Her number is up . . . This Christmas, Tallie Graver would like to take a break from running her cleaning business to be with her boyfriend, Max, and enjoy their first holiday together— alone. Instead, she’s stuck keeping her mother and grandmother from duking it out during the town’s annual Christmas Eve bingo game. As for festive spirit, she’ll have to settle for her mean-spirited Aunt Ronda, whose mouth could use some soap. The night only gets worse after Tallie discovers Ronda’s body. It seems someone cleaned her clock with a can of varnish. While all the evidence points to Ronda’s husband, Tallie doesn’t believe her beloved Uncle Hoagie could do such a dirty deed. Of course, his sudden disappearance doesn’t help his case. If Tallie hopes to clear his name, she’ll need to dig up some dirt to locate the real killer. Otherwise, someone else could get rubbed out . . . Praise for Cremains of the Day “Simon kicks off a new series that combines a bit of humor and romance with a heroine who knows no boundaries while searching for the truth that will keep her out of jail.” —Kirkus Reviews “An amusing new series with an engaging, spirited sleuth.” — Library Journal “You’ll be cheering as the clues pile up in this creative cozy mystery.” —New York Times bestselling author Lynn Cahoon
Release date: September 29, 2020
Print pages: 304
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Varnished without a Trace
Maybe in other parts of the world it was a happy, fun game, with joyous shouts of winning and prizes galore, from money to baskets. Maybe people gathered together with dried corn and game cards that had seen a lot of use over the years, a lot of laughs and a lot of woo-hooing.
We, however, had a medic on hand in case things got, well, out of hand. Like that one time a bingo caller, the guy who pulled the numbers and read them off, was given a fat lip after the last game. No caller had yet landed in my family’s funeral home due to grievous injuries from doing their volunteer job, but I wouldn’t have been too surprised if that ever happened.
In my town, though, as in others in our state, it was kill-or-be-killed regarding a game dependent solely on a cage full of balls and some cards with corresponding numbers. Even if it was Christmas Eve.
I just hoped the rash of fires we’d had recently wouldn’t interrupt the game. Then again, maybe that was exactly what was needed tonight to get me out of what could be an awful evening. We’d have to wait and see.
My grandmother, my mother and I walked into the fire hall prepared to enjoy this tradition at about six. By 6:05, I knew from looking out over the sea of bingo players sitting in their historic seats that it might not be the bowl of jolly laughter my mom had hoped for to distract my visiting grandmother.
We walked up and down the aisles of long tables, empty-handed when others had whole luggage carts of things with them. We finally settled on a table halfway to the back of the room to play the traditional Christmas Eve bingo game, me between my mom and grandmother like the buffer I’d been signed up for.
And then I was promptly assaulted by an angry woman with a bingo bag.
“Tallie Graver, you move your tushy right now. This here is my seat!”
I jumped up before anything else could be said and found another seat another row back. Then I was moved again. By the third move, I was ready to take on any of these grandmas and chain myself to one of the folding chairs, even if my headstone would read “Tallie Graver, Death by Dauber.” I was sure my dad would direct a beautiful funeral and have Mortimer Smith down the road carve me a lovely headstone.
I wasn’t complaining too much, though. I’d already been moved three times away from my mother and my grandmother, so I was out of harm’s way. I hadn’t counted on those women who had been playing for fifty-seven years, every Tuesday without fail, and always sat in the same seat, but I should have.
My grandmother was old enough and had lived here her whole life, before moving to Florida five years ago, to simply turn around and give the demanding you-stole-my-seat accuser the mom-eye. Each one backed away, apologizing. Grumbling the whole way, but still apologizing first.
With her steel-gray hair pulled into a severe bun, the woman was not to be trifled with. It was probably one of the reasons my mom could be such a softy. I would be too if I’d grown up with someone who could stop someone in their tracks with one disdainful glance.
I, however, was not in that age group, nor had I achieved the level of evil eye that Jane Moreland had at eighty-five. For many reasons, I had never gone up against my mother’s mother for anything, even when I was too little to understand what that meant. There was just something about the forbidding woman that made you walk on tiptoes. So I had made my way through life preferring to stay under her radar. Even my ex-husband, Walden Phillips III, had never tried to take her on, and that was saying something.
