The Corn Maze Murders excerpt

cover for The Corn Maze Murders

The third book in the River Corners Mystery series


Saturday, November 13

Momma’s Cookies, the downtown bakery named for (and run by) Isobel Santini’s momma, smelled of cardamom, chocolate, and vanilla. Isobel inhaled deeply as she entered. Holidays at home had smelled like this while she was growing up.

“When are you going to learn to bake these?” Greg Stone stood behind her and rubbed her shoulders.

She leaned into his hands gratefully. “Maybe next month — after we all survive my Thanksgiving dinner — she’ll start me on something easy. Mine won’t be as good as hers, though.”

He dropped a feather-light kiss on her hair. “I’ll treasure them more.”

Isobel smiled, though he couldn’t see her, and looked over the thriving shop. Momma had only opened it this past summer, but it was already one of the most popular stops downtown.

Glass counters formed an ell at the front of the store, displaying piles of baked goodies in neat rows that mimicked the terra-cotta tile floor. At the back of the shop, the kitchen area was open to view, with a large wooden worktable centrally located between shelves, cupboards, and ovens.

Her momma handed a white paper bag across the counter to a customer. “I’m baking more on Tuesday, so stop back by. Better come earlier in the day, though, or I might sell out again.”

“I’ll do that,” he said. “And when will you have the pumpkin cookies?”

“Sometime in the next week, depending on when I can find a good pumpkin. If I bake them Monday or Tuesday, I could set aside a dozen for you.”

“I can see whether there are any decent pumpkins at Bigby Farms, Momma,” Isobel volunteered.

Bigby Farms had the largest corn maze in the area, as well as hay rides, a pumpkin patch, a petting zoo, and an apple orchard. They would have plenty of pumpkins, and they were Isobel and Greg’s next destination.

The customer said, “I heard the Scotts have pumpkins for sale this year.”

The Scotts were Drew and Mary Beth Scott, owners of the Scott Christmas Tree Farm. Isobel hadn’t heard that they’d put in pumpkins this year, but she remembered Drew telling her the previous winter that they wanted to diversify some more.

“That’s an idea. I’ll call Mary Beth later,” Momma said. “I’ll see you on Tuesday, then?”

“I’ll be here.” The customer smiled at her, nodded stiffly at Isobel and Greg, and left the store.

“You actually mentioned the Bigbys to him?” Momma scolded. “You know he’s been fighting their agricultural zoning for years!”

“Oh, was that Mr. Hunt?” Isobel glanced out the glass door, but the customer had already vanished. “I haven’t seen him in ages. He’s older.”

“Aren’t we all?” her momma asked. “Still, you didn’t have to bring up the Bigbys.”

“I wouldn’t have if I’d recognized him,” Isobel said. “It’s just that we’re on our way there, so I was thinking about it. The annual pumpkin hunt for the elementary school kids is Monday, and we volunteered to help make sure everything is all set up.”

Momma frowned at them over the counter. “Why are you volunteering at the corn maze? You know we have less than two weeks before the big dinner.”

Isobel could have pointed out that Momma was spending the entire day at the bakery, so it didn’t matter what Isobel did with her time. She could have. She didn’t.

Instead, she fell back on “I promised Kimberley.” Momma would never object to a promise made to a friend — and Kimberley Ansel was Isobel’s best friend and former landlady. Kimberley was also the de facto social organizer for the town of River Corners; if there was a special event going on, she had a hand in putting it together and making sure it ran smoothly. Sometimes, that meant recruiting help, such as Isobel and Greg.

“Aren’t they going to be busy with customers today?”

She shrugged. “That means we get the chance to see how they normally work, which should make it easier.”

“Okay . . . but no more dead bodies.”

“I’m sure we’ve seen the last of those.”

Greg chuckled. “You know the expression that comes to mind, don’t you?”

“Yeah, yeah, ‘famous last words.’ I just want to go on the record as saying if any do show up, it’s not my fault.”

“Like Michael would believe that.” Isobel’s cousin Michael was the chief of police in River Corners, and he hadn’t been at all happy with her previous involvement in murder investigations.

“Then he should try finding the bodies himself,” Isobel said.

She hadn’t even found the first body herself, last year on the Scott’s Christmas tree farm. She’d just poked around because Michael had arrested her best friend, the aforementioned Kimberley.

