C2 The Mint Julep Murder: Chapter Two
Duke barking and scratching at my door woke me a couple of times, but I was tired enough to roll over and go back to sleep until nine. Clearly, Gran hadn’t managed to keep him in her room all night.
It wasn’t my habit to sleep in, but nothing about yesterday had been normal. I’d needed a decent night’s sleep to face the day ahead.
I shuffled into the kitchen, expecting a puppy nipping at my ankles, but apparently Gran had put in a dog run and Duke was outside enjoying the good weather, bird sightings and exercise.
Once I’d gotten coffee in my system, I found a note on the kitchen table.
Belle, went to the shop. Breakfast is the busiest time—people drop in before work. Come by for breakfast and we can talk about the shop. Or you can just say hi to everyone! Love, Gran
After a shower and careful hair styling and makeup, I put my suitcases in the house. I checked that the dog had a huge bowl of water and a backup bowl in case he tipped one over. The weather wasn’t going to be too hot today, plus part of the run was covered to give him shade, and I figured he’d be happier outside than in.
Less destructive at least.
In my big suitcase, I found an old messenger bag and loaded it with my tablet, my dainty purse, a refillable water bottle, a notebook and pen and my phone charger. I slung the bag across my body and tucked my phone into my pocket.
The drive into town was quick, but the streets were busy now. Lots of cars and people all over—nothing like Atlanta, but that was a nice change. I parked around back by Gran’s little sedan and went in through the door marked for deliveries.
The kitchen was only partially used in the old bakery. She did preserves in big batches based on peak fruit harvests but the baking she did at home and brought in. I wasn’t great at canning or baking, but Gran had made sure I could cook well enough.
My dream was to open a B&B around here for tourists visiting Nashville who wanted a small-town-feel option. The city could be crazy, expensive and dangerous in some areas. My place could offer day trips to the city with plans for food, things to see and all designed for the people’s interests. Kids or no kids? Music or history?
That was just a dream. For now, I had to handle what was in front of me. I found the office and flipped through the stacks of receipts and monthly statements. Gran used a basic system and had someone do her taxes. She printed out everything monthly in case something crashed so I didn’t even need to snoop for a password.
The numbers weren’t terrible, but the profit was slim after expenses. Frankly, I was shocked she was turning a profit. Odds were good that she wasn’t reporting all her expenses.
I went back to the summer last year and a few months were in the red. Hospitality might not seem like a normal college degree for some, but we did cover a lot of business classes that I really valued now.
My stomach declared that breakfast was late and I headed to the front. The space behind the counter was nicely laid out. The preserves were shelved on distressed wooden racks on one side of the dining area. There were only five round tables with four chairs at each. The strawberry and blueberry tones trimmed the oak shelves and counter. It was a pretty shop with big windows that faced Main Street.
Opposite the shelves was a big old coffee maker with two pots full and to-go cups, sugar and creamers. A little sign proclaimed Free Coffee For All Customers .
Gran was living in another era.
The counter next to the preserves had biscuits in a warmer along with some homemade muffins. Another little sign offered a breakfast special of two biscuits with preserves for two dollars. Not outrageous, but add in the free coffee and she was shortchanging herself big time.
“Belle, finally. Did you sleep well?” Gran asked.
She was sitting at one of the tables with four old men.
“Yes, I just had to catch up and take in my suitcases. It’s sort of quiet here,” I said.
“You missed the rush when everyone is off to work and school. It’ll be a trickle of people at most for the rest of the day. Some kids come in after school, but it’s a morning rush. Like a bakery,” she said.
Like a bakery, maybe we should stock more baked goods? Have order forms so people could order ahead for meetings, weekends in, or whatever? I kept my thoughts to myself for now. Changing everything all at once would only upset Gran.
She turned to her admirers. “This is Freddie, Joe, Milan and Abe. They like to hang out here and keep me company.”
“Nice to meet you. Retirement has its advantages,” I said.
