Arkansas Traveler (Benni Harper Series #8)by Earlene Fowler
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Soon after arriving in Sugartree, Arkansaswhere she spent many lazy, languid childhood summersfolk art expert Benni Harper discovers that there's something seriously sinister brewing in this usually-peaceful town...
"Winning...Fowler delivers cozy entertainment without resorting to unrealistically syrupy solutions." Publishers Weekly
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The big-chested man sitting at the crowded Waffle House counter wearing the red plastic hog-head hat grinned and winked at Elvia. Her full lips, painted an eerily similar shade of crimson, shot him a frown worthy of Queen Victoria. He chuckled and whispered something to his friend, who wore not only a hog hat, but a red-and-gray sweatshirt stating, BEWARE, I HAVE HOG MANIA.
"I've had enough," Elvia said, pulling her beige cashmere cardigan closer around her. "You can take me home now."
I laughed and eagerly perused the sticky plastic menu. It had been way too long since I'd eaten a gut-busting Waffle House breakfast. When we pulled out of Little Rock's airport parking lot, my first glimpse of the towering black-and-yellow Waffle House sign caused me to cajole my friend into the restaurant's pure plastic interior. Waffle House restaurants were a Southern staple, something of a cross between a Denny's and a donut shop. I loved their unadorned, stick-to-your-ribs, grease-is-good workingman's food. Truth be told, there were cold mornings fixing fence in San Celina when I'd trade my best broke-in Justin boots for a mess of their hash browns.
"We just landed an hour ago," I said. "Give Arkansas at least twenty-four hours before you hightail it for the hills."
"Benni, we are sitting in a restaurant, the term loosely applying, being gawked at by grown men wearing plastic pig faces on their heads. Need I say more?" She grabbed a napkin from the dispenser and irritably scrubbed at a dried eggspot on the table. "I can't believe I agreed to come with you."
"Elvia, it's October. Hog hats are a fashion statement this time of year. No one looks twice at anyone wearing one. It's football season, and they're probably still high from yesterday's triumph over 'Bama."
"What's a bama?"
"University of Alabama. The Arkansas Razorbacks kicked their Crimson Tide butts 27 to 6. The tide is ebbin', and I can't wait to lord it over Amanda." I stirred my coffee, licked my dented spoon, then pointed it at her. "Even the most sophisticated Little Rock executives wear their hog hats with pride." I didn't dare let on that her beloved Emory, of the Perry Ellis suits and Hugo Boss ties, my own dear cousin who we were about to see in the next few hours, had a deluxe, custom-made hog hat that he treasured and wore to games and football parties without an ounce of embarrassment. The eyes lit up and glowed red when he pressed a hidden button. He was the envy of all his equally fanatic Razorback friends. "Besides, you said you wanted to see Emory on his home turf before your relationship went any further. Razorback football is a muy grande part of his turf. But I promise it's not the only thing. You'll love Sugartree." I gave her a reassuring smile.
She rolled her dark brown eyes, not believing me a moment.
"Then you love Emory. That should cover a multitude of fashion sins."
Her stiff expression softened, corroborating my words. It had only been in the last month that she'd finally been able to admit she was in love with my fifth cousin, who was more like a brother to me. The day she admitted she cared for him, that their relationship had "possibilities," he burst into my office at the Josiah Sinclair Folk Art museum, where I worked as curator, and danced me around the room singing "Goin' to the Chapel ..."
Emory had been in love with Elvia for twenty-four years, since the summer he was eleven and I was twelve. He had come to visit my family on our ranch outside San Celina on the Central Coast of California to heal from his mother's recent death. Twenty-three years later, he'd moved back out West specifically to woo and win her hand in marriage. After a year of persistence, it looked like he was finally in the homestretch. Though she didn't know it, the first month he came to San Celina he'd bought a two-carat, emerald-cut, platinum-set, blue diamond engagement ring. At thirty-six, I was finally going to be a matron of honor in my best friend's wedding. If everything went as planned, that is.
"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," she repeated, smiling this time. "But it does feel as if he's been gone for weeks, not days." For Elvia, that was as close as she was going to get to a confession of undying love and devotion to a man.
Emory had come to Sugartree three days earlier to help our great-aunt Garnet, Uncle WW, and his daddy, Boone Littleton, get ready for Sugartree Baptist Church's Homecoming festivities. Besides experiencing the beautiful state of Arkansas for the first time, Elvia was going to her first church homecoming, which is basically like a huge family reunion. Every person who's ever been a member of the church (including those who left under less than stellar circumstances ... homecomings were supposed to be a time of all-encompassing and retroactive forgiveness) comes back and catches up with those who stayed. Homecomings usually took place about once every ten years, and this year was a particularly special one since it was celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the church.
"He's called me four times a day since he left," Elvia said, trying unsuccessfully to hide her pleased expression. Ideas for silly bridal shower games started swirling around my head.
"Men in love, they're something else." I sighed, remembering that intense time when you first discover you're in love. Gabriel Ortiz, my own very sexy, blue-eyed second husband, could still inspire that longing in me, even after two years together.
Our waitress, a Waffle House classic in black pants and maroon apron with a wide cheerful smile and champagne-blond hair sprayed as stiff as our plastic menus, sidled up to our table.
