Life gets a little sweeter in the island fishing village of Eastport, Maine, when Jacobia “Jake” Tiptree and her best friend Ellie open a chocolate-themed bakeshop, the Chocolate Moose. They expect to make plenty of dough this Fourth of July weekend, and having family home for the holiday only sweetens the deal for Jake—until an early-season hurricane sours her plans. But an empty bakeshop and a ruined reunion are a piece of cake compare to murder . . .
When health inspector Matt Muldoon is found dead in the kitchen of The Chocolate Moose, Ellie is suspected of indulging in revenge. She made no secret of her distaste for Matt, who had been raining on their parade with bogus health code violations. Now, with no alibi for the night of the murder, she’s in a sticky situation—and it’s up to Jake to catch the real killer and keep Ellie living in the land of the free.
Includes an irresistible recipe!
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It was a bright summer morning, the first day of July in the remote island village of Eastport, Maine — three hours from Bangor, light-years from anywhere else — with a salty breeze snapping in the banners over the seawall and the sun glittering on the bay.
Up and down Water Street in front of the old two-story brick or wooden storefront buildings, shopkeepers swept doorways, hung out colorful OPEN flags, and watered lush window boxes brimming with red geraniums while seagulls swooped above.
Not the kind of morning that makes you worry about finding a dead body, in other words.
But as I approached my own small chocolate-themed bake shop, The Chocolate Moose, a petite white-haired woman in jeans and a black T-shirt — the shirt gorgeously embroidered in gleaming jewel tones at the neckline, jeans fitting as if tailored — stepped from the Second Hand Rose, her vintage clothing emporium next door.
"Good morning, Jacobia," she trilled.
The accent's on the second syllable of my name, by the way, and it's Jake to my friends. But the Rose's owner disdained casual nicknames as scrupulously as she avoided giving discounts.
Firmly I averted my gaze from the shimmery-gray wool shawl hung in her store's bay window. It was lovely, and would be even more so this coming winter. But it was expensive and I'd put all my disposable money into setting up the Moose six weeks earlier.
Plus some that was not strictly disposable. "Good morning, Miss Halligan. Hard at work already, I see."
She was lugging a bucketful of sudsy water with a squeegee in it, though her shop's window was already spotless as usual.
"Mmm," she replied, squeegeeing energetically. Her perfume, a light citrus fragrance, mixed pleasantly with the sweet smell of the bay. "I hope everything's all right."
She'd called me at 5 A.M.; Miss Halligan was an early riser. She'd said my own shop door was standing open and did I want to do something about it myself, or should she just call the cops?
Listening, I'd held back a sigh. The wind often blew that old door open — the lock had been wonky from the start, the door itself creaky and temperamental — and obviously it had done so again. So I'd merely asked Miss Halligan to close it as best she could, then made one more call before going back to sleep.
Now she eyed me, brandishing the dripping squeegee. "I'd have panicked if it had been my shop," she said.
And would've rushed down here at once to check on things, she meant. "But you must have all sorts of responsibilities at home with that big old house of yours and your family," she added.
"Uh-huh." I stepped into the doorway of the Chocolate Moose, a tiny storefront with two bay windows, a moose-head silhouette with elaborate wooden antlers hung from chains over the door, and a pair of small cast-iron café tables on the sidewalk out front.
At the moment, that big house of mine was being cleaned by my housekeeper, Bella Diamond, who since she'd married my elderly father had also become my stepmother. Meanwhile my husband Wade Sorenson was on a tugboat bound for the enormous container vessel that he'd be piloting into Eastport's harbor later that day; my grown son Sam was in Boston visiting friends; and my father was loudly but uselessly agitating to be released from the hospital where he was recovering from a heart attack.
So I couldn't use family duties to excuse my not being here at the crack of dawn. Nor did I try; for one thing, I was too busy squinting at that door.
"Thanks for calling me," I replied absently instead. "Looks like Morris got the new lock set installed already."
Morris Whitcomb was Eastport's jack-of-all-trades, the man you called if you needed your porch light replaced, your sink drain unclogged, or your fishing boat's old, sputtery wiring transformed from a rat's nest of fuses and tattered electrician's tape into a neatly labeled model of twelve-volt order.
Morris had said he had a lock set he thought would work, and he'd go to Wadsworth's Hardware Store when it opened and have an extra key made for me, too.
Which he'd done; I'd picked the key up on my way here. And he'd have called me if he'd noticed anything suspicious while he was working, I knew. But I'd never seen these small scratches in the door frame before ... had I?
The key turned easily and the door opened; the little silver bell hung over it jangled sweetly as I went in. And at first I noticed nothing amiss:
The shop's interior had exposed redbrick walls, a pressed-tin ceiling featuring two very lovely old wooden-paddled ceiling fans, and a black-and-white tiled floor. The single bakery display case, glass-fronted and white-enameled, was all we had room for, but we only sold what we'd baked ourselves so we didn't need more.
Three additional café tables crowded the opposite wall. The cash register — now open and empty, the way we always left it — sat on a counter to one side of the display case, and behind that a door led back to the kitchen.
