Fire chief Stella Griffin has been put in charge of judging the annual recipe contest, but Eric—her resident ghost and true culinary genius—has vanished. Before she can track down his latest haunt, she’s called in to investigate a local moonshine distillery that was set ablaze, making her realize there’s more than pies and cakes cooking in Sweet Pepper.
As rumors of a revived whiskey war ignite, Stella turns to the town’s elders to help her find answers. The past might have some clues as to what has sparked the present fires. But when following a lead lands her in buried rubble, Stella realizes she must extinguish this case fast or she might be going down in flames.
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Praise for the Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade Mysteries
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The Sweet Pepper Difference
About the Author
Sweet Pepper fire chief Stella Griffin burned her hand on the cookie sheet she was removing from the oven. She shook it and stuck the injured digit in her mouth as she used the other hand to put the tray of chocolate and hot pepper cookies on the counter.
Lucille Hutchins laughed. “I can’t believe this is your cure for a burn. Let me see that.”
Stella looked at the bright red spot on her finger. “It’s nothing. Let me get these cookies on the tray to cool.”
“Never mind that.” Lucille grabbed Stella’s hand and led her to the stainless steel worktable. “It looks bad. I’ll get you some ice.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Stella smiled. “It’s your kitchen. We’ll do it your way.”
“That’s right.” Lucille’s husband, Ricky Hutchins Sr., joined them in the large kitchen of the Sweet Pepper Café. “Lucy will fix it up for you. Those cookies smell great.”
Lucille shook her bright red curls. “That’s the third time this morning that she burned herself. It’s kind of ironic, being the fire chief and all, don’t you think?”
“What I find amazing is that she asked for our help at all with these festival recipes. You’ve seen her entries in the contests before, not to mention cakes and pies that she’s brought to events. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was a rookie in the kitchen.”
Lucille and Ricky hovered over Stella as she obediently kept her burned finger in a bowl of ice. She felt more than a little out of her league with these people who had been running the café for years. They had no idea how much of a rookie she really was.
“It’s just that my kitchen at the cabin is too small to make so much food, and your kitchen is strange to me.” Stella smiled and hoped that made sense. She would’ve liked to confess exactly what had brought her to ask for Lucille’s help, but that would mean telling them about her missing ghost.
“We’re just razzing you, Stella.” Ricky Senior gave her a careful hug and a pat on the head. “We’re glad you wanted our help testing the recipes for the Sweet Pepper Festival contest.”
“That’s right.” Lucille grinned at her. “I knew when you told me that the committee wanted you to get new recipes from people that you’d end up making them before they were included in the contest. You didn’t know that, did you?”
“No.” And I wouldn’t have volunteered for the position if I’d known. Stella smiled to take away the bluntness of her reply. “But it’s okay. I really appreciate you guys helping me with this.”
The truth was that Stella didn’t cook at all. Her father had always said she’d better meet a man who loved her red hair and fiery disposition, because her cooking was never going to impress a potential boyfriend. She was good with a microwave. Even a toaster oven was okay. But when it came to mixing and baking cookies, cakes, pies, and various other scratch foods, she was a newbie.
She could hardly confess that the ghost of the former fire brigade chief, Eric Gamlyn, was responsible for every bit of food—excluding Pop-Tarts and toast—that came out of her cabin. Without him, she was lost as far as cooking was concerned.
And he’d been gone five months.
Flo, from the Sweet Pepper Bed-and-Breakfast across Main Street, bustled in with two more bags of groceries. “I think I’ve got everything we were missing.”
Stella had enlisted her help too. The more people working on the project, the less anyone would notice that she had no idea what she was doing. Flo was willing to help—and even better—she understood Stella’s dilemma. They had talked about Eric’s ghost many times.
Everyone from Sweet Pepper, Tennessee, where they grew and cherished the hottest, sweetest peppers in the world, believed that the old cabin on Firehouse Road was haunted by their first fire chief. It wasn’t a question of finding believers for Stella to talk to.
She was from Chicago, where sometimes her Irish relatives would talk about ghosts their ancestors had seen in the old country. There might be the occasional ghost walk through the cemeteries or the old gangster warehouses in the city.
But that was nothing compared to the belief people from Sweet Pepper had that their dead relatives were always hanging around. They saw ghosts almost every day and talked about them as though they were still here.
Stella lived with Eric, but she was still shy about talking to most people about him. Flo knew he was at the cabin with her. Eric’s old friend, Walt, believed in him too. Tagger was the only remaining member of the original fire brigade when Eric had been chief. He could also see and hear him.
These were the people Stella trusted. It still seemed too weird for her to discuss Eric with anyone else. She was the fire chief. There was a certain decorum that went with the job. She didn’t want people to think she was crazy.
“Those new cookies smell yummy.” Flo unpacked her bags. “Have you tried my recipe for chicken soup with peppers yet? I think it might win a blue ribbon this year in the contest.”
Flo had won many blue ribbons in the Sweet Pepper Festival recipe contest down through the years. She displayed them all proudly in her parlor at the bed-and-breakfast. She always had a new idea in mind for the next contest. It was people like Flo who kept the festival going.
“We’re not to soups yet,” Lucille told her. “We’re trying to keep the foods in the same order as the contest. Cookies, cakes, and pies. Soups, stews, and main dishes. Desserts that don’t fit into a category. We’re still working on cookies, cakes, and pies. Stella did a great job getting new recipes.”
Flo patted Stella’s shoulder. “Live and learn. I’ll bet you won’t make that mistake again.”
