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Authors: Nancy Haddock

Paint the Town Dead

BOOK: Paint the Town Dead
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PRAISE FOR

Basket Case

“Nancy Haddock has struck gold with the Silver Six!”

—Ali Brandon,
New York Times
bestselling author of the Black Cat Bookshop Mysteries

“It doesn't get any better than this! Nancy Haddock's debut mystery is the perfect mix of intelligence and charm. The characters are varied and appealing, the setting is engaging and so vivid you can smell the flowers and taste the fried okra, and the plot is intricate and clever.”

—Jennie Bentley,
New York Times
and
USA Today
bestselling author of the Do-It-Yourself Mysteries

“A slew of townsfolk I'd love to meet—as well as a few I wouldn't—all combined into a delightful and tasty mystery full of intrigue and twists . . .
Basket Case
is full of Southern charm, food . . . and mystery.”

—Linda O. Johnston, author of the Barkery & Biscuits Mysteries

“Ms. Haddock, a masterful writer, obviously has humor running through her DNA and mystery deep within her bones. You can't help but admire her ‘silver' characters' energy, smarts, and loyalty. I wish I had that much oomph in my gas tank. Add a bright and funny niece along with a handsome detective, villains who deserve their comeuppance, and this book hooks you. I'm looking forward to many more Silver Six books.”

—L.A. Sartor, author of
Viking Gold

Berkley Prime Crime titles by Nancy Haddock

BASKET CASE

PAINT THE TOWN DEAD

BERKLEY PRIME CRIME

Published by Berkley

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Nancy K. Haddock

Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

BERKLEY is a registered trademark and BERKLEY PRIME CRIME and the B colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

eBook ISBN: 9780698165052

First Edition: September 2016

Cover art by Ann Wertheim

Cover design by Diana Kolsky

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

To Jerry for your support, your insights,
and the occasional kick in the pants.

And for loving
me.

Acknowledgments

I always risk leaving someone out of this section. If you aren't here, please know that you are appreciated and thanked!

I'm beyond grateful to Leis Pederson, my former editor, and to Allison Janice, my amazing new editor! Two awesome stars I'm blessed to have in my galaxy!

Heartfelt thanks to Roberta Brown, agent and soul sister. Words fail, but you know how I feel, Roberta!

Many thanks to the people of Magnolia, Arkansas, for welcoming me, answering my questions, and clarifying so very many points. Among my research angels are Dana Thornton, Columbia County Library; Megan, CID Secretary, and Heather, Sheriff's Secretary, both of the Columbia County Sheriff's Office; Brenda, Columbia County Prosecutor's Office; and Randy Reed, Columbia County Coroner. For this book in particular, I spoke with Jerri Lethiew of the Columbia County Co-op Extension Services, the Rev. Bruce T. Heyvaert, Vicar of the St. James Episcopal Church, and Donna Pittman King of Pittman's Nursery. Fantastic conversations! Thank you! Angela Flurry Lester and Deb Baker of Magnolia Cove™ also provided inspiration and information in and on Magnolia. Deb also created the most amazing soap for me to give as swag. Aster's Garden Soap rocks, Deb, and so do you!

I also extend my deep appreciation to artisans Bonnie Eastwood, Colleen Thompson, and Melissa Watson.

Big 'ole tubs of thanks to my critique buddies, my writing friends, and my writer retreat sisters. In no particular order, they are Katelin Maloney, Julie Benson, Sandy Blair, Lynne Smith, Nancy Quatrano, Lorraine Heath, Neringa Bryant, and L.A. Sartor. Y'all will never know how much you mean to me, but I'll keep trying to tell you.

Thanks also to Barbara Berry of Sapulpa, Oklahoma, and to the other unsung heroes in my life. Whether kin or neighbors, these folks were second parents, mentors, and friends to me and mine. Deepest gratitude to the families Allen, Berry, Bingman, Davis, Lindenberg, Livermore, Jones, Kidd, Masters, Maulding, Price, and so many more.

