Excerpt from Death By Chocolate

Preface

Walter Neff was nursing a drink at Al’s Bar on the corner of Sixth and Limestone.  He intended to do more than nurse it.  He intended to get stinking drunk.

Neff was bitter.  He was bitter because he had been cheated out of millions by a dame he liked.  It was hard to lose the money, but the money and the woman both?  It made him feel like a chump.  Neff hated to come up empty.

His mind raced with a thousand schemes.  The money was lost, but maybe he could still have the dame.  It was worth a shot.

Anger and jealousy gnawed at him.  He knew deep in his heart that the woman was out of his reach.

Neff slammed the bar countertop in frustration with his fist.

“Whoa there, partner,” drawled a handsome blond-haired man.  He looked like Tab Hunter.  “Got problems?”

“None of your business, pard-nar,” sneered Neff.

“That’s where you’re wrong.”

Neff swiveled to get a good look at his companion.  “What makes you say so?”

“I would say that we have mutual friends.  Perhaps mutual experiences as well?”

“Sure we do, buddy.”  Neff turned back on his stool and took another sip of his drink.

The blond man leaned in closer.  “I’m very serious.  I’m always serious with people who have been burned by a certain redhead.”

Neff faced the younger man and wavered for a moment.  “Okay.  I’ll throw caution to the wind.  What’s your pitch?”

“I know that a woman with red hair and green eyes cost you millions of dollars.  Money that is now being wasted on Lexington’s terminally down and out.”

“How do you know that?”

“I make it my business to know.  Let’s just say I’ve had previous experiences with the lady in question.”

Neff squinted while tapping his forehead.  His mind was fuzzy, but still worked when he concentrated.  “I know who you are.  You’re that loser who went crazy and tried to . . .”

“If I’m a loser, so are you.  Perhaps you would like to discuss how to become a winner.  You know, revenge is a dish best served cold.  I have a plan that will serve it on a platter.  Would you like to hear it?”

Neff hesitated for a moment, but his anger was stronger than his common sense.  “Let’s talk where there ain’t so many ears.”

“That’s all right with me.  By the way, my name is O’nan.  Fred O’nan.”

Neff shook his hand.  “I have the feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“So do I,” cooed O’nan, studying Neff like a wildcat does a careless rabbit.  “So do I.”

 

Prologue

In a corner booth at Al’s Bar sat a young woman with short ash blond hair.  She was preening in a compact mirror while powdering her nose, which drew attention from the gadget on the table resembling a smart phone recording O’nan and Neff.

When O’nan and Neff left the bar together, the woman nodded to two men sitting at the bar.

Taking their cue, they sauntered out into the street and followed the pair.

Another man immediately scooted into the booth with the woman.  “Put eyes and ears in both their apartments.  I want each room available.  Make sure you tag their cars as well,” she ordered.

“Sure thing, Asa.  Cars are already booted,” he said in a thick Cockney accent.

Asa frowned at the use of her name.  Her tone turned very chilly.  “I want their every movement tracked.”

Getting the message, the man reminded her, “This is gonna cost a bundle.”

“Don’t worry about the money.  I’ll take care of everyone.  Just do your best.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You’ve seen O’nan’s psychological profile.  If it were your mother, what would you do?”

“He would already have been neutralized.  Made it look like a car accident, ma’am.”

Asa nodded in agreement.  She wasn’t ruling that option out.

She threw a twenty on the table and left with her employee.

Outside they parted.

Asa got into a black SUV with government tags and pulled off her wig.  “Take me home,” she said to the driver.

“To the airport?”

“Sorry, no.  Take me home to the Butterfly.  I need to see my mother.”

Before the SUV could take off, the back door was wrenched open.

“What are you doing, Asa?” asked Officer Kelly, leaning in.  “I was sitting in the back watching you watching O’nan.  Don’t do anything stupid.  The city
would love to see your mother trip up so they don’t have to pay her the rest of the settlement.  And don’t think they don’t know you’re here.  There were three other cops at Al’s Bar tonight.”

