In the fiftieth entry in this USA Today bestselling series, two timelines converge as Jessica Fletcher returns to high school to investigate the murder of an old colleague, while we meet Jessica as a young teacher solving her very first murder...
Young Jessica Fletcher's life couldn't be more ordinary. She teaches at the local high school while she and her loving husband, Frank, are raising their nephew Grady together. But when the beloved principal dies under mysterious circumstances, Jessica knows something is off and, for the very first time, investigates a death.
Present-day Jessica returns to high school for a colleague's retirement party and has fun seeing familiar faces. That is, until the colleague winds up deadand his death has mysterious links to Jessica's very first murder case.
With nothing but her own instincts to guide her, Jessica embarks on a quest to find out what really happened all those years ago and who's behind these murders. Because time is running out to catch this killer....
About the Author
Jessica Fletcher is a bestselling mystery writer who has a knack for stumbling upon real-life mysteries in her various travels. Jon Land, author of more than fifty books, coauthors this bestselling series.
Read an Excerpt
When did you solve your first murder?" the reporter for the Cabot Cove High School newspaper asked me from across the table at Mara's Luncheonette just before the noon lunch rush began.
"Well," I said to wide-eyed senior Kristi Powell, who was doing a series on former teachers at the school, "that would go back to the first mystery I actually published, called-"
"Mrs. Fletcher," Kristi interrupted, taking off her horn-rimmed glasses and tightening her gaze on me, "I mean in real life, not in your books. Was it here in Cabot Cove?"
It's funny, but I'm not at all reluctant to talk about the murder cases I invent. On the other hand, I'm very reluctant to discuss the actual ones, which I'd much prefer to forget the moment they end. Call it the most common proclivity among fiction writers-a preference for the worlds we create over the one in which we're just as powerless as everyone else. Usually, I would have deflected or avoided the question altogether. But I hated to dodge an impressionable high school student, especially one who was already dreaming of a career in print. I figured it best to set a good example for her and be the best role model I could be by remaining as honest and forthright as I could without divulging more than I was comfortable with.
"No, it wasn't in Cabot Cove."
Kristi put her glasses back on and twirled a finger through some stray hair that had escaped the bun wrapped tightly atop her head-an odd way, I thought, for a high school senior to wear her hair. "Was your husband, Frank, still alive at the time?"
I nodded, impressed. "You've done your homework, Kristi."
She didn't look to be of a mind to accept my praise. "It's one of the first things that shows up in a Google search," she said.
Having never googled myself, I wasn't aware of how the Internet prioritized the various elements of my biography. If I were writing that, instead of one of mystery novels, it would be painfully short, perhaps no more than a page. My actual achievements in life make for a pretty thin list, since I've long preferred to live vicariously through my alter ego, who's far better at solving fictional crimes than the real me is at the occasional real-life one.
"What about that first actual murder you solved, Mrs. Fletcher?" Kristi said, prodding me.
Yes, she would make a very good journalist, indeed. I wondered if Kristi really needed those horn-rimmed glasses. She had the look of a young woman bursting with enthusiasm and excitement over chasing her dream through college and beyond-the kind of student who was an absolute pleasure to teach, as I recalled from my days in the classroom. She had dressed fashionably in a skirt and blouse, donning a restrained, professional appearance perhaps to make me more forthcoming with my answers. I've probably done a thousand interviews over the years without such a thing ever occurring to me, perhaps because this was the first time one of those interviews had been conducted by a high school student.
In any event, the ploy very nearly worked, because I almost, almost, told Kristi the truth I'd shared with extraordinarily few people over the years.
"Would you believe the first real murderer I caught was my own publisher?"
She looked up from her notepad. "Really?"
I nodded. "And the murder happened at a party in my honor-well, in honor of the publication of my first book."
"That would be The Corpse Danced at Midnight?"
"It would indeed. It was a costume party with everyone coming dressed as famous characters, the brainchild of my publisher Preston Giles."
"Then, he was the murderer?"
"Sadly, yes," I told Kristi, elaborating no further. "I'll spare you the details. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your perspective."
