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JoAnna Carl is the pseudonym of a multipublished mystery writer. She spent more than twenty-five years in the newspaper business, working 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 spends much of her summer at a cottage on Lake Michigan near several communities similar to the fictional town of Warner Pier.
“I’m sick and tired of killing this stupid inspirational junk,” I said. “If Julie Singletree doesn’t stop sending it, I’m going to kill her, as well as her messages.”
I’d been talking to myself, but when I raised my eyes from the computer screen, I realized I was also snarling at Aunt Nettie. She had nothing to do with the e-mail that had been driving me crazy, but she had innocently walked into my office, making herself a handy target for a glare.
Aunt Nettie smiled placidly; she’d understood that I was mad about my e-mail, not her. “Are you talking about that silly girl who’s trying to be a party planner?”
“Yes. I know she got us that big order for the chocolate mice, but I’m beginning to think the business she could throw our way can’t be worth the nausea brought on by these daily does of Victorian sentiment.”
Aunt Nettie settled her solid Dutch figure into a chair and adjusted the white food-service hairnet that covered her hair – blond, streaked with gray. I don’t know how she works with chocolate all day and keeps her white tunic and pants so sparkling clean.
“Victorian sentiment isn’t your style, Lee,” she said.
“Julie is sending six of us half a dozen messages every day, and I am not interested in her childish view of life. She alternates between ain’t-life-grand and ain’t-life-a-bitch, but both versions are coated with silly sugar. She never has anything clever or witty. Just dumb.”
“Why haven’t you asked to be taken off her lists?”
I sighed and reached into my top desk drawer to raid my stash for a Bailey’s Irish Cream bonbon (“Classic cream liqueur interior in a dark chocolate”). I’d worked for TenHuis Chocolade for more than two years, but I wasn’t at all tired of our products, described on our stationary as “Handmade chocolates in the Dutch tradition.” When you’re hassled by minor annoyances, such as e-mail, nothing soothes the troubled mind like a dose of chocolate.
Aunt Nettie was waiting for an answer, and I was hard put to find one. “I suppose I kept thinking if I didn’t respond she’d simply drop me from the her jokes and junk list.” I said.
“You didn’t even want to tell her you don’t want to receive any more spam?”
“Oh, it’s not spam. She’s made up a little list of us – it’s all west Michigan people connected with the fine foods and parties trade. Lindy’s on it, thanks to her new job in catering. There’s Jason Foster – you know, he’s got the contract for the new restaurant at Warner Point. There’s Carolyn Rose, at House of Roses – she carries a line of gourmet items. Margaret Van Myer from Holland – the cake decorating gal. And the Denhams, at Hideaway Inn. We’re all on the list. And since we all deal with fancy foods, Julie has named us the “Seventh Major Food Group.” You know – grains, dairy, vegetables, fruit, meat, fats, and party food.”
“It is a funny name.”
“It’s the only witty idea Julie ever had.” I gestured toward the screen. “This message is typical. ‘A Prayer for the Working Woman.’ I haven’t read it, but I already know what it says.”
“What?” Aunt Nettie smiled. “Since I’ve worked all my life, I might benefit from a little prayer.”
“I can make you a printout, if you can stand the grossly lush roses Julie uses as a border.” I punched the appropriate keys as I talked. “I predict it will be about how downtrodden women are today because most of us work.”
“Since I own my own business, I guess I’m one of the downtrodders, not the downtrodden.”
“Exactly!” I spoke before I thought, but luckily my reaction bemused Aunt Nettie. We both laughed. Then I began to backpedal. “You’re a dream to work for, Aunt Nettie. You’re definitely not a downtrodder. And you’re not downtrodden, because you enjoy your job. But Julie can’t seem to make up her mind. If she isn’t sending stuff claiming today’s women are put-upon because we have to work, she’s sending stuff saying we don’t get a chance at the good jobs. I can understand both views, but she wraps them up in enough syrup to make a hundred maple cream truffles.
“You’ll have to assert yourself, Lee. Tell her you don’t like her e-mails.”
I sighed. “About the time I tell her that, she’ll actually land a big wedding, and the bride will want enough bonbons and truffles for four hundred people, and we’ll lose out on a couple of thousand dollars in business. Or Schrader Laboratories will plan another banquet and want an additional three hundred souvenir boxes of mice.”
I gestured toward the decorated gift box on the corner of my desk. Aunt Nettie had shipped of the order to weeks before, but I’d saved one as a sample. The box contained a dozen one-inch chocolate mice – six replicas of the laboratory mice in white chocolate and six tiny versions of a computer mouse, half in milk chocolate and half in dark.
Schrader Laboratories is a Grand Rapids firm that does product testing – sometimes using laboratory mice and sometimes computers. A special item like the souvenir made for their annual dinner means risk-free profit for TenHuis Chocolade; we know they’re sold before we order the boxes they’ll be packed in.
“That was a nice bit of business Julie threw our way, even if she did get the order from a relative,” I said. “I can put up with a certain amount of gooey sentiment for that amount of money.”
“It might be cheaper to give it up than to hire a psychiatrist. You’ve got plenty to do. Tell Julie your mean old boss has cracked down on the nonbusiness e-mail.”
Aunt Nettie smiled her usual sweet smile. “And I really am going to add to your chores. We need Amaretto.”
“I’ll get some on my way home.”
Amaretto is used to flavor a truffle that is extremely popular with TenHuis Chocolade customers. Our product list describes it as “Milk chocolate interior flavored with almond liqueur and coated in white chocolate.” The truffle is decorated with three milk chocolate stripes, but its mainly white color makes it an ideal accent for boxes of Valentine candy and at that moment we were just four weeks away from Valentine’s Day. I knew Aunt Nettie and the twenty-five ladies who actually make TenHuis chocolates had been using a lot of Amaretto as they got ready for the major chocolate holiday. But liqueurs go a long way when used only for flavoring; one bottle would probably see us through the rush.
I handed Aunt Nettie the printout of Julie’s dumb e-mail – all ten pages of it. Julie never cleans the previous messages off the bottom of e-mails she forwards or replies to. Then Aunt Nettie went back to her antiseptically clean workroom.
I wrote “Amaretto” on a Post-it and stuck the note to the side of my handbag before I turned back to my computer. I manipulated my mouse until the arrow was on REPLY ALL and clicked it. Then I stared at the screen, trying to figure our how to be tactful and still stop Julie’s daily drivel.
Dear Seventh Major Food Group,” I typed. Maybe Julie wouldn’t feel that I’d singled her out. “This is one of the busiest seasons for the chocolate business, and my aunt and I have decided that we simply have to crack down nonbusiness e-mail, so I spend a lot of time clearing it. As great as the jokes and inspirational material that we exchange on this list can be,” I lied, “I just can’t justify the time I spend reading them. So please drop me from the joke/inspiration list. But please continue to include me in the business tips!”
I sent the message to the whole list, feeling smug. I was genuinely hopeful that I’d managed to drop the cornball philosophy without dropping some valuable business associates along with it.
I wasn’t prepared the next day when I got a call from Lindy Herrera, my best friend and manager for Hererra Catering.
“Lee!” Lindy sounded frantic. “Have you had the television on?”
“I was watching the news on the Grand Rapids station. Oh, Lee, it’s awful!”
“It’s Julie Singletree! She’s been murdered!”