First Class Killer
Book 5 in the Mail Carrier Cozy Mystery Series
Mail Carrier Bernadette Butler just can’t stop delivering clues when the clerk of the new book store turns up dead in Sugar Creek Gap, Kentucky, after the town is already shocked over a tell all “fiction” romance novel that hit the shelves filled secrets that were brush under the rug and now left hung out to dry.
First Class Killer
Book 5 in the Mail Carrier Cozy Mystery Series
First Class Killer
“Good morning, Bernie.” Vivian Tillett, the director of the Sugar Creek Gap Nursing Home, or as others would refer to it, senior living, stood at the front desk. Her unruly dark hair, in much need of a highlight, dangled around her face. She shoved it off her forehead. “You okay? You’re running late.”
Okay. Vivian wasn’t being nosy. Well . . . not exactly. Sugar Creek Gap, Kentucky, was just a blip on the grand map of the United States, and around these parts, we all knew each other’s schedules, phone numbers, and all the way down to when we went to the doctor. Not because we aired out all our laundry, as we said it in the South, but because we had a knack for just seeing things and making conversation about it.
Some might call it idle gossip, but we like to think of it as caring for our community and those living in it.
So when Vivian asked me if I was okay, it was only for the fact I’d been running about one hour late on my mail carrier route. And people were nuts about their mail. The customers on my route knew my schedule better than I did.
It wasn’t uncommon for someone to see me and say, “Well, it must be time for lunch. Here comes Bernie.”
The residents of the senior living facility were no different, even though they picked their mail up in the small tin communal boxes in a mail room. They were similar to the PO boxes we had at the post office.
“I’m good.” I gave Vivian a little nod and shoved back my shoulder-length auburn hair. I should’ve put it up but decided to leave it down to help shield me from the chill in the fall air. “I was at Grady and Julia’s last night spending time with Clara.”
I couldn’t stop gushing about my six-month-old grandbaby. The first grandbaby to my only baby, Grady. Who wasn’t so much a baby anymore.
“Can you get over how much they change? And so fast?” Vivian put her hand up to her chest and let out a little gasp.
“I know. Every chance I get, I go over to the farmhouse and visit or jump at the chance to babysit.” I let out a long sigh and couldn’t stop myself from wondering what she was doing this morning. “She’s so smart. She’s doing a lot more babbling, and now she’s pointing.”
“You know that Grady of yours is smart.” Vivian tapped her temple. “I bet she takes after her daddy.”
“I bet you’re right,” I agreed. “But Julia is very smart too.”
Oh gosh. There I went. I even had a big long talk with myself about this when Julia and Grady first told me they were pregnant. I said to myself, “Bernie, don’t be going and sounding like all those other grandmothers that made you roll your eyes. You know, when they told you how cute their grandbaby was and how smart.”
I even told myself not to open my mouth and just spatter off all that nonsense. But here I was loosening my tongue and letting Vivian know that I’d completely lost my marbles over this baby.
“I’m sure she is, but you have so much influence on Clara.” She shook a finger at me just as her phone rang. “You’re a smart cookie.” She picked up the receiver. “Good morning, Sugar Creek Gap Senior Living. This is Vivian Tillett.”
I could have waited around to tell her more of the cute things Clara was doing, like taking her sock off every time it was put on, which drove Julia crazy but was still adorable. Plus, I could have talked about how she giggled so loudly when I blew raspberries on her little neck. Instead, I patted the mailbag strapped across my chest and headed on down the hallway that led me through one of the many cafés in the nursing home.
If I had to live here when I was older and needed assistance, it wouldn’t be a bad gig. They had two big white-tablecloth dining rooms, two cafés that were open all day, a library, hair salon, swimming pool, game room, fitness room, and a movie theater.
Today’s feature was That Touch of Mink staring Doris Day and Rock Hudson. A good one, but I didn’t have time to pop my head in and watch a few scenes because I had a package for the manager of the hair salon, and in my experience, when women didn’t get their beauty products on time—meaning they watched the tracking number very closely and if it was a day late—boy, did I hear about it.
This was probably why I had so many friends along my route. I made them all feel special, and I knew something about each one. People would never believe all the subtle secrets your mail tells about you.
The nail salon was located just past one of the cafés and a sitting area, behind a little frosted-glass door that had Hair Salon posted on a little sign outside the door.
“Knock, knock,” I said and opened the door. “Why my goodness.” I jerked back and smiled when the small room with only two hairdressing chairs was full of eight people.
