After an extravagant honeymoon, Hannah’s eager to settle down in Lake Eden and turn domestic daydreams into reality. But when her mother’s neighbor is discovered murdered in the condo downstairs, reality becomes a nightmarish investigation. Victoria Bascomb, once a renowned stage actress, was active in the theater community during her brief appearance in town . . . and made throngs of enemies along the way. Did a random intruder murder the woman as police claim, or was a deadlier scheme at play? As Hannah peels through countless suspects and some new troubles of her own, solving this crime—and living to tell about it—might prove trickier than mixing up the ultimate banana cream pie . . .
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Banana Cream Pie Murder
By JOANNE FLUKE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 H.L. Swensen, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Delores Swensen typed THE END and gave a smile of satisfaction as she leaned back in her desk chair. She'd finished the manuscript for her newest Regency romance novel. She was just about to get up and open the bottle of Perrier Jouet she'd been saving for this occasion when she heard a loud crack and she fell to the floor backwards.
For one stunned moment, she stared up at the ceiling in her office in disbelief, unable to move or make a sound. She blinked several times and moved her head tentatively. Nothing hurt. She was still alive. But what had happened? And why had she fallen over backwards?
When the obvious solution occurred to her, Delores started to giggle. The loud crack had sounded when the cushioned seat of her desk chair had sheared off from its base. It was something Doc had warned her would happen someday if she didn't get around to replacing it. And she hadn't. And it had. And here she was on her back, her body effectively swaddled by soft, stuffed leather, barely able to move a muscle.
As she realized that she was in the same position as a turtle flipped over on its back, Delores began to laugh even harder. It was a good thing no one was here to see her! She must look ridiculous. That meant she had to figure out some way to get up before Doc came home. If he saw her like this, she'd never hear the end of it. And she wouldn't put it past him to take a photo of her stuck in the chair, on her back, and show it to everyone at the hospital.
Unsure of exactly how to extricate herself, Delores braced her hands on the cushioned arms of the chair and pushed. This didn't work the way she'd thought it, but it did work. Instead of moving her body backwards, her action pushed the chair forward. The part of her body that Doc referred to as her gluteus maximus was now several inches away from the seat of the chair, far enough for her to bend her legs, hook her heels on the edge of the chair seat and push it even farther away.
She was getting there! Delores pushed with her heels again and the chair slid several more inches away. By repeating this motion and squirming on her back at the same time, she somehow managed to free herself from her cushioned prison and roll over on hands and knees. She got to her feet by grasping the edge of her desk and pulling herself upright. When she was in a standing position, Delores gave a sigh of relief and promised herself that she'd buy a new desk chair in the morning.
Now that she was on her feet again and none the worse for wear, she decided that celebratory champagne was a necessity. She took the prized bottle from the dorm refrigerator Doc had insisted she install in her office, and opened it with a soft pop. Loud pops were for movie scenes. She'd learned to remove the cork slowly so that not even a drop would escape.
Delores set the open bottle on the desk and went to close the window. She liked fresh air and she always opened it when she worked in the office. She was about to close it when she heard a blood-curdling scream from the floor below.
For a moment Delores just stood there, a shocked expression on her face. Then she glanced at the clock and realized it was a few minutes past eight in the evening. The scream must have come from one of Tori's acting students.
The luxury condo immediately below the penthouse Doc had given her as a wedding present was owned by Victoria Bascomb, Mayor Bascomb's sister. Tori, as she preferred to be called, had been a famous Broadway actress. She'd recently retired and moved to Lake Eden to be closer to the only family she had left, her brother Richard, and his wife Stephanie. Unable to completely divorce herself from the life she loved, Tori had volunteered to direct their local theater group, to teach drama at Jordan High, and to give private acting lessons to any Lake Edenite who aspired to take the theater world by storm. If not the richest, Tori Bascomb was undeniably the most famous person in town. Just yesterday, Tori had told Delores that she had won the lifetime achievement award from STAG, the Stage and Theater Actors Guild and she would receive her award, a gold statuette that resembled a male deer, at a nationally televised award ceremony soon.
Delores gave a little laugh. How silly she'd been to forget that Tori gave acting lessons in her home studio! The scream she'd heard was obviously part of an acting lesson. Smiling a bit at her foolishness, Delores reached out again, intending to close and lock the window, but a loud cry made her pause in mid-motion.
"No!" a female voice screamed. "Don't! Please don't!"
Whoever the aspiring actress was, she was very good! Delores began to push the window closed when she heard a sound unlike any other. A gunshot. That was a gunshot! She was sure of it!
The gunshot was followed by a second gunshot, and then a crash from the floor below. Something was wrong! No acting student could be that realistic. This was really happening!
Delores didn't think. She just reacted. She raced for the doorway that led to the back stairway that had been used by hotel employees before the Albion Hotel had been converted into luxury condos. The old stairway had been completely refurbished and accessible exclusively to the penthouse residents.
When Delores arrived at the landing of the floor below, she unlocked the door and rushed out into the narrow lobby that separated the two condos on the floor below the penthouse. She raced to Tori's door and only then did the need for caution cross her mind.
