Excerpt: Swamp Sweets

Excerpt: Swamp Sweets

Book 21: Miss Fortune Mysteries

Chapter One


I stood in the middle of the dark, dirty room that smelled like stagnant water and enzymatic cleaner and listened as Ally explained her vision for her new bakery. Ida Belle and Gertie were there with me, and I was pretty sure none of us could remove the smiles from our faces, even if someone were pointing a missile at us.

“Oh, it’s going to be so great!” Gertie said and started clapping.

Francis, who was perched on Gertie’s shoulder, flapped his wings and started singing
“How Great Thou Art.”

I gave him a nod as Gertie pulled a grape from her pocket and popped it in his mouth to shut him up.

“Probably appropriate, since everything sold in here will be heavenly,” I said.

“Got that right,” Ida Belle said. “It’s going to be the perfect space and location for your shop, and I can’t wait to see it when you’re done. You’ve painted a pretty picture in my mind.”

“Bet it smells and tastes even better than it looks,” Gertie said.

Ally beamed at us. “I just can’t believe it’s finally happening. I know I always said I was working toward it, but sometimes I never thought I’d get here.”

Her smile faltered a little and she rubbed her nose.

Gertie put her hand on Ally’s arm and squeezed. “Are you doing all right, honey?”

Ally’s mom, who’d been in a facility in New Orleans for longer than I’d been in Sinful, had finally succumbed to the cancer that had swept through her body. It had been so long in coming that everything had already been prepared as far as funeral services went, and Ally had taken power of attorney over her mother’s estate years ago, which made everything easier. At least, as easy as it could get when you were saying goodbye to your last living parent.

“I’m fine,” Ally said. “The reality is the physical degeneration and pain medication took Mama from me a good while back. I’m just glad she doesn’t have to live that way anymore. I’ve had plenty of time to prepare…”

“But sometimes it hits you like it was new,” I said.

Ally looked at me, her expression one of gratitude and empathy. I’d buried my mom when I was still a kid. And according to the CIA, my dad had officially died twice now, but I had a feeling I’d be called up for at least one more set of paperwork down the line.

“I think it’s the insurance policy that really got to me,” Ally said. “I knew she had one. She’d always told me she’d set something up to cover final costs and such, and the payment was drafted out of her checking account. So between what she had said and the amount drafted being so minimal, I never would have guessed that she had a hundred thousand dollars in life insurance.”

“She must have gotten the policy years ago,” Ida Belle said.

Ally nodded. “That’s what the insurance agent told me. I was still in elementary school and Mama was healthy as a horse back then, so it didn’t cost much and the rate was locked in as long as she kept paying.”

“She loved you very much,” Gertie said. “I know things were hard with her these last few years. That disease can really do a number on people, but I think she’s looking down on you now and she’s thrilled that this is finally happening.”

Ally sniffed. “I hope so.”

“So when does construction start?” I asked.

“Monday,” she said. “They told me they’d let me be the first to hit that wall with a sledgehammer.”

“That’s incredible,” I said. “I can’t tell you how happy I am for you, Ally.”

Ally threw her arms around me and squeezed me so tightly my ribs hurt. “I’m so glad you came to Sinful.”

I grinned. “I’m the ecstatic one. I’ve had the good fortune—no pun intended—of being your extremely willing baked goods test subject for over a year now. And not only am I looking forward to many years of service in that position, but soon I will have the option to double down on my favorites.”

“You’re going to have to double down on your running,” Ida Belle said.

“Some things are worth going the extra mile,” I said. “Or ten.”

Gertie shook her head. “I’m glad I’m at the elastic-waist-pants stage and don’t care to be skinny anymore.”

Ida Belle grinned. “At what point did you care to be skinny? Because I’ve known you since diapers, and you were wearing the plus-size Pampers.”

“See, everyone knows you’re making stuff up because Pampers wasn’t even around in our mothers’ day,” Gertie said. “And if they were, I would have been wearing the Future Sex Goddess line.”

Ida Belle gave her a dismayed look as Ally laughed.

“It’s really something how the timing all worked out,” Ida Belle said. “It was meant to be.”

Ally nodded. “I can’t believe Miles decided to retire and sell the building the day Mama passed. I thought he was going to still be standing here wrapping clothes in plastic long after the rest of us had gone over yonder.”

“Miles Broussard was so cheap, he never would hire someone to help,” Gertie said. “He spent so much time with all those chemicals, there’s a good chance he passed years ago and has been moving around in a semi-embalmed state.”

“Broussard? Any relation to Molly?” I asked. I’d met Molly Broussard, a caterer, on a recent case.

Ida Belle shook her head.

“Why didn’t Miles sell the business as well?” I asked. “Not that I’m complaining that he just sold the building and hightailed it out of dodge with a check. But why not make the extra dollars?”

