Bones to Pick (Sarah Booth Delaney Series #6)by Carolyn Haines
Wickedly witty and full of more dirt than a debutante's diary, the mysteries of Carolyn Haines bring the southern Delta to roaring, rollicking life. . .
Intrepid P.I. Sarah Booth Delaney has been known to single-handedly save her family's Mississippi plantation, converse with Dahlia House's ghost, and capture a killer or two. But when a local/b>/i>… See more details below
Wickedly witty and full of more dirt than a debutante's diary, the mysteries of Carolyn Haines bring the southern Delta to roaring, rollicking life. . .
Intrepid P.I. Sarah Booth Delaney has been known to single-handedly save her family's Mississippi plantation, converse with Dahlia House's ghost, and capture a killer or two. But when a local girl is found dead in a cotton field, it's enough to make a lady toss back a Bloody Mary before noon on Sunday.
Someone held twenty-three-year-old Quentin McGee's face down in the rich Southern soil until she suffocated. The lawmen think Quentin's lover killed her. When the suspect's brother hires Sarah to prove his sibling innocent, Sarah quickly learns that the victim had plenty of wealthy, powerful enemies. Each had a bone to pick with Quentin for writing a scandalous exposé on her hometown. Adding spice to the gumbo is the news that Quentin was due to inherit the family fortune the day after she was killed. . .and that a second book was in the works. From illicit lovers and outraged families to slandered aristocrats, everyone is a suspect—and no one is safe. . .
"Carolyn Haines has done for the Delta what Janet Evanovich has done for New Jersey."—The State
"Wickedly funny. Devilishly clever. Scintillatingly Southern. Carolyn Haines is an author to die for."—Carolyn Hart
Read an Excerpt
Bones to Pick
By Carolyn Haines
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2006 Carolyn Haines
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDahlia House is haunted. No big revelation for those who know me and my family, but on this cold November morning, as I sit and watch the sun gild the harvested cotton fields with a false show of gold, I am acutely aware of the specters of the past. I suppose in one way or another, we are all haunted, though some of us more than others.
In my haste to get to a predawn murder scene, I accidentally picked up my mother's car coat from the hook by the back door. Standing over the body of a dead twenty-three-year-old woman, I inhaled my mother's scent from the folds of her coat. I heard the words she told me when I was ten, grieving the death of a pet. "Death comes to all of us, Sarah Booth. It is nothing to fear or despair of, merely another journey, like birth. It is the cycle of life."
I hated those words then, and I've come to despise them. My mother and father died two years later, victims of a tragic car wreck. It's an irony that now I make my living with death as my employer. I investigate deaths that are not accidental or natural. I'm an amateur authority on murder, and there's no doubt in my mind that Quentin McGee met murder most foul in the bog of a cotton field.
Sometime during the hours of the harvest moon, someone overpowered Quentin and held her face in therich gumbo of Delta soil until she suffocated. It was a cruel and gruesome death, and I'm still shaken by it. So I sit on the front porch of Dahlia House with a cold wind cutting into me and stare at my riding boots, coated in a three-inch layer of mud, and I remember my mother with a bone-deep longing.
"Sarah Booth Delaney, what are you doin' mopin' out here on the front porch like your best friend has run off with your man?"
It was the voice of Jitty, my resident haint and vocal subconscious. I turned to look at her and did a double take. She was wearing a floor-length gown of gold silk with a bodice cut low enough to show the tops of her nipples. If that weren't enough, her hair was hidden beneath a powdered wig of white curls, and her normally bronzed skin was so pale that a beauty mark stood out in sharp contrast near her mouth. "Where the hell are you going?" I asked.
Jitty stepped closer, and I watched the fluid movement of the dress with awe. She frowned as she spoke. "That's not the question of the moment. What I want to know is where have you been? It's a scandal, you sitting out here in the dawn, covered in mud. You look like a participant in a bad reality show."
The story of my life. I was merely dirty, but I was the one who had to give an explanation. "A young woman, Quentin McGee, was murdered last night. Gordon Walters wanted me to see the crime scene before the body was moved."
