New York Times bestselling author Lorna Barrett presents another page-turning chapter in her Booktown Mystery series as mystery bookshop owner Tricia Miles finds out that murder is no walk in the park…
While out walking Sarge, her sister’s bichon frise, bookshop owner Tricia Miles is led by the agitated dog to a man lying in a gazebo. She’s startled when she recognizes Pete Renquist, the president of the Stoneham Historical Society, who appears to be suffering from cardiac arrest. When Pete later dies at the hospital, the discovery of a suspicious bruise and a puncture mark on his arm suggests he may have been murdered.
Haunted by Pete’s enigmatic last words to her, Tricia begins to consider who had a motive to kill her friend. Did Pete take his flirting too far, only to have a jealous husband teach him a lesson? Or did he discover something in the town’s historical records that his killer wanted kept secret? Tricia is determined to get to the bottom of things before someone else becomes history…
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“Say cheese,” Russ Smith called, and Tricia Miles watched as her sister, Angelica, and Pete Renquist dutifully smiled for the camera. They stood at the north end of the Baxter Building, a three-story brick edifice that housed By Hook or By Book, Stoneham’s crafty book-and-craft shop. Its owner, Mary Fairchild, stood to one side, waiting her turn to grin for posterity.
Pete kept his gaze on Tricia and not the camera, waggling his eyebrows, smiling, and winking at her. After interacting with him for the past few months, she knew not to take him too seriously. Although he had a glib tongue, she knew he was all talk and no action. Still, his charm won out and she couldn’t help but like him.
The camera clicked as Russ took another shot. Angelica posed à la Vanna White, showcasing a gilded plaque that proclaimed the year the building had been constructed, 1842, and that it had been presented by the Stoneham Historical Society, which Pete, its current president, represented. Eventually all the historic structures in the village would sport such plaques—but as the oldest structure along Main Street, the Baxter Building had the honor of being first.
What seemed odd about this gathering was that the building’s owner, Bob Kelly, who had never missed an opportunity to toot his own horn, was not present. As far as Tricia knew, he’d been invited, but perhaps because his former lover Angelica, who now also possessed his former position as head of the Stoneham Chamber of Commerce, was present, he’d chosen not to attend. It was just as well. Lately Bob had become an even bigger pain in the butt than usual.
Since the fire at Tricia’s mystery bookstore, Haven’t Got a Clue, almost seven months before, Bob had been pressuring Tricia to buy the building, something she’d be quite happy to do—if the price was right. Bob was asking for much more than Tricia wanted to pay. Of course, for months she’d been paying rent on a building she could neither use nor live in while she waited for the insurance company to decide what they’d pay toward her losses. Angelica had rented out the top floor of the Chamber’s new home to Tricia for a modest fee, since Tricia, who had nothing better to occupy her time, found herself working for the Chamber as an unpaid volunteer.
“Let’s get Mary in the shot,” Russ called, his eyes suddenly visible above the viewfinder and flash on his Nikon.
Tricia moved aside to let Mary slide into position.
“Say cheese,” Russ called again.
“Enough with the cheese,” Angelica chided, and then cheerfully called out, “Whiskey!”
Tricia smiled, but then her gaze shifted as she caught sight of Selectman Earl Winkler, a cranky older gentleman with his hair styled in a brush cut and a mouth that never seemed to sport a smile. His perpetually sour disposition gave one reason to suppose that perhaps his diet lacked the necessary fiber for a happy life. His profession was vermin extermination, which somehow seemed to suit his negative outlook on life. How he had ever gotten elected was a mystery to Tricia, since Earl was a bundle of negativity. Of course, there was a whole contingent of local residents who weren’t happy with all the changes that had come to Stoneham since Bob had brought a shot of prosperity back to the once-dying village. They cursed the increased traffic, the tour busses, and the rise in property taxes that good fortune had brought. They were also peeved by the acts of serious crime that had increased within the village’s boundaries and had cost Stoneham its former title of Safest Village in New Hampshire—and they blamed Tricia for that. It was her misfortune to have either been present at the time of the crimes or nearby. That bad luck had also earned her the despised title of Village Jinx.
The sun disappeared behind a big fluffy cloud just as Earl halted beside Russ and stood, hands on hips, scowling.
“Good morning, Earl. Come to have your photo splashed across the next issue of the Stoneham Weekly News?” Angelica asked, her voice sickeningly sweet. Tricia took a step back. She knew to watch her back when she heard that tone of voice, for Angelica only used it on people she could barely stand.
“Hardly,” Earl answered. “I have more self-respect than the rest of you publicity hounds.”
“Oh, come now, Earl. All of us who’ve attended town meetings know how much you love the sound of your own voice,” Pete said. He was no fan of Earl, either.
