Excerpt: Frightfully Fortune

Excerpt: Frightfully Fortune

Book 20: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One

 

The theme song from Jaws echoed through my house and I couldn’t help but grin. It was Halloween time in Sinful, and I had to admit that I’d been looking forward to it ever since that first cold front blew through in late September and dropped the temperature to a very tolerable eighty degrees. Now it was actually even better—in the low seventies—which was a definite plus when you were covered in costumes, masks, and makeup.

Every year, Sinful had a weeklong Halloween celebration, starting seven days before and culminating on October 31. It had a horror maze made from hay bales, with scary scenes set up with adults in costumes all the way through it, movie night, games, and tons of food. There was a different main activity every night, even on weeknights. And as teachers weren’t permitted to give homework during the festivities, the kids could stay out later, load up on candy, and not have to worry about missing schoolwork the next day.

Years ago, Gertie and Ida Belle had steamrollered the highly religious then-mayor into doing the event by pitching it as an alternative festival for warding off evil rather than a celebration of it. It was so popular that it became a regular event, much to the dismay of Ida Belle and Gertie’s archrival, Celia Arceneaux, who had protested it from the start. Celia dressed up as Rose Kennedy every year, thinking that inserting a famous Catholic in the mix somehow gave it decorum. I’d bet no one under the age of forty even knew who Rose Kennedy was.

Gertie had arrived before Ida Belle and now stood in my kitchen staring at her best friend as she entered the room. Clearly, she was not impressed.

“That is not a costume,” Gertie said. “It’s what you usually wear except it’s a god-awful dress sort of thing instead of pants.”

“This is definitely a costume,” Ida Belle said. “It’s a pinfold dress and green sweatshirt.”

I had never heard of a pinfold dress, and one look at Ida Belle and I knew why. It was sort of like overalls but with a skirt. The drab brown dress thingy combined with the forest-green sweatshirt might have rivaled Celia in some of the ugliest clothes I’d ever seen. Not that I was about to mention it. The dress had suspiciously big pockets, and Ida Belle could still draw like Doc Holliday.

“What kind of costume is it then?” Gertie persisted.

Ida Belle grinned. “I’m Annie Wilkes.”

I frowned. “Is that the crazy woman who battered that author’s ankles in Misery?”

She held up a sledgehammer. “The one and only.”

“Okay,” Gertie said. “I’ll grant you that it’s a costume now that you’ve shown the hammer, but why in the world would you pick that? The last time you wore a dress was your wedding. The time before that was when you were three and hadn’t learned to shoot yet, so you couldn’t draw on your mother for putting you in it.”

“Well, since we’re not working scenes in the maze this year, my usual chain-saw killer idea is being used by someone else,” Ida Belle said. “And Walter’s been making noise lately about writing a book, so I figured I’d mess with him.”

Gertie shook her head. “Why that man waited around his whole life for you, I have no idea.”

“Me either,” Ida Belle agreed. “And while we’re critiquing costumes, Gertie, what are you trying to accomplish?”

“She’s opting for a go-straight-to-hell card,” I said. “Do not pass purgatory. Just walk on in.”

Gertie was dressed as a nun, but not a regular nun—an evil, demonic nun from the movie by the same name. I had to admit, the makeup that made her look like a partially decaying corpse combined with the bright yellow contacts was pretty creepy.

“I’m trying to make Celia as mad as possible,” Gertie said. “That witch got Francis banned from the park.”

“Francis got loose and snagged french fries and a hot dog, and made off with an ice cream cone before you managed to catch him,” Ida Belle said. “The sound of preschoolers crying was probably heard all the way in Canada.”

“He’s a bird,” Gertie said. “A hawk could swoop down and do the same thing.”

“But a hawk wouldn’t do that because they are afraid of people,” Ida Belle said.

Gertie waved a hand in dismissal. “Let’s talk about what’s really important, and that’s Fortune’s costume.”

I grinned and put on my relatively expensive, very detailed, Freddy Krueger mask.

“That is awesome,” Gertie said. “And with your slim build, you can totally pull off horizontal stripes, just like me.”

