The Chocolate Falcon Fraud (Chocoholic Mystery Series #15)

The Chocolate Falcon Fraud (Chocoholic Mystery Series #15)

by JoAnna Carl

Hardcover(Large Print)

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Overview

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 naïve 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!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781410485489
Publisher: Gale Group
Publication date: 02/24/2016
Series: Chocoholic Mystery Series , #15
Edition description: Large Print
Pages: 307
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

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.

Read an Excerpt

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-day basis, Alicia ran the company. Rich made the deals, and Alicia made them happen. Rich didn’t admit this out loud, but the salary he paid Alicia proved he appreciated her abilities. Their relationship was strictly professional. Alicia was married to a terrific guy named Tom who was a surveyor, and they had two great kids. She was perfectly capable of telling Rich she couldn’t stay late because it was her daughter’s birthday, and Rich would say, “Yes, ma’am.”

Back when I was married to Rich, Alicia had saved my fanny lots of times. If Rich and I were going to a party, for example, she’d give me tips on what was really going on in the world of property development, and which subjects to avoid with whom. She kept my foot out of my mouth most of the time.

If I had a role model in my job as business manager for TenHuis Chocolade, it was Alicia. I was glad to hear from her, though I knew she hadn’t called simply to chat.

Sure enough, she went right to the point. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard from Jeff,” she said. “That little booger seems to have misplaced hisself.”

Chapter 2

“Misplaced himself? Alicia, I thought he finally grew up enough to be allowed out of the house alone.”

“As a general rule he does pretty well. But his parents are in South America until the end of the week, and something has come up. He mentioned you before he got away.”

“Actually Jeff did drop by yesterday.”

Alicia gave a dramatic sigh of relief. “Thank the Lord! Is he there with you?”

“No, he said he had a motel room in Holland.”

“Was he okay?”

“Sure. He looked great and seemed to be in good spirits.” My mind was racing, and fear was settling in the pit of my stomach. It was stupid, but I’d always had a terrible fear that something would happen to Jeff and that it would happen on my watch.

But what should I say to Alicia? Jeff had made a date with us, then had failed to show up. Should I tell her that? I stalled.

“I guess he told you he was common—I mean, coming! He must have told you he was coming to Warner Pier.”

“No, he didn’t tell me! He’s living at home this summer. He gave up his apartment, because he’s going to move to Austin in August. Rich and Dina are skiing, of all things, in Peru, of all places. Jeff was supposed to mind his mama’s store.”

Dina owned a high-end antiques business, and Jeff had worked part-time for her since he was fourteen or so.

Alicia was still talking. “He found someone to fill in at the store, then went off—I guess to Michigan—and apparently didn’t tell anybody where he was going. Not even that sweet little Tess. I finally found a message from him on my line at the office. It said something about seeing you. And he’s not answering his cell phone. Do you know what motel he’s in?”

“I’m afraid not. All he gave me was his cell number.”

“Dadgum it!”

“Alicia, is there some emergency?”

“I honestly don’t know, Lee. The girl who’s at Dina’s shop called me to say Jeff was getting these strange phone calls. I went over there and listened to a couple of messages, and, Lee, they sound a lot like threats! Like ‘If you miss this opportunity, you’ll be sorry forever, because the black bird may come after you.’”

“Who on earth would threaten Jeff?”

“I can’t imagine. I don’t know what’s going on. But I need to talk to him about it. If anything happens to Jeff . . .” She left the sentence incomplete.

I decided that I wouldn’t tell Alicia about Jeff being a no-show for dinner. She was worried already, and that wouldn’t help.

“Listen,” I said, “as soon as I’m a little more up-and-at-’em, I’ll get on the phone and call a few Holland motels. Maybe I can track him down.”

“Oh, would you? I’d really appreciate it.”

Alicia gave me her cell number, and I promised to call back by noon, even if I didn’t find Jeff.

I hung up, then slumped down in bed and looked at Joe. Darn, he was fun to look at. Dark hair, brilliant blue eyes. Definitely the best-looking guy in west Michigan. With the best shoulders. Also smart.

“Good morning,” I said.

Joe rolled his eyes. “Why do your friends and relatives call so early?”

“They forget we’re in the eastern time zone.”

“But that would make them call later, Lee. Not earlier.”

“Then I don’t know. But you were already up. Why did the phone bother you?”

“I guess I just don’t like to see you get mixed up with those people.”

“What’s wrong with Alicia and Jeff? At least Rich didn’t call.”

“He doesn’t bother me. You’re not friendly with Rich. It’s other people who want favors.”