“You’re blocking the sidewalk, which is against the law,” Earl asserted.
Angelica’s eyes narrowed. Tricia took another step back. “There is no one around—except you, and we will happily stand aside while you pass.”
“I’m not going in that direction,” Earl declared.
“Then why are you here? Did you need to speak to one of us?” Pete asked rather sharply.
“No. I just wanted to encourage you to hurry up and clear the sidewalk for pedestrian traffic.”
Russ replaced the lens cap on his camera. “I think I’ve got enough for the paper, although I may come back later in the day when the sun will make the gold leaf on that sign glow.”
Earl turned his angry glare on Tricia. “And what are you doing here anyway?”
“I’m a resident of Stoneham. I don’t have to have a reason to stand on the sidewalk at any time of the day or night,” Tricia said politely.
“Don’t get snippy with me, young woman,” Earl warned.
Before Tricia could defend herself, Angelica, bristling with indignation, stepped forward. “Please don’t speak to my sister in that tone of voice.”
Tricia reached out to touch Angelica’s arm. “Ange, don’t bother—”
“You’re a bully, Earl Winkler,” Pete accused. “You may now be just a skinny runt, but from what I hear you haven’t changed your ways since you were a schoolboy.”
Earl glared at Pete. “That sounds like slander to me.”
“I hear tell that in the past you operated with questionable business practices—what some might even say were highly unethical.”
Earl’s eyes blazed while the rest of them stood there in stunned silence. “Lies—all lies by my competition. In all the years I’ve been in business, I’ve never been taken to court,” Earl grated.
“And that was a mistake made by far too many of Stoneham’s honest businessmen,” Pete asserted.
“Now, now,” Russ said, spreading his arms and patting the air in a gesture of peace, for which Tricia was grateful.
“Ange, we need to move on,” Tricia told her sister, hoping to further deflate the tension. “You’ve got a meeting in Manchester later today, and you have a lot to accomplish before you leave.”
“And I need to check my messages,” Russ said.
“Any sign that baby is on the way?” Mary asked. She’d knitted the most adorable outfits in shades of blue for Russ and his wife Nikki’s first child. They’d decided they wanted to know their baby’s gender and had selected boy-friendly colors for the baby’s nursery.
“About a week or two,” Russ said. “I’ll be glad when it’s all over.”
“Ha! That’s what you think,” Pete said, and laughed. “Once the baby arrives, your life will never be the same. I speak from experience.”
Oh? Tricia knew Pete lived alone, yet in all their conversations he’d never mentioned his living situation. Did he get cards on Father’s Day from his offspring?
Earl’s face twisted with anger. “If you people are finished with your business and gossip, you should just move along.”
“Oh, you are a party pooper,” Mary said, and turned to enter her store. “See you later,” she called to the others.
Since the rest of the group was all heading in the same direction, they turned en masse and headed up the sidewalk with Earl following a few steps behind—and, truth be told, not enough steps behind, as he was obviously trying to eavesdrop on their conversation.
“Angelica, I’d like to formalize plans for the Chamber’s sponsorship of the upcoming ghost walks. Will you be available to talk later this afternoon?”
“’Fraid not, Pete. I’ve got a networking session with other Chamber presidents in Manchester this afternoon. But I could pencil you in for tomorrow morning.”
“Great. How about ten o’clock?”
“Make it eleven. I’ve got a grand opening to attend at ten, but after that I’m free. Come to the Chamber office, and I’ll have coffee and warm muffins waiting.”
“I’ll be there,” Pete said, and grinned.
“It’s desecration,” Earl said from behind them. Pete stopped dead, and Earl nearly ran into him.
“What is?” Pete demanded, sudden anger flushing his face.
“People traipsing across the cemetery looking to be entertained. It’s hallowed ground. The dead deserve respect.”
“The cemetery can’t support itself. The money the ghost walks bring in will help with the property’s maintenance. Of course, they wouldn’t have to worry about fund-raisers if one of the village’s selectmen hadn’t instigated a vote to kill their funding.”
“The property needs to be self-sustaining,” Earl very nearly shouted.
“That’s hard to do when all its clients are dead—and some for hundreds of years,” Pete pointed out.
“Please, gentlemen,” Russ said, again playing peacemaker. “Why don’t you take this up in an interview in the Stoneham Weekly News? It would be a great forum for you both to get your points across to the rest of the villagers.”
“I’m game,” Pete said, squaring his shoulders.
“I’m not so sure,” Earl hedged. “I’d want to see a draft of the piece before you print it.”
Russ shook his head. “There’s such a thing as freedom of the press.”
“If Earl won’t talk to you, I’d be glad to do so anytime you want,” Pete offered.
“How about later this afternoon?”
“Four o’clock?” Pete suggested.
“Great. Do you want to join us, Earl?” Russ asked, pointedly staring at the Selectman.
