C1 The Mint Julep Murder: Chapter One
I really need to powder my nose!
Gran had taught me that that was how polite women referred to needing to use the ladies’ room. I was only ten minutes from my ultimate destination—I could make it. Hideous traffic had already made me late, but this close to midnight, nothing was open in the tiny town of Sweet Grove, so there were no options anyway.
I should’ve gone when I stopped back in Nashville to gas up my baby, an old white pickup truck that had never failed me. I could deal with a gross gas station bathroom—I always had hand sanitizer.
Unfortunately, there had been too many truckers and sketchy wannabe musicians at the gas station. I’d paid at the pump and whipped out of there before any of them had wandered over to creep on me. Good old southern boys just out to help were now often hard to distinguish from the creepy men looking to throw a pretty girl into their trunk so they could do terrible things later.
Not that I was much to look at, but some guys saw a petite blonde alone and thought I was easy. Usually those were the wrong kind of guys—generally the drunk sort. Better safe than sorry. I didn’t want to end up in someone’s basement being a story on the news. Gran would worry. She was probably already worried.
Moving back to my hometown hadn’t been the plan, but the plan had changed. At least I’d be safe—no one locked their doors and everyone knew everyone. Not that everyone liked everyone—there were subgroups. The quilting ladies, the charity and church group, the old guys sitting outside the bait and hunting shop, and so on. The farmers were a tight-knit bunch. There wasn’t much industry around except for the distillery that was between our town and the next. It was a huge employer and sat on unincorporated land.
I glanced up at the mountains that were pitch black now. All my life, I’d been warned about going up in the hills. The true hillbillies lived up there. They worked when they wanted to, and if they shot a deer, they’d quit because they had food enough for a while. Mainly it was subsistence farming and scavenging—a very simple life. They didn’t like outsiders. When I’d been little, there’d been stories about pipe-smoking grannies who’d whip out a double-barreled shotgun on anyone who got close to their property. Back then, they were making moonshine.
Today it was far more likely that they were growing weed in the thick forest areas. Maybe running stills too, but the marijuana was lucrative and hard for the police to find. Part of me wondered how they sold it or even moved it from way up in the mountains, but it wasn’t my business. I preferred legal work and not needing guns to keep my business safe.
Still, Sweet Grove wasn’t perfect. There were gossips and judgmental people who made everyone’s business their own business. One Sweet Grove resident always tried to get the town to go dry—every year it was a petition or they ran for mayor.
I drove by the Town Hall and the community center. The paired buildings were quaint but very official looking. The whole town was respectable, but some of the places were on the fringe. My friend’s bar was on the outskirts, but always full, and the mechanic shop had a used car lot next to it that people said was sketchy—probably a few stray dogs, and teens looking to buy some cigarettes or beer.
Back home, I needed to be on my best behavior. In Atlanta, most people had good southern manners, except tourists of course, but in the city, people generally minded their own business. The judgmental types weren’t nearly as noticeable or concentrated as in a small town where secrets were harder to keep, and everyone knew everyone and their great-grandparents back to the Civil War.
I visited every month to check on Gran, so Sweet Grove didn’t feel completely foreign. Normally I managed to pop in mid-week on a day off. It was only a three-hour drive, more or less, so I was back for work the next day. That way I’d usually avoided running into too many blasts from the past at home, but could check on Gran’s bills, pills and anything else that came up.
It wasn’t enough anymore. Gran needed more help and support than a weekly check-in.
There was no one on the street so I put my foot down to get through town and to Gran’s big, old, sprawling ranch home faster. Grandpa had believed in brick houses, Chevy trucks, Jack Daniel’s whiskey, yellow labs and that there was no such thing as too much barbecue.
He didn’t believe in seeing the doc, either, so he’d died when I was little of a massive heart attack. The docs had said he must’ve had smaller ones, but he’d powered through.
I barely remembered him, but Gran talked about him so much that his philosophies were like Bible stories to me. He never wanted a two-story house because his great-grandmother had lost a toddler to a nasty fall down a long flight of stairs. If that wasn’t proof that people in small towns had really long memories, it was proof of something. Superstition maybe.
I slowed down for a stop sign, but there was literally no one on the road. Main Street had a variety of old buildings, with every business someone could need. A couple of restaurants, Gran’s shop, a lawyer, an insurance agent, the bank and, farther down, the florist and grocery store. I’d already passed by the red brick schools lined up from elementary to middle to high school. Across from the schools was the simple white siding church with the community center connected.
I could drive these streets with my eyes closed with the complete lack of traffic. Rolling along, I was almost through the main part of town and headed for the far end. So close.
Red and blue lights caught my eye in the rearview mirror.
“Oh, crap,” I said.
Pulling my truck over, I felt like an idiot. I shifted to Park and grabbed my license from my purse. Looking back, I saw it was Sheriff Monroe. What was he doing out in the middle of the night patrolling?
The potbellied old grump moseyed out of his police SUV and up to my window. He put on his hat and adjusted it like he was a supermodel on a catwalk.
I rolled down the window and handed him my license and registration. “Hi, Sheriff.”
