GINGERBREAD COOKIE MURDER by Joanne Fluke
Twenty-four reindeer burned to a crisp and it was all her
fault! Hannah Swensen pulled the smoking cookie sheets
from her oven and dumped the contents in the kitchen
She should have known she’d never hear her stove
timer over Ernie Kusak’s deafening Christmas music.
To bake, or not to bake. Hannah pondered the decision
for several seconds. She’d left work early to come home to
bake, and if she quit now, she’d have to get up very early
to finish the cookies she’d promised to deliver to her
niece Tracey’s first grade class in time for their morning
snack. On the other hand, she’d probably burn several more
herds of reindeer unless she stood with her ear to the
And Tracey had promised her classmates that Aunt Hannah’s
gingerbread reindeer cookies were the best cookies in the
“Later,” she said with a sigh, covering the mixing bowl
with plastic wrap and sliding it into the refrigerator. The
cookies could wait. Earplugs, however, could not.
Hannah hurried to her bedroom, pulled out the top
drawer of her dresser, and took out a small plastic pouch.
The last time she’d worn earplugs was when she’d watched
her business partner, Lisa, compete in a pistol match.
music was certainly as loud as a gunshot, and that meant
they ought to work just fine.
The earplugs were the squeezable kind and fairly
but even after she’d put them in place, she could still
hear the refrain of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus quite
clearly. They didn’t completely drown out the racket, but
they did make it bearable.
Hannah was about to turn to go back into the living room,
when she spotted a lump under the covers of her bed. Her
roommate had also made an effort to escape the musical
“Smart boy!” she complimented the twenty-three pound,
orange and white cat who cohabited her condo. It was clear
that Moishe shared her opinion of Ernie’s music, because
he’d tunneled under a quilt, two blankets, a sheet, and a
At least it wasn’t the same song, over and over. Have a
Holly Jolly Christmas had been blaring away when Hannah
had come home from The Cookie Jar, her bakery and coffee
shop in town. The previous evening she’d been subjected to
the strains of We Wish You a Merry Christmas when she’d
climbed up the stairs to her second-floor home. The night
that it had been a dozen verses of The Twelve Days of
Christmas. Twice. There was nothing wrong with Christmas
music. Hannah loved Christmas music. But this was way too
early, a whole month before Christmas, and Ernie turned it
up way too loud. Lisa had suggested that Ernie might have a
hearing problem, and Hannah agreed. If Ernie had no hearing
loss now, he was bound to have one before the holiday
season was over!
Hannah gave a little sigh. She’d done her best to solve the
problem today when Ernie had come into The Cookie Jar for
coffee. With unprecedented tact for one who had none to
speak of, Hannah had asked him very nicely if he would
please lower the volume of the music. Ernie had agreed
promising to reduce the decibels right after his
kids came home from school and saw the newest addition to
his Christmas display. Hannah had been so grateful, she’d
given him a dozen gingerbread Santa cookies to seal their
Everyone in Lake Eden, Minnesota, had reeled in shock
when Ernie Kusak had divorced his wife Lorna in June. As
as the founders of the Lake Eden gossip hotline knew, the
Kusak marriage was rock solid. They didn’t have financial
worries. Lorna worked as a legal secretary for Howie
Lake Eden’s most popular lawyer, and Ernie made good
money as the manager and head driver for Cyril Murphy’s
Shamrock Limousine Service. The couple had two teenage
children who earned high grades in school and appeared
happy and well adjusted. Their son, Christopher, was a
at Jordan High and their daughter, Lindsay, was a junior.
Lorna had never complained to any of the local women about
Ernie, and on the infrequent occasions that Ernie had time
and joined the crowd in the back room at Hal and Rose’s
to play a hand of poker, he had nothing critical to say
Lorna. No one was sure why their twenty-year marriage had
suddenly dissolved, and neither Lorna nor Ernie was
Once the Kusak divorce was final, Hannah’s sister, Andrea,
had sold their house to Gary Jenkins, one of Ernie’s
coworkers, who wanted to move from a neighboring town
and reduce his commute time. She’d found a condo in
complex for Lorna to buy with her share of the proceeds,
and Gary had invited Ernie to live in what had
formerly been Ernie’s own basement bedroom. He’d been
there for four months when fortune smiled on him and he
purchased the winning ticket in the Super-Six Lottery with
jackpot of over eight million dollars.
The lottery changed Ernie’s life. When he moved out of his
old basement and used some of his newly found riches to buy
a condo in Hannah’s complex, speculation ran wild that
Ernie had come to his senses and was attempting to get back
into Lorna’s good graces. But Lorna wasn’t convinced she
wanted to re-marry Ernie, even though he was now a wealthy
Hannah was the first to admit that establishing a college
fund for Chris and Lindsay was a good first step toward
restoring Lorna’s affections. Buying both kids new cars,
was a bit much. Of course the kids liked to hang out at
Dad’s condo with their friends. Ernie had equipped it with
newest video games, there were always cold drinks and snack
foods on hand, and Ernie had programmed the takeout number
for Bertanelli’s Pizza on his phone. A giant-screen
in the media room was set up to receive first-run movies
and sports events via satellite, and Chris and Lindsay’s
were always welcome. According to Lorna, the only part of
the three-bedroom condo that Ernie had set aside for his
pleasure was the master bedroom. That said, Lorna had
snapped her mouth shut and refused to say anything further.
