Arlene Swanson stepped off her patio into the grass. Moisture rising up between her toes and under her bare feet caused a smile to form on her lips. The well-worn path led her across the yard and into the honeydew melon patch. For nine of the past ten years she’d been the county Honeydew Queen, until last year when Myrtle Camp grew the biggest melon and beat her out of what would have been a decade long winning streak. Somehow she had to make sure it didn’t happen again. She was so close to carrying the crown for a decade and now she’d have to start all over.
Her honeydew patch was separate from the rest of her garden patches. It was her pride and joy. She stopped at the edge of her garden and enjoyed how everything glistened with dew first thing in the morning. She closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. It was part meditation ritual and part prayer before she stepped off into the fresh dirt. Her toes sank into the soft earth as she made her way through the patch checking on each melon. In her hand, she carried a peanut butter jar half-full of rubbing alcohol. If she found any unwanted insects, she’d plop them into the liquid. She didn’t mind killing them, but she refused to use chemicals on her gardens. It was time consuming to make her way through each row looking for intruders that could ruin a crop in a matter of hours. Squashing them with her hands could be quite messy, so she’d devised this plan of embalming them, so to speak. A soft giggle escaped her as she looked over towards Myrtle’s house and thought about putting some of the pests over in her garden. Myrtle wasn’t organic and used some pesticides, so the bug wouldn’t live long regardless. A frown crossed her face at the thought of losing her crown to someone who used chemicals. It wasn’t right. The contest should be based solely on organics. That was another reason she intended to win her title back. She was determined to get the whole county on board with organic gardening and she had a better chance and more pull if she continued to win Honeydew Crown each year.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a small rabbit hopping through her melon patch. “Little bunny, you know good and well you’re not supposed to be in here.” She gently waved her hands to shoo it away. “You get over there to the clover patch I planted for you and have breakfast there.” The small fuzz-ball twitched its whiskers at her and hopped off towards the tree line where a thick patch of clover was planted. It didn’t always work, but Arlene figured the best way to keep rabbits and deer out of her gardens was to plant them their own at the edge of the woods. She let them grow wild. Her whole yard was surrounded by wild gardens so the critters could help themselves. From time to time a young deer would make its way into her yard and main gardens, but for the most part, the outlying gardens did keep quite a few animals from munching on her flowers and vegetables.
After she’d finished getting the pests out of her melon patch, she glanced towards the property next door. Myrtle Camp, her biggest rival, was also her neighbor. There was a good fifty yards between the properties and a small wood line about half way between the two, but it was too close for Arlene. Looking down at the jar of bugs in her hand, she grinned and stuck her tongue out towards Myrtle’s place. She looked at her watch. “Dangit! I’m late.” It was already past seven in the morning. Peggy and Marnie would be waiting for her at the diner, but she wouldn’t make it on time.
Marnie and Peggy sat in Dottie’s Diner, Deli & Desserts, down the street from the Red Hat Bookstore, sipping coffee. The bookstore was Peggy’s pride and joy. The gals met at Dottie’s every morning during the week for coffee and breakfast.
Marnie glanced at her watch. “Arlene’s late.”
Peggy looked up from the book she was reading and glanced at her own watch. It read seven-twenty-five. “She’s not late, we’re early. We don’t meet until seven-thirty.”
Marnie’s face pinched. “Yeah, but we’ve always gotten here by seven-fifteen.”
Peggy looked at her. “It’s not time to worry yet, so stop it.” She sipped from her coffee cup and put her nose back in her book.
Marnie sat quietly with a section of fabric she was quilting on. She would hand-stitch hundreds of squares and then hand-stitch them all together. Her work was beautiful, a true work of art. She’d won many quilting contests in their small town over the years. Some of the younger seamstresses used machines for their quilting. Marnie secretly thought it was wrong, but she rarely said anything, unless one of those quilts won a contest over her hand-sewn items. She glanced at her watch again but didn’t say anything to Peggy. She let out a huff as she turned towards the door and then refocused her attention on her square of fabric. After three times of the same routine, Peggy pulled her eyes away from her book and looked at her watch. It was seven-forty. Arlene was always punctual. A pang ran through Peggy’s chest as she got the eerie feeling something was wrong. A look of concern crossed her face. Marnie took note of it. “Are you having a vision or something?”