Abiding appreciation for the caffeine and support to my friends at Starbucks #8484, Barnes & Noble #2796, Second Read Books, and the Anastasia Island Branch of the St. Johns County Library system!

Last but never least, thanks to my children for their love and unwavering encouragement.

Oh, and hubby. If you haven't noticed, this one's for you!

Chapter One

“Nixy! Nixy, child, we're waiting for you.”

“On my way,” I yelled down the stairs from my apartment.

I paused long enough to eye myself in the large oval mirror in the small entryway. Yep, I'd applied mascara to both sets of lashes. That should've been a given, but I'd been known to miss a set. Especially since I'd gone makeup-free for the past month. No point in primping when I'd spent my waking hours sanding, staining, and sealing nearly every surface of this old building. I'd even learned to wield a power sprayer to paint the twelve-foot-high walls and ceilings, and exposed ductwork. We'd installed three new fire-rated entry-exit doors, two roll-up service doors, and security cameras and alarms. We'd also made improvements to the kitchenette and bathroom in back of the store proper. Now the place shone, and we were ready for our grand opening.

By the way, I'm Leslee Stanton Nix, known to pretty much everyone as Nixy. The “we” who were waiting for me were my Aunt Sherry Mae Stanton Cutler and her five housemates,
collectively known as the Silver Six. They lived together in Sherry's farmhouse and were closer than blood family. The Six were in their late sixties and early seventies, but they'd worked every bit as hard and long as I had to renovate the twenty-seven-hundred-square-foot building that housed my apartment, the storefront, and the workroom. They were every bit as invested in the success of our new folk art and crafts gallery as I was. Oops. Not a gallery. The Six thought “gallery” sounded too highfalutin, aka expensive, for Lilyvale. We'd settled on naming our enterprise The Handcraft Emporium.

“Nixy! Doralee will be here in twenty minutes!”

“Coming!”

I clambered down the interior staircase leading to the building's back room. This space was as wide as a three-car garage, though not as deep, and it served as Fix-It Fred's workshop. However, we'd decided to use it as an arts and crafts classroom as needed. This evening it was needed for our Gorgeous Gourds class.

Fred scowled at me. “You know you sounded like a thundering herd trompin' down them stairs, don't you, missy?”

“Thundering herd?” I echoed, grinning.

“You laugh, but steep as those steps are, you're gonna fall and break a bone someday when nobody's here to help you.”

“Point taken, Fred. I'll slow down.”

“Nixy, child, how do we look?” asked Sherry.

I realized the Six stood in a line, as if for inspection as our former U.S. Navy nurse Maise Holcomb—who stood beside the others with her shoulders proudly thrown back and her eyes front—would say. We'd decided on a kind of uniform for the store, and so had ordered both short-sleeved forest green polo shirts and aprons in the same color, each with
Handcraft Emporium
embroidered in white above the left breast. Tonight Dab, Maise, Fred, and I wore the shirts while Sherry, Aster, and Eleanor wore the aprons. Most of
us paired the emporium wear with blue jeans and tennis shoes. Dapper Dab—Dwight Aloysius Baxter, to be precise—and Fix-It Fred Fishner had donned their typical gear with their shirts. For Dab, polyester pants and loafers, and overalls for Fred.

Elegant Eleanor Wainwright was the exception to casual. A beautiful black woman with an ageless complexion, her style ran to timeless, tailored outfits, much dressier than the rest of us usually wore. Tonight she'd paired blue linen slacks, a matching blouse, and low-heeled pumps with the emporium apron, and still looked like she belonged in a fashion magazine. I imagined she'd wear only the apron. Never the polo shirt. And that was fine by me.

In fact, to borrow a Fred-phrase, I'd bet my last nuts and bolts the shirts and aprons would fall by the wayside sooner than later. Probably even mine, but the Silver Six were rocking them tonight.

I smiled at them in turn. “Y'all look fantastic, but are you comfortable?”

“I am,” Dab said.

“I do believe the aprons and shirts turned out quite well,” Eleanor declared.

