A festive feeling buzzed around the kitchen. After a quick vote, the class decided to make finger desserts to carry outside to eat--homemade caramels, fudge, peanut butter cookies, and truffles. Laughter rang at the different work stations. Mandy made a salad with lots of extras--chopped carrots, beets, and roasted nuts. She sautéed onions and mushrooms for toppings on the burgers and brats. Then she went to help Brent and Thora with the cookies. The three giggled as they competed to see who could make the crisscross patterns on top of the peanut butter dough first. Currie worked on a broccoli salad and Price attempted a pasta salad. They were in frivolous moods when they carried the food to the picnic tables that Ward and Ted moved there with Frank’s help. Sara had picked wildflowers to put in vases on each table. Della and Russ set up a croquet game and played with Teri and Leann while Price and Ward worked the grill. Trisha and Avery manned the bar and served everyone drinks.
The meal was almost over when Fang poked his nose out of the bushes to watch them. “Here, boy.” Trisha held out a piece of hamburger for him. He trotted forward to take it out of her hand.
The others watched quietly, but Price came closer. When he reached out with a chunk of bratwurst, Fang growled.
“Does he only like hamburger?” Price complained.
Ward casually walked to Fang and petted him. “You shouldn’t be here. Go and wait for us at the cottage.” When Fang turned and left, Ward said, “He knows Trisha from the nursery. He knows she takes care of the sick animals there. He growled at Teri and Leann last night too. If he doesn’t know you, he doesn’t trust you.”
Price tried to hide his frustration, but Currie could tell that he was bothered. “My caricature is the wolf. I thought we’d be soul mates. But maybe I’m not meant to be close to anyone or anything.”
Mandy walked to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “I’ve decided that’s not so bad. My own company’s better than I thought.”
Currie was proud of her. Mandy was trying to extend the olive branch, to make things better between her and Price.
Price tried too. Instead of a smart-ass reply, he said, “It’s different. You’re surrounded by kids all day long at school. You get your emotional kicks there. I don’t get that in business. It gets lonely.”
“I’ve found that you meet someone when you’re not looking,” Della said. “If you try too hard, you drive them away.”
“I didn’t look for years, and no one dropped into my lap.”
“You weren’t ready,” Della said. “You have to be ready, but not push it.”
Price looked doubtful, but didn’t argue with her. They went back to finish their meals and desserts when Frank doubled over. Sara took one look at him and said, “Where does it hurt?”
Frank slapped a hand over his mouth and ran for the bushes. Everyone could hear him throwing up. When he didn’t stop, Sara got worried.
Currie hurried to Frank’s table and ran a fork through the remains of his food. “Saff, look at these.”
Saffron picked up slices of a raw mushroom, not cooked like the others. “Someone dropped these in with the rest.”
“And?” Currie could feel panic rise in her throat.
“They’ll make him plenty sick, but they’re not deadly.”
Ted and Ward, Avery and Brie each took a limb and carried Frank toward the lodge. Saffron ran for her herbs, and Sara hovered by Frank’s side.
Currie stayed to help the others gather things to return to the lodge. People scattered, doing different jobs, when she heard the blue jays calling. She froze in place and looked around. Neither Price nor Mandy were anywhere to be seen. Russ and Della still sat at their picnic table, watching people scramble about. Currie froze, unsure what to do, until a blue jay flew back and hopped from one table to another, trying to get her to follow it.
“Go, dear. We’ll be fine,” Della said.
“Fang!” The wolf came at her call. “Guard them, will you?”
Fang curled at their feet.
Currie hurried after the bird. It flew in the direction of the cabins. Half way there, she met others who’d come running too--Ward and Avery, Trisha with Leann and Teri. They ran harder when they heard a wolf howl, then another one. The blue jays flew back and forth, frenzied. When Currie crashed into the secluded area where Trisha’s cabin sat, she heard a small cry from the patio in the back.