Harriette Pearl and Ruby Dean occupied the chairs, Gertrude Stone was under the big hairdryer, and Millie Stone was sitting in a chair off to the side.
Jenny Franklin had her scissors in one hand and her comb in the other, and her lips were flapping away as she turned Harriette all ways to Sunday.
“Mornin’, Bernie!” Harriette threw her hand up in the air, particularly happy to see me since I wouldn’t have even seen her at her house on my route until noon. “Don’t be givin’ me no look. I’m not moving here.”
“Hi, Bernie.” Ada Leigh Dykes, the only hairdresser I knew to work at the nursing home salon, was barely visible from the thick mist of hairspray she was spraying all over Ruby’s hair. “This is our new setup.”
“Hey, honey.” I patted Dora Lee Dykes, Ada’s daughter, who had the same middle name as her mother but spelled differently, which wasn’t unusual in the South.
People down in these parts were very proud of their names and heritage.
“Hi, Mrs. Butler, how are you today?” she greeted me then walked over to Gertrude, lifted up the hairdryer head, and unrolled one of the curlers in Gertrude’s hair. “Just a few more minutes,” she told Gertrude and rolled the piece of hair back up in the curler, tilting the dryer back over top of Gertrude’s hair.
“I’m good.” I slipped her the package and the other magazines they subscribed to for their clients.
“As you can see, I’ve taken the vacant hair stylist position because Alvie was just getting too crabby about me doing hair in the basement.” Jenny fanned the comb in the air. “Said I was trying to poison him with all them chemicals.” She pointed the comb directly at me. “I told him, Alvie, if I wanted you dead, I’d use your shotgun to kill you.”
“But Mrs. Franklin overheard me telling someone at Wednesday-night church spaghetti supper that Mama was looking for a new stylist until I finished getting my license, and here she is.” Dora Lee drew her hand over Jenny like Vanna White on the Wheel of Fortune television game show.
“Good for you.” I dragged my finger to point at my other four customers who weren’t residents of the Sugar Creek Gap nursing home. “And y’all?”
“Wherever Jenny goes, so does our hair, Bernadette.” The way Harriette Pearl said my name reminded me she was much older than my fifty-year-old self, which told me to mind my manners. “We don’t up and abandon our people.”
“Nope.” Millie Barnes had already picked up one of the new magazines Dora Lee had put on the small table next to the chair. She flipped through it and didn’t bother to look up, but she continued to talk. “I liken it to going to the gynecologist. Once you got a good one, you don’t change. And that’s Jenny.”
“I guess I’ve never thought of it that way.” I chuckled and looked over at Jenny. “What about me?”
“I knew I’d see you sometimes around here, so I am trying to tell everyone I see because Alvie said we didn’t have enough extra money to make me up some postcards to send out to my clients to let them know I wasn’t doing hair in my basement no more.” Jenny Franklin’s home was a walk-in gossip session.
It didn’t matter if the mood struck me at ten p.m. to get my hair colored, I could just show up at Jenny’s, and she was always good to go.
“If you get something made up, I’ll be more than happy to deliver them to mailboxes.” The offer could get me fired, but no one around town would tell on me, and it was my duty to be kind and nice in this world.
Or at least I felt that way.
“You are too kind.” Jenny snapped off the black gown from around Ruby’s neck and waved Millie over.
“I’m letting Ada Leigh take a stab at my hair because now that Jenny is going to have to take appointments, I’m going to have to see if Ada does as good of a job.” Harriette always spoke the truth, even in front of people.
“How am I doing, honey?” Ada Leigh asked and picked up the hot curling iron to make all those curls that would stay put in Harriette’s hair for at least two weeks.
“Just fine, sugar.” Harriette’s brows rose when she shifted her focus to the small television hanging on the wall. “Shhh!” She waved both hands in the air. “Hush!”
The sound of the hair dryer, Dora Lee saying something about her bill to Ruby Dean using a very loud voice since Ruby appeared to be having a hard time hearing her even with her hearing aids, and Jenny talking to Millie about doing the same thing they always did to her hair made a loud chatter, making it hard for anyone to hear the morning news.
“Looky there, it’s Stella Jane Clark,” Ada Leigh exclaimed, her voice rising an octave. “Turn it up, Dora.”
Dora ran over and lifted up on her tippy-toes and twisted the old TV’s volume knob up.
