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Authors: Peg Cochran

Tags: #Mystery

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BOOK: Berried Secrets
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“What did Sam Culbert do to make himself so unpopular in Cranberry Cove?”

Greg hesitated. “Basically just threw his weight around—a veritable
master of the universe
to borrow a phrase from Tom Wolfe—at least in Cranberry Cove. He owns a couple of the buildings here along Beach Hollow Road, and I heard
he regularly raised the rent. Several of the stores closed—they couldn't afford it anymore. But I doubt Culbert lost any sleep over it.”

Monica filed that bit of information away. She'd ask Greg more about it later. For the moment, she was focused on finding Mauricio.

“There is a fellow on Jeff's crew we're trying to track down.” Monica told Greg much the same thing she'd told the VanVelsens.

“Dark hair, medium height, foreign accent?” Greg scrunched his face up in concentration. “Plenty of men around this summer who would fit the dark hair and medium height part, but we don't get too many foreigners visiting Cranberry Cove. It's a well-kept secret, and we like to keep it that way. The amount of tourists we get now is about all we can handle.” He tapped his chin with his index finger. “I seem to remember someone though . . .” He snapped his fingers. “He was a relative of the short-order cook at the diner. I don't suppose that's who you mean?”

Monica shook her head. “Thanks anyway.” She put her mug in the sink. As much as she was enjoying spending time with Greg, the events of the day had suddenly made her weak in the knees. All she could think about was home, a hot bath in the cottage's old claw-foot tub and some cheese toast for dinner.

Greg walked her to the front door. He gave her a slightly shy grin. “Stop in again.”

“I will,” Monica said as he closed the door.

The sun was setting behind her as Monica drove back to Sassamanash Farm. She glanced in her rearview mirror and
could see it hovering over the surface of the lake like a hesitant swimmer putting a toe in the water before taking the plunge. Pinpricks of light sparkled on the tips of the waves, and the sky was awash with pinks, reds and oranges.

Monica kept peeking into her rearview mirror to admire the scene until she had a near-collision with a truck. She then focused all of her attention on the road ahead. She had no doubt that in a head-on with a semi, she and the Focus would come out on the losing end.

Monica was relieved to find her driveway empty when she got there. She wasn't up to dealing with Gina at the moment. Hopefully she had decided to stay at the Inn and have an early night.

It was dark inside the cottage, and Monica switched on some lights as soon as she opened the door. She then dragged herself up the stairs and into the bathroom, where she turned the hot water tap on as far as it would go. Her mother had sent her some Crabtree and Evelyn bath oil for Christmas that she hadn't opened yet. She ripped the plastic wrapping off now and poured a sizeable amount into the tub. Perfumed, fragrant steam soon filled the bathroom.

Monica was retrieving her robe from the bedroom when there was a knock on the door. She pushed aside the curtains and peered out her bedroom window. She could see the top of a dark-colored car pulled up in front of her door.

Who on earth . . . ?

Monica dropped her bathrobe on the bed, quickly turned off the taps in the bathroom and headed down the stairs toward the foyer. She yanked open the door, ready to tell whatever
salesman was standing there that she was decidedly not interested in his or her wares. The words died on her lips.

Standing on the front step, one hand supporting her back, was Detective Stevens. The breeze, damp from their proximity to the lake, had curled the ends of her hair and sent a lock blowing across her eyes. She brushed it away impatiently.

“Mind if I come in for a moment?”

“No. No, of course not.” Monica stepped aside.

Stevens grunted slightly as she mounted the single step to Monica's tiny foyer. They stood facing each other in the small space.

“Please come in,” Monica said gesturing toward the living room.

Stevens eyed Monica's overstuffed sofa warily and dropped into one of the armchairs instead. She stuck her feet out in front of her and rotated her ankles, briefly leaning her head against the back of the chair.

“I've got a month to go,” Stevens said, rubbing her stomach, “and I was hoping for a nice, uneventful couple of weeks. Maybe some idiot trying to rob an ATM or a radio stolen from someone's car. Not murder.” She blew out a breath of air and her bangs flopped up and down.

