Christmas normally descends on Lake Eden, Minnesota, as gently as reindeer alighting on a rooftop—but this yuletide season, the only thing coming down Hannah Swensen’s chimney is a case of murder.
Hannah and her pal Lisa have agreed to provide the goodies for the town’s annual production of A Christmas Carol. But before anyone can say “Bah, humbug!” a Santa-sized sackful of trouble ensues. Like the fact that Lisa’s husband will be playing Mr. Claus to his ex-girlfriend Phyllis Bates’ Mrs. Claus. Or that before the curtains even go up Phyllis is found dead in the snow—wearing a costume that the real Mrs. Claus would put on the naughty list. Soon, the suspects pile up faster than snowdrifts while a merry murderer remains on the loose. With clues hard to find, it might take a visit from ghosts of Christmas past to wrap up this mystery in time for the holidays…
Includes a dozen holiday recipes from The Cookie Jar!
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Christmas Caramel Murder
By JOANNE FLUKE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 H.L. Swensen, Inc.
All rights reserved.
"I'd better steady the ladder for you," Hannah warned as Lisa picked up the star ornament that fit on the very top of their Christmas tree and climbed up the first rung. "Are you sure you want to go do this? I really meant to get a new ladder after last year, but I forgot."
"That's understandable. The only time we use a ladder is at Christmas. But don't worry, Hannah. I can do it. I'm not afraid of heights, at least not usually."
"But you are right now?" Hannah asked, hearing the slight quaver in her young partner's voice.
"I'm a little nervous, that's all. It's just that the top of our tree seems like a long ways up."
"You're right, Lisa It is way up there. We got a sixteen-foot tree this year."
"I know, but it didn't seem this tall at the Christmas tree lot."
"That's probably because it was flanked by two blue spruces that were taller."
"How tall were those?"
"They were twenty-footers, and this one would have looked a lot shorter in comparison."
"I'm glad we didn't get a twenty-footer!" Lisa gave a little laugh. "I know it's impossible, but this tree looks like it's growing taller by the minute."
Lisa climbed up another rung. Then she reached down to hand Hannah the star tree-topper. "Will you hold this until I get about halfway up? I want to hold on to this ladder with both hands."
"No problem. Just let me know when you want the tree-topper and I'll give it to you."
Hannah held the ornament with one hand while she steadied the ladder with the other. The ladder wobbled, and she wished she'd remembered to shop for a new one.
Lisa climbed up the fourth rung and looked at the top of the tree again. "Let's get a shorter tree next year."
"We will. I promise."
"And a new ladder."
"That, too. I'll call Cliff at the hardware store right after we're through decorating the tree."
"Sounds good." Lisa climbed up another rung, and then she stopped. "I'm almost up high enough. Hand me the tree-topper, Hannah. I'll bend down."
"And I'll stretch up." Hannah reached up with her right hand, but she kept her left hand firmly on the ladder. "Here you go, Lisa."
Lisa bent down even farther and grabbed the ornament. "Got it!" she said, straightening up again and reaching toward the top of the tree.
At that precise moment, the back door opened and a familiar voice shouted, "Girls! Come quick! It's an emergency!"
The ladder wobbled as Hannah reacted to the panic in her mother's voice. Lisa let out a little gasp of fright, but somehow she managed to attach the tree-topper and climb down two rungs before the ladder began to tip.
"I can't hold it!" Hannah exclaimed as the ladder tipped even further. "Jump, Lisa!"
Lisa didn't wait for a second invitation. She leaped down to the floor as the ladder collapsed with a clatter of old wood and stressed metal fasteners as it fell apart.
"Good heavens! What on earth happened?"
Hannah and Lisa turned to see Delores Swensen standing in the doorway, staring at them in shock. "And where did you get that decrepit old ladder?"
"It was Dad's," Hannah said, resisting the urge to rail at her mother for startling them at such a critical point in their decorating endeavor. She took a deep breath to calm down, and then she asked, "What's the emergency, Mother?"
