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The Case of the Caramelized Corpse: A Halloween Mystery Short Story

IN THE October 26 ISSUE

FROM THE 2019 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andTerrific Tales
SECTIONS

by Cindy Sample

Copyright 2013 by Cindy Sample. Second Digital Edition, 2016, Cindy Sample Books. Cover Art by Karen Phillips
First Digital & Trade Paperback Editions: The Best of Capitol Crimes Anthology 2013.

“Caramel apples are my favorite,” Shelly said to her partner. “The thicker the caramel, the better.”

“Yep, when I think of autumn, I think of food – apple cider, apple donuts and candy apples.” Buck patted his khaki-clad belly. His shirt, which looked ready to burst a button or two, demonstrated his love of Apple Hill delights. Buck stepped back and snapped a few more photos. “And Halloween ghosts and goblins, of course.”pie

Shelly stared at the body of Hans Alder, the now deceased owner of Happy Apple Farm, who lay in the dry streambed at the bottom of a grassy knoll. “I doubt if a ghost or goblin did this.”

Buck shot one more picture of the corpse. The caramel-coated corpse. “Probably not. Whoever killed Hans was one angry dude.”

“Or dudette.” Shelly brushed aside some dried leaves from the body with gloved fingers. She pinched a long strand of blonde hair off the corpse and stuck it in an evidence bag. The hair was barely noticeable against the shiny, sticky and sickeningly sweet body of the victim. It didn’t come from Shelly’s dark braid, their bald victim or the creature that had discovered the body.

Was the killer trying to make a saccharine point?

Detective Tom Hunter walked up behind Shelly, echoing her thoughts. “Any chance this was an accident?”

Shelly narrowed her hazel eyes at her boss, the head of the homicide division for the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office. “Let’s see. We have a guy covered from head to toe in hot caramel whose body was dumped outside.”

All three officers stared at the dead man. “Nah,” they said in unison.

“Whoever it was sure had a grudge against him,” muttered Detective Hunter. “I wonder how long he’d have been hidden if that bear hadn’t been looking for breakfast.”

Shelly eyed the long streaks on the body where the bear had licked caramel off. “Good thing he didn’t gnaw off any evidence.”

“Yeah, I hate searching for body parts.” Hunter shoved his hands in the pockets of his leather bomber jacket. “How did he end up in the creek bed?”

“The kitchen up there is where they make the apples.” Shelly pointed to a yellow building at the top of the hill. “I suppose he could have been ‘glazed’ then shoved down the hill.”

“Any suspects?” Hunter asked.

“A few. All his co-workers on the morning shift. Two busloads of school kids, a group of Red Hat ladies and several hundred visitors,” Buck said. “The reason we were originally called was that black bear appeared and scared the dickens out of the tourists. When Randy arrived to track the bear’s whereabouts, he discovered the body.”

Randy, a new deputy with the Sheriff’s Office, slumped on a wooden bench thirty yards away. His face matched the color of the green lawn surrounding the picnic area. Shelly could commiserate. Despite her ten years with the department, she was starting to feel nauseous herself.

This murder was going to put her off carbs for a good twenty-four hours.

Evidently Buck didn’t face the same dilemma. His stomach roared louder than the tractor driving down the road. He threw Shelly a sheepish grin. “Sorry, I skipped breakfast. Can you get me one of those apple dumplings when you go back to the apple barn?”

Shelly rolled her eyes at him then climbed up the hill to meet the lab guys. Dark storm clouds covered the sky. She shivered, feeling the chill in the air through her uniform shirt. Two days ago it had been eighty degrees and bright blue skies. Today the sky looked ready to dump a foot of snow all over the crime scene.

A cold day. And a cold-blooded murderer.

The crime scene techs arrived and she ushered them to the body. “You better hurry up, guys, he’s starting to harden.”

The younger of the two looked confused. “You mean the caramel coating?”

When would they stop hiring recruits right out of school? “No. Rigor mortis. Do your job so we can get him out of here.”

His partner sniggered, “Well, at least, he doesn’t have a stick up his…”

Rookies!

