From the author of The Pickled Piper comes another Pickled and Preserved Mystery...
Piper Lamb knows how to make fruits and vegetables keep for months. Unfortunately, it’s the people around her who are expiring too soon…
After her fiancé left her, Piper came to Cloverdale to rebuild her life and open up her shop, Piper’s Picklings, to sell pickles and preserves. When her ex decides to drop in for a visit—just as things are heating up between her and a local Christmas tree farmer—Piper finds herself in a jam.
But there are other visitors to worry about…
An Italian soccer team is set to play the Cloverdale All-Stars in an exhibition game. Their manager, Raffaele Conti, was a bitter rival of Piper’s dill supplier, local farmer Gerald Standley. After Conti is found dead in Standley’s field, Piper must work to clear Gerald’s name and find out who relished killing Raffaele before the town is soured by another death.
About the Author
Mary Ellen Hughes is the author of the Craft Corner Mysteries, including Wreath of Deception, String of Lies, and Paper-Thin Alibi, as well as the Maggie Olenski Mysteries. She lives in Maryland with her husband, Terry, who has long provided her with bounties of homegrown vegetables for preserving and pickling as well as unique inspirations for mysteries. Mary Ellen is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.
Read an Excerpt
“Are you sitting down?” Amy asked when Piper picked up.
“Why?” Piper, who’d been standing to check her supply of canning jars, didn’t immediately reach for a chair. Though she was surprised to hear from her assistant that day, Amy’s tone wasn’t warning of deeply upsetting news, such as anything happening to Aunt Judy or Uncle Frank. It did sound serious, though.
“My dad was called out early this morning.”
“Oh?” Piper decided to ease over to one of her tall stools after all. Anything involving the sheriff was bound to be bad.
“It’s Raffaele Conti.” Amy paused. “He’s dead.”
Piper sucked in her breath. “What happened?” she asked, hoping it would be of natural causes—perhaps a sudden heart attack, or even a car accident, both terrible, of course, but still natural.
“I don’t know many details,” Amy said. “But Conti was found in Gerald Standley’s dill field.”
“The dill field!”
“Right in the middle of it.” Amy said. She then blew away the last of Piper’s hopes. “He was shot.”
Piper Lamb walked over to the front window of her shop, Piper’s Picklings, for about the twentieth time that morning.
“I’ve got to stop this,” she muttered, “or I’ll wear a groove in the floor.” Scott Littleton was arriving that day. Typically, her ex-fiancé had neglected to give her a precise time, but he’d be showing up after months of travel about the globe to “find himself.” Piper didn’t know if he’d run across the real Scott Littleton during that time. But she did know he’d find a very different Piper Lamb from the woman he’d once been engaged to.
Piper was certain there was little trace of that unassuming girl who had worked at an unfulfilling job in the New York State tax office, and who had waited much too long for a foot-dragging fiancé to agree on a date for their wedding. Nor did she bear any resemblance to the Piper who had once regularly deferred to her fiancé’s opinions on things that affected her own life. The very thought now made her cringe.
Since she’d returned to Cloverdale, the upstate New York town where she’d spent many happy childhood summers with Aunt Judy and Uncle Frank, Piper knew she’d become a self-sufficient and competent businesswoman as well as a person who spent her days doing what she loved. In her case, that happened to be running a shop that offered customers everything they’d need for deliciously pickling or preserving every vegetable and fruit on God’s green earth, as well as happily doing a fair share of the same herself.
Scott, however, seemed convinced she’d been simply occupying herself with a little hobby to keep from missing him too much until he decided to return. No matter that she’d explained multiple times by phone, text, and e-mail that she considered their relationship over and had moved on to a new life. For an intelligent person, Scott apparently had difficulty absorbing that information. Would saying it to him face-to-face make the difference? She hoped so. But why, then, did the thought of seeing her ex-fiancé for the first time in months make her so nervous?
Piper walked back to the window, telling herself that this time she was looking out for Mr. Standley, who was due to bring her a fresh batch of dill. Gerald Standley owned a farm outside of Cloverdale, just as Piper’s aunt and uncle did. But Standley had branched out beyond the usual crop of vegetables to include dill, and had become Piper’s main source of the tasty weed. You couldn’t get much fresher than “picked that morning,” and Piper felt extremely lucky to have a Gerald Standley nearby.
