Excerpt: Bullets and Beads

Excerpt: Bullets and Beads

Book 17: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One

 

I walked into Ida Belle’s kitchen and stared at the hundreds of bright purple, gold, and green bottles covering every surface in the room. Gertie was at the sink, pouring liquid from a pitcher into a bottle, and Ida Belle was putting stickers on them. I stepped up to the counter and picked up one of the purple bottles and checked the label.

“This is all Sinful Ladies Cough Syrup?” I asked.

It wasn’t really cough syrup, of course. It was moonshine. But as Sinful was a dry town and the Sinful Ladies were Southern Baptist, they had their own unique method of skirting the rules.

“Mardi Gras is our biggest sales time of the year,” Ida Belle said.

“Even more than New Year’s?” I asked.

Gertie nodded. “Most people host their own parties for New Year’s, so they can bring in liquor from up the highway. But the Mardi Gras celebration is all downtown and that means everyone is on public display.”

“So no obvious drinking for the Baptists,” I concluded.

Gertie frowned. “But those Catholics get to live it up.”

“Stop grousing,” Ida Belle said. “They get to live it up for a couple of days before they have to give up something they love for forty.”

“Baptists give up stuff they love year-round,” Gertie said.

Ida Belle raised an eyebrow.

“Well, they’re supposed to,” Gertie said.

“Since this is a Catholic sort of thing, does that mean Celia’s crew runs the festivities?” I asked, hoping that wasn’t the case. Celia Arceneaux, our archenemy, could turn even the most fabulous of occasions into a dumpster fire. Sometimes a real fire. She’d single-handedly burned down the sleigh ride at Christmas.

“She tries to run everything,” Ida Belle said. “But the mayor gets to decide committees, and we’ve never had one foolish enough to put Celia in charge of the whole shooting match, even when they were Catholic. So Celia represents her group. I represent the sane side of things. And everything has to be approved by the mayor and the sheriff.”

Since the mayor, Marie, was a close friend of Ida Belle and Gertie’s and the sheriff pretty much hated the sight of Celia, that was good news for Ida Belle’s crew. No way Celia could stage a coup.

“So what all happens?” I asked. “I figured everyone headed to New Orleans for a big round of debauchery.”

“Lord no,” Ida Belle said. “Navigating Vietnam was easier than making it through Bourbon Street for Mardi Gras. But it was such a big hit that most every city and town in Louisiana has its own Mardi Gras celebration. Some are big enough to have krewes, which are groups put together specifically to throw down on Mardi Gras. Others that are smaller, like Sinful, just rely on some locals to put everything together.”

“But our party is on Saturday night,” Gertie said. “That way, anyone who wants to head to New Orleans for some of the big parades on Sunday and on through Tuesday can still do so without missing the local fun.”

“So what happens in Sinful on Sunday then?” I asked.

“Mostly recovery and repentance from Saturday,” Ida Belle said.

“There’s funnel cake,” Gertie said. “Between that and the cough syrup, there’s a lot to repent for.”

“Funnel cake?” I perked up.

“Assuming they got the stand put back together,” Ida Belle said.

“What happened to the stand?” I asked.

“They set everything up today and were testing the equipment to make sure they’re ready for tomorrow night when a squirrel decided he’d steal the product.”

Gertie nodded. “Pulled a fly-by and snatched it right off the plate before the powdered sugar had even settled. Some people scrambled to catch him while others tried to jump on the table and climb the stand poles to avoid him, and the whole shooting match collapsed.”

“I’m surprised everyone didn’t just open fire,” I said.

“Don’t think they didn’t want to,” Ida Belle said. “But they’re downtown. Can’t just open fire on squirrels on Main Street.”

“Unless they steal something valued at over a hundred dollars,” Gertie said. “Then you’re allowed as long as you don’t hit people.”

“Of course you are,” I said. “So basically, it’s a big party for the whole town?”

Ida Belle nodded. “Downtown is closed off and everyone gathers there. Everything kicks off with the parade. Different people build floats and they go through downtown and turn around in the neighborhood, then circle back. The most important float, built by the sheriff’s department and Walter, holds the King and Queen of Mardi Gras.”

“You’re going to allow a parade after that sleigh ride fiasco?” I asked.

“Celia’s been banned from the floats!” Gertie said and clapped her hands.

Ida Belle grinned. “There was an emergency vote of the Mardi Gras committee after Christmas. They decided—unanimously, I might add—that Celia was banned from floats for a year.”

“I would have loved to have seen her face when they told her that,” I said.

Gertie gave me a sad shake of her head. “I asked Marie to film it, but she said it wouldn’t be professional as she was there in her capacity as mayor. Being professional gets in the way of a lot of cool stuff.”

“Definitely,” I agreed. I’d already run into several occasions when being professional interfered with the most expedient way to conduct an investigation. Things like breaking-and-entering being illegal and interfering with police investigations were a constant trial in my line of work.

Ida Belle snorted.

“So who are the king and queen?” I asked. “How are they picked?”