"Perhaps I shouldn't have used the word emergency to describe it," Delores replied, sounding slightly contrite. And then, in typical Delores fashion, she changed the subject. "How did you get Dad's ladder, Hannah?"
"I appropriated it from the basement of Dad's hardware store. I figured I might need a ladder so I brought it here when we sold the hardware store."
"You should have appropriated a new aluminum ladder, dear. This one was your Grandpa Swensen's ladder, and I tried for years to get your father to replace it. He finally got a new ladder for the house, but he must have kept this old one for sentimental reasons."
"I can understand that. That's why I wanted to keep it. But I should have propped it up in a corner and bought a new one for us to use. That's what I intended to do, but it slipped my mind."
"I'll remind you," Lisa said quickly. "Don't worry about that!"
"I won't forget again. This is the year we're getting a new one, and I'll order a metal ladder that won't rust. And I'll get one that has actual steps instead of rungs. I'll call to order it right after we hear about Mother's emergency."
"And after we have some coffee and cookies to calm down," Lisa added, turning to Delores. "Let's go to the kitchen. We just finished baking for the day and we made some of Andrea's Red Velvet Whippersnapper Cookies."
Delores smiled. "They sound good. ... Of course everything you dear girls bake is good." She turned to Hannah. "What are you going to do with that rickety old ladder?"
"I don't know," Hannah admitted as she followed her mother and Lisa into the kitchen. "I'll throw it out, I guess. It's too far gone for anyone to use."
"Don't do that!" Delores objected. "Are you getting your new ladder from Dad's old store?"
"Of course I am. It's the only hardware store in town, and I like Cliff Schumann and his dad."
"Then why don't you ask Cliff to deliver your new ladder and bring the old one to my house?"
"But it's in pieces! Really, Mother ... I don't think anyone could fix it."
"I won't even try to have it fixed. I just want to keep it around for sentimental reasons."
Hannah stared at her mother in confusion. Delores wasn't usually this sentimental. But if Delores wanted the ladder, Hannah was perfectly willing to give it to her. "Okay. Whatever you want, Mother. I'll call Cliff right now."
"Thank you, dear." Delores took her usual stool at the stainless-steel workstation while Lisa poured coffee and filled a platter with Red Velvet Whippersnapper Cookies from one of the two baker's racks at the side of the kitchen.
Hannah headed for the wall phone in the kitchen, and less than a minute later, she'd ordered the new aluminum ladder for The Cookie Jar and given Cliff instructions to bag up the old wooden ladder and deliver it to her mother's house.
"Okay," she said, sitting down at the workstation and addressing her mother. "Now tell us about your emergency, or whatever it is."
"Just because it may have been downgraded a bit doesn't mean it's not important," Delores maintained.
"Agreed. Tell us, Mother."
Delores sighed. "All right. The emergency, or situation, or whatever it is, is Ricky-Ticky."
"Mayor Bascomb," Lisa said, knowing that Hannah's mother often used the nickname she'd given Mayor Bascomb when he was a small boy and she was his babysitter. "What else has he done?"
"What else?" Delores asked, and it was clear that she wasn't sure what Lisa meant.
"Yes, what else has he done? Whatever it is, it couldn't be worse than hiring Phyllis Bates and moving her here just because ... well, you know why he did it. And then, when his wife, Stephanie, got wind of what was going on between the two of them, re-assigning Phyllis as Herb's assistant in the town marshal's office!"
Neither Hannah nor Delores knew quite what to say. They'd never seen Lisa quite so angry before. But there was no need to respond because Lisa didn't bother to wait for a reply.
"At least Stephanie Bascomb got her revenge! I saw that diamond ring she made the mayor buy for her and it's as big as a boulder!"
Hannah and Delores exchanged glances. Lisa sounded terribly bitter and they couldn't blame her for that. Lisa's husband, Herb Beeseman, had dated Phyllis Bates in high school and everyone had expected them to get married. But Phyllis's family had moved and Phyllis hadn't bothered to keep in touch with Herb or anyone else in Lake Eden. She hadn't been heard from in several years until Mayor Bascomb had somehow found her. And now she was back in Lake Eden, even more attractive than she'd been in high school.