"That seems to happen to you a lot, Mrs. Fletcher, especially right here in Cabot Cove."
"I don't keep a running tally."
"But your publisher, Preston Giles, he was the first?"
I sensed something in Kristi's tone, an edge that hadn't been there a moment ago. It reminded me of my own voice when I was about to spring a trap on a man or woman I was convinced had committed murder. So I pulled back a bit, the physical space between us at a corner table in the back of Mara's Luncheonette remaining the same, but the distance widening.
"For all intents and purposes, yes," I told her, splitting hairs.
"It's all right, Mrs. Fletcher. The Eagle is only a high school newspaper, after all." Kristi seemed hesitant, then pushed herself to continue. "It's just that the research I did turned up a death where you used to live, where you were an English teacher."
"Substitute English teacher," I corrected her, for the record. "And the town was Appleton, Maine, maybe a half-hour drive from Cabot Cove. That's where I met my husband, Frank."
"And the murder that took place there?"
"You called it a death before."
"But it was a murder. I mean, someone was arrested. That's right, isn't it?"
"There was a murder, and someone was arrested, yes, Kristi."
"Were you the one who caught him, Mrs. Fletcher?"
I reached across the table and patted her arm. "Who said it was a him?" I asked, smiling.
"Touché," she said, smiling back.
"Beyond that, I'm going to need to plead the Fifth."
"For legal reasons?"
"Personal ones. If you've researched me, you're aware that you're asking me about something I've never discussed publicly or in the media. With that in mind, I'd ask that we proceed to something else out of respect for those who don't need all this dragged back into their lives. People moved on, a town moved on, and having the story dredged back up by even the Cabot Cove High School Eagle could do harm to those who, if they haven't forgotten, have at least stopped remembering."
Kristi started to make a note, then stopped. "This would have been twenty-five years ago?"
I shrugged. "That sounds about right."
"And you were teaching high school at the time."
"Substitute teaching," I corrected her again, "yes."
She broke off a fresh corner of her blueberry muffin and chased it down with the iced tea she'd ordered with it. "This is a great muffin."
"Mara, the owner this place is named for, bakes them herself using wild Maine blueberries. I've teased her about expanding the business to produce her baked goods on a bigger scale."
Kristi took another bite. "That's actually not a bad idea. Do you have any food-based mysteries, Mrs. Fletcher?"
I laughed. "I leave the kitchen to other mystery writers, but I've done a few books where cooking plays a prominent role."
"Do you enjoy cooking yourself?"
"Less so as I've gotten older. When you live alone, it just doesn't seem to be worth the effort as much. And I've been living at Hill House for the past few months while my house is being repaired. I fear room service is going to be a tough habit to break."
"Well, there's always Grubhub," Kristi said, flashing a fresh smile. "That didn't exist when you started your career . . . or when you were living in Appleton."
"Clever," I complimented her, nodding.
"The way you worked back to the original question, trying another way to get me to answer it."
She didn't bother denying that, but laid down her pen as if to concede my point. "Do you blame me?"
"Not at all. You're just doing your job."
"It's only a high school paper, like I said before."
"Maybe so," I told Kristi. "But you came here this afternoon better prepared, and with more challenging questions, than anyone who's interviewed me in quite a while."
"I'm sorry if I'm pushing too hard."
That sudden doubt-second thoughts, so to speak-exposed Kristi's vulnerability, reminding me that she was just a high school student. I wished I could tell her what she wanted to know, give her the scoop she was hoping for. I couldn't, though. Too many years had passed. Appleton might have been only twenty miles or so away as the crow flies, but for me it was another lifetime, another life. I think it was as much a matter of all that transpiring before I'd become a writer, while Frank was still alive, while we were raising our nephew Grady after his father, Frank's brother, had been killed in an accident and his mother needed some help.
Grady . . .
He'd been a little boy when I encountered my first murderer, and I guess he was one of the people I was trying to protect by refusing to discuss that time, with Kristi Powell or any of the reporters who'd poked me about the case over the years. There were some places in my past I didn't want to go, and this was one of them.
