To make matters worse, the corpse is the mortal enemy of Lily and LauraLea. The last people to see her alive, were of course, Lily and LauraLea. Things aren’t looking good for the Artzy Chicks when Officer Screech of the Massanutten police begins to ask questions. Then Lily and LauraLea learn the murder weapon was something the lady purchased the night before at the Gallery. Gheeze! Can their good friend and local medical examiner, Dr. Kenzie Zee and her handsome investigator Benson, keep the Chicks out of jail?
Well, it’s gonna be tough!
Release date: August 18, 2019
Publisher: Bluestone Valley Publishing
Print pages: 227
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The Most Glittery Crime of the Year: The Jewel Heist: A Massanutten Tale
I usually don’t get to the Artisans Gallery early in the morning, or anywhere early for that matter. I figure that’s my reward since I’ve passed the half-century mark. However, it was my day to “mind” the store, otherwise known as the Artisans Gallery, a unique gallery of incredible art created by Shenandoah Valley artists. Collectively, our artists are known as “The Artzy Chicks” and while we’re all uniquely talented, several of us bring the words ditzy and zany to life. The gallery is housed in a 1700s log hunting cabin in Arboretum Park at Massanutten Resort. The cabin has been added on to and renovated several times, mainly around 1800. The gallery is busy during the spring and summer when the mountain laurel blooms and the kids are out of school. In the fall, the leaf-peepers converge on us like a swarm of locusts. In the winter, we get the ski folks and snow sports enthusiasts. We’ve found they’re not as likely to buy art, but they love to taste wine and drink wine Slushees.
We’re also home to a menagerie of animals. We have Gawd Almighty, the possum that was kidnapped a while back, Vino, our yellow lab, and Rembrandt, our calico cat who’s tasked to keep the mice down and the snakes under control. Also, Solomon, medical examiner Kenzie Zimbro’s black lab is often part of our animal mix.
Vino greeted me with a slow wag of his tail. He stretched his long, golden body in the summer sun and watched as I approached. He knows the sound of my vehicle. He’s a good ole boy who just appeared at the gallery one day. Life here is good for him and he’s never disappeared, except for when I take him home to live with me in the winter. We’re only open part-time after Christmas because we don’t have central heat, and I can assure you it’s freezing in that log cabin. The wind chill factor is below zero when the breeze rushes through those hand-hewn logs. When we’re open, we huddle around a gas stove and a few electric heaters, and drink endless cups of tea, coffee, or whatever’s handy which oftentimes includes mulled wine.
The Artzy Chicks love animals. We each have four or five of our own, and we take turns caring for the gallery’s pets. I’m in charge of Vino’s vet bills, but so far, he’s been healthy which is good because he does have a few vices.
Vino, along with Gawd Almighty, generally hang out on the porch and greet people. Vino ran over to greet me. I reached down, patted his head, and frowned at the pieces of cork in his teeth. His muzzle was stained a dark shade of purple. I groaned to myself. Vino’s a drinking dog, a wino canine, meaning that he just flat out loves to drink. Every time I take him to the vet, I expect to hear he has pancreatitis or poor liver function, but so far, we’ve been lucky. I shook my head and wagged my finger in his face. He hung his head. He knew I was gonna fuss at him. In fact, I was gonna bless him out.
“Vino, you’ve been bad. You’ve been in the wine again, and I bet you’ve eaten the corks in the barrel LauraLea was saving for the cork wreath-making class, haven’t you?” I scolded. “She’s gonna be so mad!”
Vino laid his head on his paws and looked away from me. I walked around the back of the cabin, and sure enough, Vino, or some other wild critter from the George Washington Forest, had turned over the barrel of wine corks. Hundreds of corks lay on the ground. I made a face at the lab who watched me carefully from a safe distance. I picked up corks for ten minutes. I threw the badly chewed corks away and salvaged the ones I could. I made a mental note to tell LauraLea, the Diva, to move them into our tiny storage area; that is, if she wanted a wreath class before the holidays.
Oh, before I go any further, let me introduce myself. I’m Lily Lucci. I’m mostly a writer of crime, mystery, and thrillers, but I’m also a watercolor artist and silk painter. I’m also an almost fully retired professor of nursing at a major university. Just today, LauraLea asked me if I’d teach an acrylic painting class. Yuck. Can’t wait. That’s being ugly, and I realize that. For me, touching the brush on the paper with watercolor creates a lovely, magical painting, but filling a brush with heavy acrylic paint and applying it to canvas is hard work. But it’s all great fun. Plus, I love to teach folks to appreciate art and colors. I truly believe that anyone can paint. If you just do it over and over, you’ll become a good artist.
