The Second Liss MacCrimmon Mystery

 

 

Scone Cold Dead
by

Kaitlyn Dunnett

 

Chapter One

 


           “So,” Dan Ruskin said. “Explain this to me.”
           Liss MacCrimmon shot him an incredulous look. Explain what? The sequence of dance steps that made up a Highland Fling? The years of training that went into creating a professional dancer? Her life?
           Former life, she reminded herself, and felt a sharp pang in the region of her heart for all she had lost. In a few minutes the lights in the auditorium would dim and the show would begin. Members of Strathspey, the company of Scottish dancers Liss had belonged to from the time she was nineteen until a career-ending knee injury forced her into “retirement” seven months earlier, had come to Fallstown, Maine to perform.
           At her urging, Liss reminded herself. This had been her own idea. She’d made all the arrangements to bring the show to the University of Maine’s Fallstown campus. Time to suck up any regrets and try to enjoy the evening. Besides, seeing the show from this side of the curtain would bring closure. She hoped.
           “Liss?” Dan prompted.
           She’d overreacted to his question. He was showing an interest, that was all. Turning her face up to his, Liss forced a smile.
           It wasn’t really a hardship to smile at Dan Ruskin under any circumstances. He’d been a childhood friend. Since Liss’s return to the old home town he’d become something more, although she wasn’t entirely sure where their relationship was heading. At the moment, they lived in separate houses, each facing the town square in Moosetookalook, a picturesque village just north of Fallstown in the western Maine mountains.
           Dan smiled back, showing an engagingly boyish grin. He’d always had that, even when he was a gangly kid who seemed to be all arms and legs. During the ten years Liss had been away, first in a two year college and then pursuing her career, he’d turned into what one of Liss’s friends liked to call “a tall drink of water.” He was a pure pleasure to look at—sandy brown hair worn a little too long, eyes the color of molasses, and a lean, well-muscled build. The work he did—construction with his father’s company and making custom furniture in his spare time—kept him in shape and gave him the sort of fluid grace Liss associated with lions. Dan Ruskin: king of the jungle.
           “What?” The look on his face now was slightly worried.
           “Nothing. Just a stray image. You as a big cat.”
           “You’re picturing me as Lumpkin?” Startled, he shifted away, as if he wanted a little distance to take a good look at her. In the process he bumped against the woman sitting on the other side of him. “Sorry, ma’am.”
           From the row behind Liss and Dan, Sherri Willett stuck her head between them, bringing with her a faint whiff of the flowery perfume she saved for special occasions. Ordinarily, she smelled only of Dove soap and mint toothpaste. “Dan as Lumpkin? Really? When he’s biting ankles or when he’s catching mice by sitting on them?”
           Fighting laughter, Liss tried to rein in the images flooding her mind. Lumpkin was the large yellow neutered tomcat she’d inherited along with her house. Like most felines, he acted as if he owned her rather than the other way around. Sometimes she wasn’t too sure but what he had the right of it.
           “I said big cat, not fat cat,” she protested.
           “No, wait. I can see Dan as a pussycat,” Pete Campbell chimed in. He was Sherri’s brand new fiancé, having popped the question just three weeks earlier, on Valentine’s Day. Like Liss, Pete had Scottish roots and had long taken an interest in Scottish festivals, Scottish music, and Scottish athletics.
           “Meow,” Dan said. Then he leaned in to whisper in Liss’s ear. “Does this mean I get to sleep with you?”
           “On my feet, or curled around my head?” she whispered back, listing two of Lumpkin’s favorite spots.
           The lighthearted bantering reminded Liss that she was attracted to Dan for more than his looks. He was fun to be with.
           He was also steady. Reliable. Safe. She frowned at the last word choice, wondering why she should have thought it, and why such a sterling quality sounded just the slightest bit, well, stodgy.
           The life she’d led before returning to Moosetookalook had been unpredictable. Exciting. Occasionally unsettling and even a little scary. She’d traveled all over the country with a rag-tag band of free spirits. She still missed those days and now, right here at home, her old company had come to her. As the lights in the auditorium dimmed to call stragglers to their seats, she finally answered Dan’s original question.
           “You want to know about Strathspey? Think Riverdance only Scottish.”
           “Yeah, I got that part, but—”
           “Shhh! It’s about to start.” Liss’s very mixed feelings about being in the audience instead of on the stage returned in a rush. Dan knew some of what she’d gone through when she’d learned she could never dance professionally again, but he didn’t really understand. No one but another performer could grasp what it meant to be denied a means of artistic expression.
           As soon as the lights were down, taped music swelled. Just that quickly, Liss was back in the past, waiting in the wings, ready to go on. She could almost smell the rosin that kept their dancing shoes from slipping, and the dust that clung to the theater curtains, and what they still called “greasepaint,” even though modern cosmetics had long since replaced old-fashioned stage makeup.
           Liss’s breath hitched. Someone else was back there now, palms just a bit sweaty, heart racing in anticipation. She forced herself to watch as the curtain rose and a slim blonde of medium height stepped out onto the stage. Her name, according to the program, was Emily Townsend. As Liss once had, she led the rest of the company in the country dance that opened the eighty minute show.
           She was good. Very good. For just a moment, Liss hated her guts.