She loved driving by his farm and seeing the three-foot-tall stalks with their feathery heads waving gracefully in the breeze. Thinking about the tasty pickles she would eventually season with them got her adrenaline pumping, which only convinced her that she had been right to leave the safe but dreary career of numbers and tax forms for the simpler but oh-so-much-more enjoyable life she now had.
One part of the enjoyment—a significant part—was Will Burchett. Piper had begun seeing Will a few weeks ago, and though she was uncomfortably aware that half of Cloverdale was planning what to wear to their wedding, Piper intended to take things slowly. She’d spent much too long mired in her relationship with Scott to want to tie herself to anyone else in a hurry, though Will was a definite temptation. The more she saw of the tall blond Christmas tree farmer the better she liked him, so much so that she worried about how he would take Scott’s sudden appearance on the scene.
Which was why she probably should have warned the man. And she’d meant to. Piper looked at the phone. She should pick it up and call Will right then and give him the whole story—that Scott, the ex-fiancé she’d told him about, had decided not to return to his job in the state’s attorney’s office in Albany but was seriously considering settling in Cloverdale. She stared at the instrument, planning her words, but the sudden honk of a truck’s horn pulled her gaze to the window. Gerald Standley had driven up with his delivery of fresh dill. Piper left the phone and hurried to the door, promising herself she’d call Will the minute her visitor left.
“Good morning, Mr. Standley,” she called, holding the door open for the farmer as he made his way toward her shop with a crate packed full of wonderfully aromatic dill.
“Morning, young lady,” Standley responded. “You’re looking mighty perky today.”
Piper smiled. It was Gerald Standley’s standard greeting, and she had no doubt he’d deliver it even if she stood propped on crutches, suffering from the flu, and covered with red blotches. Standley, on the other hand, did look pretty lively. As he set the crate down in her back room, Piper asked him why.
Standley straightened to look at Piper with surprise. “Why, haven’t you heard about the big soccer match coming up?”
“Um, no, I haven’t,” Piper admitted. “You mean a match at the high school?”
“Young woman,” Standley said with mock indignation, “this just might be the match of the century!” He grinned, and softened his statement. “At least for Cloverdale. And no, it’s not Cloverdale High School’s team, though a few did play on the team before they graduated. This is a brand-new group, drawn from top Cloverdale players as well as surrounding areas. In other words, we have an all-star team!”
“Impressive. And who will they be playing?”
Standley’s face shone with excitement as he reverently whispered the words. “A semiprofessional team from Italy.” Which told Piper it was, in his opinion, the best thing that could have ever happened to Cloverdale, perhaps in his lifetime. She tried to look properly impressed.
“That’s wonderful,” she said. “But how did that come about?”
“The Italian team is touring,” Standley explained as he took off his cap and swiped his forehead with his sleeve. “They’re doing exhibition matches, and they don’t play just anybody. This was arranged months ago, and our all-star team had to meet top standards. Which, after plenty of good, hard work, we did. It’s going to be great, just great!”
Piper remembered that Uncle Frank had once mentioned that Gerald Standley helped coach the Cloverdale soccer teams for years, both boys and girls.
“Gerry’s plumb crazy about the game,” Uncle Frank had said. “He played it himself in school, and he’s volunteered for all the teams his daughter played on growing up. When Miranda moved on to other things, he kept right at it. Cloverdale High is lucky to have him pitching in.”
Piper, who’d played soccer at age seven or eight and remembered it mostly as running around the field and pretending she knew what she was doing, nevertheless was delighted for Mr. Standley. “When is the match?”
“Actually, it’s a tournament—best of three matches. They’ll start this weekend, only two days from now!” Standley’s eyes sparkled. “The team—Bianconeri—arrives tomorrow.”
Piper, who had started thinking that the tournament might be a useful distraction for keeping Scott out of her hair once he arrived, smiled delightedly. “That’s terrific. Go Cloverdale!” she said.
“Cloverdale rocks!” a voice answered from the front of the store. Piper recognized it as that of Amy Carlyle, her young, part-time helper who’d arrived for her shift. Amy walked into Piper’s back room, tying back her thick red hair as she did. “Hi, Mr. Standley. Ready for the big match?”
