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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Game of Bones

A Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery

A Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery (Volume 20)

Carolyn Haines

Minotaur Books



March is the month when hope returns. Even a spirit sorely challenged and worn down finds renewal in a shaft of warm March sunlight or the sight of green pushing through the soil. The new plantings that stretch from horizon to horizon across the vast Mississippi Delta seem to vibrate with a soft green haze that is nothing less than magical.

It’s the perfect, crisp morning for a horseback ride, and I’ve saddled Miss Scrapiron and set off around the western property line with my loyal hound, Sweetie Pie, at my side. The smell of the soil is familiar and calming, as is the motion of my horse. This is a morning of perfect awareness, a feast for the senses. I stop at a brake that bisects a field to take in the tiniest buds on the tupelo gum trees. Miss Scrapiron stamps her foot and snorts, impatient. She is a creature of movement, of elegant maneuvers, of speed and agility. She wants to run, and after I bid the spring buds a welcome, I loosen the reins, lean in to her neck, and let her sweep me across the land in a rhythm of pounding hooves that is as primal as a heartbeat.

I let her run until her neck is flecked with foam where the reins touch her, and when she slows of her own accord, I look back to see Sweetie Pie coursing toward us. She, too, is glad of a rest and flops onto the cool earth for a moment. Horse, dog, and human amble over to a small spring-fed creek swollen with spring rains. Sweetie Pie unceremoniously leaps into the middle of it, despite the chill, and comes out shaking.

In the stillness of the brake, I listen to the trill of tiny songbirds. They flash yellow and brown through the pale and leafless tree trunks. In another two weeks, the green haze will settle over the trees as winter yields to spring.

I awoke this morning after a troubling dream. Only the fragments remain—a bare-chested man wearing a bear-head mask. There are images scrawled across his chest with red, white, and black paints. I wonder if this is a visit from a past dweller on the acreage that comprises my property and home, Dahlia House. Long ago, before the white men came down in wagons to claim the land as their own, the Mississippi Delta was home to numerous indigenous tribes.

At times, most often dusk or dawn, I’ve seen the spirits of slaves or state prisoners contracted out for labor clearing the land or hoeing the long rows of crops. They are a vision from a long dead past, but I’ve watched them toil against the purpling sky, hearing the chants of the field hollers that allowed them to work in a steady, unrelenting beat. Those old work songs are the bedrock of the blues.

Today the fields are empty of ghosts. The sun and rain must do the work to bring the tiny plants taller. Humans have no magic for this part of the process. This is Mother Earth’s gift to us. The vast acreage of Dahlia House is leased to a local farmer. I have none of the talents—or the love of gambling—that is necessary to put a fortune into a crop of corn, soybeans, or cotton and hope the weather and the market cooperate enough to bring a profit. I’ve saved out forty acres around Dahlia House for a hayfield where the same man who leases the property cares for the Alicia Bermuda grass pasture to make winter hay for my horses. That’s risk enough for me.

I turn Miss Scrapiron toward home. I’m meeting the handsome sheriff of Sunflower County, Coleman Peters, for breakfast. He’s cooking and I’m eating, which is a fine arrangement. Last night he worked late, so he didn’t spend the night with me, but we’ll catch up before we both begin our workday. His inclusion in my life has given me, like the land I love, a sense of balance. I’m still terrified of allowing myself to love him with everything in me, but on mornings like this, as I anticipate seeing him pull into the driveway and get out of his cruiser, I feel the shell around my heart softening. No one can protect us from loss or injury. If you love, you risk. I want to risk. I want to abandon my fear, but right now, caution is the only path I can travel.

“Sweetie Pie.” I call my dog from the brake where she’s gone sniffing the trail of a raccoon or opossum. She’s a hunting dog who now seizes on the scents of evildoers and has more than once saved my skin from bad people. The small furry creatures that roam the land, though a point of curiosity, are safe from her. And from me.

The wind blowing across the wide-open fields has a chill to it, but the sunshine on my back warms me through the light polar riding vest I wear. Miss Scrapiron rocks my hips with her long-legged Thoroughbred stride. I close my eyes and simply enjoy the sensation of sun and movement. My cell phone rings out with “Bad to the Bone.”

Tinkie Bellcase Richmond, my partner in the Delaney Detective Agency, is on the horn. Tinkie, aside from being my best friend, is the Queen Bee of all the Delta society ladies. She is a bred-in-the-bone Daddy’s Girl, the 180-degree opposite of me. She holds teas, cotillions, garden-club gatherings, and debutante balls for the social elite. She knows the DG handbook of proper behavior backward and forward and manages to cram in her social obligations between caring for her husband, Oscar, and helping me solve crimes. Beneath the coiffed hair and haute couture wardrobe beats the heart of a forensic accountant. Tinkie’s daddy owns the local bank and her husband is its president. Tinkie comes from money and she knows how to track it, find it, and sort through the many paper trails every criminal leaves behind.

“What’s shaking?” I asked. I like to sit on my horse and talk on the phone. It could only be better if I had a cigarette. Sadly, those days are behind me.

“What do you know about the archeological dig at Mound Salla?” Tinkie asked.

“Let’s see. No one knew the mound was actually a real Indian mound until recently, though it’s been in plain sight for at least two centuries. Most of it is wooded, and even though it’s bigger than several football fields, no one paid much attention to it. I guess we all assumed it was something built way back when to avoid flooding. Then there was that house on top of it that the … Bailey family lived in.” I shrugged. “It was just always … there.”

“Until recently. Now it’s some kind of archeological hot spot.”

“Right. A crew started digging back around Thanksgiving. It’s a team of university professors, some students, some archeologists. They believe Mound Salla was a sacred site for the Tunica tribe that once settled all up and down the Mississippi River.”

“How did you know all that?” Tinkie asked.

“Mound Salla is not on the Mississippi River but here in Sunflower County. That’s why it wasn’t really explored or excavated until recently. No one suspected it was a burial mound. It never made sense that Natives built a mound this far from their normal settlements.”

“That doesn’t explain why you’d know this.” She sounded a little testy.

“I thought I might go and volunteer to help with the dig so I read up on it,” I said. “I love the idea of studying the original people that lived on this land.”

“Old pottery shards, arrowheads, and for your trouble you get dirt under your fingernails that takes a professional manicure to clean out. And for what?”

Tinkie had never enjoyed making mud pies—it wasn’t her style. She was more the accessorizing kind of girl. I loved finding treasures, even buried ones. “It’s exciting to find things that tell the story of the past. Archeological digs show the day-to-day life of people who lived hundreds of years ago. Their struggles and celebrations. Their beliefs. It’s fascinating.” Okay, so I was a bit of a history geek sometimes. Most Delta society ladies were all over genealogy, doing their damnedest to prove they were descendants of the original Mayflower refugees. Right. My reading of the Pilgrims made them a club I didn’t want to join—they were religious fanatics and a rather unpleasant lot. I kept hoping for more exotic DNA. Maybe gypsy!

“Hey, Sarah Booth. Did you hear me?” Tinkie’s voice came over the phone. “We need to run out to the dig today. And Coleman said to cancel breakfast plans.”

Copyright © 2019 by Carolyn Haines