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Authors: Alyse Carlson

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The phone was silent for a while.

“Those tubers will come back.”

“That’s true. It’s just . . .”

“This year. Yes, I get it. Pretty pageant . . . I just think it might be best to replace with annuals. It’s cheaper for me by a long shot—there are several blooming right now. And since the tubers will come back . . . I think perhaps even begonias. I had an overshipment of red wax begonias, and I have several other varieties I could choose from.”

“It’s a perfect solution. It definitely fits the pageant theme. Thank you so much!”

“Be sure to file a police report. I can recover some of this with insurance if we do. I don’t suppose you’ve caught the vandal?”

Police report.
Nell had a point. Cam supposed it was inevitable at this point.

“No suspect yet, but somebody also spray-painted the stage. My dad is building a trellis to cover that, and we’ll want to buy some flowers to weave in there, too.”

“Buy, nonsense. On a stage you want silk flowers—no water source. Real flowers would need to be replaced daily—more often in the heat they say we’ll get. I’ve amassed a collection over the years. I’ll bring them along.”

“Oh, you’re a lifesaver! Thank you!”

“Any chance of increasing the font size for Nelly’s Nurseries?”

“No, but there’s a strong possibility that Nelly’s Nurseries will make the news for their generosity after these vandalism events.”

“Well, then, it’s a good deal.”

Cam bit the inside of her cheek. She hated to do this, but Nell would be upset if she heard it elsewhere.

“There was one other thing, probably unrelated . . .” She went on to describe what had happened with Telly.

“Oh, my. When you say ‘one more thing,’ you don’t skimp, do you?”

When Cam hung up, she had to just breathe for a few minutes before returning to her friends and Lizzie, but she finally managed. It was time to get back to pageant preparation.

“Maybe you should let Lizzie’s mom get her back to rehearsal and I’ll tell you about my day,” Cam said to Annie. Rob, it seemed, had found another story angle to investigate and had taken off.

Lizzie started shrieking at the suggestion of leaving Annie; everybody turned to stare.

Annie squatted and set Lizzie in front of her so their noses were almost touching.

“Remember how I said you could help me later?”

Lizzie nodded.

“Well, if I want to be free for that, I have some things I need to get done now.” Annie shook Lizzie’s hand and Mindy and Lizzie left.

“Poor kid. Her mom doesn’t get her at all.”

“You aren’t biased?” Cam asked.

“About Mindy? Probably. She’s a status snob. But those were Lizzie’s words. She said, and I quote, ‘My mom doesn’t get me.’ And then she told me what she really wanted to be was a photographer. Well . . . maybe she called it a picture-taker, but I knew what she meant. I get her.”

Cam wasn’t sure how much free time there would be to indulge this, but it seemed to be keeping Annie a little more mellow than normal and was probably relaxing Lizzie, who clearly didn’t want to be there.

Cam looked up and saw Evangeline marching toward them. Cam quickly explained that the resolution with Lizzie had been fine and that Nell Norton had proven herself enormously generous about the flowers, provided they report to the police so she could make an insurance claim.

Evangeline put her hands over her face, expressing perfectly how Cam felt. It was always something—in this case several somethings—and the pageant was starting that night.

“Let’s go back to the office and sort this out.”

“What about . . .”

“Our volunteers seem to have it under control, but why don’t you check and meet me up there in a little bit?”

Annie headed with her camera toward the crowd.

Cam felt resigned. “Guess we should get back to normal, whatever that is,” she said, though as she looked up, she knew she’d spoken too soon. Benny was walking toward her with purpose. “I’ll meet you up there soon.”

“Three suspects. We’d like you to look at them,” he said when he reached Cam.

Cam followed Benny back toward the Arts Commission building.

“We saw Michelle leaving, so we watched the tape from there. Overnight there weren’t that many . . .”

“That’s good. It helps. Anybody coming in at night or early in the morning has some story. Maybe the security guard could help with who works in the building?”

