Return To Sender
Book 4 in the Mail Carrier Cozy Mystery Series
Bernadette Butler has a penchant for solving murders while keeping her ear low to the ground listening to gossip while on her mail carrier route.
Bernie tries to deliver a return to sender package and a certified letter to a local man and finds him dead.
When the death turns up suspicious, Bernie uses her amateur sleuthing skills along with the gossipy help of the Front Porch Ladies to cross reference who exactly in their small southern town stamped out the victim.
Return To Sender
Book 4 in the Mail Carrier Cozy Mystery Series
Return To Sender
Benefits of yoga: energy regulations. Yeah, I was still waiting on that one. Stronger bones. If that was the case, why did Doctor Hunter give me supplements to take on my last well-woman visit because my bone density test recorded early osteoporosis?
I groaned as my hands rotated up to warrior two pose. Helped you focus, yeah right. The sarcasm was so loud in my head that I had to look around to see if anyone heard it.
“Bernie.” The soft whisper of Peaches Partin circled the space above everyone’s warrior pose in the beginning yoga class that Iris Peabody had insisted we take. “Focus by looking down your arm and past your fingertips.”
Was that Peaches’s way of telling me to stop looking around? Mmhmmm… which brings me to another reason I was given to try yoga: increased happiness. The only thing bringing me happiness was the fact I was going to be able to watch Clara, my granddaughter, this afternoon while Julia, my daughter-in-law, went to the doctor for her checkup.
Which brought me to the next reason I was given: helping me sleep. That wasn’t working. I was always up at night worrying if my premature granddaughter was thriving or how her early birth was going to impact her growth. I loved her no matter what, but it was really the stress I’d seen on Julia’s and my son, Grady’s, faces that always told me they only wanted the best for little Clara.
Apparently, focusing down my arm made me a little wobbly, which sent Peaches right on over to steady me.
“I thought this was supposed to give me good balance?” I asked her.
Iris Peabody laughed. Peaches didn’t find it a bit funny.
“Focus,” Peaches whispered and gently let go like I was a kite about to take off in a gentle wind, only to me it felt like a tornado.
Which brought me to another reason I was sold on the whole idea of yoga: improved muscle strength. I’d like to see it. The only muscle strength I’d gotten was sore, achy, and spasmodic, not to mention how much ibuprofen I’d purchased since I’d let Iris talk me into this crazy activity.
I was a walking mail carrier. I walked miles upon miles a day. By the end of the day, my feet did ache, but nothing a good Epsom salt foot soak didn’t take care of. And I’d started to go over to Jenny Franklin’s since I’d heard she’d been doing hair and nails in her basement.
She sure did give a good foot rub along with a bang-up toenail paint job. Plus, I liked to help out the small business owners in the area.
My stomach gurgled. A little belch drew up into my esophagus, reminding me what I’d eaten at midnight while worrying about my granddaughter. This brought me to the two final reasons I’d decided to let Iris talk me into contorting my fifty-year-old body in ways that shouldn’t be twisted.
Yoga helped with your digestion. Now, keep in mind that Iris was the owner of Pie in the Face, the local bakery. Not only the proprietor, but the baker. And to beat the band, she suggested this yoga class over a freshly baked maple walnut crumb cake that just so happened to be surrounded in cinnamon, walnuts, and brown sugar with brown sugar crumbles on top. And I couldn’t forget to mention how it was also smothered in a vanilla bean Vermont maple glaze that was to die for.
We would both gobble up a much larger piece than we needed of the delicious sweet-baked good with a big cup of ice-cold milk to wash it down.
Yoga helped you lose weight. I slid my eyes down to my gut that had started to become a little rounder than it’d been in years past.
My eyes moved across the room as Peaches told us to move to reverse warrior. Lucy Drake’s thin, streamlined body fit perfectly in her fancy yoga pants and sleeveless formfitting top. The Tranquility Wellness water bottle Peaches sold with the logo on it was sitting half-empty on the floor next to her hot-pink yoga mat.
