It’s early October, time for the Fall Folk Art Festival and Bake Sale in Lilyvale, Arkansas. Every business along the town square will benefit from the event, including the craft store run by Leslee Stanton Nix—aka Nixy—and the Silver Six, a group of retirees. In charge of making the festival go smoothly, Nixy is confident that it will be a success.
But things become knotty when local troublemaker Cornell Lewis is found dead with a plate of Snickerdoodles from the bake sale. Two members of the Silver Six are accused of cooking up a murder plot, but Nixy knows that the cookies weren’t literally to die for. With time running out, Nixy and company must catch the actual killer...before the Silver Six find their number permanently reduced to four.
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The Handcraft Emporium bustled with activity late Friday morning, but not with shoppers looking for unique gifts or home dcor. Today we prepped for the small army of artists who'd soon invade Lilyvale for the Fall Folk Art Festival. Many would soon come to the emporium to collect the items they consigned with us and move them to their festival tents to sell.
Sounds of packing tape being ripped from multiple rolls punctuated the cheerful chatter as we assembled cardboard boxes. Well, the Silver Six assembled. I'd helped with the taping until the third time I lacerated my fingers on the dispenser's teeth. Those little suckers were sharper than my cat's claws, and Maise thought blood on the boxes would be bad for business.
"Leslee Stanton Nix!"
"What did I do now, Aunt Sherry?"
She flashed me a grin as she finished taping the bottom of another carton. Since she was even shorter than my five foot three, she'd cleared a round display table to work.
"Nothing but be brilliant, child. I tell you, it was a stroke of genius when you suggested holding the festival in town, and making it a two-day event!"
"I'm happy you're excited," I answered, scurrying to shift her completed cube out of the way.
I placed the boxes near the goods the artists would be packing, but we were fast running out of floor space even though I nested as many boxes as I could. Of course, my critters weren't helping. Amber, a black-and-tan German pinscher-hound mix, came to my knees and weighed maybe twenty-five pounds. Her nose twitched like mad as she shoved the cartons around with her head. T.C., a short-haired brown-and-gold tiger stripe with only three toes on her front paws, jumped in and then out of the same boxes to startle Amber. Right. Like the dog didn't know her constant companion was in there. Still, it made me laugh, and Aster chuckled, too.
"We're all excited, Nixy," Aster assured me. Dressed today in black yoga pants and a flower-power tunic, our Earth Mother and herbalist worked at a folding table with her sister, Maise. Aster's famous lavender water in a spray bottle stood at the corner of the table ready to spritz. "Heavens, can you imagine having to move all this to the farmhouse for just one day? Even packing up our own art pieces would have been so much trouble!"
"It's a consarn pain in the patoot as it is," Fix-It Fred grumbled. "I thought the artists were bringin' their own crates."
Eleanor Wainwright, a model-lovely black woman dressed in tailored gray slacks with a royal-blue blouse, tsked at Fred. "I do believe they will have their own cartons, but it can only help to have extras handy."
She stood between Fred and Dapper Dab at the antique oak counter with its glass front and top. The three of them were the tallest of the Six, so Maise had assigned that duty station to them.
"The business owners on the square sure have been good about supporting us," Dab said as he handed me a box, then hitched up his dark gray pleated trousers. They fell right back to his bony hips, but with his full head of thick white hair, he still looked neat as a pin.
"That's because they know the value of having festival shoppers roaming the square and in the mood to spend money."
Sherry nodded as she folded the flaps of a small box. "Right, Aster, not to mention all our vendors and shoppers needing places to stay and good places to eat. I heard both the Inn on the Square and the Pines Motor Court were sold out for the whole weekend."
"That ain't sayin' much, seein' as how neither of them places has many rooms to begin with."
"Yes, Fred, but full is full, and that's a good thing," Sherry argued. "Why, I understand some of our artists are staying in Magnolia, Camden, and even El Dorado. That can't help but spread the word about the festival."
I grinned as I shuttled more cartons off the work spaces. The semiannual one-day event the Silver Six had held for the previous three years on Sherry's ancestral farmhouse grounds had drawn folk art aficionados from as far away as New Mexico, so the festival wasn't exactly a best-kept secret. Nothing in Lilyvale was.
