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Secret Sleuth Book 7

A spooky legend twists grave matters.

Sheila Mackey’s dislike for cemeteries can’t fend off her friend Clara’s determination. Amid eerie legends, including a tailgating hearse, the accidental investigator is lured into sorting through deadly questions a century old, revolving around an unidentified victim known as ZigZag Jane.

Who was she? How did she come to be found murdered in the cemetery more than a hundred years ago? Why is the third generation of one family devoting himself to finding the answer?

Nothing follows a straight line in this historic inquiry, including conflict over their sleuthing with Teague O’Donnell, newly hired as a part-time detective in North Bend County, Kentucky. Especially when the past doesn’t stay in the past and the victims multiply.

From the dog park with Sheila’s Gracie and Clara’s Lulu, to the small town post office, to yoga class, to the historical society, and always back to ZigZag Cemetery (to Sheila’s chagrin), she and Clara negotiate the zigs and zags of this seventh book in USA Today bestselling author Patricia McLinn’s cozy mystery series, Secret Sleuth.

Praise for Death on ZigZag Trail

"Once again Patricia McLinn writes a fabulous addition to the Secret Sleuth mystery series. This one is just as fun as the rest of them. If you like twists and turns in your mysteries, this series is for you." -- Amazon 5-star review

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Excerpt:

SUNDAY

CHAPTER ONE

“Do you know about the Legend of Sleepy Hollow?” my friend Clara Woodrow asked casually as we watched our dogs cavort.

I felt as if a bowling ball lodged in my stomach.

Not for any external reasons. The externals were fine.

It was early afternoon of a sunny and not too chilly day for late October in North Bend County, Kentucky.

We were watching the dogs at the Torrid Avenue Dog Park, where the main topic of conversation broadened — temporarily — beyond dogs to whether the warm and dry spell would last for Halloween Trick or Treaters the day after tomorrow.

Cavorting is something our dogs do every day. If we don’t take them to the dog park to cavort, they do it in our houses, which is something experience has taught us to avoid, if at all possible.

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Clara’s Lulu was the white Great Pyrenees mix cantering joyfully along a path that would nauseate a snake. My Gracie was the sable and white collie clacking her teeth at Lulu’s shoulder, telling her to straighten that line. Collies are a bossy breed.

The third member of their triumvirate, lab mix Murphy, departed not long ago with his owner, Teague O’Donnell.

Teague and I were … dating? … seeing each other? … sort of a couple?

We’d spent a laid-back, dog-centric weekend together. Teague’s early departure from the dog park was to prep to substitute teach a new class tomorrow at an area high school.

We didn’t kiss goodbye — too public. But his look promised to make up for that the next time we said hello.

I enjoyed looking forward to that.

Until Clara asked her question.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow haunted me.

Not for the reasons you might think, even with Halloween coming.

In elementary school, as punishment for talking in class, I read the story aloud. The memory of my fellow students’ faces — divided between boredom and avid anticipation of my making a mistake — swam into my mind’s eye before every one of innumerable readings I did as an adult.

Especially since attendees at those latter readings thought I was reading my work.

I wasn’t.

That was all Kit’s doing.

I call her Aunt Kit. She’s actually another generation removed from me, though she maintains the appellation great is one she’s earned by deeds, not by family tree. She does not like to be contradicted on that subject. Or others.

She supported herself her entire working life by (mostly) happily writing genre fiction. That, alone, is a feat.

Then she wrote another book.

An amazing book. A once-in-a-generation book. A book called this century’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Aunt Kit had been around publishing enough to know Abandon All would not get the star treatment if presented as the work of a career-long midlist writer. She asked me — fresh out of college at the time and passably attractive in a wholesome Midwestern way — to be the book’s public face. In other words, pretend I wrote it.

It worked. Beyond Kit’s dreams, I think. Certainly astronomically beyond mine. Bestsellerdom. Sequels. Movies. Big money. Fame.

Thankfully, the readings I gave as the purported author of Abandon All did not morph into Sleepy Hollow-like nightmares. The faces in those audiences were eager and interested, unlike my childhood classmates. More important, Aunt Kit wrote in a style infinitely more conducive to being read aloud in our times than Washington Irving did.

