Dark and Stormy Tea
by Childs, Laura






After witnessing the murder of her friend Lois' daughter, tea shop owner and amateur sleuth Theodosia Browning investigates and is surprised when so many suspects turn up, in the latest addition to the long-running series, following Twisted Tea Christmas.





Laura Childs is the New York Times bestselling author of the Tea Shop Mysteries, New Orleans Scrapbooking Mysteries, and Cackleberry Club Mysteries. In her previous life she was CEO of her own marketing firm, authored several screenplays, and produced a reality TV show.





On an unseasonably cold, rainy, foggy spring evening in Charleston, South Carolina, Theodosia Browning, owner of the Indigo Tea Shop, witnesses a murder in a local cemetery. She soon learns that the victim is Cara Chamberlain, the daughter of friend and fellow business owner Lois Chamberlain, who begs Theodosia to find Cara's murderer. Cara was killed in a manner recalling murders committed by the notorious Fogheel Jack, whose original crime spree ended seven years ago. Soon another murder follows, and Theodosia researches the original crimes, interviews suspects, and works to determine what the victims had in common. More tragedy befalls Lois; Theodosia's chef is attacked; and, finally, Theodosia is kidnapped. Fast pacing and the always-engaging Theodosia combine with the vividly described Charleston setting and plenty of intriguing details about running a tea shop in this charming entry in the long-running series. Tea lovers will enjoy the appendixes, too, which include recipes and lists of tea resources and tea merchants, as well as Charleston tourist information. Copyright 2022 Booklist Reviews.





In her 23rd outing, tea shop owner Theodosia Browning takes on a serial killer. Theodosia's heading home on a dark and stormy night when she sees two people struggling in a graveyard. The man vanishes, leaving behind the body of a young woman Theodosia is sorry to recognize as Cara Chamberlain. The women of Charleston are living in fear of a serial killer: It's either Fogheel Jack, back after a seven-year hiatus, or a copycat. Cara was working as an intern for Channel 8, whose star reporter, Monica Garber, faints when she sees the body. Theodosia and her tea sommelier, Drayton Conneley, have a long history of helping Theodosia's boyfriend, Pete Riley, and his police colleagues solve crimes. So when Cara's mother, who owns a bookshop near the Indigo Tea Shop, begs for help, they plunge into the investigation. Theodosia is suspicious of the boyfriend Cara just broke up with and a true-crime writer who's living next door, but there's another possibility: a ruthless realtor who's trying to get Cara's mother out of the building where her five-year lease is thwarting his plans. Whether the motive is money or mania, her snooping puts Theodosia in mortal danger. A delight for mystery mavens and foodies, with Charleston providing the suitably spooky background. Copyright Kirkus 2022 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.





1

 

At five thirty on a Monday afternoon, it was full-on dark when Theodosia Browning, proprietor of the Indigo Tea Shop, stepped out the back door of the Heritage Society. Pushing back a lock of curly auburn hair, she scanned the western sky, hoping for a faint smudge of orange to light the way home. When she didn't find it, she set off at a fast clip, chiding herself for staying so late.

 

Still, Charleston's venerable Heritage Society was sponsoring a Maritime History Seminar this Wednesday, and as luck would have it, Theodosia and her team had been tapped to cater an afternoon tea for visiting scholars.

 

Gotta hurry back. Drayton will be waiting, Theodosia told herself as she snugged her coat collar up against a cold wind. Overhead, trees thrashed as rain began to pelt down, stinging her face like icy needles.

 

Awful weather for early March. Especially when Charleston should be bursting with azaleas and pink camellias.

 

Now thunder rumbled overhead, low and slow, as if pin after pin was being knocked down in a cosmic bowling alley.

 

Theodosia hurried across King Street and hesitated. She glanced around at enormous two-hundred-year-old homes that sat on their haunches like nervous cats, then shivered as sheets of rain slashed down. Because the shortest distance between two points was a straight line, she knew a shortcut down Gateway Walk, a tangled trail that wound through the back side of the Historic District, would save her an entire block of slopping through puddles. And with this weather system blowing in so hard and strong, the decision was a no-brainer.

