A Bittersweet Murder

by

Kaz Delaney

Everyone knows everyone in small town Airlie Falls, so where could the killer be hiding?

For one brief hour on a sunny Texas morning, amateur baker Rosie Hart glimpses the life she’s always dreamed about—thanks to a surprise inheritance from the late Miss Alice. But her benefactor is barely cold in the ground when Rosie is accused of her murder.

As the only stranger in the tight-knit Airlie Falls community, and the only person with an obvious motive, all eyes turn to Rosie. Especially when more bodies begin to pile up and mysterious letters from the grave start circulating faster than Rosie can pull a tray of cherry nut clusters out of the oven.

When Rosie begins to suspect the murders have links to a sixty-year-old suspicious death on the very property she’s just inherited, town locals become uneasy. But how can Rosie prove the two are related—and prove her innocence—before the killer strikes again?

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It was a funeral for two. One body, one mourner.

Some things are made for two; they’re comfortable—even desirable. Things like: tea for two. A tango. A tandem bicycle ride. A cuddle at a drive-in movie.

Funerals aren’t one of those things. Funerals are a celebration of life, a time for mutual comfort and support; a time for shared memories.

Generally.

The funeral of Miss Alice Auchinschloss was obviously the exception to that rule. And let me say, being the only graveside mourner leaves a chill inside that would take a whole lot more than a warm spring Texas morning to alleviate. Especially if that wasn’t what you were expecting.

I knew because that’s what I felt as I stood there alone that Friday morning, bidding my last goodbye to Miss Alice. Shock—and pain for her—had made my prayers for her safe passing more fervent. Well, at least when I wasn’t thinking dark thoughts about the people of her hometown. The ones who’d all found something more important to do that morning than giving an elderly lady a respectful send-off.

It was true that Miss Alice hadn’t been the most pleasant woman I’d ever met, nor the easiest client I’d cared for, but did that warrant their behavior? I felt I’d gotten to know her in the course of my work as a daily in-home companion, and yes, she was crotchety, but she was eighty-five years old, and I’d actually become quite fond of her. As weeks had turned into months that rapier tongue had lost some of its edge, and I put her initial mood down to the fact she’d just had enough of a life that hadn’t been as kind as it could have been.

And in my opinion that was a poor reason to ignore an old lady on her final day on earth.

She was the last of two family lines, and had been for some time. So I hadn’t expected any family to come to her funeral, but I’d hoped that some of the townspeople would see it in their hearts to send her off. But they hadn’t and so I’d stood alone next to Reverend Peatree, while the gravediggers lowered her coffin into the family plot under the branches of a sprawling oak tree.

I shivered as the sod hit the hardwood coffin, the sound echoing around a dark cavity that was as cold and empty as the chairs circling the grave.

The morning had challenged every assumption and belief I’d held about small-town life. Even though I was a relative newcomer to Texas having moved from Oklahoma, I thought I had a good idea of what it would be like to live in a small community like Airlie Falls. Blame it on all those cozy mystery stories I’d devoured, but when they’d described neighbors who cared for each other in a place where everybody helped everybody else—I’d fallen for it.

Sure, some of them murdered each other—but for the most part they knew you and you knew them and community trust meant no one locked their doors.

Which, come to think of it, was probably why they were easy to murder—but that was another point completely.

What’s more, I’d craved this small-town life. Not the murdering part of course—but that sense of inclusion; of being an integral part of something. And I’d read enough cozy mystery books to consider that I knew these places as well as the people who lived in these magical towns.

Well, so much for believing what you read in books because from what I could see all those authors had got it wrong. Airlie Falls in North Central Texas was nothing like that.

Maybe the good pastor had guessed it would be like this. Miss Alice had, surprisingly—and shockingly in one sense—left instructions that I should organize her funeral. Or more to the point, simply see to it that her wishes were carried out. She’d chosen the readings, prayers, and hymns. She’d not mentioned anything about serving refreshments, and as a love of baking had been one of the things we’d bonded over, I’d offered some options to the pastor. In response, he’d looked at me in an odd way, and then quickly told me not to worry, that his wife, Miz Peatree, would arrange something at the church hall.