“Annabelle Baxter? Where’s the fire?” He chuckled and shone the flashlight on me.
I smiled. “I just wanted to get home. Traffic was awful around Nashville and I want to check on Gran. I’m really late.”
“Late isn’t enough of an excuse to go flying through town and endangering people,” he said.
I looked around. “What people?”
“Don’t you sass me, Belle. Laws are there for a reason.”
“I know, I’m sorry. If I had my druthers, I’d have been home hours ago. I’m moving back and I didn’t want Gran to worry,” I explained. I could hear Gran now… Being good is doing what’s right when no one is looking. I’d botched today nicely.
He huffed a big exhale of air. “Moving back? I thought you went off to college.”
“I did. Hospitality management. I graduated and have been working,” I said.
“Hospitality? That should be something a good southern girl knows without schooling. But given your family, it couldn’t hurt. Did you ever find your mama?” he asked.
My face burned. “No. I was working and going to school. It wasn’t about her. I reckon Gran needs more help now.”
“She sure does. Nearly burned down her kitchen last month.” He shifted his hat.
“Bless her heart. It won’t happen again. It was an accident. Her old dog had passed and someone gave her a new puppy who’d jumped up for something while she was cooking. I told her to crate the puppy, but she thought that was mean. She was so busy trying to save the puppy from eating something it shouldn’t that the fire got out of hand.” I rambled through what he already probably had been briefed on.
“I know it. We were all there for her. She’s fixin’ to turn seventy, rumor has it. Ladies don’t like talking about their real age, but I commend you for stepping up and looking after her. That mother of yours is nowhere to be found.” The sheriff looked at the book in his hand.
“Thanks. I’m here and I’ll handle things. Find a job and get settled. No more late-night driving or speeding at any time of day. I really do appreciate ya being there for Gran,” I promised.
“We don’t have a Starbucks for you to work at,” he teased.
I resisted rolling my eyes. “Well, it helped with tuition, room and board for college. I’m not too big for my britches to work where I can get it.”
“Fancy drinks—people here can make their own coffee. You’ll have your hands full with that shop of your Gran’s too. She’s a charitable woman, but you have to draw a line between charity and business.”
“Yes, sir.” That had me more worried.
Something started ringing and I knew by the tune that it wasn’t my phone.
“I’ll let you off with a warning this time, but you slow it way down. Fast girls aren’t what men really want. None of us want to see you turn out like your momma.” He wagged a finger at me.
I bit my tongue and nodded. “Yes, sir. Thank you. I’m glad to be on old stomping grounds.”
As he walked away, I started to roll up my window. I heard him mutter something like, “Back like a bad penny.”
One would think that in modern times, people wouldn’t be quite so spiteful and judgy. Widows with kids got full proper respect and admiration. Single moms with an ex but not a dead husband garnered some respect along with a “Bless her heart” sympathy. Her man didn’t stick around but she’d been married and was doing right by her kids—good old southern folks could respect the effort.
But when the dad was way gone before the kid was born and the mom bailed as soon as she got sprung from the hospital, people started to worry the kid was a bad seed or something.
That was me.
Everyone in town knew my little history. Some pitied me while others judged my parents hard and assumed I’d turn out just like them. I felt worse for Gran. She’d lost a daughter and gotten stuck with me. If she hadn’t claimed me, I’d have ended up a ward of the state. There were no aunts or uncles or extended family to lean on.
I pulled back onto the road, into the non-existent traffic. Part of me wished Sweet Grove had a Starbucks. I’d be running it in a few months and that’d be good money. I’d left a great job in Atlanta for extremely limited prospects here.
But bringing Gran to Atlanta, away from everyone she knew and to a big city that was confusing—that wasn’t an option. Well, it was the last resort. This was for family. I had to do the right thing. I’d made my mistakes growing up, but I’d die before I turned into my mother and walked away. Sweet Grove wasn’t perfect, but it was home.
The pale-yellow brick of Gran’s ranch house triggered a million memories of my childhood, but I was so frustrated and tired I couldn’t even get emotional. I parked my baby in the driveway, grabbed my overnight duffel filled with essentials and tried the back door. Gran had left it unlocked. Most people only locked their houses at night, if at all. I’d grab the big suitcases tomorrow and really unpack once I’d slept.
The sharp bark of the puppy made me jump. I missed old Reg, a sweet and calm dog. Puppyhood won’t last forever , I reminded myself, and the new dog was cute.
After locking the door behind me, I slipped into the washroom off the laundry room, all very near the backdoor. Gran called it the servant’s bath. Not that we’d ever had any servants, but it was a basic square shower and toilet with a sink. Nothing frilly or decorated like the guest bath up front or her master bath.
I relieved myself and heard the barking growing louder. Quickly I washed my hands and opened the door.
“Get out! I’m calling nine-one-one!” Gran yelled.
The double-barreled shotgun pointed at me made me very grateful I’d gotten to the bathroom before she’d made it out of bed, or I’d have wet the floor!
“Gran, it’s me!” I shouted.
She looked quite dangerous, all of five feet tall with long gray hair and her old orange robe cinched at her waist. Her slippers showed her pride in the Tennessee Volunteers, but it looked like the puppy had been chewing them up a bit. Her usually sweet face finally registered what I’d said and went from serious to shocked.
