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|Publisher:||Boutique of Quality Books|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
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On that fateful early morning, Emily Ryder was doing her best to end the call from her mother on a positive note.
At the moment, her mother was on a short trip on her own to compare notes with other B&B owners and had just crossed into Vermont. She did so at the end of every summer in preparation for the fall influx of leaf-peepers to their village of Lydfield, a gateway to New England's famed Berkshires. This year, however, was more problematic, with rumors circling about an encroaching developer with an eye on the high meadow adjacent to her mother's property.
Ensconced in the guest cottage behind her mother's B&B where she stayed whenever she was in town, Emily continued to reassure her mother over the phone. She was hoping to quickly ease her way back to putting the final touches on another guided tour across the pond to Lydfield's sister village, Lydfield-in-the-Moor, a quaint historic village nestled close to storied Dartmoor in the United Kingdom. In point of fact, both her mother's B&B and the lure of moorland attractions had been marketable ventures for years. Until just recently, that is, when everything seemed up the air.
"Mom, it's going to be okay," said Emily, trying a little harder to keep things on an even keel. "Matter of fact, Will, that new handyman, is off this very minute."
"Doing what?" her mother replied in that skittish way of hers.
"Making your B&B the envy of New England. Plus acting as sentinel along with Oliver, his frisky golden retriever, while you and I are both away for the next few weeks."
"Well ... I still just don't know."
"The dog will help keep away any of those pesky realty people who are after your property. Will and Oliver, the dynamic duo. Think of it that way."
It wasn't the greatest of arguments, but it was the best Emily could come up with.
After a bit more reluctance on her mother's part, she finally agreed to try to worry a bit less as long as she was kept apprised of the latest goings-on.
"Absolutely," Emily said. "You've got it."
This was followed by her mother's sigh and the usual small talk about the plight of those in the tourist trade until they said their goodbyes.
All things being equal, it could be said it was all simply a matter of two tour businesses.
But all things weren't equal, and Emily found herself experiencing a growing sense of unease.
She padded over to the desk in the little living room that afforded a cozy view of the yard and rear entrance of the B&B. She pulled up a chair, caught sight of the gunmetal hue of the sky hovering overhead like a premonition, and couldn't help noting the change in the weather. And, once again, she couldn't help considering the realities.
There was the actual state of her mom's B&B, which was in somewhat disrepair and in need of renovation. There were the rumors emanating from the village Planning Commission with Chris Cooper, her longtime mentor and family friend, at the head. These innuendos centered on the Gordon Development Corporation, who apparently had their eye on the adjacent property. Not to mention her own struggles with the way her tour guide business was going.
In short, it was getting harder to be intrepid Emily, fit and trim, coolheaded, and able to handle whatever came her way. Of course, she knew full well how much her mother depended on her ever since Emily's dad left them in the lurch when Emily was just a little girl. Over the years, given the state of her mother's nerves, it had become a tenuous balancing act for herself and Chris Cooper to keep everything afloat.
She closed her eyes and took a minute to center herself. Then, with a barely audible "Okay ... right," she returned to the task at hand.
As a specialist in exploring captivating places in England, she had a pressing to-do list. An incurable rambler, she loved the job she'd created for herself exploring hidden worlds in the west country of England. She'd already confirmed reservations in Bath and Devon, staying in the sister village close by the wilds of Dartmoor, then continuing on to Fowey and St. Ives on the Cornish coast.
Which brought her thoughts back to her clients, the Curtises. As it happens, they lived just over the rise of the adjacent high meadow, and she had worked one summer for Silas, the eccentric brother of the equally eccentric spinsters, helping out with his mail-order antiques. All three thought it was such a big deal to be invited to take part in the Twinning portion of the annual fete in Lydfield-in-the-moor — the Twinning alluding to the on-again, off-again exchange between the "twin" villages. Harriet was in charge of this year's flower show; Silas, the historical aspects of the Twinning; and Pru, the stepsister, incorporating bits of her storytelling.
Emily never quite understood why Harriet, the eldest, was at odds with Silas and Pru. Emily simply put it down as a dysfunctional trio. What it would be like saddled with all three only added to her list of concerns. But the way business was going lately, she had to make do. Perhaps after she got through with this episode, things would pick up again.
Undaunted, she segued to the next item on her agenda — checking the specific route in the latest UK road map since her last foray. The plan was to meet the Curtises in Bath the day after tomorrow, rent a car to take them to the fete (the holiday festival), stay a few days, and then continue on to those other enticing points. This called for Emily to fly to London the next day, spend the night, take a train, hook up with the car rental agency, and so forth. She told herself, So far so good. She was on schedule; she was busy.
She was fully engaged studying the map when it all began.
