This Thanksgiving, be grateful for the “savvy sleuthing”* of New York Times bestselling author Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles—who teams up with an old friend to solve a case of theft and murder in a South Texas ranching community…
For Thanksgiving, China is planning to visit her mother, Leatha, and her mother’s husband, Sam. She’s also looking forward to catching up with a friend, game warden Mackenzie “Mack” Chambers. But Leatha calls with bad news: Sam has had a heart attack.
While Sam recuperates, Leatha does have a helper—Sue Ellen Krause. But Sue Ellen—who’s leaving her husband, the assistant foreman at a trophy game ranch—has troubles of her own. Before she can tell China the full story, Sue Ellen is killed in a car crash.
When a local veterinarian is shot, Mack believes his murder could be related to fawns stolen from a nearby ranch. And China wonders if Sue Ellen’s death may not have been an accident, and if there’s a connection to the stolen animals...
About the Author
Susan Wittig Albert grew up on a farm in Illinois and earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. A former professor of English and a university administrator and vice president, she is the author of the China Bayles Mysteries, the Darling Dahlias Mysteries, and the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. She and her husband, Bill, coauthor a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries under the name Robin Paige. The Alberts live near Austin, Texas.
Date of Birth:1940
Place of Birth:Danville, Illinois
Education:Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley
Read an Excerpt
The blue and white Cessna 172 dropped out of the gray November sky. The pilot banked sharply, slowing to eighty knots, then turned on the carburetor heat and powered back to 1500 rpm. When he made the field, he extended another ten degrees of flaps, dropped his airspeed to seventy, and corrected for the crosswind that blew off the cliff to the west. He powered back, leveled off, and touched down at the end of the grassy north-south strip. The landing was bumpy but no rougher than usual. He regularly mowed the private strip tucked into the Bee Creek valley at the foot of Sycamore Mountain and knew where to avoid the worst of the hummocks and dips. He powered down, braked lightly, and taxied the short distance to the Quonset hut that served as an airplane hangar. Glad to be back in Texas, he climbed out and was greeted by the man who had just come out of the barn.
“Where the hell you been?” the man demanded angrily. “I been expecting you for hours.” He shook his head. “Ever’ time you go up in that antique bolt-bucket, you could come home in a body bag.”
“Hey,” the pilot said. “She may be an antique, but she’s still in the air. And I don’t notice her condition keeping you from taking her up whenever you feel like it.” It was true. Both of them flew the plane, although its certification had lapsed long ago. The pilot paused to flick a light to his cigarette. “Stopped off outside of Lubbock to say hi to a little girl I know there. Took longer than I thought. Sorry,” he added. “Shoulda called.” He grinned, remembering. “Guess I had something else on my mind.”
The two men were brothers, but there was no family resemblance. In his late thirties, the pilot was sandy-haired, short, and barrel-chested, broad and heavy across the shoulders. His younger brother was thin and dark, with a disfiguring knife scar that ran across his narrow cheek and under his ear, earned in a barroom fight in Corpus Christi a few years before. Both wore cowboy hats and jackets—the pilot denim, his brother a green army field jacket—jeans, and scuffed cowboy boots.
“Lubbock,” his brother grunted. “I just might have to shoot you.” Both men laughed. They pushed the plane into the hangar and went swiftly through the usual postflight items. They were both good fliers, both good mechanics. Had to be, since they didn’t have the money to pay somebody else to keep the plane flying.
“You heard from the truck?” the pilot asked as they closed the big doors. “Jack loaded up and got off before dawn. I told him to phone you with updates.” Jack was their partner. He worked on another ranch, but he’d taken a few days off to do the job.
“Phoned twice. Last time he’d got as far as Lampasas, coming down 281. Should be pulling in—” He looked at his watch, “Give him another hour, maybe. That trailer work out okay?”
“It loads better than the old one and rides smoother, but six white-tails are still more than I like to handle. Those animals panic real easy.” The pilot paused, considering. “This was a real good batch, though. Big, solid bucks, hundred seventy pounds each, maybe fifty percent bigger than the wild bucks on the range around here.”
Size was the thing, of course. If you were trying to establish a game ranch, the native deer made pretty sorry breeding stock. Bucks averaged around eighty-five, ninety pounds on good range, and with the drought, most range was only fair to poor. So you either laid out big dollars to rent stud bucks from the breeders or bought their semen at seven, eight thousand dollars a pop.
But he and his brother didn’t have that kind of money. Their dad would rise up out of his grave and come gunning for them if he knew they had mortgaged the family land to high fence most of it. When they got enough money together, they could finish the job and apply for their deer breeder permit. Which was why they were bringing in the Oklahoma animals. And that was taking a big risk, since Texas had passed a law a few years ago making it a felony to haul deer in from other states. Scared of “wasting disease,” they claimed, although everybody knew it was just the big white-tail breeders protecting their business from out-of-state competition. The feds had gotten in on the act, too, and passed a law against illegally transporting deer.
But first they had to catch you. The pilot figured the chances of that were pretty slim, all things considered. He knew of a team up in North Texas that had been running a similar black market operation for the past five years, bringing in deer from up north, from Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin. They were still in business, making money hand over fist. All he and his brother needed were a couple of good trips to stock the ranch, and then they’d have their herd and could make it legal.
“Antlers?” his brother asked.
“Jack’s bringing them.” The antlers were always removed for transport, to keep the animals from injuring themselves or one another. “Impressive racks, obviously superior genetics.” That was the buzzword, what everybody was talking about these days. Superior genetics, meaning genes for monster racks that hunters would pay big money for.
