This October in Celebration Bay, you can’t swing a black cat without hitting a haunted house. There are three finalists in the contest for the town’s official Haunted House, and ten thousand dollars will go to the winner, with the rest of the contributions and proceeds funding a new community center. Event coordinator Liv Montgomery has invited her friend Jonathan Preston, the debonair CEO of a philanthropic organization, hoping he will award a grant to the center.
But after the Museum of Yankee Horrors wins first place, the transformed Victorian boarding house is vandalized...and among scattered mannequins of Hester Prynne, Lizzie Borden, and the Headless Horseman, a real dead body is found—one of the contest judges. Now in addition to playing host to Jon, Liv has to play detective and coordinate the clues to unmask a self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner.
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Liv Montgomery stopped at the bottom of the town hall steps to button her jacket. A year before, she’d moved to Celebration Bay, New York, from Manhattan, complete with a totally new “country” wardrobe of corduroy, plaids, comfortable shoes, even a hat with earflaps. Now she only brought out the earflaps when it was below ten degrees, which, being early October, it wasn’t, and her jacket had finally lost its shiny, right-off-the-racks-at-L.L.Bean look.
And she was getting a lot fewer digs about being a city girl. Actually, since she’d taken over the duties of town event planner, attendance at activities had tripled, and she was becoming an accepted member of the community, most of the time.
Her assistant, Ted Driscoll, a tall, lean man of a certain age and an untalked-about past, tucked up his collar, then took her elbow. Beneath the jacket he was wearing a black pullover with a bat knitted onto the front.
Ted loved his holidays, and the women at the Yarn Barn kept him in festive sweaters, scarves, vests, and hats. He had a good singing voice, adored Liv’s white Westie, Whiskey, knew his way around a computer, and had nerves of steel.
In a word, he was the best assistant Liv had ever had.
It was late afternoon and already dark, except for the lights from restaurants and shops and the wrought iron lamps that lit the paths through the park.
Being a family-friendly destination town, the inhabitants of Celebration Bay had the changeover from one holiday to the next down to a science. On September thirtieth, the Harvest on the Bay Festival transformed into Halloween, literally overnight. Town-wide decorations of colorful leaves and fall vegetables turned into broomsticks and bats. Gourds and pumpkins were carved into grimacing jack-o’-lanterns. Bales of hay that had offered respite to weary tourists were now the property of skeletons and witches.
They crossed the street and joined the scores of people headed toward the band shell at the far side of the village square, where the mayor would shortly announce the winner of Celebration Bay’s first ever haunted house contest.
“So who do you think will win Best Haunted House tonight?” Liv asked.
“I think Barry Lindquist’s Museum of Yankee Horrors takes the cake. My unofficial opinion, of course.”
“It is pretty impressive,” Liv said. “I knew about Hester Prynne, Lizzie Borden, and the Headless Horseman, but there were a bunch of crimes I never realized took place in New England.”
Ted coughed out a laugh, sending a cloud into the air. “In true Celebration Bay style, Barry played loose with some of the more sordid efforts. Al Capone? I mean, since when did Chicago belong to the northeast?”
“I did wonder about that,” Liv said. “Anyway I think it’s a toss-up between his museum and Ernie Bolton’s Monster Mansion.”
“You screamed loud enough when that skeleton popped out of the coffin.”
Liv grimaced. “I wasn’t expecting it.”
“That’s the whole point. Now, do you want to find a seat or do you want to stand in the back surveying the assembly and looking for potential screw-ups, unexpected snafus, and sloppy crowd control?”
“Let’s stand in the back, but only because I’ve been sitting all day.”
“Uh-huh.” Ted maneuvered them to a place right behind the last row of folding chairs.
“No really. I’m going to delegate a lot more this year. And exercise more.”
Liv pointed to the band shell, where five chairs and a lectern had been set up and where a row of jack-o’-lanterns lined the front of the stage. “Are those electric or candlelit?”
Ted shook his head. “Not to worry, they’re battery powered. The pumpkins are ceramic and were donated by the Garden Club last year.”
“And the folding chairs passed state folding chair inspection just last week.”
“I am relaxed. Just vigilant.” It was her job. Event planners not only planned but were responsible for making sure that everything ran smoothly.
Ted chuckled. “Here we go.”
Five people came onto the stage and sat in the chairs without mishap.
“See?” Ted said. “Safe and sound.”
Liv rolled her eyes at him.
As soon as they were seated, Mayor Worley joined them and stood behind the lectern. He held up his hands to quiet the audience, which didn’t have the slightest effect. It never did. He tapped on the microphone. A mechanical screech broadcast through the audience. They became quiet.
Gilbert Worley had been mayor for at least ten years, mainly, Liv guessed, because no one else wanted the job. He was short, portly, with black hair gelled back from his forehead and showing gray at the temples when he was behind on his Grecian Formula touch-ups.
He held up his hands again. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and ghouls . . .”
The crowd groaned.
“Isn’t that how he started last year’s speech?” Liv asked.
“The last ten, at least.”
The microphone squealed and the mayor stepped back. “Welcome to this year’s Halloween kickoff. Tonight we have a special honor to award and a surprise to announce.
