Excerpt: Soldiers of Fortune

Excerpt: Soldiers of Fortune

Book 6: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One

At 7:00 a.m., on a perfectly good Thursday, I stared at the mass of people on Main Street in dismay. The Fourth of July is cause for a big holiday celebration in many places, but when you combine the Fourth with a contested mayoral election, in Sinful, Louisiana, it’s apparently cause for mass chaos. I dodged people shouting, snow cone stands, children screaming, and people hanging streamers until I reached Francine’s Café. I hurried inside, expecting to see a similar scene, but was pleasantly surprised to find the regular early-morning breakfast crowd in their usual seats.

I smiled and headed for my corner table, waving at Ally as I crossed the café. She popped over with coffee a minute later. “Given what I saw outside, I figured this place would be a madhouse.”

“So did Francine,” Ally said, “which is why she doubled the prices on everything and has forbidden anyone from only ordering coffee.”

“And she gets away with that?” I definitely appreciated the strategy, but couldn’t fathom her stance not causing a riot.

“Most everyone is scared of Francine,” Ally said. “If she closed up shop, half the people in Sinful wouldn’t have a good meal again. And she gets offers all the time from restaurants in New Orleans. Bakeries would kill for her banana pudding recipe.”

“I bet Celia’s not afraid of her.”

Ally frowned. “You’re right there, and with her being elected mayor, there’s going to be nothing but trouble. Any news on the election recount?”

“Marie has hired an auditing firm out of New Orleans to do the job. It will take several days, though.”

“In several days, Aunt Celia could bring this entire town to the brink of insanity.”

“Given that it’s mostly already there, that’s not exactly a big leap.”

“True, but Celia’s brand of insanity is more…mean than most.”

I nodded. Ally’s aunt was the equivalent to a bipolar cat lady. Lived alone, didn’t like anyone and they didn’t like her, and her mood and allegiance shifted by the minute. Just a couple of weeks ago, I’d saved her life and she actually seemed grateful. One incident with wieners and hound dogs, and she promised to run me out of town. Today she might be knitting blankets for seniors and tomorrow she’d be calling a group of Girl Scouts ugly and fat. I’d given up trying to figure out what made her tick. If Gertie and Ida Belle hadn’t figured it out in fifty-plus years, I certainly wasn’t going to manage it in a month.

“We’ll just hope she’s too busy celebrating to get right down to nasty business,” I said, but I knew it was a wasted sentiment. Celia had probably been up all night plotting ways to make her sworn enemies miserable. The worst part was, in settling her personal scores, she would ruin Sinful.

Ally nodded. “Do you want your usual?”

“No. Just egg whites this morning. I saw a funnel cake vendor out there. I may have to go grazing in the sweets after breakfast.”

“Funnel cake?” Ally sighed. “That’s so unfair. Like testing my own baking isn’t problem enough, now I’ll be out there after my shift’s over, playing cattle like you.”

I grinned as Ally headed back to the kitchen. Staying in shape had been a constant problem since my arrival in Sinful. If it hadn’t been for the shenanigans I got into with Gertie and Ida Belle, I probably would have gained far more than the five pounds I’d already put on. Between Gertie’s dessert gifts, Francine’s fantastic and fattening meals, and Ally currently living with me and creating new bakery items every day, I was probably consuming enough carbs and sugar to induce a diabetic coma in an inert person.

I took a sip of my coffee and looked outside the picture window at the fray. There was no way this day would end without a problem that required law enforcement intervention. The sheer number of Sinful residents celebrating combined with homemade hooch and questionable IQs spelled certain disaster. I hoped Carter didn’t allow himself to be pulled back to the job. Dr. Stewart refused to release him to work for another week, and that was only if he had a clean scan showing no remaining swelling in his brain.

Not that Carter paid a lick of attention to what his doctor said. He’d left the hospital two days before and gone straight into the bayou looking for a gunrunner and murderer. The fact that he saved Ida Belle, Gertie, and an ATF agent was the only thing that kept his mother from yelling at him, but it hadn’t stopped her from calling Dr. Stewart and passing the phone to Carter so that he could yell at him.

