“Fortune.” Gertie’s voice sounded like it was coming from a mile away, even though she stood right next to me.
I turned to look, figuring maybe I could read her lips, when someone turned on a microphone on the makeshift platform in the middle of Main Street, and the screech made my ears throb. If someone had told me this many people lived in Sinful, Louisiana, I would have called them a liar. In the two weeks I’d lived in the tiny bayou town, I’d come across only a handful of residents in the General Store and Francine’s Café and one small subdivision of perfectly manicured homes, but apparently, the swamps held families I didn’t even know existed.
Now I couldn’t move a foot without bumping into someone, and for an introvert and someone who was used to working in complete silence and alone, it was a huge stretch. I wasn’t certain I had the patience to last the rest of the day. In fact, I’d bet on it.
Gertie’s mouth moved, but the screeching microphone eliminated any possibility of understanding her words. I shook my head, pointing to my ears. She sighed and shoved a box of promo items at me, then waved to the crowd, apparently indicating I should hand them out to random people. I looked down at the contents of the box and my eyebrows involuntarily shot up. At that second, the microphone clicked off and I took advantage of the momentary lull to speak.
“Should we be handing out SLS cough syrup for promo?” I asked. The sample bottles were small—like airplane drink size—but even at small doses, the stuff was potent.
Gertie looked confused. “Sure. Why not?”
Apparently the fact that the Sinful Ladies Society “cough syrup” was actually code for moonshine in a bottle had become so commonly known that Gertie no longer thought it would be a problem.
“What if someone doesn’t know and gives it to a kid?” I asked, pointing at a group of screaming hellions, running through the crowd and shooting them with water pistols.
A burst of water hit Gertie square in the forehead. “What’s the downside?”
I thought about it for a second, but couldn’t come up with one. Being arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor would guarantee at least a night in jail…the very quiet, very empty jail.
I started working my way through the crowd, carefully picking people to give my cough syrup to. If a screaming kid yelled “Mom” and a woman responded, she got a bottle. If a woman looked harried and disoriented, I assumed she had kids, and she got a bottle. I slipped two into my pocket for myself. If this fiasco ever ended, I was going to need them.
“Vote Ida Belle for mayor,” I said as I handed out my wares.
Every woman I handed a bottle to had the same response. “Absolutely.”
When I was down to my last bottle, I ditched the cardboard tray in a trash can, then climbed on top of a picnic table and scouted the street for Gertie.
“I see you’re still in the middle of things left well enough alone.”
His voice sounded behind me and I flinched, which pissed me off. Then I reminded myself that I was in the middle of a noisy festival and decided to cut myself some slack for not hearing him walk up behind me. I turned around and jumped off the picnic table, landing a foot in front of Deputy Carter LeBlanc.
“It’s a small-town election,” I said. “How bad can it be?”
He grimaced. “With Ida Belle running…you have to ask?”
I shook my head. “Ida Belle’s not trouble. In fact, it seems to me that she fixes a lot of this town’s problems, including some of yours.”
He frowned as I picked at a sore point. Ida Belle and company, myself included, had foiled more than one criminal lately and Carter caught an infinite amount of flak for it. Because he insisted on maintaining his aggrieved and slightly agitated stance about the whole thing, I couldn’t resist poking at him when he gave me an opportunity.
“Did it ever occur to you,” he said, “that if you had stayed out of my investigations, the only position the three of you would have been in was knitting at Gertie’s house or waxing Ida Belle’s prize Corvette? Instead, all of you have come close to a permanent residence in Sinful Cemetery.”
“And you’re saying all that is Ida Belle’s fault?”
“I’m saying that if you insist on looking for trouble, you’re likely to find it.”
He wasn’t entirely wrong, and I understood how he probably felt that Ida Belle had stolen his thunder. Maybe if we’d stayed out of police matters, he would have solved the cases and no good people would have died or gone to prison. But it wasn’t a risk Ida Belle and Gertie had been willing to take, and God forgive me, I’d allowed myself to be dragged into their drama.
“I should have known I’d find you hitting on the hottest girl in town.”
The man’s voice sounded behind me and I turned in time to see a good-looking, muscular man cross the street, giving me the once-over as he approached.
Midthirties, six foot four, two hundred pounds and most of it muscle, looked like he knew his way around a fight. Threat level medium.