Delores stood there, the key Tori had given her in her hand, and listened. All was quiet inside Tori's condo, no sounds at all. If what she'd heard had been an acting lesson, Tori should be speaking to the would-be actress, critiquing the scene she'd just performed.
As Delores continued to listen for sounds, she considered her options. She'd look very foolish if she unlocked the door and stepped inside to find that Tori and her student were perfectly fine. On the other hand, she could be walking into danger if what she'd heard was a real murder and the intruder was still there. If she called the police before she went in, they'd advise her to wait until they got there. But what if someone needed immediate medical attention?
Delores hesitated for another moment or two and then she decided to knock. She might feel foolish if Tori came to the door and said that everything was fine, but it couldn't hurt to check. She raised her hand and knocked sharply three times.
There was no answer and she heard no rushing footfalls as the intruder hurried to a hiding place. There were no sounds from inside at all. Delores hesitated for another moment and then she made a decision. She reached into her pocket, pulled out her cell phone, and dialed the emergency number for the Winnetka County Sheriff's Station.
"Sheriff's station. Detective Kingston speaking."
Delores took a deep breath. She'd been hoping to contact her son-in-law, Bill Todd, but instead she'd gotten Mike. He was a by-the-book cop and he'd tell her to stay outside the door and wait for him to get there.
"Mike. It's Delores," she said, thinking fast. "Stay on the line, will you, please? I heard a sound from Tori Bascomb's condo and I'm going in to make sure everything's all right."
"Delores. I want you to wait until ..."
Delores unlocked the door with one hand and pushed it open. Then, holding the phone away from her ear so she wouldn't hear Mike's objections, she glanced around Tori's living room. Nothing was out of place, no overturned chairs, no strangers lurking in corners, no sign of anything unusual. But the scream she'd heard hadn't come from the living room. It had come from the room directly below her office and that was the room that Tori had converted into her acting studio.
Delores moved toward the studio silently, holding the phone in her left hand. It was still sputtering and squawking, but she ignored it. As she prepared to open the door, she spotted a piece of artwork on a table in the hallway. It was made of a heavy metal, probably silver, and it resembled a thin but curvaceous lady holding her arms aloft. Delores grabbed it. It was just as heavy as it looked and it would serve as a weapon if the occasion warranted.
The door to the studio was slightly open and Delores peeked in. The focus of the room was the U-shaped couch facing a low platform handcrafted of cherry wood. The platform was one step high and ran the length of the opposite wall, forming a stage for Tori's would-be actors and actresses. The couch served as Tori's throne. It was where she sat to observe her students. Delores had sat there one afternoon and she knew it was made of baby-soft, butterscotch-colored leather. A fur throw was draped over the back of the couch. Delores hadn't asked Tori which particular animals had given their lives to create the fur throw, but she suspected that it had been very expensive and was probably made from Russian sable.
The scene that presented itself did not look threatening, so Delores stepped into the studio. The indirect lighting that covered the ceiling bathed the studio in a soft glow. Delores glanced at the round coffee table in front of the couch and drew in her breath sharply. A bottle of champagne was nestled in a silver wine bucket next to the table and a crystal flute filled with champagne sat on the table next to a distinctive bakery box that Delores immediately recognized. It was a bakery box from The Cookie Jar, the bakery and coffee shop that her eldest daughter owned. The lid was open and Delores could tell that it contained one of Hannah's Banana Cream Pies. It was Tori's favorite pie and she'd told Delores that she often served it when she had guests.
The flute filled with champagne was interesting. Clouds of tiny bubbles were rising to the surface and that meant it had been poured quite recently. Delores knew, through personal experience, that the bubbles slowed and eventually stopped as time passed.
Two crystal dessert plates were stacked on the coffee table, along with two silver dessert forks. It was obvious that Tori had been expecting a guest.
Delores set the phone down on the couch and stared at the coffee table. The puzzle it presented was similar to the homework that her daughters had brought home from kindergarten, a photo-copied sheet of paper with a picture drawn in detail. The caption had been What is wrong with this picture? Something was wrong with Tori's coffee table. What was it?
The answer occurred to Delores almost immediately. Tori had set out two dessert plates and two dessert forks, but only one flute of champagne. That was a puzzling omission. Delores knew that Tori loved champagne and judging by the label that was peeking out of the ice bucket, this was very good champagne. Did this mean that Tori was imbibing, but her anticipated guest was not? Or had Tori filled her own champagne glass and carried it away to drink someplace else in the condo? And that question was followed by an even more important question. Where was Tori?
Delores was dimly aware that hissing and crackling sounds were coming from her phone. Mike was still talking to her, but his words were undecipherable, muffled by the fact she'd placed her cell phone down on the cushions of the couch. Delores ignored it and glanced around the studio again. Her gaze reached the floor near the back of the couch and halted, focusing on that area. The white plush wall-to-wall carpet looked wet. Something had been spilled there.
