Just because Avery Andrews is a big-city lawyer doesn’t mean she’s above the law in her small hometown of Dacus, South Carolina.
Now that attorney Avery Andrews is back in town, business is booming. There’s the team of ghost hunters who arrive at Avery’s office one fine spring day, searching for ectoplasm from the long-dead. The ghosters are also having altercations with the locals (a raging biker gang and Avery’s own P.I. among them) but Avery’s got other “real” problems with the dearly departed: The twenty-year-old unsolved murder of Wenda Sims. Not long ago Wenda’s niece, Neanna, came to Dacus looking for clues about what happened to her aunt. Then Neanna, too, went missing…and was found dead. Now Neanna’s best friend and adopted sister, Fran French, has come to town. Can Avery help Fran solve the two murders and prevent Fran from meeting the same fate? It’s time for Avery to unearth the truth about the past before it comes back to haunt Dacus…for good.
“Add to the growing shelf of Southern sleuths the proud name of Avery Andrews.”—Wilmington Star-News
“No slim Pickens with this author…Hush My Mouth is fabulous.”—The Best Reviews
About the Author
CATHY PICKENS, an attorney who specializes in complex civil litigation, currently teaches law and ethics at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. She grew up in South Carolina, where her family has lived for the past three centuries.
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Hush My Mouth
A Southern Fried Mystery
By Cathy Pickens
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Cathy Pickens
All rights reserved.
An eternal question: If I started sliding, would a sticky patch of roofing tar stop me from plummeting two tall stories to my death?
I inched along the steep roof with my knees bent and mentally rehearsed aiming my fanny into a quick sit should gravity threaten to draw me over the edge.
Of course, with my natural grace, a slip of the foot would grab a patch of roofing tar at just the wrong angle and send me flying over the leaf-clogged copper gutters, past the too-often-painted gingerbread eaves, and onto the patched sidewalk or wide brick steps below. No chance I'd be cushioned by the thorny holly shrubs. Nope, it would be the sidewalk. Headfirst.
I hunkered down near a badly curled shingle, willing the worn shingles underfoot to have enough grit left in them to withstand the gravitational pull of the earth. I dabbed the stubby, stiff brush into the tar pot and stippled the goo thickly around the damaged shingle edges. Just this one last patch to do. Then I could inch my way over to the ladder, ease a foot onto the rungs, close my eyes, and climb down.
I had watched roofers amble with a relaxed, limber-legged gait, bouncing on bent knees. They made it look easy, so I'd told Melvin I'd just patch the leaks myself in the former Baldwin & Bates Funeral Home, now the combined offices of Avery Andrews, Attorney-at-Law, and Melvin Bertram Capital Ventures. In lieu of rent payments, of course. Now I understood why the two estimates I'd gotten from roofing contractors had been so outrageous.
Yet another prime illustration of something that had seemed like a good idea at the time. What had I been thinking? Okay, I'd been thinking about cash flow. Now I wished I'd also thought about life insurance and whether, from this height, a broken neck was instantly fatal or a lingering end.
I glanced over the gutter to the sidewalk below and contemplated another eternal question: Is it an immutable law of nature that unexpected company and inopportune personal moments coexist on the space-time continuum? It never fails. Company will catch you at your worst. Too early to be my new client — I hoped.
Two guys and a girl milled around on the front sidewalk. The Victorian house was an eye-catching mauve and architecturally interesting, but they had turned their backs to the house, choosing instead to take pictures of the eight-foot stone angel that stood on our front lawn.
The angel was an unusual choice for a signpost. She'd been destined for life as a grave marker until a former client had chosen to bequeath her to me ... AVERY ANDREWS, ATTORNEY-AT-LAW was now discreetly engraved on her pedestal. She was a beautiful piece of art, and I'd smiled at the thought of having her, with her head bowed prayerfully, hands resting against an obelisk, her wings folded, a reverential beacon in front of the former funeral home. When I'd accepted her as a gift, I'd seen her as a guardian angel. I now feared she might become a beacon light for weirdos.
