April is a busy time for Hannah Swensen and her bakery; the warm weather makes folks in Lake Eden, Minnesota, go wild for something sweet. When Hannah hears that the Cinnamon Roll Six jazz band will be playing at the town's Weekend Jazz Festival, she's more than happy to bake up a generous supply of their namesake confections to welcome the band to town.
Before the festival even begins, tragedy strikes when the tour bus overturns. Among those injured is Buddy Neiman, the band's beloved keyboard player. Buddy's injuries appear minor, until his condition suddenly takes a turn for the worseas in dead. Hannah's no doctor, but she suspects that the surgical scissors someone plunged into Buddy's chest may have something to do with it. Hannah isn't sure just how she'll unravel the mystery, but one thing's for sure: nothing's sweeter than bringing a killer to justice. . .
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CINNAMON ROLL MURDER
By JOANNE FLUKE
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2012 H.L. Swensen, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"The only problem with leaving four car lengths in front of you is that four cars come in to fill up the space!" Hannah Swensen complained to her sister Michelle, who was riding in the passenger seat of her cookie truck. "I'm going forty. Do you think that's too slow?"
"Absolutely not. It's nasty out there, and anybody who drives faster than forty on a night like this is crazy."
"Or they come from other states and they don't know anything about winter driving in Minnesota. I think I'll pull over as far as I can and let that whole herd of cars behind me pass."
Hannah signaled and moved over as far as she could to encourage the other drivers to pass her. They probably thought she was being too cautious, but a thin film of water glistened on the asphalt surface of the highway, and the temperature was dropping fast. The water would turn into slick ice in a matter of minutes and there was no way Hannah wanted to sail off into the ditch and land in the mud that was just beginning to refreeze from the afternoon thaw.
Some people said that Minnesota had two seasons: Shovel and Swat. Hannah knew that wasn't the case. The land of the frozen north had four seasons—Fishing Season, Duck Season, Deer Season, and Mud Season. This was the first Thursday in April and Lake Eden was having the worst Mud Season on record. In the past three days, Earl Flensburg had used his Winnetka County tow truck to pull eighteen vehicles out of the muddy ditches. This number included Hannah's cookie truck. Twice.
The current road conditions had been brought about by an extremely snowy winter that had yielded a record number of inches. Then, just last week, the days had turned warm with temperatures approaching a positively balmy fifty degrees. This unseasonably warm snap had melted the banks of hard-packed snow that lined the sides of the roads and had turned the shoulders into mud pits. To compound the problem the nights, like tonight, were cold enough to refreeze the water from the afternoon runoff, but the mud in the ditches took much longer to refreeze. Hapless motorists on the highways skidded on the icy film. If they were lucky, they simply ended up in the ditch in need of a tow truck. If they were unlucky, they sideswiped several other cars, resulting in multiple injuries. Warnings about the hazardous road conditions filled the KCOW-TV evening news, but some drivers seemed perfectly oblivious. Until the weather evened out, one way or the other, accidents on the highway would continue to be more common than lost mittens.
Hannah gripped the wheel tightly. Road conditions would improve once they turned onto the gravel road that led to the Lake Eden Inn, but they still had over five miles to go on asphalt that resembled nothing so much as an improperly frozen hockey rink.
The two sisters rode in silence for several minutes and then Hannah glanced over at her sister. There was a smile on Michelle's face and Hannah assumed that she was thinking about Lonnie Murphy, the youngest member of the Winnetka County Sheriff's Department detective squad. They were on their way to meet Lonnie and his cousin, Devin, at the Lake Eden Inn. There they'd enjoy a preview of Sally and Dick Laughlin's first-ever weekend jazz festival by listening to the headliner band, the Cinnamon Roll Six, rehearse for their performance the following night. When the rehearsal was over, the Swensen sisters would help Sally serve Hannah's Special Cinnamon Rolls to the small crowd that had been invited to the musical sneak-peek.