           Then the magic of Strathspey caught her in its spell. As well as she knew the production, it still had the power to tug at her heartstrings. Loosely based on stories told by Scots who’d migrated to America, the plot wove together all the traditional Scottish dances—from reels to a sword dance—but they were performed within the tale of a young woman separated from her lover during the infamous “Highland Clearances” of the mid-eighteenth century. At that time, many Scots were deprived of both home and country. Families were rent asunder, friends scattered. In this retelling of history, however, the two sweethearts were reunited. The piece ended happily, with a wedding.
           Strathspey was a celebration of Scottish-American heritage, moving and exhilarating. As the first number seguéd into a tune performed by the company’s featured vocalist, a soprano, Liss relaxed and began to enjoy her unaccustomed role as a spectator. She’d never fully appreciated how well the dancers looked when seen as a group, or how nicely the occasional song—sometimes in Gaelic, sometimes in English—augmented the visual display. When the lone piper performed “Flowers of the Forest,” she had to wipe tears from her eyes.
           Without comment, Dan passed her his handkerchief.
           Liss had only one bad moment—the point in the program where she had taken the misstep that had ended her career. She caught herself wincing even as Emily Townsend sailed through the routine unharmed.
           Of itself, the injury might not have been so disastrous, but it had come on top of years of high-impact activity, all of which resulted in accumulated damage to both knees. In common with other athletes, dancers didn’t expect to keep at their profession until a normal retirement age, but Liss had assumed she’d be able to perform until she was in her forties. Her career had ended at twenty-seven.
           Oh, stop the pity party! she admonished herself as she rose with the others to applaud at the end of the show. You’ve got a new life now.
           As if to prove it, Sherri Willett reached forward again to touch her arm. “I’m so glad you invited us to the show. I’ve never seen anything quite like that.”
           “I’m glad you liked it.”
           “It was wonderful!” Sherri clapped louder as the performers, faces slightly flushed from their exertions but wreathed in smiles, came back out on stage for a final bow.
           Apparently the rest of the audience agreed with Sherri’s assessment. Someone whistled approval and, from another part of the auditorium, Liss heard the rhythmic stomp of boots, a clear sign of approbation in this part of the world.
           When the applause finally died down, Liss turned to collect her winter coat from the back of her seat. Everyone else was doing the same. The March night had been clear and cold when they’d arrived at the campus theater, but there had been the smell of snow in the air. Even those staying for the reception had dressed for the weather and now donned coats, scarves, gloves, and hats over warm and practical indoor clothing.
           Standing, Liss towered over her petite blond friend. She was accustomed to that. At 5’9” she’d almost always been one of the tallest females around. Half the time she was also taller than most of the males in the vicinity. Dark haired, dark eyed Pete Campbell was 5’10” but he had a tendency to stoop.
           As Dan, who stood a refreshing five inches higher than Liss did, shrugged into his heavy woolen topcoat, she gave herself another little lecture: Chin up. Smile. Think positive.
           Her nervousness roared back with a vengeance, far worse than the case of jitters she’d suffered through that afternoon. She thought again that she should have found someone to work for her at Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, the store she co-owned with her aunt, Margaret Boyd. She should have been here in Fallstown to greet the members of Strathspey when they arrived on their tour bus. She’d arranged rooms for all of them, but she should have settled them in herself, made sure there were no problems. Instead she’d left them to their own devices.
           Sherri would have filled in for her. She worked at the Emporium part time, when it could be managed around the schedule of her full time job as a corrections officer and dispatcher at the county jail. Or Liss could have closed up shop for the day. It wasn’t as if March was their busy season for walk-in sales. She’d had only one customer all afternoon.
           As they made their way out of the auditorium, jostled now and again by the crowd, a blast of cold air reached them through the open outer doors. Had she warned everyone that they’d need warm clothes? Of course she had. And they knew that already. This wasn’t the only northern New England gig on their tour.
           Stop fussing! She ordered herself. They didn’t need you around earlier.
           In fact, she’d probably have been in the way. Everyone in the company had their own pre-performance routine. It did not include taking time to visit with former co-workers. There would be ample opportunity for that now that the show was over.
           “You okay?” Dan asked in voice so filled with concern that she wondered what he’d read in her face.
           Liss nodded and continued her silent pep talk as they slowly closed the distance to the exit. She’d survived the first challenge. Only two more to go. Next up was the reception for the entire Strathspey company. That shouldn’t be too bad. Lots of chatter. Good food. Everyone in a sociable mood. But at the end would come challenge number three. She was taking two members of the company home with her. Two of her dearest friends would be in residence until Monday morning when they left on the next lap of their current tour. Liss wondered if she would be able to convince them that she was content with a life in which she stayed in one place, managed a gift shop, and would never again set foot on a stage.

