Bringing in the Thieves

Bringing in the Thieves

Lora Lee

December 2014 $13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-4-655

Book 1 of The Joyful Noise mysteries

 
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Frankie Lou’s back and Poppy’s madder than a wet hen.
Create a church choir filled with teenage misfits?
Over Poppy’s dead body.

Minister’s daughter Frankie Lou McMasters has come back to Ruby Springs, Texas with her daughter, Betsy, eleven years after running off to marry the town bad boy. Her mild notoriety as a bad girl is prime gossip for her childhood enemy, Poppy Fremont, now choir director of Faith Community Church—where Frankie Lou’s daddy, now retired to Florida, was the preacher.

When Frankie Lou comes to the deacons with a request to add a youth choir of at-risk teens she’s been coaching, Poppy throws a fit. A few hours later, Frankie Lou finds her dead in the baptistery pool. And Poppy’s not playing possum.

Frankie Lou sets out to clear her name as the main suspect, and tries to locate the real killer. Could he be sexy Joe Camps, the father of one of her teen singers? In the meantime, her momma shows up from Florida to take charge of Frankie Lou’s life. Bless her heart.

Lora Lee also writes as Loralee Lillibridge. Learn more about her contemporary romances at loraleelillibridge.blogspot.com and loraleelillibridge.com. Keep in tune with the Joyful Noise at joyfulnoisemysteries.com

 


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Excerpt

 

Chapter One

I knew the minute I read the church bulletin that I was fixin’ to be Southern-fried and plated-up in front of God, the Faith Community Church deacons, and eventually the entire community of Ruby Springs, Texas, sure as my name’s Frankie Lou Birmingham McMasters.

My well-meaning landlady, Nettie Bloom, had decided to announce my proposed church project without asking me if I wanted her to. I had just scheduled a meeting with the deacons about it, not given them any details about the idea. I hadn’t spoken it aloud to anyone but Miss Nettie. But now there it was in print, along with Miss Nettie’s usual assortment of misplaced phrases and Mrs. Malaprop word choices. Miss Nettie had been editing the church’s newsletter, News From The Pews, for a good many years, but I’d noticed her memory getting a little tangled lately.

NEWS FROM THE PEWS

FAITH COMMUNITY CHURCH

100 Blessings St.

Ruby Springs, Texas

As we wait for the selection of a full-time pastor, we wel­come back interim minister, Reverend Matthew Whitlaw to the pulpit next Sunday at Faith Community. His morning ser­mon will be "Jesus Walks on Water” followed by "Searching for Jesus” in the evening.

For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.

Members of the Weight Watchers group will meet Monday at 5:30 P.M. for weekly weigh-in. Please use large double door at the side entrance to the annex. The Low Self-Esteem Support Group will be using the back door.

Prior to prayer meeting Wednesday evening, a bean supper will be held in the church hall. Special music will follow.

Until further notice, please give massages to the church secre­tary, Lovey Muchmore. She will then give massages to the newsletter editor who will share the details in our newslet­ter.

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: A NEW CHOIR FOR TEEN SINNERS IS BEING FORMED AND WILL COM­PETE IN THE SLUMBER FUN AT THE CITY PARK NEXT MONTH. For more information on sinning contact Frankie Lou McMasters at Doc Adderly’s Animal Clinic.

Prayerfully submitted,

N. Bloom, Newsletter Editor

Truth be known, there were certain people who weren’t exactly thrilled by my return to the town where my daddy, Reverend Frank Birmingham, occupied the pulpit at Faith Community before his recent retirement to Florida. I’d been gone from Ruby Springs eleven years, but it seems those certain people have the combined memory of a herd of elephants. One in particular: Poppy Rose deHaven Fremont, Faith Com­munity’s choir director.

I grabbed my tote, made a quick call next door to Miss Nettie’s house, where my eleven-year-old, Betsy, was staying for dinner, then headed for the church. It was a hot spring night and bound to get hotter.

Help me, Lord, Miss Nettie and that newsletter are gonna get me killed one way or another.

THE UNEXPECTED appearance of Poppy Rose deHaven Fremont in the church’s conference room confirmed what I’d feared all along. My notoriety as the shamefully irreverent preacher’s daughter hadn’t been forgotten, even after an absence of more than a decade. Any hope of getting the deacons to approve my request had just been deep-sixed. Well, horse pucky!

There she was, the undisputed Queen of Mean, flapping her colla­gen-plumped lips faster than a whippoorwill’s tail in a windstorm while seven deacons stared in wide-eyed amazement.

I shook my head in disbelief. What in the heck had she done to her­self? Those puffy lips weren’t the only recently enhanced body parts, either. Poppy Rose was a walking, talking endorsement for the modern wonders of plastic surgery and extreme weight loss. My monthly house rent couldn’t begin to touch the high-dollar cost of that hot pink linen skirt and knit top clinging to her man-made curves closer than a coat of paint from Howard’s Hardware. Talk about extreme makeover, her body had been nipped and tucked in places I didn’t even want to think about. Yikes!

A brief but uncomfortable sting of envy zapped me so hard I could almost hear my momma saying, "Pretty is as pretty does, Frances Louise.” A die-hard fan of Downton Abbey, she never called me Frankie Lou when she was in her Lady Louisa mood.

