A sneak preview of Cold Clay by Juneau Black…
As might be expected f rom its name, the village of Shady
Hollow is nestled deep in the woods, covering a wide valley between two mountains. What might be less expected is the fact that the village residents are all animals, represent- ing many species and temperaments. Just how can a rabbit live and work alongside a fox? Why do a sparrow and a bear read the same newspaper? On a more practical level, where are the rabbit and fox working, and what is the headline on the paper? These are the sorts of questions a journalist asks. In her den, Vera Vixen was in fact asking herself exactly what the headline would be for the next issue of the Shady Hollow Herald and whether she could improve it. She loved the little town, but it usually was not the most exciting place in the world. Vera wasn’t sure she could handle looking at another headline like “Mirror Lake Beach Closes Early” or “Best Walking Paths in the Whispering Woods.” Those were not ledes to inspire.
“There must be something worth writing about today,” she muttered. “I just have to find it.”
As Vera prepared to leave her cozy home, she pulled a woolen scarf off a hook by the door and draped it about her shoulders, pleased with the way the deep evergreen colour contrasted with her rich red fur. She adjusted the wire-rimmed glasses on her nose, tipped her felt hat to a slightly jauntier and more reporterish angle, and then stepped outside to greet the day.
The early-autumn mornings were rather chilly now, and quite often a layer of fog would slip into town at night, slink- ing through the quiet streets and curling up around the great trees in the park. Early risers had to brave a clinging mist that hid the details of the world, making Shady Hollow seem like a dream of itself. But soon the sun would rise over the distant ridge and burn away the fog until the last ragged strips retreated into the woods as the town bustled into action and animals emerged from houses and dens to begin their work or play. On this day, the fog was behaving in the most picturesque way possible, and Vera smiled as she breathed in the cool air. Despite the calm, she felt a thrill of excitement that only an autumn morning can supply. Something about the brisk air and the golden tips of the tree branches warned of change to come. But what sort of change? Ah, that was the question! She trotted along the path toward the centre of town, where the newspaper office could be found. When she crossed an intersection, a flurry of activity on the other end of Elm Street caught her eye. She paused for a longer look. A large covered cart stood parked in front of one of the empty buildings. Ferrets scurried about, carrying boxes and bags f rom the cart and nearly colliding with one another as they passed through the building’s narrow doorway.
Vera’s interest was piqued. That building had been for rent for some time; its first-floor office had been looking lonely and drab on the otherwise busy street. Vera knew the upstairs was very large, but she’d never been inside. Someone must have taken out a lease on the place, and it must be a newcomer. A local would have mentioned it by now.
“Excuse me,” Vera called, addressing the ferrets, who didn’t look away from their work. “Excuse me!” She trotted closer, pausing just short of the commotion.
One ferret finally stopped, looking at her in alarm. “Hello, yes, what? We didn’t break anything! Promise! We have a no- break guarantee.”
“I just wanted to know who’s moving in,” Vera explained.
The ferret shook his dark head. “Can’t tell you. Sorry! We
just move the freight.”
“But who’s paying you? You must know that!” she said. “Where did the shipment come from?”
“Freight moved upriver, ma’am,” the ferret said, shrugging to convey his complete lack of knowledge in the matter. “Payment in cash. Sorry! Watch that lamp!” The last direction was howled at another ferret who seemed about to lose control of a fancy blown-glass lamp. Vera’s interlocutor dashed past her to save the object f rom being smashed to a thousand pieces on the ground.
Vera took the hint and didn’t ask anything further of the workers. She would have loved to hang about and peek at the belongings of the town’s newest resident for clues as to their identity, but now she had to get to the office. She couldn’t wait to see if she had scooped Gladys Honeysuckle, the town gossip.
What would this new resident bring to Shady Hollow? Vera had learned that even in a small town, you just never know what could happen. Despite her annoyance with the current milquetoast headlines, Vera had no desire to revisit the shock- ing events of the summer and her own narrow escape from death. Never before had the residents endured the horror of not one but two murders. The investigation had temporarily shut down the sawmill—the town’s largest employer and the lifeblood of the local economy. Vera chased the story of the killings a little too eagerly, and she was lucky she was still alive to grouse about the latest lack of news.
She paused on seeing a copy of the day’s paper on a stoop. “ ‘Summer’s Over for Mirror Lake Beach,’ ” she read out loud. “Called it.”
A second later, she sighed. She should be happy. Things had returned to normal, at least outwardly. Creatures had resumed their routines, and gossip about regular life had recommenced. It was better to hear complaints about the neighbours’ decorating choices rather than whispers about murder and infidelity.
“Something the matter, Miss Vixen?” a deep voice rumbled
Vera turned to see Deputy Orville Braun standing there, looking quite professional in his uniform and cap, though with a rather unprofessional twinkle in his eye. She had to look up to catch the twinkle, since the brown bear was so tall in com- parison to her.
She smiled at him. “Nothing other than a little ennui.”
“Ennui? I’ve heard coffee and morning rolls can fix that,” Orville said. “I’d be honoured if you would join me at Joe’s. I’ll
escort you there safely,” he added.
