Divas Do Tell

Divas Do Tell

Virginia Brown

October 2013 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-368-9

Book 5 of The Dixie Divas Mystery series

 
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Lights! Camera! Murder! Trinket and the gang, beware!

Hollywood descends on Holly Springs, and soon it’s up to the Divas to keep the stars from falling like magnolia blooms in a trailer-park tornado. Someone doesn’t want DARK SECRETS UNDER THE HOLLY to reach the big screen. He—or she—is willing to kill locals, movie stars, and maybe even Divas—to stop it.

Diva-sister Dixie Lee Forsythe wrote the juicy tell-all about a historic Mississippi town very much like Holly Springs, and a lot of townsfolk would be happy to strangle her. Bitty is in a blond lather over a gossipy story line about a philandering Senator who very much resembles her late husband. And even Trinket’s a little miffed at Dixie Lee’s oh-so-recognizable Trinket Truevine character, described as, "built like a girls’ basketball coach—not necessarily a female one.”

Dixie Lee starts getting mysterious death threats, an actress brings being a diva to heights even Bitty can’t match, and a production assistant is murdered.

If Trinket, Bitty, and the Divas don’t solve this case quick, Oscars season in Tinsel Town will be short a whole bunch of stars.

Virginia Brown is the author of more than fifty novels in romance, mystery, and general fiction. Her bestselling Dixie Divas Mysteries continues in 2014 with a sixth novel. She lives in a small Mississippi town that inspires her stories about Holly Springs.

 


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Chapter 1

IT WAS A BOOK that started all the trouble. A bestselling book, at that. It stirred up more dust and disaster than an F-5 tornado. Holly Springs, Mississippi hadn’t seen so much excitement and mayhem since The War, when General Van Dorn’s troops burned Yankee supplies piled at the railroad terminal, and a few houses caught fire. The fallout from the book was certainly more entertaining than watching your house burn, but just as deadly.

Perhaps I should clarify.

My name is Eureka May Truevine, but I prefer to go by Trinket. I live in a house named Cherryhill that sits just outside the Holly Springs city limits. It’s my ancestral home, and my parents live in the downstairs while I have all the upstairs to myself. They’re in their seventies, so they don’t like climbing the staircase anymore. It works out well for all of us. When I moved back home after my divorce to care for parents I thought were feeble and needed nursing, I discovered they were in great health but had developed a penchant for jetting around the country. I was needed to stay home and take care of their dog and a couple hundred feral cats while they caught up on their youth. The mayhem and mischief caused by the bestselling book took place when they went out of town, and I was stuck with food and doody duty. It was a very inconvenient chapter in my life. Pardon the pun.

At first we were all thrilled that someone we knew had written a book set in our hometown of Holly Springs. Then we read it. It was a good thing the author had used a pen name. Otherwise, she might have been hung from the clock tower in the court square as soon as it came out.

Some of us, however, knew her true identity.

"I can’t believe this,” raged my first cousin and best friend Bitty Hollandale. "How dare this... this woman go telling the entire world all about Philip’s flings with that home wrecking little slut?” She paused to suck in a deep breath then added, "Bless their hearts.”

If she’d been Catholic, Bitty would have crossed herself. Since she’s not, she just added the last three words in a pious tone suitable for a Methodist. Seeing as how Bitty’s ex, Philip Hollandale, is dead, as well as the "home wrecking little slut,” I pretended the blessing was said on that account.

"Yes,” I said. "Bless their hearts. Don’t you think you’re overreacting a little, Bitty? I mean, it’s just a book, and it’s sold as fiction. That means it’s not real, just fantasy. Made up characters and events.”

Bitty eyed me rather sourly. "Have you read it yet?”

"Well... no. Not yet. But I intend to as soon as I have a spare minute or two.”

"Get back to me when you’ve read it. We’ll see how you feel about it then.”

Bitty was so irate she forgot she had enough hair spray on her head to paralyze a goat and put her hand through the carefully coifed blonde nest. I watched with interest as she tried to get her hand back out without dislodging a diamond ring as big as a butter bean.

We sat in her parlor, a small room adjacent to the actual parlor and just off the wide entrance hall. It used to be a butler’s pantry or breakfast room or something like that, but since Bitty doesn’t have any full-time servants she’s put it to better use. It was quite cozy on a cold January day. A small fireplace, shutter-covered window, two big plush chairs that suck you into their depths, a flat screen above the mantel—disguised with an oil painting when not in use—and a couple end tables with lamps furnish it in comfort. Bitty’s house is an antebellum beauty with a sign out front and scrolled lettering that says "Six Chimneys CA 1845.”. In April every year the Holly Springs Garden Club conducts a pilgrimage during which gracious old homes are fancied up and opened to the public for tours. Bitty’s house is one of them.

When she finally got her hand out of her lacquered hairdo without losing her ring or a finger she said, "Cady Lee just better be careful is all I have to say.”

I knew that wasn’t all she had to say, and I was right. Bitty still fumed and sputtered.

"Can you believe her sister has the nerve to show her face in this town after writing that horrible book? She’s just showing off. That’s so tacky.”

"It’s on all the bestseller lists. They’re making a movie out of it. Why shouldn’t she show off?”

"Read the book, Trinket. Just read the book.” She got up, left the room, and in a minute came back with a hardcover book covered in a fancy book jacket. She tossed it in my lap, so I picked it up.

Dark Secrets Under the Holly was printed across the top, and in big letters beneath that title, by Desirée DuBois. The background was pale pink, and a huge magnolia blossom and Spanish moss provided no clue as to the content except that it was set in the South. New York publishers obviously thought Spanish moss grows throughout the entire state of Mississippi. It doesn’t. I shook my head.

