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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Garland of Bones

A Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery (Volume 22)

Carolyn Haines

Minotaur Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1


December has arrived in the Mississippi Delta, a bittersweet time for those of us who miss our loved ones. At times, the holiday gaiety and sparkling decorations heighten loss. The memories of what was contrast sharply with what is. Children grow up and begin their own lives. Relatives and friends move away. My loss is more permanent. I long for those who have gone to the Great Beyond. I miss my family. But Christmas is also a festive time, a time for friends and sharing.

The clear sky, slightly tinged with lavender as dusk approaches, spreads for miles across the barren fields. Winter is a season of death for many plants, but it is also the precursor to spring and rebirth. I love being outdoors on a brisk December day, going about my regular farm chores.

My horses clatter into the barn for an afternoon feeding and their blankets. I scoop the pellets and dump them in the feeders, toss the hay into the stalls, and quickly buckle the waterproof turnout blankets around the animals in preparation for the coming night. There is such satisfaction in caring for my horses. They are healthy and filled with high spirits, but the grain settles them down quickly. I comb their manes and daydream.

I relish the exhilarating rides across the fallow cotton fields on Reveler, Miss Scrapiron, or Diablo this time of year. In the crisp winter air, no bugs bite or annoy us. The wind can cut like a sharp blade across the open spaces, but nothing detracts from the joy of the rhythm of a horse beneath me. No ride would be complete without Sweetie Pie, my loyal red tick hound, coursing beside me. She loves the ride as much as the horses and I do.

But there will be no rides this afternoon. I have my work cut out for me. Each year since I’ve returned home to Zinnia, Mississippi, I’ve become more efficient in preparing for Christmas. I have an attic full of ornaments and decorations, and I have holiday joy in my heart. I mentally plan my next attack on hanging garlands and setting up the miniature Christmas crèche that has been in the Delaney family for generations. There’s a secretary in the formal parlor that’s the perfect site. And while I’m at it, I’ll put on some Christmas songs.

I’m almost done in the barn when the horses finish eating and I turn them out. Reveler romps and snorts, eager to be out and free. He is such a boy! He bucks, farts, and gallops away, the others joining him. They’re performing that crazy psychic dance that horses do, like synchronized swimmers, all moving in unison. They round the corner of the pasture and disappear, but their hoofbeats still reverberate on the ground. They are healthy and happy, and I am blessed.

Sweetie Pie and I enter Dahlia House, my ancestral home, through the back door. Pluto greets me with a lazy yawn. The cat loves adventure, but he is not designed to keep up with a coursing hound or a galloping horse. He has wisely chosen to stay in the warm kitchen, where a pot of gumbo warms on the stove, waiting for me to turn up the heat for dinner. Gumbo is one of Coleman Peters’s favorites, and I am looking forward to his arrival when he gets off work. Until then—I increase the gas to the gumbo, select a Christmas playlist on my phone, and am ready to vie for the Martha Stewart decorating award.

An hour later, the smell of cedar fills the parlor in Dahlia House as I step back in satisfaction to view the garland of cedar fronds, holly, magnolia leaves, and glistening red ornaments that I’ve artfully woven around the antique mirror above the magnificent old mantel. Below the mantel, a fire crackles and spits a warm welcome. “Silver Bells” is playing, and I sing along. All of my friends are hustling and bustling with the fun of buying presents, planning menus, hosting parties, and good-naturedly attempting to outdo one another with decorations and food. This holiday, we have special plans.

My chosen décor comes from nature—the branches and boughs from the evergreen trees that smell so clean and remind me of Christmases past, when I was coddled and protected by loving parents. Sometimes the past is a heavy burden to carry, but I thank goodness for stalwart friends and one big burning hunk of lawman love—Coleman Peters. In fact, he should be arriving any minute. He can help me loop the garland down the railing on the gallery. This is how my mother decorated for Christmas, and her mother before her, and my aunt Loulane, who cared for me after my parents died. I cling to some traditions—those that keep my family close, especially during the holidays.

The gumbo smells good, and I have all the ingredients for Dirty Snowmen, one of my favorite winter holiday drinks, complete with chocolate shavings and lots of Baileys. The thought has my mouth watering and my imagination working overtime. There were things I could do with whipped cream—

“Ah-h-h-h-h-h!”

A pale blond woman with curly hair comes running at me with a huge butcher knife. Her white dress is covered in blood.

“Damn!” I dodge her first attempt to attack me, run around the kitchen table, and haul it through the dining room and parlor and out the front door and into the yard. Without benefit of a coat. The night is freezing, but my heart is thudding so hard I don’t feel the cold. Who has invaded my home with the intention of slicing me to death?

The crazed woman comes out onto the front porch and screams, “I won’t be ignored, Dan!” She glares into the darkness looking for me.

