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Ax To Grind

Book 3 in the Kenni Lowry Mystery Series

Ever daydream about taking a little revenge? Lifting a corner of that precious rug everyone’s busy sweeping secrets under? Well, let me tell you about Beryle Stone.

She was a bestselling author and the most famous citizen to ever come out of Cottonwood, Kentucky. She knew everyone in town and they knew her. And when she died, she put all her worldly possessions up for auction. All but one.

She left behind a hidden tell-all about Cottonwood that’s got more gossip than a ladies’ luncheon. Oh, Lordy, does that make the town folk hot. I’m not talking Deputy Finn Vincent hot, I’m talking hot under those Southern collars hot.

And since revenge is a dish best served cold, things turn ugly. Someone gets an ax to the back and the only witness gets put in a coma.

Enter Sheriff Kenni Lowry. She reckons someone in town will do anything to keep the manuscript from seeing the light of day. And it’s her job to find out who. She starts uncovering as many secrets as there are suspects.

Of course her poppa’s ghost returns to help. He pieces together the life of the Beryle he once knew, but his memory’s a little foggy, and any misstep could cause them a world of trouble.

Can Kenni sort through the secrets buried in Beryle’s books, or will this be her final chapter?

Pour yourself a tall glass of sweet tea or a shot of Kentucky Bourbon (no judging in these parts), kick up your feet, and get lost in this delicious Southern mystery. Trust me, you’ll want to pick up this book because it’s just too good to put down.

Ax To Grind

Excerpt

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Chapter One

“What exactly are we looking for again?” Finn asked, rubbing his hand through his hair. He stood in the corner of the bedroom of Hattie Hankle with a wooden Louisville Slugger in his hand, his face clouded with uneasiness.

“Just tap the bat on the floor a few times,” I said, my head stuck up under Hattie’s bed, only to find what looked to be at least a hundred crumpled-up plastic grocery store bags, rolls of paper towels, and toilet paper that filled every single inch of space under the bed’s box spring.

“Get, you critter,” I said a little louder than normal so Hattie could hear me from the other side of the shut door.

“Get away,” Finn repeated, tapping the bat on the hardwood floor a few times. “Seriously, what kind of critter again?” His eyebrows rose.

I tugged the bed skirt down and stood up, brushing the front of my sheriff’s uniform off in case I’d gotten some dust bunnies on me.

“Critters.” I smiled. “You haven’t gotten to experience a Hattie Hankle call.”

I sat on the edge of Hattie’s bed and patted my hand on the flowered quilt that lay on the mattress. Finn sat next to me. Living in a small town like Cottonwood, Kentucky, there were many calls that probably weren’t necessary for the sheriff to respond to, but the citizens pulled their weight around our small town and that was one thing that made us special.

“Hattie lives here in the bed and breakfast. She doesn’t have any family and she can’t live on her own. She has some special needs. My poppa always said Hattie would always be childlike, which wasn’t a bad thing, because she would never know the evils of the world. She’s been living in the Inn as far back as I can remember. She thinks there are critters running around her room.” I grinned. “I know it sounds crazy, but she calls dispatch and I come here and pretend to catch them or tell her I’ve run them off. It satisfies her for a couple of months.”

“A couple of months?” Finn’s jaw dropped along with his shoulders.

“Every time it’s something different. Plus, I feel a little bad for her (“feel sorry for her” sounds a little condescending) and it’s nice to sit and chat for a while.” I shrugged and stood up. “She doesn’t get much company, I don’t think. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard.”

Meaning the little bit of idle gossip that generally circulated during my weekly girl’s night out Euchre game.

Even though Finn had been a deputy in my department for a couple of months and he’d mostly gotten used to the small-town life here in Cottonwood, it was still entertaining to watch his reactions to some of our more colorful citizens.

“Did you get it?” Hattie asked from the other side of the bedroom door. “Is there a lot of blood?”

I walked over to the door and jerked it open. The bottom of the long window curtain with the same flower pattern as the quilt swung out and rested in a billowy cloud of fabric on the floor.

“Well?” Hattie tilted her head to one side to listen. Her gray hair, styled like a football helmet, didn’t move—a sure sign she’d been to her weekly hair appointment down at Tiny Tina’s, Cottonwood’s only salon and full-service spa. And by full-service, I meant massages with stones that came right out of the Kentucky River that ran along our small town. Somehow Tiny Tina’s passed those rocks off as fancy. (Sounded confusing without changes, no transition.)

