It's spring in Pawpaw County, Indiana. Everyone has a bad case of hanky-panky pants. Amatuer women detectives Ruby Jane (RJ) Waskom and Veenie Goens are on the run, chasing down cheating heart jezebels and shaking child support out of deadbeat baby daddies. Love takes a peculiar turn when a local dentist turns up dead, dressed like a scarecrow, on the porch of his father's mistress’s home in Hound Holler. When a gigged body floats up at the White River Boat and Gun Club, Sassy Smith, senior cougar, is arrested for the murder. RJ bemoans that no one in Pawpaw County can keep their pants on or their skirts down as her grown daughter begs for help chasing down her philandering husband. The romantic mysteries come to a surprise head as the women sleuths outrun shotgun showers to close in on the answers at the Moon Glo Motor Lodge, the Original Home of Hillbilly Hanky Panky. Veenie and RJ have to buy an extra case of Bengay and a butt load of BBs just to keep up with the romantic misadventures in this humorous country cozy classic."Bsby Daddy Mystery" is Book 2 in the award-winning "Shady Hoosier Detective Agency's" funny women detectives series.
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The windows of the detective agency rattled like God's wind chimes as Shap Reynolds thundered by on his combine of death. Shap had been driving up and down Main Street all morning, honking at the agency and screaming death threats at Harry Shades, my boss. Shap's normally pasty-white face was watermelon red, and his blue eyes, normally as quiet as a summer sky, were shaking in his head. He had more spittle and sweat running down his face than a boxer dog gone mad.
I'd been trying all morning to ignore Shap. I had my head down, my whole body hunched over my computer keyboard. I wasn't getting a lick of work done because of the road racket and Shap's shouting. Clearly, the old coot felt he'd been wronged, and he wasn't going back to farming until somebody paid him some mind.
Veenie, though, was sitting next to me, sympathizing with the brokenhearted fart. She peered up over her thick glasses. "Harry been diddling Shap's wife, Dottie, again?"
"That'd be my guess."
"Why you reckon he keeps hitting on that? You ask me, she looks like the type of gal he'd be best renting by the hour."
"She was Miss Starlite Bowling," I reminded Veenie.
"Back in the seventies."
"The heart wants what the heart wants."
Veenie thumped the return on her keyboard. "Looks to me like a heap of other organs might have gotten involved."
Lavinia Goens — Veenie — is my best pal. She's seventy-one years old with a chipmunk face and a white wisp of Kewpie doll hair. Her blue eyes twinkle like stars behind her Coke bottle glasses. People think she's a little doll — until she opens her pie hole. Most days she itches for excitement with so much energy she practically bounces around the office.
My name is Ruby Jane Waskom — RJ to most — and at the age of sixty-seven, I itch for a weekly paycheck. Veenie and I had been best pals since we worked side by side on the auto button line at the Bold Mold Plastics Factory. This was way back, before the EPA decided that pouring plastic waste into the White River was a doo-doo of an idea.
The Harry Shades Detective Agency, where we work now, had received a passel of threatening phone calls from Shap earlier that morning. In his defense, Shap had good reason to bark at us. That reason was not me. It was not Veenie. It was our boss, Harry Shades, private eye and champion man skank. It was spring in Knobby Waters, Indiana, and Harry, like most of God's creatures, had been busy rattling the sheets.
The last time Shap caught Harry dicky dunkin' his wife, he'd sprayed our office with a 20-gauge. Veenie wanted to leave the scatter holes visible. This being a detective agency and all, she thought it added "atmosphere." I thought it'd scare the poop out of our clients, most of whom were not all that eager to be on the receiving end of a buckshot shower.
Harry's affair with Dottie Reynolds was seasonal — a perennial, I reckon you'd call it. Shap tried to mow Harry down with his combine last spring. You'd think Harry would have learned his lesson, but oh no, like Dewey, Ma Horton's prize rooster, he was back on the strut. Not wanting to be reaped and threshed by Shap, Harry, who lived upstairs above the office, shimmied out the alley window early this morning. He tore out of town. If history repeated itself, he'd be gone about a week, two tops. Harry liked Dottie, and he loved sex, but he wasn't about to die for either of them.