Peggy shook her head, “No, just a slight feeling that something isn’t right.”
The diner door opened and they heard the soft ting of the small bell over it. Peggy let out a breath, “There she is.”
Arlene walked over to the table, flopped her big bag into an empty chair and plopped her backside into the remaining chair. She noticed Peggy and Marnie staring at her. “What?”
Marnie spoke first, “You’re late and Peggy was getting one of those premonition things.”
Peggy waved her hand in the air as Arlene turned to her and said, “I’m fine. Your little gut feeling was wrong.”
“I didn’t say a word,” Peggy huffed out. “It wasn’t a gut feeling, it was more like a chill, anyway. Chills don’t always mean something is wrong,” she said as she stuck her tongue out at her long-time friend.
Barbara, the waitress, walked over with a cup of fresh coffee for Arlene and pulled out her little order pad and started writing. She didn’t need to ask what they were having as the women always ordered the same thing, but she had to have it on paper to give to the cook. He couldn’t see the front except through a small window and had no idea who was in the diner ordering food.
Arlene looked up at her. “I want pancakes today.”
Barbara eyed her suspiciously as Marnie gasped and Peggy had a look of disbelief.
“You’re changing your order?” Marnie stated as much as she asked.
Arlene looked at her and laughed. “I am.” She looked at Peggy. “Maybe that’s what your chill was about.”
Peggy shrugged her shoulders, but a funny feeling washed over her. They were all set in their ways and rarely veered off course. Something didn’t feel right, but she blew it off. It was probably because this was just something out of the ordinary. They had all talked about making some changes in their lives. Perhaps Arlene was just leading the way. She looked at the waitress. “I’ll have pancakes too.”
Marnie’s mouth dropped open. “Are you two going crazy on me?”
Arlene let out a huff. “Lighten up, Marnie. It’s pancakes. For one day. The world isn’t going to end because of it.”
The waitress looked at Marnie. “Are you having pancakes too?”
“No. I’m having my usual. Someone needs to stay sane around here.”
Marnie ate her biscuits and gravy while eyeing Arlene oddly practically inhaling her pancakes. She only ate sweets when she’d been working extra hard, and it was usually at the end of the day, never first thing in the morning. Arlene had been awfully quiet all morning too. Marnie wasn’t a psychic or anything, but today Arlene just seemed off. She glanced over to Peggy, looking for some indication from her since she did have what they all considered some kind of premonitions, but she was enjoying her pancakes and didn’t seem bothered by the change in breakfast. She returned her attention to Arlene.
Arlene caught her staring. “You never saw anyone eating pancakes?”
“Well, you usually don’t have them for breakfast. What’s bothering you?”
Arlene put her fork down. “I’m just tired. Nanny goat has been sick and I was up half the night.”
Peggy raised an eyebrow. “You’re a night owl half the time and it never bothers you, so tell us what’s really wrong.”
Arlene grabbed her fork and pushed a bite of pancake around on her plate. “The honeydew contest is next weekend.”
Peggy reached out and touched her hand. “Are you that worried about it?”
“I am. I haven’t thought about losing in the past because I always won. Since Myrtle got it last year, I’ve been afraid she’ll out-do me again this year.”
Marnie looked up from her breakfast, “She has been boasting around town that she intends to keep the title.”
Peggy shot a look towards Marnie. Marnie crinkled up her nose. “Well, she has.”
“Yes, but this isn’t the time to bring that up. Arlene needs our support and encouragement.”
Arlene stood up and grabbed her big handbag. “It’s okay. I need to go get the fruit stand open. I don’t have time to sit around here and pout about it.” She pulled a ten-dollar bill out of her back pocket and threw it on the table before turning and heading towards the door, her flip-flops making flop-flop sounds against her feet as she walked. “I’ll see you two later.”
