Dixie Divas

Dixie Divas

Virginia Brown

$14.95 June 2009
ISBN: 978-0-9821756-5-1

Moonlight. Magnolias. Murder. The Dixie Divas are on the case.

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

"You found my philandering ex-husband?" Bitty asked. "Where? Mexico? Paris? In Tupelo with a cocktail waitress?"

"In your closet," I answered. "Dead."

Wine. Chocolate. Transvestite strippers. Just another good-time get-together for the Dixie Divas of historic Holly Springs, Mississippi, where moonlight and magnolias mingle with delicious smalltown scandal. But Eureka "Trinket" Truevine, the newest Diva, gets more than she bargained for when she finds her best Diva girlfriend Bitty Hollandale's ex-husband in Bitty's hall closet. He's dead. Very dead. Now Trinket and the Divas have to help Bitty finger the murderer and clear her name. Break out the hoop skirts and the zinfandel. The Divas are on the case.

Virginia Brown is the nationally acclaimed, award-winning author of fifty novels.


Reviews

"The author has a knack for drawing the reader into each scene with vivid description and clever dialogue. There is never a doubt as to what the characters are up to, although readers must wait until the end to find out the killer and why he or she committed the crimes." -- Edie Dykeman, Bella Online

"This is an entertaining regional amateur sleuth mystery starring steel magnolia middle aged women. Their inquiry causes mass mayhem to the residents of the two Mississippi towns especially the police and Sanders and mass hysteria for the audience who will enjoy every zany mistaken move they make. Fast-paced with a pot of chicken and dumplings and a slice of apple pie, fans will enjoy this jocular Mississippi mud pie whodunit." -- Midwest Book Review

"...quirky twists and comedic antics...lead to an outcome that is both unexpected and satisfying, a combination that makes for an entertaining read." -- J.B. Thompson, ReviewingTheEvidence.com

"Charm just flows through this book, and I'm hoping for a sequel." -- Maggie Mason, Lookin' for Books - via Seattle Mystery Bookshop Blog

"This was a dandy read. I enjoyed all the characters, especially the Divas. The South seems to lend itself to appealing characters and situations. Charm just flows through this book. I'm hoping for a sequel." -- Maggie Mason, reviewer - Deadly Pleasures

"Brown does not disappoint at all. The Dixie Divas had me laughing out loud. Along with a few humorous subplots and some snippets of romance, a hair raising dénouement just ended this book perfectly." -- Pudgy Penguin Perusals blog

"Dixie Divas is southern comedy at its best!" -- Cheryl's Booknook Blog

"With the flavor of the Ya-Ya sisters and the Sweet Potato Queens, this contemporary, romantic mystery is a true southern delight." -- J. Kaye's Book Blog


 

Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

If not for long-dead Civil War Generals Ulysses S. Grant, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and a pot of chicken and dumplings, Bitty Hollandale would never have been charged with murder. Of course, if the mule hadn't eaten the chicken and dumplings, that would have helped a lot, too.

My name is Eureka Truevine, but my family and friends all call me Trinket. Except for my ex-husband, who's been known to call me a few other names. That's one of the reasons I left him and came home to take care of my parents who are in their second adolescence, having missed out on their first one for reasons of survival.

We live at Cherryhill in Mississippi, three miles outside of Holly Springs and forty-five minutes down 78 Highway southeast from Memphis, Tennessee. My father— Edward Wellford Truevine— inherited the house from my grandparents around fifty years ago. It wasn't in great shape when he got it, but over the years he's put money, time, and his own craftsmanship into it, and now it's on the Holly Springs Historic Register.

Every April, Holly Springs has an annual pilgrimage tour of restored antebellum homes, with pretty girls and women in hoop skirts and high button shoes. Men and boys in Confederate uniforms stand sentry with old family Sharpshooters and cavalry swords, neither of which could do much harm to a marshmallow. It's a big event that draws people from all over the country and gives purpose to the lives of more than a few elderly matrons and historical buffs.

This year, Bitty Hollandale cooked up a big pot of chicken and dumplings to take to Mr. Sanders, who lives in an old house off Highway 7 that the local historical society has been trying to get on the historic register for decades. Sherman Sanders is known for his fondness of chicken and dumplings, and Bitty meant to convince him to put his house on the tour. It'd been built in 1832 and kept in remarkably good shape. Most of the original furniture is in most of the original places, with most of the original wallpaper and carpets still in their original places. The only modern renovations have been electricity and what's discreetly referred to as a water closet. It's enough to make any Southerner drool with envy and avarice.

"Go with me, Trinket,” Bitty said to me that day in February. "It'd be such a feather in my cap to get the Sanders house on our tour.”

I looked over at my parents. My father was dressed in plaid golfing pants and a red striped shirt, and my mother wore a red cable knit sweater and a plaid skirt. Under the kitchen table at their feet lay their little brown dog, appropriately named Little Brown Dog and called Brownie. He wore a red plaid sweater. They all like to coordinate.

"I don't know,” I said doubtfully to Bitty. "I'm not sure what our plans are for the day.”

What I really meant was I wasn't at all sure leaving my parents alone would be wise. Since I've come home, I've noticed they have a tendency to pretend they're sixteen again. While their libidos may be, their bodies are still mid-seventies. The doctor assures me it's fine, but I worry about them. Daddy's had an angioplasty, and Mama has occasional lapses of memory. But otherwise, they're probably in better shape than Bitty and me.

Bitty, like me, is fifty-one, a little on the plump side, and divorced. But she's lived in Holly Springs all her life, while I haven't come back to live since I married and followed my husband to random jobs around the country. Bitty and I have been close since we were six years old and she rode over on her pony to invite me to a swimming party. As I then had a love for anything to do with horses, she fast became my best friend. Besides that, she's my first cousin. I've got other cousins in the area, but over the years we've lost touch and haven't gotten around to getting reacquainted.

