A cold wind is blowing off Lake Michigan, and murder is scaring the dickens out of everyone . . .
Considering her name, Marlee Jacob is an obvious choice for the role of Jacob Marley in Oriole Point’s production of A Christmas Carol. It’s just sad that the role has opened up because of the death of the elderly actor who’d originally been cast.
But Marlee, the proprietor of The Berry Basket, will do her best to keep spirits high—that is, until clues start mounting that there’s danger behind the scenes. There are accidents on set, the tree in the village square topples over, and worst of all, a body is found with a sprig of holly draped over it. If Marlee can’t wrap up the case, she may not have a berry merry Christmas . . .
Includes Berry Recipes!
Release date: September 29, 2020
Print pages: 288
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I looked up to see Gillian Kaminski beside me. My friend looked too unhappy for someone surrounded by choo choo trains and toy Alpine villages.
“Don’t get emotional about it.” I smiled. “Jacob Marley’s been dead for about a hundred and seventy years. Also he’s a fictional character.” I returned my attention to the Lionel train chugging along on the table before me. Every few seconds, the green-and-silver train emitted a charming whistle as smoke plumed from its stack.
I didn’t add that I had been named after this character by my Dickens-loving mother. Like everyone else in Oriole Point, Gillian knew how I came by my name.
“You don’t understand,” Gillian said. “It’s the old guy who plays Marley in the annual A Christmas Carol.”
This time I gave her a closer look. She wasn’t joking. “Everett Hostetter?”
“Yes. I discovered him sitting on a bench near the restroom. And I think he’s dead. But I can’t find anyone who works here.” She scanned the crowd. “Where’s Kit?”
“I introduced him to the president of the local model-train club. They went upstairs to check out the German antique trains. I’ll run up there and get him.”
“We don’t have time for that.” Gillian grabbed my arm.
She pulled me past the toy train layouts blanketing the Victorian house that had long been Oriole Point’s Historical Museum. Once we reached the foyer, Gillian hustled me to the back of the building, It was almost closing time, with visitors making their way to the exit. Perhaps no one but Gillian had discovered the body so far.
As soon as we came to the end of the corridor, I saw the figure of an old man slumped forward on a walnut bench. I’d been in the museum enough times to know the bench was a replica of a Civil War–era piece on display in a roped-off room upstairs.
Gillian finally let go of my arm. “Is he dead?” she whispered.
I knelt before the motionless figure. No doubt Gillian viewed me as an expert on this subject. I had been close to more than one dead body this past year.
“Mr. Hostetter?” I asked in a loud voice.
Now that I was right in front of him, I could confirm that it was indeed Everett Hostetter. His head lolled to the side, eyes closed, as if he were napping. I put my hand an inch away from his lips, but felt no breath leave his body.
Next, I took his wrist. As I feared, he had no pulse. Because he felt warm to the touch, I guessed he had died within the hour. Maybe as recently as a few minutes ago.
To be certain, I placed my hand over his chest, searching for a heartbeat. I turned to Gillian, who hopped from one foot to the other.
“Call 911,” I told her. “I’m afraid he’s gone.”
“How awful!” Behind her wire-rim glasses, Gillian’s blue eyes filled with tears. “The poor man came here tonight to look at trains and now he’s dead. It doesn’t seem fair.”
Death rarely was, but this wasn’t the time to remind Gillian of it. “Call 911,” I repeated. “Then go to the back parlor where the big Santa trains are set up. That’s the last place I saw Diane Cleverly. She may still be there. As head curator, she needs to know ASAP.”
Gillian pulled out her cell phone and hurried off.
Unlike Gillian, I was not unduly upset. Not only had I been in proximity to death several times, but Everett had had a good long run. He must have been at least ninety.
I took out my own cell phone and texted Kit. In addition to being a toy train hobbyist, my boyfriend was also an investigative detective with the sheriff’s department. He would know how best to proceed with reporting Hostetter’s death. Although I hated to spoil Kit’s fun.
