Authors: Mae Fox,Amy Lillard
Pattern of Betrayal
Copyright © 2014 Annie’s.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews. For information address Annie’s, 306 East Parr Road, Berne, Indiana 46711-1138.
The characters and events in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to actual persons or events is coincidental.
Library of Congress-in-Publication Data
Pattern of Betrayal
/ by Mae Fox & Amy Lillard
A Vineyard Quilt Mystery™
Series Creator: Shari Lohner
Series Editors: Shari Lohner, Janice Tate, and Ken Tate
Cover Illustrator: Kelley McMorris
10 11 12 13 14 | 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Millie’s Coffee Cup Cozy
et it on the desk and back away slowly.” The mysterious figure known only as Ghost watched the cold surge of fear wash over the woman’s face.
It was sad really. These museum security guards were just cop wannabes who had no idea of the true worth of the treasures they were supposed to keep safe.
The guard’s eyes darted from Ghost’s masked face to the gun pointed at her. She set the pre-Columbian statue on the desk and then raised her hands in the air as she backed away. “There. Please don’t shoot me. I have a family, you know.”
Ghost made it a point to know as much as he could about the people who guarded the priceless treasures he intended to take. He knew where they lived, what they drove, and where their kids went to school. He even knew what kind of ice cream they bought. “Just do as I say and no one has to get hurt. Understand?”
The guard nodded and backed up a couple more steps.
Ghost approached the desk and snatched the statue. It was about the size of a coffee can, a heavy thing, and ugly to boot. But it would fetch a fine price on the market. Ghost already had a buyer in mind. He tucked the statue under one arm, relishing the feel of it.
So much money.
“You have what you came for,” the guard said. “You should leave.”
The woman seemed to be gaining back some of her moxie. But no matter. Ghost had the treasure.
“Your radio,” Ghost said. “Put it on the desk.”
She didn’t move an inch.
“Radio. Desk. Now.” Ghost set the statue down and leveled his gun at her.
She was at a distinct disadvantage. Pepper spray was the most dangerous thing on her utility belt. Still, Ghost didn’t want a face full of capsaicin.
The guard pulled the device from her hip and laid it on the fine wooden desk.
“And your phone.”
The guard looked as if she might protest, but she unclipped her phone and placed it next to her radio.
By the time he took the pepper spray, her hands were shaking.
Ghost slid the guard’s phone across the desk and onto the floor, where he smashed it to bits with the heel of his shoe. The radio suffered the same fate.
The guard gasped. Judging by the look on her face, she feared her head would be next. But Ghost was a thief, not a killer.
Except for that one time … but that was different. That guard had been mouthy, disrespectful, and had failed to follow instructions. As long as this one did as she was told, everything would be fine.
“I’m leaving now,” Ghost said, scooping up the statue once more. “And you aren’t to move until a full fifteen minutes have passed. I’ve got someone watching this building.” It was a lie, but the guard didn’t know that. “His instructions are to shoot anyone who tries to follow me, and then he’ll go to 54 Carpenter Lane and shoot Sarah and Christopher while they eat their mint chocolate chip ice cream.”
The woman choked back a cry; then she swallowed hard and nodded.
Ghost motioned with the gun. “On the floor. Now.”
She looked almost relieved and did as instructed.
With a smile, Ghost strolled out the door, statue in one hand, gun in the other. It had gone well, but gloating would have to wait. A more pressing matter was at hand—getting from L.A. to Straussberg, Missouri, in time for the next job. Who would have thought a Victorian inn located in the middle of nowhere USA would be a lucrative target? Ghost sighed. In this business, one never knew where the next paycheck would come from.
Today it’s a trendy museum … tomorrow, the Quilt Haus Inn.
almon isn’t going to be cost effective,” Hannah Marks said. She adjusted her glasses and tapped the eraser end of her pencil against her notepad. “I decided to go with chicken. Joseph Winkler quoted me a good price on whole chickens from his organic farm. I figure coq au vin.”
“Uh-huh.” Julie Ellis stood at the front desk and ran her finger down the sign-in book for the Quilt Haus Inn. She pushed her dark hair over one shoulder and shook her head. “It’s crazy.”
“Coq au vin is French, but I wouldn’t say it’s crazy.” Hannah looked up from her notepad. “Have you heard a word I’ve said?”
