Maple Syrup Mysteries Box Set 2: Books 4-6, p.1
Maple Syrup Mysteries Box Set 2
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Also by Emily James
Murder on Tap
Bonus Recipe: Hot Mess Butter Tarts
BONUS RECIPE: Microwave Maple Syrup Candies
BONUS RECIPE: Traveler’s Maple Syrup Cheesecake
Tapped Out: Maple Syrup Mysteries Book 7
Letter from the Author
About the Author
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Copyright © 2018 by Emily James
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author. It’s okay to quote a small section for a review or in a school paper. To put this in plain language, this means you can’t copy my work and profit from it as if it were your own. When you copy someone’s work, it’s stealing. No one likes a thief, so don’t do it. Pirates are not nearly as cool in real life as they are in fiction.
For permission requests, write to the author at the address below.
This is a work of fiction. I made it up. You are not in my book. I probably don’t even know you. If you’re confused about the difference between real life and fiction, you might want to call a counselor rather than a lawyer because names, characters, places, and incidents in this book are a product of my twisted imagination. Real locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, and institutions is completely coincidental.
Editor: Christopher Saylor at www.saylorediting.wordpress.com/services/
Cover Design: Deranged Doctor Design at www.derangeddoctordesign.com
Published January 2018 by Stronghold Books
Also by Emily James
Maple Syrup Mysteries
Sapped: A Maple Syrup Mysteries Prequel
A Sticky Inheritance
Murder on Tap
End of the Line (coming February 2018)
For my readers. Your encouragement and excitement make these stories an adventure to be shared. Without you, I’d be some weird lady who spends all day with her imaginary friends.
“A lie may take care of the present, but it has no future.”
From thirty feet away, I couldn’t tell if Drew Harris was carving his initials into one of my trees or emptying his bladder on it. I never would have admitted it, but I was hoping for the latter. My sugar maples took forty years to mature before we could tap them for syrup. The thought of him needlessly vandalizing one made my stomach clench.
Despite what it looked like, I doubted Drew would damage one of my trees. I’d hired him to photograph Sugarwood so we’d be able to spruce up our website and create fresh promotional material. So far, Drew had shown himself to be not only talented but also professional, despite looking young enough to be barely able to vote. Or shave.
His girlfriend-assistant was another matter. She was the reason I’d left the rest of the people on the tour I was leading so that I could follow Drew out into the woods alone. Yesterday, in the sugar shack, she would have burned her hand in a vat of boiling sap, trying to taste it, if Stacey, my mechanic, hadn’t stopped her. Today, the girl decided to try to juggle snowballs and accidentally smacked one of my horses in the face with one, spooking him. He’d narrowly avoided trampling a paying guest.
It had to stop. All the pictures in the world wouldn’t matter if his girlfriend hurt herself or someone else and they sued me.
But before I could find a way to gently suggest he leave her at home next time, I had to figure out a way to get him to turn around without catching a look at any part of his anatomy I didn’t want to see.
I tightened my scarf around my neck and cleared my throat. “Drew?”
He held up a finger and stayed facing away from me.
Uncomfortable heat crept up the back of my neck, and I backed up a step. Really, there were certain times a person shouldn’t be interrupted. My request could wait.
Drew squatted down. With the new angle, I could see that his hands were busy with his camera rather than his…something else.
He rose to his feet and turned to me, a grin on his face. “It took me a bit to figure out the best angle for the lighting.” He waved me over and held up his camera. “But you’re going to love this.”
The image on the screen was of a knot shaped like a heart, the light gray-brown bark curling around it perfectly to make it look like it’d been stamped deeply into the tree.
It’d be ideal for mugs or postcards or advertising a special Valentine’s event or sale on maple products.
A weight settled in my chest. He was one of the best photographers I’d ever seen. If I asked him not to bring his girlfriend, or assistant, or whatever she was, around anymore, he might very well quit. Especially if she was his girlfriend. No sane man would risk making a woman he loved angry at him just to keep a job. I wasn’t paying him well enough for that.
And he had to love her, or he wouldn’t keep bringing her along with him. She didn’t even know enough about photography to
Maybe I could simply keep a closer watch on her rather than risk losing him as a photographer. Did they make those arm-band leashes for adults?
He clicked away from the image. “If you don’t like it, I can focus on a different kind of shot.”
His voice had the same awkward wounded tone to it that I used to hear in my best friend Ahanti’s voice when one of her clients didn’t like the tattoo she’d designed for them.
He must have misinterpreted my expression as disappointment with the image. “I do love it. I’m—”
“Riley?” The woman’s voice carried through the trees from the direction of the sleigh and horses where we’d left the rest of the tour group. It had a panicky edge to it.
I spun away from Drew and jogged back toward the clearing. Next season, we were hiring a new tour guide. Wrangling guests was like herding cats. I wasn’t cut out for it. This was more stressful than speaking in front of a jury.
I burst into the clearing where I’d stopped the sleigh. It was a scheduled stop in a clearing set up to show how sap collection techniques had changed over the years from wooden buckets and spouts carved by hand to the plastic tubing system we currently used.
At first glance, everything looked okay. The horses hadn’t trampled anyone, and Drew’s girlfriend sat in the sleigh, leaning left and right with her phone held in the air with one white-and-blue gloved hand like she was at a concert. I might have laughed at the sight if I wasn’t so grateful the spotty signal was keeping her out of trouble.
I took a head count of the other eight people on the tour. The man who came with his teenage daughter and the couple in their sixties stood on the far side of the clearing as if they’d been reading the laminated historical tidbits on the display trees. All good there.
