Cadaver on Candy Cane Lane – Leighann Dobbs

E mber Quinn loved the ambiance of her great-aunt Phoebe’s chocolate shop. Reminiscent of an old-fashioned candy store, it boasted honey-colored oak display cases, old wide pine floors, and antique tables covered in hand-tatted doilies, where Phoebe displayed her candies in three-tiered silver trays. Garlands were strung on the mantel and above the doors, and tiny twinkling white lights lined the tables and display shelves. The air was spiced with the intoxicating scent of chocolate, and a fire crackled in the stone fireplace, all adding to the holiday ambiance, which was very appropriate considering the shop was located in the quaint town of Christmas Village. Frost had accumulated on the bottoms of the large windows that looked out onto the snow-dusted Main Street. Icicles as thick as tree limbs hung from the roofline while snowflakes the size of saucers floated down onto the sidewalk. A sleigh jingled down the street. The thick fur on the horses’ manes and ankles billowed as they trotted. Inside the sleigh, down-coated tourists bundled in blankets happily clutched mugs of hot cocoa. It wasn’t exactly the kind of scene where one would expect a murder to take place. Not that Ember was expecting a murder. No, that sort of thing happened back home in Silver Hollow, not in the idyllic town of Christmas Village and especially not at Christmastime. Back in Silver Hollow, Ember’s cousins had been involved in solving a few murders. She’d helped them a little, but her cousins usually took the lead, and Ember mostly stuck to making chocolates. That was what she was best at and why she was visiting her great-aunt, to help her make enough chocolates so that she’d be stocked for the holiday.

Aunt Phoebe was getting on in years and couldn’t work as fast, and Ember loved visiting her. It was a nice break from her usual routine in Silver Hollow, and she had to admit that even though she loved her cousins, she didn’t mind getting away from them sometimes as they could be a bit overbearing. Ember flexed her fingers over the batch of maple-cream filling that she was making. She took a deep breath and focused on putting kind thoughts into the confection. That was another one of her specialties, imbuing a bit of magic into her chocolates. Feeling the energy leave her fingers, she glanced into the bowl at the creamy tan mixture as a few of the magical sparkles settled in. She loved infusing the chocolates with a little extra magic to help people be kind to one another during the Christmas season. “I really need to get down to Silver Hollow to visit.” Phoebe looked up from her task of arranging the golden foil boxes of chocolates on one of the shelves and patted her silver hair, which was pulled back into a bun. “The last time Gray gave me the most divine haircut, and my hairdresser up here doesn’t do nearly as good a job.

” Ember patted her own thick amber locks. Her cousin Gray Quinn owned the best hair salon in New Hampshire, and his haircuts were magical. Literally. Gray was a witch, and the cuts were always the perfect style and color for the clients. It was no wonder he had women waiting in line when he opened the shop each morning. “We’d love to have you,” Ember said. “You could give me some pointers on how to make that ribbon candy.” Ember was pretty good at chocolates, but she’d never gotten the hang of the sugary ribbon candy. Of course, there was much more call for it up here, where it was Christmas all year. “We’ll make a plan.

” Phoebe glanced at the old cuckoo clock on the wall. “Oh! I better go take the trash out.” Ember looked up from her task with a frown. She didn’t like that Aunt Phoebe always insisted on taking the trash to the dumpster out back every morning. She worried about the older woman slipping on the ice. “I’ll take it for you.” “Don’t be silly, dear. You’re in the middle of mixing the maple cream. I’ll just pop open the door and put the trash in the dumpster. Easy peasy.

” Phoebe disappeared before Ember could set her maple-cream concoction aside. She supposed that Phoebe would be fine. She’d been taking the trash out on her own way before Ember came and would have to do it on her own after Ember left. Ember was just getting back to mixing her maple-cream filling when she heard a bloodcurdling scream. She bounded for the back door, visions of Aunt Phoebe with a broken hip dancing through her head. To her relief, Phoebe wasn’t lying on the ground. She was kneeling beside a figure who was on the ground, though. By the red-and-yellow-striped shoes with the long curly toes, Ember could tell that it was an elf. Ember rushed to Phoebe’s side. The elf lay on his back, sightless eyes staring up at the sky.