Who the heck is Dan? Even better, who the heck is that crazy woman and how did she get into Dahlia House? I creep around to the side of the porch and peer up at her. She stands, feet apart—bare feet in this bitter cold—in a diaphanous white dress. Therefore she must be freezing, but I’m not seeing any reaction to the cold. My teeth are about to chatter and will be a dead giveaway of my location.

“You play fair with me, I’ll play fair with you!” the woman calls out into the night.

She stares as if she’s looking for someone to appear in front of her. It occurs to me that it isn’t really me she’s hoping to see. I creep a little closer until I get a good view of her under the chandelier that lights the front porch. Glenn Close! It’s the actress Glenn Close! My first thought is to call Millie Roberts, the owner of Millie’s Café here in Zinnia, and the local authority on celebrities and what makes them tick. Why is Glenn Close in my ancestral family home—with a knife in her hand and blood in her eyes?

“Dan, you can’t pretend we didn’t happen.” Her voice is honeyed now, as if she will behave all harmless and playful. The knife blade glints in the light and I know she is deadly.

“Any bunnies in the barn?” she asks.

I knew the reference then. Dan Gallagher. Alex Forrest. The movie was Fatal Attraction. Close played a woman whose obsession with a married man ended in tragedy—and a dead bunny. It was a movie scene I’d never forget. And now the crazy woman was in my house. Was she waiting for Coleman?

Now that thought really made me shiver. Was my man up to something I needed to know about? I rejected that idea immediately. Sure, people cheated. People made mistakes. It happened. But the one thing I knew about Coleman Peters was that he would not deceive me. If he found someone he wanted more than me, he would step up to the plate and say so.

So why was a murderous woman on my front porch?

That question troubled me until I snapped out of the Christmas fog and realized that the apparition haunting my porch was Jitty, my nemesis and heirloom haint.

I crept out of the shrubs and put my hands on my hips. “Dammit, Jitty, you nearly scared ten years off my life.”

She stepped out of her aggressive stance and sauntered toward me. “Girl, you don’t have ten years to squander. Your eggs got a shelf life of”—she consulted a pretty watch on her arm—“maybe ten hours. They don’t last forever, you know.”

Jitty’s primary job at Dahlia House was to aggravate me to the point of near insanity. And also to offer cryptic advice that rarely meant anything to me until it was too late. But this Jitty-incarnation, this cheating and vengeful woman, touched a nerve I thought was long dead.

“Is Coleman cheating on me? Is that what this”—I waved a hand at her—“getup is all about?”

Jitty was slowly morphing from the blond Alex to the mocha Jitty. “Coleman? Heck no. This has nothing to do with Coleman.” She made an O with her mouth and popped a hand over it. Jitty was never supposed to give me a straight answer about anything she knew from the Great Beyond. It was part of the rule book of ghosts and spirits.

“Aha!” I was smug. “So Coleman is true blue.”

“Any fool would know the answer to that,” Jitty grumped. “You don’t need a ghost to divine that answer.”

I wanted to hear her say it. “So he’s loyal?”

“Kind of like that hound dog sleeping on the sofa and not concerned enough about you to come outside. Maybe that should have been your first tip not to run out of the house without a coat.”

She was right. Had Alex Forrest been a real danger, Sweetie Pie would have been on her like a duck on a June bug. Since Sweetie Pie hadn’t demonstrated the least amount of concern that a crazy woman with a knife was stalking me, I should have deduced that it was Jitty. After all, Jitty had concocted a thousand different ways to interrupt my life. Now she had me out in the cold winter without a jacket while she indulged her penchant for playacting.

I trudged up the steps and went inside. I slammed the door, but Jitty just faded right through it and followed me into the parlor, where Dean Martin sang “Winter Wonderland.” My parents had loved Dino and had slow-danced to his mellow voice, my father steering Mama under the mistletoe to steal a kiss. I made myself a very light Jack and water and plopped before the crackling fire to enjoy the warmth, the music, and my memories. And ignore Jitty. “I’m not going to listen to you,” I warned her. “Go away.”

“Where’s that handsome sheriff?”

“Probably on his way, so you should skedaddle.”

I’d been in love before, but Coleman was bigger than love. We’d grown up knowing each other, and he’d been my grade school friend when I lost my parents. He’d been my competitor in horseback riding, sports, driving fast through the cotton fields, and a thousand other things. He had rescued me more than once when my life was on the line.

Coleman and I shared a love of the natural world, and of the Delta in particular. We both fought for justice. We were children of a particular time and place in the history of a state we both loved and despaired over. And we were also the grown-ups who’d set about to bring change to our home and the people we loved. Change that brought equality for every person, no matter their race, gender, creed, religion, or sexual identification. From the remnants of the old South, a new South was finally being birthed.