It was time for her to interview witnesses and potential suspects. Shelly could probably rule out the busloads of children, although kids were exposed to so much television violence these days, they might see caramel coating as a terrific prank.

red hatIt was highly unlikely the Red Hat ladies were guilty of anything more severe than a crime of fashion. She winced as her gaze landed on one woman dressed in a sequined purple tee shirt and matching capris. A red straw hat larger than Shelly’s turkey platter perched on her short silver hair. A few aisles over, a tall woman dressed in a puffy purple parka and red hat replete with veil, perused the specialty jams and jellies.

Talk about scary.

Her first thought was to determine whether anyone wore clothes marred with sticky caramel. After strolling through the rustic apple barn, Shelly decided almost every visitor’s face, hands and apparel bore traces of caramel.

Yellow crime scene tape barricaded the employees from the bakery. The kitchen staff sat around a rectangular wooden table in the rear of the main dining room. All wore matching black polo shirts with the Happy Apple logo, a large red apple engraved with a smiley face. Despite the cheery logo, there was nary a smiley face to be found among the five women seated at the table. Their conversation quieted as she approached.

“Hello, ladies,” she said. “I’ll be interviewing each of you individually. Is there a private area where we can meet?”

One woman spoke up. “We can use the office. Or the cider barn?”

“The office is sealed off. The cider barn it is.”

Shelly spent the next hour interviewing the staff. The women all looked terrified, but she couldn’t tell if they were worried about losing their jobs or losing their boss. None of the ladies shed a single tear during the interview. They only wanted to know when they could go back to work.

Darlene Taylor, a mature woman who wore sensible shoes and her long gray hair in a sensible bun, ran the kitchen. She’d worked at the farm for five years but had only been promoted to manager two months earlier. Shelly saved her questioning for last.

Darlene gave Shelly a tour of the back room where the staff coated and decorated the apples. Enormous kettles of hot golden caramel simmered over large propane burners. Huge plastic bins containing rainbow-covered sprinkles, chocolate and toffee chips, and assorted nuts lined the shelves. The staff had been fingerprinted, and the kitchen area dusted and investigated by the crime scene guys, but Shelly wanted to get a better feel for the operation.

“Who has access to this area besides the staff,” Shelly asked.

Darlene pointed to the door in the back. “That’s open all day but locked at night.”

“Was it locked when you arrived this morning?”

Darlene face grew paler than the container of powdered sugar next to her. “No, but that wasn’t unusual. Hans was normally the first to arrive. He would check his emails then make the rounds of the cider barn and shops. Hans loved inventing new candy apple combinations, so it wasn’t uncommon for him to fire up the burners and heat up a fresh batch of caramel before the staff arrived.”

“Can you think of anyone who’d want to kill him?”

Darlene hesitated before she nodded. A half hour later, Shelly realized it wasn’t a question of who wanted Hans dead. Finding someone who didn’t want him dead was more of an issue.

Happy Apple Farm’s location at a three thousand foot elevation in the Apple Hill area of Camino, approximately fifty miles east of Sacramento, provided the perfect conditions for growing apples, pears and a variety of grapes. In the mid-1960s, Hans’s father had turned the family orchard into a pie-making business. Eventually tourists from Sacramento and the Bay area discovered the autumnal beauty of the area. leaves

After his father died, Hans expanded the farm into the largest commercial enterprise in the area. His staff baked pies, cakes, cobblers, dumplings, and donuts. They produced every type of caramel, cinnamon or chocolate-covered apple a person could desire. A variety of gift shops and a winery were added a few years later.

Rumors abounded about the victim’s cutthroat nature. When two of the farms next to Happy Apple couldn’t make the payments on their mortgages, Hans offered to help them out by buying the paper from the bank. Then he promptly foreclosed on his neighbors, adding to his land holdings.

A winery across the street that produced award-winning wines accused Hans of sabotaging their crop of zinfandel grapes in September.wine

Hans fired Darlene’s predecessor in August.

He was in the middle of a hotly contested divorce.

Shelly was up to her need-to-be-tweezed eyebrows in suspects. But was the murder premeditated or a spontaneous act of passion? Motive was one thing. Opportunity another.

