Berried Secrets: New Excerpt

Berried Secrets by Peg Cochran is the debut cozy in the Cranberry Cove Mystery Series featuring Monica Albertson, who discovers a dead body floating in the farm's lake (available August 4, 2015).

When Monica Albertson comes to Cranberry Cove—a charming town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan—to help her half-brother Jeff on his cranberry farm, the last thing she expects to harvest is a dead body.

It seems that Sam Culbert, who ran the farm while Jeff was deployed overseas, had some juicy secrets that soon prove fatal, and Jeff is ripe for the picking as a prime suspect. Forming an uneasy alliance with her high-maintenance stepmother, Monica has her hands full trying to save the farm while searching for a killer. Culbert made plenty of enemies in the quaint small town…but which one was desperate enough to kill?

Chapter 2

Monica thought about what the farm’s accounts had revealed while she cleaned lettuce and sliced tomatoes for a salad. Probably the best way to break the news to Jeff was to do it quickly—like pulling off a bandage in one swift motion. She grimaced at the thought.

Jeff arrived exactly at six o’clock, just as Monica was preheating the broiler for the steak. He and Monica had both gotten their father’s height and auburn hair that had a slight curl to it, although Jeff’s blue eyes and cleft chin came from his mother. He was wearing jeans and a plaid flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, revealing his forearms—the strong right one, and the left, which looked wasted in comparison. It hurt Monica to see it, and she glanced away quickly.

“You look tired.”

Jeff ran a hand across the back of his neck. “I am. The temperature really dropped last night and I was worried about a frost. I had to go out and check the temperature sensors in the bogs. It’d be just my luck to lose the crop the day before we plan to harvest.”

Monica looked at him curiously. “It didn’t seem that cold to me.”

“The cranberry bogs are lower than the surrounding land. They can run ten to twenty degrees cooler, especially at night.”

Monica absorbed that fact. There was still so much to learn. “But what would you do if there was a frost?” She couldn’t imagine how they could blanket the acres and acres of cranberries that made up Sassamanash Farm in order to keep the fruit warm.

“It sounds crazy,” Jeff said with a grin, “but we run the irrigation system and spray the berries with water. The water turns to ice, releasing heat, and the heat warms the berries. It’s a law of physics known as the heat of fusion.”

“Oh,” was all Monica could say. While Jeff had excelled at science in school, she had been more inclined to have her head buried in a book—preferably a mystery. She’d started with Nancy Drew and had worked her way up to P.D. James before she was out of middle school.

“I have some cold beer in the fridge,” she said as Jeff plopped down at the kitchen table, making the small space suddenly seem even smaller.

Jeff scrubbed a hand across his face. “Sounds great.” He reached out his good arm, pulled open the refrigerator door which was right behind him and yanked a bottle from the cardboard six-pack Monica had stashed there. He twisted off the top and took a long pull before putting the beer down on the table and tilting his chair back on two legs.

“How’s Gina?” Monica turned toward Jeff and leaned on the counter. “Have you heard from her lately?”

Gina was Jeff’s mother and technically, Monica supposed, her stepmother, although she wasn’t even ten years older than Monica and looked even younger than that, since she visited the best hair salons, had a personal trainer and had had enough Botox injections to paralyze an elephant. Monica couldn’t help but think of her as the woman who stole her father away from his family. Although strictly speaking, her parents’ marriage had been on the proverbial rocks even before Gina had dug her well-manicured nails into John Albertson’s arm.

Monica had been besotted, however, with the younger brother who had arrived a year after their marriage, and she had gradually come to realize that Gina wasn’t as bad as all that—vapid, for sure, but in a harmless sort of way.

“She’s okay, I guess,” Jeff said in answer to Monica’s question. He took another long draft of his beer. “She’s coming to visit.”

Monica stopped with her hand halfway to the oven door. “When?”

Jeff glanced at his watch. “In about an hour.”

“What?” Monica squeaked.

Jeff shrugged. “She called last night and said she was at loose ends and could she come and stay for a bit. The timing couldn’t be worse, but what could I say?” He shrugged.