"Well, the hint about Holly Springs is a bit too obvious, and her pseudonym is rather extravagant and clichéd, but other than that it looks okay.”

"Oh for heaven’s sake, Trinket, you know you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

"Speaking of clichés...”

"Open it up. Pick any page. Just start reading. Then tell me what you think.”

I thumbed through the book, pages flipping under my fingers. "I’ll have to have more wine if it’s as bad as you say it is.”

"That can be arranged.” Bitty got up, once more dislodging her personal gargoyle, a disgruntled fat pug wearing a bib, diamond studded collar, and a sweater that said Mommy Loves Me across the top. The pug’s name is Chen Ling. I call her Chitling, mainly to irritate Bitty. We live to annoy one another.

While Bitty fetched my wine I scanned a random page. A section immediately caught my eye.

"Jewel Twining and her twin sister Ruby looked nothing alike. Ruby was petite and blonde while Jewel had the physique of a girls’ basketball coach—not necessarily a female one. Seeing them together always struck me as funny. It was Jewel who played with the sharecropper kids down the road and became best friends with a black child named Birdie. Later in life, Birdie would become a housekeeper just as her mother before her, and her mother’s mother before that. Generations of housekeepers cleaned up after Holly Springs children and their parents. Morning maids, afternoon maids, evening maids toiled in the huge antebellum homes with scant pay and plenty of prejudice. This was the Mississippi of the fifties and sixties when Jim Crow ruled, and the ‘colored’ housekeepers knew their place. Those who forgot were swiftly and sharply reminded.”

I felt my face get hot. Jewel Twining could only be me, and while my twin sister Emerald is blonde and petite, I do not have the physique of a girls’ basketball coach. I’m tall, yes, and while I could stand to lose fifteen or twenty pounds, I’m hardly gym teacher material. They’re in much better shape.

By the time Bitty returned with my wine, I’d read enough to know that "Desirée DuBois” had skewered most of the Holly Springs Garden Club as well as half the people she called old friends. Bitty took one look at my face and smiled.

"See? I told you. Here’s your wine. Sure you don’t want some Jack and Coke instead?”

"I’m sure. Sufficiently liquored up, I might show up at Cady Lee’s house with a torch and a pitchfork.” I slammed the book closed. "What is Dixie Lee thinking?”

Dixie Lee is Cady Lee Forsythe’s younger sister. The Forsythe family has been in Holly Springs for generations and done quite well for themselves. Their daughters, Cady Lee, Dixie Lee, Delta Lee, and Mossy Lee had gone to our elementary school while their daddy was the mayor; once he was voted out of office they went to more prestigious schools. All four girls and their two brothers—Jefferson Lee and Robert Lee—had graduated from Ole Miss, their father’s alma mater. Their mother had had the oversight of graduating from Mississippi State, but her family forgave that error when she became Queen of the Tailgating Party at The Grove in Ole Miss. She has crystal chandeliers hung from the top of the tent and serves exquisite finger sandwiches, caviar, and the most expensive champagne at every Ole Miss home game.

Her Forsythe family tree limb claims a familial relationship to General Robert E. Lee, hence the profusion of Lee forenames in their children. Floy Anne Lee had married into the Forsythe family in the fifties and immediately began producing a flotilla of namesakes.

Cady Lee Forsythe, now Kincaid, is a member of the Dixie Divas. The Divas are a group of women in the Holly Springs area who get together every month to drink wine or bourbon, eat chocolate and other delicacies, and generally have a good time. There is usually entertainment at these functions. No men are allowed as members or even guests, but have provided hours of excellent amusement on occasion. What happens with the Divas, stays with the Divas, so I shall not divulge any details here. Suffice it to say only a few men have been brave enough for a repeat performance. The Chippendales’ booking agent no longer takes our calls.

"Mark my words,” said Bitty in a dark tone, "someone’s going to whack Dixie Lee upside her head before this is over with. I’ve thought about it myself.”

"I can see where this kind of thing would rile up folks,” I agreed. "What about the movie? I heard it’s going to be made mostly in Holly Springs.”

"If you ask me, that movie is better off not being made anywhere. You know people are going to talk, and I think Dixie Lee has lost her mind writing something like this, much less making a movie out of it. Besides, it’s too much like that book written by the woman down in Jackson. Dixie Lee probably plagiarized it.”

"Well, her book and movie did well. I read a newspaper review that said even though this novel may sound similar, it focuses more on the personal lives of the white residents instead of the trials of the black domestics.”

"Tell that to Ida Tyree,” Bitty said dryly. "She was up in arms over it, said it doesn’t tell half the story, and what it does tell is wrong.”

Mrs. Tyree is Bitty’s next door neighbor, a former housekeeper who became a much-respected local leader during the Civil Rights movement, then built her job into a cleaning empire that she sold for a lot of money about twenty years ago. Mrs. Tyree is a matriarch of both the black and white community in Holly Springs. Not anybody to mess with, either. She has a tongue sharp enough to skin a catfish when she gets indignant.

"I can see I’m going to have to read the book from the front,” I said after a few sips of wine. "If she says about other people what she’s said about me and Emerald, she’s not going to have any friends left in this town.”

Bitty sucked down half her Jack and Coke. "She did and she doesn’t,” she said while stroking Chen Ling atop her furry little head. "I can’t imagine what got into her to do that. She may have changed the names around, but it’s obvious who she’s talking about. She has unmitigated gall, doesn’t she?”

