I love mysteries. Sherlock Holmes (the original) was one of my fictional heroes. And I always like to throw some misdirection in my work no matter what the genre. This time, however, I decided to take on the Cozy Mystery genre. My Mom is a huuuuge cozy mystery fan and I ran this by her a few months ago and she loved it! (She assures me it wasn’t her motherly pride talking ;o))
So for a little bit of feedback, I thought I would throw out a teaser for all of you and see what you think. I actually thought I’d already done this post, but I went back a couple of years and wordpress assures me the post was all in my head. (teehee! /pun)
Without further ado, Chapter One from Butchered & Bludgeoned: A Chelsea Dunbridge Mystery.
Breakfast with Victoria Birken was a challenge no one should have to deal with on less than a full, very strong cup of coffee. Unfortunately, Chelsea had only taken a few sips before the older woman strode into the kitchen, dark hair coiffed perfectly and dressed as though she had a corporate takeover in a couple of hours. Victoria was a force to be reckoned with in the business world where she’d conquered the wealthy and powerful, so a de-caffeinated Chelsea didn’t really stand much of a chance.
Sarah was the only point of commonality between them: Chelsea loved Sarah with her whole heart and Victoria was Sarah’s mother. This patricular visit was supposed to be about Chelsea and Victoria getting to know one another better. All Chelsea had really managed to learn over the last few days was when to keep her mouth shut and how to hold her temper.
Glaring at her erstwhile mother-in-law over her first steaming mug of coffee for the day, Chelsea mentally finished her countdown from fifteen – because ten never did the trick – and answered, “No, Victoria, I have not gained weight since the last time you saw me. Just because I’m not ‘chasing criminals’ doesn’t mean I’m any less active.”
Victoria’s elegantly painted dark red nails tapped on the kitchen table as she smiled thinly. “Really? It must be those pants, then. And really, dear. I know you’re a lesbian, but would it kill you to dress less like a man?”
Sarah chose that moment to re-enter the kitchen looking as fresh as the morning glories always did, brown hair hanging loose down her back and in comfortable jeans and loose tee. Her brown eyes widened and she exclaimed, “Mother! You promised you wouldn’t bait Chelsea.”
Victoria smiled and said, “I was merely trying to be helpful. You’ve moved to a small town where appearances matter far more than in Los Angeles; especially since you’re opening a small business. Perception counts, honey.”
Sighing, Sarah rested a hand on Chelsea’s shoulder and gave her a comforting squeeze. “If you’re going to pick on Chelsea, you can pack and leave. We’ve discussed this.”
“Endlessly,” Chelsea muttered into her coffee.
Sarah gave her an exasperated look and Chelsea hastily took a scalding sip of her coffee while trying to look innocent.
Victoria sniffed disdainfully. “If I was going to pick on her, she would know it. You both would.”
Knowing that she would say something she’d regret if she stayed any longer – if only because it would hurt Sarah – Chelsea stood and said, “She is going to finish fixing the Rose Room sink. Holler if you need anything, Sarah.”
Sarah sighed but nodded and accepted the kiss Chelsea pressed lightly to her lips. As Chelsea left the kitchen, she heard her lover say quietly, “I’m serious, Mother. If you want to stay here…”
The words lowered further in volume, but Chelsea had heard variations of the discussion aka lecture several dozen times over. Most of them had taken place in the three years since they’d moved in together. The more vituperative variations had happened since Chelsea’s resignation from the FBI a year ago. Apparently dating an FBI agent was exciting and perfectly fine, but living with a burnt-out ex-agent was not even close to acceptable. Add to that moving to a small town outside of Santa Barbara well away from Victoria and increased friction was inevitable.
The sprawling one-story, ten-bedroom hacienda they’d bought in the small town of Mustard Bay, CA had cost them every penny and used up all their available credit. Starting their dream bed and breakfast made every bit of the hopefully temporary stretched finances worth it though. Their first guests were due to arrive in a few days and the last six months living in a peaceful town had done wonders for Chelsea’s ravaged nerves.
It was gorgeous outside. It seldom wasn’t, but Chelsea still took a moment after stepping onto the front porch to lift her face to the warm sun. Her spacious apartment back in LA couldn’t hold a candle to the faint scent of the ocean competing with the nearby fragrant roses and the quiet. They had three acres of land and the local landscaper they’d hired had done an incredible job planting roses amidst local flora, setting up a small gazebo in the side yard, and a few flowered nooks all over the property. He’d been well worth the money.