“It couldn’t have been worth anything,” Ida Belle said. “Sinful’s not big enough to support a dry cleaner anymore, and the equipment is all old and likely needs to be upgraded at this point. But beyond that, style has changed so much. Clothes are far more casual, even at church.”

Gertie nodded. “And most everything worth having is wash-and-wear. I haven’t dry-cleaned something since that horrible shower curtain I bought that I couldn’t return. Remember that?”

Ida Belle shook her head. “I never understood why someone would make a shower curtain that’s dry-clean only.”

“That explains why it wasn’t returnable,” I said. “I can’t imagine paying to dry-clean a shower curtain and go through the trouble of keeping it from getting wet. How long did that last?”

Ida Belle started laughing and Gertie glared at her.

“There was an accident,” Gertie said.

“Uh-oh.” I knew exactly how Gertie’s ‘accidents’ went.

“When I took it out of the package, it had deep creases in it where it had been folded,” Gertie said. “I ironed the heck out of it, but they weren’t coming out. So I took it to be dry-cleaned, per the instructions.”

“And that didn’t work?” I asked.

“It worked fine until she stepped outside,” Ida Belle said. “A storm kicked up while we were inside and when we went out of the cleaner’s with the newly pressed shower curtain, Gertie walked too close to the street and the wind blew that plastic wrap up like a parachute. It got caught on the tailgate of a truck passing by, and the guy had his radio up so loud he didn’t even realize he was dragging Gertie until he was halfway down Main Street.”

I smiled at the visual and Ally giggled.

“I remember that,” Ally said. “He drove right by the café, singing Garth Brooks at the top of his lungs while Ida Belle ran behind him yelling and Gertie rode that shower curtain like a magic carpet.”

“Yeah, it was hilarious,” Gertie groused. “I paid fifty bucks for that shower curtain and another ten to dry-clean it.”

“So it got torn up, I presume?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” Ida Belle said and started chuckling. “Surprisingly enough, the curtain wasn’t damaged by the dragging, although it was a little dirty, but when the plastic finally tore loose, it got rained on.”

“Oh no,” I said.

Gertie shook her head. “By the time I got home, the darn thing wasn’t big enough for a place mat.”

“Place Matt’s body in the cooler,” Francis said. “We’ll come back for it later.”

We all stared.

“Why the police didn’t hang on to that bird, I have no idea,” I said. “They could just run through a list of missing persons and probably wipe out half of their cold cases.”

“I hate touching them before they’re cold,” Francis said.

“That bird would give me nightmares,” Ally said.

“Well, at least you don’t have a cooler in here yet,” I said.

Ally laughed. “Is that your idea of a silver lining?”

I shrugged. “Just trying to help. Well, if there’s nothing we can assist with, we have a hunting trip to pack for. You sure you don’t want to come?”

Ally shook her head. “I appreciate the invitation, but I have to meet with the contractor tomorrow and go over everything. And I prefer to get my dinner from the grocery store or the café.”

We all congratulated her again and made our way across the road to the General Store to pick up supplies. Unfortunately, everyone’s least favorite citizen was already in the store. Celia was at the counter, probably giving Walter a hard time about something, based on the exasperated look on his face. When she heard the door chime, she turned around. As soon as she caught sight of us, she frowned, then she zeroed in on Francis and her face turned red.

“You are not supposed to have that bird in public places,” Celia said.

“This isn’t a public place,” Gertie said. “It’s a private business, and the only person who can ban Francis is Walter.”

Since Francis’s last visit to the General Store had resulted in two destroyed displays, the theft of some fruit, and an unfortunate pooping accident, I wasn’t convinced that he was going to back Gertie up on this one. But apparently, his dislike for Celia was far stronger than his dislike for cleaning up bird poop.

“The bird is welcome,” Walter said, his tone implying that Celia was not.

But Celia wasn’t giving up. “I see Ida Belle’s SUV parked right out front, which means you walked on a public street and sidewalk to get in here. That’s illegal.”

“So call Carter and tell him to come arrest me when I leave the store,” Gertie said. “We’ll see if he can get the cuffs on before I get in the SUV. It will be like a game.”

“Let’s play a game,” Francis said. “It’s called Russian roulette.”

Celia’s eyes widened and I grinned.

“Just finish up your business, Celia,” Ida Belle said. “The only one keeping you in the presence of Francis is you.”

“No one likes Celia or her big panties,” Francis said.

I didn’t think Celia could get any redder, but she managed to. Then she grabbed a loaf of bread on the counter and swung it at Francis. She missed and got Gertie right across the face. The tie fell off the bag and slices of bread flew all over the store.

“She’s been bitch-slapped!” Francis cried, flapping his wings.

