Excerpt: Change of Fortune

Excerpt: Change of Fortune

Book 11: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One

I was in that state somewhere between finishing up a dream and awakening when I heard the quiet shuffle of footsteps on the hardwood floor, but before I could bolt up and grab my gun, I heard Carter’s voice.

“Don’t shoot.”

I opened one eye and looked up at him, just remembering that he’d spent the night at my place. Since I was now fully awake and there was no way my adrenaline was going to drop down enough to doze back off, I sat up and checked the clock. Eight a.m. Jeez, I’d actually slept late.

Carter shook his head. “I’m going to start hiding your gun when I stay over.”

“I have a knife in my pillowcase and an assault rifle under the bed.”

“Of course you do. Well, if the urge to shoot something has passed, I made coffee.”

I stared. Carter had been downstairs to make coffee and I hadn’t heard him? I was seriously slipping. I held up one finger and scrunched my brow for a couple seconds.

“Yep,” I said finally. “I think I’m good.”

“It would be funny if I wasn’t sure you were telling the truth. Come on. I’ll make some French toast.”

I jumped out of bed in an instant. “You know how to make French toast? Why have you been holding out on me?”

“Because we don’t usually spend breakfast together unless we’re fully clothed and at the café.”

I grinned. “Best thing about breakfast at home. I don’t have to be fully clothed.”

He grabbed me and pulled me in for a kiss. “Best part for me, too.”

I gave him a shove and followed him downstairs to the kitchen, still smiling. When our relationship had moved past the kissing stage, we’d been secretive about it—never staying overnight, always parking in the garage—but really, there was no point. This was Sinful, and everything interesting in Sinful was a topic of conversation among Sinful residents. So we’d skipped convention the past couple times, deciding to throw caution to the wind and live in the twenty-first century.

Based on a couple of disapproving stares I’d gotten at church on Sunday, I was pretty sure our “secret” was officially out. I was just waiting on a call from Pastor Don, wanting to discuss the potential of impending nuptials. Sinful had some really old ideas on relationships and marriage. Of course, over half the population had an AARP card, so that probably factored in.

While Carter grabbed things needed to make French toast, I poured us some coffee, then took a seat at the kitchen table to watch him work. There was something about a man standing in your kitchen, cooking breakfast, and wearing nothing but boxers and a perfect physique that was certain to improve even the worst of mornings. Not that my morning was bad, but it was just getting started. Given my history in Sinful, I was going to wait a little before declaring it a success.

Carter had just put the incredibly aromatic slices of powder-coated greatness in front of me when his cell phone rang. I could hear Deputy Breaux’s frantic voice booming out, but all I caught was “Main Street,” “situation,” “now,” and then my favorite, “Celia Arceneaux.” Carter closed his eyes and sighed.

“I’ll be right there,” he said finally. When he opened his eyes, he looked at me, and at the same time, my phone signaled a text from Ida Belle.

Emergency downtown. Get Gertie and hurry.

Carter raised one eyebrow at me. “Your buddies summoning you to the situation they created?”

“Maybe. What’s the situation?”

“Apparently, Gertie’s alligator friend is terrorizing Main Street.”

Uh-oh.

Back when an alligator poacher was on the loose in Sinful, Gertie had “rescued” an alligator she’d named Godzilla and hidden him in her bathroom. After he’d destroyed the bathroom, chased me up a tree, and terrified the neighbors, the cat was out of the bag and Carter had insisted Gertie return Godzilla to the bayou where he belonged. Unfortunately, the gator had developed a taste for the fish casserole Gertie had been feeding him and kept popping back up, apparently in search of a home-cooked meal.

“Normally,” Carter said, “I’d tell you to stay put and mind your own business, but since you’re an accessory to this particular problem, I’m telling you to get the perp downtown as quickly as possible.”

“You don’t want to get her yourself?” I asked, feeling a bit confused over being officially ordered to insert myself into police business.

“I’d be happy to…assuming you’d like to go downtown and figure out how to get Celia Arceneaux down from a lamppost. It’s a blue underwear moon over downtown Sinful, according to Deputy Breaux.”

I cringed, considering all the ways Carter might have to help her down. People tended to be like cats. They could get up something, but getting back down was where they got stuck.

“Yeah, butt-grabbing isn’t on my list of things to do today,” I said, “so I’ll just get some clothes out of the laundry room and go fetch Gertie.”

Carter shoved his pistol in his holster, his jaw set.

“I promise to be fast,” I said. “Please don’t shoot Godzilla unless you absolutely have to.”

