Books

coverA Cookie Before Dying

Chapter One

Olivia Greyson flicked a droplet of sweat off her forehead before it could dribble into her eyebrow. At six a.m. and already eighty-eight degrees, she hadn't expected to look out her bedroom window and find her front lawn covered in white. Browned dead grass maybe, but not crinkly white balls.

Perhaps she shouldn't have stayed up so late the previous night, Saturday or not. She and Maddie had brainstormed dozens of themed cookie cutter events for The Gingerbread House, enough for months to come. Maddie Briggs, best friend since childhood and now Olivia's business partner, had been in fine creative form, bubbling up ideas like a red-haired volcano. The effort had required a plate of decorated cookies and a generous amount of merlot. Very generous, judging from the empty bottles Olivia had rinsed and stowed in the recycling bin. In her own defense, one of the bottles had already been opened and used for cooking and salad dressing.

As Olivia stared at her lawn, a memory from high school popped into her mind. She and Maddie and a couple guy friends had TP'd a friend's house one night. The friend's parents hadn't found it funny, and Olivia and Mad- die spent hours throwing out gobs of toilet paper after the guys left them to take the blame. If that was toilet paper on the lawn of The Gingerbread House, she would not give up until the culprits were caught and forced to clean it up. Olivia opened one window and unhooked the screen, letting fingers of hot, sticky air reach into her bedroom. The air conditioner in her bedroom might be approaching extinction, but at least it dried the air. She poked her head outside. Nope, there were no telltale lengths of tissue hanging from tree branches, and the shapes on the lawn looked crunched up, not round like rolls of toilet paper.

Olivia knew she'd have to go outside to investigate. She slipped into the last clean casual items in her summer wardrobe, red shorts and a pink tank top. A glance in the mirror confirmed that the colors were wrong for her auburn hair and medium complexion. An obsession with clothes wasn't one of Olivia's vices; however, this outfit was destined for the Chatterley Heights thrift shop. Right after she caught up on the laundry.

Olivia slapped the end of her unmade bed and two silky ears poked up from a fold in the blanket. "Come on, you lazy hunk of fur." Spunky, her little rescue Yorkshire terrier, yawned. "Yeah, I know it's early, but we need to look at something outside." At the word "outside," Spunky wrig- gled out from the covers, leaped to the floor, and followed his mistress down the hallway. His nails clicked on the tile floor of the kitchen as he trotted toward his empty food bowl.

"First things first." Olivia measured Italian roast into the Mr. Coffee, poured in some water, and hit the switch. She fed Spunky before heading down the hallway to the bathroom. By the time she returned, Mr. Coffee was spitting his last drops, and Spunky had licked his bowl shiny. With a whimper, he raised his big, brown eyes and cocked his head at Olivia.

"You are such a con artist. Do you really think I won't remember that I just filled your bowl?" Olivia slid his leash from a wall hook and shook it. "Come on, Spunky, adventure awaits."

Olivia lived above her store, The Gingerbread House, in the top floor of a small Queen Anne for which she proudly held a mortgage. At least her debt level had dipped a bit. She'd used part of an inheritance from her dear friend, Clarisse Chamberlain, to pay down the mortgage and refinance at a much lower interest rate. Before her death, Clarisse had encouraged Olivia in her dream of opening The Gingerbread House, the only store in town that specialized in cookie cutters. Olivia liked to think that Clarisse would approve of her decision to use some of her inheritance to secure the future of her business.

Now Olivia had the mystery of the white August lawn to solve, and she hoped it would turn out to be more comedy than tragedy.

When she and Spunky reached the foyer at the bottom of the staircase, Olivia tried the door leading to The Gingerbread House to make sure it was locked. It was. The front door lock and deadbolt were secure, as well. So a break-in hadn't accompanied whatever detritus awaited on her front lawn.

Olivia had barely opened the front door when Spunky squeezed through the crack. With all the strength in his five-pound body, he yanked sharply at his leash and managed to break from Olivia's grip.

