Excerpt: Flame and Fortune

Excerpt: Flame and Fortune

Book 22: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One

 

I stood in my living room and stared at Ida Belle and Gertie, certain that they’d both been sniffing that glue Ida Belle used to fix cracks in her boat and splits in tires, and once—according to rumor—to patch a leaky roof.

“It’s official,” I said. “You’ve both gone senile. I knew with our age difference, it was something I’d eventually have to deal with, but I really thought I had a few more years of sanity. At least with Ida Belle.”

Ida Belle had the good grace to look at least moderately embarrassed.

“We wouldn’t ask if we had a better option,” Ida Belle said.

“Of course you have a better option—anyone but me,” I said.

Carter looked over from his very comfortable spot in my recliner and grinned. “Come on, Fortune. Take one for the team.”

“There are things beyond my limits for the team,” I said.

“So you’ll shoot someone for the team, but you won’t wear a sequined dress?” Carter asked.

I nodded. “Exactly.”

But it wasn’t just any sequined dress. It was a formfitting, boobs-up-high, where-the-heck-did-the-back-go, and is-my-butt-crack-showing sort of dress. And it came with a crown and a sash and of all things, a scepter.

“I refuse to be the queen of anything, even New Year’s,” I said. “Ask Ronald. That outfit sounds right up his alley.”

“He’ll say the scepter should be titanium, the fake diamonds in the tiara aren’t shiny enough, and the sash is knockoff satin,” Gertie said.

I raised one eyebrow.

“I didn’t say he’d be wrong,” Gertie groused.

“Why don’t one of you do it?” I asked.

“I volunteered, but Ida Belle won’t let me,” Gertie said and scratched her chest.

“Because I want to win,” Ida Belle said.

“Win?” I was confused. “I thought you just propped some victim on a tacky float and drove it through downtown. I’ve never heard anything about a contest.”

Carter laughed and picked up a gun magazine when I shot him a dirty look.

“There’s an, uh, unofficial contest,” Ida Belle said.

I reached over from my spot on the couch and grabbed the magazine out of Carter’s hands. “Okay, out with it. What is she not telling me?”

“There’s a standing bet down at the Swamp Bar on who has the hottest queen,” he said. “Everyone at the bar votes that night. The team who puts up the winner gets the biggest cut of the entry money. Everyone who picks the right queen gets their name in a pot for the rest of it.”

I stared at all of them in dismay. “You want me to be the subject of a Swamp Bar betting pool?”

“No,” Gertie said. “We want you to be the winner of a Swamp Bar betting pool.”

“But the queens are representing the two churches,” I said. “What about vanity? What about gambling?”

“What about gluttony?” Carter suggested. “You do race for banana pudding on Sundays.”

“Banana pudding is serious business,” I said. “I’m pretty sure the reason Jesus walked on water was because Francine’s banana pudding was on the other bank.”

“Preach,” Gertie said and scratched again.

Carter shook his head and grabbed another magazine.

“Will you stop scratching your boob?” Ida Belle said to Gertie. “It’s distracting me from the very serious conversation we’re having here.”

“I can’t help if it itches,” Gertie said.

Since she refused to meet Ida Belle’s gaze when she said it and then shoved both hands under her armpits, I was suspicious.

“What’s wrong with your boob?” I asked.

“Good God!” Ida Belle said. “Do we have to have this conversation?”

“Agreed,” Carter said.

“There’s a recliner at your house,” I said to him and turned back to Gertie. “Out with it. What injury do you have that’s causing the itch?”

“I might have burned myself a little,” Gertie said.

“Are you baking naked and on the sauce again?” Ida Belle asked.

“That’s a thing?” I asked.

“You should try it,” Carter said to me and grinned.

“I don’t bake—naked or otherwise,” I said.

“We put a ‘no baking while consuming’ warning on all bottles of Sinful Ladies Cough Syrup for a reason,” Ida Belle said. “People kept burning their fingers. Then there’s Gertie, who tried to make ten dozen sugar cookies while running a fever. She had bandages on parts that shouldn’t have been anywhere near an oven.”

“I was hot,” Gertie said.

