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Changing Fortune Cookies - ACB 14

Changing Fortune Cookies - ACB 14

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Fortune Cookies Favor the Bold

The baker turned sleuth is hard at work once more, trying to run her business while at the same time tracking down a missing boy. Is he missing by his own choice, as the police suggest, or has he been kidnapped and held against his will?

The clues are all there, but can Erin decipher them before it is too late?

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ The author has the ability to pull you into her story and keep you firmly rooted there until the end. Her characters are interest and have depth. She isn’t afraid to explore the areas of our society that many would rather sweep under the rug.

Like baking mysteries? Cats, dogs, and other pets? Award-winning and USA Today Bestselling Author P.D. Workman brings readers back to small town Bald Eagle Falls for another culinary cozy mystery to be solved by gluten-free baker Erin Price and her friends.

Have your gluten-free cake and eat it too. Sink your teeth into this sweet treat now!

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CHAPTER 1

Erin invited Mary Lou into the house and, at first, it looked like the older woman was going to refuse. She hadn’t been happy with Erin recently. This latest development wasn’t going to make her more likely to forgive Erin for past mistakes. But then Mary Lou nodded her head, patted her gray bob, and entered. Erin motioned toward the couch, her brain spinning, trying to sort things out.

Vic stood in the kitchen doorway, her long blond hair tied back in a ponytail, her mouth open slightly. She knew how Mary Lou felt about them lately, so she was surprised by Mary Lou coming into the house. Vic looked at Erin, her brows coming down.

“Erin? What’s wrong? Is everything okay?”

“No.” Erin shook her head. She couldn’t explain it. She pointed at Mary Lou for her to explain to Vic. “Tea? I’m going to put on the kettle.” She passed Vic in the doorway and started to get the tea things ready. She turned on the electric kettle and gathered teacups, an assortment of tea bags, and the other items she needed.

“What is it?” she heard Vic ask Mary Lou, her tone anxious and uncertain. “Did something happen? Is it Roger?”

But it was not about Mary Lou’s husband. As far as Erin knew, he was still safe in the facility where he had been held since he’d been arrested for murder and assault. Not jail, but somewhere they would, hopefully, be a little more compassionate and be able to handle his brain injury.

Nor was it about Campbell, Mary Lou’s older son, who had been in some trouble in the past.

Erin listened for Mary Lou’s answer, but she didn’t explain to Vic. She probably handed Vic the same paper that she had shown to Erin. The Bald Eagle Falls weekly newspaper, which had included a news article written by Mary Lou’s younger teenage son, Joshua. But the article had been cut out and there was a sticky note in its place.

If you want to know where your son is, maybe you should ask Erin Price.




The kettle started to whistle. Feeling numb and distant, as if she were enclosed in a bubble, Erin poured the steaming water into the teapot and then took the tea service out to the living room. She set it on the coffee table and sat on the couch beside Mary Lou. Not too close—she didn’t want to impinge on Mary Lou’s personal space—but close enough that they could talk and Mary Lou would know that Erin was there to help and support her. Vic sat in one of the easy chairs across from her, looking as pale and horrified as Erin felt. Mary Lou herself, appearing composed as she always did, smoothed wrinkles in her pantsuit and didn’t immediately help herself to a teacup. The newspaper lay folded on the table in front of her.

“Can I pour for you?” Vic offered. “What kind would you like?”

Mary Lou seemed far away. It took her a few extra seconds to process Vic’s question and focus on the tea bags in the basket.

“Earl Gray,” she said eventually. “Thank you.”

Vic busied herself with preparing a cup for Mary Lou, then passed it across to her. She poured for herself and Erin, and let Erin choose and add her own teabag. They sat there, looking at each other. They looked like three friends gathered for a gossip session. But that wasn’t how it felt.

“I don’t know anything about where Josh is,” Erin told Mary Lou. “I hope you know that. I don’t know what this note means, but… I don’t know anything about where Josh is or what he is doing. I haven’t seen him since he came to Whitewater Junction to interview me.”

