Authors: Peg Cochran
She pulled on some jeans and a warm sweatshirt with
on it. It was from Monica's college days and she supposed she ought to get rid of it, but it had sentimental value. Besides, it was very warm.
The oven timer pinged just as she walked into the kitchen. She pulled out the muffins and coffee cake and put them on a
wire rack to cool. As soon as she could handle them, she would pack them in her basket and take them down to the store. Any early customers would be treated to warm baked goods this morning.
Gina still hadn't woken up by the time Monica was ready to leave for the store. She scribbled a note, ripped the piece of paper from the scratch pad and left it on the kitchen table, propped against the salt and pepper shakers, where she hoped Gina would see it.
Monica began the walk to the farm store, her shoulders hunched against the cold. She passed the spot where she'd found the ring. It had been near the dirt path that had been worn between the cottage and the store. Whoever dropped it had been walking between the two. But who else could that have been except for her, Gina, Jeff and the members of his crew? It wasn't a man's ringâit was too small and too feminine-lookingâso it was unlikely it belonged to one of the men working for Jeff.
Darlene was just unlocking the door when Monica arrived at the store. Instead of being in its accustomed ponytail, Darlene's hair hung down her back, and Monica noticed she had had her bangs trimmed. She gave Monica a shy smile.
Well, Monica thoughtâthe money she'd spent on the birthday gift and lunch had obviously been money well spent.
“Can I help you with that?” Darlene asked after they'd both hung up their coats.
“Would you?” Monica handed her the baskets of baked goods. “There's something I want to check.”
Darlene began arranging the muffins with slightly more care than usual, and Monica was pleasantly surprised.
As soon as Darlene's back was turned, Monica pushed open the door into the screening room. The lights were off
and the machinery was idle and silent. Monica bit her lip. With Jeff in hiding, they were going to be behind on the harvest, and they could ill afford that. They needed the check from the sale to the cooperative as soon as possible.
Monica flicked on the lights. She knew it was a long shot but perhaps Jeff had spent the night in here. She looked around, but the room was empty, and there was no sign that anyone had hunkered down there for the evening.
She went back through to the store, grabbed her apron from the hook and had just finished tying it when the door opened and a woman walked in. She had on an expensive all-weather jacket like the ones in the window of Danielle's Boutique in town. Her dark brown leather boots were polished to a gleaming shine, and her hair was styled in such a way that Monica guessed she'd had it done at a salon in Chicago or some other big city.
Darlene sidled toward the woman at her customary snail's pace. Monica hovered nearby in case Darlene needed any help. The woman asked for an entire coffee cake. Monica thought she said it was for her book club.
Darlene retrieved the cake from the case and slid it into a white bakery bag. Monica made a mental note to order bags that had
written on them as soon as they ran low on the plain ones.
The woman pulled off her leather driving gloves, retrieved an ostrich-skin wallet from the depths of her Coach handbag and slid her credit card across the counter to Darlene.
Monica couldn't help but notice the large diamond ring on the woman's finger. It made the one Gina wore look like something from a Cracker Jack box. It also reminded Monica of the ruby ring in the pocket of her jacket.
As the woman gathered her purchases together and prepared to leave, Monica went to her jacket, stuck her hand in the pocket and retrieved the ring. She would show it to Darlene and see if she possibly recognized it.
“Can I show you something?” Monica asked.
“Sure. What is it?” Darlene blinked rapidly several times.
Monica put the ring on the counter. “I found this on the path between here and my cottage.”
Darlene gave a bitter laugh. “Well, it isn't mine, that's for sure.”
Monica suppressed a sigh. She hadn't expected it to be Darlene's. Sure enough to bet the farm at any rate.
“Do you recognize it at all?”
Darlene tilted her head to the side, regarding the ring from all angles. Finally she plucked it from the counter and held it in front of her nose. “It looks familiar. I think I might have seen one like it before.”
“Really? Could it belong to one of our customers?”
Sightseers on a tour of the farm could conceivably have taken that path to the bogs. Someone might have dropped that ring. Monica knew that the colder weather tended to make rings looser. Her engagement ring used to twirl around and around her finger in the winter, even though the jeweler had sized it appropriately.
Darlene continued to stare at the ring, the tip of her tongue showing between her teeth. She put the ring back on the counter.
“I think it belongs to Mrs. Culbert. I've seen one like it on her dressing table when I was in her room dusting.”
Monica froze. “Are you sure?”
