The Chocolate Moose Motive
A Chocoholic Mystery
When Lee hires a free-spirited employee with a tie-dyed, troubled past, she discovers that even the counter-culture can conceal a killer…
As much as the chocolate concoctions at TenHuis can tantalize people’s tongues, Lee’s newest hire is more likely to make them wag. Forsythia “Sissy” Smith is the granddaughter of Warner Pier’s only remaining resident hippie, and lives out at the Moose Lodge—once an informal commune in the forest east of town. But the fact that Sissy is a third-generation flower child is the least of Lee’s concerns.
The previous winter, Sissy’s husband, Buzz, was found shot to death, and local talk named Sissy the number one suspect. Even though her alibi was airtight, the gossips are still pointing their fingers at her. Lee sympathizes with the young woman—even more so when Buzz’s dad, a tough retired Army colonel, threatens to sue Sissy for custody of her son.
Then the chief gossip is found dead, with Sissy on the scene. Was she lured there? Or is she the killer? Lee has a sneaking suspicion that there is someone even more sinister to blame. Someone out to keep a dark secret from coming to light. And they would have no problem killing a certain clever chocolatier who might uncover the truth…
It all began when I accidently ran into Sissy Smith at the South Haven supermarket—twice.
Luckily, no one was injured either time.
I had never met Sissy before that day. Our contact began as I was standing in the laundry supply aisle, trying to remember which brand of fabric softener made my husband, Joe, break out in a rash around the elastic of his boxer briefs. A threatening voice rumbled from the next aisle over and aroused me from my musings.
“Sissy,” it said, “I’m going to win, so why don’t you just give up? Fighting the inevitable won’t get you any more money.”
A feminine voice answered, “Money is the root of all evil. Let me by, please.”
That exchange got my attention fast. It was much more interesting than fabric softener.
The man’s voice became deeper. “I have the resources, Sissy.”
“Actually, the quote is, ‘The love of money is the root of all evil.’ It’s First Timothy, but I forget the verse. Let me by, Ace.”
“You’re penniless. You don’t even have a job.”
“Yeah, I guess I should have picked my grandparents better so I wouldn’t need a job. Let. Me. By.”
“I’m not going to let my grandson be raised in a hovel.”
“Sticks and stones. Let me by.”
“I don’t intend to break your bones, but it’s not safe to oppose me, Sissy.”
The guy wasn’t shouting. He didn’t even sound particularly angry. That made his words even more frightening.
“I’m going to get him, Sissy. And if you get hurt, I’ve warned you. I can crush you. And I’m willing to do it.”
The woman quit making her snappy replies. She just kept requesting that the man let her by.
She didn’t sound scared. In fact, she sounded slightly amused. After several more exchanges she said, “What’s eating you, Ace? Have the boys in the locker room been teasing you again?”
I won’t repeat what the masculine voice replied to that, but it began with, “You little—!”
Scoffing at the size of this guy’s anatomy had apparently touched a nerve. The masculine voice went on and on. But all the insults and the threats were spoken in this quiet, deadly monotone.
The cold-blooded way the man was insulting and threatening the woman was impossible for me to ignore. And he obviously had boxed her in and was preventing her from moving away from him. I was beginning to be afraid things might get rough.
What should I do? I considered calling a security guard, but I wasn’t sure the store had one. And I considered hauling the store manager into the situation, but I wasn’t sure just what he could do. I thought about calling 9-1-1 on my cell phone, but I’d heard no threat of immediate violence.
I decided my next step was to get a look at the people in the adjacent aisle.
Moving rapidly, I shoved my cart down to the end of the fabric softener display and did a U-turn to the left, into the aisle where the ugly talking was going on.
A slender man jumped aside, and I crashed head-on into Sissy’s cart. At least, I assumed it was Sissy’s cart. There were only two people in the aisle.
I yanked my cart back, pretending to be contrite. “Oh! I do oppose. I mean, apologize!” Darn! My tongue has a habit of getting twisted. Once again it had embarrassed me.
“It’s all right. These carts are tough, and so am I.” Sissy’s voice was still controlled, but it was determined. She was a tiny thing—five-one or -two, small boned, and delicate. Eyes of an unusual sea green looked at me boldly, and a sheet of glossy black hair swung out as she turned her head. I was facing a very striking young woman.
She pulled her cart back a few inches and moved it to her right. Then she went around me, ignoring the man she’d been arguing with. At the end of the aisle she turned left, walking rapidly toward the canned goods section.
I pushed my cart so that it blocked most of the aisle. I hoped this would keep the man from following her, and it worked. I was standing amidst racks of paper towels and toilet paper, alone with the man who had talked in such an ugly manner.
I turned toward him, ready to face a monster. But instead, I saw a handsome man, probably around sixty, sleek and smiling suavely. He was casually dressed—khakis, a knit shirt in a soft blue, and Top-Siders—and his outfit was high-end. His features were regular, and he had a beautiful head of white hair. He had a cart, too. It contained several packages of meat and some prewrapped potatoes, the ready-for-the-microwave kind single men buy.
He smiled and spoke. “We need collision insurance to navigate this place, don’t we?” Then he spun his cart toward the other end of the aisle and walked away, graciousness personified.
He was definitely a summer person.
I don’t shop in South Haven all that often. My usual hangout is Warner Pier, twenty miles away and one-third the size of South Haven. But I’d been delivering chocolate to that particular supermarket, so I’d decided to do my shopping there as part of the trip. After all, if the South Haven supermarket was buying our chocolates, I could buy their fabric softener. Not many supermarkets carry our line of luxury European-style bonbons, truffles, and molded chocolates. They’re mainly found in high-end gift and specialty shops.