Her long hair flowed down her back, making her a stark resemblance to the poster on the wall promoting a new yoga wear line Peaches sold in the Tranquility Wellness shop. I pushed back my stick-straight auburn hair, pretending it didn’t look like a big grease pit. Though in the back of my head, I knew from the long day of walking and sweating that I didn’t look as fresh as Lucy.
“Last rose of summer,” I moaned as I tried to sink deeper into the pose Peaches was telling everyone to do.
“What?” Iris asked, staring forward.
“Nothing.” I looked down at my wobbling thighs, begging them not to collapse under me. Then I made the mistake of using my peripheral vision to see Lucy Drake, stiff and holding her pose as though she was a goddess statue.
I bet a big old juicy hamburger and large fry from supper last night wasn’t sitting in her gut like a big brick like it was mine. Her stomach was nice and flat. Everything about her wanted me to snarl and gnash my teeth. Her good looks, her popularity from hosting her own morning radio show on WSCG, our local station, and now that she’d snagged Mac Tabor, the most eligible bachelor in Sugar Creek Gap, it was hard not to be envious of her.
Which made me wonder what Mac Tabor had seen in me. We dated for about a year before I had some sort of brain fart, thinking I wasn’t in love with him after he asked me to marry him. Well, sort of. He’d sprung it on me like a big surprise. I didn’t like surprises.
We were moving right along. Doing just fine as we enjoyed each other’s company and wham! He wanted more. More than I could give.
I’d just moved into the new house I’d inherited from one of my mail route clients and gotten a new dog to add to my already ornery cat. I’d left the only house I’d ever known and loved by giving it to Grady and Julia so they could raise Clara and give me a whole bunch more grandbabies. That was stress.
Also, I’d found a couple of dead bodies in the past couple of years, and that didn’t even add to the stress in my life. Sweet Clara’s early arrival to the world was the biggest worry I had, so Mac had decided it was the perfect time to pile on me this whole notion of moving in and getting hitched when I was just fine with the companionship we’d been sharing.
To make matters even worse, Mac had been my deceased husband’s best friend and around me all my life. Not that dating Mac made me worry about what Richard would’ve thought because, truth be told, Richard had cheated on me our entire marriage, which I didn’t find out until ten years after he was killed in a car wreck, and this woman had shown up in Sugar Creek Gap.
Talk about a life changer.
Here I was, trying to hold a reverse warrior pose while Lucy Drake looked like a Zen queen.
Too bad she wasn’t next to me, I might’ve lost my balance and knocked her over.
“You know you’re not so subtle.” Iris eyeballed me from underneath her long curly brown and somewhat gray hair.
“You look like you were in a windstorm.” I couldn’t help but point out how her fancy bun she’d so desperately tried to create on top of her head had fallen with each pose.
“Ha. Ha.” She smiled and went back to reverse warrior.
“Back to warrior two.” Peaches began to guide us back to standing, where we finally made it to the floor flat on our backs. “Close your eyes and place one hand on your heart while the other rests on your stomach.”
Now, this was a pose I could get into.
“Inhale a long deep breath through the nose, then gently, in one long steady stream, release it out of the mouth while letting your eyes gently close.” This was the part where Peaches walked around and placed a blanket over us. “Let your mind wander. Let your thoughts come and go without putting any sort of detail into them.”
I jerked up.
“What?” My eyes darted around the room.
“You fell asleep again.” Iris nudged me with her big toe. “And you were snoring so loud.”
“This class is killing me.” I curled my legs up under me and let the blanket fall off of me. “Why didn’t you just let me sleep? I swear I feel more rested now than I have all day.”
“Ladies.” Lucy Drake slinked over, the water bottle strap dangling from the crook of her finger. “Isn’t this a fabulous class?” She bent over at her waist and touched her toes. “I’ve gotten so limber, and my muscles are hugging all my bones.”
I hugged the blanket to me, trying to cover up the baggy sweatpants and old Sugar Creek Gap High School Grizzly Bear’s sweatshirt that was Grady’s when he was in high school.
