Trinket, Bitty and the Divas usually enjoy participating in the annual tour of Holly Springs, Mississippi’s antebellum homes and historical sites. This year the reenactment of a Confederate raid on Union soldiers at the railroad depot goes horribly awry.
Before they can say “Not again!” Trinket and Bitty are deeply involved in murder, mayhem, and Diva drama. It’s bad enough that Bitty’s son has been accused of using real bullets in the reenactment, but she insists their heirloom rifle hasn’t worked in a hundred years. Who’s trying to frame her son?
It isn’t long before Bitty and Trinket are tangled up with a most unusual private detective, a list of suspects, and a killer determined to stop them all. . . .
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"I CAN'T BELIEVE Miranda Watson has the nerve to leave the house wearing that," said my first cousin and best friend Bitty Hollandale. "Some women just shouldn't wear a sundress. Bless her heart."
Since we were sitting in Budgie's café, where we had gone after a trip to the optometrist to check Bitty's eyes, and since Miranda looked just fine, I put some of Bitty's ire down to the fact she'd just had her eyes dilated. To her horror, she'd also been prescribed eyeglasses. Bitty likes to think she's still in her thirties. She's not. We're in our early fifties, and I'm two months older than her, which she likes to repeat often to annoy me. It only bothers me when she pretends I'm years older in front of people who don't know us.
It's hard to find someone in Holly Springs, Mississippi, who doesn't know us.
My name is Eureka May Truevine, but everyone who knows me calls me Trinket. Bitty's name is really Elisabeth, but Bitty suits her much better. We tend to prefer nicknames in the South. I was just glad to be called Trinket instead of Booger. Or worse.
We were born here and grew up here, and even though I'd gone off following my then husband to random jobs around the country for most of my adult life, residents had been reacquainted with me since my return a little over a year ago. In fact, Bitty and I both had become notorious for a recently acquired talent for solving murders. It's a gift — one I haven't been able to return.
Unfortunately for me, Bitty rather likes the gift. She's easily bored. I'm not. I can find a ton of things to occupy my time and mind that don't involve shock, terror, and firearms.
"Yes," I said to soothe Bitty's judgment of Miranda Watson's dress, "bless her heart."
Bless her heart is a frequent Southern phrase that is multi-purpose. It can be added in a kind tone to lessen the sting of comments like, "She's so buck-toothed, she can eat an apple through a picket fence," or "He's three sandwiches short of a picnic." My father prefers to say, "He's half a bubble off-plumb," which is some kind of carpentry term. And as noted, the phrase can also be used to critique a person's attire, manners, character, or actions.
"Be nice," I hissed at Bitty as the subject of our conversation spied us in the corner and sailed toward us, waving and smiling.
"She's only in a good mood because she finally found a man who can stand her," Bitty grumbled, but her tone had softened. I knew she wouldn't be rude in public unless provoked. It's just not good manners. Besides, Miranda had apologized several times for the tacky things she'd printed about us in her weekly gossip column in the South Reporter the year before. While her comments hadn't been directed at any one person, they had been unjust — but not unfounded — about our social club, the Dixie Divas. We do tend to be rather exuberant at our monthly meetings.
"Trinket Truevine," Miranda said to me, "you're just the person I'm looking for."
I cringed inside. Any time someone says that to me, I'm rarely glad they found me.
"Really?" I said politely. "Here I am. How's Chitling?"
Chitling is her pet pig, purchased under the misnomer of miniature pig, now not so mini. Miranda only bought her to mimic Bitty, who has been known to wag her pet pug any and every place allowed. While Bitty buys her pug, Chen Ling — whom I'd dubbed Chitling long before Miranda adopted her pet pig, just to annoy my cousin — all kinds of clothes studded with real diamonds that should never be wasted on a dog, Miranda doesn't have Bitty's budget, so she has to substitute with rhinestones. It just doesn't look the same.
Miranda shook her head and sighed. Her bleached blond hair formed a helmet atop her head, remarkably like Bitty's hairdo. Not a strand moved. An F-3 tornado couldn't muss hair on either of their heads.
"Chitling is growing like a weed," she said. "I've put her on a diet, but Dr. Coltrane said she's going to get a lot bigger anyway."
"Well," observed Bitty, "pigs do grow, you know."
The pig had, as I'd predicted, grown quite a bit and was no longer able to be tucked under her arm and carted around like Bitty hauls her pug. It's amazing what a proper diet and a growth spurt can accomplish. Local grocery stores and public venues must have given a collective sigh of relief at the news the pig would no longer shop at their establishments.
"They certainly do grow fast," Miranda replied as she pulled out a chair to sit down. "Trinket, I hear that you're going to greet tourists at Six Chimneys for the pilgrimage this year. Is that right?"
Despite my resistance, I'd been drafted by my dear cousin to stand on her front sidewalk to greet people during our annual pilgrimage when antebellum homes are open to the public, and people can soak up a way of life long past. And of course, there will be Confederate soldiers in uniform roaming around, a tour of Hillcrest Cemetery, often referred to as "Little Arlington," a visit to the railroad depot, and a host of other activities regarding The War. That's the Civil War, for the uninitiated. We tend to refer to it with capital letters as if it's the only war America has endured. For the South, it was a dreadful time with great losses suffered in lives, land, and livelihoods. For the country, it was a devastating experience.
