When Sarah Winston started the virtual garage sale, it seemed like a keystroke of genius and the next logical step in her business. No more collapsing card tables and rainy-day washouts. But what began as a fun way to run garage sales during the long New England winter has become a nightmare of managing people and putting out fires. Online, she can avoid the crowdsbut not the crazies.
May Be Her Last
She certainly never bargained on dealing with frightening threats. And when a client is murdered, it's time for Sarah to swallow her pride and seek the help of her exC.J. Hooker, chief of police. Forging a tense alliance, they searchonline and offfor the killer. But solving this crime before someone else gets tagged seems virtually impossible…
Praise for Tagged for Death
"Full of garage-sale tips…amusing. A solid choice for fans of Jane K. Cleland's Josie Prescott Antique Mystery series." Library Journal
"Skillfully rendered…Sarah is the type of intelligent, resourceful, and appealing person we would all like to get to know better." Mystery Scene
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All Murders Final!
By Sherry Harris
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Sherry Harris
All rights reserved.
I didn't expect to start my Saturday with a cup of Dunkin's coffee and a dead body. The coffee, yes, but the cup now lay at my feet, and a stream of coffee was melting the packed snow as I stared at Margaret More's lifeless face. She sat in her car in her driveway, the long and winding kind, where her car wasn't visible from the street. A vintage tablecloth, white with bright spring flowers, was stuffed in her mouth. It had looked like such a nice tablecloth online last night. Of course, then, it wasn't a murder weapon.
It was the tablecloth I'd wanted to buy from her yesterday on my virtual garage sale site. But now I wanted to flee from it and the sight of Margaret's dead body. I slipped and slid in my haste to return to my old Suburban. I yanked open the door and grabbed my purse. I did my usual "Where the heck's my phone? This purse isn't that big" search before spotting it in the cup holder. Finally, I dialed 911.
"I have to report a death," I said after dispatch answered. "It's Margaret. Margaret More."
The female dispatcher gasped. "It can't be."
"It looks like she was murdered." My voice sounded amazingly calm and didn't reflect my growing panic or the churning in my stomach as the reality of what I'd just seen set in. I heard what sounded like a muffled sob and some fumbling.
"Hello? Are you there?" I asked when nothing else happened.
"Where's your emergency?" This time the dispatcher was male. He sounded efficient and professional. I gave him the address.
"I copy that," he said. "But if this is some kind of sick joke, you should know there are laws against calling in false information."
"It's not. But I get it. Who would kill Margaret More?"
"No one. That's who." This dispatcher now sounded almost as choked up as the first one. He managed to run through the normal list of questions: "Are you safe?" "Are you injured?" "Is anyone else there with you?" After I answered all his questions, he hung up. I stared at my phone for a minute. So much for professional.
My phone chimed. It was a reminder that the Congregational church in Ellington was having a rummage sale today to raise money for organ repairs. I deleted the reminder as I made my way back up to Margaret. Somehow leaving her alone didn't seem right. Not to mention after my brief conversation with dispatch, I was starting to doubt my own story. This time I walked carefully, trying to step only in the spots where I'd slipped and slid as I'd hurried to get to my phone. I studied the snow around me. It was only about an inch deep — February had been unusually mild this year. There was a mishmash of footprints around Margaret's car. Some poor sap would be taking casts of all of them.
I braced myself and looked back in the car. Margaret's thick silver hair hung in a neat bob around her face. Her age-spotted hands lay in her lap. Two giant diamond rings, one on each hand, sparkled in the sunlight. Part of me hoped I'd been wrong and had called the police for nothing. But Margaret was definitely dead. And unless she'd calmly stuffed the tablecloth in her mouth and sat there, waiting to die, I was right that she'd been murdered. I tried to open the driver's car door, but it was locked.
"Oh, Margaret, you'll be missed by so many." Margaret traced her roots back to the Mayflower, and her family was one of the first families to settle in Massachusetts. She was the president of the Ellington Historical Society and had a large extended family in the area.
I studied the interior of the car, something I knew police officers did when they pulled someone over. I'd picked up a fair bit of police know-how from my ex-husband, CJ, first while he served for over twenty years in the air force security forces and now as the chief of police of Ellington, the small town we lived in.
A traffic stop could easily change to something more if drugs, money, or weapons were in sight. And that happened far more frequently than most people realized. But Margaret's car was neat as a pin. A black pocketbook sat on the front passenger seat. Pocketbook! Good grief. I was starting to use the native lingo. Nothing else seemed out of place. It didn't look like she'd been robbed, given the rings on her fingers and her purse sitting next to her.
My phone chimed again. I pulled it out and glanced down. I'd received a photo through PopIt, a popular picture-sharing app that lots of teens and twenty somethings used. I was far older than this app's typical user, but Lindsay, a former teenage neighbor from nearby Fitch Air Force Base, had gotten me hooked. I'd been using it to post items I wanted to sell on my virtual garage sale site, as well as to direct business to the site. It was also a fun way to stay in touch, and Lindsay always sent funny photos. Right now I could use a smile. I pressed the button to view the picture.
