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The Bantam Menace: Chapter 1

--by Kirsten Weiss

Chapter 1

“I said,” Arsen’s aunt Anabelle trilled, “there’s been a murder.”

I laughed weakly. “Excellent. Who’s been killed?”

We’d played a murder mystery game last weekend and had laughed until we’d cried. But with one week before the wedding, I was on a strict schedule. Time for more mystery games wasn’t on it.

“The… sofa,” she said, indistinct. Static crackled in my ear. Frowning, I swiped the butcher block counter with a yellow sponge. Phone reception can be spotty in Doyle. I’d tried three different phone services, and none were reliable.

“A furniture murder? That is a tragedy.” I gazed out the open window above the kitchen sink. Behind the roses, a crow hopped along the picket fence. Summer clouds floated above the western mountains.

So what if my eyes burned because the neighbor’s new rooster had been up before the dawn? The B&B’s kitchen smelled like bacon and coffeecake, and that was always a bonus.

Even better, in one short week, I would be marrying the perfect man. It put minor inconveniences in perspective, and warmth bubbled in my heart.

Her voice crackled. “—veil.”

My insides spasmed. “What?” I dropped the sponge on the counter. “Couldn’t your friend restore the wedding veil?”

Next Saturday I’d be wearing the vintage wedding gown that had belonged to Arsen’s mother. Luckily for me, his aunts had kept his mother’s wedding dress in storage. It was gorgeous and had fit me near perfectly. But the veil had yellowed. And I’d really thought it was fixable.

Arsen didn’t remember much about his parents. They’d died in a car accident when he was young. He’d been raised by his aunts Judith and Anabelle.

Considering how he’d turned out, I owed them. Big time.

I swallowed. “That’s all right,” I said. “I have an alternate.” The loss of the veil was disappointing, but I had two other veils in reserve. Because she who fails to plan, plans to have at least one wedding disaster.

“An alternative for what?” Anabelle asked.

“The veil,” I said patiently.

“Why are you talking about the veil? The veil’s coming along fine. But there’s been a murder. Honestly, Susan, I thought you’d take this better. You love murders.”

My heart beat faster. Obviously we were still talking about the mystery game, because no one loves murders. True, I’d solved several. Also true, the sheriff relied on my expertise. And I did get satisfaction from both. But love? Hardly.

“What exactly’s been murdered?” I asked, smothering my frustration. It was the twenty-first century. Why couldn’t someone improve mountain cell phone reception?

“Not what. Who. Or is it whom? Never mind. The police are here, and so is Arsen. He’s terribly upset. It was his old au pair, you see. She’s dead. Murdered. Really murdered, and—”

Sophie Gagnon? “I’ll be right there.” I disconnected, grabbed my purse off the table and raced for the kitchen door, my stomach hardening. A murder? Arsen’s old au pair?

Bailey yipped from his dog bed. I pivoted and grabbed my planners off the kitchen table. “Dixie will be here any minute,” I told the beagle. “I’m not sure when I’ll be back.”

Which just goes to show how rattled I was. It wasn’t the sort of detailed communication Bailey would understand. I checked my watch. Ten AM.

I raced through the swinging door and across the foyer’s faux-Persian carpet. My last paying guests before the wedding made their way down the green-carpeted stairs with their suitcases.

“Oh, hi, Susan,” the husband, a pleasant fifty-something said. “Do we need to sign anything to check out?”

I walked backward toward the front door. “Just leave the key cards on the desk. I’m sorry, there’s been an emergency, and I have to leave. I hope you had a wonderful stay.” I raced onto the Victorian’s porch, down the steps and to my Crosstrek.

Watching for neighbor kids, I backed from the gravel drive. School would have started by this hour. But it was late enough for the younger children to begin appearing with balls and tricycles. The court was empty, however, as I turned the small SUV.

Had I heard wrong? Was this all a terrible dream? I glanced at Wits’ End. Sunlight glinted off the UFO in its mansard roof. My departing guests peered curiously through the porch’s screened door.

A murder. My knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. Okay, I hadn’t planned for that contingency.

I glanced at the planners on the seat beside me. One was strictly for the wedding. The other was for life, and it contained a section specifically for murder investigations. I might not have a plan, but I did have standard operating procedures. And Arsen and I would figure this out together.

Forcing myself to keep to the speed limit, I drove up the pine-clad mountain. Arsen’s aunts lived in a mansion with a view of the Sierra lakes below. And no, I was not exaggerating when I described the place as a mansion. Not even a little. Arsen’s family was loaded.

I drove through the iron gates. At some point, the front lawn had been turned into a nine-hole golf course for Judith.

The aunts had recently updated the mansion, built in the fifties. But they’d kept the bones—the sloping roofs, the walls of windows, the stone base and wooden second stories. It was spectacular, but I was glad I didn’t live in it. Imagine the dusting.

