“Yes! What is it?” Maggie’s voice snapped. She felt as if her words were ringing inside her head. All she wanted was to go back to bed.
“It’s Charlie here,” the caller responded gingerly.
“I know who it is, but what do you want?” she barked again.
“I’m checking if you’re coming in today?” he asked, aware that she wasn’t doing too well since the recent tragic events. “We need to go over a few things for the Autumn season."
“Jeez, Charlie, it’s only the middle of August,” Maggie sighed, showing her impatience. “Why are you contacting me so early in the day anyway?”
“Erm… I left it until after lunchtime,” Charlie replied.
“Oh, really, oh, so it is,” she admitted as she looked at the clock on the wall, telling her it was one-thirty in the afternoon. “I’ll get ready and come over soon.”
Rubbing her hands through her dishevelled blonde locks, she cut off the call. If only people would stop bothering her.
Slumping onto the grey, suede sofa, she sipped at her coffee. She hadn’t showered yet, but frankly, she didn’t care. It seemed such an effort to make herself presentable just to go into work for an hour or two. Why couldn’t they run the business without her?
Tucking her feet under her legs, she sat on the sofa mulling over her thoughts. Bad thoughts, things she should have got over by now since her business partner went to prison. It might have been better if she could have kept herself busy, but she had no motivation to do anything.
If it hadn’t been for Peter she wouldn’t even have a business, or at least it would be a much smaller operation. She remembered him as the vibrant life and soul of any party. But when she’d gone to visit him in prison, he was a shadow of his old self. He’d lost weight and had a drawn, haggard appearance. Poor man, he looked so lost.
It wasn’t only about him though; these blues she’d been experiencing were an accumulation of many tragic events. Over the past three years, there’d been so many deaths in the town. In one way or another, they were either directly linked to Maggie or she was somehow involved. It was like a black cloud hung over the town, and now it was hanging over her.
First, there was the death of Ben Curley. In the same year a young journalist, Donna Cass, had been murdered by the same greedy politician. Only a year later the town was embroiled in a tragic love affair. That was the year that Clara Roberts had murdered her old lover’s wife.
The whole affair was heart-breaking, and the woman went on to murder a witness to the affair to cover her tracks. Just as it seemed it couldn’t get any worse, her lover murdered her once he'd realized she’d killed his wife.
Things seemed to get back to normal for a short while. Then, as Christmas approached, another tragedy struck the small town of Gosdown. It was like a grim novel involving abductions and a baby farming cult. They'd gone on to murder a gentle old man, along with an innocent young shopkeeper. All because the cult leader feared their operation was about to be exposed.
All these homicides had hit her emotions hard. No town should have so many... The final icing on the cake had been the actions of her very good friend of many years. Peter had lied to her, in his time of need.
He also planted a dead body in her brewery knowing full well it would likely be her that discovered it. It was the battered body of a young man he'd accidentally run over with his car. To make matters worse, he'd faked his own death by using the victim's body. All because he'd owed money to some dangerous people.
Maggie had always considered herself a happy, well-balanced individual. But there was no denying that the drama in her life had knocked her for six. Her motivation to do anything was running at zero. Even where her much-loved business was concerned. That had been something she'd been so proud of and worked hard to build up. Now it was suffering because of her lack of interest.
The whole town was gossiping about her and everywhere she went people stared. It felt like everyone was wondering if she knew what was going on. Before Peter's antics, she’d been such a respected figure in the town. Now, all she saw was suspicion in their faces. She’d like to think she didn’t care, but she was only human, and she did care.
It didn’t help either that everyone told her how 'run-down' she looked. So many times, people had asked if she was ill because she looked so pale and tired. Not that they cared about her health... But Maggie knew why they asked. They hoped to push her for any information. Maybe they also hoped she’d let something slip about her involvement in Peter's charade.
The only good thing in her life was Jack. He was her rock. Without his calming, strong influence, she’d most likely sink even deeper into depression.
Although it was late in the summer, August was proving to be a bright, warm month. As Maggie walked through the historic market town of Gosdown, she began to appreciate the feel of the sun’s heat on her skin. The long, bright days of the summer months always lifted her spirits. Plus, it was a time she could get more work done than during the shorter days of the dark winter months. This year though, she wasn’t enjoying the benefits of summer.
Tourists meandered around town. They sat outside the various cafés on offer and perched on benches to enjoy their packed lunches. Gosdown attracted a lot of tourists. Some of them would have taken the Gosdown tour, which included her microbrewery, Bunker Hops.
The twelfth-century church of St Mary’s, which boasted a long, pointed steeple and was visible for miles around, also attracted attention. The church housed medieval stained glass windows that were one of the highlights of the town.
Maggie's thoughts meandered over the church’s beautiful windows as she walked along the pebbled square in the town centre. In her trail was a medium-sized, light-beige coloured beagle-lab mix, known as a Beagador. The dog shadowed her every footstep, so Maggie never had the need to check on his whereabouts. Mr Cooper was her faithful canine companion, and he hardly ever left her side.
At last, they’d almost arrived at the microbrewery. Over the years of building up her business, Maggie had enjoyed many happy moments at Bunker Hops. Right now, though, it seemed like a heavy weight hanging around her neck. Every time they needed her to go into work she dreaded it.
Maggie had confided her feelings to her best friend Naomi, and they were due to meet in the bar of the microbrewery. Their meeting had meant to be over lunch, but at three in the afternoon Maggie was running late. She’d contacted Naomi to explain that she couldn’t make lunch, but her friend had still offered to have a coffee with her in the bar.
Maggie enjoyed Naomi’s company and she was one of the few people that Maggie trusted. Not that she was lonely, not with Jack in her life. Plus, she had a good rapport with her staff. They were a great team and she'd been trying hard not to project her gloom onto them.