"Spunky! You get your fuzzy little butt back here right now." True to his terrier nature, Spunky ignored her. Olivia was about to yell more forcefully when she stopped short, reminding herself that whoever had littered The Gingerbread House lawn might still be lurking about, perhaps with a camera and tape recorder. She didn't relish the idea of seeing herself on YouTube.

Olivia scanned her lawn in puzzlement. Apparently, someone had crunched up dozens of papers and tossed them around the entire front yard of The Gingerbread House. Olivia knew crunched-up paper when she saw it, and she was looking at lots of it. As far as she could tell, none of the other stores around the town square had suffered the same insult. It must have happened after two a.m., or Maddie would have noticed when she'd headed for home.

Spunky sniffed at a nearby paper snowball. When a gust of hot wind shifted it, he leaped backward and yapped furiously.

"Spunky, hush. It's Sunday morning. Sensible people are trying to sleep."

Spunky pounced on the ball. Clutching it in his teeth, he growled and shook his head back and forth. As she crossed the lawn to join him, Olivia leaned down and scooped up one of the papers. She snatched the end of Spunky's leash from the ground and looped it around her wrist so she could use both hands. The paper was so saturated with humidity, it made no crinkling sound as she smoothed it on her thigh.

"What fresh hell is this?" Olivia's words hung in the still, heavy air. Spunky whimpered and skittered around her feet as she stared at the huge capital letters across the top of the notice:

SUGAR KILLS!!!

Did you know:

• Sugar is the leading cause of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes?
• Eating sugar causes cancer?
• If you eat sugar while you're pregnant, it causes birth defects?
• You'll have to run five miles to work off one cookie? Ten miles if the cookie is iced?

STOP YOUR SUGAR HABIT NOW!!!

Join me at The Vegetable Plate every Tuesday evening from 7:00 to 8:00 to learn how to take your life back from the DEMON SUGAR. We'll talk about ways to escape its clutches and live sugar-free forever. We'll confront the agony and devastation of Sugar Addiction. And we'll share recipes.

Refreshments will be served: herbal teas and fresh organic vegetables.

Olivia reached into the pocket of her shorts, slid out her cell, and speed-dialed Maddie Briggs. Maddie answered on the second ring and, as usual, began chattering at once. "Hey, I was thinking, wouldn't it be fun to have an early morning store event and serve breakfast cookies?"

"Breakfast . . ."

"Cookies, right. Like egg-shaped cookies, wavy slices of bacon, toast and sweet rolls and sausage links and coffee cups and—"

"Got it," Olivia said. "Don't forget the slices of cold pizza." She had recently acknowledged her addiction to pizza for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime snacks. As of yet, she hadn't determined whether any intervention was called for. "And empty merlot bottles," she added. "They were all over my kitchen this morning."

"Ouch, don't remind me," Maddie said. "So shall we bake today? We have that nice new freezer to fill, and I long to wield a rolling pin once more."

"First, you need to get right over here and take a look at The Gingerbread House lawn," Olivia said. "It might make you want to wield that rolling pin for another purpose."

"Intriguing," Maddie said. "What's up?"

"Something odd and disturbing. You'll want to read it for yourself."

"Read? Did someone spray-paint naughty words on the grass? Read them to me. You can abbreviate if you're embarrassed." When Olivia hesitated, Maddie added, "Right now, Livie. As in this instant. I'm dying of curiosity here."

Olivia brushed dew-limp hair off her forehead with the back of her hand. "Not spray paint. Paper. The lawn is covered with balled-up paper notices. I'm holding one of them. The two-word heading is 'Sugar Kills,' which ought to give you the general idea. And I bet I can guess who wrote it."

"Charlene Critch, rhymes with—" A fierce round of Yorkie yapping drowned out Maddie's voice.

"Spunky agrees with you," Olivia said. "He is barking in the direction of the store next door. The store that is not the Heights Hardware."

"Ah, The Vegetable Plate," Maddie said. "Spunky is such a discerning little creature. Read me the rest of it."

"Hm?"

"Charlene's rant, Livie, what else does it say?"

"I think Spunky's on to something," Olivia said.

"Yes, we've established that. Now, I beg of you, read."

