Lethal Letters (Books by the Bay Series #6)

Lethal Letters (Books by the Bay Series #6)

by Ellery Adams

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Overview

Restaurant owner and aspiring novelist Olivia Limoges is busy planning a delicious menu for Oyster Bay’s biggest soiree of the spring. But she’ll need to serve some justice as well after one resident gets eighty-sixed…
 
Everyone’s got their hands full in Oyster Bay, North Carolina. Aside from two upcoming weddings, there’s also the historical society’s annual fund-raiser: the Secret Garden Party and Candlelit Ball. Adding to the excitement, Olivia witnesses the discovery of a time capsule in the foundation of a local church. The historical society president hopes to display its contents at their party, but when the items are finally revealed to the public, Olivia notices one of them has vanished.
 
After a frightening find beneath the pier—the body of Ruthie Holcomb—Olivia is certain there’s a connection between the young woman’s death and the missing piece from the time capsule. With the help of her fellow Bayside Book Writers, Olivia sets out to uncover some clues and ensure a killer has no reason to celebrate…

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425270837
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/04/2014
Series: Books by the Bay Series , #6
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 54,535
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.50(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

New York Times bestselling author Ellery Adams grew up on a beach near the Long Island Sound. She is the author of the Books by the Bay Mysteries, the Charmed Pie Shoppe Mysteries, and the Book Retreat Mysteries. Having spent her adult life in a series of landlocked towns, she cherishes her memories of open water, violent storms, and the smell of the sea. Ms. Adams has held many jobs, including caterer, retail clerk, car salesperson, teacher, tutor, and tech writer, all the while penning poems, children’s books, and novels. She now writes full time from her home in Virginia.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Time will bring to light whatever is hidden; it will cover up and conceal whatever is now shining in splendor.

—HORACE

Olivia Limoges rolled the newest edition of Bride magazine into a tight cylinder and brought it down onto the counter with a resounding thwack!

“Enough! I don’t want to hear another detail about your upcoming nuptials. You’ve turned into a groomzilla, Michel. Your obsession over the venue and your tux and the guest list is driving everyone in this kitchen insane.” She pointed at a sous chef, who’d paused in the act of chopping onions to wipe his eyes with a dish towel. “That man is weeping, for heaven’s sake.”

“He always cries when he—” the head chef of The Boot Top Bistro began.

“It started with the tulips, right?” Olivia directed her remark at the sous chef. “Michel’s supposed to be creating the finest cuisine of coastal North Carolina, but his soufflés are falling and his sauces are burning while he frets over whether to have blush-colored tulips, hot pink tulips, or lavender tulips at his reception.” She turned back to Michel. “I will take a meat cleaver to the next tulip you bring into this restaurant, do you hear me?”

Michel opened his arms in a gesture of helplessness. “I want everything to be perfect!”

“Last summer you said that you wanted a simple, intimate affair. But your plans have grown grander and more absurd by the month. I wouldn’t be surprised if Shelley was ready to call off the whole thing.”

At the mention of his fiancée’s name, Michel’s petulant look instantly vanished, and he smiled widely. “She told me that I could have all the pomp and circumstance I wanted. Unlike you, she understands that I’ve waited my whole life for this day and I want—”

“White doves and stretch limos?” Olivia sighed. “This is about you and Shelley. It’s a joining of two lives. A chance for the people who love you to share in your happiness. You don’t need a chocolate fountain for a wedding to be beautiful. You only need you, the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with, and a few carefully chosen words.”

Michel swiveled to face the rest of the kitchen staff. “Have I gone off the deep end?”

They nodded in unison.

“Has my food suffered?”

The line cook exchanged a nervous glance with the sous chef. Michel had a fiery temper and it was clear that no one wanted to say that his cooking hadn’t been up to its usual standards. But Michel caught the furtive glance and instantly hid his face in his hands. “Mon Dieu! I have betrayed my art. And for what? Monogrammed napkins? Embossed invitations?”

“And tulips,” Olivia added. She put a hand on Michel’s forearm and gave it an affectionate squeeze. She was used to his theatrics, but this wasn’t a good time for one of his meltdowns. They needed to review the possible menus for the historical society benefit dinner before showing them to the president. “You can stop looking around for the perfect venue. The Boot Top is your kingdom, Michel. Its kitchen is your beating heart. Have the reception here. I’m sure your colleagues would be delighted to prepare the food for your wedding feast.”

Everyone wearing a chef’s jacket or apron murmured his or her agreement.

Michel looked at them and sniffed. “Really? You’d do that for me?”

“Of course we would,” Olivia answered on behalf of her staff. “That just leaves the cake.”

Michel brightened. “Shelley and I always planned on making our own cake. I’ll do the baking and she’ll do the decorating. After all, no one can hold a candle to her when it comes to sweet confections.”

Olivia thought of the Saint Patrick’s Day display she’d seen in the front window of Decadence, Shelley’s desserterie. Candy coins wrapped in gold foil spilled from a cauldron of solid chocolate. There was a forest of four-leaf-clover lollipops, marshmallow clouds, and a rainbow of candy fruit slices. Fondant leprechauns perched atop grasshopper cupcakes or cartwheeled across the frosted surfaces of crème de menthe brownies. “Shelley is truly gifted,” Olivia said. “And so are you. Can we talk about the menu for the benefit now?”

“Only if you promise to come with me to the First Presbyterian Church before I get started on the dinner service,” Michel said. “I promised to swing by with a copy of our program.”

“I thought you didn’t want a church wedding.”

