Aunt Reba and The Donut Do-Over
“Aunt Reba, do you have any ten dollar jobs that need to be done?” When I didn’t reply immediately, Bonnie added, “It’s a dire emergency. If you don’t have any jobs now, I could work it off. How about I, ah, mow your lawn for two weeks?”
Leaving aside that we had a lawn service and inventing jobs to augment the financial shortfalls of nieces and nephews who are well into their teens was beginning to stretch my imagination, I said, “Oh, that sounds serious. What is the dire emergency?”
“Pool party Saturday, and I’ve been wearing the same two swimsuits so long, and I have almost enough money for the cutest swimsuit. And, ah, I asked them to put it aside for me.”
My siblings were prolific, their delightful children kept our otherwise childless home hopping, and their needs were definitely getting more expensive. It was a project I’d been thinking over for a better answer.
Yes, I’d do it.
“It’s time to begin Aunt Reba and Company, and you could be my first employee,” I said. “How would you like to apply for the position of assistant to the president with duties to include any and all of those necessary according to your ability? Pay will be, oh, let’s say, ten dollars a week while we are planning the company.”
“Ah, what’s Aunt Reba and Company?”
“Aunt Reba is me, naturally, and the company will be you and any of your cousins and siblings who are interested. Our business will be catering. Our office will be my kitchen where we will make food for our clients.”
“You mean you’ll give me ten dollars for ah, planning? Like, not actually doing anything?”
My siblings weren’t raising any dumb bells. She quickly noticed my expression and hastened to add, “Aunt Reba, I understand you are looking for an able employee for your company. I would like to apply for a position.”
I adjusted my glasses, in order to look down my nose for effect. “Please state your qualifications. I require someone who knows or is willing to learn about preparing, serving, and cleaning up afterward of innovative food for clients. Both business and selling knowledge is a plus for any new enterprise.”
“Aunt Reba, you are so funny.” Bonnie giggled, then stood with hands clasped and a blank expression on her face. “Ma’am, I have many years experience as assistant cook, server, and dish washer in my home. And cleaner up. Just yesterday I made three grilled cheese sandwiches for myself and the twins.”
“You’re hired. And I think I may have an idea what our first job will be.” I accepted my immediate hug, reached for my purse, and added, “When you bring your new swimsuit to show me, plan to stay an hour for your first training session.”
When I explained the situation to my husband, Charlie wasn’t too sure about the whole thing.
“You have one company already,” he said, referring to the photographs I sold to magazines and recipe books. “Or, maybe you want an even larger kitchen?”
“Heavens, no! I’ve already got the kitchen space. And the serving dishware,” I said. “And certainly a future crew, with a nephew in college, and Bonnie and all of her cousins in, or near high school age, not to mention all the cousins on your side. And I have a great idea for our first client. Didn’t you mention a meeting coming up soon?”
“No new kitchen, but a silent partner?” I smiled sweetly. He finally nodded. “They serve coffee and something sweet. I’ll ask somebody tomorrow.”
I handed him the telephone. “Okay, today,” he added.
After he made a few phone calls and pulled a few strings, we were in business. A week from Thursday Aunt Reba and Company would provide donuts and coffee for the Liars’ Club committee to complete plans for a neighborhood story fest.
But Charlie wasn’t through. “You know I’m program chair this year.”
“Yeah,” I said, mentally rejecting visions of serving coffee with song and dance. “So?”
“So we serve up a surprise. A little something unexpected.”
Turned out, song and dance wasn’t the vision of the Liars’ Club. Anticipated entertainment for any event could include some joke played on the assembled members. “How about donuts that don’t taste like donuts?” he asked. “Still tasty, of course, but something completely different. Nothing with nuts, of course . One of the men is allergic to cashews.”
What could I say? “You got it.”
Bonnie breezed in three hours later with her new swimsuit in a bag and a new recruit. She and her cousin Megan had gone shopping together, but it was Megan’s brother Derek, the oldest of the cousins, who came along.
