When Monica Albertson comes to Cranberry Cove—a charming town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan—to help her half-brother Jeff on his cranberry farm, the last thing she expects to harvest is a dead body.
It seems that Sam Culbert, who ran the farm while Jeff was deployed overseas, had some juicy secrets that soon prove fatal, and Jeff is ripe for the picking as a prime suspect. Forming an uneasy alliance with her high-maintenance stepmother, Monica has her hands full trying to save the farm while searching for a killer. Culbert made plenty of enemies in the quaint small town...but which one was desperate enough to kill?
INCLUDES DELICIOUS RECIPES!
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Monica Albertson coaxed her ancient Ford Focus up the last hill, past the boarded-up vegetable stand, the abandoned barn and the Shell station. As usual, she paused at the crest. Cranberry Cove was spread out before her—a view that still thrilled her, even though it had been five weeks since she’d fled Chicago for this idyllic retreat on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.
From her vantage point, Monica could see the sparkling blue waters of the lake and the horseshoe-shaped harbor, where several white sails bobbed in the wind. The Cranberry Cove Yacht Club, where wealthy summer visitors sat on the deck sipping cold drinks, was a speck on the horizon, and the pastel-colored shops that lined Beach Hollow Road were bathed in a soft light by the early morning sun.
Monica took her foot off the brake and rolled down the hill toward town, relishing the cool breeze from her open window and the warmth of the sun on her arms.
She drove down Beach Hollow Road, where all the shop fronts were painted in sherbet hues of pink, lemon yellow and melon. The streets were quiet and the sidewalks nearly empty—it was late September, so the summer crowd had gone back home to their everyday lives and the carloads of tourists on autumn foliage color tours hadn’t arrived yet. Cranberry Cove wasn’t Chicago, but Monica found it very charming with its old-fashioned gaslights, planters overflowing with the remains of the summer’s flowers and the white gingerbread gazebo that graced the middle of the small vest-pocket park.
Monica pulled the Focus into a space in front of Gumdrops, a candy shop that was housed in a narrow building painted the palest pink. Fancy lace curtains hung in the window, and a ceramic Dutch couple kissing sat out on the doorstep, which had been swept clean of any sand borne by the winds of the most recent storm.
Miss Gerda VanVelsen came rushing forward almost before the bell over the door finished sounding Monica’s arrival. Or was she Miss Hennie VanVelsen? Monica could never be sure—the VanVelsens were identical twins, spinsters sharing the home that had belonged to their parents. Their grandparents had been part of the wave of immigration from Holland to western Michigan in the 1800s, and the sisters had retained many of the traits of their ancestors—thriftiness, cleanliness and efficiency.
Monica stole a glance at the name tag pinned to the woman’s top—this was Hennie, dressed in a pastel pink sweater and skirt that almost matched the color of the front of the candy shop. Her gray hair was set in elaborate curls and waves, and her pink lipstick matched her sweater.
“Hello, dear,” Hennie said warmly. “How are you settling in? It’s been a couple of weeks, hasn’t it? Have you got your little cottage fixed up yet?”
Monica nodded. “Yes, I’m almost done. It’s turned out very well.” Actually Monica adored her cottage, but from the time she was little, her parents had discouraged hyperbole.
“Terrible shame about your brother. We were all horrified when we heard,” Hennie said, leaning her elbows on the counter. “So many young men lost over there. I suppose he can count himself lucky he came home at all.”
Monica’s half brother, Jeff, had been deployed to Afghanistan for a year, where he had been injured in a surprise raid. The nerves in his left arm had been damaged, leaving it paralyzed. She had been nearly beside herself with worry the entire year he was gone for fear of losing him.
“So good of you to come and help him with the farm.” Hennie smiled at Monica. “And just in time, too, with the cranberry harvest coming up any day now.”
Guilt washed over Monica like a wave. If she’d been able to make a go of it in Chicago, would she have been so keen to rush to Jeff’s rescue? The small sliver of a café she’d rather unimaginatively named Monica’s—three tiny round tables and a glass case full of her homemade goodies—had been put out of business when a national chain coffee bar opened directly across the street. Monica might have tried again in a different location but the death of her fiancé in a swimming accident shortly afterwards took all the steam out of her, and she was glad to escape to Cranberry Cove.
The curtain to the stockroom was pushed aside and Gerda VanVelsen entered the shop. She was wearing an identical pink skirt and sweater, had her hair set the very same way and sported the exact same shade of pink lipstick as her twin.
