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Authors: Peg Cochran

Tags: #Mystery

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BOOK: Berried Secrets
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Monica filled the teakettle, and when it began to whistle, she grabbed it off the stove. She filled her mug with the hot water and dunked a tea bag in it mindlessly. Her head had started to ache, and she thought she might go lie down for a few minutes.

Monica carried her tea into the cottage's small living room and curled up on the sofa. There was a soft, woven throw in muted shades of blue and gray tossed over the arm. She pulled it up and snuggled underneath it. She could have gotten in bed for a nap, but she was afraid she might sleep too deeply.
Besides, she wasn't comfortable with the whole concept of taking naps—they seemed like a waste of time.

Monica's eyes closed, and she was drifting off when someone began banging on the front door. Her eyes flew open, and she tossed back the throw. Before she could reach the foyer, the knocking started again, even harder this time. Monica couldn't imagine who it was or what was so urgent, but the frantic pummeling of fists against the door sent a shiver of unease down her spine.

“I'm coming,” Monica called to whoever was out there.

Chapter 4

Monica flung open the door, and Gina stumbled into the tiny foyer. Her hair was coming down on one side, and her Louboutin pumps were caked with mud. She had a leopard-print trench coat cinched tightly around her waist, and two-carat diamond studs winked in her ears.

“I don't know why Jeffie decided to buy this place,” she grumbled as she wiped her feet on the mat outside Monica's door. “I'd never have let him spend all those summers on my parents' farm if I'd have known it was going to turn him into a farmer.”

She followed Monica into the living room and tossed her coat on a chair, but instead of sitting down, she flitted about the room—lifting the curtain to peer outside, examining the photographs on Monica's mantel and fingering the books stacked on the coffee table.

“I just don't know what we're going to do.” She wrung her hands distractedly.

Monica jumped up from her perch on the sofa. “Why don't I get you some tea? That will make you feel better.”

“Honey, the only way tea's going to make me feel better is if you put a big old glug of Jack Daniel's in it.”

Monica looked at her watch. “It's barely noon.”

“Monica, you've got to unbend a bit, you know? Loosen up. Throw out the rule book once in a while. You've had a shock. We all have. I think it calls for something a little more fortifying than a cup of tea.”

“Will a shot of Dewar's do?” Monica had a dusty bottle of Scotch in the cabinet—a relic of her days of entertaining in Chicago.

“Make it a double, and you've got a deal.” Gina finally lit on the end of an armchair, one leg crossed over the other, her skirt inching even farther up her thigh, her foot jiggling furiously.

Monica refilled the kettle and unearthed the bottle of liquor from the back of one of the kitchen cabinets. It was still three-quarters full. She brewed a cup of tea and added a splash of Scotch. She hesitated, then added another splash. She carried it out to the living room, where Gina was once again prowling around the room.

The cup rattled slightly in its saucer as Monica set it down on the coffee table. Gina plopped into the armchair opposite. Monica noticed Gina's hand was shaking, too, as she lifted the cup to her mouth.

Gina sighed with satisfaction and replaced the cup in its saucer. She leaned back in her chair, tucking an errant clump
of hair back into her French twist. “I hope you don't mind me barging in on you like this.”

Actually Monica minded quite a bit. Her head was throbbing and every fiber in her body ached to lie down for an hour or two. But obviously she would never say that. She'd been raised to be polite, accommodating, and to be seen and not heard.

“I imagine you're wondering what I'm doing here.” Gina twirled her five-carat diamond engagement ring around and around her finger. “It's like this. Your father and I have decided to go our separate ways.” Gina traced a pattern on the coffee table with her finger. “Actually, your father decided to go
his
separate way.” She went back to twirling the enormous diamond. “And he's not exactly going alone.”

Her brows drew together, her lips clenched in a thin line and her nostrils flared. Her expression made Monica think of an approaching thunderstorm.

“He took off with some floozy who cuts his hair. Who ever heard of a female barber? Barbers are supposed to be old, bald and smoke cigars.” Gina frowned and tossed back a huge gulp of her tea.

