Excerpt: Gators and Garters

Excerpt: Gators and Garters

Book 18: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One

 

The saleswoman in the bridal shop stood holding the tray of wine she’d been trying to push on us and glancing back and forth between Ida Belle and Gertie. She looked scared. Whether it was for herself, Gertie, or the dress Gertie was clutching, I couldn’t say. I had taken a chair in the corner as soon as we walked in, committed to my vow of staying all the way out of whatever happened.

“Just try it on,” Gertie pleaded. “A couple of seconds is all I ask. If you hate it, you don’t have to wear it.”

“I don’t have to try it on to know that I hate it,” Ida Belle said. “I can tell that just by looking. Probably I didn’t even have to see it.”

“Come on,” Gertie said. “It won’t kill you.”

“Might kill you,” Ida Belle said. “Last time I checked, I could draw faster than you, and if you keep pushing that dress on me, we might see an exhibition.”

I had to laugh, which earned me a dirty look from Gertie and a fearful one from the saleswoman. It wasn’t the first time I’d laughed today and not even close to the first time I’d gotten a dirty look from Gertie, and I predicted that trend would continue until we got past Ida Belle’s wedding and Gertie’s insistence that she do normal bride things.

Like wear a dress.

“I haven’t worn a dress since my father gave me my first gun,” Ida Belle said.

“Did you pull it on your mother?” I asked.

Ida Belle waved a hand in dismissal. “There was an Easter sermon at church. She had this frilly pink lacy thing that would have itched and made me look ridiculous. She asked for it.”

The saleswoman made a noise that sounded something like ‘eep’ and fled the consultation room. Unfortunately, she took the tray of wine with her.

“You were six years old,” Gertie said. “And pulling a gun on your mother over an Easter dress is the reason the South gets a bad name.”

The reason?” I asked.

“Well, one of them,” Gertie said. “It’s still the best place in the world but I will admit to a few quirks.”

“A few?” I asked.

The saleswoman chose that moment to ease back in, this time with a tray of sweets. She was going for either alcohol poisoning or diabetic coma.

“You decided to move here,” Gertie said to me. “The quirks must not have been bad enough to scare you away.”

“She was an assassin, for Christ’s sake,” Ida Belle said. “You can’t scare assassins.”

The saleswoman’s eyes widened and the color drained from her face. I jumped up to grab the tray of food before she dropped it but when she saw me hurrying toward her, she threw the tray and ran. It was either catch the tray and hope some goodies remained on it or block for the dress. The goodies ended up claiming the floor mostly, but a few remained on the tray.

“Hey, what’s the ruling on pastries on a wedding dress train?” I asked. “Five seconds, ten?”

“Five,” they both answered at once.

I grabbed a raspberry croissant and hopped back in my chair.

“Just under the wire,” I said and took a big bite.

Gertie shook her head and turned back to Ida Belle. “Well, you can’t scare me, either. Will you at least consider a white pantsuit?”

“You want me to wear white to a crawfish boil?” Ida Belle asked. “Look what happened to that dress from just one pastry. If Fortune hadn’t blocked the rest of them, it would look like a B horror movie prop. And I’m not paying for that, by the way. That saleswoman needs to work on her fortitude. This is Louisiana, not the Hamptons.”

“You’re the one who insisted on crawfish,” Gertie said. “I tried to suggest grilled fish with rice and salad.”

“On what planet is that representative of what I eat?” Ida Belle asked. “Shouldn’t the bride actually like what’s being served at her wedding?”

“I think the bride should and the bridesmaids as well,” I said. “I appreciate the crawfish. And the lack of dresses.”

Gertie gave me a look of dismay. “I should have known you’d take her side. The two of you together might have one drop of estrogen between you.”

“Maybe half a drop,” Ida Belle said. “Estrogen decreases as you age. Besides, grilled fish would be a mess. This wedding is happening in Fortune’s backyard. A couple of tents, some folding chairs and we’re good. You can’t have a formal sit-down dinner in the middle of the summer in a backyard.”

“Finally!” Gertie threw her hands in the air. “You understand the problem.”

“There’s no problem for me,” Ida Belle said. “I don’t want to get dressed in a way I never have before, then sit down to a fancy dinner that wouldn’t be my first choice in some building that would charge too much and insist on throwing flowers everywhere.”

“But this is your wedding,” Gertie said. “It only happens once and quite frankly, as long as you waited to say yes, I’m surprised one of you isn’t already in the grave.”

