Organized for Picnic Panic
A town wide picnic is all fun, food, & games—until Kate McKenzie stumbles onto another body…
By Ritter Ames
Series: Organized Mysteries
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Labor Day, Hazelton, Vermont
“Honey, does this shirt look okay?” Keith McKenzie called before he’d even made it down the stairs.
Kate smiled and spoke over her shoulder, “Come into the kitchen and let me see.”
Her handsome husband came into the room grinning, his wavy brown hair still mussed from pulling the golf shirt he was talking about over his head. “I guess it would help if you could see what I’m asking about, before you have to answer.”
“Sometimes I just guess,” she said, reaching up to twist straight the navy blue collar of the shirt with the WHZE radio logo, then used her fingers to return his hair to a more managed state. “But on the whole, yes, I prefer to see ahead of commenting.” She patted his chest and added. “It’s all fine now.”
Keith waved a hand toward the items she had set out on the countertop and asked, “Is this everything for the picnic?”
“I think so.” Kate looked over the assortment and finished checking off a mental list. “I’m putting all the non-refrigerated food into the basket and loading the big carryall with the blankets, plates and utensils. Meg is bringing the tea and soda, and I have juice and water bottles frozen to use as cold packs around the food that goes into the cooler. Since your radio station is furnishing the sandwiches, and there will be snacky stuff for the kids to eat before we settle down for lunch, I think we’re set.”
He looked at his watch. “I can help you—”
“No, you can’t.” Kate rose on her toes to give him a kiss. “You need to leave right this minute to get to the park on time. You’re on grill duty, and charcoal waits for no man. Plus, you have to go by your parents’ house and pick up the girls. Meg will help me get this loaded into her car.”
“Are you going to have room in her Camry?”
“The boys are riding in with Gil,” Kate said. “He’s covering the picnic for the paper. We’ll have the trunk and the whole backseat. Now go.”
“Okay, if you’re sure.”
“I am. See you later. And save me a juicy burger,” she said. “Makes my mouth water just thinking about it.”
They shared a goodbye kiss, then he grabbed his Jeep keys and left through the garage.
Soon, Meg Berman, her next-door neighbor, best friend and part-time coworker, parked her silver Camry in front of the house. The rest of the morning flew with the packing, loading, and the eventual unloading of everything at the park. As the women finished setting their picnic supplies under a sheltering tree, Meg used a hand to raise her red curls from the back of her neck and off her t-shirt saying, “That gave us a good workout. Enough to make me warm and build an appetite.”
Kate smiled, grateful for the light denim jacket she wore. While her neighbor was a lifelong Vermonter, Kate was still acclimating to the much cooler temps than she was used to as a native of Portland, Oregon. She looked up and said, “Would you check out the gorgeous sky? That light marbled blue is positively gorgeous.”
“Yep.” Meg nodded. “Perfect temperature and humidity for New England. We couldn’t have ordered a better day for our yearly town wide picnic.”
“Got that right,” Kate agreed. “And park center is the perfect venue.”
Meg shaded her eyes and scanned the crowd. “I need to make sure my boys are behaving. I’ll meet you back here to set up in about half-an-hour. Okay?”
“Sounds perfect. I need to find my girls, too.”
Kate wandered around, talked to people she knew, and got a feel for the annual event. This was the first year the family had attended. Keith had come to picnics years ago when he’d still been living in Hazelton with his parents, but it had been over a decade and a half since then.
All of Hazelton, Vermont turned out for this end-of-summer extravaganza, sharing food, playing games, and making plans for upcoming events heralding the arrival of fall. A table on the north side of the square, manned with volunteers, was busy cajoling and signing up more volunteers for upcoming community and tourism activities. Before the leaves changed and the tour buses descended on the picturesque southwestern Vermont community, the townsfolk wanted to enjoy this last hurrah for mild weather, and revel in each other’s company before the first round of autumn tourists arrived.
One of the Hazelton councilmen even strapped on his intricate one-man-band apparatus and strolled throughout the park playing tunes and letting children operate different instruments in his repertoire.
