Once again I am grateful to so many for helping me get this book into the hands of readers. My Wicked Cozy partners in crimeâJessie Crockett (aka Jessica Estevao), Sherry Harris, Julie Hennrikus (aka Julianne Holmes), Liz Mugavero (aka Cate Conte), and Barb Rossâyou are the best support group and role models ever. My agent, John Talbot; my editor at Kensington, John Scognamiglio; copyeditor Rosemary Silva; and the entire Kensington staff who make it happen: thank you. The awesome writers in the Monday Night Salem Writers' Group heard every word of this book and much improved it with their spot-on critiques: Rae Francouer, Doug Hall, Margaret Press, Elaine Ricci, Patricia Shepherd, and Sam Sherman. Sherry Harris also expertly edited the manuscript before I turned it in.
A childhood friend and fellow Camellia Festival princess, Debbie Becnel-Bush, came up with the fabulous title. My son John David, Lisa Forbush-Umholtz, Darryl Ray, and the hens at New Harmony Farm taught me all I know about chickens. Ruffles the rooster is a blatant copy of Greg and Heide's rooster at Toddy Pond Farm in Maine. I also borrowed their cool solar power setup. Heron Pond Farm, where I held a winter share while writing this book, kindly let me visit the winter greenhouses. Dan Kittredge, with his expertise on bionutrient-dense feeding, plays a bit part, as does Jessie Crockett's maple syrup farmer Dani Greene. Sheila Connolly (and her character, Meg Corey) helped with apple information. John David's commitment to the theory and practice of permaculture also appears in these pages, as does his experience with vermiculture.
My son Allan provided inspiration about technological invention, as well as loving support, as always. Cam's canvas OtisRein bag is a real product, featuring hand-painted crows, made by my friends Giselle Rein and Susan Otis. D. P. Lyle's
Forensics for Dummies
provided valuable information on poisons. I borrowed Kai Fujita's last name, Eugene Papa's opera expertise, and our local cheese shop's proprietor, Luca.
A special thanks to Detective Kevin Donovan of the Amesbury Police Department for patiently answering all my questions ever since I graduated from the Citizens' Police Academy.
Two people generously contributed to worthy causes in order to win character-naming rights: Ann Jaroncyk for her friend Lou Dispenza (I threw Ann in, too), and Pat Cook. I hope you like who you became! The Merrimack River Feline Rescue Society and the Save the Screening Room fundâthank you, too.
Sisters in Crime both locally and nationally, the Guppies, the New England chapter of Mystery Writers of America, I embrace you. I wouldn't be here but for what I have learned from you. Locavores, farmers, and faithful readers everywhere: a bow, a wave, and a thanks. And if you like the story, posting a positive review somewhere is a great way to help authors.
I have broken one cardinal rule of fiction in this book. I included a real person. My smart, talented, caring mother, Marilyn Flaherty Maxwell Muller, didn't live quite long enough to read any of my books, so I thought I'd put her in one. Great-uncle Albert's new sweetie is Mommy cut from full cloth, except she would never have had a glass of wine and never really caught on to anything digital. Whether she's smiling down on this book from somewhere or not, I don't know, but it makes me smile to write about her.
Finally, my dear Hugh soldiers on with home renovations, even as I sit in my upstairs office, not helping, and instead typing away with the door closed. I thank him for not minding that I left my day job to live my dream, and for being there for my crazy, glorious journey.
ameron Flaherty sidestepped in surprise as a tall man with gleaming skin the color of dark-roasted coffee beans stormed into the institutional kitchen at Moran Manor Assisted Living, his deep brown eyes flashing.
“I'm going to kill that woman.” He carried a tray holding the remnants of someone's lunch and slammed it onto the counter. A dark spot stained the front of his green caregiver's polo shirt. “Nothing I do satisfies her.”
Cam had seen him in the halls of the residence, but he wasn't one of the caregivers who tended to her great-uncle, Albert St. Pierre. The man glanced around the kitchen, which was empty except for the two of them.