It wasn’t their fault that she was experiencing a rough patch in her life. For this reason, she was never in the mood for small talk, not with anyone. Those who knew her current mood gave her a wide berth.
As she entered the small bar of her microbrewing business, Naomi’s smiling face was there to greet her. They enjoyed a quick hug together and sat down on the deep blue velvet seats in a quiet booth. No sooner had Maggie settled when a member of her staff approached the table.
It was Charlie, the company's head brewer. Another person who Maggie trusted wholeheartedly, and she was pleased to see him.
“Good to see you, Maggie.” Charlie smiled at her, understanding that his boss would want the meeting to be a quick one.
“Hi, Charlie," Maggie responded. "I've been thinking that we can aim for a launch party at the end of October. I’ll start putting a new recipe together. I’m going for a dark toffee flavour. We'll want a quality crystal malt in there,” Maggie said, hoping there was still time to get a batch of Porter beer brewed up and ready.
“We could add a yeast strain like Fuller’s Settle," Charlie suggested. "That’ll help with a bit of diacetyl to encourage the caramel flavour, if that's what you want?”
“Let me think about it and get back to you. But I’m thinking of steeping the darker malts and then adding the grain-tea after the mash. It'll lessen the acidity,” Maggie explained.
“Yes, I like that method,” Charlie said. “It gives us more control over the malt flavour, and the colour too.”
“Right then, I’ll get the recipe to you this week, I promise.” Maggie smiled, hoping the meeting was over.
“Okay, I’ll leave you two to it then,” Charlie said, standing up to leave just as Susan, Maggie’s accountant, arrived.
“It’s okay, Maggie, I won’t sit down." Sue smiled, looking pleased with herself. "I'm here to give you some good news for a change. I don’t know if Charlie's told you, but we’ve been inundated with orders for the last launch beer. Customers are loving your Solstice Saison.”
“That's great, and well done Charlie for keeping up with the orders,” Maggie said before he disappeared. “And you too, Sue, for literally taking over the finances of this place. I don’t know what I’d do without you all.”
“All we want is Maggie, who we know and love, to be back again,” Sue said in a hushed tone as she leaned into the table. “I miss you in that little office.”
“Thanks, Sue, I’m getting there. Give me a little more time to come to terms with everything that’s happened. But thanks for your concern. It's appreciated very much,” Maggie said, secretly pleased that Sue hadn’t sat down for a long chat.
After a few more minutes, Sue went on her way and Maggie was left alone with Naomi.
“Phew!” Maggie brushed her brow with the back of her hand in mock exaggeration. “I hope that’s the rush over with,” she said, referring to business matters.
“At least you have a great team on board,” Naomi pointed out. “People you know you can rely on in your absence.”
“I know, I know, and don’t think for a moment that I don’t appreciate every single one of them,” Maggie muttered. “I’m enjoying taking a back seat for a while though.”
“You deserve it,” Naomi said. “You’ve worked hard to get this team together and it shows. They’re a fantastic bunch, and a credit to your business."
“That they are,” Maggie agreed, nodding her head as she spotted Jack approaching their table. “Hi, Jack! What are you doing here?”
“I’m in cahoots with Naomi,” was all he offered.
“Oh? What's all this about then?” Maggie questioned, looking puzzled at each of them. “And how've you managed to escape your work?” she continued to question him, knowing his business was a busy one too.
“Ah well, like you, I have a good team behind me now,” Jack said. “So, I want to run something by you,” he offered, causing Maggie to raise her brows at him.
“What have you two been up to?” she questioned again, with a deep furrow in her frown.
“We know how difficult things have been for you since Peter’s arrest,” Naomi began.
“After discussing it between us,” Jack added, “we thought a short break away from town might do you some good.”
“What? Whose hare-brained scheme was that idea, exactly?” Maggie asked, shocked at the very notion. “I know my staff have been covering for me this last week or so, but I can’t leave them on their own to fight off all the recent bad publicity. They’re already taking most of the strain on their shoulders, I can’t abandon them completely!”
“Well, actually, you can,” Jack said, keeping his tone hushed and gentle, as he’d known that Maggie would object. “I’ve already spoken with them, and they all agree that a short break might help you get back on your feet.”
“You see Maggie,” Naomi joined in to support Jack’s offer. “It’s not only for you but for them too. They miss you and want you to get back to bossing them around all day long.”
“I’m not bossy!” Maggie declared.
“No, I know you’re not, I’m exaggerating. But your staff need you to get back to your old self and to run this brewery like clockwork again,” Naomi finished.
“Let me tell you what I had planned before you say no,” Jack took over the conversation.
It seemed to Maggie this was a planned strategy. They'd contrived to attack her on both sides and weaken her resolve so she'd agree to their crazy idea.
“I can’t go away Jack," Maggie argued. "I mean, I… I’m not coping too well at home, let alone if I were gallivanting off to places unknown.”
“Listen to my idea first, before you brush it off,” Jack pleaded and didn’t bother to wait for an answer. “I’ve enrolled us in a seminar on a forward-thinking hop growing farm. It’s not just any hop grower! They’re famous for their innovative methods for cultivating rare hops. Even better, they also use a hydroponics system. You know that I’m interested in moving over to this technique as soon as I can.”
“Oh? I see,” Maggie said, taking in a deep breath.
“Not only that," Jack continued, giving Maggie one of his unique half-smiles. "We’ll also have the opportunity to buy some of their rare hops before we leave. It’s part of an exclusive deal for participating in the seminar.”
His lopsided smile always warmed her heart. Jack was a little older than her, but he was a strong, handsome man who had won a place in her heart over the last few years.
“It’ll be a week in the countryside," Naomi joined in. "You'll be studying how to grow specialised greenhouse crops using cutting-edge technology. What do you think, Maggie?” she questioned, sure that her best friend would become excited at the prospect.
