***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Laura Childs
It was a Dickens of a night. Velvet topcoats worn with silk ascots, fake British accents that echoed through the theater, a key light focused on an antique rolltop desk piled high with black ledgers. Like that.
"It's perfect casting," Suzanne Dietz whispered to her friend Toni as they stood backstage. "Allan Sharp playing Ebenezer Scrooge."
"Our town curmudgeon scored the ultimate role," Toni chuckled. "What's not to like?"
It was Sunday evening, a few weeks before Christmas, and the Kindred Players were holding their first-ever dress rehearsal for A Christmas Carol. Suzanne and Toni had ditched their holiday decorating chores at the Cackleberry Club Café in order to help with costumes, sets, and lighting. Now they stood in the darkened wings of the refurbished Oakhurst Theatre, watching their fellow townsfolk do some fairly credible acting.
"Look at Bud Nolden," Toni said. "Who would have thought a big gallumping guy who drives a two-ton snowplow would make such a believable Bob Cratchit?"
"He's doing great," Suzanne said. "The entire cast is. They've learned their lines and are putting real emotion behind them." Suzanne, who'd never appeared onstage, never even sung in a high school musical, was delighted to remain in the wings. "And take a gander at Mayor Mobley stomping around out there. Even he's giving a hundred and ten percent."
"Which is about what he usually gets after he stuffs the ballot box."
"Still," Suzanne said. "For once Mobley's trying to do his part for the community."
"Which is more than I can say for myself, because I still haven't figured out which rope raises the curtain and which pulley lowers the backdrop." Toni let out a long sigh. "And then there are the confounded lights. I don't know a key light from a klieg, which I guess makes me some kind of dim bulb."
"Don't be so hard on yourself," Suzanne said. "We'll get the bugs worked out. That's what rehearsals are all about." For her own part, Suzanne was struggling with the fog machine, trying to figure out how to make it spew just the right amount of moody mist. Too little and everything was out of focus. Too much and the stage looked like a foggy night in the Okefenokee Swamp.
"I gotta get this locked down," Toni said. "Opening night is this coming Saturday and I'm so worried that I bit my press-on nails down to their plastic nubbins." She swiped a hand across her stomach. "And I'm getting a case of the whim-whams to boot."
"Tell you what," Suzanne said. "After everybody leaves the theater tonight, we'll have our own private stagehand rehearsal. Figure out which pulleys do what. We'll label all the ropes if we have to. Light switches, too. That way there'll be no second-guessing on opening night."
Between Toni and their other partner, Petra, Suzanne was blessed with the cooler head, the more practical approach to everyday life. She was the one who ran interference at the Cackleberry Club, coaxing everyone down from the ledge whenever they dared entertain a harebrained scheme. She also handled the pesky financial and personnel details that made Toni and Petra whimper with fear. In other words, Suzanne was the voice of reason.
Suzanne, who was a few ticks past the age of forty, was also newly engaged to Dr. Sam Hazelet, the town doctor and her own personal hottie. With her shoulder-length silver-blond hair and cool blue eyes, Suzanne projected an air of self-confidence that was reflected in her penchant for slim-cut blue jeans and suede jackets, which was the exact combo she was wearing tonight.
Toni, on the other hand, was the Cackleberry Club's self-proclaimed hoochie momma. She favored silver-studded jeans and skintight cowgirl shirts that showed off her cha-chas, and she had never seen a piece of fake Dynel hair that she didn't want to clip into her own mop of reddish blond hair.
"I didn't realize this show had such a large cast," Toni said. She held her breath as she flipped a switch, dimming the lights right on cue as a half dozen actors milled about onstage. "Ooh, I did it," she cooed softly. They were coming to the end of the second act and she was still nervous about dropping the curtain. "Eeny, meeny . . ." Toni grasped a thick red rope that led to an overhead tangle of ropes and pulleys. "Is this the right one or should I . . . ?"
Actors streamed past them, coming off the stage and disappearing into the back of the theater: Nolden, Mobley, and six others.
"Don't drop the curtain yet," Suzanne hissed. "You need to dim the lights because the ghost still has to come out . . ."
Toni swatted a switch with the flat of her hand and the entire stage went dark.
"Not that dark," Suzanne said. "The audience has to be able to see something."
Toni's fingers crawled along the entire panel of light switches and settled on one. "Maybe this one?" She flicked the switch and a weird blue light filtered down from above.
"That's the ticket," Suzanne whispered.
"Maybe I am starting to get the hang of things," Toni said. She sounded relieved and a little more confident in her ability as a stagehand.
Suzanne bent down and turned on the fog machine. Instantly, a jet of white fog spewed out and spread across the entire stage.
"Whoa, that might be a bit much," Toni cautioned.
Suzanne dialed her machine back, got it running just right, and then glanced at her script. She was trying to follow along in the dim light. "Okay, so the ghost is supposed to enter stage right . . ."
"Here he comes."
They watched as the ghost floated out right on cue. There was a hush from the other actors, who were all seated in the first few rows of the theater, watching the play, waiting for the next act, when it would be their turn to strut their stuff onstage.
The ghost, dressed in long gray robes and a deep cowl that hid his face in darkness, drifted dramatically about the stage.
"Who is that?" Toni asked as they peered out from the wings.
Suzanne shook her head. "No idea. I wasn't here when Teddy Hardwick had the casting call."
"But the ghost is good. Very believable. Whoever it is."
The ghost postured importantly and lifted his arms as if he were some sort of avenging spirit. "Ooooh." His hollow tones rippled across the stage and filled the near-empty theater.
"Spooky," Suzanne said. "And very realistic." She made a mental note to find out who'd created the ghost costume. With its gray-green color and straggly bits of cheesecloth hanging down, the shroud was very convincing. Like the ghost had actually swept in from the great beyond.
"This is, like, the best part so far," Toni said. She was watching the action with rapt attention.
Suddenly, the ghost darted in close to the Scrooge character and embraced him as he sat at his desk.
"Scrooooge," the ghost lamented. "Scrooooge."
Then Scrooge and the ghost seemed to merge into a single image for a few moments, doing some kind of ethereal dance. The ghost released Scrooge and then floated off into the wings on the opposite side of the stage.
"That's the ticket," Toni said. She grasped the rheostat and slowly dimmed the blue lights to a pale glow that practically pulsed with electrical energy.