Michel shrugged. “Maman does. And since I am her only son, I did what she asked.” Straightening, Michel barked out orders to the kitchen staff and they jumped to obey. Scooping the bridal magazine off the counter, he held it aloft as if it were a torch. “I am back, my friends. And I apologize for being so distracted. That’s over now. You have my word as a gentleman and a chef. Spring is upon us and we will be busier than ever. We must uphold the reputation of The Boot Top Bistro. We must dazzle every diner!”

Smiling, Olivia grabbed her head chef by the elbow. “Let’s talk in the bar and then we’ll stop by the church. Which Saturday did you book?”

“I chose a Monday,” Michel said. “The Boot Top is closed on Mondays. You won’t lose any business and neither will Shelley. She and I will take Tuesday off and be back in the kitchen on Wednesday.”

Olivia poked her head into her office and saw that her standard poodle, Captain Haviland, was fast asleep. She smiled indulgently and then led Michel through the dining room into the bar. “Why rush back to work?” Olivia asked. “What about your honeymoon?”

Michel sank into one of the leather club chairs. “We’ll go when the tourist season is over. Mid-October maybe. I want to bring Shelley to Paris. We can visit our old haunts from culinary school and then travel to the Riviera, visiting vineyards as we make our way south. It’s past time we updated The Boot Top’s wine list.” Michel gestured at the polished wood bar. “Not that Gabe isn’t the finest tender in town, but his palate isn’t sophisticated enough to be the restaurant’s sommelier.”

“Ah, the sacrifices you make for your job,” Olivia said teasingly and placed a folder on the small table dividing her chair from Michel’s.

Michel reached out and grabbed her hand. He tapped the platinum band embedded with dark sapphires on her ring finger, and said, “I’m not the only person in the room who should be making wedding plans. And yet I hear nothing of yours. Why not? What are you waiting for, ma chérie?”

Pulling her hand free, Olivia straightened the printed menus in the folder. “Mine will be a very quiet affair. Justice of the peace and a champagne toast. That’s all. There’s not much to organize.”

Michel fixed her with an intent stare. “Then why aren’t you already married? Are you cohabiting, or is the chief still living out of a drawer? I know how much you treasure your independence, Olivia. But when you said ‘yes,’ you gave up your old life.”

Olivia felt her cheeks grow warm. “It’s complicated. When he’s on duty, the chief needs to be close to town, so he stays at his place. My house is too far out. If there’s a police emergency . . .” She shrugged, letting Michel reach his own conclusions. “And I don’t like to spend the night in his house. His wife still has a presence there. She picked out the wallpaper and the towels, the dishes and the furniture. It’s her home. It’s a monument of their life together. Not to mention that it’s too far from the water.”

“We can’t have our resident mermaid living away from the beach. Your scales would dry out.” He gazed at her fondly.

Olivia shoved a printed menu under Michel’s nose. “Let’s focus on these menus now, shall we?”

An hour later, Olivia pulled her Range Rover into a private lot belonging to the First Presbyterian Church and opened the car door for Haviland. As he jumped out of the backseat and Michel alighted from the front, Olivia studied the Gothic Revival architecture, taking in its blocks of somber gray stone, pointed arches, and towering spire. It was one of the most imposing buildings in all of Oyster Bay.

A jarring mechanical noise erupted from inside the church. Michel winced and Haviland started barking.

“Is that a jackhammer?” Michel shouted.

“Maybe they’re tuning the organ,” Olivia yelled.

Haviland’s barking increased in volume, and he retreated several steps. Olivia laid her hand on the poodle’s head and tried to calm him, but he was clearly discomfited by the noise.

“I’m putting Haviland back in the car,” she told Michel. “Go on. I’ll catch up.”

As soon as Haviland was safely inside the Range Rover, he stopped barking and stretched across the backseat. Olivia gave him a chew stick, promised she wouldn’t be long, and crossed the parking lot. Drawing closer to the church, she noticed several commercial vans and a pickup parked near the building. A man in a hard hat came out of a door in the church’s west wall and began rummaging through an aluminum toolbox in the bed of the pickup. After retrieving a pair of safety goggles and a crowbar, he disappeared into the church again.

Olivia found Michel in the sanctuary, standing next to a man wearing khakis and a blue dress shirt. Mercifully, the hammering sound had stopped.

Michel introduced her to Pastor Jeffries.

“Please call me Jon,” the man said, offering Olivia his hand. His grip was warm and firm. Olivia liked both his handshake and his friendly brown eyes. They reminded her of Haviland’s. “I can’t believe we haven’t met before,” the pastor said. “Ours is a small town, but our paths have yet to cross.” He smiled. “I guess I’m surprised because you’re very active in community projects. Your name pops up all the time in the paper.”

Michel put an arm around Olivia’s shoulders. “My boss wrangles money from Oyster Bay’s upper crust. You work in the trenches, Pastor. You probably aren’t involved with the same charities.”

“I suspect you’re right,” the pastor said amiably. “Until now. Miss Limoges and I are both supporting the upcoming historical society benefit. Not only is the historical society our next-door neighbor, but the society’s founding family, the Drummonds, have been devoted patrons of this church for the past century.”

Olivia let her gaze wander up the center aisle to the altar, and then over the polished pews to the stained glass windows. The colored glass was cracked in places and coated with a film of grime, making it hard for the light to pass through. Watery yellows and dull oranges spotted the sanctuary’s red carpet, and Olivia wondered if the windows could withstand the force of the work being done in the room to the left of the vestibule.