“Well, I… I suppose it’s more like a business necessity than holiday,” Maggie stammered as the gears in her head clicked and started to process all the information. "I guess I won’t feel so guilty about leaving everyone, not if it's work-related. You know what, you two, you’ve come up trumps,” she announced with a big smile.
“So, you’ll say yes then?” Jack asked with a wide-eyed look of surprise.
“I will. And thank you for taking the time to talk to each other like this. You've both come up with the perfect solution to get me away on a break,” Maggie agreed. The smile on her face lit up her sky-blue eyes, convincing Jack she was genuine.
“Hallelujah!” Naomi yelled out, throwing her arms in the air. “We did it Jack,” she announced as they high-fived one another.
“You two are so devious,” Maggie said, letting them enjoy their moment. “I hope this place accepts pets?”
“Nope, but we got that covered,” Naomi said quickly, not taking any excuses. “Cooper is coming to stay with me.”
“I only had five days to organise myself,” Maggie complained to Naomi in a fluster, as it was time to leave. “Right now, I couldn’t coordinate a teddy bear’s tea party, let alone pack a suitcase.”
“You’re fine,” Naomi assured her friend, patting Maggie’s shoulders in encouragement. “Packing's like riding a bicycle, you never forget. Besides, you’ve got Jack with you, and Cooper's gonna be spoiled rotten. Your mum’s having him when I’m on day shifts, so all’s well with the world.”
“I know, I know, but I’ll miss my little shadow,” Maggie said as she leaned down to rub her dog’s ears. “It feels like I’m abandoning him.”
“He’ll be too spoiled to even notice you’re gone,” Naomi reiterated.
“All right then, I’m ready,” Maggie said, sniffing to emphasise how hard it was for her. “Take him away. Bye Mr Cooper,” she said waving to him as Naomi led him to her car.
Naomi and Cooper walked down the garden path from Maggie’s cottage as Jack was opening the little wooden gate.
“Hey there buddy,” he said, fussing over the dog. “You off on your jolly holly’s too.”
“Careful when you get in there,” Naomi said in a hushed voice. “She’s super sensitive about leaving him.”
Jack nodded his understanding, but he knew that Maggie needed this break. He looked up to see Maggie standing in the doorway looking a little forlorn.
“Don’t you go worrying about Maggie, she’ll be fine once we get going,” Jack told Naomi, who looked concerned.
Naomi gave him a half-smile; she trusted that he was the best person for Maggie right now. If anyone could drag her out of this gloomy period, it would be him.
“Hey!” Naomi called back to Jack as she reached the open gate. “Is that your car?” she said, pointing her arm at a car.
“You betcha,” he grinned with a wicked, cheeky smile. “C’mon Maggie, I want to show you something,” he called to her as she remained in the doorway to her little cottage.
“Come and look at this Maggie,” Naomi called over to her, waving her arm in encouragement.
“What is it you’re both making such a fuss over?” Maggie asked as she followed Jack to the gate. “Oh my! That’s a beauty!” Maggie called out in surprise as she looked at the dark green car that Naomi and Cooper were standing next to.
“You like her?” Jack asked, pleased to see a smile on her face.
“Like her? I love her,” Maggie expressed with delight. “It’s a Triumph Herald convertible, isn’t it?”
“Yep. She’s a 1200cc from the 1961 launch,” Jack confirmed, looking proud. “The first car I ever drove, except mine wasn’t a convertible 'cos I couldn’t afford one in my youth.”
“Can I drive her?” Maggie asked with obvious excitement in her eyes.
Jack handed her the keys. “You get comfy in the driver’s seat, and I’ll go get your luggage and lock up.”
Naomi watched on as Maggie scrambled into the car, making herself comfortable in the driver's seat.
“Wow! That's brought a smile to your face girl,” Naomi pointed out. “Look, Cooper, your owner’s all giddy like a big kid.”
“Isn’t she adorable!” Maggie laughed. “Look at the beautiful cherry-red wooden veneer dashboard.”
“Leather seats too, you’re going in style girl.” Naomi smiled, pleased to see Maggie so excited over a car. Jack knew what he was doing when he bought that car, it had already lifted Maggie’s spirits.
“Right, then," Jack called out as he opened the boot of the car to store the luggage. "I’ll get these bags in the boot and then we can get going.”
He could see Maggie and Naomi animated with delight as they scanned the interior of his new toy.
“We’ve got a couple of hundred miles to get to Herefordshire, so we’ll do half each,” he said, climbing into the passenger side. “Your mum insisted on me giving her the address to HotHops Farm would you believe?”
“That doesn’t surprise me. She’s always done that, ever since I flew the nest,” Maggie chuckled. “Right then,” she said, turning the ignition key to rev up the engine. “Let’s get this baby on the road.”
“Have a great time, you two,” Naomi called out before they pulled away. “And don’t come back unless you’re smiling.”
“Bye Naomi. Bye Mr Cooper,” Maggie waved back, with renewed enthusiasm for the trip. “It’s going to be so cool driving this car, Jack!” Maggie beeped the horn back at Naomi as she drove away.
“You know I’ve been super eager to attend this seminar,” Jack said, as Maggie was so quiet while she enjoyed the open-top drive. “It’s the way forward for my growing methods.”
“Yes, you’ll be able to do year-round cultivation. That'll be a great boon to your business, and mine too,” Maggie chatted as she trundled along in the classic, bottle-green car.
“It will, on both accounts. I’m already looking at ordering some giant polytunnels,” Jack added.
“Oh, that’s my phone ringing," Maggie said, pointing to a small floral bag on the passenger side floor. "Will you answer it for me, Jack?”
Jack reached in the bag for the phone, and then put it on speaker so Maggie could hear who was calling her.
