Lindy Blanchard has enough on her hands at her family’s Texas nut farm with her new strain of pecan trees dying. Trouble is, people are dying too. In a nutshell, it’s murder—from the author of Snoop to Nuts…
The Blanchards are invited to the gala event of the season. Lindy’s wealthy friend Eugene Wheatley—who’s just nuts about his new bride—is throwing a party to introduce his wife Jeannie to Riverville, Texas, society. The celebration is in full swing when Eugene is found shot dead.
Jeannie and her unscrupulous kin are the prime suspects, but the Blanchards aren’t convinced. Lindy and her meemaw Miss Amelia have heard just about enough from the local gossips gathering at the Nut House family store to realize that Jeannie needs their help. And when somebody shoots at Lindy during the investigation, things get real personal. Lindy and Miss Amelia are determined to unmask the killer party crasher and shell out some Texas-style justice…
About the Author
Elizabeth Lee is the author of the Nut House mysteries, including Snoop to Nuts and A Tough Nut to Kill.
Read an Excerpt
Praise for A Tough Nut to Kill
Berkley Prime Crime titles by Elizabeth Lee
Recipes from Miss Amelia’s Nut House Kitchen
That night I dragged myself, in noose and shroud, out of my dusty white pickup in front of the Wheatley mansion. I put the keys into the hands of a disgusted-looking man who waited to park it, or hide it, behind all the shiny brand-new pickups covered with chrome and expensive gun racks, and all the big Cadillac Escalades parked on a fitful lawn, back toward a wall of low, honey mesquite trees.
It wasn’t because I expected a murder at the party that I looked the way I did. My costume was a protest because I didn’t want to go to Elizabeth and Eugene Wheatley’s gala to begin with. They were throwing it to introduce Eugene’s new wife, Jeannie, to the “elite” of Riverville, Texas—or at least to a good number of the best and oldest citizens. I didn’t want to be one of those citizens. My friend Deputy Hunter Austen of the Riverville Police Department, a man who protected all those rich people, wasn’t invited, and if he wasn’t good enough to be asked to their costume party, then I wasn’t either.
I was mad at the Wheatleys and all my family, the Blanchards, and just about anybody who might get in my way that night.
“COME AS A FAMOUS TEXAN,” the invitation shouted, and I knew it was all Elizabeth Wheatley’s idea, owing to her expertise in Texas history, as she was eager to tell anybody and everybody since I first knew her back when I was in high school and she was already in college. She was Eugene’s sister, so I put up with her bragging and strutting and putting on airs because, after all, they were Wheatleys of the oil Wheatleys of Dallas, but living in Riverville for no good reason I ever got out of Eugene.
It was no skin off my nose if she wanted to play lady of the manor. Yet . . .
“I’m not going,” was what I first told Mama and Miss Amelia, my grandmother, the day before the party.
“The hell you’re not going,” Mama said and finished off her breakfast of scrambled eggs and Texas toast, picked up her coffee cup, and gave me one of those long stares that told me I was going to lose this battle.
My meemaw was saying, “Watch your mouth, Emma,” to Mama, which made Mama get red in the face and steam the way I was steaming. My younger sister, Bethany, saw what was coming and got up, dumped her dishes in the sink, and headed out to the event tent, where she saw to weddings and showers and graduation parties under our tall, old pecan trees. Justin, my older brother, who took care of Rancho en el Colorado, the pecan farm we lived on, grunted something about meeting up with his men for spraying and was out of there.
I liked Mama’s steaming because she was wrong, and it felt good puffing up like a pigeon because I was right. “I’m a grown woman and I can decide for myself whether I want to go to some awful costume party. You know Hunter’s my best friend. They could’ve asked him.”
“There’s always somebody has to be left out, Lindy. A house can only hold so many people.”
“Then let it be me. Anyway I feel cramps coming on. And I don’t have a costume. And some man from some European lab is coming to look at my trees. And . . . I just don’t want to go if they snub Hunter.”
Mama leaned back from the breakfast table, stretched her arms over her head, and then ran fingers through her cropped blond hair. “Me and your grandmother are Hastings—and proud of it. But here in Riverville we are also Blanchards—all of us. We’re invited to a party given by old friends where we have to dress up as a famous Texan. You a Texan or not?” she demanded, her hair now standing on end, making her look kind of wild. Who can take a woman seriously when she looks crazy and she’s your mother, but you are grown and should be able to do what you want to do in life?
My meemaw cleared her throat and knocked her clasped hands together on the tabletop. She had something to say, and when Miss Amelia made a pronouncement, it was somewhere up there near treason to go against her. Miss Amelia’s seventy-six, tall, stately (like our pecan trees), and sweet as an angel to customers in the Nut House, our store in town, where she sells everything pecan, and sweet to everybody in the family unless she comes at you with a “Bless yer heart” and “Why, you dear thing you—” That’s when the knife comes out and you better watch your back.
“Why, my sweet girl,” she said and the hair on my neck stood up. Right then I knew I’d lost, but I wasn’t going to make it easy on anybody. I knew who I’d go as and figured it would be the one costume at the party that would shock the devil out of all of them.
