Lake Eden, Minnesota
Ten Shopping Days Until Christmas
There were nights like tonight, right after he’d bet a bundle on the losing team, when Larry Jaeger wondered why he’d ever come back to this dinky little town. When it came to money matters, people around here were clueless. Swindling them out of their savings was no contest at all. He preferred an even playing field where he could outwit the investors he thought of as his adversaries. It was a game, after all, and the game was boring if your opponents were pushovers.
In an effort to even the odds, he’d taken more risks than usual, but not a single one of the locals were suspicious, not even Mayor Bascomb, who prided himself on his business savvy. This was like counting the leaves on a three-leaf clover, and that wasn’t his idea of fun. The thrill came from taking off with the money right before someone was about to catch on. These people weren’t about to catch on.
And then there was Courtney, his biggest investor, his partner, and his fiancée. She owned fifty percent of the Crazy Elf Christmas Tree Lot… on paper.
Courtney had insisted on taking a room at the Lake Eden Inn, rather than staying with him in the double-wide trailer they called Elf Headquarters. She was afraid that people would talk because they weren’t married. She was right. They would talk. But that wouldn’t bother him. His concern was that Courtney was living separately, and that gave her time to think. It was much easier to keep tabs on her when they were together twenty-four seven. She had some surprisingly good business instincts, unlike some of the other girlfriends he’d had. Courtney might just have the smarts to compare the business he’d fabricated for her on paper to what was actually happening right here in Lake Eden Park. If she did that, she might discover the inconsistencies that no one else had noticed.
The customers were long gone and the last employee had left the lot at least ten minutes ago. He was completely alone and once Hannah came to pick up her check, he’d be alone for the rest of the night.
It was time to close up shop. He stepped out the back door of the trailer and walked to the pole that held the breaker box. It was cold tonight, now that the elves had turned off the standing heaters, and he shivered even though he was wearing a heavy sweater.
There were three switches inside the weatherproof box. The top one controlled the electricity for the buildings, tree tents, rides, and tall candy cane lampposts that illuminated the park. The second switch powered the bare bulbs that were strung in a crisscross pattern overhead. They were the night security lights and they kept the park dimly illuminated when the main lights were out. The third breaker controlled the electricity for Elf Headquarters, and that was permanently set in the on position. He’d told the electrician to rig it so that no misguided employee could cut the power to his television set in the middle of an important game.
The music was blaring as usual and it seemed even louder now that it wasn’t tempered by noisy crowds and the squeals of children riding the attractions. His trailer wasn’t soundproof, but he’d learned to tune out the noise when he was inside. Now that the park was empty, the continuous loop of Christmas carols seemed ear-splitting.
Silent Night was playing as he clicked on the overhead security lights. He’d learned his lesson the first night he’d spent in the park. Once the main lights were doused, it was impossible to see the second switch. He’d picked his way gingerly back to the trailer to get a flashlight to illuminate the second switch so that he could engage it.
Larry reached for the top switch as the music went into the chorus. “Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is…”
He threw the switch and smiled. “Not bright. Not bright at all,” he said, heading back to the lights and warmth of Elf Headquarters.
A big swallow from the brandy snifter on the coffee table made short work of his shivers. A second snifter took care of his icy toes and hands, and then he played channel roulette with the remote in an effort to find something interesting. He bypassed cooking shows, nature programs, reenactments of great moments in history, several movies with actors he didn’t recognize, a performance by a symphony orchestra with a conductor he didn’t recognize, and reruns of ten-year-old game shows. He finally concluded that there was nothing he really wanted to watch on any of his two hundred plus satellite channels. The only thing that was slightly better than nothing at all was a replay of the championship college basketball tournament that had taken place last year.
A few sips from a third snifter of brandy made it easier to pretend that he hadn’t seen the game before. He watched a three-pointer sink in without even rippling the net, and then he looked up as car lights flashed outside his window.
Someone was parking on the street and it was probably Hannah and the dentist. No one else would come here this late. The sign on the gate announced that they were closed, but he’d left it unlocked so that she could come in.