“I must be getting sloppy,” admitted Asa.  She smiled sweetly at him.

Kelly’s eyes grew soft.  “Asa.  Asa.”

Asa leaned forward and kissed Kelly, holding onto him tightly.

He passionately returned her kiss, winding his arms about her.  Asa pulled Kelly into the back seat and mouthed to her driver–“GO!”

“Where’re we going?” asked a bewildered Kelly.

“Shut up,” replied Asa tenderly.  “Just shut up and kiss me.”

 

1

Linc and I were hulling black walnuts for a wedding cake when someone began banging on the front door and ringing the doorbell.

My heart jumped into my throat.  I told Linc to take Baby to my bedroom and lock the steel door.  He was not to come out until his grandmother, Eunice, told him it was okay.

Linc, thrilled at the prospect of danger, did what he was told with relish.

Baby, thrilled at the prospect of being with Linc, did what the boy commanded and followed happily, especially when Linc promised a treat.

Turning my attention to the front door, I watched Eunice hurry to the security monitors.  In addition to the monitors, I had installed several panic buttons in the house and was sitting next to one, ready to press it, when Eunice exclaimed, “Why it’s Ginny Wheelwright!  She looks fit to be tied.  You want me to tell her you’re home?”

“She must have news about her boy,” I replied.  “Let her in, by all means.”

Eunice had barely opened the double steel door when Ginny barged passed her.

“Josiah.  Josiah!” she called, looking in the kitchen.

“I’m over here.”

Ginny looked a mess.  Her face was blotchy and her one good eye was red from crying.  To make her look totally alien, her glass eye had flipped over, showing only the gold side, but then would flip again when she twitched.

I guess my face showed astonishment at her appearance.

“I know I look awful.  Can’t help that.”

“Ginny.  They’ve found Dwight’s body?”

“If only.  That would give me some peace on the matter.  Oh, Josiah.  That wife of his has petitioned to have Dwight declared dead.”

“You have to be missing seven years in order to be declared dead.”

“That’s what I thought, but if she can prove extenuating circumstances, then the courts will give an earlier approval.”

“What’s the rush?  Dwight’s only been missing five months.  Give the detectives a little longer to work the case.  Dwight might be stumbling around somewhere with amnesia.  It’s been known to happen.”

“That’s what I said, but she said she wanted to get on with her life.”

“Her childhood sweetheart goes missing for only five months, and she wants to forget him so soon?”

“My sentiments, exactly.  I think it’s awfully cold.”

“What else did she say?”

“She told me to mind my own business.”  Ginny began

crying again.  “My son is my business.  Where is he, Josiah?  Where can my baby be?”

Ginny blew her nose with a used tissue and then continued lamenting, “And that business partner of his, Farley Webb, has moved all of Dwight’s things out of his office.  He just packed them up and took Dwight’s things over to Selena.  Then she took his things to Goodwill.  It’s like they both are trying to erase my boy.”

Eunice brought a tray of coffee, tea, cookies, and a fresh box of tissues.  Then she discreetly vamoosed into my bedroom with Linc, giving Ginny some privacy.

I’m not a touchy-feely person.  I’m not given to hugs or kisses, but I did reach out and pat Ginny’s hand.

Ginny grabbed it and tugged.  “Ya gotta help me, Jo.  The investigation’s going nowhere.”

Shaking my head, I said, “NOOO!  I’m not going to get involved with issues like this anymore.”

“This isn’t some issue.  This is my boy who used to play with your girl right there on that patio.  You babysat him.  You cooked for him.”

I tried to pull away.

“When Asa went to trial, who was there for you?  Me.  When Brannon left, so did most of your friends, but I

stuck by you.  Now it’s payback time.  You gotta help me.”

Jumping Jehosaphat!

Why did I have to stick my hand out to her?

I was in no shape physically or emotionally to solve another mystery.  That’s what police and shamuses were for.  I should have thrown Ginny out right then and there.

Instead, I asked, “What do you want me to do?”

