DEATH BY COMMITTEE (Abby McCree Mystery Series Book 1)
by Alexis Morgan
Release Date: January 29, 2019
When Abby McCree suddenly inherits her favorite relative’s property in small town Snowberry Creek, Washington, she soon realizes that the ramshackle home comes with strings attached—one of which is tied to a dead body!
Abby McCree sighed. Loudly.
The only one who appeared to pay any attention to her was Zeke. The huge mastiff mix was dozing in his favorite puddle of sunlight on the hardwood floor. He raised his head long enough to see if she had a treat for him. When she didn't, he gave her a reproachful look before dropping his head down on his paws to drift back to sleep.
Doggy disappointment was the least of Abby's problems right now. She hadn't been a landlady for very long and didn't know what all the rules were. However, she was pretty sure that saving her somewhat irascible tenant from a gaggle of grannies wasn't on the official list. Still, she felt some obligation to shoo the ladies away from her front window, especially because whatever one of them had just whispered had the other two giggling like schoolgirls. Had none of them ever seen a shirtless man mowing a lawn before? Evidently not one built like Tripp Blackston, but even she had to admit the man was totally ripped.
She set down the tray she'd carried in from the kitchen. It was clearly too much to hope that a plate full of freshly baked cream cheese brownies and sugar cookies would be enough to lure her guests back to their seats. "Ladies, we'll never get the plans for your garage sale finalized today if we don't get back to work."
Two gray heads and one impossibly red one briefly turned in her direction. Glenda, who clung to the mistaken belief that everyone really believed her hair was still the same vivid shade of red now as it had been when she was a young girl, acted as spokesperson for the trio. "We were just thinking that Mr. Blackston looked awfully hot out there."
Another pause for more giggling before she continued. "We think you should take a plate of goodies and a glass of that fresh lemonade out to him. Surely that young man deserves to take a break after working for hours in the hot sun."
They stared at her with a hint of accusation in their expressions as if it was somehow her fault that the early spring day had turned unexpectedly warm. When Abby didn't immediately leap into action, Jean spun her walker around and marched toward the table. "Never mind, dear. I'll take it out to him."
Her best friend Louise joined her to pile a paper plate high with brownies while Glenda filled a glass with lemonade. "I'll carry his drink for you, Jean. Abby, be a dear and get the door for us."
Defeat tasted bitter, but Abby knew when she'd been outmaneuvered and outmatched. It was obvious all three women had decades of experience in wielding guilt to get their way. She snatched the plate and glass out of their hands. "Fine. I'll take these out to Mr. Blackston. You three sit down and enjoy your drinks."
On her way to the door, she paused to look back at her elderly friends. "But when I come back, we need to get down to business. While I'm outside, why don't you think about where you want to hold the garage sale?"
Louise winced and then immediately offered up an apologetic smile. "But your aunt always insisted we have it here, Abby. Sybil has…had the biggest yard and parking is plentiful on this street."
Darn, she should've known they'd play the Aunt Sybil card, a reminder that this house and everything in it hadn't been Abby's for very long. Before that, it had belonged to her aunt for over sixty years, starting from the day she'd moved in as a young bride and lasting right up until she died just over a month ago. A fresh stab of grief over the death of her favorite relative hit Abby hard. The pain of her loss had yet to fade in the least.
"I wasn't thinking. Of course, you can have it here again this year."
While they finally turned their attention to the brownies she'd baked earlier that morning, Abby headed outside to flag down her tenant on his next trip back in her direction. She knew the instant Tripp spotted her, because he stopped to frown at her from over by the fence. Finally, he guided the mower over to where she stood and shut it off. At least he wasn't going to make her shout over the sound of the engine.
"Did you need something?"
She held out the plate and the lemonade. "The ladies inside noticed how hot you looked out here."
Judging from the way he grimaced, she should've phrased that differently. Then again, the statement was true no matter which way he chose to interpret it. Almost any woman with a pulse would have noticed. Luckily, she wasn't that type at all.
Time to get down to business. "I…well, actually they thought you might appreciate a cold drink and a snack."
