Book 7

Dead and Deader

Lucy is a human lie detector. Her rescue dog Paco is a ghost whisperer. Together, they solve crime in this laugh-out-loud cozy mystery series!

Lucy McGuffin’s life is about to change. Her police chief boyfriend Travis is whisking her away on a romantic weekend getaway and Lucy is convinced that Travis is about to drop the L-word. The night before the trip, Lucy attends the local neighborhood association debate. Her mother Molly is running against Frank Milhouse, the HOA’s current president and the meanest man in the neighborhood.

When the debate turns contentious, Frank storms off, threatening to do everything in his power to stop Molly from winning the election. Minutes later, Frank is found dead. He’s been run over by a car. And the driver? None other than Molly.

But not all is as it seems. Lucy is convinced that Frank was already dead before her mother ran him over. Complicating matters, an anonymous food blogger, aptly named The Fussy Foodie, has panned a local bakery, and Lucy fears that her beloved café could be next.

Now, before Lucy can cross the finish line to her happily-ever-after, she and her little rescue dog Paco must discover who really killed Frank, avoid The Fussy Foodie, and convince her boyfriend Travis that she isn’t interfering with his police investigation.

She’d better get on the ball, or she’ll be spending next Mother’s Day boyfriendless, without a job, and visiting Molly in the big house.

CHAPTER ONE

My name is Lucy McGuffin, and I’m a human lie detector. I also make the best muffins in the world.

Maybe that’s a bold statement, but a while back, I set out to prove it by auditioning for Muffin Wars, a cooking channel show where the best of the best duke it out for the title of Best Muffin Maker Ever. But my friend Brittany Kelly had her daddy pull some strings, and I was rejected for the show.

I know what you’re thinking. With friends like Brittany, you don’t need enemies. But Brittany and I patched up our misunderstandings a long time ago, and now she’s my second-best friend. Plus, she kind of did it for a good reason. Instead of Muffin Wars, I was briefly part of a reality TV show called Battle of the Beach Eats, which would have generated a ton of publicity for the café I co-own, The Bistro by the Beach, as well as put our little town of Whispering Bay, Florida, on the culinary map.

Not that The Bistro by the Beach needs a lot of publicity. Good food, yummy muffins, strong coffee, and positive word of mouth have helped make the café successful. And thanks to the business acumen of my co-owner, Sarah Powers, we’ve even branched out into the grocery store business, providing freshly baked muffins for our local Piggly Wiggly.

But I digress. Back to Battle of the Beach Eats. Unfortunately, we didn’t win. The show’s producer was poisoned by one of my muffins (hey, it was tampered with!), and I was briefly considered a suspect in the case.

The point here is that while there’s no actual proof that my muffins are the best in the world, looking at the faces around me as they munch down on my apple walnut cream cheese muffins is all the evidence I need to claim that title.

My mother sighs in satisfaction. “Lucy, I think these are your best yet.”

Paco, my little rescue dog, barks in agreement. Yeah! He’s part chihuahua and part generic terrier. But he’s one hundred percent ghost whisperer. Yep. My dog can communicate with the dead. We can also read each other’s minds. Not all the time, but when it counts, Paco has my back. Don’t ask me how that works. Psychic phenomena are above my pay grade. I just know that in the year or so that Paco and I have been together, our connection only grows stronger. Which comes in handy when your sideline is helping solve crime.

Will Cunningham, my first best friend, bends down to scratch Paco behind the ears. He puts the dream in dreamboat with his dark hair and baby blue eyes, but his glasses help bring him back down to earth with a Clark Kent vibe. I used to be in love with him until one day, I snapped out of it and realized we were just meant to be friends.

Will is also my older brother Sebastian’s best friend and is practically a member of the family. The McGuffin clan, along with most of our friends, are here at the Whispering Bay City Hall Auditorium to support my mother, who’s running for president of her homeowners’ association board.

In approximately ten minutes, Mom is set to engage in a friendly debate against the current president, Frank Milhouse. As a courtesy, my café, The Bistro by the Beach, has donated tonight’s refreshments—over ten dozen of my signature muffins, along with the best coffee you can find in the Florida panhandle.

Old Man Milhouse (as Sebastian and I used to call him when we were growing up) has been the president of the Serenity Falls Homeowners’ Association for the past four years, mainly because he’s gone unchallenged. Until now, that is.

“Where’s Travis?” my brother Sebastian asks. He’s the pastor of St. Perpetua’s Catholic Church here in Whispering Bay. Although he’s not wearing his clerical collar, there’s still a semi-serious aura about him that makes people confess their deepest, darkest secrets to him every day. I don’t have that same aura. I was blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with a different kind of gift.

