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Perfect for Framing
Returning for a second suspense-filled mystery, Jemma Chase and Detective Tucker find themselves embroiled in a Property Owners Association power struggle. When a simple break-in escalates to murder Detective Tucker finds suspects aplenty from POA president Petula Windsor's files, leading him to suspect the victim of blackmail. Tucker tries his best to keep Jemma's interest at bay, but when the president’s husband is found dead and Tucker's life is jeopardized, Jemma won't be stopped until she finds the murderer.
Are you tired of crowded highways, expensive gas and no adventure in life? Perfect for Framing is an easy read for pure escapism to the mountain vacation town of Boone, North Carolina.
"Maggie Bishop delivers a thrilling whodunit, peppered with lovable characters and set against the beautiful backdrop of the mountains of North Carolina. Breath-taking action and nail-biting suspense, a twisting plot that guarantees constant speculation, this is one book that will have readers quickly turning pages, eager to find out what happens next. Highly recommended." --Christy Tillery French, Midwest Book Review
"Find yourself a cat or two, a comfy couch, and some time alone, then settle in for a story that is as deftly crafted as Jemma's cabinetry, and entertaining as Tucker's bemusement when Jemma gets it right -- again!"
-- schuyler kaufman, Carolina Mountain Life
Perfect for Framing
by Maggie Bishop
Petula rose from her lover’s bed, paraded naked to the vanity mirror, and finger combed her hair so it fell over one eye.
“Your bruises are almost gone,” the man said.
She smiled at him then studied herself in the mirror. “The lipo doctor did a thorough job. He took six pounds and three inches off my mid-section. I wish these numb spots would go away.”
“Give it time, Pet. Your face is almost healed.” He propped himself up with her pillow and reached for his cigarettes.
“I hope I’ll look better than this soon,” Pet said, still studying herself in the mirror. “I thought you gave up those things.”
“After this one. I’m down to a couple a day. Besides, you said the same thing after your face lift – no more plastic surgery.”
“A lady has a right to change her mind,” she called as she stepped into the shower.
By the time she was dressed and had put on makeup, he had his jeans back on. “I’m still mad you let someone buy that lot I wanted to build on,” he said as she emerged from the dressing area in her guest house. He pulled on a crumpled polo shirt.
“Don’t you worry. I’m in the perfect position to make their lives miserable. Didn’t I make it too tough for the last owners to build? I wasn’t President of the POA a couple of years ago when you wanted to put your modular on that lot. Now I have the other homeowners in my grip. If you can’t build there, no one can.”
He dropped the butt into the beer can and hugged her, resting his chin on her head. He said, “Revenge can be so sweet. Maybe you can bankrupt the POA with a lawsuit.” He let her go and sat down to tie his sneakers. then asked, “What are you doing with that situation with your husband? Any progress?”
“Don’t you worry about that either. I’ll end up with the house and a big alimony settlement. Then it’ll be just the two of us.”
“That’s outrageous even for Madam President,” Karen said into the phone. “She’s going to get herself killed one of these days. Come to think of it, that might be a relief to a lot of us.”
At the mention of a murder, Jemma’s measuring tape clattered to the floor as she stared at her customer. Jemma Chase wasn’t eavesdropping, exactly.
“She must be getting a kick out of playing god again, lording over your land, teasing you with delays. The power-hungry little demon. Murder by hanging would be too easy for her.” Karen Harmon grinned into the telephone. After a moment she laughed, then said, “Maybe she could be in a horrible car accident, complete with head through the windshield, destroying the doctor’s latest work. Would serve her right for using a Florida plastic surgeon who gave her that uneven hair line.” Karen glanced at Jemma who quickly closed her mouth. Karen winked before continuing her phone conversation. “She deserves a spike through her heart, if she had one, the petty power abuser. She has the sculpted look of a cemetery angel and the attitude of a pit bull. There’s not enough Botox and filler in the world to plump up her shrunken heart.”
