Maple Mayhem (A Sugar Grove Mystery)

BOOK: Maple Mayhem (A Sugar Grove Mystery)
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A syrup maker who sticks to his guns . . .

“I can take a hint. No more news of the cooperative for you. No joining, no inclusion in the informational mailing list. No invitations to meetings.”

“No nuthin’.”

“I understand you feel strongly. Which brings me to my next question.” I took a deep breath and reminded myself once again that I had wanted to be in charge.

“Someone damaged my car this morning while I was in having breakfast at the Stack.”

“What’s that got to do with me?” Frank bent down and tossed a piece of galvanized pipe as far as he could throw it.

“An anti-cooperative message was scratched into the new paint job.”

“And you think I’d do a thing like that?”

“Considering your attitude toward participating in the co-op, the thought had crossed my mind.” He heaved a cinder block next to the length of chain. It landed with a crack and sent a sizable chunk flying against my shin.

“I’ve had a thought just cross my mind, too. Beau!” Frank put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. My stomach dropped into my socks and my kneecaps turned into water balloons. Every junkyard needs a guard dog. Beau was on duty at Frank’s place.

I started to run for the Clunker even before Beau and his drooling, snapping jaws hurtled into view.

Berkley Prime Crime titles by Jessie Crockett

DRIZZLED WITH DEATH

MAPLE MAYHEM

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

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A Penguin Random House Company

MAPLE MAYHEM

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

Copyright © 2014 by Jessie Crockett.

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.

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For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-14313-5

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / July 2014

Cover illustration by Mary Ann Lasher.

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.

Version_2

Contents

A syrup maker who sticks to his guns . . .

Berkley Prime Crime titles by Jessie Crockett

Title Page

Copyright

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

 

Recipes

Acknowledgments

Writing a book is an exercise in faith. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of people to thank for having faith in me during the process.

Thanks go out to my mother Sandy Crockett, who gets the funny bits; my sisters Larissa Crockett and Barb Shaffer, who call and ask all the right questions; and my children Will, Jo, Theo, and Ari, who are always happy to brainstorm new ways to bump off my imaginary friends. Thanks also to Philip Nadeau for his expert opinion concerning automotive restoration.

I would also like to thank my editor at Berkley, Michelle Vega, and my agent, John Talbot, for providing support and enthusiasm for the series. Also, I would like to express my appreciation for the beautiful work of cover artist Mary Anne Lasher-Dodge.

The other members of the Wicked Cozy Authors blog, Sherry Harris, Julie Hennrikus, Edith Maxwell, Liz Mugavero, and Barb Ross, have been an outstanding source of support for this book as well as life in general. I am so grateful to be journeying with all of you!

And finally, to my beloved husband, Elias Estevao, for making it all possible and for believing it’s all worthwhile.

One

I slid out from behind the wheel and gently closed my car door. It had taken weeks for the local mechanic to repair my baby after it lost a cage match with a cassowary but it had been worth the wait. If anything, my vintage MG Midget was looking, and driving, better than ever. All those weeks of tooling around in the family’s dreaded spare car, the Clunker, had been worth it. I gave the convertible’s soft top a little pat and let my fingers run along the smooth shiny new turquoise paint, then headed into the most photographed building in New Hampshire for some breakfast.

To the best of all local knowledge, the Stack Shack is the only pancake stack shaped building in the world. It’s been featured in travel magazines, cooking magazines, and even a book of odd buildings. The place is built with enough curves and layers to make any structural updates intimidating and costly, which is why Piper was able to buy it on the cheap when she was barely out of high school. She loves the Stack, which she knew she wanted to own and run ever since the first time her parents took her there for breakfast as a small child.

It’s conveniently located just off Sugar Grove’s main street with plenty of on- and off-street parking, which it needs. The Stack, as it’s called by locals, is standing-room-only on weekends and holidays. It gets crowded to capacity on weekdays at breakfast and lunch, too.

The smell of fried potatoes and sizzling bacon filled the air. I glanced up at the specials written on a section of wall covered with chalkboard paint in the shape of a maple leaf. Piper stood behind the counter, a coffeepot in her hand, looking for all the world like she’d lost her best friend. Which I knew for a fact she hadn’t since I was standing right in front of her.

“So what’s good this morning?” I asked. Piper looked up from staring at the laminate counter in front of her like it held the answer to all the world’s problems.

“Nothing.” Piper always had a great suggestion for ordering off her menu. She never said
nothing
. If the special didn’t seem all that special, you could be certain the pancakes would be.

“That doesn’t sound like you. What’s up?” I hoisted myself onto a stool at the counter and gave my friend all my attention.

“It’s more what’s down. Profits.”