Peggy looked at Marnie. “This was not the time to be the objectionable one and bring up Myrtle and her big mouth. Arlene has enough to worry about.”
“You’re right. I guess I thought it might rile her up and make her determined to win.”
“Well it’s not like it’s a contest of wits. Arlene would win for sure. The only thing she can do is hope she grows the biggest melon, since that’s the only criteria for this so-called queen thing.”
“You still think it’s silly?”
“Yes, but that’s beside the point. We need to keep Arlene’s spirits up, otherwise neither of us are going to want to be around her for a while.”
Marnie let out a sigh remembering how long it took Arlene to get over last year’s loss.”
Peggy stood and grabbed her cup of coffee, “I’m ready to get to the bookstore where things are normal.”
“Yes, I need to get to the office and tie up loose ends since it’s Friday,” Marnie replied as she grabbed her things. Both ladies threw a five on the table to cover their breakfast and coffee.
Myrtle Camp arrived home late in the day after spending most of her day in meetings with the Community Land & Streetscape Committee, a committee set up for community improvements. She was tired after having to argue her points all day. It’d been an extremely hot day with the sun feeling as if it wanted to scorch everything in sight. Her only highlight of the day was getting home to check her garden and picking some fresh vegetables for a cool salad. She entered her home and dropped the daily mail on the side table at the front door. As she headed to her bedroom, she looked into the den and saw her nephew glued to his laptop computer with the television set on full blast. Some action game was blaring explosions and gunfire. She huffed out a long breath and decided she didn’t want to deal with his worthless hide at the moment. She simply wanted some peace and quiet. It was bad enough having to deal with the rhetoric of the town’s people, she had to come home and have her ears accosted by craziness.
Her brother had called her at the beginning of summer to see if his oldest son could stay with her for a while. He was bright, good with computers and seemed to be a whiz on social media, but as far as she could see, he was only slipping into worthlessness more and more each day. He’d helped her learn how to use some social media sites for some of the town functions. He worked on those for her, but the daily work only took him a few minutes to complete. At one point, he took some interest in gardening, but soon gave up the hobby and spent most of his days watching TV and surfing the net. She was actually glad he’d given up the interest. The young man tended to mess up more stuff than he ever helped her with. He was a total klutz when it came to walking down garden rows. Every day he’d step on a new plant and ruin it. She finally suggested he find a hobby more suited to him. Apparently, he discovered that wasting away in front of the boob-tube was it. She shook her head as she passed by the den again. He was completely unaware that anyone else was in the house. He would be no help if an intruder ever broke in.
Myrtle changed into her garden clothes and headed to the back door of her home. She loved being with her plants at the end of a long day. She loved the quiet solitude and the fact that plants never argued back. She prided herself on the stock she grew. She even sold some of it to Arlene’s vegetable stand. Arlene wasn’t overly happy about it, but they’d agreed that Myrtle’s produce would be put on a special table because it wasn’t completely organic. It was actually Marnie who put the deal in place. She could be somewhat of a pushover and wanted everyone to simply get along, so Myrtle often went to her when she needed something done concerning Arlene or Peggy. She was also the county extension agent, so that didn’t hurt matters either. Arlene, on the other hand, was Myrtle’s direct competition in the honeydew contest. They could be friendly when times called for it, but mostly they were head-butting rivals in everything they did for the community. Myrtle was still happy to be able to sell some of her vegetables in Arlene’s fruit stand. The local town’s people seemed to enjoy it. Of course, she had to listen to Arlene complain about pesticides and chemically altered plant foods every time she dropped a load off.
Myrtle opened the back door and stepped out onto her sun deck. “Oh no!” She gasped, clutching her chest as she looked out at her prized honeydew patch. It was destroyed. The leaves had browned and curled during the day. She ran to the patch and looked around. The sun had been brutally hot, but she took measures to prevent burn up. She checked her irrigation system. Everything was working fine, best she could tell. Why was the ground moist but the leaves had parched so quickly?