“You're sure it was murder?” Monica perched on the edge of the sofa, her hands folded in her lap. All she could think about was the rapidly cooling water in her bathtub upstairs.

Stevens grunted and struggled to sit upright. “The autopsy hasn't been performed yet, but there's a sizeable dent in Culbert's skull that suggests he was hit with the proverbial blunt instrument before being dumped in the bog.” Stevens leveled her gaze at Monica. “The pathologist estimates time of death
to be between nine o'clock and midnight. Of course he won't swear to it.” Stevens sighed. “Pathologists won't swear to much of anything unless maybe it's that the corpse is definitely dead. Even then . . .” Stevens rolled her eyes. She smiled and leaned as far forward as her stomach would allow. “You wouldn't happen to be able to give your brother an alibi for that time period would you?”

Chapter 6

Monica stared at Stevens. She suspected her mouth was hanging open, and she hastened to shut it. An alibi? For Jeff? Monica had to clear her throat several times before finding her voice.

“Jeff came over for dinner. He's not been eating well so I made him a steak and . . .” Monica's voice trailed off. She suspected Stevens wasn't interested in hearing all the details. She desperately wished she could tell the detective that Jeff had been with her the whole time, but she couldn't lie. Not to the police. Not to anyone. She'd been brought up to tell the truth.

Stevens massaged the small of her back, her head cocked, waiting for the rest of Monica's reply.

Monica wet her lips and cleared her throat, attempting to delay the moment when she would land Jeff in the soup. She couldn't imagine Jeff killing anyone, but she'd read about
soldiers who had come back from the war with post-traumatic stress disorder snapping and behaving in unlikely ways.

“Jeff left here about nine thirty.” It had been closer to nine fifteen, but Monica figured there was no harm in rounding off the time.

Stevens grunted. “Culbert's wife said he left home on some undisclosed errand around nine thirty. I'm afraid that doesn't eliminate your brother. I don't suppose there is anyone who can vouch for you during that time?”

“Me?” Monica was aghast. It had never occurred to her that she might be considered a suspect. “But I didn't know Culbert . . . I only got here a couple of weeks ago . . . why would I—”

Stevens waved her to a stop. “It's just routine. I have to ask.”

Maybe it was also routine that she'd asked about Jeff? Somehow Monica didn't think so.

Monica spread out her hands. “I was alone, I'm afraid. I went to bed early because we were getting up early to start the harvest the next morning.”

“You didn't happen to hear anything, did you?”

“Hear anything?”

“Like maybe the sound of a car? Voices? Something like that? I know your place is pretty far from the bog, but we're quite sure Culbert was killed somewhere else and then moved to the bog in the wheelbarrow that was found near the site. Your brother has identified it as belonging to the farm.” Stevens looked around Monica's living room. “Nice place, by the way.”

“Thank you,” Monica said, a little less stiffly. “No, I'm afraid I didn't hear anything. I was tired. I imagine I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.”

Stevens gave a tight smile. “It was a long shot.” She put her hands on either arm of the chair and pushed herself to a standing position. “I was going to start decorating the nursery tonight, but . . .” She shrugged. “That's police work for you.”

Monica followed her to the front door where she bid Stevens good-bye.

Monica closed the door and leaned against it briefly. It was too bad she and Stevens were on opposite sides of the law. Well, not opposite sides actually. Monica was all for getting at the truth and seeing justice served. It was just a shame she and Stevens had had to meet this way. Monica suspected that under different circumstances, she and the detective could have become friends.

She sighed as she headed back up the stairs to the bathroom. As she suspected, the bathwater was barely lukewarm. She let some of the water out and then turned the hot tap on full. Fragrant steam once again rose from the tub, and Monica sat on the edge for a moment letting it swirl around her face before heading into the bedroom to change into her robe.

Monica was tying the belt when the phone rang. She knew she was a bit of a dinosaur for insisting on a landline, but she often forgot to charge her cell, no matter how many sticky notes she left around the house to remind herself.