 

Of course, Gateway Walk was probably deserted right now, Theodosia told herself as she hurried through a pair of ancient wrought-iron gates and headed down a narrow, winding path. With this foul, unseasonable weather, there'd be no tourists snapping photos, none of the usual ghost-walk tours with guides spinning eerie tales about haunted graves and wafting white specters.

 

Tall boxwood hedges closed in as Theodosia skimmed along slippery cobblestones. Great gray wisps of fog rolled across her path like ghostly ocean waves, driven in by the wind off Charleston Harbor a few blocks away. Charleston, a city that was already slightly ethereal due to high humidity, salt-laden sea air, and antique glowing streetlamps, became positively spooky when the fog swirled in.

 

Of course it's spooky, Theodosia told herself. Even this pathway is purported to be a prime viewing area for ghostly phenomena. Which, by the way, I don't happen to subscribe to.

 

Theodosia had traveled these hidden paths and walkways dozens of times, always reveling in their sumptuous gardens, Greek statuary, hidden grape arbors, and pattering fountains. But tonight she had to admit the atmosphere did feel slightly different.

 

And for good reason.

 

Always a gracious and posh dowager, Charleston was on edge right now. A dangerous killer the local press had dubbed Fogheel Jack had been skulking down its hidden lanes and alleys. After a seven-year hiatus, this madman had suddenly reappeared in Charleston to strangle an unsuspecting young woman with a twist of sharp wire.

 

Now residents hurried home from work in a wash of blue twilight and locked their doors before total darkness descended. Visitors who'd come to languish in luxury at Charleston's historic inns and feast at four-star restaurants that specialized in grilled redfish, blue crab, and fresh oysters were warned not to wander too far from the relatively safe confines of the Historic District. Around the City Market, Waterfront Park, and White Point Gardens, Charleston police had stepped up patrols and officers rode two to a cruiser.

 

No. Theodosia shook her head to dispel the notion of danger and told herself she'd be fine. Better than fine. Even though she was surrounded by live oaks, palmettos, and crumbling stone walls, she was only three blocks away-actually, make that two and a half-from busy Church Street and the welcoming warmth of her tea shop. And once she reached the front door of that cozy little establishment, she'd be perfectly safe. Drayton Conneley, her dear friend and tea sommelier, would be waiting with a fresh-brewed pot of Darjeeling, eager to hear final details about their catering job. Haley, her young chef extraordinaire, would probably be tucked upstairs in her apartment along with Teacake, her little orange-and-brown RagaMuffin cat.

 

Theodosia could almost feel the warmth of the Indigo Tea Shop settle around her shoulders like a cashmere blanket, could practically inhale its rich aromas. So nothing to worry about, right?

 

Then why do I feel so unsettled?

 

Theodosia knew the practical, rational answer. It was because of Fogheel Jack. He was the mysterious unknown killer who'd murdered two women some seven years ago and was apparently back for a return engagement. Even her customers, sipping tea and nibbling fresh-baked scones at her quasi-British, slightly French-inspired tea shop, furtively whispered his name.

 

Who was he?

 

Where was he?

 

When would he strike next?

 

The Post and Courier had made no bones about last week's murder, a headline boldly declaring "Fogheel Jack Is Back!" That murder had taken place in a small park over near the university, the strangling an almost exact reenactment of the two seven-year-old, still-unsolved crimes.

 

Fogheel Jack. That's what rabid journalists had called him back then. And the name had stuck. Obviously.

 

Some of the TV stations had gone so far as to speculate that this brutal killer had been roaming the country and returned to Charleston because he found it to be more to his liking, a kind of preferred hunting ground.

 

Enough of that nonsense, Theodosia told herself as she chugged along. Last week's murder had happened miles from here. So there was no way . . .

 

A faint sound up ahead. The scrape of shoe leather on pavement?

 

Theodosia slowed, listened carefully, then stopped dead in her tracks. Cocked her head and listened harder.

 

But the only thing she heard was the constant pounding of rain and the occasional whoosh of cars over on Archdale Street.