Monica was flabbergasted. She didn’t go anywhere without making plans. Even a trip to the grocery store would be on her to-do list at least twenty-four hours in advance.

“Where is she going to stay?”

“She’s got a room at the Cranberry Cove Inn.” Jeff grinned. “The presidential suite probably. If there is such a thing. She’s getting in late so she said she won’t be by until sometime tomorrow. Knowing Mother, that won’t be before noon.”

Monica pulled the broiler pan from the oven and put it on the top of the stove. “What is she going to do while we’re harvesting the berries?”

Jeff shrugged. “Dunno. Shop, I guess.”

Monica tried to picture Gina, with her salon processed blond hair and long, manicured nails, strolling around Cranberry Cove in her Louboutin pumps. Even the wealthier tourists, the ones who disembarked from the biggest yachts in the harbor, rarely wore anything fancier than boat shoes. Cranberry Cove was the sort of laid-back place where people walked around barefoot, in faded cutoffs and an old T-shirt.

They ate their meal in near silence. Jeff was obviously hungry, and soon he’d polished off three-fourths of the steak, a huge helping of salad and a baked potato heaped with butter and sour cream. Monica was gratified as she watched him devour the meal.

Jeff chased the last bit of lettuce around his plate and looked up with a smile.

“That was delicious. Thanks.” He swiped his napkin across his mouth.

Time to rip off the bandage, Monica thought.

She pushed her chair back and began to gather their plates and silverware. “I’ve been going over the farm’s books,” she said, with her back to Jeff.

“Oh.” His tone was flat.

Monica turned around and leaned against the counter, her hands braced against the edge. Just get hold of the corner and rip, she told herself.

“There’s a reason you haven’t been making the profit you expected.”

Jeff’s brows rose, wrinkling his broad forehead. Monica could see a trace of pale skin at his hairline where his hat usually rested. “What’s that?”

“Sam Culbert was cheating you. He embezzled thousands of dollars from the farm’s accounts.”

Jeff jumped up, nearly overturning the kitchen table in the process.  The dirty cutlery, which Monica hadn’t yet collected, slid to the floor.

“If you’re right,” Jeff began, “if you’re right, I’m going to kill the bastard.”

Monica was up and out of bed before her alarm went off the next morning. Today was the big day—the beginning of the cranberry harvest.

Her clothes had been laid out the night before—jeans, an old turtleneck she used to wear around the apartment to stay warm during the fierce Chicago winters and a plain gray sweatshirt that was slightly frayed around the edges.

She dressed quickly. It was cold, and she started to shiver. She pulled on her sweatshirt gratefully.

It was still dark, and Monica flipped on the overhead light in the kitchen. She pulled a box of instant oatmeal from the cupboard, tore open a packet and emptied it into a bowl along with half a cup of water. While it was in the microwave, she leaned her elbows on the counter and looked out the window. The sky was overcast with a few streaks of light to the east. Monica shrugged. She had learned the old Michigan saying that if you didn’t like the weather, all you had to do was wait five minutes.

The microwave pinged and Monica retrieved her bowl, poured some milk on top and added a handful of fresh blueberries—the remains of Sassamanash Farm’s summer crop. She ate the oatmeal and was putting the bowl in the dishwasher when there was a knock on the door. She opened it to find Jeff standing there. He was dressed similarly in jeans and a sweatshirt, and he had a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead.

“Ready?” he said economically.

Monica nodded and followed him down the path toward the open field that led to the cranberry bogs. Walking slightly behind him, she could see the stiff set of his shoulders and head.

Jeff whirled around suddenly. “I can’t believe Sam Culbert would cheat me like that. There must be some mistake.” His jaw clenched tightly. “He’s a well-respected businessman for Pete’s sake.”

Monica hung her head. They’d been over all this the evening before. “I doubt there’s any mistake, but we should have a professional come in and audit the books.”

Jeff slammed his clenched fist into the open palm of his other hand. “How could he do that to me? I trusted him. While I was over in Afghanistan dodging bombs and bullets, he was lining his pockets at my expense.” He kicked savagely at a bare branch that was blocking their path. “ “And just yesterday he came around to see how I was doing.”  Jeff gave a bitter laugh.  “Here he was offering me help with one hand while stealing from me with the other.” 