 

2

My name is Josiah Reynolds.

I’ve worked hard all my life.  I was a tenured art history professor at the University of Kentucky until I took up beekeeping.  It wasn’t that I wanted to retire from teaching.  I loved it, but my personal life got in the way.

Mainly I was chased out by the constant gossiping in the office after my husband left me for a younger woman and colleagues stabbing me in the back when I was a candidate for the Department Chair’s position.

I hate office politics.  Good riddance was what I said as I turned in my resignation.  I didn’t have to put up with those jerks’ smug knowing looks or cruel remarks–just loud enough for me to hear.  Screw them!

Bees are how I make my living now–if that is what you can call it.  They are much more civil creatures.  The honeybees just want to collect their nectar.  They don’t have a backstory.  They don’t bring baggage to work.  Their only agenda is to make lovely golden honey.

Every Saturday, I sell their honey at the Farmers’ Market.

I have other sources of income.  I rent out my house, the Butterfly, for tours and weddings, which makes a tidy little profit for me now.  I also board horses, mainly racing Thoroughbreds.  That money goes back into the farm.

My vices are flower arrangements, having my hair done every so often, and my animals.  I love animals.  I have sheep, chickens, a couple of goats, llamas, peacocks, two rescue racehorses, numerous barn cats, and one mangy lazy slobbery English Mastiff named Baby.

I live in a large iconic house called the Butterfly because its second roof looks like wings from a distance.

It is a modern-style house that was an experiment in complete sustainable living from the cradle-to-the-grave.  There are no steps in the house and the hallways are extremely wide.

The entire back of the house is bulletproof glass overlooking the Kentucky River.  The bulletproof glass was installed to protect the residents, mainly me, from stray bullets shot across the Kentucky River by drunken deer hunters.

The house sits on a cliff overlooking the Kentucky River.  This area is called the Palisades, which is one of the most fragile and sensitive environments in the world.

I do everything I can to protect it, but it seems everyone from developers to the Kentucky Department of Transportation wants to destroy one of the great wonders of the world.

Greedy moneymen can’t wait to get their hands on a failing horse farm so they can turn it into a tacky little subdivision. It’s like the devil is pushing folks out of one of the last paradises on earth so another strip mall can be built.

Speaking of the devil, last year I had an accident.  Accident–hell!  I was thrown off the cliff at my house by a cop who hated me.  Anyway, that’s another story.

While I recovered in Key West, my daughter, Asa, along with my best friend, Matt, had the entire estate upgraded.  Things had gotten a little shabby after my husband left and took our money with him.  I guess he figured that if he had already stabbed me, he might as well gut me, too.  That’s in the figurative sense.

Anyway, he died of a heart attack leaving me with nothing but a headache.

His girlfriend, Ellen Boudreaux, thinks their child should have some sort of legal interest in the Butterfly, as it was Brannon’s masterpiece.

Actually, it was my idea and design.  He just built it.  His specialty was the restoration of antebellum homes.

I guess Ellen thinks that since she got my money, some of my couture dresses, and my best jewelry, she should have the roof over my head as well.  She threatens all the time to take me to court.  “Well, get on with it, girl” is what I say.

But I don’t want to talk about Brannon.  I get riled up just thinking about him.  It was with our daughter, Asa,

that I currently was having a hissy fit.  We were having a discussion in the great room.  No, it was more like an argument.

“You simply must not see Kelly anymore,” I demanded.

“I don’t think that is going to happen, Mother.”

I held out my hands.  “Asa, he has a wife and two young children to consider.  He loves his wife.”

“He loves me too.”

“If you loved Kelly, you would not make him choose between you and his family.  You could have had him, but you left him high and dry after high school without even saying goodbye.  Since then he has made a life and you shouldn’t break that up.”

“So, because I made a mistake when I was young, I should suffer the rest of my life?  He should suffer?”

“There are other people to consider now.”

“Lots of people get divorced who have children, and they get on with their lives.”

