Authors: Denise Swanson
“Bounces along with gently wry humor and jaunty twists and turns. The quintessential amateur sleuth: bright, curious, and more than a little nervy.”
âEarlene Fowler, Agatha Awardâwinning and national bestselling author
“Swanson serves up another romance-sweetened tale of murder in the endearingly zany town of Scumble River.”
“Smartly spins on a solid plot and likable characters.”
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
“An endearing and realistic characterÂ .Â .Â . [A] fast-paced, enjoyable read.”
The Herald (MA) News
“Another great book by this master of the small-town mystery.”
“Well-craftedÂ .Â .Â . From normal to nutty, the folks of Scumble River will tickle the fancy of cozy fans.”
“Humor continues to be the strongest aspect of this long-running series, although it runs neck and neck with the smoldering romantic relationship between Skye and Wally.”
âKings River Life Magazine
“Swanson shows once again why she's one of my favorite cozy mystery authorsÂ .Â .Â . Another phenomenal hit.”
“A well-plotted, intriguing mysteryÂ .Â .Â . Each book in the series is like a little gem.”
SCUMBLE RIVER MYSTERIES
Murder of a Needled Knitter
Murder of a Stacked Librarian
Murder of the Cat's Meow
Dead Blondes Tell No Tales
Murder of a Creped Suzette
Murder of a Bookstore Babe
Murder of a Wedding Belle
Murder of a Royal Pain
Murder of a Chocolate-Covered Cherry
Murder of a Botoxed Blonde
Murder of a Real Bad Boy
Murder of a Smart Cookie
Murder of a Pink Elephant
Murder of a Barbie and Ken
Murder of a Snake in the Grass
Murder of a Sleeping Beauty
Murder of a Sweet Old Lady
Murder of a Small-Town Honey
Murder of a Cranky Catnapper
DEVEREAUX'S DIME STORE MYSTERIES
Dead Between the Lines
Little Shop of Homicide
Nickeled-and-Dimed to Death
Between a Book and a Hard Place
BERKLEY PRIME CRIME
Published by Berkley
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
Copyright Â© 2016 by Denise Swanson Stybr
Murder of a Small-Town Honey
Â© copyright 2000 by Denise Swanson Stybr
Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.
BERKLEY is a registered trademark and BERKLEY PRIME CRIME and the B colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN: 9780698177895
First Edition: September 2016
Cover art by Ben Perini
Cover design by Katie Anderson
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To my sweet black cat,
who strayed into my life fifteen years ago and
made himself at home.
Thanks for being my
The cat has too much spirit to have no heart.
s school psychologist Skye Denison-Boyd hiked down the main hallway of Scumble River Elementary School, she juggled her purse, a bulging tote bag of files, an old shoe box containing reinforcement rewards, and a cup of heavily sweetened and creamed decaf coffee. Passing the front office, she glanced through the window of the closed door. There was still no sign of her visitor.
Not that she really expected to see him. Although he wasn't due for another fifteen minutes, she'd hoped he'd arrive early enough for her to greet him and explain a few things.
Skye hesitated, wanting to wait for her guest, but then walked on. The boys in her fourth grade counseling group would show up any second, and she couldn't risk not being in the room when they got there. Rule number one in any educational setting was never leave children unsupervised.
She should start writing that type of information down for next year's school psych intern. Rule number two had to do with the secretary and custodian. The first day of Skye's own internship, her supervisor had sat
her down and explained that those two individuals had the power to make her job a heck of a lot easier or nearly impossible. He had advised her to find out their preferences, then provide them with a steady stream of treats.
And although her internship had been almost a decade ago, Skye had always remembered his words of wisdom. She'd quickly discovered that as an itinerant school staff member, more often than not, she needed the custodian or secretary's assistance on a daily basis. And keeping on their good side was a matter of self-preservation.
Which was why Skye had made a mental note when she'd overheard Fern Otte, the grade school secretary, tell someone that she loved Chicago's famous Garrett popcorn. Fern had confided that the caramel and cheese combination was her one gustatory weakness.
So today, when Skye had stopped by to ask Fern a special favor, she'd dropped off a canister of the costly snack. It was a small price to pay for having her visitor escorted through the warren of corridors instead of left to wander through the labyrinth alone.
Speaking of which, Skye paused at the T-intersection leading to the building's oldest wing. This was where the real maze began. She sighed and turned the corner.
Instantly, the smell of mildew hit her full force and she sneezed, then sneezed again.
Now her eyes would water and all the effort she'd spent putting on mascara, shadow, and liner would be wasted.
