by Margaret S. Hamilton
This never before published story is the first of this year’s Christmas mystery short stories in KRL. At the end of the story Margaret also shares a fun guest post about baking Christmas cookies as a family.
“Lizzie Christopher, you haven’t returned my calls!”
Lizzie was on her hands and knees on the floor of the local food market, perusing the bottom shelf. She saw two poison-green duck shoes and looked up to red corduroy slacks embroidered with candy canes, topped with a Christmas sweater festooned with gold rope trim and hung with small ornaments and tree lights. She grabbed a package of rice off the shelf and struggled to her feet. “Patricia, what a nice surprise and what a pretty sweater!”
“Where have you been? And why haven’t you answered my phone messages? I even resorted to texting you.” The rector’s wife considered texting as indecent as cleavage exposure in church.
Stan, the market owner, called from the back room.
“Hey, Lizzie, I’ve got your order packed in boxes.”
Lizzie waved her thanks and smiled at Patricia. “We’ve been at a soccer tournament all weekend, returning to town late last night. My apologies, we were out of cell range most of the time.” She pulled a list out of her purse and squinted at it. “The throw pillows for the church Christmas boutique are finished. I’ll clip loose threads and insert the pillow forms this morning, and deliver them, the table runners and tree skirts, to the Parish Hall by noon. Will that be acceptable?”
She continued before Patricia could respond. “I made a commitment to bake twelve dozen raspberry snow bars in six batches. Plans have changed and I am to do the preparation and baking in the church kitchen.” She checked her list.
“My assigned time is four to six this afternoon.” Lizzie looked up. “It’s inconvenient, but I’ll do as you ask.”
Patricia began to sputter. “But the ingredients…did you read my e-mail about the ingredients?”
Stan joined them and showed Patricia a spread sheet. “Everything you need for every single cookie is listed. The shipment just arrived – all the chocolates, bittersweet, semi-sweet, and milk, in bars, chips and chunks. Dutch process cocoa, candied fruits, coconut, nuts, jams and preserves, eggs, sweet butter, flour, brown, confectioners and regular sugar.”
“How…how did you do that?” Patricia asked.
Lizzie smiled. “Easy. As a new member of the boutique baking committee, you sent me a complete set of recipes. I assembled the ingredients into one shopping list and fired it off on Saturday.” She patted Patricia on the arm. “I heard that the local stores were stripped of every kind of baking supply, so I contacted Stan.”
“Well, I’m sure Stan’s products will meet our exacting standards,” Patricia said. “That’s one less crisis I have to deal with today.”
“Of course, I shop here all the time,” Lizzie said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll pull my van around back and load up.” She and Stan walked towards the back of the store. She turned and called over her shoulder. “Is the parish hall open?”
“Push the intercom button, and the secretary will let you in. I have a long list to get through before I make it over there.”
“Don’t we all,” Lizzie said to herself.
Lizzie thanked Stan and headed out. She’d looked forward to a weekend of out-of-town soccer games, free of her Christmas boutique obligations. Lizzie had worked long hours with the seamstress at the interior design shop she managed, making the holiday accent pillows and Christmas tree skirts. People paid a premium for the items, the monies raised used for a variety of St. Paul’s parish outreach programs. She hadn’t had time to respond to the many people who had alerted her about the ingredient shortages. The messages made no sense. The stores should be stocked to overflowing with colored sugars, candied fruits and cookie cutters the first week of December.
She dropped off the boxes of supplies at the church. Patricia’s husband, Ted, the rector, helped her carry everything inside. “You’ve saved the day, Lizzie,” he said. “Thanks to you, the boutique cookie bakers will get everything completed today.”
At mid-day, Lizzie called the church secretary, and requested that someone meet her in the parking lot to receive the interior décor accessories from the shop. She waved as she made a fast getaway. Lizzie’s decorating customers required attention, especially those who needed their new window treatments installed and reupholstered furniture delivered before holiday parties.