Monica was tempted to rub her eyes. It was like seeing double.
“You haven’t seen Midnight, have you?” Gerda asked with a slight tremor in her voice.
Midnight was the sisters’ much beloved cat. She was black from the tip of her nose to the tip of her tail, and a lot of people in town considered her bad luck, which Monica found silly. She herself was neither superstitious nor given to flights of fancy.
“No, I’m afraid I didn’t. Is she missing?”
Gerda fiddled with the strand of pearls at her neck. “Not missing exactly, but we let her out an hour ago, and she would normally be back by now for her breakfast. I always worry you know.” She knitted her gnarled hands together. “There are people who would wish her harm because of her coloring. But she’s a sweet, gentle old thing and wouldn’t hurt a soul.”
“I’m sure she’ll be back any minute now,” Hennie said consolingly, putting an arm around her sister and giving her a squeeze. “Now, dear.” She turned her attention to Monica. “What can we get for you?”
“I’ve developed a real taste for your Wilhelmina peppermints,” Monica said, pointing to the white box with the red and blue ribbon and the silhouette of Queen Wilhelmina’s profile.
While Gerda fussed about selecting the appropriately sized white bag with Gumdrops printed on it in varicolored letters, Monica looked around the shop. It was as tidy and spic-and-span as the VanVelsen sisters themselves. A large case held a dazzling assortment of sweets—from root beer barrels to Mary Janes. The sisters also carried an array of uniquely Dutch treats, and while Monica had developed a taste for the peppermints, she had yet to succumb to the appeal of the sweet and salty black licorice so beloved by the Dutch.
Gerda rang up the purchase, and Monica handed her the money.
Gerda gave Monica the bag. “You have a good day, dear.” She paused. “And would you mind keeping an eye out for Midnight?”
“I’d be glad to,” Monica reassured her as she left the shop.
Monica strolled down Beach Hollow Road, checking in alleys and doorways for the missing Midnight. She passed Danielle’s Boutique, a pricey store that catered to the summer tourists with its stock of bathing suits, cover-ups, gauzy caftans and expensive costume jewelry. Next to it was Twilight, a New Age shop where you could have your palm read or your fortune told with Tarot cards.
The door to the Cranberry Cove Diner was propped open, and the seductive smell of bacon frying drifted out to the sidewalk. It was a gathering spot for the locals, who gave the evil eye to any tourists who dared to darken its interior—which Monica suspected hadn’t changed in the last forty years.
Book ’Em, a bookstore specializing in mysteries, was tucked in next door. Monica was in need of a new book, having finished the one she’d brought with her from Chicago. She hadn’t liked it very much, which had made for rather rough sledding, but she never allowed herself to put a book down without finishing it. To her, that smacked of being a quitter.
This was Monica’s first visit to the small, untidy and rather dark shop. She stood on the threshold and took a deep sniff. She loved the scent of books. The store itself was quite a mess, with volumes spilling off the shelves and piled haphazardly in every nook and cranny, and a narrow spiral staircase leading to an upper balcony. Monica’s fingers itched to bring some order to the place.
She noticed a man with his back to her—he had dark hair, was slightly taller than Monica and was humming softly under his breath. He had a stack of books in his arms that he appeared to be shelving, although there was hardly any room on the already overcrowded stands.
Monica strolled over to the paperback section and began browsing. Books were six deep in the racks, and the book in front was not necessarily the same as the one behind it or the ones in the middle. It was like a treasure hunt—Monica had no idea what she would find tucked away in the chaos.
She found a classic Agatha Christie and picked it up. It was one of the mysteries she remembered reading in high school—The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She scanned the back blurb, trying to remember the plot. Perhaps she’d buy it and read it again.
“Ah, the famous, or should I say infamous, unreliable narrator.” The fellow who was stocking books came up behind Monica and pointed at the paperback in her hand.
The lines around his eyes suggested he might be a few years older than her, but his rather shaggy hair and worn corduroys and crewneck sweater made him look appealingly boyish.
Monica smiled. “I was trying to remember this particular book—it’s been ages since I read it, but now it’s coming back to me.”
“One of Dame Agatha’s best, don’t you think?” He ran a hand through his hair, leaving it even more disheveled. “Everyone knows Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None—at least that’s what it was titled here in America—but Roger Ackroyd is far more clever if you ask me.” He looked at Monica, his head tilted to one side. “Are you a Hercule Poirot fan or a Miss Marple fan?”