Benny’s eyes lit up again. “Right! Good idea!” Cam frowned. She wondered how much of Benny’s response was automatic from years of
acting
stupider than he was and how much was actually missing stuff because he’d played dumb so long.

They reached the room. Cam had to first reassure Todd they’d found the lost child. She’d forgotten to call him when Lizzie was found. Benny then showed Cam clips that indeed looked suspicious—mostly because none of the people had used access cards to get into the building in spite of the hour. All had come in as someone else left. It didn’t mean they didn’t have access cards, but they certainly hadn’t proved they did on tape.

The first was a man with slacks and a button-up shirt. Cam thought it hadn’t been long since he’d removed his tie and jacket. The crisp white shirt screamed sales, though he looked a little disheveled. He appeared suspicious mostly because he kept looking around, as if he were being followed.

The next person was a woman who didn’t look at all suspicious, except she matched the worker’s description from the day before. She had khaki capris, a denim sleeveless blouse, and a broad hat. Sunglasses obscured her face and her hair was either short or tucked under the hat.

“Only identifiable thing about her is size,” Dylan said.

Cam started, looking behind her. She hadn’t realized he’d followed them in.

“Boo!” he teased.

Cam frowned and turned back. “What do you mean?”

“Back it up, Benny. There. See how the dead-bolt plate is almost at her shoulder? She’s a tiny thing—only around five foot, I’d guess.”

“I see what you mean,” Cam said. “So where’s our third person?”


People.
Couple.”

The tape caught a couple necking on the stairs and when the door opened to let a businessman out, the boy, clad in skater attire, caught it and held it for the girl, who had hair Cam could only describe as tortoiseshell—it had blotches of black and orange.

“Ever hear the phrase ‘get a room’?” Cam asked. “Those two are just looking for some privacy . . . probably not what this building wants, but I doubt they have anything to do with us.”

“I agree, but no saying they didn’t decide to pull some vandalism once they were here.”

“Wagner?” Cam said.

“What?” Benny said.

“Whoever did this erased the pageant music and put a bunch of depressing classical stuff on Michelle’s iPod. It was planned.”

“I thought all classical stuff was depressing,” Benny said.

“No, but even if you think so, Wagner takes it to a new level.”

She heard Dylan chuckling behind her and turned to glare.

“Hey, I’m just agreeing with you. Classical in my book is Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, but my sister took a lot of piano, so I’ve heard more than a person should have to.”

“Well, I’ll defend most of it, but I would reserve Wagner for suicide,” Cam said.

“Or wabbit hunting,” Dylan joked.

Cam was surprised he knew the
Bugs Bunny
opera was Wagner. She laughed, but knew she had to get back to meet Evangeline or Evangeline would worry.

“I think that little woman is our vandal,” she said. “But for now, I need to go. Todd, can you save all of these?”

Todd nodded.

Cam headed back up to the office to join Evangeline.

She rode the elevator to the second floor and locked the office door behind her. They needed a break.

Evangeline crooked her finger and walked to a side table in the large office. She pulled out a bottle of red wine and two glasses and began to uncork the bottle.

Cam thought it might be early to drink, especially with the pageant starting that night. But she also thought reminding Evangeline of that might make matters worse, so she just sat in the comfortable chair across the grand desk from where Evangeline would sit.

“Am I cursed?” Evangeline finally asked.

It was the last question Cam had expected. “What? No! You’re gorgeous, talented, happily married, and wealthy. How could that be cursed?”

“Maybe I have too much and . . . God is trying to right things.”

Cam leaned across the desk. “Evangeline, think of all the people with a lot more than you. The rich and famous, the politicians . . . Do you really think you have so much God would single you out?”

Evangeline sniffed. “Sometimes, but I know it’s not rational. I mean . . . you know I haven’t always been good, but for a very long time I’ve at least tried not to be bad. And I try to show my gratitude.”

It was true. Evangeline definitely had a colorful history, and some of it was not very flattering, but it was also true that she actively made a point of being kind and generous. Any past transgressions had been repaid long ago.

