When Helga Oliver, the town's elderly historian, is found crumpled in the basement of the Historical Museum, the close-knit town is devastated. But after some tenacious digging, Stan discovers Helga was pushed down the stairsand that this picture-perfect New England town may hide some dark secrets . . .
Stan's dogged determination reveals Helga's ties to an unsolved death in 1948 . . . but how does that connect to Adrian Fox, who's just arrived in town to shoot an episode of Celebrity Ghost Hunters? Stan is going to have to be very careful in chasing down the killerif she wants to live to see another winter . . .
Includes Gourmet Pet Food Recipes!
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Icing on the Corpse
By Liz Mugavero
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Liz Mugavero
All rights reserved.
Groundhogs invaded the basement of the Frog Ledge Unitarian Universalist Church. They came in all shapes and sizes, at least sixty of them—tall, short, fat, skinny, fluffy tails, flat tails. Some stood around drinking coffee, others chatted in groups, still more milled around the makeshift podium at the front of the meeting room, waiting for the festivities to begin.
"This is surreal," Stan Connor said quietly.
"You just feel out of place because you don't have a groundhog costume like the cool people." Jake McGee, her sort-of boyfriend, gazed solemnly at her. "I told you I would've gotten you one."
She elbowed him. "Oh, be quiet. You don't have a costume." Not that he needed one to stand out. He was easily one of the best-looking people around, in his own jeans, baseball cap, and stubble kind of way.
"I'm not cool." He winked.
All eyes turned to the podium now commandeered by Betty Meany, Frog Ledge's librarian. Betty was so short you could barely tell she stood two steps above the crowd. But the tangerine-colored scarf she'd tied around her spiky white hair, combined with her bubbly energy, made up for what she lacked in height. A drop-down screen lowered behind her. Not surprisingly, a smiling groundhog image appeared.
"Happy Groundhog Day," Betty continued. "I'm so thrilled you're all here. We have such a great program planned for you today. Before I give you a sneak peek, I'd like to introduce you all to this year's Groundhog Gift-Giver: Stan Connor, owner and chief baker at Pawsitively Organic!" She led a round of applause. "Stan has been chosen to present Lilypad, our groundhog guest of honor, with her annual gift. Stan, can you please come up?"
Stan felt her face heat up. She'd never been asked to give a groundhog a gift before. That alone was stressful. And a groundhog named Lilypad took it to a whole new level. Couple it with being on display for the whole town's critical eye, and it was worse than her most contentious media face-off at her old corporate job. The situation was exacerbated by the continuous replay of the Ally McBeal theme song in her head—because certainly, this could only happen on a nineties TV show. She still hadn't lost her old habit of assigning most things in her life a soundtrack. She mentally shoved the song out of her head. Jake gave her a gentle push forward.
"Go! You don't want to miss your moment in the sun," he said.
She didn't have time to glare at him as all eyes turned toward her. She took a deep breath and squeezed through the crowd until she reached Betty.
Betty beamed at her. "Congratulations! Would you like to say a few words?" She moved aside, giving Stan room at the podium.
Luckily, thanks to her past life in public relations, Stan could recite a good quote without even thinking about it. "I'm absolutely honored Pawsitively Organic has been chosen as the gift-giver for Lilypad. I can't think of a better way to spend my first Groundhog Day in Frog Ledge." She smiled brightly, showing plenty of teeth.
A flashbulb went off from the front of the crowd, nearly blinding her in the dim room. Cyril Pierce, publisher and lone reporter for the local newspaper, the Frog Ledge Holler, called out. "Is the gift edible?"
"The gift is edible," she assured him. "But that's all I can tell you before the unveiling."
As the "chosen citizen"—the one who presented a gift to the town groundhog—Stan had a tradition to uphold. Namely, no one could see the present before Lilypad. Many citizens had been vying for the honor of gift-giver for years and had never even been considered. At least that's what her friend Char Mackey had told her in awed tones when she'd heard the news. Who knew? But the whole town had been speculating like crazy about what Stan would do for Lilypad. Which had resulted in a whole lot of pressure over the last two weeks since the mayor had tapped her as "the one."
