USA Today Bestselling Cozy Mystery Author

Corpse in the Coulee
Book 2
Corpse in the Coulee

Mystery, murder, missing people, and Bunco. Who could ask for anything more?

When Vangie brings a few fancy custard tarts to her Bunco group, she’s hoping to impress the guest of honor with her pastry skills. But when the guest of honor never shows up and her body is discovered, everyone at the Bunco group is a murder suspect. Wrong place at the wrong time.

Vangie Vale finds herself in another predicament trying to solve a murder in a neighboring small town before her mugshot shows up in the local anonymous gossip blog. And just when she hoped her Sherlocking days were done.

No rest for the wicked…or the clergy.

Pick up your second book in The Vangie Vale Mysteries today. You’ll never guess whodunit.

Corpse in the Coulee used to be titled Vangie Vale and the Corpseless Custard. This is the second version of this book.

RECIPE INCLUDED: The Corpseless Custard

Released on September 18, 2017
This book is also available as part of: Vangie Vale Mysteries Volume 1
Praise for the Book

“R.L. Syme is a fresh voice in the cozy mystery genre.”

~ Zara Keane
~ USA Today bestselling author of the Movie Club Mysteries series

“R. L. Syme has created a cozy mystery chick lit mashup and she has done it so well. Mystery, romance, humor, delectable desserts, with characters that endearing and engaging. This was a “perfect escape”.”

~ Lori Caswell/Dollycas
~ Amazon Review VINE VOICE

Chapter One
Four Buttes, Montana

The country highway turned to gravel and all the road signs disappeared. Even Google Maps was lost. But I was following Nadine Winters through a winding side road in the Rocky Mountains, pretending like I knew exactly where we were.

Thankfully, there wasn’t a large amount of traffic. I hadn’t seen another car in five minutes, so I was in no danger of losing her vehicle in the crush. Still, every time she wound around a hill in the open valley, I had a moment of panic.

Finally, her turning signal went on—for roughly half a mile—and I saw a gravel road off to the right, with the large wooden poles she’d described when we left Saint Agnes. Each one was capped off with one end of a thick wooden sign that read Peters Ranch. That was as close to a road sign as we were getting out here in the middle of nowhere.

At the end of a long gravel drive, Nadine Winters parked her old tan sedan against what looked like a weathered railroad tie, overgrown with grass on one edge of a wide roundabout. Although we should have been the first to arrive, two other cars waited beside us, and I started to sweat.

I hated surprises.

While I unloaded the back of the Tank—my too-wide green Hummer, which had been a gift from my worried father before my move to the mountains—I was sweating in the weird April heat. Since it had been on the cool side for weeks, I’d expected and dressed for cooler weather, but the sun was beating-down-hot. The custards had to get out of the Tank and into the refrigerator as soon as possible. 

Nadine had referred to this as the movers-and-shakers group, which I thought ironic for a Bunco group hosted by the only other female pastor in the area. But the nickname had nothing to do with the dice they threw—these were women who played games on a larger scale. They had power.

Part of the reason that Nadine had brought me along as a sub was to meet Reverend Lindy Peters. The other part was to have these women sample my baked goods. Potential clients, she’d said. 

I was just glad my custards had set properly. Fenna Teuling, who was maybe the most movery-and-shakery woman among them, had apparently gone to graduate school in England where she developed a love for English custard. I’d made the custard tarts mostly to impress her.

Hence the sweating.

“Let’s help Vangie get these inside before Fenna gets here,” Nadine said to her passenger as she stepped out of her car. She touched the sleek, gray, polished coif of her going-out hair, and smoothed out her black pressed slacks and purple shirt like the act of driving had sullied them. “It’ll be a nice surprise.”

“Fenna isn’t here?” asked Carolyn Murphy in an unsteady voice, her gray-blond curls bouncing as she climbed out into the sunshine in her flower print dress. Carolyn and Nadine were old friends, but couldn’t have been more different. Nadine was an occasional drill sergeant, but Carolyn had the weak chin and trembling lips of a worrier. 

“She shouldn’t be,” said Nadine.

“Isn’t that her car?” Carolyn pointed at at the shiny, black Audi parked a little askew at the end of the row.

“Oh, you’re right.” Nadine fluttered her hands. “Well, let’s hurry, then. I was hoping we’d arrive before her.”

Looking down at her white-gloved fingers, Carolyn said, “Let me take these off first.”

“Oh, just carry some custards.” Nadine grabbed a box out of the back of the Tank as I opened it and called over her shoulder on her way into the house, “They’re not dirty.”

