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Dusk is a tricky time of day in the Mississippi Delta. Pinks, mauves, and lavenders illuminate the western sky while cobalt blue creeps forward in the east. Unlike dawn, dusk is a time of ending, and I've never done well with good-byes. Even with a lover at my side, or a friend, or my gallant horse and hound, the close of a day carries a twinge of sadness.
Today, I wonder if I can find the strength to climb the front steps of Dahlia House, home of the Delaney family for nearly two hundred years.
Things are worse than even I imagined. Oscar Richmond, the husband of my partner in the Delaney Detective Agency, is dying. There seems to be nothing medical experts can do. Now real-estate agents Regina Campbell and her assistant Luann Bigley are showing the same symptoms: a fever high enough to cook a brain, chills, a rash that spreads by the minute and then erupts in draining pustules, and, finally, coma.
There is no doubt that some terrible illness has settled upon the land and the people I love. I am heartsick and scared.
"Bad times a'comin' to Zinnia, Sarah Booth."
Jitty's voice was soft and distinctly black, and I knew Dahlia House's resident haint was with me.
"If I turn around and you're wearing a robe of many colors and you say something like you're going to lead your people out of Egypt, I'm going to figure a way to exorcise you from this house," I warned her.
Though I would never, ever dare to let her know, I was so damn glad to hear her voice, I wanted to jump up and kiss her.
"You might consider revisitin' Sunday school. You're mixing your Bible stories. Moses led the people out of Egypt, not Joseph."
"And the walls came tumbling down." I shifted so I could take a gander at my ancestral ghost. Jitty had a tendency to skip through the decades to find costumes that flattered her latte skin and calendar-girl figure. What I saw shook me.
"Brother, can you spare a dime?" She wore tattered rags and held out a cardboard cigar box that I recognized had once held my collection of toy cowboys and horses. Dirt smudged her face, and there was a new gauntness to her high cheekbones.
"Are you sick?" Even asking caused me to leap to my feet and stride toward her. As far as I knew, ghosts didn't get sick, but my last adventure in Costa Rica had taught me that I knew almost nothing about the rules and guidelines of the Great Beyond.
"Soul-sick," she answered.
She was barefoot, her naked legs dusted with a haze of dirt. I'd honestly never seen her in such a condition. If I wore sweatpants to the corner gas station, she chewed my butt. Any slip of appearance and I put the future of the Delaney womb at risk. In other words, a potential stud might see me unadorned and be thrown off his desire to breed me on the spot.
"They run out of soap and hot water in the non-corporeal realm?" I asked, striving for a lighter note.
"I remember when the Confederate soldiers came through here, marchin' toward home after the war. Starvin', wounded, carried on by desperation. Same thing happened after the Flood of 1927. Poor folks barely hangin' on. Then again, during the Great Depression. Hardship and hard times."
Hell, if I'd been depressed earlier, Jitty now had me two steps away from finding a cotton rope in the tack room.
"Stop it." I put my hands on my hips. "This isn't doing either of us any good. We're both worried about Oscar, Regina, and Luann. I'm terrified that if Oscar dies, Tinkie will give up, too. I can't have you out here looking like a ragamuffin from a Dickens novel, spouting doom and gloom." Tears blurred my vision, which only made me angry. "Stop it, damn it."
When I blinked away the tears, Jitty was staring at me. Though she was still dirty and wearing rags, her face was rounder. The corners of her full mouth slowly tilted upward. "You know, for one second, you looked exactly like your great-great granny. You got Alice's fightin' spirit. I knew it was under all that mopin' and self-pity. I just had to find the right button to push to rouse it up."
I had been played.
On the heels of my righteous anger, though, was relief. Jitty may have used foul means, but she'd managed to rattle me out of my maudlin mood. I was fighting mad, and that's exactly what she meant to accomplish.
"Oscar is going to be fine. Everyone is going to be fine." I swept my arm out to include the entire county. "Anything else is unacceptable."
"May I make a suggestion?"
Whenever Jitty asked permission to do anything, it always meant trouble. "No."
She grinned. "You know ‘no' don't mean ‘no' when you say it like that."
I leveled my gaze into hers. "If you say one word about my empty womb—"
She waved me to silence. "It's about Tinkie."