"I still say getting everyone from the Chamber of Commerce and the city and county officials on board was the key," Aster said.
"Less talking, more taping, troops," ex-Navy nurse Maise ordered, rapping a knuckle on the folding table. She promptly countermanded herself by adding, "Nixy, are you certain you have signed waivers from all the vendors?"
I picked up another of her cartons. "Most mailed the release forms back to me, and I'll get the rest when they come to set up. I promise, I have duplicates of every form, permit, and license, and extra copies of the schedule, plus the diagram of where each tent will be."
"The traffic cones will be set up by one this afternoon to block off the parking lots?" she fired at me.
"One thirty, and I'll have the spaces for each vendor marked off by three."
"See if you can shave half an hour off that time. When will the large trash bins be out?"
"By day's end, if not sooner. I don't want the vendors to have to weave around obstacles when they're unloading their tents and whatnot."
"All right, then, go get us more tape. I'm almost out."
"So am I," Dab said.
"And I," Eleanor added.
I circled to the counter to snag their completed boxes and paused as Fred handed me his. "Don't you have more tape stashed in your tool belt?"
"No, and I ain't got any squirreled away in my overalls either, missy, so don't be teasin' me about what I tote around with me."
"I only teased you once."
"Yes, and she got you good," Sherry said on a chortle.
Nearly bald, no-nonsense Fred was famous for his many colors of overalls, which he usually wore with plain white T-shirts. All his overalls sported extra pockets sewn on by Aster and Maise. Every pocket held one gadget or another, never mind the loaded tool belt he kept fastened to his walker most of the time. The clank-clunking of the belt announced when he was coming, and the man had biceps like Popeye because he lifted the walker more than scooted it.
"Get on with you now," he said, shooing me with one hand. "I got a stash of tape in one of my workroom drawers."
"And get a few more boxes while you're there," Maise directed.
"Aye-aye," I said, resisting the urge to snap a salute.
When I opened the connecting door between the store and Fred's workroom in back, Amber and T.C. scampered around me and headed to their water bowls. I closed the door, scooched one of the bar stools we'd scrounged over to one of the four large, scarred wooden tables, and sank onto the seat. I needed just to breathe in the quiet for a moment. I loved the Silver Six, but most days they ran rings around me.
Not that I regretted relocating to Lilyvale. I'd come to town in April with every intention of heading right back to Houston, but in less than a week, I knew I belonged here with Sherry and her housemates. I'd moved in May and never looked back.
The Six had pitched in with gusto to make the emporium happen in record time. We'd primed, painted, and polished the structure inside and out. The only things we'd left alone in this room were the vinyl flooring, the cabinets, and the worktables. I traced a heart and then a spiral someone had carved into the wood, and smiled. No matter what logic I'd used, Fred wouldn't hear of sanding and refinishing the tables or cabinets. He said the tables he'd use as workbenches would only get battered again, and so would the pine cabinets lining two walls where he'd store his tools and supplies. The units had been built of local lumber at least seventy-five years ago, but he liked that the cabinets had yellowed with age. Gave them character, he'd insisted. Since this was his domain, if he was happy, the rest of us were, too.
I was proud of what we'd accomplished in just four months, and now we were mere hours from welcoming artists for the two-day festival. Not all of those who sold through us would have booths, and that was fine. I wasn't not sure how many more tents we could've accommodated.
Would heads roll if there were glitches? No, but when I'd suggested relocating the event for the convenience of being near the store, the Silver Six had supported me from the get-go, and I wanted to prove worthy of their trust. Besides, I could be even more exacting than the Six were. Since I was in charge of this shindig, I'd do all I could to ensure it went off without a hitch.
Of course, I did notice that not one of my emporium co-owners wore our "uniform." I wore my green polo shirt with one of my many pairs of cropped pants with cargo pockets, but we also had green aprons in addition to the shirts. Both were embroidered with handcraft emporium over the left breast and were supposed to set us apart from shoppers. Or in the case of this weekend, vendors. Ah well, I knew by now to pick my battles with the Silver Six, plus the store shirts and aprons weren't a total bomb. Jasmine Young, our work-study employee from the technical college, wore them.