“The critter is all taken care of,” I said, leaning in close to her ear when I noticed she wasn’t wearing her hearing aids. “Where are your hearing aids?”

“My ears?” She jerked around and took a few shaky steps into the small living area, where she had a matching taupe loveseat and couch. The room opened up into a small kitchenette with a round table that had two chairs across from each other. The table was set as though she were about to have company, but that was what most of the tables in Cottonwood looked like. It was the proper thing to do in the South.

Of course, my table wasn’t. Instead it was piled high with old community coupon papers and junk mail. Not Hattie. There wasn’t a thing out of place. Every time I’d come to visit her, it was spotless.

Slowly Hattie’s head turned toward me. Her eyes squinted in a furtive manner. “I bet that critter took them.”

“I’ll be sure to let Darby know.” (Who’s Darby? Give us a sentence here.) I glanced back at Finn, who was still sitting on Hattie’s bed as if he were trying to process what he’d just witnessed.

No doubt his mind was running around itself wondering what on Earth he’d gotten himself into, probably having second thoughts about recently taking the deputy sheriff’s position.

“Did you get a look at that thing?” Hattie let go of her cane and lifted her hands in the air, forming them into claws. “Big claw hands and big teeth.” She chomped her teeth together. “Did it hiss at you?”

“I don’t know,” I said, turning back to Finn. I smiled. “Officer Vincent was the one who caught it and threw it out the window. Did it hiss?” I teased Finn.

“Like a snake,” he said, playing along as he walked over to us.

That was one thing that I liked about getting to know Finn, not only through our job but also on a personal level. He could go with the flow and he was quick and witty. All qualities that made him so appealing.

“I’m glad you got you a new sidekick,” Hattie said, pointing her bony finger at Finn. “You take over Lonnie’s job?”

I was a little surprised Hattie remembered that Lonnie Lemar had retired as my sheriff’s deputy.

“Yes, ma’am.” Finn nodded and rocked back and forth on his heels. “I’m happy to be here in Cottonwood.”

“Who’s your kin?” She blinked owlishly.

“My who?” Finn asked.

“Your kin folk,” I said, finding it a little disturbing how cute he was when he was confused. “Hattie, you’ll have to excuse Finn. He’s from Chicago. Finn, Hattie wanted to know who you’re related to around here.”

“A northerner, huh?” She nodded. “No wonder.”

“No wonder what?” Finn asked.

“No wonder you’re the talk of the town.” Hattie’s eyes fluttered. “You’re a handsome thing.”

Hattie Hankle might be hard of hearing, but her eyesight was just fine.

As Finn’s face reddened, he shifted and dropped his head. “That’s nice of you to say. Thank you.”

“Aw, Hattie,” I teased. “Who’s going around telling you about our friend Finn here?”

It was fun to aggravate him and put him on the spot.

“Paige told me,” Hattie said, speaking of Paige Lemar, an employee at the bed and breakfast. Hattie nodded with a big grin on her face. She elbowed me. “You might think about this one.”

“Are you ready?” My head jerked up. Hattie Hankle trying to fix me up was my cue that it was time to leave. “It was nice to see you, Hattie.” I took a step toward the door.

“You aren’t staying for a cup of afternoon coffee?” Hattie asked.

“Not today.” There was no way I was going to hang around—even though the sheriff’s department had been quiet for a few months—and listen to Hattie Hankle inform me on what a cute couple Finn Vincent and I would make.

My mama had already mastered that task and I could barely stand listening to her. And she was my mom.

“Let us know if you have any more problems with those critters.” I opened the door.

Finn followed me, put his hand on the open door, and held it for me.

“And a gentleman at that.” Hattie nodded a few slow times and drew her lips into a tight smile.

“Have a great day.” I stepped out into the hallway of the Inn. (What’s the name of the inn? Should be mentioned, only ever called “the Inn.”)

“That was rude,” Finn said with a look of amusement on his face after we’d stepped out into the hall.

“What was rude?” I asked, glancing over Finn’s shoulder to make sure Hattie had shut her door. Sometimes after I left, she’d forget to and then wander around into other people’s rooms at the Inn.