The man stepped right up in front of Carter, grinning like he’d just heard the best joke in the world. Carter didn’t look nearly as enthused. I felt the testosterone level increase by a hundred percent.
“How are you, Bobby?” Carter said and stuck out his hand.
Bobby shook Carter’s hand and inclined his head toward me. “Clearly, not doing as well as you.”
Carter sighed. “I’m wearing a uniform. I was talking to Miss Morrow about a police matter.”
Bobby glanced over at me and raised his eyebrows. “You going to arrest her for being too hot for this town? ’Cause that’s the only thing I can think of her being guilty of.”
Given that my current “hotness” consisted of shorts, tank top, tennis shoes, lip balm, and hair in a ponytail, I wasn’t convinced of Bobby’s sincerity. But despite my inclination to hurl at his clumsy attempt to gain my interest, Carter’s obvious dismay was too good to pass up on.
“See,” I said. “Someone appreciates what I have to offer this town.”
“Darling,” Bobby said, “any time you feel unappreciated, you give me a call. I’m always happy to show one of Carter’s girls what they’re missing. Bobby Morel. Anyone can tell you where to find me.” He winked at me and walked away, giving Carter a wave over his shoulder.
I watched him walk away then turned back to Carter and smiled. “I guess now you’re going to tell me Bobby is trouble, too?”
Carter tore his gaze from the retreating Bobby and looked back at me. “No, not really. I mean, he can be a hothead and I don’t think he’s ever read a book outside of school, but he’s not a bad guy. He was Army Special Forces until last week. His mom told me he was coming home after discharge.”
Special Forces? The threat level ticked up a notch.
“Can’t be much work in Sinful for you ex-military types,” I said, “unless you figure he’s going to give you a run for your job.”
Carter laughed. “Not a chance. Starting in middle school, Bobby counted the days until he was getting out of this town. I imagine he’ll stay long enough to figure out what he wants to do next, and then he’ll head to some city where ‘things happen.’ He always said things never happened in Sinful.”
“He should have been around the last couple of weeks.”
“Hmmm.” Carter looked thoughtful for a moment, then focused in on me again. “According to the girls in high school, he’ll show you a good time. I just wouldn’t get attached if I were you. My guess is he’s just stopping by.”
“Do I look like the kind of ‘girl’ who gets attached?”
“No. Which only makes you more fascinating.” He grinned at me and headed across the street toward some kids who were climbing up a light pole.
I felt a blush start on my chest and creep up my neck, then I whirled around and stalked off in the other direction, happy that Carter hadn’t stuck around long enough to see my girly reaction. I would have never lived that one down.
I hated to admit it, but despite his annoying insistence on following the rules, something about Carter LeBlanc attracted me in a way I’d never been to another man. Not that I was some shrinking-violet virgin, destined to be the agoraphobic cat lady, but I’d never had a relationship that I considered serious. I’d certainly never met a guy who’d made me flush.
And wasn’t pleased that I finally had.
Even more disturbing was that I was pretty sure Carter knew exactly what effect he had on me and enjoying poking at the chink in my armor.
“You going to just stand there lollygagging or are you going to come hear me speak?” Ida Belle’s voice boomed right beside me.
I held in a sigh that yet another person had managed, in broad daylight, to sneak up on me. If I ever got out of Louisiana and back to the CIA, I was going to need serious retraining time before I would be suitable for a mission.
“Is it time already?” I asked, but what I was really thinking was “thank God it’s finally time.” As soon as the speeches were over, I would haul butt to a quiet, empty house as fast as my Jeep would carry me.
“It’s time,” Ida Belle said. “Did you give out all your cough syrup?”
“I have one left,” I said, holding out my hand with the bottle and not bothering to mention the two in my shorts pockets. It was the least Ida Belle owed me after this crap.
Ida Belle plucked the bottle out of my hand. “I’m going to need this later.”
I nodded and hurried behind her as we made our way through the crowd to the makeshift platform at the end of Main Street. Ida Belle slipped around the side and onto the stage while I pushed my way through the mass of sweaty people to stand up front next to Gertie.
As the election coordinator talked to the two candidates, I got my first opportunity to make a good assessment of Ida Belle’s competition.
Midfifties, five foot ten, one hundred eighty pounds—twenty of it potbelly.