I walked around to the front of the cabin and impatiently jabbed my key into the front door. I rattled the key and turned it right and left. I hate locks and keys, and pretty much any kind of metal or container that keeps me from where I want to be. I think it’s a leftover from my hippy days. Now that I’ve almost retired, I’ve shed the retread hippy look, and returned to my 1960s roots. Finally, through a stroke of luck, I managed to open the door and get into the gallery.
The Diva doesn’t let me work in the galley often because I always seem to mess up the cash register, and I’ve been known to confuse the inventory as well. I do show up a couple of times a week to sign books and teach painting classes; however, I’ll do anything in a pinch if someone is sick or can’t come in. I really don’t mind. I’m sort of a free spirit these days and the gallery is a fun place to work and hang out. Great folks work here, incredible artists hang out here, and even greater people shop here.
Vino followed me around the historic cabin to the front porch and came into the gallery. He knew he was in trouble, so he hung his head and looked pitiful. I relented, as I always do around animals. “Come on out here. I’ll clean your face while I drink my coffee.” I said as I headed toward the old rocking chair on the front porch. “We’ve got forty-five minutes before we open.”
Vino dutifully followed me and waited patiently while I filled his stainless-steel water bowl. He watched my every move, and when I put his bowl on the porch, I must not have placed it correctly, because he nuzzled it to the right with his nose until he had it in the perfect spot. I shook my head as I watched him drink greedily. When he finished, I was happy to see most of the wine cork had washed off his beard and lay in the bottom of his water bowl. I wondered how much wine he’d consumed. Lots of guests buy the Artisans Gallery’s famous wine Slushees and leave part of them in the paper cup for Vino. Oftentimes, they’ll purchase a bottle of wine, place their glass on the porch or picnic table, and Vino finds and drinks it… to the last drop. I’ve even seen him turn a bottle on its side and lick the drops off the side. He’s also a master at cleaning wine glasses with his tongue until you can’t tell if the wine was white or red. He’s a mess around wine.
I inspected his mouth and nose. His muzzle was stained pinkish-purple. He obviously preferred the Cabernets, but the truth is he’ll drink anything. Lots of times resort guests just give him wine, and there have been times when Vino’s clearly been intoxicated. We’ve had to stop that. Now, we have a sign on the door that says, “Please do not give our dog wine. We know he loves it, but it’s bad for him.” I wondered if there was a self-help group for dogs with an alcohol problem.
I’d sat down to enjoy the beautiful fall morning with my now slightly cold coffee when Officer Screech roared into the parking lot. I rolled my eyes and wondered what brought him outside so early on a fall morning. Screech flew out of his car before the police cruiser had even cut off.
“Miss Lily, Miss Lily, sumthin’s happened,” he hollered, his round face flushed with excitement, his brown eyes bright with anticipation and adventure. Even his cowlick stood higher on his head.
“Mornin’, Screech,” I said calmly as I stroked Vino’s neck. I noticed what appeared to be a mustard stain on his shirt and two missing buttons from his Massanutten Police uniform which allowed his stomach to poke out. I’d heard Screech liked the new hot dog and marshmallow place up at the top of the mountain. I forget the name of it, but it used to be a five-star restaurant named Fairways. The Diva and I would go there after a long day of art sales and have their French onion soup, and of course, a good glass of wine. I have no desire to journey up there for a hot dog and toasted marshmallows.
Screech was so animated that he was unable to speak. His eyes looked like they belonged to a wild man. “What’s up, Screech? You look excited.”
“Is Miss LauraLea here? Is the Diva here?” His voice was eager, his brown eyes poppin’ out of his head as he tried to peer through the window in the cabin.
“Nope, just me.” For some reason, Screech thought he always had to talk to LauraLea when any of us could help. “Check it out. This is what you get,” I said as I pointed at myself. “Now, just spit out what has your knickers in a jam,” I directed him.
Screech clearly considered me second fiddle even though I’d been LauraLea’s partner when we opened the gallery four years ago. Whether he knew it or not, I still had measurable influence.
He stared at me as though he was afraid to open his mouth.
I tossed my head impatiently, stood, and walked to the door. “Okay, whatever. I’ve gotta open this place. It’s almost eleven,” I said as I sipped my now very cold cup of coffee and ruffled Vino’s fur. “If you have something to say, you’d better say it because I’m just about out of time.” I stared at the deputy.
