It’s almost May, and some of the local ladies have organized a pagan celebration in the woods to welcome spring. But the evening goes terribly wrong when one of the attendees winds up dead, apparently poisoned by an herbal concoction prepared by Lucky’s grandfather, Jack.
Lucky’s sure her grandfather could not have made such a tragic mistake. But before she can clear him of suspicion, her best friend, Sophie, is diverted from planning her wedding to By the Spoonful chef Sage DuBois when she finds a dead man floating in the creek on her property. Now it’s up to Lucky to get both Sophie and Jack out of hot water before a killer stirs up more trouble…
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CONNIE ARCHER CONNIEARCHERMYSTERIES.COM FACEBOOK.COM/CONNIEARCHERMYSTERIES TWITTER: @SNOWFLAKEVT
THE WOMEN MOVED slowly, shuffling into the clearing in the woods, careful not to trip on the long white robes they had been instructed to wear. A few stole surreptitious glances at one or another of their group as they formed a loose semicircle before the slab of stone in the clearing. A chill wind blew through the trees, and the sound of beating wings came from above.
Cordelia Rank took her place at the designated altar. Behind her, a brazier flamed on the ancient rock. She surveyed the gathering critically. “Sisters, please! You can do better. Form a semicircle!” she ordered, indicating her wishes with a sweep of her arm. Each woman glanced to her left and right and, stepping carefully over the pine needles and damp earth, shifted position to form a more uniform shape.
Cecily Winters took a deep breath, wondering, not for the first time, whether joining the Snowflake Coven was such a good idea. Her sister, Marjorie, certainly hadn’t been happy about it. It had sounded just so wonderful when she had first heard of the plan. Beltane Eve, April 30, a night to celebrate the coming of spring and the first buds of May with a bonfire, feasting, candlelight and song. Their small iron container would have to do. A bonfire in the woods at midnight could be dangerous. Cecily shuddered involuntarily. The crackling flames formed eerie shadows in the night, flickering against the tree trunks. If only Cordelia hadn’t appointed herself high priestess, she thought, insufferable woman, it might have been fun.
At a nod from Cordelia, one of the group, holding a candle cupped in her hand, moved within the inner circumference of their small circle and lit the candles clutched in the hands of the other women. When all the candles were lit, Cordelia nodded.
“Now we begin,” she announced. She turned back to the stone altar and, raising her arms, spoke in ringing tones. “Mother Earth, we have gathered together here, in this wood, to honor you, to celebrate the light of coming spring. Beltane is a time for love and the union of souls, the union of minds and the union of bodies.”
Cecily looked up quickly. This was the first she had heard of the union of bodies. She glanced around the circle to see whether anyone else had noticed the phrase.
“We have been called to replenish the earth,” Cordelia continued. “Our fire and our candles will light the sacred union of fertility, as our pagan ancestors have done for centuries. We will assist in bringing the sun’s light to earth, so that the earth may awaken from its long winter sleep. Our bodies, our minds and our spirits will alight with joy. We are ready to cast away all the doubts and fears of the winter. Our dream will be of hope and harmony.”
Cecily’s nose was itching. The band of flowers in the headdress she wore was slipping down over her forehead. She needed to scratch, but holding the candle and her too-long robe together, she had no free hand. She moved her shoulder up and turned her head, rubbing her nose on her arm. Cordelia glared at her from the stone altar. Cecily dropped her arm but before she could stifle it, she erupted with a thunderous sneeze.
Cordelia sighed her disappointment. Addressing the women, she said, “We now dedicate our herbs to the glory of Mother Earth. Each of us shall drink of our May wine.” She turned to the woman on her left. “You, Sister, shall be the first to drink of our draught tonight.” Cordelia filled a shallow bowl from a cauldron that sat next to the fire. “With these herbs of sweet woodruff, strawberry and honey, you shall partake.”
One woman stepped forward and doused her candle on the stone altar. She grasped the bowl in both hands. Cordelia paused, about to speak, but before she could utter a word, the woman drank the brew in its entirety. Cordelia stared at her, then filled the bowl again as a second woman stepped forward.
A strangled sound came from the lips of the first woman to drink. She gasped, clutching her throat. Her eyes grew large in panic as she tried to speak. Her chest heaved with the effort to breathe. She dropped to the ground as her legs crumpled beneath her. The others watched helplessly as the woman lay before them, retching and gasping for air.
“Agnes!” Emily cried out.
“What’s wrong?” Cecily asked.
Someone replied in alarm. “She can’t breathe. Help her!”
“Let me through. I know CPR.” Emily Rathbone pushed the women aside. They stepped back and stared as Agnes continued to gasp. Emily struggled to lift Agnes’s head and open her jaw while Agnes writhed violently.
“Help me hold her,” Emily shouted. Two of the women knelt. One held Agnes’s arms and the other, her legs. Emily tilted Agnes’s head and checked her throat. “There’s nothing there. Nothing’s interfering with her breathing. Maybe it’s an allergic reaction.” She deftly rolled Agnes to her side. Agnes’s head fell forward, her movements still violent. She retched again and whispered, “Help me.” Then her body went limp.