But I was supposed to be the buffer between the two women this evening. She was my grandmother, and I had agreed to support my mom, Karen Graver, while Jane was here for the next ten days. Ten long days.
Getting moved meant I still got points for being in the firehouse playing bingo, but I didn’t have to be next to Grams while she kvetched about every person in the room and even some who were long dead.
I ended up between Alice Mudge, the sweetest woman in town, and Ronda Hogart, probably one of the meanest. Sweet Alice was also a little crazy, but I’d take that any day over the constant sneer on Ronda’s face.
This was going to be so. Much. Fun. I almost wished I had put my foot down and told my mother I wasn’t going tonight because my boyfriend, Max Bennett, was here for our first Christmas Eve, and I wanted to spend it with him and just him. Instead, he’d come with us and was currently wandering around, looking at all the food on the laden tables against the walls. My best friend, Gina Laudermilch, had outdone herself, along with the pizza shop down the street and the diner at the edge of town.
“It’s so nice to see you, Tallie,” Alice said, straightening her hunter-green cardigan with its snowman pin and smiling with her whole face.
“Just stay out of my way, girl.” Ronda was also my great-aunt or something like that on my mom’s side. It was a foggy situation, as with many people in town. Really, any relative older than you became an aunt or uncle, and anyone your age was usually called a cousin.
I only knew that the same blood ran through our veins, and that made us family to some extent. And it was expected that you would tolerate, if not exactly cherish those blood relatives. So I had to be nice to her even if she wasn’t someone I specifically looked for to spend any time with.
“Happy Holidays to both of you,” I answered. “Hopefully, there are some good prizes tonight.”
Alice’s smile widened and Aunt Ronda just snorted, then said, “Why did Christmas have to fall on a Wednesday this year? All you interlopers playing at my game and cutting my chances of winning. It’s a disgrace. They should have closed it to all you toe-dippers and left it to the people who are committed. There’d better be some cash prizes or I’m taking it up with Howard.”
Howard Allerman was the mayor of our little burg. And I had no doubt she’d do just that. Christmas Eve tended to be more of a basket bingo event where, instead of money, you walked away with a basket full of goodies. I would have preferred cash too, but I probably wouldn’t win tonight, so it didn’t matter. Part of me hoped to win just to make Ronda mad, but the other part wanted to get out of here without the wicked queen of bingo breathing venom down my neck.
Looking around the huge fire hall festooned in swags of evergreen branches and red ribbon, I finally zeroed in on my boyfriend. When we’d walked in, I’d sent Max on a mission: to buy me something to get me through sitting between my mother and my grandmother. Now I might need him to head down to the bar on the corner if I had to sit between these two. I wouldn’t even be here if my mom hadn’t begged.
Mom turned around at that point with her brow crinkled. I could hear Grams talking from here, even though I couldn’t make out what she was saying. It must have been something mean, because my mom looked like she was going to scream. I shrugged at her and pointed to my two seatmates. The little hooligan smiled like the Grinch standing at the top of the mountain making plans to ruin the Whos’ Christmas.
Well, at least I didn’t feel so bad now.
So here I was, sitting on a metal chair at a plastic table, waiting for the girl to come around with the cards. Alice, to my right, would probably play six to ten cards at the same time, and Aunt Ronda would ultimately have to top her with at least twelve, because it was two games on a card and that was a whole lot of games.
And me? Well, I’d be lucky to keep track of one card with two games.
On either side of me, the two ladies started pulling out all manner of things from their custom tote bags. Bags that were emblazoned with the words BINGOQUEEN in very precise and brightly colored embroidery. Bags that had holsters stuffed with all their good-luck tokens. Bags that were their lives.
Why did I have to get stuck next to the Bingo Queens? And how many queens could there be in our little town? It was a nightmare come true. And then a third one walked over with her own bag absolutely bulging with all manner of things.
“Why, hello, Ronda,” Jenna Front said, lowering her bag to the table next to the older woman.
“Seat’s taken, go away.” Ronda didn’t even look up at her.
Jenna’s face went stony. “There’s no one here.”
