Someone’s pinned a murder on the wrong hat maker in this Southern cozy mystery from the author of Something Foul at Sweetwater.
Missy DuBois’s Louisiana hat studio is the destination for Southern brides who want to make a fashion statement. But designing headpieces isn’t her only talent, she’s also got a head for solving murders…
It’s not uncommon for folks to live it up a little too much on New Year’s Eve. But when Missy walks into her parking lot at Crowning Glory on New Year’s Day and discovers professional wedding planner Charlotte Deveraux inside a whiskey barrel, the poor woman isn’t just hung over…she’s dead. Since the murder weapon was an old hat stand that belonged to Missy, her customers are cancelling appointments and everyone in town seems to be turning up their noses at her. Despite plenty of intrigue to motivate a hatful of suspects, suspicion keeps falling squarely on Missy. All the more reason to clear her name—or the next veil she designs will come in a shade of black…
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Maybe it was the sight of so many eyes swimming around the stockpot that bothered me. I couldn't exactly scoop up the black-eyed peas when they squinted like that. Not to mention the sauce was full of garlic, jalapeños, and onions, which made my nose itch. Whatever the reason, I walked past the pot of good-luck peas on the mansion's buffet table and headed for a stack of sweet milk biscuits instead.
"Missy! Over here." Ambrose waved to me from the other side of the dining room.
I grabbed a biscuit and crossed the room, which was easy, since Mr. Dupre's New Year's Day breakfast had thinned and only a few folks remained.
"Where've you been?" he asked. "And aren't you gonna try the peas?"
"Not this early in the morning." Unlike me, my best-friend-turned-beau had a cast-iron stomach. "I've been here awhile, but I ran across Beatrice and we wanted to catch up."
My assistant, Beatrice, and I had been invited, along with half of Bleu Bayou, to usher in another January at the old Sweetwater mansion, Southern-style. Along with black-eyed peas, the buffet held breakfast tacos laced with collard greens, which folks swore would fatten your wallet, and omelets filled with roast pork, which was another tradition Southerners held near and dear. Not sure how that one started, since it involved pigs and the way they rooted forward in the mud, but, as my granddaddy used to say, "Traditions are what put the sugar in sweet tea."
So, come January first, everyone loaded a Chinet plate with cooked greens, fried pork and swimming peas, and hoped for the best.
Ambrose shook his head. "You're missing out."
"It's early. I want to give my stomach a chance to wake up first."
He flashed me a crooked smile, which made my heart flip-flop. We'd only recently begun to date, after wasting a perfectly good year and a half as friends and housemates, but my heart couldn't help the palpitations.
His lopsided grin quickly faded, though. "Say, something happened a little while ago. I took a phone call from one of my clients, and she's panicked. Gained fifteen pounds over the holidays and now she's afraid her wedding gown won't fit. I promised I'd meet her at the studio for another fitting."
"Today? But it's New Year's Day!" I popped a biscuit in my mouth. After spending so much time designing wedding gowns for persnickety brides, Ambrose deserved a holiday. Not to mention, I'd created enough hats, veils, and fancy headbands to crown every bride from here to the Louisiana border. I quickly chewed and swallowed. "Can't it wait? We never take time off. I was hoping we'd spend the day together."
"Sorry, but it can't. She's paying me fifteen thousand for the gown."
He pecked me on the cheek, and the palpitations began again.
That man always does know how to shut me up. "Okay. Do what you gotta do."
"I'll be home soon." He held up his hand. "Promise. I'll give her one quick fitting and then I'll head back to our rent house."
Ambrose and I shared what the locals called a "rent house." Although we each had our own bedroom, I hoped one day we might share a whole lot more.
"Sounds like you've already made up your mind," I said. "Please come home at some point, though. I know how you get when you're with a client."
"I will." He held up his hand again. "I swear. It'll be a couple hours, max. And I've got a great idea. Why don't you go to your hat studio in the meantime? You can pick up your mail and maybe double-check the locks."
