Change is afoot in Shady Hollow, with an unusually tense election shaping up between long-serving Chief of Police Theodore Meade and Vera's beau, Deputy Orville Braun. But the political tension takes a back seat when resident eccentric Dorothy Springfield becomes convinced her beloved husband, Edward, is dead, and that the rat claiming to be him is actually a fraud.
While most of the town dismisses Dorothy's rants as nothing more than a delusion, Vera has her doubts. More than a few things don't add up in the Springfield household, but Vera will have to tread carefully, since, with Orville's attention on the election, she may be more exposed than ever.
A VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD ORIGINAL.
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It was mid-October in Shady Hollow, a glorious time of year that showed the small village to its best advantage. The many trees were gold, red, and yellow, blazing colors wherever a creature looked. It was also the time of the Harvest Festival, an annual event that most residents of Shady Hollow looked forward to all year. It took place at the town park by the river, and there were activities for everyone. There were apple bobbing for the little ones (the apples, of course, were provided by Cold Clay Orchards) and a wide variety of booths with tasty foods of all kinds. Sun Li, the panda who owned the best restaurant in town, the Bamboo Patch, was proudly serving his renowned pumpkin soup. There were also tables laden with local cheeses, ciders, and pies.
Vera Vixen, local reporter by choice and local sleuth by accident, was one of the many Shady Hollow residents who looked forward to the festival. She and Orville Braun, the hardworking deputy of the town’s two-bear-strong police force, had planned to spend the day together at the event.
As Vera and Orville wandered among the display tables, they greeted their friends and neighbors. They nearly ran into Gladys Honeysuckle, Vera’s colleague at the Shady Hollow Herald. Gladys was darting in and out of the crowd, her wings beating so fast they became a blur in the air. All the while, Gladys chatted with folks and gleaned far more gossip and information than anyone else would have dreamed.
“Oh, Vera!” the hummingbird called. “There you are, and with Deputy Braun as well. My, my, my. You two are getting cozy, aren’t you?”
Suppressing a sigh, Vera said, “It’s not news that Orville and I have gone on a few dates.”
“No,” Gladys agreed with some deflation in her tone. “It’s not news. Unless you want to make some sort of . . . announcement?”
“Nothing comes to mind,” Orville replied. His expression was mild, even a little stupid. When she’d first met Orville, Vera had thought he wasn’t the brightest. She’d quickly come to learn that, while he had a very different approach to the world, Orville was much, much smarter than he looked. It was one of his best tools as an officer of the law. (His other tools were sheer size, four massive paws, and a jaw that could snap a pine sapling in half.)
Vera and Orville moved through the festival grounds and stopped at a table where two chipmunks were sitting. Geoffrey and Benjamin Eastwood ran the town’s bed-and-breakfast, which was located on a lovely cul-de-sac just off Main Street. Ben was offering cookies to passersby, and Vera smiled when he called her name.
“Miss Vixen, you’re a connoisseur of treats,” he said. “Try my maple cookies. I only bake them in fall and winter.”
He gave one each to Vera and Orville. Crunchy granules of maple sugar studded the cookie’s top, like a particularly delicious autumn frost. Vera nibbled the leaf-shaped treat with relish.
“Real good,” Orville said, licking the last of the sugar off his paw.
“Then have a second,” Geoffrey insisted, reaching past his husband to offer another cookie.
“We’ve got seven dozen, after all!”
“That won’t be enough,” Vera predicted. The cookies would pair excellently with a cup of strong coffee, maybe one with a stick of cinnamon in it and a dollop of whipped cream . . .
Dreamily, Vera told the Eastwoods goodbye and walked off with Orville, delighted by the fine day, the blue sky, and the general bounty surrounding them.
Moments later, they waved to Howard Chitters, the director of the sawmill, Shady Hollow’s largest business. He was accompanied by what looked to be an invading horde of mice but was in fact just his immediate family.
Vera chatted with Mrs. Chitters and her young daughter Moira for a few minutes, exchanging pleasantries and guessing who would win the bread-baking competition this year. When Vera said goodbye to her friend, she turned her attention back to Orville. “Shall we go find the Nevermore table?” she asked. Shopping for books was perhaps the greatest treasure hunt there was.
But Orville didn’t reply, because his attention was elsewhere—he was staring at the cider tent, which was a very popular destination on this crisp, sunny day. Vera followed his gaze and spotted Theodore Meade, the Shady Hollow chief of police. More significantly, Meade was Orville’s boss. Meade clutched a mug of cider in one huge paw and was clapping Howard Chitters on the back with the other. This friendly gesture nearly sent the small mouse into the air.
Orville’s usually pleasant expression was missing; in its place was a mask of anger that Vera had seen only once or twice. Before she could ask him what the problem was, the police bear began muttering, “What is he doing here? He promised to take a solo shift at the station today. I never ask him for anything, and the one time I do . . .” Orville trailed off, sputtering.