“No doubt!” Vera said with a laugh as they started walking down the street together. Not that there was any danger at the town’s favourite coffee shop. In fact, ever since Orville helped save Vera’s life not long ago, he’d shown a lot of concern for her safety, walking her home from work, seeing that she ate well during her recovery, buying her flowers to keep her spirits up Or perhaps that was the result of the fact that they had
started dating. Not more than the occasional dinner and evening stroll, but Vera had to admit that her feelings for Orville were growing by the day.
They were taking things slowly, but Vera looked forward to their dinners. It was great fun to have someone to dress up for, and it put a spring in her step during the rest of the week. She had almost stopped looking over her shoulder wherever she went.
When they reached Joe’s Mug at the corner of Main and Walnut, Orville held the door open for her.
She walked in, waving to Joe, who stood behind the counter. “Look who’s here,” said the proprietor. Joe was a huge, genial moose who always had a smile for a visitor. “Miss Vixen,
with none other than our good deputy.”
“We just happened to meet on the sidewalk,” Vera said quickly, because it was rather early in the day.
“And I imagine you both are feeling a bit peckish.” Joe nodded his huge head toward a booth, inviting them to sit.
Vera slid into the booth, and Orville sat opposite her, both of them steadfastly ignoring the other morning customers, all of whom were quite aware of their budding romance.
Only when Joe brought two mugs and a coffeepot did Vera glance around the café at her neighbours. Absolutely no one would believe that she and Orville had run into each other by accident. Whispers of an assignation would spread around Shady Hollow like wildfire. Yes, the residents needed some- thing new to gossip about. Vera most definitely did not want that something to be Orville and her, but there was little she could do about it.
“Couple of those morning rolls, too, please,” Orville told
Joe. “The ones with the pecans.”
“Coming right up, Deputy!” Joe gave a little salute and ambled away.
“So . . . Deputy,” Vera said. She was behaving as if they barely knew each other, which was silly but instinctive. Constant scrutiny by one’s neighbours was one of the downsides of living in a small village. In the city, no one would have noticed if she and Orville went on dates every day, but here in Shady Hollow nothing was missed. “You must be enjoying the calm.”
“I really can’t say that I am.” Orville glanced briefly out the window toward the street, which was slowly filling with folks on their way to work or school. “The chief is away, and someone has to mind the store. But there’s not much to mind. I knew I could leave the station to get a quick bite. It’s too early in the day for crime! Though not too early for fishing,” he added with only a trace of annoyance.
Vera ref rained f rom muttering about the chief slipping away from work to fish and smiled at her companion. If Orville wanted to maintain the illusion that Chief Meade ran the police department, who was she to say any differently? It was an open secret among the townsfolk. Still, she wondered at Orville’s patience with the chief. She hadn’t quite worked up the nerve to ask why he put up with Chief Meade’s lackadaisical efforts.
The morning rolls Orville had requested arrived at the table, and Vera temporarily forgot her trail of thought as she pulled apart the delightfully sticky bread and nibbled away.
“Do you know anything about the new tenant on Elm Street?” she asked after licking the toffee from her paws. “I saw the movers this morning.”
Orville shook his head. “I noticed the for-rent sign had come down from the window a few weeks ago, but I thought per- haps Mr. Blakely had just given up for the rest of the year. It’s good news if someone leased the place. It’s too big and drafty to sit empty, and it made the street feel too quiet.”
Vera knew that Orville had a uniquely safety-oriented view on town matters, and a vacant structure rarely looked safe.
“It is a big space,” she agreed. “I wonder what the new business will be.”
“Check the town hall’s records. All commercial ventures need to be registered and approved by the council.” Orville had been a cop in Shady Hollow long enough to know the rules.
Vera was annoyed by her own lapse in knowledge. “If it was approved, why didn’t the council say so?”
“Oh, there’s a three-month window,” he explained. “Lets new owners get things started, you see. Shows the council the business is going to succeed. Or not. Either way, the votes aren’t a surprise.”
“Ah.” That made Vera feel better.
Just then, Joe ambled over and placed two bowls of warm applesauce on the table. “On the house. No better way to start an autumn morning,” he said in his low, rumbling voice.
Vera inhaled the scented steam with delight. “Oh, that’s grand.” She prepared to take a bite of what she already knew would be a perfectly spiced spoonful. The tang of apples and the warmth of cinnamon and cloves made her sigh happily. “Made fresh. I can tell.”
“Very first of the season,” Joe responded. “There will be a lot more coming. Timothy says the bulk of the harvest is just ripening now. I expect they’ll be busy this week up at Cold Clay.”
The Leveritt family had managed Cold Clay Orchards for generations—which wasn’t saying much, because the Leveritts were rabbits. The orchards and berry patches had provided superior crops for many years. Vera hoped they’d continue to do so for decades more.
“Tim told me he hired extra pickers this year,” Joe went on. “Planting all those new varieties paid off. He’s doing good business. He must be pleased with his crop.”
Later Vera would recall Joe’s words with a shiver, because the orchards were about to reveal a most unexpected and unwelcome harvest.