Authors: Victoria Hamilton
Praise for the Merry Muffin Mysteries
Muffin but Murder
“Another fun read . . . There were plenty of twists to keep me turning those pages. The story is well-plotted and had me guessing whodunit right until the very end. The author has thoughtfully provided some yummy recipes. So if you like your mystery to have a spooky twist, then you should be reading
Muffin but Murder.
“Merry is an interesting, strong character . . . An intriguing mystery that keeps you guessing to the end.”
Socrates’ Book Reviews
“[A] great cozy with varied and interesting characters, a nice plot with a few twists, and a good main character who has some baggage to work through . . . Excellent—Loved it! Buy it now and put this author on your watch list.”
Mysteries and My Musings
Bran New Death
“Start with a spunky protagonist named Merry, mix in some delicious muffins, add a mysterious castle in upstate New York, and you’ve got the ingredients for a wonderful cozy mystery series.”
New York Times
bestselling author of
If Catfish Had Nine Lives
“Victoria Hamilton has another winner on her hands. I love the main character and her eclectic group of friends and neighbors. It is well plotted and will keep you turning the pages well into the wee hours.”
“[A] real feast for mystery fans.”
Praise for Victoria Hamilton’s National Bestselling Vintage Kitchen Mysteries
“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,
New York Times
bestselling author of
“Smartly written and successfully plotted, the debut of this new cozy series . . . exudes authenticity.”
“A true whodunit. And it’s spiced with appealing characters, a bit of romance, and a generous helping of food topics.”
“[A] charmingly believable cozy mystery set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula . . . If you have not yet discovered Victoria Hamilton . . . you are in for a treat.”
“Well plotted with several unexpected twists and more developed characters,
is a strong sophomore effort. In addition to murder and high school angst revisited, there are plenty of details and lore about vintage kitchenware and its history, and maybe even a book deal for Jaymie in the future.”
The Mystery Reader
A Deadly Grind
is a fun debut in the new Vintage Kitchen Mystery series . . . Fans of Joanne Fluke or of Virginia Lowell’s Cookie Cutter Shop Mysteries will feel right at home in Queenstown.”
Berkley Prime Crime titles by Victoria Hamilton
Vintage Kitchen Mysteries
A DEADLY GRIND
FREEZER I’LL SHOOT
NO MALLETS INTENDED
Merry Muffin Mysteries
BRAN NEW DEATH
MUFFIN BUT MURDER
DEATH OF AN ENGLISH MUFFIN
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
DEATH OF AN ENGLISH MUFFIN
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2015 by Donna Lea Simpson.
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
BERKLEY® PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME design are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
For more information, visit penguin.com.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-15460-5
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / July 2015
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.
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.
F A WOMAN
screams in the forest and no one hears her, does she feel any better?
I had retreated to a distant section of the Wynter Woods where I could be quite sure I was alone. Once there, I screamed, then picked up a dead branch and beat the ground. I wailed and gnashed my teeth, invoking the heavens to bring down some kind of wrath on the bedevilment that was Cleta Sanson.
And yet I didn’t feel one bit better.
your problem, Merry?”
The voice behind me made me jump. I whirled and screamed a more ladylike shriek, but it was just Lizzie with her wispy friend Alcina. The two girls, teens of my acquaintance, were appropriately shod in galoshes. In the spring, even as late as the end of April, the woods are marshy, as I found out a week before by ruining a pair of Cole Haan oxfords. I got stuck in mud while out for what I thought was going to be a stroll, not a three-mile slog through marshy, boggy muck. Thirteen-year-old Alcina had
creatively paired her footgear with an old wedding gown and tiara, while frizzy-haired fifteen-year-old Lizzie wore a camo jacket over a sweatshirt and jeans, with her professional-grade DSLR camera slung around her neck.
Lizzie’s attitude was demonstrated by her stance, hands on her hips and thick brows drawn down in defiance. Alcina was her usual elusive self, drifting off to explore, her long, silky blonde hair floating behind her as she moved. Really, the child was positively elfin, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. She fascinated me in the same way Shilo, my best female friend, does. Shilo is more dark gypsy, though, than pale elf.
I stared at Lizzie for a moment, then sighed, deeply. “It’s Miss Sanson.”
She nodded in instant understanding. “She makes me scream, too, but I don’t go out into the woods to do it.”
That explained the echoing shrieks I’d been hearing around the castle. I was on the verge of calling in paranormal investigators, but it was good to know the place wasn’t haunted. That I knew of, anyway.
I guess I should explain about the castle. My name is Merry Wynter and I am an almost-forty-year-old widow. Just over a year ago the sudden death of my great-uncle Melvyn Wynter—a man I barely remembered meeting once, when I was five—left me the family castle near the village of Autumn Vale, New York, a spot about equidistant between Buffalo and Rochester, south of I-90. Wynter Castle is one of those gorgeous monstrosities built by the mill barons of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, in this case my ancestor Jacob Lazarus Wynter, who made his fortune from lumber mills.