Aunt Sherry ran her hand down the front of her apron. “These are wonderfully soft, too.”

“I'm so glad we went with the hemp fabric,” Aster Parsons added. Aster was Maise's sister, our throwback hippie, and all-things-herbal expert. She carried lavender oil mixed with water, and sprayed at will. “Hemp is sustainable, you know.”

“We know, and this color will hide dirt and dust smudges,” Maise said.

“Considering how thoroughly y'all have cleaned, I don't think we'll get too dirty,” I soothed. “Does the shirt work for you, Fred?”

“I ain't used to working with a collar around my neck, but it's okay.”

Fix-It Fred was a walking hardware store in bib overalls. Tonight's dark denim pair partly covered the embroidery on the polo shirt, but he did look spiffy. The many tools he stuck into each of his dozen pockets stood soldier straight.

Maise clapped her hands. “Time's ticking. Is everything shipshape for the class?”

I looked over the room setup. Two four-foot folding tables were in place for Doralee Gordon, the gourd class instructor. She'd face the wall separating the workroom from the store. Two similar tables held refreshments at the back of the room. Four eight-foot solid wood tables, which Fred used for workbenches, were positioned in a semicircle to give all the students a good view of Doralee. The arrangement accommodated sixteen students, four per table, a roll of paper towels at each place.

We'd scrounged a variety of barstools to use for classes, and duct-taped green plastic dollar store tablecloths to catch paint spills. Fred's table surfaces were pretty much beyond harm, but Eleanor had insisted that the tablecloths gave them a clean, unmarred, less well-worn look.

“It's perfect, Maise. We only have eleven paid students, including you, Sherry, and Fred, but this gives us room for walk-ins.” If we had any. I hoped we would.

Sherry patted my arm. “Even eleven is a good turnout for our first guest instructor. It will take time to build a following. Besides, it's June. People are taking vacations.”

“I hadn't thought of that.”

“Chin up, child. It's all good.”

I blinked at Sherry's use of slang, then blinked again as all the seniors but Fred headed through the door into the emporium proper.

“Where are y'all going?”

Sherry gave me a wave. “I told Doralee to park out back, but we'll be mingling in the store, where I can watch for her in case she forgets.”

“And we're still training Jasmine,” Maise tossed over her
shoulder as she and Aster scooted out. “We'll send her back to help Doralee unload.”

Eleanor followed. “I do believe that girl is a splendid addition to the business. She'll bring in the younger crowd.”

“Maise assigned me to pass out name tags as the students arrive,” Dab said as he strode out, his pants riding on his bony hips.

When the door closed behind the exodus, I chuckled, knowing that their true mission was to fuss over and rearrange their individual art displays.

I cocked a brow at Fred. “You're not going out front?”

“Nope, out back. Got all my tools and projects locked up,” he said, gesturing at the wall of richly patinated pine cabinets, some open-shelved, some with doors and padlocks. “I told Ida Bollings to park in the lot out there, so I'll go keep a lookout for her.”

“You're seeing Ida, Fred?”

He winked. “What can I say? I got a weakness for dames with hot wheels.”

“Wheels as in her big blue Buick or that new walker she's sporting?”

“Both. Besides, she's bringing her famous pear bread.”

With that he clanked-clunked his walker, loaded tool belt fastened to the front of it, out the new door that led to the alley and the parking lot just beyond it. I didn't know how much Fred needed the walker to steady his steps versus how much he simply wanted to keep all his tools near to hand. I did know he lifted the walker more than he scooted it. He'd developed the arm muscles of a weightlifter to show for it. And it tickled me that he had a thing for Pear Bread Lady Ida.

When the door closed behind Fred with a solid
thunk
, I noticed I'd left the nearby door that led up to my apartment open. I crossed to shut it, then turned to gaze around the room. I took a deep breath, basking in the quiet for a moment.

