Hannah Swensen has a lot on her plate, baking up a storm for The Cookie Jar. But she'll always make time for her business partner, Lisa, who's preparing for a big family reunion. Everyone is delighted when Lisa's long-lost uncle makes a surprise appearance. No one has heard from Gus in twenty-five years.
Uncle Gus is immediately the hit of the reunion. He's almost as popular as Hannah's scrumptious carrot cake. But the next morning, as the whole family gathers for the group photo, one person is missing. Hannah offers to track down Uncle Gus, but her search leads to a shocking find. Over by the bar at the pavilion, she spots two slices of her infamous carrot cake, frosting-side down on the floorand Gus's corpse with an ice pick jutting out of his chest!
A little snooping reveals that not everyone was celebrating Gus's return. And when Hannah unearths secrets from Gus's past, she discovers many more people with an axe to grind. Now Hannah's got to sift through a long list of suspects to find a killereven if it could mean a recipe for her own demise...
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CANDY CANE MURDER
By JOANNE FLUKE LAURA LEVINE LESLIE MEIER
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Joanne Fluke
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt was a dream, one of those bizarre fantasies she'd laugh about when she woke up. But not even in her worst nightmare had Hannah Swensen ever imagined she'd be transformed into an elf.
"Are you ready, Aunt Hannah?"
It wasn't a dream. That was Tracey's voice. Hannah mouthed a word she hoped wasn't in her six-year-old niece's vocabulary and then she answered the question. "I'll be out in a couple of minutes, honey."
The holiday season calls for a generosity of spirit, Hannah reminded herself as she pulled on bright green tights and struggled into the matching tunic top. The bottom hem of the tunic had long points of cloth attached like screaming red pennants hanging down around her waist. Each one was tipped with a jingle bell, so if by some miracle someone failed to notice her, the bells would announce her presence.
Her footwear was next. Hannah pulled on slippers with rollup toes in a shade of red so bright it hurt her eyes. She topped it all off with a pointed cap with more jingle bells in the same brilliant red, and avoided the mirror with the same dedication Transylvanian villagers had used to ward off vampires.
"I'm almost ready, Tracey."
"What's thematter? You sound funny."
"Elves are supposed to sound funny, aren't they?" Hannah tugged down the bright red points on her tunic. Perhaps it would stretch out and fit a little better.
"I guess. Better hurry, Aunt Hannah. It's six-five-six and Santa's supposed to be here at seven-oh-oh."
"Right." Hannah gave a fleeting thought to how much she missed the big hands and little hands on analog watches and risked a glance in the mirror. Her image hadn't changed for the better. The red of her hair was engaged in a full-scale war with the red of her cap, women who were more than two pounds overweight should avoid form-fitting tunics with bells that called attention to their figure faults, and with the possible exception of those who had fitness club memberships and actually used them, women over thirty should be wary about skipping in public. It was Santa who was supposed to jiggle like a bowlful of jelly, not her!
"Coming." Hannah tore her eyes away from the wreckage of her self-esteem. If a dozen determined designers had gotten together for the sole purpose of creating an outfit that would be most unflattering for her, they couldn't have done a better job. She took a deep breath, grabbed the basket of miniature candy canes she would strew like rose petals in Santa's wake, and opened the dressing room door.
All thoughts of how dreadful she looked were erased as she caught sight of Tracey's beaming face. Playing Santa's elf for an hour wouldn't kill her. And since the large silver basket she was carrying had to contain at least a thousand miniature candy canes, there was an upside to the evening. She'd have plenty of candy left over to make Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies at The Cookie Jar, her bakery and coffee shop, tomorrow.
"You're perfect, Aunt Hannah!" Tracey said, taking her aunt's hand. "All the kids are going to love you."
And with that vote of supreme confidence, Hannah and her niece headed for the temporary stage that had been erected in the dining room of the Lake Eden Inn to wait for Santa to arrive.
"I see Mom!" Tracey said, peeking through the crack in the curtain. "And Aunt Michelle's there, too. They're getting the kids lined up."
Hannah walked over to take a look. She spotted her two younger sisters waiting in line with the children from the Winnetka County Children's Home. They had been bussed out for an early dinner and a gift from Wayne Bergstrom, who was playing Santa tonight. The children would go back to the Home right after their visit with Santa and then the adult Christmas party would begin.
Tracey glanced at her watch. "It's seven-one-three and Santa Wayne isn't here yet. I wonder why he's late."
"I don't know," Hannah answered, "but make sure you don't call him Santa Wayne in front of the kids. You know that Wayne is one of Santa's temporary helpers at Christmas time, but the other kids don't."
"Don't worry, Aunt Hannah. I won't tell."
Hannah took another peek through the slit in the curtains. The children in line were beginning to fidget. If Wayne didn't get here soon, Michelle and Andrea would have an insurrection on their hands.
And then it happened. Both Hannah and Tracey began to smile as they heard sleigh bells in the distance. From previous Christmas parties at the Lake Eden Inn, Hannah knew that Wayne carried a half-dozen sleigh bells attached to a red leather strap. They usually resided in one of the big patch pockets of his Santa costume, but he took them out when he came in the kitchen door and jingled them to build anticipation for his arrival, and as a signal for his elf to join him in the kitchen.
