Basket Case: New Excerpt

Basket Case by Nancy Haddock is the debut cozy in the Silver Six Series about a group of crafty retirees caught up in murder accusations after they refused to sell their house (available September 1, 2015).

When Leslee Stanton “Nixy” Nix gets the latest call from Lilyvale detective Eric Shoar, she knows it means trouble. There’s been another kitchen explosion at her Aunt Sherry’s farmhouse, and the dreamy-voiced detective has had enough. If Nixy doesn’t check on her aunt in person, the Silver Six could become wards of the court. But the trouble Nixy finds in Lilyvale is not at all what she expects.

The seniors are hosting a folk art festival at the farmhouse, featuring Sherry’s hand-woven baskets, when land developer Jill Elsman arrives to bully Nixy’s aunt into selling the property. When Jill is later found dead in the cemetery, Sherry is suspected of weaving a murder plot, and it’s up to Nixy and the Silver Six to untangle the truth.

Chapter One

I, Leslee Stanton nix, nixy to my friends, had never been called on the carpet for anything. Up until four days ago, that is.

Now I had third-degree rug burns and the risk of being jobless.

Why? Because my boss at Houston’s Gates Fine Arts Gallery, Barbra (like Streisand) Vole, had blown her nonexistent fuse when the Lilyvale, Arkansas, police detective Eric Shoar had called me at work. His fifth call in the last month, the second in the past ten days. Shoar’s deep, dreamy Southern drawl had stirred my feminine interest, but deep and dreamy hadn’t softened his complaints.

“We had another incident at Miz Sherry Mae’s yesterday,” he’d begun. “Neighbors across the road reported booming sounds and smoke coming from the kitchen.”

“Is anyone injured?” I’d asked on a gulp, my cell phone slick in my suddenly moist hand.

“Thankfully, no.”

“Did the fire department respond?”

“They don’t respond anymore unless I call them, but do you want whatever the problem is to go that far?”

“No, how can you think that?”

“Then prove you care. You have one week to get up here and see to your aunt and her housemates.”

“A week?” I’d echoed stupidly.

“This needs to be an in-person visit, ma’am. Not a phone call.”

“I hear you, but why the rush?”

“First, because the situation—whatever it is—seems to be escalating. Second, because my chief of police is asking questions about all the complaints coming in and why I’m taking the calls instead of the patrol units. I can’t deflect him much longer.”

“You’re investigating, so you’re doing your job. What’s there to question?”

He coughed. “My reports might be on the sketchy side.” And the light dawned. “You’re protecting Sherry.”

“Miz Sherry’s ancestors founded this town, and she’s served on the city council. Even been the mayor.”

“That’s enough to cut her some slack?”

“That and having had her for a teacher, but understand me, Ms. Nix. This is serious. I don’t want a tragedy on my hands, and I don’t want Miz Sherry and her friends to be declared wards of the court.”

“What?” I’d gasped.

“If the chief believes that Miz Sherry and her friends are a danger to themselves or others, he’ll have to act.”

“You’d tell him they’re dangerous? You’d take away their independence? Their freedom?”

“Not if I can help it.” He’d paused, then continued, “I understand that you don’t think you know Miz Sherry well enough to stick your nose in her business, but none of her housemates have people left. We need this resolved, and you’re the only relative in sight.”

“I’ll get up there as soon as I can,” I’d said as I sagged against a wall.

“Good. Come by the station when you’re in town. I’ll be happy to help you if I can.”

With the threat of legal action against my aunt, I might’ve panicked and dashed off to Arkansas then and there. My mother, Sue Anne, had been a late-in-life child, ten years younger than Sherry Mae. I was a surprise late-in-life baby, too, and we’d lived in Tyler back then. Though Sherry and her husband, Bill Cutler, made trips to visit us in Texas, I didn’t remember visiting them in Arkansas. The families exchanged cards and letters and phone calls, but I didn’t know my aunt well. Not until my mother had suffered a stroke a year and a half ago and Sherry Mae had come to say good-bye to her sister.

Sherry’s husband had died just over three years earlier, but she had housemates—a temporary arrangement that had become permanent. Because she didn’t have a deadline to be home, she’d been able to stay and support me through my mom’s death and through the myriad of funeral arrangements. Always calm and steady. Always ready to advise me without being the least bit pushy. Always ready to share stories of herself and Mom as girls and young women. I’d grown close to Sherry Mae during those weeks, and I was grateful for the chance to relate to her as an adult. It had been fun to stay in touch since then with regular e-mails and holiday cards, phone calls and photos. So many photos that I should recognize each blade of grass and every plank of the original hardwood floor when I saw it.