It was part of her childlike ways, but I had a hard time explaining to customers at the Inn when they’d call me because there was an intruder in their hotel room when it was only Hattie. She was harmless.

“That you didn’t agree that I was a gentleman,” he joked, pulling the corners of his lips up slightly.

“Ha ha.” I rolled my eyes, barely missing knocking down a guest on our way down the hall.

The smell of paint tickled my nose. The note taped on the wall warned of the freshly painted walls. The new powder blue color went well with the bamboo wood floor. There were six rooms on this floor and two suites on the third floor.

“What about you being the talk of the town?”

“Who is Paige?” he asked.

“Paige Lemar. Lonnie’s wife.” We stopped at the top of the staircase to let a few guests pass us. “She’s the Inn’s housekeeper.”

“You want to go grab a bite to eat?” Finn asked on our way down the staircase to the first floor where the registration was located.

For a split second I thought about it. But there was no way I could cancel my weekly Euchre night with the girls. I’d much rather be spending the time with Finn, even though the conversation would be about work.

I looked into the gathering room in the front of the Inn to see if Darby was in there. She wasn’t. Only a few guests were sitting by the fireplace. Just the sight of the flaming logs made me excited for the best season in Kentucky. Autumn.

Maybe Darby was outside. I wanted to let her know about Hattie’s missing hearing aids.

“I’d love to, but I can’t.” I shrugged off the light fall breeze that sent chills along my arms when it hit my neck after we walked out through the screen door. “Euchre.” I patted my belly. “You know there will be good food there.”

“Let me know if they decide to let guys in.” He winked. I gulped. “Maybe another time. See you in the morning at the ceremony?” he asked.

“Sounds good.” I stood on the top step and watched him head toward his car.

He sucked in a deep breath and, with his chin up in the air, looked around the landscape. The prism of trees that blocked the view of the Kentucky River behind the Inn had painted the landscape in orange, yellow, and red leaves. This was the perfect time of the year in Kentucky. Mid-seventy degrees during the day and mid-fifties at night. The nippy evening air told me fall was in full swing and soon all the trees would paint a beautiful canvas across Cottonwood.

“I love Chicago, don’t get me wrong, but this.” Finn’s arms stretched out in front of him. “This is amazing.”

Both of us stood there enjoying the view with silence between us. It was fun seeing him take in the fall scenery for the first time since he’d moved to Cottonwood.

He waved me off on his way to his Dodge Charger.

I stood on the front porch of the Inn until I saw the taillights of his car round the corner before I turned to go back into the Inn to find to Darby Gray, the owner. (Move up this line with her full name and position to when her name is first mentioned.)

“Duke, where did you come from?” I asked my bloodhound, who was lying in a sunny spot on the wood porch floor. I’d dropped him off at home after I’d gotten the critter call from dispatch.

“Where’d you come from?” Kiwi, the Inn’s green macaw mascot, clasped his claws around the wire of the domed bird cage that stood at the end of the porch. His head bobbed up and down. “I came from Beryle’s and couldn’t find the book. Couldn’t find the book. Glad she’s dead.”

 

Chapter Two

“Stay, Duke,” I instructed my dog, who was too busy sniffing new smells to even greet me. I wanted to make sure he didn’t scare Kiwi before I could question the bird.

He was a great dog—if it weren’t for him taking a bullet for me in the line of duty a few months ago, I wouldn’t be here. Tomorrow the town was going to give him an award. (Love that!) It was a pretty big deal around these parts, and word around the street was that everyone was going to be there. Even Lonnie Lemar, my ex-deputy that had come out of retirement to run against me in the next election.

I glanced around the large porch to see if anyone else was around and might’ve heard Kiwi, but there wasn’t. Pops of white, yellow, pink, lavender, red, and bronze mums were strategically placed around the porch and down the steps. They seemed to frill themselves in the last bit of the day’s sun.

“Hi, Kiwi.” I walked over to greet the bird. “What did you say about someone dead?” I questioned the bird like it was going to tell me.

“Hi, Kiwi,” Kiwi repeated. The bird was good at repeating and I had no idea why on Earth I thought I was going to be able to question him.

“Glad who is dead?” I asked the bird, hoping he’d repeat what I thought I’d heard.

