Chace Scene: A Grace Texas Murder Mystery
Things are going well until the night of the bachelorette party. Jess discovers a body, the body of Donna Vance, dead from arsenic poisoning. There's a killer on the loose.
Now it's up to Jess to keep the wedding on track and sift through the myriad of secrets and lies surrounding the victim. No one is safe, not Donna's entourage, not the annoying bridesmaids, not even the bride.
Jess teams up with sexy detective Chris Connor. Can they solve the case before the killer poisons again?
Release date: September 15, 2020
Print pages: 409
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Chace Scene: A Grace Texas Murder Mystery
Chapter 1 – Monday, January 15, 3:20 p.m.
Alpaca Sweater. That’s what the sign said. Jess squinted and looked out the window again. Yep, a man and woman were hanging up a sign above the door to what used to be the Happy Trails Travel Agency. The sign said Alpaca Sweater.
“Ms. Melody?” Jess called out toward the back of the cavernous Antique Emporium where she worked part-time. The rest of the time she was a free-lancer for the Grace Gazette, the one and only newspaper in the small town of Grace, Texas. That office was on the opposite side of the town square.
There was no answer. Ms. Melody must still be in the stockroom. Jess wondered if the Gazette might want a news story about the new shop. Or, she could always write about it on her blog, Jess Sayin’. The shop was in a prime location on the corner, facing the courthouse and across the street from Casa Maria Mexican Restaurant.
Jess watched out the window as the couple hung up a Grand Opening banner across the front window. It was a slow day. Maybe Ms. Melody wouldn’t mind if she took a little break and went over to check it out. Jess began formulating a headline in her mind: Couple Opens Sweater Shop. She sighed, remembering her days as a features writer for the newspaper in Houston just a few years ago. This is what passes for news in a small town, she thought.
Just then the bells on the front door chimed. Jess looked over and was mortified to see Chace Perez and her mother, Tanya. Chace was engaged to Jack Ketchum, who just happened to be Jess’s ex-husband. She was determined that she and Jess would be friends, no matter what. Jess plastered on her best fake smile.
Chace and Tanya breezed in, both wearing thick turtleneck sweaters and Ugg boots. “Jessica,” Chace chirped in that fine Texas lady sing-song voice, befitting her status as a former Miss Texas. “Come here Sugar, and give me a hug.” Chace rushed over with arms outstretched. Jess reluctantly stepped out from behind the counter to let herself be hugged. Chace was a hugger. Jess was not, at least not when it came to Chace.
Ever since she had met Chace, Jess had disliked her. Partly because she was going to marry Jack, but mostly because she was just too perfect. Chace was slim and tall with silky dark hair in a medium length bob. Jess, by contrast, was forever battling her untamed dark blonde waves. Chace had the personality of a game show host, always smiling and talking non-stop. Jess tried to avoid her as much as possible, which was like trying to avoid a tornado coming straight for your house.
Tanya Perez, on the other hand, was not so friendly with Jess. She was of the opinion that one should not embrace the ex-wife of your intended, not figuratively and never literally. “Hello Jessica,” she drawled with a smile that said, I’m tolerating you and a stiff demeanor that said, don’t get too close. Tanya was shorter than her daughter and had big, blonde hair. Jess could smell the Aqua Net from across the room.
“I was hoping you would be here,” Chace said, glancing around the empty shop, “are you busy right now?”
“We’re slow at the moment,” Jess admitted, “but I’ve got some dusting to do.”
Chace continued. “We wanted to ask you about your Aunt Patsy’s property. I wondered if you might be free sometime so we could all go take a look at it.”
“What are you talking about?” Jess asked. “Why would you want to look at my Great Aunt Patsy’s old farm?” There was an awkward pause. “How do you even know about the property?”
Chace sucked some air in through her teeth. “Jack told me that your Aunt Patsy has a lovely old farmhouse down Turner Road,” she explained. “You know I’ve been looking for a wedding location, since the original place fell through.”
“That wedding barn place isn’t available?”
“No, we tried them. We’ve tried everywhere. You know we want to have an outdoor wedding. The theme is kind of country chic. You know, sort of rustic and vintage. So I thought maybe the farmhouse would be good.” Chace looked at Jess with a hopeful smile.
Jess was at a loss for words. “No… I don’t think…” she stammered, “It wouldn’t be right for a wedding.”
“I just thought we could take a look,” Chace pleaded. “I haven’t been able to find anything nice.”
Jess pictured her Aunt Patsy’s old farmhouse, now boarded up. It was a huge, two-story, Victorian house with a wrap-around porch. Back in its heyday, it would have been a charming setting for a country wedding. Now though, it had been unoccupied for several years. Aunt Patsy was happily spending her days at the Heritage House, an assisted living home for the elderly.