“Where's Rosemary?” he snapped.
“The cook?” Cam asked. If Rosemary was who he wanted to kill, this could get dicey. Cam took a couple of steps back, until she neared the doorway.
He nodded as if he doubted Cam's intelligence.
“I don't know. I'm looking for her, too.” Cam would have thought the cook would be hard at work in mid-afternoon, prepping Saturday night dinner for a hundred-odd residents. A huge pot bubbled on the back of the stove, and the room carried the aroma of sautÃ©ed onions with an undertone of cleaning solution. Cam had arranged to provide her own organic vegetables for an upcoming dinner and needed to make the final arrangements with the chef, who seemed to be missing in action. “You have a problem with Rosemary?”
The door next to Cam swung open, nearly whacking her. She stuck out her hand at the last minute. “Whoa.”
Ellie Kosloski sauntered into the room, her red Moran Manor polo shirt tucked into skinny jeans. “Oh, hey, Cam. Sorry about that.” The slender ninth grader hadn't gained any weight since Cam met her last June, when Ellie had shown up to volunteer on Cam's farm, but her legs seemed to get longer every time Cam saw her.
“No problem,” Cam said.
“Oscar, what's up?” Ellie said, catching sight of the man. “You don't look very happy.”
He slapped his hand on the stainless-steel island. “She's been here only a month, and she's driving me nuts. It's no Happy New Year for me so far.” He threw his large hands into the air.
Ellie frowned at the clatter but didn't recoil. “Mrs. Montgomery?”
Cam raised her eyebrows.
So Bev Montgomery was making trouble again.
He nodded. “I wish she'd never come here.”
“What's she doing now?” Ellie asked.
“Well, for one thing, she's some kind of ethnophobe.” He clenched and unclenched huge fists. “Telling me because I'm Eritrean, I can't do my job right.”
“She has a history with that kind of opinion,” Cam offered, staying safely near the exit. Bev, an old friend of Cam's great-uncle and late great-aunt, had been involved in an anti-immigrant militia group.
“Who are you?” The man frowned in her direction.
“Cameron Flaherty. I'm a local farmer. I'm supposed to be finalizing arrangements with Rosemary to provide some of my produce for tomorrow night's dinner.”
“Cam's great-uncle is Mr. St. Pierre,” Ellie said. “Cam, this is Oscar Zerezghi. He's a caregiver, and he helps the cook, too.”
“Nice to meet you,” Cam said, not sure if it was. He hadn't extended a hand, so she didn't, either, instead crossing her arms, her shoulder resting on a cool stainless-steel wall.
“Mr. St. Pierre seems like a decent guy. Unlike some of our residents.” He turned on his heel and stalked out.
“Oscar's having a tough time.” Ellie stuck her hands in her back pockets and leaned against the island.
“He's a professional. He should be used to it. Speaking of professionals, have you seen the cook? I need to talk to her.” Cam eyed the boiling pot. Its aromas made her stomach growl. Where was the woman?
“No. Actually, that's why I came in here. The director was looking for Rosemary, too.” Ellie pushed pale hair away from her face and resecured her ponytail. “Maybe she's off with her boyfriend somewhere. My friend Ray said she saw them outside kissing one time.” She rolled her eyes after the manner of teens.
“That doesn't help me at all.”
“So what's the dinner?” Ellie asked.
“I'm donating produce for the meal. It's kind of a trial balloon. If they like it, I hope to get a contract to supply the residence regularly next summer.” Cam moved back into the room and tapped the counter, frowning. “Sounds like Bev giving up her farm and moving here haven't improved her attitude.”
“She's still saying bad stuff about you, too.”
“Me?” Cam sighed.
“The whole business about you, like, stealing her hens. You know, with the rescue chickens last fall.”