Bitty knows everyone. I've only been back a couple of months and am still struggling to reacquaint myself with old friends. Some people I remember from my childhood, but many have been forgotten over the years. Besides, the shock of finding my parents so different from how I remembered them in my childhood still hasn't faded enough to encourage more shocks of the same kind.

"They'll be just fine,” Bitty assured me. She knew what made me hesitate. "Uncle Eddie and Aunt Anna can do without you for an hour.”

"Maybe you're right.” I studied Mama and Daddy. They played gin rummy with a pack of cards that looked as if they'd survived the Blitzkrieg. "Will you two be okay if I run an errand with Bitty?” I asked in a loud enough voice to catch their attention.

"Gin!” my mother shouted triumphantly, or what passes for a shout with her. She's petite, with flawless ivory skin that's never seen a blemish or freckle, bright blue eyes, and stylishly short silver hair that used to be blond. Next to my father, who's over six-four in his stockinged feet, she looks like a child's doll. My father has brown eyes and the kind of skin that looks like he works in the sun. He wears a neatly trimmed mustache, his once dark brown hair is still thick, but has been white since a family tragedy in the late sixties. He reminds me of an older Rhett Butler. Since I'm using Gone With the Wind references, my mother reminds me of Melanie Wilkes, with just enough Scarlett O'Hara thrown in to keep her interesting. And unpredictable.

I, on the other hand, am more like Scarlett's sister Suellen, with just enough of Mammy's pragmatic optimism to keep me from being a complete cynic and whiner. I inherited my father's height, my grandmother's tendency toward weight gain, and auburn hair and green eyes no one can explain. I like to think I'm a throwback to my mother's Scotch-Irish ancestry.

"We'll be fine if your mother will stop cheating at cards,” my father said.

Mama just smiled. "I'm not cheating, Eddie. I'm just good enough to win.”

Daddy shook his head. "You've got to be cheating. No one beats me at gin.”

"Except me.”

"So,” I said again, a little louder, "you'll both be fine for a little while, right?”

My mother looked at me with surprise. "Of course, sugar,” she said. "We're always fine.”

Bitty and I went out to her car. Bitty's real name is Elisabeth, but it got shortened to Bitty when she was born and the name stuck. Anyone who calls her Elisabeth is a stranger or works for the government. Bitty is one of those females who attract men like state taxpayers' money lures politicians. On her, a little extra weight settles in the form of voluptuous curves. About five-two in her Prada pumps, she has blond hair, china blue eyes, a complexion like a California girl, and a laugh that'd make even Scrooge smile. If she wasn't my best friend, I'd probably be jealous.

"I wish you'd drive a bigger car,” I complained once I'd wedged myself into her flashy red sports car that smelled of chicken and dumplings. "I always feel like a giant in this thing.”

Bitty shifted the car into gear and we lurched forward. "You are a giant.”

"I am not. I'm statuesque. Five-nine is not that tall for a woman. Though I admit I could lose twenty pounds and not miss it.”

Gears ground and I winced as we pulled out of the driveway onto the road that leads to Highway 311. One of the things Bitty got in her last—and fourth—divorce was a lot of money that she's found new and interesting ways to spend. I got ulcers from my one and only divorce. Those aren't bankable. My only child, however, a married daughter, makes up for everything.

It was one of those February days that promise good weather isn't so far away. Yellow daffodils and tufts of crocus bloomed in yards and outlined empty spaces where houses had once been. Some fields had already been plowed in preparation for spring planting. A few puffy clouds skimmed across a bright blue sky, and sunlight through the Miata's windshield heated the car. I rolled down my window and inhaled essence of Mississippi. It was cool, familiar, and very nice.

"So what are you going to do with yourself, Trinket?”

I looked over at Bitty. "What do you mean?”

"You've been home almost three months now. A doctor just bought Easthaven. Want me to introduce you?”

"Good Lord, no. I don't want another man in my life.”

"He's a podiatrist. Think of how useful that could be. And Easthaven is one of the nicest houses in Holly Springs.”

"My feet are fine. And Cherryhill suits me right now.” Bitty ground another gear and I checked my seatbelt. Undaunted by my lack of interest, she went right on talking.

"Think of the future. Once your parents are gone, God forbid, you'll be all alone in that big ole rambling house. Is that what you want?”

"Dear Lord, yes. Not that I want my parents gone, but living alone doesn't bother me. I'm used to it. Perry traveled a lot.”

"Whatever possessed you to marry a man named Percival, anyway? It sounds like a name out of Chaucer's medieval romances.”

"His mother read a lot. Besides, with a name like Eureka Truevine, that's not a stone I felt I should throw.”

Bitty nodded. "That's true enough. Percival and Eureka Berryman. Good thing his last name isn't Berry. Then he'd be Perry Berry.”

We laughed. It's funny what appeals to middle-aged women past their prime but not their youthfulness. There's a sense of freedom in being beyond some expectations.

When we pulled up into the rutted driveway of The Cedars where Sherman Sanders lives in voluntary isolation and bachelorhood, he was sitting on his colonnaded front porch, serenely rocking with a shotgun across his lap. He stood up, a small man with wizened features, bowed legs, and a nose that juts out like a ship's prow. He wore faded blue overalls, muddy boots that had long ago lost any kind of shape, a flannel shirt that had seen better days, and a straw hat that looked like something big had taken a bite out of one side. A bone-thin black and tan hound lay beside the rocking chair, and when Sanders nudged it with his boot, the old dog struggled to its feet and bayed in the opposite direction. Sherman Sanders casually brought up the shotgun. It pointed straight at Bitty's car. He obviously had better eyesight than his hound.

"Don't mind the shotgun,” Bitty said when I made a squeaking sound. "He doesn't shoot women. Usually.”

"Dear Lord,” I got out in that squeaky tone. "Who does he usually shoot?”