"Perfect," Suzanne whispered.
"Suzanne?" came a worried voice from behind her.
Suzanne whirled around to find Bill Probst, one of the owners of the Kindred Bakery, staring at her. His face was scrunched into a nervous expression and he wore a ghost costume made of gray netting.
"I'm sorry," Bill said, "but I completely missed my cue."
"What?" Suzanne blinked rapidly and glanced out at the stage, where Allan Sharp as Scrooge was slowly slumping over his rolltop desk, practically moving in slow motion.
"And now the curtain," Toni said with a triumphant yelp. She had her back to them, hadn't even seen Bill yet, as she released the pulley and a heavy damask curtain came thudding down.
But Suzanne was still staring out at the stage. Hold everything, she thought, her mind making a series of nervous blips. If the ghost is standing right next to me, then who just acted that scene with Allan Sharp?
"How about an encore?" Toni asked. She raised the curtain halfway up and then glanced toward the stage.
Allan Sharp was still sprawled at his desk as eerie blue light filtered down. His head was bowed low and he looked as if he'd fallen into a trance.
A thin spatter of applause rose from the actors sitting in the first couple of rows. They seemed deeply impressed by such a dramatic climax. But a few moments after their applause died down, Sharp still hadn't made a move to get up and take a well-deserved bow.
Is this method acting? Suzanne wondered. Or is something a lot more sinister going on?
Just as Suzanne was about to react, Toni jammed an elbow into her ribs and whispered, "Don't you think Sharp is overplaying his role? I mean, he isn't Jeremy Irons and this isn't exactly the Globe Theatre."
Sharp still hadn't moved a muscle, and Suzanne was slowly, almost unwillingly, putting it all together. Connecting the dots between the mysterious ghost, the almost deathlike embrace, and Allan Sharp flopped out there in a heap.
"Holy cats," Suzanne gasped. "I don't think he's acting!"
"What?" Toni cried.
"I think Sharp is . . ."
Without finishing her words, Suzanne rushed out onto the stage. She circled Allan Sharp's crumpled body, reached out a hand to touch the pulse point at his neck, and felt . . . absolutely nothing. There was no sign of breathing, no other vital signs.
Shocked, practically reeling from her grisly discovery, Suzanne spun about and gazed down at a dozen questioning faces in the audience. "Call 911!" she shouted. "Something terrible has happened to Allan Sharp!"
The cast and crew all froze for a long moment, until a few of them had the presence of mind to fumble for their phones. By that time, Suzanne had already turned and sprinted past Toni. Then she dove into the gloom and darkness of the theater's backstage.
Suzanne could hear footsteps-hasty, running footsteps-just ahead of her but could barely see her hand in front of her face. The entire backstage was dark as a tomb except for a single red exit light way at the back. As she dodged past a rack of costumes, in hot pursuit of the mysterious fleeing ghost, she shivered. The dim red light made the Victorian sets look as if they were bathed in blood.
"Stop!" Suzanne shouted. Her voice reverberated back at her as she spun around a row of dressing rooms and spotted the ghost some ten paces ahead of her. "I'm talking to you," she yelled.
The ghost ignored her completely, flinging out a hand to tip over a wooden crate.
Suzanne stumbled, one knee going down to hit the cold cement floor. Then she righted herself and leapt clumsily over the crate. Up ahead, the ghost was moving quickly again, crashing through set decorations, knocking over a Victorian streetlamp, and heading for the back door.
Suzanne pushed herself harder and dodged around a corner, past a dusty grouping of old furniture. Way back here, in the bowels of the old theater, the air was musty and filled with the smell of mildew and rot. Her heart hammered; her temples throbbed with rushing blood. It was like being in a tomb-dark and silent-only she wasn't alone.
She spun around another corner, saw gray cheesecloth fluttering ahead of her, and followed it down a clattering flight of metal stairs.
At the bottom Suzanne hesitated. Was this a good idea? Where was the ghost? Was he lying in wait for her?
Suzanne glanced about for some sort of weapon. In the dim light she saw folding chairs, stacks of old newspapers, and a toolbox. Her hand swept out and grabbed a rusty hammer. She hefted it carefully, feeling the weight, hoping it would be enough of a defense weapon if she needed one.
Sliding ahead, slowly and quietly, Suzanne tried to pick her way through the gloom.
Was the ghost waiting to attack her? He'd already killed one person, so he probably had no qualms about adding another victim to his dance card.
A narrow hallway loomed ahead of her. Her back against the wall, Suzanne eased herself forward.
And there, just ahead of her, heading for the back door of the theater, was the ghost.
"Stop!" Suzanne cried as she scrambled after him.
The ghost slid to a halt and spun around to face her, all dark cowl and quivering cheesecloth. Holding up a mean-looking serrated knife that glistened with a few beads of blood, he jabbed the tip at her.
Suzanne backpedaled mightily, her heart practically beating out of her chest.
Wide-eyed and practically breathless, Suzanne stood and stared at the ghost. The heavy cowl still obliterated his face; the knife was clutched in his hand. She took one cautious step backward. And then another.
What was I thinking? This is such a bad idea.
The ghost raised his knife and then tilted it in a perpendicular fashion, almost as if he was making some kind of medieval symbol or benediction.
Suzanne's heart fluttered with fear. Had Toni called 911? Had anyone followed her back here? Was she about to become this madman's next victim?
Then, with eerie but coordinated stealth, the ghost whirled about and kicked open the heavy metal stage door. A draft of ice-cold air flowed in as the door banged hollowly against the outside wall, launching a miniature snowstorm of ice rime. Seconds later, the ghost flitted outside, its footsteps crunching hollowly as he disappeared down the back alley into the frozen, dark night.
It was both a tragedy and a comedy of errors. A tragedy because a man had bled to death onstage, a comedy because Toni was convinced he'd been murdered by an honest-to-goodness ghost.
"The temperature must have dropped thirty degrees when that phantom started whooshing around," Toni said. "And I'm positive I smelled something strange."
"Strange like what?" Suzanne asked.
Toni scrunched her face and made a wringing motion with her hands. "Maybe like . . . brimstone?"
"You're sure it wasn't just cheap drugstore aftershave?" Suzanne asked. Nothing here was particularly funny but she still struggled to keep a straight face.
"No, I think that ghost blew up from the pit of hell."
