I was in the middle of a fabulous dream. I’d just made a HALO jump from 25,000 feet and landed undetected in Ahmad’s compound. I’d weaved in and out of the collection of outbuildings, scaled a wall, traversed a roof, shinnied down a drainpipe and through an open window, and now had Ahmad in view. I sighted him in, placing his forehead directly in the center of my scope, and tightened my finger on the trigger.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
The voice startled me and I jumped straight up out of bed, reaching for my weapon as my feet hit the floor. I blinked once to clear my vision and saw a bemused Ally standing in front of me.
Ally raised her hands in the air. “Don’t shoot.”
Because her voice lacked the fear that a normal person would have if a gun were leveled at them, I looked down and saw that instead of my weapon, I’d grabbed my cell phone. I dropped my hand and glared at Ally.
“I ought to use it to call the cops and have you arrested.”
“Disturbing my dream. That’s probably illegal in Sinful.”
“Only during full moons. That must have been some dream. You were grinning like an idiot. Was it about Carter?”
Instantly, I forced Ahmad to the back of my mind and scrambled to return my thoughts to my fake identity. “I don’t know. I can’t remember.” I hated lying to my friend, but the less Ally knew about the real Fortune, the safer we both were.
I glanced at my alarm clock and frowned. “Why are you in here yelling at a completely indecent hour?”
“The hour is indecent because I have to do the baking this morning at the café. And I was not yelling, but I was sternly asking why you were here because I rather hoped you’d finish up your date with Carter in someone’s bed besides your own.”
“Jeez, it was our first official date. Just because I’m a Yankee doesn’t mean I’m a floozy. Or is that some kind of law, also?”
Ally sighed. “No, it’s not a law, but it ought to be. Especially if your friend hasn’t gotten lucky in two years and was looking to have a vicarious thrill.”
“I haven’t exactly been burning up the dating circuit, either.” Actually, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a roll with a hot prospect, but I had an idea my drought had been even longer than Ally’s. That’s what happened when you had standards such as “If I can kick his ass, I won’t date him.”
Ally shook her head. “We’re a sad, sad lot. Two young, attractive, intelligent women and we’re living together with a surly cat. If we don’t jump back into things, people are going to start talking.”
I shrugged. “All people in Sinful have to do is talk. Let them do their best. Before you know it, they’ll be saying we’re engaged and opening a cat farm.”
“The really sad thing is, that’s the best offer I’ve had in a while. At least tell me there was kissing, maybe boob touching?”
“Kissing, yes. No progression to boob touching.”
Ally brightened. “How was the kissing?”
I suddenly felt more uncomfortable than I ever had before, and for someone who made her living as an assassin, that was saying a great deal. It took a lot to rattle me, usually far more than one man, and definitely more than emotional turmoil. I struggled to latch onto a response that was good enough to make Ally drop the subject and not close enough to the truth—that I was becoming more of a girl every day.
“The kissing was awesome,” I finally said, trying to recall a description I’d heard in one of those teen romance movies that Gertie made me watch to “broaden my horizons.”
“Awesome is a great start.” She looked pleased with my answer, but didn’t show any indication of leaving my room.
“He has a lot of stamina. The future looks bright.”
Ally grinned. “I could have told you that, and I’ve never kissed him.” She glanced at my alarm clock. “Oh, shoot! I best get going or Francine will have my hide.” She bounced out of the room and down the stairs.
Saved by the clock.
I gave the bed a wistful glance, but I knew it was hopeless. Once I was awakened to a certain level, there was no falling asleep again until I’d had coffee and breakfast, and taken care of at least one chore, such as feeding the cat. Then and only then could I contemplate napping in my hammock. I didn’t want to feel lazy or something.
Then it hit me—today was Sunday.
I let out a sigh. That meant putting on a dress and makeup, fixing my hair, going to church with Ida Belle and Gertie, and then playing track and field as soon as the preacher said “amen.” Lucky for me, my competition for the banana pudding sprint was a beyond-middle-aged, overweight woman with weak ankles. Lack of sleep and way too much wine wouldn’t get in the way of a stellar dessert.
I had time for breakfast before I had to girl-up, so I pulled on a pair of athletic shorts and headed downstairs, following the smell of coffee. A full pot had just finished brewing and a plate with a homemade croissant sat on the kitchen table. Maybe I should ask Ally to marry me.