The phone shrilled again. Was it a robocall? A salesman? Someone taking a survey? The number didn't look familiar, and she almost didn't answer it, but grabbed the receiver at the last minute.

“Hello?” Monica said brusquely.

“Hello?” The voice was soft, a mere whisper. “Is this Miss Albertson? Jeff's sister?”

“Yes. Who is this?” Monica felt a tingling in her stomach. The man had a foreign accent . . . could it be?

“This is Mauricio. I work for Jeff this morning. Maybe you remember me?”

Monica gripped the receiver tighter. “Yes, I remember you,” she said as gently as possible, terrified that Mauricio would get scared and hang up before she had the chance to talk to him.

“I need to ask you a favor, miss, please. I can't go to the police. I am afraid they will think I killed Mr. Culbert.”

“Why would they think that?”

There was a long silence. “Because I am not from your country.”

“I don't think that would—”

“Please, miss. You must tell them I didn't do it.”

“They'll want to know where you were that night.” Monica thought back to her conversation with Stevens. Culbert had been murdered sometime between nine o'clock and midnight.

“That will help?” Mauricio asked.

“Yes. If you can tell me where you were between nine and midnight.”

“Yes, yes,” Mauricio said eagerly. “I was down at Flynn's.”

“Flynn's?” Monica asked, wondering if that was a person or a place.

“It is a bar down by the harbor. A little rough. Not the kind of place a lady like you would enjoy.”

That was fine with Monica. She had no intention of frequenting Flynn's. Except to find out whether or not Mauricio was telling the truth.

On the one hand, she had instinctively liked Mauricio. On the other hand, she wanted the murderer to be anyone but her brother Jeff.

•   •   •

Monica was up early the next morning, although given the option she would have huddled under her down comforter for another couple of hours. She was stiff and achy not only from working in the bog the previous day, but from the tension caused by finding Culbert's body and everything that had happened since.

Jeff said he could manage the day's harvest without her. They still had several weeks of work ahead of them. Sassamanash Farm was forty-two acres, and each of the bogs was approximately an acre in size. Most cranberries were grown in five states—Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington—and Sassamanash Farm was one of the few farms in Michigan. The majority of the berries went to a cooperative owned by the farmers themselves. Jeff was very proud to be one of their growers.

Jeff had been able to replace the missing Mauricio easily enough. He had been convinced that Mauricio would reappear, but Monica hadn't felt as positive. Fortunately, there were always people looking for work when the summer tourist season ended.

Monica brewed some coffee, microwaved a bowl of oatmeal and, while she ate, began measuring out flour, sugar and butter for another batch of muffins and scones. By the time they were ready for the oven, the sky had lightened, and it was nearly eight o'clock.

With the baked goods in the oven, she set to work on the
salsa—chopping the cranberries in the food processor and seeding and mincing the jalapenos. Some of the oil from the peppers got on her fingers, and when she touched her eye, it stung mightily. Tears rushed to her eyes, and for a moment Monica felt like crying in earnest. She had come to Sassamanash Farm to flee her abysmal failure as a small businesswoman, as well as her heartbreak over her fiancé's death. And now everything seemed to be in jeopardy again.

Monica squared her shoulders. No use in thinking about that now. She had a job to do. She had to help Jeff save Sassamanash Farm. Only then would she feel able to think about her own future.

Monica left the scones and muffins out to cool while she took a shower, ran a comb through her tangle of curls and threw on a pair of clean jeans and a sweatshirt. By the time she'd wrapped up the baked goods and packaged the salsa, it was nearly nine o'clock. Fortunately the store was rarely busy before lunchtime.

With her woven basket slung over her arm, Monica made her way toward the Sassamanash Farm store. It was turning into a beautiful morning, with the early clouds blown away by a brisk breeze, revealing crystal clear blue skies. Monica breathed deeply as she walked the well-worn path to the store. The air smelled of autumn leaves and damp earth with faint but tantalizing notes of wood smoke.

