The Pancake House Mysteries #5
by Sarah Fox
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Publisher: Lyrical Underground
Pub Date: 5/28/2019
When a murder case from the past heats up again, it’s up to Marley McKinney to sort through a tall stack of suspects in the latest Pancake House Mystery. . .
Although it’s a soggy start to spring in Wildwood Cove, the weather clears up just in time for the town to host an amateur chef competition. Marley McKinney, owner of the Flip Side pancake house, already signed up to volunteer, and chef Ivan Kaminski is one of the judges. But when Marley visits her landscaper boyfriend Brett at the site of the Victorian mansion that’s being restored as the Wildwood Inn, she discovers something else pushing up daisies: human remains.
The skeleton on the riverbank washed out by the early-spring floodwaters belonged to eighteen-year-old Demetra Kozani, who vanished a decade earlier. While the cold case is reopened, Marley must step in when some of the cook-off contestants fall suspiciously ill. Stuck in a syrupy mess of sabotage and blackmail, it falls to Marley to stop a killer from crêping up on another victim. . .
The last diners of the day left the restaurant shortly after two o’clock, and I locked the door behind them, flipping the “open” sign to “closed.” Leigh Hunter, The Flip Side’s full-time waitress, untied her red apron from around her waist. Patricia Murray’s daughter, Sienna, did the same with her apron. Sienna was seventeen and still in school, but she worked at the pancake house on the weekends.
“Did you know that Logan’s entering the amateur chef competition?” I asked Sienna.
“Yep. He’s a really good cook. He got into watching cooking shows about three years ago, and now he can make some really amazing stuff.”
“I hope he does well in the competition,” Leigh said.
“He will,” Sienna said with confidence. “My friend Ellie Shaw’s entering too. She didn’t really want to, but her mom thought she should.”
“Why didn’t she want to?” I asked.
“She’s kind of shy. I don’t think she likes the idea of cooking in front of an audience.”
“Maybe she’ll forget anyone’s watching once she gets cooking,” Leigh said.
“I hope so. She’s really talented, especially with desserts.” Sienna headed for the break room to fetch her jacket, and soon she and Leigh had left the pancake house for the day.
Talking about cooking made me wonder if Brett would be finished work by dinnertime. I sent him a text message asking him how things were going. I tidied up the pancake house while waiting for his response. It came about half an hour later. He figured he’d have to work until six o’clock, but he hoped he wouldn’t have to stay at the inn any longer than that.
Hungry? I wrote in another text. I can bring you a snack.
I love you, was his quick response.
Smiling, I finished up my remaining tasks and grabbed a can of soda from the kitchen before heading out. I walked to Marielle’s Bakery and picked up two doughnuts and half a dozen chocolate chip cookies. From there, I set a course for home. The Wildwood Inn sat on the outskirts of town, and making the trip on foot would have taken a while, so I decided to make a quick stop at home to pick up my car.
After checking on my cat, Flapjack, and Brett’s dog, Bentley, I set off in my hatchback. When I reached my destination, I followed a long driveway toward the beautiful white Victorian mansion and continued along the branch that led around the house to the large detached garage, built in the same style as the inn. I parked my blue hatchback next to the cube van Brett used for his lawn and garden business.
With the paper bakery bag and soda can in hand, I wandered around the garage until I could see clear to the back of the inn’s property. An expanse of green lawn stretched from the mansion to a white gazebo—a
new addition, Brett had told me. Beyond the gazebo, flagstone pathways wandered around numerous flower beds. Brett had been working hard to add some color before the garden party. He’d already transplanted numerous types of flowers in a variety of hues and would add more over the coming days. Some of the flower beds farther back in the garden were home to recently planted rosebushes, which would bloom in a few weeks’ time.
As soon as I started across the lawn, I spotted Brett near the back of the property, working away at one of the last flower beds, only a stone’s throw from the woods that bordered the garden. There was a small cottage in the back corner of the lot, but I couldn’t see anyone else around. The garden was peaceful, the only sound the chirping of birds in the trees.
I followed the flagstone pathway past the flower beds, raising a hand in greeting when Brett looked up and saw me approaching.
“I come bearing food,” I said as I reached him.
He grinned and drove the spade he was holding into the soil so it would stand upright on its own. “Best news I’ve heard all day.”
I glanced around the garden. “You’ve made a lot of progress since the last time I was here. It looks great.”
“I need to work at a couple of other sites this week, but hopefully this job will be done in the next two weeks.” He pulled off his work gloves and tucked them into the back pocket of his jeans. “How was your day?”
