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Authors: Peg Cochran

Tags: #Mystery

Berried Secrets (3 page)

BOOK: Berried Secrets
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She saw Jeff glance in Lauren's direction and wave, his entire face brightening for a brief moment. Monica knew they'd been to the movies a couple of times, and the way Jeff talked about Lauren led Monica to believe that this might become serious.

She watched, biting her lip, as Jeff struggled with his shoulder strap. He didn't like to feel as if he was being coddled because of his injury, and in the five weeks she'd been living at the farm, Monica had learned to let him do
things on his own. She gave a sigh of relief when he adjusted it to his satisfaction.

He smiled at Monica. “Let's go.”

Monica shivered at the thought of getting into the water but gamely moved toward the bog, which by now was crimson with floating berries. The brisk breeze was blowing them to the side farthest from the truck.

“Just our luck,” one of the men called out. “The wind is going in the wrong direction.”

“Yeah. More work for us.” The fellow who had complained about his waders shouted back.

Monica sat on the edge of the bog, as she had seen the men do, and swiveled until she was standing thigh deep in the water. The bottom of the bog was sandy and uneven, and she stumbled and nearly lost her footing.

“Careful, there.” Jeff put a hand on her elbow to steady her. He handed her a wooden rake. “We need to head over there.” He pointed toward the pump.

The cranberries were at least six inches deep and swirled around Monica's legs in a kaleidoscope of colors—from nearly black to crimson to a pale pink. She trailed her hands through the cold water and watched the berries bob and spin.

Jeff plucked a cranberry from the water and handed it to Monica. “Bite it in half.”

Monica did, and the tart taste flooded her mouth.

Jeff pointed at the half in her hand. “See. Each berry has four air pockets. That's what makes them float.”

Monica looked out across the bog. The sun had risen a little higher in the sky, the early clouds had scattered, and the light was glancing off the berries. It was magical.

“Come on,” Jeff said. “The guys are going to need our help.”

Monica made her way through the water as best she could. The rest of the crew was busy attempting to corral the berries. Monica pointed at them. “What is that they're using?”

“That's a boom,” Jeff said. “There's a chain on the bottom and foam rubber on the top. It's similar to what they use to contain an oil spill. They'll sweep the berries together with it. Our job,” he held out his rake, “is to push the berries toward the pump.”

Slowly the cranberries were pulled toward the center of the bog, creating a growing carpet of brilliant red. A chorus of “ahs” rose from the small crowd that was watching the early morning harvest.

The sea of crimson grew as they corralled more and more of the harvest and slowly tightened the boom, like a noose tightening around someone's neck. Monica and Jeff stood in the middle along with two of the other crew members, sweeping the berries toward the pump with their rakes.

The berries floated easily enough, and raking them wasn't difficult, but keeping her balance on the sandy bottom of the bog was challenging Monica's leg muscles.

“You okay?” Jeff looked over at her.

“Fine.” Monica smiled. If Jeff could do the job with only one good arm, she ought to be able to tough it out.

Monica reached out her wooden rake to capture a small group of berries that had drifted away when it caught on something. She pulled but it didn't want to budge.

“What's wrong?” Jeff looked at her in concern.

“The rake is caught on something.” Monica pulled again, even harder this time.

“Could be tangled in one of the vines,” one of the men said, holding out his hand for the rake.

Monica shook her head. She could do this. She pulled one more time. The rake finally came free and she nearly fell, stumbling backward several feet before regaining her footing. Water splashed onto the back of her sweatshirt, and she shivered. She finally steadied herself and was reaching for the small pocket of errant berries when something began to rise from the depths of the flooded bog.

“What the . . .” Jeff said.

They all stopped working and watched in grim fascination as a body, its clothes completely sodden and its face bloated with water, slowly rose to the surface.

Monica screamed and dropped her rake, and a gasp rose from the group of tourists on the bank. Jeff stifled an oath, and the other workers turned off the water reels and waded over to Monica and Jeff as quickly as possible, their brisk movements sending up splashes of water.

“Querido Deus,” one of them muttered.

The fellow in the red cap turned toward Jeff. “Who is it?”

Jeff looked stricken, his face as white as a sheet of paper. It took him a moment to answer. “It's Sam. Sam Culbert,” he said finally.

Chapter 3

Everyone was momentarily frozen. The thought crossed Monica's mind that they must form an utterly bizarre tableau, standing stock-still, thigh deep in cranberries and clad in chest waders. The cry of a loon flying overhead broke the spell, and they all began talking at once.

Jeff raised his voice to be heard above the excited babble. “We need to get the police.”

“Maybe he's not dead? Does anyone know CPR?” The worker with the curly hair and the red cap looked around at the rest of them.

Jeff shook his head. “I've seen enough death to know it's too late for that.” But he reached out and felt Culbert's neck for a pulse. Culbert was wearing the red-and-white checked shirt and jeans Monica had seen him in the day before.

Jeff removed his hand, shook his head again and turned toward Monica.

“I left my cell phone up on that tree stump.” He gestured over his shoulder. “Where the box of doughnuts is sitting. Can you go call nine-one-one?”

