In her new job as a private eye, former police sketch artist Rory McCain has a spirited partner: Old West marshal Zeke Drummond. He may be a ghost, but when these two combine their skills, they reap justice…
Trouble has sprouted at Harper Farms. Top secret info has been leaked to the competition, and now there’s serious sabotage cropping up. So the farm’s beleaguered owner, Gil Harper, has called on Rory to dig up some dirt. But what Rory discovers raises a new field of questions…
Someone shucked Harper’s accountant and left his body in the farm’s corn maze. While Gil is quick to hire Rory to solve now not one but two crimes, the sketching sleuth isn’t so sure why the farmer wants her to focus her attention on his own family.
Regardless, Rory and Zeke will need to put their hands to the plow and solve this case before someone else is planted six feet under…
Includes a preview of the first Crystal Shop Mystery, Amethysts and Alibis, by Sharon Pape
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When Rory found Hobo, he was frolicking in the mud with the pigs. By that time she was half crazy with worry. Harper Farms covered thirty-plus acres, with indoor and outdoor nurseries, a produce store and bakery, a petting zoo with pony rides and, since it was fall, a vast corn maze. There were too many places for a dog to hide, even a mutt as big and shaggy as Hobo. She was so relieved to see him again that his mud-caked appearance didn’t immediately register with her. Hobo appeared to be just as pleased to see her. He bounded over and launched himself, landing with his front paws squarely on her shoulders. The impact knocked the wind out of her and sent her staggering backward until she slammed into the side of the barn. Pinned there, she was treated to an enthusiastic face washing, which she wouldn’t have minded under normal circumstances. But the pungent smell of pig and overheated dog rose from Hobo in a steamy wave that threatened to bring her breakfast back for an encore. She grabbed his mud-soaked leash and ordered him “off” in the most commanding tone she could manage. After several failed attempts, she wound up having to push him into obedience. By then she couldn’t be sure if he was finally listening to her or was simply tired of standing on two legs. In any case, once he was back on all fours, he gave his coat a vigorous shake, the long fur spewing mud everywhere like a food processor at top speed without benefit of a lid. Being only a foot away from the eye of the mud storm, Rory got the worst of it. She was as muddy and stinky as he was, not to mention chilled from the stiff November breeze that had swept into the area while she’d been meeting with Gil Harper. In spite of it all, she started laughing. And for a couple of bellyaching minutes, she couldn’t stop. She was glad there was no one around to see her reaction, or they might have carted her off to a nicely padded cell somewhere. As much as she hated to admit it, Zeke was probably right. She really did need to hire a trainer for Hobo. She could just picture the marshal wearing his “told you so” grin that hiked his moustache nearly up to his sideburns.
What had possessed her to take Hobo along to a business meeting anyway? Oh yeah—a good, old-fashioned dose of guilt. Work had been taking her away from the house and her adjacent office so much lately that she was feeling bad about leaving him yet again. Of course he wasn’t completely alone in the old Victorian she’d inherited from her uncle Mac. Now that Hobo had adjusted to living with a ghost, and Zeke had worked out his own issues with the arrangement, the two could often be found engaged in a lively game of fetch, providing the marshal wasn’t too depleted from his own recent outings. Although his ability to manifest in full 3-D mode had improved well beyond Rory’s expectations, and often her tolerance level, Zeke was still frustrated by the limits death had imposed on him for more than a hundred and thirty years.
“You should be grateful you can leave the house at all,” Rory reminded him one day when he was brooding about his situation. “Before I moved in here, you couldn’t go anywhere.” Back when Mac had been alive, the marshal had partnered with him on his PI cases too, but always from the confines of the house. For some reason neither she nor Zeke could fathom, as long as she was with him or at the other end of his journey, he could now travel about. At least until sheer exhaustion pulled him bungee-like back to the house where he’d exhaled his last breath.
“Hey, glad to see you found your dog,” Gil Harper called out as he came around the corner of the barn and spotted them. The patriarch of the family business was tall, lean and sixtyish, with blond hair that was doing a nice job of masking the incoming crop of gray. “Looks like you’ll both be needing a bath though.” Although he sounded genuinely relieved that Hobo was okay, his lips were twitching as if he was trying hard not to laugh at the muddy spectacle before him. “Any idea how he got out of your car?”
Rory was wiping at the mud on her face with hands that were equally dirty. “Well,” she said, realizing it was pointless, “I must have forgotten to lock the car. Then I guess someone came along and thought it would be a good idea to set him free. Either that or he grew opposable thumbs during the past hour. “
“Anything I can do to help?” Gil asked, backing away as he spoke. He might have had the best intentions with his offer, but his subconscious was clearly not onboard with them.
“Thanks, but I’m afraid that soap and water are the only solution. The sooner I get us home, the better.” With a tight grip on Hobo’s muddy leash, she headed off in the direction of the car. But after the first few steps, Hobo dug in his paws and refused to move any farther. He’d never done anything like that before. Rory gave the leash a sharp tug and ordered him to heel. The dog looked at her, then looked over his shoulder at the pig pen and whined.
“You have got to be kidding!” she said. “Are you begging for more time in the mud?”