Monica was sorely tempted to mention to Gina that if taking off with someone else's husband was the criteria for being considered a floozy, the term could be applied to her as well. Gina had been behind the counter in the cosmetics department of one of the stores at the mall when John Albertson had walked in to buy Monica's mother her annual bottle of Valentine's Day perfume. Gina had latched onto him like a terrier with a bone, and the next thing Monica knew, her parents were getting divorced and they were moving out of their house in Lake Forest to a smaller home just far enough away to mean changing schools.

“It's just that it's left me at loose ends. I didn't want to
mill around while John cleaned his things out of the condo. I hope you don't mind me hanging around for a bit.”

Monica shook her head. “No, not at all, I'm sure . . .” She searched for something positive to say. “Jeff will be glad to spend some time with you.”

Gina polished off her cup of tea and leaned back in the chair, her arms crossed over her chest.

“Just what was that all about this morning?”

Monica explained about finding Sam Culbert's body in the cranberry bog.

Gina leaned forward. “Is Jeffie in trouble?”

“No . . .”

“There's something you're not telling me.” Gina tapped a long, manicured nail on the table.

“Culbert was cheating Jeff. He'd embezzled thousands of dollars from the farm while Jeff was overseas. Jeff claims he didn't know, but I'm not so sure. How could he not?”

Gina's eyes widened, and her hand flew to her mouth. “But Jeff would never . . .” She narrowed her eyes and looked at Monica. “Did you tell the police—”

Monica was already shaking her head. “No, I didn't say a thing. But that detective, Stevens, is smart. I don't think it will take her long to put two and two together.” Monica was quiet for a moment. “And Jeff threatened to kill Culbert.”

Gina's indrawn breath was audible across the room. “He did?”

Monica nodded. “But I'm sure it was just letting off steam. People say things like that when they're mad. They don't mean it. Jeff wouldn't do something like that.”

But he'd probably killed people in Afghanistan
, Monica thought.

“There was something else I didn't mention to the police, and neither did Jeff. There's this fellow who works for Jeff—Mauricio—who acted very oddly. He took off shortly after the body was discovered.”

“Before the police arrived?” Gina's foot had started jiggling again.

“Yes. As soon as he heard the sirens approaching, he began to run. Jeff called to him, but he didn't listen—didn't even turn around.”

Gina snapped her fingers. “He's our murderer then. Why else would he bolt like that?”

Monica couldn't think of an immediate answer but she suspected there were other reasons why Mauricio might have been leery of talking to the police.

“What do you know about this Mauricio?” Gina was sitting up straight in her chair now, her expression more animated than it had been since her arrival.

“Nothing, really. Nothing at all.”

Gina sprang to her feet and began to pace Monica's small living room. The room wasn't particularly conducive to pacing—it didn't take more than a handful of steps to get from one wall to the other.

Monica stopped beside the armchair suddenly. “Let's call Jeff and see what he knows.” She retrieved her purse from the floor and began to ferret through the contents, muttering softly under her breath. “Here it is,” she declared triumphantly as she pulled her iPhone out of the depths of her bag.

She tapped out the number with the tips of her nails.

“He's coming,” Gina said after a brief conversation. She clicked her phone off and tossed it back into her purse. “Meanwhile, why don't you show me around?”

“The place is small. You've already seen most of it.” Monica gestured around the tiny living room, with its red-brick fireplace and bay window. It was her favorite room, although it was probably more shabby than chic. The furniture was softly worn but overstuffed and inviting. Gina poked her head into the kitchen but didn't seem to be particularly interested in that room.

Monica led her up the stairs to the tiny second floor. She used the front room as a bedroom and at the moment the back one was half guest bedroom and half dumping ground for miscellaneous items—paint cans and brushes, a folded tarp and a chair that didn't fit anywhere. They just had time to peek into the two rooms before they heard knocking on the front door.

“Hello?” Jeff's voice drifted up the stairs toward them.

“Coming, Jeffie.” Gina made her way down the steep stairs, nearly tripping in her high-heeled pumps.