“No,” Earl barked, then stormed off down the sidewalk.
Angelica sighed. “He’s not the nicest man in the world.”
“Come on, Ange. You’ve got a lot to accomplish before your meeting later this morning,” Tricia said.
“You’re right, Trish.” Angelica turned to the others. “Pete, Russ, it’s been a pleasure.” Tricia nodded a good-bye to the others, and she and Angelica jaywalked across the quiet street, which they hoped would be full of cars and tour busses within the hour.
“That Earl,” Angelica grated as they headed for the Chamber’s office. “He’s as likable as the Wicked Witch of the West. He ought to be careful, or someone might want to drop a house on him!”
“I think Pete might agree,” Tricia said, trying to suppress a grin, “but don’t let Earl bother you. Most of the Board of Selectmen are on the side of village development, and they’re in our court.”
Angelica stopped suddenly, her frown turning upside down. “You said our court.”
Tricia smiled. “I did, didn’t I? Well, Stoneham is my home, and I want to see it prosper.”
Angelica positively grinned. “I’m going to miss you once you go back to running Haven’t Got a Clue. You know, you could do the same as me; let Pixie and Mr. Everett manage it while you do other things, like—”
But Tricia shook her head. “No. Playing office at the Chamber these past few months has been fun, but I want to go home! I want my old life back—and the sooner the better.”
“Well, I can dream, can’t I?” Angelica said wistfully.
“Dream on,” Tricia said, and laughed.
Tricia and Angelica returned to the neat little building that housed the Stoneham Chamber of Commerce and were joyfully greeted by Angelica’s bichon frise, Sarge. “Was Mommy’s little boy the best ever?” she asked as Sarge bounded up and down as though on springs.
Mariana Sommers, the Chamber’s receptionist, laughed from her desk in the heart of the office—what had once been a living room. “As good as gold.”
Back in February, the building had been just a shabby little house, but with some serious elbow grease in the way of paint, sanded floors, new shutters, and window boxes filled with petunias, it now looked like a darling little cottage. It was a shame that the building would probably be razed in another year when Nigela Ricita Associates, the development company that owned it, would replace it with a brick commercial building more in keeping with Stoneham’s past. Still, despite it being only her temporary home, Tricia had come to enjoy living there.
Her quarters consisted of a bedroom, a tiny bathroom, and a sitting room on the upper level, and until she could go back to her own home, she was making the best of things. Since she had escaped the fire with only the clothes on her back and her cat, she’d had to start from scratch. A bed and a bookcase had been her first purchases. And she’d been steadily filling the bookcase with copies of her favorite mysteries.
Goodness only knew how much longer the insurance company was going to take to finish their investigation. What investigation? An angry man had dropped a lighted piece of paper on a vintage (and highly flammable) doll carriage and torched the first floor. Why was it taking so long to make the logical conclusion and pay up?
Once Sarge was rewarded with a rawhide stick, the sisters separated. Angelica checked in with Mariana while Tricia headed to her own desk. For the time being, she was acting as the Chamber’s office manager. She didn’t mind the work, but she missed her store. She missed interacting with her employees on a daily basis. She missed her life!
Not that she didn’t see her assistant, Pixie Poe, and her part-time employee, Mr. Everett, on a regular basis. Angelica had been extremely kind to both of them by employing them either at her cookbook store, the Cookery; the little retro café she owned, Booked for Lunch; or the Chamber. Pixie usually waited on tables for part of the day and then put in a few hours in the Chamber office. She’d brushed up on her secretarial skills, and Tricia was half-afraid Pixie might decide that office work was more to her liking—and that she might find a clerical job that paid more or had more prestige. Still, Pixie seemed as pleased with the situation as one could be under the circumstances.
Tricia took her seat and woke her computer from its slumber. One of the first things she’d done after joining the Chamber’s staff was take over the monthly newsletter, a task she rather enjoyed. It was considerably bigger than the one she produced for her store, and she’d learned a thing or two about graphics that were sure to give her own newsletter more pizazz when she finally sent one out at the time of her grand reopening—whenever that might be.
“Ange, have you written your column for the newsletter?” she called.
Angelica looked up from the paper she’d been reading. “Yes. I’ll e-mail it to you when I get home. It’s on my laptop.” She looked at her watch. “Goodness, I need to get going.”
“I thought you didn’t have to be in Manchester until lunchtime.”
“I don’t, but I’m going to talk to a prospective new member.”
“I can do that for you,” Tricia offered.
“You’re already doing far too much. And besides, Mama needs a new pair of shoes. That could take an hour,” Angelica said, and waggled her eyebrows playfully, reminding Tricia of Pete.
Tricia shook her head and shrugged. “Whatever you say.”
