Featured Excerpt: Murder, She Wrote: Murder in Season by Jessica Fletcher and Jon Land
By Crime HQNovember 17, 2020
“You look like you just saw a ghost, Doc,” Mort noted.
“Couple of them, it turns out,” Seth told us both. “Because there’s not one set of bones buried in that hole; there’s two. The second set looks to have belonged to a woman, and she didn’t die a couple hundred years ago either.” His eyes moved from Mort to me, then the two of us at once. “More like one year back, two at the most, based on the state of the remains.”
“Near as I can tell, anyway,” Seth continued.
Mort twisted toward me. “You hear that, Mrs. F.? Two bodies buried in your backyard instead of one. And I’m betting it turns out they were both murdered. Tell me— before I got to Cabot Cove, did anybody die in this town who wasn’t murdered?”
“I agree with you in this case,” I told him. “Someone took the opportunity to move both sets of remains here at a time no one would notice my yard being dug up, someone who clearly has something to hide. And whatever that something is, it must be somehow connected to both bodies, not just one.”
“Well,” Seth said, slipping back into his loafers, “at least we can safely assume the same killer didn’t kill them both.”
My eyes fell on the mysterious box, still partially submerged in mud. “And maybe whatever’s inside that can tell us why some‑ one would go to such great lengths to hide their remains.”
I’d grown familiar with colonial furniture for a book I was researching at one point. From this distance, the box appeared to be actually more of a chest. An oblong curved lid fastened atop its rectangular shape, maybe two and a half feet high by four and a half feet wide and two feet deep. That was standard size, more or less, for colonial and early American times, I assumed because it fit neatly in the back of horse‑drawn wagons and could fit comfortably in pretty much any corner, nook, or cranny in homes of the time, known for their smaller rooms. The golden‑shaded exterior I could make out from ground level was speckled with mud that still left the iron latches, handles, and wrappings evident, along with a matching key lock. I recognized the wood from its shade and grain as oak, common for those times. And this chest had the look of an elegant piece fashioned by a master craftsman, a theory supported by how well it had weathered the years in spite of likely being hidden away for most of them.
That suggested the chest had been owned by someone of means, someone from the gentry class that had been left over from the days of British royalty. I ran the timeline in my head, noting to myself that Cabot Cove had been founded in 1791 as a seaport and northern hub for trading ships. Those ships swept north across the Atlantic toward Canada to take advantage of the steering winds and currents, before angling south. Cabot Cove’s was the largest open ocean port this far north at the time. You had to sail all the way to Boston to find another, and I imagined that the two venues often battled to provide docking for the same traders sailing back to Europe from points south, or from Europe heading toward the West Indies and South America.
“Mrs. F.?” Mort prodded, jarring me from my thinking. “Earth to Mrs. Fletcher . . .”
“You looked like you were someplace else altogether.”
“I was—in my mind.”
“She does make a fair living as a writer, after all, Sheriff,” Seth reminded him.
“Does she, now? I’ve got no idea where she finds the time to write in between solving murders.” Mort looked from Seth to me. “But she’s got her work cut out for her with these two.”
“We need to have a look inside that chest,” I told him. “How long before the state police can get a crime scene unit here?”
“They’re a bit short staffed, this being Christmas week and all, but the fact that bones were found got them moving, so I’d say any minute.”
“Speaking of Christmas . . .” Seth started, the words aimed at Mort.
“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”
“Yes, I do, Doc. You were going to ask me to play Santa Claus at the Christmas parade, because you ask me to play Santa Claus every year.”
“And every year you say no.”
“And this year will be no exception. The town is used to you as Santa, anyway.”
Seth looked down at his stomach. “Every year I seem to need less padding. Come spring, Jess, maybe I’ll join you on your jaunts through town on a bicycle. I must say, Sheriff, you’re miss‑ ing the spirit of the season.”
Mort took off his sheriff’s hat and flapped it by his side. “Who died and left you in charge, Doc?”