Harper started laughing. “I’m not laughing at you,” he assured her when he’d quieted enough to speak. “I think I understand Hobo’s problem.” He pointed to a little pig who was staring back at the dog and making a noise somewhere between a grunt and a squeal. “I believe what we may have here is a budding interspecies romance.”
Rory didn’t know whether to laugh again or cry. She couldn’t exactly scoop a dog of Hobo’s size into her arms and carry him back to the car.
“Let me grab Pigmalion and remove her from the equation,” Harper said, which was a much more realistic option. As soon as he and the little pig were out of sight, Hobo started whining again. Rory figured she could live with the whining as long as she could get him moving. In her most authoritative voice, she ordered him to heel, and to her relief, he stood up and padded after her, his shaggy head hung low in resignation.
The parking lot had been almost empty when they’d arrived at eight a.m., but now that it was close to opening time, cars filled nearly half of it. The corn maze and petting zoo were big draws until the season’s first hard frost or snowfall officially shut down those attractions for the winter.
Rory and Hobo had nearly reached the car when the wind gusted, blowing from the opposite direction. Hobo stopped and raised his snout to take stock of the incoming air. Rory hoped it was a promising sign that he’d forgotten Pigmalion and was moving on to other interests. A second later, she was nearly yanked off her feet as the dog raced helter-skelter toward the corn maze. Rory managed to stay upright, but she could feel the leash slipping through her fingers. At the entrance to the maze, Hobo plowed right past a group of teenagers about to enter it as the first visitors of the day.
“Coming through,” Rory yelled in case they hadn’t noticed she was attached to the crazy mutt who’d almost trampled them. Hobo sped on, taking the turns like a sailboat heeling in rough surf. On the other end of the leash, Rory was tripping over furrows and getting smacked in the face by dead cornstalks. She felt like she’d been conscripted into a remake of a Three Stooges movie. After one particularly bad stumble, she landed hard on her knees and the leash tugged free of her hand. Hobo careened onward, either unaware or unconcerned that he’d left her behind.
She jumped to her feet and took off after him, moving more quickly now that she wasn’t being buffeted by cornstalks along the way. Up ahead, Hobo had started some serious barking, what Rory called his all-points bulletin. He only used it when he was reporting trouble. It was hard to get a good fix on just how far ahead he was, because the cornstalks worked like a baffle, distorting the sound. She hoped he hadn’t cornered a wild animal. Raccoons were a problem on Long Island, and when they were prowling around during the day, it generally meant they were rabid to boot. Hobo’s up to date on his inoculations, her brain pointed out, whereas you have no such protection. Danger noted and filed, her heart responded as she ran on. After several wrong turns led to frustrating dead ends and wasted seconds, she rounded a curve and ran smack into the dog.
He was standing beside a man sprawled face down in the dirt. The good news—Hobo wasn’t in any danger. The bad news—someone else was having a really terrible day. Rory grabbed the dog’s leash to keep him from taking flight again. He didn’t appear interested in going anywhere else, but with Hobo, she couldn’t be sure. Now that he’d summoned the cavalry, his barking had ebbed to a breathless chuffing. Rory knelt quickly beside the man to assess the situation. There was no blood on or around him and no bullet holes or knife wounds, at least none she could see from his present position. When she checked his neck for a pulse, there was none, and his skin was cold to the touch. She was no doctor, but the few years she’d spent as a detective and sketch artist had given her a working knowledge of what constituted “dead.” She stepped back from the body, making an effort to walk in her own footprints. But she quickly realized that it was pointless. The soft, moist ground was already covered with overlapping footprints from all the people who’d visited the maze since it opened back in September. It would be impossible to get a cast of any one set.
She grabbed her phone from the muddy messenger bag slung across her chest and dialed Leah at the Homicide Division out in Yaphank. Without preamble, she gave her friend a rundown on the situation. It would take Leah and her partner forty-five minutes to reach Huntington, but once they notified the local precinct, patrol cars would be screaming to Harper Farms in a matter of minutes.
With that done, Rory needed to find Gil Harper and fill him in on what was happening. She had no idea if he knew the victim, but whether he did or not, he was bound to be distressed by the death. A dead body on the premises was never good for business, especially if the death wasn’t attributable to natural causes. She tried his cell number, but after several rings, her call went to voice mail. This wasn’t the type of news she wanted to deliver that way. She was torn between racing off to find him and keeping watch over the crime scene until the local cops arrived.
“I leave you on your own for a couple of hours, and you stumble over another body,” a voice behind her said. There was no mistaking the sarcasm or the drawl, but Rory was so caught up in her dilemma that she reacted as if someone had jumped out of a dark alley and yelled “boo!” Even Hobo, with his more finely tuned senses, yelped with surprise.
Rory wheeled around to face the marshal. “What are you doing here?” she demanded in a harsh whisper. He was standing before her in his well-worn western duds looking every bit as alive as anyone else on planet Earth. She was always nervous when he joined her out in public, due to the sheer potential for disaster. But in spite of her concerns, things generally went well enough as long as no one tried to touch him, and he remembered to use doors instead of walking through walls. Unfortunately though, there were a number of people in long-term therapy as a result of his mistakes.
