“GINGERBREAD COOKIE MURDER” by JOANNE FLUKE
When Hannah Swensen finds her neighbor Ernie Kusak with his head bashed in and sprawled on the floor of his condo next to an upended box of Hannah’s Gingerbread Cookies, she discovers a flurry of murder suspects that’s as long as her holiday shopping list.
“THE DANGERS OF GINGERBREAD COOKIES” by LAURA LEVINE
Jaine Austen has been enlisted to help with her parents’ retirement community’s play The Gingerbread Cookie That Saved Christmas. Playboy Dr. Preston McCay is playing the role of the gingerbread cookie when he “accidentally” falls to his death during the final act. Now Jaine must figure out if one of the doctor’s jealous lovers was capable of murder.
“GINGERBREAD COOKIES AND GUNSHOTS” by LESLIE MEIER
When Lucy Stone discovers the body of Rick Juergens, whose five-year-old son Nemo disappeared, she senses foul play. Crumbs from a gingerbread cookie Lucy gave to Nemo are found in the back seat of Rick’s car. With the hours quickly ticking till Christmas, Lucy races against the clock to find a killer before he strikes again.
Includes Over 10 Luscious Holiday Recipes!
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About the Author
LAURA LEVINE is a comedy writer whose television credits include The Bob Newhart Show, Laverne & Shirley, The Love Boat, The Jeffersons, Three’s Company, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Her work has been published in The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times. She lives in Los Angeles, and is currently working on the next Jaine Austen mystery. Readers can reach her on Facebook (Laura Levine Mysteries), or her website: www.JaineAustenMysteries.com.
LESLIE MEIER is the acclaimed author of over twenty Lucy Stone mysteries and has also written for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. She is currently at work on the next Lucy Stone mystery. Readers can visit her website at www.LeslieMeier.com.
Read an Excerpt
GINGERBREAD COOKIE MURDER
By JOANNE FLUKE LAURA LEVINE LESLIE MEIER
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTwenty-four reindeer burned to a crisp and it was all her fault! Hannah Swensen pulled the smoking cookie sheets from her oven and dumped the contents in the kitchen wastebasket. She should have known she'd never hear her stove timer over Ernie Kusak's deafening Christmas music.
To bake, or not to bake. Hannah pondered the decision for several seconds. She'd left work early to come home to bake, and if she quit now, she'd have to get up very early tomorrow to finish the cookies she'd promised to deliver to her niece Tracey's first grade class in time for their morning snack. On the other hand, she'd probably burn several more herds of reindeer unless she stood with her ear to the oven. And Tracey had promised her classmates that Aunt Hannah's gingerbread reindeer cookies were the best cookies in the whole world.
"Later," she said with a sigh, covering the mixing bowl with plastic wrap and sliding it into the refrigerator. The cookies could wait. Earplugs, however, could not.
Hannah hurried to her bedroom, pulled out the top drawer of her dresser, and took out a small plastic pouch. The last time she'd worn earplugs was when she'd watched her business partner, Lisa, compete in a pistol match. Ernie's music was certainly as loud as a gunshot, and that meant they ought to work just fine.
The earplugs were the squeezable kind and fairly comfortable, but even after she'd put them in place, she could still hear the refrain of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus quite clearly. They didn't completely drown out the racket, but they did make it bearable.
Hannah was about to turn to go back into the living room, when she spotted a lump under the covers of her bed. Her feline roommate had also made an effort to escape the musical assault.
"Smart boy!" she complimented the twenty-three pound, orange and white cat who cohabited her condo. It was clear that Moishe shared her opinion of Ernie's music, because he'd tunneled under a quilt, two blankets, a sheet, and a feather pillow.
At least it wasn't the same song, over and over. Have a Holly Jolly Christmas had been blaring away when Hannah had come home from The Cookie Jar, her bakery and coffee shop in town. The previous evening she'd been subjected to the strains of We Wish You a Merry Christmas when she'd climbed up the stairs to her second-floor home. The night before that it had been a dozen verses of The Twelve Days of Christmas. Twice. There was nothing wrong with Christmas music. Hannah loved Christmas music. But this was way too early, a whole month before Christmas, and Ernie turned it up way too loud. Lisa had suggested that Ernie might have a hearing problem, and Hannah agreed. If Ernie had no hearing loss now, he was bound to have one before the holiday season was over!
