I was in the middle of a particularly awesome raspberry pastry and the strongest cup of coffee ever when my cell phone rang. It was 7:00 a.m., so I knew before I looked at the display that only a handful of names might show. I sighed with relief when I saw Ally’s name. Of the three who would call me this early, she was the least likely to have an emergency requiring risk of life or exposure. And since Ally was the one who’d provided me with the particularly awesome raspberry pastry, I was happy to help with whatever she had going on first thing on a Monday morning.
“You have to get down here,” Ally said a split second after I answered.
“Uncle Max is eating breakfast at the café and Aunt Celia always has breakfast here Monday morning. There’s certain to be fireworks.”
“On my way!”
Ida Belle and Gertie’s archenemy, Celia Arceneaux, was the new mayor of Sinful, although the election was currently under investigation. One of her first moves as mayor had been dismissing the old sheriff from his position and replacing him with her cousin, who was busted two days ago for dealing meth. Celia’s stock in Sinful was plummeting rapidly, and the appearance of her long-assumed-dead husband was certain to put an even bigger dent in her already-scarred reputation.
I jumped up from the table, grabbed my car keys, and wrapped the pastry in a paper towel, then rushed outside and jumped in my Jeep. I called Ida Belle and Gertie as I alternated driving and eating the pastry with my other hand. Ida Belle was standing at the curb when I pulled up. She swung into the passenger’s seat with a flexibility and speed that defied her age and we took off around the corner for Gertie.
Gertie was also waiting at the curb…halfway up a ladder.
“What the heck?” I yelled and pointed as I approached.
“Hurry up!” Gertie yelled. “Just drive by and I’ll jump in. It will save time.”
“Good God,” Ida Belle mumbled.
I could imagine about fifty ways this wasn’t going to turn out well and not a single one in which it did, but I slowed down and pulled over as close to the curb as possible, praying that she didn’t land on the hood. Or Ida Belle. I’d never hear the end of that one.
As I inched closer, Gertie motioned me forward with her hand, looking slightly exasperated at my slow pace. I didn’t want to insult her, but at the same time, I knew better than to go any faster. Gertie was a good fifty years and a decent set of balance and vision away from auditioning for Cirque du Soleil. As I pulled alongside, Ida Belle leaned toward the center of the Jeep, bracing herself for the potential of being Gertie’s air bag. Gertie bent her knees slightly, preparing for the leap, and as I pulled up beside her, she went for it.
Apparently, there had been a little too much spring in her push-off and she’d managed to shove the ladder forward, which in turn propelled her backward. As the ladder fell toward the Jeep, I floored it so that it wouldn’t hit us, looking behind me the entire time as Gertie flew off the ladder and onto the sidewalk.
Unfortunately, the sidewalk wasn’t empty. A girl, probably twelve or so, and her German shepherd were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gertie crashed into the girl, causing her to drop her leash. At the same time, the door to the house next door flew open and a woman stepped out holding a cat.
“What the heck is going on out here?” the woman shouted.
The German shepherd zeroed in on the cat and took off like a shot. The girl leaped up from the sidewalk and ran after the dog. The cat, sensing impending doom, shot over the woman’s shoulder and back into the house. The woman managed to get the screen door closed as the dog jumped onto the porch, but it didn’t slow him one bit. He went right through the screen and into the house, the woman screaming behind him.
Gertie jumped up from the sidewalk and crawled into the Jeep, falling onto the floorboard, as the sound of breaking glass echoed from the house. “Haul butt!” Gertie yelled.
“What about the ladder and the dog?” I asked.
“I don’t like Dorothy or that cat, and the ladder doesn’t belong to me.”
The explanation was missing a few key elements, like whether Dorothy would press charges and who the ladder belonged to, but I wasn’t sure I wanted the answers. It reeked of complication. I punched the accelerator down and the Jeep lurched forward.
Ida Belle turned to look behind us. “That’s my ladder!”
Well, that was one question answered. I wheeled around the corner, hoping Dorothy had bad eyesight and wasn’t calling her lawyer.
Gertie crawled onto the seat. “You can buy another ladder.”
“I already did,” Ida Belle said. “You borrowed that one ten years ago.”
“Then it doesn’t matter, now, does it?”
Ida Belle’s expression said differently, but she must have decided it was a lost cause. “So what’s the emergency?” she asked me.
I relayed Ally’s phone call.
“Drama!” Gertie yelled and bounced up and down on the seat like a five-year-old.
Ida Belle narrowed her eyes at me. “You’re getting good at this inside information thing. Usually I hear about everything first.”
“Well, Ally’s living with me, so I guess that gives me the edge in this case. Did you find out anything last night from the Sinful Ladies about Max’s big return?”
Ida Belle shook her head. “All of Celia’s friends are as surprised as we were, and it seems to everyone that Celia is just as shocked as the rest of us. She’s not a good actor, so that part is probably true.”
“When Max disappeared, all that he took were his clothes and his truck, right? Did she look for him or report him missing?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” Ida Belle said. “The state police were called in when he didn’t come home after a week, but they didn’t find anything. No money gone from the bank account, no use of credit cards, no one had seen him in his usual haunts, and his boat was in the slip we stole it from.”
