Autumn has descended on Westbury, Massachusetts, but the mood at the Farm-to-Table Dinner in Cam's newly built barn is unseasonably chilly. Local entrepreneur Irene Burr made a lot of enemies with her plan to buy Westbury's Old Town Hall and replace it with a textile museum--enough enemies to fill out a list of suspects when the wealthy widow turns up dead in a neighboring farm.
Even an amateur detective like Cam can figure out that one of the resident locavores went loco--at least temporarily--and settled a score with Irene. But which one? With the Fall harvest upon her, Cam must sift through a bushelful of possible killers that includes Irene's estranged stepson, her disgruntled auto mechanic, and a fellow CSA subscriber who seems suspiciously happy to have the dead woman out of the way.
The closer she gets to weeding out the culprit, the more Cam feels like someone is out to cut her harvest short. But to keep her own body out of the compost pile, she'll have to wrap this case up quickly.
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'Til Dirt Do Us Part
By EDITH MAXWELL
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Edith Maxwell
All rights reserved.
Are we holding a dinner here or not?" A peremptory voice resounded from the wide doorway of the barn at Produce Plus Plus Farm. Irene Burr seemed to fill the space despite her petite size. Back as straight as a tomato stake and not a silver hair out of place, she wore her signature cream-colored slacks, a sweater in pale peach, and a shimmering woven shawl.
Cameron Flaherty gulped. It was the first farm-to-table dinner at her farm, and here she was, flirting with the chef in the temporary kitchen he'd set up in the barn, instead of tending to one of her most irritable customers.
Walking toward the doorway, Cam waved and greeted Irene. "Yes, of course we are. Let me show you." She ushered Irene out and walked with her toward a white tent. Late-day sunlight slanted off its top. Green fields dotted with the oranges and reds of ripe fall crops stretched beyond.
"At least the weather is good."
"Thankfully, yes. It's a rain or shine event, but I'm sure everyone will be more comfortable this way." Cam was exceedingly thankful the threatened storm had tracked farther inland. It would have been miserable for guests to sit with rain blowing in the sides of the tent, since her budget hadn't extended to renting one that included walls.
Two long tables filled the space, their white tablecloths arrayed with settings for twenty on each side. A cool breeze blew away the few mosquitoes that remained in early October. Nosegay centerpieces of bright nasturtiums and fuzzy white spearmint flowers from her herb garden decorated every couple of feet. Cam straightened a fork here, a napkin there. The dinner was to be the crowning event of her first farm season. She was counting on it to build publicity for next year and hoped it would go as smoothly as a well-oiled tiller.
"What's on the menu tonight?" Irene pulled reading glasses onto her nose and peered at the menu sticking out of one of the jars on the nearest table.
"Jake Ericsson from The Market restaurant has outdone himself. We're starting with a Shady Oak Farm mushroom tart with Valley View Farm goat cheese. He also made a killer sweet potato empanada with chorizo from Kellie Brook Farm. It's all organic, of course."
Cam was about to go on when the loud rumble of a motorcycle on the drive distracted her. She glanced back and spied two helmeted figures dismounting. The rear passenger wore a skirt.
"Why did he bring her?" Irene gazed in the same direction, her lips pressed in a thin line, like she'd whiffed fresh manure.
A moment later, the two sauntered toward the tent. A slim woman dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans ran a hand through spiky dark hair as she clomped in thick-soled black high-top sneakers. The man wore a hooded sweatshirt and a black pleated skirt. Cam looked again as he approached. It was Bobby Burr. In a skirt, all right, with a label that read UTILIKILTS. Cam thought about all those days over the last couple of months when the intelligent and muscled carpenter had been working on her barn from atop a ladder. She'd enjoyed going over plans and talking construction with him. Still, she was glad he hadn't worn the kilt to work, despite his curly dark hair and sweet smile and despite the pockets and hammer loops the kilt sported. What men who wore kilts thought was appropriate to wear or not wear under them was anybody's guess.
Bobby leaned down to give his stepmother an air kiss.
Irene turned her cheek. "Hello, Robert. Your attire is very unusual today."