“I figure we can keep the best buck,” the pilot added, “and find breeders who’ll pay six thousand apiece for the rest, easy. Seven or eight, maybe more, once they see those racks.” There were breeders out there who had more money than sense and were perfectly willing—eager, even—to buy black-market animals. And there was almost no risk. They knew they could simply launder those deer into the herds already on their hunting compounds, where they’d bring tens of thousands of dollars.
His brother nodded. “About time for a beer, wouldn’t you say? You can tell me all about that little girl in Lubbock.”
“I’ll drink to that,” the pilot replied, and the two headed up the hill toward the ranch house, their boots kicking up dry dust. It had rained in the valley over the weekend, but not up here on the mountain. That was the way in this drought. Hit-and-miss, mostly miss.
The tin-roofed clapboard house was weathered to a dull, nondescript gray. It had served as the family ranch house for four generations now, going back to the days when the only way to get to the Bar Bee was to ride your horse or drive your wagon from the main road up the limestone bed of the shallow Frio River to the spot where the ranch road headed off up Bee Creek. When the river was in flood, you stayed where you were until it was down again. Now, it was paved from the highway near Concan almost all the way up to the Bar Bee, and some of the old ranches were now gated communities with riverfront parks and underground electricity. The pilot hated the thought, but there was no denying it. Pretty quick, they were going to run out of country.
The two men went in through the back door. Inside, the house reflected its occupancy by a pair of bachelors, neither of whom bothered to make beds or wash dishes on a regular schedule. The kitchen table still held the remains of the previous day’s meals, and the sink was piled with dirty pots and pans. The main feature in the living room was a gigantic HDTV, with a pair of brown La-Z-Boys parked in front of it, a table between them topped with an overflowing ashtray and a couple of empty beer bottles.
They took Lone Star longnecks out of the fridge, then went to sit in the rocking chairs on the front porch, propping their boots on the rail. From this vantage point, they could look out over the nearly two thousand acres of the old ranch, hillsides densely wooded with mesquite, cedar, and oak, the creek bottom with sycamore, pecan, and cypress, and enough open grazing to support a couple of hundred cows. Their dad and granddad had been cattle ranchers, so the whole place was low fenced—high fenced now to confine the deer herd they were intent on building. This was the southern rim of the Edwards Plateau and good land, all of it, prime habitat for wild turkey, dove, feral hogs, and white-tailed deer. When they were boys, the brothers had hunted every inch of it. There was no other place on earth that either of them would ever want to be, and when their dad was dying, they’d promised him that they would keep the land.
But cattle ranching was a losing proposition these days. Beef was bringing a good price, but the years-long drought had reduced the amount of hay they could raise to feed their cows, so they’d had to sell off most of the calves. The pilot had even thought of selling the plane, but he knew they wouldn’t get what it was worth to them. He and his brother had talked the subject up one end and down the other and had come to the conclusion that they either had to sell the land to a developer or turn it into a trophy-hunting ranch, like the one Jack worked for. Which was what they were doing. Give them another two years and enough black-market deer to pay for the rest of the fencing, and they’d be in business.
“So what’s the stock count now, with this batch coming in?” the pilot asked.
“Eleven from out of state, plus those four fawns Jack brought over. We sold off five of the Oklahoma bucks already.”
The pilot frowned. Jack, who was experienced at working with white-tails, was buying into their project on shares, with breeder fawns and other stuff: supplies, tools, equipment.
“Those fawns,” he said, “they’re a problem. Once the Oklahoma white-tails are inside our fence, they could be native to the place and legal, far as anybody can tell. But I don’t care how big a rack their daddy carries, those fawns were a mistake.”
“Yeah. Those ear tattoos. Since it’s the genetics we’re after, we won’t need the animals themselves, once we’ve got their offspring. We can get rid of them. And when Jack brings the next batch come spring, they better be unmarked. No more tattooed ears.”
“I’ll go for that,” the pilot said, and tipped his bottle. “You told him, I reckon.”
“Yes, but he’s got another problem, too. His wife is pissed off about what he’s doing.” The brother’s voice had a jagged edge. “I told him he’d better keep her in line, or else.” His laugh was raspy. “Women. They got their uses, but they’re never happy, no matter what. It’s always something with them. Always something.”
Or else what, the pilot wondered uneasily, trying not to remember the details of that bad scene in Corpus that had ended with his brother spending five years in jail for manslaughter, plus probation. He eyed the Cooper’s hawk circling over the meadow that sloped down to the creek below and watched as it arched into a steep, stooping dive, pulling up sharply with a struggling shape in its brutal claws. Or else what?
With a shiver, he stopped remembering Corpus and thought instead about Jack’s wife, who was a tempting dish. “Always something,” he agreed mildly.
His brother pulled out a can of Red Man and poked a wad of tobacco into his cheek. “You got it. Well, there’s more. The day you and Jack left for Oklahoma, I had to get the vet out here. Not our regular, but the old guy. The one Dad used to go fishing with.”
“Oh yeah. Him and Dad was real close. Which cow?”
“The red heifer. She twinned.”
“It go okay?” The pilot thought it probably had, even though it was a first birth. They had grown up with cows and knew how to deal with most situations. Must have been a tough one for his brother to call in a vet.
“Nope. The bull calf died—the vet’s damn fault, although he wouldn’t own up to it.” He narrowed his eyes. “And there’s worse. While he was here, I think he got a look at those fawns.”
The pilot sat up straight, feeling a twist of uneasiness. “A good look?”
His brother shrugged. “That old man is shrewd, and he knows our place from way back.” There was that jagged edge again. “He likely knows we ain’t got a permit.”
