Excerpt: Swamp Spirits

Excerpt: Swamp Spirits

Book 23: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One

 

Ronald, Ida Belle, Gertie, and I were enjoying an afternoon in my hot tub, along with a round of frozen margaritas, when my former CIA partner, Ben Harrison, rounded the corner of my house, tugging his fiancée, Cassidy Williams, as fast as her shorter legs could manage. He had that look I’d seen so many times when we’d done a mission together—part intensity, part excitement.

“Who’d you kill?” I asked as he approached.

He frowned for a moment, then grinned. “Oh, yeah. Old times, right? No one today and I’m really hoping no one anytime soon.”

“You haven’t even been here a month,” Ida Belle said. “Give it time.”

“Or we could introduce you to Celia and cut that down some,” Gertie said.

Ronald clinked his glass against Gertie’s.

“Who’s Celia?” Cassidy asked.

“Our nemesis,” I said.

“She’s that bad guy on every sitcom,” Ida Belle said, “who’s constantly trying to get one over on the hero, but just ends up showing her butt instead.”

Gertie grinned. “And she means that butt part literally.”

Harrison grimaced. “Yeah, YouTube is filled with Celia’s butt shots. That woman should really stick to pants.”

We all nodded.

Harrison gazed around, then checked his watch. “Is this really what you guys do on a Tuesday at 2:00 p.m.? I thought you were PIs. Well, one of you anyway.”

“Hey, it’s a chilly sixty-two degrees, and we had leftover margarita mix from the holidays,” I said. “Frozen drinks don’t get warm in here like beer does.”

“You’re just not drinking the beer fast enough,” Harrison said. “But still, Hot Tub Tuesday?”

“In their defense, they did catch a murderer a few weeks ago,” Ronald said.

“And saved a father and daughter from prison,” Ida Belle said. “Prompted an engagement and cleared the way for a woman and her disabled daughter to land a serious money deal with a television producer.”

“And I had to wear a dress,” I said. “An itchy, tight, uncomfortable dress and a padded bra.”

“Facts,” Ida Belle agreed.

“How long are you going to milk that whole queen thing?” Gertie asked.

“The whole month of January at least,” I said. “Maybe the first quarter.”

“As well you should,” Ronald said.

Cassidy smiled. “It sounds like you’ve earned the drink and more.”

“Oh, there’s more,” Gertie said. “We haven’t even dipped into Nora’s stuff yet.”

“Who’s Nora?” Harrison asked.

“You don’t want to know,” I said. “And I mean that—the less you know about Nora, the better. You’re not put in the position of arresting beloved locals if you don’t know what they’re up to.”

“But if you like sketchy, middle-aged women hitting on you, look her up,” Gertie said.

I laughed. “Carter crosses the street if he sees her coming.”

Harrison cringed. “I’ll take a pass on Nora.”

“We all do, honey,” Ronald said.

I shot a glance at Ronald but wasn’t about to ask.

“So what’s up?” I asked. “I know you didn’t drag Cassidy across my backyard just to see what we were doing. And you have that look like you just assassinated a drug lord.”

“The good ole days,” Harrison agreed. “But not this time—we found a house!”

“That was fast!”

“Congratulations!”

“Good for you!”

“Great news!”

We all cheered at once and Harrison beamed. Cassidy looked far less excited.

“Where is it?” I asked, wondering why Cassidy wasn’t as thrilled as my former partner.

Since Harrison would be serving multiple towns as a flexible deputy, he’d been trying to locate something central to all of them. No matter what, it wouldn’t be too far from Sinful because that was one of the towns he’d be covering when needed. Cassidy, who was as smart as she was gorgeous, had put herself through medical school while working as a nurse in the ER and then later for a pediatrician when she’d had to shift to part-time hours in order to concentrate on school. She’d recently graduated and had easily secured a residency at the hospital up the highway. ER doctors weren’t easy to come by.

There were a ton of homes in more rural areas and Cassidy wanted horses, so I figured they’d found an old farm somewhere and would soon delve into upgrades, repairs, and fencing. Maybe she was already dreading dealing with contractors. I couldn’t blame her on that one.

“It’s sort of in the middle of all my coverage areas,” Harrison said. “It sits on a bayou and comes with twenty acres, so plenty of room for Cassidy to have horses. There’s even a nice stable and a training arena already, and they’re both in decent condition.”

“Sounds perfect,” Gertie said.

“It’s so big,” Cassidy said somewhat hesitantly. “I’m a bit concerned about repairs and maintenance.”

“With the price of real estate down here, you should be laughing all the way to the title company,” Harrison said. “The profit on the sale of our condos in DC will cover the price of the house and the repairs. We’ll have a new start with no debt. How many people get to say that?”

“Very few,” Ida Belle said. “What kind of repairs are needed?”

“It’s been sitting empty for a long time,” Harrison admitted. “It looks rough, but the structure is in excellent shape. The plumbing is working okay. Since it’s so far out, it’s got a well, and the electricity isn’t on, but the inspector said he didn’t see any cause for alarm. I think it mostly needs a good cleaning and some updating—the kitchen and the master bathroom are first on the list. And then just changing things out to our taste, but we can do that a little at a time. Not like we need ten more bedrooms anytime soon.”