“Earth to Sarah Booth!” Jitty was done with Alex Forrest and back to her normal self, wearing my favorite jeans and my new silk blouse. She’d adorned herself with a string of red and green Christmas lights. She felt free to help herself to whatever I had.

“I’m here.”

“Just mooning over that man again, aren’t you?”

“Maybe.” It didn’t do any good to lie to Jitty. She could smell the truth like Sweetie Pie could jump the scent of a villain.

Jitty preened a little, and the red and green lights glowed brighter. “You got it bad for that man.”

“Maybe.”

“Is he going to put a ring on it?”

“Maybe.”

“Do you want a ring?”

That question stopped me short. I’d had one engagement ring in my sordid romantic history, and my fiancé had almost broken my heart asunder. “I like things just fine the way they are right now. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Coleman and I were adults with no dependents and no real family. No one—except Jitty—cared if we lived in sin or not. Most of my friends had engaged in sin and were experts at it. Not a single one of them ever mentioned the m word.

“Don’t you want what Libby and James Franklin had?”

Jitty could be a downright devil when she set her mind to it, and this was one of those times. “Mama and Daddy came up at a different time. They wanted children. They wanted a legacy.”

“And you don’t?”

This was sacrilege to Jitty. She had badgered me for months to get pregnant and produce an heir so that Dahlia House would remain in the Delaney family and she would have someone to haunt after I passed on. Watching the effects of pregnancy on Tinkie, I wasn’t so certain I wanted to sign up for that experience firsthand. I didn’t know a thing about birthing—or raising—babies, and I kind of intended to keep it that way.

“Sarah Booth, you don’t want to have a baby girl and give her the gifts Libby gave you?”

Now Jitty was hitting me in my weak spot. “I don’t know that I can. I lost too much, Jitty. I don’t know that I can risk losing a child.”

She stepped back and gave me a long look. “That I can understand.”

My jaw almost hit the floor. Jitty was never understanding. This new development made me wary. Did I have a fatal illness? Was something going to happen to Coleman? Or Tinkie? Or one of my pets? “What’s wrong with you?”

She laughed. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.”

That was one of Aunt Loulane’s favorite sayings whenever she thought I was being muleheaded. “I am not being stubborn. I have a right to protect my heart. Smart people do that.”

“Uh-huh.”

I had to get out of this corner. “Tinkie is cooking up a little trip for all of us to take. I’m going to be gone a few days.”

“You’re leavin’? At Christmas?”

I had her attention now. “Before Christmas, and only across the state. We’re going to stay at an exclusive B and B—we’ll have the entire place to ourselves. And we’re going to participate in a bunch of Christmas activities.”

“Where are you goin’?”

“Columbus, the birthplace of Tennessee Williams and home of the W, where Eudora Welty went to school to get her college degree. It’s a beautiful little city.”

“You’ll be back for Christmas Eve?”

A twinge of guilt bit me like a nasty flea. “Of course I’ll be home for Christmas Eve.”

“That man goin’ with you?”

“Yes, he is. And Tinkie and Oscar, Cece and Jaytee, Harold, and even Millie is going to take some time to go with us. It’s Tinkie’s Christmas present to all of us.” Tinkie Richmond was my partner in the Delaney Detective Agency, and her husband, Oscar, ran the bank in town. Cece was a journalist, Jaytee a hot blues musician, Harold worked at the bank with Oscar and was Zinnia’s premier party-giver, and Millie was the best cook in the Southeast and ran the café named for her.

Jitty rolled her eyes. “I see trouble comin’ down the road at a fast gallop. You think you can all load up and go somewhere and not get in big trouble?”

“We’re going Christmas shopping and to attend a tree lighting and a Wassail Fest. We’re celebrating. We don’t have a case, so we won’t be in any trouble. We’re going to be festive.”

“That strikes fear in my heart.” Jitty dramatically clasped her chest.

I left the sofa and went to the kitchen to stir the gumbo. It was the perfect temperature. I buttered some crispy French bread and turned the oven to preheat. Coleman should be walking in the door.

“What did you get me for Christmas?” Jitty asked.

“You’re a ghost. What could I get you for Christmas?”

“I’ll make a list. Before you go.”

“Be quick, we’re heading out in the morning. And I have plans for tonight!”

“You’re a wicked girl.” Jitty grinned her approval. “Keep that man happy.”

“Those are my intentions.”

I heard a truck pulling up at the front of the house and Jitty disappeared in a swirl of snowflakes that melted before they hit the floor. Coleman was home and I had a special little gift just for him. It was going to be a long, pleasurable night.


Copyright © 2020 by Carolyn Haines.