Sherry’s making a guest appearance on a local radio show when the news comes in: Poppy Robinson has been found dead in the town’s community garden. Sherry was supposed to be taking questions about her win in the national cooking competition, but instead the callers start dishing dirt.
Poppy and Sherry were both involved in the vegetable garden, and while Poppy may have been a bit priggish, it wasn’t anything that called for a shovel to the back of the head. There was already trouble brewing, with the owner of the land threatening to renege on their agreement, and this murder has taken tensions to a new level. Now while Sherry’s organizing a Fourth of July cook-off event, she’s also got a murder investigation on her plate . . .
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"Ma'am, sorry to wake you, but a fellow passenger would like a pillow from the overhead compartment and your trophy is resting on it. Would you mind if I pull the statue down from its comfy spot so I can get the pillow for her?"
Sherry's eyes opened to the sight of a stewardess hovering over her. Before Sherry could respond to the question, the woman in the blue and gold uniform removed her hand from the storage bin and waved the shiny replica of the United States map mounted on a pedestal.
"Sure," Sherry answered as she blinked the sleep haze from her eyes.
A man seated across the aisle exclaimed, "Now that's what I call a trophy."
Sherry delivered a smile his way. Blushing, he elbowed the woman sporting a navel-orange-size knot of hair on the crown of her head seated beside him.
The woman gasped. "I recognize that trophy. You must be Sherry Oliveri. My husband and I were in the audience at the America's Good Taste Cook-off and Sherry Oliveri was the name they called to receive that winning trophy. Such a fun name. I must say, even though you were sitting right there, I wouldn't have known it was you. You don't look familiar without your cooking apron on. Your hair looks different too. Not as stylishly coiffed as you wore it onstage."
Sherry reached up to locate the direction her bedhead locks might have oriented themselves during her nap.
"We were so excited when our state won. And excited for you, too, of course. Can I get a picture with you? Herb, get up and take our picture, will you, please?" The woman jabbed Herb's shoulder repeatedly with the tips of her fingers as if she were poking an avocado to test for ripeness. After Herb hauled himself out of his seat, the woman followed her husband out to the plane's narrow aisle.
"Me too. I'd like a picture with the winner," exclaimed a female voice in the neighboring row. She waved her hand frantically.
A man beside the waving woman catapulted out of his seat. The headphones he wore took flight and landed on one of the stewardess's black flats. He scrambled to collect them and cozied up behind Herb in the increasing queue.
In the midst of shaking off her abbreviated nap hangover, Sherry was helped to her feet by the stewardess, who had taken the liberty of unfastening the seat belt that was the last line of defense against the gathering crowd. Sherry was handed her trophy and guided into the aisle, where she squeezed herself in amongst the bodies. She fidgeted with a snarl of hair that tumbled across her forehead, in hopes of detangling the mess, but gave up the effort when her fingers became ensnared. She crouched down toward the line leader, whose arm stretched skyward to reach around Sherry's shoulders.
With Sherry's back wedged painfully against the edge of another passenger's seat, Herb clicked his phone's camera. He pumped his arms in triumph. "Perfect picture. Thank you so much. My wife had us fly all the way down to Florida to watch the cook-off, and we were so tickled one of our fellow Augustinians took home the grand prize. We've been following your cooking career for years. Herb McDonald's the name, and the woman clutching you like you were the sole remaining slice of bacon at the hotel's continental breakfast is my wife, Bea. Guess I should learn to be a better cook and she'd hold me that tight more often."
"Herb, that's enough. Sit down so Sherry can give her other fans a chance for a picture."
Herb let loose a boisterous chuckle before returning to his seat. His wife crawled over his legs to reach hers.
"I shouldn't have postponed my highlight appointment at Hair Force One." Sherry sighed as she imagined the unflattering images the camera phones captured.
"You have a very natural look," the stewardess offered. "Cooks are supposed to spend time in the kitchen not at the beauty salon."
Sherry peered back over her shoulder and met a line of people that clogged the plane's aisle as far as she could see. She jerked her head toward the stewardess, who cradled a pillow under one arm. "I'll cater your next get-together if you announce mealtime right now."
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. I've been advised of severe turbulence in the airspace ahead of us. Please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts until further notice."
A collective whine reverberated throughout the plane's cabin.
The captain's ominous words sent a cold vibration through Sherry's core. As passengers dispersed, Sherry sighed and tucked her trophy back in the overhead bin. The intercom speaker crackled to life as she slammed the compartment door shut. She nestled in her seat, pulled her seat belt tight, and settled her arms into a self-hug.
"This is the captain again. I have an update, not weather related. I've been advised we are flying today with a celebrity onboard."
Sherry pinched her eyes shut and held her breath.
"The winner of America's Good Taste recipe contest is among us. I'm honored to be transporting Sherry Oliveri home, along with her winnings. I'm told she is an Augustin, Connecticut, native, who prepared New England Crab Cake Sliders for the big win, and I'd like everyone to join in a heartfelt round of applause for representing the Northeast so well in the national contest."
