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A Biscuit, A Casket
By Liz Mugavero
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Liz Mugavero
All rights reserved.
The chain saw appeared out of nowhere, its wide arc narrowly missing the top of Stan Connor's head.
The revving sound filled her ears, loud as a swarm of attack bees surrounding her. She caught a flash of the blade, sharp and silver in the moonlight as it swung. She heard a scream—her own? Diving for the grass, Stan clutched her Pyrex containers of bat- and pumpkin-shaped doggie treats for the party tonight, not ready to sacrifice them yet. A fleeting thought ran through her brain—Does it hurt to be decapitated?
The buzzing noise ceased, abruptly. Behind her, Brenna McGee, her new assistant, burst out laughing. Stan risked opening her eyes. Brenna was bent over, her long hair covering her face, hand over mouth, laughter rocking her body. The chain saw hung at the side of a figure dressed completely in black, save for the grotesque mask of a face twisted into a scream. A rubber knife protruded from its head. He must have been hiding behind the ginormous election sign staked into the ground, proclaiming Tony Falco for mayor. The figure pulled the mask up.
"Thanks for blowing my cover, McGee." The high-pitched voice didn't fit the costume. Stan took a closer look. The boy under the mask couldn't have been more than fifteen. He seemed annoyed that he couldn't actually hack someone up in his role.
Brenna wiped her eyes. "Really, Danny? You couldn't scare a pack of kindergartners." Both their eyes turned to Stan on the ground. Brenna reconsidered. "Well, she's not in kindergarten. And does your mother know you're out here with that thing? Bet she doesn't."
Brenna reached for the containers of treats and Stan's bag of party goods. Stan handed them over. Luckily, everything had survived the fall unscathed. If they hadn't, she might've turned the chain saw on this silly teenager. She'd spent the last two weeks baking the darn things.
The boy hung his head, the chain saw drooping by his leg. "I was just playin' around. Trying to get people amped for the maze. Don't tell my mom, please? She gets, like, mad about stuff like that." Danny shifted from foot to foot. The mask slid halfway down over his face again. "You okay, miss?" he asked Stan, still sprawled in the dirt listening to the exchange.
Stan got to her feet, brushing her jeans off with her free hand. Despite the fact that seconds ago she'd thought she was going to lose her head, she had to hand it to the kid. Stan had been queen of Halloween pranks, once upon a time, and couldn't help but admire a good one. Customers walking through the dairy farm gate not expecting to be scared until they got to the corn maze wouldn't expect a masked man with a chain saw to swoop down on them out here. It was a clever way to catch people off guard.
"You don't have to call me 'miss.' I'm Stan. And yes, I'm fine. I love Halloween—I just wasn't expecting that on the way in. With a real chain saw," she added, eyeing the machine dubiously. "You should at least remove the chain first. Aren't the Halloween props supposed to be in the corn maze?"
Along with its dairy production, the Happy Cow Dairy Farm had acres of corn, which the Hoffmans had been turning into an end-of-season maze for the last few years. Tonight was opening night. It was Friday, exactly two weeks before Halloween, and folks were arriving in droves, their excitement palpable in the small town air. The superb setting added to the mood—crisp fall air had settled over the town, and the leaves were brilliant with color. Fall in New England.
Some whispered the Hoffmans were doing the corn maze for the money, that things had been tough for dairy farmers, and especially for the Hoffman family, in recent years. Stan was still too new to Frog Ledge to know if that was true or not, but she did like corn mazes. If the doggie birthday party she was running ended at a decent hour, she'd like to take a trip through it.
"Danny was never good at following directions." Brenna winked at him. "I used to babysit him," she explained to Stan.
Danny rolled his eyes. "Like, a million years ago. So you think the chain saw would be cool in the maze?" His eyes brightened again at the thought.
"You probably shouldn't have said that," Brenna said to Stan.
"I guess not. No," Stan said to Danny. "I think the chain saw might be a bit much for most people. Not to mention a liability."
"So you gonna tell Mom?" He jumped from foot to foot, teenage adrenaline raging.
"Just go put it away before you actually slice someone up by mistake. The last thing your parents need is someone losing a limb on their property." Brenna shook her head. "We'll go find your mother. We have to set up for the doggie party."
"She's in the house." Danny pointed. "And thanks for not telling her!" He took off running toward the cow enclosures, the weight of the chain saw dragging one side of him down, giving him a monsterlike moonlit shadow.
Stan looked at Brenna, who shrugged. "The Hoffmans have always been a little crazy. Emmalee's sweet, though. It's Hal and the kids you have to worry about. They're all a little nuts. Come on, we should get set up. The maze opens soon. Wait'll you see it. It's getting way better every year."
