Lucy discovers that the victim is Vivian’s grandson, and all is not well at Pine Point. Vivian has been skipping lunch dates, and her charitable donations have abruptly stopped. Is she going senile? Or are her heirs a little too anxious to take over her estate? As Lucy gathers a basketful of suspects, she’ll have to chase the truth down a rabbit hole before a killer with a deadly case of spring fever claims another victim . . .
“A fun and engaging read.”
—The Barnstable Patriot
“Delightful . . . Cozy fans will enjoy Lucy’s hunt for the truth.”
“Once again, Meier delivers a top-notch mystery!”
—RT Book Reviews
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It was not the sort of thing you expected on a beautiful April morning. The sun was pouring through the kitchen windows and, outside, long wands of yellow forsythia blooms were waving in a gentle breeze. The newly installed granite countertop gleamed expensively beneath two dozen Easter eggs, freshly dyed in a rainbow of colors. Lucy Stone was admiring her grandson Patrick's handiwork, which featured crayon scribbles and garish color combinations, when she heard the scream.
It was a truly ear-piercing, heart-stopping sound. What was happening? Had the just-turned-three-year-old poked a finger into an electric socket? Had he run with scissors and stumbled, gashing himself? A second scream, even louder than the first, sent her flying up the stairs.
"What's the matter?" she cried, racing into Patrick's sunny little room, which was decorated with trucks. There was a parade of red, blue, and yellow trucks on the curtains, on the wallpaper border, and on his bedding.
"Nothing at all," sighed Patrick's mother, Molly, who was sprawled on the blue rug. She was attempting to restrain her wiggly son in something resembling a wrestling hold, with one arm firmly clamped across his chest. In the other hand, she had a miniature necktie.
Lucy, an experienced mother, grasped the situation immediately. "Patrick, don't you want to wear a necktie, just like Daddy does?" Actually, this was a bit of a stretch. Lucy knew her son, Toby, Patrick's father, rarely wore a necktie and then only under protest. His current occupation as a college student only required casual clothing, and he donned sturdy work clothes when he snagged occasional employment as a carpenter's helper or landscaper.
"No!" Patrick kicked a small foot, clad in brand-new brown leather oxfords, sending his shoe flying across the room.
"Patrick! That's enough! Now sit still so we can finish getting you dressed!"
Molly's tone was firm and Patrick paused in his protestations long enough to allow his grandmother to scoop him up and set him on her lap, where he continued to show his displeasure by shoving his lower lip out in a resentful pout.
"Now, now," crooned Lucy. "That's no way to behave. We're going to see the Easter Bunny! And there will be treats for good little boys."
"I don't know," murmured Molly, struggling to shove Patrick's small foot into the stiff shoe. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea."
"But he looks so handsome," said Lucy, nuzzling the little boy's silky blond hair.
Patrick was indeed the very picture of a proper little gentleman. In addition to the new shoes, he was wearing a pair of kelly green pants, a blue, green, and white argyle vest, a white shirt, and — hopefully — the matching green necktie.
"What if he has a tantrum there?" fretted Molly, brushing a lock of hair out of her eyes and leaning back on her heels. "I'd be so embarrassed."
"Tantrums happen," said Lucy with a shrug. "If he blows, we'll just pick him up and take him home. But it would be a shame to miss the Easter egg hunt just because he might have a tantrum. He'll probably be fine."
"If you ask me, I think Patrick has a point," said Molly, handing the necktie to Lucy. "I don't see why the kids have to dress up when they'd be so much more comfortable in their play clothes."
Lucy bent down and buried her nose in Patrick's neck, giving him little kisses at the same time she deftly fastened the miniature clip-on tie to his collar. "VV is a generous hostess. She spares no expense on the Easter egg hunt and the refreshments afterward, and she expects her guests to show their appreciation by dressing up a bit." She tickled Patrick, who responded by giggling. "And by using their very best manners."
"It's a lot to expect of a three-year-old," said Molly, gathering up Patrick's T-shirt and jeans, stained with dye. "And eating candy sends him into the stratosphere."
"There's more than candy in those plastic eggs," said Lucy. As a part-time reporter for the local weekly, she had covered Vivian Van Vorst's annual Easter egg hunt at her magnificent private estate, Pine Point, for many years. "Some of them have gift certificates, savings bonds, even tuition vouchers. Wouldn't you love to get a free month or two of day care?"
"Actually, yes, I would," said Molly, getting to her feet. "Come on, Patrick. This is going to be fun."
When Patrick was firmly belted into his car seat, Lucy and Molly resumed their conversation.
"You know, I don't remember going to the Easter egg hunt when I was a kid," said Molly.
"No, you wouldn't," said Lucy, pausing at the end of Prudence Path before turning onto Red Top Road. "VV started it about twelve years ago, and it's only for children eight and under. You were too old by then."
Molly gazed out the car window as they drove along, noticing the bright yellow forsythia bushes and the green shoots of spring bulbs that had popped up around the modest gray-shingled and white clapboard houses that were dotted along the road. "How did VV get all her money, anyway?"