Which was where I hit trouble. My longtime friend and current business partner, Ellie White, had been here baking cookies until late the previous night. The air in the shop was still heavy with the luscious aroma of warm chocolate.
So the lights must've worked then. But when I flipped the switch now, the windowless kitchen remained a pitch-black cave.
"Drat." It was probably nothing more sinister than a single blown fuse; the wiring in many of these old downtown buildings was practically prehistoric. Still, I made my way a little nervously — had I seen those odd scratches in the front door's frame before? — through the sweet-smelling darkness to the kitchen cooler.
There with the aid of the small flashlight on my key ring I removed the trays of fresh baked goods that Ellie had placed in the cooler the previous night. During the ill-lit transfer I only tripped once over something on the floor that I didn't bother stopping to identify. Then, after switching on the front-of-the-shop lights — they all worked fine and so did the ceiling fans, strengthening my blown-kitchen-fuse theory — and readying the cash register and the electronic credit card swiper for the start of business, I began setting out our offerings for the day.
These consisted of chocolate pistachio brownies, cranberry-nut chocolate chip cookies, and the pièce de résistance, dark chocolate fudge. Arranged on old blueware plates lined with white paper doilies, the fudge looked so tempting that I nearly grabbed a piece and devoured it myself. But I'd already had a cookie — all right, two — so I went back outside to watch for Ellie instead.
Because the thing was, I didn't want to visit the dark cellar alone. I'd never been down there before; it wasn't included in the shop space we were renting. So I didn't even know for sure where the fuse box was located, and if I ran into anything that I needed quick help with, without her I'd be stuck.
But Ellie's arrival wouldn't only clear the way to my fixing that blown fuse. It would also signal the start of our biggest baking day yet. Since our opening a month earlier we'd had fabulous success with a small, varied menu: chocolate ladyfingers and fresh éclairs one day, whoopie pies and chocolate biscotti the next.
And while it was all pretty challenging — the day before, I'd had to battle a dozen cream puffs into submission while injecting them with chocolate filling — so far we'd managed not to overwhelm ourselves. Now, though, a dozen chocolate cherry cheesecakes were due to be delivered in twenty-four hours to the Eastport Coast Guard station. There they would be auctioned off and the proceeds used to pay for Eastport's Fourth of July fireworks, three days away.
Cheesecakes, I mean, that Ellie and I had promised to bake. And although Ellie was brilliant at following her grandmother's old chocolate-themed recipes, and we'd bought or borrowed every springform pan in eastern Maine so we could bake the cakes in only a few batches, the task still felt daunting.
Anxiously I peered up and down Water Street. With the holiday imminent, patriotic flags and banners draped the shops' fronts. The cotton candy and popcorn stands were set up along the fish pier. A corral made of sawhorses and lobster traps stood ready for the pony rides in the post office parking lot, and a gaggle of vendors — postcards and T-shirts, earrings and refrigerator magnets, ball caps and candles and coupons good for 15 percent off the price of a tattoo — gathered on the walkway overlooking the boat basin.
But there was still no sign of Ellie. Meanwhile, I supposed I could be fixing that fuse right now if I just locked the shop again for a few minutes. After all, one cellar is much like another; my working down there alone wasn't guaranteed to lead to disaster.
Finally I went back inside, where by now the smell of warm chocolate was so paralyzingly delicious, you could've used it for crowd control. Also a familiar humming sound was coming from the kitchen: the cooler's compressor.
It meant the power was back on. Hurrying out there, I snapped the light switch once more and this time was rewarded by a bright fluorescent glow from the kitchen's overhead fixtures.
But my relief at not having to root around in the cellar got squelched fast. The kitchen was spotless as always: a worktable stood at the room's center, flanked by a baker's rack and the oven on one side, baking implements ranged out on Peg- Board hooks on the other. Two stainless-steel sinks, one for dishes and the other one strictly for washing hands as per health department regulations, completed our equipment.
The walls back here weren't brick, only plaster and Sheetrock, evidence of some long-ago architectural fiddling that had merged two buildings, ours and Miss Halligan's, into one. Now the walls' hospital-white paint pushed the room's cleanliness quotient up off the charts.
Only two things marred the room's spic-and-span perfection, in fact. The first was a box of salt lying on the floor, its spout open and a few remaining white granules spilled out in a heap.
Which wasn't so terrible. I could just sweep the salt up, and ordinarily I would have done so at once. But the second odd thing in the kitchen that morning was so utterly incongruous that I had to blink several times just to be sure I was really seeing it:
A man's body leaned against the worktable with its feet on the floor and most of its middle sprawled across the table's surface. Its head was plunged down into the large, heavy pot that we used for melting chocolate. The pot stood on a warming pad whose dial, now that the power had come back on, glowed cherry red.
"Eep," I squeaked, stepping back sharply. And just that small movement, or my voice, or maybe a breeze or something, caused the body to begin sliding.
