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Heat and humidity commingle to form a thick haze over the cotton fields, muting the lush green plants to monochromatic grays. The haunting vista captures my heart, and I stop my labors and lean for a moment on my broom. I've only swept half the front porch of Dahlia House—not exactly hard work—yet sticky sweat trickles down my spine. The autumnal equinox has come and gone, and in another week the calendar will flip. October will arrive and break September's stifling heat. The cotton bolls will split and mechanical harvesters will comb the fields like huge insects that produce boxcar-sized bales of long-fiber cotton. Fall has officially arrived around the nation, but it is still hot as hell in Zinnia, Mississippi.
Gazing out over the fields, I'm flooded with memories and emotions. This is Delaney land, my land, the heritage handed down from generations of farmers and planters who grew cotton and built wealth, and then lost the money—but not the land. Never the land. When my father plied his law degree, Dahlia House shone like a crown in the sun. My mother was the prized jewel; everything around her sparkled.
The tragedy of a perfect childhood is that it ends. Adulthood brings worries and responsibilities. Perfection fades. I remember a conversation I had, not long ago, with Sunflower County sheriff Coleman Peters. He told me the best any grown-up could hope for was a sixty-forty decision, meaning that whatever choice was made, it would be, at best, sixty percent right. He's a wise man.
My childhood was a hundred percent marvelous. I had it all: parents who loved me and our community, land that produced amazing crops, an environment that encouraged me to dream big and go for it, a heritage of honor and courage. I also live with the daily knowledge that it all disappeared one night as my parents drove home from a political gathering in Jackson. On a dead-straight Delta road, Daddy flipped the car. Both of my parents died instantly.
The cause of the wreck has always been a mystery. Most folks think a deer or a dog ran out of the cotton fields and my father swerved to avoid hitting it and lost control. Some people have been insensitive enough to posit the idea that my father fell asleep at the wheel. Even though the autopsy proved otherwise, some folks insist my parents had been drinking.
The truth is, there is no truth. I've gone to that lonely stretch of road more times than I can count. It's straight and flat, bordered on both sides by cotton fields. Few roads intersect it. The night of the wreck was clear, the stars out in abundance. I remember, because I sat on the front porch with Aunt Loulane for an hour or so after dinner, talking about my studies, waiting for my folks to come home and fill me in on their adventures.
At twelve years old, I thought I should be allowed to stay home alone, but Mother insisted Aunt Loulane come and "keep me company." A good thing, too. The news that your world has exploded shouldn't be heard alone.
I inhale deeply and slowly to release the anger and frustration roiling in my chest. I cling to the memories of my parents in the good moments, the times of laughter and joy. Trips back to the night of their deaths do nothing but upset me. I've gone over it a million times. I've read the accident reports, viewed the photos of the Volvo my father preferred to drive because it was safer than a convertible. Twenty-two years have passed, and the grief is as close as my own skin. Some wounds never heal, but as Aunt Loulane would say, we learn to carry the pain and keep walking.
I pick up the broom. Work is my solace. Perhaps my abilities as a private investigator come from the puzzle of my parents' death. Why did they wreck? What happened to make my father lose control of the car? No one has ever answered those questions to my satisfaction. For more than two decades, I've chewed on what I know to be the facts. Still, to misquote Mick Jagger, I can get no satisfaction.
A noise on the side of the house makes me think Jitty is about to put in an appearance. She's a self-centered ghost, but she also has a keen ability to ferret out those times when the past looms larger than the present for me. The idea of a confrontation with my own personal Civil War–era ghost perks up my spirits. Jitty is feisty, opinionated, and the yin to my yang. I wouldn't go so far as to call her the voice of reason, but sometimes she makes a good point.
Hurrying around the corner of the house, I stop. Jitty isn't in evidence. My horses graze peacefully in the pasture beside the barn, and my hound, Sweetie Pie, and the newest member of the Delaney household, Pluto, a fat black cat I semi-acquired from my last case, are digging for a mole. My dead relatives rest without interruption in the family cemetery behind the house. That I'm rooted to this place in a way many people don't understand slams hard into me.