“As you know, the community center is in search of a new building, and the best way to insure success is by a fund-raising campaign—”
More groans from a few in the audience.
“It’s for a good cause,” someone yelled.
Most of the crowd agreed, loudly.
The mayor looked at the lectern as if he might find his gavel there, but this wasn’t a town meeting; it just sounded like one.
“As you know, our community center has lost its lease. The center provides an important service to our young people, families, and seniors. In order to keep the center functioning, the board has taken a three-pronged approach that will hopefully enable us to find a permanent building and organizational operating expenses that will include . . .”
Beside her, Ted stifled a yawn.
“Donations have already been coming in, and we’ve applied for a community improvement grant from the VanderHauw Foundation.”
Ted leaned toward Liv. “Never amazes me how Gilbert manages to take credit for everything, even though your contacts and grant application were what got us on VanderHauw’s radar.”
Liv shrugged. “As long as it gets the community center up and running, I don’t care who takes credit for it.”
Mayor Worley cleared his throat. “In addition, the board came up with the idea of holding a contest to decide what design would become the official Celebration Bay Haunted House, whose official opening will kick off this year’s Halloween festivities. We had a whopping one hundred entries, with all entry fees going to the donation fund. A panel of five judges adjudicated every entry, no matter how small.
“I’d like the judges to stand.” The mayor gestured to where three of the four town trustees—Rufus Cobb, Roscoe Jackson, and Jeremiah Atkins—were sitting in a row. As usual, the fourth trustee was AWOL.
“Chaz didn’t even manage to get here for the community center?” Liv asked, disgusted.
Ted looked over the crowd. “I expect he’s here somewhere. See. Over there, standing in the back opposite us.”
Liv looked to where Ted indicated and came eye to eye with Chaz Bristow, owner and editor of the Celebration Bay Clarion. Liv’s nemesis . . . and sometimes her reluctant partner in crime solving.
He grinned at her and she looked away.
“And two members of the business community.” The mayor gestured to two well-dressed women sitting side by side at the end of the row. “Janine Tudor and Lucille Foster . . . Ladies.” The two women waved.
Chaz Bristow slipped up beside Liv.
Liv felt the jolt of interest that she always tried to ignore when she was around him. He was too good-looking for his own good, at least according to Liv’s landladies, Ida and Edna Zimmerman.
He was handsome, all right, with straight features, a firm if sometimes unshaven jaw, and blond hair that would be more appropriate on someone who lived outdoors in the sun instead of someone who preferred sleeping under a newspaper on the couch in his office.
Tonight he was wearing a light hunting jacket, a plaid scarf, and no hat. His blond hair looked less groomed than usual in the uneven light. But there was definitely something charismatic about the man.
He was infuriating; yo-yoed between out-and-out smarmy wastrel and intense, justice-seeking reporter, always with a serious surfer dude attitude. Infuriating, but appealing—
Appealing? When she was out of her mind and hallucinating.
Liv pulled herself together. “Why aren’t you up there with the other trustees?”
“Really. What are they?”
“Because I own and run the local paper. I can’t appear to take sides.”
“Ha. You mean you just didn’t want to be bothered.”
“And the other two?”
He nodded toward the stage. “You’re looking at them.”
Ted leaned over. “He’s talking about Lucille and Janine.”
“Yep,” Chaz said. “Amazing that the two of them can sit side by side without tearing each other’s eyes out. The mayor must have a death wish. I sure don’t.”
“I take it they don’t like each other.”
Chaz gave her a deadpan look.
She turned to Ted.
He managed an even more deadpan expression.
“And now I’d like to introduce Lucille Foster, chairwoman of the judging panel. Lucille?”
Lucille stood gracefully; Janine remained seated with a tight smile on her face. Lucille was tall and elegantly dressed, in an off-white Burberry trench coat with a burnt orange paisley shawl looped over her shoulder. And the highest heels Liv had seen—or worn—since Manhattan. Hers were now residing in the deepest, darkest corner of her closet.
The highest and the most expensive, Liv thought as Lucille’s red soles caught the light.
The chairwoman edged the mayor over and spoke into the microphone. “Thank you, Mayor Worley. I am so honored to be a part of this great fund-raiser. We here in Celebration Bay care about our town and about each other. That feeling is what makes us so special, and you’ve shown your caring by your donations to this worthy cause—the Celebration Bay Community Center.”
While Lucille began explaining the guidelines of the contest and how the entries were judged, Liv looked over the crowd. It was small in the scheme of things. Mostly local people who supported the need for a new community center.
Liv had hoped that Jonathon Preston, director of development for the VanderHauw Foundation, would make it for the ceremony, but as it was he’d had to sandwich them in between a trip to a daycare center in Thailand and an afternoon music program in Detroit.
Too bad. Jon would have gotten a kick out of the spectacle. And Liv would have gotten a kick out of his enjoyment. Jon was a former colleague of hers from her Manhattan days, and they’d briefly been something more than friends. He was great to work with, indefatigable and energetic. They’d had some fun times, and Liv was looking forward to seeing him again.
“. . . by the generous donation of . . .” Lucille Foster began to read off a list of people who had agreed to match the prize money offered to the winner of the Official Celebration Bay Haunted House. “All proceeds to go to the new community center. Already we have raised twenty thousand dollars.”