"Don't keep me in suspense. Tell me what our esteemed mayor did this time," Lisa said, turning to face Delores. "Nothing you say about that man can possibly surprise me!"
"All right, but it's really bad." Delores took another sip of coffee and sat up a little straighter. "I'm warning you, Lisa. ... This could be even worse than hiring Phyllis in the first place. I got the news this morning, straight from Rod at the Lake Eden Journal." She glanced at her watch. "The paper is coming out in an hour, and I wanted to give you advance warning."
"Advance warning of what?" Lisa asked, looking worried.
"Mayor Bascomb called Rod late last night and said he's not holding the Mrs. Claus contest this year. Instead, he's using his executive authority to appoint someone to play Santa's wife."
Lisa began to look a little sick. "Don't tell me it's ..." She stopped and swallowed hard.
"I'm afraid it is," Delores answered. "Ricky-Ticky has appointed Phyllis Bates as this year's Mrs. Claus!"
It was all Hannah could do to keep from speaking several words she would never utter around her young nieces. Everyone knew that Lisa had been hoping to be Mrs. Claus this year. Herb had played Santa for the past four years running, passing out gift bags with candy and cookies to the children in the audience right after the Lake Eden Players had performed their Christmas play. Lisa, as Herb's wife in real life, was the logical choice for Mrs. Claus. And everyone, Hannah included, had thought that this would be Lisa's year to have that honor. And now Mayor Bascomb had arbitrarily given the role to Herb's former girlfriend, Phyllis.
Delores reached out to pat Lisa's hand. "To tell the truth, I can't stand Phyllis either. She certainly could never be mistaken for a lady!"
Lisa responded with a shaky smile. "That's true," she said in a small voice.
Hannah wanted to say something supportive, but she wasn't sure what it should be. She didn't like Phyllis either. There had been several incidents in high school involving the bouncy blond cheerleader wearing too-tight sweaters and too-short skirts that had caused Hannah to harbor less than affectionate feelings for her. But telling Lisa about her own feelings wouldn't comfort her. Hannah's great-grandmother Elsa had always said that actions spoke louder than words, and Hannah reached over to give Lisa a hug.
"There's something else I have to tell you," Delores said. "We have to find another candy company. The one the town council used last year just went out of business. That means we can't sell candy during the intermissions. You have no idea how upset Tory is about that! This is her first play and she was hoping it would be a huge success."
"I can understand that," Hannah said. Victoria Bascomb, or Tory, as she preferred to be called, was the mayor's sister. A wealthy and successful actress who had recently retired from the stage, Tory Bascomb had moved to Lake Eden and taken over as the director of the Lake Eden Players.
"We won't have anything to sell at intermission," Delores continued, "not even popcorn now that we lost the popcorn machine."
"Lost it?" Hannah was puzzled. How could you lose a concession-stand size popcorn machine? It was huge!"
"Not that way! We didn't physically lose it. But we've always borrowed it from Jordan High, and theirs is broken. They're getting a new one, but it won't be here until after Christmas. The Lake Eden Players made a lot of money at the cconcession counter last year. And this year they won't make anything."
"Maybe we can do something about that," Lisa told Delores. "Hannah and I already agreed to make the candy and cookies for the gift bags that Santa will give to the children. There's no reason we can't just double that order."
"But you manned the concession stand last year," Delores pointed out. "Will you have time to do that again and make more candy and cookies, too?"
"We'll make time. It's important to support the Lake Eden Players, and I want to see the play anyway. My mother read A Christmas Carol to all of us every year, but I've never seen the play."