The picnic’s games were the biggest draw, especially for kids and teens, with prizes awarded from the generosity of local merchants. There was a good mix of individual and team games, with imaginatively decorated cornhole sets on one end of the area sharing space with spectators watching the thrilling relay races, along with those ringing the stakes for the horseshoe competitions. Vying for attention at the basketball hoops, two-, three-, and four-person teams dared each other in challenging games of H-O-R-S-E. Also popular were the carnival fish pond games for the younger children, and the water balloon tournaments for kids—and adults—of all ages. It gratified Kate to see there was something for everyone; even people like her who preferred to just stand and watch.
But everyone focused on the food, of course.
It wasn’t long, however, before she was at the three-legged race, cheering her own eight-year-old, blonde pigtailed daughters, Samantha and Suzanne, as they moved in a synchronized hobble toward the finish line.
“Go, Sam and Suze,” Kate yelled and clapped in support. She brushed her own too-long blonde bangs out of her eyes and grinned so broadly that her face hurt, as the girls operated with unexpected teamwork to lead the field in the race for kids ten-and-under at the annual Hazelton Labor Day Picnic. Despite the fact there were older kids in the pack.
“And a lot taller,” as Suze had complained when they’d taken their place on the starting line.
The blonde pigtailed duo, nevertheless, stayed more than a foot ahead of the nearest competitor, and their legs moved in perfect rhythm. The McKenzie twins had pinned their hopes on gaining winter movie passes for winning the elementary-age three-legged race, and they were strong contenders against a competitive field of focused entrants. The girls stayed ahead of the pack until the last second, when two boys of similar height put on a burst of speed and passed the twins. In a superb show of coordination, the boys crossed the finish line a half-second ahead of Kate’s daughters.
She stood back and watched, clapping when her daughters received their red ribbons. They shouted and used hand motions to indicate they were heading for the bean bag toss.
“Good luck!” Kate called.
But the twins hesitated a moment and huddled for a quick conversation, their heads close together.
Those girls, Kate thought, I’ll bet they will challenge the boys to a rematch.
She smiled and turned away as Meg, strode up with a bouffant-shaped pink cotton candy from one of the vendor trucks parked along the perimeter of the park.
“Did they win?” Meg asked.
“No. They were a close second, however. Had the race won until Jamey Hendricks and Bobby Collins turned on the steam right at the finish. Ah, the power of winning movie passes.”
“Tough break,” Meg said, wordlessly offering to share her spun-sugar confection.
Kate smiled her thanks and pulled off a bite. The pastel cotton melted in her mouth. “My girls won’t be too heartbroken, though. Jamey still holds the key to their hearts. They’ll be convincing when they congratulate the boys on their win.”
Meg pointed with her cotton candy to the other side of the park. “At least your girls are dry. My brilliant sons did the water balloon toss. It ended up being an aqua Armageddon. After everyone hurled balloons, the boys dove into the reserve bin to grab reinforcements. There isn’t a dry head, chest, back, or butt to be found over there.”
“Who was officiating?” Kate asked, laughing.
“That’s the best part.” Meg giggled. “It was Valerie. She’s now as soggy as everyone else. She’d win a wet t-shirt contest if she entered, but I don’t think our gal Val is at all pleased with the outcome.”
Valerie James, a local interior designer, tended to cause trouble, and Meg was not a fan.
“Who hit her with balloons?” Kate asked.
Meg wiggled her left eyebrow. “I might have pulled Mark out of the pack and whispered how the game official needed to be involved in the free-for-all. You know, like when Gatorade gets poured over a coach’s head? All good-natured fun, naturally.”
“That is nothing like a Gatorade game-winning deluge.”
“And Valerie is nothing like a good-natured official either.” Meg laughed.
Kate couldn’t help smiling. “You are so bad.”
“I accept that crown,” Meg replied, grinning. “Along the same line, Ben lost another tooth yesterday. This one was really stubborn.”
Meg’s six-year-old had worried a front tooth for almost a week, shying away whenever anyone offered to extract it. Kate did not understand how this related to her neighbor’s streak of orneriness, so she asked, “Did you pull it or what?”
“No, it fell out. The relationship to the crown comment was in regard to what happened when I slipped in early this morning to trade the tooth for money.”
“And…?” Kate prompted.
“Ben roused a bit. When his eyes opened, I said, ‘Shh, it’s just the Tooth Fairy, go back to sleep.’”
“Did he? Go back to sleep, I mean.”
Meg nodded. “Yes, but when he came down to breakfast to show us his loot, he said, ‘The Tooth Fairy wears a bathrobe just like yours, Mom. It’s lavender and everything.’ I told him to keep it a secret from his classmates. I explained we don’t want to let everyone in on where the Tooth Fairy shops.”