The body's shoes had been braced against a cardboard box full of cookbooks. That's what I'd bumped against earlier, moving it just enough, apparently, so that now the box and shoes slipped backward together on the shiny linoleum. The arms slid, elbows slanting down off the table, hands splayed across the stainless-steel top as if feeling around for something.
Finally the hideously chocolate-coated head rose, dragged upward by the body's weight, until at last — with the chin hooked stubbornly over its rim — the pot tipped threateningly.
"Oh no, you don't!" I snapped, shocked suddenly out of my horrified paralysis. Grabbing the man's shirt collar, I lifted him by it; not much, but it was enough so that his chin came free.
The pot settled. So did the melted chocolate in it. "Good heavens," said someone from behind me, startling me so I gasped, dropped the dead guy, and whirled to confront whoever it was.
Somehow I'd expected the cops, or maybe Miss Halligan. Or perhaps some kindly space visitor, here to whisk me away to some distant galaxy until any possible need for cheesecake baking was over.
But instead it was Ellie White, a slim strawberry blonde with violet-blue eyes and a dusting of gold freckles across her nose. For her bakery duties today she wore a bibbed white apron over a blue-and-white summer shorts set and white canvas sneakers. A red-white-and-blue ball cap perched jauntily on her head, and her earrings were small, brightly enameled American flags.
"Darn," she said, sounding vexed, eyeing the dead man. "Now we're going to have to throw out all that good chocolate."
* * *
My name is Jacobia Tiptree, and when I first came to Maine I had a young teenaged son named Sam, enough money if we lived carefully, and a heart so badly broken that you could have swept the shattered bits up into a dustpan and dumped them.
That was what I'd felt like doing, having at last left my husband to the mercy of his many girlfriends back in Manhattan. Driving up the East Coast with my whole past life little more than a smoldering crater in the rearview mirror, all I could think of was getting to the end of the Earth and flinging myself off.
But then I crossed a long, tide-swept causeway and found Eastport, a tiny town on a Maine island a stone's throw from the Canadian border. The town's narrow streets full of venerable old wooden houses overlooked a pristine bay dotted with lobster buoys and fishing boats, and the air smelled like beach roses.
It wasn't quite the end of the Earth, but it was close; I did not, though, find myself wanting to take a leap. Instead I bought one of the old houses, an 1823 white clapboard Federal with three redbrick chimneys, forty-eight old wooden shutters, and about a million acres of peeling wallpaper all of which needed scraping.
So I began to. Also I began raising Sam, who after a dozen years of hearing his parents threatening to kill one another was nearly as broken as I was, and I can't say I got very far with him.
Soon, though, he discovered the island's beaches, wide sandy expanses thickly studded with rotted pilings from vanished two-hundred-year-old wharves. There he found antique bottles, clay pipe stems, and beach glass, pale nuggets of sandblasted translucence which he began collecting in Mason jars.
Next thing I knew, he was helping out on a fishing boat and doing better in school. He had his problems, still, some of them very serious ones that would end up lingering into his adulthood, but all in all he managed to turn himself around.
And then I met Wade Sorenson, a local harbor pilot who guided big ships through the wild tides and ferocious currents for which Eastport's waters were famous. I wanted a new romance the way I wanted a chronic skin condition, but Wade bided his time, never hurrying or veering off-course. We were married a few years later; I guess he must have been practicing on those big ships.
So that's how I got here, and now with Sam grown and the old house at last wrangled into some semblance of order (by which I mean it was no longer actively in the process of falling down) I'd found a new passion: The Chocolate Moose.
Ellie had talked me into it, but to my surprise I loved it. Creating delicious chocolate treats and selling them to our customers had turned out to be a blast; too bad that at the moment our shop was the location of a dead — and almost certainly murdered — body.
"I just don't see how someone dies in a pot of chocolate," Ellie murmured, still staring.
"I think maybe he had help," I said gently.
Close up, she resembled a princess out of a fairy tale: hair of gold, long, thick lashes, a smile that could make grown men whip off their jackets and fling them across puddles for her.
"Ohh," she breathed comprehendingly. Then, tenting her clear-polish-tipped fingers, "I wonder ..."
So did I. But I was trying hard not to. It wouldn't be the first time we'd wondered ourselves into a lot of trouble; one way or another, Ellie and I had a fair bit of experience at snooping into Eastport murders.
Which was one reason why I'd already decided that we wanted no part of this one. I was about to say so, too, but instead Miss Halligan stuck her head in and spied the dead guy.
"Let's all of us step outside, shall we?" I said swiftly, body-checking the elegant-looking little owner of the vintage-clothing emporium back out through the kitchen doorway again.
I might not know much — for example, who was the guy? His thick chocolate coating and could-be-anyone clothes, consisting of a gray sweatshirt, faded blue jeans, and running shoes, obscured his identity. But I knew the cops wouldn't like it one bit if we contaminated their nice, fresh crime scene.
I mean, any more than we already had. "Come on, Ellie, let's go," I said while she stood staring at the body some more.
Excerpted from "Death by Chocolate Cherry Cheesecake"
Copyright © 2018 Sarah Graves.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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