Pastor Jeffries followed the direction of her gaze. “I was just telling Michel that we’re in the middle of a minor construction project. At least, it started out as a minor project. The plan was to turn the cloakroom into a comfortable space for prayer and counseling, but as often happens during a renovation, the contractor and his crew encountered problems. Water damage, rotted floorboards, issues with the wiring. They’ve dug right down to the foundation stone.” His eyes slid toward the large brass cross on the altar. “I spent half the morning praying that there wouldn’t be any more surprises.”

“Pastor Jeffries!” a man called from the doorway dividing the vestibule from the chapel. “You’d better come look at this. We found something buried in the wall.”

“And people think the Lord lacks a sense of humor.” The pastor winked, told his guests he’d return in a moment, and strode down the center aisle.

Michel sighed. “I hadn’t pictured drop cloths and plaster dust as part of my wedding day décor.”

“I’m sure the job will be completed by then.” Olivia ran her fingers along the back of a polished pew. The sanctuary smelled of beeswax and lilies. Overall, it was a pleasant space. The walls were a soft white, velvet cushions in a deep cranberry hue covered the pews, and the entire room was illuminated by rows of brass chandeliers suspended from the high ceiling. Olivia swiveled, taking in the second-floor balcony and the gleaming organ pipes. Everything was simple, elegant, and clean. Aside from the Easter lilies grouped around the altar, the only adornment in the entire sanctuary was the windows. “This is the oldest church in Oyster Bay,” she told Michel. “Think of all the couples that have walked up this aisle. All the music that’s been played. How many secret hopes and fears have been whispered into folded hands. This place is redolent with history.”

Sinking into a pew, Michel frowned. “I think it’s gloomy, but my mother will love it. It speaks of Old World Europe.”

“That’s not gloom. It’s patina.” Olivia wandered over to the windows on the east wall and studied the Biblical scenes. Though she’d attended only a handful of church services throughout her life, she recognized most of the scenes. She didn’t tarry long before Mary and Joseph, the nativity, or Christ cradling a lamb. After noting more cracked glass and sagging lead in the John the Baptist window, she moved to the west wall. She liked the Daniel in the lion’s den window and paused to take in the detailed faces of the slumbering felines. Again, she saw damage to the glass, lead, and putty.

“I’d think these would be more important than the cloakroom renovation,” she murmured to herself and walked by a window featuring a young boy holding a harp. In the next scene, she admired how the glass artist had used pieces of green, orange, and red glass to create a burning bush. But she didn’t linger, finding that she was inexplicably drawn to the last window.

This one, which was in the worst condition of all, portrayed a woman and child. The child, a girl with an ageless face, gazed forward. Her expression was both hopeful and serene. Most of her body was enfolded in the woman’s gown, and as Olivia edged closer, she realized that it wasn’t a gown but a feathered wing curving protectively around the girl. The angel was in profile, her eye closed and her cheek pressed against the girl’s cheek. Olivia could almost hear her whispering words of comfort into the child’s ear. The more she stood and stared, the more the angel looked like her mother.

Hesitantly, Olivia placed her fingers against the glass and traced one of the white flowers hanging near the angel’s outstretched hand. The girl’s small hand rested in the angel’s cupped palm, and Olivia had the urge to lay her own hand on top of theirs. She wanted to go where they were going, to see what lay beyond the curtain of dogwood blossoms.

“She’s a guiding angel,” Pastor Jeffries said from behind Olivia, causing her to start. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to creep up on you.” He flashed her a sheepish smile. “This is my favorite window.”

Olivia pointed at the angel. “Her face is completely two-dimensional, and yet she reminds me so much of my mother.”

The pastor nodded. “Everyone recognizes a special woman in her. A mother, sister, daughter, wife, nurse, teacher.”

“Can the windows be restored?”

“At great cost, yes. We’ll have to raise more funds, but I have faith that we’ll get the money. The capital campaign has been eaten up by all the problems we’ve run across with our current project, so it’s fortunate that we have a devoted benefactor.” Pastor Jeffries didn’t seem overly bothered by the setbacks. In fact, he looked quite cheerful. “It seems we were meant to dig deeper than we’d originally intended. The men have just discovered a large lead box buried above the foundation stone.”

Olivia was immediately intrigued. “How big is it?”

“About the length of my arm. Let’s just hope the first pastor didn’t bury his faithful hound inside.” With a boyish grin, he waved Michel over and explained what was happening. “The men have asked me to open the box. It could be empty, and I don’t want to interrupt the staff unless there’s something worth seeing, so I’ll grab the digital camera from my office and let them finish Sunday’s program. You two are welcome to watch if you’d like.”

Michel’s eyes were shining. “I’ll serve as your photojournalist, but if you unearth a cache of gold, I might have to charge a hefty fee for my services. Weddings are ridiculously expensive.”

Pastor Jeffries laughed and then gestured at the stained glass angel and child. “If there’s anything of value inside that box, I’ll use it to save our real treasures. I’m not supposed to put much stock in worldly goods, but I love these windows. I want to make sure the next generation can enjoy them as much as I do.” He rubbed his hands together, looking like a kid on Christmas morning. “Be right back.”

Too curious to wait for his return, Olivia and Michel headed for the vestibule. In the cloakroom, two workmen wearing hard hats and gloves stood, hands on hips, staring down at a battered lead box. A third was on his knees, scraping pieces of mortar from the surface of the box with his fingers. The men looked up when Olivia and Michel entered.

“Is it marked anywhere?” Olivia asked the man on the floor.

“I think there’s a date stamped into the lid.” He turned to one of his coworkers. “Hand me a flathead screwdriver, will you?”