It started with the squawks of wild turkeys above the trail and then a slew of loud obscenities that seemed to be coming from the same direction. She caught a glimpse of Oliver as he burst through the doggie door of the B&B and raced into the darkening Connecticut morning.
Emily tried to ignore the ruckus. She focused on some new details in her map as the noise level picked up another notch.
Getting flustered, she put the map to one side and peered out over the yard at the back steps on the off-chance Will was around. The dog would scamper back, the racket would cease, and she could go on with her work.
But no such luck. No sign of Will or his approaching pickup; no muscular, pale-yellow canine bounding back down the slope to the spot where he belonged. Just his incessant barking. Not only that, it was starting to drizzle. Oliver was young, still in his rambunctious puppy stage, and she couldn't just turn a blind eye and let him get into all kinds of mischief. He might even run off like he did once before.
Rising up from the desk, she slipped on her windbreaker, left the cottage, and was soon clambering past the sprawling roots of maple trees. With each passing second, her thoughts drifted past Oliver and began to center again on the possible machinations of the Gordon Development Corporation and its alleged dealings with the village Planning Commission.
Emily heard more shouts coupled with echoing barks and squawks as she gained on the verge through the soggy leaves and tangled underbrush. The surging bedrock, maples, and spindly birch finally gave way to the half-mile-square expanse of high meadow.
As she crested the rise, she caught the tail end of the melee about twenty yards away. A hurled branch flew through the air. Three or four wild turkeys refusing to give up ground lingered and squawked, their jutting beaks and flapping wings at the ready. Then they suddenly retreated, ashen wingspans fully displayed, a few hops and a takeoff, swooping close to the ground and away like tattered gliders. All of this fused with Oliver playfully darting around in pursuit of more hurled sticks as the man's curses dissolved to an obscene gesture.
Then it grew still, save for Oliver's sniffing survey of the spoils left by the turkeys.
Brushing himself off in the soupy mist, a stocky figure with a thick neck, pasty face, sagging raincoat, and dark, baggy trousers yelled out to no one in particular, "Hey, what is this? Can't a guy even walk around for Pete sake?"
She could have told him the turkeys were foraging and he'd overreacted. But she didn't want to get into any drawn-out discussion about the ways of the wild. All she was after was a clue to what the guy was up to, getting hold of Oliver, and returning to her agenda.
The second he noticed her, the man changed his tone. "Oh, how you doing? This your dog, I take it?"
Through the drizzle, Emily spotted a glittering, gold GDC emblem under his lapel.
"No," said Emily. "He's Will Farrow's retriever."
"Will Farrow? Right, you mean the fix-it guy, staying at the B&B while he patches it up?"
Though he was trying hard to be friendly, his voice had a raspy, cynical edge, and Emily didn't appreciate the way he was looking her up and down. Judging from his cropped gray hair and the deep creases in his face, she assumed he was in his early fifties. She also took him to be a point man for the development company. Otherwise, why would he be scouring around on his own, seemingly taking note of everything, checking out the lay of the land?
Stepping back onto higher ground, apparently self-conscious that Emily was a good two or three inches taller, the man reached into an inside pocket and took out a few printouts. In turn, Emily unfastened the collar of her windbreaker and pulled the hood over her head. All the while, Oliver looped around, sat and nuzzled his blocky head against Emily's thigh, and looped around again.
"Ah." The point man jabbed his finger at the top of one of the pages. "I got you covered. You're the B&B owner's daughter, used to play college soccer, but now you're some kinda tour guide. Carting a few locals around spots overseas. How am I doing?"
Emily shot him a wary glance, but he went on unfazed. "So good, so maybe you could be of some use, seeing how your ol' lady is off on some kinda busman's holiday. And her place is in need of lots of maintenance, right? But in this market and as far as the fall-foliage thing goes, what can I say about it all going down the drain?"
"How do you know all this?"
"I just do, all right? So, for openers, we got mom holing up somewheres in the boonies and not something to bank on."
"So, for openers, what are you driving at?"
Pocketing the printouts, he said, "Are you kidding me? Nailing down a right-of-way, what else? For the construction site, right where we're standing. The name so far is Lydfield Woods. Get it? Lydfield, Connecticut — Lydfield Woods. Hey, as long as we're at it, I would appreciate your take on this." "My take is, you're wasting your time. You'd better go back to the drawing board."
"Obstacles, right. Exactly what I've been saying. Which brings us back to how far this thing is gonna have to go."
The exchange broke off as Oliver dashed away into the mist. Seconds later, he returned with a gnarled branch gripped in his teeth. The point man ignored him, but Oliver went straight up to him and pawed at his trousers. The point man flung the stick far back into the woods in the opposite direction. Oliver's ears perked up as he dashed off again.
"Right," he said. "Something I should know before I make my move?"
