Curried Away by Gail Oust is the 4th book in the Spice Shop Mystery series (Available December 12, 2016).
Piper Prescott, proprietor of Spice It Up!, has persuaded Doug Winters, the mild-mannered vet she’s been dating, to demonstrate Indian cuisine at her shop. But before Doug’s presentation of classic chicken curry is completed, Ned Feeney, local handyman, bursts in with news of a murder.
Sandy Granger, the director of a local production of Steel Magnolias, was found strangled in the third-floor balcony of the Brandywine Creek Opera House. Sandy, it seems, had not endeared herself to cast or crew. Complaints about her ran the gamut from her management style to her lack of people skills. Everyone connected with the production falls under suspicion, including Piper Prescott’s BFF, Reba Mae Johnson, who made it well known how unhappy she is that she was cut from the cast.
When the spotlight for the dastardly deed shines on Reba Mae, Piper rushes to her friend’s defense. Who among Sandy’s detractors was angry enough to wrap a silk scarf around her neck—and pull tight? Will Piper succeed in solving the case before she becomes the killer’s encore performance? And will she ever learn just how to prepare the perfect curry?
I stopped chatting with the mayor’s wife, Dottie Hemmings, and my ex-mother-in-law, Melly Prescott, as Reba Mae Johnson, my BFF, stormed into my shop, Spice It Up! “What’s up, girlfriend?” I asked.
“Just like that!” Reba Mae snapped her fingers. “She fired me.”
“Silly girl.” Dottie giggled. “You can’t be fired. You’re self-employed.”
“What’s wrong, dear?” Melly tsked sympathetically. “Did you have an irate customer at the Klassy Kut?”
“Did a perm go wrong?” Dottie patted hair that would have qualified as a helmet in the NFL.
“Did highlights turn into lowlights?” I asked. As Reba Mae drew closer, I noted her blotchy face and reddened eyes.
“No, of course not.” Reba Mae’s tangerine-sized hoop earrings swayed as she stalked back and forth across the heart pine floor. “Y’all know I run the best little ol’ beauty shop in Brandywine Creek, Georgia.”
“But you still haven’t said who fired you?” Dottie’s inquiring mind demanded an answer.
“She said my services were no longer required. Imagine!” Reba Mae flung her hands in the air. “And after all my hard work! I’m so mad I could spit nails.”
“Honey, why don’t you sit down and tell us what’s going on?” I motioned toward one of the stools behind the counter.
“Fine.” Reba Mae flounced over and plopped down. “When I think of the hours I spent learning my lines, I want to scream. I even started teasing my hair. I haven’t teased my hair since high school—no offense, Dottie,” she added for Dottie’s benefit. With this, Reba Mae put her head in her hands and burst into tears.
Dottie, Melly, and I exchanged worried glances. This was totally out of character for Reba Mae. She wasn’t the type to indulge in bouts of weeping or histrionics. Not even when her husband, Butch, had drowned while bass fishing. Instead of wallowing in self-pity—and who would’ve blamed her—she enrolled in beauty school, paid off a heap of credit card debt, and started her own business. She was more of a pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-and-soldier-on kind of gal. I can’t remember the last time I saw my friend so … agitated. And that scared the bejeebers out of me.
Melly cleared her throat and gave me a look that clearly translated as: Don’t just stand there like a ninny; do something—so I did. Perching on the adjacent stool, I rubbed Reba Mae’s back in small, soothing circles like I used to do when my Chad and Lindsey were babies. “There, there,” I crooned. “It can’t be that bad.”
“Y-yes, it c-can,” she blubbered.
Dottie grabbed a fistful of tissues from a box on the counter and pushed them at Reba Mae. “Here, hon.”
“Let me get you a nice glass of sweet tea,” Melly offered, springing into action. “Sweet tea always makes us Southern girls feel better.”
“S-Sandy Granger fired me,” Reba Mae sobbed. Tears pooled in her pretty, golden-brown eyes and rolled down her cheeks. “I still can’t believe it.”
