It was hot. Too hot. The Dog Days of Summer always were. The Artsy Chicks had been painting, teaching classes, crafting and blending the Art Gallery’s famous Wine Slushees for hordes of thirsty customers. Things seem okay until Lily notices that Gawd Almighty, the Gallery’s pet possum has disappeared.
A Murdered Professor
A short time later, Dr. Kenzie Zimbro, the medical examiner for the mountain area, stops by the Gallery and tells the Chicks about the strange murder of a Virginia Tech Biology Professor at the tip-top of the mountain. His dead body was surrounded by kernels of corn. Lily and LauraLea put on their detective caps to search for Gawd Almighty and find themselves tangled-up with the Hillbilly Clan and in a life-threatening position.
Release date: January 22, 2019
Publisher: Bluestone Valley Publishing
Print pages: 208
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The Most Awfullest Crime of the Year: Gawd Almighty and the Corn: A Massanutten Tale
The July heat beat through the old hand-hewn logs at the 1700s log cabin that housed Artisan Galleries. It was hot and five of us sat around a crowded table as LauraLea, the gallery owner, wandered through her laundry list of announcements the artists needed to know. I generally don’t think of LauraLea as someone who drones on and on, or purposefully tries to bore people, but today she was ready to pluck my last nerve. I was hot, thirsty and tired of sitting on my butt cramped in a corner by the fireplace. The window air conditioner grunted and hissed in its war against the outside heat. It was only 10:30 in the morning and the mercury had already blown past 90 degrees.
“Guys we’ve got to make a decision.” LauraLea was getting provoked. Her green eyes flashed with impatience. “We've spent enough time on this. Let’s vote." She glared at us over her stylish tortoise-shell reading glasses as she tapped her pencil incessantly on the table.
The lack of voices in the cabin said a lot. Only the hum, whirl, and groans of air conditioners and fans were audible. Five incredibly talented artists, better known as the Artzy Chicks, stared at each other without comment. And, if I must say so myself, this was most unusual. For all of us to stop talking at one time happens about as often as a snowstorm occurs during the Dog Days of Summer. In other words, never.
I could tell that Diane, one of our older artists, main sales person and chief cook and candy maker, was about to blow. Diane likes to have everything perfect, even to the point where the pencils are lined up parallel to each other at each check-out area. She insists the shopping bags be stacked perpendicular for easy, quick plucking to bag art purchases. I’m not gonna tell you how she arranges the tissue paper we use to wrap the treasures the Artzy Chicks lovingly create. Diane likes everything ready at least thirty minutes before opening time. Diane is from New York State. She’s a Yankee and she does everything in fast time. She’s not used to the quiet, slow, genteel ways of the South, even though she’s lived here for forty years. She’s a retired elementary school teacher and trust me, she has no patience. She’ll tell you in a New York minute that five-year-old kids used up her patience years ago.
I found the persistent tapping of LauraLea's pencil against her pad of paper a little unnerving. LauraLea, known to insiders as The Diva, is the owner of the Artisans Gallery Art and Gift shop located on Resort Drive at Massanutten, a five-star year-round glitzy vacation spot in the Virginia Mountains. She’s an incredible artist and does the best wildlife drawings I’ve ever seen. She also uses pastels. We sell lots of her prints of bears, wolves, bison and most any other kind of wildlife or domestic animal.
The continued silence of my fellow artists irritated me, so I spoke up. I looked around at my good friends and fellow artists. I cleared my throat and stared at LauraLea.
"Here’s the deal, LauraLea. No one wants to open earlier on Sunday. Even though we all work in the middle of Time Share Country, we’d like part of one weekend day off.”
LauraLea glared at me. “Are you sure, Lily?”
“Yep. Positive.” I could see the faint nods of the artists. “Right now," I said as I glanced out the window at the crowd gathering on the front porch waiting for us to open, and most likely, their first wine Slushee of the day, "I suggest we open the gallery."
Tammy Lynn, our country music queen and mixed-media artist shot me a grateful smile, rose from the table and moved into the wine tasting room where she opened six new bottles of wine for tasting. Everyone else scurried to their appointed places as well.
LauraLea shook her head. "I'm just gonna make the next major decision by myself and that will be to double art classes. How about that," she groused as she smirked at me. “It’s hard to practice democratic principles when no one responds.”
I watched as Vino, our gallery yellow lab rescue, moved from under the table where he’d been napping and walked slowly into the tasting room where he hoped a few drops of wine would fall his way. Vino was a drinking dog. He loved wine.
