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Authors: Darlene Franklin

Tags: #Mystery: Christian - Cozy - Amateur Sleuth - Oklahoma

Darlene Franklin - Dressed for Death 03 - Paint Me a Murder

BOOK: Darlene Franklin - Dressed for Death 03 - Paint Me a Murder
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darlene Franklin - Dressed for Death 03 - Paint Me a Murder
Dressed for Death Mysteries [3]
Darlene Franklin
Heartsong Presents (2015)
Tags:
Mystery: Christian - Cozy - Amateur Sleuth - Oklahoma
Mystery: Christian - Cozy - Amateur Sleuth - Oklahomattt
Two years have passed since the last murder rocked Grace Gulch. Life has settled down for the three Wilde sisters. The town is celebrating the opening of the MGM Center for the Arts with a clue-driven scavenger hunt, and newcomers have joined the community, including Cici’s mother-in-law, Gilda Howe.
Cici’s peace is shattered when an art studio burns down with a body inside. The missing artist quickly becomes the primary suspect because of his public breakup with the victim.
An old secret forces Cici to take up sleuthing one more time. Legends of buried treasure and rumors of drugs mix with jealousy as Cici looks into arson and murder. When she comes close to solving the puzzle, a second person goes missing—her little sister. Will she find her in time?

PAINT ME A PUZZLE

 

Book 3 of
Dressed for Death

 

By Darlene Franklin

1

 

If anyone had asked Bob Grace, or any of the others who took part in the 1891 land run, what “Grace Gulch Gold” was, they would have given you a simple answer: Oklahoma’s rich soil. Cowboys like Grace made numerous treks across the Chisholm Trail through Indian Territory. They lusted after the verdant grasslands, envisioning prosperous ranches and farms. From the white man’s perspective, the tribes did nothing to develop the area assigned to them. Now that the United States stretched from Maine to California, the Florida peninsula to the Pacific Northwest, the still land-hungry populace increased their demands that Indian Territory be opened to white settlement.

From
A History of Grace Gulch
[1]

 

Tuesday, September 12

Bile rose in my throat at the sight of the crowded street outside my store window. The last time this many people had gathered in downtown Grace Gulch at noontime, a man had died.

“I have a bad feeling about this.” My sister Jenna removed a blue feather bouffant confection from her golden head. She was hunting for the perfect hat to wear in the hubbub outside. “Mayor Ron is turning the opening of the Grace Gulch Center for the Arts into a circus with this treasure hunt.”

Jenna reached for a paisley print hat from the ’60s. As owner of Cici’s Vintage Clothing Store in Grace Gulch, Oklahoma, I kept my eyes open for unique headgear. Jenna
loved
hats.

“I think it might be fun.” I pushed the memories of Penn Hardy’s death during Land Run Days three years ago to the back of my mind. “The mayor would never have let me borrow Mary Grace’s garland for anything else.”

Not after what happened to Magda Grace Mallory’s pearl necklace.
I would never forget the way the pearls scattered around the town icon’s dead body two months before my wedding to Audie Howe. Two years had passed since the last murder, two blissfully peaceful years while I grew accustomed to life as Mrs. Audwin Howe.

Shortly after our marriage, my sister Jenna had moved back to run the visual arts portion of the Grace Gulch Center for the Arts. Ever since her return, I waited for the trouble that inevitably followed the sister I dubbed “Hurricane Jenna.” By now I had relaxed my guard. I had more important things to worry about—like the child growing in my womb, expected arrival in another six weeks, give or take.

“Oh, yes. The Grace Garland.” Jenna bent over the secure glass display case to study the object.

The “garland” was actually a locket attached to a chain fashioned to look like a vine. The locket was shaped like an open flower and dangled from a twined gold strand. Bob Grace, founder of Grace Gulch during the 1891 Oklahoma land run, had given it to his wife Mary.

The garland wasn’t the first item of historical interest that I had displayed, and of course I also sold antique jewelry. I loved to sell a bit of history with my merchandise; the stories behind the items often clinched a sale. When Mayor Ron Grace, Bob and Mary’s grandson, asked if I would display the garland for the duration of the town-sponsored event, I jumped at the chance.

Maybe the treasure hunt won’t be so bad,” Jenna conceded. “It has certainly captured everyone’s imagination. Who would have thought a lifetime family membership to the Center for the Arts would create so much interest?” She perched the paisley hat on her head. “I like this one. How much?”

“With your discount, thirty-five dollars.”