Some might say my connection to Dahlia House is Southern in nature, or perhaps part of my Irish heritage. I say that folks who don't cherish the place of their birth, the residence of their family, the home and land where memories are created and linger, and the final resting place of cherished family, have never known what it means to love. While I love my fiancé, the most talented Graf Milieu, I need the expanse of land that spreads before me.
Instead of calling Jitty, I return to the porch and my chore. It's nice to have the time to do a little something for the grand old lady, Dahlia House. I've contracted a painter to fix her up with a new coat of white as soon as the weather cools and the humidity drops. Other repairs will require carpentry skills and more money. Thank goodness our last Delaney Detective Agency client—despite a bit of confusion over who hired whom—paid us. My partner, Tinkie Bellcase Richmond, doesn't need the cashola, but I sure do.
I wipe the sweat from my forehead and wonder how Graf is handling his golf game in the torrid zone. He's spent enough time in Mississippi to understand the danger of heatstroke, but for a lot of the summer, his film work had kept him in balmy Los Angeles. Graf Milieu is a name destined to glow in neon on movie house marquees. My man is not only handsome and smart, he's talented.
Sweetie Pie's mournful howl alerts me to impending company. A car I don't recognize—a brand-new silver town car—tears down the driveway. Leaning on my broom, I wait to see who will alight. In the old days, company often showed up on the porch for an afternoon cup of coffee or a highball. Those days, when my mother, Libby Delaney, dispensed advice and help to anyone who darkened the door, hold great fondness for me. I learned much about human nature listening to people talk at our kitchen table.
Times have changed, though, and I wondered if the driver of the car was a new client for the PI agency.
To my surprise, one of my mother's friends got out from the driver's side. Frances Malone wore a smart yellow sundress with a matching jacket, a black-and-white-striped straw hat with a yellow ribbon, and yellow sling-back shoes. There wasn't a speck of dust or a single dog hair anywhere on her. She looked like she was going to a fashion luncheon.
"Mrs. Malone," I said, propping the broom against the column and walking down the steps to meet her. Over the last few years at home, I'd run into her in town and at the grocery, but she hadn't paid a visit to Dahlia House in years—at least since before I left for college, and that was better than a dozen years ago. Frances was a Delta society lady, but she had also been my mother's friend. "What brings you to Dahlia House?"
"I need your help," Frances said. "I'm desperate, Sarah Booth. You have no idea how awful this woman is, and what she intends to do. She has to be stopped. You have to stop her."
I put a steadying hand on her elbow and guided her up the steps to one of the rockers. "Take a seat, Ms. Frances. May I get you some lemonade?"
"Water would be nice, Sarah Booth." She calmed a little and assessed me. "You look so much like your mother." She blinked quickly. "There's not a day goes by that I don't miss Libby Delaney."
"Me, too." I patted her shoulder. A memory of Frances sitting at the kitchen table drinking a mimosa on a Sunday morning came back to me. Mama had been at the stove making her famous French toast, and Frances recounted some foolishness at The Club, Zinnia's bastion of culture and golf. I'd walked into the kitchen from outside, struck by the beauty of the two laughing women.
"Libby would know what to do," Frances said, her agitation returning. "She'd know how to fix this monster."
I hustled to get some water before I asked any questions. I'd never seen Frances so rattled. Whatever was happening had to be pretty awful.
When I returned, I found Pluto sitting in her lap purring. After she'd sipped the water and her respiratory rate had slowed, I pulled up another rocker. "What's going on?"
"It's just too awful." She shielded her eyes with a hand.
"You have to tell me, if you want me to help." I wasn't certain it was as serious as Frances thought, but I needed the facts.
