The Good, the Bad, and the Pugly: A Little Tombstone Cozy Mystery

When Emma Iverson's great aunt Geraldine leaves her a rundown roadside attraction in rural New Mexico, the inheritance comes with strings attached.

If Emma wants to take possession of Little Tombstone's motel, cafe, curio shop, and Museum of the Unexplained, then she has to agree to "Love, Honor and Cherish" Earp, her late aunt's ancient and irritable pug. It says so, right there in the will.

What Aunt Geraldine's will conveniently omits to mention are the bodies buried underneath the trailer court.

Chapter One

“Do you have any questions, Mrs. Iverson?” my Great Aunt Geraldine’s lawyer asked as I finished reading the first half of my aunt’s will and placed it back on his immaculate desk, too overwhelmed to go on.

The surface of the desk was so shiny that I could see that my eyeliner had smudged and that I had a bit of spinach stuck between two of my front teeth.

Aunt Geraldine’s lawyer had instructed me to call him Jason, although, as he persisted in addressing me as Mrs. Iverson, rather than Emma, I’d decided it was safer to stick with Mr. Wendell.

“Aunt Geraldine is leaving me Little Tombstone?”

“According to the terms of her will, Mrs. Montgomery has left you nearly everything she possessed, yes,” Mr. Wendell said. “The few exceptions are addressed in the later pages.”

He smiled an impersonal smile, displaying a row of very white, very straight teeth. I doubted Mr. Wendell ever went around for hours, oblivious to the fact that part of his lunch was on display every time he opened his mouth. At least everyone I’d seen since noon would know I was the sort of responsible citizen who ate her vegetables and did her part to keep rising health care costs at bay by practicing preventative medicine.

I smiled back at Mr. Wendell with my lips pressed firmly together. Smiling with my mouth shut makes me look slightly deranged, but as Mr. Wendell had obviously had extensive dealings with my Great Aunt Geraldine, he shouldn’t be surprised to discover that being slightly deranged runs in the family.

“I’m getting the café building?” I asked.

“Yes. The Bird Cage Café is included on the deed.”

“And the little shop with that funny old man—Hank? He runs that weird museum thingy?”

“The Curio Shop and Museum of the Unexplained, yes. Hank Edwards leases that portion of the premises, although I understand his rent amounts to a purely symbolic sum.”

“Hank will become my tenant?”

“In the latter half of the will, Mr. Edward’s use of the premises is discussed. It seems your aunt had granted Mr. Edwards tenancy for life at what seemed to me a rather reduced rent.”

“How reduced?”

“The will stipulates the rent to remain, in perpetuity, at ten dollars a month.”

If I hadn’t been so shocked by the will in its entirety, I would have asked a lot more questions about the relationship between Hank Edwards and my Great Aunt Geraldine—not that Mr. Wendell would have been in a position to answer them—but I didn’t. At the moment, I had more pressing concerns.

“Aunt Geraldine left me the trailer court too?”

“Yes, also with several long-term tenants, although I won’t deceive you that the rents amount to much. You are free to raise those rents, unlike Mr. Edwards’, at your discretion.”

“And the motel?”

“There are the two tourist cottages as well as the eight-room motel, all of which are vacant and virtually derelict.”

“If Aunt Geraldine was this loaded,” I pointed down at the documents on Mr. Wendell’s desk, “why is Little Tombstone in such bad shape?”

“I’m afraid Mrs. Montgomery did not confide in me her reasons for allowing things to run into such disrepair.”

“But what about Abigail?” I asked. “Shouldn’t she be the one getting all this?”

“Mrs. Montgomery’s daughter?”

My cousin Abigail had been on the outs with her mother off and on for years, but I had a hard time believing that their relationship had deteriorated to the extent that my Aunt Geraldine would cut her daughter out of the will entirely.

“Mrs. Montgomery did leave her daughter a small bequest,” Mr. Wendell said. “You’ll find it on page eighteen.”

I consulted page eighteen.

“’A blue 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with an extra set of hubcaps (needs new carburetor and windshield, hood ornament missing).’ What about Abigail’s daughters?”

“Keep reading,” said Mr. Wendell. “Mrs. Montgomery left something for each of her granddaughters.”

I scanned the page once more.

“A large box of miscellaneous Tupperware (some have lids) for Freida and a set of World Book Encyclopedias (missing volume B and U-V) for Georgia?” I said. “Isn’t this all a bit insulting?”

