Peach Cobbler Murder
A Hannah Swensen Mystery With Recipes
By JOANNE FLUKE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP. Copyright © 2005 Joanne Fluke
All rights reserved.
"Dick Laughlin just went in!" Lisa Herman stood behind the café curtains that covered the bottom half of the plate-glass window and peered out across the snow-covered width of Main Street. "And Barbara Donnelly's right behind him. She looked this way and I think she saw me, but she still followed Dick inside."
"I think I can live without a running head count," Hannah Swensen told her young partner, resisting the urge to object as Lisa pulled out the tall stool she used when she operated their cash register and repositioned it so that she had a clear view of the Magnolia Blossom Bakery across the street. The stool was no longer necessary since their bakery and coffee shop, The Cookie Jar, was as empty as one of Hannah's cream puffs before it was filled with vanilla custard.
"I know it's depressing, but I'm setting up a surveillance post right here. We need to keep an eye on the competition." Lisa grabbed one of the steno notebooks Hannah kept handy and hiked herself up on the stool, no easy task for a petite young lady who only topped the five-foot mark when she was wearing high heels. "Uh-oh!"
"Charlotte Roscoe just came out the door carrying a big bakery box. Today's the weekly teachers' meeting and she always comes in to get cookies from us!"
"Once the novelty wears off, they'll be back," Hannah repeated what had become her personal mantra, chanted at least a dozen times a day during the two weeks since Shawna Lee Quinn and her rich, widowed sister, Vanessa, had opened their new bakery.
"You always say that, but are you sure?" Lisa looked a bit doubtful. "I mean ... what if their baked goods are better than ours?"
Hannah was shocked. Lisa had never questioned the quality of their sweet treats before.
"Sorry." Lisa read the expression of betrayal on Hannah's face and immediately backtracked. "I'm sure ours are better. They're bound to be better. We're professionals and they're just doing it because Shawna Lee always wanted to own her own business and Vanessa gave her the money to indulge her. I don't think either one of them can bake worth a hill of beans, but I wish I could taste something, just to be sure."
Hannah curbed her first impulse, the one where she told Lisa to bite her tongue, and forced herself to be reasonable. It was true that they'd never tasted anything from the Magnolia Blossom Bakery and it would be a big relief if their cookies tasted like sawdust and their piecrusts were tough. On the other hand, what if the two sisters had somehow managed to produce superior baked goods? Was it better to go on in blissful ignorance, taking their own expertise on faith and believing that their bakery was better? Or should they put it to the taste test and close their doors if Shawna Lee and Vanessa had managed to win the Main Street dessert war?
"What's the matter, Hannah?"
"Just having a mental debate with myself."
Lisa broke into a smile. "Who won?" she quipped.
"I did. Why don't you take some money out of the register and run over there? You could try their Southern Peach Cobbler. They call it their signature dessert."
"I couldn't!" Lisa looked properly shocked. "It would be disloyal!"
"Not if you were just comparing their desserts to ours."
"I'd still feel like a traitor. Couldn't you go in and order something just to be friendly?"
Hannah's eyebrows headed skyward. "I should be friendly to the woman who talked her rich widowed sister into financing her so that she could open up right across from us and steal almost ninety percent of our cookie business?"
"Do you really want me to walk across Main Street and pretend to be neighborly with the person who undercut our dessert catering and left us with sixteen cancellations?"
"Seventeen," Lisa corrected her. "Rose McDermott's cousin canceled the cookies for the baby shower this morning. I had a feeling that was going to happen when Shawna Lee and Vanessa ran their catering ad in the Lake Eden Journal."
"I saw it. Fifty percent off of your total first order. If Shawna Lee ever challenges me to a fight, I'm going to choose grammar as my weapon."
Lisa laughed, but she quickly sobered. "I don't blame you for being upset, Hannah. I'd be seeing red if Shawna Lee made a play for my guy."
"Herb, of course."
"Not your guy. I was talking about my guy. Which one?"
It was a legitimate question and Hannah waited anxiously for Lisa to answer. She was currently dating two Lake Eden men, something her marriage-minded mother found immensely satisfying. The thing that Delores Swensen did not find satisfying was that Hannah had been dating both men for over a year and neither one of them had proposed.
"Well ... I don't know for sure that Shawna Lee's making a play for him," Lisa said, waffling a bit. "I just think she might be."
"Which guy?" Hannah repeated.
"Uh ... Mike."
Hannah took a deep breath to combat the sinking feeling in her stomach. Mike Kingston was chief detective of the Winnetka County Sheriff's Department and more handsome than any man who didn't make his living in front of a camera had a right to be. Hannah had long suspected that Shawna Lee and Mike might be more than merely friends, former coworkers, and apartment complex neighbors, but Mike had denied it. Since she had no proof of any hanky-panky, Hannah had done her best to believe Mike preferred his women with frizzy red hair, a sarcastic sense of humor, and some extra pounds — never mind how many — that came from sampling her own baked goods.