Which reminded me that Jasmine was supposed to come in at four thirty to help us straighten and reorganize, and she was bringing a friend from the tech school, Kathy Baker. Jasmine would be going to Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia in January to pursue a business degree, and though Magnolia was only about a thirty-minute drive away, she'd decided not to commute to work for us. I understood, and I was happy she'd wanted to introduce us to Kathy as her possible replacement.
Time for me to get moving before Maise had me keelhauled. Fred kept his space in apple-pie order, as Sherry said, so I quickly found three rolls of tape in a deep drawer. I turned to call to the animals only to see them curled up together on a spacious, fluffy dog bed. They'd been inseparable since I'd first found them in the alley, but seeing the girls spooned together, sometimes snoring, was too cute.
I hotfooted it back to the storefront with the tape and a few flattened boxes, renewed and ready to tackle the rest of the day.
By three oÕclock, well over half of the vendors had arrived, and setup was in full swing.
I stood on the sidewalk a few steps higher than street level just outside the Handcraft Emporium surveying the scene and inhaling the sweet hint-of-autumn air. Where cars customarily parked in two rows of diagonal spaces, a sea of ten-by-ten tents now stood, filling both the east and west parking lots of Lilyvale's town square. Gaily striped canopies fluttered in the pleasant early October breeze, happy voices rang out, and I returned cheerful waves from artisans.
So far, so good. The weather was forecasted to cooperate this weekend, being sunny but not too hot or humid. For southwest Arkansas in early October, having temperatures in the upper seventy-degree range was as perfect as I could've wished. Still, I knocked on the wood clipboard I clasped against my chest for luck.
My phone vibrated in the pocket of my pants. The screen showed it was Aunt Sherry calling.
"Are you standing outside for a reason, or just basking in the glow?"
"Basking," I said on a chuckle.
"Well, get it in gear. I need you to pack Diane Grindall's jewelry and deliver it to her. She has help putting up her tent, but she broke her leg last week, and the less she has to hobble on those crutches, the better."
"Be right there."
Inside, the store felt more like Party Central than a shopping destination. Smiling faces, excited greetings, and laughter echoed through the space. I'd barely placed the clipboard on the antique counter when Sherry snagged my elbow and towed me through the crowd to reintroduce me to everyone. I'd met some of the artists at Sherry's Spring Folk Art Festival in April, and others when they'd dropped off their goods at the store over these past months. The rest I knew only from phone calls and e-mails. Bless them, most had been at least agreeable if not enthusiastic about giving the new venue and the Saturday-Sunday time frame a shot.
We'd insisted that our vendors pick up any of their wares consigned in the store for the duration of the festival. We didn't want to be in competition with booth sales, which was partly why the store was packed and the party was on. Our established artists had come to gather their items and stayed to visit, while our new vendors came to make connections.
Social obligation met, Sherry pulled me back toward the antique glass counter. We displayed extra delicate or expensive items on the three tiers of glass shelves.
"Diane's jewelry is on the bottom tier," she said. "There's a small box on the shelf behind the counter. Pack her things and run them over to her, will you, child?"
"I keep the earring and necklace sets together, right?"
"I'm sure that would be helpful."
Someone called Sherry from across the room, so she patted my arm and took off. I moved behind the counter and began packing the exquisite jewelry made with pearls and semiprecious gems while I watched the Silver Six work the room.
A few steps from me, Maise, the chief cook of the Six, talked recipes with BBQ Bo, a handsome black man who sold amazing meat rubs for grilling. A few steps away, Eleanor laughed with a stained-glass vendor, and, after assembling boxes all morning, she looked as elegant as ever.
Across the room, Aster seemed to be consulting with a vendor I didn't know. The younger woman pointed to a jar of Aster's balm, and Aster gestured at others. A master gardener, Aster used essential oils to create her line of lotions and potions. Shortly before our website went live, she changed her product name to Aster's Garden. The last of her redesigned labels hadn't arrived until after five yesterday afternoon, and then it was all hands on deck to carefully align the self-adhering stickers on every salve, balm, body butter, hand lotion, and room spritzer in her inventory.