Peppermint Twisted

Paradise’s local artists are up in arms when wealthy Felicity Asbury names herself director of the annual Arts Festival. But she soon gets her just desserts. Abby finds Felicity dead in Divinity’s parking lot—an awl lodged in her chest. And when evidence points to Abby as the suspect, she must put aside her sweets-making for sleuthing to discover who was twisted enough to do the deed.

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CHAPTER ONE

 “Thank God you’re there, Abby,” Rachel Summers shrilled into the phone. “I need you at the Artist’s Guild right away.”

Now? Are you kidding?” I was up to my elbows in melted chocolate, peanuts, marshmallow and raisins, trying desperately to finish the second of three batches of Rocky Mountain Drops I needed to make that morning. Any minute, my brother and his friends would show up to work on the repairs to the second floor of the old building that housed my candy shop, Divinity, on the first floor and my tiny apartment on the third.

“I’m serious,” Rachel insisted. “The committee is falling apart right in front of my eyes.”She was talking about the Arts Festival Committee which we’d both been serving on for the past six months. Under the direction of Meena Driggs, the committee ran like clockwork, and so far planning had gone as smoothly as anyone could have asked. So smoothly, in fact, that in a moment of weakness I’d agreed to become Meena’s second in command–a decision I was beginning to rethink now that we were gearing up for the real work.

I didn’t let Rachel’s panic worry me. Emotions had been simmering for days all over town and boiling over into arguments between members of the Guild over the smallest things. Keeping folks calm and smoothing ruffled feathers had become my domain.

“I really can’t come right now,” I said. “Just tell me who’s done what, and why.”

“All hell’s broken loose, that’s what. The whole Arts Festival is ruined. You have to do something right now, before somebody gets hurt.”

I rolled my eyes at Rachel’s over-the-top reaction. At that precise moment, a saw buzzed to life on the second floor, proof that Wyatt and his friends had arrived. Plugging one ear, I did my best to tune out the noise overhead. “Give me details,” I said. “I can’t fix what I don’t know about. So tell me, who’s on the hot-seat this time?”

“Felicity Asbury and that idiot Jeb Ireland.”

Felicity was one of the wealthiest (and most thoroughly unlikeable) people in Paradise and Mayor Ireland would probably break his own neck to make her happy. We didn’t need either of them sticking their fingers in the pot at this stage of the planning.

“What have they done?”

“You’re not going to believe this,” Rachel warned. “Jeb showed up about an hour ago and told Meena she was out. Just like that.”

I didn’t know whether to be more disappointed or outraged. Meena Driggs is one of the most organized people I know, which made her the obvious choice to head the Festival Planning Committee. She’d put heart and soul into the work she’d been doing, and without her some of us would have given up long ago.

The scales tipped toward outrage. “Jeb can’t do that.”

“Wait,” Rachel said, cutting me off. “It gets worse. Guess who he put in Meena’s place.”

Something sour churned in my stomach. “Felicity?”

“You guessed it.”

Back when I was a kid and Felicity was still married to her first husband, she’d stirred up a fuss over the judging of a talent show at the local junior high school. My mother had been President of the PTA that year, and I’d overheard enough to know that Felicity didn’t hesitate to play dirty. Just the thought of working with her made my mouth pucker.

“The minute Jeb left, she started giving orders,” Rachel went on. “She’s already made such a mess, I don’t think we’ll ever get things straightened out. She told Nicolette to refund Rasheed Vanderkamp’s registration because people might ‘feel uncomfortable’ if he’s around. She gave Shellee Marshall a dress code because she says Shellee dresses too provocatively, and she told Kirby North that she wants final approval of every piece he intends to exhibit so she can make sure he doesn’t put out anything that’s politically inflammatory. Meena’s furious, and half of the artists are threatening to walk out on the Festival.”

Rachel was right. We had a disaster on our hands. “Where is Meena now?”

“I have no idea. She stormed out of here about twenty minutes ago. I’m telling you, Abby, this place is pure chaos, and word is spreading like a forest fire. People are threatening to pull out of the Festival left and right.”

Somebody upstairs started hammering and a sharp pain shot through my head just above my eye. “Who’s talking about pulling out?”

“Ask me who isn’t,” Rachel said. “The list will be a whole lot shorter. Every one of them is demanding a refund. Tonight.”

We both knew that wasn’t going to happen. There had been a Paradise Arts Festival every year for the past fifteen, but it had always been a weekend event held in early April on the edge of town. This year, after a long, protracted battle, the city council had voted to expand the festival to four days and move the whole thing to late May in the center of town. The changes meant that we’d had to buy new banners, new booths…new everything. We’d already spent every penny we’d received in registration fees, and run on the bank now would kill the festival for this year, and probably next.

