DEATH BY JACK-O'-LANTERN (Abby McCree Mystery Series Book 2)
by Alexis Morgan
August 27, 2019
Overcommitted committee member Abby McCree gets in a patch of trouble trying to solve the murder of a pumpkin farmer …
The small town of Snowberry Creek, Washington, is gearing up for the Halloween Festival, and naturally Abby is on the planning committee. As part of her duties, she's picking up a pumpkin order from ornery farmer Ronald Minter. But what she finds instead is the farmer in the middle of his corn maze with a knife in his back.
The police suspect a homeless veteran named Kevin Montgomery, who was seen arguing with Minter when the farmer accused him of trespassing and stealing pumpkins. Abby's tenant Tripp Blackston, a veteran himself who’s been helping Kevin, is sure he’s innocent. Together, Abby and Tripp follow the twists and turns of the case to corner the corn maze killer—before someone else meets a dead end …
"…Alexis Morgan kicks it up a notch with this latest installment. I can't wait to see what's in store for us next!"—Fresh Fiction
"DEATH BY JACK-O'-LANTERN is a smart mystery with heart. The loyalty and good-natured bantering make me want to spend time with the people of Snowberry Creek...that and the baked goods. This book is an especially appealing autumnal read and I urge you to curl up with a copy."—Cozy Up with Kathy
"The author has written a strong mystery, too…Alexis Morgan expertly pens a slow build that rachets up at a delightful pace, all leading to a dramatic ending…DEATH BY JACK-O'-LANTERN IS A MARVELOUS addition to this series.—Escape with Dolly Cas (5 stars)
"DO YOU want to run that by me again?"
Abby McCree focused her temper on beating some innocent egg whites into a froth while she waited for her tenant to explain himself. She noticed he'd made sure to put the width of the old oak kitchen table between them. That was smart on his part, because otherwise he might just end up wearing the meringue if she didn't like what he had to say.
Meanwhile, Tripp Blackston leaned back in his chair, his legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankles. His relaxed look didn't fool her for an instant. The former soldier had blazing-fast reflexes. If she went on the attack, he'd be out the door and running before she could stop him.
He reached down to pet her traitor of a dog, who was sprawled on the floor by his feet. Sometimes she suspected that the mastiff mix preferred Tripp's company to hers, but maybe it was because Zeke knew a soft touch when he saw one. She glanced up just in time to catch Tripp slipping the dog another treat—the third since the pair had invaded her kitchen.
After patting Zeke's massive head again, Tripp finally started talking. "As I already told you, my veterans group wants to hold a fundraiser sometime next year. The goal is to substantially increase our budget in order to fund some new projects we want to take on. Important ones."
She didn't doubt that for an instant. The group was known for pitching in to help whenever they could.
Evidently Tripp found explanations to be thirsty work, because he stopped talking long enough to help himself to a can of pop from the refrigerator. Rather than waiting for him to gather his scattered thoughts, she tried to help the conversation along.
"So have a garage sale. That's what all the other groups here in Snowberry Creek do." She pointed at him with her whisk. "I'll even donate all the stuff I've cleaned out of the attic to the cause. I was going to call one of the local charities to come pick it up, but all those boxes can sit out in the garage until you're ready for them."
Tripp settled back in his chair and tossed Zeke another treat. "Sorry, but the board has already rejected that idea for a couple of reasons."
"Like you said, every group in town holds garage sales. The frequency results in diminishing returns. There's no way we can raise enough money that way."
"And the other reason?"
"Well, we'd like to combine the fundraiser with a special event of some kind. You know, as a way to thank the people in town for their support of our group."
Abby rolled her eyes. "So what you really hope to do is shake everyone's hand and raid their wallets at the same time."
"That's a cold-blooded way to look at things." Then he grinned. "However, I can't argue with your assessment of the situation. The idea is to make the event so inviting, folks won't notice what we're up to."
She added vanilla and sugar to the bowl and resumed beating the egg whites. "So what does this nefarious plan have to do with me?"
Tripp shifted position, leaning forward, elbows resting on the table. "Well, that's where it gets interesting."
She picked up speed with the whisk, almost splashing the egg whites out of the bowl. Since when was "interesting" a synonym for "infuriating"?
"Well, they asked us if we knew anyone who was both really creative and really organized. Of course, I immediately thought of you."
It would be a real shame to waste all her hard work, much less the eggs and sugar. However, the temptation to cut this conversation short by dumping the entire bowl full of fluffy white goo on Tripp's head was almost too strong to resist.
"Why would that be?"
"Several reasons. First, the ladies of the quilting guild are still raving about what an amazing job you did organizing their big garage sale. From what Glenda and Jean said, it was the best one they've ever had. I know the fire department and police department appreciate all the extra quilts the group has made for them to give to kids when they respond to an emergency."