“But Kelly is happily married.  There is no reason for a divorce.”

“He will be happily divorced then.”

“Oh, Asa, how can you be so selfish?  Really.  This is not a game.”

“I’ve done nothing but sacrifice my whole life.  I had a career, but that was taken from me.  I did the right thing, but got hammered for it.  Now I want what I want.  I’m tired of being left empty-handed.”

“If you force Kelly to forsake his family, he will eventually resent you.  After the thrill of being with you wears off, he will feel guilty and go home.  You will be

heartbroken and alone.  This is not right for either of you.  No happiness will come from this.”

“What about your affair with Jake?  He was married,” retorted Asa.

“That was not the same thing at all.  Jake didn’t know he was still married.  He thought he was divorced, and Miss Know-It-All, his wife had been cheating on him.  He wanted his divorce.”

I was getting angry because hearing Jake’s name made me sad.  “Don’t bring up Jake.  You don’t know what you’re talking about, but look at what happened.  As soon as his wife got sick, he ran home.  Both Jake and Kelly are honorable men, and they will do the honorable thing in the long run.”

“I’ll take my chances,” spat out Asa.

She could be such a little cuss.  “You’re so stubborn.”

“But you still love me?”

“Just because I love you doesn’t mean I have to approve of your behavior.  I’m very sorry to say this, but you’re acting just like your father,” I accused.

I could see that made Asa blanch.

“That’s not fair, Mother.”

“It’s accurate.  You watch Kelly with his family.  See if I’m not right.  He loves his wife.  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  I know that you are the love of his life, but he still loves his wife and his children.  They are his life now, Asa.”

“Ah, crap.  Why does everything have to be so complicated?”

“My advice to you is to clean up this relationship with Kelly.  Give it an ending.  Tell him that you’ll always love him, but that nothing can come of it.”

“I’ll think on it.”

“You do that.”

“By the way, he’s coming over for dinner.”

“Oh, for goodness sake, Asa.”

“He doesn’t know that I told you about our relationship.  As far as you know, he’s just a friend coming over to see us both.”

“Asa, you really take the cake.”

My daughter gave me a willful grin. “You can pump him for information about Dwight Wheelwright.”

“Okay, but no hanky-panky.  I have to look his wife in the face.”

“I promise.”

“You’ll study on what I said?” I begged.

“I’ll bend my mind around it.”

“Ain’t fittin’.  Ain’t fittin’.”

I knew that my beautiful daughter was playing with matches and she was going to set herself on fire.

 

3

I served poached Cumberland River rainbow trout on a bed of polenta, with side dishes of wilted spinach flavored with bacon grease, and honey-glazed carrots.  Dessert was a homemade cheesecake prepared with Kentucky-made soft goat cheese with a drizzling of pureed raspberries.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had one of your home-cooked meals, Josiah,” commented Officer Kelly.

“Thank you.  Asa helped me, as I can’t stand for long periods of time.”

“Well, you both did a tremendous job.  I’m really enjoying eating this.  We usually don’t have time to cook a really good meal with the kids and all.  It’s just ‘get something hot on the table that the boys will eat.’  You know how it is when you’re busy.”

“Too bad your family is not here to join us,” I said.

Asa shot me a dirty look.

“The wife took the boys to her parents for the holidays, since I had to work.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I replied, thinking Kelly had just told me a big whopper.  “So that means you’ll be alone for Thanksgiving?”

“I’m sorry to say I will be,” Kelly gave me a big grin, “unless you give me sanctuary.”

“I will always have food and a roof for my good friend and the savior of that mangy mutt who has buried his snout in your lap.”

Kelly gave a loud hoot while rubbing Baby’s ears.

Baby responded by swallowing a large amount of saliva as he looked up adoringly at Kelly.

Asa advised, “You can push him away.  He just wants something to fall from your plate.”

“That’s not it.  Baby knows that Kelly saved him and is giving him much deserved doggy love.”

“I don’t mind, Asa,” assured Kelly.  “I love the attention.   We’re old buddies, aren’t we, Baby?”

