Trumpet of Death by Cynthia Riggs is the 13th book in the Martha’s Vineyard Mystery series (available April 25, 2017).
When 92-year-old poet/sleuth Victoria Trumbull takes her city-bred tenant Zack Zeller on a nature walk on one of Martha’s Vineyard’s conservation areas and shows him a mushroom she calls black trumpet of death, he’s sure he's found the way to rid himself of his troublesome girlfriend, Samantha. But the mushrooms he's given Samantha end up on her daddy's dinner table, and Zack, one of the invited guests, is sure he’s doomed the diners to an untimely death.
Meanwhile, dead bodies are cropping up on the Island. The police have questions about the identity of the culprit and call upon Victoria Trumbull, who knows the Island and its inhabitants intimately. Will she be able to find the truth and clear the name of someone close to her before the murderer finds its next victim?
Victoria Trumbull rapped on the door to the stairway that led up to the small attic room above the kitchen. She’d rented the room to a nice young man from off-Island named Zack Zeller. She heard a sleepy grunt. The bed groaned, footsteps shuffled across the squeaky old floorboards, and he trudged down the steep stairs, scratching his bare chest with one hand, and rubbing sleep out of his eyes with the other.
“Ma’am?” he asked, politely covering a yawn. He was carrying his cell phone.
“Can you give me a ride to Sachem’s Rock, Zack?”
He glanced at his phone. “Now?” He covered another yawn. “It’s not even six.”
“We won’t have many more days like this,” said Victoria.
Zack looked at his watch again. “I got to be at work by noon.”
“We’ll be back before then.” Victoria glanced at him. She couldn’t fathom why Elizabeth, her granddaughter, had been so negative about him. Elizabeth was usually a good judge of people.
“Well, sure, Mrs. Trumbull.” Zack yawned again, too polite to protest further. “It’ll take me a couple minutes to get dressed.” He stumbled back up the stairs to his room.
It was a perfect day for a walk, and ninety-two-year-old Victoria Trumbull had set a goal of walking one of the Island’s trails every week. Her problem today had been transportation. Casey, as the village police chief was known, wasn’t available to give her a ride today.
By the time she’d packed a modest breakfast picnic in a brown paper bag, Zack was back down, ducking his head under the low doorway.
He helped her into his car, a typical Island car held together with duct tape, its frayed ends drooping in the still morning air.
“Do you know the way?” Victoria asked.
He shook his head. “You’ll have to show me. I been meaning to get there one of these days.” He backed out of his spot under the great Norway maple at the end of the drive and turned onto the Edgartown Road.
To their left, the early fall crop of hay lay drying in Doane’s pasture. The air smelled of fallen leaves and plants settling themselves in for winter.
In the Mill Pond next to the police station, a pair of swans fed. Three of their cygnets had survived the depredations of the snapping turtles and sailed along close to their parents, almost full-grown now.
The entrance to Sachem’s Rock, the two-hundred-acre conservation area, was about four miles from Victoria’s house. Zack parked. The sun was almost above the treetops now and the morning was beginning to warm. Victoria slipped off her heavy sweater.
They started out on the path that lay next to the marsh, where the grasses, stirred by a light breeze, were russet and tan waves.
“September is so rich and productive,” Victoria said when they stopped the first time to let her catch her breath. “A good time of year to find mushrooms.”
They set off again quietly, listening to the rustle of chewinks in the underbrush, the cawing of crows in the distance.
“I guess you know mushrooms pretty well,” he said after a while. They’d stopped again.
“I know which ones not to eat.” Victoria smiled at him.
“I guess so,” said Zack.
The path wound up a gentle slope that led to a growth of tall oaks and beech. They paused at the top of the hill. Victoria leaned on her lilac wood stick.
“I don’t know anything about mushrooms,” said Zack.
“The Island is a mushroom hunter’s paradise. We have more than two hundred different species.”
“Wow,” said Zack.
“We’ll probably see some common ones today. Maybe chanterelles, boletes, amanitas. Amanitas are deadly.”
“You mean, they kill you?”
“Yes, if you’re foolish enough to eat them.”
“South Boston, where I come from, Mrs. Trumbull, the only mushrooms I seen come in blue cardboard boxes.”
“When you gather wild mushrooms you do need to be careful.” Victoria nudged an acorn out of the path with her stick. “Several species are quite poisonous.”
“Yeah?” asked Zack. “Several kinds?”
“Yes, indeed. You need to know what you’re looking for.” She leaned on her stick. “If we’re lucky, we may find black trumpets.”
“They’re also called trumpets of death,” said Victoria. “Old-timers thought the trumpet-shaped mushrooms were played by dead people buried beneath them.”
Zack bent down, picked a grass stem, and stuck it into his mouth. “Creepy.”
“They’re difficult to spot unless you’re knowledgeable, and, of course, I never pick them.”
“Why not?” asked Zack.
“They’re quite rare.” Victoria leaned on her stick. “If you can find them in a specialty store, they’re very expensive.”
“I guess so,” said Zack.
“Elizabeth doesn’t care much for mushrooms.”
In the silence that followed, they heard the occasional croak of a frog in the marsh below. Another acorn dropped onto the ground. Under a pine tree Victoria pointed out a patch of chubby mushrooms that looked like miniature hamburger buns on fat stems.
“Boletes,” she said. “Delicious.”