Later that afternoon, Lizzie pulled into the empty parish hall parking lot. The place looked deserted. “Good,” she thought, “I’ll have the kitchen all to myself.” She heaved milk crates out of the van, packed with everything she used for baking – measuring cups and spoons, large bowls, a powerful hand mixer, glass baking dishes and her own ingredients. Rummaging for equipment or supplies in an unfamiliar kitchen would slow her down. Like a carpenter, she worked best with her own tools.
Two children exploded out of the bushes surrounding the parking lot, shrieking as they chased each other in circles.
The girl looked about four-years-old. She pointed to the parish hall kitchen. “In there. She made us wait outside.” She looked up at Lizzie. “We’re hungry. Can we have something to eat?”
The boy was younger, jet-propelled, but not yet talking. He patted his tummy and picked his nose.
“Let’s go inside and find your mother.”
They ran ahead of her. The parish hall door was ajar, the interior hallway dark. “Odd, the church secretary is always here till five.” She lined her crates up against the wall and walked towards the kitchen. She could hear someone opening drawers and cabinets and moving stacks of stainless steel mixing bowls. The children raced into the kitchen.
“Belle, we’re here. The lady let us in. We’re hungry. Can we go home now?” the girl asked.
“You’re supposed to call me “Mommy,” remember? I told you kids to wait outside. I’m still looking for something,” Belle said. She continued to open drawers. “What lady are you talking about? There’s nobody else here. Are you telling lies again?”
Lizzie tiptoed up the hall. The church office was closed and locked. She wondered how she could get Belle and her children out of the parish hall. Lizzie shook her head in frustration. She called 911 and spoke to the dispatcher.
“Female intruder in the St. Paul’s parish hall kitchen. She left her small kids in the parking lot, so I brought them inside.”
Lizzie eased her way back down the hall towards the kitchen, and continued to eavesdrop. The children whined about a snack. “Keep quiet, both of you. I can’t leave until I find their recipes. I don’t understand how they did any baking.” Lizzie heard Belle make a phone call. “I’m in the parish hall kitchen. They’ve been baking cookies all day. Where did they get their supplies? You told me our group had bought up every bar and bag of baking chocolate in town. But I smell chocolate, luscious, expensive chocolate.”
Lizzie finally understood the reason for the baking ingredient shortage in town. She heard Belle slam what sounded like her phone on the stainless steel countertop. Lizzie knew many of the kitchen cabinets would be locked. She heard Belle yank on the cupboard handles and kick the locked pantry door, before opening the refrigerator and rummaging through it. Lizzie hoped the boutique items and baked goods were locked in a Sunday school room upstairs.
Officer Bethany Schmidt opened the parish hall door and called out. “Lizzie, are you here? What’s going on?”
Lizzie pointed towards the kitchen. “Hello, find what you were looking for?” she asked, as she walked through the doorway.
Belle grabbed something from a drawer and slammed it closed. She held her arm down at her side. “Where do you keep the cookie recipes?”
“Are you on the boutique baking committee?” Lizzie asked. “I thought I knew everyone on the list.”
“You know I’m not,” Belle said with a snarl.
“If it isn’t Isabelle D’Arcy,” Bethany said, as she entered the kitchen. “Causing more trouble? I hear you left your boyfriend’s kids unattended in the parking lot. Not a good idea. It’s almost dark.”
“Mind your own business,” Isabelle said.
“I’ll tell the station I’m bringing you in for questioning and ask them to alert Child Protective Services.” Bethany thumbed her radio.
“All right, I’m leaving,” Isabelle said. “Come on, kids, we need to go.” She balanced the boy on her hip, and pushed the girl towards the door.
“Not so fast,” Lizzie said. “What’s in your other hand?”
Isabelle’s face flushed. She smacked a pair of kitchen shears down on the counter.
“Why do you need the parish cookie recipes?” Lizzie asked. “They’re a closely held secret. It’s the church’s major money-making project for the year.”
“They’ve cornered the cookie market,” Isabelle said. “My group can’t get any orders. Everybody buys from St. Paul’s.”
“Why shouldn’t they? The proceeds are for charity,” Lizzie said. “Are you baking as a fund-raiser?”
