Authors: Peg Cochran
By the time Monica was on her way back to Sassamanash Farm, the rain had stopped, the sky to the west was brightening and puddles gleamed in the rays of sun peeking through the scattering clouds.
She pulled into the parking lot by the farm store, pleased to see that it was quite full. She hoped Darlene was coping okayâshe seemed to get flustered if there were more than two people in the shop at a time.
A dark car was pulled up almost onto the grass bordering the building. It looked vaguely familiar to Monica, but she couldn't place it, and she couldn't imagine why the driver didn't park in one of the spaces like everyone else.
She opened the door to the shop to find the small space crowded with people, and a line forming in front of the cash register. Despite the cool temperatures, Darlene's face glowed red and shone with perspiration. Monica could sense
the impatience of the customers waiting as Darlene carefully punched in each number on the cash register, her lower lip caught between her teeth, her brows clenched in concentration.
It looked as if Monica had arrived just in time. If the store was going to continue to be this busy, she would either have to spend more time there helping out or they'd have to hire someone part time. She just hoped that the sales would justify the extra expense.
“I'm sorry you've had to cope with this all by yourself,” Monica said, taking a place behind the counter and reaching for the purchases of the next person in line.
Darlene pushed a strand of hair off her damp face and nodded. Her eyes and nose were red, as if she'd been crying.
Monica smiled at a woman wearing a red turtleneck and a yellow slicker who handed her two jars of cranberry salsa. The woman pointed toward the bakery case. “And I'll take three of those gorgeous cranberry muffins if you don't mind.”
“My pleasure.” Monica smiled, pleased by the compliment, and slid open the door to the case. She grabbed a sheet of glassine, her hand hovering over the muffins. “Will these three do?”
The woman nodded and smiled at Monica. “I can't wait to have them with my morning coffee.”
Monica selected three plump muffins and placed them in a white paper bag. “Bon appÃ©tit as the French would say.”
“Is everything okay?” Monica whispered to Darlene as she rang up the woman's items.
Darlene sniffed and nodded curtly. “It's just thatÂ .Â .Â .” she began the moment Monica turned away.
Monica swiveled back toward Darlene and tried to put a
receptive look on her face. She was far more worried about all the customers still waiting in line.
Darlene sniffled and swiped a hand across her nose. “It's just that today is the two-month anniversary of my dear mother's, may she rest in peace, death.”
“I am so sorry.” Monica put a hand on Darlene's arm. “I had no idea.”
“It's okay. It was before you got here.”
“What happened?” Monica asked in a low voice as she smiled at the next person in line and put out a hand for their purchases.
“Heart attack. Mother didn't have any insurance, and we couldn't afford doctors. The doctor said that the heart attack was just waiting to happen.” She gave a loud sniff.
Monica patted Darlene's arm again and silently vowed to be more patient with her in the future. “Would you like to go home? I think I can handle this.” She motioned toward the people waiting in line.
Darlene shook her head. “I'll be okay. It's just hard for me sometimes.”
Monica gave Darlene an encouraging smile, squeezed her arm again and turned her attention toward her customer, an older woman with a tight gray perm.
“I don't suppose you have any more of the cranberry coffee cake left?”
Monica looked in the case. The platter that had held the coffee cake was empty except for a few crumbs. She shook her head. “I'm afraid it's all gone. Would you like some scones instead?”
“Are they as good as the coffee cake?”
“I certainly hope so. I make them both.”
“Fine. I'll take two of those then.”
The double swinging door to the processing area opened, and Jeff stuck his head out.
“Monica? Could you come in here, please?”
He looked worried, Monica thought. What was going on?
“Can you manage by yourself for a minute?” she asked Darlene.
A look of panic crossed Darlene's face, but she nodded yes.
“I'll only be a minute, I'm sure.”
As soon as Monica walked into the screening room behind Jeff, she realized whose car she had recognized outside. Detective Stevens was perched on a desk chair Jeff had wheeled out from the office for her.
She gave Monica a brief smile. “I'm sorry to interrupt your workday. But I need to get this case wrapped up as soon as possible.” She indicated her belly with a rueful smile. “For more reasons than one.”
Monica was too tense to even smile at the joke.
Stevens looked toward Monica. “I understand you were helping your brother with the cranberry harvest when the body was found, correct?”
Monica nodded. Her mouth had suddenly dried up, and her tongue was sticking to the roof of her mouth.
“You had a crew member by the name of Mauricio.” It was a statement, not a question. “I also understand that this Mauricio took off before the police arrived on the scene.”
Jeff looked as uncomfortable as Monica felt. He gave a small nod.
“And yet nobody thought to mention it to me?”
Monica cleared her throat. “We were all in shock. I'm sure you can understand that.” She wasn't about to let this detective browbeat them, even if she and Jeff had been in the wrong. Monica shot a glance at Jeff then turned back to Stevens. “How did youÂ .Â .Â .”
Stevens frowned. “I'm afraid I can't say. But I'm hoping you can give me some information. We're trying to track this Mauricio down. It's quite possible he's completely innocent, but until we talk to him, we can't rule him out as a suspect. Do you have his address? Has he been back to the farm here?”
Jeff ran a hand across his forehead. “No, he hasn't. And I'm afraid I don't know where he lives. All I have is his name and social security number.”
Stevens raised her eyebrows.
Jeff shrugged. “We hire a lot of seasonal help. Some of them may not have a permanent address.”
Stevens looked doubtful but didn't press the point. Monica almost opened her mouth to say something about Charlie Decker, but bit her tongue.
“Do you have any idea why Mauricio would be trying to avoid the police?”