"Harry here?" Veenie asked. She'd come in late — stopped to watch the Widow Guthrie shooting noisy, lust-puffed woodpeckers off the lip of her grain elevator — and had missed the circus of phone calls.
"Skedaddled. Said the place was ours."
"On a bender?" Veenie loved saying "bender." She loved to pretend that we lived on the set of Dragnet instead of tucked between cornfields in the soggy bottomlands of Indiana.
"On the lamb," I said. "Boy, I wish just once Harry would hang around and take his medicine like a man. Maybe we could get some work done. It's mighty hard concentrating with dingdongs like Shap taking potshots at us."
Veenie peered up over her glasses. "Harry hiding out until the affair blows over?"
"Or Shap runs out of shotgun shells."
Harry Shades wasn't a bad man, just not the brightest. He was on the right side of sixty and still wore the same size pants as in high school, same style too: wide-waist, rayon dress pants from Sears. He was a bowling prodigy, able to pick up pocket change and loose women with regularity at the Tuesday night Starlite Bowling for Dollars Extravaganza. He had all his hair, which was the color of pewter, and he wore three piece suits. He was a catch, provided you weren't all that fussy about what landed on the end of your line. Only the good Lord knew why he only "dated" married women. Liked the drama, I reckoned.
Veenie printed documents and slid them into a "case closed" folder. The Mellencamp case was done. We'd caught Mr. Newt Mellencamp cheating on his wife, Betty, with Conchita, the countywide Mary Kay Cosmetics saleslady. Now everyone knew what a slimeball Newt was. He'd have to cough up alimony, maybe even an apology. Veenie and I both considered that a good week's work.
Harry, the boss, was always on us to work faster and pull in more clients. He considered us junior detectives in training, senior slaves near as we could decipher. Harry bought his PI license from one of those Internet colleges. He had a badge and a diploma. When he got uppity — that would be a buttload of the time, folks — Veenie liked to remind him that his diploma, a teeny-weeny laminated thing that fit in his wallet, looked exactly like something Barbie might carry to a job interview in her purse.
Hanky-panky was the bread-and-butter of the Shady Hoosier Detective Agency — what the locals called the Shades Detective Agency because of the boss's spotty reputation with the ladies. Most days our work was pretty humdrum. Veenie and I hunted down deadbeat dads and cheating spouses. Harry waved his gun around and shook down the offenders for loose change. There was usually more than enough work to keep us in bologna and cheese. Heck, on a good week, we might even afford a Dairy Queen run.
One thing Pawpaw County had in spades was cheating-heart Romeos. Over at the old folks' home, recently splashed with a fresh coat of yellow paint and renamed Leisure Hills, it was a badge of honor to die while in the throes of romance. Squeal Daddy, the anonymous blogger who ran the Hoosier Squealer website, loved penning lurid gossip about "death boners." Romantic injuries were also a favored topic of conversation down at the VFW. The VFW was the social hub of Knobby Waters, should you be over sixty and in need of some reasonably sane conversation — and cheap well drinks on Wednesdays.
Sliding aside the Mellencamp case file, Veenie popped open a drawer on her desk. Her tiny liver-spotted hands dangled a brown paper bag under my nose. "Made us some tuna fish."
I squinted at her. "You look slimmer. Tuna fish diet?"
"Nah. Got me some new old lady undies. Newfangled. Had a run of seconds down at the Goodwill." Veenie showed me the top waistband of her underwear. It was beige and read "Spankies."
By seconds, I hoped she meant irregulars.
"They help slim me up," she said, patting her stomach. "But they ain't Moses. Can't perform miracles."
Veenie was wider than she was tall. Four feet, seven inches. One hundred fifty pounds. She liked to wear outfits she thought disguised her beach-ball physique — mostly capri stretch pants and ponchos. Ponchos had been easy enough to find in the early seventies but had fallen out of fashion in the greater Midwest in the last forty years. That did not deter Veenie. On a tight budget, she shopped for clothes in the Goodwill dumpster in the alley between the Roadkill Café and the post office. She liked to get the good stuff before it got pawed through by the public. If she found anything worth snatching, she left a two dollar cash donation. That day's Goodwill steal was a zebra-striped poncho and a pair of bumble-bee-yellow capris.