Karen snapped her gum as she hung up the phone. “Our illustrious POA President is at it again,” she said to Jemma. “Honey, give a petty person a little power and they’ll abuse it every time.”
Jemma nodded and retrieved the tape measure, her dream of playing CSI faded. Her fantasy of being a Crime Scene Investigator wouldn’t bring in money, only trouble, as Detective Tucker was so fond of pointing out. This energetic little lady wanted more cabinets and a breakfast bar in her kitchen and Jemma was eager to use her carpentry skills on something besides decks and porches.
“You don’t live in Hickory Hills so this doesn’t matter to you,” Karen dropped her wrist and snapped her gum, “but Mrs. POA Windsor has started to make building a new home in our subdivision a nightmare. Just living near her sets my pulse racing like Junior Johnson with a load of moonshine, or like Ringo on steroids.” She laughed at her own joke.
“Ringo Starr?” Jemma re-measured the space to re-direct attention to the work at hand. She chomped at the bit to get on with the task at hand. Carpentry and photography had been occupying her time during the ranch’s off season, but she still managed to ride her horse Brandy most evenings.
“They were before your time. Come to think of it, they were before mine.”
“What’s a POA for anyway?”
“Property Owners Association. This one started at fifty dollars a year to plow the roads after snow storms and for re-graveling in the spring. We’d have a pot-luck lunch in the spring and a quick budget review in December. That was it.”
“When the original president died and the treasurer moved away three years ago, nobody wanted to do the little work that was involved, including me. We had a house plan review board but the only things we enforced were minimum square footage and no trailers. Later that was expanded to keep out modular homes. Petula agreed to be president and we were happy that someone cared enough to volunteer.”
“And now? How did she get elected more than once if she’s so hard to deal with?”
“Petula charms the men and talks of increasing home values. They love being on her board and don’t miss a meeting. She’s the only woman on the board, a mistake we women hope to remedy at the meeting coming up. She turned our friendly mountain into her own soap opera, staring herself. Maybe she was never in charge of anything before and this makes her feel powerful. Honey, even her husband stays out of her way in POA matters. He’s never even attended a meeting since she took over. My guess is that things are calmer at home if he lets her loose on us. Of course I don’t let my husband attend the meetings, either – our home is certainly calmer if he stays away. Anyway, lately she’s been pushing for a special assessment of seven thousand dollars per owner to pave the road. That’s a shopping trip to her but a lot of cash to most of us.”
About twice that of her own savings account, Jemma thought. “The road is fine to me even with the couple inches of snow we got yesterday.”
“Right, honey. She claims safety issues, as if the fire department or the sheriff couldn’t travel almost as fast on the gravel we have. We have snow plowers on contract. Her latest focus is for houses in here to befit her image as mistress of the mountain.” Karen emptied an ash tray with a single butt into the trash can. “My husband still has one after we cuddle, if you know what I mean.”
Jemma nodded and tapped the paper with her pencil as a signal she wanted to get back to work. As she looked down at the tiny woman, she wondered if Karen knew her hair had a flat spot right on top.
“She’s turned down Ann’s plans again claiming they don’t meet the square footage – but they do. The plans are for twenty-six hundred square feet and the POA minimum is for twenty-two hundred. She can’t change the requirements until they are voted on at the meeting in two weeks.” Karen opened the refrigerator and pulled out a diet soda. “Want one?”
Jemma shook her head. “The romance of living in these mountains includes live and let live, rugged individualism and all that. How does she get away with playing with people?” Jemma tugged on the flannel shirt she’d found in the men’s section of the thrift shop. Blouse sleeves were always too short, same with pant legs.
“You’ve never met Petula Windsor, have you?” Karen poured the soda in a glass and took a big swallow.
“No, the name’s not familiar.” A development had to have a strong grapevine. Doing a good job for Karen could boost her reputation for carpentry work.
