The Fourth of July brings fireworks and fatalities in a mystery with "plenty of plausible suspects and mouthwatering fudge recipes" (Kirkus Reviews).
It's not Fourth of July on Mackinac Island without fireworks and fudge. The Historic McMurphy Hotel and Fudge Shop is supplying the treats—and Allie McMurphy has hired Rodney Rivers, the biggest name in aerial displays, to create an unforgettable spectacle. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a case of red, white, and boom when Allie finds him dead, covered with screaming chicken fireworks, just before the entire warehouse of pyrotechnics goes up in smoke. Is it arson or is it murder? Allie and her bichonpoo, Mal, must sift through the suspects until the killer is caught and the island can enjoy a star-spangled celebration . . .
Bonus material: This audiobook includes a PDF of recipes.
Release date: April 28, 2015
Publisher: Kensington Books
Print pages: 235
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Oh Say Can You Fudge
I was working on a red, white, and blue striped fudge recipe when I got a call from Rodney Rivers. So, of course, I let the call go to voice mail. I mean nothing, but perhaps if the curtains are on fire, interrupted working with hot sugar. I was at the most delicate part of making fudge—the stirring to cool. If you overbeat the fudge while it cools, it sugars. If you under beat the fudge, it’s too soft. Therefore, a random phone call from the pyro technician in charge of the Mackinac Island Star Spangled Fourth fireworks celebrations could be answered later. Right?
Except I got caught up in the fudge.
Three hours later, still not happy with the recipe, I noticed the blinking light on my cell phone and figured I’d better call up the voice mail.
“Allie, we’ve got a problem. Meet me at the fireworks warehouse as soon as possible.” Rodney sounded angry. “The entire program is in ruins.”
Oh, man, that was not good. I’d had to fight my way onto the Star Spangled Fourth event committee in the first place. It was only because old man Slauser had died in May that I had been able to join the committee and take over the fireworks program. It was all part of my ongoing plan to become an upstanding member of Mackinac Island society.
Message two came up.
“Allie, answer your phone, will you? This is serious and time sensitive.” Rodney’s tone had gone from angry to desperate. “The entire back row of fireworks has been tampered with—Hey, you. What are you doing here? Are you responsible for—” The phone went eerily dead.
Well, that certainly couldn’t be good. I dialed the call-back number, but it went straight to voice mail. I left a message. “Hey, Mr. Rivers, this is Allie McMurphy. I just got your voice mails. I was in the middle of making fudge or I would have answered sooner.” I winced at my own rambling message. As the boss, I was never supposed to make excuses or apologize. “I’m headed to the warehouse. Call me if you’re no longer there. Otherwise I’m coming down to see what I can do to help.” I hung up my phone. There was a third message, but I assumed that it was from Rodney Rivers as well. He sounded insistent. I didn’t take the time to listen any further. Instead I stripped out of my chef’s jacket, which was stiff from sugar and candy ingredients that tended to float in the air whenever I was inventing something new.
The lobby door to the McMurphy was open to let in the soft, fresh lake air which blew the summer white linen curtains softly.
I called to my reservation manager. “Frances, I need to meet Mr. Rivers at the fireworks warehouse. Can you cover for me until Sandy comes in?”
“Sure can,” Frances answered from her perch behind the reservation desk. “What’s up?”
I’d inherited Frances along with the Historic McMurphy Hotel and Fudge Shop when my Papa Liam died. She had worked the busy summer seasons for Papa and Grammy Alice for as long as I could remember.
“Mr. Rivers didn’t say exactly, but there may be something wrong with some of the fireworks.”
“Do you want me to call the fire department?” Frances looked at me over the top of her dark purple reading glasses. It was hard to tell she was in her seventies. She kept her brunette hair immaculate and her skin glowed in a way I hoped mine would at her age.
“No, I think if it were bad enough for the fire department, Mr. Rivers would have called them. He’s an expert at that kind of thing and has always stressed safety first.”
My bichon-poo puppy, Marshmallow—Mal for short—got up from her comfortable spot in the pink doggie bed beside Frances. She stretched her back legs in a manor I liked to call doggie yoga—it mimicked the downward dog position—and trotted over to me then begged to be picked up. When I ignored the blatant display of cuteness, she poked my black cotton covered leg with her nose—a sign she knew I was going out and she expected me to take her.