Surprisingly, Barbra had given me time to be with my mom those precious days before she died, and time to take care of the services. After that, I’d used my weekends to wrap up her estate. Now, however, livid as Barbra was about my “sordid involvement” with the police, she wouldn’t give me emergency leave. She had demanded that I finish out the week to complete our latest art installation—work overtime, in fact. Four days of Shoar’s deadline shot, and Barbra had given me just until the middle of next week to return.

Which is why I’d packed a small suitcase on Thursday night, finished every task Barbra dreamed up until we closed on Friday, and then finally hopped into the no-frills white Camry I’d inherited from my mom. Purse. Check. Directions to Sherry’s. Check. Sunglasses. On. I was ready to fight the weekend traffic leaving downtown Houston.

At least the April weather was on my side. Not too hot, not too cold, not storming. I had daylight saving time in my favor, too, though I saw more buildings than roadside blue-bonnets on the way out of town.

Daylight melted into dusk, then dark, and my thoughts turned back to what waited in Lilyvale, southwest Arkansas.

Lilyvale. The town my mother’s family had founded, but I’d never visited.

Lilyvale. The town my stupid portable GPS unit probably couldn’t find.

Lilyvale. The place I didn’t want to be, or at least not now. Not when I was so close to earning a promotion at the gallery.

Okay, so I was only next-in-line to the assistant director’s assistant. Still, I’d made the gallery my life since owner Felina Gates had hired me. I’d busted my butt to earn double majors in fine art and art history, a minor in marketing, and a masters in art history. I excelled at my job, and I’d paid my dues. And now that Barbra was supposed to retire, I deserved the promotion.

I deserved a massage, too. The Shreveport motel bed I’d fallen into after midnight left me with more aches than I’d had after my first and final kickboxing class. Up again at the crack of dawn, I showered, went through my pre-drive checklist, and hit the highway for the last leg of the trip.

Though Sherry had mentioned that winter had lingered in Lilyvale, the day was sunny and clusters of early blooming wildflowers lined the two-lane country roads. The sight brightened my mood as I mentally made my schedule for the day. First, drop in on Detective Eric Shoar at the police station to prove I was in town as ordered, and then visit Aunt Sherry Mae.

Just after nine, I cruised north on what appeared to be the Lilyvale main drag. The British male voice on my portable GPS kept telling me to make a U-turn as soon as it was safe. I ignored it.

Not a minute later, I found the picturesque town square my mother had spoken of, and felt the oddest tug of comfort. A sign proclaimed that Hendrix County Courthouse stood before me, a two-and-a-half-story limestone structure on slightly elevated ground surrounded by magnolia trees and a riot of lilies. Lilies graced the base of a small white gazebo on the courthouse grounds, too. Businesses lined each side of the square, and yet more lilies, tulips, and even daisies bloomed in large cement planters outside the shops.

Spring had not merely sprung here. Spring had reared up and slapped the soil into giving up riots of color.

As I looked for the police station, I circled the entire square and noticed how it was laid out. An inner circle ran closer to the courthouse and served through traffic. Two outer sections opposite each other held two rows of diagonal parking spaces for shopper convenience, and parallel parking slots lined the other two streets that bordered the square. After circling the inner street twice, I hadn’t seen the police station, but did spot a shopkeeper opening her clothing store.

In a sleepy Southern town, I didn’t give a second thought to asking for directions, so I parked in a diagonal slot next to a behemoth Buick land-boat with an elderly woman hunkered behind the wheel. The pristine powder-blue paint gleamed as much as the woman’s coifed gray hair, and I gave her a friendly nod as I beeped my locks and took the two steps up to the broad sidewalk.

“Honey. Oh, honey,” I heard behind me.

I turned to see the blue-Buick lady beckoning.

“Yes, ma’am?” I put my sunglasses on top of my head as I neared her.

“Honey, would you do me a little favor? Would you go in there”—she paused and pointed—“and tell Miss Anna that Miss Ida Bollings is waitin’ for her medicine.”

I glanced up at the picture window reading simply pharmacy in old-fashioned lettering. Mental shrug. I didn’t have an actual appointment with Shoar and had decided not to forewarn Aunt Sherry I was coming. Why not do a good deed? I’d deliver Miss Ida’s message and ask directions to the station.

“That’s Miss Anna for Miss Ida’s medicine?” “That’s right, honey. They’ll put it on my account.” Right, and let a perfect stranger walk off with a prescription. Possibly a controlled substance.

The inside of the store was as quaint as its sign. An antique oak glass-front cabinet dark with age sat along the left side of the space. Wood shelves filled with typical drugstore products ran down the middle and along the right wall of the store.

