My alter ego, Sara Penhallow, has published her first mystery. As soon as I figure out this “Multisite” functionality of WordPress 3.0, I’ll be creating a blog for her on her page, although I won’t be updating it as often as I do this blog. This is the first of two mystery series I’m working on; I won’t launch the other until two or three of the River Corners series are up.
Below, I’ve posted the first chapter of this mystery, along with links to buy the e-book. (Sorry, no paperbacks yet. I’ll let you know when they’re available, possibly later this year.)
Isobel Santini–managing editor, terrible cook, and best friend–is present at the discovery of a grisly murder. Shaken, she tries to return to her normal routine working at the college press, but when her best friend becomes the prime suspect and a second murder follows the first, Isobel has to drag herself out of her slush and into the snow to hunt for clues, much to the disapproval of her cousin, the chief of police. Along the way to finding the killer, she encounters a handsome newcomer, endures the town Christmas pageant, evades her match-making aunt, and forgets to put up her own Christmas tree. The dénouement comes in the off-white linoleum halls of academe, when Isobel and the killer confront each other face-to-face.
Tuesday, December 1
Isobel counted out forty-five dollars into Drew Scott’s hand. She shivered and drew a little closer to the kerosene heater placed off to the right in the tiny shack. The smell from the heater made her wrinkle her nose.
Drew grinned and waggled his bushy gray eyebrows. “Weather’s bitter this year, isn’t it? Can’t wait to see what January and February bring.”
She glowered at the older man. “Do you have to sound like you enjoy it so much?”
He chuckled as he tucked the money into the cash drawer. “Ah, you know I make money selling firewood, too. Pretty as these Christmas trees are, there aren’t enough people in the area to make selling them support me and Mary Beth.”
“I know. Still, I hate walking home after dark on icy sidewalks.”
“That wouldn’t be a problem if–” Drew cut himself off as a scream pierced the air. He shoved the cash drawer hard, then pushed past Isobel. The smell of fresh-cut pine cut through the over-heated kerosene in the shack when he opened the door.
Over his shoulder, she saw a couple of the college students he hired as seasonal help in front of the shack talking to Drew’s granddaughter, Annie. They were staring off beyond the nearby trees.
“What’s going on?” Drew demanded.
The students both shook their heads, but one spoke up. “That sounded like Mrs. Ansel. She was going out to check on the trees she chose for the Christmas pageant–took off on my snowmobile. She’d better bring it back, too, because I have no other way to get home.”
Annie nodded emphatically. “That’s definitely her voice. I’ve heard it often enough at rehearsals, though never quite like that.”
Isobel blinked. “That sounds rather impulsive for Kimberley.” Her friend was meticulous, careful, neat–not impulsive.
The student looked at his feet, and Isobel realized not all the color in his cheeks was from the cold. What did he have to be embarrassed about? “I told her I heard a chainsaw up that way early this morning, and she’s afraid her trees may have been poached.”
Drew took the rubber-treaded steps two at a time. “No one poaches trees on my farm. I should go see what’s going on.” He grabbed a set of keys off the rack hanging by the office door. He looked back at Isobel. “One of the lugs over by the fire can get your tree fastened to your car.”
She jumped down to stand next to him, stumbling against one of his chainsaw-carved animals that flanked the entry stairs. “No way. Kimberley’s my best friend, not just my landlady. If she needs help, well . . . that’s what I’m here for.”
He moved over to the nearby tractor and climbed to the driver’s seat. “Get on.”
The treads churned through the snow. Drew didn’t bother sticking to the carefully tended roads. The cold cut into Isobel’s throat like a knife, and she wished she’d wrapped up with her scarf before they started.
“How do you know where to go?” She leaned forward and spoke loudly, hoping he’d hear her over the motor.
He yelled back, “I helped Kimberley mark her trees off with ribbon. If we followed the roads, it would take us an extra five minutes to get there.”
Isobel opened her mouth, but just then they arced over a mound of snow and landed with jarring force. Her jaw snapped closed, and she was grateful that she hadn’t bitten her tongue. She held on and watched over Drew’s shoulder for any sign of Kimberley.