He wasn't wrong. The garage sale had turned out better than anyone had expected, especially her. "Yeah, well, you can write it off to beginner's luck."
He shrugged his shoulders. "I've also know that since you took on the Mayor McKay's Committee on Senior Affairs, the whole group feels reenergized. I was talking to Connie Pohler at city hall. She said this is the first year that committee has taken on organizing the annual trick-or-treating event on Main Street. They're expecting such a huge turnout that she asked if the veterans group could help with escorting the grade school kids on their rounds and with chaperoning the games at the middle and high schools."
Abby had to laugh. "That sounds like her. I bet Rosalyn McKay is grateful every day that she was smart enough to hire that woman to be her assistant. Connie has a real talent for 'volunteering' people. I swear, you walk into city hall to ask a simple question about property taxes and somehow walk out in charge of a major town event. You're even grateful for the chance to help out."
She should know. That's how she had ended up working on the trick-or-treat event in the first place.
Tripp was still talking. "I think Connie missed her calling. If she'd gone into the military, she'd be running the Pentagon by now."
He might just be right about that. "At least she uses her powers for good and not evil."
"Yeah, she does." Tripp's smile faded a bit. "So back to our fundraiser. We all agreed you'd be perfect to head up the committee."
She sighed and set down her whisk. "I'm sorry, Tripp, but you of all people know that I'm not in a position to take on any more commitments right now. First of all, I still have the rest of my term on the quilting guild to serve out. Thanks to the sudden influx of money from Dolly Cayhill's estate, the group has become a lot more active than it was. As for the seniors group, the mayor originally asked me to fill in just until Fred Cady, the next chairman, recovers from hip replacement surgery. He was supposed to take over back at the beginning of September, but now it looks as if he won't be up to it until mid-November at the earliest."
A less trusting person might think that was deliberate on Fred's part. The postponement meant he wouldn't be taking over until well after all the hustle and bustle of the town's upcoming Halloween Festival celebration.
She did her best to look sincerely regretful. "Please tell your friends that I'm flattered they thought of me, but I really can't take on anything else right now."
Tripp clearly wasn't buying her excuses. Either that or he didn't care how busy she was. "Sorry, Abby, but it's too late. I already accepted on your behalf."
Okay, maybe it was time to start pelting him with globs of meringue. "What were you thinking? You know you can't make a commitment of that magnitude without asking me first."
He slowly rose to his feet, came around to her side of the kitchen, and planted his size thirteens right in front of her, his massive arms crossed over his chest.
"I was thinking you owe me, Abby. You know, what with the dead body in the backyard, not to mention my rushing to the rescue when you managed to put yourself right in the crosshairs of a killer. The stress alone probably shaved five years off of my life expectancy."
Darn, he had to go and play the hero card. Still, he was exaggerating. After all, he had spent twenty years as a former Special Forces soldier, which probably put him somewhere in his late thirties. Despite his claim to the contrary, she figured he'd lost two years—three at the most.
That didn't mean she would make it easy for him. "Fine, you win, but only if you agree to be my cochair. I'm not doing this by myself."
He looked as if he was about to argue the point. She did her best to look as serious as death and gave him an ultimatum. "You and me as cochairs—that's the deal. Take it or leave it."
While he mulled over her offer, clearly still looking for a way to weasel out of it, she started spreading the meringue on the coconut cream pie she'd made with Tripp in mind. Right now, she still wasn't sure if he was going to end up eating it or wearing it. After sliding the pie into the oven to brown the top, she set the timer.
"Well, what's it going to be?"
"Fine. Cochairs. The first meeting is in a week. They'll expect at least some preliminary suggestions of what we can do."
She started cleaning up the mess she'd made on her baking spree. "Okay then. You make a list of ideas, and I'll do the same. We'll get together before the meeting to narrow it down to the most viable suggestions."
He started toward the door but then turned back. "I know this isn't what you wanted, Abby, but there is one bit of good news. At least the members of this group are used to taking orders and working as a team."
"That would be a nice change. I'll deny saying this, but I swear it's like herding kittens with the other two groups."
Meanwhile, Zeke had parked himself right in front of the door and whined softly. Tripp gave him a good scratching. "I didn't forget, boy."
The two males looked at her with the exact same hopeful look on their faces. "I promised Zeke I'd take him for a run at the park this afternoon. Is that okay with you?"
Evidently Tripp wasn't the only soft touch in the room. "That's fine. And the pie should be cool enough for you to take home by then." She shot him a nasty look. "Not that you deserve a treat right now, but I'd hate to see all my hard work go to waste."
