The Cookie Jar's busiest time of the year also happens to be the most wonderful time … for Christmas cookies, Hannah's own special plum pudding—and romance! She also gets a kick out of “Lunatic Larry Jaeger’s Crazy Elf Christmas Tree Lot,” a kitschy carnival taking place smack-dab in the middle of the village green. But then Hannah discovers the man himself dead as a doornail in his own office …
Now, with so many suspects to investigate and the twelve days of Christmas ticking away, Hannah's running out of time to nab a murderous Scrooge who doesn't want her to see the New Year …
Includes Hannah’s favorite Christmas dinner recipes!
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Plum Pudding Murder
By JOANNE FLUKE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2009 Joanne Fluke
All rights reserved.
Lake Eden, Minnesota Ten Shopping Days Until Christmas
There were nights like tonight, right after he'd bet a bundle on the losing team, when Larry Jaeger wondered why he'd ever come back to this dinky little town. When it came to money matters, people around here were clueless. Swindling them out of their savings was no contest at all. He preferred an even playing field where he could outwit the investors he thought of as his adversaries. It was a game, after all, and the game was boring if your opponents were pushovers.
In an effort to even the odds he'd taken more risks than usual, but not a single one of the locals were suspicious, not even Mayor Bascomb, who prided himself on his business savvy. This was like counting the leaves on a three-leaf clover, and that wasn't his idea of fun. The thrill came from taking off with the money right before someone was about to catch on. These people weren't about to catch on.
And then there was Courtney, his biggest investor, his partner, and his fiancée. She owned fifty percent of the Crazy Elf Christmas Tree Lot ... on paper.
Courtney had insisted on taking a room at the Lake Eden Inn, rather than staying with him in the double-wide trailer they called Elf Headquarters. She was afraid that people would talk because they weren't married. She was right. They would talk. But that wouldn't bother him. His concern was that Courtney was living separately, and that gave her time to think. It was much easier to keep tabs on her when they were together twenty-four seven. She had some surprisingly good business instincts, unlike some of the other girlfriends he'd had. Courtney might just have the smarts to compare the business he'd fabricated for her on paper to what was actually happening right here in Lake Eden Park. If she did that, she might discover the inconsistencies that no one else had noticed.
The customers were long gone and the last employee had left the lot at least ten minutes ago. He was completely alone and once Hannah came to pick up her check, he'd be alone for the rest of the night.
It was time to close up shop. He stepped out the back door of the trailer and walked to the pole that held the breaker box. It was cold tonight, now that the elves had turned off the standing heaters, and he shivered even though he was wearing a heavy sweater.
There were three switches inside the weather-proof box. The top one controlled the electricity for the buildings, tree tents, rides, and tall candy cane lampposts that illuminated the park. The second switch powered the bare bulbs that were strung in a crisscross pattern overhead. They were the night security lights and they kept the park dimly illuminated when the main lights were out. The third breaker controlled the electricity for Elf Headquarters, and that was permanently set in the on position. He'd told the electrician to rig it so that no misguided employee could cut the power to his television set in the middle of an important game.
The music was blaring as usual and it seemed even louder now that it wasn't tempered by noisy crowds and the squeals of children riding the attractions. His trailer wasn't soundproof, but he'd learned to tune out the noise when he was inside. Now that the park was empty, the continuous loop of Christmas carols seemed ear-splitting.
Silent Night was playing as he clicked on the overhead security lights. He'd learned his lesson the first night he'd spent in the park. Once the main lights were doused, it was impossible to see the second switch. He'd picked his way gingerly back to the trailer to get a flashlight to illuminate the second switch so that he could engage it.
Larry reached for the top switch as the music went into the chorus. "Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is ..."
He threw the switch and smiled. "Not bright. Not bright at all," he said, heading back to the lights and warmth of Elf Headquarters.
A big swallow from the brandy snifter on the coffee table made short work of his shivers. A second snifter took care of his icy toes and hands, and then he played channel roulette with the remote in an effort to find something interesting. He bypassed cooking shows, nature programs, reenactments of great moments in history, several movies with actors he didn't recognize, a performance by a symphony orchestra with a conductor he didn't recognize, and reruns of ten-year-old game shows. He finally concluded that there was nothing he really wanted to watch on any of his two hundred plus satellite channels. The only thing that was slightly better than nothing at all was a replay of the championship college basketball tournament that had taken place last year.
A few sips from a third snifter of brandy made it easier to pretend that he hadn't seen the game before. He watched a three-pointer sink in without even rippling the net, and then he looked up as car lights flashed outside his window.
Someone was parking on the street and it was probably Hannah and the dentist. No one else would come here this late. The sign on the gate announced that they were closed, but he'd left it unlocked so that she could come in.
