When Nora Alexander drives into Piney Woods, Texas, to fulfill her dying mother’s last wish, she has no idea what awaits her. First she is run off the road, then the sealed letter she delivers turns out to be a scathing rebuke to the town’s most beloved citizen and favored candidate for Piney Woods Pioneer: Adam Brockwell. Next thing you know, Adam has been murdered in a nasty knife attack. Suspicion instantly falls on Nora, one of the last people to see him alive. After all, everyone in Piney Woods loved him. Or did they? Nora learns that her mother had a complicated past she never shared with her daughter. Told not to leave town by Tuck the flirty sheriff, Nora finds a job with Tuck’s Aunt Marty trying to get the rundown Tunie Hotel back in the black. The old hotel was Piney Woods’ heart and soul in its heyday as an oil boomtown. Now the secrets it harbors may be the key to getting Nora off the hook. She’s going to need to solve the mystery quickly to avoid arrest, or worse: becoming the killer’s next victim. Book 1 in the Piney Woods Mystery series.
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About the Author
Teresa Trent lives in Houston, Texas, where she writes lighthearted cozy mysteries filled with small-town wisdom and plenty of quirky characters. She has won awards for her short stories with several Texas writers groups and is always in search of that next unusual character or plot. When not writing, she enjoys spending time with her family, singing, doing crafts, shopping with her daughter, and watching old mystery movies on television.
Read an Excerpt
Blinking to keep her tears at bay, Nora reached into her pocket for a tissue. Just as she brought it up to her damp cheek, a red pickup, apparently tired of her snail's pace, swerved around to pass her. Without considering the passing driver, Nora hit the gas pedal to get back up to speed with traffic. When the red truck re-entered the lane, he nearly ran into her, causing Nora to veer off the country road. She slammed on the brakes, taking deep breaths as her heart thumped in her chest.
With shaking hands, she moved farther over to the side of the road as her heart rate returned to normal. The jolt had opened the cut on her hand from that morning's moving of the boxes and furniture from her mother's place to the storage unit. The bandage had dislodged itself, and she used her cotton shirt to stop the flow of blood until she could open the first-aid kit on the seat of the car. Thank goodness she was wearing a T-shirt underneath.
Just as she got everything fixed up, a man in a white pickup with a gun rack in the back slowed and rolled down his window. "You okay there, missy?"
Nora straightened up and smiled, not wanting to accept help from a strange man. "Fine, just fine."
"Okay then. I got a little something for you." Nora wasn't sure she wanted to see what that was. He extended his arm out of the cab window and slapped a bumper sticker into her hand. The bright red letters spelled out, BUBBY FOR PINEY WOODS PIONEER.
"Uh, thank you."
"Name's Bubby Tidwell and I can see you are about to enter the fair city of Piney Woods, Texas. While you're there, I'd appreciate it if you cast your vote for me, as the Piney Woods Pioneer. I have personally saved fourteen of our citizens, three cats, and a hamster in my days as a firefighter. They only choose people who have contributed to improving our little community, and even though you don't know me, I'd sure appreciate your support. You drive safe now." He waved and headed on down the road.
Nora put the bumper sticker in the passenger seat and stared in the rearview mirror. She had hopped into the car determined to fulfill her mother's last wish. Now that she was getting close to her destination, she realized she must look pretty rough. She rearranged her hair to create a side braid à la Disney princess while arranging silky strands of auburn hair to frame her face. Pulling a tube of concealer out of her bag, she did her best to repair her makeup. After a few minutes of fussing, she hoped she looked presentable.
She had to do this thing. She had to know. Her mother left her instructions on delivering the letter.