Darlene bobbed her head. “Yes. I remember thinking it
was pretty.” She put out a finger and reverently touched the ring. “I like the red stone. Red is my favorite color.” Darlene sniffed. “Must be nice having fancy jewelry like that. Of course poor Mrs. Culbert had to pay for it.”
“Pay for it? You mean she bought it for herself?” Monica wondered where Darlene had gotten such information. Perhaps she and Andrea Culbert had become close?
Darlene rolled her eyes and smiled smugly, as if for once she was one up on Monica. “I didn't mean actually pay for it. Like with money. I meant she had to put up with Sam Culbert.” Darlene rolled her eyes again.
“I've heard he wasÂ .Â .Â . difficult.”
“Yes. Everybody knows that. And he was even worse at home. Everything had to be just so. Mrs. Culbert used to get so nervous when she heard his car pulling in the driveway. I stayed clear of him myself, that's for sure.”
“Why didn't she divorce him?” Monica was all for trying to work things out, but that didn't sound possible in this case.
“She wanted to.” Darlene lowered her voice although they were all alone in the store. “She told me she'd been to see a lawyer. The problem was the money. I heard them arguing one time.” Darlene lowered her voice even further. “And he told her that if she left him, he'd make sure she didn't get a single penny.”
Darlene shuddered. “That Sam Culbert scared me. I'm glad I don't work there anymore.”
Darlene shook her head. “Mrs. Culbert said she didn't need me anymore.” Darlene's eyes shifted away from Monica's. “She said that all their assetsâI guess she meant her money and stuff like thatâwere tied up until they did something about the will. She told me what it was, but I can't remember.”
“Probate? Until the will was out of probate?”
“Yes, that's it. I don't know what it means. All I know is it means I'm out of a job for the moment. Mrs. Culbert did say she'd call me the minute they were done doingÂ .Â .Â . what you said.”
The shop door opened and a woman came in. She went to the bakery counter and motioned for Darlene.
While Darlene waited on their customer, Monica straightened up the display of tea towels and pot holders. She kept thinking about what Darlene had said. If Darlene was right, and the ruby ring did belong to Sam Culbert's wife, then that meant she had been at Sassamanash Farm. Had she been there the night Culbert was killed? And had she decided that murder was a lot more expedient than a divorce?
Monica retrieved a clean handkerchief from her purse, wrapped the ring in it and tucked it back into her pocket. She would have to take it to the police and let them sort it out. Would it yield any useful fingerprints? The one thing she was certain ofâthe ring couldn't possibly incriminate Jeff in any way. He'd never been to the Culbert's house, and Monica knew there was no way he would have stolen such a valuable piece of jewelry.
Monica was about to leave the store when she heard her cell phone ringing from the depths of her purse. She rummaged around until she found it, pulled it out and held it to her ear.
“Monica? It's Gina.”
“What's wrong?” Gina sounded terribleâher voice was thick, as if she had been crying.
“Nothing really. It's just that I had this idea where Jeff
might be hiding. I'd given him a key to my new shopâyou know how I am about losing things, and I thought it would be safer that way. Jeff never loses anything. He must get that from his father.”
There was a long pause. “Yes?” Monica asked.
“I thought he might have let himself in to spend the night.” She made a noise that sounded halfway between a sob and a hiccough. “As a matter of fact, I was sort of counting on it. I didn't want to say anything in case I was wrong.” She gave an unmistakable sob. “And I was. There's no sign of him and no sign that he's ever been here.”
“Gina,” Monica pleaded. “Listen to me. Wherever Jeff is, you know he's fine. He managed to take care of himself in Afghanistan, didn't he?” Monica pushed thoughts of Jeff's paralyzed arm out of her mind. “I'm sure he can take care of himself here in Cranberry Cove. Even if it means sleeping rough for a couple of nights.”
Gina sniffed. “You're right. I'm being silly. It's just that I'd gotten my hopes upÂ .Â .Â .”
“Why don't I come into town, and we'll go get a cup of tea at the diner.”
Gina laughed. “A drink would be more like it.”
“The only bar likely to be open at this early hour is Flynn's, and I never want to set foot in that place again.”
“That makes two of us. The diner it is.”
Monica clicked off the call, grabbed her purse and slipped on her jacket.
Ten minutes later she was driving down Beach Hollow Road. She had to lower her visor against the bright sunlight coming through the window of her Focus. A car was pulling out of a space in front of the bookstore, and Monica pulled
up, waiting patiently, her blinker going to let others know she was claiming the space. The station wagon finished backing up and took off down the road. Monica quickly maneuvered the Focus into the space.