“Travis is catching up on work so we can get an early start tomorrow morning,” I say.

Travis Fontaine is the town’s chief of police. He’s also my boyfriend, and tomorrow morning we’re heading to St. Augustine for our first ever romantic weekend getaway. We’ve been dating for a while now, and he’s yet to utter the L-word. I’m pretty sure he’s waiting for the perfect backdrop.

I’m thinking candles, linen tablecloth, wine, and a gentle ocean breeze that picks up the ends of my brown hair to create a lovely frame around my face. Of course, in reality, the humidity from the ocean will make my hair frizz and my glasses fog up, but it’s a pretty picture and one that’s kept me working overtime this week in preparation for our trip. My bags are packed, and I’ve baked enough muffins to keep the café going until I return to work bright and early Monday morning. I’m so excited I can hardly contain myself.

The only person (okay, so technically, he’s a dog) who isn’t excited about my upcoming trip is Paco. Every time I mention anything to do with this weekend, he turns his head like he doesn’t want to hear about it. If he thinks that’s going to change my mind, then he’s in for a rude awakening because I’m going anyway. Besides, I’m leaving him with Will, whom he adores. I refuse to become one of those pet mothers who dotes on their animals and ends up spoiling them. Nope. Not gonna happen.

A woman—I think she’s the current Serenity Falls HOA secretary—comes up to our little group. Her nametag reads Frederica Smith. She’s in her late fifties, with bright red hair that could have only come out of a box. “The debate starts in five minutes.” She frowns at my dog like she’s just bitten into a stale donut. “How did that mutt get inside the building?”

Paco makes a pfft sound under his breath. Is she talking about me?

Before I can defend my dog, Victor Marino does it for me. “Frederica, don’t you know who this is? This is Paco. He’s a ghost whisperer. And he most certainly is not a mutt.” Victor is a member of the Sunshine Ghost Society, a local group that communes with the dead. He’s always trying to get me to allow Paco to attend their séances, which I did once, and since it helped me solve a murder, I can’t regret it. But now everyone in town knows about Paco’s abilities, and that just makes it weird.

Luckily, only my immediate family and a few close friends know about my lie-detecting skills, because can you imagine what my life would be like if everyone knew that I could tell when they were lying? My biggest fear is that someone from the government kidnaps me, then ships me off to Quantico to dissect my brain. Hey, it could happen.

Frederica gives Paco a hard stare. “You mean this is the dog who helped solve all those murders? He doesn’t look so special to me.”

Paco looks like he’s about to bite her ankle.

“Oh, believe me, he’s special enough,” I say.

“So he’s a service dog?” she asks. “Do you have any paperwork to corroborate that?”

Sebastian gives her the same smile he gives his parishioners when he’s about to ask them for money. “Surely he’s not hurting anyone by being here, is he? Look how well he behaves.”

Paco catches on to Sebastian’s game. He looks up at Frederica with his big, brown, soulful chihuahua eyes, and like everyone else on the planet, she falls for it.

“He is rather cute. I suppose he’s not hurting anything,” Frederica relents. “Just make sure he behaves himself.” She rushes off to shoo the rest of the room into their seats.

Dad gives Paco a thumbs-up to say job well done. If Paco had an opposable thumb, he’d return the gesture.

“What a grouch,” Will says. “You sure you want to work with her on the board, Molly?”

“Unfortunately, no one is running against her, so I’ll be stuck with her when I’m president.”

“You mean, if you win the election,” I remind her.

She smiles like she knows something I don’t. “Not to toot my own horn, but I think my speech is going to create a bit of a sensation.”

Uh-oh. Sebastian and I give each other a look. “I offered to help Mom write her speech,” he says, “but she wanted to do it on her own.”

“Don’t look at me,” Dad says. “I haven’t read it either.”

“That’s because I want you all to hear it fresh so you’ll be as wowed as the rest of the audience.” I notice for the first time tonight that Mom is wearing glasses.

“When did you start wearing glasses?” I ask her.

Mom primps for us. “You like them? I bought them online. They’re clear lenses. No prescription since I have perfect vision.”

I’m almost afraid to ask. “Then why are you wearing them?”

“Lucy, glasses are all the rage. They hide all those nasty little lines around the eyes, not to mention they make me look smarter. You’re so lucky you’ve been able to wear them all these years.”

Yeah, lucky me.

