Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Murder by Souffle

     Drive-weary Irene Kraft leaned on the kitchen doorframe, the 2011 soufflé recipe award in her right hand definitely superfluous. A steel mallet would’ve tenderized chicken breasts the way thumping Cranberry Falls, WA, EMTs pounded the woman’s chest—and with equal life-saving result. Tugging wrinkles from a casual red pullover above blue jeans and sneakers, Irene guessed the blue-purplish grotesquely distorted face on the stretched prone body to be Ellen, the newspaper-reader-voted recipe award recipient for the greater Puget Sound area.
     Ellen, in the entry’s biographical data, touted her culinary sisterhood as a soufflé that never collapsed. Five twenty-something women, first meeting at a township chocolate tasting, fast became inseparable enjoying fluffy desserts and aromatic specialty breads. After two decades, maternity ward visits, Lamaze coach stand-ins, and now calorie counting waist watchers, they’d bonded for life.
     From the five’s 2009 soufflé cookbook cover, Irene recognized the three in the kitchen. Kerchief-wearing Ruth, slumped in a chair, dabbed a napkin to swollen eyes and morphed into irrational blubbering protoplasm. Gertrude squeezed past Irene to clasp Ruth’s hand. After the kitchen door slammed a minute ago, Thelma’s chest heaved in and out behind a monogrammed yellow apron as she leaned backward against the kitchen’s center island. Right hand yellow-tipped fingers grasped white cotton gloves.
     “What happened?” Thelma asked. “Sarah and I stepped outside for a few puffs. Warned Ellen last week thirty pounds way too much for her to lose in two months.”
     “Why? Sarah dropped forty this summer, and smokes,” Ruth muttered aloud.
     Irene scanned the huge kitchen, nothing seemed out of place. No blood drops or splatter. No plausible murder weapon discernible or visible. “She been sick?” Irene asked.
     “Not recently,” Gertrude replied. “Suddenly confused, collapsed. When she didn’t respond, I punched 9-1-1 on cell phone. Maybe five minutes ago.”
     Strutting into the kitchen, color faded quickly from Sarah’s face. A sun-tanned Gertrude dropped Ruth’s hand to rush to her strudel-eating friend. The crouching, stocky EMT dipped head to avoid Gertrude’s swinging arm. After a shrug, the EMT assisted a colleague in raising the gurney with straps belted across a still Ellen, discarded oxygen mask dangling to head cushion’s side. Gurney wheels clunked past Irene before two EMTs lifted Ellen and gurney into an awaiting ambulance. Irene noticed no lip blisters or redness nor pressure marks on distended neck veins. Thelma began to soak a dishtowel under foamy suds in the kitchen sink. “Don’t wet anything,” Irene called out. Ruth shuddered as if attacked by the sound waves.
     “We ain’t gonna cook no more. Can’t leave Ellen’s kitchen like this.”
     Among the bowls, utensils, and baking paraphernalia, Irene spotted ten or more fluted white porcelain ramekin dishes, contents partially eaten, dotting the island, kitchen counter, and stovetop. “Stop,” she yelled at Gertrude tossing silver and wooden spoons into dishwasher. “You’ll destroy evidence left by Ellen’s killer.” As the newspaper’s food critic, Irene carried no official power, although two years ago Seattle police credited her insight with exposing a soda jerk killer with the research help of a medical examiner boyfriend who’d chased off bystanders and chastised police officers for not protecting death scene integrity.
     Sarah’s knees buckled; her limp torso caught in the arms of a pivoting Gertrude.
     “Did Sarah eat the same as Ellen?” Gertrude, hugging Sarah erect, asked of no one in particular.
     “Didn’t we all?” Thelma replied.
     Irene stepped to Gertrude in case she needed help with Sarah and to ask questions. Gertrude explained: Shared ingredient use rare. Constant baking surveillance, never. The five swore a culinary sisterhood oath on family spatulas never to divulge either ingredients or methodology unless agreed or published. An uneasy truce most often adhered to with a wink and a nod. Tasting forbidden except with permission. Only a peculiar phobia of Sarah’s had her don latex gloves to mix or knead instead of using floured hands as the other four did.