Carolyn gave me a little smile and held out her hands for a box. Unlike me, she was a regular in this group, which pulled women from all over two counties for the monthly meetings. I gave her the lightest box and she scurried inside.

I pulled out the last box of custards and went after the two women, traversing the gravel drive to the front door of the imposing two-story, cabin-style home. There was more food in the back, but the custards were the most important.

The front door of the house was open and I walked inside. A plump woman with a tight bun of gray-streaked dark hair swooped in and closed the door behind me. 

“This way to the kitchen,” she said, directing me down the hallway. Her heavy-heeled shoes made deep thunking noises on the natural wood floors. The ceilings and trim were also wood, and all the door knockers and accents were in thick, black wrought iron. Landscape paintings hung on the white walls, and where the hallway opened into a large great room, a massive elk torso had been mounted with its head tilted to one side, like it had sighted a predator and frozen.

“Just through there,” said the strange woman, pointing off to our left, where the hall opened again into more wood floors.

“Oh, Evangeline, there you are,” Nadine called out, before I could see her. “Thank you, Vera.”

“All I did was show her inside.” Vera placed a hand on the back of my shoulder and guided me into the kitchen. “Nothing taxing about that.”

The all-wood-all-the-time look continued into the large, open kitchen. Floors, ceilings, trim, pantry doors…even the refrigerator had a finished wood door, like it was hoping not to be discovered as an appliance in the fake forest of camouflaged machinery.

Three women stood around the island, opening the custard boxes. I recognized Nadine and Carolyn. The other woman had a shiny shock of wavy red hair. She couldn’t be more than fifty, and her toothy smile glistened as she unpacked the individually-boxed desserts. 

“These are gorgeous,” said the redhead, an effusive undercurrent to her words. She picked up one of the individual white Matchbakery boxes, which had peek-a-boo windows showing the treats inside. All tied up with the customary robin’s-egg blue ribbons, they looked quite pretty, if I did say so myself. 

Of course, my shop neighbor back in Saint Agnes had prepped most of them. Emma Brent had come over to the bakery to help me early this morning—mostly to fill my ear with gossip about all the women who would be at Bunco.

“Wait until you taste them,” Carolyn said with a smile, transferring a few boxes into the open refrigerator. “We got to sample one last night. It was divine.”

“Oh, Lindy, this is Vangie.” Nadine gestured between me and the redhead in a blue t-shirt and faded jeans. “Vangie’s the new pastor at Saint Agnes Community.”

“And a champion baker, I see,” Lindy said, reaching for my hand. I set the box of custards down on one of the slate gray granite countertops and wiped off my hand before accepting hers. 

“It’s good to finally meet you, Lindy. I’ve heard so much about you from Nadine.” I glanced off to the side as the woman who’d met me at the front—Vera—came around to close the refrigerator door. Carolyn was too busy pulling custards out of boxes to pay much attention to Vera.

“Women pastors need to stick together.” Lindy winked one of her caramel-brown eyes at me and pulled at the box I’d just set down. “Thank you so much for making our treats for the afternoon. They look incredible.”

“There’s more in the car,” I said, gesturing back toward the hallway. “I just wanted to get these inside so we could put them in the refrigerator until we’re ready to set them out.”

“Let me help you,” said Vera, coming up behind me again, like an old pop-up doll. I may have jumped.

She clopped behind me all the way back out to the Tank. Built like a Swedish milkmaid, she could probably handle her own, but I still felt guilty asking her to carry multiple boxes. 

“Thanks for your help,” I said, handing her the lightest of the long ones—only containing a fruit tray and a plate of colorful macarons.

“That’s why I come early. Lindy always needs help before Bunco.” She looked down at the box in her arms, then into the deep back of the Tank. “You can give me another box. Then you won’t have to make another trip.”

Reluctantly, I stacked another box of cookies on top of the first. 

“I grew up on a ranch, Pastor Vale, I’m used to carrying my weight.” There was an air of resignation in her tone, but determination, too. I liked Vera already. Even in her plain linen dress, thick heels, and white gloves, she was ready to work.

“You can call me Vangie,” I said, following her inside and pushing the front door closed with my heel. 

“Oh, I couldn’t do that.” She gave a quick shake of her head and not a hair shifted in her tightly-rolled bun. “Wouldn’t be proper.”

I held back a smirk, thinking of all the less-than-proper things I’d been called in my days as a pastor. Not being addressed with respect was the least of my worries these days. Not getting shot again was up there. Of course, as my neighbor, Sheriff Malcolm Dean would have said, it never would have happened the first time had I not stuck my nose where it didn’t belong. I preferred to think of it as helping rather than meddling, but I couldn’t control what Malcolm thought any more than I could hold back the dawn.