Carter’s expression went from grinning to slightly pained. I didn’t feel remotely sorry for him. He could opt out of the conversation by going home. Since I was already at home, I was stuck with finishing the burning boob conversation or shooting everyone. As shooting everyone would require cleaning, I opted to hear more about the boob.

“So?” I asked Gertie.

“I wasn’t baking,” Gertie said with a sly grin. “But I was definitely heating things up.”

Ida Belle looked slightly afraid. “This isn’t a sexy-time story, is it?”

“Fortune asked,” Gertie said. “The rules state that I can’t bring up the details voluntarily, but since she asked, you’re going to hear about it. So I had a special Christmas outfit for Jeb and things went a little wrong.”

“Please don’t tell me you were wearing tinsel,” Ida Belle said.

“Of course not,” Gertie said. “I’ve learned my lesson on that one. I thought I’d never get rid of that rash. Couldn’t wear underwear for a month. But I found some old Christmas tree lights in my attic and figured I’d make use of them.”

Carter jumped up from the recliner and practically ran out the front door.

Ida Belle stared at her in horror. “Old lights? The kind that burn so brightly you can get a tan standing next to them? You put old lights on your boobs?”

“It did look really sexy,” Gertie said. “And I think I would have been okay if there hadn’t been that power surge. Jeb was just about to hang some ornaments on me when they flashed so bright they blinded him and he went sprawling over an ottoman. My boobs felt like Satan was touching them and I was jumping around, trying to get the lights off. Took out two lamps, a painting, and his mother’s urn.”

“Good God,” Ida Belle said. “It’s a wonder you haven’t been banned from the entire state.”

“Urn?” I was still cringing.

“That wasn’t even the interesting part,” Gertie said. “So while Jeb was struggling to get up from the floor, given his bad back and all, and I was still flinging lights everywhere, his coonhound decided to start digging in the pile of her ashes and flung them all over the rug.”

Ida Belle and I were both apparently out of words. We just stared.

“It was okay though,” Gertie said. “Jeb said she wasn’t a pleasant woman anyway, so we vacuumed the rug and deposited her in the flower bed out front.”

“I was beginning to question why we’re friends when you told us about the lights,” I said. “But you sort of redeemed the whole thing with the efficient flower bed disposal part of the story.”

“I’m guessing Jeb’s mother might feel differently,” Ida Belle said.

Gertie shrugged. “The best part about dead people is that they can’t complain.”

I nodded. “A blessing considering my former line of work.”

Ida Belle shook her head. “Well, at least put some aloe vera on it so you stop scratching like a hound dog with fleas.”

“I already did,” Gertie said. “But it dries so quickly, I’d have to be putting it on every ten minutes to keep the itching down. At least the left one isn’t bothering me anymore. Just give the right one another day and it will probably be okay. I have my secret salve that I got from Nora, but I can only use it at night.”

I looked over at Ida Belle, who was studying Gertie with a somewhat concerned expression. I’d met Nora when we set her up to alibi us with Carter when we’d been inserting ourselves into police business. Nora had a hot tub and a ton of recreational drug stories. The drug stories almost always led to her male conquest stories.

“Would your boobs set off a drug-sniffing dog?” I asked.

Gertie laughed. “Definitely. Nora made this salve from her own stash and it’s supposed to be really low in THC, but that must mean at Nora’s tolerance levels. I rubbed some on last night, and me and my boobs were high as a kite for a good two hours—not in the literal physical sense, unfortunately. Gravity is still winning on that one.”

“It’s a good thing Carter left before all this came out,” Ida Belle said. “Hearing this would have given him hives, and then he’d need Nora’s salve.”

I laughed. “I’m pretty sure Carter is an automatic ‘no’ to anything Nora is offering.”

“That’s because she’d be offering Carter more than salve,” Ida Belle said.

We all grimaced.

“So enough about my boobs,” Gertie said, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

“Thank the Lord,” Ida Belle said. “Back to the matter at hand—”

“I’m still not going to be Miss New Year’s Hoochie to be put up for a Swamp Bar vote,” I said. “What I can’t figure is why the two of you thought I’d go along. You know me. Sequins? A dress that barely covers the important parts—and wouldn’t if I bent or, God forbid, sneezed. I’d love to hear where you think I’d put my pistol. And don’t tell me you expect me to leave it at home, because then I’ll assume you don’t even know me.”