Before Vera could gather her thoughts and take in the situation, Orville was striding over to the park’s gazebo. A podium was set up for the mayor’s speech later in the afternoon. Orville took the stairs in one leap and stood behind the podium.
“Ladies and gentlemice, if I could have your attention, please.” Orville’s voice boomed out over the crowd. “I have an important announcement to make.”
The crowd murmured and whispered. Vera caught a few words here and there. Then she heard Gladys’s distinctive loud tone. “Yes. I knew it! He’s going to propose to Vera!”
A sheep standing next to Gladys tried to shush her when they saw Vera staring. Could it be true? Vera wasn’t sure how she felt about it. She liked Orville very much, but they had not been dating all that long!
Vera’s musings were cut short when Orville began to speak again.
“As you know, there is an election coming up in a few short weeks. And while this may be a surprise to hear, I would like to announce my candidacy for police chief of Shady Hollow. I have served this community long and well, and it’s time for a change in the establishment. Please cast your vote for me, Orville Braun, for your police chief. Thank you for your attention.”
Orville gave a tip of his hat to the crowd and promptly left the stage. Creatures began to chatter excitedly and wished Orville well as he walked through the crowd to Vera. Vera closed her mouth when she realized that it was hanging open slightly. She was completely flabbergasted by this turn of events. She knew that Orville was unhappy with his boss, but she never thought that he would actually do anything about it. Least of all this!
Orville made his way back to where Vera was standing. By the time he reached her, she had regained her composure.
“Vera,” he began, “I’m sorry that I didn’t give you a heads-up.” Orville paused and looked at the fox, trying to gauge her reaction. “It is something that I have been thinking about off and on. I planned to discuss it with you first, but then I saw Meade here at the festival when he promised me he would be at the station, and I just got so mad.”
Vera laughed at this, so Orville knew that everything between them was all right.
She said, “Your first mistake was actually believing that Meade would do what he said he would do. Have you ever known him to show up for work on a beautiful fall day like this?”
Orville still looked annoyed for a moment, and then he laughed, too. “You’re right, of course, Vera,” he replied. “I don’t know what I was thinking, imagining that I could count on him to do anything that I asked. Seriously, I was going to wait until he retired in a few years before I ran for police chief, but when I saw him drinking cider without a care in the world, I just lost it.”
“You’re going to win this election,” Vera said with conviction. “You are already doing the job anyway. You might as well have the title and the salary.”
Just then, she saw the figure of a skunk standing about twenty feet away. He was puffing on a cigar, and his gaze bored directly into Vera.
She murmured, “Oh, dear, BW wants a word.” BW Stone ran the newspaper, and though Vera liked him, he only talked business . . . and it was her day off.
“Skip it,” Orville suggested.
“No, he’ll just hound me until he says whatever’s on his mind. I won’t be a minute. Meet you in the music tent?”
“Sure. Oh, actually, I just remembered that I said I’d stop by and see Professor Heidegger today. He thinks someone snuck into his house and rearranged all his books.”
“What? Just rearranged? Not stole?”
“That’s what he said.”
“Heidegger lives about forty feet off the ground,” she objected. Granted, plenty of creatures could access the owl’s lofty home if they really wanted, but it seemed unlikely that they could do so while Heidegger remained unaware of it. “Oh, well, I’ll want to hear all the details. Let’s say we’ll find each other in the music tent in an hour.”
With that, she left Orville and moved toward BW. He was a fast-talking, cigar-chomping skunk who loved a good headline. Vera did not always agree with him, though she respected him, and she enjoyed her job at the paper. But she suspected that this conversation was going to annoy her.
“Vera, how’s it going on this fine day? Some news about your special friend running for chief, huh?”
“It was an impulse,” she said, wondering if BW was simply put out that Orville didn’t make his announcement via an interview with the paper. “He’s always toyed with the idea of running, but he made his decision right before he went onstage.”
“Not a moment too soon, if you want my opinion!” (BW Stone always assumed that everyone wanted his opinion.) “Meade’s a good bear all around, but he’s been police chief for approximately seventeen centuries, and it’s time for a change.”
Privately, Vera concurred. Chief Meade was known more for his fishing skills than for his dedication to duty, and when things got sticky—such as when dead bodies showed up—it was Orville whom the town relied on to solve the crimes.
“Now listen up, Vixen. I’ve got an idea for coverage of the election.”
Vera stood there and wished she had about five more of Ben’s maple cookies while her boss outlined his idea. She knew better than to try to respond until he was finished. There was no stopping Stone when he was on a roll.
“The way I see it, you’ve got an inside track,” he was saying. “I want to hear all the info on Orville’s campaign. Who better than you? This is going to be a hotly contested election. Meade has run unopposed for years. We don’t want the Herald to miss out on the story. What do you think?”