Sheriff Roy Doogie and Deputy Eddie Driscoll had shown up at the theater almost immediately. They'd rushed down the center aisle in a flurry of khaki, snorkel parkas, and pac boots and checked Allan Sharp's body to make sure he really was dead. Then they listened carefully to Suzanne's eyewitness account of the murder and subsequent chase. Toni's explanation, however, had left them scratching their heads.
"It was a real ghost," Toni insisted.
"If it was a genuine ghost I was chasing, then he was wearing genuine Sorel boots," Suzanne said. "I saw them as he hoofed it out the back door."
"But you didn't see his face?" Sheriff Doogie asked Suzanne.
"Difficult to see a shape-shifter," Toni muttered.
"I never saw the man's face," Suzanne said to the sheriff. "He wore his hooded cowl pulled low the whole time." She turned toward Toni. "We're talking flesh and blood here, Toni, not a ghost."
"You're sure it was a man?" Deputy Driscoll asked. When everybody looked a little sideways at him, he added, "Versus a woman?"
Suzanne gave a brisk nod. "I think so. Even though he wore a costume, he still looked tall and fairly husky. And then when I chased him . . . he turned around and threatened me."
"Threatened you how?" Doogie asked. "Verbally?"
"First he held up a big hunting knife; then he aimed the tip at me like he wanted to kill me."
"I'd classify that as a serious threat," Doogie said. "Did he speak to you? Did you recognize the guy's voice?"
Suzanne shook her head. "Not really. He just kind of grunted, low and gruff, as if he was using a fake voice. You know, the way the actor Nick Nolte always talks?"
"Killer disguised his voice," Driscoll said. He was making notes in a small spiral notebook.
They were all gathered onstage, like some sort of impromptu acting troupe. Suzanne, Toni, Sheriff Roy Doogie, Deputy Driscoll, the play's director, Teddy Hardwick, and the still-very-dead Allan Sharp. Doogie had told the rest of the cast to sit tight in their theater seats.
"I still think it was a genuine ghost," Toni said. "There have been several well-documented cases of hauntings in theaters. There was even a series about haunted theaters on the Travel Chanel."
"But this ghost stuck a nasty serrated knife into Allan Sharp's gut and then waved it in my face," Suzanne said.
"Maybe the ghost was running low on ectoplasm," Toni said, reluctant to abandon her theory.
"No, this guy . . . this killer . . . was real. Terrifyingly real," Suzanne said. She'd felt genuine hostility radiating off him.
"What we have here is a straight-ahead homicide," Doogie said. "We don't need an exorcist; we need an investigation." He planted his feet wide apart, grasped his gun belt with both hands, and hitched up his khaki pants. Doogie was a big guy with a shock of gray hair and a meaty face. People thought because he was slow moving that he was slow with his thinking, too. Not so. Doogie was smart and crafty and had the facile mind of a chess player who could see fifteen moves ahead. And just because he was considerate to preachers and little old ladies didn't mean he couldn't be as irritable as a rattlesnake.
"I agree completely," Hardwick said. "We need to solve this murder fast so we can get on with the play. Without any sort of blowback on our actors' reputations." Hardwick was a serious-looking guy in his mid-thirties. Tonight he wore dark slacks and a faded blue sweater and had a long scarf looped around his neck. Artsy-like.
"We need to think logically," Doogie said. "Explore any and all possible motives."
"Maybe the ghost wanted to play the Scrooge role," Toni said.
"It has to be more serious than that," Hardwick said. "There had to be more at stake."
"Who hated Allan Sharp?" Doogie murmured, almost as if he were posing the question to himself.
"Everyone," Suzanne said. "Sharp was a scummy lawyer who dabbled in all sort of things. Politics, shady real estate deals, any kind of kickback he could weasel out of the city or county. And remember, Sharp was booted off the board of directors over at the prison." She was surprised someone hadn't bought him a toaster for his bathtub-he was disliked that much.
Doogie rocked back on the heels of his boots. "Even though Allan Sharp served on the city council, he wasn't what you'd call your upstanding citizen."
Deputy Driscoll made a low sound in the back of his throat. "But we're still sworn to uphold the law. To pursue any and all criminal activity to the best of our ability."
"You don't have to quote law enforcement scripture to me, Edward," Doogie said. "I intend to find Sharp's killer, arrest him, and drag his sorry carcass into court. And if he gets messed up along the way . . . well, those are the breaks."
"Then we'd best get to collecting evidence," Driscoll said.
Doogie nodded. "You grab the crime scene kit from the car."
While Driscoll took pictures and bagged Allan Sharp's hands for possible evidence, Doogie called George Draper, owner of Driesden and Draper Funeral Home.
"You're transporting him to the funeral home?" Suzanne asked.
"No, I only called Draper because he's the one with the meat wagon and the county has a contract with him. I'll have him haul Sharp's body over to the hospital and stash him in their morgue," Doogie said. "You never know; we might end up bringing in an outside forensics expert. Maybe call the state guys up in Saint Paul."
"Then you should check the footprints out back, too."
"Let's go do that."
Suzanne and Doogie wound their way through the back of the theater and down the short flight of steps and pushed their way outside. Snow immediately whipped at their faces, driven by a chill wind. The alley was deserted except for a brown hulking Dumpster, and dark except for a single light from a neighboring building. But the fresh white snow glowed as if touched by a black light.
"Huh," Doogie said. He sniffed the air like a wolf. "He ran out this way, huh?"
"That's right." Suzanne's breath plumed out into the night air and she started to shiver. Not because she wasn't wearing a coat, but because she was thinking how close she'd come to being the second victim. Too close.
Doogie glanced down and pointed at a set of tracks that was mashed into a couple of inches of snow. "Those are his tracks? That's where he ran? You didn't go after him and mess things up?"
"No," Suzanne said. "I was too scared. So those are definitely the killer's tracks."
Doogie pulled out his cell phone, knelt down, and snapped a few pictures. Then he took a pen from his pocket and laid it alongside the tracks for context and snapped a few more shots from different angles.
Suzanne stepped back inside the building and called Sam, wondering just how much she should tell him. Let's see now, a murder, bizarre chase, and a big knife waved in her face. She decided it might be better to wait until she got home; then she could soft-pedal her story.