For a moment Monica couldn't move. Her feet were rooted to the soft, sandy bottom of the bog, and the scene before her looked hazy as if she was about to faint. She shook her head to clear it and began making her slow and laborious way to the side of the bog, pushing the massed cranberries out of the way as she walked.

The men had dropped the boom, and all the berries that had previously been corralled were now drifting free, blown by the wind to the opposite bank.

Getting out wasn't as easy as getting in, Monica discovered, and by the time she managed it, her sweatshirt was wet and muddy. She stripped off the waders as fast as she could and ran toward the tree stump Jeff had indicated. Her hands were shaking as she dialed 911, and she nearly dropped the phone. She tightened her grip and waited for a voice to come over the line.

The operator answered almost immediately. Monica explained what had happened and then had to repeat the farm's address twice. Her teeth were chattering so hard by now that the woman couldn't understand her.

The dispatcher promised a patrol car would be around immediately and advised them not to do anything or touch anything until the officers arrived. Monica clicked off the call and put the phone back on the stump.

“Someone is coming,” she called to Jeff as soon as she was within earshot of the bog.

“I'll stay with the body. You all get out and get warm,” Jeff said to the crew.

Now that they were no longer working, and with shock setting in, the men had started to shiver.

Jeff was shivering, too, but Monica knew better than to try to persuade him to let someone else stay with Culbert's body. There were plenty of things Jeff couldn't do because of his arm, but if something needed to be done that he could manage, Monica knew he wouldn't let anyone else take over.

“Shouldn't we get him out of there?” the fellow in the red cap asked.

“No!” Monica said hastily. “The woman said not to move him and not to touch anything unless absolutely necessary.”

By now Lauren had wisely moved her small group of tourists away from the scene, although some had obviously been reluctant to leave the excitement. She had had to herd them together like a sheepdog, all but nipping at their heels.

The crew climbed out of the bog and stood around, stamping their feet and wrapping their arms around themselves to get warm. One fellow picked up his abandoned Styrofoam cup of coffee and took a sip of the dregs. He made a face, shuddered, and poured the rest of it onto the ground.

Monica wondered if she ought to run back to the cottage to put on a fresh pot of coffee, but just then they heard sirens in the distance.

Monica couldn't help but notice the look of panic that came over the face of one of the men. He had thick, chestnut hair and hazel eyes and was very good-looking. He had caught Monica's eye almost immediately, although he was probably ten years younger than her.

He hesitated for a moment, plucking at the hem of his sweatshirt, then took off at a run, across the field, away from the road where the sound of sirens had become louder.

“Mauricio,” Jeff called after him. “Come back. Mauricio! What's wrong?”

Mauricio continued running, and by the time the police cars came barreling down the dusty, rutted road, he was gone from view.

Monica looked at Jeff, but he just shook his head.

The patrol cars swerved to a halt, and their doors flew open. Monica heard garbled voices overlaid with static blaring from the radios. Two uniformed officers exited the vehicles and began walking toward the bog. One was young, with cropped blond hair and a pair of dark, wraparound sunglasses. The other was older, his white face shining with perspiration. He kept hitching his pants up as he walked, as if his holster, gun and nightstick were weighing them down.

Jeff shimmied out of the bog and joined the rest of the crew.

The younger officer chomped down on a piece of gum, snapping and popping it before he spoke. “What have we got here?”

His partner had finally caught up with him, his breath whistling audibly in the still air. “Drowning?” He looked around, his gaze settling on Jeff, as if he could tell Jeff was in charge.

Jeff shrugged his shoulders, his left arm hanging limply by his side. “Doubt it. Water's barely more than a foot deep.”

“Got any idea who he is?” The blond peered over the edge of the bog at Culbert's body, which was now floating freely, a long strand of cranberry vine trailing across his chest.

“Sam Culbert.” Jeff looked down at his feet.

The heavier officer whistled. “Thought he looked familiar.” He glanced at his watch. “Detective Stevens should be on the way.”

At first Monica thought he'd said
so she was
surprised when a car pulled up and a woman got out. She was heavily pregnant and wearing an unbuttoned trench coat over a navy jumper and white blouse. She went around to the trunk of her car, opened it and fished out a pair of rubber boots. She perched on the edge of the backseat and pulled them on.

Monica noticed that the officers' posture straightened ever so slightly, and the one in the sunglasses momentarily stopped snapping his gum. Detective Stevens made her way across the muddy ground to where they were all standing. She had blond hair cut slightly shorter than chin length and tucked behind her ears.

She, too, picked Jeff out of the crowd, sticking out her hand briskly. “Detective Tammy Stevens.”

Several of the crew looked startled, and Monica thought she could read the look on their faces.
A female detective? What gives?

“The coroner will be along shortly. Meanwhile, I'd like to ask you some questions.”

Monica looked her over. They were around the same age. This must be a late in life pregnancy for Stevens. She was pretty, but her blue eyes, only lightly touched by wrinkles, were sharp.

The men shuffled their feet and looked down at the ground. Monica pulled her hands up inside her sleeves. Shock was making her shiver. Stevens put a hand on Monica's arm.

“You okay?”