“Off I go. My people have all their ears on what I’ve got to say in Coffee Chat. Hope you join.” She wiggled her fingers and her fanny as she walked on by.
“I would ask what on earth Mac sees in her, but I won’t. I can see it myself.” Iris bent down and grabbed my yoga mat for me while I hobbled out of the big open room. “Did you hear me?”
“Of course, I heard you.” I turned around and looked at the high wooden beamed ceiling and hardwood floors that created the echoing Zen den. “But so can everyone else.”
I pointed my finger in the air when my voice echoed.
It was really a cool concept Peaches had when she’d bought the old building. It was a two-story mercantile store from when Sugar Creek Gap, Kentucky was a big mill town. We still had the very first working mill wheel at the very heart of downtown.
Like most towns, settlers had gone from land to land and built little communities along the way. Sugar Creek Gap had been built on generations of families. We were a small community, but through the years, the owners of big farms had sold off various acres and built several subdivisions along with big box stores on the outskirts of town.
But I worked, lived, and mainly stayed in downtown Sugar Creek Gap, leading me back to Tranquility Spa. Peaches wasn’t going to be able to salvage the second floor of the building on the inside. She ended up gutting the entire inside where she had large wooden beams installed to create a very tall one-story shop. She was able to divide the large space into thirds. The larger room was her studio, another room had three separate massage beds along with appointments for her Reiki technique. Peaches had tried to get me in there.
No way, no how. When I Googled it, the information popped up that having such a massage performed on me might make my soul open up and I’d cry. I’d done enough crying for three lifetimes; I certainly didn’t want to be a willing participant in anything that would make me cry.
The third section Peaches had built was the front reception where she conducted business transactions and had open wooden storage shelves for clients, along with some clothing racks where she sold yoga apparel.
“How much is this?” I asked Peaches when she walked past me.
“I don’t know.” China Gordon, Peaches best friend, smiled when she realized that I’d mistaken her for Peaches. “Peaches, price?” She lifted the Tranquility Spa water bottle up to her lips and took a drink, motioning me with the other hand to lift the pants in the air.
I held them up in the air and wondered if I needed to buy one of those bottles and just drink water all day long. Then maybe I’d look like them, as I recalled the one next to Lucy and always seeing Peaches with one.
“That’s a wonderful fabric,” Peaches called from the counter where she was sipping on some sort of green liquid. “You can always try it, and if you don’t like it, you can get your money back.”
“Are you seriously thinking about buying that?” she asked me as I held the very small pants. The entire thing was smaller than my one leg.
“Mmm.” I shrugged. “Maybe.” I gulped when I took a look at the price tag. “Do you think this is sixty dollars’ worth of material?” I joked under my breath.
“I bet we can get Loetta Goldey to make us something for one-fourth of the price.” Iris was serious.
“She knits.” I let out a long sigh and looked at the yoga pants again.
“Or you can wait a few days and try the new line I’m representing,” China said. “Right, Peaches?”
“We do need to have that meeting.” Peaches flipped open the calendar on her desk, and China put her head down as they pointed to various dates.
China Gordon was a clothing representative for athletic wear. From all the times she’d stopped her mail, I knew she traveled a lot for work. No doubt she had to since Tranquility Spa would be the only place in Sugar Creek Gap she’d be able to get her athletic line to sell.
“I’d love to see the products you represent.” I made the decision to buy the yoga pants and placed them on the counter.
“Oh no, Bernie. China has finally decided to take my advice and come up with her own line to sell.” Peaches had so much pride on her face for her best friend. She rang up my pants and took my debit card from me. “Since she is almost finished getting her 300 hours of yoga training, so she can teach some classes, she knows the right fabrics that’ll help your body move and stretch to its fullest potential.”
“Congratulations, China. That’s wonderful news.” I loved to see young people go for their dreams. “I’ll be the first customer.”
“And that’s why we need to get our little meeting on the books,” China told Peaches.
“We will.” Peaches held a finger up in the air to answer the ringing phone.
“I’ll see you Wednesday,” I mouthed and took the bag from Peaches so she didn’t have to stop her phone conversation.