And he strode ahead, leaving Monica to break into a slow trot in an attempt to catch up.

The leaves on the trees ringing the bog were just beginning to change color, tinged with the barest hint of red and gold. Soon they would be in their full glory. Monica took a deep breath. She loved this time of year.

The bog had been flooded the previous evening and was now under more than a foot of water. A large truck was pulled up close to the side, and there was a chute running from it to the water.

Jeff gestured toward it. “A pump will suck the berries out of the water, up the chute and into the cleaner, where they’ll be separated from any twigs, leaves, pieces of vine or other debris. Once that’s done, the berries will be pumped into the truck.”

Monica noticed that Jeff’s crew had already gathered at the edge of the bog. They, too, were dressed in jeans and warm sweatshirts, most with scruffy beards and knitted caps pulled down over their foreheads. They were nursing Styrofoam cups of coffee, and a nearly empty box of doughnuts sat open on the remains of a tree stump.

Jeff introduced the five men who would be helping him with the harvest. They nodded at Monica briefly, their hands shoved in their pockets, obviously impatient to get going.

Jeff gestured toward the bog. “That’s a year’s worth of work right there. Watering and tackling weeds in the summer, sanding the bog and keeping it protected from frost in the winter, fertilizing in the spring and finally harvesting. There’s a lot riding on this crop.”

One of the men turned toward Jeff. “Should we get going, boss?” He had blond curls sticking out from under his cap, and crinkles around his blue eyes.

“Let’s go.”

The men took off at a trot toward a pile of waders—they looked like waterproof overalls with feet—and donned them swiftly, thanks to years of practice. Two of them headed toward a pair of machines that looked like a cross between a jet ski and a lawn mower.

“What are those?” Monica asked, pulling her sweatshirt down over her hands. It was still cold—the sun was low on the horizon, and the sky to the west was barely lit.

“Those are water reels, although we jokingly call them eggbeaters,” Jeff explained. “They agitate the water and remove the berries from the vines.”

Just then one of reels started up with a roar. Two startled loons rose from the bog and streaked across the sky. The reels moved up and down the bog, churning the water and shattering the silence. Slowly the cranberries were freed from the vines. They floated to the surface like bright red bubbles.

Two of the men plunged into the bog, wading through the thigh high water. The one in the red cap turned toward the bank where Jeff was standing. “Just my luck,” he yelled. “These waders have a hole in them.”

“Blame Sam Culbert,” one of the other men shouted back. “He wouldn’t spend a dime if he didn’t have to.”

Jeff put his hands to his mouth and yelled above the noise of the reels. “I’ll replace them as soon as I can.”

Monica noticed the look of worry that crossed his face. She knew he didn’t want to spend any more money than he had to.

He turned toward Monica. “Ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she said, as Jeff handed her a pair of the special socks they would wear inside the waders.

She picked up a pair and tried to put her right leg into them. That caused her to nearly lose her balance, and she realized the safest way for a novice to don them was sitting down. She lowered herself to the ground. It was damp, and she felt moisture soaking into her jeans. Monica was quickly developing a newfound respect for people who worked the land.

She managed to get her feet and legs into the waders, but Jeff had to help her stand up—the waders were awkward, and she felt as graceful as the abominable snowman in them. Jeff’s crew had made walking in them look so effortless, but it was far from it.

A small group of early bird tourists had gathered on the opposite bank of the bog. Lauren, an attractive blonde who had been hired as a part-time tour guide, was explaining the harvesting process to them.

There was a lull as the water reels were briefly turned off, and Lauren’s voice carried clearly across the water to where Monica was standing. “Cranberries are one of three fruits native to North America,” she heard her say.

She saw Jeff glance in Lauren’s direction and wave, his entire face brightening for a brief moment. Monica knew they’d been to the movies a couple of times, and the way Jeff talked about Lauren led Monica to believe that this might become serious.

