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There are times when every woman needs to sit on the porch and listen to Emmylou Harris. One of those times is when she realizes she's overplayed her hand. I now find myself in such an awful moment. I haven't spoken with my fiancé, Graf Milieu, for seven days. And not from lack of trying.
Graf warned me that my work as a private investigator troubles him. Not the work, but the fact that I often find myself in danger. My partner, Tinkie Bellcase Richmond, and I have had more than our fair share of close calls and injuries. I gave Graf my word I wouldn't court danger—and I have kept it. Or tried to. Who would have thought an insurance claim would turn deadly?
But Graf won't even give me a chance to explain. He's in Hollywood, filming, and I'm in Mississippi, stewing in my own juices. My offer to fly to Los Angeles and explain how I'd nearly drowned in secret tunnels in Natchez with Tinkie has been rebuffed. He hung up on me when I phoned, and now he won't take my calls. He's furious.
The worst part is that I don't blame him.
There are no simple decisions in life. When I took the Leverts' insurance case, I made a choice I thought was reasonable and sound. Delaney Detective Agency would examine the evidence for a missing necklace and write a report. Simple enough. Each action that followed seemed based on a reasonable expectation of safety. In the end, though, both Tinkie and I placed ourselves in danger—the one thing Graf had asked me not to do.
I betrayed him. And now I'm here at Dahlia House, my ancestral home, surrounded by cotton fields and reflecting on the dozens of missed opportunities I had to avoid bodily harm. Why hadn't I listened to my gut and walked away? No, I'd ignored each throb of my instincts and stayed on the case.
Hindsight has the clarity of perfect focus. No matter how I try to stop the wheels of my brain from retreading the past, I can't. The sun heats my bare legs as I mope on the steps in cut-off jeans and a T-shirt advertising my Tennessee friend, Jack Daniel's. Though I'm too depressed even to fix a drink. Emmylou sings the story of my life in the words of "Making Believe." The CD shifts and Rosanne Cash takes over with "Blue Moon with Heartache."
What would I give to be a diamond in Graf's eyes again?
The land of Dahlia House, lush with waist-high green cotton that's forming into bolls, stretches as far as my eyes can see. The marvel of Mississippi in September is not lost on me. No matter how tragic my life, the land exists far beyond my momentary troubles. While the loam holds the hopes of the future, it is also saturated with the past. In my despair, I drift through scenes: Graf and I riding through the fields at sunset, my mother's laughter, my father walking down the drive toward me, Aunt Loulane holding my hand in the backseat of a funeral car. So many images crowd the fertile soil. There were many happy times, too, and that is what I should focus on. Despair breeds depression. I force myself to see the present.
The weather has held all summer, and the cotton crop will be bumper. My valiant steeds, Reveler, Miss Scrapiron, and Lucifer, the black Andalusian that once belonged to Monica Levert, are grazing peacefully in the side pasture. My hope is to find a new home for Lucifer, but that will take some time. There was an initial period of tension between the two males—hot weather isn't the best time to geld, but Lucifer is healing nicely. On this sunny Friday morning, peace reigns at Dahlia House. At least in the pasture, if not in my heart.
Not even Jitty, the resident family haint, has come around to disturb my pity party. She's pissed off at me, too.
Only Sweetie Pie, my noble redtick hound, keeps me company. Rosanne Cash is working on her, too. Sweetie, with her long ears and wide eyes, looks sadder than the last first grader in a bathroom line.
We both exhale, a sound forlorn and weary. "Sweetie, I didn't mean to get in danger. I tried hard not to. Graf won't even let me explain." I could rationalize to my hound, if not my future husband.
Sweetie gives a grumble and slumps over on her side. Even her ears look defeated. She's not going to be a bit of help in getting me over the doldrums.
After rising, I walk across the porch. "Jitty!" She never appears when I summon her, but I'm desperate enough for a distraction from my self-flagellation that I'll try. "Jitty! I need you."
Jitty is the ghost of my great-great-grandmother's nanny from the 1860s. Like my ancestor, Alice, Jitty was a young woman during the War Between the States. Working together, Alice and Jitty managed to keep Dahlia House and the surrounding land intact after the war, during a time of great hardship and deprivation. They were strong, determined women who didn't let the worst circumstances break them down. They were not quitters, and I need to remember that.
