A branch too far the lea.., p.1

A Branch Too Far (The Leafy Hollow Mysteries Book 3), page 1


A Branch Too Far (The Leafy Hollow Mysteries Book 3)

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A Branch Too Far (The Leafy Hollow Mysteries Book 3)

  A Branch Too Far

  The Leafy Hollow Mysteries, Book 3

  Rickie Blair


  Copyright © 2017 by Rickie Blair.

  Published in Canada in 2017 by Barkley Books.

  All rights reserved.

  The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise stored in a retrieval system, without the express written consent of the publisher, is an infringement of the copyright law.

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

  ISBN-13: 978-1-988881-00-3

  To receive information about new releases and special offers, please sign up for my mailing list at www.rickieblair.com.

  Cover art by: www.coverkicks.com


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25


  Also by Rickie Blair

  About the Author

  Chapter One

  The woman who emerged from the motor coach was a disappointment to the dozen protesters gathered at the Strathcona bus station. She was small and slight, her black hair showed gray roots, and wrinkles creased her lips.

  Marjorie Rupert’s dark, intense eyes surveyed the hand-lettered signs that greeted her.

  Crawl Back to Your Web!

  Killers Not Welcome Here!

  How Many Others Will Die?

  “A welcome party? How unexpected.” She set a modest canvas suitcase on the pavement while slipping on sunglasses with her other hand.

  A young woman with shiny fair hair jostled to the front, holding a wireless mic in her hand. A burly man in a red-checked shirt followed. He hoisted a video camera to his shoulder and tilted it to center his petite subject in the frame.

  The young woman smoothed her hair before leveling her mic. “Mrs. Rupert, why did you pick Strathcona as your new home?”

  “Why shouldn’t I?”

  “You must know your parole is a contentious topic.”

  An undercurrent of muttering grew louder. The protesters pressed in, their eyes narrowed. Travelers rolling overnight cases past the line of parked buses stopped to see what was happening.

  Rupert graced them all with a serene smile. “Only by those who reject the truth. Which is why I’m writing my memoirs—to tell the real story.”

  “We know that story,” a voice called. The crowd parted to reveal a heavy woman with cropped brown hair, wearing khaki pants and a black cotton shirt. A pair of binoculars swung from her neck. She glared at Rupert. “We don’t want you here.”

  Rupert appeared untroubled by this revelation. “You needn’t worry. I’m simply passing through.” She heaved an exaggerated sigh while casting her gaze over the crowd. “I know many of you are familiar with me only through the media’s misleading accounts. It’s true my life hasn’t been a peaceful one—”

  The woman with the binoculars gave a snort and pushed to the front, her cardboard sign parting the crowd like a knife.

  Rupert held up a hand. “Please, hear me out.”

  More muttering. The spectators crept closer until they surrounded her.

  A police officer leaning against the nearest bus with his arms crossed straightened up and approached the crowd, his mouth set in a grim line. “Stand back, please.”

  Rupert raised her hands before her audience, palms up, in a gesture of contrition. The loose cuffs of her shirt fell back, revealing frail wrists and papery skin.

  With sheepish glances, the protesters fell back.

  Rupert clasped a hand over her chest. “Losing my husband Ian was the most painful period of my life.” A shadow darkened her eyes. “I feel the pain of our separation every day.”

  Some listeners looked puzzled, perhaps pondering how a husband found at the bottom of a well with enough barbiturates in his system to fell a grizzly could be considered lost.

  The reporter thrust out her mic. “Some reports say Ian Rupert was the third husband you misplaced.”

  “Unconfirmed reports,” Rupert said. She smiled sadly, then raised her voice to add, “Those of you fortunate enough to have loved ones waiting for you at home—cherish them. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring.”

  She took off her sunglasses to sweep the crowd with a sorrowful look. Several people in the front row stepped back to give her more room, looking embarrassed.

  “You were convicted of second-degree murder,” the reporter insisted, eliciting murmurs from a few people who now considered this query an indignity. “Surely—”

  Rupert gripped the reporter’s arm so hard the woman winced.

  “That was a travesty. A mockery of justice. Even the name they gave me”—Rupert pursed her lips, looking disgusted—“Black Widow Killer.” She scowled, flicking a hand at the protest signs with their hand-drawn webs and ineptly portrayed black widow spiders. “How perfectly absurd. A ridiculous name conjured up by the prosecution to hoodwink twelve simpleton jurors.”

  A gasp rolled through the crowd. Then a collective “Boo” rose from the emboldened protesters. They rattled their placards with gusto as the camera swept their ranks.

  Rupert raised her voice. “Now that I’m free on parole, I intend to set the record straight.”

  The reporter peeled Rupert’s fingers from her arm. “Yes, but—”

  Rupert interrupted—her voice so suddenly booming, so incongruous with her petite size, that the crowd was shocked into silence. “I am returning to the place where I was happiest, in order to write the genuine tale of my dreadful experiences. The truth—and nothing but.” She thrust out her chin. “I’m calling it Justice Denied: A Widow’s Ordeal.”

