Candy shop owner Ava Oosterling has her hands full when her best friend Pauline Mertens takes a summer job as a wedding coordinator–with the nuptials and reception scheduled in mere days in the back yard of Ava’s Blue Heron.
Then the sheriff informs Ava that a band of thieves storming the country may have targeted this wedding. And that’s because there’s proof Pauline’s mother is associated with the thieves…
When the sheriff asks Ava to go undercover, she finds herself in an emotional quagmire. Pauline’s mother only recently returned to Fishers’ Harbor after years of estrangement from her daughter. And, Coletta Mertens now works as the housekeeper at Ava’s inn. Has Ava’s fudge-and-wine hospitality provided a hideout for a criminal?
GENRE: Cozy Mystery ISBN: 978-1-922548-13-9 ASIN: B097FBDNFQ Word Count: 90, 925
“Wedding Bell Blues”
My best friend Pauline Mertens barreled through the fudge shop door, her almost six-foot stature topped by a smile dressed up with red lipstick. Pauline had volunteered to organize the wedding for a good friend of ours scheduled for this Saturday. A mistake. Pauline in charge, that is, not the wedding.
This was Wednesday late morning, the third week of July, a hot summer’s day in Door County, Wisconsin, and only three days before the wedding.
Pauline was a kindergarten teacher at the Fishers’ Harbor K-12 school. You’d think someone who had commanded a classroom of thirteen squirmy girls could take charge of a friend’s wedding, but she came to me daily with lists of things to do and decide.
I was intent on conjuring fudge flavors for the wedding reception cake and table favors. My experiments weren’t going well. I was in no mood for Pauline to ask me to leave for the final fitting of my bridesmaid gown or to experiment with hairdo designs. She failed to see the humor in my insistence that my usual ponytail would suffice on Saturday.
I stood behind a copper kettle in my shop stirring the ingredients for a dark Belgian chocolate fudge when Pauline slid to a stop across from me. The kettle’s mixture of cream, sugar, and imported chocolate infused the air with plumes of sweet, savory scents. This batch had possibilities for what I had in mind for the wedding reception’s table favors.
Puffing for air and hugging a clipboard, Pauline flipped back her luxurious long, almost-black hair. A smile played with her face.
I kept churning with my wood ladle.
Pauline heaved her shoulders into a sigh. “Ava Matilde Oosterling, aren’t you going to ask why I’m smiling like this?” Before I could respond, she added, “I’m engaged! I’m getting married, too!”
She flicked her hand toward me across the vat of bubbling chocolate so fast the ring flew off, landing in the sugary recipe. Before I could stop stirring, the ring sank out of sight.
Pauline stared wide-eyed at the molten chocolate lava, then peered at me, stricken. “My ring! You stirred my ring into the fudge. How could you?”
“I didn’t mean to, Pauline.” Paralysis set in. The mixture was boiling hot, heading toward that 234-degree Fahrenheit softball stage for fudge. I didn’t dare reach into the primordial-looking sweetness.
I stuck the candy thermometer into the chocolate lava. “The right temperature. Help me pour it out on the marble table.”
Several customers were already in the bait-and-fudge shop either buying fishing equipment over on Grandpa Gil’s side or perusing keepsakes named after my Fairy Tale fudge flavors on this side. Some stood in awe by the glass case filled with the personal items left last week by the visiting king of Belgium.
Now, after Pauline’s yelp, customers tailed us as we gripped the handles of the awkward copper kettle. We hauled it to the window where I used the white marble table to demonstrate loafing fresh fudge. Fudge likes its sugar crystals massaged with wooden spatulas. Pauline and I poured out the mouth-watering, fragrant chocolate. It oozed across the glistening table.
The crowd murmured and made bets about who’d find the diamond ring first. Some had the ill manners to recall the time a famous actress had choked to death on a piece of Cinderella Pink Fairy Tale Fudge with diamonds hidden in it. It wasn’t the fudge; she’d had a tad bit of help with the choking part.