“Lord no!”

“That’s just crazy talk!”

They both responded at once.

“We just figured that since you’re so fit, you’d be perfect to wear one of those thigh straps so you can stick it on the inside of your thigh,” Gertie said. “I think they’re sexy as hell but when your thighs already rub, you don’t go putting ridged metal in between them.”

I stared at her in dismay. “The two of you were discussing my thighs?”

“Would it sway you any to know that the betting pool is projected to pay out 5K to the winning team?” Ida Belle asked.

“Holy crap!” I said. “And that’s just a cut? I didn’t even know there was that much loose change in Sinful.”

“People pony up for the important stuff,” Ida Belle said.

I frowned. “If this is such a big deal then why didn’t I hear about it last year? I went to that parade. I don’t remember a queen and certainly nothing about a bet.”

“This will be the first time we’ve had it since the Big Horrible ten years ago,” Gertie said.

“What was the Big Horrible?” I asked. “A hurricane?”

“No, but it was catastrophic,” Gertie said. “At least for Millie Turner.”

I looked at Ida Belle because clearly, I wasn’t going to get a straight answer from Gertie.

“She died, all right?” Ida Belle said. “Wrong place at the wrong time. There was this freak accident with a flock of geese, a diesel fuel trucker, and a fire-breather. That one is not on us. The Catholics’ queen was the fire-breather.”

“Which was sort of appropriate given that she was one of Celia’s friends,” Gertie said. “But you know how fire is with old party decor.”

It was official. I’d set up house in Crazy Town.

“No,” I said. “I don’t know about flammable party decor because I haven’t gone sitting on a float surrounded by it, and it doesn’t sound like I’m ever going to. Definitely not in Sinful—home of deranged geese and poorly placed diesel fuel truckers.”

“Oh, it’s different now,” Gertie said. “We have a fire truck positioned downtown, all of the floats have extinguishers, and there’s volunteers all along the route, just in case.”

“You say ‘just in case’ like that’s not the expected outcome,” I said. “This is Sinful. ‘Just in case’ is everyday business around here. If it’s so safe now, then why haven’t you had a queen since the night of the fire-breather horror show?”

“We weren’t allowed,” Ida Belle said. “The mayor banned queens from the New Year’s festivities for ten years. He never liked the Sinful Ladies or God’s Wives.”

“I’m pretty sure he thought most of us would be dead by the time that decade of undue punishment rolled around,” Gertie groused. “But we showed him. The only one from back then who won’t be attending the parade is the mayor. May he rest in discomfort.”

“That’s not very Christian,” Ida Belle said.

“Neither is lying about how I feel,” Gertie said. “I went with the lesser offense.”

“So what do you say?” Ida Belle asked. “We can split it three ways?”

I thought for a moment, then narrowed my eyes at them. “These floats aren’t pulled by horses, are they?”

“No,” Gertie said. “We decided horses were too risky, so we opted for regular pickup trucks. The floats will have a big throne on them so that everyone can see the queens over the cabs as they approach.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t opt for tractors for a more Southern flair,” I said.

“It was suggested, but the noise level is too high,” Ida Belle said. “And then there’s the exhaust. We didn’t want you guys covered in soot by the end of the route.”

“Is it really a good idea to collect a bunch of drunk Sinful residents around moving vehicles?” I asked. “We’ve been that route before, and I’m figuring New Year’s is when even people who don’t normally drink have a few. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.”

Gertie nodded. “Marie thought so, too, so she approved the parade for Thursday night. With New Year’s Eve being Friday and with some people still having to work that day, she figures that will keep the worst offenders from living it up too much at the parade. That and they’ll want their reserves for the parties Friday night.”

I blew out a breath. I could tell it was important to them, and I really wanted to help, but I didn’t want to provide the kind of help they needed.

“I don’t need the money,” I said. “And for that matter, neither do you, Ida Belle. Gertie, however, needs it for LED lights and a skin graft.”