They bounced over another obstacle and rounded a bend, sending snow up in waves beside them. Isobel registered the presence of someone in front of them a moment after Drew killed the ignition. They stopped by Kimberley. Isobel looked at her friend with concern. Kimberley was a quiet, efficient, woman who always looked as neat and tidy as her well-kept home did. Right now, her hair looked as though it hadn’t seen a brush in weeks. Kimberley’s face was flushed and wet, and she struggled to catch her breath.
Isobel hopped off the snowmobile and put her arms around her friend, ignoring the whiff of vomit. “Are you okay? What happened?”
Kimberley shook her head. “Not me. ” She pointed toward her trail under the trees. “Back there. It’s . . . it’s . . . why would anyone do that to Laurie?” Her shoulders heaved, and tears flowed down her face.
“What’s happened to her?” Isobel asked, drawing back to look at her friend.
Isobel met Drew’s gaze. “Maybe we should see for ourselves. Kimberley, will you be okay here for a couple of minutes?”
Kimberley shook her head. “You don’t really want to see this.”
Isobel bit her lips. It just seemed so unreal, finding a body here on the Scotts’ farm. The call of a cardinal in the trees punctuated the normalcy of the day. As for not wanting to see, how bad could it be?
She eased Kimberley down onto the seat of the snowmobile. “We’ll be back soon. Rest here.”
Kimberley clutched at Isobel’s sleeve. “Please. Just get me to my car. I want to go home.”
Isobel gently disengaged Kimberley’s fingers from the blue down jacket. “We’ll get you back to the parking lot in a little bit, but I can’t take Drew’s tractor. Just wait here.” She stood up. Would Kimberley try to drive herself? She didn’t look in any shape to be operating a vehicle. Isobel pocketed the keys to the snowmobile as casually as she could.
Drew had started off through the drifts without her, evidently thinking she would be staying with her friend. As she trudged after him, she gave a half smile. Kimberley had broken through the crust of the snow already, and Drew was clearing a wider path as he followed her trail. Isobel herself wasn’t doing much work at all.
The trees to either side had gems of ice on the tips of their needles. The branches were weighted down with inches of snow, except for those places where snow dropped as they passed, making soft plopping sounds and leaving indentations in the snow below. She rubbed her cheeks to remove some of the immobility that had been frozen into them on the wild ride.
Her attention was brought abruptly back to the matter at hand when she bumped into Drew.
“Don’t look.” He put his right arm out to block her passage. “Kimberley was right enough; the girl is dead.”
Given the smells of blood and gas, as well as other, less-identifiable scents, Isobel imagined he was right. However, she was curious, so Isobel ignored his words and ducked under his outstretched arm. She wished she hadn’t. Here there was no crystalline beauty of snow. Bits of clothes lay matted with blood, liver, and the contents of the woman’s intestines; something had ripped her nearly in two. Isobel tried to focus on the face, to place where she’d seen the woman before. Kimberley had called her by name, but right now, “Laurie” was just a label.
The smell of the body intensified, and Isobel felt the warmth behind her ears that heralded an upsurge of her own stomach’s contents. She clamped her lips closed as tightly as she could and turned away from the body. She struggled through the pristine snow, fighting the racking of her body as it tried to rid itself of what she had just seen. Finally, she could hold the tide back no longer.
After she used a little snow to clean her mouth, Isobel walked back to where Drew still stood. He was watching her, and she waved feebly. “I wasn’t expecting that.” She reached him, careful to focus on his face. “What happened to her?”
“I don’t know, but we need to get her some help.”
“Help?” Isobel laughed but caught herself before she became hysterical. “I think she’s rather beyond help, don’t you?” She hesitated. “She is, right? I mean, I don’t want to go touch her to check.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think that’s necessary. I’d say Kimberley’s right on the money.” He nodded off to his left without actually looking that way. “She seems to have had the same reaction that you did, but a lot sooner.”
“I had some warning.” Isobel looked across the small cleared area. The spot of color on the edge of her vision tugged at her attention, but she refused to look. Instead, she pointed off to one side. “There are tracks leading in and out; maybe it won’t be too hard for the police to find out who did this.”