From her house two doors away, Stan had watched the transformation from neighborhood farm to Halloween wonderland with the same excitement she'd had as a kid heading to a scary haunted house. The Happy Cow Dairy Farm's innocent-by-day atmosphere had become a Halloween junkie's dream. Illuminated figures lit up the yard every few feet, from witches to ghosts to scary scarecrows to arched-back black cats. Even the roof of the barn where the dairy cows stayed had been draped with glittering cobwebs and enormous spiders. Off to the right, the Hoffmans' farmhouse was strung with purple and orange lights, more cobwebs, and evil-looking pumpkin faces flashing eerily in the dusk. A family of skeletons sat on the porch, clustered around a table. Their bony mouths lit up with green lights every few seconds. Other decorations hung from the roof or swung from trees, ghostly or witchy figures dancing a macabre dance in the moonlight.
Stan loved Halloween. In a family of people who were Christmas types, she'd always been the odd one who adored getting scared senseless every October. While she'd first been skeptical about her dairy farm neighbor taking on a ghoulish persona, she wasn't one to turn up her nose at any type of Halloween festivities, as long as they were reasonably well done. And it looked like the Hoffmans were pretty good at this after all. Aside from the ad hoc chain saw.
"You're gonna go through the maze later, right?" Brenna clearly itched to partake in the festivities. "Did you see the pictures of the design? It's a witch on a broom. Pretty cool, right?"
"I did see it. They did a nice job. And I'd love to check it out. We'll have to see how the party goes first." Stan checked her watch as they made their way to the farmhouse. "Is this really the town's first doggie costume party?"
Brenna turned back to Stan and arched an eyebrow. Before she could respond, a ghost popped up off the grass and screamed at her. She and Stan both jumped.
"Oh, cool! I haven't seen those in years." Stan stopped to admire the ghost, which immediately dropped to the ground in preparation for the next unsuspecting soul who stepped on the booby trap.
"They're going all out this year. Anyway, you think people really had doggie parties around here before?" Brenna's tone indicated Stan would be a fool if she replied affirmatively.
"Why this year?"
"Because every dog around here loves your treats, and Emmalee has a fenced-in area that's perfect for a doggie party. It's the natural next step." Brenna waved in the general direction of the house. "Benny is psyched, I'm sure."
Benny was the fox terrier guest of honor. His parents, Nancy and Jim, had contacted Stan a few weeks ago, doing serious due diligence on a prospective birthday/costume party. Emmalee had offered her fenced-in patio area for a nominal fee, and they had asked Stan to cater.
Stan was thrilled to oblige. Her new business, Pawsitively Organic Gourmet Pet Food, serving homemade organic pet food and treats to Frog Ledge's four-legged friends, was just getting off the ground. A party with the neighborhood dogs provided a great way to get exposure and it gave her a chance to get Brenna involved. Aside from working nights and weekends at her brother Jake's Irish pub in town, Brenna studied political science by day at a nearby college and harbored a secret interest in animal nutrition. She was all about baking treats and had begged Stan to let her be part of the business.
"Plus, I think it really is true—that Em needs cash." Brenna lowered her voice as they neared the Hoffmans' big, weary-looking farmhouse. "Hal's at the bar almost every night. Jake had to shut him off a couple of times lately, and I think he just goes somewhere else after that. He's really giving Em a run for her money."
"That's too bad." Stan had never met Hal. She'd seen him around town here and there, a hulk of a man who looked like he'd spent the majority of his life outside lifting heavy things. He usually looked either unhappy or deep in thought. She wasn't sure which. Emmalee was definitely more outgoing. Stan knew she worked at the farm pretty much nonstop. She also sold their goods to local farmers' markets, did home deliveries of milk around town, and opened the farm for tours to anyone from schools to the general public. Now she was renting her yard out, too. If the stories were true, Stan felt sorry for her.
She followed Brenna up the porch steps. The old Lab that always hung out on the porch didn't bother to get up, but barked halfheartedly and wagged his tail.
"Well, hello!" Stan petted the dog. "Are you coming to the party?"
The dog licked her hand. Stan took that as a yes.
A minute later, Emmalee yanked the door open. Describing her appearance as frazzled would be putting it mildly. Her brown hair seemed even more shot through with gray than when Stan saw her just last week at the farmers' market. The long hours of physical labor the farm demanded had caused Emmalee to lose weight, but instead of looking fit and muscular she just looked thin and tired. Her jeans and flannel shirt hung off her. The sound of a crying child wafted out at them from another room. The dog finally rose, tail wagging, and ambled over to sniff at the treats in Stan's bag.
"Hi, ladies. Come on in." Despite whatever was going on, Emmalee managed a smile. "I asked Danny to set up some tables for you out back for the party, and I think he actually did it. Nancy and Benny are out there. Jim went to get some pooper scooper bags."
"Ah. Can't run out of those." Stan smiled. "How are you, Emmalee?"
Emmalee shrugged. Behind her the shrieking child got louder. "Doing fine, doing fine. Have you seen Danny, by the way? He told me he'd do tickets for the maze, and it's darn near opening time."
Stan and Brenna glanced at each other. Brenna cleared her throat. "He, uh, went to the barn for a minute. He said he'd be right back. Do you need help with the little one?"
