Mac N Cheese Murder: Book 5 in The Bandit Hills Series, page 1
TABLE OF CONTENTS
MAC N CHEESE MURDER
Mac N Cheese Murder
Book Five in the Bandit Hills Series
Copyright 2016 Summer Prescott Books
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MAC N CHEESE MURDER
Book Five in the Bandit Hills Series
I’m going to weigh four hundred pounds soon, and it’s all Bonnie’s fault.
I guess if I’m being honest with myself, it’s sort of my fault too, for my inability to put down the fork. Bonnie’s Bodacious Barbecue (“Come for the name, stay for the food”) opened just about a month ago, and already I’m afraid to step on a scale. My clothes still fit just fine; I guess that’s all that matters.
I feel kind of guilty for abandoning my usual lunch spot, Tank’s Diner in town,
but a quick look around confirms that a good portion of the townspeople have done the same. Besides, Tank’s does just fine on tourism alone.
Bonnie is a close friend of mine that owns a ranch on the border of our sleepy little town, Bandit Hills, Tennessee. Usually she boards horses, livestock, pets, and just about anything with four legs or more on her ranch, but lately her passion has turned to cooking. And if my eating until my buttons pop is Bonnie’s fault, then this whole backyard barbecue thing is my fault.
Dash sits across from me at a wooden picnic table. Neither of us has said a word since we sat down, largely because we’ve been too busy stuffing our faces. We both reach for a plate of raspberry chipotle glazed short ribs at the same time and chuckle. They’re finger-lickin’ good—no, I’d call them finger-bitin’ good, as in I’d snap a digit right off a hand that tried to take one off my plate.
“Good, right?” Dash mutters around a mouthful of food.
“Mm-hmm,” is all I can manage at the moment.
Dash is my boyfriend of, oh, I think it’s been about two months now? I’m not the kind of girl that keeps track. (I honestly can’t remember the date we made it official, and I’m really hoping that’s not the kind of thing he does.) We’ve known each other since high school, when he was a nerd and I was a—well, I was a bit of a nerd too, but at least I wasn’t playing Dungeons and Dragons at the lunch tables. No, I played the flute and was on the school paper. That’s the cool kind of nerd, right?
“Fresh cornbread!” Bonnie announces as she drops a hefty plate in front of us. I immediately snatch a thick, cakey piece up and break off a portion. Sweet steam rises up, drawing me to it like a moth to a flame.
Bonnie used to be my best customer. She was always the first person in every morning at my secondhand shop, Miss Miscellanea (on the corner of Fifth and Main, where one person’s old bedazzled denim jacket is another person’s treasure). But lately, she’s been so busy with her budding new business that I don’t see her often unless I come up to the ranch for a bite or twenty.
Which has been almost every day.
See, last month, I got this box of stuff at the shop and I hadn’t had the time to go through it (on account of a creepy bronze skull that was later used as a murder weapon, but that’s a whole ‘nother story). In it was this beat-up leather-bound handwritten book. I didn’t think much of it, so I gave it to Bonnie, free of charge.
Turns out it was a cookbook. Possibly written by angels. Or maybe a wizard. Whoever it was, the book was filled with recipes that make the Hallelujah Chorus ring out in my ears with every bite.
Every morning, instead of coming to my shop, Bonnie prints out a menu of what she’s making that day on a plain white sheet of paper and tacks it to a sign on the edge of her parking lot. She serves up her food buffet-style, all you can eat for a flat price, at a half-dozen picnic tables under a big white canvas canopy at the edge of the ranch.
I wipe my fingers and mouth on a paper napkin and drop it over my plate, the international sign of surrender. “Don’t let me eat anymore,” I tell Dash.
“Mmph-ph,” he answers, laying waste to a thick slice of moist cornbread.
I shiver a little, even with a light jacket on. We’re well into November, and the weather is getting brisk. That makes me sad, because I don’t know how many more afternoons I’ll be able to tolerate sitting outside in exchange for Bonnie’s barbecue.
“I should really head back to the shop,” I say.
“Yeah, I ought to get back to work too,” Dash agrees sadly. “Or take a three-hour nap. Haven’t decided yet.” We both rise, slowly, as Bonnie comes over again in an apron that reads “Dressed to Grill.”
“Leaving already?” Bonnie asks. “I’m about to take a fresh batch of baked macaroni and cheese out. It’s made with rotini noodles and three types of cheese, and a topping of Italian bread crumbs, parmesan, and melted butter—”
I hold up my hand. “Please, Bonnie. My waistline can’t take it.”
