The Chocolate Falcon Fraud (A Chocoholic Mystery)

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9781410485489: The Chocolate Falcon Fraud (A Chocoholic Mystery)
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From the bestselling author of "The Chocolate Clown Corpse," it s murder, my sweet, for a chocolatier whose love of old crime films plunges her into a real-life murder where the motives aren t so black and white
The Warner Pier tourism board is kicking off its Tough Guys and Private Eyes film festival with "The Maltese Falcon," and Lee Woodyard and her Aunt Nettie are preparing a delicious chocolate noir tie-in at TenHuis Chocolade. What Lee isn t prepared for is a face from the past: Jeff Godfrey, her former stepson. The last time Jeff showed up in town, he wound up being accused of murder. Now he says he s only in Warner Pier to see Bogart on the big screen. Honest.
Jeff may now be a college grad, but that doesn t mean he s any less naive than the kid Lee had to bail out of trouble earlier. There are all those strange phone calls, a girlfriend who s secretly on Jeff s tail, and a pack of suspicious-sounding acquaintances right out of Dashiell Hammett. Then Jeff goes missing, the Falcon theme is haunting everyone, and a body falls at Lee s feet when she opens the front door just like in the movie.
Now Lee is under deadline to rewrite the ending of a cunning killer s increasingly convincing murder plot
Includes Tasty Chocolate Trivia!"

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About the Author:

The national bestselling author of the Chocoholic mysteries, including"The Chocolate Clown Corpse," JoAnna Carl is the pseudonym for a multipublished mystery writer. She spent more than twenty-five years in the newspaper business as a reporter, feature writer, editor, and columnist. She holds a degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma and also studied in the OU Professional Writing Program. She lives in Oklahoma but summers in Michigan, where the Chocoholic mysteries are set."

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Also by JoAnna Carl

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

JoAnna Carl

Chapter 1

When Jeff Godfrey came in the door of TenHuis Chocolade, I didn’t know if I should shake his hand, kiss him, or call the cops.

My relationship with Jeff was closer than handshaking—or it had been—but not as close as kissing. And the last time I saw Jeff, he’d barely escaped being accused of murder.

Of course, I had to look at Jeff closely before I was sure who he was; I hadn’t seen him in three and a half years. Now, at twenty-two, Jeff looked quite different. More mature, of course, but also more handsome and more confident. And he’d gotten rid of the enormous eyelets in his earlobes.

So when he appeared, I stared for a moment. Then I called out, “Jeff! What are you doing there? I mean, here!”

Jeff grinned shyly as he walked across the shop. He probably felt as ill at ease as I did. By the time I was standing up, leaning against my desk, he was beside me. We settled for the handshake-chest-bump-air-kiss ritual, as if one of us were a talk show host and the other a featured guest.

I motioned him into the chair on the other side of my desk and sat back down. “You look great,” I said. “Let me guess—you’re here for this weekend’s film noir festival, aren’t you?”

“That’s right. I read about it online. How could I pass up the lectures on The Maltese Falcon?”

The Warner Pier Film Festival was always a big success at increasing our tourist traffic. And this year, as a member of the Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee, I was even invited to the big kickoff party at the yacht club. “And how are your folks?”

“Well, they’re still together—again. And you married that Joe guy, right? The boat builder?”

“Yep. We seem to have gotten it right this time. And Joe’s now just a boat builder part-time. He’s back in the lawyer game three days a week. How about Tess? Do you still see her?” Tess had figured importantly in Jeff’s life four years earlier.

“Tess and I see each other on campus. And she works part-time for my dad.”

I realized I was beaming, and that Jeff was looking pleased, too. That made me beam even harder. After all, not every ex-stepson is happy to see his ex-stepmother.

I’m Lee McKinney Woodyard, and four years earlier I had moved from Dallas to Warner Pier, Michigan, the most picturesque resort town on Lake Michigan. Here I was business manager for a luxury chocolate company owned by my aunt, Nettie TenHuis Jones.

One reason I’d made the move was to cut all ties with Jeff’s dad, my ex-husband. But I still liked his son.

Jeff did look great. At eighteen he’d been a scrawny kid with gray hair, blue eyes, and an enormous hole in each earlobe. He’d also had a gold ring in his left eyebrow, and he’d worn thick glasses.

Now he was at least two inches taller—I guessed his new height at six feet—and thirty pounds more muscular. He’d definitely lost the scrawny teenage look, and he’d also lost the piercings and the glasses. I could barely see the scars where the earlobes had been repaired. He blinked, and I diagnosed contact lenses. Instead of ragged jeans, he was wearing a brand-name polo, khakis, and boat shoes. The result was a great-looking guy.

I counted mentally. Yes, Jeff would have been a senior at Southern Methodist University this year. “Did you just graduate?”

“Yep, I squeaked through. BA in history. And I even got into graduate school at UT.”

University of Texas; all of us Texans know those initials. “Wonderful! What’s your field?”