Monica thought for a moment. “Both, actually. And a Miss Silver fan as well,” she threw out to see if he was really as up as all that on his English mysteries.
“Ah, Patricia Wentworth’s redoubtable heroine.”
Monica smiled, feeling absurdly pleased that he’d understood the reference.
He extended his hand. “I’m Greg Harper, Book ’Em’s owner, manager and general dogsbody.”
He had a firm handshake, which Monica returned. “Monica Albertson.” She hated to admit it, but she was almost disappointed when he let go of her hand.
“How are you liking Cranberry Cove? I heard you’ve come to help your brother with his farm.”
Monica was startled, and seeing the expression on her face made Greg laugh. “This is a small town. Everyone knows everyone else’s business.”
Monica wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She was used to the anonymity of the big city.
She ended up buying the Christie book—she wanted to see if she agreed with Greg about its being one of Dame Agatha’s best works. She’d also picked up the newest Peter Robinson—a current favorite author—but then put it back down. It would give her an excuse to come back again later in the month to purchase it.
Monica rather reluctantly left Book ’Em and headed next door to Bart’s Butcher—the type of old-fashioned place where they had sawdust on the floor and tied your package in paper fastened with string.
She planned to pick up a steak. She’d invited Jeff to have dinner with her—he was looking entirely too thin for Monica’s tastes. She suspected he subsisted on takeout and microwave dinners, neither of which was particularly high in nutritional value. That, combined with his worry about the farm, had turned him from lean and muscular to almost scrawny.
Monica selected a prime looking T-bone, and Bart Dykema, a round barrel of a man, pulled a sheet of paper from the roll on the counter and placed the steak on it. He gestured toward Monica’s package with his chin.
“See you bought something in that shop next door.”
“Nice guy, Greg Harper.” He measured out a piece of string from the roller attached to the counter and cut it. “Ran for mayor last year but was defeated by Sam Culbert, who’s holding the office now. Harper’s widowed, you know.” He wrapped the string around the neat bundle he’d created. “Not seeing anyone so far as I can tell.”
Monica felt her face getting red. Was Bart insinuating that she and Greg . . .
“How’s your brother doing?” Bart said, suddenly changing the subject. “Got a good crop of cranberries going? I imagine he’ll be harvesting any day now.”
“He’s managing,” Monica said, although in reality, the farm was bleeding money, and Monica hoped she’d be able to help Jeff staunch the flow. Sam Culbert, who was the farm’s former owner in addition to being the mayor, had managed the farm for Jeff while he was overseas, and Jeff had returned to find the place in near financial ruin.
Monica took her package, bid Bart a good day and headed toward the farmer’s market at the end of Beach Hollow Road. She picked up salad fixings—tender lettuce, a cucumber and tomatoes still warm from the sun. Her shopping completed, Monica headed back toward the farm.
• • •
On her return trip to Sassamanash Farm—so named because it was the word for cranberry in the Algonquin Indian language—Monica stopped at the crest of the hill again. This time she could see the farm in the distance. It looked like a carpet of green dotted with the brilliant fire engine red of the ripe cranberries. The berries had been pale pink when Monica had arrived at Sassamanash Farm, but as the weather had become cooler, they had turned their characteristic ruby color.
If she squinted, she could see the dollhouse sized cottage she was in the process of renovating, the stretch of black macadam where tourists parked when they came to watch the harvest, and the dot of white that was the clapboard building that housed the small store where they sold baked goods made with cranberries, and kitchen items decorated with the fruit, such as tea towels, napkins and pot holders.
Monica continued down the hill toward the farm. She parked in front of the little cottage she now called home. She had seen its inherent potential the minute she arrived from Chicago. It had dormer windows, a gabled roof and a trellis with the remains of summer’s climbing roses. It had taken a month of painting, scrubbing and sheer elbow grease to make it habitable, but Monica was pleased with how it had turned out.
She stowed the steak she’d purchased at Bart’s in the refrigerator along with the salad fixings. The cottage still smelled of sugar and spice from the goodies she’d baked early that morning—cranberry muffins, cranberry scones dusted with sugar and a cranberry salsa she was still experimenting with to get the right balance of flavors—both sweet and hot—with accents of lime, cilantro and jalapeno. Monica packed everything in a basket and headed back out the door.
