Aunt Hazel isn’t exactly sweet, but she’s not the only one putting syrup maker Dani in a sour mood. Her family is trying to help renovate the town’s Opera House, but their contractor Russ Collins seems to specialize in finely crafted excuses. And his latest one is killer.
In the Opera House basement, Russ uncovers the remains of Spooner Duffy, a charming drifter thought to have skipped town decades ago with a hefty sum of the town’s money. Tapping into some unpleasant memories, Spooner’s bones also threaten to reveal a murderer’s secret, and now it’s up to Dani to catch a killer before the town is stuck with a deadly reputation.
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I knew there was trouble when Celadon sought me out in the sugar bush. Usually she sends one of her children to find me in the woods, preferring her fuzzy slippers to snow boots. My sister is generally considered a handsome woman but this could not be said as she waddled toward me through the snow. She knows to use snowshoes but in her haste must have forgotten them. Her earmuffs lopsidedly clung to her head for dear life and her scarf dragged behind her like a leash that lost its dog. By the time she got to me she was out of breath and had to reach out her hands to steady herself on a tree. Just looking at her I felt panic rising.
“Who’s hurt?” I imagined my grandfather slumped in his chair, something vital burst in his brain or my brother, Loden, clutching at a hand short a couple of fingers. Celadon shook her head.
“Hazel.” And with that one word the joy sucked out of my day like the air from a plane in a suspense movie when a mad bomber blows a hole in the side. As a sugar maker, I love the early spring. Those four to six weeks every year when the days are relatively warm and the nights are still cold. My whole family waits for this period when the sap runs like most families anticipate an annual vacation at a beach house. And when I say the whole family, I mean the whole family.
The Greene family is a big one and has a vast array of members, most of whom manage to find their way back to Sugar Grove at some point while the sap is running. You can never be sure when Aunt Peridot or Cousin Moss will descend on us but you know it will happen. Like flu season, its course trends and you note the signs with trepidation. But my grandfather’s sister Hazel and her granddaughter Jade were sure to appear every year in time for the Sugar Grove Maple Festival. Their exact arrival date is always a surprise but they never fail to be around for the festival weekend.
The festival is the highlight of the year in town and so naturally, that was when they would visit. It was more fun and less work and for all the years her age was right, Jade entered and won the Miss Maple competition. Now that she is beyond competition age and runs her own pageant coaching business she still makes time to come every year. Her days as Miss Maple may be behind her but she still reminds us every time we see her that she won over and over and Celadon and I never even entered.
“She’ll be here in fifteen minutes. She hired a car to drive her up.” Of course she did. I wasn’t sure why she came every year to participate in sugaring since it is, at its heart, a do-it-yourself kind of thing. Our aunt has a policy of never doing for yourself what you can get others to do for you and she has taught her granddaughter to approach life in the same manner. It would never occur to any of the rest of us to hire a car. There’s a perfectly good bus that runs from Boston to Concord, NH, where any one of us would have unhappily picked them up from the station. But Hazel didn’t like public transport and nothing was ever good enough for her granddaughter Jade, as she was quick to point out to anyone within earshot.
“Did you think to grab some car keys on your way out?”
We crept to the back of the barn and Celadon silently gestured to the family minivan. She slid into the passenger seat. I expected her to want to drive since she prefers to be in charge of everything but I took the keys and started the engine. I decided to risk the noise it might make and gunned the engine, tearing down the driveway and setting a personal best in terms of speed.
Grandma might have been standing on the porch waving her arms at us but I won’t swear to it. I hated leaving her in the lurch knowing full well she’d feel obliged to put on a big dinner for Hazel and Jade but desperate times called for desperate measures. Besides, our brother, Loden, never seemed to mind Hazel’s company anywhere near as much as we did, so he could help Grandma out if she needed it.
* * *
“Have you turned off your cell phone?” I asked as I braked hard and swung us out onto the main road.
“I can’t do that. What if the school calls because one of the kids is sick?”
“Then switch off the ringer at least. We can’t have anyone at the Stack telling the family we ignored calls,” I said. Celadon dug in her purse and fiddled with her phone.
“There is a bit of good news,” Celadon said.
“How can there possibly be good news when Hazel and Jade arrive?”
“That’s just it. Jade isn’t arriving.”
“What do you mean, ‘isn’t arriving’?”
“I mean, when Grandma asked what Jade might like for supper Hazel said Jade wasn’t with her.”