“I don’t much like mushrooms,” said Zack. “Me and Elizabeth agree on that.”
They continued walking. Exposed roots knotted the path. Victoria stopped every once in a while to poke through the vegetation below the oaks with her stick.
At one of their stops, Zack asked, “Are you looking for those black ones?”
Victoria was glad to have an excuse to rest. The day was quite warm. “They usually grow under oak or beech trees.”
“Death trumpets.” Zack scratched his stubbly beard. “I guess you want to be careful if you find them.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Victoria. “You don’t want people picking them.”
They walked on, Victoria stopped to run her stick through the fallen oak leaves. Zack watched, hands in his pockets.
“How’s your girlfriend?” Victoria asked at one point when they’d stopped. “Samantha, isn’t it?”
Zack pulled the grass stem he’d been chewing away from his mouth and tossed it aside. “It’s over, far as I’m concerned.”
“What a shame. She seems like a nice girl.”
“She seemed nice to me, too, at first.” Zack took a deep breath. “It’s over. She don’t think so, though.”
“I’m sorry,” said Victoria.
“There’s other girls around,” said Zack.
The next time they stopped, Victoria bent down. “Look! There they are.” She pointed to a dark patch among the oak leaves.
Zack stared at what she was pointing to. “All I see is dried-up brown leaves.”
“Look straight down. See? They look a bit like black flowers.” She pushed the leaves aside.
Zack leaned down, hands on his knees.
Nestled in a clump of leaves was a bouquet of black, ruffled, trumpet-shaped mushrooms, each one only a couple of inches tall.
He looked up at Victoria. “Those are black trumpets?”
Victoria nodded. “Yes. This is a wonderful find.”
“Black trumpets of death?” He stared at them.
“An evil-sounding name for such delightful mushrooms,” said Victoria.
Zack stood up straight. “I sure won’t let people know what we found. Wow! Trumpets of death.”
* * *
After supper, Elizabeth lit the fire, their first of the season. Earlier, in anticipation of a cool evening, she’d laid the fire with twists of newspaper, scraps of shingles, and topped with seasoned logs. When she touched a match to the paper, it caught with a satisfying blaze. Soon the dry wood snapped with a comfortable sound, sending up showers of sparks. She replaced the fire screen and hung the tongs on the hook below the mantel.
“It’s really too warm for a fire,” she said to her grandmother. “I’d better open the window.”
“I’ve always liked a fire on the hearth,” Victoria replied. “Even on a warm night.”
Elizabeth propped the window sash open with a beach stone kept on the sill for that purpose and settled on the sofa near Victoria, who was in her usual mouse-colored wing chair.
The evening breeze blew through the west window, billowing out the sheer curtains.
Two glasses of cranberry juice and rum were on the coffee table. Victoria reached for one and took a sip.
“That hits the spot.”
“How was your walk this morning with my friend Zack?” Elizabeth asked.
“We had a lovely time.” Victoria set her glass down. “I found a patch of black trumpets of death. Despite their name, they’re a delicacy and have a pleasing, rich flavor, something like truffles. Zack seemed quite interested.”
Elizabeth said nothing. She picked up her glass.
“I don’t know why you have such an aversion to him,” said Victoria. “He has nice manners.”
“That’s about all.”
“What is it that you don’t like about him?”
Elizabeth set down the glass. “He’s either awfully stupid or is high on something.” She shifted around on the sofa with its prickly horsehair stuffing. “Probably both.”
“You’re not being fair to him.”
“Much as I love you, Gram, I think you are blind when it comes to nice-looking bad boys.”
Victoria laughed. “Bad boys have always appealed to me.”
The sound of intermittent traffic on the Edgartown Road was interrupted by the distinctive low rumble of the town’s fire truck. Elizabeth stood up and looked out the window. “It’s heading west, up Island.”
“It’s likely a chimney fire,” said Victoria. “People forget to have their chimneys cleaned before they light the season’s first fire.”
Elizabeth returned to her seat. “Did you find anything interesting on your walk besides the trumpets of death? I’d never think of those as being edible. I hope you didn’t bring any home with you.”
A siren sounded in the distance, coming toward them from the direction of Edgartown. In moments, a fire engine passed and the sound of the siren receded.
“A second engine. More than a chimney fire,” said Elizabeth.
“We’ll find out soon enough,” said Victoria.
McCavity, Victoria’s marmalade cat, strode into the room, stretched, front paws out, hind quarters up, yawned, and lay down, soft belly fur to the warmth.
“I hope it’s not serious, although with a second engine responding it doesn’t sound good.” Elizabeth got up and added another log to the fire. “Was Zack interested in the mushrooms?”
“He was interested in the trumpets of death, but otherwise didn’t seem to care much about mushrooms in general,” Victoria answered.
“The only smart thing I’ve ever heard about him.”
Copyright © 2017 Cynthia Riggs.
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Cynthia Riggs is the author of more than a dozen books in the Martha’s Vineyard mystery series featuring 92-year-old poet, Victoria Trumbull, a guidebook called Victoria Trumbull’s Martha’s Vineyard, and the first book of a new series set in Washington, DC. She was born on Martha’s Vineyard and is the eighth generation to live in her family homestead which she runs as a bed and breakfast catering to poets, writers, and other creative people. She lives in West Tisbury, Massachusetts.