“And its disadvantages. If you earn too much money, they cut your social security.” Freddie shook his head. “You should know that, if you’re here to help with the business.”
“I see. Is that why you give the coffee away, Gran?” I asked.
“Get yourself some biscuits and eat. You’re always crabby when you’re hungry,” Gran said.
“We don’t just take up space. If more people come in, we give up the table. We make sure no one runs off with a jar and doesn’t pay or no one takes coffee for free without a purchase.” Abe tipped his baseball cap.
“How kind.” I dished up two biscuits and slathered on strawberry preserves, then sat at one of the stools along the wall and the counter that ran around the seating area. That layout maximized how many people we could seat, but we weren’t filling it. That was as good as it could be.
“The boys also help me when I do fairs and such around the county. Help me carry things and set up tables and talk me up,” Gran said.
“That’s very nice of them.” I got myself some coffee.
“Are you going to work here with your Gran?” Joe asked.
“Of course she’s here to help me, but I don’t need a babysitter. I told her she could keep her fancy job in Atlanta. One little fire doesn’t mean I need a keeper,” she said.
“We helped clean all that out too,” Milan bragged and tugged on his brown suspenders.
“Aren’t you a peach? But there’s a lot to consider. This earnings cap for social security. The line of credit to remodel the kitchen at home. I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I can help here until I figure it out. I have to get up to speed.” I saw so much room for expansion and improvement.
“Too bad there’s no Starbucks for you to work at. Or a hotel,” Freddie teased.
“That’s a shame. People love fancy coffee,” I replied.
“The young people come in sometimes and want funny coffee drinks. And smoothies too. And tea.” Gran chuckled.
“At a preserves shop? They can get that stuff a couple towns over. Coffee shop or something. Ridiculous prices,” Milan commented.
I studied the space. There was plenty of room behind the counter for a big coffee machine and blenders. We already had the fruit connections, but smaller buys for daily smoothies could work. Flavorings for coffees, vitamins shots as well. It would just expand things. Chai and other teas would be good too.
Smiling, I let the older generation debate what coffee should be. Gran was a purist about black coffee, nothing added. Most of her men liked at least a little sugar.
Thankfully, the bell over the door rang, and it was Katie!
“Thank God you’re back!” Katie ran over and hugged me.
I hugged her and refused to cry. “I’m so glad you never left. You’re a sight for sore eyes!”
We started talking at the same time as if we were teenagers again.
“Why don’t you two take your breakfast in the back and chat? We can’t hear ourselves talk,” Gran suggested.
I refilled my coffee and got one for Katie.
I hadn’t had a lot of friends growing up. My mom’s reputation, coupled with her running off and leaving after she had me, had left a mark. Most of the kids I’d gone to school with had been steered away from me by their parents. Small towns had long memories.
Katie’s mom was around but had been married and divorced multiple times, so we were sort of the kids from those types of families. She hadn’t changed a bit. Long brown curly hair, slim and tall. Full-on cowgirl with boots, jeans with a shiny belt buckle, tank top that advertised her bar and funky western jewelry.
“So, how are things?” she asked.
I shrugged. “The business is barely turning a profit. Gran redid the kitchen at home with all pricy stuff.”
“I saw that. She was determined to buy quality.” Kate rolled her eyes.
“It is, but you can buy a quality brand without all the fancy upgrades. That’s done and all I can do is see about the line of credit and those terms. Here, I think we need to make more money. Coffee options and smoothies are a good start, and people are asking for them, but…” I trailed off.
“But?” Katie prompted. “People are dying for fancy coffee and teas. It’s like micro-brews and stuff. At first no one admits they want something other than good old American-brand mass-produced beers, but once they try it…”
Katie owned the Honey Buckle, a bar on the edge of town. There was live music and fun! Her dad had passed suddenly not long after we’d graduated high school and his life insurance had all been paid out to her, so she’d put it into something she loved—entertaining.
Talk about judgment, a single woman owning a bar…but she’d proven herself. She’d worked hard and people in town had to admit that at least her father had acknowledged her, even if her parents hadn’t stayed married. Her daddy had provided for her and she hadn’t blown it on anything stupid. She had a thriving business.