The pieces of the puzzle were starting to fall into place. Reba Mae had been over the moon ever since being chosen for the role of Truvy Jones, the outspoken, wisecracking beauty shop owner, in the Brandywine Creek Opera House’s production of Steel Magnolias. So over the moon she’d even dyed her hair Dolly Parton yellow in honor of the singer/actress who’d portrayed Truvy in the movie version.
Before I could question her further, Melly emerged from the kitchenette at the rear of the shop. “I found these in a cupboard,” she said, placing a plate of cookies along with a frosty glass of iced tea on the counter near Reba Mae’s elbow. “Gingersnaps always go well with sweet tea.”
“Thanks,” Reba Mae sniffled. “This was my big chance for folks to see me with talent for somethin’ other than with scissors and a bottle of hair dye. I wanted to make my boys proud of their momma.”
“Honey, your boys adore you. Clay and Caleb think you’re the best momma in the universe—bar none.” I nudged the glass closer. Sweet tea and sympathy were what my friend needed, so sweet tea and sympathy were what she’d get.
“You poor thing.” Dottie rested her plump elbows on the counter and leaned forward. “Tell us what happened. Getting it off your chest will make you feel better.”
Make Reba Mae “feel better”? More likely provide breaking news for Dottie to broadcast to her network of cronies. Nothing the woman loved more than gossip. I could almost see little antennas sprout from her beehive and twitch in anticipation.
“Did Sandy give a reason for … replacing you?” I asked as gently as I could. I’d almost slipped and used the word “fired.” That would’ve resulted in yet another “gully washer,” as they say here in the South.
Calmer now, Reba Mae took a sip of sweet tea. “Sandy claims I kept forgettin’ to call the characters by the right names.”
Nodding, I considered the possibility. “Did you?”
Reba Mae avoided eye contact with me. “Maybe, a time or two.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, trying to keep my tone neutral.
“Whoever heard of a woman called Ouiser—or ‘Weezer,’ as Sandy insisted it was pronounced? What kind of name is that anyway?” Reba Mae fired back. “Can’t help it if I kept callin’ her Wowser.”
“Weezer, Wowser,” Melly said with a forced smile. “Not much difference, if you want my opinion.”
Reba Mae shot Melly a grateful look. “That’s what I tried to tell Sandy. Why, I’ve known all these women—except Madison Winters, who plays Shelby—my entire adult life. It seems downright … weird … to call ’em by other than their Christian names.”
I gave her shoulders a squeeze. “I’m sure you would’ve nailed it by opening night.”
“Darn right I would’ve.” Reba Mae slapped the counter for emphasis. “If Sandy isn’t careful, the entire cast is goin’ to mutiny. Why, just the other night, Bunny Bowtin left rehearsal in tears ’cause of somethin’ Sandy said.”
Dottie helped herself to a gingersnap. “I ran into Jolene Tucker at Piggly Wiggly. She told me Bunny threatened to quit, but her husband talked her out of it. Seems Dennis forked over money for Bunny’s sister, husband, and their two kids to fly down from New Jersey for opening night. He said the airfare was nonrefundable.”
Melly snapped a dead bloom from a pot of mums I’d set on the counter as a reminder that Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, was only a week away. “Sandy isn’t the easiest person to work with,” she said, “but to be fair, as both director and producer she’s under considerable pressure.”
“Easy for you to say, Melly, since all you have to worry about is collecting props,” Reba Mae said. “Behind Sandy’s back, the rest of the cast and crew refer to her as the Wicked Witch of the West. And”—she winked—“y’all know what ‘witch’ rhymes with.”
Melly clucked her tongue in disapproval, but Reba Mae remained unfazed. “I’m just sayin’ is all.…”
“My husband the mayor says Sandy is a real asset to Brandywine Creek. An ambassador of sorts. He calls her a marketing dynamo.” Since no one else seemed interested in the lone cookie that remained on the plate, Dottie helped herself. “Harvey claims the publicity she’s generating will have a positive impact on the entire town. Said it’s bound to attract tourists by the busload and bring in business.”
