You wouldn’t think there’d be a lot going on in a small Southern town. After all, the weather is warm and muggy, the pace is slow, and people take time to say hello and ask about your family.
They also take time to murder each other.
I was sitting in my office this warm Thursday morning in May, the latest edition of the Celosia News spread out on my desk. “Man Found Dead in Local Vineyard” was the headline, followed by “Strange Markings Found on Body.” The story con- tinued with details of an unidentified man discovered at Phoenix Vineyards by the workers early yesterday morning. Cause of death was unknown, and the strange markings were stars and odd symbols the reporter had decided were linked to witchcraft. The police were questioning members of Darkrose, a group of young people whose names had been linked to a series of shady events around the neighboring city of Parkland.
This was one crime I hadn’t been involved in and one I hoped Jerry wouldn’t find intriguing. With his questionable past, his penchant for fake séances, and his ability to make anything into an adventure, a secret society and a body with mysterious signs on it might prove beyond tempting.
My cell phone rang. It was Jerry, his voice brimming with excitement. “Mac, have you seen today’s paper?”
“Looking at it right here.” “You’ve got to take this case.”
“Unfortunately, no witch hunters have come to Madeline Maclin Investigations, demanding justice. I’ve been hired by the local post office to find some missing boxes and the head cashier at the Dollar Store suspects her husband of cheating and wants me to keep an eye on his activities.”
“Small potatoes. We need to look into this Darkrose group.
I’m almost through with breakfast.”
Jerry Fairweather, my husband and reformed—I hope and pray—con man, is a slim handsome man with light brown hair and warm gray eyes, the same eyes I hope our child will have, should we ever have children. That’s still up in the air. He’d bounced around several jobs in town before we realized what had been right in front of us all along. He was a morning person who loved to cook, and the owner of Deely’s Burger World, a popular diner on Main Street, wanted to start serving breakfast. This arrangement had worked out very well, so much so that business was booming, and Jerry added buttermilk pancakes and waffles to the menu.
Who did we have to thank for bringing Jerry’s culinary skills to our attention? A con man named Big Mike, who’d paid us a visit in October. As it turned out, Big Mike was Jerry’s Con Master, a huge man who ran a secret College for the Dubious Arts. He’d taught Jerry all sorts of uncommon skills such as picking locks—although I’ll admit that talent had come in handy during my previous cases.
“Let me know how things go with this cooking deal,” he’d said. “I’m glad Jerry’s interested in going straight.”
Jerry’s voice brought me back to the present. “Mac, are you listening? I can be there in fifteen minutes.”
“Sure, come on.” I didn’t know if Jerry ever planned to go straight, but I kept trying. Wandering through the vineyards with him would be better than sitting in my office all day. Tracking elusive boxes and shadowing a possible cheating spouse weren’t exciting cases but they paid the bills. And I’d discovered that the small town of Celosia, North Carolina, where Jerry and I moved when he inherited his Uncle Val’s old house, had more than its share of murder. Celosia has only ten thousand people living in town and the surrounding rural areas, but most of those ten thousand people are always stirred up about something. It doesn’t take much.
When Jerry arrived he brought a paper bag containing one of his delicious sausage biscuits and a big cup of iced tea. He had on jeans and a light blue shirt and one of his favorite ties, a yellow one with dancing hamburgers. He took a seat in the green and beige armchair I have for clients.
“So what do you think?”
“I think we can go have a look, but chances are the crime scene is off-limits, and you know Chief Brenner doesn’t like me nosing around.”
“I can call Del and see if he knows anything about Darkrose.” Del was one of Jerry’s pals from his old life. I’d love to say former pal, but had to admit Del and his information had been useful in the past. And Del was a reasonable fellow, not the threat that some of Jerry’s so-called friends have been. During my last investigation, I had to contend with yet another of Jerry’s disreputable acquaintances from his Con Man school days. Fortunately, I’d been able to get rid of Honor Perkins by telling her I was pregnant, which I wasn’t. Not yet. “Okay, but just Del.” Jerry’s gray eyes were alight. “How about if I infiltrate Darkrose?”
“You may be good at disguises, but I believe Darkrose is all women.”
He feigned being insulted. “I’ll have you know I can be a very lovely woman.”
“I’m sure you can be, but no.” “You do it, then.”
