Small town, big mystery.

murder and mayhem in small town Ontario with Gloria Ferris

Gloria Ferris writes in several genres, but today we’re talking about her Cornwall and Redfern mysteries, specifically book #3 in the series, Skull Garden.

Small towns in Ontario are some of my favorite places in the world. I grew up visiting my paternal grandparents outside Gravenhurst, and now have an uncle who lives in the exact area near Lake Huron that Gloria is writing about in these books. So it was very easy for me to picture the landscape and architecture as Gloria read from her book, which was a delight.

In the introduction, I also mention a class I took recently on using the Enneagram to create characters. I loved the class and it made me reflect that there is always something new to learn about writing, which I love. Sometimes it can be intimidating, but mostly I love learning and hopefully improving my craft.

Today’s show is supported by my patrons at Patreon. Thank you! When you become a patron for as little as $1 a month you receive a short mystery story each and every month. And the rewards for those who love mystery stories go up from there! Learn more and become a part of my community of readers at www.Patreon.com/alexandraamor

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This week’s mystery author

Gloria Ferris is a former procedure writer at a nuclear power plant, an exciting job to be sure, but it afforded little opportunity for plot and character development. So, she turned to fiction writing and is now the award-winning author of the humorous Cornwall & Redfern mysteries; a co-written Suspense series; and a YA urban fantasy series. Occasionally, she writes a short story just for the heck of it.

Gloria lives in southwestern Ontario and is a member of the International Thriller Writers and the Alliance of Independent Authors.

To learn more about Gloria and all her books visit GloriaFerris.com

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on StitcherAndroidGoogle PodcastsTuneIn, and Spotify.

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Excerpt from Skull Garden

CHAPTER ONE 

skull garden Gloria Ferris

I eased the Savage to the edge of the pavement and cut the engine. Chesley swung a lanky leg over my head and hopped off the back seat. While he checked his teeth for bugs, I spread a hand-drawn map across the seat. “It should be around here somewhere,” I told him. 

Consulting the compass duct-taped to my dash, I faced north and pointed to a gentle incline covered with a century’s worth of pine growth. “It might be on the other side of that hill.” Hunting for a graveyard abandoned over a hundred years ago is no easy task, especially if the township records suck.

Chesley hung my spare helmet over a handlebar and tucked his chin-length hair behind his ears. “The cemetery could be inside the thicket. The undergrowth’s had plenty of time to cover the gravesites.”

The June afternoon heated up, and I stripped off my helmet and jacket. “I hope not. I want to take photos of any inscriptions, count up the headstones, and call it done.”

“How did Glory talk you into this? Seems odd she’d care about old burials.”

“She thinks she’s my boss. She assumed I’d do it on a volunteer basis.” I snorted. “As if. So, she offered me minimum wage. I refused, but made a fatal mistake. I said I’d need the rate the town was giving summer students. After an epic tantrum, she gave in and pointed me towards the municipal archives for maps.”

We crossed the road and ploughed through an expanse of waist-high grass. If the cemetery was inside the gloomy stand of trees, Chesley might come in handy, to serve as bear bait. I shoved him into the lead.

As interim mayor of Lockport, a town of 7,000 hardy souls on the shores of Lake Huron in Ontario, Glory Yates was on a crazy power trip. Who cared if there were burial grounds being overtaken by time in the wilds of the township? Dust to dust, right? Apparently not. She wanted them located, inventoried, photographed and restored. I’d do the first three, but Bliss Moonbeam Cornwall wasn’t getting paid enough to restore anything. And, I’d run for mayor myself in the fall if that was the only way of preventing her from permanently slapping the gold chain of office around her neck. Although, someone was bound to strangle her with it five minutes into the first council meeting, so that would work too.

We stopped to catch our breath at the edge of the forest. I gave Chesley a nudge. “Let’s do this.”

Instantly, midday became twilight. The pines soared thirty feet above our heads, spindly at first, then branching and tangling into a thick mass as the trees fought for sunlight.

Chesley turned his face up to the green ceiling and inhaled. “It’s beautiful in here. Don’t you love the smell?”

“Yeah, awesome. But what’s with all this ivy? How am I supposed to find graves? This doesn’t look like a cemetery.” The floor of a pine forest is usually spongy with fallen needles. Here, clumps of shiny, calf-high plants undulated as far as the eye could see, like emerald waves.