“Why should he want you putting yourself in danger?” Momma asked. “That last murderer…”

She didn’t have to finish her thought. They all remembered Isobel’s kidnapping, and Isobel most certainly did not want to repeat it. Ever. If she did run into a mystery, though, she was pretty certain she wouldn’t be able to just walk away. Greg had told her once she couldn’t have a cat because she was too similar in temperament to one.

“Enough morbid subjects,” her momma declared. “Now, if you two lovebirds are heading out to help Kimberley and the Bigbys get their farm ready, just what did you stop by here for?”

“Breakfast?” Isobel said hopefully.

Momma glowered. “I would hope you’d have something more to eat than my baking. No dessert unless you’ve had your vegetables.”

“Do you have zucchini bread?”

Greg smothered a chuckle and cut into the conversation. “Actually, I told Isobel we should see what time you want her over at your house tonight so we leave the farm in plenty of time.”

“Good to see that one of you is sensible!” Momma beamed at Greg.

Isobel could feel the smugness radiating from him. She’d argued for heading to the farm without stopping. After all, Momma would start the lessons whatever time Isobel showed up, early or late, as long as Momma was home. However, he had insisted. Of course he’d been right.

“So?” Isobel looked at her momma. “What time should I be there?”

“I close at five on Saturdays. You know that.”

“I’ll be there sometime between five-thirty and six. Am I still cooking the whole dinner?”

A raised eyebrow greeted her question. “You haven’t forgotten the menu, have you?”

“Of course not, Momma.”

Truthfully, tonight’s dinner was well within Isobel’s grasp, even if she was famous — or rather, infamous — for her lack of cooking skills: baked ham (already cooked, so she only had to reheat it and glaze it), baked potatoes, and green bean casserole. The only tricky part was managing to cook everything in the two ovens so they finished at the same time. She could do that. It couldn’t be any harder than herding freelancers to make sure books went to press and shipped on time, something she managed all the time while working for the River Corners College Press.

It would be the first time Greg had eaten a full meal she’d cooked, however, so she was still nervous.

“So go already,” Momma said. “And maybe you can have some cookies for dessert tonight.”


Kimberley was in full-on general mode at the Bigby Farm. Folding banquet tables separated the gravel parking lot from the small picnic area and the fields beyond. Labeled bags and boxes in tidy rows covered the tables. Kimberley waved to Isobel and Greg as they crossed the parking lot to where she stood with a clipboard in her hand.

“You’re right on time!” She waved toward a small table at the end. “Cider and muffins over there if you need something to eat. The milk crates stacked at the end hold thermoses of coffee — mostly for the spotters, who won’t be free to move around. You’ll have to run the thermoses out to the spotting stations.”

“I’ll grab some cider in a minute,” Isobel said. “I don’t suppose you have hot water to cut it with?”

Kimberley made a face. “I forgot you don’t like real cider. Sorry, you’re just going to have to drink it as is.”

Isobel sighed. “If I must. So what are we doing?” She surveyed the layout. “It looks like you already have everything set up without our help.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Do you know how much there still is to do?” Kimberley paused to wave at a family that had just pulled into the parking lot. “Hey, going to see you on Monday?”

The son responded with an enthusiastic “yes,” and Kimberley watched them head toward the tractor for the hay ride with a smile on her face. “That’s why I do this every year. The kids love it.”

“And every year, you have to do more to top the previous year.”

Kimberley shrugged. “I don’t have to, I suppose, but I can’t help competing with someone, even if it is only myself. And since the Bigbys are willing to pay for it all…”

Isobel laughed, and Greg said, “Is that why you need us here two days beforehand to set up?”

“Exactly.” Kimberley beamed. “Actually, the first order of business is to have fun. Take a map of the maze and work your way through, making sure you visit every single dead end, wrong turn, and spotter station.”

“Okay, but why?” Isobel asked.

“Today, it’s just for practice and to give you a feeling of the maze. You can take thermoses of coffee out to the spotters while you’re at it. On Monday, I’m going to need you to act as a guide, and if the spotters radio in because they’ve spotted lost kids, you’re going to need to go get them out.”

“Monday?” Greg looked back and forth between the two women. “I have classes.”

Kimberley looked at Isobel. “You didn’t tell him to take the day off?”

“It’s not that easy for him.” She rolled her eyes. “To be fair, Gerri wasn’t wild about me taking the time off, either, but at least I don’t have students expecting me to show up.”

Saying that Gerri Hess, Isobel’s boss at River Corners College Press, wasn’t wild about it was a bit of an exaggeration. She had looked put upon and asked whether Isobel intended to stay late the rest of the week to make up for it, which was pretty much how she always acted, no matter how busy they were.