"A woman has come to town. A scholar from New England. Dear me, I think I'm going to be sick. She's driven me to public vomiting! It's the final humiliation."
"Calm down, Ms. Frances." I put a steadying hand on her arm. "I'll help you, but I'm confused. An academic is here, and this is a bad thing?" Surely this would be right up Frances's alley. She and her friends loved learning and education. While Ole Miss was thought to be a superior school, many of the children of her set aspired to attend Yale or Harvard. The Ivy League seal of approval went a long way in business relationships.
"You have no idea. She's a historian at Camelton College. Impeccable PhD. The school is well respected—one of the new Ivy League contenders. Its campus appeals to the snow set. Skiers and hikers"—she waved a hand—"those tedious cold-weather sports New Englanders love."
Frances's reverse snobbery amused me. "What's she doing in Zinnia?" We weren't a hot spot for historical research, unless it involved some of the Native American tribes that enriched area history or the well-trod terrain of the Civil War.
"She's here to stir up trouble and besmirch the good names of your friends." Frances burst into tears. "It's just the most awful thing I've ever heard, Sarah Booth. And she's going all over town saying the worst things about the families of Cece Dee Falcon and Oscar Richmond. She claims the Richmond and Falcon families were involved in President Lincoln's assassination."
Smote speechless would be the correct term for me. I tried to digest what Frances had said from several directions, and none worked. "Wait a minute. She's saying Oscar's and Cece's ancestors plotted with John Wilkes Booth to kill Lincoln? How could she possibly have any evidence? I mean, this is nuts."
"Then you have to stop her." She brought a tatted-lace handkerchief from her purse and dabbed her eyes.
"Who is she?"
"Her name is Dr. Olive Twist and—"
I held up a hand. "Olive Twist? Are you kidding me? As in the female version of the Dickens character, Oliver Twist?"
"Her parents were Victorian scholars, or at least that's what she said." Frances didn't even crack a smile at the absurdity of it. She was that upset. "She's a horrid woman. Skinny as a rail and with huge feet. Poisonous. So how are you going to get her out of town?"
My breath escaped on a hiss. "Frances, this really isn't my area of expertise. I'm a private investigator. This sounds like something the mayor or supervisors need to probe. Or maybe a lawyer. If she's slandering people, she can be sued."
"You're a detective. Go detect! Find out what she's really up to, and then we'll figure a way to thwart her."
I gave her fingers a squeeze. Although thwarting sounded like fun, I wasn't sure it was appropriate. "It isn't that easy. Is she breaking any laws?"
"She stormed into the September meeting of the Daughters of the Supreme Confederacy right in the middle of Hallie Harper's speech on the mighty efforts of the women of Magnolia, Mississippi, to send buttons and thread to our soldiers in the field. At the time, many buttons were made of bone, and they wore thin and came loose. Soldiers had no means of—" She stopped herself. "Poor Hallie was so rattled by this harpy's conduct she lost her train of thought and couldn't finish her talk."
The Daughters of the Supreme Confederacy was a low-key group of ladies who enjoyed brunches of chicken salad, mimosas, and programs highlighting the efforts of Confederate womenfolk to support the men they loved. I knew many of the stories because my ancestor Alice Delaney, with the help of a smart young slave, Jitty, had worked tirelessly to support the Confederate troops and to save Dahlia House from the destruction of war, and later from the carpetbaggers.
"Okay, the woman is rude," I conceded. "But what harm can she really do? Oscar and Cece will sue her for slander if she keeps this up, but you need to chill, Frances. Remember, sticks and stones can break—"
"You sound exactly like your aunt Loulane, and I don't mean that as a compliment. Dr. Twist means to drag the Richmond and Falcon names through the mud and enjoy doing it. Cece is your friend. And Tinkie Bellcase Richmond is Oscar's wife and your business partner. You have a vested interest in this. Friendship demands that you take action."
"We're talking about events that happened nearly two hundred years ago, Frances." One of the worst—and the best—things about Southerners is their total devotion to the reverence of the past. "This is over and done."