The phone rang and Evangeline’s peaches-and-cream complexion turned to skim milk. Cam jumped to grab the phone.

“Little Miss Begonia headquarters. Cam speaking.”

The dial tone came on and Cam hung up triumphantly. She reached for her wine and took a sip.

“Don’t answer it,” she ordered Evangeline. “Hey, wait a minute.” Cam pointed at the computer. “Can I log on?”

Evangeline turned the monitor and pushed the keyboard to Cam. Cam clicked through to her email and found what she was looking for: the video clip from Todd Cummings. Cam turned the monitor back to Evangeline as she watched.

“Do you know this guy? There!” She pointed.

Cam paused the video and Evangeline stared for a long time and then frowned.

“Yes, unfortunately. Why is he on a video you have?”

“That was the man I told you about, the one who asked about you in the elevator. And he also has been working in the Arts Commission building. How do you know him?”

“I went to high school with him way back when.” That was a little rich, Cam thought. Evangeline was only five or six years older than she was. “We went to a dance together, I think, but it never went anywhere. Then, when I first moved back to Roanoke—I suppose this was four years ago—my class was having its fifteen-year reunion. He and I ran into each other, had a few laughs, and then had a few dates. That’s when I learned he was married. It was the last straw for me and men my own age. I appreciate Neil’s maturity and integrity so much.”

Cam could understand that, but she didn’t want to lose direction. “Okay. So what’s this creep’s name?”

“Barry Blankenship.”

Cam nearly choked on the wine she had in her mouth. “Like the father of Lizzie and Lauren Blankenship?”

Evangeline’s face fell. “Really?”

“I don’t know, but it might explain his hovering. I’ll talk to Mindy and see if she can confirm who he is.”

“Cam. He’s a known liar, whatever else he is. He told me he was single and available, but he wasn’t. And you just said he wanted to see me?”

“Yes?”

“I doubt his wife knows what he’s up to.”

Cam hated that idea, but didn’t disagree based on what she knew. “I’ll just see what Mindy has to say, okay?”

Evangeline sighed and took a large drink, then massaged her temples for a moment before swallowing.

“After this pageant, no more deviations from a normal routine for us, okay?” Evangeline said.

“Even though it would put me out of a job, I think I agree!” Cam swallowed the last of her wine.

Cam considered the luck they’d been having and felt quite fortunate that Toni Howe had been available. She hosted a live morning television show, but as a cost-saving measure, her station was running reruns through the summer.

* * *

C
am found Rob on her way out. He’d talked to girls about their excitement level, their respective talent pieces, and what it would mean to each of them if they won until they all left to gather their things for the evening performance. It was terribly cute to see handsome, athletic Rob talking to all these little princesses. They seemed very pleased with the attention. He’d done his last interview, though, an hour earlier and had been on his phone since then. The only people left on the grounds were setting up for the audience that would attend the pageant that night.

“Jake says hello,” he said as he shut his phone.

“Any news on the poison?” she asked.

“Oleander,” he said.

“Oh, yeah. That would do it,” Cam said. Unfortunately, it reinforced that whoever had committed the crime was knowledgeable about gardening, or at least plant-based poisons.

She looked out at the men setting up chairs in front of the amphitheater and eyed the patched-up gardens and faux dogwood flowers. The begonias that would arrive the next day would do a better job hiding the damage to the lilies. They were also colorful and cheerful, something the sad, sagging lily heads were not. Most were currently bound to stakes to hold them upright, but they hadn’t forgotten their abuse. Cam wished they’d been able to get the begonias in that day, even if she knew the television cameras would be too far away to notice.

“I
sure wish with a dead judge they would let us postpone!” Evangeline was matching invoices to equipment in the staging area. Cam thought her comment was really just stage-night nerves talking.

They both knew it was standard for television not to change scheduling because of advertiser expectations. Still, Evangeline seemed to want to talk about it.

“Have you appealed to Judith Towers-Stevens?” Cam figured with a dead husband, she might feasibly try to find a loophole.

“She’s the one who told me.”