And, he applied for a job. “You don’t really have to pay me,” he said. “It’s the experience I want. Starting a new business and learning how to make those decisions will be crucial to a course I’m taking in the fall.”
“Okay, then here’s the first decision,” I said. “Uncle Charles wants us to serve a fake donut, something that looks like a donut but tastes like something else. It will mean extra time and trouble, for sure. What do you say?”
“Oh, absolutely! That’s how you grow a business, being responsive to your clients’ needs. Go for it. All the way.”
I nodded. “Ideas?”
Our one hour training session turned into several more hours over the next three days until we perfected the perfect donut do-over. No hot peppers. No garlic. We ended up with a basic baked donut recipe flavored with brown sugar and cloves, studded with fried bacon bits, and covered with a maple syrup glaze. It was deemed acceptable.
Another of our executive decisions was not to use plastic throw-away serving pieces, but my large collection of one-of-a-kind pieces that I’ve accumulated over the years to vary my photos. Which meant still more work in the kitchen as everything would need to be washed instead of trashed. We also agreed on serving real cream in tiny pitchers.
“And sugar in the raw,” Bonnie said as she chose two sweetener packet holders.
“We only need one each for cream and sugar,” Derek said. “After all, we are serving a total of ten people.”
The kids were making executive decisions. Derek said the variety of cups and saucers would keep our business different. Bonnie added that using real dishes would keep the disposables out of the ocean. I thought of possible breakage of my collection and decided, in for a penny, in for a pound.
The meeting was held in the nearby community center’s all-purpose room. We had more than enough donuts and coffee for the ten creme de la creme of liars. One hoped they used up all their lies in the pursuit of outdoing other tall tales, and not in their everyday lives, for they included the Mayor, a Scout leader, a police officer, and a couple of business owners. Three had something to do with food, so I rather feared a few lies traded might touch on our coffee and donuts.
Although Bonnie, Derek and I were at the Community Building meeting room as the committee members arrived, they weren’t to be served until after their first half hour of meet and greet. Which was secret. Supposedly. We hid out in the adjoining kitchen and heard only a lot of laughter.
Supposedly secret, because Charlie had practiced his mini-roast on me twice, and he was the only one scheduled to speak. As a roast, it was mainly laudatory. Nothing really secret at all. Everyone knew about a mix-up at the police station, another at the restaurant where Sandra’s co-op provided the local food, and that George had allergies.
As we piled the donuts on plates, Bonnie whispered, “Are we going to tell them?”
Derek answered for me. “No, that’s the big joke, you donkey. Didn’t you hear Uncle Charles asked for something different?”
Was donkey the new word to denote superiority over younger cousins? I frowned at him, and he mumbled something that might have been, “Sorry.”
After we carried our refreshments into the room, Bonnie yanked my sleeve. “Oh,” she whispered, “I’m not going anywhere near Mr. Wilmer. He’s mean.”
What was that all about? So George Wilmer wasn’t the nicest man in town, by a long shot, actually, but… Handing the man a cup of coffee wouldn’t hurt the child. I’d deal with it later.
“Derek, you’ll serve coffee. Take the pitchers around and ask each one if they prefer regular or de-caf. Bonnie, keep the donuts coming if either of the plates runs out.”
However, our plans fell apart. Nobody sat at the table. They clustered around the side table, grabbing donuts and talking.
“Hey, what’s in this donut?” somebody asked.
“You can count on no nuts,” Charlie said. “The mysterious ingredients are part of the surprise I told you about. Informal contest, no prize. Accolades for the first correct guess.”
“Bacon, definitely bacon,” Sandra said. “Don’t you know, they put bacon in everything now.”
Charlie was enjoying the mini-controversy. “Ah, but what else?”
“Syrup,” the mayor said. “I do like my bacon with syrup. But what’s the spice?”
“Cloves? Really?” Fran was a foodie, so she couldn’t be fooled. “A ham sandwich, that’s what this is.”
“You can’t use bacon and call it ham,” someone else said.