Jeff quickly shook his head, and Monica hoped her face wasn't turning red. She figured it wouldn't be too long before Stevens put two and two together. She was obviously a bright woman.
Stevens looked from one to the other of them and then began to struggle to her feet.
“I hope you will be in touch if you hear from Mauricio.” She handed them each a business card.
“We will,” Monica assured her as she tucked the card into the pocket of her jeans.
Stevens nodded and made her way to the door.
The interview left Monica with a decidedly unsettled feeling. Was it because she knew more than she had admitted to the detective? She was definitely going to make a clean breast of it eventually. But if Stevens continued to focus on Mauricio, then she would leave Jeff alone. And Monica would have the chance to do a little investigating of her own.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
Monica had invited Gina and Jeff for dinner that evening, but Gina had insisted on taking them to the restaurant at the Cranberry Cove Inn insteadâher treat.
Monica pulled a deep green knitted dress from the back of her closet. She had a pair of black suede boots she'd purchased on impulse after seeing them in the window of a shop on Chicago's Magnificent Mile. That was when she was still with Ted, and their dates had often included fancy, five-star restaurants.
The dining room at Cranberry Cove Inn was as close as Cranberry Cove came to having a five-star restaurant. Monica hadn't been yet, but she'd heard people talking about it. Tourists dined there regularlyâlocals only went for special occasions like engagements, silver wedding anniversaries and fiftieth birthdays. And most of them avoided the place during tourist season, when they were apt to feel out of place despite the fact that the Inn was in their own backyard.
The Inn dated from the late 1800s, when tourists first discovered Cranberry Cove. It had been added on to and shored up many times in the intervening years. Some of the additions had been more successful than others. The main
part of the Inn was white with black shutters and had a picket fence running along the front. It stood on a bluff above the lake and had a commanding view of the water.
Gina roared up to Monica's cottage in her Mercedes, half an hour late. She was in one of her over-the-top outfits with a short skirt, plenty of cleavage and her hair in its usual casual, but artfully arranged, disarray.
“Jeffie, darling, you don't mind driving, do you? I always think it's peculiar to see a car pull up with a woman driving when there's a perfectly capable man riding shotgun.”
Jeff slid behind the wheel, and Monica thought he looked uncomfortable in his unaccustomed sport coat and tie.
Fifteen minutes later, Jeff pulled up in front of the Cranberry Cove Inn. The Inn boasted valet parking so Jeff handed the keys to an attendant in a short black jacket and white shirt.
“You be careful with my car, now,” Gina called after him as he got behind the wheel of her Mercedes.
Monica couldn't help but notice Jeff wince slightly. Gina's perfume left a trail behind her as they followed her into the lobby, where one of the staff immediately came rushing forward.
“Good evening, Mrs. Albertson. How are you tonight?”
Monica felt the jolt she always did at someone other than her mother being called
“We've got reservations in the dining room,” Gina said. “Although I'm afraid we're a wee bit late.” She pouted prettily.
“No problem. The maÃ®tre d' is holding your table. If you'll come this way.”
The young man escorted them to the door of the dining
room and, with a flourish, turned them over to the care of the maÃ®tre d'.
The maÃ®tre d' led them to a table for four, which was strategically situated in front of a large window that overlooked the lake. If it hadn't been overcast, they would have had a beautiful view of the last rays of the sun as it set over Lake Michigan. Lights were coming on along the promenade that ran the length of the beach in back of the hotel, and they twinkled in the twilight.
“Isn't this nice? All of us together,” Gina said as she took her seat.
Jeff ran a finger around the collar of his shirt and smiled wanly.
A waiter appeared to take their drink order, and Gina ordered a bottle of champagne.
The waiter reappeared in minutes bearing a silver ice bucket on a stand. The neck of a bottle of expensive champagne poked out the top. He set it down, deftly removed the cork and filled their glasses.
As soon as the waiter was finished, Gina raised her flute in a toast. “Here's to my new venture,” she said before taking a sip of her drink.
Jeff choked slightly on his champagne. “New venture?”
Gina nodded. “Yes. I've really gotten to like it here in Cranberry Cove, and I don't have anything tying me to Chicago anymore.”
By now Jeff was beginning to look really alarmed, and Monica, too, felt a sense of unease. They exchanged surreptitious glances.
“So I've decided to stay here.” Gina punctuated her announcement with a sip of her drink.
“You mean for a couple of weeks?” Jeff asked hopefully.
Gina shook her head. “No. Permanently.”
“But what will you do?” Monica asked, thinking of all the things that Gina was used to having at her disposal in a big city like Chicago.
Gina waggled her finger at them playfully. “I'm going to open an aromatherapy shop.”
For a moment, Monica and Jeff sat in silence, stunned by Gina's announcement.
“What's aromatherapy?” Jeff asked, breaking the awkward pause.
“It's kind of hard to explain, but aromatherapy uses the scent of essential oils to bring harmony to the body and to make you feel good.” Gina leaned forward, warming to her topic. “For instance, lavender relieves stress and is marvelous if you have a migraine. I absolutely swear by it when I get one of my headaches.”
“ButÂ .Â .Â . butÂ .Â .Â . where is this shop going to be?” Jeff fanned himself with the pages of his menu.
“You know that empty space down by the hardware store? I signed the lease today, and the carpenters begin work right away.”
“This is so sudden,” said Monica. The very thought of plunging into a venture like this with so little forethought made her panic. She could practically feel her throat closing up.
“You have to seize the moment.” Gina picked up her menu. “Now, what are you all planning on ordering?”