Chipita Rodriguez. That’s who I picked. Born in 1799, in Mexico. The only woman ever hanged in Texas; accused of killing John Savage with an ax, then hanged from a mesquite tree with her last words being “No soy culpable!” (“I am not guilty!”) After I got my shroud together—old gray burlap wrapped around me and sewn, in places, to my jeans and T-shirt underneath—I tied my noose from a nice hefty rope and put it around my neck. I floured my face and wild hair then drew red grease pencil under my eyelids. I planned to walk around their big old ballroom intoning “No soy culpable,” but I knew I’d lose my nerve after Mama got a look at me.
* * *
I almost fell over the noose as I crossed the gravel drive circling in front of the huge old mansion. I hefted the noose higher, wishing I’d gone for a shorter, lighter rope.
Brave woman that I am, I was already feeling dumb and wishing I’d come as Barbara Bush with a string of pearls around my neck instead of a noose. I walked slower and slower toward the heavy front door standing wide open. I could hear music from the back of the house.
My bravado was kind of failing me. Nobody would know my costume was a protest against anything—like Texas hanging a woman, I told myself. They’d think it was just me, Lindy Blanchard, making a stubborn fool of myself though I was twenty-eight, had two degrees from Texas A&M, and was deep into biotechnology—genome selection—so the pecan trees on our ranch would grow and bloom and produce even in drought years. “A selfless deed,” I always told myself though I loved doing the work just for the doing. But wasn’t I helping my family and all our neighbors? And I was keeping a promise to my Daddy, who’d been proud of me back then, before he got killed out on his tractor, mowing under those big old trees.
Naw, when they got a look at me, they’d all say I should’ve known better.
The argument with myself was short. Too late. I took the rope and wrapped it around my upper arm a couple of times. I tried to smooth down my hair and brush a lot of the white flour off my face. Couldn’t do a thing about the shroud.
I walked across the portico with tall Ionic columns and through the open double doors, which looked like every doorway to disaster from every scary movie I’d ever seen. In the grand front hall I was met by a butler holding a silver plate, waiting for my invitation. I knew the butler as Roy Friendly, an old cowboy who hung out at the Barking Coyote Saloon. Roy looked embarrassed when I raised my eyebrows at his tux. He was smiling, though his rough and grizzled cheeks barely moved as he asked for my invitation. I said I didn’t have one because Mama came ahead of me and she had it.
All Roy did was shrug and pull uncomfortably at the collar of his white shirt.
“I gotta ask, Lindy,” he said while giving me the once-over. “What in hell’s name you come as? Is that Davy Crockett after the Alamo?”
He snickered and picked at his tongue as if he felt tobacco there. I ignored him and headed back toward the music. I wanted to see my family, make sure they knew I’d been there, say “Hi” to a few folks, and then get the heck on home while I had at least a little dignity left.
First to spot me when I entered the high-ceilinged ballroom lined with huge, gold-framed portraits of every last Wheatley, and—I swear—golden chandeliers shedding golden light on the illuminati of Riverville, was my younger sister, Bethany, in her wide red hoopskirt with very tight embroidered bodice. She looked like Scarlett O’Hara to me, but since Scarlett didn’t live in Texas, I figured she was some other femme fatale or just all Texas femme fatales because she found the outfit before she thought out who she’d be.
Bethany threw her hands to her cheeks. Her mouth made a bright red oval. The fat blond curls on her head were puffed up larger than normal. She left the much older—bordering on ancient—man she was dancing with to come stand in front of me, wide-eyed, astonished, and unhappy.
“Who the devil you supposed to be, Lindy Blanchard?” she demanded in her best irate voice.
“Bunch of famous dead people,” I hissed back at her. After all, I was older than she was, a lot smarter, and didn’t like feeling dumb right there where other people could see.
“Are you out of your mind? You come to a wonderful party, with wonderful people, to celebrate their wedding—like that?”
“Second wedding. Sally was shot, remember? Remember Sally? I liked Sally.”
“I remember Sally. Loved her clothes. Sad—just a hunting trip over near Austen and then Sally gets a bullet to her head. But that’s history now. ’Course Eugene’s married again.”
I was finished with Bethany. I didn’t need my sister’s sibling stuff right then. “Hey, maybe you should go back to that dashing man you’ve got waiting impatiently there on the dance floor.” I nodded to where the old gentleman stood looking confused, as if Bethany had disappeared on him.
Bethany stuck her tongue out at me, put on a big smile, and clapped to the music as she hurried toward her very old and very oil-rich partner with many friends who might give parties in Bethany’s event tent, or could have political cronies needing a space to hold rallies and such. You had to give it to Bethany, since taking over our entertainment business she was never off duty.
Next it was Meemaw who blindsided me. Lady Bird Johnson, I guessed. Dressed in a very neat denim outfit with a cowgirl hat tied under her chin. Personally I thought Meemaw did Mrs. Johnson proud.