I sank onto the floor, laughing so hard I couldn’t even stand upright anymore. Ida Belle and Walter were both clutching the counter and gasping for air. Gertie stared at Celia in disbelief, then grabbed a container of dish soap off the counter and dumped the entire thing over Celia’s head.

“You crazy old crow!” Celia yelled and launched, her hands reaching for Gertie’s throat.

I didn’t have time to jump up and intervene, so I did the one thing I could do and lie about later on—I stuck my foot out.

Celia hit my foot and yelled as she slammed into Gertie, and they both tumbled into a fruit display. Francis took off from Gertie’s shoulder as she fell, but he was connected by the leash on his foot and was just flapping around in a circle, yelling ‘Just kill them all!’ as loud as possible. As I jumped up, Ida Belle pulled out her knife and cut the leash, and Francis took off for a high shelf.

But not before depositing a show of his supreme displeasure right on Celia’s forehead.

I reached down to help Gertie up as Celia grabbed her forehead, then drew her hand away, screaming as though we’d just doused her with acid.

“You’d think we threw holy water on her,” Gertie said.

The door chimed and I looked over to see Carter stroll in. Celia was sitting upright now, the bird poo mixed with dish soap starting to run down her nose. The rest, she’d smeared into her hair. Gertie had two slices of bread hanging out of the top of her shirt, which had gotten yanked down in the fray and would have been exposing entirely too much cleavage if it weren’t for the bread coverage. Francis had spotted the fruit on the floor and was now sitting in the middle of what had to be the best buffet ever from a bird’s perspective.

“Maybe I’ll just pick up my groceries later,” Carter said.

“That’s probably a really good idea,” I said.

“Oh no, you don’t!” Celia managed to crawl up the counter and pointed her finger at Carter. “I want that woman arrested. She has that bird in here and look at all this damage. He attacked me and took out the display.”

Carter looked at the rest of us. “Is that how it happened?”

“Not even remotely close,” I said. “In fact, Celia took the first swing.”

“With a loaf of bread,” Ida Belle said, shaking her head.

“That doesn’t count,” Celia said. “I was trying to hit the bird.”

“Maybe you could all finish up your business here and leave Walter with some remaining displays,” Carter said.

Celia glared at Carter. “Marie is not going to be the mayor forever. And when someone with some decorum takes office, they’ll be getting rid of you.”

Carter smiled. “Guess we’ll just have to see, right? Walter, you done ringing up Ms. Arceneaux’s goods?”

“I ring her up as she shops to save time,” Walter said, and pushed the bags across the counter.

Celia put her hands on her hips and glared at Walter. “I guess you’re not going to take them to my car?”

“Nope,” Walter said. “My wife’s a better shot than you.”

We all started laughing again, and Celia grabbed her groceries and stomped out of the store.

Walter shook his head. “I keep thinking that she’ll get tired of my being rude and do her shopping up the road, but so far, no luck.”

“She’ll never stop because she knows it annoys you,” I said.

“What are you three troublemakers doing here anyway?” Carter asked. “I thought you were going hunting?”

“You say that like you don’t believe us,” Gertie said. “We happen to be here picking up supplies for our turkey hunting weekend. Ida Belle called ahead and Walter has them ready to go.”

“Sure do,” Walter said and put the bags on the counter.

Carter peered inside them. “If you guys eat all this junk along with the bathtub worth of alcohol I figure you’ve already got in the SUV, you’ll never leave the cabin.”

“We’re going to pace ourselves,” I said.

“If you’re hunting, what’s this for?” Carter pulled two paperbacks out of the bags.

“Those are for me,” I said. “Ida Belle and Gertie are hunting. I’m along for a girls’ weekend.”

“You’re not going to hunt?” Walter asked.

I shook my head. “I only shoot things I don’t have to dress and eat.”

“Not helping,” Carter said. “How did you get a license for turkeys this time of year anyway?”

“It’s one of those lottery things,” Gertie said. “The population is out of control in some places and one happens to be here. So Wildlife and Fisheries opened up some extra hunting slots for certain groups of people. I qualify under the disabled veteran category. Ida Belle refused to go through the approval process, so we’re limited to only two turkeys.”

“You mean Ida Belle refused to lie on the application?” Carter asked.

Ida Belle wisely remained quiet.

Walter frowned at Gertie. “What’s your disability?”

Carter laughed. “You have to ask?”

“My disability is private information between me and Wildlife and Fisheries,” Gertie said.

Carter put his hands up. “I don’t even want to know.”

“Yeah, changed my mind,” Walter said. “I don’t want to know either.”

“Is this everything?” Ida Belle asked, and Walter nodded.

“You didn’t ask for a turkey call, though,” Walter said. “You want me to toss one in there?”

“We have the best turkey call ever,” Gertie said and scooped Francis up from the middle of a banana-and-grape-eating session. “Francis, do the turkey.”

And darn if that bird didn’t gobble just like a turkey.

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