An envelope with her check and receipt was waiting on the table next to the door. He was nothing if not prepared. He picked up the platter she’d used for her plum pudding and glanced down at the remaining crumbs. She’d be pleased to hear that everyone had loved it and agreed that it would be a big hit at the Crazy Elf Cookie Shop.
When the knock came on the door, he was ready. He pulled it open, but when he saw who was standing there, he began to frown. “What are you doing here? You’re the last person I expected to see!”
“I will be the last person you’ll see.” The words were clipped with anger. “It’s what you deserve for what you’ve done.”
“What do you mean?” His frown deepened and he stepped back in an effort to avoid a confrontation. It was clear that this was not a friendly social visit.
His uninvited guest stepped in, shut the door, and took another step forward, forcing him to back up even further. “What do you want?” he asked.
The answer to his question came in tangible form. When he saw the gun, he backed up several more steps and dropped the platter with a crash. His hands shot up in a futile effort to protect himself.
“No! You can’t…” were the last words he spoke.
One Day Earlier
That horrid gingerbread man was poking her in the eye again! Hannah Swensen reared back to avoid the rounded tip of a well-spiced arm and the rickety step stool she kept at The Cookie Jar began to teeter on two legs. The instant before toppling was a certainty, she managed to grab a sturdy branch that was decorated with five colored lights, a chocolate chip cookie ornament, and a plastic sprig of holly. The branch held, the step stool stabilized, and what she’d feared would be a painful tumble to the floor below was averted.
“That’s enough, I’m done,” Hannah said to no one in particular since she was the sole occupant of her coffee shop and bakery. It was four-fifteen in the afternoon, and she’d taken advantage of the predictable lull that occurred this time of day. It was too late for most customers to come in for a mid-afternoon snack cookie and too early to pick up the boxes of cookies that had been ordered for evening parties and holiday buffets. Since her partner, Lisa Herman, had offered to make their daily cookie deliveries, Hannah had volunteered to finish decorating the Christmas tree in the front window of their shop.
It was time to admire her handiwork and have a cup of the coffee the Lake Eden Journal had called the best in the tri-county area. Hannah poured a cup and sat down at her favorite table at the back of the shop. As she sipped, she gazed out the front window at a scene that was straight from the front of a Christmas card. Lacy flakes of snow fell outside the glass, gently fluttering down to rest on the pristine white blanket that covered the sidewalk. The tree looked lovely, and Hannah gave a contented smile. It was the second week in December, and night came early in the North Star State. Thanks to the winter solstice, this was the time of the year when people drove to work in the dark, worked all day with only a glimpse of the sun from their office windows, and left work after sunset to drive back home in the dark.
A Minnesota winter could be long and claustrophobic, causing bouts of cabin fever that sent snowbirds, the people who packed up their RVs at the first sign of snow, on their annual migration to more hospitable places like Florida or California. Those who couldn’t leave for the entire winter but needed a break from the unrelenting cold purchased vacation packages and spent a rejuvenating week basking in the sun in Hawaii, or St. Thomas, or the Bahamas. They came back with suntans that were the envy of those who stayed behind in the land of snow shovels, ski masks, and chemical hand warmers.
The Lake Eden residents who stuck it out had months to perfect their survival skills. A Minnesota winter could start as early as October and last all the way through April. In the dead of winter, when the temperatures dropped to forty below, they dressed in layered clothing that added another twenty pounds to their silhouettes and hunkered down next to the heater vents, hoping that the furnace wouldn’t go out.
When boredom set in as it inevitably did after the holidays, people created winter diversions to keep their minds off the endless black and white world outside their windows. The end of January brought the Lake Eden Winter Carnival with competitive winter games at the Lake Eden Inn and rides through town in old-fashioned one-horse sleighs. In February, there was a gala Valentine Night’s Ball, preceded by a potluck dinner. March heralded a phenomenon called Crazy Days. Standing gas heaters were set up every few feet on Main Street and merchants displayed their wares on the sidewalk in front of their stores. It was a study in delusion, but everyone seemed to enjoy pretending that the banks of snow no longer existed and summer had arrived. In April there was the annual Easter Egg Hunt. If the weather was cold enough to freeze the hardboiled eggs that were decorated by the Lake Eden Women’s Club, the event was held in the community center.
