Excerpt: Showdown in Mudbug

Excerpt: Showdown in Mudbug

Book 3: Ghost-in-Law Mysteries

Chapter One

Raissa Bourdeaux went through the uses of the different-colored candles for what had to be the hundredth time. She knew Mrs. Angelieu was more interested in gossiping than actually buying anything, so there was really nothing more to do but continue to point to items and wait her out. She glanced at her watch and was dismayed to find it was hours before closing. Monday had been a very long day.

“And then,” Mrs. Angelieu said, her face animated, “I told Lucille that I just couldn’t believe she’d bring that casserole dish to the church. Why, it belonged to her mother, and everyone knew what a harlot her mother was. It’s a wonder God didn’t send lightning down right there in the middle of her potato salad.” She gave Raissa a single nod and waited for confirmation.

“Well,” Raissa said, struggling for something that wasn’t rude, “that certainly would have been a show. But God hasn’t really been that obvious since the Old Testament. I mean, I haven’t heard of a burning bush in a long time.”

Mrs. Angelieu laughed. “You always know how to put things in perspective, Raissa. That’s why I love talking to you. I consider it my weekly dose of reality.”

“Oh, you don’t have to come to me for that. Just turn on any news channel.”

Mrs. Angelieu sobered. “It’s just horrible about that missing child, isn’t it? My Lord, I can’t imagine what those parents are going through.”

“What missing child?”

“Why, it’s been all over the news today. That sweet little six-year-old girl who went missing from her bedroom last night. Just vanished.”

Raissa frowned. “I haven’t had the TV on all day, so I didn’t know. That’s very sad.”

Mrs. Angelieu nodded. “Well, I’m going to take one of these pretty blue candles and get out of here. Maybe you can have a nice glass of wine and relax a little. I don’t mean to offend you, Raissa, but you look a little tired.”

“It’s been busy lately,” Raissa said as she rang up Mrs. Angelieu’s purchase and wrapped the candle.

“Well, that’s better than being bored, I suppose,” Mrs. Angelieu said as she took her bag. “I’ll see you next week.” She waved to Raissa as she exited the shop.

Raissa locked the front door and put the closed sign in the window. She had no other appointments and simply wasn’t in the mood to deal with another Mrs. Angelieu. The old woman couldn’t have been more wrong about being bored. A couple of weeks before, Raissa’s close friends had found themselves in a mess of trouble. After a harrowing week of bombs, poisonings, a disgruntled ghost, and too many lies to count, Raissa would have welcomed a day with nothing better to think about than whether God should send lightning into the potato salad of a former harlot bowl owner.

She turned off the lights for the shop and headed up the back staircase to her apartment above the store. It was small, but it suited her perfectly. Raissa had learned long ago to economize. At any given time, she might need to put everything important into her car and disappear. It had been a long time—more than nine years—since the last time she’d had to change everything in her life but the clothes on her back, but she knew that possibility was always there. Long-term plans were not part of her life.

She poured a glass of wine and turned on the television. The news had preempted local programming to feature more about the missing girl. As soon as the picture flashed on the screen along with the girl’s name, Raissa clunked her wine down on the coffee table, the liquid sloshing onto the carved wood surface. Melissa Franco, the abducted child, had been in Raissa’s store many times with her mother, Susannah. They didn’t necessarily believe in the paranormal, but every month the little girl convinced her mother to stop in after their visit to the doctor across the street. The pretty candles and stones in the front display were apparently too much for the child to resist, and her mother always bought at least one more item for Melissa’s growing collection of pink and purple.

The reporter suggested the girl had run away, but Raissa didn’t buy that for a moment. Melissa was always happy and very inquisitive, asking Raissa endless questions about her shop, the candles, and ghosts. She was obviously doted on by her mother and didn’t even cross the street without first grabbing her mother’s hand. Not the kind of girl who would have run away from home. And certainly not the kind of girl with the street smarts to remain hidden in the midst of a citywide manhunt.

As the report began going over the details of the case, Raissa’s pulse began to race. Melissa had been asleep in her bedroom the night before, and there was no sign of forced entry. She’d simply vanished. Raissa took a big gulp of her wine, her hand shaking as she sat the glass back on the table.

Not again. Not after all these years.