“That’s for sure.” Stella got to her feet and put the bowl of ice in the sink. “I’m fine now. Let’s move on to the next recipe.”
“Now hold on a minute,” Ricky said. “There’s the tasting aspect of trying these recipes.”
Lucille giggled. “That’s the part Ricky likes best.”
Flo picked up a warm cookie. “Who doesn’t? You have to try one, Stella. Our opinions don’t have to be logged into the recipe contest book, but yours does.”
Stella got out the notebook she’d been given, and turned to the page with the chocolate and pepper cookies. “They baked well. I checked that spot. They have a good appearance.”
“And they taste mighty fine.” Ricky smacked his lips after chewing one. “They remind me of Susan Everson’s cookies that she made way back when.”
“A little.” Lucille ate her cookie as she considered the taste. “These cookies have chocolate morsels in them as well as chocolate in the dough. I think that’s what makes them different.”
“And spicy too.” Flo waved her hand in front of her mouth. “Almost too much for me, but I’ve been getting more sensitive to hot peppers as I’ve gotten older. They’re probably fine. What do you think, Stella?”
“They’re chocolate—what’s not to like?”
They all laughed. Stella wrote that she liked the taste of the cookies in the recipe book. From this stage, the recipe committee would whittle down the numbers of recipes to the top ten or so. The taste-testing would continue with the next committee. Eventually, the winners would be chosen, and their recipes would be on display at the Sweet Pepper Festival in the fall.
“Are you sure we can’t skip around?” Flo asked. “I like the look of this whiskey and hot pepper cake. Raisins and nuts too. Sounds like hot pepper fruitcake. Is this your recipe, Stella?”
“No. I’m not submitting this year since I’m judging this part of the contest. It seemed like a conflict of interest.”
“Conflict of interest?” Lucille laughed. “It happens every year. There aren’t that many of us to go around. We’re bound to judge some of our own stuff. The town’s not that big.”
“I didn’t know.” Stella smiled. “That’s the last of the cookies. Let’s try the next recipe.”
Lucille and Ricky excused themselves to talk to someone who wanted to use their party room for an anniversary dinner. It was Sunday—very little was open in Sweet Pepper—including the café. But it was the perfect opportunity to make recipes for the contest.
Flo put her arm around Stella when Lucille and Ricky were gone. “Any news on Eric?”
“No. Not yet. Nothing in weeks, really. How do you look for a missing ghost? It’s not like I can have Chief Rogers put out an APB on him. I don’t think there’s an alert for missing ghosts.”
“Cheer up. You’re gonna find him. You know he didn’t leave on his own. He’ll find some way to get back. Or you’ll figure out who took him.”
“Whoever has his badge has control of him,” she reminded her. “It was someone who knew what he or she was doing. I was glad Hero was okay after he was drugged. I hoped the herbs they’d used on him might lead us to Eric, but no such luck.”
“Have you checked with the local farmers’ markets and herb supply stores?”
“That’s the first thing Walt thought of. Nothing. The herb that was used wasn’t even available at those places. I found a place in Sevierville that stocked it, but the man said he hadn’t sold any in months.”
Flo’s frown marred her smooth, carefully made-up forehead. “Maybe he’s lying. I hate there’s no one who can help on a professional level. I know we can’t call the police.”
“But Walt knows police procedure since he was acting chief for so many years.” Stella sighed. “There’s just no trail to follow. We’re stuck until we come up with a new angle.”
“If I think of anything, I’ll be sure to tell you,” Flo offered. “What about asking Madam Emery to do a séance? Maybe she could talk to him and ask where he is.”
Madam Emery was the local tarot and palm reader who also did horoscopes and helped the living communicate with the dead. Eric and Stella had a disastrous run-in with her before he went missing.
Stella had thought of her as a suspect right away but couldn’t find anything that would lay Eric’s disappearance at the woman’s feet. If Madam Emery had Eric, and was keeping him prisoner, Stella couldn’t prove it.
“I don’t know. I thought Eric would find some way back to let me know where he was. I’ve looked for him every day, Flo. Maybe he doesn’t want to come back.”
“Now that’s talking crazy talk!”
“I miss him.” Stella smiled sadly. “I guess that sounds crazy too, huh?”
Flo hugged her again. “Not at all. You two are so well suited to each other. It’s just too bad you didn’t come around while he was still alive.” She giggled. “Of course you weren’t born yet.”
“I guess. Thanks for listening anyway.” Stella looked up as Ricky and Lucille came back into the kitchen, blinking tears of frustration and unhappiness from her brown eyes. “Okay. I think lemon pepper cookies are next.”
They started mixing the dough according to the recipe that had been submitted.
Stella hadn’t told Flo how empty her life had been without Eric. She’d become so accustomed to having him at the cabin all the time. It was like her best friend was gone.
She’d made plenty of new friends after moving here from Chicago to take the position of fire chief, but none of them knew her or understood her as Eric did. They had so much in common and thought so much alike. He could be bossy and grumpy at times, but so could she. And they’d just begun to explore taking him out of the cabin using his badge as an invisible tether.
Someone had used that against them.
They’d just started putting the dough for the lemon pepper cookies on a tray when Sweet Pepper police chief Don Rogers stopped in.
“Walt told me I’d find you here, Stella. Could I get a minute of your time?”
Stella wiped her hands on her apron. “Sure, Don. What’s up?”
The fifty-something man with graying blond hair in a crew cut darted his glance at the other people in the kitchen. “I need to speak with you alone, if you don’t mind.”
Lucille smiled. “Go and talk to him. I’ll get the first batch in.”
