Authors: Jessie Crockett
All You Can Eat . . . Before You Die
The official referee blew his whistle and the competition began.
Cheering erupted from the hall and children stood in their folding chairs to get a better view of adults eating in a way they’d be sent from the table for imitating. Roland held his own for the first three towering stacks of pancakes despite his heart troubles and his wife’s admonishments to consider his health. The teenagers came on strong at the beginning but faded fast once the fourth and fifth stacks were placed in front of them. Only Alanza and Grandpa remained by the sixth stack of steaming cakes.
Grampa shifted in his seat in just the way he did every year at Thanksgiving to make room for pie. Alanza seemed to favor saturating the pancakes with so much syrup they dissolved into a pile of mush and needed no chewing. Only slowing to swat his beard out of his plate, Grandpa maintained a steady pace through his seventh stack. Alanza, however, began to slow down. Her shoulders slumped and her eyes became glazed. Squinting at her carefully, I noticed a bit of foam forming at the corners of her mouth. Before I could ask if she was all right she swayed gently, let out a deep moan, and pitched face-first into her plate . . .
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DRIZZLED WITH DEATH
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author Copyright © 2013 by Jessie Crockett.
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Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / October 2013
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.
Writers write, but usually not without a great deal of support. I’d like to take a moment to thank the people who helped make this book a reality. So a big thank-you goes out to my agent, John Talbot; to my editor, Michelle Vega; and all the people at Berkley Prime Crime who work behind the scenes making sure the reader experience is the best it can be. Thank you also to Mary Anne Lasher-Dodge for creating the beautiful cover art for this book.
I’d also like to thank conservation officer Josiah Towne, for answering my many questions and for allowing me to ride along on a call. Thanks also to Maureen Steer and Jim White, who generously consented to answer my law enforcement questions. Thanks also to Lucy Zahray for sharing her expert knowledge of poisons.
Thanks goes out to my friends Betsy Baker, Amy Darling, and Jennie Palmatier for serving as willing taste testers for maple martini recipes, both magical and mundane.
My mother, Sandy Crockett, is always on the thank-you list both as a first and ideal reader and as a willing and dependable babysitter. My sister, Larissa Crockett, provided often needed encouragement as well as insider knowledge about syrup making. My sister, Barb Shaffer, seemed to know just when to call and ask how things were going.
I thank my children, Will, Jo, Theo, and Ari for their patience, kindness, and enthusiasm, and for taste testing more maple food products than they may have liked.
And finally, thanks to my beloved husband, Elias, without whom I would not be living my dreams.
I knew as soon as I lied to my mother, the night would turn
out badly. Guilt sat in the pit of my stomach like a truck stop burger as I watched the lights of my grandparents’ minivan fade down the driveway. I am not by nature a liar, but if I didn’t get a couple hours to myself, I was going to end up headlining the local news. So I did what any devoted daughter would do and faked a migraine.
The holiday season brings on overachieving mania in my family every year. Preparations begin on All Saints’ Day and reach toxic levels of holiday cheer by Thanksgiving. My mother festoons every room in our sprawling farmhouse with porcelain villages, twinkling lights, and creepy animatronic elves. Grandma turns the kitchen inside out crafting mince pies from actual meat, building gingerbread house replicas of famous castles, and challenging Switzerland to a chocolate production duel. My sister composes a holiday newsletter that puts many glossy magazines to shame. The year I was born, my grandfather added a dozen reindeer to our herd of cows and my father built a sleigh for them to pull through the center of town.
None of the preparations are all that overwhelming on their own, but set them to spin under the same roof and you’ve got holiday overload. The worst thing is the way everyone insists how much more I will enjoy the holidays when I have a special someone to share them with or, better still, a few kids of my own. I feel like I’m barely old enough to add a husband and kids to the bottom of my Christmas list, but everyone looks at me as if my stocking were full of coal when I sit down to the holiday table year after year unattached.
Thanks to my bald-faced fibbing, I was not helping the rest of the family set up for a fund-raising breakfast scheduled for the next morning at the grange hall. My grandparents met at the event over fifty years earlier when my grandfather came in second to his future father-in-law at the pancake-eating competition. Ever since then, our family has donated our syrup to the festivities. The firefighters’ auxiliary, the Sap Bucket Brigade, counts on us to deliver the syrup and set it out on all the tables the night before the fund-raiser. I told myself they didn’t really need my help. Besides there was some cleaning up to do in the sugarhouse after everyone had tromped through it fetching squat jugs of syrup for the breakfast.