Currie raced toward the voice and found Mandy, standing absolutely still on the patio, with two wolves and a flurry of birds circling her.
“My fawn!” Trisha lunged toward the pen behind Mandy. She gasped. “He’s been cut.”
“Why is he here?” Saffron turned on Trisha. “He should be at the animal shelter with the others.”
Trisha looked down, not meeting her eyes. “I missed him. I thought a wolf would guard him here.”
“One did, or he’d be dead,” Saffron snapped.
Trisha started for the fawn, but Mandy said, “Be careful. When I heard the birds, I followed the noise, but when I tried to lift the fawn to carry him back to the lodge, the wolves came out of hiding. They’re not happy.”
Currie took a deep breath to steady herself. Mandy’s story could very well be true. “What would you have done if you’d run smack into the slasher?” she demanded.
Mandy blinked. “I guess I didn’t think. I just heard the jays and thought of Trisha’s fawn and ran here as fast as I could.”
“You’re supposed to stay in groups of three!” Ward’s voice was sharp with worry.
Mandy cringed. “But what if there wasn’t time? Look. He’s cut. What if I’d been too late?”
“Maybe you’re the slasher,” Price said, leaning on his crutch. “Maybe the wolves stopped you from finishing the fawn off.”
Where had he come from? Currie looked around, confused. He hadn’t been here when she arrived.
“And maybe you should just shut up!” Mandy shot back.
Trisha stepped into the pen and knelt to examine her pet. “This isn’t much of a cut. More like a deep scratch. He might have hurt himself trying to get away from whoever came here.”
Price looked around the clearing. “Does anyone see a weapon?”
Mandy took a step toward him, and the wolves bared their fangs. “Give me a break, will you? Damn mutts! Why would I hurt Trisha’s fawn? I like Trisha.”
Currie motioned to the wolves. “It’s all right. Everyone’s here. We can handle things now.”
They sat, but stayed, and Currie realized that they wouldn’t leave until Saffron assured them that they could.
Price wasn’t finished, though, and hurled another attack at Mandy. “Why would you put two poisonous mushrooms in Frank’s salad?”
“Just quit it!” Currie said. “You don’t have any proof of anything, and we don’t go around pointing fingers at each other.”
“None of the rest of us are standing on Trisha’s patio with two wolves circling us,” Price said.
“I explained that. . .”
Price cut Mandy off. “Yeah, I heard you.”
Currie frowned, trying to remember when she’d actually seen Price standing with the others, but she couldn’t remember. “Stop it,” she said. “The birds and wolves would stop anyone who went near the fawn, even if they were trying to help.”
“Fine, you keep an open mind,” Price said, “but I don’t want Mandy anywhere near me for the rest of the stay.”
“That suits me just fine,” Mandy told him. Trisha, Teri, and Leann subtly moved behind their friend, just as Ted stepped closer to Price.
Oh, great! Currie thought. Now the guests were dividing into rival groups. That’s all they needed.
Ward broke the friction by saying, “I think Price has a good idea. Let’s look for a weapon. Mandy didn’t have time to go anywhere. If we can’t find anything, we can pretty much rule her out.”
Mandy raised her chin and glared at Price. “Go ahead. Search. Don’t miss anything, and you can even search me. You won’t find a thing.”
Price made a face. “You stashed it somewhere.”
“How?” She pointed to the wolves.
“You threw it.”
“Then find it.” She looked around the perfectly manicured lawn. “Go ahead. Show me a knife.”
“You’re too cocky,” he said. “You know I won’t find it.”
“I know I never had one,” Mandy said. “You’re the one who said I did.”
He shrugged his shoulders and turned away. “I’m getting tired. I’m calling it a night.”
He turned and glared at her. “What did you say?”
“Put your money where your mouth is. Find a knife.”
He gave a mirthless grin. “You know I’m not going to. I don’t know how you pulled this off, but you’re dangerous. Stay away from me.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Where were you when the fawn got cut?”