Unfortunately, based on Darlene’s comments, anyone could have entered the building. The staff was familiar with Hans’s morning routine. The victim was only five foot five, so it wouldn’t have been difficult to drag him out the door and shove him down the hill. As the body picked up momentum, leaves had affixed themselves to the sticky substance. By the time Hans landed in the dry creek bed, he’d become camouflaged from sight.

But not from smell. Smokey the Bear had no problem following the sickeningly sweet scent.

Buck joined her in the picnic area as she examined her notes. Marshmallow flecks dotted his sandy moustache as he shared a sticky smile.

“What have you discovered?” Shelly asked.

“They got the best caramellows here.” He licked his fingers. “That dumpling was mighty fine too.”

Sigh. She could tell it would be a long day.

“Did you interview the guys in the cider barn?”

Buck pulled out a steno pad from his shirt pocket. “Yep, they got a staff of five guys who work different shifts, two to three men during the week, more on the weekends if necessary. You should see this old timey machine they got.” Buck snapped his fingers. “It peels, cores and slices the apples just like that.”

“Any of them with a motive? Did they all alibi out?”

“The three guys working today were in and out all morning. If they’re caught up with slicing apples for the pies and making the cider, they sometimes help in other areas. This place is a regular beehive of activity in late October.”

“Great,” she sighed. “They all had opportunity.”

He shrugged. “Yeah, but no motive as far as I can tell. It’s kind of weird though. It’s not like folks is jumping up and down for joy, but I sure didn’t get the impression the employees were going to miss old Hans.”

It was beginning to look like Happy Apple Farm wasn’t the happiest place in town.

“Did anyone notice anything suspicious around the farm earlier this morning? Any cars or trucks that didn’t belong to staff members?” Shelly could feel the anxiety that accompanied each new case, ooze into her pores. Far too many people had tromped all over the crime scene.

Some days she wished she still styled hair for a living. Screwing up someone’s haircut might result in the loss of a client. Screwing up a murder investigation meant a killer remained on the loose.

That reminded her of the blond strand of hair she had picked off the victim and dropped off with the crime scene guys. Hunter might want the DNA checked, although the state was so far behind in DNA testing, it could be Easter before they got the results.

Randy joined Shelly and Buck. “Can we let these folks go home? I took everyone’s name, address and phone number. The little kids are getting antsy. And those Red Hat ladies. Geez. That old bat…,” He stopped as Shelly eyeballed him. “I mean the lady in charge. She said this delay has put them off their schedule.”

“Yeah, murder can do that,” Shelly replied. She wondered if the women were members of a local group. Her mother went on outings such as this with her own Red Hat club each month. Shelly had dubbed them the Mad Hatters. She still wasn’t sure why turning fifty made it okay for women to dress and act outrageously. Maybe it was a hormonal thing. Her mother claimed living in an estrogen-free zone made for non-stop happiness.

Of course, Mom didn’t chase killers for a living.

Hunter walked up to confer with them. “They’re taking the body to the morgue. Where are we at?”

Shelly led them over to a picnic table so they could update their boss. The sun peeked from behind the clouds, burnishing the red and golden leaves of the maples and Chinese pistache trees. She hoped the sun’s rays were a positive sign because so far this case was getting colder by the minute.

Hunter eased his six-foot-three frame on to the bench on one side of the wooden table. Shelly and Buck sat across from him. Randy left to deal with the release of the farm visitors.

“From the information Buck and I gathered from the staff, no one saw anything suspicious by a fellow employee or an outsider. Hans isn’t the most popular guy in town though. Done a lot of nasty things to his neighbors.”

Buck jumped in. “When the previous manager was fired she threatened Hans. Maybe she caramelized her old boss.”

“You’ve got your work cut out for you,” Hunter said. “You need to interview them today if possible.”

Swell. Shelly looked at her boss. “What should I do with the Happy Apple staff? Tell them to go home?”

Hunter drummed his fingers on the table. “Who owns the farm in the event of Hans’s death? You haven’t mentioned any heirs. This place must be worth a good chunk of change.”

“I’m not completely clear on that. Darlene thought Hans about-to-be ex was still half owner, which is the reason their divorce has dragged on so long. They couldn’t come to a financial agreement.”