While I knew Kit loved trains, I had not been prepared for his exuberant delight at the sight of so many toy trains. I was glad I’d suggested we come to the opening day of the museum’s toy train exhibit, even though we had to wait until our workdays ended.
Since Gillian worked for me at The Berry Basket, she overheard our plans and asked to come along. I had no idea Gillian was a toy collector, with Thomas the Tank Engine being her longtime favorite. Thankfully, the museum stayed open until seven on Wednesdays, and she eagerly accompanied us after we closed the shop.
I spent the first hour as a captive audience to Kit’s tutorial about HO scale trains versus O scale trains. Not being his girlfriend, Gillian felt free to wander off on her own. While the train trivia was interesting, I was happy to hand Kit off to the president of the Lake Michigan Model Train Club. As fun as toy trains were, the elaborate layouts and miniature villages intrigued me far more. I’d also discovered the urn of hot cocoa and peppermint cake pops the museum put out for visitors. The evening had gone quite well.
Until Gillian found a dead body.
I straightened the collar of Hostetter’s wool coat. It had been left unbuttoned. Leather gloves lay on his lap. Hostetter didn’t look as if he had been about to leave the museum. Maybe he came here to use the bathroom, located just around the corner from the bench. And as an older gentleman, he probably felt the need to sit and rest.
Placing my hands on the bench, I used it as a support to stand up. This movement disturbed the folds of his coat, which sent one of his gloves to the floor. When I bent down to retrieve it, I spied a gingerbread man cookie on the floor. Or rather pieces of one. Crumbs and cookie fragments lay scattered on the polished wood planks.
I swept the pieces up in my hand. Not seeing a trash can, I dropped the cookie pieces into my jacket pocket.
A woman and little girl emerged from the restroom. Both looked startled by the sight of the motionless Everett.
“Mom, what’s wrong with the man?” the girl asked.
The woman exchanged worried glances with me. I gave a small shake of my head, replying, “He’s taking a nap. We should be quiet and let him sleep.”
The girl pointed at the floor. “He dropped his bag.”
As the mother led her young daughter away, I looked beneath the bench and retrieved a white paper bag. It held two gingerbread man cookies studded with dried candy and trimmed with white frosting.
A closer examination of Everett’s face revealed cookie crumbs near his mouth. Given his age, a part of me envied Hostetter. I could think of worse ways to go than munching cookies as toy trains whistled from every corner.
Footsteps sounded on the wooden corridor. I looked up to see Kit striding toward me. “I got your text. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” I pointed at the lifeless body of Everett Hostetter. “But he isn’t.”
I moved aside to let Kit examine the body. A second later, Gillian and Diane Cleverly, the museum’s head curator, joined us.
Gillian still looked upset, while Diane appeared even more shaken. This surprised me. Diane was an elegant older woman who possessed a serene, unflappable temperament better suited to a Buddhist nun than a museum administrator.
“I’ve been expecting this.” Diane choked back a sob.
“Was he ill?” Kit asked her.
“Everett had health problems, but he rarely spoke about them. And he didn’t care for doctors.” Tears sprang to her eyes. “At least he had a chance to tour the exhibit with me tonight. Although he felt too tired to go upstairs. Considering his age, I should have paid more attention to that. Perhaps questioned him more closely.”
“Did he mention chest pains? Dizziness, maybe?” I asked.
She took a deep breath, struggling to get her emotions under control. “No. Only tiredness, which I understand. I’m seventy-six and in good shape. Still, there are days I feel like I’ve been around since the Great Flood. And Everett was much older.”
“He did seem spry,” I commented. “I rarely saw him use his cane.”
“Chalk that up to stubbornness and pride,” Diane said. “He should have used the cane, but he always pushed himself. And pushed other people, too.”
“How well did all of you know him?” Kit asked.
Diane rummaged in the pocket of her burgundy dress, taking out a tissue. “I met Everett when I was twenty-six, shortly after I earned my PhD in history.” She dabbed at her eyes. “My first position was archivist at one of Everett’s companies.”
“How many companies did he own?” I asked.
