Wedding Bell Blues by Ruth Moose is the 2nd Dixie Dew Beth McKenzie Mystery (Available August 23, 2016).
Beth McKenzie, owner of the Dixie Dew Bed and Breakfast, is enjoying an exciting affair with her new love, Scott. Meanwhile, the town of Littleboro, North Carolina is abuzz with gossip about Crazy Reba's upcoming nuptials. Most brides go crazy at some point, but Littleboro's resident homeless lady has had a head start: she's beloved, indulged, and most of all, eccentric. But at almost 60—or thereabouts—her marriage seems a little peculiar. Sure, she's sporting a diamond big enough to choke a horse, but no one can tell if it's real, or just a Cracker Jack prize she pilfered from a yard sale.
Crazy Reba's wedding plans go confirmedly awry when the bride-to-be is arrested for her fiancé's murder. Beth, determined to clear Reba's name, gets in over her head when a lady wrestler who threatened to kill her books a room at the Dixie Dew, and Robert Redford, her neighbor's white rabbit, disappears.
Then Littleboro's First Annual Green Bean Festival gets up and running, a famous food writer becomes deathly ill, and Beth must battle through madcap mayhem to apprehend the culprit and save the day.
When I heard Crazy Reba’s voice on the phone I knew immediately something was wrong. Really wrong. My first thought was where in the world did Reba ever get a cell phone? The homeless and street sleepers like Reba weren’t flush with extra cash (if any) each month. Maybe somebody had given her one of those phones where you buy the minutes up front. A phone for her own protection. Some kind person, the thought of which made me feel bad since I had not been the one to think of it. Any other place I might have thought of a cell phone for safety. Protection for all kinds of things. But Littleboro? Not my Littleboro. Except these days it wasn’t safe to be alone and on the loose … even in Littleboro.
“Miss Beth,” Reba said. “You gotta come.” Then she started crying.
“What?” I said. ȌWhat’s wrong? Where are you?”
Reba must have seen a loose cell phone somewhere and simply taken it. Somebody’s dresser. She was in and out of a lot of houses in Littleboro, mostly at will. Or maybe it was from one of the stores downtown. The library? Somebody somewhere simply laid their cell phone down for a minute, turned their back and Reba must have said to herself, “Hotdadaluck, found my cell phone.”
“Miss Beth,” Reba said again. “You gotta come.” Then she cried louder.
“Where are you?” I handed the Dixie Dew latest reservations printout to Ida Plum, who, hearing my end of the conversation, raised one eyebrow and shook her head no. She was saying don’t. Don’t you go getting involved in this. Remember how you almost got yourself killed poking your nose where it doesn’t belong. Ida Plum’s motto was “Curiosity killed the cat and it could kill you.”
“He’s dead,” Reba said. “You gotta come.”
“Who?” I hoped Reba wouldn’t drop the phone and walk off, get distracted by something or someone, forget she even had a cell phone
“God.” Reba snuffled. “God is dead.”
“Whoa,” I said. “Repeat that.” I didn’t think I heard what I’d heard.
Ida Plum leaned closer to my shoulder, listened, then shook her head side to side and walked away. As if all this was too crazy for her and what was the world coming to?
“Calm down,” I said. This had to be the same God that Reba was marrying. The one the whole town had been coerced into helping plan a wedding for that nobody in their right mind believed would ever happen. Who would marry Reba? And did marrying God mean she was going into a convent? Where was the nearest convent? And Lord knows they sure wouldn’t take Reba. Five minutes into an interview and they’d know this flower child gone to seed was not a candidate for nunhood. For a month Reba had been talking about being a June bride. Pure imagination, but with Reba you didn’t argue. You didn’t want to upset her. It was best to just go along. The whole town went along with her like a petted child. It was easier to indulge Reba—she had so few needs—than argue or go around her.
“You gotta come now,” Reba said.
“Where? Where are you?” I grabbed my purse, fished out my car keys. “Hang on,” I said. “Tell me real slow. Where are you?”
“The green one. Down the road from the green one.”
Did she mean Motel 3? Out by the Interstate? Or the four-lane road us locals refer to as “the Interstate”? Green? The motel that was now Al and Andy’s? Al was Allison, Andy was Andrea. It used to be Mr. and Mrs. Pinkston’s, a real mom-and-pop operation. Now it was half under renovation. A room or two open for business, the rest of the units still in skeleton shape with stark two-by-fours standing, old bits of drywall hanging from walls being pushed down, no doors. Piles and small mountains of rubble to be leveled and probably fill dirt brought in, added on top. What a mess. Last time I noticed, a bulldozer was running back and forth on the scene. All the units but two were open to the air. Had Reba been in one of the finished units?