Skye didn't generally bother with much makeup, usually settling for a quick dusting of bronzerâand if it had been a late night, a dab of concealer. However, this morning when it had taken her three tries to find a pair of slacks that zipped, and none of last spring's blouses would button over her baby bump, she'd decided that in order to face the day, she needed everything in her cosmetic case.
Intellectually, she knew that her clothes were tight because she was pregnant, and that she should buy some
maternity outfits. But emotionally she just felt fat, so she'd needed the ego boost that only perfectly styled hair and full makeup could provide.
In her teens, Skye had struggled to fit into single-digit sizes. She'd starved herself, eating less than eight hundred calories a day, trying to look like the women she saw in the movies and in the magazines. Then when she finally exited the dieting roller coaster, it had taken her a long time to come to terms with being larger than was considered attractive. Now that those curves were expanding again, she was having trouble accepting her new silhouette.
Determined to stop fretting about her blossoming figure, she reminded herself that while she couldn't stop the bird of sorrow from flying over her head, she could prevent him from building a nest.
Smiling at her silly thoughts, she descended the final stairs into the original school building. Immediately, the humidity enveloped her like a spiderweb. Beads of sweat formed on her upper lip and she could feel her hair start to frizz. Any hope of saving her smooth curls or makeup melted away with her foundation. It was the first Monday in May, and Illinois was experiencing a preview of the coming summer.
Skye grimaced. She was not fond of heat, and the soaring temperatures would be even less fun while carrying around an extra twenty-five or thirty pounds. It was a good thing that school would be over in less than a month and she could ride out the most blistering part of June, July, and August planted in front of her home air conditioner.
As Skye continued down the corridor, she noted that evidence of the wing's previous occupants was still present. The space had been rented out to a church group, and although the religious objects had been removed, their outlines in the faded paint remained.
Anywhere but Scumble River, Illinois, a town with a population hovering around three thousand, an image of a cross in a school would cause a parent protest. Here, no one seemed to notice.
The church had found a better facility and moved, but four years later, the school board was still trying to figure out whether to bring the wing up to code for classroom use or to tear it down.
It wasn't the best location for a counseling session. Not only was it stifling in the warmer weather and freezing in the winter, but it was dreary and cut off from the rest of the school. However, Caroline Greer, the grade school principal, had assured Skye that other than the psych office, it was the only available area in the building for her to meet with her group.
With those being the only options, Skye wisely chose dilapidated over jam-packed. There was no way she could squeeze five lively nine- and ten-year-old boys into her refrigerator-carton-size office, and the kids wouldn't notice the annex's shabby decor.
Working in public education, conditions were rarely ideal. As always, she'd have to make do with what was available. Another pearl of wisdom Skye needed to write down for her future intern, because whining about the spaces they were assigned to use would only make things worse.
On the bright side, this wing's isolation was what had helped Skye convince Caroline to allow her to try a new type of therapy with her counseling group. Initially, the principal had been reluctant to grant permission for anything so unconventional, but Skye had provided her with data that persuaded Caroline to authorize six pilot sessions.
Skye was determined to give the innovative therapy every chance for success. Which was why today, instead of using her normal spot, the pastor's old office, she had
moved the group to one of the larger rooms. She'd spent most of last Friday afternoon making sure the walls were bare and the blinds on the windows worked. Then, with the exception of seven chairs placed in a semicircle, she had removed all the other furniture and vacuumed the ancient gray carpeting.
A lesson Skye had learned early on was that when attempting a group counseling session, it was best to have an area free of visual or auditory distractions. And this afternoon's meeting would be stimulating enough without any extra diversions.
Skye was relieved to see she had made it to the room before the boys, and she quickly settled into the center chair. Taking a sip of her coffee, she waited for her group to arrive. After a couple of swallows, she became aware of the silence. Usually schools were full of noise, but in this unused annex, she was totally alone.
Before she could even enjoy the quiet, the boys burst into the room with the teacher's aide hurrying after them. The aide had a harried expression on her reddened face and was breathing in short gasps. Evidently the kids had had her running most of the way.
She wheezed hello, then waved, turned on her heels, and fled. While her charges were with Skye, the woman was able to take a much-needed and well-deserved break, and she clearly wasn't wasting a minute of that precious time on small talk.
Skye yelled her thanks at the aide's disappearing back, then studied the five boys exploring the unfamiliar room. Three of them had Individualized Education Plans that specified the counseling goals they were working to achieve. The other two were in the group mostly as role models. Their parents had noticed some mild attention issues and asked that they be included.
The boys with IEPs were among the most unusual with whom Skye had ever worked. Although Clifford
Jirousek had tested out of the stratosphere on every intelligence test he'd ever been given, he was so obsessed with books that he had isolated himself from all social interactions.