“That was over a year ago now, folks,” I said. “Old news.”
Just then, my boyfriend’s American water spaniel, Lucky Harbor, plunked his paws at the table’s edge. On his collar, the curly brown dog wore a small, watertight key fob–the kind people around Door County used to put valuables in when boating on Lake Michigan. The fob floated if dropped. Dillon and I had gotten into the habit of sending messages to each other by putting notes inside the key fob. Lucky Harbor loved racing between us and getting treats as his reward.
Pauline “tsked” at me while she searched through the fudge. “Get that dog away from here. He’ll spot my ring and swallow it.”
“You know I don’t let him eat fudge.” Chocolate is bad for dogs.
Lucky Harbor barked and wagged his tail. He always did that at the mention of “fudge”. Customers petted him for the cute response. Several said “fudge” now to my dismay. Lucky Harbor kept barking. From my pockets I found a gold fish cracker and tossed it to him.
Poor Pauline appeared madder than a wet hen, as my grandmother would say. She slapped the fudge around with the loafing tool. Customers leaped back.
Pauline held up a gooey pile of dark fudge. “I found it!”
She raced for the kitchen in the back of the shop.
I was only starting to hand out fudge samples and more gold fish crackers when Pauline broke through the crowd. “My ring went down your drain!” Tears streaked her cheeks. I’d never seen her like this. “You’re my best friend but you never wanted me and John to be engaged.”
The crowd leaned in, their fudge chewing stopped mid-bite.
Heat crawled up my neck. “Pauline, we’ll find your ring. It’s probably in the plumbing trap.”
The customers blinked in bemusement, some licking fingers of gooey dark chocolate fudge samples.
A couple of customers stood out. Pastor Eland Thaler was chewing on fudge, his head pivoting from me to Pauline then back to me. In his forties, blond, and short, he kept his stout figure by enjoying sweets and our local beers. He was likely here to meet with Pauline and me about Saturday’s ceremony in my inn’s back yard.
As I led Pauline through the crowd, the other customer that caught my attention was a red-haired, blue-eyed young woman who appeared mesmerized by my helper, Cody Fjelstad, also a redhead.
Cody often manned the shop’s two registers for Grandpa and me. Cody had just finished his first year in college. He’d broken up with a steady girlfriend only months ago, so I had to smile at the intrigued look he gave back to the young woman as he offered samples of the fresh, organic cheeses we also sold in the shop. Cheese went well with fudge. My mother ran an organic creamery on my parents’ farm and recently she’d earned ribbons for her Colby–a cheese invented in Wisconsin. The young woman seemed like a happy baby bird being fed cheese bites paired with fudge samples from Cody’s hands. How quickly young love bloomed. I had been the same way at his age, though I didn’t wish my disasters on Cody.
Pauline and I were about to head into the hallway to the kitchen when Grandpa burst through the front door with a stringer full of huge fish, hooting, “Hey, look what this fishing guide got with his latest chartered customer. We’re giving away these fine lake trout to anybody who’s got a grill. Best eating in all of Door County, Wisconsin!”
A few tourists with sticky fudge fingers shot forward calling dibs on the fish.
After rushing into the kitchen, I grabbed a small wrench and then attacked the trap under the sink. I didn’t have a garbage disposal for this old sink, so Pauline’s engagement ring likely sat in the pipe’s curly zone. The metal joint around the trap wouldn’t budge though, even with two of us levering our weight with the wrench.
I sat on the floor in defeat. “I’m sorry, Pauline, but this will take somebody with better tools and more muscle. I’ll call Dillon.”
Pauline grabbed her clipboard and pen where she’d slapped them down on the kitchen counter. “Dillon should be setting up the tent for Fontana’s wedding in your inn’s backyard right now. I’m supposed to meet the officiant in half an hour, then the photographer, and Dillon said he’d head to Erik’s bar to sample the recipes for the fish balls and mac-and-cheese dish for the reception.” She sucked in a withering breath. “Then Dillon is due to go with John and the others for the final fitting of their tuxes. Dillon has no time to pull apart this drain.”
