Like a lot of people in the mountains, Jemma Chase has a second job — she’s a carpenter. That leads to trouble brewin’ in the Property Owners Association.
Boone author Maggie Bishop brings back carpenter, photographer, and unabashed “SCI” wannabe Jemma Chase in the second of her Appalachian Adventure Mystery series. In “Perfect for Framing,” Jemma finds herself entangled in a web of neighborhood intrigue after she accepts a custom cabinet-making job in an up-and-coming mountain development, Hickory Hills. At the same time, energetic Jemma is in pursuit of a job with the sheriff’s department, where the man she is “keeping company” with, Detective Tucker, is employed.
While installing cabinetry in the home of a local resident, Jemma learns that power-hungry, rich, and attractive Property Owners Association President Petula Windsor has made many enemies in Hickory Hills and beyond. Petula hires Jemma to build cabinetry for her guesthouse. Neighborhood intrigue escalates when Jemma discovers Petula’s body in the burning guesthouse.
Although Detective Tucker is understandably reluctant to include Jemma in the murder investigation, Jemma’s natural instincts and knowledge of Petula’s foes and friends prove to be invaluable, even as Tucker finds his own life threatened. Together, Tucker and Jemma begin to discern the true nature of Petula’s many relationships and discover the identity of her killer. In a surprising twist, Jemma also discovers what is really worth pursuing in her own life.
“Perfect for Framing” is a fun, fast-paced read with lots of local flavor. Although the mystery surrounding Petula’s demise will keep you quickly turning pages, what’s ultimately most satisfying is keeping company with the characters of Jemma and Tucker in this mountain adventure.
Petula rose from her lover’s bed, paraded naked to the vanity mirror, and finger combed her hair so it fell over one eye.
“Your bruises are almost gone,” the man said.
She smiled at him then studied herself in the mirror. “The lipo doctor did a thorough job. He took six pounds and three inches off my mid-section. I wish these numb spots would go away.”
“Give it time, Pet. Your face is almost healed.” He propped himself up with her pillow and reached for his cigarettes.
“I hope I’ll look better than this soon,” Pet said, still studying herself in the mirror. “I thought you gave up those things.”
“After this one. I’m down to a couple a day. Besides, you said the same thing after your face lift – no more plastic surgery.”
“A lady has a right to change her mind,” she called as she stepped into the shower.
By the time she was dressed and had put on makeup, he had his jeans back on. “I’m still mad you let someone buy that lot I wanted to build on,” he said as she emerged from the dressing area in her guest house. He pulled on a crumpled polo shirt.
“Don’t you worry. I’m in the perfect position to make their lives miserable. Didn’t I make it too tough for the last owners to build? I wasn’t President of the POA a couple of years ago when you wanted to put your modular on that lot. Now I have the other homeowners in my grip. If you can’t build there, no one can.”
He dropped the butt into the beer can and hugged her, resting his chin on her head. He said, “Revenge can be so sweet. Maybe you can bankrupt the POA with a lawsuit.” He let her go and sat down to tie his sneakers. then asked, “What are you doing with that situation with your husband? Any progress?”
“Don’t you worry about that either. I’ll end up with the house and a big alimony settlement. Then it’ll be just the two of us.”
Chapter 1, DECEMBER, THURSDAY
“That’s outrageous even for Madam President,” Karen said into the phone. “She’s going to get herself killed one of these days. Come to think of it, that might be a relief to a lot of us.”
At the mention of a murder, Jemma’s measuring tape clattered to the floor as she stared at her customer. Jemma Chase wasn’t eavesdropping, exactly.
“She must be getting a kick out of playing god again, lording over your land, teasing you with delays. The power-hungry little demon. Murder by hanging would be too easy for her.” Karen Harmon grinned into the telephone. After a moment she laughed, then said, “Maybe she could be in a horrible car accident, complete with head through the windshield, destroying the doctor’s latest work. Would serve her right for using a Florida plastic surgeon who gave her that uneven hair line.” Karen glanced at Jemma who quickly closed her mouth. Karen winked before continuing her phone conversation. “She deserves a spike through her heart, if she had one. She has the sculpted look of a cemetery angel and the attitude of a pit bull. There’s not enough Botox and filler in the world to plump up her shrunken heart.”
Karen snapped her gum as she hung up the phone. “Our illustrious POA President is at it again,” she said to Jemma. “Honey, give a petty person a little power and they’ll abuse it
Jemma nodded and retrieved the tape measure, her dream of playing CSI faded. Her fantasy of being a Crime Scene Investigator wouldn’t bring in money, only trouble, as Detective Tucker was so fond of pointing out. This energetic little lady wanted more cabinets and a breakfast bar in her kitchen and Jemma was eager to use her carpentry skills on something besides decks and porches.