“That’s not natural. Someone planted it.” Chesley spoke with expert confidence.

I backed up. “I vote we strike this one off the list and not mention it to the Royal Pain.”

Chesley dropped to his knees and burrowed into the ivy, giving me a tasteful view of his scrawny butt.

With a joyful hoot, he popped up. “Score. A PI-purr-ee-a un-al-a-SEN-sis!” He pointed to a two-foot twig spiking out of the ground, half-entangled by the ivy. Trust a botanist to zero in on a stick.

“Super. But, I’m looking for tombstones.”

“You might know it as a Slender Spire Orchid, Bliss.”

“That’s what I thought.” Since Chesley and his mum, Ivy Belcourt, owned the greenhouse that employed me, he was technically one of my bosses. Still, I had no patience with his botanical enthusiasms and refused to encourage them.

“This genus is considered globally secure but very rare in this area. Did you know this plant grew from Alaska through Manitoulin Island to the east coast of Canada during the glacial melt 10,000 years ago?”

“I did not know that.” I scuffed through the undergrowth, stopping when my boot connected with a hard object. Kicking aside the vegetation, I uncovered a grave marker. Green plant scum obscured the inscription.

I prepared to share the happy news with Chesley, but he pulled a miniature set of gardening implements out of his pocket and selected a trowel.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m taking this specimen back to the greenhouse.”

“This could be crown land. Do you know the penalty for digging in crown land?”

He made a show of looking around. “So, who’s going to tell? Anyway, the plant isn’t endangered.”

Fine. I searched for tombstones, finding another dozen. They had all been flattened by time and the elements, and inscriptions were mostly illegible. Without an army of volunteers, I couldn’t see a way of enumerating the dead and restoring their final resting places.

Chesley stood beside a hillock of earth that rose several feet high, bare of greenery. “You should come and look at this, Bliss.”

I trudged over and peered into — a hole. It was approximately six feet long and four wide on ground level but narrowed in toward the bottom. “So?”

“Look closer.”

I inched toward the edge of the pit and saw rotted splinters of wood. Coffin pieces. 

My pupils dilated to their maximum and the shards of wood mingled with rounded, lighter objects. My mind filled in the pattern. “Bones.”

“Yup.”

A thin shaft of sunlight pierced the overhead canopy, scattering cheerful rays across the heaps of earth under our feet.

Chesley balanced close to the edge. “Somebody dug this grave up by hand. You can still see the shovel marks.”

A cracked tombstone leaned against a tree trunk. I slithered down and tilted the stone to catch the light. The lettering was barely legible. “Catherine Mileski. She died at age 16 in 1847 and was the beloved wife of Stanley Mileski. Crap, the pioneers were a bunch of pedophiles.”

“Didn’t there used to be a Polish settlement nearby?”

I climbed up beside Chesley. “Guess we found it.” I pulled a folded piece of paper from my pocket. “St. Stanislaus Cemetery.”

When I shifted to put the paper away, my foot sank into loose soil and I fell to my knees. Chesley grabbed my sleeve, but the thin fabric ripped. I slipped and rolled over the edge.

My body slammed against the wood and bone fragments. Chesley’s white face appeared above me, one hand holding the T-shirt, his grape-green eyes popping. 

“Are you hurt? Can you move?”

Rolling over, I got to my hands and knees and looked up at him. “I think I see Elvis.”

I remembered the bones and staggered to my feet. My ass hurt like you wouldn’t believe and my spine shot forks of fire. 

Chesley moved back as clumps of dirt fell onto my head. “Can you climb out?’

I extended my arms and dug my fingers into the sides of the grave. The earth crumbled. I worked my way around the hole with the same result.

“I’m stuck. We need help.” I pulled my phone from the front pocket of my jeans. “I’m not getting a signal.”

“Me either. I’ll have to go back to the road. Shall I call Chief Redfern?”

“Just call 9-1-1 and mention my name. They know me.” Mosquitoes buzzed around my head, preparing to land on my naked shoulders. “Toss my shirt down, first.”

The crashing sounds as he ran to the road stopped abruptly. Surely the numbskull hadn’t fallen into another grave? “Chesley! Can you hear me?”