The last month had been exhausting, and the next week would be another whirlwind. Thank goodness Jasmine
Young was doing a work-study program through the Business and Marketing Department at the technical college, and had chosen to do it with us. With skin the color of rich chocolate, she was enthusiastic about crafts and eager to learn the business, and all for minuscule pay, store discounts, and free classes if she wanted to take them. Since she had opted to take tonight's class from six thirty to eight thirty, Dab, Eleanor, and Aster would man the store.

Doralee Gordon should be here any old time now. I sure hoped she'd bring all the supplies she'd need. She'd seemed well organized when I confirmed the class details by phone, and what I'd seen of her art pieces lived up to her business's name: Hello, Gourdgeous. But if she'd forgotten anything key to teaching the class, we'd have a roomful of unhappy students.

Tomorrow we'd celebrate the first day of our grand opening and host a week of prize drawings, demonstrations, and discounts that we hoped would bring in buyers as well as lookers. Since three of the Silver Six, including Aunt Sherry, were folk artists themselves, they knew hundreds of other folk artists and craftspeople in our little part of southwest Arkansas and all over the state. A gratifying number of those artists had agreed to have their work sold in the emporium. In fact, we'd had such an overwhelming response, the store was well past full and verging toward cluttered territory.

Okay, so maybe only I found the space cluttered. I'd worked in a Houston fine art gallery where we carefully balanced featured pieces with negative, blank space, so being in the stuffed emporium made me feel claustrophobic early on. Now I was getting used to the shelves and display tables cheerily overflowing, Sherry's baskets hanging from the ceiling, quilts bursting with color hanging on racks, and several dress forms crowding the floor in a quirky formation. We even arranged some of the crafts on lipped benches out
on the sidewalk. I'd worried about thefts, but Sherry had assured me the goods would be safe. And Aster spritzed me with her infamous lavender water to calm me. An outside security camera would've been more practical than lavender, but we'd had three installed inside. One provided a partial view of the sidewalk, which would have to do for now.

Still, with the crowded condition in the store, and artists counting on sales to boost their incomes, I sure hoped we sold a lot of merchandise during the grand opening. We needed to launch the store on Friday and Saturday with a super big bang because we'd be closed on Sunday. That's the day Sherry Mae had decided to rededicate the Stanton family cemetery. Aster had already smudged the graveyard to clear negativity by burning sage, cedar, lavender, and something else I couldn't recall now. Sherry, though, had wanted a formal blessing, and had sweet-talked her Episcopal priest into doing the honors. She'd also insisted on holding an outdoor reception following the short ceremony. Her farmhouse sat on half a city block, so she'd invited the whole town to attend.

I hoped for a much smaller turnout. I still shuddered, remembering why we were blessing the cemetery at all, and I didn't want to spend the afternoon rehashing those events of just eight weeks ago.

I glanced at the oversized wall clock hung near the stairway to my loft apartment. Dang, where was Doralee? I'd barely finished the thought when Jasmine flew through the store door wearing her emporium T-shirt and nearly bouncing with excitement.

“She's here, Miss Nixy. Just pulling around back.”

*   *   *

“Good to meet you, Nixy, Jasmine,” Doralee said with a firm handshake when we met at her SUV. “This is my gentleman friend, Zach Dalton.”

“Nice to meet you both,” he said, meeting my gaze, then Jasmine's, his voice on the soft-spoken side, but pleasing.

“I hope you don't mind me bringing him to the class,” Doralee continued. “He's going to act as my assistant, and then we're making a weekend of it in Lilyvale.”

“Are you staying at the Inn on the Square?” I asked as her gentleman went to the back of the car to begin unloading. Jasmine joined him.

“Yes. We haven't checked in yet, but I understand we don't have to. Not in the usual way, I mean.”

“You're right.” I knew Clark and Lorna Tyler, the owners of the Lilies Café and Inn on the Square, so I knew the drill. “Just enter the code Lorna e-mailed you at the alley door and go up the stairs. A small jog to the left, and you'll be in the hall. Your name will be on the door of your room and the key will be inside.”

“Good to know, thanks. I'd better help unload.”

BOOK: Paint the Town Dead
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