As Nora neared Piney Woods, Texas, two giant eyes bored into her from a lighted billboard with the words VOTE FOR BUBBY in glitter letters at the bottom. PINEY WOODS' FINEST CITIZEN was written under the face of the round-cheeked man with the Cheshire Cat smile. A hundred feet down the road was another billboard with BROCKWELL INDUSTRIES — PINEY WOODS' TRUE PIONEER NEEDS YOUR VOTE. Brockwell was the name she was looking for, so she knew she was getting close. As she entered town, the election signs multiplied. VOTE FOR BUBBY was on a park bench, VOTE FOR BROCKWELL was on a lamppost, but it was going too far when a blue Porta-Potty sported signs from both sides. Nora guessed they wanted the people of Piney Woods to think about who they were voting for while using the blue plastic necessity. Nothing like a captive audience.
Nora drove down a main street that looked as if it belonged to an earlier time. The two-story brick buildings held lovely little stores, a restaurant, and a coffee shop. The oak and elm trees on either side of the street were so large, they nearly touched branches in some areas, framing the picturesque town with their deep-red and gold leaves. At the end of the main road in Piney Woods was the largest house on the block. The two-story brick structure looked more like the public library or a courthouse than someone's home. Nora double-checked to make sure there wasn't a book drop by the front door. No, someone actually lived there. The enormous house had a wraparound porch and windows taller than the height of the average man. What would it be like to sit on the porch, listening to the crickets, on a warm summer's evening? Nora examined the numbers on the mailbox. This was the address her mother had printed in careful letters on the envelope. Not only was the intended recipient of this letter mysterious, but he was also rich.
After driving all the way from south Louisiana to Texas, she was here. All she had to do was park in the cobblestone driveway, ring the doorbell, deliver the letter, gas up, and go home. So why was she nervous? Why hadn't her mother mailed the letter before her death? What was the big secret about Adam Brockwell? Since her father's death, Nora had never even seen her mother go on a single date.
If Kay Alexander had a boyfriend, it would have to be someone like a table-calculating insurance adjuster figuring the chances of them ever having a good time. Her mother had a way with figures right up until her death. Nora had been told how much they depended on her bookkeeping skills at the home improvement center where she had worked for so many years.
Nora's mother had an answer for everything, and most of the time that meant Nora needed to stay inside the little bubble she had created for the two of them. When Nora rebelled, as most young people eventually do, she hadn't just strayed from the course. She'd found herself a whole new ocean. Kay Alexander's cancer had steadily worsened.
Once a healthy, vibrant fifty-one-year-old woman, the woman in the bed next to Nora had appeared gaunt and tired. Her red hair, what was left of it, was covered in a brightly colored wrap. It was the brightest thing in the room, as if pink and yellow flowers could dispel the pall of her mother's illness. It was as if she was holding onto the last threads of color, her attire the one pleasure cancer couldn't drain out of her. The doctors had promised that the pain and discomfort from the chemo would pay off in the end. Nothing had worked. So here they were, mother and daughter, holding on for time.
Other than her father, Kay Alexander had never trusted men. She had been so strange before she died. Pulling an envelope out of her bedside table, she pressed it in Nora's hands.
"I need you to deliver this to the man at this address."
Nora examined the letter. The address was in Texas. "Why? Can't you mail it?"
"No, it's important this man sees you."
"Let's just say he's about to be honored with something and I ... want to put in my two cents."
"How do you know this about a man I've never heard of who lives in another state?"
Kay put her hand to her chest and coughed. "I ... I ... just know. That's all."
Her mother's words still echoed in her ears as her phone GPS informed her she had reached her destination. Whoever this guy was and why he was important to her mother, Nora would never know until the letter was opened. She came close to the driveway and started to pull in, but then checked her watch. It was nearly seven. Maybe it would be better to deliver the letter the next day when she could be sure to catch Mr. Brockwell.
She needed to find a place to stay for the night. Piney Woods was so small, she doubted there was a chain hotel anywhere near. Turning around, she went back down the main street and found the Piney Woods Bed and Breakfast.
She walked up to the front counter in the lovely two-story home and tapped the bell. From a connecting room, a television blared with game show buzzers and canned applause.
"I think that was the bell, Tatty," a male voice said.
"It can't be. You locked the door, right?"
"Uh, I'll be right back." A small, wiry man came through the doorway to the front desk and immediately jumped back.