"I thought I saw a light go on and off upstairs in The Vegetable Plate," Olivia said. "Isn't Charlene using the top floor for storage?"

"It's six thirty in the morning. Charlene's probably up there sharpening her fangs for a breakfast of raw rutabaga. Or maybe that's where she keeps a secret stash of chocolate, or her printing press, or—"

"I don't think so. Charlene's car isn't in her spot, and she lives fifteen miles out of town. Hush, Spunky," Olivia commanded as she picked him up and tucked him into the circle of her arm. She unlocked the front door of The Gingerbread House and pushed the squirming dog into the foyer. Spunky spun around and leaped for the door, but Olivia managed to close it in time.

"Sorry, Kiddo, I'll be right back." As Olivia headed across the damp lawn toward the The Vegetable Plate, she realized her cell phone was squawking. "Maddie?"

"Who else would it be? What the heck is going on?" "I'm sure you're right and it's nothing," Olivia said, "but I'm going to peek through the display window of The Vegetable Plate, just to make sure everything looks normal." Olivia glanced up at the top floor of the store and saw no lights. When she reached the front display window, she cupped her hands around her eyes and pressed her nose against the glass. The Vegetable Plate's sales area occupied the former parlor of a modest Victorian summer home. Unlike The Gingerbread House, Charlene Critch's store had no other windows scattered around the room, so Olivia could make out only the sales counter plus a few outlines of display tables.

"Maddie? Are you still there?" "Waiting impatiently."

"I can't see much inside The Vegetable Plate. Maybe I imagined the light upstairs, or it could have been the sun reflecting off the glass. I'll make sure the front door is . . ." The doorknob turned in Olivia's hand. "Uh oh."

"What does 'uh oh' mean, Livie? Livie?"

With a light push, Olivia opened the door a few inches. "Livie, speak to me. Now." Maddie's voice seemed to leap out of the cell phone.

"Keep it down, Maddie. I'm betting Charlene forgot to lock her door. I'll poke my head inside and take a quick look around. I'll make sure everything is okay, don't fuss. I'll lock the front door on my way out."

"Livie, don't wander around in there alone. What if there's a burglar inside, or a maniacal killer? At least wait for me, I'll be right there."

"Stop fretting. I'll be fine."

"I'm out the door, Livie. Don't hang up."

"Uh huh." Olivia hung up. She eased open the front door and listened. Hearing nothing beyond the usual creaking associated with old houses, she entered and shut the door behind her. The store went pitch dark. Olivia remembered a light switch located to the left of the entrance. She felt for it along the wall and flipped on the overhead lights. Her hand closed around her cell phone as she took in the condition of The Vegetable Plate.

Charlene Critch was neat and precise, from her personal grooming to her store inventory. The Vegetable Plate exem- plified a place for everything and nothing even slightly out of place. Not now, though. Right inside the front door, Olivia had nearly crunched several bottles of vitamin sup- plements tossed on the floor. On the wall behind the cash register, Charlene's favorite poster—Your Mother Was Right: Eat Your Vegetables!—hung like a limp table- cloth from one remaining tack. A wall bookshelf, normally stuffed with health food cookbooks, was empty, its contents strewn on the floor, spines broken and covers bent.

The door to Charlene's cooler stood wide open. Organic cheeses and ready-to-eat tofu sandwiches lay in a pile on the floor, as if someone had swept them out of the cooler in one movement. The cool air dissipated quickly in the hot room. Olivia reached out to close the door but changed her mind. The scene suggested a hurried, impatient search by an intruder who might have been careless enough to leave fingerprints.

Only one item appeared untouched—Charlene's cash register. Had the intruder assumed the cash would be locked in a safe overnight? Or maybe cash wasn't the motive for the break-in. Except there hadn't been an actual break-in, had there? Olivia examined the front door lock and saw no damage. Either the intruder possessed a key or Charlene had left the store unlocked Saturday evening. Olivia tried to imagine Charlene forgetting such an important detail—or any detail, for that matter—and failed. Charlene loved The Vegetable Plate. Olivia thought about how she'd feel if she walked into The Gingerbread House one morning and found her beloved cookie cutters tossed on the floor and stepped on, her precious cookbooks and baking equipment ripped and smashed. Her heart would crumple. Impossible as Charlene could be, Olivia felt a surge of empathy for her.

