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Sneak Peek: Chapters 1-3 of Post Mortem

 

Chapter One

“Would you like a brownie bite?” was all I had to ask the group of teenagers before they bombarded me, snatching up all the fresh baked goodies Iris Peabody had made for the end-of-the-year fundraiser for the Sugar Creek High School Booster Club.

With an empty tray, I headed across the ballroom at the Sugar Creek Country Club toward the kitchen to get a refill.

“Oops.” I lifted the tray in the air and twirled around when someone bumped into me. “I’m sorry. Luckily, empty tray.” I pulled the tray down and gripped the edges, thankful I didn’t have anything on it.

“Sorry, Bernie,” Rachel Faulkner, another mom in the booster club, apologized.

“It’s okay. No harm. Say—” I noticed she was looking around and not really paying attention to me. Her brows were knotted. “I heard Les got the engineering grant. That’s amazing.”

Her son, Les, was probably the smartest kid that’d ever come out of Sugar Creek High School. He had always dreamed of going to one of those fancy Ivy League colleges, and Rachel and Jeff, her husband, had always been so great about letting Les go off to the various camps he wanted to attend. If I remembered correctly, his first camp was when he was six, and it was out West. It was some sort of chemistry camp. I remembered thinking there was no way Grady, my son, would’ve been able to remember to change his underwear daily, much less go twenty-something hours away to a camp and get up to attend any sort of classes.

“STEM. STEM grant,” she corrected me. “I’m sorry, Bernie. I’m looking for Jeff. Have you seen him?” She touched my forearm. I could feel it shaking.

“I haven’t. Are you okay?” I asked and repeated STEM in my head so I could remember to ask someone about it.

“No. I can’t find him. He’s not answering his cell phone, and his foursome came in hours ago.” As she spoke, I felt her worry. “I’ve asked everyone, and no one seems to have seen him. It’s not like him.”

“I’m sure he’s somewhere around here.” I wanted to make her feel better, and I felt like I was right. “When I make my rounds and see him, I’ll tell him to come find you.”

“Thanks, Bernie. If you see him, text me. I’m worried.” She shook her head and hurried off to the next person she recognized. When I passed them, I overheard her asking them the same question she’d asked me.

“Have you seen Jeff? I can’t find him anywhere.” Her voice trailed off as I continued to head to the kitchen to get a refill of the baked goodies since I was on teenager duty.

“I think if we don’t make the money, Jeff and Rachel Faulkner will go nuts.” I kept my head down but walked a smidgen slower after I heard some gossip.

Another woman said, “I know. She wanted to do the casino night again.”

“That would’ve been the fifteenth year they’ve done it,” I heard another woman say. I almost looked up to see who it was, but since I had been the president of the Booster Club at the time they were referencing and was the one who started casino night, I didn’t.

“Yeah. We needed a refresher, and if this golf outing doesn’t do well, it’s back to casino night next year.” A long sigh came out of the first woman I’d heard talking.

I rolled my eyes and headed into the swinging door that led to the country club’s kitchen, where I found my best friend and amazing baker, Iris Peabody, and the head chef of the country club, Audrey Rogers, plating all the trays they could as fast as they could.

“Have you seen Jeff Faulkner?” I asked a couple of the other moms who had volunteered to carry trays to the guests of the fundraiser. They shook their heads. “If you do, please tell him his wife is looking for him.”

“What was the big eye roll about when you walked in?” Iris placed tiny little paper cupcake holders on my tray. Each one was filled the perfect bite-sized vanilla cupcake with a nice thick topping of buttercream icing and a sliced strawberry on top for decoration.

“I overheard some of the women out there talking about how this fundraiser had to make more money than the casino night. Because they don’t want to go back to casino night next year.” I did my best impression of them with a whiny voice to match the feeling they gave me.

“I’ve been hearing a lot of that lately. I guess they didn’t like casino night.” Audrey put the finishing touches of the charcuterie board before one of the waitstaff of the country club carefully picked up the massive piece of wood and slowly propped it up on one of his shoulders. He gingerly took a few steps to get his footing and then walked out of the kitchen.

Iris headed over to the refrigerator and walked in.

“Casino night was great.” I put my hands on my thick hips and gave a pouty lip. “I should know. That was when Grady was still in high school, and I was the booster mom.”

My son, Grady, was now a grown man with a family of his own. Recently he and his wife Julia had blessed me with my first grandchild, Clara. The thought of her made my heart swoon with delight.

“I remember how much you stressed over it.” Iris emerged from the walk-in refrigerator with a cookie sheet filled with mini cheesecakes and set them on top of the workstation. “The first hour was a bit touchy.” She looked at Audrey then picked up the can of whipped cream and shook it. “Bernie was counting the money every, what? Ten seconds?” she questioned me.

“Maybe, but after a few drinks in those dads, we were rolling in the donations.” I nodded with a big grin across my face.