Something heavy hit the floor above and the windows in the kitchen rattled. Praying for patience, I closed my eyes and kneaded my forehead. “I don’t know what I can do that Meena couldn’t,” I said after a minute. “This has to be the worst decision Jeb Ireland has ever made.”

“No kidding.” Rachel took a deep breath and tried again. “I need your help, Abby. I can’t handle this myself.”

Wyatt and his buddies chose that moment to blurt out a Joe Nichols song at the top of their lungs–and suddenly the idea of leaving for an hour or two didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all. Plugging my free ear again, I carried the cordless phone to the kitchen door where the sunshine and blue sky made the afternoon look warmer than it actually was.

My brother had backed his truck up to the stairs leading to my third-floor apartment. His toolbox lay open in the truck bed and half a dozen tools were scattered around it. His carelessness made me crazy at times, but all my warnings had fallen on deaf ears.

“I don’t know what I can do,” I repeated, crossing to the truck to close the toolbox. “Felicity’s not likely to listen to me, especially if she has backing from the mayor.”

“Maybe not, but you have to try. Please Abby? I need your help. I can’t handle this on my own.”

Back in the kitchen, I checked to see what my cousin, Karen, who is also Divinity’s newly promoted Assistant Manager, was doing. Two or three customers browsed the aisles while Karen rang up a sale. We had business, but it wasn’t overwhelming.

I covered the phone and caught Karen’s eye. “Rachel’s got a problem with the Festival. Will you be okay here alone if I leave for a little while?”

Karen shook a few more butter mints into the sample dish and lifted one rail-thin shoulder. She’s one of those people who can eat anything and never gain an ounce–a trait I think is unnatural, especially in a candymaker. She nodded and said, “Sure. Just keep your cell phone on so I can call if I need you.”

“Will do.” Wonder, as I frequently do, how I’d ever get by without Karen, I promised Rachel that I’d be there as soon as possible and disconnected.

Divinity would be fine without me for a little while, but I couldn’t say the same about the Arts Festival. I had no idea what I could do to change Mayor Ireland’s mind or keep Felicity under control, but if Meena had skipped out, even for a little while, I couldn’t just ignore the trouble brewing at the Artist’s Guild. Thirty minutes now might save us hours of stress later.

It took me fifteen minutes to leave the shop, and another ten to drive to the building that houses the Silver Strike Arts and Crafts Guild–a long stretch of office space on the second floor of a strip mall on the north end of town. Like many of the buildings in Paradise, the outside walls were covered in cedar shake siding to make the building look rustic.

Inside the Guild offices, there’s space for about twenty artists to work on site, the remaining members work in shops or home studios. I’d never considered myself an artist before, but my great-aunt Grace had been a charter member of the Guild, so I’d joined when I inherited Divinity after she died. It just seemed like the thing to do.

I pulled my ‘95 Jetta into the only space left in the parking lot–a narrow spot too close to a concrete pillar. Eileen Nuttall stood in the window of The Spinning Wheel, hands on hips, a deep scowl on her long face. I waggled my fingers in a friendly wave. Eileen gave me a grudging nod in response, which made me suspect that she’d already heard about the trouble upstairs.

Steeling myself for the task ahead, I climbed the stairs and followed the sound of angry voices to the Guild office. That was my first clue that Rachel might not have been exaggerating. The second came when I looked into the Guild office and saw a sea of bodies packed together.

I wasn’t sure the room could hold one more, but I squeezed inside anyway.

“Just be patient,” I heard Rachel shout from somewhere in the back. “We’re doing our best to fix this.”

Voices rose in protest. I couldn’t make out what anyone said, but by that time I was pretty sure I didn’t want to.

“Please wait,” Rachel shouted again. “If we work together, we can get ourselves back on track.”

So many bodies packed into one space took the edge off the spring chill. By the time I’d searched three rooms, sweat trickled down my back and matted the hair on my head. I finally found Rachel standing on a desk in the back office, her face flushed, her eyes a little wild.

Rachel owns Candlewyck, a shop just a few doors down from Divinity, but her life’s ambition is to become a plus-size model. Usually she dresses to be seen, just in case, but today her short brown hair lay flat on her head, an over-sized T-shirt fell shapelessly from her shoulders, and dark circles of makeup were smudged under her eyes.

“That’s not going to be a problem,” she shouted to someone standing near the window. “We’re going to work out a solution. Felicity Asbury will not be taking over. Abby Shaw and I are going to make sure of that.”

I sucked in a breath at Rachel’s rash promise and a few nearby heads swiveled in my direction. I resisted the urge to stuff a sock in Rachel’s mouth and tried to look like a person who had matters under control.