'Twas the season, though — the start of summer, when all manner of folks drove up Main Street in Dacus and straight into the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the Southern Appalachian chain dips into Upstate South Carolina. I hadn't planned to turn the front of my office into a tourist photo op, the funereal equivalent of the World's Largest Ball of String or the Virgin Mary in a Piece of Toast Museum.
I inched over to the edge of the porch and opened my mouth to yell for Melvin to come hold the ladder when I heard his voice from the porch. "May I help you?" The three photography bugs had the good sense to act startled when he spoke.
"Hey," the lanky blond fellow answered. "Hope you don't mind. We didn't step on the grass or nothing."
The pockets of his cargo pants and his multipocketed vest bulged with so much photography paraphernalia that it visually doubled his slight size. "There's somebody on your roof." He craned his neck back to stare. I didn't wave.
Melvin stepped out from under the porch eave and glanced up in my direction. In his most dignified radio-announcer voice, he said, "My lawyer."
The girl, waifishly thin with white-blond hair scraped back into a wispy ponytail, stared up at me, her mouth round with surprise.
I sat on my heels and carefully tied the wire handle of my tar pot to the end of a thin rope, waiting for Melvin to finish toying with the visitors.
"I'm Colin, but they call me Mumler." The talkative guy with the stuffed pockets stepped up to shake Melvin's hand. The girl's brother? I stared down at the top of his head, his spiky hair the same white-blond as the girl's and, from this angle, so thin he almost looked bald.
"We're ghost hunters," Colin announced with the same enthusiasm a kid might tell his parents he'd made the basketball team. "This is most interesting. We were wondering if you'd allow us to take some readings inside. We understand this used to be a mortuary, and —"
"No." Melvin's tone was polite but firm.
"We wouldn't disturb anything, Mr. Andrews. We'd just take some photogr —"
"I'm not Mr. Andrews," Melvin said, his voice still level. "This is a place of business. I'm sure you understand."
What the kids couldn't know was, before this was a mortuary, it had been Melvin's family home place. I didn't know much about Melvin's family, but they likely weren't the kind of people who'd hang around to haunt a house. They were Presbyterians.
Melvin took a step toward the trio, ushering them down the sidewalk. His graying sideburns and neatly pressed oxford shirt lent him a certain authority. However, the leader of the ghost-hunting threesome wasn't gently dissuaded or spooked.
"Do you know of other likely sites that might present paranormal activity? We take measurements, try to capture phenomena on film. In fact, we're hoping to get enough material for a TV pilot."
"Oh, really." Even though I couldn't see Melvin's face, I could tell from his tone that his mouth was crooked up in a wry grin.
"Well, in that case ..."
For Pete's sake, get on with it and get me down from here. Was this the vantage point disembodied spirits had? Hovering overhead, studying the tops of our heads and listening to inane conversations? No wonder they decided to shake things up and play pranks. I was about to manifest my tar pot off the roof.
"Why don't you try Highway 107 north of town? Toward Highlands. You'll come to a picnic spot on your left called Moody Springs."
Don't drink the water, I thought. Nasty stuff tastes like tepid rust.
"A couple of miles farther up the mountain, there's a pull-off on the right. A scenic overlook, though it's a bit overgrown now. A soaking wet hitchhiker appears out of the fog, either at the overlook or at Moody Springs, then disappears when you set him out at his stop, at the other location."
"Wow." Melvin's storytelling had hooked the girl.
"They say he piloted a small plane that crashed into the mountain back in the fifties. He prefers to appear in rain and fog."
And to somebody who was drunk or sleep-deprived.
"Wow. Thanks, man. Maybe we can get some readings."
"Or orb activity." The guy with the brown ponytail who'd been silent up until now spoke with reverence. He shifted from one foot to another, ready to go in search of an orb, whatever that was.
"Thanks." The girl waved back at Melvin. Her gauzy white skirt swirled about her legs as she followed the rest of the Ghost Squad down the sidewalk.
