As she exited her hotel room, Jadyn heard the yelling downstairs and picked up her pace. Whatever was going on, she didn’t take kindly to people yelling at Mildred, and was determined to see that it stopped. The hotel owner had basically given her a roof and a makeshift family without so much as blinking an eye, and Jadyn wasn’t about to have anyone verbally abuse her—not while she was within earshot.
She hurried down the stairs and stepped into the lobby. A red-faced man she recognized as one of the hotel patrons for the past week stood at the front desk, his hands clenched at his side and potbelly heaving up and down from his heavy breathing.
“I’m telling you those venison steaks were stolen from my room last night. As well as the head I was supposed to drop off at the taxidermist on my way home. I killed that deer, and by God, the spoils of the kill belong to me!”
Jadyn stiffened. Deer season hadn’t even started yet.
Mildred glared across the counter at him. “You hit that buck with your pickup. Stop making it sound like you’re the John Wayne of deer.”
Jadyn relaxed a bit as she approached the counter. “Is there a problem here?”
The man barely glanced at her. “Nothing you can help with, honey.”
Jadyn stiffened again. “I beg to differ. You see, I’m the game warden, and I’d like to know why you didn’t report the accident to me.”
He turned and gave her a full-body look, then smirked. “What were you going to do—give the deer CPR? Maybe call a priest?”
Jadyn stared at him. “I would have inspected the deer for disease. It can spread to other animals and infect the meat. I might have called a priest and a coroner, if your disrespect at the scene was as big as it is now.”
His face turned a shade darker. “Are you threatening me?”
“Since I don’t have a time machine, no. But I’m reserving the right to do so depending on what you say next.”
“You’re all crazy. All I want is my deer steaks. They were in a cooler in my room. This morning, I checked to see if they needed more ice and they’re all gone. Someone sneaked into my room and stole them, and that makes it the hotel’s problem.”
“Uh-huh.” Jadyn glanced over at Mildred, who shrugged and mouthed “Helena.” Jadyn held in a sigh. Mildred was probably right. Barring the existence of professional deer steak thieves, Helena was the only explanation that made sense. The only other person with a key to the room was Mildred, and Jadyn would bet her last round of bullets that the hotel owner hadn’t taken up food theft in her later years.
“And the deer head?” Jadyn asked.
“Was bagged and sitting in ice in my bathtub. It’s gone, too.”
Which was much more disturbing.
Jadyn was positive Helena had stolen the steaks. The ghost had the appetite of twenty people and didn’t think rules should apply to her, especially when it came to her acquisition of food. But what in God’s name had she taken the head for? A better question was, did she even want to know?
A second later, a bloodcurdling scream rang out from the floor above them and a door banged against the upstairs wall. Footsteps ran across the overhead hallway, then down the stairs. They all turned to look at the stairwell. Finally, a middle-aged woman with a bad bleach job, clutching a tote bag and wearing a robe, ran into the lobby, then straight past them and out of the hotel, where she jumped into a late-model sedan and tore off down Main Street as if she’d seen a ghost.
Jadyn looked at Mildred, who shook her head.
Maybe something worse.
The man’s jaw dropped. “Shelia?” he called out, but by the time he’d managed to form the word, Shelia was probably halfway to Miami. He whirled around, glaring at Mildred. “What the hell kind of hotel are you running?”
Mildred frowned. “The kind that’s not charging you for your stay, with the understanding that you, your cooler, and any plastic that contained heads or meat leaves with you within the next hour.”
“This is a joke.”
“Not at all,” Jadyn said. “I think the offer was exceedingly fair, but if you’d like to discuss it further, I’m happy to take the entire situation up with Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries headquarters, or if you’d like to file a report about the theft, I’m happy to call the sheriff and let you explain the entire situation to him.”
The man knew he was defeated. He gave both of them a dirty look, then whirled around and stomped up the stairs, muttering “stupid broads” as he went.
Jadyn waited until he was out of sight, then looked at Mildred. “I guess we should check out Shelia’s room.”
