Hannah Swensen has to admit life is pretty sweet. Things are going well in the romance department and her bakery's delectable confections are selling as fast as she can bake them. Even her good friend Claire is head over heels with her new husband, Reverend Bob Knudson. If only they could find time to take their honeymoon!
When Bob's childhood friend, Matthew Walters, comes to town, it seems like divine intervention. Matthew, like Bob, is a Lutheran minister with a stubborn sweet tooth. Since he's on sabbatical, Matthew is happy to fill in for Bob while he and Claire take that long-awaited honeymoon. It sounds like the perfect planuntil Hannah finds Matthew face-down in a plate full of Devil's Food Cake, a single bullet in his head. It will take some sleuthing to sift out the killer, but Hannah is sure of one thing: even the most half-baked murder plot can be oh so deadly. . .
Features over Ten Cookie and Dessert Recipes from The Cookie Jar, Including Red Devil's Food Cake and Carrot Oatmeal Muffins!
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Devil's Food Cake Murder
By JOANNE FLUKE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2011 Joanne Fluke
All rights reserved.
"You'll never see a hearse towing a U-Haul!"
Hannah Swensen turned toward the parlor doorway as she recognized her friend Claire's distinctive voice. She could hear her laughing in the parsonage hallway, obviously delighted by the twist on the old adage, You can't take it with you.
"Claire?" Hannah called out, but there was no answer. That was odd. She'd clearly heard Claire and that meant Claire and her new husband, Reverend Bob Knudson, must be back from visiting sick parishioners at Lake Eden Memorial Hospital.
"Bob? Claire?" Hannah called out again, but no one appeared in the doorway. All was perfectly silent outside the cozy sitting room where Hannah had been visiting with Reverend Bob's grandmother, Priscilla Knudson, and copying the octogenarian's recipe for Red Devil's Food Cake.
Hannah got up and walked to the window to see if she could spot Bob's car. The scene outside could have been lifted straight from a Christmas card. The birch tree on the other side of the driveway was filled with winter birds enjoying the suet that Grandma Knudson hung from the branches. There were red birds, and blue birds, and green birds, and black birds with iridescent feathers that seemed to be perched on every branch. They reminded Hannah of gems suspended from a white gold filigreed pendant. Lake Eden, Minnesota, could be truly beautiful in the winter ... cold, but beautiful. If the KCOW weatherman was correct, the mercury in Grandma Knudson's outside thermometer would shiver in the bulb at the bottom of the scale, poking its head up for only a brief period and then sinking down out of sight again.
Hannah's gaze dropped to the driveway that ran along the width of the house and into the garage. There were no tire tracks in the freshly fallen snow. Had Bob and Claire parked in front of the parsonage for some reason?
Puzzled, Hannah crossed to the doorway and stepped out to peer down the hall. It was deserted. She was about to return to the parlor when Grandma Knudson emerged from the kitchen, carrying a tea tray with coffee and sample slices of what she called her best company cake.
"Are Claire and Bob back?" Hannah asked, quickly relieving Grandma Knudson of the heavy tray.
"Not yet. I asked Bob to call when they left the hospital so that I could put on a fresh pot of coffee."
Hannah retraced her steps to the sitting room and set the tray down on the coffee table in front of the couch Grandma Knudson called a "davenport." It had been reupholstered last month by a member of the Holy Redeemer congregation who had chosen the material and the color. The forest green couch that had gone so well with the green and yellow striped wallpaper had been re-covered with bright pink velveteen in a hue that reminded Hannah of the contents in a Pepto-Bismol bottle.
"Would you pour, Hannah?" Grandma Knudson asked, as Hannah settled down on the pink davenport again. "I know young ladies like you prefer coffee mugs, but there's something so civilized about sipping coffee from bone china cups."
Hannah reached for the silver coffeepot and carefully filled two cups. She set them on their matching saucers and was about to hand one to Grandma Knudson when she reconsidered. "I wonder if we might be better off having our coffee in the kitchen," she suggested, glancing down at the generous slices of chocolate layer cake with fudgy frosting that her hostess had placed on matching bone china dessert plates.