A white van with
in red lettering was double-parked just beyond where Monica had pulled in. The back doors were open, and Greg was busy unloading armfuls of books. He waved Monica over to where he was standing.
“I must be covered in dust,” he said as she approached. “I've been to an estate sale. Old Mrs. Pickering who owned that big house just outside of town, overlooking the lake, passed away, and her nephew thought I might be interested in some of her books. She had quite a collection. The house had a proper library, complete with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, and still they were tumbling off the shelves and stacked in huge piles on the floor. I think she was more of a hoarder than a collector.”
“Did you find anything good?” Monica tilted her head so she could read the titles of the books in Greg's arms.
“Believe it or not, I did. She had an entire set of Ngaio Marsh. First editions, too, and in good condition. The nephew refused to take any money for them. Said he was grateful to have someone cart them away, but I couldn't let him do that. I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I hadn't given him a fair price for them.” Greg freed one hand and scratched his nose. “There were plenty of other treasures, too, but the Ngaio Marsh set is a real find.”
“She's always been a favorite of mine. I think I have something of a crush on Roderick Alleyn.”
“Really?” Greg laughed. “She was passionate about the theater, you know. A fascinating woman all around.”
“Listen,” Monica said on impulse. “I know this is last minute, but would you like to come to dinner tonight?”
A huge grin swept across Greg's face. “I'd love to.” He glanced down at his feet. “I'll bring a bottle of wine. Red or white?”
Monica thought for a minute. “Red?”
Greg nodded. Monica started to give him directions, but he interrupted her.
“I know where Sassamanash Farm is, don't worry.”
They settled on a time, and Monica reluctantly said good-bye. As she was walking down the street toward Gina's shop, she wondered what on earth had gotten into her. It wasn't like her to be so spontaneous. She was the one who planned things well in advance, who made checklists of her checklists and stuck to a timetable no matter what happened. It was freeing though, and she rather liked the feeling at the same time that it scared her.
She could hear hammering and sawing as she approached Gina's shop. Hopefully they were making progress and would soon start on Gina's apartment.
Gina was deep in conversation with a man in khakis, a crisp blue shirt and a hard hat when Monica poked her head into the open doorway. They were leaning over a counter examining a sheet of unrolled papers.
Gina scurried over to where Monica was standing.
“Hi, sweetie. It was so nice of you to come, but the architect is here, and we're reviewing some possible changes to the plans.”
“That's fine.” Monica studied Gina's face. She seemed to have recovered from her earlier upset, although there were still lines of strain evident on her face, but overall she was
looking brighter than Monica had expected. “I've got to pick up something for dinner anyway. Greg is coming over.”
“Greg? The fellow from the bookstore?” Gina's face brightened even more. “You've invited him to dinner?”
Gina sounded rather incredulous, and Monica bristled slightly. Did Gina really think she was so hopelessly socially inadequate?
“Yes,” Monica said with a tart edge to her voice. “And I have no idea what to feed him.”
“A steak,” Gina said decisively. “You can't go wrong with some red meat for a good old red-blooded American man.” Gina turned and held up one finger to signal to the architect that she'd only be another minute. “I'll make myself scarce tonight, don't worry. I've got a key to Jeffie's apartment so I can go in and wash up and then take myself out to dinner.”
“I'm sorry.” Monica twisted her hands together. “I didn't intend to kick you outâ”
Gina held up a hand. “Don't give it another thought. I'm just glad that you're starting to live again.” She reached over and hugged Monica.
“Do you still want to get a cup of tea or are you going to be alright?”
Gina put a hand on Monica's arm. “I'm okay. Besides, the architect is here, and since he's probably going to charge me for this visit anyway, I'd better talk to him.” She squeezed Monica's hand. “But thanks. I appreciate the offer, I really do.”
Gina went back to where the architect was standing with his plans, and Monica headed two doors down the street to the butcher shop.
Bart was behind the counter wearing a fresh white apron and sharpening a long-bladed knife. He had a slender piece
of beef on the butcher block in front of him. He put the knife down and leaned with his palms flat against the board when he saw Monica. His shirtsleeves were rolled up, and Monica could see the sinewy muscles in his forearms.
“Hello there. Fine day we're having, isn't it?” He jerked a shoulder toward the window. “What is it you're after today? I've got some beautiful loin pork chops in that case over there, and we just finished making some darn fine Dutch rookwurst, if you're interested.”