No threat to me, but I had no idea what kind of threat he represented to Ida Belle. “What’s the story on the other guy?” I asked Gertie.
Gertie looked at the man and frowned. “Theodore ‘Call-Me-Ted’ Williams. Not much to know, really. He moved here about two years ago from somewhere up north. He’s never come out and said so, but the rumor is that he inherited his money from a family business—some sort of manufacturing. They sold out, he packed up his entirely-too-young-for-him wife and moved from New England to Sinful.”
“Really? That seems rather odd. How did he even know about Sinful?”
“He said he’d been here before years ago with old James Parker, who lived in Mudbug and had apparently brought Ted fishing at several of the area bayou towns.”
“Lived in Mudbug. Past tense?”
“Yeah. He died fifteen years ago or so, but apparently Ted remembered the area fondly and when he got control of his money, he had a real estate agent look for a house in the area. The Adams family had just moved to New Orleans, so we were the lucky winners who acquired Ted.”
I smiled. “The Adams family?”
Gertie grinned. “I know. I can barely hold in a chuckle every time I say it. You’re really catching up on regular society, Fortune.”
I nodded. “I’ve been spending a lot of time watching TV and on the Internet. I never realized the world was so big, interesting, boring, and odd, all at the same time.”
“That pretty much sums it up.”
“So is this Ted going to be any competition? I figure with him not being here very long and being a Yankee on top of it…”
Gertie frowned. “You wouldn’t think, but he’s managed to ingratiate himself pretty well in town.”
“By ingratiate, you mean throw money around?”
“Of course. Money’s the only thing that’s always scarce in Sinful. It doesn’t take much to impress this bunch of yahoos, or to buy loyalty. My guess is most of the men are going to vote for Ted—because of the man thing and because he hands out fishing equipment like business cards.”
“And the women?”
“Except for Celia’s group, I think most of the women will swing Ida Belle’s way.”
I shook my head. Celia Arceneaux was the leader of the Catholic-based women’s group who called themselves the GWs, short for God’s Wives. Ida Belle referred to them as “Got No Lives” and based on what I’d seen in my short stint in Sinful, I was leaning toward agreeing with Ida Belle, despite the fact that it seemed kinda rude.
Ida Belle ran the Sinful Ladies Society, the other women’s group in town, which was completely comprised of old maids and women who had been widowed for at least five years. The Sinful Ladies believed that having men around tended to dull a woman’s natural superior abilities, so no women with men in tow were allowed. This set of rules tended to infuriate Celia’s group and a long-standing feud had ensued, mostly over banana pudding.
“You don’t think Celia will vote for Ida Belle,” I asked, “even after we found out who killed Pansy?”
The prior week, Celia’s daughter had been the victim of a most sordid murder. Ida Belle, Gertie, and I had managed to “out” the killer, almost getting me killed in the process. I’d assumed—apparently incorrectly—that our success would have paved the way for a better relationship between the two groups.
Gertie sighed. “You’d think it would be that simple, wouldn’t you? But the reality is, if Celia tells her ladies to vote for Ida Belle, then she’s breaking down the fabric of their thirty-year existence. It wouldn’t surprise me if Celia herself voted for Ida Belle, but she’d never admit to it.”
I shook my head. “It seems like such a waste of energy.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Gertie pointed at the stage and clapped. “They’re about to get started.”
The election coordinator, an enormous woman named CindyLou, stepped up to the microphone and I cringed, waiting for the screech, then smiled when only her nasally Southern accent blasted through the speakers.
“Quiet down, y’all,” she said, waving at the crowd. “We’re about to get started with the debate. As Sinful is a Southern town with manners, we’re forgoing the coin toss and Ida Belle will speak first because she’s a lady.”
I heard someone mumble “that’s debatable,” but when I scanned the crowd behind me, no one stood out as the guilty culprit. It was just as well. The last thing I needed to do was hand Carter an excuse to arrest me and dig further into my background. So far, I’d narrowly escaped harsh scrutiny from the deputy, and I wasn’t certain my cover would hold if he took a hard look.
The noise level fell to practically nothing as Ida Belle stepped up to the microphone and started her speech. It was a good one, I guess. As I’d just started watching regular television the past week, I really had no basis for comparison. And the last thing I’d watch was politicians. Given half an opportunity, they meddled enough with the CIA and often made it difficult for us to do our job. So I didn’t spend any more time listening to them than was absolutely required.