“But Jade always comes with her.”
You know how every member of a family seems to have a role to play and no matter how old you all get, how far from your roots, you never quite shake it off? Our cousin Jade’s role is to be the one thing Celadon and I ever entirely agree upon. We both wish she didn’t exist. Summers when we were kids involved extended doses of Jade. Her parents worried she needed more interaction with her cousins since she was an only child and they felt long bouts of time with us was the answer.
They weren’t particularly interested in her developing better social skills; they wanted her to stop asking them for a sibling. After all, how likely would it be for them to produce a second perfect child? They were sticking with one and that was that. Jade not visiting was the best news I’d had in a long time.
“Maybe after what happened last year she decided it would be best not to come.” Celadon dug her long fingers into my arm. “You do remember the visit last year?” Celadon’s breath was coming in shallow pants and her cheeks flushed like a male cardinal.
“How could I forget?” Last year, when Celadon’s daughter was five, Jade decided she had found her heir to the Miss Maple throne. She snuck Spring off for a day of beauty and returned with a miniaturized version of herself: high heels, clingy short dress, bubble gum pink lipstick, and a generous squirt of a heady fragrance unfortunately named Every Man’s Desire wafting from her tiny body. Jade had registered her for the competition, purchased her competition wardrobe, and schooled her in a routine involving a striptease down to a polka-dotted bikini without asking Celadon’s permission for any of it.
When chided for her actions she asked if Celadon really wanted her daughter to turn out like me. Spring was overwrought by the whole experience and tugged in two directions by a pair of emotional powerhouses; she locked herself in the bathroom where she announced through the keyhole she planned to eat toothpaste to stay alive until the fighting stopped. It was a low point for us all.
Then I had another thought that burst my bliss bubble before it really had a chance to inflate.
“What will Hazel do if she doesn’t have Jade to focus on? Will she turn all that attention on us?”
“It doesn’t bear thinking about.”
The Stack was still serving the breakfast crowd when we walked in, and heads turned to see both of us there together. Celadon is the old-fashioned sort of woman who dresses to go to town and to see her standing there with her hair straggling out and her pant legs soaked to mid-thigh was a first for most of the patrons. The Stack Shack is always busy in the morning but there was an even bigger crowd than usual gathered around the counter, coffee mugs clutched tightly in work-hardened hands. The chatter was unusually loud, too.
Instead of grabbing a stool at the counter I steered Celadon to my favorite booth in the back. Before long Piper hustled up with a sparkling coffeepot and some questions.
“Is it Hazel or Jade?” she asked, flipping the mugs upright and filling them with a practiced flick of the wrist.
“What makes you ask that?” Celadon said, gripping the mug in her two hands like it was Jade’s perfect, lily-white neck.
“Every sugaring season the two of you burst in here like a couple of escaped convicts, your eyes lolling and furtively darting. If I didn’t know you I would have phoned the police before your butts hit these seats. The only thing I know that rattles both of you that much is the arrival of your great-aunt and her offspring.”
“It’s just Hazel. Jade isn’t with her.”
“That’s one more thing to set tongues wagging,” Piper said.
“It does seem especially lively in here this morning. Is something going on?”
“You know that old building someone’s been fixing up at the end of Church Street?”
“The one that used to be a general store?” The building had been a general store for years before the Mountain View Food Mart set up in town. Over the years it had languished and when the last owners died no one had wanted to keep running the place as a store. The space was large but not really large enough for a grocer and the town wasn’t big enough to support two grocery stores anyway. Parking was a problem, too. And the septic wasn’t built for heavy use so converting the building to apartments wasn’t even an option.
It sat and sat, growing more depressing each year. Everyone said something ought to be done about it and we all felt guilty over what was becoming of the place. Grampa had mentioned buying it but Grandma had nixed that idea pretty quickly. She said he was already spreading himself too thin and the projects that really had his heart would suffer for it. So it continued to sit vacant, chiding us all.
“That’s the one.”
“What about it?”
“There’s a sign on the front of the building saying that the work is almost done and that the owner will be unveiling it tomorrow afternoon.”
“You’re kidding.” No wonder there was a buzz of excitement. For months hammering and banging could be heard almost constantly from inside the building. The windows were all covered over with newspaper and the crew hustling in and out couldn’t be convinced to say a thing. And believe me, people had tried. According to Myra Phelps, police dispatcher and gossip extraordinaire, the property had been purchased by a corporation that didn’t seem to be connected to the town in any way. None of the names she’d been able to track down looked familiar and the purpose for the purchase remained shrouded in mystery.