Well, that doesn't sound so bad. I'd been meaning to stop by Crowning Glory over the holidays, anyway. But, somehow, I never made it out of fuzzy socks, tattered Vanderbilt T-shirts, and faded yoga pants, which wouldn't be the best advertisement for my business.
Today was different, though. Today I wore a Brooks Brothers blazer, wool pencil skirt, and brand-new boots, so maybe I should make the most of it. "Okay, okay. You're probably right."
He passed me his plate. "I know I am. And here. Eat some peas while I'm gone. I want you to have good luck too."
I accepted the leftovers halfheartedly as he walked away. The fact we stood in this beautiful dining room struck me as lucky enough. Only a few months ago, a greedy property developer tried to snatch the mansion from its heirs and convert it to high-end condos until a local realtor rode to the rescue. If not for him, we might've been standing in a sales office instead of a formal dining room built in the 1800s.
Speaking of which ... where was he? Usually there was no mistaking Mr. Dupre, what with his colorful dress shirts in their crazy colors.
I quickly scanned the room. Someone in a riot of purple and gold stood across the way, near the kitchen, with his back to me.
I padded over to him. "Good morning, Mr. Dupre." The colors swirled as he whipped around.
"Hello there! And please call me Hank. Mr. Dupre's my dad. Happy New Year!" Instead of shaking the hand I offered, he grabbed me in a big bear hug.
"You too," my voice squeaked.
When I recovered, I noticed someone else was standing nearby. The old woman wore a flour thumbprint in the cleft of her chin.
"Did you cook for us today, Miss Ruby?"
"Oui. Da cornbread and collard greens." She spied the nearly full plate in my hand before I could do anything about it. "And ya barely touched yers. Gah-lee. Ya be gettin' so skinny, betcha don' even throw da shadow." She leaned in close. "I gotta magick potion put soma dat weight back on ya."
"I'm sure you do." Everyone in Bleu Bayou knew about Ruby Oubre and her magick potions. She cooked them up in a singlewide she kept on the banks of the Atchafalaya River. Her specialties included love potions, court-case spells, and gris-gris, which was a traditional voodoo charm.
"Ma oil will put da fat back on ya." She clucked her tongue. "Make yer shadow come 'round."
"I'm sure it would. But something came up and I should get going." I turned slightly. "Thanks again for inviting me . . . uh, Hank."
"You're very welcome." He nodded at the window. "And be careful out there. Last night's rainstorm left the roads real slick. Don't drive too fast."
"I won't. See you both soon."
As I ducked into the kitchen, I spied a silver garbage bin by the back wall. Good luck was one thing, but eating stone-cold peas was quite another, so I carefully tipped Ambrose's plate into the trash before dashing out the back door.
A cool wind feathered my face the minute I stepped outside. Once I drew the flaps of my blazer closed, I joined a gravel path that led from the back of the mansion to its front, pebbles crunching beneath my feet. Normally, a majestic pin oak blocked the property from the street, but the cold had stripped the tree bare and exposed a line of cars parked grille to fender on the road's shoulder.
Most of them I recognized. One, a battered pickup surprisingly painted pink, was pushed into the gleaming bumper of a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow parked in front of it. Since the pickup belonged to Beatrice, my assistant, I should've been mortified, but the cold urged me to forget about anything but finding my car.
I'd parked my VW all the way on the end, so I rushed to it and fumbled with the door handle until it swung open. Thankfully, the engine started right away and I drove from the mansion under a blanket of wet, gray sky.
Soon a blurry stretch of sugarcane fields materialized in the windshield, the ground littered with leftover stalks from the fall harvest. Most folks picture antebellum mansions when they hear about the Great River Road, but they forget it's mostly fields and petroleum plants that dot this part of the Mississippi River. It's understandable, since the farmland and factories can't possibly compete with the beautifully restored wedding-cake mansions sandwiched in between them.
