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Authors: Peg Cochran

Tags: #Mystery

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BOOK: Berried Secrets
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“I usually find the beginning a good place to start,” Charlie said, a smile hovering around her lips.

“Okay.” Monica cleared her throat again. “You probably know that a body was found in one of the bogs at Sassamanash Farm.”

Charlie nodded. “Mauricio told me.”

Monica spread out her hands. “It's like this. Just before
the police arrived, Mauricio took off running. He obviously didn't want to have anything to do with them.”

“For good reason.” Charlie put her mug down and folded her arms across her chest.

“But you must see how guilty it makes him look.”

“I thought we were supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in this country? Besides, why would the police jump to the conclusion that Mauricio had something to do with the murder?”

“Because the murdered man was Sam Culbert.”

Charlie tilted her head to one side. “Who?” she asked with a puzzled look on her face.

Monica didn't doubt for a moment that she knew perfectly well who Sam Culbert was. “Sam Culbert ran my brother's farm while Jeff was overseas. Mauricio was working for him at the time. Supposedly he knew that Mauricio didn't have the proper papers.”

“I'm surprised Mauricio didn't mention that to you,” Gina said.

“Does your boyfriend tell you everything?” Charlie shot back.

“But if he has an alibi . . .” Monica looked at Charlie encouragingly.

“The bartender at Flynn's told us he was there a good part of the evening drowning his sorrows, and didn't leave until ten o'clock,” Gina prompted. “Then he said Mauricio probably hightailed it down here to spend the rest of the evening with you.”

“They think the murder was committed sometime between nine o'clock and midnight. So if he was with you after leaving the bar, that puts him in the clear.”

A strange look crossed Charlie's face. It was so fleeting that afterward Monica thought she must have imagined it.

with me. We had a bit of an argument, as a matter of fact. He was three sheets to the wind, and I was mad at him. It wasn't like him. I didn't need him charging around the place like a bull in a china shop.” She pointed at a table full of fragile, porcelain figurines.

“But you didn't throw him out?” Gina jiggled her left foot restlessly.

“No. I made him drink a glass of water and take a couple of aspirin and then I sent him up to bed where he couldn't do any harm. When I checked on him an hour later, he was sleeping soundly.”

“If he tells that to the police, he'll be in the clear.” Monica put down her empty teacup carefully.

“If he goes to the police, he'll be deported,” Charlie said, her lips set in a firm line. “He doesn't have a work visa and he's already overstayed his welcome.”

“Isn't there some way . . .”

Charlie shook her head briskly. “No. We'll just have to ride it out until the police figure out who really did it.”

Not my brother
, Monica thought. She was almost positive that Jeff was innocent. There was just that one tiny kernel of doubt, but it nagged at her, and she knew it was going to keep her up at night.

Chapter 8

As Monica had suspected would be the case, she didn't sleep well that night. She was worried about Jeff. The conversation she and Gina had had with Charlie kept running through her mind. She had the distinct feeling that Charlie had been lying to her about Mauricio. If they were a couple it would be natural for her to want to protect him. But how to prove it?

She rolled out of bed and took a hot shower—a short one; the boiler in the old cottage was obviously not very big—and headed down to the kitchen to begin her baking for the day. She planned to double the quantity she normally made in hopes that they would have as many customers as they'd had the day before. She was also making a special cranberry coffee cake that was proving to be a best seller.

The coffee cake came out of the oven looking perfect—golden brown on top with a liberal dusting of sugar mixed
with chopped pecans and coconut. Monica inhaled the delicious scent as she set it on the counter.

By the time she had finished baking the cranberry scones, the coffee cake had cooled. She cut it into individual slices and arranged them on a platter. On impulse she grabbed a piece and put it on a plate to have with her mug of coffee.

Monica drank her coffee and ate her breakfast while she packed all the new stock she'd made into baskets. She peered out the window. The day was overcast and looked like rain. She tucked her folding umbrella into her purse and headed out.

Monica felt drops of moisture on her face as she walked the path from her cottage to the store. The cranberries in the bog nearest the path had already been harvested and the bog had been drained. Monica was able to see the tangle of cranberry vines that formed a canopy, as Jeff said it was called, on the sandy bottom.

