It may be Christmas in Tupelo, but Callie Valentine Jones' not-quite-ex Jack is trussed up like a holiday turkey recovering from a shattered leg, cousin Lovie's looking for love in all the wrong stockings, and Elvis the basset hound is out for revenge on a sneaky Lhasa Apso. Everyone finally gets into the spirit when Uncle Charlie is pressed into service as Santa at a weekend charity event in the mall. But Yuletide cheer turns to Yuletide fear after a killer tries to zap Charlie back to the North Pole marked "Return to Sender."
Determined to find out who's decking the mall with Christmas corpses, Elvis and the Valentines fill up their sleigh with suspects as they attempt to unmask a devil in disguise in time to turn their "Blue Christmas" all Christmas-y and white.
"Settle in for a ridiculously funny holiday mystery." Library Journal
"Ditzy. . .Elvis fans in need of a deep-fried farce may find this finger-lickin' good." Publishers Weekly
"Callie Valentine-Jones is the spunkiest dog-loving hairdresser to sleuth in a long time." RT Book Reviews
About the Author
Peggy Webb is the bestselling author of more than sixty novels. A former adjunct lecturer at Mississippi State University, she has won numerous writing awards, composes blues songs on her vintage baby grand and shares her home in Tupelo, Mississippi, with her chocolate Lab and a quirky muse who channels Elvis.
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ELVIS and the Blue Christmas Corpse
By Peggy Webb
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Peggy Webb
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJazz Funerals, Santa's Elf, and Fa La La La Farewell
The last thing I expected to be doing was dressing for a Christmas party with my almost-lover Champ while my almost-ex Jack sprawls on my bed dishing out love advice. I'm bent over putting on some cute backless Bernardos with rhinestones on the toe when he pipes up with, "Cal, if you plan on snaring a husband, you need to show more cleavage."
"You're a fine one to be giving love advice, Jack. And for your information, I don't snare."
"You snared me."
I'm going to royally ignore that remark. Champ (Luke Champion) is a good man who stays at home to run a nice, safe veterinary clinic instead of gallivanting all over the world getting shot at. I'm not going to let a deep-cover assassin with a Harley Screaming Eagle spoil my evening. Even if Jack did get his leg smashed all to pieces while he was rescuing cousin Lovie.
I just sashay right past the bed where he's taking up his half and mine, too, and start putting on my lipstick. Pretty in pink, which enhances my olive complexion and gives my full lips a kissably soft appearance. Beauty is my business, and I don't skimp when it comes to myself. In addition to expert styling skills, it's my beauty example that has people flocking from all over three counties to make appointments at Hair.Net.
Well, that plus the addition of my new manicurist, Darlene. She's brought Atlanta nail art to Mooreville. Rhinestones on your toes, and all. She did my toenails for tonight. Pink to match my lipstick. I believe in coordinating colors.
Some people clash. Like Mama. Which I won't even get into at this time.
"Cal, before you go, would you plump up my pillows? I just don't feel like lifting my head."
"If you're that weak, how'd you manage to get out of the guest bed and into mine?"
Jack gives me a mournful look then gazes at his crutches like a man with wheelchairs in his future.
He's probably faking it, but I'm too tenderhearted to go around ignoring pain and suffering. What if it's real? I know, I know. The doctor said Jack is going to be one hundred percent okay, but I worry.
Besides, Elvis is giving me a few dirty looks. Not the real King but my dog, who politely plopped his ample self onto the bed while I was primping and is now lying there with his head on Jack's chest. He and Jack are two of a kind. Sneaky. They probably planned this pity party.
I spritz on some Jungle Gardenia (for Champ, although it's Jack's favorite perfume) then march toward the bed in a no-nonsense fashion that lets him know I'm all business. While I'm bent over fluffing up his pillows, he's getting a good gander at the body part he said I should bare more of for Champ. Champ, my foot. Jack was only thinking of himself. Which ought to make me mad enough to scream but instead makes me nostalgic.
