While Robbie scrambles through breakfast orders for her expanding clientele at Pans ‘N Pancakes, tempers run as high as the sticky August heat in South Lick, Indiana. Real-estate developer Fiona Closs plans to build a towering luxury resort at one of the most scenic hilltops in Brown County, and not everyone can see the sunny side of the imposing proposition—including Robbie’s furious Aunt Adele, who doesn’t waste a minute concocting protests and road blockades. When tensions boil over and a vocal protester is silenced forever at the resort site, Robbie ditches the griddle to catch the killer. But if slashed tires are any indication, she’ll need to crack this case before her own aunt gets served something deadly next . . .
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I plopped down on the towel. Stroking through Lake Lemon's cool water had made me forget the controversy brewing in town, at least for a while.
Lou Perlman hit the towel next to mine, her tank suit agleam with water. "That was the best, Robbie. You can't beat an August swim." She stretched out on her back with her hands clasped behind her head. She closed her eyes, bliss etched on her face, her skin nut brown with the tan of a dedicated sun lover. We'd been hanging out as friends for about a year. I shared a love of bicycling with the Indiana University graduate student, and we supported each other as friends.
"Isn't it way hotter than usual this year?" I was already steaming from the sun and the humidity typical to southern Indiana.
Riddle Point Beach was surprisingly empty this late afternoon. An older couple sat in collapsible chairs, reading, and one young mother played with a toddler at the water's edge, but otherwise we had the place to ourselves. I massaged my sore knee, a casualty of a spill I'd taken a few days ago on my bike. I scanned the perimeter of the lake and spied a great blue heron standing in a shallow marshy area to my right. Its long neck was hunched in, and the narrow, pointed beak waited patiently for an unsuspecting fish or frog. A movement to my left caught my attention.
"Speaking of hot," I said.
I watched as Gregory DeGraaf parked his bicycle next to Lou's and locked it to a bike stand at the edge of the parking lot. He slipped out of his bike shoes and socks, grabbed a towel out of a pannier slung over the back of the bike, and strolled toward us.
"Afternoon, Lou, Robbie."
Lou's eyes flew open.
"Mind if I join you?" The lawyer, a guest in one of my bed and breakfast rooms, was a dark charmer of forty. Black, curly hair, smile lines around his eyes, and a lean, trim build were an attractive combination, but it was his deep, resonant voice and the longest eyelashes I'd ever seen that clinched the deal. I knew Lou felt the same. I was already in a relationship. She wasn't.
She smiled up at him and patted the sand on her other side. "Hey, Gregory. Pull up a beach and sit down." She curled up to sit, wrapping her arms around her knees.
"I'm going to cool off first. Back in a flash." He dropped his towel and jogged into the water still wearing his biking togs. The bright yellow shirt clung to his torso, and the black stretch shorts showed off his muscled backside to great advantage.
"Mmm," Lou murmured. "Want."
I laughed. I had hosted a gathering of Lou's cycling club at my country store restaurant on Saturday, and they'd invited the Indianapolis Bike Club that Gregory and my other upstairs guests were with. Lou had clearly fallen for Gregory at first glance. And why not? He didn't wear a wedding band. They shared a love of biking. They were both intelligent — you had to be to earn a law degree, and Lou was nearing completion of her doctorate in sociology — and most important, there was a spark between them. The Indy group had left on Sunday night, with new guests filling one of my three rooms. Gregory had extended his stay.
He emerged from the lake shaking the water from his hair. He stripped off the shirt, twisting the water out of it as he joined us.
"That was the perfect end to a hilly ride." He smiled at Lou.
"Except you have to ride back." She answered his smile and raised one eyebrow.
"I can throw your bike in my van if you want," I offered. Because of my sore knee, I'd driven here instead of riding. I far preferred traveling by bicycle.
"Thanks, but I'll ride back. You can't get much better scenery —"
"Or a better workout," Lou finished. "No way to avoid hills in Brown County."
