Excerpt: Swamp Spook

Excerpt: Swamp Spook

Book 13: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One

“So what do you think?” I asked.

It was Saturday morning and I was starting my day off with a wardrobe assessment. Of the cool variety. I stepped into the living room from my office, where I’d been donning the costume Ida Belle had brought for me.

“You look awesome!” Ida Belle said.

Gertie sighed. “You look great, of course.”

I forced myself to maintain my stoic look at Gertie’s obvious disappointment. Mostly because the executioner mask didn’t hide my mouth and smiling would have given me away. But it was hard to do. Not that I was happy about the situation from Gertie’s standpoint, but when I’d checked myself out in the giant wall mirror in my office, I couldn’t help but appreciate the costume. And just how fitting it was for me.

Unfortunately, Gertie had wanted that role for herself.

“I still think you should go with the sexy costume I brought you,” Gertie said.

“It had skulls for boob covers,” Ida Belle said. “How is that scary? These are kids. The younger ones would laugh, and the older ones would hit on her. Either way, it has no place in the haunted maze.”

“I would have worn the sexy costume,” Gertie said.

“And on you, it would have scared the kids,” Ida Belle said.

Gertie shot her a dirty look.

“Besides, you have to admit,” Ida Belle said, “that no one is more perfect for the role of executioner than Fortune.”

“I suppose that’s true enough,” Gertie said. “But with word of her real past spreading around Sinful, it would be scarier if they could see her face.”

“No way,” I said. “The only way I’m doing this is if I get to wear the cool mask and wield the exceptionally awesome hatchet.” I looked at Gertie. “Where did you find this thing?”

Gertie looked a little more animated. “eBay. I found a whole section dedicated to ancient weapons.”

“Oh God,” Ida Belle mumbled.

I cringed just a bit, because a whole new era of weaponry opened up another avenue of deadly collectibles for Gertie. The only caveat was that most of the really old stuff wouldn’t fit in her purse. If she upped the ante and started hauling a suitcase around, then Ida Belle and I might have to stage an intervention. It would be self-defense.

“You should get a costume for Merlin,” Gertie said.

“No way,” I said. “I have to sleep in this house. Most nights he lets me. If I dress him up, I’ll have to sleep with one eye open forever.”

Merlin, who’d been curled up on the doormat next to the back door, rose, and I swear, glared directly at Gertie before stalking out of the room.

“So tell me about this Halloween festival again?” I said. “I thought religious people didn’t like the whole celebration-of-demons thing. Why do the churches host a Halloween festival? And a week of celebrating? That’s really putting in additional effort.”

“It’s not a celebration of demons,” Gertie said. “It’s a celebration of being able to ward off evil.”

“That’s the way we pitched it ten years ago, anyway,” Ida Belle said.

“That explains needing a week,” I said. “Given all the recent occurrences here, you might want to up that a bit.”

Gertie nodded. “We convinced the church elders that because the holiday had been so popularized, it could not be ignored. And since children were going to demand participation in some form, hosting a weeklong festival provides safe places for them to congregate and avoid the type of shenanigans that children in less-forward-thinking communities got up to around that holiday.”

“There are less-forward-thinking communities than Sinful?” I asked.

“Sure,” Gertie said. “Several of the bayou towns still tell teens that if they have premarital sex, God will kill their dog.”

“How’s that working out?” I asked.

“Highest teen birth rates in the county and kids never ask for a puppy,” Ida Belle said.

“Which was good fodder for our argument about the importance of being progressive,” Gertie said.

I had to smile at the thought of Sinful, Louisiana being even remotely progressive, but I supposed compared to the towns offering up the family pet as a sacrifice for promiscuity, Sinful was practically at the forefront of trendsetting.

“But really we do all of this because Halloween is the coolest holiday ever.” Ida Belle said.

“Got that right!” Gertie agreed. “What other celebration gives you the right to dress up like a monster and scare the crap out of kids?”

“I find that attitude particularly interesting coming from a former schoolteacher,” I said.

“Why do you think I have that attitude?” Gertie said. “Trust me, they deserve everything they’re getting.”

I grinned. I hadn’t spent much time around kids as an adult and didn’t have much memory of them as a kid myself. That was all part of my life that I’d shut away. Parts of it flashed back more often now, especially the parts with my mom, but I was fairly certain that I would never, ever be able to pull off a job like schoolteacher.

“You’re definitely a lot scarier than our usual executioner,” Gertie said. “He only carried a sword. A sword is not nearly as impressive as a hatchet. And he had this horrible fake plastic one. Not even a decent replica. Looked like he bought it at Walmart.”

“A fact that you pointed out every year,” Ida Belle said. “And that also led to our current state of affairs with Fortune having to fill in.”

“Should I even ask?” I asked.

“Gertie’s mocking prompted him to buy a real sword this year,” Ida Belle said. “He darn near cut three fingers off practicing with the thing.”

“I didn’t tell him to sharpen it,” Gertie said. “Who sharpens a sword to use at a children’s festival?”

“So what roles do you two have?” I asked.

“I don’t do costumes,” Ida Belle said. “So I get to be the chain saw murderer. Basically, I wear my usual clothes, a leather mask, and run around chasing kids with a running chain saw.”

