May has been anything but merry for Cam so far. Her parents have arrived unexpectedly and her crops are in danger. But all of that’s nothing compared to the grim murder of her neighbor, Nicole Kingsbury, the once proud owner of the town’s new hydroponic greenhouse—just after Cam’s mother publicly protested Nicole’s use of chemicals to feed her crops. Showers may be scarce this spring, but suspects keep sprouting up. Lucky for Cam, her father turns out to have a knack for sleuthing—not to mention dealing with chickens. He and Cam will have to clear Mrs. Flaherty’s name quick before the killer strikes again . . .
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“Maxwell’s feisty heroine and the interesting background detail on the realities of organic farming blend to deliver a clever, twisting mystery.”
“A most enjoyable look at organic farming.”
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Mulch Ado About Murder
By EDITH MAXWELL
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Edith Maxwell
All rights reserved.
Cam Flaherty sank her head onto the steering wheel in the parking lot outside the Seacoast Fresh greenhouse. The repeated refrain of the protesters on the sidewalk behind her swirled like angry wasps. She straightened and whacked the wheel with her fist. "I do NOT have time for this."
"Hydroponics has to go. Soil-free plants, no, no, no." The small clutch of demonstrators formed an infinite loop with their signs.
Cam climbed out of her old Ford truck and retrieved her delivery from the back. A dark-haired man hurried toward her in the parking lot, but he stared at the ground and was on a collision course with her. She cleared her throat.
He glanced up with a pale, sweaty face and haunted eyes. "I'm sorry." He swerved around her.
She whipped her head to gaze after him. She'd never seen him before. Had he been in the greenhouse? He looked terrible, no matter where he'd been. Like he'd seen a ghost.
Nicole Kingsbury, the owner of the new hydroponic greenhouse in town, had contracted with Cam to start basil and lettuce seedlings for her at Cam's Attic Hill Organic Farm. Cam stared at the two flats of baby basil plants in her arms. She hadn't expected to encounter her own mother in the small group of locals marching in a circle on the sidewalk in opposition to Nicole's venture.
Deb Flaherty had arrived last week with Cam's father, William, for their first visit since Cam took over the farm from her great-uncle, Albert St. Pierre, a year and a half ago. And somehow Deb had jumped into the fray of the debate about what "organic" should mean. Nicole said she planned to feed her water-grown crops organically. Purists like this group of protesters maintained that organic should mean food grown in soil, not in solution, that organic growing included the whole naturally balanced system of soil, water, micro-organisms, beneficial insects, and healthy crops and animals. Cam held an opinion somewhere in the middle.
It hadn't occurred to her parents to ask their daughter if she had time for them to visit, time to show them the sights of northeastern Massachusetts.
"No," Cam muttered to herself, "I certainly do not have time." The end of May was crazy busy on a small organic farm. She had a zillion seedlings to plant out in the fields now that the frost-free date was past. She needed to harvest asparagus, rhubarb, and scallions. And she definitely didn't need her quirky, peripatetic academic parents to be hanging around her farm and the small town of Westbury, where it was located. One town in from the coast, two towns south of New Hampshire, as she liked to tell prospective customers.
Nicole had let out a nervous, jerky laugh when Cam had asked her about the name of her business.
"Isn't Seacoast Fresh a little odd, since Westbury is a good ten miles inland?" Cam asked, when Nicole showed up at her farm a couple of months earlier.
"Sure, but I like the name," Nicole said. "And I'll be using marine products in the feeding solution." That day Nicole wore black jeans with a red jacket. She'd worn red and black every time Cam had seen her since, which went with her high-energy personality. It was like being in the presence of a hummingbird when she was around Nicole: always moving, and always moving fast.
"How did you find me, anyway?" Cam asked.
"Bobby said to call you."
"Bobby Burr?" The handsome carpenter had rebuilt Cam's barn last summer.
"He's my cousin," Nicole had said. "He's helping me put up the greenhouse."
Now one of the protesters shouted, staring at Cam as she reached for the greenhouse door, "Why are you dealing with her? You should join us instead."
