Excerpt: Fortune Funhouse

Excerpt: Fortune Funhouse

Book 19: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One

 

“Hurry up before the line gets too long!” I yelled as I grabbed Ida Belle’s arm and pulled her through the crowd.

It was carnival time in Sinful, or as the residents called it, ‘the fair.’ Basically, that meant that a traveling carnival had set up rides, games, and tons of fattening food stands on a huge patch of open land just off the highway from downtown. The carnival came to Sinful every two years and was a huge draw for anyone within an hour’s driving distance. The place was absolutely packed.

“This obsession you have with funnel cake isn’t healthy,” Ida Belle said when we came to a stop in front of the stand that sold the yummy goodness I craved.

“I have news for you—most obsessions aren’t healthy.”

Walter, who had taken a more leisurely tack at approaching the stand, chuckled as he stepped up behind us.

“Besides,” I continued, “I ran an extra three miles every day for the past two weeks just to prepare for this.”

“That’s your third one,” Ida Belle said. “Maybe you should have made it an extra five.”

“Oh, leave the girl alone,” Walter said. “She looks great and I haven’t heard Carter complaining.”

Ida Belle gave her new husband a withering stare. “That’s because she can outshoot him. And I couldn’t care less what Carter thinks. I want Fortune to be in excellent shape because we never know when she might have to run from a bear or gator or bullet.”

Walter’s smile faltered.

“Don’t worry,” I told Ida Belle. “I plan on staying alive long enough to eat my weight in these.”

Ida Belle shook her head. “You and Gertie…planning on living forever.”

“You wouldn’t want to live forever?” I asked.

“Heck no!” Ida Belle said. “God didn’t make these joints to last that long.”

“Actually, people in the Bible lived for hundreds of years,” Walter said.

“Yeah, then at some point in the New Testament, God started subbing out parts to the Chinese, which is why we don’t last as long anymore,” Ida Belle said.

I grinned and handed a woman some money in exchange for the funnel cake. As we walked away, I offered some to Ida Belle and Walter but they both refused. I guess sharing two was their limit.

It had been about six weeks since Ida Belle and Walter had tied the knot and this was their first official outing as husband and wife—at least, the first outing that involved something other than Francine’s Café or fishing. Aside from Walter moving into Ida Belle’s house, not much else had changed. Most days, Ida Belle, Gertie, and I met for breakfast at my house or the café to work on PI business or gossip in lieu of having no PI business, while Walter set off every morning to open the General Store.

So far, their marriage seemed without issue but then, the only cases we’d had lately were about lost items and sketchy spouses. Nothing remotely life-threatening—except to the sketchy spouses after delivery of proof—which meant nothing remotely exciting. It would be interesting to see how Walter got along when the dynamite and high-speed vehicle chases were part of our daily fare. Not that we admitted to those things, of course, but it was Sinful. Things had a way of circling around. Or winding up on YouTube.

“So where is this talent contest?” I asked.

“In the big tent at the end of the fairgrounds,” Ida Belle said.

“And what is Gertie doing for her talent?” I asked.

Ida Belle gave me a grim look. “She wouldn’t say, which concerns me. And since we’ve been busy getting things sorted with Walter moving in, I haven’t been keeping up with her movements as much as usual. Now I’m afraid something that I could have prevented is going to blow up in our faces.”

“Then why do you want front-row seats?” I asked.

“In case people need to be rescued,” she said.

“Ah.”

Walter adopted a slightly pained expression. Since marrying Ida Belle, he’d probably found out far more about Gertie’s somewhat daily exploits than he’d ever wanted to know. Rumor was one thing. Validation required more mental processing. I wondered briefly if Ida Belle had ever told him about the rocket launcher in her SUV but figured she probably hadn’t. I’d seen him riding with her and he didn’t look remotely panicked. If he’d known what kind of hardware was resting a couple feet from him, he would have had an eye twitch, at least.

“Carter said neighbors have made noise complaints for the last two weeks,” I said. “Maybe she’s going to do a duet with Francis.”

“That wouldn’t be so bad,” Walter said. “I mean, not in the big scheme of things.”