Olivia flipped open her cell phone, intending to call Chatterley Heights' sheriff, Del Jenkins. Hesitating, she listened to the store. Had she heard a sound coming from the hallway that led to the kitchen? The Vegetable Plate was smaller than The Gingerbread House, having only a few rooms downstairs and a dormer upstairs. The kitchen at the back of the store led out to a tiny, overgrown back yard.

There it was again. Olivia heard a faint click, like magnets catching as a cabinet door opens or closes. She shut the cover on her cell phone. If the kitchen was in the same chaotic state as the sales area, Charlene might be back there straightening up. Maybe she'd already phoned the sheriff.

To be on the safe side, Olivia approached the kitchen as softly as she could, sidestepping a trail of broken mugs that used to read, Drink your veggies! Luckily, she had worn her running shoes. Not that she ran much in August. In the sweltering heat, not even her fetching little Yorkie could convince her to go for a jog.

The kitchen door was the type that swung in and out to facilitate carrying heavy, hot casseroles into the dining room and stacks of dirty plates back to the kitchen sink. Olivia nudged the door a fraction, enough to allow a peek into the kitchen. She could see a narrow swath across the room to the back door, which hung open. At first, she heard nothing. Maybe an animal had wandered inside and caused all this damage while hunting for food. No, only an animal of human height and dexterity could have ripped a poster off a wall and opened the cheese cooler. Besides, a hungry animal wouldn't have left the cheese on the floor, neatly wrapped.

Olivia eased the kitchen door open wider to reveal a row of cabinets along the wall. No one was in sight, but now she could hear a faint shuffling sound. She inched the door far- ther, a millimeter at a time.

"Damn." The whispered curse dripped venom yet was so soft that Olivia couldn't tell whether the voice was male or female. If she could only get a glimpse of a foot or a shoulder . . .

"I'll kill her." This time the voice sounded male, but Olivia didn't recognize it.

A crash, followed by the tinkling of broken glass, startled Olivia into backing away from the kitchen door too quickly. The door swung toward her, then back into the kitchen. Now Olivia was the one cursing to herself. She'd announced her presence to the intruder. He would either run away or barge through the door toward her, and it would happen fast.

Olivia backed aside from the swinging door while she flipped open her cell phone. She had the police department on speed dial, so she didn't bother with 911. When the kitchen door didn't move, she assumed the intruder had escaped out the back. By the first ring, Olivia had crossed the empty kitchen, glass crunching beneath her feet. She ran out the open door in time to see a man's back disappear into a line of arborvitae.

"Chatterley Heights Police Department. Sheriff Jenkins speaking."

It was the voice Olivia had hoped to hear. "Del, it's me. There's been a break-in at The Vegetable Plate. I just saw a man run through the back yard, heading north."

"On my way," Del said. "Can you describe the guy?"

"I only saw his back from a distance, but he looked and moved like a fairly young man. He was tall, I'd say, and slender, athletic. Dark hair. Jeans and a blue T-shirt."

"How dark was his hair? How long was it? Was it shaggy? Neatly cut?"

Olivia closed her eyes and remembered the man's hair lifting as he ran. "Dark brown, I'd say, not black. Professionally trimmed. It wasn't really short, but not long and shaggy, either."

"Nothing else?"

"Sorry."

"Okay, I'll send out an APB and be there as soon as pos- sible. You stay in The Gingerbread House and I'll come talk to you later."

"Del, I'm—"

"I mean it, Livie. Sit this one out, okay?" The sheriff's cell phone clicked off.

Too late for that. Olivia figured it would take Del no more than a few minutes to realize she couldn't have seen the intruder run off if she'd been in The Gingerbread House—she didn't have a view of Charlene's back yard. Del would be irritated, but so be it. The two of them had been tiptoeing around each other in an almost-relationship since the previous spring, when Olivia had become embroiled in the investigation of her dear friend Clarisse's death. She knew his concern for her was real, but could she help it if crime popped up right next door?