I try to blame my mood on Elvis. The real singer, not my dog. When I was downstairs making Jack some hot tea, I put "Blue Christmas" on the CD player, and now I wish I hadn't. The way that man sings can break your heart. No wonder he's still the most popular entertainer on earth, and him dead nearly forty years.
"There." I straighten back up. "Is that better?"
"Just a little more on the left. Please."
I'm bent over Jack—again and for the forty millionth time—when Mama prisses in.
Around Mooreville, it's an insult to your neighbor to keep your door locked when you're home. But it's an equal insult not to ring the bell. Of course, Mama thinks rules don't apply to her.
"I just love a cozy family scene." She swishes into the room trailing a red and green caftan decorated with sequined snowflakes, one of her many Christmas getups. She's topped it off with a dangling pair of purple sequined earrings shaped like feathers. Mama went native in the jungle and hasn't stopped since.
She leans over and kisses Jack on the cheek, then proceeds to fluff up pillows that don't need it one iota.
"Mama, I just did that."
Naturally, she ignores me and keeps fussing over Jack. "Feather pillows pack down quicker than Elvis can run when you say treat."
"Thanks, Ruby Nell." My almost-ex flashes his most winning smile, which I won't let myself even think about, and she acts like a teenager smitten over a rock star.
"Mama, don't you believe in the doorbell?"
"The front door was wide open. Besides, what I have to tell you is important."
"Can it wait? My date will be here in less than fifteen minutes."
"By all means, if you want to hurt Fayrene's feelings, bankrupt my business, and disappoint Charlie, to boot, just go on and forget about us."
Did I tell you? Mama's a drama queen. Still, she's baited a trap and I fall right in every time.
"How on earth does my attending a holiday party hurt Fayrene's feelings? Not to mention bankrupt you."
I don't even add anything about Uncle Charlie. If he wants me to do something, he asks, which is what most sane folks do. In the Valentine, family, though there's a huge streak of the theatrical.
Take Lovie. My cousin can turn a simple stake-out at the famous Peabody Hotel into an event complete with TV cameras while she moons half of Memphis. That was during what the Valentine family refers to as the Peabody murders, which I'm trying desperately to forget. And don't even get me started on her getting kidnapped in the jungle. I don't plan to get involved in anything else that even remotely hints at murder and mayhem. I plan to get on with my life. Starting this evening.
"Never mind." Mama's pursed mouth says she means exactly the opposite. "Just go on about your business. Don't even think about how many orphans you'll let starve."
Jack's laughing his head off.
"Holy cow. Don't encourage her." The doorbell rings, and I'm so grateful for the distraction I nearly trip over Hoyt (my rescued cocker spaniel) trying to get to the door. "That'll be Champ."
"He can wait." Naturally Jack would say that. "We need to hear what Ruby Nell has to say."
Good grief. It's Fayrene. Before I can yell out "Come in," she barrels up the stairs and makes a beeline for Jack.
"How are you feeling?" She plumps up his pillows. If they get any fluffier, he'll be airborne.
"Pretty good, Fayrene. Considering." He glances my way in a bid for sympathy. I'm not about to offer it in front of witnesses. It's bad enough I had to offer a bed and have him in my house every minute of every day like God's temptation to weak-willed women.
"I brought you some Christmas cookies, Jack." She plops a plate full of sugar-sprinkled Santas on the bedside table, then proceeds to peel the cellophane cover back and hand him one. "I've been medicating about you every day."
Meditating, I hope, but with Fayrene you never can tell whether her slaughter of the English language is accidental or deliberate.
After Jack finishes bragging on her cookies, Fayrene looks over at Mama and says, "Did you tell her?"
"She's too busy getting ready for a date." Mama makes my date sound like an appointment with the guillotine.
"Maybe you should tell her, Fayrene," Jack says. For a man who has to have everybody in Mooreville fluffing his feathers, he looks perky enough to brew coffee without the benefit of the pot.
"Wait a minute." How did Mama and Fayrene end up in my bedroom at the precise moment I'm supposed to be out having a real life with a sane and sensible man? "Jack, did you call Mama and Fayrene?"
"You did! You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"Carolina, I won't have you talking to a sick man like that." Mama calls me Carolina when she gets mad.