Drew followed her gesture and shook his head. “That leads back to the cleared trails and tractor roads. The tracks will get lost there.” He paused. “The police?” he asked as though it hadn’t already occurred to him.
She raised her eyebrows and stared at him for a moment. When he said nothing further, she said, “Yes, the police. She clearly didn’t do this to herself. If you have a cell phone, I’d be willing to make the call for you.” She smiled wryly. “I left my cell in my car.”
“Phones don’t work here. It’s a dead zone.” He winced as he realized what he had said. He grasped her elbow gently and turned her back the way they had come. “Let’s go. We can easily get three on the tractor. With your help, I can even put the snowmobile on the back.”
She pulled away from him. She took the keys from her pocket and dropped them into his hand. “You’ll go faster with two, and I can keep an eye out so no one else approaches. The snowmobile probably should stay here, at any rate, so the police can say that it’s not evidence in the case.” She tilted her head to one side. “Would you rather I make the call? It is your farm, but Michael is probably going to start off by asking ridiculous questions like whether you’re sure it’s murder. I’m used to his skepticism by now.”
“No.” He patted her on her shoulder. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I can remember when your cousin spent his winters here earning a few extra bucks for presents. He’s not that big and scary.”
“That’s better,” he said, dropping his hand from her shoulder. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. If you see anything even remotely out of place, run and scream.”
She nodded. She had no intention of doing otherwise.
Drew and Kimberley disappeared behind the nearest line of trees, and Isobel gnawed at her lips as she watched them go. Good thing she hadn’t bothered with lipstick this morning. It would be all over her teeth by now. Was she really safe out here by herself with the corpse? Nothing had happened to Kimberley, she reminded herself. She’d be safe. Of course she would.
Isobel heard the rumble of the tractor returning long before she saw it. It sounded different than it had when it left, and she soon saw why–it was flanked by a pair of snowmobiles. Her cousin Michael’s blue fur-trimmed cap was easy to pick out. She held up one hand in greeting.
Michael braked right in front of her, covering her with a load of snow. He glared at her without getting off the machine. “What have you gotten yourself into this time?”
She placed her hands on her hips. Lips compressed, she returned his glare. “I haven’t gotten myself into anything. I’m just here to make sure no one disturbed the scene.”
“A likely story.” He dismounted and stood towering over her. “And the reason you’re out here in the first place? Or did it not occur to you that the killer might come back?”
She hadn’t thought about that, but it was too late to worry now. She tilted her head up to face him. He knew she hated having to do this; the crick could take days to work out of her neck. “I figured if he didn’t come back for Kimberley, he wasn’t going to come after me. And somebody had to stay with the body. My momma taught me to help neighbors in need. Maybe I should tell Aunt Rosa she didn’t do as good a job with you.”
A chuckle from the officer behind Michael was quickly silenced. Her cousin’s eyes didn’t so much as twitch away from hers at the sound. He poked her nose softly with his finger–more softly than she expected. “And if you turn into the neighbor in need, both our mothers will make my life miserable. So keep out of trouble so I can stay in one piece, huh?”
She took a step back so she didn’t have to crane her neck so much to meet his gaze. “If I wanted you to get hurt, I’d invite you over for dinner.”
He smiled at that. “I know better than to accept.” He rolled his shoulders as he turned away from her. She couldn’t blame him for being stressed; River Corners hadn’t had a murder since he’d been police chief–probably since he’d been on the force. Well, aside from old Mr. Winters hitting that young salesman with his shotgun because the salesman had smiled at his wife
Isobel sat on the snowmobile that her cousin had been using, facing away from the body. She had no desire to watch the officers investigate the crime scene. Seeing it once had been more than enough. She couldn’t get the image of the woman out of her head–body ripped open, but her arms flung out to either side, for all the world as though she had been in the middle of making a snow angel.
Isobel closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on the feel of the breeze pushing her bangs off her face, the scent of pine needles–but, no, that aroma was masked here, and she didn’t want to smell the body again.
She listened to the conversation behind her. “When’s the coroner going to get here? She was notified before we left.” Michael, irritated.
“You know Madge. She’ll get here when she gets here,” another man responded.