Emmalee glanced behind her toward the sound of the child, fatigue slipping into her eyes. "I suppose so. Hal was supposed to get him all dressed up to scare people in the maze. All the actors should be in their places by now. We have some scary things in there this year. I think it'll be a big hit. But Hal hasn't come home yet." She sighed. "So yes, if you want to entertain Joseph for a while, I'd sure appreciate it."
"I'll do that and meet you outside," Brenna told Stan.
"Come on, I'll take you out." Emmalee led Stan out back. Inside, the child finally stopped crying. Emmalee looked up and crossed herself.
Stan could see the lights from the corn maze ahead. She wondered if Danny had put the chain saw away before manning the ticket booth.
"Benny is dressed up like a bumblebee. He's none too happy about it either," Emmalee confided. "But the other dog owners promised they'd dress up their dogs, too. I have to confess, I didn't give Samson here a costume." She looked down at her dog, who gazed back up at her and wagged.
"I'm sure Samson's not too disappointed," Stan said. "I'll make sure Benny gets special treatment as the host and birthday boy."
Emmalee unlatched the gate and they stepped into the yard, Samson close on Stan's heels, nose pressed to the goodie bag. Benny, a chunky black and white terrier-type dog crammed into a hideous black and yellow striped ensemble, lumbered over to them, his antenna headpiece sliding forward to almost cover his eyes.
"Benny! Your antennas!" Benny's owner, Nancy, equally crammed into her jeans and knitted pumpkin sweater, chased him and stooped to right his headpiece. "He's having trouble keeping it on," she said, standing up and throwing her arms around Stan. "Benny is so excited! By the way, I forgot to ask you when we spoke last week. Is your name really Stan?"
Stan smiled and extracted herself from the enthusiastic woman's grip. It was a question she'd gotten regularly since adopting her nickname. "It's Kristan, but I didn't want the same nickname as everyone else. I'm so glad Benny's excited. I'll set up the treats and prizes I brought for the games. You can pick out Benny's first, since he's the host."
Nancy beamed. "Wonderful. Let's do it. Before Nyla gets here." She wrinkled her nose.
"Nyla?" Stan asked.
"The poodle from down the road. She competes with Benny for everything." Nancy rolled her eyes. "I heard she's dressing up like a mermaid."
A bark sounded from the front, followed by a ringing doorbell. "I'll go let the guests in," Emmalee said. "Stan, set up however you want." She hurried back inside.
"Okay, so here's what we have, Benny. You want to see?" Stan set her bag on the table and began unloading. "These are some new chews that I picked up. All natural, from a local farm. My dogs love them." She held one out for inspection. Benny sniffed, then snatched it and dashed under the table. Samson followed him, tail wagging.
"Ben-Ben! Manners!" Nancy sighed. "You have dogs? You should have brought them! What kind?"
"I have a schnoodle named Scruffy and a pit bull named Henry. Both rescue dogs. My friend Nikki runs a transport service to help rescue dogs, mostly from down south. I have both of them because of her."
"A pit bull?" Nancy sounded dubious. "Aren't they terribly scary?"
"Oh my goodness, Henry is a complete love," Stan said. "He was rescued in that local puppy mill sting a few months ago. Remember?" The perpetrators, a woman who ran a small vegetable farm with her son, had been selling the dogs as puppies to the local dogfighting trade.
"Really? I've never actually met one in person," Nancy admitted. "But everything you hear is terrible."
"Every dog is different. And it's not the dog, it's the owner," Stan said, trying to keep her voice friendly. Stan adored Henry. He was everything the pit bull opponents said the breed could never be—friendly, gentle, and loyal. She'd heard Nikki's stories about breed discrimination for years as Nikki navigated the rescue world, but since adopting Henry she'd seen it firsthand. And the more she faced people's prejudice about her dog, and pit bulls in general, the more adamant she became about making sure the world—or at least her little town of Frog Ledge—knew the truth.
Nancy nodded, but Stan could tell she had gotten bored with the topic. She'd turned her attention to Benny, chewing on his snack and growling at Samson at the same time. "What kind of chew? He likes it."
Stan hesitated. Some people got freaked out when she told them it was a cow trachea. It was the best treat for a dog. Rawhide was junk in comparison. Before she could answer Nancy, she heard shouts from out in the corn maze. Both women turned in that direction. Benny continued to eat his chew toy. Samson headed to the fence, his tail on alert, looking concerned. Emmalee returned with a man holding a boxer on a leash, the dog wearing a pirate hat. They both paused when they heard the shouting, now joined by screams.
"What's all that ruckus about?" Emmalee asked, peering over the fence in the distance. She shook her head. "If that boy is up to something again—"
"Mrs. Hoffman!" A girl dressed as a sexy vampire with a stake in her heart ran up to the fence, terror blatant in her black-rimmed eyes. She spit her fangs into her hand and cried, "You've gotta come right now. To the maze. Something's happened to Mr. Hoffman. Something ... bad."
Excerpted from A Biscuit, A Casket by Liz Mugavero. Copyright © 2014 Liz Mugavero. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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