Authors: Peg Cochran
Monica followed Gina out of the driveway, keeping Gina's car in sight until it crested the hill on the road into town and her Mercedes disappeared from view. Monica had fallen behind while attempting to coax her reluctant Focus up to thirty miles per hour. It was making an unusual noiseâa groaning soundâthat couldn't possibly be good. She decided she didn't want to think about it at the moment.
Gina was headed toward the Cranberry Cove Inn, where apparently the fellow behind the desk had been trying to catch her eye since her arrival. She planned to use that to her advantage to get him talking. Monica had tried to dissuade her from coming along into townâthe locals clammed up faster than a Venus flytrap when out-of-towners were aroundâbut she didn't think Gina would do much harm as long as she stuck to talking to the clerk at the Inn.
Monica was tackling Gumdrops first. Despite being very
circumspect, the VanVelsen sisters loved to talk. And Monica was hardly looking for salacious gossip. All she was after was some information that would help them track Mauricio down. She didn't think they would see any harm in that. Jeff had tried the phone number Mauricio had given him numerous times already, but the calls went straight to voicemail. Jeff didn't even have an address for the manâjust his name and social security number.
Beach Hollow Road was quiet when Monica got there. The sun was low in the western sky, putting Cranberry Cove's main street in shadow. Monica found a parking space two doors down from Gumdrops and pulled in.
“Hello,” she called out as she pushed open their door.
Hennie was fussing over a display of Droste chocolate pastilles, creating a tower of the blue, red, orange, purple and yellow hexagonally shaped boxes. Monica waited as Hennie balanced the final box on top and stood back to admire the effect. The tower swayed, steadied and then swayed again, sending the boxes tumbling to the floor.
“Here, let me help you,” Monica said, striding over to the counter.
“Gerda is the one with the steady hands,” Hennie said. She was red-faced from bending over, but Monica noticed her hair had not moved a millimeter out of place.
“Is Gerda okay?” Monica looked around the shop, but they were the only ones there.
Hennie gave a sigh and picked at an imaginary piece of lint on her spotless lavender sweater. “She's quiteÂ .Â .Â . distraught.” She fingered the gold locket around her neck. “Midnight still hasn't come back, and she fears the worst.” She took a deep breath as if to brace herself. “We both do.”
A tear escaped and trickled down Hennie's cheek, leaving a trail of moisture in her pink-tinted face powder. “It's just that we're afraid she might be trapped somewhere with no water or food. We can hardly bear to think about it.”
Monica knew less than nothing about cats other than that they were independent creatures given to wandering off on a whim.
“I'm sure Midnight will be back soon,” Monica said, knowing that the platitude was unlikely to soothe Hennie but unable to think of anything else to say.
Hennie swiped at her cheek and threw back her shoulders. “I'm sure you're right,” she said, every bit as insincerely.
Hennie leaned on the counter, her blue eyes brightening slightly.
“Now you must tell me all about what's happened out at the farm. I ran into Tempest Stormâyou knowâshe runs Twilight, that New Age place.” Hennie turned her nose up a little, indicating her disapproval. “She said she saw a police car head down the drive to the farm, going a mile a minute and with the flashers on. I hope there hasn't been an accident.” She looked at Monica with concern shadowing her eyes.
Monica hesitated. How much should she tell Hennie? She shrugged. Everyone would know soon enough. It was impossible to keep anything a secret in Cranberry Cove.
Monica was tempted to sugarcoat things, but Hennie's sharp eyes belied her innocence. “Jeff and his crew and I had just begun the harvest when a body floated to the surface along with the berries.” Monica still found it hard to believe, although she could picture the scene in her mind with complete clarity. She felt a frisson of delayed shock, and shivered.
Hennie gave a sharp intake of breath. “Oh, my goodness
me.” She shook her head and her silver curls quivered. “What on earth is the world coming to?” She put her hand on Monica's. “Was it some vagrant who was trespassing and fell into the flooded bog?”
The beaded curtain to the stockroom rattled, and both Monica and Hennie turned in that direction. They watched as Gerda approached the counter. Her shoulders were slumped, and there were circles under her eyes. Monica could tell she had been crying. She held a balled-up tissue in her right hand.
“What is this about a body in the bog?” Her eyes lit up, and her shoulders lifted.
“Monica said a body floated to the surface of the bog during the harvest. Can you imagine?”
Gerda shuddered and leaned on the counter. Monica was pleased to see that her entire demeanor had brightened considerably. At least some good was coming of the tragedyâeven if it only took Gerda's mind off the missing Midnight for a few moments.
“Who was it? Do you know?” Gerda repeated Hennie's earlier question.
Monica looked from one woman to the other. “Sam Culbert.”
The sisters gasped, and Gerda's hand flew to her mouth.
“You can't mean that,” Hennie said. “Sam Culbert? Are you sure?”
“What was he doing out at the farm?” Gerda asked.
That's exactly what I'd like to know,
Monica thought. She'd seen him leave earlier that dayâwhy had he come back?
Gerda came out from behind the counter and began
stacking the Droste chocolate boxes that Hennie had left in a heap on the display table.
“It must have been an accident?” Hennie said with a question in her voice. “Perhaps he had a stroke or a heart attack and fell in?”
Monica hesitated. “I'm afraid not,” she said finally.
Gerda paused with one of the pastel-colored boxes in her hand. “Well, it was an accident of some sort, wasn't it?” She carefully placed the box on the second row of her pyramid.
“No. I'm afraid the police think it was murder.”
This time the sisters were too stunned to gasp and instead stared at Monica openmouthed. Hennie recovered first.
“Murder! In Cranberry Cove?”
“And one of our own,” Gerda said, “although I'm sure there are a lot of people who won't be sad to hear the news.”