“Everyone in town who wants to, votes,” Ida Belle said. “Walter has a ballot box down at the General Store. They have voting for a week in September. You were in DC when it happened.”

“They do it that far in advance?” I asked.

Gertie nodded. “The king and queen have to get their costumes ready. And no one wants to go the simple route. Every year, the new king and queen try to outdo the year before. They’ve gotten very elaborate. Lots of sparkly stuff. Very pretty.”

“So who was chosen for this year?” I asked.

“No one knows until they show up at the party,” Ida Belle said. “Well, no one except Walter, Carter, the parade organizers, and the people chosen.”

“Which means Ida Belle,” Gertie said. “And because she won’t keep a secret from me, that means I know as well.”

“That’s because you’ll badger me until I either tell or shoot you,” Ida Belle said.

“Well, don’t keep me in suspense,” I said.

“It’s Ally and Deputy Breaux,” Gertie said, doing her bouncing and clapping routine again.

“Cool!” I said. “Ally will be a beautiful queen. I’m a little surprised at Deputy Breaux, though.”

“I think people wanted to give him a boost given how difficult things were around here last year,” Gertie said. “He really had to step up to the plate and learn to handle things on his own. I think most of us worried that he’d never be able to make a decision without Carter telling him what it should be, but he did a great job considering everything he was up against.”

“I can see that,” I said.

The previous year in Sinful, a crime wave had sprung forth that started the day I stepped into town. Fortunately, none of the crime had actually been because of me, but there were some that still liked to point out that my arrival had appeared to be the catalyst that unearthed all of Sinful’s sins. And as it appeared I’d made it a personal goal to get in the fat middle of every one of them, I had my detractors among the locals.

“Here.” Ida Belle handed me a cup. “Try this and let me know what you think.”

I hesitated a second because I never really knew which direction they had gone with flavors or with proof. Some of their cough syrup could take salt corrosion off a pier. I smelled it first and got a waft of spicy.

“Cinnamon?” I asked.

Ida Belle nodded. “Red Hots. We needed a spicy one for the party but wanted to go the sweet route. I suggest a gulp and not a sip. Best if it misses your lips.”

I should have known better, but I dumped the contents of the cup in my mouth, figuring I’d hold it for a couple seconds to take in the flavor, but that wasn’t going to happen. It was sweet and the flavor might have been nice if it hadn’t burned off my taste buds. I struggled to swallow but finally gave up and spit it out in the sink. If someone turned another stove burner on, I could probably ignite it.

I stuck my entire head under the faucet and let water run into my mouth and pour out.

“It’s good,” Ida Belle said to Gertie.

I attempted a glare, but as I could only get one watery eye open, it probably wasn’t that effective. Finally, the burning went down a notch and I stood up.

“Don’t give her any of the hot batch,” Gertie said. “Otherwise, your water bill will be through the roof.”

I stared. “Hot batch? What was that?” I managed to speak but had developed what I was certain was a second-degree-burn lisp.

“That was the mild version,” Ida Belle said. “Hot is in the yellow bottle.”

“You people have different genetics than the rest of the world,” I said as I grabbed a piece of ice from the refrigerator and popped it on my tongue.

My cell phone went off and I pulled it out of my pocket. Carter. I answered with a somewhat muffled hello.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“Ida Belle’s,” I managed. “Why?”

“Shots were reported at your house,” he said.

“Well, since I’m not there, that’s not good.”

I disconnected as he was starting to talk again and grabbed my keys off the counter. “Shots fired at my house!” I said.

Ida Belle sat down the bottles and covered the glue while Gertie turned off the stove, and we all ran out the front door. By the time we got into my Jeep, everyone had a gun out.

“What the heck is going on?” Gertie asked as I tore down the street toward my house.

“I was hoping you guys would know,” I said. “Is it hunting season for something?”

“This is Louisiana,” Ida Belle said. “There’s always something being hunted. But not in the neighborhood.”

“You don’t think your former job has come back to haunt you, do you?” Gertie asked, and I could hear the concern in her voice.

I shook my head. “If this was anyone from my past, they would have made sure I was home and the entire house would have been blown to bits.”

I sped into my driveway, jumping part of the curb as I went, and sure enough, two pistol shots rang out from behind the house as we leaped out of the Jeep. I rounded the house at a dead run, pistol drawn and ready to engage. When I reached the back of the house, I immediately spotted the problem. My insane neighbor, Ronald—who couldn’t stand me—was in my backyard, firing his pistol at the alligator poised at the edge of the bayou. At least, I was pretty sure it was Ronald. He had his back to me but the pirate wardrobe definitely indicated it was him. Ronald lived for elaborate costumes, often of a questionable nature.

“Godzilla!” Gertie yelled and leveled her gun at Ronald.

Ida Belle grabbed her wrist as she squeezed off a shot and the bullet hit my grill.

I didn’t have time to register my dismay—over the grill, not Gertie trying to shoot Ronald—because the idiot lifted his pistol and fired another shot. Fortunately for Godzilla, Ronald was an awful shot. Unfortunately for Carter, that shot went over the gator and straight into the sheriff department’s boat, which was pulling up to the bank. Carter and Deputy Breaux both dived over the side and into the bayou.

