Fruit of All Evil (A Farmers' Market Mystery)

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Read Paige Shelton's blogs and other content on the Penguin Community.

Becca Robbins sells her farm-made jams and preserves at the local farmers' market to make a living. But when a local lovely decides to tie the knot at the same market, someone else decides to make a killing-and only Becca has the down-home know-how to shut the lid on a canny killer.

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About the Author:

Paige Shelton spent lots of years in advertising but now writes novels full time. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband and son. When she’s up early enough, one of her favorite things is to watch the sun rise over the Wasatch Mountains.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One

Visions of strung-together cherry tomatoes danced in my head; corn kernels tossed in celebration and then strewn across a dirt floor. Then, a gigantic pumpkin carved into the shape of Cinderella’s carriage, but with seeds mistakenly left inside. And finally, I’m in my favorite overalls that have been mysteriously Bedazzled.

It was a waking nightmare.

But that was just a state of horror taking over. I couldn’t believe what I had agreed to do. A wedding? What was I thinking? Why had I said yes so quickly?

I’d had plenty of practice, of course. Twice in front of the justice of the peace made me an old pro at commitments of the heart, temporary though they might have been. But this time it was going to be with a pastor and a walk down an aisle; something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, something different—for me at least, and something that was going to require a farmers’ market theme.

The only good news: it wasn’t my wedding. Phew!

Instead, I’d agreed to be my good friend, Linda McMahon’s, twice-divorced maid/matron of honor (we’d simplified the title and decided to call me her “Number One”) when she married Superman look-alike Drew Forsyth. In five short days.

The nuptials were on the fast track because of a surprise, but not the old-fashioned kind. Though I’d only recently learned exactly what Drew’s job was, I’d always guessed it was something mysterious and important. When I’d first met him, he and Linda never quite answered the question “What does Drew do for a living?” But as time went on and we became closer, and Drew seemed to be a more permanent part of Linda’s life, I learned that Super Drew was in the military (said in hushed tones). For a while, that was all I knew, but about a month ago I’d learned that he was part of a “military special operations” group. I still didn’t have the specifics, but I was terribly impressed. It was only within the last twenty-four hours that Linda had confided in me that Drew was a Navy SEAL. My level of impressed shot even higher.

It wasn’t so much that Drew’s job was a secret; it was that what he did when he was performing his job was usually a top top top secret. People who did those sorts of things just didn’t go about sharing the details of their duties, so it was easier to keep everything about it close to the flak jacket, so to speak.

Drew had been called to duty, which for the rest of us meant Drew would be leaving for some time to go places we couldn’t know about, to do things we couldn’t know about. He’d been preparing Linda for his certain departure, but it still was a surprise when the call came.

And when it did, it solidified for Drew that he didn’t want to leave without first making Linda his wife. She agreed.

Yes, it was very romantic and the stuff of movies with heart-wrenching symphony music, but five days wasn’t a lot of time to pull off a wedding.

Their “I do’s” could have been handled easily with a quick trip to the justice of the peace—I knew the address by heart—but Linda wanted a real wedding, with guests and all the trimmings. Considering the short amount of time available to plan and prepare, the ceremony wasn’t expected to be lavish by any means. But as her Number One, I was responsible for helping make her dream day . . . well, dreamy.

Of course, the ceremony would take place at Bailey’s, the farmers’ market where we both worked. And the other vendors would help, so it might not be too terrible. But still, being in charge of someone else’s “happiest day of her life” is a big job; one I wasn’t so sure I’d be able to handle successfully.

I hadn’t even been in my fraternal twin sister’s wedding. Allison and her husband, Tom Reynolds, had, in deference to our hippie parents, gotten married on a South Carolina beach as the sun rose over the ocean horizon. We’d gathered together, but no one had to do anything beforehand—like plan things, decorate, or help pick out dresses and the like.

I was ill-equipped for such duty. When Linda told me she wanted all food, flowers, and other decorations for the wedding to come from Bailey’s, my first thought was Shoot, I don’t even know what she means by “other decorations.”

It had been only one day since I told Linda I’d be honored to stand up with her, and it hadn’t been a lie—I was honored. But when I really thought about what the job entailed, I realized I was in over my head. Cowardly, I wished for an out, something like the appearance of Linda’s long-lost best friend, but it didn’t seem likely to happen. I was committed; and truthfully, I would never ditch my duty, my friend in her time of need. Adding to my desire not to let her down was the fact that she was all that was left of her family. Her parents had died when she was a teenager, and she was an only child. We, the Bailey’s vendors, were her family now, and none of us would let her down.

