DIGGING UP TROUBLE
A Sweet Fiction Bookshop Mystery
Life is sweet when you live in Confection, Oregon. Or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to be. But on a summer day, when tourists and locals alike gawk at the majestic mountains, quaint Craftsman houses, and lovely flowers—particularly the renowned Confection Rose—the last thing anyone has come to see is a dead body, unearthed from a shallow grave by a curious dog.
A bathrobe-clad Lexi rushes next door to her neighbor’s backyard to find her pooch, Cookie, stalwartly sitting watch over a body in the vegetable garden. Cookie, encrusted in dirt, grips a copper pipe between her teeth. Was this the murder weapon? And was Lexi the murderer? It sure looks that way, seeing as she was spotted squabbling with the victim just the day before. The case becomes all the more perplexing when the real murder weapon turns out to be a garden stake. Then where does the copper pipe fit in? And might a more likely suspect let Lexi off the hook?
All the volumes in the Sweet Fiction Bookshop, and all the specials at Eats n’ Treats, prove of little help in jogging Lexi’s brain to find a solution. Fortunately, Cookie is not finished digging up clues. As the fur flies, can this trusty border collie mix save sweet Lexi from a bitter end?
“You’re a blasted idiot, is what you are,” the old man growled in a voice too loud for the middle of the popular downtown diner. He added a bunch of four-letter words, shocking half the occupants who’d expected to be bowled over by good food, not the jabbering of the town’s blustery curmudgeon.
“Dad, this isn’t the place to discuss this,” the younger man with him said between gritted teeth.
“Why? Are you embarrassed? No wonder your life is a mess. You got no grit. No backbone.”
“Dad, please. Let’s just have lunch.”
A well-dressed man in summer casual turned in the booth behind them and cleared his throat. “You know, Gil, you might want to take this outside to discuss in private.” He nodded with respect to the younger man doing his best to fight a rising blush.
“Oh, and you think you have a right to talk to me? You’re an even bigger idiot than he is.” The old man grunted. “You’ve been trying for years to one-up me, and where has it gotten you? Nowhere but second best, that’s where.” He snorted. “Couldn’t garden your way out of a paper bag.”
The man in the booth shut up and turned around, clearly fuming but too polite to say anything.
The woman sitting across from him at the booth shot a look at grumpy Gil. “Don’t worry about him, honey. He’s a sad little man angry at life.”
“You got that right,” Gil snapped. “My wife’s gone and my boys are five beers short of a six-pack.”
“Dad,” the younger man choked. “Stop it.”
Gil grinned, his expression furious, mean, and darkly amused. “But hey, at least my wife’s dead in the ground. You’re nothing but dead from the neck down.”
The woman gasped, and the man with her threw his money on the table and stormed from the diner with his wife in tow.
Around them, people grumbled, but no one had the guts to speak up.
Gil turned back to his grown son. “Boy, you need to act like you’ve got a pair, unlike the rest of the godforsaken morons in this town.” He frowned before shooting a critical look at the younger man once more. “And speaking of dead and buried, I’m glad your mother is gone. At least now she can’t see the mess your life has become.”
His son got up and left.
Silence settled over the diner while the old man ignored everyone’s disapproval, seeming content that he’d said his piece and damn them all that cared.
But one patron cared an awful lot. About the dead…and those living on borrowed time.
No, no, no. Just once I’d like to look like I wasn’t the biggest idiot in town.
“Well, well. What do we have here?”
What do we have here—my least favorite sentence in existence. Confection’s newest addition to the police department, Detective Chad Berg, stared down at me on my hands and knees as I tried to hide the fact that my dog had dug up a prime piece of real estate smack dab in the central garden—the showpiece of our downtown. Cookie had been digging way too close to the town’s prized rose bush, and I just knew the worst of the worst would be after me as soon as Loose Lips Berg spread the word.
Discreet he was not, but Berg paid attention to detail. How the blasted man had seen me through the hedge surrounding the garden was anyone’s guess. He’d rounded the shrubbery and now loomed like a thundercloud, blotting out my sunshine.
Dressed in tan slacks and a dark blue T-shirt with POLICE in white letters across his broad chest and back, his PD hat, and his badge clipped to his trousers, Detective Berg looked professional enough, I supposed. Perhaps treating him like God’s gift to law and order would help.
I gave him my brightest smile as I rose, brushing dirt from my knees and hoping the grass stains would wash out from my capris. At twenty-seven years old I tend to look younger, with my hair pulled back in a ponytail and a tan making my bright green eyes pop. (Or so I liked to think.) With any luck this afternoon I looked fresh-faced and innocent. “Hello, Officer Berg.”
His fake smile soured. “That’s Detective Berg.”
“Well, Detective Berg, what are you out detecting today?”
