Moving to Arizona to work for a private investigator, Sophie “Phee” Kimball is much closer to her mother Harriet now. And while the antics at Harriet’s retirement community can drive Phee a little crazy, at least they’re together for Aunt Ina’s upcoming wedding. The seventy-four-year-old bridezilla has roped Phee into organizing the tent and the pastries for the lavish affair. But it’s Harriet who really gets demanding when a celebrity chef is found dead on the golf course just outside her front door.
Working for a private investigator, Phee is drawn into the case. And with Harriet in a panic about her safety, Phee is doubly committed to solving it. But between planning a wedding and unveiling a murderer, Phee wonders which job might kill her first.
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"Listen to your mother for once, Phee. Hold off on turning on that air conditioner. You should wait as long as you can so you don't pay a fortune to those utility companies."
"Maybe you can put it off, but you've been living out here for at least a decade. Your blood's probably as thin as water. Mine's not."
"Well, it won't thin out unless you put it to the test."
"I'm not going to sweat to death to prove a point," I said. "I've only been out here a few months and my blood's as thick as sludge. Heavy Minnesota sludge. Or have you forgotten what it's like back there?"
"Forgotten? I can't even look at a Norman Rockwell holiday card without shivering. Trust me, honey, you'll get used to the heat."
This, from the woman who installed a small, portable air conditioner in her back bedroom for the dog.
It was a conversation I'd had a few days ago with my mother, Harriet Plunkett, and it was a typical one for us. Very little had changed since then. Until the murders. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I stood at the thermostat debating whether or not to break down and turn on the air-conditioning like I did every summer back in Mankato, Minnesota. But this wasn't summer. It was late April. April in Peoria, Arizona, and approaching ninety-five degrees. The ceiling fans in my small rental casita could only do so much.
I made the move to Arizona so I could handle the bookkeeping for a friend of mine, Nate Williams. He was a retired police officer from Mankato who started his own private investigation firm near Phoenix. Nate convinced me to take a year's leave of absence from my job in accounts receivable at the Mankato Police Department and move to a place where I'd never be bothered with snow or ice again. All he had to do was remind me of the Super Target incident the winter before and he knew I'd jump at the chance to move to Arizona.
The humiliation of opening my car door, taking a step, and falling face first on the icy pavement still appeared in my nightmares. The worst part was being unable to stand and having the two twenty-something guys from the car next to mine hoist me up and plop me back into the driver's seat. Worse yet, they kept calling me "ma'am."
"Ma'am." When did I become a "ma'am"? I was only in my forties. And I can still pull off a two-piece at the beach. Maybe if it wasn't winter and I didn't have a bulky coat and long scarf covering up my figure, they wouldn't have used that awful word. And why did I tell Nate about the stupid incident in the first place? It gave him leverage. Leverage he used to talk me into moving near my mother in Arizona. I still remembered every word he said.
"Come on, kiddo. You don't want another icy parking lot incident, do you? You've got nothing to lose. Your daughter's teaching in St. Cloud, your ex-husband has been off the grid for years, and nothing is holding you back. Besides, you'll love the area. And, you've got the advantage. You're already familiar with it."
"I'm familiar with my mother's small retirement community. And it's a wacky one at that. Or have you forgotten?"
"How could I possibly have forgotten about the Sun City West's book curse and all those unrelated deaths that scared everyone in a fifty-mile radius of the place? We can thank your mother's book club for that."
"So, now you want me to live there? Near all of my mother's friends? The same batty crew from Booked 4 Murder? That's the name of their club, you know. I think my mother thought it up. Anyway, those women had me chasing all over the place a year ago to find a nonexistent killer. That's where you want me to live?" "Not there. Near there. You're much too young to think about retirement communities."
"If that's your way of buttering me up, you need to do better."
He did. Nate Williams upped my salary, helped rent out my house to a young police officer and his family, and paid for all of my moving expenses. He also helped me find a fabulous casita in Vistancia, a multigenerational community in Peoria, not too far from Sun City West.
Now I was standing in front of my thermostat wondering how I could have been bamboozled into relocating to an area where a hundred and three degrees was described as "warm." As my fingertip reached for the button on the thermostat, the phone began to ring. An omen. An omen telling me to wait another few days and save on my electric bill.
Unfortunately, it wasn't a sign from another realm; the caller ID made it clear it was my mother. I massaged my right temple and stared at the phone. My mother was calling to moan and groan about the latest disaster in her life — my aunt Ina's wedding. As if I didn't get an earful yesterday. At least it wasn't as bad as the day before, when my mother went on a tirade insisting Aunt Ina was trying to take over the book club. That was a one-sided conversation I could've done without.
"Your aunt Ina will drive us all to the brink with her endless lists, her obscure authors, and her constant need for attention. Be happy you're an only child."
An only child who gets 100 % of Harriet Plunkett's complaints.