“I’m coming,” I told her. “Try to calm down.”
“You gonna call anybody?” Ida Plum asked. She stood between me and the back door.
“If you mean who I think you mean, of course not. Would you? Let me check this out first.”
Ida Plum was my right hand at the Dixie Dew Bed-and-Breakfast. My wise woman, level thinker, practical friend who tried her dead level best to keep me on track. Keep me safe.
“I don’t want Ossie DelGardo and his buddies laughing their heads off down at the barber shop at my latest misstep,” I continued. “I’m not opening that door.” I’d be the joke of the week, maybe joke of the month or year here in Littleboro if this turned out to be some nightmare Reba had while she was sleeping in the woods and I’d had the nerve to disturb Littleboro’s finest, our trained professional police chief, over nothing, some wild-goose chase taking his “valuable” time. I would not subject myself to his amusement.
After all, this could be nothing. With Crazy Reba you never knew what was real and what she imagined.
Reba could have found a stray dog and named it God. Who knew? Reba was the kind to remember that old childhood thing about “god” being “dog” spelled backwards and think dogs were meant to be named “god.” Who knew how someone like Reba thought? Of course, she had been walking around for a couple months sporting a diamond big enough to choke a horse saying God gave it to her. Except we all knew a rock that big was pure glass Reba must have picked up at some yard sale or the Dollar Store. Or got it out of one of those gum machines.
I walked past Ida Plum to the driveway, cranked Lady Bug, my yellow Volkswagen beetle, pulled onto Main Street and drove through a downtown Littleboro that was empty as a movie set. Only one car at the car wash on a Saturday morning.
I drove past Juanita’s Kut and Kurl, which she had recently changed the name to Kurl Up and Dye. I was sure Ossie DelGardo, her most recent “intended,” had something to do with the name change. It sounded like an Ossie idea to me.
I drove past the Betts Brothers’ Fine Flowers for Fine Folks. They did all the funerals in Littleboro, North Carolina. We didn’t have all that many dinner parties to decorate, so the enterprising Ronnie and Robert Betts had put a little gift shop area in what used to be the dining room of the big white house they inherited from their great-aunt Flonnie. They went to floral conventions and stocked up on greeting cards, knickknacks and just plain stuff, all of which you could do without, but sometimes ended up with to mark an occasion. Their yellow cat, Bella, sat on the front porch, washing herself.
A hand-lettered YARD SALE sign was propped on the front lawn of a blue-and-white corner house that time and weather had washed down to gray. A few cars were strung along Main Street, but it was early still.
Fridays and Saturdays were yard sale days. Tag sales were held in the better neighborhoods where people hired Tom Jenkins and company to clean out, arrange and tag everything from a spinet piano to wheelbarrows and hedge trimmers. Jenkins did estate sales. Yard sales were a couple notches below and what you found came from an attic, storeroom or some closet. I liked both kinds.
I didn’t have to drive far on the Interstate before I saw a huge white moving-van-type truck in the pull-off picnic area. A woman was bent over a man sprawled across the picnic table.
I parked, opened my car door and heard Reba crying as if her heart would break. She cradled the man’s head to her cheek and patted his face. “God won’t wake up,” she said. “Wake up. Wake up, honey.”
If this was the God she was marrying, then he was real all right. For anybody who had ever doubted his existence, here he was. In the flesh. Right beside the Interstate. And he had a red beard. His scrawny stick arms were covered with tattoos. Not the God I had somehow pictured all my life, the one with the booming voice like thunder and lightning that would strike and sizzle me to bacon when I did something wrong. So fearful was I that it made me almost a Goody Two-Shoes, a real Miss Prissy.
This God was not even Jesus, whose picture I had seen in the church of my childhood. The Jesus of the dark skin, beard and blue eyes. I’d been startled then to see the blue eyes. Who knew Jesus had blue eyes? And what color were the eyes of God who was always watching? I remembered asking my grandmother, Margaret Alice, if God was watching when I went to the bathroom. Saw me naked in the tub. She had just rolled her eyes, kissed me on the forehead and given me a sample of something sweet and warm from the oven.
This God’s eyes, whatever color they were, were rolled back in his head.
“He won’t wake up.” Reba’s face was wet, her nose all red and runny. She kept wiping it with the back of her hand.
“Oh Reba, honey,” I said. “Let me check.”
