A Wasp in the Woods
Book 3 in the Shop 'Round the World Cozy Mysteries
Retired Navy Pilot Angel Warren’s sleuthing days are behind her. At least, that’s what she tells herself after finding two dead bodies during her first year back in Stonebridge, Pennsylvania. Murders make customers wary and Angel’s sales are suffering. With her daughters back in college and the cases behind her, Angel focuses on attracting more customers into her novelty shop.
Hoping to boost local tourism, Angel researches how to create a walking history tour. During a dry run for her inaugural walk, her brother’s Pomeranian leads her through the woods and to her third body, the apparent victim of multiple stings from a nearby wasp nest. Angel recognizes the deceased as her sister’s cherished employee who was days away from being married.
The scene doesn’t sit right with Angel’s best friend, Detective Trinity Colson, however, who suspects foul play. When the autopsy reveals a different cause of death, Angel dives into her most dangerous case yet. Soon Angel, along with her eclectic crew featuring two dogs and a feisty parrot, are once again on the hunt for a murderer. But is Angel also being hunted?
Heat Level: Smooth Sailing
A Wasp in the Woods
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A Wasp in the Woods
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“You all look great, team.” I beam at my Historically Haunted Stonebridge crew as we stand in the store retail area. My mother and father are due at any minute, serving as our practice tourists. They’ve promised to bring some of their friends along, too.
“You’re not looking bad yourself, babe.” Nate grins and his eye that isn’t covered by a pirate patch glows with appreciation. His billowy, open-collar white shirt reveals a sprinkling of chest hair that matches the silver locks on his head and I allow myself to have silent, heated eye contact with my man.
“Get a room, sister,” Bryce quips, his angel wings quivering as he clutches Purl, his precious Pomeranian, to his tutu-wearing chest. Bryce says he’s a good witch, to serve as a balance for Crystal’s more traditional all-black costume, which he insists looks like a witch. Purl is dressed in matching pink satin with a pale rose tulle collar that accentuates her sparkling tiara.
“Leave them alone, dear. Remember when we first fell in love?” Nico says. Nico stands next to Bryce in a vampire costume, his dark Sicilian features adding panache to his spooky getup.
“Helloooo.” Ralph expresses his enthusiasm from inside the well-ventilated carrier. Nate’s wearing the contraption on his front, so that Ralph takes center stage. Standing silent sentinel next to them is Mach, Nate’s Shiloh shepherd. Think German shepherd meets wolf, meets golden retriever, and you have Mach’s looks, gaze and personality. “Mach” is short for macchiato, the wonderful Italian espresso drink that sports a dollop of steamed milk. Since Nate owns Latte Love and Mach sports latte shades of brown, black and white, Mach is a perfect name. I should mention that Mach is one big doggie, weighing in at one hundred and ten pounds. But he’s a gentle giant, slightly—okay, majorly—prone to anxiety.
“Hi, Mach, how’s my sweet boy doing?” I scratch behind his ears.
“Help!” Ralph screeches at me, perturbed that any creature besides him has my attention. I’ve never felt his green feathers are an accident, not when faced with his trademark jealousy.
“Knock it off, Ralph.” I adjust the faux whalebone frame of my corset. I didn’t cinch it tight enough to make it truly historic, but comfortably loose, yet it’s still annoying. When I catch the glint in Nate’s gaze, though, my hands still. No pain, no libidinous gain, right?
“I still can’t believe you’re paying me to do this.” Amy Radabagh, my only employee save for my girls when they’re home, taps on the store tablet, calling up the list of volunteer guests for this evening’s tour. Her long nails are painted black and she’s giving Bryce and his pink getup a run for the brightest as she’s in a fuzzy neon green costume. Amy insists she’s the Green Blob but in reality she looks like a certain character who loathes Christmas. Our small group doesn’t look like the historical characters I envisioned but it might prove great for Shop ’Round the World’s business. My store caters to a plethora of holidays with an array of unique, international gifts. It’s not a typical gift shop by any means, so why should my Haunted History tour leaders be predictable?
“For the record, I’m not paying you, or any of you, out of the shop funds. Leo’s Tours is bankrolling all of this until we show we can make a go of it. Then I’ll run the tours how I want to, and give him a percentage in exchange for his wide customer base.”
“Look at that, our sister the smart businessperson.” Crystal grins and her face makeup cracks.
“Thanks, sis, but can you tell me why you’re wearing green greasepaint? You’re supposed to be a farmer’s widow, not a witch.”
“It’s for our Halloween tour, Angel.”
I sigh. “Actually, you look great. Shall we head out?”
The first part of our walking tour goes well, almost down to the minute. We walk through downtown Stonebridge, sticking mostly to the streets that remain cobblestoned as they were two hundred years ago. Two spooky churchyards and a reputedly haunted tavern later, all of us minus my parents and their buddies—they do the downtown walking, the historical tour part, so that Mom can add her historical knowledge—get into Crystal’s florist van and she drives us out to her flower shop, riding across the parking lot and adjacent lawn to the gazebo.