“There might be, and I’d prefer it to be anyone but you.” Aunt Ronda placed her bag on the chair. “I have four kids, not five, and certainly not six. Whatever that rat of a husband of mine has said or done before, that’s not going to change just because of what he wants. Now, don’t bother me. We’ve had our words. Go bother someone else.”
Jenna left in a huff and I almost got up to follow her. She’d recently signed on for my cleaning crew, so I felt responsible for her.
I put my hands on the table and started to rise when Ronda’s heavy hand fell hard on my shoulder. “Don’t you dare. Tina should be around soon with the cards and I won’t have you making the game later than it already is. She’ll be fine. She’s just in a tiff.”
“But she’s a friend, and that way you and Alice can sit next to each other like you normally do.” I tried to make it sound convincing, but she wasn’t buying it.
“You need to make better choices in friends. Now sit and stay.”
I almost barked at her to tell her I understood and wanted my treat for obeying her orders. My mother chose that moment to turn around again and shake her head at me. Fine, but I was going to leave as soon as I could then.
Troll dolls were set precisely in between little angel statues and small stones. Everything was geared toward good luck and the ultimate prize of being able to yell “bingo” and walk away with lots of money, or baskets in tonight’s case.
They both took out round containers with little colored discs rimmed with metal to use to mark their cards. They also had magnetic wands to collect them when the game was over. I had nothing like that and sheepishly pulled the red-and-white cardboard French fry boat of dried corn toward me.
Tina Metzger finally came around with the cards, thank heavens. Alice pulled her six with wild abandon, almost flinging them all over the carefully set-up table. I took the top one from the stack when she was done.
“Thanks, Tina. How’s your son?” I asked.
“We don’t have time for chitchat, Tallulah. Take your card and let her move along. She’s late as it is.”
No one but my father called me Tallulah, and that was only when he was irritated with me. I shouldn’t have been surprised that Ronda used my full name now.
“We’ll talk later, Tallie.” Tina gave me a pained smile as Ronda took the whole stack out of her hands and very carefully laid out four stacks of ten, then cut the decks in half and removed the middle three from each.
Oh, yeah, it was going to be a long night.
But then Max dropped off a funnel cake absolutely covered in powdered sugar and a kiss on my cheek just as the bingo caller at the front of the room turned on the microphone with a high-pitched whine.
Bill Jacobson, the minister at the First Presbyterian two streets up, laughed, and it boomed throughout the high-ceilinged building. “I’d say let’s get ready to rumble, but I think that’s a different sport.”
Right, one that wouldn’t involve as much blood and foul language as I expected to fly around tonight.
And then we were off. We didn’t have one of those fancy automatic ball machines; we still had the metal roll cage that had to be hand-cranked. Jenna’s husband, Nathan Front, from down at the hardware store, sat with his sleeves rolled up next to Pastor Jacobson. He cranked and he cranked, and then the pastor pulled out the first ball: “O-63.”
The numbers were called out fast and furious. I had a hard time keeping up, but Alice and Ronda were throwing down the disks on their cards like they were master blackjack dealers in Vegas.
“B-7.” Pastor Jacobson held up the ball, then placed it in the slot in front of him about ten minutes later.
The woman in front of us stood up and screamed, “Bingo!” like her hair was on fire. A chorus of groans went up and the foul language started next to me as Aunt Ronda whisked her wand over her twelve cards, then squeezed off the little chips into her container, muttering words my mom would have washed my mouth out over even at almost thirty if she heard me use them.
I looked around for where Jenna had landed, but didn’t see her. I’d catch up with her later and share this incredibly funny experience with her, maybe over tea with Gina. I had to make sitting here worth it somehow.
“Oh, Ronda, watch your language. There are more games in store and you wouldn’t have wanted that basket anyway. Look at it, it’s filled with those baking pans and oven mitts. You don’t even cook!” Alice reached across me to smack Ronda’s hand, and I worried that it might be the last thing she’d ever do.
Instead, Ronda shook her head like an angry dog and got herself set back up. I had almost expected spittle to fly from the corners of her mouth. Ah, well, it was still early in the game.
I took a bite of my funnel cake and smiled around it as if enjoying it, but instead I was enjoying the moment. Maybe a little too much, as I missed the first call of the next game.