On her way back through The Vegetable Plate kitchen, Olivia left cabinet doors hanging and tried to avoid the broken glass. She'd already tampered enough with the scene, though for a good cause. She didn't envy Charlene having to clean up the mess. Maybe she and Maddie could lend a hand; it might improve their relationship with her.

"OH. MY. GOD." Charlene's voice, petulant at the best of times, punched the air with such force that Olivia stepped backward. She crunched a pile of glass shards loud enough to be heard through the closed kitchen door. "What was that?" Charlene shrieked. "Oh my god, he's still here."

"Knock it off, Charlene, it's probably Livie." The swing- ing door opened, and Maddie appeared. "Wow." She took in the emptied cupboards and broken glass. "Who won?"

Charlene pushed past Maddie. "Oh my God, did you make this mess?"

"Of course not." Olivia glanced down at her feet, planted amid the remains of what might have been pricey water goblets. "I thought I saw an intruder in your store, and I came over to investigate. He was going through your cupboards, so I assume he's also the one who tossed your glassware on the floor." She heard the irritation in her own voice and banished all thought of helping Charlene with the cleanup.

"Well, you certainly didn't try to save anything, did you. And my 'glassware' was crystal. Do you have any idea how much those goblets were worth? No, of course you don't."

It was common knowledge that Olivia had recently inherited an enviable sum of money, at least for the average person, plus an even more enviable collection of vintage cookie cutters, so it struck her that Charlene's family must be quite well off. Perhaps the man who broke into The Vegetable Plate was aware of that.

"Hey," Maddie said. "You have no right to talk to Livie that way. She was trying to help, not that you care."

"Well, it looks to me like she made things worse by interfering."

"In fact," Olivia said, "I was able to call the sheriff and give him a partial description of the intruder, as well as his direction when he took off. He was tall and slender with dark brown hair. Does that sound like anyone you know?" As always, Charlene had applied her makeup with skill and attention to detail, but it couldn't hide a sudden shift in her emotions. She hugged her arms around her slender rib cage and dug her manicured fingernails into the bare flesh of her upper arms.

"Charlene? You know who did this, don't you?" Olivia pointed toward the piles of glass, sparkling as they caught the overhead light. "Was that man looking for something in particular? Because he didn't have to trash your belongings. That was done with anger. It was personal." She reached toward Charlene's shoulder.

Charlene pulled back. "I don't know anyone who would do this to me." She lifted her chin. "At least, not a man. A jealous woman, maybe, but not a man. Anyway, I don't believe you really saw anyone. You were probably hallucinating. A sugar high will do that."

With a derisive snort, Maddie said, "Hah! And what were you on when you threw those stupid flyers all over our lawn?"

"Are you deaf? I told you a hundred times on the way over, I did not throw those flyers on your silly lawn. Although whoever did it deserves a medal."

Maddie's freckled cheeks flushed. "What the heck is that supposed to mean?"

"You know perfectly well you are killing innocent people with all that sugar you're stuffing down their throats. You should be arrested."

"Well, at least our customers actually enjoy what we offer. All you do is manipulate people with fear and guilt."

"Murderer!"

"Zealot!"

"Go to your rooms, both of you!" Maddie and Charlene turned to stare at Olivia, who had stunned them and herself by shouting.

"Is that you, Livie?" Sheriff Del Jenkins called from inside the store. Moments later, he appeared at the kitchen door, showing no sign that he had heard a squabble. With a grim smile at Olivia, Del said, "Why am I not surprised to find you still here." When no one spoke, he added, "Charlene, Maddie, any chance I can get past you and into the kitchen, so I can do my job?"

"Sorry," Maddie said. "Of course you can. We were about to call a truce and break for coffee. Want some?"

"Tea," Charlene said. "Coffee is bad for the blood pressure. I only drink herbal tea. No sugar, of course."

Olivia shot a warning glance in Maddie's direction. Aside from a surreptitious rolling of her eyes, Maddie allowed Charlene's insistence on sugarless tea to go unchallenged.

