Excerpt: Clue Krewe

Excerpt: Clue Krewe

Book 24: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One


I leaned forward in the pew and studied Pastor Don. He’d been hoarse before church when he’d greeted me, and one of the ladies who was helping set up the trays for the Lord’s Supper had passed him a coffee mug of the grape juice that Baptists use as a substitute for wine—because of that whole no drinking rule. He’d sipped at it while continuing to greet until the congregation was in and it was time to get the church show on the road…or the altar. He’d gotten a refill on the grape juice before he’d headed for the pulpit, and I’d hoped his voice would hold out.

Now, over halfway into the service, I was praying for something entirely different.

“And so God spoke to Moses from a burning bush,” Pastor Don said. “Apparently no consideration given to wildfires or that s’mores wouldn’t be invented for thousands of years.”

And that wasn’t even the first odd thing he’d said. I looked at Gertie, who had suddenly developed a coughing fit.

I leaned over and whispered, “You swapped out the grape juice for Sinful Ladies booze, didn’t you?”

The day before, I’d spent hours helping Ida Belle and Gertie bottle up Sinful Ladies Cough Syrup—street name High Octane Moonshine—in preparation for the Mardi Gras festivities coming next weekend. We’d tested so much of the product while flavoring and bottling that Walter and Carter had taken one look at us and left us all sleeping on Gertie’s kitchen floor. We’d barely made it up in time for church and I was feeling sketchy on running afterward, especially since at the moment, banana pudding didn’t sound all that great.

Gertie glanced at me before doubling over, her shoulders shaking from the laughter she was holding in, and I held back a groan. The new flavor of ‘cough syrup’ they were introducing this year at their Mardi Gras booth was grape. And while just a little of it packed an alcohol-induced stupor, it was smooth and sneaky, catching you by surprise. Hence our sleeping on the kitchen floor.

“Bottoms up with the blood!” Pastor Don yelled, then tossed back the rest of his ‘grape juice’ and slammed the glass upside down on the pulpit.

The rest of the congregation looked confused, but drank. Then the coughing began and everyone sitting at the ends of the pews grabbed the remaining shots from the deacons’ trays and started passing them around as if we were at a fraternity party. Ida Belle, who was in the loft with the choir, sniffed her glass, then looked at the ceiling. I figured she was praying there wasn’t a lightning storm headed our way.

“And the Lord Jesus said,” Pastor Don continued, “this is my body. Eat it in remembrance of me. Hmm, that sounds really bad. Too many episodes of The Walking Dead, probably. Hey, Jesus was sort of the first zombie, right?”

He popped the unleavened bread into his mouth and started to munch.

“These are pretty good, actually,” he said and took another. “And more blood to wash it down.”

He hurried down to the altar and grabbed the last remaining shot of ‘grape juice’ from the tray, barely beating out Old Mrs. Cline for it. She gave him a good whack with her cane, but he ignored her and downed the shot as though he was at the Swamp Bar.

“Okay, I’m calling it,” Pastor Don said. “I’ve got the munchies and these bits of crackers aren’t going to cut it. Thanks, God, for everything. Amen. You can all sing the last hymn on the way home. It’s ‘Nothing but the Blood of Jesus’—naturally.”

And with that, he headed out the side door, humming.

I checked my watch and saw we were finishing up ten minutes early, which wasn’t allowed, per se, at least not in relation to the banana pudding race. The rules were both churches had to dismiss at the same time, or the race was null and void. Heck, the café didn’t even open until church let out, but a forfeit suited me well enough. I didn’t feel like running and banana pudding lacked its usual allure. Everyone else jumped up and started out the doors, apparently not about to look an early dismissal gift in the mouth.

I picked up my tote bag that contained my tennis shoes and motioned to Gertie.

“Come on, Satan,” I said. “Let’s get out of here before the whole place explodes in fire.”

