Murder at Barclay Meadow is the debut mystery by Wendy Sand Eckel where Rosalie Hart returns home to her aunt's farmhouse and quickly stumbles upon a body (available July 28, 2015).
Rosalie Hart's world has been upended. After her husband confesses to an affair, she exiles herself to her late aunt's farmhouse on Maryland's Eastern Shore. With its fields untended and the house itself in disrepair, Barclay Meadow couldn't be more different than the tidy D.C. suburb she used to call home. Just when Rosalie feels convinced things couldn't get any worse, she finds a body floating in her marsh grasses. When the sheriff declares the death an accident, she becomes suspicious. The dead girl, Megan, reminds her of her own daughter, who has recently gone off to college, and she feels a responsibility to find out the truth.
Before my only child left for her first year of college, she suggested I create my own Facebook profile. Annie said we could “friend” one another, and chat online. That way she wouldn’t have to tell me all the details of her life in a daily phone call or tedious texting. I could read all about what she was up to, who her new friends were, and what music she liked. The problem was, so could her other five hundred-plus friends. Ultimately, though, it was the private “chat” feature that sold me. So I created a profile, such that it was.
After two months, I had yet to post a picture or write what was on my mind. My profile didn’t declare my relationship status or where I lived because those things had recently changed, rather abruptly, I should add.
Inspiration struck on a crisp, cool day in October when I posted my first status.
Still reeling after discovering a dead girl floating in my marsh grasses.
Mr. Miele was delivered by UPS one day in late October. He was the first friend I’d made in the month since I moved into a two-hundred-year-old house bequeathed to me by my aunt Charlotte. Wedged between the bread box and my now diminished toaster, the coffee bistro’s brushed steel sparkled in the low afternoon sun. Although my aunt’s kitchen was large enough, with tall, white cabinets and a wall of windows that faced the south, much of the space was taken up by a stone hearth so massive I could stand up in it. Not everyone could stand in it, but at five foot four, my head barely brushed the flue.
Freshly ground coffee beans filled the room with a seductive, earthy aroma. I tucked The Washington Post under my arm and carried a double-shot mocha skim latte dusted with cinnamon out to the screened porch, sat down, and stretched my legs out on an old wicker ottoman. The scent of mildew lurked in the faded floral chintz cushions. This old house screamed for attention and at least a bucket of bleach. Later, I thought, and took a long sip of coffee.
I decided to begin with the back of the paper. I’d start with the crossword and Sudoku puzzles, peruse the advice columns, and eventually work my my way to the hard news. Lately I had the attention span of a goldfish.
As I folded the paper open to the crossword, I looked out at the Cardigan River rushing by at the end of the sloping lawn. I started to look down at the paper but stopped. A shock of color caught my eye. It stood out like a flower in a desert—the bright turquoise vivid and glaring against the gunmetal gray water. My nerve endings buzzed with foreboding. I set my cup down, swallowed hard against the dry lump in my throat, and steeled enough courage to stand up.
The sun warmed my skin as I walked. Innocent puffs of high clouds dotted the sky. An osprey glided by and settled into a twiggy nest. I shielded my eyes as I approached, my sneakers squeaking on the grass. I stopped abruptly and covered my nose and mouth when a putrid stench saturated the air. Despite the dread squeezing my heart, I continued.
And then I saw her—facedown in the river. She was cradled by marsh grasses, the lapping water rocked her gently. Grass reeds were tangled in her lifeless hair. Nausea roiled my stomach. Just before I threw up, I noticed what had caught my eye. Strapped to her back was a dainty cloth pack. I recognized the cheerful colors. A Vera Bradley pattern: doodle daisy.
* * *
A few hours later I paced through the kitchen waiting for the sheriff and his deputies to finish. Night had crept up the lawn, making shadows of the men as they worked. The lights on their vehicles bathed the house in manic red and blue flashes like a disco.