“Hey Maggie,” Naomi’s voice sang out. “Have you given Jack a go yet, or are you still driving?”
“She’s still behind the wheel, Naomi, I’ve put you on speaker,” Jack answered. “We’re stopping soon so I can take over.”
“Hahaha… Listen, I won’t keep you long. I wanted you to know that Cooper settled in already. He won’t stop chasing my little Mitzy all around the house. You’ve only been gone two minutes and he’s causing havoc already.”
“That’s a good sign then,” Maggie said, directing her voice at the speaker. “Sounds like he’s not missing me one bit.”
“Well, it works both ways. I bet you haven’t missed him either yet, what with having a new toy to play with?” Naomi pointed out.
“Yes, I guess you're right, as always,” Maggie agreed. “I’ll be sulking when Jack takes over.”
“Play nice children,” Naomi laughed. “I’ll be tying Cooper’s legs together soon to keep him still. Anyway, I only made a quick call to make sure you're both safe in that old car. Have fun you guys. And like I said, don’t come back unless you’re smiling, bye!”
Jack and Maggie called out their goodbyes together and Naomi hung up. It helped Maggie to relax knowing that Cooper was all settled and happy too.
A couple of hours into their journey and they stopped in a small town for lunch. This time, Maggie called Naomi, worried that Cooper might still be up to mischief.
“You don’t need to call every hour,” Naomi said. “We’ve gone for a walk at Lake Park. Cooper and Mitzy are having a great time in the water, I can’t get either of them out! They’re like a pair of water babies.”
“Hahaha.... he does love a good swim. I know I’m too soft with him. Now I’ve left him with someone else, I’m wondering if he’ll want his own way all the time,” Maggie said, worrying over nothing.
“Stop that Maggie. He’s fine,” Naomi scolded her, but only a little. “Besides, he’s a dog, not a child. I’ll make sure to put him in his place if he seriously misbehaves. Tony and I are more than capable of handling a dog, even a daft one like yours. Now, forget all about him and try to relax, will you? And by the way, don’t forget to enjoy a little romance too.”
“What are you grinning at?” Jack asked as he spotted Maggie’s flushed cheeks.
“We’re doing that already,” Maggie replied to Naomi, ignoring Jack’s question. “Right at this moment, we’re sitting by a river eating tuna mayo sandwiches.”
“That’s my girl. You’ve got Jack all to yourself so make the most of it,” Naomi instructed her. “And stop wasting time calling me. I’ll call you if anything goes wrong. Now goodbye.”
“You okay?” Jack asked, noticing a surprised look on Maggie’s face.
“She cut me off,” Maggie replied.
Though she didn’t let on what Naomi had said. Her friend was right, this was a great opportunity for her and Jack to enjoy a little romance.
“Then stop calling her and let’s enjoy this trip,” Jack said. “Now then, don’t forget that it’s my turn to drive. And don’t be giving me that sulky look. I want my turn.”
They both laughed out loud in unison as they realised they were acting like two big kids fighting over a new toy. Maggie knew at that point that this was exactly what she had needed: time with Jack, and a holiday to look forward to, all so perfect.
Jack drove the rest of the way to their destination while Maggie sat back and enjoyed the rolling hills of the Herefordshire countryside. Before long, they were pulling into their destination, HotHops Farm.
"It's much bigger than I expected," Jack said as he parked up in a large purpose-built, concrete car park. “I thought it was going to be a small, friendly farm.”
“Hmm. The middle part of the hotel looks like the old barn. All those flat redbrick buildings have been added on. Anyway, don’t let that put us off,” Maggie remarked, nudging him to get out of the car.
They left their luggage in the car and walked towards the reception.
As Jack opened the door, he heard a woman’s voice call out to him, “Welcome.” It was the voice of a small, chubby, middle-aged, dark-haired woman who was approaching them. “My name’s Venessa Evans, but please call me Essy, as all my friends do.”
“Hi,” Jack replied, taking over the introduction as he wasn’t sure Maggie was up to it yet. “Jack Revere and Maggie Hopps.” He gave their names and held out his hand in greeting.
Essy took his hand with a dainty handshake, “Ah yes, you’re both from Gosdown in Kent, aren’t you?”
“That we are,” Jack confirmed, keeping a friendly smile on his face.
“I’m your hostess for the seminar, and please come to me if you have questions regarding your stay. Of course, if you have any technical questions about the seminar, then it’ll be my husband you’ll need to speak to.”
While Jack dealt with the introductions, Maggie was looking around at the reception area. They'd come through a modern wall-to-ceiling glass door feature. But at least the floor was still the original stone slabs that would have been in the old barn.
“Let me show you around the communal area,” Essy suggested.
She led them into the large, open-plan barn area. Maggie strained her neck glancing up at the high beamed ceiling. A huge stone fireplace stood out as a focal point, but it hadn’t been lit yet, due to the warmer weather.
Not far from the fireplace stood a small bar and a lounging area. The far end of the hall was set up with tables and chairs as a dining area.
“It’s an amazing place,” Maggie said, looking around.
“Yes. We hold many events all year round. We've got another large hall that seats up to two hundred guests for weddings.” Essy talked as if she was reeling off a well-practiced speech.
“Our seminars are just as popular, and you’ll find you have very comfortable accommodation in our hotel section. We have thirteen bedrooms and can accommodate up to thirty-five guests at peak times. Would you like to see your room?”
“Perfect,” Jack and Maggie said in harmony as if they’d read each other’s minds.
For a moment, Essy looked at them in surprise that they'd spoken together, then she shook her head and smiled. “I've put you both in the same room. I wasn’t sure if you were married, or a couple or… well… I can give you another room if you want.”
“No, one room’s fine,” Jack responded, and Maggie felt pleased.