Winter was hard, no doubt about that, but almost everyone agreed that December was a magical month. Any month with Christmas in it had to be enchanting. Lights twinkled in shop windows all along Main Street. The pink-flocked tree in the plate glass window of Doug Greerson’s First Mercantile Bank glittered with garlands of gold tinsel artfully looped from branch to branch. Pink satin balls were interspersed with gold candy canes, and pink mini-lights twinkled merrily.
Gus York had decorated his barber pole with colored lights again this year, and it reflected against the freshly fallen snow. The picture window that featured two chrome and leather barber chairs was outlined with garlands of pine boughs, red satin bows, and flashing white mini-lights.
Not to be outdone by his neighbor, Al Percy of Lake Eden Realty featured a miniature home in his front window. It had been wired, and lights blazed in the dining room, where a Christmas dinner was being served while the Christmas tree glowed softly in the den. Miniature wreaths were on every door, and the roof was decorated with a miniature Santa in his sleigh.
The window at Trudi’s Fabrics was a work of stitchery art. A red and green velvet quilt formed the background, and angels floated from nearly invisible fishing line hanging from the ceiling. Each angel wore a colorful robe, a sample of the Christmas fabrics that Trudi and Loretta featured in their store. Sparkling gold lights provided illumination as the angels floated over a miniature forest of potted baby spruce and blooming poinsettias.
Although Hannah couldn’t see the front window of Hal and Rose’s Café from her vantage point at The Cookie Jar, she knew Rose had put up her tree again this year. The shiny metal pine changed colors when a small spotlight shone through a disk of revolving colored gels. The metal trees had been very popular a few years before Hannah was born, and Hannah’s grandfather and father had stocked them at Lake Eden Hardware. As far as Hannah was concerned, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Rose’s tree on display.
“I’m back,” a voice called out, breaking into Hannah’s thoughts. It was Lisa, and she was back from her cookie deliveries. A few moments later the swinging restaurant-style door between the kitchen and the coffee shop opened and Lisa came in.
“The tree looks beautiful!” she exclaimed, walking closer to take a look. “I can’t believe those shellacked cookie ornaments I made two years ago have lasted this long.”
“Why wouldn’t they? Shellac is a great preservative. Did you know that people used to believe it was made from the wings of an insect found in India?”
Lisa shook her head. “But it’s not?”
“That’s right. It’s actually harvested from the secretions of the female insects and it’s scraped from the bark of trees.”
“Okay. I guess that’s a little better.”
“Not always. Sometimes they scoop up the insect along with the bark.”
“Yuck! I wish you hadn’t told me.”
“Sorry about that. It is kind of unappetizing. Did you finish the deliveries?”
“They’re all done, except for Mr. Jaeger. I’m going to drop those off on my way home.” Lisa sat down next to Hannah and took a sip of the coffee she’d carried in with her. “I ran into Herb, and he drove me around. It’s really cold out there, and his patrol car was nice and warm.”
Hannah smiled. Lisa still had stars in her eyes when she talked about her husband of ten months. As Lisa’s father and Herb’s mother were fond of saying, they were perfect for each other.
“We got a chance to talk between deliveries,” Lisa went on, “and Herb said Mayor Bascomb had to take Mrs. Bascomb to the emergency room at the hospital last night.”
“That doesn’t sound good.” Hannah noticed that Lisa was still referring to her elders by their formal names, just as she’d done as a child. Old habits died hard in Lake Eden. “What’s wrong with Stephanie, do you know?”
“Doc Knight diagnosed her with a bad case of the flu and he’s keeping her in the hospital. He was really upset because she didn’t show up to get her flu shot at the clinic, especially when he sent her a reminder and everything.”