“That’s why casino night works. They were at the table betting and not driving around in a golf cart drinking all day.” Iris made little volcano on top of one of the cheesecakes and put a raspberry in the middle for the decoration before she plated it on the tray for another volunteer to take out for the hungry golfers and their families before the big meal was served.

“Yeah. Then they come in here and eat all the food, which soaks up the alcohol.” Audrey had moved over to the oven, where she was checking on the personal-sized hens she was serving.

“Yep. That’s when they’ll realize they don’t want to write a check because they are thinking a little clearer.” I pushed the swinging door open a little and peeked out to see if Grady and Julia had gotten there yet.

I didn’t see them, but I did see Rachel Faulkner. She seemed to be in a panic as she rushed around to the various groups and hurried away as soon as their heads shook no.

“Your idea of having the casino dealer asking after each hand if they wanted to donate their chips to the booster club was brilliant, because they were so busy drinking and gambling, they didn’t realize their chips were adding up over the hands, and they just kept buying more chips when they were out.” Iris walked up behind me and also took a peek out. “Wonder where Jeff is?”

I turned around when I recognized the tone in her voice.

For a brief moment, our eyes caught. I could see there a deep concern on her face, but I didn’t dare ask. I didn’t want to know.

“Here.” She shoved the new tray of brownies in my hand. “Go give these to the kids.”

“Your time with me is limited,” I reminded her.

“I know, I know. Clara comes first,” Iris teased, shoving me out the door.

She was right. Baby Clara came first, now that she was here. I had altered my entire life around Grady and his needs after he was born. Richard had a good job, and I was able to quit my mail carrier job and be a stay-at-home mom. It was a wonderful time for me and Grady. Grady had been in high school when Richard was killed in a car wreck and I had to go back to working at the post office. Even though Grady was a teenager and could pretty much take care of himself, I still spent every waking moment outside of work to be there, and that included all the school events as well as being the booster president.

Even when Grady went off to college, I stayed involved in the school system. Sugar Creek Gap was a small mill town in the foothills of the mountains in Kentucky, so there weren’t a lot of parents who had time to volunteer, or they’d leave once their children were out of school. Since I knew a lot of people in the community, it was easy for me to stay involved.

I was glad I had, because Grady had come back after college to take a teaching position at the high school and the head football coaching position. He married Julia, who I couldn’t love any more than I did, then recently had Clara, who I did love more than anything in this world.

So when they asked me if I could watch Clara during the big fundraiser, it was a no-brainer. I was able to help out Iris for the first hour and then take little Clara home with me for the night while Julia and Grady had a night out.

“What’s on your tray?” my mom asked when I walked up to her and Dad, who were standing with a few women from the community.

“Not a thing. Those kids cleaned me out.” I stuck the tray up under my arm. “Are y’all having a good time?”

I looked around at the ladies I knew very well. There was Doctor Jeanine Olson, the local veterinarian, and Matilda Green, who owned the Roasted Bean, a local coffee shop. Sara Rammond, who owned the Leaf and Petal, a garden center, and my parents, who were the owners of Wallflower Diner, the restaurant on Main Street, rounded out the group.

“We are. I hope someone nice wins my silent auction item.” Sara Rammond was generous enough to offer a free day’s worth of landscaping.

“That was very kind to offer your time.” Matilda nodded. “I donated a basket of coffee goodies.”

“It seems like everything is getting some nice bids.” Dr. Olson held a drink in her hand. “I’m just not sure it’ll bring in more money than previous years.”

“Where is Grady? I want to see my Clara.” My dad beamed when he talked about her, no different than the rest of us. She was a light in all of our hearts that never dulled.

“I don’t know.” I pulled my wrist up to look at my watch. “They said they’d be here right after her supper, so it has to be any minute now.” I looked around to see any sign of them. Nothing. “Oh well, I better get back to the kitchen so Iris gets to use me before I hold Clara all night long.”

“You better not hold her all night. You’re going to ruin her for Julia, and she won’t let you babysit no more.” My mom gave me a warning that went in one ear and out the other before I headed back in the direction of the kitchen.

“Any luck?” I ran into Rachel Faulkner again.

“No, and I’m starting to get really worried.” She blinked a few times before Ranger Slater took the stage.

“Good evening, and welcome to the Sugar Creek Gap Country Club. On behalf of the staff and members, we hope you have had a great day on the links and continue to have a wonderful evening for a great cause.” Ranger gestured over to the silent auction. “We hope you continue to bid on all the wonderful items that have been generously donated by members of our community. I believe I’m the winning bid for a free oil change donated by Colvin Batty from the gas station. I believe my wife, Peggy, is winning the gorgeous blanket made by Leotta Goldey from Social Knitworks.”

I was glad to see Ranger making an effort to get people to bid higher. It was the only way to generate some donations inside of the country club. From what I had understood during one of the booster meetings, the real money was donated from the various people who had sponsored each golf hole, and a portion of the fee to enter the golf tournament also went to the boosters. Though I had no idea. I was not a golfer.