"Well, you and Dixie Lee were never friends,” I reminded. "You were always rivals.”

"That’s only because she’s a backstabbing little hussy.”

I decided to ignore that. "I wonder what Budgie thinks about being referred to as a sharecropper’s child in a long line of housekeepers.”

"Probably close to the same thing you think about being referred to as a girls’ gym teacher.”

I ignored that, too. "Since she now owns the café, I’m sure she’s not too thrilled. Budgie worked hard to get where she is and have what she has despite a no-good husband and years of working in someone else’s kitchen.”

"If I were Dixie Lee, I wouldn’t sashay into the café and order so much as a biscuit. Budgie might just drag it across the floor before she serves it to her.”

I nodded agreement and then asked, "So what did she have to say about you?”

"Only that I’m a serial bride whose last husband was murdered and found stuffed in my closet. Then she hinted that his affair with a ‘beautiful blonde high school cheerleader’ caused his murder. In other words, that I killed him. I’m ready to strangle Dixie Lee. I wonder if she still has a peanut allergy.”

I had to say, "Well, Philip was murdered and stuffed in your closet. She got that part right even if she got everything else wrong. And yes, I’m sure she still has a peanut allergy. I assume you’re going to send her a box of GooGoo Clusters?”

"No, that’s too obvious. I’m thinking a nice tin of popcorn popped in peanut oil.”

"Ah, suitably devious. All joking aside, once I—”

"What makes you think I’m joking?”

"Because you would hate prison. No hairdressers or manicurists, and Chitling would have to stay with me.”

When Chitling heard her name she pricked up her ears and gave me a baleful look. Her little black mask hides a dragon cleverly disguised as a pug. She’s what’s called a fawn color, meaning a light shade of brown, and her muzzle is black. She has three fangs left in front but does very well in intimidation and payback. Brownish-black eyes that look too big for her head followed my every movement as I gestured with my wine glass.

"They wouldn’t let you decorate your cell, either. And your Egyptian cotton sheets would have to stay behind. Besides, you’d miss all your Garden Club meetings, Daughters of the Confederacy meetings, and Diva meetings. We’d have to toast you in absentia.”

"I’m sure you wouldn’t mind.” Bitty narrowed her blue eyes at me, and I smiled.

"Of course, I wouldn’t mind,” I replied dutifully. "I’d have free access to your wine cellar, right?”

"I’m not going to prison, Trinket. Even if I did do something awful to Dixie Lee—and I’m still thinking about it—Jackson Lee would get me off with probation or some community service.”

Jackson Lee Brunetti—no kin to any of the Forsythes—is a well-known lawyer in Marshall County. His family is a respected firm of excellent attorneys. He’s also madly in love with my cousin and she with him. Both are too cautious to do more than moon around after each other and exchange syrupy sweet baby talk in front of people, but I suspect a little more goes on behind closed doors. It’s not a topic I care to dwell on too long.

"So what are we going to do about this?” Bitty wanted to know, and I shook my head.

"Nothing. What can we do without people thinking there’s a possibility that we aregym teachers and black widows? It’s hard to prove a negative.”

I thought Bitty was going to have a fit right there. Her face turned red, her blue eyes turned red, and I could swear puffs of steam came out her ears. Chitling looked up at her and immediately got down from her lap and off the chair and trotted out of the parlor. That dog has great survival skills.

"I’ll think of something,” said Bitty after a moment, and cold fear grabbed me by the throat.

"Think of your children,” I pleaded. "Don’t do anything rash, Bitty. Promise me you won’t do anything stupid.”

"Of course I won’t do anything stupid. That doesn’t mean I won’t do anything, however. Dixie Lee must be punished.”

"Oh lord...”

EVEN MY MOTHER was talking about that book when I got home. She’d read the part about me and Emerald, and she didn’t like it. She especially didn’t like the part about her and Daddy taking in hundreds of homeless cats just like the disturbed people who hoard animals.

Mama’s eyes flashed fire when she said, "We aren’t anything like those people on TV who have a hundred cats in each room and poop in piles high as the roof. We’re responsible. We spay and neuter. We vaccinate and vet them, and we provide good food and fresh water every day.”

I knew this was true because I was often responsible for feeding, watering, and treating the legion of cats that live in their barn. The barn has been remodeled and outfitted with ample cat corners and cat cushions. Cats roam in and out at will. I would like to report that the Marshall County rat and mouse population has been decimated, but alas, I cannot. Cats fat on expensive dry food and tins of cat tuna don’t see much need to rid the woods of vermin. An occasional offering will be left as a gift, but I’m usually the one who steps on it or in it and spends a good part of my day retching. These offerings are always left on the deck or doorsteps. Mama says I’m too sensitive.

"Look at it this way,” I said to her, "now people will know they can drop their unwanted litters of kittens on our doorstep. You’re providing a service.”

That did not amuse or comfort my mother. She cuddled her dog closer to her and said, "Dixie Lee should know better than to write things like that. And bringing up all that mess about things that happened over forty years ago—what was she thinking?”

"What mess? I haven’t read the book. When did publishers start releasing books at the same time as it’s being made into a movie anyway? It takes all the anticipation out of things.”

"Apparently Hollywood and New York are in league and recognize a blockbuster when they see one. Dixie Lee certainly has created a lot of gossip and dragged out old scandals.”

"What scandals? What mess? What am I missing?”

Mama cocked her head to one side and looked at me. "You’re probably too young to remember. It all happened in the sixties. Right at the height of the Civil Rights movement, too. If it’d been just a few years later maybe so much wouldn’t have been made of it, but Darcy Denton—she’s gone now—wasn’t about to let him get away with it.”