"She looks to you, Sarah Booth. You hold strong for her. Through all the hard times, you stand steady. Folks got to have that strength when they can't see the next day."
"Sage advice. The problem is how to go about it when I'm as scared as she is."
"You might crack open some of those old magazines in the attic. Once upon a time there was a man with polio who taught a nation how to hold on." Her tone had softened, and I couldn't help but wonder what of her own memories she'd stirred.
"I'm not illiterate," I said. "I know about FDR." But my words were lost on a sudden breeze that swept across the newly planted cotton fields silhouetted black against the fiery gold-peach glory of a dying day. From behind me the sound of a car approached.
Graf! Somehow Graf Milieu, my handsome lover, had managed to escape his Hollywood duties and come to stand with me. But when I turned, it was to see the tan and brown colors of the Sunflower County sheriff's cruiser pulling up at the steps. In the front seat sat the tall figure of Sheriff Coleman Peters, the man who'd broken my heart—and falsely charged me with murder.
He got out and slowly came up the steps. In the near darkness I couldn't see his face, and I was glad he couldn't see mine. In the long and complicated years of our relationship—from high school adversaries, to the initial contentiousness of my first P.I. case and, finally, to the blossoming and acknowledgment of unrequited love—we fought a strong and powerful attraction that bound us. Only recently had we accepted that love wasn't enough to overcome the obstacles in our path. Through it all, I had never dreaded seeing Coleman. Now, I couldn't breathe. My lungs constricted. Because I knew that nothing less than tragic news would bring Coleman to Dahlia House. He'd come in person to tell me that Oscar was dead. I made a small sound, seal-like, and staggered.
"Oscar is still alive, Sarah Booth." Coleman was at my side, his familiar arms easing me into one of the rocking chairs on the front porch. "I didn't come to tell you anything bad. I tried to call, but no one answered. I left messages."
I held on to one fact—Oscar was alive. At last I drew in sweet oxygen. The strength returned to my limbs. "Thank you," I managed.
"I didn't mean to scare you."
I nodded. "I shouldn't jump to conclusions." Inhaling deeply again, I asked the logical question. "What are you doing here?"
"The illness is spreading."
A swallow worked down his throat, and again my brain seized. "Not Tinkie!" She'd been at the hospital since we got in from Los Angeles. But Oscar, Regina, and Luann were isolated. Tinkie hadn't been near them.
"No, not Tinkie." His voice was tired. "It's Gordon."
Gordon Walters was one of Coleman's two deputies. "But—how is he?"
"He's in the isolation ward with the others. Doc Sawyer is worried." He lifted his chin a fraction, a signal I'd learned to read as meaning he'd made a tough decision. "Sarah Booth, this could be serious. I'm going to call in the CDC and ask them for help."
The Centers for Disease Control was headquartered in Atlanta. If asked, they'd send in specially trained agents to try to find the source of the illness. "That's smart, I guess. Doc doesn't know what this is, but he isn't sure it's contagious. The isolation ward is a precaution."
"We have to determine what this is. The CDC is our best bet, I think."
Five months ago, the use of "we" would have made my heart sing. Now, though, I felt pain and sadness. My brief stint in Hollywood had changed me. Success had shown me my strengths as well as my limitations.
"Will you help?" Coleman asked.
"Don't ever doubt it. I'll do anything I can." In the gloaming of an April evening, I caught the hint of a sad smile on his face.
"I knew you would."
"I feel responsible for this. Tinkie was with me in Costa Rica and Hollywood because of my film career." When a killer destroyed all the footage of Federico Marquez's remake of Body Heat, my fledgling career was pretty much tanked. Tinkie would have been home in Mississippi taking care of Oscar if she hadn't been so worried about me.
"She made her own choice. It's the sixty-forty rule of life." He gazed out over the long stretch of cotton fields that were part of my land.
"Is this a Daddy's Girl rule?" Coleman was far removed from the pampered world of the DGs, but he'd grown up surrounded by them.
"Nowhere close." He was amused by my wary tone. "This is one that even you can use."
"So tell me."
"When you're a child, you make decisions that are totally, absolutely, irrevocably correct. The best an adult can hope for is sixty-forty. Sixty percent good and forty percent bad. In an adult world, it can never be one hundred percent right. Statistically impossible."