“Ready as we’ll ever be, most likely, though it never hurts to get in more practice. I’d better get going. Have to make a few more deliveries before heading over to the field.” He slipped his cap back onto his thinning but still dark hair, and straightened his light jacket over a trim frame. All that soccer play along with plenty of hard work in his fields obviously kept the man in great shape, Piper thought. Only a few wrinkles hinted at his forty-something age.
“Break a leg,” Amy said. “Wait, no! I mean, knock ’em dead! We’ll be cheering you on.”
Gerald Standley waved his thanks as he hustled out.
When Piper heard the door close, she turned to Amy. “You knew about this big tournament?”
“Of course! Everyone does. It’ll be the event of the year for Cloverdale.”
“It’s news to me.”
Amy grinned. “You had a few other things on your mind lately. Any word from the ex yet?”
“Not a peep. I’m hoping he’s changed his mind.”
“Not me. I’m dying to see the guy. Is he as cute as Will Burchett?”
Piper knew Amy was teasing but answered loftily, “I like to think a man’s looks are the least important quality to consider.” As she said it, though, she was aware of how Will’s bright blue eyes had bowled her over the first time they met. “Besides, who knows what Scott looks like after tramping through every kind of climate and condition as well as eating strange foods for months.”
“Oh, he won’t have changed that much. It’s not like he was marooned on a desert island.” Amy had started unloading Gerald Standley’s dill, getting ready to separate and chop bunches for freezing, drying, or immediate use. Her culinary skills were matchless and Piper daily considered herself blessed to have the girl’s assistance—for as long as it lasted. She knew the twenty-one-year-old’s long-term goals were to own her own restaurant. But for now she gathered experience by also working part-time as an assistant chef at Cloverdale’s finest restaurant, A La Carte. Amy’s boyfriend, Nate Purdy, also conveniently worked there, but providing the musical entertainment.
Eager to change the subject, Piper asked, “How’s Nate doing?”
Amy smiled. “He’s doing great. He’s written a few new songs and plans to record a demo. But we were talking about Scott. You still haven’t hung up that gorgeous wooden plaque he sent you from Thailand. Has Will even seen it? What does he think of Scott’s coming here?”
Piper winced. “I’ll find out as soon as I tell him.” Amy’s lips formed a silent O. “I know, I know,” Piper said. “I should have. Go ahead and get started on the dill. I’m going to call him right now.”
Piper went out to the customer area of her store and pressed Will’s speed dial number but almost immediately caught sight of Aunt Judy out front, climbing out of her blue Equinox, and quickly hung up. Piper usually loved seeing her aunt, but she hoped this visit would be brief. As she went to the door, her white-haired, slightly plump aunt caught sight of her and waved. Aunt Judy turned to lift out a large paper bag from her car, and Piper hurried out to take it from her.
“These are the green tomatoes Uncle Frank promised you,” Aunt Judy said as she reached back for a second bag.
“Great! I wanted to make some green tomato relish. A few customers had never heard of it. This’ll give them a chance to try it out.”
“I’ve made it for years,” Aunt Judy said. “And I helped my mother make it when I was a girl, just as you helped me when you were little.”
“I remember.” Piper led the way to her back room, thinking about those days in Aunt Judy’s big farm kitchen. The first summer she’d been sent there by her archaeologist parents as they headed off to a weeks-long, child-unfriendly dig, Piper had sullenly resisted, convinced she wouldn’t like it. But Uncle Frank and Aunt Judy had quickly won her over with fun things like tractor rides, but especially with Aunt Judy’s cooking. Piper, who’d never done anything before with food other than eat it, found she loved helping her aunt can, pickle, and preserve much of the fresh-picked produce from Uncle Frank’s farm. Now Piper was doing it herself, and able to make a living at it!
“Hi, Mrs. Lamb,” Amy said, turning from her work with the dill.
“Good morning, Amy,” Aunt Judy said. “I’m afraid I’ve brought you more work.”
“Bring it on,” Amy said cheerfully and continued her rapid chopping of a large bunch of freshly washed dill leaves. “Are you and Mr. Lamb going to the soccer tournament?”
“Oh yes.” Aunt Judy set her bag on a counter and stepped back, dusting off her hands. “Gerry Standley’s been talking about it for weeks. We wouldn’t dare miss it.” She turned to Piper. “What about you? Have you made plans to go with Will? Or has Scott’s visit . . . ?” Aunt Judy’s voice trailed off uncertainly.
“I don’t have any plans for the tournament other than sending Scott in that direction on his own. Might as well get the message across right away that he’s not going to be able to pick things up where he left them six months ago.”