The police had roped off an area around the bog where Culbert's body had been found, but it was business as usual everywhere else. Monica expected the visitor's parking lot to be empty at this hour but was astonished to find it full. Some, not finding a parking space, had even driven up onto the grass alongside the macadam.

Lauren was leading a group of sightseers toward the wagons that would take them to the bog where Jeff and his crew were working that day. Monica could hear them asking about the body as they passed.

Ghouls
, she thought, as she pushed open the door to the store. Still, there was very little real excitement to be had in Cranberry Cove, save for the odd boat running out of gas outside the harbor and needing a tow by the coast guard, or Tempest Storm scandalizing the town by holding a yoga class on the village green. She could hardly blame them for wanting to get in on as much of the action as they could.

Monica was even more astonished to find the store packed with people. They were standing three deep at the counter. Yesterday's supply of baked goods was completely depleted and a number of people were clutching tea towels, oven mitts and place mats. It seemed as if everyone wanted a little piece of Sassamanash Farm.

Darlene was behind the counter working a piece of gum with more intensity than she put toward anything else. Monica could hear it snapping and popping all the way over to the door. She could sense the impatience of the customers as they waited for Darlene to ring them up. She pressed each key on the cash register so tentatively it was as if she had never worked one before.

Monica plastered a smile on her face and slid behind the counter with Darlene.

“Next?” she called, holding out a hand for the products a middle-aged woman in a tracksuit clutched to her chest.

The woman handed over a set of matching place mats and napkins. She smiled tentatively at Monica.

“Were you here when . . .” she began.

Monica hesitated. She didn't want to encourage gossip so she shook her head.

“No. And I'm afraid it wasn't much of anything. Just an unfortunate accident.”

The woman's face fell and her glance drifted over to where Darlene was in an animated conversation with a woman. Monica could tell her customer was disappointed that Monica wasn't as willing to chat.

The crowds continued all morning and into the afternoon. All of the muffins and scones Monica had baked were gone, as well as the cranberry salsa, and their stock of cranberry-decorated items was considerably lower. Monica would have to place an order as soon as possible.

She was rearranging the remaining items when the door opened, and Gina walked in, tottering, as usual, on a pair of stiletto-heeled black suede boots. She obviously hadn't slept well, and her hair looked as if she'd barely run a comb through it.

She grabbed Monica by the arm. “Is there any news?” She tightened her grip, making Monica wince. “I didn't get a wink of sleep last night from worrying. Poor Jeffie. What is this going to do to him?”

Monica glanced around the store. Darlene was staring at Gina with such intensity that Monica was surprised her stepmother didn't burst into flames.

“Let's go outside.” Monica jerked her head in Darlene's direction.

She pulled open the door and shivered at the blast of cold air. The wind ruffled her sweatshirt and blew bits of hair around her face.

“What is it?” Gina asked, her eyes nearly popping. “Is it good news?”

Monica made a face. “Not really, but it is a lead. I talked to Mauricio last night—he claims he has an alibi for the time of Culbert's death. He said he was down at Flynn's, drinking.”

Gina snorted. “That's easy enough for him to say, but can he prove it?”

“I don't know. But I think I need to tell Detective Stevens about this because if I don't I'm sure it would be considered withholding evidence.”

Gina grabbed Monica's arm. “But if they find out Mauricio doesn't have work papers, Jeffie will get in trouble. You heard what he said.”

Monica hesitated. “I suppose there's no reason we can't go down to Flynn's and check with the bartender and the waitresses ourselves. If Mauricio was there, someone may remember. Anyone out of the ordinary sticks out like a sore thumb around here.”

Gina's eyes lit up. “Let's go tonight. I'll come by around seven o'clock and pick you up.”

•   •   •

Monica wished she could share Gina's excitement about the evening's activity. She ate a quick dinner and changed into a pair of dark slacks and a turtleneck sweater. She hoped Jeff wouldn't stop by—she didn't want to tell him where they were going. He wouldn't like it.

BOOK: Berried Secrets
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