A snowflake fell onto his cheek and started to melt. Chocolate caramels were scattered on the ground around him, and Ember could tell by the double swirl on the top that they were the ones made in Phoebe’s shop. His outstretched hand was covered in melted chocolate. How odd. Why would an elf be outside the back door eating chocolates? And how in the world would that have gotten him killed? Had he had a heart attack? Aunt Phoebe must have discovered him on her way out to the trash, but what was she doing hovering over the body? Unless Phoebe was prone to having murders happen around her like Ember’s cousin, she would have thought her elderly aunt would be repelled by a dead body, but she was kneeling beside it like some kind of geriatric EMT. A slate-gray cat trotted out from behind the dumpster, sniffed at the chocolates, then frowned at Aunt Phoebe. “Tampering with a crime scene?” The cat looked at Ember and raised its brows. The cat was another thing from her home town of Silver Hollow that Ember could have used a break from. His name was Brimstone, and he was older than Father Christmas himself and quite stuck in his ways. He wasn’t exactly a familiar because being a familiar implied that he “belonged” to someone.

Brimstone belonged to no one but liked to stick his nose into everyone’s business. She hadn’t wanted to bring him along, but somehow, he’d ended up coming with her. Phoebe scowled at the cat. “I should say not, you impertinent creature. I was simply checking for a pulse.” “Are you okay?” Ember put her arm around her aunt, which was actually kind of difficult, seeing as Phoebe was only about four feet tall, not much taller than an elf herself, really. Phoebe sucked in a breath. “Yes… I… I… we better call an ambulance.” “I’m on it.” Ember pulled out her phone as she tugged Phoebe away from the gruesome sight.

She didn’t want to upset her aunt further by mentioning she was pretty sure that it was too late for an ambulance. She doubted Phoebe had felt a pulse, so she probably knew that but was hoping it wasn’t true. Ember dialed 911 and told them of their grim discovery as she ushered her aunt inside. Before closing the door, she scanned the alley for clues. It was empty, other than the elf and the chocolates. Everything else was neat and tidy. Only one set of footprints could be seen leading to the place where the elf lay. Unfortunately, she didn’t close the door fast enough, and Brimstone slipped in with them, though it wouldn’t have much mattered since the cat seemed to be able to get into any house or room even when the doors were closed. Ember pushed Phoebe into a chair and shoved a mug of hot chocolate into her hand. “Do you know who that was?” Phoebe nodded.

“Alfie Svenson.” “Any idea what he was doing outside the back door?” Phoebe stared into the mug of cocoa, where tiny marshmallows were swirling in a circle as they melted. “I really can’t say.” “How do you know him? Is he a customer?” Ember asked the question gently. She didn’t want to sound like she was interrogating Phoebe, but she sensed her aunt wasn’t telling her everything. The elf had chocolates from their shop in his hand, so he must have been a customer. “He’s been in a few times. Christmas Village is a small place, and everyone knows everyone else.” Phoebe sipped the hot chocolate and avoided looking Ember in the eye. “And you have no idea why he’d be out in the alley?” The dumpster was in a small alley that ran behind the shops on Candy Cane Lane.

The elf could have been on his way to any of the shops. Or maybe he was dumpster diving? She’d heard that elves were particularly frugal and liked to find used goods for their homes. Still, she couldn’t help but think there was more to this than met the eye. Why would someone kill a dumpsterdiving elf? Now she was starting to remind herself of her cousins. Usually, Gray and Issy were the ones who acted suspicious of everything, not Ember. Ember wasn’t as good at solving mysteries as they were, but a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach told her that she had one on her hands right now. More than one thing was a little off about this whole scene. Not only had the elf been holding Phoebe’s candies, but where was the bag of trash that Phoebe had been taking out in the first place, and why were there no other footprints in the alley? T C H A P T E R 2 he police arrived in no time at all, which was not surprising considering that Christmas Village was the size of a postage stamp. The head detective, Detective Winters, was an older woman with a round belly, white hair, and blue eyes that twinkled with suspicion. Her partner, Detective Noel, was in his late thirties and thin as a candy cane.