I cringed. “We should probably keep that last bit on the down low since the boat’s real owner has returned from the dead.”
“And since we sank the boat,” Gertie said.
“I’m pretty sure I remember that part,” I said. “So what was it like when Max disappeared?”
“It was like he was abducted by aliens,” Gertie said. “One minute he was there, and the next, he was simply gone.”
“The police had no reason to suspect foul play,” Ida Belle said, “and I imagine once they met Celia, they had a good idea why Max had chosen that form of exit.”
“But I thought Celia’s cousin said they had divorced,” I said.
“I never believed that,” Gertie said. “I think Celia told that lie because the truth was more embarrassing. Who wants to admit they are so awful that their husband gave up his entire identity and a darned nice cabin cruiser to get away?”
“Good point,” I said. “So what did people think happened? I mean, when Marie’s husband disappeared, everyone assumed she’d killed him, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest that with Celia. Burning his clothes and dumping his truck in the bayou wouldn’t have been hard to stage.”
“Marie’s husband was rich,” Ida Belle said. “Max was a loser who fancied himself an artist. He could do a decent imitation of other work but didn’t have an ounce of vision himself. Hardly going to set the world on fire that way. Celia had some money of her own…inherited, so not something Max could get his hands on. She’d been smart and always kept it separate from marital assets.”
“So what was the gossip?” I asked.
“Some people thought he’d stopped off at a bar on his way out of town, gotten drunk, and wandered off into the swamp and drowned,” Gertie said. “He was a pretty good drinker. He was married to Celia. And if his truck was parked in the same spot in a bar parking lot for a couple days, someone would have lifted it. Unless someone’s shooting at them, no one that works in a bar would call the cops.”
“I could see that,” I said. “And I know that you don’t always find a body in the bayou, but now that we know he’s alive, what does everyone think? I mean, he had to be living somewhere, and last time I checked, you couldn’t do that on unoriginal artwork. He had to have a job and couldn’t have been using his own ID or the state police would have found him in a matter of days. The man was gone over twenty years.”
“Exactly,” Ida Belle said. “That’s what makes the entire thing so interesting. I mean, I know plenty of people live off-grid, but it takes some doing to manage it well. Max never struck me as all that clever, but maybe we were wrong.”
I pulled onto Main Street, musing over the mystery that was Maxwell Arceneaux. I had a feeling that a whole bunch of interesting things were about to come out.
“After all these years,” I said, “Max didn’t come out of hiding for no reason. He has an agenda.”
“Oh yeah,” Ida Belle agreed.
Gertie clapped. “I can’t wait to see what it is!”
I pulled into a parking spot in front of the café and we hurried inside. A man sat alone at a table in the back. I knew it was Max because I’d never seen him before and because everyone in the café kept shooting glances in his direction, but no one made a move to speak to him.
Five feet eleven, two hundred eighty pounds, less muscle content than a newborn, only a threat to the pancakes in front of him.
Ida Belle hurried to a table in the middle of the café and we took seats. “This should give us the best view of the showdown,” she said, and checked her watch. “Celia should be here any minute.”
Ally hurried over with coffee, her face flushed. “This feels so weird,” she said, her voice low. “I was too young to remember Uncle Max well, but I felt too uncomfortable to wait on him. I made Francine do it.”
“Did she get anything out of him?” Gertie asked.
Ally shook her head. “Nothing but his breakfast order. And she tried. You know Francine.”
Gertie’s eyes widened. “Francine is like the KGB and a Jedi knight. If she couldn’t get anything out of him, then he’s really clammed up.”
I glanced around the café, which was suspiciously busy for a Monday morning. “I think word is spreading,” I said.
Gertie nodded. “This is the most exciting thing to happen in Sinful in, well…”
“A day or two?” I finished.
Gertie grinned. “Got me there, but given that this is about Celia, and there’s the election hoopla besides, this is the best nonlethal thing that’s happened in a while.”
“It’s not lethal yet,” Ida Belle said.
Gertie looked out the front glass window and smacked me on the arm. “Here she comes.”
The low buzz that had filled the café disappeared like the wind, leaving only silence in its wake. Ally froze in place next to me, like one of those figures in Madame Tussauds. Not even the rattle of a spoon came from the kitchen. I glanced over at the swinging door and saw three sets of eyes peering out of the crack. Francine stood at the front of the restaurant next to a table of fishermen, holding a coffeepot.
The entire café of people locked their gazes on the front door as the bell jangled and Celia walked in. I glanced at the back corner as Max stabbed a forkful of pancakes, apparently the only person unfazed by Celia’s arrival. Which made it even more interesting.
Celia stopped short as the door closed behind her and looked around the restaurant. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “Is my slip showing?”
All heads turned slightly to look at the man in the back corner. He’d polished off the pancakes and was now tearing into a slice of ham. Celia caught sight of her husband and sucked in a breath.
“You!” she said. “What are you doing here?”
Max looked up from his breakfast, his expression one of complete and utter boredom. “Eating.” He dropped his head back down and went to work on the ham again.