I spit out my margarita. “Ten more bedrooms?”

Gertie sucked in a breath and shot a worried glance at Ida Belle.

“You didn’t buy the Leroux estate,” Gertie said.

Harrison nodded. “That’s the one. I couldn’t remember the name.”

“Did you sign something already?” Gertie asked.

Harrison frowned. “Yeah, why? Does it flood or something, because the Realtor said it had never flooded. Crap! With all that stone, the place looks like a castle. I knew there had to be a reason it was unoccupied and so cheap.”

“That’s not why,” Gertie said. “It’s empty and cheap because it’s haunted.”

Harrison, Cassidy, and I stared at her. Ronald and Ida Belle just nodded and kept drinking.

“Haunted?” I asked.

Gertie nodded. “The story goes that the house was built about ninety years ago by a French count, Lucien Leroux.”

“Sounds like a stage name,” I said.

“The general consensus was that he was good-looking enough to be on the stage,” Ronald said. “The rumor was that he was kicked out of France because he had an affair with the wife of a marquis who was also a cousin of a prince. Those pretty boys are always trouble.”

“Leroux landed in New Orleans, like a lot of French did,” Gertie said, “and proceeded to take up with the very young daughter of a powerful voodoo priest.”

I whistled. “This guy knew how to pick them. So I guess he was ‘asked’ to leave New Orleans as well.”

“Yes, but not before the daughter got pregnant,” Ida Belle said. “The daughter, Lovelie, was shunned by her father and sent into exile with the count. The count had plenty of means, so he built the house for his bride, hoping to bring her the glamour and richness of the city she loved and had to leave behind.”

“Did it work?” I asked.

“Sadly, no,” Gertie said. “The bride missed her city and her family and fell into a deep depression, which only worsened after her daughter, Celine, was born. She never recovered.”

“That sucks,” Cassidy said. “Today, we’d call that postpartum and give her a pill and counseling, but back then, women were expected to get on with things, regardless of how they felt.”

Ida Belle and Gertie both nodded.

“You ‘sucked it up,’” Gertie said. “One of my mother’s favorite phrases to throw out to me when I was complaining about womanhood requirements.”

Cassidy smiled. “I see that you didn’t take your mother’s advice.”

“To her great dismay,” Gertie said, then shrugged. “She couldn’t comprehend my choices any more than I could comprehend hers. But we loved each other despite all that. And at least I had Ida Belle. We always knew we weren’t going to toe the line in regard to societal expectations. It would have been a lot harder on my own.”

“Somehow, I think you still would have managed,” Ida Belle said, and we all laughed.

“So what happened to the bride?” Cassidy asked.

“Depends on who you ask,” Gertie said. “Some say she committed suicide by walking into the bayou and drowning. Others say her father, enraged over her betrayal to her family, dragged her into the bayou and killed her. Celine wouldn’t have even been ten years old yet.”

Cassidy’s hand flew over her mouth. “Oh my God. And that’s who’s haunting the house?”

“The house isn’t really haunted,” Ida Belle said. “That’s all local drama and hooey.”

“You don’t believe in ghosts?” Cassidy asked.

“You do?” Ida Belle asked. “You’re a doctor—a scientist.”

Cassidy nodded. “And I’ve seen a lot of things I couldn’t explain. I don’t know. I mean, if you believe in God and an afterlife, then why not spirits who are stuck in between?”

“Exactly,” Gertie said.

“It’s a big fear of mine,” Ronald said. “I mean, what if you’re stuck wearing what you die in forever? That thought hit me one evening, and I spent the whole night shopping for designer pajamas and the highest-quality fabric I could find for underwear—chafing, you know? I started wearing shoes to bed for a while there, but finally decided a good pedicure would cover me.”

“I found these super-soft shorts that are also boxers,” Gertie said.

Ronald shook his head. “Honey, you can’t just go around dangling for centuries.”

“What happened to the count?” I asked, getting back to the story. “And Celine?”

“The count went into seclusion for a couple years after his bride’s death,” Ida Belle said. “Then he turned up again in town, which, according to rumor, thrilled the local ladies, as most of the men were off at war.”

“He had servants the entire time, of course,” Gertie said. “And they reported that the count and Celine were well cared for, even during his seclusion. After he emerged, locals called at the home from time to time, but no one ever laid eyes on Celine. She had a private tutor and never left the estate.”

Ida Belle nodded. “Until the count died.”

“Then Celine—who was probably twenty by that time—came out into New Orleans society at a huge charity gala,” Ronald said. “The heavenly red-haired one. That’s what her first and last names mean in French, and by all accounts, it was an accurate description.”

“They just left out the deadly part,” Gertie said.

Cassidy’s eyes widened. “Deadly?”

“Celine Leroux was a voodoo priestess,” Gertie said. “Some say her power was greater than that of Marie Laveau.”