“I want to know who snatched away the best contractor in town.” I had hoped Wesley Farnum would be available to start the work on the opera house project but the mystery owner of the building booked him first and he had been right out straight ever since.
“We’ll finally find out who’s responsible for the Russ Collins situation,” Celadon said. We had been forced to hire Russ to get the project at the opera house started when the pipes in the building froze and we couldn’t delay work any longer. Russ was usually available since he paced himself like an arthritic inchworm. On the plus side he was a gifted storyteller. I had heard more creative excuses for why so little had been done clearing the coal room in the cellar of the town hall than I could have imagined possible. I’m used to Grampa and his embellishment of favorite stories but Russ had missed his calling. He would have been a champion wandering bard, raking in the coins for singing exaggerated praises of the local big cheese. Well, if he could get motivated enough to wander away from a soft bed and a hot meal.
“I’ll be glad when Wesley is freed up and able to work on something new.” I had ended up being the point of contact for Russ. Celadon’s strategy for suffering fools was to put them out of their misery. Not without reason Grandma had asked me to deal with Russ until the job was complete since she didn’t want the family ending up in the papers on account of any violence. Celadon had sensitive skin and would never be able to endure the soap in the county lockup.
“Why don’t you put those menus away? I’ll be right back with just what you need to take your mind off all your troubles, family or community.” Piper hurried off and returned just a moment later, placing an overflowing vintage dessert bowl, the cut glass ones with the feet, in front of each of us.
“What is it?” I asked, lifting a spoon in anticipation.
“Chocolate cherry lava cups.” Piper nodded and smiled. “Nothing like chocolate and cherries and cake to fix what ails you. Let me know what you think” She headed toward the door as a new set of customers entered the Stack. I stuck my spoon down through the gooey layers of chocolaty goodness. Lifting it to my mouth I spotted cherry preserves, hot fudge, and chunks of chocolate cake. Divine. Even Celadon seemed to be simmering down. Maybe she would be lulled into a sugar stupor and forget.
“This is incredible.” Celadon forgot herself enough to dribble fudge sauce down her chin. “Piper is an amazing cook. Maybe we should just stay here.”
“How would we get away with that? Everyone will see us in here and report back to the family.”
“Maybe we could get Mitch to arrest us. I’m sure you could do something that upsets him enough to get us thrown in jail for a few days.”
“I don’t think that will work anymore. At least not as long as he is still dating Phoebe.” Mitch was a local cop and my former boyfriend. He had been ruthlessly harassing me for the last few months. That is until he started dating Phoebe Jones and his obsession with me began to cause friction in their relationship. I hadn’t gotten so much as a parking ticket or jaywalking fine in weeks.
“Knowlton would help us, wouldn’t he?” Celadon asked, dabbing at the chocolate on her chin with a paper napkin, her hand shaking.
“Even Hazel and Jade combined don’t make me that desperate.”
“We could bribe Doc MacIntyre to say we both had come down with something that requires us to be quarantined. Then we could skip town until Hazel leaves.”
“You don’t mean Yahtzee.”
“It’s the only way. We’d have to agree to be his Yahtzee slaves until he died.” The local doctor was a great all-around guy. He was an old-fashioned country doctor who birthed babies and eased the suffering of the very elderly. He even still made house calls. But you didn’t want to be without an excuse to avoid playing Yahtzee with him. The guy had made the Guinness Book of Records for the longest continual game of Yahtzee ever played. All he had to do was hear the slightest rattle in your lungs during an exam and he couldn’t focus on his job until he told you all about his latest game. People had been known to pay their doctor bills in Yahtzee pads. It should have been funny but it was sort of terrifying instead.
“I don’t think we will get away with it. Not unless we are actually incapacitated. You know Grandma would insist on taking care of us herself.” A shadow fell over the table and we both jumped. I looked up to see my godfather, Lowell, towering over us, his uniform freshly pressed and his gun sitting snugly in its holster just about at my eye level.
“And who is helping to take care of your grandmother? You know how hard on her Hazel’s visits always are.” Celadon and I both slid low in our benches, the guilt of leaving Grandma on her own to deal with Hazel making us hang our heads in shame. “I know just as soon as you two finish up your food you’ll do the right thing and head on home. Even if it takes a police escort to get you to do it.”
