Dogwood Spring Cozy Mystery, Book 3
Event-Planning Tip No. 57: Avoid any connection between your fundraiser and murder.
Libby Ballard, director of the history museum in the small town of Dogwood Springs, Missouri, is excited to be organizing a tour of historic homes to raise funds for the museum. With plans in full swing, she drops by to confirm details with one of the homeowners and makes a gruesome discovery—the homeowner has been murdered.
Who could have possibly wanted to kill a local doctor, and why?
The police suspect the victim’s wife, but Libby thinks there’s more to the story. With the historic homes tour in jeopardy and violence escalating, Libby, her friends, and her trusty golden retriever dig deeper into the case.
But will Libby be able to uncover the killer’s identity before they strike again?
Don’t miss this thrilling tale of mystery, murder, and small-town secrets.
If you like a cozy mystery with a pet who will win your heart, friends who feel like family, and a hint of romance, you’ll love this series!
This is a clean read with no profanity, sex, or graphic violence.
Read an Excerpt
Monday, Oct. 23
If I didn’t know better, I’d think the repairman was about to tell me he’d found a dead body buried in the museum’s basement.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He took off his ball cap, scraped a hand through his thinning hair, and put the cap back on. And all the while, he kept his eyes fixed on my office floor.
Finally, I couldn’t take any more stalling. “So, how long will it take to repair the furnace?”
He took off his cap again and raised his eyes to look at me with pity. “I’m sorry, Miss Ballard. Repair isn’t an option. The museum needs a whole new system.”
Nerves tightened in my stomach. “A whole new system? What happened?”
“Your heat pump had multiple leaks in the coolant lines, and they caused the compressor to seize up. When it went, the motor failed, and then the electronics fried.” He cleared his throat. “It all has to be replaced.”
Was there an option to go back to when he was stalling? Because as the director of the Dogwood Springs History Museum, ultimately it was up to me to keep the place running, and to be honest, a hastily buried dead body might have been easier to deal with.
We were a small, private museum in a little tourist town in southern Missouri. Our endowment helped fund the salaries for me and two other paid staff, but it wasn’t set up to provide for big expenditures. A significant part of my job was fundraising to cover basic operating expenses. At the moment, we were planning a historic homes tour to raise seed money for a capital campaign to add a much-needed elevator. We weren’t hoping for all the money for an elevator this year, just enough to say we’d gotten started.
I glanced across my desk at Alice VanMeter, the president of the museum’s board of directors and its number one volunteer, who had been meeting with me about the homes tour.
Her eyes looked tense.
I needed an actual number from the repairman. “How much are we talking to replace the system?”
“I’ve got someone back at the office checking prices to be sure, and we do offer the museum a small discount because it’s a nonprofit, but I’d say you’re looking at around $15,000.”
The knot in my stomach edged into nausea. My parents had paid less than half that when they replaced their heat pump a year ago. Of course, the museum—a big, white Greek Revival built in 1920 as the home of a wealthy local businessman—was a lot larger and older than my parents’ house. But still… “That seems awfully high.”
“Well, you know, we’ll have to redo wiring, replace duct work, and bring things up to code.” The repairman hooked his thumbs in his back pockets, making his company shirt stretch across his broad chest, distorting the logo that said Jack’s Heating and Cooling. “This is going to be a big job.”
Just what I didn’t want to hear.
It wasn’t the repairman’s fault. As I knew all too well, even if he had serviced the unit in the past and recommended replacement or preventive measures, my predecessor would have vetoed them. This wasn’t the first problem I’d encountered that had been caused by her reluctance to spend money on building maintenance. Only the most expensive.
I stood, shook his hand, and gave him one of my business cards. “Thank you for coming out today. Please email me as soon as you have a firm estimate.”
“Will do.” He tipped his ball cap and left.
I sat back down and looked over at Alice.
Alice was about my mom’s age, in her midfifties, but she dressed well and looked younger. Her teal blouse and black pants were polished and professional, and the cut of her chin-length, light brown hair flattered her face. But it was her cushioned, low black heels that told the real story. Alice was a doer, a cornerstone of the community who volunteered not only at the museum but also at the hospital, the library, the food pantry, and her church.
She was not normally thrown by obstacles, but her face looked grim. “I’d say we should get another estimate, but Jack’s is the best HVAC business in town, and I know Jack personally. We won’t find a better price.”
Given what I’d learned of Dogwood Springs, Alice’s friendship alone had probably cut $2,000 off the estimate. The woman was incredibly well connected.
But $15,000. Where were we going to get…
The reality of the situation sank in. “The museum’s not going to have an elevator any time soon, is it, Alice?”
“I don’t think so.”
I’d had such big plans.
Currently, if you needed to go to the second floor or the third-floor attic of the museum, you had two choices—the elaborately carved walnut main staircase or the much plainer and narrower back stairs. With an elevator, we’d be able to develop display space on the second floor that was unused because of accessibility issues, and we’d make things easier for our staff and volunteers. Moving artifacts from storage on the third floor down either set of stairs could be quite a challenge.
Our goal with the homes tour was to sell 150 tickets at $35 a head for a tour of five local homes, each a distinctive architectural style from a different time period, spanning a large portion of the town’s history. My colleagues at the museum, Imani and Rodney, and I had been working up scripts for the tour guides. We’d found some fascinating stories about former owners of the homes, stories that would not only entertain the visitors but also help them see the connections between themselves and the past.