It wasn't until I returned to my hometown of Zinnia and Dahlia House, battered and bruised by my failed attempts to act on Broadway, that I knew Jitty haunted my family home. During my childhood, I'd never seen her. I think she came back from the Great Beyond just to keep an eye on me. But now, when I need her, she is playing coy.
Perhaps it was the fact that I was about to weep, or maybe it was Sweetie Pie's soft slumbering howls, a sound as desolate as a train whistle at a Delta crossroads on a winter's night. Whatever the reason, I finally heard Jitty. She'd responded to my call. She came around the corner of the house, arms akimbo, and I was stunned at her A-line skirt, twin sweater set, pearls, and Toni-permed hair. She appeared to be in her late teens or early twenties, though she was dressed like a spinster.
"Where is that Ned?" she demanded. "He was supposed to bring the convertible around to the front of the house. I've got a hot lead. I think I know the resolution for the case of The Hidden Staircase. I need the car and I need George and I need to strike while the iron is hot."
"That's three ‘I needs' in a row. Who are we today, Nellie Narcissistic? Fashion tip, Jitty, you need to update. Your wardrobe is about sixty years behind the times."
"Your problem, Sarah Booth, aside from the fact that you're like a heat-seeking missile aimed at destroying any chance at love, is that you have no concept of history. You call yourself a private investigator, but you don't know squat about the women who came before you."
Somehow I knew she wasn't talking about the Delaney women. She referred not to my ancestors, but to a literary heritage. Women sleuths. And I had her pegged. "Miss Nancy Drew!" I pointed my finger at her.
"At last," Jitty said in a proper voice. "Now, stay out of the way. I'm on a case."
I narrowed my eyes. "Are you deliberately mocking me?" Jitty was stern, but she wasn't mean. "You know I'm sitting out here watching my life crumble because of my last case and you—"
"You're out here moping and wallowing in guilt, listening to music about heartbreak and hopelessness. Nothing is quite as delicious as self-pity. And as an aside, you might want to turn the music down. You've got it cranked up so loud, folks at neighboring plantations can hear it. Let me just say if anyone with testicles wanted to come around Dahlia House, that music would shrivel up his vas deferens and send the little swimmers back upstream."
"I'm guilty as charged with moping. Just let me remind you I wouldn't be moping if it weren't for a man. These songwriters know a thing or two about heartbreak. It's nice to have company in a trip down Depression Drive. I can't count on you, and my friends are busy. Tinkie is doing all she can to patch up things with Oscar. Cece is working on some big story for the Black and Orange Ball in New Orleans, and Millie is breaking in a new chef. I'm left with the brutal facts of bad romance and the songbirds."
"They got a call-in line for bad romance stories? You could give them some grist for their song mill. You're about the most accomplished gal I know for screwing up relationships." Jitty's tone was dismissive and sassy. Taking on the persona of a privileged, ahead-of-her-time girl detective had given her a bad case of attitude.
"What do you deduce from that?" My heart was only half in the debate. Normally I could give as good as I got from Jitty, but today, I was blue.
"That Graf is mad and he's punishin' you, and you're curled up like you don't have a backbone in your body. You need to put on your boots and go to Hollywood and kick his butt. He ought to at least give you a chance to explain. What he's doin' is just downright wrong."
I straightened my shoulders. "Say what?" Jitty never took my side over a man's. Especially not Graf's. She adored him and had populated her imagination with the images of the gorgeous children he would "get" on me. Jitty was all about propagating the Delaney line.
"Look, he's angry. Any fool could see why. This private investigation issue is somethin' you two got to lay to rest. Once and for all. I hope he knows you as well as I do, or he's gonna lose you. No matter how much you love him, you're not gonna let him dictate your life. And he can't go sulkin' off each time you take a case and get in trouble. He needs to buck up or back off."
I liked Jitty in her Nancy Drew mode. She was sassy, independent, and she wasn't won over by viable sperm.
"Well, thanks." I leaned against a porch column. "He is being unfair. In fact, he's being uncharacteristically childish. He's not willing to even listen to what I have to say."
"So what are you going to do about it?" Jitty pulled out a notebook from the handbag hanging on her arm. She also whipped out a scarf and tied it around her curls—which had not moved an inch, even when the wind blew. She did look good as a blonde, but I wondered how she'd gotten her hair to coil like that.
