Read an Excerpt
Green Living Can Be Deadly
By Staci McLaughlin
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Staci McLaughlin
All rights reserved.
A gust of wind blew against the canvas canopy, ripping the pole from Esther's hand and threatening to topple the entire contraption. I scrambled to grab the pole and forced it into the base.
"Got it," I told Esther.
She stepped back and wiped a hand across her brow. "Mercy me, Dana. This setup is harder than I thought."
I glanced around at the nearby stalls along Main Street, where others were struggling to pop up canopies or unfold tables. When I'd first suggested a green-living festival to the Blossom Valley Rejuvenation Committee, which Esther belonged to, I hadn't anticipated the strong winds that occasionally sprang up during fall here in Blossom Valley. Still, even with these temperamental bursts of air and cooler temperatures, the festival would go on, with the O'Connell Organic Farm and Spa right in the middle of the activity.
As owner of the farm, Esther was hoping this festival would draw attention to her bed-and-breakfast and secure her financial future. After a series of murders in the few months since the farm's opening, business had been understandably slow to pick up, but reservations had steadily risen in the last few weeks, allowing us all to breathe a little easier. As the marketing maven for the farm, as well as the backup maid, waitress, and animal catcher, I liked to think my ads and daily blog had helped with business, though it was probably the discounts and proximity to Mendocino that had pulled everyone in. As long as people booked a stay, I didn't care why they were here. Unless it was to murder someone.
I finished securing the canopy and stepped over to the plastic folding table to retrieve a handful of glossy brochures from a cardboard box beneath it. I fanned the stack out as I spoke to Esther. "I can't wait to see how many people show up today."
Esther fiddled with a button on her denim blouse. The embroidered pumpkins and fall leaves fit right in with the spirit of the festival. "Heavens, what if no one comes? The farm will get the blame."
"Relax. This will be a huge success, and then you'll get the credit. We've been advertising it for weeks." I patted her hand, then reached into the box for more brochures.
"You should get the credit, Dana. This was your idea, and don't think I don't know it. You've saved my bacon more than once."
A cough behind me made my hand jerk. Two brochures skittered off the table and slid to the ground. Gordon, the manager of the farm, had slipped into the booth from the back, dressed in his usual tailored suit and tie, every black hair on his head slicked into place. In one hand, he clutched the clipboard that he carried everywhere.
"Yes," he said. "It's good to see Dana embracing her marketing role. The festival could be the push we need to ensure the farm's success, provided everyone works hard and remembers the goal of attracting more guests to the farm."
Gordon had spent the first few months as spa manager snapping at employees and watching our every move—a reminder that he was in charge, even if Esther really owned the place. In recent weeks, he'd adopted more of a team captain method that involved pep talks—lots of pep talks—though his abrasive personality occasionally showed through. I usually tuned him out, nodding in all the right places while I mentally ran through my list of errands I needed to run after work or what TV shows I wanted to watch that night.
I retrieved the fallen brochures and grabbed a handful of pens with pigs on top from the box under the table. I laid them near the brochures, making sure O'CONNELL ORGANIC FARM AND SPA was clearly visible.
Gordon picked up a pen. "How much did you squander on these?" He turned to glare at Esther.
"Did you approve this purchase?"
Oh, boy, here we go.
Esther snatched the pen from Gordon and practically cradled it in her hand. "These pens are cute as newborn bunnies," Esther said. "When Dana showed me the Web site, I gave her my blessing."
I took the pen from Esther and pushed the pig down. An oink squeaked out. "Long after people throw those brochures in the trash, they'll still have these pens. Every time they write with one, they'll think of the spa."
Gordon grunted, which usually meant he agreed, but he didn't want to admit it. "Let's put them away for now. I don't want to run out in the first hour and not have more when the big afternoon crowds show up."
"Don't worry, I bought a ton of these little piggies, but I can save them for later." I pushed the pig to hear one more oink, then gathered him up with his other pig pals and dropped them back into the box. You could bet I wouldn't be whipping out the travel mugs until after Gordon left.
He brushed at his suit sleeve, though there wasn't a speck to be seen. "I have to get to the farm, but I'll check back later to see if you need anything from me." He nodded at the brochures. "Keep those stocked. And where's the photo collage?"
"Next on my list." I almost pointed out that I could have already set it up if Gordon would stop managing me, but then he might launch into another speech about how he was rallying the team for the good of the farm.
"Excellent. Make sure you get that done." He called to Esther, who'd been unpacking a stack of business cards, "Did you want a lift back?"
She straightened up. "Dana, do you need any more help?"