He was bald with thick black-framed glasses and seemed to be learning the ropes. Ember had to admit she was a little jealous that she didn’t get a hunky detective like her cousin Issy had when she’d solved some of the murders in Silver Hollow. But one couldn’t have everything, and besides, Christmas Village was pretty far from Silver Hollow, and long-distance relationships never worked out. They led the cops out back, and Brimstone slipped out into the alley to watch while they inspected the body. Ember sat with Phoebe near the fireplace in the main room of the candy store. They had flipped the sign on the door to Closed, but that didn’t stop a passerby from gawking in the windows, apparently curious about the presence of the police car out front. “Hmm, that looks like an opportunity in the making,” Phoebe said after a few people had pressed their faces to the glass to see what was going on inside. She threw some fudge on a tray and rushed outside. “Move along now. Nothing to see here… just a little candy mishap.

Would you like a piece of fudge?” Most of them seemed happy to take the fudge and move along. “That’s good advertising right there,” Phoebe said cheerily when she came in to fill up the tray. “I always prefer to make lemonade out of lemons. The police car could have put customers off buying candy, but now that I’ve given them a sample, they won’t be able to resist.” Her good mood was dampened by the sight of the body being wheeled through the store. The pom-pom on the tip of Alfie’s hat stuck out from the top of the body bag, and Phoebe quickly looked away, her expression sad. Detective Winters took Phoebe aside. “You discovered the body?” Phoebe nodded. “Yes. I was taking the trash out and found him lying there.

” “And what time was this?” Detective Winters took out a rolled-up piece of paper that unfurled all the way to the floor, curling up at the end. She licked the end of a pencil and poised it over the paper to write. Aunt Phoebe glanced at the clock with its pinecone-shaped weights and detailed bird carvings. “Oh, about twenty minutes ago?” She glanced at me for confirmation, and I nodded. “And you didn’t hear anything outside?” Winters’s suspicious gaze flicked between the two of us. We both shook our heads. I glanced at Brimstone, who had slipped back in with the cops and was sitting next to the fireplace, watching the conversation. He also shook his head. Detective Winters scribbled something on the paper. “And what is your relationship with the deceased?” Phoebe was taken aback.

“Relationship? I don’t have a relationship with him.” Winters glanced up over the tops of her spectacles, her blue eyes turning hard. “No? Alfie was the union rep down at the toy factory. Surely, you knew him.” “I knew him but only as an acquaintance.” Phoebe squirmed in her seat. “Then what was he doing at your back door with your chocolates in his hand?” Detective Noel piped in. Until then, he’d just been standing quietly beside Winters. She gave him a glance of approval. Apparently, she approved that he was following her line of thought.

“I really couldn’t say,” Phoebe said. “Maybe he was looking for something in the trash. You know how elves like to repurpose things for their homes, and there is a lot of good stuff that gets thrown out from the holiday decor store down the way.” Winters stared at Phoebe with an expression that indicated she didn’t quite believe her. “Do you have any sleigh bells in here?” “Sleigh bells? No,” Phoebe said. Just then, one of the uniformed officers came in from the back. He had a clear plastic bag. Inside was a giant silver sleigh bell with an ominous red stain on the side. Phoebe gasped. “That’s not what…” “Yes, it is.

Alfie Svenson was killed with that sleigh bell. Someone threw it at his head hard enough to kill. Maybe they had a slingshot or some kind of implement to propel it. Either way, I have to wonder, why would someone want to kill an elf… and why was he killed just outside your door? Coincidence?” “Clearly, it must be.” Phoebe chugged down the rest of her hot cocoa. “Okay. Well, you better watch out. It might not be safe around here. And don’t think I won’t be looking long and hard to find out who did this.” She rolled up the scroll of paper, gave Phoebe a pointed look, and left.

After the cops left, Phoebe set about making a batch of chocolate bark as if nothing had happened. She put pieces of rich dark chocolate into a bowl then filled a pot with water and set it on a burner. With a flick of her fingers, the gas burner sprang to life, and she placed the bowl on top. Setting a spatula in the bowl, she snapped her fingers, and it started stirring the chocolate. Ember was happy to see that, even at Phoebe’s age, she hadn’t lost her magic touch. Clearly, Phoebe was avoiding conversation. Ember formed the maple creams into oval shapes that were rounded on the top and flat on the bottom then started dipping them in some dark chocolate she’d melted. She was thinking about how she could get Phoebe to tell her what was really going on when the door whipped open, setting off a cacophony of bells. “What was the excitement all about?” Mabel Donner rushed inside, her canvas knitting tote dangling from her arm. Red, white and green yarn spilled over the sides of the tote.

