Excerpt: Trouble in Mudbug

Excerpt: Trouble in Mudbug

Book 1: Ghost-in-Law Mysteries

Chapter One

“I still can’t believe she’s gone,” Maryse Robicheaux murmured as she stared down at the woman in the coffin.

Of course, the pink suit was a dead giveaway—so to speak—that the wearer was no longer with them. For the miserable two years and thirty-two days she’d had to deal with her mother-in-law, Maryse had never once seen her wear a color other than black. Now she sorta resembled the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man dressed in Pepto-Bismol.

“I can’t believe it either,” Sabine whispered back. “I didn’t know evil incarnate could die.”

Maryse jabbed her best friend with her elbow. “For Pete’s sake, we’re at the woman’s funeral. Show some respect.”

Sabine let out a sigh. “Maryse, that woman gave you holy hell. And her son was worse. I don’t even understand why you wanted to come.”

Maryse stared at the casket again and shook her head. “I don’t know. I just felt compelled to. I can’t really explain it.”

And that was the God’s honest truth. She’d had no intention of attending Helena Henry’s funeral. Yet after her morning shower, she’d stood in front of her closet and pulled out her dark navy “interview” suit and matching pumps instead of her usual work clothes of jeans, T-shirt, and rubber boots.

Looking down at Helena, Maryse still didn’t know why she was there. If she’d come for some sort of closure, it hadn’t happened. But then, what had she expected—the dead woman to pop up out of the coffin and apologize for bringing the most useless man in the world into existence, then making Maryse’s life even more miserable by being the biggest bitch on the face of the Earth?

It wasn’t likely when you considered that Helena Henry had never apologized for anything in her entire life. It wasn’t necessary. When you had a pocketbook the size of the Atchafalaya Basin in Mudbug, Louisiana, population 502, people tended to purposely overlook things.

“I think they’re ready to start,” Sabine whispered, gesturing to the minister who had entered the chapel through a side door. “We need to take a seat.”

Maryse nodded but remained glued to her place in front of the coffin, not yet able to tear herself away from the uncustomary pink dress and the awful-but-now dead woman who wore it. “Just a minute more.”

There had to be some reason she’d come. Some reason other than just to ensure that Helena’s reign of terror was over, but nothing came to her except the lingering scent of Helena’s gardenia perfume.

“Where’s Hank?” Sabine asked. “Surely he wouldn’t miss his own mother’s funeral. That would be major bad karma, even for Hank. I know he’s a lousy human being and all, but really.”

Maryse sighed as Sabine’s words chased away her wistful vision of her wayward husband in a coffin right alongside his mother. If her best friend had even an inkling of her thoughts, she’d besiege her with a regime of crystal cleansing and incense until Maryse went insane, and she was sort of saving the insanity plea to use later on in life and on a much bigger problem than a worthless man.

“Hank is a lot of things,” Maryse said, “but he’s not a complete fool. He’s wanted on at least twenty different charges in Mudbug. This is the first place the cops would look for him. There’s probably one behind the skirt under the coffin.”

Sabine stared at the blue velvet curtain for a moment, then pulled a piece of it to the side and leaned down a bit. Sarcasm was completely lost on Sabine.

“Cut it out,” Maryse said and jabbed her again. “I was joking. Hank wouldn’t risk an arrest to come to the funeral, karma or no. The only thing Hank liked about Helena was her money, and once the estate is settled, Hank’s bad karma can be paid in full.”

Sabine pursed her lips and gave the blue velvet curtain one last suspicious look. “Well, it’s going to be hard to collect the money if he’s playing the Invisible Man.”

Maryse rolled her eyes, turned away from the Pink Polyester Antichrist, and pointed to a pew in the back. “Oh, he’ll be lurking around somewhere waiting to inherit,” she whispered as the music began to play and they took a seat in the back of the chapel. “Even I would bet on that one. With any luck, someone will grab him while he’s in close range.”

Sabine smirked. “Then he’ll collect momma’s money and work a deal with the local cops through Helena’s friend Judge Warner, and everything will be swept under the rug as usual.”

“Yeah, probably. But maybe I’ll finally get my divorce.”

Sabine’s eyes widened. “I hadn’t even thought of that, but you’re right. If someone grabs Hank, you can have him served.” She reached over and squeezed Maryse’s hand. “Oh, thank God, Maryse. You can finally be free.”

