Magical Renovation Mysteries, Book 7
It’s the annual garden gnome contest and all of Peachwood is a flutter with excitement. Especially Malene, who intends to win this year’s golden gnome award. But plenty of others in town want to win, too, and when Malene’s main competition throws a monkey wrench in her plans for victory, she comes up with her own plan to win.
That plan might include sabotage.
All Clementine wants to do is stay out of the contest, but when she gets dragged in kicking and screaming, she has no choice but to play nice.
Everything is going great until a murder takes place. Now, it’s up to Clem and the gang to solve the mystery before they wind up the next victims of the Peachwood killer. Can they do it?
“What are you doing?” I asked, watching as Malene Fredericks, my grandmother, placed what must have been the fiftieth garden gnome in her front yard.
She straightened him in the dirt with a huff and glared up at me. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Going crazy,” I replied.
She pressed her lips into a sour frown. “For your information, I am decorating my yard.”
“With a thousand garden gnomes?”
She flared out her skinny arms and arched them together as if she was going to hug someone, but stopped short. “Because the garden gnome competition is two days away, and I plan to win.”
This was the first I’d heard of such a thing. “Garden gnome competition?”
She sniffed the air. “That is correct.”
“I don’t think that exists.”
My dog, Lady, who’d been sniffing grass down the street, padded up to us. She took one look at the minefield of red-hatted gnomes and broke out into barking. “Who are you looking at? I’ll punch you right in the throat! Stay back, tiny bearded men, or else I’ll bite your heads off.”
I leaned down and patted her back. Lady jumped and snapped at me. “Whoa, Trigger,” I soothed. “Those gnomes can’t hurt you. They’re inanimate objects.”
“I don’t care if they’re inanimate animates,” she bit back. “Them’s some creepy little men.”
I stifled a laugh as Malene’s face turned bright pink. “Sorry, Malene. Lady’s not used to seeing so many garden gnomes.”
Lady stretched her nose forward and sniffed one of the tiny men that stood frozen, smiling into the distance. “Don’t you think having so many of them all together will spread diseases? Do they come to life at night and tinkle all over the yard?”
I barked a laugh. “Lady, they’re made of porcelain. They don’t come to life.”
She glanced at me skeptically. “Says you.”
Malene curled both her hands into fists and cemented them to her hips. “If all the two of y’all are going to do is criticize my lawn ornaments, you can leave.”
“Malene, I’m sorry.” And I did my best to sound like I meant it, too. “It’s just that in all the time I’ve lived here, I don’t remember a gnome competition.”
“We took a break from it,” she explained. “On account that there was a gnome shortage for a while.”
I arched a brow. “A gnome shortage?”
“Yeah, they were using up all the porcelain in England to make the gnomes so we couldn’t get any this far south. You know, gnomes aren’t as popular here as they are over in Europe. They like their gnomes. So we had to put the contest on hold. But now we’ve got the gnomes back and I’m happy to say that I think my yard looks good. I might actually win this year.”
Well, if the previous winners had been lawns that looked like they’d vomited gnomes, then Malene was definitely in the lead.
“The only person I have to worry about is Gilbert Wilcox.”
I arched a brow. “Gilbert Wilcox?”
Malene scurried around, adjusting statue after statue—righting some and moving others. “Every year Gilbert wins the contest. I don’t know how he does it. He doesn’t have a ton of gnomes, but what he does have, he uses to his advantage.”
“You’re making him sound like a beauty pageant contestant,” I joked.
Malene looked at me with dead serious eyes. “If there was a beauty contest in town, Gilbert Wilcox would sure as heck be one of the top three. That man has more fashion sense than a red carpet model. He can take a scarf and drape it over a lamp, thereby changing the whole feel of room. I don’t know how he does it.”
Lady stopped chewing a clump of grass and answered, “Sounds like he just throws a scarf on a lamp. That’s how he does it.”
Malene swatted at her impatiently. “I know how he does it. I just don’t know how he does it.”
Lady glanced up at me perplexed. “Didn’t she just say the same thing?”
“Yes,” I murmured.
