June’s annual Brown County Bluegrass Festival at the Bill Monroe Music Park in neighboring Beanblossom is always a hit for Robbie’s country store and café, Pans ‘N Pancakes. This year, Robbie is even more excited, because she’s launching a new bed and breakfast above her shop. A few festival musicians will be among Robbie’s first guests, along with her father, Roberto, and his wife, Maria. But the celebration is cut short when a performer is found choked to death by a banjo string. Now all the banjo players are featured in a different kind of lineup. To clear their names, Robbie must pair up with an unexpected partner to pick at the clues and find the plucky killer before he can conduct an encore performance . . .
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A crow scratched out a call from a tall black maple at the edge of the music festival seating area. A shiver rippled through me, but I shook it off. I don't believe in bad omens.
The bluegrass group onstage had finished with a flourish and a bow. The applause diminished and the buzz of voices increased as the musicians packed up their instruments and left the stage. I smiled at Roberto and Maria Fracasso seated in camp chairs next to me. My father and his wife were visiting from Italy, and what was a more American event to immerse them in than the Brown County Bluegrass Festival? Especially since Roberto had confided in me that he'd grown to love the twangy energetic genre when he'd been a visiting graduate student here all those years before.
"Abe is up next." I pointed to the stage with the giant American flag as backdrop. Above it stretched a big banner reading "Back Home Again in Indiana." My boyfriend Abe had just appeared, banjo case in hand. My guests had met him last night at the dinner I'd thrown for them, my aunt, and her beau. Everyone had gotten along great. Actually, Roberto knew Abe from when he'd lived with the O'Neill family almost thirty years ago, but Abe had been so young he barely remembered the man who had been the Italian graduate student in town on a research grant.
"Roberta — no, I should call you Robbie," Roberto began.
"Either is fine." Roberta was my given name, after all, even though I hadn't known I was named for him until recently.
"Well, I am very happy." My father reached for my hand and squeezed it with his firm, smooth grip. "The weather, the music, but most of all to be with you. Giusto, Maria?"
She simply nodded and smiled. Even though Maria's English was about as bad as my Italian, the universal language of smiles went a long way. I was happy, too, getting to spend time with the father I never knew I had before last fall. And he was right about the weather. It was perfect. Early June, warm but not too hot, not yet buggy, with daylight lasting well into the evening. As crowded as the Bill Monroe Music Park grounds here in southern Indiana were, it was a good thing daytime highs weren't any warmer than the low eighties.
A petite woman in her fifties paused next to me at the end of the row of chairs. She wore a yellow festival visor on her cap of bottle-blond hair. Clipboard in hand, cell phone at the ready in a holster on her belt, she looked like she was in charge. I glanced at her face and recognized Sue Berry, a local woman who often came with her husband to my country store restaurant for breakfast.
"Hey, Sue," I said. "Are you working here?"
She looked startled, then smiled down at me. "I'm running the whole shebang this year, Robbie, if you can even believe it. Coulda knocked me dead with a flyswatter when they upped and asked." Her laugh was a peal of melodic notes that made you want to laugh right along.
"Somebody clearly made the right choice," I replied. "Everything seems to be running smoothly."
"I got a lot of helpers, but yeah, we're better organized than a marching band in the Super Bowl."
I introduced her to my father and Maria, and Sue leaned over to shake their hands.
"I don't talk no eye-talian," she said. "But you folks are surely welcome to our festival. Imagine, you came all the way from Europe to hear some of our hillbilly music."
Maria looked completely lost at Sue's local twang, and Roberto frowned.
"What is hilly billy?" he asked.
"Hillbilly means the traditional music of the people from around here, from Appalachia, from Kentucky and Tennessee," I said to the accompaniment of Sue's nod. "It's also called bluegrass, folk, or old-timey music." My Aunt Adele, who had lived her whole life a few miles from here, also used the term hillbilly music.
"Ah, I see." Roberto's frown slid away.
The amplified sound of instruments tuning up brought my attention to the stage. A fiddler with his hair in a knot on top of his head played a riff, then stopped to adjust the tuning. Pia Bianchi, a lanky woman with spiky red hair, a short denim skirt, and turquoise cowboy boots, plucked a banjo and turned the tuning pegs.
"She's got the nerve," Sue muttered under her breath.
"Pia does?" I asked. Pia and I had both joined a puzzle group a month ago, and so far she'd proved a little testy. Nothing major, but not a winner of the Miss Congeniality crown, either. I didn't know she played bluegrass, though, or I would have told Abe. Unnecessarily, as it appeared.
"The very same." Sue gestured with her chin. "Pia Bianchi. We used to be friends. Now she owes me a boatload of money and she ain't paying it back like she promised. I can't believe she's rubbing my nose in it, being onstage like she is."
Roberto gazed at Sue. "Did you say Pia Bianchi?"
"In the flesh," Sue answered.
"I know a Bianchi family back home. Their daughter Pia went to the States for college twenty years ago and never came home." He squinted at the stage. "I didn't see her since she was a girl, though. I don't know if this woman is the Pia from my town or not."