Maryse nodded as the song leader’s voice filtered through her head. What a mess she’d made of her life. She hadn’t even been married to Hank thirty days before he disappeared, leaving her holding the bag while numerous bookies and loan sharks came calling. If they’d lived in any other state but Louisiana, she would have already been divorced, but Louisiana, with its screwed-up throwback to Napoleonic law, had only two outs for a marriage—either you served papers or you produced a body. No exceptions.

She’d had no choice but to ask Helena for help. Hank hadn’t exactly borrowed money from the nicest of people, and if Maryse wanted to continue to live in Mudbug, she had to pay them off—pure and simple. That was two years ago, and despite the efforts of four private investigators and several angry friends, she hadn’t seen Hank Henry since. Oh, but she’d seen Helena.

Every other Friday at seven A.M., Helena appeared like clockwork at Lucy’s Café to collect on the debt Maryse owed her, along with the 25 percent interest she was charging. Now the old bat had the nerve to die when Maryse was only two payments short of eating breakfast in complete peace and quiet.

She turned her attention to the pastor as he took over at the front of the chapel. He began to read the standard funeral Bible verses, meant to persuade those in attendance that the person they loved had moved on to a better place. Maryse smirked at the irony. Mudbug was the better place now that Helena had exited. She cast her gaze once more to Helena, lying peacefully in her coffin…

That’s when Helena moved.

Maryse straightened in her pew, blinked once to clear her vision, and stared hard at Helena Henry. Surely it was a trick of the lights. Dead people didn’t move. Embalming and all that other icky stuff that happened at funeral homes took care of that, right?

Maryse had just about convinced herself that it was just a lights and shadows trick when Helena opened her eyes and raised her head. Maryse sucked in a breath and clenched her eyes shut, certain she was having a nervous breakdown that had been two years in the making. She waited several seconds, then slowly opened her eyes, silently praying that her mind was done playing tricks on her.

Apparently, it wasn’t.

Helena sat bolt upright in the coffin, looking around the chapel, a confused expression on her boldly painted face. Panicked, Maryse scanned the other attendees. Why wasn’t anyone screaming or pointing or running for the door? God knows, she hadn’t been to many funerals, but she didn’t remember the dead person ever sitting up to take part.

She felt a squeeze on her hand, and Sabine whispered, “Are you all right? You got really pale all of a sudden.”

Maryse started to answer, but then sucked in a breath as Helena pulled herself out of the coffin.

“Don’t you see that?” Maryse pointed to the front of the chapel. “Don’t you see what’s happening?”

Sabine cast a quick glance to the front of the chapel, then looked back at Maryse with concern—no fear, no terror…nothing to indicate that she saw anything amiss.

“See what?” Sabine asked. “Do we need to leave? You don’t look well.”

Maryse closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and dug her fingernails into her palms, steeling herself. Even though it was the last thing in the world she wanted to do, she forced her gaze to the front of the chapel.

Yup, her nightmare was still there. And, just as in real life, she didn’t want to stay silent for long.

“What the hell is going on here, Pastor Bob? For Christ’s sake, I’m Catholic,” Helena ranted. “If this is some sort of weird Baptist ceremony, I don’t want any part of it.” Helena paused for a moment, but the pastor continued as if she’d never said a word.

Maryse stared, not blinking, not breathing, her eyes growing wider and wider until she felt as if they would pop out of her head.

Helena turned from the pastor and surveyed the attendees, narrowing her eyes. “Who dressed me like a hooker and shoved me in a coffin? I’ll have you all arrested is what I’ll do. Damn it, someone drugged me! What are you—some kind of weird cult?” She paced wildly in front of the coffin. “I’ll see every one of you assholes in jail, especially you, Harold.” Helena stepped over to the nearest pew and reached for her husband, Harold, but her hands passed completely through him.

Helena stopped for a moment, then tried to touch Harold once more, but the result was exactly the same. She frowned and looked down at herself, then back at the coffin. Maryse followed her gaze and realized Helena’s body was still lying there—placid as ever.

Helena stared at herself for what seemed like forever, her eyes wide, her expression shocked. The pastor asked everyone to rise for prayer, and Maryse rose in a daze alongside Sabine, but she couldn’t bring herself to bow her head. Her eyes were permanently glued on the spectacle at the front of the chapel. The spectacle that apparently no one else could see.

Helena began to walk slowly down the aisle, yelling as she went and waving her hands in front of people’s faces. But no one so much as flinched. As she approached the back, Maryse’s heart began to race, and her head pounded with the rush of blood. She knew she should sit down, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.