  It took a few seconds to sink in, but when it did, the protesters’ mouths dropped open in unison. They pushed in, brandishing their signs until the bus bay was a forest of flapping cardboard.

  The exasperated officer waded in to separate the group with his hands. “Move back, please.”

  “Mrs. Rupert,” the reporter insisted, her voice rising about the tumult. “Your trial took three months to conclude, with dozens of witnesses. What can you tell us that we don’t already know?”

  Rupert leaned toward the camera with a conspiratorial air. “Secrets,” she said, tapping a finger alongside her nose, “that were kept from the jury. It will all come out.”

  At the sound of a car engine, she jerked her head around.

  An SUV pulled into an empty bay beside the bus. The man at the wheel was wearing a fedora and huge sunglasses. He gave a toot of the horn.

  Rupert opened the back door and tossed in her case. She slid in after it, reaching out to pull the door closed. The crowd surged forward, cell phone cameras flashing. The SUV backed out of the bay and sped off, rattling over speed bumps in the parking lot.

  Inside, the driver twisted his head to add
ress his passenger. “First stop?”

  “Where else?” Rupert gave a gentle smile. “Leafy Hollow.”

  Chapter Two

  A quick sugar hit was the only thing on my mind when I pushed open the bright red door of the 5X Bakery that morning. If I had known what a chain of events was being set in motion, I would have abandoned my cherished maple-pecan butter tarts and marched right out again.

  “Verity, thank goodness you’re here. I’m desperate for lavender. It’s an emergency.”

  With one hand holding the door open, I squinted at Emy Dionne, owner of the finest bakery in Leafy Hollow and my best friend.

  “Lavender?” I asked. “Why do you need—”

  “I’ve had a run on scones this morning. Could you pop over to Bertram’s and grab me a bunch? And a six-pack of lemons? Please? I’m running low on everything today.”

  “Sure,” I said, reminiscing fondly about Emy’s lavender-lemon biscuits—a spin-off from her delectable poppyseed-lemon. “Anything for the scones.” Letting the door close with a tinkle of its overhead bell, I turned in the direction of the grocer’s.

  Lorne Lewins usually ran Emy’s “emergency” errands while waiting for me to show up each morning. Oddly, he hadn’t arrived yet, even though I was fifteen minutes late. Slipping my cell phone out of my pocket, I checked my texts. Still nothing.

  When not working as my paid landscaping assistant, Lorne took every opportunity to check in with his beloved. It was fine with me, because it meant I could start my workday with one of Emy’s cheddar-parsley scones. Except on those days when I opted for caramel-walnut. I preferred not to be predictable.

  Thankfully, my thin build, five-foot-ten height, and regular outdoor labor allowed for a little creativity when counting calories. Which was good, since Emy tested all her recipes on her friends. I feared we’d wake up one day to discover that time—and triple-chocolate brownies—had caught up with us, like that guy who kept his portrait in the attic. That didn’t mean I’d turn down a lavender-lemon scone, though. I was only twenty-eight. Plenty of years ahead to worry about disturbing artwork.

  Bertram’s, the village’s upscale grocer, was only two blocks away. I strolled along Main Street, nodding at passersby and enjoying Leafy Hollow’s relaxed atmosphere—so different from the crowded streets of my former home.

  Most of the village nestled at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment, a rugged rock face that runs for hundreds of miles through Ontario. The rest perched on the plateau above, where there was more room to spread out. That’s where I lived, on Lilac Lane. I’d moved into Rose Cottage, my aunt’s abandoned home, after arriving in Leafy Hollow two months earlier. I glanced up, shading my eyes. With my finger in the air, I traced the two-lane road that zig-zagged up the escarpment, marveling at how much a person’s life could change in eight weeks.

  The highest local point, Pine Hill Peak, towered three hundred feet over Main Street. The peak’s shale cliffs were cloaked with dense foliage and crowned with ancient pines standing like sentinels against the sky. Tiny figures perched on the main lookout, their T-shirts vivid pinpoints of color against the white rock.

  It was unnerving how close to the edge visitors stood, especially since there was no fence on the lookout. Their casual waves made me uneasy, and I looked away with a shudder.

  The grocer’s was bustling with early morning visitors. Flats of field tomatoes, mushrooms, and imported figs flanked the front entrance. A crank-out black awning with Bertram’s—Est. 1922 in antique gold letters shaded the fruits and vegetables.

  A curly-haired Labradoodle waited patiently outside, its leather leash wrapped around one of the village’s replica lampposts. The dog’s gaze was fixed on the organic butcher shop next door. Each time the door opened—emitting aromas irresistible to a canine nose—he whimpered and pawed the ground.

  “Forget it, boy,” I said on my way past. “I happen to know your owner’s a vegan.”

  I pushed open Bertram’s wooden screen door. The three aisles that extended to the back of the shop were stacked with pasta, oils, and crackers. Odors of fresh basil, rosemary, and spinach filled my nostrils.