“What in tarnation happened to you?” Zeke asked, convulsing into laughter now that she was facing him.
For a moment Rory couldn’t figure out what was so hilarious about a dead body, but then she remembered that she was still covered in mud. “Hobo happened to me,” she responded crisply. “And could you please try to focus on the bigger picture here?” She didn’t mind being the butt of a joke from time to time, but the marshal seemed to take an inordinate amount of pleasure from her predicaments.
“You smell as ripe as a pigpen, darlin’,” he chuckled, nearly doubled over in his glee.
“I’m aware of that,” she said evenly. Nothing fueled Zeke’s fire more than her irritation. “And you’re here because . . . ?”
The marshal’s laughter throttled down to a chuckle. “Well, I was feelin’ rested, so I popped in to say hello. But since you and the mutt weren’t home, I came to see what you were up to.”
“That’s nice, but you can’t be here,” she said firmly. “Any minute now there’ll be cops swarming all over this place.” As if on cue, sirens shattered the air, providing a soundtrack to her warning. Even if Zeke had been dressed for the twenty-first century, the police would want to know who he was and why he was there. If they tried to drag him down to headquarters for further questioning, there was a good chance he’d run out of the energy he needed to appear solid and three-dimensional. And then he would vanish before their eyes. Rory shut down the what-ifs before they could reduce her to a babbling fool. She needed to have her wits about her.
“Of course I can be here,” Zeke said, giving her a wink as he disappeared. “But only you and the mutt will know it.”
“Fine,” she conceded, since she didn’t have any real choice in the matter. “No comments out of you either.”
“Not a one.”
“Yes, ma’am . . . mmmmmmmm.”
There was the sound of squad cars screeching to a stop beyond the corn maze, then multiple car doors being slammed shut and a smattering of voices. Rory couldn’t make out what they were saying, but it was no doubt standard police chatter. Some of them would be roping off the area with yellow crime scene tape and trying to disperse whatever crowd had gathered. Others would be making their way into the maze slowly and with guns drawn, since they couldn’t discount the possibility that a potential killer or killers might be waiting for them around the next bend. They also needed to stay together in the maze or risk mistaking a fellow officer for a suspect.
Spurred by the sounds of people coming, Hobo had started barking again, which was fine with Rory. The racket he was raising was far more effective than her own voice would be at letting the cops know they were in the maze too. When the police finally entered the row where she and Hobo waited with the body, Detective Harvey Cirello was in the lead. Terrific. Rory and he had disliked one another from the first time they’d met. He was one of the local detectives who’d responded when she’d found Hobo’s owner dead on the kitchen floor. Cirello looked every bit as dour as he had when she’d last seen him. If she were to sketch him, she’d place a lemon where his heart should have been. The two patrolmen with him holstered their guns but remained at the entrance to the row like bouncers ready to keep the riffraff out of an exclusive club.
“You again,” Cirello said when he saw Rory. He tucked his weapon into a shoulder holster under his jacket. “What is it with you and dead bodies?” Hobo growled, a menacing rumble deep in his throat, as if he remembered the detective had wanted to send him to the pound.
“Hobo found the deceased about nine a.m., before any of today’s visitors had a chance to come through here,” she said, ignoring Cirello’s question. “I checked him for a pulse, but I didn’t check his pockets or disturb the scene in any way.” Most cops would have appreciated her input. She wasn’t at all surprised to find that Cirello was barely paying attention.
“I see you kept the mutt,” he said, shaking his head as he pulled on latex gloves. He hunkered down next to the body. “Has the owner of the place been notified?”
“I didn’t want to leave the scene until you arrived. I’ll do it now.”
“No need. My partner will find him. You know the deceased?”
“I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure from this angle.”
Cirello searched the man’s pockets. All he came away with was a thin wallet. He straightened up as he rifled through it. “Matthew Dmitriev,” he said, pulling out a driver’s license. “Ring a bell?”
“I know the name,” Rory said, “but I never met him.” She’d heard the name for the first time that morning when Gil Harper hired her to find out who in his company was involved in industrial espionage and sabotage for the competition. Matthew was Harper’s CPA, and Gil had wanted her to meet with him about the sabotage.
“That’s it?” Cirello asked, as if he suspected she was holding out on him. Despite Rory’s antipathy for the detective, if he’d been with Homicide, she would have felt obligated to tell him everything she knew. But since he wasn’t, she didn’t intend to say anything more until Leah arrived.
The detective’s eyes narrowed. “How is it you know the name?”
Okay, she was going to have to answer that question or flirt with an obstruction-of-justice charge. And Cirello was just the guy to make sure it stuck.
“Gil Harper told me Matthew worked for him.” There, that should be enough to keep her out of jail. She glanced at her watch. It wouldn’t be too much longer before Leah made it there. Meanwhile, two more patrolmen had arrived, and their row in the maze was getting crowded. Cirello told them to walk the rest of the maze to see what they could find.
“Just don’t touch anything,” he shouted after them. One of the men raised his hand to indicate he’d heard the warning. Rory had a feeling he would have preferred to use four less fingers. Cirello’s attitude had probably made him the darling of the precinct.