Poppy Rose teetered toward me on nose-bleed-high stilettos, her over-enhanced boobs leading the way. Oh boy, here it comes, I thought, wondering if escape was possible. Had she seen the bulletin?

"Well, Ah declare, Frankie Lou.” Her words dripped so much toxic sweetness it made my teeth ache. "Here y’all are, stirring up trouble just like old times. You haven’t changed a bit, bless your heart.” She smiled, the bright flash of Hollywood-white teeth threatening to blind me on the spot.

I flicked a wayward strand of my straight black hair behind one ear. Now, truth is I don’t give a horse’s patoot about fashion, but does Starbucks know she’s got her Texas-big hair whipped up like a mocha latte with caramel swirls?

"Why, hello, Poppy Rose,” I said, sucking in my tummy and stick­ing out my 34B girls like they were double Ds. Hey, I have my pride, but there’s no way I would ever let anyone slice and dice my body for the sake of "perfect.”

According to Miss Nettie, Poppy Rose married into big money three years ago after meeting her future husband on a singles cruise. Miz Parvis Fremont turned her brand-new wealth into a mighty fine shop­ping career.

The impressive Fremont mansion and its extravagant interior adorn­ments is the town’s only claim to fame. Miss Nettie said Poppy Rose consulted a designer from Italy for the elaborate decorating, and the place got written up in some big architectural magazine. That bit of information teased my curiosity, but I’m not likely to ever be invited to the Ruby Springs’ wonder home. In the first place, I wasn’t even invited to the nuptials. Wouldn’t have attended anyway, since the ceremony took place during my prolonged self-exile in Austin. I understand that show-of-the-century-shindig cost a cool half-million dollars, all paid for by the groom, of course. There was even actual dancing at the reception over at the town community center, something never done before in Ruby Springs. Yes indeedy, Poppy Rose finally snagged herself a wealthy spouse. Kind of sad he died so soon. Or was it? Looking at her now, I’d say she wears her hot pink widow’s weeds just a little too perky.

A quick scan of Poppy Rose’s high-fashion apparel made me wish I’d done a better job of making my appearance more polished and pro­fes­sional-looking this evening. Unfortunately, raising a twelve-year-old daughter and working at Doc Adderly’s animal clinic every day barely gives me time for basic personal grooming, let alone extras like makeup and hair styling. Right or wrong, what you see is what you get, to quote an overused cliché.

I knew Parvis Fremont’s untimely death last year had shocked the community because his demise had been the main topic of gossip at my first coffee klatch with Miss Nettie after I’d moved in next door to her four weeks ago. According to her, Mr. Money Bags Fremont was in good health when he married his much younger bride, in spite of his advanced years. Everyone accepted the cause of his death as age-related. However, Miss Nettie had her own opinion about the coroner’s find­ings. In fact, she had opinions about a lot of happenings in Ruby Springs. She reads a lot of mystery and suspense novels.

She went on to relate how Poppy Rose, all decked out in widow’s weeds and dripping with diamonds, had carried on hysterically at her husband’s funeral, then left town the very next day for Dallas and a whirlwind shopping spree at Neiman Marcus.

Even though Poppy Rose held the highly-respected position of choir director at Faith Community now, I still couldn’t wrap my mind around the possibility that she’d turned into a nice person after all these years. I mean, that would be a stretch of imagination for anyone who knew her.

Up until now, I hadn’t told anyone about my meeting with the dea­cons tonight except Miss Nettie. The senior deacon, Mr. Botts, had assured me the agenda wouldn’t be revealed until the men were all gath­ered at the church. I wondered if Poppy Rose had found out about it. But no matter if she knew, if she thought she could stop me from asking for the deacon’s help, she was dead wrong, since Miss Nettie had jumped the gun. My bank account may not be as hefty as those belong­ing to the Rich and Rude Club of Ruby Springs, but I’ve got a sizable amount of good ol’ Texas stubborn saved up that I haven’t even used yet, so Miz Poppy Rose deHaven Fremont better watch her step. Just sayin’.

"Why, Poppy, you haven’t changed either,” I said in my best South­ern-sweetness voice. "I knew you were the church music director, but when did you become a deacon? Or should I call you deaconess now?”

My question stopped her in her tracks. She puffed up like a balloon full of hot air, and I was wishing for a pin. Far as I was concerned, fawn­ing over her new appearance wasn’t happening, so if she expected flat­tery she’d have to look somewhere else.

Momma always said lying would get me "There” same as stealing, and I wasn’t about to test the truth of her words. I knew where "There” was. Gaining back the respect of my hometown wasn’t turning out to be as easy as I’d hoped, after all.

Before Poppy could sputter another sugary insult my way, Linwood Botts broke away from the knot of men and hurried toward me, all angles, long legs, and shiny-clean cowboy boots. With a lopsided half- smile obviously inhibited by nervousness, the lanky chairman of the dea­cons’ board extended his hand like a true Texas rancher and gentle­man.

"Good to see you, Frankie Lou. The deacons and I are eager to hear about the new project you mentioned in your phone call. But first, please join us for a glass of sweet tea before we get started. Emma Jean sent over some of her lemon bars, and there’s plenty more desserts on the table. Go ahead on and help yourself to whatever strikes your fancy.”