“Hey there, beautiful.” Without turning around, I knew the sweet sound in my ear was Mac Tabor, my devilishly handsome and amazing boyfriend. “You come here often?”

“Stop it.” I twisted around and smiled. “How was the golf course?”

“Meh,” he grumbled. “You and I both know I’m not a golfer. I wish they would’ve just let me donate instead of pretending to even know how to hit that tiny white ball. What do you say we blow this joint?”

“You know I’m waiting on Clara.”

“And that’s why Grady and Julia are waiting outside in the parking lot for you, and why I came in.” He pulled something out of his back pocket and held it up between his fingers. “And to drop off my donation check.”

“You’re the best.” I gave him a quick kiss on the lips. “You go put that in the donation box while I say goodbye to Iris and grab my purse.”

“I’ll be waiting in the parking lot.”

Mac Tabor had been in my and Grady’s lives forever. It seemed like forever. He came with Richard. Not in our marriage. He was Richard’s best friend, and he was alongside of us throughout our marriage and really there for me after Richard died. Some not-so-flattering things about Richard and a secret life he’d had the entire time of our marriage had practically brought me to my knees and broken me. Luckily, Grady and I had Mac there to help pick up the pieces and make sense of what had happened.

“I don’t know. He walked off the course mad,” I overheard a man telling Rachel. “He and Bruce Kline got into an argument. From what I could see, they had a few words, then Jeff walked off. But not before he threw his golf club.”

Rachel’s face went pale.

 

 

Chapter Two

“Those curls. Those cute little pink lips,” I gushed while looking at Clara, who was fast asleep in the bassinette I kept at my house that was located on Little Creek Road. Mac stood behind me in the small guest bedroom that I had completely redone to fit anything and everything Clara would need when she was at Granny’s house.

“I’d like to say that being a granny really looks good on you, but you were exactly the same way with Grady when he was a baby.” Mac stood behind me, his arms around me. His chin was resting on my shoulder as he, too, looked at her.

“You know,” I lifted my arm up and put my hand on the back of his head, not taking my eyes off of the sleeping baby, “I’m so glad you were in our life when Grady was a baby. I’m glad we have those milestone memories to talk about, and I don’t have to tell you about them.”

“Funny how Richard knew this moment would come.” Mac recalled how he had deliberately placed Richard in certain moments in my life throughout the time of our marriage, which was based on a lot of lies. “He had a feeling that one day this might happen.”

“I’m glad I opened my heart to you.” I slipped around in his arms and kissed him.

“Let’s go watch some television.” My hand slipped down his arm, and I grabbed his hand, pulled him out of the bedroom, and quietly shut the door. “I wish they would let her sleep here.”

“You’re going to have plenty of time with her at the farm this year with all the spring babies. The weather is going to be fabulous this week. So wouldn’t you rather have her when she’s awake?” He made a perfect point.

“You’re right.” Both of us sat on the couch. Mac propped his foot up on the coffee table as I reached for the remote. “Here, I’m beat. You pick.”

“Let’s just sit here in silence. I’ve been in meetings all day. I’m sure Julia told you she’s been holding down the office.” He curled me to him before he tilted his head back to rest on the back of the sofa.

“No. She didn’t mention it. She rarely talks about work now. I’m guessing it’s because of us.” I squeezed him around his midsection and dug my head deeper into his chest, taking in a deep inhale, letting his cologne fill my heart with joy. He was always put together, complete with a spray of his signature scent.

“I’ve been so busy with new clients building houses or adding on that I’ve not had much time in the office. I’ve got to carve some time out this week to get in there and lay out all of the plans.” Mac was an architect, and he did everything from residential to commercial since he was the only architect in town. “I told her she could bring Clara in, but she seemed hesitant about it.”

“Hhmm, that’s weird. She hasn’t even asked me to babysit on my day off. I don’t even recall her asking for my schedule.” I was off one day a week so Monica could get out into the field and work.

Monica loved to deliver the mail and always wanted a route, but when she had to take over for me for a few weeks, she pretty much decided she would just like to fill in on occasions and not do it every day. The job wasn’t for everyone.

I enjoyed it so much. I loved talking, for one, and for two, it was great exercise. I’d been trying really hard not to let the extra menopause weight grab me, but it appeared my yoga didn’t ward off the extra cookies I’d been eating from Iris, who had me as a taste tester.

What were friends for?

“Did you happen to see Jeff Faulkner before we left or anytime you were at the fundraiser?” I asked.

“I told you I didn’t before, and I didn’t see him any time after that. Why do you keep asking?” he asked in a muffled voice.

I pushed myself off of him and lay back on the arm of the sofa to face him. He didn’t bother looking at me. He was still stretched out with his feet propped up on the coffee table, and now that I wasn’t taking up the space on his chest, he’d crossed his arms. His head was still back, and his eyes were closed.

“I can’t get the worried look on Rachel’s face out of my head. She just seemed so upset, like he was in trouble, but I did overhear Bruce Kline and he got into an argument. I wonder what about though?” I sighed. “What do you think?”