“Is that him? Is that Matthew?” Gil Harper had just come around the bend accompanied by Danny, Cirello’s younger partner. “Oh no, no, no.” Gil was wild-eyed and ashen, a very different man from the one Rory had been with less than an hour earlier.
“Rory?” Gil’s voice seemed to be brimming with unasked questions. He searched her face as if he might find an explanation there.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, reaching out to touch his arm. But his focus had already shifted back to Matthew. She exchanged a low-key greeting with Danny, surprised to see that he was still with Cirello. If she’d been saddled with the nasty curmudgeon, she wouldn’t have lasted a week. Maybe there was some secret perk to being Cirello’s partner. Like maybe he made the best barbeque or fudge on the Island. But somehow Rory doubted it.
“Mr. Harper,” Cirello said, without bothering to introduce himself.
“How can I ever tell his mother?” Gil was mumbling. “She’ll be devastated, destroyed. He was all . . .”
“Mr. Harper,” Cirello repeated, impatience sharpening his tone. But it was as if a wall had sprung up around Gil, insulating him from Cirello’s words.
Danny stepped closer to him. “It’s okay, Mr. Harper,” he said gently. “We’ll take care of notifying the next of kin.”
Gil turned to him and nodded. “Thank you. Please let Anya know we’ll take care of all the expenses, anything she needs. We’re here for her. She and Matthew,” his voice cracked, “like part of my own family, since Matthew was a little kid.”
“When did you last see the deceased?” Cirello asked, still using his naked-light-bulb approach. Rory wasn’t surprised to find that he hadn’t learned any compassion from the time he’d spent with his younger partner.
Gil’s brow furrowed, and he seemed momentarily lost. Danny didn’t try to rush him, but Cirello was turning an interesting shade of angry, and the muscles in his neck had started to bulge.
“I . . . I’m not sure,” Gil stammered finally. “A week . . . a week or so ago?”
“Maybe you could finish the interview in Mr. Harper’s office?” Rory suggested. Standing this close to the body had to be making it harder for Gil to concentrate.
Cirello glared at her. “Believe it or not, Ms. McCain, I’m quite capable of doing my job without your assistance.” Rory clamped her jaw shut before she could say something she was bound to regret. She didn’t want to make the situation worse for Gil or Danny. “In fact, there’s no reason for you to even be here,” he went on. “You and that dog belong on the other side of the police tape.”
From behind his partner’s back, Danny gave her a sympathetic shrug. Rory knew he couldn’t help her out. She was no longer with the police department, and Cirello had every right to banish her from the crime scene.
“You heard me,” Cirello snapped at her. “Take that mud-caked fleabag and get out of here.” The words were barely out of his mouth when his knees suddenly buckled under him, and he pitched forward onto the ground, landing on top of Matthew. One of the uniforms tried to help him up, but he waved the man off and scrambled to his feet on his own. “Which one of you jokers pushed me?” he demanded, glaring at each of them in turn.
“Nobody,” Danny said, looking equally surprised. “No one touched you.”
“Someone slammed me in the back of the knees hard enough to send me flying. I’ll find out eventually, so whoever did it might as well man up now.”
Rory had a pretty good idea who was responsible, but she had no intentions of sharing that bit of knowledge. “Maybe it was one of those microbursts they talk about on the Weather Channel,” she suggested.
“Localized at the back of my knees? What kind of fool do you think I am?” he shot back at her as he brushed the dirt off his suit.
“There’s actually a new phenomenon they’re calling a marshaled burst,” she said, trying to keep a straight face. The other policemen were looking at one another with raised eyebrows, but even if they thought she was nuts, they all chose to remain silent. If their emperor was naked, he wasn’t going to learn the truth from them.
“I thought I told you to get out of here,” Cirello growled, having apparently chosen her as his scapegoat for lack of a better candidate.
Rory placed her hand on Gil’s arm again. “We’ll talk soon,” she told him as she led Hobo past the patrolmen. “Try to stay out of drafts,” she called over her shoulder to Cirello. She knew she was baiting the beast, but she couldn’t help herself.
Rory and Hobo waited outside the maze and beyond the police line for Leah to arrive. The small throng of people they’d barreled past on their way into the maze had grown into a substantial crowd. The haphazardly parked police cars were visible from the street, beckoning to passing motorists like a sideshow barker trying to fill his tent: come one; come all. Find out for yourself what’s going down. Is it a robbery? An assault? Perhaps even a murder? Be the first among your friends to learn the truth. No charge. Plenty of room for everyone. Come on in.
By the time Leah arrived with her partner, Rory’s mud-caked appearance had fielded enough curious stares and whispered comments to last her a lifetime. Leah’s reaction was the last straw. “Don’t you dare,” Rory warned her when she saw the surprise and amusement light up her friend’s police-business face.
Leah bit her lip, but a moment later, when she opened her mouth to speak, a giggle escaped. “What happened?” If she was trying to sound concerned, she was failing miserably. Her partner, Jeff, wasn’t having much success either.
“Are you all . . . all right?” he managed, before clamping his hand over his mouth.