Charlie beamed as most of the liars laughed or congratulated him on a successful joke.
Derek couldn’t contain himself. “All brought to you by Aunt Reba and Company!”
“With that, we’d better sit down and start our meeting.” As they pulled out chairs and settled down, Mayor Knute added, “George, you have something to say about our open mic session at the story fest.”
“You’re damn right I do. I say anybody who wants to tell a lie better pay for it. This idea of giving back to the community is for the birds. Why should I pay any part of a party for the damn freeloaders.”
I rather expected someone to ream him out, especially Sandra. But then, she’d calmed down a lot since our high school days.
Instead, it was Charlie who answered, a real put-down disguised as approval. “George, you sure can out-lie the rest of us pikers. Imagine, putting on a nasty face like that.”
Knute decided to go with Charlie’s comment. “Right. Well, George, you know we’ve voted on it. And you’ve had your say, so let’s set a date.” One thing about our mayor, he could always pour oil on troubled waters, a major reason he was always reelected.
At least George didn’t add any more to the contention. He sat arms folded, half eaten donut on his plate. The conversation flowed around him as Derek went from chair to chair, pouring each one’s choice of coffee.
I stepped back and watched my crew perform their serving duties. They’d listened well. Bonnie had transferred additional donuts to the serving plates using tongs instead of her fingers. Derek refilled the cream pitcher.
All was well. I headed for the kitchen. And heard a scream.
I turned back. George Wilmer had collapsed with his face smashed into his donut.
“What happened?” someone demanded.
“Get his EpiPen,” Charlie yelled.
Joe Teller, the police man, rushed to him and pressed his hand against his throat.
“I’m calling 911,” Mayor Knute yelled.
“He has no pulse.” Joe yanked him onto the floor and started CPR.
Was he allergic to anything else but nuts? “Don’t touch the food,” I muttered to my crew. Had to be a heart attack, but with his history, they’d test the food for sure.
Definitely had to be a heart attack. Or a stroke. The Chief would get his heart going. Couldn’t happen like this.
But what could have caused such a sudden attack?
It was only moments before the EMTs ran in, pushed Joe aside, and started doing the same thing. One of them began the questioning.
“What happened here?”
“Find his EpiPen,” Charles repeated.
“Probably too late,” someone muttered. But they did find it, and injected him as they continued the CPR.
“He just, he just collapsed,” Sandra said. “I wasn’t looking at him, so that’s all I saw.”
None at the table had evidently seen anything else.
“I saw him,” Bonnie said. “He sort of raised his hands. Well, one hand anyway. Then he fell over.”
“Which hand?” Joe Teller asked. “Did he seem to be reaching for something? Did his mouth move like he wanted to say something?”
“Ah, ah.” Bonnie stood there, opening and closing her hands slightly. “I don’t know. Ah, like this. I mean, sorta like this. Ah, I didn’t see his mouth.”
Bonnie was shy in the best of circumstances. She backed up, glanced around like she was about to run for cover. I did know where she had been standing moments before. “You were behind him, right Bonnie?”
Gratefully she nodded. “Yeah. Sorta.”
But Joe kept after her. “Then you didn’t see his face at all? Did you happen to see anyone else’s face? Any other action?”
What was it with the man? But Bonnie answered. “I was looking at the plates. To see if I needed to add any more donuts.”
Fortunately, two more police personnel arrived and claimed Joe’s attention. As the EMTs continued to work over George Wilmer, the police attention turned to other things. Questioning everyone, bagging all the food and the dishes.
“Hey, those dishes are mine,” I said. “Handle with care, please. And be sure to return them when you’ve completed any tests.” As he stuffed donuts in an evidence bag, I muttered. “Obviously the uneaten donuts didn’t cause the man’s death.” But he continued stuffing.
I began to see the benefits of using disposables. My head was aswirl. Would our first catering job be our last? Was George really dead? They’d carried him to the ambulance and were headed for the hospital. They’d keep trying to bring him back, but I’d seen them shake their heads.