“Look,” Ida Belle said, “I appreciate that you want to make it special, but Walter wants to marry me, and God knows, he’s had plenty of time to get a fix on who I am. If I put on some fancy gown and have a fancy dinner in a fancy building, then he’s not marrying me at all. That’s me pretending to be someone else.”

“Oh, good point,” I said, storing that one in case I ever took the scary plunge into permanency with Carter.

“Fine,” Gertie said. “Then what do you plan on wearing to be married to the man who has waited patiently for a million years for you to wise up?”

“Don’t worry,” Ida Belle said. “Wedding wardrobe is our next stop.”

Gertie eyed her suspiciously. “Where exactly are we going?”

“Army-Navy store,” Ida Belle said.

The dismayed look on Gertie’s face was so hilarious I snapped a picture of her.

“You’re not wearing camo to your wedding!” Gertie insisted.

“It will be new camo,” Ida Belle said.

I laughed. “Gertie, you haven’t looked this upset since Ida Belle told you Francis couldn’t sing in the church choir.”

“An idea almost as ridiculous as me wearing a wedding dress,” Ida Belle said.

“The choir needs another tenor,” Gertie said. “And Francis loves singing.”

“He also loves talking,” I said. “He’ll hijack the sermon and since he spent half his life with nuns and the other half with criminals, I hesitate to think what kind of trouble that would cause. Maybe you could check with Celia. Francis is Catholic, after all.”

Gertie gave me a dirty look. “I would never allow Francis in the Catholic church, especially as long as Celia’s running the show over there. Any congregation that has Celia in charge of their events doesn’t deserve to have Francis’s talent to entertain them.”

“She called animal control on you again, didn’t she?” Ida Belle asked.

Gertie threw her hands in the air, chunking the dress behind the couch. “All I was doing was walking down Main Street with Francis on my shoulder. It wasn’t like I was going into the café with him or anything. I just wanted to grab some fruit for him at the General Store, and he likes to pick his own.”

“Yeah, I can’t see why she would have a problem with that at all,” Ida Belle said.

“I know, right?” Gertie said, clearly missing the sarcasm. “It’s like she wakes up every day trying to figure out how to make the entire world as miserable as she is.”

“That seems a fairly accurate statement,” I agreed.

I heard someone clearing their throat behind me and turned around to see an older woman with the word ‘Manager’ on her name tag. She was wearing a forced smile until she caught sight of the ruined dress, then it changed to a pained look.

“I understand there was a problem with the dress,” she said.

“The dress was fine until your saleslady threw a tray of dessert at it,” I said.

“Yes, well,” the woman said, looking increasingly more uncomfortable. “She was under the impression that you were going to harm her.”

I shook my head. “I was just trying to save the desserts before she passed out. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it.”

“So you’re not…” The woman’s voice trailed off.

“An assassin?” I asked. “Not anymore. Nowadays, I try to apprehend people without killing them. Doesn’t always work out, but you know how it goes—you have the best intentions when you head off to work and sometimes things just don’t go the way you planned.”

She paled a bit. “You’re joking, of course.”

“Heck no, she’s not joking,” Gertie said. “Fortune was one of the CIA’s best operatives.”

The woman relaxed a tiny bit. “CIA. I see.”

Gertie smiled. “So it’s all aboveboard. Government-sanctioned killing, and you know our government always gets everything right.”

The pained look returned.

“Well, is there anything I can help you with?” she asked, looking at me but not directly in the eyes. “Are you the bride-to-be?”

“Good God, no,” I said and pointed to Ida Belle. “That’s your victim.”

“And you need a wedding dress?” she asked.

“No way I’m wearing one of those things,” Ida Belle said. “Besides, do you know how much ammo I could buy for that price?”

“Then what can I help you with?” the woman asked, her exasperation starting to show.

“A garter,” Ida Belle said. “Preferably one in blue. That way I cover two of those superstitious wedding things.”

“You dragged me all the way out here for a garter?” Gertie said. “Why don’t you just order one online like you do everything else?”

“It’s going to be on my thigh,” Ida Belle said. “I don’t want anything that close to my privates to come from an online store. God only knows how many people would fondle it before it got to me.”

“You buy your underwear online,” Gertie said. “And they’re kissing your privates.”

“My underwear come in a package,” Ida Belle said. “Less handling by strangers. Besides, I wash them in bleach and hot water before I wear them and that wouldn’t be good for the garter. Please tell me you’re not wearing drawers right out of the package.”

Gertie suddenly grew interested in the stained wedding dress.

