About the Author
I am a writer and currently live in North Carolina with my husband Bob and our three or four Chihuahuas and grandson, the Boy. Taking on the care and feeding of the grandson has made me a born again soccer mom, who suffers from occasional bewilderment over what kids like these days. And why. Ask me what I said when the Boy asked for a skateboard that "shoots sparks" and goes up ramps "at about a hundred miles an hour." Wait. Don't ask.

Where can you find me?






I almost didn't go. The annual Del Canto Horse Club picnic was traditionally held on the second to last Saturday in August. This year was no exception, though I had no idea why supposedly sane people would choose to socialize out of doors during a month when the humid air felt like a heavy coat permanently stuck to one's torso. As if the searing heat weren't bad enough, Adam, my fiancé, had to work. His charter boat was booked full, and he was spending the day on the harbor. If anyone had offered me so much as a stale breath mint as an incentive, I'd have stayed home.

I kicked the bottom of a sagging kitchen cabinet and watched as the hinges on the scuffed wood popped loose and it clattered to the floor. Heidi, my daughter's little dog, yelped and dodged out of the way.

Great way to start the morning, Leigh.

I scooped Heidi into my arms and gave her an apologetic pat on the head.

I’d planned on replacing the cabinets as part of the restoration of my recently bought home, but that didn’t mean I wanted the old doors to fall apart prematurely, and it didn’t mean I wanted to use them to flatten small dogs.

I was outside throwing the busted door on the trash pile when my cousin Sammi barreled up to the house in her ancient Buick. I dusted my hands on my cutoffs and squinted at the glare of sunlight bouncing off the tin roof of my barn. I was still seriously considering staying home.

"Hey, Leigh." Sammi climbed out of her car.

“I don’t have time for a visit, Sammi. I’ve got the horse club picnic at Alligator Creek Park and I still need to box up the lemon bars I made last night." If I decided to go. That was debatable.

“I know all about the picnic, babe. You’ve been babbling about it for a month, so I’m going with.”

She leaned into her car and hauled a plastic cake box out of the back. She'd pulled her long honey-colored hair into a high ponytail and she was wearing blue shorts and a blue and white tank top, testimony to the heat. Sammi doesn’t like to show her legs and arms because she thinks they're too fat.

I eyed her with suspicion. “Since when?”

“Since I decided you needed company because Adam's working and Whitney and Aunt Dorothy are out of town. Now stop looking at me like I just asked you to drive the getaway car in a bank robbery. You’re starting to remind me of that Candy person you told me about who joined the horse club last spring—the one you said acts like she was dropped off on Planet Earth by a ship from the Andromeda Galaxy.”

“I never said that. You make me sound so mean. I only said she’s shy and doesn’t quite fit in, so people think she’s strange.”

“Same thing, so stop getting all technical on me. I baked my special chocolate cake. You should be honored I thought of you horse freaks on such a hellishly hot day.” With that, Sammi sailed in the direction of the house.

Honored that she thought of us horse freaks? Ha. Sammi wanted something. Otherwise she never would have invited herself along. She didn’t like spending ultra hot days outdoors any more than I did.

Alligator Creek Park is small, with room for no more than twenty cars in the parking lot, and it's situated along the banks of—surprise—Alligator Creek. It isn't much as parks go, though it's the first park ever built in the county, and I suppose it served its purpose when the population was one tenth what it is today. Now it's nothing but an afterthought. Good enough for small groups like the horse club. Out of the way and scenic, if you like the feeling that wild animals might leap out of the underbrush and have you for lunch should you drop your guard.

A few weathered wooden picnic tables, a barbecue pit, and a couple of restrooms in need of serious attention—especially air fresheners—made up the sum total of amenities at Alligator Creek. But there was plenty of shade thanks to a stand of ancient, moss-draped oaks.

And for those who didn’t mind chance encounters with alligators, the creek was available for fishing and canoeing. Swimming definitely not recommended.

Sammi still hadn’t told me the reason for her eagerness to join me today. She’d spent the whole time in the car on the way to the park chattering about her latest assignment taking care of a lady who played poker. Sammi's a home health aide and companion for ill and elderly people. According to her, poker was becoming all the rage amongst the senior citizen set, so she’d taken to carrying a deck of cards in her purse. She liked to bond, she said, by taking up their activities. I’d replied by saying it was a good thing the senior set didn’t like to dance naked through the Publix grocery, and she’d bopped me on the head with the rolled up newspaper she kept in her purse to threaten Jeeves, her Old English Sheepdog.