"We've told her time and time again we like to read cozy mysteries. Maybe a British whodunit once in a while, and what does she suggest? I'll tell you what she suggests — mysteries translated from godforsaken languages like Hungarian or Romanian. Romanian. That's a language, isn't it? Well, one thing's for sure, reading those things would be like watching a Swedish movie with subtitles. We'd be snoozing before they even found a body."
"Um, yeah, well ..."
"And one more thing — she suggested having us arrive in the attire of the day, according to the book."
"Huh? The what?"
"Oh, you heard me. She wants us to dress up like the characters in the book according to when that book was written. Honestly, the library committee would have us locked up if we arrived to our meetings looking like we stepped out of another century. Even Shirley thought it was extreme, and she goes for all that new age stuff. Then Ina goes and says it's no different than the Red Hat Society. No different? We'd be known as the lunatic fringe ladies."
The phone was now on its fourth ring and I had to make up my mind. In a moment of weakness I picked it up. I should've pushed the thermostat button instead.
"Phee! It's about time you got home. You never worked so late when you were in accounts receivable. This new accounting job is really eating up your time. Anyway, I just wanted to give you the latest on the wedding. Your aunt Ina decided to wear white. White. I honestly don't know what's come over my sister, but all of sudden she's acting like she's twenty instead of seventy-four. And white! She's not supposed to wear white. This is her second marriage. Before I forget, your cousin Kirk and his wife are flying in from Boston. I wonder what he has to say about this...."
Finally, a pause. My mother actually paused, and I could say something.
"I'm sure Kirk is thrilled for his mother. Look, Aunt Ina was always a bit eccentric. It was Uncle Harm who kept her in line all those years and even he could only do so much. I say if she wants to wear white, let her wear white. It's not like there are any rules or anything. So, are all the other arrangements made? The invitation wasn't too specific."
"Not too specific" was an understatement, even for me. The invitation was a coiled message written on a small, round piece of parchment paper. It reminded me of an enchantment bowl I had seen once in the ancient cultures section of the Art Institute of Chicago. Unfortunately, we didn't have a docent on hand to explain my aunt's invitation. It read:
The fusion of our lives will meld in the glorious sunrise at Petroglyph Plaza, 14th of Sivan, 5778, nine days past the counting of the Omer, as Ina Stangler and Louis Melinsky become one. Join us for this celebration of eternal bliss.
It took my mother a half hour to figure out the 14th of Sivan was a date on the Hebrew calendar that coincided with May 28. Then another half hour to complain.
"Who writes a date like that? At first I thought Sivan was Aztec or maybe Incan. Possibly Tibetan. Finally I dredged up the Jewish calendar from the Sinai Mortuary, and lo and behold — it was Hebrew."
I took a breath as my mother continued to vent about my aunt.
"The arrangements? You want to know if the arrangements were made? Oh no, that would make it too easy for the rest of us. And her husband-to-be seems just as 'fly-by-the-wind' as she is. He's a musician, you know. Plays the saxophone. Worked for years in one band or another on cruise ships. Divorced three times. Three times!"
As much as I hated to admit it, my mother was right about my aunt Ina. Every family has one member who, shall we say, "dances to their own drum," but in Ina's case, she's been pounding on the entire percussion section ever since I've known her. My aunt Ina had never grown out of the "hippie phase," as my mother referred to it. With the gauzy wide skirts she wore with peasant blouses and fetish necklaces, Aunt Ina had a style all her own. At seventy-four, she still braided her long gray hair and wrapped it on top of her head like the old German women did in the eighteenth-century paintings. Only they didn't put flowers, ribbons, or bits of tinsel in their braids.
I was picturing Aunt Ina with a floor-length gown and white tinsel in her hair when my mother continued to complain.
"And when does she pick to get married? When? One of the hottest weekends in the valley — Memorial Day! She picks Memorial Day. That'll cost your cousin Kirk a fortune on airline tickets. And that's not the worst of it, Phee. Not by a long shot."
"Why? What do you mean?"
"You said the invitation wasn't specific. Well, here's specific for you — they're getting married at dawn in the Petroglyph Plaza in the White Tank Mountains."
"The Petroglyph Plaza? You mean the old Indian ruins in the state park?"
Even I was getting concerned. This was extreme, even for Aunt Ina.
"Oh yes. We can all sweat to death as we schlep up the mountain. And I emphasize 'death.' Who's going to come?"
"Mom, the White Tank Mountain Park is a few minutes from your house and we can drive straight up to the path that leads to Petroglyph Plaza. It's only a quarter-mile walk from the parking lot to the ruins."
"A quarter mile? What's the matter with you? I'm not walking a quarter of a mile because your aunt has lost her mind. And what about the book club ladies? They're not about to get winded either."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Mother. All of you walk farther than that when there's a good sale at Kohl's. Besides, I'm sure they'll arrange for golf carts or something."
