"Every town has a crooked lawyer," I said. "But even crooks have the right to buy chocolate."
"Clementine Ripley isn't our town's crooked lawyer," Aunt Nettie said scornfully.
"Clementine Ripley is just a crooked summer visitor. And I'd be a lot happier if she kept her crookedness elsewhere."
"We can't refuse her business."
"We can refuse if we're not going to get paid."
"Oh, I'll make sure we'll get our money before she gets her chocolate."
Aunt Nettie knotted her solid fists on her solid hips and stood solidly on her solid legs. Solid is definitely the word for Jeanette TenHuis. Even her thick hair, blond streaked with gray, with its natural curl firmly controlled by a food-service hairnet, looked substantial and dependable—hair that wouldn't stand for any nonsense. She is five-foot-four and may weigh 175, but she doesn't look fat. She looks like a granite statue hewn by a sculptor who got tired of chiseling all the excess stone off a big block, so he just whacked a little around the edges, then polished the whole thing smooth and shiny.
But if I compared Aunt Nettie to one of the delectable chocolates she makes, I'd say she was a Frangelico truffle (described in her sales material as, "Hazelnut interior with milk chocolate coating, sprinkled with nougat."). In other words, she's firm outside, but soft at the heart and has a slightly nutty flavor. When I left the guy I sometimes refer to as Rich Gottrocks and gave up my career as a trophy wife, all my other relatives told me how stupid I was. Aunt Nettie offered me room, board, and a job running the business side of her chocolate shop and factory while I studied for the CPA exam. Of course, after a couple of days of working on her books, I saw she wasn't being merely philanthropic. My uncle's death eighteen months earlier had thrown her into a financial hole I hoped was temporary, and she needed a cheap manager. But I needed a place where nobody knew my ex-husband, a place to lie low and gather energy for a new attack on life. So we made a good pair.
Soft center or no, Aunt Nettie was quite capable of refusing to sell chocolates to Clementine Ripley, even if it cost her money. It was my job to keep her from doing that, so I spoke firmly. "Listen, Aunt Nettie, when you brought me back to Warner Pier, you said the business side of TenHuis Chocolade was my responsibility. And the business side can't stand for you to snub a two-thousand-dollar order. That would buy a bunch of all-natural ingredients. So load those chocolates up."
She rolled her round blue eyes, and I knew I'd won. "All right, Lee," she said. "But you'll have to deliver them. I won't speak civilly to Clementine Ripley."
"And you'll have to use your minivan. Because of the air-conditioning."
"I'll be glad to," I said. "Maybe I'll get a look inside that house."
"And make sure we get our money!"
"Cross my heart."
I watched while Aunt Nettie loaded six giant silver trays with handmade truffles and bonbons and with fruits dipped in chocolate coating for Clementine Ripley. Candies in dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate; strawberries and dried apricots half covered with dark chocolate; fresh raspberries mounted on disks of white chocolate and drizzled with milk chocolate—she arranged them into swirling designs of yummy. Each type of truffle or bonbon was decorated in a different way or came in a different shape. A dark chocolate pyramid was coffee-flavored. The white-chocolate-covered truffle with milk chocolate stripes was almond-flavored, its milk chocolate interior flavored with Amaretto. The oval bonbon, made of dark chocolate and decorated with a flower, had a cherry-flavored filling. This went on through sixteen different kinds of truffles and bonbons.
When I'd worked behind the counter as a teenager, I'd known them all. Now I could identify only a few, but that didn't matter. All were genuine luxury chocolates—no jellies or chewy caramels or hard centers—and every flavor could lift me into a state of ecstasy. Aunt Nettie's chocolates were guaranteed to wow the guests at the fund-raiser Clementine Ripley was sponsoring for the Great Lakes Animal Rescue League. It was a big event, or so the Warner Pier weekly had claimed. Guests were coming from Chicago and Detroit—all carrying big checks for the Rescue League.
I snagged an Amaretto truffle Aunt Nettie hadn't placed on a tray yet and bit into it, savoring every sweet, almond-flavored morsel. Every TenHuis Chocolade employee is allowed two free chocolates each working day—a perk I found more pleasant than a company car would have been.
When the first tray was completely filled, Aunt Nettie covered it with plastic wrap, and I picked it up and carried it toward the alley, where I had parked.
"Start the air-conditioning!" Aunt Nettie said.
"I will, I will! I'm not taking a chance on having a couple of thousand dollars' worth of chocolate melt all over my van."