“Help you?” The question came from one of the two middle-aged clerks seated behind the oak cabinet.

“Um, yes. I’m a visitor in town, but Ida Bollings is outside and wants me to tell Miss Anna that she’s waiting for her medicine.”

“Sure. That’s Miss Anna in the back.”

I’d expected a clerk to take over, but what the heck. I approached Miss Anna, another woman of middle years who stood behind a raised counter, also made of oak, and also glowing with a dark patina.

“May I help you?” she asked brightly.

“I’m a visitor in town, but Miss Ida is in her car outside waiting for her medicine.”

“Good. I have it right here.” Anna produced a brown glass bottle that looked like it had been made in the 1930s. “Now tell Miss Ida to take just one tablespoon full at a time. A tablespoon from her silverware drawer will do, and no more or it’ll make her drunk.”

“One tablespoon,” I echoed, feeling like I’d landed in a time warp.

“The directions are right here,” Anna said, tapping the white label, “but we like to remind Miss Ida.”

“Do you ever remind her in person?” Anna titled her head. “Come again?”

“I’m just wondering why Miss Ida didn’t come in herself.” Anna chuckled. “She doesn’t like to fool with dragging her walker out of the car unless she’s shopping for a spell.” “So she sends strangers in for her prescriptions all the time?” “Oh no. She’s discerning about people, our Miss Ida is.

You have a good visit in Lilyvale.”

She handed me the bottle and reached for the ringing phone. At the front desk, I mentioned again that I was only a visitor just to see if the ladies would take over. They didn’t. They waved me off with a cheery “Tell Miss Ida hi, now!” Still stunned that I was walking out of a pharmacy with a concoction that could make its recipient drunk, I delivered the bottle and one-tablespoon message to Miss Ida. Her eyes twinkled when I mentioned the drunk part.

“I’ll be careful, never you fret.”

I nodded. “Miss Ida, do you know where the police station is?”

“A’course, honey. You go to the end of the block, turn right, and go two blocks. The station is on the corner and the fire station is across the street.”

I’d no more than thanked her and returned to the sidewalk when the Buick’s engine revved and Miss Ida peeled out like an Indy champion. Must be eager for a hit of her medicine.

The Ida-and-her-walker episode had me wondering, though. Were my aunt and her housemates as physically well and mobile as Sherry had told me they were? Did they still drive? I didn’t talk with Sherry daily, not even weekly, but we’d chatted at least twice a month. When she’d mentioned the cold weather, she hadn’t mentioned she or her friends had caught the flu. Not even a mild cold. She had never indicated that any of the Silver Six, as they called themselves, were ill or infirm in any way.

Of course, she’d never mentioned explosions and cooking accidents either.

Gripped by a sudden urgency to meet Detective Shoar, I drove to the cop shop, a building that turned out to be modern and bland compared to the pharmacy and the other downtown buildings. Tiled lobby floor with white walls, a reception window, and a green door to the inner sanctum of the station.

A young black man with a T. Benton name bar on his crisply pressed tan uniform took my name and request, and made a call. A moment later, Detective Shoar blew through the green door and introduced himself in a rush.

“You’re Leslee Nix?”

“Nixy,” I said automatically, stunned at his brusque manner. Not to mention he had a chiseled handsome face, and in short sleeves, well-worn jeans, and boots, he had a body artists would kill to paint. He smelled fine, too. Spicy with a mysterious undertone.

Detective Shoar narrowed his brown eyes. “You look about eighteen.”

Not the first time I’d heard that, especially when I wore cargo shorts, a T-shirt, not-so-white tennis shoes, and my blah-brown hair in a ponytail. Never mind that I’m only five foot three.

I gave him my stock reply. “I’m twenty-nine. Our family has youthful genes.”

“Hunh.” He blinked then frowned. “You know where

Sherry Mae lives?”

“Uh, sort of.” I had Internet directions.

“‘Sort of’ won’t cut it. You can follow me out there,” he said as he closed a big hand around my elbow and guided me to the glass front door.

“Why the hurry?”

“Because I just got a call that there’s trouble at the house.”

Copyright © 2015 Nancy Haddock.

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Nancy Haddock is the national bestselling author of La Vida Vampire, Last Vampire Standing, and Always the Vampire. A native Oklahoman and longtime resident of Texas with family roots in Arkansas, she now makes her home in the fascinating city of St. Augustine, Florida. A former speech pathologist and high school teacher, Nancy lives with her husband and a rescue dog named Baron in a little pink house on the beach with a fake flamingo in her front yard.

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