In this eighteenth mystery in the national bestselling Chocoholic series, a gang of crooks with a wicked sweet tooth wreaks havoc on the resort town of Warner Pier, and it's up to Lee Woodyard to rout the hungry rascals.
A frantic late-night phone call from her right-hand woman Dolly Jolly brings Lee Woodyard to the scene of a break-in at the Warner Pier jewelry store next door to TenHuis Chocolade. To her shock, the suspect being held at gunpoint by police is Dolly's boyfriend, Mike Westerly, who was recently hired as a night watchman specifically to prevent break-ins. Dolly hopes Lee can help straighten out the crazy misunderstanding.
Even crazier? The thieves took nothing of value from the jewelry store, only swiping some snacks. It's another in a series of break-ins by burglars the media has dubbed the Cookie Monsters. They've been hitting shops selling everything from sunglasses to shoes but stealing only sweets: lollipops, cookies, even chewing gum!
It all seems pretty funny--until the discovery of a dead body. With her friends and community in danger, Lee must stop one very sour killer before someone else comes to a bitter end.
Release date: August 3, 2021
Print pages: 256
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The Chocolate Raccoon Rigmarole
I love coffee, but I don't usually drink it at the gas station with the guys. My husband, Joe Woodyard, also likes coffee. And at least five mornings a week he does stop for a cup at the coffee bar at the Warner Pier Rest-Stop out on the interstate.
And he does drink his coffee with "the guys," an informal group of old and new friends, most of them craftsmen, who have drifted together over the years.
Joe is six foot two, with dark hair, bright blue eyes, and the best shoulders in west Michigan. He has a dual career. Some days he goes to his boat shop and works on antique wooden boats, restoring them to their historic grandeur. On other days, he drives twenty-five miles to a midsized Midwestern city-Holland, Michigan-and there he practices law.
But in either situation-boat shop or law office-he almost always stops to have coffee, and maybe a doughnut, with the group known as the "coffee club." It's an informal group; Joe says one reason he likes it is that they don't have a constitution or bylaws.
I'm Lee McKinney Woodyard-early thirties, a shade under six feet tall, blond, and business manager for a company that makes luxury chocolates.
One morning in early summer I needed to hitch a ride into Holland to get my van out of the garage, so I rode along with Joe.
As we pulled into the Rest-Stop, Joe scanned the parking lot and took an informal count of the coffee drinkers who were already there.
"Tony and Digger are here," Joe said. Digger is a plumber, and Tony has a machine shop.
"Plus Mike." Joe laughed. "You can't miss that flashy GMC truck."
I laughed, too. "How'd Mike wind up with that red monster? Did he add the solid cover for the bed? It can't be standard equipment."
I grew up in rural Texas surrounded by pickup trucks, but most of them came with a folding bed cover made of vinyl-if they had any kind of cover at all. Mike's was one solid piece that opened like the hood of a car, and it was painted a brilliant red to match the truck's body. Add the giant tires and fancy steps, and Mike's truck yelled Wow!
"Mike swears he bought it secondhand and got a good deal," Joe said. "Of course, he uses that plain blue truck that belongs to the police department when he's on the job. The trucks that really make me laugh belong to the Vanderwerp cousins."
"I know," I said. "At first I didn't notice how alike they are, because they have those different magnetic signs." The Vanderwerp shoe store sign was red, and the doughnut delivery sign was blue.
"Yah. Funny coincidence they both bought white panel trucks."
R. L. Lake waved at us as he pulled out of the driveway. "Ooh," I said, "the doughnuts should be fresh if R. L.'s just leaving."
I knew all the coffee club guys, of course-or I thought I did. In a town of twenty-five hundred, there are few strangers. So while Joe went to the counter and bought a cup of coffee and a doughnut for each of us, I took a chair with the gang at the big table. Everyone nodded to me, and I spoke to each of them.
"Hi, Digger." Digger is a plumber, and he looks like one. Slightly grubby clothes, with dark hair and a thin face.
"Hi, Lee," he said. "How's everything?"
I turned to the next guy. "Bill? How's business?" Bill Vanderwerp is an exception for the coffee club. He's a merchant, not a craftsman. Bill recently inherited a shoe store in the same block with TenHuis Chocolade, where I'm business manager.
"Doin' pretty good, Lee. You keepin' Joe on his toes?"
"Most of the time, Bill. We just saw your cousin pulling out."