“Sure, I’m just fine,” Rory said. “Isn’t getting a cold mud bath, being dragged through a corn maze and finding a dead body on everybody’s list of most fun days ever?”
“Sorry,” Leah murmured, trying for an expression that was more in keeping with a friend’s distress and a murder investigation. “Can you catch me up?”
“Of course not. I only waited here, shivering, because I love being laughed at.” Rory paused to take a deep breath. “Hey, I’m sorry too,” she said. “This hasn’t exactly been my finest hour. Make that hours.” She gave Leah a quick recap of events up until the time Cirello threw her out.
Leah put her hand on Rory’s arm. “You go on home and take a hot bath. I’ll talk to you later.”
“No way. I’m heading over to that Channel 12 News van that just pulled in to give them an exclusive.”
Jeff’s eyebrows nearly rocketed off his forehead, sending Rory herself into a brief fit of laughter.
Leah shook her head. “You are so bad.”
Hobo had fallen asleep in the backseat as soon as Rory started the car’s engine. At times like this, she wished she could trade places with him. Zeke had gone home after they left the maze. As he’d put it, “Makes no sense usin’ up my energy to hang around and hear you rehash what we already know.” Rory hadn’t argued the point. The prospect of a peaceful ride home was too tempting to pass up.
When she turned onto her street twenty minutes later, she noticed Eloise Bowman standing at her front door. She groaned loudly enough to wake Hobo, who’d been in such a sound sleep that he had a befuddled look on his shaggy face. Since Eloise had her back to the road, Rory batted around the idea of speeding away before she was seen. But where could she and Hobo go in their present condition? If they went to her parents’ house or to her aunt Helene’s, they’d certainly be welcome, but Rory was too weary and miserable to answer their inevitable questions. She felt positively snappish. Of course that didn’t bode well for a visit with Eloise either. Under normal circumstances, Rory was quite fond of her elderly neighbor and grateful for her help in finally discovering who’d murdered Zeke. This just happened to be the worst time she could have picked for a visit. Come to think of it, why was Eloise out alone? Where was Olga? The Bowman family had hired the woman to keep tabs on their matriarch, who had an uncanny knack for slipping out of the house and showing up on Rory’s doorstep. Eloise’s doctors may have diagnosed her with “diminished capacity” as a result of her stroke, and her family might consider her daft, but Rory knew they were all missing a huge piece of the new and improved Eloise puzzle. As a result of her stroke, Eloise had picked up the ability to communicate with spirits on the other side of the veil.
While Rory sat there weighing her options, Hobo, no doubt curious as to why they were stopped in the middle of the road, started clambering over the center console to reach her. He made it halfway through the narrow opening, scratching her hand and shoving his muddy face into hers, before she could stop him. “Okay, hold on; we’re going home,” she said. She really didn’t have a choice in the matter anyway. How could she drive off and leave Eloise outside unattended? There was no telling what might happen to her or where she might decide to go next. Besides, she’d probably risked life and limb sneaking out of her son’s house to bring Rory a new message from the other side.
Eloise turned around when she heard the car pull into the driveway. When she saw Rory, her cheeks filled up with a smile. Her white hair had been allowed to grow to chin length in an attempt to make it more manageable than the wild tufts that used to stand at attention across her scalp. The result was somewhat successful. On the right side, her hair was mostly smooth and curled under at the ends, but on the left, her hair was mashed against her head as if she’d just been sleeping on it. She was wearing a long, white summer skirt with a Yankees windbreaker and boots.
Rory grabbed Hobo’s leash, and the two of them jumped out of the car and ran up the walk to the porch. She wanted to get Eloise into the house before she caught pneumonia, but Hobo had his own agenda. As Rory was trying to unlock the front door and steer Eloise inside, Hobo insisted on giving her an exuberant welcome. For a crazy couple of minutes, the three of them went around in a circle tangled up in the dog’s leash as if they were playing a strange version of Ring around the Rosie. Worries about pneumonia were quickly replaced by more immediate concerns of brittle bones shattering. By the time they all made it inside, Eloise’s white skirt was smeared with mud. Eloise didn’t seem to mind. In fact she’d been laughing with delight throughout the whole vaudevillian routine.
Rory banished Hobo to the backyard, hoping he’d roll around in the grass and dislodge some of his dried mud. Now to get Eloise back to the Bowmans. Rory settled her at the kitchen table with a bowl of black-cherry ice cream, a tried-and-true method of keeping her happy and stationary. Then she called the Bowman’s number. Jean Bowman answered the phone breathless and distraught.
“She’s here and she’s fine,” Rory said instead of “hello.” They’d developed their own shorthand with regard to Eloise.
“Oh thank goodness,” Jean responded, with a shaky sigh of relief. “She and Olga both fell asleep watching a movie. Olga woke up a minute ago, and she’s so hysterical I could barely understand what she was trying to tell me. I’ll send her right over.” Jean thanked Rory and apologized for what was at least the thirtieth episode of “Where Is Eloise?”