Even though now, with her earplugs in place, Ernie’s music
was borderline tolerable, Hannah supposed a member of the
homeowners’ association should go down and caution Ernie
again. But Ernie had promised her he’d turn down the volume
right after his kids came home from school. Perhaps
they’d had a late afternoon activity at Jordan High and
weren’t home yet.
Hannah glanced out the window that overlooked the
grounds as she left her bedroom. The wind had tossed the
fresh snow that had fallen during the day, rearranging it
long ridges that buried the winter plants and formed
hillocks on the ground. Now that evening was fast
the plush blanket of snow was imprinted with
Dali-esque shadows of trees and buildings, as if she were
viewing it through an ancient, wavy glass. The light level
different, too. It seemed to be a lot brighter than it
for this time of night and it appeared to be . . . green!
Hannah flicked off her bedroom light for a better look.
The light reflecting against the bank of snow was
green, a bright Kelly green. But wait . . . it had just
color! Now it was red, as red as a stoplight, and as she
it changed again to flashing yellow. What on earth was
on? The Northern Lights had never been this brilliant
Puzzled, Hannah headed back down the hall to see if the
scene was the same from her guest room window. Yes, the
snow that had gathered in clumps against the bushes was
also reflecting the changing colors. The simple solution
to go outside to see if she could figure out what was
but she had another piece of business to accomplish first.
As she passed by her desk in the living room, Hannah
picked up the list of condo board members that was propped
up against her computer keyboard. The other residents
would be coming home from work soon and she had to find
a board member to give Ernie another warning. He’d been
cooperative when board members had warned him in the
past and there was no reason to think he wouldn’t cooperate
tonight. Music this loud was simply unacceptable. She could
hear every word of We Three Kings right through the same
earplugs that had effectively blocked out the sound of
the last time she’d worn them.
The president of the homeowners’ association was the
choice to call. It was Sue Plotnik, Hannah’s downstairs
neighbor, and she occupied the unit across from Ernie’s.
or perhaps fortunately for them, the Plotnik
family had left this morning for Sue’s parents’ house in
The next name on the list was the vice president, but he
wasn’t home when Hannah called him. Neither was the
nor the treasurer. That left three members-at-large and
they didn’t answer her calls either.
There was only one name left on the list. It was hers.
been elected to the board last week to fill a vacancy left
member who’d moved. Since no one else was available, she
had to go downstairs and ask Ernie to turn down the music.
Going out in the Minnesota winter, even just running
down the stairs to knock on a neighbor’s door, required
donning survival gear. Hannah put on her parka and zipped
up, jammed a ski cap over her unruly masses of red curls,
pulled on her snow boots. Once she’d thrust her hands into
fur-lined gloves, she opened the door and stepped out onto
the frigid landing.
And there she stopped. And stared. The mystery of the
flashing lights she’d seen reflected on the snow outside
her windows was solved.
It was well below zero and Hannah’s breath steamed out
in clouds of white vapor, but she didn’t notice. Her gaze
fixed on the sky above, where penguins in Santa hats were
cavorting wildly with polar bears shaking tambourines.
As Hannah watched, mesmerized, an infinite line of elves
on ice skates wound around the unlikely couples, carrying
gaily wrapped packages that looked much too large for them
to handle. Every motion, every turn, every swooping swirl
was carefully synchronized with Ernie’s Christmas music.
It took a few moments for Hannah to recover her power
of speech. When she did, she uttered a phrase she’d never
around her young nieces. Not only had Ernie installed a
quality sound system to play his music at a deafening
level, but he’d also just added a spectacular laser display
Hannah stamped her feet to restore mobility. They felt like
square blocks of ice. Standing here staring at Ernie’s
wouldn’t solve the noise problem. She headed down the
stairs, turned at the bottom, and clumped past Sue and
darkened condo. Ernie had the unit on the other side of the
staircase and she glanced up at the condo immediately above
his. Only the kitchen light on the table was burning and
Hannah was familiar with Clara and Marguerite’s habits.
When that light was on and the rest of the condo was dark,
the Hollenbeck sisters were not at home.
There was a drum roll from overhead and Hannah glanced
up at the sky. Good heavens! Here came flying snowmen
holding sleigh bells just as the music segued into Jingle
Hannah tore her eyes away from the sight and concentrated
on keeping her footing on the icy walkway. She reached
Ernie’s door without incident and rang the buzzer several
Nothing, absolutely nothing happened. That didn’t surprise
Hannah. She doubted that Ernie could hear the buzzer
with all this racket going on. She tried again several
and even used the ornamental knocker on the outside of the
door. When that had no effect, she resorted to pounding on
the door with her gloved fists.