All of a sudden, Helena ceased yelling and stopped in her tracks about ten feet from Maryse’s pew. Her expression changed from shocked to worried, then sad. Maryse tried to maintain her composure, but the breath she’d been holding came out with a whoosh. Helena looked toward the source of the noise and locked eyes with Maryse.

Helena stared for a moment, her expression unchanged. As the seconds passed and Maryse didn’t drop her gaze, Helena’s face changed from sad to puzzled, and she started walking toward the pew. Maryse held in a cry as Helena drew closer. A wave of dizziness washed over her. Her head began to swim. One step, two steps, and then the apparition was right in front of her.

That’s when everything went dark.

Maryse came to surrounded by a circle of black. For a moment, she thought she was in a tomb, but then her vision cleared, and she looked upward to the concerned and curious faces of the other funeral-goers. Helena’s funeral, she remembered instantly. She was at Helena’s funeral.

“Maryse, are you all right?” Sabine leaned over her, worried.

Maryse sat up on the floor and felt a rush of blood to her head. “What happened?”

Sabine shook her head. “I don’t know. The pastor was praying, and the next thing I knew, you were on the ground.”

An elderly lady standing next to Sabine handed her a Kleenex and chimed in, “It looks like you fainted. It’s probably the heat.”

Maryse took the tissue, wondering what the hell she was supposed to do with it, and nodded. It was a more diplomatic response than pointing out that the chapel was air-conditioned, so that theory didn’t exactly hold water. Maryse rose from the floor, wobbling a bit on the uncomfortable high heels, and perched at the end of the pew. Deciding there was nothing more to see, the other funeral attendees drifted out the door and away to the cemetery for the interment.

Maryse rubbed her temples and looked over at Sabine. “I swear, I don’t remember a thing. What happened?”

Sabine frowned and gave her a critical look. “I’m not sure what to tell you. You started looking kinda weird in the middle of the service and asked me if I saw something, but I have no idea what. When we rose to pray, you were white as a sheet, and while the pastor was praying, you must have passed out. By the time I opened my eyes, you were already hitting the ground.”

“It must be stress,” Maryse said. “That’s the only explanation.”

“Maybe,” Sabine said thoughtfully, then placed one hand on Maryse’s arm. “Are you going to be okay to drive?”

Maryse nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. I was a little dizzy at first, but now I feel fine.”

Sabine narrowed her eyes. “Are you sure? I have an appointment in twenty minutes or I would do it myself, but I can call Mildred if you’d rather someone give you a ride.”

Maryse waved her hand, rose from the pew, and gave her friend a smile, hoping to alleviate some of her worry. “No use bothering Mildred while she’s working.” Maryse glanced down at her watch. “Speaking of which, did you close the shop for the morning?”

Sabine shook her head. “Raissa agreed to cover for me until noon. Mrs. Breaux’s coming in for her tarot reading right after lunch. That’s the appointment I can’t miss.

Mrs. Breaux absolutely hates getting a reading from Raissa.”

Maryse stared at her. “But Raissa has real psychic ability. You’re just shamming.”

Sabine rolled her eyes. “I know that, but do you really think these people want to know the truth? If they did, they’d drive the hour to New Orleans and see Raissa for a dose of reality. The only reason Mrs. Breaux keeps coming back is because I tell her what she wants to hear.”

“But how long can that possibly last? I mean, sooner or later, she’s going to figure out you’re never right.”

Sabine shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Raissa says she’ll be dead by year-end anyway, so the charade doesn’t have to last much longer. Her soul’s fine though—very clean, actually—so she should do well in the next round.” Sabine took a step closer and gave her a hug. “Give me a call later. And think about taking the afternoon off, please.”

Maryse nodded, not even wanting to consider how Raissa knew when Mrs. Breaux would expire, then made a mental note to avoid running into that psychic anytime soon. Death was definitely one of those things where ignorance was bliss. “Thanks, Sabine. I really appreciate you coming with me on such short notice. And don’t worry. I’ll be fine from here on out.”

Sabine didn’t look convinced, but there wasn’t much she could do. She gave Maryse an encouraging smile and turned to leave.

Maryse gave her retreating figure one final glance and looked back to the front of the chapel. What in the world had happened? There was something in the back of her mind, but it was fleeting, like a movie on fast forward. Something important that she needed to remember, but it was flashing too fast for her to lock in on it.