“No. I’m the owner. I do not have to let her take yoga classes.” Peaches didn’t sound so happy with the person on the other end of the line. I couldn’t help but listen in while I waited on Iris to get her shoes on. “If she comes in here, she’ll regret it. And for that matter, don’t you ever step foot in here either.”
Iris couldn’t stop herself from lingering. Her big ears and eyes were taking it all in, and Peaches knew it. Peaches slowly turned around and covered the phone with her hand as she continued to whisper with a very angry tone.
I tugged on Iris’s sweatshirt and nodded toward the door.
“Wonder what that was about?” Iris asked once we made it outside where the sun was still out before dusk, which made me so happy. I could take little Clara outside when I went to visit them tonight. “Or who it was about?”
“Who knows. Somebody always has a beef with someone around here.” I sighed, knowing Peaches Partin was one of the gentlest of souls. When you were around her, she radiated calm, and I swear there was a light that came right out of her soul and spread across the world through her eyes. “I’ll walk you to your car.”
Since I lived a street behind Main Street on Little Creek Road, I practically walked everywhere. According to Doctor Hunter, walking just wasn’t enough for a middle-aged woman like myself. When did I become middle-aged? I still thought of my mother as middle-aged, not me.
Iris and I didn’t talk about her feeling. She got these about every three-to-six months, to which nothing good ever came out of them. Though her feelings weren’t always spot on, they were pretty close not to take note and keep an eye out.
Instead of trying to figure out what she’d felt, I walked her to her car and safely put her in, telling her to call me if she needed me. Something I might regret, but hey, I wasn’t sleeping well anyway.
Buster and Rowena were happy to see me when I walked in the door of my little house. Buster wiggled and jiggled all over, satisfied with a few kisses and pats before he darted to the front door to go outside.
Rowena dragged her long orange tail around my chin, purring loudly and putting a smile on my face.
“I missed you too.” I scooped her up into my arms and walked back with her into the kitchen to get her a salmon treat, which happened to be her second favorite. Chicken was her first, but I was out and knew she had her regular veterinary checkup for the year, so salmon was going to have to do until the vet visit.
Rowena meowed and rubbed against my ankles as though she were trying to hurry me up. Once I’d put the treats on the ground, she ignored me, daintily eating them.
“You be good while me and Buster head out to the farmhouse to see Clara,” I told Rowena on my way down the hallway to our bedroom, peeling off the sweatpants. I took the yoga pants out of the Tranquility Wellness bag and decided to pour myself into them.
Pour was about right.
“Oh, dear gawd,” I groaned when I turned to look at myself. Even Rowena came in to see what I was up to. “Two things that tell the truth, Rowena,” I said, taking another look at my butt, “children and yoga pants.”
Quickly, I took them off and threw them back into the bag before tossing them into the back of my closet. Out of sight, out of mind.
The slightest things really did make a mood sour, so instead of dwelling on it, I put my sweatpants back on. Clara didn’t care what her granny wore.
“Now, you be good,” I told Rowena and grabbed the keys to my car along with the box of food my mom gave me to take over to Julia when I delivered the mail to the Wallflower Diner, our family-owned restaurant on Main Street.
Rowena, satisfied, really couldn’t give two cents what I did now since she’d gotten her treats. She had her leg straight up in the air and licked all her leg, down to her toenails.
“Are you trying to give me some sort of subliminal message about how good and limber you are, or how much better at yoga you are than me?” I questioned her with a side-eye.
Of course, she responded by rolling over onto her back and contorting into a position that would require me to see an emergency chiropractor.
With the door locked behind me and an excited Buster trotting along next to me, we got into my car and rolled out of downtown into the country where the old family farm was located.
Buster kept his head out the window the entire time. He seemed steady enough, but I still put a hand on him for safekeeping.
The farmhouse and farm had been passed down to me from my parents after I’d gotten pregnant with Grady. Recently, I’d done the same after I found out Julia was pregnant with little Clara.