“Belle? What are you doing here?” She lowered the gun then hugged it to her body.
“You knew I was coming home. I got stuck in traffic. I called, but you didn’t answer.” I gently took the gun from her, and I could breathe again.
“I fell asleep waiting for you and I thought… I’m sorry, I forgot. I thought you were an intruder. Sorry, darlin’,” she said.
“It’s okay, but I’ll keep the gun in my room now.” I looked down at the puppy bouncing for attention. “Have you named it?”
“Duke, and it’s a he. At least until we get him snipped,” she said proudly.
“Definitely snipped as soon as possible. Duke. Well, he made a puddle on the floor, careful not to step in it.” I snapped on the light. “Go to bed and I’ll get this cleaned up.”
“No, it’s my dog. I’ll clean it up. You go get some sleep. But first, admire my newly remodeled kitchen.” She grabbed a mop from the mud room.
The kitchen was now the fanciest room in the house, with stone counter tops and a new stove with a lot more buttons. Plus, a new fridge, microwave and a new kitchen table. The colors were apple red and a cream that looked lovely, but none of it hinted at a bargain.
“Gran, did the insurance pay for all this?” I asked.
“No, but there was smoke damage and the appliances were getting old anyway. I got a little equity line of credit from the bank. I got a better deal when I bought all new appliances from the store together in a bundle. New washer and dryer in the mud room too,” she explained.
I shook my head. “You said the business wasn’t turning a big profit right now,” I said.
“I know. I’m not senile. This is my home. I need to be able to cook and wash my clothes. While I was having things repaired, it seemed like the best time to replace what needed replacing. We’ll talk about the business tomorrow.” She yawned and put the mop back.
“Okay. I’m going to try to get some sleep.” I hugged her and the familiar smell finally signaled that I was truly home.
“Night, dear. I’ll bring Duke into my room so he won’t bug you.” Gran patted her thigh and the dog followed.
“Good night.” Once I heard her door click shut, I set the gun down carefully then slung the strap for my duffel over my shoulder. Thinking ahead, I poured myself a glass of water, flipped off the light and picked up the gun with my free hand.
I closed the door to my room and locked it. Carrying a loaded gun when tired should be illegal. I put the water down on the nightstand then tucked the gun under my bed. Finally, I dropped the duffel on my bed.
“Darn, my purse!” I went back out to my truck and grabbed my purse from the front seat.
I slammed the door to my truck louder than I meant to. Luckily, we had a few acres of land so the neighbors wouldn’t be bothered. I made sure my doors were locked and headed into the house, locking the doors behind me. Atlanta living had made me a compulsive door locker.
Back in my room, I felt twelve again. Not much had changed. I had an old guitar hanging on the wall for decoration. My old keyboard sat on the desk. The queen-sized bed had a wrought-iron secondhand frame and a gently used mattress from an estate sale.
We’d never been made of money. I wanted to strangle whoever had talked Gran into those expensive appliances. Sure, they may have been due for replacing, but high-end fancy was more than she needed. I wanted her to have the best of everything, but no job I could get in Sweet Grove would provide that sort of income. That was why I’d stayed in Atlanta after college, so I could work my way up and send her money.
I had some college loans to pay back too, but I’d been frugal and made use of every scholarship and program I could. Gran would insist the house and her preserves shop weren’t my problem, but who else was there?
I fought off tears and changed from my boot-cut jeans, gym shoes and T-shirt norm into a sleep shirt advertising my alma mater. After unpacking a few basic outfits and my makeup bag, I used a wipe to remove my makeup. It was a delicate thing—Gran never wanted me made up like one of those pageant girls, but going out with nothing was practically as bad.
I’d found a good balance. Hospitality required a good face without looking too flashy.
Pushing back the peach quilt, I noticed my nails needed a fresh painting. But should I bother? Here, I wasn’t around clients like in a fancy hotel. What really mattered now? I wasn’t sure—except for Gran, of course. I had a few friends I was eager to see and plenty of others, like the sheriff, who I was fine not running into.
My head hit the pillow and I said my prayers. Grateful for not getting a ticket and not getting shot. Sorry for all the awful things I felt about the people who’d swindled my gran with that kitchen. I’d fix it all the best I could, but the worst was yet to come.
The business was a cute little preserves shop with fresh baked goods that varied by Gran’s mood. People popped in and ordered preserves, but most swung by for breakfast treats. It’d been a nice notion when my grandpa was alive and had made good money as a plumber. He could fix just about anything. When he’d died, the insurance had covered what was owed on the house and the cars plus funeral expenses. Gran had widow’s social security, a little pension and zero debt until this lovely credit line fiasco.
Was the business helping or hurting Gran’s overall finances? That was the question.
Then again, life wasn’t only about money. Was my presence here just another reminder for Gran of my mom who’d bailed—no cards or calls in over twenty years—who should be here taking care of her mother? I didn’t want Gran suffering from having to protect or defend me—I could take care of myself, but the roles had to be different this time. I was here to take care of her—whether she liked it or not.