Yet that morning when I’d arrived at the manse a few minutes early with two sour cream and peach cakes and a plate of candy bar cookies, Pippa Peatree had been really awkward about it. And as far as I could see, as I peeked over her shoulder, no other preparations had been made. That had surprised me. The Peatrees had seemed like good community people—just as I would have expected from the spiritual leaders of a small rural town. But even they didn’t seem to care about Miss Alice’s final farewell.

From what I could see it was obvious some kind of celebration was taking place, but that didn’t include any platters of food or preparations for a wake.

Of course, the puzzle was solved forty minutes later when I instructed the embarrassed minister to begin the service. A service for two—the deceased and her one mourner. And, I imagined, a whole flurry of family ghosts who held the family secrets. Because—and maybe I’d just read too many books—it was starting to appear to me that surely there was more to this situation than an uncaring community.

Afterward I thanked the pastor for the service—an impersonal mash of generic, haltingly delivered words—and taped hymns. And I was sincere. I could hardly blame him for not knowing her when I didn’t really know her all that well myself—nor the facts behind the day’s strange outcome.

But it still rankled that someone who’d lived such a long life—someone who’d surely left a substantial footprint on this world—should slip out so unnoticed. There must have been family stories. Adventures she’d had? The roles she’d played in the community where she’d lived her whole life? Her interactions in that community before she became too old and unwell to take a further role?

But there’d been none of that; no one to speak for her or tell those stories. And as I walked away, I knew no more about Miss Alice Auchinschloss than I’d known four and a half months ago when I was hired to be her daytime companion and caregiver.

The cemetery was quiet as I headed back to my car—save for the peaceful drone of local bees ransacking a grouping of huckleberry bushes, and the distant chug of a tractor going about its work. It might be early in the season but spring had well and truly rolled into town. Spring blossoms had arrived in an explosion of color and the air was fragrant, and warm against my face and arms. Had I not been swamped in misery and confusion, I would have found such peace in this setting.

That was another thing that made me sad. This pretty little town was a place that I would have happily called home; it had everything I had ever dreamed of. Quaint little stores, a town green, clean air and sunshine, and room to grow your own produce. A place where crafts and homemade were appreciated, and to prove it, there was a twice-monthly thriving Craft and Farmer’s Market that pulled interest from far and wide. Of course I’d assumed this came wrapped in all the hometown warmth of a Norman Rockwell painting. But now I knew how wrong I’d been.

I was almost at my destination when another vehicle crunched onto the gravel driveway and pulled up right beside mine in the otherwise empty parking lot. An older man—maybe in his mid seventies, balding and a bit paunchy—stepped out and looked over toward me. He was neatly dressed in a pale suit, white shirt, and a bolo tie held by a huge silver and turquoise slide. I paused. Had he come to say goodbye to Alice? My heart lifted a little as he pulled on a white Stetson and took determined strides to reach me.

His right hand reached me first. The left tipped the hat he’d just donned before dropping it back into position. “Miss Hart? Rosie Hart?”

I took his hand, and noted it didn’t have the work-roughened feel of a farmer’s, despite his well-worn boots. “Yes, that’s right. Have you come to pay your respects to Miss Alice? I’m afraid the funeral is over but her resting place is just over near that old oak tree.”

“Well,” he said pushing that hat further back on his forehead. “That’s partly why I’m here. I’d intended to get here earlier but I had a derned flat tire, and it cost me time. I expect it all went to plan? Ol’ Alice seemed to have it all laid out as she wanted it to be.”

His voice carried that rough cigar rumble and I found it oddly comforting in a grandfatherly way. Nodding, I said, “Yes it did. And you are… I mean are you a relative? Oh no wait, I’m sorry. Miss Alice told me she didn’t have any relatives so you must be a friend?”

“’Scuse my manners, young lady. My name is Hank Henderson, and I can’t rightly say I was Miss Alice’s friend, but I was certainly her lawyer.”

My heart sank. “Oh.”