I fished in the paper bag and yanked out a sandwich. It was wrapped in waxed paper. Yellow squished out the edges. "Mustard?"
"Yours has mustard. Course it does." Veenie nibbled at her sandwich. She washed it down with a carton of chocolate milk. "How long you think Harry will be gone?"
I shrugged and chomped on my tuna. "A week?" I pulled a lettuce leaf out from between my back molars. It was red, the kind I liked. I had another go at it.
With Harry on the lamb, Veenie and I ran the detective agency pretty much as we pleased. I wrote our paychecks. Veenie tallied and replenished the petty cash. We kept busy making Knobby Waters a respectable place to live — or die, as the case might be. Our clients tended to be elderly or heavy drinkers, often both.
We agreed that while Harry was out of town, we'd embrace any soul who hocked up the five-hundred-dollar retainer. We were all ears once we had the five big ones.
Taking cases indiscriminately was a decision we began to regret right after lunch. The tuna was barely licked from our fingers, and Shap, convinced Harry had fled, had finally wheeled out of town, when Avonelle Apple huffed through our door.
Everybody knew Avonelle, the bank president. She'd lived in Pawpaw County her whole life, lording it over the citizens of Knobby Waters, and she was the only person in town with home-dyed hair the color of apricots. Veenie, along with most of Pawpaw County, had been spitting and spatting with Avonelle for the better part of fifty years.
Judging by the determined look on Avonelle's face as she stormed into the office, I could tell that one heck of a new battle was brewing.CHAPTER 2
Avonelle's apricot-colored hair was puffed up like cotton candy. Her eyebrows, penciled on in high arches, were a darker shade of apricot. She wore a nice knit suit in a pastel green with a large white Buster Brown silk tie, like the kind Nancy Reagan used to wear. She carried a black purse with a gold clasp with both hands, placing it dead center across her lady parts. Overall, she was shaped like a bowling pin and had a personality pretty much the same.
Avonelle pulled out a white monogrammed handkerchief and dusted off the seat I offered her. She sat down like a lady and crossed her ankles, then nervously uncrossed them. She wiggled in the chair. It was a tight fit with those bowling-pin hips. She sighed deeply, as if already put out with the Shades Detective Agency and whatever misfortune had forced her to darken our door.
Veenie, playing it safe, had vamoosed behind a file cabinet. I could hear her tiny ears flapping, trying to snatch every syllable of Avonelle's distress. Clearly Avonelle had a problem, and Veenie wasn't about to miss out on any ear-busting gossip.
A natural born judge, Avonelle appointed herself head of every town committee. That was how she and Veenie came to lock horns. Back in 1968, Avonelle had judged the cat contest at the Pawpaw County Fair. The way Veenie told it, Avonelle had cheated Veenie's calico cat, Mrs. Puff Pants, out of the grand champion ribbon. The award went to Mrs. Hall's tuxedo cat, Cary "Claws" Grant. In exchange, Mrs. Hall voted Avonelle in as Grand Poobah of the Knobby Waters Ladies Home Improvement Society. That incident was the beginning of a fifty-year grudge.
"How might we help you?" I asked Avonelle as I plucked up a pen and a legal pad and smoothed down my halo of white hair. Avonelle seemed like a good bet as a client, so I did my darnedest to look professional. Everyone knew Avonelle had oodles of money. She'd inherited controlling stock in the First National Bank of Knobby Waters from her husband's daddy. Her husband, Will Apple, had been the town dentist. He was recently deceased. His twin sons inherited his practice. One of his cousins ran the denture lab in Salem. Another was an orthodontist in Seymour. If you had lived in southern Indiana any amount of time, an Apple had had his hands in your mouth, and in your pocketbook. Dentistry wasn't cheap.
Avonelle clutched her purse and gritted her teeth. "You take all cases?"
"Licensed, full-service." I pointed to Harry's high-priced paperwork on the wall.