"I rode by a big sign for a new resort." He frowned. "Right at the South Lick town limits. What's going on with that?"
I groaned. "What isn't going on with that? Some real estate developer wants to build a huge luxury resort right on top of one of the loveliest hills in the county. They're going to have a spa, tennis courts, swimming, gourmet meals, the works, and they expect to draw paying guests from all over the country. Maybe the world. People around here are really steamed about it. That is, half the people are, and the other half want it to go through."
"What's the developer's name?" Gregory asked. "I might know him. I practice real estate and environmental law, as I think I mentioned."
"It's a she," I said. "Fiona Closs."
He thought, then shook his head slowly. "No, I guess I don't. Let me guess. The conflict is your basic NIMBY versus employment. Am I correct?"
"You are, Counselor," I said. "The Not-In-My-Back-Yard contingent are worried about traffic, about ruining the view, about cutting down trees, about all those strangers coming to stay at a resort far from town and possibly not shopping locally."
"Let me guess. The rest of the county wants jobs building the resort and providing services," Lou said. "That happened up north near Lafayette where I grew up. It turned out the service jobs weren't so great, and the construction didn't end up being locally sourced. Lots of bad feelings resulted."
"I can understand both sides," I offered. "I doubt I would lose breakfast customers to the resort, and this county has a lot of people who are pretty hard up. They could use the jobs. On the other hand, destroying a hilltop doesn't make much sense to me."
Gregory pushed his already drying hair back off his forehead. "Is the NIMBY group organized? Do they have a leader, a spokesperson?"
"It's my Aunt Adele, in fact," I said. "She's right in the thick of it. She says it makes her feel like she's doing something worthwhile again. She was apparently quite the protester back in the sixties."
"I can totally see that, Robbie," Lou said. "She's a toughie, your aunt."
"I'll say." Adele was the reason I, a California girl, was here in southern Indiana at all, instead of back in Santa Barbara where I'd grown up. After my mom died suddenly, my aunt had taken me to visit a country store full of antique cookware. We were surprised to learn the store was for sale. Adele encouraged me to buy it, and now I was the proud proprietor of Pans 'N Pancakes. It was a popular breakfast and lunch restaurant in a renovated country store, with vintage cooking implements for sale and three B&B rooms upstairs. I was living my dream, complete with an apartment behind the store, a hunky boyfriend, and a cat.
Gregory stared out at the water, having assumed the same seated position as Lou. "I'm on sabbatical right now," he began. He twisted to face us. "I have some pretty strong feelings about not ruining a beautiful place just so rich people can come and pretend to enjoy it. I'd like to meet your aunt, Robbie, if you'll introduce us. I can offer my legal services to the group on a pro bono basis."
"She'll appreciate that," I said. "I'd be happy to hook you two up. I'm sure they're going to need legal advice. She's already planning a protest that'll stop traffic on the main road to Nashville, and who knows what else."
Lou reached out a hand and squeezed Gregory's bare shoulder. "You're Mr. Awesome, you know that?"
His cheeks pinked. "Not at all. But I do like to support worthy causes." He pushed up to standing. "How about another swim, ladies?"
"You go," I said to Lou. "I'm going to lie here and do nothing."
He extended a hand to Lou and didn't let go of it. After I watched them run hand in hand splashing into the water, I lay back and closed my eyes. Good. Lou might have found herself a new man. Adele was going to get some needed help. And maybe that resort wouldn't get built, after all.CHAPTER 2
My old van sputtered up a hill on the way home from the lake. One of these days I was going to have to get new wheels. The air conditioning hadn't worked for years, and the hot air blowing past me had zero cooling effect. The shocks were shot, magnifying every ridge and crack in the road into a teeth-jarring ride. A spring had started to ease its way through the driver's side seat cushion, forcing me to perch on my right cheek so my left one didn't get impaled. And every door and window rattled like I was in a 6.5 magnitude earthquake.