  A half-dozen shoppers were lined up at the single till. The teenage clerk, her hair a vivid blue, looked up with a shy smile, nodding a greeting while she keyed in prices on the cash register. The five silver rings piercing her upper lip glinted under the overhead lights.

  My quick scan of the flower containers at the checkout counter showed one bunch of purple lavender stalks among the herbs. I could grab it on my way out. With a brief wave at the clerk, I lifted a rattan basket from a stack by the door and headed down aisle number three in search of lemons.

  White eggplants, purple heirloom carrots, and an artfully arranged pile of organic citrus fruit dominated the produce display. Sucking in my breath at the prices—Emy normally bought her ingredients at the big-box store on the highway—I placed six lemons in my shallow basket and headed for the lavender.

  “Look out,” a woman snapped.

  I jerked back. The lemons rolled from one side of my basket to the other. “Sorry,” I said. “Did I hit you?”

  “No, but the way you were charging past me—well. Is there a fire?”

  Her voice was so subdued I had to lean in to hear it, but there was a hint of steel under that tranquil tone. Taking a step forward, she blocked the aisle and fixed me with an unyielding stare from behind owl-rimmed glasses. I recognized the wispy brown hair and fragile bone structure of forty-something Lucy Carmichael, treasurer of The Leafy Hollow Original Book Club.

  Lucy flicked her chin at my organic lemons. “You’re not buying those, are you?”

  Since I already had six in my basket, it seemed a pointless query. “Why not?”

  Her blue-veined hand plucked a fruit from the display. “Look at the price. It’s ridiculous.” She tossed the lemon back with a grunt of distaste, then whispered, “I bet they’re not even organic. They probably picked them up for a pittance at the Chinese grocer in Strathcona.” Balancing her filled basket over one elbow, she rummaged in her shoulder bag for an antiseptic wipe, ripped it open, and carefully rubbed her palms. After a cursory glance around, Lucy dropped the used wipe on the wooden floor and kicked it under the edge of the fruit display.

  I pursed my lips, but she ignored my sign of disapproval.

  “I didn’t know you shopped here, Verity.”

  I wanted to ask Lucy the same thing, since she regaled every book club meeting with details about her “amazing” deals. Bertram’s was a delightful grocery with dedicated customers, but no one shopped there to save money. I curbed my curiosity. The day was getting away from me. If Lorne didn’t show up soon, I’d have to start our lawn-cutting jobs without him, which meant they’d take twice as long.

  With a smile, I tried to sidle past her. “I’m only here for the lavender.”

  Lucy whirled on her heel and walked briskly beside me to the checkout. Our rattan baskets clacked together in the narrow aisle, our steps accelerating as we neared our goal. Lucy put on a last burst of speed—and a feint to the left that threw me off stride—to reach the checkout first.

  I lined up behind her, eying her overflowing basket with an inward groan.

  A woman with a gray pixie haircut and bright orange lipstick stepped into the queue behind me. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” she asked, beaming.

  I reached for the last bunch of lavender, but Lucy plunked her now-empty basket on the counter in front of the vase, cutting off my access. I drew my hand back.

  The teenage girl at the till read Lucy’s total, holding out her hand for the cash.

  “How much did you say?” Lucy asked with an incredulous air. “That’s not right. The strawberries are on sale.”

  The clerk’s forehead wrinkled. “No, I don’t think so.”

  Lucy gave a snort of derision and reached for her cell phone. “I think they are, given that they’re only $1.99 a quart at Wal-Mart. Look at this.” She thrust the phone under the
clerk’s nose.

  “We don’t price-match, sorry.”

  “That’s ridiculous. Take them off my bill, then.” Lucy waved a hand.

  Smiling weakly, the clerk put the berries to one side and announced the new total.

  Lucy rummaged though her change purse, then her wallet, then the change purse again. “I think I’ll use debit,” she announced, putting the coin purse away a second time and pulling out her bank card.

  The woman behind me loudly cleared her throat. Two other shoppers had joined the line behind her. I heard muttering.

  While the machine processed Lucy’s debit charge, the clerk bagged her purchases. A box of granola, a sealed package of Canadian bacon, and a pint basket of gooseberries went into Lucy’s environmentally friendly tote bag.

  “Hold on,” Lucy said, “what are you doing?”

  The clerk froze, one hand holding the bag open and the other grasping a grapefruit.

  “You can’t put fresh fruit in the same bag with meat. You’re asking for salmonella.”

  “But the bacon is wrapped,” the clerk said, her eyes wide.

  “I don’t care. That’s a health hazard. You’ll have to remove all those contaminated items and start again with fresh ones.”

  The muttering grew louder. The woman behind me was no longer beaming. “Can’t you hurry your friend up a bit?” she whispered loudly.

  “She’s not my—” The words caught in my throat as Lucy turned to give me a steely glance. “Salmonella is… bad,” I said.

  The three people in line behind me snorted in unison.

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