Maintaining good personal relationships with their suppliers is one of the secrets of the Cackleberry Club café’s success, so Suzanne doesn’t mind going out to Mike Mullen’s dairy farm to pick up some wheels of cheese. She’s looking forward to a nice visit with the mild-mannered farmer before heading back to their hectic kitchen.
But when she arrives, Mike’s nowhere to be found. The moaning of his cows leads her to look in the barn, where she discovers a bloodcurdling sight—the farmer’s dead body. Apparently not everyone was as fond of Mike Mullen as the Cackleberry Club.
Churning with grief and outrage, Suzanne, Petra, and Toni vow to find the farmer’s murderer—but as they get closer to the truth, the desperate killer gets whipped into a frenzy and plans to put the squeeze on them...
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It was an autumn of particular intensity. Of riotous colors and delft blue skies, cool nights and smoke curling out of chimneys. Halloween was barely a week away and Suzanne Dietz was feeling mighty pleased with herself as she glanced at the puddle of black silk lying on the car seat next to her. She'd just picked up the wicked witch costume that her neighbor Laurel Kennedy had sewn for her. The woman was a creative genius when it came to three yards of fabric, six yards of black scalloped lace, and a Singer sewing machine. Suzanne, on the other hand, managed to impale her finger every time she picked up a needle to sew on a button or whipstitch a hem. Which is why she was congratulating herself for outsourcing such an odious task and looking forward to her role as a well-stitched witch at the Cackleberry Club's upcoming Halloween celebration.
Changing lanes, Suzanne caught her own reflection in the rearview mirror and thought, Correction, make that a modern-day witch.
Just a hair past forty, Suzanne was lean, square shouldered, and still golden brown from puttering around her herb garden in the summer sun. Her hair was a shoulder-length silvered blond, her eyes a deep cornflower blue. Today she wore a white blouse, nipped tightly at her waist by a silver concho belt, and a pair of slim-fitting jeans. She had on her favorite cowboy boots, the well-worn brown ones with turquoise leather steer heads inset at the ankles.
Suzanne was the self-appointed purveyor of foods and the driving force behind the Cackleberry Club, a cozy little farm-to-table cafe she ran with her two BFFs, Toni and Petra. She was also recently engaged to Dr. Sam Hazelet, who had to be the most handsome and skilled doctor in the small Midwestern town of Kindred.
Suzanne smiled to herself as she drove along, the noon sun lasering down upon the windshield of her Taurus. Sam was quite a catch, she mused. Four years younger than she was, great sense of humor, and, most important, in love with her. (Okay, truth be told, he might even be a little besotted with her.)
If she hadn't hit the boyfriend jackpot, she probably would have (horrors!) been forced to venture onto one of those Internet dating sites. Then her character sketch might have read something like, Overworked café owner, dog mom, and curiosity seeker hopes to meet fun-loving guy for wine dinners, occasional trout fishing, and long-term mischief. And after a few sketchy responses, someone like Sam would have popped up. Or not.
Suzanne drank in the scenery as the blacktopped country road dipped down and the woods closed in on either side of her. Late October meant the oaks and maples had erupted in a riot of crimson and orange, and every time a puff of wind came along, leaves fluttered down in perfect golden swirls. It made her think of bonfires and pumpkin spice muffins, and, of course, Halloween.
Coming up out of a valley onto a slight ridge, the road suddenly hooked right and ran alongside a rustic fence of silvered, weathered wood. That fence marked the property line for Mike Mullen's dairy farm. Mike was Suzanne's go-to guy for the homemade wheels of tasty cheddar and Swiss cheese that she served and sold at the Cackleberry Club. Tapping her brakes lightly, Suzanne coasted along until she spotted Mike's familiar tilting mailbox up ahead. This behemoth of dented metal was surrounded by a tangle of bright red bittersweet and sat beside a hand-painted sign that read Cloverdale Farm-Farm Fresh Milk and Cheese.
Suzanne turned into the driveway and crunched her way down a narrow gravel road. A quarter of a mile later, her car rolled to a stop in Mike's farmyard. The place was picture-perfect, an old-fashioned farm built in the early nineteen hundreds by hardworking German immigrants. Off to the right was a classic American Gothic farmhouse complete with finials, balustrades, and a rambling old front porch. Straight ahead was a faded red hip-roofed dairy barn. Several smaller buildings that housed bales of hay and farm tools were scattered off to the left, and a large, woodsy pasture butted up close to the house and barn.