Silence. Dead silence came from Mac.

“Mac?” I rolled up on my knees, sinking into the cushion to look at him. “Mac?”

When he didn’t move or answer, I knew he was asleep.

The stillness surrounded me, which was eerily strange with a dog and cat in the house. I glanced around and saw Rowena was curled up in the corner of the armchair near the front window and Buster was lying on my mail carrier bag underneath the table.

I shook my head, knowing the little rascal could smell the delicious scraps of food I had in there earlier from the Wallflower Diner, that I would throw to a duck that lived across the street from our house on Little Creek. Buster always had the nose for any food, and he’d eat it too.

A set of headlights swept across the front windows and into my house. Even though I got up to see who it was, I knew it was Grady and Julia there to pick up Clara. And in a matter of minutes, the house was empty except for me, Rowena, and Buster.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

The engine of the LLV my work mail carrier truck, grumbled, rumbled, and shook before it finally settled on a loud bang, sending all my coworkers into the air and causing a sudden jerk of their heads before all eyes were on me.

“Good morning,” I trilled into the darkness. My voice echoed off the mountains surrounding Sugar Creek Gap, Kentucky. “It’s a fine day here in the holler.”

That garnered a few snickers from them.

“I’ll go get Monica.” One of my coworkers put his clipboard in his LLV and disappeared into the early-morning darkness to head inside of the post office to retrieve the clerk.

Monica Reed was pretty knowledgeable about the LLVs and anything having to do with the post office.

Not sure what the problem with the LLV was, I still did my walk-around with my clipboard in hand, marking off anything and checking everything like we did each morning.

This was a ritual we mail carriers had to do before we headed out on our route to deliver the daily mail. It never failed that someone generally had an issue with one of their vehicles. The post office wasn’t about to buy us new delivery trucks, and that was why they were LLVs, short for Long Life Vehicles.

“What do we have here?” Monica came out and gestured me to get into my truck. “Turn her over,” she instructed.

Nothing.

“Are you turning it over?” She craned her neck around the arm of the side mirror on the driver’s side.

“Yes,” I said and sighed, turning the key again but this time saying a little prayer. “Please, please, please.”

Nothing.

“Looks like we’ve got us a goner.” She walked over to my side of the LLV and frowned. “Do you want me to get Colvin Batty to come on down?” She pulled the phone out of her pocket, as she appeared to be checking the time.

“No. It’s too early.” I got out of the truck, headed around to the back, and slid the garage-style door up to get the first loop of mail I’d already put in there. “I’ll deliver the first round to the nursing home by foot. I’ve done it all the times before.”

Over the winter, the post office must’ve felt bad for me, or Monica had given the postmaster general a good talking-to, because I’d been delivering mail by foot for as long as I had worked as a carrier. It wasn’t like it was a rough route. My first loop of delivery was to the nursing home located right behind the post office. Neither that loop nor my downtown loop was a big deal to walk. In fact, I really enjoyed it.

It wasn’t until the third loop, and the houses that were in the neighborhood that had started to grow, that the walking took up more of my time than the actual delivery of mail.

I would never admit to being old or even older, even though I was in my early fifties, but the freezing temperatures over the winter took a toll on my body during that time. I hated to admit it, but I went slower, and that made the days go longer. Monica had to thaw me out a few times with some super-hot coffee and a space heater in the back of the sorting room at the end of the day, which made me believe it was Monica who had pushed the idea that I needed a truck. When the temperatures were in the single digits, I was truly grateful for the truck.

Truly, the only thing the truck did for me was take the load off of my back, literally.

“It’s going to be a gorgeous morning. I have no problem walking. Besides, I need the exercise.” I patted my backside.

Over the past couple of years and going through menopause, my body had morphed into something I barely even recognized. After I had my only child, Grady, I thought my body was awful and would never be the same. My mom always told me to appreciate my body before I hit menopause because it was going to throw me for a loop, and a loop it had.

All the shops were lined up on the left, and the old Mill Creek ran along the right. There was a working mill wheel that still turned at the top of the creek, even though it was put in way before my time when the settlers had named Sugar Creek Gap. The preservation committee did a great job all of these years making sure the wheel was kept in tip-top shape.

Recently the first bookstore opened, The Mill Bookstore, and we couldn’t be more thrilled.

“Good morning,” Leotta Goldey welcomed me when I walked into Social Knitworks. “I’ve got a few pieces.”

I made my way through the shop and found her sitting on the ground with a lapful of knotted-up yarn balls that had seen much better days.

“My goodness.” I had to force myself not to snicker. “That looks like a mess.”

“I swear if these mothers don’t start making their yungins mind, I’ll do it.” She shook a ball of yarn in the air. “Not Julia. Clara can do whatever she wants in here when she’s a toddler.”

“Oh my, don’t make her any older than she is.” My heart sank at the thought of my sweet granddaughter, Clara, growing any faster. “The time has already gone too fast for me.”