Chelsea squinted against the sun and walked across the front yard to the mailbox at the end of their long gravel driveway. There wasn’t much there, just a few local flyers, and she brought them to the small shack neatly tucked away in the side yard by well-placed large cacti. She’d taken it over as her workshop shortly after they’d arrived. Chelsea walked over the lush grass that was discreetly and economically watered once a day by a very expensive system that would supposedly save them thousands of dollars in the long-run. Chelsea had been all for saving thousands in the short-term, but her environment-loving Sarah wouldn’t hear of it.
She trashed the flyers in the recycling bin and pulled out her toolbox, rooting through it to make sure she would have everything that she needed. The hacienda had been in surprisingly good shape considering it had stood empty for almost two years, but the plumbing had been almost as old as the building. Her dad had come out and helped refit the entire place over a very intense two weeks which had saved them tens of thousands of dollars. For some reason, though, the Rose and Iris rooms were still having trouble.
At least I know how to fix the small things myself, she thought, leaving the workshop with her toolbox. Following her plumber dad around as a kid had certainly come in handy throughout her life.
The hacienda was a broad T-shape with the common areas and kitchen in the front. The bedrooms started halfway down the main corridor and went to the back. Each room had a small patio with brick border-walls to give some privacy for when the entire B&B was hopefully booked. Anticipating honeymooners and couples on romantic retreats, they’d spent money on making sure the walls were plenty thick enough that no one would be uncomfortable. Each room had its own bathroom, though only two had large ones; most were utilitarian with a shower stall, sink, and toilet. Despite their simplicity, the first two bedrooms were giving her the most problems.
The Rose Room was decorated in light pinks and reds, but not overpoweringly so. Chelsea hadn’t allowed any room to be too frilly, wanting male and female guests to be comfortable. All the rooms held plush furnishings and soothing paintjobs. The room names were on a flower theme, but that really only corresponded vaguely to the color scheme.
Chelsea set her toolbox on the bathroom tile and opened the sink cabinet, settling down on the floor and poking her head under to get a closer look. There had to be a reason the damn thing leaked and it wasn’t the brand new pipes they’d spent a fortune on.
No sooner had she gotten into position when she heard Sarah shout her name. The tenor of pain in Sarah’s voice snapped Chelsea into alert. She jumped to her feet and ran out of the bathroom, through the bedroom, and almost collided with Sarah in the hall. She grabbed the other woman’s shoulders and demanded, “What? What’s happened?”
“It’s Lily!” Sarah gasped through tears. “She’s dead! Her mom, she just called. Found her at the shop.”
Chelsea pulled Sarah into her arms and held tight, rubbing her back as she cried over the death of her best friend. Lily had been the reason they’d picked Mustard Bay to settle in the first place. She guided Sarah over to a settee and sat her down, keeping an arm around her shoulder. It took several minutes before Sarah could draw a breath without crying.
She finally sat back, wiping her face on the back of her sleeve, and said, “I can’t believe it. I just… we just spoke last night, remember?”
Well acquainted with how sudden death could be, Chelsea nodded. “What did her mom say?”
“Just that the Sheriff stopped by an hour ago to give her the news.”
“No indication of how she died?”
“He just told her that they were investigating.”
Which didn’t rule out accidental, but it probably wouldn’t be a natural death given Lily’s relative youth and active lifestyle. Chelsea squeezed Sarah lightly and asked, “Do you want me to see what I can find out?”
Watery brown eyes met hers and Sarah nodded. “Could you? Just, maybe see if the Sheriff will at least tell us how she died.”
Chelsea kissed her lightly on the cheek and said, “Of course. Come on. Let’s get you some tea and I’ll go into town.”
They walked slowly back to the kitchen, arms around waists. Victoria already had a cup of tea – likely reinforced with bourbon or brandy – waiting on the table. The only thing they really agreed on was taking care of Sarah. Chelsea knew she’d be leaving her in good hands.
Sarah gave them each a knowing, somewhat wobbly smile, as she sat at the table and said, “You don’t have to coddle me. I’ll be okay.”