“Hi, Kiwi. Cold out here.” The bird lifted one claw in the air and sent a wave of ruffled feathers up his neck.

“It’s almost too cold out here for you.” I ran my hands up and down my arms to ward off any more goosebumps before I poked my finger through the cage and pet him on his tiny little head. He bobbed up and down with delight.

“There you are.” Mama’s voice floated to me with the breeze.

She stood behind the screened front door inside the Inn.

The hinges on the old door creaked when she pushed it open and it smacked closed behind her.

“Mama? What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Since I won the cook-off, all sorts of local restaurants have asked me to cook something for them.” She tapped the Vote For Lowry pin stuck proudly on her chest. “Now, don’t you worry that pretty little head that I produced with this here body.” She dragged her hand down her body, starting at her head and ending at her toes. She was good at reminding me where I’d come from, like I didn’t know. “I’m still working for your election. Free of charge, I might add.”

“Thank you, Mama.” I was grateful that Mama had taken over my re-election campaign. I just wasn’t sure if she was hurting or helping, since she was going around either pushing my re-election propaganda on the citizens or threatening them. Either way, Mama was very persuasive.  “Did you pick up Duke?” I asked, though I already knew.

Mama had a key to my house and she let herself inside whenever she felt like it. It was a bit of a privacy issue, but typical of family in a tight-knit community.

“I did.” She sashayed down the porch toward me and eased herself into one of the many rocking chairs Darby had strategically dotted along the front porch of the Inn. “His little brown droopy eyes just tugged on my heart after I’d spent all morning over there using your oven.”

“You used my oven?” I asked.

“Honey, I had to get my hot browns cooked so your daddy stayed at our house keeping an eye on those while I got my Derby Pies cooked at your house.” She acted as if I should know her calendar. “I knew I was going to see you at euchre, so I just brought him along.”

“Good evening, Kenni.” Darby had ambled around the Inn with a basket full of colorful leaves that’d already fallen off the trees. Her brown hair was swept up in a knot on the top of her head. Her almond-shaped brown eyes stared at me for a moment before she turned to my mama. “Your Derby Pie is the talk of the Inn. I’m going to need about five more for tomorrow.”

“I have plenty that I made today and put in the freezer. I’ll put them on the windowsill tonight to thaw and you can warm them at three hundred and fifty before you serve them. (repetitive) You know a little scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of that warm pie is just a slice of heaven.”

Don’t get me wrong, Mama had always made good country homemade suppers when I’d lived at home and even when I’d come home during college visits, but I never knew she could win a cook-off.

“Perfect.” Darby sat down on the porch’s top step and scooted all the way up to the wood railing to let some arriving guests pass by. “I can taste it now.” She licked her lips.

“Business must be good.” I noted the flurry of activity.

“Didn’t you hear?” Darby’s forehead puckered. “Beryle Stone’s estate is being auctioned off this week.”

“Really?” I was a little taken aback. Beryle Stone was a famous author who was from Cottonwood.

Estates sales around these parts were a dime a dozen. I tried to recall if I’d heard through the grapevine about Beryle’s auction, but I couldn’t remember. There was so much gossip flung around, my immune system had gotten used to it and I was good at drowning it out.

The estate wasn’t far from the Inn and it too overlooked the Kentucky River.  Probably the best view of the river in Cottonwood. “I thought that place was dilapidated. I wonder what state she finally decided to spend the rest of her life in.”

It wasn’t as if Beryle Stone was young.

“The state is six feet under,” Darby said. She pushed herself up to stand. “You’ve been living under a rock, Kenni Lowry.”

“Six feet under? Beryle is dead?” I gulped and looked at Kiwi.

“It’s been the talk of the town for a while now. Ruby Smith is rumored to be the executor of her estate.” Darby seemed to know more than rumors.

“Executor?” I asked, a bit shocked. “Ruby Smith and Beryle were that good of friends?”

I found that strange since I’d never heard Ruby mention Beryle. I was sure it was all over town, especially since Beryle was a big-time author. Unfortunately, I’d never read anything she’d written nor did I have time to visit the gossip circles Mama and Darby were participants in.

“I hate to hear this.” There was a tug of sadness on my heart. It was a shame to hear when anyone passed. “Was she sick?”