In the silence that had settled between us, I wondered whether the real reason for my reluctance to speak about the first murder I ever solved lay in the two separate lives I'd built for myself: my life with Frank and my life after him. His death had provided the impetus for my becoming a writer, and my writing was what had too often embroiled me in very real-life mysteries. It was as if I didn't want my life with Frank to be at all tarnished by that mess, which meant I needed it to remain wholly separate from my life afterward to keep the memories pure. All we had shared and done together needed to be left apart and not demeaned by such a difficult experience, which haunted me to this day. I'd stored those memories at the periphery of my consciousness, like a dream I couldn't quite remember, until they were occasionally dug up again by reporters with cigarette-stained fingernails and coffee on their breath.
Which, of course, didn't describe Kristi Powell even one little bit.
"Tell you what, Kristi," I said, starting in again without being prompted. "If I ever decide to share the details of the first murder case I was involved in, you'll be the first person I call."
She smiled. "Then I'd better make sure I give you my phone number, Mrs. Fletcher. I think you only have my e-mail address."
I hadn't thought in quite some time of Appleton or that town's high school or even the murder that was a prime inspiration for what would ultimately become my future career. Back then, I dabbled in writing as a beloved hobby without ever imagining I'd someday be the author of fifty mystery novels.
After giving up on my original dream of becoming a so-called "serious" writer, I submitted stories one after another to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine among others. While it's a testament to the enduring qualities of the genre that those magazines are still in existence today, I never received anything from them but rejection letters and renewal notices. A few articles on me have advanced the theory that it was coming face-to-face with murder in real life that allowed me to write not just a story but an entire book that I ended up selling to Coventry House. Little did I know at that point that my publisher, Preston Giles, would end up murdering one of the guests at a party in honor of my debut novel's publication, and that I'd be the one to ultimately catch him. Most mark that case as the first time I ever solved a murder, when in fact it was the second. But I don't think that experience made me a better writer, at least not directly; after all, I didn't plunge into the book-length work that became The Corpse Danced at Midnight until Frank's death, when I turned to the keyboard as a respite for my grief and loneliness.
Who knows, though? The subconscious is a strange and unexplored place where I guess it's more than possible that my experience with murder up close and personal in Appleton left an indelible impression that continues to influence me to this day. I like to believe all my stories spring entirely from the imagination, but my proclivity for finding real-life crimes to investigate inspires me to do justice to the process and always pay proper respect to the victims. When you've seen so many up close, often with people with whom you're personally acquainted, murders are bound to leave their marks on you.
I picked up my mail at the front desk of Hill House upon my return from Mara's. I'd enjoyed my months living there, but looked forward to the day when I'd be able to return to my beloved Victorian home on Candlewood Lane. The reconstruction in the wake of the fire that had almost claimed my life was coming along nicely, after the contractors had encountered some initial setbacks, and they'd assured me that in a few short weeks I'd get a fresh look at all the progress they'd made. While Hill House had proved to be such a blessing during those months, there was no way to surround myself with books the way I could at home. And the first thing I intended to do upon my return to 698 Candlewood Lane was restock my refurbished bookshelves.
The stack of mail, containing the usual circulars and junk, also included an oversized stiff envelope that appeared to contain an invitation of some kind. I opened that envelope first and slid out its contents, a single card with big black text in fancy script.
You Are Cordially Invited to
A Retirement Party in Honor of . . .
I scanned the rest of the invitation without absorbing all of its content.
A name I recalled well followed, but the words my eyes fixed on next stoked memories long dormant, until earlier that day, thanks to my interview with Kristi Powell of the Cabot Cove High School Eagle:
. . . Appleton High School.
I'd been a substitute English teacher there for more than five years, up until a quarter century ago. It was where I looked murder in the face for the first time and tried to stare it down.
Tell you what, Kristi. If I ever decide to share the details of the first murder case I was involved in, you'll be the first person I call.
Right now, though, those details came roaring back front and center in my mind, starting at the very beginning.
Twenty-five years ago . . .
You'll catch your death, Grady," I warned my young nephew, who'd refused to put on a sweater or even one of those hooded sweatshirts he had become increasingly partial to.