With the tool in hand, he carefully worked its edge under the mortar. It gave way, coming off in large pieces. Brushing a chunk aside, the man maneuvered the screwdriver head until two numbers became clear.

“Looks like a one and a nine so far,” the man said. “And the next number looks like a seven. No, it’s another one.”

At that moment, Pastor Jeffries returned. He crouched down next to the man with the screwdriver and watched, fascinated, as the last digit was revealed. “Nineteen seventeen. Wow.”

“The beginning of World War One,” another workman said.

“But not the year the church was founded,” the pastor said, clearly perplexed. “This box was buried some sixty years after the original church was built.” He rubbed his chin, his gaze distant. “There was a fire about that time. A bad one. I wonder if this was placed inside the wall during the reconstruction. I’d have to check with the historical society, but if there are relics of our past inside this box, I’ll be calling Bellamy Drummond anyway. Let’s open it and find out.”

Olivia was thrilled that they wouldn’t have to postpone the event for Bellamy Drummond. While she certainly approved of the historical society’s president’s efforts to preserve Oyster Bay’s past, Olivia found Bellamy’s punctiliousness a bit overbearing. She was certain to ruin the excitement of the workmen’s discovery by lecturing them in her rich, languid drawl on the proper technique of opening an antique lead box.

“May I have the honors?” Pastor Jeffries asked the man with the screwdriver.

The man passed him the crowbar and backed away. “Sure thing. Hold this straight edge under the lid and I’ll hit the hooked end with a mallet. You want a pair of gloves? If that bar slips, you could get a nasty slice.”

The pastor shook his head with impatience. “I’ll be fine.” Handing Michel the digital camera, he lowered himself to his knees.

Olivia wondered if he felt less manly in his khakis and dress shirt than the workmen. With their tattooed forearms, dirt-encrusted jeans, and weathered faces, these men seemed a different breed than Pastor Jeffries. Next to them, he looked like a naïve and sheltered academic, though Olivia suspected that was far from the truth. Michel had told her that the pastor had led his flock for over twenty years, and Olivia could only imagine the things he’d seen and heard during that time.

Baptisms. Confirmations. Marriages, she thought as the workman struck the end of the crowbar with his mallet. Memorial services and funerals.

The sound of the mallet striking the metal curve of the crowbar reverberated around the empty room. Clang, clang, clang.

“Keep going,” Pastor Jeffries said, sounding a little winded. “It’s moving!”

The man hit the crowbar again. Without warning, the lid gave way and the crowbar shot sideways, causing the pastor to cry out in pain. Olivia could see a jagged line of red appear on his palm. He dropped the crowbar and stared at his hand as the blood flowed over his wrist and dripped onto the floor.

Michel pulled a blue bandanna from his pocket and offered it to the pastor. Having seen dozens of knife wounds over the years, he was unfazed by the injury. Pastor Jeffries fumbled with the cloth until Michel took it from him, wound it tightly around his palm, and tied it into a knot. “You’ll have to disinfect that and you may even need stitches. If not stitches, at least a few butterfly bandages.”

“I’ll take care of it later. After I see what’s inside.” Pastor Jeffries glanced up at the man with the mallet. “I should have used the gloves. Right, Kenny?”

Kenny gave a noncommittal shrug and picked up the crowbar again. He inserted the bloodied edge under the lid, pushed down on the opposite end, and gave a satisfied grunt when the box top separated from the base with a low groan.

No one spoke as the pastor raised the lid with his good hand. He reached in and pulled out a sheaf of paper. It had yellowed with age, but otherwise, looked to be in perfect shape.

“It’s a time capsule,” Pastor Jeffries whispered in awe. “This is an inventory of the contents as well as a list of the contributors.” He scanned the document. “Here’s the pastor—my grandfather, if you can believe it—and a deacon. Also a physician. The head of the local school. And—” Suddenly, he stopped. “I should get Bell—ah, Mrs. Drummond.” He hurriedly set the letter back into the box and then glanced at the bright drops of blood on the floor.

Olivia was confused by the pastor’s abrupt change of demeanor. He’d lost all traces of youthful anticipation. The pleasure and excitement had completely vanished from his face. It had been replaced by an emotion Olivia recognized all too well.

Pastor Jeffries’s eyes had gone glassy. His body was rigid. Olivia didn’t know why, but the pastor was suddenly, and very obviously, afraid.

And then he blinked. Pressing his injured hand to his chest, he forced his mouth into a tight smile, apologized to Michel for having to cut their visit short, and left the church.

Chapter 2

Where there is a sea, there are pirates.

—GREEK PROVERB

Kenny was unfazed by the pastor’s abrupt departure. Turning to his coworkers, he said, “We might as well grab a smoke.”

The men nodded and followed him outside.

The moment they were gone, Olivia took out her phone, retrieved the letter from the time capsule, and took several photos of it.

“What are you doing?” Michel whispered nervously.

Olivia photographed the letter in sections, not wanting to miss a single word. “Didn’t you see Pastor Jeffries’s face? He was scared, and I want to know why.” She glanced into the box, disappointed to find that the contents were covered by a folded piece of fabric. “I doubt he’s easily spooked. After witnessing two decades of sicknesses, hospital vigils, loss, and brokenness. All those confessions and last breaths. What’s in here that could shake a man who’s seen what he’s seen?”

Michel peered into the box and frowned. “I’m not sure I want to know.”

“Laurel would. This would make a great article. People love time capsules.” After darting a look over her shoulder, Olivia handed Michel the letter. “Take this,” she commanded and then reached into the box and carefully picked up the piece of fabric. She gently unfolded it and felt a surge of pride when she recognized the horizontal bands of red and discolored white and the vertical field of blue. Embroidered into the wide stripe of blue were a white star, two historic dates commemorating independence from British rule, and the letters N and C. Olivia was holding the state flag of North Carolina.