"What do you recommend?" I asked.
"Call him again," Jitty said. "Make it hurt."
I had an idea. "This time I'm going to leave a message and tell him if he won't talk to me, I'm not calling again. I'll send the ring back FedEx."
Jitty nodded. "Nice. That should get his attention."
I gazed at the beautiful yellow diamond on my ring finger. The thought of taking it off, of shipping it back, of ending things with Graf made me sadder than I could say. But Jitty was right. I couldn't wander around Dahlia House feeling guilty and sad because I worked a case. That was what I did for a living, and I still owed a mortgage and taxes on my ancestral home, plus the grand old place needed a lot of repairs. Delaney Detective Agency was how I made my way in the world.
It was something of a sore point with Graf that I wouldn't take his money to fix my home or even to live on, but I had my reasons. Dahlia House was the Delaney home. I was the last Delaney. While I might live here—in the future—with my husband and children, it was my responsibility to keep the house in good order and to pass it down to future generations. My responsibility and no one else's.
Tinkie didn't understand why I couldn't take money from Graf to renovate Dahlia House, but Cece, a working journalist, understood, and so did Millie, a businesswoman, and Tammy Odom, aka Madam Tomeeka, my childhood friend and Zinnia's resident psychic. They got the concept that Dahlia House was a trust of blood and heritage. My heritage, my responsibility.
Tinkie came from a privileged life where men were always expected to pay the bills. I'd been raised differently. My folks had taught me to always assume responsibility for myself. No matter how much I loved Graf or how much he loved me, I needed a job. My self-respect was bound up in my ability to support myself and take care of the things I loved. To do otherwise would be a slap in the face to generations of Delaney women, and even Jitty understood that.
"Hey!" Jitty snapped her fingers in my face and I noticed the charm bracelet on her wrist. A charm bracelet. With little miniature items in silver—a tennis racket, an ice skate, a forty-five record, a Scottie dog, a cat, a horse, a bird, a magnifying glass. Holy cow! That should be in a museum. Next she'd be attending a sock hop in a poodle skirt.
"Hey!" She snapped her fingers again.
"You drifted off. I thought you were gonna call Graf."
"I thought you were going for a ride in the convertible with Ned and George. You know, hidden staircase mystery and all."
"Call that man and get it straight. Then get off your duff and do something constructive. Those horses need ridin', and your hound needs a run."
She was right, dammit. It was time for action. I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and hit Graf's Hollywood number. He would be on the set of the movie he was filming, but I could leave my message.
When I got the signal to record, I cut loose.
"Graf, you have to give me a chance to tell you what happened. You're judging me without all the facts. I honored your heart. You'll never understand unless you allow me to tell you everything. But if you don't want to hear it, I have no choice but to accept your unwillingness to listen. If I haven't heard from you by this time tomorrow, I'll send you back the ring. I love you, but I can't be punished any longer without even a chance to talk to you."
I turned to see if Jitty approved, but she was gone. She'd slipped away, perhaps in her classic convertible, to chase down clues. Sweetie Pie and I were alone on the porch.
But not for long. A teal blue sedan headed down the drive of Dahlia House and my spirits lifted instantly. Tammy Odom was coming to pay a visit. I frowned as I realized she was flying down the drive. Tammy was normally a cautious driver. She definitely had a bee in her bonnet about something. I hoped she hadn't had a bad dream about me. Tammy's ability to gaze into the future was a good thing—except when she saw danger or disaster.
She parked at the front steps and got out, her orange silk pantsuit billowing in the breeze off the cotton fields. "Sarah Booth, call Tinkie. I need the professional skills of Delaney Detective Agency."
"What's up?" I asked.
"Take a look at this!" She pulled a letter from her pocket and thrust it into my hands.
"Would you like to go inside and have a cup of coffee?"
"Just sit right here and read it, please." She sank onto the top step and I joined her.
The envelope was addressed to Marjorie Littlefield. While I was a professional snoop, I hesitated to read another's personal mail. At least someone who wasn't a client or a suspect. "Is this the Marjorie Littlefield? The woman who was married to four of the men on Forbes's ‘top ten wealthiest people in the world' list?"