Hannah took one last look at the line of children. All talking, coughing, and wiggling had ceased. Instead there was silence, perfect stillness of voice and body, large and small.
And every face wore an expectant smile. Santa was coming and even the teenagers who had seemed so jaded and blasé only moments before were now caught in the grips of heady expectancy.
"Better take your place, Tracey," Hannah whispered, giving her niece a little push toward the thronelike chair where Wayne would sit. Since some of the little ones had been afraid of the big, red-suited man with the white fur and the booming voice in years past, Sally had asked Tracey to stand next to Santa and reassure them.
When Tracey had taken up her position, looking like an angel with her shining blond hair and white velvet dress, Hannah gave a little wave and headed off to the kitchen. Her least favorite part of the evening was about to begin, the part where she skipped behind Santa and scattered cellophane-wrapped candy canes as he wound his way through the crowded dining room and up the steps to the stage. When Santa reached the top step, the curtains would open to reveal Tracey, Santa's throne, and the huge decorated Christmas tree. And once Wayne was seated and his elf had navigated the steps and taken her place by the Christmas tree, Michelle and Andrea would bring the children up, one by one, to greet Santa and receive their presents.
When she pushed open the swinging kitchen door, Hannah spotted Santa Wayne at the counter, perched on a tall stool and drinking something in a cup. Sally stood next to him, frowning.
"Something's wrong?" Hannah asked her, and it came out more statement than question. Of course something was wrong. Sally wouldn't be frowning if everything were perfectly all right.
"Wayne's got laryngitis and my hot peppermint tea isn't working. We're afraid he'll scare the kids when he talks to them."
Hannah realized that was possible, especially if Santa sounded gruff. "I could make an announcement."
"What kind of announcement?" Santa Wayne asked in a rasping voice that left no question about his ability to speak in normal tones.
"I could tell the kids that you ran into some thick fog over Greenland and you had to sing 'Jingle Bells' really loud so your voice would bounce off the ice caps and Donner and Blitzen wouldn't fly into them."
"That's the dumbest thing I ever heard!" Santa Wayne rasped.
Hannah shrugged. "I know, but I think it'll work. Do you want me to do it?"
Santa Wayne and Sally exchanged glances. "I guess it's better than nothing," he said, settling the question.
Smile. Scatter left, scatter right, Hannah told herself, trying not to pant as she skipped. She'd only covered about half the distance and she was already out of breath, puffing faster than the caterpillar smoking a hookah in Tracey's volume of Alice in Wonderland.
Uh-oh! There was Mike, her sometime boyfriend! Hannah put on the best smile she could muster and tried to pretend she was having the time of her life. The fact that those portions of her anatomy she often wished were smaller and firmer were bouncing up and down and sideways like a loose bar of soap in a shower stall didn't help. No one who saw her could possibly call her graceful. The best she could hope for was that they might consider her a good sport.
Only a few more yards to go. Hannah concentrated on skipping forward and peppering her audience with candy canes. At least she'd finally figured out why the green leggings she wore were called tights. It was because they were tight. Extremely tight. So very tight that she felt like a sausage about to split open on a blazing hot barbecue grill.
The ordeal was almost over and Hannah stopped to toss another few candy canes as Wayne climbed the steps to the stage. Then the curtains opened and the audience applauded as he gave Tracey a smile and sat down in his chair. He patted his knee, and Tracey climbed on to whisper in his ear. It was a sweet and heartwarming scene, and Hannah was grateful that everyone in the audience was watching Santa with Tracey as she climbed the steps to the stage and took her place to do what her Grandma Ingrid had always called speak her piece.
"Santa almost didn't make it tonight," Hannah spoke the words she'd been rehearsing in her head, "so let's give him a big round of applause to show how glad we are he made it here to the Lake Eden Inn."
The audience broke into loud applause and once it had diminished in volume, Hannah continued with her story. "Did you know that there was an awful storm at the North Pole when Santa started his Christmas journey?"
"No!" several children shouted, and Hannah gave them a smile. "There was, believe me. Santa didn't think he was going to make it, but do you know what he did?"
"No!" This time the response was louder and Hannah went into her story about the polar ice caps and the fog as heavy as green pea soup. "So Santa had to sing all the way to the coast of Newfoundland to keep his reindeer from crashing into the ice caps. And he sang so loudly and so long, he strained his voice."
The younger children in line were nodding gravely. They'd believed her, just as she'd known they would. "Would you like to hear how funny Santa sounds?" she asked.
There was a clamor of yeses and not all of them came from the children. Some of the adults were getting into the spirit of the evening, too.
"Would you please say Ho Ho Ho for us, Santa?" she requested, turning toward him.
"Ho, Ho, Ho!" Santa Wayne exclaimed hoarsely, and some of the children giggled. That drew a good-natured laugh from the adults and Hannah figured she'd done her part. There was only one more thing to mention. "So you won't be afraid of Santa's scratchy voice, will you?"