“Oh, I don’t know, BW,” Vera said when she realized her boss was waiting for an answer. “I’m a reporter, and I’m supposed to be unbiased. Folks won’t trust my take on things anyway. They all know Orville and I have been seeing each other.”
“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off and think about it, Vera?” Stone urged. This was not as generous as it sounded since Vera already had the day off to attend the Harvest Festival.
She strongly encouraged BW to go sample some of Cold Clay’s hard apple cider, secretly hoping the skunk would sample so much that he’d pass out and forget he’d ever asked her to cover Orville’s campaign.
With almost an hour before she was to rejoin Orville, Vera finally reached a table filled with books: the festival outpost of the local bookstore. A small head popped up between two tall stacks.
“Morning, Miss Vixen!” a mouse squeaked.
“Hi there, Violet. Where’s Lenore?”
“She flew back to the shop to pull some more books. We’re really selling them today!” Violet turned then and greeted another customer who had just walked up.
Vera decided to run over to the bookshop to see if she could help Lenore. She didn’t think the raven had ever taken off a whole day in her life. Lenore tried to keep the store open as much as she could. There were always creatures coming in to browse and buy a few cards or paperbacks. Lenore hired a few locals to help out at the front counter on the busiest days, but she was the sole owner of the store and, for the most part, handled everything herself. Vera worried about her friend working too hard and never having an opportunity to take a vacation, but Lenore was in good health, and right now the bookshop was her life. It was also an important part of the community in Shady Hollow and provided a place for village folks to gather and talk about books.
When Lenore was able to schedule author events and book signings, there was great rejoicing in the town.
In general, there was not a great deal for local creatures to do in the evenings, and attending a book signing was far preferable to enduring a concert at the church, which often featured the questionable vocal talents of Edith von Beaverpelt. Vera had made the mistake of attending one such event when she had first moved to Shady Hollow, and she did not think that she would ever fully recover. Madame von Beaverpelt possessed a squeaky soprano voice, and she was rarely in key. However, her belief in her own talent was prodigious, and Parson Conkers did not possess the backbone to turn down her regular offers to perform, especially because the von Beaverpelts had donated most of the funds to repair the church steeple after it was struck by lightning several years ago.
Walking past tables and through tents, Vera was surrounded by the chattering of cheerful creatures dressed in smart jackets and dapper hats or colorful dresses and frocks, all enjoying the sunny, cool day. She felt out of place and distracted by Orville’s unplanned announcement. She’d thought her biggest challenge today would be the sack race on the village green.
She had no doubt that Orville would make an excellent chief of police. It was an open secret that he did nearly all the actual work of the department’s daily operations while allowing Meade to take credit for the (mostly) smooth running of the town. Shady Hollow was a peaceful community with generally law-abiding and orderly citizens. Orville had never been a bear to disrupt the status quo. He’d been willing to wait until Chief Meade’s inevitable retirement to step up and put his name forth as the obvious successor.
Yet now he’d jumped right into the thornbush.
However, it was one thing to announce a candidacy; it was another to actually run a campaign. And with only a few weeks until the election, Orville had very little time to prepare! He’d need a campaign office. He’d need staff and volunteers. He’d need flyers and pamphlets explaining his positions . . .
“Oh, dear, I’m thinking like a manager,” Vera muttered. (In fact, in her school days, she had run campus campaigns.) But she was a journalist now, and she couldn’t run Orville’s campaign, too. It would be highly improper. But she could give a little advice . . . or perhaps not.
It was all quite confusing. And whenever Vera got confused, two things helped: coffee and the counsel of a good friend.
Fortunately, the first item was on her route. She’d grab a cup of coffee from Joe’s table before she left the festival.
A few creatures walked past Vera, heading in the opposite direction and bearing baking dishes that all smelled wonderful. They were likely on their way to the tent where the dessert contest would be held.
A rat said, “I can’t wait for the judging. My apple kuchen finally has a chance this year!”
“Did you change your recipe?” a marmot walking alongside asked.
“Oh, no, it’s the same as ever. But didn’t you know? Dotty Springfield isn’t here to enter her cream-cheese coffee cake, the one that took first place three years running. She had to go tend old Mrs. Springfield. She’s close to the end,” the rat added somberly.
“I’ve heard that before,” a third creature noted. “Adora Springfield is at death’s door nearly every month, and Dotty always goes to take care of her. The old lady certainly got lucky with her daughter-in-law. Maybe that cream-cheese coffee cake is the secret to a long life!”
“Oh, Miss Vixen,” the apple-kuchen maker said, noticing Vera. “How nice to see you. Good job keeping Orville’s announcement a secret!”
Vera smiled wanly, letting the others think what they wished. If only she had known in advance. The day could have gone much more smoothly.