Delores moved toward the wet carpet. She rounded the corner of the couch and stopped, reaching out to steady herself as she saw a sight that she knew would haunt her dreams for years to come. Tori was sprawled on the rug, a sticky red stain on one of the beautiful silk caftans she wore on evenings that she worked at home.
The stain on the caftan glistened in the light from the tiny bulbs in the ceiling. Delores shuddered as she saw the crystal champagne flute tipped on its side on the floor, its expensive contents now permanently embedded in the plush white fibers. Thank goodness the blood hadn't gotten on the carpet! That could have permanently ruined it. She'd have to give Tori the name of a good carpet cleaning firm so that they could remove the champagne stain.
"Ohhhh!" Delores gave a cry that ended in a sob. Tori wouldn't need the name of a carpet cleaner. Tori would never need anything again. Tori was dead! Her friend was dead!
Tears began to fall from her eyes, but Delores couldn't seem to look away. Her friend's eyes seemed fixed on the ceiling and her mouth was slightly open, as if she were protesting the cruel twist of fate that had befallen her.
"It's okay, Delores. We're here."
The sound of a calm male voice released Delores from her horrid fixation and she managed to turn to face the sound. It was Mike, and he had brought Lonnie with him. They had both come to help her. She wanted to thank them, but she couldn't seem to find the words.
"Lonnie's going to take you back upstairs and stay with you until Michelle comes."
"Michelle's still here?" Delores recovered enough to ask about her youngest daughter. "I thought she was going back to college tonight."
"She was, but she decided to stay until Hannah and Ross get back. I'll be up later to take your statement."
As Lonnie took her arm, Delores began to shake. It was as if she had been hit with a blast of icy winter wind. She leaned heavily on Lonnie's arm as he led her from the room, from the awful sight of the friend she'd never see again, the friend who wouldn't come over for coffee in the morning, the downstairs neighbor who would no longer sit by the pool under the climate-controlled dome in Delores and Doc's penthouse garden, and chat about her career on the stage. Tori would never collect her lifetime achievement award and hear the applause of her peers. Victoria Bascomb's stellar life had ended, and Delores was overwhelmed with grief and sadness.
As she entered the penthouse on Lonnie's arm and sank onto the soft cushions of the couch, another emotion began to grow in her mind. It replaced the heaviness of her sadness, at least for the moment. That emotion was anger, anger that her friend had died in such a senseless manner. How dare someone come into Tori's home and hurt her!
As Delores sat there waiting for Michelle to arrive, she was filled with a fiery resolve. She had to tell Hannah that Tori had been murdered. The moment that Michelle arrived, they had to try to reach Hannah. They needed her and she had to help them. Her eldest daughter would know where to start and what to do. Hannah had to come home to Lake Eden immediately so that they could find Tori's killer and make him pay for the horrible crime he had committed!CHAPTER 2
Hannah Swensen Barton sat on the balcony of the owner's suite, a chilled glass of champagne in her hand. She gave a happy smile as she watched the sun sink lower in the sky. The gentle lapping of the waves created a rhythm of contentment in her heart and she knew that she'd never felt so joyous and fulfilled. Marriage was wonderful. She loved Ross with every fiber of her being and she truly felt one with him.
At the same time, she was happy to be alone for a few moments, to rediscover herself as a person and not half of a couple. She'd missed her alone time in the early morning, sitting at her kitchen table in her old nightgown, sipping coffee and letting her mind gather the energy to deal with the day ahead.
Early morning and late night were the times that her creative juices flourished, unchecked by the necessity of making conversation. Those were the times when she came up with ideas for new recipes, for improvements she could make at The Cookie Jar, for wonderfully personalized gifts she could make or buy for her family. Of course there were times when solitude was lonely, but she'd been with Ross for every waking moment of their honeymoon. There was no denying that it had been wonderful, but it had also felt just a bit confining, perhaps even ... Hannah stopped herself in mid-thought and attempted to ignore the word that had flashed in her mind. That word was stifling. Not all of the time. Certainly not. But occasionally, she needed some room to think and to breathe.
She took a sip of her champagne. She didn't really want it, but Ross had poured it for her and he'd think that she didn't like it if her glass was still untouched. She rose to her feet, walked to the second bathroom that their butler had called the powder room, and poured half of the champagne down the drain.
On her way back to the balcony, she felt a bit disloyal. Ross had chosen the champagne especially for her. It wasn't that she didn't like it. She did. It was just that she didn't feel like drinking it now, on the last night of their cruise. She wanted to savor every moment, to stock up the memories for later, for after they'd returned to their lives in Lake Eden.
The sun was almost down and it cast a golden path across the sea, a glistening bridge between day and night. Hannah looked up and smiled as she realized the stars were beginning to appear in the sky. They seemed to be bigger and more brilliant out here on the ocean than they ever had in Lake Eden. Going on a cruise was a wonderful adventure and she hoped that they could afford to do it again sometime.
Excerpted from Banana Cream Pie Murder by JOANNE FLUKE. Copyright © 2017 H.L. Swensen, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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