“It’s not my place to interpret the intent of the deceased,” said Mr. Wendell, and for a few seconds his stuffed-frog demeanor slipped a little, “but I have reason to believe that Mrs. Montgomery may have been less than pleased with her daughter and granddaughters at the time of her death. Mrs. Montgomery altered the will, shortly before she died, to leave her real estate and the bulk of her personal property to you. Your name was added as sole beneficiary to all her banking and investment accounts at the same time Mrs. Montgomery altered her will. Those accounts are not reflected in the will itself, and their existence may be kept confidential if you wish.”

“But why would my Great Aunt Geraldine leave me practically everything?”

“I believe that your grandmother had specified that her half of Little Tombstone should pass on to you upon your aunt’s death. I understand that it was joint property between your great aunt and your grandmother. The earlier version of the will had named you and your cousin Abigail as joint inheritors of Little Tombstone, but your great aunt must have had misgivings about the arrangement.”

I checked the date on the will. It had been signed just three weeks before Great Aunt Geraldine had passed away.

“But I didn’t even come to see Aunt Geraldine when she was sick,” I said. “I haven’t visited Little Tombstone for almost three years. I always called my aunt at Christmas and on her birthday, but that’s about it. I don’t deserve this.”

The truth was, I hadn’t known my great aunt even had cancer until I’d received a call from Aunt Geraldine’s best friend, Juanita, telling me that my aunt was already gone. There’d been no service. Just a quiet cremation.

I’d inherited Great Aunt Geraldine’s ashes too, apparently. The bright blue ceramic urn containing all that was left of my aunt sat on Mr. Wendell’s shiny desk next to the manila envelope which held my copy of the will.

“Your aunt did not confide in me her reasons for leaving you the bulk of her property. The only comment she made when she came in to draft the changes was that she was doing it for Earp.”

“Earp? Aunt Geraldine’s dog, you mean?”

I was shocked that Earp was still alive. I’d not been back to visit Little Tombstone since my grandmother’s funeral three years before, and even then, Earp, my Great Aunt Geraldine’s ancient and irritable pug, had looked about a hundred years old—in dog years, of course.
Earp had taken an obsessive shine to me. I suspected that it was not my personal charm that fueled his possessiveness, but because I surreptitiously fed him little powdered sugar-covered lemon cookies out of the package I always keep in my handbag. Whatever the reason, for my entire visit to Little Tombstone, Earp had refused to let me out of his sight.

“You’ve not made it to the section addressing the matter of Earp,” said Mr. Wendell. His lip twitched a bit at one corner as if suppressing a genuine smile of amusement, but he hastily replaced it with a professional display of his straight, white teeth. “If you’ll skip to page nine, you’ll find the matter of Earp addressed in great detail.”

I read page nine, then page ten, followed by pages eleven through thirteen. By the time I was finished reading the lengthy passages addressing the care, feeding, and sweatering of the pug, I understood why Mr. Stiff-as-a-Double-Starched-Shirt was having trouble keeping a straight face.

There was a condition attached to my inheritance of Little Tombstone Café, Curios, Museum, and Trailer Court: I was obliged to Love, Honor, and Cherish my Aunt Geraldine’s beloved pug ‘til death-do-us-part. Those were her exact words.

If I didn’t, Little Tombstone, along with what appeared to be a substantial stash of cash and even more substantial investments, would go to the Animal Rescue in Albuquerque, and all I’d be left with was an old set of golf clubs formerly used by my late Uncle Ricky to hit rocks at rattlesnakes.

Chapter Two

After I had finished reading the will and asked at least a million questions, all of which Mr. Wendell patiently answered, he insisted on accompanying me to Little Tombstone.

“Just in case,” he said.

“Just in case of what?” I asked, but Mr. Wendell ignored my question and instructed me to follow his spotless, white, and nearly-new Land Rover in my compact rental car.

I wondered what someone who drove a spotless, white, and nearly-new Land Rover and wore what looked suspiciously like handmade Italian leather loafers was doing practicing law in a dusty New Mexican wide-spot in the road. Even Mr. Wendell’s small concrete office building looked out of place. It was the newest structure of the twenty-odd buildings that made up the village of Amatista by a good thirty years.

Mr. Wendell looked more like the Santa Fe type. I’d have thought he’d be well suited to intellectual property law or corporate mediation, rather than officiating the wills of eccentrics who bequeath rundown roadside tourist attractions to their down-and-out grandnieces.

