When the people renting the Sleuth Sisters’ family farm move out unexpectedly, Retta suspects that at least some of them didn’t go voluntarily. As the sisters deal with the menagerie of animals left behind–some usual, some exotic- things happen that range from puzzling to downright dangerous. What was Ben McAdams into, and did his odd views of society lead to murder? Trying to answer those questions leads Barb, Faye, and Retta to a desperate chase on Michigan’s Mackinac Island as they work together to stop a plot meant to lead to many deaths, including their own.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Sisters. I have two good ones, but even so, we see life differently because of our experiences and personalities. Most of us love our sisters, but we also know them too well to ever believe they’re perfect. That doesn’t mean sisters can’t work together when necessary, but it also doesn’t mean there won’t be friction when they do!
This is the 3rd book of the Sleuth Sisters series, and it just gets more fun to write. My sisters even give me ideas on how Barb, Faye, and Retta can get into more trouble!
People often ask which sister is me, and I have to say there’s a little of me in each of them. But the Grammar Ninja in Barb? That’s me all the way.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
To see how sisters might be alike is easy: they grow up in the same home, town, and social group. To see how they’re different is easy too: lives go in different directions. Barb has been a professional all her adult life, and she’s lived away from little Allport and its concerns. Faye has concentrated on family, and she sees the detective agency as a chance to help people. Retta just wants to have fun, and if sticking her nose in other people’s business is a way to do that, she’s ready–although she does have an appointment to get her nails done later.
Chatper One: Faye
When my kids were growing up, I taught them to be hard-working, loyal, and kind to small children and animals. I never stopped to think that those things can lead to heartache—and in a few instances can get you killed.
It started with a phone call. Before I could say a word, my sister started talking, her voice ringing with indignation, “Our renters are gone, and they gave me no notice whatsoever!”
“What do you mean, Retta? McAdams moved out?”
“I got a letter in today’s mail, saying they were leaving on Monday. They didn’t send me notice until the day they left.”
“Maybe the letter got delayed somehow.”
“The letter’s date is the same as the postmark.” She gave a ladylike snort. (Everything Retta does is ladylike.) “I’ll never show it to Barbara Ann. It’s so full of errors she’d have apoplexy. Can you imagine just sending a letter to say you’re moving away and leaving the same day?” She paused for breath. “I’m shocked, Faye. I never imagined those people would do something like this!”
Retta has the dubious honor of managing our family farm. After our parents died, first Dad, then Mom a year later, none of us wanted to live there. Barb was out in Tacoma, and Retta and Don had just built a nice home on the river. I had to stay in town since my husband Dale needs to be close to medical and rehab services.
I loved the old place, and selling it to strangers didn’t seem right, so I’d argued we should rent it out. Retta, who loves to be in charge of things, agreed to manage the property. She leased the fields to a local farmer and the house and outbuildings to a series of tenants. Ten miles out of Allport with a house that isn’t exactly a palace, the farm’s renters hadn’t stayed long until McAdams—I thought his first name was Ben—moved in. McAdams had come to Allport a single man just out of the military, rented the house and outbuildings from Retta, and brought in chickens and a few cattle. Later he’d found a girlfriend, a woman with three little girls, and since then the menagerie had grown to include other interesting creatures like reindeer and peafowl.
“I thought they were happy out there with their critters.”
“I did too,” Retta replied. “Rose is always really good about sending the rent money on time. But I’ve been busy planning summer events for the Chamber and VBS at church. With that and helping you two at the agency, I haven’t been out there in a while.”
Retta is part of the Smart Detective Agency only through sheer will on her part. Our older sister Barb and I started the business with the idea that we would solve crimes and help people. Retta noses her way into our business whenever possible, as she has since we were teenagers and she was the little sister we didn’t want along on our adventures.
I admit she is often useful. The widow of a state policeman killed in the line of duty, Retta has contacts Barb and I don’t. She also has a sharp intellect and plenty of courage. On the down-side, she’s impulsive and bossy, which irks Barb all the time and me sometimes. Barb keeps reminding me—and Retta, too—that she’s an auxiliary employee, not a partner. That doesn’t stop Retta from acting as if she runs the place.
Still upset about our renters’ disappearance, Retta went on with her news. “I talked to Chet Masters, the guy who farms our fields. He said not only are they gone, but they left their animals behind.”