Complete stillness filled the clearing. No one spoke. Someone finally whispered, “Is she breathing?”
Emily felt for a pulse while the women watched in silence. She looked up at their concerned faces. “Agnes is gone.”
LUCKY JAMIESON PUSHED the button on the CD player behind the counter, and a quiet guitar instrumental filled the restaurant. She heard a tap on the glass of the front door. Elizabeth Dove stood outside and waved. Lucky hurried over to let her in.
“I guess I’m too early,” Elizabeth said.
“Not at all. Come on in. Just getting ready to open.” Elizabeth followed Lucky to the counter. “What can I get you?”
“Just a cup of coffee. I’ve already had breakfast.” Lucky was always happy to see Elizabeth, especially when they had a few moments to chat. Elizabeth had been a dear friend of her family. Since Lucky’s parents’ sudden death in a car accident, Elizabeth had been a surrogate mother to her—renting her an apartment and giving her a car to drive. Returning home to Snowflake and the By the Spoonful Soup Shop would have been so much harder without Elizabeth’s love and support. Retired now from teaching, Elizabeth had been elected Mayor of Snowflake, Vermont, and consequently had little time to herself.
“Hello, Sage.” Elizabeth called out to Sage, the Spoonful’s chef, already hard at work in the kitchen. Sage peeked through the hatch and smiled a greeting.
Lucky set a place mat, napkin and silverware on the counter for Elizabeth and poured a mug of coffee. “A little cream?”
“Yes, thank you, dear.” Elizabeth stirred the cream into her mug. “Where’s your grandfather?”
“Jack’s gone to Lincoln Falls to pick up some supplies. He’ll be back in an hour or so.”
Lucky looked at her quizzically. “Is something wrong?”
“Well, I’m the bearer of some bad news, I’m afraid. You know that women’s group that Cordelia Rank formed?”
“Not really. I heard there were some meetings at the library—something like that.”
“Well, apparently Cordelia organized a May Day celebration in the woods last night. I gather it morphed into something that . . . Well, some people have dubbed it a coven, with Cordelia officiating. But last night . . . one of the women died suddenly.”
“Oh no! Who?”
“A woman named Agnes Warner. I didn’t really know her. She lived outside of town with her husband.”
Lucky thought for a moment. “I think I know who she is but I haven’t seen her in years. My parents might have known her.” She leaned over the counter on her elbows. “That’s terrible. How did it happen?”
“Well . . . that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Nate Edgerton called me early this morning to let me know. The women brewed some wine with herbs that Jack had picked for them and they’re suspecting—mind you, just suspecting—that Agnes might have . . . Well, I guess they’re thinking she had a bad reaction to the herbs.”
“What are you saying? That Jack’s herbs had something to do with this?”
“No, not necessarily. I didn’t mean to alarm you. I just wanted to give you a heads-up about this. She could have had a reaction to medication, or a stroke or heart attack . . . anything . . .” Elizabeth continued. “But Nate will probably want to talk to Jack at some point.”
Lucky sighed. “Well, I can’t imagine that anything Jack gave them caused any harm, but I appreciate your telling me.”
Lucky heard a knock at the front door. “Oh, I forgot to unlock.” She hurried to the entrance, flipped over the OPEN sign and opened the door. A slight woman dressed in a long brown skirt and sweater entered. Her dark hair was streaked with gray and pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck. She wore thick eyeglasses and carried a small bundle of flyers.
Elizabeth swiveled on her stool. “Hello, Greta!” she called out.
Greta smiled nervously and approached the counter.
Elizabeth turned back. “Lucky, have you met Greta?”
Lucky shook her head.
“Greta Dorn . . . Lucky Jamieson.” Elizabeth turned to Lucky. “You and she are neighbors in your building now.”
“Oh, how nice.” Lucky’s apartment was just around the corner on Maple Street in a four-unit building that Elizabeth owned.
Lucky smiled. “Nice to meet you, Greta. Welcome to the building.” Lucky offered her hand across the counter. She realized upon looking closer that the woman was much younger than she had first appeared, perhaps late thirties or early forties. “Can I get you something? Coffee?”
Greta accepted the handshake, shifting the bundle of flyers to her other arm. “Oh, no. Thank you. I just stopped in to see if I could leave some of our flyers for the library drive with you.”
“Of course. I’ll put one in the window and we can offer them to people when they pay at the cash register. Are you volunteering at the library?”
“Uh, yes, just helping out with whatever I can.”
“That’s great. You’ll have to stop back whenever you have a minute.”
Greta nodded. “Thank you.” She hesitated as if unsure where to go. “I’ll be on my way now.” She turned and hurried out to the sidewalk.
Lucky turned to Elizabeth. “She’s a nervous little thing.”
