Monday, November 11, 2013

Jillian Encounters the Barracuda...from "Murder in Half Moon Bay"

I'll be posting a chapter from "Murder in Half Moon Bay" every day until the end of the month. Enjoy!


The grounds were beautiful. My morning walk with Teddy felt like a stroll through the Scottish Highlands. The air was wet with mist and clung to everything. Flowers dotted the beach grasses heavy with dew.
After dressing for breakfast, I found two women in hotel uniforms setting out the buffet. I took a plate. Its warm smooth surface reminded me of buffets long past– hotcakes, omelets with sausage.
Hunger seized me in earnest. The coffee cake and fruit looked like a feast for Caesar. I filled my plate full and visited the drink table for coffee and juice. No short cuts this morning. I wanted the full Ritz treatment. I was in this busy state of gorging on kiwis and pineapple at my table when I caught a glimpse of Regina Anatolia, hands full with food as well, approaching.
I quickly wiped my fingers with a napkin. They were clean enough now to shake hands even though they remained a bit sticky. Luckily, she seemed a shade distracted and didn’t extend her hand.
“Mind if I join you?”
“Not at all. Sit down.” I gestured to the empty chair beside me and lay the napkin back in my lap.
“I noticed you looking our way last night at dinner, and I wanted to....”
“There’s no need to apologize. I know how stress can wind up people and get them tense and irritable–”
“No,” she interrupted. “Spencer and I don’t get along at all. He’s oppressive in his managing style.”
Perhaps there was more to this relationship than met the eye. Regina seemed to be holding up the persona of a disgruntled employee, but perhaps the conflict went a little deeper.
“Anyway,” she continued, “I often rail back at him.”
“I’m sure we all have to deal with people like that at one time or another.”
“Maybe, but I’ve worked with him for three years. It hasn’t gotten any better. I don’t want to affect your opinion of the conference, but…I’m quitting after it’s over.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Regina.”
She looked near the brink of tears and I somehow felt obligated to do something.
“You’ve done a wonderful job making all the arrangements here. What will you do? What’s your background?”
She brightened a little. “I’ve got this project, science mainly, and I have an MA in horticulture. I also enjoy writing about gardens.”
“That sounds like me.” I smiled warmly, hoping to be an encouragement.
She smiled back and then looked away in thought.
I took a forkful of coffee cake and a sip of coffee.
She seemed to come to a decision and turned to me. “I did write some excellent articles. I submitted them to several magazines. However, I made the mistake of mailing them from the Society’s office.”
“That sounds like a logical thing to do. The magazines would assume you had credibility working for a garden club society.”
“That’s what I thought, but when one of my articles did get published, the credit was given to Spencer Hausman. Evidently he intercepted my work, changed my name to his, and sent it off.”
Shocking. I was stunned to think anyone would have the nerve, but somehow hearing this about Spencer didn’t surprise me.
“Did you confront him?”
“Oh, believe me I did, but you see, I’m not all that innocent. Spencer found out something about me and threatened to expose it if I even mentioned what he’d done.”
“I see. So now, you’re running away by quitting. Don’t you realize he’ll always have a hold on you until you face up to him and settle the situation that’s the problem?”
“I just can’t. Not yet anyway.”
We sat in silence finishing our breakfast.
When Paul Youngblood entered the Club, I smiled.
 “Do you know Paul, Regina?”
 She seemed alarmed. “Why?”
“Well, I…” Now why had she taken such a fright at a simple question? “I thought maybe he might be worth getting to know. I’d like an introduction, if you would.”
Paul came toward us holding a plate of fruit-topped waffles in one hand and a glass of juice in the other.
 “Regina, how are you this morning?” His glance scanned her face.
She looked away, and then made a robotic introduction. “Jillian, this is Paul Youngblood, the famous landscape architect. Paul, Jillian Bradley, of the ‘Ask Jillian’ column.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Bradley.”
“How do you do Mr. Youngblood? I’ve heard wonderful things about your work.”
He lowered his eyes. “Thank you.”
“Won’t you join us?” I looked around for an extra chair.
Regina stood. “I’m sorry, but I’m late as it is. I really must go.” 
Before I could even say goodbye, she rushed off.
Paul took the unoccupied seat. He drank his orange juice in one long swallow. Then he tilted his head, and contemplated me once again. “I believe we’ve met before. Ah. The elevator, wasn’t it?”
“That’s correct.”
He began cutting up his waffles into quarters and cramming the large hunks into his mouth.
I couldn’t help but prod him for information. “You seemed distracted. I hope everything’s all right.”
With my statement, he dropped his fork on his plate with a clank. A short sigh escaped him. “Hah, all right? I don’t know if anything will ever be all right.”
“Well, perhaps if you elaborated, an ol’ gal like me might be able to offer some advice. I’m a good listener.”
He looked around.
A married couple turned back to their eggs and toast.
He eyed me with a grin. “I just had the wind knocked out of me about a month ago is all.”
He seemed to be weighing whether I was worth the risk.
I certainly hoped so because I’d been dying for this since I first saw him in the lobby.
“Hmm, you look like a good listener all right.” He shifted in his chair, got comfortable and sipped his coffee. “So you really want to hear it? The whole sad mess?”
“I’m especially good with messes.”
He chuckled. “Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Go ahead and eat.”
He grabbed his own fork again and started swallowing more waffle quarters. “Come on, eat while I tell you. I don’t want people thinking our chat is anything important.”
I dutifully obeyed. Sipping on the warm coffee was a sweet price to pay for the kind of information I was expecting.
“I had a girl…a fiancĂ©e. She was a go-getter. Her business took her to New York. She took the wrong plane…at the wrong time…9-11.”
“Oh, my word!”
“They never actually identified her remains. Too charred.”
“Paul, that’s terrible.”
He nodded. “I’d been dating her for three years. Really shook me up.”
“I imagine it would.”
“Don’t know if a man can ever get over that sort of thing, you know? Regina, I’d actually known before–an old school friend. We had dated in college, but the little minx got sick of me, found a guy ‘going somewhere’. One of those deals. Eventually I got sick of her, or at least trying to chase her, and found my girl, the one who died.”
Paul sat back in his chair contemplating. He sat in silence for a few moments before he turned to me again.
“I need to get back to my room. Please excuse me.” With that, he abruptly left.