"What'll it be, girls?" she asked, gazing curiously at Elvia. There was no doubt Elvia was going to stand out in a state where the two major cultural groups were African-American and Anglo. Drop-your-jaw gorgeous and elegant as a Town and Country fashion ad in her cashmere sweater set and black wool pants, she was also the only dark brown skin in the cafe. From my trips as a child, I knew there were not an overwhelming number of Hispanics in Arkansas, and those who lived here tended to keep to themselves. Not for the first time did I wonder how the primarily white and black population of Sugartree was going to react to my best friend.
We gave the waitress our orders, and she yelled out, "Double orderscattered, smothered, covered, chunked, topped, diced, and peppered. And one piece of toast." She gave Elvia another curious look. "Hon, are you sure you don't want anything else? Why, that little ole piece of bread wouldn't make a maggot fat."
Elvia's upper lip twitched in horror at the woman's graphic word picture. "Thank you, no. The toast will be fine. Butter on the side, please. What type of herbal teas do you carry?"
I snickered behind my plastic menu.
The waitress's mouth twisted in a crooked smile. "I'm sorry, ma'am, all's we have is Lipton."
Elvia gave a small sigh. "All right, then, please just bring me some fresh-squeezed orange juice, low pulp. Thank you."
"Excuse me?" the waitress said, her pencil frozen over her order pad. "Is she serious?"
"As a funeral," I said, giving her an apologetic grin. "Just bring her the Lipton. And an extra plate, please. We'll share my hash browns."
"Over my dead body," Elvia said when the waitress was out of earshot. "And what was all that she yelled about your potatoes?"
"Scattered means hash browns. Smothered is onions, covered is cheese, chunked is ham, topped is chili, diced is tomatoes, and peppered is jalapeño peppers. I ordered the peppers in honor of your Mexican heritage." I grinned at her.
She grimaced back. "Do they come with a side of Tagamet? The toast will be fine."
"Emory loves Waffle Houses."
She glanced around the brown-and-orange decor, shifting uncomfortably in the molded plastic bench seat. Metal ashtrays sat proudly on every table. Practical round globe lights dangled over every booth. The air inside was so cold condensation rolled down the windows in long decorative drips in an effort to combat the often still-muggy Arkansas mid-October weather. It was standing-room-only at the counter this late-afternoon hour with men sporting watermelon-sized stomachs, gimme caps jammed on their heads advertising everything from Ozark's Best hog feed to Wal-Mart to Bubba Paul's Pulled Pork BBQ to Napa Auto Parts.
"Then let's hope they never covet the California market," she said.
Just as I'd almost finished my double order of hash browns, even convincing Elvia to take a bite or two ("You make me eat menudo every year," I reminded her), the hog hat men stopped briefly at our table.
"Woo Pig Soieee!" The man in the sweatshirt gave the official Razorback call. "Here you go, ladies." He tossed a red-and-white lapel button on our table.
"Go, Hogs," I replied with a smile. He touched the rim of hishog hat and dipped his head.
Elvia picked up the button, frowning at the backs of the laughing men. It said, "Hogs Smell Good."
"¡Ay!" She closed her eyes for a second. "I want to go home."
"It's going to be fine," I said, taking the button from her hand and pinning it on my T-shirt. "You're going to have a ball."
"¡Ay!" she moaned, then crossed herself and muttered a quick Hail Mary.
Hope Meadows BERKLEY BOOKS
Real-Life Stories of Healing and Caring from an Inspiring Community
By WES SMITH
Copyright © 2001 Wes Smith. All rights reserved.
What People are Saying About This
"Winning...Fowler delivers cozy entertainment without resorting to unrealistically syrupy solutions." Publishers Weekly
Meet the Author
Earlene Fowler was raised in La Puente, California, by a Southern mother and a Western father. She lives in Southern California with her husband, Allen, a large number of quilts, and twenty pairs of cowboy boots.
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Earlene Fowler does not disappoint with this next adventure of Benni Harper. I have enjoyed watching the characters develop through the series. You feel you know each and every member of Benni's extended family. It is always nice to have an inside track with the police chief as your husband!
I have read 13 of the 14 Benni Harper series in the last three weeks. I just love Earlene's writings. I only have one more and will have to wait until next year for next and continuing saga of Benni & Gabe.
This installment in the Bennie Harper series is absolutely wonderful. The continuing saga of Bennie and Gabe, Emory and Elvia, and Dove and Issac is fantastic. I LOVE these characters! I hope the series continues for a long time to come. Bring it on Earlene!
As a child, Benni Harper of San Celina, California spent summers with relatives living in Sugartime, Arkansas. Benni has always looked back fondly to those days and hopes to recapture much of that feeling with her first visit in over a decade. The hot issue in Sugartime is the close mayoral race between a Black woman and a good ole boy. Benni is stunned to observe the bigotry that is blatant and hostile. The current mayor¿s son Toby Hunter leads a force intimidating anyone opposing the reelection of his father. This eventually forces his opponent Amen to withdraw from the race. Not long afterward, someone murders Toby and though he had a lot of enemies, the police lean towards Amen¿s nephew as the prime suspect. In spite of the objection of the local authorities, Benni begins her own inquiries into the homicide. Reading ARKANSAS TRAVELER is an accurate account of a divided community still unable to come to grips on racial harmony even as individuals have moved forward for the betterment of everyone. A Benni Harper mystery is always fun as readers revisit characters from the previous novels who are friends that keep growing as happens in this story. With her marriage still strong to Ortiz, the audience sees a glimpse of the heroine¿s past inside an enjoyable who-done-it. Harriet Klausner