Jenna scrunched up her face. “I probably shouldn’t. Not after I bought those brown felt rabbit ears the other day.” She referred to a find from the ’30s that did indeed resemble rabbit ears. “Museum directors don’t make as much as art dealers. And we have even less power.”

I prepared myself for Jenna’s now-familiar lecture. When she accepted the position as the museum director at the proposed Center for the Arts, she hadn’t expected so much interference from the governing board.

I didn’t think it was so bad. My husband Audie, the Center director and her nominal boss, left her alone as much as possible. They conferred on budget issues and advertising, but he left decisions about acquisitions, exhibits and displays to her discretion. But I didn’t observe their day-to-day dealings, and I remembered how Audie tended to make one-sided decisions before our wedding. That, of course, had changed.

“Take their decision to have a mural painted on the side of the museum.” Jenna’s lecture had hit full stride.

“It’s very common. Look at the larger-than-life-size picture of Dick Tracy in Chester Gould’s home town, Pawnee. And you can hardly drive through a town in Oklahoma without finding at least one mural.”

“But how can anyone in the art world take the museum seriously
with a mural titled ‘Grace Gulch Gold?’ They didn’t even consult me about competent muralists.”

“Well, this Brad Merriman fellow comes with a good reputation. He’s even connected to the Graces.”

“Hmph. Black sheep
Larry
Grace’s great-grandson.” Jenna refused to let her bad feelings about the artist go.

“At least they didn’t choose the design submitted by local college students.” I added a dollop of humor.

“Dina doesn’t share your opinion.” Jenna sniffed.

Dina, my younger sister by adoption and Jenna’s birth daughter, didn’t think the decision was fair. “But Noah’s students are so
talented,
” Dina had protested. I could excuse her lack of judgment about the mural. She had recently started dating the community college professor. What bothered me more was the fact he was the same age as her mother; they graduated in the same high school class. But as an adult and recent college graduate, Dina had earned the right to make her own mistakes. She had returned to her job at the
Grace Gulch Herald
after finishing school.

“I could tell you a thing or two about Brad Merriman.”

Jenna had said that before, but refused to elaborate. Maybe her concerns were personal. Surely she would let the board know of any bad business dealing with him during her years in Taos, New Mexico.

“All I know is that he’s a stickler for authenticity,” I said. “He’s visited every nook and cranny of Grace Gulch, and he’s in here every day bothering me with questions like whether Bob Grace’s pants would have one or two buttons.” Junior kicked me in the ribs, and I yelped. “I don’t know why all pregnant women don’t turn black and blue, if all babies are as athletic as this guy seems to be.” I said “guy” although I refused to let Dr. Johnson tell me the child’s sex based on the ultrasounds.

“Maybe you are, on the inside.” Jenna grinned. “It will be worth it—”

“—when I hold the baby. I know.”

Jenna’s hazel eyes turned that greenish hue that told me she regretted her past mistakes. After giving Dina to our parents to raise when she was only fifteen, she never had another serious romance. A few dates with Gene Mallory when she returned to Grace Gulch hadn’t led to anything. She had paid a high price for her youthful indiscretion. Not that she was too old to have another child, but at thirty-seven, she no longer seemed to expect it.

The store’s grandfather clock chimed the noon hour, and Audie burst through the doors. “How are my girls?” He kissed me on the cheek. “And Jenna. How are you today?”

My girls
. He told me he expected a daughter, with the Wilde family history of three girls and no boys. He was an only child, with no brothers or sisters.

“A little tired.” I confessed. “Junior is doing his morning exercises.” I looked `down at the mound where my stomach used to be and watched a foot-shaped extension of my skin rise, then fall. I worried that my maternity clothes wouldn’t fit if the baby continued growing at this rate for another six weeks. Even my dependable faille jumper with adjustable waistline, an awesome vintage maternity find, might not last that long. Jenna and the doctor assured me that my worries were unfounded. I wasn’t so sure.

Audie looked over the hats Jenna had discarded. “Buy the paisley. C’mon, it’s time for the big announcement.”

Jenna shrugged and put the hat on her head. It did look very nice on her.

Audie took my arm and helped me out the door. I turned the sign to
closed,
in case anyone wanted to shop instead of listening to the mayor’s announcement, and joined the crowd on the sidewalk.

Several hundred people had gathered, everyone from Grace Gulch and a smattering of people from around Lincoln County. My old friend Cord Grace and his bride, police officer Frances Waller, stood in front of the Gulch, our local restaurant.

Dina had pushed her way close to the front of the crowd, camera and notebook ready to capture the event for the
Herald.
Since finishing college, she toned down her wild hair styles. Now she sported black hair with a single rainbow-colored streak.