"Don't disclose our clients, unless required by subpoena." I wasn't totally sure if subpoena was the right word, but I reckoned mention of anything legal would impress Avonelle. Highfalutin people just loved talking Latin. I hoped throwing out a foreign phrase or two would put Avonelle's mind at ease.
It did. She sucked in her gut and spilled the pork and beans. "It's about my husband, William."
"Isn't he deceased?"
"Year ago, this April."
"Thank you. He lived a good life, but he left behind a few issues."
I could hear Veenie's little ears twitching. I knew she was hoping that William Apple had come back to haunt his wife. Veenie loved a good ghost story. Her secret ambition in life was to be a ghost buster, and we'd just come off a hair-raising case chasing down ghosts and hillbilly hoodlums at the old Wyatt mansion.
Avonelle pressed a hand over her mouth. Her blue eyes shined like cold ice chips. "He's dead, yes. But I've received some correspondence ... and ... it seems he left behind a few unresolved issues — three of them to be precise."
Avonelle unsnapped her purse. She pulled an envelope from her purse and a letter from that envelope. She unfolded the letter carefully and slid it across my desk.
The letter, handwritten, on stationary that featured mice in bonnets dancing in a chorus line along the top, was from one Ms. Barbara Skaggs. It appeared Doc Apple had spawned an illegitimate bushel of little Apples. His self-proclaimed mistress, Barbara, who lived in Hound Holler, had contacted Avonelle for child support. She had enclosed a snapshot of the fruit of William's loins, two boys and one girl. They were standing in height order in front of a picket fence. The fence was in need of a paint job. If you looked closely to the right, you could see a dog hightailing it out of the photo, just as it was snapped. It looked to be a beagle. The kids squinted into the camera, their tiny hands fisted at their sides.
"You responded to Ms. Skaggs?"
Avonelle twisted her lips. Clearly, she found that idea distasteful. "I was hoping the agency might do so on my behalf. Discreetly. I had never heard of this young woman until this letter arrived. And well, hang it, of course I'd want proof that these children, any of them, belong to my husband. I tend to doubt the whole accusation since Mr. Apple was never ... well ... never very experienced in that area."
Avonelle stood. "You will need a retainer?"
"Five hundred will do her."
She took out an embroidered clutch wallet and retracted the exact amount in crisp one hundred dollar bills.
I handwrote a receipt. "Give us a week," I said, handing over the receipt.
Avonelle hesitated. "You will be discreet?"
Satisfied, she headed toward the door but hesitated as her hand touched the brass knob. She turned on her heel and said, her voice a little shaky, "You can tell Veenie she can come out from behind that file cabinet now." Without waiting for Veenie to show herself, Avonelle strutted out, head held high. She marched across the street toward the bank.
Veenie waited a few seconds before popping out from her hidey-hole. She strolled over and studied the photo of Barbara Skaggs's kids. "Not very experienced, eh? Well that don't look like the work of an amateur to me."
"Think those are his kids?"
Veenie slid off her glasses. She pushed the photo closer to her nose. "Hard to say, but this one," she pointed to the oldest, a towheaded boy who looked to be about ten years old, "has the Apple ears." The boy's ears flared out like teacup handles. "This one too," said Veenie of the youngest, a girl of maybe four. "A shame. Girls with big ears don't outgrow them. She'll have to wear a shag all her life. That's what I'd do."
I had to agree about the ears. Most families had a defining feature. William's twin dentist sons, Bert and Bromley, were born with ears so generous they reminded one of wings. Avonelle, always mindful of looks, pinned her son's ears under hats on school picture days when they were younger. Things took an ugly turn when she found out the other kids had nicknamed her sons Dumbo One and Dumbo Two. In high school, she drove the boys to Indianapolis one weekend for some sort of secret surgery that tacked back their ears.
Veenie tapped the photo. "You ever hear of this Barbara Skaggs?"
"Knew some Skaggs over in Washington County. Hard to tell. Might be related." People in Pawpaw County weren't all that energetic. Most mated in county. It was like Genesis out in corn country. Everybody begat everybody else. Made it harder to solve crimes because everybody's DNA was pretty much the same.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Baby Daddy Mystery"
Copyright © 2018 Vicky Phillips.
Excerpted by permission of Hot Pants Press, LLC.
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