Frances started to rise. "I thought you valued your friends. Yet you'll sit back and allow the character of their families to be assassinated by this … this … Yankee pseudo-intellectual."
I thought of those long-ago mornings when Frances and my mother plotted and laughed. They were women as different as night and day. My mother didn't give a fig about society or ladies' luncheons. She didn't belong to a single social organization and refused to join The Club because it was elitist. Yet she and Frances had shared a love of land and a deep appreciation for heritage and good friends. "Let me look into it. At least I can talk with her and see what she's up to."
"Oh, Sarah Booth. I knew you were the person to come to. Since you're totally outside society, you can put that woman in her place with whatever means necessary."
Now, that was a nice way for Frances to say I could put a dog-cussing on Olive Twist without behaving in an unladylike fashion, since I wasn't a lady to begin with. I had no honor to lose by getting down in the mud with the hogs.
I walked Frances to her car. "I'll pay a call on Dr. Twist."
"She's staying at The Gardens B and B." She slammed her door and drove away before I could protest.
I had a history with Gertrude Strom, the owner of the B and B in question. She hated me and had since I'd come home to Zinnia from New York. I already rued my offer to intervene. Chances were, if Dr. Twist were left alone, she'd tire of poking at the old, tired Delta society and take herself back home to her teaching duties.
The single good thing: I'd only agreed to speak with Dr. Twist. This wasn't a new case. I could still devote my time completely to my fiancé.
Graf would be with Oscar at The Club until after lunch. As much as I disliked the idea of going to The Gardens, it would be best if I got the chore behind me.
Propping the broom by the front door, I went inside with my hound at my heels and a plump black feline capering along the hardwood floors. A quick cleanup and fresh clothes and I'd be on my way to meet the caustic Dr. Twist.
I turned on the upstairs shower, disrobed, and lathered up. I was towel drying my long chestnut hair when I heard a noise in my bedroom. If Graf was already back from golf, Oscar had skunked him. Still, the prospect of seeing Graf made me rush out of the bathroom and come to a screeching halt.
A woman with a huge head of black curls and wearing a red dress, red shoes, and a garter pointed a cane at me. Perched on the side of her head was a top hat. "Boo-boop-de-doop," she said in a high-pitched baby voice.
Jitty had incarnated as Betty Boop. The resident haint at Dahlia House had gone vintage cartoon on me.
"Boo to you!" I wrapped the towel around me. "I swear, Jitty. Betty Boop? Why don't you just get a whip and flog me. It would be kinder." My decade-hopping haint had shown up in garb from the eighteenth century to Star Trek, but a cartoon character was taking it just a little too far.
"You ought to get you a little red dress and a garter," Jitty said, leaning on the cane and poking out her butt in a provocative calendar-girl pose. "Graf's shoes would smoke he'd be in such a hurry to jump out of them. Just think of the possibilities."
"Maybe I could suck on a helium balloon while I'm at it. If your voice gets any more babyish I'll have to drink formula to converse with you." I had no time for Jitty's antics.
"Jealous, some?" Jitty asked. "Betty Boop was the sex symbol for generations of men."
"That is too sad to even contemplate." I took a long look at her. "Your head is huge."
"And so are my boobs," she countered. "And my waist is tiny. Men love me."
"Oh, for heaven's sake. You're talking about men suffering from retarded adolescence." I went to the closet and dragged out ironed jeans and a purple shirt.
I heard the tapping of the cane and her high heels as she came closer to me.
"What do you want, Jitty? It has to be something spectacular if you're wearing that getup."
"Just giving you a preview of what's coming your way like a freight train. Better eat your spinach."
"Spinach?" I turned to confront her, but in typical Jitty fashion, she was gone. In her wake, though, a burst of tiny red hearts floated around the spot where she'd stood. In an instant, they vanished.