What could cause a young, healthy woman who spent most of her time outdoors to faint in an air-conditioned building? The answer hit her all at once and she gasped.

Helena!

The image of Helena Henry crawling out of her coffin and yelling at everyone in the chapel made her shudder all over again. And that look in her eyes when she’d seen Maryse watching her…

But how was that even possible? Helena Henry was dead. There was no mistaking the bitter-looking woman in that casket for anyone else—despite the hideous pink suit and Vegas-showgirl makeup.

The only explanation Maryse had was that she must have imagined the whole thing. All the strain of trying to find that idiot Hank and paying off his ridiculous debts to that devil-mother of his must have caused her to break. That had to be it. The dead didn’t show up to their own funerals and call people assholes.

She paused for a moment. If they could, though, she’d have bet Helena Henry would have been the first to volunteer for the job.

Certain her current line of thought had gone way too far, she left the chapel and made her way to her truck, anxious to get away from the overwhelming feeling of death. It was barely noon, but it was definitely time for a beer. Maybe she’d pick up something from the café on the way home—like a bag of boiled crawfish—then take a shower and a nap. Just a bit of a refresher.

After that, she needed to contact her attorney and make sure he was prepared for a Hank appearance and was ready to serve him the divorce papers. She pulled into Mudbug, all eight buildings of it, and parked in front of the café. Turning off the truck, she stared out the windshield at her reflection in the café window. She didn’t even want to think about having to face Hank. She wasn’t even sure it was possible without trying to throttle him.

Maybe she’d have fries, too—fries and two beers and forget she’d ever known Hank and Helena Henry.

***

Maryse awakened midafternoon, surprised she’d slept so long. But napping any longer was a luxury she couldn’t afford. She’d already lost almost an entire day of work. If she hurried out to the bayou, there might be enough daylight to take some pictures and satisfy the state’s latest request for images of bayou foliage.

Just as she was about to crawl out of bed, she felt the hair on her arms prickle as if she were being watched. Her cat, Jasper, stiffened and let out a low growl. Before she could figure out what had upset him, he leaped from the bed and shot out the cat door built into the window beside the bed.

Shaking her head in amusement at his antics, Maryse caught a flash of bright pink out of the corner of her eye and looked up to find Helena Henry standing in the doorway of her bedroom, studying her like she would the fabric on designer sheets.

Maryse felt her back tighten from the tip of her neck all the way to the base of her spine. This couldn’t be happening—not after only two beers.

“Well, hell,” Helena said finally. “That solves it.” She took a few steps closer to the bed and looked Maryse straight in the eyes. “You can see me, can’t you?”

Maryse nodded, unable to speak, unable to blink.

“I thought for a moment at the chapel that you’d finally lost your mind, but I should have known better. You’re far too practical to let something like a funeral take you down. Especially my funeral.” She blew out a breath and plopped down on the end of the bed. “This is certainly unexpected but will probably come in handy.”

“Handy?” Maryse managed to croak out, her mind whirling with confusion. There was a dead woman sitting on her bed. Weren’t they supposed to float or something? “But you’re…I mean, you are…”

“Dead?” Helena finished. “Of course I’m dead. Do you think I’d wear polyester in the summer if I were alive? And don’t get me started about the color, or the low-cut top and the skirt that is way too short.” She stared down at the offensive garment. “Makes me want to puke.”

“But how…why…” Maryse trailed off, not sure where to go with the conversation, not entirely convinced she was actually having the conversation. Finally, she pinched herself, just to make absolutely sure she was awake.

Helena gave her a grim smile. “Oh, you’re awake, honey. And I’m really dead, and you’re really sitting in your bedroom talking to me.” She scrunched her brow in concentration. “Although, I suppose it’s not really me but the ghost of me. Hmmm.”

“But at the funeral, you looked confused, surprised…”

Helena nodded. “It was a bit of a shocker, I have to admit. Waking up in a coffin in the middle of my own funeral service. Took me a couple of hours to sort it all out, but once the memories came together, it all made sense.”

“But why me? Why in the world would you be visible to me?”

Helena shrugged. “Just lucky, I guess.”

Lucky? Lucky! Good God Almighty! Maryse could think of plenty of words to describe being haunted by her dead Antichrist mother-in-law, but lucky sure as hell wasn’t one of them. “Please tell me you’re going to go away and haunt a house or a cemetery or something.”