Screech looked uncertain and he raised his hand to push down his cowlick, a nervous habit I’d noticed he had when he was anxious. “Well, I don’t know…” he hesitated. “But, I guess you’ll do.” He hesitated again and began, “Well, we had this tip… there’s a body down the hill and…” Screech covered his mouth and mumbled. “I’d better wait for Miss LauraLea.”
I’d had enough. I stood up, grabbed my coffee, and entered the gallery to cut on the seventy-five lamps that illuminated the impressive collection of wall art, antiques, handcrafted wood, jewelry, and everything else you’d find in a fine art gallery plus a wine Slushee machine.
Screech followed me into the cabin and in a loud whisper said, “Miss Lily, we got a body, a DEAD body, and it’s in your backyard… right down there,” the excited policeman announced as he pointed out the window. “Wanna go with me to see it?”
I stopped in my tracks, turned around, and looked at the deputy. “What did you say?”
“I said we have a DEAD body. Right down there,” he said loudly as he pointed to the woods behind the cabin. “Screech was so excited he practically jumped for joy.
I felt my heartbeat pick up. Could there really be a body? A dead one? Massanutten’s a five-star, four-season resort that includes a relatively sedate community called Massanutten Village located inside the resort. I don’t think we’d ever had a murder at the resort or in the Massanutten community.
“Well, you wanna go see it?” Screech’s homely face was bright with the thrill of the moment. “The medical examiner will be here soon. I think she’s half-way here from Roanoke,” Screech informed me, swollen and puffed up by his self-importance.
I shrugged my shoulders. “Sure, let’s go,” I said as I let Vino into the gallery and closed the door. If there was a crime scene, I sure didn’t want Vino messing it up. He’d probably go down there, spit cork all over the dead person, and screw up everything.
Screech and I walked around the back of the gallery where I saw a couple of wine corks I hadn’t picked up. We walked about a hundred yards down the Arboretum Trail. Shortly after that, we reached the collection of blue stone rock next the end of the trail, a stone’s throw from the Rockingham Spring house.
Screech was so excited he that nearly skipped through the woods. “Lookie over here,” he said excitedly. “Lookie, just look Miss Lily,” he bellowed as he waved me forward.
I walked toward him, but he held his hand up for me to stop.
“Halt. Stop. Stop right now, Miss Lily. You can’t come no further. This is a crime scene,” Screech informed me as he held up his hand.
I shook my head. “I can’t see anything, Screech. Why’d you bring me down here?” I asked, a little irritated. “I’ve gotta open the gallery,” I checked my watch.
Screech pulled a roll of crime scene tape from his jacket pocket. He pulled off a yard or so and tossed it to me. “Here, walk where I tell you and we’ll mark the scene. I’m the first cop here and it’s my job.” His voice was inflated with self-importance.
I grabbed the yellow tape and paraded in a circle, walking over damp leaves, moss, and sharp rocks. I followed Screech’s commands to a “T.” I spotted two deer watching us with interest, their noses wrinkling and their ears wiggling in the morning sunlight. Then I saw the body.
I’m sure my quick intake of breath and the small sound that escaped from my mouth scared the deer away. I could see the body about forty feet away. It lay by the small pond near some rocks. There were two candles on either side of the victim’s head. I knew exactly who it was. I knew the dead person. I recognized her coat. Plus, I saw the plastic bag next to her. It was an Artisans Gallery bag, imprinted with our logo. My heart did a flip-flop. Holy crap! It couldn’t be. But… I was sure it was.
“Oh, my goodness, Screech! I know who that is,” I said as I struggled to control my breath and the timbre of my voice. “At least I think I do,” I said in a quieter, hopefully subdued voice.
Screech nodded as he stood next to me. “Somehow, I thought you would, Miss Lily. The dead lady is someone who’s been in your gallery.”
“In the gallery; not my gallery,” I corrected him. “But yeah, she comes in there all the time and complains about everything we have. She returns most of what she buys.” I heard aggravation in my voice. “She was not particularly nice, but I guess we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.” I was, if nothing else, a Southern lady, and remembered my manners. I’d been taught many years ago not to speak ill of the dead by my grandmother and my mother. I was still not sure what this Southern mannerism was about. It’s not like we have a vote on who gets to heaven. I’m inclined to call things like I see them, especially now.
