Six Feet Under
Book 4 in the Kenni Lowry Mystery Series
Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth. And let me tell you, this broth is in trouble. Get ready for a Southern showdown.
The residents of Cottonwood, Kentucky are sent into a tizzy when the Culinary Channel comes to town to film an episode of Southern Home Cookin’ with celebrity chef Frank Von Lee.
Especially Sheriff Kenni Lowry.
Her mama’s award-winning chicken pot pie is what brought Frank to town, and they don’t make hair in the South bigger than her mama’s ego after the news.
When Frank Von Lee is found dead from food poisoning and the most likely culprit is Mama’s chicken pot pie, Kenni’s poppa, the former sheriff, comes back from the Great Beyond to assist in the investigation.
But nothing’s prepared Kenni for such a personal tie to a case, and she finds herself pushing the limits of the laws she’s sworn to protect.
This book’s so delicious it’ll make your mouth water and leave you hankerin’ for more.
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Six Feet Under
Book 4 in the Kenni Lowry Mystery Series
Six Feet Under
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“Y’all ain’t gonna believe this,” was the first thing Mama said as soon as Finn Vincent and I moseyed into Ben’s Diner. That’s something you don’t want to hear out of Mama’s mouth at seven in the morning, or at any time for that matter.
“The time is wrong?” I asked above the beating and the banging going on behind the counter as we approached her. “Because I know you aren’t here this early in the morning. And looking fresh as a daisy.”
I looked at her closer and noticed her olive skin was a little too fresh. Her long brown hair was fixed as if she were heading to a party and her wrinkles were, um, less wrinkly. Maybe it was the beautiful spring morning we were having and the warm sun already beating in the windows of the diner that made her look a little more youthful.
“I bet you need a new clock.” She nodded her head.
We stood eye-to-eye since we both were about the same height, five feet five inches. My eyes narrowed. Not only was there something off about the time of the morning she was at Ben’s, but there was also something different about Mama.
“I’ve told you a million times not to buy used clocks from Ruby’s Antiques. Half the time they aren’t even antiques. She goes around to yard sales and picks up junk, calling it antiques.” Mama’s eyes rolled. “She’s the only antique in there, if you ask me.”
“There is something going on with you.” I pointed my finger in a circle around her face.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Finn Vincent, my partner, looking at me with a very amused expression on his face. It was one of those curious looks that made my heart flip-flop every time he wore it. Over the past few months, we’d explored a relationship outside of the sheriff’s office and I’d have to say that it’s been going slow, but swimmingly.
“We’re happy to see you this morning,” Finn said and stepped between us and gave Mama a hug.
His voice was warm and deep, matching the depth of his eyes. His black hair was neatly combed to the side. The first time I’d seen him had been when the Kentucky Reserve was called in to help on Doc Walton’s murder investigation. I knew I was in trouble when my physical reaction to his presence was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. Now a year later, he’s still got that same hold on me.
“It’s refreshing to see your face instead of his,” he said to Mama and playfully elbowed Ben Harrison, the owner of the diner, when Ben walked over to us with a couple of menus.
“New menus?” I had to say something to get my heartbeat back into its normal rhythm and get on track for the day. The stained menus that were normally wedged between the salt and pepper shakers on the tables were no longer there. “New way of handing out the menus?”
“I was trying to tell you before you rudely interrupted,” Mama pushed back over to me. “I’m sorry,” she said to Finn, “I raised her better than that.”
“Rude.” Finn teased me, his smile making my breath catch.
He knew the tension between me and Mama had just started to dissolve in recent months after she’d just recently accepted my career choice. Sheriff.
“I was saying that Frank Von Lee is going to be here today!” She bounced on her toes. “In a few short hours!” She squealed.
“Really?” I asked a little louder than normal since the guy on the ladder was beating and banging a hammer on a new wood beam on the ceiling of the old building. “So soon? The diner doesn’t look likes it completed yet?”
I looked around at one of our favorite breakfast joints. Ben Harrison had been working so hard over the past few months to get the diner camera ready for the Culinary Channel’s show Southern Home Cookin’ staring the biggest southern culinary chef Frank Von Lee.