I poured my coffee and slid my laptop over as I took a seat. I wanted to check email and see if Harrison, my partner back in DC, had any updates on the Ahmad situation. So far, the summer had been eerily quiet, and that made me nervous. I was sure CIA Director Morrow wasn’t any happier with the lack of movement. In his last email, Harrison implied that they’d lost sight of Ahmad, which was worrisome. I couldn’t think of a single time in the last two years when we didn’t know exactly where the arms dealer was located. The fact that he’d managed to give top-notch surveillance the slip was a scary proposition. I was fairly certain my cover in Sinful was still airtight, but with the CIA leak, I couldn’t be sure.
I logged on to my secret email and saw a message from Harrison. I felt my pulse tick up a notch as I opened it.
From: [email protected]
I wish I were there enjoying those nice summer breezes. I was hoping to visit soon, but my dad had a car accident—hit-and-run driver—and I need to stick close for a while as he doesn’t have anyone else to look after him. He broke his foot and has a mild concussion, but the doctor expects he’ll be fine.
I’m still watching the weather, looking for that cool weather, but so far, no break for us.
Stay cool. I’ll be in touch soon.
I logged off email and closed my laptop, my mind racing. I had worked with Harrison for a long time and knew how his mind worked. The “no cool weather break” comment meant that Ahmad was still missing and they didn’t have a line on him. Even more alarming, I was certain “dad” referred to Director Morrow and “hit-and-run” meant Harrison suspected the car wreck was deliberate. But was he keeping watch on Director Morrow because he thought the attacker would try again, or keeping watch at the CIA since Morrow was out of commission? Either was plausible. Neither good.
And both were things I had zero control over.
I grabbed the croissant and bit off a hunk of it, directing my frustration at the pastry. I hated being out of the action, especially when all of the action centered on me. Why had Ahmad gone underground? Did he have a line on me, or was he simply off on other nefarious business? If the hit-and-run on Director Morrow was deliberate, who arranged it and why? So many unanswered questions.
Banging on my front door broke me out of my thoughts and I went to open it. It was too early for Ida Belle and Gertie to pick me up for church, and I hoped after last night, I was past getting early-morning angry visits from Carter, at least in an official capacity. I didn’t even check the peephole, choosing instead to throw caution to the wind and fling the door open. Kinda like one of those old game shows—what’s behind Door Number 1?
I paused for a moment when I saw Ida Belle and Gertie standing there, already dressed for church. Were all the clocks in my house wrong? No, that couldn’t be. Ally had the morning shift at the café and she’d only left twenty minutes ago. Surely they weren’t here to quiz me about my date. Then I saw the worried expressions they both wore and knew something else had brought them to my doorstep this early.
“I have a feeling I’m not going to like whatever you’re here to say,” I said as I waved them inside.
They trailed silently to the kitchen and poured themselves cups of coffee, and we all sat in our usual thinking and plotting spots at my kitchen table.
“Lay it on me,” I said. “I’ve had a full cup of coffee and half a croissant. I’m as ready as I’m getting for this early in the morning.”
“We’ve got trouble with the election,” Ida Belle said.
I frowned. The previous mayor of Sinful had retired to a coffin, taking the easy way out when the skeletons came running out of his closet. At first, Ida Belle had put herself in the hot seat to be his replacement, but then her competitor was murdered, and it made her stop and rethink everything. Ultimately, she decided she could get far more things done without the rules of the job hindering her. She’d talked their friend Marie, a financial whiz, into running instead, and all signs had pointed to a positive reaction from the Sinful residents, especially given that the other candidate was a regular at the Swamp Bar, a place where the less reputable in town spent their time and money.
“What kind of trouble?” I asked.
“A new candidate threw their name in the ring last week,” Ida Belle said.
“Who?” I asked, certain I wasn’t going to like the answer.
“What?” I sat upright in my chair. Ida Belle and Celia were the head of the two women’s groups in Sinful. Ida Belle’s Sinful Ladies Society, or SLS, required all members to be unmarried or longtime widows, and ran most of Sinful with underground influence. Celia countered the SLS with the GWs, or God’s Wives, attempting to thwart the Sinful Ladies at festivals, town events, and the hallowed Sunday Banana Pudding Wars. She was one person who hadn’t even entered my mind as a candidate for mayor.
Gertie nodded. “It will be the doom of the Sinful Ladies Society and ultimately of Sinful.”
It was the kind of dramatic statement that would normally have had Ida Belle rolling her eyes. The fact that her worried expression didn’t even shift one bit made me start to worry as well. “Surely people will vote for Marie over Celia, right? I mean, she doesn’t exactly reserve her nasty nature for only a handful of people.”
“True,” Ida Belle said, “but she’s always running all over town with her charity crap, being the hypocrite she is. And she’s gonna garner the sympathy vote, given that her daughter was recently murdered.”