“I might, if I had a client who wanted me to solve the murder.” “You need to find a client. This is too good to pass up.” “Don’t you have something to do? Camp Lakenwood’s grand
opening? The writing of Celosia’s centennial song?” “Taken care of. Now, let’s go catch some witches.” We stood up, then heard a quarrel outside my door.
The first voice was a man’s voice, and whoever he was, he was highly annoyed. “But there isn’t anything in Celosia’s history worth writing an outdoor drama about!”
“Of course there is.” I definitely recognized the second voice, the strident tones of Amanda Price, a very opinionated woman. She reigned over Celosia’s Women’s Improvement Society, a local club whose members were determined to keep Celosia up-to-date and one step ahead of other small towns in the area. Recently, the Society pushed for new streetlights and curbside recycling with Amanda doing most of the pushing. “Celosia is brimming with history. We’ll call the play Flower of the South.”
The man was not impressed. “But people who aren’t from this area have never heard of the celosia flower. They call it a feather flower, if they call it anything at all. How can you possibly make a story out of that?”
“We’ll tie it in with the hardships the settlers had.”
“What hardships? Most of them came from Ireland and Scotland and did very well. Vineyards were huge business before tobacco took over. You want the opening number to be a bunch of Irishmen and Scotsmen drinking and smoking? That’ll go over real well.”
Jerry and I poked our heads out of my office door. Amanda Price and Harold Stover stood in the hallway. Harold, a tall dark man with a short bristly moustache, folded his arms and lowered his brow. Amanda, as usual, was fashionably dressed and looked supremely confident. She was tall enough to look Harold in the eye, which she did over the top of her jeweled-studded glasses, and swept back her dark hair.
“I say this whole drama should be based on the life of Emmaline Ross, that courageous woman who defied the odds to become one of North Carolina’s first female vintners.”
“How can that be important? Did she even live in this area?” “I’m sure she did.”
Harold held up both hand to wave, dismissing her idea. “This is ridiculous. We’re getting nowhere. Let’s scrap the whole idea and concentrate on a centennial park.”
Amanda was not deterred. “Oh, everyone has a park. We could make a real contribution to the fine tradition of outdoor drama in our state.”
“Or destroy it.” Harold noticed me. “Madeline, Jerry. Sorry if we disturbed you.”
Amanda pointed a perfectly manicured finger in my direction. “Now here’s someone who will agree with me. I don’t know if you’ve heard, Madeline, but the Women’s Improvement Society is planning to produce an outdoor drama. Don’t you think that would be a huge draw? We need something special to put Celosia on the map.”
“We’re on the map,” Harold said. “Thirty minutes north of Parkland.”
Amanda ignored him. “Would you like to be on the commit- tee, Madeline? Perhaps help design the costumes or the posters? We need someone with your artistic talent.”
I started to say I didn’t think so when Amanda’s eyes brightened. “And, Jerry, you are perfect to help with the music.”
“It’s going to be a musical?” Harold croaked, aghast.
“Why not? Unto These Hills has singing and dancing. So does The Lost Colony.”
“Those dramas are based on historical facts, not some legend of a milkmaid.”
Amanda whipped off her glasses. “Not a milkmaid, Harold! A vintner! A creator of fine wine! Why are you so against this?” “Where are you going to get the money to mount a production like this?”
“Fundraisers, of course—car washes, bake sales. We’ll get the whole town involved.”
He gave a derisive snort. “I can tell you right now the Baptist churches won’t support a show about wine.”
“This isn’t glorifying alcohol. This is celebrating our history.” “A centennial park makes much more sense and would be thousands of dollars cheaper. And where are you going to have this outdoor drama? We don’t have an amphitheater. Are you going to pitch a tent in somebody’s field?”
“That’s a very good idea, Harold. I’ll bet someone would be proud to let us use a field.”
“And clean up after all the people? You’re dreaming, Amanda.” “At least I have dreams! Nothing would get done in this town if I didn’t push!”
She looked as if she’d like to push Harold over and stomp on his face. I held up a hand. “If I could make a suggestion.” They turned to me expectantly. “Why not have a centennial celebration featuring a short musical play about Emmaline Ross? That way you could have both things and probably have the production at the community theater.”
Harold looked interested, but Amanda shook her head. “No, Emmaline’s story deserves much more, something that can be an annual event.”