"Sarah Booth, you're never gonna catch a man unless you get enough sleep to keep the bags out from under your eyes."
I stood up and faced Jitty. She would never have bags. She was dead. "What's the story behind that getup? I prefer the flapper look."
"I'm way over the Roaring Twenties. I'm headed to a ball."
"I hope everyone else is going in costume, too."
"Sarah Booth, this is the new me. I yearn for a time where there were social conventions. We need rules, structure ... finesse! It's time people learned there are choices and consequences."
"Let them eat cake!" I thought I was funny, but Jitty gave me a look that would curdle milk.
"Look around. Our country is crumbling on its foundations. When there are no rules, nothing is valued."
"And you think it was better when a king ruled on a whim? Let me just point out that you look French and dressed for the guillotine." Jitty hopped decades and demeanors like commuters hop trains. One month she was a Cosmo girl, and the next a novice for martyrdom. Today she was getting on my nerves.
"There has to be a ruling class. Even the Republicans know that."
I made a chopping motion with my hand. "I hope you picked out a nice basket." I wondered if it was Jitty or me who was remembering history incorrectly. I didn't have time to discuss it. I saw Tinkie's forest green Cadillac pulling down the long drive between the bare sycamore trees.
Sweetie Pie, my noble hound, was underneath one of the rockers on the front porch, and I heard her tail begin to thud a Latin dance rhythm when she saw Tinkie's car. Sweetie rose, yawned, and trotted past me to the lawn to wait for Chablis, Tinkie's dust mop of a canine.
The Cadillac stopped, and Chablis was deposited out the driver's door before Tinkie stepped out. Even though it was just past six in the morning, Tinkie looked like she'd stepped out of the pages of Country Gentry. She wore an umber corduroy skirt and expensive boots that combined both the stables and chic.
"Is it true? Someone murdered Quentin McGee?" She headed toward me at full tilt.
I nodded. "It was a terrible scene."
She came and put her arm around me. Though she was a good seven inches shorter than me, her compassion was never vertically limited. "Come inside and I'll fix us both a Bloody Mary. We can have a little libation on a cold Sunday morning."
She hustled me inside and back to the kitchen. Once I was seated, she prepared two spicy Bloody Marys and put one in my hand. "When I got your message, I was curious as to why Gordon Walters came and got you." She pierced me with her blue gaze.
She had a point. Gordon was acting sheriff of Sunflower County because the elected sheriff, Coleman Peters, had taken an extended leave of absence to take his insane-slash-pregnant wife to a head-shrinking obstetrician. "I think Gordon was covering his bases. He's figuring, what would Coleman do?"
"This could work to our advantage."
I felt Tinkie's sharp gaze on me. She was waiting for my reaction, but I refused to give her one. Only the previous month I'd been in the wretched position of having to choose between my love for Coleman, the sheriff, and my potential love for the wealthy and handsome Hamilton Garrett V. I'd made a muddle of all of it and lost my chance with Hamilton. I'd never really had a chance with Coleman. He was married, and crazy wife or not, he felt obligated to honor that commitment. Tinkie was watching to see if I was backsliding on my vow to keep Coleman out of my heart.
"Having Gordon roust me out at four in the morning could work to our advantage-if you think freezing your butt off in a cotton field is a good thing. We don't have a client in this case."
"But we could have, and you're on the case from the very beginning." Tinkie went to the refrigerator and got out bacon, eggs, heavy whipping cream, and bread. "I'm starving, and I'm sure Oscar has gone on to The Club for an early breakfast with Harold and the boys. I think they're going to play a round of golf. That means we have all morning to figure out what happened to Quentin McGee." She pushed the ingredients toward me, eyebrows arching.
Obediently, I began mixing the batter for French toast, Tinkie's favorite.
Tinkie perched on the edge of her chair. "I hear there was quite a fracas at the bookstore yesterday. Quentin's book has everyone talking, and when she went to her afternoon signing, there were no books to be had. Someone bought all of them and burned them in the alley behind Booking It."
That was a juicy tidbit indeed. "That must be some book," I said. "The title, King Cotton Bleeds, was enough to make me steer clear of it."
