Excerpt: Swamp Santa

Excerpt: Swamp Santa

Book 16: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One

 

Ida Belle impatiently honked the horn for the tenth time.

“What the heck is keeping that woman?” she asked. “We have to beat Celia to the school.”

We were sitting in Gertie’s driveway, waiting for her to emerge so we could head to the middle school auditorium for the Christmas gala. It sounded fancy but basically, it was a night of performances by schoolkids and a re-creation of the manger scene by the adults, then food and pictures with Santa. Since no denomination could claim ownership of Christmas, the Baptist and Catholic churches worked on a joint production. Plus, neither could find enough volunteers or live animals to manage it alone.

Ida Belle was in charge of the Baptists. Her nemesis, Celia Arceneaux, wrangled the Catholics. Hence the reason for all the horn honking. Ida Belle wasn’t about to let Celia outdo her at anything, not even arriving at the school.

“That woman better not be trying on that sexy elf costume again,” Ida Belle said. “I almost had a heart attack when I walked in on her with it on the other day.”

“Maybe you should knock and yell out for decency before you go into her bedroom,” I said.

“She was in the kitchen—cooking a casserole. I couldn’t even stay for dinner. Just thinking about what those ingredients had seen…”

I grinned. “Well, at least she plays a wise man in the show. Can’t make that sexy.”

Ida Belle shot me a worried glance. “One year, she wrapped the robe around her like a toga. Half her thigh was showing, which means all of her .45 was in full view. It took three of us to unwrap it she had it twisted around so tight.”

“Why was she strapping a .45 for the Christmas gala?”

“She claimed it was in case any of the animals got out of line.”

“Was she referring only to the four-legged kind?”

“Ha! Good question. I confiscated the gun so we didn’t have to find out.”

I nodded. Since a wise man wouldn’t carry a huge handbag, they were probably safe after that.

Finally, the door opened and Gertie stepped out. But she wasn’t alone. Perched on her robed shoulder was Francis, her parrot.

“What the heck is she doing with that bird?” Ida Belle asked.

“It looks like she’s added an accessory to her costume.”

Gertie climbed inside the SUV and we both turned to stare.

“You cannot bring that bird to the show,” Ida Belle said.

Francis let out a wolf whistle. “Pretty ladies alert,” he said.

“You have to admit, he is good for the ego,” I said.

“This is a religious performance,” Ida Belle said. “Not a reality show. There is no role for ego.”

I gave Gertie a shrug. “I tried.”

“There’s all kinds of animals in the show,” Gertie said. “I don’t see why I can’t bring Francis.”

“There are farm animals in the show,” Ida Belle said. “A cow, a sheep, a goat…and they add to the presentation. They don’t distract.”

“What about that year the cow went into labor and plopped out that calf, right there next to the manger?” Gertie asked.

“Fred should never have brought a pregnant cow,” Ida Belle agreed.

“Seems like a live birth would have been somewhat appropriate,” I said.

“We got a lot of complaints from parents after that one,” Ida Belle said. “Apparently, some of them had convinced their children that calves arrived by really big storks.”

“The hazard of using live animals, I suppose,” I said.

“Aside from that,” Gertie said, “the most exciting thing one of those farm animals has done is poop. Until you reach a certain age, you don’t get excited about a poop.”

“That’s not the point,” Ida Belle said. “A parrot doesn’t fit into the narrative.”

“Why not?” Gertie asked.

 “Because you’re a king from the Orient,” Ida Belle said. “Not South America.”

“That Orient thing is legend, not fact,” Gertie argued. “Maybe a king did visit Jesus from South America.”

“Really?” Ida Belle said. “And just how did he get there?”

“You really should watch Ancient Aliens,” Gertie said. “Hey, maybe next year we can work ET into the production. That would be way cool.”

Ida Belle threw her hands in the air. “I give up. Keep the bird, but I take no responsibility for any nonsense he spouts off in front of the whole danged town.”

“If he talks too much, I’ll give him a grape,” Gertie said. “That always shuts him up.”

“As soon as we get to the school, I’m going to start a betting pool on when he breaks out singing,” I said.

Ida Belle frowned at me. “You are not helping.”

“I’ll let you have first pick at a slot,” I said.

“Maybe you’re helping a little.” She backed out of the driveway, threw the SUV in Drive, and took off, obviously still intent on beating Celia to the school.