She sniffed, wiping away tears again.
“Calm down, Pauline.” I rose from the floor. “A plumber will cost me a bunch of money. Dillon has tools. He’s the best handyman ever.”
“You should hear yourself. Your handyman? Nothing more?”
Pauline had long felt I wasn’t serious about Dillon, that I was stringing him along because he was, well, handy. Pauline had this unrealistic dream of her and me getting married together in a double wedding.
Dillon was like a stereotyped dark-haired, suntanned cowboy who’d rode into town. But marriage? I wasn’t sure where either of us stood on that matter. We had an agreement a year ago not to bring up the topic. We were on “marriage-topic vacation”.
Pauline knew my troubled history with Dillon. He and I had been married a decade ago for about a month soon out of college–a Las Vegas elopement spur-of-the-moment foolish mistake. We had been young. Immature. Rash. Grandpa called it “feeling our oats”.
After being apart from Dillon for almost a decade, I’d returned to Door County over a year ago from a job in Los Angeles to help my grandparents. Grandma Sophie had broken a leg and needed help. Grandpa moved the minnow tanks over in his bait shop and created the space for a candy shop, convincing me to stay. The sign outside now read: Oosterlings’ Live Bait, Bobbers, Belgian Fudge & Beer. To my shock, Dillon had showed up at the shop one day. He had been looking for his lost dog, Lucky. By then my shop helper, Cody, had taken in the lost dog and dubbed it Harbor. Dillon had moved to Door County to work in his parents’ construction company. He wanted another chance with me, to my shock. With his new work ethic, he proved he’d changed. So had I. Grandma said we’d “matured”. Grandpa had said to watch out, though, because when sauerkraut matures it’s still sour. Despite Grandpa, Dillon and I agreed to explore friendship and date like normal people.
Pauline didn’t go for the slow approach. The moment she’d met John a year ago, she’d wanted a ring and had been frustrated that John had ignored her hints about an engagement. She’d even bought a ring but unfortunately I was responsible for her losing that one in the woods during a harrowing run from a madman, a story we both were trying to forget. Now…she had a ring–again, but had lost it–again–because of me.
I felt wretched.
I took out my phone. “Pauline, I’ll text Dillon.” Which I did.
“I can’t just wait here. I’ve got things to do for the wedding.”
Lucky Harbor nudged his nose into the back of one of my bare knees.
“Sorry, boy. I forgot about you.” I leaned down then popped open the message fob on his collar. “‘I told Lucky Harbor to kiss you for me.’ Isn’t that sweet?”
Pauline huffed. “We have Fontana’s wedding to worry about. I don’t care if you kiss your dog. I got engaged and then un-engaged because of you in the space of five seconds.”
“You’re engaged. Don’t be silly. Congratulations! I’m happy for you. Really, I am.” I hugged her, squishing her clipboard between us. “Where’s your purse?”
“What do you need with my purse?” She left the kitchen to find her purse in the shop.
Pauline always carried a huge purse because she was a kindergarten teacher. She also just plain loved purses. This one was sunny yellow and big enough to qualify as luggage. I could go to Europe for a month with everything I needed in her purse. She returned with the monstrosity and plunked it on the counter.
Amid the sidewalk chalk, notepads, Sharpies, and sheets of peel-and-stick stars I finally found the tube of red lipstick.
She squeaked. “What are you doing with that? It’s new.”
I ripped a piece of white parchment paper off the counter that I normally used to wrap fudge for customers, painted my lips with the lipstick, then kissed the paper three times. After folding the paper, I slipped it into the key fob on Lucky Harbor’s collar. “Go find Dillon!”