He glanced past her toward the large picture window on the front of the big Victorian behind her. From the way he tightened his grip on the lawnmower handle, she didn't have to look to know that the ladies were back at the window. At least, he managed a small smile as he nodded in their direction and finally accepted the glass. He chugged down the lemonade in a matter of seconds and then shoved the glass back in her hand.
"Would you like some more?"
"I'm good. You can leave the brownies on the steps. I'll pick them up when I'm done mowing." His dark eyes bored into hers. "And for the record, I don't need an audience when I'm working."
He walked away before she could do more than sputter. The man was insufferable even if he was right. The agreement he'd had with Aunt Sybil was reduced rent in return for doing odd jobs around the place. He was entitled to his privacy.
That didn't keep her from muttering as the lawnmower roared back to life, "Maybe people wouldn't stare so much if you kept your shirt on."
Abby set the plate down by his discarded T-shirt. As she rejoined her guests inside, Louise said, "The lemonade must have cooled him right down. He's putting his shirt back on although he certainly doesn't look very happy right now."
Abby's cheeks burned. Had he heard her? If so, he must have the hearing of a bat to pick up her comment over the roar of that engine. Well, she hadn't said anything but the truth. Rather than discuss the matter any further, she sat down and reached for a brownie and her own glass of lemonade. After a brief internal discussion, she added a second brownie to her plate. It had been that kind of a day.
"We were talking while you were outside." Louise patted Abby on the hand. "It's not fair of us to assume that you would host the garage sale just because Sybil always did. We were thinking we could ask Dolly Cayhill if we could use her place."
Jean didn't look convinced that was a good idea. "Is Dolly even back from Arizona? I sure haven't seen her around. Normally she lets me know when she gets back in town."
"Do I know Dolly?" Abby tried to put a face with the name. "I'm sure I've heard the name, but I don't know that I've ever met her."
Glenda reached for another cookie. "Maybe not. She and Sybil weren't close." When Jean snorted as if smothering a laugh, Glenda shot her a dark look before continuing. "Dolly is a snowbird and always leaves town right after Christmas and stays gone until the weather warms up here. Having said that, I haven't heard that she's back yet."
There was no use in dragging things out. Abby eyed a third brownie but decided against it. "Seriously, I don't mind having the sale here this year. Just let me know what I need to do to get ready and when you want to have it."
An hour later, Abby helped the ladies back down the front steps and got Jean settled into the backseat of Glenda's sedan. After tucking Jean's walker into the trunk and shutting the lid, she stepped back out of the way and waved as the car pulled away. As much as she enjoyed spending time with Aunt Sybil's friends, sharing both memories and laughs, she was ready for some alone time. It seemed as if her life had been in an constant uproar for the past six months or more, and moments of peace and quiet had been rare.
The only problem was that there was so much she needed to be doing. Before heading back inside, she paused to study her new home. She'd yet to decide if she was going to live in it for the foreseeable future or if she should get the place ready to sell. Either way, the house needed some serious upgrading. At least Aunt Sybil had had it painted top to bottom, inside and out just last year, so that much was done.
The large yard was a whole different matter. Her aunt had always been an avid gardener, priding herself on having garden-tour quality landscaping. But over the past few years, the flower beds had definitely gotten out of hand. A lot of the trees and shrubs needed to be pruned or even taken out altogether. Blackberry brambles had gradually taken over one entire corner of the backyard and were slowly creeping closer to the small mother-in-law cottage where Tripp Blackston had recently taken up residence.
Speaking of the man himself, he'd finished mowing and was now edging the flower beds along the side of the house. He might not be the friendliest person she'd ever met, but he was certainly a hard worker. She quickly moved back out of sight. This was her house and her yard. She had every right to stand anywhere she pleased, but the last thing she wanted was to get caught watching him again.
She glanced down at her silent companion. "Zeke, I'm going upstairs to work again. You can stay out here with Tripp if you want."
