Excerpt: Fortune Hunter

Excerpt: Fortune Hunter

Book 8: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One

I opened my eyes long enough to glare at Ida Belle from my prone position on the couch, then shut them again and flopped over, turning my back to her. I heard her sigh.

“You can’t stay on this couch forever,” Ida Belle said. “The EPA is going to condemn it unless you get up and shower, at least. You’ve been wearing the same clothes for two days.”

“Three,” I mumbled, “but who’s counting?”

“Gertie and me, for starters.”

If I tried really hard, I knew I could force myself back to sleep, but I also knew that Ida Belle would still be there when I woke up. After the big showdown where Ahmad escaped again, and my breakup with Carter, Ida Belle and Gertie had alternated between checking in and giving me space, but now that five days had lapsed and I had yet to leave my house, they were starting to get bossy. I imagined it was only going to get worse from here, and there was a lot of summer left. I really didn’t want to spend it pretending to sleep.

Adding to my general malaise was the fact that Ally’s kitchen remodel was finally completed three days before and she’d moved back into her own home. I’d always known I would miss her cooking when she left, but I hadn’t realized how much I’d grown to enjoy just having someone around for general complaining or to watch a late-night movie and have a beer. Unless Ida Belle and Gertie were there, the house sounded eerily quiet. Even Merlin had taken to spending more time sleeping outside and less time hounding me for cat treats.

“Fine,” I said as I rolled over and sat upright.

Ida Belle sat on the end of the coffee table and gave me a critical eye. “You look like hell. When was the last time you ate?”

“When Gertie made me.”

“That was yesterday afternoon. It’s almost lunchtime. Aren’t you hungry?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

Ida Belle’s expression shifted from the slightly aggravated parental look to sympathetic. “I know this has been hard for you—dealing with things you’re not used to. But as much as we both wish it weren’t the case, the reality is you can’t lie here on the couch and wish it all away.”

I knew she was right, but somehow it didn’t seem fair. I’d never experienced this kind of angst before, even when my mother died. I was devastated at losing her, of course, but I think both the finality of the situation and my young age factored into my ability to move forward. Although looking back, I wasn’t completely sure I’d moved forward so much as I had stepped onto the path my father had carved and never once looked outside the lines to form my own thoughts about my life and future.

Now all those lines were blurred, and my future was a big dark blob of uncertainty.

I looked at Ida Belle, trying to decide whether I should say what I was thinking, especially as I thought it sounded weak. Before I could change my mind, I rushed into it. “As strange as this is going to sound to someone who knows the real me, falling for Carter is the riskiest thing I’ve ever done.”

And it was something I knew I should have avoided. Getting involved with a local deputy when you’re undercover and can’t even reveal your true identity is always a bad idea. It becomes a disaster when you blow your cover and he realizes you’ve been lying the entire time.

I felt the tears well up in my eyes and struggled to keep them from falling. “I cried at a coffee commercial yesterday. Coffee! Do you have any idea how mortifying that is?”

“Oh, Fortune.” Ida Belle reached over and put her hand on mine. “You know if I could fix this, I would.”

I nodded. “Like my mother used to.”

Ida Belle smiled. “You’re the daughter I never had, but if you tell anyone I was that sentimental, I’ll kill you. And you know I’m capable—at least, I’m capable if I shoot you from a distance. Hand to hand, you’d probably take me.”

Because I knew she wanted me to, I forced a smile. “Under normal circumstances, I’m pretty hard to kill, but I suppose I’m at a disadvantage lying on the couch all day.”

“Not to mention that a predator on four legs could probably smell you a mile away.”

“It’s not that bad, but I get your point.”

Ida Belle rose from the coffee table. “Let’s get you something to eat, then I’ll root around in the laundry room and find you a pair of those yoga pants you like so much. A good meal and a shower will do you a world of good. You’ll see.”

I followed Ida Belle into the kitchen and plopped down at the table as she pulled leftover pot roast and potatoes from the refrigerator. She set a plate of it heating in the microwave and poured us both a glass of sweet tea. As the food heated, she wandered into the laundry room and came back out with yoga pants and a T-shirt and laid them across an empty chair. The microwave dinged and she pulled the plate out and shoved it in front of me, along with a hunk of French bread and a container of butter. She grabbed some cookies from the jar before taking a seat across from me.

Now that the food was in front of me and I could smell the enticing aroma of one of Gertie’s signature dishes, I was starving. I picked up the fork and attacked the plate of food with more gusto than I would have thought possible when I was entrenched on the couch. Ida Belle gave me a pleased nod and bit into one of the cookies.

“These are great,” she said. “One of Ally’s new creations?”

“Toffee, chocolate, something or other,” I said in between bites. “I predict she’ll make a million.”

