With their waterfront bakeshop, The Chocolate Moose, Jacobia “Jake” Tiptree and her best friend Ellie offer sweets to the salty locals of Eastport, Maine. Now they’ve been asked to bake a wedding whoopie pie for Eastport’s favorite lovebirds, Sharon Sweetwater and Andy Devine. The custom-ordered confection is about to reel in some much-needed dough for Jake and Ellie. But the celebratory air, and sweet smell of success, are ruined by foul murder.
When Sharon’s bitter ex-boyfriend Toby is poisoned with an arsenic-laced milkshake, Andy is arrested and the wedding is cancelled, whoopie pie and all. Then Sharon makes a shocking confession—one that sounds like a fishy attempt to get Andy off the hook. Now both the bride and groom are behind bars. And with the fate of The Chocolate Moose at stake, it’s up to Jake and Ellie to clear their names and make sure justice is served.
Includes an irresistible recipe!
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Flailing his arms wildly, Eastport, Maine's local bad boy Toby Moran flew out the front door of the Rubber Ducky Bar & Grille as if shoved hard from behind.
Or possibly he'd been kicked. Staggering, he snarled something ugly over his shoulder at the waterfront drinking establishment he'd been ejected from. Then he stumbled unsteadily through the gathering dusk toward the paved path overlooking the harbor and the fishing pier beyond.
I watched from my seat at one of the big, round tables by the front window in the Pickled Herring, on Water Street across from the Duck. Around me, the savory aromas of roasting, grilling, and sautéing mingled with whiffs of seawater drifting in through the open front door.
Outside, it was a lovely late-spring evening, the kind that often lured unwary visitors into buying old houses here. Right now, in fact, a pair of them strolled unsuspectingly, hand in hand on the other side of the Herring's window.
"... architecturally unspoiled," I heard one of them saying in reverent tones as they went by.
"And so affordable!" the other agreed brightly.
Yeah, and there's a reason for both those things, I thought, sipping my Irish coffee and remembering the days when I, too, was as innocent as a little lamb. Back then I'd bought one of the big old houses here, then spent years fixing it up.
Not to mention nearly every penny that I'd possessed. But there'd been little choice, since the house — fourteen rooms, forty-eight old double-hung windows, eight fireplaces, and an ell, all covered with white clapboard and topped by a roof so full of holes that it could've doubled as a spaghetti strainer — showed every sign of being ready to fall down on my head.
Which it still might; old houses are sneaky, it turns out. But at the moment I had a different problem.
"I'm just not ready to throw in the towel yet," my friend Ellie White said. She pursed her lips determinedly around the straw in her tall drink.
Not ready to give up and close the little chocolate-themed bakery business we'd started together a little over a year earlier, she meant. It's what we'd been discussing before I got distracted by the action across the street; now I turned from the Rubber Ducky's flashing yellow neon sign and the shadowy path behind the place, under the building's metal fire escape stairway where Moran had gone.
"Ellie," I began. "I know it's hard. It is for me, too. I really hate the idea of closing the shop, but I'm not sure we have a choice."
The problem being that, as usual at the end of a long winter in downeast Maine, right now ready cash around here was extremely scarce, and that went double for our own bank account.
"But we could still squeak through with just one big order," she insisted, brushing a long curl of strawberry-blond hair back from her face.
Ellie had violet-blue eyes, thick, dark lashes, and a sprinkling of gold freckles on her nose, which like the rest of her was cute as a button. Ordinarily she was the jeans-and-T-shirt type, but for our dinner out tonight she wore black leggings, a bright red leotard top, and a smock-topped cotton dress with purple rickrack around the neckline, the dress itself a vibrant — some might even call it eye-popping — shade of pistachio green.
"I mean, couldn't we?" she implored.
The rest of her outfit included soft black ballet slippers with bright, multicolored fake jewels on their toes, feathered earrings, and a gauzy pink scarf with lots of sparkly stuff woven into it, to tie back her hair.
What can I say, she liked dressing up when we went out. "And we've even got the order," she added coaxingly. "A wedding cake with all the fixings ..."
"Right, but we haven't been paid for it yet, or for any of the ingredients, either, and —"
I stopped as the fellow the Pickled Herring had hired for entertainment began tootling on his flute. For one thing it seemed rude to go on talking when he was playing, but also I could see that for now, at least, Ellie's mind was made up.
"Let's discuss it later," I said, while outside the big front window, evening thickened into night. Now I saw only my reflection in the glass: long, narrow face, a dimpled chin that has been fairly accused of jutting, deep-set eyes.
Atop it all, unruly tendrils of short, dark hair went wherever they wanted. Also, there was a new wrinkle just there by my right eye; oh, good, I thought sourly.
Still, my looks hadn't scared any small children so far, and I seemed to have made some good friends and even acquired a family, one way and another. At the large table in the restaurant with me and Ellie now, for example, were all the rest of my immediate kin and Ellie's, too. I'll tell you more about them later, but in my big old house alone we had four generations ranging from elderly to infant.