Darlene Polk was behind the counter of the Sassamanash Farm store when Monica arrived. She was taller than Monica’s five foot eight—almost six feet—with a lot more meat on her bones. Her nondescript light brown hair was gathered into a ponytail, and her bangs were curling in the humidity.
She glanced up when she heard Monica enter. Her face bore its usual resentful expression, her lower lip stuck out as if she was continually pouting. Monica had tried to become friends with her, but Darlene preferred to keep to herself.
Monica put down her basket and turned to Darlene, who was leaning against the counter reading one of those magazines that grocery stores sell by the checkout lane.
“Can you help me put these out?”
Darlene stared at her blankly for a moment before shuffling over, the sulky expression on her face intensifying with each step.
“I don’t see what was wrong with the stuff we carried before,” Darlene whined. “It sold, didn’t it?” She glared at Monica challengingly.
When Monica had arrived at Sassamanash Farm, she’d discovered that the shop was selling mass-produced cranberry products—muffins preserved in plastic wrap, scones filled with trans fats to keep them fresh, and preserves that Darlene had slapped a Sassamanash Farm label on. Having made all the baked goods for her own little café, Monica got to work creating fresh products for the store.
“I’m sure it was all very fine,” Monica said soothingly. “But customers today want fresh, homemade-tasting goodies. They can get mass-produced products anywhere. We need to sell something that’s special.”
Monica carried the containers of salsa over to the cooler where they kept bottled water and pop for the tourists. “What happened to the salsa I brought over yesterday?”
“Sold it.” Darlene cracked her gum and stared at Monica from under her bangs, the ends of which were caught under her smudged glasses.
“You sold all of it?” Monica couldn’t believe it. Although locals occasionally frequented the shop, most of their sales were from tourists stopping by the farm to get a firsthand look at the cranberry bogs. The store didn’t exactly do a brisk business, except during the harvest.
Darlene was already back at the counter, flipping through the pages of her magazine. “Some guy came in and bought them all. Said he was from the Cranberry Cove Inn. Said it was the best salsa he’d ever tasted, and he wanted to put it on the menu.”
Monica’s heart skipped a beat. Perhaps she’d found the perfect balance for the salsa after all. And if the Cranberry Cove Inn wanted to buy it, there might be others as well. She chewed on a ragged cuticle. Goodness knows, they needed as much cash as they could get to keep the farm running. Jeff had sunk his life’s savings into it, and she wasn’t going to let him lose it if she could help it.
Monica arranged the fresh muffins in a basket lined with a red-and-white gingham napkin and placed the scones in an orderly row on an antique silver platter she had found at an estate sale.
She felt Darlene’s beady eyes on her as she went about tidying the shop—dusting the jars of preserves she’d made herself and creating a display with the cranberry decorated tea towels and napkins a local woman sewed for them.
There was a noise outside, and Darlene looked up. She made her ponderous way to the window and peered out. She turned around, her scowl deepening.
“It’s that Sam Culbert. I thought we’d seen the last of him around here. He sold the farm to your brother, didn’t he?”
“Yes, but I imagine there may still be some things they need to discuss.”
Monica watched as Jeff and Culbert said good-bye.
Culbert was broad shouldered with thick gray hair and slightly bowed legs. Monica was surprised to see him get into a dark, late-model Lexus.
“That’s quite the car,” she said to Darlene. “I didn’t realize there was so much money in cranberries.”
Darlene snorted. “About a penny a berry—and only the unblemished ones. The rest are worthless. The Culberts own a lot more than Sassamanash Farm. They have real estate all over the county, own half the buildings in town and have a huge house with a view of the lake. You should see the place. I clean it for Mrs. Culbert once a week.” Darlene scowled again. “Must be nice. I grew up in a double-wide with secondhand furniture and hand-me-down clothes. Of course my mother, bless her soul, did the best she could seeing as how I didn’t have no daddy.”
Monica made comforting noises to the best of her ability. Darlene would complain about the deprivation of her upbringing out of one side of her mouth while out the other side she would insist that despite their lack of means, her childhood had been nearly idyllic.
Monica brushed some dust off her sweatshirt. “I guess I’ll be going now.”
Darlene gave her a sour look.
Jeff only kept Darlene on because it was hard to get anyone to work in the store when they could make more money waitressing or clerking at one of the shops in town.
Monica walked back to her cottage, where she planned to spend the afternoon reviewing the farm’s accounts. Jeff had just borrowed a considerable sum from the bank to keep things afloat. Monica had learned a little something about business while running her café, and she hoped that she would be able to straighten things out for Jeff. She set up her laptop on the kitchen table and plugged in the flash drive that held the data from Jeff’s computer.