The opening of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow takes six chunky phrases to get through the first sentence.

I still shiver at the commas and semicolons littering every sentence. In an agony of phrases, I stumbled along to reach the fat fourth paragraph, which introduces the apparition, though it is not until the end of the fifth paragraph that the sobriquet the Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow is introduced.

That got the attention of my ghoulish classmates.

Their ghoulishness was not news to me.

I wasn’t a chicken.

I wasn’t.

I just wasn’t destined to like horror movies or other methods of being scared.

As a kid, I could dash through Old Town cemetery in my hometown on a dare with the best of them. Possibly faster than most and always sticking to the paths, because it’s rude to run on people’s graves. But I didn’t care how much harassment Bryan Ferris poured on my head, I was not going to stretch out for a “nap” atop a grave. Not going to do it.

Actually, I’m not going to run through a cemetery again, either. Not after Bryan Ferris jumped out from behind a headstone at me.

Yes, I screamed like a girl.

However, Bryan Ferris couldn’t gloat about it, because I also swung and kicked at whatever grabbed at me. The swings knocked him down. The kicks got his nose and jaw. He wasn’t laughing — or talking — for a while.

Pushing down memories of childhood punishment, Bryan Ferris, and trepidations before readings of Aunt Kit’s works — none of which Clara knew about — I answered her question.

“Yes, I know The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

“Why do you say it that way, Sheila? Oh — do you mean the one by the writer? Made into movies and stuff.”

“Washington Irving. Exactly.”

“No, no, I mean our Legend of Sleepy Hollow. North Bend County’s. The one where a hearse tailgates you.”

“A hearse. Tailgates you.”

Clara nodded, clearly glad I had it now, even though I didn’t. “Although when the old lady who lived behind us when I was a kid first told me, she said a horse-drawn hearse and I said it couldn’t keep up with a car, so you’d drive away. Then she said it modernized over time and now it’s a vehicle with a really strong engine and it comes up behind you and tries to run you off the road. And I said how can a ghost change? It’s stuck being partially what it was before, that’s what makes it a ghost. Otherwise it would go to the other side and be done with it. She said—”

“Wait. Clara, just wait.” I felt dizzy, what with whiplashing from a childhood trauma to a tailgating ghost hearse transforming its mode of horsepower. “What is this all about?”

She cast an experienced eye toward our dogs, checking they remained within an acceptable level of mayhem, then considered for a moment. “I asked if you knew about our Legend of Sleepy Hollow, because if you knew the stretch of ZigZag Trail in Sleepy Hollow where the hearse tailgates it would be easier to explain where the cemetery is.”

“Cemetery.” I did not like the turn in this conversation.

“Right. Because we’re going there to meet somebody. I’ll drive. But don’t worry, I don’t have to be anywhere until later, so there’s no reason to hurry away if the conversation’s going well.”

“There’s no reason for me to go at all.”

“Sure there is. ZigZag Cemetery is one of the oldest cemeteries in the county. Lots and lots of history there from even before it was called ZigZag Cemetery. And you like history. You’re energized after you visit Urban Parhem at the historical society, telling me stories I never heard before, even though I’ve lived here my whole life. At least it’s among the oldest formal ones.”

In a move worthy of someone trying to avoid a tailgating hearse, she’d made an abrupt topical U-turn to return to the cemetery.

I hung on — barely — as she continued, “Because, you know, the early settlers and later, on larger estates, people established family graveyards. Not to mention people being buried kind of where they died. There’s a legend about a headless pioneer woman who haunts a particular area. So we have a Legend of Sleepy Hollow and we have a headless person, but ours are not in the same place.” She seemed to find that superior to Washington Irving’s version. “The woman and her daughter were killed while her husband was away. They cut her head off and took it. Some people say she’s still looking for it. I think trying to find her daughter is why she hasn’t passed over. I mean, if it were the horrible way of dying, the little girl should be haunting, too, and I’ve never heard of—”

“Clara—”

“You’re right, you’re right. I’m getting off track. The headless pioneer woman ghost is not at ZigZag Cemetery — or any cemetery, because that’s her problem — so no need to worry. Now.”

Her bright smile did not reassure me the way, I’m sure, she intended.

“With or without headless pioneer women, I’m not a fan of cemeteries.”