Things were hopping after that. Games were won and lost. Alice got the basket from the bakery, which made her squeal, and I found that if I paid attention for the most part, I could people watch while I played my one card. The room was full tonight with all manner of citizens from our town and a few people I didn’t know. Ronda’s husband, Hoagie, who owned the hardware store, buzzed by with a smile to hand her a drink. She snorted at him and shooed him away.
I watched with a smile as my mom’s cousin Velma flirted with a guy at the snack stand. Two men in suits I didn’t recognize walked the perimeter of the fire hall, then greeted the woman who ran the shoe repair shop on Locust with a hug. Uncle Sherman, the fire chief, waved to me and Chief of Police Burton sent a terse nod my way.
Fortunately, it had been months since I’d had to have very much interaction with Burton. No one had gone toes up when they weren’t supposed to recently, so I could mostly stay out of his hair. Of course, we still had people who were passing away. My dad was as busy as ever at the funeral home that had been in our family for generations, but for the most part they’d lived full, long lives, not died under mysterious circumstances. And I hadn’t found them. That was a win-win situation as far as I was concerned.
Maybe it wasn’t such a bad night after all.
Ronda wasn’t having the best of nights, though, and her husband, Uncle Hoagie, had to force her hand down at the last moment when she picked up one of her troll dolls and cocked back her arm to throw it at the pastor. Hoagie only managed to delay the action, because she chucked it hard as soon as he walked away. The pastor knew enough to duck when it came zooming right at his head.
Alice chuckled from her seat next to me. “I told them they should put up the chicken-wire cage tonight, even if it is Christmas Eve, but they didn’t listen to me. Pastor Jacobson is getting more agile, though. Last week it hit him in the eye and he had to give his sermon Wednesday night with a big old shiner.” She chuckled again. “You missed the B-3, dear.”
She put one of her disks on my card, and low and behold, I had bingo! I shot out of my seat like there was a firecracker under me.
Alice clapped and Ronda gave Grams a run for her money with the death glare she sent my way. Especially because it was the last game and she hadn’t won a single game all night long.
“Lousy interlopers. Shouldn’t even be allowed to play. Lucky greenhorn.” Each derogatory phrase and some others that contained those words my mother would kill me for saying was punctuated by her sweeping her arm across the table and scooping everything into her tote bag.
Uncle Hoagie ran over to help her when she was done and she shoved him out of the way. His face fell. Sliding a hand over his brow, he slicked back his sparse hair and raised his bushy eyebrows. The mole above his eye got a vigorous rub and then he walked in the opposite direction. Poor guy.
“Stomping” was a light word for the way Ronda pushed and shoved her way out of the hall and through the back door. It all happened so fast, I hadn’t even gotten around to moving from my place at the table yet.
I glanced toward Alice and she shrugged her shoulders. Moving my gaze to where Ronda had sat, I saw that in her fury and haste, she’d left her purse on the chair next to her.
“Did you see Hoagie?” I asked Alice, really not wanting to do the right thing here and go after Ronda with her purse. Giving it to Uncle Hoagie to give to his irate wife would be far better than chasing after her.
“Nope. You’d better go get your prize, though, before someone else tries to steal it. And I’d watch my back on your way to your house if I were you. I know it’s a short walk, but it could be a treacherous one, if you know what I mean.” She chuckled and kept packing up her own things. It wasn’t the same laugh as before, that jovial, fun one. This one had a slight tinge to it that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
“Okay, then. Well, I’d better get this out to . . .” But Alice was already gone with her bag of luck that hadn’t gotten her much tonight.
Max approached, looking like someone I could get to do this errand for me.
“Hey, Tallie, great win tonight. Now you can take me out to dinner.” He smiled at me and I smiled back.
“Can you go give this to Ronda?” I held up her purse. “She went out the back.”
His face pulled into an adorable frown that had me frowning too. “I promised I’d help break down the tables. Maybe you can catch her. I heard the parking lot is a madhouse.”
Well, darn it. I was going to have to face the evil queen of bingo anyway.
Better to make it quick and be done. Maybe I would find Uncle Hoagie first. That would work.
With that in mind, I headed out the back door, the way I’d seen Ronda go. Everyone else was heading out the bay doors out front, so of course she’d had to be the odd one.
I couldn’t rem. . .
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