As soon as Sam answered, Suzanne said, "Apologies, but I'm going to be late tonight. You probably shouldn't wait up for me."
"What's wrong?" Sam asked.
"What makes you think something's wrong?" Dang, was that a quaver in my voice?
"The tone of your voice, for one thing. And the fact that my pager just went off with a 187 code."
"Which is . . . ?"
"Thanks a lot, Doogie," Suzanne muttered.
"Suzanne." Sam's voice was unnaturally sharp and terse. "Wait a minute, you're at the theater? I'm reading this text message. Mmn . . . holy cats, there was a homicide at the theater and you're still there?"
"Uh . . . yes."
"Suzanne, are you safe?" Sam demanded.
"I think so."
"What does that . . . ? Never mind, I'm coming right over."
And just like that he was gone.
Putting her phone away, Suzanne walked over to the backstage dressing area. Doogie had come in and stomped the snow off his feet and was poking around with a flashlight. "Find anything?" she asked.
"Kind of a mess back here," Doogie said without looking up.
"We went tearing through here, knocking into things, I guess."
Doogie shone his light on a backdrop that depicted a library scene. The thick paper had been ripped from top to bottom. "Looks like Hardwick's going to have to replace a few pieces of scenery."
"Along with his main actor."
"You know anybody who was vying for that role?" Doogie asked. "The Scrooge role?"
"I don't know anything about it. You'd have to ask Hardwick."
"I will do that." Doogie snapped off his flashlight, leaving them in the dark. "For now I'm going to go out front to interview the other actors."
"I think most of them were seated in the audience when the fake ghost came onstage."
"Somebody must have seen something," Doogie said.
Ten minutes later, George Draper arrived, looking somber in his black three-piece funeral suit and pushing a clanking metal gurney.
Then, a hot minute later, Sam rushed in, right on Draper's heels. Dressed in faded jeans, a gray hoodie, and tennis shoes, he glanced around the theater, a look of panic etched on his handsome face. When he finally spotted Suzanne, sitting in the second row, he raised a hand and called out, "Suzanne!"
Suzanne saw the worry on his face, the tension in his body, and jumped up. She ran to meet him and flung herself into his arms. God, he felt good.
"Are you okay?" Sam asked.
"I am now," Suzanne said.
Sam kissed her on the forehead and then moved down to her lips. But only for a brief moment, because now Sheriff Doogie was waving at him and calling his name.
"Lucky me," Sam said in a low voice. "I'm still acting county coroner for another two months."
"And now you've got a murder dropped in your lap," Suzanne said.
"Doc," Doogie called again, more forcefully this time.
"Don't go anywhere," Sam told Suzanne. He vaulted up onto the stage, not bothering with the steps, and walked over to where Doogie and Draper were surveying the body. The three of them put their heads together and muttered in low voices for a few minutes. More photos were snapped. Then they waved at Deputy Driscoll to join them and, together, the four of them rolled Allan Sharp into a black plastic body bag and hoisted him up onto the gurney.
When the body flopped down, a hush fell over the other actors. Somehow the arrival of Dr. Hazelet, the gurney with one squeaky wheel, and the shiny black body bag made Sharp's death feel all too real.
"Wait! Wait!" a strangled voice called out.
Everyone turned as a tall, hawk-nosed man in a long, flapping coat came half running, half stumbling down the aisle.
"Don Shinder," Suzanne said to Toni, who was now seated next to her.
"Allan Sharp's law partner?" Toni asked.
"Sharp Shinder and Young. They've been together almost four years."
"Oh my God!" Shinder shrieked as he drew closer to the stage. He pointed a bony finger at the body bag on the gurney. "Is that Allan? No, it can't be," he said. He stumbled around, looking for a way onto the stage, then finally found the stairs.
Doogie intercepted Shinder before he could reach Sharp's body. He grabbed the man by his shoulders and pulled him to one side. Shinder's narrow face was flushed red and his arms flailed helplessly.
"Allan can't be dead," Shinder cried. "I was just talking to him. We just filed a brief together, for cripes sake." He looked forlorn and positively unhinged.
Doogie led Shinder over to a folding chair and Shinder slumped down.
Shinder fought to make his mouth work, then finally croaked out, "What happened?"
Doogie bent down and quietly explained what he understood to be the sequence of events. All the while Shinder kept shaking his head and saying, "No, no, no."
While they talked, Sam helped George Draper lower the gurney off the stage, then walked over to where Suzanne and Toni were waiting.
"There's nothing more we can do here," Sam said.
"You don't have to, like, examine the body?" Toni asked.
"He can wait," Sam said in his quiet, calming doctor's voice. "Come on, let's all go home. Suzanne, Toni? Whose car is here? Who drove over from the Cackleberry Club?"
"Neither of us," Suzanne said. "Junior gave us a ride." Junior was Toni's ne'er-do-well not-quite ex. Four years ago, they'd run off to Las Vegas to get hitched, but before the ink was dry on their marriage license, before the bill for the hotel room came through on her Visa card, Junior was making goo-goo eyes at a waitress at the local VFW. The one with the cheap mohair sweater and hot pink extensions in her hair.
They drove over to Toni's apartment, Sam's BMW cranking out heat as tiny pellets of snow ticked hard against the windshield.
"Take care," Suzanne said as Toni hopped out.
"I will," Toni said.
"Lock your doors," Sam cautioned.
And then they were alone, snuggled together in the warmth of the car. They drove down Main Street through the center of Kindred, past Founder's Park, past hundred-year-old redbrick buildings that still housed small businesses like Kuyper's Hardware and Rudd's Drugstore. At one street corner a city worker was up on a cherry picker, putting up strings of brightly colored lights and green garlands. Christmas decorations.
Neither Suzanne nor Sam spoke a word until they were a few blocks from home. Then Suzanne, sensing there might be something left unsaid between them, asked, "Is something wrong?"
Sam didn't mince words. "I don't want you to get involved."
"I'm already involved. I saw Allan Sharp get stabbed."
"You know what I mean."
"Not really," Suzanne said, even though she knew exactly what Sam was driving at.
"Doogie told me you chased after that guy," Sam said. "And that he turned and pulled a knife on you. Almost killed you."
Thanks a lot, Doogie.
"Doogie might have exaggerated that part a bit."
"No, I think you're the one who's probably underplaying the truth. And I think I know why."