Ricky went to shake hands with Don. “Good to see you, buddy. Got an emergency, huh?”
“Yeah. You could say that,” Don responded, giving nothing away.
“Thanks,” Stella said to Lucille. “I’ll be right back.”
She walked with Don into the unlit café dining area. “I know it’s not an emergency since my radio didn’t go off.”
“Not an emergency for you, but we’ve had a bad morning. Skeet Richardson is in the hospital. I think I might need your help.”
“What happened?” she asked. “How is he?”
Officer Skeet Richardson was one of the full-time Sweet Pepper police officers. He was a decent man who had been helpful to her many times since she’d moved there. He was also a volunteer firefighter. That meant she felt responsible for him.
“Every year the ATF leans on us to go around and dismantle all the illegal whiskey stills we can find in the area. Usually it’s not a big deal—we pretty much know where to find them since the same bootleggers have operated them since before I was born.”
“Really? I had no idea there were illegal whiskey stills anymore.”
He laughed. “Yeah. They’re as much a part of the mountains as the peppers. Most of the time there aren’t more than a few, but the longer I let it go, the number increases. There are probably twenty or thirty good-sized operations out there right now.”
Stella pushed a long strand of fiery red hair from her face. She’d worn it up that day to avoid any contact with the food. “And Skeet was hurt dismantling a still?”
“Actually Skeet was hurt when the still blew up in our faces. Jerry Jones, the man who ran the still, was killed. He was fourth or fifth generation.”
“Oh my God! That’s terrible. How badly was Skeet injured?”
“He wasn’t as close as he could’ve been,” Don said. “Another minute and he would’ve been at the morgue with Jerry Jones.”
She noticed the scratches and burn marks on the side of his face. “You were close too, huh? What can I do?”
He touched one of the scratches on his cheek. “I think we might need a firefighter with us this year. The still was in Jerry’s basement. It’s been there—except for a short time every year when we’ve dismantled it—for fifty years. His daddy made hooch too.”
She put her hands in the pockets of her jeans. “I didn’t get a call on that fire.” She didn’t want to put too fine a point on it after the tragedy, but the fire brigade should have been notified.
“We were at the scene and contained it with fire extinguishers. No need to roust you after the fact, Stella. But from now on, I want one of you with me, if you can arrange that.”
“Not a problem. I’m guessing this is unusual for a still to blow up.”
“It used to happen years ago, but like everything else, bootleggers have gotten better at what they do. I haven’t seen anything like this since before Walt was police chief.”
“Do you still have the still or what’s left of it? I’d like to take a look at it.”
“That works for me. I wish you’d take a look at the scene too. When can you go out?”
“I’m not sure.” She glanced toward the kitchen. “Could you just leave me the address?”
He shook his head. “I’d feel a lot better, given the circumstances, if you had one of us with you. I don’t know if this was an accident—or something else. I’d rather not take any chances.”
While Stella chafed a little at his protective tone, she was pleased that their relationship had developed to this point where they could have these conversations and he cared what happened to her.
It hadn’t been long before that the only way they communicated was through John Trump, the liaison between the two groups, and zinging sarcastic one-liners at each other.
In the spirit of their newfound cooperation, Stella agreed. “All right. When is good for you?”
“How about an hour?” He nodded toward the kitchen. “Can you wrap up the cookie making by then?”
“I think so.” She sighed. “I’d rather have been out there with you when the still blew up than trying out cookie recipes.”
He grinned as he put on his flat-brimmed cap to leave. “You should’ve been born a man, Stella. They never ask me to cook anything. They’re just happy if I show up at the festival to eat. I’ll pick you up in an hour.”
“I’ll be at the firehouse getting my gear,” she said.
Don left, and Stella went back to the kitchen. Three batches of cookies were cooling, and the last batch was in the oven.
“Sorry. Thanks for getting this done. They smell good. Have you tried one?”
“Not yet,” Lucille said. “We were waiting for you. You should get the honors since you collected the recipes.”
“Let’s all try one together,” Flo said. “I’m feeling hungry myself.”
Ricky agreed, and each of them ate a lemon pepper cookie.
“Could’ve used a bit more sugar.” Flo threw the rest of her cookie into the trash.
“I like it.” Ricky finished eating his.
“Me too,” Stella said. “Lucille?”
“I agree with Flo. A little more sugar would’ve been a better balance with the lemon.”
“Too bad we can’t change the recipe,” Ricky added.
Flo and Lucille were horrified.
“You can’t tamper with the recipes,” Flo told him. “They’re either good or not. That’s the whole point of having the taste test before the contest.”
“I can’t even believe you said that.” Lucille glared at her husband.
“All right. All right.” Ricky grinned. “I’m sorry. I just don’t like to see a good recipe go bad when it could be saved.”
“So appearance, good.” Stella wrote in her journal. “Recipe, good. Taste—needs more sugar.”
“What’s next?” Flo flipped through the recipes on the counter.
“I have to go.” Stella explained about helping Don. “I’ll have to work on this again later. Good thing it’s months until the festival.”
“The committee should have taken into consideration how busy you are,” Flo remarked. “I’m going to have a talk with Elvita and Theodora. You might need to get some help with this.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Stella protested.
“No. Flo is right,” Lucille said. “You should have a couple of helpers—like me and her. It wouldn’t hurt anything if we did some of the baking.”
“That’s right.” Flo smiled. “You could still write in the journal, but we could help you out a little with the hard work.”
“But you have jobs too,” Stella said. “I don’t want you to be overwhelmed for my sake.”
