Pumpkin Picking with Murder: New Excerpt

Pumpkin Picking with Murder by Auralee Wallace
Pumpkin Picking with Murder by Auralee Wallace
Pumpkin Picking with Murder is the 2nd book in Auralee Wallace's Otter Lake Mystery series (Available August 30, 2016).

When murder strikes in the Tunnel of Love, Erica Bloom has to rock the boat to catch a killer…

For a small town like Otter Lake, New Hampshire, the annual Fall Festival is a big deal: a Ferris wheel, corn maze, caramel apples, and pumpkin pies—even a Tunnel of Love. Back in her hometown, Erica Bloom is trying to enjoy herself, which includes getting better acquainted with Sheriff Grady Forrester. But when a swan boat sails out of the heart-shaped exit of the tunnel with a dead man slumped over a wing, her own romance will have to take a backseat.

Speaking of love affairs, the other passenger in the boat—and only witness to the elderly Mr. Masterson’s swan song—is not his wife. It’s Erica’s beloved and feisty “aunt,” Tweety, who quickly becomes the prime suspect. Vowing to clear Tweety, Erica teams up with her sassy BFF and self-appointed security expert Freddie Ng to solve the murder—despite the objections of Grady, who’s convinced the amateurs are going overboard in their investigation. And he just may be right. But as Erica and Freddie start to dredge up long-kept small-town secrets, will they heading straight into troubled waters?

Chapter One

“Okay,” I said, stepping off the dock onto the cracked asphalt of the parking lot. “I’m here. Can you please tell me what’s going on now?”

“Nope,” the voice on the other end of my phone said. “It’s a surprise. You have to see it.”

I sighed and turned my face up to the warm autumn sun. “You know I don’t have really great experiences with surprises. In fact, I pretty much hate them. Especially when I’m … here.”

The voice chuckled on the other end.

Yup, here I was. Home again in Otter Lake, Live Free or Die, New Hampshire.

Otter Lake was a special kind of place. It had long docks stretching into lakes, nights with a billion stars, and, this time of year, crisp air tinged with ripened apples. It was also a place where everybody knew your name … and your family, where you lived, maybe what you had for breakfast, and most likely the reason behind you picking up that prescription the other day. And if they didn’t know any of those things, it wouldn’t take them long to find out. It was just that kind of town.

On my last trip home, I had dealt with a lot of the issues that had kept me away from Otter Lake for nearly eight years—most of them stemming from a bizarre prank-gone-wrong that involved me standing half naked in front of the entire town with a geriatric beaver at the annual Raspberry Social, but I had put all that behind me … and wanted to keep that kind of thing behind me. Hence my aversion to surprises.

“Home, Erica. It’s your home. You can say it. It won’t hurt you,” Freddie said. “And just so you know, this surprise is awesome because it’s not about you. It’s about me. Although,” he added, drawing out the word, “it could be about you if you played your cards right.”

“Yeah … no.” I shook my head and headed toward the crowds of people filling the street. Freddie Ng was my newly reinstated best friend from high school. We had always gotten along as the oddballs in Otter Lake. Me, because my mother ran a spiritual retreat for women that focused on veganism, yoga, and goddess power—which really sounded like a description of witchcraft to a lot of people around here. Freddie, because he had a trifecta of otherness going for him—gay, Asian, and mega-rich. Nobody knew what the hell to do with him. Me included. But it wasn’t because of any of those things. No. It was Freddie’s … zest for life that had me worried. Mainly because his big, big plans usually included me in some way whether I liked it or not.

Freddie and I had hung out a lot last time I was in town, and while it had been really good to reconnect, I couldn’t help but think that when we did get together, in person, we got ourselves into situations that we would never normally get ourselves into. Well, at least I wouldn’t. Hard to tell with Freddie. When Freddie told me a couple of days ago about his big surprise, I figured it could be anything from wanting to me to check out his new cell phone to showing off his new pet monkey. Now I was thinking that whatever this surprise was, it was definitely on the pet-monkey side of the spectrum. And I did not have time for pet monkeys this visit. Oh no, I was going to be too busy with other … stuff. Good stuff. Sheriff stuff.