Essie continued to tell them about the many events they'd hosted. They followed her back to the reception and through a door. The adjoining door led to one of the extensions, and they walked down a long corridor. Maggie felt as though Essie was reading from a script with a very bland tone. It didn’t catch her attention and she found her mind switching off.
As they stopped at one of many doors, Maggie noticed it was room thirteen. Ah well, unlucky for some, but lucky for others, she thought, keeping it to herself. Upon entering the room, Maggie noticed the room didn't have the character and charm of the barn, but no matter, at least it had two beds.
“You should be comfy in this room, what do you think?” Essy asked, looking pleased with herself. “All the guests are at this end of the hotel so you’re in a group.”
“It’s lovely,” they said together, again, causing Essy to look at them slightly bemused. “Are you two married?” she dared to ask. “It’s just that you keep speaking together, like a married couple.”
“No,” Maggie said, in a sharper tone than she meant. “But we are a couple, and this room is ideal, thank you Essy.”
“Okay, I’ll leave you to settle in then,” Essy said, though she wore an awkward smile on her face. “Dinner's at six, and you’ll get to meet the rest of your group as well as my husband, your host.”
“Great,” they said in unison.
Their hostess turned and practically ran out of the room as if something had scared her. As soon as the door shut, Jack and Maggie burst out laughing.
“How do we do that?” Maggie asked as she threw herself onto one of the beds.
“Because we’re in sync with each other,” Jack said with a fake-sinister voice. He too joined Maggie on the bed and lay by her side. “I don’t know how we do it, but I do know that I’m looking forward to some alone time with you.”
“Hmmm… me too,” Maggie said, turning her head to smile at him. “I wonder what the other guests at the seminar will be like. Do you think they’re all farmers like you?”
“Who cares?” Jack replied as he managed a quick kiss on her lips before she jumped up off the bed. “Let’s go get our luggage. I need to see if I have any emails. Though we’re meant to be on a holiday so let’s not forget that,” Jack said, picking up his car keys as Maggie opened the door to the suite.
Maggie and Jack were soon settled back in their room. They'd decided to change from their travelling clothes to more suitable attire for the evening meal. As they entered the communal room, some of the tables had been arranged to create one long table to share their meal.
“Hello, come and join us,” the guy sitting at the head of the table called over to them. “I’m Adam Evans, your host. Now that we’re all here, I thought we’d introduce ourselves before we start our dinner.”
Taking the two empty seats to the left of Adam, they both looked around at the other faces staring back at them.
“So, as I said, I’m Adam Evans. I’ll be leading your seminar every step of the way. Who’d like to go next?”
A woman with brightly dyed red hair, on the host’s right, raised her arm a little. “I’m Ruth and this is my husband, David Wilson. I’m Welsh, as you can most likely tell by my accent,” she smiled shyly.
“And I’m a Yorkshire man born ‘n bred," David spoke with a much louder voice than his timid wife. "Even though we live in Wales, I’ll be keepin' me Yorkshire accent over the Welsh one,” he laughed.
It appeared as if it was a private joke between the couple. Others around the table stared at the bushy-bearded young man in dismay. Some gave him polite smiles, showing that they didn't quite understand his joke.
“Can you tell us why you’re both attending this seminar, David?” Adam encouraged.
“We ‘aven’t been married long, but we’ve got ourselves a small farm in Wales. One of the things we ‘ope to do is make our own local brew because we don’t keep livestock, you see. We’re both vegetarians, ‘n we grow veggies and stuff.”
There was silence around the table as if no one wanted to speak next, so Jack spoke up. “I’m Jack Revere from Kent, and I grow vegetables too.” He smiled over at David. “I want to change some of my farming methods over to the hydroponic system, so I don’t have to keep renting more land.”
“I’m Maggie Hopps and I run a microbrewery,” Maggie stepped in, wanting to get her turn over with. “I buy hops from Jack, so I’m here to support him.”
All faces remained on Maggie as if they expected her to say more.
“I’m Dennis Firby,” a deep but hushed voice spoke next and said no more.
It seemed that he was only willing to share his name. The young man looked a little nervous as if he was uncomfortable speaking in front of others. That’s when the grey-haired, older woman at the table spoke up and rescued him.
“My name’s Jo, well… Josephine Grundy if ye want it in full,” she said, with a strong Scottish lilt. “I run fifty acres of prime Scottish agricultural lands. I’m always on the lookout fer new ways to improve things.” She spoke with a firm, authoritative voice.
“That leaves me, I suppose,” the man at the other end of the table spoke with a loud voice. “I’m Alan Smith, and I want to know which multinational corporation runs this place?”
As the words ran off his tongue, he slammed down a glass of beer and stared down the table at the host.
“We’re a family-run business,” David replied. There was a slight quiver in his voice as if he hadn't liked the question. “My wife and I… well… never mind that. Can you tell us more about yourself, Alan?”
Alan didn’t reply. Instead, he returned a hard, cold stare at the host before raising his glass of beer as if in a toast. “I’m here to uncover the secrets of HotHops Farm,” he said with a sharp tone.
“That’s why most people are here, to learn our secrets. We have some innovative growing techniques, and all will be revealed over the next few days. I want every one of you to go away and think of ideas to take your business forward,” David said. He lifted a glass of wine in the air as if he was returning the faux toast that Alan had mimicked.
Maggie wasn’t quite sure what had happened. It appeared as if the two men didn't like one another, or at least that the guy called Alan had a chip on his shoulder.
She thought no more of it as the food arrived. The three-course meal was exquisite, and Maggie and Jack enjoyed chatting with the young couple and the host. At the end of what seemed to be an uncomfortable evening for the others, David stood up.