He clipped on Zeke's leash. "Thanks for taking on this project, Abby. You won't regret it."
So not true, but it was too late to back out.
"I have a couple of errands to run, so make sure you have your key with you so you can let Zeke back in and get the pie. If it's still here when I get back, I might just decide I made it for me."
He winked at her. "Not a chance of that happening. See you later."
She watched from the window as Zeke led the charge up the driveway with Tripp right on his heels. A few seconds later, the timer dinged, and she set the pie out on the counter to cool. It looked delicious. Too bad she'd already promised it to Tripp, but then, she'd made coconut cream knowing it was one of his favorites. Like many of her other friends, he frequently benefited from her love of baking. In this particular instance, however, if he hadn't dropped by with his little bombshell about the committee, she would've used delivering the pie as an excuse to check in on him, not that she would admit that to him.
They hadn't known each other all that long, and Tripp was clearly a man who valued his privacy. Still, discovering a dead body in the backyard had a way of bringing people closer together. She liked to think that they were now friends, maybe even with the occasional hint of the possibility of something more when he'd surprised her with a kiss. Not that she was looking to dive into the deep end of the dating pool so soon, but the couple of times he'd kissed her still replayed in her dreams on a regular basis.
Abby had only moved to Snowberry Creek a few months back after the sudden death of her favorite aunt. She'd also just gone through a tough divorce. As part of the divorce settlement, her now ex-husband had bought out Abby's half of the small import business they'd built together, leaving her in her early thirties, single again as well as unemployed. She was still working on what came next in her life. Aunt Sybil had always rented the small mother-in-law house on the back of the property to a college student, so Abby had inherited both of her aunt's houses along with her dog and her tenant.
But back to Tripp. Lately, he'd been acting withdrawn. She wouldn't exactly say he'd been avoiding her, but she missed the time they'd spent working in the yard together or just enjoying a cold drink out on the back porch at the end of the day. Tripp's college classes kept him busy, but she had good reason to think there was something else going on in his life right now.
Back when she'd been caught up in trying to clear her late aunt's name, Tripp had confessed that he sometimes had trouble sleeping at night. When that happened, he prowled the yard trying to vanquish his inner demons so he could go back to bed. The one time she'd seen him during one of his midnight patrols, he'd been barefoot and wearing a T-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms.
But twice lately, Zeke had woken her up after midnight to draw her attention to Tripp slipping out of his house dressed in his old uniform and combat boots. He'd been carrying a heavily laden backpack as he'd headed up the driveway. She and Zeke had followed his progress from window to window until he disappeared into the shadows. They'd ended up sitting at her window in the dark watching for Tripp's return. He'd stayed gone for almost three hours, finally returning shortly before dawn. The only change she could see was that his pack looked empty.
So both weird and worrisome.
It didn't help that she hadn't been sleeping well since discovering his nighttime escapades. The least little noise, real or imagined, jarred her awake. Then she'd sit on the edge of her bed and watch out the window for any sign that Tripp was out wandering around again. Eventually, she'd give up and lie back down until something else woke her up. It didn't make for restful nights.
Sighing, she checked the depressingly long list on the front of the refrigerator to see what she should be doing next. At least she could cross off a few things. The laundry, vacuuming, and dusting were all done. The pie hadn't been on the list, so she added it at the bottom and immediately drew a line through it. Maybe that was cheating, but she got a lot of satisfaction from seeing that the completed jobs outnumbered the ones left to do.
With that done, she gathered up everything she needed to take with her as she made her rounds through town. Her first stop would be the fire department to drop off the latest batch of quilts for the first responders to hand out to children at accidents and fires. She had another bunch for the police department, but she'd drop those off when she got to the meeting at city hall regarding the Halloween Festival, which was now just over two weeks away.
She had been counting the days, looking forward to finally having a little downtime after the big celebration was over. Now, thanks to Tripp, she'd be lucky if she even had time to catch her breath before having to launch right into organizing whatever the veterans group settled on as their big fundraiser.
"Take it one day at a time" had become her mantra. If she thought too much about everything she had to get done, she'd end up in a corner sucking her thumb and whimpering.
Rather than dwell on that charming possibility, she picked up the first box of quilts and carried it out to the car. On the second trip, she grabbed her purse, the canvas bag with the library books she needed to return, and the final box of quilts.
Five minutes later, she drove over to Main Street and the first of her stops. The only positive note was that if everything went smoothly, she'd have time to stop at Something's Brewing to pick up an iced coffee before the meeting. No doubt she'd also give in to temptation and try out one of Bridey's latest creations, especially if her friend had made another gooey butter cake. Evidently she'd gotten the recipe from someone who'd grown up in St. Louis, and the response from the folks here in Snowberry Creek, Washington, had been enthusiastic.