Last year Mama had entered a cook-off contest and won. We were all a little taken aback. Though Mama was a good cook, she wasn’t a chef, at least not until she’d won and her recipe was featured in the Cottonwood Chronicle and added to the menu at Ben’s Diner.
“Yes!” She clapped her hands together. “He’s staying at the Tattered Book and Inn right next door.” Mama referred to a little shop next to the diner. “They sure don’t give you much notice. Glad I spruced up a bit.” She pushed her painted fingers into her hair giving it a little more volume.
It was a little strange to see Mama so chipper and excited this early.
“Do I look good?” She craned her neck side-to-side. “Which is my good side? Left or right?” She rotated some more.
There was definitely something going on with mama’s face. Maybe it was a lot of makeup.
“Both sides are beautiful,” Finn was full of malarkey.
“Oh, Finn.” Mama giggled and brushed her fingers towards him along with a nose crunch.
She ran her hand over her hair and down her custom made apron embroidered with her initials. “Edna is stopping by to do an exclusive interview with me this morning and I’ve got to look my best.” Mama’s face glowed with pride. “She’s going to take some photos of me cooking my famous pot pie. She’s going to come back tomorrow because that’s when Frank is going to try the pot pie.”
“Frank? Are you on first name basis?” I asked, lowering my voice since the hammering had stopped.
“It’s not guaranteed that I’m on the show.” She let out a deep sigh. “There is that diner over in Clay’s Ferry he’s going to later in the week.” She tossed a loose wave. “It’s between me and them.” She swung her finger back and forth between us. “You and I both know I’m going to win.” She winked.
A construction worker walked toward Mama and me with some wood propped up on his shoulder. Mama grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me out of the way. I headed on over to the table in the front window where Finn and I usually sat. Finn followed behind.
“I’m sorry about the mess. They are only doing a couple finishing touches and then be out of here in an hour.” Ben let out a deep sigh.
He had on his normal baseball cap turned backward over his shaggy brown hair. It didn’t matter if the president was coming, he wouldn’t stray from his normal plaid shirt and jeans look.
“A whistling woman and a crowing hen never come to a very good end.” The faint whisper of a familiar voice breezed past my ear.
“A whistling woman and a crowing hen never come to a very good end,” I repeated in a hushed tone and looked around to see exactly where that familiar voice of my poppa was coming from.
My stomach dropped. The room tilted slightly and I grabbed the edges of the diner table.
“Hey there, Kenni-bug,” Poppa greeted me in a long, low voice that stretched out the greeting. “I’m back.”
“What did you just say?” Mama asked. Her body stiffened.
“A whistling woman and a crowing hen never come to a very good end.” Poppa did a little jig on his way over to the table with a big grin on his face. He clapped his thick hands in delight.
“Well?” Mama planted her hand on the table and leaned in to me. “I’m waiting.”
Ahem, I cleared my throat. The diner was starting to fill up for the breakfast rush crowd. The way I saw it was that if I did repeat the expression as Mama asked me to do, there were too many people around for her to pitch a fit. Mama would never let anyone see her lose her religion in public because it ain’t pretty. Trust me, I’ve been on the receiving end of it and it’s no place I’d wish on my worst enemy.
“A whistling woman and a crowing hen never come to a very good end,” I choked out.
“Where did you hear that?” She demanded to know.
“Yeah, before I died, I used to say that to your mama all the time.” The ghost of my Poppa had a way of playing little jokes on me since I was the only one who could see and hear him.
It’d been a little over three years since he died. Elmer Sims had been the sheriff of Cottonwood and my mama’s daddy. He was my rock and I looked up to him more than anyone else in this world. Something Mama had a problem with, especially after I’d gone to the police academy and run for Cottonwood Sheriff, where I was now in my third year of a four-year term.
Thank God the door jingled, signaling someone’s entrance because it took the heat off of me.
“Mornin’, Sheriff.” She nodded my way. The bright orange feather hot glued to the side of her yellow fedora waved in the air with the swoosh of the door closing behind her. “You ready to get this show on the road, Viv?”