Lights from law enforcement SUVs reflected in the home’s ginormous windows. A uniformed deputy walked toward my slowing car. He motioned for me to stop. I braked and rolled down my window.

Deputy Connor Hernandez leaned in. He adjusted the broad-brimmed hat on his curly, dark hair and grimaced. “Hey, Susan. This isn’t a good time.”

“Anabelle called me.”

He straightened and sighed. “All right. I guess you can go in.”

“Thank you.” Ha. Of course I could go in. Not only was I the sheriff’s best friend, this house belonged to my family. Or at least they’d be my family soon.

The driveway was packed with emergency vehicles. I turned off the ignition, jammed my planners in my oversized purse, and jogged toward the house. A deputy at the door eyed me but didn’t say anything as I hurried past.

The foyer was empty. It felt even emptier because it was so big, with stylized marble flooring. Wide floating stairs with modern metal railings led up to the second floor. A tiled walkway that looked like running water led toward the back rooms.

I glanced into the massive living rooms on the left and the right. They were spacious and silent.

Striding down the tile walkway, I moved to the back of the house. I am also not exaggerating when I say it took me several minutes and one wrong turn to get there.

Tall windows overlooked a rectangular swimming pool. Beyond it lay a pond dotted with granite boulders. A landscape of granite and pines and shimmering lakes sprawled in the distance.

On the patio, Arsen towered over his two aunts. His muscular arms cradled their shoulders. They watched sheriff’s deputies bustle about on the lawn below.

I slid open a glass door. The three turned at the sound. And though the Sierra air was the same as at Wits’ End, here it felt more rarefied.

Judith frowned at her sister. “You called Susan?” She gave her head a shake. The close-cropped, iron-gray hair didn’t budge. Judith’s face was angular. Her sporty, short-sleeved blouse revealed the sinewy muscles in her arms.

“Of course I did.” Anabelle, rounder and softer, her longish gray hair in a ponytail, hurried to me. We hugged. Her loose pink top didn’t match her cheerful yellow slacks. But the ensemble looked comfortable.

“One of Susan’s wedding guests was murdered,” Anabelle continued. “She had to know. And poor Arsen.” She stepped away from me and sniffed.

I took Arsen’s hand. “I’m so sorry.”

Pain creased his handsome face, tanned and square-jawed. He ran his other hand through his whiskey-colored hair. “I’m fine.” He wore a golf shirt with his security company logo on the breast. The outfit was as inoffensive as a salesman’s. But Arsen couldn’t help looking dangerous and masculine.

“What happened?” I asked.

Judith folded her arms. “I went for my after-breakfast walk at nine AM. After looping the golf course, I walked along the lakeview path. I found Sophie at exactly nine-twenty-three. She appeared to have been bludgeoned. She was dead.”

I pulled out my regular planner and made notes. Judith made an admirable witness—direct and to the point. “Bludgeoned with what?”

“No idea,” Judith said. “There were no obvious weapons nearby.”

“This explains why we didn’t see Sophie at breakfast this morning,” Anabelle said breathlessly.

“I called the sheriff’s department and secured the scene,” Judith said, brisk. “The first deputies arrived at nine-thirty two. Sophie was still wearing her clothes from last night.”

“We knew you’d want all the details,” her sister said.

I did want the details. But saying it out loud just made me sound nosy.

“Of course,” Anabelle continued, “this isn’t your usual sort of crime. It’s random.”

I shifted uneasily. “Was it random?” Did the sheriff already have a suspect? Arsen shot me a warning look.

“It must have been a hobo or tramp or something.” Anabelle motioned to a line of pines against a rise in the mountain.

“You can’t say hobo anymore,” Judith said sharply.

Her sister tucked her chin. “Can’t I? But it sounds so charming.”

“Not if the person’s a killer,” Judith said.

“Do you get a lot of, er, wanderers up here?” I asked.

Judith straightened to her full five-foot-nine-inches. “Certainly not. There’s nothing for them up here.”

“We did get that lost martial arts group last year,” Anabelle said. “They took a wrong turn on a trail and ended up in our backyard. They were doing a retreat.”

“They weren’t on a trail,” Judith said. “That was their problem.” She frowned. “Nice folks though. I’d imagine practicing hapkido on uneven terrain would level you up quick.”

“Oh, yes,” her sister said. “They were very apologetic.”

A diminutive woman in a sheriff’s uniform strode toward us across the lawn, and I stuffed my planner back into my bag. Curls of golden hair spilled from beneath the sheriff’s broad-brimmed hat.

Sheriff McCourt climbed the stone steps and stopped in front of me. She folded her arms. “Figures you’d show up.”

“But of course she’s here.” Anabelle beamed. “Susan and Arsen are going to solve the crime.”


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