Excerpt from

Scotched

by

Kaitlyn Dunnett

the fifth Liss MacCrimmon Scottish-American Heritage Mystery

 

Chapter One

 

          From Liss MacCrimmon’s Scottish Emporium to Angie Hogencamp’s new and used bookstore, Angie’s Books, it was only a short walk across the town square of Moosetookalook, Maine. Liss could have been there in two minutes flat. Instead, she dawdled, enjoying the delights of a glorious morning in mid-May.

          This particular spring in the mountains of central Maine was warm and sweet-scented. The apple blossoms were in bloom, all pink and white and pretty. One tree stood next to the merry-go-round and two others flanked the bandstand. Volunteers had spruced up the flowerbeds that lined the paths through the square, putting in their own particular favorites. Liss strolled past an eclectic assortment. She recognized pansies, bright yellow daffodils, blue forget-me-nots, and the purple of grape hyacinth, but was less certain she was correct in identifying creeping phlox, candy tuft, and star of bethleham. There were tulips, too, but they were a bit bedraggled, having almost reached the end of their season. The crocuses had already gone by.

          There would be varieties of iris in bloom soon, Liss, thought, and the ever-present lupines would show up in a few weeks, followed in July by one of her personal favorites, orange day lilies. Smiling to herself, Liss began to sing under her breath as she left the square and crossed Main Street. “It’s May! It’s May! The darling month of May.”

          Frowning, she broke off, glad no one else was within hearing distance. Not only couldn’t she carry a tune in a bucket, but she had a habit of plugging in the wrong words—“darling” went with “buds of May” and came from some old poem, not a Broadway musical. The song she’d been trying to sing talked about the merry month of May. Didn’t it?

          Shaking her head, Liss took the porch steps at Angie’s Books two at a time. She should not try to sing. Her voice was bad enough all by itself, but the effort was always a disaster when combined with her terrible memory for lyrics. She’d always had a tendency to get the words mixed up. And if she hadn’t realized it before then, this failing had been brought home to her just a few months earlier. She’d committed a major blooper, and in public, too.

          In late December, Moosetookalook had celebrated “The Twelve Shopping Days of Christmas.” Liss had been put in charge of the pageant. To go with the lyrics of the yuletide carol, she’d duly rounded up nine lords a-leaping and ten ladies dancing, as well as appropriate representations of the gifts named in the other ten verses of the song. That no one appeared to have been bothered by her mistake did not make Liss feel any better. She was certain dozens of people had noticed and just been too polite to say anything to her. She’d been horrified when the music director from the local high school had casually mentioned—in February!—that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” actually featured nine ladies and ten lords, not the other way around. It had been some consolation to realize that he assumed she’d  rewritten the lyrics in order to accommodate a casting problem, but the whole incident embarrassed her whenever she thought about it.

          Angie’s Books, like all the other storefronts around the square, was a converted residence with a shop on the first floor and living quarters above. The front porch was big enough for a couple of chairs and a small table. They’d been pushed back to make room for a huge, free-standing signboard.

          “Great advertizing,” Liss said as she opened the screen door and stepped into the shop. 

          “One of Ms. Quinlan’s people brought it by,” Angie Hogencamp said.

          “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who had ‘people’ before,” Liss said with a laugh.

          The featured author for Angie’s Saturday afternoon reading and book signing was actress-turned-mystery-writer Yvonne Quinlan. The sign featured a life-size photo that showed a willowy beauty with dark brown eyes and a short cap of blue-black hair highlighted with purple streaks.

          Angie had big brown eyes, too, and dark, wavy hair, but the resemblance stopped there. The bookstore owner was a little overweight and a lot flustered. Her face, devoid of makeup, had turned pink with exertion. Cartons of books surrounded her, three of them clearly labeled with the title of Yvonne’s latest novel.

          “I may have ordered too many copies,” Angie said.

          “Think positive.” Liss made her voice bracing as she approached the sales counter.

          Liss, too, was a brunette. She was taller than Angie. At five-foot-nine, she loomed over most of the women in town. Like Yvonne, she was on the slender side, but her eyes were light, not dark. Liss herself called them blue, but she’d been told more than once that their color changed with the clothing she wore and was, on occasion, closer to green in hue. Today, Liss was certain, they were a very ordinary shade. Her outfit consisted of well-worn jeans and a baby blue sweatshirt that said MOOSETOOKALOOK, MAINE on the front—right beneath the picture of a cross-eyed cartoon moose.

          “There are around a hundred mystery fans coming to the conference.” She rested her elbows on the sales counter. Additional cartons of books were stacked on the floor behind it. “They all love crime novels. They will buy the latest titles from you because they want to get them signed by their favorite authors.” Almost a dozen mystery writers would be attending the conference and taking part in panel discussions.

          Angie swatted at a lock of hair that kept falling into her face. “I hope you’re right. At the moment, I’ll settle for getting these boxes out to the hotel. It’s going to take forever to set them up on the tables in the dealers’ room. They’ll have to be alphabetical by author’s last name so people can find what they’re looking for. Do you think I should put hardcover books in one place and paperbacks in another or lump them all together?”

          “Better put all the books by one author next to each other. As for schlepping books, that’s why I’m here. I can take some of the cartons over to The Spruces now and swing back for more if you need me to. Take a deep breath, Angie. We have plenty of time. It’s not even noon yet and the festivities won’t get started until six this evening. And we don’t open the dealers’ room to customers until nine tomorrow morning.”

          Angie plopped herself down on the stool behind the counter. “A whole three-day weekend! What was I thinking? I never do this kind of thing.”

          “It’s a new venture for all of us. Consider it a challenge.”