Carter had taken the doctor’s orders seriously yesterday and spent most of the day sleeping with me in my hammock, then we had a nice dinner that Ally prepared, and afterward, he actually agreed to go to bed early. He would never admit he wasn’t a hundred percent, but I could tell his strength was waning by evening. I’d had a head injury before, courtesy of a slight miscalculation when I tried to jump from a bridge onto the yacht of an escaping gunrunner. The week I’d been forced to sit around in my condo hadn’t been the most thrilling, but when taking a shower required sitting for twenty minutes to recover, it was hard to argue about the forced time off. Especially when your job included carrying a gun.

I took my time over breakfast, chatting with Ally when she could stop by and getting a couple more chapters done on the thriller I’d started reading the day before. Finally, I paid my bill and walked outside to see what was going on.

Main Street was just as crowded as before, but was starting to take on the shape of minimal organization. Streamers and balloons were attached to all the light poles, and stands lined both sides of the street, residents busily putting up their wares. I spotted Ida Belle and Gertie across the street at a booth in front of the General Store and crossed over to where they were unpacking boxes of Sinful Ladies cough syrup.

“You’re selling your moonshine right here on Main Street?” I asked.

Legally speaking, Sinful was dry, meaning no bars and no sale of alcohol, which meant the men in town either risked their wives’ wrath by going to drink at the Swamp Bar or they brewed their own. The female residents of Sinful elected the less strenuous option of purchasing Sinful Ladies cough syrup, which would indeed cure the worst of coughs, but mostly by scaring bacteria right out of your body.

“Walter sells it at the store,” Ida Belle said. “What’s the difference?”

“Celia is mayor,” I said.

Gertie frowned. “Don’t remind me. I sat up all night with some of the ladies, alternating burning candles and praying with burning pictures of Celia and drinking. I have the worst hangover ever.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t burn your house down,” Ida Belle said. “The lot of you have no business combining alcohol and fire. It’s like daring the universe to do something.”

“You mean like selling hooch on Main Street when Celia is mayor?”

Ida Belle gave me a dirty look. “It is not the same thing. I like Gertie and wouldn’t want to see her go up in flames. Celia, on the other hand…”

I grinned. “Apparently, making Celia mad is what I live for, so pass me a crate.”

Ida Belle slid a crate to me and I hefted it onto the table and started unpacking the wares. “Hey, this is a new one.” I held up a bottle labeled “Sinful Ladies Atomic Blast Cough Syrup.” The tagline read, “When regular cough syrup just won’t do.”

“That one’s one-ninety proof,” Ida Belle said.

“Jeez Louise, are people supposed to drink it or use it to strip paint?”

“I’ve used it for both,” Gertie said, “and to remove some rust off my barbecue grill.”

“That one is best added to a cup of coffee,” Ida Belle said. “A very large cup of coffee if you plan on walking the rest of the day.”

No doubt. I put the bottle on the table, reminding myself to stick to regular only. I was sorta attached to my liver. I finished unpacking that crate and was about to ask for another when I heard a commotion behind me.

I turned around in time to see Sheriff Lee ride into the center of Main Street on his burro. But instead of his normal slacks and button-up shirt with the sheriff’s department logo, he was decked out in a sequined Uncle Sam costume, complete with top hat. Holy crap, maybe a swig of the hard stuff wasn’t such a bad idea.

“Oh, look,” Gertie said. “There’s Sheriff Lee in his Fourth of July outfit.”

“He has a special outfit for the Fourth of July?” I asked.

“He has a special outfit for all holidays,” Gertie said. “You should see his costume for the May Day festival.”

“I’m afraid to ask,” I said.

Ida Belle nodded. “Smart woman. May Day has its roots in fertility rites.”

Residents crowded around sheriff and burro, some posing their kids in front of him to get pictures. “Looks like the crowd likes it,” I said, reminding myself that there was no accounting for taste in Sinful, Louisiana.

Ida Belle waved a hand in dismissal. “Those idiots eat it up. They’ll take any opportunity to take another picture of ‘Little Tommy and Mary’ and post them on Instagram. The whole thing is a snooze fest.”

“What do you know about Instagram?” I asked. I’d only learned about it the week before when Ally was taking pictures of her latest baking to post to her account. She’d insisted on setting me up an account because she’d be moving back to her own house soon and she didn’t want me to miss out on any of her new stuff. My thighs were certain I needed to miss out on her new stuff, but my taste buds overruled them and told her to go ahead, with the caveat that if she posted anything I couldn’t live without, she had to bring one over. She’d agreed, set up the account TroubleMagnet, and gotten me some friends or whatever. I had yet to post a picture.