So, after spending the night tossing and turning, I did what I normally do in times of extreme crisis: I called my sister Allison and begged for help. I asked her to stop by my stall this morning and offer me words of wisdom. She picked the perfect time—I wasn’t busy, but Linda, her stall right next to mine, was helping a customer, so she wouldn’t overhear as I vented my concerns.

“Becca, make a list. For instance, I’ve already decided on an area of the market that will be perfect for the ceremony. Just let me know how many people will be there. Work with Abner on flowers, Stella on a cake, and so on. One thing at a time,” Allison said.

Allison is the manager of Bailey’s. She took the job ten years ago and has turned the market into one of the top markets in South Carolina. I usually tell people that she’s turned it into one of the best on the East Coast, but I have no statistics to back up such a claim.

Bailey’s is one of the bigger markets in South Carolina, located outside the town of Monson. Its long, U-shaped design could be seen a good distance down the state highway it was located on. Until recently, a large green and white painted sign announced its location. But the owners had just put up a lighted sign with programmable features that made us all feel uncomfortably modern. Market people didn’t usually see much use for lighted signs that could display different things at the touch of a keypad, but we’d get used to it.

I made and sold berry jams and preserves, and worked with many other vendors who made and/or sold many other products. Linda dressed like a character from Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and for seven years had sold homemade fruit pies from the stall next to mine. From the moment we met at Bailey’s, we knew we’d be friends.

“Actually, Linda wants me to talk to both Stella and Mamma Maria about cake, and maybe some mini pie ideas, or something,” I said. Mamma Maria was the one exception to Linda’s “Bailey’s Vendors Only for the Wedding” rule. Mamma worked down the road at the Smithfield Farmers’ Market. She baked piled-high cream pies that melted on your tongue and made your eyes roll back in your head out of sheer pleasure. She was built just like her pies—stacked—and she was dating Bailey’s peach vendor, Carl Monroe. We’d all become pretty good friends.

“There you go. Talk to Stella and Mamma. This could be fun. You can ask for samples. You’ll get to taste test.” Allison smiled.

“Good point,” I said as I chewed at my bottom lip.

Allison laughed. “Becca, tell Linda you’re a little freaked because you want to do everything right and you want to make sure you accomplish her vision. Be sure you understand exactly what she wants. Everyone here will take good care of her and Drew. You really don’t need to worry. You’ll have it easier than most . . . what did you call yourself, Number Ones?”

“That’s okay to say to a bride? That I’m a little freaked? Aren’t I supposed to be the nonfreaked one?”

“Well, you know how to handle it so she’ll understand.”

“Do you know who she’s marrying?” I asked, my voice high-pitched.

“Of course. Drew Forsyth.”

“Yeah, well, he’s pretty darn amazing on his own, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, do you know who she’s marrying?”

“Linda told me he’s in the military,” Allison said quietly. “He does secret things, which is pretty impressive.” I’d leave it to Linda to tell Allison Drew’s job title. “But I don’t know more than that.” Allison shook her head, her long, dark ponytail swinging slightly. I would never have either long or dark hair. Allison’s tall, dark looks are from our father and are the yin to the short stature and blonde hair yang I received from our mother.

“Drew is the son of Madeline Forsyth.”

“Okay. Well, the name is familiar, but I can’t pinpoint where I’ve heard it before.”

I was stunned that I knew something my sister didn’t. “Madeline Forsyth is a banker . . .”

That was all I had to say.

“Oh, my goodness,” Allison said. “Is she . . . is she . . . ?”

“Yes, she’s in charge of all horror, if you know what I mean.” Central Savings and Loan, led by Madeline Forsyth (nicknamed For-scythe as a result of her ability to cut someone down just like the wickedly sharp mowing instrument), had been on a foreclosure bender lately. Just in the last week, I’d heard of two farms that she herself had served papers on.

Because one of the farms that Central had recently taken was Simonsen Orchards, a place that I’d become very familiar with the previous fall, I’d paid extra attention to the bank’s activities. Matt Simonsen had been murdered behind a Bailey’s stall. It took some crack police work and some of my own nosiness to figure out who the killer was. I had mostly recovered from the injuries I sustained as I tried to run from the killer, who was now, fortunately, behind bars—forever or a hundred and twenty years, whichever came first.

The day I heard that Simonsen Orchards had been foreclosed upon had been both weird and sad. Those of us who made our livings off our farm-grown or homemade products were always sad when we heard about someone losing their land, but it was extra hard to hear that Simonsen Orchards had gone from one of the top-producing peach orchards in the region to deeply in debt because of the murder.