“I don’t think it would work,” Jess said. “The windows are boarded up and there are probably spiders everywhere. Maybe even snakes or raccoons.”
“See, it’s not a good idea. I told you so,” Tanya said to her daughter as she turned to leave.
“Oh, go on, it can’t hurt to take a look,” came a voice from across the store. Everyone looked up startled to see Ms. Melody, standing near a display of Fiestaware dishes. How long had she been there?
“In fact, you might as well go now,” Ms. Melody added. “I can mind the store myself and you’ve still got a couple hours of daylight left.”
Reluctantly, Jess agreed to show Chace the old farmhouse. The ladies decided to take Tanya’s car for the twenty-minute trip out of town.
“Hold on,” Chace said, tapping the face of her iPhone. “I want Jack to come too.”
Jess was in no mood to see Jack. This whole excursion was bordering on ridiculous already. After a quick phone call, Chace informed her mother that they were to pick Jack up at his law office only two blocks away. Jess climbed into the back seat and off they went.
Chace leaned her head into the back seat. “Thank you for letting us take a look. I just know we’re going to love it.”
“We’ll have to see,” Jess said smiling back at her. I hope you get bit by a field mouse while we’re out there, Jess thought.
When they reached the office of Woodley and Associates, Jack was waiting outside. He wore a gray suit and tie. His dark hair curled above his ears. He took the backseat next to Jess and flashed a nervous smile. Jess looked away.
“Do you want to switch with me and sit next to Jack?” she asked Chace.
“No, you’re already back there,” Chace said. She leaned back and blew Jack a kiss.
On the drive out to the farmhouse, Jess tried not to look at Jack. She felt awkward about the whole situation. She couldn’t help a few surreptitious glances. Why did he have to be so good looking?
At one point they made eye contact and Jack shrugged his shoulders, holding his hands out palm up as if to say I don’t like this any more than you do, but what can I do about it?
Jack and Jess had eloped at the age of twenty-one, right after college. They weren’t necessarily too young for marriage, but immaturity can have a long shelf life. Jack attended law school while Jess worked as a journalist. Jess had loved her life in the big city. Shortly after Jack’s graduation, Jess’s mother died in a car wreck. A few months later the newspaper laid off half the staff, Jess included. She was bereft and despondent. Their three-year marriage dissolved a few months later.
There was one other thing in the backseat between Jack and Jess. A big secret they were keeping from Chace and everybody else. A couple of weeks earlier, when Jack had taken a job in Grace, he and Jess had gone out for dinner to catch up. They talked about old times and had a few laughs. Then they spent the night together in Jack’s motel room. So there was that.
That one night of passion happened before Jess knew there was a Chace. In the days after, in rapid succession, Jess discovered that Jack was engaged, the happy couple was moving to Grace, and Chace was pregnant. So Jess had plenty of reasons to be angry at Jack.
“Turn right here,” Jess said abruptly. “It’s going to be about another mile at the white mailbox.”
They rounded a corner past a line of trees and saw the house in the distance. The farmhouse was badly in need of a paint job and some new boards here and there. The grass was overgrown and the steps up to the porch would have to be replaced. To Jess it looked like a haunted house, haunted with the memories of her childhood.
To Chace it looked like a dream come true. “It’s beautiful,” she gushed, “Oh Jack, just look at that porch!”
Chapter 2 – Monday, January 15, 4:30 p.m.
Tanya parked in the gravel clearing several yards from the house.
“This is gorgeous,” Chace said as she tramped through the overgrown brush. “We could set bales of hay out here for people to sit on,” Chace was gesturing in semi-circles, “and we could stand on the porch with the pastor, right in front of the door. It’s going to be beautiful!”
“But sweetie, this place is falling apart,” Jack reasoned. “No offense Jess.”
“None taken.” Jess was hanging back, checking her phone. She could feel the heat rising in her neck. This was not happening! There was no way she was going to let the love of her life marry this… this… spoiled brat right here at her own Aunt Patsy’s house. No way in hell!
“What about the inside?” Chace asked. “It might be just the place for the reception.”
“Um, I don’t think I brought the key with me,” Jess called out, fingering the key in her handbag.
“Honey, an outdoor wedding is not such a good idea,” Tanya said. “We won’t be able to predict the weather. It could be cold or raining.”
“You don’t have the key? Really?” Chace whined, still looking around and making plans.
Jack walked over to Jess who was leaning against the SUV. He looked her in the eyes. “I know you have that key,” he said softly.
She stared back up at him defiantly. “No, I don’t.”
“What’s that in your hand?” he asked, pulling her hand from the handbag. “She found the key,” he shouted out to Chace.