Screech’s not-too-smart eyes bored into mine. I looked back at him. “I’d advise you to not say anything else,” he suggested. “I can use it against you, you know.” Screech was bloated with importance. “If I feel like it,” he said with a wicked grin.
I wanted to flip him off but instead continued to study the body from a distance. “Can I look more closely at the body, Screech? Do you know how she died?”
Screech nodded, “Yep. I think so. Even more importantly, I know the murder weapon,” he said with a sly smile. “I know exactly what killed her.”
“Can I go closer?” I asked, not sure if I really wanted to.
Screech shook his head. “Nope, not until Dr. Zimbro gets here. She’ll be here soon, maybe ‘bout a half an hour. She may let you look.”
I nodded. I admired Dr. Kenzie Zimbro, our local medical examiner. Kenzie was my friend and an honorary “Artzy Chick.” Kenzie lived on the mountain and was a great customer at the gallery. She’d taken every art class we offered, and she helped me all the time with forensic details in my crime novels and medical thrillers.
I gave Screech a dirty look. I supposed he was doing his job, but I wondered why he’d dragged me down here in the first place. I guess to help him unroll the crime tape. Then I wondered why the Massanutten Chief of Police had trusted him with an entire murder scene. Somebody must be out sick, or they must be setting up speed traps on the mountain for the locals.
I shrugged my shoulders and flipped my hair back. “Okay, I’ve gotta go then. I need to open the gallery. I’m sure there’s a dozen people on the porch waiting to get in.” I turned to leave.
Screech was panicked. “No, no, please Miss Lily. Don’t go. Can’t you stay with me for fifteen minutes or so until Dr. Z gets here?” He asked, a hint of fear in his voice. “I don’t wanna stay here alone.” His brown eyes darted around as he peered through the woods. He pleaded with me, and his arms were outstretched.
I shook my head. Was Screech afraid of the dead person? “No. I’ve got to go. Call another one of Massanutten’s finest,” I suggested. “I’m a writer and artist. I don’t have any real background in crime scenes,” I said although that wasn’t really true. I’d written more crime scenes than most police have investigated. I’d worked with a lot of law enforcement officers over the years. That’s how I knew some of the Massanutten police were a bit sketchy, and trust me, that’s the nicest word I can come up with for them.
Screech’s shoulders sagged. “There’s no one. They’ve all gone to Richmond for some dumb weapons class. I’m alone,” he admitted as he pleaded. “I need you to stay… be my witness, so I don’t get blamed for doing anything wrong,” he confided to me. “Please, Miss Lily. This is my first murder.”
I shook my head. What the devil was I getting myself into? Number one, I knew the victim; she’d shopped at the gallery last night. Number two, the victim had bats in her belfry, and she hated the gallery. And number three, I had a feeling she had one of my crime novels in that Artisans’ Gallery bag. It was possible that the Diva and I were the last two people to see her alive. A dead lady who was a nut case and detested LauraLea and me. This was, for sure, a no win for me.
“Please, Miss Lily.” Screech begged me.
Of course, the dead lady disliked most everyone on the mountain. She didn’t like the gallery either. Nothing about this was good for me, or LauraLea, for that matter, but I was a softie and let my kindness get in the way of my brainpower.
“Okay, Screech,” I consented. “I’ll stay for a little while, but I gotta go up to the gallery and get my phone. I’ve gotta call the Diva or Diane to cover for me. We’ll be swamped in thirty minutes,” I said as I checked my watch.
Screech gave me a grateful look and, for a moment, I forgot how irritating he was. “Thank you, Miss Lily,” he said with a relieved sigh.
I walked back toward the galley and caught a glimpse of red on the ground. I walked off the trail and saw it was a book of matches. I carefully picked it up, touching only the edges. The matches were from the Lonesome Pine Bar in Shenandoah. I’d heard of the place but had never been there. I wished I had a plastic bag. I continued to look for clues on my way back to the gallery, but nothing else caught my eye. “Screech,” I yelled. “I’m gonna close the Arboretum Trail. The last thing you need is a bunch of resort guests traipsing around down here.”
“Good idea, Miss Lily. That’s a really good idea,” he said. “Go for it.”
“Okay,” I said cheerfully. I knew he would never have thought of it.
