Signed, Sealed and Dead
A Lily Sprayberry Realtor Cozy Mystery
Small town folk don’t always take care of their own.
I swiveled my head toward my best friend and business partner, Belle Pyott. “What—oh, my gosh. It is.” I gawked at the large, framed painting. “Carter would love this.”
“Uh, obviously. Why do you think I’m putting a hold tag on it?” She stuck a pink sticky note on it with a hold for Belle Pyottlabel already applied to it.
“How many of those did you make?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe fifty or two hundred?”
“Bless your heart, you’re so cheap.”
“I prefer to think of it as thrifty.” She wiggled her head. “Or efficient. Yes, efficient.”
“Belle, the community sale hasn’t even started yet. Technically, we’re supposed to be making sure everything is ready to go, not shopping, and you’ve stuck, what, at least ten of those sticky notes on items already? That’s cheating.”
She stuck another one on a gray pillow with white script that read, Welcome Home. “It’s more like seventeen, and it’s not cheating, it’s supporting a good cause.”
“You have a problem.”
“If we end up buying a flip, we’re going to need things to stage the place anyway, so consider this a business opportunity.”
She did have a point, but I wasn’t going to give her credit for it. We’d been discussing the possibility of purchasing a house and flipping it, but it was just a discussion, nothing serious, to me at least, so snatching up décor at the community sale and fundraiser for the Bramblett County High School sports programs for possible staging was a reach, and a big one at that.
I chastised myself for searching the rest of the items in that particular section for the flip after she mentioned it, but I couldn’t help myself and continued doing it anyway. I found myself scanning over the other over-sized portrait and wondering if Carter would like one of Michael Jordan, too. I ran my finger across a wooden vase, fought the urge to pick it up and lost.
The chips on the top made me wonder about its story. How old was it, and what hidden secrets did it hold? Who’d first bought it, or was it ever even bought? I flipped it over and read the small engraving on the bottom. Handmade by JC. Who was JC? A professional vase maker, maybe, or perhaps just someone who’d lived in Bramblett or nearby and made vases for a hobby? The wood was white hickory, that much I knew. I’d spent years sitting on my front porch whittling the stuff with my father and brothers, so I’d recognized it immediately. I glided my hand along the smooth surface, wondering who had touched it before me, what their lives were like, who they loved, what had mattered to them.
So much had happened recently, and it had touched my heart in such a profound way, I’d changed, or at least, I felt as though I had. And that little vase represented something more significant to me than just a knick knack. It was a piece of someone’s life, their history, maybe even their soul, yet there it sat, in the Bramblett County High School gymnasium on a cold and rainy Saturday morning along with thousands of other items, ready to be sold to a stranger, for a measly two bucks.
“Hey, may I have one of your stickers, please?”
Belle chuckled. “I knew it.”
I didn’t argue. I placed the sticky note on the vase. I didn’t want or feel the need to explain that I wasn’t saving the vase because of a possible house flip, but for myself, because I felt a need to save the vase to retain its integrity and value, to appreciate its history. I couldn’t quite make sense of it myself, so how could I explain it to Belle? Instead, I smiled, and let her think she was right. “Hey, I’m going to go find Carter and let him know about the painting. I’d rather not keep it on hold if he doesn’t want it. It’s a big ticket item.”
The painting, one of the football greats, Walter Payton, was a dark wood framed thirty by forty inch of his upper body, mostly his head and shoulders, but with his trademark number, 34, well displayed on the side of his shoulder. Even though I was born and raised in Georgia, and my loyalty was to the University of Georgia Bulldogs, I didn’t dislike professional football, but I didn’t much care about it either way. I understood the impact of the late Walter Payton, though, and how people from all parts of the country loved him.
Carter Trammell was a recent real estate client and a new friend for both Belle and me. He’d moved from Chicago and into one of the recently built condos on the old Redbecker property a month before taking a position at the high school as both a teacher and the new head of the lacrosse program. The position also included the varsity head coach position, which, from what I’d heard, was a big deal.
Lacrosse was a growing sport in the South, and highly competitive from what he’d said, and the school paid a lot of money to bring on a coach with actual playing experience. Mike Longley, the previous coach, and the assistant varsity football coach, had his knickers in a knot because of it, too. At least that’s what I’d learned through the grapevine, and by grapevine, I meant the local gossip shop, Millie’s Café, and the head gossip herself, Millie, the café owner.
One didn’t have to be the county sheriff to find out relevant information in a small town, or like me, date one either, at least not in Bramblett County, Georgia. In Bramblett County, Georgia, when someone needed to know something, they just had to grab a cup of coffee or an iced tea and a freshly made scone and chat up Millie, and they’d get an earful of the who’s who and the what’s what.