She watched, biting her lip, as Jeff struggled with his shoulder strap. He didn’t like to feel as if he was being coddled because of his injury, and in the five weeks she’d been living at the farm, Monica had learned to let him do things on his own. She gave a sigh of relief when he adjusted it to his satisfaction.

He smiled at Monica. “Let’s go.”

Monica shivered at the thought of getting into the water but gamely moved toward the bog, which by now was crimson with floating berries. The brisk breeze was blowing them to the side farthest from the truck.

“Just our luck,” one of the men called out. “The wind is going in the wrong direction.”

“Yeah. More work for us.” The fellow who had complained about his waders shouted back.

Monica sat on the edge of the bog, as she had seen the men do, and swiveled until she was standing thigh deep in the water. The bottom of the bog was sandy and uneven, and she stumbled and nearly lost her footing.

“Careful, there.” Jeff put a hand on her elbow to steady her. He handed her a wooden rake. “We need to head over there,” he pointed toward the pump.

The cranberries were at least six inches deep and swirled around Monica’s legs in a kaleidoscope of colors—from nearly black to crimson to a pale pink. She trailed her hands through the cold water and watched the berries bob and spin.

Jeff plucked a cranberry from the water and handed it to Monica. “Bite it in half.”

Monica did, and the tart taste flooded her mouth.

Jeff pointed at the half in her hand. “See. Each berry has four air pockets. That’s what makes them float.”

Monica looked out across the bog. The sun had risen a little higher in the sky, the early clouds had scattered, and the light was glancing off the berries. It was magical.

“Come on,” Jeff said. “The guys are going to need our help.”

Monica made her way through the water as best she could. The rest of the crew was busy attempting to corral the berries. Monica pointed at them. “What is that they’re using?”

“That’s a boom,” Jeff said. “There’s a chain on the bottom and foam rubber on the top. It’s similar to what they use to contain an oil spill. They’ll sweep the berries together with it. Our job,” he held out his rake, “is to push the berries toward the pump.”

Slowly the cranberries were pulled toward the center of the bog, creating a growing carpet of brilliant red. A chorus of “ahs” rose from the small crowd that was watching the early morning harvest.

The sea of crimson grew as they corralled more and more of the harvest and slowly tightened the boom, like a noose tightening around someone’s neck. Monica and Jeff stood in the middle along with two of the other crew members, sweeping the berries toward the pump with their rakes.

The berries floated easily enough, and raking them wasn’t difficult, but keeping her balance on the sandy bottom of the bog was challenging Monica’s leg muscles.

“You okay?” Jeff looked over at her.

“Fine.” Monica smiled. If Jeff could do the job with only one good arm, she ought to be able to tough it out.

Monica reached out her wooden rake to capture a small group of berries that had drifted away when it caught on something. She pulled but it didn’t want to budge.

“What’s wrong?” Jeff looked at her in concern.

“The rake is caught on something.” Monica pulled again, even harder this time.

“Could be tangled in one of the vines,” one of the men said, holding out his hand for the rake.

Monica shook her head. She could do this. She pulled one more time. The rake finally came free and she nearly fell, stumbling backward several feet before regaining her footing. Water splashed onto the back of her sweatshirt, and she shivered. She finally steadied herself and was reaching for the small pocket of errant berries when something began to rise from the depths of the flooded bog.

“What the . . .” Jeff said.

They all stopped working and watched in grim fascination as a body, its clothes completely sodden and its face bloated with water, slowly rose to the surface.

Monica screamed and dropped her rake, and a gasp rose from the group of tourists on the bank. Jeff stifled an oath, and the other workers turned off the water reels and waded over to Monica and Jeff as quickly as possible, their brisk movements sending up splashes of water.

“Querido Deus,” one of them muttered.

The fellow in the red cap turned toward Jeff. “Who is it?”

Jeff looked stricken, his face as white as a sheet of paper. It took him a moment to answer. “It’s Sam. Sam Culbert,” he said finally.

Copyright © 2015 Peg Cochran.

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Peg Cochran is also the author of the national bestselling Gourmet De-Lite Mystery series, including Allergic to Death, Steamed to Death, and Iced to Death. She lives in Michigan with her family.

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