The last surviving flowers on Lucy Stone’s porch have fallen victim to the first frost of the season. On the bright side, Thanksgiving, and the annual Turkey Trot 5K, are coming up in Tinker’s Cove, Maine—though sadly, Lucy’s four kids won’t be home today. But the holiday turns tragic when Lucy finds beautiful Alison Franklin dead in Blueberry Pond.
No one knows much about Alison, except that she was the daughter of ultrawealthy investor Ed Franklin, whose new wife is around Alison’s age. With heroin use increasing in town, police blame an accidental overdose, while her father casts vague accusations rooted in prejudice. But Lucy can’t understand what terrible forces could lead a privileged woman to ruin…
As a state of unrest descends on Tinker’s Cove, Lucy is thrown into a full-scale investigation. Now, Lucy must beat the killer to the finish line—or she can forget about stuffing and cranberry sauce…
“Timely…Meier’s focus on racism gives this cozy a serious edge rare for this subgenre.”—Publishers Weekly
“Reading a new Leslie Meier mystery is like catching up with a dear old friend.”—Kate Carlisle, New York Times bestselling author
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So the deep frost had finally come, thought Lucy Stone, stepping onto the back porch of her antique farm house on Red Top Road and surveying the withered mums that had been so bright and colorful only a few days ago. This recent long, extended spell of warm weather had been strange, even unsettling, she thought as she stretched her hamstrings. But today was more like it, she decided, grasping one ankle and pulling her foot to her bottom. This crisp weather was great for a run, a sentiment also shared by Libby, the family Lab. Libby was ready to go, and even though her black muzzle was now fading to white, she didn't need any warm-up exercises. She was circling eagerly, throwing expectant glances to Lucy as if to say "Enough of this nonsense. Let's go!"
"Okay," agreed Lucy, skipping down the porch steps and crossing the frosty lawn in an easy jog. She picked up speed once she reached the old logging road that wound through the woods behind the house, pushing herself to improve her speed. This year she was training for the Tinker's Cove annual Turkey Trot 5K race, and she thought she might actually have a chance of winning in her age division.
There were not many runners signed up in the women over-forty category, and those who were running were mostly casual runners interested in burning calories before they sat down to a big Thanksgiving dinner. That had been Lucy's attitude in the past, but this year was different. This year she wasn't going to be cooking a big turkey dinner for the whole family. This year, well to be honest, she wasn't sure what she and Bill were going to do. Since it would be just the two of them perhaps they'd eat out in a restaurant, or maybe one of their friends would include them in their celebration.
Her feet pounded along the pine needle strewn path in a regular rhythm as she reviewed the various plans her children had made without consulting her. Of course she hadn't expected Elizabeth to come home for Thanksgiving; her eldest daughter was busy with her job as an assistant concierge at the upscale Cavendish Hotel in Paris. It also wasn't practical for her only son Toby to sit down at the usual groaning board. Toby, his wife Molly, and son Patrick had returned to Alaska where Toby had a government job working to increase and improve salmon stocks. It had been wonderful having the young family living in the old homestead while he took graduate courses at nearby Winchester College, and Lucy had really enjoyed spending time with her grandson, but that was a temporary arrangement. Now she stayed in touch with Patrick via Skype, setting aside a half-hour every Sunday afternoon.
But, she thought as she allowed a certain sense of resentment to carry her over a rather steep patch of trail, it had been rather inconsiderate of the two daughters who remained home to make separate plans for the holiday. Sara, who was studying earth science at Winchester College, had signed up for a field trip in Greenland led by one of her professors, arguing it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and would strengthen her graduate school applications. Okay, muttered Lucy, huffing a bit from exertion, she understood. It wasn't her preference, but she could live with it. No, it was Zoe, her youngest, who had really driven in the knife with a nasty twist. Zoe had announced only days before that her friend and neighbor Renée La Chance had invited her to spend the Thanksgiving break with her at Concordia University in Montreal. Montreal, in Canada, where Renee was a freshman.
"Oh, well," said Lucy, speaking to the dog running beside her with her tongue hanging out of her mouth. "We can't always get what we want, can we?"
Libby didn't answer, but she was clearly enjoying herself, letting her drooping, silky ears flap behind and holding her tail aloft in an exclamation of doggy joy.
Realizing they were drawing close to the Blueberry Pond where Libby might expect a drink of water but would find ice instead, Lucy decided to use the leash she had wrapped around her waist. She'd heard of too many dogs that had gone out on thin ice and fallen through. It was a story replayed every year when lakes and ponds began to freeze. Sometimes the owners were able to call for help from the fire department. Sometimes they were foolish enough to venture out on the ice themselves, which was usually a tragic mistake.
"C'mere, girl," she said, and Libby obediently approached, allowing her to snap the leash onto her red leather collar. Then they were off again, running side by side at a rather more sedate pace. The newly frozen pond would be pretty in the morning light and Lucy wanted to take time to appreciate it. This was something new, suggested by her friend Pam, who was a yoga instructor.
"Live mindfully," Pam had advised. "Be in the moment."