“No, Mal. It’s too far for you,” I said and gathered up my keys and things in a small bag with shoestring handles that turned it into a backpack.
She sat, sighed loudly, and turned back to her bed.
“I’ll call as soon as I find out more.” I pulled the bag over my shoulders. “Let Sandy know we’re short on the chocolate cherry and the cotton candy fudge.”
“Will do.” Frances went back to her computer. She had been my Grammy Alice’s best friend. She’d worked summers for my grandparents for something fun to do and to make a little extra money. When she retired from teaching, she came to work for Papa Liam full-time. When Papa died in March, Frances had stayed to help me navigate the ins and outs of running the McMurphy.
I counted on her to introduce me to our regular customers. Some had been summering at the McMurphy for generations. Others just a season or two, but Frances remembered them all.
I grabbed my thin blue-jean jacket from a hook near the back door and put it on over the top of my pink McMurphy polo shirt and went out the back door of the hotel. Part of the appeal of Mackinac Island—besides the world famous fudge and the grand, Victorian, painted-lady summer cottages—was the fact that motorized vehicles, with the exception of the ambulance and fire truck, were not allowed on the island. That meant there were only three modes of transportation: horse-drawn carriage, bicycle, and on foot.
Since the fireworks were stored in a cinder block warehouse near the airport, I decided to bike it and unchained my bicycle from the stand in the back alley. Two miles on foot might make my current tardiness even worse. I threw my blue Ked-covered right foot over the bike and took off, thankful for the black slacks that were part of my standard uniform.
It really was a lovely day. I was continually amazed at the laid-back beauty of the island and the large state park in the center that offered good hiking, beautiful views, and fresh air to anyone who’d had enough of the hustle and bustle of the fort and shops of Main Street. I watched the Grand Hotel’s Cessna 421C charter plane land as I drew close to the airport.
The airport warehouse had been built to store supplies flown in during the winter months when the ferries quit running. We picked it for the fireworks storage because it was cinder block and away from the crowds.
A handful of tourists stepped out of the charter plane and onto the tarmac. The Grand Hotel was a magnet for the wealthy and offered the charter plane service as a quick and easy way onto the island from Chicago or Detroit.
Three men were perfectly groomed and wore aviator sunglasses, stylish jeans, and immaculately pressed linen shirts. Two women wore what appeared to be designer-cut halter dresses with floral patterns. Their long bare legs were made even longer by the gold toned sandals.
The last to step out of the plane was Sophie Collins, the local pilot. She wore a crisp white shirt with epaulets and tan slacks. Her dark curly hair was pulled back in a low, easy ponytail. I waved at her. She waved back then turned to escort her clients to the waiting horse-drawn carriage that would take them to the Grand Hotel.
I’d met Sophie at a dinner party Trent Jessop’s sister had given for about twenty of the local island folks. Unlike the others, Sophie had been the only one to treat me like an equal. We had a long discussion about the cliquishness of island society. She was in her early thirties, had been a full-time pilot for the Grand Hotel for three years, and still occasionally ran up against people who treated her like an outsider.
I parked my bike in front of the warehouse and took note that two other bikes were nearby. One had the look of a rental bike. Many places on the island rent bikes. Most of the better hotels had bike rental right outside their doors. The second bike was a professional off-roader. It had the used look of a local’s.
“Hello?” I said as I opened the door. “Mr. Rivers? It’s Allie McMurphy. I came as soon as I got your messages.”
The overhead fluorescent lights buzzed and hissed above me.
“Hello?” The first aisle was quiet and while the shelves were filled with boxes large and small there wasn’t a human to be found. “Mr. Rivers? It’s Allie. You left me a message about a problem?”
The second aisle of shelves was empty. I paused to see if I could hear anyone talking. Two bikes outside besides mine meant someone had to be in the warehouse, didn’t they?
Two offices in the back near the bay doors were big enough to bring in full pallets of supplies—in this case—fireworks. Maybe Rodney Rivers was in one of the offices with whomever else was there. It could be that they had closed the door and couldn’t hear me.
A quick glance down the third and last aisle didn’t reveal anything tragic as his voice mail had stated. Perhaps he’d cleared everything up already. After all, it had been over an hour since the last phone call.
My phone rang and, startled, I jumped what felt like ten feet. Clearly, I was on edge in the warehouse. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and saw that the number belonged to Rex Manning, sexy police officer and now my good friend. “Hello?”