“A great number. Over the years, he sold off most of them. Three years ago, he accepted a buyout offer for the original company.” She regarded the dead man with affection. “Everyone feared him. Except me. Maybe that was why we got along.”
I’d always found Diane to be interesting, but now she intrigued me. I was seventeen when the museum board hired Diane as head curator, which was regarded as a real feather in our caps. Not many small regional museums boasted a newly retired history professor from MSU. One with critically acclaimed historical biographies to her credit.
I wondered about the relationship between Everett and Diane. As far as I knew, Everett was a bachelor. And Diane often spoke fondly of her husband, who died a decade ago. However, Everett came across as an unfriendly crank, while Diane Cleverly was one of the kindest, most charitable women I had ever known. What did these two dissimilar people have in common?
Kit looked at Gillian and me. “How about you two?”
“I knew who Everett Hostetter was,” I replied. “But I never had any interactions with him. I don’t think we ever exchanged a single word.”
“Same here,” Gillian said. “But everyone in town has read his cranky letters to the editor at the Herald.” Gillian’s father, Steven Kaminski, was the editor of the Oriole Point Herald, one of two weekly town newspapers. “Only he always signed his letters ‘A Disgruntled Citizen.’ ”
“Those Disgruntled Citizen letters were all from Everett?” I asked.
“Yes. Dad didn’t even print half of them. Mr. Hostetter never stopped being disgruntled.”
“Everett did tend to be overly critical,” Diane added.
“I recognize him as the guy who always plays Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol,” I said.
“Is this the production Oriole Point’s amateur theater group puts on at the Calico Barn?” Kit was a recent resident along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.
“They’re called the Green Willow Players,” I explained. “And A Christmas Carol has been one of their staples for decades. But Everett hasn’t always played Marley. Someone new usually appeared as Jacob Marley when I was a kid. It was only after I went off to college that Everett Hostetter moved here and took over the role.”
“Everett insisted on playing Marley,” Diane said.
“I wonder why he didn’t want the lead role,” I mused. “Scrooge is the bigger part.”
“To be honest, I don’t know how he found the energy to act in any role.” Diane sighed. “They even wrapped him in real chains. He rattled them as he walked about onstage. It’s a miracle he didn’t collapse during one of the performances.”
The distant sound of EMS sirens greeted our ears.
Kit stood up. “His next of kin need to be notified that his body has been taken to the hospital. Do you know who that would be?”
We all looked at Diane Cleverly, who said, “He lived with his nephew, Anthony Thorne. Their house is in the Vervain Grove subdivision, near the golf course.”
Gillian bit her lip. “What do you think he died of ?”
Diane, Kit, and I looked at each other. “He was an old man,” I said. “It was his time.”
The entry door to the museum opened as the EMS technicians arrived. When they rushed down the corridor toward us, nearby museum visitors reacted with surprise and alarm.
While the paramedics began their own examination, Diane cleared her throat.
“Everett’s nephew is here.” She nodded at the tall, stout man who paused in the museum’s open doorway. “He’s come to drive him home.”
“Anthony!” She waved to grab his attention.
Anthony Thorne walked over. “What’s going on, Diane? I’m here to pick up the old man, so I hope he’s ready to—”
He stopped in midsentence at the sight of his uncle surrounded by paramedics.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Thorne, but your uncle has died,” Kit said.
Anthony pushed past the paramedic team and shook the lifeless man. “Uncle Everett?”
“He’s gone.” Diane touched Anthony’s sleeve.
He seemed confused. “I don’t understand. He just died?”
“It happens, especially at this age,” a paramedic said. “He may have suffered sudden cardiac arrest, a stroke, even an aneurysm. How old was he?”
“Uncle Everett turned ninety-five last week,” Anthony said in a dazed voice.
The two paramedics exchanged knowing looks.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but he appeared fine when I left for work.” Anthony looked over at Diane. “He said you were going to drive him to the exhibit today. How did he seem?”
“Same as always. He even brought a last-minute checklist of things he wanted to go over.” Diane turned to us. “As our chief benefactor, Everett oversaw all museum business. He looked forward to this exhibit in particular.”
