A Chapter on Murder – Sneak Peek!


The first Saturday in December was famous for two things in Riddleton, South Carolina: the Christmas parade and the kickoff of the Home and Business Christmas Decoration contest. And contest didn’t come close to describing it. In this tiny town, the competition was more Thor versus the Incredible Hulk, than Snow White versus Cinderella. All for a gold-colored plastic trophy and the right to strut like the only rooster in the henhouse until next year. I had no room to judge, though. That trophy would look great on my mantel. If I had a mantel.

My best friend, town librarian Brittany Dunlop, and I had camped out in front of the still unadorned windows of my bookstore, Ravenous Readers, waving at the passing floats. Although floats might be a generous portrayal. Mostly, they were garland-and-banner-laden pickup trucks with regular folks standing in the beds wearing their gaudiest Christmas sweaters and reindeer antlers, waving, and throwing candy canes into the crowd. Still, it brought the community together, which was a good thing in a place like this.

Brittany snagged a foot-long peppermint stick before it crashed into my front door. She did a little celebration dance, her flyaway blond hair airborne as if she was standing behind a jumbo jet on the tarmac with its engines running. Her caesious-blue eyes twinkled in the sun, the tip of her tongue protruding from her rosebud mouth, as she waved the prize overhead.
As the last float rolled by, Brittany poked me with her peppermint stick. “It’s ten thirty, Jen. We should hustle to the diner, before it fills up.”
My empty stomach rumbled. “Sounds great. Let’s go.”

My protector, therapist, and companion since we’d been seated next to each other in kindergarten, I couldn’t imagine a minute without Brittany in my life. Not to say we hadn’t had our rough patches. Like when she started dating my ex-boyfriend, Stan Olinski. We always worked it out, though. The pinky-swear we’d made twenty-five years ago on that first day of school ruled over all: Dawson and Dunlop together forever!

We zigzagged through the crowd, past the police station and the town hall. The flag Santas attached to the black wrought-iron lamp posts fluttered under the sunny, sixty-degree sky. Safe to assume the only snow we’d have between now and the big day would come out of a can, sprayed on storefront windows. The more desperate might throw tubs of the fake stuff on their roofs. Nothing like Christmas in the South. You could have it any way you wanted.

Brittany twirled her peppermint stick like a baton as we walked. “The parade wasn’t too bad this year.”
“No, not at all.” I sidestepped a family of four who believed their tax dollars had purchased them the whole sidewalk. “I miss the days when your parents took us to Blackburn for the big one, though.”
“I looked forward to that trip all year.” She elbowed me. “Remember the time you got lost?”
“I wasn’t lost. I knew exactly where I was. Chasing the reindeer balloon that kid let go of. I almost had it, too.”

Brittany pushed up the sleeves of her Santa sweater as the temperature climbed. “Too bad my dad didn’t. His face turned so red, I thought he’d explode when he realized you weren’t there.”
“Yeah, and you cried for an hour.”
“I was seven and scared. I thought you were gone forever.”
“Maybe, but it was only five minutes tops.”
She stuck out her lower lip. “Well, it felt like forever.”
I draped my arm around her shoulder as we hit the sidewalk in front of the diner. “Thank you. I missed you too.”
“Oh, you did not!” She pushed me away, laughing.

The Dandy Diner’s Christmas window featured apron-adorned elves flipping burgers on a snow-topped grill. Mrs. Claus mixed a milkshake with one hand and filled a glass at a soda fountain with the other. The door depicted Rudolph in a server’s smock carting a tray of food and drinks to the glass on the opposite side, where Santa enjoyed a loaded cheeseburger he held with both hands. Not a bad paint job for a former bank loan officer from New Hampshire. Proprietor Angus Halliburton might’ve missed his calling a second time.