Ida Belle finished up her speech and the female half of the crowd cheered. Then Ted stepped up to the microphone and the men hooted.
A shrill voice a couple of people down from us yelled, “Get those votes, baby!”
I leaned forward and gave the woman a quick once-over.
Midthirties, one hundred and forty pounds—ten of it fake breasts, nails so long she couldn’t pick up a weapon, much less fire one. Puppies were a bigger threat.
The rest of the package was just as disturbing. Skintight pants, a top cut so low that it bordered on porn, poufy auburn hair, and more makeup than all of the women attending the rally combined.
“The wife?” I asked.
Gertie glanced over and rolled her eyes. “Yeah. She blends so well.”
“She’s a good twenty years younger than him. Why would a woman like that want to live in a place like Sinful?”
“Age-old story is my guess—daddy issues. Plus, Ted’s got money, and Paulette doesn’t seem like the brightest tool in the shed.”
I shook my head, amazed at how much women would lower their standards simply to avoid getting a job. The general population was a confusing and contradictory lot.
Ted started his speech, and immediately, I flashed back to the last time I had to buy a car. Yep, that was it. The broad, fake smile, the nod…Ted had that used-car salesman rap down pat. What was even more irritating is that the men in the crowd seemed to buy it. Or maybe it was as Gertie said, and they just liked the free stuff he handed out.
It seemed like forever before the old gasbag wrapped up, and I prayed that was the end of it, but then CindyLou placed another microphone on the stage and Ida Belle and Ted took their places in front of them.
“There’s a debate?” I asked. Given my knowledge of Sinful, I couldn’t begin to fathom how that would play out.
“Not a debate,” Gertie said. “Just their promises.”
I frowned, not really understanding, when Ida Belle cleared her throat and said, “I promise to add lights to the playground.”
All the women cheered.
Ted gave her a nod and said, “I promise to resurface the public dock.”
All the men cheered.
“I get it now,” I said. “Can they actually do all those things, though? I mean, don’t they need the money?”
Gertie waved a hand in dismissal. “They can’t do any of it, truth be known. Hasn’t been extra in the Sinful till in a hundred years. But people like to know what would happen if Sinful hit the equivalent of the lottery.”
I shook my head. So the crux of Sinful’s battle for mayor rested on who could produce the best fiction that impressed the most residents. I mean, if a politician’s mouth was open, they were probably spouting fiction, but in this case, they weren’t even trying to hide it.
“I promise to make alcohol legal in the city limits,” Ted said.
An uneasy lull fell over the crowd and Gertie broke into a huge smile. “He screwed the pooch,” she whispered to me.
I frowned. I could see why the women didn’t want legalized alcohol in town. That meant bars, which meant the potential of husbands behaving badly, and besides, they all had the Sinful Ladies cough syrup. But I didn’t get why the men were oddly silent.
“Why wouldn’t the men want alcohol legalized?” I asked.
Gertie snorted. “You think they want their bad behavior advertised right here in the middle of town? They all head to the Swamp Bar or to New Orleans to act like children. That way, their wives can pretend they don’t know about it, and as long as it doesn’t happen in front of Sinful residents, everyone else goes along with the lie.”
“Ah.” It made sense in a Sinful, Louisiana, sort of way.
Ida Belle leaned closer to the microphone, grinning from ear to ear, and clearly moving in for the kill. “I promise to create a town bond to pay for the installation of an additional cooler at Francine’s. That way, everyone in Sinful can enjoy a serving of banana pudding on Sunday.”
The crowd went ballistic and Gertie lifted her hand for a high five. “Kill shot,” she said.
I slapped her hand and laughed. Only in Sinful could someone win a mayoral election on the strength of a banana pudding cooler.
It was almost dark by the time I dragged myself out of my Jeep and into the shower. Gertie left Main Street a couple of minutes before I did, and Ida Belle was still sitting on the stage, having a chat with her competition. His wife, Paulette, had long since abandoned her supportive role, claiming her hair spray couldn’t hold up to the humidity. Most of the town residents had wandered off home, leaving a big cleanup for tomorrow—something I was certain I’d get roped into and wasn’t looking forward to in the least, especially not in this heat.