“She’s working? It’s only been a few days! And isn’t she a primary suspect? That won’t be good for publicity.”

Evangeline shrugged and nodded. “She won’t bow out and the station is supporting her.”

“Well, Toni is on board. I guess we can do it if we have to,” Cam said.

“Why do people die on our watch, Cam?”

“I wish I knew.”

Cam looked up and saw Judith Towers-Stevens walking straight toward them. She wondered if the woman’s ears had been burning.

“You should talk to her,” Cam said, thinking a society woman like Evangeline had a better shot at getting somewhere than she did.

“I’m sorry, Cam. I just can’t.” Evangeline ducked away, leaving Cam to face Judith Towers-Stevens alone.

Cam looked at her carefully. The woman was strangely dry-eyed as she got the camera crew into position for the evening.

Cam plastered on her most sympathetic smile. “Ms. Towers-Stevens, I’m so sorry about your husband.”

Judith swiped a hand irritably.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have an assistant or somebody else take over?”

“Oh, they never get it right. And I’ve been working with Jimmy Meares, who will only work with me.” Cam thought that was self-importance on Judith’s part. Jimmy had seemed perfectly willing to work with Cam.

“Maybe I can convince him . . . don’t you have a vice president of production or something you could call? Surely Jimmy would understand.” Especially if she was young and pretty, Cam thought, though she didn’t think sharing that thought was wise. She saw a flash of hope in Judith Towers-Stevens’s eyes. “Tell me who I should talk up. I’ll go work on him,” Cam said.

“Hilary Sweeny has been my right hand for six years. She’s very good.”

“I’ll work on Jimmy.” Cam spotted an opportunity in the form of her work crew putting the finishing touches on the mended garden. She called, “Dylan!”

He wandered over more slowly than Cam would have liked and then just stood in front of Judith Towers-Stevens and her expectantly.

“Dylan, Ms. Towers-Stevens is the television producer. It was her husband whom Scooter found the other day. Would you be able to see that she gets home?”

Dylan looked at Judith quizzically, as if sizing her up. “Sure. If it’s not far, I mean. I need to be back in an hour for lighting.”

Judith’s expression wasn’t readable but she didn’t argue, so Cam took that to mean she was close enough. Dylan must have understood the same thing.

“Car’s just on the street over there.”

Cam wondered if she’d regret this. She didn’t know Dylan very well, but she felt the sooner Judith Towers-Stevens was out of there, the better. It would help her argument with Jimmy Meares if Judith could be seen as too deeply grieving but that an excellent substitute was on the way.

* * *

C
am watched as Dylan escorted Judith toward the street. She looked a little like she had something under her nose, which probably reflected her opinion of men with dirt under their nails, though Dylan’s hair might have been a little long for her professional pedigree and he had grass stains on the knees of his jeans, too. As she watched, she saw something else of interest.

Ducking behind the stage was a smallish woman built like the figure caught sabotaging things, so Cam sprinted in that direction.

Rob spotted her and gave chase, too. Rob was a baseball player, and extremely fast, so it didn’t take him long to figure out who Cam was chasing and pass her in pursuit.

Tackling the woman onto the grass probably wasn’t the best idea he could have had, but it was effective, and Cam met them where they lay sprawled.

“Violated!” the woman shouted. “I’ve been violated!”

“Stopped, more like,” Cam said. “You planned more sabotage for the pageant, didn’t you?”

The woman closed her mouth and wouldn’t say any more, but Rob called Jake, whom Cam had seen go into the Arts Commission building a few minutes earlier. He was probably canvassing for potential murder witnesses, but he arrived within five minutes. The woman remained seated on the grass, glaring, and responded to the officer as expected.

“This young man assaulted me!”

“I tackled her to stop her from running. She’d . . .” Rob looked to Cam desperately. He didn’t know what the woman had done.

“She is suspected of all the vandalism that’s happened here,” said Cam. “There are witnesses who put her at the stage, and the security tape puts her in the Arts Commission building the night our music was sabotaged.”