The park already looked full, though I noted neither the Harpers nor the Lowells had arrived yet. Brenda Harper's usually the first to show up at horse club events and the Lowells, due entirely to Mark Lowell being outgoing to a fault, always arrive early and stay late.

I waved to Nancy Braden, our club president, and then got busy unloading the car. Sammi was helping me take a couple of folding chairs out of the trunk when the Harper’s truck jolted to a stop beside my Honda.

Brenda Harper was driving and she angled too close to the passenger side of my car. I shot her a look of annoyance when she flung her door wide and banged it into my front fender, but the look was wasted. Brenda was too busy leaping out of her truck and then ramming her way through the crowd to notice. She reached the food table and yanked a metal chair out of Nancy’s hands with a quick, “Thanks, Nancy, I need to borrow this.”

She opened the chair and plunked it down with a clang before climbing up to stand on the seat. Nancy stared at her gape-mouthed. Brenda gave a couple of small hops and flapped her arms, reminding me of a vulture trying to take off with a belly full of road kill.

“Everybody listen," she screeched from her homemade podium. "I have big, big news and you are not going to believe it.”

Sammi and I exchanged puzzled glances before moving in closer to join the rest of the club members who’d gathered like sheep around a trough. Okay, I admit we were as curious and sheep-like as everyone else. We sidled up next to my friend Pat Ansley and her husband, Kyle. I focused my attention on Brenda. I couldn’t help wondering why she'd worn a tank top and jeans that were the same color as cooked carrots.

Brenda’s cheeks flushed scarlet with excitement. The red clashed with her clothes and her orange hair. “Candy Lowell’s been arrested for murder.”

A parrot-like squawk escaped from between my lips before I could corral my feelings. I felt like my eyes were popping out of my head and I almost put my hands up to push them back into place.

Candy? The same shy Candy who wouldn't look you in the eye and who acted as if she had a limited supply of words to use in her lifetime?

Pat gasped. “Candy killed her husband? She killed Mark?”

“Did I say that? You are jumping to conclusions, Pat. Honestly.” Brenda shot Pat a look that said Pat was plain stupid and Brenda wasn’t. “We all know Mark’s the best thing that ever happened to the woman. Didn’t he buy her a brand new Chevy pickup with a horse trailer painted to match, a gorgeous house with acreage, and a horse that’s going to be champion amateur mare for the whole state? Unless she’s got a million dollar insurance policy on Mark, she wouldn’t kill the golden goose.”

“Then who’s dead?” Nancy shaded her eyes with her hand and stared up at Brenda.

That was what I wanted to know. Sammi rib-poked me to signal she was thinking the same thing.

I glanced from side to side taking a quick mental inventory of the crowd. I noticed I wasn’t the only one covertly checking to see if the victim was one of us horse clubbers. Still, if Candy had decided to kill one of us, I’d have put my money on Brenda, and obviously it couldn’t be her.

“What is wrong with people?” Sammi said in my ear. “Why do they have to kill?”

I shrugged. It was a shame Brenda hadn’t gotten a job as a gossip columnist. Clearly she was enjoying this. She stood steady on the chair, a slight smile playing around her lips, no doubt waiting for the reaction to die down before she told us the rest of the story and revealed the victim’s name.

Scott had joined her at the front of the crowd. Their three sons had swarmed the refreshment table and were now digging into fudge squares and chocolate chip cookies. I made a mental note to avoid anything their grubby paws had touched. Brenda herself had told me it was like single-handedly pushing a truck off a bridge to get those boys near soap and water.

“Brenda?” Scott looked like he wanted to jump up and join her on the chair.

“Scott?” Brenda ground out.

“You gonna tell them or should I?”

You’d think after fifteen years of marriage Scott would know better.

Brenda sent him a glance that would have melted a small car and said, “Go control the boys. I’m telling this. Sweetie.”

“Sure, no problem, honeypot.”

After Scott had shuffled off to corral their sons, Brenda said, “I have the scoop straight from Paris Winslow because I happened to call her this morning about her buying one of our Australian Shepherd puppies for Dude. She was there at the Lowell place, with the body right in front of her like a big bloody lump. The murder had just happened and she told me everything. I’m sure she’s already taken a bunch of gruesome pictures she won’t be able to publish.” Brenda shuddered and fanned her face delicately with her hand.

Paris was married to county sheriff, Dude Winslow. She was a real estate agent as well as a part-time reporter for the Del Canto Star. She’d have most likely been given the opportunity to go to the scene unchallenged and do a write up the same way she’d done when I’d discovered my friend Rita Cameron’s body.