I stood under the spray of water until my skin shriveled, then called myself done. I’d grabbed the occasional finger food during the rally but hadn’t had what I’d call a decent meal since breakfast. When I stepped out of the shower, my stomach launched a full protest. I pulled my long extensions back in the standard ponytail they’d grown to expect, threw on shorts and a T-shirt, and headed downstairs to rustle up a sandwich, chips, and the latest dessert concoction my friend Ally had asked me to test for potential sale in the bakery she wanted to open.
It didn’t take me twenty minutes to polish off the roast beef sandwich, chips, and something heavenly that Ally referred to as a summer tart, and then I headed back upstairs where I fell into bed and managed to go right to sleep without even putting on my noise-canceling headphones.
Banging on my front door woke me and I bolted straight out of bed, grabbing my pistol as I leaped. I landed in firing position, aiming at the door. It took a second for my mind to catch up to my body, and I realized the banging sound was downstairs at the front door and not an intruder.
One glance outside at the still-pitch-black sky and I knew this couldn’t be good. Still clutching my pistol, I hurried downstairs, trying not to remember that the last time I’d been awakened at an indecent hour, I’d been accused of murder.
I eased the door open and the momentary relief when I realized it wasn’t Carter standing there disappeared in an instant when I saw the look on Gertie’s face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked as I motioned her inside.
She clutched the bottom of her sweater, twisting it into a knot, and I noticed that her hands shook as she twisted. In the short time I’d known Gertie, we’d been in some hairy situations, but I’d never seen her this worried. And that scared the crap out of me.
“Gertie, tell me what’s wrong.”
“Marie called me. She lives catty-corner to the Williamses. I don’t have all the facts, but the paramedics showed up about an hour ago and carried out a body bag.”
I sucked in a breath. “Which one?”
“Marie says Paulette ran out of the house and threw herself over the gurney, screaming and crying. The paramedics sedated her and put her in the ambulance with the body before they took off.”
I absorbed everything Gertie told me, trying to figure out what part of this story had her so vexed. So far, it seemed straightforward. “So Ted died. Why all the worry?”
“Carter sealed the house. Marie walked outside and heard him calling a forensics lab. He was holding a Baggie with a bottle in it.”
“He overdosed?” I asked, still not certain why Gertie was so stressed. “The coroner should be able to determine that.”
Gertie shook her head. “Marie said it was one of our cough syrup bottles in the Baggie. Marie said Paulette screamed ‘she killed him’ right before the paramedics dosed her.”
A flashback of Ida Belle, taking my last bottle of cough syrup…Ida Belle sitting on the makeshift stage, joking with Ted after everyone had left the rally…cycled through my mind on fast forward, and an enormous feeling of dread washed over me.
“Where did he get the bottle?”
Gertie’s lower lip trembled. “I’m afraid he got it from Ida Belle. She was holding one when I left.”
I nodded. “I gave it to her. It was my last one.”
I didn’t think it possible for Gertie to look even more depressed, but she managed it anyway. “I was hoping for another explanation, even though I figured that’s what you were going to say.”
“Did you call Ida Belle and warn her?”
“I called, but she didn’t answer, so I drove by but Carter’s truck was already parked outside her house. I knocked, but he wouldn’t let me in the house. Told me to go home and mind my own business.”
Gertie’s face flushed with anger. “Ida Belle is my oldest and dearest friend. Since when is she not my business?”
I patted Gertie’s arm in an awkward attempt to comfort her. This sort of thing was definitely outside my skill set. “Carter’s in cop mode right now. I’m sure he didn’t mean to imply that you had no stake in things.”
“Maybe,” Gertie said, refusing to be mollified, “but this isn’t some big city where we’re all strangers. Carter has known Ida Belle his entire life. You and I both know from experience that Ida Belle’s capable of killing someone, but Carter doesn’t know that side of her. And we know she wouldn’t move to lethal unless someone was creating a life-threatening situation. We were soldiers, not sociopaths.”
“I know.” And then it clicked with me that those two simple words I’d uttered, I meant 100 percent. Despite the fact that I’d known Ida Belle for less than two weeks, I was absolutely certain that she hadn’t killed Ted. I would have bet my cover on it.
One look at Gertie’s agonized expression, and I wondered if it might come down to that.