“Oooh,” Amy said, shaking her head. “That could backfire. Scott could take it as a challenge. That might make him ramp up his efforts to win you back.”
“He can take it any way he wants. As long as he takes it out of my presence.” Piper knew she sounded tougher than she felt. Deep down, she worried about her own reaction to seeing the man she’d once been in love with. She’d been doing so well with Scott not around. Would she be able to hold strong with him nearby?
The toot of a car’s horn sounded from out front, drawing Piper out from the back room, followed closely by Aunt Judy and Amy. The first thing she saw was a red convertible Volvo, the exact model Scott had sold before leaving on his soul-searching journey. The driver’s door opened and someone climbed out. Piper held her breath. She heard the door slam shut and a man stepped into view, looking toward the shop.
“Oh!” Aunt Judy cried. “It’s Scott!”
Piper found herself nodding dumbly. It was indeed Scott.
And he looked absolutely great.
Piper felt herself rooted to the spot. Aunt Judy glanced at her, then moved on past to greet Piper’s former fiancé.
“Scott,” Piper heard her aunt cry at the doorway. “How nice to see you again!”
Piper was aware of Amy’s stepping discreetly back into the workroom, though she left the door open. Piper knew she should take a step forward but couldn’t seem to will herself to do it. She watched as Scott gave her aunt a hug then looked toward Piper. This was silly, Piper told herself. If she was such a self-assured person she should start acting like one. She therefore held out her hand and moved forward, intending to keep her greeting cool and distancing. It didn’t work. Scott rushed forward, crying, “Lamb Chop,” the pet name she hadn’t heard in six months, and engulfed her in a breath-stopping hug. When he attempted a kiss, Piper strong-armed him back.
“It’s nice to see you, Scott,” she said, pushing space between them.
Scott looked startled, then glanced back at Aunt Judy and seemed to take her presence as the reason for Piper’s reticence. He stepped politely back, which gave Piper a chance to look him over in more detail.
He’d acquired a tan, something Scott rarely managed while working long hours in Albany. It gave him a rugged, outdoorsy look that was augmented by the safari jacket he wore. He appeared more muscular, and his brown hair was longer and flopped boyishly over his forehead. But the biggest change Piper saw was an excitement in his eyes, which she didn’t flatter herself was due to her. Yes, he was clearly happy to see her, but she saw something deeper shining through, as though he were much more aware of the world outside himself than he had been before.
“Your travels seem to have agreed with you,” she said.
“Piper, you have no idea the things I’ve seen. I have so much to tell you!”
“That would be really interesting. We’ll have to get together sometime when I’m not working.” Piper stepped casually behind her counter, putting more space between them. “How long will you be in Cloverdale?”
Scott spread his arms wide. “As long as I like. Maybe the rest of my life. Of our lives.”
Piper groaned internally. “Scott, you need to understand—”
At that moment the door to Piper’s Picklings opened and a young woman stepped in—Gerald Standley’s pretty, blond daughter, Miranda.
“Oh!” she said, glancing around. “I thought my father was here.”
“Miranda! Good to see you!” Piper said, delighted with the interruption. “Your dad was here a few minutes ago. He said he had more dill to drop off before heading over to the soccer field.”
“Hi, Miranda,” Amy called from the back room, apparently able to keep track of the goings-on up front quite well.
“Miranda, dear,” Aunt Judy said, “this is Piper’s friend, Scott Littleton. Miranda’s father,” she explained to Scott, “is handling the big soccer tournament this weekend, something we’re all excited about.”
“Soccer! I went to a couple of fantastic matches when I was in Italy.”
“That’s where the visiting team is from!” Miranda cried. “Maybe you saw them? Bianconeri?”
Scott wrinkled his brow. “Doesn’t ring a bell. They’re all good, there, though. I swear soccer’s in their genes.”
“Oh, don’t say that.” Miranda laughed. “Dad’s team doesn’t have much Italian blood in it. He hopes they’ll make a good showing.” She grinned. “Actually, he’d love it if they’d kick their butts. I’ve never seen him so excited.”
“He’s coaching?” Scott asked.
“More assistant-coaching, which he’s done for years. Dad’s happy to do just about anything to stay close to the game. Everyone connected to Cloverdale soccer knows my dad.”
“And loves him,” Aunt Judy added.
