A garage sale fanatic searches for evidence to clear her cheating ex of murder in this cozy mystery series opener.
Starting your life over at age thirty-eight isn’t easy, but that’s what Sarah Winston finds herself facing when her husband CJ runs off with a 19-year-old temptress named Tiffany. Sarah’s self-prescribed therapy happily involves hitting all the garage and tag sales in and around her small town of Ellington, Massachusetts. If only she could turn her love for bargain hunting into a full-time career.
But after returning from a particularly successful day searching for yard sale treasures, Sarah finds a grisly surprise in one of her bags: a freshly bloodied shirt . . . that undoubtedly belongs to her ex, CJ, who now happens to be Ellington’s chief of police. If that’s not bad enough, it seems Tiffany has gone missing. Now it’s up to Sarah to prove that her cold-hearted ex is not a cold-blooded killer . . .
Nominated for an Agatha Best First Novel for 2014
Praise for Tagged for Death
“A terrific find! Engaging and entertaining, this clever cozy is a treasure–charmingly crafted and full of surprises!” —Hank Phillippi Ryan; Agatha, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark Award–winning author
“Like the treasures Sarah Winston finds at the garage sales she loves, this book is a gem.” —Barbara Ross, Agatha Award–nominated author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries
“Full of garage-sale tips . . . amusing. A solid choice for fans of Jane K. Cleland’s Josie Prescott Antique Mystery series.” —Library Journal on Tagged for Death
About the Author
In her spare time Sherry loves reading and is a patent holding inventor. Sherry, her husband, and guard dog Lily are living in northern Virginia until they figure out where they want to move to next.
Read an Excerpt
Tagged for Death
By Sherry Harris
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Sherry Harris
All rights reserved.
A gunshot sounded. I jerked the phone away from my ear. This time I hung up first. That had been the pattern—one gunshot and then the caller disconnected. I couldn't decide if I was mad or freaked out, probably both. What did it say about my life that I knew more people who might be willing to do this than any normal person should?
My mother had warned me not to marry military. "Sarah Winston, stay away from those boys at DLI. They're nothing but trouble." DLI, the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, sat a few blocks up the hill from my childhood home in Pacific Grove. Since I'd pretty much always done the opposite of whatever my mom suggested, I marched up that hill, met CJ, and married him when I was eighteen.
So the calls could be from CJ Hooker, my ex-husband, the former Fitch Air Force Base Security Forces squadron commander. He'd retired quickly and quietly four months ago after what was called "misconduct" or, as some would say, "conduct unbecoming an officer." His new career as police chief of Ellington, Massachusetts, the small town just outside the base gates, where we both lived—separately—offered him plenty of resources. In my angry, hurt heart, I couldn't imagine he'd do something like that to me. Of course, then again, I hadn't thought ... I shook my head. I didn't need to go down that path yet again.
I paced across my second-story apartment, trying to shake off the remaining edges of fear from the gunshot call. It didn't take long with only a living room, kitchen, bedroom, and bath. The apartment had looked a lot bigger empty. The slanted ceilings, two dormer windows, and uneven wooden floors held some charm. I'd really warmed up to the place the day I moved in when CJ had accidentally rammed his head into the low ceiling.
I'd wanted to knock him upside the head since the day I figured out the sudden increase in patrols outside our house on base by the voluptuous Tiffany Lopez had nothing to do with base security and everything to do with CJ. He'd looked hurt when I laughed as he rubbed his head. I could tell him a thing or two about being hurt.
I stared out the front window onto the town common. It had the requisite white church surrounded by a large lawn. The steeple reached to the blue April sky. Trees on the common were starting to bud and joggers had reappeared. I was adjusting to the noise of the bells from the Congregational church. Now, if only I could sleep through the sirens from the fire department, two buildings up the street from me, on Great Road.
Tiffany, the nineteen-year-old airman, and coconspirator in the "misconduct," was another possible caller. Tiffany had many skills I lacked. She was an expert marksman, attended culinary school in preparation for being an enlisted aide to a general, and could cook a four-course dinner. While I'd failed for years to get pregnant, Tiffany could even do that better. She was able to get pregnant on the first try. That was CJ's story when he begged me not to leave him, not that I believed it.
I'd heard she wasn't happy. She'd lost a stripe and the opportunity to work with the general. Although he promised to love and support the baby, CJ wasn't planning a future with her.
Then there was the entire Ellington police force. They'd already bonded with "Chuck," as they called CJ. Promised they had his back. I'd been pulled over so many times in the last few months for "speeding," aka "going one mile over the limit," that I'd started going one mile under the speed limit at all times, not easy to do living fifteen miles from Boston. It caused a lot of honking, brakes squealing, and one-finger waves. It had worked until some smart aleck officer decided to pull me over for obstructing traffic. I had so many warnings that I was sure everyone on the EPD knew the exact number of points left on my driver's license before it got revoked. It was like a game of chicken for the Ellington Police Department: who could get the closest without going over.