Which meant that the house could get hectic, and often did. But like I say, never mind that now:
"We just can't give up," Ellie repeated, mostly to herself. Then she sucked up some more of her drink, not even making a face, much less falling dramatically to the floor with both her hands clutched to her throat, coughing and gagging.
Which is what I would've been doing. Her beverage of choice was a mixture of Moxie, a Maine-made soft drink that tastes like some bitter, old-fashioned medicine, and Allen's Coffee Flavored Brandy, a beverage that many, if not most, downeast Mainers insist really is medicine.
Then, "Hey, Ellie?" I said.
From his high chair between my son Sam and his wife, Mika, their baby, Ephraim, waved his rattle at the window, grinning toothlessly. Ephraim liked flute music, he liked restaurants, and most of all, he liked being with other people. I looked again where he was gesturing, and —
"Ellie ?" I ventured once more. The Rubber Ducky's murky yellow neon sign blinked on and off in the bar's front window: DUCK! DUCK! DUCK!
But she didn't hear me. "I mean, so we're out of cash," she was saying. "That's bad, and even with the wedding-cake money we'll still just barely be able to pay all our current bills, I know that, too." She turned to me. "But, Jake, the season is just beginning."
Tourist season, she meant, that brief period in the summer when people from away come to spend money here in Maine. Some even make it all the way to Eastport: three hours from Bangor, light-years (or so it seems) from anywhere else, and about as far downeast as you can get without crossing over into Canada.
But I wasn't thinking about the tourists, either. "Ellie," I persisted, "isn't that Andy Devine over there? Coming out of the Duck?"
The guy just now leaving the bar across the street was tall and broad-shouldered, wore a dark blue poplin jacket and slacks, and had wavy, coppery hair the color of a new penny. Under the streetlight he glanced around briefly, shrugging his jacket up, then strode off into the night much more steadily than Toby Moran had.
Same direction, though, toward the gloom behind the Duck. But by the time Ellie looked he was gone.
So back to our problem, which obviously she wanted to talk about now instead of later.
"Jake, we've got to do something," she said. "If we could just make it through the next month ..."
But we couldn't. "Ellie, we've gone through our options."
And found out we didn't have any, I thought but didn't add; she knew.
"And we can't put our own money into the shop anymore, either," I said. "I'm tapped out. And so are you."
Sighing, she drank more Moxie with Allen's brandy in it while, around us at the table, the rest of our party enjoyed less fraught conversations.
Well, less fraught for us, anyway. "... disabled the poor guy's impeller," said my husband, Wade Sorenson.
Wade's a big man, burly and built like a lumberjack with blond, brush-cut hair and pale eyes that are blue or gray depending upon the weather.
"Jeez," said Ellie's husband, George Valentine. He was a small, dark-haired fellow in his forties whose stubborn chin and banty-rooster way of carrying himself gave him a feisty appearance that he more than lived up to.
"The impeller, what a dirty trick," he said of the case of marine vandalism that Wade was telling him about.
I agreed with George, because an impeller is a boat's water pump and without one, the engine cooks to death. And for a lot of people in Eastport, where fishing for scallops, lobster, and shrimp is among the few good ways of making a living, no engine meant no boat, no job, and no income whatsoever, for the foreseeable future.
Which coincidentally was pretty much the situation that Ellie and I were facing, minus the watercraft.
"Ellie, the light bill and the insurance are already overdue," I said. What we needed was an impeller that pumped money.
"We've paid our suppliers, though, right?" she wanted to know.
Our sources for chocolate and our other baking ingredients, she meant, and for our rent.
Meanwhile, the rest of our party was readying to go, Wade digging out his wallet and the waiter looking pleased when he saw the tip.
"The small businesses like ours," Ellie went on as we got up, "none of them are getting stiffed, are they?"
The flute player on the stage finished up and set the flute in its case.
"No," I conceded. I knew this because it was my job to pay the bills. "Don't worry, we're still current with our local suppliers."
Because for one thing, we wouldn't have been able to hold our heads up around town if we weren't.
"But I'm not sure," I warned Ellie, "how long even that can continue."
Not long at all if something good doesn't happen, pronto, I added silently as we made our way to the door; I'd paid this month's rent with the last of what few crumbs I could scrape up out of our business checking account. But when next month's came due I had no idea how we would manage it, which was why I was arguing against getting that far.
On the sidewalk outside, my elderly father, Jacob Tiptree, gazed around happily, his stringy gray ponytail snaking down his flannel-shirted back and his ruby ear stud glinting under the streetlamp. Nearby, Sam and Mika busied themselves with the baby, settling him into his car seat. Behind them, Bella Diamond — my housekeeper and also my dad's wife, and yes, I do know it's complicated — gave them pointers on how to do it.
Luckily, the young parents loved Bella to pieces and were good-natured, besides. Nearby, Wade and George still chatted animatedly together.
Sighing, I turned to Ellie again. She'd worked very hard at our little business, it was important to her, and the truth of the matter was that we weren't yet completely doomed....
Not quite. "You're right," I said quietly to her. "That wedding job could save us. If everything went perfectly."