“I got a call from him earlier,” Anthony said. “He asked me to pick up crullers from the Drop Anchor Diner. They’re in the car. Uncle Everett loved his sugar. One thing we had in common.”
I held out the white paper bag I’d found on the floor. “It appears he was eating cookies when he passed away.”
“Do I look like I’m in the mood for cookies?” Anthony snapped. “Throw them away.”
Diane took the bag from me. “I’ll get rid of them.”
Up close, Anthony reminded me of a brown bear: big, lumbering, with a prominent nose. And quite hirsute. Looking at his thick brown hair and five-o’clock shadow, I guessed bristly hair also covered his chest and arms.
While Diane quietly spoke to Anthony, Kit informed the two EMTs that he worked for the sheriff’s department. The trio exchanged words I couldn’t overhear, except for the comment “It looks like a natural death.”
I gave an audible sigh of relief. I had seen far too much death recently, all of it unnatural. If the holiday season had to be marred with a passing, at least this time it wasn’t murder.
Maybe I had overdone the “deck the halls” bit this year. I turned in a circle, searching for empty wall space in my shop.
I looked down at the white flocked wreath dotted with red hollyberries and glass ornaments. “Where can I hang this?”
Dean Cabot marched out from behind the counter. “Give me the wreath.”
I handed it over. “Don’t you dare stick it in the back room. And be careful. Those ornaments are blown glass from Austria. I’m selling the wreath for a hundred and ten dollars.”
“Exactly. You’re selling it, unlike the Styrofoam candy canes by the bakery case, the framed vintage Christmas cards behind the ice cream counter, the sleigh bells by the jams, the ropes of garland covering up the last bit—”
“You made your point.” I stopped him before he could mention the seven-foot-tall spruce tree in the corner. “But you know I love to decorate for a holiday.”
“All too well. We could barely move in here at Halloween.” Dean rummaged through a drawer in the wooden hutch that displayed berry syrups, many of which I had created.
“Perhaps I had one too many hay bales in here, but customers love it when I decorate.”
“Aha!” Dean held up a silver wreath hanger. “I knew we had one left.”
He opened the door to The Berry Basket and slipped the wreath hanger over the top. After positioning the white wreath on the hanger, he bowed. “Voilà! And you’re welcome.”
I gave a nod of approval. “This is why I pay you the big bucks.”
“Yeah, right.” Dean straightened his blue chef apron. “You know I only work here for the gossip and my employee discount. Which comes in handy at Christmas. My cousins love our berry wines. Speaking of that, I need to finish unpacking the latest shipment of blackberry wine.”
As he returned to the boxes behind the counter, I looked up at my strawberry-shaped wall clock. Beside it hung a hand-painted sign saying WE WISH YOU A BERRY MERRY CHRISTMAS. We opened in fifteen minutes. Time enough to add one more festive touch.
Even though lights already twinkled along store shelves and the front window, I had special-ordered a string of Christmas lights in the shape of hollyberries. They arrived before I left the house this morning. How could I not find room for that in The Berry Basket?
After all, Oriole Point lay smack in the middle of west Michigan’s fruit belt. And my shop specialized in all things berry related: berry jams, jellies, wines, salsas, vinegars, pastries, baking mixes, teas and coffees, as well as dinner sets decorated with berries, aprons, berry cookbooks, strawberry hullers, and much, much more. I also hosted berry-themed events, which prompted a glance at the wooden table by the window.
Spaced out over the red tablecloth were jars of berry jam, covered baskets of crackers and crumpets, small serving plates, and silver spreaders. I had scheduled a free jam tasting at eleven.
“Best get these up before customers start to arrive.” I sat cross-legged on the floor and began to remove the lights from their box.
“You’re incorrigible. I’m shocked you haven’t hired someone to play Santa in the shop.”
“Despite the sarcasm, that’s not a bad idea. At least for the weekend Hollyberry Festival. Santa always draws customers with children. And I can give away the blueberry lollipops we sell. I also saw a Santa suit at the secondhand shop.”
“Why didn’t I keep my mouth shut?” Dean shook his head.