Lowell was just about the easiest-going guy I had ever met but he took all his duties seriously. That included policing the community as well as serving as a surrogate son to my grandparents ever since my father died several years ago. There was no way we could put off our responsibilities with him around to remind us of them.
We bumped on down the driveway. Celadon had come back to her senses enough to want to be the one behind the wheel. She didn’t slow a bit as she wheeled into the dirt track leading up to Greener Pastures. The time of year was perfect to begin sugaring. The fluctuating day and nighttime temperatures made the sap in the maple trees begin to flow and harvesting it became possible. It had a less useful effect on the driveway. Every day a crop of fresh ruts appeared on the driveway where thawing made mud appear. Tires moving up and down throughout the day made gouges which froze in solid and inconvenient lumps by late afternoon.
As soon as the sun began to dip below the rise, blobs of mud churned up through the course of the day froze into jagged peaks like a miniature mountain range in the driveway making it treacherous to navigate all evening and into the early morning hours. Celadon didn’t even appear to notice as she dove up and down their peaks and valleys and even skimmed across the tops of several.
Celadon bolted from the van and headed for a little-used side door in an effort to avoid Hazel for as long as possible. I would have followed her example except for the fact I spotted Graham’s state-issued truck in the yard. I had met the good-looking conservation officer back in November when he had been in Sugar Grove on business for the Fish and Game Department. Over the last few months we had gone on a number of dates and were starting to feel like a couple. My heart gave a little thump and a squishy lurch and the urge to see him outweighed the desire to avoid Hazel.
I stepped into the hall and listened for voices. Not surprisingly the sounds of chatting drifted toward me from the kitchen. Bracing myself for possible Hazel impact I followed the sounds. I paused out of sight just beyond the door to listen for Graham’s voice. There was no way I was going in there with Hazel if he was not there, too.
“So, big feller, you look like quite the strapping young buck. Too bad it’s not rutting season. I could teach you a thing or two, I expect.” Hazel had a penchant for men, mostly the younger variety. If I didn’t interfere she would drag him to her room and truss him to a bedpost before he knew what had happened to him. There was no time to waste lurking about in the hall. I gathered up my courage and stepped into the kitchen.
“Aunt Hazel, what a surprise,” I said, crossing the room to give her an expected peck on the cheek. She wore her usual getup of a menswear-inspired pantsuit and a fedora. She looked like something out of a hard-boiled detective novel, right down to the tumbler of whiskey clutched in her hand. Graham looked more like a bug caught in a jar. If a bug could have a pleading look in its eyes.
“Well, it shouldn’t be. I always arrive in time for maple festival. Not the brightest star in the night sky, is she, Graham?” That was Hazel, in a nutshell. She made it impossible to like her. Responding only makes things worse. It was always best to just move on and pretend you didn’t hear. I turned my attention to Graham, willing him to understand just by the way I wiggled my eyebrows that he didn’t need to answer. Apparently he doesn’t speak eyebrow.
“I can’t agree with you there, ma’am. Dani’s got enough sparkle in her to light up my life.” I couldn’t believe it. That guy was just adorable. And about to be eaten alive by a rabid octogenarian.
“Is that right? And you looked like someone with high standards. Now if you wanted to pair off with one of the girls in this family you ought to hold out for my granddaughter Jade. She’s learned everything she knows about men from me.” Hazel downed a swig of her whiskey. Interactions with Hazel were never improved by her being a bit lit. It just made her speak more boldly. Which is to say it was a bit like stretching a giraffe’s neck. I tried wresting control of the conversation.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you today, Graham. What brings you by?”
“I was up this way on a call which took less time than I’d have expected. I wondered if you’d like to go to lunch with me?”
“Good thinking, young man. A body could starve around here. I mean, just look at Dani. No meat on her bones and stunted to boot. Where are you taking us?” Hazel swallowed another gulp of whiskey and winked at Graham, who took a step backward and braced his hand against the counter behind him.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I’ve brought my state-issued truck. With all the equipment I have to carry there is really only room for myself and one passenger.”
“I’m starved. Let’s leave right now.” Just as I grabbed his arm my cell phone rang. I didn’t want to answer but I couldn’t seem to let myself ignore it. You know how some people can’t stop reading a book they hate because they feel like they have to finish every one they start? I feel that same sort of compulsion about a ringing phone. It has to be answered.