Dead. Probably dead. Suddenly, for sure. Was it an allergic attack? Was he allergic to anything other than cashews? I know we didn’t feed him any, not even cashew oil. But it sure looked like what they call anaphylaxis to me. Although I’d never seen such an attack, I’ve heard about them. A person can go into extreme shock, sudden swelling, possibly the heart stopping. But who carries cashews around in their pockets to wave in someone’s face?
Which I couldn’t believe would actually kill anyone.
Had someone really murdered George?
No. Definitely, he suddenly became allergic to something else. Cloves? No, couldn’t be. Go with the most obvious—a heart attack.
My crew and I stood by, unable to do anything, mostly ignored by everyone. But so did the other Liars’ Club members. The police moved them around, divided them, questioned them while keeping an eye on us as well. We were background. Or, were we being held for more thorough questioning while they disbursed the others?
One cop had the Mayor cornered by the coffee urns. They must have started with him so he could leave earlier. He was, after all, a very busy man. But, could he have killed George? Did that accommodating pose hide the violence I once saw at a Little League game?
Of course not. Little boys grow up. If we judged by childish behavior, any of us could have done harm to another.
I glanced around. Most of us had known each other since childhood. George had always been confrontational, so he’d had his share of enemies. Although I was two or three years behind him in school, I remember a few uproars. Let’s see. He and the Mayor vied over sports positions. Quarterback, I think? Also, center in basketball. Something in baseball as well. Small town schools do have a limited amount of talent.
I remember something even worse. Somehow, George managed to halt a scholarship deal for Sandra. She and my older sister were best buds. I remember the weeping. The angst. And, the word, kill, was flung around repeatedly. But that was at least twenty years ago. Sandra got another scholarship the next year. Not as good, but okay. All peachy keen since then.
No, if murder was done, it was done by someone with a more recent complaint.
And, I’d eliminate my own husband. I know he’s not a killer, but if he were, even he would have a motive. Unfortunately, a rather strong motive. And it’s fairly recent. Two years ago. But, the less even thought about that, the better.
Would the police be so forgiving? But, I’m sure, if George pulled that con on Charles, he must have done similar things to others. Even more recently.
However, just maybe, I needed to point the cops in some different direction. Bonnie said George was mean. Of course, Bonnie wouldn’t kill the man, but she might lead me to a new suspect.
She sat nearby, chewing her thumbnail. I approached her.
She looked up. “Aunt Reba, they told me to sit here and not clean up anything. They hollered at me. Just because I wanted to empty the coffee cups.”
“They have to test everything, I guess.” I sat beside her. “What I was wondering… You mentioned that Mr. Wilmer was mean. Why do you say that? What did he do?”
She spat out the words. “He picks on my friend in Venturing.”
“Is that a class? But he’s not a teacher.”
“Well, not really a class. It’s after school and it’s sorta about business.”
“That’s it? He picks on one person?”
“Yeah, that’s the funny part. It doesn’t matter what she does, it’s always wrong.”
So he picks on a girl. Maybe a klutz. Not the answer I’m looking for.
“But it isn’t really funny. Just strange. Evil. Nina is really smart, and nice, and she comes up with great ideas, and when somebody else suggested the same thing a couple of days later Mr. Wilmer said it was a great idea, and a couple of kids started treating her mean, and she wants to quit, but it’s like a class, and Mr. Wilmer said if anyone quits they’ll never get a job in this town, which is crazy.”
“That wasn’t nice.” So, not a klutz. More like a personal vendetta. Just maybe, the guy deserved to die. Well, not the way he did. And definitely not at our very first catered event.
And obviously, neither this Nina, nor Bonnie in sympathy, for that matter, killed George. But why would anyone here kill him? How could they? If it was an allergy, it might have been air-borne, or something he encountered earlier today. Breakfast at home? His wife? Had I heard anything about their marriage?
Oh, yes, but it was a few months ago. She left him, but returned after he promised… what?
“Will you sign this receipt?”