I nodded and took a seat behind the table where I was signing my books. "Good luck with that! I think you should do whatever you want to do, LauraLea. We all know you're going to anyway," I said with a smile and a short laugh, “so you may as well get on with it."
LauraLea grinned at me, "Aren't you glad we only have these meetings quarterly?"
“I’d rather you switch them to online annually,” I grumbled. It was still before lunch time, so I tried to be politically correct. "I think quarterly is often enough. All of us would rather be creating art as opposed to being in a business meeting where you make all the decisions anyway."
LauraLea nodded and shot me a dirty look. "You wanna go to lunch? I'm hungry."
I checked my watch and shook my head. "Not now, LauraLea. Let me sell a few books first. You know I'm always good for lunch, just not right after I eat breakfast," I reminded her.
LauraLea shrugged her shoulders, stood and walked the short distance to the ‘back room’ where the Slushee machine, a 14-karat gold piece of molded plastic, churned wine, a sweet mixer and ice, and created what most people considered an amazing wine slushee for a mere price of six to ten dollars. The cost was sometimes by the size of the cup and at other times by whom was running the register.
I followed Laura and watched the machine turn over the ice and wine. It was a beautiful color. Since I'm a serious wine drinker, when I do drink, red and white wine slushees are hands down, not a choice for me. Yuk. But trust me, everybody else loves them, especially now during the dog days of summer. You wouldn't believe the number of people who visit us, browse the gallery and drink three or four wine Slushees as they sit on the porch and look at the mountains. Of course, that’s perfect for us – especially if they buy books and art. After all, they’re on vacation.
“Oh, you readers out there. It occurs to me that you don’t know me. Let me introduce myself. My name is Lily Lucci. So far, you know I only like good wine… but there’s more. I'm a child of the sixties, and a former business school graduate who turned into a nurse and a college professor. In the past few years, I’ve morphed into a medical thriller, crime, and more recently into a cozy mystery writer. I'm also an artist who spends lots of time painting and creating. To top it all off, I still see a few patients now and then and teach a class at my old University.
I live in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Today, I'm with my friends at the Artisan Galleries located at Massanutten Resort, that is full-to-capacity. I sign books up at Massanutten Resort Conference Center on Monday afternoons, and down here at the Gallery on another day during the week. LauraLea and I started the gallery as partners six years ago, but I left a few years ago when I retired from James Madison University. I’d decided I wanted to be a full-time writer. My duties here are limited which suits me fine. Since I frequently mess up the sales and inventory computer systems, I seldom have to cashier and I’ve messed up Diane’s perfect pencil and paper system, so I’m not even wanted. I am rarely allowed behind the desk. My main job here is to smile and be nice. I also take care of the gallery critters, a drunken dog, a cat that scares snakes, and a possum with a sleep disorder. We have a few pet snakes once in a while, but I’ve put my foot down on that. Someone else can take the snakes to the vet. Every now and then the opossum, Gawd Almighty, will eat a snake which I think is just fine.
A screeching noise on the front porch startled me. I quickly ran to the door and looked out.
A middle-aged man and woman were almost to the top of the handicap ramp when the woman screamed and pointed, her voice shrill.
"Wilbur, what's that monster on the front porch? It looks like a prehistoric beast! It might attack us," she screeched, her voice loud and unpleasant enough to wake the entire mountain. Vino, who’d followed me to the door, turned around and ran into his hidey hole, under a table in the ‘right room’ as we call it. Vino often sleeps inside at night. He had it pretty good for an art gallery pet.
Wilbur, tall, with a bit of a paunch from living the good life, slowed his step, peered at the creature, took off his sunglasses and looked again. I opened the door, stood on the front porch and smiled.
“Good morning. I see you’ve noticed Gawd Almighty,” I said pleasantly.
Wilbur spoke. "Why, why, that looks like – well, I hope it’s a possum, an opossum," he said with a slight stutter. Possums sleep during the day, or, at least they're supposed to."
I nodded at Wilbur's surprised look. "You're absolutely correct. It’s a possum and, he's full-grown," I said proudly.
Wilbur's wife cowered back, "Is that beast going to attack us?" she asked, her voice loud and unkind to my ears.
I shook my head. "Nope, no way. He's as gentle as a lamb and much nicer than a Chihuahua I owned in my youth," I assured her.
The woman shot me a look of disbelief, so I walked over, sat in a rocking chair and called for Gawd Almighty, yes, that's our possum's name, Gawd Almighty, to come over and play. Immediately, as if on cue, Gawd Almighty, named by a man very much like Wilbur, left his corner space, came over and stood on his hindlegs, his paws resting on my knee.
