I stabbed my fork into a stack of blueberry pancakes and shoved a huge chunk into my mouth, savoring the explosion of flavor. Francine’s pancakes should be a controlled substance. It was impossible to stop eating them once you got a taste.
“Must be good,” Gertie said. “I haven’t worn that expression since the last time I enjoyed the company of a man. I need to give my face muscles a workout soon.”
Ida Belle rolled her eyes. “You haven’t enjoyed the company of a man in so many years, those muscles in your face have atrophied.”
I swallowed and took a big sip of coffee. “In so many ways, pancakes are better than a man. They don’t require any complicated relationship maneuvering. You don’t have to clean your house, or put on good underwear or makeup to hang out with them, and when you’re done, they never pester you to call.”
Gertie shook her head. “I’m convinced you’re a man hiding out in a woman’s body.”
“Nah,” Ida Belle said. “Fortune is tougher than any man. She’s just a woman without female trappings.”
“If Fortune didn’t have any female trappings, Carter wouldn’t be trying to hit it again,” Gertie said.
“Hit it?” Ida Belle asked.
“Get lucky,” Gertie said. “Don’t you people ever listen to rap? I swear with you two, it’s like living in pioneer days.”
“And you would know that firsthand,” Ida Belle said.
I laughed, and realized how happy I was to hear that sound. Things had been really odd for a couple weeks. The CIA’s attempt to take down Ahmad, the man who wanted me dead, had failed, leaving me with no option but to continue with my deep cover in Sinful and forcing me to do a lot of soul-searching about how I wanted to structure the rest of my life, particularly my career. Then I’d done something reflexive and Carter had figured out I wasn’t really a librarian. Once he knew the truth, he’d dumped me, which I’d always guessed was coming. The part I hadn’t figured on was how awful I would feel or how much I would miss him.
Just when I thought my life couldn’t get any more miserable, things started to change for the better. First of all, Carter had decided that my lies to him aside, he missed me as well, and even though our relationship was probably completely ill-advised, we were going to ignore conventional wisdom and give it another go. Second, I’d finally made a partial decision about my career. When this was over and I was free to be Fortune Redding again, it wasn’t going to be with the CIA. Unfortunately, I had absolutely zero idea what I wanted to do with myself, which had led to this breakfast meeting with Ida Belle and Gertie.
“So let’s address the reason for this breakfast,” Ida Belle said.
“We just talked about the pancakes,” Gertie said.
Ida Belle stared at the ceiling for several seconds. I was pretty sure when she did that she was asking God for patience, or maybe to prevent her from opening fire. Finally, she looked back at Gertie. “The pancakes are the reason for having breakfast here. This is about Fortune’s career. Remember?”
“Oh yeah, that,” Gertie said. “Well, it would help if we knew where she wanted to live. I mean, if you want to be a marine biologist but live in Idaho, it’s not optimum.”
“I think we’re safe on the marine biologist gig,” I said, “and Idaho.”
“As much as I hate to admit it,” Ida Belle said, “Gertie does make a point. Have you considered where you’ll live?”
Gertie bounced up and down in her seat like a child with one hand in the air and repeated “pick here” over and over again until Ida Belle threw a sausage link at her.
“I wish I knew,” I said. “I mean, you guys are great and don’t think I haven’t thought about staying here, but what if Carter and I don’t work out? Then I’m stuck here, running into my ex every day. I don’t think I’d enjoy that much.”
“Okay,” Gertie said, “I’m not even going to argue about how perfect you and Carter are for each other. Instead, I’m going to approach this from a practical standpoint.”
“This I gotta hear,” Ida Belle mumbled into her coffee cup.
Gertie glared at her, then looked back at me. “How are you fixed financially? Obviously, Sinful doesn’t have the salary to offer you at a job that you could probably command in DC, so it’s something that definitely factors into your choices.”
Ida Belle lowered her coffee cup. “That’s actually a good point. I mean, if you don’t mind telling us your personal business.”
I laughed. “You’ve seen me naked. Why would I care if you know about money? That’s the least of the things I try to keep a secret.”
“So how are you positioned?” Ida Belle asked.
“Really good,” I said. “I inherited a good amount of money when my dad died, and a house I sold for triple what my parents paid for it. They both had nice life insurance policies, and I make a decent salary. Combine that with the fact that I have limited free time and the only thing I spend money on is a one-bedroom apartment and weapons, and I’d say I could probably purchase a decent house and live for the next ten years without having to work at all.”