"No!" several children shouted and almost all of them shook their heads. Her mission was accomplished and Hannah skipped over to take her place next to the mound of color-coded presents. The Santa, Tracey, and Elf Show was about to begin.
Hannah and Tracey knew the drill. They'd even rehearsed it with Sally. Hannah would hand Tracey the appropriate present, Tracey would carry it to Santa, and Santa would give it to the child on his lap. Norman Rhodes, Hannah's other boyfriend, would snap a picture for posterity. Then Michelle would escort the child to the rear of the line as Andrea brought the next child forward.
The smallest children were at the front of the line and Hannah studied the mound of presents. They were arranged by age group. All she had to do was work from left to right and everyone would get an age-appropriate present. The packages were also color coded. If they were wrapped with gold and green paper, they were for the girls. The boys got presents wrapped with silver and red paper.
The next few minutes were busy. Hannah chose the gifts, Tracey gave them to Santa, and Santa presented them. The children were delighted and Hannah was really getting into the spirit of the season by the time she picked up the last present. It was over. And she hadn't died of mortification. Perhaps the mirror in Sally's dressing room had waved the wrong way and caused her to look larger than she actually was. And perhaps all that skipping had jumbled her brain and affected her ability to separate reality from wishful thinking.
There was standing applause as the children, all of them clutching their presents, were led out the door to their waiting bus. And then the curtains closed and Hannah fanned herself with her tasseled cap. Except for a few dropped candy canes and one toddler who would absolutely not sit on Santa's lap and screamed bloody murder despite Tracey's, Hannah's, Andrea's, Michelle's, and Santa's best efforts, all had gone smoothly.
Sally was waiting for them in the wings and she handed Santa Wayne another cup of hot tea. "That was even better than last year! Sip some tea, Wayne. Your throat must hurt from talking to the kids."
"Thanks. Hurts." His voice was as scratchy as sandpaper and he gave a rattling cough.
"I don't like the sound of that," Sally told him. And then she turned to Hannah and Tracey. "You were wonderful, Tracey. And Hannah ... your speech about Santa's sore throat was just the thing."
"Whatever," Hannah said, waving off the compliment even though she thought it had been pretty good herself.
"Here's your receipt for the presents, Wayne." Sally passed him a folded sheet of paper. "Mayor Bascomb did it through the Lake Eden Boosters this year."
"You know, the one you need for your corporate taxes. Mayor Bascomb said to tell your accounting department that the Boosters got their nonprofit status in June last year. He'll fax you a copy of the paperwork for your files."
"Right." He shoved the receipt in his pocket and turned to Hannah. "I'll need the rest of that candy. I'm playing Santa at the store tomorrow."
What a cheapskate! Hannah thought. And being a cheapskate was probably how rich people got rich in the first place. Wayne Bergstrom owned Bergstrom's Department Store, the busiest and most profitable retailer at the Tri-County Mall. He had displays of miniature candy canes at every checkout counter, the tubs stacked one on top of the other like red and white striped pyramids. There was no reason he needed to take what Hannah had come to think of as her leftovers.
"Here," Hannah said, handing over the basket.
"It's her basket," he said, gesturing to Sally. "Dump the candy in my pocket." Then he held open one of the massive pockets on the jacket of his Santa suit, and waited for Hannah to dump them in.
"I'll drop off the elf costume at the store tomorrow unless you want it now," Hannah told him. "It'll only take me a couple of minutes to change."
"Keep it. We couldn't sell it anyway now that you stretched it out. You can use it again next year."
"No flying pigs around here," Hannah muttered just under her breath, and she was rewarded by a startled chortle from Sally. When Sally had asked her if she would be Wayne's regular elf for future Christmas parties at the Lake Eden Inn, Hannah had responded with, Sure, when pigs fly!
With Sally struggling to maintain her composure, Hannah was just searching around for a topic of polite conversation when Sally's husband, Dick, walked up.
"Good job, Wayne." Dick clapped him on the back. "The kids loved you. Go change out of your suit and I'll mix you a Peppermint Martini."
"Tempting, but not tonight," he answered in his husky voice. "Got to rest my throat."
"Hot water, honey, and lemon," Hannah advised him. "It's like making hot lemonade. Then pour in a little brandy and top it off with grated nutmeg."
"Does the brandy help?" he asked her, clearing his throat with obvious difficulty.
"Not really. Your throat still hurts just as much, but after three or four cups, you don't care anymore."
Hannah's 1st Note: These recipes are from Richella and Priscilla, Dick Laughlin's bartenders at the Lake Eden Inn. Dick says if you don't have martini glasses, you should run right out and buy them. Both Dick and Sally swear that these martinis taste a hundred percent better in martini glasses.
5 ounces good grade vodka 2 ounces white crème d'menthe 1/2 ounce peppermint schnapps
Combine in a shaker and shake with ice. Strain into two martini glasses and garnish with miniature candy canes hooked over the rims of the glasses.
Excerpted from CANDY CANE MURDER by JOANNE FLUKE LAURA LEVINE LESLIE MEIER Copyright © 2007 by Joanne Fluke. Excerpted by permission.
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