“Did you have the Sinful Ladies meeting last night?” I asked, changing the subject.

Ida Belle was a founding member and the leader of the women’s group that had been running Sinful behind the scenes for decades. But her recent engagement had left the group with a dilemma. Married women weren’t allowed in unless they’d been widowed for a minimum of ten years. If Ida Belle went through with tying the knot with Walter, then she would no longer be eligible for her own group. That issue had been a hot matter of debate among the Sinful Ladies ever since Walter announced their engagement at Thanksgiving.

“We finally voted last night,” Gertie said.

“And?” I’d been waiting to hear the outcome since the moment I learned that Ida Belle had finally said yes to Walter. This was huge. If Ida Belle had to step down from the Sinful Ladies, the universe would be out of balance. Sinful might topple into the Gulf.

“We decided to allow her to remain a member and keep her position as president,” Gertie said. “And we’re starting a prayer chain for Walter.”

I let out a breath of relief. “That sounds reasonable.”

“The reality is, no one wanted Ida Belle to step down, much less out,” Gertie said. “And after seven…er, a lot of years of doing exactly as she pleased, we didn’t figure Walter would be able to make a scratch in her armor.”

“So your stance is that past a certain point, a woman can’t be influenced by a man,” I said.

Gertie shook her head. “Our stance is that Ida Belle can’t be influenced by a man, but then I could have told them that in kindergarten.”

“Got that right,” Ida Belle said.

“He finally convinced you to get married,” I pointed out. “I’d say that’s huge.”

“He didn’t convince me,” Ida Belle said. “I just finally decided it was time.”

I grinned. “So when do we start wedding planning? Ally has been showing me pictures in bridal magazines for weeks. If you don’t let her help, I think she might explode.”

“Tell her to keep those magazines to herself,” Gertie said. “I already tried that route, and someone suggested I might need surgical help getting them removed if I showed her one more picture.”

I shook my head. “Look, I get that you’re not into the girlie stuff and you’re the furthest thing from the bridezilla mentality that could possibly exist, but this is an exciting thing. Especially for those who’ve been around for the rejections all those years. You can’t expect to finally agree to marry Walter and not have some hoopla surrounding you.”

“And I suppose when you marry Carter, you’ll have no problem with people shoving dress and cake photos at you all day long?” Ida Belle asked.

“First off, cake is never a problem,” I said. “And if Carter and I ever take that step, then I fully expect that it will come with some things that I am supposed to make a big deal over but couldn’t care less about. I’ll look at it as doing everyone else a favor.”

Ida Belle grimaced. “I don’t want a big deal. All that crap—frilly dresses and flowers and cakes with icing that’s too thick and too sweet—that’s not me.”

“Well, you can’t get married in your bass boat wearing camo,” Gertie said.

“Says who?” Ida Belle asked.

“Hey, instead of bouquets, we can all hold pistols,” I said.

“You are not helping,” Gertie said. “Can’t you just this one time find your inner girl?”

“We could wrap the firearms in pink streamers,” I said.

“Hide the firearms in the wall,” Francis said. “The DEA is on the take.”

I glanced at the bird and frowned. “I’m surprised the DEA didn’t whack that bird.”

“You should hear what he has to say about the mayor over there,” Gertie said. “When he gets going, he sounds like a TMZ broadcast.”

“You better hope he doesn’t TMZ it during the gala,” Ida Belle said. “This is a family event.”

“Which is why I brought Francis,” Gertie said. “The kids will love him.”

“You think?” I asked. “I thought after the show there was that whole sit-on-Santa-Claus thing. I figured all the kids would be fidgeting until the show was over, just waiting to get in their list of toys.”

“Santa is definitely a big draw,” Gertie said. “Rollie Long has been Santa for a coon’s age. He’s awesome.”

“I keep hearing that expression,” I said. “Do raccoons have a long life expectancy?”

“Not around Sinful,” Ida Belle said.

Gertie nodded. “Good eating.”

“Yuck,” I said. “I’m going to pass. As long as they’re not in my attic, I’m on the live-and-let-live train.”

Ida Belle made a hard right and pulled into the parking lot. I spotted Celia’s car just ahead of us.

“Crap!” Ida Belle said and floored it. “Fortune, get ready to run for that door.”

“And do what? Guard it until you get there?”

She pulled a key from her pocket and handed it to me. “As long as my key unlocks the door first, I win.”