"She did it the old-fashioned way; she married it. She's a local girl. I heard she grew up on a poultry farm but it's long gone. Anyway, at some point she left Tinker's Cove and met Horatio Van Vorst and captured his heart. Or maybe something else."
"He was a big industrialist and was immensely rich. I think they came here to Tinker's Cove sometime in the 1950s and began buying up land, accumulating some two hundred acres and building the house. It's enormous, but they only came in the summers while he was alive. He died some years ago, leaving VV very well off. She's in her nineties now and she lives here year-round."
"I've heard she's the richest person in town," said Molly.
"She sure is," said Lucy, making the turn onto Shore Road. "These houses are nothing compared to Pine Point," she said, pointing to the McMansions that had sprouted up on the rocky bluff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. "But she's a very generous benefactor. She's given lots of money to the library and the hospital. The town wouldn't be the same without her."
Molly's expression hardened as they drove past one huge, empty house after another. "Look at them, nobody's home at most of them. Their owners only use them in the summer. It's enough to make you a communist! Toby and I are struggling to pay our bills and these people have houses they don't even use."
"You just had your kitchen remodeled," Lucy reminded her, thinking of all that gleaming granite and stainless steel.
"That was my dad. He said we had to upgrade or we'd never be able to sell the house — and he paid for it."
Lucy was immediately alarmed; she liked having Molly and Toby and Patrick living so close to her old farm house on Red Top Road. "Are you planning on selling?" she asked, braking well in advance for the sharp turn where Shore Road clung to the bluff and curved high above the tiny cove known as Lover's Leap. The view of the bay was spectacular but Lucy didn't notice; she kept her eyes on the road, fearful of plunging down into the roiling water below.
"No. I love that house; I don't want to sell. And, frankly, I was perfectly happy with the old kitchen. I would much rather have had the cash, what with Toby's tuition and all. But Dad said we had to have granite."
"Well, getting a new kitchen isn't exactly a hardship," said Lucy, joining the line of cars snaking down the drive to Pine Point. "I don't know if that disqualifies you from membership in the Communist Party."
Molly laughed. "You think I should count my blessings."
Lucy nodded. "Whenever I complained that my friends had nicer things than I did, my mother would say, 'Envy's a green-eyed monster that comes hissing hot from hell.'" She looked over her shoulder at Patrick, whose chin had dropped onto his chest. "Uh-oh. Guess who's asleep?"
"I thought he was awfully quiet," said Molly, as the car crept along.
In past years, Lucy remembered, parking had been allowed along one side of the long driveway and was supervised by young men hired for the day, equipped with whistles and red flags. There were no attendants on the job this year, but most people remembered the drill and pulled off to the right, lining up neatly on the gravel verge. A few others, however, parked any which way on the lawn, at which Lucy clucked her tongue in disapproval. "That lawn is VV's pride and joy," she said, pulling into the next available spot, "and those cars are going to leave tire marks."
"At least they're not blocking the drive," said Molly, who was busy unfastening the straps on Patrick's car seat. The little boy stirred, yawning adorably and stretching his little arms.
Lucy, meanwhile, got out of the car and unfolded the umbrella stroller and in a moment Patrick was settled and they joined the other families walking up the drive toward the house. There was a sense of happy anticipation. It had been a long, hard winter and everyone was enjoying the fine weather and looking forward to the afternoon's entertainment. The Easter egg hunt was always lots of fun; the kids were cute as they scrambled across the lawn, first racing to grab the obvious eggs scattered on the grass and, then, encouraged by shouts from their parents, searching for the more valuable eggs that had been hidden in the shrubbery, beneath flowers, and behind statuary.
Then, when all the eggs had been collected, VV would award prizes. She would stand on the front steps of the magnificent mansion, dressed in a lovely pastel suit topped with a flowery hat, beaming at the assembled children. There were always so many certificates and ribbons that everybody got one: most eggs, fastest collector, most polite collector, best blue outfit, best pink outfit, shiniest shoes, curliest hair, and on and on, until every child had been recognized for some special attribute.
Later, after all the prizes had been distributed, Willis, the butler, would open the massive front doors and everyone was invited to partake of refreshments in the hall. This was Lucy's favorite part, because the oval hall was always beautifully decorated with garlands of spring flowers. They were clustered on the crystal chandelier, they twined around the railing on the floating staircase, and they were looped on the overloaded buffet tables.
The food was always delicious, served up by uniformed caterers. There was something for everyone: fruit punch for the kids, tea for the teetotalers, and wine punch for those who enjoyed a drop of something stronger. Of course, there were always tons of deviled eggs, as well as mountains of tiny sandwiches and platters of cookies and cupcakes, all iced in pretty pastel colors. Most tempting of all, perhaps, were the fruit tarts, each one heaped with a generous mound of glistening berries.