“We’re baking for profit,” Isabelle said. “We’re all stuck at home with small children. Jericho’s the kind of place where people pay good money for home-baked goods, especially if they can pass them off as their own.”
“So you’ve organized a baking venture, perhaps with delivery?”
“What’s it to you? You’re as big a snoop as that fat cow Patricia.”
“Lizzie, you don’t know the half of it,” Bethany said. “This so-called cookie caper has been going on all weekend.” She pulled out her notepad and flipped through the pages, reading her notes.
“Isabelle complained that St. Paul’s had a monopoly on Christmas cookie sales. She arranged to use the community church kitchen for her group’s baking activities and reported St. Paul’s to the county Board of Health for selling cookies baked in private homes.”
“Now I get it,” Lizzie said. “That’s why all baking activities have to happen here, in an inspected kitchen. And then Isabelle and her cronies stripped the shelves in the local stores, so the St. Paul’s bakers wouldn’t have any supplies.” Lizzie glared at Isabelle. “I overheard you on the phone.” Lizzie turned to Bethany. “Now she’s determined to get her hands on the church recipes.”
Lizzie brushed past Isabelle and turned on the ovens. “I’m here to bake twelve dozen cookies, thanks to you. Otherwise, I’d be at home with my family.” She hauled her plastic crates in from the hall.
She leaned against the counter and crossed her arms. “I can’t start until Isabelle leaves.”
“You people have no idea what it takes to get a business up and running,” Isabelle said.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Lizzie said. “The Main Street merchants have an active mentoring program for new businesses. I’d be happy to refer you.”
“Just stay out of my life,” Isabelle said.
“Then stop interfering in ours,” Lizzie said. She picked up the scissors and clicked them. “A lethal weapon, in front of the children?”
“Isabelle, I’ll let you off with a warning and follow you home,” Bethany said. “If I ever see your kids unattended, I’m charging you with child endangerment.”
Lizzie locked the parish hall door behind them, and returned to the kitchen to organize her baking. She held her breath as she separated twelve eggs, one at a time, before she pulled out her hand mixer and two bowls. She creamed shortening, sugar and egg yolks, and then added flour to make the crusts for her bar cookies. She patted the dough into six glass baking pans and slid them in the ovens. Lizzie missed working at home, enjoying a glass of wine with her husband, the commotion of teenagers and dogs in the background.
She grabbed another bowl and beat the egg whites to stiff peaks while gradually adding sugar. The kitchen filled with the aroma of almond flavoring she’d added. She lined up the six pans with baked crusts on the counter, and spread each with raspberry preserves, topped with coconut. Lizzie swirled the egg whites over the coconut, and returned the pans to the oven, deep in thought.
She fumed as she gathered up her equipment. Isabelle didn’t care about the kids. She was irresponsible. What was wrong with her boyfriend? Was he not aware of her behavior? Lizzie also sensed that Isabelle had catering experience. She’d been clever enough to rent a commercial kitchen and report St. Paul’s to the county health inspectors. But if she was experienced, why did she need the cookie recipes?
Lizzie dumped her mixing bowls, spoons and spatulas in the sink and squirted them with liquid detergent. Bethany called to report that Isabelle and the children were safely home. Lizzie turned off the water and propped her phone up, on speaker, to continue their conversation. She glanced at the coffee travel mug Isabelle had left behind.
“There’s something bugging me about Isabelle,” she told Bethany. “All her posturing about a young mothers’ baking collective doesn’t ring true. I would have heard about it from the Main Street merchants and offered my help with the marketing and promotion end of things.” She rinsed and wiped her cooking equipment and loaded it back in the plastic crates as she continued talking. “Several women in Jericho cater hors d’oeuvres, meals, and desserts. There’s never been an issue about their working from their home kitchens.”
“Based on previous cases you’ve meddled in, your gut instincts are usually correct,” Bethany said. “What do you suggest?”
“I know DNA testing takes months and is expensive. Isabelle left her travel mug on the counter. How about running her finger prints? She endangered the children and ransacked the kitchen to steal the cookie recipes. We still don’t know how she got inside and why the secretary was gone.”
