the last time she’d seen Josh and how he’d strangely he acted. By morning, Alma felt exhausted. She almost stayed home, but she decided she needed to get to K Street to find out what was going on. Alma dragged herself out of bed and put on her clothes. She grabbed a low-cal yogurt from the fridge on the way out; too many of her own muffins went right to her hips.

When she pulled up to her usual spot, customers waited in line to order like any other day. Some from offices in the same building as the firm whispered to each other and exchanged condolences and Josh. Still others gossiped about his committing suicide.

Steve Jacobs, one of the attorneys in the firm, a thirty-something-year-old with dark looks and green eyes stood in line. Alma was surprised to see him.

“Steve, what are you doing here? I’m so sorry to hear about Josh. I can’t believe it,” Alma said.

Steve shrugged. “I’m taking over the meeting he had scheduled, so I need to get some more muffins. Josh didn’t order enough. Life goes on. “
“But, what happened? Why would Josh commit suicide?” Alma asked.

“I think he did the only thing he could really, he stole a lot of money. He was in real trouble.”money

Alma frowned. “I don’t believe he did that,” she said.

“I warned the firm he was up to something. I told his paralegal Tina to keep an eye on him.”

“Tina, why would she need to keep an eye on him?”

“I’ve said too much already. Let’s just say I felt like it was going to explode soon.”

Alma tried to hide her shock. It had been a long morning. Alma felt spent. She drove straight home to a nap after her shift.

When she woke up, it was already six o’clock in the evening. She clicked on the television. The news showed an interview with the firm’s head partner, a man named Manny Lewis. Lewis said millions had been discovered missing from the account of a major client. They’d traced the money to an offshore account in Josh’s name. Alma sat with her mouth open. She couldn’t conceive of Josh stealing money and hiding it in an account overseas. Something didn’t seem right. The Josh she knew would never do such a thing.

After a few weeks, the DC police concluded their investigation and officially closed the case. They determined that Josh had committed suicide in horror of facing years in prison for the crimes he’d committed. Talk about Josh died down as if they just wanted to forget about the whole ordeal and everything went back to normal on K Street. The news moved onto new stories.

Josh’s death still gnawed at Alma like a nagging chronic tooth pain. Josh enjoyed life. He loved his work, his daughter, his tennis. A few days before his death, an animated Josh had told Alma how excited he was to be going to the tennis Regionals in Richmond, Virginia. He’d won all his matches, and he was favored to get to semi-finals. Josh even told Alma that he was ready to start dating again. The divorce had left him bitter, but things were starting to turn around. He was going to ask out a girl in his tennis club.

“I don’t believe it. I never thought I could fall for someone again. I haven’t been this happy in a long time,” Josh had said, beaming.

Why would he want to commit suicide? It didn’t make sense.

Alma decided she needed to speak to the police.

# # #

Alma walked into the dull gray police station and asked to speak to Detective Conway, the head detective on the case. The station smelled of stale McDonalds and sweat. A tall man with a weathered face introduced himself and shook Alma’s hand. He wore a nondescript brown jacket and blue pants. He was balding at the top. Alma guessed he was in his early fifties.

“What can I do for you, Ms. Greene?” Detective Conway said, pulling out one of the wooden chairs from a past era, next to his metal desk.

“Thank you for agreeing to meet me, Detective. I’m here to talk to you about Josh Baker’s death.”

“We’ve closed that case, Ms. Greene,” Conway said.

“Yes I know, I don’t think you should have closed it. I’ve known Josh for years. He was one of the most honest people I’ve ever met. He’d never embezzle money, and he definitely wouldn’t kill himself,” Alma said.

Alma told the detective how she had a muffin food truck and how Josh had been one of her regular customers and a good friend.

“Josh was happy, and everything was going well for him,” she said.