“Actually I was after a steak,” Monica admitted. “What's that you have there?” She pointed to the piece of meat arrayed in front of Bart.
“This is your beef tenderloin.” Bart patted the meat affectionately. “Very tender, but not that much flavor.” He poked at the meat again. “People tend to confuse tenderness with flavor. If it's flavor you want, go with one of your other cuts. The tenderloin is a small muscle that's hardly used. Very little myoglobin, and it's the myoglobin that gives your meat its flavor.” He gave the tenderloin a little shake. “Of course, the more myoglobin your piece of meat has, the longer and slower it has to cook to break down the connective tissue and get it to what people like to call
falling off the bone
Monica's head was spinning, but she did know she didn't want long and slow. She didn't have time for that.
“I guess I was thinking along the lines of your basic steak.”
Was there such a thing?
“Like maybe a sirloin or porterhouse?” Monica grasped at two of the only names she remembered from visits to restaurants.
“I take it you're cooking dinner for a man?” Bart smiled and ran his hands down the front of his apron.
“Yes, how did youâ”
“Ladies usually go for the filet mignon, or worse, a chicken breast.”
Monica laughed. “What's wrong with a filet mignon?”
Bart pointed at the tenderloin on his board. “Your filet mignon comes from this shorter end of the tenderloin. Very tender, but little flavor. It needs a good sauce to round it out.”
“I guess I want something moreÂ .Â .Â . robustÂ .Â .Â . then.”
“Who is your lucky dining companion?” Bart started to poke around in one of the cases.
Monica's first instinct was to tell him it was none of his business, but he was just being friendly and that would make her look churlish.
“Greg Harper,” Monica admitted.
“Thought so,” Bart said, his head half stuck in one of the cases. He pulled out a tray of meat. “Will one of these do? These are some pretty fine porterhouses. It's a man-sized cut if that's what you're after.” Bart plucked one from the tray and held it out toward Monica. “Name's supposed to come from some restaurant or hotel, but no one knows for sure if that's true or not.”
“That looks fine.” Monica hoped Greg would come with a good appetite. Bart was right; it was certainly a man-sized cut of meat.
“I'll just wrap this up for you then.” Bart tore a piece of butcher paper from the roll next to the counter. “Greg's a nice guy,” he commented as he placed the meat on the paper. “Known him for a long time. I'm a good ten years older, but I helped coach the little league team he was on.”
Monica was confused. “I thought Greg was from Minneapolis. At least that's what he told me.”
Bart stopped with a piece of string stretched between his
hands. “He did go to Minneapolis for a number of years, but then he came back again. I think he wanted to get away after what had happened.”
Monica wanted to tread lightly so as not to dry up this well of information, but knowing Bart's propensity for gossip, she figured that was highly unlikely to happen.
“I'm afraid I don't know anything about that,” Monica said in an offhand tone.
Bart put the paper-wrapped steak down on the counter. He hadn't fastened the string yet, and his careful wrapping began to slowly flutter open.
“Back then, when they were both in junior high school, Greg and Sam Culbert were friends. It was an odd combination, I can tell youâHarper being on the bookish side and Culbert an athlete and something of a cutup.”
Monica's eyes widened in surprise. Greg and Sam friends?
Bart gave a nod as if he sensed her disbelief. “They hung out together all the timeâat least whenever Greg didn't have his nose buried in a book and Sam wasn't at practice for one sport or another.” He paused and licked his lips. “One night they really got up to mischief. I always believed Culbert was responsible, but Harper got the blame.”
Monica waited as Bart took a breath.
“Someone set a fire out at an old abandoned barn on the edge of town. Luckily it never really took hold, and the fire crew was able to put it out easily enough. It was mostly a lot of smoke, but it did do some damage, and they ended up pulling the whole structure down right afterward. A bunch of teenaged boys had been seen hanging out around the barn, no doubt smoking cigarettes and taking nips of liquor from bottles stolen from their parents.” Bart picked up the abandoned piece
of string and began to tie up Monica's steak. “Someone told the police they'd caught a glimpse of Culbert on the scene, which didn't surprise anyone. If there was mischief to be had, he was always right in the thick of it.”
Bart tightened the string and tied an expert knot. “Culbert claimed he'd been at the barn that night, but he'd left before the fire was started. Told the police it was Harper's idea and that he, Culbert, wanted none of it.” Bart looked thoughtful. “Oddly enough, Harper said much the same thing, only that the fire had been Culbert's idea, and he had left early, before the first match had even been lit.”