“Allie, are you okay? Frances said there may be trouble at the fireworks warehouse.”
“I’m good, except my heart is still racing from being startled by my phone ringing.” I walked toward the two offices built with half walls of cinder block and the rest window so that the manager of the warehouse could look out and keep an eye on the workers.
Rex chuckled. “Spooky at the warehouse? Where’s Phil Angler? He’s usually around there somewhere.”
“I have no idea. When I got here two bikes were parked outside. One looked like a rental so I assume it belongs to Rodney Rivers. Maybe the second belongs to Phil.”
“Was it a blue off-roader?”
“I think so.” I continued toward the darkened offices. “I wasn’t paying that much attention. I was in a bit of a hurry.”
“Hurry for what?”
“I got two voice messages from Mr. Rivers. He’s the pyro technician I hired for the fireworks shows. The first message he left said we had a problem at the warehouse and I was to call him back. The second got interrupted, but I think he said something about sabotage.”
“I don’t like the sound of that, Allie. Get out of the warehouse.” Rex’s tone of voice brooked no argument. Not that his tone had any effect on me.
“I’m fine. As far as I can tell no one’s here.” I put my free hand on the glass to shade my eyes and break the glare from the overhead lights and peered into the first dark office. “The phone calls were an hour or so ago. Maybe he resolved things already.”
“Allie, I’m serious. Get the hell out of the warehouse. Do it now.”
“I swear, Allie, sometimes you are too stubborn for your own good. Get out. The place might be rigged and—“
“Could explode,” I finished and pursed my mouth, pushing it to the side as I peered down the aisle. The last office was just a few feet away with only the distance of the bay door between me and it. “I watch TV, too. How often does that happen in real life?”
“Okay, fine. I’m at the bay door in the back, anyway. I’ll just stick my head over and take a peek in the second office and I’ll leave.”
“I’m nearly there,” Rex said. “I need you to leave now.”
“But it’s only a few feet and I’ll be careful.” I checked for trip wires or anything like what you see in movies that might cause an explosion as I carefully tiptoed across the bay door. “If anyone sees me doing this, they’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“Allie, I’m very serious—”
“I’m being careful, really. I promise, I won’t open the door or anything. I’m only going to peek inside.” I slowly made it across the bay to see a light on in the second office. “The light is on. I’m sure it will be fine. Phil’s probably inside unaware that I’m skulking around.”
“Darn it, Allie.”
I peeked inside the window and stopped cold. “Oh, no.”
“What is it? What’s going on?”
“There’s a man slumped across the desk, faceup.” I couldn’t help the wince in my voice. “I can see his expression and his eyes have the same look that Joe Jessop’s did. I’m pretty sure he’s dead. And—”
“Weird. Little paper chickens are all kind of tethered together. It’s like a string of lights or something draped over him. Do you want me to go in and see?” I reached out toward the office doorknob.
“Freeze!” Rex’s voice echoed from the phone and the hall behind me.
I screamed a little and wheeled around to see him striding purposefully toward me dressed in full police uniform, his bike helmet still on his head. He had one hand out in the universal sign of stop and the other hand on the butt of the gun on his hip.
“Darn it! You scared me half to death.” I scowled at him. “How did you get here so fast?”
“Frances called me the minute you left the McMurphy.”
“Figures,” I muttered. “Why didn’t you tell me you were in the building?”
“Get your hand off that doorknob, Allie.” Rex was serious and his seriousness got to me.
It was one thing for him to be authoritative on the phone and quite something different to see him face-to-face in full cop mode. I raised both hands slowly in the air. “I’m not touching it.”
Just then there was a sharp screaming sound and a little pop coming from the other side of the glass. I whirled to see that the little chickens were tethered together by a fuse. They were fireworks. The screaming sound and pop repeated itself over and over as the chickens lit up.
“What the heck?” he asked beside me.
“Fireworks are going off in there,” I said as he looked inside.
“Hang up your phone,” Rex ordered. His cop’s gaze took in everything at once. “Gosh darn it, you’re right. He has the blank stare of a dead man and those are screaming chickens going off. Did you see anyone else in the room?”
“You need to get out of the building.” He put his hand on my arm and gently led me to the entrance door beside the bay door. He stopped and carefully inspected the door, running his hand along the edges. “Feels clean.” He cautiously opened the door and alarms went off, blaring.