“I haven’t heard from any of them since Jeff got in all that trouble on his last visit. Three years ago. Three and a half.”

“But yesterday, when he showed up, you said Jeff knew we were married.”

“Yes, and he knew Aunt Nettie and Hogan were married. So what? Oh, it’s odd, because he didn’t get it from me.”

“He’s been keeping track of you, Lee. It’s creepy. Plus, last night you and Aunt Nettie were talking about meeting with that architect today. You don’t have time to look all over Holland for Jeff.”

TenHuis Chocolade (“luxury chocolates in the Dutch tradition”) had recently acquired the building next door. We were in the early stages of expanding into the additional space. Even the early stages were taking a lot of time.

I sighed. “Joe, I can’t refuse to help Alicia find Jeff. She’s obviously worried about him. And Alicia is one of those people I owe.”

I sat up and rested my chin on my knees. “This is one of those recurring nightmares.”

“Why? I’m sure nothing’s happened to Jeff.”

“It’s a holdover from when I was first married to Rich. I admit we hadn’t dated nearly long enough. He hadn’t bothered to mention that he had a twelve-year-old son.”

“What a jerk!”

“True, but . . . Anyway, a month after I met Jeff, Rich asked me to pick him up for weekend visitation and bring him out to the club and drop him off to have dinner with Rich. I had to go someplace else. So I took Jeff to the club and dropped him off at the front door. I had barely gotten where I was going when Rich called and asked where Jeff was. He’d never gotten inside the club.”

“That was scary!”

I blinked away a tear. “Actually he’d just gone out to the driving range, but it frightened the something or other out of me. All I could think was that he’d been kidnapped. And it would all be my fault!”

Joe sat on the edge of the bed and took my hand. “Jeff’s a grown-up now!”

“Is he?”

“Legally he is. You didn’t ask him to come to Michigan. He’s responsible for himself.”

“Thanks, but this is a topic I’m not always rational about.”

Joe gave me a kiss and another dose of reassurance. Then I got up, hoisted myself onto my crutch, and limped through my morning routine. As soon as Joe left for work, I started calling motels in Holland, thirty miles away, looking for Jeff. It only took four calls. He was registered at the Holiday Inn Express.

But when the front desk rang his room, Jeff didn’t answer. I left a voice mail, telling him Alicia was trying to find him. And I added a sentence. “We were sorry that we missed you last night, Jeff. Don’t leave the area without calling, guy!”

I began to dress for the office, telling myself I’d hear from Jeff within a few minutes. He had probably been in the shower.

But I didn’t hear from him. By the time I left for the office, thumping my crutch irately at every step, there had been no word from Jeff.

After Joe left, the only sound I heard was the animal in the attic.

Anyone who’s ever lived in the country knows about the animal in the attic. And if Joe and I didn’t live in the country in a legal sense, we did in a physical one. Our house was inside the city limits of Warner Pier. We had city water and sewer, plus all the police and fire protection available in a town of twenty-five hundred souls. But our neighborhood was semirural and heavily wooded. It looked and felt like country. We were surrounded by country things like bushes and trees and animals.

Deer, turkeys, raccoons, rabbits—even the occasional badger and fox—hung out in our neighborhood. And they considered our house part of their territory. A squirrel had come down our chimney. We’d had chipmunks move into our basement. Every fall the mice invaded, trying to avoid cold weather. Don’t ask me how they found cracks and holes to get in; we tried to plug ’em up.

We were experts on amateur extermination, and we also knew whom to call if professional action was required. In fact, we’d had the exterminator the previous week, and he thought he had de-animaled the house completely. But I was already hearing noises from the attic.

This situation, of course, was not found only in Michigan. My dad had the same problem in north Texas. It’s just part of country living, so we tried not to pay too much attention to stray scratchings and thumpings.

But I wrote a note to Joe with a big, fat Magic Marker. “Please check attic for annie-mule!” Then I taped it to the window over the kitchen sink before I left for the office.

I made sure my phone was on; I didn’t want to miss Jeff’s call. But by noon I still hadn’t heard from him. When I talked to Alicia, she hadn’t heard from him either.

“Listen,” I said, “I’ll go to the Holiday Inn and see what I can find out.”

“If that kid is lounging around the pool and letting us worry, I’ll have his hide.”

“I’ll hold him while you kick him.”

I told Aunt Nettie I was making an emergency trip to Holland and would be back to meet with the architect. I worried the whole thirty miles to Holland. But I was on the outskirts of town before I gave in, stopped the car in a parking lot, and called Hogan for a little informal advice from law enforcement. Luckily it was a slow day for crime in Warner Pier, and I caught him in his office.