It was Russ Collins. I reminded myself to use a polite voice when answering. There was nothing to say that Russ was calling just to get out of working. I took a couple of deep, cleansing breaths then pressed the answer button.
“Dani, I’ve had to stop working.” Russ sounded like he was taking a few deep breaths himself. Which was something I had never heard him do before.
“Let me guess, you broke the handle to the shovel and need to stop work to go buy a new one? No worries, I was just heading out so I’ll bring one to you.”
“I don’t need a new shovel but I do need you to get over here ASAP.”
“Russ, I’m just about to go to lunch. Unless you give me a crazy-good reason for quitting I suggest you wait until I finish my meal.”
“I can’t tell you on the phone. You wouldn’t believe me. If you’re not here in under half an hour you’ll be hearing about this on the news and I’ll be suing you.”
“Suing me? For what?”
“Undisclosed hazardous working conditions. Or something like that. Loden would know what I could bring for charges.”
“Loden isn’t going to help you figure out how to sue his own family.” At least I didn’t think he would. He gets along with all of us better than anyone else does. But he does love a good legal puzzle. I decided it was better not to find out if his loyalties would withstand his flirtation with the law. Besides, I was sort of curious as to what Russ would consider hazardous. Spiders maybe. Or a lack of sunlight in the basement that could lead to a vitamin D deficiency perhaps.
“I’ll be over just as soon as I can get there.” I disconnected and turned to Graham. “I’m so sorry. Russ Collins has hit some sort of snag at the opera house. Can I have a rain check?”
“Of course. It was a long shot anyway since I know how busy you must be at this time of year.” He reached out and gave my hand a squeeze. I hurried out of the room and was halfway down the hall when I heard Hazel pipe up again.
“Well, young man, it looks like you’ve found room in your truck for me after all. I’ll just fetch my coat.”
* * *
Over the few years of our acquaintance I had many times wished I had never had to interact with Russ Collins. I certainly had never wanted to drop operations at Greener Pastures during the busy season to get to the bottom of why he wasn’t doing what he was paid to be doing. I regretted more than ever agreeing to hire him for the work Greener Pastures was helping to subsidize on the opera house restoration.
For the past several years the good people of Sugar Grove had been hosting and supporting fund-raisers to restore the opera house to its former glory. Just last month the committee had run Meat Bingo, one of the most popular fund-raisers in town, to try to bulk up the coffers. Finally, an anonymous donor, also known as my grandparents, had come up with sufficient funds to get the first part of the renovations under way.
An early February cold snap had frozen and burst a few pipes in the ancient heating system and Grampa felt if we waited any longer for the money to trickle in through the usual fund-raising routes the opera house would rot off before summer. He told my grandmother he wanted to sit in the balcony and neck with her in the dark once more before they both died and he didn’t see that happening without a little help.
Which meant the restoration committee, composed of my grandparents, my sister, Celadon, Doc MacIntyre, the fire chief, Cliff Thompson, and yours truly got on the stick and hired Russ to begin the grunt work in the basement for a new heating system. Russ wasn’t really skilled at much except coming up with excuses for not working, but skilled labor wasn’t what we needed.
The old coal room in the basement still had some leftover coal in it that needed clearing out to make room for the high-efficiency unit we were installing for the whole building. The town hall would get the benefit of the upgrade as well and the whole town would enjoy decreased heating costs in their tax bills while simultaneously restoring heat to the subzero opera house.
Why I had to be the only Greene in the house when Russ called to say he had run into a problem I couldn’t imagine. Sure, I was the only one whose stomach was growling only a couple hours after breakfast. I wondered if I had angered Mother Nature during the winter and she was making sure I wasn’t going to get my hands on any maple goodness.
I tried to put Russ off but he was insistent that I drop everything and head straight over to the town hall basement. He sounded all worked up, which, knowing Russ, really was troubling. Since Russ was the only person I’d ever met who sat down to play boccie this seemed extreme.
I grumbled all the way into town. The roads were pocked with potholes and snowmelt flowed across them like the ocean waves of an incoming tide. My MG Midget was just back from its most recent emergency trip to the auto body shop and I was in no hurry to bottom it out in a rut bigger than an inground pool.
