No Nest for the Wicket
By Donna Andrews
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2006 Donna Andrews
All rights reserved.
"Move," I said. "You're blocking my shot."
The cow chewed her cud and gazed at me with placid bovine calm.
"Go away!" I ran toward her, waving my arms wildly, only to pull up short before I ran into her. She was bigger than I was. Half a ton at least. Maybe three-quarters.
I turned my croquet mallet around and prodded her black-and-white flank with the handle. Not hard—I didn't want to hurt her; I just wanted her to move.
She turned her head slightly to see what I was doing.
I prodded harder. She watched with mild interest.
"Hamburger!" I shouted. "Flank steak! Filet mignon!"
She ignored me.
Of course, those words held no menace for her. Mr. Shiffley, her owner, was a dairy farmer.
I walked a few yards away, feet squelching in the mud. I could see why the cow insisted on lounging where she was. The evergreen tree overhead protected her from the March drizzle, and she'd claimed the only high ground in sight.
I glanced down. My croquet ball was sinking into the mud. Did the rules of eXtreme croquet allow me to pull it out? Probably not.
The little two-way radio in my pocket crackled.
"Meg—turn!" my brother, Rob, said.
"Roger," I said. The cow still lay in front of—or possibly on—the wicket, but I had to move before the mud ate my ball. Didn't mud that ate things count as quicksand? I set down the radio and whacked my ball. It bounced off the cow's flank. She didn't seem to mind. She had closed her eyes and was chewing more slowly, with an expression of vacuous ecstasy.
"Done," I said, grabbing the radio before it sank. "I need a cow removal here at wicket nine."
"Which one is that?" Rob asked.
"The one by the bog."
"The one just beside the brier patch. Near the steep hill with the icy stream at the bottom."
"Oh, that bog," Rob said. "Be right over."
I pocketed the radio and smiled menacingly at the cow.
"Be afraid," I said. "Be very afraid."
She ignored me.
I leaned against a tree and waited. The radio crackled occasionally as Rob notified the scattered players of their turns and they reported when they'd finished.
In the distance, I heard a high-pitched cackle of laughter, which meant my team captain, Mrs. Fenniman, had made a difficult shot. Or, more likely, had just roqueted some unlucky opponent, which she told me was the technical term for whacking someone's ball into the next county. Annoying in any croquet game, but downright maddening in eXtreme croquet, where the whole point was to make the playing field as rugged as possible. On this field, being roqueted could mean half an hour's detour through even boggier portions of the cow pasture.
I pulled the cell phone out of my other pocket. Time to see what was happening back at the house—the construction site that would eventually be a house again, if all went well. Today we'd begun demolition of the unrepairable parts, and it was driving me crazy, not being there. I'd left detailed instructions with the workmen, but I didn't have much confidence that they'd follow them. They were all Shiffleys, nephews of Mr. Shiffley the dairy farmer. Everyone in Caerphilly knew that if you wanted some manual labor done, you hired a Shiffley or two—or a dozen, if you liked; there was never a shortage. They were cheerful, honest, hard-working, and reliable, as long as you didn't need anything done during hunting season.
Everyone in Caerphilly also knew that when you had Shiffleys on the job, you needed someone else in charge. Not that they were stupid—some were and some weren't, same as any other family—but they were stubborn and opinionated, every one of them, and you needed someone equally stubborn and opinionated telling them what to do. Me, for instance. Not only was I stubborn enough but, thanks to my work as a blacksmith, they halfway respected my opinions about related crafts like carpentry and plumbing. Michael, my fiancé, would do in a pinch, as long as he remembered to suppress his innate niceness. Unfortunately, Michael was in town, attending the dreaded all-day Caerphilly College faculty meeting. We had Dad in charge. I was worried.
"Come on, Dad, pick up," I muttered as his phone rang on unanswered. I heard rustling in the shrubbery—either another competitor approaching or Rob arriving for cow removal. Either would cut short my time for talking.
"Meg!" Dad exclaimed when he finally answered. "How's the game?"
"I'm stuck in a bog with a cow sitting on my wicket," I said. "How's the demolition going?"
"Fine the last time I looked."
"The last time you—Dad, aren't you at the house?"
"I'm up at the duck pond."
I closed my eyes and sighed. Two weeks ago, when I'd left Dad in charge of another crew of Shiffleys to install the new septic field, he'd talked them into excavating a duck pond. Apparently, Duck, my nephew's pet duck, needed a place to paddle while visiting us. Or perhaps Dad thought Michael and I would soon acquire ducks of our own. Anyway, he'd sited the pond uphill from the septic field, but in a spot with exceptionally good drainage—so good that the pond didn't hold water. Which hadn't stopped Dad from trying to keep it full.
"Let's talk about the pond later," I said. "I need you to keep an eye on the demolition crew. See that they don't get carried away with the sledgehammers."