For the moment, she was wearing a dreamy look of pleasure as she spooned ice cream into her mouth. But when Rory joined her at the table, she stopped with the spoon in midair, and her sparse brows bunched over her eyes. “Everything happens for a reason,” she intoned solemnly. “There’s more to your marshal Drummond than you know.” Then her face relaxed and she went back to eating her ice cream.
The remark caught Rory by surprise. When she’d finally learned that Zeke blamed himself for the deaths of the young girls who’d been killed by his escaped prisoner she’d thought she understood all the darkness he carried in his soul. Now Eloise was telling her she didn’t know everything.
“What do you mean?” she asked urgently, trying to snag a bit more information before her elderly neighbor reverted to her childlike demeanor.
Eloise was busy scraping the last of the ice cream from her bowl. “Can I have some more?” she asked, hope dancing in her eyes.
It was already too late. Eloise the medium was gone. With a frustrated sigh, Rory picked up her bowl and set it on the floor for Hobo to lick. “Olga is coming to get you,” she said, trying to keep her irritation in check. It wasn’t as if Eloise was consciously trying to drive her crazy. “You can have more ice cream next time.” At that moment the doorbell chimed. “See—there she is now.”
“Pistachio?” Eloise asked fervently. “Next time can I have pistachio?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Rory promised, helping her to her feet.
“I don’t like Olga,” Eloise muttered, wrinkling her nose and pouting as Rory marched her to the front door. “Olga’s too bossy. And I haven’t even see Marshal Drummond yet.”
“He’s not here right now,” Rory told her, praying he didn’t suddenly appear out of the ether. She opened the door, never happier to see Olga’s broad face.
In the end, the bath turned into a shower. It was a simple matter of expediency. She could take Hobo into the shower with her, but two of them in the tub would never work. Whatever the combination of breeds that had given rise to Hobo, there was definitely no waterdog among them. As much as he’d enjoyed wallowing in the mud with the pigs, plain old water had always been anathema to him. By the time they stepped out of the shower, all Rory could be sure of was that they were cleaner than when they’d stepped in. The exact degree of cleanliness no longer mattered.
Once Hobo was out of the water he shook his coat vigorously, spackling the small bathroom with murky water. Another project she’d have to tackle later. She let him out of the bathroom so she could dry off and dress in peace. The floor space in there was limited, and with four legs, he’d taken up the majority of it. She was just pulling on a fresh pair of jeans when the lights flickered.
“I need a minute,” she called out. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen.”
There was no response, but she hadn’t expected one. Unless Zeke had a problem with her request, he’d be waiting in the kitchen. They’d worked out their living arrangements to her satisfaction, and for the most part, the marshal abided by her rules. She drew on an old, fleecy-soft sweatshirt that always made her feel warm and cosseted, added a pair of socks, ran a comb through her short hair and padded down the stairs to the kitchen feeling like herself again. Hobo and Zeke were already there. Hobo was lying near his food bowl with big, pathetic “I’m starving” eyes, even though he’d already had breakfast and wasn’t due for dinner until the late afternoon. Romping with the pigs had apparently left him famished.
The marshal was at the table with his chair tilted back and his dirty boats propped up on the glass tabletop. There’d been a time when that would have drawn outrage from her, but she no longer had to remind herself that his boots weren’t actually there. Good grief, they were becoming like an old married couple.
“That’s an entirely better look for you,” Zeke said as he pulled his feet off the table and set the front legs of the chair back on the floor. “The mud wasn’t really you.”
“Thanks,” Rory said, wondering if he’d been watching Project Runway or some other fashion programs when she wasn’t home. She scooped a cup of kibble from the bin in the pantry and poured it into Hobo’s bowl. The dog stood and sniffed the kibble without enthusiasm. “That’s all you’re getting for now,” Rory told him, “no matter how cute you are.” With a sigh of resignation, he started eating.
Zeke shook his head and grinned. “I swear that mutt understands every word you say.”
“I know,” Rory said, “sometimes even better than certain people do.”
Zeke opened his mouth as if he was thinking of going a round or two with her, but then closed it, letting the comment slide by. “So, what’s the deal with Gil Harper?” he asked instead.
“Wow—with everything that happened, I almost forgot about our meeting. He said he’d decide about hiring me, I mean us, by the end of the week.” The marshal got testy when she didn’t give him the proper credit.
“What’s the case involve?”
“Someone’s been feeding information to the competition. He hasn’t been able to figure out who the turncoat is, and recently things have escalated to the level of sabotage. The climate control in his largest greenhouse was badly damaged.” She sat down in the chair across from Zeke. “But I don’t know where the CPA’s murder leaves us. Harper may decide to defer the investigation in case the two crimes are somehow linked. The police could potentially solve them both at no cost to him.”
“A man who’s built up such a gold mine of a business?” Zeke shook his head. “To my way of thinkin’, he’d want some measure of control over how the investigation goes. And the only way he’d have that is to hire a private firm like ours.”
“Well, you’ve got that right.” Rory knew from her time with the police that they didn’t appreciate being told how to do their job, and they definitely wouldn’t be giving Harper updates when he wanted them.
“How much has all this cost him?”