Going over the accounts for Sassamanash Farm was a long and tedious process, but Monica had plenty of patience. By the time she finished examining the pages and pages of Excel spreadsheets, and all the statements from the bank, she had the answer to why Sassamanash Farm was failing to produce a profit.
But how was she going to break the news to Jeff?
Monica thought about what the farm’s accounts had revealed while she cleaned lettuce and sliced tomatoes for a salad. Probably the best way to break the news to Jeff was to do it quickly—like pulling off a bandage in one swift motion. She grimaced at the thought.
Jeff arrived exactly at six o’clock, just as Monica was preheating the broiler for the steak. He and Monica had both gotten their father’s height and auburn hair that had a slight curl to it, although Jeff’s blue eyes and cleft chin came from his mother. He was wearing jeans and a plaid flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing his forearms—the strong right one, and the left, which looked wasted in comparison. It hurt Monica to see it, and she glanced away quickly.
“You look tired.”
Jeff ran a hand across the back of his neck. “I am. The temperature really dropped last night and I was worried about a frost. I had to go out and check the temperature sensors in the bogs. It’d be just my luck to lose the crop the day before we plan to harvest.”
Monica looked at him curiously. “It didn’t seem that cold to me.”
“The cranberry bogs are lower than the surrounding land. They can run ten to twenty degrees cooler, especially at night.”
Monica absorbed that fact. There was still so much to learn. “But what would you do if there was a frost?” She couldn’t imagine how they could blanket the acres and acres of cranberries that made up Sassamanash Farm in order to keep the fruit warm.
“It sounds crazy,” Jeff said with a grin, “but we run the irrigation system and spray the berries with water. The water turns to ice, releasing heat, and the heat warms the berries. It’s a law of physics known as the heat of fusion.”
“Oh,” was all Monica could say. While Jeff had excelled at science in school, she had been more inclined to have her head buried in a book—preferably a mystery. She’d started with Nancy Drew and had worked her way up to P. D. James before she was out of middle school.
“I have some cold beer in the fridge,” she said as Jeff plopped down at the kitchen table, making the small space suddenly seem even smaller.
Jeff scrubbed a hand across his face. “Sounds great.” He reached out his good arm, pulled open the refrigerator door which was right behind him and yanked a bottle from the cardboard six-pack Monica had stashed there. He twisted off the top and took a long pull before putting the beer down on the table and tilting his chair back on two legs.
“How’s Gina?” Monica turned toward Jeff and leaned on the counter. “Have you heard from her lately?”
Gina was Jeff’s mother and technically, Monica supposed, her stepmother, although she wasn’t even ten years older than Monica and looked even younger than that, since she visited the best hair salons, had a personal trainer and had had enough Botox injections to paralyze an elephant. Monica couldn’t help but think of her as the woman who stole her father away from his family. Although strictly speaking, her parents’ marriage had been on the proverbial rocks even before Gina had dug her well-manicured nails into John Albertson’s arm.
Monica had been besotted, however, with the younger brother who had arrived a year after their marriage, and she had gradually come to realize that Gina wasn’t as bad as all that—vapid, for sure, but in a harmless sort of way.
“She’s okay, I guess,” Jeff said in answer to Monica’s question. He took another long draft of his beer. “She’s coming to visit.”
Monica stopped with her hand halfway to the oven door. “When?”
Jeff glanced at his watch. “In about an hour.”
“What?” Monica squeaked.
Jeff shrugged. “She called last night and said she was at loose ends and could she come and stay for a bit. The timing couldn’t be worse, but what could I say?” He shrugged.
Monica was flabbergasted. She didn’t go anywhere without making plans. Even a trip to the grocery store would be on her to-do list at least twenty-four hours in advance.
“Where is she going to stay?”
“She’s got a room at the Cranberry Cove Inn.” Jeff grinned. “The presidential suite probably. If there is such a thing. She’s getting in late so she said she won’t be by until sometime tomorrow. Knowing Mother, that won’t be before noon.”
Monica pulled the broiler pan from the oven and put it on the top of the stove. “What is she going to do while we’re harvesting the berries?”
Jeff shrugged. “Dunno. Shop, I guess.”