Melvin looked up at me, shaking his head. Nice to know he hadn't forgotten me and my precarious perch while he played ghost guide.
After I lowered the tar pot, I let the rope drop. Melvin held the ladder and I eased myself around until my foot found the rung. That first step was always the worst for me. Stretching into limbo, fearful the ladder would begin to tilt into space.
"I can't believe you sent those kids on a wild goose chase, Mr. Andrews," I said when I touched ground.
A wry half smile still turned up one corner of his mouth as he dusted his hands off. "Seems they chose a wild chase without any help from me. You really need to get a receptionist. So much coming and going around here. I can't be expected to be your greeter. Especially" — he cocked his head in the direction the trio had taken — "if you and your stone-faced friend here begin to attract the fringe element."
I handed him the sticky tar pot, its rope trailing along the ground. "If you'd take care of patching your own leaky roof, Mr. Bertram, perhaps I'd have time to greet the weirdos myself. You know where the ladder goes."
I took the porch steps two at a time. I had to hurry and get ready for the client who'd insisted on a morning appointment. I closed the front door without looking back. I knew Melvin would look dismayed, both at the tar-smeared pot in his hand and at the task of pulling down the extension ladder and hauling it to the huge garage around back, under the house. His penchant for order would be at war: leave the ladder in plain view of everyone traveling Main Street or risk getting dirty while wrestling it out of sight without my help. I knew if I glanced over my shoulder, I'd feel sorry for him and turn back to help. But I was a bit shaky-legged from both the physical and mental exertion of my roof walk.
Roof patching and other chores offset my rent payments even though Melvin might, at times, have been better served by paying professionals. But for the last three months, since I'd officially decided to set up practice in half the downstairs of his recently reacquired Victorian, it had been an amiable and mutually beneficial arrangement.
Today, though, my subcontractor work was interfering with my practice of law. I had a new client coming in just a few minutes. I'm not much of a primper, but I needed to shower, change clothes, and get back downstairs before Melvin had yet another count against me on the matter of no receptionist.
Melvin's consulting work doesn't entail clients coming to his office. When he'd invited me to share space, I wasn't sure he'd foreseen the effect of clients dribbling into my office. Dribbling, not streaming. It wasn't so much the quantity as it was the unpredictable but steady number of characters and odd cases that arrived, as this morning illustrated. I also had some doubts about my next appointment.
She'd called early this morning and needed to see me right away. Her sister was missing. When I'd suggested she call the sheriff, she cut me off, insisting it was more complicated than that. Now that I thought about it, maybe I should have asked the ghost hunters to stick around to help with the search.CHAPTER 2
I made it back downstairs after my shower mere seconds before my new client stepped onto the deep, shaded porch. When she'd called early that morning, she hadn't given me much information, just that she needed help finding someone.
In the seven months since I'd returned to Dacus from a big firm specializing in trial practice, I'd choked back more than a few knots of anxiety. In my old life in Columbia, I'd known what I was doing and I was good at it. The tougher and more complicated the case, the more I liked it. Now, all too often, the bread-and-butter problems that walked through the door — the wills or property transfers or divorces — all had learning curves for me. Whether my clients knew it or not, I was frequently surprised by how little nuts-and-bolts law I knew.
On the other extreme, some of their problems were so simple, I felt like a thief asking for my fee. Too many of those who found themselves on my doorstep had already been beaten up and sucked dry. Likely why some of the other lawyers in town steered them in my direction.
"Finding someone" fell outside my experience, but the young woman who now swung open my beveled-glass-and-oak door had been insistent.
"Ms. French?" I asked. "I'm Avery Andrews."
"Fran." Her heels made three businesslike clicks on the oak floorboards of the room-sized entry hall as she crossed to shake my hand.
Her slender fingers were cool, her handshake firm. She looked down at me, her green eyes curious, studying me just as I was studying her.
