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Authors: Peg Cochran

Tags: #Mystery

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BOOK: Berried Secrets
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They were halfway through the first course when one of the busboys approached Jeff.

“Aren't you living the high life tonight?” He slapped Jeff on the back.

Jeff's face broke into a broad smile. He jumped up from his seat and pumped the young man's hand. “Kevin! I didn't expect to see you here.”

“And I sure didn't expect to see you,” Kevin shot back.

Monica thought she had seen the young man before, but she couldn't place him. There was something about his curly blond hair that seemed familiar.

“Picking cranberries doesn't pay all that much,” Kevin said with an impish glint in his blue eyes. “I have to moonlight.”

Jeff hung his head. “I know. I wish I could pay you guys more, but until Sassamanash Farm is in the black . . .”

Kevin slapped Jeff on the back again. “It's alright, old man, don't worry about it. It's just that my girlfriend is out of work at the moment, and there's the rent to pay.”

Jeff turned toward the table. “Gina, Monica, this is Kevin. He's on my crew at the farm.”

Kevin nodded toward each of the women in turn. Suddenly Monica recognized him—he was the worker she had noticed who wore a knitted cap pulled down low over his curly blond hair.

“Didn't Ashley used to work here?” Jeff asked.

“Yeah. But that wretch Culbert got her fired.”

Jeff's eyebrows shot up. Monica leaned closer so she could hear their conversation.

“She was having a bad night. Had stomach cramps and was coming down with a fever. She wasn't at her best. She accidentally spilled a drop of a drink on Culbert, and he was furious. Called the manager over—the whole show. Culbert insisted Ashley be let go. He's a big customer here—the manager didn't have any choice.”

“I'm sorry to hear that.”

Kevin shrugged. “She'll find something else. Maybe something better. She's a trained fitness instructor. There just isn't much call for them around here.”

Kevin shot a look over his shoulder. He slapped Jeff on the back again. “I'll see you in the morning.” He took off at a trot.

“He seems like a nice young man,” Gina said.

They were quiet for a moment as they waited for the rest of their meal.

Monica had finally decided on the duck a l'orange. It wasn't something she ever made for herself, despite the fact that it was one of her favorite dishes.

Finally the waiter appeared, and slipped their entrees in front of them.

Gina lifted a forkful of salmon with dill sauce to her mouth. “It certainly seems that there were plenty of people out there with a reason to wish Sam Culbert six feet under.”

“Let's talk about something else, alright?” Jeff threw his napkin down on the table. “Excuse me for a moment, please.”

“Well!” Gina said as she watched Jeff walk away. She turned to Monica. “I hope you can be excited for me and my plans.”

For a moment Monica couldn't find the words to respond. “Yes. Certainly.”

Gina caught and held Monica's gaze. “It's just that there's nothing left for me in Chicago. I never planned to be a divorcee again at my age.” She smiled ruefully. “I'm a little old to go back on the market. The only men who would be interested in me now are octogenarians, I'm afraid.” She made a face. “And I can't bear being alone. Here I'd have you and Jeff.”

Monica swallowed a piece of duck, and it went down the wrong way. She began to cough. She gulped some ice water.
“Of course we're pleased for you, Gina. And I'm sure we'll both enjoy having you here.” The words stuck in Monica's throat much as the duck had done.

Gina beamed. “That's wonderful then!” She snapped her fingers and called for the waiter.

“Yes, ma'am,” he said with a smile.

“Another bottle of champagne, please. We're celebrating.”

Chapter 10

Monica woke with a slight headache the next morning. That would teach her to overindulge in champagne. But it had been fun to get out for the evening and away from all the problems of Sam Culbert's murder, as well as the dwindling finances of Sassamanash Farm.

Sam Culbert's funeral was being held at St. Andrew's Episcopal church early that morning. Jeff felt he ought to go since he'd known Culbert and also because his absence would set tongues wagging. The townspeople didn't know Jeff had been cheated by Culbert, and he wanted it to stay that way. Not to protect Culbert's reputation, of course, but to keep people from realizing that Jeff had a good motive for Culbert's murder. Monica offered to go with him even though she'd never met Culbert, because she suspected Jeff could use some moral support.

Monica drove them in her Focus. The sun was shining,
which seemed at odds with the solemnity of the occasion. She glanced at Jeff, who looked just as uncomfortable in his jacket and tie as he had the previous night at dinner. His face was pinched, and she could see the muscle working in his jaw.

Beach Hollow Road was crawling with traffic, and their progress was slow.

Jeff pointed out the window. “Look at all these cars. You'd think it was the height of summer.”

“I can't imagine sleepy little Cranberry Cove crowded with strangers.”

Jeff turned to Monica. “You'll see when June gets here.” His tone was ominous.

The parking lot was already filling up when they arrived at the church. For someone so disliked, it looked as if Culbert would have quite a crowd at his funeral.

