Authors: Mary Ellen Hughes
Scraping the bottom of the barrelÂ .Â .Â .
She approached her booth from the rear but was able to see her pickle barrel, which stood to the side of the shelves of jars and spices. Her green tarp was still in place over those items, but the barrel lid was definitely up. Piper stopped, suddenly afraid to see what might have happened to her precious container. Trash dumped into it? Worse?
Ben caught up with her and paused, following her gaze. He continued a few steps more. Piper watched his face as he made his way to the front of the barrel. His mouth worked soundlessly, then she heard, “Good God.”
“What?” Piper lurched forward to see for herself.
Two legs, partly covered in tasseled socks and barely edged with a tartan kilt, hung over the rim of her pickle barrelâthe same kilt and socks she remembered seeing the day before on Alan Rosemont. The legs were attached to a torso about Rosemont's size that was pitched forward into the barrel, deep into Piper's pickling brine. A bagpipe lay on the ground nearby, deflated and looking as dead as the body in the barrelÂ .Â .Â .
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THE PICKLED PIPER
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright Â© 2014 by Mary Ellen Hughes.
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-59281-6
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / May 2014
Cover illustration by Chris O'Leary.
Cover design by Sarah Oberrender.
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.
For my sister, Barbara Gawronski, who's always been an inspiration.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel . . .
Top thanks definitely go to my endlessly supportive husband, Terry, who, when I wondered what to write about next, said “pickles.” Though I'd laughed, that seed of an idea took root (a dill seed?), and before long Piper, Aunt Judy, Uncle Frank, and the many people of Cloverdale, New York, came to life, and a new series was born. They and I are highly indebted to him.
I'm very grateful to my agent, Kim Lionetti, for her encouragement and efforts on my behalf, and to my editor, Faith Black, along with the other hardworking people at Berkley Prime Crime, who sanded and polished this book with their talents and skills to its final stage.
Many thanks, once again, to my long-standing and ever-patient critique groupâRay Flynt, Lynda Sasscer Hill, Debbi Mack, Sherriel Mattingly, and Marcia Talleyâwho did their meticulous first readings and either cheered or steered me back on track with their tough love whenever I strayed.
Finally, gratitude is due to the many fine cooks who, over the years, developed the intricacies of pickling and preserving. Without them our meals would be so much less tasty, and the idea for a mystery mixed with a dash of vinegar and spice might never have taken root.
iper's phone chirped just as she picked up a six-pack of sweet gherkins. She groaned and carefully set the carton back down in the rear of her Chevy hatchback to pull out her phone. A second groan escaped when she saw the name of the caller on her display. She answered anyway.
“Piper! You won't believe the amazing meal I just had.”
“You called from Tibet to tell me about your dinner?”
“But you like food! You're always talking about your pickling stuff.”
“Not on calls from halfway round the world. Why don't you e-mail me about it? Send me the recipe if you want. I can't really talk now, Scott. I'm in the middle of setting up at the fair.”
“You're still in Cloverdale?”
Piper drew a deep breath and tucked a strand of brown hair firmly behind her ear. Scott Littleton, her onetime fiancÃ©, had a definite blind spot for retaining things she told him. “Yes, Scott, I'm still in Cloverdale because I moved here, remember? I physically transferred all my belongings from Albany to Cloverdale. I signed a lease on a building, moved in, and opened up a shop in Cloverdale.”
“Yes, but I didn't know you were really going to stay there.”
“Well, now you know.” Did he realize they weren't actually engaged anymore? Sometimes Piper wondered. An orange Toyota pulled up next to her. “I've got to go. Have a good breakfast tomorrow.” Or would it be today? Piper had a hard time keeping all the time zones Scott was traveling through straight. She closed her phone as an arm reached out from the Toyota and waved.
“I hope none of my jars cracked,” Amy Carlyle called. “I really worried about them as I bounced over some of these ruts.”
“We'll find out!” Piper picked up her gherkins once more, and Amy climbed out to grab a box from her own car. Or rather, her father's car, on loan. Amy had recently returned home after studying at culinary school and currently worked two jobsâone at the A La Carte restaurant, and one at Piper's shopâwhile living at home and saving assiduously for a hoped-for restaurant of her own. Piper felt extremely lucky to have her.
As they lugged their loads across the open space to the vendors' booths, Piper took in the colorful sight of the fairgrounds set up at the edge of town and breathed deeply of the fresh, late-August morning air. A feeling she couldn't quite label burbled up inside her. A good feeling, so good it almost made her cry. Piper felt that she, like Amy, had come home, even though Cloverdale hadn't strictly been her home. She'd spent only summers there at Aunt Judy and Uncle Frank's farm from the time she could walk and talk. The thing was, those summers were the happiest times of her life. It just took her too many years to realize that.