Warner Pier's summer weather is usually balmy. People come here to get away from the heat elsewhere in the Midwest. Most Warner Pier folks don't bother to have air-conditioned cars, and many— including Aunt Nettie—don't even have air-conditioned houses, though she keeps the chocolate shop and workroom chilly. But the lakeshore does have a few really hot muggy days each summer, and this happened to be one of them.
In Texas, we've all given up trying to live without air-conditioning and it's installed everywhere—in houses, offices, industrial plants, cars, trucks, and tractors. My used van had a Texas tag and enough Texas air-conditioning to keep chocolate from melting in any temperature the Great Lakes region was likely to hand out.
I went back and forth out the back door, sliding the trays onto the floor of the van, making sure each tray was wedged firmly. Aunt Nettie didn't get a lot of orders for trays already arranged, but when she did, she wanted them to look artistic. She always arranged them herself, without the help of any of the "hairnet ladies," who were also bustling around the workroom.
These chocolates looked gorgeous. Aunt Nettie carried the last tray out, and I put it in the floor of the front seat. Then I looked at the array and sighed. "They're almost too beautiful to eat."
Aunt Nettie gave a satisfied snort. "They'll eat them," she said. "Now I'll get the cats, and you can go."
While Aunt Nettie went to the storage room, I popped into the rest room off the break room and freshened up. I had to duck to see the top of my head in the mirror; I got a tall gene from both the Texas side and the Michigan Dutch side of my family, so I'm just a shade under six feet. I tucked my chocolate-brown shirt with the TenHuis Chocolade logo into my khaki slacks. I rebrushed my hair—whitish-blond like the Michigan side—and clipped it into a barrette on the back of my neck. Then I added the merest touch of mascara, tinted faintly green like my Texas hazel eyes. I wiped my mouth and put on a new coat of medium pink lipstick. It was nice to look like myself again. Mr. Gottrocks, whose name was actually Richard Godfrey, always liked me to wear bright red lipstick and big hair, but I'd left the glamour behind with my wedding ring.
As I came out Aunt Nettie was arranging the last of Clementine Ripley's special order of cat-shaped candies onto a smaller silver tray. I admired these, too. Each about three inches high, they were made of solid white chocolate, formed in a mold specially ordered from the Netherlands. They had been hand-detailed with milk chocolate glaze and colored chocolate, so that the blue eyes and the light brown markings of the cats mimicked the photo Clementine Ripley had provided of her Birman male, Champion Myanmar Chocolate Yonkers. To a non-cat-fancier like me, Yonkers looked as if a Siamese cat had decided to let his hair grow. He had immensely fluffy Persian-like fur, but had the delicate light brown paws, ears, nose, and tail of a Siamese.
Even to a non-cat-fancier, Yonkers was a beautiful creature, and his chocolate replicas looked scrumptious on their silver dish. "Gorgeous!" I said.
Aunt Nettie wrapped the dish with a huge sheet of food-service Saran, then picked up a small white box tied with blue ribbon from the table behind her. "Here are the samples," she said.
"Samples? For me?"
"No! For Clementine Ripley. I don't want my display ruined. So I packed a few extra chocolates for her to sample. I wrote her name on top."
I laughed. "Maybe you'd better send an extra cat, so she won't get into those either."
“There's a cat in there. Amaretto truffles are her favorite, though. She buys those every time she comes in. So I sent a half dozen. But I'd better get my money!”
"No check, no chocolate. I talked to her assistant—Ms. McCoy?—and she assured me she'd have the money ready."
I shook my finger at Aunt Nettie. "And unlike some other people—I'm sticking to it. Not a chocolate comes out of the van until I have that check."
Aunt Nettie smiled sheepishly. She's much too understanding and patient. A year earlier she had let Clementine Ripley have chocolates for her big benefit party on credit. But in the offhand way of the really rich, Ms. Ripley neglected to pass on the invoice in a timely manner to the person who paid her bills. It was several months before Aunt Nettie got her money. This year we weren't going to let that happen.
I'd insisted that Clementine Ripley use a credit card, but that hadn't worked either. Now I'd arranged to get a check when the chocolates were delivered.
I checked to be sure I had the invoice, slung my purse over my shoulder, and took the tray of cats to the van. I was settled behind the wheel when Aunt Nettie ran out, waving.
"Wait! Take these."
I rolled down the window, letting out valuable air-conditioned air, and took what she handed me—a dispenser box containing a few pairs of plastic food-service gloves.
"In case any of the chocolates shift, use these to move them back in place."
"I'll drive slow and steady," I said. "And I'll try not to say anything stupid, either."
Aunt Nettie laughed. "You're not stupid, Lee," she said. Bless her heart. I hope she's right, but not everybody agrees with her. She waved as I drove off.