“I thought we'd put all that behind us. Although she was sure upset at the time, when my volunteers rescued her neglected hens. But the health department was about to put them down.” The birds were now healthy and were living in a new coop at Cam's farm tucked in the woods of Westbury, a semirural town north of Boston.
“I guess she's still mad,” Ellie said.
“What are you doing here today, Ellie? I thought you worked as a server in the dining room only on weeknights.”
“On Saturdays I, like, come in to take reading material around to the rooms and deliver meals. And I play cards with the residents. I'm the activities director's helper. It gives me more hours and doesn't interfere with school.”
“Some of the people are totally interesting. Even the ones in the Neighborhood, you know, the residents with dementia and Alzheimer's.” Ellie glanced at the big clock on the wall. “It's almost three o'clock. I have to get over to the community room to help out with the anagram game.”
When Cam turned to go in search of the elusive Rosemary, she bumped her hip on the corner of the counter.
Such a klutz.
“You should have heard this guy Oscar, Uncle Albert.” Cam stretched her legs out from her chair a few minutes later in Albert St. Pierre's homey room on the second floor. She hadn't been able to locate the cook and had finally given up. She cupped a mug in both hands, inhaling the peppermint tea he'd fixed her in his kitchenette.
“He is Beverly's care provider.” Albert sat, as usual, in his recliner, with a red plaid lap blanket covering his own legs, or rather, his one complete leg and the other missing its foot. He'd offered Attic Hill Farm to Cam over a year ago, when the amputation forced his retirement from farming. “Oscar tends to get a little carried away in his reactions, I have heard. But I also know Beverly has been loudly unreasonable since she moved here.” He grabbed a stack of books off the table at his elbow and dumped them on the floor. “You can set your tea here.”
“It sounds like Bev might be going off the rails. She said he couldn't do his job right, because he's from Eritrea.”
“I believe she is developing dementia.” Albert raised his abundant snowy-white eyebrows. “And she's in the angry phase, as it starts out for so many.”
“Maybe she simply misses her friends in the Patriotic Militia.” Bev's involvement in the shadowy group last spring had caused headaches for several immigrants in the area.
“Perhaps. You know that I volunteer in the Neighborhood downstairs. I'm a little overfamiliar with the stages of dementia these days.” He sighed. “Beverly is so angry, she doesn't even take her meals in the dining room with everyone else. She apparently complained about the other residentsâdidn't want to share a table with any of themâand they complained right back about her.”
“So nothing has changed.”
“No. Now, enough about that. It's January in Massachusetts. Tell me how winter farming is treating you.”
Cam shrugged. “It's a struggle. You know how cold it's been, but so far the crops in the hoop house are surviving. I spread a floating row cover over them every night and uncover them in the morning. The cover raises the temperature a couple of degrees. And I have the air layer insulating the house, too.”
“The house is covered with two layers of plastic, and an electric fan blows air between them. If we get a big snow, though . . . Well, I hope the pipes and plastic won't collapse. I'd be out of business until April.”
“I never tried to extend the season all the way through the winter, you know. You're brave to try, honey.”
“Or stupid.” Cam tapped her mug. “Did I tell you that I'm providing the produce for dinner here tomorrow night?”
“Excellent. Is the dinner a tryout for a summer contract?”
She nodded. “You're my marketing genius. You suggested doing exactly this last summer.”
“I wasn't much of a genius when I ran the farm, but now I have time to come up with new ideas, don't you know?”
“I couldn't find the cook just now to arrange final details. I think we're all set, though.”
“I'm sure it will be a success.” Albert's pale blue eyes crinkled. He reached out and patted her hand.
“Can we get back to Bev for just a minute? I heard that Richard Broadhurst is going to buy her farm. Is that true? It'd be a great addition to his own farm since they abut. And I know he wanted to expand his orchard.”
“I read about it in the paper. Don't believe the sale's been completed yet. And that daughter of hers, Ginger . . . Somebody heard her trying to cut a deal to develop the land into housing.”
“Oh? Is that what Bev wants?” Cam asked.