I arrived in the conference room a little early.
Good. Time for some coffee.
I filled a cup from the silver urn and took a seat toward the front of the audience. Hugh Porter had unpacked his edible borders and an assortment of herbs, leaf lettuce, and marigolds lined the floor around the podium. I used the first few minutes to observe his selections. Then I made notes of each variety, their health, and combinations to please the eye.  
“Evelyn! Darling.” The voice cut through my concentration. It feigned all the attachment of a dear friend and yet the voice chilled my blood. Thankfully, the greeting wasn’t for me. I did fear for the poor soul under attack.
The Barracuda.
 ‘Evelyn’ answered, sounding a little startled, “Celeste, how are you? You…look fabulous as always.”
“Oh, thank you. New tailor.”
Evelyn turned to the man standing quietly behind her. In an authoritative voice commanded him as if not doing her bidding would doom them to social obscurity forever, “Thomas, say hello to Celeste.”
Thomas, acting as though he was looking for any rock to crawl under, managed a feeble, “hello.”
Evelyn elbowed him and nudged him still closer.
I began to wonder about the relationship between these two. How could a woman serve her man up in such a fashion for nothing more than a good word from this tigress? Evelyn persisted with a cruel giggle. “Is that all you can say dear, just hello?”
Managing a terse smile, he said, “Hello, Celeste.”
Celeste gave him a sour nod, as if even this small token was unworthy to bestow on those unaccustomed to her radiance. Then she leaned in to reward the faithful Evelyn with a comment.
From the look on Evelyn’s face, it was a slice of juicy information. Celeste ignored poor Thomas as if he didn’t exist.
“The specimens you’ve provided are just perfection. Between that sweet husband of yours and that weasel Spencer Hausman, it looks like your warehouse nursery business is doing well.”
“Now, Celeste, you know Spencer’s not a weasel, really. He’s just intense, but isn’t that the way of a true artist? He’s really a very hard worker. I don’t know what Thomas would do without him.” The pitch of her voice rose several levels.
“Evelyn darling, I’m sorry if I’ve upset you. I just think Thomas should be careful of someone who has never been married and who has that hungry look in his eye.”
“Oh, Celeste, you really are one with an imagination, but it’s all right. I keep a good eye on things as you know.”
“Oh, yes. I know you do. If you watch your business with as much prowess as you watch Society matters, I’m sure you’re fine. I see Hugh Porter coming in. I’d better find a seat. I’ll talk to you later, darling.”
“Yes, we’ll talk after the session. Come, Thomas,” Evelyn commanded, “sit.”
So much like a dog…poor man.
Finally, Nicole, Ann and Dominique entered the room. I was saved. I shot my hand up enthusiastically to get their attention.
“Over here, ladies, I’ve got us some seats.”
They all made their greetings and got to their places just in time for the lecture.
When it was over, Hugh invited everyone to taste the plants. In a strange goat-like way, I found myself enjoying the flowers and greens tossed together on my sample plate.  
I caught up with him as soon as the crowd of questioners cleared. “Hugh, that was thoroughly entertaining. I did so enjoy it.”
“Thank you. You’re Jillian Bradley, aren’t you?” He beamed. “It’s always a pleasure sharing my knowledge, especially with those who spend their lives appreciating foliage the way you do.”
“Actually, Hugh, I’ve been dying to see this presentation all week. I’m certain it will be one of the major highlights of the meeting.”
He chuckled. “Well, I love plants, and good food. So much the better if I can put them together. People become… intrigued.”
The laugh lines around his twinkling eyes crinkled. “Have you read my new book?”
“You Can Eat the Flowers?” I shook my head. “No, but I plan on buying a copy before I leave.”
Hugh winked. “I’ll sign it for you. Find me later.”
“I will. You’ll be getting a great review from me.”
“Thanks, Jillian. It was a pleasure. You’ll have to excuse me. It looks like a few more people have questions.”
Ann sighed. “I’m ready for a break. Let’s go into that cozy library with the fireplace and order something to drink.”