I learned about my inheritance shortly after Melvyn’s death. However, I was caught up in a drama between myself and a pill-addicted, mentally unstable model (Leatrice Pugeot, born plain old Lynn Pugmire) for whom I worked as an assistant. She thought I was sabotaging her by baking my fabulous muffins, which she snitched and ate, causing
her to gain a few critical ounces. She
accused me of stealing a Tiffany necklace worth tens of thousands. I didn’t do that, and still think she either lost it or pawned it.
She fired me or I quit, depending on who you listened to, and I spent months trying to repair my reputation and find work doing what I once was, a fashion stylist. It finally occurred to me that leaving New York City and letting the dust settle was my best option, so I rented a car and headed to my ancestral home.
Wynter Castle is beautiful, built of gold limestone that glows in the sunset like a fire has lit it from within. It has Gothic arched windows, mammoth oak double doors, a stained glass rose window, and turret rooms. You’d think it would make a good first impression, but when I arrived the property was pocked with holes, the result of someone thinking the place had buried treasure, and we had since seen two murders on the property—not the most auspicious of starts.
But that was last fall and now it was spring, a time of new beginnings. Since then the castle and the people of Autumn Vale had wormed their way into my heart, and I knew it was going to be a wrench to sell and leave, but what choice did I have? It was too expensive to keep, so I was fixing it up room by room to make it saleable.
None of that explains my screams, or introduces you to Miss Cleta Sanson, the reason for my woodsy wailing, but I’m getting there.
Lizzie was chattering to Alcina about the light filtering through the tree canopy, but I didn’t think the other girl was listening. She was crouched over a bug on a dead branch, watching it with fierce intensity. Lizzie took some photos and I wandered farther into the woods, following the ghost of a trail. Becket, the handsome orange cat that I inherited with the castle, had followed me and wound around Lizzie’s feet, tripping her up and making her laugh.
In my head I had been hearing Copland’s “Appalachian
Spring,” a soaring American melody that threaded through my mind and haunted me until I came out walking. I was grateful I had heeded the call of the woods. I breathed in deeply, seeking the inner peace I had surprisingly begun to find in the great outdoors since moving to Wynter Castle, even though I am a city girl born and bred. The forest was coming alive with brilliant green shoots poking up through the blanket of dead leaves and trees were showing a shimmering burst of radiant green. I shivered as a chill wind sprang up, making the budding leaves on the trees tremble. My feet squished into the bog. It was still too wet to do much outside and I was about to turn around and head home when I spotted some kind of structure ahead, through the brush.
“What is that?” I asked Lizzie, pointing through the trees. Since she and Alcina spent a lot of time in the woods messing around and constructing Alcina’s fairy rings and gnome homes I thought she might know.
She squinted, sweeping back a mass of her frizzy hair. “I don’t know. I’ve never been this far into these woods.” She lifted her camera and took some shots, then peered at the camera screen, doing something to make it show a close-up. The kid was a whiz with the camera.
I looked over her shoulder at what appeared to be a tower of sorts. Intrigued, I headed toward it, the teens following. It was slow going, since I had to climb over mossy fallen logs and push through the occasional tangle of brush, but we reached a more open area and found the object I had spied.
It was a lopsided medieval-looking structure built of cobblestones with a conical roof of cedar shakes. It looked like something out of a fairy tale but on a minor scale, kind of a Rapunzel tower but only ten or twelve feet tall. And it wasn’t alone. To the left of it, a little farther down a path layered in pine needles and littered with dead branches, was a shed-size structure that, though worn by years of rain and neglect, was clearly meant to be a little gingerbread house.
There were candy cane eaves in faded, peeling red and white, and the slab doors looked like they had been painted to resemble graham cracker wafers. Hansel and Gretel sprang to mind. Beyond the tower to the right was a little house that appeared to be set into the side of the hill, like a gnome home! Becket rushed up the hillock and hung over the edge, like a tiny marmalade tiger awaiting prey.
Faintly, I said, “Lizzie, can you take pictures of all of this for me?”
She was already snapping and ignored me completely, caught up in her passion, photography. I like the kid a lot. Lizzie is stubborn, occasionally rude, irascible, and funny. Her pithy observations on life are sometimes hilarious, and often uncomfortably truthful.
I turned around slowly, spying more buildings through the woods. My uncle—every time I thought I’d gotten to the end of his wonderful weirdness I found something new. This had his crafty but incapable fingerprints all over it. Maybe I had stumbled across one of his mad never-quite-successful schemes to make Wynter Castle pay, a fairy-tale park of some sort?
