The owner of a delightful Southern café tastes the sharp sting of suspicion in this delectable comfort food mystery . . .
It’s fall in Winter Garden, Virginia, and business at Amy Flowers’ Down South Café has never been better. So when struggling beekeeper Stuart Landon asks Amy to sell some of his honey, she’s happy to help. The jars of honey are a sweet success, but their partnership is cut short when Amy discovers Landon’s body outside the café early one morning.
As Amy tries to figure out who could possibly have wanted to harm the unassuming beekeeper, she discovers an ever-expanding list of suspects—and they’re all buzzing mad. She’ll have to use all of her skills—and her Southern charm—to find her way out of this sticky situation...
About the Author
Gayle Leeson is a pseudonym for Gayle Trent, who also writes the national bestselling Embroidery Mysteries as Amanda Lee. She lives in Virginia with her family and is having a blast writing the Down South Café Mysteries.
Read an Excerpt
I was working on breakfast prep when my cousin Jackie popped her head into the kitchen and said, "Amy, Stu Landon is here."
"Great. Thanks." I removed my plastic gloves and then went outside to greet the beekeeper.
Mr. Landon and I had just entered into an arrangement wherein I'd sell his honey on consignment to my patrons. I own and operate the Down South Café, one of Winter Garden, Virginia's only two restaurants.
It was a gorgeous August morning, and Mr. Landon, a tall, thin man with salt-and-pepper hair, was shading his eyes with his hand when I stepped out into the sunlight.
"Did you want me to bring the honey in through the back of the café or the front?"
"Just bring it into the dining room and put it on the counter, please," I said. "I've already cleared some shelf space on the back wall, and I plan to keep a jar by the register so people will be sure to notice it."
Mr. Landon opened the passenger side door of his olive green antique Chevy pickup truck and got out a small plastic crate containing half-pint jars of honey. I held open the door to the café for him and then followed him inside.
He placed the crate on the counter in front of the cash register. "This all right?"
"Perfect." I plucked one of the jars out of the crate. Landon's Bee Farm, Pure All Natural Honey. "I want to buy a couple of jars from you straight out to serve to my diners and one to take home to my mom and Aunt Bess."
I went around the counter, opened the register, and paid Mr. Landon for three jars of honey. I put a note in the register reflecting the transaction and then gave the consignment agreement I'd prepared the night before to Mr. Landon. I still had seven jars left to sell to Down South Café customers.
"Thank you, Ms. Flowers. I'll come around next week to bring you ten more jars." He took a dilapidated cap from the back pocket of his overalls, shook it out, and placed it on his head before leaving.
I turned to my cousin Jackie with a smile. "That one is a man of few words."
"Granny says he used to be some sort of secret agent."
Jackie's granny was my great-aunt Elizabeth, known to Mom and me as Aunt Bess. And since Aunt Bess is blessed with a vivid imagination, I wouldn't normally have given her theory on Mr. Landon more than a passing thought. But unlike most of the residents of Winter Garden, Mr. Landon didn't have much of a history here. He'd simply shown up one day about twenty years ago and taken up residence on the old Carver farm. He'd renovated the farm, started growing his own vegetables, and set up beehives. Since he kept to himself and wasn't very talkative, that's about all folks knew about him. Other than the fact that his honey was really tasty and that Mr. Landon swore that the stuff was good for everything from curing allergies to treating wounds. I didn't know how valid his claims were, but I did know that the honey tasted awfully good on a warm biscuit.
"Why in the world would Aunt Bess think Stu Landon was a secret agent?" I asked Jackie. "And what could the man have possibly been investigating in Winter Garden?"
She shrugged. "You'll have to take that up with Granny, but I believe she's under the impression that Winter Garden was merely his base of operations."
Dilly Boyd, one of our favorite café regulars, came through the door. She was a tiny lady with cottony hair and mischievous blue eyes. She wore a wide-brimmed sun hat that she swept off her head as she joined us at the counter.
"What have you got there?" She peered into the crate. "Ooh, Landon's honey. I'd like a jar, please."
"All right. I'll keep it here by the register for you and you can pick it up on your way out."