“Hush now. It’s done. I’ll let you know what we can do. You go on and help Don with his problem.”
“And be careful,” Ricky called out. “We don’t want to lose our best biscuit customer.”
Stella patted her stomach, which was starting to fit in her clothes again after weeks of running, weightlifting, and eating fewer biscuits. She hated to admit it, but part of her weight loss was Eric being gone. Without him constantly cooking delicious foods at the cabin, she ate a lot less.
But she’d be willing to work out harder if she could bring him back.
“Thanks, guys.” She removed her apron and picked up her bag. “I’ll see you later.”
“And good luck on that other project,” Flo called out. “I’ve got you in my prayers.”
Stella went out to the red Cherokee that was parked in front of the café. Main Street seemed strangely empty, but it was Sunday morning, when most of Sweet Pepper was at church. Later there would be some foot traffic in the park and around the ice cream parlor and the coffee shop. Mostly Sunday was a relaxing day in town. Monday would be busy again with all the shops open and people headed to work.
She took a deep breath of the clear, cool air. She hoped wherever Eric was that he was able to see the dogwood trees blooming white and pink against the pale green of the new leaves on the mountains. Pale purple flowered trees, curiously named redbuds, were also part of the new spring growth.
Eric had taught her the names for the trees and dozens of other things. She was a city girl. She knew tulips and other flowers, like roses that her mother and grandmother had planted in their yards, but nothing about wildflowers in the meadows and plants that could be used for survival.
He’d also pointed out the little brown bats that came out at sunset when they were sitting on the back deck of the old log cabin he’d built when he was still alive. He made her stop and listen to the sounds of owls and whip-poor-wills that were in the oak and pine trees around them. He’d laughed as she’d fallen into the shallows of the Little Pigeon River when she’d tried to catch a turtle sunning itself on a rock.
Where she’d grown up she was more likely to hear sirens at sunset than owls. She hadn’t known a tree from a shrub. She knew grass because she’d mowed her parent’s miniscule patches of lawn when she was a kid. But she’d never seen blackberry bushes or eaten their delicious fruit right off the branch.
“And no one nagged you about eating a nutritious breakfast or questioned how you dressed when you went on a date,” she reminded herself as she started the engine in the Cherokee that had her name airbrushed on the side door.
There were certainly disadvantages to living with her ghostly roommate. He had no sense of personal space, and sometimes he moped for days when he thought about dying forty years ago. He was on the Internet or watching TV all hours of the day and night and frequently forgot that she was sleeping when he played a loud video on the computer.
She headed out of town until Main Street became the wider highway that ran to Sevierville. The road took her to the Sweet Pepper volunteer fire department building. Several cars and trucks were parked outside even though Royce Pope was the only one scheduled to be on communications. Someone had to be there twenty-four hours a day.
Tagger Reamis greeted her in the parking lot as she got out of the Cherokee. “You aren’t gonna believe what happened, Chief.”
Since their conversations frequently started this way, Stella had given up trying to guess and simply went with it. “What’s up?”
“Walt thinks he may have a lead on finding Chief Gamlyn.”
Too many discussions had begun like this since Eric had disappeared. “I have to change clothes and get my arson kit. Can this wait until I get back?”
“Chief!” Tagger stared hard into her face. “I think this could really be something serious this time. I know you aren’t giving up on him, right? We have to bring him home.”
There was nothing that Stella wanted more, but she’d been on too many wild-goose chases set up by Tagger and Walt. “You know I want him home, but I promised Don Rogers I’d go with him to investigate a still that blew up.”
Tagger looked surprised. “Wow. Like in the old days? There used to be a lot of turf wars between the bootleggers around here. Better be careful with that. They can get mean, Chief.”
“I will,” she promised. “And I’ll call Walt. Maybe we can talk about the new idea when I get back. That way all three of us can be here. Okay?”
He grinned, scratching his gray hair, his rheumy brown eyes happy that they were at least still searching for Eric. “We won’t let Chief Gamlyn down. I know we won’t. He’d never let one of us down.”
She put her hand on his shoulder. “We won’t let him down. We’ll find him.”
“That’s the spirit, Chief!”
“What are we celebrating?” Banyin Watts asked as she walked out of the firehouse with her gym bag. She was a tall, muscular woman who was working to get her body back after having a baby last fall. Banyin worked as a librarian at her day job. Her husband, Jake, was also a volunteer firefighter.
“Not celebrating yet,” Tagger told her with a giggle. “Soon. We’ll be celebrating real soon.” He went inside and left the two women alone.
“He’s always so weird,” Banyin said. “Really, what’s going on?”
Stella explained about the explosion, and Skeet Richardson’s injury.
“Oh no. Shall I send him something from us?”
“Sure. That would be great. Take it out of petty cash. Let’s see how many people we can get together to visit him in the hospital.”
Stella tried to keep up the traditions she’d learned after working with the Chicago Fire Department for ten years before coming to Sweet Pepper. They were good traditions, even for a volunteer squad. It kept people active in each other’s lives. That was a good thing when they went to fight fires. They were important to each other.
She’d learned most of those traditions at home from her firefighting relatives—she was the only woman—but her father, grandfather, uncles, and cousins were firefighters.
“Will do, Chief. See you later. Be careful when you investigate that fire. Let me know if you need any help.”
“I will. Thanks, Banyin.”
Stella continued into the firehouse with a glance at the big clock on the wall. She’d made it to her locker before Kimmie and David Spratt saw her. The Spratts supervised the training of the fire brigade’s two Dalmatians. As usual, that was why they wanted to talk to her.