Ida Belle snorted.

“This is my favorite part,” I said and pulled on the razor-fingered glove. “This is so incredibly cool.”

Ida Belle took a step closer to inspect. “That’s a really good piece of work. What costume company did you find that at? Is that real metal?”

“I didn’t find it at a company,” I said. “Scooter made it for me. He does good work, right?”

Ida Belle shook her head as she ran a finger down one of the blades. “I knew the boy could fix about anything with an engine, but I didn’t know he could fabricate like this.”

“I know,” I said. “I was in the store a couple months ago, and Walter asked me about my Halloween costume. I told him that since you guys were eliminating the Nightmare on Elm Street display from the maze this year, I wanted to be Freddy Krueger, but I’d already ordered and returned three different razor-blade hands. They were so incredibly cheap-looking.”

“And yet the idiot playing Krueger last year still managed to cut off his own pinkie with a cheap one,” Ida Belle said.

I grinned. “He must be really talented. Anyway, Scooter overheard us and said he could make me something better than anything I could buy, so I told him to go for it.”

“Well, it looks great,” Ida Belle said. “You’re going to scare the heck out of the kids.”

“What’s the agenda, anyway?” I said. “We’re not working the maze at all, right?”

Gertie shook her head. “After last year, we figured we’d take a break from maze work.”

“After last year,” Ida Belle said, “we were asked to take a break from maze work.”

“It wasn’t our fault that someone cut off a dead guy’s head and propped him up in my scene,” I said. “In fact, we caught the person who did it.”

“Gertie also threw the head at Celia,” Ida Belle said.

“She threw it at me first,” Gertie said. “And it’s not like we killed the guy.”

“Guilt by association,” Ida Belle said. “Anyway, it’s good to take a break. At least we can show up and enjoy the festivities without being on the clock or trying to fix the two thousand things that inevitably go wrong at the last minute.”

“But you still organized everything, right?” I asked.

“Of course,” Ida Belle said. “Trust me, we’ve put in the hours. How many did you work setting up the maze?”

I shrugged. “Most of the day, but I considered it a good workout. Those hay bales are heavy. Itchy, but heavy.”

“Smart,” Gertie said. “You were burning off the calories you’re going to consume. I should have thought of that. Instead, I baked a thousand cookies for the food booths and tasted at least two from every batch.”

“Yeah, I’m really glad I can’t offer anything on the food end of things,” I said. “My self-control when it comes to good Southern cooking is seriously lacking.”

Gertie grinned. “And funnel cake.”

I groaned. My addiction to funnel cake was a well-known problem.

“Please tell me there’s not going to be a funnel cake booth,” I said. “There’s not enough hay bales in Sinful for me to work off what I would eat.”

“Your flat stomach is safe,” Ida Belle said. “At least for now.”

“Well, it’s good and dark outside, so let’s get this show on the road,” I said. “What’s on the agenda for tonight? I’m sorta confused about the scheduling since Halloween falls on a Friday this year.”

“It does work better when it falls on a Saturday,” Gertie agreed. “But the basic format is the same with just a little tweaking. The maze opens tonight instead of Saturday and will be open tomorrow night as well. Nothing on Sunday as we’d all go to hell. Then Monday resumes normal evening activities, minus the maze, and the big culmination is next Friday night on Halloween, when the maze will reopen as soon as it gets dark.”

Ida Belle nodded. “Mostly tonight is the maze and the food stands and people walking around in costume.”

“Where’s Walter?” I asked.

“He and Scooter are on maintenance duty,” Ida Belle said. “There’s a lot of extension cords over there. Tons of lights and generators, and there’s always a problem with something.”

“Is he wearing a costume?” I asked.

“Not in this lifetime,” Ida Belle said. “This is one of those rare occasions where I’m more whimsical than he is.”

“I wouldn’t call a pinfold dress ‘whimsical,’” Gertie said. “I’m surprised he didn’t file for divorce when he saw you in it.”

“He was afraid of the sledgehammer,” Ida Bell said.

We headed out to Ida Belle’s SUV and hopped inside.