The pilot didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, casual and soothing, he said, “Well, I don’t reckon he’ll say anything. Not his business.”
The brother picked up a rusty can and spit a stream of tobacco juice into it. “I been thinking of having a little talk with him.”
The pilot didn’t answer for a moment. Then, carefully, trying to be cool, he said, “I don’t think you should do that. Maybe he didn’t—”
“Leave it to me, bro. I’ll take care of it.”
“Okay,” the pilot said reluctantly. “Well, okay.”
The hawk was back in the air, circling for another kill. He thought again of Corpus Christi.
American bittersweet, Celastrus scandens, is a climbing vine that can grow to twenty feet. A native, it is reported to occur throughout most of the eastern two-thirds of North America, from Canada to Texas. Other common names include climbing bittersweet, false bittersweet, climbing orangeroot, fevertwig, fever-twitch, staff vine, and Jacob’s ladder. It prefers a sunny location and neutral soil. As a climber, it is a valuable ornamental landscape plant that can control erosion and harbor wildlife. Its orange berrylike fruits are produced in late summer and autumn, in hanging clusters that provide winter food for grouse, pheasant, quail, rabbit, squirrel, and deer. Fruit-bearing branches and twigs are prized for holiday wreaths and dried arrangements.
If you plan to add this vine to your landscape, be sure to choose the native American bittersweet, rather than the invasive pest Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), which is sometimes sold in nurseries. Aggressive Oriental bittersweet vines can girdle and smother trees and shrubs and have overwhelmed entire plant communities. This imported plant bully not only outcompetes and displaces our indigenous American bittersweet, but can also hybridize with it. Widespread hybridization could genetically disrupt the native bittersweet population to the point of extinction. In some states, Oriental bittersweet has been listed as a prohibited noxious weed and targeted for eradication.
“Native Plants for Wildlife Gardens”
Pecan Springs Enterprise
Sometimes it’s hard to know just when and where a particular story begins. Once you know the ending, you can trace it back to a dozen different starting points, places where you can say, “It all started here,” or “This is where it began.” But that’s not the whole of it, either—because each of those starting points is the ending of another story, which has a beginning somewhere else, which is the ending of yet another story. It’s like a vine. Sometimes you can’t untangle it.
So when I tell you that this story begins on the Monday morning of Thanksgiving week, it’s because I have to start somewhere, and that day is as good as any other. I remember that particular day because my herb shop is closed on Mondays and I was taking the opportunity to do some restocking and decorating for the coming holiday season. Up until that moment, it had been a very ordinary day, full of the ordinary kinds of Monday things. I was standing on the stepladder, making room on the wall for the half-dozen wreaths that had just arrived, when the phone rang—the phone call that pulled me into a chain of events that wouldn’t end until three people were dead.
Over my shoulder, I called to Ruby Wilcox, who was unpacking a big box beside the counter. “Hey, Ruby, get that, would you?”
“Why?” Ruby asked, taking a box cutter to a large cardboard carton. “We’re closed. Let the machine pick up.”
“It could be Brian. I called to remind him about Thanksgiving dinner at the ranch.” My stepson is a freshman at the University of Texas, and corralling him for family get-togethers is not an easy business. I have to make a date with him weeks ahead, and then remind him—more than once. In this case, though, I knew he wanted to be reminded. Thanksgiving at my mother’s South Texas ranch has become a family tradition. It’s something we look forward to.
“On it,” Ruby said, and reached for the phone.
I cocked my head to one side, surveying the wall, pleased that I’d been able to clear enough space to hang at least four of the six beautiful twenty-four-inch bittersweet wreaths that Ruby was unpacking. They’d been sent by a Michigan wreath maker I had recently met online, and I was anxious to put them up. Bittersweet isn’t available locally, and these were gorgeous. They would probably be gone by the weekend.
I straightened a holly wreath, tweaked a burlap bow, then climbed back down the ladder. “Brian?” I mouthed to Ruby, who was holding the cordless phone to her ear.
She shook her head, said, “Here she is, Leatha,” and handed me the phone, then went tactfully back to work.
“Hey, Mom.” I leaned against the counter. “What’s up?”
There was a time when a telephone call from my mother would have sent me into a near-fatal tailspin. My childhood memories of her are blurry, as if I’m seeing her in a foggy mirror, but my grownup bitterness was sharp edged and painful. All that stuff you read about difficult, dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships? It’s all true, what you’ve heard, at least where mine was concerned. It was dysfunctional to the core. My mother was an alcoholic.
But as Leatha would say, she is a recovering alcoholic, and we’ve become closer since she went clean and straight. We survived a terrifying family crisis a few years ago, when we discovered that Leatha’s aunt Tully was suffering from Huntington’s disease, a fatal genetic neurological disorder, and it looked like my mother and I were in line to inherit it. (Thankfully, not.) There’d been another crisis after that, when some of the mysteries around my father’s death—his murder, as it turned out—were exhumed. I learned that I had a half brother I’d never met, the product of my father’s decades-long extramarital affair with a woman who wasn’t my mother. Leatha and I managed somehow to muddle through all that messy stuff together, and since then, things have been better. Not idyllic, of course. Just . . . better.
“I’m so glad I caught you, China,” Leatha said, in that sweet Southern voice that pours through you like warm honey. She grew up in Mississippi, on a plantation in the Delta Country of the Yazoo River. Jordan’s Crossing is gone now, sold to pay for Aunt Tully’s nursing care. But some part of the place still lives on in my mother. I can hear it in her accent.