“But I’d have to scramble at this late date to hire someone to play Santa.”
“Don’t look at me. And Andrew will be busy overacting in A Christmas Carol.”
“You’re both too young and snarky to pull it off. What about Gareth Holmes?”
“The guy who carves duck decoys?”
“Yes. He’s always in a good mood. And he has a bushy white beard.” The more I thought about it, the better this sounded. During lunch, I’d run over to the secondhand shop and snap up that Santa suit. Gareth seemed amiable, so I was sure he’d agree to play Santa.
“He does look like Kris Kringle,” Dean said. “Even his cheeks are ruddy.”
The shop door opened, letting in both a blast of wintry air and Gillian.
“Hi, girl,” I said. “You do know you’re not on the schedule today.”
Because Gillian was on college break, she was available to work during the week, something she normally did only in the summer.
Gillian shut the door behind her. “I had to warn you about A Christmas Carol.” She took a deep breath. “That play is cursed. Just like the barn.”
Dean and I exchanged confused glances. “Is this about Everett Hostetter dying?” he asked. “Marlee told me what happened last night at the museum.”
“The man was in his nineties,” I reminded her. “It was old age, not a curse.”
“You don’t know the whole story.” Gillian sat down at one of the bistro tables by our ice cream counter. “Andrew texted me an hour ago and asked me to come to the Calico Barn as soon as I could. Suzanne called the whole theater group in for an emergency meeting.”
Andrew Cabot, my remaining Berry Basket clerk and Dean’s younger brother, had been cast in the production of A Christmas Carol. No surprise there. His mother, Suzanne Cabot, a longtime member of the Green Willow Players, had snagged the director’s job this season. This no doubt played a factor in Andrew landing the role of Ebenezer’s nephew.
“The actors probably learned about Hostetter’s death this morning,” I speculated. “Since you were the one to find him, did they ask for details?”
“No. They wanted me to join the cast.” Gillian yanked off her white wool cap, sending a mass of wavy blond hair tumbling about her shoulders. She looked at Dean. “Your mother was quite upset when I got there.”
He shrugged. “Mom’s always upset.”
“With reason this time. She’d just heard about Everett’s death and had a panic attack. Your brother had to give her extra Valium.”
Dean snickered. “Next Christmas I should buy Mom a fainting couch. One for Andrew, too.”
Not a bad idea. Andrew and Dean Cabot were prone to drama and exaggeration. They came by it naturally. Their mother was not only a member of our amateur theater troupe, she was the receptionist at the police station, where she had a front-row seat for every crime and misdemeanor in town.
“Was Suzanne fond of Everett Hostetter?” I asked Gillian.
“I have no idea. But she is upset a cast member died the first time she’d been asked to direct a production. Especially this cast member.”
“Hostetter didn’t seem like a warm, fuzzy fellow,” I observed.
“Mom didn’t care for him,” Dean said. “He criticized everyone, including her. However, Hostetter was the Green Willow Players’ biggest donor. For the past nine years, the group hasn’t made a move without his approval. They depend on his money to keep them afloat, Especially with the mortgage payments on the Calico Barn.”
“I always thought the theater group should have rented the barn, not bought it outright,” I said. “Real estate is so pricey along the lakeshore.”
“That’s why everyone there kowtowed to Hostetter,” Dean said. “And he threatened to withhold his sponsorship of the theater group if he didn’t play Jacob Marley every year.”
“When did Jacob Marley become such a sought-after role? I could see wanting to play Ebenezer, but Marley?” I frowned. “And Suzanne has to stop overreacting to everything.”
“There’s more,” Gillian said. “Suzanne freaked out because she’s now lost two actors.”
Alarmed, I looked up from the tangled lights. “Another actor died?”
“Don’t say such a terrible thing!” Gillian said. “No. They rushed Andrea Shipman to the hospital last night with a burst appendix.”
Our town was small enough that I knew Andrea Shipman was the twentysomething daughter of Oriole Point’s favorite plumber and the middle school art teacher.
“Poor girl,” I said. “That t. . .
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