Celia had the back door open on her car, probably about to remove some supplies, when she heard Ida Belle’s SUV roaring into the parking lot. She slammed the door shut and took off for the school at a dead run. It wouldn’t have been a challenge for me, as Celia could hardly beat me in a foot race, except that she had the advantage of being much closer to the door.

“She’s going to beat us,” Gertie said as Celia made it to the sidewalk and kept huffing.

“We’ll see about that,” Ida Belle said and headed straight for the curb.

The SUV bumped over the curb and onto the school lawn so fast that I was glad, once again, that I’d fastened my seat belt. Gertie still hadn’t learned her lesson on that one and flew up, hitting her head on the top of the vehicle. Francis, sensing impending doom, abandoned his perch and flew right for the steering wheel, where he totally blocked Ida Belle’s view.

“Hard right and brake!” I yelled as Celia came into view.

Ida Belle cut the wheel to the right, flinging Francis off his newly adopted perch and into my lap. Celia tried to stop, but momentum had the advantage. She ran smack into the fender of the SUV with a hit that would have made an NFL linebacker proud.

“You better not have dented my baby!” Ida Belle yelled.

I grabbed the agitated bird and tossed him in the back seat, then flung open the door, jumped out, and ran. No sense losing now. I had unlocked the school door and was standing there like a butler when Celia finally limped up, glaring at me.

“I’m going to have that woman arrested,” Celia said. “She tried to run me over.”

“If she’d wanted to run you over, it would have already happened,” I said. “There was a problem with the bird. It was all an accident.”

Ida Belle and Gertie strolled up, grinning as if they didn’t have a care in the world.

“It’s always an accident with you people,” Celia fumed. “But I find it strange that your accidents always tend to fall out on me.”

“Not at all,” Gertie said. “We inconvenience and otherwise assault others on a routine basis. But it’s never intentional.”

I coughed.

“Okay,” Gertie said. “Sometimes it’s intentional. But that’s only the bad guys.”

“We’re not the bad guys,” Francis said, and Celia jumped back, her eyes wide.

“That thing is real?” she asked.

“Of course he’s real,” Gertie said. “Why would I walk around with a stuffed parrot on my shoulder?”

“I don’t know why you’d walk around with a real one,” Celia said. “You’re trying to ruin the show, aren’t you? You ruin everything.”

“I make things interesting,” Gertie said.

“Ladies…and Celia,” Ida Belle said. “We have work to do.” She strode past me and headed into the school, Gertie right behind her.

I just grinned at the still-sputtering Celia and headed inside as well, letting the door close in Celia’s face.

“I should have a more charitable spirit given that it’s Christmas,” I said.

Gertie waved a hand in dismissal. “That woman would find a flaw with Jesus himself if he showed up.”

Francis broke into a rendition of Jesus Loves Me and I laughed. I had a feeling this was going to be one heck of a show.

###

Carter and I broke into polite applause along with the rest of the audience as a group of elementary school students ran off stage. They’d just finished singing a medley of favorite children’s Christmas tunes with their accompanying string quartet, also made up of elementary school students who had just begun to learn how to play.

I pulled the cotton out of my ears and smiled as Carter did the same.

“I’m glad you came prepared,” I whispered. “That quartet sounded like cats in heat.”

“I think cats in heat are probably more in tune,” he said and smiled. “If they stick with it, by the time they get to high school, they’re much better. Of course, we’ve only had one high school quartet in the show in the past ten years.”

“I guess most don’t stick with it.”

“As a former cat in heat player, I can tell you that it’s a lot harder than it looks.”

I laughed and got shushed by the lady behind me.

“It’s time for the big finale,” Carter said.

That meant the adults were on. Well, the adults and Gertie. During setup and practice, there had been some objections to Francis taking part in the show, but it was only Celia’s group that complained. Everyone else thought the bird was a cool addition to the otherwise boring farm animals that took part. It wasn’t as though you could count on a live birth every year.

The music began and the shepherds walked onstage with their sheep. It pleased me to no end to see that Celia and her crew were relegated to playing the shepherds while Gertie got to play one of the wise men. I imagined that irritated the heck out of Celia, but Ida Belle had explained to me that all slots were allocated based on group vote. Apparently, Celia didn’t have enough votes to get a better role.