At least the shouter wasn't her mother. Cam shook her head without speaking and let herself in. The greenhouse door clicked shut behind her.
"Nicole," she called out, "I'm here with your seedlings." The air pressed in warm and humid, with a familiar scent of moist potting soil and plastic. She sniffed, detecting an acrid note of chemicals, too. That was odd for a supposedly organic business.
The only sounds were the whir of the big ventilation fan in the end wall and the now-faint repeated calls from the demonstrators. Parallel rows of white pipes at waist level stretched out in front of her. Two-inch holes pierced the tops, some with green leaves spilling out of the holes, others awaiting the potential crop she was delivering. Cam needed to get back to her own farm this afternoon. Days stretched long a month before the summer solstice, and she usually worked outside right up until dusk.
"Nicole? You here?" Cam's voice didn't quite echo, but it rang out like she was the only human in the structure.
Strange. Nicole had said she'd be on-site all day. Like Cam, she was going nuts getting her business under way in time to take advantage of the plentiful light of a New England summer. She had a well-equipped new greenhouse, though, and a visible spot right on Main Street near the center of town. Nicole had moved to Westbury from Florida in a postdivorce scenario, according to Bobby. Cam didn't know much about her except how she dressed and that she was a devout Catholic. Bobby had told Cam that Nicole's divorce proceedings were caused in part by her affair with someone she'd met at a religious retreat and that she was anguished at being out of favor with her church because of the divorce.
Nicole still didn't answer. Cam shrugged and headed for the opposite end of the long structure. She approached the worktables where she'd seen Nicole direct-seed crops and assemble the nutritional slurry that was sucked into the feeding pipes running under the plants' roots. The open slurry vat, three feet in diameter and about the same in height, stood in the far corner behind white plastic shelving.
Cam set her flats on the trestle table next to a travel coffee mug. She dug a scrap of paper and a pen out of her messenger bag. The pen poised, she shook her head before stashing them again. Instead she sent Nicole a quick text.
Left you the seedlings. Let me know about more. Sorry about the protest — not my doing.
Cam turned to go. A ding sounded a few yards away. Cam twisted her head to look. Had Nicole gone out and left her phone behind? The sound came from beyond the open shelves holding various planting supplies and tools. Cam looked harder and gasped. She took a step, but her foot felt anchored in thick mud and her gaze would not leave the far corner. She took another step, and another, until she was dashing, barely breathing, nearly tripping to the vat.
"No," Cam wailed.
Nicole sprawled jackknifed over the vat, her red shirt hiked partway up her back. Her head hung just above the slurry. Her left hand dangled outside the vat clutching a string of tiny, bright red beads with black dots at their ends. The gold cross on the rosary glinted in the filtered light. Nicole's eyes didn't glint. Nicole was dead.CHAPTER 2
Or was she? Cam reached out a shaking hand to feel Nicole's neck. She couldn't detect a trace of a pulse under the cool skin, which had a bluish tinge. A shudder rippled through Cam. Goose bumps popped up on her arms and legs. Nicole was beyond help. Poor Nicole. Cam shook her head fast and pressed nine-one-one on her phone, which she still gripped.
She'd found a body in her own greenhouse a year ago, but he'd been a victim of murder. She narrowed her eyes, blinking away her reaction. Surely this wasn't murder, too. Had Nicole tripped? But how had she died? Did she have a heart attack? She was young, around forty, Cam thought. Or maybe she'd killed herself. But Cam couldn't see blood or a wound.
"Hydroponics has to go. Soil-free plants, no, no, no," drifted in through the plastic like a taunt to death.
When the dispatcher answered, Cam told her what she'd found and agreed to stay on the premises, not touching anything.
"Is the person you found in need of medical help, Ms. Flaherty?" the dispatcher asked.
"No. She's dead." Cam's voice trembled. She swallowed hard. Her stomach jounced like she rode in a boat on rough seas. She sucked in a breath. That man with the haunted eyes she'd seen before she came in. He might have done this to Nicole.