I wondered if Mr. Wendell handled divorces. I’d already filed for one in LA County, but after seeing what Aunt Geraldine was apparently leaving me, I was in no mood to let my fiscally reckless ex get his hands on that, too.

I’d selected my LA lawyer by the dubious strategy of performing an internet search for divorce attorneys and then picking one at random. It was all I’d had strength for at the time. It might do to get a second opinion, just in case my first arbitrary pick of legal counsel was giving me bad advice.

When we reached Little Tombstone, a mere half-mile north of Mr. Wendell’s office, it looked much as I had left it three years before. Little Tombstone had looked shabby then, and it looked shabby now.

According to the deed, which I’d received along with Aunt Geraldine’s will, Little Tombstone sat on one hundred and fifty acres, but the buildings were clustered on three blocks’ worth of street frontage along Highway 14. The buildings were on the far north edge of the tiny village of Amatista, but the bulk of the land attached to Little Tombstone extended into rolling hills dotted with sagebrush and cactus interrupted by the occasional arroyo.

Little Tombstone proper—a haphazard and truncated imitation of the original historic town in Arizona—had originally been my grandfather’s idea, back in the 1970s, but his idea had outlived him by forty years. After my grandfather’s unexpected death left my grandmother a very young and overwhelmed single mother raising a daughter on her own, she had invited her sister Geraldine and her husband Ricky to move to Amatista and help run the roadside attraction—then in its heyday.

Judging by the condition of the place, Little Tombstone’s heyday was over, never to return.

Mr. Wendell bypassed the eight-unit motel with its broken-out windows and collapsing roof and pulled up in front of the Bird Cage Café, the only building within the three blocks’ worth of weather-beaten structures which had any cars parked in front of it. I pulled into the gravel strip which fronted the dilapidated boardwalk that tied the whole crumbling monstrosity together.

Mr. Wendell climbed out of his Land Rover and navigated the broken steps leading up to the elevated boardwalk with a look on his face that plainly said, “This place is a personal injury lawsuit waiting to happen.”

I made a mental note to use a bit of the cash my Great Aunt Geraldine had left sitting in the bank to get someone out to fix those steps before some poor soul broke his neck.

I’d always assumed that Aunt Geraldine had let things get in such a sorry state because she lacked the funds to do anything about it, but, based on the assets enumerated in the list, I’d just received from my aunt’s lawyer, I’d assumed wrong. Aunt Geraldine had been practically rolling in dough.

Mr. Wendell held open the swinging saloon-style doors which led into a small open-air vestibule.

“You may find that Mrs. Gonzales is still somewhat distraught over your great aunt’s passing,” he said as we paused in front of the glass door which led into the café’s dining room.

I noticed one of the panes of glass in the door was broken out and had been covered over with an old license plate screwed haphazardly to the frame.

As Mr. Wendell pushed open the door, a bell jingled overhead. The dining room was empty except for a wizened old man I immediately recognized as Hank, the proprietor of the Curio Shop and curator of the Museum of the Unexplained next door.

Hank was sitting at a table for two in the back corner sipping a cup of coffee and smoking a cigar. He’d overturned one of the little plastic No Smoking signs that sat on each table and was using it as an improvised ashtray.

“Morning, Mr. Edwards,” said Mr. Wendell.

Hank just grunted and took another draw on his cigar.

“You remember Mrs. Iverson.”

Hank grunted again, allowing his gaze to hover somewhere east of my left ear. Hank looked none too happy to see me, although, if my memory served me correctly, none too happy was Hank Edwards’ perpetual state of mind.

I could hear Juanita in the back, banging pots and singing at the top of her lungs. She didn’t sound terribly devastated, but then she was the type who could laugh through her tears, so I concluded that Mr. Wendell’s read on the situation was probably accurate.

Juanita had almost forty years of friendship with my Aunt Geraldine to look back on. Nobody gets over a loss like that overnight.

Mr. Wendell and I left Hank to his coffee and his probably-not-legal-on-the-premises-of-a-food-service-establishment-open-to-the-public-in-the-state-of-New-Mexico cigar and went through to the kitchen.
As soon as Juanita clapped eyes on me, she proceeded to maul me in a motherly fashion which I’ve always found incredibly endearing.