What the hell. Maybe I should start.

I pulled out my cell phone, zoomed in on Sheriff Uncle Sam Lee, and snapped a pic, then posted it to my account. There you go—one thing accomplished today. I could officially spend the rest of the day goofing off.

I slipped the phone back into my pocket and turned around, only to collide with Deputy Breaux. The young deputy was nice, but also inexperienced and mostly afraid of his own shadow. With Carter officially on medical leave, he was probably about due for a nervous breakdown. Sheriff Lee didn’t exactly set the world on fire with his law enforcement prowess—or at least, hadn’t in the last hundred years or so—and without Carter on duty, that left Deputy Breaux to handle Sinful. It was a losing proposition right out of the gate.

“I’m sorry, Fortune,” Deputy Breaux said. “I’ve got to get to the sheriff before she does.”

“Before who does?” I asked, but Deputy Breaux had already taken off across the street.

My question was answered when Celia Arceneaux stepped into the street and marched straight up to Sheriff Lee. Deputy Breaux froze, his panic so apparent that I elbowed Gertie and asked, “Do you have defibrillators handy?”

“Why?” Gertie straightened up and looked across Main Street. “Oh. That doesn’t look good.”

“We better go see what it’s about,” Ida Belle said.

We hurried across the street right as Celia stepped up to the burro and handed Sheriff Lee a piece of paper.

“What the heck, woman,” Sheriff Lee said. “You know I can’t read this without my glasses on.”

Celia pulled herself up straight and glared. “Don’t call me ‘woman.’”

“Why not? That’s what you are. It would be downright silly to call you ‘man.’ Not to mention incorrect.”

Celia snatched the paper from him. “It says… Oh, never mind.” She shoved the paper back at him. “It says you’ve been relieved as sheriff due to mental incompetency.”

Sheriff Lee’s face turned as red as the stripes in his outfit. “The hell you say.”

“You rode a burro on top of a federal agent’s car. The city just received a bill for it. Until which time your mental health can be assessed and proven to be sound, you are no longer in charge of law enforcement in Sinful.”

“And just who is in charge?” Sheriff Lee asked. “Carter’s out on medical leave and Deputy Breaux isn’t qualified by a long shot.” He shot a look at the still-frozen Deputy Breaux. “Sorry, son.”

Celia gave him a smug smile. “In the interim, my cousin Nelson will be filling in.”

Gertie gasped and clutched my arm. I didn’t know who Nelson was, but I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like him.

Sheriff Lee’s jaw began to twitch, and the longer Celia stood there wearing that smug smile, the worse the twitching became. Then, in a move far faster than anything I’d ever seen him do, Sheriff Lee pulled out his pistol and aimed it directly at Celia’s forehead.

Most of the crowd took a step back and several women started to cry.

“Don’t do it, Sheriff,” one man said. “She ain’t worth it.”

“She wouldn’t die anyway,” a woman said. “You can’t kill Satan.”

I leaned down to Ida Belle. “Should we do something?” I whispered.

Ida Belle shook her head. “You heard the man. He’s not wearing his glasses.”

Even though it was Celia, and she was our sworn enemy, I couldn’t just stand there and watch the sheriff shoot her. The problem was if I tried to tackle him or threw something at his arm, I ran the risk of his accidentally squeezing the trigger and shooting someone in the crowd. That would be worse than shooting Celia. At least she sorta had it coming.

“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” Sheriff Lee said, his finger tightening on the trigger.

I gathered myself to spring but it was too late. He pulled the trigger.

A loud pop sounded and Celia collapsed into the crowd behind her, taking down five other people and sending her skirt over her head, exposing her big white granny panties.

Sheriff Lee began to laugh like a lunatic, and I whipped my head around and saw the “Bang” flag hanging out of his fake pistol. The crowd, finally catching on that Celia hadn’t really been shot, started to chuckle. Deputy Breaux came out of his stupor and fled the scene. Clearly he was smarter than people gave him credit for being.

Gertie shook her head. “She just can’t seem to keep from showing her wares, can she? You’d think after last time, she’d start wearing pants.”