Like most Southern women, my mother was taught to keep unpleasantness at bay for as long as possible. But today, she sounded anxious. “I’m afraid I’ve got bad news,” she said, almost as if she were apologizing. “It’s . . . it’s Sam. He’s in the hospital.”
My heart began to thump. Sam Richards, my mother’s second husband, is the nearest thing I have to a real father. He’s thoughtful, affectionate, caring—everything my own father wasn’t—and I’ve grown to love him.
“Uh-oh,” I said, pulling in my breath. “Oh, Mom, I’m so sorry. What was it? An accident? Is he going to be all right?”
Leatha and Sam live on a 3,000-acre ranch on the Sabinal River in Uvalde County, not far from the little town of Utopia in south central Texas. Sam inherited the ranch from his father, who for most of his life raised registered cattle, aiming to preserve the breed. In his later years, though, the elder Mr. Richards imported a dozen species of rare African game animals and sold hunting leases—permission to hunt on the land for a day, a specific season (deer season, for example), or a year or more—to wealthy men who wanted the adventure of shooting wild game.
That had been Sam’s scheme, too. When he and Leatha got married a few years ago, they added a couple of units to the hunting lodge his father had built on the ranch in the 1970s and began advertising exotic game hunts. It was a successful enterprise until last year, when Sam decided he no longer wanted to be involved with what some people call “canned hunts”—shooting animals that are confined on a fenced game ranch until they’re mature enough to be killed for the shooter’s trophy collection. He and Leatha named their place the Bittersweet Nature Sanctuary, for the clear, spring-fed Bittersweet Creek that flows into the Sabinal River near the ranch house. They renovated the old lodge, put up a website, and plan to open the new enterprise in the spring to eco-tourists and vacationers who are interested in birding, a passion that Sam and my mother share. Uvalde County, on the southern escarpment of the Edwards Plateau and the northern edge of the South Texas Brush Country, is remarkably eco-diverse. It’s a mecca for birders.
“No, it wasn’t an accident,” my mother replied. I could hear the tautness in her voice, like a violin string pulled tight and vibrating. “It’s his heart, China. They did surgery, but there’ve been . . . well, complications.”
His heart? Complications? I shuddered. Sam is a strong man, an outdoor man, fit, active, energetic. But a bad heart can cut even a tough guy down to size very quickly. “Where is he? How is he? Will he be okay?”
“He’s in Kerrville. It’s a good hospital, and good doctors. But they won’t know how he is, really, for a day or two.”
“I’ll come down the way we planned,” I said, thinking ahead. “But you won’t want our bunch for Thanksgiving. It’ll be too much.” Since she married Sam, my mother had surprised me with her resilience. But I’ve known her a long time, and I know that she is more fragile than she seems. She has a breaking point. Maybe I don’t trust her enough, but I’m always aware that too much pressure might endanger her hard-won sobriety. Worrying about Sam might tip her over the edge.
“No!” she exclaimed. Then, more quietly, “No. Sam is very firm about this, China. He’s insisting that we have our family Thanksgiving, just as we always do. He says he’d feel even worse if we cancel just because he can’t be there. In fact, we’d already invited another guest—Mackenzie Chambers, our local game warden. Sam met her at a ranchers’ meeting a couple of months ago, and we’ve had her out to the ranch a time or two. When she told me that she’d lived in Pecan Springs, I asked if she knew you and she said yes. She has no family here—and she’s looking forward to seeing you again.”
“Goes for me, too,” I said. Until a few months ago, Mack had been a game warden here in Adams County. I first met her through a friend, Sheila Dawson, the Pecan Springs chief of police, who had a high opinion of Mack’s investigative skills. Sheila and Mack had worked together on a case or two. Then Mack and I became friends and saw each other often—in fact, for a while, Brian and I babysat her collection of turtle shells, which her ex-husband Lanny didn’t appreciate, in the same way he didn’t appreciate most of Mack’s interests. Since she moved, we kept in touch via email.
“But I can see Mack later,” I went on. “I’m sure we’d all understand if you canceled. You don’t have to do this, you know. Or, if it would be easier, I can come down by myself. I want to see Sam.”
“But it’s Thanksgiving and I want our family,” she protested. In a more upbeat voice, she added, “Anyway, the worst of it will be over by then. Sam won’t be home, but at least he’ll be out of the woods. And of course you can see him—although you have something already planned for Friday in Utopia, don’t you?”
“Well, yes,” I conceded. “I’m supposed to bring a load of plants for Jennie Seale’s garden.” Jennie is expanding her small restaurant just outside Utopia—Jennie’s Kitchen—and plans to have an herb garden all around the patio dining area. We’d already drawn up the planting diagram, and I had special-ordered many of the plants. Most were perennials, and this was the perfect time of year to get them settled in the ground. They’d be rarin’ to grow come spring.
“That settles it, then,” my mother said firmly. “You and I will go into Kerrville on Thanksgiving morning and visit Sam. We can have our family dinner on Thanksgiving evening. When are you coming?”
“I thought Caitie and I would drive down Wednesday afternoon, so we can help with the pies and other stuff. Oh, and she wants to bring her cat. Is that okay?” Caitie—Caitlin—is my twelve-year-old niece. My husband, Mike McQuaid, and I adopted her a couple of years ago. She’s very dear to my mother, even though she’s the daughter of my father’s illegitimate son. (I know. It’s complicated. But then, most families are, aren’t they?)
“Of course it’s okay,” Leatha said. “Are Ruby and Cass minding the shop while you’re gone?”