“Nate will fetch the other box from my car,” Amy said. “I called him on my way over.”
“Great. Uncle Frank picked up a bunch from the shop earlier, which helps tremendously.” Piper had temporarily closed her newly opened shop, Piper's Picklings, to participate in the fair, aware that most of her customers would be there anyway so she might as well join them. Besides, it would be terrific fun, except, of course, for all the work of lugging over heavy jars of her hand-pickled vegetables and boxes of uniquely blended pickling spices.
She reached her booth along with Amy and set down her carton with a relieved sigh. Next up was unloading and arranging. “How do you want them lined up?” Amy asked.
“Alphabetically. I'm not going to worry about keeping vegetables with vegetables and fruits with fruits, or anything else. Just plain old A to Z.”
“Works for me!” Amy quickly found a jar of pickled apples and got started. Soon she had pickled artichoke hearts, beans, beets, and corn in place. Piper started at the other end, lining up pickled zucchini, watermelon, and tomatoes.
As she worked, Piper remembered how years ago in Aunt Judy's kitchen, she'd been amazed to see how just about any vegetable or fruit could be pickled. Not just in the familiar cucumber pickle brine, but each in its own wonderful concoction of spices. Piper had traditional cucumber pickles for the fair, of course, and had set up an old-fashioned barrel of dill pickles floating in filled-to-the-brim brine, an eye-catching display that had already garnered many compliments.
Piper's new shop actually focused on pickling spices. But she liked to have jars of all these delightful, sweet, tangy, spicy foods to demonstrate to customers who were new to the idea of pickling just what they could do with her spice blends. Many bought a jar or two to take home and soon came back to purchase the spices for making their ownâas well as recipe books and canning tools. That was always so satisfying to Piper, winning over a new convert.
“There's nothing like biting into your own custom-made, crisp cucumber dill in December,” Aunt Judy often said, and Piper heartily agreed.
“Oh, there's Nate,” Amy said. Piper looked up to see Nate Purdy winding his way through the crowded fairgrounds carrying one more carton of Piper's jars. Amy waved to catch his attention. “Over here!”
Piper saw Nate's face light up as he caught sight of Amy, who looked particularly pretty in a green top and jeans that showed off her trim figure. She'd pulled her red curls up and off her neck, taming them, at least for the time being, with a green hair tie.
Piper had heard all about the two meeting just weeks ago during Amy's bus ride home from culinary school. Nate had been traveling with his guitar to a gig in upstate New York and halfway there had learned it was canceled. Left with a ticket to nowhere, Nate decided on the spot to disembark at Cloverdale, which not-too-coincidentally happened to be exactly where Amy was getting off. Before long, he managed to land a nightly gig at A La Carte, the restaurant where Amy also worked.
Seeing the lights dance in both their eyes as Nate drew nearer made Piper smile but also brought on a bit of wistfulness. She and Scott had once been like them, though it now seemed eons ago. The end of their long relationship had been one of the prods that spurred Piper toward this new start in life, though Scott apparently believed he had simply put their engagement on a temporary hiatus.
“A few months, that's all I need,” he'd said, claiming the many years working toward his law degree followed by the long hours on the job as a prosecutor at the State Attorney's office in Albany hadn't allowed him to really “find himself.”
Since not too long before that, Scott's main obsession had been finding the perfect sushi bar within walking distance of Albany City Hall, Piper at first didn't take him seriously. When he announced he'd sold his retractable-hardtop convertible Volvo C70 to help finance a trip to Tibet, however, she had to believe him.
Scott took off, but instead of sitting and waiting hopefully for him to find his way back, Piper decided it was time to live life for herself. She quit her unfulfilling job in the state tax office and promptly packed up for Cloverdale. The decision, though wrenching at the time, turned out to be the best thing she could have done. Though she did, once in a while, missâ
“Here you go!” Nate plopped down the heavy carton of jars, snapping Piper back to the present.
“Thanks so much, Nate,” she said. “That looks like the last of the bunch.”
“Glad to help.” Nate pushed strands of his dark blond hair off his face, looking much too young to be on his own, scraping together a living in the uncertain world of musical performance. Did he have family to fall back on? If so, where were they? Piper was naturally curious but didn't want to pry. The important thing was that Nate was a likable as well as talented person who seemed very pleased to find himself in Cloverdale.
“Did you get the job?” Amy asked. Her face fell when Nate shook his head.
“They gave it to the old guy.”