I thanked him and shook his hand, trying not to drool as I eyed the goodies. Deacon Botts’s wife baked the best lemon bars that ever melted in my mouth. I left Poppy Rose standing there with her mouth agape and took off for the treats. She hasn’t seen the bulletin yet, I thought. Thank the Lord.

The dessert table at the end of the otherwise austere conference room was a visual delight that brought back many childhood memories of church suppers and holiday celebrations.

Mint sprigs and lemon slices were artfully arranged on dainty serv­ing dishes beside two delicate silver trays holding an assortment of scrumptious, homemade sweets. I recognized the tall, cut-glass pitchers chock-full of ice and sweet tea. Momma used to borrow them when she entertained the women’s monthly Bible studies at the parsonage. The talented ladies of Faith Community had certainly outdone themselves with their culinary skills tonight.

Without giving a thought to calories, I picked up a dessert plate, put two of Emma Jean’s delicious-looking lemon squares on it, and helped myself to a glass of cold, sweet tea. Since Betsy was eating at Miss Nettie’s this evening, I’d skipped my own supper in order not to be late to the meeting. Carbs and sugar, yummy! My sweet tooth loved me, but my waistline hollered HELP on a daily basis.

Dessert-laden plate in hand, I turned around to look for a place to sit, and WHAM! I body-slammed right into You Know Who standing behind me closer than my own shadow.

The next few seconds were right out of a classic Three Stooges scene. Before you could say pass the grits, my plate turned into an airborne launching pad, and my sweet tea, lemon bars, and cupcake went flying.

One of the lemon bars morphed into a heat-seeking missile, burrow­ing deep inside the front of Poppy’s knit top to settle who knows where. An ice cube followed the lemon bar down the path to Glory, sending good ol’ Poppy into shock. She yelped and shimmied like a hip-gyrating Twenties’ flapper. Good thing there wasn’t a pole anywhere near her, or we’d all be praying for deliverance from evil. Behind me, seven bug-eyed deacons let out a collective murmur that sounded an awful lot like Thank you, Jesus!

Where my cupcake landed was anybody’s guess, but my sweet tea bap­tized the rest of Poppy’s expensive outfit without even so much as a Hallelujah, Amen! The stunned look on her perfectly made-up face was priceless. Just to be on the safe side, I said a prayer for help under my breath. I figured it couldn’t hurt.

"Frankie Lou, you clumsy...” Poppy’s face was redder than a ripe tomato from Miss Nettie’s backyard garden.

Wilbur Hadley, one of the older deacons, rushed to the sputtering, jig­gling woman’s side with a handful of paper napkins and started dabbing at the front of her wet shirt.

When he wandered a little too close to her No Trespassing area, she slapped his hands and let out another nails-on-a-chalkboard screech. "Stop that, Wilbur, you idiot!”

Startled, the poor man backed away from the hysterical woman so fast he stumbled over his own feet and landed smack on his striped seersucker-clad keester. His fluttering hands flew up, and napkins scat­tered everywhere in a white paper blizzard. He tried to speak but couldn’t. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down so hard it knocked his lime green bowtie crooked.

Linwood Botts hurried over to help the distraught Wilbur back to his seat and fetched him a glass of water.

It was impossible not to laugh. I clapped a hand over my mouth to stifle my chuckle. Couldn’t help it. Mr. Botts, with his wild shock of gray hair, resembled a tall and wiry Ichabod Crane. Bald-pated, short-statured Deacon Hadley reminded me of one of those painted ceramic garden gnomes that lurked in Miss Nettie’s flower beds. All he needed was a beard, a pointed hat, and green pants, but he’d have to ditch the bow tie.

The other five deacons were still staring but not at Wilbur. Oh no, their gazes were fastened on Poppy Rose, who could’ve won First Place in a wet tee-shirt contest with her expensive knit top shrunk up tighter than a two dollar bargain. As far as the men were concerned, wet was all that counted.

Shamefully, I enjoyed her moment of discomfort. While I retrieved the scattered napkins from the floor, I sincerely hoped poor Wilbur’s excitable bachelor heart didn’t go into shock from Poppy’s Oscar- worthy hysteria.

"Here, Poppy, let me,” I said, napkins poised to take up where Wilbur left off. "After all, this is my fault for not realizing you were in such a hurry to get to the desserts.”

Faster than lightning, she zapped me with a stink eye and snatched the napkins right out of my hands.

"Oh, give those to me!” Pressing them against her baptized bosom, she leaned right in my face and whispered, "And if you don’t drop your crazy plans for that choir right now, Frankie Lou, I promise you’ll regret ever coming back to Ruby Springs.”

Her last threat sizzled in my ear. So she did know!

Old resentment reared its ugly head, and it was all I could do to keep from smacking her upside her nipped-and-tucked face. I squeezed the wad of leftover napkins in my hand instead. That woman was more irritating than beach sand in my bikini.

Thankfully, she whirled off for the ladies room in a wet, lemon- scented huff, saving me the disgrace of committing a major No- No.

The deep-breathing I did to calm myself didn’t work worth a hoot, only made my stomach growl. I needed nourishment. What I didn’t need was Poppy Rose dragging my past through the muck of local gossip again. There had to be a way to stop her without getting arrested.

