“So, should I be worried?”
Francine stared at her friend Joy McQueen who’d lobbed the question at her over breakfast. The two septuagenarians sat at Joy’s black counter-height kitchen table that looked straight out of Pottery Barn’s current catalog. The welcoming smell of baked biscuits was in the air, and the sound of a morning television news program could be heard in the background.
Francine held Joy’s cell phone in her hand, its red leather wrap soft against her fingers. She reread the text Joy had seen when she’d retrieved the phone from its overnight charge. It had been sent just after midnight this morning, February 13. The message was short: “Sorry I can’t be with you tonight especially will miss the heat sugar.” The sender was Joy’s boyfriend, Roy Stockton, former sheriff of Parke County, now a detective.
“And you haven’t heard from him since?” she asked.
Joy shook her head. “I’ve called and called, but he doesn’t answer. We didn’t have a date for tonight. And we haven’t—you know—done it yet. So it’s not like I’m generating any heat he’ll miss. And he never calls me ‘sugar.’” Her voice cracked with emotion on the last word. “This was sent to me, but he meant it for someone else.”
Francine had to admit, it looked bad. “Has he said anything to you that would make you think he’s trying to break up?”
“No, but the alternative is just as bad. Rockville’s an hour from Brownsburg. He could be two-timing me and I’d never find out. I’ve made him wait too long, and now he’s moved on.”
Francine looked into her face for a moment. Joy’s worry lines always seemed more pronounced when she wasn’t smiling. Today she was definitely not smiling.
Joy’s ex-husband Bruno had left her for another man a long time ago. Joy had never quite gotten over it. She’d sworn off men and dating, and for a long time kept to that. But Roy Stockton had changed her mind. Francine grimaced to think how it would affect her if this relationship ended badly, too.
“Maybe he’s been called to a crime scene. He could be too busy to answer the phone.” Francine knew from experience if Roy were in a rural part of Parke County, he might not have cell reception.
“I thought of that. I checked with their dispatch center. He’s not on assignment and not on patrol.”
Francine halved the biscuit on her plate and bit into the top half. She savored the delicious buttery flavor. It had a nice salty touch, but it needed something else. She added a dollop of honey to the bottom half and handed it across the table. “Eat. Honey makes everything better.”
Joy took a bite and seemed surprised. She looked at the unlabeled squeeze bottle Francine had used. “This isn’t honey,” she said. “It’s maple syrup. I got out the wrong bottle.” She took another bite. “Still, it tastes pretty good on the biscuit. Nice and sweet.” Her mouth turned down. “It may be the last present I’ll get from Roy.”
Francine squeezed a little of the syrup on her fingertip and licked it off. “Sweet like sugar.” A thought formed in her mind. “When did he give you this?”
“Two days ago.”
“Doesn’t he have a maple syrup camp set up in his woods?”
“And isn’t the Maple Syrup Fair coming up?”
“I suppose,” she said, hands upraised in exasperation, “but what does that have to do with anything?”
“Work with me for a minute. Does he punctuate sentences correctly?”
“What?” she asked, still puzzled.
“I mean, when he texts you.”
“No,” Joy said, thinking. “He’s terrible at it. Lots of run-ons.”
The doorbell rang. Joy jumped up to get it, but then the door opened and someone walked in. The women looked at each other in alarm. They lived in a good neighborhood, but few people would walk in a house unannounced.
“Are you in there, darlin’?” Roy asked. He strode into the kitchen, black Stetson hat in his hand.
Francine wasn’t sure if Joy’s reaction was one of pleasure or terror.
“What are you doing here?” Joy asked.
“Didn’t you get my text?”
There was a pause. “Yes,” she said testily. “I got your text. And I’m not sure what it means.”
Roy seemed surprised by her negative reaction. He shrugged. “I thought I was pretty clear.”
“It wasn’t clear at all,” Joy continued. “Who is this ‘sugar’ whose date you had to cancel?” She thrust the phone in his face.
He backed the cell phone away so he could read it. His forehead wrinkled with confusion. “This isn’t what I texted you. I knew you had today off, so I said I was coming with early Valentine sweets for my sweetheart.” He held out a gift bag with white and red tissue paper coming out of the top.
Joy took the bag. She hunted through it and pulled out a box of homemade maple sugar candies and a see-though container of maple sugar.
“I made them for you,” Roy said sheepishly.
“Can I guess what happened?” Francine said, interrupting. “You weren’t calling anyone ‘sugar.’ You meant you’ll miss the heat of the sugar shack where you boil the maple syrup and the taste of the sap as you boil it down.”
Roy nodded. “Exactly.”
“But who was that text intended for?” Joy asked.
“My son Jay,” he answered. “He helps me tend the sugar shack. Do you know how close “Joy” and “Jay” look after getting off work at midnight?”
Joy laughed in relief. “So if I got his text, did he get mine?”
Roy checked his phone. “Here’s his response. I had dropped off another box for my grandkids before I left Rockville.” He showed them the phone.
Roy’s young grandsons, 8 and 5, sat on the floor. They looked like chipmunks whose cheeks were stuffed with acorns. Between them lay with an open candy box. The box was nearly empty, and little paper wrappers were strewn all over the floor. “Your sweethearts already found their early present,” Roy read. “And they’ve decided they like candy for breakfast.”
Mystery solved, Francine made an excuse to leave so the real sweethearts could be alone.
Murder Under The Covered Bridge is the second book in the Bucket List mystery series, published by Midnight Ink, July 2016.
The Skinny-Dipping Grandmas Bare All When their Pinup Calendar Shoot Goes Terribly Wrong
Working on a television taping to promote the Parke County Covered Bridge Festival, the ladies decide to use their access to the Roseville Bridge to cross #39 off Charlotte’s bucket list: Be a Sexy Calendar Girl. But the photo shoot is interrupted by gunshots and Francine’s cousin William stumbling down the riverbank followed by a man with a gun. William sustains life-threatening injuries, but is it attempted homicide?
Francine and Charlotte go into detective mode to uncover the secret William knew about the shooter. Their success, however, depends on surviving two arson events, a séance, a shortage of Mary Ruth’s wildly popular corn fritter donuts, memory-challenged nursing home residents, and a killer who refuses to go up in flames.
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About the author
Elizabeth Perona is the father/daughter writing team of Tony Perona and Liz Dombrosky.
Tony is the author of the Nick Bertetto mystery series, the standalone thriller The Final Mayan Prophecy, and co-editor and contributor to the anthologies Racing Can Be Murder and Hoosier Hoops & Hijinks. Tony is a member of Mystery Writers of America and has served the organization as a member of the Board of Directors and as Treasurer. He is also a member of Sisters-in-Crime. In his day job, Tony is currently serving as the Assistant Town Manager for the Town of Plainfield, Indiana.
Liz Dombrosky graduated from Ball State University in the Honors College with a degree in teaching. She is currently a stay-at-home mom. Murder on the Bucket List was her first novel, and Murder under the Covered Bridge is her second.
Connect with them at www.elizabethperona.com.
All comments are welcomed.