Gertie’s face was red from laughing and she clutched the pew in front of her as she rose, still shaking with merriment. “He called Jesus a zombie,” she said. “When everyone sobers up, they’re going to crucify him.”

“Seems appropriate. At least I don’t have to run.”

But as the words were leaving my mouth, the chimes at the Catholic church went off, signifying they’d let out for the day…nine minutes early.

“Do you think they saw us leaving?” I asked.

Gertie collapsed back on the pew again, this time laughing so loud they could probably hear her in the next parish. Ida Belle walked up, took one look at Gertie, and frowned.

“You gave that nun a bottle, didn’t you?” she asked.

‘That nun’ was a regular at the Catholic church and since Gertie had defrocked her at a cemetery and wrestled her in the street for Mardi Gras beads, giving her a bottle of booze didn’t appear to be her biggest offense against the woman.

Gertie nodded and managed one word in between gasping. “Communion.”

“Good Lord, the whole town is going to be in the drunk tank,” Ida Belle said.

“I thought Catholics drank on the regular,” I said. “They should be better off than the Baptists.”

Ida Belle waved a hand in dismissal. “Everyone drinks. Baptists just keep it to themselves. But very few people drink the likes of that mega grape syrup. You saw what it did to us, and the congregation only had one shot and then went snatching and grabbing for more. It might be too strong to sell. I think—”

“Race is on if the Catholics are out,” Gertie interrupted.

I pulled my tennis shoes out and handed them to her. “You’re up. If Celia had a shot of that booze, even Sheriff Lee could beat her today.”

Gertie let out a woot and pulled on the tennis shoes, then dashed—or some version of it—out of the church, shoving exiting drunks aside as she went. Ida Belle and I hurried after her, because a drunk Celia meant an even more spiteful and illogical Celia, if one could imagine that.

But it wasn’t going to be left to imaginations.

Gertie and Celia raced out of their respective churches and both stopped at the edge of the street. Like two gunslingers in an old Western, they stared at each other, arms out from their sides, each waiting for the other to flinch.

“It’s like two cats waiting to pounce,” Ida Belle said, then did a single clap.

That was all it took.

“May the force be with me!” Celia yelled and slashed at the air with her Bible. “And also with you.”

“Good Lord, she’s toasted,” I said.

“Well, Gertie’s hungover, so it seems fair enough,” Ida Belle said.

The two of them took off—sort of. Celia had a bit of an edge as the Catholic church was on the same side of the street as the café, but Gertie went for the diagonal cross to cut some of the advantage. Unfortunately, her diagonal also took a diagonal, and it looked more like she was trying to dodge a pursuing alligator than win a race. Fortunately, Celia was faring no better. She’d run out of one of her granny pumps and was now limp-trotting.

Until she hit a post.

She clawed the post and made her way back to standing, then noticed a bicycle propped on the other side. She hopped on the bicycle and set off in a wobbly race down the sidewalk. Ida Belle leaned back against the brick wall of the church and pulled a bag of peanuts out of her pocket.

“Want one?” she asked as we watched the show.

“I’m more of a Junior Mints sort of gal.”

She nodded. “But they melt in pockets and I don’t carry a handbag of death like Gertie.”

Gertie had now spotted Celia on the bicycle and was yelling ‘foul’ as she ran for the sidewalk.

“Uh-oh,” I said. “Gertie’s spotted a moped. I hope the owner didn’t leave the key in it.”

Ida Belle snorted. “It’s Sunday in Sinful. Of course the key is in it. This is supposed to be a safe place and a sacred day.”

“Do people here know Gertie?”

“And there she goes.”

I looked over to see Gertie take off on the moped, which was moving as wobbly as she’d been running.

“This isn’t going to end well,” I said.

Ida Belle shoved the peanuts in her pocket and we set off down the street, but there was no way we were going to catch up with them before they reached the café. The only plus was that the rest of the congregants were too tipsy to be in the way. Instead, they all clustered on the sidewalk and in the street, watching the show, which made our passage slower.