I turned to see Joe Teller waving a paper in my face. “You know, for the food,” he said.
“How about a receipt for the dishes?”
“They’re still making that list. We’ll get it to you. Scout’s honor,” he said with a grin. I signed and he left, looking much too happy for the situation.
Why was he suddenly so happy? He’d had dealings with George that ended badly? Not unusual. He’d never kill the man himself, but… No, he wouldn’t. Not a policeman. He had responsibilities, just happy to be able to do his job, secure all possible causes of death, interview, ask questions…
Or remove any incriminating evidence.
No way. Joe Teller was way above any petty grievances. I mean, neither one of the men ended up with the girl they fought over not so many years ago. Both happily married with successful lives.
I turned back to the kids. Bonnie sat, biting her lower lip and rubbing her fingers. Derek scrolled through his cell phone.
“We’ll be out of here soon, I’m sure,” I said. “Obviously we don’t have to wash dishes. They’re taking them all away. And they better return them.”
“I wonder what they ask everybody,” Derek said.
Bonnie muttered, “I wonder why we have to be last.”
Derek shrugged. “We’re kids. Besides, we never even talked to Mr. Wilmer. Hardly anybody did. Uncle Charlie made that joke about him, but nobody came near him.
“Really? No one at all?”
“Not that I saw. You know, except sitting at the table. Hey, Bonnie, how was the pool party?”
Yeah, these cousins were good kids. He’d noticed Bonnie’s nervous nail biting. He admitted he’d heard all about the party from his sister, but wanted to know more. The subject definitely took Bonnie’s mind off sudden death over donuts before her police interview.
A few minutes later Sandra Hudson, the last guest to meet with the police, came over to tell Derek he was next.
“Such sad business,” she said as she collapsed into the empty chair. “I saw them collect your dishes. So useless. I know you wouldn’t put anything George was allergic to in those cute donuts. But I’m sure glad none of the farmers in my cooperative provided anything today. They’d get hammered by the cops. They’ll probably try to pin his death on your new business.”
“What?” She shrugged, and stared at her fingernails, like she hadn’t just suggested I was a killer. “Not possible. Not unless he suddenly got allergic to something else. There were no nuts at all.”
Bonnie, obviously hadn’t noticed my distress. “What’s Nina doing today?” she asked. “Would it be okay if I come over after they let me go?”
“Sure. Why don’t you stay for dinner? I have my famous slow-cooked roast in the oven.”
“Wow! Are you having a party?”
And just as obviously, Sandra hadn’t thought, or meant anything by her words to me. She laughed. “No, just decided to treat the family for a change. Plus, I’m trying a new spice mix.”
Okay, get over my snit. “And if I remember anything, you won’t be sharing your recipe. Any hints?”
“You remember me well,” she said, waving off my question.
We chatted some more, but after Sandra left, I couldn’t wait to ask Bonnie if she knew anything about Sandra Hudson’s incredible roast.
“She cooks it all day, and Nina just absolutely drools and says she never makes it unless there’s all kinds of people there, so she doesn’t get to eat more than two slices.”
“I didn’t realize Nina was Sandra’s daughter when you mentioned her earlier.”
“Uh-huh. Did you ever make a roast you cooked all day? Mrs. Hudson mixes up a bunch of spices in oil, then she rubs it all over the meat. Really makes her hands messy. But Nina wants to learn how to do it.”
“And I bet she uses virgin olive oil instead of just plain cooking oil.” And what spices?
Bonnie shrugged. “Don’t know. It’s in a little bottle, not a big one like my mom uses. So I guess it’s a special kind.”
Oil? Special kind? Nah, it wouldn’t be cashew oil. Not Sandra. Although she, as well as everyone else, knew about George’s allergy.
Derek returned from his police interview at the same time Joe Teller brought the receipt listing my dinner ware.
As I took the folded paper, Derek insisted, “We will check it for accuracy.”
Joe hid a smile. “Of course.”
One definitely must encourage the budding entrepreneur, so I delegated him to do the checking while the chief began my interview.