After Miss Bump-and-Grind stomped off to the ladies room for re­pairs, two of the deacons dragged mops and buckets from the storage closet, and everyone got to work doing cleanup. Everyone except me, that is. I wanted to help, but the men unanimously refused my offer, making me wonder if No was fixin’ to be their operative word the rest of the evening. Talk about starting off on the wrong foot.

Since there was nothing more for me to do but wait until order was re­stored, I took advantage of Poppy’s absence and indulged in two more lip-smacking lemon bars from the goody table, washing them down with a fresh glass of sweet tea. My nervous system welcomed the much- needed surge of sugar-loaded energy with a groan of pure pleas­ure. I enjoyed the momentary high as I mentally whizzed through the notes I’d prepared, frantically reworking my speech. While waiting for her return, I pulled my trusty notebook from my tote and scribbled down the changes before I forgot them. Poppy may have botched up the evening so far, but I wasn’t going down without a fight. I needed the deacons on my side, and by gosh, I intended to have them before I left tonight.

Fifteen minutes later the men had finished their cleanup and were seated behind the long table again, backin’ and forthin’ with their heads together like men are inclined to do. Those same heads swiveled like a bunch of hoot owls when a dried-out and slightly disheveled Poppy Rose charged back into the room like Custer at Little Big Horn, her bejeweled hands flashing brighter than the bubble gum lights on a cop car.

"You won’t get away with this, Frankie Lou McMasters!” Her screech endangered eardrums everywhere.

"Get away with what? Lord love a duck, Poppy Rose. You were standing behind me closer than white on rice. I already said I was sorry. It was an accident.”

I eyed Poppy’s pathetic attempt at damage control and grimaced. Talk about a repair job gone bad. The restroom’s outdated automatic hand dryer must’ve blown itself right off the wall. New wrinkles were dried in places where there’d been none BBBT—Before Baptism By Tea. Even a non-fashionista like me could see the knit top was ruined. The future of that linen skirt looked pretty iffy, too. Both pieces were now two sizes smaller.

Doing some quick mental math, I roughly estimated the cost of re­placing the two items versus the balance in my checkbook and swal­lowed a groan. Not even close. Then, without the teensiest bit of guilt, I deep-sixed any notion of reimbursing her for damages and threw up my hands in frustration. With all her money, she could afford new clothes any time. I could barely afford rent and groceries.

"I’m not talking about your boorish clumsiness, Frankie Lou. I’m talking about this!” She waved a piece of paper in my face as she passed, then slammed the thing down on the table in front of the deacons and leaned over in Earl Moss’s face so close his eyes nearly popped out of his head. "Just take a look right here!”

Believe me, Earl looked, all right, and so did the other deacons, but not at any piece of paper. Not with her bosom stuck right out there like twin torpedoes. Earl nearly choked on his sweet tea, and I swear Wilbur Hadley squealed under his breath.

"Have y’all read this?” Poppy’s screech-owl demand was just shy of glass-shattering pitch. "I’m telling y’all, the church simply cannot allow this fiasco to happen. Frankie Lou should be banned from evah being in charge of any church functions. Evah, y’all hear?”

Evah?"Now wait just a darn minute, Poppy Rose,” I said. All of a sudden my blood pressure started shooting for the high numbers. Who did she think she was? My fists were balled so tight if I’d had fancy, glued-on fingernails like Poppy’s my palms would be shredded. "You should get the facts before you go spouting stuff like that.” My head pounded with the stress of trying not to yell back. Calm was not how I was feeling.

"Oh, I’ve got facts,” she said, her face getting redder by the minute, "right here.” She stabbed the paper with a hot pink fingernail. "You’ve gone behind our backs and started a new singing group with a bunch of street punks! It says so right here in the church newsletter. A choir for sinners!”

Her outburst of hot air blew Earl’s toupee slightly off center. Wild-eyed, he scrambled to grab it and scooted his chair back out of her way like he was afraid she might jump over the table. A definite probabil­ity in her overblown exasperation, however, she kept right on ranting and waving her hands.

"Do y’all know what will happen if you let those kind of hoodlums into the church? Well, I’ll tell you. They’ll be carrying on like a bunch of heathens, that’s what. And, that’s not all.” The drama queen executed a long, theatrical pause before she continued. The deacons froze in their seats like deer caught in headlights. "The church’s name will be smeared all ovah the county. Shameful, that’s what it’ll be. Downright shameful. I insist you put a stop to this right now. Y’all hear me?” She rolled her eyes heavenward. "Lord, have mercy on us all.”

Now, Poppy Rose was full of a lot of things when we were in school, but religion definitely hadn’t been one of them. However, the deluxe hissie-fit-with-a-tail-on-it she was pitching on behalf of the church right now earned a five-star rating, bless her heart. Nothing would make her happier than to see me barred from Faith Community membership forever, but hey, I wasn’t about to let that happen. Not now, not ever.

Poppy read aloud. "New choir for teen sinners being formed to com­pete in the slumber fun next month. For more information on sinning contact Frankie Lou McMasters at Doc Adderly’s Animal Clinic.”