“Enjoy it while you can. You’ll blink your eye, and Clara will be an adult, doing her own thing if you don’t mind the time.” Leotta shook her head and stood up. “How you think the fundraiser went last night?”

“I’ve not heard.” I dug down into my mail carrier bag and found the mail for Social Knitworks in a rubber band. Monica had already bundled it for me. I replaced it with the outgoing mail Leotta had in the basket. “I was going to ask Grady about it last night when they picked up Clara, but he and Julia were in a hurry to get home.”

“I reckon they did all right. I heard it on the morning talk show on WSCG. You know Lucy Drake in the morning?” She stood up and looked down at the rest of the yarn that needed to be unknotted. She pushed back her hair. “That’s just gonna have to wait until I’m not frustrated. Anyways, Lucy said Sable Kline was happy to report an increase in donations from last year. She believed it was due to the wonderful idea Aidy Moora had to actually host it at the country club, since she had gotten the facility for free and they didn’t have all the overhead from previous years.”

“Did she?” I had to let any feelings I was personally having about the fundraiser’s change from casino night to golf outing slide off of me. Even though I was the one who started casino night, I didn’t have high school children and honestly stayed in the booster club to be involved with Grady and his life.

Boys seemed to be so different than girls. I could see it on the families in my route. Grady would never think to tell me they were thinking about changing up the fundraiser, because he just sees it as making money for the school. It was the mothers of daughters who seemed to relish in the why and how and any sort of gossip that might come with it.

“I hope they made a lot. I love the fundraiser. I thinks it’s a lot of fun to see everyone in one big room.” It brought me back to recalling Jeff Faulkner .”How long did you stay?”

“I ended up gabbing up into the wee hours. I even helped Iris bring some of her trays back to the bakery.” The bell over the door dinged. “That’s my nine a.m. beginners’ knitting group.” She hurried over to the counter and started to grab the various tools she let her students use while they were in class. “Will I see you tomorrow night?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I headed to the door and waved goodbye over my shoulder.

The shops were starting to get customers, which made it easier to deliver and pick up any outgoing mail because the shop owners were too busy with their customers to spend any time talking to me.

“Iris must be beat.” I looked around Pie in the Face Bakery for Iris, but she wasn’t there. “Is she in the back?” I asked Geraldine Workman, Iris’s employee.

“She didn’t come in today. She said she was up all night with a feeling.” Geraldine tsked. “You know that woman and her crazy feelings. I told her to just stay there until the feeling passes, because once that woman lets you know she’s had some weirdo vibe, it seems to put it out into the world, and it comes true. And I don’t want no part of that.”

Geraldine wagged her finger before she reached over the glass bakery counter and took the mail.

“You got anything going out?” I asked, and she shook her head.

My next stop was the Wallflower Diner. I would be there a little longer than any of my stops.

The Wallflower Diner was altogether different. My parents owned it, and my mom had a good round-about time that I’d be there with their mail. I also brought over her personal mail, even though she and my dad lived in the retirement community at the Sugar Creek Gap Nursing Home.

“Get on in here!” Mom waved me over when I walked in the door. She picked up the remote control from behind the counter and held it up to the television, turning it off.

“Hey, honey.” My dad twirled around from his usual stool at the counter where he and his friends met every morning to solve all the world’s problems according to their opinions.

“Hey, Dad.” I gave him a light kiss on the cheek, dropped my bag on the floor next to the open stool, and plopped down, pushing their mail down the counter for him to thumb through.

“I had to save back some pancakes for you. They are especially delicious this morning.” Mom grabbed the short stack of pancakes sitting under the heating lamp of the pass-through window. “And two turkey sausage links because I know you’re watching your figure.”

“Watching your figure?” My dad jerked his head up from the stack of mail. “I don’t see nothing wrong with my baby girl to watch anything.”

“Dad, I’m trying hard not to get diabetes or any heart issues.” I reminded him of the various issues he had. “And eating turkey sausage isn’t going to hurt anyone.”

Mom sat a to-go coffee cup on the counter along with a small Styrofoam box.

“Eat up.” She pushed the plate a little closer to me. She patted the box. “Now give Rowena the turkey. She loves that turkey, and Buster can have the ham. It’s low sodium.”

She was always sending home food for the fur babies.

“I’ll take the pancakes to go too. My LLV wouldn’t start this morning, so I’m walking now and riding my bike to the neighborhood.”

“The syrup will slide right off if you do that.” Mom didn’t like the idea that she wasn’t going to see me enjoying her food. “But I guess you’ve got bills to pay just like us.”

She pulled a couple of envelopes out of her pocket and handed them to me.

When she went back to the kitchen to grab another to-go box, I quickly looked through her mail to see what bills she had that didn’t get paid through the automatic bill pay we’d set up online with the bank.