Elizabeth nodded. “She is. Greta’s a widow and rather lonely, I think—at loose ends. She was living with a relative for several years in a neighboring town but decided to move closer in. I think she’ll be a good neighbor.”
“She’s volunteering at the library, she said?” Lucky asked.
Elizabeth looked up quickly. “Oh. You mean she might have been with those women last night?”
“Hmm. I have no idea but I’m sure we’ll be finding out all about it.” Elizabeth took a last sip of her coffee. “Oh, before I forget. The cleaning company for the building has misplaced some keys. It’s very worrying. You haven’t seen anything like that around, have you?”
“No, but I’ll keep my eyes open.”
“Thanks, dear. It’s just not safe. If they don’t turn up, I’ll really have to have all the locks changed.” Elizabeth dropped her napkin on the place mat. “And now I must be going. I’ll see you later.” Elizabeth blew her a kiss and headed for the door.
Lucky cleared away the coffee mug and finished laying place mats and napkins along the counter. This was her favorite time of day at the Spoonful. Soup was bubbling on the stove, breads warming in the oven, gentle music playing, the pleasant clatter of Sage working in the kitchen and a few moments of peace and quiet before the busy day began.
“Hey, Lucky,” Sage called from the kitchen.
Lucky turned and peeked through the hatch. “Sophie says she’ll stop by this afternoon. She wants to show you something.”
Lucky smiled at him. Sage looked so relaxed and happy. He was about to become a newlywed. He and Sophie, her best friend from childhood, had decided to hold their wedding later in the month. Sophie’s favorite flower was lilac, and since Jack’s large garden was completely bordered by well-established lilac bushes soon to be in bloom this month, they had asked to hold their private ceremony there.
“What’s the surprise?” she asked. “Do you know?”
He smiled mysteriously. “I know, but I’m sworn to secrecy. You’ll just have to wait.”
A COUPLE OF hours later, the busiest part of the morning rush was over. Only a few customers remained. Lucky sighed as she cleared off the counter, wishing she could be outdoors. Sunlight was streaming through the yellow gingham curtains at the windows and reflecting off the wide pine floorboards. Several vases of forsythias, long branches covered with small, bright yellow flowers, filled the large front window. The first of May promised to be a perfect spring day but certainly not a quiet one.
“Heathens! That’s what they are,” Flo Sullivan announced loudly to the entire restaurant, her halo of orange frizz wiggling violently.
Lucky sighed. Flo had been holding court for the past hour. Not surprisingly, the news of Agnes Warner’s death had spread throughout the village of Snowflake. Lucky wondered whether others held the same opinion of Cordelia’s group.
Flo spun on her stool at the counter and surveyed the room. “This may be a terrible thing to say, but those women, messing around with occult forces, what did they expect? They got no better than they deserved.”
Barry Sanders and Hank Northcross, at their usual corner table, looked up and then away, studiously avoiding becoming embroiled in Flo’s harangue.
“I was raised in the Church,” Flo announced. Lucky remained silent and continued to clear dishes away. “And the Pope himself says he’s very upset about this rise in idolatry. It’s just not normal. And why someone like Cordelia Rank would dream up something like this, I just can’t imagine.”
Lucky, from the corner of her eye, saw the swinging door from the corridor open a crack. Lucky’s grandfather Jack peeked through the opening an instant before Flo swiveled back to the counter. Taking in the scene, he quickly ducked back before Flo spotted him. Lucky caught the movement and stifled a laugh. Flo had nursed an interest in Jack for a long time—to no avail—and Jack had become expert at avoiding Flo’s flirtations. Lucky could imagine him now, listening on the other side of the door and gnashing his teeth until the coast was clear.
Flo leaned across the counter. In a conspiratorial tone, she said, “I haven’t seen your grandfather yet, Lucky. Where is he hiding?”
Lucky cleared her throat and struggled to keep a straight face. “Well . . . uh . . . I think he was planning to pick up some supplies in Lincoln Falls this morning. He won’t be back for a while.”
“Ah. Well. In that case, I’ll be on my way.”
As Flo stood, a large shape blocked the sunlight at the front door. The bell jingled and Horace Winthorpe entered, followed by his dog, Cicero.
Flo sensed a fresh audience. “What do you think, Horace?” she hollered across the room.
“Eh?” Horace approached the counter, taking a stool one seat away from Flo. “Did I miss something?” he inquired.
“Well, surely you’ve heard, haven’t you? About Agnes Warner and that disgusting devil worship going on in the woods last night?”
Horace’s eyebrows rose. “Oh, yes, of course. Everyone at the market was talking about it. I’m sure the whole town’s heard by now. But it’s hardly devil worship, you know.”
“Hmph.” Flo sniffed. “I don’t know what else to call it.”