“Have you forgotten the Christmas Gala?” I asked.

Last year, Francis had single-handedly stolen and closed the show at the annual Christmas event. Well, until Santa was murdered. That kind of topped Francis and his antics. But since we couldn’t count on a murder to distract from what Francis and Gertie might get up to, it was probably a good idea to have the closest seats possible.

“Is Jeb coming?” I asked.

Jeb and his brother, Wyatt, were Vietnam vets and had recently helped us out on a big case. Jeb had taken a shine to Gertie and suggested they get together after we’d brought down the bad guy. Unfortunately, he and Wyatt had gone to north Louisiana shortly after to see to their aunt, who must be somewhere around Sheriff Lee’s age, and Jeb had strained his back while they were there. He’d been laid up ever since.

Ida Belle shook her head. “His doctor still hasn’t released him. My guess is if it were something simple, he’d do it anyway. You know how us vets are. But a couple hours in a car on top of walking the fairgrounds and sitting on hard metal chairs is rough on people our age who have a good back, much less a bad one.”

“Not to mention that if Gertie’s involved, running might be on the menu,” I said.

“Always a possibility,” Ida Belle said.

“So she drove over herself?” I asked.

“Yes,” Ida Belle said. “I offered to bring her but she said she had it covered. I think it’s because she didn’t want me to see what she was hauling.”

“That bird’s cage won’t fit in her car,” Walter said. “Not with the bird in it, and no way she’d carry him in her trunk.”

“She couldn’t carry him in the trunk anyway,” I said. “Not safely, at least.”

When I’d first arrived in Sinful, I’d been ‘interfering with police business’ with Ida Belle and Gertie and had tried to hide in the trunk of her car. I’d promptly fallen through the rusted mess right in front of Carter. Since then, she’d put a piece of plywood back there to cover it, but she wouldn’t put anything of value back there.

“Maybe she’s got him on the tether,” I said.

“With all this noise?” Ida Belle waved a hand. “She’d be crazy to risk it.”

Walter and I stared.

“Okay, so we know she’s crazy, but she’s also crazy about that bird,” Ida Belle said.

“That’s true,” I said.

“I know for sure she brought something of size though,” Ida Belle said. “I had a couple of the Sinful Ladies who live nearby watching her house this morning to see if they could spot anything of concern. Gertie put a large cardboard box in the front seat of her car. They said it wouldn’t have fit in the back. Then she put another box in the back seat. They said it looked like this one was heavier than the bigger box.”

“No labels on the boxes?” I asked.

Ida Belle shook her head. “They were new boxes purchased from one of those moving stores.”

I frowned. If Gertie was going to such lengths to hide what she was bringing to the fair, then she knew she was being watched and she really didn’t want anyone to know what she was up to. Which spelled potential disaster.

“Does the fair have medical professionals?” I asked.

“There are always paramedics on duty,” Ida Belle said.

“Firemen?” I asked.

She nodded.

“Well, short of hiring a bomb squad to be on call, I don’t know what else we can do,” I said. “Except what we’re doing.”

“Is this how your investigations go?” Walter asked. “You two wondering what Gertie is going to do that might get you killed?”

“Sometimes,” I said. “We checked her handbag for a while but we found it more worrisome than not knowing. And the truth is, her bag of tricks has saved our hides more than it’s jeopardized them. I’m pretty sure. Maybe.”

“That doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence,” Walter said.

“Then it’s a good thing you’re not working with Fortune,” Ida Belle said. “There are always risks in that sort of work.”

“Sure. Being injured or killed by bad guys,” Walter said. “You’re not supposed to have to worry about your wingman.”

“No,” I said. “But it would be a lot less exciting if she was predictable.”

Walter shook his head. “I give up.”

“You might as well,” Ida Belle said. “Gertie’s old as Christ and isn’t likely to change. I’m old as Christ and never was going to change. And Fortune already has Carter to deal with. She doesn’t need you hovering as well.”

“It’s okay, Walter,” I said. “I understand your hovering and think it’s touching. But it’s only going to affect your blood pressure.”