And that was that.
But a word to the wise, don’t ever call Millie a gossip, not if you ever planned on sticking around town. Crossing Millie was like crossing a railroad track when two trains were heading toward each other, and standing there like a deer blinded by headlights. You just had to be crazy to do it.
The school principal stopped me on my way to Carter’s office. “Hey, Lilybit, how’re things shaping up?
Everyone in town that knew me growing up called me Lilybit. I wasn’t a fan, but I’d learned to deal with it. My brothers had started it, and though most people thought of it as a term of endearment, I’d considered it more of a, look there’s little Lily who’s still a kid and hasn’t grown up, kind of thing. I was almost twenty-seven, owned my own real estate business, and I had worked hard to establish myself as a professional in the community. Being called Lilybit seemed so unprofessional. It yanked my cord at times, but I did my best to let it go. “Looking great, sir. We should be ready when the doors open.” I checked my iWatch. “In twenty-two minutes.” I wave of panic rushed through me, though there was no reason for it. The event was set. I’d been a part of this for three years in a row already, and it had been going on for as long as I could remember before that. It would be fine, and I knew that. “Have you seen Coach Trammell? I wanted to run something by him.”
“Not recently, but I’m sure he’s around here somewhere. Have you checked his office?”
“On my way there now, thanks.”
The high school was one of the older buildings in the county, but with the recent growth in suburban Atlanta and the surrounding counties, Bramblett had seen a surge in new residents, too. Our small county had a twelve percent population increase over the past year, which of course, was great for businesses, including real estate, but change didn’t come easily to the people of my small community. One of the benefits, though, was the planned and already completed upgrades to the high school.
I walked through the backside of the gymnasium and straightened my shoulders as a feeling of Bramblett County Bulldog pride came over me as it always had when I saw the hard work of the Bulldog athletes that came before and followed after me displayed on the gym walls. The rows of regional and state championship banners for basketball and cheerleading hanging from the white and red painted cinder block walls showed true sportsmanship and dedication.
A nightmarish image of my sweaty gym uniform, the one our evil gym teacher, Mrs. Settles, God rest her soul, picked out, came rushing back to me. I despised that thing. Somewhere in her late sixties when I was a freshman, and entirely out of sync with anything in fashion, Mrs. Settles fought for the old-school gym uniforms and won. I spent my freshman year in a one piece jumper style, zip up gym uniform with horizontal stripes. Our particular colors were light blue and white, but Mrs. Settles called it sky blue, like the crayon, as if that made it any less horrifying. My mother, for reasons I’d yet to understand, had saved her gym uniform and had we been the same size, would have offered hers because it was the same exact one.
The exact same one.
Bad gym uniform fashion aside, I’d had such fun there with my friends cheering on the basketball teams and being a part of pep rallies for the football teams. Mostly, I cheered for my boyfriend, Dylan Roberts, who, as fate would have it, was my significant other again, too.
I found Carter next to the front side of the bleachers in a somewhat heated conversation with Ginnie Slappey, the lacrosse booster club president. They stood face to face, barely inches apart, so I scooted off to the side and did what any polite person would do; I gave them a moment to finish their conversation.
Carter whispered, but his tone was forceful, and I watched the veins in his neck bulge. “You fix it, or I’m going to the principal.”
Ginnie touched the finger where her wedding ring should have been but wasn’t. She must have forgotten to put it on that morning because if her marriage had hit a tough spot, the rumor mill would have already processed that tasty bit of information and spit it out within seconds of it happening. The skin around her eyes tightened, and I knew then something was up. She hadn’t just forgotten her ring. How she’d kept that secret must have taken a miracle. “I just need a little more time to take care of a few things, Coach. Please.”
“Two days, Ginnie. You hear me? Two days.”
I didn’t want to just walk up unnoticed, so I coughed as I stepped out from behind the bleachers. The two of them separated as I approached, and both smiled like they’d been best friends for years. “Hey Carter, Belle found this great painting of Walter Payton. It’s pretty big, but we thought it would be perfect for your family room wall. Do you want to come take a look?”
His eyes shifted to Ginnie’s. He spoke to me, but clearly, he was talking to her. “Sure. We’re done here.”
“But Carter, we still need to talk about—”
“I said we’re done here.”
Ginnie nodded, and as she walked away, I couldn’t help but wonder what their argument was about. We walked back to the community sale and the table with the painting, chatting along the way. “Everything going okay with the new job?” It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to be nosy.
He nodded. “So far, so good. Can’t officially start coaching just yet, but I do have the team coming in for workouts in the mornings a few times a week, and I’m observing their box lacrosse games, so I’ve got an idea of their strengths.”