He studied me without expression, and I wondered if he’d cuff me then jail me for being too pleasant. For some reason, though Berg had only been in town for a few months, he’d taken a fierce dislike to me, my dog, and anything resembling dirt.
“I could have sworn I saw the tail end of a troublemaking canine just minutes ago.”
I subtly stepped to my left over the recently dug earth, blocking Berg’s view of the fresh soil I’d repacked.
He glanced down at the rose bush and then around, and I supposed I should have been happy Cookie had taken off the second I’d yelled at her for digging. I was hoping so hard that she’d gone straight home.
Behind my back, I crossed my fingers.
I casually tapped my shoe over the ground. Hopefully, my weight would help tamp the sad little tufts of grass back in place.
He raised a brow. “Hiding the evidence?”
I frowned. “Evidence? I’m sorry, Detective Berg. What are you talking about?” The breeze shifted, and the sweet scent of roses and lavender filled the air. I would have breathed it in and sighed with pleasure, but I didn’t want Berg to think I took him lightly.
A few folks passed by and waved, looking a little too interested in me and the po-po—what my best friend Teri liked to call the police. She also liked to call them the fuzz, the man, and a few other less than complimentary terms. But Teri has issues when it comes to authority and puts the capital C in Conspiracy Theorist.
Berg lifted the Confection PD ballcap from his head and scratched at the short dark hair that never seemed to grow. It was like the moment an eighth of an inch appeared, he chopped it off before those strands could even think about moving past regulation length.
I would know. I’d made a study of Detective Chad Berg. It was currently a toss-up between him and Teri’s older brother. But one of them would make the ideal template for the hero in the secret novel I was writing. I just had to iron out a few details. And, well, not pay exorbitant fines or go to jail because of my dog in the meantime.
“Yo, Officer!” The owner of the corner taco truck, a fifty-year-old hippie with the business sense of a corporate shark, waved. “Keep the peace, my man! Protect the Confection Rose!”
Berg waved back and shoved his hat back on. He smiled at Taco Ted before glaring down at me. He had to be a few inches over six feet. I’m not short, but around him, I feel tiny. Hmm. Did I want my hero to be super imposing? Because Teri’s brother was also tall but not as intense. I considered him a contender for male lead in Lexi’s Super-Secret Story as well.
Berg frowned. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Like what?” Yeah, that frown line. Both hero prospects had a tendency to frown when talking to me. I’d have to add that to my character’s rough appeal. And the way their brows drew close. Like an angry slash over those—in Berg’s case—gray eyes. Smoky gray? Icy gray? Charcoal? Meh. I’d edited better descriptions than those back in my old life.
He sighed. “Never mind. Now, let’s take a look at the evidence, shall we?” He moved closer. “Step aside, please.”
“Sure.” I’d been standing over the sad, dead grass long enough.
“Where’s the dog?”
“Her name is Cookie. And I left her at home. Why?”
He shook his head and withdrew a pad from his pocket. “I’m going to have to cite you for this.”
I scowled. “For what? Walking near the garden? Enjoying the fresh scent of summer and the wonder that is Confection, Oregon?” I wasn’t lying…exactly. Overhead, the cloudless sky showed a perfect blue only seen in postcards.
Snowcapped mountains in the distance competed with the massive pines and Aspens framing the town in bursts of verdant green and brown. From the central garden, located as we were at the base of the main thoroughfare, I could see all of our downtown glory. Flowers hung in moss planters from street posts or filled large pots along the pristine white sidewalks. Not to mention the eclectic and colorful storefronts were worth a second look all by themselves.
Founded in 1906, Confection, Oregon, boasted a total of 6,048 locals as of the last census, though popular thought had us closer to 7,000 now thanks to some stupid article in a travel magazine talking up our town.
Our main economy used to be lumber, back before we’d done our best to repopulate the forests. Now we dealt in tourism and microbreweries, second only to Bend, Oregon, our sister city farther south.
Like Bend, we’re also located on the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains, but we’re farther from the Deschutes River. We’re high desert, meaning we’re arid if you don’t count the snow in the mountains. Quick to heat up and quick to cool down. We have a lot of sagebrush and the dreaded junipers, which make allergy season a huge pain.
Confection is a tourist attraction year-round, and especially during our Sweet Summer Festival Season. Everything is in bloom, and our cute little town looks like a poster for cute little towns everywhere. It was no wonder we seemed to have a festival every other weekend. Cuteness equaled cash.
Which was probably why Detective Berg had been keeping an eye on the central garden, what with the recent spate of mischief going around. Still, I’d have thought a patrol officer, not a detective, would be walking the town beat.
“Everything okay, Detective?” one of our postmen asked as he strolled by carrying the afternoon’s mail. “Lexi’s not in trouble, is she?” He paused. “Please tell me the rose bush is okay.” Now he looked horrified. Not that I might be in trouble, but that the stupid roses might be in danger.