“From what I’ve heard”—he smiled and nodded as Lucky poured a mug of coffee and placed it before him—“they were merely celebrating the rites of spring. Beltane. The first of May. Nothing sinister at all about that. In fact . . .” Lucky could see that Horace was warming to his subject. A retired history professor, Horace was erudite on many subjects. “Many European and Scandinavian cultures to this day celebrate that date. Of course, everyone now conveniently chooses to overlook its pagan roots.”
Flo sniffed again. “Is that so?” She stared critically at Horace.
“Why, yes. In some countries, it’s known as Walpurgisnacht—Walpurgis Night—particularly in cold northern countries, like Latvia or Sweden or Finland, but others as well. It was, and still is, an important festival because it represented the driving out of winter and the inception of warm weather.”
“And just who was this Walpurga man?” Flo replied suspiciously.
“She,” Horace replied, “was a missionary of the sixth century. Saint Walpurga. The fact that the festival is named after a woman rather betrays its pagan roots, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know about that. I’ve never heard of a Saint Walpurga, but it still just doesn’t seem right to me, holding that kind of thing in the woods!”
Horace shrugged. “I’m rather sorry I wasn’t invited. I would have enjoyed it—to see how Cordelia and the other women interpreted the festivities. Of course, I’m sure it didn’t involve bonfires and orgies, but interesting nonetheless.”
“I should hope not.” Flo sniffed and hopped off her stool. “Well, Horace, I’m sure you know a lot more about all that than me, but I still don’t approve of those shenanigans.” She turned back to Lucky and smiled. “You’ll let Jack know I stopped by, dear, won’t you?”
Lucky nodded. “I sure will. He’ll be sorry he missed you.” Lucky cringed inwardly, hoping Jack hadn’t overheard this last remark.
Flo leaned forward and whispered, “I know how busy the lovebirds must be by now”—she nodded her head in the direction of the kitchen—“but maybe you could give them a little nudge?”
Lucky stared blankly at Flo. “Lovebirds?”
“Yes,” she said. “I know they’re busy, but they need to get a move on. I check my mailbox every day but I haven’t seen my invitation yet.”
Lucky’s eyes widened. “Ah . . .” was all she could think to reply. “I . . . uh . . . I’ll pass that on.” Flo was expecting an invitation to Sophie’s wedding? Lucky shook her head. Whatever had given her that idea? Or was it a ploy to get closer to Jack?
“You’ll take care of that, won’t you?” Flo remarked as she headed for the front door and slammed it behind her.
A few moments later, Jack poked his head through the swinging door. He glared at Lucky. “I’ll be sorry?”
Lucky had all she could do not to burst out laughing at Jack’s distress. He shook his head, muttering to himself, and joined Horace at the counter. Jack held a paper napkin in his hand. Cicero made almost human sounds as he anticipated a treat. Jack unfolded the napkin and held out a generous hunk of chicken. Cicero wolfed it down instantly. Horace had inherited Cicero after the dog’s original owner had died under terrible circumstances. Cicero had come by his name because of his efforts to talk, albeit in a language humans couldn’t possibly understand. Nonetheless, Cicero gave it his best effort and managed to get most of his desires fulfilled, particularly his love for restaurant treats.
“Horace!” Barry Sanders called out from his corner table.
Horace turned on his stool. Hank raised his coffee mug to Horace in greeting. “Why didn’t ya chatter on some more about whatever pagan thing she was going on about. I thought she’d never leave!”
“Oh, I apologize if I extended the torture.” Horace smiled shyly. “I just thought she needed a dose of reality, not to get so worked up about a spring festival. That’s all.”
Barry smiled back. “S’all right, Horace. Just pullin’ your leg.”
The bell over the door jingled once again. Nate Edgerton, Snowflake’s Chief of Police, stood in the doorway and surveyed the restaurant. Lucky’s heart skipped a beat, remembering her conversation with Elizabeth. Nate spotted Jack at the counter and walked over to him.
“Jack, how are you?” He remained standing.
“Good, Nate. Have a seat.”
“Uh.” Nate cleared his throat. “Could we have a quick word . . . in private?”
Jack, surprised, looked at Nate. “Why, sure. What’s going on?”
Lucky noticed the dark circles under Nate’s eyes. He had probably been up all night dealing with the death in the woods. “You can use the office if you like, Nate,” she said.
Nate nodded and pushed through the swinging door to the corridor. Jack rose and followed him. A shudder of anxiety ran up Lucky’s spine.
“Horace, I’ll be back in a minute.” She wiped her hands on a dish towel and headed down the corridor, entering the restaurant’s tiny office. She caught the last of Nate’s remark.
“. . . we think she might have been poisoned.”
LUCKY SAW THE stunned look on Jack’s face. She glanced at Nate, a question on the tip of her tongue.
“Poisoned?” Jack asked.
“Well, we don’t know for sure. It’s possible she had some sort of allergic reaction to whatever was in that drink they brewed,” Nate replied.
“What are you saying, Nate?” Lucky grasped Jack’s hand, a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
“Apparently, these ladies brewed their own wine. ‘May wine’ they called it. According to Cordelia Rank.” Nate sighed heavily. Lucky was sure Nate hadn’t had an easy time dealing with the prickly Cordelia. The woman was undoubtedly making his job more difficult than it already was.