Applause, and a few woots.
“Ten thousand will go to the winner of the contest to help offset expenses and operating costs. All ticket proceeds for the first Halloween will go back into the community center donation fund. Each of the runners-up will win five hundred dollars to use as they see fit.
“I want to thank everyone for their generosity and let you know that donations may be dropped off at town hall, sent to the mayor’s office, or dropped in one of the many receptacles around town. Now, Mayor Worley, if you’ll announce the three finalists.”
The mayor stepped back up to the lectern as Lucille returned to her seat.
Mayor Worley cleared his throat. “There is one more person I would like to thank particularly . . .”
Lucille paused, then turned back to the podium, her smile managing to appear gracious and humble at the same time. It was impressive.
“Mrs. Amanda Marlton-Crosby,” the mayor continued.
Lucille froze in place, her smile unwavering. Then, recovering herself, she smiled more broadly and sat down. Beside her, Janine Tudor didn’t even try to hide her surprise or her delight that Lucille had been superseded by another.
“Amanda,” the mayor continued, “has generously donated the full ten thousand dollars for the prize money so that the community center can keep all of the proceeds gathered thus far.”
Applause and whistles followed. The three male judges exchanged looks. Janine sat ramrod straight. Next to her, Lucille crossed her legs and continued to smile, but her foot jiggled with perturbation, the red soles of her expensive shoes blinking like a stoplight among the ceramic pumpkins.
“Wow,” Liv said. “Why didn’t we know about this?”
Ted shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“No. It’s just really a surprise.”
“From the look of things,” Chaz said, “a surprise to the judges, too.”
The mayor stretched out his arm. “Amanda? Will you come up and present the check to the winner?” The mayor applauded into the microphone and everyone joined in as Amanda Marlton-Crosby climbed the steps to the stage.
She was in her thirties, Liv guessed, with spare, plain features and brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was wearing slacks and a red plaid car coat. Not how Liv would have chosen to dress if she had been a wealthy heiress, especially next to Lucille and Janine, who always dressed for the occasion. Maybe Amanda Marlton-Crosby had gone for a totally different look knowing she couldn’t compete.
The mayor adjusted the microphone so that Amanda could speak into it.
“Thank you, Mayor Worley,” she said in a voice so low that the entire audience leaned forward to hear. The mayor moved her closer to the microphone. “It is my honor and my pleasure to be here tonight and to be able to support the contest and its admirable goal of aiding the community center.” She had none of the panache of either of the other two women onstage, but evidently she had money to spare.
“But I know you’re all anxious to get out of the cold so . . . Mr. Mayor?”
The mayor fumbled inside his pocket, checked another, and finally pulled out an envelope. “Had you going, didn’t I?” Chuckling, he opened the envelope.
“The three finalists are . . . Patty Wainwright of Miss Patty’s Learn and Grow Center, for her Family-Friendly Ghosts and Goblins.”
Cheers, whistles, and applause.
“Ernie Bolton’s Monster Mansion.”
More applause and several woots.
“And Barry Lindquist’s Museum of Yankee Horrors.”
“Way to go, Barry,” someone yelled, followed by more applause.
The mayor smiled and nodded as the three finalists climbed the steps to the stage and stopped in a line, looking hopeful. All three were dressed in Halloween colors: Patty Wainwright wore a black skirt and a pumpkin-colored car coat, her hair plaited in two braids, Addams Family style; Ernie wore an orange and black striped sweater and bright orange earmuffs; and Barry Lindquist had added a jaunty orange tam to his dark green jacket and jeans.
The mayor held up his hand for silence, which for once everyone obeyed. “And now . . . the winner of ten thousand dollars and the title of Official Celebration Bay Haunted House—”
The mayor broke off midsentence. “Who yelled that?”
“Repent, ye idolaters, or face eternal damnation!”
Everyone looked around for the source of the rant.
Off to the side, there was a discreet movement as three men dressed in plainclothes surrounded a man dressed completely in black.
“Burn in—” The rest of the sentence was cut off as the men surrounded him and moved just as easily out of the crowd, taking the miscreant with them. Shocked silence reigned.
“They are efficient,” Ted whispered to Liv.
“Very,” Liv agreed. Bayside Security. Liv had hired the security firm months ago on a permanent basis. They were good, inconspicuous, kept an eagle-eye watch over the growing crowds attracted to the town’s events, and worked quickly to prevent disruption and remove troublemakers.
And with their military training, they had disappeared as quickly and as stealthily as they had appeared.
“Shades of Big Brother,” Chaz intoned.
Liv ignored him, but had to admit their efficiency sometimes bordered on the spooky.
“Well, well.” Mayor Worley laughed nervously. “Some of our folks are starting trick-or-treating early this year.” The mayor cleared his throat. “Now, where were we? Oh yes. And the prize of ten thousand dollars goes to . . .” He handed the paper to Amanda Marlton-Crosby.
She leaned into the microphone. “Goes to Barry Lindquist for his Museum of Yankee Horrors.”
Applause, whistles, and yells followed.
Barry Lindquist stepped forward, bowing and smiling. The mayor stood by as Amanda presented Barry with an envelope.
