Excerpt: Lethal Bayou Beauty

Excerpt: Lethal Bayou Beauty

Book 2: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One

I was right in the middle of a dream where I was Lara Croft, but not as girlie, when my cell phone rang. I sprang out of bed, grabbed my nine, and hit the floor in a firing stance, facing the bedroom door. Then I remembered I was hiding out in Sinful, Louisiana, and not on a CIA mission in the Middle East. I lay my nine back on the nightstand and reached for my cell phone.

Seven a.m.

I looked down at the display and saw it was Gertie, one of the seemingly quiet and unassuming seniors I’d met the day I arrived in the tiny bayou town. I’d thought when I came to Louisiana to hide from the arms dealer who had placed a price on my head that my biggest fear was being bored to death. Instead, the merry seniors and I had been chased by police, been stalked by a killer, killed the stalker, and solved a five-year-old murder.

And I’d only been in town five days.

“We have an emergency,” Gertie said as soon as I answered. “Ida Belle and I are on our way over.”

She disconnected the call before I could ask for any details, and I rushed into the bathroom to wash my face and throw on clothes. As I pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, I hoped nothing had happened to implicate Marie in her husband’s murder. I’d thought she was safe after everything that had gone down the day before, but things in Sinful, Louisiana, had a way of shifting beneath you.

I ran downstairs at the same time Gertie’s ancient Cadillac pulled up in my driveway. I unlocked and opened the door, then hurried into the kitchen to put on coffee. Conversations with Gertie and Ida Belle weren’t good without something to drink. Given the strain in Gertie’s voice, I thought whiskey might be a better option, but as it was only seven a.m. it was probably too early for good manners to take me straight to the bottle.

But I could always play that one by ear.

Ida Belle, the leader of the Sinful Ladies Society—a group referred to by Sinful citizens as The Geritol Mafia—was the first to enter the kitchen, and she did not look happy. But then, if I’d had that mass of rollers in my hair and had been prompted out of my house in my bathrobe, I probably wouldn’t have looked happy either. Gertie trailed behind, her expression one of exasperation and worry. I figured the exasperation was due to listening to Ida Belle complain the entire two-block drive to my house.

Ida Belle glanced at the empty coffeepot and sighed, then slumped into a chair at the breakfast table.

“Sorry,” I apologized for the coffee situation. “I was still sleeping when Gertie called.”

Ida Belle waved a hand in dismissal. “Vampires were still sleeping when Gertie called. Damn woman is always awake at indecent hours.”

“If you’d go to sleep at a normal time like other women your age,” Gertie said, “you wouldn’t have so much trouble getting up.”

“I was busy waxing my car,” Ida Belle grumbled.

Gertie rolled her eyes. “You and that car. I thought you said you were going to address your overly protective issues concerning that car.”

I reached for coffee mugs. By the time they finished this age-old argument, the coffee should be ready. And I wasn’t about to step into the middle of that fight. I had personal feelings about Ida Belle’s car, and none of them were polite enough for seven a.m.

“For your information,” Ida Belle said, “I was waxing it so that I can sell it.”

I froze and stared. For the first time since I’d met her, Gertie ran out of words.

“Stop staring at me like I’ve lost my mind,” Ida Belle said. “You two are the ones who accused me of having an unhealthy relationship with my car. This is all your fault, really.”

I remained still and silent. Ida Belle was a crack shot and I couldn’t be certain she wasn’t packing, even in a bathrobe.

“Well,” Gertie said, and wisely pushed her chair back an inch from Ida Belle’s. “I guess I better get on with the business at hand then.”

Change the subject. Good choice.

“The GWs met this morning at the crack of dawn,” Gertie said.

I poured three cups of coffee and passed them to Gertie. “The who?”

“The GWs,” Gertie said.

I slid into my chair and took a sip of coffee. “Do I even want to know what a GW is?”

“Probably not,” Ida Belle said.

“The GWs are a local women’s group,” Gertie said.

“Doesn’t Sinful already have enough trouble with the Sinful Ladies Society?” I asked. The SLS, led by Ida Belle, had been covertly running the town since the sixties.

“My society is not trouble,” Ida Belle said. “We keep things running smoothly. But some of the women had issues with our admission requirements and decided to form their own club.”

“Ah.” I was starting to get the picture. Only old maids and women who’d been widowed for over five years could apply for membership in the SLS. They had a firm belief that the close proximity of men clouded logical thinking. I tended to agree.