"That should be SINGERS, not sinners”, I yelled over the rising male chatter. "It’s a youth choral group, for cryin’ out loud, and SUM­MER FEST, not a slumber party!”

No one heard me, of course. How could they? They were all talking at once, noisier than a flock of angry blue jays sitting on a hot wire. I didn’t even try to explain that I wasn’t a contact for information on sinning. Lawd!

Poppy Rose kept on yammering and waving the bulletin at the dea­cons huddled together like Faith Community’s version of the United Nations settling a world conflict. Bless her devious heart.

I’m not a preacher’s kid for nothing. I can Hallelujah with the best of ‘em, and I intended to do just that.


 

 

Chapter Two

Naturally, being the choir director and all, Poppy was dead set against anything that threatened her lofty position in the church. It’s my guess she assumed I hadn’t changed since Daddy and his shotgun convinced good-looking, sweet-talking Billy John McMasters that marrying me was the smart thing to do. Huh! Who knew Daddy owned a shotgun?

Back then, everyone in town knew about Poppy’s not-so-secret crush on sexy B.J. Thanks to Poppy Rose and her gossipy circle of follow­ers, my reputation as hard-to-handlechanged to disgraceful as quick as my wedding. The only contact I’ve had with Billy John since our split is when his meager child support check arrives every month. Unfortu­nately, B.J.’s good looks and sexy smile had blinded me to the truth about his tomcattin’ personality. He’d also been an expert at eyeballing every woman from sixteen to sixty, the cheating jerk. When the divorce became final I vowed never to ride that love train again. No way! I’ve learned about life the hard way since then, and I’m a smarter person for it, but Poppy Rose still behaved like a witch’s apprentice, stirring the gossip cauldron with her vindictive stick just to make me look bad.

I had hoped my past behavior would be considered water under the Ruby Springs Bridge by now, but no such luck. Like it or not, Poppy was determined to dam up all that murky water caused by my youthful mis­takes and drag my tarnished reputation through it again for another round of damaging untruths. I declare, the woman’s worse than that drum-beating pink bunny. She never stops.

While I waited for the deacons’ reaction to Poppy Rose’s fuss, uneasi­ness cat-pawed its way down my spine. Would my scandalous past sway their decision and result in a NO vote? The few weeks I’ve been back in town haven’t been long enough to determine which way the stream of gossip flowed. The deacons’ frowns had me wondering if Judgment Day was coming a little too soon.

Linwood Botts rose and motioned me forward as he addressed the assembled group. "Let me remind you, gentlemen, our duty as responsi­ble deacons is to put the church’s welfare first. We must also be charitable toward the individual needs of our members. Frankie Lou will be allowed to speak.”

As if their mommas had suddenly given them a group thump on their noggins to remind them of their manners, the men groaned in unison and slowly shuffled to their feet.

Mr. Botts held up a restraining hand. "You may remain seated, gen­tlemen, but please be courteous and give Frankie Lou your undivided attention.”

Given the age of the majority of the deacons, their collective sigh of relief as they settled back in their seats made me chuckle under my breath.

The senior deacon directed his next words toward the disheveled Poppy Rose. "Feel free to leave any time, Miz Fremont. You’re not obliged to stay.”

Naturally, Poppy didn’t budge an inch, just stood there with her mouth all puckered up funny like she’d been sucking lemons all day. I ignored her and conveyed my thanks to the deacons with a smile as I passed each of them a printout of my proposal.

When I’d set up this meeting during an earlier phone conversation, Mr. Botts informed me the interim pastor, Reverend Whitlaw, was out of town and wouldn’t be at the meeting. Since Doc was nice enough to let me use the computer and printer at the clinic, I only printed out enough copies for the seven board members. After all, I didn’t want to push my employer’s generosity too far by abusing the use of his paper and printer ink after he refused to let me pay for the expenses.

The apparent interest of the deacons encouraged me as I began my proposal. "Gentlemen, I appreciate your giving me this opportunity to—”

"Wait a minute, Frankie Lou. You forgot to give me a copy.” Poppy interrupted with a wave of her hand, nearly knocking me over in her rush to speak.

For my own safety, I moved aside to give her more room. I swear that woman couldn’t say a word if her hands were tied behind her back. I was tempted to do just that. Her whining grated on my already shaky nerves as much as her over-dramatic gestures.

"Sorry, Poppy Rose, but I only made enough for the deacons. If I’d known you were coming...” I’d have baked a cake. Not! The silly song lyrics popped into my head for no good reason, and now I had a darned earworm. Satan was trying his best to sabotage my efforts.

Poppy Rose shot a nasty scowl my way and stepped right smack in front of me, barely missing my foot.

"In that case, I have an extremely urgent matter to discuss with the deacons first.” Slowly, she studied each of the men seated in front of her. "There’s absolutely no reason for Faith Community to sponsor another entry in the Summer Fest. That’s a blatant conflict of interest. Remem­ber,” her voice escalated to a higher pitch, wobbling on its way up, "the church choir won First Place in the competition last year under my direction. Frankie Lou’s silly notion to enter her little group of amateurs is ridiculous. The church doesn’t need two entries competing in the contest!” Her well-shaped eyebrows arched in a y’all will nevah be in my league sort of glare that sent blips of righteous indignation marching hand in hand with my pride.