That had been days before. She remembered his coming to her hotel room, notepad in hand, eager to act the part of a mature reporter. Erin assumed that Joshua had gone home after that interview, had carried on his life as usual through the remainder of the cooking contest. And he had, of course, handed in his report to his English teacher and submitted it to the newspaper.

And then…? What had happened? And why did the note say that Mary Lou should ask Erin, when she knew nothing of Joshua’s whereabouts?

“He isn’t home?” Vic asked the obvious.

Of course Josh wasn’t at home, or his mother would not be concerned about a note that implied something had happened to him.

“No. He was home yesterday… everything was normal. I thought… everything was even better than normal. But something happened. This morning… he didn’t come down for breakfast. When I looked in his room to wake him up… he wasn’t there.” Mary Lou’s gaze sought out Erin’s. “His bed hadn’t been slept in.”

Erin’s stomach clenched into a tight ball. She felt like she was being strangled. What could have happened to Joshua? If his bed hadn’t been slept in, he hadn’t just gone for a walk or to visit a friend or pick up a cup of coffee that morning. Something had happened to him the night before. He had left the house without Mary Lou being aware of it and he had not returned.

“Have you called the police?”

“No.” Mary Lou shook her head. “I haven’t talked to anyone. I just… I called him on his phone, but there was no answer. The newspaper was on the table and when I saw the note… I was going to call you, but… I just came over.”

“Yeah. This is really crazy. But I… I don’t know where he is…” Erin trailed off. She didn’t know how to explain the note. Someone was trying to throw suspicion on her, but she hadn’t had anything to do with Joshua’s absence.

“But maybe if you thought about it, you would have some idea,” Mary Lou said. “Even if you haven’t seen him or heard from him, you must know something about what is going on. Why would the note say that if it wasn’t anything to do with you?”

“But it isn’t. I don’t know anything.”

“Where would he go? You two have been involved in everything going on around here. You must have some idea.”

Erin felt lost.

“What about Cam?” Vic suggested. “Maybe he went to visit his brother. And this note is just… I don’t know. Some kind of cruel joke.”

Mary Lou had her phone in her hand. She stared at it as if it were something foreign to her. Or might blow up any minute.

“Have you called Campbell?” Erin asked. It was probably the first thing Mary Lou had done.

“No. He won’t be up yet. He stays out late. Sleeps half the day. He wouldn’t wake up.”

“But if Joshua is with him… they must know you’d be looking for him. Or if he’s not, won’t Campbell want to help look for him? He would want to know right away.”

Mary Lou shook her head. “There’s no point, Erin. I said he won’t wake up. I can’t ask him or tell him anything if he is asleep and doesn’t answer his phone.”

Erin understood this, but still felt like Mary Lou should at least try.

“If he really is missing, we should call the police,” Vic said.

“Yes,” Erin agreed. “The earlier they can start looking for him, the better the results.”

“I don’t think they’ll look if it hasn’t been forty-eight hours, will they?”

“No, they’ll look sooner than that,” Erin assured her. “If you think something has happened to him, you should tell them right away. The first few hours can be critical. We don’t want to lose them.”

“I don’t know that anything has happened to him. This could just be… a joke. Someone being silly. He’s a teenager. They do stupid things without realizing what the consequences could be.”

“But if he was just out with friends, wouldn’t you be able to get him on the phone?” Erin pointed out.

“Maybe. Maybe not. There are a lot of places in these mountains where you can’t get a signal. If he’s out of range of a cell tower, or in a canyon, or spelunking, I wouldn’t be able to get him.”

“Spelunking,” Erin repeated. Just thinking about being underground in a cave was enough to take her breath away. Still. “He wouldn’t go into a cave without friends, would he? And without letting someone know where he was?”

“N-no…” Mary Lou drew the word out and, even though she said he wouldn’t do it, she immediately contradicted herself. “Like I said… he’s a teenager. And teen boys do all kinds of crazy things without understanding the dangers. As you well know.” She gave each of them a hard stare. Erin looked down at her cup, her face hot with embarrassment. “You try to tell them something they need to be careful of, a decision that could bring them to harm, and you just get ‘I’ll be fine, Mom. I promise.’ As if they can control the consequences.” Mary Lou took a sip of her cooling tea. “I don’t know how many times I’ve told them you can’t choose the consequences. You can only choose your actions.”