* * *
The long, tree-lined drive to The Gardens brought back memories. Bad ones. I didn't relish asking Gertrude Strom where to find Dr. Twist, but I had no choice. Gertrude ran the front desk like a barracuda guarding a sushi buffet. She would make life as tough as possible for me. The only person Gertrude was consistently nice to was my partner, Tinkie. Zinnia National Bank held the mortgage on The Gardens, and Tinkie's husband, Oscar, was president of the bank. Her father owned it. Money might not buy happiness, but it sure as heck could purchase obsequiousness.
Whatever my personal feelings for Gertrude, I had to hand it to her. The grounds were incredible. Mums in every shade from purple to russet to gold brightened the flowerbeds, where fuchsia-veined caladiums offered pinks and lime greens. Closer to the building, I was smitten by the riot of spider lilies, their coral petals dancing on a gentle breeze.
"What are you doing on my property?" Gertrude popped up from behind a hedge like one of those horrible jack-in-the-boxes. Even as a child I'd hated those things.
I'd hoped to at least get in the door before she launched an assault, but fate was against me. She wasn't a tall woman, but she was cantankerous as a snake with its tail in a mousetrap. "Gertrude, fancy seeing you here. Where can I find Dr. Olive Twist?"
"I don't have to tell you anything. In fact, I can call the sheriff and have you arrested for trespassing. Now that you're no longer sleeping with Sheriff Peters, maybe he'll cuff you and haul you off to jail."
Gertrude's red hair, dyed to a shade between fire engine and Bozo the clown, caught the sunlight like copper wires. Bride of Frankenstein might be a phrase used to describe her.
"Gertrude, I'm well within my rights to visit a guest."
"We'll see about that. Maybe Dr. Twist doesn't want to see you."
"If she doesn't, I'll leave. But I intend to ask her." I started past Gertrude, only to be stopped by a garden rake thrown like a spear. She missed my foot by about an inch.
"Don't take another step. You're not so special you can make yourself at home here." Gertrude came out of the flowerbed, dusted her gloves, and maneuvered her body between me and the front door. "Wait here. I'll ring Dr. Twist and see if she'll speak with you. Of course I'll warn her what a busybody little snooper you are and how ineffectual your detective agency is."
I sighed and took a seat on a bench. It was still ninety-two in the shade, but it was better than standing in the sun. Also better than arguing with Gertrude. She could waste endless amounts of my time, and I wanted to talk to the professor and then get home to stir up some fried chicken, field peas with okra, and cracklin' cornbread for Graf. Fattening up a man was one of life's little joys. Soon enough he'd be in Hollywood with his trainer, but for the moment we were tossing dietary concerns to the wind.
Speaking of trainers, I made a discreet grab at the flab accumulating around my middle. Since finishing my last case, during which a vile butler had tried to starve me, I'd shoved my face in the trough and lived life large. Graf was an excellent cook. And Dahlia House's kitchen was made for two to share. We worked well together, and we enjoyed trying new recipes, all of them saturated with calories. Soon, though, the excess would stop and the suffering would begin. Graf would be gone and I'd have to address the wages of gluttony.
Startled from my food fantasy, I swung around to face the skinniest woman I'd ever seen. She wore a long blue pencil skirt and a white blouse ruffled around the neck and sleeves. She was a vision of a 1980s secretary or bank teller. Except for her feet, which were encased in the ugliest brogans ever cobbled. They were boats. A small village could have floated on them. A size fifteen, at the very least.
"Are you Ms. Delaney?" Her voice had an irritating twang whose origins I couldn't place. She wasn't British or Canadian or even Northeastern, and she sure as heck wasn't from my neck of the woods. Jitty's warning came back to haunt me—indeed, I should have eaten some spinach because I was staring at Olive Oyl. The stick-thin, shapeless body, the blue-black hair clasped at her neck with a scrunchie, the huge feet. Popeye's girlfriend, in the flesh. Except this Olive had the visage of an angel.