“Harper didn’t talk numbers; he just said it was generally low-level stuff that didn’t do much damage to his bottom line. But now that sabotage is involved, he realizes he needs professional help to catch the traitor. What bothers him the most is that someone in his family or in his employ would steal from him. He wants to know who’s guilty so he can start trusting everyone else again.”
“Sounds reasonable. But gettin’ at the story behind that young fella’s death is likely to be a heap more interestin’.”
“That’s not our job,” Rory said, although she’d been thinking the same thing.
“Once upon a time it was my job. Yours too, for that matter, Detective McCain.”
“That may be, marshal, but it isn’t anymore.”
“As I recall, we solved the murder of Hobo’s owner while catchin’ those dognappers,” he said, a mischievous smile twinkling in his eyes. “I guess we’ll just have to sit tight and see where this case leads us.”
Rory nodded absently. There was nothing to be gained by debating the issue until they knew if Harper was going to hire them. Besides, her conversation with Eloise was still on her mind and demanding satisfaction. Would she be courting disaster by mentioning it to Zeke? His reaction alone might tell her if he was harboring other secrets. But was it worth upsetting their finely balanced apple cart to find out if there was more to learn about her partner? Who was she kidding? She couldn’t leave the question unasked anymore than she could wait until Christmas morning to open her presents.
“It’s Eloise, isn’t it?” Zeke said, running his hand through his hair the way he did when he was irritated. “Why do you let her fill your head with her nonsense?”
Rory waited to a count of five before answering. “Because I’ve never found it to be nonsense,” she replied evenly. The marshal’s opinion of Eloise was ever-changing. Her psychic ability had put him off from the first day they’d met. Rory wasn’t sure if it scared him, worried him or both. When she’d asked him about it, all he’d say was that it was “plain unnatural.” She hadn’t bothered to point out that hanging around for more than a century after you died wasn’t exactly the most natural thing either. There had been one brief period, back when she and Zeke were working on the murder of an amateur actor, that he’d actually teamed up with Eloise in the interest of keeping her out of trouble. But the alliance hadn’t lasted. Since that time, Zeke made a point of keeping his distance from her. Unfortunately Eloise didn’t share his feelings. Every time she came to Rory’s house, she was hoping to see him. Rory chalked it up to a case of unrequited like and tucked it away in a corner of her mind with all the other things over which she had no control. The older she got, the more crowded that corner was becoming.
The marshal had vanished from his chair to reappear in the same instant near the granite center island. Rory was surprised. He hadn’t done that in months. He usually practiced the normal movements of a living person so he wouldn’t forget them when he was out in public. He must be more upset than she’d imagined.
“Have you told me absolutely everything about your life?” he asked her.
“Well . . . no,” she had to admit.
“Then why do you expect to know everything about mine?”
He’d waltzed her right into a closet, locked the door and pocketed the key. Rory didn’t know how to respond, because he was right. “I’m sorry,” she murmured finally. “I just wanted to understand you better.” The apology sounded lame, even to her.
“Okay then,” he said, obviously taken aback that his argument had worked. “Since we’re agreed on that point, can we keep Miss Eloise out of our relationship from here on?”
Rory didn’t answer immediately. How could she agree to that? She had no way to prevent Eloise from telling her things, unless she wore earplugs all the time. And although Rory wasn’t about to admit it, she didn’t want to shut down that information highway. It had proven to be too valuable in the past.
“Rory?” The marshal was scowling at her.
Stalling for time, she explained the earplug dilemma to him.
“All right, fine—just don’t you go solicitin’ information from her.”
“Done.” That wasn’t how it worked with Eloise anyway.
“And don’t you go nosin’ around tryin’ to find out what I haven’t seen fit to tell you on my own.”
“Done,” she mumbled with far less enthusiasm.
Gil Harper called the next morning. His voice was hoarse, his tone subdued. He sounded like a man who needed some peace of mind and a week’s worth of sleep. The conversation was short and to the point. He wanted to hire her private-eye firm, Drummond and McCain, to catch whoever was sabotaging his business. Could Rory stop by so he could fill her in on the rest of the details and pay her retainer? She said she could, and they settled on three o’clock that afternoon. When Rory arrived, there was one crime scene van parked in the lot along with Leah’s unmarked car. Since she was a few minutes early, she wandered over to the corn maze to see what was happening. Although a colder front had moved in overnight, a dozen hard-core looky-loos in full winter regalia were standing behind the police tape sharing information and trading remarks. The crime scene investigators were nowhere in sight. Rory was about to head over to Harper’s office when Leah walked out of the cornfield.
“Joining the police groupies?” she asked after they’d hugged.
“Harper hired me to investigate another matter,” Rory explained, once they’d moved away from inquiring minds and ears. “What’s going on?”
“Jeff and I wanted to walk the place, chat with some of the employees, maybe pick up on something we missed yesterday.”
“I assume that means Dmitriev didn’t die of natural causes.”
“The medical examiner hasn’t released a cause of death yet,” Leah said.
“Medical examiner?” Rory repeated. “This is me you’re talking to. I’m sure you asked the medical examiner for his unofficial opinion, and I’m equally sure BB gave it to you off the record like he always does. What’s with all the formality?”