“So what does GW stand for?” I asked.

Ida Belle rolled her eyes.

“God’s Wives,” Gertie said.

“I call them Got No Lives,” Ida Belle interjected.

“I wish I could disagree,” Gertie said, “as Ida Belle’s sentiments are fairly rude, but unfortunately, all the GWs do is spend their time trying to get one over on the SLS. They don’t really exist beyond that purpose.”

“I see,” I said. “So you’re afraid the GWs met to plan their next strategic move in this Jurassic War?”

“Oh, I’m certain that’s why they met. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have details.”

I clenched a little. “Please don’t tell me you’ve bugged their meeting place.”

Since I’d discovered that Ida Belle and Gertie had been covert operatives during the Vietnam Conflict, it opened up all sorts of options that I normally wouldn’t consider from your average senior citizen. They’d “made” me shortly after my arrival in Sinful, recognizing my military training, and had dedicated themselves to helping me maintain my cover. Unfortunately, they also expected me to take part in their spy-versus-spy shenanigans.

“Oh,” Gertie perked up. “That’s a great idea. We should really consider bugging the women’s classroom at the Catholic church.”

Ida Belle nodded. “Being friends with you is really paying off, Fortune.”

I stared at them in dismay. “I didn’t…I wasn’t…never mind. Just don’t tell me about it.”

“So,” Gertie continued, “I got the call this morning from Beatrice Paulson.”

“Who’s Beatrice Paulson?” I asked.

“Our spy,” Ida Belle interjected. “Can you please keep up? I haven’t had enough coffee to give a history lesson.”

Gertie frowned at Ida Belle. “She can hardly know things she’s never been told. No one is that good. Beatrice is our mole inside the GWs. She was widowed six years ago. So last year, when she was eligible for SLS membership, we turned her.”

My head began to ache just a bit. “Are you sure that’s safe? I mean, this Beatrice was a member of the other group for a long time, right? How do you know she’s not feeding you false information?”

“She’s clean,” Gertie said. “After Selma passed and Celia took over leadership of the group, we knew Beatrice would jump at the chance.”

“Celia Arceneaux?” I asked. “Of the Catholic-Baptist Banana Pudding Wars?”

Gertie nodded. “One and the same.”

“I’m going to have to bring tennis shoes to church the entire time I’m here, aren’t I?” I asked.

“Probably,” Gertie said.

Ida Belle waved her empty coffee mug in the air and I jumped up to pour her another cup. “If you two are done reinventing the wheel, can we get on with this? I have to get these rollers out or I’ll spend the entire week looking like a French poodle.”

Gertie leaned toward us and lowered her voice. “Beatrice found out about the Summer Festival.”

“Why the hell are you whispering?” Ida Belle asked. “Don’t make me work this hard on two cups of coffee.”

Gertie sighed. “Mayor Fontleroy agreed to their plan of having a children’s beauty pageant.”

Ida Belle looked as if she’d sucked on a lemon. “I’m not surprised given that idiot Fontleroy is Celia’s ex-brother-in-law, but I don’t have to like it. My idea for a shooting gallery would have been a lot more fun.”

“Darn straight,” I agreed.

“Apparently,” Gertie said, “Idiot Fontleroy didn’t think the shooting gallery was family-friendly.”

“So do it yourself,” I said, not understanding at all why this constituted an emergency. “I get that a beauty pageant makes you want to gag, but why not just do your own thing and ignore the rest?”

Gertie’s eyes widened. “There can only be one main event at the Summer Festival.”

I sighed. “Let me guess—having more than one main event is against the law?” Sinful had rewritten the book on absurd legalities.

Gertie nodded. “Of course. We manage to get our way some of the time because the mayor wants to appear impartial, even though he’s not, but this one was a complete sweep for the competition.”

“And why is that,” Ida Belle asked, “when I know for a fact Fontleroy doesn’t like Celia any more than we do, and the GWs got their sewing competition last year? It was our turn.”

“That’s the really, really bad part,” Gertie said, “and why I called you straightaway. Pansy Arceneaux is coming back to town.”

Ida Belle’s eyes widened. “This is not good.”

I frowned. The name sounded familiar and given that I’d been here less than a week and only knew a handful of people, that seemed odd. Then it clicked and I sucked in a breath.

“The beauty queen who went to Hollywood to get famous?” I asked. “She’s Celia’s daughter?”