Miranda smiled and nodded. “Well, I’ll try to catch up with him at the field. See you at the games?”
“Absolutely!” Amy, who’d come to the back room doorway, responded along with Aunt Judy. Piper simply waved cheerily as Miranda took off.
“Well!” Aunt Judy said, turning back to Scott. “What are your immediate plans? Do you have a place to stay?”
Please don’t invite him to the farm, Piper prayed silently.
“I do,” Scott answered, and Piper exhaled. “With the iffy flight connections I had, I wasn’t sure when I’d get here, so I booked a room at the Cloverton. Good thing, since I rolled into town around two this morning. I can’t even guess what time zone my sleep clock is in. But I’ll catch up quick. I always do. Anyway, I thought I’d get to know the town a bit and see if it can use another lawyer.”
“Oh, we can definitely use a good lawyer,” Amy said, which earned her a strong look from Piper. “I was remembering that awful guy Nate almost hired,” she defended. “But then again, he was in criminal law. Maybe you’d do something else?”
Scott grinned. “Criminal law is exactly my field. I was a prosecutor up in Albany. But I doubt a small town like this has much crime—”
Oh, you don’t know the half of it, Piper thought.
“—so I’ll probably aim for doing a little of everything,” Scott finished. “Contracts, wills, whatever comes up.”
“Well, that sounds just lovely,” Aunt Judy said, then, hearing a cough from Piper, added, “though Cloverdale just might seem a little mundane after all the exotic places you’ve just seen.”
“Not at all!” Scott proclaimed. “I believe my travels have taught me to truly appreciate the simple things in life.” He glanced around Piper’s shop. “Such as what you’ve got here, Lamb Chop. Love it! Good, solid, down-to-earth basics for working with food. Preserving while adding spice. Wonderful!”
Piper couldn’t help but be pleased at that, and she beamed.
“Lamb Chop?” a male voice questioned. Will Burchett stood in the open front doorway, looking from Scott to Piper and back again.
“Will!” Piper cried in surprise. “Will, I was just about to call you.”
It was Scott’s turn to look from Piper to Will and back.
There was an awkward pause, which Aunt Judy once again smoothed over. “Will, this is Scott Littleton, who’s just arrived from—where did you actually arrive from, Scott? China?”
“China, Japan, and a smattering of islands along the way till I landed on the West Coast. After that it was full steam ahead for Cloverdale and back to Lamb Chop, here.”
“Please don’t call me that, Scott.”
“Back to Lamb Chop?” Will asked. He was looking fairly tanned himself, especially in contrast to his blond hair, and possessed his own brand of outdoorsyness. Piper guessed from his jeans and roll-sleeved checkered shirt that Will had come straight from his Christmas tree fields.
“No,” Piper said. “Not ‘back,’ simply here. Scott and I are going to have a talk concerning that, very soon.”
“Great!” Scott said. “How about closing up shop and we go somewhere for a nice long lunch.”
“Scott, I don’t just close up shop at the drop of a hat,” Piper said. “This is my livelihood now.”
“Okay. I’ll scout around town this afternoon and we can have dinner. What time do you close?”
Will cleared his throat. “I’m afraid Piper and I have plans for tonight. Assuming”—he looked at her—“they’re still on?”
“Yes, of course they are, Will.” She turned to Scott. “I’m sorry, Scott, but you didn’t give me much notice.” Seeing his crestfallen expression, Piper softened. “Tell you what. If you come back in about an hour, we can go out for a quick lunch while Amy’s here. But it’ll have to be quick.”
Scott brightened and glanced at his watch. “Be back here at twelve.” He gestured toward the street. “It’ll be like the old days, riding in my Volvo C70. This one’s a rental, but if I can get a decent law practice going here, I’ll be looking to buy a replacement.” He grinned. “There are some things in life you just can’t give up. See you later!”
As Will watched Scott trot out the door and hop into the Volvo, he asked, “Law practice? Here?”
Just then two women customers pushed their way into the shop.
“Tonight,” Piper promised Will before turning gratefully to answer one of the women’s questions. Being able to talk about pickling and preserving was a huge relief, temporary though it might be. Will left—in what kind of mood Piper couldn’t guess—and Aunt Judy toodle-ooed, obviously intuiting that Piper needed a little space. Piper waved back but expected space was likely to be a precious commodity in the next few hours.