I quickly sketched the situation for him. “We can’t make a missing person report on Jeff yet, can we?”

“Not unless you find something scary.”

“Scary?”

“Yeah. Like his car with a pool of blood in the front seat.”

I shuddered. “I don’t even want to think such a thing!”

“Then don’t. But if he’s simply not there, the cops can’t do much. He’s over twenty-one, isn’t he?”

“Oh yes. He’s supposedly a grown-up.”

“And the motel isn’t likely to give you much information.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“The only way you could get a look in his room, for example, is if there was a possibility he’s sick.”

“Sick?”

“Some chronic condition. The possibility of a diabetic coma maybe. He’s a little bit young for you to tell them he might have had a stroke. And you don’t want to say he’d threatened suicide. The motel might toss him out. Motels don’t like dead guests.” Hogan laughed. “But don’t make it too elaborate, Lee. You don’t look old enough to be Jeff’s mother.”

“Even though I was. Sort of.”

When I got to the Holiday Inn I cruised the parking lot, looking for Texas license plates. Nary a one. So I parked and went to the desk, where the clerk tried calling Jeff’s room. No answer.

I took a deep breath and pulled the stunt Hogan had hinted might work.

My stepson, I told the clerk, was diabetic. “We really didn’t want him to tackle this trip, because his blood sugar has been up and down, but you know kids! We couldn’t talk him out of it.”

The clerk nodded sympathetically.

“Is there any way a staff member could check the room? Make sure he’s all right?”

“I’ll ask the manager.”

The manager wasn’t happy, but he got a special key card from a drawer. I didn’t ask if I could go along. I just went.

The room was on the third floor. I tried to follow the manager inside, but he gestured at me. “Please stay here.”

So I stood in the doorway, though I did manage to edge inside far enough to see into the bathroom and most of the bedroom. By then I had talked myself into real concern about Jeff’s disappearance, and I was holding my breath as the manager made a circuit of the room, checking behind the shower curtain, between the beds, in the closet. I felt a genuine sense of relief when he spoke. “No sign of him.”

“Thank goodness.” From my place two steps inside the room I could see Jeff’s luggage—a medium-sized wheeled duffel bag—on the foot of the bed. I could peek inside the bathroom and see his shaving kit on the counter. But neither bag looked as if it had been opened.

Jeff had apparently checked in the previous day, dropped off his luggage, then left. There was no sign that he had ever come back to the room.

The manager relocked the door, and I followed him downstairs. He seemed even more relieved than I was, and I could understand why. As Hogan had said, motels don’t like dead guests.

When we returned to the front desk, I tried one more thing. “Do I need to give you a credit card? To make sure Jeff’s room is paid for?”

Then the manager did look relieved. To learn that some family member was willing to pick up Jeff’s bill—he practically clicked his heels. But he assured me that Jeff had a credit card on file. All was well.

“I’ll just call his mother,” I said.

The manager frowned. “I thought you were his mother.”

I chuckled. “No, his stepmother. We’re a blended family.” I ended with another chuckle.

That reassured him, and he didn’t make any objection when I helped myself to a cup of their free coffee, then took a seat in the empty breakfast area. I took out my phone.

And Tess walked in the front door of the motel.

Chapter 3

At least I thought it was Tess. Like Jeff, she was almost four years older than the last time I’d seen her, and like him, she had changed in the years between eighteen and twenty-two.

The girl approaching the registration desk was tiny—I’d guess her jeans at size zero—with dark hair in a wispy haircut. She used quick, birdlike gestures that reminded me of the Tess I’d met three and a half years earlier. I stood up, more and more confident that this was Tess.

She had a clear, high-pitched voice. From thirty feet away I could understand what she asked the clerk.

“Do y’all have a Jeff Godfrey registered here?”

It was definitely Tess.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "The Chocolate Falcon Fraud"
by .
Copyright © 2015 JoAnna Carl.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Praise for the Chocoholic Mystery Series
 
“JoAnna Carl satisfies…your craving for a tasty whodunit.”
—Cleo Coyle, New York Times Bestselling Author of the Coffeehouse Mysteries
 
“My name is Charlaine, and I’m a Chocoholic!”
—#1 New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris
 
“Lee McKinney sells chocolates and solves crimes with panache and good humor.”
—Carolyn Hart, New York Times bestselling author of the Death on Demand Mysteries
 
“A deft mix of truffles and trouble. Chocoholics—this book is for you!”
—Laura Childs, New York Times bestselling author of the Tea Shop Mysteries
 

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