“I understand, Ma’am. I’ve been on this job twenty-five years. I found out a long time ago, you never really know what’s going on with a person, even someone you think you know,” Detective Conway said. “The autopsy concluded it was a suicide. We found a note. He’d ingested almost a bottle of pills. The evidence is overwhelming. Unfortunately, your friend got himself in some trouble, and he saw it as his only way out.”

Alma shook her head.

“No, it’s impossible. Josh would never steal money from his firm.”

Detective Conway looked at her. His face softened. “I know it’s upsetting and hard to take, Ms. Greene. Sometimes people surprise you. It happens all the time. I’m sorry. There’s nothing else we can do. We’re always happy when citizens come in though,” Conway said as he stood from his desk and extend his hand out.

Alma scooted her chair closer to the detective’s desk.

“Something strange happened before his death, Detective.”

Detective Conway raised his eyebrows.

“What?” he asked.

“Josh bought blueberry muffins from me that day.”

“What’s unusual about that?” Conway asked.

“Josh was allergic to blueberries. He told me that if ate even one, his face and throat would swell, and he’d break out in a rash. He carried an EpiPen. I even made sure his muffins weren’t cooked in the same batch. The day he died he purchased a dozen blueberry muffins. When I asked him about it, he was short tempered, not his usual self. I dismissed it as stress. I knew he had a big patent case coming up that he was working on, but something was definitely wrong. He didn’t even look like himself,” Alma said.

Detective Conway sat back down and turned his head to his computer as if to get back to what he was doing.

“That goes along with what we know about these suicide cases. People may start acting strange or even moody. Mr. Baker was about to be exposed. He was going to lose his law license and possibly go to jail. It’s sad, but in my line of work you see these types of things happen. Look, Ma’am, I appreciate that you lost a friend, but we can only go by the evidence,” Conway said.

Conway stood again from his desk and offered Alma his hand. Alma took his hand and shook it.

“Thank you for coming in, Ms. Greene. If anything changes and we need your help, we’ll let you know.”

“There’s nothing else you can do. You won’t investigate this case any further?”

Conway shook his head. “No, Ma’am.”

Alma left the police station dejected. A small dog scared Alma when it scampered in front of her and yelped. It seemed like a sign, Josh urging her from the grave? Alma nearly ran to her car.

# # #

Alma had gotten to know Josh’s daughter Christine, a twenty-five-year-old graduate student at the University of Maryland, who lived in Annapolis, Maryland. Christine, like her father, loved Alma’s muffins. Each year, she ordered a dozen of his favorites for her father’s birthday. Alma had sent some to Christine after her father’s funeral along with flowers and a note.

Alma called Christine and asked if she could go and see her. She didn’t want to add to Christine’s grief; however, if the police had gotten it wrong, his daughter had a right to know what really happened to her father. She also needed to clear his name. Christine said she was eager for Alma to come and see her.

When Alma arrived in Annapolis, she found one of the last parking spaces near the water. Weekenders seeking soft-shelled and live crabs milled the streets, strolling and looking in shop windows. Alma walked the block along the brick streets past the Queen Anne and Victorian houses with colorful tulips in the yard.

She knocked on Christine’s door, a wooden structure crafted in the early 1800s and painted green. Christine welcomed Alma with a hug.

“Come in, come in, Alma, I’m so happy to see you. My father thought so much of you,” Christine said, as Alma handed Christine one of her signature boxes containing freshly baked muffins Alma had made that morning.

Christine wore jeans and a t-shirt. She was an attractive dark blond with large eyes the same color as her father’s and long eyelashes. Christine escorted Alma to the kitchen, a white room with an old wooden stove in the corner. Antique decorative utensils hung on the wall. Christine invited Alma to sit while Christine brewed coffee. She opened the box of six raspberry and six lemon muffins and placed some in the oven to warm. Alma spotted tears rolling down the side of Christine’s cheeks as she opened the oven.

coffeeChristine filled two blue and white mugs with dark steaming coffee. She put them on the table next to a small silver container of cream and sugar in a bowl. Alma picked up the silver spoon, encrusted with a hallmark signifying the maker, Gorham, and stirred in creamer. The aroma of warm muffins and freshly brewed coffee filled the kitchen.