“Oops.” Kate laughed. “Guess you’ll have to tear up your application to be a spy. No one will want to hire you once they hear you got caught by a first grader.”
Meg slapped her hand over her heart. “Can you believe it? And here I thought I was imbued with superpowers. Instead, I’m just a typical mom.”
“Nothing typical about you,” said Gil Berman, Meg’s husband, as he walked up and slipped an arm around his redheaded wife’s shoulders. Kate loved the way they looked together. Both tall, Gil’s dark hair and coloring set off Meg’s auburn curls and ivory skin tone. Although his regular beat covered politics for the Bennington paper, he was working that day as an event reporter.
In the distance, Kate noticed the photographer assigned to work with Gil was headed for her girls, who were still chatting with the boys. He obviously hoped to get a picture of the winners of the three-legged race. She made a mental note to order a copy and get it emailed to her.
“Saw our boys took an impromptu shower,” Gil continued.
“And you hurried over here so they didn’t have a chance at convincing you to take them home to change clothes?” Meg asked.
“Only Mark wanted a dry shirt. Ben is like a Labrador retriever. He’s happiest when he’s in water or mud,” Gil replied, smiling.
“Getting good end-of-summer picnic stories for the paper?” Kate asked.
Gil shrugged. “The photos will be the biggest draw. Nothing exciting ever happens at this kind of thing, but they’re always fun.”
“Well, I hate to start sounding all self-absorbed—” Meg said.
“Start?” Gil teased.
“As I was saying,” Meg drew the phrase out and gave her husband the evil eye. “I feel the freckles under my skin cheering for the sun. I’d better move into the shade.”
“We need to get lunch ready anyway,” Kate said. “Let’s go set things up under the tree.”
Gil left to circulate and get impromptu interviews, while the women moved to their chosen picnic spot to set up the food. They were under a huge white pine that they’d staked out earlier by depositing all of their supplies to reserve it for their families. The women spread out two shower curtains, before placing picnic blankets on top.
“I’m so glad you had this great picnic hack,” Meg said. “There’s nothing worse than getting up from sitting on the ground and realizing the grass was damp enough to leave a calling card on your clothes.”
“It makes for more bulk to carry, but it pays off when you want to picnic in the shade,” Kate said. “The sun doesn’t dry out the grass under a tree like this one.”
“Those hamburgers smell great,” Meg said, turning toward the nearby grilling area and inhaling deeply. “When should I tell the kids to line up? I am ready for a burger with a little sauce and cheese.”
More than a dozen portable grills had been set up about a hundred feet away. Local radio station WHZE had agreed to contribute grilled hamburgers and hot dogs to the festivities. Personnel from the station—including Kate’s husband Keith, who was an on-air anchor—wielded barbecue forks and spatulas. When the women glanced his way, Keith raised his spatula and saluted. Sam and Suze took places in the food line, giggling and waiting for their daddy to serve them. The glowing coals in the grills delivered the best kind of smoky fragrance across the park. Kate’s stomach started to rumble as the aroma wafted their way.
“My girls obviously intend to get their share of burgers,” she said with a laugh.
Meg pulled her phone from a pocket. “I’ll text Gil and tell him to round up our boys. They’d hate it if your girls got the jump on them.”
“Thank you again for putting all of this together, Kate,” Meg said. “Between running errands for my mother these past couple of days, as well as trying to stay on top of all the back-to-school tasks, I’ve been meeting myself at every turn.”
“You’re the one who volunteered to pick up my kids from school tomorrow and keep them overnight when I go to Boston with Keith,” Kate said. “I’m the one who is grateful. Organizing picnic stuff is nothing compared to dealing with four wound-up kids the first week of school.”
“Let’s just say I know my limits. Running kids around is preferable to planning picnics and making sure I don’t leave something important at the house,” Meg replied.
“This is why we work so well together.”
They turned their attention to the food, and the women started with chip bags. First, they opened the top, and then they pushed up the bottom of each sack, so the chips rose into the normally empty packaging space. A serving bowl evolved out of the reconfigured bag, making the chips easier to reach for munching. The frozen water bottles used to keep the coolers cold were now about half-liquid again. Kate and Meg took out four or five of each to finish thawing before the grilled food arrived.