“Her husband is Ward Windsor, the Executive VP at Allgoode bank. They moved to town fifteen or sixteen years ago. This’ll be her third year as POA President. She’s an agitator, likes to keep things stirred up. She treats us like we’re her hive and she’s queen bee. Honey, she’ll get stung one of these days.” Karen’s eyes widened at her own pun, then she tittered. “Anyway, she complained about people dumping grass clippings and leaves in the woods behind their own houses, oh, and a man walking his dog on a leash before eight in the morning. Now she’s bugging an owner wanting to build on the lot across the street. That’s my friend, Ann. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Jemma gave up on rushing her customer. Karen led Jemma to a picture window in the living room, which had a view of the neighboring snow covered ridge through the leafless trees. That view could disappear if a house were built directly across the road. If the house were set to the left, though, where there was already a clearing, Karen would still see for miles.
“See where they’ve cleared the trees? Madam President even complained about that. She ran off the contractor and slapped a law suit on the owner. That law suit could cost the POA tens of thousands of dollars if it goes to court.”
“Can’t the other property owners do anything about her?”
“Short of murder?” Karen again snapped her gum. “I’ve been making good use of talking while shopping with some of the wives. Surprises may be coming Petula’s way at the meeting.”
“Whose property is it?” Jemma looked across the road at the lot and the relatively level spot for a house, an usual occurrence in the mountains.
“Ann Dixon, she was behind me at Watauga High by uh, a couple of years. “She always was a feisty little girl.” Karen told Jemma about the June meeting.
“She knocked her down? A grown woman?”
“Petula would have called the police, but enough of us saw her grab Ann’s arm – and the marks her nails left – that she didn’t dare. I called it self-defense.”
“So, the trouble-maker has met her match?” Jemma grinned, enjoying the mental image the China Doll up against the Mountain Woman on one of Alma’s WWF TV shows.
“Not as a brawler. Ann owns Perfect for Framing, an art gallery in downtown Boone, she promotes local artists and photographers. One of her clients had a photo on the cover of Our State magazine.”
“Photography.” Jemma tapped the paper again. “I’ll have to visit the shop. I take a few pictures myself.” Great idea. She hadn’t thought of putting her photographs up for sale anywhere besides the family guest ranch. Suppose her photos were seen by an influential person, a celebrity. Her reputation could grow, she could be asked to do photos for National Geographic or Atlantic magazines. She could be paid to travel...
“Yes, do visit the gallery. You’ll like Ann, I promise.” Karen glanced around as if just realizing she had been holding up the project. “Thank you for agreeing to build these cabinets on such short notice.” Karen walked back to the kitchen. “Your Aunt Alma said you worked in the cabinet business before moving here.”
“It’s been a while since I’ve built anything requiring finesse but don’t worry, it’ll all come back to me.” What was she thinking? Working with wood was her primary interest, or was it solving crimes? What happened to the application she’d submitted to the Watauga Sheriff’s Department last week? How long does it take to process an application? When would she be called for an interview? Would Tucker, some called him her detective, give a good recommendation? Ti-ti-tat went her heart when she thought of him, even after three months of long phone calls and weekend dates.
“Are you sure?” Karen asked with a touch on Jemma’s arm and Jemma realized she had been daydreaming. “Alma can be pretty persuasive.”
“That she can be. But I can handle it, really. Alma said you wanted the new cabinets to match what you already have.”
“That’s right. These cabinets were custom-made when we built the house, and I love them. But now I want an island separating the work space from the eating area and a matching corner cabinet in that wasted space by the door, and the craftsman who made them isn’t available.”
“Are these antique glass for the corner cabinet?” Jemma knelt and examined two heavy panes of beveled glass leaning against the wall.
“Maybe not antique, but they are for the corner cabinet. Ann found them in the framing shop when she rented it. We were talking about what I’d like to do with this room and she gave them to me.”
“She’s a good friend.”
“She certainly is, so it just make me mad to see her treated this way by Ms Petula President.” Karen snapped her gum and ran a hand down the door of one of the upper cabinets. “This is special heritage wood. Do you think you can get the same thing?”