This was the perfect opportunity, thought Lucy as the pond came into view. It had frozen overnight, and the ice was smooth and glistening. The pointed firs on the opposite shore were a dark green, piercing a clear blue sky. She paused on the shore, holding Libby firmly by the leash, and took in the scene. This could be on a calendar, she thought. Maine in late fall, preparing for winter. Soon the pond would be covered with snow, the familiar woods would be transformed into a dreamlike fairyland, the little waterfall at the pond's outlet would become still, frozen into a freeform sculpture.
Lucy took a few deep breaths and banished all negative thoughts from her mind. There was nothing but her breath, the pond, and the panting dog leaning against her leg. She felt the warmth of the dog's shoulder against her thigh, and savored it. She closed her eyes, just for a moment, feeling the delicious heat. Then she opened them and saw something in the patch of reeds that shouldn't be there. Something pink.
Maybe it was just a bit of clothing, something that had gotten caught in the reeds. She studied the ice, which looked thick enough to support a single person, but she knew these early freezes could be deceptive and she didn't dare trust it. She needed to get closer to investigate that blob of bright pink, and she knew there was a narrow, hidden path occasionally used by trout fishermen in the spring. Now, however, after a summer's worth of growth it was going to be tough going and she didn't want to struggle with the dog as she battled her way through the thick underbrush, so she tied Libby to a tree. "Stay!" she added for good measure then began making her way along the peninsula, pushing branches out of her way and scrambling over rocks until she was blocked by a thick curtain of leafless hanging vines that she suspected was poison ivy. She couldn't go any farther but was close enough to get a good look.
A bit of hot pink fleece, she realized, and more. Pink fleece and long blond hair. She gasped, her hand flew to her mouth. Oh, no. She reached for her cell phone, fumbling with the zipper on the pocket, and dialed 9-1-1.
As soon as the dispatcher assured her that help was on the way, Lucy made a second call to her boss at the Pennysaver, Ted Stillings. She was a part-time reporter, feature writer, and copyeditor at the weekly paper, and knew she'd stumbled onto a big story. And it was deadline day, too, which made it breaking news.
"A woman in the pond?" asked Ted. "Who is she?"
"I don't know," replied Lucy.
"And you're sure she's dead?"
"Not sure, but I think it's pretty likely," said Lucy, her voice tight with dread. "I couldn't get close enough for a good look. She's too far out from the shore and I sure wasn't going out there. The ice is too thin and the same thing would happen to me — I'd fall right through. I can't imagine why anyone would do such a risky thing."
"Well, stick with it, Lucy. Deadline's not until noon and I may be able to get more time from the printer. I'll get right on that." He paused, then added, "Get as many pictures as you can, okay?"
"Okay," promised Lucy, ending the call and making her way back through the brush to the logging road.
She'd no sooner got there when Libby announced the arrival of the first responders. Her loud yips and enthusiastic jumps threatened to snap the leash that kept her fastened to the tree. Lucy untied her but held tight to the leash, watching as the town's special brush-breaking truck lumbered into view. The regular fire trucks were much too big to negotiate the old, uneven dirt logging road so the rescuers had taken the smaller truck that was equipped to fight forest fires. The truck was towing a trailer carrying an inflatable boat used for water and ice rescues, and an ambulance followed close behind, lurching from side to side as the driver attempted to avoid boulders and potholes.
"Where's the victim?" asked Jim Carstairs as he leaped out of the truck.
"Out there," said Lucy, pointing to the reedy patch.
"We'll need to use the inflatable," he said, spotting the bit of hot pink fleece in the distance.
Lucy watched as two firefighters, apparently the youngest and fittest members of the crew, suited up in bright orange protective suits while the others unloaded the inflatable from the trailer and carried it to the shore. The guys in the orange suits fastened toggle straps that connected their suits to the inflatable, then began pushing the inflatable out onto the ice. They didn't get too far before the ice gave way and one man plunged into waist deep water. Then they both got into the inflatable and began using oars to propel the craft through the mix of ice and water.
"I've never seen one of these ice rescues," said Lucy, speaking to Jim, who as captain was supervising the operation. "It looks really difficult ... and risky, too."
"We train for them every year," he replied. "The guys know what they're doing."
"Any chance that the victim is alive?" she asked, watching as the two firemen struggled to lift the woman's body into the inflatable.
"Doubtful," said Carstairs, striding toward the crew members who had remained on the shore and blowing a whistle — the signal for them to begin pulling on the rope connected to the inflatable, bringing the victim and crew safely to shore.
Lucy snapped photos of the operation with her smartphone, noting that the victim remained motionless, showing no signs of life, and the crew members were subdued. The rescue operation had become a recovery.
When the inflatable reached the shore, an EMT examined the victim, then stepped away, shaking her head. Lucy found herself drawing closer for a better look and was shocked to see the victim was a beautiful young woman, dressed for a run in a pink fleece and black tights. Her long blond hair, which blew gently in the breeze, was held by a jaunty pink knitted headband and an earbud dangled from its thin white wire. Her running shoes were top of the line, her sodden gray gloves were cashmere.
