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When Monica Albertson comes to Cranberry Cove-a charming town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan-to help her half-brother Jeff on his cranberry farm, the last thing she expects to harvest is a dead body. It seems that Sam Culbert, who ran the farm while Jeff was deployed overseas, had some juicy secrets that soon prove fatal, and Jeff is ripe for the picking as a prime suspect. Forming an uneasy alliance with her high-maintenance stepmother, Monica has her hands full trying to save the farm while searching for a killer. Culbert made plenty of enemies in the quaint small town, but which one was desperate enough to kill?
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Peg Cochran is the author of the nationally bestselling Gourmet De-Lite Mystery series, including Allergic to Death, Steamed to Death, and Iced to Death. She lives in Michigan with her family. Visit her at pegcochran.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Monica Albertson coaxed her ancient Ford Focus up the last hill, past the boarded-up vegetable stand, the abandoned barn and the Shell station. As usual, she paused at the crest. Cranberry Cove was spread out before her—a view that still thrilled her, even though it had been five weeks since she’d fled Chicago for this idyllic retreat on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.
From her vantage point, Monica could see the sparkling blue waters of the lake and the horseshoe-shaped harbor, where several white sails bobbed in the wind. The Cranberry Cove Yacht Club, where wealthy summer visitors sat on the deck sipping cold drinks, was a speck on the horizon, and the pastel-colored shops that lined Beach Hollow Road were bathed in a soft light by the early morning sun.
Monica took her foot off the brake and rolled down the hill toward town, relishing the cool breeze from her open window and the warmth of the sun on her arms.
She drove down Beach Hollow Road, where all the shop fronts were painted in sherbet hues of pink, lemon yellow and melon. The streets were quiet and the sidewalks nearly empty—it was late September, so the summer crowd had gone back home to their everyday lives and the carloads of tourists on autumn foliage color tours hadn’t arrived yet. Cranberry Cove wasn’t Chicago, but Monica found it very charming with its old-fashioned gaslights, planters overflowing with the remains of the summer’s flowers and the white gingerbread gazebo that graced the middle of the small vest-pocket park.
Monica pulled the Focus into a space in front of Gumdrops, a candy shop that was housed in a narrow building painted the palest pink. Fancy lace curtains hung in the window, and a ceramic Dutch couple kissing sat out on the doorstep, which had been swept clean of any sand borne by the winds of the most recent storm.
Miss Gerda VanVelsen came rushing forward almost before the bell over the door finished sounding Monica’s arrival. Or was she Miss Hennie VanVelsen? Monica could never be sure—the VanVelsens were identical twins, spinsters sharing the home that had belonged to their parents. Their grandparents had been part of the wave of immigration from Holland to western Michigan in the 1800s, and the sisters had retained many of the traits of their ancestors—thriftiness, cleanliness and efficiency.
Monica stole a glance at the name tag pinned to the woman’s top—this was Hennie, dressed in a pastel pink sweater and skirt that almost matched the color of the front of the candy shop. Her gray hair was set in elaborate curls and waves, and her pink lipstick matched her sweater.
“Hello, dear,” Hennie said warmly. “How are you settling in? It’s been a couple of weeks, hasn’t it? Have you got your little cottage fixed up yet?”
Monica nodded. “Yes, I’m almost done. It’s turned out very well.” Actually Monica adored her cottage, but from the time she was little, her parents had discouraged hyperbole.
“Terrible shame about your brother. We were all horrified when we heard,” Hennie said, leaning her elbows on the counter. “So many young men lost over there. I suppose he can count himself lucky he came home at all.”
Monica’s half brother, Jeff, had been deployed to Afghanistan for a year, where he had been injured in a surprise raid. The nerves in his left arm had been damaged, leaving it paralyzed. She had been nearly beside herself with worry the entire year he was gone for fear of losing him.
“So good of you to come and help him with the farm.” Hennie smiled at Monica. “And just in time, too, with the cranberry harvest coming up any day now.”
Guilt washed over Monica like a wave. If she’d been able to make a go of it in Chicago, would she have been so keen to rush to Jeff’s rescue? The small sliver of a café she’d rather unimaginatively named Monica’s—three tiny round tables and a glass case full of her homemade goodies—had been put out of business when a national chain coffee bar opened directly across the street. Monica might have tried again in a different location but the death of her fiancé in a swimming accident shortly afterwards took all the steam out of her, and she was glad to escape to Cranberry Cove.
The curtain to the stockroom was pushed aside and Gerda VanVelsen entered the shop. She was wearing an identical pink skirt and sweater, had her hair set the very same way and sported the exact same shade of pink lipstick as her twin.