Cemeteries reached by way of a road known for a ghostly hearse being particularly low on my list.

“Did you know there’s a word for that? Not for not being a fan of cemeteries, but for being a fan of cemeteries. Taphophiles are people fascinated by cemeteries. It’s so interesting you’re an anti-taphophile, because you’re so practical and death is just part of life. But it’s okay you’re not a taphophile, it’s just the meeting spot Doug Vonner and I picked for us to get acquainted.”

“Not going to happen. You got me to go to your high school reunion and look how that turned out.”

“Yes,” she said happily, “we figured it all out, the not guilty are free and the guilty get punished.”

“I was thinking about what happened when someone was murdered.”

“Oh, that.”

CHAPTER TWO

Do not ask me how she talked me into it. I still don’t know.

Clara was mild-mannered, unless stirred to action by a perceived inequity or danger to anyone she cared about, human or canine. She’d single-handedly — more accurately, single-mouthedly — rousted two tough guys in motorcycle gear with four even tougher acting mixed-breeds last spring from the dog park while I prepared to pack up Gracie, LuLu, and Clara and get the hell out of Dodge.

Getting me to a cemetery was only slightly harder.

Clara insisted we drop our dogs off at her house — which was not on a direct path from the dog park to ZigZag Cemetery in the northeastern corner of the county, but closer than my house.

Her reasons for dropping off the dogs seemed muddled to me. Was she sparing the cemetery potential degradations from the duo? Or sparing their delicate spirits’ exposure to … well, spirits?

If the latter, why didn’t her thoughtfulness extend to me?

I really didn’t want to go to a cemetery.

Still, a cloudless blue-sky day helped.

Clara answered a phone call hands-free, while I concentrated on the cheerful sky.

“Sorry to cut you short, Molly, but I’m on the way to an appointment,” Clara said. “I’ll call you back later.”

As soon as the call ended, Clara said to me, “Did you hear what she was saying?”

“No.” I’d been trying to not eavesdrop … and to ignore we were getting closer and closer to Clara’s objective.

“You remember Molly, Ned’s cousin’s ex-wife who lives in Blue Grass Estates? We talked to her about Bob after the murder at the dog park. She has a lab named Bart.”

Ned was Clara’s husband. Blue Grass Estates was not far away. Bob’s death was the first we investigated together. But the dog was the clue that did it for me. “Right. Nice neighborhood.”

“She’s having a terrible time with doing short-term rentals in the neighborhood. The county and the owner keep blabbing about the rental company having rules against parties or dirty conditions, while doing nothing to prevent them. Molly is forever cleaning up their trash after sleepless nights because of noise.”

“Renters break the rules?”

“All the time. Molly said these rental parties routinely include people screaming and physically fighting in the street, and swearing at neighbors who’re in their own yard. When the neighbors complained, the owner said it was the neighbors’ responsibility to call the police. Plus, he takes so long to clean, there were—” She lowered her voice. “—rodents.”

“What did the county say?”

“Hah! After passing a regulation allowing short-term rentals, they washed their hands of it and told neighbors to deal with the owner. The neighbors tried to. But, first, he didn’t answer for hours and hours while all the noise and trashing and fighting went on. When he finally did answer, he complained they called him so late — while they were being kept awake by the noise at his property.” Clara’s outrage grew with each phrase. “And then he said the party would be over before he could get there, anyway, and hung up, saying he was trying to sleep. Like they weren’t! And he must have turned his phone off, because they couldn’t get him again.”

“What a mess.”

“It is. You might not be affected because you’re in the town of Haines Tavern, Sheila, but otherwise, it’s all over the county.”

“Why’d they let these rentals happen in the first place?”

Clara pulled a cynical expression unsuited to her face. “Why do you think? Money. Taxes, license fees, all to make their jobs more important.

“I’ve heard from good sources — very good, only I can’t tell you who because I swore not to tell — that a few bigwigs, including some of those who voted for it, wanted to rent out houses themselves. I swear, they think they’re going to make a fortune renting houses for a night or two in North Bend County, Kentucky. I mean, I love my home, but this is not exactly Palm Beach, you know?”

“I do know.”