It wasn’t easy.

I’d been a corporate attorney while I lived in Sacramento, and that had put me in plenty of uncomfortable situations, but this was the first time I’d faced an angry mob. I had no real hope that we could keep the promise Rachel had just made, and I wasn’t eager to find out what our colleagues would do to us when we failed.

The people nearest to me shifted to look at me, and I realized that Kirby North–all six feet of him–stood just a few feet away. A thick black beard shadowed his face, leaving only a pair of unsettling blue eyes visible. The expression in them wiped out any questions I might have had about his reaction to Felicity’s decision to approve his pieces for the festival.

He turned toward me, the muscles of his arms straining beneath his plaid flannel shirt. Kirby has lived in Paradise all his life and he’s a member of the Festival committee, but I still don’t know him well. He’s always been something of a recluse, and a rabid environmentalist since long before caring about the world became popular. His parents have been dead for years, he has no brothers or sisters, and if he has any close friends I don’t know who they are.

“You can get Felicity to step down?” His voice rumbled like thunder in a summer storm.

Under normal circumstances Kirby doesn’t intimidate me, but I backed away from his concentrated gaze before I realized what I was doing. I thought about just flat-out admitting my doubts, but people were listening and I didn’t want to add to the hysteria. I whipped up a brave smile and said, “I can try.”

“How?”

If I’d known the answer to that, I wouldn’t have been so nervous. “I think the first step is to find out why Mayor Ireland decided to make the change he did. I’m sure he had some reason–”

“Yeah,” Shellee Marshall shouted. “Felicity rattled her bank account at him.”

I ignored the comment, hoping I could cool tempers, not inflame them. “It might also be a good idea to make sure Jeb was following policy when he removed Meena from the committee. Once we have the answer to that, we’ll be able to decide on our next step.”

Kirby’s thick black brows drew together over his nose. “And if he didn’t follow policy?”

“Then we’ll talk to an attorney. Maybe file for an injunction to keep Felicity from taking any action until the matter is settled by the court.”

“I thought you were an attorney,” someone behind me said. “Can’t you just do it for us?”

I shook my head. “I haven’t practiced law since I came home, and I was never licensed to practice in Colorado. We’d have to hire someone if it comes to that.”

Kirby raked me over with that penetrating stare of his. “Fair enough, I guess. But what if Jeb leaves Felicity in charge? What are you going to do about the censorship?”

“We’ll cross that bridge if we have to.”

Shellee Marshall pushed to the front of the crowd and turned to face the others. “Going to court will cost money. Who’s going to pay for it?”

Good question. “We’ll all have to stand together,” I said. “Just like we always do.”

“We’ve already paid enough,” someone else protested. “I’m not paying another dime. I want my money back.”

Shouts of approval rose to the rafters. I held up both hands, hoping to quiet the mob and rose my voice to make myself heard. “I’m on your side,” I assured them. “This affects all of us. But if we start pulling out of the festival, we won’t hurt Felicity. We’ll only hurt ourselves and the rest of the town.”

Garrett Roth, a photographer whose nature shots had won an impressive array of awards, leaned into the conversation. “Waiting for courts and attorneys and all that takes time. Time we don’t have. I think somebody ought to just go to the mayor and Felicity and lay the cards on the table. Tell them we want her gone or we’re gone.”

“I’d rather talk to Meena first,” I began.

“Meena’s not here,” Kirby snarled. “I’m not waiting for her to finish nursing her tender feelings and get back to work.”

I’d never thought of Meena as the type to pout before, but I couldn’t deny that it looked like she’d abandoned ship after the first volley. “Look, I know you’re upset that she left this afternoon, but she has been in charge of the Festival since we started working last year. She may already be on top of the situation.”

Shellee laughed through her nose. “Yeah. I’ll just bet she is.”

Rachel scrambled off the table and came to stand beside me, the exhaustion on her face so heavy I could feel it dragging at me. “I’ve tried calling Meena’s cell phone at least a hundred times,” she said, her voice low so it wouldn’t carry. “I don’t know what’s going on with her, but I really think we’re on our own here.”

I shook my head firmly. “Meena wouldn’t do that. She’s too responsible.”

“And if she’s not?”

I refused to even consider the possibility that Meena might have bailed out and left me to deal with the mayor and Felicity. “Maybe the battery on her phone is dead,” I suggested. “Or maybe she left the phone somewhere and doesn’t have it with her. There could be half a dozen explanations for why she isn’t answering.”

Rachel glanced at the crowd around us, and I knew she was seeing the same mixture of anger, frustration, curiosity, and expectations that I saw. “I hope you’re right,” she said under her breath.

So did I. So did I.

(copyrighted material)


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