“Congratulations, Barry,” the mayor said, pumping his free hand. “The Museum of Yankee Horrors is Celebration Bay’s official haunted house.”
The mayor announced the second – and third-place winners and presented them with checks.
“And now Joss Waterbury of Waterbury Orchards is serving free hot cider and donuts on the town hall steps.”
While the mayor and Amanda Marlton-Crosby congratulated Barry and posed for publicity photographs, the other two finalists left the stage and the crowd began to disperse. A few people stopped by the stage to offer congratulations.
“Why aren’t you taking photos for the newspaper?” Liv asked.
Chaz shrugged. “Oh.” He looked around like he’d misplaced his camera, then reached in his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. He held it out toward the band shell and snapped a photo. “There,” he said, and slid it back into his pocket.
Liv cut a look to Ted.
“When are you going to learn? He’s probably already set up something with one of the other photographers.”
“You’re no fun,” Chaz said.
“Let’s go congratulate the winner and the finalists and thank Mrs. Marlton-Crosby.”
By the time they reached the front, a crowd had gathered around the winners. The judges were chatting with the mayor and Amanda Marlton-Crosby.
Patty Wainwright was accepting congratulations for third place. “Isn’t it neat? I’m going to keep the Happy Haunted House open for the younger kids. They need a fun, less-scary place to celebrate Halloween.”
Ernie, however, stood off to the side, where he was clenching and unclenching his fists and glaring at the judges, Lucille in particular. He seemed hardly aware of the people who stopped to congratulate him on a job well done.
Mayor Worley motioned Liv over.
“Liv, I don’t believe you’ve met Amanda Marlton-Crosby.”
“Not formally. Thank you for such a generous gift, the kids and seniors will really appreciate it.” Up close, Amanda seemed even smaller and more nondescript than she did on the stage, but Liv could see that although her clothes were rather simple and shapeless, they were designer.
The two women touched hands. “It’s my pleasure. Now I must really go. I have a guest staying with me for the weekend. Rod should be around somewhere.”
On cue, Rod Crosby, tall and athletic, appeared out of the dispersing crowd and came to stand at his wife’s side. There couldn’t be a wider contrast between husband and wife, her mouse to his dark-haired Adonis.
Liv didn’t know Amanda’s husband. She knew he oversaw the running of the fish camp where many of the locals kept their boats. The camp had once been the Marlton family’s private marina but was now open to the public. It seemed like an odd thing for the husband of a multi-bazillion-dollar heiress to do. But fishermen, Liv had learned, were a large and diverse group.
Still, she had to stop herself from thinking that he must have married Amanda for her money. That was such a cliché. Maybe they were madly in love. And considering the way he put his arm around her shoulders and leaned in to kiss her cheek, Liv knew she should make an adjustment to her first impressions.
“It’s getting chilly, dear. Let’s get you home.”
For a nanosecond, it looked like Amanda might demur, but then she just smiled and the two of them walked away.
Liv turned back to the others, who were all talking animatedly. Amanda Marlton-Crosby had just dropped ten K and wandered off into the night. And no one seemed to have noticed.
Weird, she thought, and turned her attention to the winner, Barry Lindquist.
“Congratulations, Barry,” Liv said.
Barry smiled, showing big teeth. He was a large man, barrel-chested, but fit. Fortysomething and generally congenial. He’d been divorced for several years and was an object of interest among some of the single women in town. “Thank you. Thank you. It was a haul. But I’m real proud of the way it turned out.”
“Well, you should be.”
Liv smiled at the big man, who smiled back.
Finally Ted broke in. “Where did you get hold of all those mannequins?”
“Here and there. Heck, that was the hardest part, except finding shoes that would fit, especially for the real old-fashioned scenes. Those people sure had little feet.”
“And the fun just goes on and on,” Chaz said under his breath.
Liv shot him a look.
“Well, you did a beautiful job,” Lucille Foster said.
Next to her, Janine looked bored. And maybe even perturbed at her fellow judge, Liv suspected.
Janine was used to being the center of attention, and made a point to be the best dressed at every function. But she’d been topped by Lucille Foster tonight. Next to Lucille’s trench coat and Louboutin shoes, Janine’s camel-colored three-quarter-length coat and three-inch black heels looked uninspired.
The way Janine looked at Lucille as she held court among the male judges, the mayor, and Ted and Chaz made Liv cringe. She had cause to recognize that expression. It had been aimed her way on more than one occasion.
“Ernie,” Ted said. “Come on over so we can congratulate you, too. Excellent job.”
“Yes, Ernie, very good,” Lucille said.
Ernie shuffled over from where he’d been standing off to the side. “If it was so good, why didn’t I win?”
“Really, Ernie . . .” Ted began.
Ernie turned to Lucille. “You said I was going to win. You promised.”
Lucille shook her head. “I never said that, Ernie. I said you had a good chance of winning. And you did. You came in second out of over one hundred entries. That’s something to be very proud of.”
“Anyone with a pumpkin on their porch entered the contest to help out the community center. I went all out.”
“And you can keep Monster Mansion open to the public, too,” the mayor added.
“For all the good it will do me.”
“Ernie.” Lucille stepped toward him. “Don’t be like that. It was a difficult decision, but the judges agreed.”
“I’m sure they all did. But I know why Barry won.”