Chelsea kissed the top of her head and replied, “You had a shock, you’re allowed to not be okay. I’ll be back shortly.”
Sarah nodded and picked up the tea as Victoria sat next to her.
Chelsea snagged her keys from one of the key hooks on the “You Didn’t Lose ‘Em!” wooden plaque beside the kitchen door. It was a quick walk to her 1986 sky-blue 4×4 Wrangler that was minus the doors and top and only a fifteen minute drive into town via the coast road. The wind whipped her ear-length hair into her eyes, but the sunglasses kept her vision clear.
Time for a haircut, she thought inanely, shifting into fourth as the Jeep picked up speed.
The road wasn’t in the greatest of conditions despite the relative wealth of Mustard Bay. The town spent most of their budget on the schools and building repairs. There were only a few hacienda styled houses between theirs and the small town. The town itself was an amalgamation of Southern California architectures and a few odd East Coast leftovers like the three-story Victorian building that served as the library and the square, red-brick post office.
She drove up Main Street, passing the small strip of businesses that lined each side and made up the center of town. There was a large patch of unnaturally lush green grass used as a park for the kids and seasonal events for the town. A crowd surrounded the florist shop A Day of Flowers, which didn’t surprise Chelsea in the slightest. Small towns were the nosiest. She parked in front of the post office and walked the half-block to the shop, long legs quickly eating up the distance.
Chelsea angled to the side of the crowd, easing through the quiet conversations and catching snippets.
“…not a mark on her, I heard.”
“…can’t believe it! Another death so soon!”
“…what’s Sheriff Jacobs going to do about it?”
“…why did she have to die now? What about my wedding flowers?”
Chelsea winced at the last comment, but didn’t look in Nikki’s direction. The young woman was a spoiled brat who had no problems with making a scene. Chelsea had unfortunately been witness to many of them over the last six months.
She found a good line of sight into the large bay window and took in the scene. It didn’t look like anything was out of place; flowers stood in their tall vases and buckets where they always did. No sign of an obvious struggle. Sheriff Saul Jacobs walked slowly through the room, clearly taking notes in a small notebook. The older man was definitely old school, but then, he didn’t need to be high-tech in a small town where the ‘violent crime’ involved cow tipping and bar brawls. There’d only been one homicide in the last five years and it had taken place just the month before; Chelsea knew because she’d looked up the stats before they’d moved.
Saul turned and caught sight of her, changing direction to walk her way.
Chelsea took the opportunity to duck under the yellow crime scene tape and met him at the doorway. “Morning, Saul.”
“Chelsea,” he replied gravely, his voice a deep rumble. It always surprised her, coming from such a slight man. “I guess Lily’s mom called Sarah?”
She nodded and said, “Probably right after you left.”
“How’s she doing?”
“She’d be better knowing what happened.”
“Even if I could say something at this point, which you know I can’t, there’s nothing to tell. Won’t know anything ‘til Murray gets through with Lily.”
Chelsea assumed that was the local Medical Examiner and nodded.
“Of course, if you wanted to give me a hand with this one things would go a lot faster. Plus, I’m sure Sarah would rest easier knowing you were lookin’ into it,” Saul finished, brown eyes lit with amusement.
Manipulation never went over well with Chelsea and she scowled. “I’m retired and you know it.”
Saul smiled a bit and said, “Why so you are. And, as a private citizen, I’m afraid you’re just gonna have to wait until my report. Have a good day, Chelsea.”
Chelsea bit back a curse as the sheriff walked back inside. Unfortunately he was right and there was nothing that she could do. It looked like she’d be going back empty handed to Sarah.
Muttering under her breath, Chelsea turned to walk back to the jeep only to be joined a few feet away by Bill and Beau Billings. They were both taller than her – a feat since she was almost six foot – but that was the end of their similarities. Bill was a burly redhead with a thick beard, twinkling green eyes and a ton of freckles that almost hid his pale skin. Beau was African American and slender to the point of thin, with close-cropped black hair and dark eyes. They had an alarming tendency to dress alike; although after being partners for almost eighteen years, Chelsea supposed that was to be expected.
She gave them a neutral smile and greeted, “Morning, guys. What can I do for you?”
“Is it murder?” Bill asked in an awful stage whisper.
Chelsea almost rolled her eyes. “I don’t know.”
Beau frowned at his partner and said in a normal volume, “We saw you talking with the Sheriff.”