Monica was tempted to rub her eyes. It was like seeing double.
“You haven’t seen Midnight, have you?” Gerda asked with a slight tremor in her voice.
Midnight was the sisters’ much beloved cat. She was black from the tip of her nose to the tip of her tail, and a lot of people in town considered her bad luck, which Monica found silly. She herself was neither superstitious nor given to flights of fancy.
“No, I’m afraid I didn’t. Is she missing?”
Gerda fiddled with the strand of pearls at her neck. “Not missing exactly, but we let her out an hour ago, and she would normally be back by now for her breakfast. I always worry you know.” She knitted her gnarled hands together. “There are people who would wish her harm because of her coloring. But she’s a sweet, gentle old thing and wouldn’t hurt a soul.”
“I’m sure she’ll be back any minute now,” Hennie said consolingly, putting an arm around her sister and giving her a squeeze. “Now, dear.” She turned her attention to Monica. “What can we get for you?”
“I’ve developed a real taste for your Wilhelmina peppermints,” Monica said, pointing to the white box with the red and blue ribbon and the silhouette of Queen Wilhelmina’s profile.
While Gerda fussed about selecting the appropriately sized white bag with Gumdrops printed on it in varicolored letters, Monica looked around the shop. It was as tidy and spic-and-span as the VanVelsen sisters themselves. A large case held a dazzling assortment of sweets—from root beer barrels to Mary Janes. The sisters also carried an array of uniquely Dutch treats, and while Monica had developed a taste for the peppermints, she had yet to succumb to the appeal of the sweet and salty black licorice so beloved by the Dutch.
Gerda rang up the purchase, and Monica handed her the money.
Gerda gave Monica the bag. “You have a good day, dear.” She paused. “And would you mind keeping an eye out for Midnight?”
“I’d be glad to,” Monica reassured her as she left the shop.
Monica strolled down Beach Hollow Road, checking in alleys and doorways for the missing Midnight. She passed Danielle’s Boutique, a pricey store that catered to the summer tourists with its stock of bathing suits, cover-ups, gauzy caftans and expensive costume jewelry. Next to it was Twilight, a New Age shop where you could have your palm read or your fortune told with Tarot cards.
The door to the Cranberry Cove Diner was propped open, and the seductive smell of bacon frying drifted out to the sidewalk. It was a gathering spot for the locals, who gave the evil eye to any tourists who dared to darken its interior—which Monica suspected hadn’t changed in the last forty years.
Book ’Em, a bookstore specializing in mysteries, was tucked in next door. Monica was in need of a new book, having finished the one she’d brought with her from Chicago. She hadn’t liked it very much, which had made for rather rough sledding, but she never allowed herself to put a book down without finishing it. To her, that smacked of being a quitter.
This was Monica’s first visit to the small, untidy and rather dark shop. She stood on the threshold and took a deep sniff. She loved the scent of books. The store itself was quite a mess, with volumes spilling off the shelves and piled haphazardly in every nook and cranny, and a narrow spiral staircase leading to an upper balcony. Monica’s fingers itched to bring some order to the place.
She noticed a man with his back to her—he had dark hair, was slightly taller than Monica and was humming softly under his breath. He had a stack of books in his arms that he appeared to be shelving, although there was hardly any room on the already overcrowded stands.
Monica strolled over to the paperback section and began browsing. Books were six deep in the racks, and the book in front was not necessarily the same as the one behind it or the ones in the middle. It was like a treasure hunt—Monica had no idea what she would find tucked away in the chaos.
She found a classic Agatha Christie and picked it up. It was one of the mysteries she remembered reading in high school—The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She scanned the back blurb, trying to remember the plot. Perhaps she’d buy it and read it again.
“Ah, the famous, or should I say infamous, unreliable narrator.” The fellow who was stocking books came up behind Monica and pointed at the paperback in her hand.
The lines around his eyes suggested he might be a few years older than her, but his rather shaggy hair and worn corduroys and crewneck sweater made him look appealingly boyish.
Monica smiled. “I was trying to remember this particular book—it’s been ages since I read it, but now it’s coming back to me.”
“One of Dame Agatha’s best, don’t you think?” He ran a hand through his hair, leaving it even more disheveled. “Everyone knows Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None—at least that’s what it was titled here in America—but Roger Ackroyd is far more clever if you ask me.” He looked at Monica, his head tilted to one side. “Are you a Hercule Poirot fan or a Miss Marple fan?”
Monica thought for a moment. “Both, actually. And a Miss Silver fan as well,” she threw out to see if he was really as up as all that on his English mysteries.
“Ah, Patricia Wentworth’s redoubtable heroine.”