“I hope Mayor Hemmings is right,” I said, tucking an unruly red curl behind my ear. “I’ve just increased my inventory in anticipation of an influx of playgoers.”
“Not only is Bunny unhappy,” Reba Mae continued, “but I saw Wanda Needmore and Dorinda Kunkel—Wanda plays Clairee, the grande dame; Dorinda plays ‘Wowser’—with their heads together.”
“You don’t want to mess with that pair.” Dottie brushed cookie crumbs from her pink polyester blouse. “Those two are the most strong-minded women you’d ever want to meet.” Dorinda had raised her daughter, Lorinda, single-handedly after her husband, Skeeter, ran off with a waitress from High Cotton.
“And Wanda doesn’t take guff from anybody,” Melly added. “She runs CJ’s law firm with an iron fist.”
This brought a smile to my lips. Even CJ confessed to being intimidated by his paralegal’s forceful personality. “Wanda will be the first to tell anyone who’ll listen that a lawyer is only as good as his paralegal. I’ve heard that said so many times I’ve been tempted to cross-stitch a wall hanging with her words embroidered on it.”
“What’s stoppin’ you?” Reba Mae wanted to know. “It’d make the perfect gift.”
I rolled my eyes. “Reba Mae, have you ever known me to be artsy-craftsy? I tried knitting once, remember? I was better at tennis, and we both know what a disaster that was.”
“Yeah, I remember. You dropped so many stitches that the afghan you were workin’ on had more holes than a block of Swiss cheese.”
“Well, if Wanda and Dorinda are in cahoots, whoo-ee!” Dottie clapped her hands in glee. “Sandy Granger better steer clear. She’s going to need eyes in the back of her head if she wants to stay out of trouble.”
“Did Sandy say who was going to replace you?” There, I’d gone and done it: addressed the elephant in the room.
Silence stretched like mozzarella on a hot pizza. Dottie studied an advertisement the butcher across the square had dropped off early that morning touting a special on pork chops. Melly nervously fingered her ever-present pearls. I wished I was in Bora-Bora.
Finally Reba Mae let out a long sigh. “Mary Lou Lambert. I hate that woman’s guts.” When none of us had a comment to add, she continued, “Truvy Jones is a main character; she’s in every scene. Mary Lou can’t read the directions on a box of hair color without messin’ up. How can she be expected to memorize pages of dialog?”
“Maybe Sandy will realize she made a big mistake firing you, and ask you to come back,” I said hopefully.
“Yeah, maybe.” Reba Mae grinned for the first time since entering Spice It Up! “With opening night only three weeks away, she might just do that. She’ll come beggin’ me to save her bacon.”
“Thata girl!” Dottie beamed approval. “Don’t get mad; get even.”
“Good advice, Dottie. I’ll keep that in mind.” Reba Mae slid off the stool. “Ladies, thanks for givin’ me a chance to vent. I feel better after havin’ a good cry. Don’t know when I’ve been so furious, or so hurt. For an instant, all I wanted to do was wrap my hands around Sandy’s scrawny neck until she squawked like a chicken. Gotta run,” she said, heading out the door.
“Better mad than sad, I always say,” Dottie rattled off another cliché. “Nice talking to y’all, but I have to see Pete at Meat on Main about some pork chops. My husband the mayor sure does love his pork chops. Toodle-oo.”
“Harvey Hemmings doesn’t love pork chops nearly as much as Dottie loves gossip,” Melly observed drily as we watched Dottie bustle across the street as fast as her short legs would carry her.
“News of Reba Mae being ‘fired’ will be all over town before the first chop sizzles in a frying pan,” I said.
“Poor Reba Mae.” Melly wagged her head. “She had her heart set on being onstage.”
I nodded agreement. “If I know Dottie, the tale of her losing the part to Mary Lou Lambert will be embellished with each telling.”
Copyright © 2016 Gail Oust.
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Gail Oust is often accused of flunking retirement. Hearing the words “maybe it’s a dead body” while golfing fired her imagination for writing a cozy. Ever since then, she has spent more time on a computer than at a golf course. She lives with her husband in McCormick, South Carolina.