There's no sugarcoating a killer's scheme
After a summer celebration on Michigan's Mackinac Island ends in murder, hotel and fudge shop owner Allie McMurphy puts on her sleuthing hat . . .
During the Midsummer Night's Festival, Allie decides to take her bichonpoo, Mal, home to spare her furry little ears from the sounds of fireworks. But on her way back, Allie spots a body in the lake. Just minutes ago, Winona Higer was crowning the event's Queen—could the competition have really been that deadly?
While she ponders the mystery the next morning, Allie prepares her favorite dark chocolate cherry fudge recipe. But she's soon recruited to sub for the late Winona and serve as parade float judge, among other duties. As she hears rumors and gossip, and learns of mean pranks and threatening notes, her instincts kick in—despite her boyfriend the cop's disapproval. Now, between managing a new hire and keeping the tourists filled with fudge, she's dealing with a case that's boiling over . . .
Release date: May 24, 2022
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 352
Reader says this book is...: clever protagonist (1) entertaining story (1) female sleuth (1) realistic characters (1) red herrings (1) suspenseful (1) unexpected twists (1) unputdownable (1)
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A Midsummer Night's Fudge
“Mrs. Higer really outdid herself with this ball,” I said as Jenn and I exited the dance floor. Jenn was my best friend and sometimes partner in sleuthing. Recently married, Jenn was gorgeously slim, wearing a black jumpsuit and large blue butterfly wings. Her wide brown eyes were half hidden behind a black eye mask made of lace.
“I think Mayor Boatman is trying to take some credit for the event,” Jenn said and pointed to where the mayor stood beside Winona Higer as people congratulated her. The mayor wore a long gown and a Marie Antoinette wig. She had a beauty patch on her cheek and a silver eye mask. There was no mistaking Mayor Boatman, even in costume. Winona also stood out in a lovely white gown with rainbow hair and a unicorn headdress.
It was Jenn’s idea to have a masquerade ball and we loved how people went all in with fairy costumes and general midsummer fun. We set up the festivities on the beach with the big bonfire nearby, seating for anyone who wanted it, and then the dance area where people moved energetically. The dance floor itself was a ten-by-ten-foot deck that rested on the sandy beach, while a live band played. There were cash bars on either side of the event area and the large bonfire to the left, where people sat in grouped lawn chairs while others put out picnic blankets and coolers.
There was a long buffet table and Porter’s meats had roasted a pig. Little kids dressed as fairies and unicorns ran through the sand, laughing and squealing as they chased each other. Brave souls swam in the cool water of Lake Michigan, running out to dry off by the fire and jumping back into the water.
I was not swimming. Not that I didn’t like to swim, but I had recently gotten a cast off my arm and was happy to dress fancy for the ball in a floaty, green gown with a kerchief hem and huge fairy wings. My bichon-poo pup, Mal, was in the mix dressed as a dragon. She loved festivals and people. Thankfully, my boyfriend Rex Manning didn’t mind watching her while I danced.
We returned to our spot where Rex and Jenn’s new husband, Shane Carpenter, sat drinking beer and watching the flames grow and pop as people added fuel to the bonfire.
Mal barked and jumped up on me and I picked her up, giving her a quick squeeze as she licked my face.
“Hurry up and take a seat,” Shane said. “They’re about to pick the queen and her court.”
I sat down in a lawn chair next to Rex. My boyfriend was a police officer and with his shaved head and gorgeous blue eyes, he had that action-hero look to him. Shane, on the other hand, was lanky with thick glasses and caramel-colored hair. Both of the men had indulged us by wearing black T-shirts, jeans, and eye masks. After all, the event was a masquerade.
“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please,” Winona said, her voice loud through the microphone in her hand. We all turned to look at the main stage. Five young ladies stood on the stage in long, flowing gowns complete with fairy wings and pointed ears. “As you know, these girls have been competing for the last three days in various portions of the contest: talent, health, and interview. Now the scores have been calculated and are currently being verified by the local accountants of Bradford Accounting. Mr. Bradford, could you please bring up the results.”
Everyone clapped as the accountant in black-tie attire and a black mask walked up and handed her an envelope. He then motioned for her to bend down and whispered in her ear.
“I see,” Winona said. “Thank you. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you see five girls in front of you, but due to a disqualification, there will only be four places awarded for the queen and her court. Your queen will receive a five-hundred-dollar scholarship to the school of her choice and she and her court will ride in the queen’s float in tomorrow’s parade.”
As the crowd clapped, the girls looked at each other, puzzled. Who was disqualified?
“The third runner-up is ... Alicia Newhouse.” Everyone clapped as the lovely blonde received flowers and a sash. “The second runner-up is ... Lakesha Smith.” The beautiful girl with the chocolate skin stepped up and received her sash. “There are three girls left,” Winona said. “And only one winner. The first runner-up is ... Madison Oustand.” Everyone clapped as the curvy brunette received her flowers and sash and the two remaining girls stood together and held hands.
“Two girls stand before us. Each one lovely. Each one receiving high marks for community service, health, and interview. Unfortunately, only one is the queen. And the winner is ... Julie Vanderbilt!” Everyone clapped as the tall brunette clasped her hands over her mouth and cried. “Unfortunately, that means Natasha Alpine has been disqualified. You may leave the stage.”