Bill's cousin R. L. Lake, the other guy with a white van, had recently moved to Warner Pier and was looking for a house to buy. He was working for a doughnut shop in Dorinda, our county seat, making deliveries, and he usually managed to take his coffee break at the Warner Pier Rest-Stop while his cousin and his friends were there. I had met him only a few times, but I could spot him for a Vanderwerp: Warner Pier lore says they're all tall and blond, with friendly grins. Another tale about the Vanderwerps is that they supposedly expand as they age, so that twenty-year-old members of the family are skinny, but middle-aged Vanderwerps get well padded.
Bill and R. L. were almost the same age, but easy to tell apart. R. L. was the one with the bushy blond beard, and Bill was clean-shaven.
Bill smiled and nodded. "R. L.'s on a different schedule this week."
I nodded and turned to the next guy at the table. "Tony? How's it goin'?" Tony was chewing, so he simply nodded.
Tony Herrera and my husband have been pals since boyhood. Plus, they're stepbrothers, since Joe's mom married Tony's dad a few years back. Tony's a tall guy, too, but on the bulky side. His wife and I have been friends since high school.
Tony has a machine shop. I asked about it. "You still planning to bid on that big job?"
Tony gulped his doughnut down. "I'm still figuring, Lee." He gestured toward the final guy in that day's group. "Hey, you know Mike. He's joined us today."
"Gosh, yes!" I said. "How're you doing, Mike?"
Mike had once saved my life, and he was dating one of my close friends. Besides his gaudy red pickup, the main things that made Mike unforgettable were his looks and his size. Mike was six feet five inches tall and nearly that broad. His hair and beard, both cut short, were brilliantly red, and both curled. But his eyes didn't match each other; the left one wasn't shaped like the right one was. His nose leaned to one side, and scars marked the left side of his face.
No, I couldn't forget someone I owed so much or someone who looked like Mike. But that didn't mean I knew Mike well. Mike had a reserved side to his personality. He seemed to be hiding secrets I could never figure out.
I smiled, and Mike smiled back. Or maybe he grimaced. He ducked his head and looked at a folded newspaper on the table in front of him. I saw that he was working a crossword puzzle.
Then a phone rang from Mike's direction. Mike growled and scowled. He stood up, walked a few steps away, turned his back on the table, and pulled out a cell phone.
"Bob?" Mike's voice always amazed me. He looked so tough I expected him to roar like a T. rex. But his voice was not loud. Still, in a small space like the coffee area, he was easy for everyone to hear.
"You got away before I could catch you. But I talked to Hupenheimer's, and they say they paid you two months ago."
Mike listened briefly, and this time I could hear excited noises coming from his phone. I couldn't make out the words, but the noises sounded just a little panicky.
Mike spoke again, and he sounded calm. Deadly calm. "Bob, I've killed a lot of guys for minimum wage. I'll be over to see you this afternoon, and I'm not bringing a lawyer."
Mike hung up, sat back down, and took a gulp from his coffee cup. His quiet voice had made his words truly ominous.
I shivered. Had I just heard what amounted to a threat?
The whole coffee club must have heard Mike's words, but nobody reacted very strongly. A couple of them cut their eyes back and forth, exchanging looks. Silence fell.
Then Tony cleared his throat. "Hey, Lee," he said. "T. J.'s talking about applying over at Ann Arbor next year."
I took a deep breath. "Joe's alma mater! He'll love hearing that! And getting a few miles away from home can be a good idea for any eighteen-year-old. But did T. J. ever find a summer job?"
"Yah." All natives of Warner Pier pronounce "yeah" as if they're fresh off the boat from Amsterdam, even if their ancestors weren't Dutch.
Tony grinned. "His grandpa saved the day," he went on. "He hired T. J. for the night cleaning crew. Learning how to degrease a restaurant kitchen at two in the morning will make T. J. want to go to college for sure!"
That brought a few chuckles, and the conversation morphed into casual chatter about family and friends. Joe joined the group and sat beside me. He gave my shoulder a friendly squeeze and winked.
Nobody mentioned Mike or his dramatic statement about killing people for minimum wage. But I began formulating questions to ask Joe later. Questions about Mike.
And the first one I was going to ask was, Who was this Bob that Mike had threatened to kill?
Mike had moved to our small resort town-Warner Pier, Michigan-a little more than a year earlier. He came to work as a foreman on a construction project, but after that job ended, he had stayed. Mike didn't talk a lot about why he decided to do that, but we all knew he and one of my coworkers, Dolly Jolly, were a steady item.