"Let who get away with what? And while I’m thrilled there are some things left I’m too young to recall, I remember the mid-sixties fairly well. What does Dixie Lee remember that I don’t?”

"Oh, she was too young to remember any of that. I imagine she heard about it from her parents or maybe someone who was involved. I don’t know. It was something, though, and had the entire town up in arms and taking sides for a while.”

I felt like shrieking but managed to ask calmly enough, "And what is it that she may or may not have heard from her parents or someone else? What had the entire town taking sides?”

"It was awful, a terrible time. Even I thought he must be guilty because there’s always fire where there’s that much smoke, and Darcy Denton wasn’t known as a liar or a person who’d accuse someone of such a thing without good reason.”

My head got light. My blood pressure rose, and my face got hot. Sometimes my mother can take the long way around a story. At least she hadn’t tossed in any irrelevant information concerning neighbors or people I never heard of or don’t know well and don’t care to hear about.

As usual, I congratulated myself prematurely. Mama launched into an entirely different topic.

"Of course, as I recall, Arlene Purcell was pregnant, and we were all worried about her since she’d been having trouble. It was touch and go with that baby, and then when he was born he was just fine and fat as a little pig. You wouldn’t remember her, of course. They moved off up to Knoxville when you were still young. I’m trying to think of that baby’s name. Frank? Arnold? No, it was Jerry. I’m sure that was it. Or maybe it was Barry.”

I saw where this was going so interrupted, "Did Arlene Purcell have anything to do with the terrible time, fire with smoke, Darcy Denton, or the whole town taking sides? I bet not.”

My mother gave me a strange look. "Trinket, sometimes you say the oddest things. I don’t know what goes on in your head.”

"At the moment, the only thing going on in my head is complete confusion. I still don’t know what happened that such a fuss is being made about that part of Dixie Lee’s book.”

"Well, Billy Joe Cramer—his name is Joe Don Battles in the book—was in his mid-twenties back then. Susana Jones was maybe fourteen or fifteen. A pretty little thing. Her mama worked for the Denton family, so when Susana got old enough, she went to work for them, too. I’m not sure how Billy Joe met Susana, but he did somewhere so when he got her pregnant, there was a big to-do about it.”

I shook my head. "She was so young. So when you say her mama worked for the Denton family, in what capacity?”

"They were housekeepers.”

It took a moment for me to grasp the implications. Then my eyes got big as saucers, and I gaped at my mother. "Oh. My. Are we talking about the same Cramers who live a few streets over from Bitty? The family that’s been in Holly Springs forever and were so dead set against integration? The rednecks who have Rebel battle flags hanging in their front yard and whose grandfather was once the grand wizard of the local KKK? That Billy Joe Cramer?”

"That’s the one,” said Mama. "And I don’t think he was the grand wizard. There’s only one of those, isn’t there?”

"Thankfully, I’m not up to date on their hierarchy details. So Billy Joe got Susana pregnant, and then what happened? Was there a shotgun wedding? A lynching?”

"Back in those days it just wasn’t done, you know. Not like now when people fall in love and get married to whoever they want no matter what race they are. It was a big scandal then. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so big if Darcy Denton hadn’t been so blamed mad and raised a huge fuss about it so that everyone knew. She wanted to make Billy Joe at least do right by the baby. She said the baby wouldn’t care about things like race as much as it would diapers and enough to eat.

"But the Cramer family stuck together, said Billy Joe didn’t have anything to do with it, and Susana must have just gone and gotten pregnant by some other boy and tried to blame it on him. Not long after all that Susana and her family up and moved away. Went up north, I heard, to live with relatives. Or was it down to Jackson? I don’t remember. They never have come back, either.”

I shook my head. "That’s really sad. I mean, I understand the times were different back then, but he could at least have supported the baby.”

Mama nodded. "Some men have no sense of responsibility no matter what the circumstances. I don’t think the Cramer family has changed that much since then, either. Still don’t do right half the time.”

"Do their dogs still run loose and turn over garbage cans, run through flowerbeds, and try to bite the mail carrier?”

"They do. Poor things. They get fed enough, but I don’t think they get treated well, and it’s aggravating to the neighbors. They’re always getting the police down on the dogs because of the Cramer family.”

"Bitty calls them white trash,” I said. "But I don’t always trust Bitty’s opinions. She’s said the same thing about anyone who wears white before Easter or after Labor Day.”

"Bitty,” said Mama, "is sometimes right by accident.”

"A scary thought. I wonder why she didn’t mention any of this? All she’s worried about is that Dixie Lee wrote about Philip and Naomi’s affair and hinted that Bitty was behind his murder.”

"People do tend to focus on what affects them directly. Bitty often wears blinders.”

That summed up Bitty nicely. A bubble-headed blonde with blinders. I liked it.

Then Mama said, "There’s going to be trouble, mark my words.”

"That’s almost exactly what Bitty said.” When Mama looked at me I shrugged. "In different words, of course.”

"Bitty can be a menace,” Mama said after a minute, and I nodded.

"Yes. I know. I have high hopes Cady Lee and Dixie Lee will be proactive in their survival. If not, we may see chaos in the streets. I shudder to think.”

There are times when I’m really prophetic.


 

 

Chapter 2

BITTY AIMED HER brand new BMW convertible in the general direction of Snow Lake. It was Diva Day, and we were all meeting at Cindy Nelson’s home. Her husband had graciously taken their several children off somewhere for the day, and we’d been invited down for a celebration of Groundhog Day. It was still three weeks away, but we were optimistic the furry mammal would signal the approaching end of winter and beginning of spring. Winter can get tiresome even in the Deep South where scant snow and ice hamper our progress but is always greeted with long lines at the grocery store when the weathermen even mention the possibility of a quarter inch of white stuff.