Both my grandmother and my great aunt had been raised up under the “a handshake is as good as a hug” school of thought, and they’d instilled the same philosophy in my late mother. During my childhood, hugs had been in short supply. Still, every time I’d been to visit Little Tombstone, Juanita had more than made up for my flesh and blood’s standoffishness by practically squeezing the stuffing out of me every chance she got.

“Emma!” she said, “You’ve—”

I half expected Juanita to tell me I’d grown. It was true. I had grown. Outward. Which is the only way that thirty-three-year-olds generally do grow. I had gained fifteen pounds in the last three months. Stress-eating will do that to a person.

I guess Juanita realized that it would be insensitive to point out my weight gain, so she finished with, “—changed your hair.”

I hadn’t, not since she’d last seen me, but I wasn’t about to argue with her in front of Mr. Wendell.

“You’ve seen Hank?” she asked.

“Yes, he—umm—greeted us as we came through,” I said.

I wondered when Mr. Wendell was going to leave. It appeared he planned to conduct me on a complete tour of Little Tombstone, a place I’d been coming to all my life. I hoped he wasn’t billing me by the hour for his services.

“You can go,” I told him. “Thanks for bringing me out here, but I’ll be fine on my own now.”

For the first time since I’d met him, Mr. Wendell appeared flustered.
“Have you had lunch?” Juanita asked. It was nearly four in the afternoon. I’d had lunch hours ago. Skipping meals is not something I do if I can help it. Truthfully, the soggy chicken sandwich and anemic spinach salad I’d eaten at the Albuquerque airport before picking up my rental car had worn off sometime halfway through the reading of my Great Aunt Geraldine’s will.

“I could eat,” I said.

The Bird Cage Café might not look like much. It might have broken down steps and a broken down clientele who haunted it, but it had Juanita Gonzales, and Juanita Gonzales made the best food I’d ever eaten. I’d been eating Juanita’s food for as long as I’d been old enough to lift a fork, and I’d yet to come across anyone who could rival her.

“What about you, Jason?” Juanita asked. “Could you manage a bite?”

Mr. Wendell nodded. I wondered if he was a regular at the Bird Cage Café. He didn’t look like the sort who’d patronize such a rough-around-the-edges establishment, but maybe there was more to him than his handmade Italian leather loafers implied.

“I made fresh tamales this morning,” said Juanita, without giving us an opportunity to order. “I bring you both a plate.”

I sat down at the table farthest from Hank, who was still working on his cigar and pretending he was the only one in the room.

Mr. Wendell walked to the front of the dining room and cracked open a window before coming and sitting down across from me. I hoped he wasn’t planning to charge me 200 dollars an hour to watch him eat Juanita’s tamales.

While we were waiting for Juanita to return with our plates, the front door opened, and a generically pretty blonde of about twenty came in. She was wearing an apron over a ruffled dress that looked utterly unequal to the task of holding up to grease and green sauce. I wondered where Juanita had found her.

The waitress beamed in our direction—well, mostly in Mr. Wendell’s direction—before disappearing into the kitchen. She didn’t even look over at Hank. Apparently, Hank was such a fixture he didn’t bear acknowledgment.

“Who’s that?” I asked Mr. Wendell.


“Like the tea?”

Mr. Wendell nodded. “Chamomile is Katie’s daughter.”
“Who’s Katie?”

“One of your tenants at the trailer court.”

I wracked my brain. I didn’t recall any Katie. The last time I’d visited Little Tombstone, there’d been only two permanent residents of the trailer court, although there’d be the odd vacationer or snowbird who’d take one of the empty slots from time to time.
As I recalled, there were only two tenants: Morticia the Psychic—I never had asked about her real name—perhaps her parents had been diehard fans of The Adams Family and Morticia was her real name—and Marcus Ledbetter, who went by his last name. Ledbetter was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. My aunt Geraldine had once explained that Ledbetter suffered from PTSD, and that was why he rarely left his trailer.

“Katie must be a new tenant,” I said.

“I moved here two years ago,” Mr. Wendell told me, “and she was living here then. Katie’s the mail carrier for Amatista. She does the rural route.”

I was about to make a smart remark about the rural route being the only route Amatista had, but then I remembered that everyone within village limits had to collect their mail directly from the post office and realized that I’d just be stating the obvious. Besides, Mr. Wendell had the air of a man with a severely limited capacity for sarcasm.
Juanita emerged from the kitchen carrying two steaming plates of tamales. Chamomile brought up the rear with two tall glasses of iced tea.

After patting me affectionately on the cheek, Juanita withdrew to the kitchen.