“Another character I keep asking for,” Gertie said.

“They’ll cancel that part before they let you run with a chain saw,” Ida Belle said.

“Not for nothing, but should anyone be running with a chain saw?” I asked.

“It doesn’t have a blade,” Ida Belle said. “Mostly it just makes a lot of noise.”

“In the past, kids have scaled the hay bales trying to get away from her,” Gertie said, looking a little too gleeful. “One even peed himself, but he was the current high school bully, so nobody felt bad. It sorta evened things out.”

“So what about the younger kids?” I asked. Because I could understand and support scaring teens. One of the only vivid memories I had of high school was watching a horror movie in a schoolmate’s basement. Teens loved a good scare. But pretending to want to kill a six-year-old seemed a little harsh, even for Sinful, where one of the first things kids learned was how to avoid being eaten by the local wildlife.

“The younger kids don’t do the big maze,” Ida Belle said. “That’s only for teens and adults. There’s a small maze for the younger ones. It mostly has ghosts and plastic black cats. Nothing violent.”

“And the little ones are usually gone by 9:00 p.m. or so,” Gertie said. “That’s when things really fire up in the big maze.”

“So what role do you have?” I asked Gertie, aware that she still hadn’t answered my earlier question.

“I’m a mummy,” she grumbled.

“Perfect casting once again,” Ida Belle said.

Gertie gave her the finger. I tried really hard not to grin but it was pointless.

“Okay, so the maze is only on the weekend, right?” I asked.

“Yep,” Gertie said. “It’s open tonight to kick off the festival and then again next weekend. Next Saturday being the big finale with fireworks and everything since it’s Halloween. We don’t do the maze during the week because it requires so many volunteers, and a lot have jobs that are evening and night hours. Sunday is totally off-limits, for the obvious reasons.”

“But you said it was a week of celebrating leading up to the actual day,” I said.

“It is,” Gertie said. “During the week, we have smaller events earlier in the evening that don’t last as long, and all the teachers know not to assign homework or face the consequences.”

“There are consequences for homework assignments?” I asked.

“There are during the festival,” Gertie said. “The local teachers know better, of course, but every couple of years some newbie charges into town and thinks they know better than us bunch of hicks how the education system should run.”

Ida Belle nodded. “The last one was two years ago.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” I said. “But what happened?”

“Someone painted ‘Festival Hater’ on her car windshield,” Ida Belle said.

“Oh, well, that’s not bad,” I said.

Gertie grinned. “And put a skunk inside.”

“Bet she didn’t stay long,” I said.

“Long enough to trade in her car,” Ida Belle said.

“So what kind of things happen during the week?” I asked.

“Different stuff. There’s face painting and games for the younger kids,” Gertie said. “Movie night with a big screen in the park and contests for the older ones. And there’s food every night. Mostly snacking sort of stuff and desserts. The desserts are the best part.”

“Naturally,” I said. “So what time do we get started?”

“I’ll pick you up around six thirty,” Ida Belle said. “We don’t open the maze until it gets dark.”

“I’m praying for that cold front to get here early,” Gertie said. “Ever tried dealing with humidity when your entire body is wrapped in Ace bandages? They get damp, then loose, and I have to be rewrapped every time I move.”

I frowned. “But you’re wearing something underneath the bandages, right?”

“I wear a little something,” Gertie said.

That statement was so loaded I decided to completely abandon that route of inquiry. I’d just pray that the rewrapping occurred in between maze visitors and none of us got to see what was going on underneath those bandages.

“We don’t help build the maze, then?” I asked.

“No. The props are all stored at the church and the local farmers donate the hay bales. The men volunteers do the pickup, delivery, and setup. It takes some muscle to lift all those hay bales and haul around the props for the scenes.”

“So what else do we do?” I asked. Wearing a costume and swinging a hatchet to cut a fake head off a fake body seemed so easy compared to most of the things I’d been asked to do in Sinful. I was feeling rather lazy about the whole thing.

“Gertie bakes cookies all day,” Ida Belle said. “I usually test them but I could always use a second opinion.”

“Sounds like the perfect job for me,” I said.

“Speaking of perfect jobs,” Gertie said, “how’s the PI thing going?”

“Great,” I said. “I set up my office in what used to be the library. It was practically ready to go to begin with. Francine’s CPA took me on and he’s set up the LLC and gotten me a billing system going. I used my CIA connections to get some New Orleans police contacts in case things branch out, and I had business cards made.”

“Sounds like all you need are clients,” Gertie said.

“That’s not all I need,” I said and dashed back into my office to grab the two boxes sitting on the end of my desk. Then I returned to the living room and handed Ida Belle and Gertie each one.

“Presents?” Gertie asked. “I love presents.”

“I guess you could call it a present,” I said. “Unless you don’t like it. And that’s okay too.”

They opened the boxes and both of them pulled out one of the business cards. It was a simple design. A turquoise background with a black cypress tree on one side and silver lettering that said “Swamp Team 3 Investigations” in the middle of the card. On the lower right was their individual name and the title of Investigative Analyst below it.