Edna stuck her hand in her usual fisherman’s vest where she kept all her writing utensils and took out a pen and paper.
Edna gave a finger wave to Mama and pointed toward the counter before she started to walk across the diner and sit down on one of the stools. She didn’t give anyone but Mama eye contact. She was focused. There wasn’t anything that required such media attention that I knew of, if you called the Cottonwood Chronicle media. Besides the Chronicle, we did have a small radio station in town, WCKK, that played oldies and did a few interviews with citizens in Cottonwood.
“I’m not done with you yet.” Mama shook a finger at me. “I’m going to do my interview, but I want an answer when I get back. I’ve not heard that expression in a long time and I know I’ve never said it in front of you,” her tongue was sharp. “And don’t forget about class tonight.”
Poppa smacked his thigh and doubled over laughing. He stood next to Finn who was sitting across from me looking at the menu. He’d gotten used to ignoring Mama’s and my banter. Only this time, she meant business.
“I won’t,” I confirmed that I would at the cooking class she was offering to the community. “I’ll be there.”
It had been a little over a year ago when the ghost of my poppa showed up after there were two simultaneous crimes in Cottonwood, prior to which there hadn’t been any crime on my watch since I’d taken office two years prior. It wasn’t until I’d accepted the fact that Poppa was my guardian angel deputy from the great beyond that I realized he’d been running off and scaring away any would-be criminals during those first two years of my term. Since then, when Poppa showed up, I knew there was some sort of crime going to happen. Though I loved seeing him, it made me feel sick to know the real reason he was here.
“What can I get you? Your regular?” Ben asked as he set down three cups of coffee. Two for me and one for Finn.
“Coffee is fine.” I’d suddenly lost my appetite. There was no way I was going to be able to stomach a thing without talking to Poppa to find out exactly why he was here.
Finn looked up at me and narrowed his eyes.
“What’s going on with you?” he asked.
It was cute how the tone in his voice held concern when just a few short months ago he probably wouldn’t have noticed if I’d not eaten. We’d been spending more and more time together in the off hours since he’d moved in down the street.
“Nothing.” I turned my attention to Ben. The diner had been under very slow construction over the past couple of months. “The diner looks great. I love how you’re replacing the old wood beams with new ones.”
“Thanks.” He pointed to the old wooden ceiling. “The beams really needed to be redone and even though they Frank Von Lee is only here to taste the pot pie to decide if they will feature it on the show and not filming, I thought I’d go ahead and get the work done anyways.”
“I don’t blame you. Y’all deserve to be recognized for all this amazing southern food.” I smiled. “What are you trying to finish in a couple of hours?”
“I got the floors buffed and shined. He’s on the last beam now. The menus are done and all I have left is a new pot holder to replace the old one hanging above the kitchen island.” Ben rocked back on the heels of his shoes.
“It looks great so far.” I assured my good friend.
The door between the kitchen and the dining room swung open and smacked up against the wall. The bang got everyone’s attention real fast. The chatter among the guests stopped and all eyes watched as the man who emerged from the kitchen stalked over to Ben.
“I can’t work in this atmosphere.” A man with a white chef jacket dragged a white cap off of his head. His brown hair was matted down and wet from sweat. “This is not how I imagined this would be. I expected a quiet work environment for perfection. Not destruction. I cannot and will not work in this. . . this mess!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Poppa had ghosted himself gone.
“Yes, you will.” Ben’s face turned crimson with fury. “You’re the one who said you’d love to do the job since we knew each other and graduated from culinary school. You jumped at the chance! You signed a contract. I paid you upfront and you won’t make a fool out of this diner or me. You and I both know you need this job. Do you understand?” Ben jabbed the man in between his shoulder and collarbone. The man took a step back in a vicious jerk. His eyes narrowed to crinkled slits.
The man stomped off in the direction of the kitchen.
“I’m sorry,” Ben offered an apology. “I had to hire someone to run the diner while I took care of the construction. I can’t be everything around here.”
Ben Harrison had a couple of locals that helped in the diner here and there, mainly high school kids to bus and clean, otherwise, it’s just him running the entire place. He had done all the cooking up until now.