The store wasn't open yet, and Darlene wasn't due for another fifteen minutes, so Monica enjoyed the peace and quiet as she went about setting up her baked goods.

Double swinging doors separated the store from the screening room behind it. Jeff pushed open one of the doors and stuck his head into the shop.

“Good morning.”

Monica jumped. “You startled me. I didn't hear you.” She followed Jeff into the large room, where machines whirred and hummed and cardboard boxes of cranberries with
Sassamanash Farm
printed on them were stacked against one wall. “I thought you'd be out at the bogs.”

Jeff shook his head. “The crew can handle it. I've got to start getting the trucks emptied and the berries processed so we'll have room for today's harvest.”

Monica frowned. “I imagine you must have a lot less than usual since the berries from that one bog are useless. Having a dead body floating in there . . .” She shivered.

Jeff nodded curtly and turned away abruptly.

“I mean, I imagine you had to discard that part of the harvest?”

“Sure. Of course. Of course we did. We'll have to absorb the loss of an acre of fruit.”

Something in his voice struck a false chord with Monica, but she didn't pursue it. He looked as tired as she felt. The sanitary white coat he wore over his clothes was already speckled red from the berries. He went over to one of the machines and made an adjustment.

“What is that?” Monica watched as the berries made their way down a conveyor belt.

Jeff pointed toward the door that led to the outside. “The trucks pull up there. The berries are dumped into vats, where they're sprayed with water to clean them. Then they make their way along the conveyor to this machine.” He rapped it with a knuckle. “This is known as a Bailey separator. It puts the berries to the bounce test. The berries are dropped through a compartment. The good ones will bounce over the four-inch partition. The bad ones will fall to the bottom to be discarded.”

“That's amazing.”

Jeff nodded. “Cranberries are fascinating. It's the air pocket inside that causes them to float that also makes them bounce. They say the method was devised by a grower from New Jersey called Peg-Leg John. He stored his berries in the loft in his barn but because of his wooden leg, he couldn't carry them down the ladder. So instead he poured them down. He noticed that the good berries bounced to the bottom while
the damaged fruit stayed on the rungs. I don't know if it's true or not, but it makes a good story.”

“It does.” Monica was quiet for a moment. “Are you and Lauren doing anything tonight? I thought I might have you and Gina for dinner.”

Jeff made a face. “I'm afraid it's over between me and Lauren.” He turned away abruptly so that his back was to Monica.

“What happened? I thought you liked each other.”

“We did. We do.” Jeff turned and Monica could see him swipe at a tear. “But I liked her too much to let her get involved with a guy with a useless arm.” He lifted his paralyzed arm with his good one. “And I have no idea if I'm going to be able to make a go of this farm.” He scowled. “And now the police suspect me of murder.” He shook his head. “It wouldn't be fair to her.”

“But you don't know that—”

“Oh, she might not mind right away. Maybe not the first year or even the second. But five years down the road, when Sassamanash Farm has gone belly-up, and I can't get a job because I'm a cripple? How would she feel then? No, she's better off without me.”

Monica didn't think so, but she held her tongue. This wasn't the time to talk to Jeff about it. After things settled down, she'd try to get him to see a counselor for a couple of sessions. There seemed to be a lot of things he needed to get off his chest.

She just hoped murder wasn't one of them.

•   •   •

Monica was halfway into town when the rain started up again. At first it was just a few fat drops, but it quickly intensified until she had to flick on her windshield wipers and turn on the window defogger. Her hand hovered over the button for
heat. She pushed it and was grateful for the sudden rush of warm air. She wondered if Jeff and his crew would continue to harvest the berries in this rain. She suspected they would. The season for harvesting was short, and they had to take advantage of every minute of it.

She was heading to the drugstore to pick up a prescription for Jeff. He had a nasty cut on his hand, and the doctor had prescribed a course of antibiotics to ward off an infection.

By the time Monica pulled into a space in front of the Cranberry Cove Diner, it was raining heavily and the wind had picked up, sending the drops slanting sideways. Fortunately Monica still had her small folding umbrella in her purse. She pulled it out but then decided she hardly needed it to dash across the street. She wasn't like her mother, who always worried about getting her hair wet and ruining her set. Monica's hair was rarely ever more than a tangle of curls that she occasionally attempted to control by pulling them back into a ponytail.