His brow morphed into a mock frown. “You look disappointed. We lawyers aren’t all that bad you know.” There was a twinkle in his eye, and I could see kindness there that sat well with the rest of the image.

I sighed. “I’m sorry. I guess I was just hoping that some friends might have dropped by.”

For a moment, he said nothing. Just stared at me. Finally he said, “I can see you didn’t know all of Alice’s instructions for today. It was in the local paper, and of course the town gossip machine spread it to all corners of Airlie Falls but I guess that news wouldn’t have gotten to you. You see,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “Alice left a note with me to be delivered to the town paper, to be published when her time came. It was a notification of her death with the categorical instructions that no one from the town or surrounds was welcome at her funeral.” He cleared his throat. “I shouldn’t be admitting this, but I edited it a mite. She did go on to express her explicit—and unsavory—feelings about several of the townspeople and her general dislike of all of them. I removed that part. It didn’t seem to serve any good purpose to hurt people unnecessarily. They’re good people; they tried but she shunned them at every turn.”

“Oh.” It was the second time this man had rocked me off course this morning. Words wouldn’t come, which was odd because my head was reeling. Could I owe Airlie Falls an apology? Maybe I’d misjudged them… Perhaps the townsfolk hadn’t been as uncaring of one of their elderly members as I’d thought. Had it been the other way around? But she was an old lady. A lonely old lady. Why would she harbor such venom? Why even bother? Why expend that much energy? Unless it was what fueled her? Kept her going? But why? So many questions, but I seemed unable to make any of them into coherent, utterable sentences.

Hank Henderson took my arm and led me to a bench under another sprawling tree that, in its present state, my crazed mind couldn’t even identify. “Seems like you’ve had a bit of a shock. I’m sorry, Miss Hart, I figured you’d worked her out by now. Alice was a troubled lady. I tried to get her help many times, but that ornery old bat—’scuse me—would chase them off with her daddy’s rifle. That thing was so old everyone was terrified of it blowing up in her face as much as her being able to actually hit anything.”

“I don’t understand. I’m not sure why you’d even want to help her if she was so difficult…”

He fiddled with that hat again. “Well, it’s no secret and you’re bound to hear it sometime, but I was sweet on Miss Alice’s younger sister. Marion and I wanted to get married and have a family. Alice was older than Marion and their parents were elderly and needed care. And that derned Alice, she had such a guilt hold over poor Marion. Every time Marion got the courage, Alice’d somehow make her feel guilty for leaving her, and Marion would beg me to be patient a while longer. It should have worked itself out after the old folks passed, but still Alice manipulated Marion with guilt. This time it was for thinking about leaving her while they were still grieving. It always seemed to be something. Some reason… That went on for thirty years. I reckon in the end, Marion died of a broken heart. They called it cancer but I believe it came because she was so broken up. So torn between the people she loved.”

“That’s so sad! So you looked out for Alice because of Marion?”

He shrugged, his shoulders still powerful beneath his suit. “I might not have liked the old bat, in fact, I think I might have hated her, but I knew Marion would want to know someone was looking out for her. As much as Alice’d allow anyway. I gotta say I was surprised when she chose me to be her lawyer in the end. The family had dealt with some firm over in Dallas for years, but maybe she just figured I was closer, bein’ I’m the only lawyer in these parts.”

“Still, it’s so romantic that you would come today for the woman you loved.”

After sharing such a personal story, I wasn’t prepared for him to suddenly look embarrassed. “Well not exactly. In part yes. But also in part I’m here in an official capacity. I’m here to hand over the keys of Alice’s property and to talk you through a few things.” He took a lumpy envelope from his breast pocket and handed it to me. “Miss Hart, Rosie Hart? Miss Alice Auchinschloss has named you her sole heir. You inherited everything. The farm, all her belongings—and a substantial bank balance.”

I blinked. And blinked again. My head struggled to comprehend. Surely I’d misheard. Only one thing was certain: Hank Henderson had gone and done it a third time—I was completely speechless.

End of Excerpt

A Bittersweet Murder is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN: 978-1-956387-30-8

March 22, 2022

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