“Hey, it was fair and square,” Barry said, and pushed out his chest.
“Oh Lord,” said Ted, but Chaz beat him to the two men, stepping in between them just as Ernie raised his fist.
Chaz caught him by the wrist and held him fast. “Just cool it, Ernie.”
“Get your hands off me. I’m leaving.” Ernie yanked his arm away and spun around. As he did, his shoulder bumped against Lucille, who staggered backward into the other judges. The shawl draped across her shoulders fell to the ground.
Ernie didn’t slow down.
“Are you alright?” the mayor asked.
“Yes, I’m perfectly fine,” Lucille said in a silkily calm voice. “Unfortunate that he feels that way, but we all agreed on the winner.”
“True,” the three male judges agreed.
The men had formed a semicircle of concern around Lucille. Janine stood by, looking ready to spit nails.
As the only person who seemed to notice the scarf was still on the ground, Liv picked it up and brushed it off. It was a soft pashmina wool, and while it had just looked burnt orange at a distance, up close Liv could see an intricate pattern of gold and brown. She took a peek at the label. Missoni. Liv pushed down the little geyser of envy she felt erupting in her shallow little heart.
She handed it back to Lucille, who looked surprised. “Oh, thank you, hon.”
Behind her, Chaz made a face.
“Not at all.” Hon, Liv added to herself.
“Well, I had better get going,” Jeremiah said. “Bankers’ hours. Can I see you to your car, Lucille?”
“Or I can accompany you?” the mayor offered.
“Why, thank you both, but my husband, Carson, is here. Oh there he is now. Good night, all.” She struck off across the park.
All the men stared after her.
Janine rolled her eyes.
Liv and Janine never agreed on anything. Janine didn’t even like her. It was heartening to think that there was someone in town whom Janine liked even less.
“Are you guys going back to work?” Chaz asked Liv and Ted. “Or are you going for cider?”
“Both,” Liv said. “And I want to find out what happened to the heckler.”
“I’m sure your big marine has him being tortured in the basement, never to see the light of day.”
“A.K. is not my marine, he’s the head of Bayside Security, and I might point out, he’s been doing a creditable job.”
“Has he now? I love it when you use all those big words. So why don’t we ditch the free cider and all go over to the pub for a burger?”
Liv was going to say no, but her stomach growled at the mere mention of food.
Ted laughed. “That sounded like a yes to me.”
They walked around the band shell to the street, and reached the sidewalk just in time to see Rod and Amanda standing by the passenger door of a silver Mercedes that was idling in the street.
Amanda Marlton-Crosby shrugged and looked at the ground.
“Just get in,” Rod said, and opened the car door. “I won’t be long,” he said. “You two will just gab about the good old days all night. Have fun. I’m going to have a couple of beers with the guys and I’ll walk home. ’Night, honey.”
He practically pushed her inside and closed the car door. Stood by while it drove away, then walked off down the street in the opposite direction of McCready’s Pub.
“Guess he’s not going to the pub,” Liv said.
“No,” Ted said.
“But we are,” Chaz said, and hustled them across the street.
“Fine,” Liv said. “And while we’re there, you can tell me why Ernie only went after Lucille instead of the other judges, and why no one told me about the ten-thousand-dollar donation from Amanda Marlton-Crosby.”
McCready’s Pub was right across the street from the back of the band shell and on a corner of one of the side streets that ended at the square. Since it was on the main drag, the owner had accentuated the Irish look with surface timbers and stucco. A neon sign hung like a marquee over the entrance.
It was a local hangout, loud, boisterous, and occasionally the scene of a good old-fashioned Yankee brawl. Generally late at night when the vacationing families with children were all safely tucked away in their hotel rooms. Fortunately, it was still early on a weeknight.
Even so, the bar was filling up pretty quickly.
“The Monster Mash” was playing at manageable decibels when they entered the pub, and a string of light-up skeletons and pumpkins danced across the mirror behind the bar. Someone had made little beer bottles and placed one in each skeleton’s hand. Liv never ceased to be amazed at the lengths that Celebration Bay residents would go to celebrate holidays.
“Wow, I expected the place to be packed,” Liv said over the music.
“It will be, as soon as they run out of free cider and donuts at town hall,” Chaz said. “Let’s grab that table in the corner.”
As soon as the three of them sat down, a bar waitress sidled over and smiled at Chaz. He was like the pied piper to waitresses. They nearly fell over themselves to wait on him.
They each ordered burgers and beer even though it was only six thirty and normally Liv would try to get in another couple hours of work before calling it a day.
“What a night,” Ted said as soon as the waitress had gone.
“Poor Ernie,” Liv said. “He’s over there at the bar all by himself. I don’t get why he went off on Lucille. It was a committee decision.”
“Maybe,” Ted said. “But she was the chairwoman.”
Chas laughed and exchanged a look with Ted.
“What’s so funny?” Liv asked. “Is there something going on that I should know about? I noticed a few undercurrents . . .”
“You call that undercurrents?” asked Chaz incredulously. “Looked close to full blown to me. First there was Janine stuck in her seat while Lucille struts her stuff across the stage. You could practically see the smoke coming out of her ears. Then, out of the blue, Amanda Marlton-Crosby waltzes on, obliviously upstaging Lucille. I thought Lucille would have a diva attack right there onstage. I swear it was worth the price of admission.”