As for Charlene, the fight had gone out of her. Her shoulders slumped as she glanced into her ruined kitchen. "I guess we'll have to use the little microwave I keep in the store to make tea. I'll get some water from the bathroom."

Once Charlene was out of sight, Maddie said, "I'll go to The Gingerbread House and grab some coffee for us. Won't take long. Maybe I'll bring some cookies."

Watching Maddie's retreating back, Olivia said to Del, "I'm afraid I had to run through the kitchen to see the intruder, but otherwise I don't think I touched anything. The door to the back yard was already open."

"What's with all that paper I saw on your lawn?" Del asked as he surveyed the damage in Charlene's kitchen. "I have to admit, I picked one up and read it. Looked like something Ms. Critch might write."

"Charlene didn't deny writing the notice, but she insists she didn't throw all those copies on our property," Olivia said. "And no, I did not race over here in a rage and destroy Charlene's store for revenge."

"I wasn't implying that you did," Del said with the faintest hint of a smile. "You seemed to be the only one not in a rage."

* * *

Maddie rolled the trash can onto the lawn and began to toss paper basketballs.

"I suppose we should be recycling all this paper," Olivia said.

"Or we could borrow a super-sized fan from the hard- ware and blow the stuff onto Charlene's lawn. This humidity adds some real heft. It would be a shame to waste such an opportunity." Maddie sank an overhead ball into the can. "Nailed it," she said. "After I left, what did Del have to say about the break-in? Any suspects?"

"Not that he mentioned. At least he doesn't seem to suspect us. However, in future you might want to control your irritation with Charlene, in public anyway. You did sound as if you'd happily thrash her with a ten-pound bag of sugar."

"Oh that," Maddie said with a dismissive laugh. "Del knows I'm harmless."

Olivia found a tissue in the pocket of her shorts and used it to blot perspiration from her forehead. "This qualifies as aerobic activity," she said, "for which it is way too hot. We need a rake."

"I'll pick one up from the hardware when I meet Lucas for lunch." Maddie's still newish love, Lucas Ashford, was the quiet and, to use Maddie's description, yummy owner of the Heights Hardware. "Although it won't be much use until the next time Charlene decides to decorate our lawn in her own special way. Why would you worry that Del would suspect us of trashing The Vegetable Pile?"

"The Vegetable Plate. As if you didn't know."

"Slip of the tongue."

Olivia scooped up a paper. "The content of this flyer might look to some folks like a motive."

"Point taken. It's clear as day Charlene wrote these, and I could cheerfully stuff them down her throat." With fists planted on her curvy hips and curls spiraling wildly, Maddie did resemble an avenging goddess. "If I were that sort of person," she added. "Which I am not."

Olivia dumped a load into the can and dried her arms on her shorts. "What do we really know about Charlene?"

"Not much from my end," Maddie said. "I asked my aunt Sadie if she remembered anything about the Critch family. She thought they'd lived a few miles out of Chatterley Heights years ago and moved away when Charlene was little. She might have been thinking of another family, though. I don't remember Charlene at all, but she is a bit younger than we are. Hence her juvenile behavior."

"She's somewhere around twenty-five," Olivia said, "which would make her six or seven years younger than we are and a couple years younger than Jason."

"Your brother is more mature than Charlene, which isn't saying a lot," Maddie said. "No offense meant."

"None taken."

"Here's what I don't get," Maddie said. "Why would Charlene think it was such a good idea to dump a truckload of crinkled-up flyers on the dew-soaked lawn of The Gin- gerbread House? What does she get out of it?"

"I don't think Charlene did this. I suspect it might have something to do with the man I saw running from her store."

"The man who, according to Charlene, is a figment of your sugar-addled imagination?"

"Which made me very curious," Olivia said. A lock of damp auburn hair fell across her forehead, and she blew it away from her eyes. "Why would Charlene deny the existence of someone who had vandalized her beloved store? She tried to blame us, but that didn't go anywhere. I doubt she believed it herself."

Curiosity sparked in Maddie's green eyes. "Maybe she's being stalked. If she knows her stalker, why wouldn't she say so?"