“Sorry,” Julie said, her steady gaze transfixed on the open book in front of her. “We had a cancellation yesterday, but it looks like we’re booked solid now.” Which was a good thing since this would be the first ever Quilt Haus Inn murder mystery weekend. How Julie had ever allowed the newly retired owner, Millie Rogers, to talk her into holding the event she’d never know. Murder was one thing she had seen more than enough of lately.
“Yep,” Hannah said. “I booked the last room.”
“When?” Julie looked up at her good friend and assistant, the painfully level-headed woman who had followed her from the big city to a touristy village in Missouri to live the quiet life. It was an unexpected yet necessary move after Julie had unwittingly angered a few of the wrong people in her former profession as an antiquities recovery expert. But Hannah seemed to really enjoy the slower pace of small-town living. Julie was … learning to adjust.
Hannah shrugged. “I booked it late yesterday afternoon.”
“But it was cancelled late yesterday afternoon. I took the call myself.”
“Consider it a blessing.”
Julie would consider it something, though she wasn’t sure blessing was the right word. Strange coincidence, maybe.
Until that point, she had been struggling to book rooms for Millie’s experimental murder mystery weekend—an idea the owner had hatched as she was making plans to retire and get to work on her bucket list. Then Millie had “skedaddled” off to see the cave paintings of Baja and left Julie to figure out how to make it work. In order to get the reservations needed for the unique weekend event, Julie had been forced to go outside their normal venues. After all, their target guest list was even more specialized than usual. They normally catered primarily to quilters and seamsters. For this event, they were seeking the same people, but ones who were also murder mystery buffs.
In Julie’s opinion, they should have waited until autumn to host the event so they’d have a full year to plan instead of only a few months. But once Millie set her mind to something, it was hard to move her from it. So, they advertised and posted the upcoming fun to the inn’s website and everywhere else Julie could think of. Even with the ad in the number four mystery magazine in the country, it was only at the last minute that the rooms had filled up. Just last week they had had only two confirmed reservations. A short five days later they were full.
“So, what do you think?” Hannah asked.
“I think it’s strange.”
“You think chicken is strange?”
“I’m sorry … what?”
Hannah closed her notepad. “I knew you weren’t listening to me.”
Julie smiled at her sheepishly. Ever since they’d arrived in Straussberg, a small tourist destination in the rolling hills of Missouri wine country, Hannah had taken her job as head cook at the Quilt Haus Inn
“You’re right. I wasn’t,” Julie said. “And I apologize. But I know whatever you serve will be amazing.”
Hannah blew out a frustrated breath, stirring the blond hair that had escaped her ponytail. “I’ve just never served a dinner before. I mean, not here. And I want it to be perfect.”
“It will be.”
Shirley Ott poked her head around the corner, her bright red hair like a copper halo. “It’s showtime!” she singsonged. She looked particularly festive in her grass-green skirt and bright yellow gypsy top. The scarf looped around her neck was patterned with every color of flower known to man and then some. Shirley was the resident storyteller and keeper of the small fabric shop and tearoom on the first floor of the inn. She loved all things bright and colorful, even in her hair, and sewed most of her clothes herself. “I thought you’d want to know that the first few guests have arrived. They’re in the tearoom.” With a wink, she turned and disappeared, a blur of red, yellow, and green.
“And so it begins.” Julie began heading out to greet her guests, pausing to glance back at Hannah. “Are you coming?”
Her friend shook her head. “I’ll meet everyone soon enough. I really need to get dinner started.” Hannah gave Julie a tight-lipped smile and hurried toward the kitchen.
“Don’t fret,” Julie called after her. “You can’t go wrong with coq au vin.”
Hannah stopped and gave her friend a genuine smile, and then headed into the kitchen, shaking her head.
In appearance, the inn was as charming as a bed-and-breakfast could be. Victorian-era furniture and matching accessories filled the large mansion, with special attention given to the popular gathering area of the tearoom/fabric shop, which was run by Shirley. The main level also boasted a cozy library, a formal dining room, and a large breakfast room with white-linen–covered tables.
Julie still felt somewhat uneasy about the last-minute bookings, and she nearly sighed with relief when she saw the two little elderly women sitting in the tearoom, sipping from their cups and enjoying the latest treat from Hannah’s kitchen. They looked normal enough.
Why am I being so paranoid about this?