“At the Stack?” Business being slow at the Stack Shack was about as likely as successfully training a moose to ride a bicycle. The Stack had been profitable even during the Depression, when it had been built as a roadside attraction with the idea of separating a reluctant population from what little extra money they had. Things had only improved since then for the country and the Stack.

“No. Jill and Dean’s profits.” That made more sense. Jill Hayes and her brother, Dean, ran another sugarhouse in town, but their operation was much smaller than my own, Greener Pastures. Back at Thanksgiving Jill had lost her access to some trees she had tapped for years and it had cut way down on her ability to produce enough sap.

Her own property wasn’t all that large and with forty gallons of sap required to produce one gallon of finished syrup, you needed to tap a lot of trees. It hadn’t helped that last year had been terrible for production. You need warm days and cold nights to get the sap to really run and, unfortunately, Mother Nature had only been suffering from hot flashes. No sugar makers had done well and for those already running on close margins, it had been a disaster.

“Do they think they’ll be able to hold on through this coming season?” I asked. Piper was plugged into what was going on in town because of her position as owner of the most popular eatery in Sugar Grove, but also because Dean was her current winter fling. Every year Piper has a winter romance and she takes it very seriously while it lasts.

“Dean was just in here talking about how tight things have gotten with the business and that they may decide to stop producing. He said he’s trying to convince Jill to sell the property even before the sugaring season gets underway.” Jill and Dean had inherited their land from their parents, who had died several years before in a car accident. Jill had finished raising Dean and one of the ways they had made ends meet was by producing syrup.

“I thought Jill said she was going to wait it out to see if the maple cooperative would make enough of a difference and then decide?”

“She wants to try to stick it out but she isn’t sure if they can. Dean says the bank’s sending threatening letters and if it weren’t winter, the power company would have cut off the electricity for lack of payment.”

“I knew their name was listed in the last town report as one of the owners behind on their property taxes but I didn’t know things had gotten that bad.” I was glad, and not for the first time, that the Greene family income didn’t depend on syrup making. Greener Pastures was one of the largest producers in town. I was hoping we would grow to be one of the largest in the state.

“It is that bad. And they aren’t the first family to lose their homes with all the economic mess.” Piper was right. Sugar Grove, like so many other communities in New Hampshire, had been hit hard by the mortgage crisis. That was the reason I had decided to start a cooperative in the first place. By buying supplies as a group, all the sugar makers in town would be able to pay lower prices per unit on the things we needed, like taps and jugs and tubing. We were even going to be able to save money on office supplies. I had approached other sugar makers about starting the cooperative a week ago and, with one notable exception, they were all eager to participate. “Dean says if they sell, he’s going to move out of the area.” Piper fiddled with the silver hoop ring puncturing the corner of her eyebrow, a sure sign she was agitated.

I not-so-secretly harbored hopes that Piper would eventually marry my brother, Loden, but I didn’t like to see her feeling miserable in the meantime. All I wanted to do was help. There had to be some way to get Jill some breathing room. After all, it was only a few more weeks until sugar season started.

“I’ll talk to Grampa. Maybe we can think of something that would help.” My grandfather has never needed money. None of us has, thanks to cheap ancestors and wise investments. That hasn’t stopped Grampa from being a savvy businessman or a generous giver to causes he deemed worthy. Everyone in the Greene family has pet projects he or she sponsors and has found ways to make them self-funding. That’s what I’ve been doing with Greener Pastures. What started as a family tradition is now a thriving concern that donates all post-tax profits to environmental causes. Grampa has done the same with many endeavors over the years. If anyone could help with this, it would be him.

“Great idea.” Piper perked up just a little and flipped over a mug, filling it two thirds with coffee before sliding it in my direction. “Are you here for some breakfast? This is early, even for you.”

I poured in a generous glug of cream from a cow-shaped creamer and spooned in enough sugar to induce a diabetic coma. With a metabolism like a hummingbird, I grab calories wherever I can get them, healthy or not.

“I was up saying good-bye to Mom and Lowell.” My mother and my godfather had been seeing each other for some time without my knowledge. I was pretty upset when I first found out about their relationship but now that things were out in the open they were making up for lost time. For Christmas Lowell had surprised my mother by booking passage for the two of them on a cruise to the Caribbean. I hadn’t wanted to get up at four that morning to see them off but I was still finding my way around their relationship and I didn’t want them to worry that I didn’t approve. So here I was, out in public, looking for breakfast at five thirty.

“Did they get off okay?”

“They did. Honestly, they were so cute it was sort of sickening. Mom made them matching luggage tags from recycled tarot cards and Lowell presented her with a hat so large it could be used as an igloo. He didn’t want her to get sunburned.”

“How long will they be gone?”

“Ten days. Lowell hasn’t had a vacation in so long his suitcase had dry-rotted and they had to buy him a new one.”