Being Southern, we like to commemorate such things. I'm not sure why, unless it's to be a reminder of how far we've come since then, or a matter of pride that we were beaten but not conquered. Then again, that's true of all Americans. We can be bloodied but not bowed.
But I digress. I replied to Miranda's question with an affirmative, "Yes, Bitty has me conscripted into her service. I'm going to stand on her sidewalk and hand out leaflets about her house, while I try not to melt in the heat or suffer a sinus attack. Why do you ask?"
"It is hot for April," Miranda agreed. "We've had unseasonable weather this year. I'm compiling a list of houses and people who'll be participating in the pilgrimage."
Bitty said, "But the Garden Club has already done that. We have programs with houses listed and a map to give tourists. You were there and voted on the arrangements."
"I know. I'm just giving an overview for my column. Since it's going to be in the Memphis Commercial Appeal as well as the South Reporter" — she paused to preen about having a byline in the widely-read Memphis newspaper instead of just the local paper — "I thought it'd be nice if this year we have a sort of Grande Belle to organize one of the attractions. You know there's going to be a reenactment of General Van Dorn's raid and burning of supplies at the railroad depot — without the actual fire, of course — so we need an organizer to coordinate everything. I did have Maisie Truett, but she's come down with the flu. So, I think Trinket would be a perfect replacement."
I brightened at the thought. Would there be a way to avoid standing on a sidewalk and greeting tourists while wearing hoop skirts and a hat? If so, it sounded like a good plan to me.
"I can help," I said, before Bitty could object. "I'm sure there are a lot of other ladies who would just love to take my place at Six Chimneys."
Bitty narrowed her eyes. She looked like a Siamese cat, just blue slits glaring at me. I ignored her. Sometimes that was the best thing.
"Great," Miranda said enthusiastically. She didn't seem to notice Bitty glowering like a lump of radioactive waste; she took a notebook out of a purse as big as an overnight case and scribbled in it. "I'll put you down as supply organizer for the Friday and Saturday raid on the depot. Sammy Simpson is going to take care of the historical details. You just have to make sure there are enough Confederate and Yankee uniforms. Oh, and convince some of the men to be Yankees instead of Confederates. There are always a few who want to be stubborn."
Suddenly, it didn't sound so stress-free. I'm familiar with the strong sentiment a lot of the re-enactors have for playing the enemy. One year, the Union's General Grant defected to the Confederate side during a particularly rousing battle. I suppose he just couldn't help himself.
"Do you have a list of the participants?" I asked.
"I'll make you a copy and bring it to you at Carolann's shop. Are you working tomorrow?"
I nodded. "Yes, I'll be there from one to six."
Miranda beamed. "Thank you, Trinket. You have no idea how helpful you're going to be. Bye, Bitty. Y'all take care."
After she sailed back out of the café, her voluminous flowered sundress blossoming like an entire garden, I went back to my banana pudding and coffee. I tried to avoid Bitty's gaze. I could feel her eyes burning into me until finally I put down my spoon and looked at her.
"Go ahead and say it now. Get it out of your system," I said.
"I don't know what you mean, Trinket."
"Yes, you do."
Bitty stuck her chin in the air and stared at a black and white photo of the Eiffel Tower on the brick wall. Budgie's is supposed to be the French Market Café now, but since we all knew it when it was still owned by Budgie instead of just managed by her, the locals still call it Budgie's.
Bitty drummed her long fingernails against the table top. "Really, you're free to make your own decisions. I had hoped you would be there for me so we could work together, but apparently that's too much to ask. If you prefer to be a traitor, there's nothing I can do about it."
I rolled my eyes. I couldn't help it. But I said quite calmly, "Your boys will be here on spring break from Ole Miss. Between Brandon and Clayton, I'm sure you'll have plenty of help. Besides — you know I'm not that excited about wearing hoop skirts and a corset. I'd faint in the heat. Then who would you have to help?"
"Brandon and Clayton are in the reenactment, as you very well know, and if you fainted, I'd be the first one there with a cold rag and smelling salts."
I lifted my brows at her. "Do you even know what smelling salts are?" "Ammonia powder. Mama used to keep them around when Aunt Imogene visited. She was always fainting over something."
"Probably an excess of snuff," I suggested, and we both laughed.
With the contentious moment behind us, Bitty finally accepted my decision to allow my post at her front door to be given to someone else. It was a relief, since she likes to be in control and had it in her head that I was the best person to greet tourists visiting Six Chimneys, her lovely antebellum home. I envisioned melting in the heat, clad in a corset and pantaloons under hoop skirts and stifling satin. Bitty probably envisioned a willing accomplice should she take it in her head to do something silly. Being separated would save us both.
"Maybe Heather," she said, mentioning her son Brandon's girlfriend. "If they're still together."
"Is there a chance they might not be?"
"Well, you know young men and women. They've been together nearly a year. Unless it's serious, I figure the romance may have run its course."