When they first arrived, Sheriff Joe Wilgus, a large, brooding man with inky black hair, asked me endless questions about the young woman who was now zipped into a thick, rubber bag. My teeth chattered when I spoke and I chewed every one of my nails down to the skin between questions. After I apologized for throwing up on the crime scene, the sheriff seemed to realize I had nothing helpful to say and sent me inside.
I noticed a stain on the white enamel of my sink as I made yet another pass. I dusted it with cleanser and scrubbed vigorously. I heard a throat clearing and spun around to see the sheriff standing in my kitchen. His broad shoulders and over six feet of height filled the small alcove.
“Sheriff?” I brushed my hair from my face with the back of my hand.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you come in. Do you need to talk to me?”
He shifted his weight. His leather holster creaked. “Not unless you have something more to say.”
“No,” I said. “I’m sorry to be so useless.”
His eyes took in my kitchen. They lingered on Mr. Miele. He gave his head a small shake.
“Would you like some coffee?”
“Is that what that thing is? Looks more like something out of Star Wars.”
“I’ll take that as a yes?”
He settled his bulk into my aunt’s spindly antique chair. I filled two cups and set one on the table in front of him. “It’s French roast,” I said. “Extra bold.”
He looked up. A deep scowl furrowed his brow. “You mind telling me why you’re living out here?”
I stepped back from the table. This was my first time answering that question. “Well … um … I inherited this farm from my late aunt—Charlotte Gardner. You may have known her? And … well, my husband and I recently separated and…” Separated. Is that what I was now? No longer defined by my qualities, I was simply “separated”—like an egg white from yolk. I placed a hand over my stomach and prayed I wouldn’t throw up again.
“I wondered if anyone would ever move into this old place,” the sheriff said. “Seemed a shame to have so much good land go fallow.” His eyes met mine. “You do intend to plant some crops, now, don’t you?”
I swallowed hard. “Yes. Of course.” I looked out the window. An ethereal fog was rising like a spirit from the dewy grass. I hadn’t thought much about the fields. I didn’t know how many there were or what, if anything, had ever grown in them. In truth, I hadn’t decided how long I would even be living in this old house, let alone whether or not to plant a seed.
“Sheriff…” I said, anxious to move the subject away from my planting crops. I set some cream and sugar on the table cloth and sat across from him, tucking my leg underneath to boost my height.
He tapped the end of his nose. “You got some cleanser on your face.”
“I do?” I snatched up a napkin and wiped my nose.
“You were saying.”
I wadded the napkin in my fist. “What have you learned about the girl?”
“Seems she was a student.” He stirred a heavy dose of cream into his coffee and set the spoon on a napkin. The coffee bled onto the white square. “Had a John Adams College ID.”
“A student.” I thought immediately of my Annie. “Have you told her parents yet?”
“We let the college handle that side of things. Our dispatcher is notifying President Carmichael.” He took a long sip and set the cup back in the saucer, his thick fingers barely able to grasp the delicate handle of my aunt’s Spode cup.
“But why aren’t you telling them?”
“Well, you see, Missus Hart…”
“Please,” I said. “Call me Rosalie.” I smiled over at him.
“As I was saying, Missus Hart, colleges have to be careful about these things. If parents hear students are drowning in the Cardigan River, it can, well, let’s just say it might keep people away.”
“How can you be so certain she drowned?”
“Didn’t you find her floating in the river?”
“Yes,” I said. “But how do you know someone didn’t put her there?”
He leaned forward, resting on his elbows. “Do you know the last time we had a murder in this county?”
“No, of course not,” I said quietly.
“Sixteen years ago when old Percy Tate drank too much at Beeman’s bar, went home and shot his wife because he thought she was an intruder.” He finished his coffee in one gulp. “So, how many people would you figure drowned in the Cardigan this year?”
“I’m guessing more than one.” I lowered my eyes.
“You live out here by the river,” he said, tension tightening his voice, “and you think it’s just a pretty view. But what you don’t see is the current rushing underneath. Even the best swimmers can’t stay above the water with it tugging at them, tiring them out, and then sucking them in.” He leaned back. The chair complained. “We’ve had seven drown so far this year. And now Megan makes eight.”