“I hope nothing crops up while Lowell’s gone. It’s hard to imagine Mitch being in charge.”

“I can and if you keep talking about that, I’ll lose my appetite.”

“Well you wouldn’t want to do that. The maple cranberry turkey sausage is to die for.”

“Sounds like it would be perfect with some buckwheat pancakes.”

“Coming right up.” Piper buzzed on back to the kitchen and while I waited I entertained myself by spinning my stool around until I was dizzy. That’s one of the perks of looking like a child. You can get away with a lot of behavior other adults would not. At under five feet tall and barely a hundred pounds on a fat day, I find people tend to underestimate my age. I may be twenty-seven but waitresses invariably ask me if I want the kiddie menu. Before I managed to make myself sick from all the whirling Piper brought out a heaping plate and I tucked in with a will.

The sausage was as good as she said it would be. I’d be willing to bet even people who think turkey sausage can’t be a sausage at all would wolf it down and stick out their plates for seconds. The sweetness of the sausage complemented the nuttiness of the pancakes and made waking up that early almost worth it. Piper was sure to be out of the sausage before the end of the breakfast rush.

“Dani, isn’t that your car?” Piper asked, pointing out the window. I turned my stool around again to see what was happening out in the street. Through the window, I could see my ex-boyfriend and current police officer in charge, Mitch Reynolds, leaning over my car, with what looked like a ticketing pad in hand. I rushed out the door, still holding my knife and fork.

I squealed to a halt a few steps in front of the big ox. As much as I have no desire to ever again see him out of it, I have to admit the man did look darn good in a uniform.

“What do you think you are doing?” I asked, causing him to look up from the form he was filling out.

“Ticketing the citizen with the poor sense to go driving around with not only her headlights but her taillights busted out.” Mitch pointed at the front of my car and then at the pavement. Little fragments of headlight cover scattered on the slushy ground.

“Busted! That can’t be. I just got the car back from Byron.” I felt my palms, wrapped around the flatware, becoming clammy with rage.

“Well, obviously, it can be. Look for yourself.” Mitch smiled at me and his cheeks creased into double dimples. I walked around to the back of the car to check the taillights.

“Did you see this?” I asked, trying not to yell or, worse, cry. Someone had keyed my freshly painted trunk. The word
co-op
was written enclosed in a circle with a diagonal slash across it.

“I did. I thought it must be part of your fancy new paint job.”

“Of course it wasn’t. I don’t even put bumper stickers on my car.” Mitch did though. His personal vehicle, a four-wheel-drive truck with monster tires, was covered in so many bumper stickers that if it ever started to rust, it still wouldn’t fall apart.

“You’ve got a couple of flat tires, too. Looks like it’s back to the shop for this thing. You can call for a tow just as soon as I finish filling out this ticket.”

“You can’t ticket me because someone else vandalized my car.”

“Watch me. Besides, I can’t stop filling out the ticket once I start. Everyone knows that.”

“So when were you demoted to meter maid?” I asked, batting my eyelashes in a way calculated to fluster and annoy. In a moment of lust-filled frankness Mitch had admitted to being completely gaga over lush, long lashes. As soon as I knew things weren’t going to work out for us I had thrown away my tube of mascara.

“I wasn’t demoted. Every cruiser has a pad of ticketing forms. You never know when you’ll need them. Besides, do I look like any kind of a maid to you?” Mitch crossed his bulging biceps across his blue-clad chest and scowled down at me. Way down. It was one of the things I felt didn’t work in our relationship. If that was what you’d even call it. Mitch and I had been out on a few dates, the first of which came about because my older sister, Celadon, had lied and said she was fixing me up on a blind date. When I came downstairs all dolled up, there was Mitch, a guy I’d known since before either of us could write in cursive. It ended up being more of a blind-rage date. The only perk was that he wore his uniform and everywhere we went we got great service.

I hadn’t been sure how to tell him I wasn’t interested and then one thing led to another and I went on more dates with him, until one night he started groping me in a way that would have meant we were married the year my family’s house was built. When I asked him to stop, and had trouble being heard, I finally spilled the beans about never being interested in the first place. He was understandably hurt and broke it off there and then. I try to avoid him whenever possible but with the size of the town and the fact he works for my godfather, the police chief, it is hard to put such a policy into practice.

Then, of course, there are the ways in which he goes out of his way to run into me. Like this morning. If I fought the ticket, I’d just wind up seeing him again in court. I didn’t like to pull in any favors with the chief but right about now I was at my wit’s end. My insurance was going to skyrocket with all the points Mitch was racking up on my license. In the four months since the awkwardness in the front seat of a town cruiser, he had pulled me over sixteen times, ticketing me twelve. What he needed was a new woman in his life to take his mind off me and to express dismay at how much attention he was paying to an ex-girlfriend.

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