They’d lived over the family diner in the small one-bedroom apartment until they’d moved out here.
With each new day, Julia had been doing some major renovations, thanks to Mac Tabor. He was a brilliant architect and loved Grady and Julia like his own. That’s what made our breakup so hard, but it would be fine. That’s what I told myself.
The long gravel driveway was long gone now that they’d moved in. It was one of the first things to go because Grady didn’t want Clara playing in gravel in fear she’d skin her knee.
I agreed. I’d only had Grady, and I didn’t mind him skinning his knee. After all, he was rough and tumble. Gravel or no gravel, Grady always had some sort of cut.
Not for my sweet Clara.
The tires hummed over the old cattle grate that was still at the entrance of the farm, which brought back a lot of memories of my childhood when my daddy had many cows and the grate was supposed to keep them in the property. One or two got out on occasion, but for the most part, it did its job of keeping them in.
The excitement bubbled up in me the closer I got to the farmhouse, only to be busted as soon as I saw Mac’s truck there.
I sucked in a deep breath and thought about the images Peaches Partin put in our heads at the end of yoga class that made me take a little catnap. Unfortunately, I realized I’d fallen asleep every single time she started to give us an image to focus on.
I sucked in another deep breath and opened the door. Buster darted over me and bolted out the door, leaving me to fend for myself alone. But I was armed with a gift for Clara and food for them. Something Mac would never do.
But dang it if it wasn’t something Lucy Drake would do.
I nearly had a full-blown anxiety attack when I looked in the screen door of the house and saw my grandbaby in Lucy Drake’s arms, with Mac smiling and goggling over Lucy’s shoulder.
My heart started to palpitate. My breath quickened. My mind raced with fear of how much Clara appeared to be enjoying them, wondering if I was going to be good enough. Pretty enough. Small enough. My gut wrenched, and I thought I was going to be sick right there on their front porch. My front porch. My family front porch. Grady’s front porch.
My palms began to sweat, and I could feel myself making an exit plan. A quick getaway, which I’d become very good at over the past few months since Mac and I had called it quits.
Leave it to Buster to bark, making everyone look at me. I could see it now. Mac’s thoughts as his eyes darted back and forth between me and Lucy.
Wow. Look at Lucy compared to Bernie. What was I thinking? Lucy’s hair is so long and pretty. She looks great in these yoga pants (which she was still in). Poor Bernie. She’s completely let herself go in those sweatpants (I’m sure Lucy told him she’d seen me and how I was snoring). Glad I got out when I did.
“Bernie!” Mac finally took the initiative to break the most disturbing and very uncomfortable silence. “There’s the maw-maw.”
Maw-maw? Like hee-haw or something so hillbilly like that? No, thank you.
“I don’t…” I started to protest.
“Mom, Julia and I’ve been teaching Clara to call you Maw-maw and showing her the cute photo album you gave her.” Grady seemed awfully pleased with the name.
He opened the screen door.
“Who came up with…” I was about to protest again when Lucy Drake opened her big mouth.
“You’re the perfect maw-maw,” she giggled. “Look, you’re already bringing food.” She lifted her thin fingers to her tiny little skintight yoga shirt, placing a flat palm on her chest. “I had a maw-maw, and she did the same thing. But I have to tell you it wasn’t good for her hips or mine.” She winked then looked at little Clara. “Isn’t that right, sweet Clara?” Lucy spoke baby talk to my baby, causing me to hard swallow the bitter words I so desperately wanted to spit into her perfectly made-up face. I was only worried it would affect my Clara.
The more she bounced Clara on her skinny hip bone, the more Clara giggled and smiled right back at her.
“Mom, you okay?” Grady took me by the arm.
“I’m fine.” I handed him the box. “This is from your grandmother.”
“Grandmother?” Grady laughed at my formality because we didn’t call her that at all. He leaned in like he was giving me a kiss but whispered in my ear, “Are you okay with this?”
I grabbed his hand and squeezed it with a big smile on my face.
“Let Maw-maw see her little Clara.” I marched over in my oversized sweatpants and sweatshirt, plucking Clara right out of Lucy’s arms.