He stared, then lifted his crutch. “It takes me longer to get places than most people. Are you mocking me because I didn’t get here with the others?”
She raised a brow. “I’m mocking you because I think you’re a fake.”
Ted stepped in front of Price. “That’s enough. He shouldn’t have gone after you. I’m sorry. But enough is enough. I don’t think either one of you did anything. But this is too much. It has to stop now.”
Mandy took a step forward. “Really? And who would you blame? Someone put mushrooms in Frank’s salad and someone came here to hurt the fawn. Who do you think it is?”
Ted didn’t back down. “I don’t know. That’s why I’m not going to point a finger at someone. If we’re wrong, we’ve ruined someone’s reputation for nothing.”
Mandy softened. “I didn’t start this.”
Ted nodded. “I know. Idiot boy, here, lashed out. And he’s so hot and bothered, he hasn’t figured out he screwed up yet. But he’ll regret it later. In the meantime, can we call a truce?”
Mandy struggled for a minute and then shrugged. “With you? Why not?”
Ted gripped Price’s shoulder. “I’ll take dunce boy home.”
After Saffron called off the wolves and blue jays, Ward walked to Mandy and said softly, “I’m not accusing you. I want you to know that. But I’d like to be able to say, for sure, that we never found a weapon.”
Mandy gave him a hard, burning look. “So would I. I like Ted, but he’s blind when it comes to Price. Have Currie frisk me. She can do a body search for all I care. I’m a gym teacher, for heaven’s sake. I get naked in lockers all the time. She can have her way with me.”
When Currie looked horrified, Mandy gave a hard laugh. “I’m sorry. You’re a nice person, but I’m mad, and I’m taking it out on you instead of Mr. Mouth. But, damn it, I’d rather have everything searched than have anyone say that I hid a weapon somewhere.”
“I hardly think you could hide a knife. . .”
“Pat me down. I don’t want anyone to say that I had anything hidden anywhere.”
While Currie looked through Mandy’s pockets and clothing, Ward crawled on the ground and skimmed the yard with his hands. “Nothing,” he said after a thorough search. He’d covered a wide area. “I can’t believe you could throw anything farther than this.”
Mandy gave a quick nod. “Sorry to put you two through this, but tell everyone that you looked and couldn’t find anything. There’s no weapon.” Shoulders stiff, she walked to her own cabin.
Ward looked at Currie. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know.”
He put an arm around her shoulders. “Come on. Let’s go back to the lodge and see your sisters.”
Once they were settled in Brie and Avery’s living room, Avery opened and poured glasses of wine and beer. Currie explained what had happened. She looked at Saffron, “Who’d know which mushrooms to pick? The ones that make you sick?”
“That’s easy.” Brie pointed at the books that littered the room. “All they’d have to do is go to the library. There are all kinds of books on wildlife in there.”
“How could someone even pick them?” Ward asked. “They were fresh. The blue jays would have warned us if someone left the lodge.”
Saffron shook her head. “I’ve been thinking about that. It would be easy for Price to pick them on a nature walk with me. All he’d have had to do is bend and grab mushrooms when someone asks me a question.”
“Mandy goes on a lot of your bird walks too,” Brie said.
“Yeah, and if she had lagged a little behind, looking at a bird through her binoculars, we’d have gone on and let her catch up.”
Avery rubbed his forehead. “It could be almost anyone really. When I sketched mushrooms for my project, I found some growing between the cabins and in the meadow. The only guests who wouldn’t wander that far are probably Della and Russ.”
A sobering thought. The sisters looked at each other and Thora. No matter what they did, it wasn’t enough.
“We’re screwed,” Thora said.
“No, it couldn’t have been Mandy. I don’t see how she could have hidden the knife with the wolves pinning her in one place,” Ward said.
Thora shook her head. “She’s a smart girl. If she wanted to throw you off track, I bet there was a way.”
Avery nodded. “Did anyone think of looking on the cabin’s roof?”