Wilbur walked a little closer. "He's a big boy. Wow, he must weigh at least 25 pounds,” he said his voice loud.
I nodded and pushed back my short naturally highlighted frosted hair and said, "Gawd Almighty is almost 3 feet long and at his last vet visit, he weighed 27 pounds. So, yeah, he's big. He’s a marsupial, the only one in North America.”
Wilbur’s wife looked at me like I was an alien.
“Marsupials carry their young internally as other mammals do, and then later in an external pouch called the marsupium, sort of like kangaroo do in Australia,” I explained.
“Uh huh,” she murmured as she gaped at Gawd.
“These creatures shared the earth with dinosaurs over 70 million years ago. While dinosaurs are extinct, opossums are still here, relatively unchanged. They must be doing something right, don’t you agree?" I smiled.
The lady had totally missed my opossum 101 lecture.
“That… that thing goes to the vet? The woman had reached the second step of the gallery porch. She ogled me, still uncertain about approaching Gawd Almighty.
“Of course, he goes to the vet. All of our gallery animals go to the vet,” I replied crisply, as any good pet owner would.
"Will, will he bite me," she asked as she took a baby step forward.
I shook my head. "No, I promise, he won't. We have people that come here just to see Gawd Almighty every year. They even bring him food," I elaborated as I watched a beat up old green pickup truck pull into the gallery parking lot. I figured it was maintenance. I craned my neck to look at the bed of the truck. It looked like a bunch of cages.
"What does he eat?" Wilbur asked as he pulled out his iPhone to snap a picture.
"He likes a lot of stuff, but his favorites are snakes and fruit. At least that’s what possums eat in the wild."
"Snakes, snakes, are there snakes around here," the woman said. "And he eats them?"
I nodded my head. This was my favorite part. I couldn't believe people came to vacation at Massanutten mountain, located in the middle of the George Washington Forest and didn't know we had snakes. I often wondered where they thought the snakes lived. "Yep he eats them every chance he gets. But he also likes oatmeal, cereal, birdseed and apple cores. Truthfully, he's not finicky," I announced.
Wilbur was about a foot from me by now and he was taking pictures of Gawd Almighty from every angle. "This is great, this is the coolest thing I've ever seen," he announced. "So far, this is the best part of my whole vacation,” he said happily to the click sound of his iPhone.
I beamed at him. Gawd Almighty was cool but I was sure resort management would cringe at that statement. Most people loved the waterpark, the golf course, the ziplining, the pool, the classes… Anything but Gawd Almighty the resident possum that lived at Artisans Gallery.
I had noticed a second couple as they parked their car, their Cadillac SUV, and walked on the porch. The lady waved at me.
"Hello Ms. Lily. Wonderful to see you." She moved over and patted Gawd Almighty behind his ears. “Hi Gawd, you look great.”
"Hi Nina. I knew you were here this week. Great to see you, too." I watched Nina drop to her knees to be at eye level with Gawd. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched a man get out of the green pick up and head back towards the woods.
The first lady stared at Nina as if she were from outer space. "You'd better be careful. He might bite you," she said as her voice wavered.
Nina flashed her an irritated look and shook her head. "No, he won't. I've known him for years. He's gentle. And, he's special, wouldn't you agree?"
The lady shook her head. "I guess. But why?"
Nina’s behavior betrayed her every thought and I’m sure she thought this lady was stupid. "I'm sure you know that possums sleep during the day. Gawd Almighty has a sleep disorder. He's one of the few possums around that are awake all day long," she said a happy light in her eyes. "He's famous in some circles." Nina continued to stroke Gawd Almighty as he waited for her to pull some snacks from her purse which she did."
"Well," I said. "Nina can tell you all anything else you need to know about Gawd Almighty. It's getting too hot out here for the likes of me so I'm gonna go in and hopefully sell some books."
Nina hollered at me and said, “Sign me three of the last one. I’m gonna give them as gifts.”
I smiled. “I will, and I have a new one, too,” I announced.
“Put it in my bag,” Nina said as she continued to feed Gawd treats. I didn’t know exactly what Nina did, but she worked in some capacity for the National Zoo in Washington, DC. I figured she knew a lot more about opossums than I did.
I heard barking before I reached the gallery door. Seconds later I saw Dr. Kenzie Zimbro’s black lab Solomon, and our very own art gallery dog, Vino, run up the hill from the fishing pond. I knew they’d be wet and smelly. I was right. I chased them off the porch. It was too crowded with three adults, two dogs and Gawd. I knew Kenzie, our local medical examiner, would pull up in a couple of minutes. She always let her beloved dog, Solomon out a half a mile or so before the gallery where he met up with Vino.