Bobby greeted Cam, rolling his eyes. "Do you know my friend Sim? Simone Koyama, this is Cam Flaherty. We call her Farmer Cam." He swung an arm around Cam's shoulders and squeezed.
His strong arm warmed the silk on her back in a distinctly pleasant way. She cleared her throat as she eased out from under his touch and extended her hand to Sim, who looked about the same age as Cam.
"Welcome, Sim. Any friend of Bobby's is a friend of mine. He worked a miracle this summer, rebuilding my barn." Cam wondered if friend was a euphemism for girlfriend or if the two were just pals. And she wondered if Sim was thinking the same about her and Bobby.
"He's good stuff, for sure." Sim shook hands with Cam. "Nice place you have here." The silver stud in her tongue matched the piercing in her eyebrow.
"Irene, you know Simone," Bobby began, but Irene was no longer there. She was strolling, her back to them, toward the far end of the tent.
"Oh, I know Ms. Burr," Sim said in a tart voice as she raised one eyebrow. "I'm her mechanic, not that she appreciates it."
"Why am I not surprised my stepmother is unappreciative?" Bobby stared after Irene. "Oh, well. That's Irene's world."
"She brings her Jaguar in for service but seems to think I'm less than perfect because I work on all foreign autos, not exclusively nineteen ninety Jags." Sim sighed.
"You're a mechanic?" Cam looked with new interest at Sim. "Do you work on trucks?"
"Sure. SK Foreign Auto down on Main Street? That's my shop."
"Cool. I'll bring my truck to you next time it needs work."
"Happy to have the business, Cam."
Alexandra Magnusson hurried up. "Sorry I'm late, Cam." As tall as Cam, the recent college graduate and avid locavore had a flair for wearing vintage clothes in unusual ways. Today she sported a rayon housedress with a leather vest and knee-high boots. A narrow turquoise scarf gathered her long Nordic hair into a knot.
"No worries. You're set for greeting, right?" She'd enlisted Alexandra to welcome people, check their names off the list, and hand out name cards.
"I tell them to clip the name card to the menu where they want to sit."
Cam nodded. Every place setting was anchored by a pint mason jar with the menu card, a red napkin, and a clothespin. Once they'd reserved their seats, guests could mingle, get a drink, and sample the appetizers before the sit-down part of the meal started. And the jars would serve as water glasses. Mill River Winery had already set up their table. Dozens of bottles of red and white stood ready to be opened, and sparkling stemless glasses were lined up like an army of thirsty drinkers.
"What are we eating tonight?" Alexandra asked.
"Appetizers first. Then Jake has prepared salads, a local pork ragout over fingerling potatoes, and roasted root crops with rosemary. Not sure what the dessert is, but I'm sure it will include Cider Valley Farm's apples in some form. I don't have enough from my one tree to count."
"Cam?" Ellie Kosloski, Cam's Girl Scout summer volunteer, touched Cam's shoulder. "The beer truck is here, and they want to know where to park." She pointed toward the drive.
Cam turned to see the Ipswich Ale Brewery Tapmobile idling, its driver leaning on the open driver-side door. She walked in its direction and called out a greeting.
"Follow me, Jim. Careful of the beds, okay?" Cam led the way along the wide packed-dirt path back to the tent. She'd hired the brewery to bring two kegs in their vintage red-and-white truck with the taps inserted right in the side. It was a very popular way to distribute beer.
Half an hour later the tent was nearly full. The little name cards stuck out from the clothespins, and customers holding wineglasses or beer cups chatted in small groups. Ellie and her friend Ashley, both fourteen, sported black server aprons from The Market over skinny jeans and white shirts. They circulated with trays of the bite-size tarts and empanadas.
Cam stood at the opening to the tent. She took a deep breath and prepared to be social, always a challenge for her. She began to circulate, checking in with each group. She approached her regular customer Wes Ames as he scowled down at Irene.
"It will benefit the town, Mr. Ames. I am quite sure of this." Irene shifted her glass of wine to the other hand and smoothed down a lock of hair with a pinkie finger that bent toward the ring finger at its last joint.
"Old Town Hall has been our central meeting place for decades, Mrs. Burr. It has historical significance."