He raised one eyebrow. “And what constitutes ‘absolutely’ in your book?”

“If he’s going to eat someone I like. Or a dog or cat. I like dogs and cats.”

“But birds and Celia Arceneaux are fair game?”

I shrugged.

He struggled not to smile. “Hey, at least you know where you stand. I have no plans to gun down that gator in the middle of Main Street. It’s not his fault Gertie ruined him, but once they become a nuisance, it’s only a matter of time before bigger problems follow in their wake.”

He turned and headed for the front door. I ran into the laundry room and pulled on yoga pants, a T-shirt, and good running shoes before hurrying out to my Jeep. I had a .45 in the glove box so I was covered where weapons that would stop an alligator were concerned, although I was hoping it didn’t come to that. I didn’t have an attachment to Godzilla the way Gertie did, but I had an attachment to Gertie, which basically put me in the same position.

Gertie was standing on the sidewalk outside her house, with her ridiculously large handbag, and I figured Ida Belle had already tipped her off. “What took you so long?” she asked as she climbed into the Jeep.

“I had to get dressed and get a small lecture from Carter.”

“Oh crap. Carter stayed over? I hope Godzilla didn’t interrupt a good morning roll.”

“Worse. He interrupted French toast.”

She stared. “You cooked?”

“Carter cooked.”

“That is worse. Carter’s really upped his game from grilling hamburgers.”

“Yes, well, Carter and his French toast are chilling for the immediate future, so tell me what your plan is. I assume you have bribes in that black hole of a purse?”

Gertie nodded. “A casserole. I didn’t have fish so I hope he’ll go for chicken. And if that doesn’t work, I brought some cupcakes and a bag of Fritos.”

“No dip?”

She shook her head, the sarcasm apparently escaping her. “He never went for the dip. I tried French and bean.”

I had no idea what kind of response that comment merited, so I just nodded.

“How mad is Carter?” Gertie asked.

I knew what she was asking. She wanted to know if Carter planned on grilling gator tonight.

“He was pretty annoyed, and I don’t think that’s going to improve by having to help Celia and her blue underwear down from a lamppost.”

Gertie grinned. “I know it’s not funny for Carter, but when is that woman going to learn to wear pants? I keep thinking surely this has to be the last time she moons the town, but no. She always manages a new way to show her butt. Dr. Tyler has probably seen an uptick in profit, though.”

I nodded. Dr. Tyler was the local shrink. Some things you couldn’t unsee without professional help.

A crowd was gathered at the end of downtown, but not in usual form. This crowd was on each side of the road, standing on top of cars and in the beds of trucks. One look at the star attraction in the middle of Main Street and the elevated gathering made total sense. Godzilla was right in the center of the road, holding downtown hostage. Oh sure, you might be able to drive by without losing a tire, but then you’d miss the show.

Carter was parked at the end of the street at the curb, holding a ladder under the lamppost and trying to coax a reluctant Celia down. I glanced up and saw Celia, clinging to the post in a death grip, and knew there was no way she was coming down unless he went up the ladder and got her. I shook my head, still marveling that her completely non-muscular frame had not only hauled her plump body up the post but had managed to keep it there for so long. Adrenaline was truly a remarkable thing.

“Good God,” Gertie said. “What was she thinking, wearing that shade of blue with a red-and-white dress? Even if her big butt weren’t hanging out for all the world to see, that blue would have shown right through the white. She looks like a giant flag with those horizontal stripes.”

“At least she’s patriotic.” It was the nicest thing I could think of.

Ida Belle ran up to the Jeep, her expression a combination of glee and forced restraint. I knew she was dying to laugh at Celia but couldn’t until the gator situation was in hand. “About time you got here,” she said. “Were you baking a cake or something?”

“Chicken casserole,” Gertie said. “Lucky for us I had it out to warm for lunch or I’d have had to thaw it.”

“I don’t think she could have held for a thaw,” Ida Belle said, nodding toward Celia. “Fear only beats out gravity for so long.”

Carter waved at us and I knew that was our signal to do something. “Okay,” I said, “what’s the plan?”

“Just park here and I’ll get out the goods,” Gertie said.

“And then what?”

“Then I’ll get him to follow me to the bayou.”

Ida Belle shot me a nervous look.

“That’s a fifty-yard dash carrying a casserole,” I said. “That gator can run circles around you, assuming he chooses to run.”

Gertie waved a hand in dismissal. “Godzilla isn’t going to hurt me. I’ll just put down this casserole, snap on his leash, and get him back in the bayou where he belongs.”

“Great. I’ll stay here with a running engine and loaded gun,” I said.