* * *


           Dan Ruskin was rural Maine born and bred. He’d gone as far as the University of Maine’s Orono campus to pick up a bachelor’s degree but had returned to Moosetookalook to work for his father right after graduation. He didn’t consider himself a hick. He’d attended plays and concerts before . . . but never anything like Strathspey. He still wasn’t sure what he’d just seen. If pressed, he supposed he’d call it a variety show.
           As they walked from the building that housed the theater to the Student Center where the reception was to be held, he watched Liss carefully. At first casual glance she looked just as she always did, a tall, slender, graceful, self-possessed brunette with a flair for wearing scarves and bright colors. Her winter coat was vivid green.
           But this evening she was unaccountably nervous. She betrayed herself in little ways—periodically curling a strand of her dark brown shoulder length hair around her index finger; tugging repeatedly at the bottom of the black velvet vest she wore over a lace-trimmed white blouse. In honor of the occasion she had selected a new outfit from the stock carried by Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium. She wore the blouse and vest with a full-length plaid skirt.
           Tartan, he corrected himself. The pattern was called tartan. Personally, he didn’t see what the big deal was, but apparently some Scottish-Americans got all bent out of shape if you used the p-word.
           “You okay?” he asked again, keeping his voice too low for Sherri or Pete, walking just behind them, to hear.
           “Just dandy.”
           It was hard to tell by the security lights that illuminated the pathway, but Dan thought her changeable blue-green eyes looked worried. The too-bright smile and the hint of panic in her voice also betrayed her state of mind.
           What was the big deal? She’d worked with most of these people for eight years. Why should she be nervous about seeing them again? She ought to be excited. Happy. Dan was tempted to lump her behavior together with all the other things a man would never understand about the way a woman’s mind worked, but something told him the answer wasn’t that simple.
           The Student Center at the Fallstown branch of the University of Maine had a large function room available for social gatherings. A few months earlier, Dan and Liss had attended their tenth high school reunion there. He hoped this evening turned out better than that one had.
           A glance at his companions told him Sherri and Pete were probably thinking the same thing, but Liss clearly had other matters on her mind. The bright lights inside the building showed him that she was worrying her lower lip with her teeth. What next—wringing hands?
           “Liss, if you don’t want—”
           “Hang this up for me, will you?” She slid out of the ankle-length wool coat and just as neatly slipped away from him before he could manage a reassuring touch. By the time he’d located the nearest coat rack and found hangers for Liss’s coat and his own less stylish garment, one of L. L. Bean’s Maine Guide jackets, she’d vanished.
           At his questioning look, Pete shrugged. “Said she wanted to talk to the Scone Lady. Make sure everything is all set with the refreshments.”
           Janice Eccles, aka “the Scone Lady,” was a baker from the nearby village of Waycross Springs. She specialized in scones, a particular weakness of Liss’s. Together, Janice and Liss had come up with a new recipe especially for this reception: cocktail scones. Dan had sampled the prototype. They weren’t bad, but in his opinion were nothing to write home about, either. Liss had disagreed. She might not have seen any of the members of Strathspey since she’d left the company, but she had stayed in touch by phone and email. She’d sent word to several of her closest pals that they were in for a new taste treat at the Fallstown reception.
           Liss rejoined Dan, Sherri, and Pete some ten minutes later, by which time the function room was filling up nicely. She was just polishing off one of the flaky pastries, another sign she was nervous. Liss considered scones the ultimate comfort food.
           “Everything in order?”
           “Couldn’t be better.”
           “Uh-huh. Listen, Liss—”
           “Sandy!” Eyes alight—they flashed more green than blue—she waved at three members of the Strathspey company, two women and a man, who had just entered at the opposite side of the room. “Zara! Over here.”
           The man heard and waved back. He hadn’t bothered with a coat and was still in costume—unless he went around in a kilt all the time. Dan recognized him, both by his jet black hair and his outfit, as the “romantic” lead in the show. From the looks he was getting from the women in the crowd, females apparently found him attractive. He did bear a faint resemblance to Sean Connery in his James Bond days, and Dan had it on good authority—his sister Mary—that Connery was “to die for.”
           The two women who accompanied him—Zara and Sandy, Dan assumed—had changed into regular clothing. One, a redhead of the carrot-top variety, wore a short knit dress and high boots that emphasized her long legs. The other had on a more conservative outfit but had topped her plain pants suit with a colorful tartan shawl. Both had an air of sophistication about them.