Winter in New Hampshire can be a lot of fun but the roads are generally not for the faint of heart or the low of chassis. I should have taken the farm truck or the minivan but I had missed my little car so much while it was being repaired I hated not to drive it. I always felt like I was cheating on it when I went out with any other cars.
Fortunately, parking in Sugar Grove is never a problem anytime except during maple festival weekend and I found a spot right in front of the town hall. I hustled into the building and raced for the stairs to the basement.
“Russ, where are you?” I called out. The light level in the cellar was about what you’d expect from a space with bare bulbs hanging every ten feet or so. The electrical system could use some work, too, from the looks of things. I heard some shuffling at the back where the coal storage had been so I headed in that direction.
“Back here, Dani. Did you bring a flashlight?” I pulled up short at the entrance to the coal room.
“Nope. You said hurry so I left with nothing but my car keys and a coat. I’ve got my cell phone we could use.” I scrolled through the apps and turned on the flashlight. I swooped it around over my head and into the corners. A small amount of the leftover coal we had asked Russ to clear glinted up at me from a rusty wheelbarrow. Most of the room looked like it had the last time I had been down there with Grampa telling Russ what the job would entail. I wasn’t surprised by his lack of progress but it didn’t do much for my mood.
“Shine it over there.” Russ pointed a grubby hand at the one bare patch in the pile of coal. I tilted the phone to where he directed and leaned in. And then drew back. And then leaned in again. I had been prepared to give Russ a piece of my mind for dragging me away from my work and my lunch with Graham. But I wasn’t prepared for what he found.
“Is this a joke?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing.” There was no doubt about it. Russ, despite a desire to never do a lick of work, had managed to dig up some pieces of what looked like a human skeleton. There it was, plain as day poking up from the dirt floor of the town hall cellar.
A long bone that looked to my untrained eye like it used to be in someone’s leg showed nearest me. The top portion of a skull sat closer to Russ. The dome of it gleamed a bit despite the low light and the coal dust. I moved closer, bent over it, and covered my hand with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. I brushed a bit more dirt away from the area and revealed more of the skull. I was no expert but if it was a fake it was a pretty convincing one.
“How did you find this?” I asked, sinking onto the floor.
“I was just shoveling off the coal in this one area and when I scraped against the dirt floor scooping up the last bits I must have gouged the floor. You told me to be thorough so I was trying to get every bit.”
“And then what?”
“And then I felt the shovel clunk into something more resistant to scooping than the coal. I gave it a harder shove but it didn’t seem to matter.”
“Have you called Lowell?” Lowell Matthews was the chief of police and my godfather. He was also dating my widowed mother. It was complicated but we were getting used to it.
“Why the heck did you call me instead of the police? I’m no dead-body expert.” Although, lately it was beginning to feel like I was. In the last four months I’d seen more than my fair share of corpses.
“I figured if I called the police in they’d make me stop working on this job. You’d be aggravated at me for the delay. I wanted you to be the one to make the call so you and your grandfather couldn’t blame me for whatever happened here.” Russ sounded quarrelsome and like he had an attitude but if I looked at myself clearly I could see his point.
I might not have come right out and accused him of finding a way to get out of the work but I am certain I would have thought it. After all, that was the reputation the guy had and it was deserved. Still, it rankled to think I had a reputation of my own and it was one of being judgmental and unfair.
“You’re probably right but we had best call the police now. This looks too real to ignore.” I walked carefully back out of the cellar and up to the ground floor of the building. Most of the town offices in Sugar Grove are conveniently housed in the same place. If you want to speak to the tax collector, town clerk, or any selectperson happening to keep office hours you just need to hang around the town hall for a bit. They’ll be around eventually.
Unfortunately, the police department is housed in a building of its own. Fortunately, it is just up the street. Within five minutes of my call Lowell and my ex-boyfriend Mitch were squatting over the partially unearthed skull, snapping pictures and speculating.
“It’s pretty strange that you ended up striking this with so little work done, isn’t it?” Mitch sounded like he was on a tear, already looking for someone to blame for what had happened. I didn’t like Russ but there was no reason to think he had anything to do with the body other than being the poor guy who came upon it. I mean, who’d want to find a buried body anyway but certainly no one would if they were alone in a gloomy basement and the body in question was reduced to skeletal remains.
“I hardly think he would have called you if he was up to no good, Mitch. He was digging it up, not burying it.”