“According to Cordelia, they mulled it with herbs that Jack had given them. That’s why I need to know exactly what was in that mix.” He turned back to Jack. “Do you remember what you gave them?”
Jack’s jaw dropped open. “Nate, I . . .” He shook his head. “Just what I grow in my back garden and some herbs I gathered near the woods. They asked me for woodruff and strawberry leaves and I made up a basket for them.”
“That’s all? Woodruff and strawberries?”
“That’s it. Both harmless. I had Sage double-check the recipe for me. Woodruff’s only harmful if you take it in huge amounts; then it might make somebody sick, but definitely not kill them. It’s just used for flavoring. And the strawberries that I grow, I eat myself. Nothing wrong with them.”
“What about the leaves of the plant? Are they edible?”
“Pretty sure they are. Of course, I don’t eat the leaves myself, but some people brew teas from them. I don’t think they’d harm anyone, certainly not cause anybody to die.” Jack rubbed his forehead distractedly. “You don’t think . . .” Jack trailed off.
“Is it possible you maybe made a mistake?” Nate questioned gently, but Jack had no response. “Maybe you thought you picked woodruff, but you picked something else?”
Jack shook his head. “I was real careful, Nate. I’m sure I was.” Lucky saw a fleeting moment of doubt cross Jack’s face.
She felt the need to step into the exchange. “I’m sure he’s right, Nate. Jack is very careful in his garden, and he certainly knows his plants. I doubt he’d make a mistake like that. Besides, could a poisonous plant cause someone to die so quickly?”
“Generally, no. Although I imagine some toxins could cause a fast reaction.” Nate turned to Jack. “You wouldn’t mind if I stopped by, maybe tomorrow or the next day, and had a look? And maybe you could show me where you found the woodruff?”
“No. Of course not. Happy to.”
Nate nodded. “Like I said, it’s possible Agnes had an allergic reaction to something. It’s also possible she had a heart attack or a stroke. We just don’t know at this point. I’ve got a call in to a plant specialist—and if there’s anything left over, I’ll have them check any leaves that weren’t used up. The morgue can examine her stomach contents and what we have of the wine and any substances in the containers or the bowls. Whatever caused her death acted pretty quick. I suppose it’s a good thing nobody else was hurt.”
Jack nodded but remained silent, his forehead furrowed in worry.
“What about Cordelia? Perhaps she added something she shouldn’t have. Have you questioned her carefully?”
“Yes, I have. I’m certain she didn’t get creative with her recipe. Her husband confirmed her story.” Nate stood. “I’ll be on my way, then.” He stopped at the door. “Jack, I’m sure you’re right. Whatever killed this lady coulda been anything. Who knows? I just had to ask. I don’t want you worrying yourself about it.”
Lucky turned in her chair. “Has Elias had a chance to examine her yet?” Elias Scott, the love of Lucky’s life, was the only doctor in Snowflake and also served as the town’s coroner. “Did he have anything to say?”
Nate scratched his head. “He couldn’t be definite, but he was leaning toward some form of poisoning or allergic reaction, given the vomiting. But he didn’t want to hazard an opinion until the pathologist completes an autopsy.”
“I see.” Lucky glanced at her grandfather. Jack still hadn’t said a word. “Thanks, Nate.”
“See you later.” Nate shut the door behind him.
Jack was staring at the floor.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, Jack. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the herbs you gave them.”
His face was pale. “What if I made a mistake?”
“Jack, you’ve been doing this for years. You didn’t. I’m sure you didn’t.” She squeezed his hand in encouragement.
“My eyesight isn’t so good these days.”
“That may be, but I doubt you’d have anything poisonous growing in your backyard. And whatever you gathered near the woods was fine too.”
“Lots of everyday plants and flowers are poisonous, you know, very dangerous.” He took a deep breath. Jack still didn’t seem convinced. “You better get back out front, my girl. You’ll have more customers by now. It’s just gone four bells.”
“I will, but I plan to talk to Cordelia myself as soon as possible.” She squeezed his hand one last time. Even in times of stress, Jack still told time by the bells. It was second nature for him. And she was one of the very few people who could interpret his references. Most of Jack’s life had been spent in the Navy and, for him, the walls were still the bulkhead and the floors, the deck. His health had improved a great deal over the past year when his symptoms had been diagnosed as a vitamin deficiency. But from his days in the Pacific in World War II, he suffered from a post-traumatic stress disorder generally set off by stress or, particularly, the sight of blood. The last thing she wanted was for any suspicions to linger about him or for him to worry he had played a part in anyone’s death.
Lucky returned to the counter. Janie and Meg, the Spoonful’s two young waitresses, were busy. Meg had covered the counter in Lucky’s absence, and Janie was taking orders from a few new arrivals. Horace had already gone on his way, and Barry and Hank were settling in for a game of chess at their table. She quelled an unsettled feeling in her chest. Jack couldn’t possibly have made a fatal mistake. She was sure of it.