Gertie waved a hand in dismissal. “I’ve got the special cream, and after that incredible first round with it, I was thinking about bringing it to Jeb’s and have him try—”

“Nope!” Ida Belle threw up a hand.

“It’s not really about the money,” Gertie said, giving Ida Belle the side-eye. “Sure I can always find something to spend it on, but it’s really about gloating rights over Celia’s crew.”

“So ask Ally,” I said. “She’s gorgeous, and being Celia’s niece would make winning even sweeter.”

“We already asked,” Gertie said. “She said she’d rather eat cinnamon rolls from a can.”

I stared. “That’s a pretty serious statement. So what are you not telling me? Why is Ally so adamant against doing it? She was the something-or-other queen before. Why not this one?”

“I think she wants to avoid any comparison with the competition,” Ida Belle said.

I narrowed my eyes. “Who is Celia’s crew putting up?”

Gertie rolled her eyes. “Riley-James Rogers.”

“Why does she have three last names?” I asked.

“It’s a Southern thing,” Ida Belle said. “They’re all family surnames.”

“There isn’t some weird requirement in Sinful that you have to name the fifth baby born in the year of the Octopus using three surnames, is there?” I asked.

Ida Belle shook her head. “That was free will.”

“Fascinating,” I said. “I’ve never heard of her. And I definitely would have remembered if I had, especially with the name thing.”

“You’ve never met her,” Ida Belle said. “She shot out of Sinful like she was on fire seven years ago and hasn’t been back since,” Ida Belle said.

“Until now,” Gertie said.

“I’ll bite,” I said. “Why is she back now? Why does Ally hate her? And why would she want to be the New Year’s Queen if she hates Sinful so much she fled?”

“I wouldn’t say that Ally hates her,” Gertie said.

“Cinnamon rolls from a can,” I reminded her.

“True,” Gertie said. “Well, the long and short of it is RJ—as she was referred to as a teen—”

“Well, thank the Lord someone had the common sense to shorten that down,” I said.

“RJ left town to become a country-and-western singer,” Gertie continued. “She swore she was destined to be the next Faith Hill.”

“I’m going to guess that didn’t happen,” I said.

“One-hit wonder,” Ida Belle said. “She and Brock Benoit, a local boy, were thick as thieves and took out of here together right after high school, swearing they were going to make it big. She sang and he played guitar. They managed to get a song they wrote on one of those collaboration albums not long after they got to Nashville. It made the country charts for a couple weeks, but they were never able to duplicate the success.”

Gertie nodded. “Rumor mill said after that they took up the bar circuit and doing some party gigs—birthdays, weddings, that sort of thing—but worked day jobs like regular people to make rent.”

“The actual fact mill says Brock’s girlfriend was pregnant when he took off with RJ,” Ida Belle said.

I whistled. “So again, why is she back now? Sounds like she’d have a target on her back, and I can’t imagine she could pay the bills singing at the Swamp Bar. There’s certainly not enough locals who’d be interested in hiring her. Easier to crank up the stereo and spend the money on more beer.”

“Agreed,” Ida Belle said. “And jury’s out on why she’s back. I’m going to guess trouble, and since her return was a solo act, I’m going to go further out on that limb and say trouble with Brock. That’s assuming they’re even still a pair.”

“Maybe Brock’s afraid to come back as his ex-girlfriend’s father might fill him with hot lead,” I said.

“Also a possibility,” Gertie agreed.

“So were RJ and Brock ever a couple?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Gertie said.

“More like probably,” Ida Belle said.

“I guess someone forgot to tell the girlfriend,” I said.

Gertie nodded. “But that was high school. Lots of things can change.”

“Well, apparently not Ally’s dislike of her,” I said. “So what’s the story there?”

“RJ was part of the mean girl crew,” Gertie said. “She hung around with Pansy a lot.”

I frowned. Pansy was Celia’s daughter and Ally’s cousin. She’d bullied Ally her whole childhood and tortured her in high school by going after every guy Ally dated. Pansy had made a return trip to Sinful herself shortly after I arrived, and she’d gotten murdered due to involvement in all kinds of shady behavior.