Hannah gave a little sigh. She'd done her best to solve the problem today when Ernie had come into The Cookie Jar for coffee. With unprecedented tact for one who had none to speak of, Hannah had asked him very nicely if he would please lower the volume of the music. Ernie had agreed immediately, promising to reduce the decibels right after his kids came home from school and saw the newest addition to his Christmas display. Hannah had been so grateful, she'd given him a dozen gingerbread Santa cookies to seal their bargain.
Everyone in Lake Eden, Minnesota, had reeled in shock when Ernie Kusak had divorced his wife Lorna in June. As far as the founders of the Lake Eden gossip hotline knew, the Kusak marriage was rock solid. They didn't have financial worries. Lorna worked as a legal secretary for Howie Levine, Lake Eden's most popular lawyer, and Ernie made good money as the manager and head driver for Cyril Murphy's Shamrock Limousine Service. The couple had two teenage children who earned high grades in school and appeared happy and well adjusted. Their son, Christopher, was a senior at Jordan High and their daughter, Lindsay, was a junior. Lorna had never complained to any of the local women about Ernie, and on the infrequent occasions that Ernie had time off and joined the crowd in the back room at Hal and Rose's Cafe to play a hand of poker, he had nothing critical to say about Lorna. No one was sure why their twenty-year marriage had suddenly dissolved, and neither Lorna nor Ernie was talking.
Once the Kusak divorce was final, Hannah's sister, Andrea, had sold their house to Gary Jenkins, one of Ernie's coworkers, who wanted to move from a neighboring town and reduce his commute time. She'd found a condo in Hannah's complex for Lorna to buy with her share of the proceeds, and Gary had invited Ernie to live in what had formerly been Ernie's own basement bedroom. He'd been living there for four months when fortune smiled on him and he purchased the winning ticket in the Super-Six Lottery with a jackpot of over eight million dollars.
The lottery changed Ernie's life. When he moved out of his old basement and used some of his newly found riches to buy a condo in Hannah's complex, speculation ran wild that Ernie had come to his senses and was attempting to get back into Lorna's good graces. But Lorna wasn't convinced she wanted to re-marry Ernie, even though he was now a wealthy man.
Hannah was the first to admit that establishing a college fund for Chris and Lindsay was a good first step toward restoring Lorna's affections. Buying both kids new cars, however, was a bit much. Of course the kids liked to hang out at Dad's condo with their friends. Ernie had equipped it with the newest video games, there were always cold drinks and snack foods on hand, and Ernie had programmed the takeout number for Bertanelli's Pizza on his phone. A giant-screen television in the media room was set up to receive first-run movies and sports events via satellite, and Chris and Lindsay's friends were always welcome. According to Lorna, the only part of the three-bedroom condo that Ernie had set aside for his own pleasure was the master bedroom. That said, Lorna had snapped her mouth shut and refused to say anything further.
Even though now, with her earplugs in place, Ernie's music was borderline tolerable, Hannah supposed a member of the homeowners' association should go down and caution Ernie again. But Ernie had promised her he'd turn down the volume right after his kids came home from school. Perhaps they'd had a late afternoon activity at Jordan High and they weren't home yet.
Hannah glanced out the window that overlooked the grounds as she left her bedroom. The wind had tossed the fresh snow that had fallen during the day, rearranging it in long ridges that buried the winter plants and formed irregular hillocks on the ground. Now that evening was fast approaching, the plush blanket of snow was imprinted with Dali-esque shadows of trees and buildings, as if she were viewing it through an ancient, wavy glass. The light level was different, too. It seemed to be a lot brighter than it should be for this time of night and it appeared to be ... green!