LUCKY PUSHED HER way through the untrimmed bushes that threatened to block the drive. Sophie had rushed on ahead.
“Come on, slowpoke. Hurry up!” Sophie called gaily from the top of the hill.
A small twig struck Lucky’s face. She brushed it away, huffing the rest of the way to the clearing at the top of the dirt drive where Sophie’s childhood home stood.
When Lucky caught up with her, Sophie spun in a circle, her arms held straight out. “Here it is! Remember?”
Lucky laughed. “Of course I do. How could I forget? I always loved to come to your house.”
“Well, it’s pretty basic but it was home when we were all kids.”
Lucky was an only child and had always envied Sophie’s noisy family. Sophie was the baby of the brood, her three siblings years older, but all of them were welcoming and kind to Lucky when her mother would allow her to visit.
Sophie grabbed her hand and led her up the wooden stairway to the front porch and through the open doorway. “My grandfather built this. Isn’t it incredible?” She pointed to the huge stone fireplace in the front room, a fireplace that was large enough to grace a mansion.
“It sure is. We used to roast marshmallows in that when we were little kids.”
“And sleep in front of it in our sleeping bags too. He built it all by himself with river rock. It’s gorgeous and just as solid as the day he made it.” She spun on her heel and held her arms out. “This is what I wanted to show you.” Sophie’s expression grew serious. “Sage and I have decided we’re going to live right here. We’ll have our very own home right on the property.”
“Well, mostly. Structurally, what’s here is pretty sound. We can replace some of the wood that’s not so good. We’ll extend the porch and knock out a few walls inside. Sage is having a friend draw up some plans. New roof too. There are three tiny bedrooms. We want to open up the inside and add a kitchen and another bedroom toward the rear of the property. It’ll be a proper house. It’ll take a while ’cause we plan to do the work ourselves, but we can do it. It shouldn’t be that hard,” Sophie said hopefully.
“What about your brother?” Sophie’s father had abandoned the family years before. After that, her mother became sick and died after a long illness. Her older sister had taken the lead in raising Sophie, and then she in turn left home after Sophie graduated from high school. That sister died only a few years later. One brother had been killed in a car accident. Her remaining brother, Rick, at least twelve years Sophie’s senior, was the last of her siblings.
“I’ve written to Rick—e-mailed him, I should say. He’s over in New York State right now, or at least he was the last I heard. Sage and I have both been saving our money and I’ve asked Rick if we could buy him out. I know he doesn’t want to come back to Snowflake, so I don’t see why he’d care. We’d give him a fair price. It’s just him and me now—we’re the last of the family. I’m sure he has no interest in living here again, so hopefully, nothing will go wrong.” Sophie watched her friend’s face carefully. “What do you think, Lucky? Do you think it’s a crazy idea?”
“No. Not at all. I think it’s a fantastic idea.”
“Rick hates this place. Even more so after my mother died. But I don’t feel that way at all. Maybe I’m trying to re-create something I didn’t have as a kid—security, a feeling of safety. Maybe that’s why I’m so attached to this place. I look at this fireplace and I see everything that’s possible.”
“It’ll take a lot of work . . . and money.”
“I know, but we can stay where we are and work on the house in our spare time. It’ll take a year or two to get it livable, but it’s possible. I just can’t stand the thought of letting my grandfather’s chimney and fireplace go to waste. And I can just picture Sage and me cuddling up in front of a roaring fire in the winter.”
Lucky gazed silently at the five-foot-tall hearth surrounded by a wall of rounded gray rock. “What about your dad? Have you or Rick ever had any contact with him?”
Sophie shook her head. “Never. I can’t speak for Rick, but I’ve never heard from him.” She shrugged. “And nobody in the family would even mention his name after he left. I finally gave up asking. It was like I was the only one who cared. It’s funny you should ask, though. I’ve found myself thinking about him a lot lately. Or at least what I can remember about him. Maybe because my life is going through such a big change now. I was so young at the time, but I always felt like the heart went out of this place when he left. Do you think I’m crazy to take this on?”
“Not at all. I’d probably feel just the same if I were in your shoes.”
Sophie hesitated a moment. “There’s something else too.”
Sophie took a deep breath. “I got a letter from a lawyer for the Resort. They’re interested in buying this property and the acreage we have on the other side of the hill. They want to extend a ski run, and the parcels on the other side of the hill are right in their way. I haven’t contacted them yet, but they want to meet with me.”
“Really? Would you want to sell to the Resort?”
Sophie shrugged. “It’s interesting, kind of, to know you own something your employer wants, isn’t it? But there’s no way I’ll sell the land that the house is on. If I did, the Resort would just mow everything down. Truth is, they don’t need this portion; it’s the parcels on the other side they need to expand that run.” During the winter months, Sophie worked as a ski instructor for the Snowflake Resort. Summer was on its way and she would have some part-time employment at the Resort giving swimming lessons, but during the warmer months she was much more able to set her own schedule.