Before anyone could launch into the questionable state of Gertie’s drawers or the potential risks to her privates, I motioned to the manager. “We’ll take a blue garter, please. Here’s twenty bucks. Keep the change. And I’m sorry about the mess.”

The manager took my twenty bucks and met us at the door as we prepared to leave. She opened the bag wide enough for Ida Belle to look inside. “They’re individually wrapped,” she said. “So your, uh…everything should be fine. Just fine.”

“Perfect,” Ida Belle said. “Two things down. I’ve got my garter and I can officially cross going out to shop off my annual list of things to do.”

“You have an annual list?” I asked as we hopped in her SUV.

She nodded. “I know I can be stubborn, so there’s a few things that some people suggest are normal or polite things to do. I refuse to work them into my daily life, so I have a list. As long as I do things on that list once per year, I consider that broadening my horizons.”

“But you shop all the time,” I said, confused. “We just stocked up on ammo yesterday, and the day before we both bought meat at the butcher.”

“Food and ammo are essential items,” Ida Belle said. “My list requires that I shop for something nonessential and at a place I wouldn’t normally frequent.”

“You’re cheating,” Gertie said. “The garter is essential.”

“No. The garter is for Walter,” Ida Belle said. “I’m already marrying him. Do you think he would have the bad judgment to say he won’t go through with it unless I’m wearing a garter?”

“You shouldn’t challenge wedding superstition,” Gertie said. “Bad things could happen.”

“I’ve been friends with you since Jesus was in diapers,” Ida Belle said. “I’m pretty sure I’m prepared for whatever life throws at me.”

“You’re impossible,” Gertie said.

“You’re going to break a finger trying to shove a square peg in a round hole,” I said to Gertie. “If the bride and groom are good with it, then everyone else should be.”

“The groom would skydive naked if that’s what Ida Belle said it would take to tie the knot,” Gertie said. “So what Walter will settle for is not the same as what he might like, given that he’s unlikely to have more than one wedding, especially after being married to Ida Belle.”

“I thought he had a cardiac workup last week to prepare,” I said.

“Here’s an idea,” Ida Belle broke in. “Stop thinking about it as a wedding and consider it a party with a bit of ceremony at the start. I mean, honestly, we’re going for the short version here. The entire I-do-do-you-exchange-rings thing won’t last ten minutes. It’s the rest of the afternoon that’s going to be more important, and that is going to be stellar.”

Gertie crossed her arms and slumped in her seat. “I don’t see what’s so stellar about boiled crawfish and kegs of beer. We’re invited to one of those parties just about every week.”

“Because those parties don’t have a cake and other goodies that Ally baked,” Ida Belle said. “And the sides aren’t catered by Miss Molly.”

Gertie perked up. “You hired Miss Molly?”

Ida Belle grinned and nodded. “I thought that might make you happy.”

“Who’s Miss Molly?” I asked.

“Only the best caterer in southeast Louisiana,” Gertie said. “Her potato salad is legendary. There’s been three shoot-outs over it just in the last two years alone.”

“I’m not shooting anyone over potato salad,” I said. “Maybe over cake.”

Ida Belle nodded. “Anyway, Miss Molly is one of Sinful’s more colorful residents.”

“How come I’ve never heard of her?” I asked. “I thought I’d cornered the market on anyone who could provide great food. Why have you been holding out?”

“She just got out of jail a couple weeks ago,” Ida Belle said.

I raised one eyebrow. “Jail?”

“Oh yeah,” Gertie said. “There was this situation with twice-baked potatoes at a wake.”

She stopped talking, as if that was all she needed to say. “Seriously? You’re going to hold out on me after that statement?” I asked.

“Oh, sorry,” Gertie said. “Sometimes it feels like you’ve been here forever, so I forget that you don’t know about Miss Molly or her dark side.”

“A caterer with a dark side,” I said. “Only in Sinful. What did she do? Poison someone with the potatoes?”

“God no!” Ida Belle said. “Miss Molly would never compromise her food. If she had that big a problem with you, she’d just break your neck like she did her husband’s. That’s how she learned to cook—in prison.”

Gertie nodded. “Miss Molly always loved food but when she got to prison, she found out everything was cheap and tasteless. She begged for kitchen duty until they gave in, and she managed to work wonders with very little. Even the guards started eating there.”

“The warden was so impressed, he gave her run of the kitchen and an improved budget,” Ida Belle said. “So inmates got some of the best food they’d ever had in their lives. When she got paroled, she worked for a caterer in New Orleans for a while to learn the business end of things. Then she turned all that skill and knowledge into a business and Miss Molly’s Catering was born.”