“I can’t call you private investigators,” I said, “because you aren’t licensed. But there’s nothing to stop me from hiring you as analysts. Most investigators have specialists on their team who aren’t licensed. They have other skill sets.”

Gertie grabbed me in a bear hug and started jumping around in a circle, bouncing me like a giant stuffed animal. “I was hoping you’d want us to work with you.”

“Of course I want you to work with me,” I said. “I need you guys. No one knows Sinful and its people like you two. I have the license, but I don’t have the background knowledge.”

“You’re also lacking in a quality explosives inventory,” Gertie said.

“Since the kind of inventory you stock is illegal,” I said, “and I have a Sinful deputy sleeping at my house half the week, I’m going to go ahead and let you keep handling that end of things.”

Gertie let out a squeal. “I’m the official explosives expert.”

I waved a hand. “Wait. That’s not what I said.”

“You could have told her she was the official baking expert and she still would have managed to make it about explosives,” Ida Belle said.

“And you?” I asked. “Are you up for this?”

“Are you kidding me?” Ida Belle grinned. “I’ve been praying for this. Do you know how much more interesting our lives have been since you came to Sinful? If I had to go back to the way things were before, it would feel like being relegated to a retirement home.”

“So what do we do now?” Gertie said. “I mean, do we have official uniforms or anything?”

“My uniform is yoga pants and T-shirts,” I said. “I would say you are free to wear whatever you want, but that’s a dangerous statement to make. Maybe I’ll have some T-shirts printed up, though. That’s not a bad idea, especially as it’s a way to get some new T-shirts and have a tax deduction all at the same time.”

Ida Belle gave me an approving nod. “Now you’re thinking like a businesswoman.”

Gertie perked up. “So does that mean I can have you reimburse me for all my dynamite and stuff?”

I had no idea what “stuff” constituted and figured I probably didn’t want to know.

“No,” I said. “Since I have no idea how much business I’ll have, you’re not an employee. You’re a consultant, so you’re paid a contract rate when you’re working on a case.”

“So I can deduct them on my own tax return as a business expense?” Gertie asked. “That’s even better. Then I don’t have to explain things.”

“You might want to explain things to your accountant,” I said. “Who might have to explain things to the IRS.”

“Who might take issue with your list of equipment,” Ida Belle said. “But hey, it’s just the federal government. They’re not scary at all.”

“Look on the bright side,” I said. “If she’s audited, they might find the equipment list frightening enough to leave her alone. Anyway, it’s not much. Heck, it might only be symbolic. There’s a chance no one will ever hire me. This isSinful.”

“People will hire you,” Ida Belle said. “The cases won’t be nearly as interesting as the stuff you used to do, and God willing, not as dire as the stuff we’ve gotten into this summer. But you’re former CIA. You’ll have business.”

Gertie nodded. “There’s plenty of things going on in Sinful—cheating husbands, missing cats, stolen recipes—”

“Cheating fisherman?” I asked and grinned, thinking of the last piece of police business we’d gotten in the middle of.

Gertie laughed. “You’d have to investigate everyone with a rod and reel.”

“Hey, I’m okay with it,” I said. “I’m okay with all of it. A healthy round of cheating husbands and missing cats sounds like the perfect semiretirement plan.”

“You’re too young to retire,” Ida Belle said. “Take it from someone who knows. You might not be looking for trouble, but it will find you. It gravitates to some just like Gertie gravitates toward fried shrimp.”

“You’re saying I’m a trouble magnet?” I asked. “That doesn’t sound very complimentary.”

“Oh, but it is,” Ida Belle said. “You see, I believe that the universe keeps things balanced by placing those with the abilities to right wrongs in the path of evil. And no matter where you’re standing, that path is going to run right through you.”

Gertie nodded. “You’re a superhero. I keep saying it.”

“Not tonight,” I said. “Tonight, I’m an executioner. And the only evil I see at this event better be fake evil in cheaply designed but expensively priced costumes.”

“I don’t know,” Gertie said. “Celia will be there.”

“Does she go as a boil on the butt of humanity?” I asked. “Or does she avoid questions by going right for the Satan look?”

“Neither,” Ida Belle said. “She goes as Rose Kennedy. Always has.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“Famous Catholic matriarch,” Gertie said.

“But Celia married a cheating louse and had a child who had questionable ethics and was a big ole sleaze.” I frowned. “Never mind.”

Ida Belle laughed. “Celia thinks the Kennedys are American royalty. She’s still mad because the Catholic church chose to participate in the festivities, so she insists on representing the religion with her choice of costume.”

“But she can’t go as a nun or the pope because that would be disrespectful,” Gertie said.

“So what does a Rose Kennedy costume consist of?” I asked.

“An ugly dress and an even uglier hat,” Ida Belle said.

“So…like most every day,” I said.

“Pretty much,” Ida Belle said.

“I went as Madonna one year,” Gertie said, “and told her I was also representing famous Catholics.”

“How’d that go over?” I asked.

“She yanked off my cone bra and attacked me with it,” Gertie said. “I still have scars.”

“So do I,” Ida Belle said.

I grinned. There really was no place like home.

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