“It was free,” Liv pointed out.
Chaz looked surprised. “Yep, and that’s about what it was worth.”
The beers arrived, and while the waitress took a second to make eyes at Chaz, Liv took a sip of her beer. It was malty and cold, a product of a local microbrewery that gave Liv, a wine drinker by choice, a new appreciation for the foamy drink.
The door opened and two of the judges, Roscoe Jackson and Rufus Cobb, walked in and stopped by their table.
“Great evening,” Liv said.
“Yes, it was,” Roscoe said. “And Amanda Marlton-Crosby’s donation has really started off the fund-raising with a bang.”
“Would you like to join us? We can pull up an extra chairs.”
“Thank you, but we just stopped in for quick drink,” Rufus said. “I have to get back to the B-and-B.”
They made their way over to the bar and took the two seats next to Ernie Bolton, who looked at them and moved away farther along the bar.
“Oh, Ernie, don’t be such a poor sport,” Rufus said. “Coming in second is an honor in itself.”
Ernie glared at the two newcomers. “It was a setup. Barry’s people don’t even move. They just sit there like the dummies they are.”
Ted sighed. “Oh Ernie, Ernie, Ernie.”
Ernie pushed off the stool and confronted the newcomers. “Who did he get to? Lucille? Janine? Thinks he’s some big stud. Which one was it?”
Roscoe slid off the stool and turned to face Ernie. He had to look up, since he stood just over five feet and Ernie was close to six.
“There were five of us judges. So it’s no use blaming one of the ladies. You might as well blame me.”
“Or me,” Rufus added, jumping off his stool and coming to stand beside Roscoe.
“You two didn’t vote for me? And you call yourselves friends?”
“The voting was confidential.”
“Maybe somebody’s vote was more important than the others.”
“That’s a dang lie,” Rufus said. “Nobody outside the panel of judges knows how the vote went. Barry’s entry won by a majority. So there’s no use in blaming anybody.”
Ernie fisted his hands, ready for a fight. “If I find out that no-good Barry Lindquist bribed the judges . . .”
“You’ll do what?” Roscoe asked.
Beside him, Rufus chewed on his mustache, something he did when he was nervous, worried, or upset.
Ted groaned. “Not tonight.” He stood up, but Mike McCready was already coming around the bar.
“Ernie, I don’t want no trouble in here. Go home. Cool off.”
Ernie’s nostrils flared and he reached into his coat pocket. Liv braced herself, but he merely pulled out his earmuffs, shoved them over his ears, and stormed toward the exit door.
“Another disaster averted,” Ted said.
“What was all the innuendo about Lucille and Janine?” Liv asked. “Or dare I ask?”
Chaz choked on his beer, and Ted said, “Let’s just say they aren’t the best of friends.”
“I got that part. But why?”
“Beside the fact that Lucille’s giving Janine a run for her money?” Chaz said.
Liv’s mouth opened. “In real estate?”
“In men, my dear.” Ted shook his head. “They nearly had a knock-down-drag-out at the manicurist’s last week.”
“Are you kidding me?” Liv asked. “But Lucille is married.” She didn’t ask who the fight was over, though Janine had been after Chaz for as long as Liv had lived in Celebration Bay.
The waitress appeared at the table. “Now who wants another beer?” The guys ordered another round. Liv stuck to the one she had. The waitress winked at Liv. “Have you ever noticed how guys sometimes make the best gossipers?”
“I’m noticing tonight,” Liv said.
“Hey,” said Chaz. “We consider that ‘news’ around here.”
The waitress gave him a saucy look and went to get their beers.
“Yeah,” Liv said. “It must be a slow day at the Four-H if you’re reporting catfights.”
“So how does Ernie fit into the mix?”
“Don’t know that he does. Except . . .” Ted shrugged. “Ernie really needs the prize money.”
“But it wasn’t Lucille’s fault he didn’t win.”
“No, but he might blame her husband.”
“Because Ernie is broke, and when he tried to take out a loan, First Celebration Bank turned him down. So he went to Lucille’s husband, Carson Foster. Carson is the CEO of the Mercantile Investment Trust.”
“I never heard of it,” Liv said.
“Because it’s an investment bank.” Chaz grinned at her. “Got any major funds to invest?”
“I might,” Liv said. “No.” She sipped her beer.
Ted shook his head. “Don’t feel bad, Liv. Neither does Chaz.”
“All my capital is tied up in the newspaper.”
His two companions just looked at him.
“What there is of it . . . which isn’t much . . . Well, it’s hard to support myself and my paper and my numerous charitable endeavors by taking people out fishing. Especially when some of them stiff me.”
He smiled complacently at Liv.
“I told you I would pay you.”
“Too late. I’m already broke.”
“You’re always broke,” Liv pointed out.
Chaz shook his head. “But not as broke as poor Ernie.”
“Anyway,” Ted said. “That’s the reason we’re losing the community center building. Ernie owes back taxes. He has to sell the building and his mother’s house across the street from it, where he constructed the Monster Mansion. But without a loan, he can’t pay his taxes and he can’t sell unless he pays them or finds someone to pay his asking price and his taxes.”