When she stamped her foot like a pouting child hell-bent on getting her own way, determination burned through me like a shot of white lightning. (Don’t ask how I know about that.) I was primed and ready to fight for my rights. Lesson number one from my side: never challenge a preacher’s kid.

"Listen here, Poppy Rose, my group is not—”

Mr. Botts shot a warning glance my way and pressed one finger to his lips. Huh? I didn’t like that at all, but I clamped my mouth shut, anyway. My thoughts, however, kept right on going.

The senior deacon turned to the sputtering choir director. "We’re not saying you can’t enter the choir in the competition this year, Poppy Rose. Frankie Lou’s plan won’t interfere with that in any way. Right, Frankie Lou?”

I nodded. "Of course, it won’t. My group will be—”

Once again Mr. Botts cut me off with a quick shake of his head, mak­ing me wonder if I’d ever get the chance to deliver a complete a sentence here tonight.

"Frankie Lou’s group is younger and more up-to-date. We hope it will encourage more youth to attend our church. Our attendance has fallen off greatly in the past few years,” he reminded Poppy and the deacons. "I think you’re all aware that our current membership consists mainly of retirees nowadays. Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” he added quickly. "Our senior members have plenty of experience to share, but unfortunately, there are very few young people willing to be mentored. Remember, we haven’t even found anyone interested in fill­ing our pulpit since our last pastor moved to another assignment two months ago. It’s up to us to be fishers of men and begin casting our nets, so to speak. Frankie Lou’s singing group is a perfect opportunity to bring more young people to the church and become influential mentors, as well.”

Well, you’d have thought he’d slapped her the way Poppy Rose stag­gered back at the good deacon’s words. With her hands pressed to her chest, she rolled her eyes in exaggerated shock. Oh, yeah, Drama Queen was back on stage and gearing up to pitch another hissie fit. Lucky us.

"What are you sayin’, Linwood Botts? That I’m not up-to-date or a fishing-whatevah? Why, that’s plain nonsense. I’m as updated as any­body in town.” She stuck her nose in the air and got all huffy-like. "Frankie Lou’s bunch of hoodlums are right off the streets. I’ve seen how they roam the neighborhood at night. Who knows what kind of trouble they’ll make if we let them in here? Mark my words, deacons, they’ll steal us blind. And another thing,” she continued barely pausing to catch her breath. "Allowing a bunch of rowdy teenagers to represent our church will give the wrong impression of Faith Community’s standards. Don’t forget, y’all, I have final approval of any church activity that benefits from my late husband’s very generous donations.” She had the audacity to shake her finger at the row of men staring at her. "And... ,” she lowered her voice to an ominous whisper, "Frankie Lou’s reputation is not exactly spotless, either, if y’all know what I mean.”

Okay, that bites. "I’m not asking for any financial help from the church funds,” I insisted.

My hands curled into tight little fists to keep from popping her one in the mouth. I might be out of practice, but I’m pretty sure I could take her on with the skills I’d been forced to acquire in sixth grade.

"Poppy Rose, if you’re referring to my actions years ago, that’s your choice. But that’s all in my past. God already knows I’m sorry. He and I are okay about that, not that it’s any of your business. Now, could we please get on with the matter that brought us here tonight instead of regurgitating old gossip?”

One of the deacons I knew only by name stood up to speak. Brewster Carson appeared friendly enough. With his round belly and shock of white hair, he reminded me of Santa Claus without a beard.

"I think it’s time we let Miz McMasters have her say like Deacon Botts said. We can open a discussion afterwards. Agreed?”

Deacon Carson’s steel gray gaze issued a silent directive to the group of men. They nodded in agreement. All but one, that is. Norm Watkins was the exception. He scowled at me over the top of his wire-rimmed spectacles. What was up with that? I had no argument with him. In fact, the only time I’d had contact with him since I’d moved back to Ruby Springs was the time I stopped by his pharmacy to purchase ointment and bandages for Betsy’s scraped knee. We exchanged a few words then, nothing more. His disapproving look this evening puzzled me.

I was still mulling over Watkins’s odd manner when Deacon Carson turned and spoke quietly to Poppy. "Since this is supposed to be a closed board meeting, Miz Fremont, I must ask you to leave now.”

For a long second, the only sound in the room was the collective gasps of the deacons. Poppy leveled a deadly glare at me, made a funny- sounding snarl, and fired one final, spite-fueled rocket.

"I promise you, Frankie Lou, the only way your gang of troublemak­ers can win the competition will be over my dead body.”

With that, she stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind her hard enough to shatter windows.

Taking advantage of the calm after the Poppy storm, I mustered up my courage and proceeded to go after what I’d come for. "Gentlemen, thank you so much for taking time to listen to my plan. I hope you’ll be as excited about the teen singers as I am, when you learn more about them.”

AN HOUR LATER I had two good reasons for the smile on my face as I left the building. Reason number one was the approval for my singing group to use the church annex for rehearsals on Thursday nights. The second equally important reason was the plate of leftover lemon bars Mr. Botts had insisted on giving me. Mission accomplished with a sweet-tasting bonus.

As I left the church, a light rain drizzled through the humid evening to dampen my hair and make my clothes stickier than they already were. "Typical summer weather for Ruby Springs,” I muttered to no one.

