“Mona!” I called, rising from my crouch and taking a few steps back from the body. Wouldn’t help if I contaminated the scene—that would only lead to my butt in the fry pan. Wait, was my butt the bacon in this scenario? Shoot, I couldn’t think straight, now.
Mr. Jack-O-Lantern had escaped. It had to be the strangest murder I’d ever witnessed, and that was saying a lot in Sleepy Creek. This was the town where people had literal food wars, tossing pizzas and cupcakes around.
Mona appeared at the end of the alley, pale and gripping her phone. “I called them,” she said, though I hadn’t asked yet. “Liam’s coming.”
That was a relief. Detective Balle and his partner, Cotton, would handle this.
But questions had already risen in my mind. Just who, exactly, was the Jack-O-Lantern wearing person, and why were they outfitted for Halloween so early?
“Christie?” Grizzy’s head popped up over the restaurant’s back wall. “Chris, what are you—oh my heavens!” Griz spotted Megan’s body and let out a shriek that would have woken the dead. Not my finest metaphor, given the current situation.
The scream continued. Grizzy lost her grip on the wall and disappeared from view.
“Griz!” I ran toward it, jumped and lifted myself up, my arms straining—boy, I was unfit.
Grizzy sat on one of the crates, blinking.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. But was that…?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Megan’s dead. Murder. A Jack-O-Lantern did it.”
“No, I mean… look, never mind. Arthur and Liam will be here soon.”
Another yell rang out, this time from the other end of the alleyway, throaty and deep. I turned and blinked. The shout—which had been rather manly—had come from Mona. And the reason why?
Well, it had something to do with the countless Jack-O-Lantern people who had materialized at the mouth of the alley. They all wore long black robes, Jack-O-Lanterns on their heads, plastic, from what I could see, and shuffled toward the body, muttering under their breaths.
“What?” Grizzy asked.
“No, not you. Them.” I dropped down from the wall and hurried toward Megan’s body. This was a disaster. A total contamination of the scene. And what if one of them is the murderer? The thought struck me—but it was silly. There was no good reason they’d come back.
“Stop right there.” I placed myself between Megan’s body and the approaching Jack-O-Lantern people.
If I hadn’t known better, I’d have sworn the zombie apocalypse had started. They groaned and grumbled. One of them stopped in front of me, reached up, and removed the plastic pumpkin head.
It was Dolores, from the bakery. A feisty, yet elderly woman who didn’t take with anyone in town moving in on her baking turf.
“Dolores,” I said.
“We heard someone yelling. Is that… is that Megan?”
“Yeah.” And focused on the important question. “Why are you all wearing pumpkins and black robes? Did you start a baking cult I’m not privy to?”
“There are many things I imagine you’re not privy to, Watson.” That came from Mona, who shouted in the background. It was good to know she’d regained her good humor.
Dolores opened her mouth to reply and—
A siren whooped in the street past the alleyway. The pumpkin head people tittered and exchanged glances—at least, that was what I thought they were doing. I couldn’t be sure behind the plastic masks.
“All right, everyone, stand back.” That was Liam’s voice, deep and warm.
My heart did a little flip that definitely wasn’t appropriate for a murder scene.
“Sleepy Creek Police,” Arthur, his partner said, back up. Arthur was Griselda’s beau, blonde, pink-cheeked and slightly rotund.
The pumpkin heads parted, still whispering among themselves, and Liam came down the center of the aisle they’d created. “All right, everyone, remain calm,” Liam said and stopped in front of me. His gaze traveled to the body then to my face. “Did you witness it?”
“Yeah,” I said, softly. “It was someone wearing one of these pumpkin head masks.” Apparently, I hadn’t spoken softly enough.
A ripple of dissent traveled through the surrounding crowd.
“Someone in costume?” Liam asked.
“All right, everyone, if you could please proceed out of the alley and onto the sidewalk. Arthur and I will split you into groups to be interviewed about—”
Panic broke out. Pumpkin head people yelled and shoved to get out of the small space. Some of them trampling far too close to the crime scene. I put out my hand to try keeping them back, but the confusion and fear—I assumed because they believed they’d be accused of murdering Megan—had taken charge.
A pumpkin head pushed me, and I stumbled and caught myself on the wall.
Liam shouted and tried herding the group like they were cattle. Arthur had police tape in one hand, but had been pushed to the brick wall of the butcher’s place, his eyes wide and flicking from side-to-side.