I led her to my back office and we settled in. The answering machine would catch any messages, and the two wing chairs in the window alcove would be comfortable and private. My outer office had once been a family parlor and later a funeral home viewing room. Beautifully furnished with a few carefully chosen chairs, my grandfather's oak desk scavenged from my great-aunts' attic, and my own collection of antiques, it lacked only one thing: the receptionist Melvin kept pestering me to hire. That seemed such a big step — both a financial and personal commitment to being here, to practicing law on my own. I kept putting off the decision.
Fortunately, Fran declined my offer of coffee. I'd forgotten to check whether Melvin had made any, and as a non coffee drinker, I was completely inept at the task. "You said you needed help finding someone," I said.
"My sister Neanna Lyles is missing. To be truthful, she's not really my sister, but my parents ... we were raised together as sisters."
The part of me always interested in others' stories wanted to settle back for a chat. The part of me that had worked on billable hours with a big firm knew to get down to business. If I couldn't help her, no point in dragging this out.
"Your sister lives in Dacus?"
"No. In Atlanta. We both do. We grew up there. She drove up here a couple of days ago. I haven't heard from her since Friday, and I'm starting to panic. She should have called before now. I called all the places I could think of — the hospital, the sheriff, all the hotels in the area. When I ran out of options, I got in the car and drove."
Her fingers tangling and untwining in her lap were the only physical hint at her disquiet. Flawless makeup on porcelain skin, chocolate-brown pants, cream silk shirt, bobbed auburn hair, wide green eyes, she looked like an Atlanta bank executive, which she might be when she wasn't searching for her not-quite sister.
"Was she here visiting someone?" The reasons to come to Dacus were limited, despite attempts by the Chamber of Commerce and the scattered bed-and-breakfasts to market the local charm. People mostly just passed through on their way to fish on the lakes or to camp or hike in the national forest or to travel higher into the Blue Ridge Mountains seeking cooler weather.
"She said she was coming to a concert." Fran untangled her fingers. "Nut Case, her favorite group. They were playing at some club around here."
"You know the name?"
"The Ranch? Or the Pasture? Something like that."
"The Pasture." I'd never heard of Nut Case, but the Pasture had been around for decades, a honky-tonk with a big pasture out back for occasional concerts.
"Neanna called on her way here last Friday, then nothing. It was easier to drive here than to sit home and worry. I couldn't help but see your angel sign when I drove into town. I appreciate you seeing me on such short notice."
"I'm not sure I'm the best person to help you. Dacus has a private investigator who is actually very good. I could put you —"
"No," she said, her tone sharp. "No. I've had enough of P.I.'s. You're from around here, aren't you." She wasn't asking. "You know people, know how things work around here."
"Yes." My family had been here longer than dirt.
She nodded at the confirmation. "I asked about you. People like your family. At least the people who work at the gas station on the north edge of town." Her smile acknowledged the unscientifically small size of her sample. "The story is difficult. You can hire whatever help you need, but I need someone I can trust, someone — who can handle a difficult case and move quickly."
"You can't know that about me from the gas station."
She smiled. "No, but they did tell me you were once a 'big fancy lawyer in Columbia.' After I called you to make the appointment, I stopped by the library to check you out online."
Hmm. I needed to check myself out sometime, see what popped up. "Okay, suppose you tell me about your sister. Then we can talk about next steps."
"Fair enough. To tell the truth, the concert wasn't the real reason she came. She came looking for her aunt, for information about her death."
She noted my surprise.
"Maybe you've heard about Wenda Sims?"
I shook my head. "I don't think so."