We’d just broken through the last of the church stragglers when I noticed the Open sign on the café was lit up. I pointed as we ran and saw Ida Belle frown. What was up in Sinful today? Protocol was being broken all over.

By that time, Celia and Gertie had almost reached the café. Celia was pedaling furiously, the entire bicycle shaking with the effort, and it looked as if she was going to win the race. But apparently the moped had a little more to give. Gertie cranked the throttle and shot forward.

Then hit a pothole.

The pothole launched the moped up and a bit sideways, then the front tire hit the curb and sent Gertie over the handlebars and right into Celia. They both went soaring straight through the plate glass window of Francine’s Café.

And landed right on Carter’s breakfast.

Then the table collapsed.

“Good Lord, they almost got my apple Danish!”

“Those religious folk are crazy!”

“At least there’s a tablecloth over that one woman’s butt. It will spoil your breakfast!”

All the patrons jumped up yelling at once as Ida Belle and I looked into the café through the giant hole in the wall that used to be a window.

Carter took one look down at his collapsed table and ruined breakfast and sighed.

“I was here first!” Celia yelled as she wrestled around on the floor with the tablecloth, only succeeding in wrapping herself in more. “She cheated! I want you to arrest that woman.”

“There’s a shocker,” Carter said.

“You cheated first,” Gertie said. “You got on a bicycle.”

“And you got on a moped. That has an engine.”

“Thanks, Captain Obvious.”

Carter cleared his throat. “Am I to understand that one of you stole a bicycle and another stole a moped and then you proceeded to destroy the stolen vehicles and Francine’s picture window?”

The entire café went so quiet you could have heard a fork drop.

“Uh,” Gertie said. “Well, I suppose, maybe…”

“The moped is mine.” A young man seated in the far corner rose.

Late twenties. Six foot even. A hundred seventy pounds. Great muscle tone. Didn’t look like much of a scrapper as he was kinda pretty, but those pretty boys could fool you. Still, he was on a moped, so I was going with threat level low but not necessarily determined. For all I knew, he could have an arsenal in that big storage trunk on the back as it was bigger than Gertie’s purse.

The young man stepped forward and waved his hand at Gertie, who had finally made it into a standing position. “I told Ms. Gertie that she could borrow it anytime.”

Carter narrowed his eyes at the man. “Dixon Edwards? Is that you?”

The man nodded. “It’s been a minute, Carter. Good to see you. Well, not necessarily at this exact moment as I seem to be part of some trouble, but overall. You know what I mean.”

Carter extended his hand and Dixon shook it.

“Good to see you as well. And trust me, the only thing you’re on the hook for is telling the real trouble that she could borrow your moped. You might want to reconsider that offer. Not that the moped will be usable with the front wheel out.”

“I’ll pay for the repairs, of course,” Gertie said. “I’m so sorry, Dixon.”

He nodded. “Is Scooter still fixing things around here? Maybe I can get it to him and he can look at it.”

“He moved in with his grandfather to help him out. Same house,” Carter said. “Just leave it right there for the time being. I need to get some photos for the police file I have to open.”

“Yes, sir,” Dixon said and gave Gertie an apologetic look.

“You’re arresting me?” Gertie asked.

Carter shook his head. “Nope, I’m arresting that Celia crepe rolled up on the floor.”

Celia, whose head was now the only part sticking out of the tablecloth, looked up at Carter and glared. “What are you arresting me for?”

“For stealing a bicycle,” Carter said. “Unless someone else wants to come forward and claim they gave Celia permission to use their property.”

Everyone looked down at the floor or up at the ceiling. A few people started whistling.

“Okay, then,” Carter said and motioned to Deputy Breaux, who’d apparently been notified of the event and was now hurrying across the street.

“Help me get her up and into a cell,” Carter said.