I retrieved the easel from where I'd propped it against the table and popped the legs open. "Now that the canopy and table are set up, I can handle the rest."
She gave me a quick hug. "Thanks again for all your hard work. I can rest easy knowing that you're running the booth."
Gordon placed a hand on Esther's elbow and guided her toward the parking area, clearly in a hurry to get back to work. I finished setting up the giant piece of cardboard, with the two dozen pictures of the farm, rearranged the brochures, and stepped around the table to survey the area from a passerby's point of view.
A little boring. I reentered the enclosure and scooped up a handful of pig pens from the box. The pop of pink instantly livened up the white table. I added half-a-dozen green travel mugs. Much better. Now I was ready for business.
I stood at attention, ready to answer any and all questions from people wandering by. Only there weren't any people. I glanced at my phone and saw it was five minutes after ten. Where were the crowds? The green-living lovers who would flock here and ooh and aah over all the offerings of an organic farm and spa?
After rearranging the brochures again, I shifted the picture collage to different angles to see if it changed the viewing experience. Nope. Not that any people had wandered by to look at it.
Next door, voices reached me as two women stepped out through the door flap of the tent and stood in the street, talking to someone still inside.
"I'll be sure to contact those customers you mentioned when I get back to the office," the young one said—her spiky blond hair, with black tips, catching my eye. A gust of wind blew past and lifted the filmy split sleeves of her blouse, exposing a large tattoo of a panther on her upper arm.
"And I'll get busy tallying those accounts we were discussing. Give me a call if you get overwhelmed," said the older woman in the business suit. She had a slim, athletic build. Her silver hair, cut into a bob, matched her silver ring, necklace, and bracelet.
The two women headed toward the parking area, and I went back to waiting for my first customer. After ten minutes of keeping busy doing nothing, I looked down the street. Still, no one in sight.
With nothing else to do, I walked to the tent next door to see if I could figure out what they were advertising. The door flap was tied back, and the banner across the opening declared it was the Invisible Prints booth. Miniature wind turbines sat in rows on a table inside. Plastic purple sunglasses, with Invisible Prints stamped in yellow lettering on the arms, waited on another table next to a small stand that held brochures. The cover showed a red barn and a field full of pigs, reminding me of the pigs back at Esther's farm. The tag line asked, What Can You Do with Methane Gas? I decided not to think about that.
"Come on over and grab a souvenir," someone said. I spotted a woman inside the tent and stepped into the enclosure. She smiled at me as though she practiced that smile in a mirror, and a jolt went through me. I knew the woman from somewhere, but where? I studied her, trying to place where I'd seen her. The bank? The grocery store? She really didn't look like someone from Blossom Valley. Blond and red highlights added depth to her perfectly styled deep brown hair, the large curls cascading down her back. Her makeup looked professionally done, and her business jacket and knee-length skirt reminded me of a top news reporter you might see on CNN.
I glanced down at my khaki pants and navy blue shirt with STAFF stitched on it and reminded myself that I had to wear my uniform for the farm. I couldn't think up an excuse for my barely brushed dishwater-blond hair, which I'd pulled back into a ponytail, as I rushed out of the house this morning. I gave up trying to figure out if I knew this woman and focused on the table. "Cute windmills," I said. "What are they for?"
The woman picked one up and handed it to me. "Wind power is one of the many services Invisible Prints provides. We're a carbon footprint–offsetting company."
Her words sounded like complete gibberish. "Carbon offset what?"
She chuckled as though I wasn't the first one to ask that question. "Carbon footprint–offsetting company. We help people invest in green-energy projects or sustainable resources to make up for all the energy they use in their homes and fuel they burn while driving or flying. The idea is to replace energy and resources that have been used with new resources, thereby making your carbon footprint neutral."
"Interesting." I wasn't sure I completely understood everything she'd said, but her company certainly fit in with a green-living festival. I set the windmill back on the table and picked up a brochure from the stand. I stuck it into my back pocket to read later.
"How about you?" she asked. "What business are you with?"
I stepped out of the tent, reached around the pole dividing our booths, and retrieved a brochure of my own to hand her. "I'm with the organic farmand spa here in town. We provide overnight accommodations and meals. The chef uses organic fruits and vegetables grown right on the farm, as well as eggs hatched on site and meat provided by local companies." I held out my right hand. "I'm Dana Lewis, by the way."
"Wendy. Wendy Hartford."
As soon as I heard her name, I snapped the last piece into the puzzle. I'd known a Wendy back in school. She'd had a different last name, but this woman looked like the Wendy Clark I'd grown up with. Just as I opened my mouth to mention it, she jumped in.
"Did you graduate from Blossom Valley High, by any chance? I used to go to school with a Dana Lewis."