“Don’t you be nosy.” Iris snuck up behind me. I shoved the bills down into my bag. “I timed it perfectly. I figured you’d be in here about now.” Iris looked at her watch. “I had a feeling last night. I almost called you, but I wasn’t sure if you were all snuggled up with Mac, and I didn’t want to disturb anything.” She winked.

“There’s not much disturbing these days. Mac is super busy, and I barely get to see him.” I took the box from Mom and put the pancakes in there. I picked up the mail carrier bag and shoved the boxes in there. “Nothing for the ladies?” I asked about the Front Porch Ladies, who were my neighbors that lived right behind the diner. They were one of my my next stops.

“Nope. I didn’t hear from them.” Mom took the dishrag and wiped down the counter.

“That’s weird.” I shrugged since I was always delivering some sort of ordered food to them, since they took me as their personal Uber Eats deliverer as well as their mail carrier.

“Did you hear what I said about my feeling?” Iris asked and watched me sling the bag across my body.

“I did. Geraldine told me.” I patted my dad on the way past him and held up my fingers to my ears like a phone so my mom knew I’d call her later. She was taking an order from a customer, and I didn’t want to bother her.

We talked several times a day, so I knew it wasn’t a big deal that I’d not verbally said goodbye to her.

“Don’t you want to know who it was about?” Iris baited me.

“I don’t.” I gave her question a hard head-shake no.

Geraldine was right. Iris had been having these feelings since we were in grade school, and all of them had some sort of truth to them. I always laughed at them until she insisted I call Richard when he was out of town on business. It was then that she had a feeling something was wrong, and it wasn’t too long after that that the state police had showed up at a Sugar Creek Gap High School football game to tell me Patrick had been killed in a car wreck.

“I’m going to tell you anyways.” She slipped her hand in the crook of my arm and decided to walk the rest of the way with me. “You know Jerry Faulkner that you kept asking about last night?”

“Unhun,” I hummed and walked in the community center to drop off their mail.

Iris knew when to stop talking and when to talk, so she did stop when we walked into the rest of the downtown businesses, including Tabor Architects, where I had to drop the mail in the mail slot on the door. I put my hands up over my eyes and looked into the office to see if Julia was in there with the door locked.

All the lights were out.

“What?” she asked.

“I was just going to say hello to Julia.” I sighed. “She must be at lunch.” There was a bit a concern since Mac had mentioned Julia was the only one in the office and doing all the office work.

Not that she couldn’t do it, but I loved Julia as much as I loved Grady and wanted to make sure she was okay. I also wanted to remind her that if she needed anything, including keeping Clara, that I was more than happy to rearrange my work schedule.

“Anyways, apparently he’s missing.”

I slipped the mail of the WSCG radio station in their mail slot since I noticed the on-air sign that hung on the outside of the building was light up. The studio was small, and any noise that I would make would be heard on air.

I waved at Lucy Drake on our way past her and turned the corner to deliver the mail to Little Creek Road with Julia on my mind.

“Did you hear me?” Iris asked, nudging me out of my head. “Jerry Faulkner is still missing. His wife has that tracker thingy on her phone, and she did locate it. They found it on the ninth hole of the golf course in some trees. It’s the hole where he and Bruce Kline got into it.”

“Missing?” I blinked and stopped on the pedestrian bridge that went over Little Creek and where my duck was greeting me with his quacks.

“Yes. Missing. He never came home.” She leaned her back against the bridge and cocked her arms up behind her on the ledge as she got ready to finish her story while I got the duck pellets I kept in my bag for my feathered friend. I tossed some out to him with a couple of pinches of pancakes. “When you came into the kitchen asking us if we’d seen him, I got this little tickle in my gut, and not a good one. It was one of those bad ones, but I figured it was about the fundraiser and what a flop it seemed to be.” She changed subjects on a dime. “I can’t believe that my free birthday cake went for ten dollars. I can’t even get supplies for ten dollars.”

I tossed the bag of duck pellets back in my satchel as I hoisted it across my body.

“I just might head on down to the grocery store and pick up one of those cheap bakery cakes they make by the dozen and with generic ingredients, because I can’t make a birthday cake for ten dollars.” She shook her head, and we continued to take a left on Little Creek Road.

Quack, quack.

My little duck friend swam past us. His little webbed feet were paddling as fast as they could to beat me to the end of the street, where he knew I would throw him another bit of food.

“We ain’t going to Mac’s house?” Iris had stopped at the gated fence that led us into Mac’s yard.

His house was the first one on Little Creek Road and was followed up by the houses of Harriette Pearl, Ruby Dean, Gertrude Stone, Mille Barnes, Revonda Gail Stone, and then my house. All of our little homes lined up next to each other. All of our yards had sweet white picket fences with a couple of steps leading up to a covered front porch.

The homes here on Little Creek Road were the very first homes of the mill town and were in the preservation society, so anything we did to the homes that would hurt the integrity of them had to be approved by the committee.

Mac owned the house Revonda Gail rented. Before he could rent it out, he had to do a lot of upgrades on it. It had been like jumping through hoops to get the committee to approve all the items needed just to be up to date with various new building codes.