“Sylvia couldn’t pass her final exam today,” David blurted out.
“I can’t believe she still couldn’t pass,” Kimmie, his wife, added. “Hero got his certification a month ago. I don’t know what we’re doing wrong.”
The Spratts were more timid than most of the other volunteers in the group as far as taking risks were concerned, but they were very competitive in their fields. David was an insurance agent, and Kimmie was in real estate. They tended to be edgy about how well the dogs were doing too, especially Sylvia.
They’d rescued Sylvia and Hero, her pup. Hero had taken to his training as a fire dog with enthusiasm. Sylvia was slower to react, timid, and frequently hanging back as though she was afraid to commit to a rescue situation. A little like the Spratts.
“Maybe she just needs more time,” Stella suggested. “I know you want to see her certified too, but maybe you should give her some space.”
“Space?” David’s blue eyes almost bulged out of his face. “It’s not like we’ve pushed her that hard. I don’t know if she’s ever going to respond the way they want her to.”
“I’m sure she’ll come around.” Stella’s mind was on getting her arson kit together, and wondering what she’d find at the explosion site.
“Maybe she shouldn’t be part of the fire brigade.” Kimmie bit her lip. Her blue eyes and brown hair was almost an exact match for her husband’s. Both of them were disciples of goal setting and attainment.
Stella felt they were a little impatient with Sylvia. “Give her a little more time,” she suggested again. “We’re not in any hurry. Don’t have her tested for certification again for a few weeks. Let her keep working with Hero. She’ll pick it up.”
That was what the Spratts had really wanted to hear. They loved Sylvia and wanted what was best for her. Both of them perked up.
“Thanks, Chief,” David said. “If you won’t give up on her, we won’t either.”
“At least not right now,” Kimmie agreed.
Stella sighed as they left her, and she turned back to find the orange jumpsuit that she wore for investigations. She preferred the black version but couldn’t get it this time. The suits were leased by a company from Nashville. It seemed everyone wanted the black suits.
Who could blame them? The orange made her think of a prison jumpsuit.
Ten minutes later, she’d changed clothes and had her arson bag in hand. She wasn’t specifically trained to be an arson investigator, but she’d learned some techniques in Chicago and the rest she was picking up as she went along. There was no state arson investigator—except in high-profile cases—only one that she’d worked so far.
But she knew Sweet Pepper relied on her knowledge. She did the best that she could to be what they needed.
Don Rogers was waiting in the kitchen area where Tagger, Royce, and the Spratts were seated at the long table discussing the whiskey still explosion. Stella walked in to tell him that she was ready to go, when the alarm went off from their communications hub. Everyone’s cell phones and radios sounded, including Don’s.
“What’s wrong?” Stella asked.
“Looks like another explosion,” Don said. “This one didn’t wait for me to find it.”
The new explosion was outside Sweet Pepper, but still in the town’s jurisdiction. Frog Pond was an unincorporated area that had no services of their own. They usually called for help from Sweet Pepper since their emergency aid came faster than the county’s.
The two-story house was completely engulfed in flames by the time they reached it. The family who lived there—and operated the still in their basement—had gotten out safely. They were standing on the street watching as everything they owned was destroyed.
Mimi and Paul Tucker were both wearing bib denim overalls covered in soot, tears streaming down their blackened faces.
“We had to go back to get Tucker Junior and Trey.” Mimi held up her miniature poodles. “We had a bad time trying to get them to leave.”
“Yeah,” Paul said. “That dang fool Trey bit me.” He held out his bleeding hand. “Sorry for my bad language, ma’am.”
“Are you okay?” Stella asked as her team set up to connect the hoses to the pumper and the engine truck.
“We’re fine,” Mimi said, though her hands were shaking. “I lost my glasses. Is that you, Johnny Trump?”
“Hey, Mimi.” John’s deep voice came across Stella’s shoulder.
John was in his turnout gear, so Stella knew he was there as a firefighter even though he was driving a police car. John went both ways. He was a full-time police officer and a volunteer firefighter. She depended on him. John not only knew the area and the people, he had years of emergency training and was calm and cool in any situation.
He put his arm around Mimi and she cried into his heavy, fire-retardant coat. “It’s all gone, Johnny. All for that stupid still in the basement. How many times did I tell him to get it out of there?”
“You weren’t complaining when I got that fur coat for you with my whiskey money last Christmas,” Paul charged. “I don’t know what happened.”
“That’s why you shouldn’t make illegal whiskey in your basement,” Don said. “When I shut you down a few years back, you promised that was it. I should run you in for making hooch, but if I had to lock up everyone, there wouldn’t be room for any other criminals.”
“Thanks.” Paul sniffed and wiped away his tears. “I appreciate that, Don.”
“What happened?” John asked with his arm still around Mimi. “You all have been running a still since I was a little boy and my daddy bought whiskey from you. What caused the explosion?”
“Darn if I know,” Paul admitted. “I was just down there this morning and everything was fine. It’s not like in the old days when you had a fire under the pot. This was all brand new and electric. We’re having coffee and—boom! That was it.”
“I told you not to leave the basement door unlocked,” Mimi scolded. “Someone was in there tampering with the still. The dogs were barking right before the explosion. You should’ve checked on it.”
Paul shook his head. “That’s crazy talk. Nobody we know would go into the basement and blow up the still. Where are they gonna get whiskey now?”
Stella left them talking and went to check on the progress her volunteers were making with the fire. “How’s it going, JC?”