Since I wasn't about to comment either way on the possibility of a serious romance or a break-up, I said, "Heather would be perfect. She probably knows as much about your house as I do. It has a wonderful history."
"It does have a rich history, doesn't it? I've become a guardian of those who lived there before. A keeper of their stories, their spirits that live on ..." She gestured toward an imaginary spirit. "I have been given a great responsibility."
I barely kept myself from rolling my eyes. Sometimes Bitty likes to be dramatic. Sometimes she watches too much TV.
"So," I said to drag her back from her place in history or the spirit world, "if you know someone who needs a corset and hoop skirt for the pilgrimage, mine will be available. I'm sure it can be altered in time if they get right on it."
Bitty eyed me. "Dream on. You're the only six-foot woman in Holly Springs."
"Five-nine, and I'm willing to be generous and donate the dress."
"I'll alert the media. Wait — Miranda is the media. Tell her about your donation."
Bitty sounded peevish, so I decided we needed another topic of conversation. "How is Maria handling all the cleaning for the pilgrimage this year? Last year, she quit three times."
"Oh, she's doing much better this year. She's only quit twice. I pay her extra since her son Ricardo is going to college next year. She's really the best maid I've ever had."
"If not for the fact your house is always clean, and I know you don't clean, I'd think you made up Maria. I've never seen her."
"She comes very early. It's like magic. I wake up, and my house is clean."
"So when does she do your bedroom? I mean, it's always clean too."
"I'm not a light sleeper."
"That's an understatement. A shotgun going off over your head wouldn't wake you."
Bitty smiled. "I suppose Aunt Anna has Cherryhill ready for the tour?"
Aunt Anna is my seventy-ish mother, and Cherryhill is our hundred and sixty-eight-year-old ancestral house. During The War it had the distinction of being burned by the Yankees, as did several houses in the Holly Springs area, but fortunately, the blaze didn't completely destroy it. Around the turn of the twentieth century, however, another fire did a lot of damage. We tend to ignore that fact during the pilgrimage. Tourists are much more impressed by Yankee depredations than faulty wiring.
Daddy grew up in the house, as did Bitty's father, who died some years ago. While Bitty's father married old money, my daddy kept the house and land, and he and my mother reared four children. Just my twin sister Emerald and I are left. My older brothers were killed during the Vietnam War when we were still pretty young. Cherryhill has seen great sorrow as well as great joy over the years.
"Mama has been cleaning for almost a week," I answered Bitty. "She's had Daddy in the basement and the attic bringing out all our antique furniture, dishes, and vintage curtains."
"I hope she gets the mothball smell out of them before the tour." Bitty finished her last bite of chess pie and followed it with coffee while I scraped the final bit of banana pudding out of my bowl.
And then, just because we both love to annoy one another and I felt reckless, I said, "I hope you still fit into your dress. It was pretty tight last year, if I remember correctly. Luckily, I don't have to worry about my dress fitting since I won't be needing it."
It was my turn to needle her about weight, since she'd been badgering me relentlessly about getting too fat to fit into my hoop skirt. I was deliriously happy I wasn't going to have to wear it after all, so I felt a bit cocky about the whole thing.
Sometimes I shoot myself in the foot with my big mouth.
Bitty looked at me and smiled her Grinch smile. If she'd turned green, she could have easily posed for the Dr. Seuss book.
"You do know that everyone who participates in the pilgrimage wears a costume, don't you, dear?"
"Not true," I said. "Miranda didn't say one word about me wearing a hoop skirt."
"You'll see," was all she said, and a feeling of dread came over me.
"Say it ain't so ..."
"Oh, it's so."
Alas, the next day I discovered Bitty was right when Miranda showed up at Silk Promises, the lingerie shop where I worked. She had brought the list of those participating in the battle at the railroad depot.
"Your dress is ready for Friday, isn't it?" she asked.
I felt lightheaded. Gloom enveloped me. I'd hoped, up until the last minute, that I would be spared the ignominy of appearing in public in hoop skirts and a hat.
"Yes," I said with a sigh. "It's ready. Are you sure I have to wear it?" Miranda blinked. She reminded me of the Mimi character on the old Drew Carey Show, who'd had her blond hair all teased up and wore too much bright blue or green eye shadow. It looked like Miranda had multiple sets of eyes, so I just picked out a pair to gaze into hopefully, but to no avail. The bottom set of eyes blinked at me again.
"Why yes, of course you have to wear it. How else will tourists know you're one of the pilgrimage guides?"
"Uh, I can wear a name tag?" When I get the same kind of look from someone not blood kin to me that I get from Bitty or my mother, I know I've crossed over the line. So I added, "But of course, I can wear the tag on my dress, I suppose."
Miranda nodded. "If you don't want to ruin the material with a pin, I can get you a name tag on a cord around your neck."
Since I didn't give two figs about pinholes in a dress I didn't want to wear, I just said, "Oh, I don't want to be a bother. Whatever you give me will be fine."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Divas are Forever"
Copyright © 2018 Virginia Brown.
Excerpted by permission of BelleBooks, Inc..
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