The sugarhouse is my favorite part of the farm, especially at this time of year, when it is the only place free from tinsel and plastic garlands. With Thanksgiving less than a week away and holiday fervor gripping the household, I was hiding out there as often as I could. I slipped into a down vest, grabbed a bottle of Shiraz, and scooted on out the door. The sugarhouse sits back from the farmhouse far enough to be convenient to the trees but close enough to get to when the snow’s antler deep on a nine-point buck. I crossed the quiet yard, the three-quarter moon shining its light down through the bare branches of the trees, and felt the lumpy frozen earth beneath my feet. The security light above the sugarhouse door winked on as I approached. Once inside, the familiar sights of the evaporator and the unadorned rows of syrup bottles drove any holiday stress right out of my mind. I sat the wine on the workbench, pulled the cork, and grabbed a glass from a cupboard. After pouring myself a healthy swig, I flipped on the radio, then grabbed a broom from the closet. Half an hour later all the dirt was gone and everything was tucked back into its place.
I sat on a stool and leaned back against the workbench to enjoy the tranquility. Taking a sip of wine, I scanned the room, a feeling of pride welling up. Over the past five years I had convinced my family to turn our hobby into a business. We’d modernized equipment, begun using hoses instead of buckets to collect sap, and started selling over the Internet. Just this past summer we’d added on a small shop to sell our own maple products and maple-themed gift items. The next thing on my list of improvements was organic certification. With a little luck we would have it in time for the upcoming sugaring season.
It hasn’t been easy to get my family on board with the new ideas. After four generations making sugar, they feel like our system doesn’t need any tweaking. The farm has been in the family for over a hundred years so convincing everyone to try something new has been an epic battle. My age, birth position, and gender haven’t helped. Being the baby of the family may have its advantages but it hinders you when it comes to garnering respect. My sister, Celadon, and my brother, Loden, just open their mouths and our elders start stringing those pearls of wisdom into necklaces. Me, I have to repeat everything at least a dozen times and then provide written documentation to back up my claims.
As I sat my wineglass back on the bench, I heard footsteps on the porch. The closest neighbor lived over a mile away, and I should have heard any cars coming up the drive. I slid off the stool and slipped toward the window. I was three feet from it when I saw the face. A tawny, furry, feline face filled the window. I took a step back, then another. The large amber eyes peering at me belonged to no tabby cat out for a night of carousing. My heart hammered in my chest. All my life I’d heard rumors of big cat sightings, but like most people, I had never taken them seriously.
The large eyes blinked and the big cat yawned. Four white teeth glowed in the moonlight. I blinked, too, sure I was not seeing what I was seeing. Bears are common here and moose have a pleasant habit of dropping by now and again. Deer cross the roads as often as people in some sections of town. But big cats, no way. Bobcats are a possibility even if they are a rarity, but this animal was far, far larger. I pulled my cell phone from the pocket of my jeans and dialed the number for the police station. I used to date a guy that worked there so the number stuck in my head like an advertising jingle and I wasn’t sure this qualified as a 911 call.
“Sugar Grove Police Department.” I recognized Myra Phelps’s raspy smoker’s voice filling my ear. “How can I help you?”
“It’s Dani Greene. Is Byron on duty tonight?” Byron is the part-time animal control officer hired by the department to deal with stray dogs, rabid skunks, and even deer that meet their maker in the middle of the highway.
“Sorry, Dani, he’s away at his in-laws’ for Thanksgiving. Is it important?”
“Has anyone ever reported a mountain lion?”
“Good Lord, yes, the darn fools.”
“One’s staring in my window right now.” The cat blinked again then turned away. I crept closer, holding my breath as I watched it move down the porch, its long tail twitching behind it. “No wait, now it’s sitting next to the stairs.”
“I know you’ve got a real sense of humor, Dani, but this could be considered wasting police time.”
“I know what I’m seeing. Isn’t there anyone else you can send out?”
“I’ve been told to direct any animal calls to the Fish and Game Department.”
“Well, would you do it? I’m here by myself and this thing looks big enough to swallow me.”
“My beagle’s big enough to swallow you.” Myra let out a snort that turned to a hacking cough.
“It is not.” My size is a bit of a joke in town. I like to tell people I am five feet tall, but the sad fact is that I’m barely four eleven. I weigh 103 pounds after making four trips through an all-you-can-eat buffet. Before you envy me, ask yourself how glamorous you’d feel buying all your clothes in the children’s department.
“Are you sure it isn’t a bobcat?”
“The tail’s too stumpy. And the head’s all wrong.”
“Have you tried blinking? That always helps when people are seeing things in cartoons.”
“It’s stretching out on the porch like it intends to stay for the night. My bladder’s full and there’s no bathroom here in the sugarhouse. Could you just call Fish and Game?”