“Yes, with some extra help in the tearoom. We’re closed on Thanksgiving, of course, and my friend Sharon Turner is coming in to give them a hand on Friday and Saturday.” That’s the beauty of having two shops, side by side in the same building with the tearoom. We don’t abuse the privilege, but when one of us really needs a break, we stand in for each other. Ruby took off during the long Labor Day weekend. Cass, who does all the cooking, was gone for a couple of weeks in the summer. This week, it was my turn. We also share part-time helpers, like Sharon, whom everyone calls Miss T. Now a retired schoolteacher, Miss T used to be a caterer, so she’s a big help in the kitchen and the tearoom, as well as in both our shops. She gave a couple of classes for us last summer in drying herbs and using them in the kitchen.
“McQuaid has an all-day meeting in Austin on Wednesday,” I added, “so he’ll pick Brian up on the campus and they’ll drive down together on Thanksgiving. They need to go back together on Friday, too.”
“I can’t wait to see y’all,” my mother said softly. “Especially you, dear. It’s been too long.”
“You’re right,” I said. There wasn’t a hint of accusation in her voice, but that didn’t blunt the sharp-pointed guilt that jabbed me. It had been a while since we were together, which I admit is largely my fault. I’ve never been a terribly dutiful daughter, and when Sam arrived on the scene and made it clear (very sweetly) that his new wife was his responsibility, it was easy to let him have his way. That, and the fact that McQuaid and the kids and the business and the gardens keep me busy all day long, every day. I get annoyed at the cozy mysteries where the shop owner leaves her business for days at a time to go sleuthing. Never think that being your own boss means that you can take off whenever the spirit moves you. It doesn’t, and you can’t.
“All right, then,” my mother said. “I may be at the hospital with Sam when you get there, but you know where to find the key.”
“I could stop at the hospital in Kerrville,” I said. “It’s on our way.”
“No, you and Caitie just go on to the ranch and make yourself at home. We’ll see Sam on Thanksgiving.”
“Okay, then,” I said. “And Mom, love and kisses to Sam. Tell him we’re all thinking of him and hoping he can go home soon.” I put down the phone.
Ruby was lifting a wreath out of the carton. “Is everything okay?” she asked, looking at me with concern. “What’s going on with your mother?”
“It’s not my mother,” I said. “It’s Sam. He’s—”
But before I finish answering Ruby’s question, maybe I’d better fill in some background. I know that some of you are frequent visitors to Ruby’s shop and mine, but this may be a first visit for others. If you’re new here and feeling puzzled, a little of the backstory may fill in some of the blanks. If you already know all this stuff, feel free to skip the next few paragraphs.
I’m China Bayles, owner and manager of Thyme and Seasons Herb Shop in Pecan Springs, Texas, a small town at the eastern edge of the Texas Hill Country, halfway between Austin and San Antonio. In my previous life, I was a criminal defense attorney for a big law firm in Houston, living a fast-track, dressed-for-success life that was full of close calls, narrow squeaks, and hair-trigger excitement—both in the courtroom and out. There was always something going on—and enough going for me that you’d think I would have been fully satisfied.
But after a few years, the people around me began to seem superficial, artificial, even phony. Nobody said what they meant or meant what they said, and I began to want something genuine, something authentic, something real. I wanted real friendships, a real relationship. And real work, where I could put out my hand and touch real things that had their own real lives, not just briefs and pleadings and court documents, words, words, words. Finally, after months of soul searching, I cashed in my retirement fund, kicked off my Pradas, took a deep breath, and jumped ship.
I landed in Pecan Springs, where I bought the herb business I’d been eyeing for some months—a lovely little shop, which is looking particularly festive at the moment. Ceiling-high shelves along the back wall display jars and bottles of dried herbs, salves, and tinctures. There are dozens of herb, gardening, and cookery books on the corner bookshelves, and on a wooden table, I’ve arranged essential oils, a display of pretty bottles, and aromatherapy supplies. Along another wall are herbal jellies, vinegars, seasoning blends, soaps and lotions and body balms. Baskets of dried herbs are arranged in the corners, bundles of dried plants are tucked into jars and hung from the overhead beams, and holiday wreaths and swags are displayed on the stone walls of the old building. When people walk in, they go “Ahhh,” very quietly, and smile. I understand. I live with that lovely “Ahhh” feeling all day long.
A few years after I bought the shop, I married Mike McQuaid, formerly a Houston homicide detective, now a part-time faculty member in the Criminal Justice Department at Central Texas State University and an independent private investigator in McQuaid, Blackwell, and Associates. I knew him as McQuaid when I met him, professionally, and that’s what I’ve continued to call him. A hunk of a guy, really, in spite of his broken nose and the knife scar on his forehead, earned on the mean streets of Houston. He had a young son, Brian, and then Caitlin came along. Life has become very full and satisfying.
Okay, that’s me. The six-foot-plus, red-haired gal with the box cutter in one hand and the wreath in the other is Ruby Wilcox, my business partner. Ruby’s nose is liberally speckled with sandy freckles, her eyes are sometimes brown, sometimes blue or green (depending on which contacts she’s wearing), and she has Julia Roberts’ mouth. She has two daughters, Shannon Wilcox, who coaches girls’ sports at Bowie High in Austin, and Amy Roth, who lives and works here in Pecan Springs. Amy and her partner, Kate Rodriguez, have a three-year-old girl, Grace, a plump, pretty strawberry blonde who is Ruby’s joy and proud delight.