She smooths down her linen skirt in a nervous gesture. I have to admit, Molly McGuffin looks pretty sharp. She’s in her mid-sixties, but she’s in great shape. Probably because of all that yoga she does. I’m proud that she’s running for HOA president. After Dad retired, my parents spent a few years being snowbirds. But a couple of months ago, they sold their place in Maine and decided to become full-time residents of Whispering Bay again.

Dad says it’s because of all the recent murder and mayhem happening here in our little hamlet. He doesn’t feel comfortable being so far away when Paco and I are always in the thick of things. There’s a sign on the edge of town that reads, “Welcome to Whispering Bay, Florida, the safest city in America!” Brittany, who works for the chamber of commerce, came up with the slogan. I hate to break it to her, but we probably need a new sign.

Mom has another reason for wanting to stay in town year-round. She’s convinced Travis and I will get married and start having babies, and she doesn’t want to miss anything. She already has a wedding notebook hidden in her nightstand with swatches for dresses and flower arrangements and the whole works. I hate to burst her bubble, but Travis and I are a long way away from marriage.

Frederica goes to the front of the room, where two podiums are set up with mics. “We’ll be starting shortly, so please take your seats,” she announces.

From what I can see, there must be about a hundred people here. A more than decent turnout for a neighborhood board meeting. Everyone settles in, and Frederica continues. “On behalf of the Serenity Falls Homeowners’ Association, I’d like to welcome you all to tonight’s presidential debate.”

This is met with polite applause.

“I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank The Bistro by the Beach for providing the refreshments—” Boisterous clapping drowns her out mid-sentence. I glance around, gratified that most of the audience is turning to look at me and nodding their thanks.

I put up a hand in acknowledgment and do the queen wave. See? I didn’t need a reality TV show to know that my muffins are the best.

Frederica taps impatiently on the mic, reclaiming the audience’s attention. “Let me introduce myself and the rest of the board. I’m Frederica Smith, and I’m the current secretary. Our vice president, Julian Connelly.” A man in the front row stands in acknowledgment. “And our treasurer, Alice Kilpatrick.”

Alice is my mother’s age, and I’ve known her most of my life, but I’ve only seen Julian Connelly a few times, and that was when he was working out in his yard. He must be a donut man because, as far as I know, he’s never stepped foot in my café. According to Mom, he’s only been in town a couple of years. Most newcomers to Whispering Bay are either retirees or young people buying their first home. He doesn’t appear to be either of those—early fifties, brown hair, medium height, mildly attractive with an urban air about him. I’ve always thought he’d look more at home at a Soho art gallery than in a sleepy little subdivision like Serenity Falls.

“Other than the office of president,” Frederica continues, “the rest of the board is going unchallenged, so per our HOA bylaws, which were rewritten just last month by our fearless leader, the current office holders will remain in their positions.” The fearless leader, I assume, must be Mr. Milhouse.

“What does that mean?” Phoebe Van Cleave whispers loud enough that everyone for three rows can hear. Phoebe is head of the Sunshine Ghost Society and a regular customer at my café. She loves to complain about everything under the sun, but it’s nice that she showed up to support my mom.

“It means no one wants to run for the HOA board,” Victor says.

Frederica ignores this and goes on to read both Mom’s and Mr. Milhouse’s bios. His bio touts his forty-year career working as an auditor for the IRS (it figures), his volunteer work, a few lines about his widower status, and last but not least, his obsession with roses. He’s a member of the National Rose Society, and for the past ten years, his Grandiflora hybrid-tea rose has won first place at some fancy rose competition.

When I was six, I accidentally drove my bike over the edge of one of his rose bushes.  Even though I apologized profusely (and my parents made me use my allowance to buy him a new rose bush), he’s never let me forget it.

Mom’s bio outlines her years spent as a homemaker, her love of arts and crafts, her culinary skills, and all the volunteer work she’s done at church and in the community.

Frederica calls Mom and Mr. Milhouse to the front of the room, where they take their places behind their respective podiums. It’s the first time I’ve seen Mr. Milhouse tonight since he wasn’t hanging around eating muffins and drinking coffee like the rest of us. He’s wearing dark slacks, a white button-down shirt, and a sneer. It’s like the whole thing is one big bother to him. Mom, on the other hand, looks like a five-year-old at Disney World.

Dad, who’s seated to my right, mutters, “Let the games begin.”

“Each candidate will make an opening statement, then we’ll open up the floor to questions for the debate. Mrs. McGuffin, you may go first.” Frederica takes a seat in the front row next to Julian Connelly.