Time to nip this thing in the bud.

“While that’s very sweet of you to include me in whatever this surprise is, I’m going to preemptively have to decline taking any part,” I said, skipping around a little dog on a leash making a nip for my heel. Man, the whole town was out today. “Thanks, though.”

“But you’re going to love it!”

“No. Nope. No, thank you. Not this week.”

“Oh come on,” Freddie said. “You don’t even know what you’re turning down.”

“No,” I repeated. I may have even half pointed at the phone. “You will not draw me into any of your tomfooleries this visit.”

“Tomfooleries?” I could practically hear Freddie blinking his eyes on the other side of the phone. “You did not just say tomfooleries.”

I shook my head as I picked a toy stuffie off the ground and passed it to the outstretched hands of a toddler harnessed in a stroller. The mother thanked me. I was pretty sure I went to school with her, but she was a few years ahead. I gave her a smile. She smiled back … like I wasn’t infamous in this town. This was good.

“Besides, I’m not the one who gets us up to the monkeyshines,” Freddie went on.

I stopped walking. “Is this like a thing? Are we doing this now?”

He ignored me and plowed on. “And, besides, you’re the one who has the knack for stumbling across dead bodies.”

I closed my eyes, but that only gave me a clearer vision of Dickie Morrison lying at the bottom of a well impaled by a weenie skewer. Dickie had not been a great guy by any stretch of the imagination, but nobody deserved that. It had happened during my last visit and had set Freddie and me off on a quasi-murder-investigation. I had actually originally booked this week off—I worked as a court stenographer back in Chicago—to testify at the trial, but much to my relief the murderer had pled guilty, so I was off the hook. “Well, I won’t be finding any bodies this time around. This is going to be a nice, normal, relaxing visit. I’ll see my mom. Eat some pumpkin pie—”

“Kiss some sheriffs,” Freddie added, mocking my list-making voice.

I stopped a moment then side-shuffled around a child clutching a red balloon—a shade that probably matched the color of my cheeks. “Yes, I plan to see Grady.” A lot of Grady actually. Maybe more of Grady than I had ever seen before … if I was lucky. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing. Nothing,” Freddie said quickly with a laugh. “I mean your voice is all nervous like a teenage girl right now, which is hilarious, but nothing.”

I half sighed, half growled. Grady Forrester was the town sheriff, my adolescent crush, and winner of Otter Lake’s most beautiful baby contest three years in a row back in the day—he had just been that beautiful. Still was. He also happened to have one of those man smiles that made your knees go weak and your brain go stupid. Grady and I had a history of, well, chemistry—the explosive kind of chemistry—that always seemed to prevent us from getting things right. But that too was going to change this visit. Grady had taken the entire week off to be with me, and we were planning to spend it figuring out what was what between us. We had never made it this far in our relationship before, and I found myself wanting something to happen so badly that I was too terrified to even think about it, let alone talk about it.

I stopped again in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing people to move around me like a stream around a boulder. “Can we just not talk about Grady. It’s not like…” I began, then stopped to find my words. “I mean, we’re not…” I stopped again. “Can we please just drop it?”

Freddie laughed some more.

I ignored him, instead opting to take in the sight of Otter Lake’s transformed Main Street. Colorful banners fluttered from every lamppost as people milled in the streets. A few shops had set up tables outside showcasing wares—pies, tackle, and snowmobile gear were all popular items—and half-barrel planters overflowing with orange, pink, and maroon mums marked the corners of every intersection—all two of them. I looked up at the huge banner stretching across the street.

WELCOME TO OTTER LAKE’S FALL FESTIVAL!

I couldn’t help but smile as the sound of calliope music reached my ears. Finally a town event that didn’t have a traumatizing memory to go along with it. “Hey, so—Whoa.”