A minute later, sirens roared up to the property. The Westbury Public Safety Complex was only a quarter mile down the road. Cam's childhood friend Sergeant Ruth Dodge hurried into the greenhouse, followed at a slower pace by George Frost, the town's chief of police.
Cam stuck her hand in the air and waved frantically. "I'm back here," she called, her voice scraping. At nearly six feet tall, Cam knew they could see her over the top of the shelving unit.
"What do we have?" Ruth asked when she reached Cam's side. Hefty to Cam's slim, she was nearly as tall, one thing of many that had united the two when they'd played together during Cam's summers on Great-Uncle Albert and Great-Aunt Marie's Westbury farm. Ruth was in the official black uniform of the force, her waist covered by a wide, heavy duty belt. She moved between Cam and Nicole's still form.
"I came over to deliver some seedlings I'd started for Nicole," Cam began. She waited to go on until Chief Frost ambled up. "She didn't answer me when I called out. I'd just sent her a text when I heard her phone ping. I saw red in this corner and I came over to check. She's dead, isn't she?"
"I assume you didn't touch anything." Ruth circled the vat and bent over to peer at the rosary.
Cam hadn't noticed at first that the string of beads seemed to have a few gaps. "I felt her neck for a pulse." Cam's throat thickened until it threatened to choke off her own pulse. "I didn't touch anything else over here. My seedling flats are on that table." Cam pointed as she swallowed and took in a deep breath.
"What's in this thing?" George asked, frowning at the vat.
"I don't know exactly what goes into it," Cam said. "But it's the nutritional slurry that feeds the plants she's growing. She says it's organic." She brought her hand to her mouth. "I mean, said." Her voice quavered.
"And maybe it isn't? That what those ladies out there complaining about?" he asked. He folded his arms across his chest and frowned.
Those ladies being her farm's most avid volunteers and customers: Felicity Slavin, plus Cam's mother and a couple of other locals. Cam blew out a breath. "It's kind of complicated. You probably don't want me to explain it right here and now."
"No, I guess I don't," Frost answered.
Two more people rushed in, this time carrying bright red bags. When they arrived where Cam stood with the officers, Frost shook his head. "No need for medical attention, I'm afraid. We'll need a pronouncement instead."
"You got it, Chief," one said. He carefully approached Nicole's body. Cam watched as he listened for breath, checked the pulse in her neck for what seemed like a long time, and shined a little flashlight in her eyes.
"I can use the paddles to make sure she can't be shocked back, but we'd have to get her out of there and onto her back," the paramedic said to Chief Frost.
"No." Frost shook his head. "We haven't even started with the crime scene. Just pronounce."
The paramedic checked his watch and somberly said, "Time of death, fifteen twenty-six."
The other paramedic stared at Nicole. "Reminds me of another death I attended," he said.
"How do you think she died?" Cam asked. She cocked her head. It had gone quiet outside. Seeing emergency vehicles must have stunned the demonstrators into silence.
The paramedic glanced at Chief Frost.
Ruth cleared her throat. "Not really your business, Cam." Her brown eyes were kind but firm.
"Did you have any grievances with the victim, Ms. Flaherty?" Frost asked.
"No! Not at all." Did he think she had hurt Nicole? What a ridiculous idea. "We were working together. I was growing seedlings for her. She could count on good organic stock, and I received a little extra cash at a time in the year when I need it. Like now. But I didn't know her, really."
"She pay you promptly?" Frost asked.
"Did you see anyone in here? Anybody leaving before you came in?"
"I didn't see anyone in here. Except Nicole. But as I arrived, a man passed me in the parking lot. He looked upset about something. I didn't recognize him at all."
"Describe him," Ruth said.
"Slight, dark haired. Green shirt. Haunted eyes."
Chief Frost raised his eyebrows. "Haunted?" "I don't know. It was an expression on his face, in his eyes. Like he'd seen something bad."
"Or done something bad, more likely." The chief, who towered over Cam and Ruth by a good six inches, nodded. "We'll need a more thorough statement from you later, but you can go ahead and leave now."