Realization set in and my heart was in my throat by the time I got back to the gallery. A murder. A dead lady I knew… and didn’t like. This was the stuff that books were made of. I went inside, found a black magic marker and a piece of cardboard and wrote an ARBORETUM TRAIL CLOSED TODAY sign. I took it outside and stapled it to the Arboretum Trail sign. I knew the last thing Kenzie Z wanted was to have her crime scene trampled by a bunch of Massanutten locals and tourists hoping to glimpse a bear along the way.
I returned to the gallery, grabbed my cell phone, and dialed LauraLea’s cell. She answered with her normal smart aleck salutation, “What the heck do you want?”
“You need to get in here. We’ve got some trouble.” I hope my voice didn’t sound as frantic as I felt.
The Diva was out of breath when she answered the phone. I supposed she was at the gym or something like that… or maybe she’d just styled her hair and waved her arms around her head. One never knew with LauraLea.
“What’s up, Lily? Are you late getting to the gallery?” She asked sarcastically. If the truth was known, neither of us could get anywhere early.
“Yeah, I’m here, and you need to get here as soon as you can,” I said impatiently.
“No way,” LauraLea said. “I’m coming in at two to do wine tastings and pour the wine. Not one minute sooner.”
“Nope,” I insisted. “Now. We’ve got a dead body in the backyard.”
“What? What did you say? Are you kidding me? No way.” LauraLea laughed. She didn’t believe me.
“I’m not kidding. I’m serious as a train wreck. I’ve seen her, and Screech is down there guarding the corpse.”
I could only imagine the look on the Diva’s face and her magnificent eye roll. “Screech, they sent Screech to investigate a murder? Are they nuts?” LauraLea’s voice was condescending. She hesitated and continued, “No never mind, you don’t have to answer that,” she said with a short laugh.
“Seriously, LauraLea, you need to get in here. I’m serious. We know the dead lady and she’s not one of our favorite people.”
LauraLea was silent for a second. “Oh? Who is it?” She asked in a quiet voice.
“It’s Sally Sue Baxter.” I whispered, but I’m not sure why. “At least it looked like her. Same coat. Screech wouldn’t let me get too close.”
LauraLea said one of those words I usually don’t write in my books. She let out a long whistle. “Sally Sue Baxter? Of all people. And she’s been murdered in our backyard?” I could only imagine the look on LauraLea’s face.
“Yep,” I confirmed. “I saw her body down by the pond, just off the Arboretum Trail.” I waited for LauraLea to comprehend and then added, “and there are two of our soy lotion candles and an Artisans Gallery bag right next to her.”
LauraLea was silent, something that generally never happens. I waited about thirty or forty seconds, which seemed like an eternity and then repeated myself. “We have a dead body on the Arboretum Trail, and it’s someone we know.”
LauraLea recovered enough to say, “A dead body? Sally Sue, right? We had nothing to do with it, at least nothing I know of.” Her voice was hushed with a touch of frantic.
I shook my head. “No kidding. But, it’s Sally Sue Baxter, and she was our last customer last night. It’s possible that you and I were the last people to see her alive. At least that’s what Screech said to me.”
“Screech, oh my gosh! Who else is down there? I can’t believe they sent Screech out to investigate a murder by himself.” LauraLea said in dumb-founded voice.
I laughed. “Yeah, well they did. He’s the only cop on the mountain. Apparently, all the rest of them are in weapons class in Richmond today,” I said with the least amount of sarcasm I could.
LauraLea was silent for a moment and finally said, “And you’re sure it’s Sally Sue Baxter? Everyone knows she hated us.”
My heart raced a bit as I considered LauraLea’s implication. “Yeah, but she didn’t just hate us. She hated almost everyone. I heard they might throw her out of the Women’s Club.”
LauraLea sighed deeply and said, “They’ve been sayin’ that for years. I’m sorry the old girl’s dead, but she’s been a thorn in our side and a boil on our butt – and most everyone else’s on the mountain – forever.”
“No argument here,” I said. “But, you need to get in here. Screech has already said, in so many words, that we’re suspects. She has an Artisans Gallery bag next to her body, and somebody, I suppose the killer, lit a candle, maybe two candles, close to her head.” I paused for a response, but there wasn’t one. “The candle burned all night in the woods… at least, that’s what Screech told me.”
“What?” LauraLea asked as I heard her drop another four-letter unmentionable word. “Why did the killer light a candle? That’s weird.”
“No argument here,” I agreed. “Maybe it was a scent that keeps the animals away,” I suggested.
The Diva thought for a minute and said, “Perhaps. That’s possible. Okay, let me get a shower and dressed, and I’ll be right in.”
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