Christine spooned sugar into her coffee. “I’ve been so upset since my father died. I don’t believe he committed suicide. He’d never embezzle money from the firm. Dad wouldn’t steal a dollar from anyone. I’ve been trying to tell the police, but they won’t listen.”

“That’s why I wanted to see you, Christine. I don’t believe it either. I went to see a detective, but he told me there was nothing more he could do. Something isn’t right.”

Christine sat up in her chair.

“Something like what?”

Alma thought for a moment. “I’m not sure,” she finally said.

Alma told Christine about her father’s last visit and how he’d ordered blueberry muffins that he said were for colleagues coming to a meeting.

Christine frowned. “That’s really strange. My father would never do that. He couldn’t even stand the sight or smell of blueberries. He definitely would not have ordered a dozen of them. He would’ve insisted on something else for a business meeting.”

“Had your father had any disagreements with anyone?

Christine shook her head. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m just wondering what could have happened. If we want to find out what happened to your father, it looks like we’re on our own. Was your father not getting along with anyone at the firm?”

Christine thought for a moment then she said she’d only heard her father complain about one colleague, a new partner, a man named, Steve Jacobs.

“Dad worried that Jacobs was too ambitious and that he’d do anything to get ahead.”

“He came to my truck the day after your dad died. He didn’t seem too upset about it. He said your dad stole a lot of money,” Alma said.

Christine’s mouth was agape.

“He said what? He gave dad a bad vibe. I think he wanted dad’s clients.” She looked up from her cup at Alma. “You don’t think he could have been involved do you?”

Alma shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”

“Dad’s paralegal, Tina Caruthers, knows everything that goes on in the firm. We could talk to her,” Christine said.

“Great idea. I’ll go and see her. She knows me from the truck. She may be more willing to open up to me than Josh’s daughter. I’ll make an excuse. Alma paused. “I know, I’ll tell her you asked me to pick up your dad’s personal effects.”

“Good idea,” Christine said. “I’ll call her and authorize you to pick up my dad’s things.”

Christine and Alma finished their coffee and shared memories of Josh. When Alma got up to leave, Christine hugged her and thanked her for caring.

“You’re the only one who believes me that my dad is innocent.”

“We’ll find out what happened,” Alma said, not know if she could live up to this promise.

A few days later, when Christine gave her, the go-ahead Alma phoned Tina Caruthers.

“Oh yes, Christine told me you were going to call. You can come by today and pick up Josh’s things,” Tina said.

“I’ll be there in an hour,” Alma said.

Alma drove her own car instead of the muffin truck so that people wouldn’t think she was open for business. A sour-faced guard with a round belly buzzed her into the law firm’s lobby. He directed her to the elevator to Josh Baker’s old office.

When Alma walked in, the paralegal wasn’t at her desk in the sunny spacious outer office.

“I’ll be with you in a minute. Just let me get some boxes for you to put Josh’s things in,” Tina called out from Josh’s office.

Alma walked over to the bookshelves near Tina’s desk. She perused the collection of dictionaries and handbooks. Alma also spotted a selection of medical books arranged on surrounding bookshelves.

A few moments later, a petite young woman in her thirties with long dark hair appeared carrying empty boxes. She wore a lot of make-up and very high heels. She would be described as attractive except for the excess make-up, like she was trying too hard to impress.

“Wow, what is a lawyer doing with all those medical books,” Alma asked.

“Josh handled a lot of medical patent cases. He needed medical books to understand the science. We have a lot more interesting books in Josh’s office,” Tina said.

“Really,” Alma said.

“Yea, I learned a lot working here,” Tina said.

“I’ll bet.”

Tina said she’d been Josh’s paralegal for the last three years. They’d had a great working relationship, she said.