Baby swallowed again, and flicked his nose with his long raspy wet tongue before licking Kelly’s hands.

“Ooooh, Mother, see what Baby’s done.  He’s got drool all over Kelly.”

“Asa, it’s okay,” repeated Kelly, grinning.  “Really.”

I kind of got the idea that Kelly loved the ruckus centering on him as I rose to get a wet dish towel.

Breaking his concentration on Kelly, Baby followed me into the kitchen and then back again to the table–a two-hundred-pound shadow thudding behind me.

“Here you go, Kelly,” I said, handing him the wet cloth.  “Baby, leave Kelly alone.  He’s trying to eat.”

Asa opened the patio door and pushed Baby out.

We were finally able to enjoy our food in peace.

“Kelly, the rainbow trout was caught by Dwight Wheelwright.  He always gives me about six to a dozen trout when he goes on his fishing trips.  He takes several a year.  I guess I should say ‘gave’ instead of ‘gives’.  Any break in the case?”

Kelly took a bite of his cheesecake before committing himself.  “It’s the darndest case I’ve ever worked on.  We can’t come to any conclusion.  Right now, it’s a cold case, as we have nothing to decide whether his disappearance was foul play, an accident, or that Dwight just walked away.”

“You don’t think he left town without saying a word to anyone.  That doesn’t seem like Dwight to leave his family high and dry.”

Asa spoke up.  “People do walk away from their lives all the time.”

“Was something going on in Dwight’s life that would make him just up and leave?”

Kelly shook his head.  “We talked to dozens of people–friends, relatives and no one had a bad word to say about Dwight.  Hard working.  Loyal family man.  Good to his mother.

“We couldn’t find any evidence of gambling, bad debts, women, drinking–nothing.  Dwight was as clean as they come.  I think the most trouble he got into was several speeding tickets.  He liked to put the pedal to the metal.”

“Ginny told me that Dwight always goes to the Falls for a fishing trip right before his birthday.  This year it was going to be special as the moonbow at Cumberland Falls was going to be visible while he was staying at Dupont Lodge,” I related.

“Ever since Dwight was in high school, he always went trout fishing around his birthday.  He used to go with his dad, but since his dad’s passing, Dwight went by himself,” related Kelly.

“The funny thing is that I ran into Dwight at a filling station several weeks before he disappeared.  He told me that everything was great.  His business was doing fine,” Kelly continued.

“Did he mention the fishing trip?” asked Asa.

“Yep.  Said he was going around the first and would be back before the third.  Said fishing trips were his time to reflect.  You know, get his head straight.”

“Did you notice anything odd about Dwight?” I inquired.

“No. Dwight was Dwight.  Happy.  Bright.  I never saw that guy down.  The whole thing’s a mess,” remarked Kelly.  “Asa, remember how much fun Dwight was in school?”

“Yes, he was a very pleasant boy.”

“So, he wasn’t in debt?  He had no vices that you know of?” I questioned.

Kelly took another bite of his cheesecake before confiding, “His wife, Selena, said he left early on the morning of the first to go fishing.  He was to be back on the night of the third.  She was planning a birthday party for him.”

I nodded in agreement.  “Yes, I was invited.  We waited hours, but Dwight never showed.  Finally Ginny called the police to file a missing person’s report.”

“She called the Kentucky State Police and they called the local authorities.  They found Dwight’s truck at the Grove Marina on Laurel River Lake.  No signs of foul play.  The car was locked and his wallet was in the car’s glove compartment with his ID, credit cards, and two hundred dollars,” related Kelly.

“He had already checked out of the Dupont Lodge?” asked Asa, cutting another piece of cheesecake for Kelly.

“Yeah.  To me it looked like he checked out, but wanted to get in a few more hours of fishing before heading home.”

“I always thought he fished on the Cumberland River.  I’m confused,” I stated.

“The Cumberland River and Laurel River Lake are really a stone’s throw from each other, but I can see where Dwight might fish on the Cumberland one day and then try his luck on the lake the next,” answered Kelly, tracing a map on the table with his knife.