Hannah flicked off her bedroom light for a better look. The light reflecting against the bank of snow was definitely green, a bright Kelly green. But wait ... it had just changed color! Now it was red, as red as a stoplight, and as she watched, it changed again to flashing yellow. What on earth was going on? The Northern Lights had never been this brilliant before!
Puzzled, Hannah headed back down the hall to see if the scene was the same from her guest room window. Yes, the snow that had gathered in clumps against the bushes was also reflecting the changing colors. The simple solution was to go outside to see if she could figure out what was happening, but she had another piece of business to accomplish first.
As she passed by her desk in the living room, Hannah picked up the list of condo board members that was propped up against her computer keyboard. The other residents would be coming home from work soon and she had to find a board member to give Ernie another warning. He'd been cooperative when board members had warned him in the past and there was no reason to think he wouldn't cooperate tonight. Music this loud was simply unacceptable. She could hear every word of We Three Kings right through the same earplugs that had effectively blocked out the sound of gunshots the last time she'd worn them.
The president of the homeowners' association was the logical choice to call. It was Sue Plotnik, Hannah's downstairs neighbor, and she occupied the unit across from Ernie's. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for them, the Plotnik family had left this morning for Sue's parents' house in Wisconsin.
The next name on the list was the vice president, but he wasn't home when Hannah called him. Neither was the secretary nor the treasurer. That left three members-at-large and they didn't answer her calls either.
There was only one name left on the list. It was hers. She'd been elected to the board last week to fill a vacancy left by a member who'd moved. Since no one else was available, she had to go downstairs and ask Ernie to turn down the music.
Going out in the Minnesota winter, even just running down the stairs to knock on a neighbor's door, required donning survival gear. Hannah put on her parka and zipped it up, jammed a ski cap over her unruly masses of red curls, and pulled on her snow boots. Once she'd thrust her hands into fur-lined gloves, she opened the door and stepped out onto the frigid landing.
And there she stopped. And stared. The mystery of the colored, flashing lights she'd seen reflected on the snow outside her windows was solved.
It was well below zero and Hannah's breath steamed out in clouds of white vapor, but she didn't notice. Her gaze was fixed on the sky above, where penguins in Santa hats were cavorting wildly with polar bears shaking tambourines.
As Hannah watched, mesmerized, an infinite line of elves on ice skates wound around the unlikely couples, carrying gaily wrapped packages that looked much too large for them to handle. Every motion, every turn, every swooping swirl was carefully synchronized with Ernie's Christmas music.
It took a few moments for Hannah to recover her power of speech. When she did, she uttered a phrase she'd never use around her young nieces. Not only had Ernie installed a theater quality sound system to play his music at a deafening level, but he'd also just added a spectacular laser display as a showcase.
Hannah stamped her feet to restore mobility. They felt like square blocks of ice. Standing here staring at Ernie's exhibition wouldn't solve the noise problem. She headed down the stairs, turned at the bottom, and clumped past Sue and Phil's darkened condo. Ernie had the unit on the other side of the staircase and she glanced up at the condo immediately above his. Only the kitchen light on the table was burning and Hannah was familiar with Clara and Marguerite's habits. When that light was on and the rest of the condo was dark, the Hollenbeck sisters were not at home.
There was a drum roll from overhead and Hannah glanced up at the sky. Good heavens! Here came flying snowmen holding sleigh bells just as the music segued into Jingle Bells! Hannah tore her eyes away from the sight and concentrated on keeping her footing on the icy walkway. She reached Ernie's door without incident and rang the buzzer several times.
Nothing, absolutely nothing happened. That didn't surprise Hannah. She doubted that Ernie could hear the buzzer with all this racket going on. She tried again several times, and even used the ornamental knocker on the outside of the door. When that had no effect, she resorted to pounding on the door with her gloved fists.
After several moments, she stopped. It was no use. The old-fashioned globe lights that dotted the grounds of the complex clicked on and Hannah shivered. Night had fallen and it was bitterly cold. The wind whipped around the corner of the building and threatened to blow off her ski cap. Strands of hair not covered by the stretchy knit fabric were transformed into miniature whips that flayed at her cheeks. Her feet had lost all feeling and her teeth were chattering faster than the wind-up denture toy Norman Rhodes, one of the men she dated, kept in the kids' corner of the Rhodes Dental Clinic.