Mildred sighed and pulled a set of keys from under the counter. “Just one normal day—that’s all I ask. Is that too much?”
“With Helena around?”
“You’re right,” Mildred said as she walked around the counter and headed upstairs. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Jadyn followed the hotel owner up the stairs and down the hall to the room that Shelia had fled. “Was Shelia with the deer killer?”
“Not in the same room, but apparently he knew her.”
The door to Shelia’s room stood wide open, so Mildred slipped the keys into her pocket, then paused to make the sign of the cross before peering inside. One look and the hotel owner yelled, “I’m going to kill her!”
Jadyn stepped past Mildred and into the room, needing only a second to process the scene in front of her and completely agree with Mildred’s assessment.
The comforter and sheets on the bed had been thrown to the side, as if someone had jumped out of bed in a hurry. The set of antlers peeking out from under the comforter told the entire story. Jadyn walked over to the bed and threw the covers back, exposing the deer head, still partially wrapped in plastic.
“If that head bled on my new sheets, I’m going to kill her twice,” Mildred said.
Jadyn grabbed the neck where the plastic bag was secured and lifted the entire thing from the bed. “It looks like the neck was covered with plastic. I don’t see any stains, but for the record, I’d still kill her.”
Mildred whirled around and stalked down the hall to the room at the back of the hotel that she’d “allocated” for Helena. She pulled out her keys, unlocked the door, and flung it open as if she were robbing the place. Jadyn hurried into the room behind her, not wanting to miss the show.
Helena sat on the bed, eating a blueberry muffin and watching television. Even if Jadyn hadn’t already known Helena was the guilty party, her cat burglar outfit gave her away. She looked up at Mildred and Jadyn wearing an innocent expression that no one bought for a single minute.
“You people don’t knock anymore?” Helena groused.
Jadyn held up the deer head. “We had a free entry pass.”
Helena stared at the head. “Oh.”
Mildred put her hands on her hips and glared down at the ghost. “That’s all you have to say for yourself? Don’t even try to lie your way out of this. I already know you stole those deer steaks, and although it’s totally wrong, at least I understand that one given your new career as an Olympic eater. But this?” Mildred pointed at the deer head.
Helena had the decency to look a little guilty. Very little.
Mildred sucked in a breath and her eyes widened. “The Godfather.”
Jadyn frowned for a moment, then put two and two together and realized Mildred was referring to the movie and not a real person. “There was a marathon on television a couple of days ago.”
“Do you think this is funny?” Mildred asked.
“Well,” Helena said, “given how she tore out of the hotel, yeah, I find it hilarious.”
“I’m running a business here,” Mildred said. “How am I supposed to maintain a decent reputation if a woman is out there claiming she awakened to the head of a dead animal in her bed?”
Helena shook her head. “She’s not going to tell anyone. Neither is he.”
“You can’t know that,” Mildred said.
“Sure I can. See, Deer Killer claims he came here to fish, but he was really here to bang Robe Runner, who is not his wife. He keeps a separate room in case his wife gets suspicious and checks up on him.” Helena shrugged. “I figured they both deserved it.”
Jadyn rubbed the back of her neck with her free hand, not about to admit that she sorta agreed with Helena, at least in principle.
“That’s rich,” Mildred said. “Helena Henry, in charge of ethics and morality. I don’t suppose you’ve heard the one about cleaning up your own doorstep, have you? Well, you can start with Deer Killer’s bathtub and Robe Runner’s sheets.”
Helena shoved the remainder of the muffin in her mouth and her cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk. “Youff a relf drag mately.”
Jadyn mentally translated that to “You’re a real drag lately” and wondered if Mildred would get it. Apparently she did, because she reddened and pointed her finger at the ghost.
“In the entire time you were alive, you allowed exactly two visitors into your home. If someone had moved into your property, then proceeded to destroy it while simultaneously running off your means of support and eating you out of house and home, you would have shot them and claimed self-defense.”
Helena rose from the bed, gave Mildred a long-suffering look, then disappeared through the bedroom wall.