“And it seems like most of the people renting these places are locals or semi-locals who want to have a blowout party and won’t mess up their own house or neighborhood, so go elsewhere, which is incredibly rude.”

“That’s one word for it.”

“Well, I might have other words for it, too, but I generally try not to use them. Also for the people making money by renting out the houses, because it’s not where they live, either. Oh, no, not them. Stinkers,” she said emphatically.

With Clara apparently prepared to sink into steaming silence, I sought another way to distract myself from our destination. “So, this road’s called ZigZag Trail?” I asked.

“Uh-huh.” That was uncharacteristically uncommunicative for Clara.

“Is there a story behind the name?”

“Story? It just makes sense. The road zigs and zags.”

It truly did. As Clara drove, I’d been leaning left, then right, then left so often I could have matched all the politicians who zigged and zagged for the sole purpose of their personal ambition.

To Clara, I said, “There’s no secret, macabre history?” Like the rest of North Bend County.

“Why would it have a secret, macabre history?”

She wasn’t kidding.

“Let’s start with building a high school on Carrion Lane,” I said.

“I explained that.”

Not to my satisfaction, but no sense rehashing. Instead, I asked, “Was the cemetery named after the road or the road after the cemetery?”

“Dunno. Besides—” She interrupted herself with an exhalation of satisfaction. “We’re here.”

Cemeteries are bad enough. But at least well-tended cemeteries convey a sense of dignity, of well-deserved rest. Not this one.

Remember the help from the cloudless sky?

It didn’t stand a chance against the other side of the ledger, starting with an ironwork arch listing over the entrance with letters in a dour font the Addams family could love. The unreadable swirls definitely didn’t spell ZigZag. I thought it started with an R, followed by several letters I couldn’t read, and ended in em or en or on or om. Maybe ow — how appropriate.

Overgrown ivy and weeds in varied stages of death and decay festooned the uneven iron fencing extending from either side of the entrance.

Just beyond the cemetery stood a single, ghost-white tree stripped of bark. It retained main branches but lacked a network of leaf-supporting branches. Smaller, darker vegetation formed a backdrop to this apparition tree, but with a gap, as if the living drew back, not wanting to be too close.

Clara pulled in behind a neat, mid-level sedan parked alongside the fence.

She hopped out and jogged around to the passenger side, calling in through my unopened door. “That’s Doug’s car. He’s here already. C’mon.”

She was on her way before I could protest that meeting this guy outside the cemetery was weird, but meeting him inside was … what I was about to do.

I exited the SUV and followed while she skipped along one of four paths dividing the space into quadrants of graves.

Well, not actually skipped, but walked really cheerfully.

Where the four paths met, a stilled and dusty stone fountain stood. In the first ring, the tallest and most impressive memorials rose. Farther away from the fountain, the markers became less and less distinguished.

“Doug!” Clara called.

A man on one side or the other of fifty, stepped back from a monument in the first ring, and raised a hand to her in greeting.

He wore a pale blue shirt tucked into neat jeans, revealing a slight paunch. Casual shoes, not brand new, not too worn. A canvas jacket with subtle pocket bulges, ruling him out as a neat freak.

He was gray from the temples through short sideburns with more sprinkled into weekend bristles on his chin, but otherwise had medium brown hair. A little intense around intelligent gray eyes, but with smile lines at his mouth.

In other words, he looked reassuringly normal for someone who set meetings for graveyards.

“I’m glad you could come. Both of you. Thank you.”

We shook hands as Clara performed the formal introductions. Doug Vonner’s manner was polite, with a trace of edginess underneath. Like a basically honest guy who really, really wanted you to buy his used car.

In other circumstances, I’d probably have enjoyed meeting him. But the nearby monument engraved with the name Vonner, along with its many neighbors, put a damper on my conviviality.

“I’m glad you found me. I told Clara I’d be by Jane’s grave—”

Bad enough meeting at a cemetery, but at a specific grave … I sent Clara a laser look.

It bounced off.

“—but I stopped here. Meant to only be a moment, but started remembering…” He looked at the monument’s inscription of names and dates. “My grandparents. I barely knew my grandmother, but my grandfather…” Rough math said he’d been an adult when his grandfather, also named Douglas Vonner, died. “He was an impressive man. Knowing him formed me.”