"But sir," Ruth began. She glanced at Cam and back at her superior. "She found the body. Doesn't that mean ..."
Cam knew Ruth well enough to know that she was questioning the chief. When it came to regulations versus friendship, for Ruth regulations won every time, and Cam respected her for that.
"Heck, we know Cam. She's been through this drill before, and it's not like we don't know where to find her. She can go," he said gruffly. He narrowed his eyes at Cam. "By the way, you know any of those ladies walking around with signs out there?"
Rats. Cam cleared her throat. "The short one with the long gray braid is Felicity Slavin. The one with her hair pulled back is Deb Flaherty. I don't know the names of the other two."
"This Deb any relation?" Frost asked, his eyebrows raised.
Cam nodded slowly. "She's my mom."CHAPTER 3
Cam followed the EMTs out of the greenhouse. The pair headed for the ambulance and drove away, sirens quiet, lights unlit. Cam hurried toward the clump of women on the sidewalk in front of the greenhouse. A fresh breeze ruffling Cam's short red hair was a relief after the warm humidity of the greenhouse, but the afternoon sun was still high and she had to shield her eyes with her hand.
"Cam, what's going on?" Felicity folded her hands in front of her chest, worry etched on her face. She wore an Indian print tunic in her signature colors of purple and turquoise.
"Police cars? Ambulance? At first we thought they were coming for us," Cam's mom said, her light blue shirt bringing out the blue in her eyes, eyes exactly like Cam's. She hurried to Cam's side but stopped short of actually touching her. Deb was shorter than Cam by a few inches and, despite being a lifelong academic, moved with the athleticism of her earlier days as a college soccer star.
"I think you'd better end your protest, ladies." Cam gazed at the group, her eyes moving from one to the next. She skipped over her mom and ended on Felicity. "Go home and put your signs away."
"We have every right to demonstrate, Cameron," Deb said, lifting her chin. "We've stayed on the sidewalk." She held a neatly lettered cardboard sign high. It read Don't Dilute Organic. Say No To Soil-Free Hydroponics.
A passing car tooted its horn, whether in solidarity or disagreement Cam couldn't tell.
"It doesn't matter anymore," Cam said.
"What do you mean?" her mother asked.
"Nicole's dead," Cam nearly whispered.
The collective intake of breath was sharp and fast.
Felicity reached out and touched Cam's arm. "Did you, is she ..." Her voice trailed off.
"Yes, I found her. She's in the greenhouse. She's dead." The words were harsh, final, almost cruel. But that was the reality this afternoon.
"The poor thing," Felicity said, bringing her other hand to her mouth. "And poor you, finding another body."
The other two women looked at each other. One shook her head, her mouth pulled down and her eyes dark. "We didn't agree with Ms. Kingsbury. But we didn't wish her dead."
"Of course not," Cam said.
Deb blinked. "How did she die?"
"I don't know." It figured that her mom would go straight to the cause and bypass feelings altogether.
"But it wasn't murder, was it?" Felicity asked, eyes wide. She'd been involved with Cam's farm since the beginning and knew of Cam's connection with more than one murder in the past year.
"I don't know." Cam turned her head to take in the greenhouse. Its new pointed-arch supports were unbent and strong, the plastic still clean and stretched taut, the wood end walls secure. Unlike the owner's life. She looked back at the women. "But just in case, I sure hope none of you was in there alone with Nicole today."
Deb blinked again. Felicity opened her mouth, but when Ruth emerged from the greenhouse door, Felicity shut it again. Ruth glanced around. She made her way with deliberate steps to the group.
"Hey, Felicity." Ruth nodded at the diminutive woman, whom she'd met at Cam's farm. "Ladies, I'm going to need to speak with each of you." She pulled out a pad of paper and a pen. "Names and addresses, please?" She surveyed the group, focusing on Deb. "Ma'am?"
Excerpted from Mulch Ado About Murder by EDITH MAXWELL. Copyright © 2017 Edith Maxwell. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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