The gunshot caller could be one of Tiffany's fellow airmen. The security forces squadron was a tight-knit group of people. CJ and I had called them "our kids," since we hadn't been able to have any of our own. Lots of airmen were eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds fresh from boot camp, far from home, carrying big guns, little guns, and some in between. I'd taken cookies (thank you, Stop & Shop) to the squadron, threw parties for them, and even dried some tears. When "Mom" and "Dad" divorced, they all sided with Dad.
Who wouldn't? CJ had controlled their future, their assignments, and their promotions. They still sought him out for advice. Too many of the Southern boys thought I should stand by my man. Too many young girls believed that leaving nasty messages on my Facebook page would get me out of the way so Tiffany and CJ could be together. What they didn't get, no matter how many times I'd said it, was Tiffany could have him. I was done, checked out—adios, amigo.
I regretted the one drunken Facebook message I'd sent Tiffany telling her in no polite words to call off her dogs. The next morning, I'd deleted my Facebook page.
Maybe the gunshot caller hoped they'd wake me. I was already up, ready to head out to some garage sales. I looked out the window. Carol Carson stood in front of her store, Paint and Wine, on the other side of the town common waiting for me to pick her up. I called her shop "Paint and Whine" and was very grateful to have a friend like Carol, who always listened to me. I grabbed a light sweater, then headed out to my Suburban.
I was taking Carol to her first garage sale (tag sale, for those in the Northeast). I'd known Carol, and her husband Brad, since our very first assignment. We had just clicked. This was the first time we'd lived at the same place, at the same time, since we'd met nineteen years ago.
They'd moved from base to Ellington six months ago. Carol opened a store, where her ingenious method meant anyone could create a painting. Between the shop, her eight-year-old twin boys, and six-year-old daughter, she didn't have much free time. After hearing me drone on about garage sales, she'd decided to give it a try. Or maybe she couldn't care less about the sale and knew I was lonely.
I drove around the common. Carol hopped in. She looked like what Mattel would dream up if they decided to have a blond artist Barbie. Fortunately, her personality wasn't plastic. We both wore jeans and T-shirts. Carol's high-heeled boots and a leather jacket made me feel underdressed in flats and a sweater. She handed me a steaming cup of coffee, along with an oversized cinnamon roll. The roll smelled way better than the cinnamon-scented air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror.
"Homemade?" I asked before biting into the warm roll.
"Yes, it made me feel less guilty for deserting the family on a Saturday morning. The kids are attached to our routine of pancakes and snuggling up to watch cartoons."
"These are heavenly. I'm glad we finally ended up at the same base at the same time again. Not just because you make the best cinnamon rolls on earth."
"Me too. I don't know what I would have done without you here to help set up the store."
"How's Brad's new job going?" Brad served his twenty years. He'd retired from the air force about six months ago. Since he was only in his early forties, like most military retirees, he started a second career. Brad now worked for the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford.
I ate the cinnamon roll as I drove. Carol filled me in on the latest shop news. Usually, I unloaded my news first. Even though the gunshot call was on my mind, it was time to step back. I'd blathered on about myself too often.
We headed out toward Concord, passing the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—not the one with the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane, made famous by Washington Irving. That cemetery was in New York. Concord's Sleepy Hollow has its own claim to fame because of its Authors Ridge, where Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau were buried. We passed the Colonial Inn, went through two rotaries—rotaries in Massachusetts, roundabouts or traffic circles in other parts of the country. A right turn took us into a neighborhood full of colonial and Victorian homes. When Carol asked what I'd been up to, I filled her in on the latest phone call.
"How many calls is that?" Carol asked.
"I'm not sure. I haven't kept a tally. Enough to be annoying."
"Okay, scary." I slowed the Suburban, looking for the garage sale.
"Don't you think it's about time to report the calls to the authorities?"
"You mean CJ?"
"Oh, right. Wow, that's awkward." She took a long drink of her coffee. "Maybe you should, anyway."
"I have no proof. No one's ever been around when a call came in."
"Couldn't CJ check your phone records?"
"No. I don't want him to know anything about my social life." That was the last thing I needed to have happen.
"You have a social life you don't want him knowing about? Are you holding out on me? I want details."
How did I get out of this gracefully? I'd never been one of those "share everything" people, unless it was CJ. That was another thing that had ended with our marriage. "It's more I don't want him to know about my lack of a social life."
"Maybe it's time to get out there."
"I'm not ready. If I call CJ about the gunshot calls, he might think it's my way of trying to get his attention."
"Especially after telling him 'no, no, never' for months. I'm still worried about you."
"Thanks. If it gets worse or anything else happens, I promise I'll call."
I parked in front of the first sale. "No matter how excited you are about something you see, act like you don't care. This is all about the fine art of negotiation. Find your inner poker player."
Carol nodded enthusiastically before jumping out of the car.
I followed her. "Take it down a notch."
"Oh, right." Carol tried to get her smile under control. It's what made her business such a success. It might not help her here.
I did a quick scan of the garage sale. It was a mess. The only reason we'd stopped was because it advertised "like new" designer clothing for kids. If it hadn't been for Carol, I would have kept driving. Clothes were heaped on a table and in bags on the ground. The couple of nice pieces of furniture were barely visible from the road. I shook my head.