Next to Dina waited Noah Brodie. He wore a long-sleeved shirt, a silly pretension in the Indian summer heat. The designer sunglasses he wore made better sense, but they couldn’t hide his scowl. Not only did Brad Merriman submit the winning mural design, beating out his entry, but now the town was celebrating it with a special event. Noah wanted that kind of publicity for his students. He wasn’t pleased, but I wish he would pretend for my sister’s sake. I wanted to like Noah. So far it was a struggle.

Jessie Gaynor had closed down her deli/bakery, Gaynor Goodies, for the Mayor’s big announcement. Her brother Ham waited with her. Gaynors didn’t like Graces very much, a feud stretching back to the day Bob Grace reached the gulch before Dick Gaynor; and Graces returned the favor. Like any good business woman, I stayed neutral. Jessie was charming, even if she did run the town gossip mill out of her store. We had become closer since she had taken my place on the Land Run Days committee. Ham was a different matter. His explosive temper hadn’t mellowed even though gray now streaked through his once-red hair. He was a few years ahead of Jenna in school. For some reason, cats adored him. A covey of three or four of them followed him wherever he went. Sure enough, I saw him scoop up a gray tom and pet him.

I checked the crowd for Ham’s ex-wife Finella, another one of Jenna’s classmates. Ham used any excuse to get close to her, in spite of divorce and restraining order. Even Jessie watched out for Finella. No one wanted anything to happen to the sweet-hearted woman who made a poor choice in marriage. I didn’t spot her.

Someone else was missing—the star of the hour—the muralist himself. I scanned the fringes of the crowd. My good friends, Enid Waldberg, our pastor’s wife, and Suzanne Jay, leading actress of the Magda Grace Mallory Theater (the MGM for short), had joined the group. Wilbert Murk, an entrepreneur who purchased the old Kirkendall place a couple of years ago
,
and built up a thriving smithy
,
lurked there as well. His wife Dustin, a beekeeper who sold honey at the smithy, must be close by. But I saw no sign of Brad. The man was missing in action.

Mayor Ron approached the platform from the direction of city hall. I could make out his progress by the sunshine glancing off his bald pate. He shook hands and kissed babies with his usual politician’s charm, but I noticed him glancing around for Brad. He stretched the two-block walk into twenty minutes. My feet hurt, and I couldn’t find a comfortable way to stand. Junior weighed heavily on my bladder.

“Want a chair?” Audie, ever attentive, offered.

I shook my head. These days, I couldn’t find a comfortable position sitting or standing. He handed me a cup of iced coffee instead. Jessie and Ham moved through the crowd, selling cold drinks. Smart move. I couldn’t mobilize my merchandise; but my maternity jumper was as good as a sandwich board for advertising my product.

At the base of the platform, the mayor paused one last time, looking for the still-absent star. He straightened his shoulders and climbed behind the mic.

“Good citizens of Grace Gulch and Lincoln County, thank you for joining us today. My late sister Magda Grace Mallory had a vision for making Grace Gulch the cultural center not only of Oklahoma, but for all of the West.”

He proceeded to tell the history. More than a century ago, his grandmother Mary Grace had built the Orpheum, and Magda had rebuilt it as the MGM. She brought in a promising young director, Audwin Howe, to manage the theater. At last, she had decided to build the Grace Gulch Center for the Arts that would hold not only the MGM, but also music facilities and a modern museum that would house the best of western art. Here the mayor pointed to Jenna, the director of the museum on the strength of her experience with the Taos art community.

I paid closer attention when he mentioned Brad’s mural. “Brad Merriman, a nationally recognized artist, submitted the winning design for a mural to be painted on the north side of the museum. He captures the people, landscape, history and culture of Grace Gulch in a unique way. In honor of his design, ‘Grace Gulch Gold,’ our town will hold a treasure hunt to celebrate the opening of the museum.”

At this, applause broke out among the crowd. The mayor had reached the reason for our gathering. “The hunt has a few simple rules. Questors may work individually or as teams, but they must register at the town library. Once they believe they have identified the solution to the first clue, they must find the person in charge of the correct location, quote the clue as presented to them, and ask for the item in question by name. For instance, if the clue is ‘deep waters’ and they believe it refers to the town pool, they would approach the lifeguard, and say ‘The clue is “deep waters.” May I take a dive at the deep end of the pool?’ The first questor to correctly identify the fourth and final clue will win. As you all know, the winner of the hunt will receive a lifetime membership to the Center for the Arts for his or her entire family.”

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