“So far so good, babe.” Nate squeezes my thigh where his hand has rested the entire ride.
We exit the van and I wait as Bryce, Nico and Purl get out. Nate opens the back of the van to let Mach down.
I look at my phone. “We’ll need to do better on time when we do this for real, folks. We’re fifteen minutes behind.”
“What’s a quarter of an hour for a two-hour tour?” Nico asks.
“I agree. The customers won’t mind,” Amy adds.
“I mind, because we’ll be doing these tours every night for the four weeks leading up to Halloween. Fifteen minutes can easily turn into half an hour with having to use flashlights to navigate the path in the woods. We all want to be home at a decent hour, do we not?”
“Good thing you’re in charge, then. I’d make every night a party, right, Purl?” Bryce jiggles the tiny dog on his hip and boops her nose.
I text Mariah that we’re ten minutes out from when I need the headless horseman.
READY TO SCARE? BE THERE IN 10.
She doesn’t immediately reply but I’m not concerned. Mariah’s a Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine, and there’s no way she’ll not show up after asking to be there in the first place.
“Okay, I believe our headless horseman is in place. Let’s take our time, pretend that we have a full group along. I’d like each of you to give your full spiel when we get to your spot. We’ll walk past the place where she’s hiding, on our way to the cemetery. Once we’ve cleared her location, she’ll jump out and run toward where our future tour guests will be standing.” Lucky for tour purposes, the old family cemetery from the original farmers who owned Crystal’s property two generations previously is still well tended and on her property. It’s a perfect spot for a spooky stop, some discussion about this particular Stonebridge farmer’s history, and a fright aka the headless horseman.
“Bryce, don’t forget to do your hooting.” I turn to talk to him while everyone else is making last-minute adjustments to their costumes, which get squished in the van. “Bryce?”
My brother has disappeared from view and it takes me a moment to realize he’s on all fours under the large octagonal picnic table.
“Bryce! You’re going to tear your tutu.”
“Purl!” He calls the fluffy dog’s name, exasperation evident in his tone. “Purl! Dang dog never stays put.” He goes to straighten up and bangs his head on the table’s underside. “Ouch!”
Crystal laughs. “She’s here somewhere. Last week she ran into the greenhouse. I’ll go check.” She darts off, and Mach lunges for her, thinking it’s play.
“Mach!” Nate’s deep voice is enough to stop me in my tracks but not the Shiloh shepherd, who pulls Nate and Ralph along for the ride.
“I’ll help. Mach! Cookie! I have a treat!” Amy heads for the gargantuan dog. She’s babysat Mach and still works for Nate, so she’s familiar with their dynamic.
That leaves me with Bryce. Once I determine he’s getting back on his feet just fine, I start scanning the lawn and flower fields. The sun hangs low but there’s enough light to reflect off a tiny white butt that’s darting toward the woods.
“What if there’s a coyote?” he worries.
“I see her. I’ll get her.” Before Bryce can sputter a reply, I make a run for the tiny princess, hoping it was indeed Purl I spied and not a groundhog.
I’m a decent runner and the logical person to go after Purl except for this Victorian dress. I hitch up the skirt and ignore the corset. This is not on my tour schedule.
I reach the flattened portion of the flower fields where hours earlier I was cutting down sunflowers with Crystal. I keep going, glad I wore sneakers and not authentic historical shoes.
I catch sight of the teeny dog right before she veers out of sight and disappears behind a huge oak tree.
“She’s in the woods! I’ve got her!” I shout. No, I don’t have her yet but I will. No sense for everyone to get all sweaty. I can handle a five-pound pompom, for heaven’s sake.
“Purl! Here, doggie!” I try to sound cajoling but my breaths break up my pleas, making me sound like a rasping ghoul. If I were Purl, I’d keep running, too. I force myself to slow down. The woods aren’t very deep and I know what’s on the other side: the modest development of pre-fabricated ranch-style homes that Mariah lives in with her sister. In fact, their backyard abuts the end of the very path Purl and I are on. If Purl gets as far as Mariah’s, I’m hoping she’ll stop and let the headless horseman catch her.
Purl’s yipping pierces the dusky air, growing louder.
Phew. I’m getting closer. One more turn and I’ll have her. I stride past a mulberry tree, followed by two maples, and jog past the family cemetery. It’s not until I’m well past the headstones and upon the subdivision that I see her.
Purl’s standing in front of the cute gate that opens into Mariah’s backyard. Except Purl’s not barking at the gate to be let in, as she would at Bryce’s house. The dog is having a total meltdown for something I can’t see.
I stop dead still.
Please don’t let it be a skunk.
“Yippityyipyip!” Purl punctuates her yips with definite growls. And not playful, happy, “you found me” growls. I don’t breathe a word as the last thing I desire is to cause her to make another run for it. As her agitation ratchets, she doesn’t notice me so I take stock of my surroundings. The trees have given way to overgrown shrubs, and it’s hard to make out the fence and gate through the branches, still in full leaf as the warm autumn has delayed their fall. Looking at the beaten path, I see that Purl’s champagne-pink, rhinestone-studded leash is still attached to her matching collar, its looped handle only inches from my foot. Slowly, slowly, I get myself into a squat, lean forward, reach out my hand and—
I see what Purl’s alerted to.