“You'd have to ask her,” Albert said. He took a sip of his own tea and gazed out the window. Outside, fat snowflakes floated down like errant cotton puffs. He brought his gaze back to Cam. “Ginger Montgomery tried the same trick with my farm when she nosed out the news that I had plans to quit, you know, with my foot and all.”
“What? She wanted to buy the land and build housing on it?”
He nodded. “Some fancy town house plan. I said I wasn't interested, but she pushed pretty hard. And when I heard you lost your programmer job in Cambridge, why, that's when I offered the farm to you.”
“I'm glad you did. I think. Farming isn't easy, but I'd hate to see luxury condos on such a pretty piece of the hill.”
“Happening all over town. Fertile farmland and woods disappearing into fancy kitchens and three-car garages for bankers and lawyers who work down to Boston. Ginger comes around here to play guitar on weekends. Acts like she's some kind of do-gooder.” He shook his head, with a sorrowful look. “She's playing this afternoon, as a matter of fact.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Cam gazed at his desk in the corner of the room. She snapped her fingers.
“I just remembered. While I'm here, I wanted to show you something on the farm's Web site, see how you like it.”
“Computer's all fired up,” Albert said. He reached for his crutches and transferred himself to the office chair at the desk. “That class they gave here last year really got me going on this computer stuff. And I should show you some pictures that I scanned in, of my dear Marie before we were married. Nineteen forty-nine, it was.”
Cam pulled her chair to his side. She checked the time in the lower corner of the screen. She might be able to catch Ginger Montgomery's guitar gig downstairs when they were done here.
A teenage girl with bouncy black hair pushed a man in a wheelchair ahead of Cam in the main hallway of the residence twenty minutes later. A short woman with a long gray braid, hanging down over a turquoise quilted jacket, walked next to them.
“Felicity?” Cam called out. Felicity Slavin, one of the most avid locavores who subscribed to Cam's farm-share program, volunteered frequently on the farm.
Felicity turned with a smile. “Cam.” She patted the polo-shirted arm of the young caregiver, signaling her to stop, and waited for Cam to catch up. “Have you met my father? He lives in the Neighborhood here.”
“No, but I'd love to.”
“Dad, this is Albert St. Pierre's great-niece, Cam Flaherty. She's the farmer I've been telling you about.”
The man, in red suspenders over a striped shirt, smiled up at Cam. His smile extended to his watery blue eyes under a tweed Irish cap. He extended a quavering hand.
“I'm pleased to meet you, sir.” Cam shook his hand with care. His skin felt like parchment, but he gripped her hand more firmly than she'd expected.
“Nicholas. I'm Nicholas, dear.”
Strains of guitar chords drifted their way. Nicholas tapped his foot and beat his hand on his knee.
Felicity introduced the girl as Ray. “She helps out on weekends.” Felicity nodded at the girl.
After Cam introduced herself, Ray said, “Mr. St. Pierre's niece? He's really nice.”
“Are you going to the music?” Felicity asked Cam.
“I thought I'd check it out before I go home. Although I shouldn't stay long. Did you see that it started to snow?”
“Sure. It's January, Cam.” Felicity smiled.
Cam lowered her voice. “How's Wes doing?”
Felicity let a breath out. “He's under house arrest, awaiting trial. How did such a smart man and such a sweet husband do something so stupid?” She lifted her chin and squared her petite shoulders, but Cam could still see bewilderment in her eyes. Wes, a tall, aging hippie who doted on his tiny wife, had indeed done something stupid last October and was now paying the price.
They arrived at the wide side doorway of the common room that opened off the front lobby of the residence. A slender woman perched on a stool at the front, one leg extended in front of her, one foot hooked on the stool's rung. Her outfit, green leather ankle boots, a calf-length suede skirt, and a green sweater, could have come straight out of a Talbots catalog. She strummed the guitar and encouraged the residents to sing along to “Oh My Darling, Clementine.”