“I hate you Jack!” Jess whispered through gritted teeth as she trudged up to the front door.
It was the staircase that did it. The wood bannister curved at the foot of the stairs as the steps got wider. Jess had never considered it to be particularly grand, but Chace thought it was to die for. The house itself was not in bad condition. They explored the ground floor with their cell phone flashlights. The furniture was covered in drop-cloths and the rugs were rolled up.
“How long has it been unoccupied?” asked Tanya.
“About two years. A little longer maybe,” Jess said. “Jack actually helped close it up when we moved Aunt Patsy to the retirement home.” Maybe this subtle reminder of her previous marriage to Jack would nudge Chace away from the farmhouse as a wedding venue.
“I think all it needs is a good cleaning,” Chace said, “we could have the reception in these two front rooms, take pictures on the stairs and out on the porch.”
“We’ve turned the power off,” Jess stated, “and the house needs some repairs. Aunt Patsy can’t afford that.” She hoped that settled the matter. Everybody was heading back out to the porch for what remained of the sunlight.
Chace was not giving up. “What if we pay for the repairs and the cleaning?”
“No Honey,” Tanya said, “it’s too much work, there are much better places out there.”
“Mom, we have looked everywhere,” she pleaded. “Every place is either booked or else it’s terrible. I haven’t seen anything I like as much as this farmhouse. It’s perfect.”
“It won’t cost that much, we can fix this place up with the money we would have spent renting a wedding hall,” Chace continued.
“Couldn’t you just get married in a church?” Tanya sighed.
Jack turned to her. “Is this what you really want, Chacie girl?”
Jess couldn’t believe he had called her that. Her heart ached, remembering when he used to call her Jessie girl.
“It’s what I really want,” Chace said, looking up at him piteously.
“So, what do you say, Jess?” Jack asked.
NO!!! Jess wanted to shout. She wanted to run away from all of them down to the creek that ran along the northern side of the property. That had been the spot she retreated to anytime she got mad at her cousins, or her parents, or even sweet old Aunt Patsy. NO!!! She wanted to scream in Chace’s face. More than that she wanted to push Jack off the porch.
Instead she said, “Well, it’s not up to me. I’ll have to ask Aunt Patsy.”
“Thank you so much,” Chace gushed, clasping her hands together and jumping up and down.
On the drive back to town, Jess stared out the window, trying not to listen to Chace natter on with her plans for the wedding. She heard snippets, something about Mason jars and a harpist and things she saw in Texas Bride Magazine. Jess thought it sounded kitschy and tacky, but also possibly kind of cool.
Back in town Jess said her goodbyes and got into her own car. Finally, she was alone. How could this be happening? Jess wanted nothing more than to pop open a beer and indulge in a solitary movie night in her apartment. She checked the time. Dinner would be in full swing at the Heritage Home. Let’s get this over with, Jess thought as she started the car.
Jess parked in the lot at the Heritage House Assisted Living Home and practiced what she was going to say as she walked up to the building. She found Aunt Patsy in the dining hall, holding court with her passel of old biddies. Aunt Patsy was the Queen Bee in her gang of four, which included Myrtle, Pearl, and Ruth.
“Good evening ladies,” Jess spoke in a slightly louder than usual voice. Aunt Patsy stubbornly refused to wear a hearing aid. Jess leaned down to give her great aunt a kiss. Aunt Patsy backed up a few inches on her mobility scooter to get a better look at Jess.
“Well, Jessica, darlin’ – to what do I owe the pleasure?” Aunt Patsy asked.
“I have something I wanted to talk to you about,” Jess said, “but it can wait until you’re done with dinner.”
“We’re about done anyway,” Patsy said, looking down at what was left of her meatloaf, new potatoes, and asparagus, “but I would like to have a dish of ice cream.”
Jess greeted Myrtle and Ruth. “Where is Pearl tonight?” Jess asked.
Myrtle sighed and looked down at her plate sadly. “Pearl is no longer with us.”
Ruth shook her head. “She went to be with the Lord.”
Jess was taken aback. She held her hand to her chest, “Oh no, I’m so sorry. When did she pass away?”
“She’s not dead. She just went on a retreat with the Baptist church,” Aunt Patsy said, matter of factly. All three ladies burst into a fit of giggles.
Jess shook her head. “Why do y’all do me this way?”
After everyone had finished their vanilla soft-serve, Aunt Patsy shooed away her friends, “Now y’all let us have some privacy, Jess has something to say.” She didn’t care about ruffling anybody’s feathers.
“What is it, darlin’? Do you need some money?” Aunt Patsy asked in a loud whisper.