 

I'm being silly. Acting like a fraidy-cat.

 

Resuming her pace, Theodosia headed down the final passageway. This was normally a gorgeous place to sit and watch sunlight play on palmetto trees and purple wisteria. To watch butterflies and honeybees cavort. Not happening today. Instead, she hurried past fog-strangled clumps of azaleas as thunder rumbled overhead and rain pelted down. Blinking, wiping her eyes, she found it difficult to navigate the narrow path let alone avoid its deepening puddles.

 

Theodosia cautioned herself to hold steady. After all, St. Philip's Graveyard was just ahead. After that she'd be home free.

 

Unfortunately, she had to contend with this blinding rain and doggone fog.

 

Theodosia ducked her head and continued on as damp vines clutched at her ankles. Finally, through a scrim of shifting fog, a moldering tomb came into view. Then another seemed to pop up. And even though this was most definitely a creepy graveyard (ghost hunters claimed they'd seen glowing orbs here), Theodosia had never been so happy to see it.

 

The brick path doglegged left and Theodosia followed it around a square marble tomb with a kneeling angel on top. Cold, wet, feeling like a drowned rat, she couldn't wait to . . .

 

Another noise.

 

Theodosia's shoulders hunched reflexively as she came to an abrupt stop.

 

Is someone besides me wandering around in this miserable weather? A graveyard visitor or lost tourist?

 

She waited nervously as electricity seemed to thrum the air like so many high-tension wires.

 

What to do?

 

An answering slash of lightning lit the boiling clouds overhead. And illuminated a strange tableau taking place some thirty feet in front of her.

 

Two figures. Locked in some kind of unholy embrace. As if caught and buffeted in the eye of a hurricane.

 

Then utter darkness enveloped the scene and rain drummed down even harder.

 

Her heart practically blipping out of her chest, Theodosia wondered what she'd just witnessed. Lovers' quarrel? Crazy horseplay? Someone being attacked?

 

Lightning strobed and crackled again, yielding a startling revelation. One of the figures was now stretched out atop a low tomb.

 

Behavioral experts say that faced with imminent danger, most everyone has an immediate fight-or-flight reaction. Theodosia didn't opt for either of these. Instead, she shouted, "Hey there!" Tried to make her voice sound loud and authoritative.

 

A hooded figure in a long black shiny coat rose slowly and turned to face her. The image suddenly struck her as somber and frightening, like a creature out of a horror film. Or the Headless Horseman character from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." She stared, trying desperately to make out the man's face-she thought it was a man-but was only able to discern dark hollows for eyes and a horizontal slash of thin lips.

 

"What are you . . . ?" she shouted again, even though it was difficult to make herself heard above the onslaught of the storm.

 

Then Theodosia was struck silent as the man lifted a gleaming blade and tilted it in her direction. It was a strange gesture. He could have been threatening her; he could have been offering a benediction.

 

The air felt charged with danger as Theodosia slowly spread her arms wide, as if in surrender, and took a step backward.

 

That's when the man turned and slipped away into the shadows.

 

Unnerved, Theodosia waited a few moments and then crept forward. Really, what had just happened? What had she witnessed?

 

Slowly, cautiously, her heart beating like the wings of a frightened dove, Theodosia advanced on the small dark figure that had been flung carelessly across the tomb. It looked . . . almost like a bundle of rags. Was it a person? She thought so.

 

Peering at the crumpled figure, she said, "Hello? Do you need help?"

 

There was no answer.

 

She took another step forward.

 

That's when it all changed for Theodosia. That's when she saw streaming rivulets of blood mingled with rain as it hammered down.

 

2

 

Flustered and trying to fight off the blind panic that threatened to engulf her, Theodosia fumbled for her phone and managed to punch in 911. When a dispatcher came on the line, her words poured out in a torrent.

 

"There's been a murder! At least I think it's a murder. In St. Philip's Graveyard. I need help!"

 

"Where are you?" the dispatcher asked. A male voice, all business but concerned-sounding, too.

 

"I just told you. St. Philip's Graveyard."