“Maybe Texas history. I think I want to teach. I got a slot as a graduate assistant. And I had an offer of an internship at the Texas Museum of Popular Culture. I had to turn that down because I had a conflict.”

“That’s still great.” I leaned toward Jeff and dropped my voice. “What does your dad think of a history career?”

He laughed. “He’d rather I got an MBA, of course, but he said he’d pay my grad school tuition and books.”

“He’s proud of you, Jeff.”

“Maybe. Most of the time he hides it. He’d still like me to sell real estate.”

“Do your own thing.” I shook a finger at him. “I’m really tickled to see you. Joe and I live in the old cottage now. I hope you’ll stay with us.”

Jeff straightened his shoulders a little. “Thanks, but I already have a hotel room. I’m actually doing a research project this trip. Warner Pier was all booked up, but I’ve got a room in Holland. And I hope you and Joe—and Aunt Nettie and her husband, too—will let me take you all out to dinner tonight.”

I knew Aunt Nettie would want to cook for Jeff—she wants to feed the whole world—but I could see Jeff was spreading his grown-up wings a little. I assured him we’d all love to be his guests.

“And I can legitimately write it off as part of my research,” Jeff said.

“What are you residing? I mean, researching?” Yikes! I’d pulled another one of my tongue twisters.

Jeff didn’t react to it. “Did you ever hear of anybody around here named Fal-cone? Or Fal-cone-ie? I’m not sure of the pronunciation.”

“Sounds too Italian for Warner Pier. You know nearly everybody around here is Dutch.”

I picked up the phone book and thumbed through, hunting for the F listings, but Jeff stood up. “I already checked the directories and the Internet. No person or business with that name is listed.”

“We can ask Aunt Nettie. She knows more people than I do. She’s in Holland for a dental appointment. She’ll want to see you as soon as she gets back.”

“She was so nice to me. Before. Is the Inn on the Pier still a good place to eat?”

“Sure.”

“Seven o’clock?”

“That sounds fine.”

“See you there.”

We exchanged cell phone numbers, and I added a warning. “Big areas around here still have no cell service. Including our house. The only place Joe and I have reception—most of the time—is on the roof! They blame the lake, but I have my doubts. They put a tower on one of the highest spots in Saugatuck and reception around there improved dramatically.” I stood up. “Wait a minute, and I’ll walk you to the door.”

I reached for my crutch. For the first time Jeff saw that and my orthopedic boot.

“Hey, Lee! What have you done to yourself?”

“Nothing serious. I sprained an ankle on those steep stairs at the house. I’m sure you remember them.”

Jeff nodded. He’d slept in an upstairs bedroom on his previous visit to Warner Pier, and once or twice he had nearly fallen down our steep stairs himself.

“They tell me no permanent damage has been done,” I said, “but the doctor wants me to keep weight off the ankle for a while.”

I stumped along behind Jeff as we passed through our retail shop, and I insisted he select a chocolate. He went for a dark chocolate falcon, a two-inch replica of the famous film bird that we had created especially for the film festival.

When we reached the street door, we did our belly-bump-air-kiss-hug act again.

“Seven o’clock,” Jeff said.

“Seven o’clock,” I answered.

And at seven o’clock four of us—my husband, Joe; my aunt Nettie; her husband, Police Chief Hogan Jones; and me—met in the bar at the Inn on the Pier, ready to have dinner with Jeff. I had told everyone how good he had looked, how mature he had seemed, and how pleased he had been at the prospect of seeing all of us again.

So it was quite a letdown when he didn’t show up.

·   ·   ·

We waited in the bar until eight o’clock. I knew, because I checked my watch—again—the third time the hostess came to tell us we could have a table.

“I don’t understand this,” I said. “I can call Jeff’s cell phone again.”

“Let’s take this table in any case,” Hogan said. “Dinner will be my treat.”

Aunt Nettie looked worried. She had beautiful curly white hair and a sweet face. “I’m afraid something has happened to Jeff.”

Joe laughed. “Something has! He’s run into someone more interesting. Despite the changes in his appearance, Lee, I’m afraid Jeff is still the irresponsible kid who showed up on your roof nearly four years ago and tried to break in through the upstairs window.”

“Hand me my crutch,” I said. “Once we’re seated, I’ll try his cell phone again.”

But there was still no answer.

Hogan left his menu closed and began to make noises like a cop. “Do you know where Jeff was staying?”

“A Holland motel.”

“That narrows it down to maybe fifty, sixty places. Does he have your cell phone number?”

I nodded.

“Did he say why he came to Warner Pier?”

“He said he was going to catch part of the film festival, and that he was doing a research project. But he didn’t explain anything about it. He asked me if I knew anyone named Fal-cone or Fal-cone-ie. He wasn’t sure of the pronunciation.”

“Falconi?” Aunt Nettie looked surprised. “That would be an odd name around Warner Pier. Valk, maybe.”