"Quentin named names. Along with washing some mighty dirty laundry, she even pointed out who has and who doesn't have a legitimate claim to belong to the United Daughters of the Confederacy."
"Do you actually think that matters today?" Tinkie was my touchstone in the world of high society and blue-blood pedigrees.
"You bet it matters. The book has been selling like hotcakes."
"Quentin was so young." I thought about what I'd witnessed. "Why would she want to write such a book? Gordon was saying that she dissed her own family."
"And everyone else in the Delta." Tinkie handed me the cream. "The McGee family is a prominent part of the book, and I'll bet they're howling. If you're looking for motive, that would be the first place to go."
"It still bewilders me." I got up and put the bacon on to fry.
"When Booking It gets more books, I'm going to buy a copy for you," Tinkie said. "I haven't had a chance to read mine all the way through, but Quentin did a good job of digging up dirt."
While the bacon popped in the pan, I turned to face her. "Now that pisses me off. There comes a time when the past has to be laid to rest. Dragging it up over and over again isn't fair."
She began to soak slices of bread in the batter. "I guess-"
The ringing of the telephone interrupted her. I picked up the receiver on the table as I returned to the bacon. "Hello."
"Sarah Booth Delaney?" The voice on the other end was male, cultured, and high class.
"This is Humphrey Tatum." A slight pause. "Of Tatum's Corner."
I knew the location, and I gathered this had to be a member of the founding family. "What can I do for you?" I didn't add, "At six forty-five in the morning."
"My sister, Allison Tatum, has been charged with murder in the death of Quentin McGee. I'd like to hire you to represent Al. She's going to need all the help she can get."
I put my hand over the receiver and signaled Tinkie to pick up the extension in the other room. "Hold for a moment while my partner picks up." When I heard Tinkie on the line, I asked him to repeat everything and then said, "Mr. Tatum, why don't you come around to Dahlia House? I think it would be better if we spoke in person. Say eight o'clock?"
"I'll be there."
Tinkie washed the dishes while I showered and dressed. When I came back downstairs, she'd spruced up our office. I thought, not for the first time, how Tinkie Bellcase Richmond, wealthy and spoiled Daddy's Girl, would never have been my first choice for a partner in a PI agency, and how wrong I would have been. In the year we'd worked together, Tinkie had saved my life more than once, and she was the most loyal, constant friend a woman could ask for.
"Are you okay?" she asked as she handed me the recorder she'd set up with a new tape and batteries.
"I'm better than okay. You're the best, Tinkie."
She blushed becomingly, then gave me a side- long glance. "You aren't going to be able to sweet-talk me into going to that surgeon."
Tinkie's breast lump was a serious bone of contention. I sighed. "I'm not going to try that tactic. I'm going to drug you, tie you up, and take you there. You're going to have that lump biopsied."
She shook her head. "Not necessary."
Now wasn't the time for a full-tilt head-to-head with Tinkie. For someone who could be as pliable as licorice in the hands of a man, she was more stubborn than a mule. Before I could tackle her need to have her lump seen to, a silver gray Jaguar pulled up in front of the house. "Here's our client." An exceedingly handsome Humphrey Tatum it was, too.
We watched as he took note of the glazed glass that read DELANEY DETECTIVE AGENCY and listed our names as investigators. He swept into the room on a hint of interesting cologne.
"Ladies," he said, nodding at both of us, "I put my sister's fate in your hands."
He was tall and lean, with corn-tassel hair and eyes a blue so pale they looked colorless at first. His skin was bronzed, as if he spent time under a sun unhampered by humidity and haze. The image that came to mind was Apollo.
"What is the exact charge against Allison?" I asked as I showed him a chair.
He sat with grace, taking in the office. "Murder One. Deputy Walters said there were footprints at the murder scene that matched Al's shoes."
I remembered the scene vividly. There had been clear prints around the bog where Quentin was killed. I'd thought it was strange, because the obvious presumption was that the murderer had been careless enough to leave such vital evidence. As if he or she had wanted to be caught. "What does Allison have to say about that?"