“Box lacrosse?” Lacrosse was utterly foreign to me. Back in my day—that wasn’t something I was accustomed to saying since I hadn’t yet reached thirty—lacrosse wasn’t a school sport, or even one played anywhere in the South as far as I knew.
“Indoor lacrosse. It’s basically the same but still a bit different than field lacrosse.” He sort of smiled, but more to himself. “So, really, it’s not the same, but it’s the same concept.” He laughed. “You just have to know the sport to get it.”
I nodded. “Ah, got it. I guess. Maybe.”
“You really don’t know anything about lacrosse, do you?”
“Not a thing.”
“Why don’t you come to a game? We’ve got one this evening. It’s fun to watch. I promise you’ll love it.”
His face lit up when he saw the painting. “Is that it?”
I nodded. “Do you like it?”
“It’s perfect.” He flipped over the tag and grimaced. “Ouch. That’s a lot on a teacher’s salary.”
“Don’t sweat it. Belle is a wiz at negotiating at these things. Trust me.”
He tapped the pink sticky note. “She’s already got it saved. Is that for me?”
I nodded. “I’ll let her know you want it. What’s the minimum you’ll pay?”
He shrugged. “It’s for a good cause, and you did get me a good price on the condo.” He rubbed his stubble-free chin. “You know what? I’ll pay the seventy-five.” He patted his flat stomach. “I can afford to go without a few beers for the rest of the month anyway.” He removed his wallet from his back pocket and searched the area for someone to pay.
“Oh, you can’t buy it just yet,” I explained how the sale worked. “You take one of those stickers over there.” I pointed to the sold stickers. “Write your name on it, stick it on the item, and when the sale officially opens, you can take it over to the registers and pay. If you want to negotiate, you’ll have to come back and do that with the person who’s selling the item individually.”
“If you see anything else you like, I’d mark it quickly because as you can tell, Belle’s got her own personalized hold stickers so she can negotiate her own prices once the sale officially starts. I think she got here late last night to check everything out.”
He laughed, but cut it short when I didn’t laugh, too. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“The woman doesn’t play around when it comes to saving money. The county commissioners asked her to review the annual budget before it was approved for 2019.”
I crossed my heart.
“You have no idea.” I checked my watch. “Oh, wow. I have to run. Fifteen minutes till blast off.”
“About tonight, you really should come.”
“I’d love to. Text me the details.”
* * *
“I can’t believe I let you drag me here.”
Belle tapped the ignition button on her car, and the engine shut off. “Come, it’s not as bad as it seems. Consider it a diamond in the rough.”
“I’m not sure that’s the right comparison I’d make. How are we supposed to get inside, squat jump over the holes in the steps?”
“Well, you haven’t gone to spin class a lot lately, so…” She let that dig trail off for full effect.
“I’ve had a pulled calf muscle because of the dog you got me for my birthday. The dog I didn’t want, remember?” A twinge of guilt pinched my heart for bad mouthing Bo, my Boxer mix, and the sweetest dog ever. Ugh. Bo was the bomb, and I was a horrible person for using him as a guilt weapon like that. I apologized to my smelly buddy, even though he wasn’t there.
“And you’re a better person because of him.”
“That’s not the point.” I stared up at the monstrosity of a house, or what was left of the house, in front of us. “This is practically a teardown. We’d have to start from scratch. That’s a little more than I’d planned. Not that I’d actually planned any of this.”
We’d spent a few nights munching on potato chips and M&Ms, chatting about buying a fixer-upper, maybe doing some of the work ourselves, but definitely hiring out most of it, and selling the property. Belle had thoughts of owning a bed and breakfast or becoming the next Chip and Joanna Gaines, minus the Chip part, but neither of those options worked for yours truly.
The metropolitan Atlanta area had spread far and wide, and counties like Dawson, just one county over from Bramblett, was quickly becoming a hot spot for families that wanted the comforts of small town life with the convenience of suburbia. Bramblett hadn’t been hit quite yet, but some of the locals feared it was coming, while others prepared for the excitement of the possibilities.
Belle and I had researched those possibilities, noted the trends, and saw the potential. We expected growth, but nothing compared to what counties like Dawson and Forsyth had experienced. Bramblett was just too far north of Atlanta, and the state’s infrastructure couldn’t support the increased volume, not without substantial improvements, anyway, and those weren’t even yet planned. I was happy to know our county would stay a close-knit community with a small town feel indefinitely.
Belle groaned. “Look at those columns though. Aren’t they beautiful?”
I gazed up at the long abandoned Civil War era home. “They are, but I don’t think it’s the right place for us. And we agreed we both need to be one hundred percent in to do this, remember?”
She nodded, and as she did, she pressed the start button on her car. The engine hummed back to life. “On to the next property we go.”