“Agnes Weatherby, last May at the ripe old age of ninety‑one, after organizing the parade for thirty‑five consecutive years. That leaves the committee big shoes to fill.”
“There’s one thing I really liked about Agnes Weatherby.”
“What’s that, Mort?” I asked him.
“She wasn’t murdered.”
Just then, a gaggle of voices drew our attention to the far corner of my brochure‑new house. A trio of figures appeared, a pair of young women wearing jeans flanking a well‑built man with muscular arms showcased in a form‑fitting shirt and a shock of hair that looked dry‑cleaned. The well‑built man was holding a cordless microphone, and one of the women held what looked like a news camera on her shoulder. The trio moved purposefully our way, Mort tensing alongside me.
“What have we got here?” Seth wondered aloud.
“Whatever it is, Doc,” Mort followed, “it can’t be good.”
They ground to a halt directly before us with the trench in the background. The well‑built man trained all of his focus on me, as if Mort and Seth weren’t standing right there with me at all.
“Mrs. Fletcher, I’m Tad Hollenbeck from Stalker.” “Stalker?”
“The television show.”
“There’s a television show called Stalker?”
Seth Hazlitt leaned over and whispered into my ear, “Tawdry tabloid show nobody in their right mind watches, promoting wacko theories.”
If Tad Hollenbeck overheard his words, he wasn’t showing it. Despite his considerable musculature, I had the distinct impression he was holding his stomach in.
“And you made our radar, Mrs. Fletcher. Well, more accurately, Cabot Cove made our radar.”
“What on earth for?”
“Try being the murder capital of the world, at least the country. Per capita, anyway. How many was it last year?”
“I don’t keep count.”
“Then let me tell you. It was—”
Mort cut the man off before he could continue. “There’s gonna be another if you don’t back off and state your business, son.”
Hollenbeck’s gaze darted to the crime scene tape erected around the ditch that had been dug in my backyard. “Judging by that crime scene tape, I’d say there’s already been another. I’m here to do a story on why so many people seem to be murdered in Cabot Cove. There are several working theories.”
“Can’t wait to hear them.”
“You’ve heard of the Bermuda Triangle, I assume, Sheriff Metzger,” Hollenbeck said to him, even though his eyes remained on me.
“You seem to have done your homework,” Mort said, hardly used to outsiders knowing his name.
“It’s my job. I’m a reporter.”
“Not if you work for Stalker,” Seth mumbled, just loud enough to be heard.
“Anyway,” Mort picked up, “I know enough to know that so‑called triangle is down near Bermuda, not up here in Maine.”
“We’re working on the theory there may be something like that at work in your town. A kind of blip in the universe, an anomaly.”
“A what?” From Seth.
“Call it a cosmic depression.”
“Do I have to?” I asked Hollenbeck.
“Do you know what a sinkhole is, Mrs. Fletcher?”
“Is this a quiz?”
“Just an analogy.”
“A sinkhole,” I told him, “is a hole in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer, normally caused by collected water that has no place to drain.”
“I think Cabot Cove lies in the center of a metaphysical sink‑ hole.”
“In other words,” tried Mort, “our murder rate can be tied to something in the air.”
Hollenbeck nodded. “Not far from that, yes, Sheriff Metzger, and I intend to prove it.”
“Better be able to pull that off before I run you out of town, son,” Mort warned him. “Folks here like to be left alone, especially during the holidays. I’d listen to what I’m telling you, if you and your friends don’t want to wake up Christmas morning in a jail cell.”
“How do you explain it, then?”
“The murder rate.”
“Son, I was a New York City homicide detective in the bad old days before I moved here, if you want to talk about murder rates.”
Hollenbeck swung toward Seth. “You must be Dr. Hazlitt.”
“Guilty as charged,” he said, pleased at the fact that the TV reporter had recognized him.
“Residents here ever complain about the water?”
“Complain about the water?” Seth repeated, dumbfounded.