I poked around a table, pulling out a perfectly good graduation robe, scrubs, and an old cheerleading uniform. I headed over to the woman in charge of the sale. "If you grouped these together with a little sign that said great for costumes, they'd be gone in no time."
"Thanks," the woman said, looking at me like she was anything but thankful.
Ten minutes later, Carol squealed. "Sarah! Get over here. This platter matches your dishes!"
Yeesh, had she heard nothing I'd told her in the car? "Just a minute!" I yelled as I continued to look at a vintage Christmas tablecloth. I finally meandered over. Carol still bounced with enthusiasm.
She shoved the platter at me. "Look, it's Dansk. Only five dollars. It would cost way more at Macy's. Aren't you excited?"
I glanced at the woman running the garage sale. "I don't need it."
Carol looked like a little girl who'd just had her favorite doll snatched from her. I took it over to the woman. "Would you take two for this?"
"Sure," the woman said.
Back in the car, I broke into a big smile. "Great find. The platter would cost at least forty-five dollars at the store."
Carol looked at me oddly. "Oh, right, poker face. I'll do better next time."
"Smiling and being friendly is fine. No bouncing. No squealing. It leaves no room for negotiating."CHAPTER 2
Thirty minutes later in Lexington, we stopped in front of a large three-story Victorian with a sweeping lawn. A crowd of people milled around an area full of walnut wardrobes, marble-topped dressers, and tables. I could tell at a glance these beautiful antiques were out of my price range. With that many people interested, the chance to get a good deal was nil. I zeroed in on a parlor table I spotted off to one side, almost hidden behind a rack of clothes.
I dragged Carol over with me. It was in two pieces. The top leaned up against the base. The four barley-twist legs each ended in a large clawed foot holding a glass ball. The undershelf held the four legs together, barely. The oak top was serpentine with a serpentine apron. The wood of the two pieces matched—a sign that it was all original. I turned the tabletop over to examine its underside. The legs hadn't broken off. I could easily fix it with carpenter's glue. It would look perfect by my great-grandmother's rocking chair, if I could get it for a good price.
In an antique store in pristine condition, this piece would sell for around eight hundred dollars. The table was priced at two hundred. I wasn't willing to pay that much for something I had to fix. As much as I wanted it, I had to walk away if I couldn't get a better deal.
I found a gray-haired woman roaming around; she had a partially open fanny pack full of ones around her waist. I presumed she was the seller. If not, with that many single bills, she might be heading to the Chippendales Male Revue I'd heard an ad for on the radio.
"Excuse me. I wanted to ask about the broken table over there." I put a slight emphasis on the word broken. "Is that your best price?"
The lady looked over to where I pointed. "It's worth the asking price, even broken. What did you have in mind?"
Here was the tricky part. If I went too low, she'd say no and it was hard to negotiate after that. If I went too high, I wouldn't get the best possible price. "Fifty?" I asked, knowing it was a dangerously low price. Several people were lined up behind me, holding items they wanted to buy. This was good. She was out here alone and wouldn't want to lose paying customers bargaining with me.
She shook her head. "One-fifty."
"Split the difference? One hundred?"
She shook her head again. As I turned to go, she said, "Oh, all right."
Carol, who'd watched the whole process, squealed. This time I joined her. I handed over the money to the seller. "Are you running this by yourself?"
She gave me a look. "My daughter's baby is sick. My husband's out golfing. My cell phone's in the house. Haven't had a minute to go get it."
I handed her my phone so she could call a couple of friends. With this big of a sale, things could go missing.
Although I'd spent what I'd allotted for myself that day, we hit more sales. Two hours later, after traipsing through Lincoln and Bedford, I dropped Carol in front of her shop. She'd found some barely worn jeans for the boys and a couple of dresses that were as good as new for her daughter. Carol scored a fifty-cent unopened copy of Top Gun for her husband, plus a box of paperbacks for herself. Sometimes she remembered the poker face, but Carol did just as well by charming whoever it was that she talked to. One lady even gave her some free clothes and promised to bring a group of women to her shop for a night of painting.
I hauled the two pieces of the table up to my apartment, placing them near the window. Since I'd moved to a smaller place, my new policy was something in, something out. I'd take the small table that had been by the window to the thrift shop for consignment. I scrounged around under the kitchen sink, found the carpenter's glue, some clamps, and bungee cords. After smearing glue on the underside of the table, I set the two pieces together. I used clamps, where I could, bungeed the rest, and then stacked a bunch of hardback books on top to weigh it down. After the glue dried, it would look as good as new. Or in this case, as good as old.
I made a sandwich, flopped on the couch, and assessed my life. Or my former life as a military wife, that is. My literature degree had kept discussions interesting in the Spouses' Club reading group. I made killer Cosmos for my friends when we played Bunco, a dice game. Some of the women claimed my Cosmos loosened their wrists just enough to change their luck when rolling the dice during the game. Cooking wasn't my strong suit (thank heaven for potlucks and Costco), but my parties were always fun. I'd edited the Spouses' newsletter, volunteered at the Airman's Attic, Red Cross blood drives, and the base thrift shop.
Excerpted from Tagged for Death by Sherry Harris. Copyright © 2014 Sherry Harris. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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