"Why is that, dear?"
"I'm worried that I might spill something on your pink davenport."
"Don't give it a second thought," Grandma Knudson told her, reaching out to retrieve her cup and saucer. "Every time I sit there, I hope I'm going to spill something. Unfortunately, Donna Lempke Scotchguarded this darned thing after she recovered it. Every single stain I've managed to make just wipes off."
"Well ... that's good."
"No, it's not. It means I'm stuck with this pink monstrosity, and it'll probably outlive me!"
Hannah wasn't sure exactly how to respond. Half of her wanted to laugh because Grandma Knudson hated the color of her davenport so much, she was actively trying to ruin it. But the other half of her wanted to cry because Grandma Knudson thought she'd die before the couch could be reupholstered again. Since Hannah really didn't know what to say, she picked up her dessert plate and took a bite of Grandma Knudson's Red Devil's Food Cake.
"Mmmm!" Hannah gave an involuntary exclamation of pure pleasure. The sweet, fudgy melt-in-your-mouth goodness of the frosting was tempered by the deep, dark chocolate of the cake.
"Thank you, Hannah," Grandma Knudson said with a smile. "I'm glad you like my cake. And I'm very flattered that your mother is going to serve it at her book launch party. Now ... what made you think Claire and Bob were back?"
"I was sure I heard Claire's voice in the hall. And I'm almost positive I heard her laugh."
"You didn't hear Claire. You heard Jacob."
"But it was Claire's voice. I recognized it."
"Jacob can imitate Claire. What did he say?"
"You'll never see a hearse towing a U-Haul," Hannah said, repeating the words she'd heard.
"Then it was definitely Jacob. He was with Claire and Bob in the church office when they were trying to find something to put on the billboard sign for Sunday. Just wait until I tell them! They'll be so pleased he learned something new."
Hannah knew there was some information she wasn't getting. "Who is Jacob?" she asked, deciding to cut straight to the heart of the matter.
"He's Pete Nunke's mynah bird. Bob agreed to keep him while Pete recovers from back surgery."
Hannah laughed. "Well, Jacob fooled me. I really thought he was Claire. Does he imitate you, too?"
"Not me. And not Bob either, at least not yet. He says two things he learned from Pete, though."
"What are they?" Hannah took another forkful of cake. It was so delicious, she wanted to just put her head down and inhale it.
"The first one is, Brrr, it's cold out there! And I won't repeat the second one. It has something to do with the weather and someone digging a well, though."
A possible phrase popped into Hannah's head, but she wasn't about to utter it in the parsonage. "Has Jacob learned anything else since he's been here with you?"
"No, and it's not for lack of effort. Bob and Claire have been trying to teach him to say his name, but he doesn't seem interested."
The phone on the end table rang, and Hannah took another bite of her cake while Grandma Knudson answered it. The cake layers had a slightly reddish tint and Hannah remembered that the recipe she'd copied had called for a half-cup of cocoa powder. Cakes made with cocoa powder often took on a nice mahogany color. She reread what she'd written on the recipe card that Grandma Knudson had given her and realized that the deep, dark flavor she'd failed to identify initially must be from the strong coffee that complemented the chocolate. No wonder this cake was so good!
"That was Bob," Grandma Knudson told her, replacing the phone in its cradle. "They're on their way home, and they said they're bringing a surprise for me."
"Any idea what it could be?"
"Coffee ice cream, pickled herring, or ring bologna." Grandma Knudson gave a little giggle that sounded as if it had come from the throat of someone one-fifth her age. "I'd better turn that coffee on. I have it all ready to go."
In less time than it took Hannah to finish the rest of her cake, Grandma Knudson was back. "Maybe they aren't bringing me something to eat. I was thinking that they might have picked up a tall, dark-haired stranger. I'd really love it if they brought me a tall, dark-haired stranger!"
Hannah stared at Grandma Knudson in surprise. "You're thinking of dating again?"