"Oh, man, you scared me, chica." He cleared his throat and stood a little straighter, though he was still not a tall man. She estimated his height at five feet seven or so. "I'm Ed Tovar, owner of Piney Woods' premier bed and breakfast. Can I help you?"
A trim woman with soft brown skin poked her head around the corner. She looked to be in her sixties. "We are the only bed and breakfast and he's part-owner, my forgetful husband meant to say. I'm Tatty. Did you need a room?"
"Yes. Do you have any vacancies? I don't have a reservation or anything."
"Well, we are pretty booked," Ed said, clucking his tongue. Tatty flapped her hand past her husband.
"Give it up, Ed. You don't get to charge her more just because she thinks we're full up. We're without guests tonight and awfully glad to see you." Tatty's warmth made Nora feel at home. A few minutes later they showed her to a room on the second floor.
"This will be your room, dear." Mrs. Tovar pulled open the green-striped drapes, revealing a view of the side yard that held a giant oak tree full of the burnt-orange found in pumpkin pies and autumn fires.
Aside from the yard, could see a section of Piney Woods' main street. Tatty Tovar flipped the light switch as Ed Tovar busied himself about the room like a squirrel running from branch to branch. His antsiness only served to emphasize his wife's calmness. With the treatment she was getting, Nora felt more like a beloved relative on a visit than someone paying to rent a room. Did they act like this with all their guests? If so, this town was a lot different from where she had been living.
"There is a bathroom down the hall." Ed pointed it out as if having to share a bathroom was a deluxe feature.
Tatty opened the window a crack. "Leave the window open a bit to air out the room. How long will you be staying with us?"
Nora set her weathered suitcase and a leather bag next to the bed. "Just a day or two, I guess."
Tatty fluffed a pillow and set it back down. "Are you here on business?"
Nora sighed. "Sort of. I'm carrying out a final wish for my mother. She just passed away."
Tatty stopped her busy work, walked over, and took Nora's hands. "Oh, my dear. You poor thing."
She was overcome by Tatty's kindness, and also a little uncomfortable. Even though Nora was thirty-three, she felt as vulnerable as a small child. She barely knew this couple. Placing her hand on Tatty's arm, Nora pulled away. "Thank you."
"If I may ask, what was her final wish?"
"She left a letter to be delivered to Mr. Adam Brockwell," Nora blurted out.
"A letter? For Mr. Brockwell?" Ed asked. "What kind of letter?"
"I don't know," she said. She was surprised that she had told this couple so much after just meeting them. Though their interest felt sincere.
"Adam Brockwell is the man around here," Ed said. "He's being considered for the Piney Woods Hall of Fame. That's a big deal. You have to be close to sainthood to get that one. Maybe he owed her money for something? Bills are the only things that outlive all of us."
Tatty put her hands together under her chin, staring up as if imagining it all. "Oh, this is so romantic. Just like something out of a Nicholas Sparks movie."
"Oh, God, don't get the woman started on that gobbledygook." Ed steered his wife toward the door. "Well, if there's anything you need, and I mean anything at all, you just dial zero on the phone, and I'll be at your door."
"Got it," Nora said.
The Tovars left, and Nora plopped down on the bed, which responded with a tortured squeak. Obviously, this wasn't the honeymoon suite. She'd been so focused on driving to Piney Woods and delivering her mother's letter, she'd never considered what to do next. Why was she in such a hurry to return, anyway? She'd cleaned out her mother's house, and in the process tripped on an uneven place in the sidewalk. Upon landing, she'd put a gash in her hand. Nora was relieved to have completed that part of handling her mother's estate — putting her things safely in storage. Her hand was healing, but she had to watch it. The thought of returning home exhausted her.
A strange clanging sound echoed outside her window. This town was so small, perhaps they had to use a trash can lid to alert the fire department?
She rose and peered through the glass. A block down, a man had fallen into a metal trash can. He stumbled under a streetlight next to an old two-story brick building. A passerby was trying to help him stand. In the quiet of the autumn evening, Nora heard bits of their conversation.