Excerpted from Hush My Mouth by Cathy Pickens. Copyright © 2008 Cathy Pickens. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
“Add to the growing shelf of Southern sleuths the proud name of Avery Andrews.”—Wilmington Star-News
“No slim Pickens with this author…Hush My Mouth is fabulous.”—The Best Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Dacus (SC) attorney Avery Andews¿ latest client is Fran French, in from Atlanta to find her missing friend Neanna Nyles, who was like a sister to her. Neanna¿s stated reason to visit Dacus was to attend a concert for a favorite band. But Fran knows Neanna was also curious about the 1985 unsolved murder ¿ in Dacus ¿ of her favorite aunt. Also in Dacus is a team of young ¿ghost-busters¿ looking for material for a TV pilot. They¿re all over town chasing leads, mostly phony, and Avery is concerned they¿ll get into trouble with some local bad boys. But Avery¿s friend/landlord Melvin Bertram takes the youngsters under his wing. Avery¿s certain it¿s more a matter of Melvin¿s southern-gentleman manners than any interest in the paranormal. When a new murder occurs, Avery becomes increasingly interested in the ¿cold-case¿ murder of Neanna¿s aunt, believing that crime and the new one may be related. She¿s fortunate to have a friend in her former classmate, Chief Deputy Rudy Mellin, who¿s willing to share information. Readers who are picky about writing quality will find a new favorite in Cathy Pickens. She simply knows how to use the English language. Her writing is precise, crisp and crackling with energy. Avery is a delightful heroine who is not bogged down with romantic entanglements, although some readers may hope for a love interest for the too-career-focused Avery. Two secondary characters of note are Edna Lynch, private investigator, and her niece Shamanique, who is foisted on Avery as a receptionist/Jill of all trades. Shamanique is one sharp cookie, with lots of potential as a continuing character who can further shake things up in Dacus. By Diana. First published in the Cozy Library February 18, 2008.Review based on publisher- or author-provided review copy.
I loved this book.The mystery was gripping and heartbreaking, I can not imagine how hard it must be to loose someone and never know the truth behind how and why. I also appreciated a look at how it can effect the LEO's, how some cases never let go.I did find the subplot of the "ghosters" to be a bit of a stretch and annoying at times.I know people really want to believe in things like this, but I find it hard to accept that they would be that blind and naive about it. But it was harmless and didn't take up to much of the story so it wasn't too bad.Instead I would have liked to see more of the other subplot, the divorce case and how that all came about, and it's conclusion. That story had far more relevance and felt far more realistic but at least it brought us to Edna, as minimal as it was.I hope in future books we see more of Edna I really, really enjoyed her character and want to find out more about her.Also I am really enjoying the development of Chief Rudy Mellin and their friendship and professional relationship. He went from a character in the first book to a solid, believable person in the subsequent stories.
At first I wasn't too impressed, but as I read on I started to enjoy it more. (I love how she lisps when her fangs come out. Now that's believable!), but the jury is still out, but I liked it well enough to want to read another.
The characters are delightful, original and endearing. The plot was interesting and kept my attention. No dramatic open mouthed ending but I would read more books by this author and with these characters.
Atlanta resident Fran French asks Dacus, South Carolina lawyer Avery Andrews to find her missing adopted ¿sister¿ Neanna Lyles who came to the small town to learn more about the Wenda Sims murder in 1985 Avery agrees. However, when the attorney finds Neanna, it is not a welcome home scenario instead the police report the missing person committed suicide.---------- A stunned Fran tells Avery no way would Neanna kill herself. Fran admits that Neanna was despondent over the recent death of her grandmother and horrified to find a picture of corpse of Aunt Wenda in a family scrapbook. Not long afterward Avery finds that same photo in Neanna¿s car. She believes the niece was murdered with the motive to keep her from finding out who killed her beloved aunt.---------- The latest Southern Fried Mystery (see HOG WILD, DONE GONE WRONG, and SOUTHERN FRIED) is a wonderful regional cozy that fans of the series will appreciate. The case is difficult enough for Avery to solve only to have comic relief (for the audience not for the heroine) caused by a ghostbusters trio interfering with the investigation as they hope to make contact with any of the late Lyles as a ticket to appearing on reality TV, paranormal style. No slim Pickens with this author as HUSH MY MOUTH is a fabulous South Carolina whodunit.-------- Harriet Klausner