"How significant can it be if the town can't even afford basic repairs on it? I'm surprised you haven't been sued for lead poisoning from the flaking ceiling falling into people's hair during Town Meeting." Irene kept her voice even, but her jaw tightened.
"If you'd cooperate with us on our fund-raising instead of trying to buy the building out from under us, we could raise the repair money." Wes folded his arms across his chest.
Cam edged in and greeted Wes. "Where's Felicity?" His effervescent wife had reached out to Cam with support and friendship in the months since they'd met.
"Her sister in Albany is having surgery, so she's staying out there for a couple of weeks. She was sorry to miss this dinner, I'll tell you."
"It's too bad she couldn't make it. So what's this about the Old Town Hall?" The venerable building wasn't far from Cam's farm, but she hadn't had time to read the local weekly paper lately and clearly had missed a brewing controversy.
"I want to help the town." Irene's confident tone held just a touch of smugness. "I am offering to buy the building and create a textile museum in it. I'll restore it and bring tourism to our lovely town, which will bring dollars. It's a win-win."
"Our lovely town has been doing fine without your tourism," Wes said. "Who's going to pay for—"
"Cam! Those garnishes?" A voice boomed from the temporary kitchen chef Jake Ericsson had set up in the newly rebuilt barn. Crud. Cam was supposed to have cut a few last-minute handfuls of parsley and garlic chives for Jake to sprinkle on the ragout.
"Excuse me," Cam said as she turned away.
"I'll get them, Cam." Ellie set her tray down on the serving table near the entrance to the tent. "I have my knife." She headed toward the herb beds.
"Thanks, Ellie." Cam wondered what else she had forgotten to do. She went over the list of guests in her mind. Cam had comped tickets for Howard Fisher, because Jake was serving pork from Howard's pig farm, and for Bobby, who had somehow managed to rebuild Cam's barn in only three months after the fire in June that had nearly killed her and Ellie. Her childhood friend, and a local police officer, Ruth Dodge and her twin girls were coming. And, of course, Cam's greatuncle Albert. She wouldn't even be a farmer if he hadn't urged her to take over the place. Great-Aunt Marie had died and Albert had had to have his foot amputated a year later. When Cam was laid off from her job, Albert had offered her the farm.
Cam walked briskly to the barn and popped her head in its wide open door. She inhaled deeply. "It smells divine. Everything under control? Ellie's getting those herbs for you." She waved at Jake and his assistant, who were artfully arranging slices of rich gold tomatoes on eighty salads laid out on a long table, salads made exclusively from greens, tomatoes, and herbs that Cam had harvested that morning. Her locavore customers were going to love it. Cam wasn't nuts about eating only locally grown foods like some of her subscribers, but if their obsession kept her farm going, she was all for it.
Jake raised his head. "We are good. I think." He winked at Cam, who promptly blushed right up to the roots of her red hair. Their date on Monday had been especially nice. No time to dwell on that now, though. She looked down at her green silk shirt and black jeans tucked into cowboy boots. At least she'd remembered to change before people had started arriving.
Ellie sauntered in with a bunch of herbs in each hand. "Where do you want these, Chef?"
"In the washing bin over there would be great." Jake gestured with his head. "Thanks, Scout."
Ellie rolled her eyes. "My name's Ellie, Jake." She shook her head as she dropped the fragrant green bits into the galvanized metal basin.
Cam reflected on how much Ellie had grown up over the summer. She had been a very young fourteen in June but now looked and acted much more like the ninth grader she was. Plus, she'd grown a couple of inches.
Ellie put her hands in the back pockets of her jeans and gazed up at the barn, rotating her head. "That Bobby dude sure worked fast. It looks awesome."
Cam agreed. Bobby had managed to capture the essence and beauty of Albert's antique barn while improving on its functionality. He'd even re-created the clerestory window that had saved Cam's and Ellie's lives a few months earlier. The rosy hues of the late-day sun filtered in through the wide window above the barn's back door.
"I'd better get back to the tent," Ellie said. "Give, like, a shout when you want us to start serving plates, Jake."
"I'd say ten minutes. We'll wheel the salads out." Jake gestured at the stainless steel cart he had brought from the restaurant.
"I should get back, too," Cam said. "I guess I'm going to have to give a little welcoming speech. I'll introduce you, Jake."