"Please don't give out my address," Sherry whispered as her eyes widened. Heads rotated her way and Sherry gave the queen's wave in all directions.
The plane dropped, along with Sherry's stomach.
"Sorry, folks. I shouldn't try to walk and chew gum at the same time. Or make that, I shouldn't try to steer the plane to a calmer altitude and applaud for a celebrity passenger at the same time. Better keep my eyes on the road, so to speak. But the rest of you, put your hands together for our winner."
After the brief but robust clapping ended, Sherry leaned her head back and peered out the window.
"Would you mind if I took that middle seat until the plane finds calmer air? It's a long way back to row six."
Sherry looked up and was eye level with the belt buckle of a man in dusty rose-colored shorts, white tube socks, and black sneakers. "Of course. I'll move my purse." Sherry gathered her overstuffed bag from the empty window seat to her left. She scanned the floor for any unoccupied space to set the tote down in. Seeing only enough room for her feet, she nestled the bag on her lap. She pulled her knees up against the edge of the seat cushion and the man maneuvered by.
"For the price of these seats, you'd imagine they'd offer a bit more room." As the plane shuddered, the man lost his balance. He steadied himself by clutching Sherry's headrest. "Pardon me as I nearly crush you. For your sake, I'm glad I showered this morning." He removed his chest from Sherry's face.
"Doesn't help that I've been eating and drinking nonstop for the past three days." Sherry patted her core. "I'm trying to suck in my stomach so you can get by, but that's asking the impossible."
The plane danced across another turbulent patch.
"I don't like this one bit." She rubbed her moist palms together, unzipped her purse, and checked her phone. "Another hour and a half to go. I'm not sure I'll survive."
"Don't waste your time worrying. These planes don't go down easily." He wrapped his seat belt around his waist and pulled tight.
Sherry turned her head in the man's direction and was struck by the fact he was in need of a shave. His lips were curled into a smile. Being in such close proximity, Sherry saw the whites of his eyes, though rather bloodshot, were the foundation for the remarkable blue color of his irises. His hair was graying, which seemed inconsistent to his overall youthful, sturdy appearance.
"I'm never convinced until I set foot back inside the terminal." Sherry looked at her phone again and clicked on her email's inbox. She had received two messages before boarding but hadn't enough time to read them. She opened the first from Romie Green.
Subject: Terrible News
The rumors can't be ignored any longer. Count on this being the final season of the Augustin Community Garden. We should have joined the board sooner. Maybe we could have done something to stop that woman. No official announcement as of yet, but I'm positive her decision's coming. You've probably heard I tried to talk her out of her decision after the board meeting with disastrous results. Not my best showing — the scene escalated to yelling, cursing, and obscene gestures. To no avail. She stonewalled me. So frustrating! I wish you had been at the meeting, but I'm sure the cook-off was way more fun. Call me when you get back. I hope you won. I have no doubt you did!
In the midst of digesting the email content, Sherry recoiled when she felt a weight on her shoulder. Her seatmate was quick to retract his hand.
"I didn't mean to startle you. I thought you were feeling sick. That was a deep-from-the-gut groan you let out."
"A reaction to some bad news. Luckily, not nausea, although I can't rule that out in the near future if this freefalling metal tube doesn't get on a smoother path." Sherry extended a hand. "My name's Sherry."
The man embraced her hand in his. "Sherry Oliveri, I know. I couldn't help but notice the line of admirers waiting to take a picture with you. I was in that line, by the way. My name's Nolan. I'm also from Augustin, and I was lucky enough to be in Orlando during the cook-off, so I bought a ticket. I was in the audience cheering you on. Nice job.
"Thanks. I'm the one who got lucky. The judges were in the mood for crab yesterday, I guess."
"I hope the news wasn't too rough." Nolan jutted his chin in the direction of Sherry's phone.
"Unfortunately, not good news. You say you're from Augustin?"
Nolan nodded. "Born and raised."
"Are you familiar with the Augustin Community Garden? It's a lovely piece of land smack in the middle of town. You've probably been by the property a million times without knowing what bounty was being produced inside the gates. The sign at the end of the driveway is very inconspicuous. We don't want to rile up the neighbors by attracting unintended looky-seers." Sherry searched Nolan's face for a glimmer of awareness, but he remained solemn. "I joined the board this year because it's a perfect combination of two of my passions, gardening and food. We grow the most magnificent vegetables. Not we, exactly, more like the members who have joined for various reasons. Some people don't have access to a plot of dirt to create their own garden. They might live in public housing or whatever, with no backyard space."
"Isn't that nice." Nolan's voice took on a distant, preoccupied quality.
"The bad news is, the woman who generously lends out the land to the town seems to be reconsidering. She hasn't said so in public, but the word is getting around. That word has come from a woman I work with on the board who emailed me and that prompted the groan you heard."
"Maybe there's something that can be done to stop the woman? The generous-lender woman, not the emailing-with-bad-news woman."