I could barely take in what I saw before the screen went blank. The photo was a shot of me standing by Margaret's car, looking in the window. Someone else was here.CHAPTER 2
I whipped around, dropping my phone in the snow. I scanned the heavily wooded area across the broad lawn. Nothing moved, but there was a thick stand of trees and evergreens to hide behind. Now I realized how quiet it was up here, how alone I was. Why didn't I hear any sirens yet? Ellington wasn't that big. I strained, listening for any noise that might indicate someone's presence. Branches creaked as they rubbed together in the early morning wind. The silence, the isolation pressed in on me. Not wanting to turn my back or glance away from the woods for too long, I squatted and felt around in the snow until I found my phone. I scooped it up, wondering if I should call 911 again.
Sirens began wailing in the distance, I hoped coming here to help me. I flinched as a hawk burst from the woods. Its wings flapped loudly as it took off, while snow showered down from the vibrating branch it had just left. Was it the sirens that had startled him or the person who lurked out there, snapping photos of me? Was he or she watching now, enjoying my fear? I shook myself. I glanced at Margaret's house. Maybe the photographer was in there, or by now he or she could have circled around back to sneak up on me.
I looked back and forth between the house and the woods. I even managed a quick glance behind me. Come on, cops. Drive faster.
A few agonizing minutes later an ambulance roared up the driveway. Even though I'd told the dispatcher Margaret was definitely dead, I was grateful the EMTs had arrived. Grateful and safe. Next, a couple of squad cars showed up. Scott Pellner climbed out of the first one. He rubbed his hands and blew on them as he walked toward me. Until that moment I hadn't even noticed the cold. A terrible cold, like an ice storm, raged inside me. I hurried toward him, past my car and the ambulance. I slid again on the ice. He grabbed my arms to keep me upright.
"Is it really Margaret?" Pellner asked. He released me once I was steady.
"Yes." I pointed to the woods. "Someone's out there."
Pellner put a hand on his gun as he scanned the area I pointed to. "How do you know?"
"Have you heard of PopIt?" I asked him. The way this particular app worked, the picture had to be sent right when it was taken. And once you looked at it, unlike with other apps, it disappeared forever.
"It's all our daughter talks about. But what's that have to do with anything?"
I remembered Pellner had a high school–aged daughter. Explaining what had happened would be a lot easier. "I got a picture through the app while I was waiting for the police to arrive."
"And?" Pellner's brow wrinkled.
"It was a picture of me. Looking in the car, at Margaret."
Pellner scanned the line of woods again, eyes squinted. "Could you tell where it was taken from?"
"I'm not sure." I pointed to a spot in the woods. "Probably there. See the tallest pine, with the branch that hangs down funny?" I looked at Pellner, and he nodded. "A hawk flew from a tree right over in that area by the pine. Like it was startled. Maybe by the picture taker." I paused, thinking about the photo. "I guess it's possible it was taken from the house. But I don't think the angle was right."
While we'd been talking, more officials had arrived. Some looked at us curiously as they hurried up to Margaret's car.
"Stay here," Pellner said.
I watched as he joined a group of people now gathered near the front of the ambulance and started talking. They all turned and looked at me, and then Pellner motioned for me to join them. I hustled up the drive.
"Can we look at your phone?" Pellner asked, putting out his hand for it.
I handed him my phone. "I don't think it will help. That's the thing about PopIt. It doesn't save any of the information."
"That's why all parents hate it. And the police." Pellner took the phone and passed it off to a woman I didn't know. "Do you remember the user name?"
I scrunched my forehead up. "I was so startled by the picture, I don't remember seeing the user name."
"Show us where you were standing in the picture."
"You want me to go back up by Margaret's car?"
"No. Do a demo by my squad car."
Everyone followed me to Pellner's car. I stood by the driver's-side window and bent over a little bit. "This is about right," I said.
"What did you do after you saw the PopIt?" Pellner asked.
"I turned to see if anyone was watching me, but I didn't see anyone."
The woman with my phone handed it back to Pellner with a shake of her head. Pellner passed it back to me. Two officers set off on a circuitous route toward the woods.
"Are you okay?" Pellner asked.
My head did a little circle thing when I tried to nod and shake it at the same time. Physically, I was okay, emotionally I was questionable.
"Go sit in my car and warm up," Pellner said. "I'll be there in a minute."
"Front or back?" I asked. At least I'd quickly have some idea where I stood on the suspect list.
Whew. "Can I just sit in mine?" Another test question tossed like a puck onto the ice in hopes that Pellner would take a swing at it.
Rats. That meant Pellner considered my car to be part of the crime scene. Maybe he'd search it, seeking out a stash of vintage tablecloths used for murderous deeds. And the possibility of finding vintage tablecloths in the back wasn't that far-fetched. I often bought and sold them at the garage sales I loved to attend and organize.