“I assume Carter is doing foot patrol?” Gertie asked.

“Of course,” I said. “The whole department is out there, except dispatch. Carter made me promise not to find a dead person this year. A real one, anyway.”

Gertie shook her head. “He acts like you want to find dead bodies.”

“Weellll…” I said.

They both laughed.

“Okay, so maybe you don’t mind it all that much,” Gertie said. “But it’s not like you kill them personally or put them in your path. You just seem to be there when things happen.”

“I’m a death magnet,” I said. “It doesn’t sound nice, but I’m okay with it. Everyone has their special talent, right?”

Ida Belle grinned. “You should have I Find Dead People printed on T-shirts.”

We parked a couple blocks away and started walking. The streets near the park were closed for the event to make room for the food trailers and game booths. We could hear fun screams from the crowd before we arrived. The food booths were doing a steady business, which put money into next year’s festival and charity coffers, and everyone appeared to be having a good time.

I didn’t see a single dead person. Not a real one, anyway.

“Look at the Pennywise costume,” Gertie said. “They didn’t get that one off the rack.”

“No,” I agreed. “It’s definitely custom. And check out the zombie near the scarecrow. He has that limp perfected.”

Gertie nodded. “Could be an extra on The Walking Dead. That scarecrow is horrible, in a good way, I mean.”

“It would definitely keep birds out of the corn,” Ida Belle said. “It looks like people went all out this year. I’m glad everyone’s so invested. I was a little worried after that stuff last year.”

“I’m just glad I don’t have to be a mummy again,” Gertie said. “Do you have any idea how hot that costume was? And good Lord, it took an act of Congress to take a pee.”

“We know,” Ida Belle said. “We’re the ones who rewrapped you afterward, remember? I’m just glad I won’t be seeing your underwear this year. And do not take that as an opportunity to tell us about them.”

“There’s a good chance of seeing Celia’s,” Gertie said. “You know she’ll have on a Rose Kennedy dress and since she seems to have more trouble remaining upright than I do, it’s always on the itinerary.”

“Sinful should pass a law requiring Celia to wear shorts under everything,” I said. “Maybe you could talk to Marie about it. So what do you want to hit first?”

“Let’s grab a corn dog,” Gertie said. “I need some protein. All those cookies have made me slightly sick.”

“A corn dog is more carbs than protein,” Ida Belle said.

“Then I’ll get Frito pie to go with it,” Gertie said. “It’s got beef and cheese.”

Ida Belle sighed.

We headed for the corn dog booth and we all grabbed a dog. Carter, who was standing near the maze, spotted us and waved. We made our way over and he grinned when he took in Gertie’s costume.

“Taking a run at Celia, huh?” he asked.

“You know it,” Gertie said.

He gave her a high five.

“Anything going on tonight?” I asked.

“Nothing that isn’t on the agenda,” he said. “A few scuffles between high school students—we confiscated the beer—but nothing out of the ordinary. It’s been really quiet, but now that you’ve arrived…”

“I’m off the clock,” I said.

“You’ve been off the clock every time trouble started,” Carter said. “Didn’t stop it from landing in your lap.”

“Yeah, well, I’m a changed woman.”

“Since when?” he asked.

“Since tonight,” I said.

“Hey, we can hope, right?” he said.

“Come on, Carter,” Gertie said. “What are the odds of someone turning up murdered at the Halloween festival two years in a row?”

We all stared.

“Never mind,” Gertie said. “This corn dog didn’t do it. Let’s go hit the candied apples. Fruit is good for you, right?”

Carter was still laughing as we headed off. We acquired our candy apples and were considering a ring-toss game when Celia spotted us. As expected, she had on a hideous dress and hat and was wearing a cross larger than a vampire hunter’s.

“Are you going to pray with that thing?” Gertie asked, pointing to the cross. “Or have a sword fight?”

“I would expect crude comments about religious icons from you,” Celia said. “The way you are dressed is wholly inappropriate and I’ll be filing a complaint with the city.”

“A complaint about what?” Gertie asked.

“Religious discrimination,” Celia said.