“Thank you for the food.” Julia got up from the chair and came over to hug me. “I’m starving.”
I followed her into the kitchen where they’d recently torn down a lot of the old farmhouse walls to make their living space and kitchen open concept.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea Mac was bringing her.” Julia’s brows furrowed, and she gave me and Clara another big hug.
“No problem,” I said in a happy voice with a big smile on my face and looked at those sweet little cupid bow lips Clara had. Her skin was perfect, and she had the bluest of eyes. “I’ve got to get used to it.”
“Maybe you need to explore why it bothers you.” Julia opened the cabinets and took out a couple of plates. “Is it possible you do want to spend your life with him?”
“Ahhh, we don’t need to talk about boys, do we?” I asked Clara, and she smiled so big.
“What are y’all talking about in here?” Lucy Drake made an appearance. “The boys are talking remodel, and I don’t get into those things.”
“I was just getting me and Grady a plate of food.” Julia reached in to get a third dish. “Would you like some? Plenty for everyone.”
The food did look good, and I was about to say I’d take a couple of scoops, but then…
“No.” Lucy waved her off. “I just got out of yoga, and I can never eat after a soul workout.” She turned her attention to me. “Right, Bernie?”
“Yeah. None for me.” It was hard to say through a mouthful of water. “I’m definitely not hungry.” I tried to cover up the loud growl coming from my gut and not notice Julia looking at my stomach.
“Ohh.” Lucy wiggled her shoulders. “You’re getting a great gut workout if your stomach is gurgling and you’re not hungry.”
“Yeah.” I shrugged and sat down with Clara in my arms. “Julia, she’s perfect.” I decided to focus on what was right with the world, and it was right in my arms.
“She’s pretty great. And her Uncle Mac is just so excited about her.” I could feel Lucy standing over me. “I hope you don’t mind I came with him. I was at yoga, with Bernie”—she said it like it made it better—“and I just popped over to Mac’s house. Unannounced, of course, when I found him getting into his truck.” She snorted and sat down in the chair next to me. “When he told me he was coming here, I sorta invited myself.”
“You know how it is around Sugar Creek Gap.” Julia put both plates on the family farmhouse table where we’d gathered every single Sunday since I was born and to this day to have our weekly family supper.
That included Mac too. He still came every Sunday, but if he started to bring Lucy, I’d have to put a halt to him coming. That was that.
Julia continued, “You can just stop by without calling or anything. Our door is always open.”
I scowled. That was one invitation Lucy Drake would burn in her perfect-sized brain. In fact, I stared at her brain and wondered if she had any gray matter like I did. Or that’s what Dr. Hunter told me I had.
“See those little white specs?” Dr. Hunter had asked me at my annual checkup, where she did a full-body midlife checkup along with a full blood panel just to make sure I was aging alright. “You don’t need to worry about those. That’s just aging brain.”
That certainly didn’t make me feel good. That was also the same visit where she’d told me I needed to do better exercise for my bones and how yoga and Lucy Drake entered my weekly routine.
Yeah. I saw Lucy Drake when I delivered the radio station mail, but I did everything in my power to deliver it when she was on air and not somewhere she’d see me.
So, whenever I was at the Wallflower Diner, just a few doors down from WSCG, and Lucy came on after a song, I’d hightail it down there to deliver the mail. No different than thinking I could avoid Mac and his architecture firm and house by delivering in the afternoon.
Julia was right about one thing. Maybe I did need to explore why this little situation with Lucy and Mac bothered me so much.
But not tonight. Tonight, I was going to visit with my little Clara.
“Who is Maw-maw’s girl?” I asked Clara in a baby voice as I snuggled her closer.
If I was going to be a maw-maw, I was going to be the best damn maw-maw in the south. You could bet your grits on that.
Iris stopped dead in her tracks while I was deep in thought, knocking right into her.
“I don’t have a good feeling.” Iris had this funny look on her face. Her face clouded over like a thundercloud, making me get chilled to the bone.