Sample Chapter for
“Town in Strawberry Swirl”
As Henry “Doc” Holliday pulled his old pickup truck to a stop in the makeshift parking lot near the barn and farmhouse, he wondered where everyone was at.
The berry farm looked suspiciously deserted, especially on this sunny Thursday morning in late June, when the brief but bountiful strawberry-picking season was in full swing along Maine’s Downeast coast.
Where were all the people?
Where was Miles?
Doc squinted out through the windshield at the fields in front of him—six or eight of them all told, including two strawberry patches about an acre and a half each in size, a large vegetable garden with separate plots for pumpkins and squash, and separate raspberry and blueberry patches, as well as a small apple orchard and even a few cherry trees, all artfully arranged along a prime piece of fertile coastline that had been farmland for as long as anyone could remember—then shifted his gaze off to his left.
From where he sat, Doc had a magnificent view past the farmhouse, through a stand of trees, and down a long, gradual slope to an expanse of sea that stretched all the way to the horizon, shimmering like pale blue diamonds in the morning light.
He turned back toward the barn and fields with a frown. It sure is a pretty piece of land, Doc thought, and he wondered, not for the first time, if all the rumors about an impending sale of the berry farm were true. He had difficult believing it himself. Why would Miles Crawford want to give up this small slice of paradise, especially with that stunning ocean view?
Given the time of year, Doc had expected the parking lot to be full. But a hand-written sign nearby, nailed to a stake stuck into the ground at the front edge of the nearest field, explained the lack of patrons:
NO BERRY PICKING TODAY, it read.
Doc tilted his head thoughtfully as he shut off the engine. He supposed the fields were closed today to give the berries a little more time to ripen, and the warm, sunny morning would certainly help. They’d had a snowy March and a cool, rainy spring, and everyone in the village was hoping this was the beginning of a warming trend.
Doc climbed out of the cab and stood for a few moments beside the truck, hands stuck in the back pockets of his chinos. He stretched dramatically as he surveyed the property with a discerning gaze. The place was as neat as ever. Miles obviously took great pride in it. The tractor was in its shed. A glance inside the barn revealed neatly arranged tools, a well-organized work bench, tidy stacks of supplies. The patch of grass around the house had been mowed recently. Nary a stray leaf spotted the graveled driveway.
The fields were equally well-tended, and some were already beginning to yield. Rhubarb had come first, a couple of weeks earlier, followed by strawberries, which would be available into early July. After that would come raspberries, blueberries, tomatoes, and corn, before they headed deep into harvest and apple-picking season, ending with pumpkin and squash.
It was the circle of life here in coastal Maine, Doc thought as he ambled toward the barn.
Just the way he liked it.
“Hey, Miles!” he called out, “you around?”
He received no answer.
Miles Crawford wasn’t necessarily the most sociable type. He’d been out here at Crawford’s Berry Farm for the better part of thirty years, at least as far as Doc knew. The place was only a few miles west of Blueberry Acres, where Doc lived with his daughter, Candy. They were all part of the same small agricultural community. Naturally Doc and Miles had run into each other at the same farm stores and supply centers, nodded to each other at meetings and events, waved a finger or two when they’d driven past each other on the road. But for some reason they’d never taken the time to strike up a conversation and get know each other better. Miles just seemed to prefer to be off on his own. Some Mainers were like that.
But they also could be helpful and informative when asked. A few weeks earlier, when Doc had been talking to Candy about the possibility of making some upgrades to Blueberry Acres, he’d mentioned some of the things Miles had done over the years out here at the berry farm—like putting in the cherry trees, and building commercial-grade hoophouses. Miles had two of them. Hoophouses were Quonset hut-style greenhouses made from hoop-shaped steel tubing covered with double plastic sheeting instead of glass or corrugated steel. The endwalls usually consisted of wood frames, also covered with plastic sheeting, with a door at each end. Typically hoophouses were sixteen feet wide, eight feet high at the central point, and twenty or twenty-five feet in length. A mechanical heating and ventilating system kept the temperature inside to around seventy degrees. There were a few design variations, with some of the hoophouses peaked along the roof. But no matter their size or style, they could greatly extend the growing season here in Maine—even make it a year-round activity.
A couple of years earlier, Doc had read in an organic agricultural journal that a single hoophouse could bring in an additional income of ten thousand dollars a year. That got him to thinking. One or two of those, he realized, and they could greatly diversify their crops to supplement their annual blueberry yield. They could start seeds while it was still cold outside, have crops earlier, and get their revenue streams going quicker. They could branch out to things like early tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, cucumbers, herbs, even flowers. And they could work with the local co-op, which would distribute their products to other wholesale and retail outlets across the region.
It was, Doc thought, a very appealing idea.
He had planned on calling Miles to ask about his hoophouses, to get some idea of what was involved in putting one up, but by chance they’d run into each other at Gumm’s Hardware Store in town a week earlier. They’d started talking, Doc had asked a few questions, and Miles had extended an invitation to visit on this Thursday morning for a walkthrough of both hoophouses.
So here was Doc. But no Miles in sight.
Doc surveyed his surroundings a few more moments, then ambled tentatively to the open barn door. He peered inside, just to make sure Miles wasn’t working away quietly and obliviously in some dark back corner of the building. But the place was empty and silent. Not a stray scrap of paper. Not a bale of hay or a bag of topsoil out of place. Not a mouse or a barn cat. Strangely untouched, like a carefully preserved museum. And a little unsettling.
Doc scratched his head. Surely Miles had to be around here somewhere. Had Doc mixed up the date or time?
He turned back toward the house and squinted against the reflecting sunlight off the windows. A white late-model truck and an older green station wagon were parked to one side of the building. Doc had seen both vehicles many times before, while passing Miles on the road.
His vehicles were here. But where was Miles?
Probably in one of the back fields, Doc guessed, so he moved on, circling around the side of the barn and heading back along the vegetable garden, which occupied a fairly large plot between the barn and the house. He moved with his usual lopsided gait, the result of an injury while bicycling many years ago. But he’d never let it slow him down.
He followed a path that led out past the barn to the edge of the first strawberry patch, where he stopped and studied the landscape again. A breeze blew down from the northwest, tousling his gray hair, but he barely noticed. From here he could see the small maple sugaring house, off in the woods behind the house, and he had a better view of the second strawberry patch, toward the west, and the two hoophouses that bracketed it.
Perhaps that’s where Miles is at, in one of the hoophouses, Doc thought, and he started off again toward the closest one. When he reached it, he peered inside and then entered hesitantly.
Less than a minute later he emerged, his face white, covered in a sheen of sweat. He was moving quickly now, hopping along as best he could, heading toward the house, until he remembered he was carrying a cell phone with him.
He cursed himself for his forgetfulness as he stopped and fished it out of his pocket. He fumbled it a bit, out of breath, as he flipped it open. He’d never upgraded to one of those fancy smart phones like his daughter had. He preferred the old tried-and-true technology of five years ago. It worked just fine for his purposes.
With fumbling fingers he pressed out the keys 9-1-1 on the phone, then hit the SEND button. He held the phone to his ear and waited while it rang at the other end of the line, his mind racing.
Miles Crawford, he thought. It can’t be possible . . .
When a voice answered the call, asking the nature of his emergency, Doc said, in as clear a tone as he could manage, “You’d better connect me with the police. This is Henry Holliday. I’m out at Crawford’s Berry Farm. I think there’s been a murder.”
End of Excerpt
Available from Berkeley Prime Crime, February 2014
Copyrighted material, used by permission.
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