Harold threw up his hands. “There’s no reasoning with her. Go on. Bankrupt the city with your insane ideas.” He stalked off. Amanda watched him go and then turned to me, arms spread wide. “Bankrupt? Can’t he see this will be a goldmine for Celosia?
People will come from all over the state, all over the country.” Personally, I couldn’t see anyone outside of the greater Parkland area coming to a small-town history show, but from the short time Jerry and I had lived in Celosia, I’d learned not to make snap judgments about my new home and its inhabitants. Compared to the sequined glitter and glamour of a beauty pageant where a contestant might present a truly horrible YouTube- worthy talent, the saga of hardworking pioneers in drab cloaks and shawls singing about their misfortunes would not be an attraction. But Celosians had fooled me before.
Amanda replaced her glasses and fixed a keen glance on Jerry and me. “So, Madeline, will you be on the drama committee? Jerry, will you write the music?”
Jerry readily agreed. There wasn’t a chance he’d miss out on what would most likely be a real drama, not just an outdoor one. I was more cautious. Getting a project this size up and running would be like trying to lift a dinosaur. “I’ll think about it,” I said.
“I know you’re not busy. No one’s murdered anyone lately, have they?”
At least she didn’t say, “And we never had so many dead bodies until you moved to town.” Did I mention I’d solved four murder cases? From the way Harold Stover looked at Amanda Price, I’d say chances were looking good for number five.
“Well, there’s a little something you can do for me.” “Please come in.”
“Is this a private matter?” Jerry asked. “I can step out.”
“A few concerns of mine, nothing personal. You can stay, if you like.”
Amanda came into my office and sat down in the client chair. Jerry perched on a corner of my desk. Amanda looked around and gave a little sniff, as if the space didn’t meet her high expectations. I loved my office. When I worked for a large agency in Parkland, I was stuck in a hot little cubicle in a huge featureless building. My Celosia office was light and cool with a view of the red and yellow swing set in the yard next door. The room had been very neutral, light pine paneling and a beige carpet, but I’d been working on it. I’d decorated the walls with a mural of leaves and flowers in bright greens and yellows so the effect was of stepping into a spring garden. The carpet would be the next to go, but for now, I’d added a multi-colored area rug. The bookshelves were filled with personal items, including the frog my grandmother had made out of patchwork, seashells from my honeymoon in Bermuda, and several of my small paintings, including an abstract swirl of rainbow colors and my favorite sketch of Jerry sitting on our front porch.
None of this impressed Amanda Price. She took off her jeweled glasses and set them on my desk while she hunted in her pocketbook for her phone. “I was on my way over to see you when I ran into Harold and thought I’d better set him straight about plans for the Celosia Centennial. That man doesn’t have a scrap of imagination. A park with benches and a fountain! How lame is that? I don’t know why he’s on the planning committee.”
I settled back in my chair. “Do the other members of the committee support his idea?”
“Oh, I can persuade them, I’m sure.” She found her phone and searched through its menu. “Larissa Norton told me what a fine job you did clearing her of her ex-husband Wendall’s murder. She wasn’t a fan of yours before, but you certainly won her over. Oh, here we are. If I don’t put things on my calendar, I lose track of what I’m doing. Can you provide security at my garden party tomorrow afternoon from two to four at my home on Sunnyside Lane? I know it’s short notice, but I’ve been so busy with my plans for the drama.”
This was a new one. “Security? You mean make sure your guests don’t run off with the silver?”
“Exactly. And this will be an undercover operation, so I hope you have something suitable to wear.”
Jerry and I exchanged an amused glance. Amanda must not have been aware of my pageant past. I’d lived my mother’s beauty queen dream from the time I was a baby, and as a teenager, grudgingly used pageants to make money for school. Although I’d gladly given up that life to become a private investigator, I still had a couple of stunning cocktail dresses shimmering in the back of my closet. “I believe I can find something.”
“Good! I want everyone to think you’re an invited guest.”
This was insulting on so many levels, I called upon my best competition smile and let it ride. “Anyone in particular you suspect?”
“Eloise Michaels has had her eye on my silver centerpiece ever since I bought it out from under her at an estate sale, and I know Gloria Goins covets my Waterford crystal candlesticks.”