“No, actually… here’s the thing,” Jess began. She relayed the story of how Chace had come to believe that the farmhouse was an ideal spot for her wedding. She tried to make it sound like a ridiculous idea, laughable, and foolish. She explained that the repairs would be extensive, it was probably not safe, not big enough, and the weather would be unpredictable.
Jess laughed nervously. “Why does anyone have outdoor weddings in Texas anyway?”
When Jess was all talked out, she could tell that her attempt to quash the wedding idea had failed. Aunt Patsy’s eyes were gleaming.
“A wedding out at my farm? Why that sounds absolutely wonderful,” Aunt Patsy gushed. “And they say they’ll get it all fixed up? I would love to see my house put to good use.”
“But Aunt Patsy, come on,” Jess tried to reason. “It’s not a good idea.”
“I know what’s bothering you, child. You still have feelings for Jack.” Aunt Patsy sighed. She wasn’t one to beat around the bush. Usually, she beat right through it. “You’re just going to have to swallow your pride and move on. He’s got someone else now, honey.”
Jess fumed and pursed her lips. “That’s not it at all. I am over him.”
“I know it’s hard, but this will be a good thing, you’ll see,” Aunt Patsy said, patting Jess’s hand.
Jess said her goodbyes to Aunt Patsy and her friends and went home to her apartment, glad to finally be completely alone. She was looking forward to putting her feet up and bingeing on Netflix. She wanted nothing more than to forget about the ordeal her day had become. She reached into the fridge. The better part of a Corona Light six pack was hiding in the back, behind some leftover Chinese takeout. Let's get this party started, Jess thought as she grabbed the beer and the leftovers.
Settling into her sofa she located the remote and turned on Netflix. She decided on Kimmy Schmidt and was halfway through her beer when she heard footsteps coming up the outside staircase to her front door. Dang it, Jess thought as she set down her takeout. Ms. Melody was a good boss and a nice landlady, but her frequent drop-in visits could be annoying.
Jess could also hear the rhythmic thump of Ms. Melody’s orange cat, Sweet Tea. There was a knock and the door opened a crack as Ms. Melody peered in. Sweet Tea did not wait for an invitation. The cat trotted in and jumped onto the sofa next to Jess for some neck scritches. Jess obliged.
Ms. Melody was only a little less forward. “Jess, I fixed you a plate.” She came into the room with a covered dish of baked chicken, dirty rice, and green beans. “But I see you’ve already eaten.”
“Actually, I just got started,” Jess said, “Thank you, this looks better than soggy cashew chicken any day.” This was no lie. Ms. Melody was well known for bringing the best covered dishes to all the church potlucks. Jess dug in.
“So, I went over to that new sweater store. It’s run by this cute hippy couple. Their names are Sonny and Skye. They seem nice.” Ms. Melody said.
“They’re new in town? What do they sell?” Jess stuffed a big bite of chicken into her mouth.
“They have sweaters and socks and bags and stuff, all made from Alpaca wool,” Ms. Melody said. “I felt it. It’s very soft.”
Jess nodded, her mouth full.
After a pause, Ms. Melody could hold in her curiosity no longer. “So, what happened at the farmhouse?”
“Well,” Jess swallowed and wiped her mouth on a paper napkin. “That whole thing went just peachy. Chace wants to have her wedding at my Aunt Patsy’s farmhouse and whatever Chace wants, Chace gets!” She didn’t bother hiding her aggravation.
“Did you talk to Patsy about it?”
“Oh, she thinks it’s a splendid idea,” Jess said with exaggeration. “Her eyes just lit up like it was Christmas.”
There was a pause while Jess kept eating. Ms. Melody waited patiently for the rest of the tirade.
“I mean, why did you say, ‘go right now – there’s still daylight’?” Jess said in a mimicking tone, gesturing with her hands. “That was a brilliant idea.”
Ms. Melody interjected, “I didn’t see any harm in it.”
“You knew what would happen. Chace just loved the farmhouse, wants to fix it up and put Mason jars all over the place.” Jess rolled her eyes. “This whole wedding is going to be a complete disaster. They’ve only got four weeks to put it all together.”
Jess munched some more, deep in thought. “I can’t let this happen, not at Aunt Patsy’s house.”
Ms. Melody made sympathetic noises and nodded.
“Who does Jack think he is anyway, barging in and taking over like he can do whatever he wants? I just can’t believe…” Jess stopped herself.
“But Aunt Patsy likes the idea?” Ms. Melody asked.
“Yep,” Jess answered with a sigh. “So I guess that’s that. I don’t have any say in the matter.”
That night Jess lay awake. She kept replaying everything in her mind and coming back to thoughts of her mother. If her mother were still around, none of this would be happening. She wouldn’t stand for this. Not for one minute. Would she?
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