An envelope with her check and receipt was waiting on the table next to the door. He was nothing if not prepared. He picked up the platter she'd used for her plum pudding and glanced down at the remaining crumbs. She'd be pleased to hear that everyone had loved it and agreed that it would be a big hit at the Crazy Elf Cookie Shop.
When the knock came on the door, he was ready. He pulled it open, but when he saw who was standing there, he began to frown. "What are you doing here? You're the last person I expected to see!"
"I will be the last person you'll see." The words were clipped with anger. "It's what you deserve for what you've done."
"What do you mean?" His frown deepened and he stepped back in an effort to avoid a confrontation. It was clear that this was not a friendly social visit.
His uninvited guest stepped in, shut the door, and took another step forward, forcing him to back up even further. "What do you want?" he asked.
The answer to his question came in tangible form. When he saw the gun, he backed up several more steps and dropped the platter with a crash. His hands shot up in a futile effort to protect himself.
"No! You can't ..." were the last words he spoke.CHAPTER 2
One Day Earlier
That horrid gingerbread man was poking her in the eye again! Hannah Swensen reared back to avoid the rounded tip of a well-spiced arm and the rickety step stool she kept at The Cookie Jar began to teeter on two legs. The instant before toppling was a certainty, she managed to grab a sturdy branch that was decorated with five colored lights, a chocolate chip cookie ornament, and a plastic sprig of holly. The branch held, the step stool stabilized, and what she'd feared would be a painful tumble to the floor below was averted.
"That's enough, I'm done," Hannah said to no one in particular since she was the sole occupant of her coffee shop and bakery. It was four-fifteen in the afternoon, and she'd taken advantage of the predictable lull that occurred this time of day. It was too late for most customers to come in for a mid-afternoon snack cookie and too early to pick up the boxes of cookies that had been ordered for evening parties and holiday buffets. Since her partner, Lisa Herman, had offered to make their daily cookie deliveries, Hannah had volunteered to finish decorating the Christmas tree in the front window of their shop.
It was time to admire her handiwork and have a cup of the coffee the Lake Eden Journal had called the best in the tri-county area. Hannah poured a cup and sat down at her favorite table at the back of the shop. As she sipped, she gazed out the front window at a scene that was straight from the front of a Christmas card. Lacy flakes of snow fell outside the glass, gently fluttering down to rest on the pristine white blanket that covered the sidewalk. The tree looked lovely, and Hannah gave a contented smile. It was the second week in December, and night came early in the North Star State. Thanks to the winter solstice, this was the time of the year when people drove to work in the dark, worked all day with only a glimpse of the sun from their office windows, and left work after sunset to drive back home in the dark.
A Minnesota winter could be long and claustrophobic, causing bouts of cabin fever that sent snowbirds, the people who packed up their RVs at the first sign of snow, on their annual migration to more hospitable places like Florida or California. Those who couldn't leave for the entire winter but needed a break from the unrelenting cold, purchased vacation packages and spent a rejuvenating week basking in the sun in Hawaii, or St. Thomas, or the Bahamas. They came back with suntans that were the envy of those who stayed behind in the land of snow shovels, ski masks, and chemical hand warmers.
The Lake Eden residents who stuck it out had months to perfect their survival skills. A Minnesota winter could start as early as October and last all the way through April. In the dead of winter, when the temperatures dropped to forty below, they dressed in layered clothing that added another twenty pounds to their silhouettes and hunkered down next to the heater vents, hoping that the furnace wouldn't go out.
When boredom set in as it inevitably did after the holidays, people created winter diversions to keep their minds off the endless black and white world outside their windows. The end of January brought the Lake Eden Winter Carnival with competitive winter games at the Lake Eden Inn and rides through town in old-fashioned one-horse sleighs. In February, there was a gala Valentine Night's Ball, preceded by a potluck dinner. March heralded a phenomenon called Crazy Days. Standing gas heaters were set up every few feet on Main Street and merchants displayed their wares on the sidewalk in front of their stores. It was a study in delusion, but everyone seemed to enjoy pretending that the banks of snow no longer existed and summer had arrived. In April there was the annual Easter Egg Hunt. If the weather was cold enough to freeze the hardboiled eggs that were decorated by the Lake Eden Women's Club, the event was held in the community center.
Winter was hard, no doubt about that, but almost everyone agreed that December was a magical month. Any month with Christmas in it had to be enchanting. Lights twinkled in shop windows all along Main Street. The pink-flocked tree in the plate glass window of Doug Greerson's First Mercantile Bank glittered with garlands of gold tinsel artfully looped from branch to branch. Pink satin balls were interspersed with gold candy canes, and pink mini-lights twinkled merrily.
Gus York had decorated his barber pole with colored lights again this year, and it reflected against the freshly fallen snow. The picture window that featured two chrome and leather barber chairs was outlined with garlands of pine boughs, red satin bows, and flashing white mini-lights.