"I don't know about the stalking part, but she certainly clammed up at my description of the man I saw running from her kitchen. I'll bet you a gingerbread cookie cutter family that she knows who it was but doesn't want his identity revealed. Maybe it's someone she cares about. Which is why we should learn more about Charlene Critch."

"You can't kid me, Livie Greyson. You are seriously addicted to mysteries. Don't think I haven't noticed the Agatha Christies you keep taking out of the library. Don't get me wrong, I grew up with Nancy Drew, but you'll have to unearth Charlene's secrets by yourself. The less I know about her, the happier I'll be."

"I'll grant she can be irritating, but why do you dislike her so much?"

Maddie scooped up some papers, balled them together, and smashed them into the full trash can. "Because Charlene is skinny and blonde and her hair always behaves no matter what the humidity."

With a puzzled frown, Olivia said, "But you are curvy and have red hair with personality. What's the problem?"

Maddie kicked at one of the few remaining wads of paper. "I guess it's what Heather Irwin said to me last week. I stopped in at the library to talk about the cookies for Gwen and Herbie's baby shower—did you know that Heather is organizing it? Anyway, Heather dragged me into her office to talk about some things Charlene had said while she was checking out a few books. She doesn't like Charlene any better than I do, maybe even less."

"Charlene reads library books?" Olivia's question came out sarcastic, and Maddie grinned. In fact, Olivia was wondering why Charlene, with her vast and expensive wardrobe, didn't buy her own books.

"Good question," Maddie said. "Heather said they were mostly romances and some bogus reference book about poisons in the foods we eat. Anyway, if I may continue, Heather told me that Charlene asked a bunch of personal questions about Lucas and me. Like, are we really, really a couple? Why hasn't Lucas ever married? He's so attractive, is he afraid of commitment? And aren't I running out of time to have kids? Not that I'm insecure."

"Not since the seventh grade," Olivia said. "Charlene, on the other hand, screams insecurity."

Maddie brightened. "You always know the right thing to say. Anyway, it might be fun to watch her try to flirt with Lucas. He doesn't know what the word means. Lord knows I wasted years getting nowhere with him, until I gave up and started treating him like the guy next door. Which he is. That's when he finally noticed me."

"That plus the scent of your baking as it drifted over to his hardware store. Never underestimate the power of decorated cookies." Olivia didn't add that once Lucas became interested in her, Maddie reverted, for a time, to middle-school-crush mode. That period was best forgotten.

With a sideways leap, Maddie disposed of the final paper ball. "Enough about Charlene. There is cookie dough in the fridge, and it's calling out to me."

Between them, they hauled the trash can back to its space in the alley behind The Gingerbread House. "Let's go in the front," Olivia said. "I left poor Spunky locked in the foyer."

They rounded the corner and found Sheriff Del standing at the door, frowning as he listened to Spunky's frantic barking. He relaxed when he saw them. "I was getting worried," Del said. "I wondered if you'd gotten knocked on your heads when you returned from The Vegetable Plate."

Olivia grinned. "Do you suspect crime behind every door?"

"Occupational hazard. Especially when you're around."

"Ouch."

"I see you got the lawn back to normal," Del said. "By the way, Charlene steadfastly denies any responsibility for those flyers. She insists you two set the whole thing up, including the break-in, so you could scare her off."

Maddie snorted. "Frankly, she isn't worth the trouble." Olivia unlocked the front door, triggering an explosion of vicious barking from inside.

"Hush, Spunky, it's me. Want some coffee, Del? We were about to reward our clean-up work with a flurry of cookie construction. Besides, I have a few questions to ask you."

"I knew there'd be a catch," Del said. "Thanks, but I need to get back to the station. I only stopped by to let you know we have a suspect for the break-in. We need to check his alibi, then we'll be in touch about your identification."

"But I only saw his—"

"You saw his back as he ran off, I know, but it's worth a try. I'm tracking down some information, so I should be able to fill you in tomorrow. You're still closed on Mondays, right? Great. Meanwhile, keep your doors locked." Del left before Olivia could ask who the suspect was.

 

© Virginia Lowell.