Construction work in Warner Pier is not always available, so in addition to doing carpentry work, Mike had taken a part- time job as night patrolman for the Warner Pier Police Department. Currently, he didn't come to the coffee club very often because of his crazy hours.
Even though Mike worked nights and Dolly worked days, they seemed to be happy. I wanted the two of them to be happy. And I wanted them to stay in Warner Pier.
Dolly and I both work at the chocolate shop and factory owned by my aunt, Nettie TenHuis Jones. At TenHuis Chocolade our motto is "Luxury Chocolates in the Dutch Tradition." I run the retail shop and the mail-order operation, and I order the supplies. Dolly Jolly is Aunt Nettie's chief assistant as a chocolatier.
Customers may look a little shocked when they enter our front door and see the two of us. I am five-eleven and a half, was born in north Texas, and think "you all" is one word. "Y'all." Dolly is more than six feet and a Michigan native. If strangers meet us standing shoulder to shoulder, they sometimes turn pale. I guess Dolly and I can make a big-yuk, yuk-impression.
Dolly and Mike make a striking couple as well. She has hair as red as Mike's, and her voice is as loud as his is quiet. But Dolly is a gentle, kind person, although she has a giant frame and a loud voice, and Mike seems to match her in personality.
So why was he threatening someone?
As soon as Joe and I were on the highway, I was ready for answers.
"Is Mike fitting into your coffee group?"
Joe laughed. "Sure," he said, "even though today he took on the role of our friendly neighborhood enforcer. I thought I'd told you about him."
"You mentioned that he had started coming to the coffee club when he could, but you've never said much about your opinion of him. I assume that you're kidding about his enforcement actions."
"Right. I can't imagine Mike hurting anyone, except maybe to protect somebody else. But I'm not so sure about his past activities in the field of killing people. He served around fifteen years in the army and flew helicopters in two combat zones."
"Ooh! I guess he's got the right to talk like a tough guy."
"Yah. I don't know who this Bob is-the one he was talking to today-but I'd advise him to get the money he owes Mike together. Fast."
"Does Mike have some connection with Warner Pier besides Dolly?"
"Yah. When he was a kid, Mike's parents had a nice cottage in Lakeside Addition."
"That semirural area? Lots of trees and two- or three-acre lots?"
"That's right. They were summer people while he was growing up. After Mike got out of the army, he started working in construction in Michigan and in Illinois. He inherited his parents' Warner Pier property last year, so he moved his construction activities here and became a local. When business got slow, he dredged up some training in law enforcement and snagged the job with the police department."
Joe's explanation had featured several local terms, since our end of the Lake Michigan shore has its own vocabulary. The people here, for example, are either locals, tourists, or summer people. Locals live here year-round; tourists stay a few days or a week or two; summer people stay all June, July, and August but live elsewhere between September and May.
Buildings have a special nomenclature, too. People live in cabins, which are rustic and may even lack basic amenities such as plumbing; in cottages, which are summer dwellings typically owned by the person who lives in them; or in houses, which are year-round homes.
Cabins, cottages, or houses can be any architectural style. For example, a home might have the steeply pitched roof of a mini Tudor manor, but if it's owned by summer people, it's still a cottage. Joe and I inherited the TenHuis family home, a typical Midwestern farmhouse on a three-acre plot, built in 1904. White, angular, two-storied-it's a house, not a cottage, because it has a furnace and some insulation, and we live there year-round.
After a moment, Joe went on talking. "As for Dolly, you know more than I do about what's going on with Mike and her."
I nodded. "She kind of giggles and blushes if his name comes up, but she doesn't provide many details." I considered Mike before I spoke again, carefully. "Mike's got a . . . distinctive look."
"I think that beat-up appearance is a souvenir of combat. Seems one of those choppers he flew for the army landed unexpectedly in unfriendly territory."
"Wounded? Tough luck."
Joe nodded. "From what he says, two of the guys in his unit had to pull him out, unconscious, and he spent quite a while in hospital and rehab. But Mike seems to be a pretty nice guy. I doubt we'll see an obit for somebody named Bob in the Holland Sentinel tomorrow."
We both laughed. The idea seemed ridiculous.
Joe's coffee club changes its makeup often. Sometimes I think all the guys have in common is a liking for coffee and another liking for doughnuts. And it's rare for all of them to show up for the club on the same day.
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