Kenzie stood in the door of our tiny storage room which housed the refrigerator, a few shelves, the bathroom, a small table with several chairs. The sacred Slushee maker was there as well.
We loved Kenzie. In fact, we’d made her an honorary Artzy Chick. After all, she'd taken every class we’d ever taught at least twice. I knew when Kenzie was older and had more time, she’d completely develop the right side of her brain and become an outstanding painter. But for now, Kenzie had to entertain herself as medical examiner for Rockingham County and several other counties in the Shenandoah Valley. Kenzie was a phenomenal person and did great work. Her medical skills were the best, and we loved her dog, Solomon who seemed magical at heart. Most of us had a crush on Benson, her chief investigator. We all hoped Kenzie liked him too because it was crystal clear to the Artzy Chicks that he liked her.
"Who’s dead?" LauraLea asked above the monotonous, humdrum of the Slushee machine. “Dead how?”
“LauraLea, honestly, how do you know someone is dead?” I ask impatiently. “Perhaps Kenzie just stopped by to visit.”
LauraLea shook her head. “Nope, no way. I can tell by the way she moves. Her movements suggest she’s in a hurry to get somewhere,” Laura insisted.
Kenzie laughed. “LauraLea is right. I haven't visited the scene yet, but apparently, it's a guy, a Virginia Tech professor, a botanist. "
LauraLea shrugged her shoulders, a surprised look on her face. "Who’d murder a botanist? Don't they play around with leaves and stuff?" she asked as she poured a couple of bottles of wine in the groaning Slushee machine.
My eyes caught Kenzie's eyes and we both rolled them and gestured towards the slurping machine. In my mind and in Kenzie's, wine slushees were ludicrous and disgusting. In The Diva’s eyes they were dollar signs.
"Oh, I don't know, but sometimes botanists do pretty cool stuff," Kenzie said as she rearranged her long dark hair in a scrunchie. The heat was stifling in the back room and the smell of wine almost overpowered me.
“Apparently, the botanist is pretty important. He rented the ginormous log structure at the tip-top of the mountain, The Mountaineer Conference Center, for a meeting."
"A conference? What kind of conference?" I asked as the drone of the Slushee machine began again.
"I don't know," Kenzie said. "But I can tell you, it's hotter than hades in here," she added, as she opened the freezer for moment and stuck her head in it. “Besides, the smell of wine is overwhelming!” she said with a smile.
"Want a Slushee for the road, Kenzie?” LauraLea teased. “It'll keep you cool on your way down the mountain," she snorted with laughter.
I could swear Kenzie got a shiver when she considered drinking a wine Slushee. I saw her wipe chill bumps from her forearms. “Nope,” she said with a grin. “I’ll stop at the 7/11 and get myself a grape Slurpee. But I did stop by for a bottle of wine. Benson’s cooking Thai tonight. What do you suggest?”
LauraLea tossed her highlighted hair, pointed to me and said in her snotty voice, "Check with Dr. Lucci, the wine snob, Dr. Zimbro," she suggested with a smirk. "After all, she used to own a winery.”
I rolled my eyes again and motioned for Kenzie to follow me. "I’ve got just the thing. It'll be perfect with whatever Benson cooks," I promised.
Kenzie checked her watch. "Okay. Why don't you ladies come and join us for dinner," she invited. "I should be home by six."
I looked over at The Diva who nodded and said, "I don't know if I can stay for dinner, but I’m sure the two of us can come for drinks. How about that?" she replied as she winked at me, her green eyes flashing in anticipation.
"Works for me. Drinks only. That way I can get back to the ‘Burg and let my dogs out before they flood my house," I nodded.
“Bring your own poison, Diva,” Kenzie ordered. “I don’t serve that sweet wine in my house,” she reminded her.
LauraLea nodded. “I always bring my own. I don’t like to share or run out of wine,” she reminded us.
“We know,” I said as I smiled at Kenzie.
Diane rang up Kenzie's wine but declined her invitation for drinks. I knew Diane's hip was bothering her. Otherwise, she’d never miss cocktails on Kenzie's deck."
I walked Kenzie to the door and watched her hustle Solomon, the love of her life, into her SUV. Kenzie never traveled anywhere without Solomon. Vino watched sadly as Solomon left. I looked over by the porch window to be sure Vino and Gawd Almighty had plenty of water. Vino looked up at me with a hang-dog look as Solomon breezed away in his mother’s vehicle. I hoped Vino would cheer up soon. I reached down and rubbed his ears. I was sure there’d be a few other dogs down at the park for him to play with shortly.
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