“Great. Everything went well at The Flip Side. A lot of people were talking about the garden party. They’re going to love what you’ve done here.”
“Hopefully Lonny and Hope will love it too,” he said.
“They will,” I said without any doubt. “They like what you’ve done so far, right?”
“So far so good,” he confirmed.
I held up the paper bag and can of soda. “Your snack.”
“Thank you. You’re the best.”
“I can’t say I was disappointed to have a chance to see you before tonight.”
He grinned. “I’m definitely not disappointed either.”
He led me to a stone bench at the end of the garden that faced the flower beds, the mansion visible in the distance. I sat with him and snacked on one of the doughnuts while he devoured the other one along with a couple of the cookies. When I’d finished eating, I rested my head against his shoulder.
“It’s so peaceful here,” I said, listening to the birdsong coming from the woods behind us.
Brett took a long drink of his soda. “It’s definitely a nice place to work.”
I raised my head. “Speaking of which, I should probably let you get back to it.”
He eyed the rosebushes sitting in pots near one of the flower beds, waiting to be transplanted. “Another two hours or so and then I’ll be heading home.”
I got to my feet and set the paper bag on the bench. “I’ll leave these here in case you want more.”
Brett set down his soda can as he stood up. He took my hands, pulling me in close. “Thanks for stopping by, Marley.”
He gave me a lingering kiss that I reluctantly pulled away from.
“See you later.”
I was about to set off along the garden path when something small and black streaked toward the tree line. I spun around to follow its progress.
“A kitten!” I exclaimed. “Did you see that?”
The tiny black cat paused at the edge of the woods, its green eyes wide, one ear twitching while the rest of its body remained frozen.
“Does it belong to Lonny and Hope?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Brett said. “I caught a brief glimpse of it earlier today, but that’s the first time I’ve seen a cat around here.”
I took a careful step toward the kitten. It dashed beneath a bushy fern and hunkered down, out of sight except for the tip of one black ear.
“It looks way too tiny to be out here on its own,” I said.
“We can take it up to the house and see if that’s where it belongs. If we can catch it, that is.”
As if it had heard Brett’s words, the little kitten darted out from its hiding place and zipped away, deeper into the woods.
“Catching it might not be possible, but I don’t want to leave it in the woods. Maybe we can at least get it to run back this way.”
“We can try,” Brett agreed.
We moved off in opposite directions, planning to circle around into the woods and hopefully herd the kitten back to the garden. I tried to move quietly as I entered the woods, not wanting to scare the cat farther into the forest. Despite my efforts, twigs still snapped under my feet and the underbrush rustled as I picked my way through the trees.
I could hear rushing water somewhere nearby and realized we were close to the Wildwood River. My concern for the kitten shot up. Although the water level was on its way down now, the river was still higher than usual and could be dangerous for anyone who got too close to the slippery, unstable banks. I didn’t want the kitten going anywhere near the water.
As I moved deeper into the forest, the dirt beneath my feet became soggier. Through the trees, I caught sight of the river, still swollen and muddy, hurtling its way toward the ocean. I swept my gaze from left to right, desperately seeking out any sign of the kitten.
“Can you see it?” I called out to Brett when he came into view. We were almost to the river now, and I had to talk over the sound of the rushing water.
“Not yet,” Brett called back.
At the sound of his voice, something moved slightly a few feet away. I peered at a small, hollowed-out cavity at the base of an old tree. It was dark inside the hole, but I was certain I’d seen movement. I crept closer
to the tree, moving slowly and cautiously.
I was about to crouch down in front of the hole when the kitten darted out of the hollow tree. I dropped to my knees and grabbed at the kitten, ending up flat on my stomach, my arms outstretched ahead of me. A fallen tree branch poked at my ribs, cold moisture was seeping through my jeans, and I had a face full of ferns, but I also had a wriggling kitten in my grasp.
“Are you okay?” Brett asked as he hurried over to me.
“I caught it!” I said through the ferns.
I couldn’t see too well, but I heard Brett reach my side. One of his hands brushed against mine.
“I’ve got it. You can let go now.”
I released my firm but gentle hold on the cat and climbed to my feet, brushing pine needles and clumps of mud from my clothes. I smiled at the sight of Brett holding the little kitten against his chest, but when I reached down to brush a clod of mud from my knee, my smile slipped away.
“Are you hurt?” he asked with concern.
I shook my head and stepped back before pointing at the ground.
Next to the patch of ferns I’d landed in, a partial human skull poked out through the mud.