"Nobody called to tell me," Hannah complained, her stomach reaching rock bottom with the force of an elevator whose cable had snapped. If anyone in Lake Eden got the goods on Shawna Lee and Mike, they were honor bound to call Hannah immediately. That was how small towns worked. You got all the news that was fit to print in the Lake Eden Journal. The news that wasn't fit to print was conveyed by phone on the Lake Eden gossip hotline.
"That's because Herb and I are the only ones that know about it. Why did you ask me which guy it was? Norman would never even look at Shawna Lee. He's completely loyal to you."
"He is?" Hannah gave a slight smile as she thought of Norman Rhodes, local Lake Eden dentist and son of her mother's partner in the antique business. Norman couldn't come close to Mike's sexy good looks, but he was bright, funny, and solidly dependable.
"I've seen you with both of them and Mike's got a roving eye. He always checks out the other women, even if he's with you. Norman doesn't do that. When he came in this morning, he couldn't take his eyes off you."
"That's because you and I were the only ones here and you're a bride-to-be."
Lisa looked radiant for a moment and Hannah knew she was thinking about her wedding, only twelve days away. Hannah's younger sister, Andrea, was making all the arrangements and she'd called every day this week to consult with Lisa about flowers, color schemes, and last-minute decorations.
As Hannah watched, Lisa's expression changed to one of worry. "I'm sorry, Hannah. I shouldn't have said anything about Shawna Lee and Mike. It was just one sighting and it could have been nothing."
"Sighting?" Hannah smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. "Did somebody spot a UFO at the same time?"
"Of course not."
"I didn't think so. Extraterrestrials are supposed to be brighter than we are. They'd wait until summer to land in Minnesota. Now tell me what makes you think that Mike's involved with Miss Blonde-To-The-Bone."
Lisa burst out laughing. "Blonde-To-The-Bone?"
"That's what I call her when I'm being petty. And I feel petty a lot of the time when it comes to Shawna Lee. She's the kind of shallow Barbie-doll blonde that gives real honest blondes like Andrea a bad name."
"Shawna Lee's not a natural blonde, is she?"
"Andrea says definitely not. She spotted her out at the new beauty shop at the mall, getting her roots redone." Hannah answered Lisa's attempt to change the subject, but then she zeroed in on what she really wanted to know. "What about this sighting? Who saw them? Where was it? When was it?"
"Herb saw Mike's Hummer parked in the lot behind the Magnolia Blossom Bakery last night."
Hannah nodded, accepting the statement at face value. Herb Beeseman, Lisa's fiancé, was the only law enforcement officer on the city payroll. Herb not only enforced parking and driving regulations within the Lake Eden city limits, he ran security checks on the local businesses before he went off duty at night. Hannah knew her former classmate at Jordan High was completely reliable. If Herb said he saw Mike's Hummer behind the Magnolia Blossom Bakery, then Mike's Hummer had been there. "What time did Herb see it?"
"Eleven. And Vanessa was out of town until this morning. Herb thought maybe Shawna Lee had a problem and she called Mike to fix it."
Hannah doubted that, but she supposed it might be true. "Well ... Mike did part-time work as a handyman when he was in high school. I guess Herb could be right."
"I don't think so. What kind of problem would Shawna Lee have at eleven at night with the lights out?"
"Electrical?" Hannah guessed, going for the humor and trying not to show how upset she was. "Seriously though, if the power went out and Shawna Lee didn't know how to reset the circuit breaker, she might have called Mike."
"The power didn't go out. Herb saw dim light from a lamp in the apartment over the bakery."
Hannah hated to ask, but she had to know. "Which room had the lamp?"
"Shawna Lee's bedroom."
Hannah gulped. This was serious. There was only one thing Mike could have been doing in Shawna Lee's bedroom and it had nothing to do with his handyman skills.
"I asked Herb to go back and check at midnight, and Mike was still there. I guess there could be some reasonable explanation, though. If you go over there and nose around, Shawna Lee might let something slip."
Hannah shook her head. "Forget it, Lisa. If I set one foot in that bakery, they'll know right away that I'm checking out the competition. What we really need is ..."
"Andrea," Lisa interrupted.
"Andrea? As in my sister, Andrea?"
"Yes. I'm sure she'd be willing to go over there and check out the baked goods."
"That's a great idea! Andrea can find out their profit margin, their operating costs, their sales, and their average customer profile in less than five minutes. And they'll never know they told her. She's perfect for the job."
"She's certainly good at getting people to talk about themselves."
"She learned that from Mother. And Mother could have been a star CIA operative. I'll go call Andrea right now."
"Don't bother. She's here." Lisa slid off her stool and headed toward the kitchen. "She turned the corner a minute ago and she should be at the back door by now. I'll let her in."
Hannah headed for the coffee urn and filled three cups. She carried them to the back booth, frowning slightly as she walked past the empty tables. They'd had a total of twelve customers all day and that didn't bode well for the future of The Cookie Jar.