Brittany and I snagged a corner booth under a nineteen-forties-era advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes. It reminded me of the old black-and-white movies I loved so much growing up. The only things missing were William Powell and Myrna Loy chugging highballs while they solved the Thin Man mysteries.
Behind the front counter, Riddleton’s own Santa, Angus, directed his workshop of waitstaff, busboys, and cook elves.
I reached for a menu. Brittany snatched it out of my hand.
“Hey, what gives?”
“You don’t need that.” She tucked a stray hair behind her ear. “We both know what you’re going to order.”
“Oh yeah? What?”
“A cheeseburger, fries, and either a chocolate shake or a Mountain Dew. Right?”
“Not necessarily. Now, hand it over.”
She raised an eyebrow and slipped the menu into my outstretched hand.
I studied it, knowing full well she was correct.
Our waitress, Penelope, brought us water and took Brittany’s order for a chef’s salad with ranch dressing. When she finished writing, she turned to me and asked, “Today a shake day or a Dew day?”
Brittany pursed her lips, suppressing an I-told-you-so smile.
I narrowed my eyes. “A shake day, but instead of fries, I’ll take an order of onion rings. Thank you.” Actually, I wasn’t crazy about onion rings, but I had to make my point somehow.
I slid the menu back into its slot, and we all giggled.

Penelope shook her head and returned to the counter to give the grill cook, Marcus Jones, our order. Portly Angus stopped at our table with his arms akimbo. A macho Weeble. “Jennifer Dawson, I’m still waiting for you to tell me when your new book is coming out.”
“It’ll be out in April. Soon enough for you?”
He smiled. “No, but I guess it’ll have to do.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I’m already working on book three in the series.” Well, I typed chapter one on a blank page, anyway.
“That’s great! When’s that one due?”

My cheeks heated. “No due date, yet. I’m hoping Twin Terror will sell as well as Double Trouble, and the publisher will want another. I need to be prepared, especially since meeting deadlines isn’t one of my strengths.” I’d had so much trouble finishing the second book, my publisher had threatened to sue me for breach of contract to motivate me to write the thing. To be fair, though, a lot had happened in that year. My boyfriend left me, Brittany’s fiancé disappeared and I moved back home to support her, I almost died investigating the murder of the original owner of the bookstore, unofficially, of course, and I was kidnapped looking into another. Plenty of fodder for a new book, but little time to write one. “I don’t want the Davenport Twins Mysteries to be the shortest series on record.”
Angus grasped my shoulder. “You’ll be fine. I have faith in you.”
“Thanks.” My cheek fireballs ignited again. Hard to adjust to having people around who believed in me. I’d get used to it, though. Eventually. “What have you been up to?”

He rocked back and forth on his heels. “I’ve decided to promote Marcus to assistant manager.”
“Are you kidding? How terrific!” Marcus had a rough beginning in life, but, after his release from a five-year stint in prison for armed robbery, had turned things around. He and his two young daughters had moved to Riddleton, and Angus had hired him as a cook last summer. Despite his early mistakes, he’d become an honorable man, and I was proud to call him my friend.

“He’s doing an awesome job, and he has a good head on his shoulders.”
“I think it’s a smart move,” Brittany said.
“Can’t wait to see his face when I tell him.”
Brittany gave him a thumbs-up. “He’ll be thrilled. Anything to give Larissa and Latoya a better life than he had.”
I grinned at Angus. “What’re you going to do with all your free time?”
“What free time?”
“When Marcus takes over the diner.”
He chuckled. “That won’t happen any time soon. He still has a lot to learn.”
I waved a hand at him. “He’ll catch on fast, don’t worry.”
“I know. It’ll be wonderful to spend less time behind the counter and more with my customers, though.”
I leaned back against the wall beneath the Lucky Strike sign and stretched my legs out on the bench. “You mean collecting gossip, right?”
He pushed my feet to the floor and squeezed in beside me. “I don’t gossip. I gather valuable information for future reference.” He smirked. “Besides, I’ve helped you out a time or two, haven’t I?”