Bitty opened her car door and stuck her head out. She waved her hand and called, "Yoo hoo, Mr. Sanders, it's Bitty Hollandale. You remember me?”

Sanders aimed a stream of brown spit at the dirt in front of the house and nodded. "Yep. I ‘member you. You're that pesky female that's been worryin' the hell out of me ‘bout my house.”

One thing about Bitty, she never lets minor obstacles deter her from her goal.

She smiled real big. "That's right. I brought you something.”

Sanders shifted the wad of tobacco in his mouth to his other cheek. "Don't need nuthin'. Might as well go on back home. I ain't in'trested in my house bein' on no stupid damn tour with a bunch of strangers walkin' through it and gawkin' at everything.”

I didn't much blame him, but I didn't say that to Bitty.

"Oh, you'll like this,” she said, and started to put both feet out of the car to reach in the back for the pot of chicken and dumplings. Unfortunately, she'd forgotten to take the car out of gear or set the brake. The Miata bucked forward. Off-guard, Bitty pitched out of the car like a sack of cornmeal and sprawled face-first onto red dirt. Luckily, she was wearing a pantsuit and not a skirt, but her rear end stuck up in the air like a generous red wool flag. The car coughed, died, and made an annoying buzzing sound.

Sherman Sanders cackled so loud his hound started to bark again, turning its head in all different directions just in case the mysterious noise was dangerous. While Mr. Sanders slapped his thigh and cackled, I set the brake, took the keys out of the ignition to stop the buzzing, then got out and went over to see if Bitty was hurt.

"Are you okay?” I asked anxiously, but could tell she was just more mad than anything else. She sat up and brushed dirt and gravel from her face, palms, and the front of her pants.

"Damn car. I keep forgetting it's got a clutch. Look at my pants. I just got them out of the cleaners, too. Give me a hand up, will you?”

I did and she turned back to Mr. Sanders. "As I was saying, you'll like this, Mr. Sanders. It's your favorite.”

Bitty has always been quite resilient.

"Oh my, where are my manners?” she said then, and gave me a push forward. "Mr. Sanders, this is my cousin, Trinket Truevine from over at Cherryhill.”

I managed a polite smile and "How do you do” while keeping an eye on the shotgun, but a still chortling Sanders looked like what I often call, "ain't right,” meaning not right in the head.

Bitty pulled out the big aluminum pot where she'd secured it behind the driver's seat, and marched relentlessly up to the porch. When she set it down on the white-painted hickory planks, the hound immediately found it irresistible. Its nose seemed to be the only one of the five senses still working efficiently.

"Sit, Tuck,” Mr. Sanders said, again with another nudge, and the dog reluctantly squatted on its back haunches with nose in the air and sniffing furiously. Sanders leaned forward. "What you got in that pot?”

Bitty smiled. "Chicken and dumplings. Homemade, of course.”

I could see Sanders wavering. The shotgun lowered, the bowed legs quivered, and I swear that his nose twitched just like his hound's.

"Huh. Reckon you intend to bribe me with those, do you.”

"I sure do.” Bitty's smile got bigger. She lifted the lid and a thin curl of steam wafted up. "Fresh, too. Just made early this morning. They have to sit a little bit to let the dumplings soak up all that broth, of course.”

"Young hen?”

"Two. And White Lily flour cut with shortening and rolled out to a quarter inch.”

While they discussed the intricacies of dumplings, I looked around. The white painted house has a chimney at each end; old brick covered with ivy at one end, bare wisteria limbs on the other chimney. Windows go all the way to porch level on the front, with green shutters that can be closed in stormy or cold weather. Elongated S hooks have the patina of age on them, but still look in good working order. A lantern hangs from the center of the porch, and electrical wire covered with conduit pipes painted white run along the porch's edge to make a sharp right angle beside the double front door, and then run parallel above the footings of the house and around the corner. One of the front doors was open, the screen shut. The closed door has one of those old-fashioned bells that have to be twisted to make a noise. It's a bright, polished brass. Everything about the house promises loving attention, while the front yard looks like goats live in it. No grass. Just red dirt, ruts, and gigantic cedar trees with furrowed gray trunks splintery with age.

"Reckon you can come in if you want,” I heard Sanders say, and I looked over at Bitty. I thought she might faint. Her face had the dazed expression of someone in a spiritual trance.

Her voice shook a little when she said faintly, "Why, Mr. Sanders, we'd love to come in. Wouldn't we, Trinket?”

I looked at the shotgun. I wasn't so sure.

"Uh...”

"Come on, Tuck,” Sanders said, and opened the screen door for us. "He don't bite, but I ain't of a mind to leave him out here with that pot.”

The hound didn't worry me. When it'd drooled over the chicken and dumplings, I'd seen that it had no front teeth. Mr. Sanders, however, seemed to have all of his teeth but not all of his marbles. Maybe it was the odd glint in his eyes, or the way he kept cackling like an old hen.

Reluctantly, I followed Bitty and Sanders into the house. It has that smell old houses have of meals long eaten, people long past, memories long gone. It isn't a bad smell. It's actually very comforting. Furniture gleamed dully, smelling like lemony beeswax. Bitty paused in the entrance hall and took in a deep breath. She was obviously having a religious experience.

As if afraid to wake the saints of old houses, she whispered, "Beautiful. Just beautiful!”

I have to admit she's right. Oval-framed photographs of family members in garments a hundred and forty years old hang on walls. The walnut mantel over the fireplace holds more old photos in small frames, a chunky bronze statue of a soldier on a horse, and a pair of crystal candlesticks. A low fire burned behind solid brass andirons. The front room is filled with antiques, and just a glimpse into the dining room across the foyer promised more treasures in the heavy furniture and wide sideboards against two walls.