“Must’ve been. She’s dead, ain’t she?” Mama said. Darby simple shrugged.

“There was an announcement in one of those fancy estate sale papers and online about her items being sold. Most of the Inn’s guests are all the people who are here to get their hands on one of Beryle’s things.” She leaned in and whispered, “It’s rumored that Beryle has a tell-all manuscript that was only to be auctioned off after she died.”

“Juicy.” Mama’s brows lifted as she vigorously rubbed her hands together.

“A tell-all? Like how to be in love, or what?” I asked, knowing that Beryle had been famous for her romances and feisty love scenes the women in Cottonwood swooned over. Even Mama.

“Oh, your daddy and I could use some of that feisty love.” Mama’s shoulders did a little wiggle. I rolled my eyes out of disgust.

“I heard it’s about her life and some buried secrets.” Darby’s tone was a little too excited. Her brows lifted along with her smile.

Mama’s nose crinkled. “Interesting.” Mama’s voice dripped with southern ooze. (“ooze” not right word)

“Buried secrets?” This was starting to become very suspicious.

“Uh-huh.” Darby slowly drew her chin down to her chest and stared at me under hooded brows.

“I’ll definitely have to go to my auxiliary meeting this week to get the scoop on what Beryle Stone had over on someone.” Mama perked up like a steaming pot of coffee.

“I don’t ever recall hearing anything about Beryle Stone other than she was a nice woman.” I didn’t like all the gossip.

“Even nice women have buried skeletons.” Mama winked.

“Now, Mama,” I warned. “Don’t be going and packing any tales where there is no tale to pack.” I patted my leg and Duke came running up the steps. “Anyways, I checked on Hattie. All the critters are gone. She didn’t have her hearing aids in either.” Mama and Darby snickered. “Duke and I are going to head on over to Tibbie’s. I’ll see you over there.” I gave my mama a hug. “Let’s go, Duke.”

“I guess I better get in here and shut up the windows. It’s gonna be a cold one tonight.” Darby brushed down the front of her shirt and picked up the basket of leaves.

No doubt in my mind she was going to use those leaves in some creative decorating technique. The Inn had the perfect touches to make it nice and cozy.

I waved goodbye to Darby on my way to my Jeep Wagoneer, and I couldn’t help but look at Kiwi. No doubt I’d heard the bird correctly repeating something one of the Inn guests had said, though I did think them saying they were glad Beryle was dead seemed a little harsh.

Duke jumped in the passenger side with his head stuck out the window, the chilly night air pinning his ears back as we sped down the old country road back into town.

“How was Hattie?” The voice sent my heart galloping inside my chest.

My eyes peered into the rearview mirror. An uneasy feeling smacked my gut.

“I’m back,” the ghost of my poppa, the ex-sheriff of Cottonwood, said as he arched a sly brow.

 

Chapter Three

The tires screeched to a halt. My hand gripped the wheel. Duke turned himself around to face the backseat, wagging his tail at the sight of Poppa’s ghost.

“Where have you been?” I asked. The feeling of death crept in my soul and settled with an empty feeling in my heart. “As soon as we got the Godbey case settled, you vanished. It was like you died all over again.”

It’d been almost six months since Owen Godbey was found dead and Poppa had come back to be my ghost deputy.

“It just happens that way.” Poppa ghosted himself up in the front seat next to Duke, making it a little tight. “We’re learning as we go.”

“What does that mean?” My eyes narrowed. “You mean that for you to be my guardian ghost, there has to be a crime committed?”

“I’m not sure. It seems that way, though.” He shrugged.

“Are you telling me that there has been a crime committed?” I asked and looked down at my shoulder where my dispatch walkie-talkie was strapped. “Because I haven’t heard a peep out of dispatch about any shenanigans going on around here, other than Hattie Hankle’s critter.”

Poppa smacked his knee and cackled. The wrinkles around his eyes deepened as the smile grew across his face. He brushed his fingers through his thinning gray hair, fixing the stray strand that had escaped from the comb-over.

“You mean to tell me that Hattie Hankle is still claiming she’s got critters?” he asked.

“Yes. She’s gotten a little more eccentric.” I chose my words wisely. I knew that she and Poppa had been good friends and were probably the same age.

“She’s a bird,” he joked, using the endearing term we called people who were a little on the odd side. “But that doesn’t give me reason to be here.”