The room was dark and cozy, illuminated by an inviting fireplace and candelabra lamps that lined the walls. We ordered tea and talked awhile about the edible borders. Dominique appeared distracted, staring into her cup as if it contained a warm ocean.
“Dominique, are you with us?” I kidded.
“Sorry.” She smiled. “I was just thinking about poor Thomas. Did you notice? His wife acted more like his mother. It made me terribly uncomfortable listening to them.”
“Are they always like that?” Ann looked curious too. “Maybe it was an arranged marriage.”
We all chuckled. Of course, Ann, the analytical, needed to understand their motivations, their background.  
Dominique arched a brow. This was the look–the one that always proceeded one of her little rant sessions. Usually the rant consisted of a drawn out morality tale cloaked in something remotely obscure or profound.
“Now you guys know that I’ve been on safari many times. On my first trip, I was shocked to see a herd of elephants wandering around in a dense thicket. Why in the world would they be there? Wouldn’t they prefer open spaces?
“Well, turns out, they had some good reasons for being there. They could find refuge from predators. They could also eat the fruit from the trees.
“However, they had a reoccurring problem. Their very presence there spoiled the new saplings. The fruit that the thicket once produced would quickly vanish, trampled to powder under their massive feet. Soon, the trees themselves withered and died. Perhaps Thomas finds himself in a similar situation.” Dominique shrugged and sipped her tea.
“Yes.” It was my turn to translate. “Thomas has to be withering inside to tolerate being treated so badly. Shameful…but…we are obliged to talk about pleasant things over tea. So, what are you ladies up to for the rest of the day?”
My change of subject took the wind out of the moment.
Ann stood quickly and announced, “I’m going to do some shopping in a few of those boutiques I saw on Main Street. Anyone want to come?”
Nicole smiled shyly. “I’m going to Paul Youngblood’s lecture.”
Dominique nodded. “I’m with you, Nicole. He’s so good looking.”
“And it doesn’t matter what he’s lecturing on, right?” I teased.
“Of course not.”
“What about you, Jillian?” Ann signed the bill.
“I’m curious about Walter’s father, I admit. I think I’m going to pay him a visit. After that I might do a little shopping myself.”
Nicole motioned to Dominique. “We should go. His lecture starts in about five minutes.”
“Coming.” Dominique grabbed her purse, not at all interested in missing one ‘handsome’ second.


“Going up?” Evelyn waited near the elevator door again flanked by Thomas. Apparently, the elevators were the ‘happening’ place to fish for interesting news.
“Yes, fifth floor, please.” I tried not to smile at the irony.
“Us, too,” she replied, not getting the joke.
“I see by your name-tag that you’re attending the garden club conference.” This was an attempt to make friends with Thomas, the un-awful one.
Before Thomas could answer, Evelyn stepped slightly in front of him.
He stepped back and looked at the floor.
“Indeed we are. I’m Evelyn Westover and this is my husband, Thomas. We are sponsors of the conference.”
“Oh really? How nice. I’m Jillian Bradley.”
“My dear, what a pleasure to meet you. I read your column. I love your humor, so plebian, if you know what I mean. I’m sure it works well for the masses. Quite ingenious, really.”
Was that meant as a compliment or an insult? Had she overheard our conversation?
The elevator stopped and let us off.
“See you later,” Evelyn cooed, a little too smug. She headed for her room.
Thomas followed a few steps behind. 

If you like to read about lovely places and fabulous cuisine, enjoy the Jillian Bradley mystery series.

for your e-reader is free! 
All books are G-rated and contain no profanity.

  See you in my books!

 ~Nancy Jill 
Mystery novelist Nancy Jill Thames has published Christian fiction since 2010. The author of seven books in the Jillian Bradley series, she is an award winning blogger and listed numerous times on the Author Watch Bestseller’s List. In addition, she won first place in her church's 4th of July celebration for her chocolate cream pie.

When she isn’t plotting her next book, she spends time with her six grandchildren, tags along with her husband on business trips, and plays classical piano for her personal enjoyment. She is an active member of the Leander Writers' Guild, American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW),  CenTex Chapter-ACFW, and supports the Central Texas SPCA with a portion of her book sales. She resides with her husband in Leander, Texas.

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