Tina escorted Alma to Josh’s private office a large sleek minimalist looking room with modern furniture and lined on one side with bookshelves filled with books about Intellectual Property law and more medical books. A large steel, Scandinavian-like desk sat in front a floor to ceiling window. The room was bright and airy, yet it smelled to Alma of unresolved death.

Tina pulled open the empty boxes she’d brought into the office and started packing Josh’s things in them.

Alma had only been in his office a couple of times, and she remembered the tall windows. She pictured Josh sitting at his desk working. Alma looked over and spotted a mug behind one of the books on the shelf. She smiled. Josh had gotten the mug along with a trophy at the tennis regionals in 2019 in Richmond, Virginia. The mug read, Finals Regionals Tennis 2019. Alma thought about how proud Josh had been of winning that title. She grabbed the cup and stuck it in her purse.

“I can’t believe Josh would have killed himself. Not the Josh I know,” Alma said.

“We were all surprised,” Tina said.

“Did you notice anything different about him recently?” Alma asked.

Tina thought for a moment. “No, not really.”

“What do you know about Steve Jacobs?” Alma asked.

Tina stopped packing and looked at Alma.

“Why do you ask?”

Alma shrugged.

money“I don’t know. It’s just that when he came to my truck, he was really weird about Josh’s death. He said Josh stole a lot of money. He acted like Josh deserved to die. Christine said Josh had gotten a bad vibe from him.”

Tina looked around the room. Then she spoke in a whisper. “You know since you asked. I’ve been too afraid to say anything to anyone. You don’t work here so I can tell you. I heard Josh and Steve Jacobs arguing in the conference room. They didn’t know I was there.”

“When was that? What were they arguing about?” Alma asked.

Tina finished packing the box. She pressed tape across it and sealed it.

“A few days before Josh died. I couldn’t hear all of it, but Josh was saying something about patent information being secret and that Steve would be in real trouble if he’d let any information slip. Steve said he knew about Manny. He said Josh had better give him the big patent case or he’d be sorry. At that point I walked in, and they stopped talking.”

“Do you know what they were talking about? Who’s Manny?” Alma asked.

Tina shook her head. “Manny Lewis is the managing partner of the firm.”

“Oh yea, I saw him on TV. What did Steve mean he knew about Manny?” Alma asked.

Tina hunched her shoulders. “I don’t know. Steve looked pretty mad. He picked up Josh’s coffee mug. It looked like he was going to throw it at him. He was still holding the mug when he stormed out. His face was bright red.” She paused. “A few days later, I found Josh. I’ll never forget him lying on that conference room floor like that with his head on the table, not moving.”

“Did you tell any of this to the police? Do you think Steve could be responsible?” Alma asked.

“I don’t know. I told the detective who came to interview everyone at the firm. He made a note of it. He said it sounded internal then I never heard anything else,” Tina said.

“Josh ordered blueberry muffins from me that day. He was in a bad mood. The whole thing seemed strange. You knew he was allergic, right?” Alma asked.

Tina nodded. “Yea, I knew. We all love your muffins and have our favorites. Steve Jacobs said the client insisted on blueberry for the meeting. He went to Manny and demanded that we get blueberry. I volunteered to go get them, but Josh said never mind, he’d take care of it himself. He was furious and stormed out to your truck to get the muffins.

Alma twisted her lips. “I see,” she said.

“I don’t know how much longer I can stick around here. I was engaged, you know, but we broke it off. Now Josh’s gone. It’s all too much,” Tina said.

“I understand. I’m sorry about your engagement,” Alma said.

“He wasn’t the man I thought he was, I caught him cheating on me.”

“It happens.”

Alma collected the two boxes and thanked Tina.

When she got home, she opened the packed boxes. Christine had given her permission to look through them.

Alma strummed through the legal pads, pens, an iPad, and other odds and ends. There in the box was Josh’s working life, all twenty years he’d dedicated to the firm.

That night, Alma dreamed of Josh stuffing money in his coat, eating muffins then choking.

# # #

Alma decided to do laundry, a chore she hated, before delving back into the boxes. As she folded her last load, her cell rang. She put the clothes in the basket and answered the call. It was Josh’s paralegal.