The cinnamon rolls smelled wonderful and Hannah's stomach growled. She hadn't taken time for lunch, and she did her best to resist an almost overwhelming urge to reach in the back and snag one for herself. Only the fact that she had to keep both hands on the wheel kept her from indulging that urge. They'd taken the sweet treats out of the oven at The Cookie Jar less than thirty minutes ago, frosted them, and covered the pans with foil. Then they'd secured them in the back of the cookie truck and headed for the highway. Now the interior was filled with the mouthwatering scents of warm bread, cinnamon, and chocolate, and Hannah was getting more ravenous by the minute.
Michelle gave a wistful sigh. "I don't know how much longer I can hold out. Those rolls smell scrumptious."
"I was thinking the same thing myself. Maybe we should ... uh-oh!" Hannah stopped speaking abruptly as brake lights began to flash on the roadway ahead. "Holy ...!"
"Cow!" Michelle supplied, finishing the phrase with a much more socially acceptable word than the one that Hannah had been about to utter. "What's going on up there?"
"I don't know, but it looks like trouble. And we're not sticking around to find out!" That said, Hannah reacted almost instantaneously as she wrenched the wheel, pumped the brakes, steered out of a skid, and managed to fishtail onto the curvy access road that led to the Winnetka County rest stop.
Hannah barreled past a speed limit sign that warned motorists to slow to fifteen miles an hour. She knew she was going much faster than that, but she didn't take her eyes off the road to check as she muscled her truck around the icy curves. When she reached the straightaway that ran past the rest stop, she skidded on a patch of ice and came very close to crashing into the faded Minnesota state map with the red YOU ARE HERE arrow pointing to Lake Eden. Still going well over the posted speed limit, her truck whizzed past the metal picnic table and barely missed wiping out on the corner of the concrete block restrooms.
They were deep in the pine forest now and the ice and snow lay in patches on the road. Hannah, the taller of the two sisters, felt her hair graze the top of the truck. For the first time in her life, she was grateful for the masses of curly red hair that cushioned her head. She was seriously wondering how much more swerving and skidding her truck could take before it shook apart, when they hit a pile of snow that slowed them, and the cookie truck came to rest scant inches from the massive trunk of a magnificent Norway pine.
"We made it," Hannah said in a shaky voice, stating the obvious.
"We did. I really don't know how you managed to get us here in one piece."
"Neither do I." Hannah realized that she'd been holding her breath and she took a deep gulp of air. And then, because she felt decidedly lightheaded, she lowered the window for a breath of fresh cold air.
Michelle did the same and then she turned to give her sister an unsteady smile. "That could have been bad, but you turned off just in time, and we ..." Michelle stopped short and leaned closer to the open window. She listened for a moment, and then she frowned. "What's that?"
"More trouble," Hannah answered, listening to sounds of metal striking metal with considerable force. "It's a good thing we got off the highway when we did. It sounds like a really bad accident."
"More than one accident. It's a chain reaction. They're still crashing over there and it must be a massive pileup. Do you think we should go back and try to help?"
"Yes, but first we need to call the sheriff's station. Do you have your cell phone?"
"Right here." Michelle pulled it out of her pocket. "What do you want me to say?"
"Tell them it's a multi-vehicle accident and to come out here right away. There are bound to be injuries, so they should put in a call for ambulances. Tell the dispatcher to alert Doc Knight at the hospital so he can set up to receive the accident victims."
"Got it," Michelle said, pressing numbers on her phone.
"I'm going to try to get turned around and drive up there."
"Okay. It's ringing now. I'll tell the dispatcher what's happening."
As Michelle began to relay the information to the sheriff's station, Hannah turned the truck around. This took several minutes as the road was narrow, and they couldn't be of much help if they wound up stuck in the ditch. Her window was still down and she realized that the squeal of brakes and loud crashes had stopped. With the exception of a car horn that had stuck, the night was eerily silent. And then, just as she was about to pull out onto the access road that paralleled the highway, sirens wailed in the distance. Help was coming, and from the sounds of the breaking glass and impacts they'd heard only seconds before, it wasn't a moment too soon.