JC Burris worked at the pepper factory when he wasn’t working as a volunteer. He was a thin, wiry man, but he was strong and quick. “I think it’s almost contained, Chief. Petey is already on the other side of the house with Allen, checking for hot spots in the area where the fire is out.”
She thanked him and moved to speak with Kent Norris, who drove the pumper truck. “How are we doing on water?”
Kent checked the meter. “We’re good, Chief. The fire looked bad, but I think it had mostly burned itself out by the time we got here. I guess hooch makes a hot fire.”
Kent was a long-distance truck driver in his other life. He was in his forties, and had been with her almost since the beginning.
“I think you’re right. Let’s have Bert and Banyin go in to check for hot spots as the fire clears. Good job. Thanks.”
Two pickup trucks sped into the driveway. The first was driven by Ricky Hutchins Jr., who was late for the fire. It was the second time in two weeks since he’d rejoined the volunteers. He was the son of Lucille and Ricky Senior from the café.
“I’m sorry about this, Chief.” He was putting on his bunker coat as he spoke. “I don’t know what’s wrong with my phone and radio. I didn’t get the call.”
Ricky had started working for Stella’s grandfather—Ben Carson—who owned the pepper-packing business in town. He was taking care of the dozens of cars that Ben owned.
“Are you having trouble getting away from the estate?” she asked. “Because I’m not buying the radio and phone not working, especially not twice this week.”
He hung his head, a blond curl slipping down on his forehead. He was in his early thirties, but usually very responsible. He had a flare for engine repair that had helped them save money when things went wrong with the pumper and the ladder truck.
“Marty really needed the Corvette this afternoon. I had to get it done. I came as soon as I could.”
Marty Lawrence was her grandfather’s stepson. He was extremely obnoxious, with his eye firmly focused on the prize of the Carson money. Stella knew he’d do anything to irritate her, hoping she’d leave. Did that include making Ricky run late for fire calls?
She put her arm on Ricky’s thin shoulder and smiled into his baby-blue eyes. “I appreciate that you showed up. It was better than nothing. But you know how this works. Would you like me to talk to Ben about your job as a firefighter being more important than Marty feeling the wind whipping through his hair?”
“No, thanks. I can handle it.” He glanced at the shiny red engine that he usually drove. “I suppose JC drove here.”
She shrugged. “He was at the firehouse when we left. I can’t hold the driver’s seat open for you.”
“I understand. It won’t happen again.”
“Good. Grab a shovel and help search for hot spots.”
“Sure, Chief. Thanks.”
Stella peered at the second pickup that had joined them. It read County Sheriff in big red letters across a large yellow badge. She was surprised to see Sheriff Dan Picken at the scene. He rarely even bothered sending a deputy to anything less than a murder.
She watched him walk from his truck wearing his signature snakeskin cowboy boots and Stetson. He was a big man—tall and heavyset—with a stomach that hung over his belt. He wore a brown fringe jacket, his signature weapon a visible .357 Magnum. The rest of his arsenal was in his truck.
He stopped and swiveled to survey the house, which was still smoking. When he saw her staring at him, he tipped his hat and then started toward the Tuckers.
Stella hadn’t seen or talked to him enough since she’d been in Sweet Pepper to know much about the man. Everyone seemed to like him. He’d won his reelection easily. If anything, she felt he was neglectful of this end of the county, but so were many other county services. But since that was how Sweet Pepper came to hire her, she couldn’t complain.
As Stella walked back to the Tuckers and the group of law enforcement officials, she heard Mimi yell out, “No! You can’t do this.”
She was close enough to hear Sheriff Picken reply as he cuffed Paul Tucker. “Now don’t go making it any worse than it already is. That still was against the law. It caused property damage, and someone has to pay all our salaries for coming out here. Let’s go, Paul.”
“It was my house that got destroyed,” Paul argued as the sheriff pushed him toward the pickup. “I should be able to burn it down if I want.”
Mimi was crying and clinging to her husband. Sheriff Picken opened the door to his truck around her but couldn’t stop her from climbing inside.
“I thought you weren’t going to arrest him,” Stella said to Don.
“I didn’t. Technically, we’re in no-man’s-land out here. The sheriff has jurisdiction.”
John nodded. “Unless you want to fight him for it. You were here first.”
Don turned his radio off. “I told you at the briefing yesterday that the ATF is breathing down our necks to do something about these whiskey stills. I imagine they said the same to the sheriff.” He glanced at Stella. “If you don’t need me here, I’m going to the hospital to check on Skeet. Can we plan to take a look at that other still in a couple of hours?”
“Sure. That’s fine.”
Stella and John watched him leave.
“Is there anything I can do?” John asked. “I’m off duty the rest of the day.”
“I think we’ve got the hot spots covered.” She nodded toward the rest of the crew inside what was left of the old frame house. “I hope they have insurance, and a good lawyer.”
“It would surprise me if they have either one,” he remarked. “Does Chief Rogers think arson was involved in that still explosion? What about this one?”
“He’s definitely thinking arson about the first one. I don’t know about this one yet. Why don’t we walk through the basement and see what we can find.”
“Ladies first.” He extended his hand toward the house.
“I’ve heard you’ve had whiskey wars around here before.” Stella’s big fire boots crunched on the gravel as they walked up the drive.
“It’s happened, but not for a long time. Back then some people really depended on that whiskey money. Nobody got rich, but they used it to scrape by. Nowadays it’s more recreational, and a matter of pride.”
“Not to mention against the law.”
“Most bootleggers have a little pirate in them.” John smiled as he kicked aside what was left of the charred basement door.
Stella found she could still admire his square jaw, steady brown eyes, and the single dimple that peeked out when he smiled. He was a good-looking man.