     A recomposed Sarah allowed Gertrude to answer the telephone. Gertrude, jiggling like a hooked fish suspended on a raised line, let the receiver slip from left hand and dangle above the floor. Thelma and Sarah rushed to Gertrude’s side. Ruth, helped by a hand on the island, staggered to join them as Irene heard Gertrude mumble,  “Ellen’s mother notified her daughter passed.”
     Irene, respectful of the moment, waited to step forward. “Which dish did Ellen eat from?”
     “This one.” Gertrude’s right forefinger pointed left to the counter next to the stovetop.
     “So what was in this?” Irene bent forward to eyeball a ramekin, soufflé partially eaten.
     “Egg yokes and beaten egg whites combined with sugar and selected ingredients. We were testing soufflé recipes for a second cookbook,” Gertrude said. “We all, except Sarah, won county blue ribbons. In fact, Ellen garnered the most by a two-to-one margin.”
     Blue ribbon disparity among friends for twenty-plus years represented a weak motive for murder, Irene thought. “Ellen married?” She remembered Ellen’s initially dropping left arm and hand’s ring finger circular paleness, not created by flour whiteness.
     “Was. There’s restraining order. Her ex gets really violent.”
     “Anyone here this afternoon besides you four?”
     “Ellen spoke to Rev. Randolph, Thelma’s husband, in the dining room. He left half-hour ago. Thelma tried to eavesdrop.”
     “Did not,” Thelma muttered. Unmoving eyes above hand shielding mouth glared at Gertrude.
     “Reverend held Ellen’s hands at church,” Ruth said. Gertrude’s head shook sideways.
     “Any recent confrontations not involving the husband?”
     “Ruth argued with Ellen last week,” Thelma spit out.
     Ruth with brows tight and lips compressed slowly raised a fist to Thelma as the latter shoved gloves into apron pocket. “She claimed I gave her the wrong sweet soufflé sugar blend. I didn’t.”
     “Now, ladies,” Gertrude interjected. “Ruth’s right and Ellen apologized.”
     “What about Sarah’s complaint at the Spokane contest?” Thelma continued. “Ellen was furious. Failed to dial down an oven and burned first soufflé ever.”
     “Stick a fork in it, Thelma,” Sarah blurted out, eyes squinting, lips compressed. “That oven overheated because Ellen got distracted answering the telephone for your UPS sugar delivery.”
     “You’re making up tales,” Thelma retorted. “Ellen didn’t need to pick up the phone.”
     “Not so quick you two.” Gertrude stepped between them, fixed eyes on Thelma. “Don’t say you don’t use special sugar?”
     Thelma twirled and stopped short. “Never.”
     “What about your Boy Scout cookie recipe with its secret sugar/spice mixture?” Ruth asked. “You wouldn’t let any of us sample the package you had.”
     “Why you battering me,” Thelma replied. “I needed that. We all help community charities.”
     Irene asked, “Where’s your sugar, Thelma?”
     “Why?” Thelma planted both feet shoulder-width apart, hands on hips.
     “Look in the green plastic bag under the dining room table,” Gertrude suggested.
     Irene lifted the re-taped white and blue sugar package from the green bag and returned to the island to slit the clear plastic inside. She pressed two left hand fingers into the white powder, licked fingertips. “Taste isn’t sugar. Thelma, don’t leave.”
     Gertrude, after calling police, cornered Irene. “What made you suspect?”
     “Sudden disorientation. Soufflés. Sugar. Drug taste like cocaine. Had to be one of you since neither ex-husband nor minister present close to the collapse. As to motive, a jealous Thelma misinterpreting why Ellen befriended Randolph, while not conclusive, seemed most logical. Collapse either natural causes or induced. If induced, drugs likely used and it’s easy to substitute cocaine for sugar to overdose. And, no pun intended, but finger pointed to Thelma clutching white cotton gloves, you said you four never wore baking.”
     Author Donan Berg can be contacted at http://www.abodytobones.com/ . His latest full-length fiction novel is entitled Baby Bones. Click title to order e-book or mp3. Happy Veteran's Day Friday 11/11/2011.

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