Lizzie wrapped the mug in a paper towel and sealed it in a large zip lock bag. She pulled six pans of fragrant raspberry snow bars out of the ovens, the meringue tops crisp, with a hint of color, and left them to cool on the countertops. Patricia would return to the parish hall kitchen after dinner to inspect and store them. She loaded up her van and headed for the police station to drop off the mug.
Bethany Schmidt dropped by the next morning. “Your instincts were correct, as usual. We ran prints on the mug through IAFIS and got a hit.”
“She’s not Isabelle D’Arcy, is she?” Lizzie asked.
“No, she’s a fugitive named Darcy Bell, wanted in connection with her previous chef boyfriend’s poisoning murder in New York a few years ago.”
“Hiding in Jericho, with two small children as her cover.”
“We picked up Darcy and have her in custody. We’re waiting for lab results on the parish hall kitchen before we charge her. She’s demanded a lawyer and isn’t talking. We’ve notified New York to start the extradition process. Any idea if she put poison in the food supplies in the parish hall kitchen?”
“The cupboards and pantry were locked. I remember hearing her rummage around the refrigerator,” Lizzie said. “Make sure they check everything inside it.”
Bethany turned to leave. “Darcy stole her chef boyfriend’s recipes. She might have been searching for the parish cookie recipes, after all.”
“It’s one way of starting a restaurant,” Lizzie said. “Get some workers and a commercial space, and start a catering business. With restaurant-quality recipes, she’d be established in no time. Weed out the unsatisfactory workers and assemble a solid kitchen crew.”
Lizzie shook her head. “It was a good business plan. Start small, gain a local following, and then swing the financing to open a restaurant. But she needed cookie and dessert recipes.”
“What about the church secretary?” Lizzie asked.
“She had a dental appointment. She let Darcy in to use the bathroom just as she was leaving.”
“Sorry to tell you,” Bethany said, “but we confiscated your raspberry snow bars. I know you used your own ingredients and equipment, but we can’t take a chance.”
Lizzie sighed. “Safety first.” She had an idea. “Can you give me the names of Darcy’s kitchen crew? I’ll have them help me bake another batch, here, in my kitchen.”
Lab tests revealed that Darcy had put weed killer in the milk and cream in the parish hall refrigerator. She was charged and transported to the county lock-up to await trial. The Ohio Governor, in conjunction with the State Prosecutor, would make a final decision about her extradition to New York.
Darcy’s current boyfriend kept custody of his children. Isabelle’s crew of young mothers was delighted to be part of the St. Paul’s boutique, helping serve and clean up while their children were cared for in the church nursery.
Patricia, resplendent in burgundy velvet with gold reindeer earrings, announced that the combined sales of Christmas cookies and boutique items were the highest on record!
by Margaret S. Hamilton
Cookies are one of the best things about Christmas. In early December, my daughters and I comb the annual Washington Post feature article with recipes for at least twenty cookies. I make up a shopping list for all the kinds of chocolate, dried fruits and nuts for the cookies we plan to bake. After the kids arrive, we crank up the music and transform the kitchen into a cookie production line. The dogs are always underfoot, their black noses dusted with powdered sugar. I’ve discovered the pleasures of nutella-laced cookies, and those with chocolate chunks and chopped pecans. Bar cookies made with jam, and sweet chocolate and coconut cookies.
I grew up with cookie cutter sugar cookies, which were stored between layers of wax paper in a tall tin can, dispensed for dessert after dinner. I have a similar cookie can on my kitchen counter, available at all times. We still make sugar cookies decorated with colored sugars. I use my mother’s vintage Mirro cookie press to make large quantities, when speed and high output are essential.
When my children were young, I dealt with extreme cookie competition at school events. Cookies had to be homemade from scratch; I was branded as a slacker if I contributed anything else. The kids and I made rice krispie marshmallow treats sprinkled with red and green sugars, and a cereal-peanut butter-chocolate chip concoction sprinkled with powdered sugar called puppy chow, though it’s not safe for dogs.
Christmas cookies represent the comfort of the familiar, and the thrill of the new, exciting, and different. And lots of memories.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories (with more Christmas ones to come) in our mystery section.