“Ladies,” Julie said in greeting as she entered the room. “I’m Julie Ellis, your innkeeper. I’d like to welcome you to the Quilt Haus Inn.”
The ladies nodded in unison. They both wore polyester pantsuits in bright colors with cream-color shells underneath.
“I’m Sadie Davidson,” the thinner of the two women said. Her suit was a bright aqua and made Julie think of the swimming pools in Miami. Three strands of perfectly matched aqua-color beads hung around Sadie’s neck and clacked together as she moved. “And this is my bestie, Joyce Fillmore.”
Julie figured at least one of these two ladies had granddaughters. “It’s so good to have you both here.” She offered a welcoming smile.
Joyce smiled in return. Unlike Sadie, who had snow white hair, Joyce seemed to favor a blue rinse that made her own cap of curls shine like periwinkle chrome. She was tall and solid, a handsome woman.
“We are so happy to be here!” Joyce exclaimed. “This was on our bucket list.”
“A murder mystery weekend was on your bucket list?” Julie asked.
“Number twenty-five,” Joyce said. “This inn is the
place …” Joyce turned to Sadie and added dramatically, “for someone to die.”
Julie laughed with Sadie. She was starting to think this wasn’t such a bad idea.
“An inn with a quilting theme is an added bonus, to be sure.” Sadie smiled, revealing twin dimples in her rosy cheeks. She looked like the quintessential granny, a large purse with a twist clasp looped over one arm. Julie suspected her big white suitcase likely contained everything from peppermints and tissues to bingo daubers and an extra tube of nude lipstick.
Julie went on to explain the amenities of the Quilt Haus Inn, particularly those that catered to quilters and crafters. “This weekend we have an Amish-style quilting frolic to go along with the murder mystery.”
The quilt frolic had been Hannah’s idea, a way to bring Millie’s murder mystery brainchild to life and still keep some kind of quilting theme.
“Tell us, dear,” Sadie asked, “how will it work?”
“Yes. When will someone die?” Joyce added. They’d clearly been “besties” for a long time.
Julie smiled. “It’s simple, really. We’ll have special meeting times throughout the day so everyone can get together to quilt and discuss the clues in the case as things unfold. At the end of the weekend, the quilt will be given to the guest who solves the case.”
“And the winner also gets a free weekend stay next year, right, dear?” Sadie pressed.
“That’s right.” Julie nodded as the sound of a voice outside caught her attention. “Ladies, it’s been a pleasure.
Please enjoy your tea. I’ll check you in at the front desk when you’re finished.”
The ladies gave another synchronized nod, and Julie left the tearoom.
The bell above the door chimed. The couple that strode into the foyer consisted of a bored-looking man with thinning brown hair and a small frown, and a woman who looked happy enough for the both of them. The man’s attire seemed somewhat out of place for mid-Missouri—khaki shorts, athletic sandals, and a Hawaiian print shirt that was loud and untucked. Julie got the feeling he’d rather be anyplace else in the world. It was as if he’d planned to vacation in an exotic locale and somehow ended up in Straussberg instead.
“Hi,” the woman gushed, removing her floppy white hat. She pushed her sunglasses onto the top of her head to perch like a plastic tiara on her frizzy hair. “We’re the Calhouns. Susan and Kenneth.” She pointed at herself and her husband in turn, as if Julie wouldn’t be able to figure out who was who without a little help.
“Welcome,” Julie said with a smile. She introduced herself as they registered and took their key. “Everyone is gathering in the tearoom before the event starts. If you’d like to get settled first—”
“Oh, no,” Susan said with a wave of her hand. “We can do that later.”
“I’ll show you the way, then,” Julie said as she helped Kenneth settle their bags by the front desk.
Julie led them to the tearoom where she hoped some refreshments and a story or two from Shirley would make Kenneth look a little less like he’d rather be having dental work done. Julie got the distinct impression that the whole weekend had been Susan’s idea. Julie hoped he would reign
in his less-than-enthusiastic attitude and play his part in the mystery like a good sport.
For the next hour and a half, Julie checked in guests, handed out keys, and directed the motley group of mystery quilters to the tearoom. Aside from Sadie, Joyce, Susan, and Kenneth, the guest list included Alice Peyton, a fifty-something divorcée whose frown was deeper and wider than Kenneth’s. Alice told them all that she had received the trip as a gift from her kids, but she didn’t look very happy about it. Maybe, like Kenneth, she’d had her sights set on someplace with a beach.