“Stay right here. I’ll put some in a container for you to take.” She hurries back toward the cabin, behind which she has a huge grill and a smoker set up. It’s amazing to me that she’s able to do all this from her home kitchen.
We hang around for a minute, and while we wait a red Honda sedan pulls into Bonnie’s lot. Another couple meanders over towards us. I recognize the woman by her figure alone; she’s only five-two and super petite, with auburn hair and eyes that look too big for her head, giving her the appearance of being much younger than thirty-five.
“Oh, hey, Anna,” I say casually. “Haven’t seen you around in a while
Beside me, Dash cringes a little and squeezes my hand. Sometimes I say things without thinking first, and this is one of those cases. The whole town knows why Anna’s been somewhat reclusive lately; she just got through a very messy divorce with two kids in the middle.
Anna smiles thinly. “I’m good, Cassie, thanks.” She motions toward the guy beside her and adds, “Um, this is Chad. He just moved here a few months ago. He’s doing the renovation on Dexter Maximoff’s old house. Chad, this is Cassie Cleary and Dash Hamilton. Cassie owns that adorable little shop I was telling you about, and Dash is a private investigator.”
“Nice to meet you,” Chad says cheerfully to me. He gives Dash a terse, “Hi.”
“Uh, hi,” Dash says back.
I decide I don’t care for this Chad. I know, I know, judging books by covers and all that, but there’s an air about him that irks me. Maybe it’s the half-inch of dark beard he’s got going on. I’ve never really liked facial hair. (Lucky for me, Dash’s beard grows in patchy and makes him look like he has mange, so he keeps it baby smooth.)
“How are the kids?” Dash asks. This time I squeeze his hand and cringe.
“They’re… good as can be, all things considered,” Anna says. “They’re with my mom now, but they’re going to stay with Pete this weekend—” She clears her throat. “Sorry, Chad. Didn’t mean to bring him up.”
“It’s fine,” Chad mutters.
Sheesh, I could cut this awkwardness with a knife. “Well, it’s been good seeing you!” I tell her, far more loudly than necessary.
“Yeah,” Dash chimes in. “Hope to see you again real soon.”
I swear I see a shadow of some emotion—anger, maybe—flash over Chad’s face. “Come on,” he says, “let’s grab a table.”
Dash and I exchange a weird look as the two mosey over to the picnic benches. We’re not ten feet away but can hear them clearly.
“You know that guy?” Chad asks accusingly.
“Yes, I know them both,” Anna tells him. “They were a few years behind me in school. We all grew up here.”
“What did he mean he ‘hopes to see you again real soon’?”
“He was just being nice, Chad.”
“Sure. Too nice, it seems to me.”
“Can we just enjoy our meal, please?”
“I don’t know,” Chad replies curtly. “Any other old boyfriends gonna show up?”
Anna just sighs and stays quiet after that.
“Wow,” I mouth to Dash. Luckily, Bonnie returns with a plastic bag only a moment later.
“Here you go. Make sure your mom gets some of that.”
“Sure will!” I lie. “Thanks, Bonnie.”
As we leave, I hear Bonnie behind me in her loud, boisterous voice. “Anna, welcome! When are you going to bring me some more of those fresh eggs?”
In Dash’s car on the way back into town, I peel the lid off the container of mac and cheese and start eating creamy, cheesy goodness with a plastic spoon Bonnie tossed in the bag.
“You believe that guy?” I ask, my mouth half-full. “Jealous much?”
“Pete is no prize, either,” Dash says simply. “Maybe she’s just used to that type.”
“Poor woman. She deserves better.”
“Cassie,” Dash warns. “No prying.”
“I wasn’t gonna,” I mutter. I sort of have a reputation for… let’s say ‘getting involved in things.’ It’s how I’ve come to be associated, at least tangentially, with four murders in the past few months alone.
But really. I wasn’t gonna.
The next morning, I wake up bright and early at six thirty. I don’t open the shop until nine a.m. on Saturdays, but today I’m on another mission.
I put on an old sweatshirt, a pair of nylon shorts, and pull my hair up in a ponytail. I dig under the bed until I find my running shoes, dust ‘em off, and just for good measure, I stretch a sweatband around my head.
My apartment is a two-bedroom above Miss Miscellanea, so at the end of the work day I just have to go upstairs—or in this case, downstairs, where a very grumpy-looking Dash is waiting for me.
“I don’t want to do this,” he whines.
“Neither do I, but we should—” I stare at him for a long moment. Then I snort, trying in vain to hold back my laugh. “Dash… are those your high school gym clothes?”
Dash looks down at the royal blue and white t-shirt and shorts he’s wearing. “Yeah. They still fit me. So?”