As Cam walked back to the tent, she heard shuffling behind her. She turned to see Howard Fisher keeping pace with her several yards back. He wore his signature dark green work shirt and pants with leather work boots. The ensemble at least looked clean, unlike some of the times Cam had seen him at the farmers' market. She stopped even as she wondered why he hadn't greeted her.
"I'm so glad you could make it, Howard." Cam extended her hand.
Howard halfheartedly shook hands with a grunt of acknowledgment, his rough palm barely clasping Cam's. "Glad for the business."
"Your wife couldn't make it?" She had never been introduced to his wife but had seen them in public together once.
"Somebody's got to do the chores," he muttered, looking straight ahead.
Cam nodded. Really ? Surely, the chores could wait a couple of hours. Well, it was none of her business.
Cam introduced Howard to Alexandra when they arrived at the entrance to the tent. "Howard gave us a very generous discount on the pork for one of tonight's dishes."
"Welcome, Mr. Fisher," Alexandra said. She shot an odd look at Cam and led him away, explaining to him about the seating and drinks and leaving him at the beer truck.
What was that look? Cam shook her head as she surveyed the group. The teens were doing a great job circulating with the trays of appetizers. Great-Uncle Albert chatted from his wheelchair with Lucinda DaSilva, Cam's friend and best farm volunteer. Sim and Alexandra seemed to have bonded. Bobby and Irene stood on the periphery, engaged in conversation. He frowned and shook his head while she glared at him and gesticulated.
Irene was on quite a roll tonight. First Sim, then Wes, now Bobby. Cam knew Bobby as an extremely good-natured man, a hardworking carpenter, and a bit of a flirt. Seeing him in a fight, with his stepmother no less, was new. Since the beer truck was parked right beyond them, Cam thought she might head over for a sample and maybe a bit of a listen, too. She strolled in that direction, her eyes away from the two, but her attention tuned to them.
"I am happy doing what I do, Irene, and I'm good at it," Bobby said.
"Your father wanted you to do more than carpentry, Robert. You know that."
"I have no interest in working for you, Irene. Zero. Nada. Zilch. It's not going to happen."
"You know I inherited Zebulon's assets. If you persist in this misguided vocation, you won't see a penny of them. And my real son might."
"You stole Dad's assets. For all I know, you killed him yourself. And what real son are you talking about?"
Cam whistled under her breath. Whoa.
Jim hailed her from the truck. "Try the Five Mile Rye Saison, Cam."
Cam agreed, asking for a half cup. She thanked him and savored the ale on her tongue as she mulled over what she had heard. She glanced back at where Bobby and Irene had been, but they'd moved on.
She took a deep breath. She was the farmer in charge, and it was time for her speech, whether she wanted to do it or not. She strolled to a spot at the end of the tent, between the beer truck and the wine table, and waved her arms over her head.
"Can I have your attention, please?"
Attention not forthcoming, she said it again with a rise in volume. The chatter and clatter continued. Alexandra noticed Cam's plight and stuck two fingers between her lips. A resulting piercing whistle startled the crowd into quiet.
Cam laughed. "Thanks, Alexandra. And welcome, everyone. I just wanted to say a few words before we start eating."
"Hope they're not prayer kind of words," someone behind her whispered, which made Cam almost wish she were religious solely to counter that sort of mean spirit. And then she wished she knew who said it.
She took a deep breath. "Thanks to everybody here tonight. We're going to have a really special meal. And I'd like to thank all of you who signed up as farm shareholders for my first season. You did it on faith, which I appreciate. I hope you've felt nourished by the food and by being part of this community. It's been an interesting year for you and me both." She swallowed and forced a smile.
"I particularly want to thank the volunteers who helped me keep the farm running after the fire. You know who you are." She scanned the crowd for Lucinda, Alexandra, Wes, Ellie, and others, giving each a nod.
"And there's Bobby Burr, our resident artist-carpenter, who worked like a maniac to produce a working barn again in short order." She pointed at Bobby, now standing with Sim and Alexandra, who waved his acknowledgment.
Excerpted from 'Til Dirt Do Us Part by EDITH MAXWELL. Copyright © 2014 Edith Maxwell. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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