It was too much to take in and I knew I’d have to leave it alone, since I had a full, busy day ahead of me yet. As the peace of the forest seeped into me I took a deep breath and accepted the dreadful truth. I had to return to the castle and face the Legion of Horrible Ladies. I called out to Lizzie, “Don’t be too long! You’re supposed to help pour tea this afternoon, and I want you halfway respectable looking.” I then trudged back alone, leaving Becket, Lizzie, and Alcina to explore and take photos. Robert Frost would have loved my forests. The woods were lovely, dark, and deep, but I had promises to keep.
I’ve mentioned the Legion of Horrible Ladies, but how to explain them? It all started with Pish, one of my two best friends and my financial mentor, who had an idea that would make me enough money to stay in the castle long enough to fix it up. Shilo Dinnegan, my other best friend—both Pish and
Shilo had followed me to Wynter Castle and stayed—had married local real estate agent Jack McGill just four months after meeting him. At Shilo’s December wedding Pish suggested that since I needed money in order to live in Wynter Castle long enough to complete the renovations, I should invite select folks to come rent rooms, wealthy people who would pay handsomely to stay in an honest-to-goodness castle.
He knew one such person, his darling, dotty aunt Lush. She had been pining over Wynter Castle ever since Pish took some photos home on one of his monthly visits to his mother. Lush would pay a generous fee to temporarily call Wynter Castle home, and might even know another select wealthy widow or two who would do the same. I said yes. Between that and the money from a film company who used Wynter Castle for some external shots, I could afford to stay and fix the place up, making it more attractive to a future buyer.
So Pish’s dotty aunt had come to stay and she was a chubby, cheerful, sweet-natured doll. She told the best stories, and we had a lovely month with her alone. She went back to the city for a doctor’s appointment, and I told her,
If you have a friend who would like to rent a room, let me know.
Two weeks later she came back with four friends in tow: her bridge club, who she had been meeting every week for cards for fifty years or more. They
wanted to stay, she said with a charming twinkle, as they milled about the great hall critiquing the décor and asking when dinner was served. I wanted to throttle her.
My first panicked thought was to put them up for the night and send them packing back to the city, but it rapidly became clear that it was not so simple. One had actually sublet her apartment on the strength of Lush’s swooning appraisal of the castle, so she had nowhere to go for six months! Also, my greedy brain had begun to tote up the rent I could command, and it was staggering. It was going to be a lot more work, but maybe it would be worth it. I can stand anything for a few months, I thought.
As often happens, I was wrong. I was slowly going mad from the awfulness of their combined force: the bickering and demands, the whining and quarrels, the endless sheer bloody-mindedness of a couple of them, in particular Cleta Sanson, the Queen B—
—of the Legion of Horrible Ladies, as I had come to call them after one particularly bad day.
To keep them busy I had, with Gogi Grace, the owner and operator of the local home for the elderly and my new friend, planned a series of luncheon and afternoon events. Some days we would have lunch, and other days we would offer afternoon tea—cookies, muffins, and cards in the elegant castle dining room with some of Gogi’s selected residents—all designed to keep the Legion ladies busy and interested. The first one, a couple of weeks before, was a disaster. Today we were attempting a second, hopefully better-planned event, a musical afternoon, which was why I had to hustle back to the castle.
I entered through the butler’s pantry door, which opened on a long hallway holding the only ground-floor bathroom, a series of storage cabinets, and a wet sink area once used by an actual butler. I strolled into my kitchen. It is enormous, long and fairly wide, with a sitting area at the far end that has a huge hearth topped by a sturdy mantel, and some wing chairs pulled up to it. The working heart of the impressive commercial kitchen was immediately before me. My uncle had poured a lot of money and effort into the space during what seemed to have been a rare moment of clarity. It is perfectly suited to be the kitchen for an inn or small hotel, with two stainless steel deep sinks and countertops on either side, a six-burner stove, and a commercial refrigerator. Centered in the room is a long worktable that I use as a breakfast bar and prep area.
Emerald, who now worked for me looking after the Legion and cooking, among other things, turned away from her task of polishing silver at the long table, and smiled. “You look exhausted and we haven’t even started,” she
commented, blowing some of her brown bangs out of her eyes and giving a toss to her ponytail.
I smiled back. From a hard-ass cocktail waitress Emerald had transformed into a neat and efficient jill-of-all-trades, adept at cooking, cleaning, and even the odd turn at fixing small appliances and installing safety bars in the upstairs washrooms. At first I hadn’t been sure of how she was going to fare at the castle, but she joined some kind of group, Consciousness Calling, and since then had become much more focused and diligent. I wasn’t quite sure what the group was all about, but she went there several times a week, studying acupressure or some such deal that she said would lead to a career helping people. I told her about meeting Lizzie and Alcina in the woods.