“Maybe we’re wrong.” I bit the edge of my lip, hoping there wasn’t any crime brewing in Cottonwood. “I’m so happy to see you.”

“Me too, Kenni-bug.” Poppa shifted to face the windshield and put his thin-skinned hands in his laps.

Hearing him say my childhood nickname chased away the chills of the season and warmed me inside and out. (Great line.)

“We’ve got Euchre tonight.” I threw the Wagoneer in drive and pulled off the shoulder of the road. “How long have you known Hattie?” I questioned, trying to push Duke’s ninety-pound body into the backseat with my right elbow.

He loved Poppa and, for some reason, he could see Poppa’s ghost.

“Long time.” His brows furrowed. “I don’t recall exactly when we met, but she’s been there a while. I’m sure Darby can tell you. It was awful nice to take her in.”

“Yes, it was.” I continued into town to Tibbie Bell’s house. I wasn’t sure why Poppa was there; all I knew was that I was happy.

The comfort of Poppa’s ghost presence had become a reality a little more than a year ago when Doc Walton was found dead and someone broke into the jewelry store. I had a hard time believing that Poppa had come back in ghost form, much less that he’d come back to help me solve any and all crimes that had or were going to take place in Cottonwood. It’d taken my parents a long time to even accept that I was in law enforcement, but when I ran for sheriff of Cottonwood, it nearly put Mama one foot in the grave. So the little secret about Poppa coming back probably wouldn’t sit well with her or the other residents of Cottonwood. They’d think I’d done lost my marbles, so I kept Poppa’s ghost a secret.

Over the past few crimes, Poppa and I became a team again, like old times when he was sheriff and I was a kid. We’d sit around and come up with all sorts of scenarios on who committed crimes like putting together a puzzle. Of course, Mama threw a fit that Poppa would encourage such behavior for a young lady and she took to the bed when I entered the police academy. Mama could be a bit dramatic now and then.

Tibbie’s house was on Second Street, off the town branch that was a left turn off Main and a right turn off Oak. We affectionately referred to it as the town branch due to the fact there was a creek that ran right through the middle of that part of town. In fact, most of the houses were built behind the creek and you had to drive over a little concrete bridge driveway to get to them.

Luckily, Tibbie’s house was a small ranch that sat in front of the branch and parking was prime along the street curb.

“Woo-wee.” Poppa looked outside the window. “Looks like a lot of gossip is going to go on in there tonight.”

I put the Jeep in park and bent my head down to look out Poppa’s window.

“Looks like you’re right.” I eyeballed Lulu McClain and Stella standing on the front porch. Both women loved to gossip, and by the way their heads were pushed together and their lips were moving, they sure had something to say about someone.

Before I got out of the car, I reached in the back for my bag where I kept an extra set of civilian clothes. There was something about my sheriff’s uniform that stopped the henny-hens from squawking.

The “henny-hens” was what my friends and I lovingly called the old gossipy women. Mama was a hen. I’d learned from Poppa that if I showed up in my uniform, the gossip ceased, but when I  put on my civilian clothes, I was one of the girls. They flapped their lips, and you could learn a lot from flapping lips.

“Evening, Sheriff.” Stella ambled inside the house after she greeted me and I nodded back. Lulu nodded too.

“Hi, Lulu.” Duke and I walked past her and headed inside Tibbie’s house.

The house smelled heavenly. It was the one night of the week where the women tried to outdo one another with their cooking. They took pride in the slightest of compliments.

Everyone was gathered in the front room on the left where Tibbie always set up the card tables for the food and drinks. The sound of chatter and laughter echoed off the walls. Next to the front room was the small powder room. Duke headed for the food and I went to change.

“I just can’t believe that after all of these years we’re going to know the truth about what happened out at the Stone estate.” I heard a muffled voice through the air-conditioning vent while I changed. “Now, you know I’m a God-fearing woman,” Instantly I knew it was Stella. She loved calling herself that, which only meant to me that it made her feel better to gossip. (reword?) “And I’m not packing tales, but I heard that Ruby Smith was the executor.” Her little bit of information was greeted with a collective groan.