"I don't believe it." I gave her a hug, memories of the two of us during our middle-school years flitting through my mind. We'd hang out in each other's bedroom for hours, flipping through teen magazines or trying on our mothers' makeup, all the while talking about the future. "What have you been doing these past few years?"
"Oh, this and that. I married the most wonderful man a few years ago. And I've been with Invisible Prints for two years now. How about you?"
I hesitated. We hadn't talked since high-school graduation, and I was too embarrassed to admit I'd moved back home after a layoff. "I did some marketing down in the Bay Area for a while, but I moved back in with my mom a few months ago after my dad died."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
The sincerity in her voice made my heart squeeze, and I quelled the tears that threatened to rise. "Thanks. I can't believe it's been so long since we've seen each other. We really should have stayed in touch."
"I agree. At least we can make up for that time now."
A man in cargo shorts and a tank top stepped into the tent, the brim of his fisherman's hat brushing the tent flap. "What cute windmills. What do they do?"
Was this an honest-to-goodness festival attendee? I stuck my head out and glanced down the street. Clumps of people stood at various booths. The awaited crowd had arrived.
I headed out of the tent. "Guess I'd better get back to my job."
"We'll catch up later," Wendy said. Her words were the usual thing you'd say when you ran into an old friend, but I found myself looking forward to the idea.
A middle-aged woman in a tie-dyed T-shirt wandered toward Wendy's tent, and I scurried back to my booth. My hands shook a little in anticipation as I straightened the brochures one last time and made sure the picture display sat straight on the easel.
A woman with long brown hair and wearing an off-the-shoulder peasant dress and cowboy boots walked up to Wendy's tent and peeked in. When she saw Wendy was busy, she turned and went back the other way. Fine, I didn't want to tell her about the farm and spa anyway.
The man in the hat left Wendy's booth and moved over to mine. I spent a few minutes outlining the services of the farm, including the new spa features, such as the pedicures and the facials. He took a pig pen and drifted away. Several people replaced him, keeping me busy for the next twenty minutes.
Once the last person had left, I stretched across the table to survey the crowd. The street had cleared again, leaving only two people. The closer one was an African-American man in tan slacks, a white dress shirt, and a suit jacket the color of a tangerine. He didn't seem to notice me watching as he strode toward Wendy's tent without glancing at the other booths. Behind him came the woman in cowboy boots and peasant dress, who had stopped by earlier. When she saw the man enter the tent, she hesitated a moment, then reversed direction.
I bent down to grab a handful of pig pens to replace the ones I'd given away. As I straightened up, a loud male voice sounded from next door.
"Wendy, we need to talk."
I felt a flutter of concern. He sounded awfully angry.
I couldn't hear Wendy's response, but the man's next remark came through clearly. "You know exactly why I'm here. I want some answers. Now."
Maybe I should go over there. Make sure Wendy is okay.
I moved toward the gap at the end of the table, but stopped when someone blocked my way.
"Dana, I didn't know you were going to be here."
Forget Wendy. I had my own problem. Her name was Kimmie.CHAPTER 2
Kimmie Wheeler, another former classmate, stood before me, dressed in dark blue skinny jeans, a leopard-print blouse, and a fur-lined jacket. Her boots with the four-inch heels made her tower over my five-foot-five frame, and I had to look up to meet her gaze. Her nostrils were very tidy.
"Kimmie, how nice to see you." For a second, I wondered if there was an impromptu highschool reunion happening at the festival, though I managed to run into Kimmie every couple of weeks. She and her husband lived over in Mendocino and owned a fine-dining restaurant, but her aging mother lived here in town, and Kimmie visited often.
She squinted at the photos on the easel. "You guys have a booth here? How cute. I didn't think your little farm could score a booth."
"Actually, I'm the one who suggested the green-living festival to the rejuvenation committee and helped organize it." I tried to keep the pride out of my voice.
Now Kimmie shifted her squint to me. "You? But I thought this was an important event."
I grabbed a pig pen and hit the top.
Kimmie jumped at the noise.
"Here." I handed her the pen.
"Oh, isn't that the cutest thing," she gushed, stuffing the pen into her Louis Vuitton bag.
As she tucked her pen away, I could hear the man still yelling at Wendy next door. "We need to find out what happened."
I heard a murmur in reply, and then, "Don't give me excuses."
"Someone sounds upset," Kimmie whispered gleefully. She shifted closer to the tent and cocked her head so she wouldn't miss a word.
Excerpted from Green Living Can Be Deadly by Staci McLaughlin. Copyright © 2014 Staci McLaughlin. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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