“So Paris said Mark was supposed to go to a sales meeting in Tampa today and couldn't make it to the picnic, but first he went to the grocery to pick up a couple of things for Candy. It ended up taking a lot longer than he planned because after that he had to swing by and pick up Francine Swale. They were sharing a ride to Tampa for a sales meeting. "

"Candy was coming to the picnic alone?" Nancy asked. "That doesn't sound like her."

Brenda shot Nancy a "stop interrupting" look. "When he finally got back with Francine to drop off the groceries, he couldn’t find Candy in the house, so he naturally figured she was out at the stable. He went out there—with Francine—and found Richard Swale dead as could be in an empty stall, and naturally Candy was nowhere to be found. She wouldn’t have stuck around the murder scene, now would she? Mark was pretty shook up because they were good friends since high school and were in the Army together."

"How was Richard killed?" someone called out.

"Mark was in too much shock to check for wounds or anything. Besides, he was trying to calm Francine and drag her away from Richard. She was trying to perform CPR and there was blood everywhere. Can you imagine? You all know I would die if I found Scott like that.” She whipped a tissue out of her pocket and used it to scrub sweat off her face. She got too close to her right eye and left a swath of mascara streaking toward her nose.

“I never wear mascara to picnics,” Sammi whispered loudly.

I jammed my elbow into her ribs. “How do they know Candy did it, Brenda? Maybe it was Mark.”

“I told you, Mark was at the store and then at Francine’s, and anyway, he’s not the type to kill someone. Candy was the only one who could of done it and everyone knows how strange she is. She’s got secrets. You can tell by the way she skulks around, so there’s no shadow of a doubt. After this big manhunt all over town, they finally found her on a bench in front of Publix, sitting and staring into space like she was doped up on something. And she had blood on her. Their son was there, too, turning in circles and mumbling the way he does. You know, the boy who isn’t right.”

Brenda made a face and I wanted to slap her. Benji Lowell is ten and has autism. “Anyway, Dude told Paris that when they showed up to take her in for questioning, she didn’t even act surprised the way any normal person would of. She simply got up and marched off to the patrol car like she was in a big hurry to get to jail in time for lunch. Guilty as sin, anybody could see that.”

“So she confessed?” I wondered what motive Candy could have for killing a man who was married to her husband’s co-worker. True, Richard and Mark had been friends for years, so she probably knew him. Maybe they were having an affair, though the idea of Candy having an affair made the central thinking processor in my brain send me a mental dope slap and a stern warning to get clued in.

“How should I know what went on in a police interrogation room?” Brenda rolled her eyes so far up in her head all I could see was the whites. “Paris didn’t tell me everything. Why don’t you buy a copy of the Del Canto Star tomorrow and find out for yourself?”

I ducked my head and grinned. Paris had saved some secrets for the paper, so Brenda wouldn’t get to keep being the star attraction. Served her right after that crack about Benji Lowell.

“Poor Richard,” Brenda went on. “And poor Francine. You know she happens to be a personal friend of mine. She boards her horse at our place and she bought one of our puppies, too, and she’s picking it up tomorrow. Well, she was. Probably not now after what happened.” She chewed on her lower lip and I couldn’t tell if she was upset that Francine had lost her husband or sorry she hadn’t sold the puppy.

Nancy helped Brenda down from the chair and then carried it back to the table before turning to face us. She held her hands up for silence.

I was sure my fellow horse-clubbers, like myself, were trying to take in the news and make sense of the killing. I'd sat next to Richard Swale at the horse club meeting last night. I wondered if the police had looked into Francine's motive. She and Richard had been arguing when they left. I drew my brows together in a deep frown I ought to tell them the couple had been fighting. Nah. A fight didn't mean murder. Besides, they would have checked on Francine first. The spouse was always the first suspect. And if fighting with your spouse was reason enough to get you arrested for murder, then I could only feel grateful my ex hadn’t been murdered or I’d be in the state pen right now.

“I know we're all upset at hearing such terrible news,” Nancy said. “But there’s nothing we can do about what happened. I think we should try to settle down and get back to the business at hand, which is our annual picnic.”

Sammi grabbed my arm. “That’s right, babe, now that someone you know is in the slam for murder, I’m sure you can’t wait to pile a paper plate high with hot dogs and slaw and sit at the creek’s edge to dangle your feet in front of an alligator’s mouth. Is Nancy totally insensitive?”