“Megan?” My eyes shot up. “Her name is Megan?”
“Now why is that so interesting?”
“I guess hearing her name makes it all the more real.”
“Finding a dead body didn’t make it real enough for you?”
“Yes, of course. But … well … now I’m thinking about the poor mother who chose such a pretty name for her daughter. She’ll be devastated. It’s the worst thing that can happen to a parent. Do you have children, Sheriff?”
He ignored my question, reinforcing my feeling of being considered an outsider. This was the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a flat stretch of land between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, dotted with farms and quaint little towns. It was known as “the land of pleasant living,” a simple place where people prided themselves on being unguarded, friendly, and, beyond anything else, loyal. People like me from the other side of the Chesapeake Bay were viewed as interlopers who breezed through on their way to the coast, or, far worse, settled on the pristine land the locals believed belonged to them.
Two more officers shuffled into the room. “We’re about done, Sheriff,” the taller man said. “Body’s on its way to the coroner.”
“All right.” The sheriff pushed himself up to a stand.
The other deputy twirled his hat in his hands. He was young—baby-faced; sweat bubbled along his hair line. “Boss?” he said. “With the way she was bloated, you figure she was in there a few days?”
“I’m guessing three.”
“Probably from that college party we busted up down on the water Friday night,” the taller deputy said. “Those dumb kids had the keg at the end of the dock. I’m surprised they all didn’t fall in.”
“But if she was at a party…” I stood quickly. “Wouldn’t someone have noticed her missing?”
The sheriff looked over at me. “You ever go to college?”
“You ever stay out all night?”
My face warmed. “You said the party was three days ago. Surely someone has missed her by now.”
“They didn’t miss her enough to notify me.”
“You see, Missus Hart,” the sheriff interrupted, “you can conjure up all kinds of theories, but in police work, we only know what we know.” He fixed his hat on his head. “Now, I’d like you to put this whole incident behind you. It’s no longer your business.”
The taller deputy smirked. He elbowed the other one. “Sounds like somebody’s been watching a few too many Law and Order marathons.”
I frowned. Then I noticed Megan’s backpack in his hand. The colors were muted by the muddy river and the cloth had dried. He held a Ziploc bag in his other hand. I looked closer, trying to make out the contents through the plastic. An accordion of condoms stood out among otherwise benign possessions—a lip gloss tube, a small brush, a Smartphone that couldn’t possibly work anymore. So much for evidence. I looked harder. There was something in the back of the bag. An envelope with blurred, handwritten lettering. No address. No stamp. Maybe a name? I tried to read. Two words. Was the first letter an “I”?
“Hey…” The deputy ducked the bag behind his back. “What do you think you’re looking at?”
“What does it say on that envelope?” I said.
I felt the sheriff’s eyes on me. I stole a glance at him. A scarlet red flush was working its way up his neck.
“I believe I just told you this was no longer your business.” He looked at the deputy and held out his hand. The young man knew to give him the evidence bag. Without another word, Sheriff Wilgus headed toward the front door. The deputies fell in behind, and the three officers walked through my adopted home in a slow, deliberate, almost possessive cadence. They glanced into rooms as they passed, their eyes traveling over the diminished wallpaper, the cut crystal in the corner cabinet, the sepia-enhanced photographs of my ancestors.
“Whatever happened to old Missus Gardner?” a deputy said. “She pass or what?”
Sheriff Wilgus stopped and appraised the woodwork around the front door. “Had a stroke or something, I think. Good thing Tyler’d been checking up on her. She could’ve been dead for weeks before somebody found her otherwise.”
Copyright © 2015 Wendy Sand Eckel.
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Wendy Sand Eckel lives in Annapolis, Maryland, where she enjoys her family, multiple pets, and life on the water. Murder at Barclay Meadow is her first novel.