Bran New Death (A Merry Muffin Mystery)

Praise for the Vintage Kitchen Mysteries

A Deadly Grind

“Has all the right ingredients: small-town setting, kitchen antiques, vintage cookery, and a bowlful of mystery. A perfect recipe for a cozy.”

—Susan Wittig Albert, national bestselling author of
The Darling Dahlias and the Texas Star

“Victoria Hamilton’s charming new series is a delightful find.”

—Sheila Connolly,
New York Times
bestselling author

“Hamilton’s Jaymie Leighton completely captivated me . . . I’ll be awaiting [her] return . . . in the next Vintage Kitchen mystery.”


Lesa’s Book Critiques

“A great new series for cozy fans.”


Debbie’s Book Bag

“Smartly written and successfully plotted, the debut of this new cozy series . . . exudes authenticity.”


Library Journal

“Fans of vintage kitchenware and those who fondly remember grandma or mother’s Pyrex dishes will find a lot to enjoy in this mystery . . . There are several good suspects for the murderer, cleverly hinted at early on, and searching for the identity of the murder victim adds to the well-plotted investigation.”


The Mystery Reader

Berkley Prime Crime titles by Victoria Hamilton

Vintage Kitchen Mysteries

A DEADLY GRIND

BOWLED OVER

Merry Muffin Mysteries

BRAN NEW DEATH

Bran New Death

VICTORIA HAMILTON

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA)

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia | New Zealand | India | South Africa | China

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

For more information about the Penguin Group, visit penguin.com.

BRAN NEW DEATH

A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2013 by Donna Lea Simpson.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.

BERKLEY
®
PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA).

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA).

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-10162506-4

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / September 2013

Cover illustration by Ben Perini.

Cover design by Lesley Worrell.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.

Contents

Praise for the Vintage Kitchen Mysteries

Also by Victoria Hamilton

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

 

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

 

Recipes

Golden Acres Banana Bran Muffins

Bacon Cheddar Muffins

Gouda and Harvest Vegetable Chowder

To Jessica and Michelle . . .
how do you thank those who have given you your lifelong dream? Words are inadequate to express my gratitude.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

In the publishing world there are so many unsung heroes, those who do work readers understandably take for granted, and make us, as authors, look so professional. When you get on the inside, you see what a difference those folks make to the author’s work and publishing life. I’d like to take a moment here to give my deepest appreciation to: Erica Horisk, copyeditor of
Bran New Death
, who went above and beyond in editing the book, and Ben Perini, the cover artist, who brought to life a vision for Wynter Castle that I didn’t even know was possible. I hope they know how much I appreciate their work and dedication!

Chapter One

A
S A METAPHOR
for my life, the crossroads rocked. I sat in my rented Chevy, glaring at the GPS screen, then got out of the vehicle and looked around. On one side of me was an evergreen forest, into which one road descended, and on the other was a rocky prominence, the highway cutting through it like a kebab skewer through shish.

I was not reflecting on my
metaphorical
lostness, however, but my literal situation. The GPS told me I was in front of a Denny’s on I-90 as it cut through upstate New York. Looking around at the gloomy walls of evergreen and granite, I reflected that a Denny’s breakfast would be welcome right about then, but no shiny, happy hostess came melting out of the woods with a coffeepot and a smile.

My odyssey began in a car rental lot in Jersey City before midnight August 31, also known as the night before, and just now the rosy beginnings of dawn were glimmering through the piney treetops. September first, a good date for a fresh start,
if
I could ever find my way out of the woods.

Some of my worldly belongings were piled in the backseat and trunk of the Chevy rental and the rest were stacked in a locker at a Manhattan Mini Storage near SoHo. Merry Wynter, adventuress, I thought, my mouth twisting in a grimace. But I wasn’t just wandering, I was looking for my inheritance. I leaned back into the car and grabbed the plastic tub of carrot muffins, prying off the lid and inhaling the cinnamony aroma. I took out the last one, peeled off the paper liner, and munched away, the melting goodness of my homemade muffins sweet on my tongue.

While I ate, I considered my options.

After a long night of driving all the way from Jersey City to upstate New York, I was exhausted. With a GPS in the rental I thought it would be easy going, but the trouble was, the probate lawyer who gave me instructions on how to get there had assumed I was familiar with Wynter Castle and its environs, and that I have a reasonably good sense of direction. I wasn’t, and I don’t. I’d only been there once, as a child. I’d like to say my navigational skills have come a long way since then, but my grandmother told me lying is wrong. I may be thirty-nine, and Grandma may be long gone, but I still hear her voice in my head. When the GPS started screwing up, I wasn’t aware of it until I was hopelessly lost.