Since I don't know that much about antiques or old houses, I followed along as Mr. Sanders gave us the royal tour. Bitty kept clasping her hands in front of her face as if praying, and murmured in rapture while we looked at huge old beds with wooden canopies and mosquito netting, cedar wardrobes that go all the way to the ceiling and still hold clothes from the 1800s, and gilded mirrors with a mottled tinge betraying their age. Carpets laid over bare heartpine floors look as if they hadn't been walked on in years.

By the time the tour was over, Bitty had almost convinced Sanders to allow his house to be put on the historic register and added to the tour. He still had reservations and muttered about turning his home into a circus, but had definitely wavered. Bitty really is good. She should sell real estate or run for Congress.

When we got down to the foyer again with Tuck tagging along at our heels, Bitty picked up a bronze statue from a small parquet table. "This is General Grant, isn't it?” she asked.

For the historically uninformed, General Grant was a Civil War general who burned and slashed his way across Mississippi in 1862, but spared most of Holly Springs. Legend says it was because the ladies were so pretty and treated him to nightly piano concerts, but historical fact has a different version.

Ulysses Sherman Sanders was named in honor of Generals Grant and Sherman, since his family had taken possession of The Cedars right after the war when taxes were high and Confederate income non-existent. As Yankees, they were not enthusiastically welcomed into the community. A few generations have gone by since then and hostilities have ceased for the most part, even if not been completely forgotten by some.

Sanders bristled at any hint of censure in Bitty's question. "That's right; it's a statue of General Grant. Got a problem with that?”

"Heavens no. General Grant was an absolute gentleman while he and his troops stayed in Holly Springs, though I can't say the same for all his soldiers. With some exceptions, of course,” she added hastily, apparently remembering that Sherman Sanders' ancestor had been one of those Union soldiers. "This statue's very heavy. Is it weighted?”

Sanders nodded. "I reckon so. Probably because it'd be top heavy otherwise, what with the general liftin' his sword like that.”

Bitty smiled and set it down carefully. "I'll be back in a day or two to discuss what needs to be done before the tour. Even though The Cedars hasn't yet been put on the historic register, we can fill out the paperwork and submit it. I don't think there'll be any problem at all. You've done such a wonderful job taking care of this house. I honestly don't think there's another house in Marshall County that's been kept up nearly this well. Most need extensive renovations.”

Sanders puffed up his chest. He still held his shotgun, but just by the barrel now. I hoped that was a good sign.

Tuck suddenly barked and rushed toward the open screen door, making me jump. We all looked outside. Something big and brown had its head stuck in the pot of chicken and dumplings. Before Bitty or I could move, Sanders started to cussing, and banged out the screen door and took a shot at the aluminum pot. Rock salt pellets pinged against metal, and the mule made a strangled sound and took off down the rutted drive wearing the pot up to its eyeballs and shedding chicken and dumplings behind it. Tuck immediately took advantage of this unexpected windfall, and the pot-blinded mule ran into a tree. The impact knocked it backwards so that it sat on its haunches blinking dumplings from its eyes while the liberated pot rolled across the yard. Tuck greedily and happily worked the path the pot had taken, slurping loudly. The mule got up and shook itself free of dumplings, obviously unharmed. And unfazed.

Bitty and I just stood there transfixed by the entire thing. Mr. Sanders heaved a disgusted sigh.

"Blamed mule,” he said. "I swear it's part goat. Ate half my hat last week.”

Roused from temporary astonishment, Bitty said brightly, "Well, I'll just have to cook you up another big batch of chicken and dumplings. Don't worry about the pot. I have another one at home.”

We were halfway back to Cherryhill before we started laughing. Bitty had to pull over to the side of the road so we wouldn't wreck. Finally I wiped tears from my eyes and tried to keep from snorting through my nose. I have a tendency to do that when I'm hysterical with laughter.

"Is putting this house on the tour worth another pot of chicken and dumplings?” I asked as soon as I was snort-free.

Bitty nodded. "As many as it takes. I'll just have to buy more ingredients and take them over to Sharita's house.”

"You fraud. Someone else cooked them for you?”

"Good Lord, Trinket, you know I can't cook. If I'd cooked them we'd have been shot, stuffed, and mounted over that magnificent walnut mantel. Did you see it? All those gorgeous hunting scenes carved into the wood... I thought I'd pass out from pure pleasure.”

Bitty and I have different values in many ways. While I appreciate antiques and old houses and generations of custom, it's more in an abstract kind of way. Bitty has obviously made it her reason for living. There are different ways of handling divorce and that empty feeling you get even if the relationship degenerated into nastiness and you're happy to see the last of him. My divorce was pretty straightforward. Bitty's last divorce made waves throughout the entire state.

Bitty let me off in front of my house. "I'm going shopping for new shoes,” she said, and tooled on down our circular drive with a happy wave of her hand. I smiled and shook my head. Now there's a woman who knows how to cope.

Mama and Daddy had gone from playing gin to planning a cruise. Pamphlets were spread over the kitchen table. Something familiar smelling simmered on the stove, and afternoon light made cozy patterns on the walls and floor. Brownie slept in a patch of sunshine. He's a beagle-dachshund mix with long legs, a short body, a dachshund head and coloring, and a beagle's loud bay. He can be heard three counties over when he scents a squirrel. He's also neurotic.

"Where are you going?” I asked my parents when I'd hung my sweater on a coat hook beside the back door and stood looking over Daddy's shoulder at the array of pamphlets.

"I was thinking we'd enjoy rafting down the Colorado River. But your mother wants to take the Delta Queen down to New Orleans. They have a cruise in March this year. It's usually June before the cruises start, but it's been chartered just for us retired postal employees.”

Mama looked up. "I thought it'd be nice to travel down the river like those old gamblers used to do. Do you remember Maverick? Not the movie. The old TV show. James Garner always did well. I have a feeling I might be just as lucky.”

"Huh,” Daddy said. "You just think you're a card shark now because you beat me at gin.”