Ronald nodded. “The stories say that she even went to Haiti for her initiation. And that the day she returned to the country and took that first step on American soil, her grandfather—the man who’d disowned her mother—fell to the ground dead, and snakes burst out of his belly.”

“Oh my God!” Cassidy said.

“Fascinating,” I said. “Harrison and I have seen and heard some stuff—the remote ends of the earth contain stories that are sometimes uneasy to explain—and the snake thing is one of them. It’s a curse of some sort, I think.”

“A curse?” Cassidy asked, paling a little.

“Don’t worry,” Ida Belle said, cluing into Cassidy’s growing fear. “This is all tall tales and flat-out gossip that have been handed down from generation to generation and told fiftieth, sixtieth, and seventieth hand. The reality is that no one knows if Celine ever left Louisiana, much less the country. After that one supposed appearance at that big charity event, she was never seen outside the house again. And you know how people are—in the absence of facts, they’ll just make something up.”

“Especially in places like Sinful where scandal is king and not much else is happening,” Ronald said.

“But why come out for that one event and then disappear again?” Cassidy asked.

“Maybe she didn’t like what they were serving,” Harrison joked.

“More likely that she got her first big dose of the general public and wasn’t impressed,” I said.

Ida Belle nodded.

“Did she die in the house?” Cassidy asked.

“No one knows,” Gertie said. “One morning, the one housemaid who was left came downstairs and couldn’t find her. Nothing was missing from the house and there was even a warm cup of coffee on the sitting table in the parlor. But Celine was nowhere to be found and was never heard from again.”

“How old was she when she disappeared?” I asked.

“Oh, that was only a month or so after the charity ball, so young,” Gertie said.

“Surely the house hasn’t been empty all that time,” Harrison said.

“No,” Ida Belle said. “Apparently, Lucien hadn’t been paying the taxes on the house, so the bill was quite high when he passed. Lovelie’s family wouldn’t or couldn’t pay the back taxes after Celine disappeared, so the taxing authority seized everything and auctioned it off. It’s had several owners, but none of them stick around very long. People around here won’t buy it, even if they had the money. Some probably fear the rumors, although they wouldn’t admit it, but most don’t want to deal with the upkeep on a bunch of space they don’t need.”

“And living remote and without regular services available isn’t for everyone,” Ronald said. “A lot of city folk think they’ll leave the smog and crime and dance in fields of flowers at their country estate, but then reality sets in and they head back to the concrete jungle.”

“Not me,” I said. “But then, my house isn’t haunted, and I’ve got good internet service and a bakery I can jog to.”

“Did you know any of the previous owners?” Cassidy asked.

“Not that I remember personally,” Ida Belle said. “I have a vague recollection of people who’ve stopped in the General Store or the café and said they had bought the place, but they’ve never been around long enough for me to put the effort into getting to know them.”

Ronald laughed. “You’re just getting to know me, honey, and I’ve been here for decades. You’re not exactly a people person.”

“True,” Ida Belle acknowledged. “But if you’re really interested, you could stop by the store and ask Walter. And Francine usually knows everyone who breezes through here.”

“You should stop by the Catholic church as well,” Gertie said. “You’re going to want to get the place blessed.”

“I thought you guys were Baptist,” Harrison said.

“Baptists don’t deal in that sort of thing,” Gertie said. “We stick to fishing, casseroles, and lying about drinking.”

Ronald nodded. “You have to know your lane.”

Cassidy looked up at Harrison. “Maybe we should look at more properties.”

Harrison sighed. “Where else are we going to find that much square footage and acreage on the water for that price? Not to mention the stables and training arena already in place. And the place comes furnished. I know a lot of it will go, but there are some really nice pieces that can stay—like in that office you loved so much.”

Cassidy looked conflicted.

“Cassidy has in mind that one day she’d like to open a rehab facility for special needs kids,” Harrison said. “The kind where they come and stay for months for intensive therapy.”

“That would be incredible,” Gertie said.

Harrison nodded. “And that house is perfect to house patients and parents, and there are rooms over the stable for live-in staff if we ever had them. All we need to do is put in a pool.”

Cassidy sighed. “That’s true. It really is perfect in size and space and existing structures.”

“We’re not going to find anything else even close,” Harrison said.

“He’s right on that part,” Ida Belle said. “There’s nothing remotely comparable in the area. I keep an eye on the local market.”

“You and Walter already have one house and one camp each,” Gertie said. “How many more places do you need to sleep?”

“Depends on how much he annoys me,” Ida Belle said. “But if you must know, I’m looking to diversify my portfolio and have been looking for some good real estate investments.”

“I think you should buy an island in the Bahamas,” I said. “Just so I can visit.”

Ronald held up his drink. “Hot tanned men in barely nothing gets my vote. Come to think of it, hot tanned women in barely nothing get my vote too.”

“Anyway,” I said, refusing to go down the rabbit hole that was Ronald, “I guess congratulations are in order. And when you close, I want a tour of this place. I’ve always wanted to see a haunted castle.”

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