Angus’s so-called news had come in handy more than once, I had to admit. “Very true.”
Angus squeezed out of the booth and eased away from the table. “Well, I’d better get back—” His foot slipped on a dropped fork, and arms circling wildly all the way down, he landed flat on his back. Apparently, this Weeble did fall down.

I scrambled out of the booth to his side. “Angus, are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” He massaged the back of his skull. “I’ll probably have a nasty headache, but other than that, I’m okay.”
Rapid footsteps sounded behind me. I turned as Dr. Ingrid Kensington reached us from her table by the door. “What happened?”
“Angus was showing off his moonwalk and slipped on a fork.” I picked up the bent hindrance. “Apparently, neither one came out intact.”
Red-faced, Angus imitated a beached whale, trying to sit up.
Ingrid put out a restraining hand, her dark skin glistening in the fluorescent light. “Hold on, luv. Let me check you over. Ensure you didn’t break anything.”
“I’m fine! I don’t need a doctor, unless you specialize in bruised egos. Or cracked tiles.”
“The tile’s fine. And even if it wasn’t, it would be easily fixed, then Bob’s your uncle. Just allow me a look anyway. It’ll make me feel better.”
Angus peered up at her from the floor. “I don’t have an Uncle Bob.”

She laughed and shook her head, short loose curls bouncing. “It means everything will be sorted.” At Angus’s puzzled expression, she continued, “Fine. Everything will be fine.”
Ingrid, town doctor and part-time medical examiner, had moved to South Carolina from London, and she often dropped words on us we’d never heard before. However, listening to her mellifluous accent was like eavesdropping in the servants’ hall of Downton Abbey. Without all the drama.

She poked and prodded Angus’s neck and ribs, then ran her hands over his limbs. “Any pain anywhere? How about your breathing?”
“I’m okay, I promise.” He tried to get up again.
Ingrid held him back. “Hold on. Just one more thing since you hit your head.” She held up a finger. “Follow my finger with your eyes only.”
She moved her finger back and forth and he tracked it.
When she finished, she asked, “What were you doing before you fell?”
“I was telling Jen and Brittany about how important my information-gathering is. See? I’m fine.”
“All right, then. I can’t find any evidence to the contrary, so I concur.”

Angus collected the offending fork and scurried back to his position behind the counter, rubbing the back of his head. Intermission over, the symphony began anew. Ingrid slid into our booth beside Brittany and stole an onion ring off my plate. Penelope had dropped off our food while we tended to Angus.
“How are things going with you and Marcus?” I asked, offering her another one.
“Pretty well, I think.” She nibbled at the breading. “I like him a lot.”
Brittany nudged Ingrid with her elbow. “Like or love?”
Ingrid blushed and looked away.
Brittany and I high-fived and said, “Love!” at the same time.
“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” I said. “We’re happy for you. Marcus is a great guy. You could do a whole lot worse.”
“So could he,” Brittany added. “I think you two make a lovely couple.”
“Thank you.” Ingrid picked at her unpolished thumbnail. “I hope you’re right.”
“Of course we’re right.” Brittany laid her napkin beside her half-finished salad. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to use the little girls’ room.”

Ingrid stood and Brittany slid out of the booth.
Another onion ring disappeared into Ingrid’s mouth. “So, Jen, where’s Eric taking you for your birthday next weekend?”
“We don’t have any plans I’m aware of. Besides, I don’t even want to think about it.”
Ingrid tilted her head. “Why not? How old are you going to be?”
“Thirty. I’m supposed to be an adult now.”
“Who decided that, luv?”
“I don’t know—my mother, my editor, society? You name it.”
Ingrid snorted. “Since when do you care what other people think?”
Great question. Was that really who I’d become?
As Brittany approached the booth, she pointed toward the diner entrance. “I wonder what that’s all about.”

Outside the front door, my boyfriend, Detective Eric O’Malley, stood nose-to-nose with his partner, Detective Francine Havermayer. And neither one seemed happy.

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