“Why didn’t she get the shot?”
Lisa glanced around and leaned a bit closer even though there were no customers to overhear their conversation. “The reminder said that the shot was available for anyone over forty-five.”
“And she didn’t want to be seen at the clinic because that would be admitting she was over forty-five?”
“That’s what Herb thinks, and he’s almost always right.”
“Vanity, thy name is Stephanie Bascomb,” Hannah said, borrowing heavily from the Bard. “She’s going to be all right, isn’t she?”
“She should be. Doc’s keeping her in the hospital for the rest of the week just to make sure she eats right and gets plenty of rest. And that’s why I’m losing my husband until the weekend.”
Hannah gave a little shake of her head. “What did you say?”
“I said that’s why I’m losing Herb for the rest of the week. Since Mrs. Bascomb won’t be home, the mayor’s taking this opportunity to move his ice fishing house up to Mille Lacs Lake. He asked Herb to come along to help him. They’re leaving tonight at midnight when there’s less traffic, and once they put it out on the ice, they’re going to stay and fish for a couple of days.”
“I didn’t know Herb liked ice fishing.”
“He doesn’t, not particularly, but it’s the politic thing to do. Besides, Mayor Bascomb’s ice fishing house is the fanciest one around. If he doesn’t feel like fishing, he can watch television or play pool.”
Hannah remembered her one and only tour of the mayor’s ice fishing house. She’d driven across the ice to deliver coffee and cookies to the fishing contestants at Lake Eden’s Winter Carnival. The mayor’s ice fishing house had been luxurious, but the fancy lavish furnishings had been completely overshadowed by the grim discovery they’d made.
“I promised Herb I’d make him some Pork and Beans Bread before he left. It’s his favorite and he thinks Mayor Bascomb will like it, too.”
“Pork and Beans Bread?”
“It’s Patsy’s recipe. She got it last month when she went to California to visit a friend. They stopped in Paso Robles at a place called Vic’s Café and ordered it off the menu.”
“How did she get the recipe?”
Lisa gave a little laugh. “You know Patsy. She’s not exactly shy.”
“That’s true.” Hannah smiled. Patsy was Marge Beeseman’s sister, and Lisa’s new mother-in-law wasn’t exactly shy either. “So Patsy asked for the recipe?”
“That’s right in a roundabout way. Patsy talked to the owner, Jan, and explained that they were trying to make sure Dad gets enough complex carbohydrates. Lately all he’s wanted is toast for breakfast, and Pork and Beans Bread toasts up really well. Patsy figured that two slices of that would be a lot more nutritious than two slices of commercial white bread.”
“Do complex carbohydrates have an effect on your dad’s Alzheimer’s?”
“I have no idea, but Patsy’s big on nutrients and she thinks a balanced diet will help. And before you even ask, I checked with Dad’s doctor and she says eating Pork and Beans Bread toast can’t hurt.”
“The name’s intriguing. Is it a type of bread that goes especially well with Pork and Beans?”
“No, it’s bread that’s made from pork and beans!” Lisa gave a little laugh. “You can’t really taste them unless you know they’re in there, but then you can. I’ll make a double batch. That’ll be four loaves. And I’ll bring one in tomorrow morning for you to taste.”
“I’ll look forward to it. Did Herb tell you any other news I should know about?”
Lisa thought about that for a moment. “You already know about your mother, don’t you?”
“What about Mother?”
“She signed up for a class at the college. Norman’s mom, too. It’s something to do with running a small business.”
Hannah was surprised. Delores hadn’t mentioned signing up for a business course. “Well, that’s good I guess. But I wonder why she hasn’t told me.”
As if on cue, the front door opened and Delores Swensen came in. She brushed the snow from her cardinal red coat that went so well with her coloring and hung it on the rack by the door.
“Hello, dears,” she said giving both of them a smile. “Am I too late for coffee?”