"Thank you, Stan." Betty led the round of applause as she stepped down. "We can't wait to see the gift. In the meantime, we'll continue social hour right here, with refreshments, stories, a slideshow of our past events"—she indicated the screen behind her—"and then we'll move outside around eleven. Lilypad will arrive shortly thereafter. We'll have live music and our town historian, Helga Oliver, will start the ceremony with a history of Groundhog Day in Frog Ledge. Mayor Tony Falco will present Lilypad with a citation. Then Lilypad will offer her verdict and hopefully, we'll bring winter to a close!" Betty smiled and nodded as the crowd offered up another round of applause.
"Stan will present the gift in closing. Lastly, I just want to remind everyone what an honor it is to have Lilypad the groundhog here. Lilypad's handler told me when she accepted our invitation that Frog Ledge is the only celebration she would consider, because our programs are so classy. So thank you all for your help in making our town's celebration the go-to event! We'll see you outside in an hour!" And she hurried off the podium. Behind her, the slide show began to flash across the screen as "We've Only Just Begun" began playing. The Carpenters? Really?
Stan looked at Jake. "Do other towns really do this? I thought it was just that little town in Pennsylvania where the media always converges."
"We're the only ones in Connecticut who do it up this big," a voice from behind Stan chimed in.
They both turned to find Cyril Pierce behind them. He wore his typical outfit—a black trench coat over black jeans and a button-down shirt—and his short, curly hair stuck out every which way, thick glasses askew. He carried a steno pad and the offending camera. He nodded at Stan. "Congratulations."
"Thanks. Is there a reason we do it up big?" Stan asked.
Cyril shrugged. "We like to celebrate random holidays."
It was as good a reason as any. Stan had gotten to the point where, almost a year after moving to Frog Ledge and despite still feeling sometimes like she'd gone down the rabbit hole, she was much better at accepting the way things were done.
"I'm going to go see if Betty needs help." Jake leaned down and kissed her cheek. "I'll find you." He walked off. She watched him go, not sure if her cheek was really burning from his lips or if she was having some weird flashback to sixteen.
"Hello? Stan?" Cyril waved his steno pad at her. "I have a couple more questions."
"Hmm? Oh, sure. Shoot." She focused on him. "But I can't give anything away about the gift."
She spent the next few minutes dodging specifics while explaining that, based on her research, groundhogs were vegetarians who enjoyed an occasional bug. Those findings had given her pause considering her occupation—baking healthy, natural, organic pet treats—and the task before her, but she figured she could make it work. She'd spent all day yesterday baking a special, full-sized, carrotshaped cookie flavored with nuts and berries, resting on a bed of grass. Organic, homegrown cat grass, to be specific. She hoped Lilypad liked it.
"Excuse me." A groundhog-costumed man tapped her on the shoulder. "Do you have any treats here? I promised my dog I would bring some home. I hope you do. He'll be real upset if not." He looked anxious.
Stan glanced at Cyril. He seemed about to protest this diversion of her attention when a portly old man with an unlit cigar clamped between his teeth materialized at his elbow. Stan noticed their resemblance to one another immediately. Namely, the same thick glasses and unkempt curly hair, although the older man's was gray.
Cyril looked startled. "Dad. What are you ..." He turned so Stan couldn't hear him and said something. The old man looked annoyed. Cyril glanced back at Stan and flipped his notebook closed. "I'll need comments and a photo after the presentation."
"Absolutely," Stan promised. She watched them walk away, the faint smell of stale cigar following. Cyril had a dad. Funny thing to be surprised about. She'd never actually thought about Cyril as a real person with a family. Mostly he was Frog Ledge's prickly newsman.
"So what kind do you have?" the groundhog man asked, dragging her attention back.
She focused on him. "I have broccoli and cheese, peanut butter and banana, and blueberry vanilla barley. Three sizes—large, medium, and small."
The man pumped his furry fist in the air. "Awesome! Are they ..."