I was loudly bemoaning my parents’ impending departure on a Mediterranean cruise that I was certain would end with their being abducted by pirates or striking an iceberg.

"I’d thought they would change their minds,” I whined. "But they’re leaving tomorrow.”

Bitty expressed sympathy with a grinding of gears as we climbed a hill. Her last car had finally needed a clutch replacement, so she’d traded it in for another car that would probably end in the same shape. The new car was also a convertible, but fortunately the top was up on this brisk January day.

"I thought they’d seen the sense in not going off so far where anything can happen,” I moaned. "I thought they’d realize that cruises often end in disaster. Look at the Titanic.”

"For the last time, Trinket, there are no icebergs in the Mediterranean,” said Bitty a little sharply.

"There are pirates,” I pointed out. "Fire. Electrical malfunctions. Storms. Cruises to hell.”

"Speaking of hell, did you hear that the movie crew has already rented several houses in Holly Springs for not only movie sets but for their stars to stay in while it’s being filmed?”

I eyed her rather petulantly. "We’re talking about my parents taking off for watery graves, not a stupid movie.”

"Sorry. It’s just on my mind about all this craziness. And some people are acting like it’s the best thing to happen since the last movie was filmed here. Can you believe that?”

"Those are the people who will be making lots of money,” I said. "And who were asked to rent their houses. Are you still upset they didn’t ask you to rent your house?”

"Don’t be ridiculous. Why would I want a bunch of Hollywood riffraff roaming about my lovely home, tearing things up, building sets that just don’t belong? It’s enough that they’ve already begun to remodel rooms in Cady Lee’s house, and she’s letting them. Money will buy anything these days.”

I looked down at the expensive leather seats and wood trim of the sports car, the diamond ring on Bitty’s hand that had been known to temporarily blind people when it reflected light, and I said, "Yes, money is often a curse.”

Not a curse that I’ve ever enjoyed, I might add. Bitty may have money, but my divorce had left me with a slender 401K and a bit of savings. Bitty’s divorces earned her huge cash settlements and ample alimony until her next marriage. While she’s not a serial bride as the book claimed, she has been married and divorced four times. Since her last husband, the senator, was murdered, she’s gotten in the habit of calling herself a widow. She isn’t. He was murdered a year and a half after their divorce. Bitty tends to ignore such an obvious detail.

"Money isn’t a curse,” said my prosperous cousin. "It’s a necessity. That doesn’t mean one should compromise their integrity, however.”

"Heavens no,” I responded insincerely.

Bitty can detect insincerity a mile away. "Really, Trinket, I’d think you would agree with me that selling out your heritage just for money reeks of desperation.”

"Desperation? Cady Lee has more money than she’ll be able to spend. Her parents left all their kids well off, and she’s married to a man who owns a chain of department stores.”

"Okay, if not selling out for the money, then selling out for the notoriety.”

"You mean the chance to rub elbows with the famous,” I pointed out. "I hope you get over this bitterness and blame before we get to Cindy’s house. Diva Day could get a little uncomfortable if you’re not your normal charming self.”

"I’m not bitter. And since we’re only ten miles from Snow Lake that would be an impossibility anyway. Of course, I’ll be as sweet and courteous as always.”

"Oh my,” I said, thinking of past events. I looked out the window at the passing scenery. Kudzu draped telephone poles and trees in brown, leathery vines that would be bright green and smothering in the summer. Red, raw earth swathed recently cleared hillsides in places, and the land dipped and rose in gentle swells. Sunlight flirted with towering clouds as we rushed toward the small incorporated town on the banks of a huge lake. We reached it in a much shorter time than slower-moving cars and construction equipment.

"I can never remember,” said Bitty as we cruised down the last hill before reaching the dam, "is it the first or second entrance?”

"The second,” I said. "East side. They’ve remodeled the house since last time we were here.”

The red BMW breezed across the wide dam silvered by water and sunshine and turned left into the residential area. A volunteer fire station sits on the right side, and the community center is on the left in a bend of the road. The sandy beach is fringed by a roped-off swimming area, and tennis courts have been built in the next bend of the road beyond a tree-shaded gazebo. Farther down the road we turned into Cindy’s long, sloped driveway. Tall trees shaded the yard, and a boathouse nudged up against the shore at the back of the house. Or the front, depending on whether you were in a car or a boat.

"Remodeling can be horrible,” said Bitty. "That’s why I can’t believe Cady Lee is allowing that movie company to do all that ugly work to her house.”

I rolled my eyes. Apparently everything said today was going to somehow be turned back into the movie company’s real and assumed depredations. There was no point in continued resistance. I pretended not to hear and remarked instead on the cars already in the driveway as we slowed to a halt.

Bitty parked next to Gaynelle Bishop’s sedan. Gaynelle usually rode with us but had come earlier to help Cindy with the preparations for a Diva invasion.

"It seems we’re early,” said Bitty. "Only Carolann, Sandra, and Rayna are here so far.”

I knew what she meant. Cady Lee hadn’t arrived yet. I made a show out of unfastening my seatbelt, more to delay my response than because I’m safety-minded.

"Deelight is going to be late,” I offered. "When she came into the shop yesterday she said she had to get fitted for her pilgrimage costume.”

"You’ve already had your fitting, haven’t you?” asked Bitty as we got out of the car to unload our culinary offerings for the day.