Monica tried to picture Gina, with her salon processed blond hair and long, manicured nails, strolling around Cranberry Cove in her Louboutin pumps. Even the wealthier tourists, the ones who disembarked from the biggest yachts in the harbor, rarely wore anything fancier than boat shoes. Cranberry Cove was the sort of laid-back place where people walked around barefoot, in faded cutoffs and an old T-shirt.
They ate their meal in near silence. Jeff was obviously hungry, and soon he’d polished off three-fourths of the steak, a huge helping of salad and a baked potato heaped with butter and sour cream. Monica was gratified as she watched him devour the meal.
Jeff chased the last bit of lettuce around his plate and looked up with a smile.
“That was delicious. Thanks.” He swiped his napkin across his mouth.
Time to rip off the bandage, Monica thought.
She pushed her chair back and began to gather their plates and silverware. “I’ve been going over the farm’s books,” she said, with her back to Jeff.
“Oh.” His tone was flat.
Monica turned around and leaned against the counter, her hands braced against the edge. Just get hold of the corner and rip, she told herself.
“There’s a reason you haven’t been making the profit you expected.”
Jeff’s brows rose, wrinkling his broad forehead. Monica could see a trace of pale skin at his hairline where his hat usually rested. “What’s that?”
“Sam Culbert was cheating you. He embezzled thousands of dollars from the farm’s accounts.”
Jeff jumped up, nearly overturning the kitchen table in the process. The dirty cutlery, which Monica hadn’t yet collected, slid to the floor.
“If you’re right,” Jeff began, “if you’re right, I’m going to kill the bastard.”
• • •
Monica was up and out of bed before her alarm went off the next morning. Today was the big day—the beginning of the cranberry harvest.
Her clothes had been laid out the night before—jeans, an old turtleneck she used to wear around the apartment to stay warm during the fierce Chicago winters and a plain gray sweatshirt that was slightly frayed around the edges.
She dressed quickly. It was cold, and she started to shiver. She pulled on her sweatshirt gratefully.
It was still dark, and Monica flipped on the overhead light in the kitchen. She pulled a box of instant oatmeal from the cupboard, tore open a packet and emptied it into a bowl along with half a cup of water. While it was in the microwave, she leaned her elbows on the counter and looked out the window. The sky was overcast with a few streaks of light to the east. Monica shrugged. She had learned the old Michigan saying that if you didn’t like the weather, all you had to do was wait five minutes.
The microwave pinged and Monica retrieved her bowl, poured some milk on top and added a handful of fresh blueberries—the remains of Sassamanash Farm’s summer crop. She ate the oatmeal and was putting the bowl in the dishwasher when there was a knock on the door. She opened it to find Jeff standing there. He was dressed similarly in jeans and a sweatshirt, and he had a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead.
“Ready?” he said economically.
Monica nodded and followed him down the path toward the open field that led to the cranberry bogs. Walking slightly behind him, she could see the stiff set of his shoulders and head.
Jeff whirled around suddenly. “I can’t believe Sam Culbert would cheat me like that. There must be some mistake.” His jaw clenched tightly. “He’s a well-respected businessman for Pete’s sake.”
Monica hung her head. They’d been over all this the evening before. “I doubt there’s any mistake, but we should have a professional come in and audit the books.”
Jeff slammed his clenched fist into the open palm of his other hand. “How could he do that to me? I trusted him. While I was over in Afghanistan dodging bombs and bullets, he was lining his pockets at my expense.” He kicked savagely at a bare branch that was blocking their path. “And just yesterday he came around to see how I was doing.” Jeff gave a bitter laugh. “Here he was offering me help with one hand while stealing from me with the other.”
And he strode ahead, leaving Monica to break into a slow trot in an attempt to catch up.
• • •
The leaves on the trees ringing the bog were just beginning to change color, tinged with the barest hint of red and gold. Soon they would be in their full glory. Monica took a deep breath. She loved this time of year.
The bog had been flooded the previous evening and was now under more than a foot of water. A large truck was pulled up close to the side, and there was a chute running from it to the water.
Jeff gestured toward it. “A pump will suck the berries out of the water, up the chute and into the cleaner, where they’ll be separated from any twigs, leaves, pieces of vine or other debris. Once that’s done, the berries will be pumped into the truck.”
Monica noticed that Jeff’s crew had already gathered at the edge of the bog. They, too, were dressed in jeans and warm sweatshirts, most with scruffy beards and knitted caps pulled down over their foreheads. They were nursing Styrofoam cups of coffee, and a nearly empty box of doughnuts sat open on the remains of a tree stump.