Already, imagining biting into the delicious concoction had improved her mood. Who wouldn't love a thick layer of sweetened cream cheese and butter on top of a coffee cake? With that happy thought, she drove to the fire department to drop off the quilts.
Unfortunately, nothing went smoothly at all. Her stop at the fire department took longer than expected, which put her behind schedule. By the time she pulled into the parking lot in back of city hall, she had to hit the ground running to avoid being late for her meeting. Under normal circumstances, that wouldn't have been a big deal, but she didn't trust the rest of the committee members not to volunteer her for something if she wasn't there to defend herself.
She'd seen it happen to someone else, and the last thing she needed was to get saddled with another project for the upcoming festival. While she liked Connie Pohler a lot, the woman's idea of a small favor was the stuff of nightmares as far as Abby was concerned.
Luckily, the meeting hadn't yet been called to order when she walked into the conference room located down the hall from the mayor's office. Bridey's husband, Seth Kyser, smiled as she slipped into the empty seat next him.
"Did I miss anything?"
He laughed. "We didn't sign you up for another project, if that's what you're asking."
Then he reached down to pick up a cardboard drink tray from the floor on the other side of his chair and handed it to her. "Bridey thought you might need these."
Bless the woman, it was an iced coffee and a huge piece of the cake she'd been craving. "Thank her for me. I might just make it through the day after all."
He winked at her and then turned to answer a question from the man across the table. Abby glanced around the table and was relieved to see she wasn't the only one who was using the last few minutes before the meeting was called to order to finish off a quick snack.
"Boy, that cake looks a lot better than what I'm having. What kind is it?"
Abby smiled at the woman sitting next to her. "It's called gooey butter cake—one of Bridey Kyser's latest experiments. Would you like a bite?"
Not that she really wanted to share.
"That's okay. My husband and I are trying to watch what we eat. I'm Kristy Hake, by the way. I don't believe we've ever been officially introduced. I own the beauty shop down the street, and Dean is a retired carpenter. He keeps himself busy doing a lot of handyman work around town."
"It's nice to finally meet you. I've heard a lot of good things about you from Glenda Unger and Jean Benson."
Kristy brightened up. "That's nice of them. They're two of my favorite customers."
When Connie Pohler entered the room talking on her cell phone, Kristy leaned in closer. "This is your first year helping with the festival, isn't it?"
She didn't wait for Abby to respond before continuing. "I always head up the pie-eating contest, and Dean is in charge of the games and activities for the kids at the middle school and high school."
"I'm helping organize the trick-or-treating on Main Street, and the quilting guild is putting together all the candy bags for that."
Before they could continue the conversation, the meeting was finally called to order. Abby sipped her coffee and did her best to avoid making eye contact with Connie as the woman asked for status reports and then listed the jobs she still needed someone to take on. The meeting dragged on for almost two hours, but Abby made it through without getting tagged for anything else.
On the way out, Seth held the door open for her. Neither of them said a word until they reached the parking lot. Then he made a pretense of looking all around them. "I like Connie a lot, but it sure doesn't pay to let her corner you when she's on the hunt for volunteers. Think we made a clean getaway?"
She laughed. "So far, so good. I have to stop at the library and the police department, but just in case, I'm tempted to put those things off until tomorrow. Maybe by then she'll have found all the victims . . . I mean volunteers she needs."
"Dream on, lady. Even if she has a full roster for Halloween, there's always Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's to think about."
Even if he meant that assessment to be funny, it didn't make it any less true. "Maybe I'll just mail my books back to the library."
They'd reached her car. "Need a ride back to the coffee shop? I'm going right by there."
"Thanks, but the walk will do me good." He looked a bit sheepish. "I ate two pieces of that gooey butter cake before the meeting, and that was on top of the pumpkin spice cookies Bridey had me sample this morning."
Seth set off across the parking lot toward his wife's shop. Abby watched him for a few seconds, still trying to decide whether she should risk another trip back into the building. If the books weren't overdue and she hadn't promised the quilts would be delivered today, she might have gotten in and driven away.
Knowing her conscience wouldn't rest easy if she gave in to cowardice, she grabbed the box of quilts and her book bag out of the car and headed back inside. She made it in and out of the library in the back of the building in record time, but the front desk in the police department was empty. While she waited for the officer on duty to reappear, Connie walked in and headed straight for her.
"Hey, I'm glad I caught you."
Pasting a smile on her face, Abby turned to greet her. "What can I do for you, Connie?"
One look at the list clutched in Connie's hand told her she might regret asking that question. All she could do was wait to see how much trouble she was in now.