In the house beside us, the front door opened with a bang, and my grandfather, Willard Gandy, appeared. He took one look at Malene’s yard and slapped his face.
“Malene, don’t tell me it’s that time of year again, is it?”
Malene adjusted her dark round Jackie O glasses. “Okay, I won’t tell you it’s that time of year again. But get ready, because I’m going to need your yard. I ordered fifty more gnomes, and they’re due here any day now.”
Willard stormed down the front steps. “Don’t tell me you plan on putting them on my grass.”
“Okay, I won’t tell you that.” My grandmother pointed a bony finger, swollen at the knuckles, at him. “But I’ll need you to bring your wheelbarrow out front because I’m going to dump a couple of gnomes in it.”
“Malene, now it’s one thing for you to decorate your own lawn. It’s quite another for you to”—he gestured wildly as he searched for the right word—“destroy my yard while you try to beat Gilbert Wilcox for the golden gnome.”
Lady and I exchanged a look. A golden gnome? Now I’d heard everything.
Just then a car horn beeped the beginning of “Amazing Grace” up through the “how sweet the sound” part. I glanced behind me to see a convertible cyan Cadillac, circa 1960-something, slow down as it neared Malene’s.
Her eyes narrowed to slitty wedges of death. “Gilbert Wilcox,” she muttered bitterly.
The infamous Gilbert Wilcox came to a stop. He had a round face and even rounder body. One meaty hand clutched the steering wheel as if he was out on a leisurely cruise of Peachwood. His blond hair was oiled back, and a pencil mustache dusted his upper lip. A red scarf was tucked into the opening of his shirt, making him look quite debonair—in a 1940s sort of way.
“Why, Malene Fredericks,” he said jovially, “I’m surprised to see you out and about quite so early. Getting ahead on decorating, are you?”
“I am,” she said stiffly. “What are you doing, eyeing the competition? Cheating to make sure that you win this year?”
Gilbert threw his head back and laughed. “I assure you, I don’t have to cheat in order to win. I’m hoping that I’ll retain ownership of the golden gnome. But there are no guarantees.”
“Humph,” was all Malene managed.
Gilbert’s gaze flicked to me. “And what’s this? Are you recruiting help this year?”
“This is my granddaughter.” Malene jerked her hand at Gilbert.
“You keep your paws off her, Gilbert. She’s got a boyfriend and he’s tough. He could crush a gnome with his bare hands.”
Oh, Lawd. How embarrassing.
“I see,” Gilbert managed. “Well, how do you do? I’m Gilbert Wilcox, five-time golden gnome champion.”
“Clementine Cooke,” I replied, taking the clammy hand he offered. “And wow, five-time champion. You must work very hard.”
Gilbert laughed bashfully. “Oh, it’s not hard work to win around here.”
Gilbert’s gaze darted to her. Seeming to realize his mistake, he sputtered. “I didn’t mean that I don’t have any competition. Not at all. The competition in Peachwood is fierce. Malene always gives me a run for my money. She’s a tough cookie to beat.”
Malene nodded in approval. “I work hard at it every year.”
Gilbert lifted his nose and peered into the yard. “Looks like you’ve got a little bit of everything, don’t you? Even kissing gnomes.”
She did indeed have kissing gnomes. My grandmother also displayed fishing gnomes, sitting gnomes, napping gnomes, gnomes with their pants pulled down, biker gnomes, nudist sunbathing gnomes, gnomes sitting on toilets, and the list continued. There were so many gnomes it was giving me a headache to look at them.
“I’m very proud of my collection,” Malene chirped.
Gilbert nodded appreciatively. “Looks like you might have a shot of winning, as always.”
He said the words flatly, as if he didn’t believe them. Malene caught his tone, and a spark flared in her eyes. “What do you have going on in your yard this year?”
“Me?” He placed a hand delicately on his chest. “What do I have going on?”
Malene rolled her eyes. “Yes, you.”
“Hopefully less than what you’ve got,” Willard mumbled.
“Willard,” Gilbert exclaimed, “I could barely see you with all those gnomes around. How’ve you been?”
“Fine until I woke up this morning to this mess.” My grandfather raked his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know why it is, but this time of year always sneaks up on me.”