Her head began to pound and she pressed her fingertips to her temples. Everything flooded back to her in a rush. The unanswered questions about entry into the house—every case the same. The seemingly identical victims, although she could never make a connection between the families. The girls, returned a week later, but with absolutely no memory of the abduction or anything that had happened to them while they were missing. Two years of undercover work blown by her trying to solve those cases. The man she knew was guilty, but couldn’t find evidence against.

The reason Raissa had fled protective custody nine years ago.

***

Detective Zach Blanchard stood in front of his captain’s desk and waited for the ass-chewing that was most certainly coming. The captain had already gnawed off one side this morning, but apparently someone had noticed Blanchard still had a little ass left and thought he could do with losing the rest.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Captain Saucier’s face was beet red. “You interrupted the mayor in the middle of a city-planning meeting to ask him to provide an alibi for his son, whose daughter is missing. It’s official, Blanchard. You’ve lost your fucking mind!”

Zach took a deep breath and started to explain. “According to Mr. Franco, he was with his father at the time of Melissa’s disappearance. I needed to have that corroboration, and that meeting was scheduled to run all day. I didn’t want to waste any more time investigating someone I don’t think is guilty while the real kidnapper gets away.”

Captain Saucier stared. “Statistics have shown time and again that a parent is often involved in the disappearance of a child, yet somehow you know this father can’t possibly be guilty. Fine. Problem is, you’ve now indicated that he’s a suspect to the entire city commission.”

Zach bit back a response, certain that the fact that he’d been on the receiving end of a gross miscommunication, which had led to the unfortunate city-planning meeting interruption, wasn’t going to matter one bit to the captain. “You’re right, sir. That was a miscalculation on my part, and I hope it hasn’t caused the mayor or his family any inconve nience.”

“Inconve nience…You mean like being called a suspected kiddie killer on the evening news? No, they’re used to that kind of thing. After all, they’re in the public eye.” The captain slammed one hand down on the desk. “From now on you don’t so much as shit without clearing it with me first. Do you understand me, Blanchard? I’ve got the entire city up my ass with a microscope. Do you have any idea how uncomfortable that is?”

“No, sir. I don’t.”

“Damned right you don’t, and with that kind of police work, you never will.” He pointed a finger at Zach. “You will do everything on this case by the book. No hunches, no running off on rabbit trails, no funny business.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I mean it. Screw this up, and you’ll still be writing parking tickets when you’re walking with a cane.”

“Everything will be by the book. I promise.” The captain didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t start yelling again, either. Zach figured that was his opportunity to give the captain a nod and clear the room before his boss found out Zach had questioned the mother again that afternoon and the woman had collapsed in a faint just before he left.

By the book.

Just hearing the captain say those words rubbed him all wrong. He always did things by the book—except for that one time—and apparently he was never going to live that down. It was the damned book that said he should interview and alibi every member of the household as close to the disappearance as possible. Panic, stress, and unfortunately in some cases, guilt, tended to set in quickly and sometimes clouded people’s minds to information that could lead to a break in the case.

So the mayor’s assistant hadn’t exactly told him that the entire city council was in that conference room. Matter of fact, she hadn’t told him it was the conference room he was barging into. If he’d known that, he might have figured out the mayor wasn’t alone. He was a detective, after all.

He was concentrating so hard on being aggravated that he almost walked right past the woman seated in front of his desk.

“Can I help you?” he asked. She was a looker, without question.

The woman met his gaze, and he felt his breath catch in his throat. Her eyes were a bright green, like the color of well-cut emeralds. He’d never seen anything quite so gorgeous on someone’s face. She rose from her chair and extended her hand. “Detective Blanchard? My name is Raissa Bordeaux. Detective Morrow said I should speak with you.”

Zach shook her hand, momentarily surprised by the firmness of her grip, then glanced across the room at Detective Morrow, usually a first-rate asshole. Morrow smirked, then shot out of the building. Great. Zach slid into his chair across the desk from the woman, certain this was going to be a waste of time. “How can I help you, Ms. Bordeaux?”

“I have information on the kidnapping of the Franco child.”

“Okay,” Zach said, and picked up a pen. “What kind of information?”

“This isn’t his first time. That child is one of many who have been taken.”

Zach stared. “Melissa Franco is the first child abduction this city has seen in a while that wasn’t a custodial issue. I think you’re mistaken, Ms. Bordeaux.”