A few minutes later, I passed the kitschy neon sign for Dippin' Donuts, where a lighted arrow shot from the roof and pierced the sky. As I passed, I began to mentally compose a to-do list of all the things I wanted to accomplish once I reached my hat studio.
First, I'd scoop up the mail that puddled behind the front door. Next, I'd answer a river of e-mails that no doubt flowed into my computer. Not to mention, I owed several people phone calls, including my accountant, my largest supplier, and the building's landlord. Since that last person had promised to fix a water stain on my studio's ceiling, I mentally moved him to the top of the list.
And while I didn't have any appointments booked for today, I could always leave a few reminder calls for brides coming later in the week.
As soon as I arrived at work, I swerved my VW convertible, which I'd nicknamed Ringo — since it was a Beetle, after all — into the main parking lot. The landlord provided a separate lot for us employees behind the shops, but the blacktop on that one spit dirt and tar everywhere, which wouldn't be good for Ringo's undercarriage.
I'd discovered this building by accident. Two stories tall and made of thick, weathered bricks on the outside, the original hardwood plank floors still covered the inside. Everyone called it the Factory because the building once housed a hot-sauce plant. That was before the Tabasco companies all hightailed it out of here, except for the most famous one, which still operated out on Avery Island.
Somewhere along the line, an architect added a soaring glass pyramid between my studio's wing and the one across from it to give the building a modern twist. Sort of like that glass prism at the Louvre, which rose smack-dab from the middle of buildings made centuries before it.
I pulled onto the parking lot, which was mostly empty, and parked next to Ambrose's Audi. Once outside the car, I began to make my way to the studio. Normally, it was a straight shot, but today I hopscotched over puddles slick with leftover motor oil. Apparently, the storm had even ripped a downspout from the wall, and it blocked my path like something tossed there by the Tin Man.
Curious now, I paused. If last night's storm could pull a metal downspout clear off a brick wall, imagine how much damage it could cause my roof. The watermark had appeared overnight on a standalone section of ceiling that jutted out from the building. The stain seemed to grow and grow, until it reached the size of a Thanksgiving turkey platter.
A call to my landlord definitely was in order. Although ... he might be more willing to fix it if I could report the actual amount of rainfall. Maybe I'd even embellish the total a bit, although that didn't seem like a very Christian thing to do. Either way, I had a perfect tool for helping me build my case.
A few months back, I'd stumbled across a page on Pinterest, the mother lode for do-it-yourself projects, which explained how to make a homemade rain gauge from a wood base, an ordinary dowel, and a glass vial from the hardware store. Since "I cain't-never-could," as we say here in the South, resist the urge to fluff things up a bit, I faux-painted an old hat stand for the base and substituted a ribbon curler's handle for a plain dowel. Then I painted fat raindrops on a clear tube from Homestyle Hardware and voilà — I'd made a custom rain gauge with an artful twist.
I'd set the creation on a curb in the employee parking lot, right behind my studio. Just in case, I'd also rescued an old whiskey barrel from the trash heap and rolled it nearby for a second opinion. One look at those two, and I'd know how much rainwater to report.
So I rounded the building and came across the empty parking lot, which wasn't surprising, since everyone else had probably stayed home with their good-luck peas and cornbread. I hugged the back wall and sidestepped more puddles until I reached the curb behind my studio.
Something was wrong, though. My beautiful rain gauge was gone, and the barrel that normally sat next to it lay on its side. Who'd steal a rain gauge? And, more importantly, how could a few inches of water upend a heavy whiskey barrel like that? I stopped in front of the barrel, where I bent to take a glimpse inside.
A lock of hair flowed from the cask onto the asphalt, like a trail of salt poured over pepper. Not only that, but blood matted the strands.
The scream I let loose no doubt sounded four states away.