Piper took Scott to the Clover-Daily Deli, which served up great sandwiches in record time but offered tiny tables and stiff, hard-bottomed chairs at which to enjoy them—a major reason most customers chose carryout and the very reason Piper picked it, as she hoped to keep her time with Scott to a minimum. While they unwrapped their choices and popped straws into their drinks, Scott shared his early impressions of Cloverdale, all of which were glowing.
“I love it here, too,” Piper said, taking a quick sip of her lemonade. “But don’t imagine it’s Utopia. There’s plenty of wonderful people—with my aunt and uncle at the top of the list. But just like any place, you’ll find some bad along with the good.” She was thinking about the situation Nate had recently struggled through, when he came very close to being charged with murder.
“Oh, I know,” Scott said airily, sinking his teeth into his steak and cheese, smothered with onions. His eyes lit up. “Wow!” he said after chewing and swallowing. “I’d say any town that can offer fast food this amazing must have plenty more ‘good’ to look forward to.”
Perhaps her choice for lunch hadn’t been as clever as Piper thought.
“Scott,” Piper said, getting right to the point. “You’re certainly free to live anywhere you want. But you should understand that settling in Cloverdale doesn’t mean that you and I will go back to where we once were. If you remember, I returned my engagement ring—”
Piper raised her hand. “Returning the ring wasn’t just a temporary gesture, a ‘putting things on hold’ while you traveled about. It truly meant our engagement was over. And it’s still over. Finished. We are no longer a couple.”
Scott stayed silent for a while, chewing on that idea as well as another bite of his steak and cheese. Knowing him as well as she did, Piper could see the cogs spinning. Where they were leading him, though, she could only guess.
“So you really meant those texts and e-mails?”
“One hundred percent.”
Scott puffed his cheeks and exhaled. “Well,” he said with a weak smile, “it looks like your own, much shorter journey—from Albany to Cloverdale—brought about some pretty significant changes.”
“It has. But I’m happy where I am. I hope you can be, too.”
“Oh, I’ll be okay,” Scott said. “I’m not the same supercharged guy I once was. My travels have changed me, too. Maybe you don’t see it yet, but I hope in time you will.” He reached for her hand, holding it with both of his. “I still want to settle in Cloverdale. I hope we can be friends?”
“Certainly,” Piper said, patting Scott’s hand with her free one in a friendly, platonic way before gently sliding her captive hand back.
Their conversation shifted to more neutral topics as customers crowded in, and they eventually parted on amicable terms. As she headed back to her shop, Piper heaved a huge sigh of relief.
She still had to face Will that night, though, and that was going to be harder. Piper had been at fault for not preparing Will for Scott’s sudden appearance, so the first thing she did as they sat down for dinner was apologize profusely.
“It wasn’t fair to let you be blindsided like that. I’m truly sorry.”
“Accepted,” Will said with a small smile. “So,” he said, opening up his napkin, “you had lunch with Scott?”
“I did. And I was able to make it clear that he and I are no longer a couple.” Piper hesitated, trying not to squirm. “But he still plans to settle in Cloverdale.”
Will frowned. “Well, I suppose that’s his right.”
“Think you’ll run into him much?”
Piper had thought hard about that. Will had become special to her, but she didn’t want to make promises that implied a certain level of commitment. She just wasn’t ready for that. “Scott and I parted as friends,” she said. “I won’t be searching him out, but I expect us to remain on good terms.”
Will was silent for a long while then nodded. “Okay. If I had my druthers, Scott Littleton would take off again for Timbuktu, or better yet, Mars. But I can deal with him setting up a law office in Cloverdale. I’ll even wish him success that will snow him under with enough work that he barely has a minute to drive anyone around in his shiny, retractable-top Volvo C70.”
Piper grinned and reached her hand across the table. Will covered it with both of his, where she was more than happy to leave it—at least until she needed it to eat.
The next morning, Piper made an early shopping trip to TopValuFood before opening up Piper’s Picklings. She quickly found and paid for milk, bread, a few frozen items, and, of course, chocolate, and was loading the bags into the trunk of her car when she saw a large bus drive by with “Bianconeri” painted on its side.
“That must be the Italian soccer team,” Mrs. Peterson said as she climbed from her own car nearby. “I’ll bet they’re heading for the high school.”