“Which is why my general policy is that I prefer to be kept in the dark,” Walter said. “Unfortunately, the whole town is here at the fair and Gertie’s about to spring something on us and you two are worried about it. So me and my blood pressure are right where we need to be.”

I smiled. I couldn’t really argue with him. All I could do was pray for the best.

Since we were early, we found seats in the front row just off center of the stage, but the crowd wasn’t far behind. People swarmed into the tent, grabbing a folding chair wherever they could find room. When those were all gone, people threw blankets on the ground and sat there. I really hoped we didn’t need to clear the tent quickly because it would be a cattle stampede in an enclosed space.

By the time everyone had gotten situated, it was time for the contest to begin. Marie, Sinful’s current mayor and Ida Belle and Gertie’s longtime friend, stepped onto the stage. Everyone cheered, except for Celia’s crew, who’d taken up seats in the front couple rows on the opposite side of us. I scanned the group, looking for their ringleader, but didn’t see her.

“Where’s Celia?” I asked.

“Celia’s in the contest,” Ida Belle said.

I stared. “Doing what? The only talents she has that I’m aware of are complaining and flashing her big panties at completely inappropriate times.”

“Good question,” Walter said. “She can’t play an instrument or sing and since she can’t walk without falling lots of the time, I’m going to hazard a guess that dancing is off the table as well. Maybe she’s going to pull up a chair and knit.”

“She doesn’t knit well either,” Ida Belle said. “Doesn’t cook worth a darn. Doesn’t grow flowers or vegetables. Doesn’t fish. Honestly, as a Southern woman, she’s pretty much a failure.”

I frowned. “So you’re saying I’m going to have to take up some of those if I ever want to be considered a successful Southern woman?”

“You can shoot a gun like no one’s business,” Ida Belle said. “That gets you an automatic in.”

Walter nodded.

“Can I have everyone’s attention, please?” Marie said, and the crowd quieted. “It’s time to begin our show. We have five acts competing tonight. At the end of the performances, we’ll put the vote to our residents by applause. Without further ado, let the show begin!”

Scooter was the first contestant on stage and I looked over at Walter, who seemed surprised to see his chief mechanic and all around go-to employee on the stage. Scooter wasn’t the most outgoing of Sinful’s residents, but since he was holding a guitar and had some contraption around his neck with a harmonica in it, I assumed we were about to hear some music.

When he started playing, I stared in shock. He was good. No. He was excellent. I looked over at Ida Belle and Walter but they seemed as amazed as I was. Apparently Scooter had found ways to occupy his empty date-night calendar rather than resorting to television and beer. When he was done, he got a big round of applause and cheering.

“I didn’t know Scooter could play like that,” I said.

“I don’t think anyone did,” Walter said. “I’m impressed.”

“He might win this thing,” Ida Belle said.

Walter nodded. “He certainly has a shot with that performance.”

Scooter headed behind the big curtain and then around to the side of the stage where there were chairs for the contestants to sit and watch the show. The curtains parted again and Ronald, my quirky next-door neighbor, stepped out, then started inching across the stage in a huge dress. It was gold and burgundy and looked like something I’d seen in a painting of Queen Elizabeth. He even had a headpiece that was sort of shaped like a heart and had jewels all over it.

“Lord, this ought to be good,” Ida Belle said.

“At least Godzilla won’t show up at the fairgrounds,” I said.

Gertie’s gator friend had made an impromptu appearance at Ida Belle and Walter’s wedding right as Pastor Don was about to pronounce them husband and wife. Ronald, who had apparently been channeling Gertie, had a small casserole stashed in his purse and offered to distract the beast with food so Pastor Don could wrap up the service. Unfortunately, Godzilla charged, Ronald threw the casserole up and ran, Godzilla chased, and ultimately, we had to sacrifice a bowl of crab dip to get him back in the water. There was a brief moment when we were all afraid the caterer was going to shoot Godzilla or Ronald or both. She didn’t take crab dip lightly.