When we returned to the kitchen, the boxes had already been put away and Carolyn was gone. Nadine and Lindy stood huddled around the kitchen island, whispering about something in fairly heated tones. As soon as they saw they weren’t alone, they both plastered on big smiles and came over to help carry.

I began to set out the spread, but the awkwardness of having interrupted a deep conversation didn’t retreat. I wanted to ask Nadine if something was wrong, but I couldn’t talk so bluntly in front of all these strangers.

When we finished laying out the spread—along with Emma’s decorations, bless her heart—Lindy took the boxes into a little hall that capped out in a heavy white door. Probably the garage. Nadine grabbed the other two, following close behind. 

They clearly had something they needed to discuss without prying ears, so I didn’t move. Instead, I kept fluffing paper and turning cookies, while Vera emptied bottles into a large glass punch bowl she’d placed on the island.

“How long have you known Lindy?” I asked, finishing with all the fluffing and turning to help Vera with the punch.

She passed me an empty container of ginger ale. “Since she first got her post here. I’m not sure how long it’s been. Maybe twenty years or so.”

“Wow.” I took the bottle over to the sink and began to rinse it. “I will admit, I’m a little blown away by how beautiful this house is.”

“Oh, this was her late husband’s home.” Vera passed me another bottle. “Whatever we pay her at church, I’m sure it wouldn’t be enough for her to afford this.”

“You’re one of her parishioners?” 

“Yes.” She walked around the island to the wood-covered refrigerator and pulled open the bottom drawer, where a large, deep freezer was hidden. Vera removed a round plastic container. “I’ve been on the parish council for the last two years now.”

I watched her remove the lid and use a pair of tongs to pull out a ring of solid purple—it looked like ice cream or sherbet, frozen in some molded shape. Vera placed the ring into the pink punch and it floated on top of the already bubbly surface.

“Fenna isn’t in the backyard,” came Carolyn’s voice from across the room. “I don’t know who told you—” She stopped when she saw that Vera and I were alone in the room together. “Where did Lindy get off to?”

“Are you sure Fenna isn’t back there?” Vera asked, wiping her hands on the white towel that hung in front of the oven. “Her car’s here.”

“Lindy said she’d be in the backyard.” Carolyn had a nervous look about her, like she felt she was speaking out of turn. “But I went through the gazebo and the garden, and even down by the creek, and I still can’t find her. I didn’t go around the garden to the shed, but I guess I could.”

“I’m all done here, so I can help out if you need it,” I said, gesturing around. 

“Oh, no, dear.” Carolyn fussed with her hands and then clasped them, dropping them to her stomach. “I just need to speak with Fenna before…”

“CeeCee!” Lindy’s voice carried to us from another room. 

Carolyn turned around and started walking toward the hall. Is she CeeCee? It certainly seemed like she was answering to the cutesy nickname, but it didn’t fit her at all.

I backed into the sink, feeling a touch awkward. It was obvious they were very carefully blocking me from whatever issue was under the surface here. 

Vera followed Carolyn into the front hall, and I took the empty bottles toward the exit that Lindy and Nadine had taken with the boxes, hoping I was moving in the direction of the recycling bin. Instead, I stumbled into the garage, where a large white vehicle was parked on one side of a double-wide. Storage shelves were built into one side, and a couple of large freezers were pushed against the other. I didn’t see the trash anywhere, so I set the bottles on the ground beside the door.

Lindy and Nadine must have left the garage and used the front door to return to the house, because the only way back into the house from here was the way I’d just come. Whatever they’d wanted to chat about privately must have been important for them to go through so much effort.

I opened the heavy door to the kitchen, and voices filtered out into the garage. Without thinking, I caught the door with my heel, taking the opportunity to listen to their conversation.

It wasn’t the most moral thing to do, but anyone who knows me well knows curiosity is my greatest vice.

“And if I ask her not to come,” Lindy was saying, in her almost raspy alto voice with the twinge of East Coast vowels, “She’ll set the whole parish council on my back.”

“I’m saying, I’ve already asked her.” Nadine’s response was crisp and to the point, almost on edge. “Vangie was our last sub. So it’s Iris, or the ghost.”

The word chilled my skin, and I found my hand clasping the doorknob ever so slightly. Believing in ghosts probably wasn’t usual for pastor types, but I’d seen enough unexplained phenomena in haunted houses in the South to ensure I had an open mind. 