She moved aside and I felt for a pulse underneath his copper bracelet, which jangled a little in the silence. He even had hairy hands. On his little finger I saw Reba’s diamond(?) engagement ring. He had taken it back? What a rat. I pulled it off and handed it to Reba, then felt for his pulse.
Nothing. I felt at his throat. Nothing.
“Do you know CPR?” I asked Reba. This might have seemed a stupid question, but with Reba you never knew. What she did know could sometimes surprise you. She didn’t answer, but stood up and started turning in circles.
I climbed on top of God, unbuttoned his flannel plaid shirt that had a huge green stain on the front. I pushed on his chest, which was hairy as a bear. Where in the world had Reba found this guy?
I pried open God’s mouth and saw he didn’t believe in dentists. Brown, ragged teeth. I took a deep breath, bent down and forced myself to kiss those tobacco-colored lips that were getting whiter and whiter. His breath was awful to say the least. Sour. Garlic and whiskey and cigarettes. Oh, Lord.
I buttoned up his shirt. Crookedly. Two buttons were missing. I stepped back and then I hugged Reba. “I think we better call 911.”
They would get Eikenberry Funeral Home. Eikenberry, Littleboro’s legendary undertaker, would love this one, I thought. I could see him, curly black mustache and all, rubbing his hands together. Business. Eikenberry’s first thought, and probably his last thought before he went to sleep at night, was business. People in Littleboro said if you ran into him at some social function, he looked you up and down, like he was taking your measurements for what size coffin to order. Maybe it was just a nervous tic, but he did have the habit of moving his head up and down as he talked to you.
As I dialed 911 and gave particulars and directions, I pulled Reba around to the other side of the picnic table so her back was to God and hugged her close. Sometime this spring Reba had stopped wearing her orange-colored blanket and gotten some pullover cotton tops and cammo cargo pants with pockets. Reba loved lots of pockets. If you met her at M.&G.’s Grocery she’d have to unzip, unsnap and show you every one. And you’d have to stand there, ooh and ahh, before she’d let you go.
She smelled like some kind of aftershave. Men’s cologne, something brown and spicy. No roses and lavender for Reba. But where had she spritzed herself so generously and so recently? Whose aftershave had she helped herself to? Did God wear Old Spice?
I heard the sirens in seconds, knew the blue and red lights on the MedAlert vehicle were flashing as it screamed toward the Interstate. Barring no dogs crossing Main Street, it would probably take only minutes to arrive. And fast behind that green-and-white truck would be Ossie DelGardo, chief of Littleboro police.
There was no love lost between me and Ossie DelGardo because there had never been any to begin with. I felt like he came to Littleboro, New Jersey accent and all, brought big-city crime with him and infected Littleboro with it. Not long after I moved back, there were two murders in two weeks and somehow he always acted like I had something to do with them. We weren’t archenemies, just on opposite sides of everything each of us stood for.
No sooner had the MedAlert shot in, spewing gravel in all directions, and the attendants had jumped out, grabbed a stretcher and run toward the picnic table than Ossie and Bruce Bechner screeched up, spewing more gravel and flashing more lights. I shaded Reba’s eyes.
Ossie and his sidekick, Bruce Bechner, sprang out and Bruce ran to the body on the table while Ossie, in white cowboy hat and shiny snakeskin boots, strode up, hands on his hips with a tight little, what looked to me like a snarl on his lips.
“You.” He pointed a finger at me sharp as his voice. “Stop making my job work.” He took off his cowboy hat and fanned himself with it. This was his new look, one he’d started wearing the same time as the boots and his engagement picture had appeared in the paper. I wondered if this was Juanita’s idea and if he’d get married in cowboy hat and boots. Somehow I had trouble seeing Ossie as the good guy, the hero in the white hat.
I stepped back as he took Reba by the shoulders and gently sat her down at the picnic table. “Now, miss,” he said. “Let’s see what’s going on here.”
Reba leaned her head into his chest and cried while he patted her on the back. “He was a better man,” she choked out. “A better man.”
“Now, now.” Ossie pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped her face.
This was a side of Ossie I’d never dreamed existed, and I wanted to stage-whisper to Reba, “Don’t trust him. Don’t say a word. It’s a trap.”
Meanwhile, the MedAlert guys and one gal had put an oxygen mask on the man who lay flat on his back on the picnic table. They whipped out all sorts of machines that made clicking and whizzing sounds. I couldn’t see what they were doing except they seemed fast and efficient. Two of them held a stretcher at the ready. I saw them load the man into the truck, machines and all.