Suzanne slid out of her car and scuffed a toe of her boot into the gravel.
"Hey, Mike," she called out. "It's Suzanne." She let out a breath. "From the Cackleberry Club."
The big sliding barn door stood wide open and she expected to see Mike's broad, grinning face appear at any moment.
When, after a minute or two, Mike didn't duck out and greet her, Suzanne decided he must be all the way back in the barn, tending his cows. Or maybe he was in the adjacent cheese workshop, a place with a pleasant, yeasty smell and gleaming stainless steel pipes, tanks, and tables. The place where all the cheese magic happened.
"No problem," Suzanne said, striking out for the barn. She'd talked to Mike a couple of days ago and told him she needed to replenish her larder with a few wheels of his delicious cheese. He'd told her to stop by anytime. Well, now was anytime.
Suzanne ducked inside the barn, going from dazzling sunlight to a dim interior. She blinked hard a couple of times, trying to adjust her eyes, keenly aware of the mingled sharp scents of cows and hay.
"Mike?" she called again.
This time Suzanne received an answer. But it wasn't from Mike. Instead, she was greeted by a cacophony of loud bellows.
"What?" she murmured.
A few steps down the center aisle and Suzanne was confronted by the urgent, upturned faces of four dozen cows bawling unhappily at her. Cows that clearly hadn't been milked yet.
Haven't been milked yet? But it's twenty after twelve. These poor things have been waiting all morning?
Where was Mike? Suzanne wondered as she tiptoed through the barn. On either side, cows continued to blat anxiously as they stretched their necks out to greet her. To plead for help. And the farther in she ventured, the more the cows' mooing turned to pitiful moans.
Where the stanchions ended there were two box stalls. Animals moved about restlessly in there, too. Horses that tossed their heads and banged their hooves hard against the wooden walls.
What was going on?
"Mike?" Suzanne called out, trying to keep a slight quaver out of her voice. "Are you back here?" She hesitated and peered into the dimness ahead of her, where dust motes twirled lazily and worn leather halters and bridles hung on wooden pegs. Then she added, "Are you okay?"
Moving toward the wooden door that led into the cheese workshop, Suzanne felt a prickle of unease. The hairs on the back of her neck were starting to stand up straight. Really? Now, why was that? Then her heart did a little thump-bump inside her chest and her breathing became a little more rapid. Had something happened to Mike? Or was she simply overreacting to the agitation of the cows?
Suzanne tamped down her fears and rapped her knuckles sharply against the white wooden door of the cheese workshop.
"Mike? Are you in there?"
Gathering up her nerve, Suzanne put a hand flat against the door and gave it a shove. Instead of swinging open on its hinges, the door creaked open a couple of inches and stopped. Frowning, she pushed again, this time with a little more force.
No way. Something seemed to be blocking it.
Suzanne leaned forward and touched her cheek to the door, the smooth wood feeling cool against her skin. Then she poked her nose in, trying to peer around the edge of the door.
The first thing she saw was a green rubber boot turned sideways on the damp cement floor. That boot was clearly attached to a leg.
Mike? Something's happened to Mike?
Worry exploded in Suzanne's brain. She drew a quick breath, took a step back, and then flung her full body weight against the door. The door creaked open another foot. Suzanne eased herself into the room, where Mike Mullen sprawled awkwardly on the floor. His white hair was matted with bright red blood as if he'd sustained a dozen deep scalp lacerations, and his gnarled hands were crisscrossed with bloody defensive wounds. The blue-and-white-striped overalls he wore were completely slashed and tattered, as if he'd been existing as a castaway on some remote South Seas jungle island. The fabric was also completely saturated with blood.
Dead? Mike's dead?
Suzanne's mind spun like a runaway centrifuge. Who? Why? A hundred questions churned inside her head. She lunged forward, somehow thinking she'd check his pulse or hopefully clear an airway. But her foot slipped in the slick pool of blood and she fell forward. If she hadn't thrust her hands out to break her fall, she would have landed right square on top of his body. As it was, her ungainly fall put her on her hands and knees, looking directly into wide-open milky white eyes that stared sightlessly into a void.
"Mike?" Suzanne said again, in a pleading, still-hopeful tone. Because she was still trying to make sense of how someone could cold-bloodedly murder this mild-mannered dairy farmer.