“And what are you doing here, Dani? I can’t seem to think you’re much good with the heavy lifting.” Which was unfair. I may weigh 103 pounds soaking wet but I can certainly hold my own when it comes to physical labor. What I lack in strength I make up for in willingness to just keep at it until the job is complete. Which is mostly why I don’t respect Russ.
“I called her so she wouldn’t complain I’d cut out of work early. You know how she is.” Russ gave Mitch one of those man-to-man looks that mean women are a pain in the butt. Mitch nodded in agreement. That sort of thing was just one of many reasons we weren’t still dating.
“Sounds reasonable.” Mitch just had to contribute his two cents. Lowell stood up and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Thanks for calling us in. I think it’s safe to say there is no more work for you to do here today, Russ. Why don’t you head on out. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention this to anyone just yet.”
“I won’t.” Russ tugged at his ball cap and shuffled out.
“Dani, I think you’d best tell Emerald the work on the opera house is at a standstill for the time being. You can tell him why but ask the family to be discreet, please.”
“Grampa isn’t going to be pleased to hear this. You know how he is when he gets all worked up about a project.”
“I think he’ll understand. We’re going to work this as a crime scene until we discover for some reason it isn’t, so even if he doesn’t, he’ll have to live with it.” Lowell was a lifelong family friend. Telling my grandfather to like it or lump it was not going to be easy for him. Especially since Grampa was the closest thing Lowell had to a father since his own parents had died in a house fire when he was a young man.
“I’ll tell him. Maybe he’ll be so pleased not to have to pay Russ to excavate the coal room that he’ll forget all about the schedule.” A girl can hope, can’t she?
I was wiped out. Not only was there too much on my plate, there was no food in my stomach. A lot of people might have been put off from eating by the sight of a skeleton in a basement but I figured the poor guy didn’t care. Just because he was long past his last meal didn’t mean I should be, too. I left the car where it was and crossed the street for the Stack Shack. Besides, I figured the Stack was probably where Graham and Hazel would be having lunch. Leaving him to fend for himself with her was not the best way to keep him around.
Coffee and bacon and cinnamon roll smells filled the air but there was no sign of Graham or Hazel. The only person in the place besides Russ and Tansey was Piper. Even the cook seemed to have taken a break. Russ perched on a stool next to Tansey, gesturing more animatedly than I had ever seen. His back was to me and he didn’t notice my arrival.
Usually, anyone in the Stack swivels in their seat to get a look at new arrivals and to say hello if they’re a mind to but not this time. Both Tansey and Piper were straining toward Russ. He had their full attention like nothing I’d ever seen. They looked like kids round a campfire listening to a ghost story. Tansey especially had her ears a-flapping. Both her hands wrapped round her coffee cup and she was holding the thing halfway to her mouth but had forgotten to take it to her lips.
“So I scraped away a bit more and there was a long whitish thing kinda bright against all the dirt and the coal dust. I bent over and scratched at it with my work glove.”
“What was it, Russ?” Piper asked. “What did you see?”
“It was a bone. A human leg bone.” Piper gasped and then pulled back as if she’d been hit with a live electrical wire.
“What made you sure it was a human bone? Couldn’t it have been a dog bone or a cow bone or something like that? Couldn’t it have been left from some pastureland before the town hall was built?” Tansey crossed her arms across her chest and looked smug.
“Well, I thought the same thing at first. I didn’t want to get all lathered up over nothing so I thought I’d check a bit more before calling the Greenes. You know what a tartar that Dani can be.” I was relieved not to see Piper’s head nod in agreement. “So I poked around a bit more and eventually found another bit that confirmed my worst fears.”
“Which was?” Tansey asked.
“A human skull. About the right size for a grown man, I’d say. Explain that, why don’t you?” Russ looked at Tansey.
“Did you find anything else? Anything to suggest the identity of the body or how long it’s been there?” Piper asked. Piper may look like a rebellious teenager with her purple hair and her multitude of tattoos but she is really one of the most practical people I know. Leave it to her to ask the pertinent questions.
Excerpted from "A Sticky Situation"
Copyright © 2015 Jessie Crockett.
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.
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Praise for the Sugar Grove Mysteries
“A sticky series that'll have you reaching for the maple syrup.”—Fresh Fiction
“Delightful and funny…with a great cast of characters.”—Sheila Connolly, New York Times bestselling author
“Had my inner amateur sleuth working overtime.”—Cozy Mystery Book Reviews