I considered this. My mind ran through my most recent actions—playing Maggie the Cat last January, going to Hollywood, sleeping with Graf. Damned if Coleman wasn't right. While my choices had been good ones, they'd all cost me something. Some had come at a high price.
"Okay, I give you the sixty-forty rule."
"Hollywood and a film career was what you needed to do. The right thing. Sure, it had a downside. But ‘mostly good' is the best any of us can hope for. Sixty percent. You have that in spades, Sarah Booth."
"Thank you, Coleman." I wondered how he rated his decision not to dump his crazy, lying, conniving bitch of a wife. Oddly enough, he told me.
"Connie was a one percent moment. I chose pride and honor over love. That was one of the worst mistakes of my life. I've filed for divorce, but that's not what I came to tell you. Tinkie is still up at the hospital. She looks like she's going to drop. Doc Sawyer wants to sedate her, but she won't let him. Maybe you could talk to her. Take your buddy Cece along for muscle."
"I'll go now." But I didn't move out of the rocking chair. My body was paralyzed by the revelation that Coleman fully understood the depth of his choices. He knew. Too late, but he knew.
"I'll call you tomorrow and fill you in on everything I've discovered," he said. "I do need your help with this. The CDC should be at the court house tomorrow morning."
"You can count on me." Funny how only ten minutes before, I was hoping that my white knight would ride up and I would be able to rely on him.
Coleman got in the patrol car, the window down. The sweet spring breeze, tainted now in the darkness with jasmine, that saddest of all fragrances, filled the air.
"Good night, Sarah Booth," he said.
Tinkie stood in the hospital corridor watching her sick husband. A clear glass window separated her from Oscar's bed as effectively as an ocean. The impulse to rush forward and catch her before she keeled over was hard on me.
Before I could act on my gut feeling, Cece Dee Falcon, journalist and friend, blew by me and grabbed Tinkie's elbow.
"Tinkie, dahling, you look like caramelized shit. That would be shit dressed in an exquisite sauce, but shit nonetheless." Cece gave Tinkie her sternest look.
I hurried forward and pinched Cece as hard as I could on her taut, firm derriere. She had the unfair advantage of male molecular structure that gave her lean hips and sleek muscles. Cece, who had once been Cecil, was the society editor of the local Zinnia Dispatch. Against the opinion of her family, the town, and most of her friends, she had become the woman she was destined to be. I adored her.
"Don't fuss at me, Cece," Tinkie said. "I can't help it."
Never one to yield to badgering, Tinkie was at the end of her tether. She was about to collapse. I gently took her other arm. "Let's get some coffee."
She pressed her palms to the glass. "I can't leave him. I'm afraid if I do, he'll give up."
I glanced beyond her at Oscar, and my heart contracted. He lay in a bed, a ventilator pumping oxygen into his lungs. Tubes fed fluids and medication into his veins while other tubes drained things away. Sores covered his mouth and eyelids. No telling what horrors were hidden beneath the sheet.
At a slight angle were the beds of Regina Campbell and Luann Bigley. They looked equally awful. Members of their families were camped farther down the hallway.
Doc had created an isolation ward out of what had been the neonatal unit. A federal grant had built a new facility for Sunflower County babies, and this space, equipped to quarantine patients, had been empty. Until now.
As I stood there, shocked into silence by Oscar's appearance, several nurses, each wearing protective clothing, wheeled in another bed. Deputy Gordon Walters lay upon it looking already dead. His condition, if it could be judged by appearance, was more dire than Oscar's.
Tinkie stumbled, and Cece and I held her up as we battled our fears.
"You need something to eat." Cece attempted to draw Tinkie away from the window. "We'll go to the hospital waiting room. That's not three minutes away."
Tinkie shook her head. "Oscar knows I'm here. He'll know if I'm gone."
I found my cell phone. "I'll call Millie and get her to fix a plate." Millie ran the local café where we often met to discuss cases or simply to gossip. She was a big part of our close-knit group. I placed an order for chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh green beans, and dewberry cobbler.
Excerpted from Greedy Bones by Carolyn Haines.
Copyright 2009 by Carolyn Haines.
Published in July 2009 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.