Jeff introduced the five men who would be helping him with the harvest. They nodded at Monica briefly, their hands shoved in their pockets, obviously impatient to get going.
Jeff gestured toward the bog. “That’s a year’s worth of work right there. Watering and tackling weeds in the summer, sanding the bog and keeping it protected from frost in the winter, fertilizing in the spring and finally harvesting. There’s a lot riding on this crop.”
One of the men turned toward Jeff. “Should we get going, boss?” He had blond curls sticking out from under his cap, and crinkles around his blue eyes.
The men took off at a trot toward a pile of waders—they looked like waterproof overalls with feet—and donned them swiftly, thanks to years of practice. Two of them headed toward a pair of machines that looked like a cross between a jet ski and a lawn mower.
“What are those?” Monica asked, pulling her sweatshirt down over her hands. It was still cold—the sun was low on the horizon, and the sky to the west was barely lit.
“Those are water reels, although we jokingly call them eggbeaters,” Jeff explained. “They agitate the water and remove the berries from the vines.”
Just then one of the reels started up with a roar. Two startled loons rose from the bog and streaked across the sky. The reels moved up and down the bog, churning the water and shattering the silence. Slowly the cranberries were freed from the vines. They floated to the surface like bright red bubbles.
Two of the men plunged into the bog, wading through the thigh-high water. The one in the red cap turned toward the bank where Jeff was standing. “Just my luck,” he yelled. “These waders have a hole in them.”
“Blame Sam Culbert,” one of the other men shouted back. “He wouldn’t spend a dime if he didn’t have to.”
Jeff put his hands to his mouth and yelled above the noise of the reels. “I’ll replace them as soon as I can.”
Monica noticed the look of worry that crossed his face. She knew he didn’t want to spend any more money than he had to.
He turned toward Monica. “Ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she said, as Jeff handed her a pair of the special socks they would wear inside the waders.
She picked up a pair and tried to put her right leg into them. That caused her to nearly lose her balance, and she realized the safest way for a novice to don them was sitting down. She lowered herself to the ground. It was damp, and she felt moisture soaking into her jeans. Monica was quickly developing a newfound respect for people who worked the land.
She managed to get her feet and legs into the waders, but Jeff had to help her stand up—the waders were awkward, and she felt as graceful as the abominable snowman in them. Jeff’s crew had made walking in them look so effortless, but it was far from it.
A small group of early bird tourists had gathered on the opposite bank of the bog. Lauren, an attractive blonde who had been hired as a part-time tour guide, was explaining the harvesting process to them.
There was a lull as the water reels were briefly turned off, and Lauren’s voice carried clearly across the water to where Monica was standing. “Cranberries are one of three fruits native to North America,” she heard her say.
She saw Jeff glance in Lauren’s direction and wave, his entire face brightening for a brief moment. Monica knew they’d been to the movies a couple of times, and the way Jeff talked about Lauren led Monica to believe that this might become serious.
She watched, biting her lip, as Jeff struggled with his shoulder strap. He didn’t like to feel as if he was being coddled because of his injury, and in the five weeks she’d been living at the farm, Monica had learned to let him do things on his own. She gave a sigh of relief when he adjusted it to his satisfaction.
He smiled at Monica. “Let’s go.”
Monica shivered at the thought of getting into the water but gamely moved toward the bog, which by now was crimson with floating berries. The brisk breeze was blowing them to the side farthest from the truck.
“Just our luck,” one of the men called out. “The wind is going in the wrong direction.”
“Yeah. More work for us.” The fellow who had complained about his waders shouted back.
Monica sat on the edge of the bog, as she had seen the men do, and swiveled until she was standing thigh deep in the water. The bottom of the bog was sandy and uneven, and she stumbled and nearly lost her footing.
“Careful, there.” Jeff put a hand on her elbow to steady her. He handed her a wooden rake. “We need to head over there.” He pointed toward the pump.
The cranberries were at least six inches deep and swirled around Monica’s legs in a kaleidoscope of colors—from nearly black to crimson to a pale pink. She trailed her hands through the cold water and watched the berries bob and spin.
Jeff plucked a cranberry from the water and handed it to Monica. “Bite it in half.”
Monica did, and the tart taste flooded her mouth.
Jeff pointed at the half in her hand. “See. Each berry has four air pockets. That’s what makes them float.”
Monica looked out across the bog. The sun had risen a little higher in the sky, the early clouds had scattered, and the light was glancing off the berries. It was magical.