It’s not a skunk.
No. No, no, no.
I crawl forward as it’s the fastest way for me to approach what has frothed Purl into a ferocious ball of fury. Two very still feet protrude from under one of the shrubs, clad in dark hiking boots. I quickly grab Purl—she keeps barking but must somehow sense this isn’t the time to make a break for it—and then I peer into the overgrowth, hoping against hope that whoever this is, they’re passed out and not, you know.
I stand up and push aside branches. Until I hear telltale buzzing. A sharp piercing on my elbow distracts me and I bat at it. Too late, I see it’s a wasp that I’ve squashed. I look at the shrub and catch a brief glance of a familiar gray paper object. I can’t make much out, as it’s hidden behind the dense leaves. But the droning buzz of its occupants tells me all I need to know.
“Holy hades!” I crab-walk backward, my butt scraping the ground as I put space between me and what I’m certain is a wasps’ nest. I clutch Purl to my chest as I go. Sure enough, with some distance, I notice the insects flying around the bush, several feet above whoever’s lying on the ground beneath. I was so focused by finding the feet I almost crawled into a wasps’ nest!
It’s okay. You’re okay. You’re not allergic.
I’m not allergic, no, but who knows how big this nest is?
Focus on the body.
Or person. Please, please let it be a living person. But my gut is screaming otherwise.
I scan the body as well as I possibly can from several feet away. The first thing to catch my attention is that the body is wearing…a body stocking with horse legs lying askew at odd angles. An oversized orange jack-o’-lantern, the head portion of a headless horseman costume, lies several yards away, under an adjacent shrub, as if it rolled there. Wasps buzz about it, making its upside down grin all the more menacing.
Her chest isn’t moving, and from her very swollen face—blue and seemingly getting darker as I watch—I suspect nothing in her body is capable of movement.
“Grrrr.” Purl’s in fear mode.
“Stop. This isn’t about me, or you, Purl.” The dog stops growling but her tiny body quakes against my forearm. Or is that my pulse?
Pounding footsteps break through the too-still—save for the busy wasps—air.
“Purl!” Bryce cries.
“Oh, thank God.” Crystal stops a yard or two behind Bryce, bending at the waist, her hands above her knees. “I don’t think I could have run much farther.”
“Woof!” Mach’s deep growl snaps me into action.
“Stop right there!” I stand up and hand off Purl to Bryce. “All of you, get back. Mariah’s unconscious and there’s an active wasp nest.” It’s weird how I already know I’m lying. And yet, hope lives in my heart that Mariah is alive.
“Angel, don’t.” Nate’s never told me what to do but I hear the concern in his tone. “Let me.”
“No, I need you to hold Mach.” No way can I control Mach when he’s worked up. “I’m good—I’m not allergic.”
I don’t wait for his reply, there isn’t any time. I turn back to Mariah and carefully kneel down, get on all fours, wishing I could cut the heaving skirt off. The wasps hover over a piece of paper several feet from Mariah. A chocolate candy bar wrapper.
Good. Let the sugar distract them.
Trying to ignore the venomous threat from the shrub, I scurry forward and get close enough to press my fingers to Mariah’s jugular. If only she’d moan, or gasp, or mumble. Anything. Anything to prove me wrong.
The cool stillness under my fingers validates my instinct, as does the frozen expression on Mariah’s face. She did not pass painlessly.
“Crystal, call 9-1-1,” I shout over my shoulder, and then turn back to Mariah. “Amy, take Purl. Bryce, I need your muscle.”
I motion for Bryce to help me slide and lift Mariah from under the shrub, away from the wasp nest. Without preamble I begin CPR. Immersed in the rhythm of compressions and mouth-to-mouth respiration, it takes Nate’s firm grasp on my shoulder to make me stop.
I look up at him. He’s on his knees beside me, Mach sitting in his best guard dog posture. “Angel, honey, she’s gone.”
I look past his shoulder, to where the group is huddled a good twenty yards away. Sirens sound, still distant, but I know they’ll be here long before I catch my mental breath.
Another murder. To someone I spoke to only hours earlier.
“I’ve got to tell Crystal.”
Nate nods. “We’ll stay here with her.”
I get to my feet, force them to move toward the group. No one speaks. I stop in front of my sister.
“Crystal, I, I don’t know how to tell you this.”
“Just tell me, Angel. Please.” Tears are running down her cheeks. She already knows, but needs my confirmation.
“It’s Mariah. I’m so sorry, Crystal. Mariah’s dead.”
She falls into my open arms and I hold her tight.
I’ve found my third corpse in less than a year since moving back to Stonebridge. Worse, it’s Crystal’s longtime, beloved employee, who was about to marry the love of her life on Saturday.