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Excerpt from Chapter 1
I suppose it wasn’t the puppy’s fault, but after he handed me the money, everything in Warner Pier seemed to go pot. Fraud, kidnapping, homicide, theft, trespassing – a real crime wave developed. My romantic life got – well, unromantic. Even the chocolate business became complicated.
The day had started out very well. I was happy as I looked toward the Fall Rinkydink. My favorite guy, Joe Woodyard, was with me. The weather was as perfect as only October day on the shores of Lake Michigan can be. I may have hummed a hum or skipped a little skip.
Then a chocolate Labrador pup galumped across the Dock Street Park, cut through the buffet line in the picnic shelter, and planted two gigantic feet on the knees of my brand-new tan wool slacks. I nearly dropped a big tray of TenHuis Chocolades finest truffles and bonbons. The sweets all shifted to one side, and only the extra-strength industrial plastic wrap kept them from hitting the grass.
The dog handed me a large leather wallet with a dirty ten-dollar bill sticking out one side.
That first disaster occurred at the first-ever Rinkydink.
I’m business manager for my aunt’s chocolate shop, TenHuis Chocolade, in the picturesque resort of Warner Pier, on the east shore of Lake Michigan. In the summer, Warner Pier’s streets – laid out in 1855 for buggies and horse-drawn farm wagons – are thronged with cars, vans, and buses carrying tourists and summer people. The traffic is horrendous.
In the fall, all the tourists and summer visitors go home. The parking problem is over until the next Memorial Day, and traffic is close to nil for six months. Consequently, Warner Pier locals for years have linked the end of the tourist season and the beginning of autumn to the day when our one traffic light becomes a blinker.
All summer the light at Fourth Avenue and Dock Street changes from green to yellow to red – just like a big city traffic light. On the Tuesday after Columbus Day, the Warner Pier Street Department turns out in force (all three of them) and changes the light to a flashing red on Fourth Avenue and a flashing yellow on Dock street. For years, the merchants in the neighborhood gathered to cheer them on, just as a joke.
It was Maggie McNutt, a close friend of mine and Warner Pier High School speech and drama teacher, who had the idea of making the changing of the traffic light into a fund-raiser for the high school drama club. All the food-related merchants, including TenHuis (it rhymes with “ice”), were asked to donate food for a picnic luncheon, which would be held in the Dock Street Park picnic shelter. Nonfood merchants – the gift shops, antique stores, and art galleries, the hardware store, and the drug store – were asked to kick in items for a lent auction and for door prizes. Everybody in the world was asked to buy tickets.
“It’ll be fun!” said Maggie. She had bounced in her chair as she presented the idea to the chamber board. “The chamber ought to have more social events. This one will be a farewell party for those merchants who close up and go south for the winter. It’ll be a celebrate-fall party for those of us staying here. And it will help the drama club take students to state competition.”
Maggie had become the speech and drama teacher three years earlier, when she and her husband, Ken, who taught math, were both hired at Warner Pier High School. She had short dark hair and was petite, peppy, and cute – the kind of woman who manes an all-but-six-foot blonde like me feel like a giraffe. But I liked Maggie. Everyone in Warner Pier seemed to like her – with one exception – and Maggie was full of ideas to promote Warner Pier High School drama. Maggie told me she had worked in Hollywood, appearing as an extra in small roles in several films. But when she’d turned thirty, she’d decided she was never going to make it big in show biz, so she came back to her home state, got her master’s in education and married Ken McNutt, who’d been a high school classmate. They’d rented a little house in Warner Pier and settled into the community. The previous year her students had taken first place in the state one-act competition. She wanted to make sure they got to go again.
The name of the event, the “Rinkydink,” had started as a joke, after somebody remarked that a town with only one traffic light was “pretty rinkydink.” Since the small-town atmosphere was what most of us liked about living in Warner Pier, we adopted the term with perverse pride, and the light changing ceremony was officially christened.