"Any idea who she is?" asked Lucy.
"It's Alison, Alison Franklin," said one of the crew members, a young guy with longish hair. "I've seen her around."
"Is she related to Ed Franklin?" asked Carstairs.
Lucy knew Ed Franklin was an extremely wealthy new arrival in town, a retired CEO who had quickly become a force to be reckoned with. She'd covered numerous meetings and hearings where he'd tussled with local officials to gain approval for the oversized mansion he built on Shore Road. Once settled into the mansion, he quickly offered himself as a candidate for the board of health, promising to cut red tape and bureaucratic obstruction. Much to the surprise of the entrenched office holders, who took his candidacy to be a joke, he won by a landslide.
"Yeah," said the long-haired guy. "She's his daughter."
Somehow the realization that this young woman was not only beautiful, but also a child of privilege, made her death seem even worse.
"Wow," said Carstairs with a big sigh. "What a shame."
"Senseless," said another. "So much to live for."
"I see it all the time," said the EMT, shaking her head. "I'll bet she was high as a kite on heroin or oxy."
"It looks to me like she was out for a run," said Lucy.
"That's probably what her folks thought, too. But there's a shack not far from here that's a popular spot for drug users." The EMT gave a wry smile. "I'd be willing to bet on it. This girl was using. Why else would she go out on thin ice? Nobody in their right mind would do such a stupid thing."
A tug on the leash from Libby reminded Lucy that she had other responsibilities and it was time to be on her way. Ted was waiting for her story, but that wasn't her first priority, not according to Libby. Libby wanted her breakfast.
"Absolutely appalling lack of taste."
As a freshly showered and dressed Lucy drove along Shore Road, passing the Franklin house on her way to work, she recalled the reactions of some planning board members when they were presented with the plans. Ed Franklin hadn't gone before the board himself. He'd sent his architect and lawyer to seek the necessary approvals. And they'd succeeded because the plans had been cleverly designed to take maximum advantage of the town's zoning laws.
The structure was enormous, much larger than the other mansions on Shore Road, but at 14, 999 square feet, it was actually one square foot less than the town's maximum of 15,000 square feet. It's true that the roof was topped with an inordinately large widow's walk, but those were allowed, and the house itself was only three stories high and just shy (by an inch) of the maximum height restriction. And while the roomy flagstone terrace seemed to extend forever, it actually stopped ten feet and one inch from the property line, more than meeting the required ten-foot setback.
Lucy had covered the meeting and had quoted the architect, who had announced in a rather challenging tone, "We have not exceeded any of the local restrictions and have been mindful of traditional New England architecture."
She also remembered quite well the various reactions of the board members, who had no choice but to grant approval to the plans. Maisie Wilkinson had looked as if she had bitten into a lemon when she cast her vote, Horace Atkins had huffed and puffed for all the world like an outraged walrus, and Linc Curtis had glared at the applicants as if he could make them disappear by staring angrily at them. Committee chairman Susan Brooks had abstained, claiming a conflict of interest that Lucy suspected was little more than an excuse to avoid going on record as supporting the project. Only realtor Wilt Chambers had spoken in favor of the plan, saying it would increase the tax base and raise property values.
As she drove by the house, Lucy thought it could have been worse. It could have been a modernistic glass box, for instance, or a faux Tuscan villa with a red tile roof, rather than the overblown Federalist-style mansion that now dominated the neighborhood. And even though it was huge, everything was in proportion, with oversized windows and chimneys, and a dramatic carved pediment calling attention to the massive front door which was made from some rare Brazilian hardwood. Lucy had heard that when seen from a distance — it could quite easily be observed from a boat bobbing on the sea it overlooked — the house seemed quite in scale with its surroundings.
But no house, no matter how grand, could protect its inhabitants from the vagaries of fortune or shelter them from tragedy and grief. In fact, it seemed to her that wealth and success could almost tempt fate. She thought of John Kennedy, Jr., becoming disoriented and crashing his plane into the Atlantic, and Gloria Vanderbilt, who saw her son hurl himself from a fourteenth floor terrace, and now Ed Franklin, who had certainly not awakened this morning expecting to learn that he'd lost his beautiful daughter forever.
Lucy was uncharacteristically somber when she got to the office, prompting Ted to comment on her glum expression.
"Pretty rough morning?" he asked in a sympathetic tone. Ted was the owner, publisher, editor, and chief reporter for the weekly paper.
"Who was it?" asked Phyllis, chewing on the earpiece of the jazzy reading glasses that either hung from a chain to rest on her ample bosom or perched on her nose. Phyllis's official title was receptionist, but she also handled ads, classifieds, and event listings.
"Alison Franklin," said Lucy, hanging up her barn coat on the coat rack.
"Ed Franklin's daughter?" asked Ted.
"That's what they say. I don't know much about Ed Franklin apart from the permitting process for his big house."
"That was quite a show, wasn't it?" said Ted, who had relished the controversy that prompted so many heated letters to the editor.
Excerpted from "Turkey Trot Murder"
Copyright © 2017 Leslie Meier.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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