“Drop it, Ronald!” I yelled. “Or I’ll shoot you, and you know I won’t miss.”

Ronald flashed a look at me of pure hatred that quickly dissolved into fear. “That gator is stalking me.”

“Drop it!” I ordered again.

“Please don’t make me,” Ronald pleaded. “As soon as he sees I’m unarmed, he’ll come after me.”

“You’re certifiable!” I yelled. “And you’re on my property waving and shooting a loaded gun. Think about the law and decide whose side it’s on.”

His shoulders slumped and the pistol slid out of his hand and onto the lawn. Carter and Deputy Breaux had surfaced and were dragging their now-sinking boat onto my bank. Carter was glaring at Ronald the entire time, but he must have figured I had the situation under control because he didn’t bother to issue any of his own orders.

I thought I had everything in hand until Gertie lunged. She hit Ronald with a tackle that would have brought down an NFL linebacker and he screamed so loud it made my ears hurt. Then I heard a low rumbling growl, like something from Jurassic Park, and I whipped my head around in time to see Godzilla push up on all fours and start hauling butt straight for Gertie and Ronald.

I let out a whoop that made Ronald’s screaming sound puny and everyone turned toward Godzilla, pistols drawn. I knew no one wanted to kill the gator, but shots rang out. I saw them hit the ground around the charging beast but none of them pierced his hide. Unfortunately, our attempts to warn him off hadn’t slowed him down in the least.

By this time, Gertie was straddling Ronald and strangling him with his lace collar. In the midst of gasping for air, Ronald must have heard all the yelling and turned his head to see Godzilla coming at them full speed. Adrenaline kicked in and he leaped up, sending Gertie sprawling to the ground next to him as he took off at a dead sprint for his house.

Godzilla didn’t even pause next to Gertie. He kept running full speed for Ronald, who realized he wasn’t going to make it to his house and opted for the magnolia tree on our property line instead. He scrambled up to the first branch and lay on it, clinging to it like a sloth. Godzilla stopped at the base of the tree and stared up at him. I figured he was silently wishing him to fall.

Ida Belle took off running for my house and I gave her a surprised glance before hurrying over to help Gertie up.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“I’m going to kill that moron!” she yelled and took off for the tree.

Godzilla saw her coming and lowered himself back down, then he shook his head back and forth as though he was attempting to convey his displeasure. Carter, Deputy Breaux, and I crept closer to the tree, guns still in the ready position just in case the gator found any of us as offensive as he did Ronald. I heard my back door slam and looked back to see Ida Belle running across the backyard with a pie pan.

“Wait!” I yelled at Ida Belle as she approached. “Ally made that.”

“Who cares who made it?” Ronald said. “Just give it to him so he’ll leave.”

“It’s apple cinnamon crumble and I haven’t even had a piece,” I said.

Everyone except Ronald looked conflicted.

“I have a fresh bass thawing in the laundry room sink,” I said. “Carter and I will just have to eat steak tonight instead.”

“Works for me,” Carter said. “But I’d like some of that pie now. He seems settled enough.”

Meaning Godzilla, not Ronald.

“I’ll make some coffee,” Ida Belle said as we all started to walk away.

“What about me?” Ronald yelled. “You can’t leave me here!”

“Sure I can,” Carter said. “I’ll see about getting you down when I’m done having pie. But then you’re going straight to jail. And you’re going to pay for the damage to my boat, for the expense to haul it back to the dock, and for my and Deputy Breaux’s aggravation. When I’m done filling out all that paperwork, I’m going to charge you with discharging your weapon on private property, and I might even work up a case for alligator poaching.”

Ronald’s face flushed red. “I was defending myself!”

Godzilla looked up and hissed and Ronald tightened his grip on the limb.

“Really?” I said. “So Godzilla came into your house and you chased him out with your gun?”

“That’s not important,” Ronald said.

“Yes, it is,” I said. “You know I have security cameras, right? I’ll bet that when we pull up footage over that apple pie we’re about to eat, we’ll see you trespassing into my yard to shoot that gator. He was never a threat to you.”

“What about Christmas?” Ronald raged. “He almost killed me. He ripped my costume off. Everyone saw me naked.”

“Your birthday suit is not the worst thing we’ve seen you in,” I said. “And since we didn’t get full frontal, I’m good.”

“I’m still kinda damaged by it all,” Deputy Breaux said.

Carter nodded.

I looked down at Godzilla. “We’ll be back later with a snack for you.”

The gator rumbled a little and I shook my head. Nothing surprised me anymore.

Gertie pulled out her cell phone and took a picture of Ronald and Godzilla. “You’re such an idiot,” she said. “A pirate costume? Really?”

“Pirates are rugged and tough,” Ronald argued.

“Ever heard of Captain Hook?” Gertie asked, and pointed to the gator.

We all laughed. It was time for pie.

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