“Were fingerprints taken?” asked Asa while folding her napkin.

“The truck was processed, but only fingerprints of Dwight and Selena were found.”

Asa interrupted, “I take it the lake was dragged.”

“Don’t know.  The lake’s awfully deep.  I know they had scuba divers.”

I thought for a moment.  “Was the Falls’ pool checked?  I was thinking that perhaps he changed his mind and fished on the Cumberland River . . . fell and

then was swept away by the current going over the Falls.”

“An entire stretch of the Cumberland River down to the Cumberland Falls was searched, including the Falls’ pool in case he had changed his location, but we are talking about two separate water systems.  They found no sign of him in the Cumberland River, Laurel River or Laurel Lake,” related Kelly.

“But his cap was found six weeks ago in the lake,” I interjected.

“But that is the weird part, Josiah.  The cap was his to be sure, but it didn’t look like it had been in the water for months.  There was no discoloration.  No mold.  It looked almost new, just wet.  Some fisherman found it in the water where the lake had been searched weeks earlier.”

“Do you think it was a plant?”

“Could be.”

“So you privately think it was foul play?”

“I knew Dwight.  You knew Dwight.  Did he seem like the kind of person to leave his widowed mother, his wife, and baby girl?  Not this guy.”

“Yes, I’ve known Dwight since he was very little.  I don’t think he left of his own accord,” I agreed.  “I’ll tell you another thing that bothers me is Selena’s behavior.  It’s like she’s not even grieving.”

Asa asked, “What do you mean, Mom?”

“It wasn’t but a few weeks after they found Dwight’s hat that she wants to have a memorial for him.  It would seem to me that a distraught wife would hold out for a few more months before declaring her beloved husband dead.”

Asa countered, “Maybe he wasn’t so beloved.”

“I was thinking the same,” I replied.  “Have the police looked into Selena?”

“I’m not supposed to tell you this,” divulged Kelly, “but Dwight had a half million dollar life insurance policy.”

“The wife did it,” declared Asa.  She reared back in her chair with a smug smile on her face.

Kelly shook his head.  “That’s where this gets creepy.  The beneficiaries are Dwight’s mother and his daughter.  His wife was not included at all.”

“That’s odd,” I responded, watching Asa pour some port into glasses.  “What does his will say?”

“There is no will.  I guess Dwight thought he had plenty of time to draw up one.”

“If he was far-thinking enough to buy life insurance, why didn’t he have a will?  It doesn’t make sense.”  Now

that I had Kelly in a talkative mood, I was going to squeeze every ounce of information out of him that I could.  Yeah, I know I was taking advantage of his kind nature, but I had promised Ginny so I had to make good.

“Not having his wife’s name on the life insurance policy tells me that their marriage might have had problems.  That’s just not normal for Dwight not to include her,” professed Asa.

“That’s what we thought,” revealed Kelly, “but she’s clean as a whistle.  No one has a bad thing to say against her, except for Ginny Wheelwright.”

“That doesn’t mean there weren’t issues.  It just means Dwight and Selena kept their business at home,” I stated.

I was suddenly tired.  The thought of Dwight missing overwhelmed me.  I was tired of death.  I was tired of seeing good people get the shaft.  It made me afraid.  It made me angry.

Kelly and Asa began clearing the table as I lumbered off to bed, but not before I let Baby in.  He was miffed that he had been put outside earlier.

“Baby, don’t be mad,” I whispered.  “I’ve got treats in the bedroom for you.”

Baby’s ears perked up at the mention of the word “treats.”

Suddenly a thought flashed in my mind and then fizzled out like a burned match.  It was something important about Dwight.   Realizing that I knew an important fact about Dwight, I tried, but couldn’t pull it up from the depths of my subconscious.

It must have been something that I had seen or heard, but what was it?

I could only hope that it would emerge on its own.

Perhaps it would be enough to set things right.

I could hope, couldn’t I?