Hunter frowned. “Why didn’t you include her as a suspect?”

“She’s been in Seattle the last two days. I’ve already verified that she’s flying home tonight. Hard to kill someone long distance.”

Her boss snorted. “Given the way technology is changing, pretty soon you’ll be able to hire a virtual assassin straight from Amazon.”

Buck hooted. “I’m glad I’ll be retired by then. There’s nothing beats old-fashioned legwork. Which reminds me, I should stock up on some old-fashioned snacks before we take off to interview them other suspects.” He unfurled his long legs and loped up the hill toward the bakery.

Shelly threw her arms up in frustration and her notepad flew into the air. Her boss laughed, handed her pad back to her and told her to get a move on it. She watched Tom Hunter as he strode off, cell phone glued to his ear. He was tall, with a great build and a natural grace of movement. She wondered if there was any truth to the rumor he was dating that soccer mom who was involved in a murder investigation a while back.

Good men were hard to find. And even harder to keep. Once she disclosed that she worked homicide, Shelly rarely got asked out on a second date. At this rate, she would never have a hot date again.

The only men in her life would be cold and stiff.

And residents of the morgue.

Shelly reviewed her notes to make sure she didn’t forget anything while she was still at the scene. Her tenacity and attention to detail were one of the reasons the sheriff had promoted her. At thirty-two, she was the youngest detective on the force.

Car engines rumbled as families began driving away. Most folks were leaving empty-handed, although a few held white paper bags filled with goodies they’d purchased earlier. The visitors ranged from tiny infants tucked into their snuggly carriers to elderly couples hobbling on canes and walkers. The Red Hatters stood out from the crowd like a flock of cardinals surrounded by an army of wrens. Two of the six women were climbing into the back seat of a large black SUV. One tried entering without removing her platter-sized hat. It bounced off her head, but she quickly retrieved the Frisbee-shaped object from the ground.

Eventually the women and their oversized hats made it into the large vehicle and they drove off. The minute they disappeared, Shelly realized she should have inquired where they purchased their hats. A new red hat would be the perfect gift for her mother’s birthday tomorrow.

Shelly went back to reviewing Randy’s notes about the visitors, their addresses and any observations. He’d categorized families and other small groups together. All six Red Hatters were listed with their names and phone numbers. She could always call them regarding their elaborate chapeaux.

Her partner joined her, an enormous paper bag clutched to his chest.

“Buck, where are you getting all this food?”

He shuffled his feet. “Darlene felt sorry for me and made me a goody bag. They had tons of stuff left over once we shut down the cash registers. She told me a little sugar never hurt no one.”

Not exactly true. An excess of hot caramelized sugar had seared their victim to death. Shelly had to admit a carb infusion might energize her brain cells. Buck offered his bag and she peeked inside. One donut wouldn’t kill her.
Shelly bit into the apple-filled pastry. Yum. This apple farm really was a gold mine. Hans’s ex-wife could luck out with him out of the picture. How often was an ex-spouse murdered before a contested divorce was finalized?donut

The donut dropped out of her hand and on to the ground as she puzzled over the question. How often did a murder benefit the spouse?

Frequently. But Dina Alder had a bullet-proof alibi. She was in Seattle when the killing occurred. Shelly mulled over Tom Hunter’s comment about hiring a virtual assassin via the internet. Could the woman have paid someone to do her dirty work? And what precipitated the divorce in the first place?

Shelly picked up the dirt-covered donut, dumped it in a garbage can then returned to the apple barn. Darlene already had her pea coat on and her purse slung over her shoulder.

“Thanks so much for your help today, Darlene. I have one more question if you don’t mind?”

“Of course.”

“Do you know why the Alders were getting a divorce?”

The manager pursed her lips. “I hate to spread any rumors.”

“Spread away. There is no such thing as a rumor when a murder needs to be solved.”

“Okay. Dina Alder took up with a much younger guy. A musician. When Hans first accused her of having an affair, she said she was only trying to help him get discovered.” Darlene folded her arms together. “I can just imagine that discovery process.”

“What’s his name? Can you describe him?”