“What?” Freddie asked.

I couldn’t answer at first. I just shook my head for a moment. I was surprised I hadn’t seen it sooner given that … it was about the size of the Ferris wheel. The bright sun had caused just the right amount of glare. But now … now it was impossible not to see it. “The berry. What happened to the berry?”

A few months ago MRG—colloquially known as Many Rich Guys, the development company trying to turn Otter Lake into a cottage playground for the very rich—had erected a giant wooden raspberry with a cartoon happy face over the town for Otter Lake’s annual Raspberry Social. It was meant to be gesture of good faith to reassure the town that the development company’s presence wouldn’t change the local flavor of the town—and, of course, it did just the opposite.

Freddie chuckled. “Terrifying, isn’t it?”

I nodded, then realized Freddie couldn’t see me. “Yeah, terrifying is the right word.” As if the smiling monster raspberry threatening to flatten Otter Lake hadn’t been bad enough, it looked as though somebody had made some changes to it for the Fall Festival. “What happened?”

“Well, MRG hasn’t hired a new PR person since Candace left, and no one really knew who to talk to about the berry. It was kind of Candace’s berry.” He paused a moment. “That sounds wrong. Anyway, someone at the high school thought it might be a good art project for the students. You know, turn it into a cute pumpkin for the fair.”

I blinked a few times. The sun was making my eyes water. “That’s supposed to be a pumpkin?”

“Yeah, well, I don’t think they used enough coats of the orange paint, so the red just kept bleeding through.”

Yes, bleeding would be the right word.

“We’re voting on whether or not we should have an exorcism at town hall next week.”

“You are not!”

Freddie laughed again. “I guess you’ll have to stick around to find out.”

I dragged my eyes from the monstrosity looming over the town and resumed walking toward the entrance for the fair. “I’m at the gate. Hang on a sec,” I said, pulling out money from my pocket to pay an older gentleman at the entrance booth to get in. I recognized him, but I couldn’t quite remember his name. The people who organized the fair were all community volunteers. I then held out the hand holding my phone for my entrance bracelet. It wasn’t exactly polite in Otter Lake to be talking on the phone when real live people were in front of you. A fact that was made all the more apparent by Freddie’s voice calling, “Heeelllooo? Heeelllooo?” from my hand.

“Sorry,” I said to the man.

He flashed me a half-pitying, half-disdainful smile.

“Right.” I walked on. “Okay, I’m in,” I said bringing the phone up to my ear. “So where are you?”

“By the Ferris wheel.”

“Got it.” I walked past the deep-fried-everything stand, plugging my ear with my index finger. I was getting closer to the rides, and all the people screaming was making it hard to hear. “I’m almost there. Where exactly are you?”

“Keep walking.”

I sidestepped around and through the throngs of people, making my way to the lineup underneath the giant wheel. Wow, a lot of people had made it to opening day. “Okay, seriously, I don’t see you.”

“You’re getting closer.”

“Stop it,” I said, getting up on my toes to scan the crowd. “You sound like a serial killer.”

Suddenly I felt someone move up behind me. “Boo!”

I spun around then blinked a few times.

“Well,” Freddie said, spreading his arms wide, “what do you think?

I squinted. “Why are you dressed like a state trooper from … I want to say the ’seventies?” Actually with the aviator glasses and half-grown-in mustache I wanted to say he looked like a porn star dressed as a state trooper from the 1970s, but I didn’t want to set him off.

Freddie brought his shoulders together in a self-hug of excitement. “Awesome, right? I found it in a thrift store. I had to fight a vacationing hipster for it. I hate hipsters. They try to make everything that’s awesome ironic. I wanted to wear the star badge too,” he said, looking down at the right breast of his shirt. You could still see the faded outline of the star that had been there. “Grady wouldn’t let me, though. But this is just my daytime outfit. At night I wear one of those black pullover sweaters that zips up to the chin.”