“This is why I’ve always been hesitant in hiring people.” He offered an apologetic smile.
“No worries, man.” Finn shrugged it off. “This Frank seems to be a big deal. I’m sure everyone is a little tense today.”
My eyes were on Ben. I’d known him all my life and I’d never seen him get so angry.
“Now, what is this about you not hungry?” Ben asked and changed the subject.
“I’m just going to have my coffee for now.” I wrapped my hand around one of the white ceramic mugs to warm them from the bundle of nerves that were shooting through my body.
“Fine.” Finn handed the new menu back to Ben. “I’m going to have the Cottonwood special.”
“Great choice.” Ben took the menu. “It’s a new one along with the hot brown for supper so you’ll have to come back tomorrow during the tasting so the diner will be full when Frank Von Lee is here. I want a good showing, ya know.”
“Absolutely.” Finn agreed. I nodded in agreement.
“By the looks of this morning, you’re going to have standing room only.” I was proud of my friend. He’d come a long way from the grilled cheese we’d made in my mama’s kitchen when we were in high school and pulling all-nighters studying.
“Two more won’t hurt,” he referred to Finn and me.
After a few more minutes of chitchat, Ben headed back to the cranky new chef. Finn had waited until Ben walked off to reach across the table and touch my hand. The warmth of his touch made me tingle. My pulse quickened, my tear ducts swelled.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I licked my lips. Was it time I told my real partner about my ghost partner? Before I could say a word, his cell phone buzzed on the table. He pulled his hand off mine and I watched as he picked it up to look at the number.
“I’m sorry.” Finn stood up. “I need to take this.” A look of irritation washed over his face after he pressed the phone up to his ear and headed out of the diner to talk in private.
I whisked the tears from my eyes and flipped my attention to my mama. Edna’s eye was pressed up against her camera, clicking away as Mama posed in the strangest positions with an empty casserole dish, spatula and just a big ole smile on her face.
Poppa appeared next to Mama. I covered my mouth with my hand as I laughed watching him mimic Mama. It’s so good to see him but it’s like waiting for the shoe to drop when Poppa came and a crime hadn’t been reported.
“Sorry about that.” Finn stood next to his chair.
“Cottonwood special.” Ben sat the plate in front of Finn.
My mouth watered at the sight of the special. The Cottonwood special was goetta, cheddar jack cheese & sautéed onions baked in a mini cast iron skillet with a fried egg on top.
“That was my contractor.” Finn sat back down. “I’m having the hardest time getting the construction done on the house. This is the second time they’ve canceled.” Finn shook his head.
The house Finn had bought from Lonnie Lemar, my old deputy, had been a rental property for Lonnie. Like most rentals, there needed to be a lot of work done after the tenants moved out. Finn decided to put a little addition on the back, connecting the family room and kitchen into one big room.
“They’ve been doing this addition for months now. I’m going to have to find someone else.” He let out a long exhausted sigh.
“Who did you use?” Ben asked.
“Danny Shane.” Finn had used a local builder that consisted of Danny and his three sons. Finn rolled his eyes.
“Yeah. Damn shame ain’t it. His family has spent decades building up their construction business. Danny takes over and they go to hell in a hand basket.” Ben said, catching my attention. “I fired him a couple of days ago and luckily these guys were in here when it happened and they do construction, so I hired them and they’re getting it done.” Ben shook a finger at me. “You know what. I’m glad I fired him. Someone told me that Danny said my food gave him food poisoning. Jerk.”
He’d never been so on edge. It had to be because of the stress of the food critic’s visit. After all, it would be his diner that would take the hit, not necessarily Mama. Her ego might be bruised if she’s not picked. That’d be on me to listen to for years.
“A couple of days ago?” Finn chuckled. “They shouldn’t be busy then and should’ve been able to come by the house.”
“Riley,” Ben hollered and snapped his wrist in a wave for one of the construction guys to come over. “Finn Vincent, this is Riley Titan. Amazing man who did all this work.”
The two men shook hands.
“Riley, Finn is in the same boat I was in with the same builder. Do you think you can run over to his house on Broadway and take a look at it?” Ben asked.
