Jess Sayin': A Grace Texas Murder Mystery
Her big mouth just got her in huge trouble. Can this sassy writer talk her way out of a life behind bars?
East Texas. Jess Hart refuses to give up on her dream. But after a divorce sent the twenty-five-year-old back to her hometown to lick her wounds, the feisty ex-journalist feels she’s hit rock-bottom. And when she’s fired from her job as a church receptionist, she pens a scathing public blog about her boss… who turns up dead.
Furious that the cops finger her as the prime suspect, Jess channels her old skills to dig into the eccentric congregation’s cast of suspicious characters. But with the tiny community keeping secrets and her ninety-something aunt meddling, she'll need more than her smart mouth to get herself off the hook.
Can Jess air a small town’s dirty laundry before she becomes the next person hung out to dry?
Jess Sayin’ is the delightful first book in the Grace Texas Cozy Mysteries series. If you like relatable characters, quirky casts, and vivid homey settings, then you’ll love Cherry Northcutt’s charming whodunit.
For a clever and funny read, buy Jess Sayin’ today!
Release date: April 26, 2020
Print pages: 372
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Jess Sayin': A Grace Texas Murder Mystery
Prologue: January 1, 1:45 a.m.
She was angry and confused as she eased her car into a space by the back wall of the church. Why had she agreed to meet here? What more was there to say?
As she emerged from the car she pulled her coat tighter against the chill in the air. Honestly, she knew the answer. She was here because they had argued and she wanted to resolve things. She stood next to her car and scanned the road, which was deserted. She thought about waiting in her car, at least it would be warmer. The time on her phone said 1:47.
Idly, she glanced at the bushes lining the brick wall. The parking area was bathed in light from the street lamp. Something shiny caught her eye, lodged half way down in one of the bushes. She bent to pick it up.
She heard the van’s engine and looked up. She was momentarily blinded by the bright headlights. The van was coming fast, directly at her. She stood up now, holding the object in front of her, as if to shield her. It was too late to run.
Friday, December 29, 4:00 p.m.
Jess had successfully avoided seeing her boss, Sandra, all day. It might turn out to be a happy new year after all. Jess was just returning from the education building where she had been setting out new attendance rosters. Back at her desk in the front office of the little church, she noticed a neon yellow post it in the middle of her computer screen. Take down the Christmas tree, it said in all caps. Sandra had been by.
Jess regarded the two foot, table-top tree dubiously. She didn’t want to take it down. It was still December, after all. She sighed and got the boxes out of the hall closet. She knew better than to ignore one of Sandra’s messages.
Jess had always loved Christmas. Only not for the last two years, since her mother had passed away. Her mother, Angela Hart, had always gone over the top for Christmas. She had decorated the whole house in and out and baked for days. There had been large jars full of cookies, fudge, shortbread, and bourbon balls all along the dining room sideboard. It had been wonderful.
This year Christmas had been awkward, stiff, and uncomfortable. She felt like an outsider visiting at her Dad’s new house with his new wife, Eleanor and her two bratty boys, Chad, aged twelve and Jeremy, aged ten. Worse than that, it seemed like her Dad had forgotten all about Jess’s mother.
Jess brought her attention back to the little tree, on the end table between the two wingback chairs in the cramped front office. She checked the clock on the wall. The New Year’s Weekend would begin in only fifty-eight minutes. Plenty of time to take down the tree. She began removing the ornaments and packing them gently back into their boxes.
It was a chilly, overcast day. Jess was looking forward to the weekend and hanging out with her BFF Avery on New Year’s Eve. She was also looking forward to having some alone time. After the frenzy of activity at Christmas, it would be nice to have some peace and quiet. Some time to update my resume and get my journalism career back on track, she thought. Of course she would have to work her Saturday morning shift at the antique store, her second job, but that was fine.
Her musings were interrupted by the phone ringing. She picked up the receiver and sang out, “First Church of Grace, this is Jessica speaking, how may I help you?”
“You want Roman Candles?” the caller asked, “They’re buy one get one.”
“Avery, where are you?” Jess asked.
“At the fireworks stand, I thought I would go ahead and get what we need for New Year’s Eve,” Avery answered, “We’re going half and half on this you know.”
“Yeah sure,” Jess said, “Roman candles are good and get a box of sparklers too.” Just then, Jess was startled by the click clack of Sandra’s high heels on the linoleum down the hallway. “I gotta go,” Jess hissed into the phone, “The boss is back.”
“Later,” Avery replied and clicked off. Jess busied herself with the ornaments. She glanced up when she felt the unwelcome presence of Sandra, the office manager, leaning on the door jamb between the hallway and the front office.