At the crest of the hill sat a gigantic sign emblazoned with CLOSS CREEK RESORT above an artist's rendering of the new project. Closs Creek? I'd missed that on my way to the lake. The developer must have decided to rename South Lick Creek after herself. She had a lot of nerve. That maneuver was not going to go over well with the long-time residents of South Lick, the delightful town I'd called home for a couple of years. I slowed and turned left onto the dirt road leading into the building site. It was time to check this place out.
After a few minutes, I bumped past a dilapidated house on the right with a beat-up green truck parked to the side. Tidy flower beds in the flush of summer bloom contrasted with the peeling paint and sagging roof on the house. A woman sprawled on a lawn chair in the dappled shade of a big black walnut tree in front of the house. She lifted a hand in greeting, her other hand holding a cigarette. I waved back. It was what one did around here.
Around a bend, the road widened and ended at a chain stretching between two posts. To each side the posts led to more posts, with a single strand of barbed wire stretched between them. A red PRIVATE PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING sign hung from the chain. Naked tree stumps created a clearing in the woods, and the torn-up ground was evidence of heavy machinery having been at work. A new-looking but dusty white SUV was parked beyond the barrier next to a double-cab, black pickup truck. A tall woman in construction-work clothes leaned against the truck, arms folded on her chest, talking to someone in the SUV.
I pulled to the side and idled the van. So the project was going ahead? As far as I knew, the resort hadn't gotten final approval. There wouldn't be much point in Adele and the others protesting if the resort had already been green-lighted. Or maybe this was private property the developer had acquired, and she'd decided to get started without town permission. Except I didn't think you could do that.
I had my hand on the gearshift to turn around and leave when the SUV's driver's side door opened. A woman in a sleeveless dress slid out and picked her way toward me. The other woman followed. I turned off the engine and got out to meet them.
"Can I help you?" the one in the dress asked from the other side of the chain. She was slim and about four inches taller than me, putting her at five-foot-seven. Her tanned and muscular arms and calves were shown off by the black-and-white patterned sheath dress. It was the kind of outfit women normally wore heels with, but a pair of practical black canvas sneakers were on her feet instead. Dark hair framed her face, and her wide mouth was painted a deep red.
"My name's Robbie Jordan." I extended my hand above the barrier. I also wore a sundress, but mine was a swingy loose number that I could easily throw on over a bathing suit. I knew my long, curly hair was a mess from my swim, and I felt distinctly underdressed. Which was a ridiculous reaction to have at a building site. "I own a business in town and wanted to take a look at what's happening up here."
"Fiona Closs. This is my project." She shook my hand with a firm, dry, meaty grip. Her nails were trimmed short and painted the same color as her lipstick. She gestured to the clearing with a grand swoop of her arm. "And this is one of my employees, Micaela Stiverton."
"Nice to meet you both." So this was the developer-in-chief and her minion.
"Call me Mike." Micaela smiled from a face dusted with freckles. "Everybody does." Her curly red hair was a sensible two inches long all over, and her clothes were a no-nonsense Indiana Colts T-shirt tucked into khaki cargo pants. Dusty work boots completed the ensemble.
I liked the open expression on her face, but I didn't think she'd ever come into my store, and I wondered if she was local or not. Fiona Closs had not suggested I use her first name.
"Mike it is. So, Ms. Closs, it looks like you got the final approvals to go ahead with your resort." I sniffed. Fiona wore some kind of scent. It reminded me of incense. Sandalwood, maybe?
"Nearly. It's simply a formality from here on out." Closs lifted her chin ever so slightly.
Really? I knew from my restaurant and B&B renovations that South Lick officials were extra careful to cross every T and dot every I in the permitting process.
"I know a number of people in the county are eager to be employed locally," I said. "There isn't any industry here to speak of. When will you be hiring on more people?"
Closs blinked, cocking her head to the right. "Do you run an employment agency?" Her dark eyebrows naturally dipped down and toward the center, giving her an intent look, which reminded me of some film actress. I couldn't put my finger on who.
