An excerpt from our new novel, "Trouble's On the Menu: A Tippy Canoe Romp -- with Recipes!"

Trouble’s on the Menu: A Tippy Canoe Romp -- With Recipes!
Caleb Warnock & Betsy Schow

Chapter One
Hallie Stone’s foot held the brake pedal all the way to the floor well after the car skidded to a stop. Forcing herself out of the rented Yukon Denali, she fought her way through the biting snow to see what she’d just hit. Her designer heels slid on the slick road. A blast of Montana wind nearly sent her to her knees.
Maybe the blizzard was playing tricks on her eyes. Maybe it wasn’t a scooter she had seen, sliding towards the SUV. Maybe it had only been an animal. She’d been warned that moose roamed free up here, as numerous as stray cats. But the blur was too small for a moose and too large for a cat. The best she could hope for was a deer.
Please be Bambi. Please be Bambi.
The headlights showed something  sprawled on the snow-packed highway. Clutching her puffy jacket – the one practical thing she’d thought to bring from California to Montana – she stared down and saw…
A woman.
An expletive popped out of Hallie’s mouth -- worth at least a dollar to the swear jar back home.
The woman on the ground was making high pitched keening sounds. An awful grating noise, but at least that meant she wasn’t dead, whoever she was.
Thank all goodness..
Bracing in her snow-filled shoes, Hallie stepped toward the woman lying askew on the road. A crushed motor scooter straddled the woman’s leg.
“Are you okay?” Hallie blurted. The question was ridiculous.  
Fumbling with icy fingers, she tried to find her cell phone in her coat. She had to get help. A man sprinted out of the darkness and onto the road in the middle of her pushing the 9 and the 1.
Hallie wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or reach for her pepper spray.
“I’ve called Tug and Jim,” he said, kneeling by the injured woman. “Where are you hurt?”
The woman groaned. “My daughter. She's home.” She strained to speak. “Mayor, tell her... not to worry.”
“As soon as I get back to the house, I'll call her,” he said. “Don’t worry about a thing.”
Mayor? Hallie looked at the man who couldn’t be more than a few years older than herself. Very young to be mayor.
“I’m so sorry...” Hallie wanted to explain how wrong her whole day had been -- missed flight, lost luggage, this behemoth of a rental car that was so different from her sporty Mustang. But the cold was freezing her brain, making her thoughts sluggish and foggy. She wanted to jump back into the Denali and drive home to her Malibu art studio. Or at least back to the airport.
       Cutting through the void of the snowstorm, a siren’s wail announced the arrival of an ambulance. Slush sprayed all directions from approaching tires, soaking Hallie’s trousers. Seconds after the ambulance slid to a stop, two paramedics jumped out.
  “If I had a nickel for every idiot driver in the world,” spat the ambulance driver.
“Oh Tug,” the injured woman moaned weakly. “My leg.”
“Probably broken,”  the ambulance driver said gruffly. “Do I even need to ask what happened?”
"She ran me over!" the woman on the ground cried out with a burst of strength. "I could be dying. I think I see a bright light." She groaned dramatically.
Hallie probably turned a few shades whiter than the fresh powder.
“Naw, just the headlights on the snow,” the ambulance driver said  matter-of-factly. “Don’t worry, Andrea.  We’ll take care of you.”
The paramedics examined the woman and swiftly loaded her into the ambulance. As they drove down the lane, the swirling red lights danced away on the snowy drifts to music of the wailing siren.
Hallie was mesmerized by the light show and lost in her thoughts. On one hand she was really worried about the women’s health; on the other, she was really worried about her own. They didn’t throw people in jail for a car accident, right? Although, she was an outsider who had just squished someone’s mother.
I am in so much trouble.      
The mayor turned to Hallie. “Maybe you should jump back into your vehicle before you freeze yourself to death.”
“She ran into me,” Hallie blurted, going on the defensive. "It wasn't my fault.”
"I know," the mayor said calmly. "I saw what happened. “
“No, you don’t understand! I was going slowly, trying to find my hotel. I was afraid someone might hit me from behind, I was going so slow." Hallie worked to control the fine quiver in her voice. She was tired, overwhelmed, and pretty sure the wet pants were starting to freeze to her legs. “And... and...what kind of idiot drives a scooter in the middle of a snowstorm?” she said, throwing her hands up into the air and losing her footing.
        The mayor firmly grasped her arm to keep her from going down. "I’m sure it looked a lot worse than it actually was. Andrea's just shook up, that's all."