Hannah and Michelle traveled forward on the access road, grateful that they weren't in the path of the approaching emergency vehicles. They spotted three squad cars, two ambulances, and the Lake Eden fire truck. All had sirens wailing and lights flashing as they approached the accident scene.
"It's bad," Michelle said, as they got close enough to see the twisted wreckage.
"I know. Look up there on the left about fifty feet ahead. There's a bus upside down in the ditch. And there's so much wreckage spread out on the road, I don't think the emergency vehicles can get to it."
"You're right. They'll have to hike in and it's a ways. Let's get as close as we can on the access road and walk in through the ditch. I took a class in first aid and maybe I can do something to help. At least we can try to get the bus doors open so the passengers can get out."
Hannah drove forward until she was adjacent to the overturned bus. Then both sisters got out of Hannah's cookie truck and hurried down the steep, tree-lined bank.
"Careful," Hannah warned. "It could be muddy at the bottom of the ditch."
Michelle reached the bottom first and turned back. "It's still frozen. It must be because it doesn't get any sun with all these trees."
The snow was deep at the bottom of the ditch and the two sisters waded through it with some difficulty. Then they started up the steep bank on the other side and made their way toward the overturned bus.
"I don't hear anything," Michelle said as they got closer to the bus. "Maybe everyone inside is okay and they're just waiting for someone to come and help them get out."
Or maybe everyone inside is unconscious or dead, Hannah thought, but she didn't say it. That was speculation on her part, and there was no sense in upsetting Michelle until they were able to get inside the bus and assess the situation for themselves.
"It looks like a charter bus," Michelle commented as they got closer. "There aren't any regular busses painted gold. I wish I could read what it says on the side, but the letters are upside down and backwards."
"It's the band bus."
"The Cinnamon Roll Six."
"How do you know that?"
"It says Cinnamon Roll Six on the side."
Michelle was silent for a moment, trying to make out the letters. "You could be right. Can you actually read it, or are you just guessing?"
"I can read it. I taught myself to read backwards and upside down when you and Andrea were kids and I was helping you with your homework."
"But why did you have to learn to read upside down and backwards?"
"It was easier than getting up and walking around to read over your shoulders." Hannah reached out to grab Michelle's arm. "Careful of that pine branch. The bus snapped it off and it's sticking up like a spear."
Another twenty feet and they had arrived at the back of the bus. It was wedged between two trees and it had obviously rammed into a third, even larger tree. From the wide swath the bus had cut through the spirea and gooseberry bushes, it had obviously rolled over and slid on its top to the place where it was now lodged.
"We can't get in the passenger door," Michelle said, walking around the bus. "It's blocked by those tree branches. Don't most charter busses have an escape hatch cut into the top?"
"Yes, but the top of the bus is now the bottom, and it's buried in several feet of snow. We'll have to get in through the back door. Come on, Michelle. Let's go."
Both sisters headed around the bus, lifting pine branches as they went. When they arrived at the rear, Hannah attempted to open the door. "I can't get it open," she reported, stepping back with a disappointed sigh. "The handle won't budge."
"It must be locked from the inside."
"You're right. Let's see if anybody inside can hear us."
"Hello?" Michelle called out. "Are you okay in there?"
They waited a moment or two, but there was no answer. Hannah stepped closer and yelled as loudly as she could. "We need someone to open the back door. Can anyone get there to unlock it?"
The only sounds they heard were the distant sirens of emergency vehicles speeding to the accident site, and the wind whistling through the pines. Inside the locked bus, all was ominously silent.
Chapter TwoThe two sisters waited breathlessly. Hannah was almost positive that they were thinking the same dire thought. Was everyone dead inside the bus? Or were they so badly injured they couldn't even call out?