Since my personal nightmare involves standing in front of Bitty’s house wearing a dress down to my ankles with a dozen petticoats underneath, I’d resisted until the last moment agreeing to participate in this year’s pilgrimage. So I mumbled, "Not yet” as I reached into the car to lift my chocolate cake from the floorboard.

Fortunately, Bitty was getting a case of wine out of the trunk and didn’t hear my response. I knew I was only postponing the inevitable. Every April Holly Springs conducts a revenue-raising Civil War era pilgrimage based on the events before, during, and after General Grant’s stay in the town. Actually, it’s more of a homage to the past graciousness of homes and life in the nineteenth century than it is to The War, which, of course, is always referred to with capital letters in the South. It’s a story of the people who lived during such a trying time and the reconstruction that followed as well. The Holly Springs Garden Club is responsible for arranging the events. This takes an enormous amount of work and expert planning. I’m glad I’m not involved in the preparations. I’d have to get a degree in business management just to take notes.

Gaynelle greeted us at the door. She’s in her mid-sixties and colors her gray hair ash brown or blonde or whatever she feels like at the moment. Since her retirement she’s gone from wearing dowdy dresses to wearing silk blouses and nice pantsuits. Her cat’s-eye glasses have been exchanged for either contacts or frames with a modern look, and the occasional twitch in her eye has completely disappeared.

She had one of Cindy’s dogs by the collar. He was huge, a lovely pit bull with a wide smile and tongue hanging out one side of his mouth. "Come in quickly,” she said, and I could see she was hanging on to the dog with grim determination. The dog seemed just as determined to add his own greeting.

I put my money on Gaynelle when it came to a struggle of any kind. She’d been a school teacher for so long she commanded obedience and attention from even the most wayward of creatures. After a sharp word from her, the humongous dog sat on his haunches and didn’t budge.

From the way his eyes followed my cake, I knew he wasn’t as interested in me as he was the chocolate. Dogs don’t know that chocolate isn’t good for them. Bitty’s fur-child is quite good at sneaking Oreos, for instance. Brownie, my parents’ pet kleptomaniac cleverly disguised as a dog, has been known to eat an entire chocolate bar then devour a roll of Tums just in case it didn’t sit well on his stomach. He also eats errant jewelry. It can be very inconvenient, but since his penchant for devouring inedible objects got me an introduction to the local vet—a charming man with whom I’m now keeping company—I don’t complain as much.

While we put our Diva offerings in the kitchen, Gaynelle convinced the dog to go down to the basement with the other dog and a cat or two. Cindy has a vast menagerie of pets, including a duck with one wing that her kids found on the lake. Not all duck hunters are successful. The view out the windows was lovely: sunlight chipping at the water, a single pontoon boat in the middle of the lake, a fisherman sitting back with a pole in his hand. He probably didn’t care if he caught fish or not. It was just a nice day to be out. January weather is fickle, so any nice day is an invitation outside.

"I’m surprised you didn’t go with a Mardi Gras theme,” Bitty was saying to Cindy when I set my cake on the kitchen counter. "But Groundhog Day?”

Cindy is a cute, bouncy young mother with more energy than I remember ever having. Her brown hair was cut in a short style that only flatters youth. She laughed. "Mardi Gras is too far away. It was either Presidents’ Day or Groundhog Day.”

"We’re running out of themes,” said Bitty. "Next we’ll be celebrating our dogs’ birthdays.”

"Fluffy’s birthday isn’t until May,” Cindy replied.

Fluffy is the pit bull. Cindy’s four-year-old named him. The poodle’s name is Killer. Go figure.

Bitty eyed a couple crockpots on the kitchen counter. "You’re not serving groundhog, are you?”

Cindy laughed. "Not as the first course. But I did put Groundhog Day in the Blu-Ray for us if you want to watch it again. Come on. Rayna and the others are in the den.”

Rayna Blue is our local artist extraordinaire and married to Rob Rainey, a bail bondsman and insurance investigator. Rob stays pretty busy just bailing Divas out of jail. We tend to get ourselves in a mess at times. Our families have pretty much given up any hope that we won’t end up in prison one day.

Slender and artsy, Rayna wears her dark hair over her shoulders and big, chunky jewelry that she makes herself. Today she had on turquoise earrings, necklace, and a couple bracelets. She also had a big glass of wine in one hand. I immediately crossed to the wet bar and found all the necessary items to do the same. Cindy has a nice wine cooler tucked under the small sink and a rack of glasses. The downstairs has a walk-out to the yard that looks over the lake. Double French doors open onto a deck. A door leads down to a cellar that’s apparently the kids’ playroom since that’s where Gaynelle had put the pit bull. Most of the houses on the lake have a basement, some that can be used as a storm cellar and some with walk-outs.

Carolann Barnett, who hired me to supplement my meager savings by selling lovely lingerie in her shop, came to give me a big hug and recommend the peanut butter fudge. "Homemade,” she assured me with a smile.

I like Carolann a lot. She has crazy red hair that looks like a four alarm fire, wears New Age tops and skirts and funky little boots, peace signs on gold chains around her neck, and has one of the biggest hearts in all of Marshall County.

"What wine do you recommend to go with the fudge?” I asked as I eyed the bottles in the cooler. "White or red?”

"Zinfandel. It’s a good compromise.”

I smiled and poured a generous amount in my glass. Gaynelle and Sandra Dobson, who is a nurse in her real life, already had wine and chocolate. A table had been set up with more chocolate offerings as well as other goodies, and we were standing next to it and discussing the fallout from the book when Cady Lee and her sister Dixie Lee came down the stairs. Instant hush fell over the room. I could swear I heard Bitty almost swallow her tongue.