She’s not the only one, Hallie wanted to say, rubbing the spot on her forearm, warm from the man’s hand. But she decided not to say anything. She just wanted to find her hotel and get this day over with. She bent to examine the Denali. There was a dent in the bumper. A very little dent. “That’s it?” Still, the fist sized imprint would not make the rental car company happy.
       “This thing’s practically indestructible,” he said, running a hand along the front of the SUV. “Hitting a scooter with this is like chucking an apple at a concrete wall.” He paused and opened the door for her.
       Climbing into the vehicle, Hallie cranked the heat up to its highest setting, then reluctantly rolled down her window, allowing the cold to seep back in. “Are the police on their way? Do you think I should go to the station and make a statement?”
“There’s no one on duty tonight,” the mayor said. “We have two deputies out here, 30 hours a week. They mostly deal with warrants and cattle in the road. We’re
usually a quiet place -- not much trouble, and not much in the way of a city budget. We can’t afford to have deputies 24 hours a day.”
Hallie gave the man a quick once over. His smile seemed genuine. Not like the snake oil grin most politicians wore. Snowflakes began to gather on his eyelashes. He had to be cold. She considered inviting him into her car but then reminded herself that he was a stranger.
A good-looking stranger -- the most dangerous kind.
He offered his hand for her to shake. “My name is Marc Greathouse, and I’m the mayor here in Tippy Canoe. And you... you must be here to see our cave.”
  “Cave?” Hallie had no idea what he was talking about. Nor did she have the brain power to devote to figuring it out. She was still a little preoccupied with the thought of being charged with vehicular manslaughter. “That lady -- you must know her. The woman I, uh, collided with.”
       “You mean Andrea? She owns the weekly newspaper.
Everyone knows Andrea -- kind of our local celebrity. She’s even interviewed the governor a time or two.”
Owner of the local paper? Hallie drew a long breath. She’d been in her new “hometown” for less than 60 seconds before she ran over the town’s best-loved resident. And the mayor had witnessed the whole catastrophic incident.
Not the low-key introduction to this town she’d planned.
Hallie gave the mayor all her contact numbers, as well as her insurance information to pass along the proper channels. Even though he kept assuring her that everything would be alright, she was still worried. But at least she was no longer afraid of being hauled off to jail.
By the time she left and found the Hotel Speleo, snow was coming down in thick, wet flakes and the wind had died away. She parked and walked into a warm, upscale-rustic lobby with giant timber beams and cozy conversation nooks. A bright blaze in the fireplace cast a flickering light across the room.
Now that some of the shock and adrenaline had faded, Hallie was exhausted... and starving  “Do you have a room service menu?” she asked the check-in clerk after receiving her key. “I’d like to have something sent up to my room.”
“Sorry,” the clerk answered without bothering to look up. “This is the cave’s slow season. Room service isn’t available past 10 o’clock. About the only thing open in town is Plum’s Pantry.”
       The need for sustenance warred with the need to crawl under the covers. As usual, food won out. After a quick change of clothes, Hallie ventured out onto the wintery roads once more. Several blocks from the hotel, she found the restaurant snuggled in the tiny town’s main shopping district.
      Inside, there were no other customers. A whiteboard sign at the entrance over Plum’s Pantry said “Now Serving Our Seasonal, Fresh Winter Garden Menu.”
Hallie wondered suspiciously what a “seasonal, fresh winter garden” menu could possibly mean in this frozen, snowed-in berg. Snow Peas? Iceberg lettuce? She chuckled at her own lackluster attempt at levity. The cold and the late hour were definitely affecting the performance of her brain.
A hunched woman wearing an old-fashioned hair net and green visor slowly wiped tables and straightened condiments. No other employees were in sight. She looked sidelong at Hallie, appearing none-too-pleased to see a late-arriving customer. For several long minutes, she ignored Hallie, making an obvious display of readying the restaurant to close. Probably hoping the newcomer would get the message and go away.
       Approaching at last, the waitress asked in a flat voice, “What’ll you have?” Her name tag said “Barb.”
       Hallie smiled, hoping to thaw the woman’s cold exterior. “I’d like one egg over-hard, and buttered toast, please.” The impromptu order was something simple and fast -- good for both her and the waitress, who obviously wanted her shift to end. Hallie belatedly realized an egg wasn’t going to cut it.
After the all the food from the recent holiday, she’d been trying to eat lightly. However, given the kind of day she’d had, surely the Diet Gods would forgive her. “And a slice of the chocolate pie,” Hallie added, looking at the white board advertising the specials. “And I’ll start with the pie.”