As for Ronald, well, he wasn’t just fit to be tied, he was actually tied. The long train and veil of his princess dress had gotten caught on a branch when he shinnied up a tree, and when he slipped, he managed to roll himself over and over in it and finally just hung there like a bug in a cocoon.

“I don’t suppose Ronald’s been in your backyard since we cut him out of that dress,” Ida Belle said.

I shook my head. “I’m hoping that means his worship of Godzilla is over with, but then, I haven’t seen Godzilla in a while, so I can’t be sure.”

“At least he has nicer underwear than Celia,” Ida Belle said.

I nodded. “And you called it—the ceremony was barely over before we saw someone’s butt.”

“In Sinful, that’s a sucker bet,” Ida Belle said.

“Tonight,” Ronald said, in his most pompous voice, “I will perform ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ from Les Misérables.”

“Here we go,” Walter said.

The music started and Ronald wrestled with the microphone a couple seconds before getting it off the stand. He was unfortunately successful in turning it on and he began to sing. I wasn’t big on opera, but I remembered the song from a rerun of one of those British talent shows Gertie made me watch. Ronald was not that woman. That woman made opera sound good. Ronald sounded like dying cats.

A lot of people put their hands over their ears and I struggled to keep from following suit. If I’d known I would be subjected to bad opera, I would have brought cotton balls. Carter had taught me that trick at the Christmas Gala. Then Ida Belle jabbed me in the side and handed me some pieces of something.

“Sound-deadening material,” she said.

“Thank God,” I said and pushed the pieces in my ears.

I could still hear the awful singing but at least it was as if the volume were on low. Ronald wailed on for entirely too long, then finally finished with a high note that was so off-key even deaf people would have known. Then he did a curtsy to the crowd before strolling off. The crowd clapped enthusiastically, but I’m pretty sure it was because he was finished, not because they loved it. He tried three different times to sit down next to Scooter and finally they moved the chairs farther apart to make room for his dress.

“Two down,” Walter said as he pulled the material out of his ears.

The curtains parted again and this time Celia came out. A groan rippled through the spectators, except for Celia’s crowd, of course, who all jumped up and started cheering enthusiastically for their leader. I wondered briefly if they really liked her or simply did things her way to avoid listening to her complain. I glanced over at Ida Belle, who looked as uncertain of what was about to happen as I was. Finally, I decided Celia was trying to give Ronald a run for his money, at least in the wardrobe department. The difference, of course, was that while Ronald’s gown was elegant and masterfully sewn, Celia’s gown resembled one of those cheap Halloween costumes. The gown was putrid green and looked like one you’d see the owner’s daughter on a Southern plantation wearing, complete with the huge hat. She looked ridiculous.

“If she’s singing, I’m leaving,” I whispered to Ida Belle. “People will just have to deal with Gertie fallout on their own.”

Ida Belle nodded, her expression pained.

“I will be doing a dramatic reading from Gone with the Wind,” Celia said.

More groans. Ida Belle, Walter, and I promptly popped the bits of material back in our ears. At least it wasn’t singing. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to hear. Unfortunately, Celia’s voice carried, and I figured it was rude to hum, even though some people probably would have appreciated it. Just when I caught my right hand involuntarily reaching for my nine-millimeter, we were saved from listening to Celia’s horrible monologue of the entire movie.

Marie stepped out from behind the curtain and said, “Thank you for that lovely rendition of a beloved movie, Celia. That fulfills your time slot, so it’s time for the next act.”

Based on the way Celia glared at Marie, I had to assume that no time limits had been part of the rules when she’d signed up. But since the audience had started enthusiastically clapping when Marie announced Celia was done, the always disgruntled woman had no choice but to huff off to the side of the stage and flop into a chair. Ronald gave her an up-and-down look and sniffed, clearly not impressed with her gown. It was all I could do not to laugh.

“We owe Marie drinks or a pie or something,” I said to Ida Belle. “Maybe a new bass boat.”

Marie picked up the microphone from the platform where Celia had dropped it.

“Let’s get on with the show,” Marie said. “Next up is one of Sinful’s favorite and more colorful residents—Gertie Hebert.”