Jake looked uncomfortable. “You just
think
it was her?”

“She was there two of the three times.”

“Cam, that’s circumstantial. I can’t arrest somebody for that.”

“Search her bag!” Cam shouted.

“And I can’t do
that
without a warrant.”

The woman looked very smug as she rose. “Am I free to leave, Officer?”

“You are.”

Cam thought they were lucky Jake didn’t offer to press charges against her and Rob. The woman seemed just the type to do it for spite.

Jake eyed them both as he headed back to the Arts Commission. Cam recognized his “You know better” look. But she wasn’t sure how to catch a criminal without chasing her down when you saw her. She decided to imagine they’d just avoided a huge fiasco by scaring this woman off.

* * *

T
he sound of someone screaming brought her back to the present, and the trio rushed back to the front of the band shell. It was delighted screaming. Cam rolled her eyes. In spite of the obnoxious show of his agent a few nights earlier and the agent’s recent mention in conversation, she’d forgotten that Kyle Lance would be arriving before the show to meet the girls. Teen, or in this case tween, idols brought more emotion than any other kind of star.

She rushed back to the amphitheater. The curtain finally had been taken down to reveal her dad’s spectacular skill with the lattice. She suspected Lydia Fennewick might have made herself available to help, as she was hovering now, eying Nelson Harris with a dreamy smile.

Cam went around the giggling girls.

“Daddy, it’s gorgeous!” She hugged him.

“You sound surprised.”

“I’m never surprised when you make something beautiful, but you had so little time! So I’m still impressed.”

“What was all that excitement with you chasing that lady?”

“We think she’s the vandal, but we don’t have any evidence.”

“That little thing?”

“She’s been seen at two of the three crime scenes.”

“Well, I bet a lot of people have.”

“Oh, don’t go defending everybody.”

“Not everybody, just . . .” He paused and Cam could tell he didn’t want to say it out loud, so she leaned in. “Just women of a certain age,” he said sheepishly.

“You’re a sucker for a pretty face.”

“I suppose I am at that. Do you need anything else, sunshine?”

“I’d love it if you’d come back for the pageant. It starts at seven.”

“I’ll be here.” He kissed her cheek and headed back toward his car, giving Lydia a friendly wave and smile as he left.

The crowd had mellowed considerably. Kyle Lance had shaken each girl’s hand and promised an autographed picture for each of them before the pageant was over. Cam could see his back as he returned to his limousine, accompanied by smarmy Jimmy Meares. She liked to think the boy was nice, but somebody advising him had very poor taste. She remembered, though, she had business with Jimmy, so she shouted and ran after him.

For all the fuss Ms. Towers-Stevens had made about having Hilary step in, Jimmy didn’t seem to care at all. She was glad to check that off her list.

* * *

T
he supper buffet was off to one side. Hired helpers had set out chairs. Pageant veterans had spoken of the nightmares of pageant participants held up by slow restaurants. It was just easier to have it all done on location. Even if it was a little behind schedule, everyone had the same disadvantage, though Cam trusted Petunia and her luau bonanza to be right on time.

As they had the night before, Nick and Petunia pulled right onto the lawn behind the tent. The girls were starting to return from their hotels, so Cam went over to help Petunia unload.

Not five minutes later, Venus DiAngelo, one of the pageant contestants, ran out of the library shrieking, her mom not far behind. Cam practically dropped the fruit bowl she was carrying and ran to head off the upset girl.

“Venus, what happened?”

“Somebody dumped all my makeup!”

“What? Come with me. We’ll look into this.” Cam turned the girl back around and headed toward the library, catching the mother on the way and explaining that she was there to help investigate.

“It’s very expensive, you know,” the woman said. “The very best stage makeup. Venus dances a ballet. She is dressed as a dragonfly.”

“Sounds lovely!” Cam said. It actually did sound sort of cool, were it not dripping in pretension because this mother was absurd. But vandalism was vandalism, and it couldn’t be tolerated.