       Barb brought her the plastic-wrapped dessert on a chilled white plate, and plopped down a fork next to it. Moving to a small grill set against the wall behind the counter, Barb cracked an egg with one hand.
       Hallie took a deep breath. The egg cracking reminded her of the accident. Now she couldn’t stop hearing the awful crunching sound the scooter had made.
Suddenly, she wasn’t quite so hungry. She forced herself to take a forkful of the pie anyways. It wasn’t bad, actually. Certainly well above standard greasy spoon fare. Her nerves settled more with each bite.
Chocolate has amazing restorative qualities.
To break the silence and keep her thoughts off of the accident, Hallie decided to focus on the business that had brought her to this half horse town..
“So, do you know where I could find Kobold’s Trading Company?” she asked the cook. When “Barb”  didn’t reply Hallie felt compelled to go on. “I ask because I’m Phineus Kobold’s…” She stopped mid-sentence, unable to say the word “wife”
Taking a deep breath, Hallie started again. “I’m in town to settle Finn Kobold’s estate. I guess he left me his shop – Kobold’s Trading Company. Since I’ll be here a week or two, I might get to know the menu here pretty well.”
She tried to sound cheerful despite the weariness settling into her muscles. After the flight from Los Angeles, the blizzardy drive from Bozeman airport to Tippy Canoe, the accident, and now this woman’s cold shoulder, Hallie was looking forward to crawling into bed. But for now she would settle for at least a friendly response.
       At the grill, Barb stopped and slowly turned toward Hallie. “You’re here about Finn?” Hesitation marked her voice.  
       Hallie nodded.
       “You’re a real estate agent?” she said with a pinched look. Clearly that would not be a good thing in the cook’s eyes.
       “No. I’m here… I’m his… We were… married. Many years ago.”
       Barb’s eyes widened. “A pillar of this town, that’s what Finn was. Too bad about his passing.”
       Hallie wasn’t sure how to respond to that. An uncomfortable emptiness filled the air. Apropos of nothing, she heard herself say, “This is my first trip to Montana."
       Turning back to the grill, the woman ignored her again.
“I've never driven in snow.” Hallie kept going, unable to leave the silence alone. She had a bad habit of rambling when she felt uneasy. “On my way into town just now, I’m afraid I was involved in a fender bender with one of the locals.”
       Now she had Barb’s full attention. “Who?”
       “Andrea, I think was the woman’s name. There was someone named Tug driving the ambulance, and he called her Andr-“
       “Tug took Andrea in the ambulance? Andrea Linford?”
       “She owns the weekly paper?”
       The woman gasped. “Is she hurt?
Did you hurt her?
       “Her leg was, er, broken.”
       Barb dropped the metal spatula in her hand. “Out,” she commanded, removing her apron and spinning the gas grill dial to off. “The restaurant is closed. I’ve got to find Megan and drive her to the hospital.”
Hallie sat motionless in stunned silence, so Barb started shooing her forcefully with the cast off apron. “Out! You have to leave, now!”
       The expression on Barb’s face left no mistake; any further conversation as well as the egg and toast were now out of the question. Hallie debated whether or not to swipe the pie she’d already begun eating. With a tired sigh, she gathered her purse and coat and walked out into the snow.
Great. In the two hours since arriving, she had already: hit Tippy Canoe’s sweetheart, dented her rental car, and gotten herself kicked out of the late night diner.
Let’s see what kind of damage I can do tomorrow.
Chapter Two

          The next morning, Hallie asked the hotel clerk to point her toward the local grocery store, so she could pick up some breakfast. Best to avoid the restaurant after last night’s unpleasant confrontation. She was still a little unsure whether or not she was kicked out just so the woman could close, or kicked out as in banned for life. But that didn’t really matter. She had bigger pots to paint. Get in, get out, get home. That was the plan.
     In the daylight, Tippy Canoe was even smaller than she first thought. It was much easier to find where she was going without the snowstorm. She tracked down the address on her late husband’s estate papers.
Thinking of him that way threw her through a loop. She hadn’t thought of him as her husband in years, and now she had to add a late in front.
Finn had left her almost seven years ago now, and both he and Hallie had moved on and done their own things. After they separated, he came to Montana and made a new life for himself, giving up his art to take over his father’s small business. She continued to build her own art career at her studio in Malibu.
Neither one of them had bothered going through all the hassle and paperwork to make the split official. Hallie was a terrible procrastinator, and because they had no children or joint property... well it was easy to keep putting it off and forgetting about it. Since she hadn’t had any desire to remarry, it hadn’t mattered.