Ruby owns Pecan Springs’ only New Age shop, the Crystal Cave, right next door to Thyme and Seasons. The Cave is the place to go if you’re looking for books on astrology, runes or crystals for divination, or a class in how to throw the I Ching. And if you can’t read your tarot card layout or your Ouija board won’t answer your questions, Ruby is there to help. Her strong psychic sense—her “gift,” people call it, although Ruby herself sometimes sees it as a curse—manifests itself every now and then, as it did recently, when she helped a friend do a little ghost-busting in a mysterious old house way out in the country. I am by nature a logical, rational, skeptical, cut-to-the-chase kind of person, and it’s hard for me to swallow most claims of the supernatural. But Ruby has been right so often that when she turns psychic on me, all I can do is shake my head and mutter, “You go, girl.” And then stand back and see what happens.
But Ruby is also a practical businesswoman. Thyme for Tea, the tearoom that’s located behind our shops, was her idea, and she invited her friend Cass Wilde to sign on as chef. After that, she came up with Party Thyme, our catering service. Then she thought it would be a good plan for us to partner with Cass in a personal chef business called the Thymely Gourmet. “Bundled services” is the way Ruby describes it: offering related products and services to customers who already know and trust us. It’s true that I sometimes feel as if I’m one of a trio of maniac clowns who are juggling a half-dozen pins, balls, and rings, trying not very successfully to keep them all in the air at the same time. But Ruby and Cass and I have learned that the more we do, the more we can do, and that if we want to stay in business in this challenging economy, we’d better have more up our sleeve than a single trick.
“Sam?” Ruby asked with a frown. “What’s going on with him?”
“Heart trouble,” I said, and related as much as I knew. “He’s insisting that we carry on as usual,” I added, “so there’s no change in plans on this end. I’ll be back Sunday night—at least, if everything goes okay with Sam.” I paused, not wanting to think what might happen if things didn’t go okay.
“I’m so sorry, China,” Ruby said. “Sam has been good for your mother.”
“He’s been a lifesaver,” I said fervently. After a moment, I went on. “I hope you won’t be needing Mama over the weekend. I have a load of plants to take down to Utopia for Jennie Seale’s garden.”
Big Red Mama is the used panel van we bought several years ago to haul our catering stuff, as well as plants. Mama’s former owner was a hippie artist named Gerald who was arrested for cooking crystal meth. The Hays County sheriff’s office impounded his van, and it ended up in the county’s vehicle auction. Ruby and I were attracted to Mama because she was cheap and because of the wild swirl of colorful Art Deco designs that Gerald (probably under the influence of a certain psychoactive herb) painted on her modest red sides. Ruby says that Mama looks like a cross between a Crayola box on wheels and a Sweet Potato Queen float on the way to a parade.
“Nope, Cass and I won’t need Mama,” Ruby said. “You can take her.” She turned the large yellow orange wreath in her hands, eyeing it admiringly. “China, I absolutely love this. It’s the prettiest bittersweet wreath I’ve ever seen. Just look—it’s simply loaded with berries. I’m going to buy it for my front door at home.”
“Hang on a minute,” I said, taking the wreath from her and examining it closely. “This is not so good.”
“Not so good? What are you talking about?” Ruby snatched the wreath back. “It’s extra pretty, don’t you think? It’s kind of two-tone, with all those bright orange berries and pretty yellow thingies. It looks exactly like the one Martha Stewart made on her TV show. I love it. I want it. Your customers are going to want one, too. You just wait and see.”
“They can’t have it.” I pulled a second wreath out of the carton and looked at it closely, and then a third, and then the rest. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but Martha Stewart used the wrong bittersweet. All these wreaths are going back to the woman who made them. I’m recommending that she burn them.”
“Burn them!” Ruby was staring at me, eyes wide, aghast. “But why?”
“Because this isn’t American bittersweet. It’s Oriental bittersweet.” I pointed to a berry cluster. “These pretty yellow thingies? They’re the capsules that have dried and split open to reveal the orange fruit inside. If this were our native bittersweet, the capsules would be orange, too. And look at the way the fruits are positioned all along the branches, at the leaf nodes. In American bittersweet, the fruits only occur at the tips of the branches.”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “Orange, yellow—so what? What’s so bad about Oriental bittersweet? You’re worried that somebody forgot to pay customs duties? Anyway, I thought these wreaths came from Michigan, not Asia.”
“Yep, they do come from Michigan,” I said grimly. I was lifting the other wreaths out of the carton. When I had examined them all, I began putting them back again. “Which is really bad, because it’s illegal to sell or ship Oriental bittersweet in or out of Michigan—and several other states, as well. This plant is a thug. A bully. A ruthless, aggressive, nonnative species that was introduced as an ornamental around the time of the Civil War and escaped into the wild. It loves to climb up shrubs and trees and smother them. And it hybridizes with the native bittersweet, which makes it even more thuggish.”
“Illegal?” Ruby pushed her lips in and out, considering. “Well, maybe. But aren’t you overreacting? There’s not a chance in the world that this dried stuff is going to smother the trees in my yard. It’ll just hang quietly on my front door and look pretty.” She picked up the top wreath and smiled at me. “I want this one. How much?”
I pulled off a dried berry and held it up. “See that? What is it?”
Ruby frowned. “So it’s a berry. So what? It’s not poisonous, is it?”
“It’s a seed, Ruby. This pretty little package is a genetic time bomb.”
“A . . . time bomb?” Ruby asked warily.
“Exactly. It’s not very likely to go off here in Texas, since this isn’t the plant’s ideal habitat. But what happens if somebody buys this wreath in my shop and decides to give it to her sister, who lives in Arkansas, or maybe Missouri? The sister hangs it over her mantel until the pretty orange berries begin to drop off, then tosses it on her compost pile. The next year, a dozen little green seedlings pop up. The year after that, a dozen not-so-pretty green vines are twining around the nearest shrub. The year after that, Katy, bar the door. Once this hoodlum moves into the neighborhood, there’s no getting rid of it.”