Dixie Lee was just as blonde as her sister, though taller and more slender, and her clothes draped her like only really expensive clothes can do. Diamonds glittered in her ears and at her throat, and a wave of perfume that was probably made of handpicked rose petals crushed by bare feet and poured into crystal bottles wafted out in a soft silky cloud. I stood mesmerized.

"Surprise!” she exclaimed, while Cady Lee wore a nervous smile, and her left eye began to twitch. Dixie Lee seemed oblivious to the obvious. She strode into the den with all the confidence of a Georgia Tech linebacker.

Right behind them Cindy’s head bobbed like an anxious full moon. I could tell she expected some kind of explosion. She underestimated Bitty. Or perhaps overestimated her. Instead of exploding, Bitty put a smile on her face and went into pure Belle mode. That’s much worse than an explosion, believe me.

"Why, Dixie Lee Forsythe, no one told me you were going to be here. This is a surprise.”

"I didn’t let Cady Lee tell anyone. I wanted to surprise all of you.” Dixie Lee’s smile was nearly as fake as Bitty’s.

"Well, welcome home. You have most of the town talking about you. Again. Of course, that was back in your teenage years when girls weren’t expected to be so... fast.”

"I was just lucky enough to mature early. I see that your breast implants are still perky. Wherever did you find such a wonderful plastic surgeon?”

I nearly fainted. While I knew Bitty’s breasts were made full by Mother Nature, there have been a few reckless people tacky enough to suggest otherwise. Bitty gets quite testy at the implication.

This time she just smiled, looked Dixie Lee square in the eye, and said, "No plastic surgeon would ever be able to match what God gave me, but Martha Swift knows one who works miracles with face lifts. Remind me, and I can look up her number for you.”

"Oh, honey,” purred Dixie Lee, "I wouldn’t dare risk having my face turn out like yours.”

"Sugar, I wouldn’t worry about that nearly as much as I would those wattles under your chin. I wouldn’t go out in the woods during turkey hunting season if I were you.”

"Oh, I’m not interested in hillbilly husbands. Whatever happened to the last one you had?”

They eyed each other like sumo wrestlers, clasped hands, then leaned forward and kissed the air next to each other’s ear. That ritual behind them, they squared off again while the rest of us held our collective breath.

Somewhere in the next room Bill Murray was reliving Groundhog Day, but inside the lovely den full of Divas the movie Armageddon seemed about to replay. I hoped for détente. Instead, I got another exploratory skirmish.

"If you’re talking about the senator,” said Bitty, lobbing the next conversational salvo, "he was killed while trying to bring industry to our area. Bless his heart. Are you still with the musician? The guy with the interesting beard who likes to dress in women’s underwear?”

"That was my junior year in college, Bitty. I can’t even remember his name. And how is your first husband? Is he able to get letters to you from prison?”

The breath hung in my throat. Gaynelle, Rayna, Sandra, Carolann, and I watched in fascination, rather like people do when watching a snake charmer and a cobra. Cindy still hovered in the background, and Cady Lee had found the wet bar. She splashed a little Jack Daniel’s in a glass and poured it down her throat without bothering with ice.

"Why, yes,” Bitty replied to Dixie Lee with a feral smile, "Frank keeps in touch fairly often. So sad about your second husband dumping you. His new wife is a twenty-two-year-old stripper, isn’t she?”

"Yes, Bambi is of legal age.”

Dixie Lee’s inference was clearly a reminder that Bitty’s last husband, the senator, had picked an underage cheerleader to have an affair with. I felt it was time to end the reenactment of D-Day on a Normandy beach so took a deep breath and stepped into the fray.

"Would you like a glass of wine, Dixie Lee? We have almost any kind you could want.”

"Why, thank you, Trinket. Wine would be lovely.”

While Dixie Lee took the opportunity to disengage from her opponent, Gaynelle succeeded in coaxing Bitty toward the table full of gastronomic offerings. Détente had finally arrived. I breathed a little easier. The old rivalry between Bitty and Dixie Lee seemed destined to continue. All we could hope for were moments of temporary truce.

Once wine had the chance to soothe ruffled feathers, Gaynelle tactfully danced around the subject that had us all wondering and talking.

"You’ve become quite the famous author, Dixie Lee. Whatever made you decide to write a book set in Holly Springs?”

Smiling over the rim of her glass, Dixie Lee said, "There are some stories just begging to be told. Of course, I fictionalized so much. Dark Secrets Under the Hollybecame more a work of love and homage to the town of my childhood than anything else.”

Since Bitty had reverted to Jack and Coke instead of a tamer glass of wine, I half-expected her to turn savage at any moment. She must just live to astonish me.

"I have to say,” Bitty remarked, "that what happened to Susana Jones was a terrible thing. Why did you give such a sad story a happy ending?”

"There are too many sad endings in real life,” Dixie Lee answered. "I gave it the ending it might have had in other circumstances. It was just too soon back in the sixties. These days it might get talked about, but no one would have to leave town over a bi-racial unwed pregnancy.”

"Does anyone know what happened to Susana after she left Holly Springs?” Rayna asked. "Billy Joe stayed here and married Allison, but no one has ever said anything about Susana since it all happened. I think the family went up north to Illinois or Michigan.”

Dixie Lee shrugged. "I didn’t research that far. My focus was more on the issues of the day, Civil Rights and race relations, how some people overcame enormous obstacles to not only survive, but thrive. I had to put in amusing anecdotes to lessen the tension, too. Most readers don’t want unrelenting suffering in their books.”