Piper nodded, then checked her watch. She had a few minutes to spare. After hearing Gerald Standley and the others talk so excitedly about this visit, she was curious to see the Italian team in person. She hopped into her driver’s seat and started up.
As she pulled into the high school’s parking lot nearest the soccer fields, Piper saw she wasn’t the only one eager to meet the visiting team. The school itself was not in session—she’d overheard mention of professional days for the teachers—but plenty of students had given up their morning sleep-in to welcome (and ogle) the Italian team. Gerald Standley stood at the forefront as part of a small group of official greeters. Piper guessed the group was made up of the coaches and school administrators. She wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Standley looked even more excited than he had the day before.
She watched from the edge of the crowd as the occupants of the bus moved about, gathering gear, then one by one stepped out to noisy welcomes. Hands were shaken, shoulders clapped, and greetings in Italian and English traded as they passed through the crowd.
Miranda Standley, along with several other young women, stood ready to hand each player a goody bag from a large basket, and quickly became surrounded by the athletic and highly attractive young men.
The last to exit the bus were two older men. Piper assumed the first, dressed in a matching black-and-white team warm-up, was the coach, and he waved, speaking exuberantly in Italian and English as he made his way out.
The second man paused on the last step and looked about him, an odd smile, almost a smirk on his handsome face. He was dressed in casual but not athletic clothing—a polo shirt, slacks, and a light jacket—although he looked trim enough to play. Judging by the streaks of silver in his thick, dark hair, Piper guessed his age at forty-five to fifty, and she wondered if he were the team manager.
“Conti!” she heard Gerald Standley suddenly call out in surprise, and from his tone it didn’t sound like a welcome one.
The man on the step looked about for the source of the call and spotted Standley. His smile widened, but to Piper it looked self-satisfied rather than joyful. “Standley,” he said. “I wondered if you’d be here.”
Piper saw Gerald Standley’s face darken. He stared hard at the man he’d called Conti, then turned and pushed his way off through the crowd. Piper was surprised at the action, even more so when she looked back at the man who’d apparently caused it. Conti remained on his step, standing a full head above everyone below and seeming to relish his position. With obvious pleasure, he watched Standley walk off until the embarrassed remaining members of the welcoming group, along with the affable Italian coach, drew him from the bus and into the crowd.
Chatter and bustle resumed, but Piper stood silently by. What had turned the mood of the day so downward for Gerald Standley? Who was this Italian man Conti, and how did Standley, a dill farmer who never traveled farther than Manhattan for the annual Christmas pageant at Radio City Music Hall, happen to know him?
She shook her head. Too many questions to ponder as her newly purchased milk grew warm and her shop awaited opening. She predicted that an answer or three or four would be offered during the day as word of the morning’s excitement spread its usual small-town way through Cloverdale. As she headed back to her car she knew the only remaining question was how long it would take.
It took, by Piper’s watch, exactly one hour and thirteen minutes for the first person to pop into Piper’s Picklings with “news” of the incident at the soccer field. That person happened to be Emma Leahy, a generally no-nonsense woman in her sixties who’d heard about it from her next-door neighbor. That neighbor’s teenage son had apparently been on the scene. As she listened to Emma’s version, Piper began to have serious doubts about the teenager’s ability to process information. Either that, or there was a future ahead of him in fiction writing.
“The minute the Italian team arrived, the coaches started shouting at each other,” Emma claimed. “One of the Italians actually swung at our men, and it would have turned into a terrible brawl except that Jared and his friends stepped in.”
Ah! Jared wrote himself in as hero and graciously included his friends.
“There’s a tiny bit of exaggeration there, Mrs. Leahy,” Piper said and shared her own, eyewitness version. Emma Leahy seemed disappointed with the less dramatic account but took it with good grace. She ended up purchasing a set of decorative glass canning jars for her Christmas jellies and went on her way.
The next “newsperson” to stop in was Erin Healy, one of Amy’s good friends. “Did you hear what happened at the high school?” Erin asked, looking distressed, but in her own quiet way, with her already-large brown eyes opened wide. Before Piper could answer, Erin shared an account that was nearly as off-kilter as Mrs. Leahy’s, minus action from teenage heroes.
“One of the Italian coaches turned up his nose at our facilities and immediately called the tournament off. Mr. Standley was so upset he started having chest pains, and they had to carry him into the school and call an ambulance. The whole thing’s turned into a terrible mess!”