“I found a second PI-purr-ee-a un-al-a-SEN-sis. I’ll dig it up so I don’t lose track of it.”

“I’m going to kick your ass when I get out of here.”

“Just have to seal the bag. There. You’re practically rescued.”

My shirt had a long tear down the front. I put in on backwards so the rescuers wouldn’t be distracted by my grave-besmirched lacy bra. I shivered as a low moaning drifted through the tops of the pines.

No doubt about it, I needed to rethink what I’d do, and not do, for money. First time out on the cemetery job, and it could be my last. If the botanic savant managed to summon help to get me out of this hole, I was going to take the cheap badge and the copy of the Cemetery Act that Glory had given me and shove them down her throat. 

To pass the time, I used the screen light on my phone to scan the grave. I directed the light to the far side. And, back.

Bony fingers of ice squeezed my neck. Where was Catherine Mileski’s head?

CHAPTER TWO

“What do you want me to do, Neil?” 

Neil Redfern kept his expression blank as Glory Yates slammed the file folder closed in front of her. 

Opening his own file, he extracted a sheet of paper and pushed it over to her. “Here are police budget comparables. From small towns in Ontario with municipal police services. Do you see the discrepancies?”

Her glance flicked to the graph in front of her and back up. “You promoted Thea Vanderbloom and Bernie Campbell. You now have two sergeants.”

“I need three. I have no deputy chief, no investigator and, with Thea promoted, I’m down a Scene of Crimes Officer. Additionally, my training budget is a joke.”

She smashed her open palm onto the desktop. “You know perfectly well that the last mayor is responsible for the police budget deficit. If I’m elected in October for a three-year term, I’ll be in a stronger position to make changes.”

Neil hitched his chair back. “As Chief of Police, my job should be mainly administrative. I’ve been putting in sixty-hour weeks, in and out of the field. Perhaps if you stopped funding folk festivals and amateur art displays in the park, I could increase my staffing. You need to re-examine priorities.”

He waited for her to argue that a small, lakeside town didn’t warrant a beefed-up police force. Three murders less than six months ago, and a major drug bust last year, proved his point.

Beyond a flutter of her eyelashes and a flushing of her pale skin, she showed no reaction. “How about this? I’ll allot funds for you to send one of your constables for SOCO training.”

“It’s a start. I’ll be down another street constable, and we’ll need to look at overall numbers.” Neil headed for the exit.

“Wait. You haven’t signed your contract renewal.”

“Correct.”

Her eyes thinned to slits. “Are you blackmailing me? Increase the police budget or you walk?”

Neil turned and faced her. “You should know I don’t play games.”

“Have you even looked at the contract?”

“I’ve read every word. Without an adequate budget for staffing and training, this contract will reinforce the status quo for another three years. And, as I hope I’ve made clear, that isn’t acceptable.”

“I said I’d do my best.”

Pissed, he closed the door with more force than he intended. His feet pounded down the wooden stairs to the ground floor of the municipal building that housed the police offices.

His civilian employee, Lavinia Woods, stopped him when he entered the outer office.

“Chief, Sergeant Pinato just dropped by. He brought a friend. I told him you wouldn’t be long and put them in your office. I’ll bring coffee.”

Tony sat behind Neil’s desk with his feet up, out of uniform. The friend was a black Lab sprawled in front of the filing cabinet, muzzle buried in its paws.

“Get out of my chair and take your feet off my desk.” This had become the standard greeting between them. “Is that your dog? It needs a bath.”

“What’s got your spikes in a twist? Your face is as red as my shirt. Better get your blood pressure checked.” Tony snickered and sprawled into the visitor’s chair. “I’ll tell you about Sabeena in a minute.”

“Would it damage our friendship if I said I just had a hot session with your girlfriend upstairs?”

“Nope. My bella can be tough on the rank and file. I find her fiery temperament a total turn-on if you want the truth.”

“I don’t. You can catch her in her office if you hurry. Otherwise, try the greenhouse.”

“We made plans to meet up later. It’s you I came to see.” Tony stopped rocking and rolled closer to Neil.

“So, this is official?” Neil looked Tony up and down, eying the ragged T-shirt, jeans, and well-worn Nikes.