She stood in the middle of the parched plants with her hands on her hips and her mouth hanging open. She pulled her hands to cover her face and started to weep. She pulled her hands down to look again, hoping it was a bad dream. She looked around and noticed Arlene’s goat in her squash patch. The word sabotage came to her mind. Surely Arlene wouldn’t stoop to such measures.
She made her way over to the goat and grabbed it by the collar. The goat protested, but didn’t put up too much of a fight. She cursed at the goat. “Did your owner do this to my garden?” she asked as she pointed to the honeydew patch. The goat simply neighed. “My heavens, I’m talking to a goat now.”
She started pulling on the goat so she could take it home and confront Arlene about her dying plants and not keeping her goat locked up like she’d promised to do. The goat was stubborn and didn’t want to move. Myrtle felt the anger rise up. She was madder than a wet hen.
She tugged a little harder on the goat’s collar, but the goat grew restless and began bucking and kicking. “What’s gotten into you? You old goat! Stop being so dang stubborn.” Myrtle tried to grab on with both hands, but the goat slipped from her grasp. She reached for the collar again, but all she could get a hold of was the goat’s tag. It snapped off in her hand. Myrtle stood there holding the tag, shocked at the behavior of the old nanny goat. Myrtle didn’t like her, but she’d never seen the goat act that way. Her heart jumped as she heard a noise behind her. She spun around to see what was going on. She grabbed her chest, “My lands, you scared me. What do you want?”
On Saturday morning, Peggy pushed around a box of used books that had been delivered Friday evening. Marnie was up front tidying the store and dusting off displays. Marnie came in to help Peggy with the store on Saturday since the County Extension office was closed on weekends. During the week, she studied soil samples and helped the community identify pests and other problems in their yards and gardens. She enjoyed the book store more, but she wasn’t up for full retirement for a while. She heard Peggy squeal and ran to the back of the store to see what was happening. She found Peggy sitting on the floor with her legs wrapped around the box of books. She was holding one in her hand and had a look of amusement on her face.
“What’s the matter?”
Peggy flashed the book towards her. “The Beast of Boggy Creek came in.”
“Is that the one you’ve been waiting for?”
“Yep. Don’t let Arlene know I have it yet.”
“Why? She’s the one that supposedly saw one of the creatures.”
“I want to read it first, and if she gets her hands on it, it’ll be a week before she brings it back.”
“Got cha’.” Marnie said as she walked over to look at the cover. “Do you think it was really a bigfoot creature she heard?
“I don’t know. I know she heard something she’s never forgotten, and it still shakes her to the core,” Peggy replied as she got up and put the book in her bag before returning to the open box on the floor and pulled out more books.
Marnie leaned against the bookshelf. “Her mood is starting to bother me. She wasn’t in any better mood this morning than she was yesterday when she ordered pancakes for breakfast.”
Peggy looked up at her, “Yeah, that’s been on my mind too.”
“It’s not like her to keep things in or to not get over whatever is bothering her pretty quickly.”
“I know, but she’ll come around. Don’t worry about it.” Peggy said, although she knew Marnie would probably worry herself sick about it. She wasn’t too fond of change or people acting out of sorts. She liked things very routine and everything in order.
Marnie headed to the front of the store and began tidying up the hand-sewn quilted book bags she made and sold through the bookstore. They had been a big hit. Many people started asking for larger bags to use for shopping or produce bags over at Arlene’s fruit stand. She sold a few of the larger bags at the store, but most of her stock was sold at Arlene’s. People had started buying them for gifts, too.
She looked towards the back of the book store. Peggy would be lost in that box of books for a while. She grabbed a feather duster to kill time. She did her best thinking while her hands were busy and she had to come up with a logical explanation as to why Arlene had been acting so distant and strange. Could it be she was just uncertain of herself and the honeydew contest that was coming up? Arlene had never had low self-esteem before. It was very strange that she’d suddenly develop it. There must be something more going on that she wasn’t telling her two best friends about.