“Well, after you were almost killed capturing the creep who murdered Hobo’s owner, the lieutenant gave me a little speech about keeping civilians out of the loop and out of harm’s way.”
Rory went from indignant to apologetic in two seconds flat. “You never told me anything about that.”
Leah shrugged. “I’d appreciate your regret more if I believed you’d try to stay out of police business in the future,” she said with a rueful smile.
“Come on, Leah. I’m an investigator. Sometimes you and I are going to find ourselves headed down the same trail. And you know I can’t just walk away if things get a little dicey.”
“Sounds a lot like what I told the lieutenant,” she said dryly.
“I do have one more question.”
“Have you found a murder weapon?”
Leah went for her friend’s neck as if she intended to strangle her. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’m awfully good at keeping secrets,” Rory said sweetly. Aside from Eloise, no one had a clue she had a ghost for a housemate. Not even her aunt Helene, the queen of the pop-in visit. Of course she couldn’t give Leah that example without telling her about Zeke in the process, which would completely undercut the point she was trying to make, not to mention her promise to the marshal. “If you’re going to be around here tomorrow, I’ll meet you for breakfast at your favorite diner,” she wheedled. Leah had never turned down an opportunity to indulge in the crisp Belgian waffles they served.
“So now you’re bribing me?” Leah asked with mock horror.
“If I’d offered to buy you breakfast, that would have qualified as a bribe,” Rory told her. “I only offered to meet you there. As far as I know, tempting a detective with hard-core carbs isn’t a criminal offense.”
“Well, it certainly should be,” Leah muttered as Jeff strode up to them from the direction of the indoor nursery.
“Hi, Rory,” he said. “How’s it going?”
“I should be asking you that question,” she replied. “What’s the latest?”
“Come on, you know I can’t talk to the public about an active case.”
“But I was a comrade in arms,” she protested.
Leah laughed. “Forget it, Rory. You won’t get anything out of him—he’s incorruptible. And he doesn’t even like sweets. I’ll see you tomorrow—eight sharp.”
Rory was on her way to Gil Harper’s office when he came jogging toward her. “I have to catch the vet before he leaves,” he said, breathing hard. “The man’s the best in his field, but he refuses to carry a cell phone. Please make yourself comfortable in my office. I’ll only be a few minutes.” He took off again without waiting to see if she found that agreeable.
His office had been built onto the back of the Harper Farms bakery, but with access through a separate entrance. Rory had no trouble finding it, since she’d met with him there the previous day, which she now thought of as the “Day of the Pig.” She let herself in and closed the door behind her. It was a mellow, welcoming space, with soft leather seating in a caramel tone that managed to be as masculine as the dark, hulking furniture so many men seemed to prefer. A beautifully crafted bookcase covered one of the walls, and a large portrait of the Harper family dominated the wall across from it. The centerpiece of the room was an elegant cherrywood desk with an L-shaped side panel that held a computer and its components. The main desktop was remarkably free of clutter. Gil Harper appeared to be a well-organized man.
Rory didn’t mind having the time to peruse the books that lined Harper’s bookcase. What a person read offered a glimpse into his personality and interests, providing, of course, that the person in question had actually bought and read said books. Interior decorators were known to purchase huge lots of random books to fill bookcases such as these.
Rory found books on agronomy and agriculture, American history and economics, along with a smattering of the classics and a large collection of contemporary thrillers by James Patterson, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler and other best-selling authors of their ilk. There were also a couple of shelves devoted to books by mainstream authors like Anita Shreve, Joyce Carol Oates and Jodi Picoult, no doubt selected by Harper’s wife, Ellen. There was even a shelf of children’s books. Seeing them made Rory smile. The fact that Gil hadn’t tossed the books once his kids outgrew them spoke of a sentimental nature. Either that or he was a cheapskate saving them for future grandkids.
Since Gil was still MIA, Rory walked across the room to take a better look at the family portrait. When she was close to it, she realized it was an oil-enhanced photograph. The artist had done such an amazing job that to most laymen it would appear to be an original oil that required endless hours of posing. Gil and Ellen were seated on an upholstered bench in the center of the canvas with their three adult children posed casually around them. They all had blonde hair and intense blue eyes, making their resemblance to one another particularly striking. Gil, James and Luke were dressed in beige chinos and pastel button-down shirts, open at the neck. Ellen and Lacey were in light, flowery blouses and ivory pencil skirts, Lacey’s substantially shorter and tighter than her mother’s. They were all smiling with orthodontic perfection. Rory couldn’t help wondering what secrets might be hidden behind those bright eyes and dazzling smiles.
“Love that picture.” Gil’s breathless voice gave Rory a start. The door had opened so silently she hadn’t heard him come in. “Sorry . . . to keep you waiting. Forgot to tell the vet . . . to look at one of our goats . . . before he leaves. Please, have a seat.”
“No problem,” she said slipping into one of the two armchairs positioned in front of the desk. Gil sank into the padded, high-back chair behind the desk with a groan. “I have to start exercising again.” He paused as if he’d run out of air or was expecting some kind of response from Rory.
“I know, it’s getting harder and harder to fit everything into twenty-four hours,” she sympathized.