The Sour Cherry Surprise

A Berger and Mitry Mystery

Berger and Mitry Mysteries (Volume 6)

David Handler

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

Prologue

AND NOW MOLLY PROCTER dribbles the ball down court with eleven seconds left on the clock. The UConn Lady Huskies trailing Tennessee by one, 65–64... ten seconds... nine. The fans are on their feet.... Coach Geno Auriemma has the ball in the hands of UConn’s best clutch scorer since Diana Taurasi. And with the national championship on the line in... seven seconds, there’s no one he trusts more than the southpaw from Dorset with the droopy socks.... Five seconds... This is it, folks. Geno’s Huskies against Pat Summitt’s Lady Vols for all of the marbles.... Three... Procter’s at the top of the key. Quick swing pass to Montgomery, who ball fakes to Houston, then swings it back to Procter with the championship on the line.... One... Procter lets it fly from eighteen feet and... she... SCORES! UConn wins! UConn wins! Her teammates are mobbing Molly! She disappears under the pile of blue and white Husky jerseys. Oh, my, this has to be the most exciting game I have ever...

Molly Procter, age nine and three quarters, faked left, dribbled right, and heaved the ball to the portable basketball hoop in the drive-way, tongue stuck out of the side of her mouth. Nothing but net. She pumped her fist in the air as Jen Beckwith pulled into the driveway in her red Saab convertible. It was Jen’s driveway. Jen’s hoop. Jen lived in the little cottage right across Sour Cherry Lane from Molly’s and was starting point guard on the Dorset High Fighting Pilgrims. Really nice and not at all stuck up even though she was a star athlete, straight A student, gorgeous, and her grandmother was the richest woman in town. Jen and her mom weren’t rich themselves. Jen’s dad died a few years back, and her mom had to work day and night at a chiropractor’s office. Jen was working full-time herself that summer at the bakery in The Works. Just home from work now in her bright green employee’s T-shirt.

"Okay, squirt, show me what you’ve got." Jen positioned herself to defend Molly one-on-one.

Molly ran a hand through her head of unruly gold ringlets. She was a gangly, frecklefaced girl with a rabbity pink nose. Her wire-rimmed glasses were slightly bent out of shape. Her T-shirt and gym shorts hung loose on her frame. Baggy white socks drooped down to her scuffed sneakers. "You’re on. Prepare to be dazzled." She gave Jen her awesome head fake, then dribbled right and—

Jen promptly slapped the ball away. "You still telegraph when you’re going to the hoop."

"Do not."

"Do too. You stick your tongue out."

"So did Michael Jordon."

"Guess what? You’re not M. J."

"Duh, I know. I’m M. P."

"Tell me, M. P., when was the last time you tried combing that hair? And what is up with those dorky socks?"

"They’re my trademark. When I turn pro, Nike is going to pay me a fortune for them."

"I see...."

"That’s what you need. A trademark."

"So that’s my problem," Jen sighed, turning gloomy on her.

"Hey, are you okay?"

Jen mustered a faint smile. "Sure, you bet."

"Just because I don’t have breasts doesn’t mean I can’t keep secrets, you know."

"I know."

"Is this about that party you threw when your mom was gone?"

"Work on your head fake, squirt," Jen growled. "And dinner’s in about an hour if you want some." Then she headed for the house and went inside.

Molly had been spending more and more of her time over at Jen’s ever since her own mom had taken up with Clay. Molly had zero interest in letting Clay be her new dad. She already had a dad. Besides, she’d hated Clay ever since that first morning three weeks back when he came slouching out of her mom’s bedroom with no shirt on and his jeans slung low; a wiry, rough-looking stranger with a lit cigarette between his lips. Molly was sitting at the kitchen table, tapping away on her mom’s computer.

Clay popped open a can of beer first thing and drank deeply from it, watching her. The very first words he said to her were, "Don’t you have somewhere else to be?"

Molly said, "I live here."

And he said, "Well, so do I from now on. And I don’t like lippy little girls."

"I’m not a little girl."

Then Clay ordered her to stay out of the root cellar underneath the kitchen from now on. "You’re never to go down there, understand? There are snakes down there."

"I’m not afraid of snakes," she snorted. "And you can’t tell me what to do."

"Girl, don’t ever talk back to me again," Clay shot back, smacking her in the ear with his open hand so hard that it rang for a whole day.

And so she had stayed away from the root cellar.

Molly used to have a happy life. Her mom was beautiful and talented and sweet. Author of a really cool series of kids’ books about a Kerry blue terrier named Molly (in honor of guess who) that solved mysteries on a farm. All of the characters in her books were animals. The farm was based on Aunt Meggie’s place up in Blue Hill, Maine, where they usually spent every August. Molly’s dad was a historian at Wesleyan and just a really wise person. He knew the Latin words for things, and loved to work with his hands. He’d made their kitchen table himself out of oak. He’d put in French doors to brighten up the kitchen and built a raised teak deck outside it where they could eat supper at another table he’d built. Molly helped him do everything. She was his Designated Measurer. Always, no matter how busy he was, her dad made time for her. Taught her how to use her mom’s computer when she was really little so she could communicate with him by e-mail when he was at the university.

But Molly’s parents weren’t the same people anymore. Her mom wasn’t lively and bright-eyed, wasn’t there. In her place there was a glassy-eyed stranger who scarcely seemed to notice that Molly was even alive. She’d stopped writing—Clay even dismantled her computer and stashed it in a closet. She didn’t go out to the grocery store or anywhere else. Some days, she never came out of her room. Just stayed in there with Clay. Or with Hector, the Mexican man who worked for Clay. Once, she was in there with both men at the same time and Molly could hear her moaning real loud. After that, Molly took to sleeping in the tree house that she and her dad had made together in the old sugar maple. She had a sleeping bag up there and a flashlight so she could read. She was plenty comfy unless it rained. Then she’d tap on Jen’s window and Jen would let her sleep with her.