“Oh my god.” I can’t help it. I laugh at him. Back in school, Dash was skinny and short and absolutely swam in his gym clothes (which got him made fun of a lot). Now that’s he’s grown up and filled out, they actually do fit him nicely. But they’re still his high school gym clothes.
“You are such a nerd.” Once I’m over my giggling fit, I clear my throat and try to get serious. “Okay, I’ve planned out a route that’s about a mile long—”
“A mile?” he asks incredulously.
“Yes, one mile. If I’m doing it, you’re doing it.”
“If I’d known when we started dating that you were going to make me do stuff…”
I ignore him. “We’re going to go up Main to Third, and then cut down to Beaver Road. That’ll take us up and around to Indian Head Road, and back to the bottom of Fifth. Got that?”
“Indian Head Road?” I swear he gulps. “Isn’t that road…?”
I roll my eyes. He trails off, but I know what his next word would have been. Haunted. And yeah, it totally is.
“Don’t be a baby. It’s broad daylight. Just don’t lag behind.” I wink at him. “Call it incentive to keep up.”
Dash isn’t as comfortable around the paranormal as most of Bandit Hills’ residents are. And the reason most of us are so comfortable with it is because strange things happen around here all the time. In other places, if windows start rattling in the middle of the night, people might say, “It’s just the wind.”
Around here, we’d say, “Oh, that’s just Gertrude, the spirit of a young widow that roams the halls searching for her husband who was killed in a gunfight in the 1860’s. Go back to sleep.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a building in town that doesn’t have ghost stories attached to it. Heck, even I’ve been haunted a bunch of times in the past few months—lately my shop has been like a revolving door for spirits, just coming and going as they see fit (and usually breaking some of my merchandise).
Bandit Hills is renowned for its paranormal activity. Our tourist season usually peaks around Halloween, but this year it sort of tapered down, thanks to a few murders that occurred within a relatively short time span. But it’s been a solid month, and the sightseers seem to be making up for lost time, flooding downtown with selfie-sticks and maps of haunted locations (cleverly devised by Tank to sell at the gift shop he attached to the downtown diner).
That’s part of the reason I chose Indian Head Road as our jogging route; it’s an out-of-the-way, old country road that almost no one uses anymore, so the chances of anyone seeing what will likely be my poor attempt at getting back in shape will be low. But now it has a dual purpose, in that no one will see Dash and think I’m dating the track team captain.
“Let’s go,” I tell him, and without fanfare, we start jogging down Main Street for a few blocks at a decent pace.
Dash presses a button on a tiny oval device clipped to the waist of his shorts.
“Pedometer,” he answers. “Keeps track of my steps, and later I can use that to calculate the number of calories burned.”
After about two minutes, we reach the entrance to Beaver Road. “Hey,” Dash says, slightly winded, “this isn’t so bad.”
“Yeah, we should do this more often.”
Less than a minute later I realize my terrible, terrible mistake: Beaver Road is mostly uphill. The incline isn’t steep, but it’s enough to feel it when you’re jogg
“This… is… the worst… thing… ever,” Dash pants a few minutes later. “I strongly… dislike… you… right now.”
I’d say something back, but I can’t speak. My calves burn, my lungs ache, and I’m fairly certain I’m dying. Even though we’re making the motion of jogging, our pace has slowed to that of a toddler, or maybe an old person with a walker.
Dash’s pace slows further, barely walking now, and he holds his side. “Just leave me where I fall. Go on, have a good life. I give you my blessing.”
I catch my breath and tell him, “Look, it’s just our first day. Tomorrow will be better, I’m sure…”
He blanches. “Tomorrow?!”
His foot kicks something and it skitters across the asphalt, making a sharp metallic ting. He bends to pick it up.
He furrows his brow. “Looks like a shell casing.”
“Huh.” That’s not all that weird; hunters use the woods around Indian Head Road all the time.
“Small caliber,” he adds. “From a pistol.”
“What are you saying?”
He doesn’t answer. His gaze is locked ahead. I follow it and see, just around the bend in the road, the rear bumper of a red Honda. “Stay here, Cass.”
“Is that Anna’s car?” I ask.
He approaches the sedan, and I casually start to follow. What can I say? I’m curious.
He gets to the car first and peers inside, and then immediately straightens. “Don’t come over here.”
My heart starts racing again, worse than running a mile (or a half mile, however far we actually made it). “What? What is it?”
“Did you bring your cell phone?”
I pat my shorts. “No pockets.”
“Me neither. Okay, I’m going to stay here. I need you to run to the police station as quick as you can and tell Phil he needs to get up here right away.”
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