"You know your aunt Ina and details. We'll be lucky if they remember to bring water."
I took a few slow breaths, something I'd learned in a Tai Chi class once, and answered before my mother could continue. "Don't worry. Aunt Ina will have all the arrangements made. Do you know why she picked that spot?"
"Seems she and her future husband wanted to get married where they met. We're just lucky they didn't meet on some footbridge that could have collapsed and sent us all into a creek."
I tried to change the subject before my mother took everything to the extreme. "So, where are Kirk and Judy staying?"
"Your aunt reserved some godforsaken place near the mountain. Called it quaint. What was it? Oh yes, 'The Cactus Wren.' And they want all of us to stay there for the weekend."
"It sounds nice, Mom. A quaint little bed and breakfast overlooking the White Tanks."
"Quaint! Don't you know what that means? It means no air-conditioning, no cable TV, forget about a mini-fridge and a microwave, and we'll be lucky if they stick a fan in the room. There's only one thing worse than quaint, and that's rustic. Thank God she didn't pick rustic. That means no electricity and an outhouse!"
I quickly changed the subject. "I'm sorry your granddaughter can't make it. Too close to the end of the school year."
"Well, Kirk and Judy's daughter, your cousin Ramona, can't make it either. The navy isn't about to grant her leave and fly her back from Qatar because her grandmother has discovered eternal bliss."
I tried not to laugh, but the whole thing was pretty darn funny. "I'll take lots of photos and post them on Facebook. That way Kalese and Ramona can see the wedding ceremony. Did Aunt Ina mention who was catering the affair? I mean, it isn't just the ceremony, is it? You talk to her all the time. What's going on?"
"Your aunt may not be the wealthiest woman in the world, but apparently Louis Melinsky has money to throw around. They're having the wedding catered by Saveur de Evangeline, that fancy French restaurant on Bell Road, and if that isn't enough, they've hired La Petite Pâtisserie, from Scottsdale, to provide the desserts."
"Where? The invitation didn't say."
"Of course not. Why would Ina bother to let anyone know what's going on? Apparently they've rented out the entire section of that mountain for their reception. Some tent company will be setting up the shindig a few yards past that Petrowhatever Plaza."
"And you were worried for nothing, Mom. It sounds like Aunt Ina really organized this."
"What do you mean 'loosely'?"
"I mean that whenever your aunt arranges something, it's in the broad sense. Mark my words, Phee, something is bound to go wrong."
I didn't feel like spending the next half hour listening to my mother moan and groan about how "spatial" Aunt Ina was and how my mother was always the one who had to step in and fix everything. I was hot. I was tired. And most of all, I was hungry. Promising to give my mother a call the next day, I hung up and walked into the kitchen.
All of the fixings for a huge chicken salad were in the fridge and I began to move them onto the counter when the phone rang again.
Please don't let it be my mother. What else could she possibly complain about?
I had a good mind to ignore it and let it go to the answering machine, but if it was my mom, she'd know I was avoiding her. I walked over to the phone and checked the caller ID. Not my mother. Not a familiar number. I decided to let the machine get it when I recognized the voice at the other end.
"Phee, this is your aunt Ina. Give me a call when you get in. I have the tiniest, teeniest little favor to ask you."
I quickly put the mayonnaise and white meat tenders back in the fridge and picked up the receiver. It was the first, in a long series of mistakes, I'd be making.
"Hi, Aunt Ina. I was ... um, in the other room when I heard the phone. How are you?"
"Ooh ... I'm as fine as any bride-to-be could be. I don't know how I ever managed the first time around. And as far as your cousin Kirk's wedding went, well, Judy's family took care of it. That's the trouble with getting married late in life — you have to do everything yourself. It's daunting. That's the word for it — daunting. Did your mother mention that her friend Shirley was designing a special hat for me for the wedding? It's too bad she closed down that cute little shop of hers near Sun City. At least she's taking special orders. I decided on a hat. I do think wearing a veil would be too radical, even for me."
In the thirty seconds it took me to put the scallions and kale back in the fridge while cradling the phone, I realized my mother was an amateur blabbermouth compared to Aunt Ina. At this rate, I'd die of starvation. I had to move things along.
"Um, so ... Aunt Ina, you mentioned a favor. A small favor. What can I help you out with?" And please let this be a reasonable and normal favor.
"I don't know if your mother mentioned it, but the entire affair is going to be catered."
"Uh-huh." I wasn't sure what she was getting at and I held my breath.
"You cannot possibly imagine all the odds and ends that have to go into something like this. No wonder people hire a wedding planner."
Oh God, no! She's going to ask me to be her wedding planner!
"Aunt Ina," I blurted out, "I don't know the first thing about planning weddings."
Excerpted from "Ditched 4 Murder"
Copyright © 2017 J.C. Eaton.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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