“Chipita Rodriguez, right?” Meemaw, as usual, was way ahead of me. Nothing gets by this woman who can look at a man in ragged jeans and an old cowboy hat and figure he’s a billionaire. Or look at a fancy cowboy in a ten-gallon hat, best boots ever, and whisper, “All hat. No cattle.” Or look into somebody’s eyes and know right away if they were capable of murder.
“Thought that was who you’d be. Maybe not going to impress any of the men here—as your mama hoped. Not with you looking like something pulled out of a moldy grave. But good for you, taking on somebody like Chipita.”
“Took the Texas legislature over a hundred years to claim she didn’t get a fair trial,” I groused as loud as I dared, wanting people around us, staring at me, to get it. “That’s famous enough for me.”
“Yeah, well, lot of men hung didn’t get that much attention. But I’ll tell you, Lindy, I had a friend back in Dallas who swore she saw Chipita’s ghost riding the river bottoms over to San Patricio County. Hope you don’t stir her ghost up around here.”
Meemaw looked well satisfied, passing on that small fact, and fixing me in her own way.
“Are you mad at me?” I leaned in close to ask because of all the people in the world I never wanted mad at me, Meemaw was at the top of my list. Along with Mama, I suppose, but there’s always been something very special between my grandmother and me, like we could look at each other and know what we were thinking.
“Mad at you?” Her faded blue eyes went wide. She rocked back on the heels of her sensible shoes. “How could I be mad at you, Lindy? You got all that feistiness straight from me. Wish I still had some of it. But I’ve got you. I’m awful grateful for that.”
I hid my embarrassment at pushing Meemaw to that extreme edge of grandmotherly love by turning to the tall, dark man standing behind me, a tray of barbecued shrimp with lemons heaped into a bowl of ice on his tray. He lowered the tray to within my reach as his dark eyes went over my costume and his nose wrinkled with distaste. Funny that I didn’t know the man. Weren’t many strangers in Riverville. From the look of him—with his dark curly hair and judgmental eyes, I imagine he’d been brought from Dallas with the Wheatleys. I’d say some old family retainer except he didn’t look old and that insolent stare . . .
Whew. I grabbed a shrimp on a toothpick and turned my back to him.
I was looking around for a place to stash my toothpick when Mama came up fast and mad in her Laura Bush chinos and flowered blouse, short blond hair brushed up pretty and neat. She had one of her big, phony smiles meant for the people around us as she put her hands out and grabbed me by the shoulders, pulling me into a big hug, then whispering in my ear, “Just what are you supposed to be?”
“Why, Mama! I’m the only woman ever hanged in Texas.”
She leaned back—phony smile stuck in place. She tipped her head to the side and said, around all those white teeth, “Really? Unless you want to be the second one hanged, you’d better ditch that noose pretty fast and get over there and talk to your hosts. If they ask, tell ’em you’re the ghost of a dead pecan tree. Don’t care what you say—just get over there.”
She smiled again and hugged me and blew on past, leaving me like a battleship on a lake—with no place to hide.
I looked over to where Eugene Wheatley, a man I’d known since high school days, and his new wife, Jeannie, stood. He must’ve come as some old politician, in his straight black suit and high white collar. Jeannie, well, I didn’t know for sure why, but she was wearing a lot of yellow.
The Chauncey twins stood with the Wheatleys. “The girls,” as everybody called Melody and Miranda, were over eighty and tough as nails. They ran their old family pecan ranch by themselves, shot a mess of rattlers just about every day, and were the first people there if a farmhouse burned down or somebody died or a child got sick. Good people, “the girls.”
Miranda, with her arthritic hands, could shoot the eyes out of a snake at a hundred feet, pick him up, strip him of his rattles, open a screw jar, drop in the rattles, then pull that jar out whenever you saw her, proving how many snakes she got that year, and insisting you take a look at how small the rattles were. “Something up, I’ll tell ya,” she’d say. “Bad year for the snakes.”
Every January, Miranda started out new with a little ceremony in the garden behind the Rushing to Calvary Independent Church, where the pastor would bless the jar and both women, then wish them good luck in the coming year.
Melody was into what she called “gentility.” She’d taken, as the girls aged, to upbraiding Miranda for her crude ways with people; the way the ranch house looked when folks came to visit; and for pulling that jar of rattles out of her pocket whenever she had a captive audience.
The girls had come as themselves, far as I could see. Boots that looked a hundred years old. Pants with patches low on the butt, washed-out cotton plaid shirts hanging oddly over their spindly shanks. Their ancient Stetson hats sat far down on their backs. Same outfits they wore every day of their lives except they’d evidently marked this occasion by a trip to Lena’s Salon in town. They were a lot curlier, and a lot grayer, than usual, with their hair teased up like two elderly angels. Melody had spots of rouge smeared on her cheeks for the occasion. Miranda, old eyes squinting and looking around from under her bushy white eyebrows, seemed about as ready to bolt as I was.
I knew this pair was going to laugh when they saw me, and tell me I looked like ten miles of bad road or something they found equally funny.
Miranda was going on and on about cottontails and how she was shooting them at a great clip when Eugene looked up and waved, almost begging me to save him from another rabbit story.