“I’m not going to do this!” the chef screamed from the pass-through window into the diner. He flung the towel off his shoulder and threw it down.
“I’m going to knock him in the head with a rolling pin.” Ben’s jaw tensed. He turned on a dime and stalked back to the kitchen.
“Is it okay if I head over tonight?” Riley asked.
He was a little overweight and sweat beaded along his forehead under his shaggy head of hair. He looked around thirty and a little too young to be so out of shape.
“After six is great.” Finn agreed to a time and wrote down his address on paper napkin. After Riley walked away, Finn said, “I guess I better go give Danny the bad news.”
On my way out the door, I glanced back at Mama. Her lips were flapping a mile-a-minute as Edna wrote just as fast. Poppa was nowhere to be seen. Even before my foot stepped over the threshold, the sound of a few pans banging around and some yelling came from the kitchen.
“I’m telling you that I’m not going to work in this noise. It hinders my creative flow and I’m not going to do it. Contract or not!” Mundy shuffled backwards in front of the pass-through kitchen window.
When I saw Ben practically chasing him, I hurried back through the diner, but not without noticing everyone was either sitting and watching what was going on or walking back to see what was going on.
Even mama’s interview had come to a halt. Duke had already made it back into the kitchen before I’d even gotten in there. It wasn’t unusual for my furry sidekick to rush in before me. He’d even taken a bullet for me a few months ago and got a medal from the town.
“Alright. Break it up.” I pushed through the door to find Mundy jabbing a big sharp shiny knife towards Ben.
Riley was hanging out on top of the ladder with a DeWalt in his hand where he’d been hanging the new pot holder over the island. Slowly he eased down each rung and ducked back into the diner. I didn’t blame him. The knife Mundy was swinging at Ben could possibly fly out of the crazed man’s hand and who knew where it’d land.
Both men didn’t bother looking at me. Duke tried to get between them because he knew they couldn’t resist a cute dog.
“You will hold up your end of the deal!” Ben screamed back at him. His jaw tensed. His fist balled at his side. I could feel the anger coming from him. Then he released a finger to swipe it across Duke’s head because Duke wouldn’t stop nudging Ben’s leg.
Ben took the tea towel off his shoulder and wound it around his hand as he tried to grab at the knife. Duke stuck to him like a booger on a finger. “Duke, shoo.”
Ben lifted his leg to try to get Duke to move, but the dog didn’t budge. It was like he knew that Ben needed to calm down, just like I knew he had to knock it off.
“Alright!” I had to scream over the two men again. “This is it. Break it up.” I did that whole cop stance thing with my legs apart and rested the base of my hand on the butt of my gun nestled in my belt holster. “I’m thinking this employment is over or I can take both of you to the office.”
Not that I had to go far. My office was just a few doors down in the back room of Cowboy’s Catfish. If I did have to haul them down, I really wasn’t sure what I’d do with one of them since we only had one cell. There wasn’t any way they’d be able to stay in there. They’d for sure kill each other. Another murder wasn’t anything I needed or the publicity Cottonwood needed.
Mundy looked at me, his nostrils flaring with his deep inhale. His eyes slid over to Ben who was still leveling the death stare at the poor man. His chest heaved up and down, his mouth twitched.
Mundy set the knife down on the counter and put his hands in the air.
“I don’t want no trouble. I just want to leave,” he said to me.
“Fine. If you have any belongings, grab them and we’ll wait right here.” I was glad to see things come to an end without someone getting a finger chopped off.
“That’s my knife.” He went to get it but I made the eh-eh noise to shoo him away. “Chefs carry their own knives. Besides, I wouldn’t’ve wasted a good sharpened knife on the likes of him.” The right corner of his lip snarled.
Ben didn’t move, even when Duke tried to get him to rub his head. Duke had even gone as far as putting the top of his head in Ben’s dangling hand, but Ben was stiff.
The chef didn’t take long. He had a cloth bag rolled up in his hands with his knives in them.
“I swear you are dead,” Ben said through gritted teeth when the chef walked past him to get out of the diner. “No one will hire you ever again in this industry.”
Ben couldn’t leave well enough alone.