"Three times,” Mama said with a big smile.

I thought it best not to interfere. "What's for supper?” I asked instead.

"Chicken and dumplings.”

My parents just looked at me as if I'd lost my mind when I started laughing, and I heard Mama say to Daddy in a low tone, "Hormones. Must be The Change.”

CHAPTER 2

Even though Bitty asked me if I wanted to go along when she took Mr. Sanders another pot of chicken and dumplings, I decided to go in to Holly Springs instead. I had a few errands to run, and besides, I'd been thinking about getting a part-time job.

When I'd quit work I'd taken my 401k and all the money from my savings and invested it in a few CDs and some annuities, but I really don't have any idea where it's best to put it. After all, it's not that much money, but it's all I have for my old age. While some days I feel my old age is already here, I figure it'll be a few years yet before I can spend money without worrying about having to live under a concrete overpass and eat cat food in my "golden” years.

I dressed carefully. I wore tan flats that matched my A-line skirt and jacket and wouldn't intimidate any man under five-nine. Some men equate height with masculinity, and resent females the least bit taller. It can be a disadvantage when seeking employment. I dabbed on a minimum of make-up, just enough to look professional without resembling a circus clown. Age can be tricky with a woman's face, and I didn't want to look foolish. The only jewelry I wore was a watch and a pair of emerald stud earrings my daughter had given me for my birthday a few years before.

Mama and Daddy were cuddled up in front of a fire in the living room and watching an old movie with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert when I stuck my head in the door to tell them goodbye. Brownie lay on the couch between them, his head resting on Mama's lap.

"Good luck, sugar,” Mama said, "I know you'll find work. You've always been quite competent.”

Competent is supposed to be a compliment, but somehow, it sounds rather flat to me. An "average” kind of thing. But I knew Mama didn't mean it that way, so I said back, "I'll see you in a little while,” and went out the back door and crossed the gravel path to the garage.

Yesterday's beautiful weather had turned into February again. A raw wind blew, and rain bloated heavy gray clouds churning over Cherryhill. I paused for a moment to look at the house. After seeing how well-kept Sanders maintains The Cedars, I have a new appreciation for the years of work Daddy has put into their house and grounds. The two stories rise serenely atop a small hill overlooking rolling meadows around it, painted a white that's only slightly peeling in places. It isn't as big as many of the houses in the county, and doesn't look at all like Tara from Gone With the Wind, or even Montrose, a red brick antebellum house with four white columns that's the pride of the annual pilgrimage and seat of the Holly Springs Garden Club.

What it does look like is a comfortable home. The large front porch leads to a generous door outfitted with an old-fashioned doorbell, the kind that has to be twisted to make it ring. Just inside, the staircase goes up to a landing, and then turns right. It has a curved oak banister with a graceful loop at the bottom step, polished to a high gleam by four generations of Truevine kids sliding down it, and oak steps the years have burnished to a soft golden color no paint or varnish can ever match. To the left of the small entrance hall is the dining room, to the right, the living room that used to be the parlor. All the ceilings are twelve feet high. Fireplaces are in each room, some of them just for looks now, some of them still working. Behind the living room, the sitting room has been turned into my parents' bedroom so they don't have to go up and down the stairs. A generous bathroom has been added under the stairs, and a large kitchen has been updated. A laundry room is next to a back door that leads out onto a nice cedar deck that my father and his brother built years ago. In spring, half a dozen cherry trees blossom in what used to be a fruit orchard, looking like a wide swathe of pink cotton candy in the back and side yards.

Upstairs, there are three bedrooms and a nice-sized bathroom that started out as part of the sleeping porch. The west end of the glassed-in sleeping porch runs along the back of the master bedroom to the end of the house. It used to be my parents' bedroom. Now it's my room. I like to go sit out on the sleeping porch early in the morning and at dusk. When it's very cold I light a fire in the bedroom, but just for ambience. Two central heating and air conditioning units added twenty-odd years ago work just fine for the entire house.

One of the other bedrooms belonged to my older brother and my younger brother. They both died in Vietnam. Now their room is empty, kept just as it was the day my brothers left. The other room belonged to me and my twin sister, Emerald. She lives in Oregon with her husband and umpteen children. We've never been that close despite sharing a womb and a room.

There's not much left of our land now since Daddy sold most of it and leases other tracts to farmers with cow herds, but enough so that we still feel isolated and protected. Just down the road, there are new houses with swing sets in the back yards and subdivision streets named things like Whispering Willow Wind and Cherry Blossom Surprise. Our street is still called Truevine Road, named for my great-great-grandfather who started a church right after the Civil War and Grant's march left behind a lot of blackened fields, burned-out homes, and despairing souls. The Eureka Truevine church is gone now, burned down a few decades before when electrical wiring installed some time in the early thirties ignited a fire, but its name lives on in me.

I started my car and pulled out of the garage that had once been a cattle barn, and set out for Holly Springs. It isn't far at all, and in fifteen minutes I pulled my car up in front of the café across from the court house on the square. The old clock in the cupola on top of the court house has been fixed. The hands move slowly but steadily, clicking the minutes with big black hands.

Budgie Mason, who manages the café and serves plain food at good prices, waved at me and I waved back. I knew her from my childhood. Her parents had lived down Truevine Road, and her father had raised cotton and lots of kids. He'd done well with both. Budgie looks a lot like she did as a kid— slender and energetic, with a crop of curly black hair she usually kept tied in a ponytail atop her head. The hair might now have some gray streaks, but it's still tied in a ponytail on top of her head.

It started to rain and I hurried across the street to the court house and stepped inside. In the center of the foyer sits a gigantic glassed-in clock, the machinations whirring. To one side is a staircase that leads up to offices and courtrooms, to the other side are more high-ceilinged rooms that house county government offices.