Jemma pulled open one of the drawers and peeked underneath at the back of the drawer front. Oak with a clear finish was attractive and durable, but not hard to duplicate. The style was very plain, what some might call ‘Shaker’. “I’m sure I can. I recognize it. The style is something I can handle too.” Jemma cleared her throat. “If you want to think about it, I can come back another time. There’s no obligation, just because you know Alma.”
“No, no. I’m sure you’ll do fine,” Karen said without hesitation.
“When do you want me to start?”
“Now. Honey, the sooner the better. I want to have a celebration on December 31st.”
“To ring in the new year?”
“More than that. I’ve invited the whole subdivision, excepting one or two, if you know what I mean. I’ve something in the works to stop Petula Windsor. Keep your fingers crossed.”
Jemma drove the Blue Falls Ranch pickup out of Hickory Hills, the subdivision located three miles from Boone in North Carolina, and flipped up the heat dial to maximum on this clear cold day. She turned right onto the winding road that made it impossible to reach the fifty-five mile-an-hour limit even without the snow, drove around the mountain past neat rows of Christmas trees and turned right again onto a twisting, uphill gravel road.
She parked before an old cabin; her fingers reached for her camera before she thought. Stacked firewood took up one end of the covered porch. Icicles hung from the roof like fringe on a shawl of snow. Ahh, but she wouldn’t invade the privacy of her aunt’s friend. She put down the camera and left the warmth of the truck cab. Her boots crunched through the quarter inch of crust atop yesterday’s snow. Each boot fall crackled like a bite into burnt toast. Crumbs of ice sparkled and scattered and slid down ahead of her sometimes careening off blades of dried grass or downed limbs poking above the white slope. She had only reached the first step when a white-haired, wrinkle-faced little woman came out to the top step vigorously motioning her inside. This was the eighty-seven year old widow Aunt Alma told her to visit?
“Come on in, child. It must be freezing out here.”
Jemma ducked and followed her into the living room dominated by a wood stove. A low ceiling, well-worn furniture and eighty-degree heat greeted her. She unzipped her thick jacket and stuffed her gloves into the pocket. “This home was built in the early 1900s, wasn’t it?”
Lottie Miller gestured to an overstuffed chair while she sat herself in an ancient rocker. “My daddy built it hisself. It war a wedding present for my momma. When they passed on, my Warren and I moved on in. He wasn’t much taller than me so we didn’t mind the low ceilings. Saw you flinch a mite when you came in.” When Lottie smiled, her eyes almost disappeared into her cheeks.
“You don’t miss much. At six feet, I automatically duck down. These six and a half foot ceilings are rare these days.”
“Want some coffee? It’ll only take a minute.” Lottie grabbed the arms of her rocker, ready to pop up.
“No, thank you. I had plenty at Alma’s earlier.”
She kicked the floor to start rocking. “She called yesterday and said you was interested in my Warren’s workshop tools?”
“Yes, ma’am. I hope this isn’t too soon.” And that the tools aren’t worn out, she added silently.
“It’s been nearly a year.” Lottie looked down at her hands. “Alma said I got to do something about his shop.” She glanced at Jemma then studied her old wedding band. “What did you have in mind?”
“I’m a cabinet maker without a workshop. When Alma told me that his tools and shop were collecting dust instead of sawdust, I thought about renting it.”
Lottie let out a slow breath. “I was afraid you wanted to buy everything and move it. I’m not sure I could do that just yet.” She giggled a bit. “Let’s go on out to the shop. I reckon it’ll be cold, so I best get my coat.”
Jemma helped Lottie into her coat and followed her out the front door.
“My Travis shoveled the snow off this walk afore work this morning.” A dozen mounted deer racks hung on the side of the shed, a horseshoe with the ends up was nailed above the door. “That’s to keep evil away.”
“I heard that a horseshoeing Catholic Saint held the devil captive until he agreed never to enter a place where a horseshoe was displayed.”