Valk? What could Valk have to do with Falcone? I started to ask Aunt Nettie to explain, but the waiter interrupted. We all put our attention on the menus, and after we had ordered dinner some unwritten rule of good manners inspired us to stop discussing Jeff.

But why had Jeff invited us all to dinner, then failed to show up? I had no explanation. But then, maybe I didn’t know Jeff all that well.

His parents, Dina and Rich, had divorced when Jeff was nine. Three years later I married Rich, who was then in his early forties. I was twenty-three. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. Marrying Rich was the stupidest thing I ever did, though the age difference was the least of our problems.

Today I understood that I fell for Rich because I wanted stability in my life. He fell for me because I was six feet tall and a natural blond who had been in a Miss Texas competition.

Also, I think, he liked me because I have malapropism. This means I get my tongue twisted, saying such things as “residing” when I mean “researching,” as I did when talking to Jeff. Rich thought “dumb” and “blond” were synonyms, and he didn’t want any mental competition from his wife. He loved it when I goofed.

In those days Jeff was a bratty adolescent. Rich had his custody one or two weekends a month and on some holidays. Or maybe I had his custody. Rich was a successful real estate developer in Dallas, and he often managed to be playing golf with a client at the times when he should have been paying attention to Jeff. I will say he was careful not to miss any of Jeff’s swim meets. The kid could swim and dive like a dolphin.

There’s a fine line between getting along with an adolescent and keeping one from bossing you around. Jeff was a nice enough kid, but dealing with a stepmother who was only eleven years older than he was—well, it wasn’t an ideal situation for either of us.

After some sparring around, Jeff and I developed an informal truce. We spent a lot of time on neutral activities such as playing board games and watching old movies. Even in those days Jeff was a fan of forties and fifties noir films and books.

For five years I struggled to make my marriage work. But my relationship with Rich got worse and worse. I wanted to think of marriage as a partnership. Rich wanted to think of me as a possession. I’d become the proverbial trophy wife, and I didn’t like it. And I couldn’t get Rich even to discuss the situation.

Finally I left, and I didn’t take anything with me. I abandoned my jewelry (selected by Rich), my snazzy car (picked out by Rich), my elegant house (gussied up by a decorator Rich chose), even my wardrobe (though Rich had allowed me to pick out my own clothes, provided I went to the stores he approved of).

When I left Rich I drove away in a junky car somebody had abandoned at my dad’s garage. I was wearing an old pair of jeans and a T-shirt. I moved in with my mom, who was on Rich’s side, and I begged until she bought me a tank of gas. Then I took a job as a waitress because I could start work that day and keep my tips.

My plan was to convince Rich that I loved him, not his money, and thus save my marriage. This did not work. It took a couple of months with a counselor for me to understand that Rich regarded his money as part of his personality. In rejecting it, I had rejected him.

When I discovered Rich had put detectives on my trail, I accepted the end of my marriage. I wasn’t seeing anyone else, but Rich couldn’t believe I’d leave one wealthy man without having a new one lined up.

About the time my marriage ended, my wonderful aunt Nettie—world’s finest chocolatier—offered me a job as business manager of TenHuis Chocolade. I moved to Warner Pier. I met Joe Woodyard—who had also had some unhappy romantic times. Now we’d been married three years. And I loved my life.

But apparently my decision to get a divorce brought a personality crisis for Rich. He went into counseling and must have done a lot of self-examination. Then he began to see Dina again. A year and a half after our divorce, the two of them remarried.

I wished them all sorts of happiness. But that part of my life was over. I didn’t want to see them ever again. However, I could hardly refuse to meet with Jeff. He and I had watched a lot of Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd.

But why had Jeff invited us all to dinner, then failed to show?

I went to bed that night puzzled by Jeff’s nonappearance, but trying not to worry about him. Unfortunately the scrabbling of my thoughts was echoed by some darn animal making noises in the attic (a chronic problem of semirural living) and I had trouble falling asleep. I insisted to myself that Joe was right; Jeff had simply found someone more interesting to have dinner with. I shouldn’t be wringing my hands over him.

·   ·   ·

I was still sleeping when the phone rang at seven the next morning. Joe was already awake, and he answered it.

“Oh, hi.” He sounded wary. “Sure. She’s here.”

Where else would I be at that time of day? I took the phone and mumbled my greeting. “It’s Lee.”

“Lee, it’s Alicia.”

“Alicia?” I sat up in bed. I had recognized the Texas accent immediately. “Alicia Richardson!”

“Oh yeah. The same old gal. How you doin’?”

“Fine! It’s good to hear from you.”

And it was good. Alicia was a part of my life in Dallas I remembered with pleasure. At one time she’d helped me out a lot.

Alicia was office manager and head of accounting for Rich’s company. I guess every business has one key person, and at Godfrey Development, Alicia was it. She had worked for Rich for at least fifteen years. She knew where all the bodies were buried, where all the money was socked away, who couldn’t stand whom, and how to Get Things Done.

On a day-to-da...

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