“You and me both,” Gilbert said innocently. But the gleam in his eye suggested otherwise. No one could be a five-time golden gnome champion and not have a strategy for how to win the trophy. “But I tell you, this year I’m going simple.”
Malene’s brows shot to peaks. She stuttered as if the very idea struck fear in her heart. “S-simple? You’re going simple?” She clutched the convertible’s passenger door. “What do you mean?”
Gilbert waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Oh, you know. I’m taking it easy.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said.
He chuckled. “Don’t believe it if you wish, but I promise you that you won’t see a grand display from me.”
Malene leaned over so far her nose nearly touched his. “So there won’t be any waterfall of gnomes?”
“Nope,” he said.
“No gnomes tumbling down the hill and spilling onto the sidewalk?”
“Any gnomes dancing on your roof?”
“Not that either.”
“How about gnomes pushing up out of their graves?”
Gilbert yawned. “No, no and no. I told you. I’m going simple. I’m not doing all of that mess.”
Malene eyed him skeptically. “I’ll buy it when I see it.”
Willard fired out, “Malene, if the man said he’s not doing all of that, then he’s not doing it.”
Malene jabbed her finger in Gilbert’s face. “You’ve got a plan to win. I know you, Gilbert. You’re scoping out the competition. You’re coming here and making me think you’re going easy so that I’ll believe I don’t have to work as hard. I don’t buy it. You’ll probably put out as many gnomes as you normally do and are just trying to trick me. Well it won’t work. I know your kind, with your beady eyes and shuffling gaze. Your lying don’t fool me.”
She spat out the last sentence and folded her arms for emphasis. We stood in silence. Even Lady had stopped chewing grass and stared at Malene, mouth agape.
Willard clapped his hands. “Malene, why don’t you come inside? It’s getting hot out here, and you could use a glass of sweet tea.”
“I don’t need a glass of sweet tea,” she said coldly.
“You sure? You’re getting awfully hangry. You get that way when your blood sugar drops. You could use some calories.”
Willard was practically pleading, but Malene wasn’t budging. She poked Gilbert right in the throat. “What are you up to?”
He laughed. “I’m not up to anything, Malene Fredericks. I was just driving by and practically telling you that I was going easy on my gnomes this year, and you’re accusing me of lying.”
“That’s because you are.”
The words hung heavily in the air. No one moved. I swear that no one even breathed. I know that I didn’t. I held my breath until my lungs burned. It was then and only then that I exhaled.
Willard murmured, “Oh no. Now she’s done it.”
And she had done it. Gilbert Wilcox’s face turned the color of a bright pink azalea. He glared at Malene and announced, “Well, I was going to go easy, but you, Malene Fredericks, have pushed me over the edge. All I did was stop by for a friendly chat. But I see that you cannot deal with losing. So I am going to make sure that you lose the golden gnome for a fifth year in a row!”
With that, Gilbert hit the gas and sped off down the street, his tires squealing and the scent of burning rubber filling the air. Malene brushed her hands. “I think that went well. What about y’all?”
She glanced over, waiting expectantly for my answer. How had it gone? Well, my grandmother had succeeded in ticking off her main competition for the gnome contest. She’d called him a liar and pretty much embarrassed herself and us. How had it gone? It had gone terribly.
But saying that wouldn’t help anything. So I grinned widely and replied in my most pleasant voice, “Would you look at the time?
I’ve got a house to get to. Sorry that I can’t stay and chat. Lady, we’d better get going.”
She stared blankly at me. “You didn’t say anything about leaving.” I laughed nervously under Malene’s laser-focused stare. “Didn’t I? Well, sorry that I forgot to say anything earlier. But we need to get to the new house. I’ve got some… um…some finishes to pick out.”
Malene’s voice became gravelly. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were skirting around the question.”
I scoffed. “Who? Me? Never. But listen”—I started to back away—“the gnomes look great. I’ll see you soon. Willard, I think the decorations will look fabulous when they come in. See y’all later.”
With that, I grabbed Lady and crossed the street, narrowly managing to avoid Malene’s line of fire.