“Are you…?” What did I want to ask? Obsessed with dead people? A ghoul who liked hanging out at cemeteries? “In a profession involving history?”

“No. I’m a construction analyst for a hospital in Cincinnati.”

“That must keep you busy,” Clara said.

“Yeah.” He twitched his shoulders. “My grandfather would be the first to say you weren’t here to see him. I’ll lead you to where Jane is.”

He said it like we’d know who he meant.

Clara started to follow him, then turned back to me. “Are you okay?”

Tempted to claim a twisted ankle, I said, “I told you, I’ve never liked cemeteries.”

“Really? Why? It’s not even Halloween yet.” As if only on that day might it make sense to not find cemeteries — especially ones like this — welcomed surroundings. She whipped her head around to me. “Oh. You don’t dislike Halloween, do you?”

She made me sound like the Grinch and Scrooge rolled into one, wrapped in black and orange.

“I’m not anti-Halloween. Pumpkins and mums and handing out candy to kids in costumes are all good — as long as I don’t have to do it in a cemetery.”

She looked around with genuine curiosity.

“But why?”

She certainly didn’t appear put off by the lone, skeletal tree, other vegetation scraggling into unhealthy thickets on both sides of the fence. Unlike the monument where we’d met Doug Vonner, most of the graves we passed now were grown over by browned grass, topped by broken or tipped headstones.

If I told Clara about Bryan Ferris, she’d sympathize. But my antipathy pre-dated him.

I said, “The headstones look like books, only in a really sad library, with gaps of missing books and others half tipped over.”

“Huh.” She looked around. “We’ll have to talk about that more. But right now Doug’s waiting.”

I trudged on, trying not to look too closely at anything around me until we reached Doug Vonner, standing beside a grave off the main path and near the back fence. This grave was marked by a rectangle about waist high.

He faced the front of the headstone, while we remained on the path, looking at its back. It appeared to have had carving at one time, but it was worn to shallow smudges.

At the grave next door, so to speak, the headstone leaned back sharply as if horrified to find itself in such company.

While I tried to read the tipped headstone, Clara clasped my arm — I didn’t jump much — and tugged me toward Doug Vonner.

Above a pile of dead leaves the front of the headstone read:

Our Girl

“Jane’s body was found a few feet from here, by the back fence.” Doug Vonner tipped his head toward it and the tree beyond it. “There’d been a storm the night before. The sky was bright and clear. It was warm for early November. She was lying on her face, covered with leaves brought down by the storm, so her brown hair almost blended in. She looked like a child playing hide and seek in the pile. Except for the two ends of a scarf crossed at the back of her neck and of course she wasn’t moving.”

Confused, I stopped him. “You know the scene very well. When was this?”

“November 8. The anniversary is nearly here.”

Clara ordered Doug Vonner, “Tell her the rest of it.”

Before answering, he bent and gently scooped away enough leaves for me to read the entire inscription.

Our Girl

d. Nov. 3, 1921

Rest in peace

Then he said, “It’s more than a hundred years since she was found — and since she was murdered.”

“A hundred years?” That sure explained the wear on the back of the stone. Yet the front was still readable.

“No name,” I murmured.

“We’ve called her Jane for Jane Doe,” Doug said.

“Most often known as ZigZag Jane because of being found here,” Clara said.

“Grandfather didn’t want to put that on her headstone — not Jane Doe, and definitely not ZigZag Jane. He said it made the lack of her real name too permanent. Guess a century’s pretty permanent, huh.”

COLLAPSE

Now available in audio

Secret Sleuth cozy mystery series audiobook narrator Betsy Moore small-town murdery mystery rescue dog ex-cop amateur sleuth women investigatorThe audiobook version of Death on ZigZag Trail, narrated by Betsy Moore, is now available at my Shop (see link on this page), and major online retailers such as Amazon/Audible, Nook, Kobo, Google Play, and Chirp. You'll get the best deal, though, if you buy directly from me!

Betsy next turned her attention to narraing Air Ready (Book 12, Caught Dead in Wyoming). It's amazing how she can transform her voice to the many characters in these two mystery series.

The completion of the audiobook narration also means the print version is now available! We take the minor corrections we find, fine-tune the book text, create a new cover, and then release the paperback.