I’m Lee McKinney Woodyard, and I’m business manager for TenHuis Chocolade, located in Warner Pier, Michigan. My aunt is the expert chocolatier who owns the company and supervises making the chocolates, but I’m responsible for keeping her bills paid and getting her ambrosial product to the retailers who sell it. Usually this means UPS or FedEx, but when our customer is as close to us as South Haven, I deliver.
South Haven and Warner Pier are both Lake Michigan resorts, and both draw wealthy “summer people”—such as the guy with the ugly mouth and the nice clothes—who own vacation homes in our communities. So both towns have supermarkets that aren’t typical of small towns. Yes, it takes a special small-town market to stock prime beef, thirty kinds of imported cheese, and out-of-season fruits. And now the South Haven market had decided to add a selection of fancy chocolates. Naturally—ahem—they’d asked TenHuis Chocolade to supply a dozen flavors of bonbons and truffles, plus an assortment of our special molded items. This summer’s special items were Michigan animals. Aunt Nettie and her genius crew were producing beautiful chocolate deer, moose, otters, raccoons, and foxes.
Our part of west Michigan has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and it’s been a resort area for well over a hundred years. In summer, the dozens of towns along the shore of Lake Michigan are packed, and the people packed into them can be classified into three distinct categories—tourists, summer people, and locals.
Tourists come for short periods of time—a day or a week or two weeks. They rent rooms from motels or bed-and-breakfast inns. They come in tour buses or private cars. They tend to wear shorts and T-shirts that advertise other resorts they’ve visited, such as Lake Placid, Indiana Dunes, and St. Louis Arch. Sometimes the shirts even say PARIS or advertise a local junior college. They clog our streets, wandering up and down and buying souvenirs.
We love ’em. They bring money to town and leave it behind.
Summer people own or lease cottages and stay the whole summer. Or at least they come for weekends. They are often members of wealthy families—property on Lake Michigan doesn’t come cheap—and some of them have visited this area for generations. They dress out of the L.L. Bean catalog. If their T-shirts say anything, it’s HARVARD, or at least UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN. Of course, not all of them are wealthy, but they all pay property taxes.
We love them, too. They bring even more money than the tourists do.
Then there are us locals. We live here year-round, and most of us make our livings from tourists and summer people. We mow their lawns, put up their shutters, repair their air conditioners, roof their houses. We sell them food, clothing, gasoline, wine, hedge clippers, and—in my case—fancy chocolates. We wear shorts and tees, too, but ours tend to say things such as HERITAGE BOAT RESTORATION or TENHUIS CHOCOLADE.
After the white-haired man walked off, I went back an aisle to get my fabric softener, then moved into the grocery department. I kept an eye out for Sissy. My brief look at her had titillated my curiosity. For one thing, she seemed familiar, though I couldn’t figure out just why.
Sissy had been—well, vivid may be the best word. That glossy black hair was gorgeous, and her green eyes were riveting. She had been wearing khaki shorts, like three-quarters of the other shoppers, but her off-white tunic was trimmed in colorful embroidery I was willing to bet had been hand done. Her sandals had a handmade look.
Even her tiny stature made her stand out, but maybe that was most noticeable from the perspective of a woman like me, since I’m five foot eleven and a half. My Dutch ancestors endowed me with natural blond hair, and my Texas ancestors provided the gene for tallness. I tower over most other women and a lot of men.
Sissy was stunning and unusual. I wanted to figure out where I’d seen her before, so I tried to get another look at her. But I caught only one more glimpse, and that was clear down an aisle. She was buying a big box of Cheerios, and she disappeared into another aisle while I was looking at shredded wheat.
I didn’t see her again until I backed into her in the parking lot.
Great. First I whanged into her grocery cart; then I dented her car.
My excuse for the accident is modern automobile design. I have trouble seeing out the back of my van, no matter how I twist my neck. I try to park where I can exit by pulling forward, but during the summer tourist season, that’s not always possible in that particular lot, even on a Monday, so I had to back out of my parking spot, and I backed into the right-front fender of a light blue Volkswagen that seemed to come from nowhere.
We didn’t hit hard, luckily. We both stopped, got out of our vehicles, and went back to survey the damage. I had a dented bumper, and Sissy had a ding in her fender. The blue Volkswagen was vintage—probably forty years old—but it had been in good shape before I hit it.
Sissy looked dismayed as she surveyed the damage. Our fender bender seemed to have upset her even more than the run-in with the summer guy with the foul mouth.
“I know it’s best not to admit fault,” I said, “but I will say I have trouble seeing what’s behind this darn van. Luckily, I have really good insurance.”
“I was upset,” Sissy said. “I may not have looked as carefully as I should have. Do we have to call the cops?”
“I doubt the cops want to fool with a minor accident like this, especially on private property. I think we can exchange information and go.”
Anyway, Sissy and I got out our information, and I found a notebook so we could write it all down. Sissy wrote my information down first, then tore out the page and handed the notebook back with her license and insurance card.
I started copying, beginning with her license.
The name at the top wasn’t Sissy, which wasn’t too surprising. Her legal name was Forsythia—Forsythia Smith.
It was impossible not to comment on a name that unusual. “Forsythia!” I said. “My favorite spring flower.”
Belatedly I remembered who Forsythia Smith was. Darn. I’d put my foot in it.
Sissy scowled. “My mom and dad were given to flights of fancy.”
“At least no one will ever forget it.”
She laughed harshly. “That’s true. No one will ever forget Forsythia Smith. The southwest Michigan murderess.”
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