“By the former mayor,” I pointed out, “who was also her brother-in-law.”
“Which she can also play to her favor,” Ida Belle said. “Reclaiming family respect and all that.”
“But Marie has actual business experience and knows accounting,” I argued. “Surely that means something to people.”
Gertie shook her head. “Marie was also accused of murdering her husband.”
“And the real murderer was revealed.”
“And is dead,” Gertie said. “Which means there’s an opening for some to believe he was the patsy used to cover for Marie.”
I threw my hands in the air. “Who in the world would believe that crap?” Then I thought about the various intelligence levels I’d encountered since I’d been in Sinful. “Never mind.”
“Anyway,” Ida Belle said, “I have it on good authority from Beatrice that Celia is announcing her candidacy today at church.”
My last remaining hope faded away. I had momentarily clung to optimism that Ida Belle and Gertie were mistaken—that they’d gotten misinformation or garbled something and none of it was true. But information from Beatrice Paulson was as good as hearing it yourself. Beatrice had been a member of Celia’s group for decades, but when she was widowed some years prior, Ida Belle “turned her” and made her a secret member of the SLS. She remained in Celia’s group as a spy. And boy, had she missed her calling. Beatrice had a mind like a vise. She remembered everything she heard, word for word, and even the tone of voice. It was like having a walking tape recorder at your disposal.
“That only gives her a day to get anything done. Surely that’s not enough?”
“Most of the responsible people in Sinful will be in church,” Ida Belle said, “and those who aren’t will hear from those who were. In a place this small, it doesn’t take long to mount an offense.”
“Wow.” I slumped back in my chair. “Okay, so I can see where Celia is less than desirable as mayor, but do you really think she’ll come after the Sinful Ladies? I thought we all had sort of a truce.”
Ida Belle shook her head. “Moments of quiet never last long with Celia.”
“But I outed her daughter’s killer,” I said, “and saved her life. Has she forgotten all that?”
“No,” Ida Belle said, “but she’s conveniently pushed it to the ‘does not matter’ pile in her disturbed mind.”
Gertie nodded. “She’s just like that evil coach on Glee. No matter how much those kids do for her, she still reverts right back to the enemy. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that if elected, she’ll spend one hundred percent of her time in office figuring out how to stick it to the Sinful Ladies, especially me and Ida Belle.”
“Jane Lynch is hilarious on that show, though,” Ida Belle said.
“I’ll give you that,” Gertie allowed.
“Unfortunately, Gertie’s right about Celia, and she will definitely not be hilarious like Jane Lynch,” Ida Belle said. “But what concerns us even more is that she could set her sights on you.”
“What?” At first I didn’t get it, but then I wasn’t thinking like Celia. She’d always been at odds with Ida Belle and Gertie, and ever since I’d been in town, things had ramped up even more with the major crime wave. Even though Celia had no basis for her prejudice, I had no doubt she’d figure out some way to blame me for everything.
“And she’ll have charge of the sheriff’s department,” Ida Belle continued.
I felt a quiver of fear in my belly. “You don’t think she’d have them investigate me, do you?”
“If she thought she could find something about you that would make you leave town, yeah, it’s possible.”
“Crap.” My cover would withstand basic police inquiry, even a fingerprint check, but it also required Morrow’s tweaking things on his end to make sure nothing slipped through. With the director unable to keep his normal pace, I wasn’t sure Harrison had access to everything he needed to keep me hidden from the mole.
“Exactly what I thought,” Gertie said.
I looked at Ida Belle. “Then you have to ask Marie to step down and get back in the running again. You’re a stronger candidate than Marie, right?”
“I can’t,” Ida Belle said. “The election is tomorrow. Celia played her cards well this time. She got herself on the ballot before the cutoff, then waited to announce it until no one else could challenge her.”
“So we’re screwed.”
“I’m afraid we might be,” Ida Belle said.
I sighed. “So I guess that means I can forget the tennis shoes and banana pudding today. Why antagonize the beast?”
“Hell, no!” Gertie said. “Celia was born antagonized. I don’t see any reason to give up a perfectly good dessert when it’s not going to change anything.”
“I agree,” Ida Belle said. “If she’s elected, we’ll be punished enough going forward. No use sacrificing the best part of our lunch until we’re required to by law. And I imagine it will be one of the first things she rigs.”
I rose from the table. “Then I best go put on a sundress and pack my running shoes in a handbag.”
Ida Belle was right. I’d known plenty of people like Celia. If she intended to set her sights on me, she’d do it no matter what. If the end of my time in Sinful was drawing nigh, there was no sense in abandoning great dessert.