Great, what now, Jess thought. She looked up and gave Sandra her best fake smile. It had been almost a year since Jess had been hired as the receptionist and not once had she felt like Sandra was happy with that decision. Jess didn’t think anyone could get along with Sandra Dorian. She was impossible to please. In the last year the woman had hired and fired five different custodians, two groundskeepers and a countless number of part-time assistants to the pastor.
Jess herself had been given a written warning back in November which still did not sit well with her. It said that Jess had failed to anticipate the needs of the clergy but it didn’t spell out what specifically she had done wrong. Sandra had told her there would be a performance review in late January to determine the next step. Not if I get another job first, Jess thought.
Sandra came into the office and closed the door. She looked at Jess with her usual tight-lipped smile. Jess braced herself for yet another bashing session although she couldn’t think why. “Jessica,” Sandra began with an exasperated sigh, “the Committee had a meeting yesterday.”
Here we go again, Jess thought. The Staff/Parish Relations Committee was the bane of her existence at the church. It was a group of old busybodies who made it their mission to make her life miserable. “Okay?” Jess replied, patiently waiting to hear their newest complaint.
“We’ve decided to let you go,” Sandra said with a little head tilt.
“So I can leave early?” Jess asked excitedly. She began restacking the ornament boxes. “That’s great; I can finish up the tree next week. I’ll come in early on Tues...”
“No,” Sandra cut her off abruptly. She knit her brow and put her fingers to her forehead. “Let. You. Go,” Sandra repeated slowly and emphatically. “As in, I’m terminating your employment at the First Church of Grace.”
Jess was staring at her, open mouthed. “I’m fired?” she asked.
“There you go, I knew you’d figure it out eventually,” Sandra said with a condescending smile.
The suddenness of Sandra’s words took Jess completely by surprise. She couldn’t speak. She looked away, willing herself not to cry.
“You knew this was going to happen,” Sandra continued, shaking her head.
“But I was supposed to have a performance review at the end of January,” Jess protested. Her head was spinning.
“There’s no point in dragging this out for another few weeks,” Sandra explained, “this just wasn’t a good fit.”
Jess put down the box she was holding. The lump in her throat burned. “That isn’t fair.”
Sandra kept on, “To be truthfully honest with you, I just don’t think you’re cut out to be an administrative assistant.” Jess had heard these words from Sandra too many times. “You just never could anticipate the needs of the pastor and the staff.”
“Shut up,” Jess blurted out angrily, surprised by her own vehemence. If she was getting fired, then she was through listening to Sandra’s opinions. “What you mean is, I couldn’t read your mind, and if you recall, I was hired to be a receptionist, not an admin.” Jess pursed her lips angrily, hands on hips.
“Now there’s no need to get huffy,” Sandra said, handing Jess an empty cardboard box. “Here, this is for your things.”
Jess began putting her personal items into the box. She felt dazed. Could this really be happening? Sandra kept talking but Jess could scarcely hear over the pounding in her ears. Sandra said something about severance pay and another month on the insurance plan. Jess stacked her Bluetooth speaker in the box and a framed picture of her brother Tom with his family. She rifled through the desk drawers and tossed in a lipstick, some breath mints, and a tube of hand lotion.
On the desk she noticed her coveted red Swingline stapler. It had been a gift from her mother when Jess had gotten her first job at the Houston Newspaper. She reached for it and Sandra’s hand shot out, grabbing hers. “You need to leave the office supplies,” she said. “It’s church property.” Swiftly, Sandra reached out and grabbed the stapler.
“Oh no it’s not,” Jess stated vehemently, “that was a gift from my mother, I’ve had it for years and I’m not about to let you snatch it away from me.” With that Jess pulled the stapler out of Sandra’s grasp and set it into the box. She locked eyes with Sandra, daring her to protest. Sandra said nothing.
Jess shifted the box and lifted her coat off the back of the chair.
“Don’t forget your cross,” Sandra said, pointing to the large, blue and white, beaded ceramic cross hanging on the wall behind her desk. It had been a gift from Reverend Fincastle. Jess reached up to pull it down, even though she no longer wanted it. Why keep a gift from someone who was having you fired? The weight of it surprised her and she almost dropped the thing before wedging it into the box as well.
“And here,” Sandra said, handing Jess an envelope, “This is your last check, plus severance pay, plus all your unused vacation pay.” Jess took the check. Her mind was swirling a mile a minute. What else was there to say?
“So, I guess that’s everything.” Jess said flatly.
“Now, don’t cry,” Sandra tried to be soothing.