Helena shook her head. “Can’t do that just yet. I have a bit of unfinished business here. And much as you may hate it, it involves you. Plus, there’s that nagging problem of letting my killer get away, and as long as I’m hanging around, I figure I might as well do something about that, too.”

Maryse jumped up from the bed. “Your killer? The newspaper said it was respiratory failure from your asthma.”

“Respiratory failure, my ass. My lungs may have given out, but it was only after I drank whatever the hell was put in my brandy snifter. I collapsed right afterward.”

Maryse absorbed this information for a moment. Certainly what Helena implied was possible, but if she was right, that still left a huge question unanswered. “Who did it?”

“I don’t know, but they were clever. I haven’t had a drink of brandy in a long time. Could have been there for a day or a month for all I know.” Helena shrugged. “Guess I’ll just have to figure out who wanted me dead.”

Maryse stared at her. Was she kidding? A shorter list would be people who didn’t want her dead.

“I think that might be a bit difficult,” Maryse said finally, trying to be diplomatic. After all, she didn’t know anything about ghosts. Maybe they could do curses or something. This was Louisiana.

“You weren’t exactly the most popular person in town,” Maryse continued and braced herself for the blow up.

Helena surprised her by pursing her lips and considering her words. “You’re right,” she said finally. “There are probably plenty of people who weren’t sad to see me go. The question is which one was desperate enough to take action?”

Maryse thought about this for a moment and began to see Helena’s point. When one really boiled down to the nitty-gritty of the situation, there was an enormous difference between preferring someone was dead, or even wishing them dead, and actually killing them. Still, the word “desperate” brought her missing husband to mind.

“You’re thinking of Hank,” Helena said, and gave her a shrewd look. “Of course I thought of him, but I don’t think that’s the answer.”

Maryse started to open her mouth in protest, but Helena held up one finger to silence her. “I’m certain he won’t be sad to hear I’m dead. But quite frankly, Hank lacks the brains to carry out something like this. If he ever tried to poison someone, he’d never think to use something the coroner wouldn’t detect. He’d probably go straight for rat poison or whatever was closest.”

Maryse studied Helena’s face carefully, trying to discern whether she was being sincere or sarcastic. She couldn’t find any evidence of sarcasm. Well, that hung it all. If Helena was talking trash about Hank, the woman was most certainly dead.

Oh, how a little murder changed everything.

“Okay,” Maryse said, chasing away the great visual of Hank Henry rotting away in a prison cell. “What about Harold?”

“Hmm.” Helena scrunched her brow in concentration. “It usually is the spouse, especially when there’s money involved. But as far as Harold’s concerned, I was worth more alive than dead. With the bequests I left to various people and organizations, he actually comes out on the short end of the stick, and he’s probably known that for a long time.”

Maryse threw her hands in the air. “Well, if you’ve got a logical reason for why Hank or Harold aren’t guilty, then I don’t know why you bothered to come here. I obviously don’t have the mentality to think like a killer.” She took a deep breath and rushed on before she could change her mind. “I don’t think I can help you, Helena.”

There. It was out in the open. She bit her lower lip and looked at Helena, hoping she would politely agree and go away.

Helena gave her a withering look and shook her head. “Sorry. You have something I need.”

Maryse felt her breath catch in her throat. Helena already had something in mind, and Maryse knew with complete certainty she didn’t want to hear a word of it. “What in the world could I possibly have that you need?” She waved one hand around the one-bedroom cabin. “This is all I have in the world besides my truck. A camp in the middle of the bayou.”

Helena looked at her with sad eyes that seemed to go straight to her soul. “That’s not true. You’re alive. You can touch things, move things. I can’t. And you’re the only one who can see me.”

Maryse narrowed her eyes at Helena. “What do you mean you can’t touch or move things? You got here, and the only way to get to my place is by boat.”

Helena’s eyes lit up. “I know. That’s been the only interesting part about death so far. I stood at the bank thinking about how to get over here. Finally, I decided to borrow one of the small aluminum boats parked at the dock, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get a grip on anything. My hands just passed right through everything like it wasn’t even there.”

“So how exactly did you get here?”

Helena beamed. “I walked on water. I finally figured what the hell, if Jesus did it, I would give it whirl. So I stepped off the pier onto the bayou and voilà—I could walk on water.”

Maryse stared at her in dismay. This was the start of the Revelation…she was positive. If Helena Henry could walk on water, Maryse was absolutely sure He was on His way back to claim His own.

Well, that sealed it. Church this Sunday was no longer an option. She had some serious praying to do.

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