When the dog stared up at her with his soulful eyes, she gave him a good scratch and a couple of treats that she'd remembered to stick in her pocket. "He knows to let you back inside if you get tired of following him around."
Zeke gulped down his goodies and then thanked her with a slobbery lick. Out of consideration for his feelings, she waited until he ambled off in Tripp's direction before wiping her hand on her jeans. The big guy meant well, but yuck.
The day was getting away from her, and it was past time to get to work. Heading back into the house, she still had to wonder what Aunt Sybil had been thinking when she'd picked Tripp to be her new tenant. Granted, she'd always rented the place to a student from the local university, but he wasn't a typical college freshman. Although never exactly chatty, he had mentioned that he'd recently retired from the army after twenty years. Best guess that made him a few years older than she was, somewhere in his late thirties or maybe even his early forties.
Glenda had also told her that he'd served at some point with Gage Logan, the local chief of police. In fact, it had been Chief Logan who had introduced Tripp to Sybil a few months back when he'd been in town to register for classes. That was the sum total Abby knew about the man. She guessed she couldn't complain as long as he paid his rent on time and kept up with the list of chores she updated as needed.
For now, she left the yardwork to him while she concentrated on the inside of the house, a major job in itself. Aunt Sybil hadn't exactly been a hoarder, but she had managed to accumulate quite a bit of clutter over the years, not to mention the added contributions from the two generations of her husband's family who'd lived in the house before her. After grabbing a bottle of water, Abby trudged up to the third floor to pick up where she'd left off the day before. Aunt Sybil had used one of the three small bedrooms on that level as overflow for the stuff she couldn't fit in the attic. At some point, she'd had the wall taken out between the other two rooms, opening up the space for her quilting. One entire wall was covered with built-in shelves, which held the rainbow of quilting fabrics she'd collected over the years. Another held batting, a rack of threads, and bolts of the neutral colors that she used as backing for her quilts.
A complicated sewing machine held pride of place in front of the large window that overlooked the front yard. A stack of patchwork squares sat on the table next to the machine, some already sewn in long strips while others were still waiting to be joined together. The pattern was a relative simple one done in vibrant shades of red and blue, the style of quilt that her aunt had often made to be auctioned off by one of the charities she supported. Maybe someday Abby would try to finish the quilt herself, but not yet.
There was a quilt top stretched on the quilting frame in the corner, another project that needed to be finished. This one was a double baby wedding ring pattern done in pastels. Who had it been for? Maybe Glenda or one of the other ladies would know. She ran her fingers across the fabric, loving the textures and soft colors. It was tempting to do a few stitches, but she couldn't bring herself to pick up the needle and thread that were still attached to the fabric right where her aunt had stopped working.
But then she hadn't been able to bring herself to touch anything in this one room that was so quintessentially her aunt's. Closing her eyes, she breathed in the fading scent of Sybil's perfume and whispered, "I miss you so much, Aunt Sybil."
Having paid homage to the woman who'd had a profound effect on her life, Abby crossed the hall to the other bedroom and prepared to wade through the day's allotment of boxes. She'd originally shoved everything to one side of the room to give herself space to sort everything into one of three categories: stuff to keep, stuff to donate, and trash. Choosing the correct designation for some items turned out to be far more difficult than she'd expected, which had resulted in adding a fourth category—undecided.
On some days, it was that last one that garnered the most additions. It didn't feel right to throw away family pictures, but she didn't know what to do with the ones where she had no idea who the people were. For now, she just left them piled in boxes. It was tempting sit and read a few more of the letters she'd unearthed yesterday. She limited herself to skimming a handful, which had dates spanning more than the past century. The entire collection went into the pile of things she planned to save.
Her primary goal was to pare down the sheer amount of stuff in the house, but she also needed to make room for her own things. For the most part, her belongings still sat in boxes piled in a small room in the back of the house. There wasn't much she'd salvaged from her marriage, but using all of Aunt Sybil's things made if feel as if she were a guest in this house, not its new owner.
Sorting also gave her something to do with her time while she figured out what came next in her life. At this point, she'd expected to still be half of the couple Chad and Abby Ohler, who maybe had two kids and a dog. Instead, she was back to being Abby McCree, alone and starting over on her own.