St. Andrew's was set on a slight hill, back from the road, and surrounded by large trees that created a colorful canopy of red and yellow leaves over the old church's slightly leaky roof. A winding, badly cracked and uneven cement path led to heavy, ornate wood doors that had been thrown open for the occasion. Soft organ music drifted out as Monica and Jeff made their way up the path.

“Let's sit toward the back,” Jeff whispered as they paused just inside the door.

An usher, whom Monica recognized as Bart Dykema from the butcher shop, came toward them. He looked odd without his white apron. He was wearing a black suit, and the buttons of his jacket strained against his ample stomach, as if he had purchased the suit when he was considerably slimmer. He led them to an empty pew.

Monica looked around the church. She was surprised to see
Darlene up front. But then she remembered that Darlene cleaned for the Culberts. Monica supposed she didn't want to miss the funeral. It looked as if everyone in Cranberry Cove had stopped what they were normally doing in order to attend.

Monica was reading through the program when she sensed someone sitting down beside her. She looked up to see the VanVelsen sisters sliding into the pew. Today they were wearing muted gray dresses and matching coats and hats.

Hennie smiled when she recognized Monica. “Quite a turnout, isn't it?”

“I'm rather surprised considering . . .” Monica hesitated.

“You mean considering Culbert wasn't very well liked?” Hennie shook her head. “Weddings, funerals, Fourth of July parades—anything that gives the residents of Cranberry Cove an opportunity to get together is going to be well attended.” She waved a hand around the church. “I'm afraid all this has nothing to do with Sam Culbert.”

There was a bit of a commotion at the front of the church, and Monica strained to see over the heads blocking her view. A woman was being led to the front pew. A tall, thin gray-haired man held her elbow solicitously. She slid into the pew, and he followed her.

Gerda touched Monica's arm. “There's Andrea Culbert, Sam Culbert's wife.” She pointed to the woman. A handful of people had filed in behind the couple. “I wonder who that man is?”

Hennie leaned forward. “That must be her brother,” she said with a hint of satisfaction in her voice. “You know Deirdre—she's the receptionist at the Cranberry Cove Inn?”

Gerda straightened her shoulders. “Of course I know Deirdre,” she said, sounding slightly miffed. “Why wouldn't I?”

“I was talking to Monica,” Hennie said with great dignity.
“Deirdre came in yesterday for a bag of those Swedish fish her sister likes, the poor thing. Her sister's been in a wheelchair ever since she had that accident in high school,” she explained to Monica. “Deirdre told me that Andrea Culbert's brother had just arrived and had checked into the Inn.”

Gerda scowled. “You didn't tell me that.”

Hennie pulled her coat more closely around her shoulders. “I'm certain I did, dear. You just don't remember. You haven't been quite yourself lately.”

Monica hid a smile. The VanVelsen sisters presented a united front to the world, but there was obviously some dissension between them in private.

Monica examined the woman who had been identified as Culbert's wife. Even from a distance, she could tell that Andrea's clothes were well made and expensive. Just then, Andrea raised a hand to her carefully coiffed hair, and the large diamond ring on her finger winked in the light coming through the stained-glass windows.

“I don't imagine she's any sorrier to see the end of Sam Culbert than the rest of us,” Hennie whispered to Monica.

“Who? His wife?”

Hennie was about to answer when the organ music, which had been playing softly in the background, swelled, and the congregation rose to its feet. A hush settled over the crowd as a highly burnished wood casket was rolled down the aisle.

Hennie whispered in Monica's ear. “Culbert treated his wife very badly. Old Doc Hadley said one time he was called out to—” Hennie put a hand over her mouth. “I really shouldn't be telling tales out of school. Suffice it to say that any tears Andrea Culbert sheds will be crocodile tears.”

•   •   •

Talk in the Sassamanash Farm store later that afternoon centered around Culbert's funeral and that evening's fundraiser—the spaghetti supper for Charlie's mother. To Monica, it sounded as if the whole town was going to be there, much as they had turned out en masse for Culbert's funeral. The event ought to bring in plenty of money for Debbie's medical bills.

Monica had been hoping to get Jeff to go with her. He needed to do something to take his mind off of everything that had happened, but he claimed he was too tired. He and his crew were still harvesting the crop and had several more bogs to do before the season would be over.

Gina had offered to pick Monica up, and Monica couldn't think of an excuse fast enough to say no. She just hoped Gina would wear something appropriate. Now that Gina was going to live in Cranberry Cove, she was going to have to give her wardrobe a makeover if she didn't want to stand out among the locals.

Then again, Monica had never known Gina to
not
want to stand out.

Gina arrived fifteen minutes late—early for her—and Monica was pleased to see that her outfit was at least partially appropriate. She was wearing her leopard-print trench coat but underneath she had on dark slacks and a bright red silk blouse. As far as Gina's outfits were concerned, this one was almost subdued enough for a funeral.