Ethelred Tomroy, a cranky old friend of Meemaw’s, who spent most of every day over to the Nut House, was standing beside Melody. I was in no mood for her sniffing and screwing up her mouth and guessing I was dressed as old Texas dirt or something else she hoped was offensive enough.
Trouble was, I didn’t have a choice. I joined the circle and nodded to everyone. I hugged Miranda and Melody and gave Ethelred one of Mama’s phony smiles. The woman looked like she’d come as the original flour sack, in a down-to-the-floor sprigged dress with a scalloped hem. Had to be homemade. No self-respecting dressmaker would have turned out an outfit like that one.
When Eugene introduced me to his new wife, Jeannie, dressed in a very fluffy, very yellow ball gown, I walked up and hugged her hard, welcoming her to Riverville and saying how happy I was to meet her.
“I was just asking who Miz Wheatley was dressed as, in all that yellow.” Ethelred gave me a hard look and sniffed as she rocked back on her black oxfords.
Jeannie looked down at her yellow gown, did a half turn and back, then shrugged. “Just like yellow, I s’pose.” She smiled wide and looked happy.
I knew right away what Ethelred was going after: A new bride in something that yellow and obvious. Yellow roses wound through her yellow hair. Yellow gloves and yellow shoes.
Had to be the Yellow Rose of Texas, though why this new society wife would choose that particular famous Texan was beyond me. The Yellow Rose of Texas, Emily West, was a hero in the Texas War of Independence all right, but the problem was that she kept General Santa Anna busy in bed while Sam Houston attacked San Jacinto. Houston won the battle in eighteen minutes—which I guess said something about Santa Anna in bed and how the man could keep his focus when he was occupied.
Famous Texan, all right, but for a new bride?
Still, who was I (or Ethelred) to judge? Hey, she wasn’t dressed in white, pretending to be something she wasn’t. I kind of liked this Jeannie Wheatley more, thinking she had a great sense of humor, coming as her own kind of famous Texan.
Eugene looked relieved to get away from rabbits and dry arroyos. “Well, Lindy. Don’t remember seeing you since you beat the devil out me that time in high school.”
“Gave you one black eye. You deserved it.”
“All I said was you were pretty.” He leaned back and laughed. “With most girls, that line got me a little better than beat up.”
Jeannie was frowning, then asking me which famous Texan I was supposed to be.
“Looks like somebody got run over out in the road, you ask me.” Miranda leaned back, narrowed her eyes and wiggled her eyebrows.
“Watch yer mouth, Miranda,” Melody chimed in. “I think Lindy looks like some poor soul from the old days. I’m guessing Sully Browne. Seen her headstone out in the cemetery. That right, Lindy?”
I didn’t get to answer before the two women set to arguing, in low voices, over who I was. I heard the words “death warmed over” and turned back to Eugene, asking him how he’d been doing since he moved away from Riverville. I felt like asking why he’d come back now but didn’t, thinking it wouldn’t come out sounding friendly.
“I’m glad you came to the party. Want everybody here in Riverville to get to know my bride,” Eugene said and hugged the yellow lady to him. “We’re thinking of settling right here, in this house. ’Course, I need to work out everything in Dallas. Still got my office and business. But Jeannie likes it here and she doesn’t like Dallas much. Too big.” He smiled down at his bride. He’d grown from the gawky, gangling kid I knew in high school into a tall, skinny man. I’d lost tract of Eugene after his father sent him off to a private school in Houston. He wasn’t a bad guy. A little too much daddy-money, but how could he help it, with all those wells flowing all over Texas?
I turned to Jeannie. “Are you really the Yellow Rose of Texas?” I asked by way of making conversation. Behind me came a gasp from Ethelred, who was more into dropping hints and slurs than taking anything on directly.
“You like it?” She twirled again. “Elizabeth thought . . .”
I caught on fast that this wasn’t a joke. Probably ignorance. My estimation of Jeannie Wheatley dropped a couple of notches. Or maybe it was just Elizabeth’s meanness that got me.
“You’re the one working on all those new trees?” Jeannie started right in with the information, whoever prepped her for the party, had put in her head. “What a great thing to be doing. Hope I can come over someday and see your greenhouse. I’d love to hear how you do all that experimenting.” She kept smiling. Her round blue eyes smiled, too. I began to warm to our new resident.
Eugene excused himself from the circle of women pretty quick. “Promised the men I’d put out some of my gun collection. Gotta set things up in the gun room.” He smiled over at Jeannie in that way men smile at new wives. A way that made me uncomfortable and not wanting to be in the middle of something between them that should be kept secret.
Jeannie showed a lot of white teeth, and a lot of love in her big blue eyes.
“Bet you’d be interested, Lindy.” Eugene turned back to me. “Got a Browning machine gun, 1919A4 semiautomatic. Really rare. Got a couple of great Colts—1911s. A few of Wesson’s own guns. Maybe three hundred guns altogether. Can’t put ’em all out. Most stored in my gun safe. If you’re interested in guns, come along in a while?”
He looked around at all of us. “I’ll be holed up for half an hour or so. Enjoy the buffet. Looks like they’re going to open it soon.”