“Don’t she look good?” Dora gushed at the young lady on the television. She was being interviewed by a big news network. Nothing like what we had in or around Sugar Creek Gap. “I used to do that pretty hair of hers. We heard she was writing a book, didn’t we, Dora Lee?”
“Shh.” Dora flung her head around, glaring at her mom, and put her finger up to her lips. “I want to hear this.”
“I’ll be suckered. If Elsbeth Clark wasn’t telling the truth for once,” Harriette mumbled under her breath. “She said that granddaughter of hers was going to be an author. I guess she wasn’t telling a tale.” She leaned over and nudged Millie in the other chair. “Because we all know that she overexaggerates everything.”
Poor Dora Lee fidgeted and leaned her ear a little closer to the television. She wasn’t about to swivel around and do to Harriette what she’d done to her own mom. Harriette Pearl might take the grown young woman and bend her over her knee.
Harriette was old-school, and she didn’t fool around when it came to manners and anyone trying to stop her from gossiping.
Not only did Harriette, Ruby, Gertrude, and Millie not live here, but they were my neighbors. What I’d like to say, very curious neighbors who I lovingly called the Front Porch Ladies. They didn’t miss a thing sitting on those front porches. They were better than any police scanner I’d ever seen. They knew what was going on before anyone.
“Mm-hmm.” Millie’s lips pressed together. “And we thought Elsbeth had the start of dementia.”
“Far from it. That woman has a very good mind.” Jenny took the hard stare Ada Leigh had given her as a cue to hush.
The salon went silent, and all eyes were on our only big star that ever came out of Sugar Creek Gap, Kentucky.
“Who was one of your biggest influences to really push you toward writing this highly talked-about romance?” the interviewer asked Stella Jane.
“It actually goes back to high school.” She was a very pretty young lady. Her big bright smile and sparking blue eyes, along with her long light-brown hair, played up the southern charm that came out of her mouth.
“I bet it’s Elsbeth.” Millie shrugged. “After Stella Jane’s mom up and left that poor child with Elsbeth, and at Elsbeth’s age, too, Elsbeth didn’t bat an eye at raising that young’un.”
“I had a really great English teacher, Mr. Butler. He was young and really excited about the work I was turning in.”
“Bernadette!” All the ladies squealed when right there on national television, my son, Grady Butler, was mentioned.
The pride swelled up in me like a big balloon. There was no way this big head of mine was going to fit through any doors I was going to be walking through today.
Everyone jerked back to the television to listen to what else Stella Jane had to say about Grady.
“He really encouraged me to go into English in college.” Stella Jane grinned. “He was a big believer in me. I come from a very small Kentucky town where barely anyone leaves home. That little bit of encouragement from Mr. Butler carried me through college, where I actually started writing Beyond Boundaries.”
The camera scanned to the front cover of the book, which made me blush. It was a photo that appeared to be one woman who looked torn between two men. . . two very shirtless men.
“What was his best advice?” The interviewer asked a very good question.
“He told me to write what I know.” Stella’s eyes gazed down at the book in her hand.
“And are you telling me you know of a woman in your hometown that was torn between her husband and her lover? I mean—” the interviewer laughed and used her cue card to fan herself “—I’ve heard of small-town gossip, but this. . .”
Stella laughed and stopped her.
“Oh no. This is purely fictional. Some of the buildings might take after the charming town I grew up in a little, but not the story.” Stella appeared to be amused at how the lady interviewing her reacted to the plotline on national television.
“And I see the book is dedicated to Grady Butler, Sugar Creek Gap High School English Teacher.” They showed the book again. “How did he react to it?”
“I don’t know, but I guess we will find out this weekend because my very first book signing is going to be at Old Mill Books in Sugar Creek Gap tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Dora Lee turned around, so excited.
“Where is Old Mill Books ?” Jenny asked a very good question since we didn’t have a bookstore, unless you considered aisle nine at the local Walmart a bookstore.
“I bet that’s what is opening at the old mill building downtown. I’ve seen some work being done when I’m walking my loops, but the windows have brown paper taped up on the inside of the window, so I can’t see in.” I tried to recall back any signs or mentions of a bookstore opening along my route, because I heard a lot of things.
“There you have it. Small-town girl makes big-time publishing debut with Beyond Boundaries.” The camera went back to the steamy cover before it panned back to Stella Jane and the interviewer. “I have a feeling this one just might come to a movie theater near you.”
“Oh, from your mouth to God’s ears” was the last thing Stella Jane said before it cut to commercial.
“Bernie, you have to go and find out about this book signing and if it is at the old mill building.” Harriette barked orders at me.