“Me too,” Ida Belle seconded.

“Don’t you shoot my gator.”

“Tell him not to eat anyone and we won’t,” I said.

Gertie frowned and climbed out of the Jeep. She dug a small casserole and a pink leash out of her handbag and headed up the street. Everyone on the vehicles pulled out their phones and directed them at Gertie. In ten minutes, fifty videos would be up on YouTube. The question was whether they would be under the “Things You Can’t Believe” category or the “Unique Ways to Die” category.

Ida Belle jumped in the passenger seat and stood, looking over the top of the windshield as I eased the Jeep up behind Gertie. I know she’d told me to park, and I didn’t want to scare the gator, but I also didn’t want to be so far away that Gertie couldn’t sprint her way to safety if necessary. I got about twenty feet from the hissing gator, and he pushed himself up on his legs. That was my signal to stop. I pulled my gun out of the glove box, stood in the driver’s seat next to Ida Belle, and trained my gun on Godzilla. Ida Belle pulled a hand cannon out of her pants and did the same.

“Where the heck were you keeping that?” I asked. “You should be walking with a limp.”

“We all have our secrets,” Ida Belle said.

Great. Now I had to worry about what was in Gertie’s purse and Ida Belle’s pants. At least Ida Belle was a crack shot. Gertie fell more into the crackpot category, but somehow managed to come out of mishaps mostly unscathed. I was convinced she was part cat.

I drew in a breath and slowly let it out, stabilizing my breathing in case I had to fire. I didn’t want to shoot Godzilla, but I wouldn’t hesitate if it came down to it. Carter looked at Ida Belle and me and gave us a thumbs-up. We were officially clear to fire. It gave me a bit of gratification that Carter trusted me enough to light up a gator on Main Street if I had to. Even if he wasn’t necessarily thrilled with my skill set, at least he trusted it.

I have to give Gertie credit. She walked right toward the gator with zero hesitation. She was either confident or crazy. I was leaning toward the latter. When she got close to him, he lowered back down and threw his head in her direction, probably getting scent of the casserole. Gertie leaned over and placed the dish on the ground a couple of feet away from the gator. Godzilla tossed his head in both directions, as if making sure he wasn’t being flanked, then crawled to the aluminum pan and started eating.

You could have heard a pin drop as Gertie inched forward and gently placed the leash around the gator’s neck. When she rose back up, a low rumble spread through the crowd and Gertie beamed, then snapped her fingers and tugged on the leash. Godzilla, having consumed the meal, foil plate and all, looked at her and began to follow Gertie down the street.

Ida Belle elbowed me. “By God, the old fool is going to do it.”

She walked past the Jeep and grinned up at us and I whipped around, not wanting my face to show up in a million places on the internet. She continued to the end of the street and probably would have made it to the bayou, but some things simply aren’t meant to be. In this case, two things happened at once. First, the audience got excited and someone started clapping, which led to more people clapping. Carter waved his hands, trying to get them to stop, but it was too late. The alligator had stopped in his tracks.

Then Celia lost her grip on the lamppost. The ladder was right there below her where Carter had positioned it, but despite Carter’s coaxing, she’d never even attempted to use it. Now that time had come and gone. Her arms and hands gave out and she fell backward, plummeting toward the bed of Carter’s truck.

If Carter hadn’t been in the way.

I saw his eyes widen, but he had no time to move before she crashed down on top of him, screaming her lungs out. Or maybe it was Carter screaming. No one would have blamed him. All that blue coming straight for his face was probably more horrific than things he’d seen with the Marine Corps in Iraq. Celia fell on him like a ton of bricks and sent them both crumpling down in a heap of red, white, and blue. All the noise startled Godzilla, and he turned around and took off for Carter’s truck.

Because Gertie always found a way to make an impossible situation even worse, she’d stuck her hand in the end of the leash and was being pulled by the gator as he hurried for the patriotic commotion. They flew by the Jeep, Gertie barely managing to stay upright as she got yanked along.

“I don’t have a clear shot,” Ida Belle said.

“Me either.” Gertie was too close to the gator, and the risk of a ricochet into the crowd was too high.

I heard muffled yelling and looked over to see Carter shove Celia off of him. She flopped around a bit, then stumbled to her feet, promptly tripped over the ladder, and fell out of the bed of the truck and onto Main Street. When she saw the gator racing toward her, she let out a scream that was probably heard in deep space. Deputy Breaux jumped off the hood of a car and ran for Celia, but before he could get there, she’d sprung up faster than I thought she could move and made a beeline for the lamppost. Carter pulled out his pistol and trained it on the raging gator, but I knew he couldn’t risk a shot either.