“The wells and regular supply all come from the same aquifer. You ever have it tested?”
“Why would I?”
“Just another theory we’re pursuing, that maybe the water has high concentrations of toxins, either known or unknown. Toxins with psychotropic properties that result in violent tendencies. There’s precedent for that, you know.”
“Really?” Mort challenged. “Where?”
Hollenbeck ignored his question and swung back toward me, gesturing for his cameraperson to set up a shot. “You mind if I get this on tape, Mrs. Fletcher?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“You seem to be at the center of a lot of these murders.”
“Just like you seem to be trespassing on my property.”
The young woman angled the camera my way, as Hollenbeck thrust his microphone in my face. I stretched my arm forward and covered the lens with my palm.
“You were saying, Mr. Hollenbeck . . .”
He lowered the microphone. “You wrote your first book here in Cabot Cove.”
“Yes, I did.”
“A murder mystery.”
“They normally do in murder mysteries.”
“And you’ve written, what, fifty of them?”
“Something like that. Why?”
“Means you’ve killed an awful lot of people, Mrs. Fletcher.”
I couldn’t help but groan. “Because of something in the water, you think?”
“Or the air, or the ground, or the barometric pressure. An anomaly, like I said, or maybe several of them working in concert. An impossible convergence of elements that our investigation in‑ tends to prove to explain all the people getting murdered here.” Hollenbeck aimed his next words at me. “For real, I mean.”
Seth eased himself forward. “Is this going to be the subject of an episode of Stalker?”
“I’m considering a series of episodes, maybe a week’s worth, actually. Would you be up for an interview, Dr. Hazlitt?”
Seth’s eyes seemed to glisten. “Well, I . . .”
I looked at Mort, who shook his head at Seth’s rumination over the possibility of appearing on national television.
“Because,” Hollenbeck resumed, when Seth’s voice tailed off, “your perspective would lend a lot to the story, an incredible amount, really.”
“How long have you been practicing medicine in Cabot Cove?”
“Oh, well . . . a long time,” Seth stammered, before suddenly forcing a smile. “Long enough to know where all the bodies are buried, you might say.”
“Literally, it would appear,” Hollenbeck said, peering beyond us at the crime scene tape that had been staked in the ground all around the hole where Ben McMasters’s crew had uncovered the remains of two bodies. “And have people always dropped dead from foul play at the rate they do now?”
Mort moved in between Hollenbeck and Seth, cutting off whatever answer the good doctor might have been about to give.
“Mrs. Fletcher,” he said, while keeping his eyes on the reporter, “would you like to press trespassing charges against this gentleman?”
Hollenbeck’s gaze again tracked over Mort’s shoulder to the two Cabot Cove deputies standing vigil over the trench, the nearby backhoe silent and workers continuing to mill about while waiting for their boss to tell them what to do.
“Speaking of buried bodies . . .” He swept his gaze toward me. “In your very backyard, Mrs. Fletcher? This is just too rich to believe.” He gestured toward the young woman with the camera, stopping just short of snapping his fingers. “Get this on camera, Selina. An active crime scene would make for great B‑roll.”
Selina started to raise the camera, and Mort forced it back down.
“Hey!” protested the other young woman. “Who are you?”
“I’m Angie, the producer, Sheriff.”
“Well, Angie the producer, this is private property. No taping allowed without the owner’s permission.”
“Is that actually a law?”
“If it’s not, it should be. Take me to court if you want. Nearest federal bench is Boston. See you there.”
Hollenbeck eased his hands into the air, a show of subservience, relenting. “I think we’ve got enough for today anyway,” he said to me, as if Mort wasn’t standing there at all. “Just one more question, Mrs. Fletcher: How many bodies was it this time?”
“It was nice meeting you, Mr. Hollenbeck,” I said with a smile as I sidestepped away from him.
“Fine,” he shot back, holding his ground, “so long as you know I’m not leaving town until I get to the bottom of whatever’s really going on in Cabot Cove.”