“First I’ll eliminate the obvious,” he said. “Since we all know George was allergic to some nuts, cashews in particular, were there any nuts or nut products used in your food, or in the vicinity when you prepared the food.”
“No. And I’ve never used cashew oil, so none of my dishes, or even my kitchen have ever been exposed to it. At least, not by me or the kids.”
“They didn’t list the sugar holder,” Derek said.
“The sugar holder isn’t on this list.”
“Maybe, just missed it?” I asked.
Joe shook his head. “I’m sure our list is accurate. Let me see.” But he read it twice, the second time moving his finger past every line, without finding it. “Hmmp,” he snorted and walked away with the list, muttering, “I’ll check this out.”
“Oh, somebody is going to get royally reamed out,” I said.
“You think?” Derek added, “I definitely saw the sugar holder. I watched it go from one end of the table to the other after somebody said they needed sugar. Sorta funny, you know. Everybody sorta wiggled their fingers, or wiped their hand, or something after they passed it on.”
“Strange.” I looked at my hands, rubbed my thumbs across my fingers. “Did they do that when they passed anything else?”
“Hey, I just caught that by accident. My mind was sort of wandering. You know, bored. Not that I don’t think this is really exciting, doing an actual—“
”Shush, I’m thinking.”
And I was. In a trance while my mind whirled. But everybody descended on me at once. Bonnie saying, “I’m through.” Joe Teller saying, “No, he’s sure he listed everything.” And Derek saying, “Aunt Reba? Aunt Reba?”
I looked up. “Just maybe,” I said, “Just maybe that sugar holder was the murder weapon. And just maybe, Joe, you should make everyone return so you can search their pockets. Or purses.”
“What are you talking about?”
They all stared at me, confused, questioning, or condemning. “I understand even peanut breath can cause a fatal reaction to those with that allergy. Possibly George didn’t need to eat a cashew to go into shock. Say someone rubbed a cashew all over their fingers, then touched the sugar holder.” I saw frowns and shaken heads. “Or, how about oil? You know, cashew oil?”
Derek snapped his fingers. “That’s it! That has to be why everybody did something with their fingers. Wiping oil off them. Aunt Reba, you’re brilliant.”
I glanced at Bonnie. She held her hand over her mouth and shook her head. “No, no, no, it isn’t.”
I had a feeling that I knew what wasn’t. “Bonnie,” I whispered.
And she told us. She remembered. “Nina’s mom. Mrs. Hudson. That’s the kind of oil she uses to rub her roast. I know she wouldn’t kill anybody.”
But they found the sugar holder in her pocket as well as a clothe moistened with cashew oil.
It had been somewhat a crime of convenience, but mainly a crime of intent. The convenience part was when someone asked for sugar at the far end of the table. The intent was the rag in her pocket that enabled Sandra Holder to transfer enough cashew oil from there to her hand to the sugar holder box as she passed it up the table.
Of course, there was cover-up too. She managed to slip the box of sugar and sweeteners into her pocket while all the commotion was going on as George breathed his last.
The motive? Sandra had managed to overcome the lost scholarship when she was a teenager. But, George, despite having jinxed that deal back then, had never forgotten the way she’d derided him way back in high school. Merely damaging her long-ago prospects wasn’t enough. Sandra Hudson went Mamma Bear when he continued his campaign against her by going after her daughter.
Will any jury believe she’d forgotten the rag in her pocket and thought she’d reached for a tissue?
What else could her lawyer claim? Justifiable homicide? Possibly if the jury contained a few dedicated mothers…
Some, even those not an actual mother, might almost agree.
As many of you know, when I asked the Chat group for name suggestions, I received quite a few. I’m keeping a list, but two of them I’ve already used. I’d like to thank Shirley Cochran for Aunt Reba’s name. One of Pat Pinkard’s names was Bonnie. I’d also like to thank her for reminding me of a name I’d not thought of. She’s the niece in this story. (They will both get a first look at this story!)