“Tina, how are you?” Alma said, wondering why she’d called.

“We’re still adjusting here at the firm. Steve Jacob’s has taken over Josh’s office. He’s going to take some getting used to as he’s not Josh. But, I didn’t call to complain about Steve. Listen, I was cleaning up Josh’s office for Steve, and I remembered I hadn’t given you his favorite coffee mug. The one he won at the tennis regionals. I thought Christine might want it. I can’t find it anywhere in the office though. I know it was in Steve’s office that day they were arguing, but I’m not sure he gave it back. Everything happened so fast right after that,” Tina said.

“Oh, yes, thank you. That was thoughtful, Tina. I saw it on the bookshelf and grabbed it while I was there,” Alma said.

“Oh, whew, great. I was worried it’d gotten lost during the transition,” Tina said.

“No worries. I have it, and I’ll take it to Christine,” Alma said.

Alma removed the mug from her bag and looked at it. She’d take it along with the other stuff to Christine over the weekend. When she held the mug up in her kitchen light, the mug appeared to have been cleaned, but there was a distinct blue stain on the inside bottom of the cup.

“Hmph, I wonder what that stain is, I don’t think Josh drank tea,” she said.

# # #

Alma packed away the mug but the blue stain nagged at her like a persistent fly buzzing around her nose. It was the color blue of the stain that bothered her, like the blue from her muffins when she stained her own utensils after baking.

She phoned Tina. She was sure there was a silly explanation.

“Tina, that mug you gave me had a strange blue stain on the inside rim. Do you know what that could be?”

“No, I don’t recall seeing any stain,” Tina said. “Of course, I didn’t really pay that much attention to Josh’s mug.”

Alma felt silly for asking so many questions about a mug, but she continued on.

“You said Steve Jacobs had threatened Josh with the mug when they had that argument didn’t you?” Alma asked.

“Yea, but I think he was just angry. I doubt if it meant anything,” Tina said.

There was a pause. Then Alma spoke.

“Tina, did Josh work with any chemists?”

“Yea, I think so, let me pull up the client list. Why?” Tina asked.

“I just need to check something out.”

Alma waited, her mind swirling while Tina searched.

“Yea, here’s the name of the chemist we use as a patent expert. Why do you need a chemist?” she asked.

“I’ll let you know if I find out something,” Alma said.

Alma hung up and called the chemist Tina had recommended and explained what she wanted.

“Sure, I’ll take a look at it,” the chemist said.

Alma didn’t tell him it was Josh’s cup she wanted him to examine in case there was nothing to it. She told him it was for a study she was doing in a class.

The chemist called Alma a week later. He had news for her. He’d found the presence of salicylates on the inside of the cup.

Alma sat breathless. She forgot what she’d been doing.

“Sali— what? What does that mean? What are they?” she asked.

“Salicylates. It’s a compound naturally found in berries.”

“Berries? Like blueberries?” Alma asked.

“Yes,” he said. “That’s where they’re commonly found.”

“Is it possible someone could be allergic to salicylates?” Alma asked.

“Yes, in fact, people who are allergic to blueberries, that’s what they are allergic to, the salicylates produce an active ingredient.”

“Do you know how salicylates could have gotten in a cup?” Alma asked.

“There were berries in the cup. The stain was blueberries. I couldn’t tell you how they got there without more information though.”

“Thank you, that helps a lot,” Alma said.

Alma visited Tina to tell her the news. She showed Tina the chemist’s report. “Do you know how blueberries could have gotten into Josh’s cup?”

Tina hesitated. “I didn’t want to say anything, but I saw Steve walking around with that cup. He said he was coming to return it.”

“Oh My God!” Alma said. “Do you think Steve did it? Do you think Steve killed Josh?”

Tina shrugged. “It’s starting to look that way.”

“I’m going to the police,” Alma said.

“But the police didn’t listen to us before,” Tina said.