“What job?” Piper asked over her shoulder while setting a jar of pickled squash on the shelf.
“Master of ceremonies for the fair talent show,” Amy said, crestfallen. “It was perfect for Nate. He could have opened the show with one of his own songs and kept everything lively by performing between acts. He would have been great!”
“And who got it instead?”
“Alan Rosemont.” Amy spoke the name in a tone Piper might have used for finding mold on a tomato.
“Is he the man who owns the antique shop?” Piper vaguely remembered seeing a man of about fifty through the cluttered windows of Cloverdale Country Antiques, a shop she hadn't yet been into.
“That's him. And he's been master of ceremonies for the fair talent show since caveman days. He tells these same, lame jokes year after year, and his idea of musical entertainment is playing the bagpipes!”
“I wouldn't mind so much,” Nate said, “if he was any good playing them. But it's pretty bad when you can actually tell a bagpiper's missing notes.”
“He uses any excuse at all to wear his Scottish outfit,” Amy added, “which gets a bit silly, if you ask me.” She shivered dramatically. “That bagpipe is so awful!”
Piper had never attended the Cloverdale Fair during her summers with Aunt Judy and Uncle Frank, usually having headed home to get ready for school by the time the fair began, so she couldn't say if this assessment of Rosemont's talents was correct or colored by Nate's having lost out to him. Suddenly, to Piper's pleasant surprise, thoughts of Aunt Judy miraculously brought her into view.
“Hellooo!” Piper's plumpish, white-haired aunt called from a spot near the ceramics booth. Her arms were wrapped around a cardboard carton of her own.
“I'm taking my jams to the judging tent,” Aunt Judy said, indicating her load with a head tilt.
“Let me give you a hand.” Nate sprang forward to help, and Aunt Judy made mild noises of protest while gratefully yielding her heavy box.
“I'll stop by later,” she called over her shoulder as the two took off.
“He's so thoughtful,” Amy said, smiling.
Piper agreed but turned briskly back to work. The crowd was growing and her booth was still a disorganized mess. Amy pitched in, needing little direction, and demonstrating to Piper once again how lucky she was to have her. With only part-time employment as assistant chef at A La Carte available, an opportunity for excellent training Amy wasn't about to pass up, she'd grabbed Piper's offer of a few hours' work at her shop, especially since Piper was happy to schedule the time around Amy's restaurant hours.
Amy's presence at the shop allowed Piper precious time off, but she was particularly helpful with Piper's pickling efforts. Amy could slice up pounds of vegetables like nobody's business and could more than handle the cooking end. She'd even created a new recipe for pickled orange slices that Piper was delighted with and gave Amy full credit for, naming that blend of spices after her. All in all, Amy was a treasure of an employee for whom Piper thanked her lucky stars daily.
“Are there really pickles in that great big barrel?” A grandfatherly man stood with two young children on the other side of Piper's counter. He wore a hopeful, happy grin.
“Absolutely,” Piper assured him. “Crispy dills, floating in brine. And you can pick your own.” Each of the children had paper-wrapped hot dogs in their hands, as did their grandfather, who was by this time nearly drooling as he gazed at the pickle barrel. He slapped down his money, and Piper lifted the barrel lid to let the three pull out the dills of their choice with their own set of handy tongs.
Piper had actually pickled the cukes in crocks lined up in her basement. For the fair she'd transferred them to this specially ordered, ceramic-lined barrel with an old-timey wooden finish on the outside. The barrel had been expensive, but it was proving to be worth every penny for drawing people to her booth. Piper hoped to use it for many fairs to come.
Grandpop and grandkids wandered off to the sound of crisp chomps and pleased
“I'll bet they'll be back again,” Amy said. “Or at least send us everyone they run into.”
“Hope so,” Piper said, then grinned. “Or I'll be eating a lot of dill pickles in the coming months.”
“Not such a bad thing,” Amy said. “But I wouldn't worry about leftovers. I'd worry about running out.”
“Ah, the optimism of youth!” Piper said, laughing as she turned back to arranging her jars.
“I'm nearly twenty-one!” Amy protested, handing Piper two jars of okra. “And you're not exactly decrepit.”
“No.” Piper grinned. “Not exactly. But the nine or so years I have on you just might give me a slightly more realistic view of things.” Like the realization that spending your life catering to someone else's dreams can be a huge waste of time.
“Well, I don't care how old I get, I'll never stop believing that just about anything can work out if you want it badly enough.”
Piper smiled noncommittally and took a third jar from Amy's hands. She privately hoped, however, that whenânot ifâAmy learned otherwise, it wouldn't be too painful.