“Oh, dear. Madeline Forsyth. I can’t believe I didn’t make the connection. That’s . . .” Allison muttered.

“Awful, terrible, a cruel twist of fate, what?”

“A challenge,” Allison said sternly. “Look, you’re supposed to be there for Linda and Drew. What Drew’s mother does and who she is don’t matter.”

“I’ve met her, Allison. She’s tall and loud, both literally and figuratively, and will crush me if I don’t help make her son’s wedding just perfect. According to Linda, she’s having a hard enough time accepting the fact that her son is marrying a pie baker who works at a farmers’ market; if I ruin the wedding, she might just foreclose on all of us.”

Allison smiled patiently. “That might be a somewhat dramatic take on it, but I do feel sorry for Linda.”

“Yeah. Me, too.”

“Linda, yoo-hoo!” A voice sounded from behind Allison. She turned sharply, and I peered around her.

“Well, speak of the devil,” I said.

Moving at the speed of a type A personality on caffeine, Madeline Forsyth approached. She was at least seventy years old but didn’t look a day over plastic surgery. She was tall, thin, and immaculately dressed in a beige Chanel suit with gold-rimmed black buttons. Dust on the market floor flew from the falls of her expensive pumps, but she didn’t seem to notice. She was focused on her soon-to-be daughter-in-law.

Linda’s attention was pulled away from her customer and to the approaching storm. The customer, a young woman in denim shorts and a flower print shirt, read the situation quickly.

She smiled at Linda and said, “I’ll come back for the pie when I’m done shopping.” And then she scurried away.

Linda put on a patient smile and said, “Madeline, how nice to see you.”

“Uh-huh,” Madeline said as she stopped in front of Linda’s stall. She stood just far enough away so that her suit wouldn’t come in contact with Linda’s display table. “Do you not have time to answer your phone?”

“Uh, well . . .” Linda said as she reached into her pioneer dress pocket. She pulled out her phone and looked at it. “It doesn’t say I’ve missed a call.”

“Well, you have. I’ve tried to reach you at least a dozen times in the last hour.”

“Really? We’d better double-check the number you’ve got for me.”

Madeline waved her hand. “We’ll do that later. For now, I’m here to let you know about dinner tonight.”

“Dinner?”

“Yes. When I spoke to Drew earlier, he said that he’d neglected to tell you about the dinner this evening.”

“I wasn’t aware of a dinner this evening, but maybe he just hasn’t gotten around to telling me yet.”

Madeline tsked. “Drew not giving early notice for a dinner? Surely, I raised him better than that.”

Fleetingly, I wondered what I would do in such a confrontational situation. Considering the fact that I’m twice divorced, I thought I’d probably just call a lawyer.

Linda, however, was more patient and polite than I would have been, so she just smiled, nodded, and remained silent. Madeline was sure to continue speaking.

“Anyway, the dinner is at my house this evening. I’ve invited some of Drew’s cousins—one will be his best man at this hurried wedding thing that we’re having. I want you to meet them before you join the family.”

“That would be lovely. I look forward to it. What can I bring?” Linda kept her cool.

“Nothing, of course. I have a cook who does his own shopping.” I guessed this was her way of saying that she’d never buy groceries from Bailey’s.

“That will be fine,” Linda said.

“It will be early. I have work to do this evening. Be at my house at five o’clock.”

“Of course.”

Madeline did a three-point turn in her pumps and faced me.

“Becca Robins, right? You’re the maid of honor?”

“Yes,” I said, as though someone had punched me in the gut. Why was she speaking to me?

“You’re invited, too,” she said regrettably. “Bring a date.”

“Thanks,” I said. My eyes were wide, and I was unsure what to do with my hands.

Madeline marched her way back down the aisle, toward Bailey’s exit. I watched as my friends and market mates observed the powerful woman leave us all in her wake. Barry Drake, of Barry Good Corn, thumbed his overalls and sniffed; Herb and Don, the Herb Boys, flanked their stall and gave Madeline the stink-eye; Abner Justen leaned on his wildflower display table and looked cranky; Jeanine Baker, the egg lady, crossed her arms and looked scared; Allison, still in front of my stall, looked interested and focused; and, last but not least, my very adorable boyfriend, Ian Cartwright, stepped out of his yard artwork stall and caught my eye. He gave me a semi-amused wink.

He knew he’d just been invited to dinner, too.

There was a lot of spite in the aisles of Bailey’s that afternoon. Though they might not have known until that moment that Linda was going to marry into the Forsythe family, everyone knew exactly who Madeline Forsyth was, and no one liked her one bit.

The thing was, though, someone must have taken their dislike to a whole new level, beca...

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