“Come on,” Jeff said. “The guys are going to need our help.”
Monica made her way through the water as best she could. The rest of the crew was busy attempting to corral the berries. Monica pointed at them. “What is that they’re using?”
“That’s a boom,” Jeff said. “There’s a chain on the bottom and foam rubber on the top. It’s similar to what they use to contain an oil spill. They’ll sweep the berries together with it. Our job,” he held out his rake, “is to push the berries toward the pump.”
Slowly the cranberries were pulled toward the center of the bog, creating a growing carpet of brilliant red. A chorus of “ahs” rose from the small crowd that was watching the early morning harvest.
The sea of crimson grew as they corralled more and more of the harvest and slowly tightened the boom, like a noose tightening around someone’s neck. Monica and Jeff stood in the middle along with two of the other crew members, sweeping the berries toward the pump with their rakes.
The berries floated easily enough, and raking them wasn’t difficult, but keeping her balance on the sandy bottom of the bog was challenging Monica’s leg muscles.
“You okay?” Jeff looked over at her.
“Fine.” Monica smiled. If Jeff could do the job with only one good arm, she ought to be able to tough it out.
Monica reached out her wooden rake to capture a small group of berries that had drifted away when it caught on something. She pulled but it didn’t want to budge.
“What’s wrong?” Jeff looked at her in concern.
“The rake is caught on something.” Monica pulled again, even harder this time.
“Could be tangled in one of the vines,” one of the men said, holding out his hand for the rake.
Monica shook her head. She could do this. She pulled one more time. The rake finally came free and she nearly fell, stumbling backward several feet before regaining her footing. Water splashed onto the back of her sweatshirt, and she shivered. She finally steadied herself and was reaching for the small pocket of errant berries when something began to rise from the depths of the flooded bog.
“What the . . .” Jeff said.
They all stopped working and watched in grim fascination as a body, its clothes completely sodden and its face bloated with water, slowly rose to the surface.
Monica screamed and dropped her rake, and a gasp rose from the group of tourists on the bank. Jeff stifled an oath, and the other workers turned off the water reels and waded over to Monica and Jeff as quickly as possible, their brisk movements sending up splashes of water.
“Querido Deus,” one of them muttered.
The fellow in the red cap turned toward Jeff. “Who is it?”
Jeff looked stricken, his face as white as a sheet of paper. It took him a moment to answer. “It’s Sam. Sam Culbert,” he said finally.
Everyone was momentarily frozen. The thought crossed Monica’s mind that they must form an utterly bizarre tableau, standing stock-still, thigh deep in cranberries and clad in chest waders. The cry of a loon flying overhead broke the spell, and they all began talking at once.
Jeff raised his voice to be heard above the excited babble. “We need to get the police.”
“Maybe he’s not dead? Does anyone know CPR?” The worker with the curly hair and the red cap looked around at the rest of them.
Jeff shook his head. “I’ve seen enough death to know it’s too late for that.” But he reached out and felt Culbert’s neck for a pulse. Culbert was wearing the red-and-white checked shirt and jeans Monica had seen him in the day before.
Jeff removed his hand, shook his head again and turned toward Monica.
“I left my cell phone up on that tree stump.” He gestured over his shoulder. “Where the box of doughnuts is sitting. Can you go call nine-one-one?”
For a moment Monica couldn’t move. Her feet were rooted to the soft, sandy bottom of the bog, and the scene before her looked hazy as if she was about to faint. She shook her head to clear it and began making her slow and laborious way to the side of the bog, pushing the massed cranberries out of the way as she walked.
The men had dropped the boom, and all the berries that had previously been corralled were now drifting free, blown by the wind to the opposite bank.
Getting out wasn’t as easy as getting in, Monica discovered, and by the time she managed it, her sweatshirt was wet and muddy. She stripped off the waders as fast as she could and ran toward the tree stump Jeff had indicated. Her hands were shaking as she dialed 911, and she nearly dropped the phone. She tightened her grip and waited for a voice to come over the line.
The operator answered almost immediately. Monica explained what had happened and then had to repeat the farm’s address twice. Her teeth were chattering so hard by now that the woman couldn’t understand her.
The dispatcher promised a patrol car would be around immediately and advised them not to do anything or touch anything until the officers arrived. Monica clicked off the call and put the phone back on the stump.
Excerpted from "Berried Secrets"
Copyright © 2015 Peg Cochran.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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