Ignoring the anxious cries and bellows of the cows, Suzanne dashed back through the barn and out into the sunlight. Skidding wildly in the gravel, she pawed open her car door and flung herself inside. Bam. Her door locks clicked down hard. Then she fumbled her key into the ignition, gripped her steering wheel, and cranked the engine hard until it whined in protest.
In full panic mode, her teeth chattering so hard she was afraid she'd pop a filling, Suzanne hesitated for a second and looked around. And saw . . . absolutely nothing. There were no other people, no other cars. So what was the best thing, the smartest thing, for her to do in a situation like this?
Her heart still hammering inside her chest, she squirmed wildly in the driver's seat, trying to make sure a maniac wasn't about to leap at her with a shrieking, clattering chain saw. When none showed up, Suzanne pulled her cell phone from her purse and dialed the Law Enforcement Center in Kindred.
Marilyn Grabowski, the 911 dispatcher, came on the line immediately. "Nine-one-one, what's your emergency?"
"Get me Sheriff Doogie!" Suzanne hollered. "I need Sheriff Doogie right away!"
But Marilyn needed a little more information than that.
Still babbling with fear, Suzanne tried to explain the situation. "This is Suzanne Dietz. I'm out here at Mike Mullen's place on Country Trail. And Mike's been . . . well, I'm pretty sure that he's been killed. Stabbed, I think. Murdered in cold blood!"
Marilyn, who'd honed her calming skills as a first-grade teacher years ago, knew exactly what to do.
"First things first," Marilyn said. "You get out of there, Suzanne. Do you hear me? Your life could be in danger, too."
Suzanne nodded wildly into the phone. "Yeah, yeah," she said. "Sure."
"I mean it, Suzanne. Drive back to the main road and wait there until someone shows up. I'm alerting Deputy Driscoll right now. Sending him directly out your way. It won't be long. Five minutes at the most."
"We need Sheriff Doogie, too," Suzanne stuttered. "You gotta send Doogie."
"I'm putting in a call to him," Marilyn said. "But I know he's just getting out of a county board meeting."
"Get out of there now, Suzanne, and don't take any chances. Help is on the way."
Suzanne was just about to throw her car in gear when she decided to make another call. She had that particular number on speed dial, so she hit it and waited. Hung on tight.
Sam was on the line in a matter of seconds.
"I have a problem," Suzanne said.
"Tell me." Sam was used to calls without long preambles. He was a doctor, after all.
Suzanne stammered out pretty much what she'd told the dispatcher, and then Sam told her pretty much what the dispatcher had told her. Get out of there fast. Don't take any chances. Wait for help to arrive.
Suzanne, being a self-confessed contrarian, hung up and thought about this for exactly thirty seconds. Then she did the complete opposite of what she'd been instructed. After a careful look around the farmyard (to be sure the fire-breathing maniac with the chainsaw still wasn't coming after her), she switched off her engine. Then she kicked open the driver's side door and stepped back out.
A bright golden sun still lasered down. A light breeze kicked up bits of dust and leaves and spun then toward a low pen where a trio of woolly sheep peeked out at her. Over near the farmhouse, a birdbath pattered. The scene looked normal enough. On the other hand . . .
Clenching her jaw, Suzanne studied the farmhouse and worried. Was Mike's wife, Claudia, at home? Did she need help? Was somebody inside with her right now, holding a butcher knife to her throat?
Slowly, cautiously, as if she were picking her way across a bed of hot coals, Suzanne walked to the house. She climbed the three creaking stairs that led to the small back porch and stared at the screen door.
Now what? Well . . . maybe just pound on the door and see if Claudia's in there.
Suzanne knocked on the door and waited. Nothing. She knocked again, a little harder this time, causing the door to rattle in its frame. It terrified her to think that Claudia might be lying on the kitchen floor, facedown in a pool of her own blood.
That single, horrifying thought compelled her to take action. She reached down, turned the doorknob, and gingerly pulled the door open a tentative couple of inches.
"Claudia," Suzanne called out. "Are you in here?" She waited, hearing nothing but the pounding of her own heart and the rush of blood churning in her ears. She called out again. "Claudia?" Then, feeling a little bolder, said, "Anybody home?"
Opening the door wider, Suzanne gazed into the Mullen's tidy little farm kitchen. She saw a silver coffeepot sitting on the Hotpoint range, a plate and coffee cup resting next to the sink. Nothing looked out of order. And yet . . .