Well it mattered now.
Finn died of a heart attack last month and it took his estate lawyer until after the funeral to track her down and inform her she was still listed as the beneficiary of her estranged husband’s will. She wasn’t sure how to feel about this unexpected twist of fate.
One thing’s for sure, she never expected to find herself in Montana. Cold, blizzard-y, afraid-I’ll-run-into-a-moose-at-any-moment, Montana.
     Breaking her reverie, Hallie was alarmed to see the driver of a passing car gesturing to her. Probably nothing, she thought, chalking it up to an active imagination. But then another driver did the same, and then another.
Were they angry? Was she breaking some local traffic law? Had someone put out an APB on her rental car after last night’s “incident”?
As other cars passed doing the same thing, Hallie realized they weren’t gesturing -- at least not in the California sense. The drivers were greeting her with a wave or a nod. Using all five fingers instead of just one.
     Who knew people really did that? She always assumed those small towns you saw on TV were merely inventions of the state tourism boards, trying to collect more revenue.
When the next driver passed by with a friendly wave, Hallie raised her hand in a self-conscious response. Waving to strangers was unnatural to her and would take some getting used to. Even the people on the sidewalks seemed to nod to her as she passed. Which was pretty impressive considering they should be too busy shivering, walking in the bitter cold.
     She had to admit the village was picturesque. Her artist’s eye was keen to pick up all the details. Knotted timber planks had been used on many of the stores to create traditional facades, giving the shopping district an upscale and yet Old West charm. Classic shepherd’s crook cast-iron lampposts lined the streets, and some of the newer-looking stores boasted rustic boardwalks rather than sidewalk.
     Then she saw it: Kobold’s Trading Company, the name spelled out on a large neo-rustic painted sign over the door. Her first chance to glimpse at what she now owned.
And what she was here to get rid of.
          Exiting the Yukon Denali, she stepped onto the snowy street, reminding herself to buy the first sensible shoes she found. Heels had clearly not been designed with Montana snow in mind. At least yesterday's blizzard had passed, leaving blue skies, even if the temperatures were still miserable.
          Inching across the ice and snow from the SUV to the sidewalk, she made her way to where she could peek through the huge pane-glass windows of the storefront. Baseball caps, souvenir key chains, t-shirts with variations on a cave theme, soda pop and snacks, postcards – the usual hodge-podge that tourists stop to loiter over on their way out of town. Squinting to see deeper into the store, she could just make out a shirt that said Go Barefoot in Montana, with a large footprint in the middle.
What a crazy shirt. Why on earth would anyone want to go barefoot in the snow?
          The shop was locked, just like the attorney said it would be. Shoot. She had kinda been hoping to look around without someone peeking over her shoulder.
Since she lacked any lock-picking skills, she went next door to “Cracked Rock, Gems & Minerals” where she’d been told she could pick up a key. A tiny chime sounded as she entered. Behind the counter stood a slender younger woman wearing a green turtleneck and ginormous dangling agate earrings.
      "Hello, my name is Hallie Stone and I’m apparently the new owner of the shop next door. I was told I could get the key from you."
“Honey, the new landlord is here,” hollered the woman behind the counter.
Hallie resisted the urge to cover her ears.
The rock lady turned back to Hallie. “Welcome to town! I’m Melora Post. My husband, David, will be right-“
          “I’m sorry,” interrupted Hallie. “You must have misheard me. Not the landlord. I just inherited the shop next door, the trading post. Or trading company. Whatever it’s called. Finn Kobold’s business.”
          The woman looked confused. “David!” she called, even louder this time. “
Missus Kobold is here about the key to Finn’s place.
          “Stone, actually,” she corrected. “Hallie Stone.” Though when she said it that way it sounded silly like Bond... James Bond.
          “That’s right. My mistake. I forgot you and Finn were long-separated,” the woman said, nodding. “Finn told us
all ‘bout that.”
          The smallish woman with the huge rocks in her ears made the story sound sordid -- like something you’d see on a morning soap. Hallie wondered exactly what Finn had said. She doubted he would have told
her version of the story – that he hadn’t been able to swallow his pride when her art career took off while his fizzled. That as she had begun to make a name for herself in the world of fine art the more Finn pulled away. For months she watched him become moody and depressed, even more than the normal artist’s temperament. He tuned her out, listening only to the demon that whispers in the ear of every struggling artist. The dark voice murmuring that the work is no good and the muse has fled, never to return. In the end, it was Finn that fled.