“Before I go, I’ll take Sarge for a you-know-what around the park. Later this afternoon, would you mind taking him for—” She paused and looked down at the dog. “W-a-l-k-i-e-s,” she spelled, but Sarge could spell, too—at least that word—and he looked up from his little doggy bed, cocking his head to let her know it.
“Sure. Leave him here and I’d be glad to,” Tricia said.
Angelica handed the paper back to Mariana. “I probably won’t be back today, so we can go over the schedule for the rest of the month tomorrow.”
“I’ll have it updated and ready to go,” Mariana promised.
Angelica walked over to her desk, retrieved Sarge’s leash, and said the magic word. “Walkies!” Sarge shot out of his little bed and gave a happy bark. She turned back to Tricia. “If I think of anything else, I’ll call or text you later.”
“I’m going to see you again in less than ten minutes,” Tricia said, and laughed.
“Sorry. My head is filled with so much clutter, I can barely think straight,” Angelica said, and headed out the door.
Mariana shook her head. “I don’t know how she juggles so many things, but I sure wish I had that ability—and her energy.”
“It’s sheer willpower on her part,” Tricia said, turning back to her computer.
A few minutes later, Angelica dropped Sarge off and left for her shoe-buying and meeting expeditions. Tricia found enough to do to keep her occupied for hours. Mariana went to lunch, and by the time she came back, Pixie had arrived to put in her four-hour stint.
“Greetings, all,” she called happily. She was dressed in her vintage waitress togs and an impossibly high pair of red heels, clutching a shopping bag, and a big alligator purse. She opened the purse, taking out a small bundle. Sarge welcomed her like an old friend as she slipped him a huge hunk of sliced ham from a napkin.
“Oh, Pixie, please tell me you didn’t wait on tables in those shoes,” Tricia said.
“Not to worry. I wore sensible flats for my shift at Booked for Lunch. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have style when I come to work here. Or at least I will when I change.” She dumped her purse and a creased newspaper on her desk before heading for the first-floor bathroom. A few minutes later, she returned, her hair no longer restrained by a hairnet, her makeup refreshed, and dressed in a silk dress that was a riot of magenta and orange flowers. No doubt about it, Pixie could make an entrance. “Isn’t this just the best day?” she called cheerfully as she strutted across the room to her desk with a hopeful Sarge trotting along behind her.
“So far so good,” Tricia agreed.
Pixie sat down, but Sarge walked up to Tricia’s desk, looked her in the eye, and cocked his head, gazing at her woefully.
“I suppose you want to go walkies,” she said. Sarge’s little tail happily thumped the floor. “I guess I could stand to stretch my legs, too,” she said, and got up from her chair.
“I’ll say. Did you even stop for lunch?” Mariana asked.
Tricia’s stomach rumbled. “I guess I forgot. I’ll grab something when I get back.”
“I’ll get started on labeling those envelopes for the new-member mailings,” Pixie said, already pulling a box out from under her desk.
“And I’ll be back in about ten minutes,” Tricia said. “C’mon, boy.”
Walking Sarge was never a chore, and he and Tricia headed down the sidewalk toward the town park, which was a perfect square, to do their usual two circuits. The lilac blooms and their lovely scent were long past, but thanks to the Board of Selectmen and Nigela Ricita Associates, there were stone containers filled with flowers at every corner, and on every street lamp hung a basket heavy with blossoms. All the benches had been painted, and now that the gazebo had been fully restored, the park was once again a destination. But on that afternoon there were no other people walking their dogs or strolling with baby carriages around the square.
Tricia hated to admit it, but her fondness for the picturesque Victorian gazebo had faded after the tragedy that had claimed her friend Deborah Black’s life and killed the pilot of the plane who had crashed into the structure. She tried not to think about it, but if she was honest, she usually avoided going near the stone shelter, and even tried to avoid looking at it during her walks with Sarge.
She looked down at the dog, whose little tail wagged with joy as they rounded the corner and started up the walk on the park’s western boundary. No such thoughts bothered Sarge, despite the fact that it had been his original owner who had caused the disaster.
While Sarge enjoyed his constitutional, Tricia thought about what Pixie had said. The weather was indeed sensational, and except for their encounter with that curmudgeon Earl Winkler, it had been a good day. If there was a man alive who had a more sour disposition than Earl, she had never met him. What was wrong with him? He represented the people of Stoneham. Couldn’t he be happy for all that had happened in the village? She did a mental comparison of him to Pete Renquist. What a nice man—and fun, too. Not that she was attracted to him, though he made no secret of the fact he was available. He certainly seemed to flirt with every woman he came into contact with. Tricia had been doing her best to stop thinking of men and romance. It was a dead-end street, at least with the two men who seemed intent to pursue her: her ex-husband, Christopher Benson, and the local chief of police, Grant Baker. Instead, she thought about what Angelica had said before she’d left for her meeting. In the future, did she want to do other things besides just run her mystery bookstore?