I sighed. “No,” I said, after a pause. “She’s practical. Kind of reminds me of my mom. She always takes over in any crisis and rallies the troops. And feeds them.”

Sammi nodded. “True enough. And it’s usually exactly the right thing to do. Okay, I take back my bitter remark about Nancy. Let’s try to follow her advice.”

Though my stomach churned in protest, I filled my plate and followed Sammi to a wooden picnic table under a tree. I picked at my food while I watched children, oblivious to the heat, running and playing like a litter of puppies. Pat’s husband went to sit near the creek with Scott while Pat and Nancy joined us under our tree. Of course the only topic of conversation was the murder.

Nancy remarked that she couldn’t think of a more unlikely suspect unless it was her ninety-year-old grandmother. “And Granny Mildred’s in a wheelchair.”

“Candy must have known the guy,” Pat said. “After all, he was in the service with Mark and his wife works with Mark and he's been coming to our meetings with Francine. He was in Candy's stable for a reason. We don’t really know her that well, after all.”

“Maybe Richard was blackmailing her. Or they could have been having an affair,” Nancy said. She shook her head, and I got the impression she couldn’t figure Candy getting involved with someone any more than I could. Mark, yes. Definitely, yes. Mark was the biggest flirt in the county. But not shy, socially-awkward Candy.

Sammi wiped ketchup off her lips with a napkin and leaned forward. “We’re forgetting something here. Innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, right? Now I don’t know the woman or the victim, but shouldn’t we wait to find out more before we start condemning her?”

“True. But surely, like Brenda says, the police had reason to arrest her.” Pat eyed the contents of her glass like she thought it was snake spit. Her appetite must have gone the same way mine had.

“The police can make mistakes the same as anyone else,” I said.

“I guess you’d know that better than any of us.”

I shrugged and looked away from Pat, not liking the reminder. Last March the police had mistakenly labeled my friend Rita’s death an accident. To get justice for her I’d had to prove murder, but ended up nearly getting myself killed in the process.

The four of us decided that under the circumstances, we’d cut the picnic short, which suited me fine. Others had already started leaving. The day had turned out even hotter than the weather report had predicted. My shirt was sopping with sweat and now sported a baked bean stain across the boob area.

Before we could finish clearing our section of the food table, Brenda scurried over and suggested to Nancy that the club send sympathy flowers to Mark.

“After all, he has to be de-va-sta-ted.” Brenda had to suck in a long breath after wasting so much air making each syllable into a separate word. “The club always sends flowers to grieving members.”

I slid out of the way of Sammi’s elbow before my ribs got ruined.

“What are you smirking about, Leigh?” Pat covered a tray of ham slices with foil and put it back in her cooler.

“I confess, I was having wicked thoughts, but I promise to stop right this minute.”

Pat shrugged. “Can’t say I blame you. Candy Lowell’s an odd one all right and, despite Sammi’s lecture about innocent until proven, I have to say it sounds like there was reason for the police to make an arrest. Poor Benji.”

I didn’t bother to correct her and say it was Brenda I was thinking wicked about. Flowers? Give me a break.

Sure, Brenda. Julie at Flower Power on Olympia Street is sure to have just the thing for men whose wives have been arrested for murder.

“Here you are, Mr. Lowell. The Del Canto Horse Club sent this nice arrangement of pink roses mixed with babies' breath. Shall I read the card for you? It says, Sorry about your wife’s arrest.”

“I’m not sure flowers would send the right message, Brenda.” Nancy wrapped some leftover brownies in plastic wrap and put them in a bag. “We'll send flowers to Francine, of course. But it might be a nice gesture to send food for Mark and Benji.”

“That’s a great idea.” Pat put her hands on her hips and looked from Nancy to Brenda. “Anyone want to volunteer to take a cooler to Mark? I don’t live too awful far from the Lowells, so I wouldn’t mind, except my mare was down with colic a few days ago and I want to go home and check on her.”

“I’ll do it.” Brenda’s green eyes shone extra bright, and I knew she was dying to find out more gossip so she could be town crier again.

Fine with me. The last thing I wanted was to show up at Del Canto’s latest murder scene. I’d learned my lesson after Rita was killed and I was never again going to get involved with crimes or crime solving in any way, shape, or form. Period.

“I’ll take them this…” Brenda broke off in mid sentence as a child’s scream sounded from the creek bank. She flung a package of hamburger buns in the general direction of the table and ran.

The rest of us pounded along behind her in pack formation. Oh, God, what if an alligator had grabbed one of her sons?