"I can do it," a faint voice came from the interior of the bus. "I was riding in the back. Give me a minute and I'll get there."
Several moments later there was the sound of a lock clicking, and the back door swung open to reveal a handsome but haggard-looking man with strips of cloth wrapped around his wrist. The cloth strips were holding a screwdriver in place as a makeshift brace. "Are you doctors?"
"No," Michelle answered. "I've had first aid training, but that's about it."
"Who are you then?"
"Two passing motorists who came to help," Hannah explained as quickly as she could. "It may take the paramedics some time to get to you. The road's blocked by the wreckage and they'll have to hike in over half a mile. Is anyone inside badly injured?"
"No. We've all got bruises, but I'm the worst ... un#! less you count the bus driver. Lynnette made this splint for me. She used to work in a doctor's office."
"Lynnette's a nurse?" Hannah asked.
He shook his head. "She was in charge of the appointment desk, but she used to help the nurses when they got really busy. You know, hand them things and stuff like that."
"Do you think your wrist is broken?" Michelle asked.
"I don't think so, but I'm no doctor. I guess I can find out for sure from the paramedics, or the doctors ... if they ever get here."
You're pretty impatient considering the accident happened less than five minutes ago, Hannah thought, but she didn't say it. He'd been injured and she should make allowances for that. "I'm sure they'll come just as soon as they can," she said, giving him a comforting smile. "Two ambulances and a fire truck passed us on the way here."
Michelle stepped closer and examined his splint. "Your splint looks just fine. It's holding your wrist immobile and that's exactly what it's supposed to do. You'll probably need X-rays when you get to the hospital, but you're fine for now. Just be careful not to bang it against anything or try to use your right arm. You don't want to risk injuring it further, especially since you play keyboards."
"You know me?" he asked, looking pleased.
"Not personally, but I know your music. You're Buddy Neiman, the keyboard player with Cinnamon Roll Six."
"That's right." Buddy gave her a long, assessing look. "So you're a fan?"
"I certainly am. Your music is great."
"Thanks. Hey ... maybe you want to get together for a drink or something after we play tomorrow night."
Hannah held her breath. She hoped Michelle realized that Buddy was trying to pick her up.
"That would be nice. I'll be there with my boyfriend and his cousin, Devin. Devin's your biggest fan, and he's the one who introduced me to your music. He's got everything the Cinnamon Roll Six ever recorded, and he plays keyboards with the Jordan High jazz band. He told me he can hardly wait to meet you and tell you how great he thinks you are."
Hannah watched the play of expressions cross Buddy's face. There was disappointment in the fact that Michelle had a boyfriend, regret that he'd asked her to have a drink since she'd assumed he was open to including her boyfriend and Devin, and pleased at the compliment to his musical talent. Flattery must have won out in the end, because he smiled.
"I'd like to meet your boyfriend and his cousin," he said, going into fan mode. "Devin sounds like a nice kid."
"Oh, he is. He's pretty talented, too. He's got a job playing the piano at the Lake Eden Inn during the dinner hour on weekends."
Enough chit-chat, Hannah's mind prodded. Get to what's important.
"You said there weren't any other serious injuries unless you counted the driver," Michelle said, almost as if she'd read Hannah's mind. "What did you mean by that?"
"The driver is dead?" Hannah repeated, just to make sure she'd understood his response.
"That's what Lynnette said. She went up there to see if he was okay, and when she came back, she told us he was dead. It's probably why he went off the road in the first place. I'm thinking it must have been a heart attack or something sudden like that. One minute we were traveling along as smooth as silk, and the next minute we were fishtailing across three lanes of traffic and crashing sideways into the ditch."
Excerpted from CINNAMON ROLL MURDER by JOANNE FLUKE Copyright © 2012 by H.L. Swensen, Inc.. 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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