“When are you gonna eat, honey?” Jeannie caught at his arm.
“Don’t worry. There’s a tray being sent out.”
With a pat to my back and a buzz to Jeannie’s cheek, Eugene made his way around the groups of talkers and cut across the dance floor between couples slow dancing to “You Two-timed Me One Time Too Often.” He went out into the hall and, I supposed, to his gun room.
That left me and Jeannie, Ethelred, and the girls. I’d done my duty. Time to go.
I looked around for Meemaw, to tell her I was leaving, when I spotted Elizabeth Wheatley, Eugene’s older sister, looking over at me. Elizabeth is not my kind of people. She’s a pretty woman. Maybe thirty-eight. But she does a lot of sticking her nose in the air and letting you know you will never come up to her expectations—at least that’s what she does to me. And smiles with tight lips. And blinks her eyes a lot while she’s talking. And looks over my shoulder, hunting for somebody better to talk to . . . all those things.
Elizabeth had fire in those big, and very round, eyes of hers. She headed straight toward me. It didn’t take much to smell the fight coming, though what she was so mad about was anybody’s guess. I should’ve turned and run. I should’ve done anything but stand there with a rope hanging around my neck, in a gray burlap shroud, with white flour all over my face and hair. I shouldn’t have stuck out my hand and smiled as the woman came at me like a blooming missile.
Elizabeth, in some kind of nineteenth-century getup, had her hands to her cheeks and her eyes blinking at a great rate. She stopped dead in front of me, lifted one long finger, and pointed up and down, then up and down the length of me again.
“Lindy Blanchard. Why on earth’d you come to my party dressed like that?” Her voice was loud and full of outrage. “I mean . . . my dear woman . . . well . . . I hope I’m wrong. But you didn’t come as poor Sally Wheatley, did you?”
My turn to be shocked. “Why, Elizabeth. How could—”
“You look dead as a doornail to me. I’d say that wasn’t exactly the right thing to wear when all we asked is for everyone to come dressed as some stalwart, famous Texan.”
I turned around, hoping Meemaw or Mama would step up and save me from this awful woman.
I said the first thing that came to me. “Sally Wheatley didn’t hang, Elizabeth. She was shot, remember?”
“That’s even worse, drawing attention to a violent death the way you’re doing. What on earth was in your head? Thought you were supposed to be a smart college graduate. Two degrees, is what I heard. Looks like they didn’t take.”
She was getting louder; drawing attention to us. The music stopped and the band chose that minute to take a break. Dancers turned our way, listening. My face had to be burning bad through what was left of the flour. And I was sorrier than I’d ever been for trying to make some point with Chipita, though I couldn’t remember now what exactly that point had been.
“Just imagine what you’re doing to poor little Jeannie here.” Elizabeth moved over to put her arm around Jeannie Wheatley, who looked more puzzled than devastated. “Our poor, poor Jeannie. Just awful, you ask me. You okay, dear?” She leaned close to Jeannie, who only looked startled as she nodded and said, yes, sure she was okay.
“How could you come here and hurt my new sister-in-law this way?” Now Elizabeth’s voice was deeply hurt, her face a mass of sorrow. She wasn’t going to drop it. “Why, Lindy Blanchard, I’m truly surprised at you.”
And then Mama was there and she was mad, demanding, “Elizabeth Wheatley. What on earth are you insinuating about my daughter?”
“Look at her! Came as a dead woman. Why, she even resembles Sally with that pale skin and those big eyes. Terrible. Don’t know why Eugene didn’t see it and get her out of here.” The woman’s face went back to shock and then she went for sympathy, working up a phantom tear she brushed off her cheek.
“We loved Sally a whole lot—the whole Wheatley family. This is such a . . . an attack, you ask me.” She wasn’t going to stop.
“Don’t have to worry about that.” Meemaw was next to me in full Lady Bird Johnson mode: hands on her hips, chest puffed out. “We’ll be outta here faster than you can snap your mouth shut, Elizabeth.”
My brother, Justin, came running over, dressed in his best Sam Houston suit. “What’s going on?” he demanded.
“Elizabeth Wheatley’s lost her mind.” Mama stepped in. “And we’re getting outta here.”
Justin knew the family drill. He didn’t ask questions, only nodded, ready to give whatever the family needed though he did whine once about wanting to see Eugene’s guns, that being the only reason he’d come in the first place.
Then Bethany ran over, face redder than her dress. She didn’t ask a single question, just balled her fists at her sides.
Elizabeth was going on. “I have not lost my mind, Emma Blanchard. You allowed your daughter to come here to insult us. I don’t know what I, or Eugene, ever did to you, Lindy. But this is an outrage . . .” With no music, and the guests standing around quietly listening to what would be their bit of gossip at The Squirrel restaurant in the morning, the sound of a gun going off was louder than it might have been. It came from somewhere outside the ballroom. Somewhere beyond the open double doors to the hall.
At first everybody held still in place. Then came a startled intake of breath as the crowd went from watching the Blanchards and the Wheatleys going at it, to rigid stillness.
We listened for a second shot.