"Ruby Nell's right," Fayrene says. "The aftereffects of Jack's surgery could be deathless."
Two against one. I might have known. Mama and Fayrene always stick together, even when she's fighting with Jarvetis and Mama sticks her nose into business she knows good and well is not hers.
"Holy cow. I give up." I sink onto the stool at my dressing table and refresh my mascara. It looks like my pretty in pink lipstick will have to go to waste. "Just tell me what's going on."
"There's going to be a fabulous three-day benefit at the mall for the poor little orphans at the Tupelo Children's Mansion." When Mama pours it on that thick, she has a hidden agenda, usually one that involves me. And usually in a way I don't even want to think about. "Charlie's signed us all up."
There's the hook. Uncle Charlie is my deceased daddy's brother, my surrogate father, my best friend, Lovie's daddy, the protector and leader of the entire Valentine clan. What he says goes. Not that he's bossy. It's just that he's so wonderful nobody in this family wants to disappoint him.
I'm getting ready to ask, Signed up for what, but Fayrene jumps in to fill the gaps.
"We'll all have booths at the Barnes Crossing Mall. Ruby Nell's calling her Everlasting Monument booth Fa La La La Farewell."
"I'll be offering Christmas discounts on tombstones," Mama says. "And I've written a bunch of new holiday sendoffs. How about Name Inserted climbed aboard a Christmas sleigh and jingled on up to Heaven? And listen to this. Name Inserted went dashing through the stars on a one-way ticket to that great Christmas reunion in the sky."
Mama's famous for her tombstone sayings. Some of them are a little ambiguous, like the one she did for Jarvetis' third cousin: Goober Johnson tooted his horn all the way home. He used to play the trumpet every Saturday night with his band, The Goobers, at the Evergreen Fish and Steak House five miles south of Mooreville on Highway 371. But everybody knows Goober was also a braggart. Which, thanks to Mama, is now engraved in stone for the world to see.
"Charlie's giving away a free jazz funeral," Mama adds.
My uncle Charlie is owner of Eternal Rest, the best funeral home in Mississippi It's in Tupelo, a ten-minute ride from downtown Mooreville, population 652 now that Darlene and her son are here. To supplement my income, I also do makeup and hair for the dearly departed.
"What about you, Fayrene?" Jack asks.
Naturally, he wants to encourage them. The more time I spend getting flustered, the less likely I'll be able to enjoy my date with Champ.
"Jarvetis and I are handing out free samples of our specialty." That would be their pickled pigs' lips. "We'll be offering a jar free with a purchase of ten gallons of gas. And I hear Lovie's going to be cooking on her electric girdle."
If anybody has an electric girdle, it would be my flamboyant cousin Lovie. But for the sake of the family reputation, I sincerely hope she'll be dishing up Lovie's Luscious Eats from an ordinary griddle.
The doorbell rings again, and Lord only knows who's there. This time I beat whoever it is to the door. It's Champ, standing on my front porch looking blond and handsome and entirely sane. A vast improvement over the motley crew in my bedroom.
And speaking of the devil, they're now all lined up on the landing—Mama and Fayrene flanking Jack, who is trying to look as pitiful as possible on his crutches, and Elvis sitting beside my not-quite-husband with his ears perked for trouble.
Ever cheerful, Champ smiles up at them and then me. "Looks like you've got company, Callie. We don't have to leave right away."
"Yes, we do. For the sake of my sanity."
I snag my stylish black alpaca cape from the downstairs coat closet. Champ helps me into it while I endure a hostile audience of four (if you count Elvis, and I always do).
"Carolina, do you think you ought to leave while your husband is burning up with fever?" Mama calls Jack my husband in a deliberate ploy calculated to break me up with Champ.
I won't even dignify her remark with an answer. For one thing, Jack does not have fever. And for another, he's my almost-ex, as she well knows. So does Champ. No need to keep harping on it.
Fayrene puts her hand on Jack's forehead. "Don't worry, hon. If poor Jack catches ammonia while you're gone, we'll call an avalanche."