The weather was cooperating for the first Rinkydink, and Maggie hadn’t had to move the picnic to the high school gym, as she’d feared she might. The day was sunny, with temperatures just under seventy. The sunlight was creating that autumn effect when oblique light turns the sky mellow and the air so soft and beautiful you want to gulp big lungfuls of it. The trees were lush with all the reds, yellows, golds, oranges, greens, and browns of a Michigan autumn. The sun glinted off the Warner River. The Victorian houses looked more like wedding cakes than usual. The chrysanthemums were blooming like crazy – bronze, maroon, yellow, rust, and gold. The breeze playfully tossed fallen leaves about.
It was a good day to be alive and living in Warner Pier, Michigan. I had been happy s a clam as Joe and I each carried a big tray of TenHuis’s fanciest chocolates toward the dessert table.
Joe saw the dog coming. “There’s a pup loose,” he said. “Some guy is after him.”
I turned to see who was chasing the dog. The animal ran right up to me and, as I said, planted his huge puppy feet on the knees of my tan wool slacks. He looked at me with soft hazel eyes. He was holding this big leather wallet in his mouth.
“Hey, fellow! Welcome to the party.” I stepped backward, trying to get the dirty feet off my slacks. Of course, the puppy thought this was a game and jumped up on me again. I balanced the tray on my hip, accidentally tipping it. I could feel the chocolates slide as I tried to fend the pup off with the hand I’d freed up. The dog was at that awkward stage of puppyhood, maybe four or five months old. He looked healthy and full of puppy peop, with a lustrous, dark brown coat as smooth and shiny as melted chocolate. He had a tiny spot of white on his chest.
Then the pup nudged my wrist with the wallet. It was a beat-up and moldy looking brown leather folder, more than twice the size of a standard bifold billfold and more like a passport case than a regular wallet. It didn’t look like something a puppy should be chewing on, so I took it away from him. It was covered with dog slobber, of course.
By then Joe had put down the tray of chocolates he was carrying, and he grabbed the dog.
“Look at the money,” I said, showing him the wallet. Five or six odd-sized bills were sticking out. “Somebody’s been playing king-sized Monopoly.”
“I’ve seen those big bills in one of the antique shops,” Joe said. “I think they used to be legal tender.”
“Somebody’s going to want this back.”
Joe scooped the puppy up with both arms, and the dog joyously licked his face. Joe laughed. What else can you do when a strange puppy decides you’re adorable? Or maybe delicious. Of course, I think Joe’s delicious, too. He not only has dark hair, brilliant blue eyes, and broad shoulders, but he also has a very sharp mind and a nice personality. Someday I might even set a wedding date.
I took my tray of chocolates to the dessert table and handed them to Tracy Roderick, who was a TenHuis employee in the summer and president of Maggie McNutt’s drama club during the school year. Tracy’s a nice girl, she could even be a pretty girl if she got a decent hairstyle.
“Hi, Lee,” Tracy said. “I’m in charge of the dessert table. As usual, the TenHuis chocolates will be the center of attraction.”
“I messed these up,” I said. “They nearly landed in the grass.”
Tracy brandished a pair of food-service gloves. “I’ll straighten them. Your aunt with never know what a narrow escape they had.”
The two of us admired the craftsmanship displayed in the chocolate. Swirling patterns of bonbons and truffles filled the two trays, ready to entice Rinkydink picnickers with dark, white, and milk chocolate, each goody filled with an exotic flavor. In the center of each tray was a heap of molded chocolates – squares, small animals, miniature bars. Joe and I had just delivered two big trays of yummy. To me the chocolates made the cherry pies and coffee cakes a waste of calories.
“Lee, we’d better get this dog back to his owner,” Joe said.
Leaving Tracy in charge of her desserts, I fished a large paper napkin out of a pile at the end of the serving table and wiped off my hand and the wallet. Then Joe and I walked toward the man who had been running. He’d slowed down after he saw Joe scoop up the puppy.
I waved the wallet. “This yours?”
“Thanks for rescuing it!” The man continued towards us. “And thanks for grabbing Monte!”
Excerpted from "The Chocolate Puppy Puzzle"
Copyright © 2004 JoAnna Carl.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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