Molly wanted her dad to come home. She wasn’t sure why he’d left, except that her mom had made him. He’d told Molly he’d be staying with a friend for a few days. But a few days turned into a few weeks. And then her mom started going out to the Indian casinos after dinner and stumbling home late, drunk, and sometimes not alone. Clay was the third man she’d brought home, and the first who’d stayed. Molly sure wished her dad would kick him out and everything would be like it used to be.

But it wasn’t.

Now that school was out for summer she either worked on her game in Jen’s driveway or headed out to her own job on Big Sister Island, which was close to Sour Cherry. The footpath through the woods at the end of the lane led right into the Peck’s Point Nature Preserve. The wooden causeway out to the island was just across a meadow from there. Molly’s friend Mitch used to live on Big Sister until he went away. Mitch watched movies for a living and had the hugest collection of DVDs Molly had ever seen. He was real cool about loaning them to her. Real cool period, even though he was a Knicks fan and everyone knew the Knicks sucked and the Celtics ruled. Molly missed him a lot. Although the old lady who’d moved into his house, Bella, was okay. Bella rescued stray kitties—eighteen of them at last count. She kept them in Mitch’s barn while she tried to find homes for them. She paid Molly five dollars a day to feed them and clean up after them. Some of the kitties liked to be petted. Others, the feral ones, would hiss at Molly and try to rake her.

Big Sister was where Molly took her dad the night he did try to come home. It had been a total disaster. Clay went chest-to-chest with him out in the driveway. Told him he didn’t live there anymore, then proceeded to beat the snot out of him. Molly watched it all in horror from her tree house. Clay flailing away at him with his fists, kicking him in the ribs after he was down. By the time Molly had scrambled down and screamed at Clay to stop, her dad was lying on the ground in a bloody, sobbing heap. Clay told Molly if he ever saw her dad anywhere near the house again he’d "cut" him.

Molly had taken her dad by the hand and led him through the woods out to the island. He didn’t respond when Molly talked to him. Just kept sobbing. He needed her to take care of him and so she had. There was an ancient, tattered sofa out in the barn. She got him settled on it, found a few tarps to cover him with, and told him he’d be safe there. In the morning, she cleaned his face and gave him some food from Bella’s refrigerator after Bella left to run errands. Bella had no idea Molly’s dad was out there. Mustn’t know. She might not like the idea.

Every morning at dawn, Molly would sneak out there and hide her dad somewhere on the island for the day. In the boat house. Or a nice sheltered area of beach, where he’d nibble at what ever food Molly had pilfered from Bella. He was incredibly sad. Cried a lot. Hardly ever spoke.

The only words he ever said to her were: "They won’t let me back in."

"I know, Daddy. Are you okay?"

"They won’t let me back in."

Evenings, Molly would tuck him back in the barn for the night. She didn’t know how else to help him. She loved her dad. She wanted to be a good daughter.

On her way home through the woods one night, Molly stumbled upon a man who was crouched there in the darkness with a pair of binoculars.

"Hey, quit that!" she protested when he shined a flashlight in her eyes.

He immediately shushed her.

So she whispered, "What are you doing here, mister?"

"I’m a biologist with the D.E.P. We’re trying to track down a fisher that’s been spotted in these woods."

"What’s a fisher?"

"It’s a carnivorous predator. Sort of like a bobcat. Lets out a god-awful shriek. Eats small dogs, cats..."

"Next you’re going to tell me it eats little girls," Molly scoffed.

"I’m perfectly serious. They wander down from Canada. Speaking of which, where did you wander from?"

"Prunus Cerebus."

"Prunus Cerebus? Which planet is that?"

"It’s not a planet, you dope. That’s Latin for Sour Cherry."

"Oh, I get it. You live on Sour Cherry Lane. What’s your name?" She told him.

"What are you doing out here this time of night, Molly?"

"Exploring."

"Well, you’d better get on home."

Which she had, though she thought he was full of it. There were no fishers in the woods anywhere near Dorset. If there were, her dad would have told her. Besides, if that man really were a biologist with the Department of Environmental Protection he’d know that Prunus Cerebus wasn’t a planet.

No question about it, Molly’s life was turning strange.

And then it went from strange to just totally sucky.

Somehow, Bella got wind that Molly’s dad was staying out there. She called in that mean trooper lady, who sent him away to the hospital. Then the trooper lady tracked Molly down when Molly was trying to shoot hoops over at Jen’s. He was going to be okay, she promised Molly before she started asking her a whole bunch of questions about Clay and her mom. Acting like she wanted to be Molly’s friend.

Her dad really did start to feel better. He even found a place to stay that was right nearby. His first night back, as Molly lay there in her tree house reading a library book by flashlight, she allowed herself to hope that maybe everything would be okay again. Clay and Hector would go away soon. Her dad would move back in and her mom would smile and be herself again. Everyone would be happy.

It was a warm night. Somewhere down below her a skunk was marking its turf, the stink wafting its way up to Molly’s nostrils. Scarcely a breeze stirred the leaves around her. All was quiet.

Until she heard rapid footsteps somewhere down the lane. And a fierce struggle of some kind. Someone groaning. Then a horrifying shriek that pierced the still of the night. It was a sound unlike anything Molly Procter had ever heard before. And it was not any fisher. Molly knew exactly what it was.

It was a man dying.

Excerpted from The Sour Cherry Surprise by David Handler

Copyright © 2008 by David Handler

Published in 2008 by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Minotaur

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.