Erin looked at Vic. “Well… we can look around town. See if he’s at the school or any of the regular hangouts. We can’t check out all of the caves in the area, of course, but maybe Willie could drive by a couple of the more popular ones. See if there are cars parked outside.”

Vic nodded. “If you aren’t sure yet if there’s really a problem and want to look for him first, we can help with that.”

Erin remembered the search party for Roger when he had wandered off on his own. It was different for Roger because of his brain injury. He wasn’t just a teenager off having a good time. He was easily confused and could have hurt himself. The whole town had shown up to help look for him and to comfort Mary Lou. Should they send out the call for help with Joshua?

But Erin could see that would not go over well. If Mary Lou made a big fuss about his being missing and it turned out that he’d just taken a day off to mess around, the police and everyone else would be irritated, Mary Lou and Joshua would be embarrassed. Tensions between them would increase instead of decreasing.

“Do you want us to help look?” Erin asked Mary Lou.

Mary Lou sipped her tea and looked around, a small crease between her eyebrows. Then she finally nodded. “Yes. I suppose so. We can at least do that.”

Erin and Vic nodded their agreement. Auntie Clem’s Bakery was covered for the day, so they were free to spend the day as they wished. Erin had been planning to do some business planning and later to run some errands, but those things could be put off. If Joshua was missing, it was an emergency. She needed to be flexible and concentrate on what was most important.

“With this mention of you,” Mary Lou said, motioning to the newspaper lying on the coffee table, the sticky note incongruous in the sea of black print, “do you think… that he’s back in Whitewater?”

Erin looked at Vic. She didn’t feel like driving back to Whitewater and, once she got there, where specifically would she look? But the notes said to ask Erin where he was. That implied that something Erin had done had resulted in Joshua’s disappearance. And lately, all she had done was to be a judge at the cooking contest and to help solve Beryl Batcombe’s murder.

A murder that Joshua had been asking questions about.

In Whitewater.

“I guess,” she said reluctantly. “If it has something to do with me… that’s really the only thing unusual that I have done lately. And Joshua interviewed me about it.”

Vic nodded her agreement.

“I don’t have a vehicle, though,” Erin realized. “Willie took his truck and Terry took his.”

“You should have gone with Jack to look at cars when they were here,” Vic pointed out. “They had their eye on a few good deals.”

“I know. But there was so much going on with the contest and everything else.” And Erin hadn’t wanted to go with Jack. She’d felt pressured before even getting near a car lot. She didn’t want to be pushed into anything. She would buy a new car when she was ready. On her own. Without someone else pushing her into it and spouting facts and figures at her.

“Is Terry actually using the truck?” Vic asked. “Could we borrow it?”

“I’ll check.” He was often on foot patrol around the town, his truck just parked in the lot at the Town Hall, where the police department was housed. It was only a short walk to get there from Erin’s house.

CHAPTER 2

Mary Lou raised her hand to stop Erin as she slid out her phone and looked down at it to dial Terry.

“What are you going to tell him?”

“That I need the car to go to Whitewater and…” Erin trailed off. She could see the warning in Mary Lou’s eyes even before she said anything. “And… you don’t want me to say anything to him about Joshua?”

“I’ve told you before that you need to watch what you say to him. If I wanted the police involved, I would call them myself.”

“Okay.” Erin looked at Vic. “Then I guess… tell him that I decided that my errands might take longer than I had originally planned, so I want to get started. And after we check out Whitewater, we’ll have to run into the city to take care of them, so it doesn’t look suspicious.”

Mary Lou gave a brusque nod.

Erin swallowed. “Okay.” She didn’t like the subterfuge, but it was really just a lie of omission. She really would do her errands as she told him.

“Should we split up?” Vic asked. “I suppose I should stay here and look around; we can cover more area if we split up.”

It was a sensible plan of action, but Erin bit her lip and shook her head. “I’m not sure… I don’t want to go by myself.”

Vic cocked her head. She raised her eyebrows in query. “It’s just for a few hours. You wouldn’t be staying there alone.”

