by Margaret S. Hamilton
Enjoy this never before published Halloween mystery short story and watch for more to come over the next couple of weeks.
“Changed your mind about renting out your second floor?”
Lizzie immediately recognized his whiny voice.
“Fred Bascom, take off that ridiculous mask when you’re speaking to me.” Lizzie shook his hand off her arm. “And no, I haven’t changed my mind.”
“I thought the Main Street merchants helped newcomers, like Dave Bartlett.”
“Why don’t you rent the space above Dave’s shop?”
“He already has tenants. They came with the building.”
“Sorry, I can’t help you.”
A local realtor, James “Jim Dandy” Danforth, joined them. “Fred, are you bothering Lizzie? I told you to mingle and publicize your new business.”
Fred pulled his mask down over his eyes and stomped away.
“Sorry about that,” Jim said. “I’m mentoring Fred. He needs a food preparation space for his new venture.”
“I can’t help him,” Lizzie said. “We use the second floor of my shop for storage.”
Jim excused himself, and Lizzie and Nick joined the Main Street Merchants annual Halloween party.
“What was that all about?” Nick asked.
Lizzie sighed. “Fred Bascom wants to buy up quantities of snack foods and deliver them, with sandwiches, to the college dorms every evening. Jericho doesn’t allow food trucks, and I’m sure the college doesn’t want an unlicensed food vendor on campus. I’m surprised Jim Danforth is encouraging the venture.”
“Lizzie, aren’t you adorable in your peasant dress,” a woman said.
“Um, thanks. I feel like Scarlett O’Hara wearing drapery fabric.”
“Nonsense, the red toile print is just darling.”
“Toile is a steady seller at the shop, in a variety of colors. Stop by if you’d like to see our fabric samples.”
Someone else remarked that Lizzie and Nick looked like they had stepped out of the Sound of Music. Nick wore a band-collared white shirt with full sleeves topped with a toile vest that matched her dress. Lizzie’s interior design shop seamstress had constructed the garments out of workroom remnants.
Lizzie surveyed the crowd of costumed couples: Antony and Cleopatra, Bonnie and Clyde, even Henry the Eighth with his six wives. She saw Fred Bascom handing out business cards. What was he up to? The party goers weren’t his target sandwich and snack market.
“Let’s get our food and pick a special wine,” she said. “We can ask Dave for a recommendation.”
Lizzie piled her plate with shrimp, crab cakes, mini quiches, and bruschetta topped with chopped tomatoes. Nick followed her as she made her way toward Dave Bartlett, the owner of a local wine shop, Taste Before You Buy. He stood behind a table filled with wine bottles at the far end of the room. Lizzie ignored Fred Bascom, who lurked nearby.
“Hi, Dave, can you give me a glass of wine paired with my food?”
“Lovely.” Lizzie took a tiny sip and spat it back in her glass. “It’s a bit…sharp. Perhaps I’ll stick with a Chardonnay.”
Dave poured himself a glass and tasted it. “Ugh, you’re right, Lizzie.” He handed her a plastic cup of water. “Rinse out your mouth, and I’ll give you something else.”
As he poured fresh glasses of a different wine, Dave said, “I don’t understand. Sales of the Sauvignon Blanc have been strong at my shop, with no complaints.” He held up the bottle and scrutinized the label. “Hmm. Something’s not right. I wonder if my cases of wine were mixed up with that other guy’s. We unloaded our stock at the same time.”
Lizzie sipped her fresh glass of wine. “Very nice.” She looked at Dave. “What other guy? You’re the designated wine supplier for this event.”
“I need to check my other tables for more of that bad wine.” Dave excused himself.
Lizzie put down her plate at one end of the table. “Why don’t we eat right here, where we can keep an eye on things?”
Nick sat down next to her. “I recognize that gleam in your eyes. Who’s the imposter wine supplier, and did he intentionally give Dave a case of bad wine?”
Lizzie blew out a long breath. “A description of the guy would help.” She munched on a crab cake.
Dave returned. “That’s the only case of Sauvignon Blanc. I thought I brought more.”
“Could you describe what’s not right about the label?” Lizzie asked.
Dave heaved the case of wine on the table and examined each bottle. “The labels are wrong, poorly printed and look like they were glued on top of the originals.” He tamped the cork back in the open bottle and inserted it in the case. “Someone’s passing off a case of bad wine with new labels.”
“May I take a look?” Lizzie asked. She rubbed her finger on the false label. “It’s obvious if you’re looking for it.” Lizzie sipped her Chardonnay. “Dave, did you recognize the guy with cases of wine?”