"Good heavens, no! It's just that it would be fun to tell Pam Baxter that she was right. She was the one who told me I'd meet a tall, dark-haired stranger."
"Of course," Hannah said, remembering that Pam was the teacher who'd dressed up in a fortune-teller costume at the last Jordan High carnival.
"Did you have your fortune told, Hannah?"
"Yes. Pam told me that I was going to come into money."
"And you do every day at The Cookie Jar," Grandma Knudson named Hannah's bakery and coffee shop on Main Street. "Pam was right in your case."
"But not in yours?"
"No. My problem seems to be that there aren't many strangers who come to Lake Eden and wind up at the parsonage. As a matter of fact, I can't remember the last stranger who came to town and ended up here. There were more strangers when we had the hotel, but now ..."
"We're back!" a voice called out, interrupting Grandma Knudson's recollections.
Hannah opened her mouth to call out a hello to Claire and Bob, but she reconsidered. Had she heard Claire's voice, or was it Jacob who'd imitated her again?
"It's Claire," Grandma Knudson said, responding to Hannah's unspoken question. "Jacob's in his cage in the bedroom, and Claire's voice came from the other end of the house."
"Here we are," Bob announced, stepping into the parlor with Claire. They made a perfect couple. Bob's dark, wavy hair and sturdy body set off Claire's blond, sylphlike beauty. "Hi, Hannah."
"Hello, Bob. Hi, Claire." Hannah couldn't help noticing that they were holding hands. Not only that, they were both smiling, and they looked supremely happy. Of course smiling and looking supremely happy wasn't all that unusual for newlyweds. Bob and Claire had married on New Year's Eve and this was only the first week in February.
"Where's my surprise?" Grandma Knudson demanded of her grandson. "Hannah and I have been on pins and needles trying to guess what it is."
"What was your guess?" Claire asked Hannah.
"I didn't have the foggiest notion. Grandma Knudson did, though. She told me it was probably coffee ice cream, pickled herring, or ring bologna."
"It's not any of those," Bob said with a laugh. "Try another guess, Grandma."
"If it's not those, then it must be a tall, dark-haired stranger!"
"What?" Bob looked at her in surprise.
"Don't look so shocked. Pam Baxter told me I'd meet a tall, dark-haired stranger at the last school carnival and ... Oh goodness gracious! There he is!"
"It looks like Pam Baxter was right," the stranger said, crossing the room to give Grandson Knudson a big hug.CHAPTER 2
"I never would have recognized you in a million years!" Grandma Knudson said, reaching out to give the stranger who wasn't a stranger a pat on the cheek.
The man laughed. "I'm not surprised. I've changed a lot since high school. Less hair, more body fat, and I'd like to think a bigger brain."
"Well, it's just wonderful that you stopped here to see me!" Grandma Knudson turned to Hannah. "This is Matthew Walters. He lived with Bob's father and me almost thirty years ago."
"My father and mother wanted to go to Africa as missionaries, and they asked Reverend and Mrs. Knudson if I could live with them while they were gone. My uncle and aunt went with them."
"That's right," Grandma took up the story. "Matthew's father had a younger brother, and Matthew's mother had a younger sister. They met at the wedding, fell in love, and got married a year later. They had a son and Matthew's cousin Paul stayed with us, too." Grandma Knudson turned to Matthew. "How is Paul? I haven't heard from him in years."
"Paul is ..." Matthew stopped speaking and frowned. "I'm not sure how Paul is. We haven't kept in touch."
Grandma Knudson looked surprised. "But why? You were so close when you were young."
"I know we were. Since my father and Paul's father were both ministers with churches only twenty-some miles apart, our families spent a lot of time together. But remember how Paul got into trouble while he was here by breaking into school lockers?"
"Of course I remember. But he didn't actually take anything valuable. It was Bill Garrison's last year as principal, and he told me that Paul was just trying to get attention from the girls by breaking into their lockers and taking little things. He thought it was because you two had spent a lot of time together when you first got here and now that you were dating, Paul felt left out."