Happy with the dusting, she sat down behind the counter and pulled out her sewing supplies. She needed to finish up two bags by the end of the day that had been specifically ordered by patrons. She sat back in the rocking chair and began her needle work.
Half an hour later she heard the police car siren go speeding by. She looked up and noticed junior deputy Scotty Bradley was in an awful hurry to get somewhere. Peggy came from out of the back of the store and looked out the windows, “What was that all about?”
Marnie put her sewing down and stood up to look out as well, “I don’t know. It’s been awhile since little Snotty—” She paused, “I mean Scotty. I need to be nicer about calling him his rightful name. Anyway, it’s been awhile since he’s had any excitement and been in a hurry to get anywhere.” She turned to Peggy, “I hope no one is hurt or in serious trouble.”
“Me too, but it’s probably nothing. You know he gets excited when it’s been quiet around town. It’s probably a cat up a tree or something like that.” The two women giggled.
Peggy turned to head back to the box of books. An uneasy feeling washed over her, similar to the one she’d had in the coffee shop the day before. She started to turn and tell Marnie about it, but decided there was no sense in getting her upset. She was already in worry mode and knowing her little semi-psychic intuition had kicked in wouldn’t help matters.
She grabbed the feather duster and decided to keep herself busy dusting off the books and shelves. The tiny inkling in her gut wouldn’t stop like it had before. Something was probably wrong in their community, but she couldn’t sense that it was anything major. Of course, her so-called gift had been wrong before. It was often hit and miss, although Marnie and Arlene thought it was spot on more than she did. She stood, dusting a shelf in a hap-hazard manner, when movement caught her attention. She cut her eyes over to see Marnie had walked up and was staring at her. She turned to face her, “What?”
Peggy waved the feather duster in the air. “I’m sure it’s nothing serious. We both know Scotty is a punk kid and makes situations out to be more than they actually are. He just needs some excitement.” She turned to dust the shelf.
“What I’m talking about is you.”
Peggy looked at her, “What do you mean? I dust all the time.”
“Yes, but you never dust the same shelf five times unless something is niggling at you. And I already dusted that shelf, so what’s up?”
Peggy walked around to the other side of the bookshelf, wanting to avoid the conversation. She knew it wouldn’t work and Marnie followed right along behind her. She turned to see Marnie standing with her hands on her hips and her head cocked sideways.
“Okay, it’s just a little feeling like I had yesterday.”
“You said that was nothing. Why is it bothering you today?”
Peggy blew her bangs out of her face with an over-exaggerated breath, “Because today the feeling won’t go away.”
The bell over the door jangled more loudly than someone casually entering the store. The girls hurried up front to see who had entered. Carol Hanes, the owner of the town’s favorite beauty shop, Pamper Me, stood in the doorway, out of breath and clutching her chest. “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it!” Her words came out choppy as she gasped for breath.
Peggy and Marnie quickly went to her, one on each side to hold her up. “What’s happened?” Peggy asked.
“You won’t believe…oh, it’s just awful.”
The girls helped her over to a seat by the window. “Tell us what’s going on.” Marnie said as she eased the woman down into the chair.
Carol shook her head and put her face in her hands, “It’s tragic. And they’ve arrested…” Her voice trailed off as she covered her face with her hands again.
Peggy squatted down in front of her, pulled her hands to her lap and looked her in the eyes. “Carol, calm down and tell us what has happened.”
Carol looked at her. “Myrtle Camp is dead. She was murdered.”
Marnie let out a gasp. She and Peggy looked at each other. Both of them had that look in their eye when they knew Peggy had felt something hinky about town earlier that day.
Carol was sobbing. “That’s not the worst of it.”
Marnie sat in the chair beside her and put a hand on her leg to console her. “What could be worse than murder?”
Carol looked at her, tears running down her face. “They’ve arrested Arlene Swanson for it.”