The chef stopped shoulder to shoulder. His chin glided toward Ben. Their eyes met. I took a step forward, but the chef hocked a big loogie at Ben’s feet before he walked out.
The clicks from Edna’s fancy camera clicked at rapid speed. She sure did have a front-page story for tomorrow’s edition of the Cottonwood Chronicle.
“Sonofa. . . “ Ben grumbled. He took off his hat and threw it on the ground.
“What is wrong with you?” I interrupted him. “We’ve known each other since we were knee babies and I’ve never seen you act like a loon.”
He dragged the toe of his shoe back and forth before he bent down and picked up his hat. Duke saw this as his opportunity to get in a lick since Ben was at his eye level. Ben’s hand finally gave into a very determined bloodhound. Duke stretched out in delight with each scratch of Ben’s nails.
“How simple could it be?” He shook his head and dragged his hand up to his hair, raking his fingers through it.
The stress had taken a toll on him. The wrinkles next to his eyes were deepened. The bags under his eyes had darkened.
“I called the culinary school I’d graduated from and asked them to send me someone for just a couple of days. Someone I didn’t have to train or spend much time on. I’d even sent over the new menu. Cornbread.” He threw his hands up in the air. “When Mundy told me it was him that I was talking to, I figured I was safe hiring him since we’d gone to school together. He was always a great chef. How hard is it to fix cornbread?”
I shrugged. “Where did you graduate from?” I asked.
While he was doing his culinary thing, I was off to the police academy. It was a time that I rarely kept up with my old friend from high school. I just wanted to get through my training and get out. It wasn’t until Poppa had died that I’d decided to come back, which was when I’d reconnected with my childhood friends.
“Le Fork up in Lexington. They have the store that sells mainly kitchen equipment and they also offer classes to the public, but their culinary school is separate and certified. Mundy and I went to school together. Granted, Ben’s is a step down from his big restaurant dreams.” He shook his head. “I knew better. He’s ruined every place he’s ever gone. He is a hot head that doesn’t need to be in this industry.”
“Some people just don’t get our way of cooking.” I tried to offer sympathy in my voice. It truly was an art form to get southern cooking perfect. Some people think we just throw it in a fryer. Not true. It was the golden crisp, just enough lard, and the perfect seasonings that made my mouth water with every dish in Ben’s. “What am I going to do with just a few hours left before Frank Von Lee gets here?”
I would’ve offered my services, but no one in Cottonwood wanted to get a frozen dinner from the Dixon’s Foodtown.
My phone chirped a text. It was from Jolee Fischer, my best friend and Ben’s girlfriend.
Jolee: I need a friend to talk to. Ben’s all nuts and crazy over this Frank thing and we’ve not spent any time together.
“I think I just solved your chef problem.” I quickly text Jolee.
Me: Where are you?
Jolee: On my way to park the food truck at Lulu’s.
Jolee owned the only food truck in Cottonwood, On The Run. Everyday she parked her truck in different locations around the city. Most morning’s she parked in front of Lulu’s Boutique on the north side of town so the people going to work in town could stop for a quick breakfast sandwich and coffee.
Me: Can you stop by Ben’s Diner first?
Jolee: Sure thing.
“What do you mean you think you solved my problem?” Ben asked.
“Think about it.” It was a perfect solution. “Jolee and you haven’t been spending a lot of time together. She would love to help you out. She can get Viola White and Myrna Savage to take over since they were the runners up against mama.”
It was a brilliant idea.
“It’s only two days.” I continued to sell him on the idea. “You know she can cook good food too. And without you watching over her.”
“I think this might work.” The smiling Ben that I’ve known all my life appeared before me with a very thankful face. “One more thing, can you come here this afternoon and do crowd control. According to the latest phone call, Frank wants to come here after he checks in and talk to me and Viv.”
“No problem. I’ll be back in a few hours.” I patted my leg for Duke to come. “Jolee will be here in a minute. You can discuss the situation with her because I’ve got to do my morning drive-byes.”
Duke and I headed out the door. My shoulders were back and I was confident that I’d just kept the peace once again in Cottonwood.