“This time is different. I think we’ve got something solid now. I’ll call Detective Conway and tell him what we’ve discovered,” Alma said.

“I can come with you,” Tina said.

“No need, I think we may have enough for them to reopen the case. Thanks for your help, Tina,” Alma said.

Alma spoke to the cleaning lady on the way out.


“You’re back, have a seat, Ms. Greene,” Detective Conway said.

Alma showed Detective Conway the chemist report and told him about the argument Steve and Josh had before Josh’s death and how Steve had been seen with Josh’s mug. Conway examined the report.

“I see. Maybe you’re on to something,” he said, smiling at Alma. “You’re persistent. I’ll give you that. I’ll look into it.”

Alma felt more hopeful that they’d get to the bottom of what really happened to Josh. Conway called a few days later. They’d ordered a new autopsy that showed the compound salicylates in Josh’s system. Josh had suffered an allergic reaction before his death. They deduced that as his throat had started to swell and while his mouth was open, someone held his head and shoved pills down his throat to make it look like suicide. Josh Baker had been murdered. The police would continue their investigation. He told her they’d keep her apprised.

On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks later, as Alma watched a movie her phone rang. It was Detective Conway.

“We’ve charged Steve Jacobs and Manny Lewis with murder and embezzlement thanks to you. The law firm is very grateful. Manny confessed to the embezzlement of millions of the firm’s funds. Most of the money has now been traced. We’ve charged Steve Jacobs with the murder of Josh Baker. Jacobs admitted to blackmailing Josh, but he denies murdering him. He said he knew about Manny’s embezzlement and that Josh was protecting him. He told Josh he wanted his biggest patent cases, or he’d tell everything. He said he had nothing to do with the stained mug. He said he found the cup in his office one morning. He thought Josh had left it there after a meeting. He says he returned it to the paralegal, Tina. He doesn’t recall it having any stains. He said the paralegal was his former girlfriend, and they didn’t really get along. Steve says he just walked in and handed her the mug and left. He’s still our chief suspect though,” Conway said.

# # #

Tina, dressed in a short skirt and false eyelashes, appeared at Alma’s truck to purchase muffins for her new boss.

“A box of the blueberry and lemon please, Alma. We have a staff meeting,” Tina said.

Alma confronted her. “By the way, I’m glad they cleared Josh’s name. Steve Jacobs denies killing Josh though. He says he found Josh’s tennis cup in his office one morning and returned it to you and that’s how his fingerprints got on the cup. He said he didn’t remember seeing any stains on the cup,” she said.

Tina’s face contorted.

“Who cares what he says. That creep’s going down for murder and blackmail. He’ll say anything to save himself,” Tina said.

Alma handed Tina the box of the muffins she’d requested.

“You’re probably right.”

“I hope he gets what he deserves,” Tina said.

Alma stared at her.

“You told me you saw Steve walking around with Josh’s tennis cup after they’d had a fight, like he seemed as if he was going to hit him with it. You said Steve picked up the mug and walked out. That wasn’t true, was it? I spoke to the cleaning lady. She remembers Josh’s mug being on his desk one day, and the next day she saw it on the bookshelf when she went to clean. You put it there I think, Tina. Everything you’ve told me has been a lie. I think you killed Josh. That’s the only thing that explains all your lies. How could you do such a thing? I’m calling Detective Conway,”

Tina, still holding the box of muffins, pulled a gun from her purse.gun

“You need to learn how to mind your own business. You’re just like your friend, Josh, too nosy for his own good.”

Alma gasped. She looked around the street. Tina was the last customer in line, and the street seemed empty. The only sound was the periodic rustle of a leaf.

“Josh should have just given me what I wanted.”

“What you wanted? What did you want from him? Why did you kill him?”

“I found out about the embezzlement. I told him I knew he was covering for Manny. Josh offered me a hundred thousand dollars to keep quiet. What a joke. I told him it wasn’t enough. I needed three million if he wanted me to keep my mouth shut. He said no way and threatened to go to the police. He wanted to know how I knew about the money.”