“It’s never too late for coffee.” Hannah jumped to her feet to pour a mug for her mother.
“How about a couple of cookies to go with that?” Lisa asked.
Delores considered it for a moment. “Thank you, dear. I have class tonight and I won’t have time to run home and eat. Do you have anything with chocolate?”
“Do we have anything with chocolate?” Hannah laughed as she repeated her mother’s question. “Almost everything we bake has chocolate!”
Lisa glanced over at the large glass jars they used to showcase their cookie selections for the day. “We have Chocolate Chip Crunch Cookies, Fudge-Aroons, one piece of Chocolate Almost Toast, and I think there’s…” Lisa walked over to the counter for a closer look. “Yes. We’ve got two Chocolate-Covered Cherry Delights. One looks a little smushed on top, but it’s still good.”
“I’ll have the cherries,” Delores decided, sitting down at the table and turning to her daughter. “What are you doing tonight, dear?”
Hannah wanted to ask why her mother needed to know, but that wouldn’t be polite. It was best to hedge a bit and see if Delores would volunteer the information. “I’m not sure yet.”
“Then you don’t have any firm plans?”
“Not really.” Hedging hadn’t worked and it was time to border on the impolite. “Did you have a particular reason for asking?”
Delores gave a little laugh. “I should have told you up front. But that was nicely done, dear. You weren’t rude, but you avoided committing yourself.”
“Thank you, Mother. And your reason for asking?”
“Carrie wants to know my plans for tonight?”
“No, I do. But it’s because of Carrie that I want to know.” Delores stopped speaking as Lisa delivered her cookies and a fresh mug of coffee. “Thank you, Lisa.”
“You’re welcome.” Lisa turned to Hannah. “I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me. I want to mix up a batch of Blueberry Crunch Cookies for Grandma Knudson. Reverend Knudson told me she’s a great believer in dark berries.”
“Do you have any idea what Lisa was talking about?” Hannah asked once her partner had disappeared behind the kitchen door.
“Yes, dear. Dark berries are all the rage now. Eating them is supposed to be beneficial to eye health.”
Hannah gave a little shrug. “Is it true?”
“I don’t know, but I like blueberries and blackberries, so there’s no reason not to eat them. If it helps, that’s wonderful. If it doesn’t, what have I lost?”
“That’s a good attitude,” Hannah complimented her mother, “but let’s get back to Carrie. What does she have to do with my plans for tonight?”
Delores took a sip of her coffee and sighed. “She canceled at the last minute again. We were supposed to go out to class together and this is the second one she’s missed. I thought that if you didn’t have other plans, you might go with me. I just hate to drive out to the college alone, especially at night in the winter.”
Hannah was well and truly stuck and she knew it. It wasn’t often her mother asked for help. “Okay, I’ll go with you. What kind of class is it?”
“It’s a business class called Small Business Practices.”
“That sounds interesting,” Hannah said, but she meant just the opposite. It was possible she might learn something helpful from attending the session with her mother, but it could be a deadly dull way to spend an evening.
“The instructor, Miss Whiting, is very good. She has her masters in accounting and she’s a CPA specializing in small business and corporate tax preparation. I’m learning a lot about keeping better books, and the difference between the paperwork I should save and the things I can throw away.”
Hannah had the fleeting thought that since Lisa was now taking care of the financial end of their business, she should be the one to attend the class with Delores. Lisa would go if Hannah asked her, but that wouldn’t be fair. This was Lisa’s last night with her husband before Herb went ice fishing with Mayor Bascomb. Thinking that way was quite selfless of her and Hannah felt good about it. But she also had an equally important selfish reason for not saddling her partner with the class. Hannah wanted Lisa to get home in time to bake the Pork and Beans Bread so that she could taste it in the morning.
“What’s the problem with Carrie? Why can’t she go with you?”
“I’m not sure.”
“She didn’t tell you?” Hannah was shocked. Delores and Carrie had been friends for years before they’d opened their antique business together. In the past, they’d discussed everything, including Delores’s disastrous romance with Winthrop Harrington the Third.