“I know! Half a dozen reindeer, a flock of peacocks, some chickens, and three or four cows. There could be more. I never paid much attention.”
“And they didn’t make arrangements for them?”
“None. Masters peeked in the windows, and he says there’s a lot of stuff still in the house, too.” Retta’s voice rose as her irritation spiked again. “How inconsiderate can people be? I’ll have to find someone to clean the place out before I can run ads and get new tenants in.”
“Don’t rent it if it’s too much work.” The regular deposits in my bank account were nice, but the agency had started picking up steam. “Since Dale and I moved in with Barb, we can manage without the money.”
Retta made a coughing sound, as if I’d suggested she do the Dance of the Seven Veils to spice up the opening of Vacation Bible School. “A house falls apart ten times faster when it’s empty, Faye. We need to find renters this summer, fall at the latest. Nobody wants to move in the middle of a Michigan winter.”
After a little more grousing about ungrateful people, Retta ended the call, already planning how she would fit re-renting the house into her busy schedule. I might have suggested she give up a tanning session or two and save herself skin damage down the road, but I learned long ago such comments bring little sniffs of disapproval. Ladylike sniffs, since they come from Retta.
Forgetting the call for the moment, I returned to the robbery case Barb and I were working on. Searching online sites, I checked pawn and secondhand shops in hopes of finding goods our client was missing. It was tedious work, but one hit could break a case.
When Barb came in and I told her about our disappearing renters, she showed little interest. We both trusted Retta to see that the property was maintained, the taxes and insurance paid, and our shares of after-expense money deposited in our bank accounts. For Retta, our renters’ flight was exasperating. For Barb it was just a curious anecdote. For me, any mention of the farm brought a vague sense of longing for the past.
Barb spent her professional career as an assistant D.A. on the West Coast, and for her, the farm is just a pleasant childhood memory. Retta stayed in Allport, but from somewhere around the age of ten, she resented living in the country. She complained about being so far from her friends and the bright lights of the city, if Allport’s modest size and average number of street lights can be considered that way. Neither of my sisters has the emotional attachment to the farm I have.
For me, the farm is home, the place where I was a happy, carefree kid. While I’m wise enough to recognize I really can’t go home again, I still feel nostalgic out there. It had pleased me to think that Ben McAdams was giving three young girls some of the same memories we had, along with protection from the craziness of the modern world. Walks through woods where the only sounds are birds and whispering trees. Chores that aren’t loathsome because animals give affection in return for care. The smell of apple blossoms in the spring, cut hay in the summer, and dry leaves in the fall. Every season and every acre, whether wooded, planted, or pastured, has its own delights. At least, that’s how I remember it.
Barb dismissed the topic with a shrug. “She’ll get renters. Houses that big are hard to find.”
A picture of Mom’s house rose in my mind, room after room circling an open space with a narrow stairway at the center. Upstairs, three slanty-roofed bedrooms lined up on the left, one behind another so the occupant of the last (Retta, in our case) had to pass through my room then Barb’s to get to the stairs. To the right of the stairway was a large open space, useless except for storage. Rainy days had been perfect for staying inside and, going through albums filled with sepia-toned photographs, trunks of old clothes, and other bits of memorabilia every family accumulates.
Outside had been Dad’s territory, the barns, the sheds, the fenced pens, and at the edge of the woods, a long, low bunkhouse, used in past generations by workers hired during busy times like planting or harvest. These days it was filled with furniture nobody wanted, all of it slowly being eaten away by mice, squirrels, and time.
A thought came to me. “I wonder if Bill might want to move in.”
“Bill?” Barb’s voice revealed doubt. “Why would he leave Chicago?”
Because he has to, I thought, but I wasn’t ready to talk about that yet. Barb has seldom dealt with failure, and I don’t think she has any idea what each successive loss does to a person. My son was facing his third failed business, and soon he and his wife would have to move again. Though Barb obviously thought it was a crazy idea, I wondered if the prospect of moving to Allport might be something they would consider.
Probably not, I told myself firmly. Bill is a scientist, and Carla is a city girl. No doubt they’d view living in an old house out in the country with the same enthusiasm as being sentenced to ten years in a gulag.
I sighed. The farm would be rented out to strangers again, and that was probably best.
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