Celia’s face flushed red and her hands shook.
I leaned toward Gertie. “Is she packing?”
“I hope not,” Gertie said. “I don’t want to hit the floor in these slacks.”
“You already hit the sidewalk.”
“Oh yeah. I forgot.”
Celia stomped to the back of the café. I watched her hands carefully. “She’s not reaching into her purse,” I said. “That’s a good sign.”
“It’s a café,” Gertie whispered. “No shortage of knives.”
“I can outrun a knife.”
Celia stopped in front of Max’s table and glared down at him. “What are you doing in Sinful?”
“This is my hometown,” Max said. “I can’t visit my hometown?”
His tone was slightly mocking, and I waited for Celia’s head to spin around and pop off her body.
“No,” Celia said. “You can’t just visit your hometown when you abandoned it and everyone in it years ago. Not even a phone call or a letter. Nothing to let anyone know you were still alive.”
“That was sorta the whole idea.”
“You didn’t even come to your daughter’s funeral!”
Max smirked, and I decided right then that no matter how much I disliked Celia, I disliked Max even more. There was something about his entire demeanor that was all off. Celia was a complete bitch and being married to her was probably like walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but behind that smirk was something else. Something cruel.
“Are you still passing off that old lie?” Max asked. “We both know Pansy was no kin of mine.”
There was a sharp intake of breath and I looked over at Ida Belle and Gertie, who looked back at me and gave me a slight headshake. Holy crap, this was getting good. If Pansy wasn’t Max’s biological daughter and not even Gertie and Ida Belle knew about it, then Max’s return was going to be like an earthquake hitting Sinful, right underneath Celia’s house.
Celia turned practically purple and started to sputter. “You should have stayed away. No one wants you here.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve come to collect what’s mine.”
“What’s yours?” Celia’s voice shot up several octaves. “Nothing here is yours. You gave it all up when you left.”
“That might be what you think, but the legal system thinks differently. We bought that house together, so half the equity in it is mine, and there’s my boat.”
“Your damned boat sank! And good luck getting half the equity in the house. Last time I checked, the legal system didn’t award settlements to dead people.”
Max’s eyes widened a bit.
“That’s right,” Celia continued. “I had you declared legally dead, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the status you’ll keep.”
“Is that a threat?”
“I suppose it is.” Celia whirled around and stalked out of the café, letting the door slam shut behind her. A second later, the entire café erupted in excited conversation.
“Holy crap,” I said. “Pansy wasn’t his daughter? Did you have any idea?”
Ida Belle and Gertie shook their heads.
“Do you think it’s even true?” I asked.
“She didn’t argue the point,” Ida Belle said, “and she looked like she was going to pass out, so yeah, I’d say it’s a definite possibility.”
Gertie cringed. “I can’t believe more than one man slept with her. Ick. Celia always claimed Pansy was born early, but she went to New Orleans to have her and stayed for a month. She said Pansy had to stay in the hospital, but when she finally got back to Sinful, the baby looked plenty big to me. Of course, the thought crossed my mind that she might have been pregnant before she got married. The wedding was a bit of a rush job, but I never once thought that Max wasn’t Pansy’s father.”
“I can’t believe something that big never got out,” I said.
Ally frowned. “When we were kids, Pansy said something to me once about her ‘real’ father. I thought she was pretending, you know, since Uncle Max had run off and all, but maybe she knew or suspected, anyway.”
“Did she say who it was?” Ida Belle asked.
Ally shook her head. “Just something about Aunt Celia and a trip to San Francisco.”
Ida Belle and Gertie looked at each other. “You don’t think?” Gertie said.
“What?” Ally said. “Do you know what that means?”
Ida Belle whipped out her phone. “Celia had family out there that she used to visit—an aunt and some cousins—but she stopped going after she graduated from high school.”
“That’s right,” Gertie said. “Of course, it didn’t mean anything back then. She married Max and they settled down in Sinful, so nothing to set off alarms.”
“Got it!” Ida Belle turned her phone around and showed us a high school yearbook picture of a man.
A man who looked a whole lot more like Pansy than Max did.
“Who is that?” I asked.
Ida Belle smiled. “The aunt’s husband.”
“Holy crap!” Ally shouted, then slapped her hand over her mouth. She glanced around the café, then leaned in. “Celia had an affair with her uncle? What the hell is wrong with my family?”
Gertie frowned. “I don’t know as I’d call it an affair. The uncle had to be in his midforties at the time, and Celia was only eighteen. I know women are a lot more knowledgeable about things these days, but back then, a man that age could have pulled a fast one on an impressionable young woman. And Celia’s mother was strict. She had no street smarts to speak of.”
“That’s true enough,” Ida Belle said, “and if you consider that Celia never had much in the way of male attention, then it’s a recipe for being taken advantage of.”
“So if Celia was pregnant with another man’s child, why did Max marry her?” I asked.
Ida Belle shook her head. “That is a damned good question.”
“I think we should mull it over with some blueberry pancakes,” Gertie said.
I nodded. “That’s the best idea I’ve heard in a long time.”
“Make a note,” Ida Belle said. “Her next idea is sure to be a doozy.”