Since the day after Haven’t Got a Clue burned, Tricia had been buying up mysteries and had even rented a storage unit, which was quickly being filled. Some days she missed the store and her former life there so much that she’d break down in tears—but only late at night, when no one but her cat, Miss Marple, was around to witness it. But then there were days when she felt restless and eager to find something else to do with her life, no doubt exacerbated by the failure of her insurance company to settle her claim. Angelica was a crusading entrepreneur with her fingers in so many pies it made Tricia feel dizzy. Mariana had been right—it was a juggling act, but somehow Angelica made it all seem easy. And what other kind of business could Tricia run in addition to her beloved bookstore?
Open a restaurant? Heavens no! It was too much work with high overhead and low profits.
A day spa? Hands-on personal care wasn’t her thing.
A cat rescue? Now there was an idea, but what if she became attached to her temporary charges? Crazy Cat Lady wasn’t a title she aspired to.
Perhaps sticking to bookselling was her best bet.
They turned the corner heading east. At the first lamppost, Tricia noted the hanging basket had almost no blooms. She could have sworn the last time she and Sarge had walked around the park that the baskets had been exploding with colorful flowers. The leaves looked healthy enough, but where was the color? She’d have to mention it to Angelica. Perhaps she could arrange to have the baskets given a dose of fertilizer or—worst-case scenario—replaced.
Halfway down the walk, Sarge tugged on the leash. Angelica had trained him to do his business only in certain areas of the park, and of course, Tricia was prepared with a plastic bag to clean up after the little guy. And for that, she was glad Sarge was a bichon frise and not an Irish wolfhound.
With that taken care of, Tricia headed for the nearest trash barrel, which was located near the stone gazebo. Suddenly, Sarge began to pull at the leash and bark. Tricia held her ground, looking around for the squirrel the dog had no doubt seen but which she couldn’t locate. Sarge barked even louder and fought to pull her toward the gazebo.
“Oh, all right. You can have a look. But when there’s nothing there, you’re going to feel pretty foolish,” she admonished the dog.
But she’d been wrong. There was something in the center of the edifice.
Tricia halted, her heart skipping a beat when she saw the pair of rather worn leather loafers attached to a pair of jeans-clad legs. She hurried up the steps to see a man lying facedown. Crouching beside him, she held out a hand and forced herself to touch him. His skin was still warm. She stared at his chest and noticed he was still breathing. She grasped his wrist and found a weak pulse.
She let out a breath. Thank goodness this one was alive. She’d found more than her fair share of corpses during her tenure in Stoneham. Sarge had stopped barking and did what dogs do best—held a sniffathon, his nose taking in as much of the fallen fellow as possible, considering how tightly Tricia held the leash. She thought she recognized the clothes and the hair, and she scooted around the still form until she could see that it was indeed Pete Renquist. What on earth was he doing lying unconscious in the gazebo on such a lovely summer’s day? He didn’t seem to be bleeding. As far as she knew, he didn’t suffer from seizures, but he obviously needed medical attention. Tricia pulled her cell phone from her slacks pocket and punched in 911. Seconds later, a voice spoke in her ear.
“Hillsborough County 911. Please state your name and the nature of the emergency.”
“My name is Tricia Miles. I’d like to report an accident in Stoneham Square. A man’s been hurt.”
“Hurt how?” the dispatcher asked.
“I’m not really sure. He’s lying in the gazebo and he’s unconscious. He seems to be having trouble breathing. Heart attack maybe? His pulse is rather weak.”
“Do you know his name?”
“Peter Renquist. He lives here in Stoneham.”
“Do you know how to perform CPR?”
“I’ve never had to do it, but I think I could if necessary,” Tricia said, her fear escalating.
“The Stoneham Fire Department’s rescue squad has been dispatched.” Sure enough, Tricia could already hear the squad’s siren. “Please stay with the victim until they arrive.”
The word victim made her shudder. “Of course I will.”
She ended the call and spoke to the man beside her. “Pete? Can you hear me? It’s me, Tricia. Help is on the way. I’m sure everything will be all right. Just hang on.” She said the words with what she hoped was reassurance, crossing her fingers they’d be true.
Pete’s eyes shot open, startling Tricia. His arm jerked up, and he grasped Tricia’s arm with what could only be described as a death grip.
His lips moved, and she bent down to listen, but she couldn’t hear what he was trying to say. “I don’t understand,” she said.
She bent lower so that her ear was close to his mouth.
“I never missed my little boy,” he said, gasping. His eyes closed, and his grasp on her arm slackened as he fell into unconsciousness.