“When you find out, Mr. Hollenbeck,” I called out in his direction, “please tell me.”
As soon as Hollenbeck and his crew had taken their leave, Mort glared at Seth, shaking his head. “Long enough to know where all the bodies are buried,” he repeated. “Really, Doc?”
“I got carried away, all right?”
“You actually watch that show, don’t you?” I said to Seth.
“I like to keep up on things.”
“Sure.” Mort nodded. “I get it. Things like psychotropic toxins in groundwater and metaphysical sinkholes.”
“Stalker covers other stuff, too.”
“You mean like that theory that the Chinese have built a maze of tunnels beneath the entire country to spy on us?”
Seth’s eyes bulged. “See, I knew it! You watch the show, too! That episode ran last week!”
“Not me,” Mort responded sheepishly. “Adele.”
“And you just happened to be listening at the time,” I noted.
“Adele keeps the volume loud ’cause of the hearing damage she suffered blowing things up in the Marines.”
Mort could tell by our expressions that neither Seth nor I was buying that.
“Okay, once in a while,” he admitted. “When I’m flipping through the channels.”
I couldn’t stop shaking my head, while holding back a smile. “And you just happen to stop on Stalker. Or does the TV do it on its own?”
“It’s the top‑rated show in its time slot, Jess,” Seth said, looking toward Mort as if they were kindred spirits now.
“Interesting tidbit for a small‑town doctor to know,” I noted.
“Hey,” Seth defended, “I’m a student of pop culture.”
Mort scratched at his scalp again. “What the heck is that exactly anyway?”
Seth fingered his chin. “You know, I’m not really sure what it is, but I know it when I see it.”
Mort fitted his hat back on. “You really want to appear on trash television, Doc?”
“It’s not all trash,” Seth insisted.
“Didn’t you just say no one in their right mind watches it?” I asked him.
“Well, the show is a great stress reliever.”
“Stress reliever?” raised an incredulous Mort. “You’re eating pie at Mara’s every afternoon at three o’clock.” He cast his gaze in the direction in which Tad Hollenbeck and his two‑woman crew had disappeared around my house. “I wish we could still just run people out of town for no good reason at all.”
Mort’s phone rang and he started walking off, stopping long enough to wave a reproaching finger in Seth’s face.
“And don’t go telling that reporter I said that either.”
“You’ve been on television, Jess,” Seth said to me after Mort moved away to answer his phone.
“Some big shows, too.” “A few.”
He sighed. “Not many media types clamoring to interview small‑town doctors.”
“You always told me how much you valued your privacy. You always say that’s what you love most about living in Cabot Cove.”
“Well, maybe I had things wrong,” Seth huffed.
At which point Mort strode up to us, putting his phone in his pocket. “The state police crime scene unit went to the wrong address, Sandalwood Street instead of Candlewood Lane. They’re on their way now.”
Copyright © 2020 by Jessica Fletcher and Jon Land
About Murder, She Wrote: Murder in Season by Jessica Fletcher and Jon Land:
With work on the reconstruction of her beloved home almost complete, Jessica Fletcher is in high holiday spirits, spearheading the annual Christmas parade and preparing for her nephew Grady and his family to come to town. The only thing dampening the holiday cheer is the discovery of two sets of bones on Jessica’s property: one set ancient, the other only about a year old. It’s concluded that they were both placed there during the reconstruction, and Jessica suspects that, despite the centuries between them, the remains might be connected.
Soon tabloid reporter Tad Hollenbeck arrives in Cabot Cove to write a story about what he calls “the murder capital of the country.” But when Tad himself is murdered, Jessica speculates that his arrival, his death, and the discovery of the bones are all somehow linked.
As Jessica digs deeper to find the connection between the bones and Tad’s murder, everything seems to come back to a mystery that has long plagued Cabot Cove. If she wants to solve the case, she’ll need to delve into her beloved town’s dark history, or else this holiday season may be her last…