“There’s nothing frightening about that,” Michel said, admiring the flag. “I wonder if the person who added this to the box would be pleased by the fact that the same flag still flies all over town.”

Olivia considered the question. “I’m sure they would. After all, it’s a symbol of freedom, and our country had just entered a world war to defend that freedom.” With the flag gently draped over her left forearm, she leaned forward and gazed at the bundles packed tightly inside the box. “Why did they have to wrap everything in paper and secure it with twine? That’s no fun. Now I’m really glad I took a picture of the inventory list.”

The only object that hadn’t been wrapped in paper was another box. This one was made of copper and was big enough to hold a pair of men’s shoes. “A box within a box,” Olivia said. “It’s been sealed with wax too.” She pointed at the blob of green candlewax. “Where have I seen that symbol before?” She frowned, trying to remember, and then slowly pivoted the box so that the seal caught the light. “I think it’s some kind of plant.”

“Someone’s coming,” Michel hissed. “Put everything back!”

Hearing voices on the other side of the main doors, Olivia quickly set the cooper box where she’d found it, folded the flag, and returned both the flag and the letter to the time capsule. She quickly shut the heavy lid and retreated several steps.

As Pastor Jeffries entered the vestibule with Bellamy Drummond in tow, Olivia and Michel exchanged guilt-ridden glances.

“Hello, Olivia. Michel.” Bellamy smiled regally. “Pastor Jeffries has informed me that a treasure of historical significance has been unearthed.” She scanned the room. “Where have the workmen gone?”

“They took a cigarette break,” Olivia said.

Bellamy nodded in approval. “Tobacco is the backbone of our agricultural heritage. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find a pack of Camels in our time capsule.” She clasped her hands together. “This is very exciting, isn’t it?”

Olivia couldn’t detect a trace of concern on Bellamy’s face. She was as composed and self-assured as always and had wasted no time laying claim to the discovery. She’d called it “our” time capsule. Olivia studied Pastor Jeffries to see if he seemed bothered by Bellamy’s taking charge, but his face was a mask of calm. He was either hiding his true feelings or was no longer frightened.

“I’m sorry I rushed out before,” he said to Olivia and Michel. “I decided that we needed an expert on hand before we examined such important artifacts. It was self-centered of me to open the time capsule in the first place.” He smiled sheepishly. “Mrs. Drummond and I have agreed that we should gather a quorum of church and historical society trustees before we reveal the contents.”

“One of my volunteers is sending a group e-mail as we speak,” Bellamy chimed in. “I’ve asked people to congregate this evening. These items have waited long enough to see that light of day.” She studied the box with a proprietary air. “We could create a special display just in time for the Secret Garden Party. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” She directed her question at Olivia.

“It would,” Olivia agreed and couldn’t help but admire Bellamy Drummond’s shrewdness. The historical society president knew that the time capsule would have curiosity seekers lining up in droves, and if she could capitalize on their interest by making them buy pricey garden party tickets, then the annual fund-raiser would be a smashing success. “It fits right in with the party’s scavenger hunt theme. You could have the guests locate clues throughout the house and grounds relating to objects in the time capsule.”

“Precisely what I was thinking!” Bellamy beamed at Olivia. Suddenly, the front doors opened, flooding the threshold with afternoon sunshine. “Here comes the cavalry,” Bellamy said. “Tread carefully, ladies.”

A woman carrying a white tablecloth and a roll of duct tape picked her way over the construction debris, scowling as plaster dust coated her designer heels. A younger, heavyset woman wearing jeans and a loose T-shirt followed behind. She clumsily trod over chunks of mortar and kicked a bent nail aside with the toe of her sneaker. Watching her, Olivia realized that she bore a close resemblance to Bellamy.

“We’re going to secure the time capsule until this evening,” Bellamy informed the volunteers. “Whenever you’re ready, Melinda.”

The slim, well-dressed woman hesitated for a moment. She held out her manicured hands and stared at the dusty box in distaste, but finally managed to drape the tablecloth over the box. Stooping awkwardly, she affixed the end of the tape to the tablecloth and began to wind it around the box.

“Jon, could you and Stella lift up one end at a time? Melinda can’t get the tape under and over the box unless it’s off the ground.”

Olivia shot Michel a befuddled glance as the pastor and the younger woman struggled to raise the box high enough for Melinda to pass the duct tape under it three times.

“It looks like you’re preparing an Egyptian mummy for burial. Did gold bars or rare diamonds number among the items in the time capsule?” Olivia joked, her gaze fixed on the pastor.

Easing the box down, he flushed. “We’re not doing this to protect the contents but to make sure the unveiling is official. Everyone will see what’s inside at the same—”

“I’m sure the original trustees would have wanted us to follow proper protocol,” Bellamy interjected. “Where should we move it?” she asked Pastor Jeffries. “We need a clean place with a sturdy counter and good lighting.”

“The kitchen would be best,” the pastor said. “But let me have the workmen carry it. It’s too heavy for your daughter.”

Bellamy eyed Stella with ill-concealed disapproval. “Very well. Stella, you and Melinda can go back to your office work.” She turned to Olivia and Michel. “Since you’re here, may I have a look at the proposed garden party menus?”

“Would you like to sit in a pew?” Olivia asked. “We can talk while Michel and the pastor finish discussing wedding details.”

“Certainly,” Bellamy said, and the two women moved into the sanctuary.