The rescue squad pulled up to the sidewalk, and the EMTs practically spilled from the vehicle. They paused to grab their gear before jogging to the gazebo.
Sarge’s barking went back into overdrive. “Hush!” Tricia said, but she didn’t have the same kind of control over the dog that her sister did. Sarge strained at the leash, and Tricia hurried down the steps to intercept the EMTs. She scooped up Sarge and his barking quieted; instead, he began to growl at the newcomers. “Hush!” Tricia told him again, still without results.
Tricia recognized one of the EMTs as Danny Sutton. “It’s Pete Renquist,” she told him. “I think he might have had a heart attack.”
He nodded. “We’ve got it,” he said, and he and his partner hurried up the stone steps to attend to their patient.
“Tricia!” Russ Smith called, running across the grass toward her. He’d no doubt heard the call for the EMTs go out on his police scanner. He had his camera slung around his neck and held his ever-present steno pad and a pen in hand.
Tricia stepped away from the gazebo, walking fast to close the space between them. “It’s Pete. I found him.”
“He’s dead?” Russ asked, shocked.
“No!” Tricia asserted.
“Well, you’re not known for finding live bodies,” Russ said with irony.
Tricia glared at him. “It looks like he might have suffered a heart attack.”
Russ looked toward the gazebo. “Poor guy. Did he say anything to you?”
“Nothing that made sense.”
They turned their attention to the road, where an ambulance pulled up at the curb. Another set of EMTs hurried to join the firemen, hauling a gurney along with them.
Tricia and Russ edged away, yet remained close enough that they could hear the EMTs.
“He’s gone into cardiac arrest,” Danny said, and began CPR.
“Oh, no,” Tricia said, feeling close to tears.
“Well, at least he started out alive,” Russ said.
“Hey, don’t count Pete out yet,” she grated, glaring at him.
Russ just shrugged.
They watched as the EMTs worked in a fluid motion to transfer Pete to the gurney and whisk him off to the ambulance. By then they noticed a bunch of rubberneckers that had gathered around the edges of the park and were watching the show. Poor Pete.
Less than a minute later, the ambulance took off with its siren wailing. Sarge began to wiggle in Tricia’s arms, and she set him down on the ground. The firemen packed up their gear, stowed it in their vehicle, and left the scene.
With the show now over, the gawkers began to drift away.
“That’s it,” Russ said. He cocked his head and addressed Tricia. “What were you doing in the park, anyway?”
She brandished Sarge’s leash. “What do you think?”
He shrugged, looking back to the road, then at his watch. “Looks like Pete and I won’t get to talk about that article after all. I sure hope the poor guy makes it.”
Heavy-hearted, Tricia looked toward the road, where the ambulance had receded from sight. “Yes. Me, too.”
Tricia returned Sarge to Angelica’s apartment, stopping long enough to say hello to the Cookery’s manager, Frannie Mae Armstrong, and Mr. Everett, who was working there part-time. Naturally, both asked about the ambulance and the ensuing commotion in the center of the village, and Tricia told them just the basics before she headed back to the Chamber office.
Pixie and Mariana had just as many questions, and Tricia told them the bare minimum, too.
“Boy, you’ve sure got the knack for finding stiffs,” Pixie muttered, shaking her head.
“He wasn’t dead!” Tricia turned to Mariana, forcing herself to speak calmly. “Have we heard from Angelica yet?”
Mariana shook her head. “She said she wasn’t planning on coming back to the Chamber office today—remember?”
“Oh, that’s right. I’m sorry. I guess I’m feeling a little rattled.” Tricia settled into the chair in front of her desk, trying to decide if she was able to muster the enthusiasm needed to attack the pile of phone messages waiting for her attention. She’d catch up with her sister later. Angelica often came back to the Chamber office during the evenings to catch up with paperwork or make calls, sometimes bringing a makeshift dinner that she’d share with Tricia and Miss Marple.
Tricia found it hard to concentrate during the rest of the afternoon. In her mind’s eye she saw poor Pete lying on the gazebo’s cold concrete floor, barely holding on to life. She wondered if she ought to call St. Joseph Hospital to check up on him, but would they have information on an emergency case who hadn’t actually been admitted?
Pixie had moved on from putting labels on envelopes to actually stuffing them. For the most part, she worked quietly while soft rock issued from the radio on Mariana’s desk. Occasionally Pixie would sing along off-key, which caused Mariana to start clearing her throat as though she were choking on a bone. Though physically separated by the space between their desks, for the rest of the afternoon Pixie seemed to hover over Tricia, looking worried—even if she never moved from her chair.
At one point, a shiver passed through Tricia, and she looked up and, as expected, found Pixie staring at her. “What?”
Pixie looked away. “Nothing, I was just . . . staring into space.”