Bemoaning the fact that my aging minivan, nicknamed "Minnie,” wasn’t healthy enough to drive tonight, I dodged raindrops and hurried across to the tree-lined side of the street. Lately, my aging mode of trans­portation suffered from loud groans and coughing fits whenever I tried to start her. Unfortunately, saving enough money to replace my dino­saur-on-wheels with a newer model was as likely to happen as Santa’s reindeer line-dancing in my front yard.

Fortunately, dreaming didn’t cost anything.

Before my good sense had time to persuade me to change my mind, my feet took charge, and I found myself taking a slight detour on the way home. I covered the next few blocks in a dream-like fantasy of me behind the wheel of a super-van driving America’s newest singing sensa­tions, The Joyful Noise, to their next sold-out musical gig in style. How cool would that be? Lost in the totally absurd pipedream, I didn’t even notice the drizzle had stopped until I saw the flashing, neon sign at the Best Deals on Wheels car lot.

Lordymercy, would youlook at those beauties? Rows of shiny vans and lux­ury sedans were lined up across the paved lot like a box of rain­bow-colored crayons. My hankering level shot to the moon and beyond so fast it sucked the breath right out of me.

Bold as a buyer with money to burn, I sashayed through the brightly-lit paths of temptation on my way to the back of the lot, wisely avoiding the brand new models. In the USED CARS section, jewel-like flags with messages of Buy Me! Buy Me!flew above the rows of gen­tly-used beauties.

Good thing the dealership was closed and dreaming was free. Who­ever was in charge of marketing at Best Deals on Wheels deserved an A+ for hooking me from the get-go. If my bank account had contained any balance at all, I might’ve succumbed to temptation and signed my name on an impossible contract for one of the nearly-new, full-sized vans on display.

I faced the fact that replacing my van someday was inevitable, and to­night I’d spotted the perfect model in the second row. Only two years old, the lipstick-red beauty with eight-passenger capacity was exactly what I’d dreamed about in my fantasy. I could almost see The Joyful Noise logo emblazoned on each side in neon colors. But replacing the van would involve money I didn’t have right now. Besides, the group didn’t have a logo yet, but hey, planning ahead was smart, right? And my plans for my young singers were beyond large. I could even see a grand tour bus in The Joyful Noise future someday. Why not?

Realistically, my wants were a long way from being met, so as a con­solation prize I lifted the foil wrapping from the plate I was holding and downed one of the lemon bars.

When I finally pulled my attention away from the rows of four-wheeled enticements to check my watch, I couldn’t believe it was nearly nine o’clock. I should’ve been home by now. Knowing Miss Nettie’s tendency to fret, she was liable to have the cops out looking for me right this minute. Thank Heaven for modern technology and cell phones. I reached for my tote to get my phone only to realize the darn bag wasn’t slung over my shoulder. I did a head slap. "Really, Frankie?”

How could I forget something as important as the tote I carried to work every day? The answer couldn’t have been more obvious. Lemon bars and my silly fantasy dream about cars and singing gigs for The Joyful Noise had taken over my good sense. Now I had to figure a way out of my predicament. I knew darn well I couldn’t afford anything on this car lot. I shouldn’t even be here. When would I learn to control my "Oh, shiny!” moments?

I hot-footed back to the church, grumbling all the way. Could the day get any worse? For penance, I only allowed myself half of another lemon bar instead of the whole thing. The remaining two would have to wait until I got home.

Dusky pink twilight melted into deep purple as I hurried to retrace my steps. Street lights flickered like mischievous fireflies making shad­ows that played hide and seek in the darkened alleyways between the shops and office buildings.

Up and down Center Street the dim security lights glowing softly in­side the local shops added a cozy charm to the little community, some­thing I’d missed during my years in Austin. No big-name chain stores here in Ruby Springs. Not even a Walmart.

I veered off Center and wound my way back through the familiar neighborhoods of comfortable, middle-class homes with their wrapa­round Southern-style front porches. Stunning pink azaleas and fuchsia bougainvillea bloomed profusely, their beauty muted by the approach­ing darkness. Sadly, those lovely porches were empty. Technology had arrived in my sleepy hometown with a bang.

Along with the recent arrival of cable service to the area, more and more residents were abandoning their front porch rockers for family room recliners. Now, watching the latest news and entertainment in front of their new flat screen televisions replaced spending balmy, sum­mer evenings outside gossiping with neighbors. The small commu­nity had been cautious about moving into the age of technology, but some of the changes were already in place before my return. In a way, I hated to see that slower-paced, friendlier lifestyle disappear.

Ethereal shadows played tag among the neatly-trimmed boxwood hedges along the building as I approached. Lights from within the church glowed through the stained glass windows.

I clearly remembered Mr. Botts making certain everything was taken care of before we all left the church. Maybe Elwood Hooper, the custodian, had come in early to clean for Sunday services. I paused on the sidewalk and scanned the back parking lot expecting to see his truck. The area was empty except for a single car parked beside a large indus­trial dumpster. A car that looked exactly like Poppy’s.

Though Poppy Rose wasn’t the only person in town who owned a Cadillac, she always parked away from the main area to avoid any nicks or scratches on her silver chariot. But since she’d stormed out of the meeting tonight well over an hour ahead of the rest of us, the car couldn’t be hers.