Bellamy quickly became engrossed in the menus, so Olivia watched Pastor Jeffries lead Kenny and his crew slowly up the center aisle. She was hypnotized by the strange procession. Wrapped in its white shroud, the box looked like a small coffin, and the workmen carried it with mute solemnity, their gazes fixed straight ahead. Michel followed behind, his hands clasped like a penitent parishioner. The men passed through a doorway in the back of the chapel and the door closed with a whisper behind them.

Once again, Olivia’s eyes were drawn to the stained glass window of the girl being guided by the angel. For no logical reason, Olivia felt a shiver of dread creep up her spine. Annoyed with herself for being fanciful, she returned her attention to Bellamy Drummond. The men hadn’t distracted the older woman at all. She’d taken the pencil from the pew’s attendance pad and was using it to make notations in the margin of each menu.

“You’ve made this a difficult choice,” Bellamy said. “But I’ll pass on the menu with the lamb entrée. Even though Easter will have come and gone by the evening of garden party, I don’t want people thinking about church.” She waved a hand to indicate their surroundings. “On this particular night, I’d prefer our attendees to forget about being upright, responsible citizens. I want them to give in to more hedonistic whims.”

“In other words, while under the influence of champagne cocktails and glazed Cornish hens stuffed with wild rice and apricots, you’d like them to write generous checks to the historical society,” Olivia said.

Bellamy grinned. “Precisely.”

Olivia gestured at the menu in Bellamy’s right hand. “Is this your first choice?”

“Yes, but I have two concerns. The Asiago-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon sound messy.” Bellamy spoke the latter word as if it were a capital offense. “And yet men are fond of their bacon. Could we wrap bacon around something other than dates?”

“Shrimp?” Olivia suggested and Bellamy readily agreed.

“My other concern is the butter lettuce salad. It sounds unsophisticated.” She touched the menu with a rounded, petal-pink nail. “Especially when compared to these fingerling potatoes with crème fraîche and caviar.”

“The salad is refreshing and chic. With fresh slices of avocado and radish, it’s elegant in its simplicity.” Olivia smiled. She knew how to speak Bellamy’s language. “That’s why we’re finishing the meal with lemon angel food cupcakes. They’re light as air and yet bursting with a rich, complex flavor. Just a kiss of lemon and sugar to create a sense of contentment. You want the guests to feel as if they’ve just had the most incredible dining experience of their lives. Couple that with aperitifs and a scavenger hunt, and you’ll have given them a night to remember. The donations will roll in like waves at high tide.”

Bellamy’s eyes sparkled. “It’ll be both mysterious and romantic. Gardens at twilight, a sumptuous meal, and a candlelight dance beneath the stars. I can control every component but the weather.” She curled her fist into a tight ball and shook it. “But so help me, if one drop of rain falls the night of the party, God will have to answer to me.” She glanced at the altar and, having delivered her threat, dropped the menus on the pew. “Thank you, Olivia. Now I must be off. There’s much to do before tonight’s reveal.”

*   *   *

Olivia dropped Michel at The Boot Top and then headed to the park with Haviland. She felt restless. It was a sensation she experienced more and more as the months passed. Ever since she’d accepted Sawyer Rawlings’s marriage proposal, she’d been feeling uneasy. It wasn’t that he was pressuring her. He’d suggested only once or twice that they set a date, but with the onset of spring, Olivia knew that Rawlings would start to wonder why she kept avoiding the subject. After all, they’d already come to terms on what kind of ceremony to have and the fact that Olivia wouldn’t change her name. And though Olivia’s house would be their prime residence, Rawlings would hang on to his house in town for those times he needed to be close to the station. They’d been living like this for nearly a year, and Olivia was perfectly happy with the status quo.

He’s sure to ask me to pick a date. It won’t be long now, she thought glumly.

It wasn’t that Olivia didn’t want to marry him. She did. She was deeply in love with him. But because she loved him, she feared that he’d discover the secret she was keeping from him. Secrets had a way of destroying relationships, and Olivia feared she’d lose Rawlings should he discover hers.

“I won’t think about that today,” she told Haviland. He dropped a tennis ball at her feet and nudged it toward her with his left paw. She tossed the ball into a copse of pine trees and he dashed off after it, a blur of black racing over the brilliant green grass. Haviland scooped the ball into his mouth, juggled it a bit between his teeth to gain purchase, and then trotted back to her. He was several feet away, his tail wagging and his brown eyes smiling with pleasure, when Olivia’s phone rang.

“I can see you! You’re on a park bench,” whispered Laurel Hobbs theatrically.

“I’m sorry. Do I know you?” Olivia teased and scanned the park for her friend. Ever since Laurel had been promoted to assistant editor of the Oyster Bay Gazette, she’d been too busy to do much socializing.

“Come on, it hasn’t been that long,” Laurel protested. “Don’t you want to know where I am?”

Olivia looked around the crowded park again. Mothers with strollers gathered near the playground, old men read newspapers or dozed on the benches, couples stretched out on picnic blankets, and dog owners played catch with their companions.

“You’re not in the park,” Olivia said.

“Nope. I’m sipping coffee and eating a buttered croissant at Bagels ’n’ Beans.”

Olivia was surprised to hear this. It had been ages since any of the Bayside Book Writers had frequented the café. Ever since the owner, and a good friend of Olivia’s, was sent to jail, they’d all lost the taste for bagels. “Why?” Olivia asked.

“Research,” was Laurel’s cryptic answer. “Care to join me?”

Thinking of the time capsule, Olivia said she’d be right over and whistled for Haviland.