“I know. But since the accident, I don’t really want to drive the highway by myself. I can, but… I just would feel better if I had someone with me. So that if anything happens…”

Nothing would happen, of course. Just because she had been followed and forced off the road once, that didn’t mean that it would ever happen again. It was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

Not something that was going to happen to her again.

“Oh, hon,” Vic leaned across the coffee table and touched Erin’s arm. “I didn’t realize.”

Erin squirmed. She wasn’t looking for pity or even just attention. She wasn’t doing it to be the poor, damaged little girl. She’d filled that role too many times in the past, the only survivor of the rollover that had killed her parents when she was just a child.

“I can go by myself,” she asserted, looking at Mary Lou. “It’s just… safer with two people in the car.”

Mary Lou nodded. “If you could see if there’s any sign of him in Whitewater Junction, that would help,” she said, without comment on Erin’s weakness and the inconvenience it caused. “I think I should stay here, in case he comes home, or in case… I don’t know. The police call me with news.”

Erin was about to ask why the police would call Mary Lou if she didn’t report Joshua missing, but then bit back her response.

If they found Josh’s body, Mary Lou meant. If they found him injured or dead, Mary Lou would be the one they called and she would want to be close at hand. Erin tried to blink back tears and not let the lump in her throat change her voice.

“Yeah. If he’s in Whitewater, we’ll find him.”

If he were in Whitewater.

If he were alive.

If someone hadn’t kidnapped him and hidden him away somewhere.

---

Erin managed to borrow Officer Terry Piper’s truck without giving away that she was running over to Whitewater to see if she could find a missing teenager. There had been a couple of awkward pauses during the call. Like he knew that Erin was keeping something from him. Like he was trying to figure out how to ask her what was really going on but was afraid to ask.

Or maybe she just imagined it.

“He said it’s fine,” Erin told Vic. “He and K9 are just out on foot patrol, and he’ll either walk home or get Stayner to drop him, depending on how he’s feeling at the end of his shift.”

“He’s been doing better lately,” Vic contributed. “It’s nice to see him looking bright-eyed again.”

It had been a difficult few months, a hard recovery after Terry had been attacked, hit over the head, and choked out. The damage went a lot deeper than she had expected. Nothing like TV cop shows where people got knocked out all the time and seemed to go on with barely even a headache or moment of vertigo. Things had been much worse for Terry.

But he had seemed to be doing better the last few days. She could only hope that he would continue to feel good and not relapse back into migraines, insomnia, and nightmares. And the irritability and mood issues.

“We’d better head out pretty quickly,” Erin suggested. “If we’re going to look for Josh and try to get our most urgent errands done, we can’t waste any time.”

“Yep,” Vic agreed. “We’ll be quick as two winks. Do you want me to make some sandwiches so we don’t have to stop for lunch later?”

“Good idea. I’ll check the animals’ bowls”—she had two pets at home, Orange Blossom the cat and Marshmallow the rabbit—“Then, why don’t I walk over and get the truck while you make the sandwiches. I’ll make sure it’s gassed up, and then we’ll head out.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Vic agreed. She shook her head and tsked. “Poor Mary Lou. If we end up finding Joshua and this was just some kind of joke or ill-conceived teen prank, I’ll whup that boy myself.”

Erin had seen Vic’s father try to beat her. He did not approve of her being transgender or getting together with a man from a rival clan—and she knew that Vic was only blowing hot air. There was no way she could do the same to another teen, no matter what he had done.

“I don’t think it is a prank,” Erin said. “I can’t see Joshua doing something like this. He loves his mom and he knows all the stuff that she’s been through. He wouldn’t do something that might hurt her more just as a prank.”

“No. I don’t think so,” Vic agreed. “Okay. I’ll see you in twenty minutes or so.”

After checking the food and water dishes, Erin grabbed her purse and headed over to the police department at a brisk walk.

---

Erin didn’t run into anyone who slowed her down on her way to the Town Hall, so she was able to get Terry’s truck and top off the gas tank in the allotted time. She picked Vic up at the house, and they were on their way to Whitewater.