Monica nodded briskly and lifted her chin. She could handle this. She glanced at Jeff out of the corner of her eye. He looked worried, as was to be expected, but not particularly shaken.

Stevens turned toward the officers. “Do we have an ID on the body?” She said the word
almost apologetically, glancing at Monica to see if she was okay.

“Sam Culbert,” the heavier officer hastened to say, like an eager student showing off in class. The blond gave him a dirty look.

“Sam Culbert, huh?” Stevens edged closer to the bog and peered over the edge, both hands on her back. “Any idea how he got in there?” She gestured toward the water and turned around.

“No,” Jeff said. He looked around at the crew, as if for confirmation. They hung their heads, suddenly becoming fascinated with their shoes.

“Seems unlikely he drowned.” Stevens seemed to be speaking to herself. She turned around to look at the body again. “He knows this farm well. It's been in his family for years.”

“I bought the farm from Sam just over a year ago,” Jeff said quietly. “He managed it for me while I was over in Afghanistan.”

Stevens scratched idly at her swollen stomach. “Any idea what he was doing here then? You two have an appointment or something?”


“He just dropped by?”

Jeff shrugged. “Yeah. To see if I needed any help with anything.”

Monica noticed Jeff couldn't keep the sneering tone out of his voice. She hoped Stevens wouldn't pick up on it.

Jeff took off his hat and scratched his forehead. “But he was alive when he left.”

Monica cleared her throat, and Stevens turned toward her. “I saw Sam leave yesterday. I saw him get into his car. He was wearing the same clothes. I remember the shirt.”

“Really?” Stevens's eyebrows rose nearly to her hairline. “Could he have come back?”

“He must have,” Jeff said. “And someone killed him. Because like I told you, he was alive when he left the farm.”

They heard the rumble of a car in the distance.

“Probably the coroner.” Stevens turned to the two officers. “Get everyone's name and number.” She swiveled around toward Monica and the crew. “As soon as my men here have your information, you can go. But no one leave town, because I'll have more questions for you.”

The crew rattled off their names and addresses, then scattered like marbles tossed onto the floor. Monica gave her contact information but lingered, waiting for Jeff to be ready to leave.

Stevens had pulled a camera from the pocket of her trench coat and was taking pictures of the body in the bog.

A car came along the road and pulled up close, edging onto the grass. But it wasn't what they'd all been expecting. This was a late-model Mercedes, as clean and shiny as if it had just come from the car wash. It was highly unlikely it belonged to the coroner, for whom this was only a part-time job.

Jeff put his head in his hands and gave a loud moan. Monica looked at him curiously.

The driver's side door opened, and a pair of legs emerged. Good ones with a very artful looking spray tan. They ended in a pair of sky-high designer pumps. The owner of the legs wriggled her way out of the car, pulling down her short, tight skirt as she emerged from the confines of its interior.

“Gina,” Jeff groaned.

The woman stood still for a moment, surveying the scene in front of her. Her professionally streaked blond hair was arranged in a loose twist in the back and with bangs that brushed her eyebrows. Her nails were long and as red as the cranberries, and she had a very expensive handbag hanging from the crook of her arm.

“Jeffie,” she called when she spotted her son.

Stevens was brought up short. She swiveled around as fast as her vast stomach would allow. “Who the heck is that?”

Gina began picking her way across the muddy field, the heels of her hideously expensive shoes sinking into the soft turf with every step. Stevens started toward her, one hand on the small of her back, the other held out in front of her, gesturing for Gina to stop.

“Please, ma'am, if you'll just stop where you are.”

Gina paused with one foot raised in the air, her glossy pink mouth forming a startled

Stevens continued toward where Gina was standing. “This is a crime scene. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave.”

“A crime scene?” Gina shrieked, already backing up. “Jeffie, honey, are you in trouble? Should I call Arthur Sullivan?” She caught sight of Monica and waved.

“I don't need a lawyer. I'm fine, Mom. Why don't you go back to the Inn, and I'll call you when I'm done here, okay?”

Gina was already headed toward the Mercedes. She slid behind the wheel quickly, started the car and pulled away, spitting dust and gravel in her wake.

Stevens looked at her watch. “The coroner should be along any minute now. Why don't you two go home? You may not want to see this. I'll catch up with you later.”

Monica was more than ready to go. She was chilled to the bone and still feeling the effects of shock.

“I'll stay if you don't mind.” Jeff raised his chin.

“Your call.”

The patrolmen had started to string up strands of yellow police tape. It fluttered in the breeze, making a sharp snapping sound.

Monica turned and began to walk back toward her cottage. She gave one last backward glance at Jeff, who was pacing up and down, his good arm clasped across his chest. She hated leaving him, but she desperately needed to get warm and dry.

Monica thought about what had happened as she made her way home. Jeff hadn't said a word about Mauricio and how he had taken off so suddenly. Monica felt guilty that she hadn't mentioned it herself.

She let herself into her cottage, stripped off her wet clothes and wrapped herself up in her terry cloth robe. It had seen better days—the fabric was matted down and rubbed nearly bare in spots—but she couldn't bring herself to part with it.

BOOK: Berried Secrets
8.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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