          “The challenge was conning my sister-in-law into agreeing to babysit and keep this place open for me while I’m at the conference.” Angie grimaced. “I really hate owing her a favor.”

          Liss sympathized. She’d thought about asking someone to work at Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium in her place but opted to close down instead. These days most of her business came through online orders anyway.

          “It’ll be fun, Angie. How can it not be? Readers. Writers. Books.”

          “And what is this conference called again?” There was a hint of sarcasm in Angie’s voice.

          “The First Annual Maine-ly Cozy Con,” Liss admitted, wincing a little at the name. Still, it fit the occasion. The attendees would all be fans of the traditional mystery—crime stories with limited violence and no graphic sex that tended to feature amateur detectives inspired by such classic sleuths as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael.

           “Do the people coming to this conference know there was a homicide at the hotel only a few months ago?” Angie asked.

          Liss gave a snort of laughter. “Are you kidding? Apparently that’s what sold the organizers on The Spruces. How many gatherings of fans of fictional murders can say they met at the scene of a real one?”

          The worried furrow in Angie’s brow deepened. “Beth wants to help out. You don’t think she’s too young, do you? She’s only ten and I have no idea what the people who attend these conferences are like.”

          “I’ve never been to one, either,” Liss said with a grin, “but I don’t think the fans are violent. They may like to read about murder and mayhem, but they aren’t likely to commit either.”

          Angie looked sheepish. “Of course they aren’t. Silly of me to worry, I guess. Well, okay then. I’m keeping three cartons of the new Yvonne Quinlan hardcover here for the book signing on Saturday, but everything else that’s boxed up goes out to the hotel. Some woman named Nola Ventress sent me a list of all the attending authors and I ordered the three most recent titles by each one of them. Plus I’m bringing some books by other mystery authors, just in case people are interested in them. If you’ll drive around to the side of the building, we can load up from there.”

          A few minutes later, Liss and Angie began piling cartons of books into the back of the pickup truck Liss had borrowed from her fiancé, Dan Ruskin. It was already half full with stock from Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium. On the second trip out from the bookstore, Angie stopped to stare at the distinctive, dark-colored vehicle just turning in at another of the businesses on the town square. Like the bookstore, it also had a side entrance. 

          Curious, Liss glanced that way and grimaced. “I’m glad I don’t have a view of this from the Emporium,” she remarked. Nor could she see it from her house, which was situated on the lot next to her store.

          “I could live without it,” Angie muttered. “Fair warning. Doug’s son is a klutz.”

          Frank Preston, age fifteen, emerged from the passenger seat while one of the men his father regularly called to make pick-ups slid out from behind the wheel. Almost invisible wires ran from Frank's earphones to his pocket. He was very obviously listening to music. He jerked and hopped to the beat of the song on his MP3 player as he made his way around to the back of the vehicle and started to unload the cargo. It, too, was unmistakable.

          Liss felt neither shock nor surprise when Frank hauled a body bag out of the back. His father, Doug, was the local undertaker. It was hardly unusual for the hearse to arrive with a new “client” for Preston’s Mortuary. But Frank’s cavalier treatment of the remains bothered Liss. Without waiting for Doug’s assistant to help, Frank tried to sling the body over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. He lacked both the physical strength and the coordination to manage the maneuver. The corpse slipped out of his grasp. One end hit the pavement with a dull thump that made Liss wince. The thought that it might not have been the feet that struck the ground made her a little queasy. Frank wasn't just clumsy. He had no respect for the dead.

          The assistant mumbled something Liss couldn't hear. She hoped it was a rebuke, but she was too far away to catch the words. She doubted Frank heard them, either, over the music blaring in his ears. He grabbed one end of the bag while the assistant took the other and together they carried the deceased the rest of the way into Preston's Mortuary.

          “That boy could care less about tending to the family business,” Angie muttered.

          “He’s always been a handful,” Liss agreed. The previous winter, young Frank had gotten into trouble for joyriding on a snowmobile. “Who died?” she asked, certain Angie would have heard.

          Moosetookalook was a very small town. The population barely topped a thousand, even after several recent additions. The local grapevine was quick to spread news of births, deaths, elopements, and other assorted rites of passage. Anything even remotely scandalous also spread like wildfire.               

          “Lenny Peet,” Angie answered. “Well, he had a good long life, didn’t he? Ninety-five, I heard.”

          Liss hadn’t known Lenny well, but she’d seen him just about every day. He’d walked his dog in the town square in the early morning and again in late afternoon, no matter what the weather or the season. You could set your clock by him. Incensed that Frank Preston should have treated Lenny’s remains so carelessly, Liss promised herself that she’d speak to Doug about his son’s attitude the next time she saw him. Then she had another thought.

          “Who’s taking care of Lenny’s dog?” she asked.

          “It’s at the animal shelter down to Fallstown,” Angie answered.

          Liss added another note to her mental list—do something about the dog. When Lenny’s ancient hound, Tatupu, had passed away over a year before, he’d promptly acquired a cute little fox terrier named Skippy. Liss was sure she could find someone in the village who needed a new “best friend.”

          Filing away both chores to think about later, Liss returned to loading the back of the truck with cartons of books. The weekend ahead would be a busy one, but she fully expected to enjoy every minute of it. How could she not? She was a huge fan of traditional mysteries herself. She planned to slip away from the dealers’ room now and again to attend some of the sessions. And she’d definitely be putting in an appearance at this evening’s opening reception.

 


Please note that this excerpt is taken from the author's original manuscript. There may be minor changes and corrections to style and grammar in the published version, thanks to the much valued contributions of an editor and copy editor.