“And don’t forget to get me a few of your mama’s apple fried hand pies. I saw in the Dollar Saver they are on the menu now.” Ruby loved all my mama’s cooking.
For that matter, all of Sugar Creek Gap loved to frequent the Wallflower Diner, which was owned by my parents.
“I’ll see y’all on my second loop.” I waved goodbye to the ladies. I’d dilly-dallied too long and needed to get going.
“Don’t forget you have a haircut on Monday!” Jenny said. “It’s here now, not the basement.”
I waved my hand to acknowledge her.
“Oops.” The salon door flew open. Ester Pitts’s head peeked around the door as she held it wide open for her mom, Kate Pitts, who was a resident of Sugar Creek Gap Nursing Home and using a walker.
“I’m so sorry. I wasn’t paying a bit of attention.” I apologized and stepped back into the salon to let Kate in.
“How could you?” Kate’s eyes grew with a twinkle. “We just saw the big interview on the television, and Grady is a superstar.”
“Yeah. I bet that’s exciting.” Mary Ester shut the door once her mother was fully inside the salon and helped her mother over to sit in the only chair not occupied.
“I’ll be with you in a jiffy.” Dora Lee was cleaning out the hair bowl.
“I’ve got nowhere to go, sugar.” Kate picked up the magazine on the table between the two chairs. “You take your time.”
“No, but I’ve got to get going.” By the tone of Mary Ester’s voice, she didn’t seem to like that her mom was making some provision for her.
“Oh. I bet you’re all excited the new bookstore was preserved per the committee rules.” Jenny wagged a comb at Mary Ester.
“It took a lot of convincing for the members to agree to a bookstore, especially since the old mill is the only thing that ties Sugar Creek Gap to the real reason it was established. But it did turn out nicely.” Mary Ester was on the board of the preservation committee.
“I didn’t even think to ask you what was going in there.” I shook my head and rolled my eyes, for it never crossed my mind. “I’ve been walking past it for the last few months thinking it was just being nipped and tucked here and there like most buildings are downtown.” My mail-carrier bag began to slip off my shoulder. I pulled the strap back up toward my neck. “Speaking of walking, I’ve got to get going.”
“Mom, you think you’re going to be fine here for a few?” Mary Ester asked Kate. “I’ve got to get down to the bookstore for a final inspection. This book signing gig was cutting it close, but since Stella Jane is a local, we promised we’d get it done.”
“I can walk her back to her apartment,” Dora Lee said and smiled.
She was a sweet young girl, and I wondered what she thought about Stella Jane’s success. Really thought about it since she was working in a nursing home hair salon with her mom. Not that it was a bad job, but let’s be real, what twenty-something-year-old wants to work with their mom, much less in a nursing home?
With my goodbyes out of the way, I headed to the mailbox room of the senior living facility, where I put mail in the sixty-or-so mailboxes. That didn’t include the condominiums located on the property where my parents lived.
It was truly the senior living area of the nursing home. It was a nice downsize from the farmhouse that my parents had given me and my now-deceased husband, Richard, when I was pregnant with Grady.
Before I was pregnant, we lived above the diner in the one-bedroom apartment, which was perfect for a married couple with no children. I was a mail carrier, and Richard was a traveling salesman.
My parents insisted on buying the condominium, making it way more convenient for them to live by the diner and perfect for our little family. Plus, I’d grown up on the farm, so it was totally home for me. I’d still continued the family Sunday-night supper, and when Grady and Julia told me they were pregnant, it was just the perfect time for me to downsize and give them the farmhouse.
Timing was everything, and it fell into place like it was supposed to happen. One of my customers had passed away and left me his house. . . and his dog, which put me on Little Creek Road.
And next to the Front Porch Ladies, which was the second loop of my mail carrier route.
The first loop was always the nursing home. Since it was easy to simply fill the boxes, it made for a nice start of the day.
Once they were filled, I walked back to the post office, which was located on Main Street with the other locally owned businesses in Sugar Creek Gap, making it so easy for me since the second loop was all those businesses and my little street of six homes.
My home, the four Front Porch Ladies, and Mac Tabor.
“You look like you’re in la-la land.” Vivian was still standing at the front desk. “I told you Clara got her smarts from her daddy.” Vivian smirked and nodded to the television in the communal room that’d just played the interview with Stella Jane.
Instead of telling her I was thinking about Mac, which did send my mind straight to joy, I smiled and waved goodbye.