I'd heard that Mrs. Littlefield had retired to a palatial—and reclusive—home not too far from Zinnia in Sunflower County. When she'd been younger, a beautiful belle who blossomed in the gossip columns of national media, she'd walked down the aisle in turn with a rock star turned record producer, a physicist who invented some super-duper recycling system, an importer of exotic antiquities in New Orleans, and the head of the largest arms dealership in the world. During those halcyon days, she'd sought the limelight and the cameras. Now, though, she was in her sixties and tired of public attention. So she'd come home to the Delta, where she was just one of a number of incredibly wealthy eccentrics who sought courteous neighbors and a bit of anonymity.
"Yes, it's that Mrs. Littlefield. She's my newest client."
"Well, hush my mouth!" I tapped the letter against my palm. "Is Marjorie Littlefield on the lookout for another husband or trying to communicate with someone from her past?"
"I can't discuss my clients, and you know it, Sarah Booth."
"Then why are you here? So I can pry into her private mail?"
"I told her I would show this letter to you and Tinkie. I've tried to talk her out of getting involved in this mess, but she won't listen to me. She's agreed to hire you to investigate this organization she's involved in. Sarah Booth, you have to check into these people and prove they're frauds."
"Read the letter. Now."
Tammy was never bossy, unless she was really upset. I opened the envelope and drew out the heavy stationery. The letter was typed.
"Dear Marjorie," it began. I scanned through the paragraphs, growing more horrified by each sentence. When I got to the end, I noted the signature. "Sherry." Just the one name and nothing more.
"What is this Heart's Desire secret society?" I asked Tammy.
"It's a scam," she said. "Look at what they promise—that she's included in a global group of the ultra-wealthy. She's been chosen because of her ‘unique abilities.' Hell, Sarah Booth, Marjorie's talent is marrying well, but that's about it. She's a likable woman, but she's not a rocket scientist or a healer."
I considered for a moment. "So why do you care if she joins this group and they bilk her out of ten or twenty grand? She has money to burn."
Tammy stood up and mimicked the pose Jitty had struck earlier. She put her hands on her hips in a no-nonsense gesture. "Because they are liars. The things they're promising—it's just a play on an older woman's vanity. Even worse, this Sherry woman is claiming to have medium abilities."
"And you don't believe in such things?" I wasn't clear what Tammy was objecting to. She knew people had special gifts. She was one of those people.
"This is obviously a play on Marjorie's self-image. Look at the letter. They claim she's ‘one of a special, select group' chosen to be part of a ‘secret society that will shape the policies and practices of the world through investment opportunities.' Come on, Sarah Booth. This is aimed directly at the recipient's conceit, and they could take her for a lot more than twenty grand."
"If pandering to the ego of a wealthy person were illegal, thousands of young women would be in jail."
"You are missing the point, Sarah Booth."
Obviously I was. "I'm sorry, Tammy. I don't feel the need to intervene. Mrs. Littlefield is rich, ego-driven, and ripe for the plucking. Why should I interfere?"
"She was told she'd be able to communicate with her daughter." Tammy paced the length of the steps.
"I wasn't aware she has a daughter."
"She had two children by her first husband, Paul la Kink, the rock star."
"The guy the religious right went after because he claimed he deflowered a virgin in every city he played?"
Tammy gave a rueful smile. "Bingo. He was hot. I had a huge crush on him. God! He wore those tight pants and moved across the stage like a panther. He dated a black girl before he married Marjorie. He broke down some barriers."
No wonder he'd figured so prominently into Tammy's fantasy life. He'd taken a stand that most folks, at the time, were afraid to take.
She laughed. "Oh, he had that bad-boy appeal down to an art."
"What happened to him?" The musician inhabited only the fringes of my childhood world.
"La Kink died very young in a wreck. His car didn't make a curve on Highway 1 in California. Went straight over a cliff into the Pacific. It made news for days." She frowned as if I were deficient because I'd forgotten the death of a rock singer known more for his sexual prowess than for his music.
"Marjorie Littlefield was married to him?"