Nothing happened. The floor creaked. I could hear muted voices coming from out in the kitchen. There was a long moment when everybody looked at one another with startled eyes.
In a few seconds or minutes or however long it took all of us to stop listening for the next shot, there was another huge intake of breath and then a clink of metal as men in the room, just like in an old Western, pulled guns from costume pockets and cocked them.
We were a tableau of frozen people until somebody screamed and Miranda Chauncey, .22 in hand, yelled, “Hit the floor!” from the far side of the buffet table.
* * *
“Gunshot!” somebody yelled belatedly and people inched, then pushed in panic toward the hall, while others tried to fade into the walls behind them.
Meemaw put her hands on my back. Mama was beside her, holding on to Bethany. Justin was on the other side of Mama. One thing we Blanchards knew was how to circle the wagons fast.
It crossed my mind that it was some kind of entertainment—fireworks maybe. A few of the women around me still had their party smiles on. Some looked embarrassed, like being caught crouching after hearing a gunshot could be a silly thing.
It didn’t take long for everything to change. Me and Meemaw followed the crowd into the hall, where we all stood, milling around, looking one way and then the other, waiting for somebody to tell us what was going on and what we should do.
“Eugene’s gun room,” a man’s voice shouted. “Down here.”
The crowd shifted and headed to the left. Me and Meemaw were two of the first down there, joining the half circle of men listening at a door, then talking to one another, calling out Eugene’s name.
Other people pushed up behind us. “Door’s locked,” one said, for something to say, I supposed.
“Can’t get in and Eugene’s not answering.”
Justin pushed through the crowd. “Gotta break it down,” he said to the men who’d put themselves in charge. There were head shakings, agreement, and then three of them put their shoulders to the door and pushed again and again until the center panel gave way with a loud, ugly crack. Justin, youngest and strongest, stepped through the broken door into the room beyond as we all held our breath.
I heard my brother say, “What the hell!”
He was back in the doorway. “Call the sheriff,” he shouted to the men. I could tell it had to be bad. Justin’s face was whiter than I’d ever seen it, under a deep, outdoor workingman’s tan. Meemaw pushed past me to go put her hand on his arm and ask what was going on.
“Bad, Meemaw.” He shook his head. “Real bad.”
And then all hell broke loose as Elizabeth Wheatley and Jeannie came tearing through the crowd blocking the hall. Jeannie was big eyed and scared. Elizabeth moaned.
Meemaw got ahold of Elizabeth and stopped her from going into the gun room. She turned her around and passed her into waiting hands, and then off through the crowd.
Jeannie was faster. I got in the room right behind her, trying to grab ahold of an arm in all that yellow fluff, but she was too quick for me. She stopped where her husband lay slumped across a mahogany desk. You might have missed the hole in his back with only a single stream of blood running from it, but you couldn’t miss the huge pool of blood on the desk where he lay facedown, arms stretched wide. A gun lay on the floor beside him, and papers were scattered around as if a huge wind had blown through the room.
Jeannie threw her hands to her mouth. For a second—not long enough for me to grab her—she stood frozen, then leaned down, arms wide as if to save him, trying to cover his back with her body. I pulled her away though the yellow dress was already covered with blood. A book was pushed out in front of him, stained terribly with spreading blood and spatter.
More men ran in behind us, one hurrying to open a heavy metal door in the back wall, letting in fresh air and clearing out the awful stench of gunpowder and fresh blood.
I held Jeannie away from Eugene, my hands locked on her arms. Still she stared at him, eyes wide open as shock froze her face and body. I wanted to get her out of there, but at the same time, I felt her need to be with him.
The pistol lying on the floor near Eugene’s feet was odd looking. Accident, ran through my head and I was almost relieved. The man was cleaning the gun. So many gun tragedies in Texas.
There wasn’t time to be thinking all the things I was thinking. Jeannie was my main concern. Her eyes got huge and glazed, as if she was protecting herself from what was there in front of her. Her hand hovered over Eugene’s back, but I stopped her from touching him again. Better we didn’t touch anything. I knew enough, because of Hunter, about crime scenes and how mad the sheriff got when things got messed up before the cops got there.
Talking quietly, I pulled at Jeannie’s arm. She felt limp now, like the life was going out of her. She came with me easily, back out into the hall. When she stopped and tried to turn, I blocked her from looking back at what was left of Eugene Wheatley.
Some jerk was yelling at the top of his lungs. People hushed him as I led Jeannie back through the crowd. Hands reached out to pat her shoulders. People said nothing, or murmured words at her as we moved forward. I hoped I was going in the right direction, toward the main stairs.
“Accident,” another man shot back, trying to make things better. “That’s his gun room. Must’ve been cleaning a gun.”
I don’t think Jeannie heard any of it.
“I want to be with him . . .” Jeannie looked around at me as if we were alone. “Are they sure he’s dead?”
Justin came up and held her gently—the way my older brother seemed to do in any emergency; this big sturdy farmer with a rough look to him but a heart ten times bigger than he was. He helped me direct her toward the front hall where a woman in a maid’s uniform beckoned toward the upstairs.