“If this RJ has the same standards Pansy did, then Sinful wives better gird their loins,” I said.

Gertie nodded. “I would say I’m praying that she doesn’t bring trouble with her, but RJ and trouble are pretty much attached at the hip.”

“Great,” I said. “So why is Celia pushing for RJ to be the queen?”

“Because of the record thing and she kinda looks like young Sofia Vergara with green eyes,” Gertie said. “Tall, curvy, long dark hair, perfect skin…your basic nightmare.”

“You want me to run against Sofia Vergara?” I asked, completely dismayed. “I could fit a whole butt cheek in one cup of her bra. I don’t have curves or long sexy hair. And I’ve caused trouble in Sinful a lot more recently than her. I don’t think I’m the shoo-in you guys are looking for.”

“You’ve also got a lot of supporters in Sinful,” Ida Belle said. “You’ve helped a lot of people.”

“And there’s also the fear factor,” Gertie said. “It could get you some votes.”

“Besides,” Ida Belle said, “high school might have been a while back for RJ, but people in Sinful hold a grudge like they do a rare two-for-one beer coupon to the mini-mart up the highway. And RJ definitely racked up detractors.”

They both looked at me, all earnest and hopeful, and I felt myself crack just a little. It was always nice to get one over on Celia, but that still wasn’t enough for me to wear sequins and a push-up bra. It was the fact that RJ had been so mean to Ally that she still held a grudge that had me wavering. I hated mean. Deadly, I could appreciate, but mean was just cowardly.

“I’m not getting extensions again,” I said. “And I’m not wearing one of those bras with wire.”

“Butt cheek in bra,” Gertie reminded me.

“Gel pads is as far as I’m willing to go,” I said.

“Sold!” Ida Belle yelled, causing Gertie and I to jump.

I gave Ida Belle the side-eye. “You are overly happy about this, and it can’t be about the money.”

“It’s because RJ’s mother—Sawyer-James Rogers—has been hitting on Walter for a decade,” Gertie said.

“Wait,” I said. “RJ is Ally’s age, but her mother is after Walter? Not to be ageist or anything, but isn’t that a bit of a gap?”

“RJ was a late baby,” Ida Belle said. “Very late and very indulged. Sawyer had her when she was forty-two. Yes, there’s still some age difference, but I think that just makes her want him more. After Sawyer’s third husband took off, she started looking for security.”

“This woman flirted with Walter?” I asked, just making sure to clarify.

“Unmercifully. Tactlessly. And obnoxiously,” Gertie said.

“And she’s still alive?” I asked.

Ida Belle shrugged. “Since it bothers Walter more than anyone else, I didn’t see the point in wasting a bullet.”

“I guess you marrying him ended the hassle,” I said.

“Oh, she’s still at it,” Gertie said. “She’s counting on Ida Belle dying before her and still getting her man.”

I laughed. “If she only knew that Ida Belle will outlive her just out of spite.”

“Got that right,” Ida Belle said. “So we can count on you for this? For real?”

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but yes,” I said. “You know you guys owe me huge. Really. Huge. Because I’m never going to hear the end of this from Carter.”

“Name your price,” Gertie said.

“A housekeeper,” I said. “For a year. Every two weeks should be good.”

“That will take up all our winnings,” Gertie complained.

“But it won’t take up any of the bragging rights,” I said. “Fine. I’ll have pity on you and say for two months. At least that’ll get this place back in shape. And I want a case of beer. Carter’s always over here drinking mine.”

“Men can get expensive,” Gertie said. “But there’s all those side benefits.”

“We are not going to talk about benefits,” Ida Belle said. “Side or otherwise. What we need to talk about is your dress.”

“I get it,” I said. “I have to wear a dress and shove my boobs almost out of the top. Where is it? Might as well get this part over with.”

“We haven’t exactly bought it yet,” Ida Belle said.

I stared at her in dismay. “You expect me to shop, too? Good God. Is the apocalypse happening and I missed the Rider of Death?”

“The dress needs to be formfitting,” Gertie said. “And the only way to make sure that happens is for us to see your form in it.”

I sighed. “Two cases of beer.”

 

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