“This is the opposite of discrimination,” Gertie said. “This is inclusion. Nuns can be evil, too.”

“Nicely played,” I said.

“You are not going to mock the most devout of my religion and get away with it,” Celia said.

“Why the heck not?” Gertie asked. “Your existence mocks the best of the female species and we’re still tolerating you.”

“Keep talking,” Celia said. “Marie won’t be mayor forever.”

“Probably not, but you won’t be mayor either,” Ida Belle said. “Now, can you take your negativity somewhere else? This is a festival. You know, fun? I know the concept is somewhat foreign to you, but you can at least try to fake some normal human emotion from time to time.”

Celia flushed and I could tell she was gearing up for a tirade that no one had the time for, so I sliced a hunk off my candied apple with one of my razor fingers then held it out to her.

“Want a bite?” I asked.

Her jaw dropped as she stared at the apple dangling from my hand, then she whirled around and stalked off.

“I think you scared her,” Ida Belle said.

I nodded. “I might wear this thing everywhere.”

“It’s fine unless your butt itches and you scratch with the wrong hand,” Gertie said.

“I don’t think I’ve been in the South long enough to go around scratching my butt in public,” I said.

“Give it time,” Ida Belle said.

We all laughed, and I couldn’t help but think how different my life was now than when I was working for the CIA. When I was living in DC, I didn’t have friends. I didn’t go to events. I certainly didn’t dress up like horror movie villains to eat fattening food. Heck, I didn’t even eat fattening food at all. Sugar and carbs that used to be the enemy now curled up with me like a warm blanket on a cold night.

“You know what?” I said. “I really enjoy this stuff.”

“You say that like you’re just realizing it,” Gertie said.

“Maybe she is,” Ida Belle said. “She had a totally different kind of life for a long time.”

“I think I knew it, inherently, a while back,” I said. “But I guess I just figured it was a good time to say it out loud. All this town’s festivals, celebrations, quirky laws, church wars, banana pudding races, and people who should headline their own sitcom are a lot of fun. And they continue to surprise me, so that element of my life hasn’t disappeared.”

“Except most of them aren’t trying to kill you,” Gertie said.

“True, but I have seen a lot more naked body parts in Sinful than I ever did with the CIA,” I said.

“Uh-oh,” Gertie said. “Don’t look now, but I think Celia is trying to get you arrested.”

She pointed to Celia, standing next to Deputy Breaux, waving her hands, and pointing at me. Deputy Breaux glanced over at us and sighed. He came our way, Celia right on his heels.

“See!” Celia said and pointed to my hand. “She has a weapon.”

“Ninety percent of the people in this park are carrying a weapon,” Ida Belle said. “And the other ten percent are in kindergarten.”

“I suppose it could be considered a knife,” I said. “But if you kick everyone out of the park who’s carrying a knife, your festival is going to be pretty grim.”

“Not to mention that Ida Belle has a sledgehammer,” Gertie said. “And I see at least three swords from where I stand, and I happen to know they’re all real. You really need to stop wasting law enforcement time.”

Deputy Breaux nodded. “There’s nothing illegal about having a knife in the park.”

Celia put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “Well, if you won’t do your job, I’ll find someone who will.”

“I hear a horse coming,” Ida Belle said. “Maybe you can take it up with Sheriff Lee.”

We turned and looked across the park in the direction of the approaching horse, but it wasn’t Sheriff Lee’s old steed. This one was young, muscled, solid black, and running like a demon. The black-cloaked rider seemed to be holding on for dear life as he swayed in the saddle, but I had to give him props. The Headless Horseman costume was perfect—if he had been missing his head.

We watched as the horse approached then realized that he was about to run into the crowd and hadn’t slowed. I glanced over at Ida Belle, whose eyes had widened. Okay, this wasn’t part of the show.

“Move!” I yelled, and the crowd began to scramble like the Israelites leaving Egypt as the horse ran through the middle of them.

Complete chaos ensued, with people scrambling and screaming as the horse ran straight for us. I was just about to shove the others and do a dive behind a tree when the horse slid to a stop about twenty feet in front of us.

And the head flew off the horseman.

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