"She said she didn't wear those shoes last night. Someone must have taken them from her closet. They were found, covered in mud, on a small back porch at The Gardens B&B, where she was staying."
I didn't have to glance at Tinkie to see how she was reacting to that flimsy excuse. "Does Allison have an alibi?"
He shook his head. "She was alone, reading a book."
"What is Quentin and Allison's relationship?" Tinkie asked, cutting to the chase.
"They were lovers," Humphrey said, without batting an eye. "Both families were scandalized by the idea of Lezzie-lous, of course, but Al never cared about anyone but herself. In fact, she and Quentin were planning some big wedding." He actually rolled his eyes.
Tinkie leaned forward. "Sounds to me like both Allison and Quentin did their utmost to piss off their families." She gave it a ten-beat pause. "That makes me wonder why."
Her implication was clear, and Humphrey smiled. "Quite clever, but why would I be hiring a private investigator if I wanted Al to go to prison? She's two-thirds of the way there without my help."
He had a point, and I decided to try another tack. "Who do you think might want to murder Quentin?"
"Pick up a copy of King Cotton Bleeds. I'd say there are at least a hundred people who have motive. A good number of them were at the local bookstore yesterday, so a lot of them were in town."
Humphrey wasn't only handsome; he was smart. "Good leads," I said.
"Just to be sure we're all on the same page," Tinkie said, "where were you last night?"
Humphrey's smile was charming. "Patti Tierce." He reached across my desk and picked up a pen and wrote a number. "Call her. I think she'll remember our evening together quite vividly." He reached into the side pocket of his coat and brought out a checkbook and began to scribble.
He rose and put the check in front of me. It was made out for ten thousand dollars. "I hope that will suffice."
"For the first week," Tinkie said as she saw him to the door. "We'll be in touch."
When he was gone, I arched an eyebrow at her and waited for an explanation. Tinkie was the classiest broad I knew, and she never acted rudely, or seldom ever.
"Humphrey dated Eleanor Hinton."
I remembered Eleanor, though I'd lost touch with her when she moved to Vicksburg. She was a pretty girl who grew into a pretty woman, yet she couldn't hang on to a man. Or at least that's how the Cult of Daddy's Girls would diagnose it. She'd never made it to the altar, sort of like me, so she was officially out of the DG Club. "So?"
"He tied her up to the bed in some kind of sexual fantasy game. He put on a Superman costume and was going to leap from a tree into her second-floor bedroom window and rescue her."
"That's outrageous, and if I were Eleanor, I wouldn't have repeated all of this."
"It gets worse. He fell and struck his head and was knocked unconscious. One of the neighbors had to call 911." Tinkie walked around her desk, her boots clicking on the parquet floor. "The fire rescue squad had to untie Eleanor." She shook her head. "Eleanor was so humiliated, she had to move out of town."
It wasn't the kind of rumor one was likely to live down, I supposed. "So why blame Humphrey? She obviously signed on for the game."
"He never called her or even apologized. Once the rumors got out, he was too busy fielding all the date offers he got from curious women."
I had to laugh. "Isn't that the way it always works. The guy gets all the glory, and the woman wears the scarlet A."
"He's one of the most eligible bachelors in Mississippi, Sarah Booth, yet I can't try to fix any of my friends up with him!" She put her hands on her hips and stared at me. "Although, he might be perfect for you. Both of you are a little off."
Her insult was good-natured, and I took it as such. "It's almost nine o'clock. We've already had breakfast. Maybe we should head over to the jail to see Allison."
"Then we can go out to The Club for a mimosa," Tinkie said. "I'm sure we'll run into some people who will be more than willing to talk about Quentin's book."
As Tinkie and I drove into Zinnia, I noticed several county prisoners in their green-and-white uniforms, planting poinsettias around the Bradford pear trees that marked Main Street. Tiny white fairy lights were already woven around the trunks and through the branches. Christmas would soon be upon us, a fact that left me depressed and melancholy. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Bones to Pick by Carolyn Haines Copyright © 2006 by Carolyn Haines. Excerpted by permission.
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