She’d thought for a while that he might be the man for her. It hadn’t happened. Maybe they were too much alike. She’d heard he was dating a woman who worked as a waitress at Beau’s Bar and Grill.
They moved into the basement, pry axes in hand. The blast from the still had destroyed most of the area, ripping apart the sheet metal containers that had held the sugar and corn mixture the whiskey was made from. The ceiling dripped water from the floors upstairs.
“Anything look suspicious?” John asked as he slogged through debris.
Stella moved carefully, trying to notice as much as she could about the fire’s point of origin. She used her cell phone to snap dozens of pictures. “At least we don’t have to figure out how it started. But it had to have a catalyst of some sort. I don’t know anything about whiskey stills. I guess I’ll have to get more information.”
“Let me give you a guided tour.” He pointed to various pieces of debris from the explosion. “It’s a closed system, like a pressure cooker. When you put the corn and sugar in the pots and heat it, it creates alcohol vapors, which go through the coils and come out as alcohol.”
“So, like a pressure cooker, it can explode if too much pressure builds up and isn’t released.”
“Now you got it.”
Stella studied the pieces of the still that John had showed her. “Let’s put all these into a box and take them with us. I’d like to compare them to the other still that blew up. That might tell us something.”
“Let me do that, Chief.” Ricky had joined them in the basement. “As your assistant chief, I’m here to tell you that we’ve worked through the house and taken care of the hot spots. I saw a wood crate outside that this stuff should fit in. I’ll be glad to pick it up.”
“Thanks, Ricky.” She used her radio to tell Kent to take the pumper/tanker back to the firehouse with its crew. As she was speaking, she noticed a mangled piece of metal that looked vaguely familiar. “What do you guys think this is?”
Ricky and John turned it over in their hands. The metal was still warm but not hot.
“It looks like the head of a blowtorch,” John guessed.
“And that would make this the propane tank that makes it run.” Ricky found a shredded cylinder. “You can still see a little of the writing on it. Someone started this fire.”
John nodded. “Must’ve been someone who didn’t like Paul’s last batch of hooch.”
Stella and John tagged the items they could recognize, and Ricky put them into the wood crate. There was probably more down there that needed to be examined, but it was a good start. Stella would have to come back and comb more carefully through the debris when it was cool.
She had Banyin and Petey put up yellow crime scene tape around the house and across the entrance to the basement.
“Have everyone pack up their gear and head for the firehouse,” Stella said. “We’re done here until we come up with a day and time I can bring some of you back out with me to do arson work.”
“Arson?” Royce asked. “Is that because of the illegal hooch?”
“Nope.” Ricky was quick to display his knowledge of the situation. “It’s because of whoever used a blowtorch to blow up the hooch.”
Bert Wando, the mayor’s son, took off his gloves. “That’s a darn shame, and a waste of good liquor.”
Everyone stared at him—he was only nineteen—too young to drink.
“What? I’ve been coming out here with my friends since I was fifteen. Nothing wrong with it.”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear you say that.” John took a step into his police persona. “And I better not catch you hanging around a whiskey still until you’re twenty-one.”
Bert muttered as he stalked to the engine and climbed inside.
“All right.” Stella glanced at her remaining crew. “Good job, people. We’ll talk about this when we get back to the firehouse.”
She climbed up into the front seat of the engine truck. She missed Hero and Sylvia. The two dogs were always taken off the schedule on days that they had rescue training in Nashville. While they hadn’t needed the dogs, she enjoyed seeing them at fire scenes.
“I bet Ricky wanted to drive back.” JC grinned as he started the engine and made a wide turn out of the Tuckers’ drive.
Stella watched Ricky pull his pickup into the street and head back toward the firehouse. “I’m sure he did. You two are going to have to share. I’ll work out a schedule so you both can drive.”
“I’m not sure I think that’s fair,” he complained. “I’ve been here while he’s been helping his parents out at the café. That should count for something.”
“Ricky thinks it should count for something that he was the first one to drive the engine. I don’t think either argument holds water. One driver is never enough. We need both of you, and Kent too. I’d take one more driver for emergencies, if I could find one.”
“You’re pretty tough, Chief,” JC said. “Must be because you’re from Chicago. I heard the ladies are tough up there.”
Stella laughed. “That’s it. We’re all tough in Chicago.” She didn’t go on to explain how many of her friends wouldn’t consider being firefighters because it would ruin their nail polish. Let him think she was tough because of where she was from.
Excerpted from "Sweet Pepper Hero"
Copyright © 2016 J. J. Cook.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This author has done an incredible job of creating the characters and the town. He pulls one right into the story from the first page! I actually felt part of the story. I am looking forward to reading more of his books!! I would highly recommend if you enjoy getting lost in the story!
I never received this book although was charged for it. Would like either the book or a refund
Stella's roommate and resident ghost is still missing and while she is worried about him, she can't exactly file a missing persons report. She also needs his culinary expertise, since she has been talked into judging the annual pepper recipe contest. But soon her attention needs to be focused on a series of fires that originate with explosions of liquor stills...something Stella is not too familiar with. Will her investigation put her in the path of danger as she tries to find out whether there is a coverup both now and in the past. I love this series with its strong female lead, resident ghost Eric and his irreverent comments, cute Dalmatian mascot, Hero, and Stella's relationship with her crew. I look forward to the next book in this series...maybe Stella will finally find a live boyfriend to share her life with! Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the author as part of a contest.