 

She heard mumbling in the background, several voices all merged together, and someone saying ten-fifty-three and a possible one-eighty-seven. Police codes, she guessed. Then the dispatcher was right back with her.

 

"An alert's been sent; help is on the way," he said. "But you must remain on the line, do you understand?"

 

"Okay . . . okay," Theodosia said. She was trying to stay calm, to sound as if she was in control of her faculties, but it was difficult. Rain continued to pour down, seeping under her collar and running down the back of her neck, chilling her to the bone. She was also standing in total darkness, surrounded by ancient, crumbling statuary and tombstones. A carved skull stared at her with hollow eyes. A lamb with a missing head stood guard just to her left. And of course there was that poor body. With so much blood leaking out.

 

"Are you still there?" the dispatcher asked. "Talk to me. I need to know that you're okay."

 

"I'm here, I'm okay." Theodosia said as she clutched her phone with a cold, death-like grip.

 

"There's a cruiser two minutes out, so you need to hang in there as best you can." Against the constant drip, drip, drip of rain he sounded worried.

 

Theodosia nodded, even though she knew the dispatcher couldn't see her.

 

"Okay," she said finally. "I'm still here."

 

"Are you in any physical danger?"

 

Theodosia looked around. "Right now? I don't think so. But . . ."

 

She ground her teeth together as her curiosity reared up hard and fast, getting the better of her. Clouding her judgment.

 

She crept forward, the heels of her loafers sinking into soft, dark moss as she edged across soggy ground. Then she stopped and peered speculatively at the woman. She'd been flung haphazardly across a low pockmarked marble tombstone, almost as if she'd been put there on display. As if her killer wanted to say, Look what I did.

 

The scene was macabre. The woman's face and arms looked bleached white, like bones picked clean. And every time lightning flashed, and wind ruffled the woman's clothing and hair, it was like watching a herky-jerky old-time black-and-white movie.

 

But wait . . .

 

It took Theodosia a few moments to become fully aware of the khaki book bag with a purple emblem, sodden and half-hidden under the woman.

 

"Dear Lord," she said, her voice low and hoarse. "Could it be Lois?" Lois Chamberlain was the retired librarian who owned Antiquarian Books, a few doors down from the Indigo Tea Shop. She sold khaki book bags that looked a lot like this one.

 

Theodosia lifted her cell phone and spoke into it again. "I think . . . I think I might know her."

 

"You recognize the victim?" the dispatcher asked. Surprise along with a hint of doubt had crept into his voice.

 

"I recognize the book bag anyway."

 

"Uh-huh."

 

"I'm afraid it might be Lois Chamberlain from Antiquarian Books," Theodosia said. Then the lightning strobed again, set to the tune of a kettle-drum thunderclap, and she saw long reddish blond hair hopelessly tangled and streaked with blood.

 

"Or maybe . . . her daughter?"

 

Could that be Cara? Theodosia wondered.

 

"Officers are thirty seconds out," the dispatcher said in her ear. "Two cars coming." He seemed more concerned with their timely arrival than the dead body Theodosia was staring at. "Are you hearing sirens yet?"

 

As if on cue, dual high-pitched wails penetrated her consciousness.

 

"I hear them, yes. They're getting close."

 

Then they were more than close. Gazing across a tumble of moss-encrusted tombstones through swirls of fog, Theodosia saw the first cruiser turn off Church Street and bounce up and over the curb. Without cutting its speed, the car skidded across the sidewalk, maneuvered around the side of the church, and churned its way toward the graveyard. Slewing across wet grass, the car rocked to a stop just as its reinforced front bumper hit a tilting tombstone with a jarring clink.

 

A second cruiser followed as lights pulsed, sirens blared, and a crackly voice yelled at her over a loudspeaker.

 

It was kind of like Keystone Cops, only it wasn't.

 

Guns drawn, serious-looking uniformed officers sprang from both vehicles.

 

"Here. Over here," Theodosia called out. She raised her hands in the air to let them know she was an unarmed civilian. "I'm the one who called it in." So please don't shoot me.






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