"Excuse me, but what are we really talking about?" Suzanne asked.
"I'm asking you not to stick your neck out," Sam said.
"I can handle myself, you know."
"Like Allan Sharp did?"
He had her there.
Sam was silent as he turned into their driveway. The headlights swept the frozen pavement, which still held a thin skim of snow. "Suzanne, I'm the coroner. I don't know what I'd do if I had to . . ."
"Nothing's going to happen to me," Suzanne said.
"Just, please, I'm asking you to be careful."
"Come on, Sam, you know me." Suzanne tried her best to sound calm and even a little lighthearted.
"Indeed I do, my dear. Which is why I'm begging you to take care."
"I already heard about the murder," were Petra's first words as Suzanne and Toni tumbled through the kitchen door of the Cackleberry Club Monday morning, ushering in a whoosh of frigid air. "I've been listening to WLGN since the sun came up, and Allan Sharp's murder has been positively splashed across the news. They even had it on before the farm report. First a nasty murder and then hog prices." Petra gazed at Suzanne and Toni with a mixture of shock and awe. "And to think you guys were there." She shoved both hands deep into the pockets of her checkered apron and shook her head. "Must have been awful."
"It was spooky," Toni said, eyes sparkling as she shrugged out of her coat.
"No, Petra's right." Suzanne said. "It was awful."
"And there isn't a single suspect?" Petra asked. She was a big-boned Norwegian lady with a kind face, no-nonsense short silver hair, and warm, expressive hazel eyes. Now in her early fifties, Petra was confident and satisfied and wore her age like a badge of honor.
"Could have been a ghost," Toni said.
"Could have been someone who had a major beef with Allan Sharp," Suzanne said.
"Now, there's a major shocker," Petra said. "Half of Kindred had a beef with that dingbat Allan Sharp. If Sheriff Doogie tries to narrow down a list of people who didn't like Sharp, he's going to be interviewing people until the spring thaw."
"Doogie's going to have to figure something out," Suzanne said. "People are really shaken up by this."
"Will the Christmas play still go on?" Petra asked.
Suzanne shrugged. "I have no idea."
"The show must go on," Toni said. "Isn't that the tried-and-true saying?"
"But maybe not when the principal actor has been murdered in cold blood," Suzanne said.
Petra picked up her spatula, bent over a frying pan, and started shoving hash browns around. "Mmn, don't like that word, 'murder.' Let's just keep all that investigative nonsense out of my kitchen. It not only puts me in a downer mood; it's bad karma to boot."
"Toni," Suzanne said, "why don't you unlock the front door and make sure the tables are all set for breakfast? I'll print out our specials on the chalkboard." She gave Petra a sideways look. "I'm assuming we have a few specials?"
"Killer specials," Petra said. Then she put a hand up to her mouth and said, "Well, you know what I mean." She dug in her apron pocket and handed Suzanne a three-by-five-inch recipe card with writing on it. "Here you go, Suzy-Q."
Suzanne glanced at the list of specials. "Elvis French toast?"
"What the heck is that?" Toni asked.
"It's French toast stuffed with peanut butter and bananas," Petra said.
Toni perked up. "Sounds pretty good."
Suzanne and Toni pushed through the swinging door and got busy in the café. They snapped on lights, jacked up the thermostat a few degrees, and glanced around. The tables were covered in cheery yellow and white tablecloths and had salt and pepper shakers and sugar bowls ready to go. But they needed to be set with napkins, silverware, pitchers of cream, and ceramic coffee mugs. When the morning rush started-and it would probably begin in the next ten minutes-they had to be ready. Hungry truckers and farmers would be bulldozing their way in, anxious to order their hearty and delicious breakfasts.
While Toni worked on the tables, Suzanne put on two pots of coffee, French roast and a Kona blend. She also got hot water ready for tea and pulled out a pretty Coalport teapot in the Ming Rose pattern, as well as a Chinese blue and white teapot. More and more she'd weaned her customers away from tea bags and had them enjoying fresh-brewed tea leaves, especially in the afternoons, when she offered cream teas and special event teas.
"Got sticky buns fresh from the oven," Petra called out.
Suzanne leaned forward and saw that Petra had pushed two trays of glazed cinnamon and pecan rolls through the pass-through. Good. She stacked the rolls carefully in the glass pie server that sat atop her old-fashioned ceramic counter, the counter that came as a sort of bonus gift when she'd scrounged the old-fashioned soda fountain backdrop from a long-defunct drugstore.
The rest of the Cackleberry Club was equally charming. Funky metal signs and colorful painted plates adorned the walls, along with a few of Petra's hand-stitched wall hangings. There was an oak cabinet that held candles, vases, linens, and glassware, and wooden shelving that ran all around the room and served as a perch for Suzanne's vast collection of ceramic chickens. She had everything from salt-and-pepper-shaker chicks to enormous red and green roosters.
Across the café were the Book Nook and the Knitting Nest. When Suzanne had acquired and renovated the building, what had been an old Spur station, those two extra rooms had been a kind of lucky-strike extra. Now one was filled to capacity with bestsellers, the other jammed full of quilting fabrics and colorful skeins of yarn, a nod to Petra, who also gave knitting and quilting lessons a couple of times a week.
"The chalkboard," Toni called out. "You gotta put up the specials."
"I'm on it," Suzanne called back, realizing she'd kind of spaced out for a few minutes. Thinking about Allan Sharp . . . and the mysterious ghost.
So . . . rosemary scones and sticky rolls. Elvis French toast. Hash browns and turkey bacon. Breakfast burritos. Peach cobbler pancakes. Scrambled eggs and veggie omelets. Everything farm-to-table fresh, but hearty enough to keep a person fueled for the cold.
When she'd finished, Suzanne walked to the front window, pushed back the café curtains, and stared out at the blanket of snow. It made everything-the driveway, trees, small buildings across the way-look pristine and softly mounded. Then she remembered the drops of bright crimson blood dripping from the ghost's knife last night and felt a sudden tickle of apprehension. Was she safe? Was anybody in Kindred really safe with a killer on the prowl?
Three minutes later, their first customers began to arrive and Suzanne was caught up in the morning rush. She greeted people, seated them at tables, poured coffee, and listened to gossip about last night's murder as it swirled around her like an ill wind. She took orders, delivered them to Petra, then ran back out into the café and took more orders.