"That's what everyone thought, but looking back on it now, I'm afraid it was the start of something bigger, almost like a trial run just to see if he could get away with it."
"What makes you think that?" Claire asked.
Matthew drew a deep breath, and Hannah could see that he was uncomfortable talking about his cousin. "Well ... things escalated when our parents finished their mission and Paul's family moved to Cedar Rapids."
"What do you mean, escalated?" Grandma Knudson asked.
"Let's just say that Paul didn't grow up to be an outstanding citizen, if you know what I mean."
"Oh, dear! I was afraid of something like that. Paul didn't seem the least bit remorseful when I talked to him about the school lockers." Grandma Knudson gave a sigh, and then she reached out to pat Matthew's hand.
"You don't have to sugarcoat it for me, Matthew. Did Paul commit a crime?"
Matthew hesitated briefly, and then he dipped his head. "Yes, he did. I don't know all the details, but we heard he was serving ten to twenty in a prison in Iowa."
"Ten to twenty is a stiff sentence," Bob remarked. "Your cousin must have done something fairly serious."
"It was a burglary gone bad. I had a private detective look into it, and he said Paul got out in five."
"But that's only half of his sentence," Hannah pointed out.
"I know. The detective thought it was probably due to prison overcrowding and a reduction in funding. All I really know is that Paul was released and a few days later the trail went cold."
"Maybe he learned his lesson and decided to become an honest person," Claire suggested. "He could have moved to another state and started a new life."
Hannah noticed that Matthew didn't sound at all convinced. It was clear that he didn't think his cousin was now on the straight and narrow. "What made you hire a private detective?" she asked.
"My Aunt Sarah was diagnosed with bone cancer. She's Paul's mother, and I thought he ought to know, that maybe he'd come home, or write a letter to her, or something. But the detective couldn't find Paul. There was no trace of him anywhere after he left prison."
"Is it possible he changed his name?" Claire asked.
"He could have done that. The detective told me it's not that difficult to assume someone else's identity. For all we know, Paul's in Mexico, or Canada, or another foreign country living incognito. Or perhaps he's ... it could even be worse."
Hannah gave an involuntary shiver. She knew exactly what Matthew meant when he said, it could even be worse.
"Anyway, everything will work out in the end." Matthew smiled, but to Hannah's eyes it looked a bit forced. "I'm just glad to be here with you, Grandma Knudson. This room looks almost the same except ... this couch is new, isn't it?" Matthew reached out to pat the piece of furniture Grandma Knudson had described as a pink monstrosity. "I seem to remember a green couch. It was slippery."
"Green taffeta," Grandma Knudson said, reaching out to touch the pink davenport. "This is it re-covered. And after that it was cream-colored silk. That didn't last long. Then it was forest green voile. That was the best. And now there's this ... pink!"
Hannah laughed. She couldn't help it. Grandma Knudson spit out the word as if it were a bug that had flown in her open mouth.
"I'm so glad I ran into Bob at the hospital," Matthew said, smiling at Grandma Knudson. "I stopped to say hello to Doc Knight, and he introduced us. And then I met Claire and learned that they were newlyweds. We're going to have plenty of time to catch up on old times, Grandma."
"What do you mean?" Grandma Knudson asked.
"I'll be right here for the next two weeks. I promised I'd take over Bob's pastoral duties for two weeks so that he can take Claire on a real honeymoon."
A delighted smile spread over Grandma Knudson's face. "Why, that's just wonderful! And it's so kind of you to offer to help out here. But can the seminary spare you for that long?"
"They're sparing me for longer than that. I'm on a four month sabbatical." Matthew turned to smile at them all and then he turned back to Grandma Knudson. "Now how about some of that coffee and cake? Bob's been telling me how good your Red Devil's Food Cake is."
"That's because it's Bob's favorite. It always has been, ever since he was a little boy. And I've got some Lemon Poppy-seed Cake for you, Matthew."
Excerpted from Devil's Food Cake Murder by JOANNE FLUKE. Copyright © 2011 Joanne Fluke. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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