"She was. A stunning widow with her two kids. Tragedy stalked Marjorie. The daughter, Mariam, drowned when she was about ten. The drowning was ruled an accident, but Marjorie believes her son, Chasley, killed his sister. Marjorie and Chasley's relationship is worse than strained. They hate each other, I think. Marjorie wants to communicate with the spirit of her dead daughter and ask if Chasley killed her. This could get really ugly, Sarah Booth, especially if my suspicions are correct and this Sherry is manipulating Marjorie for her money. Marjorie is seriously depressed. I'm worried she'll harm herself."
"You think she'll take her own life?"
"I'm worried. The Heart's Desire organization may not be illegal, but it's immoral. Using grief to manipulate is just wrong. In Marjorie's case, it could have deadly consequences."
I had to agree. "You're sure Marjorie is hooked by this scam?"
"I know for a fact. She's already gone, and she left her cat, Pluto, for me to keep while she's at Heart's Desire. Sarah Booth, I don't think she ever intends to leave. At least not alive."
"You're being a little melodramatic, Tammy."
She hesitated for a split second. "Marjorie left her will with me, too. Pluto inherits everything."
She nodded. "Her son, Chasley, will be very, very angry."
"I gather Chasley and the cat are not … friendly?"
"An understatement. And when he finds out the cat is the sole heir, he'll do everything in his power to kill it."
I wondered if Tammy was exaggerating, but one look at her face told me no. She was genuinely upset.
"This is a rich woman's troubles, and yet you're honestly scared for her."
"Marjorie is pampered and vain and all the rest, but there's more to her. She has a good heart, and she's been hurt. When her daughter died—" Tammy shook her head. "I can't imagine, Sarah Booth. My daughter and grandchild are everything to me."
Tammy had certainly made sacrifices for Claire and little Dahlia. And god knew, Tammy had risked her life more than once to help me. "Okay, what do you want me to do?"
"Find out about this organization. What are they really up to? They hint at a link to the ‘other side.' It's just plain crazy. I've tried to reach Marjorie on her cell phone, but there's a new message on there saying she's in deep mediation and is no longer taking calls from this plane. Like she's gone to another dimension or something."
"You're asking me to walk into a den of whackadoodles who think they'll gain control of the world. You realize that, don't you?"
Tammy's tension eased and a smile lit her face. "Lord, Sarah Booth, you'll blend right in."
I had to laugh. "Where is this Heart's Desire located?"
"I'm not certain. Within driving distance. Marjorie dropped the cat off with me on her way there."
"She could have taken a private jet if it was a long distance." I spoke aloud more to clarify my thoughts than anything else. Marjorie had the money to charter Air Force One if she really wanted it. She was worth billions.
"She always travels by limo with a driver. She told the cat she wouldn't be far away."
I flipped the letter and envelope around. "It says here to send a response to a post office box in New Orleans. I guess that's where I'll start."
"We don't have a lot of time, Sarah Booth."
So now we were getting down to the gristle. "What's so urgent, Madam Tomeeka?"
"I had a dream last night. Mrs. Littlefield was being held in a white tower. Like a prisoner. Pluto, her cat, kept jumping in and out of windows and popping out of bushes. Except for the cat, everything was pure white, until a streak of bright red blood leaked out of Marjorie's window. It scared me. I think someone means to hurt her."
"Sounds like if she is at that nutcase compound, she might be out of the reach of her son, Chasley."
Tammy wasn't placated. "I have a bad feeling. Try to find her, and fast, Sarah Booth. Marjorie left a lot of money for me to care for Pluto. I can pay the retainer with some of that. Marjorie has agreed to hire you, and she'll be glad to see you when you find her."
I waved her away. While Tammy was psychic, I wasn't certain she had a great reading of Marjorie's desires. "Don't be silly. Graf won't speak to me, and I'm at loose ends. I'll look into this. It'll keep me from moping around and feeling sorry for myself."
"You and Tinkie have to figure a way to handle these cases and keep yourselves safe."
"That's easier said than done."
Tammy's brow furrowed. "Do you think what I'm asking you to do is dangerous?"
I caught her hand and patted it. "Absolutely not. This looks like a little bit of legwork. I'll find Heart's Desire and speak to Mrs. Littlefield and make sure she's not being rooked by con artists."
Tammy nodded. "That doesn't sound dangerous, but somehow I suspect all of your past cases started out simple enough."