I wrote this down. “Anyone else?”
“Just watch the guests, and if anyone does anything suspicious, politely escort them out.”
So I was the bouncer, too. “Okay.”
She crammed her phone in her pocketbook and wedged out her checkbook. “I really appreciate this, Madeline. If all goes well, I’ll recommend you to my friends.”
“Thank you.” Madeline Maclin, Security to the Suburbs. I told her my fee, and she wrote a check.
“Oh, and one other thing. I’m missing a very expensive Louis Vuitton purse. While you’re on duty, see if you can learn anything.”
“Where did you last see your purse?”
“I can’t remember!” She gave a little laugh. “I have so many purses, I didn’t miss this one until recently. I suppose I could do without it, but it’s one of my favorites. It’s beige with a brown handle and a lovely sparkly design of brown on beige. A subtle design, of course.”
Of course. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you. I’ll be in touch. Jerry, you can go ahead and get started on songs for Flower of the South.”
He gave her a little salute. “Yes, ma’am.” As soon as she was gone, he turned to me, grinning. “Security detail for her garden party. Do you get to frisk the guests? I’ll come help you.”
“You heard her. I get to dress up and blend in.”
“I’ve seen you dressed up, Mac. There’s no way you’re going to blend in.”
“You are perhaps the nicest husband I’ve ever had.” “Thanks.” He leaned over the desk to give me a kiss. “Witches and murder can’t possibly compete with the story of brave Emmaline Ross and a fancy purse, but I still want to check out the vineyard.”
Phoenix Vineyard and Winery was one of many that had sprung up around Celosia in the past five years. As Harold mentioned, vineyards were big business way back during North Carolina’s settling days until the Native Americans showed Sir Walter Raleigh how to smoke the local tobacco leaves. Now that cigarettes and smoking had become unpopular, vineyards and wineries were making a comeback.
Jerry and I had found a reasonably priced used red Jeep for a second car. Now that he had a steady job, having two cars made life much easier. We took the Jeep out to the Phoenix Vineyard but were stopped at the gate by a stern-looking policewoman.
“Sorry, folks, employees only today.”
The only thing we could see past the gate were rows and rows of grapevines, each one marked with a rose bush to lure bees to pollinate the vines, and the imposing building that housed the winery, an upscale restaurant, and a gift shop.
I knew a lot of the local police, but I didn’t recognize this officer. “Can you tell us anything about the incident that hap- pened here? Do you know the identity of the victim, or what exactly happened to him?”
Her face was a well-schooled blank. “It’s an ongoing investiga- tion, ma’am. As soon as we know anything, we’ll have a report for the news agencies.”
“The paper said something about Darkrose. What’s that?” She wasn’t budging an inch. “As soon as we know anything, we’ll pass that information along.”
There was nothing to do but thank her and head back to town. Jerry took out his cell phone. “I’m calling Del.”
“If Chief Brenner had been here, I’ll bet he would’ve let you have a look around.”
“You’d lose that bet. The chief is not happy with me.” “Why? Because you solve all the murders?”
“I think he’s gotten a little flack from other departments about me. I’m trying to keep a low profile.”
“The Beauty Queen and the Chief. Sounds like a hit sitcom to me.”
Jerry left a message for Del and then received a call from Deely, saying one of the fry cooks was sick and asking if Jerry could come help with the lunch service, so we drove to Deely’s Burger World.
A popular spot in Celosia since its early days as an ice cream parlor, Deely’s still had its original gray-and-white Formica counter tops, silver stools with red cushions, red plastic booths that made squishing sounds when you sat down and stuck to your legs in summer, and faded slogans for Coca-Cola in the yellowed wallpaper. Jerry kept his cooking clothes in the Jeep, so he changed into his old jeans and tee-shirt, grabbed an apron and headed for the kitchen. Sitting at the counter, I listened to the hum of conversations around me. As usual, news in Celosia spread faster than a dancing cat video on Facebook. Not only were people speculating on the vineyard murder, but they were talking and arguing about the centennial and the outdoor drama.
Young waitress Annie Vernon stopped by for my order, one of Deely’s finest cheeseburgers, fries, and a Coke. She had dyed her hair a strange shade of green, and three earrings dangled from each ear. Her newest piercing was a nose ring, which made her look like a thin, yet friendly, cow. “Are you going to try out for the play, Madeline?”