I learned I inherited Wynter Castle many months before and put it up for sale, sight unseen, with a local Autumn Vale real estate agent named Jack McGill. Why would I do something so stupid? It’s complicated, and in retrospect not the brightest move I’ve ever made. Here’s the thing . . . that visit as a kid is not a happy memory, and my own life has been in turmoil the last several years.

Long story short: once upon a time (briefly), I was a plus-size model. I quit work when I married a photographer, but then my beloved husband died. I was still young, and I needed something to do, but I didn’t want to be a model again, and I was getting too old for that line of work, anyway. So even as I fought my overwhelming grief, I began styling a few model friends, plus-and regular-size, choosing their clothes, helping each define her look. It’s like an advanced game of playing dress-up, the same game I played with Barbie dolls when I was a kid, much to my hippie mother’s chagrin. In the meantime, though, my darling Miguel left me reasonably well settled; I thought I could do better and began to play the stock market with my savings.

You guessed it; the economy tanked, my investments disappeared into the pockets of the wealthiest investors while those of us foolishly toying with our life savings suffered, and I was left with very little. But it was okay; my career as a stylist was beginning to take off. As I started doing all right, making enough to live on without touching what was left of my savings, an opportunity came up that I could not ignore. When someone offers you a six-figure salary, what do you do? You grab it and hope no one notices you don’t deserve it, right?

So this is what happened. A few years back, Leatrice Pugeot, the internationally famous supermodel (born plain old Lynn Pugmire more years ago than she admits), happened to be at New York Fashion Week, and so was I. I came across her in a corner of a show venue weeping her eyes out. Concerned, I asked if I could help, and she asked me to get her some Xanax. Where was her purse, I asked. She said “No, dummy, just score some from a dealer.” I refused, gave her a cup of herbal tea instead, and talked to her for an hour.

At the end of that hour she asked me to come work for her as a personal assistant. I demurred, but she was persistent. Over the period of a few days, she steadily sweetened the pot until it was up to six figures. Here’s where it gets tricky; I heard, through the grapevine, that Leatrice was difficult to work with—like, Naomi Campbell difficult, but she
seemed
like a sweet, if troubled, soul, to me.

So I took the job, which
seemed
like it was going to be a lot less effort than the constant push to find clients and stay on top of the industry. The hole that Miguel left in my life was not being filled with work, no matter how hard I tried to stay busy, and I was beginning to worry that I wasn’t strong enough to build a whole new career while still struggling with grief. Looking back, I think that my state of mind had a lot to do with why I took the job, despite warnings to the contrary. I needed to be needed, and Leatrice needed me terribly. The next couple of years were interesting, to say the least. Ultimately, everyone was right about Leatrice and it didn’t go well. I left (was fired/quit . . . depends on who you talk to, me or her) after she accused me of stealing from her.

About that time I learned about my inheritance, a cash-poor family “estate” in the boonies of upstate New York. Wynter Castle; at first I thought that was one of those bougy names developers throw around, like McSnobbin Estates or Uppercrust Acres, which are really just suburban ticky-tacky boxes thrown up on seven feet of land. I let it slide for a long time while I dealt with the fallout from my problems with Leatrice, hiring a local real estate agent to sell the place. He wanted me to come look at it, but I just couldn’t handle it. I did begin to remember Wynter Castle at that point, and my one visit to it when I was a child of about five. My memory of that visit did nothing to make me want to go back there.

It wouldn’t be an easy sell, I was told by both the real estate agent and my uncle’s attorney and executor, and that prediction was on the money. The castle had languished on the real estate list for months without even a hint of interest. Since I had been scrambling to make ends meet for some time—it’s the old story, just when I think I’ve made ends meet, someone moves the ends—I finally took the advice of a dear friend and did something about it. I gave up the sublet on my tiny slice of Manhattan, and set out without telling anyone where I was going. Correcting the mistake I made several months before in not going to evaluate my inheritance seemed a challenge, but doable. Maybe I was finally getting my act together after a long run of personal tragedy compounded by stupid decisions.

So here I stood, in the gloom of predawn, out in the middle of nowhere, lied to by a freakin’ computer. It was quiet at my crossroads;
too
quiet, I thought, looking around. A big bird circled overhead, like a vulture waiting for me to collapse into a heap. It was quite the view: nothing but a long, dirt slope downward in one direction, a rocky face upward in another, and a paved side road slicing through the rock face across it. Wind tossed the tops of the trees, and a scent like a pine tree–shaped car freshener drifted down to me, with the rustling sound of movement nearby. I should have felt alone, but I didn’t, having the uneasy sensation I was being watched from the shadowy depths of the forested slope. Turning quickly, I caught a movement in the bushes, and jumped back in the car, my heart pounding.