“You don’t live in Hickory Hills so this doesn’t matter to you,” Karen dropped her wrist and snapped her gum, “but Mrs. POA Windsor has started to make building a new home in our subdivision a nightmare. Just living near her sets my pulse racing like Junior Johnson with a load of moonshine, or like Ringo on steroids.” She laughed at her own joke.
“Ringo Starr?” Jemma re-measured the space to re-direct attention to the work at hand. She chomped at the bit to get on with the task at hand. Carpentry and photography had been occupying her time during the ranch’s off season, but she still managed to ride her horse Brandy most evenings.
“They were before your time. Come to think of it, they were before mine.”
“What’s a POA for anyway?”
“Property Owners Association. This one started at fifty dollars a year to plow the roads after snow storms and for re-graveling in the spring. We’d have a pot-luck lunch in the spring and a quick budget review in December. That was it.”
“When the original president died and the treasurer moved away three years ago, nobody wanted to do the little work that was involved, including me. We had a house plan review board but the only things we enforced were minimum square footage and no trailers. Later that was expanded to keep out modular homes. Petula agreed to be president and we were happy thatsomeone cared enough to volunteer.”
“And now? How did she get elected more than once if she’s so hard to deal with?”
“Petula charms the men and talks of increasing home values. They love being on her board and don’t miss a meeting. She’s the only woman on the board, a mistake we women hope to remedy at the meeting coming up. She turned our friendly mountain into her own soap opera, starring herself. Maybe she was never in charge of anything before and this makes her feel powerful. Honey, even her husband stays out of her way in POA matters. He’s never even attended a meeting since she took over. My guess is that things are calmer at home if he lets her loose on us. Of course I don’t let my husband attend the meetings, either – our home is certainly calmer if he stays away. Anyway, lately she’s been pushing for a special assessment of seven thousand dollars per owner to pave the road. That’s a shopping trip to her but a lot of cash to most of us.”
About twice that of her own savings account, Jemma thought. “The road is fine to me even with the couple inches of snow we got yesterday.”
“Right, honey. She claims safety issues, as if the fire department or the sheriff couldn’t travel almost as fast on the gravel we have. We have snow plowers on contract. Her latest focus is for houses in here to befit her image as mistress of the mountain.” Karen emptied an ash tray with a single butt into the trash can. “My husband still has one after we cuddle, if you know what I mean.”
Jemma nodded and tapped the paper with her pencil as a signal she wanted to get back to work. As she looked down at the tiny woman, she wondered if Karen knew her hair had a flat spot right on top.
“She’s turned down Ann’s plans again claiming they don’t meet the square footage – but they do. The plans are for twenty-six hundred square feet and the POA minimum is for twenty-two hundred. She can’t change the requirements until they are voted on at the meeting in two weeks.” Karen opened the refrigerator and pulled out a diet soda. “Want one?”
Jemma shook her head. “The romance of living in these mountains includes live and let live, rugged individualism and all that. How does she get away with playing with people?” Jemma tugged on the flannel shirt she’d found in the men’s section of the thrift shop. Blouse sleeves were always too short, same with pant legs.
“You’ve never met Petula Windsor, have you?” Karen poured the soda in a glass and took a big swallow.
“No, the name’s not familiar.” A development had to have a strong grapevine. Doing a good job for Karen could boost her reputation for carpentry work.
“Her husband is Ward Windsor, the Executive VP at Allgoode Bank. They moved to town fifteen or sixteen years ago. This’ll be her third year as POA President. She’s an agitator, likes to keep things stirred up. She treats us like we’re her hive and she’s queen bee. Honey, she’ll get stung one of these days.” Karen’s eyes widened at her own pun, then she tittered. “Anyway, she complained about people dumping grass clippings and leaves in the woods behind their own houses, oh, and a man walking his dog on a leash before eight in the morning. Now she’s bugging an owner wanting to build on the lot across the street. That’s my friend, Ann. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Jemma gave up on rushing her customer. Karen led Jemma to a picture window in the living room, which had a view of the neighboring snow covered ridge through the leafless trees. That view could disappear if a house were built directly across the road. If the house were set to the left, though, where there was already a clearing, Karen would still see for miles.
“See where they’ve cleared the trees? Madam President even complained about that. She ran off the contractor and slapped a law suit on the owner. That law suit could cost the POA tens of thousands of dollars if it goes to court.”
“Can’t the other property owners do anything about her?”
“Short of murder?” Karen again snapped her gum. “I’ve been making good use of talking while shopping with some of the wives. Surprises may be coming Petula’s way at the meeting.”
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