That is, it could bridge the gap between the poverty of winter and the relative prosperity of an island summer in Maine ... if we could make it until then.
Ellie beamed at me. "Yes! Oh, I'm so glad you see that. I knew you would," she added confidingly.
"If it doesn't, though," I cautioned, "or if we have any other setbacks at all, our baking business is history."
"Mmm," she replied, gazing across the street past the fish pier and the boat basin to where a big white full moon spread its silvery reflection on the bay.
"Pretty," she murmured, and it was, too, with the lights from the little houses on the nearby island of Campobello shining steadily across the water and a bell buoy clanking faintly out there somewhere, familiar as an old friend.
But even then, something about the evening made me feel uneasy, as if despite the lovely Maine scenery and the reassuring presence of family and friends, something nasty was lurking.
Something dangerous, maybe even deadly. Something evil ...
And as it turned out, I was absolutely right.
* * *
Soon after my friend Ellie White and I opened our small downtown bakery, The Chocolate Moose, we began offering chocolate milkshakes. Partly it was because no one else in Eastport was selling them, but mostly it was that Ellie had found a gorgeous old milkshake mixer at a local church sale and wanted to try it.
The mixer was shiny mint green with four stainless-steel spindles that you snapped the metal mixing containers onto. It was a vintage item, you could tell by the solid materials and good design, although the first time we flipped the "on" switch the ancient electrical cord caught fire, filling our kitchen with smoke.
But once we'd replaced that part and started again with milk, chocolate, ice cream, and a secret ingredient that Ellie wouldn't even tell me about, the shakes that came out of that mixer were ...
Well, they were spectacular. Thick and creamy with the rich, full-bodied flavor of top-quality chocolate, Moose Milks were served in a reinforced paper cup with a moose silhouette printed on it and came topped with chocolate sprinkles shaped like tiny antlers; almost at once, they became the fastest-selling item in our shop.
Which made it all the sadder when, the morning after our dinner out at the Pickled Herring, we learned that someone — Toby Moran, to be precise — had apparently been murdered with one of them.
Specifically, he'd been discovered at 3 am on the walkway behind the Rubber Ducky, dead with a near-empty milkshake cup lying beside him and some of the remaining milkshake dripped down his shirt. The smell of insecticide rising from the cup and the body made it pretty clear what must have happened.
"It was nice of Bob Arnold to give us a heads-up," I remarked to Ellie a couple of hours after we'd heard the news.
Bob was Eastport's police chief as well as a family friend, and he'd come by the shop just as we were arriving.
"Yes, but it's still awful. Who would do such a thing?" Ellie replied, meanwhile beating a lot of sugar into a lot of shortening.
We stood across from one another at the work table in our shop's back-room kitchen, each with our own task.
"I mean, not that he didn't have enemies," she added. "Moran, that is."
A short laugh escaped me. "That's putting it mildly."
Past the doorway to the shop's front room I could see through to the outdoor window boxes, where the petunias and geraniums we'd planted earlier in spring now bloomed cheerfully in the sunshine.
"That he earned," Ellie added. "The enemies, I mean. Because the fact is, Toby Moran was a son of a —"
She thumped the big wooden spoon energetically back into the sugar-and-shortening mixture she was laboring over. I'd already finished getting the shop ready for the day: switching on the credit card reader, turning the door sign to OPEN, filling and starting the coffeemaker, and so on.
Much to my surprise, I'd turned out to enjoy all these tasks a great deal, and I liked the shop itself very much, too.
Inside our bay-windowed and exposed-brick-walled storefront on Water Street we had a single glass-fronted display case, a trio of small cast-iron café tables with chairs, and a cash register, plus a pretty impressive little professional bakers' kitchen setup in the back part of the store.
And that milkshake mixer, of course, in its place of honor atop the display case. "You're right, he was no prize," I admitted. "What about not speaking ill of the dead, though?"
The kitchen contained a massive gas stove with two ovens, one normal-sized and one large enough to roast an ox. To one side of them stood a pair of sinks, one for dishes and one for hand washing as per health department requirements, and beyond that were shelves of baking ingredients: flour, sugar, cocoa powder, spices, and so on.
The rest of the floor space was mostly occupied by the butcher-block-topped worktable. Racks of pots and pans hung from pegboard on the walls, and a massive old wooden-paddled ceiling fan turned slowly overhead, under the high tin ceiling.
"I'm not speaking ill of the dead," said Ellie. "I'm speaking of when he was alive."
For her baking duties today she wore her strawberry-blond hair tied up into a pink hairnet. A white bibbed apron over a white cotton T-shirt, jeans, and leather moccasins made up the rest of her outfit.
She twisted the top off a jar of marshmallow fluff. "Dead, he's a lot less trouble. For one thing, it guarantees that this time he won't come back."
From the various reformatories, jails, and prisons that Moran had been sent to during his lifetime, she meant. Burglary, car theft, drug offenses, assault ... if there'd been a poster child for bad behavior in Eastport, Moran would've been it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death by Chocolate Malted Milkshake"
Copyright © 2019 Sarah Graves.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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