With the poodle at her heel, she crossed the street and strode over to where six patio tables with striped umbrellas were lined up on the sidewalk.

Laurel sat at the table closest to the front door. A magazine, a notebook, a cell phone, a coffee cup, an empty dessert plate, and crumpled napkins were spread across the metal surface.

“Is this your new office?” Olivia smiled and pulled out a chair.

Casting a furtive glance around, Laurel whispered, “I’m on a stakeout.”

Olivia emptied the contents of a water bottle into Haviland’s travel bowl and then reached for Laurel’s notebook. “Is this where the ring of bagel thieves will strike next?”

Laurel slid the magazine closer to Olivia. “Not exactly.”

The cover showed two seamen in royal blue uniforms standing in front of a military cutter named Diligence.“Why are you reading a publication written by members of the Coast Guard for members of the Coast Guard?”

“Look at page thirty-three. You’ll find a fascinating article on drug smuggling and the city of Wilmington.”

Complying, Olivia turned to the page. “Wilmington’s one of North Carolina’s major ports. Is there a connection between the port’s illegal drug trade and Oyster Bay?”

Laurel tapped on the magazine. “Just read it.”

Though she was eager to tell Laurel about the time capsule, Olivia did as her friend requested. The article focused on the increased smuggling activity along the coastline of North Carolina and outlined how the Coast Guard was partnering with other law enforcement agencies to apprehend the smugglers.

“That must be a major challenge,” Olivia mused aloud. “The vessels transporting the drugs range from fishing trawlers to pleasure yachts. It also says that many of the smuggling rings are comprised of young men in their mid to late twenties who—”

“Are college-educated,” Laurel interrupted. “We’re talking about kids from good Southern families here. These kids complete a four-year degree with expectations of landing a job with a six-figure salary. When that doesn’t happen, a select group of them will move to a small town on the Atlantic coast and go into the drug-trafficking business. North Carolina has over three hundred miles of coastline and hundreds of small towns with harbors and docks, Oyster Bay included.”

Olivia turned back to the magazine’s cover image. “Our little Coast Guard station could never keep track of all the boats coming in and out of our harbor.”

“That’s right.” Laurel nodded vigorously, her high ponytail bouncing as if to emphasize her excitement. “Tell me something else: What was this place like when Wheeler ran it? Describe his clientele.”

Perplexed, Olivia said, “For the most part, they were locals grabbing coffee and a bagel before heading to work. Later in the morning, there’d be some tourist traffic.”

Laurel leaned closer, still speaking in a hushed tone. “The locals were a diverse group too. A dockhand might be waiting in line behind a banker. The tourists usually had sunburns or kids in tow. And at this time of the year, spring breakers nursing hangovers would appear shortly after noon.”

“Are you here because Bagels ’n’ Beans is attracting a different sort of patron these days?” Olivia glanced at her watch. “When Wheeler ran this place, it closed at three every day. Even when the business passed to his son, Ray kept the same hours. It’s almost my cocktail time and the open sign is still lit.”

“One of several major changes,” Laurel said. “Ever since Ray Hatcher sold the place, the décor’s changed, the music’s gotten louder, and the bagels are shipped in frozen. All of this has happened over the past year.”

Olivia tried to remember who’d bought the eatery, but the sale had warranted only a few lines in the Gazette. “Go on.”

“Bagels ’n’ Beans is now open until ten at night. You can have a lackluster sub sandwich and a beer for supper. The manager, Grady, looks like he’s twelve and the majority of his customers don’t seem much older. Go in and order something. You’ll see what I mean. But don’t talk to Millay. She’s flirting with some of the regulars in hopes of gaining their trust.”

Intrigued, Olivia told Haviland to stay and then entered the bagel shop. She got in line behind a lanky kid carrying a skateboard who was in the middle of ordering an Italian sub. While he deliberated over whether to add Doritos or Sun Chips to his meal, Olivia scanned the room.

Everywhere she looked, she saw young men dressed in board shorts, faded T-shirts, and boat shoes. Their sun-kissed hair was pushed back off their foreheads with the help of mirrored aviator glasses. All of these men, who were little more than boys in Olivia’s eyes, were tanned and toned. Clean and polished. Theirs was the relaxed, self-assured air of the privileged, and Olivia only had to catch glimpses of their watches, shoes, and perfect dental work to know that these kids were accustomed to the good life. There were a few women in the café too, but for the most part, the men ignored them.

A real boys’ club, Olivia thought and then spotted Millay at a corner table. The blunt ends of her short black hair were dyed an electric blue and her fingernails were painted the same color. Her knee-high leather boots were propped on a chair, providing everyone with a clear view of her shapely legs, and her white Sons of Anarchy T-shirt was stretched tight over a black bra. Chewing on a straw, she flashed Olivia a nearly imperceptible grin and then turned back to her audience of three men and said something in a bored monotone. Though Olivia knew that Millay was playing a part, she wasn’t sure what that part was. But since Millay had spent her school years being bullied and belittled by the rich and preppy crowd, Olivia suspected she’d been given an opportunity to exact revenge on their kind and was enjoying every second of it.

“What can I get you?” the boy behind the counter asked, his eyes flicking over Olivia with disinterest.

Olivia tried not to grimace. She wouldn’t feed the deli meat that had gone into the previous customer’s Italian sub to a stray dog. The salami was brown, the ham was wilted, and the pepperoni was an odd pinkish hue. “Do you have any croissants?”

The young man shook his head and Olivia leaned forward to examine the remnants of the day’s bagels. “A sesame bagel with peanut butter,” she said and laid money on the counter. “No need to toast it. And it’s to go.”