Ward’s shoulders sagged. “Nope. So we can’t trust anybody.”
“That’s about it,” Avery said.
“Can we keep the guests safe?” Brie asked after a long silence.
“I can think of only one solution,” Saffron said. “We’ll have to divide them into groups, and one of us will stay with each group for the rest of this clinic.”
“But even then, we can slip up,” Brie said. “You just told us that you can’t watch Price and Mandy every minute when they’re on a nature walk with you.”
“Then we’ll have two of us around them at all times,” Avery said. “I’ll go on the nature walks too. One person can’t do it alone. It might not even be safe. If Price decided to attack Mandy some morning, what could Saffron do by herself?”
“What if we’re focusing on Price and Mandy, and it’s not them?” Currie asked. “What if it’s someone we’ve overlooked?”
Ward raised an eyebrow. “I rule out Della and Russ.”
“You think?” Thora shook her head. “I rule out Frank and Sara.”
“Sara wasn’t even here when Thumper’s family was killed,” Avery said. “And I can’t see Frank putting bad mushrooms in his own salad.”
“Agreed.” Saffron cocked her head. “What about Teri and Leann? We’ve never really considered them before.”
“They’re always together. Always. Unless it’s both of them, it’s neither of them,” Currie said.
“I’d say we can rule out Trisha. She couldn’t hurt an animal,” Avery said.
“Ted?” Brie asked. “Or Brent?”
No one spoke right away. Finally, Thora said, “It can’t be Brent. He’s not angry enough. I don’t know Ted enough to have an opinion about him.”
“I’d vote against Ted,” Avery said. “He helped with our apartment, and he’s a pretty open-book type of guy, very direct. He doesn’t seem the type to sit around and brood, to sneak and plot.”
Ward nodded. “I’d have to agree. The guy says what he thinks.”
“That brings us back to Price and Mandy,” Currie said.
“I vote for Price,” Ward said.
“Even after he fell in the pit?” Saffron stared. “You just don’t like him, but that doesn’t mean he’s our slasher.”
“My vote’s on Mandy,” Brie said.
Currie turned to her, surprised. “Why?”
“She IS a brooder, and she doesn’t forgive easily. I think she went to Trisha’s to kill the fawn, and the wolves stopped her. She’s so clever, she knew she could talk herself out of trouble if she got caught.”
Avery shook his head. “I think we need to take every precaution to keep our guests safe, but we can’t start choosing sides. It will change the way we feel about people.”
“So we’ll just spend time with them as a precaution?” Ward asked.
“Exactly.” Avery looked so adamant that the rest agreed.
“Okay, let’s figure out a system so that two of us are with each of them every waking moment. The wolves will guard them at night,” Ward said.
It took a while to coordinate, but when they finished, they felt that they could keep the guests secure. Brie looked at the clock on the living room wall. “It’s late. I’m tired.”
Avery put an arm around her. “This will work.”
The stress was getting to them all.
Ward and Currie stopped in the kitchen before they left the lodge. They needed to finish cleaning and putting things away. The outdoor supper had ended so abruptly, the dishes were only rinsed and pots and pans were stacked hodgepodge on the stove. When they finally left to walk home, Currie glanced at her dad’s willow and sighed. Saffron was sitting under its branches, staring across the lake.
“It must feel sort of lonely for her right now,” Ward said. “So much has changed so fast lately.”
Currie’s heart twisted with concern. “Brie and I have somebody, and she doesn’t.”
“I know the feeling. When the guys I hung around with dropped off, one by one, when they met the right girl, I found myself without a buddy on Friday night. It took a while to find a new routine. And it wasn’t much fun.”
“Maybe I should spend some time with her.”
“It’s not the same,” Ward said. “Your world and her world are different now. Give her some time to think things through, decide what she wants.”
Still, when they reached the edge of the meadow and Currie looked back, Saffron looked so alone there, staring across the water, that her heart went out to her.