“I’m off duty, man. Wanted to drop in and shoot the shit with you on my way to visit my babe.”

Tony had spent ten years undercover in the biker subculture prior to extraction by his Ontario Provincial Police superiors who felt he was a little too good at it. A year later, Tony was still re-adjusting to regulations and boundaries.

Neil tore off his tie and threw it on the windowsill. “So, what’s up? Not another illegal grow-op?”

“Not even close. It’s been noted at HQ that you’ve been hit by a burglary spree. Of a unique and specific type.”

“If by ‘spree’ you mean two incidents, then yes. The crimes occurred in the township, not in Lockport. If we’re talking about the same thing.”

Tony’s dark eyes lit up. “Antique guns, bro.”

A few years older than Neil, an inch shorter, a little wider, they became friends when Neil served on the Toronto drug squad and Tony was undercover OPP. They had worked together on a couple of operations until Neil left to take the police chief’s job in Lockport. Tony had been re-assigned to OPP headquarters in London. He and Tony met up again when a series of homicides hit Lockport last December. Tony and Glory Yates had locked eyes and fell into each other’s arms.

“You, too?” Neil prodded his laptop until the screen displayed the latest home burglary information.

“Yeah. Could be the same suspect. Isolated residences. Break-ins occur during the day when the owners are absent. Alarm systems disabled. Only items taken are antique firearms. Silver, jewellery, money — all ignored.”

“Good chance it’s the same guy. One thing strikes me, though.” Neil paused as Lavinia set down a tray with coffee, cookies, and water for the canine.

“I made them myself.” Lavinia smiled at Tony and handed him a cup. “White chocolate chip.” 

“You’re an angel, Lavinia.” Tony winked at her and swept up three cookies from the plate. “I wish we had someone like you at HQ. Anytime you want a job with better pay, let me know.”

Neil shook his head at his friend as Lavinia left the room. “You are pathetic. Is any female off-limits to you?”

“What? She reminds me of my Aunt Octavia. Every woman deserves to be appreciated. You could try a little more of that with Miss Bliss Moonbeam Cornwall.”

“I appreciate Cornwall. Let’s get back to business.”

Crumbs tumbled from Tony’s mouth. “Sure. Appears we have a pattern here. There are multiple cases in the area.” Tony reached for the cookie plate.

Neil pulled the plate away. “No licenses required for antique guns. I checked and neither of my victims hold licenses for restricted or prohibited firearms. But, they aren’t likely to report the theft of weapons that should be licensed and aren’t.”

Tony smirked. “Exactly. Chances are, if you collect antique guns, you like guns, period.”

Neil snatched the last cookie as Tony’s fingers inched toward it. “We can only deal with reported incidents. Many antique firearms aren’t operable, so the market must be dealers or collectors.”

He closed his laptop. The dog sighed and closed her lids. “What’s the matter with her? Is she sick?”

Tony reached down and rubbed the dog’s head. “Sabeena washed out of training school and I said I’d find a home for her. She’s a little depressed and needs a new family to cheer her up. A family with a uniform.”

“Can’t you keep her?”

“Wish I could, but no pets allowed in my apartment building. I thought you could adopt her. You had dogs growing up.”

“I’d take her, but Cornwall won’t agree. She’s never had a dog and, besides, she has her hands full now. Her parents want her to sell their Lockport house and contents.”

“These are the parents who are touring the west coast in an RV, living like hippies and battling loggers?”

“According to Cornwall. I’ve never met them. All I know is, if I bring home a dog, she’ll throw me and everything I own onto the front curb.”

“You’re whipped, you know that, buddy?” Tony ran his hand down Sabeena’s silky back. The dog opened her eyes and fixed them on Neil’s face, as though she knew her fate was in his hands. “Listen, how about this plan? You take Sabeena home and introduce her to Miss Bliss. Sabeena is a big pussy-cat and your lady will fall in love with her. Guaranteed.”

“Can’t happen. Why did she fail her training?”

“She loves explosives and guns. She’s A-1 at the weed but can’t detect coke or heroin. HQ only wants all-purpose sniffers.”

Lavinia poked her head into his office, waving a sticky note. “The 9-1-1 dispatcher forwarded a call for assistance from Chesley Belcourt. He’s on Sideroad 11 in the township. He says Bliss fell into a grave.”