“Has the show been written yet?”
Annie plucked a straw from her apron pocket, revealing a small black rose tattooed on her wrist. She had several flower tattoos, but I hadn’t seen this one before. “All I know is it’s called Flower of the South, and it’s about Emmaline Ross. I want to try out for the part of Emmaline. Her family came over from Scotland, and she was about my age when she started her own vineyard. She managed to make it work, even though everybody said a girl couldn’t do it. I can relate to that.”
“How do you know so much about her?” I asked. “We studied her in school.”
“And she lived in Celosia?”
“Not exactly in Celosia. She lived where Camp Lakenwood is now.”
Hmm. This could be a problem. “I don’t remember seeing any sort of historical marker at the camp.”
“I think there’s the remains of a cabin in the woods some- where.” Someone called for Annie. “Gotta go,” she said as she hurried back to help another customer and join the discussion about tryouts for the drama.
I wondered if Nathan Fenton knew about this. With my help, Nathan had solved a mysterious riddle and received his inheritance, which included Camp Lakenwood. It would be just like Amanda to insist the drama be held on the sacred Emmaline Ross site, if there really was one. Open house for the camp was Saturday. I’d ask Jerry to check with Nathan and see if he knew anything about Emmaline.
Across the diner, voices raised in another argument. A few months ago, Celosians had been fiercely divided over a movie about Mantis Man, their local legendary monster. Some people wanted to cash in on the craze, while others thought the whole idea cheapened the town’s image. Then a few months later, when Wendall Clarke came to open a new art gallery, the local Art Guild had argued constantly over who should run the gallery and whose artwork should be displayed. This time, the discus- sion was about the body found in Phoenix Vineyard and the complainers were a group of old men Jerry had nicknamed the Geezer Club, who always sat in a corner of the diner to hold forth on their opinions.
One of the men settled his John Deere cap firmly on his head. “Bunch of crazy kids practicing Satanism. They come over from Parkland and think they can start something here.”
His friend took another pinch of chewing tobacco. “Kids are wild today.”
“Police said the man was all covered with these weird signs and tattoos. Probably a cult ritual.”
“Why they want to cover themselves in tattoos, anyway? It looks stupid. In my day, the only people with tattoos were sailors and criminals.”
Annie, coming with my bill, paused when she heard this. “Did you want a refill, Madeline?”
“No, thanks.” I indicated the Geezer Club. “Don’t pay them any attention.”
“Oh, I don’t. They go on like that all the time. What they don’t get is I’m not just a waitress here. I work two jobs to sup- port myself and I’m saving money to attend the University of North Carolina at Parkland.”
I realized I’d been guilty of thinking of Annie as just the Waitress at Deely’s, too. “You support yourself?”
“Yeah, my mom kicked me out when I was sixteen. Her new boyfriend and I didn’t get along. I’m better off on my own, believe me.”
“Must be tough, though.” She shrugged. “I manage.” “Is that a new tattoo?”
She held up her wrist where the black rose was artistically carved. “Yeah.” She gave the Geezers a dark look. “And I’m not a sailor or a criminal.”
When the lunch rush was over and the diner had settled down, Jerry passed his apron to Deely and came out front. “Ready to go?”
Jerry took the last drink of my Coke. “I think an outdoor drama is a neat idea, especially one about wine. I already have an opening number in mind.”
“What about the centennial song?” “Oh, that’s done. Want to hear it?”
Before I could say no or stop him, he stood up in the booth. “My fellow Celosians! May I have your attention, please!” When he had the attention of everyone in the diner, he said, “You proud and lucky few will be the first to hear your centennial anthem!” “Sing it!” someone shouted. They gave him a round of applause to get him started, he put his hand over his heart, and he sang in his reasonably tuneful baritone,
“Fair Celosia, in this special hour,
One hundred years of strength and glory,
We grow and flourish like our namesake flower, Long may the world tell our story!”
It was actually not bad, and everyone reacted with cheers and loud stomping of feet. Jerry took several bows and sat down.
“Where did all this songwriter talent come from?” I asked. “Please don’t tell me you conned someone into writing that for you.”
“That was my own sheer God-given talent,” he said. Then he lowered his voice. “But I borrowed the tune from an old beer commercial.”