“He was on the young side, with one of those funny haircuts with shaved sides and a tuft of dark coarse hair on top. He was dressed like my servers, black shirt and slacks, but I know all my staff by name.” Dave adjusted the bottles of wine on the table. “My servers told me a guy tried to use our table space to peddle his wine. They know I’m the only vendor at this event, and told him to get lost.”
Lizzie mouthed the words to Nick, “Fred Bascom?”
“Could be. Don’t jump to conclusions.”
Nick asked, “When you opened your new shop, did other wine shop owners in the area oppose you?”
“No, not at all. They all dropped by to introduce themselves. I’m not in direct competition with them.”
“Could someone be out to sabotage you?” Lizzie asked.
Dave twirled an empty wine glass. “I doubt it. I’ve been in business for years.”
Lizzie savored a sip of wine. “Did Fred Bascom try to rent your upstairs space?”
“The guy with some hairbrained scheme about snack foods and sandwiches?” Dave shook his head. “When he called, I told him I had reliable tenants. I’ve never met him.”
Lizzie stood and fluffed her full skirt. “Someone’s out to discredit you. Let’s give the case of bad wine with fake labels to the police officer outside.”
Lizzie had assisted the local police in several investigations. When she phoned the department from the parking lot, the sergeant on duty promised that an officer would visit the barn the next day to review security footage and try to identify the other wine vendor.
“Time for dessert wines, Dave,” Lizzie said. “I can’t wait to try your recommendation.”
Dave’s face was grim. “From now on, I’ll have to taste every bottle we open. I’ll start on this side and meet you at my table in the back of the room.”
Lizzie stood in the middle of the dance floor, Nick’s arms around her waist. She gazed at the crowd, looking for anyone who seemed out of place. The party-goers filled small plates with bite-sized pumpkin cheesecakes and tarts with pumpkin filling, then stood in line for the chocolate fountain. Platters of orange sections, fresh strawberries, slices of banana, and shortcake cookies ringed the fountain, which had a continuous flow of dark, luscious chocolate.
She saw costumed pirates, a brigade of toga-wearing college professors, and Star Wars characters. Lizzie continued to scan the crowd. Finally, she spotted Fred, holding a wine bottle in each hand. He looked up and met Lizzie’s gaze, before he ducked down and dove through a group of servers.
“Look!” She pointed. “Fred’s headed for the kitchen doors. Go on. I’ll be right behind you.”
Lizzie and Nick fought their way through the crowd and pushed through the swinging double doors. The room was filled with the catering crew packing up their serving trays, plates, and glassware.
Lizzie called out, “Anybody see a young guy come through? Black shirt, slacks, and mask.”
“He went toward the back,” someone said.
They raced through the kitchen and out the door. Cigarette butts littered the ground, the dumpster bulged with food trash, and the recycling bins were filled with wine bottles.
A white commercial van started up. The driver gunned its engine before he raced through the parking lot.
“Get the license number?” Lizzie asked.
“No, the plate’s spattered with mud,” Nick said.
Lizzie tapped 9-1-1 on her phone and made a report to the dispatcher, who promised to radio the officer on duty at the event.
They trudged back to the party venue, its tall windows filled with flashing orange, purple, and green lights as the band played, “I put a spell on you.”
Nick held open the door. “Want to dance, Lizzie, or should we call it a night?”
“Let’s check in with Dave.”
They found him checking his stock under one of the serving tables.
“Find any more doctored bottles?” Lizzie asked.
“How many cases did the other guy have?”
“At least a dozen, piled on a big cart.”
“Could he have stashed them somewhere other than this room?” Lizzie asked.
“I have no idea. This is my first event here.”
Lizzie leaned against the timbered wall, the noise of the band deafening. Watching lights flash around the room, she spotted a small alcove in the wall separating the original space from the kitchen addition. “Over there.” She and Nick pushed through the dancing crowd to the other side of the room. Pulling a black tarp off a loaded cart, Lizzie found a stack of cases of wine.
“This is probably Fred’s stash,” Lizzie said. “I wonder why he didn’t distribute the cases under the three wine tables.” She pushed through the kitchen door, cell phone to her ear, Nick behind her.
Completing her call, she smiled at Nick. “The police will send over a van at the end of the evening and confiscate the cases of wine. There’s definitely more going on than Fred’s suspicious behavior. We’re to keep an eye on the wine until the end of the party. Let’s tell Dave before we hit the dance floor.”
The next day was Halloween. Lizzie and Nick spent the afternoon helping the high school service club transform a small warehouse behind the Main Street shops into a spook house for grade-school children. The kids would enjoy face-painting, apple-bobbing, popcorn and hot dogs in the front section, with several students acting as fortune tellers, followed by a five-minute tour of the spook house in the rear of the building.