Mom leans into the mic. “Hello!” Her voice rebounds around the room, making Paco’s ears stand up like a couple of antennae. Mom laughs nervously. “Too loud.” She readjusts the mic. “Is that better?”

Dad nods in response.

Mom squints like she can’t see Dad clearly. I think these glasses that are supposed to make her look younger and smarter are playing havoc with her vision.

“We can hear you, Mom,” Sebastian says helpfully.

“Oh, good! Let’s see …” She pulls out a sheet of paper. “I’m Molly McGuffin, and I’ve lived in Whispering Bay all my life. Except when we summered in Maine. But George and I are back to stay permanently. I’m running for HOA president, because as I like to say to myself every morning when I get up: Ask not what your neighborhood association can do for you but what you can do for your neighborhood association.”

A few people in the audience chuckle at Mom’s clever use of the famous JFK quote.

“Help me help you,” Mom continues, “by answering this question. When is the last time your HOA dues weren’t increased?” No one says anything for a few seconds.

“Is this a trick question?” asks a man in the middle of the room. “Because our dues go up every year.”

“Exactly!” Mom crows. “That’s my point. Every year our homeowners’ association dues go up. Well, read my lips. No new dues!”

The crowd begins clapping.

“As a matter of fact, I plan to cut the current dues by ten percent each year.”

More clapping ensues, causing Mr. Milhouse to sputter, “You can’t do that!”

Mom turns to face him. “Mr. Milhouse, on behalf of the homeowners of Serenity Falls, I demand that you tear down this wall!”

“What wall?” He looks wildly around the room. “What’s she talking about?”

“I’m talking about the invisible wall of dissatisfaction you’ve created with your miserly policies. Last Christmas, the HOA didn’t put up poinsettias around the entryway. It used to be a tradition. Until a certain someone took over as dictator—I mean, president.”

People in the room begin whispering to one another.

“If I’m elected HOA president, I promise to bring back the holiday poinsettias,” Mom says.

Mr. Milhouse’s face goes red. “We can’t afford something as frivolous as the poinsettias.”

Mom places her hands on her hips. “Why not?”

“Because we have financial obligations, that’s why. You’ve read the treasurer reports, haven’t you?” he demands.

“Of course I’ve read them. Front and back,” Mom says.

The hair on the back of my neck rises in protest. It’s a physical response that happens whenever I hear a lie. Oh no. Mom has just told a giant fib. She hasn’t read the financial reports.

“Then how do you propose to keep the neighborhood going with a diminished treasury?” he roars.

“Oh, poo.” Mom waves a negligent hand in the air. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The money will come from somewhere. Furthermore, not only am I bringing back the poinsettias, but my plan involves decorating the whole neighborhood for the holidays. I’m envisioning lights in all the trees in the front entryway. Multicolored ones. Not those boring white ones.”

“While we’re at it, why don’t we give out free cocoa and cookies to anyone who comes through the front gate?” says Mr. Milhouse.

Mom, apparently, either doesn’t get the sarcasm or she doesn’t care.

“That’s a wonderful idea! I say we bring back the neighborhood caroling group too. Whatever happened to them anyway?”

Dad whispers in my ear, “I’ll tell you what happened to them. That was thirty years ago. Most of them are dead now.”

Mom and Mr. Milhouse go back and forth, arguing point after point. Every time she opens her mouth, she either makes a promise that she can’t possibly keep or manages to wiggle in another quote from a dead politician. She finishes her speech by saying that her goal is to deliver a homeowners’ association of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Mr. Milhouse looks like he’s about to stroke out.

I can’t take this anymore.

I grab Paco’s leash. “Paco needs to pee,” I tell my dad. Paco looks up at me. Good excuse. We make our way outside to the front of the building. The overhead lights cast eerie-looking shadows, which, combined with the chilly November air, make me shiver.

Paco trots over to a grassy spot at the edge of the parking lot to do his business. While I’m waiting for him to finish, I spot a figure over by a car. He or she—I can’t tell which, but I’m pretty sure it’s a he—fiddles with the door handle like they’re trying to open the car, but it’s locked. He spots me, freezes for a few seconds, then scurries around to the back of the building.

“That’s weird.” Paco cocks his head like he wants me to elaborate. “Do you think he was trying to break into that car?”

If Paco could shrug, he would. Who knows? Humans are so weird.

“Whatever. But one thing’s for certain. Whoever that was, they’re up to no good.”

Which naturally means we’re going to follow him.

 

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Books in This Series

Book 1
Book 2
Book 3
Book 4
Book 5
Book 6
Book 7
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