"Groundhog shaped?" Stan finished. "You bet." She smiled as she led the delighted customer to her display set up on one of the folding tables Betty and her team had dragged from the storage room and dusted off that morning. She was catching on to this group of quirky townsfolk and their preferences. It had been a mad search for three sizes of groundhog-shaped cookie cutters, but her persistence had paid off. She'd even made salmon-flavored cat treats in the same shape.
She packed up some cookies, collected her money, and sent the guy on his way, then scanned the crowd for Jake. Nowhere in sight. If he'd offered himself up to Betty, she was sure to keep him busy for the rest of the event. He might even miss her gift presentation.
"Hey! You ripped out my fur!" The ear-splitting shriek jolted Stan. Two kids faced off, one with a clump of fake fur from the other's costume in his hand, an evil smile on his face. The kid unfortunately missing his tail burst into tears and began screaming for his mother, who didn't seem to be anywhere in sight.
In the midst of the chaos, Stan heard the shrill voice behind her loud and clear. "You're the pet food lady!"
She turned automatically at the title—she was used to it in some form or another these days—to find a woman with long, frizzy platinum curls, dressed like Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac. Her flowy purple skirt was accented by a lacy top and high-heeled boots. All that was missing was a top hat and a microphone with a scarf tied around it. She smiled eagerly at Stan, waiting for her response. Her right front tooth was smeared with Corvette red lipstick, a color that remained only in faded tones on her lips. Immediately, the opening bars of "Gypsy" floated through Stan's head. She half expected the woman to break into a signature twirl. Another woman who seemed to be accompanying her stood a couple of steps behind, a slightly mortified smile on her face. By contrast, she looked like an affluent soccer mom, sporting a North Face coat, expensive-looking yoga pants, and carefully messy, salon-streaked hair. And a very nice Louis Vuitton bag.
"That's me." Stan offered her hand, clamping down on her runaway mental activity. "I'm Stan Connor."
"Sarah Oliver. I have heard delightful things about you." Sarah took her hand, clasped it between both of hers, and closed her eyes.
What the heck is she doing? "Oliver. Are you Helga's daughter?" Stan asked, delicately trying to tug her hand away.
Sarah didn't say anything for a long minute and continued to hold on to Stan's hand, her grip like a vise. Finally, she opened her eyes. "You have strong energy," she said.
Sarah smiled and nodded. She finally dropped Stan's hand. Stan swore it felt hot. "I am Helga's daughter. Do you know Mum?"
"I do. I'm—I know her through Jake. McGee." Four months in and she still didn't know what to say about Jake. Were they dating? Was he her boyfriend? As much as she liked him—heck, she really liked him—did she want to put a label on it? This stuff shouldn't be as complicated in your thirties as it was in your teens and twenties.
But the recognition dawned as Sarah put two and two together. "Of course. Jake's new gal. We've heard all about you. But I knew about you because my mum is a fan of your cat treats. Her Benedict is a picky eater."
Heard all about her? Was Jake talking about her to Helga? She knew Helga was a very close family friend of the McGees, basically a surrogate grandmother to Jake and his two sisters. The thought of Jake confiding in her about his sort-of relationship made her blush.
The other woman finally stepped forward. "Hi. I'm Carla Miller."
"Nice to meet you, Carla." Stan shook her hand, too.
"Carla's my sister-in-law," Sarah said. "I drive her crazy. "
Carla flushed. "You do not. Hush."
"She's a politician's wife," Sarah told Stan. "That's why she's so polite. And a little snobby." She elbowed Carla playfully, but Carla did not look amused. She shifted her bag to her other shoulder, adjusting it so the Louis Vuitton tag was unmistakable.
"Politician?" Stan asked.
"Don Miller. Town councilman," Sarah said. "My big brother. Different fathers," she added.
Carla looked like she wanted the floor to open up and swallow her. Sarah was oblivious to the discomfort she appeared to be causing her sister-in-law. She leaned closer to Stan. "Are you giving the groundhog a dog cookie?"
Stan glanced around to make sure no one else was paying attention and answered in her own stage whisper. "It's not a dog cookie ... it's a groundhog cookie."