Once the shepherds and sheep were in place, Joseph and Mary entered. I was impressed that Mary was actually riding on the back of a donkey. Sinful really did go all out. The story progressed from the arrival to the inn being full and to the birth of Jesus. That part was glossed over a bit with the baby magically appearing after a bright glow enveloped the stage.

“Nice cover,” I whispered.

Carter grinned.

There was a song break after the birth and the audience sang along to O Holy Night. While the robust but rather off-key rendition was performed, the cow took an opportunity to deposit its most recent meal onto the stage. The shepherds, who were positioned next to the cow, lifted their robes to cover their noses and I coughed, trying not to laugh out loud. I could feel Carter shaking beside me but didn’t dare look at his face, or I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold it in.

Then came the time for the three kings to enter. They walked onto the stage at the same time, their steps in unison. Each carried their offering for baby Jesus in their hands, but only one had a live parrot on her shoulder. A general murmur passed over the crowd and I was sure Gertie had succeeded in confusing everyone in attendance.

Except for me and Carter, of course.

I already knew about Francis being part of the show and nothing Gertie did confused Carter. His policy where she was concerned was to always expect the unexpected. His policy was also that unless he was on duty, it was an opportunity to catch a moment on film. He pulled out his phone and started filming. I noticed a lot of other people around us doing the same.

The first king stepped forward and started his lines about his offering of gold.

“Melt the gold,” Francis said. “Trade it for the guns.”

The audience chuckled and one man called out, “Got that right!” Gertie popped a grape in the bird’s mouth. That kept him quiet long enough for the second wise man to present his gift. But when Gertie stepped forward, Francis had finished the grape and was ready to chat.

“You’re smoking hot,” Francis said, looking at Mary.

The chuckles turned to outright laughter and I didn’t even bother with the cough cover any longer. Everyone who hadn’t pulled out their cell phone before had it out now. Pastor Don, who was the official director, of sorts, waved from the edge of the curtain, probably gesturing for Gertie to get on with her lines.

Gertie knelt down in front of the manger and held out her offering. “I present to the Lord Jesus, frankincense.”

“Frank Sinatra is dreamy,” Francis said. “Frank Moretti will do the hit.”

Joseph reached out to take the gift and I could see his whole body was shaking as he did it. Mary had lifted baby Jesus up until he was almost covering her face.

“Will you shut that bird up?” Celia said. “He’s ruining everything.”

“Why don’t you shut up, Celia?” a woman shouted.

“Celia Arceneaux is the Antichrist,” Francis said.

The entire auditorium erupted, no longer making any effort to contain themselves. The noise startled Francis and he took off from Gertie’s shoulder, but his leg leash only allowed him to fly as far as the goat. He landed on the goat’s head and started belting out Away in a Manger. The startled goat bleated and jumped on top of the hay bale that the cow was currently munching on.

The cow was not impressed with the goat or the singing bird and kicked one of the supports holding up the stable, which sent the entire thing toppling onto Mary and Joseph. Mary involuntarily flung baby Jesus—who, thank God, was a prop—and it hit the donkey right between the eyes. The donkey spun around and took off, dragging the shepherd who’d been charged with holding him. The sheep assumed that the donkey was running for a reason and took off after him, knocking the shepherds down as they scrambled.

And sending Celia face-first into the cow poop.

Some of the audience scrambled onto the stage to lift the barn off Mary and Joseph. Others attempted to corral the panicked animals. Carter, apparently feeling that it was his place as law enforcement to help out, shoved his phone into my hand.

“Keep recording,” he said. “This is the most awesome Christmas show ever.”

He headed for the stage and as I watched the drama unfold, Ida Belle sidled up to me, shaking her head.

“I told you that bird was going to be trouble,” she said.

“Yeah, but it’s hilarious.” I pointed to Celia, who’d just managed to get upright, then as she took one step, slipped on the poop and fell right back in it.

“She’s going to throw her back out if she keeps that up,” Ida Belle said.

“I notice her crew didn’t stick around to help.”

“There are limits to what one will do for Celia. Cow poop is probably one of those lines.”

“Look! Gertie nabbed Francis.”

Gertie had finally managed to reel in the wandering bird and plopped him back on her shoulder. Then she walked to the edge of the stage, grinned, and took a bow.

The applause was thunderous.

All the kids and more than a few adults rushed toward the stage to get a better look at the bird that stole Christmas.

“Santa is going to be a real snoozefest after this,” I said.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

 

 

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