“So that’s where my story came from.” Lottie gripped a metal handrail that trailed from the house to the workshop. “My Warren put in this railing for me a couple of years before he died.” She opened the door and flipped on the lights. The fluorescent lights were dim, to be expected in cold weather.
Jemma walked the perimeter of the shop. A table saw and planer dominated one corner. Work benches held all kinds of toys from routers to air gun attachments to sanders. Jemma’s heart beat fast but she merely said, “He used this shop a lot, didn’t he?”
“Not so much in his last years.”
Jemma nodded, playing the negotiation game. “Most of this is well over twenty years old. Mind if I try out some of it?”
Lottie went to the scrap wood pile, grabbed a piece and handed it to her. “Have at it. Take all the time you need. I’ll be back where it’s warm.” She was out the door at once.
Jemma plugged in pieces of equipment and cut, sawed and drilled until she was satisfied that most of it still worked. It was worth well over five hundred a week to rent but she couldn’t afford that much. She’d let her excitement at doing cabinet work get ahead of her sense, not for the first time.
Jemma knocked on the cabin door and welcomed the warmth after a half hour in the cold workshop.
Lottie joined her in the living room bearing a tray of hot tea and cookies. “Here, drink this. It’ll warm your insides. I baked these molasses-oatmeal cookies yesterday.” After setting down the tray, she added a couple of pieces of wood and a pinch of salt to the wood stove. “Keeps the ghosts away.”
Jemma warmed her hands around the mug and sat. “How do you know Alma anyway?”
“Let me see. I guess I first met her at one of the places she used to cook at. But now, we talk regular at the UFO meetings.”
“A sister believer.” Jemma put down the mug, took off her jacket, and settled in a chair made for a short person. Jemma’s knees were level with her chest. “She’s careful not to miss one of those. Doesn’t talk about them much.”
Lottie handed Jemma a cookie on a saucer. “We studied on that. We got tired of people making fun of us so we decided to keep quiet about it. Did you see everything in the workshop?”
Jemma put her mug on the floor, balanced the saucer on her knees and bit into the cookie. “Mmmm, this is good. Competition for Alma.”
Lottie beamed. “Mind if I tell her you said that?”
Jemma laughed. “Go ahead. She’ll probably burn my toast in the morning. The belt sander didn’t work but everything else seemed to. What would you charge for me to rent it on a weekly basis?”
“What’s it worth to you?”
Jemma dusted the crumbs from her fingers and leaned forward. “A lot more than I can pay. To be honest, after I pay for the lumber, glue and other stuff, I’ll be lucky to make five dollars an hour.”
“Give me a dollar an hour and fix my back porch. Would that suit?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jemma gulped some tea. “That’s generous. I didn’t expect you to be that low.”
“It’ll be good to have the stuff be used. Warren would like it that way. It’s not like I was selling it off or letting it go out of the family. This land, house, workshop, everything goes to my great grandson after I’m gone. It’s important to keep land in the family, don’t you think?”
“You’re talking to someone who doesn’t even own a car. I can see why it’s important to you, though. This place has family memories.” The house was almost claustrophobic to Jemma. Nicknacks, pictures piled one upon another, even a broken toy vied for space on the scarred table next to her chair. Too much stuff to be comfortable around, but live and let live.
“When you get older, you’ll see the importance of things like carrying on the family name and keeping near the land. Enough of that. After you finish your cookie, we can look at the porch. You’ll probably have to wait til Spring to fix it, but you can get an idea of the problem now. When do you want to start using the workshop?”
“Is tomorrow too soon?”
“Fine with me. Did you bring those pictures I told Alma I wanted to see? She’s been bragging about your photography so much, I told her to have you show them to me.”
Jemma stayed another twenty minutes with Lottie exclaiming over Jemma’s photos of the horses at the ranch and the surrounding mountains and paused before opening the truck door. Sunlight streamed between the dormant trees creating a checkerboard of bright light reflecting off the snow and the tree shadows. She closed her eyes and faced the sun to absorb a little vitamin D. Drops of snow melt chimed as they hit the ice crust around her.