"Okay. When did you start selling Landon's honey?"
"Just this morning. It's our first batch, so to speak," I said with a smile. "I'm hoping to get even more of our local farmers to offer some of their crops on consignment."
"Maybe you should host a farmer's market here on Saturday mornings," Dilly said. "That'd be fun."
"That's not a bad idea, Dilly. I'll look into it."
"Before we get completely off track, though," said Jackie, "what do you know about Stu Landon, Dilly?"
She frowned. "What do you mean?"
"We were just saying that we've known Mr. Landon all our lives, but we don't know much about him," I said.
"Well, he came here . . . oh, I reckon it was nearly twenty years ago now . . . from somewhere out West. Moved here alone and didn't go out of his way to socialize, other than with the Carvers, who live to the right of his place. That stands to reason, though, since he bought a farm from some of the Carvers. Some folks think they might be kin." She drew her thin, pale eyebrows together. "I always figured somebody had broken Stu's heart and that he came here to hide himself away. Some of us tried to fix him up with daughters or nieces or widows, but he wouldn't have any part of that nonsense, so we finally left him alone." She wandered over to her favorite seat at the counter.
"Scrambled eggs and biscuits?" I asked.
She nodded. "And some hash browns would be nice too."
"Coming right up." I went into the kitchen. "Jackie, would you mind shelving the honey, please? And leave a jar for Mom and Aunt Bess under the counter."
"No problem," she said. "Dilly, how's that raccoon of yours doing?"
Dilly didn't actually own a raccoon, but one came to visit her and get a biscuit every evening.
"He's as right as rain and as punctual as a clockmaker," she said. "He comes to my back door at sundown every single day."
"Wonder if he'd like some honey on his biscuit?" I called from the kitchen.
"I don't know whether he would or not. But if he thinks I'm wasting my good honey on him, the little beggar's mistaken."
We had a little lull in business just before ten that morning, and I was able to grab a cup of coffee and look around the café for a couple of minutes. I always try to remember to acknowledge my blessings every day, and the Down South Café was certainly a big one.
When I'd bought the café from Pete Holman, it had been a dive. I don't know how else to put it. The place was dingy-the floor was linoleum that should have been replaced twenty years prior, the fixtures were old and tarnished, and most of the stools and dining room chairs had tears. Thanks to my childhood friend-and Jackie's boyfriend-Roger, who had his own construction company, the floors were now gleaming and scuff-resistant bamboo, the walls were a cheerful yellow with blue trim, and we had new gray stools and dining room furniture, new light fixtures, and a patio for patrons to enjoy when the weather cooperated. We also had a refrigerated display case for pies, cakes, cookies, potato salad-whatever we thought our diners might want to take home with them. And we had a bakers' rack with shelves of jams, Down South Café T-shirts and aprons (blue with yellow lettering), and now Mr. Landon's honey.
Homer Pickens came in at ten o'clock, punctual as ever. He was always at the café at ten and always ordered a sausage biscuit. An eccentric, Homer chose a new hero every day.
"Morning, Homer!" I called from the kitchen. I'd finished my coffee and was preparing vegetables for the coming lunch rush.
"Hi, Amy. How are you this morning?"
"I'm good." I covered the bowl of lettuce I'd been shredding and went to speak with Homer properly. "Mr. Landon brought some honey this morning. We're selling it on consignment in addition to serving it to customers and using it in recipes. Would you like some?"
"No, thanks. I'm not a big fan of honey. I liked it when I was a little boy, but then one of my friends told me honey was bee puke. I never touched the stuff again after that."
"Some friend." I glanced around to make sure none of the other diners had heard his remark. If anyone had, it hadn't seemed to put them off their breakfast. "So who's your hero today?"
"Joseph Joubert, the essayist. Joubert once said, 'When you go in search of honey, you must expect to be stung by bees.' Appropriate for this morning, huh?"
"It sure is." I often wondered if Homer had a photographic memory. He was always at the ready with a quote from one of his heroes, and it often applied to the subject at hand. He'd grown up poor and had dropped out of school in the tenth grade to go to work. I wondered how far he might've gone had he been given the opportunity.