"Therein lies the rub," I agreed. "I would never deliberately put Graf's heart in danger. Nor would Tinkie risk her husband, Oscar's, feelings. But things happen. Beyond our control. Graf has to accept this is who I am." I bit my lip.
Tammy grasped my hand and pulled me to my feet. "Help me find Marjorie and make sure she isn't being held hostage by con artists, I'll work on Graf and Oscar."
It was a solution I hadn't considered, but I knew it was a winner when I heard it. "You've got a deal."
"I should be going. You have company coming."
I was so used to Jitty's wild predictions that I didn't bat an eye. "How do you know?"
"Because I can hear the car coming down the drive." She pointed toward a curve in the driveway, and just then Harold Erkwell's black Lexus came into view. Harold worked at the bank Tinkie's father owned and her husband managed.
I checked my watch. It was nine thirty in the morning. Harold should be at the bank. So what was he doing cruising down my driveway with … an evil, goateed little face in the front seat with him?
"He's brought Roscoe!" I had actually missed the dog that once belonged to Millicent Gentry—before she embarked on a prison sentence as her reward for a life of crime. He'd been in my care only a few weeks, but the pooch had a way of stealing one's heart, not to mention underwear, food, shoes, garbage, and secrets.
The car stopped, the driver's door opened, and Roscoe leaped to the ground. He ran in frenzied circles for about thirty seconds and then dashed around the house to the doggy door. He was intent on finding Sweetie Pie for a romp.
"Ladies," Harold said as he joined us.
"Taking Roscoe out for a playdate?" I couldn't help but tease Harold. The dog was vile. In the first night he was at Harold's house, he ate the stuffing from a leather sofa, knocked over the garbage cans all up and down Harold's street, snatched barbecue off the grill at a neighbor's party, and chased another neighbor's cat up a tree. Harold had done nothing but bail Roscoe out of trouble ever since the dog arrived in his life. Yet Harold adored the creature.
"Indeed, Sarah Booth. The furniture store is delivering a new sofa, and I was hoping you could keep Roscoe for a few hours. At this point, I'm afraid he'll bite the delivery man and the weight of his misdeeds will put him on doggy death row."
I had to laugh, and after days of self-pity, it felt good. "I'll keep him."
"You can bring him home this evening, or I'll stop by and get him. He adores riding in the car."
"And ice cream from the Sweetheart drive-through."
Harold wasn't even ashamed. "Yes, he loves those soft cones of vanilla. We go every evening."
"Harold, if you ever have children, you'll be a pushover."
"Right now, Roscoe is all I need. But I have to say, Sarah Booth, he's brought great adventure into my life. I never thought I'd enjoy a dog, but he is so … awful! He thinks things through, and then he does the worst he can come up with."
"And that's good?" Tammy was laughing with me, but she was slightly horrified.
"It is. He's like my alter ego. He does all the stuff I want to but can't. Why, the other day, he peed on Mrs. Hedgepeth's foot. It was just the best. That old bat has made life hell for everyone in town for the past forty years. Roscoe went up to her and cut loose. It was the funniest thing I've ever seen."
Mrs. Hedgepeth was the neighborhood fun police, and once she'd tried to get Sweetie Pie sent to the pound for no reason. She wasn't a friend to dog or child, and I'd seen Roscoe pull that same stunt on another old witch. The dog did seem to have the ability to plan out his outrageous actions. "I'm surprised she didn't file some kind of assault charge against you and Roscoe."
Harold couldn't stop laughing. "She didn't know I owned him or she probably would have. Now I have to make certain he doesn't run around the neighborhood loose. I'm having one of those underground fences installed tomorrow."
I thought to say good luck, but I didn't. Somehow, I didn't think Roscoe would be confined by a mere shock, but who was I to dampen Harold's newfound love of doggyhood?
"Well, ladies, I must be off to work. Take good care of my boy."
"I'm gone, too," Tammy said.
"And I'll get after this post office business in New Orleans, Tammy."
I stood on the porch and watched as my friends drove away. I had to call Tinkie, though I didn't want to make more trouble for her with Oscar. Still, I was curious about this mysterious New Orleans post office box and the disappearing Mrs. Littlefield. It was time to move on with my life, whether Graf spoke to me or not, and a trip to Sin City was just the ticket to get me out of the dumps.
Copyright © 2012 by Carolyn Haines