Ida Belle took another bite. “I wouldn’t bet against you. These are incredible. What a talent she has.”

“She’s awesome. Not just the food, but her, too, you know? She’ll be great with customers when she opens her bakery.”

“She will. I know she had to get back to her own house, but I almost wish she could have stayed here longer.”

I shrugged. “It’s probably easier this way, given the circumstances.”

The circumstances being that Ally didn’t know the real me and therefore couldn’t know the truth behind why Carter and I had split. She was firmly committed to the idea that Carter was a stubborn man and would come to his senses. It had been tough coming up with a reason for our breakup, but I’d finally decided on a combination of two things—the first being my constant involvement in things I ought not to be involved in and the second, the biggie, being that I had no intention of remaining in Sinful when the summer was over. I pitched it as the smart thing to do before we got more attached. Ally, being the good friend and romantic that she was, still held out hope that Carter would get unstubborn and I would change my mind about staying.

“You’re right,” Ida Belle said. “Gertie or I would be happy to move in for a bit, or both of us, if you’d like.”

I felt a tingling of warmth run across my skin and smiled for real this time. Having friends was also new to me, but I was not only getting used to people caring about me as a person, I was starting to like it. It brought back feelings I hadn’t had since my mother was alive. Feelings I’d almost forgotten and never thought I’d have again.

“You know I appreciate the thought,” I said, “but people would talk, and we don’t have a decent cover story. You guys staying here after the hurricane was one thing, but if you set up residence here without some sort of emergency situation, everyone will take a closer look.”

Ida Belle took another bite of her cookie. She knew everything I’d said was true, so there was no effort to argue. “People are already talking, you know,” she said. “Carter’s doing the honorable man thing and refuses to say anything to anyone, including his own mother, much to her dismay. But unless someone spreads a rumor, people will keep speculating until there’s something more interesting to focus their attention on.”

“Well, Sinful has had quite a crime wave since I arrived. Maybe someone will get murdered or blow something up.”

“That’s quite possible. And if we’re lucky, it won’t be someone we like.”

I smiled. Ida Belle was nothing if not practical.

I was just about to suggest we start a list of potential casualties when the back door flew open and Gertie hurried inside, her face flushed. She flung her enormously large handbag onto the kitchen table and, I swear, the table dipped slightly to one side. I didn’t even want to think about what she might have inside. She pulled out a chair and slumped into it, then panted for a bit. Ida Belle studied her old friend for several seconds, probably trying to figure out if Gertie needed CPR or a defibrillator. Finally, Gertie sucked in a big breath and let it out with a whoosh, then appeared to return to normal. The Gertie sort of normal, that is.

“What the heck is wrong with you?” Ida Belle asked.

“I was running,” Gertie said.

“Was something chasing you?” Ida Belle asked.

“Not this time,” Gertie said.

“What about last time?” I asked, curiosity overriding my general crappy mood.

Gertie waved a hand in dismissal. “Long story, ending with the destruction of a perfectly good pair of polyester pants, and a potential lawsuit. Anyway, that’s not interesting, but what I have to tell you is.”

“Well, get it out before you relapse,” Ida Belle said.

Gertie sat up straight in her chair, her cheeks flushed with excitement…or exertion. Either way, her energy was somewhat infectious and I found myself leaning forward, waiting for her to spit out the news. A distraction was just what I needed.

“Remember when Beulah Latour dyed her hair black and started wearing a bra again, and I told you something was up?” Gertie asked.

“What you told me,” Ida Belle said, “was that she must have a man somewhere, and given that I have known Beulah my entire life, I still contend no man worth his salt would come within fifty yards of her unless he was armed.”

“I don’t think I’ve met her,” I said. “Is she scary?”

“If you’d met her, we would have heard about it, I’m sure,” Ida Belle said. “Beulah is six foot two and looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger in drag. When she opens her mouth, you realize her looks are the pleasant part of her.”

I cringed.

Gertie nodded. “I heard the nail salon uses a sander on her feet, and one time a toenail clipping hit the technician in the eye and scratched her cornea.”

“So what did this bigfoot woman do?” I asked. “Pull the roof off a car? Eat a small child?”

“She got catfished!” Gertie gave us both a triumphant look.

I looked over at Ida Belle, but she didn’t appear any more informed than I was. “Someone hit her with a catfish?” I ventured.

“No,” Gertie said. “She got catfished…you know, like that TV show.”

“Ah,” Ida Belle said, “the one where silly people fall in love with strangers on the Internet, all of whom claim to be a prince or a model, but instead turn out to be some guy in cellblock four, scamming them out of cigarette money.”

“You made me watch an episode of that,” I said. “Those had to be the most obtuse people ever created. Who actually believes that Al Pacino is dating them online?”