“The one and only,” Gertie said. “Pansy told Celia she wants to take a break from her hectic acting schedule, but I’ve kept an eye on the Internet Movie Database and know that’s complete bull. More likely, she’s broke and crawling home to Mama until she can get some more money out of her.”

Instantly, my mind flashed back to the insipid Facebook page I’d found when trying to research the citizens of Sinful. “Okay,” I said, “I can see why having her here would give one a serious butt rash, but why is that an emergency?”

“Because we have to work equally on the main event,” Gertie said. “We’re not allowed to duck out just because we don’t like the featured activity.”

Ida Belle nodded. “And with you being our new ally and supposed to be a former beauty queen yourself, you’ll be expected to take the reins on this.”

I sucked in a breath. Holy crap! This undercover situation was the gift that kept right on giving. Right now, it was giving me an ulcer. When CIA Director Morrow had informed me that I had a million-dollar price on my head, and a leak at the CIA had blown my cover, he’d thought my posing as his librarian/ex-beauty queen niece, Sandy-Sue, was the perfect solution.

Sandy-Sue had been scheduled for a summerlong visit to small-town Louisiana in order to settle up her great-aunt Marge’s estate, but the real Sandy-Sue was jet-setting in Europe while I attempted—with limited success—to take her place in the strangest town on earth. Morrow had no idea just how many problems I’d run into in a town with less population than the high-rise I lived in back in DC.

Ida Belle studied me for a moment. “I suppose that glued-on hair of yours wasn’t really due to a bleaching accident, was it?”

“No. I used to keep my hair about an inch long. It was easier that way given my line of work and the desert conditions.”

Ida Belle shook her head. “Do you even own a brush? Know how to use a curling iron or apply mascara?”

I stared. “I’m not even certain what one of those is.”

“This is not good,” Ida Belle repeated.

“She’ll just have to learn,” Gertie said. “We have a couple of days and the Internet is full of information.”

I shook my head. “You cannot make me a girlie girl in two days. Not to mention that I’d have to work with kids, something I have zero experience with. There are too many variables. It would be easier if I just killed her.”

Ida Belle nodded. “She’s right.”

Gertie looked upward as if awaiting help from God. “You can’t kill someone for being useless and annoying.”

“Hmmpf,” Ida Belle said. “Don’t tell me the thought never crossed your mind when you had her in English class.”

“Okay, maybe it did a time or two.”

Ida Belle raised her eyebrows.

“Fine!” Gertie threw up her hands. “The girl was Satan’s spawn and I’ve prayed every night since she left that she would be swallowed up in an earthquake if the thought of returning to Sinful ever crossed her mind. But none of that matters. What matters is that two days from now, Pansy will scrutinize Fortune worse than the IRS did Al Capone, and if we don’t get her up to speed, it will blow her cover.”

“Unfortunately, she’s right,” Ida Belle grumbled. “And I don’t think the Internet is going to be enough ammunition to fix this situation.”

“You have more ammunition than the Israeli government,” Gertie protested.

Ida Belle gave a long-suffering sigh. “Knowledge ammunition. You are I are not exactly fashion-forward. We wouldn’t understand the half of what we saw or read any more than Fortune would. What we need is a professional.”

Gertie frowned for a moment, then she brightened. “You’re thinking about Genesis.”

“Of course. Genesis is exactly what we need.”

“I don’t think even prayer is going to help this one,” I said, “and I really see no reason to go all the way back to Genesis just to come up empty.”

Gertie laughed. “Genesis Thibodeaux is a former Sinful resident who was only months away from SLS membership when she met Anton.”

“Sacrilege,” I said. “She ditched SLS membership for a man?”

“Not just any man,” Gertie said. “Anton is intelligent, breathtaking, and immensely charming.”

Ida Belle nodded. “So hot, he makes your eyes bleed. After the ladies met him, we couldn’t exactly fault her.”

“Too true,” Gertie agreed. “Why if I were twenty years younger—”

Ida Belle waved a hand in dismissal. “You’d still be too damned old for him.”

“Well, you don’t have to be rude about it,” Gertie pouted. “Anyway, Genesis is the perfect solution. She owns her own beauty shop and also does all the costumes, hair, and makeup for a theater company in New Orleans.”

Ida Belle nodded. “If Genesis can’t help you, no one can.”

I took a big drink of coffee. I wasn’t nearly as confident as Gertie and Ida Belle, but I had to give it a try.

It seemed the only options were to start at the beginning with Genesis or end it all with Revelations.

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