“That’s great!” Gertie said, both she and Ida Belle looking pleased. “That means you’re not limited on location. So then the real question is, what do you want to do?”
I shook my head. “That’s the problem. I don’t know. I keep thinking about it over and over. I look around here and watch television and see people at work and try to imagine myself doing what they’re doing and I can’t. Well, except for when I was watching a Formula 1 race, but I don’t think they’re going to let me in one of those cars.”
“Probably not,” Ida Belle agreed, “but it’s an excellent choice.”
“When I was a teacher,” Gertie said, “I used to tell my students to approach this question based on their talents.”
“Yeah, I don’t think you can get paid to kill people unless you work for the government,” I said. “Not legally, anyway.”
“You’re selling yourself short,” Gertie said. “I’m sure you have other talents. Maybe some you’re not even aware that you have. A lot of these things are genetic. We know you followed in your father’s footsteps at the CIA, but what about your mother? Did she work?”
I nodded. “She was an architect. She designed office buildings and parks and shopping centers and houses. I’ve gone to see everything she designed in person. They’re all beautiful, with courtyards and flowers.”
I felt a tug when I spoke about my mother. She’d died when I was young, and sometimes I was afraid my memories would fade. That I’d have nothing left to remember her by except pictures and those buildings she’d designed.
Gertie perked up. “An architect would be a great job. Between lunacy and hurricanes, there’s always construction going on down here. We could become partners. You could design the buildings and I’d be the foreman.”
Ida Belle stared at her. “Have you forgotten the time I helped you repair your shed and you shot me in the butt with the nail gun?”
“It was a finishing nail and I was five feet away,” Gertie said. “It’s not like I crippled you.”
“Tell that to the Millers’ cat,” Ida Belle said.
“He walks fine with three legs,” Gertie said.
Since I was pretty sure I’d never be able to maintain a liability insurance policy with Gertie on a job site, I figured that option was out. And then there was the part where I couldn’t draw a straight line.
“It’s not for me,” I said. “I don’t have that vision, or whatever they call it, that artists need to do their job.”
“What about shrimping?” Gertie asked.
Ida Belle and I both stared at her as if she’d lost her mind.
“Why in the world would I want to be a shrimper?” I asked. “It’s long, grueling work, the pay is dependent on the market, and I’d smell fishy all the time.”
Gertie threw her hands in the air. “I’m just trying to think of things that would keep you here and wouldn’t require you to work for anyone else. That might be problematic.”
“I work for other people at the CIA,” I said.
“Yes,” Gertie said, “but they all have the same training you do. A regular civilian wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“She’s got a point,” Ida Belle said. “Not that I think you’d run around shooting bosses, but you’re used to calling the shots and being independent. Whatever you do, you’d need to be in charge.”
Gertie straightened in her chair, looking excited. “You could buy the Swamp Bar! I heard they’re interested in selling.”
“No way,” I said. I’d already spent far too many embarrassing and awkward moments at that bar. I wasn’t interested in creating legal ties.
Ida Belle sighed. “We’re so stupid. The answer is right in front of our faces and we’re sitting here talking about shrimp and bars.”
Gertie and I looked at Ida Belle, waiting for her to reveal her thought of genius.
“You should be a private detective,” Ida Belle said.
Gertie’s jaw dropped a bit and she looked from Ida Belle to me, clearly enthralled with the idea. I had to admit, it wasn’t bad as far as ideas went, at least in the imagining stage. But the reality stage was a completely different thing.
“Think about it,” Ida Belle said. “You’re already an expert at weapons, surveillance, and self-defense. You’ve got exceptional observation skills, and you’re a logical thinker. Look at all the crimes you’ve solved since you’ve been in Sinful.”
“A lot of those were luck,” I said, “and in some cases, the solution arrived too late.”
“You’re not a superhero,” Ida Belle said. “But you’re more qualified for that job than any other, unless you want to work security detail for famous people.”
“Pass,” I said. The last thing I wanted to do was stand around holding purses with dogs and waiting on some twit to come out of a trendy dress shop.