Dr. Liam Preston also joined the group. He was handsome in a bookish sort of way, with wire-rimmed glasses, wavy blond hair, and a dimpled chin. He introduced himself as a professor of literary studies. He certainly looked the part with his khaki trousers and tweed blazer complete with leather patches at the elbows. What he
look like was a quilter. But Julie kept her mouth shut. She’d learned the hard way with a previous guest, Daniel Franklin, that looks could be deceiving.
Julie had been more than a little caught off guard last autumn when the ruggedly handsome Daniel had stepped into the lobby and requested a room. She hadn’t pegged him for the type to enjoy something as quiet and traditionally feminine as quilting. Yet, he knew more than most about patterns and techniques. He’d decided to remain in Straussberg and open a museum. Now he was something of a friend—a very handsome friend. But that wasn’t the point. No, the point was that she vowed not to make assumptions about any of her guests again.
She tried to apply that same theory to Gregory Wilson, the forty-year-old bachelor standing across the room from her. Gregory had a thinning patch of light hair, a middle-aged paunch, and beady eyes that shone behind thick glasses. He
made no effort to share his motivation for attending the weekend event. In fact, he didn’t say much at all. He simply listened to everyone tell their stories while he drank his tea in silence. Suspicious silence.
“I’m not going to judge,” Julie whispered to herself as she waited for the last guest. “I am
going to judge.”
Carrie Windsor, the first guest to make a reservation and the last one to arrive, finally skittered into the inn a half hour before the festivities were set to begin. Like Gregory, she wore glasses. Unlike Gregory, her oversized specs ate up half of her petite face, covering it from forehead to cheeks. She wore her pale blond hair pulled back with a claw clip, a few tendrils escaping to wisp around her face like a shaggy halo. The youngest in the group, she appeared to be no more than eighteen. Yet her eyes, though covered by the glasses, had an age about them that belied her pixie stature and innocent air. She looked a little like she had been caught in a storm, her clothes windblown and stretched out. In fact, everything she wore looked faded and old, as if she’d owned it since the dawn of time. She smiled politely and ducked her head as Julie handed her a room key.
Once Carrie was checked in, Julie joined the guests in the tearoom as they listened to Shirley spin her latest tale.
What a group.
She had a feeling the weekend would be anything but boring.
Shirley was clearly enjoying it. She nearly beamed with joy at having such a captive audience. She’d been telling stories for so long, her voice had started to turn hoarse, and she was drinking almost as much tea as she served. As she finished a tale about the ghost who reportedly lived at a local farm and occasionally killed the chickens, Julie made her way to the front of the group.
Hiding a smile, Julie refrained from pointing out that it might have been a fox doing the dirty deed. Better to let Shirley have her fun.
“That’s all well and good, dear,” Sadie said to Shirley, “but what I
want to hear about is the Civil War journal you found here.”
A murmur of agreement rippled among the guests.
“You found a Civil War journal?” Liam Preston asked mid-sip. The tiny floral-patterned teacup he held looked ridiculous in his large hands.
“It’s not a journal per se,” Julie interjected. “More of a manual that someone wrote in. But the entries date back to 1861.”
“What a treasure!” Liam exclaimed. “Wherever did you find it?”
“In the basement,” Julie said. “I was looking through some old boxes and happened upon it.” She didn’t add that she was trying to find an item for an upcoming school auction at the time. She switched her focus to Sadie. “How did you know about the book?”
“There was an article in the local paper about it, dear,” Sadie said.
Julie regarded her curiously. There
been an article in the local paper, but that didn’t explain how Sadie knew about it. She wasn’t from Straussberg.
“The article was picked up by a couple of larger papers,” Joyce added, as if reading her mind. “I read about it in the
. That’s our paper.”
“And then there’s the article on the Internet,” Sadie continued. “That’s how I heard about it.”
Julie thought Sadie might pull a smartphone out of her handbag and show her the story.
She found it hard to believe anyone would give much
thought to the old manual. When she’d first discovered it, she called an expert in Civil War memorabilia and told him what she’d found. He’d asked her several questions about the book and then had her take some digital photographs of the pages and send them to him. An hour later he’d called back to say it wasn’t worth more than two or three hundred dollars—to the right buyer. Julie thought that was perfect for the auction, though she still hadn’t received approval from Millie to donate it to the local school.