"Roger," he said. "I'll run right down. Oh, about those boxes in the front hall—the Shiffleys can work around them today, but next week—"
"The boxes will be long gone by next week," I said. "The professor from UVa should come by before five to haul them off; keep an eye out for her, will you?"
"Roger. By the way, speaking of the duck pond—"
"Gotta go," I said. "Rob's here for the cow."
I had spotted Rob peering through some shrubbery.
"Man, I thought last month's course was tough," Rob said. "Who set this one up?"
"Mrs. Fenniman," I said. "Possibly with diabolical assistance. Did you bring Spike?"
"Right here," Rob said. He pushed through the thicket and set down a plastic dog carrier. He'd gouged a small notch in its door opening so he could put Spike inside without detaching the leash. Smart.
I peered in through the mesh.
"Cow, Spike," I said. He growled in anticipation. I could see he'd already done cow duty elsewhere—his fluffy white coat had disappeared under a thick layer of mud.
"Here we go," Rob said, grabbing the leash. "Go get her, Spike!"
A small brown blur shot toward the cow, barking and snarling. The cow must have met Spike before. She lurched to her feet with surprising agility and trotted off.
Annoying that an eight-and-a-half-pound fur ball could strike fear in the heart of a cow when I couldn't even keep her awake.
"I'll just move her a little farther while we're at it," Rob said. He grabbed the dog carrier and ambled off.
"Not too far," I said. "And remember, you're supposed to get the milk out of the cow before churning it."
"Don't worry," Rob called over his shoulder.
I hadn't been worrying, only hoping Spike wouldn't chase the cow quite so far off. Cows were welcome as long as they refrained from lying on the stakes and wickets—the rules of eXtreme croquet defined any livestock on the course as walking wickets. Hitting the ball between the legs of a standing cow would give me a much-needed extra shot. I didn't want Spike chasing her toward a rival player.
Yes, the cow had been lying on the wicket. I bent the battered wire into an approximation of its original shape, pounded it into the ground, and leaned against a tree to await my turn.
But before it came, another player arrived. Henrietta Pruitt. I smiled and hoped it looked sincere. Mrs. Pruitt was captain of the Dames of Caerphilly, a team whose members were all big wheels in local society. I had no idea why they were here. When the Caerphilly Clarion ran the article announcing that Mrs. Fenniman had planned an eXtreme croquet tournament, I thought the townspeople would either laugh themselves silly or ignore the whole thing. Instead, we'd had to make room for two local teams.
Either they were too embarrassed to withdraw when they learned this wasn't a normal croquet tournament or they really wanted to play eXtreme croquet. All day, they'd slogged through the mud as if born to it. Maybe I'd misjudged them.
"Well, fancy meeting you here," Mrs. Pruitt said. "After you passed me a few wickets ago, I thought you'd be at the finishing stake by now."
Damn. Apparently, I'd had the lead for several wickets and never noticed. Of course, someone else could have passed both of us while we were stuck in various bogs.
"This wicket's tough," I said.
Not for her. Her ball sailed through on the first try, avoided the roots, and rolled down to tap my ball with a firm but gentle click.
"Good shot," I said. "All that golf and tennis pays off."
Maybe if I flattered her, she wouldn't roquet me.
"Yes," she said. She looked left, down the hill toward the icy stream, then right, toward the brier patch. "It's important to keep in shape, isn't it?"
She raised her mallet. I closed my eyes and tried not to wince at the sharp crack that sent my ball flying.
I plunged into the thornbushes to find it while Mrs. Pruitt played on.
I dodged poison ivy, cow pies, protruding roots, and the bleached and scattered bones of a sheep.
Suddenly, I found myself perched on the edge of a steep bank, looking down at a gulley filled with more thornbushes and, by way of a change, lots of sharp, pointy rocks.
"I think I'll take a detour," I muttered. But before I could retreat, the bank crumbled, and I found myself sliding down toward the thorns and pointy rocks.
My mallet hit me in the stomach when I landed. For long seconds, I lay with my eyes closed, fighting to breathe.
"Meg! Turn!" my radio said.
I opened my eyes to answer and found myself staring into a pair of blue eyes. Strands of long blond hair fell around them, partly obscuring the woman's face but not the eyes, which stared at me with unnerving intensity.
"Are you all right?" I wheezed, shoving myself upright.
No, she wasn't.
Someone had bashed in the back of her head.
I jumped when the radio crackled again.
"Meg? Your turn," Rob said.
"Not now," I muttered, although not into the radio.
I squirmed farther from the corpse while fumbling in my pocket for the cell phone, and whacked myself in the stomach again with my own mallet.
My mallet. I glanced at it, and then at the dead woman's head.
Maybe I was jumping to conclusions. Maybe she'd just fallen, as I had, and been less lucky. Hit her head on one of the rocks.
I inched over so I could see her head wound. Then I held my own croquet mallet as close to it as I could.
Looked like a match to me.