I was just tired and edgy, I reassured myself. I’d return to the last place that the GPS system made any sense and go from there. This wilderness was not how I pictured upstate New York. Where were the quaint, artsy towns and elegant, country houses? Where were the Martha Stewart clones? Shouldn’t they be out picking dew-flecked roses from their perfectly trimmed gardens wearing twinsets, pearls, and flowered gardening gloves?

I drove back the way I had come, past lonely farms and isolated houses that looked deserted, out to an open area. Instead of trying to find Wynter Castle, I’d concentrate on the nearby town of Autumn Vale. Anyone who had negotiated the intricacies of the London tube and the Paris Métro should be able to find a town in upstate New York. Laying my actual paper map on the passenger’s seat beside me, I followed the highway, coming to a river. The map was being a good Boy Scout and telling me the absolute truth; it certainly seemed more trustworthy than the disembodied voice that kept telling me to turn right in fifty feet, when there was no right turn available. The road I wanted departed from the river and descended steeply to
another
branch of the same river. That was where the GPS had begun to malfunction, confusing me hopelessly. But now the map started to lie to me, just like the GPS had; none of the road names I was seeing on signs appeared on the map. Hmm.

I’d ignore the road names and just drive. Following a hard-packed dirt road overarched by tall poplars that swayed above, I found Butler Lane, which according to the map should have been Wynter Lane. Hoping I was on the right track, I began to descend and wound along a treed road until the vista finally opened out onto a picturesque view of a village below me, which a signpost announced was Autumn Vale.

“Eureka,” I shouted and pounded my fist on the steering wheel. I paused and gazed at the village, still sleeping in the dawn mist. It was a unique experience, like looking down at a model-train town; among the leafy green, I could spot the main street, a solid line of Victorian shops and businesses, all gray, stone buildings, it appeared from a distance, and then roads leading away from it, lined with redbrick homes and gleaming, white-clapboard frame houses, punctuated by civic buildings, construction yards, and the occasional massive garden plot. Now that was what I expected from upstate New York! Maybe there would be an occasional bed-and-breakfast, and perhaps even a quaint inn or two. I was hoping at the least for a cutesy café with some decent food.

My stomach grumbled, but I put it down to too many muffins and not enough real food. I should have packed a bologna sandwich, but muffins are my go-to comfort food. That was the last thing I’d done in my little studio apartment in Manhattan: make a dozen muffins to share with my neighbors. Of course, muffins were also responsible for much of my trouble with Leatrice, but that story can wait.

Buck up, Merry
, I told myself. First things first, and that was finding someone who could direct me to Wynter Castle: Jack McGill, the real estate agent, or the lawyer, Mr. Andrew Silvio, or
some
one. It was a little early for a realtor or lawyer though, just six forty-five a.m. by my diamond watch, so anyone who could give me the directions to Wynter Castle would be fine.

I pulled into a parking spot in front of a hardware store (closed), and got out, looking up and down Abenaki, the street that appeared to be the main—or only—business section of Autumn Vale. I needed someplace open to ask directions. The streetscape was adorable, with commercial buildings like ones I’d seen in miniature, painted by skillful craftspeople. Stone fronts with big, glass, bow windows, clapboard-sided shops with gingerbread trim dripping from the eaves; but the reality was a little more grim than the picture-perfect image of small town America. What I hadn’t seen from a distance were the multitude of boarded-up windows.

All crammed together as they were, the shops seemed like good friends who leaned on each other for support in tough times. I walked past a bank (closed), beauty salon (closed), a clothing store (boarded up), a convenience store (closed) and another clothing store, an antique shop, another antique shop, a café, a nail salon, and a dog groomers: boarded up, closed, boarded up, closed, closed, and on vacation. The opposite side of the street appeared to be much the same story. Wasn’t
anything
open? A cool breeze fluttered down the street, chasing a few stray leaves along the sidewalk. I shivered. The early morning air was misty and damp, and my short-sleeved blouse inadequate. What I needed was a Starbucks.

Aha! I perked up when I saw, across the street, a beckoning Open sign in the window of Binny’s Bakery; glowing blue and red neon cheered me immeasurably. I crossed the street, climbed the three steps, and opened the door, triggering a chirpy bell to ring. A yeasty smell and moist warmth enveloped me. Fresh bread! And something else familiar . . . olive oil, rosemary, and cheese? Having eaten four carrot muffins since midnight and nothing else, something
not
sweet appealed.

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