A Tough Nut to Kill(Nut House Mystery Series)
Author:Elizabeth Lee


    For the wonderful people who get me through long days and longer nights:

    Mary Ann Warner, who taught me the kindness of “real” Texas folks.

    Patty Sumpter, who coached me until I said “pecan” right. Who brought me biscuits and gravy and is responsible for these extra pounds I’m still dragging around. Who gave me lessons in Southern womanhood.

    For people like Mardi Link and Aaron Stander and Doug Stanton, because they keep me going with kindness and belief in their talent, and in mine.

    For Carolyn Vosburg Hall, an amazing human being who knows how to get a writer back on track with a simple word here and there; a red pencil mark every so often; and a slightly troubled look that warns a writer to beware of hubris.

    For my amazing children and grandchildren and all those children yet to come. Dream big, kids. And turn a deaf ear to the word “no.”

    And, of course, for Tony.

    Chapter One

    I was already steeped in the heavenly smell of baking pecan pies and pecan drop cookies when I hurried down, worried, from my apartment over the Nut House, the store our family owned, to find my meemaw, Amelia Hastings, known to everybody in Riverville, Texas, as Miss Amelia, behind the counter, embroiled in her weekly tussle with Ethelred Tomroy.

    “I came for one of those ‘special’ pecan pies of yours, Amelia,” Miss Tomroy, a woman of strong opinions and harsher judgments, was saying as she leaned back on her low-heeled oxfords and eyed my grandmother. “From what I hear, you haven’t been giving me the right pie. Why, I’m told you make special pies, for special people. If I’m not special—oldest family in Riverville, old as Texas dirt, then who is special, I’d like to know?” She stopped for one of her infrequent breaths. “So I want one of those very ‘special’ pies of yours, Amelia Hastings. Not one of your regular pies. You know I can make a regular pie as good or better than anybody in this whole town. Don’t deny it. Everybody knows my pecan pies are superior to any pie this town can turn out. And don’t give me any guff about those judges at the county fair. Biased they are and always have been. It’s just that I don’t have time on my hands, like you.”

    Ethelred took a breath and gave me a smug smile, nodding so her steely gray hair snaked out of its rolled bun. “Ya know, Lindy Blanchard, I got better things to do than spend all my days baking like your grandmother here. Rolling out a crust, making up her sauce . . . that’s her job, right? Though why you Blanchards let your grandmother keep on working the way she does . . .” She turned back to Miss Amelia and clucked. “You gotta be . . . what is it now, Amelia? You about seventy-five?”

    I knew my meemaw wouldn’t back down in front of the town harridan. That’s not what strong Texas women did, and Miss Amelia had been through enough in her life and seen enough and knew enough about people in general to stand her ground, give back as good as she got, and do it all with that ladylike smile Southern women step out of the womb wearing.

    “Why, bless yer heart, Ethelred.” Miss Amelia leaned back on the heels of her sneakers and dipped her neatly brushed head of short, no-nonsense gray hair. I watched as she crossed her arms over her apron and hung on tight to her dignity. “Just bless yer heart for all yer concern, but I think I’m still younger than you, unless time stopped and nobody told me ’bout it. You seventy-seven now?”

    I had something important to ask her, something bothering me since I’d walked into my apartment a little while before and noticed things on my desk moved and my computer keyboard pulled out, as if somebody had been using it. My swivel chair was turned backward. Maybe I wasn’t the neatest dresser in town—jeans and T-shirts being up there at the height of my couture, dirty blond hair caught back in a ponytail held with a red rubber band—but since college, because of my training in biophysics, I kept things around me like an orderly ship captain might: notes and records and grafts and files and pots and numbered plant stakes. I never left my computer at an angle, nor my chair pulled out. And besides that, I felt something different in the air up there. There’s a kind of quiet to an empty apartment, like the air goes to sleep while I’m gone and should stay that way until I come back. The air in my apartment wasn’t quiet this afternoon. Somebody had been there and I wanted to ask Meemaw if she’d seen anyone near the stairs. With the tour buses stopping and filling the store with people from time to time, it wouldn’t be hard for a person to sneak up the enclosed stairway to my apartment. And then the lock—well, that door and lock were about as old as the building—over a hundred years.

    I tried to keep a smile on my face while the two women got deeper into their years-old wrangling. I was only back in town from my office at Rancho en el Colorado, the family pecan ranch, to pick up a magazine article I’d forgotten that morning, something about a new kind of nut tree that resisted drought and could be disease-free.

    That’s my job, my profession. I’m a plant biologist with degrees from Texas A&M. I’d always figured I’d been given so much by the beautiful old pecan trees on the family spread that it was time to give back; maybe help all the ranchers in Riverville, our old friends, since we were in this hard business together. After I got my master’s degree, Emma, my mother, built me a gorgeous greenhouse out beyond the barns. With the help of Martin Sanchez, our ranch foreman, I set up a fenced test grove for my saplings. Lots of new plants. New strains. Lots of grafting. I was almost there. A few trees in my test grove could do with very little water, and I had a graft on a GraKing cultivar that was showing great resistance to scab, a kind of fungus that destroys young leaves in spring or can kill a whole crop in wet years. But I couldn’t achieve both. Not a disease-free and a drought-tolerant tree all together. Until now. A new group of trees in the test grove. All I had to do was wait out the next year to see if they were as good as I thought, see if I finally had the answer that would solve the ranchers’ heartbreaking problems of years with no crops, years when the bank called in notes, years when we said good-bye to decent, hardworking ranchers we knew like family. And especially this year, a drought already hitting the out-budding trees, and at a crucial time for the pecans if they were to be heavy with nuts by late fall.

    I was excited about my new cultivars, but I couldn’t talk about them to any of the ranchers. No use raising hopes. Still—Meemaw and Mama knew and were both rooting for me.

    Standing there, waiting for Ethelred to stop her sputtering about how Miss Amelia knew darned well she was nothing even close to seventy-seven, was trying my patience, but if I got testy with Ethelred I’d hear about it later, in a detailed dressing-down from Miss Amelia, how a Texas woman acts and doesn’t act and how we don’t want people to think we’re rude Northerners—“Do we, Lindy?”

    Eventually Ethelred wound down. She heaved a long-suffering sigh and I jumped right in. “Meemaw, could I have a minute . . .”

    I motioned back toward the kitchen, where we could talk.

    “Not now, Lindy.” Ethelred’s wind-down had been only a temporary condition. She waved a dismissive hand at me, making my blood pressure shoot up and my tongue swell up with words I’d like to spit at her. “I’m a busy person and I got business here before she goes trotting off.”

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