Gah. That freakin’ bush. I was up to my armpits in flower lovers.
“Everything’s fine.” Berg smiled. “Just making sure the town center’s nice and pretty for this weekend’s festival.”
“Good. I hope you find whoever’s been digging up the gardens around here. And Lexi, let me know when my book comes in.”
“Will do,” I said. “It should be in tomorrow’s shipment if I’m not mistaken.”
I run Sweet Fiction, the bookstore just a few shops down on Main Street. I’m happy to say we have a pretty literate town, full of people who like to read, keeping Sweet Fiction in business.
Our neighborhood postman, a Civil War buff, waved his goodbyes and left.
A few other locals around us said hello in passing, excited about the upcoming weekend’s entertainment. Heck, even I couldn’t wait to see who took this summer’s Best Of list.
When a well-known member of the Confection Garden Club—better known as the CGC mafia—walked by and asked Berg if they had any suspects in regard to the latest overturned flower beds on the south side, I thought about skipping out on my citation.
Berg smiled and turned back to me, as if having read my mind. “Not yet, but we’re getting closer.”
“It’s not Cookie,” I said quickly before he threw suspicion on me and my poor, beleaguered pup.
“We’ll see about that.”
But the CGC man looked satisfied. “Oh, okay then. Thanks, Detective. See you, Lexi.”
Berg smiled. “No problem.”
“Bye, now.” I waved, pretending I didn’t subscribe to the enmity between the CGC and my book club. Sure, I could pretend I was better than that.
Berg waited until we were once again mostly alone. In a low voice he said to me, “You know why I’m out here mingling with the public and policing a rose bush instead of doing my actual job, detecting?”
“Um, why?” Crap. I had a feeling I knew why.
He leaned closer and smiled through his teeth. “Because you and that blasted dog have annoyed the Confection Garden Club, several members of which happen to be close friends of the mayor. But instead of our patrol officers protecting the town’s ‘treasure,’” —he inserted with air quotes— “I’m on rose patrol because I apparently need to present a better face to the public.” If he pretended to smile any harder his face might break in half.
I swallowed and discreetly took a step back. “Ah. I see.”
“Remember the playground last week, Ms. Jones?”
“You mean when you chased Cookie down, thinking she’d attacked two of the kids at the Maple Circle swing-n-bling?” The kids had been playing with ketchup and make-believe wounds, which Cookie had been only too happy to lick off their faces. Seeing the big bad man tackle my adorable dog had set the children to wailing. And, well, one particular six-year-old just happened to be the grandson of one of the town councilmen.
None of that had been my fault at all, as Teri had been dog-sitting. Yet I had still gotten the blame.
He continued, “And how about all the complaint calls I’ve overheard during my time at the station? A border collie pit mix running around town without a leash?”
He had me on that one, but I sputtered, “Hey, that could be any number of dogs in town.”
“Uh-huh. Do they also defecate on Ed Mullins’ yard on a regular basis?”
“She never poops there.” During the day, at least. I could normally swing by at night to scoop away the evidence. But I couldn’t blame her. Ed Mullins—don of the CGC mafia—didn’t like dogs, and Cookie sensed it.
“How about the theft of a full roasted chicken, an apple pie, and what was the other thing? Oh yeah. A full plate of peanut butter cookies?”
I knew exactly who’d filed that complaint. “You know, maybe if Stefanie didn’t leave her stuff out on her windowsill to cool, someone—not Cookie—wouldn’t be stealing her food.”
He raised a brow. “And what about Stefanie’s purse?”
“Oh, well.” I shrugged. “I told Cookie to fetch, she fetched. But come on, she fetched the purse because Stefanie had stolen her ball and hidden it in her purse! How amazing is my dog that she figured it out?”
“She’s a menace.” Berg crossed his big arms over his chest. “And so are you.”
“Well I never.” I fumed, secretly proud of myself for using an expression I’d been dying to use forever, and in public no less.
“Look, Ms. Jones, just take the ticket and—”
The squeal of car brakes, a loud beep, and a crash seemed to happen all at once.
“Don’t leave,” Berg ordered before darting to a collision outside my uncle’s hardware store just off Main.
So, I waited.
Having dutifully obeyed Detective’s Berg’s order (for all of one minute,) I rushed away from the scene of my dog’s alleged vandalism. Time to enjoy the rest of a rare day off before Cookie actually dug up a prized rose bush or nicked something from the CGC mafia.
Then my klepto dog would really put me in the doghouse. No pun intended.
DIGGING UP TROUBLE releases October 12, 2021.
Publisher: Crooked Lane Books
Release Date: October 12, 2021
Formats: ebook, hardback