Clearly the inn’s feisty owner had better things to do in Baja than answer emails as Julie still hadn’t received a response to her question about the book. Though annoyed by the delay, Julie knew that she’d be hard-pressed to answer her email, too, if she had the choice between looking at prehistoric paintings or a laptop.
“Will you show us the book?” Carrie asked timidly. “It sounds fascinating.”
Julie studied her for a moment. It was the first time the young girl had spoken since they’d entered the tearoom.
“Yes,” Liam added, “I would love to take a peek at it.”
Of course he would
, Julie thought. He was a professor of literature.
She gazed around at the eager faces. Well,
of the faces were eager. Sadie, Joyce, and Susan Calhoun looked as interested as Liam and Carrie, while Kenneth Calhoun, Alice Peyton, and Gregory Wilson ranged from bored to indifferent.
Julie checked her watch. She was going to break in a few minutes so her guests would have enough time to settle in and get ready for the next event. “I suppose I could show it to you.”
A chorus of yays rose from some of the guests, and Julie went to her office to retrieve the book. She had locked it inside
the inn’s safe, more out of habit than true worry about the book being stolen. With deft fingers, she maneuvered the combination lock and extracted the manual.
She hadn’t taken the time to read everything in it, handwritten or otherwise, but she could tell from the worn leather cover that it was very old. She’d done a little research online but wasn’t able to contact more than the one expert before she’d been forced to shift her focus back to planning the weekend’s activities.
“Here it is,” Julie said as she returned to the tearoom. The guests crowded around to look at the tiny bound book.
“That is truly spectacular,” Liam said. He cupped one palm under his chin. Julie thought all he needed was a pipe to complete his professorial look, or maybe a smoking jacket and crackling fire. But the late-spring Missouri weather was much too warm for a fire.
After a few minutes of the guests oohing and aahing over the old relic, Julie checked her watch. “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe it’s time to get this mystery weekend under way. You should have received your character sketches in the mail a few weeks ago. A big thank-you goes out to Shirley for creating such entertaining characters and such a shrewd killer.” The guests all clapped, and Shirley gave a quick curtsy.
“Just to refresh everyone’s memory,” Julie continued, “this will mostly be an off-the-cuff event. It’s not a play. Your names and relationships have not been changed for the event, though your histories and backgrounds have been rewritten. This is not a team event, so even if you are here as a pair …” She looked from Sadie and Joyce to the Calhouns. “… it’s every player for himself.”
Joyce clasped her hands. “Oh, this is so exciting!”
Julie chuckled. “We’ve got forty-five minutes before dinner.
So, please settle in and change into whatever costumes you brought and get into character. Remember, the success of this event rides on your shoulders. The more participation we have from you, the better experience everyone will have. Any questions?”
Sadie raised her hand. “Will we be able to finish our dinner? I have to take medication at mealtimes, and if I don’t eat enough I tend to get …” She blushed. “Well, it’s not good, dear.”
Julie smiled indulgently at the woman. “I can’t tell you when the murder will take place, but I will personally see to it that you have plenty to eat.”
“Thank you, dear.”
The guests shifted anxiously and shook their heads. The enthusiastic faces had turned eager, and the bored ones still appeared … well, bored. Julie couldn’t help but wonder why someone would commit to such an event if they weren’t at all interested.
The guests filed out of the tearoom, and she watched them go. Kenneth’s attitude she could almost understand; it was obvious he’d come because his wife wanted to attend. But Alice and Gregory were something of a mystery.
Shirley rubbed her hands together, her round face lighting up with excitement. “This is going to be so much fun. We should think about holding a murder mystery event at least twice a year.”
“Let’s wait and see if we survive this one first,” Julie said.
“Hello?” A male voice called from the foyer.
“That must be Brandon,” Shirley said, referring to the actor they had hired to play a key role in the mystery.
“Good. Have you seen Daniel yet today?” Julie asked
Shirley as they made their way to the front of the inn.
“Right here.” Daniel’s tall frame stood in the foyer next to the young actor.
Both men were dressed in costume. Since Brandon was a member of the local community theater, his costume was detailed and spot-on. He had the perfect turn-of-the-century cut to his coat and waistcoat.