"What do you know about Mr. Landon?" I asked. "We were talking about him this morning, and we realized we don't know much about him except that he's a loner with a mysterious past."
"If being a loner makes a man mysterious, then I must be an enigma myself." He took a sip of the coffee Jackie put in front of him. "After Mother died, I was completely alone. It had always been just the two of us. Of course, I dated now and then, but I never let myself get involved in a serious relationship."
"Why's that?" That behavior didn't sound like the warm, generous Homer I knew.
"I never wanted to marry and have children. What if I'd turned out to be like my father? He just ran out on us. I wouldn't have wanted that for any woman or child."
I was trying to think of something encouraging to say when Homer reminded me that he was awfully set in his ways. I took that as my cue to stop yammering and get him that sausage biscuit.
By the time I closed the café that afternoon, I had only three jars of Mr. Landon's honey left, besides the one I'd bought for Mom and Aunt Bess. I decided to go by the farm to see if I could get more. The honey had sold better than Mr. Landon and I had anticipated.
Landon's Bee Farm was only about a twenty-minute drive from Winter Garden. It wasn't as hot as it had been-especially for August-so I drove with the windows down instead of using the air-conditioning. It dawned on me that if my yellow Beetle had more black on it, I'd resemble a giant bumblebee as I buzzed down the country road to see the beekeeper.
To get to the farm, I had to turn off the main road and climb a steep, deeply rutted dirt road. That's when I put up the windows and turned on the air. I didn't want a face full of dust.
No wonder Mr. Landon didn't get many visitors-this road was a nightmare. I drove as slowly as I could without losing the momentum to get up the hill, and I just hoped I didn't damage my car in the process.
When I finally parked near Mr. Landon's small brick house, I stooped down to make sure there were no fluids leaking from the undercarriage of the car. Fortunately, there weren't, but I made a mental note to check again-and to check my tires-before I left. I wondered how Mr. Landon's antique pickup truck survived the trek every day, but then I realized it was much higher off the ground than my little Bug.
I smoothed my hair back from my face and stepped onto the porch. I rang the bell, but Mr. Landon didn't answer the door. I went to see if he might be in the backyard.
Mr. Landon was striding toward the house with his veiled bee hat in his hand. He was still about a hundred yards away from me, but I could see that he was angry. I was beginning to regret dropping in unannounced; and if the man hadn't already seen me, I'd have been sorely tempted to leave.
When he was close enough, I called out, "Hi, Mr. Landon. I hope I'm not catching you at a bad time!" That seemed like a stupid thing to say since he was obviously upset, but I hoped that when I told him how well his honey was selling at the café, it might lift his spirits.
"What can I do for you, Ms. Flowers?" He went into a shed still a few yards away from where I was standing.
I eased forward but steered clear of the shed. I didn't want to crowd his space more than I already was. "I just came to let you know that we almost sold out of your honey today. I wondered if you might be able to spare a few more jars before next week."
Mr. Landon emerged from the shed without the veiled hat and wiped the sweat from his brow with a blue bandanna. "I'll need to put it into jars and drop it off tomorrow morning. Will ten more work?"
"Yes, that'll be great. Thank you."
We stood in awkward silence for a moment, and I was getting ready to say good-bye when Mr. Landon spoke.
"I was hoping to have quite a bit more honey by fall, but I won't if Chad Thomas has his way about it."
"What do you mean?"
"I just came from checking the hives," he said. "And you know what I found? Hundreds of dead bees."
I gasped. "That's terrible! And you believe this Mr. Thomas killed them?"
"I know he did. He wantonly sprays his crops whenever he takes a notion without regard for the safety of my bees." He shook his head. "Most of the farmers around here understand our mutual need to protect pollinators. They know I close the bees up at night and keep them there until noon. If I left them inside any later than that, the sun would cook them."
"Well, that's not going to happen, Ms. Flowers, because I take care of my bees. And most of my neighbors spray when the bees are closed inside their hives. But Chad-" He gave a low growl of disgust. "He's a different story. He sprays whenever he feels like it, and today one of my hives suffered for his flagrant disregard."
"Isn't there some sort of law in place to protect the bees? Aren't they an endangered species?"