I hurried and got my clothes on. It did pique my interest to see exactly what truth she was talking about that was buried in the Stone estate and why it was such a shock that Ruby Smith was the executor. Beryle Stone was the biggest thing that’d ever come from Cottonwood. Obviously, Ruby hadn’t arrived at Euchre yet or I’d have heard her voice. Of course, these women were only going to gossip about it until Ruby got here.

Quickly I threw my uniform in my bag. My stomach was growling and my curiosity was up. I needed to feed them both.

“This looks so good.” I stood at the first table and grabbed a plastic plate.

The table was filled with at least three Crock-pots full of something delicious. The next table had four different casseroles and the last table had oodles of desserts. If I didn’t feel Mama’s eyes on me, I’d have gone straight to the dessert.  I was in no mood to hear her lecture me on how I didn’t get enough exercise and I ate badly.

“What are you ladies talking about?” I asked after I’d moseyed on over to Stella and Toots Buford.

“You know,” Toots chomped on her gum, “just the usual gossip that don’t mean nothing.”

I nodded and plucked a grape off the fruit plate and tossed it in my mouth. Stella didn’t miss a mark.

“You hear about the Stone estate going up for auction?” she asked.

“Why do you have to gossip with the sheriff?” Toots clucked and rolled her eyes.

“It’s Kenni.” Stella gave me a sideways glance. Obviously she needed to make herself feel better about telling me because she followed up with, “She might know something. I bet they’re going to need extra security.”

“I heard some rumblings about it,” I said and cocked my head to the side. “What did you hear?”

“Well, I heard that Beryle Stone died and her estate is selling her stuff,” she said.

“That’s juicy gossip?” I asked, looking at Toots. “People die every day. Sounds like nothing to me.” I shrugged. “Now, if you know who the executor of her estate is, that would be juicy.”

Stella opened her mouth but quickly shut it when I saw Toots give her the wonky eye. So Stella just slowly shook her head.

“Come on.” Toots smacked her lips together. She elbowed Stella. “Let’s go pick out our table. Maybe our teams can play each other first.”

I rubbed my hand over my chin, wondering what those two were up to. They whispered back and forth. Before they turned the corner to go into the room where Tibbie had set up all the Euchre tables, Stella glanced back at me. Toots still held a grudge against me from when I accused her of killing Doc Walton. After I did catch the real killer, I’d apologized to her, but she wasn’t going to have anything to do with me. She was a grudge holder and everyone knew it.

“I guess you must be starving after hunting critters all day.” Jolee snickered, bringing me out of the long slow stare Stella had disturbingly given me.

“How on Earth did you hear about that?” I asked and glanced over at Mama, knowing that she’d done spread it all over town. “Never mind.” I shook my head at my best friend. “How is business?”

“It’s great, but that mama of yours sure did do a number on me.” Jolee owned the On the Run food truck. She had a pretty neat business, actually. She had gotten permits from all sorts of places over the county where she could just pull up and open shop. She even parked right outside of the church after Sunday meeting with fresh coffee and donuts for all the members.

“You’re talking about her winning the cook-off, aren’t you?” I rolled my eyes and she nodded. “I was so shocked that she entered. I had no idea.”

“Ben Harrison apparently knew she could cook. That sneaky dog.” She looked down at Duke. “No offense, buddy.”

Jolee had really started On The Run to bug another restaurant in town owned by Ben. They’d had the competition cook-off between their two restaurants. Mama was on Ben’s team and she won, which meant that he won. Something Jolee wasn’t too happy with. But if anyone asked me, I thought Jolee had a hankering for Ben that went beyond just friendly competition.

“He’s a cutie.” My smile spread across my face.

“Yes, he is.” She bent down and patted Duke even more.

“Not Duke.” I hesitated, wondering if I should even broach the subject. “Ben.” And it was out there just like that.

Jolee straightened up and put her fists on her hips.

“You have lost your mind.” She huffed. “He is a thorn in my side, Kenni Lowry.”

“He’s a cute thorn and he’s single and you are going to be thirty soon,” I teased.

“Now you just sound like your mama.” Jolee fidgeted. “Come on, let’s go beat these old henny-hens.”

The interesting thing was that Jolee didn’t protest too much, so I had an inkling she’d thought about the idea of her and Ben too. But I kept my mouth shut the rest of the night. At least until we went up against Ruby Smith and Stella.