I have enjoyed this series since the first book and always look forward to the next. This installment focuses on Stella finding Eric, the ghost. She also has to deal with several suspicious fires involving stills that blow up. A great story full of Tennessee charm.
Dollycas’s Thoughts Is that a beautiful cover or what? Kudos to Mary Ann Lasher and George Long! I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. The authors left us with a cliffhanger at the end of In Hot Water and these characters are some of my all-time favorites. Chief Eric or his ghost is near and dear to my heart because he reminds me so much of my dad. The cliffhanger was resolved but not in a way I ever expected. Pretty dramatic but it had me laughing too. Aside from the cliffhanger, in this installment, the police have orders from the ATF to investigate stills in the area. It seems that even today people are brewing moonshine illegally. When a still explodes and a man dies it is time for Stella to step in. Then when another still starts on fire along with the house it is hidden in, Stella starts to think it is not a coincidence so she starts her on investigation. But before she can even sort through the evidence she finds herself in peril. I love the way Stella and Eric work together to solve the mystery. This story is filled with fires, explosions, whiskey wars and other drama. We also meet a few more ghosts that are nothing like Chief Eric. They have their own issues. More members of the community are joining the fire department and the fires and training sessions are quite interesting as all the personnel kinks are worked out. But in my opinion fire dog Hero, lives up to his name and is the star of the story as the title implies. He is such a smart dog. with keen instincts. The people of Sweet Pepper are fortunate to have him as part of the brigade. These authors continue to give us absolutely awesome stories time and time again. They can have us on the edge of our seat one moment, laughing out loud the next and even occasionally reaching for a tissue. So much happens in these pages that it truly boggles my mind and everything just flows right together perfectly. The ending was a real surprise and the teaser for the next book has me so anxious that waiting a year is just plain mean :) Sweet Pepper, Tennessee is know for its peppers so of course there are recipes in the back of the book. This is a great addition to this wonderful series! Start a fire (in your fireplace) and curl up with it as soon as you can.
a disappeared ghost, suspicious fires, a culinary contest, and whiskey wars. all of this in one story. whew!! this story will keep you tuned in until the end and then leave you wanting more.
Whiskey wars, kidnapped ghosts, and taste testing recipes for the Sweet Pepper Festival... Sweet Pepper Hero by J.J. Cook The Fourth Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade Mystery Things are heating up in Sweet Pepper, Tennessee and it's not from the peppers! Stella and the Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade are back and trying to be the best volunteer fire department in the state. Stella has her work cut out for her as she not only has squabbling co-assistant chiefs, a pushy businessman trying to take advantage, recipes to prepare and vet for judging, and a missing ghost! Add to that, it appears the whiskey wars are back and deadlier than before as illegal stills are exploding and one moonshiner has been shot. Is Stella in their sights? Whiskey wars, kidnapped ghosts, and taste testing recipes for the Sweet Pepper Festival; multiple storylines converge to create a complex novel. Issues of trust flavor this latest Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade Mystery, the trust between roommates, co-workers, family, and friends. Newly found trust is put to the test and untrustworthy people abound. Although the title is Sweet Pepper Hero, we see the emergence of more than one villain. By the end of the book they seemed to have joined together. Stella had better watch out. She may have endured an explosion and a gunfire, but forces are combining to become even more combustible! I love each adventure with Stella, especially witnessing her relationship with Eric evolve. I have a feeling dark times are ahead for her and I look forward to reading how she and true friends will handle it. Recipes included. FTC Disclosure – The publisher sent me a copy of this book in the hopes I would review it.
Cozy mysteries for 2016 are off to a fiery start, and SWEET PEPPER HERO is the spark igniting the blaze! While I enjoy every series written by J.J. Cook/Joyce and Jim Lavene, the Sweet Pepper Fire Brigade Mystery series is my very favorite, and hold a special place on my book shelves and in my heart. I wait all year (not very patiently) for the newest Sweet Pepper book by J.J. Cook . . . It is ALWAYS worth the wait! Everything about this series, from the characters and setting, to the incredible writing style of the authors is simply wonderful. Each installment consistently gets better and better. SWEET PEPPER HERO serves to prove that statement to be a fact. Filled cover to cover with action, mystery, and fun, I was turning the pages faster and faster as I followed the solid plot and read my way to the explosive conclusion. I didn’t want this book to end! SWEET PEPPER HERO is smoking hot, and is my first contender for best cozy mystery of 2016! Check out the back of the book for pepper facts, and some yummy recipes!
Sweet Pepper Hero is the fourth book in the A Sweet Pepper Mystery series. The book starts out with resident “ghost” Eric Gamlyn, former fire chief still missing. Stella Griffin needs to put the search aside when a moonshine still explodes and Don Rogers ask for her help in investigating the scene. She does find evidence that the still was definitely sabotaged. Before too long, a still in the basement of Paul Tucker blows up with evidence that it was intentional. Stella gets a call, supposedly from her friend Walt, to go to an abandon gas station and meet him. As she is looking for him the station explodes and she is trapped under debris. She sustains minor injuries, but it was evident that someone was trying to get a message to her. But she knows she needs to keep looking before anyone else loses their life, or she loses hers. Now for the good news. Cindy Reynolds, a resident of Sweet a Pepper and see ghosts, lets Walt know that has seen Eric at Madam Emery's, a reader of tarot cards and a psychic, house. Now Eric is back at home, and is back on the job of helping keep Stella safe. This series is one my favorites, I love the characters and can always count on getting a very exciting story. Sweet Pepper Hero is just that. A short guide to peppers and recipes are included in the book. Looking forward to the next book in the series.