“Um,” I said, squinting at him. “I think you’ve lost me. What exactly is going on here?”

He looped he thumbs around his belt buckle and swayed on his feet. “Erica Bloom, you are looking at the newly instated CEO of Otter Lake Security.”

I cocked my head. “CEO of what now?”

“It’s my new job,” he said with a big smile.

“What? Why?” I couldn’t seem to uncock my head. “What happened to Madame F?” Last time I had been in town, Freddie was telling fortunes on the Internet. He seemed to like it. Had an outfit for that job too.

“Oh, Madame F was my old life.” He waved a hand at the idea. “You knew I was thinking along these lines, especially after we did such a good job solving Dickie’s murder.”

“Again, we didn’t really solve it.”

“Technicalities,” he said, blowing out a puff of air. “Anyway, the next logical step was to become a private eye.”

“Obviously.” I squinted at him again and said, “But I thought you were going to just become an author of private eye novels?”

A satisfied smile came over his face. “Why write about it, when you can do it?”

“O-kay,” I said, drawing out the word.

“Besides, there’s plenty of time to write about it in my memoirs later.”

“Of course.”

“Sadly, it turns out there’s a whole bunch of rules about becoming a private investigator.” He flared his nostrils with disgust. “Like work experience.”

“Right.”

“But it’s not like there were any private security companies around Otter Lake where I could apply for a job. Besides I don’t really see myself as an employee per se.”

I waited.

“So I started my own.”

“Really?” I asked, dropping my chin to my chest.

“Really.”

“You can just do that?”

“Well,” Freddie said, shaking his head and looking up at the sky, “Grady had some issues with it at first—maybe still has one or two—but he can’t fight the people, and the people love me.”

“He … he didn’t mention any of this on the phone, and since when do the people love you?”

“You don’t have to sound so surprised.”

“Sorry.”

He cut me a look. “Yeah, the town was so grateful that you and I solved Dickie’s murder that they thought the whole thing was a great idea.”

I scratched the side of my head just as a hand clapped me on the back. “Good to have you home, Erica,” said a booming male voice. I stumbled a step or two forward before I could turn to see a large man, trailing scents of nicotine and grease, walking past me with the flow of the crowd.

“See what I mean?” Freddie said.

“Was that Mr. Smith from the body shop?”

“It was. And notice how he didn’t call you Boobsie Bloom?”

“I don’t think he’s ever spoken to me.”

“That’s because before you were just the daughter of the wingy mom. The girl who flashed her boobs that one time at the Raspberry Social. You, not your mom, I mean.”

“Thanks. I remember.”

“Not that I’d put it past ol’ Summer. But she’d do it as a some sort of statement—Free the Turtles! They’ve suffered too long!” Freddie said putting a fist in the air. “I digress. The point is, now you’re a hero … or maybe sidekick is a more accurate term.” He waved a hand at me. “We can work all that out later.” Freddie turned to walk the midway and gestured for me to follow.

I skipped a few steps after him.

“So what do you think?” he asked when I caught up to him.

It seemed harmless enough. There really wasn’t much crime in Otter Lake, and it was probably good for Freddie to get out of the house—he had hermit tendencies. And yet the whole thing really did seem to have a reckless vibe to it. “I’m still trying to figure out what to say.”

“Just say you’re jealous. That always makes me feel good.”

“Who’s paying you to do all this?”

“The town! Haven’t you been listening? Towns hire private security all the time.” Suddenly Freddie moved quickly to step in front of a teenage boy. The kid stopped in his tracks, looking mildly concerned. Freddie pointed to an empty french fry carton lying in the dirt a few feet behind the kid. The teen held his gaze for a moment, then turned, picked it up, and threw it in the trash can. Freddie gave him a nod then walked back over to me, holding his stern face. As he got closer, I watched him close his eyes and whisper, “Power.” He then flashed me a smile, and we continued walking.

“Well,” I said, somewhat surprised to feel a smile spread across my face, “this is not at all what I expected, but … I’m happy for you, Freddie.”