“Hey, Carter asked if we’d like to go to a box lacrosse game tonight. You up for it?”
She backed down the long, gravel driveway. “He asked us, or he asked you?”
“Well, technically he asked me, but we’re a team, so that means us.”
“Did you mention you’d ask me to go?”
“I can’t remember. Why?”
Belle turned left onto Highway 369 and headed further away from town. “Because if you didn’t mention me, then I don’t have to go, and I won’t feel bad about it.”
“You’re so going now.”
“I have to wash my hair.”
“Honey, that don’t work with me, and you know it.”
“Do my nails?”
“You get manicures.”
“Pay my bills?”
“It’s the digital age.”
“Take out the garbage?”
“They don’t collect on Sunday.”
“Walk the dog?”
“He’s my dog.”
She pounded her steering wheel with her fist. “I don’t know a thing about lacrosse. Why doesn’t he coach football? That’s a sport I know.”
“He’s our client and our friend. Besides, he’s new in town. It’s a nice thing for us to do.”
“I know. It just sounds so intimidating.”
“The game, or learning it, I mean.”
“It’s not that hard to understand,” I lied. “It’s kind of a mix of hockey, soccer, and basketball, but you know, different.”
“Bless your heart, you don’t have a clue either.”
“Not a bit.”
“And it sounds boring.”
“How would you even know that if you don’t know a thing about it?”
She ignored me.
“Fine, I don’t know that, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.”
“You are a hot mess for sure.”
She made another left and pulled off onto a dirt and gravel mixed road. There were so many potholes, my voice sounded the way it did when I was a kid and I talked into a fan, vibrating and humming. “Where are you taking me now?”
She pointed ahead and to the right. “There.”
I glanced at a white mini-mansion. “Uh, no. You might as well turn back around and go home.”
“What? Why? I love this place.”
“We talked about this already.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “I’m not backing down on this one.”
“But it’s a true antebellum style home, and you love them.”
“I do, but it’s not a flip. These homes don’t sell well, and you know that.”
“But it would make a perfect bed and breakfast.”
“Belle, I’m not opening a bed and breakfast.”
“Can we just look inside? Please? Just for fun?”
“Fine, but just for fun.”
The sprawling mini-mansion must have been a looker during its prime, but it was way past its prime. What was left of the place was a skeleton of its past, like a dead tree in the woods left to rot through the seasons until it became a pile of dust and dirt. Only the house wasn’t a pile of dust and dirt just yet. The wide front steps and large round columns with intricate carvings on their tops framing the base of the front porch needed work, but still held their historic beauty, and showed that once upon a time, someone had loved the home enough to pay attention to detail. The wrap-around front porch with its mini columns serving as banisters was the perfect match for the civil war era home, and it didn’t take much of my imagination to picture the daily happenings of the people that had once lived there.
I saw children playing with wooden blocks and cards like in old Southern movies. I imagined debutantes in fluffy hoop skirted gowns with big bows, flitting around the porch, laughing and drinking from expensive crystal, at least until the war. During the war soldiers had stolen most everything, they’d taken to hiding what they treasured, or sold what they needed to for money, and women made due with what they’d had. They’d made their own dresses from drapes, bed covers, and other materials. They’d lost so many of their belongings, things they’d never recover. Even as kids we’d find things buried deep in the ground, things the women hid from Union troops—silver, china, family photos, things they cherished but never came back for, or maybe couldn’t come back for.
I had to admit, the home kidnapped my heart at first sight, but that didn’t mean I wanted to own a bed and breakfast. Just the thought of that made my pulse increase, and I started to sweat.
“So, what do you think?” Belle draped her hand along the old stair railing. “Isn’t it amazing? I mean, seriously. Think of the history. We could restore it to its original design, and it would be incredible.”
All I saw were debt collectors knocking on that beautiful door, not guests. “Exactly where do you think the money for this would come from?”
She sighed. “I’m not sure, but I’m sure we could finagle it somehow.”
I headed toward the door. “When you figure that out, I’ll come back.” I glanced at my iWatch. “In the meantime, we have a lacrosse game to get to.”
She lagged behind me dragging her feet like a child in a toy store during the holiday season. “But you have to admit it’s beautiful.”
“Yes, it is, but I’m a real estate broker, not a bed and breakfast owner.”
“You’re right, but gosh, I really love the idea.”
“In theory, it sounds great, but in reality, I’m just not the bed and breakfast owner kind of person.”
“I’m probably not either, but couldn’t we own it and have someone else run it?”
“Did you answer one of those internet scams where the person wanted to leave you all of their money and it actually worked or something?”
She laughed. “I wish.”
“Then, no, we can’t own it and have someone else run it.”