After several moments, she stopped. It was no use. The
old-fashioned globe lights that dotted the grounds of the
complex clicked on and Hannah shivered. Night had fallen
and it was bitterly cold. The wind whipped around the
of the building and threatened to blow off her ski cap.
Strands of hair not covered by the stretchy knit fabric
transformed into miniature whips that flayed at her cheeks.
Her feet had lost all feeling and her teeth were chattering
faster than the wind-up denture toy Norman Rhodes, one of
the men she dated, kept in the kids’ corner of the Rhodes
She’d make one last attempt and then she’d go home. Hannah
pressed the buzzer repeatedly with her right hand and
beat a volley of thumps on the door with her left. When
was no response before her arms tired, she convinced
that Ernie wasn’t home and turned to retrace her steps. As
she passed the grated ground-level openings that let air
light into the underground garage, she noticed that Ernie’s
new Ferrari was parked in his spot. Dragging her icy legs
the stairs, Hannah decided that there were only two
to draw from this new piece of information: Either
Ernie was home and hadn’t heard her, or Ernie had left with
A welcome blast of heat greeted her as she opened her
condo door and she took a big gulp of the non-frozen air.
She’d done her duty as a board member, even though it
worked. She tossed her parka on the couch and glanced at
the phone on the end table to see if she’d missed any
The red light wasn’t blinking and that meant no one had
called. That was good. She probably couldn’t have heard the
message if she’d played it back anyway.
Hannah was about to go off to the kitchen to pour herself
a steaming cup of coffee when she had an idea. There was
one last way she could try to contact Ernie. She could call
him and if she let the phone ring long enough and he was
home, he might hear it, especially if a relatively quiet
song came on.
The moment she thought of it, Hannah kicked off her
boots, sat down on the couch, and reached for the phone.
She was just in time. The current song ended and a softer
transition to another Christmas carol began to play. And
then, just as she was about to pluck the phone from the
“Hello?” she said, just as the first bars of Go Tell It on
Mountain, sung by an extremely powerful soprano, began
battering her eardrums.
“Hannah? Are you there?”
“Hold on!” she shouted, doing battle with the soprano by
racing to the laundry room and banging the door shut behind
her. The noise, muffled by four interior walls, abated
and she turned back to the phone. “I’m here,” she said.
The voice answered again, but she couldn’t make out the
words. Had she suffered permanent hearing loss? She
reached up to touch her ear and her fingertips encountered
foreign object. For a moment, she was puzzled, but then she
remembered that her earplugs were still in place. “Hold
she said again. “I have to take out my earplugs.”
A moment later she was back on the line. “Norman?” she
asked. “Is that you?”
“It’s me. Why do you have your music turned up so loud?
And what was that about earplugs?”
“It’s not my music. It’s coming from Ernie Kusak’s place.
And my earplugs are preventive medicine for hearing loss.”
“Poor Moishe!” Norman sounded very sympathetic. “His
hearing is even more acute than yours.”
“I know. I’m sure it hurts his ears. He’s hiding under the
covers on my bed and he never does that.”
“I’d better come over and get him right away,” Norman
said, and that made Hannah smile. When it came to her, it
was a case of Love me, love my cat. And Norman loved her
cat almost as much as he loved his own cat. “Moishe can
with Cuddles while we go out for dinner. It’s nice and
my place. Can you be ready in twenty minutes?”
“Yes,” Hannah said quickly. It was Norman to the rescue
once again. She just hoped that things wouldn’t change once
his new business partner and former fiancée, Beverly Thorn-
dike, moved to Lake Eden in January. Norman had sworn
that nothing would change between them, but Hannah wasn’t
so sure. Even though Norman had done his best to convince
her that his relationship with Beverly was strictly
Hannah just couldn’t believe it was that simple. Beverly
Norman had been engaged for over a year. Was it possible to
completely turn off the loving feelings that they must have
had for each other? Or would those feelings return when
they were together all day at the Rhodes Dental Clinic?
Hannah came back to the present with a jolt as she realized
Norman had asked her a question. This was not the time
to worry about what might and might not happen between
Norman and Beverly. “Sorry,” she apologized. “What did
“I asked you if you could put on Moishe’s harness and
leash before I get there.”
“I’ll try, but he may not want to come out from under the
“I can’t blame him for that. I can barely hear you over the
music. Just have everything handy and I’ll hook him up when
I get there.”
“Will do,” Hannah promised. “If you don’t have earplugs,
stick some cotton in your ears before you get out of your
And don’t bother to ring the doorbell. If Ernie’s music is
on, I probably won’t hear it anyway.”
“Do you want me to bang on the door?”
“Don’t bother. That might not work either. I’ll be watching
for you to come up the stairs and I’ll let you in.”