Lucky leaped into a flurry of brown curly fur, tail wagging, racing me to the back door. He streaked across the lawn between the shop and Duck Marsh Street. I watched him turn left and then gallop up the street. He’d be veering right onto Main Street, then up the steep hill to my Blue Heron Inn atop the rocky plateau overlooking a marsh and the lake’s big bay.
Back in the kitchen, my phone rang.
Pauline said before I could answer, “I’m not leaving this kitchen until I get my ring back.”
The number lighting my phone stopped me from responding to Pauline. It was the sheriff. Never good news.
Pauline said, “Well, who is it?”
I winced. “Sheriff Tollefson.”
“Jordy? Let me talk to him. He’s on my list. We need crowd and traffic control help on wedding day. All of Door County will be here for the wedding reception on Saturday.”
“I doubt ‘all’, Pauline. You have a list of guests. This is not a Belgian wedding.” Whole villages turned out for Belgian weddings. Grandma and Mom had told me that all of Namur and Brussels–both in lower Door County and named after the old country’s places of the same names–had attended my parents’ wedding thirty-four years ago. They say it takes a village to raise a child; Belgians believe it takes a village to birth a great marriage. (Wisdom I didn’t pay attention to when I eloped.)
I stepped back, not letting Pauline have my phone.
Sheriff Jordy Tollefson’s voice was soft, as if he wanted to be sure nobody heard him.
“Can you speak louder, Jordy?” I asked.
“No. Pauline can’t hear this.”
He was making me nervous. “I’m in the middle of making fudge for Fontana Dahlgren’s wedding reception. Can I call back?”
“No,” he said, louder now. “You may want to cancel that wedding after we’ve talked. I’m up here in Sister Bay. Can you meet me at Al Johnson’s for lunch?”
He was referring to the most famous restaurant in Door County, Wisconsin–Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant. Goats grazed on its grass roof, weather permitting. A camera allowed anybody around the world to peek at the goats.
“Like I said, I’m busy.”
“You’re not too busy for this. Don’t say a word of this to Pauline. It involves her mother.” After I gasped, he added, “She’s not dead or arrested. Yet. I’ll see you in about a half hour, okay?”
Dead? Arrested? “Uh, okay.”
When I got off the phone, Pauline asked, “What’s going on?”
I didn’t like lying to my best friend, but Jordy’s dire words resonated in my head. Based on our past associations, where I’d helped Jordy solve murder cases, I knew Jordy wasn’t kidding around. “Uh, I guess Jordy’s working on some kind of an award for farmers, a secret thing. He needs me to tell him stuff about Dad.”
Pauline huffed, gathering her purse. “Jordy’s excuses to get you alone are getting lamer by the day.”
“Pauline! There’s nothing going on between us.” Unfortunately, because of my encounters with Jordy Tollefson over the past year involving me and Grandpa and a few murderous events in which Grandpa didn’t fare so well, Jordy and I had probably met with each other more than Dillon and I. The fact caused my intellect–and heart–to pause now and then. Family came first with me. When was I ready to say Dillon could join our tribe?
After I hiked to the shop’s front, Cody assured me he could stay at the registers. The red-haired young woman was perusing the shelves where we kept the Fairy Tale line of sparkly purses and scarves. Matching my fudge flavors, goods on the shelves depicted Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Goldilocks, irresistible to most girls and women.
Back in the kitchen, I put a note on the faucet so nobody would use the sink. Pauline had settled at the small square table, shaking her head.
I plopped into the chair across from her. “Don’t worry about me and Jordy. Don’t worry about your ring. Pauline, you’re stressed out. Take a deep breath, please. The wedding will be perfect for Fontana. You’re doing a good job, and it will all get done. I’m sorry about your ring, but Dillon will find it.”
I reached across the table with one hand, palm up. We used the gesture when playing HORSE on the basketball court. Slapping the hand meant that even if you lost the game we’d still be friends–we’d be okay.
She finally slapped her palm against mine.
After a hug, I left for Sister Bay to meet with the sheriff. What was it about Pauline’s mother that Jordy didn’t want Pauline to know about?