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Heavens to Bribery

Book 9 in the Kenni Lowry Mystery Series

“Shucks, y’all! Sheriff Kenni Lowry is back and her life’s as twisted as a snake with a bellyache. A marriage proposal from the dashing Finn Vincent could mean a ‘happily ever after,’ but it also risks sending her ghostly Poppa to the great beyond for good. Can she reckon with love while keeping her spectral sidekick?

Just when you think Kenni’s plate is full, a murdered John Doe is discovered on the train tracks. Poisoned and unknown, this mystery man’s arrival stirs up a hornet’s nest in the heart of Cottonwood.

In ‘Heavens to Bribery,’ dig into a hearty helping of Southern charm, ghostly companionship, and a murder mystery as thick as Kentucky gravy. Strap in for a tale that’s more gripping than a bull rider at the rodeo, as Kenni races to uncover the truth behind this deadly puzzle.

Heavens to Bribery


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Mama always used to say that a woman’s life was a series of surprises, but nothing had prepared me for this.

Here I was, the sheriff of Cottonwood, Kentucky, with a murder case half solved, and a man was kneeling before me, proposing in front of my whole family, a couple of townsfolk who’d been drawn by the commotion, and Edna Easterly, the one and only employee of the Cottonwood Chronicles. I was sure Mama had hired her for such an occasion as this.

After all, Mama wanted everything on film, and the camera stuck up in my face was certainly going to capture it all.

And I mean all. Including the look on my face.

Finn Vincent, my handsome boyfriend, was looking up at me, his brown eyes filled with hope. I’d seen that look in the eyes of people I’d helped before, but it was never directed at me in this way.

A deafening silence surrounded us, as though all the air had been sucked out of the summer evening. A few steps away, my spectral poppa, the ghost of the former town sheriff in our small town of Cottonwood, Kentucky, had shown up. Only I could see him.

I was on the precipice of answering, my eyes flitting between Finn’s hopeful brown gaze and Poppa’s ethereal, patient presence. I could feel the weight of Finn’s anticipation, a current of electricity humming between us. Poppa, in contrast, emanated calm, a steady beacon in the chaos of this moment.

His phantasmal shoulders lifted in a noncommittal shrug. This decision, he seemed to say, was entirely mine. Thoughts of the murder case that remained unresolved gnawed at my mind, a persistent reminder of my duties as Cottonwood’s sheriff, but also the wild unpredictability that life here presented.

“Kenni,” Finn whispered, his eyes darting to the left and the right. His chest filled with air before he looked back up at me, waiting for my answer.

“I…” I began, the word an unfinished symphony hanging in the warm summer air. Finn’s gaze was locked on mine, but his attention wavered as my eyes darted past his shoulder in a brief, bewildered glance toward the place where Poppa stood. Of course, Finn could see nothing but empty space.

Abruptly, a scream pierced the quiet evening, like the piercing whistle of a tea kettle reaching the boiling point.

The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and everyone’s focus shifted in unison towards the alarming sound. It was a harsh intrusion, a reminder that stark danger often punctuated Cottonwood’s tranquility.

Without a second thought, I found myself moving, an almost automatic reaction, reaching for the trusty weapon holstered around my ankle.

Finn, always quick on his feet, was right behind me. His unanswered proposal hung between us, another silent specter adding to the charged atmosphere.

“Oh Lord!” Mama’s voice drifted to us from behind, her tone a cocktail of exasperation and concern. “Can’t a woman get proposed to in peace in this town anymore?”

Adrenaline coursed through my veins as we ran out of the makeshift basement movie theater and rounded the corner, heading toward the screaming.

My heart pounded against my ribs like a wild drum. An unexpected sense of relief washed over me—the crisis had provided me a momentary reprieve from answering Finn. But that relief quickly gave way to a sense of dread, a familiar taste of anxiety on my tongue as I imagined the sight we were about to encounter.

In the larger scheme of my life, I knew this incident was merely the start of a new chapter. Another twist in the winding tale of love, duty, and death that defined my existence in Cottonwood. And Finn’s proposal, as yet unanswered, would undoubtedly change everything forever.

The frantic cries for help were now louder, echoing through the still night. The voice was unmistakably Patty Dunaway’s.

“There!” A long, thin shadow in the moonlight pointed toward the railroad tracks.

Those tracks ran like a metallic scar through the heart of the town, right behind Luke and Vita Jones’s house. The stark light of the full moon painted Patty’s lanky silhouette against the inky night, forming a tableau of fear and urgency.

Three dog leashes were wrapped around one of her hands as she tried to reel in the dogs attached to them.

With the echoes of Patty’s panicked cries still ringing in my ears, I turned to Finn, my voice carrying the firm authority I’d honed as Cottonwood’s sheriff. My sheriff mode was like a switch that automatically flipped on and off.

It was completely off when Finn was on one knee, but now that I was standing here with a body lying across the train tracks, the sheriff switch had flipped.

“Finn, I need you to get Patty and the dogs back. And keep the crowd at a distance,” I said, motioning to the gathering knot of curious townsfolk who’d begun to drift over from Luke and Vita’s.