“Would that interfere with your view?”
“Not really. Those parcels are hidden behind us. I doubt we’d even be able to see a run over there. And we’d still have plenty of land around the house for privacy.”
“If you sold that land, it would solve your money situation, wouldn’t it? You’d have the cash to remodel the house.”
“True.” Sophie picked up a stick from the hearth and poked at the ashes. “I’m just scared their lawyers have been in contact with Rick. They must have researched the title to know about me. They’ve probably contacted him by now too.” Sophie grimaced. “I’m just hoping they don’t want to buy the whole property. If that’s the case, they’d be able to offer Rick more than Sage and I ever could.”
“Sounds like you’re getting ahead of yourself. Why don’t you wait till you hear from your brother?”
“It’s been a few weeks since I e-mailed him. I’m really starting to worry that he hasn’t gotten back to me.”
“Have you heard much from him over the years?”
Sophie shrugged. “Rarely. Now and then. He’s a funny guy—kind of a lone wolf. Of all of them, he and I have probably been the least close. So I can’t really say I know my brother at all. He was gone before I hit junior high.”
Lucky checked her watch. “Hey, I better get back to the Spoonful.”
Sophie laughed. “How many bells is it?” she asked, referring to Jack’s method of telling time.
“Just gone six bells.” Lucky smiled.
Sophie looked down at the soot on her hands. “Give me a minute. I’ll rinse off my hands in the creek. No running water in here now.” She left by the back door and Lucky watched her from the window as she scurried down the slope to the creek that ran below the house.
Lucky shut the front door behind her and walked down the wooden steps at the front of the house. She perched on a large rock at the top of the drive to wait for Sophie’s return. She was thrilled that Sophie and Sage were getting married and had a chance at their very own home. She leaned back and breathed in the warm spring air. Wildflowers were blooming over the hillside. The setting was inexpressibly peaceful. She felt her shoulders relax and closed her eyes, letting the sun warm her face.
Sophie’s screams cut through the air.
LUCKY CLAMBERED OFF the rock and raced toward the sound, scrambling down the rise. She tripped and almost slid the rest of the way. Sophie stood at the bank of the creek, staring at a dark green bundle wedged between two rocks floating in the water.
“Sophie?” Lucky approached.
Sophie turned to her without speaking and pointed at the dark mass in the creek.
The dark green bundle was a man’s jacket floating and inflated like a balloon. Lucky recognized the shape of a white hand under the water. Denim jeans covered a pair of legs that protruded from the jacket. A dead man was bobbing in the water.
She touched Sophie’s shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Sophie gulped and nodded. “I just didn’t realize what I was looking at.” They stood in silence staring at the corpse for several moments.
“Is he really dead?” Sophie asked.
Lucky nodded. “Looks that way.” Burbling water gushed over the rocks. The body had been snagged by an overhanging tree branch entangled in the coat.
“We need to check, don’t we?” Sophie said. “What if he’s just unconscious?”
“I really think we’re too late.” Lucky turned away and grabbed a long, sturdy branch that lay on the ground. “But I think we should have a look at him.”
Sophie nodded. “Go ahead.”
Carefully maneuvering the long branch, Lucky snagged the edge of a pocket and pushed gently. The body rolled over slowly. The man’s face was a mask of bloody flesh.
“Oh, dear God,” Sophie groaned. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Okay. You’ll be okay.” Lucky dropped the branch. “Let’s leave him and call Nate. We shouldn’t touch anything.”
“How did he get here?”
“He must have washed down from the top of the hill. Maybe he got banged up on the rocks or . . .”
“Animals? Maybe.” Lucky leaned in closer for a better look.
“Come on. I can’t look at it.” Sophie grabbed Lucky’s hand and started to drag her back up the hill.
Lucky could barely pull her gaze away. She turned and let Sophie lead her back to the house. “We have to call Nate right away.”
* * *
NATE EDGERTON ARRIVED on the scene fifteen minutes later, looking as if he still hadn’t slept from the night before. Bradley Moffitt, his deputy, also appearing very pale, rode with him.
Lucky walked toward the cruiser as Nate climbed out. Sophie remained seated on the steps, her hands covering her face.
“Where is he?” Nate asked.
“Take that path right there.” Lucky pointed to an opening between the trees. “He’s in the creek down below.”
Nate nodded and gestured to Bradley to follow.
Lucky joined Sophie on the steps of the battered front porch as Nate and his deputy disappeared from sight. Lucky pulled out her cell phone to call the Spoonful to let them know she’d be delayed. She only hoped she’d be able to get cell service from their location. She breathed a sigh of relief when Sage answered the phone after a few rings. She quickly filled him in about what was happening and told him not to worry. She promised they’d tell him everything when they returned.