She'd make one last attempt and then she'd go home. Hannah pressed the buzzer repeatedly with her right hand and beat a volley of thumps on the door with her left. When there was no response before her arms tired, she convinced herself that Ernie wasn't home and turned to retrace her steps. As she passed the grated ground-level openings that let air and light into the underground garage, she noticed that Ernie's new Ferrari was parked in his spot. Dragging her icy legs up the stairs, Hannah decided that there were only two conclusions to draw from this new piece of information: Either Ernie was home and hadn't heard her, or Ernie had left with someone else.
A welcome blast of heat greeted her as she opened her condo door and she took a big gulp of the non-frozen air. She'd done her duty as a board member, even though it hadn't worked. She tossed her parka on the couch and glanced at the phone on the end table to see if she'd missed any calls. The red light wasn't blinking and that meant no one had called. That was good. She probably couldn't have heard the message if she'd played it back anyway.
Hannah was about to go off to the kitchen to pour herself a steaming cup of coffee when she had an idea. There was one last way she could try to contact Ernie. She could call him and if she let the phone ring long enough and he was home, he might hear it, especially if a relatively quiet Christmas song came on.
The moment she thought of it, Hannah kicked off her boots, sat down on the couch, and reached for the phone. She was just in time. The current song ended and a softer transition to another Christmas carol began to play. And then, just as she was about to pluck the phone from the cradle, it rang.
"Hello?" she said, just as the first bars of Go Tell It on the Mountain, sung by an extremely powerful soprano, began battering her eardrums.
"Hannah? Are you there?"
"Hold on!" she shouted, doing battle with the soprano by racing to the laundry room and banging the door shut behind her. The noise, muffled by four interior walls, abated somewhat and she turned back to the phone. "I'm here," she said.
The voice answered again, but she couldn't make out the words. Had she suffered permanent hearing loss? She reached up to touch her ear and her fingertips encountered a foreign object. For a moment, she was puzzled, but then she remembered that her earplugs were still in place. "Hold on," she said again. "I have to take out my earplugs."
A moment later she was back on the line. "Norman?" she asked. "Is that you?"
"It's me. Why do you have your music turned up so loud? And what was that about earplugs?"
"It's not my music. It's coming from Ernie Kusak's place. And my earplugs are preventive medicine for hearing loss."
"Poor Moishe!" Norman sounded very sympathetic. "His hearing is even more acute than yours."
"I know. I'm sure it hurts his ears. He's hiding under the covers on my bed and he never does that."
"I'd better come over and get him right away," Norman said, and that made Hannah smile. When it came to her, it was a case of Love me, love my cat. And Norman loved her cat almost as much as he loved his own cat. "Moishe can stay with Cuddles while we go out for dinner. It's nice and quiet at my place. Can you be ready in twenty minutes?"
"Yes," Hannah said quickly. It was Norman to the rescue once again. She just hoped that things wouldn't change once his new business partner and former fiancée, Beverly Thorndike, moved to Lake Eden in January. Norman had sworn that nothing would change between them, but Hannah wasn't so sure. Even though Norman had done his best to convince her that his relationship with Beverly was strictly business, Hannah just couldn't believe it was that simple. Beverly and Norman had been engaged for over a year. Was it possible to completely turn off the loving feelings that they must have had for each other? Or would those feelings return when they were together all day at the Rhodes Dental Clinic?
Excerpted from GINGERBREAD COOKIE MURDER by JOANNE FLUKE LAURA LEVINE LESLIE MEIER Copyright © 2010 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsGINGERBREAD COOKIE MURDER JOANNE FLUKE....................1
THE DANGERS OF GINGERBREAD COOKIES LAURA LEVINE....................137
GINGERBREAD COOKIES AND GUNSHOTS LESLIE MEIER....................271