“Or wins ten thousand dollars in a haunted house contest,” Liv said.
“Exactly,” Chaz said. “And that opportunity just flew out the window.”
“Pretty much,” Ted agreed. “Unless Barry defaults before the official opening next weekend, and that seems unlikely.”
Famous last words, Liv thought, and knocked the underside of the wooden table.
The pub filled up and they ate their burgers without much talking since the decibel level rose with the onslaught of patrons.
They left to the pulsing rhythm of “Thriller,” and stopped at the corner.
“I guess you guys will be working tomorrow even though it’s Saturday,” Chaz said.
“It’s one of our many busy seasons,” Ted said. “Besides, Liv is a taskmaster.”
They parted ways, Ted to pick up his car at town hall, Chaz to wherever he was going, and Liv to walk home.
That was one of the things she liked most about living in Celebration Bay. She could walk almost anywhere, anytime, without dealing with car exhaust, rattling subway noise, or muggers.
The Victorian house where her landladies lived was dark. It was later than Liv realized and they must have already gone to bed. Which meant they had probably dropped off Whiskey at Liv’s carriage house at the back of the drive.
The sisters loved to babysit her Westie terrier, Whiskey. They’d happily take him every day, but Liv didn’t want to take advantage of their generosity. Besides, she loved taking him to work with her. And Ted would complain, since he and Whiskey had become best buds.
Liv walked down the driveway, fishing for her key in her messenger bag. Before she even opened the door, she could hear Whiskey on the other side.
As soon as she opened it, he bounded forward like he’d been ignored for days.
“You don’t fool me,” she told him as he bounced around her. “You’re spoiled rotten. I hope you appreciate all the attention you get.”
“Aarf,” he said, and took off for the shrubbery. He came back a minute later and trotted inside.
Liv followed him in. “I’m beat. How about you, big guy? Have a perfectly pampered day?”
“Aarf,” Whiskey said.
“I thought so.” Liv hung up her coat and tossed her keys on the foyer table, then went into her cozy living room, where she fired up her iPad and checked her email. Whiskey snuggled down on her feet and, with a huge yawn, went to sleep.
• • •
When Liv’s alarm rang the next morning, the sun was streaming through the window, making a dappled pattern across her down comforter. Whiskey was asleep on his plaid doggie bed. He looked so content Liv felt a pang knowing that she was about to trick him into going running with her.
Whiskey loved to run, could run for hours, but only on his own terms. A quick circuit of asphalt with no stops for smelling or claiming territory was not in his game plan. But a girl needed her exercise, and she was getting less and less of it as the winter holidays grew closer together.
Liv pushed the covers away. Whiskey opened an eye, snuffled, yawned, and pushed to his feet before padding out of the bedroom to wait for her by the kitchen door. She followed him down the short hall and let him out to a postage-stamp garden behind her landladies’ well-tended perennial borders. Then she retraced her steps to the bedroom to dress in fall running gear.
When he barked at the back door, she greeted him with a dog biscuit and his leash.
If dogs could roll their eyes, Whiskey would have. As it was, he just looked forlorn, then sat and allowed her to attach the leash to his collar.
Two minutes later, they were on the sidewalk, Liv stretching and Whiskey exploring the shrubbery at the front of her landladies’ house.
They started off down the street, Liv concentrating first on her stride and breathing, then letting her eyes roam over the decorated houses as they passed. It was an occupational hazard, multitasking when you didn’t even want to task at all. But this was the perfect way to get in exercise and an overview of the upcoming festivities all at once.
The residents’ enthusiasm for holidays and special events never seemed to flag. This morning in the full daylight, the decorated houses looked colorful and inviting with their cornstalks and hay bales, many recycled from the harvest festival. Elaborately carved pumpkins sat on every porch. Grinning scarecrows rubbed shoulders with grinning skeletons and black cats with arching backs. Ghosts hung from the bare branches of trees. Gravestones littered the yards. They all looked benign in the morning light.
But each afternoon, as soon as it grew dark, the strings of orange lights would come on, jack-o’-lantern candles were lit, and witches were set in motion while ghosts danced in the wind.
This morning the sky was blue and all was calm. Whiskey trotted along beside her. Since she’d chosen the middle of the quiet street for her run, there wasn’t that much to stop and smell, but when she turned the corner, the loyal dog rebelled. This was new territory for him, with new things to sniff and claim. Usually they went the other way to work or to run, but today their route would take them past the winning haunted house entry, just so Liv could take a closer look and make sure everything was in order.
Not that she was a control freak or anything. It just paid to be prepared.
Liv slowed down for Whiskey but kept jogging until she came to Barry Lindquist’s Museum of Yankee Horrors two blocks later.
It was the perfect-looking haunted house, complete with gables and turrets covered in graying, weather-beaten shingles. Once a boardinghouse, it had sat empty for the past several years, Barry being either unable or unwilling to sell it. Liv imagined the knee-high wrought iron fence was original, and the even higher weeds were very effective. But she’d contracted for the land surrounding the house and parking lot as well as a vacant lot behind the parking lot to be mowed, and apparently the landscapers had not been by. The weeds had only gotten higher.