The Chamber was open until six o’clock, but Mariana only worked until five. At 4:59, she turned off her radio, grabbed her purse from the desk drawer, and rose. “I’ll see you ladies tomorrow,” she said, and headed for the door.
“Have a good evening,” Tricia called.
“One more hour and it’ll be our turn,” Pixie said, and moved on to sealing the envelopes with a wet-sponge dauber. Without the background noise of Mariana’s radio, the time seemed to drag. The battery-operated clock on the wall seemed to tick louder with the passing minutes, not unlike Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart. Tricia couldn’t seem to concentrate on any task she attempted, opening files only to glance at the screen and then close them once again.
Finally, Pixie glanced at the clock, which at last read 5:58. “Holy smoke, is that the time?” she said, and scooped all the envelopes into a box, replacing it under her desk.
“What’s the matter? Have you got a hot date?” Tricia asked, and was surprised when Pixie actually blushed.
“Well, actually . . . yeah. I’ve got a boyfriend.”
Boy? At Pixie’s age? Hardly.
“Pixie!” Tricia called, feeling lighter than she had in hours. “When did this happen?”
“A couple of months ago. I didn’t want to say anything. I mean, knowing how your love life is in the toilet and all.”
In the toilet wasn’t exactly true. Flushed and long gone was a better description. But it had been a conscious decision on Tricia’s part. After losing her home and store, she didn’t want to rush into any kind of relationship. She occasionally had lunch with her ex-husband, Christopher, but she was fairly certain she’d finally convinced him that any future relationship with him was out of the question. And while Chief Baker still dropped by on a regular basis, she thought of him only with friendship in mind—which was pretty much all their relationship had been based on, anyway.
“Don’t be silly,” Tricia chided her. “I’m thrilled for you. What’s his name? What’s he like? Does he—” She stopped herself.
“Know about my past?” Pixie finished for her. She nodded. “Yup. That was a difficult conversation, and things were a little tense for a while, but they’re better now. In fact, they’re terrific.” She positively beamed. “His name is Fred Pillins—ain’t that a weird name?”
“Pillins? I must say I’ve never heard of it before. It’s unique,” Tricia said. “Are you guys . . . serious?”
“When you’re on the high side of fifty, everything had better be serious,” Pixie said.
“Are you thinking about—?”
“Getting married?” Pixiee shook her head. “But shacking up ain’t out of the question. It would sure save on rent and groceries and stuff. The way things are—I’m either at his place, or he’s at mine.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“At Booked for Lunch. He delivers the meat and cold cuts. We hit it off right away, and then one day he asked me out to dinner. The rest, as they say, is history.”
“And you never said a word,” Tricia muttered.
“Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I’ll talk your ear off about him,” she said with a grin.
“I’d love to hear all about him,” Tricia said sincerely.
Pixie consulted her watch. “But not today. I’m off.” She withdrew her purse from the desk drawer and grabbed the garment bag with her waitressing clothes. Fingering a wave, she mimicked Angelica. “Tootles!”
“Have a nice evening,” Tricia called after her.
Once the door closed behind Pixie, Tricia arranged the yellow Post-it notes chronicling the chores she needed to accomplish the next day in a line on top of her desk in the order of their importance.
As she passed Pixie’s desk, she noticed a folded section of the morning newspaper on top. Tricia scooped it up, intending to toss it into the wastebasket, which she would empty before she closed the office for the day. She paused to look at it. Pixie had finished the crossword, but she’d only figured out three of the four scrambled words from the Jumble in the Union Leader. Tricia stared at the letters before her. U-G-E-H-N-R. She thought about it for a moment. H-U-N-G-E-R. That was easy enough. She thought about the lunch she’d never gotten around to eating. No wonder she felt so empty inside.
Her gaze traveled over to a wrinkled brochure, which also sat on the desk. It was for NRA Realty, a division of Nigela Ricita Associates.
Suddenly the letters of one of the words rearranged themselves in her mind and she smiled. R-I-C-I-T-A rearranged was T-R-I-C-I-A.
Her smile faded as a wave of cold passed through her—like someone walking on her grave. No, it can’t be, she thought, her insides seeming to do a summersault. She studied the letters in the other word. There weren’t enough letters in N-I-G-E-L-A to spell out Angelica. Still . . .
Tricia went into the kitchen to get a trash bag, then emptied the four wastebaskets and tossed the newspaper into it as well. For some reason, she couldn’t stop thinking about those jumbled letters. Surely it was coincidence. Angelica couldn’t be Nigela Ricita.
But, like Clark Kent and Superman, Nigela and Angelica had never been seen together. Heck, besides Antonio Barbero, no one in the village had ever met the elusive Ms. Ricita. Antonio did all the talking for his boss. She communicated with her employees via e-mail. That was certainly an effective way of keeping any questions about her identity at bay.
It can’t be.