Monica smiled, feeling absurdly pleased that he’d understood the reference.
He extended his hand. “I’m Greg Harper, Book ’Em’s owner, manager and general dogsbody.”
He had a firm handshake, which Monica returned. “Monica Albertson.” She hated to admit it, but she was almost disappointed when he let go of her hand.
“How are you liking Cranberry Cove? I heard you’ve come to help your brother with his farm.”
Monica was startled, and seeing the expression on her face made Greg laugh. “This is a small town. Everyone knows everyone else’s business.”
Monica wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She was used to the anonymity of the big city.
She ended up buying the Christie book—she wanted to see if she agreed with Greg about its being one of Dame Agatha’s best works. She’d also picked up the newest Peter Robinson—a current favorite author—but then put it back down. It would give her an excuse to come back again later in the month to purchase it.
Monica rather reluctantly left Book ’Em and headed next door to Bart’s Butcher—the type of old-fashioned place where they had sawdust on the floor and tied your package in paper fastened with string.
She planned to pick up a steak. She’d invited Jeff to have dinner with her—he was looking entirely too thin for Monica’s tastes. She suspected he subsisted on takeout and microwave dinners, neither of which was particularly high in nutritional value. That, combined with his worry about the farm, had turned him from lean and muscular to almost scrawny.
Monica selected a prime looking T-bone, and Bart Dykema, a round barrel of a man, pulled a sheet of paper from the roll on the counter and placed the steak on it. He gestured toward Monica’s package with his chin.
“See you bought something in that shop next door.”
“Nice guy, Greg Harper.” He measured out a piece of string from the roller attached to the counter and cut it. “Ran for mayor last year but was defeated by Sam Culbert, who’s holding the office now. Harper’s widowed, you know.” He wrapped the string around the neat bundle he’d created. “Not seeing anyone so far as I can tell.”
Monica felt her face getting red. Was Bart insinuating that she and Greg . . .
“How’s your brother doing?” Bart said, suddenly changing the subject. “Got a good crop of cranberries going? I imagine he’ll be harvesting any day now.”
“He’s managing,” Monica said, although in reality, the farm was bleeding money, and Monica hoped she’d be able to help Jeff staunch the flow. Sam Culbert, who was the farm’s former owner in addition to being the mayor, had managed the farm for Jeff while he was overseas, and Jeff had returned to find the place in near financial ruin.
Monica took her package, bid Bart a good day and headed toward the farmer’s market at the end of Beach Hollow Road. She picked up salad fixings—tender lettuce, a cucumber and tomatoes still warm from the sun. Her shopping completed, Monica headed back toward the farm.
· · ·
On her return trip to Sassamanash Farm—so named because it was the word for cranberry in the Algonquin Indian language—Monica stopped at the crest of the hill again. This time she could see the farm in the distance. It looked like a carpet of green dotted with the brilliant fire engine red of the ripe cranberries. The berries had been pale pink when Monica had arrived at Sassamanash Farm, but as the weather had become cooler, they had turned their characteristic ruby color.
If she squinted, she could see the dollhouse sized cottage she was in the process of renovating, the stretch of black macadam where tourists parked when they came to watch the harvest, and the dot of white that was the clapboard building that housed the small store where they sold baked goods made with cranberries, and kitchen items decorated with the fruit, such as tea towels, napkins and pot holders.
Monica continued down the hill toward the farm. She parked in front of the little cottage she now called home. She had seen its inherent potential the minute she arrived from Chicago. It had dormer windows, a gabled roof and a trellis with the remains of summer’s climbing roses. It had taken a month of painting, scrubbing and sheer elbow grease to make it habitable, but Monica was pleased with how it had turned out.
She stowed the steak she’d purchased at Bart’s in the refrigerator along with the salad fixings. The cottage still smelled of sugar and spice from the goodies she’d baked early that morning—cranberry muffins, cranberry scones dusted with sugar and a cranberry salsa she was still experimenting with to get the right balance of flavors—both sweet and hot—with accents of lime, cilantro and jalapeno. Monica packed everything in a basket and headed back out the door.
Darlene Polk was behind the counter of the Sassamanash Farm store when Monica arrived. She was taller than Monica’s five foot eight—almost six feet—with a lot more meat on her bones. Her nondescript light brown hair was gathered into a ponytail, and her bangs were curling in the humidity.
She glanced up when she heard Monica enter. Her face bore its usual resentful expression, her lower lip stuck out as if she was continually pouting. Monica had tried to become friends with her, but Darlene preferred to keep to herself.
Monica put down her basket and turned to Darlene, who was leaning against ...
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