Hannah turned to look at Lisa in shock. Christmas was a very busy season for them. They'd been discussing it over their first cup of coffee this morning, attempting to come up with a schedule that would let them have a little more time off to enjoy the holidays with their friends and families. And now Lisa had volunteered both of them for more work! The play was being performed three times, and the concession stand would be open before the performance, and during the first and second intermissions. They'd have to be there early to set up, wait on customers as they filed in, handle the intermissions, and clean up after the performances.
Why had Lisa done this? For a brief moment Hannah was puzzled, but then she understood the reason why Lisa had taken on this extra work. Now that Phyllis Bates had been cast as this year's Mrs. Claus, Lisa wanted to be there to keep an eye on Herb. Herb and Phyllis would appear on stage together every night after the final curtain had fallen. They'd greet the children who were attending the performance, give them treat bags, and share a hug before they walked off-stage. Lisa wanted to be right there to judge her husband's reaction to that very public hug. But Lisa had never been the jealous type of wife. Why was she so worried about Herb and Phyllis now? Hannah couldn't shake the feeling that there was something else wrong between Herb and Lisa, something that Lisa wasn't telling her.
"Just what we need!" Hannah muttered under her breath, but she managed to maintain her pleasant expression as she turned to her mother. "Do you know how much candy the Lake Eden Players sold at their performance last year?"
"I don't have a dollar amount, but I do know that all our local charities were extremely grateful for their donations."
"Could you get us a copy of last year's order from the candy company?" Lisa asked, clearly realizing why Hannah wanted that information. "We need to know the quantities to be certain that we make enough."
"Of course you need to know the quantity. I should have thought of that. I'll run over to Tory Bascomb's temporary office and ask her." Delores paused to take a bite of her cookie. "And by the way, dears ... these cookies are fantastic. I love the fact that they have chocolate chips inside."
"I'll tell Andrea you said so," Hannah promised. "More coffee, Mother?"
"No, dear. I really must go." Delores got up from her stool. "I have a million things to do today. Have fun baking, dears. And be sure to save samples of any new cookies you try. I love to test new cookies for you."
Hannah waited until the back kitchen door had closed behind her mother, and then she turned to Lisa. "Okay, Lisa ... give!"
"There's more to this Herb and Phyllis thing than you're telling me."
"You're imagining things," Lisa said, but she looked down at the worktable, not meeting Hannah's eyes.
"I don't think so. And it'll probably help to talk about it. Tell me what's wrong, Lisa."
Lisa sat there in silence for a moment, and then she gave a deep sigh. "Herb's been working late every single night this month. I know he loves me and I know that I should trust him, but it's every night."
"When did this start?"
"A couple days after Mayor Bascomb transferred Phyllis to Herb's office."
It was Hannah's turn to sigh. "Did you drive past Herb's office to see if he was there?"
"Yes, after it happened five nights in a row. And Hannah ... Herb wasn't there!"
"Maybe he was out on patrol?"
"No. His cruiser was in the lot, right where he always parks it. But his personal car was gone!"
That didn't sound good, and Hannah reached out to pat Lisa's shoulder. "Did you try to find him?"
"Yes. I drove past Dad's house because I thought he might have gone over there to help his mother with something. He wasn't there, and I didn't go in to ask if they'd seen him. I was too embarrassed. I didn't want them to think I was tracking him down!"
"Of course not. Did you try anywhere else?"
"Yes." Lisa gave a little nod. "I drove past every place I could think of, anywhere I thought he might go."
Hannah hated to ask the logical question, but there was no way she could leave that particular stone unturned. "Did you drive past Phyllis Bates's apartment?"
"Yes," Lisa admitted and she looked shamefaced. "I know that a wife should trust her husband, but when I couldn't find Herb anywhere else, I drove out to The Oaks. I didn't want to, but I just had to know!"
"Of course you did," Hannah reassured her partner, remembering the night she'd driven past the back of the Magnolia Blossom Bakery and spotted Mike's car there. "Was Herb there?"
"No. At least I don't think he was there. I didn't spot his car in the visitor parking section."
Excerpted from Christmas Caramel Murder by JOANNE FLUKE. Copyright © 2016 H.L. Swensen, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.