“I always know I’m right when she leaves without arguing any longer,” Mildred said.
Jadyn studied the hotel owner for a couple seconds. “Out of curiosity, has there ever been a time when you’ve been wrong?”
“Ha! Not when it comes to Helena.”
Jadyn stared at the wall where Helena had disappeared and frowned. When she’d first realized she was seeing and talking to a ghost, she’d fought believing it. But Helena wasn’t exactly the kind of ghost you could brush off as active imagination or eyestrain. For all intents and purposes, Helena was as real to Jadyn as Mildred was. That was just plain weird, and something that confused her when she thought too long about it.
“What are you going to do about her?” Jadyn asked. “You can’t live like this forever. For that matter, neither can she. I haven’t known her for very long, but I can tell she’s bored. That strikes me as a problem.”
Mildred sighed. “You’re right. It’s something Maryse and I have been discussing. We have no way of knowing how long Helena will be here. She didn’t even have much of a chance to get bored the last time, and she still managed to wreak plenty of havoc before she ascended. The thought of her hanging around for years makes me want to move to Alaska and not leave a forwarding address.”
“Do you have any ideas?”
“Unfortunately, no. I think we need to approach this as seeking a permanent arrangement…at least until we know Helena’s expiration date. But I have no idea what kind of permanent arrangement to make for a ghost. The fact that the ghost is Helena just makes the entire mess that much harder.”
“I can see that.” Jadyn hadn’t known Helena when she was alive, but she’d heard enough stories to know that the woman had been hell on wheels then. Fortunately, she’d kept to herself more. Now that only a handful of people could see and hear her, she seemed determine to stick close, regardless of what it did to the quality of life for the living.
“It’s getting harder to make up cover stories for the things she does,” Mildred said. “I’m afraid she’s going to get someone in hot water with the law one of these days.”
Jadyn nodded. “If she were alive, I’d say she needed a job, a hobby, or a friend.” Jadyn froze. “A friend. Maybe that’s the answer.”
“She already harasses everyone who can see her and everyone who can’t. There isn’t anyone left.”
“Not a live friend. A dead one.”
Mildred’s eyes widened. “I understand where you’re coming from in a very general sense, but I don’t think you’ve thought it through.”
Jadyn frowned. “Why not?”
“Because instead of a companion for Helena, we could get another Helena.”
“Right! Wow. Dodged a bullet with that one. I’m not sure Mudbug could handle two Helenas.”
“Not even the devil himself could.”
Jadyn’s cell phone sounded and she pulled it out of her jeans pocket, frowning when she saw Colt’s name on the display. A call from the hunky sheriff would put a smile on the face of most of the women in Mudbug, but if you were the game warden and it was only 8:00 a.m., that call wasn’t nearly as flattering as one might think.
“What’s up?” Jadyn answered.
“I’ve got a situation in Miller’s Cove. A shrimp boat washed up, probably from the storm last night. It’s been beat pretty good and was half-sunk when Harley Koontz came up on it this morning.”
“Any sign of the driver?”
“No. And it’s not a boat I recognize, at least not offhand.”
She grabbed the pad of paper and pen off the dresser. “Give me directions to Miller’s Cove. I’ll head there right now.” She took down the directions and hung up the phone.
“Problems?” Mildred asked.
“A shrimp boat washed up in Miller’s Cove. No driver in sight and Colt doesn’t recognize it.”
Mildred’s expression turned grave. “That storm last night was a doozy. If someone got caught out in it, he could have been blown some distance. There are fishing villages branched out in every direction at least a hundred miles. It could have come from any one of them.”
Jadyn nodded. “Well, since it landed in the game preserve, it’s my problem now.”
“Be careful,” Mildred said.
“Always.” Jadyn headed out of the room, hoping the missing driver had abandoned his sinking boat and hitched a ride home. The stack of dead bodies that had piled up since she’d been in Mudbug was already bigger than she’d hoped to see in a lifetime.
Whoever said small towns were quiet and boring clearly had never lived in one.