Andrea pushed through the swinging door that separated the kitchen from the coffee shop. "Did you hear? That famous groundhog back East saw his shadow. That means winter's over!"
Lisa exchanged glances with Hannah. "Not me," Lisa said. "You tell her."
"Tell me what?"
"It's the other way around, Andrea. If it's a beautiful sunny day and the groundhog sees his shadow, we'll have six more weeks of winter."
"Really?" Andrea started to frown. "That doesn't make any sense! If it's a beautiful day today, why won't it be a beautiful day tomorrow? And the next day? And the day after that? And before you know it, all those beautiful days will turn into spring."
"That would be nice, and it makes as much sense as choosing one day and dragging poor Punxsutawney Phil out of hibernation."
"That's what I think." Andrea shrugged out of her winter coat and glanced around with a puzzled expression. "Where is everybody?"
"Across the street," Hannah told her. "Lisa counted twenty-three people who went into the Magnolia Blossom in the past hour."
"That's just because they're the new kid on the block." Andrea placed her coat and gloves on a nearby chair and twirled around. "What do you think?"
"You're all dressed up," Hannah responded, noticing her younger sister's wine-colored pantsuit. Andrea's high-heeled suede boots matched the color perfectly and her shining blonde hair, done in an elaborate twist, was secured in a clasp studded with wine-colored stones.
"Not that. What else?" Andrea struck a pose that would have done credit to a model on a fashion show runway.
Hannah was stymied. What did Andrea want her to say? She hesitated and finally settled for the tried and true, "You look gorgeous. Is that a new outfit?"
"No, I got it last January. They were having a sale on designer originals out at the mall. But my pantsuit's not what I wanted you to notice. Just look at me! I lost every ounce of weight I put on when I was pregnant with Bethany!"
"Good for you," Hannah replied, trying to sound both supportive and enthusiastic, something she would have achieved only if she'd been an Academy Award–winning actress. Bethany had been born in December, the night of the Lake Eden Christmas Buffet. Now, just two months later, Andrea was back to the same size she'd worn all the way through high school. To Hannah's way of thinking, that just wasn't fair. It took her forever to lose a pound or two, and her sister shed weight as easily as a wet dog shaking off water.
"How did you do it?" Hannah asked, even though she wasn't sure she wanted to hear Andrea's answer.
"I joined the new gym out at the mall and the minute Grandma McCann gets up to take care of Bethany, I drive out there and go to an early morning exercise class. It's fun!"
Hannah made a face. The only early morning activity she'd dislike more would be flogging. And come to think about it, the two had a lot in common.
"I knew I had to give myself an incentive so I'd go every morning. You know how it is."
Hannah nodded, although she'd never even considered driving to the gym every morning before she went to work.
"I figured that if I looked really good while I was exercising, I'd go. So I bought myself a cute little exercise leotard. It's bright pink spandex trimmed with black. You should see it. It's just darling."
"I'll bet it is," Hannah said and she meant it. Why was it that only people who didn't need to exercise looked good in exercise clothing?
"Anyway, now that I'm down to my regular weight, I decided to go back to work on a part-time basis. With Tracey in school and Grandma McCann taking care of Bethany and doing all the cooking and everything, there's nothing for me to do at home. And besides, I want to pull my own weight financially." Andrea turned to Lisa. "I sold your neighbor's house this morning."
Lisa waited until Andrea had taken a seat at the back table and then she sat down beside her. "Which neighbor?"
"That's great news! It's been vacant ever since she moved out to Colorado to live with Mary Jean, and we miss having a neighbor on that side."
Andrea took a sip of her coffee. Then she noticed the bare tabletop and her pleased expression changed to one of concern. "There aren't any cookies?"
"There are," Hannah reassured her, "but we thought you might like something different for a change. How about critiquing some pastry?"
"That sounds like fun! Now that I don't have to diet, I can splurge a little, especially if it's for a good cause. Bring it out."
"I'm afraid you'll have to go and get it." Hannah delivered the news with a perfectly deadpan expression. "Lisa and I have to stay here."
"I can do that. Is it in the kitchen?"
"No, it's across the street at the Magnolia Blossom Bakery. We need one of everything on their menu, including a half pan of their Southern Peach Cobbler."
Andrea looked completely baffled for a moment, but then she started to grin. "You want me to go get takeout from your competition? And not let Shawna Lee or Vanessa know I'm bringing it back here?"
"That's right. Are you willing to be our spy for the day?"
"I'll do it!"
"I'll give you some money from the register." Hannah pushed back her chair.
"No need. I made a nice commission on the Lambrecht sale and I can afford to treat you. I'll just go out the back door and take my car. That way they won't know I've been in here. And then I'll bring everything right back to you. Just call me Gypsy Rose Lee." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Peach Cobbler Murder by JOANNE FLUKE. Copyright © 2005 Joanne Fluke. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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