Ida Belle whipped out her cell phone and took a picture of Celia in all her white cotton glory. A couple of Celia’s crew rushed over to help upright the new mayor, who was starting to regain consciousness. A couple seconds later, my phone buzzed and I saw an Instagram notice from HotRodMama.

Sinful’s new mayor shows her ass in public.

It was like a sea of white on my screen. I grimaced and turned my phone off. It was bad enough the first time. Now it was immortalized on the Internet. Gertie, who’d been digging in her enormous handbag, finally pulled out her phone and saw the same picture on her screen. She howled with laughter and some other people giggled. I scanned the crowd and realized all of the gigglers were holding their cell phones. Good God.

“Hey,” Gertie said, “the Times-Picayune just picked it up. The first official press photo of our new mayor.”

I couldn’t hold in the grin any longer. “I bet you’re proud.”

“I’m something,” Gertie said.

Celia grabbed two of her friends’ arms and practically dragged herself up from the pavement, glaring at a grinning Sheriff Lee. “You’ll pay for that,” she said.

Sheriff Lee responded by turning his burro around until the animal’s butt was smack in front of Celia’s face.

“That’s enough, Lee.” The male voice sounded from behind me and I turned to see a man making his way through the crowd.

“Thank God you’re here, Nelson,” Celia said, taking a step back from the burro’s butt. “I want him arrested.”

So this was the new sheriff in town.

Midfifties. Five foot ten. Two hundred fifty pounds. Hadn’t lifted anything heavier than a beer can since he was a teen. Only a threat to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

“Arrest him for what?” Gertie asked.

Celia pointed. “For having that unruly animal in the middle of Main Street.”

“The law says burros are allowed as transportation on the Fourth of July,” Gertie said. “Unless he exchanges that animal for oxen, he’s perfectly within his rights. One would think the mayor would bother to learn the laws.”

“Oxen?” I looked over at Ida Belle.

“Only on Christmas Eve,” Ida Belle said.

“Of course.”

“He created a public disturbance,” Celia said.

Gertie snorted. “So did you. Unless you passed a law that it’s okay to expose yourself on Main Street.”

Celia’s brow creased. A little girl, maybe twelve years old, tugged on her sleeve and lifted her phone to Celia’s face. Celia turned red, then purple, and for a moment, I thought she was going to either cycle through all the colors of the rainbow or her head was going to explode. Finally, she sputtered “Handle this” to Nelson and took off toward the Catholic church.

“How many Hail Marys does mooning call for?” Gertie called after her.

Nelson took a step closer to Sheriff Lee. “Get down from that infernal beast and come with me.”

Sheriff Lee backed the burro up into Nelson’s face. “One more word and I give him the signal to relieve himself. He’s been gassy.”

Nelson hopped back, suspiciously eyeing the burro’s hind end. “This isn’t over, Lee.”

“Oh yeah it is. It was over before it ever started.” Sheriff Lee gave the burro a nudge and it stepped backward again, pinning Nelson’s foot underneath its hoof.

Nelson howled in pain and shoved the burro’s rear, trying to force it off his foot. Not a good move when faced with a gassy burro, who took the hands on his butt as a signal to eliminate part of his load right on Nelson’s shoes. Apparently, relieving himself made the burro frisky and he kicked up his legs, lifting a good bit of his “relief,” and smacked Nelson right in the center of the chest with both hoofs. Nelson clutched his chest and fell onto the concrete, gasping for air. The former Sheriff Lee and the burro strolled away without so much as a backward glance.

“Now do we need the defibrillators?” I asked.

Ida Belle walked over and bent down, placing her fingers on Nelson’s neck. “Get up, you big baby. Your heart’s fine.” She looked over at us. “Funnel cake?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Since everyone had gravitated to the sheriff-and-burro show, the funnel cake trailer was free of patrons. A young woman smiled as we approached. “Ida Belle and Gertie…I haven’t seen you guys for years.”

Thirtyish. Five feet four. Hundred twenty pounds. No apparent disabilities, except for the smile.

“Kayla?” Ida Belle said. “I almost didn’t recognize you.”

Kayla blushed. “I’ve lost a couple of pounds since high school.”

“You’ve lost more than a couple,” Gertie said. “All you young people are on those fad diets.”