I went straight over to the county clerk's office and asked for an employment application before I lost my nerve. After all, once I'd been an executive secretary in a large chain of hotels. This was hardly a step up the career ladder. Still, an honest job is an honest job.

Apparently, despite the glowing reports on TV and in the newspapers about the profusion of available jobs, it didn't apply to Holly Springs government offices. Not that week, anyway.

I decided the only thing to assuage my disappointment might be a generous helping of hot peach cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream, so I crossed the street in the rain to Budgie's café. It now belongs to a man from Ohio who decided to invest in Mississippi real estate, but at least he has the good sense to keep Budgie on as the manager. After Budgie's husband took off and her parents went into a nursing home, she had to sell the café to pay for expenses. It's still called Budgie's café, despite the sign out front that says French Market Caféin fancy lettering

It's a neat little place, with round tables and chairs made out of curved iron, and walls painted in bright colors. A few framed posters of ladies in big hats sitting at French cafés hang on the walls. A long Formica counter holds a cash register, a chubby ceramic chef wearing a Gallic mustache and holding a small sign announcing the specials of the day, and a slender vase filled with plastic flowers. Next to the flowers is a pretty crystal jar with dollar bills inside to encourage tips. Tables sport brightly colored plastic cloths, votive candles, and brass napkin and condiment racks. Menus run more to hot biscuits and milk gravy, grits, cornbread, and chicken fried steak than they do to croissants, but do offer beignets and hot chicory coffee like Café Dumond in New Orleans. France comes to Holly Springs.

Since the breakfast rush was over and the lunch rush hadn't started, and I was the only one in the café, Budgie met me at a corner table by the window with a cup of coffee and a small pitcher of cream. "How are Uncle Eddie and Aunt Anna doing?” she asked.

Everyone familiar with my parents calls them that, whether they're related or not. When I was a kid, other kids knew they could count on my parents for help or advice on almost anything. Except me. Somehow, I'd never tapped into that. My mother still refers to me as her "most active child.” That's a tactful synonym for hellion.

"They're doing fine,” I said. "When I left they were cuddled up on the couch watching an old thirties movie of Gable and Colbert chasing each other.”

"That's so sweet.”

"By the time I get back, they'll have probably planned a camel trip along the Nile.” I put a few packets of artificial sweetener in my coffee and followed it with a generous splash of cream. "If they get to the stage of buying plane tickets, I might have to lock them in the basement.”

Budgie laughed, and I took a sip of my coffee. She had no way of knowing I wasn't kidding about it. There should be some kind of instruction book on babysitting parents who are elderly, mobile, and have a checking account and credit cards.

"You're lucky,” Budgie said. "My parents are in a nursing home and don't even know each other, much less me. The only bright spot is that I finally divorced that rotten husband of mine— Oh. Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that.”

It doesn't matter how well related you are to anyone in Holly Springs, or how long you've been gone; everyone you grew up with knows almost everything there is to know about you. Some people might consider that a disadvantage, but it does save a lot of lengthy explanations.

"If you're talking about my divorce, it doesn't bother me,” I said. "We're still cordial. I'm just glad he's far away and out of my life. Today I'm celebrating being turned down for a job in every government department in the court house. Do you have any peach cobbler?”

"With lots of ice cream on top.” Budgie knows what makes unemployment, divorce, and a rainy day better.

"Why don't you talk to Carolann Barnett?” she said when she brought back my cobbler with a huge mound of ice cream melting on flaky crust. "She's looking for someone to help out in her book store and lingerie shop.”

My spoon hovered over cinnamon and nutmeg spiced cobbler. "Book shop and lingerie? Let me guess. She sells copies of The Kama Sutra and French panties.”

"Not quite, but close.”

"Where is it,” I asked just to be polite; though I had no intention of working in a book store that doubles as a Frederick's of Hollywood.

Budgie gave me directions and I finished my cobbler. I paid my bill and left a tip in the jar by the cash register. Before I got to the door, Bitty barged in with a look on her face like she'd just seen the Loch Ness monster. Her hair dripped rainwater, and mascara smudged her cheeks. As if that wasn't startling enough, she was nearly speechless. I knew at once that all was not well.

"Trinket,” she got out between gasps for air, "something terrible has happened!”

Since I'd already guessed that, I said, "Here, sit down and I'll buy you a cup of coffee.”

She grabbed my arm in an iron grip. "No. I can't. You've got to come. I don't know what to do, and when I saw your car out front it was like an answer to a prayer. Help me. You've just got to!”

I began to get a little alarmed. Even with Bitty's flair for the dramatic, genuine fear filled her blue eyes and left her skin an uncomplimentary shade of gray. Her smart navy blazer with gold buttons on the cuffs was drenched. She wore navy slacks, sensible low-heeled pumps, and a white silk shirt; a jaunty red triangle of scarf stuck up out of the blazer's breast pocket. Gold gleamed at her ears and around her throat. She looked like a half-drowned Macy's mannequin.

"Over here,” she said, and pulled me back to the table in the corner. She clasped and unclasped her hands a few times. The huge diamond ring on her right hand shot splinters of light across the café. She took a deep breath and lowered her voice to a whisper. "You're not going to believe this. I went out to The Cedars to take the chicken and dumplings like I promised Sherman Sanders and that's when I found him... he's dead as dirt, and I don't know what to do!”

I whispered back, "Sanders is dead?”

"No, not Sanders. Philip! What am I going to do?”

"The Philip who's your ex-husband? The one who just got reelected senator?”

She nodded. "That's the one. The police will never believe I didn't kill him.”

Good Lord. "Why on earth was he out at The Cedars? And what did Sanders have to say about him being dead?”

"Sanders wasn't there. Just Philip. Laid out in the foyer with his head bashed in. That heavy bronze statue I admired the other day is right next to him. It has blood all over the top of it. Trinket—” She took another deep breath. "It's bound to have my fingerprints on it. I should have thought of that then, but I was in a hurry to get away. It didn't occur to me about my fingerprints until I was halfway here.”