Isobel forced herself to stare at the row of trees before her. Was that a spot of red, some songbird, there? If she didn’t keep concentrating on the details, she was afraid she’d fall into hysterics.
A warm hand came down onto her shoulder, and Drew said, “If you want, I can run you back to the parking lot. You’ve been out here long enough.”
“I’m going to need a statement before you go home,” Michael said.
Isobel leaned to one side to peer past Drew’s bulky frame. “Can’t you come by and get it later? I promise not to poison you.”
He shook his head without smiling. “First twenty-four hours are the most important. The sooner I have all the information, the better.”
“What about Kimberley? She found the body. Shouldn’t you be getting a statement from her?” She kept her gaze focused on him, trying to ignore the flashes as the other officer moved around the clearing shooting pictures.
“I’ve already gotten part of her story, and she’s waiting back at the pay shack so we can get more details after examining the crime scene.” He brushed his hand through his hair. “Drew here can take you back to the shack, but you can’t go home yet. And I don’t want the two of you talking about what you’ve seen, or what you think you’ve seen out here.”
“Drew and I, or Kimberley and I?”
He dropped his hand to his side. “I meant you and Kimberley, but I really don’t want you talking about this with anyone except me and my officers.” The rumble of another tractor cut into his words. It pulled up on the side of the clearing nearer to the road. Isobel saw Michael’s hands clench as he headed over to talk to the driver, one of the college students she had seen before. The coroner shoved a faded blue quilt off her lap and shook the snow off of it, then dropped it into a box on the side before she hopped off the trailer and carefully walked around all the paths in the snow to reach the body.
Tall with stringy blond hair, Madge looked and acted casual, hiding the fact that she was quite good at her job. She waved to Isobel then focused her attention on the body. “Yup. She’s dead, all right.”
Isobel couldn’t help it. She giggled. It was just a small giggle at first, but she couldn’t stop. She held her stomach and shook with laughter. “Are you okay?” Drew asked her. She shook her head and waved her hand at him but couldn’t stop.
A lump of cold snow slid down her neck and into the back of her sweater. She sat upright abruptly, the laughter gone. She looked over her shoulder to see the coroner nod.
“I thought that might help.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what got into me.”
The coroner shrugged. “Shock, I’d say. You’ve been sitting out here in the cold watching a dead body. I don’t know what our vaunted police chief was thinking, but I imagine he’s going to get an earful from your mother.”
“Vaunted? Who’s been doing any vaunting? I’ve just been trying to do my job. I’m already calling in every off-duty person and even a few retirees. I don’t have the manpower to do this any better.” Michael stomped back through the snow toward her. A trace of concern crossed his face. “You don’t look so good. Drew can take you back to the shack now. Remember, don’t talk about this with anyone.”
Isobel nodded numbly. She wanted to make a crack about whether she was allowed to leave town, but the words wouldn’t come.
The coroner added, “And be sure to have something hot to drink while you’re waiting.”
Back at the parking lot, Isobel saw that the students had done a good job of fastening her tree to the roof of her car. Maybe too good. She’d have to remember to ask them how she was supposed to get it back off.
She stepped down from the tractor and rubbed her upper arms slowly. She probably should have used one of those quilts, the way Madge had on her tractor ride.
Drew gave her a nudge in the small of her back, and she let him guide her up the stairs to the shack.
“It’s about time!” Kimberley exclaimed as they entered the shack. “Oh. It’s you. I assumed it was your overbearing cousin who told me to stay put until he comes back.” She pushed herself back up against the cash register to make space in the tiny room. “As though I have nothing better to do while he goes off to look at . . . at . . . Isobel, this is so awful!” She threw her arms around her friend. “Who could have done such a thing?”
Isobel hugged Kimberley, patting her on the back as she would a small child to calm it. Or so she supposed. She’d never had any to care for herself, and unlike most girls, she had never gone in for babysitting as a teen. “We can’t talk about that right now. We have to wait and talk to the police first.”
Kimberley leaned back without letting go of her. “I suppose your cousin said that as well, didn’t he? What gives him the right to be so high-handed? You’d think he’d been quarterback of the football team in high school or something.”