For a horrible moment I wondered if I'd done this accidentally when I fell. No, my mallet showed traces of mud and leaves—more than traces—but no blood. I took a deep breath and checked the woman's wrist. No pulse, and while she was still warm, she definitely wasn't body temperature. She'd been dead before I fell.
But not long before. Which meant the killer might still be nearby. I dropped her wrist, scooted away until I had my back against the bank of the gulley, and flipped open the cell phone to call the police.
Debbie Anne, the dispatcher, shrieked and dropped the phone when I told her why I was calling. In a few seconds, Chief Burke was on the line.
"You're reporting what?"
"A murder," I said. "Female, blond hair, blue eyes, late thirties. Tall, I think, though that's hard to tell—she's lying down. Not someone I know."
"You're sure she's dead?"
I glanced up and met the blank blue eyes.
"Yeah, someone bashed her head in," I said. "But send an ambulance if you don't believe me."
"And you have no idea who she is?"
"I don't know her, and I haven't searched her for an ID."
"Keep it that way," he said. I nodded. Though now my curiosity was aroused—most women carried a purse, but when I stood up and scanned the area, I didn't see one.
"The ambulance is on the way," the chief said. "And I'm sending a couple of deputies to secure the scene—just where is the scene, anyway?"
"Somewhere in Mr. Shiffley's cow pasture," I said. "The boggy part, near the stream. Have the deputies stop at the house and someone can probably lead them up here. Dad, or maybe one of the other players."
"Other players?" the chief asked. "Good Lord, please tell me you're not out there playing paintball again."
"Not paintball," I said. "Croquet."
"In Fred Shiffley's pasture? What's wrong with your backyard?"
"Too tame," I said. "This isn't normal croquet. It's eXtreme croquet.
You have to play it in extreme conditions. Mr. Shiffley's pasture's perfect—plenty of hills, trees, rocks, quicksand, thornbushes, poison ivy—"
"Something your family invented?" the chief growled.
"Actually, something Mrs. Fenniman read about in Smithsonian magazine," I said. "Extreme sports are very big these days, you know."
"Sounds damned strange to me," he muttered.
I agreed, but family loyalty kept me from saying so.
"Fred Shiffley know you're doing this?" he asked.
"We have his permission," I said. "In writing."
Which was true. Dad got along beautifully with the neighboring farmers. I wasn't sure whether his endless curiosity about every detail of farm life had won them over or his free medical advice, but he'd charmed them into letting us play—not just Mr. Shiffley but also Mr. Early, who owned the nearby sheep pasture, where another croquet game was currently going on.
Unless the other game had ended earlier than ours. What if it had, and the other players wandered over to watch our game? I needed to call Dad and—
"Minerva's here," the chief said, interrupting my worrying. "We'll be out as soon as we can."
Minerva? Much as I liked Mrs. Burke, I wondered why he'd bring her to a crime scene. Not my business to pry.
"Fine," I said aloud. "What do you want me to do until the officers arrive?" I was hoping he'd order me to go back to the house. Away from the body.
"How much of a crowd do you have gawking at the body?"
"No crowd at all," I said. "This isn't exactly a spectator sport."
"The other players aren't standing around gawking?"
"The field's at least two acres," I said. "I can't even see the other players at the moment."
A short silence.
"I'm sure it will all make sense when I see it," he said finally. "Don't touch anything till I get there."
With that, he hung up.
"Meg!" my radio squawked. "Your turn."
I realized Rob had probably been calling me all during my conversation with Chief Burke. I grabbed the radio.
"I'm still looking for my ball," I said.
I heard tittering. Probably from Mrs. Pruitt and the other Dames.
"Try closing your eyes and letting the ball call to you," said another voice. My cousin Rose Noire—Rosemary Keenan to the IRS and our mothers. "Imagine the ball emitting a guiding beacon of white light."
"Can we get on with it?" Mrs. Pruitt snapped.
"Not until I find my ball," I said. "And no sneaking extra shots while I'm looking. Everyone stays right where they are—understood?"
"Roger. Everyone, report your whereabouts!" Mrs. Fenniman said in her best field marshal's voice. "Claire and I will stay here by the turning post."
Claire, presumably, was the woman I still couldn't bring myself to call anything but Mrs. Wentworth—wife of the history department chairman.
"We'll concentrate on beaming positive energy for your search," Rose Noire said. "Won't we?"
"Or if you want some real help, give us a call," Mrs. Pruitt said. I heard her in the background, rather than directly, so evidently she was with Rose Noire.
"Could someone please come and chase this cow away?" Lacie Butler whined. "I think it's planning to attack me."
"Good grief; it'll be killer rabbits next," I muttered, though not into the radio. I'd never met anyone as timid and anxious as Lacie. I hadn't quite decided whether I felt sorry for her or just found her terminally annoying. Maybe if I ever ran into her when she wasn't gophering for Mrs. Pruitt and Mrs. Wentworth, I'd find out. (Continues...)
Excerpted from No Nest for the Wicket by Donna Andrews. Copyright © 2006 Donna Andrews. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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