“You getting excited about tomorrow?” Ruby asked and offered the Euchre deck to me to cut.

“I’m not cutting my luck.” I knocked on the top of the stack. “Yes, I am excited for Duke.” I reached down next to me and patted my trusty hound dog.

She offered the cut again and again I declined.

Around here we were a tad bit superstitious about a few things, and cutting the deck while playing Euchre was one of them.

“But I hear you’ve come into a bit of luck.” I looked at Ruby to see her reaction.

It was Stella’s reaction that threw me. She yanked her forearms off the table and placed them in her lap.

Most of the time when I interacted with people, I observed their body language. It was a job habit that’d spilled over into my personal life as well.

“What are you asking me, Kenni Lowry?” Ruby fluffed the edges of her spiky red hair nervously with her fingertips before she picked up the deck and started to deal out five cards each to the four of us.

Stella suddenly became interested and grabbed the edge of her chair and scooted the legs closer to the table, leaning in.

Jolee’s eyes shifted between Ruby and me.

“I guess you’ll have a lot of business at the store with all the people coming in to bid on the estate sale.” I was creative with my wording to get to the heart of the matter. It was all in how you opened the door to the conversation with these women. If you seemed genuinely interested, they’d talk all day.

“I was out visiting Hattie Hankle at the Inn and that place was hopping.” I drew my five cards in and arranged them according to suit. “And Darby told me that the old Stone place was going up for sale. I was shocked. I hadn’t heard that Beryle had passed.”

“We got the call about a week ago at the church office for Pastor to go to the Stone Estate.” Stella’s elbows rested on the table. Her hands held the fanned cards in front of her face, her eyes glancing over the top of them. She shifted them across the table to look at Ruby. “When he came back, he told me about the quickie memorial for Beryle Stone on the property.”

Since Toots wasn’t there to stop Stella’s loose lips, we might hear some real gossip.

“I might as well give you a bite, because y’all are fishing.” Ruby threw her cards down on the table. “Beryle and I were third cousins once removed. I know it’s distant, but she ain’t got no more family. Now that she’s dead, they came looking for next of kin, and guess who?”

Stella eased back in her chair, taking in every bobble, quip, or sigh that escaped Ruby. I was sure she was taking notes for future gossip circles.

“I don’t think there’s much out there. Hell,” Ruby tapped her finger on the table, “that place of hers is all run down and almost falling in on itself. What do I want with it? Nothing.” Her chin tucked to her chest. “According to Wally Lamb she’d had it all planned out. I’m just doing my part to follow through. After all, we might be distant relatives, but we are family. You know as well as I do that family sticks together. Good times or bad.” She shook her head. “No gossip here.”

“She was the biggest celebrity out of Cottonwood,” Stella said. “Naturally there’s going to be gossip. And the money that goes with being a famous person.”

“And I bet she got royalties or something from all those books.” Jolee shrugged.

“I done signed all the paperwork for any royalties or money from the sale of anything of Beryle’s; it’s going to a charity that she’s been giving to for a while now. Wally Lamb already drew the papers up for me and signed them.” Ruby spat. “I didn’t even know about it until after she was cremated.”

We all drew back in shock. Rarely was anyone from Cottonwood cremated. It was almost an afterlife sin not to be buried in the Cottonwood Cemetery right on Main Street.

“Oh, shut up.” Ruby flung her wrinkly hand at us. “That was her wish, not mine. Besides, could you imagine if she were to be buried here? These people are going nuts over a few junky things in a rundown house, not even the fresh body of the woman. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.” She pointed at Stella. “So when you go gossiping about this, you tell them you heard it straight from my mouth.”

“Well, I never.” Stella threw her cards down on the table and jumped up, knocking her chair to the ground before she stormed out of Tibbie’s house.

“I guess we heard it from the horse’s mouth.” Poppa did a little giddy-up and neighed like a horse behind Ruby.

I tried the best I could not to laugh, but it was too hard to keep it in.

“What is wrong with you?” Jolee shushed me, only making me laugh more.

“Not a thing.” I leaned back in my chair.

My belly was full and the night was still young. And this was the way Euchre usually ended—with one player yelling at another.

end of excerpt

Ax To Grind

is available in the following formats:

Henerey Press

Sep 19, 2017

ISBN-13: 978-1635112474

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