Monica looked at her questioningly.
“Let's just say Sam Culbert wasn't much liked around here, even though he was a local boy. At first people were proud of him for making good, living in that big house high above the lake, driving fancy cars. But when he began throwing his weight aroundÂ .Â .Â .”
Hennie nodded agreement. “Sam didn't mind whose toes he stepped on to get what he wanted.”
“Anyone in particular?” Monica asked, trying to sound as innocent as possible.
But the sisters had clammed up. Monica might be living in Cranberry Cove full time, but she'd have to be there a lot longer before being considered a local.
“I'm sorry. You must have come in for something,” Hennie said, pulling the edges of her cardigan closer together and adroitly changing the subject.
“Actually I came in to ask you a question,” Monica said. “And to get some chocolates,” she said hurriedly, grabbing a box of the Droste pastilles and nearly upsetting Gerda's intricate display.
Hennie gave Monica a look that said
I don't believe you for a minute,
but curiosity obviously got the best of her because she folded her hands on the counter and looked at Monica, her head cocked expectantly to one side. Gerda joined her sister, echoing her pose, and for a moment Monica was struck by how eerily alike they looked.
“I'm after some information to tell the truth.” Monica lowered her voice conspiratorially.
Hennie and Gerda leaned forward. They were suddenly as alert as bloodhounds after a scent.
“You and Gerda know just about everything that goes on in Cranberry Cove.”
The twins preened and patted their identical silver curls.
Monica felt slightly overwhelmed by their sudden and complete attention. She fussed with the sleeve of her sweatshirtâthe cuff had turned up slightlyâbefore answering.
“There's a young man who was on Jeff's crew. We'd like to ask him a few questions, but he's not answering his phone. WeÂ .Â .Â . IÂ .Â .Â . wondered if you ladies might know something about him.”
“Do you think he's the murderer?” Hennie gave an exaggerated shiver.
Monica shook her head emphatically. “No, no. Jeff simply wants to contact him.”
The sisters' faces assumed identical disappointed looks.
“His name is Mauricio. He speaks with an accent. Jeff
says he's from Portugal. Youngishâmaybe early twentiesâdark hair, good-looking.”
The sisters stared at Monica blankly.
Monica racked her brain for some more descriptive qualities. “Medium height.” She held her hand level with the top of her own head. “About my height. Slim. Tanned.”
The sisters turned toward each other and shrugged their shoulders.
“If he was local, we would probably know him, but if notÂ .Â .Â .”
Gerda nodded agreement. “Cranberry Cove is overrun with tourists in the summer.” She sighed. “People come from all over.”
“They come by land and by seaÂ .Â .Â . well, not sea, maybe, but by boat for sure.” Hennie chuckled.
“The streets were so jam-packed this year, you could hardly get down them. Now if it had been winter, he would have stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. But during tourist seasonÂ .Â .Â .”
Monica was disappointed.
“Now wait a minute.” Gerda held up a hand and turned toward her twin. “Do you remember that young manâdark-hairedâwho we saw hanging around the diner late in the summer?”
Hennie pursed her lips. “Yes. But didn't that turn out to be Gus's grandson?”
“Oh, you're right.” Gerda turned toward Monica. “Gus Amentas is the cook at the Cranberry Cove Diner. His grandson came for a visit this summer.”
“All the way from Greece.”
“He had dark hair and was about your height.” Gerda held a hand up much as Monica had done earlier.
“I'm sure he's never seen a lake as big as ours,” Hennie chimed in.
Both sisters laughed.
Monica paid for her chocolates and left Gumdrops. At least the visit wasn't a total waste of timeâshe had some delicious sweets to enjoy later.
The sun was lower in the sky now, and the air had turned colder. Monica glanced at her watchâalmost five o'clock. The shops would be shutting soon. They kept longer hours in the summer, but once the bulk of the tourists left, it didn't pay to stay open late.
The lights were still on at Book 'Em, but when Monica tried the door it was already locked. She felt strangely disappointed. She didn't want to admit to herself how much she'd been looking forward to seeing Greg Harper again.
She was about to turn away when the door suddenly opened and Greg stuck his head around the edge. He saw Monica and smiled. His hair was ruffledâas if he'd been running his hands through itâand a piece of dust clung to the front of his red V-neck sweater.
“How are you enjoying the Agatha Christie?” he asked as he pulled the door wider and beckoned for Monica to enter.
“I don't want to keep you.Â .Â .Â .” Monica hesitated on the threshold.
“Not at all. I was just going to make a cup of tea and do some tidying up. You can tell me about the Christie,” he called over his shoulder as he led the way through the shop and into the stockroom.
“To be perfectly honest, I haven't had a chance to start
it yet. We began the harvest today, andÂ .Â .Â . and something unexpected happened.” Monica hesitated for a moment, but she was quite certain the VanVelsen sisters were already telegraphing the news all over Cranberry Cove. She explained to Greg about finding Culbert's body in the bog.
A strange look crossed Greg's face but disappeared so rapidly that Monica didn't have the time to analyze it. He gave a long, low whistle.
“So Sam Culbert finally got his comeuppance.” He ran water into two mugs and put them in the microwave.
“What do you mean?”
Greg ran a hand through his hair, leaving it even messier than before. “Let's just say Sam Culbert wasn't the most popular guy in town.”
“So I've heard.”
They were both silent until the microwave pinged, and Greg removed the two mugs of steaming water. He added tea bags and handed one to Monica.
“Milk or sugar?”
“This is fine.” Monica wrapped her hands around the mug. The warmth felt good. She blew on the tea, sending a small tidal wave of liquid swelling across the cup.
Greg opened a cupboard, grabbed a shaker of sugar and poured a liberal amount into his tea. He stirred the mixture with his finger.