Maria tugged at his sleeve and an interchange in rapid Italian followed.
He faced Sue and me again. "My wife, she says this is the same Pia. She knows her twin sister, her ... uh ... Robbie, how do you say perfect copy twin?"
"Sì, sì, sì. That is it. Maria says the twin looks like the one on the stage."
Sue snorted. "Well, I'd like to take and drag her sorry butt off that there stage and make her pay up. That's what I'd like to do."
I'd never seen this side of Sue. Previously she'd always been a congenial diner in my restaurant or a grieving mother when one of her daughters had been murdered. Her annoyance with Pia was borderline angry.
Onstage, Abe stood facing Pia, both with banjos slung across their chests. Abe's fists were on his waist, while she held her instrument close to her body.
"No, we aren't going to do that number," Abe said, his ire clearly amplified.
"I wrote it and I want to play it." Pia's voice, also loud and clear, sounded defiant.
Did she know their mikes were live?
"We have six people in this group. You agreed to be part of it. It's not a solo act. What do I have to do to get you to understand?" His voice rose.
Abe and I had been a steady twosome since last winter, and I well knew it took a lot to push the normally easygoing, genial, caring man to the point of that kind of annoyance. So much that it almost never happened.
"Are you threatening me?" Pia asked.
"Of course not!" He turned away with a frustrated move, then twisted back to look at her.
"Hey, hang on, dude." The fiddler stepped forward and touched Abe's elbow. "I know Pia's song, man. It's totally good. She's got talent, man."
Abe shook his head. "No. We're sticking with the plan."
"Oh, for pity's sake," Sue rushed toward the sound booth, a raised platform at the back of the audience area.
A young man dressed in black hurried across the stage toward Abe and Pia.
"Come on," Abe urged Pia and the fiddler. "It's time to start. We have the playlist we agreed on."
The stagehand faced the sound booth and made a slicing motion across his throat. I could see the worry on his face.
"Fine. Have it your way," Pia said. "But don't think I won't remember this. I can't be held responsible if something happens to — "
The amplification went dead.CHAPTER 2
After things seemed like they'd calmed down onstage, I excused myself to visit the facilities. When I came out, I heard the rhythmic thudding and tapping of clogging. To the left of the restroom building was a wooden platform a couple of inches high. A banjo and a fiddle played as a man and a woman moved their feet in fast, tricky steps. The dance looked like a bluegrass meld of tap dancing and step dancing. I took a second look. The woman dancing was Beth Ferguson and the fiddler was her partner Ed Molina, a couple occupying one of my B&B rooms. Beth was a slender woman in a vintage dress, with dark anklets above lace-up black dancing shoes, her skirt swirling with her movements. The man dancing opposite her wasn't young and had a mature man's midsection in a blue sweat-stained dress shirt. But could he ever dance.
I watched mesmerized, my own feet tapping and twisting in place. Sue came up next to me.
"Aren't they amazing?" I asked. When she didn't answer, I glanced over at her. "Don't you like clogging?"
Her mouth twisted like she'd tasted a sour lemon. "I like the dance just fine. It's the dancers, or rather one dancer, I'm unhappy with."
"Why?" A ray of early evening sunlight slid through the trees behind me and illuminated Sue's smooth skin now marked by a furrow between her brows.
"Ms. Ferguson there? She snuck onto the festival grounds. Didn't pay her entrance fee. I don't know why she thinks she gets a free ride when everybody else here" — Sue gestured in a circle encompassing the grounds — "paid what they owed."
The music ended with a flourish and somehow Beth and the man seemed to know ahead of time. They ended with a dance flourish at the same moment. They joined hands and bowed to the sound of many hands clapping and even a couple of whistles and approving hoots. Beth extracted a handkerchief from her dress pocket and wiped her forehead. Sue marched toward her. I sidled up behind.
"Ms. Ferguson, I believe you owe us your entrance fee." Sue stood tall, which didn't get her very far.
Beth swigged water from a plastic bottle before answering. Ed joined her, fiddle and bow in hand.
"I told the person at the gate I forgot my purse and that I was on the program." Beth lifted her chin. "They said I could pay tomorrow."
"That's not what I was told," Sue replied. She checked something on her clipboard.
"It's true," Ed said, laying an arm on Beth's shoulders.
From the look on her face, Beth didn't seem to appreciate the gesture.
Because she was hot from dancing or because they weren't getting along? I had no idea.
"Look, we're both on the program for tomorrow night," Ed went on. "We'll bring the money then."
"See that you do." Sue set her free hand on her waist. "We have a lot of costs associated with this festival. We need participants to pull their own weight." She turned and hurried off.
Huh. Any time I'd seen Sue, she'd been totally easygoing. Tonight I'd seen her upset with two different people in a short time. The pressure of running the festival must be getting to her.
Ed and Beth murmured to each other. They didn't seem to have seen me, so I left, too, to rejoin my father and his wife. On my way back I sniffed the air. Somebody was enjoying a joint off in some corner. Good luck with that, I thought, spying a beefy security guard sniffing the air, too, his hand on his walkie-talkie.