I laughed. "No. I own a country store restaurant and bed and breakfast. My place is kind of the town water cooler. Word spreads fast in a place like South Lick, and I've heard folks mention wanting to work up here." That, and mutterings about blocking the resort entirely, but I didn't need to get into that with Fiona Closs.
"Excuse me," Mike said. "I've got to get going to pick up my kids." She gave me a wry grin. "I'm single mom to twin four-year-old boys. They're fun, but they're no angels."
"It was nice to meet you, Mike," I said, meaning it. So she must live somewhere in the county.
"Likewise." She climbed into her truck.
Closs unhooked one end of the chain and threw it to the side, and we both stood back as Mike drove off.
Closs continued. "You can tell your customers we're not quite ready to hire on anyone new."
"I'll do that. My restaurant is called Pans 'N Pancakes, and I'm open for breakfast and lunch. You should stop in some time." I smiled.
Her gaze cut to a crunching noise behind me. I turned to see Gregory and Lou braking their bikes to a stop.
"Great minds think alike, Robbie," a pink-cheeked Lou called. She walked her bike up next to me, followed by Gregory. "We wanted to stop by and see what's going on." Her skin glistened from the effort of riding up hills on a hot afternoon.
I glanced back at a frowning Closs and introduced everyone.
Gregory pulled off his fingerless biking glove and extended his hand. "Pleased to meet you, Ms. Closs." He was remarkably free from sweat, despite the climate and the steep hill he'd just ridden up.
Closs shook his hand but didn't smile. "Likewise."
"Gregory is a guest in my B&B," I added.
"DeGraaf," Closs said, gazing at his face. "I've heard your name before. You're some kind of environmental lawyer, correct?"
"That's not all the work I do, but, yes, I have won several high-profile environmental protection cases."
Closs looked like she'd eaten a rotten egg. "I know of your reputation."
Lou peered at Closs. "Do you work out at the Hard Knocks Gym in Bloomington?"
Closs nodded slowly. "I do. Why do you ask?"
"I joined last week. I thought you looked familiar. You're a weightlifter, right?"
Closs sighed as if she didn't want to talk about it. "Yes." She cleared her throat. "I'm afraid I was about to leave, and I don't have time to chat at the moment. I'm sure Ms. Jordan can fill you in on our progress up here. If you'll excuse me?"
Lou and Gregory walked their bikes over behind my van. Closs turned her vehicle around and drove toward us. She slowed after she passed through the posts.
"I'll get it," Gregory said, waving her on. He hooked the chain across the entrance.
Closs waved her thanks and sped around the bend.
"She lifts weights?" I asked. No wonder her arms and legs were so buff.
"She does." Lou stared down the road. "And not like you or I would. She must compete or something. She's hugely strong, and she has like no body fat. You should see her abs." She shook her head.
"Does anybody else think she was trying to get rid of us?" Gregory asked.
"Kind of." Lou wrinkled her nose. "So what did she tell you, Robbie?"
"She seemed to think the final permits are a done deal. But she also said she's not ready to start hiring locally."
"Somebody's been working here." Gregory gestured to the clearing.
"I know." I nodded. "The rest is a mystery." A pileated woodpecker echoed that thought with its machine gun rat-a-tattat from the trees beyond the scarred hilltop. I couldn't see it, but no other woodpecker made such a loud sound.CHAPTER 3
I chatted with Lou and Gregory for a few more minutes, then headed down the road after my friends decided to hang out at the site for a bit. My stomach was growling, so my cat's would be, too. I needed to get home to do breakfast prep for tomorrow, anyway.
When I approached the run-down house, though, the woman in the front yard beckoned, so I parked on the verge and watched her stroll toward me. She was big-boned and hefty but moved her weight with grace, as if she'd formerly been a dancer or a skater. She wore a loose flowered top over navy blue shorts. On her feet were a worn pair of moccasins.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Strangled Eggs And Ham"
Copyright © 2019 Edith Maxwell.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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