The homeowners would be rewarded only with our deep praise and the chance to show off their homes, meaning that if we sold all the tickets, the day should net the museum more than $5,000. Not nearly enough for an elevator, of course, but enough for a symbolic start. Only yesterday, one of our donors agreed to pitch in $10,000 after we raised the first $5,000.
That was before the news about the HVAC system.
But dwelling on my disappointment wasn’t going to solve anything. I needed to take action.
Ordinarily, I liked to psyche myself up a bit before calling a big donor, but sometimes, as director, I had to deal with crises as they arose. I looked at Alice. “I think I need to go ahead and call the man who was willing to contribute $10,000 to the elevator and see if he’s willing to give that money toward the HVAC system instead. Do I need to run that by the board?”
“No. You and I are in agreement, and this is an emergency.”
Alice nodded and sat, twisting her hands together. She knew as well as I did that $15,000 was not in the budget. If we couldn’t pivot and use the projected elevator seed money, we’d be struggling to pay our bills all winter.
I found the phone number on my computer. Then I smoothed my shoulder-length brown hair and straightened my favorite green blouse, the one that normally gave me confidence because it matched my eyes. At last I adjusted my pearls so that the clasp was in the back and dialed.
After the bad news about the HVAC system, I expected to get voice mail. Instead, the donor answered on the first ring.
Adrenaline did a jerky dance in my veins. Why hadn’t I taken the time to plan out my talking points? I’d just been so flustered that I acted out of character, but there was no backing out now.
As calmly as I could, I laid out what we’d learned.
The donor listened quietly and asked what HVAC firm had given us the estimate. “Let me think for a moment,” he said.
There was a long pause, during which my stomach churned, and then he agreed to switch his $10,000 donation to the furnace once we raised the first $5,000 with the homes tour.
I thanked him repeatedly, told him how much he was helping the museum, then hung up and exhaled.
Alice, who had leaned forward, listening in, sat back in her chair. “You did it. And you were amazing. That was some very persuasive talking.”
“Maybe he heard the shock in my voice when I mentioned the price,” I said. “I guess I knew we might one day have to replace the HVAC system, but I never dreamed it would be so expensive.” In my previous position as part of a much bigger staff at a historic home in Philadelphia, I’d never given building maintenance a thought. “I’m grateful the donor was so flexible.”
“I’m grateful we already had the homes tour in the works,” Alice said. “It was a good idea before, but now it’s essential.” She pointed at the brochure mock-up on the desk. “This is such a great plan, though, that I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to raise the money.”
“We’ll do it.” I squared my shoulders. “Once we let the community know the situation, they’ll be even more eager to support the tour.”
“They will.” Alice’s eyes shone. “Goodness, I’m awfully glad you’re here, Libby.”
“Me too.” In spite of the broken furnace, in spite of what would be a long delay in my plans for an elevator, there was nowhere else I’d rather be.
She tapped her watch. “Well, I’d better get going. I’m picking up my grandsons and taking them to our house to spend the night. It’s my daughter- and son-in-law’s anniversary. My husband and I thought they might like a night without the twins.”
“I’m sure they will appreciate it.” I shut down my computer. “I guess I should head home as well. Bella will be ready to go outside.”
“I’ll walk out with you.” Alice stood and shot a glance at the shoebox sitting on my desk. “Okay, I know it’s none of my business, but why do you have a box of men’s leather slippers, size 11, on your desk?”
I took my oversized purse out of the bottom desk drawer and patted the lid of the box. “I think that’s the only box Rodney had available. He put a new artifact in there, something he thinks Imani and I won’t be able to identify. Tomorrow, he says I get to look inside, and I have a week to figure it out. Then I pass the box to Imani, and she has a week. If one or both of us figures out what it is, we win. If he can stump us, he says he wins.”
“Does this game of Rodney’s have a prize?” Alice walked out into the hall.
“Oh, yes.” I turned off the lights and shut and locked the door to my office. “Bragging rights. And the loser—or losers—buy lunch at the Dogwood Café.”
“You all do seem to have a good time here,” Alice said as we started down the ornate walnut staircase to the first floor. “Do you think you’ll be able to identify the mystery object?”
“I don’t know. I normally feel confident in my knowledge of antiques, but Rodney seems sure he’s going to win.”
“I bet you figure it out.” Alice smiled at me, said she’d use her key to lock the back door, and exited toward the parking lot behind the museum.
I left through the front door, locked it behind me and armed the security system, and then stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked back at the museum.
When I became director in early June, I viewed this museum in the small town where my mother grew up as my last resort. Not in any way where I wanted to be professionally at age thirty-two.
After my husband’s infidelity, our divorce, and the way he finagled things so I lost my job back in Philadelphia, I’d come to Dogwood Springs beaten down, clinging to my belief that second chances were possible, that I could make a new life for myself.
Now, less than five months later, how things had changed. I’d found friends like Alice and my upstairs neighbor, Cleo. I’d adopted the best dog in the whole world, a lovable golden retriever named Bella. I’d met a man who—if I could release the insecurities left by my ex—I could see myself happily dating. And I’d grown to love the little town of Dogwood Springs and my role sharing its history, a history that included my own ancestors.
I gave the museum a nod of approval, shifted my purse strap higher on my shoulder, and started my walk home.
That new HVAC system would be paid for before we knew it. Because I was going to make sure the homes tour went off without a hitch.
Click here to see Home Tours, History & Homicide on Amazon.