Ambiance was one thing, but unsightliness and neglect were something else. She came to a stop, unzipped her arm pocket, and extracted her phone. Let the leash out so Whiskey could snuffle at leisure while she took a couple photos of the overgrowth.
There had been caution tape over the entrance to the newly repaved parking lot the last time she’d been here. Now half the tape was lying on the ground.
She stepped over the tape and walked along the edge of the parking lot, taking photos as she went. Nothing had been done. She’d have to have a little talk with the landscapers.
She’d reached the back of the property and was taking a last photo of the vacant lot when Whiskey yanked on the leash.
“All right. I’m done. Let’s get going.”
Whiskey barked and strained at the leash, but in the opposite direction.
“Oh, all right, two more minutes, but if you get burrs all stuck in your coat, don’t complain to me when you have to go to the Woofery for grooming.”
She let out the leash again and Whiskey, ignoring her threat, pranced happily into the brush to ferret out unsuspecting small animals or discarded fast-food wrappers.
Sure enough he came back a minute later with something in his mouth. Something huge. A bone. An arm. A human arm.
Liv’s eyes widened and her stomach lurched—she froze to the spot as Whiskey lovingly laid the arm at her feet. She swayed even as she realized that it wasn’t a real human arm, but a mannequin.
“What the heck?” she said, miffed at herself for being so gullible, and outright angry that someone was using the lot as a dumping ground.
She looked back at the house. Had Barry ended up with extra parts and dumped them rather than disposing of them properly? Or . . .
A much worse thought struck her. Ernie had been pretty angry last night, but surely . . . Ted’s words rang in her mind: Unless Barry defaults . . .
“Heel.” She shortened the leash and walked to the edge of the empty lot. She could see what looked like a clothed torso farther in. And a boot not too far from that. Not a dumping ground for garbage. It looked like the museum might have been looted. She walked along the side of the house, practically pulling a recalcitrant Whiskey with her. No signs of a break-in.
They continued around to the back of the house. And there it was: a shattered window leading to the cellar. It may have been broken before, or more recently—like last night. Either way it needed to be repaired. She climbed the back steps and knocked on the door.
She knew Barry didn’t live on the premises, but she also didn’t want to surprise any looters or squatters that might be inside.
No one answered, so she turned the knob. The door opened. Damn.
She stepped back, closed it again, and went down the steps. Didn’t stop until she was back on the sidewalk out front. No way was she going inside alone. One year of living in Celebration Bay had taught her more about staying safe from lawbreakers than an entire lifetime in Manhattan. Go figure.
She opened her contact list, found Barry’s home number.
He answered on the fourth ring.
“Barry, this is Liv Montgomery. I’m at your museum. Did you leave any mannequin parts out in the vacant lot?”
“What? Why would I do something like that?”
“I don’t know, but on further investigation I noticed a cellar window was broken.”
“Somebody broke in? So help me, if that Ernie Bolton has vandalized my museum— I’ll be right over. Stay there.” He hung up.
“Yes, sir,” Liv said to her disconnected phone. “I think we might have woke him up, Whiskey. He sounds kind of cranky. If it’s a false alarm, we’ll buy him breakfast.”
At the sound of breakfast, Whiskey sat and looked at her expectantly. “Sorry, guy. There’s been a little change in plans.”
Barry Lindquist’s truck pulled up to the curb five minutes later. He jumped out and began riffling through a huge ring of keys as he hurried toward Liv, who was waiting on the front steps.
Definitely woke him up, she thought. His chin was covered in red stubble.
“Did you call the cops?”
“Not yet. I thought we should check to see if someone had really broken in. The back door was unlocked.”
“What? No way.” He leapt up to the porch and unlocked the front door.
Liv and Whiskey followed him inside.
The foyer was suitably eerie, especially with the lights off. Even when Barry flicked the lights on, it was still pretty macabre. There was a skeleton clothed in rags sitting in a rocking chair, a knife dripping blood sitting in her lap.
Psycho? Wasn’t the Bates Motel in Oregon? Evidently not anymore.
Spiderwebs draped over the banister of what once must have been a lovely staircase; now its dark wood was dull and dry looking. Liv made a mental note to have Ted check with the fire marshal that the building had passed all safety inspections.
A little late now. The mayor had decided on this contest as a way to raise money for the community center and had convinced the other trustees to go along with it before he’d consulted Liv. Which was fine, but Liv would have rather been consulted during the planning session instead of playing catch-up ever since.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Celebration Bay Mysteries
“All the charm of a Norman Rockwell painting, but with a much more colorful cast of characters!”—Cynthia Baxter, author of the Reigning Cats & Dogs Mysteries
“Foul Play at the Fair is a fun romp of a story...A delicious read filled with interesting characters and good times.”—Joyce Lavene, coauthor of the Missing Pieces Mysteries
“I fell in love with Liv Montgomery and the citizens of Celebration Bay from the very first page.”—Mary Kennedy, author of the Talk Radio Mysteries
“Liv Montgomery is a terrific new amateur sleuth, competent, intelligent, with a few surprising skills.”—Lesa’s Book Critiques
“If you like small-town gossip, long-buried secrets, and festivals galore, you’ll love this...A promising new series with colorful characters and seasonal festivals that create endless possibilities for future story lines.”—RT Books Reviews