"Are you picking up snippets of the conversation du jour?" Toni asked when she and Suzanne met behind the counter. "Everyone seems to be gossiping about Allan Sharp's murder."
"Because everyone knows about it by now," Suzanne said.
"Small-town folk," Toni said. "Our underground network has better communication ops than the US military."
"And everyone's got a theory on whodunit."
"Guy at table eight suspects al-Qaeda," Toni said. She tapped a finger against her head. "Ca-rack-pot."
Suzanne grabbed three breakfast orders that were up, delivered them to her customers, and then glanced out the window again. Then, seeing a familiar face bobbing across the parking lot, she hurried to the front door with a big smile on her face.
"Reverend Yoder," Suzanne said as she held the door open. "We haven't seen you in a while." Reverend Yoder was the heart and soul of the Journey's End Church, which was just across the parking lot from the Cackleberry Club. He was tall and thin and had a strict Calvinistic aura about him. Once you got to know him, however, he turned out to be one of the gentlest, most kindhearted people in Kindred.
Reverend Yoder bustled in, shivering and smiling as he clapped his gloved hands against the sleeves of his thin coat. "I finally got to the point where I couldn't resist the temptation of all the delicious aromas emanating from your fine kitchen."
"You see," Suzanne said, "there is such a thing as good temptation."
"I'd like you to meet a colleague of mine," Reverend Yoder said. "This is Ethan Jakes."
"Wonderful to meet you," Suzanne said, shaking hands with the young man who'd accompanied Reverend Yoder. She noted that Ethan Jakes seemed to be a stark contrast to Yoder. Jakes had a pinched face and a furrowed brow and wore what looked to be a permanent scowl.
"Reverend Jakes is newly ordained and going to be our new assistant pastor," Yoder said.
"Wait . . . don't tell me you're leaving us," Suzanne said, surprise and dismay evident in her voice.
"Not for a while, anyway," Reverend Yoder said. "But it never hurts to be prepared."
Suzanne led the two men to a table, got them settled, and then poured each of them a cup of coffee. "You heard about our trouble last night?" she asked. "At the theater?"
"Such a terrible tragedy." Reverend Yoder shook his head. "Poor Mr. Sharp."
That seemed to be a cue for young Ethan Jakes to come alive with a fiery Bible verse. "For he is God's servant for your good," he suddenly sang out. "But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer."
"You think Allan Sharp was a wrongdoer?" Suzanne asked. She was taken aback by the man's intensity.
"He most certainly was," Jakes said. "One of my first missions when I arrived in Kindred was to approach Allan Sharp. I wanted him to be my champion at the city council and help sponsor a day of prayer. Instead, Sharp scoffed at me." Jakes's lip curled in disdain and he shook his head. "With the evil pull of technology, pornography, and drugs in our society, a day of prayer is practically a requirement!"
"Well, I'll settle for Sheriff Doogie sorting out the wrongdoers here in town," Suzanne said. "Along with administering just punishments." She smiled at Reverend Yoder. "I'm guessing you're here for one of Petra's omelets?"
"With vegetables and cheese," Yoder said. "And a cup of tea. Something with a little body."
"I'm just brewing a pot of Assam."
"Perfect," Yoder said.
"And you?" Suzanne asked Jakes.
He stared at her with dark-rimmed eyes. "Just a simple poached egg on dry toast."
At eleven o'clock, Sheriff Doogie came drifting in. Most of the breakfast crowd had departed and it was too early for the luncheon crowd, so he glanced around, seemingly pleased that he wouldn't be bothered, and stomped over to the counter. Slouching down on his favorite stool, he swiped off his Smokey Bear hat and set it on the stool next to him. It was a clear warning that no one should infringe on his personal space.
Suzanne poured Doogie a cup of black coffee, then placed two sticky buns on a plate and set it in front of him. The sheriff was like a trained bear; he responded positively to sugar.
"How late were you at the theater last night?" Suzanne asked.
Doogie blew on his coffee, then took a quick sip. "Don't ask."
"It was that bad, huh?"
"Ah, it is what it is. Problems and vexation come hand in hand with the gold star."
"How did your interviews with the other cast members go?" Suzanne asked.
"They weren't terribly productive. Can I get some butter, please?"
"Does that mean you didn't come up with any decent leads?" Suzanne gave him four pats of butter.
"Can't say that I did," Doogie said. He slathered butter on his sticky roll, took a bite, and chewed thoughtfully. "I was hoping that maybe you remembered something else. You know, in the cold, clear light of morning." He shifted on his stool. "Since you've had some time to ruminate, is there anything else you can tell me? Anything your mind might have dredged up overnight?"
"All I saw was the ghost," Suzanne said. "Only it was a fake ghost."
Doogie glanced around, then leaned forward on his stool and gave Suzanne a conspiratorial look. "But that's what makes this case so weird . . . some crazy jackhole had that costume all ready to go." He enunciated his words carefully. "Which means Allan Sharp's murder was planned."
"Premeditated," Suzanne said. She shivered at the connotation the word carried. She hadn't thought about the costume aspect last night, but now it seemed obvious.
"Planned and carried out by someone who was reckless and brazen enough to murder Allan Sharp in front of a dozen people," Doogie said.
"Maybe the killer is just plain crazy," Suzanne said. "A dangerous psychopath."
"There's always that theory," Doogie agreed. "But most times . . ." He hesitated, looking thoughtful now. "When a man commits murder, there's a reason that drives him to it."
"A motivating factor," Suzanne said.
Doogie bobbed his head. "Anger, resentment, jealousy, political ideology, that sort of thing."
"You asked the all-important question last night," Suzanne said. "Who hated Allan Sharp?"
"I asked and then answered my own question. Pretty much everybody in town."
"That makes for a pile of suspects."
"And the pile keeps getting bigger with every person I talk to," Doogie said. "Seems nearly everyone had some kind of gripe with Sharp. Hell, even I had words with the guy on more than one occasion. He was a real jackass."
"So, what now?" Suzanne asked.
Doogie looked troubled. "I'll keep asking around. Dig into Sharp's finances and different business interests. See if that leads anywhere." He took a slurp of coffee. "People are really freaked-out about this. I'm catching a lot of heat. Mayor Mobley convened a special meeting with the city council."
"It's only natural for people to be scared."