"Can you hear me?" She leaned down into my face and spoke slowly. "I know you people are slow."
"You people?" I bristled. "What do you mean, you people?"
Her answer was a strange movement of her lips that could have been a smile, or possibly a gas bubble.
"Gertrude said you wanted to speak to me. She also told me you're a Nosy Parker." Dr. Twist sprawled beside me on the bench. "She failed to tell me you were mentally challenged."
I ignored the jab and forced my gaze away from her clodhoppers. She could water-ski with those feet. She could use her feet for Ping-Pong paddles, and something about the way she flounced on the bench told me she was probably limber enough to actually do it.
"I'd like to ask a few questions about your research." It was the least offensive opening I could come up with.
"My, how gossip flies around a small Southern town. Do you people communicate by telephone?" She looked around as if searching for physical evidence of communication devices. "Do you actually have phone service here? I was surprised to find flush toilets."
Gertrude had undoubtedly given Dr. Twist a negative impression of me, but the professor had arrived in Zinnia with a stereotype of the area already embedded in her brainpan. I was tempted to yuk it up with some hambone slang, maybe a few one-liners about how all the DNA in town was similar, but I didn't. Feeding the prejudice would only make matters worse.
"Let me treat you to a drink," I offered as I stood up. While we were the same height, I had her by forty pounds. If she took those ass-ugly shoes off, maybe fifty. I'd really never seen anything quite like them. They were stacks on a platform of glittery black plastic. Open-toed lace-ups, they appeared to be leather painted in a camouflage pattern. With a cuff of gray faux fur. Why would any sane person want to call attention to a foot that size?
"A drink would be lovely," she said.
A serving or two of free booze might oil the hinges of Olive's jaws. Patience was a virtue, and one I didn't come by naturally. Still, I played it cool and got us settled at a small table in a corner of the bar.
Even though I didn't care for Gertrude, I loved The Gardens' bar. It was all dark paneling, but there were plenty of windows. The parquet floor was polished to a shine, and plants hung in baskets and sprouted from planters. The ambience was wealth mingled with a green thumb. Gertrude knew her clientele. And one of her guests, a distinguished-looking fellow with salt-and-pepper hair and a small, Clark Gable mustache, seemed very interested in either me or Dr. Twist. He pretended to read a newspaper, but he watched us.
With a Long Island iccd tea in front of her and a Bloody Mary at my fingertips, I started out casually. "I'm fascinated by history, and I heard you were here to do local research."
She nodded. "If my theories are correct, I'll publish a monograph that'll impact American history from the Civil War period. And that's just the beginning. I have a rip-roaring tale that will translate into bestsellerdom." She stood up abruptly. "Would you mind changing places with me?"
"The light is better where you're sitting. So my assistant can film." She pushed me out of my chair and scooched into it with a provocative wiggle. "We're documenting every step of this journey. This could be as significant as the first walk on the moon, or Admiral Peary's trip to the North Pole."
"Wasn't that claim challenged?"
Olive grinned, and I swear I saw wicked canines. "You're not as stupid as you look."
"I'm not the one who thinks every move I make is noteworthy." I glimpsed a young cameraman behind a potted plant. He held an expensive piece of equipment trained on the preening historian.
"I'll put this hick town on the map." Olive leaned back in the chair. "Whether you people like it or not."
If she said "you people" one more time I might deck her. "Most folks don't find Mississippi's history all that fascinating, unless you're writing about the Civil War or civil rights. You've come a long way to work on a tired, overdone project."
"I have," she agreed. "No one told me it was so hot here." She wiped perspiration droplets from her forehead. "I've never been anywhere so intolerably hot. Is it the heat that makes you Southerners so slow? Honestly, I think if I stayed here six months my brain would turn to goop, too."
I smiled. "Tell me a little about yourself." Some folks loved to talk about their favorite subject—themselves. I suspected Dr. Twist was one of them.