Julie couldn’t quite pin down the exact era of Daniel’s ensemble. Not because she didn’t know period dress, but because his interpretation of late-1800s fashion looked a bit more … eclectic than those seen in a museum.
Regardless, he still managed to look rugged and handsome. But Julie knew better than to get involved with men like him. She’d been down that road before. She
ignore the playful twinkle in his eyes and the way his white shirt made him appear even tanner. He was a stuffy old treasure hunter. Why couldn’t he just look like one?
“I really appreciate you helping us tonight,” she told the pair.
“It’s my pleasure.” Daniel smiled, revealing deep dimples and even, white teeth.
“Glad to help,” Brandon said, casting a sidelong glance at Shirley. “I am still getting paid, right?”
Julie shot Shirley a look.
The redhead simply nodded. “Fifty dollars.”
“Cool,” he said. “Thanks, Aunt Shirley.”
“I’ll show you where you need to be.” Shirley took his arm and led her nephew toward the dining room.
“And to think, you got me for free,” Daniel said, giving Julie another one of his killer smiles.
“You’re not my nephew.”
Daniel’s eyes darkened. “No, I’m not.”
Something in his tone sent little shivers down her spine.
She eyed his puffy shirt and riding pants. A pirate. That was what he reminded her of. A turn-of-the-century pirate. She raised an eyebrow and didn’t even try to hide her smile.
“What?” Daniel asked with a laugh. “You don’t like my costume?”
“It was the best I could do. I don’t have the resources of Straussberg’s community theater wardrobe department at my disposal.”
“I suppose not.” Julie looped her arm through one of his and led him out of the foyer. “Come along, Captain Jack. I’ll show you what you’re supposed to do. Then I’ve got to run upstairs and change.”
“If you need any costuming advice—”
“Oh, does your pirate tailor work this late?” Julie asked, looking at her watch.
“I hope so. I forgot my eye patch.”
urprisingly, it turned out that Daniel’s costume was actually one of the better ones among the group gathered in the dining room.
Kenneth, in keeping with his previous bored attitude, had donned a George Washington–style coat over his Hawaiian print shirt. He’d at least changed out of his khaki shorts and put on khaki
. If Julie had been handing out prizes for the worst-dressed, he would have won hands down.
On the other end of the spectrum was Gregory. He looked like a character straight out of an Edith Wharton novel—authentic and impeccable. Everyone else fell somewhere in between.
Sadie and Joyce had traded their pantsuits for dresses reminiscent of Little Bo Peep’s. All they needed to complete their looks were shepherd’s hooks. Both dresses were blue, but Joyce’s was just enough on the aqua side that it spectacularly clashed with her hair.
“Oh, look at that dress!” Sadie exclaimed as Julie entered the room. “Almost as glamorous as the one Scarlett wore.”
“Scarlett O’Hara?” Julie asked, glancing down at her dress. It was dark purple, not red, and not nearly as revealing as the one from
Gone with the Wind
. She gave the bodice a little tug just to be on the safe side.
“No, silly,” Joyce said. “Scarlett Jones.”
Julie blinked. “Who’s Scarlett Jones?”
“A good friend of ours,” Sadie said with an impatient sigh. Then she took a long sip of wine, as if Julie should’ve known which Scarlett they were referring to.
Julie could only smile in response.
The two women bustled off to comment on Susan’s dress, their petticoats rustling as they moved. Like Gregory, Susan had gone all out, wearing long white gloves and a sparkling bracelet glittering around one wrist. She looked cool and sophisticated in emerald green.
“There you are!” Shirley exclaimed as tiny Carrie Windsor entered the room, a timid expression on her face. Wrapped in a pastel pink sateen dress with big puffy sleeves, a heart-shaped bodice, and a drop waist, Carrie looked like she was headed for her high school prom … in 1987. Her glasses still dominated her face, though she had managed to secure all of her hair in some sort of French twist. She looked wholly uncomfortable as Shirley dove in for a hug.
Inga Mehl, the inn’s housekeeper, marched into the room wearing her usual frown and drab gray dress. She was something of a fixture at the inn, having worked there for many years. No-nonsense, highly efficient, and stealthy, Inga still carried a slight accent from her native Germany and insisted on wearing the staid gray uniform of a traditional domestic while at work, even though Millie didn’t require it. Though she was a part of the murder mystery, she’d refused to wear a costume, forcing Shirley to rewrite her part so that she could “play” the part of a housekeeper.