Having slapped a thin layer of peanut butter on the bottom half of the sliced bagel, the young man dropped it into a bag and unceremoniously dumped it on the counter. He handed Olivia her change with a stiff “have a good one” and picked up his cell phone. After a few seconds of scrolling, he glanced up and caught the eye of a boy sitting near the front door. Pointing at his phone, he raised his eyebrows in question and a silent message passed between the two young men. Olivia paused by the condiment bar, but before she could scrutinize the second twentysomething more closely, he abruptly exited the café.

Olivia went outside to rejoin Laurel. Gesturing at the empty plate on the table, she said, “How could you possibly eat anything from this place?”

Laurel laughed. “I told you I was eating a warm, buttery croissant and that was true. I heated it in the microwave and slathered it with butter. I used twenty packets and it still tasted like tire rubber.” She nodded at the bag in Olivia’s hand. “What did you get?”

“A bagel for the birds.” Olivia stroked Haviland’s head. “I’m sorry, Captain, but there’s nothing edible in there. On the bright side, I’m likely to rid Oyster Bay of its pigeon problem using this single bagel.”

Laurel reached across the table and squeezed Olivia’s arm. “Oh, I’ve missed you. We haven’t seen nearly enough of each other since Harris left.”

“I know. I’m so glad that he’s returning home tomorrow. And even gladder that he’s coming back to stay.”

“Will you tell him what’s happened to the Bayside Book Writers since he relocated to Texas?”

Olivia frowned. “You mean, how we’ve only met two times, or that I haven’t added a single word to my horrid historical fiction? Or how Rawlings keeps saying that he needs to conduct more research before proceeding with his book or how you’re far too busy writing articles to pen your women’s fiction novel?”

“At least Millay makes us look good,” Laurel said brightly. “Imagine landing a three-book deal from Penguin Random House! By September, her first YA novel will be published. I wonder if she wakes up every morning and pinches herself.”

“That’s not her style,” Olivia said. “Actually, I think she’s a bit worried. She sent me a text a few weeks ago saying she was way behind deadline for the next book in the series.”

Laurel sighed. “We talked about that earlier today. She’s feeling completely uninspired and I know exactly how she feels. I’ve felt totally flat for the past few months. That is, until I came across this Coast Guard article. Something about this”—she waved at the café’s façade—“has my blood pulsing again. And having Millay involved . . . well, it’s like how things used to be when the Bayside Book Writers were together. When we were writing, socializing, and balancing the scales of justice.”

Though Olivia understood exactly what Laurel meant, a surge of inexplicable anger swept over her. “Hasn’t there been enough drama? Haven’t we lost enough? I hate sitting at this café. I hate the fact that the man I cared about isn’t behind the counter. I hate that when I visit Through the Wardrobe to buy books, Flynn isn’t offering me a cup of his horrible coffee. This whole damned town is haunted.”

Responding to Olivia’s agitation, Haviland nudged her leg with his nose. She scratched him behind the ears and whispered soothingly to him.

“I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.” Laurel looked stricken. “I just want us to be like we used to be. We haven’t healed since Harris left. Instead, we drifted away from one another like boats cut loose from their moorings.” Her eyes grew moist. “I don’t want us to lose anything else. I really need you guys. I love my family and my job. But you, Millay, Rawlings, and Harris are my friends. I can be myself with all of you. Do you know how rare that is? How wonderful?”

Olivia immediately regretted her outburst. “I do,” she said softly. “And I miss the way we were too. I also think you could be on to something here. I don’t know if it’s drugs or another illegal activity, but the whole café is filled with Abercrombie poster boys. They have a smug, authoritative air about them, like Mafia men hanging out at their favorite Italian restaurant. You’ll have to let me know what Millay discovers.”

Laurel grinned. “They won’t be able to resist her. She’s like an exotic bird surrounded by sparrows.” Suddenly, her expression turned anxious. “Speaking of men becoming smitten with Millay, how do you think it’ll be between her and Harris when they meet again?”

“We’ll find out over dinner tomorrow night,” Olivia said. “It’s difficult to know how much the breakup affected Millay, but Harris Williams is the kind of guy who only falls in love once in his life.”

“For his sake, I hope that’s not true. In any event, I’m sure the reunion of the Bayside Book Writers will be a happy affair.” She checked her watch and frowned. “I need to run. Was there something you wanted to talk about?”

Olivia took out her phone and showed Laurel the photograph of the inventory and contributor list from the time capsule.

“What am I looking at?” Laurel asked.

“The beginning of an interesting article,” Olivia said and then recalled the look of fear on Pastor Jeffries’s face. “Though I have a strange feeling that it could be much more than that. Today, three workmen found an old box buried in the wall of the First Presbyterian Church. As you can see from the list, this time capsule contains fascinating objects from Oyster Bay’s past, but I think something else escaped when the box lid was removed. Something shameful. Or possibly dangerous.”

“Like what?”

Olivia stared out across the park to where the tip of the church steeple was just visible over the tree line. It looked like a black spear against the pale horizon, stretching up and up as if intending to pierce the clouds. Olivia glanced back at Laurel and said, “I think a secret got out.”

“A secret,” Laurel repeated breathlessly.

The women fell silent, and in the silence, the word hung between them like a spider dangling from a long, invisible thread.

Chapter 3

In the ancient recipe, the three antidotes for dullness or boredom are sleep, drink, and travel. It is rather feeble. From sleep you wake up, from drink you become sober, and from travel you come home again. And then where are you?

—D. H. LAWRENCE

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Lethal Letters"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Ellery Adams.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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