I covered my ears and let him lead me outside and a few hundred feet from the building. We stood where the surrounding parking lot gave way to woods.
“Charlene,” Rex said into the walkie-talkie on his shoulder. “We need the fire department, the EMTs, and call in a bomb squad from Mackinaw City.”
“Bomb squad?” I heard Charlene parrot.
“That’s right.” Rex studied me. “Allie McMurphy reported a phone message that someone tampered with the fireworks. When we arrived some minor fireworks started to go off. I didn’t see anyone so they were most likely lit with a slow fuse. I want a bomb squad here to check out the warehouse before anyone goes back in there.”
“I’ve got a call into Mackinaw City,” Charlene replied over the crackle of the walkie-talkie. “Do I need to send in Shane?”
“What makes you think we need a crime scene investigator?”
“Allie McMurphy’s there, right?”
“Then there’s a ninety-eight percent chance she found another dead body.”
Rex’s mouth went flat, making a thin line of disgust. “Get the fire department out here.”
“Yes, sir.” Charlene didn’t sound the least bit contrite. “That girl is trouble, Officer Manning. Be careful.”
“Allie didn’t find a dead body,” he said sharply. “She called in the bomb threat like a responsible adult.”
“I’m sure she did.” The communicator went dead as they hung up.
I hugged my arms around my chest. “You’re right. He only looked dead. You should have let me go check on him. What if he needed help?”
“Let me hear your phone messages.” Rex held out his big hand.
I called up the voice mail, tapped in my password, and handed the phone to him.
His frown grew darker as he listened. “I’m going to have to keep these. They’re evidence.”
“What about Mr. Rivers? If you won’t let me, shouldn’t you at least go and check on him?”
“You recognized the guy in the office?”
“Yes, I think it was Rodney Rivers. He is the lead pyro tech I hired to do the Star Spangled Fourth fireworks shows.”
Rex shook his head. “Dead or not, I can’t take the chance that the place isn’t rigged to blow. That’s a warehouse full of fireworks. If it explodes, he really will be dead, along with anyone else inside.”
I heard sirens in the distance. The island was anti motor vehicle except for first responders. Then all rules were broken. It only made sense that we had an ambulance and fire truck. There was a limit to charm when people needed help.
“Stay put!” Rex ordered and stepped out to direct the vehicles.
I stuck my tongue out at his back. He whirled around, but I put my hands up and blinked innocently. “I’m staying right here.”
Rex was not much taller than me, but he was a big man with shoulders as wide as a mountain, a thick neck, and a shaved head in the fit manner of an action hero. In the last few months, I’d gotten to know him well. He had even asked me out once, but I’d already said yes to my current boyfriend Trent Jessop. It’s not that Rex wasn’t attractive, but Trent left me feeling like the luckiest girl alive. Rex was a bit bossy . . . if you haven’t already noticed.
Thirty minutes later, I still didn’t have my phone and had finally given up and sat down on the curb of the parking area. I watched as Sophie had flown out right after the call and came back with the crew from Mackinaw City. Three guys in thick bomb suits, with helmets in hand, strolled around the corner where the fire truck and ambulance sat.
I was far enough away from the vehicles that I couldn’t hear what Rex said to the men, but their expressions were deadly serious as they put on the helmets and carefully entered the building through the door Rex had pushed me out.
“First time I ever had to escort a bomb squad on the island,” Sophie said as she walked toward me from the far edge of the parking lot. “It must be serious for Rex to call in trolls.”
Some people called anyone from the Lower Peninsula trolls because they lived under (south of) the Mackinac Bridge. The suspension bridge is the longest in the western hemisphere and the fifth longest bridge in the world. People around Mackinac were proud that it was nearly twice as long as the Golden Gate Bridge, but the claim to fame ended there as it was not nearly as wide.
“Frances told him I had phone messages about trouble at the fireworks warehouse,” I said as she sat down on the curb next to me. “He got all bossy and practically dragged me out of the warehouse.”
“If Rex called the troll bomb squad he had good reason to drag you out,” Sophie said. “I’ve known him for years and have never seen him panic.”
“In my defense, I didn’t see anything to worry about until I peeked into the last office.” I hugged my knees to my chest.
“Rumor has it you found yet another dead. . .
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