It seemed only minutes before Sheriff Higsby and Hunter Austen hurried in, to my great relief. My arms were still around Jeannie, whose whole body felt empty. We stood at the bottom of a wide staircase leading up from the grand foyer. I was never so happy to see Hunter, my tall, broad, buzz-cut friend, in my life. The sheriff ran back toward the crowd and the gun room, ordering the two deputies rushing in behind him to round up the people and take names then get them out of there.
Hunter stood with me for just a minute, his large hand squeezing my arm.
“You all right? Is this Eugene’s wife?” He nodded toward Jeannie. “You taking her to her room? Good. She doesn’t want to be here with everything going on.”
He hurried off after the sheriff and the others, down the long hall toward the gun room. The investigation would take over now; the routine following a death. The coroner would be there soon. When he was through, the body would be brought out on a stretcher and taken to the morgue. The techs would move in and things in the house would get quiet as routine took over.
Jeannie didn’t need to see the aftermath. Hunter or Sheriff Higsby would talk to her, but probably not until morning. The big house already seemed to be echoing—voices coming from around corners; a shout from out in front. There was the black-draped feeling of grief sinking across the front hall. The front door, behind us, was wide open, the darkness beyond the door shot through with bright flashes of strobe lights.
“Let’s go upstairs,” I said, prodding Jeannie.
She stood with one hand on the banister, her eyes closed. I put an arm around her waist and looked for Meemaw, a woman a lot better at soothing people than I was.
Jeannie’s shoulders bent forward. She lifted one slow foot at a time, then stopped, and put her face down into her hands, crying.
I had her halfway up the stairs when there was a rasping shout from the entrance hall and a woman rushed up toward us. She was in a frenzy—yelling Jeannie’s name, hands flopping in the air above her head. The woman seemed to float in a cloud of many-colored scarves, a halo of tight, way-too-blond curls, and a mask of colorful makeup. I stepped in front of Jeannie, protecting her from whatever was coming at us.
“My baby girl!” the older-than-she-wanted-to-be woman screamed and threw her head back in a wild, theatrical cry, showing teeth that were large at the back and overlapped in the front. “Mama’s here. I’ll take care of you.”
Then came a tussle as the woman elbowed me aside with one of the sharpest elbows I’d ever felt. She snaked her arms around Jeannie, getting in between us. She began pushing Jeannie up the stairs although she protested, “Mama, don’t. You—”
“Hey!” was my only contribution to the nutty scene.
I looked around the now empty hall. No help. If the woman was her mama, I had no right to interfere. But . . . where the heck had she come from?
* * *
I couldn’t handle everything at once. Too much going on. I felt useless now. Maybe it would be better to head out to my truck and get on home. Still, there was a dead man back in that room. I knew Hunter would want to talk to all of us. I stepped around, into the long hall, then back where I’d come from, opening another doorway leading out of the foyer and finding myself in a kind of morning room, or something dainty and half lighted where I could sit down a minute on a damask settee standing in front of a dead, stone fireplace and try to figure out what the heck had happened. Somehow I was flashing back to the day I heard that Sally had been shot at a game ranch over near Austen. I had the same feeling as I’d had then. Sadness and emptiness and thinking how here was another tragedy visited on the Wheatleys.
I was going to go look for Meemaw or Mama, though I figured Meemaw was with Elizabeth and maybe Mama was up there, too. I needed to know what Hunter wanted all of us to do—he’d want names of the guests. Maybe they’d be interviewing some of us yet tonight.
And more than anything, I needed Hunter to tell me what had just happened in this place.
He stuck his head in at the open door. “Looking for you. Thought you went upstairs with the new wife.”
He walked over and patted me on the back—all the sympathy I was going to get from him though, come to think of it, I wasn’t the one needing sympathy.
“Awful thing,” he said, not sitting, ready to turn and get back to the crime scene.
“Her mother came in. She took over.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Heard the woman was in town. Thought they weren’t exactly close, was what I heard. Surprised, that she’d be at the party.”
“She wasn’t. Came running in and took over. Pushed me right out of the way.” I let a little of my pique show.
“Good to know. It looks like an accident, though. Probably cleaning his gun. Should be able to clear everybody out pretty fast. Coroner followed us right in. He’s in there now. Techs waiting. Not too much more we can do besides talk to a few folks.”
He shook his head and let out a long sigh. “Just want you to know that your meemaw’s upstairs with Elizabeth. Your mama and the rest of ’em are in with the other guests. Staff’s staying until they can start cleaning up. Could be a couple of hours yet. You can go on home. Or you can wait for your family. You need a ride back to town?”
“I’ll wait,” I said and looked hard into a pair of concerned blue eyes. If anybody could make me melt back into being a kid, it was Hunter. I kind of teared up for a minute. I never knew why this happened. I can be strong as a general and then, when it’s all over, turn into a baby.
“Poor Jeannie,” I said. “I just met her. This is so sad. I mean, Eugene’s first wife was shot and now him. What happened in that gun room?”
Hunter ran a hand gently over my hair, brushing it back from my face. He was going to reduce me to a puddle of salt water.