“The others didn’t live in New Orleans. There were girls in Baton Rouge, in Florida, Mississippi, and New York. Surely there’s a way you can compare this case with other kidnappings.”

“The FBI keeps a database that we can use for such things, but what I’d like is a damned good reason why I should query that database. My boss isn’t big on notifying the feds of anything going on in his precinct. He likes control.”

“This is far bigger than your boss knows. If this is like the other cases, we’re on a short clock. All of those other girls were returned a week later.”

“With no memory of what happened, right? I’ve heard this tale before, Ms. Bordeaux, when I was a kid and my parents were trying to scare me into staying in the backyard.”

Raissa raised one eyebrow. “Oh, they all remembered something, but probably not anything you’d want to hear. You have a narrow window of opportunity to catch this person, and I’m guessing, since the victim is the mayor’s granddaughter, you don’t want to mess this up.”

Zach narrowed his eyes at the woman. “And how exactly do you know about these other kidnappings?”

She hesitated—rarely a good sign—then sighed. “I’m a psychic, Detective Blanchard. I saw the other girls in a vision.”

Zach felt his jaw clench. “I see. Well, thank you for your information, Ms. Bordeaux. I’ll be sure to add your name to the reward list in case of an arrest.”

Raissa’s face flushed with red and her eyes flashed with anger. “I debated a long time whether to come here, and it certainly wasn’t because I care about extorting money from a frantic family. Do yourself a favor and check the database. Unless, of course, you’re not interested in getting the best of your friend, the helpful Detective Morrow.”

“I can’t access that database without a direct order from my captain, which I’m not likely to get off the vision of a so-called psychic. There’s a little girl missing out there and you’re wasting our time.”

Raissa leaned across the desk and lowered her voice. “The house had a security system that was armed, but the alarm never went off and it was still engaged the following morning. There is no trace evidence, and unlike most public kidnappings, you haven’t received a ransom request.”

Zach straightened in his chair. “We haven’t released that information.”

Raissa rose from her chair. “One of us is wasting time, Detective, but it’s not me.” That said, she walked out of the precinct without so much as a backward glance.

Zach leaned back in his chair and shook his head. A psychic. Yeah, right. No wonder Morrow had been so tickled to send her over to Zach. “By-the-book Blanchard” had limited-to-no patience for anything remotely screwy. Psychics were definitely screwy. Likely, Morrow had fed her the information about the security system and ransom note just to make the practical joke more believable.

He watched as she passed on the sidewalk in front of the big window at the front of the station, and couldn’t help admiring her long lean legs, or the way she filled out a pair of jeans. What a shame. She was probably the best-looking woman he’d seen in forever.

Unfortunately, nut or no, the woman was right. He should run the case through the FBI database even though the captain hadn’t quite gotten to that point. Time was of the essence, and the case had strange components that would send up an immediate red flag if there were others with the same MO. He sat up straight and logged on to his computer, hoping like hell that the mayor’s granddaughter didn’t fit the profile of the other missing girls. If that was the case, the captain might have a heart attack, and with the way things stood now, Morrow was next in line for his job.

***

Raissa stopped at the corner of the block, angry at herself. You should have left it alone, but noooooo, you had to go taunting him with what you knew. She punched the button for the crossing light and jammed her hands in her pockets, trying to control the urge to slug someone. But it’s a child, just like the others, and maybe this is the time he’ll be caught. She watched the screen on the other side of the street and tapped her foot. It’s not your problem anymore. You risked everything before and got less than nothing. Why risk it again?

She heard running steps behind her, but before she could turn around, someone hit her from behind, launching her into the street—and directly into the path of an oncoming bus. Before she’d even tensed the muscles in her legs to move, an older woman yanked her by the arm, darn near pulling it from her shoulder, and she leaped up from the street just as the bus came to a screeching halt a good five feet beyond the spot where she’d been lying. Raissa clutched her shoulder with one hand and spun around.

But the street was empty.

She figured whoever had pushed her had kept running and was long gone by now, but where was the woman who had pulled her out of the street? The bus driver rushed off the bus, his face white as a sheet.

“Are you all right? I saw that guy push you, but I couldn’t stop. I don’t know how you managed to move that fast, but I’m glad of it.”

“Did you see the guy who pushed me?”