Isobel gave a small smile, careful not to laugh again. “Instead of the star tackle?” She inched closer to the heater. She could feel the blood coming back into her cheeks, but the tip of her nose still felt frozen, and her fingers were stiff. How could she ever spend time reading slush–unsolicited manuscripts–for the press tonight when she felt like her fingers would never move again? Well, there was always more slush. Maybe a hot bath was the better plan.
“Eh.” Kimberley dismissed Michael with a deprecating sound. “I didn’t notice anyone on the team except for John. You know that.”
Drew cleared his throat. “You need something to drink. Coffee okay?”
At the mention of coffee, Isobel’s stomach felt queasy again. “I don’t think I need the caffeine right now. Maybe some of the cider you keep for the kids?” He nodded and stepped outside the shack.
As soon as he left, Kimberley released Isobel. “He’s gone. So tell me–who do you think killed her? Who do they think killed her?”
“I told you before, I can’t talk about this now. After Michael releases us and we go home, I’ll be happy to talk as much as you want. But not right now.”
“Do you have to follow lock-step in every little thing that your family wants you to do?”
“You didn’t seem to think that was such a bad thing when Momma and Aunt Rosa ganged up on me to get me to stay here in town when I wanted to head off upstate to get a job with a larger press.”
The door opened again before Kimberley could make a come-back. Drew carried a Styrofoam cup in each of his hands. “I thought you might want something, too, Kimberley. I can’t believe you haven’t been given anything yet.”
Isobel accepted the cider from Drew with a smile. Heat seeped through the cup into her fingers. “This smells wonderful.” She sighed happily. “And I think my hands are actually starting to thaw again.”
Kimberley arched an eyebrow at her. “I’ve told you before you need something more substantial than those driving gloves.”
“I know. I just like to save my winter wool until at least the first official day of winter.” Isobel took a sip. The cider was from a package mix with very little cinnamon dissolved in scalding water. She breathed through her mouth for a moment to let her tongue cool. Just the way she liked it, though she’d have taken just about anything to clean her mouth right now.
She glanced at Drew. “Any sign of Michael and his officers coming back?”
He shook his head. “I’ll go keep an eye out. If anyone else comes to pick up their Christmas tree, I’ll steer them in a different direction.”
A gust of wind blew the door out of his hand, slamming it against the wall. Drew swore, then looked at the pair of women. “Sorry.” He walked down the steps and carefully closed the door behind him.
As soon as he was gone, Kimberley set down the cup he had handed her. “Honestly, I don’t understand how you can drink that stuff. He dilutes it to make it go farther, you know.”
Isobel shrugged and took a step away from the heater.
“I hope your cousin gets back soon,” Kimberley said. “I need to get back to work.”
Neither of them said anything more.
When Michael finally opened the door, Isobel felt the atmosphere inside the shack was almost as frosty as that outside. “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten us,” she said, moving forward.
Kimberley pushed past her. “It’s about time. Can I give you my statement now so I can go back to someplace more civilized, like my shop which has been closed for several hours with a ‘will return in 30 minutes’ sign hanging on the front door?”
“Actually, ladies, you’re going to have to wait a few more minutes. I don’t do shorthand, so we’re going to wait for an officer who does. He was off-shift and hasn’t gotten here yet. He’ll take down the statements and transcribe them later. You’ll be called in to the station to read and sign your statements when he’s done. While we’re waiting,” he continued, “can either of you give me an unofficial identification of the victim so we can see about notifying the next-of-kin?”
“Her name–she’s Laurie Anderson. She is–was–the secretary in the history department.” Kimberley gulped audibly. “Her sister’s on campus somewhere. John would know.”
Isobel wrapped an arm around her friend. The history department? That must be why the woman had seemed vaguely familiar. Isobel would have seen her on campus or at one of John and Kimberley’s parties.
Kimberley pulled away. She looked as though she wanted to stalk off in a huff, but there was nowhere to go with barely room for three people to stand in the shack. “I just want this to be over so I can go back to work. I don’t see why I can’t write down what I saw and go. It’s not like there’s any question that she was dead, with her body all–”
“Sorry. Those are the regulations.” Michael cut her off. “You two really shouldn’t have been left alone with each other, either, but I don’t have the manpower to deal with this.”