Ruby shook her head. “That is too bad. Really.”
“Yes, it is. Very bad.” I put the wreath back in the box and closed it firmly, to keep those genetic time bombs from escaping. “I think I’ll email this woman and tell her that it would be simpler and cheaper if I’d just burn these here. It would save her some shipping. And I’m sure the state of Michigan would prefer never to see them again.”
“I guess you know what you’re doing.” Ruby gave me a rueful look. “Speaking of bombs, I’m sort of in trouble, and I was hoping you could help.”
“In trouble?” I chuckled dryly. “So what else is new? You’re in trouble at least three times a week.”
“Don’t be that way,” Ruby said.
“What way?” I pulled my laptop out from under the counter and booted it up.
“You know,” Ruby replied, wounded. “That way.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, repenting. “That was uncalled-for.” True, but uncalled-for. And after all, she was babysitting my shop while I was gone. “I’ve got your back, sweetie. Tell me what I can do.”
“You can go down to city hall and apply for a permit for the yarn bombing on Crockett Street.” She pressed her lips together. “The application was due early last week, but I got busy and forgot all about it. The Six Chix have been knitting up a storm, and we’re ready to start bombing, but if we don’t get that permit, we could get arrested.” She shifted uncomfortably. “I’d do it, but they don’t like me over there. At city hall, I mean. I’m sure they’ll like you better.”
“Yarn bombing?” I was doubtful. “You have to file an application to bomb yarn? What are you bombing it with? Why are you bombing it?”
“Yarn bombing is street art. Like graffiti, only with yarn.”
“Yarn graffiti? Like, yarn instead of spray paint?”
Ruby nodded. “Grandma graffiti. Guerilla fiber art. It all started over in Houston, when a boutique owner knitted a pink and blue cozy for her shop doorknob. People noticed. Then she knitted a leg warmer for the stop sign on the corner. A lot more people noticed that one.”
“I’ll bet they did,” I muttered. I was looking for the wreath maker’s email address.
“She bombed trees and bushes and traffic signs. And then the New York Times wrote about her and she began getting corporate commissions to do great big projects, like the Christmas sweater she knitted for a Prius a couple of years ago, and the parking meter cozies she knitted for a downtown shopping district in Brooklyn. Now lots of people are doing yarn bombings.”
“A sweater for a Prius?” I asked warily. “I hope you’re not thinking of knitting a pullover for Big Red Mama.”
Ruby shook her head. “No, we’re knitting tree-trunk warmers. You know, like leg warmers, except they’re for trees. And it’s not just me; it’s my knitting group. The Six Chix with Pointy Stix. We’re going to bomb some of the trees in this block of Crockett as a holiday project. Everybody gets tired of knitting sweaters and socks, you know.”
“I suppose,” I conceded. Ah, there was the address of the lady in Michigan, where I’d ordered bittersweet. American bittersweet. “Once you’ve knitted one sock, you’ve knitted them all. And bombing sounds like a good way to use up your yarn stash.”
“Oh, it’s that, all right,” Ruby agreed enthusiastically. “And I’ve got a ton of yarn, in all colors of the rainbow. Anyway, the other Chix and I thought we could just do it—as an art project, I mean. Something to make everybody smile during the holidays, especially the customers who are shopping on Crockett.”
That would be our customers, and customers of the Hobbit House children’s bookstore next door, the Craft Emporium on the corner, and the restaurant across the street. Our block of Crockett is host to several attractive venues.
Ruby was continuing. “But then we found out that we had to get a permit at city hall, and when I went to get it, the woman who handles the permits—Mrs. Dillinger—had never heard of yarn bombing. When I told her about it, she decided it was vandalism.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Or littering. She said she’d never issue a permit for something so adolescent. She was really quite insulting.” She made a face. “That’s when I got . . . well, sort of excited. I was rude. I . . . yelled at her.” When Ruby gets excited and yells, she is awesome.
Ruby went on. “The next day, one of the Chix went to the city council and showed them some photos of yarn-bombed fire hydrants in Seattle and park benches and statues in Chicago. The council overruled Mrs. Dillinger and said that yarn bombing isn’t vandalism, it’s art. They told her to accept our application.” Ruby’s shoulders sagged. “I was supposed to get it in by last Friday, but I forgot. And I was . . . well, pretty rude. I’m afraid she’s going to hold it against me, personally. She’ll use my being late as an excuse to deny the permit.”
“So what you want me to do is—”
“Go over to city hall and talk to her. Apologize for being late. Explain that the Chix are ready to start and we really need that permit. And be very nice, would you? Being nice would go a long way toward easing the situation.”
“I can be nice,” I said, and finished typing my email. It was polite but firm. “Maybe I’d better call first, though, and make sure Mrs. Whatsit is going to be in the office.”
“Dillinger, as in the bank robber. Oh, and tell her that you’ll be paying the twenty-five-dollar fee. I’ll give you a check.”
“Works for me.” I hit the Send button and the email flew off into cyberspace. I was bending over, looking for the phone book under the counter, when I heard the bell over the shop door tinkle. “Sorry, we’re closed today,” I said, without looking up. I must’ve forgotten to lock the door when I came in.
“It’s just me,” a light voice said.
“Oh, hi, Amy,” Ruby chirped brightly. “I thought you’d be at work this morning.”
I straightened up, the phone book in my hand. “Hello, Amy,” I said. “Nice to see you.”
