Six months after her husband dies, fifty-eight-year-old Florence Loughton falls in love. She falls in love the moment that Hector stretches out his tiny little neck and licks at the smooth tan skin of her face. She soon forms an unlikely bond with twenty-six-year-old Trey Barkley, Hector’s dog walker. Trey doesn’t seem to mind that he walks dogs for a living or that he still lives with his parents, but when his whole world is set on end by a brief chocolate bar encounter, leading to his arrest for a murder he may or may not have committed—threatening his livelihood, his freedom, and the sanity he’s worked so hard to maintain—he minds. He minds very much—especially considering that it’s the murder of his only real friend: Mrs. Florence Loughton. Detective Seth Wooley is initially confident in his quick arrest of the crazy-ass dog walker. Every clue indicates that Trey Barkley is the murderer. Easy—except Seth just can’t seem to shake the fact that sometimes things are just too damn easy. The Chocolate Debacle is a captivating story where two lonely people come together and form an odd friendship that comes to an abrupt and troubling end on the day Flo dies.

“A must read.”
– Lisa Rojany Buccieri, Publisher and Editor in chief of New York Journal of Books

“Superbly crafted.”
– Executive Director of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Buddhist monastery and brother of Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber

“Tells a very real story.”.
– Xavier Amador, author of the international bestseller I Am Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help!

“More than a mystery novel.”
– Mary Giliberti, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness

Two

Where Flo (the murder victim) meets Hector, and Trey meets Hector and Flo.

When Flo Loughton woke up one morning to find herself a widow, she couldn’t clearly see right then and there the benefits of such a situation. So when she turned over to the quite dead form of her husband, crying at that moment seemed to be the only logical response. And as short-lived as it was—she was totally composed by the time the paramedics arrived—the tears were genuine and heartfelt. There was nothing they could do; Frank’s heart had just decided to stop at some point while they slept. Had there been something? A small sound? A movement? A stirring as his life had eased away? Something that should have caused her to wake? Surely a normal person wouldn’t sleep through such a
thing.

But Flo didn’t linger long on guilt; there had just been so much to do. Her husband wasn’t nearly as organized as she’d have liked him to be, and his death gave her the perfect opportunity to whip his life into order. And there was her law practice that really couldn’t stand on its own without her, and her committee chair for the Skaneateles Festival (being a transplant Skaneateles-ite and not a native, she’d fought for that appointment), and her tennis partner depended on her, and it wasn’t like she was going to just stop going to yoga at Mirbeau.

Life had continued, without her husband, in much the same manner as it always had. Her sight was sometimes clouded by the vast number of people telling her how sorry they were, how horrible it was that her husband should just up and die without any sort of forewarning, and that she was going to be okay—which was strange, because even in her darkest moments, she had never doubted that she would be okay, having found all her life that not okay and okay were very hard, if not impossible, to differentiate.
Growing up in a small town in New England was perhaps a contributing factor to her n’importe quoi attitude, but really it was more that she’d learned pretty early that crying was good for not much more than stuffing up her nose, making her face blotchy, and making her already tiny eyes disappear into the folds of her despair.

But it was undeniable that there were times late at night when she did indeed long for him, and although she didn’t bother crying again, it was at these moments that the benefits of living alone—not having to worry about what someone else might want for dinner; knowing that any mess to be found in one’s house was of one’s own making; going to bed whenever one was tired, without the added complication of Is sex necessary? running through one’s head—seemed to be selfishly petty when compared to these rare moments of insatiable loneliness.

Perhaps it was not her husband she longed for, but something more abstract, something more agreeable. Not that Frank had been the least bit disagreeable; it’s just that he’d been so…agreeably Frank. And she resented the notion that she should carry around the cross of widowhood. That look, that smile, that gentle hand that would come out and squeeze her arm. “How are you, Flo?” And she knew the answer should have been, “Just fine. I’m holding up just fine.” But what she said, what put people off, was, “And how should I be?” Then she’d smile her best smile and attend to whatever task was before her. It didn’t take terribly long for people to just stop asking, which was just fine by her.

It was at some point within the first six months of Frank’s death that Flo ventured out of Skaneateles to Camillus. She’d been walking between Marshalls and Dick’s Sporting Goods, on her way to shop for a new yoga outfit, when she happened to glance in the pet store window. There, sitting perfectly proper, while all its other puppy-pen mates were leaping about, sat a little white puff of fur that strangely reminded her of Daniel—the first boy she’d quite possibly ever loved, the first boy ever to be allowed to explore all her intricate crevices, the first and last boy to ever break her heart. So naturally she was drawn into this pet store. As she opened its door, as she was hit by the odor of puppy poop and wet guinea pig shavings, it occurred to her that she hadn’t been in a pet store since she was a child. She’d never had a dog or even a fish, never coveted a kitten or kept fireflies in a jar. But when the girl with the ring through her right eyebrow and the snake tattoo on her neck lifted the little white puff and placed it in Flo’s arms, her whole life shifted to something softer and slightly more vulnerable. Then she had almost recoiled, set the dog down, and walked out of the store without a second glance—but she never got the chance, because what was soon to be known as Hector stretched out his tiny little neck and licked at the smooth tan skin of Flo’s face, sending a little shiver of something not quite definable, but something definitely worth investigating.

She later sat at her kitchen table and stared at the little dog, its eyes looking up at her with such trust, and she thought, What now?  Because truth be told she’d never truly been in love, at least not like this, and it was disconcerting—already feeling some deep sadness from the knowledge that someday Hector would be dead and she’d be left to carry on alone. All dogs were fleeting little things. She stood up, determined to remove him from her home. Sure that she’d made an awful error, she swept him up along with her handbag, which held the pet store receipt, and walked with grave determination out her front door toward her car parked in her short driveway, only to run smack into that strange young man with the sandy flop of hair and those sad, weird eyes. His
face immediately turned into something affable as he took in the little dog in her arms. He stopped. The large black dog he’d been walking immediately sat down near his left leg, looking up at him with obedient anticipation.

“I, um. You, um, you have a new dog,” he said.

“Well—”

Then he was reaching out his hand toward Hector and stroking his fur, and before Flo could respond, Hector was in the young man’s arms, both dog and man sharing an envious, admirable moment—something she was quite sure she was more than capable of giving and receiving, so when the young man asked her if she needed a dog walker for this new young pup, she’d had no choice other than to remove Hector from his arms and invite the young man into her home to discuss the details. She had apologized immediately, having to admit that she’d forgotten his name; even though she knew him and had seen him walking dogs for years now, his name had escaped her memory. “Trey Barkley,” he told her. Then the memories became even more clear—the history of this odd young man. His mother, some sort of artist, had been on the Festival Board briefly, his father was a well-known thoracic surgeon in Syracuse, and his older brother was in his last year of surgical residency at Johns Hopkins. But Trey, the youngest of the boys, had returned home suddenly after a couple years of college; there was something wrong with him…some mental issue…something just not quite right.

Trey looked down as he spoke his own name, self-consciously the chocolate debacle petted the big black dog’s head he’d been walking—some sort of pain crossing his face—and said, “I have references.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do, and I will most certainly be calling them, but tell me, Trey Barkley…how does one go about housebreaking
a puppy?”