When the woman showed Cam, Cam gasped. The makeup hadn’t just been dumped, it had been taken into the main portion of the library and dumped onto a bookshelf. Cam shouted and stormed back out to where the girls were gathered and called everyone to her.

“Somebody here not only sabotaged a teammate, but vandalized library books. Until the culprit comes forward, or somebody turns them in,
nobody
will be permitted
any
makeup. Violators will be disqualified.”

Unlike on school grounds, pageant contestants held no disregard for snitches if it got the rest of them what they wanted. Within ten minutes, Delphinia Lovette-Hicks had turned in Skye Derringer. Skye swore Delphinia had dared her, and Cam left the outcome between the parents, but insisted on seventy-two dollars from each to cover the makeup replacement cost and took credit card numbers to address the book replacement. There had to be a no-tolerance policy or these nuts would bring chaos upon them.

* * *

T
he talent competition always caused high tension, or so Lydia Fennewick had told Cam. Cam had never seen a Young Miss pageant before. As she hovered behind the scenes, she felt a little dirty for being involved. Mothers rubbed Vaseline on their daughters’ teeth to make sure they sparkled, and poked them into perfect posture, barking reminders every ten seconds.

When Alexandria pushed Andromeda over, though, Cam stepped in again.

“Do y’all want to explain what this is about?”

Neither girl would look at her.

Cam knew she had to be tough or she’d be dealing with this all week. “Let me rephrase. I saw Alexandria push Andromeda over. If you won’t explain yourselves, I will just tell the judges and you’ll both be penalized.”

Andromeda’s mom tried to protest, but Cam stared at her. “I have this authority. I suggest you don’t interfere.”

“Andromeda called me names,” Alexandria said.

“No. I said hers was a white trash song,” Andromeda argued.

Cam spun to stare at her. “Did you
not
hear the no-criticism rule?”

“I was trying to help. She needs a better song.”

“You are not helping when a song has already been practiced. Keep it to yourself or go home.”

Andromeda looked down as Alexandria smiled.

“You.” Cam turned. “Pushing is physical. I could send you home this minute. Do you want that?”

Alexandria sobered and sputtered.

“You apologize, and if it happens again, you’re disqualified.”

Alexandria nodded and muttered a quiet apology. Cam thought about harassing her for a better one, but it wasn’t worth it. It was time to get this under way, and she had bigger things to worry about.

Sofie went on first with an impressive piano performance, followed by Delphinia’s ballet and Alexandria’s rendition of a song Cam had never heard before that indeed might fall under the category “trashy,” but the performance of it was cute, rather than mortifying. Unfortunately, near the end, Mindy found her, needing urgent help.

“Come quickly!”

Cam rushed after her toward the library, where they found Lauren in tears. The blue formal gown she was going to wear for her song had been shredded with scissors, the white undercoats peeking through in grotesque, jagged lines.

“When did this happen?”

“We only brought it from the hotel just before supper.”

“Celeste.” Cam turned to the volunteer who was working the changing room. “Who’s been in here?”

“Only the contestants and their mothers, and I’ve been here the whole time.”

“Somebody is sabotaging Lauren!” Mindy cried. “She’s a favorite!”

Cam wasn’t sure that was true, but she didn’t say that to Mindy. This was much more serious than the makeup, in any case. Dresses could cost close to a thousand dollars, and Cam doubted Mindy was a bargain shopper, never mind the inherent threat implied by using a sharp implement for the job.

“You’re sure it was fine before it got here?”

“How could it
not
be fine? I packed it myself in Lynchburg. It was fine then. Who would touch it in the hotel?”

“You’re right. That’s silly. For the time being, I’ll get Lauren moved to Thursday for the talent piece. Hopefully you can replace it or borrow something by then?”

“This was specially made!”

“Mindy, I’m so sorry. And we will investigate, but it is her song that is the talent, right?”

Mindy looked furious for a minute but finally gave in.

“Mindy Blankenship?”

They both turned to find Jake in the doorway.

“Yes?”

“I have a few questions for you.”

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