           Liss hurried toward her friends, leaving Dan to follow in her wake. For a moment, as they exchanged air kisses, he had the opportunity to make comparisons. The two dancers were too skinny for his taste, as Liss had been when she’d first come home. She’d filled out in all the right places since she’d been back in Moosetookalook. As far as Dan was concerned, she was just perfect now.
           Then she hugged the guy in the kilt.
           Dan walked faster. Bracing himself for a couple of hours of chatter on topics he knew almost nothing about, he joined the little group just as Liss broke free of the embrace and turned around to look for him.
           “Dan!” She looked flushed, but not with embarrassment. “This is Dan Ruskin, everyone. Dan, this is Fiona Carlson.” She indicated the older of the two women. He wasn’t good at guessing ages, but Fiona had a strand or two of gray in her light brown hair.
           “Hello, Dan,” she said in a soft, husky voice.
           “We’d be lost without Fiona,” Liss went on. “And this is Zara Lowery, one of my house guests.”
           The redhead startled him by going up on her toes to give him a peck on the cheek. “We’ve heard a lot about you,” she whispered.
           “And this is Sandy,” Liss said, indicating the man in the kilt.
           Dan blinked.
           “Alexander Kalishnakof,” Sandy said, holding out a hand. His grip was firm, friendly, and brief. “And in case you’re wondering about the name, my father was born in Russia but my mother can trace her roots back to Angus the Hammer.”
           If he noticed that Dan was taken aback by the introduction—to put it mildly—he did not let on.
           This was Sandy? The “best pal” Liss had talked so much about? One of the two people staying at her house for the next two nights? Until this moment, Dan had assumed “Sandy” was a woman.
           Suddenly all the stories Liss had told him about the two of them took on an entirely new meaning and he felt as if the world had spun off its axis. The conversation around him turned to white noise as Dan tried to tell himself it was ridiculous to feel jealous. If there had been anything more than friendship between Liss and Sandy, it was in the past. Besides, Sandy would be leaving Monday morning and Liss would not. She’d stay in Moosetookalook, with him.
           He willed himself to relax. Maybe Sandy was gay. That would be good. But even if he was, Dan heartily wished Sandy wasn’t going home with Liss tonight. Zara and Fiona as her house guests would have pleased him much better.
           “Dan?” Liss’s tone suggested this was not the first time she’d spoken his name.
           Belatedly, he realized that Sherri and Pete had joined the group and been introduced, as had a second man wearing a kilt. The stranger toasted him with a nearly empty beer glass. “A pleasure to meet you, my dear chap.” He spoke in a British accent so plummy Dan had to wonder if it was real.
           “This is Stewart Graham,” Liss said. “He’s a dancer with the company but he also played that lovely bagpipe solo.”
           “Lovely” and “bagpipe” were not words that went together naturally in Dan’s mind, but he shook hands and mumbled a vague compliment. Stewart was a bit older and a little shorter than Sandy, with a florid complexion and watery blue eyes. Otherwise they were built along similar lines. Dan wondered if there were height and weight requirements to join dance companies. The members of Strathspey all seemed to fit the same two sets of specifications, one for males and one for females.
           “Go tell Victor how talented I am, there’s a good lass,” Stewart said when Liss added a few more favorable comments about his musical performance. “According to him I wasn’t ‘up to par’ tonight. If I wasn’t such a refined gent, I’d show him a birdie!” He sent a glare toward three men, plates heaped high with food, who were standing by the refreshment table on the other side of the room.
           Liss groaned at the awful pun and, in an aside to Dan, Sherri, and Pete, identified Victor as Victor Owens, the company manager. “He’s the one in the middle, the one gesturing with a half-eaten scone.” This portly gentleman, clearly not a dancer, seemed to be lecturing the other two, who just as clearly were performers. “He’s talking to Charlie Danielstone and Jock O’Brien,” Liss continued. “Probably offering a critique of their performance tonight.”
           “Killing two birds with one scone,” Stewart quipped.
           “The three of them are pretty much guaranteed to be first in line to get at any refreshments,” Liss continued. “Free food is a big draw for anyone in show business, since it’s not exactly a profession that lends itself to steady employment or regular meals. Charlie and Jock are living proof of that cliché and they give new meaning to the stereotype of the penny-pinching Scot, too.”
           “Think Scrooge McDuck,” Stewart said, sotto voce.
           Liss patted the sleeve of Stewart’s green velvet jacket. “Anyway, getting back to your solo—you sounded great to me. I can’t imagine why Victor would make such a rude remark."
           “Why does Victor do anything?” Stewart gulped down rest of his beer and excused himself to revisit the cash bar.
           Not a bad idea, Dan thought, but he was driving. He settled for offering to get Liss a glass of the white wine she favored.

 


 

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