Two giant knitting needles were sticking up out of the middle. Mabel owned the store next to Phoebe’s, which specialized in hand-knitted Christmas stockings. “I’m afraid there was a body in the alley.” The only indication that Phoebe was upset by this was a faint tremor in her voice. Maybe she was just trying to put up a brave front. “I knew that. Figured you might have more intel.” Mabel plopped down into one of the overstuffed chairs that Phoebe kept in front of the fireplace and pulled her latest project out of the tote. It was an oversized Christmas stocking in red and green with a giant Santa face on the front. The Santa face had a fuzzy white beard and black button eyes.

Brimstone, who had been sleeping in front of the fire, perked up when he spied the yarn dangling out of the tote. He watched intently as Mabel unwound some green yarn and let it fall to the floor. “I don’t have any intel.” Phoebe poured the melted chocolate onto a shallow stainlesssteel pan, mixed in some assorted nuts, and started spreading it into a thin layer with the spatula. “I heard it was Alfie Svenson!” Mabel’s needles clacked as she started knitting. Brimstone stretched, his eyes glued to the yarn, which was now moving back and forth with each stitch. “It was,” Phoebe said. Ember dipped another maple cream into the chocolate then set it on waxed paper and carefully made two stripes in the top. The shape of the chocolates and the stripes, swirls, and other decorations on the tops were like a secret code that one could use to determine what was inside the chocolate. “You ask me, it has something to do with the strike.

” Mabel clacked away. Ember stopped mid-dip. “What strike?” “Didn’t you know? Alfie was the union rep down at the toy factory. They’ve been unhappy for years over the low pay. He’d been negotiating with management for a raise, but negotiations broke down. Next step is to go on strike, and I heard that was going to happen next week.” Brimstone hunched down on his haunches, fixated on the yarn as it dangled and jumped. “So I heard.” Phoebe didn’t seem to be on the same page with Mabel, but Ember had to wonder. A strike would be bad for a lot of people.

But would it be motive for murder? And with Alfie out of the way, would the strike still happen? “That sounds like bad news this close to Christmas. Kids wouldn’t get all their toys,” Ember said. “Yeah, not only that, but we’d be out of work, and out of work means no pay.” Mabel clacked louder. Brimstone inched closer, his eyes glued to the yarn. Ember was confused, her gaze flicking from Mabel to Phoebe. “Why would that mean you’d be out of work? You don’t work at the toy factory.” Mabel stopped clacking, and the yarn stilled. Brimstone lost interest. “Didn’t your aunt tell you? We’re part of the union.

We don’t have enough people to have a chocolate makers’ union or a stocking knitters’ union, so we joined up with the elves. Even though we make our own wages and don’t get paid by the factory, we have to show solidarity and go on strike with them.” Suddenly, Ember felt uneasy. “So, with Alfie out of the picture, what happens with the strike?” Mabel cocked her head to the side. “Good question. I guess it holds things up until we elect another union rep.” Apparently, Phoebe and Mabel didn’t understand the implications, but Ember did. If Alfie’s death put the strike on hold, then that might be why he’d been killed. At least, that’s the train of thought her cousins, Issy and Gray, would have. Maybe she wasn’t so bad at this detecting thing either.

Issy and Gray had always taken the lead, but they weren’t here now. Could Ember solve this one on her own? Energy and interest surged through her. “So, who would lose out if you went on strike?” Phoebe swirled the spatula on top of the bark with a flourish then put it in the sink and set the tray aside. “Lots of people. I suppose mostly the factory owners, two brothers, but I heard one of them was buying it from the other. And, of course, the workers would lose out. There is some cash set aside to pay wages, but not much. Once that runs out, no one gets paid. Why do you ask, dear?” “Don’t you see? Whoever would benefit from stopping the strike would have motive to murder Alfie.” Ember nodded at the looks of realization on Mabel and Phoebe’s faces.

“That’s where we need to start our investigation.

.

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