“Fine, I’ll make do with just you on Monday.” Kimberley pointed at Greg. “But you’re going to work extra hard on hiding the pumpkins this afternoon to make up for it.”

“That’s the part I don’t get. How do you hide pumpkins? I thought they were all in a wide-open field.”

“The real ones are, of course,” Kimberley said. “We hide — well, pictures, plastic ones, wood ones, all sorts of different pumpkins. And they can be pretty much anywhere — in the maze, in the gift shop, in the shed where the preschoolers play with the corn.”

“We hide them two days before the kids have to find them? What’s to stop the kids from looking over the weekend?”

“Nothing,” Kimberley and Isobel chorused, grinning at each other.

He looked from one to the other and shook his head. “All right, what aren’t you telling me?”

“Monday morning, I replace a random pumpkin with a motion-activated digital camera. Kids who are honestly looking get their picture taken with a look of curiosity. Kids who think they know what to expect tend to look more smug.”

Isobel chimed in, “We e-mail a collage to the teachers, of course.”

Greg looked thoughtful. “Hmm. I don’t think it would do much to discourage a certain curious person I know…”

Isobel gave a put-upon sigh. “Very funny. Come on, let’s go check out the maze.”

He winked at her and grabbed her hand. “Okay. Should we take coffee out to the spotters?”

Kimberley glanced at her watch. “They haven’t been out there that long, but you may as well. I imagine you two are going to take advantage of the wrong turns in the maze.”

Isobel snorted but didn’t bother denying it. Kimberley wouldn’t believe her, even if Isobel told her that she and Greg didn’t have to sneak around like a pair of teenagers looking for someplace to make out. Of course, Kimberley and Isobel’s shared teen years might have something to do with that attitude, even if it had been Kimberley and John sneaking around more than Isobel and Dante, her high school boyfriend and current roommate.

Several plastic grocery bags were tucked into the milk crates between the thermoses. Greg took two, doubled them up, and placed three thermoses inside. “Is that enough?”

Isobel put one more in the bags, grabbed a map, and said, “Let’s go.”

According to the map, this year’s maze was a stack of half a dozen pumpkins. The entrance was on the other side of the track that the hay ride tractors used. Before crossing, Isobel paused and shaded her eyes, marking the spotter stations mentally. At two of the stations, she saw only silhouettes of the spotters. At a third, a flannel-clad arm waved at her, and she waved back. The fourth station was too far away to make out any details.

Greg paused at the entrance, looking up at the top of the dried cornstalks. “Can those spotters actually see over this?”

“Every year, they manage to find missing children, send in finders to lead out people who are stuck in a loop, and keep an eye out for pranksters.”

“And spot people sneaking kisses in secluded corners?” He waggled his eyebrows at her.

“We could find out.”

Laughing, they wandered into the maze together.

Having the map made it easier to not get lost, although when they followed one particular route on the maze, they found a split that wasn’t on the map. Frowning, Isobel dug a red pen out of her messenger bag and marked the discrepancy. Following the unmarked line, they looped out almost to the edge of the maze — they could see the gravel track just feet away, and the trees on the other side of the track — and then back up to the next higher pumpkin in the stack.

“It spoils the pattern.” Isobel frowned.

“Not our problem. Let’s keep going.”

Soon, they reached the first spotter station. Greg removed a thermos from the bag, set the bag on the ground, and started up the ladder.

A head poked over the edge. “Can I help you?”

“Hey, Marshall!” Isobel waved from the ground. “We’re just dropping off some coffee.”

“Unless you spiked it with something, I’m not interested.”

Wordlessly, Greg reversed his progress on the ladder.

Marshall added, “Noah can probably use mine.” He waved off toward his left. “He hasn’t been nearly as active as he usually is. Probably because he got in so late last night — or this morning, if you know what I mean.”

Isobel was reasonably certain she knew exactly what he meant, but she didn’t bother saying so. She didn’t care about the personal activities of any of the Bigby boys. She picked up the bag with the thermoses and held it out to Greg so he could put the other one in when he got back down.

Twining their arms together, they set off through the maze once more. They didn’t run into anything else that was unexpected, and about fifteen minutes later, they reached the second spotter station. This time, Isobel climbed up.

As her head crested the floor level and she could see into the box area, she gasped. Noah lay on the floor of the station. She sped up. Maybe he was just asleep. Marshall had said Noah had been out late the night before. In her heart, she didn’t believe it. She was going to have to call her cousin and tell him she’d found another dead body.

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