I loved this little part of my route because I was able to say hello to my neighbors and let Buster out if he needed to go potty.

It was the perfect midpoint to my day.

“I put it in the mail slot of the office.” I whipped my bag around and started to dig out Harriette Pearl’s mail before I heard her screen door slam shut.

“There you are. We’ve been waiting all morning for you.” Harriette Pearl had on her usual housedress and thick-soled black shoes, her hands on her hips. Her gray brows were cocked as though she was ready to hear my explanation.

Three other little heads popped out from around her shoulder, belonging to the rest of the Front Porch Ladies, my loving nickname for Harriette, Ruby, Gertrude, and Millie.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, ladies, but I’m afraid there’s nothing in any of your stacks but some sales flyers.” Iris and I stopped at the bottom of Harriette’s front porch steps.

I curled the mail carrier bag around my waist and pulled out the piddly little bundles of mail for the women.

“Oh, go on, now.” Ruby gave me the side-eye. “You’re putting us on.”

“Nope. Here you go.” I leaned up the steps and handed each of them their mail.

“She means about Jeff Faulkner.” Millie looked at the sales flyers and curled her lip. “Why on earth do they think I’m going to be buying a baby carrier? They don’t know who they are sending this stuff to. Should be a law against this kind of junk.” She held it back out to me. “Here. I don’t want it.”

“I can’t take it, but you can call the number on the bottom and request them to take you off of their list.” It was my duty to let my customers know their rights with the US Postal Service. I took the flyer and flipped it over. I pointed to the bottom of the paper. “See, right here is a number.”

“You think I can see that without my readers?” Millie squinted, pulled back and took another stab at looking at it before she flung her hands in the air. “Forget it.”

“Here you go.” I laughed and went to hand it back to her.

“You’ve got it back now. I don’t want it again.” She walked over to the porch swing and sat down, using the toe of her shoe to rock back and forth at a steady pace.

“I wish I could, but I can’t take it.” I walked up the steps and set it down on the small table Harriette had on the porch. “I’ll leave it right here, and you can do with it what you want.”

“You better not want to leave it there, Millie Barnes,” Harriette warned. “Now, let’s get on with this business about Jeff Faulkner.”

“I told Bernie I had a bad feeling.” Iris just couldn’t keep that big mouth of hers shut.

A collective gasp filtered through the lips of each of the Front Porch Ladies as their eyes settled on me. Everyone in town knew how Iris had predicted something bad was going to happen to Richard, and everyone looked at me when they heard Iris had a feeling.

“Don’t look at me. She didn’t have a feeling about me.” I shrugged and took a seat next to Iris.

I told myself the Front Porch Ladies being at one house made up for some time, so I didn’t mind too much stopping and chatting with them. Especially when there was some gossip to be heard.

“Don’t ever tell me if you have a feeling about me.” Gertrude crossed her arms and gave Iris a hard stare. “But I do want to know what feeling you had about him. A feeling or a feeling, feeling?” She gave me a glance with a brow lift, meaning. . .death, as in Iris’s feeling about Richard.

“I just have this gut awful feeling that he’s in trouble. I don’t know if he’s. . . “ Iris hesitated before she took her finger and dragged it across her throat, which resulted in another round of collective gasps.

“Oh dear.” Ruby tsked. “I better call Sable this morning to see if there’s anything I can do. She was just starting out in the Junior League when I was president about twenty years ago. She was a youngin’ then.”

“She’s only like forty now,” Harriette snarled. “She ain’t that old. Still a youngin’ compared to you.”

“Me?” Ruby jerked up. She jabbed a finger at Harriette. “You’re an old biddy. Older than me.”

“Listen here, we ain’t ever gonna get information out of Bernadette if you two old bags keep arguing.” Gertrude put an end to the bickering.

Iris and I grinned. I knew exactly what she was thinking. We weren’t spring chickens, and we definitely would be like them one day. If I could ever be so lucky as to have my best friend beside me when I was their age, I’d be blessed.

“I’m afraid I’ve not heard a lot. I do know that Sable was looking for him last night, and he never came home.” I looked at Iris to see if she wanted to add anything.

“I’ll tell you who they need to look at.” Gertrude nodded to all of her friends. “Bruce Kline.”

“Why would you say that?” I asked, recalling exactly what I’d heard about him and Bruce getting into it on the course but kept it to myself in case it was the same information Gertrude was going to tell them.

It was hard for me to separate my friendship with the ladies from my profession. As Bernadette Butler, mail carrier, I was to deliver the mail and not dillydally. As Bernie, the neighbor, it was my duty to get in on all the gossip to be had.

Right now I wasn’t doing a great job at dividing the two.

“Revonda Gail told me Jeff owed Bruce money. Said she saw him down at the gambling joint. You know, down there near Fern Creek Holler.” Gertrude mentioned the private club I’d only heard about.

“How did Revonda Gail get an invitation to the gambling joint?” Harriette altogether switched the subject, which happened a lot with these four.