“She just said something personal had come up and she was sorry, but she couldn’t go to class with me. That’s exactly the same thing she told me last week.”
“Carrie didn’t say what that something personal was?”
“No, she didn’t.”
“And you didn’t ask her?”
“Really, Hannah!” Delores looked offended. “Carrie said it was personal. Asking her to elaborate would have been terribly impolite.”
“I know, but did you?”
“Of course I did! She just repeated that it was personal and she’d tell me when she could. And then she hung up. It didn’t faze me the first time it happened, but now I’m definitely concerned. It isn’t like Carrie to be secretive. I just hope there’s not any trouble.”
“Yes. She could be ill and working a full day at Granny’s Attic and then attending a night class is too much of a drain on her health. Or… perhaps there’s a problem with Norman that we don’t know about. For all I know, she could have turned into a closet drinker for some reason or other. There are people who can drink every night for years and no one ever suspects. And then there’s the computer Norman got for her. What if she’s addicted to one of those online poker places and she’s lost all her retirement money?”
“None of those things sound like Carrie,” Hannah commented.
“I know, but she’s changed over the past few weeks. We used to talk, but she’s just not open with me anymore.”
Hannah heard the note of panic in her mother’s voice, mixed with an undertone of pain that her oldest and best friend wouldn’t confide in her. “Do you want me to try to find out what’s going on?” she offered.
“Would you, dear? I’d be so grateful!” Delores looked very relieved. “You should probably start by talking to Norman. He may know something.”
“Good idea,” Hannah said. “Maybe I’ll see him after class. What time do we get out?”
“Seven-thirty. It’s only an hour.”
“I’ll call him and see if he can meet me at my place later. I’ll bribe him with dessert.”
Delores gave a little laugh. “I don’t think you’ll have to bribe him, dear. It seems to me that whenever you want him, Norman comes running. He’s like your father in that respect. When we were dating, all I had to do was pick up the phone and he’d come over any hour of the day or night.”
Hannah thought about that for a moment and realized that her mother was right. Unless Norman had a patient in his dental chair, he always seemed eager to see her.
“If Norman doesn’t know anything, perhaps you could ask a few questions around town.”
“I guess I could do that.”
“Something else, dear… you could keep an eye out for Carrie’s car when you’re driving around town. If it’s parked in some unusual place, it could give us a clue to what’s going on.”
“You could even drop in on her at night to see what she’s doing firsthand. I’m sure you could talk Norman into going with you. All you’d have to do is think up some reason to pay her a surprise visit.”
“Norman wouldn’t really need an excuse to drop in on his own mother. I’m sure Carrie would love to see him. And maybe while they were talking, I could look around.”
“That’s an excellent idea. Thank you for your help, dear.” Delores ate her last bite of cookie and drained her coffee mug. Then she stood up and gave Hannah a little pat on the back. “I’ll drive out to your condo and pick you up at six. That gives us plenty of time to get to the college.”
“You don’t want me to drive?”
“No, dear. It’s out of your way. It’ll be better if I pick you up and drop you off at home after class.”
“Whatever you say, Mother,” Hannah replied obediently, watching her mother walk across the room, retrieve her coat, and hurry out the door. When the door closed behind her impeccably dressed, attractive mother, she let out a deep sigh that bordered on exasperation. She’d been maneuvered by an expert. Delores had elicited her help by claiming that she didn’t like to drive to the college at night, yet she’d volunteered to drive a round trip from town to Hannah’s condo, to the college, back to Hannah’s condo, and all the way to town again.
Hannah was half amused and half annoyed as she got up to join Lisa in the kitchen. Delores really was a master manipulator. Not only had she talked her eldest daughter into attending a class that didn’t interest her in the slightest, she’d also coerced Hannah to recruit one of her boyfriends to spy on his own mother!
Excerpted from PLUM PUDDING MURDER © Copyright 2011 by Joanne Fluke. Reprinted with permission by Kensington. All rights reserved.