Champ, who is still not used to Fayrenese, looks slightly shell-shocked, while Jack grins like a possum eating peaches.
"I'll be all right, Cal," Jack says. "Have fun." Just when I'm thinking he's trying to shed all the danger he wears like a second skin and turn noble, he blows that hope right out of the water. "The massage you promised can wait till you get back."
"In your dreams, Jack."
I'm grateful to step into the cool night air.
Southerners never know what to expect in December. Anything is possible, from a heat wave to an ice storm. Thankfully, we're having one of those lovely cold Christmas seasons where you want to spend as much time as you can in front of the hearth with a cup of hot chocolate in your hand and Elvis at your feet. My dog. Though the real thing would be nice.
The party is in Mantachie, an easy fifteen-minute ride north through rural countryside on Highway 371. White frame houses dot the landscape, and all of them are built on lots so big nobody can look out the window and see his neighbor.
The scenery also includes a barn or two, a few soybean fields, and several pastures, some featuring cows. This is one reason I love northeast Mississippi. It's so quiet and peaceful you can easily believe the nightly horror stories coming from the TV news channels don't apply to you.
If you close your eyes and count to twenty, you can drive right through Mantachie and miss the whole town. Same as Mooreville. Though I'll have to admit Mantachie has it one up on us by being incorporated. They have a Dollar General store, a mayor, and city ordinances against firing a shotgun in your back yard, even if you're trying to kill a rattlesnake.
Champ's veterinary clinic is located here. With Elvis and my rescues—Hoyt, the spaniel Elvis views as his competition, and the Seven Dwarfs, otherwise known as cats—I'm his best customer.
Our hostess is also one of Champ's customers, Glenda McAfee, Mantachie's mayor. Her two-story antebellum home is decorated with five Christmas trees, garlands galore, at least fifty pots of poinsettias, and enough lights to guide small aircraft safely home. She matches her house—large, decked out in bright red satin, and flashing enough diamonds to light up a runway.
If she weren't my hostess, I'd offer a little fashion advice. Women of a certain size should not wear red form-fitting sheaths. And when it comes to accessorizing, if you look like you're wearing all your loot from a recent jewelry store robbery, you've overdone it.
Since I'm a guest, I content myself with slipping one of my tasteful business cards out of my black satin purse and leaving it on her hall table beside the cranberry potpourri. Discreetly, of course.
While Champ goes off to the refreshment table, I recognize the mayor's background music as Elvis' Christmas Peace album. "Santa Bring My Baby Back (to Me)" makes me wonder what Jack is doing. Then I feel guilty because, while I'm thinking of another man, Champ has come back from fetching two cups of eggnog. He's kind, handsome, successful, and loves kids and animals—perfect father material. I ought to be ecstatic.
Instead, when he slides his arm around my waist, I feel like an imposter.
"The mayor's gardens are as splendid as her house." Champ leans down so I can hear him over the party crowd. "I'd like to show you around."
A golden-haired, good-looking man in the moonlight would be almost impossible to resist. Champ's been hinting of an engagement since I returned from Mexico, and I'm sure he's looking for every edge, especially since his major competition ended up right back in my house.
Suddenly my cell phone rings. I'm sorry to report, I snatch it from my purse like it's the only life raft on a sinking ship. I plug a finger in one ear and hold the phone up to the other.
"Hello?" Uncle Charlie, I mouth to Champ, then disappear into the quiet of the mayor's front porch.
"By now I'm sure Ruby Nell has told you her version of the Christmas charity event at Barnes Crossing Mall?"
"In frightening detail, Uncle Charlie. Are you really giving away a free jazz funeral?"
His rich, booming laughter always makes me feel better. "It was a compromise. Bobby wanted to announce the opening of a new drive-thru window at Eternal Rest."
I can picture it. The newly deceased propped up on satin pillows in front of a picture window, and the grieving viewing him from their car while munching McDonald's hamburgers and talking about how natural he looks. For a dollar you could get a takeout pack of disposable tissues.
Excerpted from ELVIS and the Blue Christmas Corpse by Peggy Webb Copyright © 2012 by Peggy Webb. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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