“Thank you all for gathering this evening. I know you’ve all had long journeys, so please, take the rest of the evening to relax and rest. We’ll meet up again tomorrow morning. I bid you all a good night for now.”
At that, Adam got up and left. Maggie and Jack decided not to linger as the atmosphere was a little frosty thanks to Alan. Only once in the comfort of their room did they begin to relax again.
“That was odd, wasn’t it?” Maggie said as Jack took out a bottle of whisky from his bags.
“Looks like that Alan guy doesn’t like the host much, but who cares. We’re not here to snoop, Maggie Hopps, we’re here to chill out. How about we start with a single malt whisky?”
“Is that Japanese?” Maggie asked, inspecting the bottle.
Jack nodded silently and handed her a glass of the pale, golden liquid.
“Hatozaki, named after the oldest lighthouse in Japan. Drink and enjoy!”
“Look what I found outside the door,” Jack announced as he lay a breakfast tray on Maggie’s bed.
“Oh, look there’s a card on it, let me read it,” Maggie said, still bleary-eyed from sleep. “Erm… We thought you’d like a sleep-in on your first day so enjoy breakfast in bed from your hosts Adam and Essy. See you at ten-thirty for the first seminar in the conference room. That’s nice of them, isn’t it?”
Jack lifted the silver lid covering the plates and took a breath through his nose. “Hmmm, bacon and eggs. Let’s get tucked in.”
“You can have all the cooked breakfast," Maggie said, pointing to the French pastry. "I only want the cereal and toast. Oh, and that croissant too.”
"It's a done deal," Jack grinned at her, pleased he got a huge breakfast to look forward to.
By ten o'clock, Maggie and Jack were heading towards the conference room, both with much enthusiasm for the day ahead. All the buildings were connected to the large barn via a series of doors and corridors. They'd been given instructions with breakfast on where to head, so they didn’t have any trouble finding it.
Having found their destination, they soon arrived at a set of open double doors leading into a large room.
“What do you suppose happened to the original farmhouse?” Maggie spoke to Jack. She must have spoken louder than she meant to, as one of the other participants answered her question.
“They live in it,” Alan practically snapped her head off as he answered her. “Our hosts! They’ve taken the original farmhouse for themselves, even though they don’t own this property.”
“Oh, I see,” Maggie said, looking puzzled at Alan. “They must do more than manage events if they live on the premises?”
“This place was a successful functioning farm with livestock," Alan barked at her. "It wasn't like it is now with all this new age hippy flower namby-pamby stuff.”
Fortunately, for Maggie, she didn’t have to continue talking to him as Adam arrived. Their host asked them all to gather around a long table that was set up with refreshments in the centre.
“Oh look, coffee,” Maggie said to Alan, giving him her best smile. She turned and followed in Jack’s footsteps to sit at the table and help herself to more coffee.
She found herself in need of caffeine after speaking with the ever-angry Alan. What exactly was his problem? He seemed to be obstreperous all the time. Maggie was about to mention her awkward conversation with him to Jack when Adam stood and held out his hand for them to quieten down.
“I hope you all enjoyed the complimentary breakfast trays this morning. We like to do that on the first day. Tomorrow, you’ll find a buffet breakfast laid out in the dining room,” Adam explained. “Yesterday, we introduced ourselves. I thought we’d start today by telling each other about our own experiences in cultivating hops, or anything else that you grow. Or you could tell us about your businesses and what you’ve achieved so far. Anything that helps the group to understand why we’re all here.”
Again, it seemed that no one wanted to go first, even though it was only a small group of seven.
“Maggie, you run a microbrewery,” Adam said, choosing his volunteer. “Can you tell us about your brews?”
“Erm, yes, that’s something I can talk about all day long,” she began and received a hushed chuckle from her audience. "I tend to create my new brews by the seasons. For instance, this summer we launched a Saison, which is a high carbonated pale ale. It’s been a great success.”
“I can confirm that," Jack said, hoping to break the formal atmosphere in the room. "I’ve drunk enough of it.”
Thankfully, it worked, and there was a little friendly banter before Maggie carried on.
“My first official brew was created three years ago. I called it Citrus Zap because it had grapefruit tones to refresh the palate. Other specialist ales I’ve created have been erm... a green tea one."
Maggie paused to have a drink of water.
"Oh – and then there's our Mellow Yellow which was an autumn launch. We used the seasonal pumpkin for that one. At Christmas, we like to include seasonal fruits such as cranberries, like the one we called Berrygin. Though it didn’t have any gin in it,” she finished with a weak smile.
“And will you be launching one this autumn?” Adam asked.
“Yes. We’re aiming for another Porter. It'll have toffee connotations,” Maggie replied. She didn't volunteer to go into any further details because she’d had enough of being the centre of attention.
“Thank you, Maggie,” Adam smiled. “Perhaps you’ll take some of our hops and create a brand new brew?”
“I hope so,” was all Maggie said in reply.
“I’ll go next,” Jack called out, as he could see that Maggie had had enough of the attention. “I’m a grower of hops, as well as vegetables and flowers too," he began and paused to look around the table. He had everyone's attention and so he continued.
"I started out as a local gardener and my business expanded over the years. I’m here because I rent a lot of land to keep up with the demand, so I’m looking at hydroponic growing as a way forward. I work closely with Maggie, and we’d like to look at creating some new and unique flavours for her craft beers.”
“I thought you two were married,” the red-haired Ruth sang out, with a strong rhythmic Welsh accent. “You make such a lovely couple, like David and I.”
“Would you both like to go next, Ruth and David?” Adam encouraged.
“Well, okay,” Ruth agreed, though a little hesitant when all eyes turned to focus on her. “Me and my hubby, David, we bought ourselves a little land so we could grow our own food. We’re vegetarians you see.”
David took hold of Ruth’s hand to boost her confidence, and he joined in.