“You’d know about the town and what sells. I just have to sell Gran on it. Plus, figure out the social security thing,” I said.
Katie frowned. “What about it?”
“There are earnings caps, I guess,” I said.
Katie waved her hand. “For your gran. You can retitle it into your name or joint ownership. Change things. If the business is in only your name, you can make all the money you want and take care of Gran. Just pay her a salary just short of what would start to erode her benefits. Sad that people have to play games to get what they paid into the social security system and to make a little more so they can have a decent life. It’s not like it’s a gift from the government.”
“I know, but that’s not the worst part. She might not want to give up ownership,” I said.
Katie sipped her coffee. “One thing at a time. You turn this place around and get it to bring in big money, then show her how she can keep her checks. I mean, she paid into the system and so did your grandpa, and you can make the business mega profitable. Win-win.”
“I could pay off the bank line she took out. They don’t care where the money comes from. But I’ll need supplies, machines, and it’s not cheap to do it right,” I said.
“It never is. You have to have the vision and believe in yourself. The first year I had the Honey Buckle, I barely hung on. But the right music, the right beer options and the right feel and people showed up. They keep showing up. You can make that here too. Coffee is far more socially acceptable than beer,” Katie reminded me.
I smiled. “It’s just not my business. I have to convince Gran. But what else do I have to do? I don’t know of any jobs around here. Not making what I need with skills that I have.”
“Well, you can always pick up some shifts at the bar. Waitressing you can do and I can show you the ropes of bartending,” she offered.
“Thanks, and if you need me, I’m there. I won’t take the work from someone else, though. I need to focus on the problems at hand,” I admitted.
“You get the equipment and supplies. You get a new menu, charge for coffee and all that. Up the prices to something normal—not Atlanta, but reasonable. Do a one-per-person free fancy coffee drink promotion—print up coupons or something. Have some non-coffee frozen drinks so kids can have them too. Oh, make up signature drinks based on your customers. Have a big grand reopening day. I’ll help. I can get some of the girls who waitress to pitch in too. The bar can’t be open at seven a.m. Not in this county.” Kate flashed a big smile.
“Thank you!” I hugged her.
“What else is wrong?” she asked with the instincts only a best friend for decades would possess.
I released her and focused on my food. “Sheriff pulled me over last night. I was going too fast, but no one was out. I had to pee. I was late and worried about Gran. It’ll be all over town later today.”
“It already is, but who cares? He let you off with a warning,” Katie said.
“Back again and already in trouble. Already getting pity.” I sighed.
Katie sighed heavily. “Stop listening to what people say. It was childish crap when we were kids and the parents…they were jealous of our moms. My mom didn’t stay in a bad marriage. Granted, she got married six times and never seemed to get it right, but she didn’t stay and let herself or her kids get abused or poorly treated. She believed she deserved better.”
“Brave. Nothing wrong with being single,” I said.
“True. Your mom followed her dreams. She’ll be back someday.” Katie nodded.
What were best friends for? She’d been saying that since we were six years old. Twenty-one years later, she couldn’t really back off on it now. Rumor around town was that my mom had had a dream of making it in the music business and hadn’t wanted to be tied down by a kid.
“That doesn’t matter anymore. I have to make sure Gran is okay. She took care of me when it wasn’t her job. I have to make sure she’s safe.” I envied that Katie knew who her dad was, even if he hadn’t been in her life too much. He’d left her his life insurance and she’d met him before he’d passed.
I could sulk about my parents all day, but I never let myself. I shoved it away and focused on what I could do. Gran had a good space and some loyal customers. We could grow that without alienating her base.
“You’ll take great care of her. I just don’t want you to get stuck in what people thought of your mom or how your gran does things. You’re not retirement age. Change is part of life and you have good ideas. You don’t have to settle for what people give you or the hand you get dealt. You’re better than that,” Katie said.