And then there was Alice, the spitting image of a prairie woman from the late 1800s. Her dress was high-necked, long-sleeved, and made from a pale yellow calico. Although her costume was sorely out of date, she blended right in with the rest of the diverse group. It wasn’t exactly how Julie had pictured the party, but it was the spirit of the thing that mattered.
Julie stood at the head of the dinner table and clinked a spoon against her wine glass. “Good evening, everyone,”
she said as the chatter died down. “As you all know, tonight
will be murdered.” She paused for drama, looking at each guest in turn.
“Until then,” Julie continued, “enjoy your meal and get to know one another. And stay in character as much as possible. This is a chance to just have fun being someone else for a couple of days.”
“Here, here!” Susan shouted.
Everyone raised their glasses in a toast.
Julie sat back in her seat as Hannah emerged from the kitchen with a rolling cart of food and numerous bread baskets. Everyone got the same meal, which was plated in the kitchen and served efficiently with Inga’s help.
Soon, all that could be heard was the clanking of silverware and the murmur of conversation as the guests warmed up to playing their parts in the mystery.
“Good idea to have dinner first,” Daniel said, leaning close to Julie.
She nodded. “This way everyone will have time to get used to their characters before the mystery actually begins.”
Daniel smiled and gave her a wink. “No, because I’m starving.”
She shot him an exasperated look. He merely widened his smile and then took a bite of his bread.
It really was a shame he was so handsome. Maybe in another life, at another time, she could have fallen for him. But right now? She was a little tied up, hiding out from international art thieves. She and Hannah had come to Straussberg for one purpose and one purpose only: to save their bacon. Yet, somehow in the process, she had gotten entrenched in being Julie Ellis, a humble inn manager. And she actually rather enjoyed it.
Daniel caught her eye again and pointed to his watch.
She knew what he was silently asking,
How long until it’s time to start the show?
Julie glanced at the large grandfather clock on the other side of the room. It was seven fifteen. Shortly before eight, the lights would flicker and then go out. When they came back on, the “body” would be found, and the mystery would begin.
She leaned closer to him. “Quit worrying about the time, and get your part done. You need to start planting clues.”
He nodded and then turned in his seat toward the other guests. “I say,” he began in what had to be the worst British accent Julie had ever heard, not to mention overly loud. “You look a tad familiar, old chap. Have we met?”
The other guests swiveled their attention to Daniel as they tried to figure out who he was talking to.
Brandon looked up from his chicken and glanced around the table as if to check and see if Daniel was really talking to him.
Julie had to admit, the kid was pretty good.
On cue, Shirley ducked her head in shame. She let out a gusty sigh, dragging everyone’s attention from Brandon to her.
Everything was going as planned.
“I don’t think so, sir,” young Brandon replied. “I’m new to these parts.”
“I see.” Daniel sat back in his seat, his eyes narrowed in dramatic fashion.
A long pause followed. The next line was supposed to be Inga’s, but she was having trouble getting into the swing of the evening. It would have been better for everyone if Julie had been successful in luring Hannah out of the kitchen to play Inga’s part, but Hannah had stated quite emphatically that she would quit on the spot if they did anything other
than ask her to serve dessert. Poor, stoic Inga had been brought on instead. And she was already failing miserably.
Shirley nudged Inga with one shoulder, somehow making it seem like an accident.
“Oh.” Inga turned a bright shade of red. “Uh. What about you? I don’t remember seeing you around much.” She recited her lines in her usual deadpan monotone.
Daniel adopted a cool air, like a riverboat gambler holding four aces. “My wife and I like to travel. We’ve been through here many times. Haven’t we, dearest?”
Shirley beamed at him. “Oh, yes, and we just love staying at the Quilt Haus Inn whenever we’re in the area.” Shirley’s animated performance was as over the top as Inga’s was below it.
“Indeed we do.” Daniel smiled at Julie, who was playing the part of the innkeeper—big stretch—and then shifted his attention back to Brandon. “But I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen you somewhere before. On the riverboat, perhaps?”
Brandon shivered. “No sir, I get sick as a dog on the water. No sir, that wasn’t me on the riverboat.”
Julie checked the clock. Seven thirty. They still had half an hour of playacting and banter before the lights were scheduled to go off. So far, so good.
The thought had no sooner crossed her mind than the lights flickered and went out.