“We sell our veggies at a few local markets, but bein' an ale drinker, well - it goes with me beard…” He paused as his audience chuckled politely. “I want to grow sum hops, ye see. Then I’ll brew me own beers. If I’m any gud at it, I’ll sell them on the stalls ye see.”
“We’re all about being at one with the environment," Ruth added. "So, like Jack there, we want to look at hydroponics too.”
“Thank you to our lovely couple who've come all the way from the beautiful Welsh valleys,” Adam said as he realised they’d finished their presentation. “And I’m confident you will all be more than happy with what you learn about our hydroponic systems here at HotHops Farm. Who’s next?”
There was silence around the table. Adam looked around but Maggie noted that the others were avoiding looking at him.
“All right then," he announced. "There’s no obligation to share what you do. If you change your minds, speak up at any time,” Adam pointed out. He looked a bit disappointed at the lack of response from some of the group.
“While you’re here, please feel free to walk through our greenhouses. You can watch the hydroponic systems at work. You can also approach any of the technicians who run them to ask any questions you have. They’re used to it, so don’t feel shy.”
Adam paused to allow the attendees to speak, but all he got back were small coughs.
“If you’re here to learn about the hops, pop into one of our labs to see how we grow hybrids. We've also got specific greenhouses where we practice vertical farming. There we grow our flavourings, such as berries and herbs like basil.”
Still, there was silence among the participants. Maggie shuffled in her seat, feeling a little embarrassed for their host who was trying so hard. She couldn’t help but wonder why half the group was even here as they showed little interest.
“You’ll see that we use all six hydroponic techniques, such as deep-water flow, ebb and flow, and so on. Today, I want you to meander around and ask questions. I’ll do a presentation on the hydroponic systems tomorrow, and then we’ll move on to the field growing crops. Any questions?”
“I’ll have plenty of them after I’ve looked around,” Jack said, showing a great amount of enthusiasm.
“Good, that’s why you’re here after all.” Adam smiled awkwardly at the other blank faces. “After you’ve seen what’s on offer, I’ll arrange for you to have some hands-on experience with your preferred systems.”
“Thank you, Adam,” Maggie said, uncomfortable at the lack of response from the others. “Jack and I are looking forward to that part.”
Adam smiled and nodded at her. He looked almost relieved that someone was showing an interest in the seminar. It seems that at least four of us are having fun, Maggie thought to herself, wondering why the other three were attending if they weren’t willing to join in.
“I’ll see you all at dinner this evening,” Adam announced, breaking the uncomfortable silence yet again. “I have to tell you that I’m off to check on a new hybrid crop that I’m quite excited about. But we’ll talk more about hybrids later. Have a good tour everyone. By the way, you can always catch me in one of the greenhouses somewhere should you want to speak to me.”
Adam left the group to chat among themselves. The two young men and the older woman also left the room. It left Jack and Maggie chatting with the young married couple, who seemed as keen as they were to go off and look around and learn.
“It was nice of you to join us for dinner this evening, Essy,” Maggie said to their hostess. They were all waiting for her husband to arrive.
“I like to join the group when I can. It allows our guests to raise any issues with housekeeping,” Essy explained. Her dark skin was radiant as if she’d got out of the shower only moments ago. “I can only apologise to you all, I don’t know why Adam’s so late. It’s not like him at all. When we have an event that involves him, he's always on time. Mind you, he does get a little carried away when he’s working in the greenhouses. I swear he'd love to live in them.”
There was a slight chuckle around the table as the guests were being polite in response.
“We didn’t see him when we were walking around there,” Jack remarked. “Although we were concentrating on the technical systems, they’re fascinating.”
“I’ll go and look for him,” Essy suggested, getting out of her dining chair. “Please, you should all start your dinner. Don’t let the food go cold because my husband forgot the time,” she offered, showing a little embarrassment.
“I bet he’s in for a good telling off,” Maggie whispered in Jack’s ear as everyone got up to fill their plates from the warm buffet layout.
“That roast beef smells incredible,” Jack remarked, only to get a strange look from Ruth.
“Don’t forget they're veggies,” Maggie whispered as she shuffled up close to him.
He pulled a face of understanding as he continued to pile the meat on his plate. No way was he missing out on all the effort the chef had put into roasting that joint. Maggie chuckled to herself. Jack did like his food. Then again, he was usually labouring out in the fields all day, that’s enough to give anyone a healthy appetite.
There wasn’t much chatter as the guests ate their meals. Maggie noted that the two guys seemed to avoid one another, though the shy one, Dennis, was conversing with Jo, the oldest member of the group. She let out a loud laugh and her voice seemed to boom around the room. Alan, the other guy, could be quite loud too. He seemed more interested in the contents of his glass, a rather large brandy, than eating his dinner or socialising.
Maggie couldn’t help but observe the other guests; she did it all the time when she was her normal self. Did this mean the mini holiday was working and she was relaxing more? She hoped so.
Maggie had almost finished her dinner when everyone heard a piercing scream. Everyone glanced at each other, all looking puzzled. Before anyone spoke, their hostess came running into the hall, shouting and distressed.
“Someone call for the police! Please!” she yelled, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Maggie was the first one to jump up and go to her aid.
“Whatever’s the matter, Essy?” she asked, taking the trembling woman into her arms to comfort her.
“You have to call the police.” Her voice quivered as she attempted to get the words out of her trembling lips.
“Why Essy, what’s happened?” Maggie asked, with Jack standing behind her, looking concerned for the distressed woman.
“In one of the… the greenhouses,” Essy stuttered. “I found him, and I'm sure he’s dead!”
“Who, Essy, who are you talking about?” Jack asked as he was dialling for the police on his phone.
“M… my… husband. Someone’s killed him, oh my God, he’s dead!” Essy cried out, taking a deep breath following her words.