“It’s pretty tame,” Lizzie said, reassuring the parents. “Skeletons, creaking doors, some ghosts with flashing green lights, and flying witches. Absolutely no weapons or violence.”
“No chain saws?”
Lizzie heard a mocking voice at the edge of the crowd. Fred Bascom, wearing a black hoodie, a stack of flyers under his arm. She pulled out her phone and called the police. Fred continued to smile at her as she spoke to the dispatcher. And then he was gone.
“Most of the force is in the Main Street area,” the dispatcher said. “I’ll let them know that you saw Fred.”
Lizzie left Nick at the front of the warehouse while she monitored the spook house exit, ensuring that each child had the correct parent or caregiver before they left. A door creaked behind her, followed by the distant slam of an outside door. She stood still and listened. Not part of the spook house sound effects. She texted Nick to join her with their large flashlights.
Lizzie asked a high school student to take her place at the exit. When Nick appeared, she took a flashlight and pointed toward the back of the warehouse.
They crept down a dark hallway until they found an unlocked door. Lizzie eased it open and flicked on the lights. Crates of wine filled the room. She picked up a flyer from the floor.
“Look at this—brand name cases of wine for less, delivered to your door.” She looked at the cases of wine. “Do you think it’s the same bad wine Dave gave me?”
“Call the police,” Nick said. “You suspect Fred Bascom, don’t you?”
“You bet. I saw him lurking around outside a while ago. He probably handed out flyers tonight, during the parade. I wonder how long he’s stored the wine here.” She frowned. “So much for his sandwich and snack business.” She made her call, before they checked that the outside store room door was locked.
Dave Bartlett came by as Lizzie and Nick finished loading their van. “I hear you found cases of wine in a back room with flyers advertising home delivery.”
“Good news travels fast,” Lizzie said. “The police put padlocks on the doors until they can cart the stuff away.”
“Think it was Fred Bascom?” Dave asked.
“I doubt he’s acting alone,” Lizzie said. “I wonder who his supplier is.”
A police officer showed her an evidence bag containing business cards. “Found these near the back room. Know this guy?”
Lizzie aimed her flashlight at the bag. The cards belonged to local realtor Jim Dandy. She frowned. “Jim could have a logical reason for showing the empty warehouse to potential clients.”
“Or he’s involved,” Dave said. “Jim’s been snooping around my shop since it opened, asking about storing and transporting wine.”
“Last night, he told us he mentored Fred Bascom,” Lizzie said. “I’ll bet Fred works for him, delivering the bad wine to customers around town. I wonder if Jim Dandy knows we’ve found his storage space.”
“Why don’t we stick around and find out?” Dave asked.
Nick put his arm around Lizzie. “I’ll drive the kids home and come back. Both the front and side warehouse entrances are visible from your shop rear door.”
“Please bring some dark jackets,” Lizzie said, “And a few blankets.”
Lizzie unlocked the back door of her shop and turned off the alarm. Keeping the lights off, she and Dave waited for Nick at the top of the metal stairs.
Wrapped in blankets, the three watched as the Halloween parade floats were hauled away. In a few minutes, a white van cruised the empty parking lot and parked in the shadows next to the side of the warehouse. Two figures emerged, one carrying some kind of tool. Lizzie alerted the police dispatcher.
After she activated the alarm and locked the shop door, they crept down the exterior staircase. Lizzie pointed toward the side street. They kept to the shadows as they circled the warehouse to the store room exterior door, where they found Jim Dandy holding his cellphone flashlight, while Fred Bascom hammered the padlock.
Fred whined. “This looked so easy on the You-Tube video.”
Jim Dandy handed him the lit phone. “You’re hopeless. Give me that hammer.” With one sharp blow, the police padlock came apart. Jim handed the hammer to Fred. “Pays to be a realtor. I can get through any lock. Get the dollies from the truck. We need to move this stuff tonight, before the police come for it.”
After Fred and Jim went inside the warehouse addition, Lizzie took a cell phone photo of the van license plate. Jim maneuvered a dolly stacked with cases of wine over the door sill to the van. As he pulled the rear van doors open, two police cruisers entered the parking lot on silent approach. When they saw Jim, they put on their flashing lights and pulled up behind the van.
“Hands in the air. On the ground,” one of the officers shouted.
Lizzie stepped closer to the van. “Fred Bascom’s inside. Make sure he doesn’t get away.”
Two minutes later, the other officer appeared in the warehouse doorway with Fred in cuffs.
“Thanks Lizzie, Nick, and Dave. We’ll take it from here,” an officer said.
They walked back to their cars.
Lizzie said, “Dave, if I had a glass of wine right now, I’d toast your continued success in Jericho.”
“I’ll remedy that tomorrow. Remember, ‘Taste before you buy’.”
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