"I'm all right. Jus' took a misstep."
The man lending aid was trying to get the wobbly drunk to his feet, holding him by the elbow. "How much have you had to drink today, Dad?"
The drunk was old, painfully thin, and nearly bald. His cheeks were sunken and his eyes bugged from their sockets. The young man appeared to be a healthier version of the old man, with a receding hairline and a paunch.
The drunk tottered to the side. "Why? What do you mean? I'm perfectly fine. Finer'n fine. I'm final."
"Yes, well, you must have started early today."
"Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy ... uh ... healthy. ..." He scratched his head as the old phrase escaped him. "Uh ... healthy...."
"Okay. I get it. Why don't you let me help you get home?" the younger man asked.
The son guided his father toward a pickup truck parked in front of the run-down structure. Nora realized the building was a hotel. Now it looked more like a home for vagrants. Had the drunken man planned on checking in? The hotel was dark, except for a faint light from a nearby streetlamp. Other than the drunk and his longsuffering son, there was no other activity in or around the hotel. An ancient sign above the front entry read, TUNIE HOTEL, with a star sitting between the two words. Nora blinked when, just for a second, the unlit star seemed to twinkle in the moonlight.
After getting settled in, Nora felt her stomach growl. It was around eight, and she was happy to find a Cajun Restaurant called Jumbo Gumbo still open. Having traveled all the way from River Ridge, a suburb of New Orleans, Nora found it ironic that the first restaurant she was to dine in served dishes from Louisiana. Jumbo Gumbo was situated across the street from the run-down old hotel Nora had viewed from her window.
Considering the many heavy drinkers Nora had encountered as a waitress, she was surprised she couldn't get the vision of the old drunk out of her mind.
Nora jumped in her seat, startled by the waitress standing next to her table holding a hot plate.
"Your dinner. Be careful. That sauce can run right off the plate. We have us a temporary fill-in chef tonight, and if I have it my way, it'll be very temporary." She placed a white plate heaping with shrimp étouffée in front of her. The smell of the Cajun spices was wonderful and reminded Nora of home.
"I can tell that if I stay here too long, I'll put on ten extra pounds."
The waitress, whose black polyester uniform was pulling a bit at the waist, eyed Nora's figure. "And what would be wrong with gaining a little weight, honey? You could use a few pounds. What do they say — it's all about that bass?" She wiggled her ample hips and laughed. "Sorry, we don't have the gumbo tonight, with our regular cook out sick. Kind of silly to be called Jumbo Gumbo with no gumbo."
"Well, I hope he's better soon."
"Thank you, but you're preachin' to the choir."
Nora raised her hand as the waitress plodded back to the kitchen. "Oh, just one more thing. Could I have some more ice water with a slice of lime in it this time?"
"You got it." The waitress headed toward the kitchen.
Nora started eating her dinner. In the background, she recognized Frank Sinatra's voice. This "true love" the guy was singing about, it was a mystery to her. She was beginning to question whether that particular miracle would ever happen for her.
The bell on the door rang, and a man entered, pulling off a weathered denim jacket. He had dark, curly hair trimmed closely at his neck and temples. Even so, a precision cut wasn't enough to contain all the curl. He had the trace of a beard and an air of authority. If she had to guess, she'd say he was probably a lawyer or local politician. He struck Nora as the kind of guy people would go to in a crisis. The man observed the empty restaurant and then glanced in Nora's direction. She shifted her gaze to the table, clanking her fork on her plate. She'd been caught staring.
"Hey, Tuck." The waitress greeted the man as if he were an old friend. "As luck would have it, your table's open." She laughed at her own joke and led Tuck to a table right across from Nora, blocking Nora's view of the Tunie Hotel.
Once the man was seated, the waitress hurried back to Nora's table with a pitcher of water to refill Nora's glass.
Excerpted from "Murder of a Good Man"
Copyright © 2018 Teresa Trent.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc..
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