The Cranberry Cove Drugstore was more general store than anything—like the old-time five-and-dimes. It sold greeting cards, small gift items and housewares alongside headache remedies and pills for acid indigestion.

Monica pushed open the door. On one of the end caps was a display of merchandise left over from the summer—brightly striped towels, a handful of colorful beach umbrellas, sand toys and beach balls—all reduced to half price. It was at odds with the rest of the store, which was already done up for Halloween with plastic pumpkins, creepy dangling skeletons and fake cobwebs. Along the far right wall was a counter where you could still get ice cream sundaes, banana splits and milkshakes in the summer and hot chocolate topped with whipped cream in the winter.

Monica made her way down a narrow aisle to the back of the store. Two women were standing by the prescription counter. Monica recognized them as locals although she didn't know their names.

The one woman had a rather loud voice, and Monica caught the tail end of her sentence. “Maybe he has post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Monica stopped in her tracks and pretended to study a display of acne preparations. Were they talking about Jeff?

The other woman spoke. Her voice was softer, but Monica could still hear the words. “I'm sure he must have killed people in Afghanistan. Besides, Sam Culbert wasn't much liked by anyone.”

“Not even his wife from what I've heard,” the other one added.

“No doubt he did something to set the young man off like that. Or maybe he was having some kind of flashback. I've read that that's very common with these soldiers returning from overseas.”

talking about Jeff! Monica wanted to plug her ears and run out of the store, but she stayed where she was.

The druggist handed the woman with the loud voice a small, white bag, and the two ladies moved away. Monica's heart was hammering fiercely as she approached the counter. She half expected the clerk to say something when she gave Jeff's name—he must have heard the women's conversation—but he merely turned away and went in search of her prescription.

Monica fled the drugstore as quickly as possible, stuffing the pills in their little white bag into the pocket of her coat. She had been planning to stop in at the Cranberry Cove Diner
for a bowl of their famous chili, but she had lost her appetite. Did everyone in town think Jeff was a murderer?

She was crossing the street toward her car when she heard someone call her name. She looked up to see Greg Harper standing outside of Book 'Em, waving to her.

Monica wasn't sure she wanted to face him. Was he thinking what everyone else seemed to be thinking? But he waved her over, and she dashed under the awning that shaded the front of Book 'Em.

“Lovely day we're having, isn't it?” He smiled at Monica.

She felt her spirits lift a little. “Truly lovely.” She laughed. “But fall is my favorite season, even with the rain.”

Greg nodded. “It will be snowing soon enough, and then we'll all be complaining about that.” He bent down and plucked a dead flower off the plant that stood in a terra-cotta pot by the front door. “Are you going to the fundraiser tomorrow night?”

“Fundraiser? I'm afraid I don't know anything about it.”

“Hang on just a minute.” Greg disappeared inside the shop and reappeared moments later with a slightly crumpled piece of paper in his hand. “Here's the flyer.” He handed it to Monica. “It's a spaghetti supper in the Cranberry Cove High School gym to raise money for Charlie Decker's mother's medical bills. Probably not the sort of thing you were used to in Chicago.”

Monica smiled. “You're right, but it sounds charmingly small town to me. Coincidentally, I just met Charlie yesterday. But only briefly. She didn't mention anything about her mother's illness.”

“It's one of her mother's friends who's organized the whole event. Charlie is too proud to ask for help. She was taking care
of her mother all by herself until some of the ladies from their church got together and pitched in to help her out. Charlie was run off her feet as it was keeping Primrose Cottage going.” Greg pulled another dead flower off the batch of mums. “It was rough while Debbie—that's Charlie's mother—was going through chemo, but I gather this round is almost over for the moment, so there'll be some respite.”

“That's too bad.” Monica didn't know what to say. She felt sorry for Charlie and her mother, but she hardly knew them.

“Anyway.” Greg tapped the paper Monica held in her hand. “All the details are there. It starts at six o'clock.”

“It sounds like fun.”

“Maybe I'll see you there?”


Monica waved as she turned to go back to her car. She didn't exactly have a date, but that was certainly as close as she'd come to one since Ted had died.

BOOK: Berried Secrets
3.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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