To Hunter’s credit, he didn’t say a word about the burlap and white powder. I’d ditched the noose.
“Happens. Guy forgets the gun’s loaded. It goes off . . . Like I said, you can go. I know where to find you.”
“I’m almost glad to hear it was an accident. Somebody was saying suicide. Can you imagine what Jeannie would feel like if that’s what happened? A new bride . . .”
Sheriff Higsby stepped into the doorway and called out to Hunter. He turned to leave. But not without first touching my cheek. For a big cop, he had a very soft touch. “Death’s never pretty, Lindy. You should know that by now. And it never gets any easier to take.”
He was gone and I was left alone in a strange house with only the sounds of official voices and rushing footsteps coming from different places.
I sat awhile longer, wondering if I’d done the right thing, letting that woman take over with Jeannie. She didn’t seem to welcome her. There was no reaching out to her mother.
“Are you Lindy Blanchard?”
The tall man coming into the room startled me. He was maybe in his mid-thirties, with fine blond hair—a little long at the neck. He was dressed as a doctor, with a stethoscope around his neck and a white jacket with an embroidered name over the pocket: DR. FRANKLIN. The name was familiar, but I didn’t know him. I was confused—every uniform in the place could be a costume or he could be the real thing.
“Doctor?” I looked up. “For real?”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Nut House mysteries
“Warm, witty, and full of Texas charm and feisty characters. Clear a space on your keeper shelf for the Nut House series.”—Duffy Brown, national bestselling author of the Consignment Shop Mysteries
“A family nut tree with some branches missing, sly old ladies, and a tall, dark stranger come to town. Or is he? Chomp into this engaging new mystery series, and it just might Bite-U-Back!”—Mardi Link, author of Isadore’s Secret
“Elizabeth Lee delivers a delectable mystery that’s pure Southern comfort.”—Riley Adams, author of the Memphis Barbeque Mysteries
“What a wacky group they are in Riverville, Texas. From the Blanchard family to all the townspeople, they had me laughing and shaking my head.”—Socrates’ Book Reviews
“[Lee] has given us the most important ingredient of a cozy mystery—quirky characters! She has created some real treasures…A well thought out whodunit. Plenty of suspects and red herrings to keep the readers guessing. There is also a great deal of humor and Southern charm spread throughout the entire story.”—Escape with Dollycas
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Don’t shell…I mean, don’t shy away from reading NUTS AND BURIED, a fun and salty mystery. I never thought I’d read about characters nuttier than my family, but the ones in this book knocked my family right out of their tree. Lindy Blanchard, the series lead, is a strong willed lady in an equally strong willed, if a little odd, family. It’s not a good idea to mess with the Blanchards. The entire town of Riverville, Texas is a pretty wild and quirky bunch. You can tell author Elizabeth Lee has a lot of fun penning her stories. A book that is sure to fly off the shell-ves, NUTS AND BURIED was a good mystery that had me questioning so many more things than whodunit. There was a lot going on and so many suspects. The ending came together nicely into a reveal that I didn’t see coming. I look forward to watching the Nut House Mystery series grow. Check out the back of the book for over half dozen pecan recipes!
Nut and Buried is the third book in the A Nut House Mystery series. And the name of the series says it all. The series is set in the Pecan Valley of Texas and has a wonderful cast of characters. Lindy Blanchard has gotten her college education and has returned to the families pecan farm in Riverville where she trying to develop a drought resistant strain of pecan trees. Lindy and her family have been invited to the Wheatly's to celebrate the marriage of Jeannie and Eugene and are asked to come in Texas related costumes. Lindy doesn't want to go to the celebration, but her grandmother, Miss Amelia insists. Lindy goes dressed as the first woman hanged in Texas and the celebration goes downhill from there. Eugene has a rather extensive gun collection and soon excuses himself so he can get some guns ready to show to a possible buyer. A gunshot is heard and when everyone gets to where the shot was, Eugene is dead and no one is around. Elizabeth, Eugene's sister, has been very possessive of brother all evening and has been extremely rude to Jeannie all evening. After the shooting, she informs Jeannie that she will not be getting any of the Wheatly's money. Miss Amelia and Lindy are sure that Eugene has been murdered and begin to do a little sleuthing to find out who the murderer might be. At the same time they feel with the way Elizabeth is acting it would be best to get the grieving widow out of a stressful situation and ask the Chauncey twins, Melanie and Miranda, to take Jeannie in until things settle down. One of the guests at the party, Dr. Peter Franklin seems to have taken an interest in Lindy and telling her he is also a researcher along the same line that she is doing. Lindy is very protective of work and hopefully she can learn more about Franklin before it is too late. Lindy and Miss Amelia are two strong willed, but compassionate women and provide the reader with entertaining banter, but above all has each others back and those they care about. I never tire of the Chauncey twins, 80 something, gun toting(somebody needs to kill the rattlesnakes on their farm) and feisty as the day is long. One would hate to be their enemy, but would love to be called their friend. Will be watching for the next exciting book in this nutty series.
Fun to read. Easy people tolike