Tricia stared at the headline once more. The words Angelica Tricia seemed to jump off the page.
Since Nigela Ricita Associates had come to town, they’d invested in the Brookview Inn, the Happy Domestic, the Sheer Comfort Inn, the Eat Lunch rolling food truck, and the local pub, the Dog-Eared Page. They’d bought the building that now housed the Chamber of Commerce. And, lucky for the Chamber, NRA had made improvements despite the fact that they intended to raze the building in the not-too-distant future, and charged the organization far less than the going rate for rent. The company also subsidized the flowers that festooned Main Street, which pleased not just the tourists but the shopkeepers as well.
These—all its—investments had been good for Stoneham and for its citizens, too. Nigela Ricita Associates had created not only jobs, but greater prosperity. Angelica was far too selfish to be behind all that altruism.
Tricia frowned and felt instantly ashamed. Maybe she’d felt that way about her sister in the past, but no longer.
Angelica had hired Frannie Mae Armstrong, who’d blossomed as the Cookery’s manager. She’d given an ex-con the chance at a better life when she’d hired him to be a short order cook at Booked for Lunch. He’d moved from that lowly position to that of head chef at the Brookview Inn. Angelica had been the force behind Tricia giving Pixie a chance to excel, working for her at Haven’t Got a Clue, and with the skills she’d picked up working for the Chamber of Commerce during the past six months, she could probably look for a better-paying job. Angelica was also responsible for Michele Fowler getting the job as manager of the Dog-Eared Page. She’d done a lot of good these past few years. Nigela Ricita Associates had done even more.
It can’t be, Tricia told herself more sternly.
Angelica had an ego the size of Montana. Surely if she was responsible for all the improvements that had taken place in the village, she’d be shouting it from the top of the newly rebuilt village gazebo. What was served by her hiding behind a shell company?
But then Tricia remembered something Angelica had said months before when she’d spilled the beans about the dead brother Tricia had never known about. “You’d be surprised how good we are at keeping secrets in this family.”
But the idea was absurd. How could Angelica be the head of a development company and not tell anyone—especially Tricia—about it? Her life was an open book.
There was only one way to find out.
Tricia reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone, intending to call her sister, when she noticed she’d missed a text message from Angelica. Free for dinner? Come over at 6:15.
Tricia glanced at her watch. It was six ten. Oh, yes, she had every intention of crossing the street and confronting Angelica with her suspicions.
It took only a minute for Tricia to leave a bowl of kitty treats for her cat, lock up the Chamber office, and leave the quaint little house. As she walked briskly down the sidewalk heading for the Cookery, she rehearsed various conversational openers.
So, are you Nigela Ricita?
No, too blunt.
Anything you need to tell me?
No, too subtle.
Would Angelica laugh and deny the accusation? Would she break down in tears and beg Tricia’s forgiveness? Somehow, Tricia couldn’t see either of those scenarios playing out. It didn’t matter. Tricia was determined to find out the facts, and if what she now suspected was true, she would—
Tricia stopped dead in the middle of the empty sidewalk.
She had no idea what she would do.
• • •
Tricia unlocked the big door to the Cookery and entered, locked it behind her, and crossed the shop to the stairs to Angelica’s loft apartment. The layout of this store and her own were so similar that she felt a pang of loss cut a little deeper into her soul every time she entered. When she reached the third floor and opened the door, Sarge bounded toward her, practically apoplectic with joy, despite the fact he’d seen her only a couple of hours earlier that day. “Calm down, calm down,” she chided as the dog bounced up and down as though on a trampoline as they headed up the hall and into the kitchen, where the aromas of onions and garlic wafted.
“Honestly, Sarge,” Angelica chided from her position at the stove, “put a sock in it.”
Tricia looked around on the floor for something to distract the dog. Sure enough, she saw what had once been a knee-high white sock that had been tied in knots and given to the dog as a toy. Tricia picked it up and tossed it to Sarge, who caught it in his mouth, where it stayed, effectively silencing him.
She glanced over at her sister, who was standing over the stove stirring what looked like a pot of spaghetti sauce, still undecided as to what she felt—admiration or total fury. No doubt about it, had Angelica wished for a culinary career, she would have been one of the best. She often said she was happiest with a wooden spoon in her hand. The fact that she did it so well had been a boon for Tricia, who didn’t like to cook and, before Angelica’s arrival, had basically lived on a diet of yogurt and tuna salad, which was convenient but not particularly healthy. But right now food was the last thing on Tricia’s mind.
“I’ve got a pitcher of martinis in the fridge—as well as a couple of glasses chilling. Why don’t you pour us each a drink?” Angelica suggested as she grabbed a pot from the cupboard, no doubt for the pasta.
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Praise for the New York Times Bestselling Booktown Mysteries
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