Remembering Gertie’s backup food, I dropped down, pulled a box of cupcakes out of her purse, and tossed the bag of Fritos to Ida Belle. We jumped out of the Jeep and yelled at the gator as we ran, shaking our food offerings. I opened the box and tossed one of the cupcakes, scoring a perfect shot right in front of Godzilla. He stopped short and flung his tail around, tripping Gertie and sending her sprawling onto Main Street.

“Do not go up that post again!” Deputy Breaux yelled as Celia grabbed on to the post to start her ascent. Deputy Breaux sprang for her as she got a couple feet up and attempted to pull her back down. Unfortunately, he reached a little too high and all he came down with was the blue underwear. He made a noise that sounded partly like a scream and partly like a wail and flung the offending cotton behind him, smacking Carter directly in the face with it.

Godzilla finished the cupcake and turned his attention back to the fray in front of him. Someone in the crowd yelled for everyone to duck, and the next thing I knew, a flare flew over a line of people and landed right in front of the gator. I thought the stick of fire would send him running, but instead, he clamped down on it and flung his head back and forth as if working up a toss.

I ran up to him and waved the cupcake where he could see it. As soon as he caught sight of the food, he made a beeline directly toward me, still holding the burning flare, and I took off. Gertie had managed to get upright but still had her hand caught in the leash and was being pulled behind him. I just needed him clear of the crowd and the shops and then I could get a shot. It wasn’t what I wanted, but sometimes a mission didn’t go as well as one hoped. All the commotion had riled up the gator, and Gertie was a meal on a string. If he got to the water with her still attached, he’d pull her under and be gone before we could even scream her name.

I looked behind me and saw that the gator was a little too close for comfort and picked up the pace, praying that Gertie could keep up. Ida Belle dashed back to the Jeep, and I saw her digging in Gertie’s handbag as I ran past. As we rounded the corner of the shops, Godzilla tossed his head to make the turn and pitched the flare into a snow-cone stand, sending a cardboard sign advertising the specials up in flames.

Once Godzilla straightened back out, he picked up speed and so did I. I just needed to get him far enough away to mitigate the potential damage of a ricochet. When I was about ten feet from the water, I threw the cupcake, spun around, and pulled my pistol from my waistband, leveling it at the charging gator. But before I could fire, Ida Belle jumped in front of me and sliced the leash clean with an enormous hunting knife. Godzilla dashed into the water, snagging the cupcake, and then disappeared below the surface, leaving only a trail of bubbles and chaos on Main Street in his wake.

Ida Belle and I dropped down next to Gertie, who pulled the leash off her wrist, revealing a nasty burn. Her pants were a casualty of the fall, and her knees hadn’t fared much better.

“Can you stand?” I asked.

Gertie nodded. “I’m fine. It’s just some scrapes.”

Ida Belle threw her hands in the air. “Are you kidding me? You won’t be walking tomorrow without a round of aspirin and a couple shots of cough syrup. I swear, woman, one of these days, you’re going to have a heart attack over your antics. Or give me one.”

“Oh, stop your bitching,” Gertie said. “You’ve been saying that for decades now, and yet here I am, still going strong.”

I heard rumbling behind us and saw Carter round the corner, a small crowd a bit behind him. A billow of dark gray smoke towered in the air behind them. “We need to shelve this argument for now,” I said. “We have a bigger threat at the moment.”

Carter was seriously pissed.

He strode up to us and gave Gertie a once-over. He must have decided she looked good enough, because he didn’t inquire about her injuries.

“Where’s the gator?” he asked.

“Took off down the bayou,” I said.

“Why didn’t you shoot him?” he asked. “And don’t bother trying to weasel out of it with excuses about no clear shot or worrying about your ability. We both know better.”

“I didn’t have a clear shot until right at the end,” I said.

“So why didn’t you take it then?”

“Because Ida Belle jumped in the way and cut Gertie loose,” I said. It was sorta the truth. Ida Belle had jumped in the way. A little. I mean, I could have shot around them both, but there was no use admitting that. Not if I wanted to stay out of the doghouse.

“Cut her some slack,” Ida Belle said, her voice low. “She’s used to shooting people, not gators. And probably never with an audience standing behind her.”

Carter sighed. He was still mad but he couldn’t argue with our logic. Unfortunately, the most illogical person in Sinful chose that moment to come stalking up to us and train a gaze of death on Gertie.

“I have a clear shot now,” I whispered.

Carter hesitated a full second, then shook his head.