He carried a book with him at all times and his mother reported that he hyperventilated if she removed a single volume from his bedroom. Normally, liking to read would be considered a positive trait in a student, but Clifford refused to do anything else. Left on his own, he wouldn't listen to instruction, participate in class, or interact with his peers.
Each session, Skye worked on including Clifford in the rest of the boys' play, but today, as always, the moment he came into the room, Clifford separated himself from the others. He sat on the chair farthest from Skye, and opened an enormous all-in-one edition of
The Lord of the Rings.
Christopher Hardy, another member of the group, walked over to him and asked, “What ya doing?” Clifford ignored him and the boy persisted. “It's really thick. I bet you're not going to read the whole thing.”
Peering over the book, Clifford sneered, “I'm not saying that you're stupid.” He glanced at Skye. “Because Mrs. Boyd told me that I can't call kids that. But you sure have bad luck when it comes to thinking.”
Christopher's hands fisted and he snapped, “Well, my imaginary friend thinks you have some serious problems.” He opened his mouth to continue, but when he looked over at Skye, she made a motion for him to walk away.
Once he complied, she got up and gave him a token. Then she went over to Clifford, and tapped the front of his novel. Glaring at her, he closed the cover and clutched it to his chest. She held out her hand, and after a long moment, he placed the book in her palm. She deposited it in her tote bag and gave Clifford a token. When he
earned fifty, he could cash them in for lunch with the librarian.
Skye then went to check on the others. While she had been busy with Clifford, Alvin Hinich, the second boy with an IEP, had gotten down on all fours and was crawling around the room's perimeter. He sniffed the corners and made excited yipping noises. When he raised his leg, Skye hurried over to him and touched his nose with her finger, then pointed to the circle of chairs. He growled, but scuttled over and took a seat.
Alvin insisted he was a dog by the name of Spot, and when Skye had begun working with him, he'd refused to speak. After a year of counseling, he would now talk, but he still preferred barking to communicate, and he had to be constantly reminded to use his words.
When Skye continued to stare at him, Alvin mumbled, “Hello, Mrs. Boyd.”
“Hello, Alvin.” Skye reached into her pocket and gave him a sticker for his behavior chart. When he filled all the squares, he earned playtime with the PE teacher. Skye frowned. She needed to check to make sure Mrs. Lake wasn't allowing Alvin to turn their activity into a game of fetch or retrieving Frisbees with his mouth.
The third boy with an IEP in place was Duncan Canettiâor as the kids called him, Mr. Clean. Duncan liked everything to be perfectly orderly and hygienic. When Skye had first met him, his head had been shaved. His mother had explained it was because her son couldn't stand to have even a hair out of place. He'd also insisted on wearing disposable gloves to school. Skye still couldn't believe Mrs. Canetti had gone along with either of those notions.
After some intense negotiation, Skye had convinced Duncan to forgo his bald-headed look for an extremely short buzz cut. She had also asked the teachers and other
staff to intervene if they heard any of the children using his nickname. She was pleased with Duncan's progress. He no longer sprayed a can of Lysol in front of him as he walked into a room and he had stopped wearing the plastic gloves out on the playground. Now she had to work on getting the hand sanitizer away from him.
During the first year of counseling, Clifford, Alvin, and Duncan hadn't been able to make any friends outside of the group. This had concerned their parents, as well as the school personnel. And while each had made some headway on their more unusual issues, they still had difficulty joining the rest of the children's play during recess.
Last spring, at their IEP conferences, after much discussion about their lack of social skills, Skye had suggested including a few regular education students in their group. Which was how Gavin Girot and Christopher Hardy became members. Both of the boys' parents had given their permission, with the understanding that Skye would concentrate on improving Gavin's and Christopher's attention span and on-task behavior.
Skye looked over the assemblage and said, “Okay, boys. Everyone take a seat so we can get started. I have a surprise for you.”
Gavin immediately obeyed and Skye gave him a coupon for five extra minutes of art time, but Christopher seemed mesmerized by the black cord hanging from the projector screen. He flicked it, watching it swing back and forth. Duncan stood frozen by a shelf, staring at a dust bunny the size of a Chihuahua. He whimpered and reached into his pocket for his Purell.
Skye exhaled noisily. Obviously, she still had her work cut out for her.
Walking over to Duncan, she closed the lid on the sanitizer bottle and pointed to an empty chair. Then in
a mild tone she said to Christopher, “Please take your seat so we can be ready for our surprise.”
Once the boys were all sitting, Skye joined them and said, “Today we're going to have a visitor. His name is Dr. Quillen and he'sâ”
“No doctors!” Duncan screamed, jumping to his feet and backing against a wall. “They touch you and poke you with dirty needles.”