"What's the big interest in me?" she asked. "You don't strike me as the kind of person who gives a flip about academics or the pursuit of knowledge. Do you even read?"
It was hard, but I ignored the insult. "Oh, that's where you're wrong. I'm a big fan of facts. Facts are my stock-in-trade." I sipped my drink, amazed that her glass was drained. She might not weigh a hundred pounds, but she sure could Hoover down a drink. "Lay some knowledge on me." Yeah, I couldn't help myself from goading her just a little.
"Maybe you've got a personal interest in what I'm doing." She tapped her straw against her glass and assessed me. "Booth is a rather interesting name in a small Southern town. Booth. Ring any historical bells for you? A would-be actor, a theater, a gun." She chuckled. "I hadn't counted on such good luck on my first day here."
This wasn't going to be easy. Whatever else Dr. Twist might be, she was nobody's angel—and nobody's fool. "Are you referring to John Wilkes? No relation to my family, I assure you."
"DNA tells out. Have any family branches from Maryland?"
I refused to rise to the bait. "I'm trying to figure out what your interest in Zinnia is. Why don't you just spare us both a lot of hemming and hawing and tell me why you're here."
She signaled the barkeep for another drink. "Research."
"Could you be more specific? It's possible my friends could assist if your project is interesting."
"I don't think you or your friends will help me. No, not at all." She took the drink the bartender brought and sucked down half of it. "I don't think you'll approve of my … research."
"History's history. It's either fact or not. It's not up to me to approve or disapprove."
"Very enlightened attitude, but you're not a convincing liar. I know your type. Defend the family honor no matter the truth. It's been said that in the South, blood is always thicker than water. In some instances, I've been told, blood carries more weight than money. Is that true, Ms. Delaney?"
She didn't really know me at all, but she'd locked in on a partial truth. I was extremely defensive about my family's honor, and also my friends. Money came in a distant second to honor in my book. "So what are you researching?"
"I don't have to tell you a damn thing about my work here. Or your friends. I doubt any of you could understand what I'm doing. And if you did understand, you wouldn't approve of it. Besides, I have Boswell. He provides every service I need."
My brain flipped through a mental Rolodex and came up empty. "Boswell? From Charlie's Angels?"
"That's Bosley, you…" She stopped herself. "Boswell is my assistant. The one with the camera." She waved at him. "I've promised him a credit and a tiny percentage of the royalties on my book if he works hard. There'll be plenty of glory to share, and Boswell is all I need. He works tirelessly, and he's very good at what he does. He loves to please me."
She'd managed to dodge the question of her research as well as my insincere offers of assistance. What she needed was a good dose of Aunt Loulane's wisdom—she sure could catch a lot more flies with sugar than with vinegar. I wondered what had made her such a sour person.
"I guess polite questions won't work for you. Let's get down to the nit-picking." I was pretty certain that colorful phrase would please her, because I was sure she believed everyone in Zinnia had nits. "Are you researching the genealogy of the Richmond and Falcon families?"
"What if I am?"
Saint Peter with rigor mortis, she was an aggravating varmint. I signaled the barkeep for another round for her. She drank like she had a hollow leg. I'd run up a bar tab and gotten nothing in return. "Both the Richmond and Falcon family are personal friends. Slander or, worse, libel is not a good idea."
"Are you threatening me?"
"Pope Paul at a clambake! I don't know what you're up to and I don't care, but if you've come here to make trouble for my friends, it won't end pretty." Dang, that was a Freudian slip. Dr. Twist could have been a real beauty, if she had better taste in clothes and a foot transplant.
"Threats don't scare me. Your friends' ancestors were involved in some low-down, dirty business that resulted in the assassination of one of the greatest men to ever lead this country."
"JFK? No one in Zinnia had anything to do with that."
"Not Kennedy. Lincoln."
"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard." She really was a fruitcake.