          Absorbed in her own memories, Hallie hadn’t realized that a bear of a man had come to the counter and started speaking to her. And there was something about the words he was saying that Hallie did not like. Giving him her full attention now, she focused and repeated the words he’d just said.
The woman who ran over Andrea last night. That’s what he’d just called her.
Erg... Apparently, news travels directly in proportion to the size of the town. So given the size of Tippy Canoe, everybody had to know by now.
          "I did not run over her," Hallie said, trying for a friendly tone, but it came out a little clipped between clenched teeth. "Her motor scooter skidded into me. With the icy roads and all, must be hard to get any kind of traction on those little tires."
          “We meant no offense,” Melora said quickly. “We just heard about the accident this morning. Poor Andrea, after all she’s been through. Hallie right? Can I get you some coffee? Or hot cider?” She didn’t wait for an answer and brought back a steaming cup of something from the back.
          The husband moved around the counter to stand next to Hallie and engaged her with a friendly nod. “With the run of bad luck Andrea’s had, this is just another kick in the head. It’s one thing after another with her." He smiled at Hallie as if prompting a response.
         Uh oh. She could see where this was going. They were settling in to tell her all about Andrea’s bad luck. If she didn’t stop them now, they might launch into a history of Tippy Canoe that could eat away the whole morning. She had only come to Montana to sell Finn’s business – not to familiarize herself with the local drama.
Hallie withheld a long suffering sigh. She did not want a beverage. Nor did she want to sit around and gab. All she wanted was the key, and she was not above playing up her own drama to avoid hearing about everyone else’s.
          "I completely understand how that feels. That’s why I really want to get into the shop so I can handle all of my late husband’s affairs. Find some closure.”
           Looking into the faces of the couple at the counter, it was clear to Hallie that they were disappointed in her unwillingness to mull over the details. She felt guilty about playing the dead husband card, but she was determined to deal with the estate, as quickly as possible, and then go back to her brushes and her paints in Malibu and put Finn behind her. The contradiction of trying to do in one week what she hadn’t managed to do in seven years was not lost on Hallie.
          Melora finally gave a sympathetic nod and retrieved a single key, which was attached by a leather tog to a piece of antler at least as long as Hallie’s forearm. The words “Kobold’s Trading Company” had been artfully painted in what Hallie recognized, after all these years, as Phineus’ chunky handwriting. An unexpected sadness welled up in her.
Where had that come from? It was time to do what she’d always done, box up the feelings and store them to release into her art later. Thinking about this now would do no good. And besides, big girls don’t cry-- especially in front of strangers. She coughed away the emotions that were choking her and stood up to leave.
          “I’ll run next door with you and introduce you to your tenants in the other two stores,” Melora.said.
Did this woman have rocks
in her ears as well as hanging off of them?
          “I don’t think you understand,” Hallie said, speaking slowly out of sheer exasperation. “I’m not the new landlord. I only own what Finn owned. The store next door.”
          “Finn owned Christiansen’s,” Melora gently corrected, also speaking slowly as if Hallie was too dense to understand what was being said. “That's the building we're standing in. Way back, this building used to be Christiansen's Department Store, where everyone came to order-in their clothes and appliances from the Sears Roebuck catalog.”
          “Back in the day, Finn’s father subdivided the place into four smaller storefronts,” David added. “Everyone in town still calls it Christiansen’s. Except the tourists. They don’t know any better.”
          A dim lightbulb in the back of Hallie’s mind started to brighten. The name, Christiansen’s, sounded awfully familiar. It might have been mentioned by the attorney who had spoken to her over the phone. Between shock and bad cell phone reception, the conversation had been spotty. A sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach said she was about to learn her responsibility here was much larger than she’d understood.
          “Finn kept one store for himself, and rented out the other three,” Melora said. “Besides our rock and mineral shop, there’s Tumpi’s Pizzeria, two doors down, and The Frost Shoppe, next door. Just so you know, ours is the smallest of the four.”
          Hallie wasn’t sure why it had been important to mention the size of the rock shop, but she had a sneaking suspicion that the logic linked somehow to the rent payment.
“The key you're holding was Finn’s master key for all four storefronts,” David said.
          “So you see, you are the new landlord. Or landlady, if you’d prefer,” Melora said cheerily.
          Not for the first time since arriving in town, Hallie found herself needing to sit down to stop the room from spinning.

1 comment:

  1. So funny. I love it. Lots happening, too. I'm really excited for you with this!