"My young friend on the board has youthful ambitions to convince her otherwise, but I'm not sure the attempt is possible or even advisable. I mean, at the end of the day, the land is hers. She has every right to do as she pleases. She and her two siblings, that is. All three own the property jointly since it was passed on to them when their father died. I'm sad, though, because Romie, that's my friend's name, and I devised the garden's association to Augustin's food bank and that organization really counts on the harvested veggies supplied to fill their pantry. We've fed a lot of people."
"Doesn't sound like a done deal quite yet, if the owner of the land and her siblings haven't made any kind of announcement," Nolan added. "I can see by the look on your face the garden means a lot to you. I hope things work out the way you'd like."
"Me too." Sherry returned her attention to her phone. She opened the second unread email. She sat up straighter when she read Amber Sherman's name attached to the message.
Subject: Mystery package delivery
I figured you'd be easier to reach by email rather than texting while you were in transit. A box was delivered to you here at the store, about half the size of a shoebox. Let's call it a baby shoebox. What's inside makes a soft rattle, like a bag of popcorn kernels, when I pick it up, so I wanted to peak your interest. I'm always excited to get a delivery, so I thought you might be too.
All for now,
Amber Sherman, Assistant Manager, the Ruggery
Sherry cocked her head, which, combined with the plane's bucking, sent her equilibrium for a ride. She dropped her phone.
Nolan kicked his leg out and saved the phone from a rough landing with a foot deflection. "More bad news? Maybe you should stop reading your email. It might be putting a damper on what should be your time of celebration."
"Good news this time. Either way, I'm trying to keep busy so I can get my mind off this blasted plane ride."
"Anything you care to share?" Nolan took a peek out the window. "Ugh, look at that storm."
The view was a solid wall of clouds. Nolan lowered the shade.
"Thanks for shutting that. Out of sight, out of mind is wishful thinking." Sherry exhaled. "I'll try to give you a short introduction so the story makes sense. Along with competing in cooking contests for more years than I care to admit, I work part-time at my father's hooked rug store. At a cook-off I was in, I made a wonderful friend, who, for various reasons, was in a perfect time of her life to make a location and career change, so she moved to Augustin to become an assistant manager at the Ruggery. That's the name of the store. While I was at the cook-off this week, Amber, that's her name, pulled double-duty taking on my hours as well. Anyway, she emailed to say I received a package at work, which I'm assuming contains seed contributions for the Community Garden. Probably doesn't sound as exciting to you as to me, but I can't wait to add them to my growing collection."
"Funny you should mention seeds. I've always thought of having a garden and I've made up my mind to start one this year. I've decided I'll start with growing my own lettuce and tomatoes. Imagine heading out the back door at dinnertime to pick whatever's ready. Seems like a great idea."
"I highly recommend gardening. The satisfaction of tending little seedlings as they grow into gorgeous vegetables will cure what ails you. When I put out the call for seed contributions, I didn't have much hope people would respond but, so far, so good." Sherry tucked her hair behind her ears and searched Nolan's eyes for any signs of interest in what she was saying.
He lowered his gaze when they exchanged glances.
"If you don't have space where you live, feel free to fill out an application on the Community Garden's website."
"Maybe I will. I'll take a look when I get home."
"You're not getting nervous about the storm, are you? I mean, you're playing that armrest like it's a bongo."
Nolan smiled. "No, no. Bad habit that drives my girlfriend crazy. She's always telling me to sit on my hands so she can have some peace and quiet. Sounds like you're a busy lady. You cook competitively and work at your father's store. You sit on the Community Garden board. I read the entire cook-off brochure cover to cover, and your bio mentioned you were a pickle purveyor at the Augustin farmer's market last summer too. I won't get personal and ask about a husband and kids, but if you have those, you're certainly swamped."
Sherry noted Nolan peered at her hand, presumably to check for a wedding ring.
"My pickle stand went the way of my husband. Both are in the hands of someone else. We divorced. My husband, not the pickle stand. Although, after a brief honeymoon period, my pickle stand and I parted ways, also. And, no kids. The woman who was grooming me to take over her pickle business came out of retirement and decided to take back the reins, which opened the door to me joining the garden board. You're right. I'm plenty busy."
"The cooking competition circuit seems an active mix of creativity, sport, challenge, and excitement. How do you keep from losing your motivation over the years?"
"I admit I may have. Only once or twice. I was involved in two mishaps at cook-offs. Each time I reconsidered continuing entering contests, but that feeling lasted about as long as it takes me to peel a butternut squash."
"I'm not sure. Is that a short amount of time or a long time?"
"Sorry. Short amount of time. I'm very fast at the task, even though there's a lot of muscle involved getting through the vegetable's tough skin and muscle strength isn't my forte. So, in a flash I picked my spatula back up and returned to work creating recipes."
Nolan lifted the window shade. "I was thinking, a huge team must be required to coordinate a cook-off as big as America's Good Taste. Fifty cooks, each representing their state. Do you have any idea what goes into getting a cooking competition up and running? I imagine the process is as complicated as a space shuttle launch."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Guilty as Charred"
Copyright © 2019 Devon Delaney.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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