Not to be outdone by his neighbor, Al Percy of Lake Eden Realty featured a miniature home in his front window. It had been wired, and lights blazed in the dining room, where a Christmas dinner was being served while the Christmas tree glowed softly in the den. Miniature wreaths were on every door, and the roof was decorated with a miniature Santa in his sleigh.
The window at Trudi's Fabrics was a work of stitchery art. A red and green velvet quilt formed the background, and angels floated from nearly invisible fishing line hanging from the ceiling. Each angel wore a colorful robe, a sample of the Christmas fabrics that Trudi and Loretta featured in their store. Sparkling gold lights provided illumination as the angels floated over a miniature forest of potted baby spruce and blooming poinsettias.
Although Hannah couldn't see the front window of Hal and Rose's Café from her vantage point at The Cookie Jar, she knew Rose had put up her tree again this year. The shiny metal pine changed colors when a small spotlight shone through a disk of revolving colored gels. The metal trees had been very popular a few years before Hannah was born, and Hannah's grandfather and father had stocked them at Lake Eden Hardware. As far as Hannah was concerned, Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Rose's tree on display.
"I'm back," a voice called out, breaking into Hannah's thoughts. It was Lisa, and she was back from her cookie deliveries. A few moments later the swinging restaurant-style door between the kitchen and the coffee shop opened and Lisa came in.
"The tree looks beautiful!" she exclaimed, walking closer to take a look. "I can't believe those shellacked cookie ornaments I made two years ago have lasted this long."
"Why wouldn't they? Shellac is a great preservative. Did you know that people used to believe it was made from the wings of an insect found in India?"
Lisa shook her head. "But it's not?"
"That's right. It's actually harvested from the secretions of the female insects and it's scraped from the bark of trees."
"Okay. I guess that's a little better."
"Not always. Sometimes they scoop up the insect along with the bark."
"Yuck! I wish you hadn't told me."
"Sorry about that. It is kind of unappetizing. Did you finish the deliveries?"
"They're all done, except for Mr. Jaeger. I'm going to drop those off on my way home." Lisa sat down next to Hannah and took a sip of the coffee she'd carried in with her. "I ran into Herb, and he drove me around. It's really cold out there, and his patrol car was nice and warm."
Hannah smiled. Lisa still had stars in her eyes when she talked about her husband of ten months. As Lisa's father and Herb's mother were fond of saying, they were perfect for each other.
"We got a chance to talk between deliveries," Lisa went on, "and Herb said Mayor Bascomb had to take Mrs. Bascomb to the emergency room at the hospital last night."
"That doesn't sound good." Hannah noticed that Lisa was still referring to her elders by their formal names, just as she'd done as a child. Old habits died hard in Lake Eden. "What's wrong with Stephanie, do you know?"
"Doc Knight diagnosed her with a bad case of the flu and he's keeping her in the hospital. He was really upset because she didn't show up to get her flu shot at the clinic, especially when he sent her a reminder and everything."
"Why didn't she get the shot?"
Lisa glanced around and leaned a bit closer even though there were no customers to overhear their conversation. "The reminder said that the shot was available for anyone over forty-five."
"And she didn't want to be seen at the clinic because that would be admitting she was over forty-five?"
"That's what Herb thinks, and he's almost always right."
"Vanity, thy name is Stephanie Bascomb," Hannah said, borrowing heavily from the Bard. "She's going to be all right, isn't she?"
"She should be. Doc's keeping her in the hospital for the rest of the week just to make sure she eats right and gets plenty of rest. And that's why I'm losing my husband until the weekend."
Hannah gave a little shake of her head. "What did you say?"
"I said that's why I'm losing Herb for the rest of the week. Since Mrs. Bascomb won't be home, the mayor's taking this opportunity to move his ice fishing house up to Mille Lacs Lake. He asked Herb to come along to help him. They're leaving tonight at midnight when there's less traffic, and once they put it out on the ice, they're going to stay and fish for a couple of days."
"I didn't know Herb liked ice fishing."
"He doesn't, not particularly, but it's the politic thing to do. Besides, Mayor Bascomb's ice fishing house is the fanciest one around. If he doesn't feel like fishing, he can watch television or play pool."
Hannah remembered her one and only tour of the mayor's ice fishing house. She'd driven across the ice to deliver coffee and cookies to the fishing contestants at Lake Eden's Winter Carnival. The mayor's ice fishing house had been luxurious, but the fancy lavish furnishings had been completely overshadowed by the grim discovery they'd made.
"I promised Herb I'd make him some Pork and Beans Bread before he left. It's his favorite and he thinks Mayor Bascomb will like it, too."
"Pork and Beans Bread?"
"It's Patsy's recipe. She got it last month when she went to California to visit a friend. They stopped in Paso Robles at a place called Vic's Café and ordered it off the menu."
Excerpted from Plum Pudding Murder by JOANNE FLUKE. Copyright © 2009 Joanne Fluke. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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