The rest of the hour went smoothly with Abe's band playing tunes the audience recognized. People tapped their feet, clapped, and bobbed to the music in their chairs. A few couples even got up to dance on the dance floor in front of the seats. Pia apparently had recovered her equilibrium and played right along with the other musicians. Me, I had eyes mostly for Abe. I loved to watch this artistic side of him. His face was focused on the strings, sometimes glancing up at the audience and beaming his thousand-watt smile at us.
After the last number, we folded our chairs. Before we headed toward the parking area, I gave the stage one more look. Sue Berry had Pia cornered, and the conversation didn't look like a pleasant one. Sue gestured emphatically with one hand. If I hadn't known she was a Hoosier born and bred, I might have sworn she'd learned to talk in Italy. Pia crossed her arms and shook her head. I knew Sue and her husband were pretty well situated financially with Glen's thriving liquor store mini-chain. But why she would lend money to an Italian musician remained a mystery.
We made our way to the car Roberto had rented in Indianapolis two days ago, since my old van provided neither a comfortable nor a completely reliable ride, although it usually got me to where I needed to go. My father handed me the keys.
"Are you sure you don't mind going home for a bit?" I asked.
"It is no problem for us, Robbie. We will return this evening."
Which I couldn't do. I had prep to do for tomorrow, and my five-thirty alarm wouldn't ring any later because I stayed out late. "I'm glad. On the way home there's something cool I want to show you."
From the backseat Maria murmured to Roberto in Italian. He responded in kind to her, then twisted to face me in the front.
"Maria wants to know what the fight onstage was about, the one between Pia and Abraham. Can you explain? It was going too fast for me to follow."
"Pia wanted to play a tune she had written, and Abe told her they hadn't planned on it and hadn't rehearsed it." Seemed like a lot of anger from her for only one song, though. Abe would tell me what was really going on next time we talked.
Roberto thanked me and translated for Maria as I drove along the small roads of the unincorporated town, roads lined with the lush greenery of early June.
Five minutes later I turned onto Covered Bridge Road and slowed when we reached the eponymous bridge, barely wide enough for one modern car. The bridge was the picture of picturesque, with its faded red paint, a peaked roof, and two tracks of thick wooden planks to drive on. A yellow highway sign read ONE LANE BRIDGE even though anybody who attempted to drive through could tell at first glance. Above the entrance were the painted words Beanblossom Bridge 1880.
"It is safe to go across?" my father asked.
"Yes, it's safe." I crossed my fingers anyway. The sunny afternoon made the inside even darker and more mysterious as the car bumped slowly over the planks. Graffiti marred — or as some would say, decorated — the rough wooden walls. I didn't peer at it too closely in case obscenities were part of the scrawls. Once through, we could see Beanblossom Creek more clearly, full and rushing from the spring rains. I slowed to read a white laminated sign nailed to a tree trunk next to a wide gravel path.
I read aloud. "It says, 'Pastor's driveway. Keep clear for emergencies. Thank you.' A pastor is like a minister," I added, figuring my father might not know the term.
He laughed as his brown eyes lit up. "What kind of emergencies does a pastor have? An urgent lesson to the sinners in church, perhaps?"
I laughed in return but then became serious. A pastor could be called out on all kinds of sad emergencies — to comfort the victim of an accident, the family of a person who'd drowned, or to watch over any number of calamities that befell the residents of even such a beautiful place as Brown County, Indiana.CHAPTER 3
I was starting to wonder if having bed-and-breakfast rooms upstairs from Pans 'N Pancakes, my breakfast-and-lunch restaurant, was such a great plan, after all. I'd wanted to utilize the unoccupied second floor of my country store here in South Lick. Since I already cooked breakfast for the public six mornings out of seven, adding Innkeeper to Chef on my résumé seemed like an obvious moneymaking plan. I'd done all the carpentry work and painting myself, skills I'd learned from my late mom. I'd hired out only the drywall, plumbing, and electric work. The Italians, plus several musicians with gigs at the festival, were my inaugural guests.
At times like these, though, all I wanted to do at the end of the day was put my feet up and work on a crossword puzzle. Having extra people in the building was a no-brainer in the not-too-smart category. Not my father and Maria. They didn't get underfoot. Right now they sat companionably at one of the restaurant tables, Roberto reading something on his phone, Maria making her way through a magazine. But the musicians had questions, wanted information, and were kind of a bother — of course in the nicest possible way. Ed and Beth had come in shortly after we'd gotten home. They waved and strolled arm in arm into the cookware area.
A minute later voices raised in the heat of emotion floated out. I grabbed a duster and edged closer.
"It just ruined the night for me, seeing her there," Beth said. "I shouldn't have to!"
"Babe, it's a public festival. You can't keep Pia from performing or sitting in the audience."
"I want to go home. This was a stupid idea." Beth spit out the words like bitter pills.
Ed's voice lowered so I couldn't make out the words, but they sounded like murmured assurances.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Death Over Easy"
Copyright © 2018 Edith Maxwell.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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