“Last I saw of Mr. Standley,” Piper said, “he was walking away from the Italian team’s bus under his own power. A little upset, but as far as I could tell, in good health. I’m pretty sure the tournament is still on.”
“Oh, I’m so glad! But what was Mr. Standley upset about?”
“I don’t know. There was nothing obvious, like insults traded or anything like that.”
“Well, then that’s very odd.” She gave Piper an impish smile. “Another mystery?”
“If it is,” Piper said, shaking her head, “I expect it will be solved very soon. Once, that is, all the misinformation gets cleared up.” Piper reached for a jar on the counter behind her. “Will you be seeing Ben today? He asked if I had any plum sauce, and I set this aside for him.”
“I was going to stop by his office, so I’ll be glad to drop that off.” Erin’s cheeks turned a becoming pink. “Ben’s been experimenting with Chinese cooking. I think he wants to make mu shu pork for us using the sauce.”
“Sounds good.” Piper had watched Ben’s near obsession with Amy gradually fade as Erin quietly made clear her own interest in him. It helped that Amy was obviously head over heels for Nate and he for her. Piper herself didn’t quite understand the attraction of Ben, who, she felt, took himself and his auxiliary police volunteerism far too seriously. But if Erin thought he was wonderful, that was all that mattered.
In the next few hours, visitors continued to pop in to Piper’s Picklings and offer increasingly dramatic versions of the happenings at the school, and Piper had no doubt hers wasn’t their only stop. She offered occasional corrections to lessen the spread of wild rumors but had yet to hear a reason for Gerald Standley’s odd reaction. Then, around midafternoon, as Piper tidied up a shelf, humming along with a lively Gilbert and Sullivan tune coming from her radio, Gil Williams, proprietor of the new-and-used bookstore next door, stopped in.
“I’ve been invited to a dinner tonight,” he said. “A last-minute fill-in to even up the table, no doubt, and am in need of a hostess gift. Can you suggest something tasty from your stock?”
Piper smiled at the thought of this genial, sixty-something neighbor being a last-minute fill-in. With his voracious reading habits, Gil Williams was such a font of interesting tales, all related with such wit, that she was sure he must be the most sought-after dinner guest in town.
“Any idea of what they might be serving?”
“None whatsoever. The tastes of these particular friends are quite eclectic.”
“Hmm. Then maybe something your hosts can enjoy later on would be best.” Piper pulled out a jar from the jellies and jams section. “What do you think of a raspberry jam with mint and lavender? Amy and I cooked this up about a month ago. Besides raspberries, it has Granny Smith apples, fresh lavender blossoms, and a touch of lemon juice.”
“I think it sounds like I should take two—one for my hosts and another for myself.”
Piper grinned and took down a second jar. As she bagged them, Gil said, “I presume you’ve been getting the same flood of comments on this morning’s incident at the school that I have?”
Piper sighed. “Absolutely. And I’ve had to set plenty of informants straight since I happened to be on the scene myself.”
“Well then! Perhaps you can confirm or deny that the meeting of the two teams came to blows?”
“Denied.” Piper related what she had observed, that Gerald Standley appeared to recognize one of the Italians, possibly the team manager, and had called out his name in shock and with definite distaste. “The Italian,” she said, “seemed unsurprised to see Mr. Standley. In fact, he looked amused when Standley stomped away.”
“Hmm. You said Gerald called out the man’s name. What was it?”
Piper thought for a moment. “Conti.” When Gil nodded, she asked, “Why? Do you know him?”
“I think so. It was many years ago, at least thirty, but I think he must be the same man. Gerald Standley hasn’t had problems with very many people.”
“No, I wouldn’t think so. He’s been wonderful to deal with as my dill supplier, and I’ve heard others say only good things about him. So who is this Italian?”
What People are Saying About This
“Hughes’s second series entry (after The Pickled Piper) will delight fans of culinary cozies... fans of Susan Wittig Albert’s “China Bayles” series should enjoy this plucky heroine.”—Library Journal
Praise for The Pickled Piper
“A one-of-a-kind mystery with homemade food, small-town secrets, and winsome characters.”—Ellery Adams, New York Times bestselling author
“This warmhearted mystery…had me turning the pages late into the night.”—G. M. Malliet, Agatha Award–winning author
“A charming new sleuth in a peck of pickles and murder.”—Connie Archer, national bestselling author