This didn't look at all good. And Bitty may be rattled, but she still knew that.

"Did you call the police?” I asked her, and she gave me a horrified look.

"No! They'll think I did it. You have to know our divorce was pretty nasty, with both of us saying all kinds of stuff, and Philip so mad because I got so much money in the settlement... you know what they'll think, Trinket.”

I did. I also thought she should call the police anyway. I just couldn't figure out a way to convince her of that without our conversation ending in more dramatics.

"Did Philip know Sanders well?” I asked to occupy her while I mulled over ways to tell the police without upsetting Bitty or incriminating her. "It's quite probable they had an argument of some kind and it ended badly.”

Bitty plopped down in one of the chairs. Her hands shook, but she had some color back in her face. "Philip has been trying to talk Sanders out of putting his house on the historic register for some ungodly reason. Probably just to spite me.” Her eyes narrowed, and with all the mascara smudges, she reminded me of a wet raccoon. "That bastard! He probably knew I was going back to see Sanders and went out there and killed himself just so it'd look like I did it.”

Ah. Now she was doing better.

"He was that kind of man,” I said. Agreement on character or lack of it is primary in any discussion about an ex-husband. I'd learned that years ago. "But this time, I don't think he'd go so far as to bash himself in the head just to spite you.”

Bitty stood up. "Well. I'm not going to let him get away with it. I'm fixing to call over at the Brunettis' office.”

The Brunettis are local attorneys with a well-deserved reputation for always earning their money. They aren't cheap, but they aren't known for losing, either.

"Excellent idea,” I said. "A Brunetti will know what to do.”

"But first,” Bitty said, "you and I are going out there to wipe my fingerprints off that wretched statue before someone else finds Philip.”

I recoiled. "We can't do that!”

"Of course we can. Sanders isn't there, so we need to hurry before he gets back from wherever he went. It won't take but a minute to go in and wipe off my prints. Come on.”

"Bitty no,” I protested, and followed behind as she made for the café door. "I'm not going with you out to Sanders'.” I crossed my arms over my chest and stared at her. "Has it occurred to you that Sanders may well have been the one who killed Philip? Or that he isn't really dead? Besides, it's raining buckets and I have no desire whatsoever to see Philip Hollandale alive, much less dead.”

"Philip's nicer when he's dead.” Bitty said it almost wistfully.

"Call the police, Bitty.”

"I wonder if he thought about me before he died.”

Probably. Not kindly, either.

"The police station is just a few streets over,” I said. "I'll go with you.”

Bitty sighed. "You're not just family, you're a good friend, Trinket. All these years, and we're still close as when we were kids. Come on. We'll take my car.”

"To the police station, right?”

Bitty dashed out into the rain with her purse over her head and keys in her hand. The red Miata beeped and lights flashed, indicating she'd started the engine. I sighed. The phrase "in for a dime, in for a dollar” went through my head, but I followed her anyway. What are friends for if they won't go to the police station with you to report their ex-husband's murder?

I should have known Bitty didn't intend to go to the police.

Instead of going around the court square to Market Street, she took Old 178 down past the Fred's Dollar Store to hit Highway 7 through town. I knew better, but I had to ask.

"Bitty, has the police station already moved?”

"Good heavens, Trinket, you don't really think I go there on social calls, I hope. Last time I was there, that cute Sergeant Nestor flirted with me and I got a little giddy and bought up all the rest of the tickets to the policemen's benefit concert at the Kudzu Festival.”

The Miata skidded on the wet pavement when she sped up to outrun a yellow light at the intersection of West Chulahoma Avenue. I made sure my seat belt was firmly fastened. Holly Springs' cemetery is just a block or two over, and I wasn't ready to join family members who'd already homesteaded their last six feet of local real estate. Bitty got the car out of the spin without hitting a curb or ending up in a yard, and headed west on Highway 7 again.

"So how do you feel about professional calls?” I asked when my fingernails were finally detached from the leather dashboard. "Murder tends to fall under that category instead of social.”

"Really, Trinket, you're beginning to make me wish I'd gotten one of the Divas to help me instead of you.”

The Divas she mentioned are a group of women over thirty and under a hundred. They're nothing like the Sweet Potato Queens or Red Hat Ladies, since none of them are trying to make a statement or glorify Southern ideals. In fact, rumor has it that membership doesn't require being born in the South, just a sense of humor and high tolerance for chocolate. I don't know how many of them there are since I haven't yet been invited to a meeting, but they call themselves the Dixie Divas and often meet at the old Delta Inn that sits across from the railroad depot and next door to Phillips, a nineteenth century saloon-slash-whorehouse-slash-grocery store. The saloon and grocery store part are fact, the whorehouse legend.

"I take it the Divas are familiar with murder then,” I said, and Bitty didn't disagree.

"I trust you most,” she said instead. "You're my oldest friend, and I don't mean by age.”

"Of course not. We're the same age.”

"You have two and a half months on me, Trinket.”

I rolled my eyes. "So now I have one foot in the grave? And it won't do you any good to keep going down this road. I'm not taking part in any desecration of a crime scene. I like being able to see the sky instead of just iron bars and cinder block walls.”

Bitty sped up a little. We went a mile or so past 78 Highway and turned right onto some road that has no sign post. A blue and white rusted out trailer is parked on a hill overlooking an expanse of pasture, cows, and a few emus. The last gave me a start. Brown, feathery, with long legs like ostriches, the birds stretched up their leathery necks and goggled at us as we went past.

"I don't remember those emus from yesterday,” I said, and Bitty nodded.

"Frank Dunlap bought them as an investment. Then he found out it wasn't that good of an investment but he couldn't catch them all. They run wild out there in the trees somewhere, and he just lets them go. They bite.”