“My boys will always load up on soda if they can,” Meg said. “But at least the cold water is here. Maybe it will guilt them into not drinking so much sugar.”
“I’m pinning my hopes on the watermelon pillars. That’s what I call them anyway,” Kate replied, as she pulled two big plastic containers from a cooler. After popping the top on one, she showed her friend how she’d cut the watermelon into long square columns.
“That’s so neat. Kind of like watermelon popsicles. How did you do it?”
“I cut the melon in half. Next, I cut each of the halves into slices about an inch wide,” Kate explained. “Then Keith helps by holding the sliced melon together, so I can go perpendicular and cut the long slices about an inch wide in the other direction. Then I leave the length as is, so the pillars are different heights. People can pick the size that suits their appetites, and they’ll have a bit of rind to hold each time to avoid some sticky juice and make the whole thing easier to hang onto.”
“Neater, too,” Meg said. “My boys always have juice running down their arms when they walk around eating a big slice of watermelon. Their faces get covered with the sticky liquid. All that stickiness encourages visits from every fly in the immediate area. Don’t even get me started on the way dirt clings to the juice.”
An empty chip wrapper blew by, dipping and diving onto a blanket, followed by a flyer from one of the food vendors. Kate scooped up the trash. “I’ll be right back,” she called to Meg, as she headed for the nearest green trash receptacle.
A park maintenance employee stood beside the double bin. Kate got a quick look at his face before he bent down to fiddle with one of the steel legs on the receptacle. He wore a cap, but she noticed the way his brown hair curled around his collar and ears, the way Keith’s did when he went too long between haircuts.
Kate was still new enough to Hazelton to not be acquainted with most of the townsfolk, and she was shy about starting conversations with strangers. But it seemed rude not to at least say something to the maintenance worker. Standing there with trash in her hands, she called up her courage and spoke.
“Hello,” Kate said, taking in the man’s green uniform shirt and work gloves. “How are you? I didn’t realize the city made you work today. I figured everyone had Labor Day off.”
“Uh, we try to keep someone on staff throughout,” he said. The man didn’t look up, focusing his attention on the job at hand. “Keep the big problems at a minimum that way.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to it,” Kate said as she tossed the trash over the side of the bin. “We appreciate the pride everyone takes in keeping the park well-maintained. Thank you.”
He grunted something, but Kate didn’t catch the words.
As she walked back to the picnic blanket, she looked around the park. She did love the way everyone took care of Hazelton. The town was small, but the fierce civic pride showed in events like this one, and the way people appreciated what they had. Even before she married Keith and became a pro hockey player’s wife, she’d lived a lot of different places. But she counted her lucky stars every day that when her husband’s career-ending knee injury occurred a year ago, they landed on their feet here in his Vermont hometown. It just felt right.
Kate joined Meg who was setting out clear cups with lids that held salad. Her friend said, “I’ve seen individual salads stacked in Mason jars, but never plastic cups like this. Is that the fork’s handle sticking out of the middle of the lid?”
“Yes,” Kate replied. “I like Mason jars because they’re reusable, but for kids in this kind of setting, the clear plastic cups work much better. I saw salads like this somewhere with the fork tines sticking out of the top of the lid of the salad, but that doesn’t keep the eating surface clean. Instead, I put the tines in the salad as I layered it. When it came time to put on the lid, I poked the end of the handle through the opening intended for a straw and with a little wiggling I can get the lid on with the fork inside. Now it’s ready to go and everything stays clean.”
“Perfect. But do you have any ideas about how we can actually get the kids to eat the salad?” Meg winked at her friend.
Kate shrugged. “The novelty might encourage them to eat a few bites. A little is better than nothing, particularly on a day like today, when they’re chowing down on desserts and hamburgers and hotdogs non-stop. The pickles and onions and relish and other condiments are in the two muffin tins I covered in plastic. There are plastic spoons and knives for us to use to scoop and spread them on our food.”
Meg glanced up and froze. She nodded her head second, before shooing him away to go play games with his friends. Once he had taken off, she tucked a dark curl behind one ear and rose from the blanket.
Bernadette marched over to her husband’s tête-à-tête.
“I’ll hold Jim if you want to pin down the tramp,” Meg said, crossing her arms and frowning. “That way Bernadette can give Gina an earful.”