“You can think that, but we both know people judge. Remember the Andersons? Their son was cooking meth and blew up their trailer? The whole family moved to the west end of the state and put the boy in rehab. People still talk about the trailer-trash family with the meth-cooker kid,” I reminded her.
“They raised a meth head. You did nothing wrong. Your gran did nothing wrong. Don’t let them make you feel second-class. Annabelle, I’m serious, don’t get sucked into the senior center or geriatric set because you’re doing right by Gran. You’re still young.” Katie was always good for a pep talk.
“Thanks.” I took a deep breath. “If you need help at the bar, I’m there. It’ll be the best excuse to get me around young people. If it’s to help you, Gran won’t mind a bit.”
“No help needed right now, but come by tonight and have a little fun. Call it training for busier times. I need your opinion on a new band I’ve been letting play. I love music but have no talent for picking it. I enjoy it all. You’ve got the best taste and some skill.” Katie took a long drink of her coffee.
“Good girls play piano,” I repeated one of Gran’s many mottos. She’d done her level best to mold me into a proper southern lady so I’d be less likely to get criticized and belittled for my mother’s bad choices. I couldn’t help that I had a little talent and a lot of love for music.
When I’d gone off to college, there’d been bets that I’d never come back, like my mom. That or I’d fail in the music scene and return hooked on drugs or pregnant, possibly both. I’d beaten the odds so far.
“I can’t play a tambourine. Drinks are on the house,” Katie offered.
I shook my head. “You don’t need to do that. I’ll be there for the music and friends.”
“Good. You look like you need a little fun.” Katie stood up. “You have room to store things back here. If you find a good gently used coffee machine and start with some supplies…see what takes off. You can expand slowly. It’s stressful at times, but you’ll always be tinkering and refining as trends change. That’s the business,” she said.
“You’re right. I think of Sweet Grove as never changing, but with the Internet and a million TV channels streaming on phones and all that, we’re not cut off. People here want to try new things and be trendy,” I said. “I can do this.”
“Good. I have to go do some inventory. See you later.” She gave me a quick hug. “I’ll sneak out the back. Your gran’s group of men always has to chat.”
I couldn’t argue with that logic and went out the front with my coffee cup.
“Where’s Katie?” Gran asked.
“She went out the back. I guess she has to do inventory today. We’ll catch up more later.” I refilled my coffee and found myself agreeing that tea would be a good option. There was a pot of decaf, but some flavor options wouldn’t be too radical. Heck, the gas stations around here probably had that.
“She’s planning something. I can see the smoke coming out of her ears,” Joe chuckled.
The bell rang and we all turned.
“Good morning, Pastor,” Gran said.
The man was young for a pastor, thirty at the oldest. Not bad-looking at all. He had light brown hair, blue eyes, a lean build and a calm demeanor.
“Good morning, Mrs. Baxter. I heard you had an addition to your family.” The pastor looked at me.
“Oh yes. Belle, this is Pastor Luke Nelson. Pastor, my granddaughter, Belle Baxter. She’s back. She went to Atlanta for college and worked to build up her experience. Now she’s joining the family business.” Gran beamed.
I held out my hand. “Pleased to meet you, Pastor.”
“Very nice to meet you. I’m sure I’ll see you Sunday with your grandmother.” He held my hand tight and it felt very genuine.
Gran jumped in before I could answer. “Actually, I was thinking about that. You said last Sunday that you need someone to play the piano for the choir. Belle is a great piano player.”
“Really?” The pastor smiled at me.
“I can play piano. I’m probably a little rusty. I didn’t even have room for my keyboard in Atlanta. I practiced a bit when I could,” I admitted.
“Why don’t you drop by choir practice tomorrow afternoon and we’ll give you a try? Music is always pleasing, and the more the merrier,” the pastor said. “Three o’clock at the church.”
“Sure, I’ll see you then.” I couldn’t say no. I loved playing music and helping out wasn’t the problem. Being on display for the town to see and judge? That made me a bit queasy.