A few minutes later Lucky heard the crashing of branches. Nate Edgerton reappeared on the path between the trees. His shoes and pant legs were soaked to his knees. His complexion was gray, and dark circles outlined his eyes. He sat down heavily at the edge of the stairs and pulled out a notebook. “What brought you two up here?”
Sophie spoke first. “I wanted to show Lucky my mom’s property. It’s been a long time since she’s been here. Sage and I are hoping to buy out my brother’s interest and redo the house.” Sophie’s hands shook. “I thought it’d be a fun surprise to tell Lucky about it.”
Nate whistled. “That’ll take a lot of doing.”
“I know. But we want it to be a real home again. And I don’t want my grandfather’s chimney and fireplace to go to waste.”
Nate nodded. “I can understand that. It’s a beauty, all right. All river rock, all perfectly joined too.” He made a few scribbles in his notebook. “I wish you lots of luck. Don’t let this thing today get in your way. I’m sure we’ll find out who this man is and I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation how he ended up in your backyard. What made you go down there, anyway?” He nodded in the direction of the creek.
“My hands were all sooty from the fireplace. And there’s no running water now, so I just wanted to wash up.” She looked down at her half-clean hands and rubbed them self-consciously on her jeans.
“Elias is on his way,” Nate said to Lucky. “I don’t know what he can tell us. Given the way this guy looks, it’s hard to say what killed him.”
“Do you think he could have fallen and hit his head and washed down this far?”
“Possible.” He looked at both women carefully. “Anything about him either of you recognized?”
Sophie shook her head violently. “Nate, there wasn’t anything to recognize. I’ve never seen anything like that.”
“I’ll bet you haven’t. Sorry you had to discover him, but if you two hadn’t come along, well . . . who knows when he would have been found. Coulda been there for months, maybe years. At least we got him when there might still be some identifying marks.”
They all turned as a car approached up the dirt drive. Lucky recognized Elias’s silver sedan. He climbed out and walked toward them, reaching down to place a protective arm around Lucky’s shoulders. “Are you all right?”
Lucky just nodded.
“Sophie? How are you doing?” he asked.
“I’ll be okay, Elias. Just a bad shock.”
Nate gestured toward the path that ran down to the creek. “You’ll find Bradley down there.”
Elias nodded. “I’ll be back up as soon as I can.”
When Elias was out of sight, Lucky asked, “What do you think happened to him, Nate?”
“Don’t know. He could have slipped and fallen in farther upstream. Maybe knocked unconscious and drowned. But . . .” He trailed off. “I don’t know. That damage to his face . . .” Nate shook his head in disbelief. “Doesn’t seem like the rocks could’ve done that.”
“Is there any identification on him?”
“Nothing I could find. No ID, no wallet, which is pretty strange. We pulled him out of the water for now. Looks like he’s maybe been in there a few days. Once Elias has a look, I’ll have Bradley wait for the coroner’s van to get over here from Lincoln Falls.” He ran a hand through his thick gray hair. “I don’t know what’s going on anymore. Two deaths in less than twelve hours.” He stood slowly, holding a hand against his lower back. “Why don’t you two go back to town? We’ve got this covered.”
Lucky agreed. She was still unnerved by their discovery. “Tell Elias I’ll catch up with him later?”
Nate nodded and watched as they climbed into Sophie’s car and reversed onto the road. Sophie was silent on the drive back to town.
Lucky glanced over. “You’re very quiet all of a sudden. You sure you’re okay?”
Sophie’s jaw was clenched. “This feels like a bad omen, Lucky.”
“Don’t even say that. It’s horrible, but it’s probably an accident. It has nothing to do with you—or with Sage.”
Sophie shivered. “I only hope you’re right.”
SAGE STEPPED OUT to the corridor as soon as he heard the back door slam. “What happened?” He looked as if he had been worrying since he had received the phone call. “Isn’t Sophie with you?”
“She’s fine, but she wanted to go straight home.”
“Tell me everything.”
“Sophie walked down to the creek to wash her hands and she found a man—dead, floating in the water.”
“A dead man? Who?”
“Nobody knows. And Nate said he couldn’t find any identification at all.”
“Look, will you be okay if I take off a little early? I just want to make sure Sophie’s all right.”
“Sure, you go ahead. Janie and Meg are here. I’ll man the kitchen and they can take care of the front. You go home.”
“Thanks, Lucky. I just don’t want to leave you in the lurch.”
“You’re not. Go ahead. Where’s Jack, by the way?”
“Uh . . . he left about an hour ago. Didn’t say where he was going.”
“Really? That’s odd. Was he okay?”
“Just very quiet. Like something was on his mind.”
“Ah. I’ll bet I know what it is.” She sighed. “I’ll catch up with him later. Too much stuff is happening all of a sudden. Uh, Sage, can you wait just a minute? I need to make a phone call before you go.”
“Sure, I’ll wait.”
Excerpted from "Ladle to the Grave"
Copyright © 2015 Connie Archer.
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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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