“She’s on her way, Pastor.” That voice was most definitely Vera’s, because I would have recognized Carolyn’s. “Nothing we can do except welcome her.”

“I don’t want a repeat of last time,” Lindy said, a little more forcefully. “You know she and Fenna don’t get along.”

“Fenna doesn’t get along with anyone,” came the snorted comment from Carolyn. She was most certainly not impressed with the path of the conversation.

The doorbell sounded and the four of them went immediately silent. I stepped into the room on impulse, closing the door behind me. Letting my feet fall a little more forcefully on the wood floor than usual, I walked into the kitchen, smiling.

“Thank you for finishing the punch, Vera,” Lindy said, looking up as I walked in. “And Vangie. Thank you again for bringing all this lovely food.”

Tension still hung in the air, although all three remaining women were smiling. Carolyn held a bag of garbage, hanging from her fingers on red strings. I offered to take it and she reluctantly handed it over, like she appreciated having something to busy her hands with.

“The garbage can is alongside the house in a cage,” Lindy called out as I made my way back toward the garage. 

As I left, I heard two more voices in the hallway, but I scooted outside with the trash. This time I left the garage via the side door and found the big, wooden cage Lindy had described to me. The garbage protection box was nested flush against the side of the house. When I pulled the black, wrought-iron latch, the whole front came open like a swinging gate, allowing me to walk inside the cage. There were two large cans sitting on a patch of half-dead grass, one blue and one green, both with white writing on the sides. I opened the green, and found it full to the brim with branches and lawn trimmings.

When I opened the blue, the stench of rotting food hit me in the face, and I tossed the bag inside, letting the top slam back down. I bent over to one side, feeling slightly nauseous, and noticed something white stuck on the side of the cage. When I walked around to look, I saw what it was: a gold-trimmed white glove had gotten caught between the cage and the house, in the tiny one-inch gap at the top. 

I walked around the cage, letting the little gate-like door close behind me, and went to the side farthest from the garage door. Another gold-trimmed white glove lay on the ground, appearing to match the one stuck in the cage.

The gold edging made a bit of a lacy ripple effect. I picked up the discarded item and barked out a laugh. On the palm, near where the artery would have been on the wearer, someone had stitched the letters F-A-T in gold lettering.

My laughter seemed to echo against the wood-sided house. What an unfortunate set of initials. Or a super cruel joke. 

I thought about gathering the gloves and bringing them inside, but I caught sight of the closed window just above the garbage cage. Ah. Someone must have thrown the gloves out of the window and missed. I decided to leave well enough alone. If the owner changed her mind, she could still retrieve them.

I kept walking along the side of the house, curious to see what the rest of the place looked like. If I’d gone in the opposite direction, I would’ve eventually come around to the front of the garage, but I’d already seen all that.

As I crested the house, I saw the gazebo Carolyn had mentioned, up against a tall line of bushes. The bushes seemed to connect to a perpendicular row of bushes, like they were making a square around something. The garden? 

The yard stretched out beyond that to a little grouping of several trees with white blossoms just starting to peep out. It was a big place, without neighbors, backed up to a hill that swelled up beyond the trees. I kept walking, back along the path that seemed to lead around the hill, or over it. Just past the shrubbed-in garden, was a little tan shed that had been built to look like a barn with its white trim and criss-crossed barn-like door, but it couldn’t have been much bigger than a small bedroom inside.

This was the idyllic little country home. I couldn’t help a little bit of jealousy.

“Oh, Vangie, dear,” someone called out. I turned to see Nadine waving at me from the back porch. There were two large glass doors leading back into the house, and she had one open. “Should we take out the custards? It looks like Fenna’s arrived.”

I shoved my hands into the pockets of my jeans and trudged up the stairs of the deck. Fenna Teuling, whose fondness for custard tarts had inspired my baking, was the person that Emma had filled my ear about the most. I was looking forward to meeting the woman who had gotten her MBA and single-handedly turned her family’s ranch into one of the largest cattle operations in the area. If only for the sheer novelty.


Fenna Teuling. F. T. 

If her middle name started with an A…

I held up a hand and told Nadine to wait just a second. I ran around the side of the house, hoping to snag the gloves and hand them to their owner when I met her. If she’d meant to throw them away, fine—she could do so. No use leaving discarded clothing lying all over the countryside.

When I crested the edge of the house, however, the gloves were nowhere to be found. No slash of white tucked into the side of the house. No gold-crusted white glove on the gray-green grass.

They were gone.

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