Ida Belle raised an eyebrow. “Apparently Beulah Latour.”

“Exactly,” Gertie said. “This hot young stud claiming to be a marine stationed in the Middle East friended her on Facebook. Apparently, he sent her long letters and poetry and even a nude photo.”

“Doesn’t sound like anything worth putting a bra on for,” Ida Belle said.

“Well,” Gertie said, “in all fairness, that photo is probably the closest Beulah will ever get to male plumbing.”

“Are you kidding?” I said. “The Internet is full of male plumbing. It’s like the Walmart of man parts.”

Ida Belle and Gertie both stared at me.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t clicked on a search result and gotten a surprise,” I said.

Gertie’s eyes widened. “Just the other day, I was thinking I would bake some pecan pies. I looked up my pecan supplier, Dee’s Nuts, but forgot the apostrophe, and I got the most inappropriate image of a squirrel with oversized…er—”

“Yes, yes.” Ida Belle waved a hand at her. “Enough about squirrel privates. Tell us about Beulah.”

“According to the local gossip,” Gertie said, “Beulah was over the moon for this guy. She even mailed him a pair of her underwear.”

“If he was really a marine,” Ida Belle said, “he could have used them as a parachute.”

“Oh, even if I didn’t know the rest of the story,” Gertie said, “I’d know for sure he wasn’t a marine, at least not one stationed overseas. You see, he had her send the underwear to a PO box in New Orleans.”

“So he catfished her out of underwear,” Ida Belle said, “which, given certain factors, could serve as a reason for lifelong embarrassment—especially if the underwear is still around for Mardi Gras—but what in the world about that story had you running yourself into a heart attack?”

“If you’d stop interrupting,” Gertie said, “I’d get to the part where he scammed her out of twenty thousand dollars.”

“Holy crap!” I said. “It’s a big jump from underwear to that kind of cash.”

“How’d he do it?” Ida Belle asked.

“He told her he had leave coming and wanted to meet her in Italy and have a romantic week away. Then he gave her some story about wanting to book the perfect getaway but not being able to access his bank account where he was stationed.”

“So she sent him the money.” I shook my head. “I would say I can’t believe it, but I stopped saying that my second day in Sinful.”

“Well, I’ll say it,” Ida Belle said. “Beulah is no rocket scientist, but I never pegged her for an utter fool.”

“Love makes you do strange things,” Gertie said.

“It might some people,” Ida Belle said. “But plenty of us have the good sense to know when we’re being fed a line of bull from a man.”

I frowned. Carter hadn’t fed me a line of bull, but I’d definitely fed myself one, even if I wasn’t aware I was doing it at the time. “Maybe she wanted to believe it so badly, she refused to see the truth,” I said quietly.

Ida Belle and Gertie looked at each other, then Gertie nodded. “I’m afraid that’s just the kind of emotion these people prey on.”

“It’s unfortunate,” Ida Belle said, “but I imagine her money is long gone to some foreign bank account never to be seen again. How did she send it?”

“PayPal,” Gertie said. “But that’s not the only thing.”

“What else did she have to send?” I asked. “Her left leg? A kidney?”

“No,” Gertie said. “I mean, Beulah’s not the only one. Myrtle said Bessy Thompson and Willa Maples were down at the sheriff’s department this morning, demanding Carter find the scoundrel and get their money back.”

“They all got taken by the same guy?” I asked.

Gertie shrugged. “The profiles were different, but really, it could be anyone, so that doesn’t mean much.”

“And all of them sent money?” Ida Belle asked, already shaking her head in anticipation of the answer she knew was forthcoming.

“Yep,” Gertie said. “I don’t know how much. Myrtle got interrupted for a bit because Old Man Marcantel’s goat ate the lock on the jail cell they were keeping him in and started eating his way through a filing cabinet.”

“Why was a goat in jail?” I asked.

Gertie waved a hand in dismissal. “The usual offenses. Anyway, my point is someone is scamming lonely Sinful women out of money.” She clapped her hands. “We have a crime to investigate.”

My automatic protest quivered on my lips, but for the first time since I’d arrived, I actually paused. In the past, I’d attempted, although somewhat halfheartedly, to avoid involvement in anything that law enforcement would be addressing because I had to be careful not to blow my cover. Since that cat had burst out of the bag, I had no reason to continue pretending to be a law-abiding librarian, as least as far as Carter was concerned. Which left me options I didn’t have before.

Ida Belle and Gertie looked at me, expectant expressions on their faces. I knew they wanted me to toss my hat in the investigative ring—mostly to help bring me out of my current funk, but also because the two of them were physically and mentally incapable of not poking their nose into things.

“Why the hell not,” I said.

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