“There must be some kind of mistake,” Natasha said. “I’m a queen. Why would I be disqualified?”
“We’ve been made aware of an error in your community service hours,” Winona said. “Now let’s crown our queen.” She shooed Natasha off the stage and took the tiara out of the hands of her assistant, Michelle Bell, and pinned it into Julie’s hair. Then placed a sash around her dress and handed her roses. With a flourish, Winona waved the crowd to clap over their queen. But Natasha had not left the stage, so Winona attempted to encourage her out of the way. But Natasha continued to argue that the crown was hers, until Bill Blachek grabbed her by the waist and pulled her off the stage.
“Now it’s time for the fireworks,” Winona said into the microphone.
“Seems like there were a lot of fireworks already,” Jenn said with a laugh.
We turned to the sky as the fireworks shot up over the straits of Mackinac and exploded into the air with loud booms. Mal was not a fan and jumped into my lap. I wrapped her tightly in a blanket, but she still shivered.
“I’m going to run Mal home,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Rex asked.
“No, I’ll be fine.”
I lived at the top of the Historic McMurphy Hotel and Fudge Shop. It was on Main Street just a few blocks from the beach. Hugging Mal as fireworks exploded and people oohed and aahed, I scurried through the crowd. As I passed by, I noticed that Winona was busy arguing with Natasha and what appeared to be her mother and her grandmother about the disqualification. I shook my head and headed up from the beach and onto the sidewalk, past the school and onto Main.
The festival drew most of the people from the island, so Main Street was unusually quiet. I unbundled Mal and let her walk/run back to the McMurphy with me. Hurrying down the alley around the back, I saw that Mal was better, since we were no longer right in front of the fireworks. Poor pup, I hadn’t realized how terrible fireworks were for pets. Thankfully, I had a comfort shirt for her, so I took her upstairs, put her in her shirt, gave her a chew bone, checked on my kitty, Mella, and then locked the door. The fireworks were slowing down as I left Main Street and walked the footpath to the beach.
Then, just as the last fireworks exploded, I saw something in the water. Glancing around, I didn’t see anyone nearby, so I hurried to the water’s edge.
It was a woman in a unicorn costume. The white dress with rainbow hair flowed in and out with the waves.
I dove into the water and turned her so that her face was out of the water and dragged her to shore, as I was taught in my high school lifeguard class. I got maybe a yard onto dry sand when I heard someone approach.
“Allie, are you okay?” It was Mrs. Tunisian. She was a dear friend and one of a handful of senior citizens retired on the island. She was dressed as a dragonfly with her hair in a mohawk and a headband with twin antennae.
“I’m fine,” I said, “but she isn’t. She was in the water.” I set down the woman and gasped as I saw it was Winona. I went to my knees to push water from her lungs when I noticed a dark, round hole in the center of her forehead.
I grabbed my phone and turned on the flashlight.
“Oh, that’s not good,” Mrs. Tunisian said.
Indeed, it was not. Winona had been shot right between the eyes. I don’t think there was anything I could do to save her life.
“Run back to the bonfire and get Rex,” I ordered Mrs. Tunisian. Then I dialed 911.
“This is 911, what is your emergency?” Charlene, the operator asked.
“Hi, Charlene,” I said, my voice breathless.
“Oh, my goodness, Allie, who’s dead?” It seemed to be a growing theme between me and Charlene.
“It’s Mrs. Higer,” I said. “She’s been shot.”
“Is she alive?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “I found her in the water and when I pulled her out, I saw that she had a bullet hole in the center of her forehead.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m at the beach, just at the bottom of the path from Main Street.”
“I’ve got police arriving soon,” Charlene said. “Are you okay? Did you see the shooter?”
“No,” I said, looking around. “I didn’t see the shooter, but her body is still warm. It had to have happened not too long ago.”
“Does she have a heartbeat?”
I placed my fingers on the side of her neck. “No,” I said. “She’s definitely dead.”
In the distance, I heard the sirens from the ambulance coming my way. Mackinac Island had banned motor vehicles nearly a century ago. Which meant most people got around by bicycle or horse and carriage. I liked to walk everywhere. But when it came to safety, we had a modern fire truck and a modern ambulance. They were the only vehicles allowed on the island.
Rex and Mrs. Tunisian came running up, followed by Jenn and Shane.
“Allie, what happened? You’re wet!” Jenn said.
“I was coming back down the path when I saw someone in the water. She was face down, so I swam out to get her and bring her in,” I said.
“That’s when we saw the bullet hole in her forehead,” Carol Tunisian said to Rex, who squatted down next to the body. “That’s when I went to get you.”
“Did anyone hear a shot?” I asked.
“The fireworks must have covered up the sound,” Rex said.
Two bikes approached. It was Officer Lasko and Officer Brown.
Rex waved them down.
“It’s Winona,” I said and pointed toward the body. “Someone shot her in the head.”
“Were you here when she was found?” Officer Charles Brown asked Rex. Charles was a handsome man with a strong chin and short brown hair.