It was Ruby’s wild child. Amy, now nearly thirty, is her mother’s look-alike, although she isn’t quite so tall and has many more piercings than Ruby, and several more tattoos. (Actually, Ruby has only one, a fern and flower tattooed across half her chest, where one breast used to be. She sacrificed it to a mastectomy several years ago.) When she was still a teenager, Ruby gave birth to Amy out of wedlock and—at her own mother’s behest—gave the baby up for adoption. But when Amy grew up, she did an adoptive search, located her mother, and came back into Ruby’s life.
And that was just the beginning, for it turns out that Amy, an animal activist and active conservationist, never does anything the easy, conventional way. It wasn’t long before she surprised us with the announcement that she was pregnant and had decided to keep the baby. Ruby was still coming to terms with the fact that she was about to become a grandmother when Amy declared that she was moving in with her friend and lover, Kate Rodriguez. Wild child indeed.
But Amy’s relationship with Kate has settled her down. The three of them—Kate, Amy, and Grace—are a family. Kate owns her own successful accounting business, and Amy works as a veterinary assistant at the Hill Country Animal Clinic. The wild child has grown up.
“I’m going in late because I have to work late this evening,” Amy said. “Listen, Mom—I wonder if you’d mind keeping Grace this weekend? Kate has to drive up to Oklahoma City for Thanksgiving with her mother, and I’d like to see a . . . a friend in San Antonio. I’ll be back on Sunday.”
“There’s nothing I’d like better, dear.” Ruby spoke without hesitation. “I’ll be here at the shop on Saturday, but Grace can come with me. Miss T will be here, and she’s always a big help.”
Amy grinned. “I like Miss T. I wonder what color her hair will be this time.” Sharon is quite a character. Her hair has been white since she was in her twenties, and she changes the color almost as often as some people change their minds.
Ruby nodded. “You’ll be with us for Thanksgiving, won’t you? Shannon and her fiancé are coming, and I’m roasting a turkey for the gang. But for you, dear, I’m baking a vegan Thanksgiving loaf with lentils, millet, and rice. And a very tasty vegan gravy.”
“Of course I’ll be there,” Amy said with a grin. She was wearing her favorite bloodred Meat Is Murder T-shirt, advertising her animal activism. In fact, I first met her when she was trying to shut down an animal experiment at CTSU, along with other protestors from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “And that lentil loaf sounds terrific,” she added. “Want me to bring anything?”
“Just yourself—and Grace, of course,” Ruby replied. “Who’s your friend?” she added in a studiedly offhand tone that didn’t quite conceal her curiosity. “The one you’re going to see in San Antonio.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the China Bayles Series:
"[Albert] consistently turns out some of the best-plotted mysteries on the market."Houston Chronicle
“One of the best-written and [most] well-plotted mysteries I’ve read in a long time.”Los Angeles Times
“Albert’s dialogue and characterizations put her in a class with lady sleuths V. I. Warshawski and Stephanie Plum.”Publishers Weekly
“Display[s] a deep sense of the Texas hill country and [makes] good use of the strong, likable cast. Details of herbs and herbal remedies continue to flavor the always intriguing plots.”Booklist
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Susan Wittig Albert writes several series and I have enjoyed reading two of them. The China Bayles series contains many recipes and interesting tidbits on spices and herbs. This novel dealt with deer hunting in Texas on preserves where the deer are genetically improved for better hunting. I guess I always thought that these preserves were for big game hunting, and that deer did not fall into this realm. After reading this book, my dislike of deer hunting greatly increased and taste for venison disappeared. Susan W Albert introduces many new characters, such as the adopted daughter of China and her husband. Bittersweet, the ranch of China's mother and step-father, provides a peaceful garden to the frantic deer hunting.
As always Susan Wittig Albert's book is gripping and well written. All of her books are interesting with the info about plants and the stories that are told about them from history. Her mystery writing is in the best category for writers!
Ive read all the China Bayles books as well as all Nevada Barrs Anna Pigeon books up to "The Rope" where she proved to be unbelievably stupid and I decided we had to part ways. My only complaint about this book is its abrupt end. I am not a fan of a character narrating the details that wrap up the story.
I enjoyed reading Bittersweet but was disappointed that the storyline was not really about China and her hometown sleuthing. The subject matter and main character of this installment was far too reminiscent of the Nevada Barr series on Anna Pigeon in the various national parks. I wish Albert had stuck to her tried and true characters. I bought the book to read about China and Ruby and all those familiar Pecan Springs natives, not replay of a formula already used to death by another author. If I had wanted this kind of story, I would have bought Nevada Barr. Stephanie Clanahan
Having just read and reviewed DEATH COME QUICKLY, book 22 in this series, I was eager to read BITTERSWEET. But when I read what the subject of BITTERSWEET was, trophy game ranches, places where animals are kept and raised for the purpose of hunting them for thrills and trophies, I almost choose not to read the book. I personally find such places appalling and feel they should be outlawed. But I was sent this book by the publisher to review, so I read it. This is only the second book I have read in this series, but as with DEATH COMES QUICKLY, I found BITTERSWEET to be very well written. There is no doubt author Susan Wittig Albert knows how to draw readers into a story. Written partly in first person with China narrating, and partly in third person with the story of China’s friend Mackenzie “Mack” Chambers being told, I wasn’t sure I was going to care for it at first, but I found myself looking forward to the spots where the POV changed (Normally at the start of a new chapter). It kept the story fresh, and I think it was a creative choice. And even though the subject was not a favorite of mine, without giving anything away, I had reason to smile near the end when the universe had a unique revenge planned for the villain. I cheered! Rounding out the book is very interesting information on different types of plants, and some tasty sounding recipes. After reading books 22 & 23 in this series, I’m going to get book 1 and start this great series from the beginning.