But Ida Belle’s idea had gotten my attention. I’d come across a couple of PIs in my CIA work, and I was positive I was more competent than either of them. And there were probably schools or something that I could attend to learn more about how to do the job, especially the legal end of things. The federal government wasn’t as concerned about those things as nongovernment employees had to be.
“So?” Ida Belle asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, I like the idea, and even though a bunch of it is probably boring as hell, I think I’d like the work for the most part.”
“But staying here and being a PI…and dating Carter.”
Gertie whistled. “I hadn’t thought about that. With all his ‘no poking into police business’ nonsense, he’d probably have a stroke if you set up shop to do exactly that.”
“Probably,” Ida Belle said, “but he’d get over it. As far as sins go, that would be one of the least Fortune has committed.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said.
“No disrespect,” Ida Belle said. “I was right there with you hiding the truth and making up lies. And I don’t blame either of us for a single one of them.”
“The thing is,” I said, “we’ve helped catch some criminals, but I’m pretty sure our methods aren’t allowed.”
“They are if no one finds out,” Gertie said. “Isn’t that the rule?”
“It is for a lot of people,” Ida Belle said, “but I think you probably need to make a bigger effort if you’re getting paid for it. That whole professional ethics thing.”
“Not to mention how the legal system views it,” I added.
It was a lot to think about—finding a job that didn’t make me want to stab my eyes out with a fork, finding a place to live that I could tolerate every day, finding an actual house in the place to live where I could tolerate my neighbors every day, buying furniture and dishes and all those domestic things I’d never quite gotten around to. Basically, I was starting on the ground floor of adulting, and from where I sat, it looked like a whole lot of work.
The biggest problem was having no idea where to start. Gertie was right in that I needed to pin down a location before I worried about a career. Until I knew where I was going to live, I didn’t know what careers were viable for the area. If I went the PI route, as Ida Belle suggested, licensing requirements were different by state. More than anything, I wished I could just commit to relocating here and be done with it, but something still held me back. Maybe it was my inability to let go of the only life I’d ever known. Maybe it was my apprehension about my relationship with Carter. Maybe I was afraid that I’d make all these changes and in six months, I’d be bored to death and regretting every one of them.
Bottom line, if I moved to Sinful and it didn’t work for me, I’d hurt a lot of people with my exit. Good people. People who mattered. And that was something I really didn’t want to do.
“I think it’s an interesting idea,” I said, “but I want to do some research and see what’s required to get a license and what kind of limitations and liability are placed on you once you get that license.”
“That’s a sound plan.” Ida Belle leaned across the table and looked closely at me. “You don’t have to make a decision today or tomorrow or even next week. Gertie and I would love to have you here, but only if that’s what you want. We don’t want you unhappy. That wouldn’t work for any of us.”
Gertie nodded. “As much as I hate to admit it, Ida Belle’s right. We don’t want you to leave, but we don’t want you miserable, either. You’ve already got that setup. There’s no sense changing your entire life to be right back in it.”
I smiled. “You guys are the best, you know it?”
“Of course,” Gertie said. She rose from the table and lifted her enormous handbag from the floor. “I’ve got to go get some bait.”
“Going fishing again?” Ida Belle asked.
“Yep,” Gertie said. “Still trying for the one that got away.”
She tossed some money on the table and headed out of the café at a faster-than-usual clip. Ida Belle watched her go and frowned.
“Something is up with her,” Ida Belle said.
“Why? Because she’s fishing every day? I thought that was her favorite thing to do—I mean, aside from meddling.”
“It is, but this time is different. There’s this sense of urgency about it all that she’s never had before.”
“Maybe it’s because her boat was broken for so long, and now that she’s finally gotten it fixed, she’s making up for lost time.”
“Maybe,” Ida Belle said, but she didn’t sound convinced. Finally, she looked back at me. “So what are you up to today?”
“I don’t know,” I said, which was the truth and also becoming a real problem.
A week had passed since I’d thrust myself into the middle of a police investigation, and I was ready to climb the walls. Not that I was wanting crime to happen—so far, too many people had died—but maybe a tiny case of petty theft or something. Just enough to challenge the brain and maybe push me into a slow jog through a hedge or onto a roof. Back to the good times.
I sighed. Ida Belle was right. Being a private detective was probably the best job for me. Private security would be a bore. I wasn’t interested in ferreting out the secrets of one famous person, and if I ever lost my mind and got interested, there was always TMZ.