"Come on, will ya? Cut the tap dance. I'm talking Chris Cooper, head of planning, who's gonna cast the deciding vote. I'm talking the old roofer guy and conservationist. I'm talking the number one issue. What's he trying to pull? What's he suddenly got up his sleeve?"
Emily pulled back. This was a veiled threat aimed not at the Planning Commission per se, but at her mentor. Her surrogate father since her real dad skipped out. In a word, he was after her best friend.
"I'm talking blowing the whistle, okay? Is that plain enough for you?"
Emily readjusted her hood and brushed her damp hair away from her eyes. "Go on."
Just then, Oliver returned with a new stick. Just as quickly, the man yanked it out of Oliver's mouth and pitched it out of sight. The fog hung a tad lower, cloaking everything in the near distance. Clueless, Oliver took off, this time heading south toward the far reaches of the meadow where the ground sloped down again, falling away to the Village Green.
The point man's eyes hardened as more droplets ran down his face. "Look, I appreciate how you're jerking me around and how you don't back down even though we're alone up here. So seeing you're about to go futzing off to England and we're both pressed for time, how about getting off it while I maybe do something for you?"
Oliver returned stick-less as the drizzle picked up.
Tired of this game, Emily said, "Okay, mister, let's have it."
"Okay. We're talking here about ratcheting the grand list — lower taxes, new fire trucks, snow plows, and all the infrastructure la-di-da. So talk to me. Give me the skinny on this Cooper guy before things get outta hand."
Getting testier by the minute, Emily gave him nothing.
"What do you think, I got nothing better to do? Here, you want my card? Will that do it for you?" He no sooner reached for his wallet when a cell phone jangled. He put the wallet away, pulled his cell out of his outer pocket, and turned his back.
The man's raspy voice cut off the protests at the other end. "Okay, okay, I hear you. Yeah, yeah, I'll take care of it. I set it up, didn't I?"
Muffling his voice, he walked further away. The only other words Emily could make out were, "All right, already. I gotcha. Right away."
"Great reception up here," he said, returning. "Another plus. Think about it. A hundred and twenty townhouses that can't miss no matter what. Toss in a clubhouse, pools, recreation facilities, and whatever." Fumbling inside his raincoat, he pulled out a brochure. "Twenty-two exterior looks, and that's for openers. They got lawyers, experts, and an eye to grab up enough land to keep 'em going for the next twenty years."
"I'm still waiting for an answer. What exactly are you up to?"
His cocky grin slid away. "Well, I ain't waiting no more." With that, he turned on his heels and scurried across the waist-high grass that could accommodate anything the GDC could come up with.
"Hold it," Emily said.
"Look, I'm under the gun, gotta step on it. Besides, I've had it up to here with the wet and the turkeys and the attitude. Enough already."
"And what's your name anyway?"
The raspy voice called back as it tailed off in the gauzy whiteness. "Doc! Okay? Just make it Doc!"
Emily held still. As her old soccer coach used to point out, one of her failings was confusing motion with action. But how could she ignore his threatening words in that harsh, Lower East Side tone? Before I make my move ... things get out of hand ... I'll take care of it right away ... I set it up, didn't I?
There was something else, come to think of it. A few days ago, when she'd returned from her latest tour, apparently a hot plate had been left on that almost burned down Chris's greenhouse. Something bothersome about the incident, but she couldn't put her finger on it. All she knew was that something was wrong.
Emily headed back to the crest of the trail with Oliver in tow. She worked her way down, dodging the glistening roots, tightening her hood as the water dripped from the overarching branches. She reached the bottom just as Will's red pickup pulled into the driveway. The second his lanky form appeared out of the cab, Oliver leaped up and smeared Will's Levi's jacket with his muddy paws, spun around, and smashed through the hinged flap of the back door.
As laid-back as ever, even though the rain was pelting his face, Will said, "What was that all about? On, no, don't tell me. Did he take off again?"
Emily ducked under the overhang of the cottage. "Sorry, I've got something I've got to look into."
Will shrugged and ambled over to the B&B. Calling across the yard, he asked, "Sure you don't want some hot coffee and an omelet? I can do it with chili or asparagus."
At any other time, she would have liked nothing better than to take a break and find out how his work was going. She'd only known him for a short while, dropped in for coffee once or twice, and he couldn't be that much older, maybe in his mid-thirties, and you never know. But at this moment, that was out of the question.
"Maybe. But right now I've got to —"
"Around five or so?"
"I guess ... sure, fine."
"Then you can tell me exactly what Oliver's been up to."
"I will. Later, okay?"
Stepping inside the cottage, Emily made straight for the kitchenette. All other issues were secondary now given the way her thoughts were running. Rambling and moving on was her primary modus operandi. But her encounter with this Doc guy meant there was no way she could shrug this off.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Secluded Village Murders"
Copyright © 2018 Shelly Frome.
Excerpted by permission of Boutique of Quality Books Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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