But the couple with two kids stood off to one side, closer to the horses, the dad holding their two-year-old boy in his arms and the mom turning in circles.
“Riley?” she called again, louder this time.
Their five-year-old daughter wasn’t with them.
Crap! The late March weather had warmed up compared to January and early February, but not enough that a child could be lost in the woods overnight without hypothermia.
My stomach coiled into a Slinky loop. Don’t panic, Nicole. You’re the one in charge.
The mother must have spotted me because she beelined for me, her hands outstretched like she thought I might have a secret potion to make her daughter appear. “We were petting the horses, and when we turned around, she was gone.”
My mom used to say that you could calm a frantic client by using their name. It helped establish trust. I search my memory for the woman’s name. We weren’t too far apart in age, and we’d chatted for a few minutes before the tour started while waiting for the rest of the registrants. She’d been telling me that this was their first time touring Sugarwood with the kids. Her husband had booked the tour that morning from work and called her as a surprise, saying Riley was finally old enough to appreciate the sleigh ride.
“Don’t worry, Kristen.” I squeezed one of the hands she held out to me. “She can’t be far. We’ll split up and look for her. If someone doesn’t find her in five minutes, I’ll call in help. Okay?”
My voice didn’t give away how close to throwing up I felt. I split everyone up and sent them off in a starburst pattern, with instructions to walk in a straight line for five minutes and then follow their footprints back. The last thing I needed was for another person to get lost in the woods.
The older man hung back as the others set off. He was only a few inches taller than I was, and the wind had blown his thinning hair up so that the top of his head made me think of a hedgehog curling into a ball. I wouldn’t have minded curling up into a ball myself right about now.
“We want to help find the little girl,” he said, “but I can’t leave my wife.”
His hands were jammed hard in his pockets and his shoulders hunched. He didn’t look back in his wife’s direction, but she was watching us, so it was a safe bet she knew what he was talking to me about. She had her purple scarf wrapped around her head, protecting her ears like she was ready to trudge out into the woods.
Perhaps this was a health thing. When my grandfather developed diabetes, he’d also ended up with diabetic neuropathy, where he didn’t have complete feeling in his feet. It caused him to stumble. He hadn’t felt comfortable walking anywhere alone after that. If one of them had a similar medical condition, they didn’t need to feel like they had to explain their private business to me.
And I certainly wasn’t going to order them to split up if they felt uncomfortable doing it. This tour was already turning out to be a liability waiting to happen.
“No problem,” I said. “There are enough of us that we’re almost overlapping anyway. You two can stick together.”
He left with a nod, and I hustled off in the direction assigned to me. Off in the distance, I could already hear others from the group calling out Riley’s name. I called out as well and kept my gaze on the ground, watching for anything that could be a footprint.
The calls of the others faded slightly, and the coil in my stomach tightened. If someone didn’t find her, we’d need a bigger search group—fast. The sun was already setting.
I pulled out my cell and turned back even though I hadn’t gone the full five minutes I instructed everyone else to travel. The clearing where I’d parked the sleigh was my best chance for a cell signal. As soon as my cell picked up, I’d call the police. Better to bring them out on a false alarm than regret not calling them sooner.
A sharp wind bit into my cheeks, and I couldn’t hold back the shiver. On second thought, I wasn’t going to wait to find a cell signal. I’d use my walkie-talkie to call Russ back at the office. That meant any Sugarwood employee near a receiver would hear me, and the rumor that we’d lost a child would be all over Fair Haven before supper, but in this case, that might work in our favor if we did need more bodies to hunt for Riley.
I pressed the button on my walkie-talkie, then let it go. We didn’t need more negative press for Sugarwood right now. People were still talking over the events of last month, and it’d shown in our decreased tour bookings. If Riley turned up, I’d have hurt our reputation again for nothing.
Instead of asking Russ to call the police, I could ask him to call Erik or Elise. Since they were my friends as well as members of Fair Haven’s police force, Russ might get the message without everyone listening understanding what I was really asking for.
“Russ? I need you to contact Erik or Elise for me. Over.”
His chuckle came through the walkie-talkie before his words. “You haven’t found another body have you? Over.”
Russ’ current way of dealing with the loss of two of his friends within six months of each other was to completely deny he needed to deal with it. He didn’t like to talk about it at all except to joke about how I seemed to constantly stumble upon corpses.
That wasn’t the case this time, but he had taken away any chance of me being subtle. “No one’s been hurt. We have a missing girl.”
I stepped back into the clearing and checked my cell. Still no signal. I held it up in the air the way Drew’s girlfriend had been doing, but it didn’t help. It’d been the right move to call Russ on the walkie-talkie rather than wait.
A black box at the base of one of the nearby trees caught my attention. It hadn’t been there before we left. I turned for a better look.
I could hear Russ saying something to me from the walkie-talkie, but all I could think about was that Drew had the camera with him when he left the clearing. And that he’d never leave his camera lying in the snow. While I wasn’t sure how much it was worth, professional cameras had to cost at least a few thousand. No one left expensive electronics sitting alone in the snow.
My throat felt tight and stiff, like cement hardening. Thi
If something had happened, better I find him than the teenage girl or the father carrying his child. Either of them could return any minute now. Any of the tour guests could.
I tugged on the cuffs of my gloves, tried—and failed—to draw in a deep breath, and moved around the wagon.
Drew lay in the snow next to his camera, a stainless steel sap spout in his temple.
Drew’s empty eyes stared unblinkingly at me. Checking his pulse wouldn’t make any difference. He was gone.
I couldn’t possibly be this unlucky.