Although he was no longer part of my department, Finn was someone I trusted implicitly, especially in situations like these. His broad shoulders tensed in understanding, and he nodded, his dark eyes lingering on me for a moment as if he was trying to process how he went from one knee to standing over a body in seconds. He turned toward Patty.

In the soft moonlight, Patty looked even more disheveled than usual. Her frizzy hair was a wild halo around her head, her usually cheerful face pale and stricken with terror. The three dogs she had been walking—a spirited spaniel, a large brindled mutt, and a tiny terrier—whimpered and tugged at their leashes, their sensitive noses detecting that something was wrong.

Finn gently but firmly guided Patty and the canines away from the railway tracks, his calming presence seeming to soothe them slightly.

Meanwhile, the inquisitive onlookers who’d followed us from the movie theater were held at bay by Finn’s commanding stature, their speculative whispers and concerned glances creating a subdued background buzz.

From the edges of the curious crowd, Mama’s voice rang out. Her distinctive southern twang was a comforting soundtrack to most of my life, but right now it rang through the night with an edge of anxiety.

“Finn Vincent, what in heaven’s name is going on?” Mama demanded. Her slightly accusatory tone betrayed her concern, an emotion she was quick to share. “Don’t y’all worry. Kenni will get to the bottom of this, and we will be back to Finn’s proposal in no time.”

Finn looked flustered, glancing back at me before turning to Mama. “Kenni is doing her job. We should let her—”

“There’s someone on the tracks,” Patty said in a shaky voice.

“But I didn’t hear no train, did y’all?” Mama cut him off, turning to her companions with a challenging look on her face.

Her question was aimed at her small posse of friends, three formidable ladies who were among the most influential business owners in Cottonwood.

Viola White, the owner of White’s Jewelry, was a petite woman who stood just five feet, four inches. Her gray hair was styled immaculately.

Beside her, Ruby Smith, the owner of Ruby’s Antiques, was a stark contrast. Her short red hair was as fiery as her personality, and her vibrant orange lipstick only added to her overall vivid personality.

Then there was Lulu McClain, who owned Lulu’s Boutique. Her very short black hair and pronounced southern accent made her a distinctive character. She had a motherly quality that put people at ease and a sense of style that made her boutique the talk of the town.

With the crowd momentarily placated, I turned my attention back to the body. My heart pounded in my chest as I crouched down beside the figure, and the sharp smell of iron filled my nostrils. I fumbled for my phone and turned the screen’s brightness up to its maximum, providing the only other source of illumination against the moonlit darkness.

Holding my breath, I pointed the flashlight toward the body, preparing myself for what was to come next. Regardless of who the victim was, this night was clearly taking a turn that none of us had expected.

Though I was all too familiar with this part of my job, the sight of a life so brutally snuffed out still caused my stomach to twist uneasily. Yet I couldn’t let emotion sway me. I had a crime scene to survey, a growing crowd to manage, and a murder to solve.

“Who is it, Kenni?” Mama’s voice cut through the silent night, her curiosity echoing in the hushed crowd. As I hesitated, she added, more to her friends than me, “Kenni will tell us.”

Her confidence in me was comforting, but in this moment, it felt misplaced. I had no answer to give her, no name to assign to the lifeless body before me. Despite the shock of the situation, I was surprisingly calm, my mind beginning to fall into the familiar rhythm of deductive reasoning.

The man was a stranger to me, a face I had never seen in the tightly knit community of Cottonwood. His dark hair was matted with blood, and his clothes were nondescript, the kind that wouldn’t draw attention in any crowd. I felt a pang of sadness at the sight of a life extinguished under the cover of darkness, far from home.

Mama had been right about something, though. There hadn’t been a train. Cottonwood was a town molded by routine and rhythm, and the chugging of the trains passing through was as regular as the sunrise. A long, drawn-out whistle usually announced their arrival, breaking the silence of the night with a mechanical howl that could be heard all the way to the Jones’s basement. The sound had woven itself into the fabric of our lives, an auditory reminder of the outside world.

There was no such sound tonight. No whistle, no rumbling of wheels against the tracks, no rhythmic clacking of the cargo. The silence was a stark contradiction to the chaotic scene that had unfolded. And it wasn’t just the silence. Looking more closely, I could see the lack of typical gruesome injuries that one would associate with a train accident.

The moonlight glinted off the rails, unblemished and smooth. There was no sign that a train had rushed over this body. My gut twisted with unease as the implications of my observations sank in. This was not an accident. This was something much darker.

I slowly stood up, tucking away my phone and turning to face the anxious crowd.

“I need everyone to stay back,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “This is a crime scene. We need to preserve it until help arrives. So why don’t you all go on home, and we will have some details in the morning. We won’t have anything here tonight.”

I locked eyes with Finn, giving him a curt nod. He understood, moving quickly to usher Patty and her dogs away from the tracks and back toward the crowd. As a murmur of confusion and fear rippled through the townsfolk, I took a deep breath, preparing myself for the tumultuous investigation that lay ahead. This night was far from over.

end of excerpt

Heavens to Bribery

is available in the following formats:

Tonya Kappes Books

Aug 31, 2023

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