Deputy Breaux didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow—just leaned over and grabbed Celia’s shoulders and helped Carter haul her out. You had to love a man who really understood his town and his people. I could hear Celia screaming about the ‘fake sheriff’ all the way down the street. The rest of the café patrons cheered.

“Mommy! Mommy!” A child ran down the sidewalk crying. “The mean old lady with the ugly dress stole my bicycle. And look! It’s ruined.”

“We can fix it,” the woman said, casting a nervous glance at the window, then at the screaming Celia. “You shouldn’t say it was stolen.”

Ida Belle leaned toward me. “She’s Catholic.”

“But it was!” the child insisted. “You told me lying is wrong and it’s Sunday. I can’t lie on Sunday or God will punish me.”

The mother looked apoplectic but just forced a smile. “That’s right, dear. But maybe we’ll get you a new bike, okay?”

The mother practically dragged the child away from the café, the child still complaining loudly as they rounded the block.

“I’m really sorry, Francine,” Gertie said. “I’m happy to pay for the window and the etching.”

“And the table,” Ida Belle said. “And Carter’s breakfast.”

“And that tablecloth,” I said. “No one is going to want to eat on it now.”

Everyone in the café nodded.

Gertie waved a hand as she sank into a chair. “Just send me a bill. It was worth it.”

Francine gave her a critical eye as she snapped a finger behind her back. A couple seconds later, a busboy appeared with a broom and dustpan. She took them from the busboy and handed them to Gertie.

“You can start with cleanup,” Francine said and waved a hand at the window. “And all of this was for nothing by the way. My refrigerator is totally taken up with ingredients for pies for the Mardi Gras festival, so there’s no banana pudding. That’s why I opened early. I thought maybe I’d get you lot fed, then close up and give myself a break. Not like I have to make a hundred pies or anything this week.”

She gave the shattered window a frown, whirled around, and headed back to the kitchen.

“Ouch,” Gertie said. “She’s mad.”

“Look at her café,” Ida Belle said. “She should be mad.”

“Are you all right, Ms. Gertie?” Dixon asked.

“Some breakfast, a bottle of aspirin, and a heating pad, and I’ll be fine,” Gertie said. “Thanks for the cover.”

He shrugged. “You know how I feel about Celia.”

“If you’re hoping Carter dumps her in the bayou still wrapped in that tablecloth, then you feel the way most of us do,” I said and stuck out my hand. “Fortune Redding.”

He raised one eyebrow and shook my hand. “I’ve heard a little about you. Nice to put a face to the reputation. Good to see you too, Ms. Ida Belle.”

Ida Belle nodded. “Surprised to see you, though. I thought your mom was going to keep the house as a rental. Is she selling now?”

“No ma’am,” Dixon said. “Actually, she passed a month ago. Heart finally got her.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

Gertie and Ida Belle replied at once.

“She was a good woman,” Ida Belle said. “She deserved a better body.”

“Yes, ma’am, she did.”

“Are you seeing a doctor regularly?” Gertie asked.

He nodded. “So far, I’m clear, but I’ll keep a watch my whole life, I guess.”

“So are you here to sell the house?” Ida Belle asked.

“Actually, I’m a bit in between things—job, life, you know—and I think I’m going to live there a while and figure stuff out.”

“Well, let us know if you need anything,” Gertie said.

He smiled. “I could use a ride home. You can have my table. I’m going to pop back to Scooter’s place and ask about the moped. I’ll be back.”

“A ride is no problem,” Ida Belle said.

“Good,” Gertie said. “I’m starved.”

Ida Belle pointed to the broom. “You are on cleanup duty first. The last thing you want to do is order food from Francine when her café looks like this.”

Gertie sighed. “Order me eggs, toast, bacon, pancakes, and a blueberry muffin. And coffee. A whole pot of coffee.”

“You are not going to eat all of that,” Ida Belle said.

Gertie picked up the broom. “I’m going to try.”