"Mrs. Tyree is annoyed that you didn’t write about everything that happened during the Civil Rights movement,” said Bitty with an arch of her waxed eyebrows. "She said it doesn’t tell half the story, and what it does tell is wrong.”

Dixie Lee sighed. "It’s a work of fiction. I may have used important facts, but much of it is my imagination when it comes to personal relationships.”

Important facts? I thought. She’d used so much fact it could have been a documentary.

"Holly Springs didn’t have so much trouble during Civil Rights anyway,” Rayna pointed out. "I mean, except for a few people acting silly, things never got bad here. Not everyone was or is like Billy Joe Cramer’s family. They don’t mind anyone knowing they’re racists.”

"They must not,” Gaynelle said. "Billy Joe’s daddy got pretty ugly back then. That’s why it was a shock when it came out that Billy Joe had seduced Susana. He was already engaged to Allison by then, and everyone knew they were getting married right after she graduated from high school the next month. If not for Darcy Denton—Doris Dancey in the book—no one would have known about Susana’s baby.”

"I wanted Meryl Streep to play Darcy in the movie,” said Dixie Lee. "But since she was already starring in another movie they got Sandra Brady instead.”

"Sandra Brady!” I couldn’t help exclaiming. "She’s a huge star. I loved her in Emerald Nights.”

"Who’s playing the role of Susana—or Sharona in the book?” Cindy asked Dixie Lee.

"Mira Waller. Buck Prentiss is playing Billy Joe’s part.”

Cindy gave an excited squeal. "Buck Prentiss! He’s just as good-looking as Brad Pitt.”

Dixie Lee nodded. "Of course, you know I changed all the names in the book so I wouldn’t get sued, but as you all have figured out most people here know who I’m talking about anyway. And that’s just a small part of the book. All the other events are in the background, and a lot of bit players pop in and out. Some of the movie is being shot up in Memphis and down in Oxford at Ole Miss.”

"Mira Waller,” said Sandra Dobson, "is just as famous as Sandra Brady. And she’s from the South, I heard. Somewhere down around Jackson, I think.”

"She’s a Mississippian? I didn’t know that,” I said.

"Mira hasn’t been around nearly as long as Sandra Brady, but she’s gotten some great character roles lately,” said Gaynelle. "I predict an Oscar in her future.”

"Wouldn’t that be exciting, Dixie Lee?” said Cady Lee. "I mean, going to the Oscars, walking the red carpet, rubbing elbows with the Hollywood elite. Do you think that will really happen?”

"I haven’t seen the script yet. Sometimes they rewrite things so badly that it ruins what was once a good book.”

"Or sometimes they rewrite bad books so well that it changes into a good movie,” Bitty observed with a feline smile that made her look just like a Siamese cat.

I’m not sure what Dixie Lee might have said to that because Deelight Tillman chose that moment to arrive, and the topic was momentarily interrupted.

"Hello, everyone,” she said, and then exclaimed to Dixie Lee, "It’s so exciting to see all these movie people in town again. The last movie shot here was Big Bad Love, but my favorite is Cookie’s Fortune. I got to see Glenn Close when she came into Budgie’s for a sandwich. She was just like regular people and very nice.”

"Well, they were all regular people once, you know,” Gaynelle said. "Most of them don’t forget that.”

"There was that one actress who was real snooty,” reminded Carolann. "I can’t think of her name now, but she acted like we were all horseflies, bothersome enough to shoo away if we got too close.”

"I see I missed a lot in my years away,” I remarked. "Mama kept me up to date on most things, but she never said a lot about the movie people.”

"Are your parents still going on their cruise?” Deelight asked as I handed her a glass of wine.

I groaned. "Don’t remind me. Not only do I have to worry about them being shanghaied in the middle of an ocean somewhere, I’m stuck feeding battalions of cats and a neurotic dog.”

"At least this time no one has just been murdered,” Gaynelle pointed out. "The last time they went away we had to deal with a lot of trauma while they were gone.”

"No one has been murdered yet, anyway,” Bitty said with a thoughtful gaze resting on Dixie Lee. "We never know what might happen next around here.”

While I gave Bitty my sternest look, Cady Lee sucked in a deep breath and blurted out, "Someone has been threatening to kill Dixie Lee.”

"I can’t say I’m surprised,” Bitty replied. "Who is it?”

Cady Lee shook her head while her sister sucked down the rest of her wine. "That’s just it. We don’t know. She’s gotten two anonymous letters. Death threats.”

I poured the rest of the wine from the bottle into Dixie Lee’s glass. "When did all this happen? I haven’t heard a word about it.”

"That’s because I thought it best not to say anything,” Dixie Lee said. "I thought it was probably just someone trying to get noticed. It happens.”

"So this is something real?” Carolann asked in a shocked tone. "Not a publicity stunt?”

"Oh no, it’s real enough.” Dixie Lee took a big gulp of her wine. "Yesterday on my way into the Piggly Wiggly a car just came out of nowhere and tried to run me down. I had to jump up on the curb to get out of the way.”

A stunned silence fell. Then Carolann asked, "Did you see who it was?”

"No. And then I wondered if it wasn’t an accident, just careless driving. That was before I got the death threats, though. One was tacked to the front door, and the other was put under the windshield wipers of my car last night.”

Rayna urged, "Tell the police, Dixie Lee. There’s no telling what nut is out there and may really hurt you.”

Dixie Lee looked around at all of us. "I did. They think it’s a publicity stunt too. That’s the real reason I wanted to come today. I know you Divas have experience with finding killers—can you keep me from being murdered?”

 


 

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