Instead, I wanted to know everyone’s secrets. Knowing what people had hidden away in the back of their closets made them a lot more interesting than they appeared in everyday life. Gertie and Ida Belle were prime examples of that. On the surface, they looked like two little old ladies living in a small bayou town. They liked fishing, hunting, knitting, and nosing into other people’s business. Completely typical. Except for the part where they had both served in Vietnam as counterintelligence and no one in Sinful aside from me and Carter knew about it. The surface was everything you expected to see, but beneath that murky water were all kinds of things you couldn’t have ever imagined.
“You’ve got to get a hobby or something,” Ida Belle said. “I know you can’t get a job, but you can’t just sit around watching television all day or sleeping in your hammock. I know Carter is occupying some of your time, but his job is more than full time lately, especially with the election results still up in the air.”
“Any word on that?” I asked.
Ida Belle and Gertie’s nemesis, Celia Arceneaux, had won the recent mayoral election, but her opponent had accused her of vote tampering and asked for an audit, which had been granted. An audit firm was now going over all the votes to determine if Celia was really the mayor of Sinful or if Ida Belle and Gertie’s friend Marie was the rightful heir to the swampy throne.
“Not a peep,” Ida Belle said. “I talked to Marie yesterday, and she said they have finished the count but that they go through the results two more times until they announce their findings.”
“Good God. At the rate they’re going, it will be time for a new election before they finish. Or Celia will be dead.”
Ida Belle nodded. “We might even have time for Celia to develop a conscience and get nice.”
“Evolution for the win.”
“Well, if you don’t have anything better to do, and you’re interested in staying off your couch, I’m going car shopping.”
“You’re buying a new car? What about the motorcycle?”
“I’m keeping the motorcycle, but there’s times when a car is the better option.”
“Like when it’s raining or humid or summer or when you live in Sinful, Louisiana, and no one can drive for crap?”
“Yeah, some of that.”
I rose from my chair and placed some bills on the table. “What the heck. I don’t have anything better to do. Plus, I can make sure you get something with a backseat. The middle console of a Corvette is not exactly a comfort zone.”
“Could have been worse. Could have been manual transmission.”
We headed outside, and I scanned the street for Ida Belle’s motorcycle but didn’t see it. “Did you walk over?”
“Yeah, too danged hot for leather. And I refuse to be one of those fools who wear a tank top and sandals.”
“Good. Then I get to drive. No top on the Jeep, and I can add in AC. Tank tops and sandals are totally optional.”
We headed across the road for my Jeep and watched as Gertie exited the General Store, dragging a small ice chest to her car. I hurried over to help her lift it into the backseat and was momentarily surprised at the weight.
“Did you fill this thing with ice?” I asked. “How much can you possibly need for a couple hours of fishing?”
“Ice and bait,” Gertie said, “but it’s hot out. It melts fast.”
She answered without looking at me, never a good sign. Maybe Ida Belle had been right. Maybe Gertie was up to something that she didn’t want us to know about. I looked over at Ida Belle, who raised one eyebrow. Unable to help myself, I popped open the lid on the ice chest and peered inside. Four large fish lay on top of the ice. Each one a good eight inches in length.
“This isn’t bait,” I said. “This is dinner.”
Gertie slammed the lid shut. “I said it was bait.”
Ida Belle stared at her. “What are you trying to catch—Jaws?”
“Maybe,” Gertie said. “Thanks for the help. See you guys later.”
She jumped in her car, backed out, and took off down Main Street, leaving Ida Belle and me still standing there, watching her drive off.
“Definitely up to something,” Ida Belle said.
I nodded. “I agree, but what in the world is she up to with those fish? That’s the strange part. Who uses fish as an alibi?”
“Oldest trick in the book. Guy wants time away from a hovering wife, so he says he’s going fishing. Wife approves it because he brings home fish for dinner. But instead of fishing, he buys the fish at the General Store, loads it up with ice, and heads out for a day of whatever.”
“But Gertie doesn’t have a husband with questions waiting for fish at home.”
Ida Belle nodded. “Which makes it even more interesting.”
“So you’re saying Gertie could be up to anything, anywhere. Why does that sound so scary?”
“Because it contains the words ‘Gertie,’ ‘anything,’ and ‘anywhere.’”