She threw her arms around her son and hugged him, then stood back to examine him.

Monica noticed the intense weariness on Jeff's face. That morning he had seemed so eager—excited for the harvest. Now his shoulders sagged and there were dark shadows in his eyes.

Gina took Monica's spot on the sofa and patted the seat next to her. Jeff sat down, stretched his long legs out under the coffee table, and leaned his head back against the cushions.

“You look like you could use a cup of tea or coffee,” said Monica, having been forced reluctantly into the role of hostess.

“Make him a cup of your special tea,” Gina said and winked at Monica. She reached over and patted Jeff's knee.

As Monica ran water into the kettle and heated it, she could
hear the murmur of voices from the other room. She filled a cup and added a tea bag. Her hand hesitated briefly over the bottle of Scotch and then she resolutely twisted off the cap and added a modest amount to Jeff's tea. He looked like he needed it.

Monica placed the cup and saucer in front of Jeff and took a seat in the armchair recently vacated by Gina. The faint scent of her perfume still clung to it.

Jeff took a sip of his tea and made a face but then immediately took another large gulp. He put the cup down and it clattered in the saucer.

Gina leaned forward eagerly. “So what can you tell us about this Mauricio character?”

Jeff raised his shoulders and let them drop again. “Not much, I'm afraid.”

Gina made an impatient tsk-tsk sound. “Where does he live? Is he married? Any kids?”

Jeff scowled. “I don't know.”

“Well then, what on earth do you guys talk about while you're out there all day working?” Gina demanded.

Jeff shrugged again. “I don't know—the chances of the Detroit Lions making the playoffs, where's the best place to take a truck for a tune-up, who does a better burger—the Cranberry Cove Diner or the Cranberry Cove Inn. Stuff like that.”

Gina gave a gusty sigh. “Men have such uninteresting discussions.” Her left foot began its customary jiggling. “We need to find out more about him.”

Jeff held up a cautionary hand. “Whoa, you don't think Mauricio had anything to do with this, do you?”

“Why did he take off running like that then?”

Jeff shrugged. “My guess is he's overstayed his visa or
doesn't have any papers in the first place. Although he gave me a social security number, and as far as I'm concerned, that's all I need to know.”

“That might be true, but I'd still like to know more about this Mauricio. Maybe he had a grudge against Culbert for some reason. After all, who else could have done it?” Gina's foot picked up its tempo and began to move faster. “We know you didn't, but if we don't convince the police of that . . .” She let the sentence trail off. To emphasize her point, she made a slashing motion across her throat with her index finger.

“Why would the police think I had anything to do with Culbert's murder?”

“I don't know,” Monica admitted. “Detective Stevens asked so many questions. And she sounded as if she didn't believe you. Besides, you knew Culbert and did business with him. And he was found dead on your land. . . .”

“And you think that makes me a prime suspect?” Jeff scrubbed his hands over his face. “Frankly, I'm more worried that they'll discover Mauricio didn't have a work visa. Sure, he gave me a social security number, but I didn't ask to see any papers. He was a hard worker and reliable. . . .” Jeff shrugged.

“Could you get in trouble for that, Jeffie?” Gina asked.

Jeff gave a weak smile. “I don't think they'd throw me in jail, but there would be a hefty fine, and right now I couldn't afford that.”

“So we need to find Mauricio before the police do.” Gina pointed a finger at Jeff. “If he is the murderer, I doubt the police are going to bother you over a little matter like some missing paperwork.”

“Someone in town is bound to have some information
about Mauricio,” Monica said. “That fellow who owns the bookstore knew who I was and where I lived before I even entered his shop.”

“News travels fast in a small place like Cranberry Cove.” Jeff smiled.

“What are we waiting for then?” Gina jumped to her feet. “Let's go into town and start asking questions.”

Monica turned to Jeff. “Are you going to come with us?”

Jeff shook his head. “I have work to do. Besides, I suspect you ladies will manage just fine without me.”

BOOK: Berried Secrets
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