Celia stomped through the crowd, pausing to grab her handbag from a teen who’d held it out to her as she passed. I recognized him as one of the busboys from the café.

“You should be ashamed,” Celia said to him, “trying to steal a lady’s handbag.”

The teen flushed with anger. “I’m returning your handbag, you ungrateful old crow. And don’t even confuse yourself with a lady.” He turned around and stalked off through the crowd.

“I want that woman arrested,” Celia said as she stepped up and pointed at Gertie.

“For what?” I asked. “Trying to keep that gator from snacking on your big blue butt?”

Celia’s face turned even redder, and she started to sputter. “That…that BEAST chased me down the street from the butcher shop. He ate thirty dollars’ worth of deer steak that I’d just purchased.”

“Shorty’s got deer steak?” Ida Belle asked. “He’s been holding out.”

“Stop it!” Celia screamed, spittle flying out of her mouth and spraying all of us. “Stop all your blather. Do your job for once and arrest her.”

The aggrieved look on Carter’s face said it all. “She hasn’t broken any law.”

“She created a public nuisance,” Celia ranted. “Or do you plan on letting that alligator take over downtown?”

“You’re a public nuisance,” Ida Belle said. “Carter should arrest you for attempted assault since he could have suffocated to death when you fell on him.”

“There’s also the whole blue-underwear-in-the-face thing,” I said.

“Like I wanted any of that to happen,” Celia said.

“Please,” Gertie said. “That’s the first and last time you’ve ever been astride a good-looking man. Don’t knock the gift horse.”

If Celia’s head could have spun around on her shoulders, it would have. I actually saw a vein appear on her forehead. She raised her hand in the air and I swear she was about to lose it completely and attempt to hit someone when I heard a horse approaching.

I looked over and saw the ancient Sheriff Lee approaching on his even more ancient horse. Celia dropped her arm and smiled. “Finally,” she said. “Someone who knows how to uphold the law.”

I was fairly certain that Sheriff Lee was expending most of his energy upholding himself on the horse, but who was I to get in the way of Celia and her idea of justice? We all counted the seconds, then minutes, as the sheriff made his way over to us, and before he could even issue a greeting, Celia started in.

“First off,” she said, “I want you to know that this town has become a tragedy ever since you turned the reins over to this sorry excuse for a deputy.”

“What?” Sheriff Lee yelled and held one hand up to his ear, apparently trying to form a funnel to make things louder. “I’ve got the reins right here. What the hell are you talking about?”

“I want you to arrest Deputy Breaux for assault and personal property damage,” she said.

Sheriff Lee stared. “Who’d he assault?”

“Me!” Celia yelled.

“What was the personal property damaged?” he asked.

“A blue parachute,” Gertie said.

I tried not to laugh, I swear. I didn’t want to make things worse for Carter, but when Ida Belle started chortling, I couldn’t help myself. Then Gertie joined in and before long, we were a huddled mass, shaking with laughter. Exhausted from the stress, the run, and mostly from Celia’s existence, I sank onto the ground and drew in a deep breath, trying to get control of myself. Gertie and Ida Belle dropped next to me and Carter gave us a disapproving look, but I could see his lips quivering.

“The deputy pulled off my undergarments,” Celia continued. “Ripped them right from my body.”

Sheriff Lee stared at Celia for a bit, then looked over at us, his expression one of complete disbelief and massive confusion. “So, er, you’re not saying this was a sexual assault, are you?” he asked.

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Celia said.

“And where did this alleged assault happen?”

“Right here on Main Street.”

Sheriff Lee shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“What do you mean you don’t think so?”

“I’ve known Deputy Breaux his entire life and unfortunately, that goes for you as well, and the only polite thing I can say is I don’t buy it. You must be mistaken.”

Celia put her hands on her hips and glared at Sheriff Lee. “What?”

“Dang woman, your hearing’s worse than mine,” he yelled. “I’m saying it must have been an accident because there’s no way Deputy Breaux put his hands on your drawers on purpose.”

Celia let out a strangled cry. “Well, I never!”

Sheriff Lee nodded. “That’s what I’m saying.”

Someone in the crowd that had formed around us took that moment to slingshot the blue underwear directly at Celia’s head. She snatched the panties off her head and I swear if they’d been a bomb, she would have set them off right there, killing us all.

“There you go,” Carter said. “Your personal property is recovered.”

“No damage except the stretch marks from her wearing them,” Gertie said, and collapsed in my lap.

Celia whirled around and stalked away. “You haven’t heard the last of this.”

I smiled up at Carter. “Still have a clean shot.”

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