Before following her, Chamomile bestowed an unnecessarily sunny smile on Mr. Wendell. She even tossed her flaxen hair a little and batted her fake lashes, something I’d never seen anyone do in real life. Clearly, Chamomile had a thing for the man, but Mr. Wendell appeared immune to her charms.

It struck me as odd that Chamomile would be interested in Mr. Wendell, considering he must be closing in on thirty, but after I thought about it for a few seconds more, it no longer seemed so strange. Mr. Wendell might be one of only a handful of men in the village of Amatista who was both gainfully employed and still had all his own teeth. Mr. Wendell was undoubtedly the only man who drove a spotless Land Rover and wore custom-made shoes. He wasn’t bad-looking, either, provided one could get past the starchiness.

Just in case I was paying for the privilege of dining with Amatista’s most eligible bachelor—
if the absence of a ring on Mr. Wendell’s left hand could be believed—I decided to pump him for legal advice.

“I’m getting a divorce,” I said.

Mr. Wendell practically jumped. His fork clattered to his plate, spattering his spotless white shirtfront with salsa verde.

“Pardon?” he said.

“I’m getting a divorce,” I repeated. “I mean, you being a lawyer and all, I thought I might ask you a few questions since you’re right here in front of me unless this is strictly off-the-clock.”

“No, no, ask away,” Mr. Wendell said, leaving me more in the dark than ever as to whether he considered eating tamales with me as part of his duties as executor of my great aunt’s estate or if he was planning to present me with a bill later on for legal services rendered while eating Mexican food.

“It’s about the will,” I said. “Could my soon-to-be-ex-husband claim a portion of what Aunt Geraldine left me?”

“You’ve already filed for divorce?”


“In the state of California?”


“Property acquired by gift or inheritance during the marriage is that spouse’s separate property. Additionally, many states—and I believe that California is one of them—also provide that property spouses acquire before the divorce but after the date of legal separation is separate property.” He managed to sound as if he were reading off a legal document, even though there was nothing in front of him.

“Good to know,” I said. “Can I ask you something else?”

Mr. Wendell was distracted. He’d noticed the sullied purity of his shirt front and was futilely dabbing at the green speckles on his chest with a paper napkin.

“Hydrogen peroxide,” I suggested.


“For the stain. Full strength hydrogen peroxide before you put it in the washer. I’m an expert on stains. I’m always spilling something on myself.”

Mr. Wendell looked up at me as if to say he’d thought as much, even though I hadn’t managed to get anything on myself. Yet.

“What’s your other question?” he asked.

“How would I go about recovering an investment I’d made in my husband’s business?”

“Do you have any legal interest in the business?”

“No. My husband is a cosmetic surgeon.”

Mr. Wendell looked surprised. I don’t look like the wife of a cosmetic surgeon. Frank—my husband—was always offering helpful little hints on how I could improve myself—or rather how he could improve me—but I never took him up on any of his offers, not even for a bit of Botox.

“If you could provide me with supporting documentation and specific details, I could better advise you.”

“He doesn’t have it anymore,” I told Mr. Wendell.

“The cosmetic surgery practice?”

“No, the money.” I was babbling now. I’d been up since three a.m., Pacific Time, and the shock of finding out that Great Aunt Geraldine had left me all her earthly goods, plus Earp, was contributing to my feeling that this was all just a weird dream.

“Your husband took off with the money?”

“No, Shirley did.”

“Who’s Shirley?”

“His business manager.” And his mistress, but I didn’t feel like telling Mr. Wendell that. 

Shirley was the reason Frank and I were getting a divorce, and it wasn’t just because Shirley had stolen every last cent of what I’d earned from finally selling my screenplay. That money was supposed to be paying for Frank’s big office remodel, and Shirley had gone and blown it at the roulette tables in Vegas.

I might have carried on and told Mr. Wendell the whole torrid tale, except that we were interrupted by Hank.

“You’re the new landlady,” Hank said. It was a statement of fact, not a question.

“That’s what he tells me,” I said, pointing across the table at Mr. Wendell.

“Well, I want to know what you’re going to do about our little problem,” Hank said.

“I’ll get to work right away on getting stuff repaired,” I said. “I’m sure there are hundreds of things that need fixing, so I’ll need to prioritize. If you could make me a list of the most urgent—”

“I don’t mean that,” said Hank. “I want to know what you’re going to do about our alien invaders!”

End of sample.

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