Reason enough to leave them alone.

The road narrows to a Y flanked by pine trees on one side, hibernating ropes of kudzu on the other. Bitty took the kudzu side to the left. Windshield wipers slapped against glass and metal, and broken asphalt occasionally clacked against the underside of the Miata. Elvis played on the radio, but Bitty had it turned way down. Elvis was singing Kentucky Rain, which I thought pretty appropriate for the weather.

Bitty turned into Sanders' rutted drive and stopped just past the cattle gap. It looked silent and deserted. No lights gleamed; no smoke came out of the chimneys. No hound sat on the porch, and no dumpling-festooned mule peered through the rain.

I took a deep breath. My heart thumped, my pulse raced, and my throat went suddenly dry as the Sahara Desert.

"I'm not going in there,” I said again.

"Fine.” Bitty chewed on her bottom lip and looked resolute.

When the Miata edged forward, I realized I'd been holding my breath and expecting Bitty to back out of the driveway and head back to town. I expelled a long gush of air and futility.

"I can't believe you're doing this.”

Bitty's knuckles were white on the steering wheel. "Neither can I.”

We rolled to a stop and sat staring at the house. Rain glistened on wood planks, dripped from the corrugated metal roof, and hissed against the car. The front door was open, the screen door shut, the empty porch ominous.

"Can you drive a stick shift?” Bitty asked me. "I may need a quick getaway.”

"I can drive anything but a tank,” I lied.

Bitty turned off the car, opened the driver's side door, and I got out and went around. We both looked at the house again, and then I looked at Bitty. She had an expression like a determined rat terrier on her face. Whether it was a good idea or not, this was important to her. I sighed.

"Come on,” I said. "I'll go with you.”

Holding hands like two frightened schoolgirls, we eased up the first step. Planks creaked beneath our feet. Our combined weight elicited another groan when we got to the second step, then the porch. The overhead lantern swayed in the wind, and the chains that tether it so it won't hit against the roof or house clanked loudly.

"Why do I keep thinking of that haunted house at the Halloween carnival when we were eight?” Bitty muttered.

"If a ghost pops out at us, I'm wetting my pants. Again.”

"I thought it was a skeleton.”

"Whatever.”

We were at the screen door now. Bitty faltered, and I just wanted to get in and out of there as quickly as we could, so I grabbed the handle and opened the door. We stepped just inside and let our eyes adjust to the absence of lamplight.

The heartpine floors gleamed dully in the dim light, the small Oriental rug with dragon designs lay in the middle, and the heavy bronze statue sat serenely on the parquet table. No body lay in the floor, no blood puddle, and no sign of murder. I looked at Bitty.

She stared blankly. "He was here. I swear he was... I saw him. Philip, laid out like a hog on a butcher's table. Blood everywhere.”

I put my hand on her shoulder. "You've been through a lot of stress lately, Bitty.”

She looked up at me. "I saw him. You believe me, don't you?”

There was such a pleading look on her face I couldn't have said no if I'd wanted to, so I nodded. "Of course, I do. Maybe he was just knocked out, and he woke up and left. There's no other car in the driveway.”

Something flickered in her eyes and she frowned. "Whoever killed him must have taken his car.”

"Or maybe he's not dead.”

Bitty looked doubtfully at the clean floor. "Then who cleaned up the mess? There was a lot of blood. Philip never so much as picked up a dirty sock, much less cleaned up blood.”

"Someone did. Probably Mr. Sanders. He does like things tidy.” After a moment I asked, "Where was... the senator lying?”

"There.” Bitty pointed and I took a few steps into the room, half-expecting blood and body to suddenly materialize.

I knelt down, careful to keep my skirt tucked behind my knees and well off the floor, and gingerly touched the heartpine. It was dry. It couldn't have already dried in one hundred percent humidity by itself. After all, even on a sunny day, Mississippi's known for humidity so high your shoes can mildew in the closet.

"Well?” Bitty asked, sounding nervous, and I shook my head.

"It's dry.”

"I didn't imagine it. As much as I'd like to see Philip choke and die, I know what I saw.”

When I started to stand up, I lost my balance, and put my hand behind me to catch myself. It happened to land on the carpet, and wet wool slicked against my palm. I looked up at Bitty.

"The carpet's wet.”

It took me a minute to steel myself, but I sniffed at my fingers and caught the distinct and unmistakable smell of pine cleaner. That didn't eradicate the faint, rusty scent of blood. I stood up.

"Come on, Bitty. We need to get out of here.”

"But what about the statue?”

I held out my hand. "Give me the scarf from your pocket.”

After a brief hesitation, she whipped it out and I walked over to the bronze statue, my hand shaking so hard I nearly knocked it off the table as I wiped away any and all prints. Then I scrubbed up my muddy footprints, walking backward.

"Wipe the door handles, too,” Bitty said as we retraced our steps to the screen door. "Just in case.”

"Well, we did visit the other day. It'd seem odd not to leave a few prints behind.” Still, I wiped away our prints on the door just in case, and we fled back to Bitty's car in a half-run, half-stumble.

Neither of us spoke until we were well down Highway 7 again. I turned to look at Bitty.

"Something was different in the house. I feel like we missed something.”

"What we missed,” said Bitty as she slowed down to turn into the Sonic drive-in, "is my ex-husband dead on the floor. I'm relieved and disappointed at the same time. I knew it was too good to be true.”

She pulled into a slot and cut the Miata's engine. I smelled fried onion rings. Bitty looked at me. "Sonic has great chili dogs with cheese.”

"Order two.”

"Footlongs?”

"You bet.”

When all else fails, Coney dogs provide temporary comfort as well as dimples on the butt and thighs. Not a bad trade-off.

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Drop Dead Divas

Virginia Brown

$14.95 October 2010
ISBN 978-1-935661-96-2

Book 2 of the hilarious Southern mystery series

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