“Yeah, but he was wearing one of those hooded shirts and sunglasses. Coulda been anyone.”

“And the woman?”

The bus driver shook his head. “Didn’t see no one but you.”

Raissa motioned to the street. “You had to have seen her. The woman who pulled me out of the street.”

The bus driver studied her for a moment. “Ma’am, I don’t know how to tell you this, but there weren’t no other woman anywhere on this street. I gotta have perfect vision to drive this bus, and that’s what I got.” He looked around the street, then back at Raissa. “Maybe you should pay a visit to the Lord’s house sometime soon. That’s the only explanation I got.”

Raissa nodded. “Thank you, Mr…”

“Cormier. Been driving for going on thirty years and ain’t killed no one yet. I’m glad that didn’t change today. You going to be all right? I can call nine-one-one or something.”

“No, thank you, Mr. Cormier. I’ll be fine.”

The bus driver nodded. “Well, if you need anything, you can find me through the bus company. Like I say, I didn’t get a good look at that man or nothing, but I’d be happy to talk to the police, if they was asking.”

“I appreciate it, Mr. Cormier, but at this point, I think there’s little the police could do.”

“You’re probably right. You be careful, miss.” He climbed back onto the bus and gave her a wave as he pulled away from the corner.

Raissa lifted a hand in response, then hurried across the street to her car. She slid into the driver’s seat and looked over at her uninvited passenger. “I’m going to die, right?”

The ghost in her passenger seat frowned at Raissa. “Crap.”

Raissa stared at Helena Henry, feeling her pulse race. Of course, she’d known the ghost was around. Maryse and Sabine could both see her and had told Raissa about her. But knowing her friends were telling the truth and seeing the truth in her car were two totally different things. Then there was that small matter of Maryse’s theory on Helena’s appearances.

“This isn’t good, is it?” Raissa finally asked. “Maryse says every time you’re visible to someone, their life is in danger.”

Helena sighed. “I wish I could argue, but I’m afraid my track record speaks for itself.”

“It was you who pulled me out of the street, wasn’t it?”

Helena nodded.

“But why are you here? At the street corner? In my car?”

“Well, I was…I thought…you see…Oh, hell, I just had this feeling that you were in trouble, so I’ve been following you around.”

“A feeling?”

Helena waved one hand in dismissal. “I know. Now I sound like all the rest of you nutbags with your spirits and tarot cards and psychic visions, but damn it, I don’t know how else to explain it. You were on my mind for days and no matter what I did, I couldn’t shake it, so finally I got Maryse to drop me off at your shop.”

“Maryse knew about this and didn’t tell me?”

“She didn’t want to worry you. She said if you saw me, then we’d rally the troops. Otherwise, she was putting it down to my overactive imagination. Well, that and the fact that I started a diet last week.”

Raissa’s head began to spin. “This is too much to process right now. I’d love nothing better than to drive home and pour myself a glass of the strongest thing I have in my apartment and mull this over, but I’ve got something urgent to do.”

Helena shrugged. “Unless you plan on drinking the Drano under your sink, I don’t think you’re going to figure it out today anyway. But I wouldn’t mind a glass of wine, and maybe a slice of that cheesecake you bought today at lunch. Just don’t tell Maryse. She’s picking me up in an hour.”

Raissa started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. “I thought you were on a diet.”

“Hey, I just saved your life. Are you going to deny me a little piece of pie?”

“Helena, I’ll buy you pies for the rest of your life if I manage to stay alive like the others.”

“Cool!” Helena smiled. “That will show that skinny bitch Maryse. She keeps harping on me about my diet, but I think she’s just jealous that I don’t gain weight.”

“Then why are you on a diet?”

“Maryse and Sabine refuse to keep feeding someone they can’t take as a tax deduction, especially as I don’t need to eat in the first place. And it’s not like I can walk into a grocery store or diner and load up. It was getting a bit exhausting trying to steal when it has to be in my pockets or it’s visible to everyone, and I feel guilty about the stealing part, unless it’s someone I really don’t like.” Helena looked down the street at the police station, then back at Raissa. “Hey, you went to the police about that little girl that’s missing, didn’t you? Did you get a vision or something?”

“I got something.”

Helena stared at her for a couple of seconds. “You’re not really psychic, are you?”

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