“Oh, I’m not,” Jess stated coldly. She began putting on her coat.
“This will give you a chance to really think about what you want to do in life.” Sandra held her hands out for a goodbye hug.
Jess stared at her in disbelief. Here she is firing me, Jess thought, and she wants a hug? “Sandra,” Jess began, her tongue dripping with acid, “to be ‘truthfully honest’ with you, I really don’t want a hug from you right now. I don’t want to be anywhere near you, ever again.” Jess grabbed her handbag and picked up the box on the desk. As Jess turned to leave, she heard Sandra clear her throat.
“One more thing,” Sandra said, “I need to get your key.”
Awkwardly, Jess fished the key out of her bag and tossed it on the desk. Without saying another word, she walked out the door. As she left she heard Sandra call out, “Happy New Year.”
Was she freaking kidding with that? Happy New Year? Jess wanted to turn around and give Sandra the finger, but maintained her composure. This was a church after all.
Jess walked to her blue Ford Fusion and threw the box in the back seat. There was that ugly ceramic cross sitting right on top. Jess wondered what she would do with it. The cross would always remind her of this moment. Without hesitation she picked it up and hurled it at the side wall of the church. It was heavy, cumbersome, about a foot tall and almost as wide. Unfortunately, her rage was ineffective. The cross did not hit the wall but fell into a clump of shrubs, where it lodged, unbroken.
“Whatever,” Jess muttered as she got into her car and drove to the convenience store at the end of the street. She parked on the side facing a wood fence and screamed into her cupped hands. Then she pounded her fists into the dashboard. It was all so unfair.
Jess got out her cell phone and texted Avery: The crazy harpy just fired me
Now what? Jess didn’t really feel like calling anyone else. Her mind was racing, her heart pounding and she didn’t think now was a good time to tell her landlady or her Aunt Patsy or her father. Great, Jess thought, another reason for Dad to be disappointed in me. Jess took some deep breaths and calmed herself before walking into the convenience store to pick up a few snacks.
When she got to her apartment, Jess was relieved to see that Ms. Melody, her landlady, was not at home. She parked on the gravel driveway in front of the three-car garage. Jess set her bag of groceries into the mostly empty box from the church and climbed up the side stairs to her apartment above the garage. She had inherited her mother’s extensive DVD and Blu-ray collection and she felt it was time for a movie marathon.
As she ascended the steps, Jess began putting together a blog post in her mind. Jess had a blog, aptly named Jess Sayin’. It was a lifestyle blog of sorts, about entertainment, restaurants, binge watching, modern manners, and whatever else she felt like writing about. The blog was a novelty in the small town of Grace and it had a good sized following of a few hundred readers. It was not, however, a money-making venture.
Jess Sayin’ Blog entry: Cinema Therapy – Work Related
Is work stressing you out? Dealing with your evil boss got you down? Well, join the club. I mean, let’s be honest, work sucks and bosses are the worst! But at least we have some quality entertainment to turn to for detoxing after a hard day.
Step 1. Take a long hot bubble bath.
Step 2. Prepare your drink of choice, be it wine, beer or a chocolate shake.
Step 3. Camp out on the couch and binge on some classic work-related comedies. Indulge in hours of revenge fantasies you can stream or go old-school with a DVD or Blu-ray. It’s a therapeutic way to stick it to the man, or woman as the case may be.
TV Series Binge List
· The Office
· Better Off Ted
· Parks and Rec
Movie Binge List
· Office Space
· The Devil Wears Prada
· Joe Verses the Volcano
· Working Girl
· Horrible Bosses
Jess stopped typing. Maybe I’ll post this later, she thought. Now it’s time for a little refreshment and one of Mom’s DVDs.
Two hours later Avery came through the door and found Jess, sitting on the floor in front of the sofa. Her DVD of Horrible Bosses was blaring away. Jess was drinking something cold and pink from a plastic water bottle.
“Well, you’ve got a nice little pity party going on here,” Avery said.
“Don’t judge,” Jess said, taking a big slurp of her pink drink.
Avery stood looking down at her, hands on her hips. “What’cha got in that bottle?” Avery demanded to know.
“Diet club soda,” Jess answered.
Avery reached down and took the bottle, sniffing it suspiciously. “And…?”
“Is that all?” Avery asked, knowingly.
“A splash of Captain Morgan White Rum,” Jess confessed.
Avery took a swig. “Only a splash? Hell, you’re never gonna get drunk off that.” She set the bottle on the counter and offered Jess a hand, helping her to her feet. “Get dressed; we’re going to Casa Maria.”
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