“All right, but don’t be surprised when the guy laughs in your tiny freckled face.” Myra herself wheezed out a laugh as she disconnected. I slipped my cell phone back into my pocket and stood staring out the window at the cat, wondering how long it would take to rouse an official from Fish and Game and for him or her to arrive. I watched it scratch its ear with a well-aimed hind foot, lap its paw with a long pink tongue, and turn over on its back to scratch those hard-to-reach bits on the porch floor. Within half an hour headlights winked up the driveway. The cat must have seen them, too, because it sprang to its feet in a sleek single movement and streaked around the back of the building. I raced to the back windows and caught a glimpse of its tail as it slipped off through the trees. Relief and disappointment filled me as I heard a vehicle door slam shut. I cautiously pulled open the sugarhouse door and peeked my head out.
“Hello, over here,” I called to the man standing next to a state-issued truck. He strode toward me, lanky legs covering ground almost as quickly as the cat’s. Dressed for the outdoors in cargo pants and a canvas jacket, he looked like he’d stepped off the cover of an L.L.Bean catalog.
“I’m Graham Paterson, from Fish and Game. Are you the one who reported a mountain lion?”
“I am. But it’s gone. I think your truck scared it off.” I looked up at him, suddenly aware I had no proof of my claim.
“Uh-huh.” He looked down at me, his bottle blue eyes crinkling with skepticism.
“It was just here.” I walked across the creaking floorboards to where it had been and pointed at the spot. “It sat right here for half an hour.”
“Were you inside or outside when you spotted it?”
“Inside. Come on, I’ll show you.” I led the way into the sugarhouse and gestured toward the window.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a bobcat?” he asked. “People make that mistake all the time.”
“It wasn’t a bobcat. It had a long swishy tail.”
“Swishy, huh?” He smiled. “Bobcats have tails that swish, too, when they set their minds to it.”
“It was long and swishy. About the same length as its body. No bobcat has a tail that long.”
“Did you take a picture of it?”
“I didn’t think of that. I guess I was just too startled.” I was starting to wish I hadn’t called. His smile didn’t feel friendly and pleasant; it felt pitying or condescending.
“That’s what everyone says when they spot mountain lions. Or Big Foot. I’ve even heard it said about a monster someone saw in Lake Winnipesaukee.”
“I’m sure of what I saw.” I fought the urge to stamp my foot on the pumpkin pine floorboards. Graham shifted from peering out the window to scanning the room. His gaze landed on the wineglass.
“How much had you been drinking when you noticed the lion?”
“Only a few sips.” I felt my cheeks ignite and something that felt like heartburn but was probably righteous anger welling up in my chest. “I thought when you’d had too much, you were supposed to see pink elephants, not big cats.” I was not going to let my anger show. For one thing, it was beneath me, but more important, I look ridiculous when I get angry. My face gets splotchy and I break out in hives. My normally squeaky voice climbs up into dog whistle range and I sometimes punch the air with a fist scaled for a Barbie doll.
“In my experience with the department, I’ve noticed tippling causes all sorts of animal hallucinations.”
“Then I won’t offer you any.” I tried not to flounce around in a huff but I know it was exactly what I did. I could see it as clearly as if I were having an out-of-body experience.
“I’m on duty anyway, so even if you had been so gracious as to offer, I could not have accepted.” He sounded like a cop. After my disastrous and very public breakup with a local police officer, I didn’t consider that a compliment.
“Since we agree this isn’t a social call, shouldn’t you do some investigating? Poke around looking for tracks or something?”
“Did you see which way it went, whatever it was?”
“The mountain lion went that way.” I pointed behind the sugarhouse.
“I’ll let you know what I find. Or don’t.” He descended the steps and was out of sight before I could get back inside. I hurried through the sugar shack and into the attached shop to get a better view of him. He walked slowly into the sugar bush, stopping every so often to inspect something closely. Before long he disappeared through the trees.
I turned away from the window and moved around the cold shop, touching a syrup bottle on one shelf, a maple leaf shaped stack of plates on another. Maple leaf shaped wrought iron sconces hung on the wooden walls. Spread on the floor in front of the cash register lay a maple leaf motif hooked rug. All through the previous summer I had sourced merchandise with a maple theme for the shop. Now the store was stocked with products ranging from maple wood cribbage boards to maple liquor. We had opened just in time for fall foliage season, and the leaf peepers visited in droves. Encouraged by the success of our opening season, I planned to spend the winter developing a line of specialty food items to sell bearing the Greener Pastures name. I was thinking about a maple-flavored cheese spread when I heard footsteps in the sugarhouse. I hurried back out front and found Graham leaning over the evaporator.
“I didn’t find any tracks or scat.”
“Did you really look? I don’t think you went out there with an open mind.”
“I treat each and every call seriously, no matter how far-fetched the claim.” He crossed his long arms over his chest, his stance wide and appearing rooted to the spot. It occurred to me he might still be here when the rest of the family returned if I didn’t hurry him along. Then I’d be forced to explain how my migraine led me to entertain a visitor in the sugarhouse rather than to lie down in a dark room. Knowing them, they’d gleefully assume there was something romantic going on and I’d have to endure more disappointed tongue clucking when I explained what really happened.