Enough of that. She wasn't going to sit there a wallow in what-ifs and where-did-I-gowrongs. She'd done enough of that starting immediately after she'd confronted Chad with her growing suspicion he was having an affair, which turned out to be right on target. Water under the bridge and all that. His loss.
The burn of tears trickled down her cheeks, no doubt the result of all the dust she was stirring up. Ignoring them, she got busy. Never sure what she'd find, sometimes it felt like she was on a treasure hunt. From what she could see, today's boxes contained old Christmas decorations, some hand-embroidered table linens, and a set of canisters decorated with pictures of mushrooms done in shades of yellow, orange, and green.
She held up the smallest one and grinned. "You're all going in the donate pile for the quilting guild's garage sale. I'm betting someone will want to revisit the Seventies." The Christmas ornaments went in the same pile, but she set the linens aside to take downstairs to be laundered. Unlike the family photos, someone had taken the time to pin a note to each piece saying who'd done the embroidery and the approximate date it had been done. Even if Abby never had kids of her own, she did have some distant cousins who might like to have a piece of the family history to keep.
There was one thing she'd yet to find. Years ago, she'd come to spend most of a summer vacation with Sybil. The two of them had made a quilt top from clothing belonging to at least three generations of their family. Unfortunately, they'd run out of time before they could finish it. Sybil had promised to pick up where they'd left off the next time Abby came for a long visit. But upon returning home, she'd learned that her parents had filed for divorce. After that, thanks to the custody agreement, Abby had spent all of her summers with her father's new family in Oregon.
Any further visits with her aunt had been rare and too short to work on a major project like the quilt. Eventually, Sybil had promised to finish the quilt by herself, but it would still be Abby's someday. There were other quilts in the house that were nice, but she wanted this particular one because of the good memories that it represented.
Having completed her self-assigned number of boxes for the day, she dusted off her hands and stood up. Judging by the angle of the sun in the sky, she'd been up there for several hours. If that hadn't been enough of a clue about how much time had passed, the way her back and legs protested from all the bending and lifting would've also told her.
It took a few stretches to get everything loosened up and moving again. She turned off the lights and headed back downstairs with the box of linens. At least she and Zeke had taken their daily walk early that morning, so she could zone out on the sofa with a good book after dinner in good conscience.
"Zeke, I'll get you fed and then see what I can scrounge for my own dinner." He hustled ahead of her to assume position near the container that held his kibble. The phone rang just as she finished filling his bowl. She considered ignoring the call, knowing her friends and parents wouldn't use the land line. No doubt it was a wrong number or someone wanting to sell her something. On the other hand, most of Sybil's friends still used her number even though they wanted to talk to Abby.
She reluctantly picked up the receiver. "Hello."
As soon as she recognized the voice on the other end of the line, she wished she'd ignored the call. "Abby, this is Glenda. I meant to remind you about tonight when I was there earlier today. I'll pick you up at six-thirty sharp. We don't want to be late."
Late for what? Rather than admit that she had no idea what the other woman was talking about, Abby hustled across the kitchen to check the big calendar on the wall. Well, drat. How had she missed seeing the note about a meeting at city hall? Especially when Sybil had underlined it three times for emphasis.
"I can see that Aunt Sybil had intended to attend, Glenda, but I don't think I need to go to a city council meeting. I've spent the afternoon clearing out stuff upstairs, and I'm covered in dust. Besides, I haven't lived in Snowberry Creek long enough to be up on current events, so I probably wouldn't even know what they're talking about."
There was a heavy silence coming from the other end of the line.
"But you have to go, Abby. Everyone's expecting you."
A feeling of impending doom washed over her. She knew—just knew—she was going to regret this, but Glenda had left her no wiggle room.
"Okay, I'll bite, Glenda." She drew one deep breath and then another before she could gather up the courage to asked the one question she already knew she didn't want to have answered.
And just as Abby feared, Glenda shared the bad news.