Kimberley sniffed. “Perhaps next time you’ll let me handle the bond campaign for better funding.”
Trust Kimberley to try to turn this into more work for herself, not that the bond was a bad idea. It might even keep Kimberley’s mind off what she’d seen, but Michael needed to deal with the here-and-now, not some future political issue.
Isobel took pity on her cousin. “If I promise not to talk to anyone, can I go outside and stretch my legs? Maybe get another cup of cider?” She gestured with the cup that she still held.
He hunched to one side to give her room to pass. “I suppose I can be lenient since you haven’t tried to climb out the window.”
“It’s the coat. It would never fit.”
“While you’re out there,” he said, “talk to the officers by the tape. They need footprints to compare to the crime scene.”
Isobel glanced down at her feet, then at Kimberley’s. “I hope you’re not hoping brand will be a clue. Half the town wears these.”
“Just do it, Isobel. Please.”
After giving the officers the requested footprints, Isobel got herself another cup of the cider and drank it down quickly–too quickly, as it scalded her throat, which already felt raw. She refilled her cup and sipped at it more reflectively, watching the tendrils of steam curling in the air. One of Drew and Mary Beth’s cats wrapped itself around her legs, and she squatted to pet it. Michael had stayed by the door to the shack, and the college students were huddled around the fire, nudging each other but not saying anything she could hear.
It was good to get out of the shack, but the tension wasn’t going away. She didn’t think it would anytime soon, not even at home. She glanced at the shack nervously. She and Kimberley were getting on each other’s nerves. Maybe it was time for her to think about moving out on her own. The in-law cottage was nice, but she was still conscious of effectively being under someone else’s roof. She blew on her cup of cider and watched the ripples bouncing across its surface. When this mess got straightened out, she’d have to start looking.
“Is my grandpa in trouble?” Annie had come up to stand next to her.
Isobel shook her head. “He didn’t do anything wrong.”
He hadn’t, had he? Drew didn’t mix with the people of the college, so Isobel couldn’t imagine where he would have met the dead woman before she showed up here. Far likelier that Laurie had come to the farm with her murderer, someone who took advantage of the circumstances to leave the body in an out-of-the-way place.
“I wish my mom were here.” Annie’s mom, a journalist and the Scotts’ pride and joy, was a journalist, embedded with the troops in the Middle East. The last thing Annie needed to worry about was losing more of the adults in her life.
Isobel tried to reassure the fifteen-year-old. “Your grandpa can take care of himself. And if he can’t, you and your grandmother can pick up the slack. You’ll be fine.”
Annie thrust out her lips in a practiced pout. “I’d be better if someone told me what’s going on, but the police aren’t saying anything–just scaring off the customers.”
Isobel glanced at the parking lot, startled, and realized it was true. A cruiser with its lights flashing parked across the entrance, blocking any cars that might have approached. Another sat next to the exit, an officer with a clipboard standing beside it, taking information–names, she guessed–from those leaving.
“I’m sure they’ll tell everyone what’s happening soon,” Isobel said.
“Yeah, right.” Annie thrust her hands into her pockets. “I’d better go see if Grandma needs my help for anything.”
Isobel watched the girl slouch away, glad that Annie, at least, had been spared the sight of the body in the snow. Isobel rehearsed over and over in her mind what to say.
Once the other officer arrived, things went rather quickly. Isobel deferred to Kimberley, as her friend had been the one to find the body. Isobel gave her statement in as few short, well-crafted sentences as she could. Michael prompted her a few times with questions, but she didn’t really have anything to add. The body was dead when they got there, she hadn’t touched it, she hadn’t seen anyone else touch it.
“But you did get sick all over.”
She gave a long-suffering sigh. “Yes, I did. At least I kept it away from the body.”
“Considerate of you.”
At last, Michael nodded. “You can go now. I’ll let you know when the statement is ready to sign.”
“I’ll try to make sure Momma doesn’t flay you in the meantime. Yours, I can’t guarantee. You know they’re going to blame you.”
He snorted. “As if you can guarantee Aunt Maria Elena.”
If you like what you’ve read, you can find The Christmas Tree Farm Murders on Amazon (U.S. U.K. De Es Fr It), Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.