Cheers started before the curtain ever parted and then Gertie emerged. The entire crowd went quiet. She was decked out in the most elaborate costume I’d ever seen. It was a dragon, complete with actual scales that glittered and eyes that looked like jewels. No wonder she’d needed a big box. Before she could take the microphone from Marie, Ronald jumped up from his chair and started clapping.

“Bravo!” he yelled. “Absolutely stunning.”

“Sit down, you loon,” Celia said.

“Don’t speak to me,” Ronald said, looking down his nose at her. “You’re wearing machine-produced lace.”

Gertie took the microphone from Marie and called out a hello to the crowd. “Tonight, I will treat you to a show of fire-breathing.”

It was all I could do not to jump up from my chair and yell ‘No!’

Ida Belle clutched my arm, her expression frozen in fear. Walter had paled to the point that I was afraid he was going to pass out. I spotted Carter, who’d been standing in the back, dash for the stage, but he was only halfway there when “Great Balls of Fire” started blaring from the speakers. The entire costume tilted back, which I assumed was due to Gertie consuming something flammable, and then one claw came up with an igniter.

I jumped up from my chair, ready to rush the stage, when the igniter flicked on and a huge flame shot out of the dragon’s mouth. The crowd went wild. Everyone jumped up from their seats, cheering, and I held my position and looked over at Carter, who had stopped just in front of the stage. Ida Belle was standing beside me, still clutching my arm. None of us had any idea what to do. Yelling at her to stop wouldn’t work and tackling her didn’t seem to be a good idea as she had a mouthful of something that would probably eat up her insides if she swallowed it.

Celia jumped out of her seat, giving Carter a dirty look, then strode forward.

“Stop that right now!” she yelled at Gertie. “It’s not safe!”

Unfortunately, Celia’s yelling distracted Gertie right when she was getting ready to let out another breath, and she turned her giant dragon head toward the source of the disruption. Fire erupted from her mouth and caught the edge of Celia’s hat. Celia shrieked and yanked the hat off her head but instead of tossing it away from her, she dropped it right at her feet and the flames shot up her gown.

Half of the crowd—the entirety of which was already on their feet—ran for the exits. The other half pulled out cell phones and started recording. Ida Belle and I bolted for the stage and I saw Carter dash out the side of the tent, yelling for the fire department. People hollered for Celia to drop and roll but instead, she danced around in a circle, jumping as though she was doing a native fire dance. Except the fire was on her and not the ground.

Ronald, apparently deciding he was going to save the day, ran over to her and grabbed the back of her dress. In a surprising show of strength, he ripped the flaming lace travesty clean off of her, leaving Celia standing in her undergarments. It was really a shame she hadn’t chosen to wear a corset with her dress, because her plain white bra and big white panties that read O’Hara on the back were enough to send the second wave of spectators running out of the tent.

Ronald shrieked, yelling something about his eyesight, then tossed the gown onto the stage away from them before fleeing for the sidelines. Gertie, who had been struggling with the enormous dragon head, finally managed to pull it off, and then coughed whatever she had in her mouth onto Celia’s dress, which sent flames up a good ten feet from the floor. By that time the firemen had shown up with extinguishers. They directed streams of foam at the stage and Ronald let out a cry and jumped behind the curtain, yelling about his dress.

The fire on Celia’s lace nightmare was contained quickly and the foam managed the added benefit of covering Celia from head to toe. Ronald stepped out from behind the curtain and wagged his finger at her.

“That’s what you get for wearing cheap fabric,” he said before stomping off stage.

What remained of the crowd erupted in applause and Gertie and the firemen took a bow. Scooter, who’d had a prime view of the back—and uncovered—side of Celia, yanked one of the curtains down and threw the entire thing over her. A second round of applause ensued, and Scooter grabbed one of Gertie’s claws and they bowed together.

“I think I need to start drinking,” Walter said.

“You already drink,” Ida Belle said.

“I meant seriously,” he said. “Maybe professionally.”

I nodded. “You’ve got your whiskey. I’ve got my funnel cake. Who’s up for round four?”

 

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