Chelsea shrugged and said, “Sheriff Jacobs didn’t tell me anything.”
“But aren’t you going to help him?” Bill exclaimed. “This is the second murder in two months!”
“First, we don’t know that it’s murder. Second, I’m not a cop.”
Beau’s frowned deepened, etching into his thin face. “But you were with the FBI. You know how to handle things like this.”
Knowing they were just scared, Chelsea beat down the irritation as she said, “I retired, Beau. Right now, I run a B&B and am happy to do so.”
It looked like Bill wanted to argue the point, but Beau put a hand on his partner’s arm and gave him a quiet look. He smiled briefly at Chelsea. “Of course. Sorry to bother you.”
Chelsea felt compelled to say, “No bother. I understand. And I’m sure the Sheriff will be just fine with whatever happened. He’s a smart man.”
Beau nodded and tugged Bill away, giving her a wave. Bill did the same, his normally jovial face puckered with worry.
Chelsea walked maybe a minute before someone called her name. She turned and found the mayor striding quickly her way. She sighed as the miniscule, dark-haired woman reached her. Frannie Dankse’s five-foot-nothing height and tiny, blow-away frame completely belied her hurricane force of nature. It wasn’t at all a surprise that the former reporter had run for and won every mayoral election in the last ten years.
“Chelsea! I’m so glad to see you here. You’re going to help Saul with this suspicious death, aren’t you?”
“Nice to see you too, Frannie.”
The older woman had the grace to look a bit sheepish. “Sorry, but are you?”
Chelsea snorted and said, “No.”
“Didn’t he ask you?”
“He did, but I’m not a cop.”
“So he’ll deputize you. It’s not like you don’t have the experience.”
“Frannie, I’m not helping with the murder… the possible murder.” Chelsea silently cursed her slip.
Frannie’s blue eyes widened. “So you do think it’s a murder!”
Chelsea sighed and said, “Lily was only thirty-four and in great shape. It’s possible there was an undiagnosed health problem, or perhaps one she didn’t tell anyone about, but I doubt it. She told Sarah everything and Sarah tells me everything. The likelihood of this being a natural death isn’t all that high. Still. I’m not an agent anymore and have no interest in assisting with a possible murder. That’s why I left LA.”
Frannie’s lips pursed up with displeasure, but she said, “Sure, of course. Okay. Well, have a good rest of the day.”
Chelsea watched her stalk away and shook her head. Maybe this time, she could make it unmolested to her car.
She did, but someone grabbed her arm from behind and without warning as soon as she got there. Over a decade of training kicked in. Chelsea spun, grabbing the wrist of her attacker and twisting it brutally up and shoving the unknown assailant against the hood of her jeep. Heart pounding, adrenaline flooding her system, it took a few seconds to realize that the yelp of pain came from Carrie Wells, the resident psychic.
Chelsea immediately let go and stepped back. “Carrie! God, are you okay?”
The long-haired, nouveaux-hippie woman smiled weakly as she rubbed the twisted shoulder. “Fine, sorry. I know better than to sneak up on you. Although I wasn’t sneaking. I just didn’t call out ahead of time. I mean, you worked for the FBI for years, right? You should really hear me coming or something, shouldn’t you? Anyhoo. I was just standing with the others in front of the flower shop when bam! I had a vision! And it was you. And there was more death and fear and you were right in the middle of everything and…”
Chelsea held up a hand and interrupted the vomit of words. “Carrie, stop. Seriously. I’m not involved in anything and not planning to be.”
“No buts. I’m out, okay? Thanks for the, ah, warning, but I’m okay.”
Carrie pouted, pretty face scrunched up and slate-blue eyes narrowed in a very un-new-age expression. “You don’t believe me.”
Chelsea shrugged and said, “Sorry.”
Carrie heaved a sigh. “It’s fine. No one ever believes me until my visions come true for them. And it’s not like you’ve been, you know, exposed to my gift. Anyhoo. Keep me in mind when you need a hand with the investigation. Poor Lily.”
She flounced away, beaded and charm necklaces tinkling against each other and skirts flaring dramatically.
Amused in spite of herself, Chelsea smiled and shook her head before taking a look around. With no one else about to pounce, Chelsea climbed into the jeep to head home and give Sarah the bad news.