"I understand that," Doogie said. "But it doesn't make my investigation any easier. Hell, the guy who killed Sharp could have been here for breakfast this morning, stuffing his face with flapjacks, chuckling to himself because nobody was the wiser."
"Now you're trying to scare me."
"Didn't mean to. It's just that this feels like a very strange case. And between kids racing their cars on a half-frozen lake and a couple of home invasions to investigate, I've got a lot on my plate."
"Well, let's put some bacon and eggs on your plate right now. Give you some protein to speed you through the day." Suzanne turned to the pass-through and called in an order to Petra. And thought about what Doogie had just said. That the killer could have come here for breakfast, or could be on his way in for lunch. And there wasn't a thing she could do about it.
Or was there?
"Didn't you just do that?" Toni asked.
Suzanne turned toward her, a piece of yellow chalk clutched in her hand. "Do what?"
Toni gestured at the chalkboard, where brightly colored puffy letters danced across the black surface and starbursts highlighted some of the specials. "Print the menu."
"You see how time flies when you're having fun?" Suzanne said. "This is the luncheon menu I'm putting up."
Toni's eyes goggled and she hastily looked at her watch. "Holy smokes, is it that late?" She tapped a finger against the crystal. "Dang thing stopped on me again."
"Is that the watch Junior gave you for your birthday?"
"Yeah. Although I think he got it from one of those claw machines at the county fair. Fished it out of a pile of junky cigarette lighters, Kewpie dolls, and tin belt buckles."
"Maybe he got it at the pawnshop."
"Junior does love his pawnshops," Toni agreed. "If he's not buying something he can't afford, he's trying to hock something. Tools, tires, fishing gear, an outboard motor." She took a step back and squinted at the board. "What's that say? Parrot soup?"
"Carrot soup," Suzanne said. "Along with chicken meatballs, a black and blue burger, and a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Oh, and a winter salad plate."
"Guys don't generally dig salads."
"This one is fairly hearty. It's got apple bits, walnuts, feta cheese, dried cranberries, and a balsamic vinegar dressing. Besides, if guys don't like it, they can just order something else. Here." Suzanne handed Toni her piece of chalk. "Why don't you finish up while I run into the Book Nook and unpack all those boxes that UPS unceremoniously dumped on our doorstep this morning?"
Once she was in the Book Nook, Suzanne grabbed a knife and busied herself with slitting open all the cartons. Then she set about shelving the new arrivals. There was something very satisfying about the shiny, colorful book jackets and the way the shelves came newly alive with gardening, mystery, romance, and history books. She was also glad to see that copies of Kiss the King by Carmen Copeland, a local romance writer, had arrived. In fact, the publisher had shipped an entire case of Carmen's books.
Suzanne decided she'd have to schedule a book signing for Carmen, though sometimes those events could turn slightly unpleasant. Carmen, who lived in a sprawling Victorian mansion in the nearby town of Jessup, was a wealthy, somewhat snobby one percenter who never let the other ninety-nine percent forget it.
With all the new volumes shelved, Suzanne grabbed a few children's books so she could make a Christmas display. The Book Nook had limited space, but she'd managed to cram in a couple of rump-sprung easy chairs along with a battered wooden table. That table now held a small, twinkling Christmas tree along with some cotton batting that was meant to represent drifting snow.
As Suzanne hummed along, adding a couple of fuzzy reindeer to the display, as well as a few kids' picture books that were all about reindeer, her thoughts circled back to last night's catastrophe. She'd tried to dredge her memory for some sort of clue that would help Doogie; she really had. But nothing had surfaced yet. Maybe if she put what had been a harrowing experience on her brain's back burner, something would eventually pop. Hopefully it would, because Doogie seemed to be counting on her.
"Suzanne?" Toni leaned in the doorway of the Book Nook. "A little help, please?"
Suzanne looked up. "Pardon?"
"The café is filling up and I've already taken a dozen orders."
"Right. Okay," Suzanne said as Toni disappeared. "I'm on it."
At the exact moment Suzanne hustled back into the café, Mayor Mobley walked through the front door.
Mobley cocked a mournful eye at her and said, "Suzanne," in a voice that sounded as if he was about to make a major proclamation.
"Mayor Mobley," Suzanne said. "How was your emergency meeting this morning?"
Mobley's florid face pulled into a frown. "How'd you know about that?"
"In case you hadn't noticed, this is a café," Suzanne said. "Everybody talks. They gobble donuts and sticky buns, choke down enough coffee to kill a horse, get their sugar buzz going, and gossip to their hearts' content. It's like a relentless twenty-four-hour cycle of fake TV news."
"I don't like to hear that," Mayor Mobley said. He was overweight and sneaky as a weasel and had a pugnacious nature that was reflected on his pudgy face. This was Mobley's third term as mayor and probably the third time he'd stuffed the ballot box. The citizenry not only didn't like Mobley; they didn't particularly trust him. Then again, that's what happened when you had a reputation for sticking your fat fingers into all sorts of shady deals. Mayor Mobley and Allan Sharp were the deal brokers in town. Now, with Sharp dead and gone, it would be up to Mobley to carry on their nefarious tradition.
Suzanne seated Mobley at a small table by the window. Mobley, who was perpetually cranky and a genuine snake in the grass, got right down to business.
"If you know about our meeting, then I guess you've heard about Allan Sharp."
"Are you kidding?" Suzanne said. "I was there last night, working in the wings. I watched all of you guys come trooping offstage; then I saw Sharp get stabbed!" What was wrong with Mobley? Had he left his brains in his sock drawer this morning?
"Oh yeah, I guess I did see you there," Mobley muttered. He wasn't one bit flustered by his mistake. Then again, he never was. He seemed to perpetually exist in his own self-important world. He'd also managed to cobble together a web of informants who kept him apprised of everything.
"Allan was a good man," Mobley said in carefully measured tones.
"Yet you didn't ask him to run your last campaign," Suzanne said. Mobley and Sharp had always been thick as thieves. But not lately. Something major had happened in the last couple of months. Some sort of disagreement had driven a huge wedge between them.
"No, I hired someone else." Mobley's eyes were a pair of hard gray marbles as he stared at Suzanne. "Pretty much had to. Allan went out and got himself elected to the city council. I had to cut him loose because I didn't want anybody screaming foul play or accusing us of having an old boys' network."