“You are?”

“Yeah.” I really was too. This wasn’t a bad surprise at all.

“You’re not going to be all stressed out and concerned?”

“No.” I felt my eyebrows instantly try to furrow, but I told them to stand down. “Why would I be?”

“Because it’s what you do.”

“Okay, I’ll admit I stumbled a little when you brought up the whole surprise thing,” I said, finding my smile again. “But really, since last visit, I don’t worry as much as I used to. I’ve resolved a lot of my stuff. The Erica you’re thinking of is the old Erica.”

“I thought the old Erica was the new Erica who came back to town last time, all responsible and grown up.”

I looked up to the bright-blue sky and shook my head. “We both know that wasn’t sustainable. But what I can do is stay out of trouble. And maybe not expect the worst all the time. This surprise of yours proves it. I have come to realize that perhaps I have a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to stress. At times I might even have a temper when, you know, people I love are threatened.”

“Yeah, your bar fight at the Salty Dawg last visit really made that clear.”

I ignored him. “Last visit? I still had a lot of stuff to work out. I couldn’t really be myself.” I shrugged. “But this visit, I’m just going with the flow. Enjoy myself. Everything is falling into place. The trial is all wrapped up. My mother is busy with a retreat this week, and she doesn’t need me to help out—Ooh, caramel apples!” I moved over to the booth and pulled some money out of my pocket to hand over to the vendor before grabbing one. “And then there’s Gr—”

Suddenly Freddie slapped me on the arm.

“Ow,” I said. “You almost made me drop my apple!”

“What is wrong with you?”

“What?” I asked too sharply, knitting my brow. I wasn’t so much annoyed with Freddie, though. I couldn’t undo the tape holding the cellophane around my apple, and the delay in my gratification was starting to get to me.

Freddie sliced the air in front of him with his hands. “Okay, from now on the number four is completely off limits.”

I looked up from my puzzle apple and blinked. “I’m sorry?”

“Maybe six too.”

“Again,” I said, turning an ear toward him, “I’m sorry?”

Freddie grabbed my apple and ripped off the plastic. I smiled and snatched it back.

“You just can’t be saying that kind of stuff like that.”

I gave him a look that I hoped spoke to the fact that I still wasn’t following.

Everything’s going my way,” he said, mock-waving his hands in the air. “This week’s going to be perfect. I may have to call my grandmother. She knows more about this kind of thing.”

“What are you going on about?”

“You can’t say that stuff out loud,” Freddie said, throwing his hands into the air. “You’re just asking to be smacked down by whatever powers that be.”

“Whatever,” I said, smiling and rolling my eyes. “I’m not superstitious.”

“Look,” Freddie said, with a sharp point. “There’s a ladder over there against that shed. Why don’t you go walk under it? Or maybe we should find you a black cat you can cross paths with.”

“Okay, which superstitions are we following here?”

“All of them!”

“Just settle down, you,” I said, linking my arm through his. “Nothing’s going to ruin this week.”

“Making it worse.” He yanked his arm back. “And stop it. I’m working, and we are not touching friends.” He made a strange sound of disgust at the back of his throat. “Happy Erica is weird.”

“Oh relax,” I said. “I believe in free agency. I make my own destiny. I don’t believe in bad luc—”

Suddenly a scream cut me off. A scream that stood out from all the others coming from the rides.

Freddie snapped his head around like a retriever after a gunshot. “What about now? Can you hear me now?”

***

Copyright © 2016 Auralee Wallace.

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Auralee Wallace is the author of the Otter Lake Mystery series which includes Skinny Dipping with Murder. She has played many roles in her life, including college professor, balloon seller, and collections agent. When this semi-natural blonde mother of three children (and psychiatric nurse to two rescue cats) isn't writing humorous novels about quirky characters, she can often be found pontificating about the Golden Age of soap operas or warring with a family of peregrine falcons for the rights to her backyard.

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