Not my problem. My mood was too good to spoil wondering whether or not the vehicle was Poppy’s. All I wanted was to grab my tote and get back home.

I cut across lawn and was halfway across the parking lot when the harsh glare of headlights bore down on me without warning. "Hey! Watch where you’re going!” I yelled, stumbling to the side entrance in my dash for safety. The car I’d seen by the dumpster whizzed past close enough for me to glimpse a fuzzy pink pillow in the back window.

I picked myself up off the sidewalk and hurried to the street, but the sedan was out of sight. I hadn’t been able to see the driver’s face, but there was no doubt in my mind the car belonged to Poppy Rose. Miss Nettie’d caught me up on all the town gossip when I’d first moved into her rental next door. That’s how I knew the pillow in that car was the one used in Poppy’s wedding to carry the rings.

Rattled by the near miss and nursing a skinned knee, I limped the rest of the way into the church and down the hall to the annex. I entered the building humming This Little Light of Mine. I was determined to shine, one way or another.

Outside, the sinking sun’s final rays painted the nearby houses with a gold-dipped artist’s brush, but inside the conference room, the closed window curtains made it dark as the bottom of an empty well. The lights were off as I’d expected. I felt along the wall just inside the door, flipped the switch, and glanced around the room. All neat and tidy like I knew it would be. Nothing out of place except for my tote right on the chair where I’d left it.

With my free hand, I slipped the bag’s strap over my shoulder, stead­ied the plate of lemon bars in my other hand, and turned off the light. I made my way back through the church, eager to get home to begin jotting down my ideas on paper.

The faint gurgle of running water caught my attention as I hurried past the pulpit. If that’s rain, I hope it’s only a light shower. There hadn’t been any rain in the forecast, but what else could it be? Torn between curiosity to investigate the sound and my eagerness to get home and work on The Joyful Noise plans, I wasn’t happy when my uninvited conscience butted in loud and clear.

Shame on you, Frankie Lou. You know that’s not rain. What if a water pipe’s broken somewhere and the sanctuary floods because you didn’t take time to check it out? You want to be responsible for that?

"Oh, all right. Never argue with a stubborn conscience,” I com­plained to the empty pews and headed back toward the raised dais to check out the baptistery. Never let it be said that Frankie Lou McMasters doesn’t care enough about the church’s welfare to do my duty as one of God’s children. My personal wishes—and the lemon bars—would have to wait.

Even though the baptistery was hidden from view by heavy, wine-colored drapes, I knew the pool was never filled until right before a scheduled baptism. Every safety precaution was always observed. And baptismal services never took place after regular worship hours. An eerie shiver danced along my spine. Hoo-boy, something’s not right, I thought.

I left my tote and the plate of goodies on one of the choir seats, pulled the drapes apart, and stuck my head in for a look.

"Oh, noooo!” A full stream of water poured from a wall faucet near the metal steps and splashed into the rising waters of the baptismal pool. Flood waters were inches from the top.

I raced through the tiny side room and into the inner chamber. I could’ve found the way with my eyes closed, but this time I kept them open, fearful that changes might have been made since my father had baptized me here when I was nine. In my rush to stop the flow of water, I realized I didn’t know how to drain the pool. I’d have to call the mainte­nance man, but first I had to turn off the faucet

Haste really does make waste, I quickly learned. When I yanked a lit­tle too hard on the door to the baptistery, the handle came off in my hand and the door flew open. I staggered backwards, teetering precari­ously to keep my balance with my arms flailing like a crazy windmill, and completely missed the first metal step. My foot slid on the second, wa­ter-covered one, and next thing I knew, I was airborne like the rock out of David’s sling-shot.

Before I could yell for help, my face slapped the water with a hard smack. The sting of the impact burned like fire on my cheeks. The rest of me made waves big enough for boogie-boarding. I shot up spitting water like a breaching whale and sloshed back toward the steps to give the faucet an angry twist. Whose inexcusable carelessness had caused this gosh-awful mess? I’d definitely be fixin’ to report the matter soon as I could get to my phone. Why, who knows when the disaster would’ve been discovered if I hadn’t come back for my tote? The entire church could’ve flooded by then.

I groaned and rubbed my stinging cheeks, bemoaning the condition of the dripping capris and shirt plastered to my body like I’d been paper maché’d with wet tissue paper. There was nothing to do now but stay soaked to the skin until I got home.

To add to the bizarre craziness of the evening, one of my sandals had launched in mid-flight when I hit the water and was somewhere on the bottom at the other end of the pool. Since buying new sandals wasn’t in this month’s budget, I was about to launch an underwater Search and Retrieve. Whoever left that faucet running owed me a new pair of shoes. Why was it turned on? I’ve never been a fan of water sports, certainly not in a baptistery, but I was not leaving without my shoe.

I shoved my stringy, wet hair out of my eyes, held my breath, and stuck my head under the water. Feeling like a mermaid in the supporting cast of Finding Nemo, I spotted the sandal not far from where I stood and reached for it. That’s when my blurry underwater vision snagged on another much larger object. I sloshed over to investigate. I choked on my watery scream.

Lord have mercy!


 

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