Once I finished hollering for all I was worth, I rose. While I wanted to scream again, odds were good no one would hear me, so what was the point? Even Ambrose wouldn't notice the noise, although his studio sat right next to mine.
Unfortunately, Ambrose became as deaf as one of his mannequins whenever he began to work. I'd once seen Bo ignore a shrieking fire alarm, for heaven's sake, because he couldn't figure out how to pleat something correctly. The culprit in that case turned out to be a faulty battery, but he didn't know it at the time.
No ... as much as I loved him, Ambrose couldn't help me now.
I shakily rose, and then I stumbled away from the barrel and settled onto a different curb. Maybe if I closed my eyes and ignored the cask, it'd go away. One Mississippi, two Mississippi ... three ... My eyes popped open as I turned. No such luck. There lay the cask, tipped over like a giant's bath toy, flush against the curb with nowhere left to roll.
Only one thing would make it go away.
I reached into the pocket of my blazer and pulled out my cell. About a year-and-a-half ago, I met up with an old childhood friend when someone murdered one of my clients at a nearby plantation. Lance LaPorte was a detective on the Louisiana State Police force, and together we figured out who killed Trinity Solomon the night before her wedding.
Amazingly, only a year after that, I landed smack-dab in the middle of a different crime scene. That one involved a former sorority sister who'd met an untimely end in a musty garden shed. My fingers stalled over the keypad now. How can I call Lance again? He was either going to think I had the worst luck in the world or that crime followed me around like an angry rain cloud. Either way, he'd be dumbstruck when he found out why I was calling.
I steeled myself for his questions and tapped the screen to reach his cell phone. After it rang once, though, I lost my nerve again. What if he wasn't even home? He could be anywhere, what with the holidays and all. Maybe he'd left town or forgot to charge the battery on his cell phone or tucked it somewhere hard to reach. The odds were stacked against me, but I managed to let the call go through without any interference and silently prayed he'd answer the call.
The good Lord answered my prayer on the third ring.
"Missy DuBois! Happy New Year!" He sounded overjoyed, as if he'd been waiting for my call all morning.
"Hey, Lance. I'm sooo glad you're there."
"How was your Christmas? Did Santa Claus —"
"Uh, Lance? I hate to interrupt you, but this is not a social call."
"No? Then what's up?" His voice dropped, as if I'd sucked the joy right out of him.
I glanced at my rain-soaked barrel. "First, you have to promise me something."
"Now you're freaking me out. Are you in trouble?"
"Not exactly." I took a deep breath and then slowly exhaled. "Okay, here goes. No lectures, please. And promise you won't think I'm cursed. But I may have found another body."
After an hour or two of complete silence, he finally spoke. "What do you mean, you may have found a body?"
"That's what it looks like to me."
Another round of silence.
"Well ... aren't you gonna say something?"
"Hmmm. I didn't see that one coming. No, siree. I mean, what are the odds, right?"
"Agreed. Just my luck I'd find another corpse."
Amazingly, he chuckled. "Wait a minute ... you're not pulling my leg, are you? Kind of like a New Year's Day joke? You'd better not be —"
"Of course not!" This time I didn't mind interrupting him, since he was talking crazy. "Who in their right mind would pull a stunt like that? Honestly, Lance. You know me better than that."
"Guess you're right. Okay, then." Now his voice turned serious, as if he'd flipped a switch to turn from friend to policeman. "Start at the beginning and tell me everything. Where are you and when did it happen?"
I didn't take offense at his clipped tone, since he was only doing his job. "I'm at work. Got here a little after ten."
"Did you go there alone?"
"Yes. Ambrose is here, but he came a few minutes before me." Hearing Lance take charge made me feel about a hundred times better, so I rose from the curb. "I came here to do paperwork, but I wanted to check on last night's storm first. When I went to the employee parking lot ... there she was. She'd been stuffed into an old whiskey barrel."
Excerpted from "Someone's Mad at the Hatter"
Copyright © 2017 Sandra Bretting.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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