One of them had an iPad and was inputting information. Reba had snatched Ossie’s handkerchief and was wailing into it, so the EMTs turned to me. They asked me for the dead man’s name.
“I don’t know,” I said. I could not say I heard his name was God, or that’s what he went by.
I wasn’t about to say “Heaven,” so I said, “I have no idea. You can get the information from the police later.”
They slammed shut the double doors and roared away.
Reba and Ossie sat side by side at the picnic table. I heard Reba saying God was dead and she killed him. Ossie had produced a tiny tape recorder from somewhere and was getting it all on the record, trying to get more information from her. In between her crying and snuffles I only heard bits of words here and there. “Wine” and “June bride” and “best man” and “no wedding” and it was “late, too late,” and she wanted sweet tea but he had fried chicken, KFC. None of her answers seemed to make sense but she kept insisting to Ossie she’d killed him.
Meanwhile I just stood there not knowing what to do. I started to go sit beside Reba, but I knew to Ossie that would look like I was interfering with a “trained law enforcement professional,” an expression to which I wanted to snort a big “Ha.”
Cars whizzed by on the Interstate. A few slowed, but nobody stopped. A lumber truck groaned and wheezed up the hill, loaded to the rails with tree bodies so freshly cut I smelled the dripping sap as it passed. There goes progress, I thought, or destruction, as tree body after tree body from the Uwharries, a little bitty mountain range back of Littleboro, went bleeding past. I felt like crying every time I saw a loaded log truck.
Bruce was in the patrol car talking to somebody or pulling up something on the computer from the license plate on God’s big white truck. I’d seen Bruce walk around behind it. Now he shut the patrol car door, walked over and got in the truck, cranked it up, gunned the motor, then let it idle and waited. But waited for what?
“Don’t,” I said when I saw Ossie help Reba up, put his arm around her and start leading her toward the patrol car. “Don’t you dare.”
He stopped, and still with his arm holding Reba, stared me down. His dark little eyes told me not to come a step closer. “This is police business, I thank you, missy.”
“But she hasn’t done anything. The body doesn’t have a mark on it. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
“Back off,” he said and held the car door for Reba. “Go bake your muffins. Isn’t that what you do, little girl?” Little girl? I wanted to slap him. The nerve, making fun of me trying to make a living making homemade pastries for my B and B guests, trying to help my friend. Oh, the nerve.
I always felt like Ossie looked down on Southerners, as though the minute we opened our mouths it sounded like we didn’t have enough sense to get in out of the rain. Me in particular. At least he was being nice to Reba. For that I was grateful. If only it could continue.
Ossie escorted Reba to the backseat of the patrol car, helped her in and closed the door. The metal click of the door lock was a shock to my heart.
Ossie started the car and pulled away.
Reba lifted up her head long enough to wave bye to me and smile. I wanted to run after that car, beat on the door with my fists and say, “You let her out. She’s innocent as a child.” Reba was like a child who just loved to ride, anywhere with anybody. For years she had hung around the Interstate and hitched rides with anybody who stopped. She had a fondness for truck drivers. It’s a wonder she hadn’t been killed. Maybe she’d just been lucky so far.
But where was Ossie taking her? Not to jail, surely not. If I knew Reba, she was like a captured wild bird who would beat its wings against a cage until it fell down dead.
As soon as Ossie pulled away, Bruce followed in the big white truck. That’s when I saw the tall black lettering on the side. G.O.D. GENERAL OVERNIGHT DELIVERY.
That’s why Reba thought she was marrying God. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She hadn’t been making all this up. God was in the big white truck.
As I started toward Lady Bug, I saw something flat in the gravel under the picnic table. Reba’s cell phone. I must have dropped it after I dialed 911. Beside it lay a key. I picked both up. The key was an old-fashioned metal room key stamped “Motel 3.” How long had it been here? Where had it come from? One of Reba’s pockets?
Ossie was long gone. The MedAlert team, too. The back of God’s big white truck wasn’t even in sight anymore. All that was left was me, the cell phone and that key.
I got in my car and headed up the road. In my rearview mirror I saw the empty roadside pull-over, a bare picnic table, the woods behind it and an emptiness. Even the air seemed still, like none of this had really happened.
I pressed hard on the gas pedal and roared up the road like the Devil himself was on my tail. If God was dead, then that must have left the Devil in charge.
Copyright © 2016 Ruth Moose.
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Ruth Moose is the 2013 winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition. She's published collections of short stories and several collections of poetry. She was on the Creative Writing faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for fifteen years and received the Chapman Award for teaching. She lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina.