Authors: Peg Cochran
The locals were rightâit was some of the best chili she'd ever had.
Monica finished eating, fished some bills out of her purse and took the check to the counter. Several people were waiting in line for takeout orders, and Gus was really hustling behind the grill flipping burgers, toasting buns and checking on the French fries.
Monica was about to leave when she spotted Darlene in the takeout line.
“I thought you were supposed to be at the shop this afternoon.” Monica glanced at her watch.
Darlene shrugged. “I've got to eat, don't I? Jeff said it was okay.”
Jeff was way too easy on his employees, Monica decided as she walked back to her car. She would have to speak to him about it.
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Monica spent the afternoon struggling with the farm's accounts. Now she understood the expression
robbing Peter to pay Paul
. If they were going to meet the payroll for the week, she was going to have to put off sending the check for the electric bill until after it was due. Monica pushed away from the kitchen table where she'd set up her laptop and took a mug from the cupboard. She filled the kettle with water and while it was heating, got out a tea bag. As she was closing the cupboard door, she noticed the bottle of Scotch. It was certainly tempting to take Gina's advice and spike her tea. Looking at the bleak numbers on the computer screen had given her a headache.
Monica gave herself a mental shake. Things were going to turn around. As soon as this crop was in and sold, the picture would be a lot rosier. And she kept meaning to talk to Jeff again about getting an auditor to go over the books. If they could prove Culbert had been embezzling funds, then perhaps they could sue his estate for what they were owed.
Monica was still bent over her computer when her back door opened. It was just Jeff, but she made a mental note to be more careful about locking up in the future.
Apparently her stress was obvious, because Jeff put his hands on Monica's shoulders and began to rub them. “You're all knotted up.”
Monica opened her mouth to say something about the farm's financial situation but then closed it again. Jeff already knew things were bad. Why worry him more? But she did want to talk about Culbert.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked. Jeff was rubbing his hands together as if they were cold.
“Sure.” Jeff pulled out a kitchen chair, turned it around and straddled it.
“You know, I've been thinking,” Monica said while she had her back to her brother. “We really need to get someone to go over the farm's books. If I'm right, and Culbert was embezzling moneyâand I'm pretty sure he wasâwe need to report it.”
“What good is that going to do now?”
“We might sue his estate for the return of the money. Besides, it's theft and whether he's alive or not doesn't change things.”
Monica slid a mug of tea across the table toward Jeff. He cupped it in his hands.
“Is the farm really doing that badly?”
Monica bent down and pretended to tie her shoe. She'd never been good at lying, and she didn't want her face to give her away. “Things are fine. It just doesn't seem fair for Culbert to get away with it.”
Jeff grunted. “I suppose so. Although it seems to me he already got what was coming to him.” Jeff shivered. “I wouldn't want to go like that.”
“I'll do some research online, check if there have been any similar cases and how they were handled, okay?”
“Sure.” Jeff picked up his mug and gulped down the remainder of his tea. He looked at his watch. “I've got to get going. I'm meeting some of the guys from the crew for a beer and burger.”
She'd already brought up one touchy subject; Monica decided she might as well go all out. “Have you ever thought about getting some counseling?” she blurted out as Jeff put on his jacket.
“Counseling?” His face was blank. “What kind of counseling? What for?”
Monica clenched her fists until her nails dug into her palms. “To deal withÂ .Â .Â . some of the things you experienced in Afghanistan?”
Jeff's face twisted into a bitter expression. “You mean like this?” He lifted his left arm with his right and then let it drop again.
“Yes,” Monica said, more firmly than she felt. “You can't let it hold you back fromÂ .Â .Â . from doing things.”
“Like what? It seems to me I'm doing just fine. I'm keeping up with the rest of the crew when it comes to harvesting my crop.”
“You are.” Monica hastened to reassure him. “But you can't let it hold you back from formingÂ .Â .Â . relationships.” There. She'd said it.
“You mean like with Lauren?”
“Yes. Or any other woman for that matter.”
“Look, Sis, I've already told you. I'm a lousy prospect as a husband. I'm handicapped, and I'm barely getting by. All the counseling in the world isn't going to change that.”
The slamming of Monica's back door punctuated his statement as Jeff stomped out of the cottage.
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Monica glanced at the clock on her kitchen wall. It was after five o'clock. She powered off her computer and shut her eyes. She'd been staring at numbers for so long she could still see them dancing on her closed lids. She needed to take a break.
It was almost dinnertime, but she wasn't hungry yet.
Monica pushed her chair back. She would go see Cora instead. Cora ought to be home from the diner by now.
Monica grabbed her fleece jacket from the coat tree by the front door and slipped it on. The nights were getting progressively colder, and it wouldn't be too much longer before the landscape was blanketed in snow.
As Monica drove toward town, she noticed the leaves were quickly changing to brilliant reds, oranges and yellows. The locals were already complaining about the tourists on color tours who were taking over the townâtheir large tour buses belching exhaust into the fresh, clean air and clogging traffic on Beach Hollow Road. But the shops were full and the cash registers ringing, so that took the sting out of it. They'd have Cranberry Cove back for themselves soon enough.
Cora lived in a mobile home park just outside of town. Monica found it easily enough. A sign at the entrance announced it as the Park View Estates, although Monica could see nothing resembling a parkâunless you counted the small playground ringed by a few treesânor did she see anything that could even remotely be called an estate.
The place was very tidy, however, and Monica was surprised. She'd expected to see run-down trailers and lawns that were more dirt than grass, but everything was shipshapeâthe trailers were all in good repair with fresh paint and the miniature yards were well tended. The cars in the driveways were older but clean. Cleaner than her Focus, she thought ruefully.
It was very quiet. The playground was empty, and no one was outside sitting on their deck or doing work in the yard. Monica imagined everyone was inside having dinner or
preparing it. Somewhere a dogâit sounded like a small oneâbegan to bark shrilly, breaking the silence.
She followed the numbers until she found Cora's trailer. It was the second from the end of a row of similar looking mobile homes. She was about to turn into the driveway when two boys zoomed past her on their bikes, forcing Monica to brake hard.
Her hands were shaking slightly as she pulled in behind a green Taurus that she assumed was Cora's car. Certainly that must mean that Cora was at home.
Monica mounted the three steps to the deck and approached the door, where a cheerful-looking yellow print curtain was pulled across the window. Hopefully she could get this over with quicklyâher stomach was beginning to rumble. She pressed the bell and waited. After two or three minutes, Monica rang again. The trailer was a double-wide, and it couldn't possibly take Cora that long to get to the door.
There was still no answer a minute later. On the off chance that the bell was broken, Monica decided to knock.
She had just rapped on the door when someone called to her from the neighboring trailer. A woman was standing on her deck smoking a cigarette. She was in a T-shirt and had her arms wrapped around herself for warmth. Her hair was unnaturally black, and there was a colorful tattoo peeking out from under the sleeve of her top.
“Looking for Cora?” She called in a husky voice.
“She ought to be home. Her car's there,” she pointed her cigarette at the Taurus, “and I didn't see her go out.” She took a puff on her cigarette and let the smoke out in a stream. “You'd better knock again.”
The woman stubbed her cigarette out in an aluminum ashtray that was propped on the deck rail. “Of course she might be in the shower and can't hear you.”
Monica hoped that wasn't the case. She knocked again and waited. Still nothing.
Perhaps she couldn't hear her for some reason, but she could peek in the trailer and see if Cora was there. There was a window over the deck with the curtain pushed to the sides. For once Monica was glad of her height. She stood on tiptoe and peered in.
She was looking into Cora's living room. It was as tidy as the outside of the trailer, with a floral patterned sofa and a round, tiered table crammed with ceramic figurines.
An armchair in the same floral pattern was at right angles to the sofa. Cora was sitting in it, slumped over and lifeless.
Monica's first instinct was to scream, but she managed to stifle it, and it came out as more of a whimper. She didn't want to alert the entire neighborhood. There was still the possibility that Cora had simply fallen asleep sitting in her chair. Monica could remember occasions when she, herself, had been so tired after a long day at the cafe that she had fallen asleep sitting bolt upright on the sofa.
She rapped hard on the window. There was no movement from Cora. Monica knocked again as hard as she couldâit hurt her knucklesâbut no response.
She needed to get inside to see if Cora was okay. Somehow, Monica had the feeling that she wasn't.
Hopefully Cora wasn't the sort who locked up tight every time she went inside. Monica tried the door, and the handle turned. Her heart was hammering hard against her ribs. She wasn't particularly squeamish, but despite finding Culbert's
body in the bog, she was hardly accustomed to being confronted with corpses.
Cora's living room was as tidy inside as it had looked through the window. There was a mug with what appeared to be tea in it on the coffee table in front of her. Monica called Cora's name as she approached the chair where Cora was sitting, but she already suspected it was hopeless. There was an unnatural stillness to Cora's bodyâno rise and fall of her back to suggest she was breathing, and no whistling sound of her breath, either.
As soon as Monica touched her, she knew Cora was dead. She backed away from the body quickly and fumbled in her purse for her cell phone. The call went through quickly, and Monica managed to keep her voice steady as she explained the situation to the dispatcher.
The dispatcher promised to send someone over immediately, and it wasn't long before Monica heard the sound of sirens in the distance. She went out on the deck to wait.
The fresh air felt good. Monica grasped the deck rail as she breathed deeply, trying to steady the frantic beating of her heart. She heard a movement behind her and turned around. The woman next door was standing outside her back door lighting a cigarette. Monica suspected she was more interested in what was going on than having another smoke.
The sirens got louder, and a minute later a patrol car came roaring down the quiet street. It pulled into Cora's driveway and stopped. Both front doors flew open at the same time, and two uniformed patrolmen jumped out. They weren't the same policemen who had arrived at Sassamanash Farm when Culbert's body was discoveredâthey were both thin and wiry, and to Monica, they looked like rookies. They were too young to be anything else.
They took the stairs to the deck in one giant step and stood uncertainly in front of Monica.
“You okay, ma'am?”
Monica wondered just when she'd segued from being
? It made her feel very tired all of a sudden, and she sagged against the deck rail.
“You going to faint, ma'am?” the one cop asked, a look of alarm on his face.
“No. I'm fine,” Monica reassured him. She waved a hand toward Cora's door. “She'sÂ .Â .Â . she's in there.”
Both policemen tried to get through the door at the same time. The one with the glasses scowled at the other, who dropped back to let his partner go first.
Monica looked up to find the woman across the way staring at her. She was leaning on her deck rail, both arms crossed, a cigarette burning unheeded in her fingers. She jerked her head toward Cora's trailer.
“What's going on?”
Monica didn't know what to say. She shook her head. “I don't know. I think Cora has taken ill.”
“Is it her heart?” The woman took a deep drag on her cigarette and then dropped the butt over the side of the deck. “My name's Dawn by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Dawn,” Monica said, trying to convey with the tone of her voice that she didn't want to prolong the conversation.
It had no effect on Dawn. She started down her deck steps and headed in Monica's direction. Monica could smell the smoke on her as soon as she got close, and it made her feel slightly sick.
“I'm not surprised she's had a heart attack,” Dawn said, crossing her arms over her chest. “She puts in a lot of hours at that diner. The owner's a slave driver.”
Monica gave a noncommittal smile.
“I'm guessing since the cops are here that she'sÂ .Â .Â . well, that there's not much hope.”
“I'm afraid not.”
“Sad.” Dawn didn't look particularly distressed as she pulled a fresh cigarette from the waistband of her sweatpants.
By now several people had come out of their homes and walked down to stand in front of Cora's trailer. Dawn assumed a superior air, as if she was somehow in the know. She waved to a couple of people and smiled smugly.
Monica didn't want to go inside, but she didn't want to stand out here any longer with everyone staring at her, either. A couple of the women were still wearing their aprons, and one of the young boys had what Monica hoped was ketchup all down his shirt.
Finally another car came down the street and pulled up to the curb outside Cora's trailer. Detective Stevens heaved herself out of the driver's seat. Monica thought she looked even bigger than the last time she'd seen her.
Stevens mounted the three stairs to the deck, pulling herself up by the handrail. She was a little breathless as she stood in front of Monica.
“Want to tell me what's happened?” Suddenly she spun around. “There's no need for you to be here,” she said to Dawn.
Dawn looked sulky but she took off for her own trailer without complaint.
Stevens turned to look at the crowd that had gathered in
front of Cora's. “You can all go home now. There's nothing to see. A woman took ill, that's all.”
Monica could hear the group muttering as they slowly dispersed and made their way home.
“Ghouls,” Stevens said as she watched them leave. She turned back to Monica. “You look cold. Do you want to go inside?”
Monica wasn't anxious to spend any more time in a room with a dead body, but her teeth were beginning to chatter, although she suspected it was more from shock than cold. She followed Stevens through the door.
“Try to touch as little as possible,” Stevens said. “We don't know what we're dealing with here yet. Although two murders in Cranberry Cove in less than a week is a bit hard to swallow.” She turned to the patrolmen. “Did you check for a pulse?”
“Yes, ma'am,” they chorused. “Nothing.”
Stevens looked at Monica. “Do we know who she is?”
“Her name is Cora Jenkins. She works at the Cranberry Cove Diner.”
Stevens approached the body and looked it over carefully. She pulled a pair of gloves from the pocket of her trench coat and slipped them on.
Monica turned away and looked out the window. The small crowd that had dispersed previously had gathered again at the end of Cora's driveway with Dawn right in front. She still hadn't donned a coat or jacket and was about to light yet another cigarette.
Finally, Stevens was finished with the body. She stripped off her gloves and turned to Monica. “Why don't we go into the kitchen?”
Cora's kitchen was spotless. A small round table by the window was covered with a clean white lace cloth with salt and pepper shakers painted to look like Kewpie dolls in the center. Ironed dishcloths printed with cranberries hung from the oven door handle. Monica wondered if Cora had purchased them at Sassamanash Farms.
Stevens looked all around the room. She came to a halt in front of the sink. “That's odd.” She pointed inside the sink. “Look. There's a dirty mug in here.”
“There was a cup of tea on the coffee table in front of theÂ .Â .Â . in front of Cora, too.”
“Did you have tea with her?” Stevens jerked her head toward the sink.
“No. She was alreadyÂ .Â .Â . dead when I got here.”
Stevens glanced around the room again. “Not a thing out of place,” she said almost to herself. “Why would Cora leave a dirty mug in the sink?” She pointed to the dishwasher. “Why not put it in the dishwasher?”
“Maybe she was in a hurry to leave this morning?”
Stevens shook her head. “She was sitting in the living room with a fresh cup of tea. Surely while the water was heating she would have dealt with the dirty mug. No, I think she had a visitor, and she gave that person a cup of tea. And that person brought the mug out to the kitchen and left it in the sink. What we don't know is, did that person also kill Cora?” She was thoughtful for a moment. “Assuming Cora didn't die of natural causes. There's no evidence of traumaâno wounds, no bleeding. Maybe she merely had a heart attack or a stroke. That would certainly make my job easier.” She rubbed her belly absentmindedly and gave a gusty sigh. “We'll find out soon enough when the autopsy is done.”
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By the time Monica turned her Focus into her own driveway, she was shivering again. This time she knew it was nervesâshe had had the heater going full blast the whole way home but to no effect. She would make a hot cup of tea and this time she would spike it with the last of the Scotch in the bottle.
She was getting out of the car when Gina's Mercedes pulled in in back of her. Monica groaned. She'd been looking forward to a quick dinner, some reading and then early to bed. But she put a smile on her face and waved.
“Gina. Hi.” She almost asked what Gina was doing there but bit her tongue at the last minute.
“I hope you haven't eaten.” Gina slammed her car door shut. She was carrying a plain white shopping bag.
“No, I haven't.”
“Perfect. The chef at the Inn put together a little care package for us.” She followed Monica inside.
“A care package?”
“Yes.” Gina put the bag down on the kitchen table and began to remove the contentsâseveral aluminum tins and a bottle of wine. “He's sent chicken Marsala.” She opened the lid on one of the containers and breathed deeply. “Doesn't that smell heavenly?”
Monica had been sure that she would be too upset to eat, but she had to admit that the aroma drifting from the pans was enticing.
“There's also a side of pasta, a green salad and a huge piece of tiramisu we can split for dessert.”
Monica grabbed some plates from the cupboard and a handful of silverware and quickly set the table.
“Where's your corkscrew?” Gina held up the bottle of wine.
Monica rummaged in a drawer. “Here it is.” She handed it to Gina.
Gina opened the bottle and poured each of them a glass.
Monica took a sip. It was just what she needed, and as they sat down to eat, she realized that she was actually starving.
Gina pointed her fork at Monica. “Tell me what's been going on.”
Monica finished her bite of chicken Marsala. “Like I told you I've been trying to track down some of the other people in Cranberry Cove who had a bone to pick with Culbert. I decided I would pay a visit to Cora Jenkins who isÂ .Â .Â . was the waitress at the Cranberry Cove Diner.”
“Was?” Gina said, her eyebrows raised.
“I'll explain. I went over to the diner at lunch to see if I could talk to Cora, but she was busy. She gave me her address and suggested I come by her place after work.” Monica put down her fork. Her appetite had suddenly deserted her. “I did, but she couldn't tell me anything. She was dead.”
Gina gasped. “Another murder!”
Monica held up a hand. “Not necessarily. Detective Stevens said it could have been a stroke or a heart attack or some other natural cause. We won't know until the autopsy is completed.”
“When will that be?”
Monica shrugged. “Stevens said they would make it a priority, so hopefully soon.”
Gina unwrapped the piece of tiramisu. “Do you think Mauricio did it?'
Monica pursed her lips. “Mauricio? I can't imagine why. I don't know if he even knew Cora.”
“But don't you think it's a little too coincidental? I mean, two murderers in the same small town?”
“We don't know if Cora was murdered.”
Gina licked some whipped cream off her upper lip. “True, but let's face itâthe whole setup smells. Two murders in Cranberry Cove seem pretty unlikely, but it's just as unlikely that Cora suddenly dropped dead from some heart issue at the same moment she was about to talk to you. My guess is she had more to tell you than just her opinion of Culbert.”
“You're probably right.” Monica picked at her piece of tiramisu. “I suppose we'll have to wait to see what the autopsy reveals.”
“I'd bet anything it's going to show that foul play was involved.”