Even though you really are an old boy with a network, Suzanne thought. Then she decided to have a little fun. It wasn't often that she got a chance to needle Mobley and maybe do some investigating at the same time.
"But right after the election you did have a major falling-out with Allan Sharp, isn't that right?"
"Not really," Mobley said. "We both had what you'd call . . . um, other interests." Then Mobley's face creased in a knowing crocodile smile. "But getting back to the murder, I guess you don't know everything, Suzanne."
"What don't I know?"
"That Sheriff Doogie already has a prime suspect."
Suzanne was shocked. Was this really true? Was Doogie hot on the trail of someone but had purposely played it cool with her? Or had this suspect just popped up in the last thirty minutes?
"Who is it?" Suzanne asked.
Mobley lifted a pudgy hand and made a childish zipping motion across his mouth. "You'll have to wait and see, Suzanne, just like every other law-abiding citizen in Kindred. Much as you have a reputation for meddling, you're not gonna get involved in this investigation." Mobley favored her with a knowing, smarmy smile. He was doing his level best to be intimidating, but Suzanne wasn't buying what he was selling.
Suzanne whipped out her order pad. "What can I get for you, Mayor?" She wasn't about to play Mobley's silly games. She'd worm the suspect's name out of Doogie later. The sheriff might talk tough but he was terrible at keeping secrets.
Mobley squinted at the chalkboard. "I'll have your ham and cheese sandwich with extra cheddar."
"On whole wheat toast?"
"Sourdough. And have Petra grill it in butter."
"Large order of French fries. Make sure they're nice and hot."
Suzanne decided that much grease would definitely make him a cardiac patient-in-waiting. One EKG special coming right up.
"Was that fat tub of lard giving you a hard time?" Toni asked. She was standing behind the counter, packing up a to-go order. Wrapping the pickles in plastic so the juice wouldn't leak everywhere, snapping lids on small containers that held potato salad.
"Mobley's just being Mobley," Suzanne said. "Nothing I can't handle."
"Are you sure? Because I'd be happy to mosey over there and spill something on him. I just brewed a fresh pot of Sumatran blend that's hotter'n blue blazes. I could dribble some down the front of Mobley's shirt or I could even try for a crotch shot."
"You're a good friend, Toni, but he's not worth the effort."
Suzanne and Toni went back to work, taking orders and serving luncheon entrees, doing a choreographed dance that was worthy of Martha Graham. Petra kept things churning in the kitchen, sending out orders and beaming whenever one of their customers ordered a nice slice of her fresh-baked pecan pie for dessert.
At two o'clock, Petra pulled a pan of scones from the oven and turned her attention to making dainty tea sandwiches. By two-thirty a few customers had wandered in for afternoon tea.
When the Cackleberry Club first opened, customers had come in looking for mid-afternoon pie and coffee. But with a little coaxing and a lot of charm, Suzanne had turned those confirmed pie and coffee lovers into fans of afternoon tea. Of course, Petra's chocolate chip scones, chicken and chutney tea sandwiches, and pink and yellow macaroons had helped turn the tide as well.
As Toni poured steaming cups of Darjeeling into their treasured Shelley Primrose Chintz teacups, a young woman in a navy blue puffer coat stepped through the front door. But instead of sitting down at one of the empty tables, she stood there, looking nervous and a little timid.
Toni hurried over to the young woman. "Help you, honey?" she said. "We just started serving our afternoon three-course tea if you're interested."
"I . . . I'm looking for Suzanne Dietz," the young woman said. "Is she here?"
"She's working in the Book Nook," Toni said, gesturing across the café. "You head in there and when you encounter a fine-looking blond lady who looks like she could serve high tea while whipping an ornery bronc into shape . . . you'll have found our boss lady. That'll be Suzanne."
Suzanne was sitting behind the front counter, writing up book orders and sipping a cup of tea, when the young woman approached her.
"May I help you?" Suzanne asked without looking up. She was just tallying her order amount. And it came to . . . a lot.
"I hope so."
Now Suzanne glanced up with a friendly smile. "We just received the new Lee Child thriller, and Carmen Copeland's newest romance is . . ." She stopped mid-sentence, a little startled because she was pretty sure she recognized this young woman. "Wait. I know you."
The woman touched a hand to her chest. "Amber. Amber Payson." She was in her late twenties, very pretty, even though she wore a somber expression. A cherubic flow of auburn hair enhanced her lovely peaches-and-cream complexion. She looked, Suzanne thought, as if her portrait should be done in stained glass in some medieval cathedral.
"You used to work at the Westvale Clinic with Sam," Suzanne said. "At the front desk. You sat right behind Esther." She noted that Amber, though dressed in a navy blue puffer coat, still managed to look fashionable and just this side of sexy.
"I wish I still worked there," Amber said.
"It's nice to see you again," Suzanne said. "And I didn't mean to push our new bestsellers at you."
"That's okay." Amber shifted from one foot to the other. She seemed to be working up to something.
"If you're not in the market for a book, maybe I could interest you in a pot of Darjeeling or Assam tea?" Suzanne said. "Or Japanese green tea if you're in the mood to stretch your taste buds."
Amber shook her head. "Thank you, but I . . . I don't want any tea." She leaned forward, placed her hands on the counter, and dropped her voice. "I came here hoping you could help me."
"Help you?" Suzanne cocked her head to one side. "I'm not quite sure I understand what you're getting at."
"You and I have a mutual friend."
"Okay." Suzanne waited patiently for Amber to make her point.
"Yes, Missy is a dear friend. But what does that . . . I mean, how may I help you?"
"There's a rather difficult situation that's come up," Amber stammered. "And Missy told me that you were really, really smart and . . . that, um, maybe you could give me some assistance."
"If you're asking for advice, perhaps you'd better tell me what this situation is all about," Suzanne said. She was starting to get a weird, jangling vibe from this girl.
"The thing is . . . I just came from the Law Enforcement Center," Amber said. "Where they asked me all sorts of questions about Allan Sharp."
"You mean Sheriff Doogie asked you questions?" Suzanne said. "Or one of his deputies did?"
"It was the sheriff."
"You must be one of the actors from last night," Suzanne said, though she didn't remember seeing Amber at the theater.
Amber shook her head. "No."
"Then why on earth would they ask you questions about Sharp?"
Amber drew a deep breath and said, "Because they think I killed him."