The supper was being held at the Central Reformed Church, where a lot of events in Cranberry Cove took place—from wedding receptions to funeral luncheons to meetings of the
Women's Garden Club. The church was a large, redbrick building just off the village green—as solid and stalwart as the members of its congregation.

Gina maneuvered her car down Beach Hollow Road. All the parking spaces were already taken, and cars lined the streets branching off from the village green.

“Looks like the whole town has turned out,” Gina said as she went around the block again, hoping a space would appear.

“That's good news for Charlie, I guess.”

“Oh, look.” Gina pointed ahead of her, where there was an open space along the curb. She hit the gas, and they flew forward.

“Rats,” Gina said when they got closer and noticed the bright yellow fire hydrant. “I have half a mind to park here anyway.” But she continued slowly down the street, her eyes scanning the parked cars for an opening.

In the end they had to leave the car in the parking lot of the Cranberry Cove High School. It was a bit of a walk to the church, and Gina complained every step of the way.

“Maybe you should have worn different shoes,” Monica finally said when Gina twisted her ankle on a bit of uneven pavement.

“I didn't realize we were going to have to hike to the supper,” Gina shot back.

Monica was glad she'd worn loafers, and she was grateful for the pair of gloves she found tucked in the pocket of her jacket. The evening air was growing colder.

Finally they were in sight of the church.

“I wouldn't be doing this if it weren't for the fact that I'm about to open a business here,” Gina grumbled. “I would
have gladly settled for writing a check and sending it in, but I have to show the locals that I'm one of them.”

Monica looked at Gina and her leopard-print coat, high-heeled peep-toe shoes and casually upswept hair and stifled a laugh. She had a feeling that Gina could live in Cranberry Cove for the next couple of centuries and still not fit in.

A handmade poster-board sign outside the church directed them around to the back, where a door was propped open and another handmade sign announced the spaghetti supper.

Monica and Gina descended the three cement stairs leading to the open door. Dried leaves were caught in the door well and crunched under their feet. The entrance led to another, longer set of stairs—metal with a bright red railing—that took them to the floor below.

Noise rose up the stairs to greet them—chattering voices, clattering plates and crying babies.

“Sounds like Kleinfeld's when they have their annual sale,” Gina said as they paused in the open doorway.

It was a large room with windows placed high on the cinder block walls. Long tables were covered in white plastic cloths, with aluminum folding chairs placed as close together as possible around them. Another long table was set up at the back of the room in front of a pass-through to a kitchen. Several women stood behind it dishing out the evening's fare of spaghetti, salad and garlic bread on paper plates.

Monica and Gina hesitated in the entrance. Monica scanned the crowd for anyone they knew. The tables were crowded but there were still a few seats scattered here and there.

A woman with very dark hair, the sort of blue eyes that only came from colored contact lenses and bright red lipstick swept toward them. She was wearing a purple caftan
and had a large crystal on a black silk cord around her neck. If possible, she looked even more out of place than Gina.

“You must be the new girl out at Sassamanash Farm,” she said, shaking Monica's hand.

Monica was no longer surprised that everyone knew who she was. “Yes. I'm Monica.” She turned to Gina. “And this is my stepmother, Gina.”

The woman stuck out her hand to Gina. “Tempest Storm,” she said in her deep voice. “I run Twilight, the New Age shop in town. I'm the town oddball, as I imagine you've already guessed.” She smiled at them. “Welcome to Cranberry Cove.”

She swept a hand around the room. “Looks like you'll get to meet all the locals at once. Sort of baptism by fire. They're not a bad bunch though—just suspicious of anyone who hasn't been here for at least three generations. Not that I blame them. Wait till summer when the tourists arrive from the four corners of the globe. We resent them at the same time we acknowledge we depend on their business.” She fingered the crystal around her neck. “I hope you'll stop by the shop one day. We have yoga classes, too, if you're interested.”

Monica made a noncommittal reply.

“There are some empty seats at my table. Why don't you join me?” She looked at Gina and smiled. “You look like a kindred spirit.”

“I'd like to think so,” Gina said. “I'm opening an aromatherapy shop. It's going to be down by the hardware store.”

“You don't say?” Tempest said as they made their way through the packed tables.

Monica noticed more than one head swivel in their direction, following their progress across the crowded room.

A small boy with red hair and freckles came around the
corner full tilt and ran smack into Monica. A young woman in a faded flower-print dress was right behind him. She grabbed him by the strap of his overalls and pulled him to a halt. “Now, Freddie, apologize to the lady.” She smiled shyly at Monica.

“That's okay—”

“No, no. He needs to learn to watch where he's going.” The woman gave the boy a slight shake.

His face had turned bright red so that all his freckles looked as if they had blended together. “I'm sorry,” he said, more to his shoes than to Monica.

“That's okay,” Monica said again.

The woman beamed. “Good boy, Freddie. Now let's go get you some ice cream.”

BOOK: Berried Secrets
5.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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