Vera arrived at the table sponsored by Joe’s Mug, where Joe himself was serving up cups of his special cinnamon coffee. A few sticks of cinnamon hung from his antlers in honor of the occasion. The Harvest Festival was the first time he brewed that particular blend each fall, and eager creatures awaited their turn for a sip.
Vera joined the queue, still pondering the conundrum Orville had put her in. Before she could come up with an answer, Joe was asking if she wanted one or two cups—Vera was a known devotee of coffee.
“Oh! I’ll take two, but one is for Lenore.”
“Two it is,” the moose said amiably. “Nice day for it.” He did not breathe one word about Orville’s surprise announcement, for which Vera was eternally grateful. Joe was the sort of creature who knew when to talk and when to keep his mouth shut—a rare skill.
“Here you go, Vera,” he said, pushing the two drinks toward her. “Now don’t forget that my special butternut-squash spice pie is going to be available starting this week. Come by when you have a moment.”
Accompanied by a cloud of cinnamon fragrance, Vera continued on to the bookstore. Nevermore Books was situated in an old granary and thus was much taller than the surrounding buildings. Inside, a visitor quickly realized that the store was sensibly arranged so that each floor was devoted to a particular genre, with shelves wrapping the outer walls. An inner railing kept wandering bookworms safe, since the central part of the bookstore was all open air, allowing Lenore to fly to any floor and easily snag the book she wanted. The result was a bright and airy atmosphere, and the store was one of the most popular places in town.
Today, however, it was nearly empty, since all the townsfolk were at the festival.
“Lenore?” Vera called. “Are you here? I’ve got coffee.”
The raven flapped down from her office at the very top of the store. “Vera! Thought you’d be outside interviewing folks about the Harvest Festival. I just needed to pull some more books to bring to our table in the park. Violet’s running it, but I thought I’d bring some extra supplies.”
“Does that mean you missed Orville’s little speech?” Vera passed a cup of coffee to her friend and proceeded to share the news.
Lenore cawed softly in surprise. “My goodness, what are you going to do?” she asked.
“That’s why I’m here. I was hoping for advice.”
“Well, I’m not sure I’m qualified to give any in this situation. It certainly hasn’t come up in the books I’ve been reading.” (Lenore read mostly true crime and murder mysteries.)
“BW wants me to cover the election—from the inside, as it were.”
“He would,” Lenore said with a huff. She ruffled her glossy feathers. “I sometimes wonder if that skunk has ever heard of ethics.”
“All he cares about is selling papers, and he is good at that.”
“Still, you can’t compromise your integrity to help BW. That will hurt your career, and no one will trust what you write anymore, even if it’s just a review of the Bamboo Patch’s fall menu.”
“But how do I explain that to BW? And what do I say to Orville? And what am I permitted to do? I want to help Orville if I can. You sure you don’t have a self-help book for journalists who are dating aspiring politicians?”
“Quite sure. What you need is a legal guide.” Lenore took a sip of the coffee and then said, “Oh, I know! Why not pay a visit to Mr. Fallow? He’ll know what you’re legally obligated to do, and, more than that, he’ll tell you just what to say to keep BW off your back.” Walter Fallow was one of the most respected lawyers in the area and lived in the Mirror Lake neighborhood.
Vera smiled. “Now that’s thinking, Lenore! I’ll stop by his office tomorrow morning. I’ll have plenty of time to talk things over with Mr. Fallow then.”
Looking at her friend, Vera finally noticed suppressed excitement in the raven’s eyes. Vera had been so consumed with her own news, she hadn’t even thought to ask Lenore what was happening.
“Hold on,” Vera said now. “You’re about to burst! What’s going on?”
It was most likely something about Lenore’s store. The raven worked tirelessly, and the business was a bright spot in the village, where creatures gathered to chat and to look over the latest novels and political thrillers. Lenore was usually reserved, especially in public, so Vera felt certain that something major was in the wind.
“I just got a message from Bradley Marvel’s publicist,” Lenore said excitedly. “They added us to his new tour at the last minute, and he will be appearing here next week!”
Vera let out an unladylike squeal at this news and gave Lenore a hug.
Bradley Marvel was a hugely popular author who wrote thrillers. They weren’t exactly to Vera’s taste, but many creatures liked them, and this event would be a coup for the small bookstore. Previously the author had canceled an appearance due to some kind of illness. Lenore had been keenly disappointed, since she’d been forced to substitute a local author—Wilbur Montague, who wrote dull tomes about shipwrecks—and it just wasn’t the same at all.
Vera was extremely happy for her friend, who worked so hard and asked for so little. If the star writer actually showed up this time, it would be a very lucrative evening for Lenore and Nevermore.
“Let me help you get ready for the event,” said Vera. “That’s short notice! But at least after the festival, everything will be quiet around town.” This was an eminently logical assumption on Vera’s part. It was, however, not correct.