“What did she do before catering?” I asked.

“Cage fighting,” Gertie said. “She was Molly the Mauler. Had an excellent record.”

“A cage fighter from Sinful?” Even for the town that invented crazy, that one sounded strange.

“She isn’t an original local,” Ida Belle said. “She’s from New Orleans, best anyone knows. That’s where she was living when she was a fighter, anyway. Had a great-uncle or a fifth cousin or something that used to live here so she knew of the area from when she was a kid. Thought a change of pace would be good when she got out and didn’t think she had the looks to compete with the caterers in NOLA.”

I stared. “Best anyone knows? How is it possible that the woman has lived here for more than a day and the local gossip contingent hasn’t hounded her for every detail of her life since she emerged from the birth canal?”

“Easy,” Ida Belle said. “They’re scared of her, and she has a reputation for being rather a hothead.”

“Which is exactly what got her into trouble over the twice-baked potatoes,” Gertie said.

“Did someone sneak seconds without permission?” I asked.

“Worse,” Gertie said. “They salted them without tasting.”

“Molly dived over that table like she was in the Olympics and tackled the offender like she was back in the cage,” Ida Belle said. “The over-salter was unconscious before she ever hit the floor.”

“Given Molly’s prior conviction,” Gertie said, “we were afraid she’d go away for longer than a year, but the judge took pity on her.”

“Over salt?” I asked. Clearly I didn’t have as good a handle on this whole Louisiana thing as I’d thought.

Ida Belle grinned. “The salt offender was Celia.”

“Oh no,” I said, and started laughing. “But wait, this was at a wake, you said. What about the family of the deceased? Weren’t they mad?”

Gertie shook her head. “They didn’t think the potatoes needed salt either.”

“Well, Miss Molly sounds like the perfect person to cater your shindig, then,” I said. “At least she won’t be traumatized by random gunshots, fights over the cake, or a certain alligator who shows up when he smells food.”

“Oh no!” Gertie said. “What am I going to do about Godzilla? Gator tail is one of Miss Molly’s most requested appetizers.”

“She’s not going to shoot him and fire up the grill with Carter standing right there,” Ida Belle said, but she didn’t look completely convinced.

“Don’t worry,” I told Gertie. “She won’t get a shot off before I do.”

Gertie looked relieved. “It’s really nice to have friends who can handle all these domestic issues.”

I shook my head. Only in Sinful were a begging alligator and a murdering cage fighter considered domestic issues.

“So why did she kill her husband?” I asked. “Did he put ketchup on his steak?”

“No. He changed the television channel,” Gertie said.

“And she killed him for that?” I asked.

“It was the last five minutes of the final episode of Justified and they didn’t have a DVR,” Gertie said.

“Well, that explains everything,” I said.

“That’s what I thought,” Gertie said.

“Word was her husband was a bad dude,” Ida Belle said. “The whole TV thing probably isn’t even true. Rumor has it he tuned Molly up on the regular. That’s probably how she learned to fight so well.”

“Why didn’t she just leave him?” I asked.

Ida Belle shrugged. “One of life’s mysteries. And since no one is willing to ask her, we’ll probably never know. We’re headed to her place after the Army-Navy store. You can give it a go if you’d like.”

“No!” Gertie said. “Not before the wedding. Fortune’s trying not to kill people and if Miss Molly gets her on the ground, then she’ll be sporting black eyes for your wedding.”

“Yeah, I’m good with not knowing,” I said. “It was just a basic curiosity, but not the kind I want to die over. Besides, if I get her too wound up, she could be sent back to jail and I’m really looking forward to the food now. Are we doing taste-testing, I hope?”

“Nope,” Ida Belle said. “Just dropping off money. Molly doesn’t do taste tests. You tell her about the event, what other food you’ll have, and what your budget is, and she picks the menu.”

“Well, it’s not very customer-friendly, but I suppose it’s better than being tackled,” I said.

“Trust me, you can’t lose,” Gertie said. “Everything that woman sends out of the kitchen is magic.”

Ida Belle pulled into the Army-Navy store parking lot and smiled. “You guys ready to find my wedding duds?”

Gertie sighed. “Might as well. Hey, they have camo in white and black.”

“Crawfish boil,” Ida Belle reminded her. “This is the one thing I’m going traditional on.”

“Of course it is,” Gertie grumbled as she climbed out of the truck.

 

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