I dutifully climbed into the squad car and wondered how long it would be before CJ showed up. He probably wouldn't be happy to find me here. I bit my lip. CJ could think whatever he wanted. We were divorced, and I didn't answer to him anymore. I turned the vents so the heat blasted me, and settled in for what I hoped would be a short wait. I stared at my phone, wondering if another photo would come in. I jerked upright sometime later, when the driver's-side door swung open and Pellner eased in.
"Did you fall asleep?" Pellner asked. His dimples stood out even when he didn't smile, but they didn't really soften his stern face.
I blinked at him. "I guess I did." Another strike against me. There was a saying in law enforcement that only the guilty slept. "I was up late last night, working on my garage sale site." I craned my head around. "Where's CJ?"
"Out of town."
The last time I'd talked to CJ was four weeks ago, when I'd called to ask him a question about our taxes. After he answered my question, I'd asked how he was doing. His answer had been all business. Arrest rates had gone up, but so had the number of petty crimes, there'd been an uptick in car thefts, the department basketball team was having a good season, a good cop was retiring, and he'd had to hire someone new. After his curt answer and his lack of interest in my life, I'd hoped this was the last piece of untangling our lives after our divorce just over a year ago. At least that was what I'd told myself. But now I wondered where CJ was. I knew Pellner well enough to know that asking for details and getting an answer was about as likely as an eighty-degree day in February in New England.
"Did they find anything out in the woods?" I asked.
"A few cigarette butts."
"Someone was out there smoking while they were snapping pictures of me?" I felt cold all over again.
"We don't know when someone smoked out there, but they bagged them just in case. How do you know Margaret?"
"Everyone in Ellington knows Margaret." The local joke was you couldn't go out of the house without running into someone related to Margaret. She was beloved. And apparently behated by someone.
Pellner twirled his hand. "Give me the details."
"I met her at the first Spouses' Club event I went to. You know, the club on base for the wives and husbands of the air force members stationed on base?"
Pellner nodded, so I continued. "It was three years ago, right after CJ and I were stationed at Fitch. She was an honorary member."
"So you were friends?"
"Friendly. It's not like we hung out."
"What are you doing here?" His dimple looked serious. He wasn't asking lightly.
Then I remembered my argument with Margaret last night on my virtual garage sale site. Oh, boy, that wasn't going to look good when it came out. I could delete the thread, but when the police started questioning people, it was sure to be reported. It would look even worse if the thread was missing. And I wasn't computer savvy enough to really, really make it go away. But that was not what Pellner had asked, so I wouldn't bring it up yet.
"I'm setting up a February Blues garage sale on Fitch. There's also going to be a silent auction to raise scholarship money. Margaret agreed to donate some items. I was here to pick them up."
Pellner then walked me pretty much step-by-step through my morning, up to his arrival. I left out the details of my showering and makeup routine but did mention deciding to wear my favorite aqua sweater. If that wasn't enough detail for him, so be it.
"I had an online argument with Margaret last night about the vintage tablecloth that's stuffed down her throat." I felt like smacking my forehead. Why had I blurted that out? The image of Margaret and the tablecloth made me shudder. And by the surprised look on Pellner's face, my bluntness shocked him. But CJ had been in law enforcement the whole of our nineteen-year marriage. I'd observed his ability to detach himself from a situation all those years, and now it helped me to keep from cracking up.
Pellner pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger. "How did you happen to want to buy something from her?"
"She's a member of my Ellington virtual garage sale site."
"Did she sell a lot of things?"
"Lately, she had been. She called me a few weeks ago and asked how the whole thing worked. I talked her through it, and she immediately started posting items."
"Did she tell you why?"
"I assumed because it was fun or because she had that thrifty Yankee side so many people do in this area." I was sure the saying "Waste not, want not" originated here.
"But she was loaded," Pellner said.
"I never thought about it. Some of the richest people I know here wear ratty clothes, clip coupons, and shop at garage sales."
"Quirky New England types," Pellner said.
I paused as I thought about one of my conversations with Margaret. "She once told me she couldn't take it with her, so she might as well sell some of the things she'd collected." How different that comment seemed now that she was dead.
"From the look of things, she tried her best to take the tablecloth with her."
I shook my head. "Really, Pellner?"
He shrugged. Pellner turned down the heat, so the air was more like a light summer breeze than hell's furnace blasting through the vents. "My wife talks about your garage sale site. She loves it."
Good thing I had brought up the argument, because it would have come out sooner than I'd have guessed.
"But I've heard grumblings about your virtual garage sale."
"Grumblings?" I wondered what that was about. There'd been the odd bit of drama here and there, but not as much as I'd seen on some sites.
Pellner sighed. "Just tell me about the argument."
"Shouldn't we just wait to go over all this when the state troopers arrive?" In small town Massachusetts the district attorney could ask the state police to take over a murder investigation. And with someone as high profile as Margaret involved, I was positive that would happen.
"The Triple A with guns will show up soon enough. Humor me. I know you didn't kill Margaret, but they won't." He pointed toward Margaret's car. People bustled around it.
Excerpted from All Murders Final! by Sherry Harris. Copyright © 2016 Sherry Harris. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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