For a few seconds there was silence in the room as the group allowed Essy’s words to sink in. Dennis was the one to speak first as he stood up and suggested going to take a look.
David also stood up to join Alan and go and have a look. Jack was the one to stop them. With one ear on his phone, calling the police, he shouted a warning at them to stay where they were.
Ruth remained calm, which seemed unusual for her, but Jo was wide-eyed as she looked on at her seminar colleagues.
“Shouldn’t someone go and check if he’s still alive?” Jo suggested.
“You don’t want to mess with the area," Jack explained once he'd finished his call and saw their shocked expressions. "It could complicate things for you, if foul play's suspected.”
Alan stared at him, not at all impressed by being told what to do by a farmer. What he didn't know was that Jack had taken on his ex-police authoritative demeanour, without even realising he was doing it.
“He… he can’t be alive,” Essy cried out. “There’s a big set of gardening shears sticking out of his back. How could someone do that to him?” Essy started to sob again, her body shaking with every whimper.
“What?” Jo screamed out, looking pale and as if she might faint at any moment.
“What the hell…?” David called out. “This is madness!”
“The poor woman’s inconsolable,” Maggie said in a hushed voice to Jack. She then turned back to the confused group. “Jo’s right, one of us should go and check and see if he’s still got a pulse.”
“I’ll go,” Ruth said, surprising everyone. “I’m a trained nurse.”
“No, no, Ruth, you can’t, there’s a killer on the loose,” her husband told her.
“Don’t worry, Dave, I’ll come straight back as soon as I’ve confirmed the state that he’s in. But if he’s still alive, I’ll have to stay and do what I can for him.”
No one replied to Ruth’s suggestion, as if they couldn’t quite take in what was happening. It was Jack who nodded his agreement. “Yes, thanks Ruth. The police should be here soon. You need to stay here David,” he said as Ruth’s husband got up to follow his wife out of the room.
Maggie thought that David looked almost relieved that he didn’t have to go with her. His wife, Ruth, was showing another side to her character. She remained calm as she left the room. Not at all bothered that she would have to do it alone.
It wasn't long before she returned, looking a little ashen as she walked in. She headed straight for David, who embraced her. Ruth informed everyone that Adam was most certainly dead. Within fifteen minutes, police sirens could be heard from the car park.
“I’d better go out and let them know where we are,” Jack volunteered, and no one objected.
As he walked back into the room, there were several police officers behind him.
“Good evening everyone,” a tall, thin man called out as Jack walked over to sit with Maggie. “I’m Detective Inspector Taylor and I’d like to ask you all to stay in this room while we begin our investigation.”
“What about the other staff who work on the farm?” Jo asked, looking annoyed that it was only them who couldn’t move.
“Everyone’s being gathered in another room," DI Taylor said, a stern tone to his voice. "Don’t concern yourself with them, madam. Can I ask who found the victim? Was it anyone in here?” he added.
Essy put her hand up and Maggie noted it was shaking. “It was me. I’m Adam’s wife,” she said as if the inspector knew the victim’s name.
“Your name, madam?” he asked.
“Venessa Evans. It’s my husband, Adam,” she replied in a faint voice as if she didn’t want to say the words out loud. “Someone’s killed him in a horrible way.”
“I’d like you to come along with me, Venessa. If you would please.”
Although the police officer requested in a sensitive manner that Essy go with him, Maggie doubted that Essy had any choice in the matter. With that, the detective and the hostess left the room. Left behind were a couple of uniformed police officers who remained standing by the door.
The seminar guests formed into their little groups. Ruth sat with her husband. Jo continued to chat with the younger guy in the group, Dennis. While the vocal Alan was uncharacteristically quiet, he sat alone hugging his spirit glass.
“It looks like a homicide to me,” Maggie whispered to Jack, who nodded his agreement.
“I’m going to get us a drink from that bar over there,” Jack suggested. “I’ll see if anyone besides Alan wants one to calm their nerves.”
Maggie nodded; it was a good idea. Nothing calmed the nerves better than a quick shot of spirits. Although I’d murder for a coffee right now, she thought. Whoops, didn’t mean to use that word, she reprimanded herself for the use of such a word, even if it was only to herself.
The detective soon returned, bringing Essy back with him.
“Okay people,” he announced as Essy walked over to Maggie. “I can confirm that there has been a suspicious death on the premises. As I’ll be telling the staff, I’m telling you as well. You must all stay local. You can’t go home until I give you clearance. Over the next few days, I’ll be questioning each one of you, so don’t wander far.”
“Are you going to tell us what’s happened, Inspector?” Alan piped up with his usual loud voice.
“You’ve all got the gist of the situation,” the detective replied, staring back at Alan as he spoke. “You’ll learn more about it in time, I'm sure.”
“Why can’t we go home, Inspector, I don’t want to stay here any longer than I have to,” Ruth asked, her eyes beginning to tear up.
Maggie went over to the young woman to comfort her.
“What if the killer's still here?" Ruth said quietly to Maggie. "What if it's a serial killer? Are we safe?”
“We'll be fine Ruth, especially with all these policemen here. It would be a good idea to go to your room and try and get some sleep,” Maggie suggested. “You’ll feel better after a rest, it always works for me.”
Ruth nodded her head as she accepted a gin and tonic that she’d requested when Jack had asked her.
“Drink up, babes, and then we’ll go to bed,” her husband David said, accepting his whisky on the rocks. “Thanks, Jack. Yer right, ye know Maggie, we’ll all feel better once we’ve slept.”
Within half an hour, everyone attending the seminar had left the hall to go to their rooms. With the exception of Alan, who was busy pouring himself free drinks at the bar.
This Mystery is a part of Maggie Hopps Cozy Mysteries Series!
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