“How did you know about the money?” Alma asked.

“Steve let it slip one night in bed when he was drunk. Steve Jacobs and I were engaged. No one knew. He told me how Manny had stolen millions and Josh tried to protect his friend. Steve was blackmailing Josh. He promised to marry me once he got the money from Josh’s big patent cases. He said we’d be rich, and I could have anything I wanted. Then I caught Steve cheating on me. Creep. I knew I couldn’t trust him. You can never trust men. When Josh refused to give me the money, I figured out how I could punish both Josh and Steve. No one plays me for a fool. Manny was just coincidental,” Tina said.

Alma shirked. “So, you poisoned Josh’s coffee. Then you shoved pills down his throat? How could you do such a thing?” she asked.

Tina laughed a piercing sound that reverberated on the quiet street. She moved the gun back and forth.

Alma felt chills run down her spine.

“I learned a lot from those medical books you saw. I found out how a blueberry allergy could kill someone. I made my own special blueberry sugar in the coffee grinder. I mixed it with regular sugar, a recipe I found. Did you know blueberry sugar is popular now? It looks just like regular sugar if you grind it enough, ha, ha, ha. I only needed a little to do the job, another thing I learned from those medical books. I put that stained mug there, so you’d see it when you came to get his things.”

“You made sure Steve’s prints were on that mug. You saw the chance to set-up Steve if the police started asking questions about the suicide.”

Tina laughed again.

“Too smart for your own good.”

Alma shuddered. “How did you get Josh to take the pills?”

“I shoved those pills down his throat when he started choking from the blueberries. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to hold his head back and push those pills down.”

“You signed his letters all the time, so you just wrote up a little suicide note,” Alma said.

“Poor old Josh, his reputation and law career ruined, ha, ha, ha. He had no other choice but to kill himself,” Tina said.

“How do you think you are going to get away with this?”

“Luckily, I got my three million wired to my account just in time so I can get out of here,” Tina said.

“How did you get a hold of the money?” Alma asked.

“Josh gave me the account numbers as he lay there on the floor gasping before I gave him the pills. The poor stupid soul thought I’d have pity on him and save him if he gave me the account numbers. What a fool.”

“Now you know too much, so you’re going to have to go,” Tina said.

“You’ll be caught though in the middle of the street.”

Tina looked around.

“No one’s watching. I’ll be on my way to the airport before anyone even notices you here,” Tina said.

“Where are you going?” Alma asked.

“Don’t you worry about it. It won’t matter where you’re going,” Tina laughed.

Detective Conway appeared just as Tina raised the gun and pointed it at Alma.

Alma sighed. “Cutting it close don’t you think, Detective?”

“Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to let her shoot you. My people would have gotten her first.”

Two undercover police who’d been hiding in the truck and had been listening and recording the entire conversation rose with their guns drawn. DC Metropolitan police appeared from every direction and swarmed the scene. A shocked Tina was dragged away protesting.

“No, no, no. I had it all planned,” she screamed, as her head was shoved into the police car.

# # #

“What are these muffins I keep hearing about? I’m going to have to try them,” Detective Conway said to Alma as he took her statement.

Alma handed the detective a box of freshly baked raspberry muffins.

“These were Josh’s favorites,” she said.

“I think this might be the start of a beautiful friendship,” Conway said.

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Paula B. Mays is a native of Washington DC; Trademark Attorney; Masters in Public Health (MPH), and is presently working in the healthcare industry; Vice President of Sisters in Crime, (SINC) Chessie Chapter. She enjoys writing mystery novels and short stories. Published novel set in Spain, Murder in the Parador; Completing second novel in the series starring detective Marco Cuevas. This is her first published short story. She presently lives in Arlington, Virginia.

1 Comment

  1. This is a fun read, with a surprising and satisfying twist at the end. Paula has a story-telling gift, with an ear for character revealing dialog. Enjoy!


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