The shrieks and clatter faded, the costumed folks bustled out onto the sidewalk, shocking random passersby.
“Wow,” I said.
“Arthur,” Liam said, gruffly, “cordon off the scene, please. Christie, you come with me.”
In the past, that instruction would have terrified me. Liam had once been ‘against’ me helping him investigate cases, even with my background as a homicide detective. Now, the summons gave me nothing but determination.
We exited onto the sidewalk and found a gaggle of pumpkin heads waiting for us. Most of the others had cleared off, jogging home, and the thought occurred to me again: what if the murderer actually had been in this group?
“Christie, I need to get this scene cordoned off and contact the coroner and techs,” Liam said, and this time, it was quiet enough to avoid the ears of the pumpkin heads. “After that, I’ll take statements. Could you lead these folks around to the Burger Bar? Maybe give them something to eat while they wait for me to come through?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
He gave me a thumbs-up and a wink then turned back toward the crime scene. I didn’t envy him this part—I’d been in homicide, sure, but dealing with dead bodies was never pleasant. I put it out of my mind and beckoned to the remaining members of the group.
“All right, everyone,” I said, “we’re going to the Burger Bar. Detective Balle will be along to interview you all, shortly.” Of course, I was included in that.
The costumed folks followed me like a gaggle of geese, making similar noises as they spoke beneath their plastic masks. Curiosity had reached its peak. Why were they dressed up? It wasn’t Halloween yet. It didn’t make any sense!
I rounded the corner that led into the Burger Bar’s street, and a shout rang out.
I froze, convinced that the Jack-O-Lantern killer was back and had claimed another victim. But no, it wasn’t a costumed murderer with a knife—it was just two people standing on the sidewalk in front of the Burger Bar.
Another of the Gossip Circle members, one of Mona’s friends, Janine, raised her leopard-print handbag and whacked another woman on the arm. That woman was none other than, Kensington McCree, Mona’s newest right-hand woman.
Kensington was younger, in her thirties, and quite pretty. She balked under the fierce stare from Janine, who was well-versed in the way of the Gossip Circle. And that was: zero remorse and gossip. Mona had trained her fellow gossipers well.
“Never,” Kensington said, trembling. “I’ll never let you win.” She backed away, shaking and pale.
What on earth is this about?
“You’d better not. You have better not do it! I’m warning you,” Janine screeched and whacked Kensington again. “You think you can push me out? Huh? You think that you and Meghan can shove me out of the way? Well, think again. Both of you are going to pay for even trying to go against me.”
“Hey!” I yelled. “Stop that.”
The Jack-O-Lantern folks behind me shifted and muttered.
Kensington let out a squeak and turned toward me. “Oh! It’s her. It’s the—”
“Shut up,” Janine snapped.
“You two are causing a disturbance in the street,” I said, coming forward, the costumed folks following right on my heels. It was as if I’d adopted a gaggle of pumpkin ducks and I was their momma. “What’s going on here?”
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” Janine hissed.
“Yeah,” Kensington said.
Surprising, given that she’d just been the one under handbag attack. “I think it’s everyone’s business,” I said. “You’re making it our business when you’re arguing in the middle of the street.”
Janine huffed and marched off before I could say another word. Kensington mirrored the action but walked off in the opposite direction.
Immediately, my mind went into overdrive. They’d been fighting over something that involved Meghan. What had Janine said? That she didn’t want to be pushed out. But pushed out of what, and what on earth did it have to do with the strange group of pumpkin heads behind me.
Unless the killer was one of those women. I was half-tempted to run after them and check their hands. But then, the killer had been wearing gloves and it wouldn’t equal conclusive evidence.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” A pumpkin-head cleared their throat behind me. “Can we go into the restaurant now?”
“Yeah, some of us are hungry.”
“Right, yeah, of course. Come on.” I led the hungry pumpkins into the restaurant. Heads turned, people immediately began gossiping, and Missi and Vee in the corner raised their eyebrows.
After they were all settled, I made my way over to the terrible twins’ booth and sat down across from Vee with her plum-colored hair, and her warm smile. Missi, the grumpier of the elderly twins, poked me in the ribs.
“Care to explain why you just came in here on a tide of Halloween celebrators?”
“Is that even a word?” I asked.
“Cut to it, Watson,” Missi said. “What’s going on?”
“Another murder. And it looks like the Sleepy Creek Gossip Circle might be involved.”