“Not sure of his name. Michael something or other. It was kind of hi-falutin’. He’s tall, slender, with longish blond hair.”

Shelly wrote quickly in her shorthand fashion. The phrase, hi-falutin’ name, wasn’t particularly helpful but his description could be. Who would know his name?

Shelly thanked Darlene then walked toward the parking lot. She and Buck had a long day and night ahead of them. Most of the visitors had dispersed by now. The few stragglers were probably getting a kick out of being involved in a murder investigation.

CSI comes to Happy Apple Farm.

Shelly noticed the tall woman she’d seen earlier walking toward the parking lot. The one dressed in the ugly purple parka and red veiled hat. Her mother would love that hat. Very Mata Hari.

Shelly headed toward the woman to inquire where she purchased her hat. Then her jaw dropped as she did a head count. There was a seventh member of the Red Hat group here today?

Shelly paused and grabbed her notebook, scrolling through the list of interviewees. Buck had listed six Red Hat ladies, not seven. Was this one a lone red hatter?

That would be odd. Mad Hatters always traveled in a pack. And they normally drove sedans and SUV’s. Not white Toyota pickups with bumper stickers that said Make it with a Musician.

The woman backed out of her parking space then shifted into drive. Shelly’s heart raced faster than the truck engine as she pumped her legs forward. She needed one last glimpse of the woman before she disappeared.red hat

From thirty feet away, her eyes met the dark gaze of the driver. His long blond hair curled over the collar of his parka. Shelly reached for her gun then realized there were too many people in the vicinity. It would be crazy to attempt to shoot out his tire. She would never forgive herself if she accidentally hurt an innocent bystander.
Instead Shelly reached into her pocket and shot him with something else.

“Nice work, partner.” Buck walked into the sheriff’s office gnawing on a Golden Delicious apple surrounded by thick caramel. One of the many treats Darlene had packed for him.

Sometimes Shelly wished she were a foot taller so she could inhale food like Buck did and not gain a pound. Although after today’s events, she could go the rest of her life without ever eating another caramel apple.

She smiled at Buck. “Not often we can solve a murder in less than twenty-four hours.”

“Smart move using your phone to shoot a photo of the murderer’s license plate.”

“We’re lucky he was one of those lurker killers,” Shelly said. “He couldn’t resist watching the aftermath of his crime.”

“They came up with a clever concept. No one would suspect a Red Hat lady. Despite their crazy outfits, they sort of blend into the surroundings. How did he know there would be a group there today?”

“Dina Alder knows one of the members. She’s the one who suggested they visit today. Originally she told the group she would give them a special tour. Then she arranged the last-minute trip to Seattle as her alibi.”

“Not a bad plan. They might have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you.”

“Thanks. I’m going to print out my report and head home. It’s my mother’s birthday tomorrow and we’re going to spend the day together.”

“Have fun.” Buck strolled out the door crunching on his apple.

Shelly’s cell rang and she grabbed it. “Hi Mom. Looking forward to your birthday tomorrow?”

“Of course, dear. And I know where I want to go to celebrate.”

“It’s your special day. Whatever you want.”

Shelly pictured her mother’s warm smile as the older woman’s voice bubbled over the phone. “I can’t think of a happier place than Happy Apple Farm, can you?”

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories (including more Halloween ones) in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Be sure to check out our new mystery podcast too with mystery short stories, and first chapters read by local actors. The last 3 episodes include black cats and ghosts and are perfect for Halloween listening!

Opens to author website

Cindy Sample is a former corporate CEO who decided plotting murder was more entertaining than plodding through paperwork. Her national bestselling mystery series, described as Erma Bombeck meets Agatha Christie, features single soccer mom, Laurel McKay. The series is set in the California Gold Country. Cindy is a five-time finalist for the LEFTY Award for Best Humorous Mystery and a two-time finalist for the SILVER FALCHION award for best traditional mystery. Learn more on her website and Facebook page.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 KarenM October 27, 2019 at 2:21pm

Where do I find a caramel apple to celebrate this short story?

Reply

2 brenda
Twitter: @brendaperrott and wildeoscarcat
October 29, 2019 at 7:53pm

Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed it and will read it again.

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