“I went on the college boy diet,” Kayla said. “They didn’t go for chubby girls, so I lost the weight, and had a makeover—new hair, fixed my teeth—you know the drill.”

“Your teeth look great,” Gertie said. “Are those veneers?”

“Some veneers and some crowns. I was wishing I’d taken better care of them when I got the bill.”

“I’m thinking of getting some work done,” Gertie said.

Ida Belle rolled her eyes. “You’ve worn dentures for ten years.”

Kayla laughed. “Anyway, I heavily invested in the whole makeover thing.”

“And did it work?” Ida Belle asked.

“Worked like a charm.” A man’s voice sounded behind them. They turned to look as he stepped by them and jumped over the table and into the booth with Kayla. He stuck out his hand. “I’m Colby, Kayla’s husband.”

Ida Belle and Gertie introduced themselves to Colby and then pointed to me. “Sorry we completely forgot to introduce our friend, Fortune. Her great-aunt was one of our best friends. She’s here this summer settling the estate.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Kayla said.

“It’s okay,” I replied. “We hadn’t seen each other in quite some time.”

Like never.

“You didn’t come back to Sinful just for the celebration, did you?” Gertie asked.

“Sort of,” Kayla said and waved a hand at the trailer. “This is our business. We travel around to different events, selling funnel cakes and snow cones.”

“Sounds like a lot of work,” I said. The whole idea of moving to a different place every week and dealing with random people all day was enough to make me itch.

“It is,” Kayla agreed, “but it’s fun, too. Colby and I both love to travel, and the business does quite well. We have a motor home that we can pull the trailer with, so we’re always at home, so to speak. Lots of times there’s days in between events, so one of us drives our truck and we check out the local sights.”

“Speaking of running the business,” Colby said. “I forgot the extra paper plates in the truck. I’m going to run get them.”

“Okay,” Kayla said and flashed her million-dollar smile at him.

“He’s a real cutie,” Gertie said. “Weren’t you dating one of those twins in high school?”

Kayla rolled her eyes. “Doug. I actually married him my freshman year of college. Lasted a whole month before I caught him sleeping with my chemistry lab partner.”

Gertie shook her head. “Well, looks like you got a good one now.”

“The best,” Kayla agreed.

“How’s your mother?” Ida Belle asked. “I haven’t seen her around in a while.”

“She’s good,” Kayla said. “Goes to visit her sister in Denver a lot. She likes the cooler temperature. I get back here for short visits as often as I can, but it’s hard when we’re booked solid. But enough of my rattling. What can I get you?”

“Three funnel cakes,” Gertie said.

Kayla sprinkled powdered sugar on the fresh cakes that Colby had just removed from the fryer and placed them on the table in front of us. “That will be fifteen dollars.”

“No wonder they can take time off,” Ida Belle grumbled.

“I got it,” I said and passed her a twenty. She gave me my change and we gathered our dessert and headed back to the Sinful Ladies booth. “Do you have to man the booth all day?”

“Heavens no,” Gertie said. “We just set it up and then the other ladies take it from there. They have a schedule so that everyone has plenty of time to enjoy the festivities.”

Sure enough, two of the Sinful Ladies were already at the booth finishing up the unpacking. They looked up as we approached.

“We heard Celia made a fool of herself,” the first lady said.

“Heard it and saw it,” the second one said and made a face as though she’d stepped in dog poo.

“It was hilarious,” Gertie said. “And then the burro crapped on Nelson’s shoes and kicked him.”

Both ladies giggled, then they sobered. “We also heard Sheriff Lee has been benched,” the first one said. “Nelson can’t take care of a cactus, much less this town.”

“Technically, Sheriff Lee can’t either,” Ida Belle said. “But we all keep voting for him because we know that means Carter will be taking care of things.”

“I wish Carter would run for sheriff,” Gertie said.

“He’s always said he wouldn’t until Sheriff Lee retires or dies,” Ida Belle said.

“If Sheriff Lee hasn’t died by now, I don’t think he’s going to,” I said.

Ida Belle nodded. “It might all be a moot point now. If Celia makes this mental issue stick, then Carter is going to have to step up in the next election. Bad enough we’d be stuck with Nelson for the time being.”

“Did someone say my name?” Carter’s voice sounded behind us.

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