"I have evidence, and as soon as I get the order to disinter the Lady in Red, I'll have proof beyond a shadow of a doubt. Her DNA will match either Oscar Richmond or Benjamin Falcon. She is the mastermind who plotted the murder of Abraham Lincoln. Mary Surratt was falsely accused and executed. It should have been the woman in that grave, Tilda Richmond or Tilda Falcon, who swung from the gallows."
The ghoulish scene she evoked made me blink. "You don't know which family?"
"There's a connection between the families I haven't figured out. But I will. Once I'm on a scent I'm better than a bloodhound."
Color me flabbergasted. I opened and closed my mouth like a guppy, unable to form words. Her accusations and leaps of logic were so astounding, no sane person would give them credence. She'd taken a local mystery and embroidered it into a tablecloth for a banquet of crazy lies.
The Lady in Red, an unidentified female, was accidentally disinterred on Egypt Plantation in Cruger, Mississippi, in 1969. The details of the incident were well known, at least in the Delta. Few folks outside the region knew—or cared—anything about a mysterious grave.
A backhoe operator unearthed the sealed coffin of a beautiful lady wearing a red gown and gloves. The glass-topped coffin had been filled with alcohol and sealed so that the body inside was perfectly preserved. No one identified the body. No one claimed her. She was reburied at a local cemetery, and the plantation owner erected a monument inscribed: Lady in Red, Found on Egypt Plantation, 1835–1969. Her birth date was presumed, based on her clothes and age. The year 1969 was when she was accidentally dug up and reburied. No real facts were known.
The grave was a local attraction for teens and tourists for years—for those who could find it.
"No one knows who's in that grave," I said. "If she'd been a Richmond or a Falcon, trust me, her family would have claimed her."
"Would they?" She gulped down the last of her drink. When she tried to signal for the barkeep, I grabbed her wrist. I'd had enough.
"Where did you come up with this cockamamie idea?" I asked.
"You'll have to read my book to get those answers, but I'll give you a hint. Lincoln had one cabinet member, Edwin Stanton, who loathed traitors, and he viewed all Southern sympathizers as such. He kept tabs on a woman who fits the description of your Lady in Red. I have some of his private letters, which are enlightening on the subject of Lincoln's seduction and betrayal."
"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
"Is it?" A smile lifted her features from haughty to beautiful.
"After all this time, new evidence is suddenly discovered? Sounds to me like you're desperate for something sensational."
Olive's expression shifted to consternation, and I glanced behind me. A very handsome young man had walked up. Light brown curls topped his six-three frame, and clear gray eyes met me head-on. He held an expensive digital camera in his hand. He nodded a hello. "Jimmy, this is a private detective sent to scare us out of town. Does she frighten you?"
He laughed. "Dr. Twist, it's time for your massage."
"Thank you, Boswell. I'll be right there. Go and heat the rocks. I've had enough tension for the day."
"I'll be ready for you in fifteen minutes." He nodded good-bye before he left.
"That's your assistant?" It was my first good look at him sans the vegetation. He looked more like a boy toy.
"Boswell has a bright future, as long as he does what I tell him."
"No doubt." Anyone who bucked Dr. Twist would suffer. "But I can tell you the woman in that grave has no relationship to Sunflower County families. It would behoove you to stop that kind of gossip. Oscar won't tolerate it, and if Tinkie hears any of it, she'll take you to court."
"I'm the only one who has access to Stanton's letters, and I intend to make the most of it. Truth is the only defense against slander or libel. I'm going to prove my hypothesis is true."
"Once the body is on an autopsy table, I'll compare DNA to the living family members."
"And how do you intend to prove that the woman in that grave had anything to do with Lincoln's assassination?"
"Oh, I have my ways, Ms. Delaney. And I'm willing to stake my professional career on it. Now I must go. I can't miss my massage. There's so much tension in this kind of research, and I can't afford to stress my back."
Copyright © 2013 by Carolyn Haines