Nothing's very far away from anything else in Warner Pier. Clementine Ripley's overly dramatic showplace home on the cliff at Warner Point was only two miles from TenHuis Chocolade, located on Fifth Street between Peach and Pear Avenues.
I pulled out of the alley and very gently turned onto Peach Street, then followed that a block to Dock Street, the pride of Warner Pier. Dock Street has been turned into a real attraction—a mile of marinas, all crammed with boats and yachts in the summer. And dividing the street from the marinas is a mile-long park—a narrow series of green spaces, gazebos, and wooden walkways. Boaters can dock at a Warner Pier marina, then walk across the park to reach a business district filled with good restaurants, antique and gift shops, art galleries, trendy and expensive clothing stores—and the occasional specialty shop like TenHuis Chocolade. It's pretty neat, or so we Warner Pier merchants think. I followed Dock Street, driving slowly because of the chocolates and because of the tourists who roamed the streets, until I was out of the business district.
The older residential neighborhoods of Warner Pier were designed by Norman Rockwell in 1946. At least, my mother always claims she grew up on the cover of an old Saturday Evening Post magazine. The town looks as if it's under a glass dome. Just shake us, and it snows on the white Victorians, Craftsman bungalows, and modified Queen Anne cottages and on their lush, old-fashioned gardens.
Warner Pier lies along the Warner River, not far upstream from the spot where the river enters Lake Michigan. In the 1830s, settlers—some from the Netherlands and some from New England—saw a chance to make money by cutting down all the native timber. With those trees gone, the next generation planted replacements, but they concentrated on fruit trees, and Warner Pier became a center for production of "Michigan Gold," which was the early-day promoters' nickname for peaches. By 1870 Warner Pier had become a town of prosperous fruit growers and ship owners—solid citizens with enough money to build the substantial Victorian houses that today are being gentrified into summer homes or into bed-and-breakfast inns. Warner Pier is still a fruit-producing center, but today a lot of the area's "Michigan Gold" comes from tourists and summer residents.
I followed the curves of Dock Street to the showplace home of Clementine Ripley, one of Warner Pier's most famous summer visitors. Most summer people come for the beaches and Victorian ambiance, but Ms. Ripley seemed to have come seeking seclusion. Several years earlier she had acquired ten acres of prime property on top of a bluff overlooking the Warner River, right at the point where it entered Lake Michigan. She built a low stone house that appeared to be about two blocks long, with a tower slumped at one end. That tower was apparently based on an abstract idea of a lighthouse—or maybe planned as a squatty version of the Washington Monument. It was known to boaters up and down the lake as “the sore thumb,” because that's what it stuck out like.
The house might be highly visible from the lake, but it was not inviting. Signs warning boaters and swimmers to keep away were posted along the shore. Guards and a high brick wall kept Clementine Ripley private and protected from the land side.
Clementine might well need protection, and from more than prying eyes. Her office was in Chicago, but she had a national practice in criminal law. As one of the nation's toughest defense lawyers, she'd kept a series of high-profile clients out of prison on charges that ranged from fraud to murder. Not a few people—witnesses she'd shredded on the stand, prosecutors she'd made look like circus clowns, former clients and their victims, plus the tabloid press—had it in for Clementine Ripley. Even sainted Aunt Nettie, who loved everybody else in the world, didn't like her. She hadn't told me why, but her feelings seemed to be deeper than a payment problem.
So Clementine Ripley might need her guards, I told myself as I drove up to the metal security gate. The gate was probably eight feet high, and its grill seemed to snarl. I wouldn't have touched it on a bet; the thing looked as if it would carry thousands of volts of electricity. I stopped by the intercom mounted on a post and punched a button on its face, feeling as if I was about to order a hamburger and fries.
A disembodied voice answered, "Yes?"
"Lee McKinney, with a delivery from TenHuis Chocolade."
"Just follow the drive up to the house," the voice said.
The gate slid sideways, and I drove on in, almost frightened of what might happen once I was behind the brick wall and in the area controlled by Clementine Ripley. There was nothing scary in there, of course, unless you find deep woods threatening. But the undergrowth in these particular woods was largely cleared out, and ahead I could see the long stone house, its tower leaning like a drunken troll. I drove on slowly—still remembering my fragile cargo—and I coasted around the circular drive and came to a halt in front of the wide flagstone steps.
On the steps was a hulking man—broad and tall. Ripley.
—Reprinted from The Chocolate Cat Caper by JoAnna Carl by permission of New American Library, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Eve K. Sandstrom. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.