But soon I knew they were going to pick right back up on the story about Jeff and Bruce’s money-owing information.

“I don’t know. I don’t ask.” Gertrude let out a long and deep sigh, the kind that let you know the other person was stressed about the situation. “Y’all know Revonda Gail. She’d get mad and not talk to me for a few days over it. She’d say I’m being nosy and it’s none of my business.”

“Maybe we want in.” Ruby rubbed her hands together. “I’ve got a couple pennies I could stand to gamble away.”

“I’d like to see you at a craps table.” Harriette scoffed.

“I’d like to see any of them at a craps table,” Iris muttered under her breath.

I rolled my lips together to keep myself from busting out a laugh. Not that any one of them could hear me. Well, Harriette could. She was in the best health out of any of them.

“Whatever.” Ruby groaned. “What did Revonda Gail say?” she asked Gertrude to find out what her daughter knew about Jeff owing Bruce money.

“This morning when she stopped by, I told her about the local man who is missing. She told me she knew him from the gambling joint.” Not that I wasn’t taking what Gertrude said for fact. Like I said, these ladies were hard of hearing. There was no doubt in my mind that Revonda Gail had gone to the gambling joint, but maybe Gertrude hadn’t heard everything correctly.

The entire time Gertrude was telling the story, I couldn’t help but think that I’d been here all my life and I’d never once been to Fern Creek Holler, where the gambling joint was supposedly located. As a child and growing up here, I’d heard of it, and my mom would tell me it was just an old wives’ tale. Of course I’d heard it mentioned, but never had I ever gone to look for it. Revonda Gail had been in town for a few months, and she’d already been there. Huh.

“Bruce had lent Jeff some money to gamble a few weeks ago. When Jeff showed up with all sorts of money the other night, Bruce demanded Jeff pay him his money back.” She lifted her finger up to her mouth and licked it before she acted like she was dolling out cash from her other hand. “Jeff acted like he was boasting about the wad of cash, so Bruce told him there was a ten percent interest. That’s when Jeff snickered in Bruce’s face before he curled the money up and put it in his pocket. According to Revonda Gail, what happened next was a sight. Bruce jumped up and swung at Jeff. Jeff knelt down, missing the fist, but not before swinging his foot around to catch Bruce’s leg. As Bruce was in mid-swing, his legs buckled, and he fell to the ground.”

Another gasp escaped everyone, including me.

“Jeff put his foot on Bruce’s chest and took that wad of cash out. Over top of him, he slid off a couple more hundred-dollar bills. They landed right on Bruce’s face. Revonda Gail said that Bruce was ten shades of red.”

“Are there really ten shades of reds?” Ruby looked at Millie.

“Beats me. I guess I could look at my crayon box. You know, the church gave me a senior citizen kit with a coloring book and box of crayons in it. What do they think? I’m four years old?” Millie slowly shook her head. “I wish people would stop treating me like an old lady.”

“You are old. Methuselah old.” Harriette was on a roll today.

“I’d talk.” Millie lifted her chin, looked out into the yard, and sighed.

“Yep. I can see this is our future,” Iris muttered again about the relationship among the four friends.

This time I couldn’t keep it in. I busted out in laughter, making all of them look at me.

“I’m sorry. The image of Bruce on the ground with Jeff’s foot on him tickles my funny bone.” I brought it back around to the initial conversation, which was something I had to do all the time. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got a neighborhood full of mail to deliver.” I pushed myself up and pulled my mail carrier bag across my shoulder.

“Aren’t you the slightest bit concerned about a killer?” Gertrude asked me.

“Killer?” I jerked straight up.

“Yeah. With Jeff missing and Iris having that feeling, don’t you think there’s a killer out there?” She had all the other women agreeing with her, including Iris.

“I told her.” Iris loved to use I-told-you-so on me.

“I don’t think Jeff Faulkner’s body has turned up. Maybe he has a gambling problem and he is off somewhere gambling.” I shrugged. “Or he might’ve skipped town because he owes some more people money and just can’t face them.”

“What about Les? He just got that big fancy grant with that big school. Don’t you think he’d want to be around to see his son do well?” This was a perfectly great question Mille posed, but unfortunately I had no answer.

“I guess we just wait and see what turns up.” I took off down Harriette’s sidewalk and stopped once I got to her gate. “You coming, Iris?”

“Nah.” She threw a hand at me. “You go on. I’m gonna stay here and talk.”

“Okay.” I grinned, knowing Iris was going to squeeze every ounce of information from them about the gambling joint. I had a deep-set fear she was going to ask me to go check it out with her.

That was how Iris was. She didn’t let anything or anyone hold her back. If an idea got in her head, she flew with it. Now that Revonda Gail had gone to the gambling joint before us, I could tell Iris was on a mission.

****

Oh my stars! I’m so excited we get to take a trip back to Sugar Creek Gap! We are going to have so much fun delivering the mail with Bernadette! Grab your copy today.

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