“No,” Rex said. “Allie found her in the water.”
“I went and got Rex,” Carol repeated. A crowd had begun to form behind Jenn.
“I’m going to go get my kit,” Shane said. He was our local crime scene investigator.
“How did you find her?” Officer Megan Lasko asked. She pulled a notebook out of her pocket to take my statement.
I went over what happened. I knew from experience that I would be asked the same questions over and over to ensure I didn’t change my story or to help me remember something I might have forgotten.
“Did you see anyone else?” Officer Lasko asked.
“No.” I shook my head. “The fireworks must have covered the sound of the gunshot.”
“What was she doing way over here?” Megan mused.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I found her in the water, so she could have drifted over here.”
“Did you see her at the bonfire?”
“Did you see her leave?” Megan asked.
“No,” I said. “Last I saw her, she was talking to Natasha Alpine and her family.”
The ambulance arrived and George Marron stepped out. He was dressed in a blue EMT’s outfit, his hair pulled back into a long, single braid. His cheekbones were high and slashed across his thin face. His copper-colored skin shone in the light from my phone.
“Hello, Allie,” he said.
“Hi, George,” I greeted him.
“What do we have?”
“Winona, shot in the middle of her forehead,” I said. “I don’t think she needs you. You’d better call the coroner.”
“Is Shane on duty?”
“He went home to get his kit,” I said.
Jenn came over with a beach towel for me. I hadn’t seen her leave, but there was a lot going on and it was dark. “Here,” she said. “You’re shivering.”
I huddled into the warmth of the beach towel.
“I’ll tape off the crime scene,” Megan said. “The crowds are growing, and we don’t need them trampling evidence.”
Jenn hugged me. “Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I said, hugging her back. “How did she get in the water?”
“Did you see anyone nearby when you found her?” Rex asked as he left the body to the officers on duty.
“No.” I shook my head. “I didn’t hear anything either. I think the shot was covered by the fireworks.”
“Last I saw her, she was talking to the Alpines,” Jenn said. “The conversation looked heated.”
“I know,” I said. “That’s when I saw her.”
“We’re going to have to interview the people at the party and see if anyone saw her leave,” Rex said.
“Well, then you’d better hurry, because people are leaving.” I pointed toward a couple of people walking up the trail toward Main Street.
“I’m sure that anyone with information will come forward,” Rex said with confidence. He turned to give me a glimpse of the crowd forming outside the tape lines. “It looks like everyone showed up for this crime scene.”
“Maybe even the killer,” Carol said.
If only things were ever that easy.
This cheesecake has a brownie bottom and vodka-soaked raspberries pureed and swirled into it.
Soak raspberries overnight in vodka. This pulls the juices out of the berries and adds a little flavor.
Melt butter in a sturdy saucepan. Stir in sugar, cocoa, and salt. Add eggs one at a time. Mix until combined. Don’t overmix or the eggs will lose their rise. Add vanilla and stir.
Cover the bottom of a ten-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Pour brownie mix into the pan. Bake at 350 degrees F for ten minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
Place cream cheese in a sturdy, large bowl and beat for two minutes until light. Then slowly add the sugar a little at a time. Add salt and vanilla and mix. Add eggs one at a time and mix between adding until all are combined.
Strain berries and puree in a food processor. Or just use a fork and mash them. Then push through a small-holed sieve to pull out as many seeds as possible.
Next, pour cheesecake mixture over the brownie mixture. Dot the top with raspberry puree. Take a knife and swirl it through the raspberries into the cheesecake until pretty. Then put the filled ten-inch springform pan into a roaster and fill with boiling water until halfway up the sides of the pan.
Put the roaster pan and cheesecake into a 350 degrees F preheated oven. Bake for 60-70 minutes until the sides are set and the center wobbles slightly. Remove from oven and onto cooling rack. Wait thirty minutes until cool and place in refrigerator overnight until set. Remove springform sides and cut into generous wedges. Enjoy!
I didn’t see Rex the rest of the night as they worked through the crime scene and the witnesses. There was nothing for me to do but pace in my apartment, while Mal followed me back and forth. My biggest worry was there was someone out there with a gun and brave enough to shoot Winona during a fireworks display and push her body into the water.
Who could have done such a thing and why? The bonfire masquerade was a huge success and had raised nearly five thousand dollars for the parks. Winona had been the catalyst for the new festival and had done a lot of the planning and execution of the event.
I finally gave up pacing and went downstairs to make fudge. I usually got up early to make the fudge batches that filled the counter before the first ferries arrived at ten, filled with tourists. I was in the middle of making dark chocolate cherry, my personal favorite, when Rex knocked on the window. I rushed out of the fudge shop to open the front door of the McMurphy Hotel. The first streaks of dawn filled the sky and the sounds of birds singing followed him inside.
“Did you get any sleep?” I asked and I moved through the lobby toward the fudge shop. It was best to not leave candy alone too long.
“None.” He followed me and ran a hand over his handsome face.
“There’s fresh coffee at the coffee bar,” I said with a nod in the direction of the bar. While the McMurphy was over a hundred years old, I’d remodeled and implemented a few new things the past year. One of them was secur. . .
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