Sarah's lips formed an O. "Can I see it?"
Stan cringed at the question, hoping no one had heard. Too late. Betty materialized at Stan's elbow, and the look on her face could've crumbled the cookie into a million pieces. "Sarah, what do you think you're doing? You know better than that!"
Stan opened her mouth to intervene, but Sarah suddenly closed her eyes and swayed, grabbing the edge of the table. Alarmed, Stan reached for her.
"What's wrong?" She looked at Betty. "Is she okay?" Betty's look of disdain said it all, but Sarah's eyes flew open. "Where's Mum?" she asked urgently.
Stan looked around. "I haven't seen her."
"Neither have I," Betty said, still sullen. "Why?" Sarah's flighty demeanor was gone. In its place, Stan read fear in her eyes. "Something's wrong. We need to find her."CHAPTER 2
"She's just a drama queen. She was trying to divert my attention from her inappropriate question about Lilypad's gift." Betty stormed outside and scanned the crowd huddled in the parking lot, braving the cold and waiting for the event to start. The green itself was still covered in at least six inches of snow, so they were relegated to the smaller concrete area for the festivities. Stan hurried to keep up with her.
"Everyone knows you can't peek at the gift! She doesn't bother with her mother that much anyway. All of a sudden she's worried about her?" Betty made a hand gesture that Stan wouldn't expect from a librarian.
"Are you sure?" Stan asked. "She seemed pretty serious." After her near-fainting spell, Sarah had rushed off, Carla in tow, presumably to look for her mother. Stan didn't know where they'd gone.
"Trust me. You don't know Sarah. She's trouble with a capital T Raymond!"
Ray Mackey turned from the group of people he huddled with. "What can I do for you, Betty? Hello there, Stan."
Stan gave him a hug. Ray and Char Mackey, owners of the Alpaca Haven Bed-and-Breakfast, were her first and most trusted friends in Frog Ledge. They knew all the gossip, were always supportive of her, and the fact that Char was from New Orleans originally didn't hurt. She made the best food and strongest drinks in town, though Stan wouldn't tell Jake that. As the owner of McSwigg's, the local Irish pub, he would find that assessment offensive.
But Betty was in no mood for niceties. "Where's Helga?"
Ray, in his usual slow and steady manner, thought about that long enough that Betty looked about ready to pop. "I'm afraid I don't know, Betty."
"Aargh," Betty muttered. "She's got to be around here somewhere."
"Do you need a replacement historian?" A man with a scraggly beard and tiny eyeglasses appeared behind Betty. "I'm happy to jump in if Helga is neglecting her duties. I'm quite an expert on our town's Groundhog Day legacy." He smiled at Stan and held out a cold, thin hand. "Dale Hatmaker. I'm—"
"We'll be fine, Dale," Betty cut in, stepping in front of Stan before she could shake his hand. "Thanks for offering."
Despite Betty's curt tone, Dale Hatmaker didn't look offended. Instead, he smiled at them both, clasped his hands together, and bowed his head at Betty, then walked away.
Stan looked from Betty to Ray. Both were glowering after Hatmaker. "Who was that?"
Betty rolled her eyes. "That's Dale. Self-elected historian. He wants Helga's job and doesn't make it a secret. Shameless, if you ask me."
"Completely shameless," Ray added, snapping his suspenders. "As my wife would say, he ain't got the good sense God gave a rock."
Stan smiled at the southern phrase so common to Char. "Her job? You mean you get paid to be the historian?" she asked.
"Well, of course you do!" Betty looked at Stan like she was slow. "It's not a fortune, but it's a small salary. Dale just wants the title. He knows some things, sure, but he's not a lifer in town like Helga and her family. He's only lived here about fifty years." Betty sniffed, as if that were equivalent to about two weeks. "He just wants his name in the paper. Anyway, I must go find her. If you see her, please find me right away." She hurried off, leaving Stan and Ray staring after her.
Excerpted from The Icing on the Corpse by Liz Mugavero. Copyright © 2015 Liz Mugavero. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.