Erin didn’t want to keep going over the same ground when they hadn’t found out anything yet. They could speculate all day long on where Joshua had gone or why he had disappeared, but they wouldn’t know until they’d had some time to turn up some clues. Erin looked around for other things to talk about as she drove the highway. She didn’t want to admit how anxious she was about being followed again, and she wouldn’t be calmed just by listening to the radio. She needed something that took enough of her attention that she wouldn’t constantly be thinking about the cars and trucks on the highway behind her.

It was a busy highway, not like the secondary road she’d been on the day that she’d been forced into the ditch. Nothing was going to happen to her out in the open where everybody could see.

“I did a few trials of recipes for the fortune cookies,” she told Vic. “A few other people have done gluten-free fortune cookies. Mostly based around tapioca starch or cornstarch. They are pretty simple, actually. Just a matter of rolling or pressing them, cutting them into a circle, and then folding them while they’re still warm. Then they get crispy when they cool.”

“I always wondered how they baked them with paper inside,” Vic laughed. “Because you would either have to bake them at a really low temperature, or the paper would light on fire. And I’d never even seen a scorched fortune.”

Erin smiled and nodded. “I always wondered too. It’s a bit of a letdown to realize that they insert the fortune and fold the cookie after they are baked. Removes some of the mystique.”

“Won’t it be great for the Chinese restaurant to offer gluten-free fortune cookies for their clientele? It’s such a nice touch. I can’t wait to see Peter Foster try his first gluten-free fortune cookie.”

Erin was determined to keep her smile from fading, so she kept it firmly in place even though it made her sad that Mrs. Foster had decided Peter would not be visiting the bakery in person any time soon. Like Mary Lou, she was upset with Erin for mentioning Peter’s name during a police investigation, resulting in Peter being interviewed by the police. Not just once, but twice.

It wasn’t Erin’s fault that he’d been a witness in both cases. He’d told her key clues that had led to her figuring out what had happened, but which also led to his being questioned.

It wasn’t like he’d been a suspect, like Joshua. It was understood right from the start that the little boy had only been a witness, and one who didn’t even realize what it was he had seen.

“I thought we should do some kind of care basket for Mrs. Foster,” Erin said, changing the subject. “She’ll be having that baby any day now, and it would be nice if she didn’t have to be on her feet coming around to the bakery for a couple of weeks. We could take or deliver her the things that she normally comes around for… bread, muffins, after-school snacks…”

“What a great idea,” Vic enthused. “You’re always coming up with such creative plans.”

“You don’t think she would be offended, do you? Thinking that I was saying she wasn’t capable of looking after her own family, or that I was just trying to get closer and interfere with things…”

“Of course not. It’s a lovely thing to do. No one could find fault with you for helping a customer out during a challenging time.”

“Okay.” Erin wasn’t always sure. People did seem to find fault with her for the littlest things. Even when she was doing something she thought people would approve of, doing something nice for someone just to be nice, they would criticize or put some kind of negative spin on things.

“Don’t worry about the old gossips,” Vic said, reading her mind. “Some people are negative no matter what. You’re not going to change that. You have to just ignore them and live your life.”

Erin nodded. “Yeah. I will. I just feel sometimes like I missed out on a bunch of etiquette lessons because of the way I was raised. There are all of these little rules that I never picked up on.”

“That’s just the south for you. And small-town living. There are a bunch of special rules. But you can never do them all, so you have to just develop a thick skin about the rest of them.”

P.D. (Pamela) Workman is a USA Today Bestselling author, winner of several awards from Library Services for Youth in Custody and the InD’tale Magazine’s Crowned Heart award, and has published over 100 mystery/suspense/thriller and young adult books.

Workman loves writing about the underdog. She has been praised for her realistic details, deep characterization, and sensitive handling of the serious social issues that appear in her stories, from light cozy mysteries to darker, grittier young adult and mystery/suspense books.

P. D. Workman does not shy from probing the deep psychological scars of childhood trauma, mental illness, and addiction. Also characteristic of this author, these extremely sensitive issues are explored with extensive empathy, described with incredible clarity, and portrayed with profound insight.
—Kim, Goodreads reviewer