But before diving into the buffet, Lucy always took a moment to admire the priceless Karl Klaus sculpture that was VV's pride and joy. The sculpture, aptly titled Jelly Beans, was a group of four ovoid shapes clustered together — orange, pink, and lavender were on the bottom, yellow on top. The sculpture was always displayed on the round table in the center of the hall, but on the day of the Easter egg hunt, it was featured in an elaborate ice sculpture depicting the Easter Bunny with his nest of eggs.
All this was running through Lucy's mind as they walked along the drive, toward the curve and the final approach to the mansion, where budding Japanese cherry trees flanked the drive leading to the elaborate iron gates. Those gates were always thrown open for the Easter egg hunt, but today they were inexplicably closed, and a sizeable crowd had gathered in front of them.
"I wonder what's going on," said Lucy.
"Are you sure this is the right day?" asked Molly.
"Absolutely. It's always the Saturday before Palm Sunday, a full week before Easter," said Lucy. "At noon. Precisely."
"They must have forgotten to open the gates," said Lydia Volpe, a retired kindergarten teacher who had brought her two grandchildren, twins, dressed identically in pink gingham jackets.
"I dunno," said a bearded and tattooed young man Lucy recognized from the Quik-Stop. "I don't see any eggs on the lawn."
"And the gate's not decorated," added his companion, a pasty-faced young woman who was bouncing a doughy baby on her hip.
"If you ask me, the garden looks a bit run down," whispered Rebecca Wardwell, an elderly woman who Lucy knew was a dedicated gardener. "That quince needs pruning and those daffodils are tired; most of them don't even have buds."
"I noticed that, too," said Lucy, who had always admired VV's impeccably tended grounds. "And there were no parking attendants. I'm beginning to think they decided not to have the egg hunt this year."
Her comment sparked a little buzz as people speculated whether or not the hunt was going to take place. Despite the disturbing evidence to the contrary, most people insisted it must be on, perhaps just delayed for some reason. After all, there was always an Easter egg hunt at Pine Point.
Then a sudden hush fell over the crowd as VV's butler, Willis, was seen opening one of the French doors that opened onto a stone terrace. He carefully closed the door behind him, then began a stately walk across the terrace, down the stone steps and then proceeded along the paved walk to the oyster shell drive. As always, he was dressed in a black suit with a white shirt and striped tie and his gray hair was combed straight back from his lined face.
Reaching the gates, he paused and cleared his throat. He was about to speak when a collective gasp arose from the crowd. The Easter Bunny had appeared! Everyone could see him standing in the elaborate front doorway, where two double doors were now open behind a protective metal grille. He was a big bunny, at least seven feet tall, covered in white plush with a pink felt stomach and a huge round head, complete with big blue eyes, a pink nose, toothy smile, black whiskers, and enormous pointy ears, one of which flopped down over one eye. An absolutely huge basket filled with colorful plastic eggs was looped over one arm.
"There he is!" shrieked a little girl, whose black hair had been twisted into braids tied with crisp polka-dot bows.
"It's the Easter Bunny, it's really him," said a serious little boy wearing wire-rimmed eyeglasses.
Lucy scooped up Patrick, holding him up so he could see the Easter Bunny for himself. "See!" she said, pointing. "He's going to hop, hop, hop down the bunny trail."
Patrick chortled merrily. Like everyone else, his eyes were glued to the big bunny, who raised one paw in a wave to the crowd before he grabbed the metal grille to push it open. For a moment, he seemed to stagger, and everyone held their breath: Was something the matter with the Easter Bunny?
Then there was a collective sigh of relief as the bunny seemed to recover, shoving the grille open and leaping awkwardly down the steps to the lawn, where he began a clumsy gallop toward the gates, dropping a few plastic eggs on the way.
Patrick was getting heavy and Lucy was passing him to Molly when the bunny reached Willis, swayed on his feet, and suddenly collapsed, dropping the basket. The colorful eggs rolled every which way as the bunny convulsed and then was still.
The crowd stood in shocked silence, until the little girl with braids began to cry. "The Easter Bunny is dead," she sobbed.CHAPTER 2
"No, no," said her mother, giving the little girl a hug. "That's not the real Easter Bunny, it's just someone dressed in an Easter Bunny suit."
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely," said the mother, covering the child's eyes as Willis bent over the fallen figure and eased off the big round bunny head, revealing the face of the man inside.
It wasn't a pretty sight; his blue lips were twisted in a ghastly grimace. Lucy inhaled sharply, recognizing him.
"Do you know him?" asked Molly, who was holding Patrick close.
"Van Vorst Duff, VV's grandson." She paused, suddenly remembering that she was a reporter and this was news. "Everyone calls him Van," she added, pulling her camera out of her shoulder bag and snapping some photos of Willis leaning over Van's fallen figure.
Getting no response from the fallen man, Willis ran to the gate and punched some numbers into the intercom located there. "Mr. Duff has had an attack of some kind. Call nine-one-one," he said. Receiving an affirmative squawk in reply, he turned to the assembled and silent crowd. "This is most unfortunate," he said. "But we need to clear the area for the rescue squad."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Easter Bunny Murder"
Copyright © 2013 Leslie Meier.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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